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Crowquest – Chapter 1: Yatagarasu

Yatagarasu
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The woods were a pleasant breath of fresh air after being holed up in his master’s keep for a while. Nick Shadow had been very busy, dusting and cleaning as much as he could in the time given to him. Laundering the soldiers’ uniforms, sweeping the floors, scraping out the rugs, replacing low-burning candles, washing the window and more. While it was all happily familiar to him, even he could tire of such work after doing it for so long without respite, and so had spared himself some time to work on his secretarial duties, which currently revolved around trying to get his contracts all in order. He was now perched in a tree, legs swaying idly as he scribbled out a contingency and tested it theoretically to see if it held up against larger stipulations at work. “Huh. I guess that does make sense, after all… ’Ellifyno is weird.”

The cawing of a singular crow could be heard as Anivari made her way through the forest. She had a scowl on her face, the expression darkening her golden eyes. Of course it was whispering in her ear again, intruding on her solitude. She wasn’t paying attention to where she was walking, either. She was dressed in nothing more than bandages around her chest and a pair of loose-fitting black pants.She wore fur-lined leather bracers on her arms, and to her back was strapped a deadly-looking naginata. Her skin was a deep red color, matching the ends of her hair – the rest of which was pure white. When she heard the imp’s voice, her golden eyes looked up into the tree where he sat, and, surprisingly enough, she looked almost scared to have run into someone out here. She bowed to him, ignoring the crow’s words in her ear. “I didn’t mean to intrude,” she said just loud enough to be heard. “I’ll leave.” When she straightened back up, the crow lifted its gaze. It was an unnatural looking being, its feathers almost seeming to look like ink or smoke, and from its face, eight bright red eyes stared up at the imp, though one might get the impression that it was only a guise. The crow had many eyes. How many? No one really knew, save for him.

“Oh, please don’t, missus! I wasn’t expectin’ to find anyone out ’ere, but…” But she seemed so nervous because of him. Nick didn’t like making people nervous. Unless the master ordered otherwise, a servant should be accommodating to all, and while he had left his uniform behind and less formally attired in a coat and breeches, he still held himself to that creed. He hopped down from the branch, wings fluttering to ease his landing, and straightened up in front of her, smiling reassuringly. It was only then that he noticed how tall she was: two whole feet taller than him, at a rough estimate. Still, he showed no fear, sticking out his hand in greeting. “I don’t own these woods, so you can’t be intrudin’. I’ve just come out ‘ere to work on somethin’; it’s no problem, really!. I’m Nick Shadow. Who’re you?”

The tiefling watched carefully as he hopped down from the tree. She was curious as to why he was nice to her. She fidgeted a bit, but accepted his hand to shake it, though it was an awkward motion from the woman. “I’m… Anivari. I don’t have a family name.” She looked away, pulling her hand back after a moment. “My father decided I wasn’t worthy of his.” The crow puffed up, letting out a harsh caw, prompting her to growl and wave for it to stop. “Ignore him,” she said. “He’s rude.”

Nick detected the awkwardness in her handshake, and made sure to clutch her hand firmly enough that it wouldn’t appear that way before she pulled back. “Anivari’s a pretty name,” he said cheerily. Partly to put her at ease, and partly because he really thought so. ” To be ’onest, I ’aven’t really got a family name, either. Nick Shadow’s just a name I picked up when I came to the Material Plane, because my real name’s difficult to pronounce in the Common tongue.” That was explanation was less likely to inspire intrigue than ‘it’s a secret’. The little imp looked up at the bird on her shoulder curiously. “…So I see,” he said slowly. “Does ’e speak?” With all those eyes, it certainly looked like a monstrosity of some kind, and from her reactions, he wouldn’t be surprised if the creature was, indeed, saying rude things.

The crow fluffed himself up, turning his eyes fully onto the imp. “Of course I do,” he said. His voice was deep and guttural, obviously from another world or plane. “I am Yatagarasu.” Anivari shot the bird a glare and turned back to Nick. When she looked at the imp, though, her expression softened and she even smiled a little.

“It is….” she took a breath, obviously not used to prolonged conversation. “It’s nice to meet you, Nick.” She bowed to him once more and stood back up a bit awkwardly. The bird, however, had apparently seen enough. He deflated a bit and flew up into the branches of the tree she was standing near. She sighed. “I really hate that damn bird,” she muttered.

Now Nick understood a bit better. The bird did seem quite abrasive, if his introduction and failure to greet Nick were anything to go by. Anivari, on the other hand, had been wonderfully polite until now, even bowing and excusing herself upon initially encountering him. Having taken this into account and seeing her little smile, the imp felt a slight warmth touch his cheeks. “It’s nice to meet you, too, Anivari.” He returned that bow with practiced elegance, making sure not to exaggerate the motion. He was trying to be polite, not disingenuous. Glancing up at the crow, Nick tilted his head curiously. “Yatagarasu means… three-legged crow, yes?”

“Yes,” Anivari said. “I’m sure he took it as an ironic name. Either that or he’s just a stupid bird who didn’t know the meaning of the name.” She shrugged, walking to the tree and sliding to the ground. She sat cross-legged and pulled a gourd from her hip. “You don’t mind if I drink, do you? He’s easier to tune out when I’m drinking.” The crow seemed to… roll his eyes? He fluffed his feathers and stared down at them, which Anivari ignored with practiced pointedness.

