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Something occurs to me as I trudge up to the trailer with Tazzy, Mari and her familiar in two. Although I don’t know Steve’s schedule off the top of my head, I could simply try calling the Game Warden and see if he’s found out anything new about the trail-cam images of the fox.


My call goes straight to voicemail.


“Hey Steve- It’s Jake. I, uh, was just calling to see if you could tell us anything else about that critter your trail-cam got a couple of shots of….” I say


Now it’s Mari’s turn to be looking at me with a mix of bewilderment and frustration. I just realized that she probably thinks I’m talking to myself or my invisible friend named ‘Steve’.


“Trying to get a-hold of my friend…” I explain sheepishly as I hold up the smartphone.


She remains quiet and looks at the device quizzically as I set it down on the table.


"What does this device do exactly?" she queries, picking up and examining the Samsung.


"That's a smartphone. It...uh...it allows me to communicate with people locally or over really great distances, among other things"


"Really?" Mari asked skeptically.


"Yeah....for instance." I took the phone from her hands. "My folks live in Arizona- so that's over 700 miles away. Or….thousands of Span-Widgets.”


Mari scowls a little as she correctly assumes I’m mispronouncing the unit of measurement to get a rise out of her.


“But I could talk to them right now if I wanted..." I continue.


"How is that possible?"


"Well- this device sends out a signal that carries my voice...."


"Carries it where? To this Airy-Zone?"


"Sort of- the signal is relayed by a bunch of towers between here and there."


“You said this place was quite remote, though- Where are the nearest such towers?” she asks.


Again- an excellent question that indicated she was quick to catch on to alot of details.


“Actually- there’s one on a corner of the property. We get a stipend from the company and actually get decent service in the area.” I explain to Mari. The family business actually sits on close to 200 acres of land with the cellphone tower on a little used segment just off the Ranch to Market Road past the driveway. “Our little town actually has pretty good cell phone service thanks to that tower.”


"I....I think I understand it conceptually, but the details seem to confound me."


I couldn't help but chuckle. "Honestly- that's how alot of people view technology these days. Myself included."


I’m a bit startled as the phone starts vibrating in my hand and plays the opening chords of Johnny Cash’s One Piece At a Time.

My ringtone.


A little too quick for Steve to be replying to my voicemail. Who could be calling me now, though?


I get a look at the number of the incoming call.


Arizona area code.


Mom and Pops.


Well shit. I wanted to demonstrate how this worked. Might as well bite the bullet as I answered the call and put it on speaker, giving Mari the "Shh..." sign.

"Hey pops....how's the golf game?" I ask.


"Aw Christ....I was better off not going. Sucked huge donkey dick on the back nine. And of course, those two goddamned Pollack cocksuckers from Chicago were part of yesterday's foursome, pointing and laughing with these shit-eating grins the whole fucking time. Plus, I might've tweaked something too, cause on the last two holes, I'm swinging like a little faggot-"


Mari seems amused at the the no doubt horrified expression on my face as my jaw drops.


"DAD!" I admonish him through speaker-phone as I'm looking at Mari. "Come on! There's a lady present!"


"It's OK dear." my mom chimes in, inadvertantly bailing me out from my gaffe. "It's nothing I haven't heard before."


"Jesus, what the fuck crawled up your ass and died?"


"Well shit, pops....I..I...uh...thought you'd mellow out at least a little in your old age."


"I'll be plenty mellow when I'm dead." he shot back.


"Oh for fuck's sake...." I figure matching profanity with even more profanity is the best way to avoid rousing suspicion. "Quit being such a goddamned drama queen, then. You're making me and ma worried!"


"So how the hell are you? A little odd to be calling you in the middle of the week, but we wanted to check in. Everything OK there, chief?" dad asks me.


"We heard something about a wildfire out there- is that true?" mom asks. I was wondering how she found out about it so quickly when I remembered that she was much more active on Facebook than anyone else in the family and most likely heard about it on our local newspaper's Facebook page.


"Yeah....it's to the west of town and the quarry. Steve says the Forestry guys are gonna try and contain it and let it burn itself out."


"You getting any more interested buyers?" pops asked. I shoot Mari an apologetic look. With that question, the conversation was going to be a little longer than anticipated.


"Not really- Vulcan and CeMex stand by their offers, but I still say they're kinda lowball."


"What about that New York outfit?"


"It's a generous offer, but......"


"But what?"


"I had Teddy help me out with some due diligence. Turns out there's firm with the same name that bought up a disused quarry in Oklahoma a few years back and using it dump trainloads of contaminated soil."


For a moment, it's quiet on the other end.


"Contaminated soil?"


"Cleanup from some river dredging project with a shit-ton of PCBs. I mean- It's alot of money, pops, but it's not gonna change the fact that they'd basically turn this place into a toxic waste dump once I move out."


Pops was pretty quiet for a moment. The allure of the money was no doubt there, but he was even more reluctant to see the family business- everything he had worked for- being converted to a radioactive dump.


"I see." he said absently. Apparently the I taught you well would remain unspoken.


Mom, on the other hand, decided a change of topic was in order.


"Oh..by the way, sweetie, do you remember us telling you about that nice couple next door? The retired accountants from Calgary?"


"Y-yeah...I think so..." I


"Their daughter came by to visit last week. We got to meet her- she's about your age and she's siiiinglleee...." my mom said the last part in a sing-song voice.


