9 – 4

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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.”

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22 thoughts on “9 – 4

  1. I could swear I had something I wanted to talk about, but I’m too tired to think of it. Maybe I’ll remember tomorrow.

    Hope the chapter’s good; I had to fight a bout of writer’s block for this one, which is why it’s a bit late. My apologies for that.


  2. You come off as a bit maniac when you fight writers block. Reminds me of Michael Moorcock’s weirder stuff, sort of.


  3. I enjoyed your chapter–I like how they have different flavors from time to time, avoids contempt of familiarity. I’m just annoyed that my browser seems to skip random lines, so some of the dialogue makes little or no sense to me.

    I noticed a few typos, btw.

    “Well, I do have to complement your taste, Vette,” Should be “compliment your taste…”

    “ people are starting to go missing from the forest with alarming regularity.” Maybe that should be “missing in the forest?”

    “Their doctrine of over my head and beyond my interest.” Probably wants to say “their doctrine is over my head…”


  4. Let’s count the plot hooks!
    Chaos cults in mountains and Church backing off? Can we say Darling’s crew, Justinian’s irregulars, and the Sophomores head to head?
    Shaathist center of belief, and Shadow Hunters? Plus Hands of Avei, Omnu, and Vidian? Bring on the religious learning!
    Wards against reapers/valkyries also warding against faeries? Look at that anti-dryad scenario! Who wants to guess that there’s a one-to-one correlation between the number of dryads and reapers?
    Gabriel staying in the center of politics? Let’s see some character development, and perhaps a cure for FIMS (Foot in Mouth Syndrome).

    Some other notes:
    I like how Malivette’s position with the town is reflected in her house’s distance. And now there’s a place for every beautiful submissive woman! If you like women, go to the neighborhood vampire, if you like men, go to the temple of Shaath.
    Also, it’s sort of funny how there are these small cults, that worship powerful beings that aren’t gods and are looked down upon, and then there are these other cults, that worship powerful beings that are gods and are sanctioned by the Empire.
    Also, since sexual orientation is a magically significant state that Juniper can sense, will she be able to use her status as a fey being to convince the Huntsmen that sexual orientation is as immutable and as natural as gender identity?

    Finally, a question not pertaining to this chapter that may or may not be addressed later, but if it is not it presents a minor plot hole. Why wasn’t the school doctor, Taowi Sunrunner, involved in Aspen’s healing process? We’ve established that Tellwyrn hires quality staff, and I would think especially the healer, but her first (?) action after the Aspen debacle is to go off and get Sheyann. Now, there are some explanations, like Arachne wants Taowi on hand for the rest of the students, or that Taowi isn’t good enough, magically, to circumvent the time difference, but there’s no real reason for us to at least see her doing something, even if it’s laying down magical good feelings, like what Kuriwa asked Sheyann to do.


    1. Malivette collecting beautiful women like Pokemon doesn’t make her dominant or them submissive. 😉

      Taowi is the child of one of Arachne’s friends, she’s certaintly a capable healer but not a legendary adventurer like the rest of the faculty. As far as we know anyway.


      1. “Malivette collecting beautiful women like Pokemon doesn’t make her dominant or them submissive.”

        Yes, but I was thinking even more generally. If the major influence around here is Shaath, and you were an especially desirable, i.e. beautiful, woman who wanted some protection from the jerks, being employed by Malivette sounds like one way.


      2. I don’t see why women would need protection from Shaath. It’s not like the Huntsmen can just take whoever they fancy. Of course, if the entire population of the place you live is looking down on females, then finding a job or an equal partner might be difficult but with the Rail in place no one has to stay if they don’t want to.

        I don’t think Malivette is the lesser evil for these women, they seem to genuinely enjoy their employment. I doubt very much that they are mindcontrolled thralls or that their devotion to their mistress hasn’t been earned. Just like Rafe, we can’t take Malivette at her word.

        I wouldn’t be surprised if the four servants don’t get paid much (the mansion seems pretty run down and in need of repair and new furniture) and they are instead her friends, maybe from before she was bitten. They are with Malivette to help her, because no one else would.


      3. “I don’t see why women would need protection from Shaath.”

        I am male, so perhaps my analysis is wrong. The local Omnists and Universal Church probably keep the worst Shaathist policies at bay. But the local attitude must be fairly oppressive for many women. The main alternative is “turn the other cheek” Omnu, who apparently is also male oriented, given what we have heard about the clergy of his sect. So if the local women want a strong female role model, and perhaps someone to give the finger to the Shaathists occasionally, Malivette sounds like an option. It is possible that Malivette views them more as friends than as employees, lovers, or resources, but she likely has a good pool of candidates to pick from because of the reasons above.

