Teal tugged the rope a second time; once again, they heard the bell chime distantly within the manor.
“Maybe no one’s home?” Teal suggested, stepping back from the door and craning her neck back to peer up at the towering face of the house.
“Grusser said he never leaves the house,” Sheaine replied. “I inquired further of Pearl this morning, who concurred. It’s apparently common knowledge in the city. Lord Sherwin has accounts with local merchants and gets his supplies delivered.”
“Mm. He surely doesn’t live in there all alone.”
“From here,” Shaeine said tactfully, “it looks as if he might. Malivette’s house suffers somewhat from having only four servants to look after it. This seems like it could result from a residence of this size having none.”
Leduc Manor was less isolated from the city than the Dufresne residence, but still lay outside its walls, and occupied a defensible position in the mountains overlooking Veilgrad. In fact, the grounds were on a broad ledge, its rim now secured behind a towering wall, reached by a single wide trail which switchbacked twice on the way up. It had a stunning, if somewhat vertigo-inducing, view of the city and the prairie beyond. The plot of land might have been an acre or two; it was difficult to tell due to the walls and structures therein.
The manor itself was of a similar general style to Dufresne Manor, with its intricate carving and steeply tilted roof, though its plan appeared to be more rambling and less square. The primary difference between the two was that Leduc Manor was falling apart. One entire wing, off to their left, had a collapsed roof, and to judge by the sky visible through its glassless windows, a missing wall on the opposite side. In fact, the only windows which had any glass left in them were cracked or broken panes which opened onto dark rooms. It seemed that only the central part of the house was still inhabited; there, at least, the windows had been boarded up against the fierce Stalrange winters. The grounds were overgrown with weeds, vines, and several enormous thorny bushes, and strewn with a variety of trash. Piles of masonry were left here and there, both broken rubbish that had clearly fallen off the house and newer-looking specimens that appeared to have been slated for repairs before the idea was abandoned. An entire carriage—old-fashioned, not a modern horseless one—sat broken and decaying with a scraggly bush growing up through it.
Still, there was no sign of the lord of the manor.
Teal pulled the bell rope a third time. Then, after a long moment, she banged her fist against the door.
“It is not necessarily suspicious that he won’t come out,” Shaeine observed. “This behavior suits the harmless recluse people seem to believe him to be. However…”
“Yeah,” Teal said, nodding. “It also suits some less harmless possibilities.” She turned to peer back the way they had come.
The outer gates of the manor had long collapsed; the grounds could be easily entered, and the doors reached by way of an overgrown path which still held pieces of paving stones amid the weeds.
“Can you hear anyone nearby?” Teal asked.
Shaeine shook her head. She had lowered her cowl when they passed into the Leduc grounds, exposing her face to the cool air. They had decided unanimously not to subject the people of Veilgrad to the sight of a drow if it could be avoided. “There is nothing living in the vicinity that I can detect. In fact, that is rather odd. An abandoned building this size, even if only partially abandoned, would normally be teeming with small animals.”
“I guess that depends on who lives there,” Teal said with a grimace. “All right, well… I don’t like to be pushy, but we’re going to have to deal with this guy, one way or another. In the long run I think digging him out of his hole for a talk will be less intrusive than having to come back here with Trissiny and Ruda.”
“What do you intend?” Shaeine asked quietly.
“Just a little something that I suspect will get a warlock’s attention.”
She took a step back from the door, glanced suspiciously over her shoulder again at the empty gates and the city far below, and shifted.
Vadrieny stretched her wings once, then wrinkled her nose, glancing around. “What a dump.”
“That’s hardly polite, love,” Shaeine said with a small smile.
The archdemon grinned at her, the expression warm and fond despite the fangs it displayed. “I promise not to say it to his face. In fact…best I don’t talk with him at all, don’t you think?”
Shaeine tilted her head. “Doesn’t that rather defeat the purpose?”
“If it comes down to terrorizing him, sure. I think we’ll get better—calmer—results from making him wonder what it was he sensed out here.”
“Ah.” The drow nodded, smiling approvingly. “A very good thought, strategic and considerate.”
“Teal’s idea,” Vadrieny said, stepping forward. She raised one hand, formed a loose fist—her claws weren’t retractable, and prevented a clenched one—and hammered hard on the door. It rattled violently in its frame, the wood splintering slightly on the last blow, and fragments of dust were shaken loose from the entire door frame. A single screw popped out of one of the heavy iron hinges.
