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Surreal had had a number of names thrown at her in her life that weren't so complimentary. Whore, bitch, killer, half-breed... mostly from aristos. Sometimes it was those who felt threatened by a witch, no kind of Queen or Healer, who wore one of the darkest Jewels. Of course, the fact that she was also an assassin for hire didn't tend to reassure people either.

Today, as she woke and hastily dressed in preparation for her day, it wasn't those names that ran through her mind. SaDiablo. The family name used by the man who had sired her. Surreal had claimed it as a way of getting under Lucivar Yaslana's skin, and that of a few other people in Kaeleer, when she first arrived, three years ago. It had backfired, in more than one sense. She'd found herself with a large number of "relatives" who, much to her surprise, didn't contest the claim; among them, Saetan and Daemon SaDiablo, the High Lord of Hell and his son. Well. Daemon wasn't so much the problem. He and Surreal had been friends and family in all but blood for centuries, after all. Saetan, though... She still couldn't quite get used to calling him "Uncle". Surreal shook her head and grabbed a brush, to run through her long black hair. This wasn't the day for such gloomy thoughts. However, as she finished braiding and pinning her hair up, a cold, wet nose poked at her fingers.

*Surreal?*

The young wolf who shared her room looked up at her. Surreal smiled. *I haven't forgotten, Graysfang,* she replied. *I was just getting all this out of the way so my hair wouldn't tangle, later, or get caught in the branches.*

Graysfang was kindred; one of the animal races who had magic and intelligence to equal that of humans. He'd become attached to Surreal when she first arrived at SaDiablo Hall. Young kindred, particularly the males, tended to seek out the company of an older female. Species seemed not to be all that relevant. They were friends, and "pack mates", as Graysfang described it.

*Good. You should go out to hunt or be away from the walls, too, more often. You smell...caged.*

Graysfang sounded faintly puzzled, but there was nothing tentative about the last statement.

Surreal paused in her reach for a pair of boots. They were well into winter, and the ground outside the Hall had a thick layer of snow. *Huh. I hadn't thought it was that noticeable.* She scratched behind his ears gently.

*Graysfang,* she hesitated. *If I decided to leave, to go away from Kaeleer itself for a while, would it be your wish to stay, or to remain here?* She knelt so that she could look him in the eyes.

He blinked, and then licked at her fingers. *Where would we go?*

*Hayll.* Graysfang's eyes widened. *Why? I don't understand.*

*Daemon and Jaenelle don't need me here. The rest of the witches and princes who made up the First Circle don't, really, either. They're all powerful and skilled enough to make me look like I have no Craft at all.I feel like one of the Winsol ornaments. All I do is sit and look good. I learned the blade and my skills to use them. *

*And there are no enemies to fight here. Not now. Unless you want to hunt Falonar. I don't think the High Lord would stop you, if you did.*

Surreal choked, and then had to laugh. Graysfang had been tactfully quiet on the subject of her liaison with the Eyrien warrior. She'd lived with the man, shared his bed, for almost a year before realizing that they were mismatched. Passion had faded, and no lasting emotions had bound them together when it was gone. The fact that she was as skilled a fighter as he was, and more powerful in the Blood's magics, hadn't sat well with Falonar after a time. Finally, Surreal had moved out of his aerie.

*No, I don't want to do that. I think it would upset Nurian, and it's never a good idea to piss off Healers.* She hesitated.

*I don't know if there are kindred in Hayll,* she warned him. *I suspect there are, but if so, they're hiding deep. No surprise in that. But it may mean that you'd be the only kindred wolf within five hundred miles. *

*Do you want to try to find them?*

*I think,* and the questions helped her clarify Surreal's own intent, *that someone should, yes. And should see for themselves what's going on in Hayll, since Hekatah, Dorothea, and their followers died.*

Two years ago, Jaenelle Angelline, the Queen of Ebon Askavi, had moved against an invasion from Hayll, a neighboring Territory. She'd done so by unleashing a spell that wiped out the "taint", a darkness that had infested Hekatah's bloodline over almost fifty thousand years, affecting most of the Jeweled Blood in that Territory. When it was done, Jaenelle's body was so shattered that it had taken almost a full year for her to be even half-healed, and all but a handful of the Hayllian Blood were dead.