The imp giggled. “’Is name should be Okunomegarasu, for all the eyes ’e ’as.” When she sat down and pulled out her gourd, Nick smiled and nodded. “No, I don’t mind at all. And anyway, it’s not my place to tell you if you can drink or not.” Though he did appreciate her asking. It seemed like every beautiful woman he met liked their drink. But then, who didn’t? Besides himself, of course; it wasn’t proper for a servant to lose their head in drink, even if he did let his inhibitions slip once in a while… but never mind those instances! Shuffling over to the tree, Nick fidgeted for a moment, looking slightly hesitant. “Do you mind if I sit by you?”

Anivari tilted her head at him, but patted the ground next to her. “Not at all. It’s…. nice to not have someone insulting me or just running away screaming.” She chuckled. “So, Nick, what brings you to this place?” She was trying to start some kind of conversation, but it was awkward for her. She looked over at him for a moment, blinking those golden eyes as she took a sip of what was in the gourd.

“Insultin’ you or runnin’ away screamin’? That’s awful, Miss Anivari… I can’t believe anyone would do that to you. You seem so nice.” The little devil looked at her, surprise and sympathy reflected in his big blue eyes, before blinking and plopping to the ground next to her. He had his luggage with him, of course. It was absolutely indispensable, and so he carried it everywhere. Unfastening the latch that held it closed, Nick pulled out the scroll he had been poring over when she had found him.

“I came out ’ere to work on these. My contracts need to be changed so that I’m the sole beneficiary, instead of some fiend down in the ’Ells. That way, I can grow faster.” He unrolled it and showed it to her: infernal script burned down the length of the page, with Nick’s signature at the bottom and a blank space for one other. “This one’s quite basic: offerin’ one good turn for another. A mutual favour, if you will. Not really any catches or loopholes ’ere unless I decide to implement them manually.”

She looked down at the scrolls, her brow furrowing. It had been…. a while since she’d tried reading anything, but she smiled anyway at the devil’s enthusiasm. “Well, that’s interesting.” She looked at him once more. “I’m a half-blood, so most people like to mention that and use it as an insult. I would ignore it, if it weren’t for that one.” She jerked her head to indicate the crow, before catching on to something he’d said. “Wait…. mutual favor? What kind of favor?” She’d never been one for things like that. Most of the time, when she was asked to take care of a problem… well, she wasn’t asked. She was usually ignored.

“What a silly insult,” Nick mused, his eyes wandering over the contract in search of a possible error. Further examination told him that he’d converted it just fine, and it seemed everything was in order. “Might just be me, but I don’t understand why someone’s status as a half-blood should be pointed out degradin’ly. I mean, that status is important in the Infernal Legal System, but besides that, it’s just… a thing, you know? ’Alf-blood, full-blood… who cares? Says nothin’ about someone’s character, does it?” Rolling up his paper, Nick beamed at the tiefling. “But if I were to point it out, I’d tell you how pretty your skin is and how cute your ’orns are!” He hadn’t quite realized that he’d just said that out loud, so he turned to explaining the ‘favour’: “Basically, it’s a mutual agreement, the scale of which is established upon signin’. I’ll do a favour for someone, and they’ll owe me a favour in return. Like any trade, only in services instead of monetary compensation.” It was at that point he realized he’d complimented her, and suddenly flushed, hoping he hadn’t offended her.

Anivari was glad for the red tint to her skin. It hid the blush that she felt creeping up as she heard him compliment her. She quickly took a sip of her drink, looking away for a moment. But, luckily he started talking about the contract, which she took to mean that she could relax now. “I see,” she said, clearing her throat and fiddling with the cork for the gourd with her free hand. “May I ask what kind of work you do?” She was genuinely curious, and glad that the crow had remained silent so far.

“O-oh! Um.” Nick quickly composed himself and laughed sheepishly, tugging at the ends of his coat. “I-I’m a servant by trade, Miss Anivari. I just got a job workin’ for a crusader of sorts, the one who’s master of the keep just past these woods.” He was also glad the crow had stayed quiet until now. “So I basically do anythin’ he asks of me, but mostly I take care of the place. ’Aven’t gotten my first errand yet… I still ’ave to get ’im to sign a Familiar Contract.” The establishment of such a deal was par for the course with imps; for them, to be a servant was to be a familiar. The two concepts were one and the same. “What about you, missus?”

Anivari listened to his explanation. And then, she had to think. “Uh. Well, I don’t really have a trade. I just sort of… wander? Maybe find someone who’s willing to not hate me enough to help them? So far, no luck.” She shrugged. “Even with the diversity of races around here, it seems I’m still not trusted. Maybe it’s not because of my race, but because I’m pretty hard to deal with when I’m in a rage.” She fidgeted and sipped at her drink. “It’s hard to find work for someone like me. All I’m good at is punching things. Well, that and hunting occasionally.”

“Punchin’ things is a really useful skill!” Nick said encouragingly, with not a trace of irony or dishonesty to be found in his voice. The art of delivering punches was squarely out of his realm of expertise, being physically weak by human standards, so he found it impressive in other people. “I wish were better at it, to be ’onest… but if you can do it, that’s wonderful.” The imp scooted just a little closer, his eyes shining. “Miss Anivari, I’m willin’ to not ’ate you enough to let you ’elp me. In fact, I don’t ’ate you at all. I like you! You’re really nice. So, maybe…” A hint of caution entered his tone. “I mean, I just met you, missus, but I wonder if you’d be interested in signin’ a contract with me…”

The Tiefling blinked. She wasn’t used to being this close to someone, but she didn’t mind. He was so nice to her, it almost made her heart swell. She tilted her head to the side. “Contract?” She pondered this for a moment. “What would you like me to do?” She didn’t seem against the idea, but she wasn’t sure how she felt about it just yet.

