The first secret passage was in the upstairs hallway, behind a grandfather clock. The door itself was a pretty tight squeeze for most of them—especially Trissiny, who despite being slimmer than most found her armor ill-suited to cramped spaces—and the dark spiraling stairwell behind it not much better.
It opened at the bottom, after enough turns to be well below ground level, onto some sort of makeshift museum. The long basement room was illuminated by dim fairy lamps which cast it into a maze of shadows, many of its contents reduced to blurs. They could see a variety of statuary, though, as well as several racks of armor, weapons and tapestries hung on the walls, a few bookcases and multiple free-standing displays, showing an assortment of objects on cushions behind glass. Malivette glided straight through this, not giving them time to examine anything, and opened the second secret passage. This was behind a tapestry, and involved pressing a certain brick to cause the wall behind it to swing inward with a coarse rasp of stone on stone.
“You are extending a great deal of trust,” Shaeine observed as they followed the vampire into the dark passage beyond. “I would never have expected to be shown the secrets of your manor in this fashion. Particularly after we intruded upon you so abruptly.”
“There, you see?” Malivette said, grinning over her shoulder at Trissiny. “That is how you express suspicion politely. The prospect that I’m leading you into a dark hole to murder you all is obliquely touched upon without hurting my feelings.”
“You’re not going to murder us,” Trissiny said flatly. “We may or may not be a match for you, but nothing you do will substantially harm Juniper or Vadrieny. Or, possibly, the rest of us. Speaking of discussing things obliquely, I assumed it didn’t need to be said that nobody here wanted to start an unwinnable fight.”
“There are fights, and then there are fights,” Malivette mused, turning her head back to face the darkness before them. The passageway was long and slowly spiraled downward, illuminated only by magical lights spaced so widely that they were just barely within sight of each other around the curve. They weren’t modern fairy lamps, but classical magefire torches: blue, silent and emitting no heat. “You think I’m afraid to die? I’d regret abandoning my girls, but…existence isn’t such a great deal in my circumstances. It’s how one dies that one should consider. You know how Professor Tellwyrn convinced me to come out of my house and attend the University?”
“We weren’t told the story,” Toby said after the silence began to stretch out.
“We made a deal,” said their hostess. “She hunted down the vampire who attacked my family and turned me, and brought me his head. I was almost offended at how quickly she managed it; I’d devoted every effort to the task myself, and nothing. Took her two days. Hmph.”
“Well, that’s…interesting,” said Fross. “You’re probably the only University initiate who was enrolled in exchange for a killing.”
“I’m not prepared to assume that,” Teal muttered.
“Oh, she didn’t kill him,” Malivette said softly.
“Uh…wait, you said she brought his head?” Toby asked hesitantly. “Isn’t that…how you kill a vampire?”
“You have to destroy the head,” Trissiny said, staring at Malivette’s slender back.
“I have him in a jar,” the vampire said cheerfully. “Actually, in the relic room we just passed through. He’s thinking about what he did.”
“Oh, I see,” Fross said thoughtfully. “That’s extravagantly horrible.”
Teal swallowed heavily.
“The point being,” Malivette continued in the same bright tone, “no one who has any idea what they’re doing starts a fight with Tellwyrn. That means not assaulting her students. I assure you, goslings, you are perfectly safe with me. I flatter myself that I am rather an effective menace in my own right—perhaps comparable to your class, come to think of it. I won’t let any harm come to you. That’s a promise. If you don’t believe it, though, believe I know who Professor Tellwyrn is and I don’t want her coming after my head.”
“Fair enough, I suppose,” Trissiny murmured.
Malivette glanced back at her again, smiling in amusement. Her eyes gleamed faintly in the dimness—not lit from within, but reflecting more light than seemed normal, yet without the off-color sheen of a cat’s. “I assume you kids have seen this before. She gets rather aggressive around demons or undead or the like, yes?”
“Ah,” Teal said carefully, “how to put this diplomatically…”
“Yes,” said Shaeine.
The vampire chuckled. “Have you bothered to explain the instinct to them, Trissiny?”
“What’s to explain?” she snapped.
Malivette’s expression grew more thoughtful. “You’ve never… Has anyone explained it to you?”
