The design of the stagecoaches didn’t lend itself readily to passengers being able to see their destination. This was somewhat compensated for by the route they took; the road ascended out of Veilgrad into the surrounding hills—steep, tree-covered inclines that only barely deserved the term, as they were in the process of escalating into proper mountains. As no road could have traveled straight up these slopes, the path led back and forth around long switchbacks, giving periodic views of their destination from the carriages’ windows.
Glimpsed through the towering pines, the house was huge even from a distance. Three stories tall and surmounted by steeply peaked slate roofs behind decorative crenelations, it was built of the dark granite of the surrounding mountains, in a fairly plain pattern, appearing almost cubic. Only as they gradually drew closer did the ornamented style of its stonework become apparent. Nearly the entire surface of the edifice seemed to have been carved and engraved.
“So, we’re supposed to stay here and do something down there in the city, right?” Ruda commented, peering out the window.
“Seems probable,” Trissiny said tersely. “It’s hard to imagine a field assignment that would take place entirely inside that mansion.”
Ruda grunted, leaning back in her seat. “Gonna be a hell of a commute.”
Trissiny didn’t respond; neither did Teal or Shaeine, who sat opposite them. It was hard to counter the assessment. They had already been riding for a good twenty minutes.
The manor stood behind a wall of granite topped by rows of iron spikes; its main gate was of heavy iron bars. Eerily, it opened untouched at the approach of the stagecoaches. That actually was a not-uncommon enchantment, but something about the entire situation—the quiet of the mountains, the isolation, the looming presence of the dark mansion itself—lent a creepy atmosphere to even the relatively familiar.
Past the gates, a wide courtyard was built around a circle drive, on which the coaches pulled up near the front door. A simple obelisk of the same omnipresent dark gray granite stood in its center, weeds and shrubs sprouting from around its base. In fact, the greenery all around looked wildly neglected. Short trees and bushes were planted beneath the windows of the house and along the exterior walls; they were all badly in need of trimming. Moss and small ground covers grew in the cracks between the flagstones, and ivy was busily clambering up the front of the mansion itself. In only a few cases had it even been cleared away from the windows.
Their drivers attempted to politely open the carriage doors for them, but only Ruby succeeded; Ruda shoved through and bounded down before Jade could reach hers. The others followed more sedately, Teal pausing to smile apologetically at their driver, who returned an enigmatic little smile of her own.
In silence, the students gathered in a small knot on the gravel drive, staring up at the manor before them. It was oppressively quiet, lending an uneasy aspect to the scene. This was exacerbated by the unnatural stillness of the four black horses, which stood without so much as twitching an ear.
It didn’t last long.
Rafe drew in a deep breath and flung wide his arms.
“Yes, yes, we know,” Fross chimed in exasperation. “Behold, and so on. Honestly, Professor, you need some new material.”
He actually roared with laughter. “HAH! Excellent work, Fross! I’d slap you on the back if it wouldn’t knock you across the yard. Twenty points extra credit!”
“Thank you, but I don’t need any. Your classes aren’t hugely challenging.”
“Damn, pixie,” Ruda said approvingly.
“Okay, now, let’s keep it civil,” Rafe said, his jocular expression collapsing into a disappointed frown. “People do have feelings, you know.”
Several of the group jumped in startlement as the leading carriage started moving again, followed shortly by the second. Ruby and Jade had climbed silently back into their driver’s seats during the byplay, and now directed their undead beasts around the side of the manor.
“Something about this place,” Juniper murmured, hugging herself and rubbing her arms. “I get the weirdest sensation. Almost like it doesn’t want me here. Pressing on me.”
“The ambiance is a little gloomy,” Toby agreed.
“Not that,” the dryad said, shaking her head. “It’s… Some magic. Fae magic, I think, which is unsettling. I’m really not used to having that turned against me.”
“I think I see what you mean,” said Fross.
“You feel it too?”
“Not exactly, at least not until I went looking closely. There are really odd charms on all the windows and doors… Like partial summoning circles. It’s some kind of dimensional phasing. Hard to tell what’s behind them, but I think it’s some kind of ward. From your reaction, I’d guess a ward against fairies. You’re a much more powerful fairy than me, which probably explains why you can feel it and I can’t.”
“Why put a ward behind a dimensional phasing?” Teal asked, frowning.