“Well… I ’aven’t got much else to do at the moment. I’ve gotten a lot of work done back at the keep, and I’m still gettin’ my contracts all fixed up, so, um. ’Ow’s about we arrange to spend some time together?” Nick scratched the back of his neck nervously, averting his eyes. “I mean, if you’d rather be on your own, that’s fine, but I like you, Miss Anivari. You’re polite and friendly and, um.” ‘Quite beautiful’ was what he was thinking, but he didn’t want to make her uncomfortable. “…And I think I’d really like to get to know you better. So…” He pulled out that same contract that he had shown her. “I’d like for you to go on a walk with me. And in return, you can ask somethin’ of me.” He gave her his sunniest smile, ears twitching cutely. Contracts didn’t have to be nefarious; they could just as easily be innocent and whimsical.

Anivari smiled. She would have turned it down, but she saw how much it meant to him. She nodded. “You know, if it weren’t for how proud of these contracts you are, I would say that it wasn’t needed. We could just spend time together with no strings attached.” She looked up at the crow. “But, I suppose… would you be willing to help me get rid of a problem?” She nodded at the bird. “I need… I cannot get over my aversion to magic with him around.”

“Ooh…” Nick blinked and looked up at the bird  seeing all those eyes it had and recalling how it had spoken. He closed his eyes in thought, meditating on the issue. “The signin’ of the contract ’elps me in itself. I become a little bit more powerful with each one I sign – that’s why I’m so keen on them, missus, besides the whole Infernal Creed thing. But… you’re askin’ me to undo what sounds like a fairly intricate bond, in exchange for a walk in the woods?” The imp crossed his arms… impishly, and gave her a rather sly smile. “I don’t know if I’d call that an equivalent exchange. So how about this: You go on a walk with me, and I determine ’ow to undo the crow’s bond to you?”

Anivari blushed again, but all it really did was make her face seem slightly darker. “Oh, right,” she said. “That makes sense. I didn’t…. I guess I didn’t think before I blurted that out.” She frowned slightly and went to sipp from the gourd once more, only to find that it was empty now. She’d have to fix that if she went back to Persistence anytime soon. “So, Nick,” she said with a smile, “where should we go?” She had drained the entire gourd, but there was no indication of her being even slightly inebriated. She was still just as clear-eyed and sober as she was when she stumbled upon him. Almost as if on cue, the crow hopped down from the tree and onto her shoulder, causing the tall Tiefling to let out a sigh. Just when she thought he would refrain from intruding, here he was again, poised to poison their interaction.

“Well, normally I’d suggest the Red Sun Inn, but…” Nick smiled ruefully. “The odds of us ’avin’ a peaceful and pleasant time there are about as ’igh as world peace coming to ’Ellifyno. Now, if I’m not mistaken, there’s a nice river somewhere in these woods where we could sit awhile. I came out ’ere with a packed lunch, which I was going to eat on my own, but I’d be glad to share it with you.” The devil stood up with a little wriggle to shake the leaves and dirt off his cloak before extending his hand to Anivari. It looked sort of ridiculous – the four-foot-nine imp offering the much taller tiefling a hand up – but not doing so wouldn’t have felt right to him.

Anivari nodded. “To be honest,” she admitted, “I’m not a fan of the Inn. Too crowded. And the last time I was there, some demon insulted me and upset me quite badly.” She accepted his offered assistance in getting up, using her free hand to dust off her pants. “The river sounds nice, though. Quiet, even.” She smiled at him, and the crow simply rolled his eyes – all of them. Having risen to her full height, Anivari blinked and actually looked at him for a moment, not having realized at first how much taller she was than him. “You don’t have to share your food,” she said. “I can find my own food if I need to.” Always the cautious one, trying her best not to wear out her welcome with the imp.

He laughed and waved dismissively at her. “I’m little. I don’t ’ave to eat a lot.” That was just a roundabout way of insisting that she share in his lunch. He wouldn’t allow her to go hunting through the woods for her meal when he had victuals to share on hand. “Well, if you’re all for it, let’s be off. The river should be a ways along this path you were walkin’; I heard it when I first went through these woods, when I was lookin’ for the keep where I work.” The devil started walking, beckoning for her to follow him. He was vaguely aware that she’d just taken in their height difference, and felt a little worried for reasons he didn’t know. “The inn is mostly frequented by people who are really prone to violence. It’s also haunted by eldritch horrors from time to time. I don’t know why anyone else would risk their safety goin’ there.” The only reason he himself went was to look for business… or to indulge in some of his beloved strawberry juice. “What’s your favourite thing to eat, Miss Anivari?”

Anivari sighed. She got the sense that there would be no arguing with the imp, so she simply walked along next to him, letting him guide the way. “My favorite?” She had to think about it, with nothing immediately surfacing as the definitive answer. “Well. I’ve hunted for most of my life. So…. I don’t really have a favorite food. But if I had to pick…” She thought for a while longer before answering. “Maybe miso soup? I’ve only had it a few times, and… my caregiver made it when I was a child. She was one of the only people who was kind to me. Although I think it was because my father would have had her killed if she wasn’t.” She fidgeted nervously for a moment, while the crow let out what sounded like a laugh. “Of course he would have,” he giggled. “You needed someone to be kind after his lessons.”

