CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE: TROLL-RIDDEN
“There are trolls in your office!” Anita’s frantic text read.
Stephanus’ eyebrows drew together as he wondered if she meant literally or figuratively. He was only halfway to his office when his assistant appeared at the end of the tastefully carpeted hallway and, uncharacteristically waved both of her arms in the air in a silent plea for him to hurry.
Must be literal ones.
Stephanus quickened his step and met her just five feet away from the antechamber to his office where her desk was situated. She was dressed as elegantly as always in a dark blue skirt suit. Her makeup was immaculate and her jewelry was perfect. Yet with all these things as they should be, her expression was one of unusual panic and consternation.
Anita grasped his arms and whispered, “Thank God you’re here. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with them if you didn’t show up soon!”
He had slept in rather late with Cole. They’d collapsed in bed after the making love in the shower. When they had woken up they had another lovemaking session. It was languid and slow. He had mounted Cole’s body and luxuriously rubbed their cocks together until both came. Cole had tried to feed him again, but Stephanus wouldn’t let him. The young man had exhausted himself the night before and the Alpha Incubus was feeling quite satiated, which was strange for him. He’d left his beloved sleeping while he thought he was arriving early for work, but evidently it wasn’t early enough.
“I don’t recall having any appointments for another hour yet,” he told her and went to look at his phone’s calendar, but she grasped his wrist and shook her head.
“They don’t have an appointment. Normally, I would have shooed them away, but there were too many and they just seemed to slide past me and –”
“It’s all right, Anita.” He patted her hand. “They were likely using illusion magic. You couldn’t have stopped them. I’ll have to see about getting you a protection amulet that will make you immune from such things.”
Anita touched the rather fabulous turquoise and silver necklace he’d bought her last year. “You give me too many things, Stephanus. And I shouldn’t need magic to deal with three little old ladies!”
“They’re trolls. They are the farthest thing from old ladies,” he assured her. “And I hardly spoil you with jewelry. It’s been at least a month since I bought you anything. But if you’re concerned I’ll choose to have something spelled that you already have.”
“Stephanus, you spoil me all the time. Not that I’m not worth it, but … I feel like relying on magic is such a crutch! I should be fierce enough to keep you safe!”
A wash of affection went through him and he thought of what Cole had said about him being the leader of a pack and Anita being part of that pack. She would be his beta if there was a pack. He adored her. He loved Cole. It was all madness really. He felt so ebullient that not even trolls in his office could phase him.
“You are worth it, Anita, even more than you know,” he said softly and caressed her cheek.
Anita flashed a smile at him, but it immediately turned into a frown as the door to his office popped open and a troll head appeared. Trolls looked like very ugly, elderly human women with hooked noses, warts that grew hair on chins, stooped shoulders, elongated necks and thin, spindly limbs with bloated midsections. Their eyes were marble black and they often turned their heads to the side like birds to regard their prey, which was everyone, no matter how powerful. Trolls believed that they could always get one over even on the great and powerful, perhaps especially on the great and powerful.
“Ah, you’re finally here! We thought we’d have to go to whatever bedroom you were keeping company in to get your attention,” the troll said.
Stephanus bared sharp teeth at her. “I assure you that such an act would be the last one you ever did.”
The thought of trolls around Cole was simply unacceptable. He wasn’t sure what his young lover would do to them in any event. He wasn’t fond of them himself. He groaned internally at the thought of having to check and recheck for “borrowed” items from his office before he could allow them to leave. All of his important artifacts and paperwork was spelled so that the no one, not even a troll with ultra sticky fingers, could steal them or even read them. But trolls were like magpies that picked up bright and shiny objects.
“You better not be messing around with Stephanus’ things in there!” Anita called as they both caught sight of another troll leaning over Stephanus’ desk.
“We have followed your rules and the rules of courtesy,” the troll at the door sniffed. The former meant something, but the latter not so much. The “rules of courtesy” for trolls were, essentially, do whatever you have to do to be on top and stay there. Steal, dupe, kill.
