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The Hand That Feeds

The Hand That Feeds

NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Tryst's Storyline.

     “Have you taken leave of your senses?”

     Adys, Demon King of Artrix, recognized the devilkin’s voice – and its familiar tone of indignant outrage – even before the voice’s black-hooded owner came storming into his audience chamber. He fixed the presumptuous interloper with a hard frown, and he leaned forward atop his elevated throne.

     “You have not been announced,” he said to the devilkin, knitting his fingers together beneath a withering glare. His voice was a low, ominous rumble, which loaded each word with unmistakable menace.

     “I thought we were past playing at such formalities,” the devilkin said, shaking her short, black horns at him as she spoke. “And since you apparently have no respect for me, I fail to see why I should pay you any in return.”

     Without taking his eyes off the devilkin, Adys repeated himself: “You have not been announced.” Then, turning to his herald, he added: “Call forth the next supplicant.”

     Before the black- and gold-liveried herald could obey that command, though, the devilkin rounded on him. She closed the distance between herself and the Demon King’s servant in a flash, and, before the wide-eyed herald could so much as clear his throat, she had her clawed fingers around his neck, and had hoisted the shocked, squirming man several inches up into the air.

     “Announce me, then,” she hissed, the pupils in her yellow eyes narrowing to thin, black slits, her barbed tail lashing the air behind her.

     Then she released the herald, who tumbled to the floor in a whimpering heap of black and gold silk.

     The herald clambered back up to his feet, taking several steps away from the enraged devilkin in the process. With his eyes averted, and his hands rubbing his reddened throat, he began to speak.

     “My Lord,” the herald said, groveling in Adys’s general direction, “may I present Advocate Tryst, your humble serv—”

     “Enough,” Adys growled in clipped irritation, turning his void-like eyes on the herald, who fell instantly silent. “Leave us.” Then, turning to the rest of his court, he waved a dismissive hand at his coterie of guards and advisors. “All of you.”

     “But, my Lord,” stammered a flummoxed-looking supplicant.

     “Out!” Adys roared, rising up to his full, regal height, so that his booming voice seemed to shake the black marble walls of the audience chamber. Then, after taking the briefest of moments to recompose himself, he added: “I will deal with this matter myself.”

     The chamber echoed with the sound of hurried footsteps as a score of courtiers and guards made hastily for the exits. All the while, the devilkin stood her ground at the base of Adys’s throne, her whole body practically vibrating with rage. Only after the last of the onlookers had cleared the room did Adys deign to speak again, and, when he did, his voice reverberated with barely-controlled anger.

     “How dare you address me like that in public?” he said, still standing, so that he towered over the pale-skinned devilkin. “You forget yourself. Just because you have been of use to me does not permit you to speak to me in such a manner. I ought to kill you for the impertinence.”

     “But you won’t,” retorted Tryst, “and you know it.”

     “Continue to push me,” Adys said, “and I may decide that you’re more valuable to me as an example than as an investment.”

     Tryst snorted. “I doubt that very much,” she said. “Nothing is more valuable to you than your claim upon a soul. Besides, if one of us has the right to complain of provocation, it is I.”

     Adys turned his abyssal eyes upward, and he sighed a deep, long sigh. “And what imaginary provocation have I subjected you to now?” he said. “Please, enlighten me.”

     “Imaginary?” Tryst placed her clawed hands on her hips. “Are you telling me, then, that I did not return home today to find a fire-spitting dog in my daughter’s chamber?” The devilkin bared her sharp teeth at the Demon King. “Are you telling me that I imagined all that barking and growling and fire-spitting?”

     The Demon King sighed again as he sat back down atop his throne. He shrugged his broad shoulders, which sent a shimmer through his long waves of ebon hair.

     “I fail to see what the cause for concern is,” he said. “I paid a visit to the child while you were traveling between worlds – the third such trip you have made this year, I might add. The child indicated to me that she was lonely, and desired the companionship of a hound. Such a request struck me as reasonable, so I arranged for her wish to be granted.”

     “You had no right!” Tryst said, leveling a clawed finger at the seated King. Her tail lashed out behind her, as if for emphasis, and she slapped it against the ground with a single, sharp slap. “You have no right to interfere with how I raise my daughter.”

     Adys’s eyes narrowed, and his brow furrowed. “Within the boundaries of my city, I have the right to do whatever I please,” he said. “And you would do well to remember that.”