“Ah,” Shaeine said a moment later, “someone is coming.”
“Good,” Vadrieny said smugly. “See you in a while, then.”
The drow forestalled her with a gentle hand on her arm. When Vadrieny paused, looking down at her in surprise, Shaeine stepped forward, craning her head up to kiss her on the cheek.
Vadrieny was still smiling as she withdrew, leaving Teal to inherit the grin. She mastered her expression, however, as the footsteps approaching the door grew loud enough for her ears to detect.
There came a rattling as locks were undone from within—several of them—and finally the door jerked open. Unusually for such an apparently defensible structure (at least it had been, when it was built), the door opened inward.
“What the hell do you gah!” Sherwin Leduc actually jumped backward at catching sight of Shaeine. He was a physically unimpressive sight: short and slight of build, his sandy hair in need of a trim and wearing three days’ growth of beard. A pair of round spectacles perched on his nose, the lenses lightly scratched in a few places. He appeared to be in his pajamas, with a threadbare robe thrown on over them.
“Have I the pleasure of addressing Lord Leduc?” Shaeine asked, bowing.
He stepped back again, keeping one arm fully extended to retain his grip on the door, and squinted suspiciously at her. “Who wants to know? See here, I have nothing to offer Scyllith and I don’t want anything from her.”
“Excuse me, you are mistaken,” Shaeine said, the faintest note of warning entering her tone. “I am a priestess of Themynra. My people have spilled lakes of our blood over the millennia to ensure that Scyllith’s agents do not darken your lands.”
“Well, that exhausts my only theory for what a drow would want here,” he said, eying her up and down, and then turning to peer skeptically at Teal.
“I am Shaeine nur Ashale d’zin Awarrion of Tar’naris; this is Teal Falconer. We are not here in any official capacity related to my home, but visiting from the University at Last Rock.”
Leduc’s expression collapsed into a scowl. “Oh. Come to finish what the last group of Tellwyrn’s students started here?”
“We actually don’t know anybody who’s been here before,” Teal said quickly. “Whatever happened then, it’s got nothing to do with us.”
“What happened is… Well, no, sorry, I’m being irrational.” Leduc sighed, scrubbing a hand through his shaggy hair. “House Leduc killed itself; Malivette’s University friends just ended up being the weapon. Still. Having you show up here out of the blue is a little disturbing.” He resumed staring suspiciously at them. “What do you want?”
“Well, hopefully we won’t have to bother you any further after today,” Teal said. “We’re just eliminating possibilities. How much do you know about what’s happening in Veilgrad?”
“Don’t know, don’t care,” he said bluntly. “I stay up here, people leave me alone. I’m happier, town’s happier, everybody wins.”
“Have you heard the howling in the mountains at night?” Shaeine asked quietly.
At that, he grinned unpleasantly. “Oh, sure. They don’t come here, though. Let ’em try; I’m not helpless.”
“Well, that’s basically the issue,” Teal said. “The city is slowly but surely falling apart; something is stirring up dangerous elements on all sides. The werewolves are just part of it.”
“Oh just let me guess,” Leduc said, rolling his eyes. “And you are here to get to the bottom of it.”
“In a nutshell, yes.”
“Well, I’m not at the bottom,” he snapped. “Or the top, or anywhere in between. I am not involved. You hear me? The Leducs don’t rule Veilgrad anymore, and never will again. In fact, this is it: you’re looking at the last of the line, and good riddance to it. Malivette can have the title and may it bite her harder than the thing that turned her. I stay on my property, I bother nobody, and when I die no one will notice for months. That’s how I like it. Good day.”
He started to close the door; Shaeine deftly inserted herself into the gap. “If you’ll consider the matter from our perspective,” she said smoothly, “surely you understand why that doesn’t really address any of our concerns?”
“Did I stutter?” he exclaimed. “I don’t care about your concerns. Now go away!”
“We really just want a few minutes of your time, Lord Sherwin,” Teal said. “Just to get your perspective on things, so we can go back and tell the others you’re not a factor here. That’s all we’re doing, eliminating possibilities.”
At that, he hesitated. “Others?”
