Tag Archives: Jade

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“You can make an elemental of anything, really,” Schwartz explained with the reedy enthusiasm of an intellectual holding forth on his topic of special interest. “For starters, they come in the basic elements I’m sure you’ve heard of: fire, water, air, earth. But you almost have to add some structure to them, otherwise… Well, they don’t do much except, um…burn, be wet, sit there… I mean, elementals in their pure state are really the most extraordinarily laid-back creatures—all they want to do is just be one with the elements! Meesie, here, is a fire elemental, as you may have guessed.”

He held up one hand, and the little red weasel-rat darted down his arm as if on command to sit upright on his palm, twitching her whiskers at the audience. The surrounding elves leaned forward obligingly, which was a purely social gesture, considering they could probably see individual strands of the creature’s fur.

“So…that was a formless spirit,” Basra said skeptically, “and it looks like that because…you decided it should?”

“I think she’s cute,” Covrin remarked. Basra pointedly did not acknowledge that asinine comment.

“Thank you!” Schwartz beamed. “Yes, she is cute, isn’t she? A good companion as well as a useful familiar. But yes, your Grace, an elemental’s form is the creation of its summoner. Like those we saw earlier! Most impressive—two forms, bear and dog, and that most intriguing shade of blue flame, with the orange bits as flourish! Points for style!”

He grinned broadly at Adimel, the elvish shaman who had led the group sent to intercept them; the shaman smiled back, more reservedly but apparently sincerely, and nodded in acknowledgement.

“But yes, anyway,” Schwartz continued, “beyond form, there’s…well, you can alter the substance of an elemental. It’s not just will and mathematics like arcane magic—in truth, it’s more like magical chemistry, or alchemy. Turning one substance into another substance is a matter of making it interact with other substances until you get the one you wanted as a result. It can be quite complex! Why, my friend Aislen made this sort of dual-substance earth elemental, all white marble, but with silver joints for flexibility! Remarkable work, she still has it back at the temple. Very good for heavy lifting. Oh, and the things you can do with air elementals! Air is tricky to work with, but for purely practical reasons; in terms of its magical resonances it operates actually quite predictably and simply, and that means you can make an elemental spirit of virtually any gaseous substance you can imagine! Well, I mean, virtually. Hah, back in my apprentice days, I recall the lads and I got this idea from sniffing whiskey fumes—you see, we’d just been reading about a vodka elemental that got summoned in the Imperial Palace once…”

Basra did not lunge across the fire and throttle him. People were watching.

“And shadow elementals?” she said patiently.

Equidistant between them around the fire pit, Elder Linsheh gave her a look accompanied by a conspirational little smile of amusement.

Basra forced herself to mirror it perfectly. Ha ha, look at the time-wasting nincompoop boy, what a funny joke they were sharing. Trying to throttle the elf was an even worse idea. Also, it wouldn’t work.

“Shadow, yes, right. Shadow.” It took an almost visible effort for Schwartz to gather his focus. “Yes, well… I was speaking of how you can indulge your creativity in shaping elementals. Why, if you know your physics and chemistry and have a good handle on the principles of sympathetic magic, the sky’s the limit! But, yes, back on point… There are certain standards, some basic forms that everyone can do because they are well-known, documented, and widely used. Ranging from your very basic dust devils that students create for exercises to some extremely complex entities. The shadow elemental is one of those. It’s… Hmm, how to put it… I suppose you could consider it the elemental counterpart to a Vanislaad demon.”

“A Vanislaad?” Basra exclaimed, increasingly sure that this dithering fool hadn’t the faintest idea what he was talking about.

“Perhaps, Mr. Schwartz, you wouldn’t mind if I interjected?” Elder Linsheh said mildly.

“Oh!” Schwartz blinked at the Elder. “Oh, I mean, of course, ma’am, my apologies… I mean, that is, obviously this is your home and I’m sure you know far more than I about—well, I should expect almost everything!”

“Thank you,” the Elder said with a smile before turning back to Basra. “I wouldn’t consider constructs of that nature comparable to a child of Vanislaas in capability, but there are parallels in purpose. Shadow elementals have a number of useful traits that were not displayed during your encounter. They can assume any form, though their ability to mimic people persuasively is limited—they are not actually highly intelligent. In addition to the shape-changing, they can also be invisible, and not merely conventionally so; they have a gift for evading magical wards and senses, as well. However, as you discovered, they are very weak in combat. Those false shadowbolts, like the infernal originals, cause pain and numbness, but unlike the real thing can do no serious damage, and they are its only weapon.”

“It had claws,” Basra pointed out.

“Yes,” Linsheh agreed, nodding. “But those were protrusions of the same kind of energy.”

Basra frowned. “You describe this as…basically a scouting servitor. Useful for espionage, not combat.”

“Precisely.”

“But…it charged right at us. Quite aggressively.”

Elder Linsheh glanced at Adimel, who looked grave, before turning back to Basra and nodding again. “So I understand. And that, Bishop Syrinx, adds a troubling new dimension to this matter.”

