A/N: This is technically a sequel to "Hell for the Company," but I don't think you necessarily need to read that fic to enjoy this one. Most of what's been carried over are characters (at least in the beginning few chapters), and I think the relationships between them should be pretty easy to get from context. A short note on setting: it didn't matter so much before, since most of the action took place outside of Azeroth, but the timing of this is after the opening of the Dark Portal during Burning Crusade, and not too long before Kil'jaeden gets his head stuck in the Sunwell. Hope you enjoy!
She'd expected the fire in the hayloft overhead, but when the iron plowshare beneath her hand burst angrily into flame, Callista was surprised.
She snatched her fingers away and swore, ducking back behind the pile of rusted farm implements as the hot metal smell mingled with the dry smoke already in the air. Green flecked the pupils of her eyes as she flung her magic out like a sensitive web over her surroundings, searching.
Imps – there'd only been one when she'd entered the barn, but evidently the little fiend had managed a summoning circle.
A sharp cackle sounded overhead as the imp capered at the edge of the loft, kicking the ladder over with its cloven-hoofed foot and shrieking with glee as it crashed against the grey wood of the barn wall, showering Callista with splinters and forcing her to flinch out of the path of its fall. It clattered to the ground not far from where she'd been crouched, sending chipped shovels and broken wheelbarrows skittering across the earthen floor.
She hissed a spell and the imp's shriek rose an octave as an iridescent rope of shadow annihilated the planks beneath its hooves and snapped around its mangy-furred chest. It struggled futilely as it plummeted through the smoke and dust-choked air and thudded to the ground, yelling curses in its pidgin demonic dialect. Callista thumbed one of the crystal spheres in the pouch at her side automatically, feeling the runes etched into its surface. So much for that one…
The fireball that blistered the air as it rocketed past her head would've left her neck a sizzling ruin had it struck true, but imps were notoriously lousy shots. Besides, she'd sensed the prickle of demonic magic and ducked.
Unbeknownst to the imp, her felhunter had smelled it, too. Jhormug may have been too clumsy to scale the ladder to the hayloft, but he was plenty massive enough to crash through the barn wall in a hail of splintered wood, sending the remaining demon squealing from cover. It scrabbled across the floor on all fours before righting itself and loosing a bright gout of flame back over its shoulder at the felhunter.
Jhormug never paused in his headlong lunge, fire scattering from his magic-proofed hide like water droplets as he bounded through smoke and falling splinters and twisted his head to clamp his huge jaws around the imp's squirming form. He could've crushed it effortlessly between his teeth, but instead the twin tentacles that rose from his shoulders struck down to latch against the imp's chest, a green glow rising around them as the imp twisted and yelped.
The smoke in the barn was so thick now that Callista's eyes watered and every second breath was a cough. Luckily the hayloft hadn't been full – this was an old barn, used only to store extra farm equipment – or she'd already have been roasted. She pulled the collar of her robe up over her mouth and nose as she squinted through the haze, feeling the heat of the fire smoldering in the loft sear the skin of her face as she hurried to where the first imp had fallen and picked it up by the scruff of its hairy neck. It struggled, but only weakly, and she was careful to avoid the corrosive skeins of shadow that still bound it as she stumbled out the open doors of the barn and into the bright summer sun.
White smoke billowed out after her, and she flung the imp to the ground a prudent distance from the building conflagration, wiping at her eyes with her sleeve. Jhormug padded obediently at her heels, dropping the limp form of the imp he carried at her feet and licking blood from the coarse fur beneath his jaw.
She really hated it when people let fiends entrench themselves in their outbuildings that way. Some misguided hope that if they ignored them they might go away, she supposed. If it didn't work for kitchen mice, she had no idea why anyone would assume it would work for the Legion.
Tears still streaming from her eyes, Callista dug two of the rune-etched crystal balls from her pouch and cupped them in her palm. Magic flared poisonous green, tendrils writhing from the twin spheres to twine around the two imps lying prone at her feet. They shrieked and squirmed as their eyes blazed brightly and they seemed to dissolve, melding into streamers of emerald light that shrank rapidly back into the crystal spheres in Callista's hand. No longer empty, a glowing fog of fel magic filled them, a tiny imp-shaped silhouette just visible at the heart of each one. Callista held one up to the sun and peered inside before pocketing both, satisfied. Two days ago she'd caught the felhound that had been terrorizing some anemic-looking noble's hunting lodge. Not bad, for one foray into Elwynn.
