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~:: A Deal Made in Darkness ::~

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She sat down next to the roaring fire and shook the snowflakes from her hair. They turned to droplets of water then sizzled into non-existence as they were flung into the flaming pyre.

With a gloved hand, she pulled the slightly damp blonde tresses away from her sparkling blue eyes. Her thin armor only served to accentuate the chill in the frosty air. She was glad she'd had the foresight to forego her usual lacy camisole for the warmth of soft fleece long underwear beneath the cold metal. She sipped slowly at a fragrant Vanilla Chai latte and looked around. The chalet was fairly deserted at this early hour.

The job opportunities had proved to be a pleasant diversion from her usual beat in Warburg. This also served to contribute to domestic peace, as her mate and partner did not mind her forays into the frozen area of the Shard the way he did her more dangerous jobs in the border isles.

Looking out over the pure white mantle that covered the slopes, she sighed and took another deep draught of the warm tea. A deep voice behind her broke her silent contemplation and nearly caused her to shower herself in the sticky sweetness of her beverage.

"Excuse me," he said, in a smooth voice. "I didn't mean to startle you. Is this seat taken?" He motioned to the expanse of the sofa that remained unoccupied beside her.

She shook her head and motioned with her hand to indicate that he was welcome to make use of the empty seating.

She stole a glance at him. His garb was a dark cloak with a thick hood that shrouded his features. His eyes glittered in the shadows beneath the dark mantle. She nodded politely and took another long sip of her latte.

"You working for the old man?" he queried, jerking a gloved thumb in the direction of the ancient being that stood watch in the far corner of the loft.

She nodded, "I have been, yes."

"Perhaps we could join forces, even if it is just temporarily," he suggested in silken tone. "I think there would be considerably more profit to gain than if we work alone."

Cocking her head to one side, she studied him intently. Both his appearance and her instincts warned her that he was no Paragon City resident, and thus was most likely part of the contingent from the Rogue Isles that found the lucrative job opportunities enough of a temptation to lure them to into taking this legitimate seasonal employment.

She stared deep into the rich brown swirls of her fragrant latte while she contemplated his suggestion. There were mechanics in place, within this particular dimensional pocket, that prevented him from presenting any direct threat to her. She came to the conclusion that there would be little risk in accepting his offer.

She turned to face him with a curt nod. "Would you care to assist me?"

He knew she had to be the one. She was exactly as Lady Naimah had described. She was tall, svelte but busty, clad in armor, and bearing the curved ram-like horns that marked her as being of demonic origins. As he eyed her from beneath his hooded cloak, he noted the incredible similarities between his oft-times cohort, Lady Naimah, and this being. This creature was, however, dissimilar in as many ways. While Naimah was overbearing and loud, this one's voice was soft and gentle. Unlike Naimah's black, soulless gaze, this one had eyes that sparkled like cerulean crystals. He suspected there was much more behind Naimah's request for him to simply gather information on this stunning creature than she let on. The price she was willing to pay him for his services, however, forced him to swallow that suspicion.. After all, Naimah had merely asked him to work with this demoness Azazela, and come back to her with an accurate assessment of her skills, strengths, and weaknesses. That didn't seem like too difficult a job considering the compensation she was offering.

"Let's just say my services are available," he answered with a grin.

The snow crunched beneath her boots as they trudged towards the door that would take them to a small rift in the dimension that held a snowbound instance of the mystical Croatoa. He pushed open the heavy stone door and bowed as he motioned her to precede him. She focused her thoughts for a moment, wrapping the light around herself, and simply vanished. He smiled as he followed her. Taking this task at the bidding of the vile demoness had been a wise move on his part. Not only would he profit handsomely from the work at hand, but he would be doubly rewarded when he returned to Naimah with the information she was seeking.

It only took a few minutes of quiet observation for him to decide that this creature was not to be taken lightly. She appeared to have the ability to enter the minds of other weaker beings, instilling emotions ranging from dire agony, to blinding pain, to debilitating confusion. He shuddered to think what being on the receiving end of her attentions must be like. They hadn't worked together for longer than a few minutes before she had projected a small horde of manifestations that seemed to approach a threshold of realism that allowed them to actually physically assault their foes. He followed her closely, making careful mental notes of her skills and tactics. Suddenly, she turned to him, and blasted him with a wall of energy that nearly put him off balance. It startled him at first but within seconds he felt a sudden rush of adrenalin coursing through his body like he'd never felt before. She followed that with a rush of pure strength that made him feel almost godlike.

She watched over him, using her magic to heal and strengthen him. His skills were unlike any she'd encountered in her previous endeavors, she noted as she watched him cast powerful tendrils of dark energy that quickly enveloped his foe and flung him, spinning, into the air. Rendered harmless, the enemy was then easily defeated.

"You wield a blade, yet control, also," she mused, quietly.

He turned to her and nodded. "Let's just say I've had my soul kissed fairly hard."

She shuddered at the implication but thought it best to let the subject drop.

They worked quietly together for most of the day. Late in the afternoon, she suggested they take a short break to get some refreshments, and gather strength. Feeling a bit hungry and tired, he nodded his agreement.

Returning to the loft at the chalet, they ordered drinks and chose from the meager offering of food that was standard fare at most bar type establishments. She sat at one end of the long leather sofa near the roaring fire and nibbled delicately at the hamburger which she'd ordered extra rare. He grimaced as she wiped a tiny drop of blood from her chin. The care and feeding of demons was something he found rather distasteful. He turned his attention to his own food, finishing his hotdog and letting out a soft belch of satisfaction.

She sipped gingerly at the mug of frothy cocoa she cradled in her gloved hands. He met her eyes for a moment and gave her a small, disarming smile. It never hurt to be nice, he told himself. Even if it is only in pretense to gain the trust of your intended victim.