“The creation of a shadow elemental is not a simple task,” said Adimel. “It requires reagents and resources in considerable quantities and of great rarity to perform the crafting. The power needed is also well beyond what the average witch would willingly devote to the creation of a servant. The relatively few human witches who possess such things treasure them greatly, and would not risk one in an open confrontation such as we saw today.”

“Human witches?” she said, raising an eyebrow.

“I would like to say that elves to not work such craft,” he said with a distasteful grimace, “but in truth, all I could tell you in certainty is that no one in our grove does. I would think it unlikely that any wood elf would do so. The means necessary to create a shadow elemental… Well. Your Mr. Schwartz could probably elaborate, later, if you are truly curious.”

Schwartz wrinkled his nose. “Yeah, that was troubling me as well. I really can’t picture the average elf doing such a thing.”

“The average wood elf,” Linsheh clarified. “Our nomadic cousins on the plains are more pragmatic in many respects…but that poses its own counterpoints. They rarely find the resources, nor the time spent in one place, necessary for such a working.”

“Also, there are no plains elves here,” Covrin pointed out.

“Indeed,” Adimel said gravely. “They have avoided Imperial territory most assiduously since word of the Cobalt Dawn’s disaster spread. It has been years since I have seen any this far south.”

“Not humans and not elves,” Basra said, drumming her fingers on her thigh. “What does that leave?”

“We have only ruled out the possibility of these cultures, in any organized fashion, doing such a thing,” Linsheh said.. “Individuals are just that. I believe, based on the evidence, that our culprit is a lone individual, and apparently one separated from her or his people. Moreover, it is someone dangerous, and extremely powerful.”

“Well, that sort of goes without saying, doesn’t it?” Schwartz remarked.

“Not just powerful magically,” said Basra, glancing at him. “What we faced today wasn’t an attack—it was a message. The person behind that elemental was making it plain that they can squander rare, valuable servants on tasks not suited to them just to make a point.”

“And,” Covrin said quietly, “that they know who we are and what we’re doing, almost as soon as we started doing it. The story hasn’t even had time to spread.”

“Unless that Mr. Hargrave was behind it,” Schwartz mused.

“I find that hard to credit,” said Elder Linsheh. “Hamelin Hargrave is known to us—he is without apparent malice, and too invested in the society of Viridill to disrupt it in this manner.”

“The drow,” Covrin said suddenly. “The entrance to Tar’naris is in Viridill.”

Linsheh shook her head. “For many thousands of years, the Narisians made convenient specters to blame whenever something mysterious befell this land. No more, though. Now, they are more closely tied to the Empire than we. And Queen Arkasia has no sense of humor toward those who disrupt her dealings.”

“Besides,” Adimel added, “they don’t practice the fae arts.”

“Don’t,” Covrin said pointedly, “or can’t?”

“Don’t,” he replied, nodding to her with a smile. “Narisians field Themynrite priestesses and the very occasional mage. They abhor warlocks as Scyllithene monsters, and disdain the way of the shaman for its association with us. It is just like the human witches, or the other elves. This could be a Narisian drow, for all we know. Or anyone else. But Tar’naris is no more behind this than our grove, or a plains tribe, or the loose collective of witches in Viridill.”

“And now we are exactly where we were to begin with,” Basra said, staring into the fire. “Speculating.”

A silence fell, each of them occupied with their own thoughts.

Until the conversation had turned to business, it had been a quite pleasant lunch. The hospitality of the grove could not be criticized; they’d been fed well with fresh fruit and game in an outdoor meeting space between three massive trees festooned with rope bridges and snug little treehouses. Ostensibly the entire circle of this grove’s Elders had come to meet with them, but only Elder Linsheh had actually participated in the discussion. That was standard; elves preferred to keep themselves aloof, designating specific individuals to interface with visitors on behalf of the tribe. Basra had never had occasion to visit a grove before, but she had been well briefed on their habits. What was known of their habits, anyway.

“Well,” said Schwartz at last, “it seems to me we’ve made a little progress. We know whoever is behind the elemental attacks is aware of and targeting us, and has tremendous assets they can afford to throw away!” He seemed to wilt, shrinking inward and wrapping his arms around himself; Meesie clambered up onto his shoulder, patting his cheek and squeaking in concern. “So…not encouraging progress. But it’s not nothing.”

“Hargrave,” said Basra, “mentioned that his own attempts to track this lead toward Athan’Khar.”

Adimel’s expression grew even grimmer. Linsheh sighed, shaking her head.

“This is not characteristic of an eldei alai’shi,” she said. “However… If it happened that one could drum up enough restraint, it is not impossible. One of those could have the means. At issue is that they never last long enough to enact such complex plans, nor have they the evenness of mind for such subtlety. They are mad, and swiftly destroy themselves in their desire to destroy their enemies.”

“Do you know of any currently active, though? Basra demanded.

Again, Linsheh shook her head. “Our grove was visited by two some years ago, bringing us refugees from the plains. Those we took in, but we did not allow the headhunters to linger.”

