The Old Wishtwister Shadibriri was having himself a simply damn fine evening.
Walking through the warm, early-spring fog of sunset, the Wishtwister smiled idly to himself at the complex work ahead of him. Feeling the vast port city change from bustling to coy, in mood and attire, with the coming of nightfall, a jaunty skip fell into his step. Yes, tonight he had a sizable bet to win, and a suitable con to pull, and — best of all — hours of raw entertainment to violently choke from the mortal world.
There was no need for him to stifle a wry chuckle as he sniffed at the changing breeze off the sparkling and wine-dark bay, taking in the soft salty tang of the cool sea.
The immense city around him glittered and shined.
The ageless demon was looking, this night, for a mind as sharp and solid as a forge-worked blade of adamantine, as taut yet flexible as a bow of oiled darkwood, as precise and slick as a wet-cut sliver of polished obsidian … and, above all those things, as black and brutal as a burning river of pitch.
He was in Nex, in the port of Quantium. It wouldn’t take long.
Shadibriri had a point to prove to his long-time partner-in-crime, Yaenit-Ku and rubbing his inevitable success in the treacherous old dog’s face would be nearly as rewarding as the wager’s prize: sticking his fellow fiend to the completion of a foolishly made contract regarding a dark-elven demon summoner with more ambition than sense.
The Wishtwister only needed to connive a mortal mage into bargaining for — and choosing — his own death and damnation within the next thirteen hours.
Relatively simple, as such things go. And it would be fun, as well.
Tonight, the old demon intended to use the ancient “Foolish Sorceress and the Offended Genie” gambit – it was a classic. Like nearly all successful confidence scams, it relied on telling the mark exactly what he already wanted to believe, making him feel smart and lucky and very special, and then playing to his own particular vanity and greed.
The twist on this, though, was that the con was best pulled on studious, self-obsessed geniuses.
That made it tricky.
Which only made the endeavor still more delightful.
The Wishtwister barely stopped himself from skipping and doing cartwheels with the sheer glee of his anticipation.
Coming quite arbitrarily to an abrupt halt, the old demon settled into a disused alleyway not far from the waterfront and wrapped his form in shadow; he popped his knuckles, licked his wolfish fangs, and began to prepare his glamer.
He had to get into character.
That required the right costume.
If any citizen of Quantium had been around to see, they might have noted that the false man-form the demon wore seemed to shift then, from one singularly bluish hue to another, his hair cascading from white to blonde to sea-gray to storm-wracked green; and his features began to run like wind over swift water, flickering from kindly and doddering to wildly foolish and back again twice as fast.
He kept an appraising eye out for young, ambitious men.
Although, in fairness, ambitious middle-aged men were fine as well.
And ambitious old men were hardly any worse.
The pride was the thing, much more than age.
As the veils of his glamers were rearranged, and the Wishtwister tried on one duplicitous identity after another, the he mused to himself over his tactics.
He had found, over the many years he had walked the worlds, that most men did not particularly like women.
Oh, they liked looking at women, certainly, especially if the women were young and healthy. Men often enjoyed spending great deals of money on such women, and laying with them, and lying to them, and collecting them, parading and keeping them like caged animals, displaying them like collected dolls.
A few men, the old Wishtwister had found — if the woman was quiet enough and clever enough to keep her smarts and ambitions hidden — even enjoyed the occasional casual company of a woman.
But most men didn’t really like them very much.
The Wishtwister thought that was quite funny.
Tonight, he was going to catch an ambitious man, with the bait of a wish, and hook him into immortal damnation, and filet him alive — but, more concretely, the rod and reel of this trap would be that man’s distaste for women who did not know their proper place.
It was worth noting, perhaps, that this was a risky gambit indeed.
Old Shadibriri was, he felt, more than equal to the task.
Grinning, the ageless demon crouched in his dark hiding spot, and thumbed idly at the mental task of making his disguise as perfect as possible. The watching and the waiting would be worth it.
Many people walked by the alley as the sun set: soldiers and sailors, tinkers and tailors, bookbinders and bookmakers, butchers and bakers, and chandlers as well. Whores and whoremongers, pimps and tricks, some few young ruffians out for cheap laughs, some early-evening drunks, and even a strolling couple or two; all passed by the alleyway, and all were left be.
The city, more so than most, began to glow.
It was very pretty.
Singers and songwriters came and went, and actors and actresses on their way to work, along with bar-wenches and doormen, seers and soothsayers, fortune-tellers and funeral-makers, and a fat woman on a palanquin draped in gold.
The Wishtwister saw a skinny, sad young man, cradling a one-eyed cat, and it made him giggle.
He spotted an assassin, marking a target, and cheered quietly; he watched policemen upon their rounds, and jeered just as soundlessly.
He observed a man getting mugged, and laughed heartily to himself.
He beheld fools: some in motley, some in rags, and many more in the clothes of nobles.
The Wishtwister considered, after a time, the deeper and rarer delights to be seen only in Quantium: few cities in the world held the sort of hidden marvels that really rewarded the divinatory sight which Shadibriri possessed.