     “And it pleased you to give a hellhound to a four-year-old? You must be out of your mind.”

     Adys shook his head in response. “There is no danger to the child,” he said. “The hound immediately took to her, and its ilk are fiercely loyal. It will never attack your girl. On the contrary,” Adys said, wagging a patronizing finger at the devilkin, “that beast will defend your child with its very life, against any attacker.”

     “Defend her?” Tryst said. “The thing is barely a pup.”

     “Hellhounds grow quickly,” Adys said.

     Tryst was silent for a long moment, as she tried – and failed – to hold the Demon King’s abyssal stare.

     “I can protect my own daughter,” she said.

     “When you are in Artrix? Undoubtedly,” Adys said. “But when you are gallivanting across worlds, that responsibility apparently falls to me. A responsibility for which, I must say, I rather expected some measure of gratitude, as opposed to this constant stream of invective to which I find myself subjected.”

     “I never asked you for any help,” Tryst said, her tail suddenly still.

     “No, you asked me to help you bear a child,” Adys said. “Which I did. Is it so strange to you that I might take some interest in the child’s continued wellbeing?”

     “Yes,” Tryst said. “It is.”

     Adys rolled his shoulders in a gesture of indifference. “I can have the hound removed, if that is what you wish,” he said.

     At that, Tryst sighed, and the devilkin seemed to visibly deflate.

     “You know that I can’t do that,” she said, giving her horns a frustrated shake. “She’s already named the cursed thing.”

     A moment passed in tense silence, then, before the devilkin spun on her hooves and stormed back out of the Demon King’s throne room.

     “Do not ever accost me like that in public again,” Adys called out after her. “You will find that my patience is not without limit.”

     “Do not ever speak to my daughter without my permission again,” Tryst growled over her shoulder in reply. “You will find that I too have limits, and that crossing them is a mistake.”

     Adys, Lord of Artrix, watched the planeswalker disappear from his sight, and he repeated to himself the sentiment he so often found on his lips when he and the devilkin crossed paths.

     “I should have killed you the moment you darkened the gates of my city,” he growled beneath his breath.

     Then he raised his voice and summoned his courtiers back in.


* * *


     As he made his way down the Street of the Ragmen towards the dark heart of Nebhos – the City of Cowards – Westrick pulled the collar of his oiled leather coat up as high as it would go.

     He did so for two reasons.

     His first reason was to try to steal any protection he could against the perpetual rain. It always rained in Nebhos, or so Westrick had heard – a cold, ceaseless drizzle that fell endlessly down from the gray heavens to rot the tired roofs and overflow the teeming gutters of the city of oath-breakers. All around him, water gushed down drainpipes and ran through the city’s streets in dark, dirty rivulets.

     Rain seemed to cling to the city like a veil of tears – like the sorrow of Nebhos’s denizens, made manifest.

     Westrick’s second reason for raising his collar was to try to conceal his face from anybody who might be looking for him. Because, ever since he had arrived in the City of Cowards – ever since he had left the Free City, in fact, over three long weeks ago – Westrick had had the unnerving sensation that he was being watched.

     Just a few paces in front of him, a slanting building with three ramshackle bridges sprouting from its roof jutted out into the street, narrowing the road. As Westrick approached the chokepoint it created, he felt his steps quicken, and his pulse accelerate. Then, at the last moment, he spun on his heel and darted into a nearby alleyway, hiding himself beneath the heavy shadows cast by a weeping, waterlogged awning.

     As soon as he was off the road, Westrick froze in place. He stood stone-still, hardly daring to breathe, with his right hand resting on the hilt of his dagger, his left hand cupped around his ear, and his back pressed tightly against the damp alley wall. He stood, and he waited, and he listened – even though he wasn’t sure just what it was that he was listening for.

     But that didn’t matter, because he didn’t hear anything. Just the staccato beat of the rain against a slate roof, the creaking of ropes as someone crossed a bridge overhead, and the pounding of his own heart from where it hammered inside his chest.

     Slowly, Westrick forced himself to exhale. No one was following him. His mind was playing tricks.

     Just to be sure, though, he peeked out around the corner and cast a wary eye up and down the street, his hand still perched atop the dagger’s jeweled pommel.

