“What is a vampire?” Hesthri demanded.
The carriage went over a bump, jostling them all and causing Natchua to growl wordlessly as she had to scramble to sustain the plate-sized spell circle she was crafting in midair between them out of lines of fire.
“A vampire is an apex shadow magic creation,” Melaxyna replied. Unlike the rest of them, she appeared perfectly relaxed, having spun around on the carriage bench to lean her back against Sherwin’s shoulder, with one leg extended to brace a bare foot against the door. “The only monsters of any significant power that don’t derive their nature from any of the four primary schools of magic. It’s…a lot to go over, actually, what’s immediately relevant is that most of them are not to be trifled with. There are different blood lineages with different powers, as I understand it. Malivette Dufresne is a pretty heavy hitter.”
“Uh…huh,” Hesthri said slowly, wide-eyed. “And why are we just passively going along to her house, then?”
“Because she demanded it,” Sherwin said bitterly. “Which she can only sort of do, legally, but it’s the vampire part that concerns me more than the Imperial governor part.”
“Is it?” Jonathan grunted. “I’m a bit more concerned that a vampire is an Imperial governor.”
“Makes sense to me!” Melaxyna said lightly. “You want a governor who won’t be pushed around, right? And if she’s also an object of fear and revulsion, you don’t have to worry about her building a power base and leading a rebellion. Maybe all the Imperial governors should be vampires!”
“I wouldn’t make suggestions like that in front of Vette,” Sherwin advised. “The vampire who gave her the curse also wiped out her entire family.”
A strained quiet fell, in which they stared at each other and listened to the grinding of the carriage’s wheels and the clopping of hooves that pulled it along.
“Okay,” Hesthri said at last. “New question, then. How are we going to fight her?”
“No fighting!” Sherwin insisted, actually shrugging Melaxyna off to straighten up with an alarmed expression. “You may’ve got the wrong impression from that ‘heavy hitter’ talk—Malivette isn’t a thing like me or Natchua, or Mel, or you. She is off the Circle of Interaction entirely, which means there’s no easy counter to her powers. And her powers are just ridiculous to begin with. I’m frankly not sure the whole group of us could take her down in a fight, if it was her alone. But she’ll have her whole gaggle of thralls around, so that’s not even slightly possible.”
“Oh,” the hethelax said in a very small voice, leaning forward to look at Jonathan. The two of them were separated by Natchua on the bench. He shifted to meet Hesthri’s eyes, and started to reach across to take her hand, which brought his own close to the circle Natchua was creating in the air.
“Out of the way!” she barked.
“It’s not exactly all bad,” Sherwin added, almost grudgingly. “Vette probably won’t do anything too violent to us, for the other reason we shouldn’t try it on her.”
“Other reason?” Jonathan said incredulously.
“Imperial governor, remember?” Melaxyna prompted with a grin.
Sherwin nodded in sour agreement. “Even if we could take her, there’d be hell to pay. Likewise, she can’t just up and murder a bunch of people.”
“Why not?” Jonathan asked in his driest tone. “Aristocrats do that all the time. Who the hell cares about us?”
“I am the last member and nominal Head of House Leduc,” Sherwin said with a heavy sigh. “It’s not exactly a conventional situation up here, but Houses Leduc and Dufresne have been feuding and struggling over the control of Veilgrad and Lower Stalwar Province for generations. Only thing that kept it from getting nasty was the rest of the Houses watching the situation. The Empire wouldn’t give a crap about anything that happened to me, but if the vampire aristocrat was even implicated in my demise, the other Houses would raise a stink until the Silver Throne had to come down on her. They can’t have her bumping off competition, especially since nothing in any of their arsenals would even slow Vette down. Nobles reliably freak out about anything that even smells like a threat to their power, so she can’t afford to be anything but a model citizen. Fucking politics,” he added in a sullen grumble, crossing his arms and leaning his head against Melaxyna’s. “This crap is why I never leave the house.”
“Oh,” Jonathan said neutrally, “is that why.”
Sherwin narrowed his eyes at him, while Melaxyna grinned. Jonathan, meanwhile, shifted his attention to Natchua.
“Do you really have to do that right here and now? I’d at least like to know how much cancer we can all expect to get from being this close to hasty infernomancy.”
