Tag Archives: Pearl

15 – 10

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“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.”

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15 – 9

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“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?”

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9 – 22

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“She needs a minecart,” Teal said as they emerged into the cellar of Dufresne Manor.

“A what?” Trissiny asked distractedly.

“You know! A little box on wheels, set on tracks, to go back and forth. I mean, that’s a long walk in the dark.”

“Mm,” Trissiny said noncommittally, heading for the stairs up to the kitchen. “Let me do the talking.”

“What a good idea,” Shaeine said serenely. “Then Toby and I can handle the punching, and Juniper can go chop down a tree so we have something with which to stake our hostess through the heart.”

“I would never!” Juniper exclaimed in horror.

“I think that’s the joke,” Fross stage whispered.

Trissiny had stopped and turned to stare incredulously at Shaeine.

“Triss,” the priestess said in a gentler tone, “we are all taking this seriously, but you are not the most diplomatic person here.”

“Actually,” Fross said, “since Ruda stayed in town with Gabe she may be the least diplomatic person here!”

“Thanks, Fross,” Toby said resignedly.

“No problem!”

“That was exactly my point,” Trissiny said sharply. “Sometimes you need diplomacy. Sometimes you need to make a stand and demand answers.”

“It has been my considerable experience, and that of my House over many centuries of practicing and perfecting that very art, that getting answers—or anything in general—is easiest when one doesn’t make demands.” Shaeine shook her head. “We know Malivette practices some necromancy; we all saw the horses. We utilized them, in fact. She is trusted by Tellwyrn and Rafe, and has been kind to us. We will approach her calmly.”

“I have every intention of being calm,” Trissiny said stiffly. “Did you forget the commonality in every chaos cult that’s sprung up in Veilgrad lately? They all turned to necromancy.”

“So we’ll ask for answers,” Toby said. “And if she doesn’t want to give answers…”

“We’ll ask more assertively,” Trissiny said, nodding. “Fine, we’ll try it your way first.”

“And if it comes to being assertive,” Teal said firmly, “no stabbing, please.”

“Assaulting Malivette is not even on the table,” Trissiny said with a sigh, turning back to the stairs. “Frankly I’m not positive the lot of us could take her. If, and I am not suggesting that it’s going to happen, but if we end up needing to fight her for any reason, we’ll retreat and get Gabriel. Let the valkyries do their jobs.”

“I foresee that this will not be a negotiation about which I will tell my mother with pride,” Shaeine murmured, following Trissiny up the steps.

They paused at the top, the others having to gently push Trissiny forward, to take in the scene.

Pearl stood with her back to them, washing her hands in the sink. Professor Rafe lounged in a chair beside the fireplace; he grinned at the students as soon as they entered. At the center island, Schkhurrankh the Rhaazke demon stood wearing an apron at least two sizes too small over a dress that had clearly been hastily constructed from what seemed to be curtains, chopping onions.

She paused, staring at the students.

“BEHOLD!” Rafe shouted. At the sink, Pearl jumped and whirled, finally catching sight of them.

“Hello,” said Schkhurrankh.

“W—you speak Tanglish now?” Trissiny exclaimed.

The demon blinked and tilted her head. “Khhhhhello?”

“Oh. Right.”

“We’ve been having lessons!” Rafe proclaimed. “Rather one-sided conversations, but upon my honor, progress was made!”

“I’m surprised that conversation had any sides,” Teal said, frowning.

“Hah! Oil of Understanding, baby!” Rafe grinned, rocking his chair back and forth and ignoring Pearl’s disapproving look. “Of course, that only works on me, and me understanding her growling and snarling was only half the battle. A lot of alchemy is buggered up by demons, we’ve been over that in class. Actually, though! I can make a brew that’ll work for her, too, but for that I need a blood or tissue sample.” He paused, glancing speculatively at the demon. “I, uh, figured we’d wait till Vadrieny was here to translate before having that conversation. Not sure what’d happen if I came at her with a mithril scalpel, but I don’t reckon it’d leave anybody happy.”

Schkhurrankh grinned and casually tossed a handful of raw diced onion into her mouth, crunching happily.

“Save them for the roast,” Pearl said firmly. The demon stopped chewing, looking actually guilty, and hastily spat the mouthful back onto the pile. Pearl sighed and rubbed her forehead. “Thank you, Scorn.”

“Hello,” she said sheepishly.

Teal blinked rapidly. “W—Scorn? How did that happen?”

“Very carefully,” Pearl said, shaking her head and turning back to the sink.

“So it’s a mortal insult if you pronounce her name wrong,” Trissiny said, frowning, “but she’s okay with a nickname?”

“Well, not at first,” Rafe admitted. “But with much pantomime, we were able to express to her what it means. And now she likes it.”

Schkhurrankh—Scorn—grinned again. “Hello!”

“Vrackdish khnavai?” Teal asked.

Scorn blinked at her twice, then began snickering.

“I really need to practice that language,” Teal muttered. Shaeine patted her gently on the back.

“Shkhalvrik, d’min sklacth,” the demon said, still grinning.

“Well, she seems to be having fun, anyway,” Teal said. “Do you have any garlic?”

Pearl turned to frown at her. “…is that a joke?”

“Oh!” The bard clapped a hand to her face. “Oh, gods, I’m sorry, I didn’t even think… I mean, um, turnips or anything like that? She’ll really enjoy starchy things like roots, and strong flavors. If you set her to chopping onions she’ll probably just eat them unless you give her something else to snack on.”

“Ah. That’s not a bad idea,” Pearl said with a smile. “Thank you. Yes, we have garlic; I’ll get her a few cloves.”

“Hello!” Scorn said brightly.

“Wait, you do have garlic?” Toby asked.

“It’s not actually harmful to vampires,” Trissiny said. “That’s a myth. Come on, we can catch up with Shl—Scorn later. I want to speak with Malivette before it gets any closer to dark.”

“It’s not much past noon,” Juniper pointed out.

“The mistress is resting at the moment,” Pearl said, giving Trissiny a narrow look. “Between chaperoning your demon friend and contracting repairs to the manor, it has been an eventful morning.”

“That was a broad hint,” Professor Rafe explained. “Pearl is suggesting you should refrain from stirring up any further shit, being that you’ve already been less than ideal houseguests, what with all the nonsense and whatnot. She didn’t come out and say that because she’s super nice.”

“Thank you, Professor,” Pearl said, shaking her head as she strode over to a cupboard.

“I live to serve!”

“We will try to keep this conversation brief, then,” Trissiny said, turning and striding out of the room before anyone could say anything else. The others followed more slowly.

“Uh, how do you know where you’re going?” Teal asked as they ascended the stairs in the main entrance hall.

“Sense evil,” Toby murmured. “Whether or not she’s actually evil, she…registers. I could point her out exactly anywhere on the grounds.”

“Excuse me,” said Sapphire, frowning at them as they stepped into the upstairs hallway. “I know it can be easy to get turned around in here. Your rooms are in the other wing.”

“We need a word with Malivette,” Trissiny said, not slowing. “Now.”

“She is taking some time to herself,” Sapphire said more sharply, stepping in front of the paladin. “Can this wait?”

“It’s about necromancy and Veilgrad,” Trissiny replied, staring evenly at her. “Excuse me.”

“That can wait, then,” Sapphire replied, not moving an inch. “You should perhaps take some time to freshen up. Pearl will have lunch ready soon; you can talk to Malivette this evening.”

“We can also talk to her now,” Trissiny said, taking a step forward. “When it is broad daylight and we have someplace to go if Malivette doesn’t like the direction of our discussion.”

“Trissiny,” Shaeine said firmly. “You are being provocative, and very nearly rude.”

“Young lady,” Sapphire said, staring the paladin down, “it is exceedingly bad manners to impose upon your hostess in this fashion.”

“I’m sorry for that,” Trissiny replied inexorably, “truly. But this won’t wait.”

“We are perilously close to having a disagreement,” Sapphire said quietly.

“Whoah, now,” Teal exclaimed. “Peace, please! Triss…”

“Yes, I know exactly what your capabilities are,” Trissiny said, her eyes locked on Sapphire’s. “You are no threat to me, and I am no threat to Malivette, and I think you know both those things. So we’re going to go speak with her, and nobody needs to get needlessly upset.”

“Trissiny,” Toby said sharply. “Stop. We are the guests here—don’t talk to her like that.”

“Fine,” Sapphire said curtly, abruptly stepping backward. “I see war and justice leave little room for social skills. You apparently know where you’re going, then.”

“Thank you,” Trissiny said politely, nodding deeply to her. Sapphire folded her arms and wrinkled her nose disdainfully.

“Sorry,” Fross whispered loudly. “Really. She has the best intentions, I promise, she just gets worked up when things are evil.”

“There is nothing evil here,” Sapphire said bitterly, directing it at the paladin’s back rather than the pixie.

Trissiny, ignoring her, pushed open a set of double doors and stepped into the cavernous bedroom beyond. Its furnishings were carved of dark-stained wood, sparse in number and simple in design, though elaborate and clearly expensive rugs littered the floor haphazardly and the large four-poster bed was strewn with rumpled sheets of crimson satin. There were no wall decorations aside from the sconces of fairy lamps, currently unlit.

She didn’t pause, turning and striding toward another door along the wall, the others trailing along after her.