     The scene which he surveyed was a dismal one. The city of Nebhos was wedged into a gulley at the base of two great mountains. It was pinned on three sides by sharp, towering rocks, and on the fourth by a massive, black iron gate – a gate which, despite the constant rain and the merciless damp, never seemed to rust. The whole city seemed to claw its way up the sides of the gulley, so that each street was a vertical, claustrophobic jumble of buildings, stacked precariously upon one another and connected by a vascular network of ropes and bridges and elevated gangways. The better neighborhoods – such as they were – were perched at the top of the pile, where height afforded at least some privacy and protection. Down at street level, though, where Westrick watched and waited, privacy and protection both seemed like unattainable luxuries. Rainwater carried every imaginable type of waste down the gutters and cobbles of the sloping street, so that the smell which filled Westrick’s nostrils was a nauseating stew of foul aromas. At one end of the narrow, canyon-like road, a ragpicker in an oily smock was rummaging through a heap of unidentifiable detritus. At the other end of the street, a small knot of women stood huddled together beneath a leaking leather awning, speaking in hushed tones as they coughed consumptive coughs and held their hoods up against the rain.

     The one thing Westrick didn’t see was an ominous, stalking presence, waiting to lunge out at him from the shadows.

     He shook his head, and tried to ascribe his nervousness to paranoia, and nothing more.

     Stepping back onto the street, he walked a few more blocks before ducking into the doorway of a small inn. The sign which swung noisily from one rusty hook identified the establishment as The Regal Rest, but, as Westrick stepped inside and shook the gathered droplets from his coat, he reflected that the inn’s tattered interior was anything but regal. As his eyes adjusted to the dim lamplight, Westrick made out a moldering settee, a couple of threadbare chairs, and a sparse reception desk with rough plaster paneling and soot stains on the ceiling. A grim-faced man – presumably the innkeeper – stood silently behind the counter and regarded Westrick with a jaded eye.

     In his mind, Westrick couldn’t help but compare The Regal Rest to the mansion he’d once owned in the Free City. He closed his eyes, and he pictured fine antique furniture and deep, plush carpets. He remembered what it felt like to sleep between soft sheets, to sit at an exquisite wooden table and dine on fresh game every night, to have a cellar full of the best vintages. He remembered what it felt like to have money, and power, and respect.

     Opening his eyes, and looking out over the dank, musty interior of The Regal Rest, all those memories felt distant and false.

     From across the room, the innkeeper cleared his throat. Westrick crossed to the desk, and he spoke to the grim-faced man.

     “Do you have any rooms?” the former merchant baron of the Free City asked.

     “A few,” the innkeeper replied, picking at his ear with one finger.

     Westrick glanced around. If there were any other travelers staying at The Regal Rest, they were keeping themselves well-hidden.

     “How much for the night?” Westrick asked.

     “Four drachmas.”

     Westrick reached into his pocket and felt the few silver coins he had left. They were all that remained of a fortune so vast it had once filled a dozen vaults from floor to ceiling.

     Now, all the wealth that Westrick possessed could fit inside his hand.

     He took out four coins and placed them on the counter. The innkeeper swept them into the pouch of his apron. Then he bent over and produced a yellow-edged book from beneath the desk, which he opened to a page in the middle.

     “Sign the register,” the innkeeper said.

     The man held out a pen, which Westrick was halfway to taking, before his hand froze in midair.

     “I’d… rather not,” Westrick said.

     The innkeeper shrugged. “Suit yourself,” he said, closing the book. “But the rate’s five drachmas if you don’t sign.”

     Westrick did not want to sign anything.

     So, after a moment’s hesitation, he gave his last drachma to the innkeeper, who pocketed it with a grunt and nodded in the direction of the stairs.

     Westrick walked over to the foot of the staircase, and his hand was on the rusty iron banister before he turned back towards the innkeeper, who wore a bored look on his face and had returned to picking at his ear.

     “If I…,” Westrick said, his voice dropping almost to a whisper, as he made up his mind about whether or not to ask the question. “That is to say, if I wanted to…”

     The innkeeper stared expectantly. Westrick shook his head. There was no way around it.

     “If I wanted to… supplicate myself before Hjala, how would I go about arranging an audience?”

     The innkeeper snorted.

     “You don’t,” he said. “The Oathbreaker doesn’t grant audiences.”

     Westrick raised an eyebrow. “Then how do I see her?”