“Oh.” Nick considered her choice of favourite food. “Well, I ’aven’t got any of that on me at the moment, but I certainly could make it. I know ’ow.” He was an excellent cook, as any servant should be. “So there’s incentive for us to get together again sometime, right?” He smiled and walked onwards, the chill autumn wind ruffling his blond hair. He didn’t look at all bothered by the cold, gazing up at the leaves overhead, which were well on their way to turning orange-gold. “I don’t mean to indelicate, missus, but… people really ’aven’t been nice to you, ’ave they?” He looked back at her, his expression solemn as his wings fanned out to catch the chilly autumn wind.

Anivari smiled at his comment about making the soup. She nodded. “That would be nice,” she said. But as soon as he mentioned that people hadn’t been nice, she frowned slightly. “Not really,” she admitted. “My father was every bit as intimidating as one might think. He wasn’t happy that I didn’t embrace my magic. And why would I have? He used his to hurt me.” She looked away. “That’s why I rely on my fists and my weapon.”

“That’s fair, I suppose.” Nick nodded solemnly, although he privately disagreed. To him, embracing her magic and putting it towards serving her own purposes would’ve been the best way to show her father that she was, in fact, unbent, unbroken and defiant of his cruelty. But it wasn’t for him to judge. “If you’re ’appy with your fists and your weapon, I’d say that’s just fine. You don’t ’ave to embrace gifts you don’t want, even if they could be useful.” He sidled over to her, though he didn’t touch her, and walked alongside her, keeping pace with her longer strides. “As long as you’re walkin’ the path you want to be, who cares what other people say about you?”

Anivari thought about those words, before nodding and letting out a quiet sigh. She wanted to change the topic, so she turned his previous question back on him. “So, Nick, what’s your favorite food?” She rubbed the back of her head and looked over at him while she spoke. She realized that she was a little bit more relaxed around him. After all, he hadn’t given her reason to think that she would be hurt after all this kindness he was showing her.

“Ooh! Um.” Nick thought about that for a bit. “I think… really ’ot chili. I love spicy food, because my fire immunity lets me enjoy the taste without, you know… passin’ out from the ’eat.” He giggled and looked down at his Hellspace Luggage. “I’ve got some decently spicy chili with me right now, actually. And some strawberry cake.” There was only one slice, but… “Would you like the cake? There’s more back at the Keep, and I’d be willin’ to part with it if it would make you smile.”

Anivari did, in fact, smile, though she decided to turn down the offer. “No, it’s fine, really. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth as it is.” She chuckled and lifted the gourd once more before remembering it was empty. She sighed, having almost forgotten about that. “I think I prefer warm things. I’ve never really had anything spicy.” She chuckled.

“I’ve also got a bit of tequila, if you like. Got Jerry to give me some last time I visited the Red Sun.” The imp produced a little flask from his luggage and showed it to her. “That’d warm you up, I think. But… but! You’ve never had anything spicy?” His blue eyes grew round as he looked at her in amazement. “As non-pushily as possible, Miss Anivari, I’m not lettin’ you get away tonight without tryin’ my chili.”

Anivari chuckled. “I’ve never had tequila.” She wasn’t sure if she said that right. “I usually stick to sake. Or this cherry wine that I found a long time ago.” She listened to him talk about the chili, ultimately deciding that she wouldn’t know the liked it unless she tried it, and laughed. “All right, Nick,” she said after she stopped laughing. “I’ll try the chili. You have my word.” She looked back at him, giving him a wink. She knew how to be friendly, and it was nice to be able to put that knowledge to use for once. Even if the crow was constantly whispering cruelties in her ear, she just tuned him out this time.

“Yay!” Nick cheered, before gesturing into the growing dark; the telltale sound of water running over stone could be heard nearby. “There’s our picnic place, I think. C’mon!” The imp moved on ahead, rounding a bend in the path and finding himself at the bank of a small river. Beckoning to her, he sat down at the edge of the river and opened his luggage to pull out his lunch as the first rays of moonlight began to shine down on the woodland, gently illuminating the treetops and the path they’d walked.

Anivari smiled and followed behind him, chuckling softly at his happiness upon finding the river. She sat next to him, her legs crossed as before, and gave a nod of approval. “This is a nice spot,” she said. She looked out over the water for a moment, and then back to Nick. “So, what’s this keep like? I don’t think I’ve ever been in a keep before.”

“Oh, I dunno if you’d like it. It’s like… medium-sized for a keep. There are guards all over the walls and the inside’s kind of dreary, to be ’onest. I’m thinking I’ll have to renovate the whole thing. My boss, for all his good qualities, ’asn’t got much in the way of an eye for aesthetics. It’s a lot of doom, gloom, religious angst and yearnin’ for justice, but I think it could actually be made into a grand old place.” Catching himself, and realizing he had accidentally let a bit of his passion for housekeeping slip out, Nick reddened slightly, but kept his smile on. “I’m glad you like this spot. I’ve never actually been here, only ’eard it from a ways off.” Producing two wooden bowls from his luggage, the devil scooped a serving of chili into each and slid one across to Anivari. “’Ere you go.”

Anivari smirked. “I’m sure it can’t be any worse than my father’s estate. All it had was ruined buildings and black stones.” She shuddered a bit at the memory, and accepted the bowl. She sniffed at it before taking a bite. Oh, it was definitely a bit spicier than she had expected, but it wasn’t an uncomfortable kind of spice. She actually liked it! She finished off the bite and grinned. “Wow,” she said. “I think I may have a new favorite food!”

“This keep’s certainly not just ruined stones. Mostly because I’m doin’ my best to prevent it from fallin’ apart.” Nick chuckled and took a bite of his own chili. The Hellspace Luggage had done a decent job of keeping his food warm, and it tasted like it had only come out of the pot a few minutes ago. “I’m really glad you like it! I’ll have to show you some different kinds; chili is a pretty malleable recipe.” He blinked. “D’you know ’ow to cook, Anivari?”