“I’ll take care of this, Anita. I know you have plenty of work to do,” he said gently and patted her hand.
She did not look mollified. She prided herself on keeping everyone out of his office, but trolls were a particular hazard that he had not prepared her for. Truthfully, before Mrs. Anderson, he’d not had truck with trolls in years. They rarely left the Dark Earth and their precious Troll Market. But things had evidently changed. He wondered what they wanted.
I shall discover that soon enough.
Stephanus strode towards his office door and did not slow his pace even though the troll who had spoken to them was still standing there. She had to hop out of his way. There were two other trolls in his office who jumped back from what they were doing like popcorn in a hot pan. They were all at least five hundred years old. He could tell that from the grayish pallor of their skin. They were also all very wealthy and that mean powerful in the troll world, which he could tell from the numerous flashing rings they wore on their thin fingers and the fur and velvet cloaks they wore.
Stephanus rounded the corner of his desk and seated himself. The three trolls who stood only a little over five feet stared at him out of their birdlike black eyes. He spread his hands towards the seats in front of his desk.
“Please be seated … since you’re here,” he added the last with a touch of acid. “You are lucky I have a free moment this morning. I normally do not see people without an appointment.”
“You would see us!” The most rotund of them said. She had on a dark blue velvet dress and thrust forward a chin with two warts that sprouted with hair.
“Oh, and why is that?” he asked, steepling his fingers together.
“Because of who we are!” said the thinnest of them. Her belly though seemed to have a mind of its own and swayed from side to side while the rest of her remained still.
“And who are you?” he asked with a sigh.
The one who had spoken to him and Anita from the doorway – and the middle weighted of the three – said, “We’re from the Guild,”
The way she tipped her chin up and thrust her bosom out told him how proud she was of that fact. The Guild controlled most of the commerce in the Troll Market so it was the end-all, be-all for Trolls. The top of the top. Stephanus knew he shouldn’t, but he had a hard time taking them seriously. Money was power for a troll, but not for him. He could charm anyone into giving him anything so money in and of itself was not important. He had it and used it, but that wasn’t his currency. It was theirs and he was sure that whatever they were here for involved filthy lucre.
“I am Lucretia. This is Mortensia and Caramentia,” the troll continued. Mortensia was the fattest one and Caramentia the thinnest one.
“And how may I help the Guild today?” he asked, but even as he asked it, he realized what this meeting had to be about. He was not disappointed.
“We come here about our imprisoned sister. You know her as Mrs. Anderson. She is being held hostage by that vile Elven King Alric!” Lucretia cried, her voice rising shrilly at the end.
“You mean the Elven King whose city you now stand in?” Stephanus’ eyebrows rose. “We all agreed to his terms, did we not, when we came to Winter Haven?”
“His terms are too harsh! He has no understanding of business,” Mortensia sniffed.
“You mean he is not fond of you killing people and selling their children into slavery,” Stephanus’ voice dropped a few octaves.
The trolls exchanged nervous glances with each other.
Lucretia went her thin lips. “Yes, yes, but even he is here under the auspices of the One.”
Stephanus stilled. Surely, they would not say the Unnamed One’s name here to him.
“I think you need to tread carefully,” he warned her.
“And I am! But I must be blunt, too, because I see where the wind is blowing and must make the Guild’s desires known,” she said.
“What wind is this?” Stephanus’ gaze hopped between the three women who were all perched on the edges of their chairs like obscene birds of prey.
“The Bringer is here,” Caramentia whispered, her voice slithery and dry. “That can mean only one thing.”
“War,” Mortensia added with a sly wink.
Stephanus’ expression did not change. If anything it became even blanker though his stomach was twisting itself into knots. Cole involved in a war? That would strip away all of his humanity and only the demon would remain. It was a logical conclusion to why Cole was here. What other reason would there be for the Unnamed One to bring his great general to Winter Haven?
“So we have come to you as we know your closeness to the Bringer and to the One itself,” Lucretia said. “And you are friends with Alric, too, but he has been hard hearted towards us and will not hear any terms whatsoever to let Mrs. Anderson go.”