     The innkeeper snorted again.

     “You go to the court tomorrow,” he said, “and you wait in line. Just like everybody else.”

     After a moment, Westrick nodded his head, and he climbed the stairs.

     None of the inn’s rooms appeared to be occupied, so Westrick picked the one nearest to the staircase. He opened the door, and he let himself in.

     Inside his rented accommodations, the gloom was almost palpable. Westrick saw a rope bed, a rotting wicker dresser, and a small rattan table. There was an unlit lamp on the table’s top, and a box of matches next to it.

     Westrick walked across the room, struck a match, and held it to the oily black stump of a wick. He was just replacing the lamp’s sooty glass cover when he heard a familiar voice coming from behind him – from close behind him – and he felt his blood run cold.

     “Yours has been a long fall, hasn’t it?” the voice said. “I won you enough gold to last a dozen lifetimes over, and yet here you are.”

     As Westrick turned around, he rested his hands on his hips, positioning them so that his right hand concealed the hilt of his dagger.

     “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Westrick said.

     In the wan, flickering glow from the lamp, he could just make out the cowled figure of a woman seated inside the door to his room. The woman wore a long black cloak with the hood pulled up, and she seemed to wear the room’s long, dark shadows like a second skin. The only parts of her which Westrick could see clearly were her pale, clawed hands, which lay folded across her lap, and her terrible yellow eyes, which stared out at him from beneath the hood of her cloak.

     “Do not play games with me,” the devilkin said to him, her voice a deep purr. “You and I both know that people travel to the City of Cowards for one reason, and one reason only.”

     Westrick saw a long, black tongue dart out from between the woman’s dark lips, and the sight of it made him flinch.

     “I swear, I don’t know what you’re talk—” he started to say. But the devilkin silenced him with a sharp hiss.

     “—Before you say anything else,” she said, “I want to be very clear with you about one thing.” The woman stood up then, so that Westrick could see her black cloven hooves and the tip of her barbed tail. “When you and I have finished speaking, I am going to kill you. Nothing that you say or do inside this room will change that fact.” The devilkin took a long step towards him, and, beneath her hood, her yellow eyes blinked. “The balance of your life now extends only so far as this conversation holds my interest. As such, I suggest that you dispense with the lies. Lies bore me.”

     Westrick felt himself swallow. His throat was dry.

     “What do you expect me to say?” he stammered.

     “Nothing,” the devilkin said. “I could have killed you when you walked in the door. Our exchange of words is a courtesy, and entirely for your benefit. I get no pleasure from it. So, if you have something to say, then say it. Say it honestly,” Tryst’s yellow eyes stared relentlessly at him, “and say it quickly.”

     Westrick was silent for a moment. Did he have anything to say? Why was he even there, standing in a flophouse in the City of Cowards, and staring into the yellow eyes of the monster who had brokered his deal?

     How had it all come undone?

     “Things didn’t turn out the way I thought they would,” he finally said.

     The room was silent for a moment. Westrick almost thought he heard the devilkin sigh.

     “They rarely do,” she said. Then she took another step towards him.

     Westrick held up his left hand, as if to plead with the yellow-eyed devil, even as he kept his right hand on his dagger.

     “Please,” he said, “you can’t do this. You have to give me another chance.”

     That comment drew a derisive snort from the advancing figure.

     “Another chance?” The devilkin’s slit pupils narrowed to thin, black slashes. “I gave you every chance. I followed you every step of the way from Limus to Nebhos. I watched you, every day and every night for the better part of a month, to see if you would turn back, to see if you would honor your obligations. Instead you came here, to renege upon your contract.”

     Westrick gave his head a short, sharp shake. “That isn’t fair—”

     “—Fair?” The devilkin sprang at him. Before he even knew what was happening, she had pinned him against the wall, and her clawed fingers were wrapped around his throat. He could see her face just inches from his, could see her razor-sharp teeth as her black lips curled back. “You signed a contract,” she hissed at him. “It was all there, in black and white. You got everything you ever wanted – wealth, power, and more. The terms were good, and I should know – I negotiated them. And you read them. I made sure that you read them. My clients always read the terms. That is a principle of mine – a point of professional ethics.”

     Beneath the devilkin’s grasp, Westrick could feel his blood beginning to crawl – the same traitorous blood with which he had signed his contract. It felt like a sea of like worms wriggling just beneath his skin.