“To ward against something in a different dimension,” said Trissiny, who was slowly moving her gaze over every inch of the front of the manor as if trying to memorize it. “Hum. We already know this Malivette is nervous about a certain other-dimensional threat. Are valkyries a kind of fairy?”
“That would be pretty strange,” said Teal. “I mean, they work for a god and apparently they scare dryads.”
“There’s not a lot of information written on valkyries,” Fross reported. “I checked. Just folklore and rumor, really. And hints that the Vidian cult discourages questions on the subject.”
“Aw, just look at you little goslings,” Rafe said, smiling fondly. “You’re so cute when you try to unravel mysteries!”
“I already miss Gabe,” Fross said with a sad chime. “He’s the only one I can talk about enchanting stuff with. I bet he’d be really interested in these phased wards; I’ve never even heard of such a thing before. Oh, uh, no offense, guys.”
“I miss my bunny,” Juniper mumbled.
“I’m sure he’s fine,” Toby said soothingly. “Stew is probably spoiling him rotten.”
“Yeah, cos what that damn rabbit needs is more spoiling,” Ruda muttered.
Before that conversation could progress further—fortunately—the double doors in the front of the manor swung outward on creaking hinges, and two more women in the same expensive gowns stepped forth, placing themselves on either side of the doorway and bowing gracefully. Their dresses were exactly like the others, except in color; one was royal blue, the other white. The woman in blue had chestnut brown hair, unlike the two who had met them at the Rail depot, while her counterpart was shorter and slimmer than any of the others, her hair a darker honey shade of blonde.
“Welcome, guests,” they intoned simultaneously.
“Oh, let me just guess,” Ruda said, placing her fists on her hips. “Sapphire and Diamond, right?”
“It’s Pearl, actually,” said the woman in white, smiling at her with a hint of mischief. “But don’t feel bad. Everyone makes that mistake.”
“You must be fatigued after your journey,” Sapphire added diplomatically. “Not to mention bored; long travel has that effect. Please, come in. We’ll have refreshments and a comfortable place for you prepared shortly.”
“The Mistress is most anxious to meet you all,” Pearl said, still with a crafty little smile. “And to catch up with you, Professor.”
With that, both of them turned and stepped back through the doors into the shadows beyond, each with a sway in her hips that seemed more than necessary. Those dresses, they now revealed, were backless.
“Very weird,” Teal murmured. “Those gowns would be appropriate for a very fancy ball. How can they just be walking around in them at this time of day?”
“That’s the oddity that stands out most in your mind?” Trissiny said incredulously.
“Not by far,” Teal said, frowning up at the darkened doorway. “Seems the safest to remark upon, though.”
“Oh, you kids,” Rafe chided, swaggering off ahead of them. “What a bunch of nervous nellies. Come on, time’s a-wasting!”
“Did he just call us nellies?” Fross demanded as their professor vanished into the house. “What’s a nellie?”
“Just more Rafeism,” Toby said with a sigh. “It’s probably best not to pay him too much attention. Well, I guess we’re not going to learn anything standing out here.”
“I have a bad feeling about this place,” Juniper murmured as they started moving, all with more than a little reluctance. “I don’t think it’s just those wards, either.”
“It’s not just you,” Trissiny said, patting her on the back.
They filed inside and again clustered together, letting their eyes adjust to the dimness. It was an overcast day, but the interior of the mansion was still dark enough to be gloomy, not to mention somewhat spooky. The windows were completely swathed in heavy draperies on this side, and the only light came from flickering wall torches and iron chandeliers overhead, which bristled with candles. There wasn’t a single fairy lamp to be seen.
They were in a grand entrance hall—or one that would be grand if it were less dark and barren. Apart from the lack of light, there was no furniture or decoration, only the stark stone walls and the tiled parquet floor. At the opposite end of the long, towering room, a flight of stairs covered in blood-colored carpet rose to a landing about a story up, behind which loomed a wall mural depicting the manor itself on a moonlit night.
Once again, several of the students jumped, this time as the doors, untouched, swung shut behind them.
“Well, I feel like a jackass now,” Ruda muttered. “How did I fail to see that coming?”