        As far as the mansion’s looks, you can hire a lot of cheap labor for the price of a good dress. So I suspect either there are additional forces that keep such labor away (Malivette’s choice or perhaps her reputation) or the look is deliberate – she does have more than just a touch of theater in her manner.


      4. I believe you’re seeing the whole situation in a stark black and white when it’s mostly grey.
        It is highly unlikely that the majority of the people living in Veilgrad are Huntsmen (remember how their faith works) and I highly doubt any faith can outright deny the rights of the citizens. The local shaathist lodge probably has only little influence on politics.

        So the worst the women in Veilgrad would have to put up with is the few Huntsmen being dismissive of them and/or being courted by them. How is that any worse than our society right now?

        The combination of Omnu and Shaath would make life uncomfortable for anyone who’s gay though, especially if the mood in Veilgrad is influenced by the gods. But as we learned in Tellwyrn’s class, that’s a very subtle and almost impossible to measure effect that can be explained better by people being bigots.

        I don’t see any reason why women would need help or protection (at least not more than anywhere else) or why any local would choose to become the servant of a vampire as a way out. As I mentioned earlier, they have the Rail, they could simply go anywhere else in the Empire, they don’t need to ask Malivette for help.

        It seems likely that the four women working for Malivette have an emotional bond with her. Friends, lovers, sisters, I don’t know. I doubt they’re staying because of the pay or because being ostracized by the town is fun.

        Btw… I am not sure cheap labor is available to Malivette. If the townsfolk is in the pitchforks and torches phase already, hiring people for normal rates is probably out of the question.
        The gowns though? Easy. Malivette needs to project an image, she behaves like people expect because that reassures them. That means fancy coaches, undead horses and beautiful servants in stunning gowns. She doesn’t get many visitors, so the state of her mansion is secondary.
        She might also play the role of the cold vampire queen to keep enemies at bay. If they knew that Malivette is a young woman with only a few years of experience as vampire, who is nice and cuddly and fun… they might think of her as weak. And we know what happens to weak monsters.


      5. “I believe you’re seeing the whole situation in a stark black and white when it’s mostly grey.”

        No – see my previous comment on how I view the world (https://tiraas.wordpress.com/2015/10/26/8-16/comment-page-1/#comment-3387). But I understand why you are saying this – there is an assumption I am making that might not be warranted.

        The assumption is that most of the population is religious. Why? Even in our world, a large portion of the population of the world is religious, and this is without solid empirical evidence of the effects of faith or solid proof of an afterlife (agnostic, not atheist, and this isn’t the place for that discussion). In the Tiraan universe, deific power and an afterlife are provable facts, so the motivation to claim a faith is even stronger. This isn’t Pascal’s Wager territory, this is “your life and afterlife are really likely to be better if you worship a deity”. If nothing else, and this argument would bring in even the cynics, you are more likely to have access to deific healing if you are an upstanding member of a faith, at least publicly. I might indeed be wrong, most people might not be associated with a specific faith, but then I would have to ask why. The reasons to be members of a faith in this world seem fairly solid to me.

        As a side note, we can’t base the extrapolation of the general population’s faith from the know examples – too many of them have reason to be faithful or, conversely, to avoid faiths entirely.

        “So the worst the women in Veilgrad would have to put up with is the few Huntsmen being dismissive of them and/or being courted by them.”

        No, if my assumption is correct (it may not be) then Shaathists are most likely a significant fraction of the population.

        “How is that any worse than our society right now?”

        In our world, sex discrimination is illegal and sexism and misogyny are publicly frowned on in many countries, no matter how prevalent the practices may be in thought and deed. In this world, these are parts of the tenets of a faith that is publicly preached and practiced and their inclusion in society is completely legal, if you are a practicing Shaathist.

        “I don’t see any reason why women would need help or protection (at least not more than anywhere else) or why any local would choose to become the servant of a vampire as a way out.”

        See above – sexism, misogyny, and sex discrimination are partially legal and even encouraged by parts of the population in this world, and, if I am right about the portion of the population that is religious, that might be a significant portion of the population of this area.

        Your other statements seem to be in general agreement with my thoughts, although in slightly different directions.


