Tag Archives: Malivette

15 – 32

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                            Next Chapter >

Full dawn found Natchua pacing amid the ruins of Manor Leduc’s front hall.

The progress made by the hobgoblins in just one day was astonishing to eyes unfamiliar with their kind—or, like Natchua’s, acquainted only with the theory and lore. They had fully cleaned what had been a jumble of smashed stones, timbers, and shingles, with all the debris carefully sorted into piles on the lawn outside, including several neat stacks of wood and masonry they considered reusable. The now-cleared floor still had a large jagged hole in the center and dangerously buckling floorboards, forcing her to confine her pacing to the edges, but it now looked like a room, rather than a hopeless ruin. In horogki, the aggression of the infernal taint was channeled into preternatural physical strength and frenetic energy, causing them to be enormously efficient laborers when kept on task and disastrously erratic when not. No wonder Jonathan had been so tired last night, after a day of supervising those three.

Jonathan. Natchua grimaced and rubbed at her eyes with both fists. Gods, what a mess. Why was she always such a mess?

She had already fallen hard on old habits this morning, starting with a deft escape from Hesthri’s embrace enabled by elven agility and compounded by throwing on the only readily available garment in her room that wouldn’t require buckles, laces, or any such time-consuming fiddling: a loose Narisian style robe that she only kept for sleeping. The hour since she had spent mostly relying on her hearing to be certain of where everyone was in the manor. It wasn’t exactly a breach of principle, merely a disheartening set of reminders. Natchua had not entirely gotten over her rebellious phase, and relying on these things rankled. She had no problem with being an elf, as such, though she resented being defined by it. Anything Narisian grated on her, though.

Regardless, her keen senses had enabled her to avoid everyone else in the manor during that last gray hour of the night. Jonathan had been lightly snoring in his room, Sherwin and Melaxyna likewise in the kitchen apartment. Their night, like the previous one, had been busy, but apparently Sherwin was tired out from the exertion by that hour. Another tidbit of Vanislaad lore that was not widely known and which Natchua wasn’t about to reveal to Mel that she did know was their differing need for sleep. They could do it more or less at will, and used dreaming as a mechanism to sublimate the itch to cause chaos for a while. A sleeping child of Vanislaas was basically engaged in a hallucinatory meditation, no less aware of their surroundings and able to come fully alert instantly. They didn’t strictly need to do it, but tended to become rather somnolent when bored to take the edge off. By contrast, when engaged in some scheme, they could be up for weeks at a time working at it. All things considered it was probably a good sign that Melaxyna was sleeping, no matter why she was doing it.

Kheshiri sure wasn’t. Per Natchua’s orders she hadn’t left the house, but had been prowling around silently from the moment Natchua fixed on her location, and probably the whole night prior. She couldn’t actually hear Kheshiri moving, but after having isolated her infernal signature yesterday could detect her position and general status nonetheless. At the moment she was evidently exploring the Manor’s shuttered basement rooms—far from the corner in which the three hobgoblins had made their nest, ironically in the now-empty room where Sherwin had once caged Scorn.

Xyraadi was so quiet that Natchua had to actually stand outside her door to detect her breathing. She suspected the khelminash might be meditating rather than sleeping. They definitely practiced the art, and if Natchua understood the timeline correctly, Xyraadi was still feeling very fresh wounds from the loss of loved ones six hundred years ago right before she had been sealed away. She was certainly composed in public, but it made sense that she’d prefer the control of meditation to what dreams might show her.

Hesthri, it turned out, was a heavy sleeper. Fortunately.

Natchua had given herself a quick and very cursory washing at the outdoor pump in the chill pre-dawn; her hair and a patch of her robe below her neck were still wet. While she was doing that, people had begun to stir, and now she was out here in large part to avoid everyone else. Voices and the muted clatter of cookware echoed from the kitchen apartment, accompanied by a muffled argument between the two succubi. Apparently breakfast was being prepared there, rather than in Melaxyna’s improvised kitchen on the second floor. Natchua wasn’t particularly soothed by the discovery that Kheshiri wanted to participate in domestic tasks, but for the moment she was glad to leave Melaxyna to foil her. It gave her the chance to turn her thoughts inward.

There was nothing in there that she particularly wanted to face, but would have to nonetheless, and the sooner, the better. This fine new situation wasn’t going to go away if she ignored it. Her utter lack of self-control had landed her in the center of a trashy romance novel, exactly what she did not need following on the heels of having a particularly dubious child of Vanislaas dropped into her already precarious web of haphazard espionage and infernomancy. Gods, just three days ago she’d been peacefully in Mathenon, shadow-jumping away for the odd bout of research or treasure-hunting in and around her primary task of…dating someone under false pretenses.

She had botched that, too, unable to keep her damn feelings out of it. Women and men alike had been coldly using sex to get what they wanted in every society for millennia; in Tar’naris it was practically an art form. What the hell was her problem? Jonathan Arquin wasn’t even all that interesting by any objective standpoint, his mysterious demon-adjacent past notwithstanding. All he was…was decent. On reflection, that made him exceptional among the people she knew. Everyone in Tar’naris was some type and degree of evil, in Natchua’s mind. Tellwyrn had a core of kindness within her, but her entire personality was violently unstable by design, and she largely recruited staff with the same general mindset. There had been a few people at the University, like Professor Yornhaldt and Toby Caine, who were just plain good, altruistic and respectful for no particular reason except that that was how they were, and Natchua had deliberately avoided getting close to any of them. She’d not trusted that. Not, at least, until she got close enough to Jonathan to realize that there weren’t hidden depths to the man. Put into words that made him sound like the most boring individual alive, but when experienced firsthand it had made him a solid pillar of support she had helplessly found herself clinging to, and then lost herself in. Right up until she’d betrayed him.

Hesthri…was something else. Natchua didn’t consider it an excuse for her own lack of restraint—she owned her choices, at the very least—but Hesthri had unquestioningly been the aggressor last night. That Natchua hadn’t tried very hard not to melt under her surprisingly skillful touch didn’t make it any less an obviously deliberate seduction on the hethelax’s part. And Hesthri unquestionably had hidden depths. Natchua as yet could barely guess what lay in them, but they certainly existed. She had been willing to take the contract and had, after all, sprung at the chance to join a campaign which she was told up front was almost certain to end with her death, all in the hope that it might help Gabriel. Her intentions were, on some level, good. But what else was she after?

Natchua grimaced and halted her pacing, scrubbing at her face with both hands. Ugh, Gabriel. Well, it wasn’t like she had ever been close to him before, and there was a solid chance she’d never actually see him again. That might be more comfortable, in fact. As of last night, there was no possible conversation the two of them could have that wouldn’t be excruciatingly awkward. Hell, the way things were going, they’d probably accidntally wind up in bed. Gods knew he’d always been a horny goat when it came to women, and Natchua was discovering this week that she herself was evidently a degenerate idiot with less self-control than those hobgoblins she’d summoned. Why not complete the trifecta?

“Morning.”

She jumped violently, spinning. Jonathan had frozen in place, staring at her uncertainly.

“Uh,” she croaked. “Good…morning, Jonathan.”

“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to startle you. Actually, the thought that I even could sneak up on an elf never crossed my mind.”

She grimaced, running a hand over her damp hair. “Not one who’s paying attention. Don’t worry about it, I was just up my own butt.”

A faint smile quirked at the corner of his mouth. She loved it when he did that, when that little streak of mischief cracked through his resolute steadiness and oh, gods, she wanted to scoop out her brain and replace it with one that damn well worked.

“Yeah, I guess you’ve got plenty to think about,” he agreed. “Anyhow. Just letting you know, most of the group is up and straggling into Sherwin’s kitchen. The succubi made breakfast. Omnu’s breath, is that a sentence I never imagined I’d say.”

Natchua had to smile slightly at that, despite everything. “Thanks. I’ll…be along in a bit.”

He nodded, half-turned, paused, and shifted his face back to her, forehead creased in the tiniest frown.

“Anything else?” Natchua prompted after a tense little silence.

“Well…” Jonathan turned back to face her again across the three yards or so between them. “Like I said, you clearly have a lot to think about, and apparently more with everything that happens. Do…you want to talk about it?”

She really, really did, Natchua realized to her shame. She kept all of that away from her face, though. “Do we really have the kind of relationship where we talk about our feelings, Jonathan?”

His face lengthened, and the unspoken anymore hung in the air between them.

“It’s a pretty central question, isn’t it?” he said after a moment. “I won’t lie, I’ve spent a fair few hours in the last couple of days grappling with an overarching desire to punch you in the mouth. But—”

“Embrace that,” she said, her voice heavy with a harshness that wasn’t directed at him, though of course he couldn’t know that. “You should’ve just stayed in Mathenon instead of jumping aboard this doomed ship. With every passing day I learn more about what a weak, stupid, selfish creature I am. Fuck, I don’t even want to explain why, and that’s also selfish. I just don’t want you to…” Catching herself babbling, she broke off and drew in a ragged breath. “Never mind. The hell with it, even if I don’t manage to even dent Elilial, splattering myself across her defenses is probably what’s best for the world anyway.”

She couldn’t have said what she expected him to reply to that, but it definitely wasn’t what he actually did.

“You really think that, don’t you,” Jonathan murmured, staring at her as if piecing together a puzzle.

“Don’t you?” she demanded, then held up a hand. “No, don’t answer that. I’m just fishing for validation, and I don’t need or deserve any. Look, Jonathan, since you’re here, the best thing you can do is focus on getting yourself through whatever comes next alive. Try to save whoever else you can. Several of these demons are much better people than I am.”

His chest swelled with a deep indrawing of breath, and he stepped forward. Natchua wanted to retreat, but refused to, even as he came within arm’s length, close enough that she had to tilt her face up to meet his eyes.

“I’ve had some time to think about my various disappointments at your hands,” he said quietly.

“You were supposed to be watching the hobgoblins,” she retorted, a desperate attempt to misdirect him from whatever unbearable awkwardness he was planning to voice.

Again, his mouth quirked up in that damnable little half-smile. “Hell, they’re one of the best crews I’ve ever worked with. Those girls just need a reminder now and again when they get distracted, and the rest of the time they’re on task and making progress at an unbelievable rate. As you can see all around you. So yeah, I have had time to think, and I can’t escape the conclusion that while you have the most terrible judgment of any person I have ever known, you are struggling in your unbelievably mixed-up way to do what you think is right.”

“…best,” she whispered.

He raised his eyebrows mutely.

“I don’t deal in right or wrong. I’m not sure I believe in them. I just try to do…the best I can, with the ridiculous toolbox of destruction that’s all I have to work with.”

Jonathan sighed again. “And damn if that isn’t exactly what I mean. Augh… Look, the situation is what it is. You’ve made a damn mess, here. You sure as hell hurt me good and proper.” She flinched, physically enough for him to see, and immediately wanted to stab herself right through the heart. “But a few hours of thought and some insight from Hesthri and Melaxyna has pretty much taken away my ability to blame you. And with that, hurt or not, I’m finding it hard to still be angry.”

“Hesthri and Melaxyna should mind their own damn business,” she muttered sullenly, and he had the audacity to chuckle.

“Look,” he said gently, reaching out to take her by the shoulders.

“No!” Natchua jerked back out of his grasp. She raised her hands to cover her eyes, blocking out the sight of his expression. “Don’t. Can’t you please just stop being a good person for one damn minute?”

“Sure I can,” he said softly. “It’s scary easy. I refuse to.”

“Just…quit being gentle with me,” she croaked. “You don’t understand, I messed up again, and it’s just going to keep… I am a mess, Jonathan. Keep your distance and just let me do what I need to!”

“Hey.” She lowered her hands to find him taking a step closer, but he didn’t reach for her again. Of course; aggrieved party or not, Jonathan Arquin would never under any circumstances lay his hands on a woman who had told him not to. At that moment she resented it. Natchua wanted nothing more than for him to grab her in his strong, callused grip, even knowing how much objectively better it was for them both and the whole situation that he wouldn’t. At least one of them could managed to be an adult. “…okay.”

In spite of herself, Natchua straightened up in surprise. “Okay?”

“I’m not endorsing this, any more than any of the rest of your antics,” he said more seriously. “You really need to relax and accept some comfort before you twist yourself into an unfixable knot.”

“I know for an objective fact that is the literal last thing I need to do,” she said dully.

He just shook his head. “Well, the offer is on the table if you choose to take advantage. But that aside, in the here and now… You’re the boss, here, Natchua. You need to project steadiness to these people. And especially that Kheshiri; she’s going to have an eye out for any crack she can work a finger into.”

Natchua closed her eyes. He was dead right, of course.

“I am serious about opening up to somebody and dealing with your stress instead of choking yourself on it, even if that’s not me. If you trust Melaxyna enough, well…that sure wouldn’t be the most reckless thing you’ve done recently. But right now you need to put on the mask. Look… I know you hate anything to do with your upbringing in Tar’naris.” He did know that, didn’t he? He knew…her. Gods, this was a disaster. Jonathan continued in a softer tone. “But that did give you a skill you specifically need here. When you’re dealing with turmoil and you have people counting on you to be steady, you have to fake it. And nobody can do that like a Narisian.”

Word after word of relentless good sense. The asshole just wouldn’t stop being right. He had it pegged exactly: Tar’naris and its culture were as detestable as anything produced by Hell as far as she was concerned, but the drow had developed their ways in response to harsh practicality. Narisian reserve wasn’t simply custom, it had specific, strategic use.

And three measly years of trying to distance herself weren’t enough to eliminate the habits of upbringing. It came back with disheartening ease. She straightened her spine, tension in her posture fading away to linger in her gut where it belonged. All expression leaked from her features, leaving behind only her public face. The poise was meditative. A sublimation of everything that was her, put behind the facade of what she needed to be right now.

It didn’t make her the creature her mother and Matriarch Ezrakhai had tried to forge, she told herself. It just enabled her to be what the situation demanded.

Natchua opened her eyes and regarded Jonathan in icy calm.

He nodded once, approving. “Again, though. This isn’t good for you in the long term. When you can—”

“Enough, Jonathan,” she said in a chill tone that brooked no debate. He fell silent. And when she swept past him for the corridor into the kitchen, he fell into step behind her.

Xyraadi had yet to appear, but everyone else had gathered by that point. The three horogki were huddled in the corner around a pot of porridge, slurping noisily—for heaven’s sake, they’d managed to splatter the walls with it. Sherwin’s table had been cleared of his books and personal effects, which were now piled upon the unmade bed, and laid out with his mismatched collection of crockery now holding muffins, bacon, eggs, and tea.

“Help yourself, I have a powerful dislike of bacon,” Melaxyna was saying upon their entry. “Hey, you found her!”

“Good morning, Natchua,” Hesthri said to her with a neutral smile.

The stab of sheer emotion pulled her in half a dozen directions simultaneous, which she ignored. “Morning, Hes,” Natchua said briskly, striding over to the table and taking a seat. Enough chairs had been brought for everyone save the horogki; to judge by their dusty state, they had been pillaged from disused rooms in the residential wing. “Thanks for saving seats. Whom do I have to thank for this spread? I mean, aside from our host who’s paying for it,” she added, nodding to Sherwin.

His mouth was full of half a muffin, but he waved the other half at her in acknowledgment.

“I am taking care of the cooking,” Melaxyna said firmly. “This one kept trying to assist, but you’ll be glad to know I managed to remain in control of the proceedings and can thus guarantee that none of my food is poisoned.”

“Oh, honestly, you’re such a drama queen,” Kheshiri scoffed. “What could I possibly gain from poisoning everyone?”

“In your case, a cheap laugh,” Xyraadi replied, gliding into the room. “Bonjour, mes amis. Ah, this is what I smelled? May I?”

“Of course, you’re as much a guest here as anyone,” Sherwin said gallantly, somewhat to Natchua’s relief. In private conversation with Natchua the previous night, he had strained her already bedraggled patience trying to ascertain whether Xyraadi was the kind of khelminash woman who had a penis. She had ended that discussion by challenging him to predict a scenario in which that would matter to anyone but Xyraadi.

“Well, despite Miss Fusspot’s campaign of wet blanketry, I can assure you I do pull my weight,” Kheshiri said smugly. “I have provided milk for the tea.”

Hesthri, who had just poured some of said milk into her tea, froze.

Melaxyna narrowed her eyes. “We were out of milk.”

“Kheshiri,” Natchua growled, “you were told to remain in the house.”

“But mistress, how can you think I would disobey you? I’ve not set one toe outside!”

“I know I am going to regret learning,” Natchua said, “but how did you get milk here without leaving the Manor?” Jonathan had pulled the milk pitcher over to himself and was sniffing it suspiciously.

“It’s fresh-squeezed,” Kheshiri said proudly, shaking her shoulders back and forth. She was still wearing the outfit in which they’d first found her, a suitably succubesque bustier that supported amply and concealed little; the motion did interesting things to her chest. “The very freshest.”

Silence fell, in which everyone looked at Kheshiri’s smug expression, then at her bosom, then at the milk picture, and then back at her face.

“I am something of an expert at finely controlled shapeshifting,” the succubus said, beaming with pride. By contrast, the emotion pulsing through her aura was pure, malicious glee. “I can do things with my body chemistry you can hardly imagine! Don’t you worry, it’s completely free from infernal taint. You can feel free to check.”

In their corner, Staccato, Glissando, and Pizzicato burst into howls of laughter, falling over each other. Hesthri twisted away from the table, retching. Jonathan, curling his lip, pushed the milk pitcher away from himself. Sherwin immediately grabbed it, raising it to sniff, and Melaxyna just as immediately took it away from him.

“Repulsive creature,” Xyraadi sneered, delicately buttering a muffin.

“Right,” Natchua said, open annoyance leaking through her put-on reserve. “That’s my fault, I haven’t set down ground rules for you. To begin with—”

“And that would be the point,” Melaxyna interrupted. “Juvenile gross-out pranks are far beneath her level of scheming and, I suspect, not really to her taste. A system of rules favors whoever is best skilled at manipulating loopholes; anarchy favors whoever has the most power. Setting down rules for her cedes her much more of an advantage than if she has to devote that big brain to finding ways to stay on your good side.”

“Now, that is verging on the kind of behavior I should tattle to Prince Vanislaas about next time I see him,” Kheshiri said, scowling at the other succubus. “Laying out a sister’s angles in front of mixed company? Bad form, Melaxyna.”

“Oh, please,” Melaxyna grinned back at her. “You love it. After weaseling your way around Archpope Justinian and Khadizroth the Green for years on end, I’m the only thing keeping you from going completely stir-crazy here.”

Kheshiri stared her down for another beat, then a grin broke across her own features. “My, my. It’s been so long since I played with someone with a knack for proper foreplay.”