“Indeed,” Shaeine said placidly. “We are traveling with, among others, all three current paladins. And a dryad.”
Leduc sucked in a long, slow breath through his teeth. “So,” he said tightly, “I can talk to you, or I can talk to them, is that it?”
“People are in danger,” Teal said softly. “Believe me, we’re not normally this pushy, but the problems in Veilgrad are escalating. If you could just help us rule you out as a factor, that would be tremendously helpful, and then you’ll never have to hear from any of us again.”
The young lord sighed heavily, and more than a touch melodramatically. “Ugh, fine, if that’s what will make you go away. You might as well come in, I guess.” He turned his back on them and stalked into the manor, leaving the door standing open.
They followed, Teal pausing to gently push the door shut behind them. The great hall into which they stepped was a panorama of ruined grandeur; unlike Malivette’s, it had not been cleared out, its opulent furnishings simply left to decay. In fact, the degree of decay was startling, considering it had taken place within a span of a relatively few years. Finely carved end tables were partially collapsed, shards of broken porcelain lying amid their ruins. On marble bust of a woman lay face-up, missing half its head. Tapestries were ragged and torn in addition to rotting; oil paintings appeared to have been slashed, those that hadn’t fallen to the ground, their frames splintered by impact. In one corner, the walls black with mold, a large crop of toadstools was growing. The centerpiece of the whole sad display was an enormous wrought iron chandelier, still containing the burned-down stubs of candles, lying broken in the very middle of the hall where it had fallen. The floorboards beneath it had cracked and buckled severely.
The smell was indescribable.
Leduc led the way along one side of the hall, where tracks had been worn into the dust—and into the carpet—a safe distance from the ruptured floor beneath the chandelier. His path avoided the grand double staircase at the opposite end of the room, leading straight to an unobtrusive door hidden beneath it.
Teal and Shaeine drew closer together as they followed him into the dim hall beyond, pressing the backs of their hands against each other. Even here, Narisian modesty prevailed, but it was a place that made them instinctively reach for comfort.
The corridor was dark, dusty and smelled of mildew, though less severely than the once-grand entry hall, but it blessedly wasn’t terribly long. After only a minute, they turned a corner and shortly emerged into a warm and brightly lit space, a very pleasant sight after the one which had preceded it.
It was a kitchen, a long, stone-walled space large enough to have served the fully-inhabited manor in its heyday. The whole thing had been heavily altered, though. A warm fire burned in the hearth, which bore the fixtures of an old roasting spit, long since removed. There was also an oven with a stove top, and a currently dark cast iron stove with a pipe leading out through a hastily-cut hole in the ceiling. Firewood had been stacked along one wall. A modern enchanted cold box stood next to the fridge, alongside a faucet and sink attached to a water-conjuration apparatus—difficult and very expensive work, seldom used because it was generally cheaper and easier just to install indoor plumbing.
The rest of the room, however, had been cleared of any kitchen-related paraphernalia and converted into an obvious living space. Laden bookshelves lined the walls, a single bed was tucked into a corner—unmade, of course—and there was a heavy armchair dragged up near the fireplace, with a small end table beside it on which sat a mug of beer.
It was cluttered, but in the way of a casually maintained bachelor pad—clothes were tossed about the sleeping area, books were stacked on the floor by their shelves somewhat haphazardly, and there was a pile of dishes on the counter by the sink. The whole place could have used a good sweeping and dusting. It was a lived-in state of disorder, though, quite unlike the filthy decay of the rest of the house.
“All right, here you are,” Leduc said with poor grace, stalking across to his armchair and flopping down in it. “So, let’s have it. What do you want to know so badly?”
“The pattern of incidents growing in Veilgrad have no immediately discernible root,” Shaeine said, gliding over to stand in front of him, a few yards away. “In addition to the werewolves, there has been a recent proliferation of minor chaos cults, several incidents of necromancy, and a Shaathist offshoot cult that has taken to harassing the local Huntsmen. More than that, violent crime and violence in general are rising, as if the general populace is becoming more prone to acting that way. There was an actual mob attack upon Malivette’s property.”
“Couldn’t happen to a nicer person,” he sneered. “Though I’m not sure that word still applies to good ol’ Vette.”
“I found her rather nice,” said Teal. “In her own way. Not that she isn’t eccentric.”