Oh God. Please no- not mom's attempt at playing matchmaker. Anything but that.


"And she's not a goddamned firebug." pops chimed in.


"You don't know that for sure." I replied dryly.


"She stayed there for five days- no suspicious fires the whole time. She passes the 'Not a Firebug' test with flying colors."


“She’s a dental hygienist, too….”


OK- I’ll have to memory-bank that one just in case in things don’t work out with the sundress-clad embodiment of lust with horns and a devil’s tail standing in my kitchen.


As happy as I was to hear that mom and dad were doing OK, I figured it was best if I cut this conversation short before mom started sending some of those infamous "Bowl Cut Class Photos" of me from the 4th grade that Mari would no doubt see.


“Oh hey...gotta go, mom and dad. I think Tazzy cornered a skunk.” I said before holding the phone out at arm’s length and making perhaps the least convincing dog-barking-off-in-the-distance noises of all time.


“Bye dear.”


“Be careful out there, chief.”


“Bye you two….”


With that, the conversation was mercifully over. Mari was simply leaning against the counter and doing a very bad job of stifling a smirk as she spoke up.


“Just so there’s no misunderstanding, your parents aren’t trapped in that little black tile, right?” she chortles.


I shake my head no.


"I-I'm sorry..." I stammer. Mari is clearly relishing my embarrassment. "Nothing crawled up my ass and died and I'm pretty sure my pops didn't suck donkey dick. Those are just-"


"Rather colorful figures of speech, I must admit." she nearly chortled. "I almost feel bad that I cannot reciprocate by having my parents embarrass me in front of you. I assure you that they're more than capable of that."


Thankfully that trait seemed to be universal.


“Almost?”


“Almost….” she giggled. “Better you than me, however.”


This is easily the most entertained I’ve seen her since she arrived. Well….she did seem pretty worked up at the very notion of her kind and human men going at it in the barren, rocky wilderness out here. Still, too bad all this amusement was coming at the expense of my already-damaged ego.


Under the watchful gaze of the smirking lilim, I get to work on breakfast- which is more like brunch at this point. I opt to keep it simple by whipping up some scrambled eggs and bacon in the trailer’s compact kitchen.


Remembering my dream, I figure a change of topic is in order.


“Hey- what’s this about a Library?” I ask as I drip a little cooking oil into the frying pan.


Looking up from the stovetop, I could tell by Mari’s body language that I had just asked her about something she was really enthusiastic about or took some pride in.


“Ah! That’s a pocket dimension of my own design…”


“A pocket dimension?”


It sounded self-explanatory, but there could be more to it.


“It’s a secluded private place that precious few can access. I depleted a substantial portion of my magic reserves taking myself and dear Ahmi there from Vamore after we were attacked.”


“But how did you get here, then?”


“I suspect Ahmi attempted to bring us back to Vamore or my mother’s kingdom using one of her talismans once we were in the Library. However, it’s likely that being so close to the dampening effects of this sigil affected her powers and we were redirected to this realm instead.”


“But what exactly is the Library?”


“It's a favorite venue of mine and my compatriots are able to study and learn in private.”


“Learn what?”


“A little of everything- Seru is an Alchemist and has all manner of potions she wants to try and show off. Kyukei brings this amazing box with her that can make its own lightning and Ahmi is quite dedicated to the art of Zipanguese Flower Arranging. Zebana is a talented blacksmith… but most importantly, all of them seem quite interested in the fine art of seduction as well.”


“Sounds great, but...uh I don’t know any of those people you’re talking about, though…”


“But they’re not people- they’re my fellow mamono. I consider them almost family.”


“Mamono?”


“Yes! Although I converted Seru and Zebana myself, most of the others are natural born mamono. Come- take a look.” she beckoned.


Converted? Is she talking about some sort of cult or sect that they’re adherents of?


I turn down the burner and make my way to the kitchen table. She has her textbook sized artbook out. I notice a stylized black rose on the cover before she opens it to the picture of the buxom woman with feline ears, bat wings and a scorpion-like tail that I had seen earlier.


“Seru was an Imperial Alchemist with the royal court of Vamore before I annexed the kingdom. Now she’s a confident and clever Manticore….”


“Manic Ore?”


“Manticore.” Mari corrects. “A beast whose cunning, beauty and lust rivals even that of my lilim sisters.”


She turns the page and I’m greeted by the striking image of a woman with charcoal grey flesh, wolf’s ears and an eye with dark sclera similar to Mari’s. In her portrait, she seems to be looking at me with a toothy grin, complete with even sharper and more prominent canines than Mari. There appeared to be a mane of dark fur around her neck. Her body seems to be this sublime blend of muscles and feminine curves while her perky breasts only partially concealed by a leather apron. In one toned arm, she held a hefty-looking hammer over her shoulder. Only after a second glance do I see the dark-skinned wolf woman appears to have fire coming out of her one eye with an eyepatch over the other.


“As you can see, Zebana is a fierce and lovely Hellhound. She never gave up her vocation as a blacksmith, either.”


“Hellhound?” I ask absently. The statuesque, dark-skinned canine-eared woman wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I thought of a ruthless hound from the underworld.


I have to admit that Mari’s portraits whet my appetite, and the satisfied little smirk that was on the corner of her lips seemed to indicate she knew this.