“I say,” Sherwin began.

“No,” Natchua declared, pointing at a corner not occupied by messy hobgoblins. “Kheshiri, go do one hundred sit-ups.”

Kheshiri’s expression flattened, and based on what went pulsing through her aura, her displeasure was real. Physical exercise was not the kind of thing that scratched her kind’s characteristic itch; they disliked tiring themselves out doing things that didn’t satisfy them. “Oh, but mistress—”

“Followed by one hundred push-ups. And then one hundred squats.”

The succubus put on a calm, very mildly piqued expression, while her aura seethed with resentment and offended pride. Good; at some point Natchua needed to refine her ability to manipulate Kheshiri’s aura directly, including managing her compulsion and emotions, but for now this would suffice to impose consequences.

“It was just a harmless little—”

“You have been given an order, and you will obey it.”

The succubus executed a bow that managed to be as mocking as it was obsequious, and then sashayed over to the indicated corner. Natchua remained twisted around in her chair to watch until she ascertained, to her grim satisfaction, that there was not a sexy way to do sit-ups, before turning back to her breakfast.

In a way, it seemed downright appropriate when the kitchen’s outside door burst abruptly open, admitting beams of garish sunlight and a vampire.

“Knock, knock!” Malivette Dufresne sang ironically. “Oh, good, everyone’s just sitting down for breakfast! None for me, thanks, I have a rule against snacking on neighbors.”

“Good fucking morning, Vette,” Sherwin grumbled. “Won’t you just come the hell on in.”

“I shall, thank you, but only because you were so gracious!”

“So…” Jonathan said warily, “that thing about vampires not being able to enter a house unless invited…”

“Complete myth,” Malivette said brightly, gliding into the room. “I am also not allergic to garlic! In fact, it adds a very nice texture to that is a khelminash demon. And…another succubus.” She stared at Kheshiri for a moment, and if she had any opinion about the unusual sight of a trickster demon grunting through a set of sit-ups, she offered no comment on it. Instead, her crimson eyes actually began to glow subtly as she turned them upon the group’s leader. “Natchua.”

“You knew I was looking for Xyraadi,” Natchua said irritably. “I told you that. Quit being melodramatic, I get more than enough of it from these freaks. That aside, Vette, you have good timing. I want to have a talk with you about these developments in particular.”

“Ah, so?” the vampire said, arching an eyebrow. “That has the ring of the fleeing deadbeat saying ‘I was just looking for you!’ to the thugs cornering him to collect what he owes.”

“I really couldn’t say, being that getting in debt to loan sharks is about the only dumbass thing I haven’t managed to do this week,” Natchua replied, marshaling her calm face again. “If you’re surprised to see the new arrival, I gather she’s not what you came here about. Before we discuss that, what is it you need?”

“Ah, yes. What I need.” Malivette gave a lingering, unfriendly look to Kheshiri, who was too busy exercising to acknowledge her, then redirected her attention to Natchua. “I’m sure you have not already forgotten our agreement, and the certain services you have promised to render as a condition for finding welcome in my province, and not being summarily handed over to Imperial Intelligence as common sense suggests I ought to do.” She smiled brightly, displaying her fangs in a manner that couldn’t possibly have been accidental. “It’s time to start paying the rent, Natchua.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                              Next Chapter >

15 – 11

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                             Next Chapter >

“Do we really have to go already?” Aspen whined. “I like these people! They’re nice!”

“Do mean that in the sense that they actually are nice, or just that they fed you?” Ingvar replied dryly without slowing his pace.

“There’s no reason it can’t be both. Anyway, it’s afternoon! This is just about the worst time to be leaving a safe place to sleep, we’ve only got a few hours of travel time before dark.”

“There are hardly any unsafe places to sleep when you travel with a dryad,” Rainwood pointed out merrily.

“More important,” Ingvar added before Aspen could make another comment, “it is because these people are nice that we are taking ourselves and our very disruptive business away from their temple.”

“Oh.” Aspen scowled, turning her head to direct the expression over her shoulder. “Good, then. At least I know who to blame.”

“It wasn’t that bad,” Tholi muttered. November, trailing along behind him at the end of the group, at least had the sense to keep her own mouth shut.

“It was pretty bad,” Ingvar stated. “When your shouting match can be heard through stone walls, you are officially not fit for civilized company. And I say that as someone who, like any Huntsman, does not have an excessively high opinion of civilized company. It isn’t hard to show some extremely basic consideration for other people. I can’t fathom any reason for two adult humans to be screaming like children in the front hall of monks who have offered them hospitality.”

“All right, all right!” Tholi exclaimed. “That was…a lapse. How long am I going to be hearing about it?”

“I’ll treat you in the manner your actions up to the moment have earned, Tholi. If you wish to be treated differently, every moment is an opportunity to begin building a new impression.”

“I’m just so glad all these people are coming with us,” Aspen groused. “I was getting real tired of all the peace and quiet when it was just the two of us.”

“Well, the good news is your sarcasm has improved greatly. I would never know you hadn’t been doing it your whole life.”

“Thanks a lot, Ingvar,” she demonstrated. “Why is the elf still here? I thought your spirit thingies just wanted you to bring us to the temple and…these two.”

“Evidently not,” Rainwood said. He was walking on the other side of Ingvar from her, a jaunty spring in his step that clashed with everyone else’s mood. “It’s a funny thing, spirit guidance; sometimes, the things it tells you to do are so downright odd as to seem like terrible ideas. I don’t mind admitting it took me longer than the average human lives to begin trusting my guides every time, but more than once my life has been saved by following guidance that at the time sounded suicidal. I’ve no idea where this merry adventure is leading us, but the word from the spirits is that my part in it is not over! Ah, and here’s our other new acquisition.”

“Other?” Aspen looked over at him with a frown, then forward again, and came to an abrupt stop. “Oh, no.”

“Oh yes, I’m afraid!” Rainwood said brightly, swaggering on ahead.

“Who’s that?” November asked in a stage whisper. “What’s the problem?”

They had descended the terraces of the Omnist temple complex in a different direction than the one from which they had come, and were now nearing the outer border on the road leading north west. A few yards ahead of them, on the edge of the lowest stone terrace, sat the same grouchy young woman who had first led them to the ziggurat. She was now perched in an indolent pose, kicking her legs against the retaining wall, and had traded her monk’s robe for a colorful tunic-like garment that was popular throughout N’Jendo and Thakar.

“There you are,” she said, hopping down to the road with a grunt. “I hear you’re off to the Shadow Hunter lodge next, right?”

“You hear that, huh?” Aspen said warily.

“I grew up in this hick-ass backwater, so I know where just about everything is,” the girl said. “I’ll take you there. My name’s Taka Mbino.”

“Nice to meet you again,” Ingvar said politely. “I’m—”

“Pretty sure I remember everybody,” Taka interrupted, grinning. “The great and famous Ingvar, Aspen the dryad, Rainwood the elf with the especially improbable name. And those two who obviously are too childish to matter.”

“Hey!” November protested. Tholi just scowled, adjusting his grip on his longbow.

“Yeah, thanks, but we’ve got an elvish shaman,” said Aspen. “Pretty sure we can find the way.”

“It’s no trouble,” Taka assured her, still grinning. There was a mocking cast to her features that few people had used with Aspen, to her visible annoyance. “It’s about time I moved on from here anyway. I gave Omnu a fair chance and I mean the big guy no offense, but I’m coming to the conclusion that this place is not for me. Maybe the Shadow Hunters are a better option.”

“Okay, fine,” Aspen snapped, “I’ll just come right out and say it. We don’t like you, Taka Mbino. You’re rude and snotty and full of yourself. I tried, Ingvar,” she added, turning to him. “I was polite and subtle at first, you saw me do it!”

“Uh huh,” Taka drawled. “And are you upset because I hurt your feelings, or because you don’t want the competition for the role of bitchy drama queen in the group?”

Aspen’s jaw fell open. For once, she appeared to have been rendered silent.

“You, uh, do realize this is a dryad, right?” November said hesitantly. “I don’t know if it’s a great idea to take that tone with somebody who can tear you in half the long way.”

“A daughter of the Mother is owed some consideration,” Tholi agreed, nodding reproachfully.

“I’ll keep it in mind. Welp, daylight’s burning. It’s this way.” Taka turned her back and set off up the road.

“What do the spirits say about this?” Ingvar asked quietly.

Rainwood just winked at him and set off following the young woman. Ingvar heaved a sigh, patted Aspen soothingly on the back, and followed. The dryad was growling to herself as she fell into step beside him, but at least she did so.

The other two started walking after a short pause, as well, but they both remained a few paces behind, where it was relatively safe.


Manor Dufresne was not laid out with guests in mind, these days. There seemed to be very little furniture in the public rooms and almost no decoration. Nonetheless, it did feature a dining room, and Malivette’s four thralls were quick to seat their reluctant visitors and kept them well-plied with tea, cookies, and as the time stretched on toward the dinner hour, sandwiches and soup. The four of them were never less than gracious hostesses, which at least somewhat offset Sherwin’s reminder that they were a significant physical danger, and the fact that they were, effectively, holding the group against their will.

When the door to the dining room abruptly opened and Natchua poked her head in, Melaxyna was the first on her feet.

“Well?” the succubus demanded, hands clenching.

“We’re leaving,” Natchua said tersely. “Come on.”

Pearl cleared her throat, gliding forward. “Your pardon, but…”

“It’s quite all right, lovey!” Malivette cooed, appearing in the doorway behind Natchua with her chin practically resting on the drow’s shoulder. “So sorry to keep you all waiting so long! We’ve had a lovely chat and come to a series of understandings. Melaxyna, dear, I do apologize for all the rough talk earlier. I’m ever so glad that this isn’t going to turn unpleasant after all!”

“Oh, well then,” Melaxyna said tonelessly. “As long as you’re sorry and glad, I guess what’s a death threat or two between friends?”

“I realize you’re mocking me but in all seriousness that is a very healthy attitude to take in this situation,” Malivette replied, nodding solemnly. Natchua, giving her a peevish look over her shoulder, edged out of the way while the vampire continued. “I meant it when I said I empathized with you, y’know. People are about as excited to see a vampire move into the neighborhood as a succubus, and for a lot of the same reasons. With the shoe on the other foot I’m sure you’d have reacted exactly the same. At least, if you were seriously looking after the welfare of the city. But that’s all in the past now!” she added, beaming delightedly at them.

“Wait, really?” Jonathan asked. Standing with his hand protectively behind Hesthri with his hand on her shoulder, he looked mostly confused by this turn of events. “Just…like that? After just…talking? Is that really all it took?”

“Dunno what you mean ‘just like that,’” Sherwin groused. “We’ve been kicking our heels in here over an hour…”

“And why are you arguing, she is letting us go,” Melaxyna hissed.

“I guess I’m just surprised,” he said, frowning. “Natchua, is everything all right?”

“Everything is wonderful,” the drow spat. “Now come on. I think we have imposed on the Lady Dufresne’s hospitality quite enough for one day.”

“Hear, hear,” Sherwin grunted, shoving himself away from the table with poor grace and stalking toward the door.

The rest of them followed, subtly encouraged by the herding motion of Malivette’s four companions gathering at the opposite end of the room. Their hostess and Natchua had both already retreated into the broad entrance hall onto which the dining room opened.

“And don’t you worry a bit about my hospitality,” Malivette nattered on, looping her hand into Natchua’s elbow as they walked toward the front doors. “My door is always open, and there are so few who would even want to take advantage! That goes for you, too, Sherwin. I know you’re a houseplant by choice, but seriously, you’d be welcome.”

He sighed heavily and produced a rusty pocketwatch from his trousers, looking at its face and then giving Natchua a very pointed stare.

“Anyway, now that we know we have actual things to talk about, I do hope you’ll pop by again.” Malivette affectionately bumped Natchua with her hip on the last word. The drow sighed and gently but insistently disentangled her arm, stepping away from the vampire.

“Seriously,” Jonathan said, frowning, “are you okay, Natchua? Keeping a succubus near a city isn’t a small matter. I hope you didn’t have to do anything too…”

“Nothing,” she interrupted. “It’s just as she said, we talked and reached an understanding. And now I really would like to be moving along.”

“Yeah, so,” Sherwin said, frowning himself now, “I’m glad Mel’s safe, then. Did you—”

“Sst!” Natchua rounded on him, baring her teeth.

“If this is about the hobgoblins,” Malivette said kindly, “I don’t care about that, so long as you stick to your plan of only summoning females. Very clever solution, that! And really, Sherwin, you could use the help. What would your family say if they saw the state you’ve let their manor come to?”

“Oh, who cares,” he exclaimed. “Good riddance to them. I’m not absolutely certain, Vette, but I’m reasonably sure they had a hand in what happened to your family.”

“No.” The cheer faded from her expression rather abruptly. “Have you been carrying that all these years? See, this is why I think we should talk more. No, Sherwin, that wasn’t their doing.”

“Oh.” He blinked. “Well. I guess…I’m glad to hear that. Not like I was close to your folks or anything, but the gods know they were better people than mine. Not that that’s setting a high bar.”

“I’m serious, Sherwin,” she said, her smile returning and looking all the more sincere for being smaller. “Visit me. But for now, I imagine you’re feeling a little overstimulated; this has to be more social interaction than you’ve had in the last year. Yes, you’re all clearly eager to be heading back, and I’ve already delayed you too long. My sincere apologies for the inconvenience, but the important thing is we got it all sorted in the end! Ruby, Jade, would you bring the carriage back around, please?”

“No need,” Natchua said curtly, gesturing the others toward her. “We’ll see you around, Vette.”

“Don’t be a stranger, Natch,” the vampire said, as brightly as ever. The last thing they all saw as the shadows rose up around them was her waving cheerily.

The darkness fell away to reveal late afternoon sunlight and the clean air of the mountains, with Manor Leduc’s ruined bulk rising in front of them. Sherwin heaved a deep sigh and immediately slouched off, heading for the half-overgrown path around the corner toward the old kitchen entrance.

“Whew,” Melaxyna exhaled. “I could have done without that. My kind like room to maneuver, not being tucked away under guard. Are you sure you’re okay, Natchua? You probably had it worse than any of us.”

“I appreciate everyone’s concern, but I wish you’d all drop it,” Natchua said in a strained tone. “It was fine. We talked. I’d have preferred keeping Malivette and everyone else out of my business, but sometimes you have to compromise. And I learned some interesting things today.”

“Oh?” Jonathan asked warily.

“I learned that drow are not edible to her kind,” she said, turning and following after Sherwin at a much more sedate pace. He had already disappeared around the corner. “And apparently vampires can drink demon blood, but it works more like a drug than food. I learned that vampirism is exceedingly difficult to cure even for modern alchemical science. I learned that Ravana bloody Madouri has been making political overtures to both Malivette and Sherwin, which surprises me not in the least given that sneaky little egomaniac’s idea of a good time. I even learned a good deal I didn’t particularly need to know about why she has four attendants instead of three or five and what exactly she does with them. It was all very educational.”

“Uh…huh,” he said, frowning at her back. “Well, sorry for prying, I guess. I can’t help feeling a little responsible for any, um, compromises you had to make, since it was all our necks on the line…”

“Compromises?” she snorted, glancing over her shoulder at him. “I said I’d try to protect you and I meant it, Jonathan. That doesn’t mean my first act in a crisis would be to offer my neck to a vampire on your behalf.”

“Well, that wasn’t…” He grimaced, glancing to the side, and thus missing Hesthri urgently shaking her head to ward him off this line of conversation. “I just meant, well, it was obvious enough from those four women what sort of personal company that vampire prefers, and… Not to be indelicate, but we pretty well know that you’re willing to—”

Natchua slammed to a stop and whirled so fast her streaked hair flared out behind her. Jonathan Arquin was nobody’s coward, but at the expression on her face he actually backed up a step, instinctively moving one arm partly in front of Hesthri.

The very sunlight seemed to fade, as if the drow’s fury were leeching brightness from that piece of the world. Shadows lengthened around them, followed by an unintelligible whispering at the faintest edge of hearing that was barely distinguishable from the now-vanished sound of wind through the grass.

Just as quickly, it all faded away. The sound and light returned abruptly to normal, and the rage melted from Natchua’s features. Followed, apparently, by most of her energy, as her shoulders slumped and she dropped her head to stare at the ground.

“Well, look at that,” she said dully. “Turns out I have absolutely no right to even be angry about that remark. Go…rest up, Jonathan. This mess has delayed us a whole day and I have another prospect to look up first thing tomorrow.”

Natchua turned and trudged away, visibly dispirited, even from behind. The rest of them stood as if rooted until she had rounded the corner into Sherwin’s kitchen apartment.

“Very nice,” Melaxyna finally said, veritably dripping with venomous sarcasm.

“I don’t need criticism from you,” Jonathan retorted with a scowl. “I was just… Never mind, she’s right. Doesn’t matter, not my business.”

“Oh?” The succubus leaned toward him, sneering. “Then why so protective, and why do you care what she does, or with who?”

“What kind of idiot wouldn’t care about the well-being of a warlock he’s agreed to follow arou— Hey!”

He shied back, but not fast enough to prevent her from lashing out to smack the side of his head. She moved almost like an elf when she wanted.

“Next time you get an armored hand,” Melaxyna threatened. “You want to care about Natchua’s well-being? Try not hurting her, you dumbass. Honestly, I didn’t see it till right now but you are so Gabriel Arquin’s father. He clearly didn’t get it from this one!” She pointed at Hesthri, who had kept her mouth firmly shut through the entire discussion.

“Oh, please,” he said stiffly. “I’m here to look after Hesthri, not…her. We know for a fact she was only ever using me.”

“You absolute fucking idiot,” Melaxyn said, shaking her head. “Have you really never had a girl fall in love with you? Pfeh.” The succubus turned and flounced off after the warlock, leaving the two of them behind.

Hesthri sighed softly, but then pressed herself against Jonathan’s side, slipping an arm around his waist in half a hug. He draped his own around her shoulders unthinkingly, still staring ahead with a blank expression. She just looked up at him in silence until he suddenly laughed.

“So that’s where he got it from!”

“He?”

Jonathan shook his head. “Toby Caine reports that our son has amazingly good luck with women, provided he’s not trying to. Apparently it’s the trying that trips him up. Hes… I don’t even know what to say. This whole mess—”

“None of this is your fault,” she interrupted, reaching up to rest her clawed fingertips gently on his lips. “I know what she did and why. You’re not to blame for having feelings. Natchua is to blame for…doing this. I am out of Hell, free from your government and Church and facing a possibility of seeing my son again; I can’t find it in me to complain too hard about all the downsides that have come with it. Honestly, I can’t even blame the girl for having emotions herself, or failing to understand them. It’s her mess, but we were young and blind ourselves once.”