Sapphire and Pearl paced forward from the positions they had taken at either side of the door, and now planted themselves flanking the foot of the stairs, where they turned and gazed at the students with politely blank smiles, hands folded demurely before them. Their positions were too eerily identical to have been anything but rehearsed.
Only then did they notice the creeping mist. It had only just begun to appear, but as the students fixed their attention on it, the fog began gathering on the landing, as if pouring in from the doors to either side. Rafe grinned madly; the rest of them clustered together, Ruda and Trissiny gripping their swords.
The mist began rising upward in a column, twisting slowly, a silent cyclone. It swelled, coalesced, and just as suddenly dispersed. Where the tower of fog had stood, there was now a woman.
She could almost have been beautiful, except for a gauntness to her aspect, as if she hadn’t eaten enough in weeks. Her cheeks were slightly hollow, her eyes set deep enough to look almost sunken. Her hair, though, was a glossy black, slicked back from her face, and her complexion a milky pale shade like alabaster. She wore a dress identical to those of the four women they had met thus far, except that hers was black, in a strangely matte fabric that seemed to drink in the light.
For all of that, she could have passed for human if not for her crimson eyes.
“So,” the vampire said coldly, glaring down at them. “This is the new crop of would-be adventurers from Last Rock.”
“Behold the future!” Rafe proclaimed, making a sweeping gesture as if to present the assembled students to their hostess. Ruda’s sword rasped faintly as she subconsciously pulled it an inch out of its sheath.
“Yes, yes,” Malivette drawled. “I will, of course, accord every courtesy to dear Professor Tellwyrn’s proteges, as agreed.”
“It’s a much greater fool than you who tempts Arachne’s wrath,” Rafe said solemnly.
Those blood red eyes narrowed to slits. “But you, Admestus. I think she will not be as protective of you. Indeed…perhaps by sending you here, the great Professor signals a desire to finally be rid of you? After what you did, I am astonished that you would have the temerity to show your face.”
Rafe strode forward till he stood between the students and the stairs, placed his hands on his hips and threw out his chest. “Hah! Dare to test your unholy powers against my magnificent science and general kickassery? Come forth, thing of the darkness, and be humbled!”
“Now, hang on a minute,” Toby protested.
“The bards for ages have sung a song of battle for just such a time as this!” the Professor proclaimed. “It goes thus: You wanna piece o’ me, sucker?!”
Malivette drew back her thin lips, revealing fangs that gleamed even in the dim light. Slowly, she raised her arms to her sides, fingers stiffened into claws, and a sourceless wind rose, dramatically ruffling her hair and gown.
“You,” the vampire hissed, “have made your last mistake, fool!”
Trissiny began to glow faintly, pulling her sword half-free. “Stop right there,” she ordered.
Malivette ignored her completely, launching herself forward. She flew—literally—down the staircase and struck Rafe head-on in a flurry of black fabric.
In the next moment, Trissiny’s glow subsided and she and Ruda both let their hands fall from their weapons, the whole group staring in bemusement as the professor and the vampire whirled around and around, both howling with delighted laughter. Rafe had his hands around Malivette’s slender waist, and twirled her in the air like a child.
“You blonde bastard, how come you never visit unless you’ve got business?”
“Oy, wench, some of us have jobs!”
“Oh, like you care about your measly paycheck.”
Their impromptu dance turned into a scuffle, punctuated by giggles and playful threats. Somehow, it ended up with Malivette in a headlock, having her skull vigorously knuckled.
“Ow! Ow! Not the hair, you savage, what’s wrong with you?”
She dissolved into mist, causing Rafe to stumble, and reappeared off to the side, smoothing back her hair with a dignified expression. The whole time, Sapphire and Pearl gazed on with amused little smiles.
“Okay, I think I’ve figured out what the theme of this trip is gonna be,” Ruda commented. “Shit that surprises me, but upon consideration, really shouldn’t.”
“All right, let’s get a look at you,” Malivette said cheerfully, smiling broadly at them. The fangs made it a less than comforting expression. “This is really the whole class? Must’ve been a dry year. I hear tell you’re a collection of seriously heavy hitters, though. Holy cats, that’s actually a dryad! I wasn’t willing to believe it.”
“My name is Juniper,” she said sharply.
“Juniper!” the vampire replied with gregarious cheer. “Welcome, welcome to my humble commode!”
“Abode, Mistress,” Sapphire corrected.