Anivari nodded, not yet speaking on account of the food in her mouth. While she had become known for her abrasive nature and ‘lack of manners’, the Tiefling was in actuality neither abrasive nor uncouth. She made sure to swallow the bite of chili before she answered. “Most of what I know how to cook is done over open flame. And it’s generally whatever I can catch.” She shrugged. “I’ve been on my own for a long time, so I learned to fend for myself at a young age.” She was glad for one thing, though: the crow’s silence. He was up in a tree somewhere, apparently asleep. Did he really sleep? No one was really sure if he did what normal crows did.

“That’s good.” The imp nodded, speaking in between bites of his food. He looked around for that crow, his Devil’s Sight able to pierce through the darkness better than any animal’s eyes. “So… I owe you a favour.” He swallowed his current bite of chili, put down his bowl and clapped his hands together. It was fortunate that the crow wasn’t trying to spoil their picnic, but this matter concerned his end of the deal, and if he failed to honour the established bargain, the contract would be nullified. “Shall we do that now, or would you like to finish eatin’ first? I mean, you could keep eatin’, just… mh.” The little devil scratched the back of his neck and sheepishly averted his eyes. Oh, dear… it wasn’t like him to get all mixed up. Maybe he was tired.

Anivari nodded, realizing that she had almost forgotten about having him help with the crow. She could have hit herself, though she supposed that the imp would be put off by that. “Let’s finish eating,” she said. “I’m enjoying the chili.” She grinned at him and took another bite. From the trees, though, the crow could be heard chuckling. Thankfully, he made no comment. She flicked her golden eyes upwards, but immediately thereafter elected to ignore the crow. “Besides, I know almost nothing about getting rid of him. Or shutting him up.” She saw him avert his gaze, and that confused her. She was beginning to have her doubts about his kindly manner. Was he already tiring of her? She fidgeted a bit, taking another bite of her food.

“Well, that’s up to me to figure out, isn’t it?” Nick Shadow cracked his knuckles and beamed promisingly at her. But in truth, he would much rather finish eating with her than deal with that rude creature at the moment. Even if Anivari didn’t have good manners, he would hardly have minded, since she was so pleasant otherwise. As the two of them ate, he found himself watching her, not realizing he was doing so until he’d finished his chili and was still just looking at her. Impolite! The imp mentally chided himself, hoping she hadn’t noticed, and cleared his throat. “U-um… are you from this world, Anivari?”

Anivari didn’t notice that he was staring at all. She simply knew that the chili was good. She blinked at his question. “Sort of? My mother was from this world originally,” she explained. “And I was born on Hellifyno. Though, as I said, I was raised in my father’s home. Which I think was part of the Hells. I’m not really sure.” She smiled. “As soon as I was able to, I left and came back.” She glanced up at the trees and decided not to ask her other question. “And you?” she asked instead. “Are you from this world?”

“Oh. Lucky you.” In truth, Nick often wished he had been born on Hellifyno, impossible as that was. Most devils were made, not born, and he was no exception. “I… don’t actually know where I’m from. The earliest thing I can remember is wakin’ up in the Nine ’Ells some twenty-ish years ago with these ’orns on my ’ead. I don’t remember who I was before becoming a devil, but I don’t really care about that.” He pondered for a moment before asking, “If you knew you were a reincarnated soul, would you want to know who you were before?”

Ah, reincarnation. Anivari had once found journals and such that her mother had kept many years ago; it was a topic that had been mentioned many times in her youth. She thought about that, though. Would she really want to know? She blinked those golden eyes a moment. “I think,” she said after a moment, considering her words as carefully as she could. “That I would want to know. I wouldn’t want all the details, I’m sure. But a general idea would be nice.” She sighed. “Perhaps in a past life, I was… less violent and angry?” The remorse for the things she had been pushed to do was apparent in her eyes, though she wouldn’t burden anyone else with that. It was her burden to bear.

“Hmm… You might be right. Although, if I was a really ’orrible person, I think I’d be pretty unhappy with myself. Then again, it would be incentive to try and do better in this life.” Also, he probably didn’t look anything like he looked now. He heard her speaking so ruefully about herself, and frowned. “’Ey… I know I’ve only just met you, Anivari, and I don’t really know much about you. But in the snapshot I’ve got of you, you’ve been absolutely wonderful. And I… I like you a lot, and I wish you wouldn’t put yourself down like that.” The imp unzipped his Hellspace Luggage and started digging through it. “I think… we shouldn’t worry about past lives, and just do our very best with the present we live in, so that our futures might be brighter. I dunno, that’s just me.”

Anivari looked up, a bit of surprise in her eyes. She smiled, though, finishing off the last bit of her food. “I…. thank you,” she said. “Uh, n-no one’s…. ever really, erm, said something…. like that to me b-before.” She fidgeted again, rubbing the back of her head and chuckling lightly. “I don’t know, Nick,” she said. “I don’t think you were a bad person. You’re…. I….” She paused. How was she supposed to say this? She reached up, pulling her hair down. It was now apparent that her hair naturally faded into the red at about where her ears were. The hair extended just past her shoulders as well. At last, she smiled. “But you’re right. The past cannot be changed, so why should we worry about it, huh?”