“I seem to recall that,” he replied, looking down at her with a wry little smile.

“Me, too.” Hesthri smiled back at him, though the expression faded a moment later. “Johnny… Remember what happened to us when we assumed nothing as intangible as feelings was going to trip us up? This thing with Natchua is not your fault, but it’s also not going to go away if we just ignore it.”

He closed his eyes, and drew in a deep breath. “…yeah. Damned if I know what the hell to do now, though.”

“You may be a little too close to the situation, my dear. Maybe…take a step back, and let me try?”


As a consequence of traveling into a mountain range from the east, the sun had slipped out of sight far earlier in the evening—late afternoon, really—than the group from Last Rock were accustomed to. Their guides had insisted on calling a halt due to the dark, and though none of them were anywhere near sleepy yet, the day of hiking had left them well ready for a rest. Camp had been made on a smallish ledge which provided them sufficient room not to worry about falling off, but not room to wander too far from each other.

And yet, Principia had managed to be rebuffed by enough cold shoulders to find herself drifting away to the very edge of the firelight. As with everything, she bore this with good humor and no sign of resentment, even as Merry was drawn into the group around the fire, sitting between Ruda and Juniper and chattering animatedly with both.

A shape detached itself from the small crowd throwing shadows along the cliff wall behind them, stepping toward her with both hands carrying laden plates of cornbread and baked beans.

“Hungry?”

Given the Legion schedule of mealtimes and her own frugal magic use, it could well be years before Principia needed to eat again. She was not, of course, about to make an issue of that.

“Why, aren’t you thoughtful! I’m surprised, though. I thought it was Toby who made a point to look after everyone.”

“I am nothing if not a gentleman,” Gabriel said, grinning and offering one of the plates. “Shut up, Ariel.”

“I didn’t—”

“You were going to, and don’t. Please, allow me.” He actually bowed as she took the plate, then bent to brush dust and loose scree off an uneven little lip of stone against the wall behind them before gesturing for her to sit.

“A gentleman indeed,” Principia replied, perching on the edge and smiling up at him. “Which, no offense, doesn’t exactly square with your reputation.”

“Yeah, that’s the bane of my existence,” he said solemnly, sitting down beside her. “I can deal with the demon prejudice and the gossipy newspaper stories and all the silly rumor-mongering, but I wish everybody would stop repeating facts. Hope you like cornbread, by the way, because there’s going to be plenty left over. Most of this group won’t touch the stuff. Apparently they had a bad experience in the Golden Sea, once.”

“You’ve gotta learn to let these things go,” she said sagely, scooping up a bite of baked beans with the tin fork that came with the plate. “If I turned up my nose at everything that had ever been used against me at some point or another I’d starve. So, Gabriel, if you don’t mind a little nosiness, what makes you so willing to come hang out with the local pariah? As you noted, Toby I understand…”

“A little nosiness?” he mused, looking at her sidelong with a small smile, idly pushing beans and cornbread around on his plate. “Impressive restraint. In your position I’d be going whole hog and demanding everyone’s backstory.”

“Seems unfair,” she acknowledged after swallowing the bite. “Since I don’t really intend to recount my whole history. Of course, there’s the fact that we literally don’t have time for that…”

“Shaeine is your problem,” he said, now gazing at his friends around the fire. “She’s the most reasonable person I’ve ever known and I don’t think is even that vindictive. But you have to understand the Narisian mindset. Shaeine as a person is a distinct entity from Shaeine the daughter of her matriarch; the one can forgive little offenses, while the other has to insist on repercussions for shit done to her. Besides, not much is more important to Narisians than their reserve. Slipping her something that took that away, in public, is a far more serious insult than it would be to basically anybody else.”

“I see,” she murmured. “That’s…all fair.”

“Teal will follow Shaeine’s lead, of course,” he continued in a pensive tone, his gaze now faraway in thought as if he were lost in this mental exercise. “As will Vadrieny. I hardly think you need to worry about being torn in half by an archdemon, though. She’s a little impulsive, but above all Vadrieny cares for Teal, who hates violence.

“Trissiny is likely to back Shaeine in this. Apart from her own issues with you, those two have a unique bond, in this group. Not the closest bond, that would obviously by Shaeine and Teal. But they’re both devout, composed, and value all the things that implies. And they both have a slight cultural bias—not a really bad one!—against males, thus why Toby doesn’t get the same benefit of that sisterhood. If you want Triss back on your side, you will need to persuade Shaeine.”

He paused, shrugging idly, and had a bite of cornbread. Principia just chewed in silence, watching him as if she didn’t dare to interrupt.

Gabriel continued after swallowing. “Toby is everybody’s friend. Fross is not going to bother you; she hates practical jokes. She’s making good progress at grasping humor but she doesn’t really get the difference between attacking somebody playfully and aggressively, and I don’t think Fross is capable of harming anyone she doesn’t fully think deserves it. Juniper is trying to be a good Omnist now, and is scared of her own propensity for violence, anyway. You’ll have no trouble from her.

“Ruda…” He trailed off, then grinned. “Hell if I know. She values loyalty, fighting, playing rough, standing on your own, and freedom. That leads to some weird combinations of values. Ruda’s always doing stuff that I would never have expected but then in hindsight makes perfect sense. So far Shaeine’s just been tripping and poking at you, but if this keeps up Ruda might join in or butt out entirely or maybe try to get her to back down. I have no damn idea. It’s always an adventure with her.”

Principia had given up all pretense of eating now, just watching his face. She let the silence hang for a few moments before speaking in a carefully neutral tone.

“That’s a very thorough report, Gabe. And what about the last person it’s missing?”

“Well! I’m not really objective about that, am I?” He turned a grin on her, setting his fork down on his plate. “Tell you what: after Puna Dara, I bet a smart lady like you has a pretty good measure of me anyway. And you’re also a hobbyist enchanter, right? So I bet you’ll have plenty of time to suss out where I stand on this whole thing while you’re figuring a way off that adhesive charm you just sat on. G’night, Lieutenant.”

He stood up with no more ado and sauntered off back to the fire.

Principia watched him go for a moment. Then she experimentally shifted. Her hips had barely an inch of leeway to move and wouldn’t rise at all off the stone. The elf grinned and leaned back against the cliff wall, spearing a bite of baked beans.

“Well. She’s got a good group of friends, anyway. Excellent.”


“Whew,” McGraw grunted, glancing back at the town. “Not to carp on about it, but why that town? I’m pretty sure I mentioned I am specifically unwelcome in Last Rock.”

“Aw, y’big baby, it’s fine,” Billie said cheerfully, slapping his thigh. “We didn’t get arrested or blown up, which is my standard fer a successful visit. Oy, this tallgrass is a towerin’ pain in the arse! I can’t see fer shite. Who wants t’give the gnome a piggyback ride?”

“What, all the way to the center?” Weaver snorted. “Dream on. Just keep making noise so we don’t lose you.”

“You wanna get from Tiraas to the Golden Sea frontier, Last Rock is the most direct route,” Joe said, pushing strands of tallgrass out of his way. “Anyway, no harm came of it. Which is good; it was enough of an ordeal getting this one into the caravan.” He grinned and flicked the tail of the nigh-omnipotent immortal hitching a ride on his shoulder. Mary didn’t deign to transform back and make a comment, though she did turn and peck him on the ear. “Ow. So, I take it spending the night in the inn back there is off the table? Cos not to complain, but it’s not more’n two hours before dusk. Basically the worst possible time to be headin’ out on a camping trip.”

“Everyone in this group is either perfectly comfortable sleeping rough, or actually prefers to,” Weaver grunted. “Under the circumstances I figure we can afford to cater to McGraw’s irrational fear of that poor little town.”

“A pissed-off archmage ain’t an irrational fear,” McGraw retorted. “Least, I wouldn’t call her that to her face.”

“Almost a shame,” Joe said lightly. “I was sorta lookin’ forward to explorin’ back there. Man, that place has changed—an’ fast! Sarasio’s havin’ kind of a boom the last year or so, too, but nothin’ like that.”

“Sarasio doesn’t have a world-famous University,” said McGraw. “These little frontier villages rarely get the luxury of stasis, Joe. They either wither away or grow into somethin’ more. Progress marches on.”

“Aye, lotta marchin’ goin’ on here, innit?” Billie said. “Ey, Joe, how’s about ye lend me yer other shoulder?”

“Why’s it always me?” he complained.

“Cos Elias is old an’ delicate an’ Damian’s a fuckin’ grouch.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Weaver grunted, and suddenly bent over in the tallgrass. One short scuffle and a whoop from Billie later, he reappeared with her riding on his shoulders. “Omnu’s balls, you just like to complain, I swear.”

“Oh, an’ that doesn’t describe you to a ruddy T, eh?”

He strode through the tallgrass and the falling dusk in silence for a few yards, holding her ankles and staring ahead at the distant horizon.

“Listen… All of you. Not that I want to make a whole thing of this, but—”

“Aw, come off it,” Billie said fondly, patting his head. “Breakin’ character fer one minute won’t kill ye. We’ll all still know yer a ruddy asshole come sunup.”

Weaver came to a stop, and the others did likewise. He regarded each of them for a moment in the fading orange sunlight.

Then he actually smiled. The unaccustomed expression transformed his whole face.

“Thanks. All of you.”

McGraw and Joe both tipped their hats in silence. Mary croaked and ruffled her feathers.

Then, as one, the group turned and marched off again, heading north toward the frontier and the unconquerable wilderness beyond.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                              Next Chapter >

15 – 10

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                        Next Chapter >

“Natchua, honey,” Malivette said in a deliberately kind and gentle voice, “I hope you’re comfortable being condescendingly spoken to like you’re a child, because my only other response to that kind of talk…well, you’d like that even less. Now, really. Are you sure you want to make this confrontational? Have you maybe not thought this matter through carefully?”

“Of course I haven’t thought it through,” Natchua said bitterly. “I came here with every intention of never interacting with anyone in Veilgrad but Sherwin. If I had my way, everything would unfold without anybody knowing we were ever here, and everybody would have been better off that way. Instead I’m now dealing with you, and no, I don’t have a plan for that. What I have is a lot of infernal magic and a vested interest in protecting these people. That’s what you should keep in mind here, Lady Dufresne. You start messing with my friends and I’ve got exactly one recourse for that, and it won’t leave anybody happy. So instead of that, how about we walk this back a little bit and see if we can’t find a friendly resolution to this…difference of opinion?”

“Uh, Natchua?” Sherwin said warily, glancing around at Malivette’s four attendants, who had fully encircled the group. “Remember just a minute ago when I said very firmly that we do not want to start a fight here?”

“Sounds like she agrees with you, Sherwin,” Malivette remarked, giving him a thin smile. “Right, Natchua? Nobody here wants the outcome of any kind of brawl that might ensue, especially since there’s no such outcome that doesn’t include most or all of you dead. Natchua, I need you to button up your fly and think with your big head for a moment. I’m sure you are very protective of your friends, and that’s admirable and all, but that is a succubus. If you know anything about infernal magic, or if you’re able to read, you understand why she cannot be allowed to run loose. I’m responsible for this city, and this province, and you bringing her here is the kind of thing for which I could legally have already separated you from your skeleton if I had any intention of doing such a thing. Sometimes, kiddo, the right thing to do is back down, acknowledge exactly how you’ve made a gigantic cock-up of the situation, and let the nice Imperial governor contain the incredibly dangerous demon without making this any messier than it already is.”

“Don’t,” Sherwin urged, placing a hand on Melaxyna’s shoulder as she tensed up. “Even the thralls can track you by smell; Vette definitely can. Don’t go invisible or do anything else to set them off.”

“Thanks for the heads up,” the succubus muttered, tail lashing.

“It’s not even that you’re wrong,” Natchua said quietly, still standing between Malivette at the others. “But it is what it is. Melaxyna is not a threat to anyone right now, and won’t be so long as you leave her in my custody.”

The vampire’s scarlet eyes flicked past her to Sherwin. “Your custody, is it? Interesting. If anything, you’re even less qualified for that than he is.”

“She’s a lot more qualified than you may realize,” Hesthri offered.

“We can either come to some kind of compromise,” Natchua insisted, staring her down, “or you can suffer the consequences.”

“Would you stop threatening her?” Jonathan exclaimed.

“I’m afraid not, Jonathan,” Natchua replied without taking her eyes off Malivette. “That’s all we have to work with, here: the fact that interfering with us would be a lot more trouble than leaving us alone. I don’t want to do this, Malivette, but if you try to separate Melaxyna or any of my people, I’m going to have to stop you. And you may very well win that confrontation, but I can promise you it would cost you dearly. I intend to die elsewhere, do you understand? Not dealing with you. But I intend to die, regardless, and if you force my hand, it’ll be here and now, destroying a wide swath of whatever you may still love in this world. I don’t want to, and it may cost me everything, but I’ll do it anyway because I am way past being backed into a corner. Or you can avoid all this and we can find a compromise. Choose.”

In the short quiet which followed, it wasn’t just the vampires and elves who could hear Jonathan’s teeth grinding.

“Wooooow,” Melaxyna said at last. “I do believe that was the single edgiest thing I’ve ever heard. Did that sound impressive in your head before your mouth fell open? A chapbook author wouldn’t even cram a speech like that into the mouth of their most cliché villain—they’d re-read that and say ‘nah, everybody but consumptive thirteen-year-olds would find this unintentionally hilarious’ and start over. Really, Natchua, a vampire who lives in a crumbling manor with four beautiful maidservants is telling you to tone down the melodrama. You think about that for a moment, and reflect on the direction your life has taken.”

By the end of that, Natchua’s mouth was hanging slightly open. She blinked her eyes three times in rapid succession.

Malivette, meanwhile, clapped her hands together once and rubbed them briskly. “Well! I’ll say this much for this entirely too awkward conversation: now I know who’s responsible for belatedly jamming a spine up Sherwin’s butt, and to my surprise, it’s not the succubus.”

“You really don’t need to be an asshole about this, Vette,” Sherwin complained.

“It’s too easy to be with the effort of not doing it, Sherwin dear. I would like to have a pleasant little chat with the ringleader of this fascinating operation, without the peanut gallery. Girls, make our guests as comfortable as you can for a little bit. If,” she heavily emphasized the syllable, holding up one hand and meeting Natchua’s eyes, “Melaxyna attempts to escape, or does anything else that you judge requires it, kill her immediately. Failing that, she is an esteemed guest and is to be treated as such until I say otherwise.”

“Yes, Mistress,” all four chorused in eerie unison.

“And yet,” Melaxyna mused, “still not the kinkiest party I’ve ever been to.”

“Natchua,” Malivette said pleasantly, “do join me upstairs. I believe we should converse woman to woman without the distraction of all these onlookers.”

“I—”

“Now.” The syllable cracked with the force of a thunderbolt, seemingly through the entire house; the very floorboards shuddered and in the near distance, several doors slammed in emphasis.

Natchua slowly tore her gaze from Malivette’s and nodded at the rest of her group. “It’s all right. Please do as they ask, and be polite.”

“Look who’s telling who to be polite,” Jonathan said flatly. “Keep in mind we’re all still in the building and try not to start a brawl, will you?”

“I did manage to run my own life before you came along, Jonathan,” she said irritably, turning her back on him. “Lead the way, Lady Dufresne.”


Syrinx continued pacing up and down for a few minutes after hearing their report. The rest of them sat in silence in the conference room, watching her.

It wasn’t as if there was much for her to think about, and if this was some kind of power play, it clearly was not working. The three of them had returned to find Syrinx already stewing and both Kheshiri and the Jackal looking serenely pleased with themselves, which as good as said how that inevitable personality clash had played out in their absence. Now, Khadizroth and Vannae sat in matching poses of pure serenity, hands folded atop the table and regarding the pacing Inquisitor in total calm. The Jackal had tipped his chair up on its hind legs, slouching back in it and resting his snakeskin boots on the table. He was unnecessarily cleaning his fingernails with a stiletto and intermittently glancing up at Syrinx, his self-satisfied grin not wavering for a moment. Shook had pulled a chair away from the table and turned it to face the front of the room directly, and now slouched back in it with his legs splayed, watching the Inquisitor with a vague little smile with his head resting in Kheshiri’s bosom while she, standing close behind him, slowly ran her hands up and down his arms.

The Inquisitor’s clear anger was having no effect on its intended targets, and that appeared to be making it worse.

“And that’s all?” Syrinx abruptly demanded, coming to a stop and rounding on them.

“At this time, yes,” Khadizroth said, still utterly calm. “Your lead appears to have been fruitful. The results are slight, this is true, but one cannot expect miracles at the very first step of such an investigation.”

“Something wrong, boss lady?” Shook asked in a milder tone than his voice ever held when he wasn’t being deliberately spiteful. “It was your lead, after all. We met the mark and got results. I dunno why you seem so…tetchy.”

Ironically, that suddenly calmed Syrinx down. She straightened up and the tension melted from her stance, her incipient scowl fading away as she turned a more thoughtful stare upon Shook. He continued to sprawl indolently in his seat, but others in the room more sensitive to undercurrents clearly smelled danger; the Jackal’s blade froze, as did his expression, and he glanced rapidly between Shook and Basra. Kheshiri also stopped the movements of her hands, her fingers clenching on the sleeves of Shook’s coat.

“Quite so,” Syrinx said in a clipped tone, staring blankly at him. “For some reason I expected such a vaunted crew as yours to have achieved more progress, but in hindsight I cannot imagine why.”

“Well, don’t take it to heart, sugar,” he drawled. “We’ve disappointed even smarter people than you.”

Kheshiri’s fingers clawed an iota harder in a silent warning, which he disregarded.

“Mr. Shook,” Basra said, now with a pleasant little smile that made the Jackal’s grin widen slightly in anticipation, “it’s beyond my fathoming why you would even want to get a rise out of me in your situation, but what disappoints me most is that you aren’t better at it. Apparently the Thieves’ Guild doesn’t train its thugs nearly as well as they like to claim. Regardless, you will straighten up. You rely upon his Holiness the Archpope for protection from the Imperial law enforcement and multiple cults you have provoked, including your own. And right now, it is I who will decide how, and indeed whether, that protection will be extended over you.”

He had tensed up, but did not move, and kept his expression deliberately even. “That so?”

“You stand out even in this gaggle of reprobates, Shook,” she stated, planting her fists on the edge of the table and leaning forward to stare down at him. “I know your history. While we are here, I promise you, there will be no preying on or abusing women.”

Shook’s frozen expression suddenly thawed, and then warmed, a dark but genuine smile curling up the corners of his mouth.

“Rrrrright back atcha.”