“I know what I said. I mean, you’ve seen this dump, right?”
“I think we do quite well at maintaining the grounds,” Pearl said archly, “considering there are only four of us.”
“You see what I have to put up with?” Malivette complained to Rafe, pointing at the two women. “Nothing but sass and contradiction, day in and day out.”
“You would be bored with only mindless drones to serve you,” Sapphire said with a smug little smile.
“Well, I do have to complement your taste, Vette,” the Professor said solemnly, stroking his chin as he made a show of studying the girls. “They are stupendously hot.”
“Hey, hey, don’t even think about it,” the vampire scowled. “Keep your grubby mitts off my stuff, Admestus.”
“I am shocked! Outraged! Aghast! I would never think of such a thing!”
“Think all you want,” Malivette said with a grin. “Just don’t touch.”
“You literally just said—”
“Oh my fancy fucking gods,” Ruda shouted. “Can we get on with whatever the hell this is, already?”
“Now, see what you made me do?” Malivette darted forward with preternatural speed, swatting Rafe upside the head. “Here I have guests standing around unattended while I deal with your horsewash. Ladies, gentleman, my apologies! Please, we have a cozy little spot prepared in the north drawing room. Come along, come along, make yourselves comfortable! It’s right this way!”
The whole group shied back as she suddenly exploded into fragments. Flapping, chittering fragments; the sudden swarm of bats swirled off toward one side of the great hall, streaming through a curtained doorway into the room beyon.
“Wh—how—why did—bats!” Fross stuttered. “Multiple transfiguration is—you can’t just do that! How did she do that?!”
“I don’t think many of the normal sort of rules are going to apply here,” Shaeine said quietly.
“This way, please,” Sapphire said, bowing to them, then turned and glided toward the same door, Pearl falling into step beside her.
“Come along, children!” Rafe called, sauntering off after them.
“So,” Trissiny murmured, “in addition to being a creepy undead abomination, she’s an awful lot like him. I was expecting the worst and I’m still unpleasantly surprised.”
“Ah,” Teal said carefully. “There isn’t a lot of lore on vampires, and much of it’s just hearsay, but I’m pretty sure they have rather acute senses. Let’s not talk down about our hostess behind her back.”
“Now, Teal, you’re not giving Trissiny enough credit,” Ruda said, grinning. “Trissiny doesn’t say anything behind people’s backs that she wouldn’t say to their faces. Right, roomie?”
“Right,” Trissiny replied flatly, then strode off after their guides. The others trailed along behind her.
Beyond was a smaller, much cozier room. It had furniture, for one thing—rather shabby old pieces, but better than bare stone. Threadbare rugs bedecked the floor, and best of all, there was a roaring fire, casting a pleasant orange glow across the room. A low table stood a couple of yards back from this, in the middle of a cluster of mismatched chairs, divans and one battered sofa. On it were plates of cookies and sandwiches and a steaming pot of tea. Ruby and Jade were already present, standing demurely off to the side; Pearl and Sapphire were just joining them as the students arrived.
Malivette stood with her back to them, staring into the flames and dramatically outlined by their glow.
“Please,” she intoned sepulchurally. “Sit. Be comfortable. We must now discuss…your fate.”
“Eh,” Rafe said, making a wobbling motion with his hand. “A little melodramatic, a tad overblown. C’mon, Vette, you’ve got better in you than that.”
“Ruby,” the vampire said, “go over there and punch him in the giblets.”
“Absolutely not,” Ruby said. “He’ll pinch my butt again.”
“Excuse me, you did what?” Trissiny snapped, glaring at Rafe.
“Lies!” he protested, rapidly retreating and placing the couch between himself and the paladin. “Scurrilous slander! This is all a plot to discredit the glory that is me!”
Ruby winked at them.
“This is downright disorienting,” Ruda complained, “the way this bounces between creepy and ridiculous.”
“Oh, fair enough, I suppose,” Malivette said, turning around and grinning again. “I pretty much never have company; forgive me for horsing around a bit. Gets restive being cooped up alone in unabated privacy with a harem of stunningly beautiful and fanatically devoted servants just eager to do every little thing that pops into I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten what my point was.”
“Allow me to move this along,” Rafe said, gesturing the students forward. “C’mon, kids, sit down, don’t insult our hostess. Ahem. As I said before, you now stand in Veilgrad—the most eeeevil place in the Empire!”