“Hang on, wait a second,” Toby said, hurrying to catch up. “I really don’t think you should burst in on—”

Ignoring him, Trissiny grasped the latch and yanked the door open, revealing a brightly-lit bathroom with brass and marble accents.

Malivette stood at the sink, wearing a bright pink bathrobe of some impossibly fluffy material. On her feet were whimsical slippers shaped like rabbits, also pink. She stood with one hand in the robe’s pocket, the other holding the end of the toothbrush currently in her mouth. Minty foam was bubbled up around her lips. The vampire stared at them quizzically, her crimson eyes wide and surprised.

“If fher a profful?” she inquired.

“Vette,” Sapphire said anxiously from behind the students, “I’m so sorry, I tried to stop them, but this pushy girl insisted…”

“If fife erfay, uffee,” Malivette said kindly. “Un fife f’gheff.”

“Can we speak to you, please?” Trissiny asked, finally looking uncertain.

Malivette finally withdrew her hand from her pocket, holding up one finger. “Uff a momum, phleef.”

While they stared, she resumed scrubbing her teeth, humming softly to herself. It went on for easily another minute; she was quite thorough. The vampire turned her back to spit in the sink and rinse her mouth.

“There!” she said brightly, turning to face them again. “Ah, much better. Let me tell you, nothing drives home the importance of oral hygiene like having to subsist on blood. Even if you like the stuff, once it starts getting all congealed…blech. And that happening between your teeth! Blargh. Bleugh! Bleughrer!”

“Why are you collecting materials and equipment for necromancy?” Trissiny demanded loudly.

“What makes you think I am?” Malivette asked pleasantly. “I mean, I’m not even going to consider the idea that you’ve been rummaging about in my personal possessions.”

“We are exceedingly sorry to impose like this,” said Shaeine, looking pointedly at Trissiny. “There are surely any number of reasons you might have need of necromantic arts, not least of which are the horses. Perhaps this conversation could have waited for a more convenient moment.”

“Yes, I suppose this may be rather jarring to you,” the vampire said, smiling with a hint of mischief. “It doesn’t really make it into the bards’ songs, for whatever reason, does it? They’re like terriers going after rats.”

“Uh, what?” Juniper asked. “Who is?”

“The Hands of Omnu are a conservative lot,” Malivette went on, nodding to Toby, “always have been. It’s all about healing and blessing wherever they happen to be. Hands of Avei have this compulsion, though. It goes well beyond just sensing evil. If there’s something nasty occurring, they go right for it, every time. Often without fully realizing what they’re doing. It’s instinct, see? You kids should listen to your friend more, especially when she seems irrationally aggressive. The obvious reason Trissiny is worked up about necromancy is I’m doing horrible, dangerous and utterly depraved necromantic experiments on the grounds.” She grinned broadly, showing off her fangs. “Wanna see?”

“Uh,” said Fross.

“Hang on a tick, lemme just change into something less comfortable.” Malivette suddenly erupted into a cloud of mist and shrieking bats; all of them stumbled reflexively back from the door, Trissiny drawing her sword. She re-formed in seconds, now wearing her customary slinky black dress. “Well, c’mon, this way!” she said brightly.

She dissolved again into silver mist, flowing like water through their legs and taking form again behind them, standing in the door and beckoning eagerly. “Come along, now! I think you’ll like this. Follow me!”

The vampire turned and skipped into the hallway, her fluffy pink bunny slippers peeking out from below the hem of her gown.


The Conclave’s embassy had not changed much in the short time since Bishop Shahai and Squad One had last visited, except with regard to personnel. The building was the same, and still guarded by Imperial soldiers; there were still petitioners in the entrance hall, and lining up outside. Now, however, there were more humans present who had clearly aligned themselves with the Conclave. They had no livery as such, at least not yet, but several of those in attendance wore badges like that sported by the man who had accosted Principia in the old spice market.

They were a disparate lot, having in common only that they were relatively young, none yet into middle years, and all physically fit. Their attire varied widely, though none seemed shabby or excessively casual. Aside from the badges, what marked them out was their bearing. These few men and women were proud, alert, and taking their jobs very, very seriously. Considering their jobs seemed so far to consist of standing around the embassy looking officious and chaperoning the various petitioners, it was an open question how long they could keep that up.

The Avenist delegation paused in the middle of the floor, conversations trailing off and eyes turning toward them. Principia looked questioningly at the Bishop, who nodded deeply to her and took a step back. Principia saluted and turned, making a beeline for the nearest individual with a Conclave badge, her squad at her heels.

“I will speak with Zanzayed the Blue,” she said sharply, coming to a halt in front of the young man. “Now. I have a personal grievance to discuss with him.”

The fellow blinked, then glanced to the side at another nearby dragonsworn, who only shrugged helplessly. He was the youngest-looking individual among their ranks, of blond Stalweiss stock, tall and broad-shouldered. Despite this, he seemed somewhat cowed by the aggressive elf before him, despite the fact that he dwarfed her, armor and all.

“Ah… I can add your name to the list,” he offered. “Of course, there are many people who wish an audience with the exalted delegates. You, um, are likely to be accorded special consideration—”

“Not good enough,” she snapped. “I’m not negotiating with you, young man. If you can’t get me to Zanzayed, get me to someone who can. You have sixty seconds.”

He finally seemed to locate his backbone, straightening up and frowning disapprovingly down at her. “Now, see here, miss—uh, Ms… Uh, soldier—”

“Sergeant,” she said caustically.

“Suppose you tell me the nature of your grievance,” he continued doggedly, “and I will convey the message. You surely can’t expect to just walk in here and talk with a dragon.”

“I’ll tell you what,” Principia said coldly, her voice even by carrying through the marble hall. “This is what you can tell Zanzayed: I am Principia Locke, of the line of the Crow, favored agent of Eserion and soldier of Avei. Zanzayed the Blue is going to answer to me, to my face, for his recent transgressions. If I’m not in front of him within five minutes, I will leave, and when I come back it’ll be with a mix of backup from those various sources I just named. And I promise you, boy, I will make very certain you are present to learn firsthand who and what a dragon does not want to challenge.”

“Uh,” he said frantically, his aplomb now disintegrating in rising panic. “I, uh—”

“That is a new approach,” purred a more musical voice. Principia stepped back from the flummoxed young dragonsworn, turning to the speaker. Gliding toward the assembled soldiers was a strikingly beautiful young woman, pale and dark-haired, wearing a flowing gown of blood-red silk. “Few people would approach dragons with threats. My congratulations, Sergeant Locke; you are the first since we came to Tiraas. I had rather expected such would come from the Empire, not…well. What’s Zanza done to you?”

“Well met,” Principia said flatly. “Whom have I the pleasure of addressing?”

“Of course, my apologies. How rude of me.” The woman curtsied, gracefully but not deeply. “I am Maiyenn, consort of Razzavinax the Red. If you will kindly leave off badgering my household staff, I will be only too glad to escort you directly to Zanzayed. It sounds as if you have very serious business indeed.” She smiled languidly, her eyes half-lidded. “I ask your pardon for the reception. Niels is actually a most admirable young man, but we are still in the process of training all our people. If you will follow me?” She gestured at the curving marble stairs, the motion smooth and elegant.

“My thanks, Lady,” Principia replied, bowing. “Lead on.”

“Oh, my,” Maiyenn said, smiling more broadly. “You actually do know some draconic etiquette. What fascinating stories you must have! I believe I shall enjoy observing this conversation.”

She led them up the stairs and down a side hall branching off from the upper landing. Bishop Shahai stepped forward to walk alongside Principia, the rest of Squad One marching on their heels. Behind them, the group left a thunderous silence; only when they passed the threshold into the corridor did muted conversations begin to rise again in the entry hall.

It was somewhat less awkward to follow Maiyenn once they were off the stairs, and her waist no longer at their eye level. The woman walked with an entirely gratuitous sway in her hips.

Their guide led them the full length of the hallway, ignoring the doors they passed. At the end, rather than terminating in a wall or a room, the hall widened into a small sitting area occupying what was clearly a tower; the space was circular, and instead of walls had paneled windows braced between gracefully fluted columns. Above, more glass panes were set into the domed roof, creating a kind of greenhouse. Fittingly, there were large potted ferns at the bases of columns, and one dwarf fig tree, with settees and chairs casually laid out between these.

There was also, incongruously, a crib on wheels pushed against one window. Maiyenn went directly to this, after giving her guests a final mysterious smile, bending over to coo softly at what lay within. The Legionnaires spared her scarcely a glance, their attention on the other individuals present.

The dragons, to judge by their eyes and hair, could be none other than Zanzayed the Blue and Razzavinax the Red. Upon Maiyenn’s arrival, Razzavinax rose from his seat to join her over the crib, giving the visitors a brief, inquisitive look in passing. He place a hand on Maiyenn’s lower back, his expression softening as he peered down at his infant child.

Even they didn’t command the soldiers’ full attention. The other person present, who had stepped away from the crib to make room for the proud parents, was a striking young woman with milky pale skin, deep black hair and peculiar crystalline eyes in an unlikely shade of aquamarine. She also had spiny bat wings and a spaded tail.

“Easy, now,” Zanzayed cautioned them, grinning idly. He made no move to rise from the settee on which he was lounging. “Rizlith is a friend.”