“That isn’t the word I meant.”
“It has been pointed out to us,” said Shaeine, “that one possible root cause of generalized aggression is a great deal of loose infernal magic. Clearly, thus, it is advantageous that we speak to you.”
Leduc frowned thoughtfully, rubbing his chin. “Hm. Yeah, infernal magic does have that effect… That really can’t be it, though.”
“Why not?” Shaeine inquired.
“All kinds of reasons. For one thing, that’s only one of its effects; if there were widespread infernal corruption going on, people would be getting sick, plants would be alternately dying or growing thorns where they didn’t use to have them, any animals born would be mutated… Apart from that, people would notice infernal energy loose in the streets. The Shaathists don’t actually have more than a couple of priests, I don’t think, but there’s a sizable Omnist temple here, and a grand old Universal Church chapel. Plus, the Empire keeps an eye and has means to notice such things. Hell, I would’ve noticed, and something like that I would have to respond to. Ninety percent of being a warlock is control; you just cannot have infernal magic running loose.”
“I see,” Shaeine mused. “That certainly seems reasonable. I suppose it only leaves the question of what it is you actually do up here alone.”
“None of your business,” he snapped.
“Lord Sherwin,” she said solemnly, “I come from a culture which prizes discretion and personal privacy. I assure you, the last thing I wish is to intrude upon yours. I would not dream of coming here to ask such prying questions were there not an immediate need.”
“The problem in a nutshell,” Teal added, “is we don’t know what is causing all this to happen, which means any major unanswered questions look more suspicious than they otherwise would. With all respect, my lord, it’s very unusual for a person to live alone and shun all contact.”
“If you’ve made any inquiries into the recent history of Veilgrad,” he grated, “you might understand why my own life has been somewhat traumatic, and why I’m not inclined to give a damn what happens to that town or the people in it.”
“That sentiment,” said Shaeine, “is somewhat more ominous in light of the town’s troubles, not less.”
“What we really want,” said Teal, “is to be able to go back to the others and assure them you’re not an issue. You get left alone that way, and we write off one more avenue of investigation. It helps us both. But if we have to leave with no hint as to how you spend your time, or why you need so much privacy or to practice infernal magic… Well, if we can’t find any other promising leads, we’re probably gonna come back to the warlock on the hill. You see what I mean?”
“This is bullying,” he complained, grimacing.
“I am sorry that it seems that way to you,” Shaeine replied calmly. “If you insist, we will go. Hopefully something else will turn up and we will not need to come back. I’m afraid not all of our associates are as patient…”
“Bullying and threats,” he grumbled. “All right, fine. Look. I’m not a bad person, okay? I just want… I want to be left alone, to not have to deal with any of the bullshit of the nobility or the damn city, and… What I mean is, I don’t need people getting into my business, or stories circulating about me. That is… Well, if I tell you anything, I’m concerned about who it might get back to, all right?”
“I assure you,” said Shaeine, “we have already intruded upon you more than is comfortable. We would only share anything you’ve revealed with others if there were an immediate need, pertaining to the safety of the city.”
“The thing about safety,” he began.
“Can I just interrupt you there?” said Teal. “I bet I know the speeches you’ve heard about infernal magic, and most of them weren’t wrong, but with all due respect, we don’t much care what you do with yourself. If you end up cursed or sick or exploded, well, that’s your business.”
Leduc actually grinned at her. “Now I’m curious why you’d have heard those speeches. Well, anyway, fine. It’s…it’s people I don’t much like or trust, get it? Growing up the way I did, I’ve repeatedly observed that demons are pretty predictable, and actually pretty understandable if you take into account where they come from, but people are just… A person might do anything. Any damn thing at all, and half the things they do are just mean for no good reason. So… Well, it is a little lonely up here, and I have the means to, erm… Create my own company, as it were.”
“We assumed there was a certain amount of demon-summoning involved in being a practicing warlock,” said Shaeine. “At issue is what you do with anything you summon.”
“Really, that’s it?” he said, surprised. “No speeches about how demons aren’t good company?”
“It depends on the demon, doesn’t it?” Teal said quietly.
Leduc frowned at her. “Why did you two get the job to come talk to me?”
“That is neither here nor there,” Shaeine said smoothly. “Can you perhaps be a little bit more specific? Many kinds of demons are no great threat if properly contained.”