“That may be an exaggeration,” Malivette added, “but not by much. There have always been dark things lurking in this area—it’s wild land, deliberately kept that way by the Huntsmen who are the predominant religious force in the region.”
“Lovely,” Trissiny said sourly. She had unbent so far as to come stand next to the others as they slid into seats, though she remained on her feet.
“Creatures prowl these mountains that are not strictly natural,” Malivette continued, beginning to pace back and forth in front of the fire. “Howling things in the forest on nights of the full moon, slithering things that lurk beneath the streams… And, of course, the likes of what sank its fangs into me when I was seventeen, resulting in my current…predicament.” She paused in her pacing to smile at them, a bitter little expression quite unlike her previous grinning. “There are places in the world that are just like that, and no explanation for it, except maybe from the gods.”
“The gods are rarely eager to explain themselves,” Shaeine noted.
“This one’s got a good head on her shoulders,” Malivette said approvingly, pointing at the drow. “However, matters around Veilgrad have taken a rather abrupt turn for the menacing and mysterious in the space of the last few months. Hard to say when it started—I don’t get out much, as you can imagine—but I do pay a modicum of attention to what happens in my city, and things are beginning to unravel.”
“How so?” Toby asked. He had picked up a cookie but so far was just holding it. None of them were particularly hungry.
“The crux of the problem,” Malivette said, turning to frown into the fire, “is that the problem remains a mystery. It’s as if dozens of smaller things are just…cropping up. Whatever lives in the mountains is growing agitated, and aggressive; we hear howling nearly every night, lately, and people are starting to go missing from the forest with alarming regularity. Cults are springing up at an astonishing rate—there have been five in the last four months.”
“Cults?” Shaeine asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Little ones,” said the vampire. “Usually the Church and the Empire ignore such things. A few people wearing silly robes, sharing a clubhouse and a secret handshake; they only become troublesome when they start to gain people and prove they have a genuine deity.”
“Because,” Trissiny added, “in almost all cases the ‘deity’ in question turns out to be a demon or powerful fairy.”
“Exactly,” Malivette said, nodding. “But these…are chaos cults.”
“Wait…what?” Toby frowned. “Who worships chaos?”
“Morons,” the vampire said, turning to grin at him. “Which is why it’s very strange that so many keep arising. All joking aside, most of the population anywhere has more sense and self-preservation than that. Worse, every one of these has managed to perform some manner of necromancy before being shut down. I’m sure I needn’t tell you how inconvenient this all is for me. Guess who gets a visit from the Imps every time a necromancer so much as farts anywhere in the province?”
“How very sad for you,” Trissiny said flatly.
“It’s a great tragedy,” Malivette said solemnly. “Also, you know, the grave robbing and assaults. Those are inconvenient. Let’s see, aside from that… The Shadow Hunters have been getting more active. Usually they rear their heads three or four times a year, and never do more than prance around being arrogant. Lately, though, they keep turning up in town, and they’ve developed a bad habit of picking fights with the local Huntsmen.”
“Wait, what are Shadow Hunters?” Juniper asked.
“It’s some Shaathist offshoot sect,” Malivette said with a shrug. “Their doctrine of over my head and beyond my interest. All I know is they dislike the real Huntsmen, and vice versa. There’s been a dramatic rise in crimes of all kinds, everything from shoplifting to outright murder—it’s gotten so most people aren’t willing to leave their houses after dark. No unifying factor seems to be behind it. It’s just… Something has got its grip on Veilgrad. It’s growing worse, and it needs to be stopped.”
“So…how come you don’t stop it?” Ruda asked. “No offense, but you’re a pretty damn scary kind of a thing yourself. It’s hard to imagine any creepy crawly that’d be willing to take you on.”
“But that’s just it,” Trissiny said quietly. “There has to be fear and unrest already, with all this going on. If people know there’s a vampire living in the hills…”
“Hit the nail on the head,” Malivette said ruefully. “I’ve already have two honest-to-gods mobs show up at my gates. Torches, pitchforks, the works. Unfortunately, to make them go away I had to demonstrate exactly why none of that was in any way threatening to me, which has not improved my reputation. People are already lining up to blame me for the deteriorating state of things; if I throw my weight around any further, someone with the power to do something about it may decide to. And a scary thing I may be, but I find myself at a stark disadvantage against certain…kinds of foes.”