“Demons make poor friends,” Bishop Shahai said quietly.

“And Avenists make poor guests,” the succubus retorted. Her eyes flicked across the group, coming to rest on Ephanie, and a sultry smile unfolded across her lovely face. “As we are all poor together, why can’t we…get along?”

“Riz,” the red dragon said reprovingly. “Please don’t taunt Silver Legionnaires. In fact, don’t do anything with them. If you’re bored, I can find entertainments for you.”

“I am anything but bored, Razz,” she said idly, taking two steps back and draping her wings about her shoulders like a cloak. The demon leaned backward against the window behind her and folded her arms under her impressive bosom, deliberately emphasizing it. “This all looks to be exceedingly fascinating. You may have to send me away after all, but give a girl a chance, hmmm?”

“I assume you must know a little something of demonology,” Razzavinax said apologetically to the Bishop. “One must make allowances for the children of Vanislaas. I assure you, Rizlith is no threat to you, or to anyone here.”

“At this time,” Rizlith crooned to no one in particular.

“One must make allowances for one’s hosts,” Bishop Shahai replied smoothly, keeping her eyes on the dragon and ignoring the demon. “If you are confident you have the creature under control, no more need be said about it.”

“Well!” Zanzayed said brightly, straightening up to a sitting position and rubbing his hands together, his numerous jeweled rings flashing in the light. “Before this devolves any further, let me just say how delighted I am that you’ve accepted my invitation, Principia! I guess you found something to say to me after all!”

“Yes, I did,” she said acidly. “Quit sending people to pester me, you swaggering jackass!”

“He set himself up for that one,” Maiyenn murmured.

“He did it deliberately,” Razzavinax replied, sliding an arm around her shoulders. “Zanza has peculiar ideas about fun.”

“All right, so maybe I was a tad overbearing,” the blue acknowledged, grinning unrepentantly. “But…here you are! Can’t really fault my strategy, then, can you?”

“Your strategy,” Principia said flatly. “How many women have you had, Zanzayed?”

“Oh, my!” he said, placing his fingertips against his lips in an expression of mock horror. “You surely wouldn’t ask a gentleman to kiss and tell! And in front of these fine upstanding soldiers, no less!”

“You are old enough to have carried out some great seductions,” Principia continued unrelentingly. “Any dragon more than two centuries along has, and you’re at least as old as Arachne.”

“Older,” he said idly.

“So you understand how the game is played. So do I.”

“Why, Principia,” Zanzayed exclaimed, grinning. “How many women have you had?”

“More’n you, I bet,” she shot back. “And we both know that this is not the way to do it. You don’t gain someone’s attention or their favor by drowning them in aggressive, unfriendly solicitations. That is harassment, Zanzayed, and I’ll not stand for it.”

“Are you going to let her talk to me like that?” he asked Bishop Shahai.

“If it comes down to it,” she said mildly, “I’m going to let her punch you.” Maiyenn laughed in pure delight.

“Prin, my dear, you’ve got me all wrong,” Zanzayed protested, spreading his hands innocently. “As I told you before, this is a simple matter of family concern. I have nothing but the highest regard for your bloodline, and you’re a particularly famous example of it! How could I do anything but extend to you every possible courtesy?”

“I am not blind to the fact that there are anti-dragon activists at work in Tiraas,” Principia said coldly.

“Anti-dragon activists,” Maiyenn repeated, her voice oozing disdain. “More correctly called ash stains in training.” Rizlith giggled.

“And I am not dumb enough to fail to see what you’re doing,” Prin continued. “Painting a target for them on my head is an extremely hostile act, Zanzayed.”

“You seem absolutely determined to ascribe the worst possible motivations to me, no matter what I say,” he replied in a mournful tone. “I’m starting to wonder if I have been mistaken. It doesn’t look like we’re going to have a productive discussion, here.”

“On the subject of my bloodline,” she replied with a cold smile, “Mary the Crow is in Tiraas.”

“No, she isn’t,” he shot back, with the same expression. “She was in Tiraas.”

“Want to know how quickly I can find her?”

“Exactly as quickly as everyone else can,” he replied, grinning. “If anything, less. Look, Principia, you’ve clearly got this all worked up in your mind so that I’m out to get you, and just as clearly you’ve brought your friends, here, on board.”

“I am guided by my own reasoning,” Bishop Shahai said serenely. “I have chosen to allow Principia to make this a personal issue because that will cause far less trouble than what will occur if I’m forced to address your treatment of a Legionnaire under my command in an official capacity.”

“They do bluster, don’t they?” Maiyenn mused.

“And here I thought these Legionnaires would be boring,” Rizlith said, her tail waving excitedly. “Elves aside, this is statistically the straightest group of Avenist women I’ve ever seen together in a room. They must have the faith’s officially dullest barracks.”

“Both of you, cease,” Razzavinax ordered, his voice quiet but firm. “Zanzayed is capable of being more than provocative enough for all of us.”

“Well, I’m gonna have to let you down, then, Razz.” The blue finally stood, and bowed extravagantly to Principia. “I give you my word, upon my honor, Principia Locke: I mean no ill to you or yours. I will not harm you, nor suffer you to be harmed if it is up to me to prevent it. Does that satisfy you?”

She pursed her lips. “Is there a single reason it should?”

Zanzayed’s monochrome eyes made it impossible to tell when he was rolling them, so he threw his entire head backward melodramatically, letting out a long groan. “You just can’t win with some people!”

“You want to make progress here?” Principia said coldly. “Quit sending people out to pester me.”

“Is that really all you want?” he said with a sigh. “All right, fine. Done. Is there anything else I can do for you, while you’re here?”

She stared at him in silence for a long moment, then turned and looked inquisitively at the Bishop.

“If you’ve no further business, Sergeant, I am content with this, for now.” Shahai smiled languidly. “This has been an extremely instructive meeting.”

Aside from the other members of Squad One, who remained woodenly stiff at attention, all those present smiled at one another with eyes like daggers.

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9 – 6

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Dusk was falling as the students disembarked from Malivette’s ostentatious carriages outside their destination. It seemed few people in Veilgrad were anxious to be out after or even too shortly before dark, to judge by the lack of passersby in this central area of the city. Those who were out on the streets, though, stared closely at them, some pausing unabashedly to gawk.

“Why do I have the feeling they’re not enraptured by our good looks?” Toby murmured.

“It’s a safe bet people in the city know whose carriages these are,” Trissiny replied. “Why do I have the feeling this is going to lead to trouble down the road?”

“There are access tunnels leading from the manor to various parts of the city,” Pearl said, stepping gracefully down from the driver’s seat of the carriage. Somehow, incredibly, she managed this without disturbing her expensive dress. “The Mistress considered sending you out through those, but you were already seen entering the carriages at the Rail platform. It will come out sooner or later that you are staying with us.”

“Wise,” Shaiene agreed, nodding. “Whether or not our associations are approved of, attempting to hide them would only make us look more suspicious.”

Jade descended to the pavement and strolled over to her counterpart, speaking as she did so. “Remember, kids, Mr. Grusser is technically not a noble, and his official title is Steward for House Dufresne, but for all intents and purposes, he is the acting governor of this city and the surrounding province. He doesn’t stand much on ceremony, but the man is popular and good at his job—a suitable combination for a public servant. He should be treated with due respect.”

“Is that really a concern?” Juniper asked, tilting her head quizzically. “Do we seem like the kind of people who’d be rude to the man in charge?”

“Well, let’s keep in mind that Arquin’s been in there for a couple hours and be prepared to do some damage control,” Ruda snorted.

“I don’t think you give Gabriel very much credit,” Fross said reprovingly. “So he’s not very practiced socially; he is trying, and getting better.”

“Also, he’s not just some kid anymore,” Teal noted. “The Hand of Vidius can probably get away with a gaffe here and there.”

“There’s another thing,” said Pearl. Jade gave her a pointed look, which she returned. After a tense pause, she turned her face back toward the cluster of students and continued. “Mr. Grusser’s consort, Eleny Feathership, is not his wife and has no legal status. She is, however, as loved by him as any bride, and also quite popular among the citizenry. I suggest you consider her the lady of the manor, and act accordingly.”

“There it is again,” Juniper complained. “Why would we be mean to this guy’s girlfriend?”

“It isn’t that,” Jade said with a wry little smile. “You might be…surprised, however.”

“Less so now,” Pearl added. “The Mistress enjoys her little jokes, but I fear too much social isolation has blunted her sense of what’s good fun and what may be hurtful. You are not going in completely unaware, but that is all I will say on the matter. She did wish for you to have a surprise this evening.”

“I’m thinkin’ the fewer of those we have, the better,” Ruda commented.

“Are you just…going to wait out here?” Teal asked a moment later, when the students had started moving toward the door and their drivers did not.

“We should remain with the carriages,” Pearl said, smiling. “It discourages pranksters.”

“Is that safe, though?” Teal asked, frowning. “I mean… Malivette said there’d been two riots. People attacked her house.”

“The Mistress has a penchant for dramatic effect,” said Jade, rolling her eyes. “It was more like one long riot with two particularly busy spells. She had to go outside twice, but after her second…performance…I highly doubt anyone in Veilgrad will challenge her or us directly. Unattended carriages might be just too tempting, however. So, here we stay.”