Jhormug suddenly growled low in his throat and swung his eyeless head around to stare up the path to the main house. Muscles bunched beneath his scaled hide, and Callista could feel her minion's consternation at not being allowed to devour the imp translating into a murderous urge to rip apart whoever was coming to join them. That was no good. And besides, it was part of the unspoken contract of these things that she pretend not to be a warlock, anyway.
Jerking hard on their bond, she dismissed the felhunter back to the Nether with a flick of her wrist and a short burst of felfire. Maybe she'd let it eat a bandit or two on the way home.
The roof of the barn behind her collapsed with a crash and a swirl of red sparks, and she flinched. The owner wouldn't be pleased, but if that imp had really cast a summoning circle up there it was probably for the best. Less work than purging it, anyway.
Two figures slowly resolved themselves through the tatters of smoke strewn over the path by the breeze, and she strode forward to meet them. One was portly and red-faced, clad in an abundance of green silks and gold jewelry, and the other was a bent-backed old manservant who eyed Callista warily as they approached.
"Ah, Miss Dunhaven!" the portly man said once they'd reached a civilized distance, drawing an embroidered handkerchief from his pocket to mop his glistening forehead. His brows rose as his gaze fell on the smoking charcoal heap that had once been the barn, and Callista wrinkled her nose in something like apology. "I trust those are the fires of success my barn is currently smoldering in?"
"The smoke of victory stings our eyes even now, Lord Duncan," she said, not quite managing to keep the sarcasm from her tone as she rubbed at the tears that still insisted on streaming down her cheeks. "Where those demons are going, they won't be coming back."
"Excellent, excellent," he said, beaming and clapping his ring-studded hands together. "The Light embraces all of us in the end, though what it plans to do with those mangy little ankle-blisterers is quite beyond me, I must admit." His pudgy brow crinkled, and he rubbed absently at his left buttock as though remembering an old injury. "Something hideous, I hope."
Callista had finally succeeded in clearing the last of the smoke and sawdust from her eyes, but the ash stuck to the tracks of her tears itched fiercely. "Can the Light do hideous?" she asked, tilting her head.
"Dashed if I know," Lord Duncan said. "Mollins?"
The manservant, evidently used to being addressed at such unconventional times, didn't even blink his wrinkle-framed eyes. "You were the paladin, sir."
"Quite right, quite right." He nodded sagely, causing the silk of his collar to rustle in agreement. "Awful business, that, a nice young girl like yourself has done well to stay out of it. Enormous orcs with enormous swords, and do you know, I think they actually meant to stick me with them? All rusty and filthy, who knows where they'd been."
"Inside the man in front of you, I believe sir," Mollins said.
Lord Duncan clucked his tongue scoldingly. "Dreadful thing to say in front of a young lady, Mollins. Look, you can see her ears burning from here."
Callista had decided some time ago that no one as fantastically successful as Lord Duncan was could possibly be as fantastically stupid as he tried to pretend to be, so the façade had to be part of some ironic game he played for his own amusement. At any rate, he was one of her few "employers" that she really liked, so she usually indulged him in it. She glanced upward, and was only mildly surprised to see the grey wisps of soot floating around her head. "Just the smoke of victory again, Lord Duncan. That's why it smells like burnt hayloft."
"Ah, wonderful then," Lord Duncan said, clapping his chubby hands together once more.
Mollins cleared his throat pointedly, shifting the hand he held wrapped around the strings of a silken pouch so the coins inside jingled.
"Yes, yes, quite right as always, Mollins, business to attend to," Lord Duncan said. He made an expansive gesture in the direction of the pouch in his manservant's hand, green silks flashing in the sunlight. "Your payment, my dear, and well-earned indeed if success is proportional to property damage. Half now, and half in a fortnight if the little devils remain banished, as we agreed."
Mollins stepped forward (clearly unconvinced by the mage garb she wore) and placed the pouch gingerly into Callista's hand, as though afraid she might sear off his fingers at a touch.
Startled by the weight of the bag – there must have been half again what she'd asked for in there – Callista narrowly avoided dropping it, to the large man's chortle.
"A pleasure as always, Lord Duncan," she said, raising a brow at him.