With my interest piqued, I resumed preparing breakfast. Mari made quick work of her bacon, eggs and OJ. As I finish up and clear my plate, Mari puts her stachel onto the table.


"Since you seem somewhat interested in my friends, let’s take a look, shall we?" she said, pulling out an even bigger, leather-bound tome from the large satchel she carried her portraits in.


"A look at what...? What is that?" I ask.


"The answer to many of your questions- a scholarly work from my realm commonly referred to as the Mamono Encyclopedia...."


The book itself wasn't much smaller than the tabletop Mari laid it on top of. Right away I could see it was written in some strange, indecipherable language.


"Looks like you're going to have to do the translating for me...." I said, taking in the otherworldly script and some of the images accompanying it.


"I can remedy that..." the lilim princess said cheerfully.


She placed a palm facing downward on each end of the book and after a few seconds, the ink that formed the foreign characters I was looking at began to move as though it was being rinsed from the page by an unseen stream of water washing over it- only instead of flowing off the page, it began to start coursing back from where it came, with the words and phrases now appearing in English.


"Are you sure-?" I began to ask....wondering if the seal binding her powers had begun to wear off. I got my answer when black lightning shot up from the markings on her leg and coiled around her arms.


"OW!" she hissed sharply before slumping onto one of the kitchen chairs, struggling to breathe. "My apologies, Jacob. One should not see a princess in such an ignominious state."


"Hey- c’mon. You shouldn't over-exert yourself, Miss Reaper.....I mean Mari" I said, sounding more like a doting father than anything as I head over to the kitchen are. "Let me get you some water...."


"Perhaps I'd have an easier time of this if I was more of a masochist." she replied with a sly grin.


"Is that something that comes naturally to a lilim?"


"Hardly." Mari replied a little too quickly.


Turning her attention to the book she seemed to regain her composure as she continued.


"My friends and I were considering using this as a template for starting some sort of matchmaking service between human men and mamono. We'd have eligible human bachelors from neutral or monster-friendly states peruse the encyclopedia to find a mate with characteristics they find desirable and then, for a nominal fee, we can arrange a meeting with a prospective Mamono wife."


"Something tells me this wasn't the book's intended purpose."


"Anything to further the blissful coupling of human males and mamono is considered a worthwhile pursuit in my realm." Mari sighed wistfully.


"So, wait- I'm basically market research for a proposed interspecies matchmaking service?"


"Come!" she said enthusiastically as she patted the empty kitchen chair next to her. "Take a look for yourself..."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


They were gone. They were this close to capturing the lilim in her own castle and she had slipped through their grasp.


Even more disconcerting was the little pink burst of fireworks the Lilim managed shoot off into the sky. That little move of Mari’s was most likely lost on the others in all of the commotion, but Liselia knew all too well what it meant.


“Priestess Vonnelyn!” she ordered,pointing to the glowing, smoldering patch of earth where the Lilim princess Mari and her kitsune retainer were standing just moments before. “Quickly! I believe reinforcements are on the way….”


As if on cue, there was a dull, rhythmic metallic ringing off in the distance. A bell or alarm.


The Dark Priest nodded to Liselia before she dashed to the luminescent swath of earth Mari and the vixen had been standing on before getting down on one knee and producing a metallic cylinder about the size of an index finger. Almost as if she was carefully making ingredients for some sort of cake, she took a tiny little metal spade kept in a compartment on the bottom of the cylinder and began to gently dig and poke, scooping tiny quantities of the dirt into the metallic tube.


Everyone’s attention turned to something none-too-quietly making its way through the underbrush. Stepping through the bushes adjacent to the garden was the statuesque albino dragon Kaarmerys- tendrils of smoke still drifting off of her abdomen.


“Let them come!” she snarled boastfully. “Little princess Mari herself was no match for us- what’s the worst her flunkies could do?”


“Ara ara…...you’d be surprised….” a voice that neither the echidna or her cohorts recognized taunted. Turning, all of them could see a manticore with frosted, light blue hair standing at the garden’s periphery.


“What a bother….” another voice spoke up immediately behind them. This one was even more haughty and self-assured. “When I first heard the alarm, I thought for sure it was going to be more foolish humies for me and sis to play with after we captured them…”


Liselia and the others turned and saw a pair of young, svelte, dusky-skinned beauties with pointed ears and almost snow-white hair. Dark Elf twins- they both were wearing what looked like leather bustiers and short shorts, showing off every supple curve and angle of their body while still leaving just enough for the imagination.


The only difference between the two seemed to be the slightly taller one had hair that went down to the middle of her back while the other’s hair only went down to their shoulder. At first glance, the one with the shoulder-length white hair seemed to be much more sedate and withdrawn by nature.


“Please explain your presence here.” the quieter one asked as she looked upon Liselia.


“Priestess- we’re done here!” the echidna ordered, ignoring the Dark Elf’s request.


“Awww…..” a third voice half cooed and half growled to their left. “Don’t go just yet- I haven’t properly introduced myself…..”


Lieslia’s heart sank when she saw that it was a Hellhound addressing them. Flames seemed to flicker and lap out of her right eye alone- a closer look revealed that she had what looked to be some sort of eyepatch reinforced with wood over her left eye. The Echidna had hoped to finish her business and leave Vamore with the princess before Mari’s cadre had even been alerted to their presence. That simply wasn’t in the cards, however.