“I mean no disrespect,” Toby said diplomatically, “and you surely know the city better than we… But if it comes to another riot or something even similar, well… You’re two young women in fancy dresses.”

“They will be fine,” Trissiny said from up ahead. She caught Jade’s eye and nodded. “Trust me. Nothing around here is going to threaten them.”

“Now, is this you knowin’ something we don’t,” Ruda demanded, “or are you just willing to throw the vampire’s pals too the wolves?”

“Do any of you actually know anything about vampires?” Trissiny asked.

“A little!” Fross chimed. “A…very little. I really need to hit the books and bone up on undead. I was not expecting that information to be relevant on this trip.”

“What do you know about vampires?” Teal asked Trissiny.

“If it lurks in the night and kills people, I’ve been trained to destroy it,” the paladin replied. “I’ll bring you all up to speed on everything I know later, though that research is still a good idea, Fross. My own intel is singularly focused, and we presumably won’t be destroying Malivette.”

“You had better move along,” Pearl said gently. “You’re expected for dinner; it won’t do to be late. Mr. Grusser might think we delayed you on purpose.”

“Righto, then,” Ruda said with a shrug. “If you’re sure…”

Despite its foreboding outer walls, the general architecture within Veilgrad might be best described as “quaint.” It ran heavily to tall stone foundations and whitewashed walls braced by dark-stained beams. The structure to which they had been delivered was a particularly large specimen of the style, half fortress and half overblown cottage, and somehow it all worked. The elaborately carved window shutters and corner posts beautifully offset the grim towers of granite blocks; in some places, graceful wood-and-plaster walls rose straight from behind battlements which were obviously decorative rather than functional.

The building had been described to them as the administrative center of Veilgrad, encompassing both its city hall and the residence of the mayor, whom they had come to visit. Thus, they’d been brought to a rear entrance, where a small cul-de-sac made room for the carriages. Rather than climbing the broad steps to the hall’s towering front doors, they approached a much smaller, more cozy entrance, flanked by cheerful fairy lamps and narrow windows.

Toby pulled the bell; the door was opened mere moments later, revealing an older man in understated livery, his coat a dark purple offset by sober deep gray.

“Good evening, sir and ladies,” he said. “Welcome to Dufresne House. Please, come in; you are expected.”

He stepped back, bowing them through, and the students trooped in, gathering uncertainly in the hall while the servant shut the door behind them. It was warmly lit, fairy lamps shining through golden glass sconces; the stone floor and dark-paneled walls were decorated by a long rug and hanging tapestries. An actual suit of armor stood next to the door.

“This way, if you please,” the servant said diffidently, ushering them forward. “The Steward awaits you in the dining room with the last member of your party. Dinner will be served anon. Please, enter and be comfortable.”

It was a pretty short distance to the dining room, reached by a narrow side hall; they could already hear voices, one of which was laughing. The other was familiar.

“I still can’t believe it! A princess!” one speaker said, still chortling. “Right in the foot!”

“Well, I can’t deny it worked. Those horses got one whiff of demon and went haring off like…well, like they’d seen a demon. That doesn’t mean I’m ever going to let go of it, of course.”

“Oh, indeed, you should milk that for every precious drop. It’s not often you get something to hold over a woman; usually that goes the other way ’round!”

They’d begun filing into the dining room as he spoke, and at the last sentence Trissiny cleared her throat pointedly.

At the head of the long table, the man who had been seated there looked up and quickly rose to his feet, beaming in apparent pleasure at his guests. Beside him, Gabriel stood a moment later, grinning. Mayor Grusser was surprisingly young, somewhere between his later youth and earliest middle years; it was hard to say precisely. His Stalweiss origins showed clearly in his fair hair, pale complexion and square features. That was no surprise, the name having been a tip-off, and anyway more than half the population of Veilgrad were Stalweiss, most of the rest being Tiraan. Before the Imperial conquest, it had been considered part of the Stalrange. He was tall, but in addition to his relative youth, was also quite slim of build. Somehow his image didn’t quite match the title of his office.

“Everyone! Welcome!” Grusser exclaimed, enthusiastically waving them forward. “Please, please, everyone, sit, make yourselves comfortable—we don’t over-emphasize ceremony here. While you are my guests, my home is your home. I am Lars Grusser, Steward of House Dufresne and sort of the mayor by default of Veilgrad. And you are… Of course, please allow me to guess. Gabriel has been telling me the most hilarious stories—I feel as if I already know each of you!”

Their round of introductions was just coming to a close when another door at the opposite end of the room opened, apparently by itself. A pause fell, Juniper trailing off her apology for not being able to bring her pet (fortunately, she wasn’t positioned to see her classmates’ expressions), as everyone turned to look quizzically at the door. Those on the wrong side of the table couldn’t immediately see anyone present.

“Oh, heaven’s sake, Lars, why am I the last one to dinner in my own house?” a female voice exclaimed. “You could have sent for me—I thought they weren’t arriving till later!”

“Well, that was the plan, love,” Grusser said, smiling broadly and rising from his seat again. “But you know how Vette enjoys her little pranks. Fortunately Hans had more foresight than we, otherwise our guests might have been waiting a long time for dinner. Everyone, this is my companion, Eleny Feathership.”

Gabriel had already got to his feet, bowing courteously to the new arrival; the others respectfully stood in the next moments, most trying not to look confused or startled after Pearl’s warning.

Eleny was a gnome, scarcely more than three feet tall, with curly brown hair that fell to her waist. She wore a conservatively cut dress of red brocade, and smiled warmly up at Grusser as he fell to one knee beside her, taking her hand and placing a gentle kiss on her knuckles.

“Ah, yes, Vette’s jokes. You’re right, love, one of us really ought to have seen that coming. Well, here we are now!” She smiled broadly up at her guests. “Did I miss the introductions?”


 

Dinner was plentiful and good. The simple and hearty fare consisted of Stalweiss staples: sausage and cabbage soup, fried potatoes, wedges of spicy cheese, and apples for dessert. The only thing missing from the traditional spread was beer. Apparently Professor Tellwyrn’s drinking policy had been advertized ahead of them. Mayor or no mayor, Grusser clearly was wise enough to respect it.

Once over the initial surprise, the students found their host and hostess excellent conversationalists, skilled at maintaining a pleasant mood over dinner. Rehashing some of Gabriel’s stories provided them plenty of fodder; Ruda in particular chose to challenge his interpretations of certain events. Grusser sat at the head of the long table, Eleny at the far end, her seat specially designed to keep her at the same level as the rest of the diners. After the confusion and subtle menace that had marked their visit to Veilgrad thus far, it was altogether a blessedly pleasant evening.

Eventually, though, apples were being polished off, the efficient manservant Hans was removing plates, and finally the mayor leaned back in his chair, folding his hands on the table in front of him, and spoke in a deceptively casual tone.

“So! I understand you’ve been sent here to find and remove the source of the troubles we have been experiencing.”

Silence suddenly fell, the sophomores glancing around at each other. Eleny watched them all, her expression pleasantly neutral.

“First of all,” Toby began, “we greatly appreciate your patience, Mr. Grusser. Please understand the last thing anyone here intends is to step on your authority in any way. Professor Tellwyrn has a tendency to assign these…projects…without much regard for how people will be affected by them.”

“Well,” Grusser said with a wry smile, “my ‘authority,’ or lack thereof, is a sort of complicated matter. The political situation in Veilgrad is…unusual, and somewhat tense, but it has worked for us. At least until very recently. I will tell you this, though.” He leaned forward again, his expression growing intent. “I am only a few years younger than Malivette; I was but a schoolboy when she was attacked by the vampire and House Dufresne all but destroyed. I knew her, though, distantly. We did not really socialize, but my family have been stewards to hers for generations, and I was definitely aware of her. She was always such a bright girl, cheerful and fond of jokes. After that…” He sighed heavily. “Well. It was certainly to be expected that she would be full of darkness, given all that she had experienced. I only saw her once more before she left for the University. I recall thinking, at the time, that that was the face of a woman who truly, deeply hated herself, the world and everything in it.

“Then,” he continued pensively, “four years later, I was working as a secretary under my father when she returned. The darkness was still there, obviously, and I rather think always will be. But she was herself again. To the extent that it was possible, whatever happened at that school put her back right. She smiled and laughed again, had friends.”

“Oh, did she ever have friends,” Eleny said, grinning.

“Indeed, my dear, and that is the next point I was about to make,” Grusser said, nodding to her. “She came back with half a dozen classmates, visiting for the summer before going off to resume their own lives. At that time, my friends, Veilgrad was suffering a significant demon problem.”

“Demon problem?” Trissiny said sharply.

“The city had had one for a good many years,” he replied solemnly, “though it had escalated in the years since the fall of House Dufresne. By that point, people walked about armed; there were two known katzils nesting somewhere in the roofs, imps had a tendency to appear in the streets at night, and there was an incubus operating in the city, spreading chaos. He was the worst of all.”

“What was he trying to do?” Teal asked, fascinated.

“I am glad to say that the minds of demons are inscrutable to me,” Grusser said with a grimace.

“He wasn’t necessarily trying to do anything in particular,” Trissiny noted. “An incubus would attempt to destabilize whatever city he found himself in just on general principles.”