“Yeah,” Ruda said pointedly, “you seemed real alarmed by the prospect of meeting Gabe Arquin.”
“Yup,” the vampire said, nodding. “Him, and other things. I am really trying my best not to make any waves. If whatever is behind these problems rears up, believe me, I’ll be on it like a hawk. With it being in the shadows, though, I cannot afford to swagger around being all creepy and dangerous.”
“This is…a very strange pattern,” Trissiny said, frowning. “I know of several things that can have that effect…”
“Fairy magic can be used for emotional manipulation pretty easily,” Toby said, nodding, “and general infernal corruption makes people more aggressive. People, animals, whatever’s nearby. Those leave signs, though.”
Trissiny nodded. “If it were either of those…any method powerful enough to affect an entire city would create distinct traces. It would be easy to track.”
“And so, you know your problem,” Rafe proclaimed. “I’ve no doubt you kids can smack down any ugly that rears its head—you’ve just got to get it to rear before you can make with the smacking.”
“Bloody hell,” Ruda muttered. “It’s like Sarasio to the tenth power.”
“Should I have any idea what that means?” Malivette asked.
“What are our assets?” Trissiny asked. “Allies, potential positive forces we can work with?”
“Ah, yes, that’s a good question,” the vampire replied. “I’d recommend meeting with the local powers that be before you try doing anything, otherwise you’re likely to just cheese them off. Well, the local Universal Church chapter is kind of a non-issue; for whatever reason, they’ve responded to these events by vigorously backing down. Closing their facilities, moving personnel away… They’ve got what’s actually one of the Church’s oldest chapels in the city, but there are only a couple of parsons in residence, now, and they don’t even hold services most weeks.”
“That is very peculiar,” Toby commented, frowning in consternation.
“There’s also an Omnist temple,” Malivette continued. “I guess you of all people are in a good position to have a sit-down with them. Local worship is split pretty evenly between Omnu and Shaath. You’ll probably want to have a talk with the Huntsmen down at the lodge. They know more than anyone about what’s lurking in the hills and forests.”
Trissiny sighed heavily.
“There’s also the Empire,” Malivette said. “They’ve been responding to these problems by increasing their presence, opposite what the Church has done, but so far they’re being subtle about it. The local constabulary has been supplemented by Imperial Army patrols, which has helped matters, but they’re not leveraging their serious assets. And they’ve got assets. I know for a fact there’s at least one strike team stationed in Veilgrad as of last month.”
“They probably already know we’re here, then,” Ruda commented. “Tellwyrn wouldn’t send Juniper into a city of this size without notifying the Empire and getting the security arranged.”
“It’s not just the size,” said Teal. “Veilgrad has enormous historical significance; it was the first Tiraan conquest in the Stalrange, and the main staging area for the armies that took the rest of the region. It also does a lot of business. Mining, logging, furs, cattle ranching… Wow. The kinds of troubles you’re describing would shut a lot of those down.”
“They have,” Malivette said, nodding. “Lumberjacks and cowboys and miners have started refusing to go out and jack, cow and mine, now that more than a few of each have up and vanished. The economy is faltering, and that is adding all kinds of pressure to the mix.”
“This is definitely no Sarasio, then,” said Shaeine. “The Empire is already here, and watching; they cannot afford to lose the city, to anything. That could both raise the stakes and grant us some leeway, depending on how matters unfold.”
“There’s one other person you should visit before you do anything else,” Malivette said, grinning again. “The sort-of lord who quasi-administers the city and surrounding area. He’s in…an interesting position, legally. You won’t get far without his help, but his actual power is considerably less than most Imperial aristocrats have. It’s complicated; I should probably let him explain things himself.”
“What sort of man is this?” Trissiny asked.
“Oh, he’s a swell guy, you’ll love him,” the vampire said gaily. “And a great host! Or at least I hope so. He’s putting up your friend Gabriel, after all.”
There was a moment of silence, punctuated only by the crackling flames.
“Oh, gods,” Ruda groaned. “You mean, this whole time, Gabriel’s been talking with the guy in charge of the town? We’ll all be tarred and feathered by sundown.”