The Jackal burst out laughing. The room filled with a series of shrill barks of his amusement which may have hinted at the origin of his nickname.

Slowly, Basra straightened back up, her expression revealing nothing.

“In a situation like ours, discipline is a necessity, not a luxury. It is sorely clear how the lack of it has rendered you lot virtually useless. For the duration of your service under my Inquisition, Shook, you will address me as Inquisitor, or ma’am. Is that clear?”

He gave her a lazy mockery of a salute. “Yes sir, ma’am.”

She elected not to push it, instead turning a wry look on the Jackal. “Are you just about done?”

“Wait, wait,” he gasped, holding up one finger with the arm not clutching his ribs. “A-almost…”

“Enough, Jack,” Khadizroth said quietly.

The elf instantly quieted as if a switch had been flipped, straightening up in his seat and folding his hands atop the table. The sudden display of obedience did not improve Basra’s mood; the look she turned upon the dragon was even more wintry than that which she’d directed at Shook.

“I am not very familiar with this city,” Khadizroth said in a courteously calm tone, bowing his head deferentially to Syrinx. “So I’m afraid I have little useful counsel to offer as regards our next move. We await your orders, Inquisitor.”

She held his emerald stare for a moment, then worked her jaw once as if chewing on the idea of him, and finally turned her gaze on the paper lying near her on the table. Scrawled in Khadizroth’s neat hand upon a sheet of enchanting vellum Vannae had been carrying was the short list of locations in Ninkabi where the contact Basra had sent them to meet had said cultist activity could be found. She picked it up, eyes tracking back and forth as she re-read the few lines.

“What was your impression of the contact in question?” Basra asked suddenly.

Vannae and Shook both turned to look at Khadizroth, who opened his mouth to answer.

“Shook,” Basra said curtly. “I want to hear from you.”

Shook hesitated, glancing at Khadizroth and then back to her with eyebrows raised. “Uh, you sure? As you were just commenting, I’m just muscle, here. Big K’s the—”

“Did I ask your opinion, Mr. Shook?”

“Well, yes. You literally just did that.”

“Jeremiah,” Khadizroth said softly. “The Inquisitor is correct. Please don’t add to her difficulties.”

Shook hesitated, then nodded at him. “Yeah, fair enough. My apologies, Inquisitor. Well, there wasn’t a lot to see. Shortish woman, wore Omnist robes with the hood up. Not much of a disguise, since even monks don’t just walk around that way—practically announcing that you’re up to something, walking around like that. But it worked as far as hiding her face, anyway, and it’s not like we came off any less weird, with K having to use practically the same get-up. Acted pretty standard, for an informant who’s not used to playing this game. Skittish, looking over her shoulders a lot. Low-pitched voice, I think might’ve been using a voice-altering charm, but I’m no enchanter. Gave us those locations and then bugged off outta there.”

For the first part of his recitation, Basra had kept a level stare locked on Khadizroth, who was watching Shook attentively, but by the end she had directed her full attention to the enforcer.

“Anything to add to that, either of you?” she asked when he came to a finish.

Vannae shook his head, turning to look at Khadizroth.

“A good description,” the dragon agreed. “I can confirm the presence of a voice-altering charm. More than that I did not discern, as any such measures would by nature be intrusive, and your orders were to get information without spooking or provoking the informant. I assumed you wished to avoid jeopardizing the source, which of course is wise.”

“Where’d you dig up this alleged source, anyway?” the Jackal asked lazily, now balancing his knife point-down on his fingertip.

“You know as much as you need to,” Basra snapped.

“As you wish,” Khadizroth said diplomatically before the elf could respond. “I certainly understand the operational need to control information. As a rule, the more we know, the more effective we are in the field. I must admit I am curious about your choice of agents to send on this particular assignment.”

“Dragon,” Syrinx said coldly, “understand this now: I will not tolerate your attempts to undercut my authority.”

“I apologize if I have overstepped,” Khadizroth said, bowing to her from his seat. “No disrespect was intended. I simply took you for a kindred spirit, so to speak.”

Basra actually betrayed surprise, straightening up suddenly. “I beg your pardon?”

Khadizroth glanced briefly around the table, then unlaced his fingers to spread his hands in a small gesture of self-deprecation with a wry little smile. “You are not far wrong to call us a gaggle of reprobates. Most of us here have nowhere else to go, and assuredly little other prospect of being of use to the world than in the Archpope’s service. Likewise, we face potential…difficulties…with certain parties we have offended, should we find ourselves outside his protection. Forgive me, but I thought perhaps you could relate.”

Her lips drew back to bare teeth in a nearly feral expression. Khadizroth kept right on speaking with truly impressive control, managing to hastily cut off any response without sounding at all rushed.

“Those of us who have been a bit longer in this situation have rather laboriously learned not to take offense when it is inevitably given; it has doubtless not escaped your notice that this is a group of large personalities stuffed into a small space. Despite the obvious conflicts, we are a surprisingly effective unit when we exercise our various skills cooperatively. It seems to me a woman of your formidable reputation makes a significant addition to an already significant array of talent.”

“You seem to be under a misconception,” Syrinx said icily. “I am not joining your little…club. This operation is mine. You lot are simply an asset which has been assigned to me for my use, at my discretion. The sooner and more thoroughly you internalize that fact, the more smoothly this inquisition will go. And you want it to go smoothly. If it does not, I promise you, it will not be I who suffers for the failure.”

“Of course.” Again, Khadizroth inclined his head respectfully to her. “What is our next move, Inquisitor?”

Basra turned away, again studying the page. She paced up and down the short end of the room twice more before abruptly stopping.

“You were wondering why I dispatched the muscle and not the subtlety to meet with an informant.”

“Seemed like a curious choice,” Shook agreed, leaning his head back into Kheshiri’s cleavage while she began kneading his shoulders. “But hey, what do I know. The muscle just goes where the brain says.”

Basra divided a look of withering contempt between the two of them, which earned her nothing but a flirtatious wink from the succubus.

“I risked acting on the assumption that even you had sufficient wits to follow simple directions and not create a complete debacle out of one short conversation. I’m somewhat relieved to have that faith validated. The choice of you three was because I was uncertain of the identity and origin of this…informant. I preferred to deploy the less fragile talents given the potential risks. We are not going to be friends, let us clarify that up front. But that doesn’t mean I intend to be wasteful with your lives. You are, after all, valuable assets. Except Shook.”

The enforcer’s face tightened, but he threw her another sarcastic salute, not shifting from his comfortable position.

“I don’t know any better than you what any of these places are,” Basra continued brusquely, flapping the page once at Khadizroth. “I am going to check with the Holy Legion’s local personnel and decide on our next target, at which time I will have your next orders. For now… Adequate work, so far. Dismissed.”

The group exchanged a round of glances.

“Is that…military speak?” the Jackal asked, scratching his head. “What’s that mean, exactly?”

“I believe it means we can go,” Vannae offered.

“I think there’s a subext that we’re expected to go,” Kheshiri added.

“Correct.” Khadizroth pushed back his chair and stood; as if at that signal, the rest began rising as well. “It is customary to depart upon dismissal. Come, the Inquisitor has work and we will only be underfoot.”

He led the way to the door, the rest filing out after. Behind them, Basra turned her back, making a show of studying the list again, which did not conceal the seething tension that gripped her form.

Kheshiri at least waited until they were out in the hall with the door shut before commenting. “Now, that one is wound way too tight. Baiting her is so easy it’s not even fun.”

“Maybe don’t, then?” the Jackal suggested, then giggled shrilly. “Aw, who’m I kidding. You do your thing, doll—me, I have a taste for low-hanging fruit. And I’ve been itching to have a go a that one ever since she and a bunch of her Bishop friends ruined my night a couple years back. Actually it was just before I met the rest of you freaks. And now look! Poor little Basra has come down hard in the world.”

“Peace,” Khadizroth said firmly. “This is neither the time nor the place.”

The Jackal snickered, but followed without further commentary as the dragon led them to the common area around which was clustered the small bedrooms they had been assigned.

Vannae carefully shut the door behind them while the group clustered around the couch and two chairs before their small fireplace. Shook opened his mouth to speak, but Khadizroth forestalled him with an upraised hand.

The dragon produced a bottle seemingly from nowhere, a glossy thing of green glass about as tall as a wine bottle but much thinner. Raising it to his lips, he blew once across the top, producing a soft tone, then handed it to Vannae. The elf did likewise, his breath making a brief puff several notes higher in pitch, then turned and held it out to Shook.

The enforcer took the bottle slowly, frowning, and turned a look on Khadizroth. At the dragon’s encouraging nod, he shrugged and also blew across the lip, then handed it to Kheshiri. They all repeated the little ritual, the Jackal last; he pretended to fumble and almost drop it in the act of handing it back to Khadizroth, snickering at Vannae’s abortive motion as if about to dive to catch it.

Ignoring the byplay, Khadizroth held the bottle up to his own lips one more time, but on this round simply whispered something inaudible. Then he held the bottle out at arm’s length and upended it.

Whispers poured out, slithering voices resonating through the small room and gradually rising. As the sounds grew more distinct, their own voices emerged clearly, raised in an argument. Khadizroth gestured outward once with his hands, and the noise suddenly cut off.

“That,” he said, “is what anyone listening from outside the room will hear. For a few minutes, at least, we can speak in privacy.”

“Nice trick,” said the Jackal. “How come you never used that one before?”

“We are usually under tighter observation, especially in Tiraas, and I prefer not to tip my hand any more than necessary where Justinian might see it. Syrinx has fewer skills, resources, and options. Now time is short—while the spell lasts, let me catch you up.”

“So, shall I assume you were less than forthcoming about your encounter with the good Inquisitor?” Kheshiri asked sweetly.

“The person who came to meet us,” Khadizroth reported, “was none other than Bishop Branwen Snowe.”

The Jackal let out a whistle, but the dragon continued before anyone had a chance to chime in.

“There is, indeed, more going on here than we know—and more than Basra Syrinx knows. This cult, as we suspected, was a weapon of the Archpope’s and our mission here a sham. Snowe does not know what, specifically, Justinian intends by sending us all here, but her stated objective is to destroy Syrinx, whom she regards as unstable, dangerous, and a threat to the Archpope’s long-term plans.”

“Which is good and believable,” Shook added, “by virtue of being the simple truth. I never met somebody who so obviously had ‘crazy bitch’ written all over her.”

“And you’re taking Snowe at her word, are ya?” the Jackal asked wryly.

“Hardly,” Khadizroth replied. “She is, at the very least, going against Justinian’s wishes and seeking the downfall of another of his agents. To have achieved even this much progress toward such a goal, she would have to be far too clever to blithely trust the likes of us with her true intentions.”

“This game is getting better by the minute,” said Kheshiri, her tail beginning to sway eagerly behind her. “So Snowe has inserted herself into the Church’s agents out here to pose as Basra’s source, unknown to Basra?”

“Oh, he hasn’t even gotten to the good part yet,” Shook said.

“Snowe claims she has documentation of this secretive cult’s activities that is more thorough than anything any investigation could possibly turn up, if it were a serious mission,” said Khadizroth. “Evidently—and this should surprise none of you—the full details would be quite incriminating to Justinian, and as such she will not share them all. It appears she is, at least on some level, personally loyal to the Archpope. But she is willing to dole out enough tidbits for us to report back to Syrinx, and sustain the impression that we are actually pursuing this sham of an assignment.”

“While we…?” Kheshiri prompted, raising her eyebrows.

“The intelligence we just turned over is, indeed, about cult activity in Ninkabi,” Khadizroth said evenly. “But the cult in question is the Black Wreath.”

“And what,” the succubus said slowly, “is the Wreath doing here?”

“That she didn’t know,” Shook answered. “Seems like it’d be worth finding out, don’t you think?”

“So you want to conduct a real investigation of the Black Wreath while conducting a pretend investigation of this mystery cult?” the Jackal said, an incredulous note creeping into his customary grin.

“While,” Khadizroth replied, nodding, “playing both ends against the middle between Syrinx and Snowe. We need to learn what each of them is really up to, here, since they are clearly neither telling us anything resembling the truth.”

“And,” Shook added, “the most important part: figuring out how we can best use all of these assholes to bring each other down, before one or some or all of them can do it to us. And what do we call that, kitten?” he added condescendingly, swatting Kheshiri on the rump.

Her grin had stretched to resemble the Jackal’s at his most unhinged. “That, master, we call fun.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                         Next Chapter >

15 – 9

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                              Next Chapter >

“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?”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

10 – 14

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                          Next Chapter >

Darling’s irritating refusal to show weakness continued all the way up the winding trail that lead east, into the mountains beyond the city. To be sure, the trail they chose wound back and forth up the slope so as not to present an excessive challenge, but it was still a mountain climb; there was a significant vertical component to their trek. Joe’s indefatigable calm did not surprise him, for all that wandfighting didn’t seem like a particularly strenuous skill, at least physically. The Kid was a frontier dweller and had made his mark against many opponents; in any lodge of Shaath’s followers, he would be accounted a man regardless of his age. Darling, though, was a city slicker of the worst kind, and his failure to get even winded felt vaguely insulting to Ingvar.

Not for the first time, he considered setting off cross-country, straightening out the curves in the trail, so to speak. That was a good way to lose the track, though. Not that he couldn’t find a lodge in the forest purely on the strength of his own skills, but getting lost would add who knew how much time to the journey. Plus, he would eventually have to explain to the Crow why he’d ditched the companions she had selected for him. Ingvar had not totally ruled that out, but wasn’t to the point of deciding on it yet.

“Y’know,” Darling said breezily, stopping in the middle of the trail and craning his neck back to peer up at the pine boughs above, “in a way, I think I might be getting more out of this than you two country boys.”

Ingvar decided first not to hit him, and second not to dignify that with any response at all.

“Oh, I’m sure this’ll be rich,” Joe muttered.

“It’s just that… Well, I personally see a certain kind of beauty in the rhythms of a city,” Darling intoned, resuming his walk as Ingvar brushed past him. “In my city, anyway, though I suspect they each have a life and a glory of their own. But I can well believe that’s a kind of beauty you have to be particularly attuned to in order to appreciate it. This, though!” He spread his arms dramatically, as if offering to embrace the forest. It was a quiet, clear morning, the air filled with the songs of birds and insects, as well as the sharp scent of pine needles. Sunlight filtered through the branches over the trail in golden streams here and there, leaving most of the forest to either side in cool shade. The whole day could have been painted, as if it were someone’s perfect idea of an idyllic scene of nature. “I don’t care who you are, this is gorgeous.”

“It does have a kind of majesty to it,” Joe agreed. “Only forest I knew back home was the elven grove. Needless to say, I didn’t go in there much, but I vividly recall those few visits. The place was… It had this feelin’ to it, like it had been made for people. Not humans, necessarily, but people. Elves live in balance with nature, but while that means their land ain’t exactly parks, there’s a certain tameness to it. Like you can tell it’s under somebody’s control. This here’s… I dunno. Ancient, primal. Wild.”

“This is actually a very young forest,” said Ingvar from the front of the group. “Not much more than a hundred years old, if that.”

“Really?” Darling sounded legitimately interested, for whatever that was worth. “What gives it away?”

Ingvar paused, gesturing into the woods on their left. “To a limited extent, you can tell by the size and spacing of the trees. Note the lack of variation; almost all of them are about that big. There are no enormous elders, and relatively few saplings. Most of these trees grew up at the same time, and cast thick enough shade that younger ones haven’t space or sunlight to grow between them. That’s not a reliable proof, however; forests tend to reach a kind of equilibrium on their own that looks similar. More to the point, the spacing between them is very close to even. See how it almost forms corridors, going off into the distance?” He paused to let them both peer into the woods, noting the frowns when they saw what he meant. “In a way, Joe, this is the opposite of your elven forest. These trees were planted, on purpose, and then left to grow up wild.”

He turned and continued up the path, the others falling into step behind them. “To be truthful, though, I know the history of this land. There are a lot of centennial forests in the Empire. The Tirasian Dynasty has very careful laws about conservation. They needed them, there was so much clear-cutting and strip mining during the relative anarchy after the Enchanter Wars. The slopes around Veilgrad were one of the areas that were re-planted late in Sarsamon’s reign. A lot of the pine woods in this province were planted for logging, but the trees around the city itself are protected. They’re helping to hold the mountainsides in place and blocking snow, preventing avalanches.”

“Huh,” Joe mused.

“They also provide homes for game,” Ingvar added. “Meat and fur are economically significant around here, too.”

“Are you this well-versed on the state of the wilds everywhere?” Darling inquired.

Ingvar shrugged. “I could probably tell you the basics for most provinces. You can deduce a lot just from the climate, geography and nearby population. But no. Any Huntsman, even one who has never been here, knows how the wilds of the Stalrange live.”

“I see,” Darling murmured.

“For instance,” Ingvar went on. “There. Hear that?” He pointed upward. “There it is again—that bird, with the high-pitched, whooping voice.”

“Mm hm,” said Joe. “What’s that?”

“It’s a scarlet heron,” the Huntsman explained. “They’re not true herons, actually, they just happen to resemble them. It’s a coastal, tropical bird; it wouldn’t survive a week in a pine forest in this climate, at this altitude. However, the call is pretty widely known, as it’s uniquely easy for humans to imitate.”

Behind him, Joe and Darling’s steps both faltered as they paused. Ingvar glanced back over his shoulder. Joe had tucked his thumb into his belt, placing his hand near a wand; Darling ducked both hands slightly into his sleeves, curling his fingers back until they nearly reached the cuffs. Just for a moment, but it was enough of a tell for Ingvar to deduce the presence of throwing knives up his sleeves. A weak sort of weapon, in his estimation, and entirely characteristic of the thief.

“So,” Darling said lightly, “our approach has been noticed. Well, Mr. Grusser did say this path led right to the Shadow Hunters’ lodge. I guess that’s a good sign! They seem not to have hostile intentions.”

“How did you come to that conclusion?” Ingvar demanded.

“Well, anybody watching us can clearly see we’re in the presence of a Huntsman of Shaath, traditional attire and all,” he said, grinning. “So they’d have to assume you would recognize that bird call. Whoever else that message was meant for, it was basically an announcement to you that our approach has been noted. Seems like they’d be a lot more circumspect if they wanted to communicate privately. Or don’t you think these Shadow Hunters can imitate local birds, too?”

“Could be,” Joe allowed. “Could also be lettin’ us know we’re bein’ watched is a warning.”

“Meh.” Darling shrugged. “Not impossible, but as warnings go, that’s pretty flimsy. No, I think if they wanted to tell us anything, it’d be more direct. It makes more sense to me to take this as a peaceable sign.”

“Or,” Joe suggested, “they don’t care at all about three guys strollin’ through the woods, an’ there’s somethin’ truly dangerous in the forest not far from here.”