*The High Lord sent agents to learn about what happened. They send word to him.*

Surreal shook her head. *They don't wear any Jewel darker than the Red. They can't, unless he sent one of the First Circle,* she pointed out. The darker a Jewel, the rarer it became. In all of history, there were only two males who ever wore the Black, the darkest and most powerful, and the females who wore it could've been numbered on the fingers of one hand. *So they might not have found a potential Queen or the stronger witches, if someone didn't want to be found . And it's not just the aristos, the possible Territory leaders, we should think of. I'm not one, sugar, and does that mean I'm less dangerous?*

Graysfang wisely didn't answer that question . *I'll go with you, wherever you go. Kindred may not want to talk even to a Kaeleer witch, but if I'm with you, they'll know it's alright.*

*Thank you.* Surreal hugged him. *Now I just have the hard part. I have to convince Uncle Saetan and Lucivar not to make this impossible.* She did not say, "convince them not to argue." Saetan SaDiablo and his younger son, Lucivar Yaslana, were Warlord Princes. Being stubborn and fiercely protective was as natural as breathing to them.

The High Lord's study was usually peaceful. Lucivar's voice raised in anger, as he stared at Surreal, broke that mood quite nicely. She met his eyes steadily, glaring.

Saetan sat behind her, at his desk, silent, his eyes unreadable as they waited for Lucivar to run out of breath. Saetan had been startled by Surreal's proposed destination, but the old Guardian hadn't seemed surprised by her admission of restlessness, of feeling wasted. He hadn't yet spoken for or against the idea, but was listening to Surreal's thoughts on the matter... and Lucivar's. Delivered in a few instances at the top of his lungs.

Finally, Surreal's patience fled. She stood, raising a hand. "Enough!" she snapped. "Yaslana, you forget yourself. Warlord Prince of Ebon Rih or not, my contract with you was for three years and no longer. In case a few facts have slipped your mind, it's been half a year past that. My notifying you and your family of my intentions is a courtesy, not an obligation on my part. Unless you mean to tell me that you've adopted Hekatah's lovely habit of chaining up witches like pets, I can and will go wherever I damn well please!"

Her voice remained at its normal volume, but ice coated the words. Lucivar fell silent, stiffening. He didn't step back despite a sudden tension, even wariness, in his stance.

"It's your family too, Surreal," Saetan said quietly. "But I don't forget that Hekatah was my son's mother, little as I'm fond of remembering that...so, I know that family ties can be a stranglehold or worse, if misused. I don't believe that that's what Lucivar intended, however."

"I know," Surreal replied, taking a deep breath. She looked down, and her stomach twisted. Her Gray Jewel, on a chain that she usually wore around her neck, was clasped in her hand. She had been so furious that she hadn't realized she'd instinctively called it in.

"I'm not leaving permanently. But this is something I need to do." There was no yielding in the look she gave either of them. "Lucivar, we've been through this before. You can't keep witches safe by wrapping them up like glass figurines. Didn't we settle that when you didn't want to resume training Jaenelle?"

He threw up his hands. "Granted. Just...be careful. Are you going to use the Gates to travel there?"

"No," Surreal said at once. "They're too visible. I'll take the Green winds. I can carry Graysfang along with me; Jaenelle showed me that trick of shielding people from the darker winds, for short distances." Riding the winds, she could be in Hayll in a few hours.

She tried to keep the excitement out of her voice as she realized she'd won. She hadn't wanted to hurt them, but sometimes truth cuts.

So, a few hours later, a Gray-Jeweled Dea al Mon witch and a Purple Dusk warlord/wolf stood on a riverbank in Hayll. They'd picked out a village that was near the border, one Surreal had visited previously. It was a place travelers often frequented, coming in or leaving the Territory, so two more arrivals shouldn't be that noticeable.

Graysfang sniffed, and then his lip curled in a snarl. Surreal glanced around sharply, seeing nothing *What is it?*

*Blood. Kindred's. Fear. Too much of it. She's alive, but they're still chasing her--*

*Go! I'll be right behind you.* Swearing, she called in her stiletto. Graysfang broke into a run, sprinting into nearby woods. Surreal dashed after him, reaching outward as she did. She found four presences, perhaps a quarter of a mile away. Three wore shields, none more powerful than the Yellow Jewel. The fourth had a darker feel to it, but...dissonant, somehow. Like rubbing one's fingers over broken glass, if she'd had to describe it in words. She couldn't judge what Jewel the other person worse, and that should have been elementary to sense.