“Again, what’s to explain? I’m a paladin. It’s my calling to seek out and destroy evil.”
“You’re a paladin of Avei,” Malivette corrected. “You’ll find the Hands of Omnu, Salyrene and others mostly have a more defensive mindset. It’s not just doctrine, Trissiny. Did the Sisters truly never tell you about this? You have instincts. You are a predator. In the presence of the unnatural, you’ll be driven to strike. We’re a lot alike, you and I.”
“You’re compelled to hunt and destroy monsters,” Malivette murmured. “I, to hunt and consume people. We both restrain ourselves for a similar blend of ethical and practical reasons. It’s a lonely life, one even the people closest to you will never truly understand. You’ll always have that empty place inside you, the craving, the need for self-control. I can relate to you a lot more than you may be willing to believe.”
“I don’t… You’re talking nonsense,” Trissiny said, though her voice was less certain than her words. “There’s no reason to reach for some metaphysical justification. I have the training…”
“And the indoctrination!” Fross chimed.
“And the personality,” Juniper added.
“Let me ask you this, then,” said Malivette. “What were you like before being called? Would you have described yourself as an aggressive person?”
Silence fell over the group as they descended, and weighed down ever more heavily the longer it stretched out. Malivette kept her back to them, leading the way down into darkness; Trissiny stared blankly ahead, her brow furrowed.
“I can’t imagine any reason the Sisters would have deliberately failed to tell you what you need to know about your calling,” the vampire murmured at last. “Perhaps they don’t remember. There was a long gap between paladins, and they’d been dwindling for many years before that. Even as mortals accumulate knowledge across generations, things do slip through the cracks of memory, and the gods are powerfully disinclined to explain themselves, even to their faithful.”
“Have…you ever heard of the Silver Huntresses?” Trissiny asked quietly.
Malivette glanced back at her. “I’ve read about the Silver Huntresses. I think it has been a very long time since anyone heard about them. Ah, here we are.”
Indeed, the spiraling corridor ended abruptly in a flat wall, in which was set a heavy door of undressed oak timbers bound in thick bands of iron. Malivette produced a key apparently out of her sleeve and unlocked it, then tugged the door open and turned to wink at them.
“Mind your feet, my dears. The first step’s a doozy.”
So saying, she darted through, leaving them to follow more carefully.
The room below was cavernous, large enough to swallow the average village church. Despite being cut into perfectly rectangular dimensions, it had clearly been carved out of the living stone of the mountain. In a few places, uneven sections of the wall where natural fissures existed were filled in with neatly mortared stonework. Brilliant fairy lamps lined the walls, casting the space in gleaming brightness. Beyond that, the room’s features were exceedingly peculiar.
The door stood at least a story off the ground, with a brief metal platform extending into space and a chain-link ladder hanging from it to the floor. Suspended from the ceiling were half a dozen large tanks, held in place by enormous bands of steel bolted securely into the rock above. Most interestingly, there was a pattern of metal set into the floor, forming three concentric rectangles on the ground. The room outside them was empty; in the center sat what appeared to be a very elaborate alchemy lab, with cages filled with squeaking rats and barrels and crates of storage off to one side.
“Welcome to my little science project!” Malivette said proudly, throwing wide her arms in a gesture reminiscent of Professor Rafe. She barely waited until they had all descended the ladder before setting off for the lab in the middle of the room. “I will have to insist that you remain outside the yellow lines, both for operational security and your own safety ow ow ow!”
As the vampire stepped across the first band of gold in the floor, steam erupted from her skin and she cringed in apparent pain. Despite this, she continued on over the next two.
“Three barriers might ow ow ow seem excessive, but once I’ve explained ow ow ow what we’re doing down here, I think you’ll agree that too way much security is probably the right amount. You see, those bands of gold in the floor form divine barriers calibrated specifically to destroy undead. Now, I’m not much harmed by them for the same basic reason Juniper wouldn’t be much weakened—I’m a very high class of undead. But they suffice as security for what we’ve got in here. There’s more, too! See those tanks?”
Mutely, they craned their necks back to follow her pointing finger, studying the tanks bolted to the ceiling. “Those are part of a failsafe—they are filled with holy water! If one of our experimental subjects escapes—even just one—they’ll burst and flood the whole room.”