“Joe, you’re a regular little basket of sunbeams, you know that?” Darling said sourly. Ingvar held his peace.

The trees thinned as they climbed, affording a better view both ahead and behind them. Rounding one of the trail’s switchbacks, the three discovered they suddenly had an astonishing perspective of Veilgrad from above. The city jutted out from the foot of the mountains, a long finger pointed into the vastness of the prairie beyond. From this altitude, there were even signs of its recent pains; far more buildings were under construction and repair than normally would be, and there was a scar near its northwestern quarter where a whole block had burned.

Incredible as the vista was, they had to turn and examine the scenery ahead and above them in more detail, for they had finally come into view of the lodge of the Shadow Hunters.

Its general design was similar to the traditional Shaathist lodge: a huge longhouse, its peaked roof formed of enormous pine beams and covered in thatch, built upon a high stone foundation with a broad flight of steps rising a full story to its front doors. This one, fittingly enough, was more eclectic in design, somewhat resembling a medieval castle built around the main structure. Battlements were in evidence here and there along its peaks, notably surmounting the round tower attached to one front corner of the lodge. The tower soared twice the height of the lodge’s roof, but was so broadly built it managed to look squat; it had to have as much interior space as the main lodge, and more. There was also another rectangular segment jutting out from the lodge at right angles, smaller but built along similar lines, with a steep thatched roof. This one, however, was unmistakably a chapel, complete with stained glass windows and a steeple rising from its far end. Rather than an ankh as was traditional for Universal Church chapels, this one was surmounted by a stylized horned eagle wrought from iron. It was not the traditional eagle symbol of Avei, though it could well have been a rendition of the same kind of bird.

As they stood in the path, staring up at the lodge, a spine-chilling scream echoed from high above, and a shadow passed over them.

All three men turned to behold a winged shape gliding overhead. It swept out in a wide arc before coming in to land atop the lodge’s round tower, where it was hidden from view by the battlements. Given the speed with which it moved, and their disadvantageous position, they were not afforded a clear look at the bird. Its wingspan, though, had to be broader than any of them was tall.

Ingvar grunted and set off walking again. After a moment, the others followed.

A standing stone of clearly ancient provenance stood at the next bend in the path, marking the point where it turned to lead directly to the lodge. At least eight feet tall, the stone was so old it had been worn round by the elements, yet still bore traces of what must once have been very deep carvings, now outlined by the lichen clinging to them.

Atop it sat a blonde woman in coarse, practical garb similar to traditional Huntsman’s kit, casually working at a piece of wood with a knife.

“Good morning, guests,” she said as they drew abreast of her perch. “What brings you?”

The three paused, and Ingvar’s two companions looked at him, Darling with an encouraging nod. As if he needed encouragement.

“Well met,” Ingvar said, bowing slightly. Given how high up she was, dipping his head too deeply would have seemed ridiculous. “I am Brother Ingvar, a Huntsman of Shaath.”

“Not from around here, you aren’t,” she commented, pointing at him with her carving knife. “Not with that beardless face. I don’t imagine the local Huntsmen went out of their way to make you feel welcome, now did they?”

“You have trouble with the Huntsmen?” Darling asked. His tone and expression were a masterpiece of polite, neighborly interest; they seemed to work on this Shadow Hunter (for such she had to be) better than they did Ingvar, to judge by the way she smiled down at him.

“It waxes and wanes,” she replied. “Lately, the situation is not ideal. The Huntsmen got pushier by the day while the city was suffering from chaos effects, and now there’s absolutely no living with them, since they acquitted themselves so well fighting undead in the catacombs. Grusser threw them a parade. Only a matter of time until they overstep and he has to rein them back in, and they’d better hope it’s him doing it and not the Duchess. Oh, but I’m interrupting your introductions.”

“With me,” Ingvar said somewhat stiffly, “are Joseph Jenkins of Sarasio, and you seem to have already met Bishop Antonio Darling of the Universal—”

“Did you say Joseph Jenkins of Sarasio?” They finally seemed to have the woman’s full interest; she set down her knife and carving and leaned alarmingly over the edge of the stone, staring avidly down at Joe. “No fooling? The Joe Jenkins?”

“The ‘the’ himself, ma’am,” Joe said, tipping his hat. “Somewhat less impressive in the flesh than in song, so I’m told.”

“He’s a modest one,” Darling said cheerfully. “I guarantee no one has told him that.”

“Not true. Weaver manages to squeeze it in at least once a day.”

“Well, you guys must have quite a story,” she said, grinning now. “I’m Liesl, the gabby and insignificant. Since the honor’s all mine, I’ll try to make the pleasure all yours. Really, though, what brings you to our doorstep? This is like the beginning of a bar joke. A Huntsman, a Bishop and the flippin’ Sarasio Kid walk into a lodge…”

Darling laughed obligingly; Ingvar gritted his teeth momentarily, gathering his patience, before answering.

“My companions and I have come in pursuit of a spiritual matter. We were sent to seek the Shadow Hunters for… I…honestly don’t know.”

“Hm,” Liesl mused. “Sent by whom?”

“By Mary the Crow.”

She fell still at that, gazing down at them with a suddenly closed face.

“Well,” she said at last. “Well, well. You just get more interesting with every word you say. Not to mention more alarming… All right, hang on.”

She hopped nimbly to her feet, tucking her knife back into its sheath and her piece of wood into an inner pocket of her leather vest. Before any of them could say a word, Liesl stepped off the edge of the standing stone, plummeting to the ground.

It wasn’t a lethal drop by any means, but longer than a person ought to casually jump. She hit the ground in a roll, coming smoothly to her feet right in front of them and pausing only to brush off her leather trousers. Ingvar recognized the move well enough; young Huntsmen like Tholi were always doing similar things, as if to prove to themselves, each other, and the world that they deserved their rank. He felt grateful to have outgrown that phase, himself.

“Walk this way, gentlemen,” the Shadow Hunter said with a knowing little smile. “Your business is over the head of the likes of me, I think. You’d better come inside and talk to Raichlin.”


 

Parvashti opened her eyes, sighed, and hopped down from the rigging. It wasn’t a long drop to the deck; the Sleepless was a nimble little ship, built for speed rather than capacity. She barely had enough of a fall for her feet to make a good, satisfying thump, but it was still enough to alert the Captain that she was finally down. He had doubtless been twiddling his thumbs and listening for it.

“Well?” Captain Nayar demanded, thrusting his bearded head out of his cabin’s porthole. “Storm, or no storm?”

“I’m not sure,” she admitted. “The sea is…making up its mind.”

“Not sure?” he bellowed, vanishing back below. In moments he came bursting out on deck in his towering entirety, glaring. “Not sure? We either sail in two hours, or not, based on my esteemed windshaman’s prognostication. I’ve got cargo rotting in my hold!”

“How fast do you think Narisian platinum rots?” she asked mildly.

“Woman, I don’t pay you for not sure!”

Parvashti strode forward, glaring right back at him, and thrust a ringed forefinger into his substantial paunch. “No, Captain, you pay me not to nail you amidships with a harpoon, so caulk it before I decide I’m overdue a raise! Are you Punaji or a cave elf your own damn self? It’s the sea! It’ll make up its mind when it does, and I’ll know before anyone else. You want certainty of a storm? Stick your great bearded gob into the waves and tell Naphthene what a twat she is. Until then, you’ll have to be content with being a little ahead of everyone else on these docks!”

“Bah!” Nayar roared, throwing up his hands and turning to scowl at the city behind. Anteraas perched on a narrow wedge of flat land between the cliffs that made up the Tiraan Gulf’s coast, flanked by the ancient stone arms of its harbor. Those cliffs rose in both directions, climbing toward the Stalrange in the east and toward Tiraas itself, atop the Tira Falls barely visible to the west. In times past, the capital had been visible only on the clearest of days, but now its glow made it a constant presence on any night that wasn’t too thickly shrouded by fog.

“Oh, keep your beard on,” Parvashti said in a milder tone. “How much money have I made you already? I guarantee no one else knows the portents my familiars can read. We’ll need most of those two hours anyway to wait for the others to get back with the supplies.”

“Fine, fine,” Nayar grunted. “As soon as everyone’s aboard and everything stowed, we set sail.”

“But—”

He held up a hand to forestall her. “Trade is as much a game of strategy against mortal opponents as it is a game of chance against the elements. You know that slimy arseplug Gupta is watching us—he’s figured out that my windshaman knows things no other knows. When we leave the harbor, he’ll follow, while everyone else dithers to see what comes of this.” He gestured out at the gray sea and gray sky, calm but of a worrying color. The chilly southern sea was unpredictable at the best of times; some days, it seemed it went out of its way to obscure its intentions. “If you give us the clear to keep on for Puna Vashtar, so be it; the Sleepless can outrun that tub of his no matter what charms he’s finagled in port. If not, we’ll put in at Tehvaad and leave him to wallow in the storm.”

“Truly, you are a master of your craft, o great and canny one,” she said solemnly.

Nayar snorted to express his opinion of her wit. “Oh, did you get your paper?”

“Paper? What paper?”

“The newspaper. You didn’t subscribe to one?”

“Sub— News— Captain, what have I told you about drinking on the job?”

“That I’d better invite you?” he replied with a grin.

“Damn right! What the fuck newspaper do you think I would subscribe to? When would I do such a thing? What address do I have? Why would I care what the shorecrawlers think is fit to print? Use that shaggy hatstand for its intended purpose!”

“You’re going to make some poor bastard a dreadful wife someday, you ungodly shrew,” he said. “All I know is—in fact, here.” He ducked back below decks for a moment, reemerging almost immediately with a newspaper bound in twine, a small note tied to it. “This was delivered by some boy while you were up there mumbling at the wind. Has your name and all, so I figured… Eh. Maybe one of the crew just thought you’d be interested and sent it along. The headline’s about that crazy school you went to.”

“What?” Parvashti strode forward, snatching it from his hand. “Give me that!”

She ripped away the twine while he muttered imprecations about her manners and stomped to the port rail to glare out at the sea. Parvashti’s eyes darted rapidly back and forth across the page, a frown growing on her features as she read.

“Captain,” she said, “when we next make port… I might want to take a little leave soon.”


 

“There,” Erland grunted, backing out of the tight space between boilers into which he’d had to squeeze to reach the access panel. “You were right, Harald, it was the glass conduits. Somehow, some idiot managed to forget to fix them properly in their housings.” He made a point to speak respectfully to his partners at all times, even when correcting them; having been the idiot in question, he felt free to express his frustration a little more directly.

“And the glass?” Harald said nervously, apparently not making note of Erland’s mistake. “It’s all right, no cracks?”

“All in perfect order,” Erland assured him, holding up his pocket lens and thumbing the charm that made its rim glow. “The shutdown wasn’t due to damage, but Kjerstin’s protective charms working as intended. I double-checked the pistons for signs of strain while I was in there. Everything’s fine, no grinding or overheating.”

“I told you so,” Kjerstin said smugly, beginning to tick off points on her fingers. “Told you the charms were necessary, that they’d work, that you were too sleep-deprived to be putting in those conduits last night—”

“All right, all right,” Erland said soothingly, holding up his hands. “You can make your speech later. For now, we appreciate your charm work. The engine’s still intact, the conduits are now installed properly, and we’re ready to try again.”

The other two dwarves glanced at each other, nervousness plain on their faces.

“We are ready to try again, aren’t we?” Erland said dryly.

“All these false starts,” Harald muttered, rubbing his hands on his trouser legs. “Every time I get more nervous… Sometimes it feels the machine’s trying to warn us we’re up to something that should not be attempted.”

“Oh, bah,” Kjerstin snorted. “If nobody tried new things, the world would never change.”

“I know what my grandfather would say about this gadget,” Harald said, staring at the engine. “All this glass and filament… It looks like some kind of elvish sculpture.”

“Really, have you ever seen an elvish sculpture?” Erland said with amusement. “Make time to get out of the foundry and into a museum before your brain withers in your skull.”

“Your grandfather still wears his beard down to his belt,” Kjerstin said sharply, “and his generation isn’t too old to have to worry about getting it caught in gears. That is not a joke; you know good dwarves have suffered beard-induced decapitations, working with big enough machines. Some people are just too hidebound to embrace innovation!”

“You two want to re-hash this discussion again right now?” Erland said pointedly.

They paused again, staring at their machine.

“Feh, you’re right,” Harald said. “We’re putting it off. All right, Erland, let’s give her another go.”

“You could’ve built it with some extra dials or something,” Kjerstin muttered, folding her arms and betraying her own nervousness with a rapidly tapping foot. “Some dummy switches. Something for me to do.”

“I’ll work a few useless gizmos into the next iteration,” Erland promised, grasping the lever. “Here goes nothing, once again.”

He hauled the lever into the active position, opening the channel to the desktop-sized elemental forge hooked up to one end of the engine and letting raw heat blaze forth into its mouth.

Immediately, with gratifying smoothness, their creation purred to life. The sound it made was almost musical, high-pitched and harmonic, quite unlike any combustion engine they had ever worked with. Light shone forth from multiple points, orange fire from its exhaust ports, arcane blue beams racing through its exposed power conduits, multicolored runes igniting in sequence along the casing.

At the device’s opposite end from its power source, the piston began working. It barely had to accelerate, starting off pumping at nearly its full capacity.

They tensed, waiting for another alarm or sudden shutdown, as had happened the last four attempts. Nothing came, though. Just the light, the pleasant voice of the engine, and the rapid motion of its output piston against the springs and pulleys attached to the gauges Harald was monitoring.

“It’s stable,” Kjerstin breathed. “It’s working!”

“Kinetic output at fifteen jonors,” Harald reported excitedly. “By the Light, Erland, it’s even higher than we projected!”

“That’s a little too high,” Erland said, cautious despite his own enthusiasm. “We didn’t design it to stand up to that kind of power flow…”

“But it’s working!” Kjerstin squealed, bouncing up and down. “From a heat source to kinetic energy with zero waste or byproducts! Erland, we’re rich!”

A shrill whine sounded from the engine before he could respond; runes flared red, and suddenly its shutdown charms activated again, slamming the barrier shut to cut off its power source and force its lever back into lock position. The blue light faded from the conduits, and its soft voice wound down into silence.

“To get rich,” Harald observed, “we’re going to have to make it run longer than thirty seconds…”

“Oh, you big fuddy-duddy,” Kjerstin said, darting over to swat at his shoulder. “We’re just building a proof of concept, here! We have something to show the Falconers now—their grant is provably not wasted money. They’ll invest in improving it, they have to!”

“I never assume humans are going to do the sensible thing,” Harald grumped. “Please, Kjerstin, don’t get worked up this time before we see results.”

“It’s obviously just a matter of control, right? We refine the runes so that they regulate the power input rather than just shutting it off when it gets too much—”

“Oh, just like that? You’re talking about a complete rebuild of the enchanted components! And we’ll have to re-design most of the physical machine to accommodate…”

Erland let their discussion wash over him, listening with half an ear as he stepped over to his cluttered work desk and sank into the battered chair there, feeling weak from a combination of excitement and relief. He couldn’t keep the grin off his face. They were both right: there was a long, long way to go before they had an engine that would actually power anything, but the concept worked. It could be made to work, at least. All their efforts were finally bearing fruit.

His eyes fell on a newspaper, printed in Tanglish, sitting on top of his stacks of paperwork. He hadn’t bought that… Had Kjerstin brought it in to show him?

Erland’s expression fell into a frown as he read the headline. Oh, this was not good. Professor Tellwyrn was going to immolate somebody.

“Hey, Kjerstin,” he called, interrupting their argument. “Didn’t you happen to mention that the Falconer’s daughter was attending my alma mater?”

“What of it?” she said, exasperated. “You bring that up now?”

“You were talking about funding, and politics,” he said, eyes still on the paper. “There’s something unfolding down there that we may want to pay attention to…”


 

“Your pardon, Princess,” Cartwright said diffidently, “but this newspaper was just delivered for you.”

“Newspaper?” Yasmeen said distractedly, picking it up from the silver tray on which the Butler held it out. “I’m not in the habit of reading the…” She trailed off, staring at the headline. “…Cartwright, who delivered this?”

“A young man who is not a member of the Palace staff,” Cartwright replied, her round face as impassive as always. “I took the liberty of ordering that he be followed. Needless to say, the Palace guardsmen are not equipped to pursue someone discreetly beyond the walls of Calderaas, but I suspect his point of origin is within the city.”

“A man penetrates this deeply into the palace,” Yasmeen said sharply, “a man you do not know, and you merely have him followed? What if, instead of a newspaper, he had been delivering a dagger? How did he get in here? He should have been apprehended the moment you knew something was amiss!”

“With respect, your Highness,” Cartwright said calmly, folding her hands behind her back, “the content of the paper, and the manner of its delivery, is suggestive. This means of conveying information is a favored tactic of both the Thieves’ Guild and Imperial Intelligence; there are innumerable possible motives either might have to draw your Highness’s attention to Last Rock. Apprehending an agent of either organization would avail us little, and risk creating considerable backlash. When our agents report back, we will know more about who he was, and can act further at that time.”

“I see,” Yasmeen said more calmly, returning her eyes to the paper and reading below the headline. “Quite right, then. That was quick thinking, Cartwright.”

“Your Highness,” the Butler replied, bowing.

“…where is my mother at the moment?”

“Her Majesty is currently entertaining Lord Taluvir in the west drawing room, Princess. His Lordship appeared quite wroth; the matter is likely to tax her considerable stores of diplomatic skill, I fear.”

“Hmmmm. This is definitely not worth interrupting her for, then. Unless…”

“There has been no message from Last Rock from or concerning Prince Sekandar, your Highness,” Cartwight said serenely. “Given the esteem in which House Aldarasi is held by Professor Tellwyrn, he can be assumed to be well so long as we are not notified otherwise.”

“Very well,” Yasmeen said with a sigh, folding the newspaper. “When she has the liberty, please inform the Sultana that I wish to speak with her at her earliest convenience.”

“I have already made the arrangements, your Highness,” Cartwright replied, “and ordered your Highness’s writing desk to be prepared with your favorite jasmine tea and baklava. Your Highness was scheduled to be interviewed by that unmannerly individual from the Wizards’ Guild; he has been informed that the meeting must be delayed.”

Any other servant would be reprimanded for such presumption, but there was no point in going to the considerable expense of employing a Butler if one did not let them buttle.

“Thank you very much, Cartwright.”

“It is, as always, my pleasure, Princess.”