“That summer,” Grusser continued, his grin returning, “all of that ended. Oh, the University graduates were very subtle. I only know they were involved at all because of my father’s position; it was to us that they came for advice on navigating the city. Within a few weeks, the demons were just gone, and the next we heard, nearly all of House Leduc had been quietly arrested in the night by Imperial Intelligence and shipped off to trial in Tiraas.”

“This House was responsible for the demon attacks?” Shaeine asked, frowning in polite disapproval.

“No official confirmation of that was ever published,” Eleny said, rolling her eyes, “but it was an open secret from the beginning. Veilgrad started suffering intermittent demonic problems at the same time members of one of its two noble families started universally dying of sudden cancer in their forties, while nevertheless growing richer by means no banker could seem to track. Subtle, they were not.”

“Subtle enough to avoid official censure, at least until the University people stepped in and broke them,” Grusser said with obvious satisfaction. “The point of my story, friends, is that I have no objection to your presence or activities here. None. I don’t presume to know what happens at that school of yours, but Professor Tellwyrn clearly knows what she is about. As do her students. Now that Veilgrad is suffering from some unknown darkness—again—I have to admit being relieved that you are here.” He grinned, and winked. “Meddling.”

“Perhaps you can elucidate the political situation for us?” Shaeine suggested. “You spoke of two houses. Our hosts said that House Dufresne were your employers, yet you speak as if they are gone.”

“Yes, quite right,” he replied. “Well, to begin, Veilgrad has had two resident Houses since it first became an Imperial province. Houses Dufresne and Leduc arrived simultaneously, and in fact were instrumental in the Tiraan conquest and the subsequent campaign into the Stalrange. Now, however, both teeter on the brink of extinction, reduced to a single member each. In fact, the last member of House Dufresne, who officially holds the title of Duchess of this province, is legally dead. She is still up and walking about, however, and even the Empire has declined to try stripping her of her position. This…makes the matter complicated, as I’m sure you can imagine.”

“Wait, Malivette is the ruler of this province?” Trissiny exclaimed.

“On paper,” Grusser said seriously. “In practice, I handle all of her affairs except the personal. It is really the only way; the populace would never tolerate a vampire’s direct control over them.”

“Where did you think she got that giant mansion from?” Eleny asked, grinning.

“Dufresne, Leduc,” Teal murmured. “Those aren’t Stalweiss names. Nor Tiraan… If anything, they sound Glassian.”

“Just so!” Eleny said, smiling broadly. “You’ve a good ear for tongues. Aye, the history is actually quite fascinating. The earliest Dufresnes and Leducs in the region fled Glassierre due to some politics in the old country; when they came to this continent, they went right to Tiraas, presented themselves to the Emperor and offered their fealty. Well, Tiraas was at that time launching its conquest of this region, and these two were a godsend. Few of the native nobility wanted to risk their own assets against the Stalweiss and their Huntsmen, who were sort of legendary terrors at that time. And here came two brand new Houses from a cold country which was famous for its art and culture despite having to beat back constant incursions of its borders. Who better to conquer and civilize the Stalrange?”

“Sounds like they were on pretty good terms, then,” Gabriel noted.

“At that time, aye, they were,” the gnome replied, nodding. “But that was centuries ago. Ever since, with the conquest long accomplished…well, they were two big birds in the same nest, and fell to infighting as nobles always do. The rulership of Veilgrad and the province passed back and forth between them in the course of just all kinds of intrigues. Toward the end, there, it was widely known the Leducs were practicing some kind of diabolism; in fact, twice that there are records of, the Black Wreath themselves intervened to shut down some project of theirs. But they kept at it, and only House Dufresne, being rulers at the time, had the power to keep ’em in check. Then the Dufresnes were slaughtered in their beds by a vampire and the only heir turned, and the Leducs saw weakness. It got bad before it got better,” she added solemnly.

“She’s quite the historian, is my Eleny,” Grusser said, smiling fondly.

“Lars thinks I tend to natter on and bore the company,” the gnome said, returning his expression exactly. “But it is immediately relevant to the topic! The Dufresnes were wiped out by a vampire; the Leducs were mostly cleared out by the Empire after University adventurers…well, did whatever they did. The last of ’em died off in prison or in shame, most by suicide. There’s one Lord of House Leduc left, moldering away in that mansion, and he has no political aspirations. Then there’s the Lady Dufresne, who has to keep out of politics to avoid inciting a rebellion. That is why Lars effectively runs this province, despite being no aristocrat.”

“That seems…peculiar, if you will pardon my saying it,” Shaeine said tactfully. “Would it not make sense for the Empire to appoint you governor, Mr. Grusser?”

“Politics,” he said with a dramatic sigh belied by his amused expression. “You see, my friends, doing that would establish a precedent. Specifically, that a noble ruler can be removed for such a paltry reason as being totally unfit to govern. The Houses would never stand for that; it’d put fully half of them out on the street if it became Imperial policy.”

“That’s…really weird,” said Juniper, blinking. “I’m not much for law or politics, but wouldn’t that be a really good idea? I mean, for the Emperor to do. Why does he let them push him around that way?”

“On paper,” Grusser replied, “the power of the Silver Throne is absolute. In practice, there’s a lot the Houses could do to make Sharidan’s life miserable if they chose, especially if a lot of them were in agreement on it. He’s very good at keeping them mollified. Among other things, that requires some unfortunate compromises. The issue in Veilgrad is that with as much unrest as this region has suffered, removing a familiar face who is—if I may flatter myself—rather popular and placing another leader in the governorship would be risking serious unrest, possibly verging on rebellion. Thus, it’s in the Throne’s best interests to let the situation stand. He can’t place another House in charge, and he definitely can’t risk the wrath of the aristocrats by simply removing the resident House and putting a commoner in charge.”

“Emperors have done that, though,” Trissiny said, frowning. “Repeatedly.”

“Conquering Emperors have done that,” Grusser corrected her with a smile. “The Tirasian Dynasty stitched this Empire back together after the Enchanter Wars through diplomacy and subterfuge. Sharidan has the backing of the military—no Tiraan Emperor lasts long without it—but he’s not willing to use that against his own people except at great need, and the Houses know it. No, the situation here is undesirable, but stable. Politically speaking, that is. If the escalating issues in this city aren’t brought to a halt, though… It’s impossible to say what might happen.”

“Thank you for explaining all of this, Mr. Grusser,” Toby said thoughtfully. “This answers a number of questions I had about Malivette and her position in the city.”

“My pleasure!”

“So, the question now is, what’s our plan?” Gabriel said, looking around at them.

“First things first,” Eleny said briskly. “Coming here was a good start; you should also check in with the other political powers active in the city. The Omnist temple, the Huntsmen, the Universal Church parson and the Imperial barracks.”

“That would take days if we did it sequentially,” Shaeine observed. “I propose dividing our forces.”

“Yeah, pretty obvious who should go talk with the monks,” Ruda said, winking at Toby. “And of course, we should definitely send Trissiny up to the lodge to chat with the Huntsmen.”

“Is…is she joking?” Eleny asked in a tone of fascinated horror.

“Yes,” Trissiny said firmly. “If Ruda suggests anything tremendously stupid, you can be sure she is joking.”

“Aw, way to ruin my fun, Shiny Boots,” Ruda said, grinning.

“There’s another thing,” Grusser added seriously. “I presume that you will be wanting to look into the known threats facing the city after you have introduced yourselves to the potential stabilizing forces?”

“Any starting points you can suggest would be very helpful,” Toby said.

“Well…” Grusser sighed. “With regard to that, there is one prospect who stands right between the two categories. Or, rather, in both, at least potentially.”

“A known power…and a known threat?” Fross chimed. “Both? That sounds dangerous.”

“I mentioned there is a surviving member of House Leduc,” Grusser said grimly. “Lord Sherwin keeps to himself, which in all frankness is the best thing I can say about him. I have nothing to prove it, otherwise I would hand him over to the Empire—or, could I contact them, even the Black Wreath—but it is an open secret that he is carrying on his family’s traditions. All of them.”

Trissiny scowled deeply. “You mean…”

“Aye, afraid so,” Eleny said with a worried frown. “You see why it’s a hardship, not being able to brush aside the nobility, here. Why no other noble House has tried to finish them off and seize their territory, when they’d normally be on two critically weakened Houses like vultures on a corpse. The last nobles in Veilgrad are the vampire…and the warlock.”


 

The carriages trundled back up the road to the isolated Dufresne manor in total darkness. Each had lanterns dangling from all four corners, old-fashioned wrought iron fixtures housing modern fairy lamps; they proceeded in their own moving island of cheerful light. It was dimmer in their interiors, which were illuminated only by small lamps that cast a faint but warm glow, just enough for their passengers to see one another. It would probably have been impossible to read by, had any of them been so inclined.

It was a quiet ride, at least for the first leg. Aside from being tired—and full—all of them were processing the various revelations of the day, and contemplating their next steps.

“They seem like such a perfect couple,” Teal said suddenly, breaking the silence. “They were so in sync.”

“Indeed, they appeared to be very much in tune with one another,” Shaeine replied, placing a hand over hers on the seat between them.

“I wonder why he doesn’t just marry her,” Teal said pensively. “Is…interracial marriage that taboo in the Empire?”

“Maybe. Dunno.” Ruda shrugged. “That’s not the issue, though, either way. It’s all about politics.”

“How so?” Trissiny asked.