They came out onto a rocky clearing. Two men and a woman had backed what appeared to be a horse against the edge of a cliff. They were spreading out, trying to snare the kindred in a net.

Graysfang didn't hesitate before launching himself at one of the men. Surreal scrambled to catch up, her knife in hand. She took the woman, her blade slicing through flesh to leave a bloody gash along the other witch's neck.

It wasn't fatal, Surreal had deliberately missed the jugular...by an inch or so, no more. The strike was a warning. A second later, she called in the Gray and wrapped the woman up in a shield that would block any spells the bitch tried to throw at her. She smiled maliciously. "You don't want to be brave, just now, sugar," she warned. "Or I should say, try to act it."

Graysfang's opponent lay on the ground, motionless, blood soaking the front of his jacket. Dead, Surreal judged, and kept her eyes on the third human. Graysfang had him pinned against a tree. One look at the wolf's bared fangs had convinced the man not to move. *Lady?* Surreal switched to a Green distaff thread, reaching toward the kindred mare. *Are you hurt?*

*N-No, * the kindred's voice was shaky. *They killed my dam, and my sire is away--*

Mother Night , the young mare was a Queen! Surreal might not be one herself, but she knew what a Queen's
'touch' felt like.

*I am Surreal, of Kaeleer, Lady,* she sent respectfully. *I'm sorry for your dam's loss. My companion is Graysfang. You aren't alone, and won't be. Whatever help we can offer, it's yours. * She turned a cold stare on the three humans.

"Explain this," she said harshly. "She hasn't attacked you. And before you remind me about there being no law against murder among the Blood, I'd suggest you think of your own situation."

"We were trying to recapture her," the woman sputtered angrily. "I--we need her. There's no true Black Widows in our village now. But she can weave tangled webs," and the Blood clearly didn't like having to admit that fact. "Her dam belonged to us, before we knew that they were kindred. They owe us at least to stay until a real Hourglass priestess can come, but they refused! After we looked after them for years and--"

Surreal pinned the woman's arms, and shoved a wad of dirty cloth into her mouth. Her roughness left the woman's lips bleeding. She didn't care.

*I'm Firedreamer,* the young Queen volunteered . *Please--I don't want to stay here! Not when--*

*No fear of that,* Graysfang told her, and Surreal echoed the sentiments. *Are there any other kindred in the village?*

*No. The three of us were the only ones.*

Surreal walked over to Firedreamer, stroking her nose comfortingly. *We won't leave you here. We can take you with us, and if you want to go to Kaeleer later when we return, you're more than welcome. *

A Red Jewel hung on a leather strap about Firedreamer's neck. *Have you already made the Offering to the Darkness, Firedreamer?* Surreal couldn't easily judge the little mare's age. Not a colt, anymore, but beyond that it was difficult to tell.

*No. The Red is my Birthright.*

Mother Night, and may the Darkness be merciful. Surreal tilted an eyebrow. *The Gray's my Jewel of rank,* she admitted. *I wear Birthright Green.*

She didn't think this young Queen was another Witch, such as Jaenelle, dreams given flesh in the living world, and destined to wear the Black...but there was no doubt that Firedreamer was going to be a powerful Queen someday.

Surreal rubbed at one of her pointed ears, muttering to herself angrily. Hayllian habits apparently didn't change all that easily. Well, it was time things changed. The kindred had safety in Kaeleer and its allied Territories, but in Hayll, they were still not considered people. Surreal winced. She didn't like what she'd learned so far. It did, however, seem like there might be a need for a hidden knife or pair of ears. Not all battles could be won by incredible magics. Some took a waiting game, and learning how to outmanuver the more powerful or experience enemy. Well, she certainly had plenty of experience in that area!

*Come on, little Sister,* she sent gently. *Let's get away from here. * She bowed, and stepped back to let Firedreamer lead them away from this forsaken spot.