     “You knew what you were signing,” the devilkin said. “You knew what your obligations were. Fair?” She hissed again. “Yours was a fair deal.”

     “You promised me that I’d be satisfied,” Westrick said, a trace of petulance creeping into his voice. “You said you wanted me to be happy.”

     “Yes, I did,” Tryst said, her voice suddenly cold. “And you were happy, until you squandered the fortune I obtained for you. Now, the real question is this: Do you remember what else I promised you, when first we met? I promised you that, if you brokered your deal through me, you would have no fear of being cheated – that you would get what you bargained for. Do you think that I don’t give that exact same assurance to the demons who hold the contracts I negotiate? That is how my business works. I give my solemn word that I will deliver what I promise, to both parties. My life depends upon it.”

     “So we’ll strike a new deal!” Westrick stammered. “I’ll give you anything you want! You want more years from my life? I’ll give you years!”

     The devilkin shook her head, and her teeth glinted in the dim light.

     “Do not try to negotiate with me,” she said. “Not now. The time for negotiation has passed. You already made your deal, and the penalty clause is very clear.”

     The devilkin held her free hand up in front of Westrick’s face. He could see a dark, eldritch energy beginning to coil between her clawed fingers. It crackled with purple light – almost black, even – and it sounded unnervingly like a gathering scream. The devilkin started to chant. Dark, sepulchral words rolled off her long, black tongue, and each one seemed to feed the smoky miasma which pulsated ominously in her open palm.

     With both of the devilkin’s hands occupied, Westrick seized his chance. He snatched his dagger out from its sheath, and he tried to drive its point into the yellow-eyed woman’s throat.

     But his blow never landed. Before he could drive the dagger home, he felt something sharp grab his hand, freezing his blade in mid-strike.

     Westrick turned his head to see the devilkin’s barbed tail wrapped around his wrist.

     The damned man’s mouth fell open in stunned silence. He tried to speak, but his words had left him.

     The devilkin tilted her head a bit to one side. She held him with her yellow-eyed gaze, and, for a moment, she was silent.

     “You know, I am about to break a promise,” she eventually said.

     Her voice was subtly changed. There was a different undertone to it now. It sounded excited, almost. Eager.

     Or hungry, Westrick thought with a shudder.

     “When my little girl was born,” the devilkin continued, “I promised myself that I would never kill again. I promised that I would be better, for her. And I’ve kept that promise. Until now.”

     The dark energy pulsing between the devilkin’s fingers gave off a cold flash of purple light.

     “Do you want to know what scares me?” Tryst said, drawing her black tongue across her lips. “What scares me is that I’ve been looking forward to this. I’ve been looking forward to this very, very much.”

     Then the devilkin pressed her glowing hand against Westrick’s skull.

     Westrick felt a pain that was like nothing he could ever have imagined. It was as though his very life was being siphoned out from inside his body.

     Then he felt nothing at all.


* * *


     Stepping inside the small, non-descript house she kept just at the outermost reaches of Artrix, Tryst felt a sense of homecoming which did not altogether please her.

     She didn’t want to think of Phostus as her home. Phostus brought out the worst in her, and she had never planned to settle there.

     Things hadn’t turned out the way she thought they would.

     Except for one thing. Except for one singular, precious thing.

     The only thing that really mattered, Tryst thought, as she opened the door to her daughter’s room and sank down to her knees.

     “My sweet darling!” she called out, throwing her arms open wide. “Mama’s home!”

     “Mama! Mama!” a small voice burbled in reply. A broad, sharp-toothed smile formed on Tryst’s face as her little girl trundled across the room towards her, arms outstretched, face aglow.

     “Mama loves you so much,” Tryst said, as she scooped-up the laughing child. “Mama missed you so much while she was gone.”

     Tryst held her daughter tight against her chest, feeling the little girl’s weight in her arms.

     “You’re growing up so fast,” she said. “You’re becoming quite the little armful.”

     As she said it, Tryst felt a pang of sadness. Her trip to Nebhos had been necessary, and she had earned more than a dozen years from it – years that she and her daughter would share together, in days to come. But those years were in the future. And they had come at the price of nearly two months in the present. Two precious, irreplaceable months when Tryst had been alone on the road, when she had not been at home to see her little girl grow.