 

Agent Fawkes moved as casually as was humanly possible, conveying the impression to any onlookers that he had every right to be here, on these enclosed manor grounds. Not that there were any onlookers—he had cased the premises quite thoroughly before entering—but one did not last long in his profession if one suffered lapses of professionalism. He laid the newspaper down on the steps to the manor’s kitchen door, which his intel stated was more heavily used by the house’s occupants than the front, and turned to make his way back to the side gate.

He found himself staring directly into a wide pair of eerie crimson eyes. She had appeared in complete and utter silence.

“Hi there!” Malivette Dufresne said brightly, smiling. “Whatcha doin’?”

For the barest moment, he froze. Fawkes was trained to confront the unexpected, to confront death, to contend with attractive women and terrifying monsters. The combination of all of the above was enough to rock his equilibrium, though. Just a little bit.

“Good morning, ma’am,” he said respectfully, stepping back from the vampire and bowing. “Just delivering your paper.”

“That’s interesting,” the undead Duchess said, her smile widening to show off her fangs in what he was certain was not an accidental gesture. “Because people making deliveries tend to leave them at the gate, since it’s not, y’know, open. Also, I don’t subscribe to any newspapers. But since we’re getting all friendly, my pet peeves are poofy-sleeved dresses, sausage too heavily spiced, women who wear too much makeup, and people who come to my home and lie to me.”

Fawkes allowed himself the luxury of a small gulp. Such a show of vulnerability could actually be advantageous; establishing himself firmly as a lesser creature meant she was less likely to do something violent. That was, if his intel on Dufresne was correct; if she were the wrong kind of monster, it could have the opposite effect. Now, face to face with her in all her unnatural glory, he had to wonder. For one thing, it was broad daylight and she wasn’t so much as steaming in the sun…

Malivette was considered an ally of the Throne and a citizen in good standing, and this was a mission of relatively low priority. Under the circumstances, Intelligence’s policy for such a confrontation was clear.

“My apologies, your Grace,” he said, bowing again. “I work for the Imperial government; I was told to deliver this newspaper to your home. That is the entirety of what I know of the matter.”

“Ahh,” she said knowingly. “I see. Well, then. Be a good boy and let’s have it.”

She held out her hand expectantly. Fawkes glanced at it, decided against making any further comment, and turned to retrieve the paper he had just set down. He placed it in her hand with yet another respectful bow.

“Now then,” Malivette said briskly, “let’s see what we have here. Oh, my. Professor Tellwyrn still retains her absolute genius for annoying powerful people, I see…”

Fawkes cleared his throat very softly, stepping backward away from her. “Well. Enjoy your paper, your Grace. If there’s nothing further, I’ll be going.”

The vampire made no response, crimson eyes tracking back and forth as she read the lead article. Fawkes stepped back twice more before turning his back on her. He did not rush, nor pick up his pace in the slightest, as he made his way back across the grounds. Professionalism.

Still, it was with considerable relief that he finally slipped out the side gate into the overgrown path beyond. He didn’t quite indulge himself in a sigh, knowing roughly the range of that creature’s hearing, but allowed himself to un-tense slightly as he re-latched the gate behind him, then turned to head back into the forest.

He was instantly seized by the throat and slammed back into the gate.

“One other thing,” Malivette said in total calm, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for her to suddenly be standing there on this side of the wall. She wasn’t even looking at him, still reading the newspaper held in one hand; the fingers of her other one were as icy and rigid as marble against his neck. Fawkes had better sense than to struggle against them, merely rising up on tiptoe so he could continue to breathe. “Be a love and report to Lord Vex that if he wants to give me a message, he can do so like a civilized person. If I continue to find his playthings creeping about my back steps, I can’t guarantee he’ll get them back in one piece. Clear?”

“Explicitly,” Fawkes replied, unable to fully compensate for the strain on his vocal cords. “I shall relay the message, your Grace.”

“Attaboy!” she said brightly, releasing him.

He was, by that point, only slightly surprised when she exploded into a cloud of shrieking bats and swirled away, back toward the manor. At least she took the paper with her.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

10 – 9

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                          Next Chapter

The manor gates were standing open when they arrived. The group paused for a moment, glancing around at one another before Darling shrugged, grinned insouciantly, and strolled on in. There was nothing for them to do but follow, Ingvar with a soft sigh.

Though the thief made a (somewhat casually-paced) beeline for the door, Joe and Ingvar carefully studied the grounds as they trailed along in his wake. The gravel walk was even and clean, the house apparently well-repaired, its partial blanket of climbing ivy even cleared away from windows. It didn’t look like a particularly well-maintained property apart from that, however. There was no landscaping of any kind, and the lawn was essentially a walled-in patch of wild prairie in the forest, thick with chest-high grasses, bramble bushes and even occasional small trees that had clearly grown up within the last ten years or so, due to no one bothering to clear them out. There was no statuary, no garden or porch furniture, and the only flowers appeared haphazardly on the edge of the walk where the taller grasses didn’t quite blot out their access to sunlight.

They all stopped again at the top of the short flight of steps to the manor’s doors, because those doors opened before they got close enough to knock. Well, one of the double set did, revealing a beautiful young woman in an expensive red gown. She regarded them with a faint, knowing smile.

“Good afternoon!” Darling said with a grin and a bow. “Would I have the pleasure of addressing Lady Malivette?”

“Hardly,” she said, her smile widening. “But please come in, your Grace. She is expecting you.” With that, she stepped aside, gesturing them demurely through.

“You’re too kind!” Darling, again, strolled right on ahead as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Joe and Ingvar exchanged a significant look before following, hands straying close to holstered wands and tomahawks.

The woman in red stood aside to watch them with that calm smile as they clustered together inside, pushing the door shut as soon as they were clear of it. Inside, the entrance hall of Dufresne Manor was more of the same: clean, well-repaired, but starkly bare of furnishings and apparently not much cared for. The three gave it only a glance, however, being focused upon the person waiting for them at the base of the stairs, directly ahead.

It could only be Malivette Dufresne; the crimson eyes were a dead giveaway. She also wore an exquisite but severe black gown that suited the vampire mystique, but apart from that, she seemed to be just a petite young woman who could be quite pretty if she’d get a good night’s sleep, eat several regular meals and get some sun. Ingvar, naturally, was not about to voice that assessment.

“Bishop Darling,” the lady of the house intoned in a silky contralto voice. “What an interesting visit. I can’t recall the last time a cleric deemed me desirable company—though, now that I’ve said it aloud, it occurs to me that the disciples of Eserion aren’t exactly the standard run of clergy, are you?”

“Why, we take pride in not being the standard run of anything, m’lady,” Darling said with another grandiose bow. “I apologize for dropping in on you like this…though apparently we’re not quite as unexpected as I was expecting.”

“No indeed,” the vampire said with a broad, friendly smile which was both uncharacteristic of the nobles Ingvar had observed, and unnerving in that it showed off her elongated canines. He suspected that was no accident. Malivette oozed forward with a slinky gate that might have been alluring under other circumstances. “This has been the day for unexpected visitations—you’re not half so surprising as what told me to be on the lookout for you. Tell me, your Grace, do you know what a shadow elemental is?”

Darling blinked. “I…confess I haven’t the faintest idea. Sorry, elementals are a bit over my head.”

“I didn’t either,” said the vampire, her smile fading. “Let me tell you, it’s a hell of a thing to have breezing into your living room all of a sudden.”

“And we are exceedin’ly sorry to’ve been such an imposition, however indirectly, ma’am,” Joe said politely, hat in hand. “It’s clear you don’t care for visitors. We’ll aim not to take up a hair more of your time than absolutely necessary.”

Malivette turned her red eyes on him, tilting her head inquisitively. “That’s clear, is it? Now, what makes you think that?”

Joe glanced at Darling, who merely raised his eyebrows, expression a blank mask of curiosity. The Kid cleared his throat. “Well, ah… Just puttin’ together the numbers, so t’speak. Your home is in very good repair, an’ so’s the outer wall. None o’ that’s cheap for a property this size, which means the apparent state of disrepair’s deliberate. Few times I’ve seen rich places fallen on hard times, the furnishings were all kept, an’ all gettin’ shabby together. I reckon you affect a tumbledown aesthetic on purpose, to discourage people comin’ over.”

“Why, what a sharp eye you have,” Malivette cooed, “Mr…?”

“Jenkins, ma’am. Joseph P. Jenkins. Just payin’ attention and applyin’ logic. Your pardon if I step outta turn, I mean no disrespect.”

“Oh, pish tosh,” she said, waving a hand airily. “I do say it’s a delight to meet a young man your age with a sense of did you say Joseph P. Jenkins?”

He swallowed. “I, ah…yes, I did.”

“Well, as I don’t live and breathe!” the vampire enthused, grinning broadly. “The Sarasio Kid, in my front room! What a day this is turning out to be! The Kid, the Bishop, and…” Her gaze fell on Ingvar. “I’m certain this is quite a story, too.”

“This is Brother Ingvar,” Darling said mildly. “Huntsman of Shaath.”

“Brother?” Malivette looked him up and down, and Ingvar refrained from bristling, having had far too much practice at it. “Okay. Quite a story, then.”

“And one with which we won’t bore you,” Ingvar said flatly. “Your pardon, lady, but these gentlemen seek an audience with you; I am merely traveling with them. I’m afraid I’ve nothing to offer or ask of you, and will not trouble you more than I must simply by being here.”

“There’s no need to be defensive, Brother Ingvar,” the vampire said with a faint smile. “We all have our need for privacy—believe me, you will rarely meet someone who understands that better than I.” She transferred her gaze back to Darling. “So! What wind blows you to my door, Bishop?”

“Well,” he said with an easy smile, “we’re following up on a trail of old events, your Grace. I understand you had some houseguests recently!”

“Mm hmm,” she murmured, watching him closely now. “The sort of houseguests about whom lots of people are curious. It’s not my policy to divulge anyone else’s secrets any more than my own—and that’s even for people who aren’t watched over by a certain archmage with an apocalyptic temper.”

“By all means,” he said smoothly, “I’ve no intention of digging into the students’ business; we won’t be at all offended if you can’t tell us anything. It’s not they who chiefly concern us, anyhow. The events in question, though…” He sighed, glancing back at the others. “Well, the truth is, Joe and I are part of a group of folks who were trying to prevent disaster from breaking out here.”

“Good job,” she said, deadpan.

Darling chuckled ruefully. “Yeah, you’ve hit it on the head, my lady. I was the one in charge of planning, Joe more a boots-on-the-ground type. I completely missed my mark—had everybody nosing around up north of Desolation. I misread the intelligence and didn’t pay enough attention to Veilgrad until matters here disintegrated so far there was nothing to be done, except by those already present.” He sighed. “I’ll have to accept your condemnation, Lady Dufresne, for failing you, even if you had no idea I was trying to help. What we are doing here, now, is investigating what happened, why, and at whose behest. The goal is to get a better handle on events so as not to make such mistakes in the future. But it already being well too late to be of use to you, here, so… As I said, I’ll take no offense if you show us the door at this point.”

“Hmm,” she mused, studying him thoughtfully. She turned her unsettling gaze on Joe, and then on Ingvar. “Hmm. Mm hmm hm hmm. Ruby!” The vampire looked past them at the woman in red. “Would you be good enough to show our guests into the dining room?”

“Of course, my lady,” said Ruby, curtsying gracefully to the men when they turned to her. “If you will follow me, please, gentlemen?”

“Most comfortable room in the house that I don’t sleep in,” said Malivette cheerfully. “I’ll be with you in just a tick, lads.”

Abruptly she exploded in a cloud of swirling, squeaking mist. Ingvar leapt back, drawing a tomahawk by reflex, as a swarm of bats whirled out of the place where the vampire had stood. Squealing and chattering, they fluttered up to the second-floor landing and down a hall.

“I apologize for the mistress of the house,” Ruby said calmly. “Social isolation and a rather quirky sense of humor make her, at times, startling to company. This way, please?”

“Put that up,” Darling said in a low tone as he followed after her. “What’d you think you were gonna do, chop down the bats?”

“Ease up, your Grace,” Joe said to him, equally softly but with an edge. “It’s instinct. Makes perfect sense to me, an’ I doubt the lady took offense. She seems too intelligent not to know exactly what she’s doin’ with antics like that.”

“Fair enough,” Darling said with a shrug, and offered Ingvar a smile.

The Huntsman slipped his ax back into its belt loop, not acknowledging him.

Ruby led them through a side door into a dining room that was very like the entrance hall in aesthetics—which was to say, clean and bare. A fireplace stood at one end of the room and a long table lined with chairs down its center.

Malivette, somehow, was already waiting for them.

“There you are,” she said cheerfully. “I was afraid you’d gotten lost. I have something for you, Bishop Darling.”

She was, indeed, holding an object, which she lightly tossed to the Bishop. Darling caught it deftly, turning the staff over in his hands; Ingvar and Joe both craned their necks over his shoulder to peer at it. Though about the size of an Army-issue battlestaff, it looked more like a scepter, capped at both ends with large crystals and with hefty spirals of gold embossing half its length. There was an obvious clicker mechanism in the usual place, however.

“I’ve been wanting to get rid of that for weeks,” their hostess said. “My plan was always to get it into the hands of the Thieves’ Guild, but our local representative is a little too closely tied to the Army for my comfort, and well… That makes things complicated with regard to that weapon.”

“Weapon?” Joe said, raising his eyebrows.

“Complicated?” Darling added. “How so?”

Malivette grinned again, which was no less disconcerting. “You boys had best grab some seats—this might take a while. Upon consideration, I believe I’ll be happy to tell you all about what went down in Veilgrad recently. Ruby, bring the gentlemen some refreshments, would you? This might take…a while.”


 

Though the revival had ended, a festive atmosphere lingered over Last Rock, chiefly due to the efforts of the remaining religious institutions to capitalize on the spirit. The Universal Church chapel had remained open and fully staffed with a few priests from the capital lingering in town for that purpose; Father Laws had wisely avoided the temptation to give extra sermons, instead having organized a bake sale. The lure of fresh baked goods, donated by the ladies of the town, and freely available root beer and apple cider had kept people streaming steadily through the chapel and its yard all afternoon, once usual working hours had passed. Students trickled down from the mountain, too, their own classes being done for the day.

With the tents and representatives from the other cults having packed up and left, Last Rock’s newest additions were doing a brisk business, too. The high spirits of the revival lingered but the competition had not, and the new Vidian temple and the Silver Mission were both centers of activity. People clustered and swirled around the Mission’s grounds, on the outskirts of town near the Rail platform, but by far the biggest concentrations of activity were on a different side of the outskirts, between the Vidian amphitheater and the chapel, which were not far separate. In that region, shops along the short stretch of street linking the two had set out festive stands (several complete with free samples), and a sort of impromptu town picnic had formed on the prairie around the temple.

The Vidians themselves were putting on a performance. It was an old morality play, one of those stories with a ham-fisted message which everyone had already heard anyway, but not for nothing was Vidius the patron of false faces; the performers put effort and style into the production, and Val Tarvadegh, the chief priest attached to this temple, was a man with a robust sense of humor, which colored the proceedings to their benefit. Many townsfolk were clustered in and around the small amphitheater, actually watching the show, even as others milled about on the grass, sharing food and gossip.

Big, Church-sponsored festivals were fine and dandy, but now was a day for the good folk of Last Rock to have their own shindig. If a few muttered and cast dark looks at the University students in their midst, they kept it discreet, and nobody seemed to pay them any notice.

A dozen yards or so distant from the amphitheater, another cluster of people had formed around a large blanket laid out on the grass, replete with dishes brought by various citizens. Some stood or sat near it, grazing and chit-chatting, and a handful of children chased each other around nearby, pausing periodically when some adult or other scolded them, though they didn’t seem to be bothering the performers. Quite a few people were gathered on the far side of the blanket, however, watching another impromptu show at the edge of the tallgrass.

It was a little unclear what exactly Juniper was trying to do with her jackalope, expect give him some exercise. She had Jack on a harness and leash—itself a highly impressive feat to those who knew anything of the creatures and their temperament—and was running up and down, back and forth, and in circles with him. Periodically she would give him commands to stop, or to leap, which he occasionally chose to obey. Generally, Jack didn’t seem to mind bounding alongside his companion, and he made short work of the peanuts she gave him after every successful “trick,” but based on his performance he had clearly not learned to associate obedience with reward. It probably didn’t help that she gave him encouraging scratches behind the ear even when he refused to jump on command.

They made for an amusing spectacle anyway, particularly the dryad. With her green hair flying in the breeze, garbed in just her usual sundress, Juniper was an impressive physical specimen, which the exercise just served to highlight. It probably helped to encourage her audience that her antics were bouncy in multiple senses. A few of the women of the town were dividing annoyed looks between the dryad and their male companions. In a slightly separate group off to one side, several University kids loitered around, chitchatting and eyeballing Juniper with even less discretion.

“Am I alone in sensing a certain…coldness?” Sekandar Aldarasi asked quietly, eying the nearby citizens.

“What, you mean the townies?” Chase replied, glancing at them before returning his gaze to Juniper. “Nah, that’s about typical. They always keep a little aloof.”

“You are not alone, Sekandar,” Ravana said calmly. “We’ve been here a relatively short time, but I have noted a subtle yet consistent change in the way the locals look at us since yesterday.”

“Since Bishop Snowe’s very interesting speech,” Sekandar said, nodding.

“Well, maybe you’re right,” Chase said with a grin. “I mean, who’d know better? They’re your people, after all.”

Sekandar barked a short laugh. “Hah! These? The mostly Stalweiss descendants of Heshenaad’s armies, with a culture and dialect heavily influence by the gnomes and plains elves? When the Great Plains were officially claimed, most of them were divided into new provinces; this area was appended to Calderaas only because House Tirasian needed to placate my family after the skulduggery following the Enchanter Wars. The frontiersmen are no one’s people but their own. I think they rather insist on that point.”

“Y’know, this is a lot like one of Tellwyrn’s lectures,” Chase commented. “Except—and I never thought I would say this—she’s prettier than you.”

“Well, you can see the evidence before you,” Sekandar said dryly. “Everyone seems to find Juniper far more interesting than their prince.

Ruda snorted. “Be fair, now. If you had knockers like that, they’d be all over you.”

“Yeah?” Chase turned to her, grinning. “You’ve got knockers like that, and nobody’s bothering you, I see.”

“Maybe because I don’t wave ’em around for everybody to gawk at.”

“Yes, and I’ve been meaning to speak to you about that, now that you mention it. A rack of such proportions is a gift from the gods, Punaji. You have a certain obligation to share—”

“On the subject of confusing me with Juniper, Masterson,” Ruda interrupted. “she’s the one who needs a good reason to beat your ass into the ground.”

“Oh!” Chase bonked himself on the forehead with the heel of his hand. “Right, sorry. I always get those mixed up.”