“Um, should you be standing there, then?” Juniper asked nervously.
Malivette waved a hand airily. “They’re very unlikely to misfire, and anyway, I believe I’ve already mentioned my thoughts on my own death. There are also metal plates set into the walls all around this room on all sides. Teleported directly into the living stone! The enchantments on them provide a variety of extra barriers, as well as the detection spells that keep the security measures in here functioning correctly, and others that will notify my Imperial sponsors if something truly bad happens down here.”
“This…is sponsored by the Empire?” Trissiny asked, slowly peering around.
“Well, of course! Do you know how much all this cost?” Malivette grinned, pointing at the metal bands in the floor. “That’s gold. I mean, I’ve got family money and some existing business interests, but come on. It takes a government to just drop this kind of cash into a research project that may or may not bear fruit. House Madouri could do it; House Dufresne has to be a great deal more conservative.”
“What are you doing, precisely?” Shaeine inquired, studying the alchemy lab.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Fross chimed. “She’s researching a cure for vampirism!”
“Well done!” Malivette crowed. “They said you were a smart pixie!”
“That explains the necromantic materials,” Trissiny said slowly.
“Indeed!” Malivette preened, crossing over to the cages. “To cure a disease, you need test subjects, and the use of animals for experiments is established protocol. So of course, the tricky part is creating a safe environment in which to do the research. In this case, that means an environment guaranteed to destroy the test subjects if they even think too hard about getting out. Obviously, letting rats carrying the vampire curse loose is an absolutely unacceptable prospect, so security must be absolute.” She unfastened a cage, reached inside and pulled out a squirming, squealing rat. “Like so.”
The vampire hurled the creature directly at them. As one the group shied back, Trissiny’s aura flaring alight, but the rat never reached them. It burst into flames as it crossed over the first of the lines in the floor; by the time it reached the air above the third, there weren’t even ashes left.
They slowly eased back, staring at Malivette, who stood beaming proudly over her lab.
“How did you figure out she was studying a cure, Fross?” Toby asked after a long moment.
“Well, I mean, it’s obvious she was researching necromancy, and it’s not like the Empire would support her in making more vampires. Or worse ones.”
“Oh, yes they would,” Malivette said in a much grimmer tone. “The hardest part of getting all this set up was arranging it so that I had loopholes around Imperial security. So that I could share the results of my research without getting charged with high treason. Well, they may charge me anyway, but I’ve got the best lawyers in existence; it won’t even go to trial.”
“Why would the Empire want to keep this secret?” Teal asked. “If you could cure vampirism…that’d be fantastic news. For everyone!”
“Governments,” Shaeine said quietly, “want power.”
“Bingo.” Malivette pointed at the drow. “If you could make a vampire, then unmake it… If you could effectively make temporary vampires, why, as long as you held a monopoly on that power, you would have the best soldiers, the best agents in existence. Vampires in our native state are apex predators; governments have tried to control my kind before, with disastrous results. Imagine what a caged lion would do to its captors if it could bend steel, turn to mist, tear people in half bare-handed…” She stopped, drew in a deep breath and let it out, visibly composing herself. “Well. I consider myself as patriotic as the next accursed social pariah in a position of unmerited political power, but with all respect to his Majesty, no government needs that kind of power. What the world needs to to be free of vampires, permanently. Finding a cure and spreading it to the four winds…that is my life’s work. Unlife. Whatever.”
“I’m sorry,” Trissiny said quietly. “I…misjudged you. Badly.”
“No, you didn’t,” Malivette said kindly. “To misjudge someone, Trissiny, you have to exercise judgment, and you didn’t quite get to that step. Those instincts of yours will serve you well, provided you keep them firmly under control. Work on that, kiddo. In any case, apology accepted.”
Toby laughed suddenly, then looked sheepish when they all turned to stare incredulously at them. “Ah…sorry, I just had a random thought. The nobility in this town is really fond of building divine prisons in their basements.”
Outside the embassy, Bishop Shahai surprised them by hailing a cab.
“To the Temple of Avei, please,” she said politely to the uncertain-looking cabbie as Principia and the rest of the squad filed into the vehicle.