“What have you done with Mari and Ahmi?” a voice to their right asked. It belonged to a beautiful, imposing woman with reptilian appendages and violet-hued hair whose skin tone was only slightly lighter than the Dark Elfin siblings. The dark, reptilian claws and wings didn’t stand out on her so much as the writhing, undulating eyeless serpentine forms on each side of her, their tongues intermittently lapping at the air. The Jabberwock dragoness was wearing a light purple-colored sundress.


“Wouldn’t you like to know?” the albino dragoness taunted the new arrivals


Standing next to the Wonderland dragoness with a fondness for purple was a smaller Raiju in a skimpy, off the shoulder black and purple yakuta. She was smoking a spindly-looking pipe while on her back was a rucksack nearly as large as her with some sort of gold script embossed across it and a pair of porcelain looking knobs on each end. The device was actually an Elekiter- a sort of rudimentary electrostatic generator of her own design.


“Such rude visitors, Iha-san.” the Raiju drawled lazily to the Jabberwock before she tapped the ash out from her pipe.


“Indeed- I believe a crash course in some manners are in order, dear Kyukei.”


Kaarmerys- the albino dragoness- clenched her fangs and was ready to lunge at her Wonderland counterpart and the raiju when someone flew by her in a blur of light blue and black feathers. The Dark Valkyrie streaked towards the Jabberwock, letting out a fierce battle cry. The purple-tressed dragon woman was ready and effortlessly parried the dark battle angle’s slashes with her reptilian arms and claws. When the corrupted Valkyrie brought the sword down for a decisive blow to the Jabberwock’s head, Iha simply clasped both hands together, trapping the dark valkyrie’s blade between her fearsome claws. Despite having no eyes, one of the snakelike mouth appendages seemed to be grinning and looking right at the fallen Valkyrie. She heard a soft ‘’crack’’ coming from the mouth before something damp and warm was on her face and everything went black. Each of Iha’s extra mouths each housed a capsule containing Kraken’s Ink for just such an occasion. Frantically thrashing against the darkness, the Dark Valkyrie frenetically shoved off from the Jabberwock, who released her grip on the Valkyrie’s sword in the process.


“Syndiga!” the Echidna called out as she saw the tainted nordic angel’s face disappear in a cloud of Kraken’s ink.


Just as Kaarmerys decided to jump into the fray to come to the aid of the Dark Valkyrie, she heard someone rapidly approaching from behind and turned to see the Hellhound sprinting on all fours, closing in at an impossible speed.


“The name’s Zebana, and you ignore me at your own peril!” the beast girl snarled as flames seemingly poured out of her one uncovered eye.


“I could care less….” the pale dragoness huffed indifferently before she inhaled deeply.


An instant later, she was spewing a bright green flame that fully engulfed the Hellhound. Kaarmerys stood triumphant for a moment as she saw that the fiery hound was stopped in her tracks once the flames dissipated. However, her confidence evaporated as soon as she saw the Hellhound smirking back at her, completely unscathed.


Before Kaarmerys could contemplate another course of action, she felt something coil around her neck and tighten- she jerked her head to the side and saw the Dark Elf twin with the shorter hair holding onto her whip from halfway across the garden, feet planted firmly on the ground anticipating the larger dragon would struggle.


The albino dragoness’ fangs rattled as something impacted with her jaw. The smirking, one-eyed Hellhound landed a clean blow right on Kaarmerys’ chin- the dragoness was tasting her own blood now.


However, a wicked-looking shuriken spun through the air and severed the portion Dark Elf Twin’s whip that was coiled around her neck


Kaarmerys turned and saw the Kunoichi closing in on her and the Hellhound. Zebana quickly dodged a thrust of the kunoichi’s dagger only to realize it was a feint as she was hit square in the face with a pouch filled with some sort of white, pungent, powdery material, temporarily blinding her and overwhelming her senses. Through her blurred and teary vision, she could make out something seemingly suspended in mid-air before her.


Smoke bomb.


An instant after it exploded, Zebana was coughing and retching with her senses overwhelmed.


Before the Kunoichi could press on and take Zebana completely out of the fight, she had to dodge a lilac hued jet of flame that pierced through the smoke and fully engulfed both the Dragoness and the Hellhound.


As anticipated by the Jabberwock, neither the albino Dragoness and Hellhound suffered any ill effects from her flame. Iha inhaled again, the bright flame forcing the kunoichi to run to her left.


Too late, the Kunoichi called Shizuka realized that the Jabberwock was attempting to herd her someplace. She looked up and saw two sturdy metallic wires with bladed weights attached to them flying directly towards her from the Raiju’s elekiter


There was a time she could’ve easily dodged the speeding wires, but a few quiet post-’assassination’ years with her husband and raising a young daughter in their village meant she had lost a step or two since she was in her prime.


Her foot buckled. In an instant, she realized that there was no way she could dodge both wires. However, before he could close her eyes, she heard the sound of metal-on-metal. Standing in front of her was her Dark Valkyrie cohort, Syndiga. Her face and the tips of her snow-white hair were still streaked with Kraken’s ink, but she was able to wipe the offending material away from her eyes.