Ravana gave him a very long, very cool look from the corner of her eye, which he appeared not to notice. Beside her, Szith edged subtly closer, casually flexing her fingers in the vicinity of her sword.

Juniper had either finished her allotted exercise or given up on Jack’s training, and was now wandering toward the other students, the jackalope gathered into her arms. Before getting more than a few yards, however, she was intercepted by a girl of no more than eight who burst out of the crowd of townsfolk.

“Hi!” she squealed, beaming. “Can I pet the bunny?”

“Oh,” Juniper said, blinking at her and carefully adjusting her grip on Jack. “Um, that’s not a really good idea, honey.”

The child’s face immediately crumpled.

“It’s just that he’s still being trained,” Juniper said hastily. “And he doesn’t like strangers. Jackalopes aren’t tame bunnies; those antlers can really hurt you. I wouldn’t want that to happen! Aw, please don’t cry…”

“Hm,” Ravana murmured, her eyes roving over the picnic area; almost everyone else was studying the new drama unfolding. “Why is that child not playing with the others?”

“Children are unpredictable,” Ruda grunted. “Bunnies are fluffy. Can’t expect a kid to understand that bunny is also a thing of goddamn evil.”

“Who is that?” Ravana inquired, nodding her head toward a lean-faced blonde woman in a black coat, who had come to stand at the front of the group of townsfolk.

“I don’t know her name,” Szith replied. “She is a priestess of Vidius, however, from what I have overheard. Apparently she and an Avenist have stayed on after the revival to be attached permanently to their respective temples.”

“And she’s now here,” Ravana mused, “watching this, instead of the Vidian service going on. Interesting.”

“I’m not sure I’d call a play a Vidian service,” Sekandar began.

“Uh oh,” Ruda said suddenly, frowning, and pointed.

A woman had emerged from the crowd, stalking over to Juniper, who backpedaled, clutching her jackalope. His ears had begun to twitch dangerously, though he had not yet started struggling.

“What are you doing to my child?” she demanded.

“I was just—”

“She ain’t hurtin’ anything,” the woman said sharply, taking the little girl by the hand and glaring at Juniper. “I don’t see any call to be snapping at her.”

“I wasn’t trying to snap,” the dryad said earnestly. “It’s just, she wanted to pet Jack, and I was trying to explain—”

“And what’s wrong with that? Are you really so hard up you can’t let a little girl touch your rabbit?”

“Now, hold on,” Juniper protested.

“Marcy, there ain’t no call to be like that,” a man added, stepping forward and frowning reproachfully. “She weren’t hurtin’ the girl. What would you say if she wanted to pat an ornery mule? You can’t let a kid get too close to disagreeable animals, that’s just sense.”

There were several nods and murmurs of agreement from the onlookers, which seemed to infuriate Marcy. She clutched her daughter close, the child having begun to cry in earnest during all the raised voices.

“It’s a rabbit, Herman. What’s it gonna hurt? All I see’s one o’ them kids from up on the hill who thinks she can walk around our town doin’ what she likes, an’ not show the slightest regard for th’ people livin’ here!”

That brought a few murmurs of its own.

“Omnu’s breath, Marcy, it’s her rabbit!” Herman exclaimed.

“Hey!” Natchua pushed forward through the crowd; Marcy shied back from the glaring drow, huddling protectively around her weeping daughter. “Your child was trying to interfere with an aggressive wild animal with very large horns. Its trainer just explained that it’s only half-trained and not sociable. It’s not going to be the dryad’s fault of someone gets gored. As I see it, the difference between you two is she is being responsible for her little beast!”

“Oh, my,” Chase breathed, grinning from ear to ear. Several of the onlookers had burst out laughing, while others were nodding in agreement—though with whose points it was impossible to say.

“If I may?” The soft voice cut through the noise, clearly delivered by someone accustomed to projecting through the stage. The blonde woman in Vidian black stepped forward, smiling. “Madam, I certainly understand your concern, but having been here a few moments before you arrived, I can assure you I saw no one threatening your child. She was disappointed, not harmed. And the young lady is quite correct: jackalopes are not friendly creatures, as a rule. Might I suggest it would be wise if everyone lowered their voices? The poor creature looks rather stressed. We wouldn’t want to provoke him, now would we?”

At that, most of the onlookers obligingly dropped their tones, or stopped talking entirely, and Juniper eased back further, clutching Jack close and stroking his fur. His nose was twitching furiously, but he still didn’t lunge free; despite appearances, her training seemed to be having some effect on him.

“Well, you can’t blame me,” Marcy muttered, stroking the child’s hair. “I came over to find my girl crying and that…woman right there… We all know dryads ain’t the safest creatures.”

“Juniper seems to have been trying to protect the child from another dangerous creature, if I’m not mistaken,” said the blonde. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I’ve met everyone yet.” She dropped to a crouch, smiling disarmingly at the girl, who peeked out from over her mother’s arm. “Hi, there. My name’s Lorelin. What’s yours?”

“D-daisy,” the child sniffled. “Daisy Summers.”

“Daisy!” the priestess said warmly. “That’s very pretty, your parents have good taste. I’m sorry you didn’t get to pet the bunny, hon. You have to remember, though, he belongs to Miss Juniper. We must respect other people’s things, mustn’t we? You’d want them to respect yours, right?”

Daisy muttered something indistinct; Lorelin smiled up at Marcy and winked, before straightening up. “There, now, just a little misunderstanding. It’s good you came along when you did, ma’am.”

“Well, I’m glad someone ’round here has some sense,” Marcy said, shooting a look at Herman. He threw up his hands and turned away.

“I’m sure we all are,” Natchua said, fairly dripping sarcasm.

“Hmmmm,” Ravana mused from the sidelines. “How very interesting.”

“How so?” Sekandar inquired. She just shook her head.

Juniper had retreated further, back toward the tallgrass, and set Jack down to let him stretch and relax. Chase and a few of the others started toward her, but she looked up, shook her head apologetically and gestured them back, still soothingly stroking the jackalope’s fur.

That was the moment when Jack lunged forward, his powerful legs propelling him like a stone from a catapult. His leash brought him up short, the force of the jump not shifting the startled Juniper by an inch, and so his horns merely grazed Herman’s leg, rather than outright impaling him.

Herman staggered with a yell, other shouts immediately breaking out from the onlookers. Juniper began frantically reeling the struggling jackalope back toward her, even as he continued to bound this way and that, lunging at whoever his eyes caught. People wisely backpedaled away from the dryad and her pet, Marcy picking up Daisy and fleeing at a run. Natchua, standing just outside the range of the jackalope’s diminishing leash, watched them go without moving.

Chase was laughing so hard he had to sit down.

Lorelin had leaped to Herman’s side; she and another man from the crowd helped him away from the struggling jackalope and to a seated position on the ground, where the priestess knelt beside him, hands glowing with healing light.

Amid the hubbub, Ravana caught Sekandar’s elbow and tugged gently. He glanced down at her curiously, but allowed himself to be led; she pulled him back from the gaggle of students toward Ruda, who now stood a few feet distant, idly swirling a bottle of rum and watching the proceedings thoughtfully.

“Your Highnesses,” Ravana said, coming to a stop.

Ruda made a face at her, but Sekandar, merely raising an eyebrow, played along. “Your Grace?”

“I wonder,” said the Duchess, “if you would be good enough to say whether you’ve just seen the same sequence of events I have.”

The Prince, turned his head, frowning thoughtfully at Juniper, who had got Jack back into her arms and was holding him firmly. “Hum. I would have to say this began yesterday, with Bishop Snowe’s speech. In a widespread religious event organized by the Universal Church, a Bishop thereof launched a very sharp verbal attack on the University. Most uncharacteristic behavior for an Izarite, I might add, which suggests on whose behalf she was speaking. Now, we have this little drama, facilitated by a new Vidian cleric who arrived as part of the same function.”

“There’s a new Avenist, too,” Ruda added quietly. “A priestess, apparently gonna be working down at the Silver Mission. That’s interesting to me; Trissiny’s whole point in starting those was having a single cleric on hand to organize, and lettin’ the rest of any staff be volunteer laypeople.”

“I don’t suppose either of you happened to observe what this Lorelin was doing before the child approached Juniper and kicked all this off?” Ravana inquired, still watching the hubbub as it gradually got under control, townspeople drifting away and Herman gingerly testing his leg.

“I’m afraid not,” said Sekandar.

“Because I distinctly recall seeing the town’s children playing together, some yards distant,” Ravana continued. “There could, of course, be perfectly innocent explanations for that one having separated from the group to approach Juniper and the rabbit, but the timing seems odd, to me.”

“Hm,” Ruda said noncommittally.

“And now,” Ravana continued, “we have an incident. A local resident injured, however slightly, by a student. Or at least, I’ve no doubt that is how the story will be told. And all right as this new cleric, placed here by the same organization which funded Bishop Snowe, arrived on the scene.”

“Speculation,” Ruda pointed out.

“Oh without doubt,” Ravana agreed. “I merely point out a suggestive sequence of events. Any of them could be coincidental and harmless. It’s when chained together that a troubling pattern emerges. I’m sure that I needn’t lecture the two of you about suggestive sequences of individually harmless events.”

“No, you needn’t,” Ruda said, now watching the Vidian priestess, who was in earnest conversation with Herman and two other town citizens.

“I wonder,” Sekandar mused, “how difficult would it be for a cleric to manifest an object of divine light. Something small enough to, say, prod a jackalope, or flick its ear.”

“Hmm,” Ravana said thoughtfully, tapping her lips with one finger. “It was my understanding that light-created objects had to remain in contact with the caster.”

“What about divine shields? They are clearly solid, and not physically connected to their creators.”

“You have a point,” she acknowledged. “Of course, the tricky part would have to be doing it without garnering attention. If I’m not mistaken, isn’t such misdirection a known skill of higher-ranking Vidian clerics?”

“Almost half my class is taking divine casting with Harklund this semester,” said Ruda. “I’ll ask about the possibilities. Discreetly.”

“Yes,” Ravana agreed, nodding. “I’m sure you both understand the importance of discretion, here. It might be unfortunate if one of the paladins were to hear an accusation without proof at this juncture.”

“That would muddy the waters,” Sekandar said, frowning. “I dislike the thought of sneaking around them…”

“Don’t sneak,” Ruda advised, “and don’t lie. This is nothing but unconfirmed theory as of right now; there’s no reason at all for them to hear about it until there’s something significant for them to hear. Trust me, I know those three. One would shrug and blow you off, and the other two would fly right the hell off the handle.”

“Quite so,” said Ravana. “If it all turns out to be nothing, it will be better not to have sown any further seeds of discord. But if, for whatever reason, the Universal Church is angling to undermine the University, it seems best, to me, that someone be on site to angle right back. Don’t you agree?”

Standing a few yards distant, separate from all the various groups of people present, Szith stared into space, one hand resting lightly on the hilt of her sword. The drow heaved a soft sigh and spoke in a low tone inaudible to anyone but herself.

“I hate politics.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

9 – 35

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

“I kinda miss having Fross along,” Ruda commented. “No offense, but you guys are a little… I dunno, glaring.”

Trissiny and Toby both glanced at her, saying nothing; up ahead, Gabriel sighed but did not turn around.

“It’s just that she’s got this pleasant blue-white thing going on; it’s soothing. It’d be a nice way to improve the fuckin’ scenery down here, what there is of it. All this yellow is puttin’ me on edge.”

“We’re pursuing necromancers toward a source of pure chaos,” Toby said. “If you weren’t on edge, I would be worried for your mental health.”

“And the light is usually referred to as ‘gold,’” Trissiny added dourly. Ruda just laughed.

All three were glowing subtly, which was the only source of illumination in the tunnels beneath the cathedral. In fact, it had been the only source of illumination in the old church’s basement, but in these much more cramped corners, the light felt even more precious, regardless of Ruda’s commentary. The group could probably have seen where they were going by the light of only one aura. Pushing back against the darkness made them all feel slightly better.

Nothing about the catacombs was visually surprising: the tunnels were cramped, dusty, and dark. A blend of natural caves and man-made structures, they passed without apparent pattern through exposed dirt, carefully dressed stone, crumbling old brick and living rock, both carved out and naturally worn by aeons of water. Water, too, they passed twice and had to step over once. Though small galleries opened off here and there, so far the group had only been able to follow a single tunnel, just barely wide enough for three of them to walk abreast if they squeezed in.

Most of those side galleries had held coffins. All were now empty.

Bones were everywhere, so thick in places that the students had to pick their way carefully over piles, and in some cases wade through them. Even Ruda had not offered a joke about this; they were all working hard at ignoring it as much as possible. At least the trail of felled undead told them they were headed in the right direction.

Until they passed through a doorway and had to stop, staring.

The chamber ahead, barely lit by Gabriel’s aura, seemed to be a cylindrical natural cavern, like an underground tower. A bridge (without railing, of course) extended from the door in which they stood to a platform in the middle, part of an island which jutted out from the wall to their right and had clearly been flattened for this purpose. There were two doors in the wall adjacent, and three more narrow bridges leading to openings around the rim of the cavern. Below, the darkness fell away to seemingly infinite depths, the bottom completely out of view.

Bones littered the whole area indiscriminately. One of the other bridges was clear of them; aside from that, every path before them was marked by the same gruesome trail they’d been following.

Ruda craned her neck to peer over Gabriel’s shoulder. “Aw, fuck.”

“That’s your answer to everything,” Gabriel said, glancing back at her with a smile, then pointed at the far door on the ledge. “It’s that way.”

“What are you seeing that we don’t?” Trissiny asked.

“Nothing,” he said. “But I’ve got scouts ahead. Oh, that reminds me, the Army search teams are all back topside; they’ve got some wounded but didn’t lose anyone. But yeah, my friends are all back. Vestrel’s giving me directions.”

“They found the source of chaos?” Toby said sharply.

“They think so,” Gabriel replied, stepping forward—very, very carefully—across the stone footbridge. “They don’t want to get too close, which I fully support. It’s causing some kind of dimensional issue, and being phased out the way they are, they could be vulnerable to that. But Vestrel says that from a distance, it looks like some kind of artifact, not a dimensional rift.”

“That’s…unexpected. And unusual.” Trissiny spoke thoughtfully as she followed the others across to the platform. “But not without precedent. Maybe it’s for the best—if it’s not an actual rift we have a better chance of dealing with it. Artifacts can be destroyed.”

“Just for the record, soul reapers are scared of this fucking thing and we’re walking right toward it,” Ruda said. “I can’t help thinking this is not the smartest thing we’ve ever done, guys. And let’s face it, we have done some pretty dumb shit.”

“Yes,” Trissiny said archly, “because you didn’t listen to my advice and I had to fight the centaurs on my own. What did we learn, Ruda?”

“Oh, fuck you.”

“And they’re not afraid,” Gabriel said testily. “They’re cautious. The difference is important.”

“Look at you, bein’ all protective,” Ruda said, shoving him lightly in the shoulder from behind. They were passing through the indicated doorway into another tunnel, so this was much less dangerous than it would have been in the tower chamber. Even so, he stumbled over a skull and shot her an annoyed look. “Aw, don’t make that face, it’s cute!”

“In any case,” said Ariel, “we are approaching with the active attention of the three primary gods of the Pantheon. It is well within the Trinity’s power to subdue chaos radiation, particularly if the source is a tainted object and not a planar rift. I presume that you are all staying in touch with your patrons?”

“Yeah,” Toby said, nodding.

“And as I’ve mentioned before,” Trissiny said, “’patron’ is a specifically gendered word and not—”

“I have never said this to a living being, Trissiny Avelea, nor imagined that I ever would, but it is my professional opinion that you need in the worst way to get laid.”

Ruda laughed so hard she nearly fell over.

Toby cleared his throat loudly and raised his voice to be heard over her. “Gabe, please be sure to thank Vestrel and the others for us.”

“She’s the invisible one, man,” Gabriel replied, grinning back at him. “She can hear you just fine. Says you’re welcome. Triss, don’t grind your teeth. And Ariel, if you don’t quit being an ass to my fellow Hand I’m gonna let her whack you with the sword of Avei and see which breaks first.”

It was another half hour’s walk through cramped darkness. The path the valkyries indicated led them through more tunnels, now branching out enough that the group could easily have become totally lost without their aid. At one point they passed close enough to a massive subterranean waterfall to be dampened by its spray; the flowing water which had done the initial work of carving out the corridors beneath Veilgrad was still very much in evidence. It was only in dry chambers distant from it that they passed evidence of bodies having been deliberately interred, which was sensible.

The farther they went, the fewer bones they encountered, until the entire place appeared to have been picked clean. Clearly, every corpse down here had gotten up and rushed to the surface; they had descended well past the level at which the skeletons had fully cleared out.

Gabriel stopped in a small square antechamber decorated by a bust of a Stalweiss chieftain set in a wall niche.

“This is it, guys. Another fifty yards or so straight down: this corridor angles upward slightly and terminates right in the relic room where the problem is.”

“What are we walking into, exactly?” Trissiny asked.

He paused for a moment, frowning at a point near the wall where no one visible was standing, before speaking. “It’s… Okay, this is all starting to make a little more sense. They were able to scout it from above. We’re in the mountains outside the city now. Seems the chamber in question is very close to the surface, and there was a cave-in. The relic had been bound in some kind of container that kept the chaos from leaking out, but part of the ceiling landed on it and broke it. That’s probably what kicked all this off in the first place.”

“Duly noted,” said Toby, glancing around at the others. “All right, guys, from here on, active prayers at all times. Ruda, I know it’s your least favorite position, but maybe you’d better walk in the back. In fact, if it’s a straight shot from here, let’s have Trissiny take point; she’s best at both attack and defense, and infernal radiation aside, there’s no telling what this may spit out at us.”

“Chaos isn’t sentient, is it?” Gabriel said, frowning as Trissiny moved past him into the tunnel.

“Unknowable,” Ariel replied. “It has nothing we would recognize as a mind, which is very far from saying it has no mind.”

“And on that cheery note, here we go,” Ruda said fatalistically. “I suppose I could add a few prayers to the goddess I grew up knowing, but I assure you Naphthene doesn’t give a shit.”

Trissiny had her shield up before her as she led the way—her physical shield, in addition to the divine one. They walked in grim silence, not dragging their feet but in no hurry to meet what lay ahead.

There was light at the end of this tunnel; as Gabriel had said, the ceiling had collapsed and daylight been allowed to stream in. The group paused at the door to the relic chamber before Trissiny stepped forward, allowing the others to exit the corridor and fan out to both sides of her.

What this room had once looked like was impossible to tell now. It had clearly been large and roughly circular, but the walls and much of the floor were obscured. Apparently the entire ceiling had come down, leaving them in a broad island of sunlight completely buried under chunks of fallen stone so broken that it was impossible to tell whether the original roof had been natural or carved.