“C’mon, isn’t it obvious?”

“Ruda,” she said flatly, “I know you are socially adroit enough not to say things like that by accident. You’re not Gabe. Is there a reason you wanted to make me feel stupid for not having your political education?”

“Aw, I didn’t mean it like that, Boots,” Ruda said, affectionately jostling her roommate with an elbow. “You’re right, I’m sorry; I’ve got some bad conversational habits. Nothing personal meant. On the subject, though… The political situation in Veilgrad in a nutshell is that the resident nobles are a menace and a hardship, the Emperor can’t remove ’em because of what it’d mean for the nobility everywhere, and the current acting governor needs to stay in place to keep this very uneasy population from outright revolting. So he can’t be replaced with another House. With me so far?”

“Succinctly put,” said Shaeine.

Ruda nodded. “Well, there’s a simple solution to all of this. If Lars Grusser marries into a House, Veilgrad would get new nobility, which would pacify the Houses, and he could remain in power, which would pacify the populace. He can’t marry Eleny; he has to hope for a political marriage. It’s sad, sure, but…that’s politics. It’s an old and not uncommon story. C’mon, Teal, I bet you know a bunch just like it.”

“Yeah…several of them are among a bard’s standbys.” Teal sighed, turning to stare at the darkened window. Thanks to the interior lights reflecting on the glass, they had virtually no view outside. Not that there was much to see, anyway. “I don’t favor tragedies, myself.”

Shaeine scooted closer and leaned subtly against her shoulder.

“That leaves out another party, though,” Trissiny said, frowning. “Suppose Malivette doesn’t want to give up power?”

“Malivette doesn’t have power,” Ruda said. “She’s only Duchess in name, and everyone knows it. Besides, Malivette strikes me as a weirdo even apart from the undead thing, but I didn’t have the impression she’s in any way stupid. She has to be aware of all this, if she’s not actively in on it. The fact she allows the matter to stand is basically a tacit endorsement of the idea. Unless, of course, there’s more going on that we don’t know.”

“That much is a virtual certainty,” Shaeine murmured.

They froze as a long, mournful howl echoed through the mountains. It hung in the air for long moments, eventually trailing off in a descending note. Moments later, it was repeated from another direction, and then more voices sprang up. Soon, the howls sounded from all sides, carrying on like an eerie choir.

“Wolves,” Teal said softly. “How pretty.”

“We’re prob’ly safe in here,” Ruda noted. “Very few animals will come near an undead. The horses are like…wolf repellent, I bet.”

“Those are not wolves,” Trissiny said quietly. She had twisted her belt when she sat, so her sword was in her lap rather than jabbing into the cushions; now she held its hilt tightly. “This city is in very serious trouble.”

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9 – 4

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The design of the stagecoaches didn’t lend itself readily to passengers being able to see their destination. This was somewhat compensated for by the route they took; the road ascended out of Veilgrad into the surrounding hills—steep, tree-covered inclines that only barely deserved the term, as they were in the process of escalating into proper mountains. As no road could have traveled straight up these slopes, the path led back and forth around long switchbacks, giving periodic views of their destination from the carriages’ windows.

Glimpsed through the towering pines, the house was huge even from a distance. Three stories tall and surmounted by steeply peaked slate roofs behind decorative crenelations, it was built of the dark granite of the surrounding mountains, in a fairly plain pattern, appearing almost cubic. Only as they gradually drew closer did the ornamented style of its stonework become apparent. Nearly the entire surface of the edifice seemed to have been carved and engraved.

“So, we’re supposed to stay here and do something down there in the city, right?” Ruda commented, peering out the window.

“Seems probable,” Trissiny said tersely. “It’s hard to imagine a field assignment that would take place entirely inside that mansion.”

Ruda grunted, leaning back in her seat. “Gonna be a hell of a commute.”

Trissiny didn’t respond; neither did Teal or Shaeine, who sat opposite them. It was hard to counter the assessment. They had already been riding for a good twenty minutes.

The manor stood behind a wall of granite topped by rows of iron spikes; its main gate was of heavy iron bars. Eerily, it opened untouched at the approach of the stagecoaches. That actually was a not-uncommon enchantment, but something about the entire situation—the quiet of the mountains, the isolation, the looming presence of the dark mansion itself—lent a creepy atmosphere to even the relatively familiar.

Past the gates, a wide courtyard was built around a circle drive, on which the coaches pulled up near the front door. A simple obelisk of the same omnipresent dark gray granite stood in its center, weeds and shrubs sprouting from around its base. In fact, the greenery all around looked wildly neglected. Short trees and bushes were planted beneath the windows of the house and along the exterior walls; they were all badly in need of trimming. Moss and small ground covers grew in the cracks between the flagstones, and ivy was busily clambering up the front of the mansion itself. In only a few cases had it even been cleared away from the windows.

Their drivers attempted to politely open the carriage doors for them, but only Ruby succeeded; Ruda shoved through and bounded down before Jade could reach hers. The others followed more sedately, Teal pausing to smile apologetically at their driver, who returned an enigmatic little smile of her own.

In silence, the students gathered in a small knot on the gravel drive, staring up at the manor before them. It was oppressively quiet, lending an uneasy aspect to the scene. This was exacerbated by the unnatural stillness of the four black horses, which stood without so much as twitching an ear.

It didn’t last long.

Rafe drew in a deep breath and flung wide his arms.

“Yes, yes, we know,” Fross chimed in exasperation. “Behold, and so on. Honestly, Professor, you need some new material.”

He actually roared with laughter. “HAH! Excellent work, Fross! I’d slap you on the back if it wouldn’t knock you across the yard. Twenty points extra credit!”

“Thank you, but I don’t need any. Your classes aren’t hugely challenging.”

“Damn, pixie,” Ruda said approvingly.

“Okay, now, let’s keep it civil,” Rafe said, his jocular expression collapsing into a disappointed frown. “People do have feelings, you know.”

Several of the group jumped in startlement as the leading carriage started moving again, followed shortly by the second. Ruby and Jade had climbed silently back into their driver’s seats during the byplay, and now directed their undead beasts around the side of the manor.

“Something about this place,” Juniper murmured, hugging herself and rubbing her arms. “I get the weirdest sensation. Almost like it doesn’t want me here. Pressing on me.”

“The ambiance is a little gloomy,” Toby agreed.

“Not that,” the dryad said, shaking her head. “It’s… Some magic. Fae magic, I think, which is unsettling. I’m really not used to having that turned against me.”

“I think I see what you mean,” said Fross.

“You feel it too?”

“Not exactly, at least not until I went looking closely. There are really odd charms on all the windows and doors… Like partial summoning circles. It’s some kind of dimensional phasing. Hard to tell what’s behind them, but I think it’s some kind of ward. From your reaction, I’d guess a ward against fairies. You’re a much more powerful fairy than me, which probably explains why you can feel it and I can’t.”

“Why put a ward behind a dimensional phasing?” Teal asked, frowning.

“To ward against something in a different dimension,” said Trissiny, who was slowly moving her gaze over every inch of the front of the manor as if trying to memorize it. “Hum. We already know this Malivette is nervous about a certain other-dimensional threat. Are valkyries a kind of fairy?”

“That would be pretty strange,” said Teal. “I mean, they work for a god and apparently they scare dryads.”

“There’s not a lot of information written on valkyries,” Fross reported. “I checked. Just folklore and rumor, really. And hints that the Vidian cult discourages questions on the subject.”

“Aw, just look at you little goslings,” Rafe said, smiling fondly. “You’re so cute when you try to unravel mysteries!”

“I already miss Gabe,” Fross said with a sad chime. “He’s the only one I can talk about enchanting stuff with. I bet he’d be really interested in these phased wards; I’ve never even heard of such a thing before. Oh, uh, no offense, guys.”

“I miss my bunny,” Juniper mumbled.

“I’m sure he’s fine,” Toby said soothingly. “Stew is probably spoiling him rotten.”

“Yeah, cos what that damn rabbit needs is more spoiling,” Ruda muttered.

Before that conversation could progress further—fortunately—the double doors in the front of the manor swung outward on creaking hinges, and two more women in the same expensive gowns stepped forth, placing themselves on either side of the doorway and bowing gracefully. Their dresses were exactly like the others, except in color; one was royal blue, the other white. The woman in blue had chestnut brown hair, unlike the two who had met them at the Rail depot, while her counterpart was shorter and slimmer than any of the others, her hair a darker honey shade of blonde.

“Welcome, guests,” they intoned simultaneously.

“Oh, let me just guess,” Ruda said, placing her fists on her hips. “Sapphire and Diamond, right?”

“It’s Pearl, actually,” said the woman in white, smiling at her with a hint of mischief. “But don’t feel bad. Everyone makes that mistake.”

“You must be fatigued after your journey,” Sapphire added diplomatically. “Not to mention bored; long travel has that effect. Please, come in. We’ll have refreshments and a comfortable place for you prepared shortly.”

“The Mistress is most anxious to meet you all,” Pearl said, still with a crafty little smile. “And to catch up with you, Professor.”

With that, both of them turned and stepped back through the doors into the shadows beyond, each with a sway in her hips that seemed more than necessary. Those dresses, they now revealed, were backless.

“Very weird,” Teal murmured. “Those gowns would be appropriate for a very fancy ball. How can they just be walking around in them at this time of day?”