Although Syndiga had managed to knock one of the wires away with her shield, the other weighted wire was now coiled around her right wrist.


Kyukei the Raiju grinned through clenched fangs as she grabbed the wire on her end and sent a current of her own electricity down the wire and towards the ensnared Dark Valkyrie. However, she was caught off guard by the Dark Valkyrie’s strength as she got down to one knee and roughly jerked the wire. Despite the electricity she was sending the Dark Valkyrie's way, Kyukei was fighting to maintain her grip and hold her ground in what was looking like a hopeless tug-of-war with the black-winged battle angel.


Except it was Synidga’s turn to grin as she suddenly got up and whipsawed the wire ensnaring her wrist, sending the Raiju off balance. Seizing the opportunity, the Dark Valkyrie managed to get to her feet and roughly jerk the wires, sending the Raiju tumbling into the nearby Jabberwock


“Shizuka! Kaarmerys! Get the others- we’re leaving!” The echidna shouted.


“If only it was that easy…” the manticore taunted as the bulb of her tail casually swatted one of the small obelisks. The half dozen or so obelisks that ringed the periphery of the garden began lighting up a slowly pulsing lilac light in quick succession.



Satisfied she had enough soil samples for what needed to be done next, Dark Priestess Vonnelyn scrambled to her feet and began making her way towards the Echidna. She only got a few paces before something coiled around her ankles, binding them together as she fell forward. Frantically rolling over, she should see it was the whip belonging to the other Dark Elf twin.


“Whatever you think you have in mind, you can forget it.” the Dark Elf twin with the longer hair jeered. “These markers dampen the ability of anyone inside to use magic, so you aren’t going anywhere.”


“That’s all I needed to hear, Dagger ears!” the Albino Dragon said triumphantly as she leapt out of the dissipating smoke from Shizuka’s bomb and away from her Hellhound adversary. Kaarmerys’ wings were flapping as she bore down on the jabberwock and raiju as they were still picking themselves up off of the ground. However, to everyone’s surprise Kaarmerys streaked past the duo and landed on top of one of the obelisks, stomping it into dust before turning and charging towards the slightly taller Dark Elf.


For her part, the Dark Elf gritted her teeth. Even if she thought her whip could do any good against the statuesque dragon woman, it was still coiled around the feet of the Dark Priest who was trying to escape. She looked down and to her left and saw another one of the obelisks- now flickering- and realized what was going on, even though she couldn’t do anything about it. As the dragon girl bore down on her, she caught some movement to her right and felt the whip slacken- The Dark Valkyrie was running roughly parallel to the Albino dragoness and had cut the Dark Priest’s legs free with her sword. That was the last thing she saw before the impact from the charging dragon woman sent her sprawling to the ground several feet away.


“Damn it!” the Dark Elf hissed as she immediately tried getting back onto her feet. From a few feet away, she heard a loud ‘’crunch’’ and didn’t have to look to realize the pale dragoness pulverized another one of the obelisks.


As the Albino dragon and Dark Valkyrie converged, the blue-haired manticore realized what was going on and fired a volley of spikes from her tail as they were sprinting and closing in on her. The fallen nordic angel held out her metal shield and easily deflected the spikes before they could do anything.


To her dismay, the manticore saw a jet of green flame closing in on her as the Dark Valkyrie instinctively moved out of the way. An instant after the manticore alchemist took flight, she felt the paw-pads of her feet singe. Gliding close to the ground, the pale dragoness streaked below the manticore on her way to the next obelisk. As she turned to swoop down and tackle the dragon from above, Seru the manticore alchemist felt something firmly grab her tail. It was the dark Valkyrie.


“Not so fast, Mantic-whore...” the Dark Valkyrie snarled.


Without saying a word, the blue-haired manticore shifted her weight, turning around mid-flight and ramming her forehead into the bridge of the Dark Valkyrie’s nose. She then took the initiative and grabbed each of Syndiga’s shoulders and dove straight down, slamming her into the ground before pummeling the Valkyrie with her leonine paws.


Seru grinned triumphantly as the Dark Valkyrie yelled out in pain with each blow. She was going to get answers about what happened to Mari and Ahmi, even if it meant pounding this valkyrie’s face into the ground. The manticore was so determined to go about this task that she didn’t notice anything behind her until her ears began twitching. She turned around just in time to get smacked in the side of the face with a stone column. The pale dragon woman had uprooted yet another of the small obelisks and used it to swoop behind and bludgeon Mari’s alchemist manticore cohort.


“That’s enough!”


The raiju was on her feet- albeit a little wobbly. More to the point, her elekiter still had one working spool of retractable cable. Before Kaarmerys could say anything, another wire shot out from the giant machine strapped to the the raiju’s back. Although the pale dragon tried deflecting it, she only succeeded in getting the weighted end of the wire to coil around her neck.


The dragoness thought she could simply unspool the wire, but Kyukei reached behind her and pulled a lever, sending thousands of volts coursing down the wire and into her reptilian adversary. Kaarmerys could only wail in agony as she dropped to her knees, her mouth spewing intermittent jets of green flames. This continued until the Dark Valkyrie was able to push Seru’s semiconscious body off of her and grab her sword, cutting the cable on the raiju’s device- but not without getting a nasty shock herself.


Shizuka saw what Kaarmerys had done with the first four stones and realized that there were only two of the obelisks left.