“Nothing I ever do will be so uncontained as to cause splash effects,” Natchua sneered.
“She’s right, that spell is fully inert beyond its boundaries,” Sherwin added. “Very tight confinement work. That’s the most important skill a warlock can have, you know. Which is not to say I can tell what she’s doing; I’ve never seen anything remotely like that.”
“The Black Wreath would make anybody they caught doing this disappear,” Natchua said, eyes on her spell. “Since the whole plan is to go after them before they even think to come after us, worrying about that would seem somewhat redundant. And no, Jonathan, I would rather not be doing this here and now. Handling it in a moving carriage makes it orders of magnitude more difficult. Circumstances have kind of forced my hand, though. There.” She lowered her hands, and the glowing runic circle remained in midair, rotating slowly and remaining perfectly in position relative to the carriage. Natchua snapped her fingers and opened her palm, and a dagger dropped from the empty air into her grasp, a short knife with a wickedly sinuously blade whose cutting edge glowed as if red-hot.
“Whoah, now,” Melaxyna said, finally looking somewhat perturbed.
“Hesthri, give me your hand,” Natchua ordered.
Hesthri immediately scooted away from her against the side of the carriage, tucking her hands against her chest and frowning. “What? Why? What are you going to do?”
“There is not time to go into it!” Natchua snapped. “I’m not going to hurt you; I didn’t go to the considerable trouble of tracking you down to treat you wastefully. But you also weren’t called here for a vacation! You agreed to follow my orders on this campaign, and if you’ve decided you’re not going to do that, you may as well go right back where you were.”
“Hey,” Jonathan said sharply, “don’t talk to her like that!”
“Hush, boy,” Melaxyna drawled. “Every word she just said was right. This whole scheme is crazy, but we did all agree to follow the drow, and by implication, trust her. Anybody who’s having second thoughts urgently needs to fuck off.”
Hesthri drew in a sharp breath as if anticipating pain, but then extended her hand to Natchua, albeit with some hesitation.
The drow seized her index finger with her left hand, and with her right, very carefully began trimming away the claw on her fingertip. Hesthri winced, watching, but did not twitch.
“Huh,” Sherwin grunted, peering at this in fascination. “I thought hethelax armor was completely invulnerable.”
“Not to that thing,” Melaxyna said in a tight voice, her eyes now locked on the dagger. “How did you get your hands on one without tipping off the Wreath? I thought they hid all of those away.”
“They did,” Natchua said absently, focusing on her work. “I made this one myself. There we go.” She released Hesthri’s hand and the hethelax immediately snatched it back, retreating again to the edge of the bench. “That should grow back on its own, Hesthri. If it hasn’t started in a couple of days, let me know and I’ll fix it. Are you okay? That wasn’t supposed to hurt.”
“No,” Hesthri said, grimacing and holding up her declawed finger. “I mean, yes. I mean—I’m fine, it doesn’t hurt. Just feels weird.”
Natchua carefully dropped the trimmed claw into the circle of glowing lines, where it immediately snapped to the center and hung there. “Your turn, Mel. Hand.”
“What?” Melaxyna squealed, abruptly scrabbling away from Sherwin. “Me? Why?!”
“Hush, girl,” Jonathan said solemnly. “We’re doing as the nice warlock orders, remember?”
“Jonathan Arquin,” Natchua growled, “we have established that you’re here explicitly because I don’t have the heart to kill or disappear you. If you’re going to do shit like that, my mind can change. If the succubus can refrain from needling everybody, you have no excuse. Mel, we don’t have time for this, we’re getting closer to the vampire’s lair by the second. Give me your hand.”
Melaxyna whined like a kicked dog and made gruesome faces, but obeyed, even more hesitantly than Hesthri had. Natchua had to reach out, seize her wrist, and haul her hand closer, but the actual procedure was much quicker: she simply jabbed the succubus’s fingertip with the knife’s point, causing an entirely excessive squeal of pain.
A single drop of black blood welled up. Natchua released Melaxyna, who yanked her arm back, but the droplet remained behind. The warlock gestured and it drifted through the air to join the slice of hethelax claw.