She returned his smile with a curt nod and slight smile of her own as she mentally calculated her share of the profit for their days work. "We have done well this day," she said aloud, more to herself than to him.

"Mmhmm," he murmured in agreement.

They sat in contemplative silence for a while until she stood abruptly and walked to the railing that overlooked the gleaming snowy slope. She wasn't sure when the scheme first presented itself to her subconscious. Perhaps it was observing his incredible skill. Perhaps it was fate. But suddenly she found herself contemplating the idea of enlisting the help of this rogue thief in answering a question that had been long burning within her. This was a question that drove her to risk the peace in her domestic life as she regularly returned, against her partner's wishes, to the small islands at the fringes of the mysterious Rogue Isles. The question that she held secretly deep within her heart, it was a burning desire to know what had become of her accursed firstborn child.

Her voice wavered as she nervously tried to make small talk. "It is quite pleasant here."

"If winter's chill is your thing," he retorted.

"I find it refreshing," she exhaled in a puff of steamy breath. "I do not often get to experience this thing called 'snow'. I find it pleasing."

"I'll take your word for it," he said dryly as he moved closer to the warmth of the fire.

She turned and looked at him. His back was to her as he basked in the warmth of the fire.. It was clearly apparent that he was no hero. He was obviously one from among the throngs of "Destined Ones" who were drawn here by the easy money to be made. As such, this meant he would have carte blanche to roam the treacherous Rogue Isles as he wished. Especially with his ability to remain unseen, she noted. But how could she approach him with such a request?

Her instincts prodded her to simply dismiss the idea. It was foolish, she told herself, and she was certain that Cale would not approve. Still, the lingering thought prodded at her conscience. Slowly she began to form a plan.

"Does it snow where you are from?" she asked him, trying to maintain a casual tone.

"I don't pay any attention to it," he answered noncommittally.

"Where do you live?" she blurted, not really meaning to be so suddenly intrusive.

"Elsewhere," he answered as he shot a suspicious glance at her. It didn't pay to let others garner too much information, no matter how innocuous it might seem at the time.

She followed him as he approached to the bar for a refill. Looking over his shoulder, she peered at his ID card as he flashed it to the bartender.

"So can I assume from your threat classification, that you work mostly in the Rogue Isles?" she blurted.

He turned and met her gaze, which was no small feat considering at nearly eight feet tall she towered over him. "Threat classification? How quaint." His voice had a keen edge of sarcasm. "I suppose Longbow might have a file on me," he added with a shrug, as he picked up his drink and returned to basking in the warmth of the roaring fire.

She followed him back to the couch and sat down very close. "I work there, occasionally. I often hire out the in areas known as the border isles… Bloody Bay, and Warburg," she told him in a soft, hushed tone.

He barely glanced over at her as he shrugged and murmured, "Hope you enjoy it."

"Not particularly," she admitted. "But it is a living. I have a… family… of sorts… to support. And now a young daughter…" Her voice trailed as she realized she was probably revealing far too much.

"Not to sound rude," he interrupted, "but I'm not exactly a psychologist. If you want therapy, you should confess your sins to a priest."

"This has nothing to do with sin," she responded. "Confessing sin to a human is an exercise in futility, for only the Creator shall stand in judgment of the humans."

His distaste for all things religious urged him to quickly redirect the conversation but he found himself adding, "If it has nothing to do with sin, odds are it's not going to pay very well."

She blinked hard and sat up straight. "I beg your pardon. I am paid well for my work and it involves no sin."

He exhaled softly. "To each their own profession, then."

"And your profession involves sinning in order to profit?" she asked with an almost accusatory edge to her soft voice.

He looked her in the eyes. "Let's just say the local law enforcement doesn't approve of my occupation."

She lowered her gaze. "I am not fit to be your judge. Only you can determine if your deeds will prove right or wrong."

Azazela studied him closely for a few long moments as they sat together in quiet contemplation. This banter was getting her nowhere fast. She swallowed hard as she worked up the nerve to question him directly. Finally she spoke in hesitant syllables. "So… if … you work in the Rogue Isles…perhaps… you… know of one… called… Naimah?"

For a brief second he bristled. Quickly he masked his emotions, but to the scrutinizing gaze of the elder demoness the microsecond of tension meant she'd hit a nerve.

He stared down at the crackling fire in front of them and said in an almost flat voice, "If she works for Arachnos, unlikely."

"I assume," she interposed, "that everyone there must work for Arachnos at times."

"Too many freelancers to keep track of," he shrugged. "I tend to mind my own business when taking care of it. And of what concern is some two-bit villainess to you?"

She squirmed visibly, "She is… someone I once knew. I am merely curious as to how she has fared."

"Try putting an ad in the paper," he retorted with a sarcastic tone.

Blushing, she averted her gaze and dropped her voice. "I do not believe that would accomplish anything." She paused and drew a deep breath. "We… parted…on rather unpleasant terms."

"Can't win them all," he said, flatly.

She nodded sadly. They sat in uncomfortable silence for several minutes. Finally, her quiet voice broke through the silence. "Do you wish to join my in my work this evening?"

He shot her a cynical gaze. "That depends on the work and on the compensation."

"As you have seen, the work is slightly dangerous," she said. "But the compensation has been better than average."

He nodded. He had to admit, she was right. He stood and knocked back the last of his drink and without a word leapt over the railing and towards the location of their next assignment. She pulled herself up to her full, imposing height and arched her back as she used her demonic energies to refract the light around her. With a soft swish, she leapt the rail and took flight in the direction he'd gone.

Several hours later, she sat alone in the loft of the chalet, pondering the morals of her new acquaintance. He seemed driven by a strong profit motive but very cautious at the same time. She wondered just how much profit it would take in order to overcome his suspicions.

To Chapter II