“Can’t I keep a little bit of privacy?” he complained.
“You can keep most of it,” Shaeine assured him. “We only want some assurance that you’re not doing anything dangerous to the town.”
Leduc sighed heavily. “It’s… Well, just… You’ll judge me. I hate that. It’s half the reason I don’t like talking to people.”
“Without going into too much detail,” Teal said wryly, “none of us are in a position to be judgmental. And whatever you’re up to, I’m willing to bet we’ve heard worse.”
He sighed again, heavily, and gulped down the rest of the beer in his mug. “I… It’s… Well, a person does have some needs, you know, even if… And, I, what I mean…” He trailed off, glaring into the bottom of the mug.
After a few moments, Shaeine opened her mouth to speak, but before she could he burst out. “I summoned a succubus, all right? Are you happy now?”
Teal’s eyes widened and she took a step back.
“Not particularly, no,” Shaeine said quietly. “That is not the kind of harmless thing we can ignore, Lord Sherwin. Children of Vanislaas are incredibly dangerous.”
“If you let them run around loose, yeah!” he exclaimed. “I know what I’m doing! What did I tell you? Ninety percent control! Trust me, my containment systems are absolutely foolproof.”
“Famous last words,” Teal said.
“Oh, what would you know?” he scoffed. “You wanna know what I’ve been doing up here for years? That! I’m not an idiot, I know how dangerous Vanislaads can be, so I’ve spent my time devising a proper facility to hold one. Years! And believe you me, it works! She can’t get out or she would have long before now. And my training program hasn’t really had time to work fully, but I’m already loosening her up a bit. She’s difficult, yeah, but in no time…”
He trailed off again, finally noticing the way they were looking at him.
“Let me see if I understand you,” Shaeine said in deadly quiet. “You are keeping a woman locked in a cage for the purpose of breaking her will so you can sexually exploit her?”
“A demon,” he said, more than a hint of whine in his voice. “Not a woman. I think you’ll find it’s perfectly legal to treat demons any way you like.”
“Not a woman, huh,” Teal said, barely keeping her own outrage in check. Her fists were clenched at her sides. “So, an incubus would’ve been just as good for your purposes?”
“Oh, please,” he said disdainfully. “I’m a loner and a warlock, not a pervert. Everyone has lines they won’t cross.”
“You disgusting little—”
“There! See!” He pointed accusingly at her. “Judging! I’ve had just about enough of you two. Get out of my house!”
“I think we had better see this…containment system,” Shaeine said coldly.
Leduc folded his arms and slumped back into his chair, adopting a mulish expression. “Not happening.”
“This is a serious imposition,” Leduc griped five minutes later, grudgingly inserting a key into the door at the bottom of the spiral staircase from his kitchen apartment. “I’m in the middle of an isolation phase. She’s not supposed to have any company for another couple of days; you’re setting back my program by who knows how much…”
“You know what?” Teal said tightly. “It might be best if you just didn’t say any more.”
“Open the door, please,” Shaeine said quietly.
Leduc sighed dramatically, but turned the key and pushed it open, stepping through. They followed right on his heels.
The basement room was completely covered in charms and sigils. They practically plastered the walls and ceiling, and even the floor; a raised path of wooden planks led from the door to the huge apparatus in the room’s center. Icons of every conceivable deity were present, pressed against each other and in some cases overlapping. The entire Pantheon was represented, even the trident and hurricane sigils associated with Naphthene and Ouvis, who lacked organized cults. In several places, the balance scale emblem of Themynra began to shine subtly at Shaeine’s presence. The icons were of a variety of metals, wood and stone, some even formed of clay. There had to be thousands of them.
Other things had been built up in the chamber: fairy lamps occupied each of the corners, filling it with a cold, white light. There were also stands interspersed along the walls that resembled small altars, displaying a variety of natural objects: shells, rocks, crystals, branches and a variety of dried plants, even the bones of small animals. Each had an inscrutable array of modern enchanting paraphernalia built up onto it.
Predominating the space, in the center, was an enormous cube of metal, also decorated with holy sigils, and also with pipes, wires and crystals of arcane enchantment bordering its corners. More mundane systems of gears and pulleys connected it to a metal structure bolted to the ceiling directly above; a little examination revealed its obvious purpose of lifting the sheets of steel that formed the sides of the box.