Instantly the entire circle snapped inward, forming a tiny ball of fire around the two joined specimens. That burned out in half a second, emitting a puff of acrid smoke and leaving behind a blob of viscous black substance with an oily sheen on its rippling surface. It undulated and squirmed in midair.
“If that’s what I think it is,” Sherwin said warily, “I can see why the Black Wreath wouldn’t want you doing it. Or anyone, for that matter.”
“And…what do you think it is?” Jonathan asked in the same tone.
Natchua simply took the wriggling thing between her thumb and forefinger; it squirmed but failed to escape. “All right, Mel, other hand.”
“Whyyyyy,” Melaxyna whined. “Come on, I already donated! It’s her turn again!”
This time, Natchua simply pointed at her with the hand not holding the blob, and chain of orange fire lashed out of her fingertip, twined around one of the succubus’s arms, and dragged it closer. Before Melaxyna could react further, she dropped the blob right into her palm.
It immediately sank into her skin and vanished.
“What did you do?!” Melaxyna squalled, struggling so violently the carriage rocked. “Get it out! What is that? So help me, you knife-eared little darkling freak, if you’ve—”
She broke off suddenly, as the other hand which she’d raised in a fist was suddenly encased in a black gauntlet with spikes protruding from the knuckles.
“Oh, no,” Sherwin whispered. “Natchua, what have you done?”
“Good,” Natchua said approvingly, ignoring him. She let go of the glowing dagger and it vanished, freeing her hand to pull out her mundane belt knife. “It’s made with your own blood, so it should sync directly with your native shapeshifting and give you full intuitive control. Make a gauntlet on your other hand.”
The other hand was still imprisoned by the chain, which did not prevent Melaxyna from obeying. A second gauntlet formed over her skin.
Natchua lashed out with elven speed, stabbing the blade right at the center of Melaxyna’s palm. It impacted the armor with an impotent clink, snapping off its tip. The gauntlet was not so much as scratched.
Melaxyna’s expression morphed to one of incredulous delight. “Best. Boss. Ever.”
“D-did you just give hethelax invulnerability to a succubus?” Jonathan breathed. “Natchua, no!”
“Natchua, yes!” Melaxyna crowed.
“Pardon me while I just double-check that the wards in here are actually preventing those thralls from hearing this,” Sherwin muttered.
“It’s not total invulnerability,” Natchua explained, finally dismissing the fiery chain and releasing Melaxyna’s arm. “Your shapeshifting has been, in a word, upgraded: you can now create armor which, yes, inherits hethelax invulnerability. That means it’s vulnerable to all the things you already are, like divine magic and valkyrie scythes. The theory is you should be able to alter the appearance as you see fit; you can make ordinary-looking clothes that will stop a wandshot, or a full suit of armor. Whatever you like. And the point of all this,” she added more loudly as three people drew breath to begin protesting, “is to have an ace up our sleeves! Just because Malivette Dufresne is generally disinclined to murder us all does not mean she can’t, and in case I need to remind you lot, we have a notable lack of legal standing, here. Of all four schools, infernal users are least equipped to deal with a vampire, or with undead in general. I want to go in there with at least something Dufresne isn’t expecting and won’t have a convenient way to handle, just in case, and this is the only idea I had prepared.”
“Well,” Hesthri said after a short silence, “you’ve absolutely just created a crisis for somebody somewhere down the line, but that’s the future. I guess right now we’d better concentrate on dealing with the vampire. So if we can’t fight her or run away, what the hell are we going to tell her?”
“I was counting on our presence here being a secret,” Natchua said, giving Sherwin a look.
“Oh, don’t scowl at me,” he snapped. “If you didn’t know her vampire senses would spot you landing here, how the hell would I?”
“The point is, I didn’t plan for this! I don’t have a story that would explain this group and I don’t know how fast I can cobble one together.”
“I dunno if you even can,” said Jonathan. “Unless you actually work for the Empire, the Church, or the Topaz College, summoning sapient demons is pretty damn illegal. Summoning a Vanislaad is the kind of illegal that gets you locked up for life!”
“Well, everybody’s clear, there,” Melaxyna said absently while changing the appearance of both her armored gloves and admiring them. “Natch didn’t summon me, I was already on this plane. Arachne can vouch for that, if it comes down to it.”