“That’s the oddity that stands out most in your mind?” Trissiny said incredulously.

“Not by far,” Teal said, frowning up at the darkened doorway. “Seems the safest to remark upon, though.”

“Oh, you kids,” Rafe chided, swaggering off ahead of them. “What a bunch of nervous nellies. Come on, time’s a-wasting!”

“Did he just call us nellies?” Fross demanded as their professor vanished into the house. “What’s a nellie?”

“Just more Rafeism,” Toby said with a sigh. “It’s probably best not to pay him too much attention. Well, I guess we’re not going to learn anything standing out here.”

“I have a bad feeling about this place,” Juniper murmured as they started moving, all with more than a little reluctance. “I don’t think it’s just those wards, either.”

“It’s not just you,” Trissiny said, patting her on the back.

They filed inside and again clustered together, letting their eyes adjust to the dimness. It was an overcast day, but the interior of the mansion was still dark enough to be gloomy, not to mention somewhat spooky. The windows were completely swathed in heavy draperies on this side, and the only light came from flickering wall torches and iron chandeliers overhead, which bristled with candles. There wasn’t a single fairy lamp to be seen.

They were in a grand entrance hall—or one that would be grand if it were less dark and barren. Apart from the lack of light, there was no furniture or decoration, only the stark stone walls and the tiled parquet floor. At the opposite end of the long, towering room, a flight of stairs covered in blood-colored carpet rose to a landing about a story up, behind which loomed a wall mural depicting the manor itself on a moonlit night.

Once again, several of the students jumped, this time as the doors, untouched, swung shut behind them.

“Well, I feel like a jackass now,” Ruda muttered. “How did I fail to see that coming?”

Sapphire and Pearl paced forward from the positions they had taken at either side of the door, and now planted themselves flanking the foot of the stairs, where they turned and gazed at the students with politely blank smiles, hands folded demurely before them. Their positions were too eerily identical to have been anything but rehearsed.

Only then did they notice the creeping mist. It had only just begun to appear, but as the students fixed their attention on it, the fog began gathering on the landing, as if pouring in from the doors to either side. Rafe grinned madly; the rest of them clustered together, Ruda and Trissiny gripping their swords.

The mist began rising upward in a column, twisting slowly, a silent cyclone. It swelled, coalesced, and just as suddenly dispersed. Where the tower of fog had stood, there was now a woman.

She could almost have been beautiful, except for a gauntness to her aspect, as if she hadn’t eaten enough in weeks. Her cheeks were slightly hollow, her eyes set deep enough to look almost sunken. Her hair, though, was a glossy black, slicked back from her face, and her complexion a milky pale shade like alabaster. She wore a dress identical to those of the four women they had met thus far, except that hers was black, in a strangely matte fabric that seemed to drink in the light.

For all of that, she could have passed for human if not for her crimson eyes.

“So,” the vampire said coldly, glaring down at them. “This is the new crop of would-be adventurers from Last Rock.”

“Behold the future!” Rafe proclaimed, making a sweeping gesture as if to present the assembled students to their hostess. Ruda’s sword rasped faintly as she subconsciously pulled it an inch out of its sheath.

“Yes, yes,” Malivette drawled. “I will, of course, accord every courtesy to dear Professor Tellwyrn’s proteges, as agreed.”

“It’s a much greater fool than you who tempts Arachne’s wrath,” Rafe said solemnly.

Those blood red eyes narrowed to slits. “But you, Admestus. I think she will not be as protective of you. Indeed…perhaps by sending you here, the great Professor signals a desire to finally be rid of you? After what you did, I am astonished that you would have the temerity to show your face.”

Rafe strode forward till he stood between the students and the stairs, placed his hands on his hips and threw out his chest. “Hah! Dare to test your unholy powers against my magnificent science and general kickassery? Come forth, thing of the darkness, and be humbled!”

“Now, hang on a minute,” Toby protested.

“The bards for ages have sung a song of battle for just such a time as this!” the Professor proclaimed. “It goes thus: You wanna piece o’ me, sucker?!”

Malivette drew back her thin lips, revealing fangs that gleamed even in the dim light. Slowly, she raised her arms to her sides, fingers stiffened into claws, and a sourceless wind rose, dramatically ruffling her hair and gown.

“You,” the vampire hissed, “have made your last mistake, fool!”

Trissiny began to glow faintly, pulling her sword half-free. “Stop right there,” she ordered.

Malivette ignored her completely, launching herself forward. She flew—literally—down the staircase and struck Rafe head-on in a flurry of black fabric.

In the next moment, Trissiny’s glow subsided and she and Ruda both let their hands fall from their weapons, the whole group staring in bemusement as the professor and the vampire whirled around and around, both howling with delighted laughter. Rafe had his hands around Malivette’s slender waist, and twirled her in the air like a child.

“You blonde bastard, how come you never visit unless you’ve got business?”

“Oy, wench, some of us have jobs!”

“Oh, like you care about your measly paycheck.”

Their impromptu dance turned into a scuffle, punctuated by giggles and playful threats. Somehow, it ended up with Malivette in a headlock, having her skull vigorously knuckled.

“Ow! Ow! Not the hair, you savage, what’s wrong with you?”

She dissolved into mist, causing Rafe to stumble, and reappeared off to the side, smoothing back her hair with a dignified expression. The whole time, Sapphire and Pearl gazed on with amused little smiles.

“Okay, I think I’ve figured out what the theme of this trip is gonna be,” Ruda commented. “Shit that surprises me, but upon consideration, really shouldn’t.”

“All right, let’s get a look at you,” Malivette said cheerfully, smiling broadly at them. The fangs made it a less than comforting expression. “This is really the whole class? Must’ve been a dry year. I hear tell you’re a collection of seriously heavy hitters, though. Holy cats, that’s actually a dryad! I wasn’t willing to believe it.”

“My name is Juniper,” she said sharply.

“Juniper!” the vampire replied with gregarious cheer. “Welcome, welcome to my humble commode!”

“Abode, Mistress,” Sapphire corrected.

“I know what I said. I mean, you’ve seen this dump, right?”

“I think we do quite well at maintaining the grounds,” Pearl said archly, “considering there are only four of us.”

“You see what I have to put up with?” Malivette complained to Rafe, pointing at the two women. “Nothing but sass and contradiction, day in and day out.”

“You would be bored with only mindless drones to serve you,” Sapphire said with a smug little smile.

“Well, I do have to complement your taste, Vette,” the Professor said solemnly, stroking his chin as he made a show of studying the girls. “They are stupendously hot.”

“Hey, hey, don’t even think about it,” the vampire scowled. “Keep your grubby mitts off my stuff, Admestus.”

“I am shocked! Outraged! Aghast! I would never think of such a thing!”

“Think all you want,” Malivette said with a grin. “Just don’t touch.”

“You literally just said—”

“Oh my fancy fucking gods,” Ruda shouted. “Can we get on with whatever the hell this is, already?”

“Now, see what you made me do?” Malivette darted forward with preternatural speed, swatting Rafe upside the head. “Here I have guests standing around unattended while I deal with your horsewash. Ladies, gentleman, my apologies! Please, we have a cozy little spot prepared in the north drawing room. Come along, come along, make yourselves comfortable! It’s right this way!”

The whole group shied back as she suddenly exploded into fragments. Flapping, chittering fragments; the sudden swarm of bats swirled off toward one side of the great hall, streaming through a curtained doorway into the room beyon.

“Wh—how—why did—bats!” Fross stuttered. “Multiple transfiguration is—you can’t just do that! How did she do that?!”

“I don’t think many of the normal sort of rules are going to apply here,” Shaeine said quietly.

“This way, please,” Sapphire said, bowing to them, then turned and glided toward the same door, Pearl falling into step beside her.

“Come along, children!” Rafe called, sauntering off after them.

“So,” Trissiny murmured, “in addition to being a creepy undead abomination, she’s an awful lot like him. I was expecting the worst and I’m still unpleasantly surprised.”

“Ah,” Teal said carefully. “There isn’t a lot of lore on vampires, and much of it’s just hearsay, but I’m pretty sure they have rather acute senses. Let’s not talk down about our hostess behind her back.”

“Now, Teal, you’re not giving Trissiny enough credit,” Ruda said, grinning. “Trissiny doesn’t say anything behind people’s backs that she wouldn’t say to their faces. Right, roomie?”

“Right,” Trissiny replied flatly, then strode off after their guides. The others trailed along behind her.

Beyond was a smaller, much cozier room. It had furniture, for one thing—rather shabby old pieces, but better than bare stone. Threadbare rugs bedecked the floor, and best of all, there was a roaring fire, casting a pleasant orange glow across the room. A low table stood a couple of yards back from this, in the middle of a cluster of mismatched chairs, divans and one battered sofa. On it were plates of cookies and sandwiches and a steaming pot of tea. Ruby and Jade were already present, standing demurely off to the side; Pearl and Sapphire were just joining them as the students arrived.

Malivette stood with her back to them, staring into the flames and dramatically outlined by their glow.

“Please,” she intoned sepulchurally. “Sit. Be comfortable. We must now discuss…your fate.”

“Eh,” Rafe said, making a wobbling motion with his hand. “A little melodramatic, a tad overblown. C’mon, Vette, you’ve got better in you than that.”