“No, he wouldn’t,” Stephanus said numbly. “Because that troll killed Cole’s parents and tried to sell him into slavery.”
“Yes, it was unfortunate, but she saw an opportunity and took it! Great risk, great reward, great failure so to speak.” Lucretia waved a hand in the air as if the destruction of two beautiful and rare demons was no-nevermind. “But the One will not ignore us and does the Bringer truly care about anything or anyone?”
His jaw clenched and the urge to physically pick up these three trolls and kick them out of the Club became almost overwhelming. But before he did that, he said carefully, “Why would you come to me? As you said I am close with the Bringer and, unlike your assumptions, he has no desire to save Mrs. Anderson from Alric’s justice.”
“Oh? Really? Even if that meant giving the Unnamed One limited access to the Troll Market to conduct his business? His war business?” Mortensia fluttered her eyelashes at him in a parody of flirtation.
Stephanus felt his stomach drop into his feet. This was not good. The Unnamed One had been looking for a way into the Troll Market for millennia. If he really intended to start a war in the human realm, he would be benefited from having the goods of the Troll Market at his disposal. Far easier than resupplying from the Outer Dark and far different goods than he could get there anyways.
But this woman killed Cole’s parents. He hates her. He wants her to suffer. Would the Unnamed One ask him to give up justice for them?
But Stephanus already knew the answer to that: of course, the Unnamed One would. And the trolls had put Stephanus in the unenviable position of playing middleman for a deal he wanted nothing to do with.
“So we wish to make an offer to the One,” Lucretia continued. “Release Mrs. Anderson and restore the Guild’s full access to this realm again and we will give access to the One to the Troll Market.”
“Limited access for a limited time!” Caramentia stuck a finger into the air and shook it.
“Mrs. Anderson must be of great import to the Guild to do this for her,” Stephanus said, but then he added, “But I’m sure the fees you’ll make from supplying the Unnamed One in a war played a far larger role in your decision.”
“Such fees!” Mortensia fluttered her eyelashes at the ceiling this time as she fantasized about the money.
“We follow the wind, Stephanus,” Lucretia said as she hopped off of the seat. “You will send along our offer, won’t you?”
“Of course.” Stephanus would have no choice. The truth was that the trolls’ offer was undoubtedly already known to the Unnamed One before it had even occurred to the trolls’ tiny brains.
“We look forward to hearing from you and our future working relationship,” Lucretia said.
“You are very certain that the Unnamed One will agree to your terms,” Stephanus said with a tight smile.
“We always know the price of our customers. This will be his price. We are certain of it,” Lucretia said. “We shall expect his answer soon.”
The three trolls strode out of his office. Stephanus leaned forward and rested his elbows on the glass top of his desk and covered his face with his hands. What was he to do? Alric would never agree to this! Cole would feel betrayed by the simple question of it!
That was when the cold came.
He heard the sizzle of frost as it coated his desk. The carpeting beneath his feet crackled with ice. The chill chased inside of his clothes and caressed him almost as a lover might. He lowered his hands to see the Unnamed One sitting in the chair that Lucretia had just vacated. He looked like Nathaniel Whitney except for the black eyes. One leg was lightly crossed over the other, and he was bobbing that foot in the air.
“Stephanus,” the Unnamed One said with a broad smile. He said the Alpha Incubus’ name as if it was tart and sweet. “You look so beautiful today.”
“Thank you.” Stephanus made a move to get down on his knees, but the Unnamed One motioned for him to stay put.
“No need for that,” he said. “I want to see your face. Your lovely face that comforts me.”
“Anything I can do for you I am grateful for.” Stephanus bowed his head.
“Do you know that I made you after I saw Emrys for the first time?” The Unnamed One said suddenly.
Stephanus blinked. “N-no. I didn’t know that.”
“Not this life of his obviously, but the first. The first time …” The Unnamed One’s black eyes grew distant as he remembered. “I was so … entranced. He was a priest’s apprentice then. All big eyes and shocky hair, but his soul …” He broke off and looked at Stephanus. “I was so inspired and I made you. My perfect, beloved Stephanus. So you see you’re second to Emrys in my heart in a way.”