“That’s true,” Sherwin agreed, “and merely consorting with a Vanislaad isn’t a crime. The presumption of the law is that anybody entangled with them is probably a victim of their manipulation.”
“That’s the dumbest law I ever heard of,” Hesthri scoffed.
“Yeah, you’re welcome,” Sherwin grumbled. “House Leduc called in a lot of favors to get Empress Theasia to institute that one. Gods, am I glad my whole family is dead. Legally speaking, we’re in trouble, here, but not mortal trouble. The hethelax is a relatively minor threat…”
“This hethelax in particular is going to create waves if the Empire identifies her,” Jonathan said grimly, “which they might from my presence alone.”
“Vette isn’t the Empire,” Sherwin offered. “And she has her own reasons for not wanting attention called to her business. We can spin this, hopefully in a way she’ll go along with, but… Honestly, Natchua, we may have to just tell her what’s going on.”
The carriage lurched as it came to a stop.
“Time’s up,” Natchua said fatalistically. “Looks like we play it by ear.”
Further discussion was precluded by the opening of the carriage door.
“Welcome,” Ruby said pleasantly, stepping back and gesturing them out with a graceful bow. “Please, honored guests, this way.”
They disembarked one by one, feet crunching on the gravel drive. The gravel, at least, looked relatively fresh, unlike the waist-high weeds which choked the surrounding lawn. Before them, the manor house itself was largely covered by climbing ivy.
“Do the nobles here just not bother taking care of their property?” Melaxyna muttered. “At least this place looks better than yours, Sherwin.”
“The nobles here don’t want company,” he said pointedly.
“How’s she govern the province, then?” Hesthri asked, equally pointedly.
“The actual administration is done by her steward, Grusser, down in the city,” Sherwin explained, already shuffling toward the mansion’s front door. Natchua caught up in two long strides and then held back to glide along at his shoulder. The rest followed more warily, Jonathan pausing to peer at the stone obelisk which stood in the middle of the circle drive.
The manor’s front doors opened before the reached the steps, and two more women emerged, also wearing striking evening gowns. So far all of Malivette’s attendants were beautiful young women of local Stalweiss extraction, and all were uniformed in extravagant dresses that were identical apart from being color-coded. Ruby and Jade had driven them in the carriage, garbed in red and green respectively: these were in white and blue.
“Sapphire and Diamond, yes?” Melaxyna prompted.
“Pearl,” Sherwin corrected her.
“Welcome,” said Sapphire courteously. “Please, step this—”
“Yeah, yeah, spare me,” Sherwin interrupted her, stomping up the front stairs. “Nobody but you has the energy to pretend this is a polite social call. Let’s get this bullshit over with.”
“He’s not used to being around people,” Melaxyna said apologetically.
“We’re familiar with Lord Leduc,” Pearl replied with a smile. “We wouldn’t dream of disturbing his solitude except at great need.”
“Ladies,” Jonathan said far more politely, bowing to each of them before entering.
“If any of you were thinking of trying something, let me just repeat: do not.” Inside the remarkably bare front hall of Manor Dufresne, Sherwin paused to turn a warning look on the rest of his party. “Vampire thralls are as strong as a human in good shape, and as fast and agile as elves. They’re basically Butlers, functionally. In fact, my pet theory is that’s literally what Butlers are, since nobody’s seen whoever leads the Service Society in the eighty-odd years since it was founded.”
“Good guess, but no!”
They all jumped at the voice which came from the top of the staircase before them. A moment ago no one had been there, but now at the head stood a young woman in a black dress, smiling cheerfully down at them. She had the gaunt look of someone who habitually didn’t get enough rest or food, not to mention an unhealthily pale complexion. Even so, she might have passed for human if not for her crimson eyes.
Malivette Dufresne descended the stairs with mincing little steps, trailing her fingertips along one of the banisters on the way down. “I’ve been around Butlers; believe me, I would know if they were even vampire-adjacent. My pet theory is it’s done with alchemy. You know, like how the Silver Legion can turn elves into specimens with basically human strength.”
“Huh,” Sherwin grunted, “well that’s disappointing. Alchemy? There’s no romance in that.”