“Right! ‘If we can’t move away from the past and embrace the future, we don’t deserve the present.’ Or something like that. Apparently a Hellifynian god said that at some point.” Nick beamed at her and pulled the contract they’d signed out of his bag, looking it over and nodding. “‘Ere we are… so, I have to determine a method of unbindin’ your crow. Simple enough. As much as I don’t want you to… would you mind callin’ ‘im down ‘ere?” Bindings were Nick’s specialty; it shouldn’t be too difficult to determine what he was dealing with.

Anivari sighed and glanced up. She was glad that she didn’t have to speak as the crow simply flew down to her shoulder. All of those red eyes stared at the imp, looking almost… smug? As if he knew something that neither of the humanoids knew. Anivari kept herself still, though. She knew that if she moved too much, Yatagarasu would get agitated. And now that her hair was down, she would rather not feel him pulling it again.

“Okay, Yatagarasu, I’m goin’ to need you to cooperate with me. That means don’t fly away.” It has seemed like Anivari was going to say something on the subject of his character, and he’d gotten a little nervous. But if she wasn’t comfortable with talking, that was fine. He could deal with it. “Okay… translator sheet.” A blank scroll was produced from the luggage and held up to Anivari and the bird. “I should be able to analyze exactly what your bond entails usin’ this.” As he spoke, infernal writing began to etch itself onto the paper: a description of the link between the tiefling and her avian companion.

Anivari wasn’t entirely sure what it had been that she was going to say before the crow came back down. Well, she had a general idea, but putting that idea into words was where things got complicated. She pushed those thoughts from her mind as the crow simply glared at the imp. Although, seeing the writing appear on the paper reminded her a little of the ritual that her father had done. The tiefling could remember the blood and sweat, and the the swirling shadows as the crow was formed. She even remembered her father forcing the crow to take her blood. While she didn’t know what the spells her father had used were, she knew that he had chanted something as the process continued. It was her most vivid memory, though she had probably been about five at the time it had taken place.

Nick looked at her from behind the paper. “Are you alright?” he asked, his big blue eyes sparking with concern. The writing stopped for a moment as he looked at her, his wings rustling anxiously behind his back. It wasn’t the crow’s glaring that bothered him; he couldn’t care less what the bird thought of all this.

Anivari snapped out of her thoughts and nodded. “I’m… I’ve been better,” she admitted. “Every now and then… I remember the most painful parts of the ritual my father did.” She lifted her free hand, the one the crow wasn’t perched on, and ran it through her hair. “I’ll be alright, though.” She smiled, but her golden eyes had a slight glimmer to them as she held back tears. She wasn’t one to cry, but the amount of kindness she had been shown in these short few hours was more than she’d ever known in her whole life. So, if she were to cry, the tears that would fall would not be from sadness, but from joy.

“…Okay.” The devil looked a little uncomfortable, seeing the distress in her eyes, however slight, but her smile gave him the confidence he needed to continue. The writing continued burning itself onto the page, letter by letter, until at last the description was complete. Nick sighed in relief and looked it over, tilting his head in consideration. “I see. So it’s a third-party bindin’. That means it’ll ’ave to be dealt with a bit differently than usual, since neither you nor the crow ’ad any say in the actual bindin’. ’Owever, it does make it easier in that somethin’ like this can be undone by purifyin’ magic, stronger than the spell that bound you.” The imp blinked. “Do you know anyone who’d ’ave that kind of power?”

Anivari thought about this. She didn’t /know/ anyone in this world, really. “I know of one person. And she is long gone,” Anivari said sadly. “My mother was a priestess in her life.” The crow seemed to have a smug look on his avian features once more. Anivari folded her arms. “I’m sure there are many in this world, though, who can do it. But I don’t know them. And I’m not…. excited about having to rely on magic.”

“O-oh… I’m sorry.” Nick realized now that he’d used magic to ascertain a method of breaking her link to the crow. “I didn’t mean to, um. Oh, dear.” He now felt very silly. “Well, I’m sure we could find one, if we looked. Or…” And again, he finds himself saying strange things. We? Devils didn’t help people for free… but oh, he wanted to. “Or, if you really wanted, we could… um. We could…” Oh, wow. His mind was going to strange and unfamiliar places.

Anivari shook her head. “Oh, don’t apologize,” she said. “I’m…. starting to let my opinion on magic relax.” She lowered her voice for the next statement. “And it’s because of you that I’m not so bothered.” Her face turned that dark red color again, and she brushed her hand through her hair again. “We could what? You don’t have to… dance around the subject with me, Nick. I can handle it.”

“If you really, really, really wanted to, we could…” Nick fidgeted, noticing that dark color on her face for the first time and wondering if she was blushing because of him. Oh… “We could, you know… go to the ’Eavens, and find your mum?” His voice was a little high-pitched as he said that. Okay. That was not something devils offered to do, ever. But he was offering to do it, because he could be an idiot when it came to these things. And because he really, really, really wanted to help her out.

Anivari blinked. She’d never even met her mother. But, getting a chance to see the woman? Someone who she had heard was kindhearted and good? She nodded. “I would like that,” she said. “I’ve never met my mother, but I’ve heard many good things about her.” And once more her face turned a little darker. She wasn’t sure why she was blushing. Perhaps it was his kindness? Or perhaps it was because he was so willing to help her? She didn’t know, but it didn’t bother her so much. She wasn’t lying when she said that she was beginning to revisit her opinion on magic. She truly did trust the imp.

“You’d like that.” Excellent. Wonderful. BRILLIANT, Nick. He’d just consigned himself to going into the heavens, which was essentially anathema to his kind, to look for the dead mother of a woman he’d just met, who neither of them had actually known. But he could still take it back, couldn’t he? After all, he hadn’t signed a contract or anything. These thoughts were dispelled the instant he looked at her face, saw her blush and the trust in her eyes, and knew that he would be damned again before disappointing Anivari. “So… another contract?” He said it to calm his racing heart, more than anything. He himself was blushing quite profusely at the moment, and he didn’t have the red skin to hide it.