“I am honored,” Stephanus answered truthfully, if with shock.
“I am so pleased with you. Because you see you are more than just a pretty face and body. You are quite … noble. Alric likes you very much. That alone shows your worth.”
Stephanus knew that the Unnamed One was fond of Alric - though the Elven King seemed to take his interest as offensive - but this was far more respect than he had known existed between them.
“I am very fond of Alric and admire him greatly,” Stephanus admitted.
“Yes, but you mustn’t be upset that he would not sleep with you,” the Unnamed One said.
Stephanus flushed hotly. “Y-yes, well, I came at him the wrong way entirely.”
“And now you have Cole …”
Stephanus could not help the smile on his lips and he ducked his head. “Yes.”
“And you love, Cole?”
He snuck a look at the Unnamed One. His face was unreadable.
“Yes, I do,” Stephanus said, a flush heating his cheeks.
“It’s so easy to think it’s a myth until it happens to you, isn’t it?” The Unnamed One chuckled.
“It is indeed.” Stephanus grinned with happiness.
“So this will make what we have to discuss all the more difficult,” the Unnamed One remarked dryly.
“So you heard … of course, you heard, the Troll’s offer,” Stephanus corrected and a heavy weight sank upon him.
That smile became wider and the leg bobbing became more excited.
“What would you have me tell the trolls in response?” Stephanus asked even though he already knew.
“We must talk of the Bringer first, must we not?” the Unnamed One pointed out.
Stephanus felt the cold again. It seemed to close around his heart. But he cleared his throat and said, “While I would not presume to speak for Cole, I …”
“He will not want me to do this deal,” the Unnamed One filled in with another jaunty grin and bob of his foot.
“I think he would wish you to have what you want, but his feelings about Mrs. Anderson are very … raw. Understandably raw,” Stephanus said very carefully. More than raw. He wanted to take the troll apart.
“I agree!” The grinning and bobbing continued.
“So you do not wish to return Mrs. Anderson to the Guild?” Stephanus asked hopefully.
“Of course I do!”
Stephanus’ hopes crashed. He rubbed his lips. “Then … you do want to go ahead with the deal despite Cole’s understandable objections?”
“Yes.” So simple. So precise. So awful.
Despair washed through Stephanus. Cole would feel so betrayed. He would not understand. He saw the Unnamed One as his friend. “I see.”
“I’m sure you do not.” The foot had stopped and the smile was gone. “Or perhaps you … you do.”
“Cole is different than the Bringer,” Stephanus said with utmost care. His hands made furrows in the frost on his desk. “He does not see things in the same … way. He feels … He feels that you are very close to him and would not ...” He did not finish that statement.
“He will feel angry and hurt and will not forgive me. That is what you truly think.” The Unnamed One was smiling faintly now as those black eyes bored into Stephanus.
“Yes.” Now it was his turn to say it so precisely, so coolly, so awfully. “Is that really what you want?”
He could not believe he asked the question and grimaced. This was tantamount to questioning the Unnamed One’s judgment. Giving such a being advice was ludicrous. His sight was far greater than Stephanus’. His understanding made Stephanus’ look like not even that of a child’s, but of a worm’s. And the Unnamed One didn’t likely think of friendship at all the same way he did or, more importantly, Cole did.
The bobbing of the foot began again as the Unnamed One asked softly, “What will Alric truly do to Mrs. Anderson? Kill her? Of course not. And he does not have the resources to keep her forever imprisoned. What justice will be imposed? None. So you see that this is for the best.”
“But she has not paid for what she’s done! Not for what she did to Cole or his family or to my kind!” Stephanus was surprised at the passion that came out in his voice. His fists balled on the frosted desk. “I cannot let that troll do that to us!”
The Unnamed One smiled. “No, we cannot have her go unpunished or for the Guild to think itself on the better end of the deal – at least not for long anyways. I certainly have no desire to let them go on about killing my beautiful Incubi and Succubi, let alone upset my Bringer and my Stephanus.”