“Tragic, I know,” Malivette agreed, alighting at the base of the stairs. “I welcome you, Lord of House Leduc, to my home in the spirit of mutual interest and the long respect which has stood between our great Houses. In honor of that friendship, and with the deepest apology for disturbing your much-cherished quiet, I must make a most humble inquiry.” She swept an arm in a wide gesture to indicate the whole group, and abruptly her tone and expression changed to one of sheer exasperation. “What the hell, man?!”
“Me?” he exclaimed. “Which of us is sending their goons to drag the other one outside on no notice, huh?”
“Sherwin!” Malivette pressed the heels of both her hands against her eyes. “How many times have—look, I seriously am not trying to start something here. You know I don’t have a problem with you. Heck, in another life, you and I might have found ourselves joined in a loveless political marriage, and I assure you the revulsion I feel at that prospect is purely general, not personal.”
“Right back atcha, buttercup,” he huffed.
“But, for the last time, you cannot have a succubus!” Malivette pointed dramatically at the demon in question, glaring at Sherwin. “I was willing to overlook this when you built the world’s most excessive Vanislaad cage, but I know for a fact you’ve had that thing dismantled and now here’s this creature traipsing around my province unattended, and holy shit, Melaxyna?”
“Hi, Vette!” Melaxyna said cheerfully, waving. “You’re looking terrible. But less so than the last time I saw you, so… I guess you’re doing well?”
“Still always hungry, but less pissy about it,” Malivette replied, tilting her head quizzically. “And here you are, out of the Crawl. Did Professor Tellwyrn finally let you go, then?”
“Well, Arachne hasn’t come storming out here to haul me back, and that’s well within her capability,” the succubus said thoughtfully, “so I take that as notice that my services are no longer required.”
“You two…are acquainted?” Natchua said pointedly.
“I did go to that cockamamie school, you know,” Malivette replied. “Crawl expeditions and everything. Mel’s been an institution down there since long before you enrolled, and by the way, hello, Natchua. I’m so glad you’ve stopped wearing your hair up in that ridiculous spiky number, the green stripe is actually quite fetching when you let it lie flat. Drow have such lovely hair.”
“You two are acquainted?” Melaxyna asked, blinking.
“Most years there’s at least one field trip per class to Veilgrad,” Natchua explained, eyes locked with Malivette’s. “This city is prone to the kind of weird nonsense that makes for Tellwyrn’s idea of a useful class exercise, and also the governor is an alumna. It’s a handy little arrangement. I will point out for the record that my class excursion wasn’t the one that unleashed a zombie horde in the city.”
“I do say when I was warned of a succubus and a drow warlock I was not expecting either to be a familiar face, much less both.” Malivette turned her quizzical look on Jonathan and Hesthri. “Don’t tell me… Nope, you two aren’t ringing any bells. Well, then again, I don’t know any hethelax demons.”
“Yeah, about that,” Sherwin said belligerently, “we need to have a talk about whatever means you’re using to monitor my estate!”
“You just go ahead and hold your breath waiting for that,” Malivette retorted. “Look, here it is: I don’t know what all this is about, I’m glad Sherwin is finally making friends—truly—and I am nothing if not sympathetic to someone operating with what amounts to an illness that compels them to be dangerous to others. I probably relate to a succubus better than anybody who’s not one. But the fact remains, Mel, you are what you are and you cannot be running around loose in my city!”
Natchua stepped between the vampire and the succubus. “Then let’s talk about this.”
“Oh, we’re going to talk about this,” Malivette agreed, “but we’re going to do it once I’m certain she is taken care of.”
“I see old times don’t count for anything,” Melaxyna muttered.
Natchua continued matching Malivette’s stare. “You’re not touching her.”
“Young lady,” the vampire said, smiling in a way that displayed her elongated canines to great effectiveness, “would you like me to explain in detail why every part of that sentence was more wrong than the preceding, or shall I save time and demonstrate?”
“She is with me,” Natchua said coldly. “You take one of my people, and I’ll take one of yours.”
There was a moment of absolute silence.
“Okay,” Jonathan said finally, “however all this shakes out, can we establish a rule that Natchua doesn’t handle negotiations from now on?”