The Kunoichi had a scythe attached to a lengthy chain with a weight on the end of it- a kusarigama- that she was spinning over her head.


Although the smoke bomb and pepper powder had overwhelmed her senses, the Hellhound still had two perfectly good ears. As Zebana was still trying to regain her senses she heard what sounded like chains rattling a short distance away. She quickly ruled out the noise originating from the whips belonging to either of the Dark Elf twins. The hellhound also quickly recalled that the cables on that infernal elekiter the Raiju insisted on carrying around with her were solid steel, not chains.


While her sense of smell had abandoned her and her vision blurred, Zebana was confident the chain was being used by one of her adversaries. And now she was giving away her position.


Shizuka saw her kusarigama cleave the next-to-last obelisk in half a second before she was knocked down and pinned to the ground by Zebana.


“You’re not going anywhere…” Zebana snarled triumphantly.


Get off of me!” the Kunoichi hissed at the Hellhound as she thrashed in vain. her tone was surprisingly stern given the ninja succubus' quiet disposition.


Priestess Vonnelyn, now freed from her fetters, put the little tube with the soil sample in her rucksack and began frantically rummaging around for something else. She quickly produced a small vial of clear liquid and immediately uncorked it and began pouring it in a circle around herself and Liselia.


The echidna was quickly appraising the situation. Although she and the priestess were in the clear, Syndiga was grappling with the manticore while the Hellhound had just pounced on Shizuka. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see a half dozen Lizardmen guards converging on the garden.


One obelisk left, with Shizuka and the Hellhound between her and it. It had been awhile since her adventuring days. Like Shizuka, she had been out of practice for a while living a fairly tranquil life with her husband and daughters. But she did have an ace or two up her sleeve.


Shizuka!” she called out as she pulled out what looked like a wand from a pouch along her hip. Using her thumb, she flicked a small switch and the wand extended into a javelin.


“Look out!” Liselia called out as she heaved the javelin. In the blink of an eye, it closed in on the Hellhound. Zebana’s vision hadn’t fully returned, but she was aware of something closing in on her- and fast. The Hellhound with the eyepatch rolled out of the way as the javelin whistled by her ear. Taking advantage of this, the now-free Kunoichi returned to her feet and sprint towards the Echidna and Dark Priest.


Zebana wasn’t sure why her adversary had warned her about the projectile until she heard the sound of masonry cracking and shattering behind her.


The last obelisk.


“Everyone! Quickly….” the Dark priest called out. Shizuka was already on her way to their side while Syndiga was dragging the unresponsive dragoness by positioning a scaled arm over her shoulder.


Seru was coming back to her senses and getting up on her feet. Quickly she saw the five intruders gathering in a semicircle.


Although it took longer than the echidna would’ve liked, the five of them were now in the circle of luminescent fluid created by the Dark Priestess before any of Mari’s coterie or her lizardman palace guard could capture them. The manticore alchemist took a few hesitant steps before lunging at her assailants.


With an incantation and flash of light, the five of them were instantaneously transported from Mari’s garden back to Pandemonium. Barely two seconds later, Seru’s leonine paws grabbed at nothing but air before she fell to the earth.


Just as Mari and her vixen compatriot eluded the echidna and her accomplices, they now had managed to make a clean getaway from Mari’s coterie after their brazen abduction attempt came up short.


~*~*~*~*~


Damn it.

The heat didn’t bother her as much as it did the others, but Liselia saw little point in pressing on amidst the heat and the sun when they could move much more effectively under cover of darkness.


After sending Kaarmerys off to scout the area for provisions or signs of civilization, the rest of the group had found shade as the sun began making its way to the western horizon.


The Dark Valkyrie was helping Lady Kurohime with producing more of those sigils while sheltering beneath a rocky overhang. One of the Amazoness women was keeping watch while the other was resting along with the two dark priests, occasionally sipping water from their wineskins.


Glancing up at the oomukade and Dark Valkyrie every once in awhile, Lady Shizuka was using a whetstone to sharpen her kusarigama while also sitting in the shade.


Something else was bothering the echidna, though. The pendulum from triumph to disaster had swung so quickly in Mari’s royal garden. With the soil sample Dark Priestess Vonnelyn had obtained, they were easily able to return to Pandemonium and track the Demon Lord’s daughter and vixen to the lilim’s private pocket dimension and from the pocket dimension to here.


The good news was that both Mari and the vixen appreared to be running out of places they could run to. The bad news was that there was no going back to her husband and daughters until she could successfully capture Mari.


The azure-skinned lamia sighed. She could tell that Shizuka and Syndiga missed their families as well, even though they hadn’t said anything.


Liselia shuddered thinking how close she and the other had come to being captured after successfully catching the princess off-guard. The two Amazonesses would’ve been of some help had they been there, but the echidna thought that bringing more than five mamono into Mari’s garden would’ve immediately raised suspicions.


If she and the other failed now, there would be no ‘next time’. To come up short would be to bring the full weight of the Demon Lord's wrath down on all of them.


~*~*~*~*~*~*~


“Wait a minute, they feed on WHAT!?”


“Mana. Spirit energy. Seed. Male essence….” Mari seemed bewildered by my reaction.


“Spunk?”


“Is that one of your realm’s terms for-?”


“Sperm, yes.”