“Ah…beggin’ yer pardon, ma’am,” he said respectfully, “but this carriage is only barely meant to seat six passengers, and not designed with armored troops in mind. It’s, er, gonna be a slowish trip. If I strain the charms…”
“That’s quite all right,” Shahai said kindly. “We are not in a rush.”
She climbed in last, and turned to slide shut the window separating the interior from the cabbie’s seat up front, gently enough to avoid the semblance of slamming it in his face. Almost immediately, the vehicle started moving. True to the driver’s word, it didn’t go as fast as the surrounding traffic (to the audible annoyance of other drivers), and there was a subtle, gravelly undertone to the low arcane hum that sounded from its wheel enchantments.
“Sergeant,” said Shahai, “I understand you are an enchanter?”
“Of quite minimal skill, ma’am.”
“Are you able to lay a silencing spell on the windows of this vehicle?”
Principia frowned pensively. “Not a strong one, not without enchanting dusts and some tools… I could make one that works partially for several hours or one that works well for a few minutes.”
“A few minutes should suffice; I would prefer greater security.”
“Do you need quiet, your Grace, or just don’t want to be overheard? Or both?”
Shahai tilted her head. “It matters?”
“Somewhat. A simple spell can block sound going one way; it’s not much more complicated to block it both ways, but there’s no point in wasting the energy if you don’t need to.”
“Ah. Then no, arrange it so we will not be overheard. In fact, I would prefer to be able to hear what goes on outside.”
“On it,” said Principia, leaning forward to press her palm against the window. She closed her eyes and fell still.
“Y’know, Sarge,” Merry commented when Principia turned to repeat the procedure on one of the side doors, “for as long as you’ve lived, I’m surprised you have only minimal competence at…well, anything.”
“It’s all about motivation, Lang,” Principia replied a moment later as she crossed to do the opposite door. “Arcane magic is practically taboo to elves. I really only took it up to piss off my mother; when it comes down to it, there are other skills I’d rather use.”
She repeated the brief exercise with the rear window before re-settling herself in her seat. “All secure, ma’am. The carriage is soundproof.”
“Good,” Shahai said serenely. “I would rather not tip off our driver. We will, obviously, need to kill him.”
For a moment, there was stunned quiet inside the carriage, broken only by the noise of traffic from outside. Shahai turned her head to watch the driver through the front window; everyone else gaped at her.
“W-w-what?” Farah stuttered after a moment.
“It was a test,” Casey said tersely. “She’s seeing if he can hear us. At least, I devoutly hope so,” she added under her breath.
“Quite right, Elwick,” Shahai said, giving her a smile. “And indeed, Sergeant Locke’s work appears to be satisfactory. We must have a brief discussion, ladies, before reaching the temple, and it must not be overheard. The Temple of Avei is not designed with such security in mind, and considering the subject matter, I choose to err on the side of paranoia. At issue is what we saw in the Conclave’s embassy.”
“What did we see, ma’am?” Ephanie asked.
“Several important things,” said Shahai, “but the most urgent is the presence of that succubus. You have studied Vanislaads briefly during your training, but let me reiterate that those creatures are incalculably dangerous. Not physically or even magically, but as agents of chaos and destruction. The existence of one openly in the city changes many equations. I will brief the High Commander on this, of course, in private. Apart from that, it is to be kept an absolute secret. You will not discuss the matter even amongst yourselves. Is that clear?”
She waited to receive verbal confirmation from all of them before continuing. “Red dragons are by a wide margin the safest and most reliable practitioners of infernal magic. The demon is clearly in the custody of Razzavinax the Red; this is the only circumstance in which I am willing to consider the situation even theoretically contained. We will need more information, however. Further, there is the complex issue of how this impacts our own mission.” She leaned back in her seat, staring pensively at the ceiling. “The dragons extended an unexpected amount of trust by allowing us to see that… And I can’t imagine that they’re keeping it from the Empire. The Sisterhood will have to make some kind of response, but it must be a measured one. There is an opportunity here, a potentially great one. It may be one we cannot separate from an unacceptable risk, however…”
“Um…” Farah raised her hand tentatively. “Sarge, why didn’t you just ask Zanzayed what he wanted? I thought that was the whole point of the visit.”