     Every time her profession called her away like that, it got harder and harder. Every moment she was gone, Tryst felt like she missed more and more.

     So she tried to focus on the present, on the precious life she held in her arms. Because that life was beautiful. It was perfect. It was the only good thing ever to come from her devilish body.

     Tryst hoisted her daughter up in the air, so that the little girl’s tiny, human face was level with hers. Then, making a playful noise, Tryst stuck out her long, black tongue, and tickled the tip of the girl’s nose with it, so that her daughter squirmed and giggled in her arms.

     That was when Tryst heard a low, angry growl coming from down around her ankles.

     Looking down, Tryst was startled to see that her little girl was not the only thing to have grown in her absence. Standing just a few paces in front of her, and baring a set of flame-wreathed fangs, was her daughter’s dog – and the hellhound was looking considerably larger and considerably meaner than Tryst last remembered seeing it. Its red eyes had acquired a sort of bestial ferocity, and its teeth looked like jagged, black knives. Smoke rose from its nostrils, and glowing embers showed through the gaps in its rough, ashy skin.

     In an instant, the smile disappeared from Tryst’s face.

     Looking away from her daughter and down at the snarling dog, she said: “Easy, there. What has gotten into you?”

     But the hound did not calm down. If anything, its snarling increased. Embers dripped from its open maw, and it scratched angrily at the floor with its large, clawed forepaws. The dog’s wiry, black hair stood on end as it growled up at her.

     For a moment, Tryst couldn’t understand why the dog had turned so territorial, so aggressive.

     Then, as the answer dawned on her, she felt her heart break.

     I don’t smell like her, Tryst realized with a jolt. I don’t look like her, and I don’t smell like her.

     The dog doesn’t realize I’m her mother.

     The dog thinks I’m attacking her.

     “Easy, there,” Tryst said, feeling profoundly stupid for talking to a hellhound, even as she willed the beast to understand. “Just relax. Everything is going to be alright.”

     Tryst turned to one side to put her daughter down, and that was when the dog sprang at her.

     The hellhound crashed into her with its full weight, hitting her squarely in the legs just below the knee, and it was all that Tryst could do not to drop her daughter to the ground. Somehow, even as her knees buckled beneath her and she struggled to maintain her balance, Tryst managed to set the little girl down gently on her feet, before she tumbled over backwards. As the devilkin hit the floor, she felt powerful jaws bite down around her ankle, and she winced as pain from the hellhound’s molten bite streaked up her leg. Tryst lashed out with her tail, catching the dog in its side, which drew a sharp, pained yelp from the beast, but which did not prompt it to release its grip.

     Hurriedly, Tryst gathered in her mana, and her mind raced as she tried to think through her options. But it did not take her long to come to the grim conclusion that she had only one real choice. Propping herself up on her elbows, she found herself staring into the ferocious red eyes of the hound that was attacking her, and, in spite of everything, she felt a pang of sadness as she did.

     The dog was only attacking her because it thought it was defending its master.

     It was only doing what it had been bred to do, what was in its nature – what was in its blood.

     It was that very nature which made the hellhound too dangerous to keep. That much was clear. Tryst knew it would have to be put down. But she hated to be the one do it. She hated the thought of killing her little girl’s pet, as insane as that thought was. It was just too easy to imagine the look of hurt in her child’s eyes, to imagine her daughter staring back at her with an expression which said: You’re a monster.

     So Tryst was silently begging her daughter for forgiveness as she raised a hand up in the air and pointed it at the thrashing hound.

     Then, suddenly, a purplish-black haze seemed to wash over the dog, engulfing it in a swirl of death and decay. The hound managed to bark a single, pained yelp as the darkblast tightened around it, and its flesh withered away from its bones, dissolving into the air as an acrid black powder. Tryst felt the dog’s fangs loosen around her ankle as the beast’s muscles and tendons evaporated away, until the hound’s jaw simply came unhinged from its bare skull and clattered to the floor. From snout to tail, the dog was consumed by the spell, until all that remained of the hellhound was a pile of blackened bones and a foul, necrotic smell.

     In shocked, stunned silence, Tryst let her hand drop down to her side, and she let the black mana she had gathered up drain away.

     Then she turned to look at her daughter.

     Her little girl was standing off to one side, her face a blank, with her arm still raised up in front of her, and one shaking finger still pointed at the corpse of her pet dog.