    2. “they have the Rail, they could simply go anywhere else in the Empire”
      Well that assumes they have enough ressources to be able to settle elsewhere. Also social pressure if it were what they were fleeing could also prevents them from actually leaving. It’s not that easy to not only leave your home but also face a massive desaprobation from doing so.

      “Friends, lovers, sisters, I don’t know. I doubt they’re staying because of the pay or because being ostracized by the town is fun”
      They could also be vampire wanabe. TGaB probably have some equivalent of twilight and/or Anne Rice.


  5. As usual, immediate reactions now, more plus spell checking later.

    The screamingly obvious: the problems are due to the skull of Belosiphon the Black. The necromancy angle is so that he can be brought back.

    The consequence to the screamingly obvious: Sophomores + Justinian’s strike team + Darling’s strike team = massive damage potential. Potentially goodbye province.

    The question from the screamingly obvious: This sort of stuff is blatant chaos magic, has been going on for months, and apparently a lot of parties are aware of it (Universal Church, Omnists, Shaathists, the empire). So why the hell didn’t it ping the hell out of Darling’s information radar when the oracles were all yelling about magic and chaos?

    Universal church pulling out = Justinian knows and is preparing. But there is something off about that, I just can’t figure it out this second.

    Rafe and Malivette: Oh gods there’s two of them…

    Hints that Malivette is stupidly powerful, even for a vampire. In other words, a normal student of Arachne.

    And as scyallar said, soooo many plot hooks.


    1. I don’t know if Malivette is stupidly powerful for a vampire or if vampires in this setting are generally stupidly powerful. So far everything we encountered was considerably more powerful than the classic archetypes. Dragons, dryads, paladins (although that might just be Conservation of Ninjutsu at work) and pixies…

      Darling should know more very soon… if not through the Church, then through his contacts in the Empire.

      This raises an important question: If Arachne heard about the situation from Malivette and used that opportunity for a field exercise, then the moment Weaver mentioned Belosiphon the Black she should have realized what all this is about. What kept her from connecting the dots? Was she too distracted by Joe?


      1. On Arachne: good catch. I thought of Darling first because he is the information guy. I note that Weaver didn’t tell her where they were looking, but the chaos aspect should have rung a bell. Is the whole thing being covered up by an SEP field or something?

        Fross’s reaction indicates that Malivette is more powerful than most documented vampires. Of course, Fross does acknowledge that the documentation is sparse.


  6. Typos:



    (my spell checker likes the accents)

    normal sort of rules
    (not wrong, but the usual phrase is)
    normal sorts of rules



    There are a number of odd things about the Malivette situation. According to her offhand remark, the vampirism was accidental. So how did she just happen to have a classic vampire lair of a house ahead of time (assuming that’s the case)? And the same question goes for the name, although it could have been an assumed name. The dresses, etc. could have been arranged afterwards. I appreciate the theater, but this is an odd coincidence.

    Now I know what is bothering me about the Universal Church situation: Justinian is very good about plausible deniability. But it appears here that he is pulling his assets out knowing that something nasty will happen, which isn’t very deniable. Unless there is a good reason the UC is backing down on this, it looks suspicious.

    Fross sassing Rafe is hilarious, partly because of the fact that she really didn’t know how to deal with him when they first met. Fross has grown; Rafe hasn’t.

    Life magic the opposite of death magic? We still don’t know jack about necromancy in this system, other than it clearly exists and is potentially powerful.

    “I already miss Gabe”
    Awww. Now if more of the others would admit it…

    And I reiterate: Oh gods there are two of them.

    “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.”
    More vampire powers hinted at. Or are those the same as the ones she demonstrated already?

    “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.”
    Sounds like another interesting situation.


  7. About Ms Melodrama: playing up the ham for all she’s worth from the setting to her name could well be a survival strategy. The whole area (not just the occasional misinformed malcontents) could turn around and end her if she didn’t put on the the Countess Von Count thing so obviously. :/

    After all, hidden, powerful, malevolent threats in fluffy undercover wouldn’t get people with pitchforks… they’d get coordinated strike teams. 😛


  8. OK, that was fun, well done.

    One thought:
    The cult of Shaath uses fey magic a lot.
    Vidius’ valkyries are apparently fey.
    The Izaran sensitivity to emotions sounds a lot like witchcraft’s ability with the same.

    Even assuming that the amulet which converts Jacaranda’s fey power into divine power for an Avenist is a one-off, there are quite a few connections there. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the god of agriculture, Omnu, has a soft spot for nature magic either.


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