As the shadows grew long, his arcane-tuned eyes beheld a handful of lovely, secret things: imps and quasits, shades and phantasms, and shape-changed stalkers; a mage-lord flanked by a dozen invisible bodyguards; a scuttling succubus in the form of a street urchin; and a grim-faced swordsman with a cackling babau riding deep, frothing and buzzing, in the back of his mind.
To each of these he smiled and bowed his head in quiet, fraternal respect.
He watched patiently over wives and cooks, thieves and lovers, tramps and ladies, brigands and bullyboys, and the whole cross-sectioned cornucopia of such a cosmopolitan city as they wandered and waited, preyed and paraded before him.
The demon lurked, and grinned to himself.
In due time, before the sky had darkened entirely to jet, while the full twinkling of the sparkles above was held yet at bay by the lush light of the city and the lowering of the sun, the demon spotted his mark.
He was perfect.
The fellow was draped in the silks of a wealthy common-man, but wore the robe of a mystic scholar, the sleeves of his garb stained ever so slightly with chalk-dust and the smells of wood-oil, ink and coffee. His hair, black with strips of gray, receded from an over-sharp widow’s peak at his brow, and his beard was close-cropped into a thin goatee. A slight paunch went before him, but his posture was poised and proud, and his face betrayed a stern expression of idle seriousness on a countenance accustomed overmuch to scowling. His gait was leisurely, but solidly focused: here was a man without any appointment to keep, yet not one in the habit of dallying in bars while on the march to his eventual destination.
The man’s eyes were pale, and hidden behind smallish half-moon spectacles suitable for reading; his hair had not been cut in some time, which suggested the absence of a paramour in his life untroubled by a need to impress businessmen; and the leather bag slung over his shoulder was well-worn from its use — doubtless the carrying of vast amounts of parchment and ink — and had not been cleaned or repaired in some number of years.
He carried a finely wrought walking cane with elaborate scroll-work etched upon it, but did not seem to need it; it was an affectation and sign of station, only.
Shadibriri would have guessed him in his mid-thirties to early-forties, of mixed Garundi or Qadiran blood with perhaps a touch of Taldan, and respected — if not particularly well-liked — by his colleagues. The mark looked, in short, like an unmarried, tenured academic strutting home from the classroom, library or hall of study where he worked, in a wealthy metropolitan port-city proud of its history, arcane learning, and intellectual achievement.
The Wishtwister smiled to himself.
By a pitiful cough, and a rattle of false chains, the demon made himself known.
Turning in the alley, he caught the eye of the scholar and then cringed away ineffectually, half into the dark, to hide. His buffoonish visage, along with bright blue skin, a curling blonde moustache and a fetching turban in the Keleshite style, was enough to set the man’s curiosity to flight.
“What? Who is there?”
The demon wept and wailed, trying to keep the smile from his voice. “Oh, no, no, you have seen me! And I — poor me! — I am compelled to answer your question truthfully, and with neither prevarication nor hesitation! I am a genie, bound into this world until sun-up, and the third wish be granted!”
This, quite rightly, piqued the curiosity of the mage. With a wave of his hand, a globe of light appeared and hovered high above the cobblestones; with another pass of his palm and a few words, he cast a divination to see the warp and weft of the arcane. “A genie, you say? Come out, that I may see you.”
The demon suppressed a wry cackle, and did as he was bidden. “Very well, my lord; I suppose that I have little other option.”
Hanging his head, the demon stepped into the thin light of the street. He was a sight: his short but muscular form was garbed in the thinnest white cotton, cut in the most flamboyant of styles, his chest bare and smooth; his skin shone an electric-blue brighter than a dawn horizon upon the high Obari Ocean, and his eyes were expressive pools of clear water brimming with tears. The toes of his white leather shoes curled into cunning spirals, and broken chains dangled from electrum shackles locked around his wrists and throat.
In the vision of the mage’s divination, for the briefest instant the demon appeared as a singular pillar of bright, multicolored fire reaching some twenty feet in the air.
The mage composed himself swiftly and dismissed the effect: in elegant Quantium, xenophobia has been known as the very height of barbarism for over five thousand years; staring is considered quite rude; and non-consensual spell-use upon others is punishable by death. “Ah. You speak truthfully, good genie.”
The demon shrugged, wearing a façade of deepest misery. “Both fully as well as truthfully, I fear — and much to my own dismay, sire. I am bound to do so; I would gladly lie, were I allowed. Or escape, had I the means.”
The mage cast a nervous gaze up and down the deserted street. “Can you not, ahh — take some more mundane form, friend genie?”
The demon pretended to fight back tears. “I suppose. For what it is worth, I might garb myself in the mantle of men, like so ,”—his clothing and skin-tone changed in a wink to match the local style—“but my pupil-less eyes will always betray my true form. You see?”
The mage nodded, gazing into the colorless pools the demon presented, and chucked nervously. “I did not know that. Such a fact about your kind, I mean.”
“Hmm. You must not have met very many genies.”