“Then yes, they feed on that.”


“But…..why?” I mean, I suppose that's better than being bloodthirsty monsters.


“Before my mother’s reign- in our realm, my kind and humanity were constantly at each other's throats in a seemingly unending series of terrible wars and purges.” Mari started to explain. “My mother was a powerful succubus who enjoyed intimacy with human males and was determined to usurp the previous Lord of all Demons.”


“Go on….”


“Legend has it that she was able to achieve her goals and slay the prior Maou with the aid of a human hero…..who would later become her consort…..and my father.”


“Is any of that true, though?”


Mari shrugged. “Mother and father usually don’t go into great detail on how they met- those are…..I think you’d say…...cards that she plays close to the vest.”


I nod.


“But what is true is that my mother not only endowed all subsequent generations of mamono with her beauty, but she also imprinted her fondness for intimacy with humans once she became the Demon Lord herself.”


“What about the males?”


“There are none.”


“None?”


“None.”


“Um...OK….so what about offspring?”


“They would need human males in order to have children. That’s why humans are so sought after by our kind.”


“Really?”


“For some species- like the lamia or harpy- that was true long before my mother’s ascension as Lord of all Demons.”


“I see.”


"So which ones would you say you'd be interested in?"


I clear my throat.


Way to put me on the spot, Mari.


"Honestly? More than I thought when we started looking through this book."


"Any favorites of yours?"


"Well....jeez....where to start? I'd have to say the Anubis, Youko, Gandhavra, Manticore and Succubus. In terms of personality, there's alot of overlap with the Arachne but personally, I'd have a hard time getting past the spider's abdomen...."


The Lilim princess was looking at me and hanging on my every word.


"I was more interested in the Kraken, Nurarihyon, Merrow and Shirohebi than I thought I'd be, but I think a sea monster, mermaid or giant albino snake living in west Texas is a non-starter." Although truth be told I was having fun imagining any of the three aforementioned mamono wearing a stetson hat and not much else.


"You wouldn't be willing to relocate for them?"


"I'm tellin' ya- I'd have to take care of a bunch of things here before I could even think about that." I tell her, which was about as diplomatically as I could put No fucking way!


"Anything else?"


"Some of these sound familiar...Dragon, Elf, Gargoyle, Kraken, Ogre....they're all mentioned in some way in different legends throughout the world. This world, at least" I point out. "But they're NEVER depicted looking like this. I mean...outside of Japan, I guess."


"It's possible that they had earlier manifested in parts of this world somehow- long before my mother's ascendancy as Demon Lord, but they would've taken much different forms. Those legends probably accurately described them at the time..."


I nod. Makes sense.


"What about the Lilim?" she asks.


"I liked the Lilim and the Ryu. Guess I'd be much more interested in them if I didn't think they were so far out of my league."


"Out of your....league...?" she asks, puzzled by my use of the phrase.


"It's a figure of speech. Another way of saying 'unattainable', I guess."


"What makes you say that?" Mari pouted.


"How can I put this? Guys like me usually don't end up with benign deities or royalty. That's not really how things work here" I sighed. Shit I muttered to myself, wondering if Mari could still read my mind. Seems like guys like me don't even end up with the relatively sane girl-next-door types.


"That's certainly is the case if you're simply going to do nothing more than wallow in self-pity..." Mari challenged.


"Self pity!?" I snapped back. "Hey now- you got a look inside my mind- right, Mari? You caught a glimpse of that trainwreck called my love life has been for the last two years. Did I miss something? Should I be high-fiving people over how my most recent relationship ended in death threats, arson and incarceration!? You have no idea how badly I want something to go RIGHT for a change."


Mari said nothing right away, but simply hitched up her white skirt, giving me a good look at her milky, alabaster thighs.


"Actually, I do have some idea, Jacob. Your thoughts.....your frustration regarding this matter were mine as well- however briefly. Are you telling me you're not the least bit interested in a Lilim because you somehow consider yourself unworthy of their affections and desires?" she asked coyly.


Damn it....the bat-winged arch-succubus was playing dirty.


"We have a saying...." Well, technically I had a saying that I was running the risk of beating to death. "If it's too good to be true, it probably is. A lilim could have pretty much any man they desired, right? Not just here, but in your realm...." I ask.


Mari nodded.


"So what would make me so special, then?" I look into the pale beauty's obsidian eyes. "Why would one choose to end up with me?"


"Well, that's up to the individual lilim's tastes, but I think a case can be made for you regardless of that lilim's preferences. You lack pretense, for starters..." Mari explained. "Every succubus desires a hero of their own that they can corrupt. While you may not fit our traditional definition of 'hero', I can already tell that you have a number of traits that could be considered heroic."


"Such as...?"


"Your military service for one."


"There's about 18 million veterans in this nation alone. I hardly stand out."


"You saved lives, didn't you...?"


"I was doing my duty and making sure I made it back home in one piece..."


Mari sensed I was being difficult and pouted a little before continuing. "Your canine companion- you saved him from certain death."


"I brought Tazzy home from an adopt-a-pet event at the Odessa Petco- you're making it sound like I rescued him and a couple dozen orphans from a burning building."


"Yey I suspect it makes little difference to him, does it not?"


"I guess not..."


"Also, you have a mistrustful nature, but that doesn't prevent you from assisting those in need."