"So it has been, so it has been," he said with his widest and most delighted smile. "Rest assured that if this contract expires to my satisfaction you'll receive references to all my considerable number of friends. Dratted demons seem to be everywhere these days. Safe travels, my dear!"
She bowed politely to him, which he acknowledged with a nod before the two parties split. Callista climbed the grassy hill to find the tree where she'd tethered her horse, while Lord Duncan and his manservant turned back down the packed-earth path to the house.
When Callista was out of sight around a bend, Mollins turned to his master with his acetic features drawn into a frown. "That woman is a warlock, sir."
"Of course she is, Mollins," Lord Duncan replied. The teeth in his pleased smile flashed almost as brightly as the diamonds at his throat. "Lovely girl, she's the only one who really gets rid of them, you know."
Mollin's frown creased his face into wrinkled canyons. "But…sir…she hasn't got rid of them. She's keeping them in her pockets."
Lord Duncan waved his hand in a gracefully dismissive gesture. "Yes, yes, I'm well aware of that, Mollins. I was a damned good paladin in my day, you know. Elegant solution she's found, in my opinion. I wonder what she does with them all."
"Breeding a murderous demonic army, no doubt," Mollins muttered.
Lord Duncan's fleshy brow rose. "A murderous demonic army of ankle-biting imps? Dreadful thought. I suppose we'd have to invest, wouldn't we, Mollins?"
"As you say, sir."
Callista scrubbed at her face with the rune-embroidered sleeve of her robes, but only succeeded in smearing the ash more evenly across it. "Ugh," she said to no one in particular. Her mouth tasted like singed hay, so she pulled the water skin from her saddlebag and took a grateful swig to clear it.
A healthy pouch of gold and two more imprisoned demons wasn't bad at all for a day's trouble. Callista tossed the pouch into the saddlebag with the waterskin and removed the two green-fogged crystal spheres from her pocket, sliding them into a sturdy leather bag already a quarter full of such objects. The mare's silky white ears lay flat against her head as Callista fiddled with her supplies, but at least she didn't kick this time.
She unhitched the mare from the apple tree (automatically dodging the snap of the animal's large flat teeth) and swung herself up into the saddle, squeezing her knees to urge her forward. Lord Duncan's lands were near enough to Stormwind City that she could probably ride home before nightfall, but she thought it might be better to take a room in Goldshire and wait for the taint of demonic magic to fade from her before entering the capital. Dabbling in fel magic wasn't illegal – quite – in Alliance lands, but it was the sort of thing you didn't want to advertise in public lest "accidents" happen to you. Especially now.
Leaves played dappled shadows on the dirt path as Callista rode through Lord Duncan's prosperous farmland in the direction of the main road. She'd never seen the people of Stormwind so skittish, she reflected, not even when that enormous doomlord wrenched open the Dark Portal. Not that they didn't have good reason to be. Demons, disappearances… Before she'd been...away...during her ill-fated attempt at dreadsteed summoning, it had been rare to see so much as an imp any nearer to Stormwind than Deadwind Pass, but now demons were appearing with alarming frequency within the holdings of the capital itself. They had no particular purpose that she could tell, and that disturbed her – if no one was summoning them intentionally, then they were slipping through in the wake of something else. And even Callista, who was better positioned for word on Legion scheming than most in Stormwind, had heard no mutterings of that.
The oak-lined path opened up ahead as it merged with the road to Goldshire, dust hanging over it in a low golden shroud. She waited for a messenger clad in the livery of the Stormwind Guard to gallop past before urging her steed onto it in a lazy trot. Troubled times these may have been, but at least they were making her rich. Nobles would pay handsomely to rid their estates of alarming demonic trespassers, and the goblin Trade Coalition would pay even more handsomely for the imprisoned demons themselves. Silvermoon City, she knew, was starved for magic in all its forms. Another month or so of this, and Callista would never have to worry about gold again for the rest of her life. It was an enjoyable thought.
Birds chirped cheerfully in the branches that overhung the road, and wildflowers poked their colorful heads from the shade beneath the forest eaves. Even the white mare (bred, Callista suspected, for paladins, no matter what that gap-toothed horse trader had sworn to her) seemed less ill-tempered than usual. At this pace, it would take two hours or more to reach the Lion's Pride Inn, but that was alright. There was plenty of time until nightfall, and she was willing to enjoy the ride.