“Not time for that yet,” Principia replied, watching Shahai.
“Indeed,” the Bishop nodded. “This is not that kind of game. Not yet, at least. We extracted a concession from Zanzayed and ended the meeting on those terms. Later, we will ask for information from him in a carefully arranged context that does not cede any further ground. The Conclave already has too many advantages.”
Farah sighed. “It just seems to me… With matters this important being up in the air, is it really the time for games like this? Wouldn’t it be better if everybody just talked? Openly and honestly.”
“Most politicians would call you naïve for expressing such a sentiment,” Shahai said with a smile. “Not without a good point, either, but that does not change the fact that you are entirely correct. Open, honest communication would be better. For that to work, though, everyone involved would have to act in good faith and with mutual trust, and the reality is that many…won’t. The risk of offering such trust where it is not earned is simply too great. And so, we play our games.”
“This looks like a game everybody could lose,” Merry said. “Hard.”
“Yes,” Shahai agreed. “We must be certain that we do not lose.” She rubbed her chin with a finger, still frowning into the distance in thought. “If possible, we should protect as many others as we can…”
“Some people don’t deserve protecting,” Principia observed.
Shahai shook her head. “Don’t bother dealing in what people deserve, Locke. In the best case scenario, you’ll only shine a light on the question of what you deserve. Do you want people digging into that?”
Only silence answered her.
It was an equally long walk back to the main floors of the manor, and a harder one as it was all uphill; the group was not only pensive, but quite tired by the time they trooped back into the entrance hall. Between that unplanned excursion and the morning’s trouble at the barracks, weariness was starting to wear down on them.
They emerged into the wide front room alone, Malivette having bid them a cheery farewell at the door to her own room. The students weren’t alone for long, however.
“Ah, there you are,” said Jade, waving to them from the floor below. “Good timing. You have a visitor, kids.”
“Us?” Trissiny stepped up to the head of the stairs and frowned down at the other figure standing just inside the door. “Corporal Timms?”
“Aw, how’d you recognize me?” the soldier said cheerily, shrugging off her heavy cloak.
“I don’t think that disguise is going to fool anyone, Corporal,” said Toby, beginning to descend the stairs.
“Oh, let me have my fun,” she replied. “Listen, this isn’t a social call. I wanted to bring you kids into the loop about what happened at the barracks today.”
“We’re listening,” said Trissiny, coming down the steps after Toby. The others followed more slowly.
Timms glanced curiously across the group before continuing. “First off, I want to clarify where I stand. I’m not averse to bending a regulation here or there if it’s a matter of principle, but I am a soldier in the Emperor’s service, and I have a very high opinion of Colonel Adjavegh. So don’t expect anything from me that contradicts either of those loyalties.”
“So noted,” said Toby, smiling. “We’d never ask it of you anyway.”
“With that said,” she continued, “the Colonel is a very by-the-book leader. He was brought in to Veilgrad for that specific reason; the base here got a little weird before he came and straightened things out. We’re in a scenario the book doesn’t cover, though, and that means…unconventional measures. If you need help with that kind of thing, best advice I can give is to get in touch with Major Razsha.”
“I’d already developed that impression,” said Trissiny. “You said Veilgrad was weird before all this. How so?”
“I said the base was weird. The fortress here has always been a research post—in fact, the whole town has. There are multiple Imperial facilities in the city, working on multiple projects. Civilian personnel, mostly, though several of them do have soldiers posted. That ties in to what I came here to warn you about.” Timms frowned in pure displeasure, folding her arms. “The fire was no accident. That was an attack.”
“We had that impression,” said Shaeine.
“And it was a successful attack,” Timms carried on. “It’s only thanks to your intervention that we didn’t lose lives in that. It was messy, and… Well, you know, you were there. Whoever firebombed the infirmary wing was after the research lab directly under it. They were developing experimental weapons, and the lot of them were stolen.”
They digested this in silence for a moment.
“Uh, what kind of weapons?” Fross asked.