They had been cleared away at certain key points, though. The door was clear, as was a path to the reliquary in the center. This was the only sign anyone had been present since the collapse; clearly the chaos cultists must have spent considerable time in this chamber, but they had either been careful to leave no traces or something that removed them after the fact.

In the center lay what could have been a sarcophagus meant to house a man twelve feet tall and correspondingly broad. It had been an elaborate thing, once, banded in silver and engraved with runes both arcane and divine. Now, it lay broken. The pieces of its shattered lid and walls had been carefully set aside, revealing what lay beneath. Though the stone of both the ceiling and sarcophagus must have fallen on the object within, it had not been so much as scratched.

The skull was enormous, easily big enough that the dragon could have swallowed a person whole when alive. Unlike the other bones they had seen on the way here, this was coal black and glossy as if lovingly polished.

Silence stretched out while they stared, until Gabriel finally spoke.

“Vestrel says this whole area was…tainted, sort of, until we got close and our auras pushed it back. Don’t let up for a second, guys, we do not want to be near that thing at its full power. I… It’s been a good long while since I listened to old fairy tales. That can’t possibly be what I think it is, can it?”

“The details are lost to history,” Trissiny said softly, “but we do know it happened. That was no fairy tale. This is… It has to be. The skull of Belosiphon the Black.”

“Who the fucking what?” Ruda exclaimed.

“He was a chaos-tainted dragon who served Scyllith before the Elder War,” said Toby. “Which… Well, I guess this was as good a place as any for it, though I can’t imagine what could have been holding its power in check all this time. Whatever it was must’ve been worked into that big stone coffin, and broke when it did. So…what do we do with it now?”

“I don’t advise you attempting to do anything personally,” said Ariel. “This is something for the gods to handle. By the look of those runes, they did so last time. Salyrene is personally invoked multiple times in those charms; she does not generally permit people to do that.”

A shadow fell over the sky above, and they all jumped, staring upward.

“What is that?” Trissiny demanded, dropping into a battle stance. “Something the skull is doing?”

“No,” Gabriel replied, frowning. “It’s… According to Vestrel it’s a zeppelin. Has Imperial Army markings. And…it’s stopping, right overhead.”

“I desperately want to think this is good news,” said Ruda, “but I’m not quite that dumb.”

“Stand ready,” Ariel said urgently. “There are multiple arcane transfer signatures forming on this site—”

A series of sharp pops and crackles sounded, accompanied by flashes of blue light, and half a dozen people materialized in the space. Three wore the blue robes of Salyrite clerics, two were in improbably elaborate crimson-and-gold armor over white surcoats, and the last was dressed in a pristine white longcoat; they could see no more, as he had landed with his back to them.

“Quickly,” the man in the coat barked, unnecessarily. The priests had already begun furling a large length of iridescent cloth over the dragon’s skull. Both guards turned to level their impractical gilded polearms at the students. “Chaos will be in abeyance in the paladins’ presence, but that doesn’t make it safe. How long?”

“One minute, at the most,” the woman farthest from them said tersely, beginning to carefully fold the edges of the shimmering blue fabric under the skull.

“Step away from that!” Trissiny ordered. “Who do you think you are? What are you doing?”

“We are with the Universal Church,” he replied, “answerable directly to his Holiness the Archpope. We are securing this incredibly dangerous artifact before it has the chance to cause any more harm to Veilgrad. So, the same thing I expect you came here to do.” He finally turned to give them an extremely flat look. “Hello, kids.”

Gabriel blinked in astonishment. “Captain Rouvad?”

“It’s Ravoud,” he said testily, “and it’s Colonel.”

“You work with the Church now?” Toby asked.

“I am blessed to have been offered employment,” Ravoud said curtly. “My last job was abruptly terminated about the time these two ladies killed my best friend. You may recall something of the incident.”

“We wrote you a letter of commendation,” Trissiny protested.

“Yes, thank you. That made it all better.”

“Package secure,” the priestess said crisply. “The dimensional weave is operating exactly as tested. Chaos energies will be contained for transport, but this will decay rapidly. We have less than one day to get it securely to its new resting spot.”

“Wait a second,” Trissiny exclaimed.

“Seconds are precious, as you just heard.” Rouvad nodded curtly to them. “Thank you for your invaluable assistance, ladies and gentlemen. You have my word this thing will trouble Veilgrad no more. Take us out, Sister.”

Another series of flashes and pops followed, and then they were gone, leaving an empty, broken sarcophagus where the skull had lain.

Above, a distant thrum sounded as the zeppelin powered up its elemental thrusters. In only a few moments more, the shadow receded, allowing bright sunlight to pour unimpeded into the chamber once again.

“Well,” Toby said at last, “I guess that’s…that.”


 

“Major, thank the gods,” the soldier said fervently as Razsha strode up to him, the rest of her strike team following in the standard diamond formation. Seven troopers had formed a perimeter around one corner of the old guild complex, staves aimed at what lay near the wall. “She beat the werewolf unconscious and then dragged it in here. The Colonel said to keep her secured, but… I mean, how? We saw that fight. I don’t think we could…”

“You did fine, soldier,” Razsha said, patting him on the shoulder. “That particular demon has…a degree of trust. Three paladins are taking responsibility for her. When did the werewolf transform back?”

“Less than five minutes ago, ma’am. About the time the skeletons collapsed. Does that mean it’s over?”

The Major made no response, staring through narrowed eyes at Scorn, who was seated upon an unconscious man dressed in the shredded remains of what had been a formal suit. Demon and man alike were bruised and scratched virtually all over, but that did not seem to have diminished the Rhaazke’s spirits.

“Hello!” she called cheerily, then roughly patted her captive on the head. “Not kill!”

“I’m glad to hear that, I suppose,” Razsha said.

“Well, that’s…something,” Simmons offered. “It’s not a bad grasp of Tanglish considering she’s only been practicing a couple days.”

“I’m more concerned that that’s one of the first things they felt the need to teach her,” Tieris muttered.

“I can’t believe it,” Durst whispered, staring. “I just can’t. An actual, live Rhaazke. Here! What I wouldn’t give to—”

“Durst,” Razsha interrupted, “you did say this is a sentient demon, right?”

“What? Well, I mean, of course. They’re the dominant culture in their dimension.”

“Then let’s assume she enjoys being gawked at like a zoo animal about as much as you would and keep that to a minimum. She’s holding that werewolf down, and isn’t hostile. That’ll do, until the paladins get back here and take her off our hands.”

“How long will that take?” Simmons wondered aloud. “And I don’t think she’s all that skittish. She doesn’t seem to mind having battlestaves pointed at her.”

“I doubt she knows what they are,” said Durst. “A bunch of humans with sticks aren’t going to impress her.”

“Hypothetically,” Razsha mused, “would a staff shot put her down?”

“Hypothetically?” Durst grimaced. “There’s no data. Nobody’s shot one that I ever heard of. Um, they are very powerful demons, though. There’s a good chance it would just piss her off.”

Scorn ruffled the unconscious werewolf’s hair and waved at them with her other hand. “BEHOLD!”

Major Razsha sighed. “Those kids had better get back here fast.”


 

“Wait, the Church?” Teal exclaimed. “Captain Ravoud? This is… I don’t even know what to think.”

“That is far too many coincidences in far too short a time for my comfort,” Shaeine said.

“Hit the nail on the head,” Ruda agreed. “Come on, the timing alone. We clear a path to the big bogey and that’s the moment they show up to whisk it away? There is some serious behind-the-scenes fuckery going on. I think we blundered across the tip of a very big iceberg, guys.”

“Belosiphon the Black,” Teal murmured. “Incredible.”

“It kind of explains it, though,” said Fross.

Trissiny heaved a sigh, sweeping her gaze around the church. Fross’s ice had been removed, but not without leaving some signs of water damage to the pews. There was also the broken window and the fact that most of the sanctuary was piled knee-deep in bones. Altogether the cathedral had seen better days. “Well, for the moment it’s over. I agree, though, Ruda. There’s something more to this. I don’t think we can just leave it alone in good conscience.”

“Well…our actual assignment here is done, though, right?” said Juniper. “Which…shoot. We weren’t the ones who actually solved the problem, were we? I hope that doesn’t affect our grade. It wasn’t our fault the Church stepped in.”

“Your priorities are on point as always, Juniper.”

“Cut it out,” Gabriel said curtly, smacking Ariel’s hilt. “What’s been happening up here, guys?”

“The whole city got quieter,” Fross reported. “The Army’s been fanning out, cleaning up and helping people. Colonel Adjavegh sent Timms to check on us.”

“We reported the cathedral currently clear of both hostiles and civilians,” said Shaeine. “We felt, though, it was best we remained here to secure your exit. Timms apparently agreed; at least, we have heard nothing further from them.”

“We tried to clean up a bit in here,” Fross added glumly. “It’s gonna be a long haul, though. I feel really bad about the church.”

“Oh, don’t worry your pretty little head about it,” Embras Mogul said cheerfully from the dais behind them. “The Church does not lack for resources. They’ll have everything shipshape in no time.”

All of them whirled on him, most drawing weapons; Vadrieny burst forth, flexing her claws.

No one attacked, though. Seven robed warlocks stood on the dais with Mogul. Each of them was carrying a crystal-tipped divine disruptor, including the ones the students had collected from the cathedral itself.

“How dare you show your face in front of me,” Vadrieny snarled. “You tricked and assaulted my friends, and now you steal from us!”

“Your pardon, lady, but I believe that’s a bit unfair,” Mogul replied evenly, tipping his hat to her. “You were dealing with chaos cultists in possession of Imperial weaponry capable of neutralizing a paladin. They had laid traps for you. I’m still stuck on how those crazy buggers managed to plan all this; it was an altogether respectable operation, and all done by people who couldn’t string two coherent sentences together. Something’s fishy as all get-out, here. Regardless! Caine, Arquin and Avelea would have found themselves de-powered and at the mercy of insane necromancers with ample undead slaves had we not stepped in.”

“Stepped in and put us at your mercy!” Trissiny growled, brandishing her sword.

“Why, yes,” Mogul replied mildly. “While more than half of these weapons were still in hostile hands, I went out of my way to secure you three where you would be safe until the disruptors could be rounded up. I’ve dealt too much with Pantheon worshipers to expect gratitude for such a paltry favor as saving your lives, of course. Seeing you safe and hale is reward enough.”

“That’s a load of bullshit,” Gabriel snapped. “We’re the Hands of the gods. Whatever you think of Vadrieny, I don’t believe for a second you would go out of your way to protect us.”

“Don’t you?” Mogul replied, tilting his head like an inquisitive bird. “There is, as you say, the matter of Lady Vadrieny’s high regard for you—that’s far from nothing in my estimation. But no indeed, I make it a point never to do anything that serves only one purpose. I do have an ulterior motive. Y’see, kids, if you kill a paladin, all that happens is another one gets called—by a deity who makes you the new one’s first order of business.”

“Better to play with them, I suppose,” Juniper said quietly.

“Well, now, a daughter of Naiya would know all about batting her prey around before delivering the final mercy, I bet!” Mogul replied, grinning. Juniper dropped her gaze, shoulders slumping. “But no, kids. That’s logic for more stable times. A great doom is coming, and secrets are unraveling on all sides. Dead paladins are worth nothing to anybody, but paladins who know the truth?” His grin broadened; with his head angled so the brim of his hat hid his eyes, the effect was deeply creepy. “Paladins who are in on the secret their gods are trying to hide? That’s a thing that’s never been seen. I do believe I want to let that unfold. The Black Wreath, you see, has always been on the side of truth. And now, that means we have a vested interest in your welfare.”

“What truth?” Fross demanded.

“Ah, ah, ah.” Mogul wagged a chiding finger at her. “That’s the downside of having a reputation as terrible as ours: we can’t tell the truth, or it becomes tainted by association. No, you have to find it out yourselves. We have to content ourselves with unraveling the Pantheon’s secrecy from a safe distance. Pursuant to that, I believe you kids are acquainted with a certain Joseph Jenkins?”

“What about Joe?” Gabriel demanded, taking aim with his wand. Instantly the other warlocks on the dais pointed their disruptors at him.

“Joe,” said Mogul smugly, “is or is about to be in possession of some extremely interesting information that sheds light on what’s been happening here in Veilgrad. One might say that you and his group of friends each hold half the pieces to this puzzle. You’ll want to drop him a line at your earliest opportunity. He can be found in Tiraas these days; if he’s not gotten around to listing his address, Bishop Antonio Darling will know how to reach him. That’s yet another name familiar to you, I believe!”

They all stared at him in silence.

“Well!” Mogul said briskly. “Time waits for no man. No one, I should say; my apologies, General Avelea. We must be off, then. These devices need a new home—”

Silver mist shot in through the broken window at a steep angle, slamming into the floor of the cathedral midway between the students and the warlocks. It swirled upward in a twisting pillar, then resolved itself into the lean figure of Malivette Dufresne.

“Embras!” she squealed, throwing wide her arms. “How just perfectly lovely to see you!”

“…Lady Malivette,” Mogul replied, suddenly looking wary. “I must say, this is unexpected.”

“Why, yes, of course,” the vampire said cheerfully. “Because everyone knows Malivette is hiding in her manor while the kids are here. She’s afraid of the valkyries, you see! Y’know, the ones right now crawling all over this building.”

“They’re not going to harm you,” Gabriel said carefully. “It’s, uh, nice to meet you, by the way.”

“Good heavens, boy, I know that,” Malivette said, turning to wink at him. “Right back atcha, by the way. And frankly I wouldn’t much care if they did. It’s not like I so very much enjoy existing.”

“Well,” said Mogul, shaking his head. “Well, well, well. If there is one thing I respect, it’s a well-executed ploy. My hat is off to you, madame.” He suited the words with actions, lifting his straw hat to reveal a shiny bald head and bowing to her. “If you’ll forgive me a prying question, how did you even know we would be here?”

“My, someone thinks a lot of himself!” Malivette tittered, turning back to the warlocks, who edged back away from her. “No, Embras, actually I was hoping to catch whoever was behind all the crap afflicting my city, but…you’ll do. Yes indeed, this is quite fortuitous! It seems you’re in possession of some very exciting items belonging to the Empire!”

Abruptly the cheer melted from her features, and she stared coldly up at Mogul.

“Give them to me.”

He cleared his throat. “Ah. Perhaps you would care to discuss—”

The vampire moved with such speed that not even a blur was visible. One moment she was standing on the floor of the sanctuary; the next, she was in the midst of the Wreath’s formation, arms wrapped around Vanessa, one hand tangled in the warlock’s hair, wrenching her head back to expose the side of her neck.

Shadows swelled around Vanessa and Malivetted, then instantly dissipated.

“No, no, dearest,” the vampire cooed, “none of that. It’s rude to leave a party before the guest of honor has even had a drink.”

Vanessa emitted a thin keening sound of pure panic.

“Nessa, easy,” Embras said urgently. “She’s just making a point; if she wanted you dead, you would be. Don’t rile her! Lady Dufresne, if you want a hostage, I’m more valuable.”

“But you care about this one,” Malivette said sibilantly. “I know your great secret, Embras Mogul. Everyone is afraid of the big bad Wreath; afraid of your eeeevil, baby-sacrificing ways. I know a thing or two about being a monster, and I know about faith. You just might care more about the world and each other than any of the other cults.”

“Stop this,” Toby said urgently. “All of you! Malivette, please—”

Vanessa was crying openly now, practically vibrating with tension.

“Do you know what it’s like,” Malivette continued softly, her crimson eyes fixed on Mogul, “being hungry all the time? Never getting your fill? Worse, living in a world inhabited by delicious walking steak dinners? The smell alone… I never take more than the bare minimum I must to survive. It’s been so long since I just…drained someone.” Slowly, she leaned in, pressing her nose to the side of Vanessa’s neck, and inhaled deeply. “Mmmfffnn… Warlocks are so spicy. And best of all, nobody would miss one.”

Vanessa squeezed her eyes shut, whimpering.

“Enough,” Mogul snapped, tossing the disruptor to the ground at the foot of the dais. “You win. Everyone, give them up.”

“But Embras—” a man in gray robes started to protest.

“Do it!” Mogul barked. “Enchantments are replaceable—people aren’t!”

The rest followed suit, tossing down their weapons, and backed away.

“Let go of her,” Mogul said, glaring at Malivette. “You have no idea the harm you’re doing. You know what the Church did to her just this summer?”

“You know how many of those disruptors there are, Embras?” Malivette replied in a hiss. “Because I do. Please don’t lie to me. It makes me peckish.”

She drew her upper lip back, leaned in, and pressed the tips of her fangs to the nape of Vanessa’s neck.

The warlock fainted.

Mogul held out his hand to one side, glaring mutely at the vampire. Seconds later, another robed figure flickered into visibility and placed one last divine disruptor in his outstretched hand. He tossed it onto the pile with the others.

“Attaboy!” Malivette said, suddenly all sweetness and light again. She knelt, gently lowering Vanessa to the ground and somehow managing to make the awkward movement look graceful. “Don’t you worry, kids, I will ensure that most of these find their way back into the Army’s hands.”

“Most?” Toby said sharply.

“Well, yeah,” she replied, winking at him. “Like I told you once before, I’m patriotic enough. I think it’s a grand idea for my government to have the best and newest weapons available! But no government needs to be the only entity with access to any weapon. Or so I hear from some Eserites I’m acquainted with, who I bet will know just how to disseminate these shiny new enchantments into the world. All right, this was fun, but I gotta go get a drink now before I accidentally kill a whole bunch’a people. See you at home, kids!”

She dissolved abruptly into mist, which flowed down the steps and over the pile of disruptors, then vanished. The weapons disappeared along with it.

Embras Mogul stepped over to Vanessa as soon as the vampire was gone, kneeling to gently gather her into his arms.

“And with that, it’s official,” he said grimly. “Now no one is pleased with the outcome of this, except the blood-sucking undead. Y’know, they say you can tell a lot about a person based on the company they keep; what interesting friends you’ve got. I’ll be seeing you kids again soon.”

Shadows swelled up over them, and then the Wreath were all gone.

For several moments they could only stand in stunned silence.

“Um,” Juniper said at last, “how come warlocks and vampires can just do whatever they want in a church? Aren’t these places supposed to be consecrated? Cos…I’m not feeling de-powered either, now that I think of it.”

Gabriel rubbed at his eyes. “Yeah. Well. Crisis over. The chaos is gone, the Wreath is gone, the Army’s even getting their weapons back.”

“Most of them, apparently,” said Shaine.

“Right.” He sighed. “So why do I feel like we didn’t win here?”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                          Next Chapter >