"What makes you say that?"


"Why Jacob..." she said playfully. "Don't tell me you forgot already! That's how we met- your concern for my well being set into motion what I'm sincerely hoping will be an enduring and glorious friendship between the two of us."


There was something endearing and mischievous about her voice when she told me that. She had rather quickly gone from addressing me as though I was some sort of a lesser being or peasant (I suppose I could've been both in her eyes) to talking to me as though I was a long-lost friend she hadn't seen in years.


"There doesn't seem to be anything bad in your aura, plus I find your earnest and curious nature almost endearing and..."


"Hmm?"


"You remain uncorrupted. That could drive any succubus wild."


"Uncorrupted!?" I sputter. "Are you calling me a virgin!?"


"Not exactly. However, you have never been with a mamono- that leaves your spirit energy pure and uninfluenced by the touch of anybody else in here." she patted the leather bound encyclopedia. "That, in turn, would make you even more desirable to everybody in here- Lilim included."


"So....I'm a commodity?"


"I didn't mean it like that..." Mari said defensively. "I'll let you in on a secret, Jacob."


"Hmm...?"


"In my realm, a lilim's mastery of Demonic Energy is so great that they can bend humans to their will with no real effort." She said, only it didn't sound like a boast. "Naturally, this offers us all sorts of advantages, but there's also things about such abilities that I personally consider a substantial drawback."


"Such as....?"


"The easiest thing in the world is for us Lilim to get a man already in our thrall to proclaim his love and undying devotion to us. So easy that I have every reason to believe we're actually imprinting our own desires on then. Such declarations would be far more meaningful if they were made on their own volition, free from our influence- wouldn’t you say?"


"You mean you think that they're saying what you want...or what they think you want to hear?"


"Absolutely. On the other hand, there's you..." she demurely points at me. "Because my powers have been inhibited, I have no real sway over you. Yet you fed me delicious meals, gave me shelter and remain by my side- even when you thought I was here to claim your life. All this you did on your own accord...."


"So....Mari?" I ask


"Yes, Jacob?"


"Out of all these in here, could you tell me more about the ones that attacked you?"


Her facial expression changed immediately to that of irritation and disappointment.


"I only got a good look at the two who had requested an audience with me under false pretenses and their three accomplices.."


"And they were....?"


"A kunoichi, an echidna, a corrupted Valkyrie and a pale dragon...along with a Dark Priest. I...it was quite strange, actually."


"Why was that?"


"Two of them were quite insistent that they could bear sons if they simply approached me and asked."


“That no male mamono thing is an absolute, huh?”


Mari nodded.


"What about the markings?"


Mari seemed evasive at first, but was finally able to look at me.


"I believe these are a shameful relic of one of my less-than-magnanimous sisters’ reign."


"How so?"


She sighed.


"Long ago- before I was even born- one of my elder sisters ruled a distant kingdom called Suutroppa. However, instead of safeguarding the happiness and well-being of her subjects, she allowed the male population of the annexed kingdom to dwindle. Instead of solving the problem, she was content to pit her subjects against one another in gladiatorial games and award the winner a rare male to be her husband. The defeated mamono would then be imprisoned, pilloried for public humiliation or enslaved by my sister's decree."


"But what does any of that have to do with your markings?"


"Well.....as capricious and arbitrary as that one sister of mine was, she wanted to keep the gladiatorial contests.......interesting. Some mamono such as a Lich or Wight could have easily overpowered their adversaries with their magic. So- to make the events more competitive, she had this sigil applied to any contestants capable of using magic."


"That's kind of fucked up....."


"Indeed. My sister was supposed to follow through on our most sacred duty of furthering the love and desire between her mamono and human subjects. When she failed in her obligations, she pitted the subjects who adored her against one another in combat for her amusement."


“But what does that have to do with the thing on your leg?”


“Regardless of the species, the markings would take the energy and redirect it on the magic user.”


“Kind of like the user was electrocuting themselves?”


“Electrocute?” Mari asked. “Ah….like Kyukei’s infernal box. I suppose- yes….”


“What would happen if those things were applied to someone who didn’t use magic?”


“I suspect it would have no effect whatsoever. No magic, no energy to redirect.”


“Makes sense.”


Mari continued. “But when word of such cruelty reached my mother, she had my sister removed from the court and locked away. The manufacture of that sigil became a forbidden form of magic….”


“But you figure that’s exactly what is is, don’t you? Like someone got ahold of the recipe….”


“At this point, I can determine no other viable explanation.”


It remained silent for a moment. Then my smartphone buzzed.


It was a text from Steve.


Karaoke night at the Whistle tonite- you in?


I sigh. The last thing I want to do after the events of the last 24 hours is blow off any kind of get-together at the Whet Whistle.


After a moment’s thought, I turn to ask Mari.


“Hey, Mari….how long can you stay in your human form?”


“A few hours, I suppose. Why?”


“Well….want a chance to meet the man who might’ve seen your friend?”


Hey eyes gleamed as she contemplated it.


“I’ll take that as a yes….”


She nodded.


“Promise you’ll be on your best behavior?”


“Oh Jacob….you shouldn’t even have to ask.” she said in a melodramatic tone, her hand on her chest.


“Right.”


I turn my attention to the smartphone and give Steve my response.


Here goes nothing.


“We’ll be there"