“Ruby,” the vampire said, “go over there and punch him in the giblets.”

“Absolutely not,” Ruby said. “He’ll pinch my butt again.”

“Excuse me, you did what?” Trissiny snapped, glaring at Rafe.

“Lies!” he protested, rapidly retreating and placing the couch between himself and the paladin. “Scurrilous slander! This is all a plot to discredit the glory that is me!”

Ruby winked at them.

“This is downright disorienting,” Ruda complained, “the way this bounces between creepy and ridiculous.”

“Oh, fair enough, I suppose,” Malivette said, turning around and grinning again. “I pretty much never have company; forgive me for horsing around a bit. Gets restive being cooped up alone in unabated privacy with a harem of stunningly beautiful and fanatically devoted servants just eager to do every little thing that pops into I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten what my point was.”

“Allow me to move this along,” Rafe said, gesturing the students forward. “C’mon, kids, sit down, don’t insult our hostess. Ahem. As I said before, you now stand in Veilgrad—the most eeeevil place in the Empire!”

“That may be an exaggeration,” Malivette added, “but not by much. There have always been dark things lurking in this area—it’s wild land, deliberately kept that way by the Huntsmen who are the predominant religious force in the region.”

“Lovely,” Trissiny said sourly. She had unbent so far as to come stand next to the others as they slid into seats, though she remained on her feet.

“Creatures prowl these mountains that are not strictly natural,” Malivette continued, beginning to pace back and forth in front of the fire. “Howling things in the forest on nights of the full moon, slithering things that lurk beneath the streams… And, of course, the likes of what sank its fangs into me when I was seventeen, resulting in my current…predicament.” She paused in her pacing to smile at them, a bitter little expression quite unlike her previous grinning. “There are places in the world that are just like that, and no explanation for it, except maybe from the gods.”

“The gods are rarely eager to explain themselves,” Shaeine noted.

“This one’s got a good head on her shoulders,” Malivette said approvingly, pointing at the drow. “However, matters around Veilgrad have taken a rather abrupt turn for the menacing and mysterious in the space of the last few months. Hard to say when it started—I don’t get out much, as you can imagine—but I do pay a modicum of attention to what happens in my city, and things are beginning to unravel.”

“How so?” Toby asked. He had picked up a cookie but so far was just holding it. None of them were particularly hungry.

“The crux of the problem,” Malivette said, turning to frown into the fire, “is that the problem remains a mystery. It’s as if dozens of smaller things are just…cropping up. Whatever lives in the mountains is growing agitated, and aggressive; we hear howling nearly every night, lately, and people are starting to go missing from the forest with alarming regularity. Cults are springing up at an astonishing rate—there have been five in the last four months.”

“Cults?” Shaeine asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Little ones,” said the vampire. “Usually the Church and the Empire ignore such things. A few people wearing silly robes, sharing a clubhouse and a secret handshake; they only become troublesome when they start to gain people and prove they have a genuine deity.”

“Because,” Trissiny added, “in almost all cases the ‘deity’ in question turns out to be a demon or powerful fairy.”

“Exactly,” Malivette said, nodding. “But these…are chaos cults.”

“Wait…what?” Toby frowned. “Who worships chaos?”

“Morons,” the vampire said, turning to grin at him. “Which is why it’s very strange that so many keep arising. All joking aside, most of the population anywhere has more sense and self-preservation than that. Worse, every one of these has managed to perform some manner of necromancy before being shut down. I’m sure I needn’t tell you how inconvenient this all is for me. Guess who gets a visit from the Imps every time a necromancer so much as farts anywhere in the province?”

“How very sad for you,” Trissiny said flatly.

“It’s a great tragedy,” Malivette said solemnly. “Also, you know, the grave robbing and assaults. Those are inconvenient. Let’s see, aside from that… The Shadow Hunters have been getting more active. Usually they rear their heads three or four times a year, and never do more than prance around being arrogant. Lately, though, they keep turning up in town, and they’ve developed a bad habit of picking fights with the local Huntsmen.”

“Wait, what are Shadow Hunters?” Juniper asked.

“It’s some Shaathist offshoot sect,” Malivette said with a shrug. “Their doctrine of over my head and beyond my interest. All I know is they dislike the real Huntsmen, and vice versa. There’s been a dramatic rise in crimes of all kinds, everything from shoplifting to outright murder—it’s gotten so most people aren’t willing to leave their houses after dark. No unifying factor seems to be behind it. It’s just… Something has got its grip on Veilgrad. It’s growing worse, and it needs to be stopped.”

“So…how come you don’t stop it?” Ruda asked. “No offense, but you’re a pretty damn scary kind of a thing yourself. It’s hard to imagine any creepy crawly that’d be willing to take you on.”

“But that’s just it,” Trissiny said quietly. “There has to be fear and unrest already, with all this going on. If people know there’s a vampire living in the hills…”

“Hit the nail on the head,” Malivette said ruefully. “I’ve already have two honest-to-gods mobs show up at my gates. Torches, pitchforks, the works. Unfortunately, to make them go away I had to demonstrate exactly why none of that was in any way threatening to me, which has not improved my reputation. People are already lining up to blame me for the deteriorating state of things; if I throw my weight around any further, someone with the power to do something about it may decide to. And a scary thing I may be, but I find myself at a stark disadvantage against certain…kinds of foes.”

“Yeah,” Ruda said pointedly, “you seemed real alarmed by the prospect of meeting Gabe Arquin.”

“Yup,” the vampire said, nodding. “Him, and other things. I am really trying my best not to make any waves. If whatever is behind these problems rears up, believe me, I’ll be on it like a hawk. With it being in the shadows, though, I cannot afford to swagger around being all creepy and dangerous.”

“This is…a very strange pattern,” Trissiny said, frowning. “I know of several things that can have that effect…”

“Fairy magic can be used for emotional manipulation pretty easily,” Toby said, nodding, “and general infernal corruption makes people more aggressive. People, animals, whatever’s nearby. Those leave signs, though.”

Trissiny nodded. “If it were either of those…any method powerful enough to affect an entire city would create distinct traces. It would be easy to track.”

“And so, you know your problem,” Rafe proclaimed. “I’ve no doubt you kids can smack down any ugly that rears its head—you’ve just got to get it to rear before you can make with the smacking.”

“Bloody hell,” Ruda muttered. “It’s like Sarasio to the tenth power.”

“Should I have any idea what that means?” Malivette asked.

“What are our assets?” Trissiny asked. “Allies, potential positive forces we can work with?”

“Ah, yes, that’s a good question,” the vampire replied. “I’d recommend meeting with the local powers that be before you try doing anything, otherwise you’re likely to just cheese them off. Well, the local Universal Church chapter is kind of a non-issue; for whatever reason, they’ve responded to these events by vigorously backing down. Closing their facilities, moving personnel away… They’ve got what’s actually one of the Church’s oldest chapels in the city, but there are only a couple of parsons in residence, now, and they don’t even hold services most weeks.”

“That is very peculiar,” Toby commented, frowning in consternation.

“There’s also an Omnist temple,” Malivette continued. “I guess you of all people are in a good position to have a sit-down with them. Local worship is split pretty evenly between Omnu and Shaath. You’ll probably want to have a talk with the Huntsmen down at the lodge. They know more than anyone about what’s lurking in the hills and forests.”

Trissiny sighed heavily.

“There’s also the Empire,” Malivette said. “They’ve been responding to these problems by increasing their presence, opposite what the Church has done, but so far they’re being subtle about it. The local constabulary has been supplemented by Imperial Army patrols, which has helped matters, but they’re not leveraging their serious assets. And they’ve got assets. I know for a fact there’s at least one strike team stationed in Veilgrad as of last month.”

“They probably already know we’re here, then,” Ruda commented. “Tellwyrn wouldn’t send Juniper into a city of this size without notifying the Empire and getting the security arranged.”

“It’s not just the size,” said Teal. “Veilgrad has enormous historical significance; it was the first Tiraan conquest in the Stalrange, and the main staging area for the armies that took the rest of the region. It also does a lot of business. Mining, logging, furs, cattle ranching… Wow. The kinds of troubles you’re describing would shut a lot of those down.”

“They have,” Malivette said, nodding. “Lumberjacks and cowboys and miners have started refusing to go out and jack, cow and mine, now that more than a few of each have up and vanished. The economy is faltering, and that is adding all kinds of pressure to the mix.”

“This is definitely no Sarasio, then,” said Shaeine. “The Empire is already here, and watching; they cannot afford to lose the city, to anything. That could both raise the stakes and grant us some leeway, depending on how matters unfold.”

“There’s one other person you should visit before you do anything else,” Malivette said, grinning again. “The sort-of lord who quasi-administers the city and surrounding area. He’s in…an interesting position, legally. You won’t get far without his help, but his actual power is considerably less than most Imperial aristocrats have. It’s complicated; I should probably let him explain things himself.”

“What sort of man is this?” Trissiny asked.

“Oh, he’s a swell guy, you’ll love him,” the vampire said gaily. “And a great host! Or at least I hope so. He’s putting up your friend Gabriel, after all.”

There was a moment of silence, punctuated only by the crackling flames.

“Oh, gods,” Ruda groaned. “You mean, this whole time, Gabriel’s been talking with the guy in charge of the town? We’ll all be tarred and feathered by sundown.”

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