Anivari blinked. She’d already signed one contract, and nothing bad had really happened. She’d even found a new favorite food, thanks to him! She smiled, still blushing rather deeply. “I would like to. Especially… well…. if I get… to, uh….” She was stuttering, almost as if she was nervous, which was new for the barbarian.

Yatagarasu laughed loudly, rolling his multitude of eyes. “The bumbling idiot is saying that she wants to sign a contract so that she can be around you more.” He turned his head to Anivari. “Do you have to be so stupid?”

“She’s not stupid!” Nick almost shouted, rising to his feet and moving over to her. He extended his hands to her, a resolute expression settling onto his youthful face. “Miss Anivari, I would love to spend more time with you, with a contract or without one. But still… I need the contract if we’re really going to do this. For my integrity as a devil, you see? I… ’ope you understand.” For the first time in his life, he felt a little ashamed to ask for a contract, and he wasn’t sure he understood why.

Anivari blinked. She wasn’t used to someone talking like that. Most just either ignored the bird or agreed with him. No one had ever really told him that she wasn’t any of the mean things he said. She smiled at Nick, extending her own hands to try taking his. “Then let’s do this,” she said. “I have my own dignity that I worry about at times. So I understand.” She grinned, that blush still on her face. “But, much like you, I would….. still want…. to do this…. w-without… without the, uh, the contract.”

“Mhm.” The little devil nodded and did his very best to pull her to her feet with what meager strength he had. He held her hands for a moment longer before finally letting go and pulling out another contract from his bag. “’Ere, then; ’Ere’s our contract. I, Nick Shadow, will take you into the Seven ’Eavens and bring you to your mother. What will you offer me in return?” Normally, he’d lay out her end of the agreement as well, as the purveyor of the contract, but he wanted her to decide what she’d give. Protection, guardianship, companionship… he’d really accept most things, as long as she was alright with it.

Anivari had to help him move her. She unfolded her legs, standing in front of him, and found herself noticing once more just how much taller she was than him. What would she offer? Well, she was a barbarian, and a decent fighter. When he released her hands, she lifted one to tap at her chin. “I… hmm.” She frowned slightly. How would she word this? A glare was sent to the crow, and her free hand moved, pinching his beak closed. “You keep your trap shut,” she muttered. She turned back to Nick, her hand still on the bird’s mouth. “I will make sure that you return from this venture alive. I’m a fighter, so that’s all I have to offer to you.” She grinned sheepishly. She may not have been able to promise that he would be unscathed, but alive she could promise.

“OH.” Nick’s eyes flew wide at her wording. She was promising that he’d return alive? That was partially on him, too. “Well, then, I’d better make sure I don’t die on your watch!” he laughed, putting on a brave face. The Heavens were terrifically dangerous for evil creatures; for a devil like him, doubly so. But if she was willing to let him lead her into the heart of light, he would take that contract. Rolling up the scroll, Nick slipped a red ribbon onto it, tied it tightly, and grinned. “Alright, Anivari. It’s you and me, until we find our road’s end.” Gosh, this felt like a proper quest! He was feeling less like a devil and more like an adventurer by the moment… but then, who was to say he couldn’t be both?

Anivari nodded and put on her own brave face. She’d gone into some pretty terrible fights before, but something about this one made her stomach churn a bit. Though… “Ah. How do we get there, though?” She frowned slightly. She released her hold on the bird’s mouth, and he fluffed out his feathers. Yatagarasu shot Anivari a glare as she ignored him and turned to the river. If she were going, she may as well get something to drink. While she didn’t have access to sake, she could at least wash out her gourd a bit and bring water along, right? She crouched next to the water and did just that as she waited for the imp’s response.

“Leave that up to me!” Nick chirped, digging through his luggage once again. “I mean, people go creepin’ into the ’Eavens all the time. Well, devils don’t… but it’s okay! All we need to do is summon or capture a lesser celestial, and ’ave it be our ticket into the Upper Planes. The very best thing for the job would be a pegasus. D’you know where we might find one?”

Anivari nodded at his explanation, though she’d never seen a pegasus before. She knew what it was, that much was certain. “I’m afraid I don’t,” she admitted. “I mean, I know what it is, but I’ve never seen one myself.” She fidgeted a bit, the blush creeping back up on her face. Of course, Yatagarasu had to ruin the moment for her.

“Of course she doesn’t know where any are. You’re talking to a complete imbecile, little devil.” He scoffed and Anivari glared at him. The blush left her face, and her golden eyes blazed with a mixture of anger and sadness. She tried not to let the bird’s words get to her, but it was apparent that they still hit a sore spot in the tiefling’s psyche.

Nick frowned, crossing his arms and glaring at the crow. “Why are you so mean to her? She’s nothin’ short of lovely, and she’s probably the reason you even exist in the first place. If I were you, I’d be nice to her, if only so she doesn’t turn me into roast bird when her bond is broken.” Without even thinking, the little devil stepped closer to Anivari and took her hands in his, a bit of pink tinting his cheeks. “I don’t think you’re an imbecile, Miss Anivari. I don’t know where to find a pegasus either, but there’s actually an even easier celestial to find – a lantern archon. Just a good soul on its way to the ’Eavens… if we find one, we could follow it on its way into the Outer Planes.”