     Tryst had never cast the killing spell she had prepared. Her daughter had beaten her to it.

     Her daughter had killed her own dog, and had used black magic to do it.

     Tryst looked at her little girl – who had only been trying to protect her – and she forgot all about the pain in her ankle. She felt her heart skip a beat.

     Tryst had not taught her daughter about mana, or magic, or how to cast spells. The girl had done it instinctively.

     It had come naturally to her.

     Just like her mother, Tryst thought. Just like her mother.

     Tryst felt a shiver run down her spine. She felt as though the world had disappeared beneath her, and she was tumbling into the abyss of her deepest, darkest fear – a fear come suddenly to life, before her very eyes.

     But she did not have time to dwell on that nightmarish thought, because, as her daughter’s brown eyes met her yellow ones, the little girl suddenly started to bawl.

     “Mama!” the girl cried, her face suddenly red, tears streaming down her cheeks. Holding her arms out, she begged to be picked up, to be held. “Mama, I’m s-s-scared.”

     Tryst scrambled to her hooves, and she bent over to pick up the crying girl, whom she cradled in her arms. She felt unsteady on her wounded ankle, and her head was swimming. But she bounced the little girl up and down, gently, stroking her head and cooing in her ear as she did.

     What she wanted to say was: I’m scared, too.

     But what she really said was: “It’s alright, my sweet darling. It’s all alright. Nothing can hurt you now. Everything’s going to be okay.”

     She could feel her little girl’s hot tears soaking into the fabric of her dress, as she clutched the child to her chest and rocked her back and forth, back and forth.

     “Is doggie okay?” the little girl asked between sobs.

     Tryst shot a quick glance down at the pile of bones on the floor.

     “It’s okay, sweetie,” Tryst said, running a clawed finger gently through her daughter’s black hair. “I know you didn’t mean to hurt him.”

     “Yes I did,” the little girl said. “He was hurting you, Mama. He was hurting you, so I hurt him.”

     Tears were welling up in Tryst’s own eyes, too. She hoisted her daughter up, and nuzzled her face into the base of the little girl’s neck.

     “I know, sweetie,” she said, fighting back her own sobs. “I know you were protecting your Mama. Your Mama loves you, sweetie. She loves you more than anything in this world.”

     Tryst looked into her daughter’s eyes, and she saw fear and sadness in equal measure.

     “Mama, I’m scared,” the little girl said again.

     Tryst’s whole body was shaking, and her tears were coming fast and unbidden now. She carried her daughter across the room to her little bed, stepping carefully over the remains of the dead hound as she went. Then, slowly, gently, she lowered the crying girl down onto the bed, and tucked her in beneath the soft, warm sheets.

     “It’s okay, my sweet darling,” Tryst cooed, kneeling down next to the bed as she did. “You just close your eyes. Just close your eyes, and, before you know it, you’re going to have a wonderful sleep.”

     Tryst was already casting the sleep spell as she caressed her daughter’s tiny face. Her voice trembled and broke, but she kept speaking.

     “You’re going to have a wonderful sleep, and you’re going to have a wonderful dream. And, when you wake up, everything’s going to be okay.”

     Tryst knelt next to the bed, and she sang quietly into her daughter’s ear as the little girl’s eyes closed, and the enchanted sleep took hold. Wiping her own tears away with the sleeve of her dress, Tryst slumped down onto the floor, and she held her head in her hands.

     “Sleep well,” she said one more time. “Sleep well, and dream a good dream.”

     That dream would last, Tryst resolved, until she could make sure that everything would be okay. Until she could take her daughter away from Adys, away from elemental darkness, away from demons and deals and anything else that might breathe life into whatever traces of her own devilish wickedness lay dormant inside the beautiful, innocent, sleeping girl who dreamt peacefully next to her.

     Away from Phostus, Tryst vowed.

     Away for good.

"The Hand That Feeds" by OrcishLibrarian was originally published as part of the Expanded Multiverse project.

To learn more, and to read more Expanded Multiverse stories, please visit the Expanded Multiverse forum at No Goblins Allowed.

Adys is an original character created by Barinellos for the Expanded Multiverse.

Magic: Expanded Multiverse is not associated with Wizards of the Coast. This is a transformative work of fanfiction, protected in the United States under the laws of Fair Use. 

All works copyright their respective creators.

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