He clearly hadn’t boasted; this setup must have taken years to construct, especially if he had worked on it alone.
“This is probably the most holy place in Veilgrad,” Lord Leduc said smugly, seemingly oblivious to his guests’ expressions. “Sure, you don’t get as much power per sigil with the god in question not actively blessing it, but basically all the cults sell holy icons. Oh, they don’t call it selling, but you make a donation and get one. Religious people can never just call something what it is. Now, those altars, there? Those are also important; I had them designed by an expert witch to produce pure fae magic. That’s the trickiest part of the whole thing, ‘cos I have to re-charge them from time to time, which means gathering up more sacred fairy crap to put on them. It’s expensive, too, but I have people who work on that for me. The altars themselves have enchantments designed to convert that fairy power into the divine, which adds more juice to the sigils. Well, not convert it directly, you need an actual magic user consciously doing that, but if you’re willing to accept a power loss of over ninety percent, you can rig it so the divine magic tends to naturally feed on the fae. It’s enough to make a completely demon-proof barrier. I could hold an archdemon in this room.”
“Wanna bet?” Teal asked softly.
Leduc nattered on, ignoring her, apparently pleased to have an audience to whom to boast about his project, despite their clear antipathy. “The enchantments over the cage itself are the most complex part; obviously I have to have some protection for my demon or she’d just be incinerated in this room, right? So that’s what that is. You see the sigils suspended outside the superstructure, there? Those are actually keyed into an infernal spell matrix, a kind of reverse blessing that counteracts all the loose divine energy in here. So, yeah, she probably can get out of that cage, but she’d regret it. Briefly.” He snickered. “I made sure to demonstrate this before leaving her alone, of course.”
“Open the cage,” Shaeine said quietly.
“Whoah, now, I agreed to show you my containment system,” Leduc said. “Seriously, you are going to mess up my training program if you go any further, all right? She’s sitting in the dark thinking about what she did, and going to for a few more—”
He broke off as Shaeine turned to face him fully. She was as still and superficially calm as always, but whatever he saw in her face made him take a step backward, eyes widening.
“Open it,” she ordered.
Leduc opened his mouth, shut it, grimaced, and swallowed heavily. Muttering sullenly to himself, he stepped to one side of the door, carefully picking his way between the holy sigils laid into the floor, and tugged on a large lever attached to a system of chains and pulleys that ran to the cage via the ceiling.
With a loud rasp of metal, the sheets of steel blocking off the sides of the box slid smoothly and quickly upward, revealing the rather mundane iron cage within. There was nothing in there with the inhabitant except a few bowls and buckets of obvious purpose.
She sat on the floor with her back to them. Her skin was pale, oddly mottled and striated with patterns of black and purple. Short, spiky hair was surmounted by a pair of barbed horns sweeping back from her hairline over her skull, rather like the ones Elilial was often depicted with. Her tail lay limply upon the floor of her cage, tipped in a wicked stinger. Aside from spiked bracers of beaten iron, all she wore was a simple wrap of some kind of leather. Her shoulders were broad, her arms thickly corded with powerful muscle, but despite the intimidating figure she made, she hunched in on herself at the loss of the barriers between her and her captor.
“You fool,” Shaeine hissed, “that is not a—”
Teal erupted in hellfire as Vadrieny burst forth with a furious howl. Leduc barely had time to stagger backward from her when the entire basement erupted in light. A tone like a struck gong resonated through the air, and Teal collapsed to the plank path, human again and unconscious. All around the room, sigils smoked, several of them now visibly cracked, but the light faded as quickly as it had come.
Shaeine was instantly on her knees at Teal’s side, ignoring Leduc as he ranted above them.
“What the hell? Why didn’t you tell me your friend was possessed? Do you know the kind of risk you took, bringing her in here? And why would she try to—I just said this room is demon proof, I even told you how it works! Omnu’s balls, does she have a death wish? Gods above and below, this is not my fault, you have to…”
He carried on babbling, while Shaeine gently took Teal’s face in her hands, closing her eyes in concentration.
Behind them, the demon had turned, and now clutched the bars of her cage with clawed fingers, her slitted eyes staring intently at Teal. None of them were looking, but her expression was intent, ardent, and alight with sudden hope.