That blush was back as she listened to Nick scolding the crow. She would have chuckled in any other situation, but now was not the time. Instead, she did something rather out of character for herself: she leaned down and wrapped Nick in a gentle embrace. “Thank you,” she said, just loud enough for him to hear. The movement had made the crow move from her shoulder to a nearby spot on the ground. “No one’s… ever said something like that about me before.” She smiled softly, her eyes closing a bit.

The imp’s eyes widened as that little bit of pink on his cheeks became a full-on splash of red. “I… I’m glad to be the first, then, Miss Anivari,” he whispered, relaxing and returned that gentle hug, resting his head on her shoulder and pressing himself up into her arms. “When you’re told cruel things, remember that people often mistake real beauty for other things, and vice versa. I’m a devil, so… I know that better than anyone.” A flash of embarrassment passed through him as he realized he’d just basically told her he thought she was beautiful, but did his best to ignore it and give her his very nicest hug. His little heart thrummed away in his chest, as his tail unconsciously went to coil around her leg.

Anivari’s blush only intensified as the imp spoke. She had no real idea what he was implying, but judging from his the tone… she chuckled and rested her head on his, even as she sensed the crow rolling his eyes. She made a rather interesting sound as she felt his tail wrapping around her leg, actually squeaking a little. Her eyes opened wide as she heard the noise coming from her. That was definitely a noise she’d never made. And she’d been around a while, she knew. Clearing her throat, she pulled away and tried to compose herself. “Uh, so, where… where should we start? With the summoning and such, I mean.” She rubbed the back of her head, brushing her fingers through the red and white locks.

Nick blinked and held in a giggle. That squeak has been just about the most adorable thing he’d ever head, although he contritely uncoiled his tail from her leg and gave her an apologetic bow. “Sorry, tail sort of just… mh. You know. Um… anyway! Summoning might be tricky, since the only real magic I’ve got is my in’erent abilities. I should learn some proper magic… would probably ’elp me out a great deal. Now, I wonder: can portal coins open interplanar doorways?” Maybe they wouldn’t have to head out to the site of a grisly massacre after all; on the Material Planes, lantern archons were most common on battlefields, hanging around their former bodies.

Anivari paused to think, and her real intelligence shone through. “From what I’ve seen, if the last person from another realm I met could still get back to her home, then it’s possible. And she goes back and forth rather often.” She frowned. “I don’t know, though, if they’d be connected to any of the portals that would lead to the Heavens. It would have to be something we can only learn through trial and error, I suppose.”

Nick smiled rakishly. It was a weird look for him, but not unflattering. Maybe if his hair was a little less tidy, he could rock a proper rogue aesthetic. “Would you be willin’ to risk it, Anivari? Sure would be a lot easier than tryin’ to track down a celestial and convincin’ them to take us there, but it might also bring us somewhere completely different if it doesn’t end up workin’. It’s your mum we’re goin’ to see, so it’s your call.” The young devil waited for her answer, knowing that he’d be content with whatever she decided.

She tapped a finger against her lips. Should she? She wasn’t entirely sure what she should do, but, in the end, she was glad that he trusted her enough to let her decide. While the prospect of making such a decision would normally terrify her, she felt more at ease with Nick. What was this feeling? She wasn’t sure, but she knew she liked it. “While there’s only a fifty percent chance that this will work, I’m willing to try it.” She had never seen her mother, but if the woman was  even half as kind as people had said, she wanted to meet the her. Not to mention that seeing her for the first time would be amazing.

“Oh, well… as it ’appens, missus, I always carry a portal coin with me at any given moment.” He might not even need the Bells anymore… perhaps a fortunate thing, since they were a rather troubling infernal artifact. But that decision could come later. Digging into the pocket of his vest, Nick produced one of those coins and held it up so she could see it. “…Okay. So, in case this doesn’t work and we die ’orribly in a nightmare demiplane…” Nick fidgeted for a moment, before tossing the coin. He wanted to say something, but was having trouble finding the courage to just tell her, even though he’d essentially already communicated it to her…

Anivari reached out and touched his arm gently. “Nick,” she whispered. “Is everything alright with you?” She looked down at him, her golden eyes surprisingly gentle for someone of her reputation. But that look was quickly replaced with one of determination. “I swore to you that you would get back alive. I never break my word.” Though she didn’t add that she would give her own life to make sure she kept her word as well.

“That’s not what I’m worried about, missus,” he whispered back, his blue eyes full of trepidation and emotion. He stepped back, moving towards the portal, and looked back at her, clenching his little fists and biting his lip. “Anivari!” he called, surprising himself with the volume of his voice. “In case this doesn’t take us to where we want to go… I want you to know that I think you’re sweet and kind and beautiful, and I’m really glad I got to meet you!” There, he’d said that much. With a brave smile, Nick turned and walked into the portal.

The crow knew that there was no getting out of this. So, with a sigh, it hopped back up to her shoulder as she blushed deeply. And, now that he had stepped through the portal, she knew she couldn’t say what was on her mind. Well. She’d follow him in and hope that they would both end up in the same place. And once there, she would say to him what she had been thinking since that hug. Whether the crow liked it or not. Portals usually made her woozy and a little nauseous. But she was willing to step through one for him, closing her eyes and hoping she would see him when she opened them.

    2 Comments
    1. Kaler Eland 5 months ago

      OOF, this level of wholesome is the /big/ tasty \o/

    2. Eris 6 months ago

      OHMYGOSH These two are the absolute best! And I can’t wait to read the rest of the adorable that is the Imp and the Tiefling! Much loves to you, Nicky!

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