“I am not privy to classified details,” the Corporal said sanctimoniously. “I have very carefully avoided becoming privy to classified details so as to exploit a loophole that has stood up in court before: I can tell you what little I do know without running afoul of security regulations. Just from scuttlebutt around the base, I can tell you they were developing magical weapons based on the Circles of Interaction, trying to equip common soldiers to be able to counter spellcasters. The goal was to make something as portable and easy to use as a standard battlestaff.”
“What kind of casters are they meant to work against?” Trissiny demanded. “How many are there? How complete are they? Do they work?”
Timms shrugged expressively. “Like I said, General Avelea, what I know, I just told you. I’m not generally going to come running to you with sensitive information, but this seemed urgent. You lot are obviously planning to keep poking around Veilgrad; you need to know that someone else is active in the city. Someone capable of raiding an Imperial Army fortress, and now with…whatever it was they took. I know it’s not much, but I didn’t want you to be completely blindsided.”
“We greatly appreciate that,” said Shaeine.
“Who could do something like that?” Juniper wondered. “I mean…it’s the Army. They mostly know what they’re doing, right?”
“Oh, the speeches I could give on that,” Timms said dryly. “But yeah, that is the big question. I wasn’t aware of any single group in Veilgrad that had this kind of capability.”
“It sounded like a fairly simple plan, though, right?” said Fross. “Make a distraction and then steal the weapons? Simple plans are usually best.”
“I don’t yet know the full details of how the attack was carried out, and I may not have the clearance to learn what is known,” said Timms. “It’s all classified, anyway.”
“Could the Thieves’ Guild do this?” Trissiny asked, narrowing her eyes. “I suppose you’re the person to ask: who heads the Guild in Veilgrad?”
Corporal Timms grinned and raised a hand. “Yo.”
“I…” Trissiny blinked. “You?”
“Look more shocked, wouldja? Yeah, I understand where you’re coming from, but trust me when I said the Guild was nowhere near this. It’s not our style, it’s way against our policies, and more immediately, we don’t have the means. The Thieves’ Guild in Veilgrad is four people who meet for drinks once a week. Being in charge mostly means I have to cover everyone’s tab. Our old headquarters is currently being leased to the Omnists, who are running a soup kitchen out of it. The cult of Eserion in this town is only barely still a thing.”
“Wait, four?” Teal exclaimed. “I’m sorry, but… Veilgrad is a pretty wealthy town for its size. There’s lots of trade, mining, logging…”
“It’s not about having,” said Timms, looking more serious. “It’s about taking. The Guild exists to humble the arrogant elite, not to just grab whatever isn’t nailed down. Yeah, we’ve been a big presence in Veilgrad in times past; the period between the fall of House Dufresne and the fall of House Leduc was very busy for us. We had dozens of people here, working almost non-stop; the Leducs were the kind of assholes who always needed a comeuppance. But these days…” She shrugged. “Grusser’s both competent and a decent fellow, and our only remaining nobility both keep to themselves. Sherwin doesn’t even have anything worth taking these days, and stealing from Malivette just isn’t any fun.”
“Fun,” Trissiny said flatly.
Timms grinned. “We hit a few of her warehouses; she took to leaving tea and cookies out for us. Not even drugged or anything, just being hospitable. The gall. And then, the last person who tried to hit Dufresne Manor itself ended up, well…” She raised an eyebrow, turning to one side. “How are you doing these days, Jade? Been a while since we spoke.”
“Tip top, Cassidy,” Jade said with a smile. “Thanks for asking.”
“Anyway, we dwindled,” Timms said, turning back to Trissiny. “Folks trickled off in search of greener pastures. There are enough rich abusers in the city to keep a bare handful of us busy and profitable, but only just. As the local underboss, let me just go on record that if you can find whoever’s causing all this bullshit, my people will be there to help take ’em down. All four of us.”
Teal cleared her throat. “Um, there’s something else. This might be a little sensitive…”
“No,” said Trissiny, nodding to her. “She shared information; we should do the same. They have an immediate need to know, anyway.” She turned back to Corporal Timms. “There’s someone else now active in Veilgrad who definitely could assault the Army and get away with it, and probably could learn enough about classified programs to know where to strike.”
“I’m not gonna like this, am I,” Timms said resignedly.
Trissiny shook her head. “The Black Wreath is here.”