The Alpha Incubus stilled. “So this deal with them will only bring them regret?”
The Unnamed One’s teeth flashed white and sharp. “But of course. And it will bring me access to the Dark Earth. Once I am inside, Stephanus, there is no getting rid of me.”
Stephanus knew that was mostly true. Only Alric’s Sky Realm had withdrawn its welcome to the Unnamed One.
But look what happened to that beautiful place. Now it’s a wasteland and Alric and Nyssandra are the only Sky Elves left and they have to be here.
A cold, curling sensation went down his spine as he wondered if the Unnamed One was somehow behind that, too. Had it taken its revenge? Was there a greater play involved in this? But he didn’t want to think too deeply on that. The wheels within wheels hurt his head sometimes.
“What is my role to play in this?” Stephanus finally asked.
“You must tell Cole and Alric of my decision. Those two must be brought around to my way of thinking, Stephanus.” The Unnamed One was suddenly standing though Stephanus did not see him move. Two fingers were under Stephanus’ chin. They burned like cold fire. “And you will convince them of the rightness of what I want. You are such a good persuader. My Stephanus. My beloved Incubus.”
“And t-then?” Stephanus asked through chattering teeth.
“And then …” The Unnamed One leaned forward until their lips were but inches apart. Stephanus’ breath came out in large clouds of white that the Unnamed One drew into his mouth as if eating his breath. “And then you will be my emissary to the Guild. Oh, what fun we shall have with them. They won’t know what hit them. Perhaps I shall make my Alric king of the Troll Market, too. He would bring beauty to it, don’t you think?”
The Unnamed One kissed him. Stephanus let out a groan of pleasured pain as the cold reached inside of him and filled his belly. The Unnamed One’s tongue slid against his a final time before he released him. Stephanus was shaking so badly that the chair was rocking, too. The Unnamed One licked his lips, his eyes heavy lidded with desire, as he looked at Stephanus like a pleased predator.
“You taste so sweet. Always, my beloved Incubus,” the Unnamed One murmured and then between one blink and the next he was gone.
The chill left the room immediately, but Stephanus was still trembling when he quick-dialed Alric’s number on his cell phone with shaking fingers.
“Stephanus!” the Elven King sounded delighted to hear from him. “What can I do for you?”
“Two things, Alric, and neither of them is small,” Stephanus said and then laid out what he wished to do that very afternoon.
Cole came into his office just as he was done speaking with Alric. The cold still nipped at his insides, but it was mostly gone and it evaporated the moment he saw Cole. The young man practically danced to him and sat on his lap. He kissed Stephanus lightly on the lips.
“I missed taking a shower without you this morning.” Cole wound his fingers in Stephanus’ hair.
“You wanted to sleep and I needed to work. Perhaps we’ll take another shower this evening,” Stephanus chuckled. He grabbed the hand in his hair and kissed it. “I hope you have nothing planned for this afternoon and evening.”
“No, not at all. Wait!” Cole’s eyes went large with excitement. “Are we going on another date?”
“Yes, yes, we are, so long as you feel up to it,” Stephanus said, his stomach clenching at what had to be done.
“Of course I do! I’m always up for being with you!” Cole placed kisses all over his face with enthusiasm.
Stephanus caught Cole’s cheeks and held him still so that they could kiss deeply on the lips. “If you change your mind later, I understand.”
Cole’s brown furrowed. “I don’t understand. What could possibly turn me off going on a date with you? I can already tell you that nothing can.”
Stephanus grimaced, but forced himself to say lightly, “I thought we might go horseback riding in the woods. Alric has already offered his horses.”
“Oh! That would be awesome!” Cole glowed with happiness. “Why would you think that would put me off?”
“Oh, it’s not that part. It’s the other part of the date … though it really isn’t a part of the date, but it’s something we must do,” Stephanus said quietly.
Cole cocked his head to the side. “What?”
Stephanus smile felt rather frozen and false as he explained, “We need to go see Mrs. Anderson.”