“Two?” Covrin exclaimed in horror.

“Most unusual,” Linsheh mused. “But as I said, that has been several years. They are undoubtedly dead by now.”

“I say,” Schwartz protested. “I don’t recall hearing about two headhunters being killed!”

“Nor would you,” Adimel said wryly, “nor would we. The Empire officially denies that they exist—as it does with almost everything pertaining to Athan’Khar. Eldei alai’shi are dealt with by strike teams, usually at the cost of several lives, and the matter is then firmly covered by Imperial Intelligence, who are wise enough to muddy the waters with conflicting rumors rather than trying to squash rumors. If you went looking for headhunters, all you would find would be Imperial spies very curious what you were up to.”

“I am glad to see Abbess Darnassy responding to this,” Linsheh said, gazing at Basra, “and taking it seriously enough to have sent you, your Grace, as well as help from the College.” She nodded to Schwartz, who grinned back. “I hope that the Sisterhood will continue to remain in contact. For now, I fear we have little to offer you directly, but I want it clearly understood that the grove stands behind you in this. It affects us directly to have fae casters assaulting Avei’s faithful, to say nothing of the harm to bystanders.”

“We have seen events like this spiral out of hand before,” Adimel added. “Let it be known from the outset that the elves of this tribe condemn any action against the people of Viridill.”

“If, as the situation develops, we can aid you directly, you need only ask,” said Linsheh. “The most direct assistance I can offer is help in pacifying or controlling elemental attacks, but we lack the numbers to patrol Viridill. That task is better suited to the Legions. If you can find a more specific target, however, we shall be glad to help.”

“I’ll make sure to tell the Abbess that your grove is behind us,” Basra said evenly, then stood, the elves following suit. Schwartz and Covrin were the last to rise, she a little stiffly in her armor, he nearly falling over in the process. “For now, I must thank you for your hospitality and be off. You’ve helped me determine my next move.”

“What will you do?” Adimel inquired.

“Well,” Basra said with a cold smile, “it seems that our mysterious elementalist is aware of, and targeting, our little group. That means we know who he’s going after next. All that remains is to place his target, us, in a location of my choosing…and wait.”

“Oh, now, I’m not so sure I like the sound of that,” Schwartz said nervously. “You’re… You want to use us—all of us—as bait?”

“We are the bait and the trap,” Basra replied, then paused and eyed him up and down. “Well. Some more than others.”


 

“Well, dunno how useful that was,” Joe mused, “but it sure was a more pleasant way to pass the time than I’d expected. Shame he couldn’t tell us any more about what the University gang did…”

“I am amazed that the de factor ruler of this province would make time to sit down to a meal with three vagabonds who just showed up at his door,” Ingvar said.

Joe chuckled. “It makes a difference when one of the vagabonds in question is a Bishop of the Universal Church an’ former cult leader.”

Ingvar glanced skeptically at Darling, who was still in a suit that looked like it was serving the latest of three color-blind owners. The thief glanced back, grinning.

“Then again,” said Darling, “it was lunch. Taking the man out of an actual meeting was out of the question, but people are inclined to be hospitable if you catch them sitting down to eat. Or at least, those who’re inclined to be hospitable anyway. The others may throw crockery at you.”

“You did that on purpose?” Ingvar said disapprovingly. “It’s hardly kind to interrupt a man’s meal.”

Darling shrugged, looking exactly as repentant as Ingvar would have expected, which involved a singularly relaxed smile and an insouciant spring in his step. “I figured the odds were about fifty-fifty he’d take a message and send word to our inn about an appointment tomorrow. Besides, that wasn’t the only piece of timing I’m working on. We’ll want to be into the afternoon when we approach Lady Malivette.”

“The vampire,” Ingvar muttered, still scarcely willing to believe it.

“Why afternoon?” Joe asked, frowning.

“It’s a socially acceptable hour for unexpected visits,” said Darling. “And with dark coming on, it makes it clear we’re not hostile. Visiting a vampire in the morning is a cautious move, shows you don’t want to be near her except when her powers are inhibited.”

“I do not want to be near her except when her powers are inhibited,” Ingvar growled.

“Malivette Dufresne is a thoroughly civilized individual who’s had a hell of a hard life,” Darling said calmly, turning a corner. “She’s lived up there for years, harming no one—even when she had ample reason to, such as when some of the locals tried to mob her house not too long ago. That pretty much tells you what you need to know.”

“What I need to know is how hungry she is!”

“The story being put around,” said Darling quietly, eyes on the street ahead, “was that the vampire who attacked and turned her slaughtered her family at the same time. That would be…uncharacteristic, however. Turning someone is a process, and for whatever reason, they rarely feed too close to it. However… A vampire newly turned almost always awakens in such a mad state of hunger that they’re little more than animals. They will kill and drain anyone, anything, they can get their hands on, until sated.” He let the silence stretch out for a long moment. Ingvar swallowed heavily and glanced over at Joe, who looked pale and shocked. “Make no mistake, lads,” Darling continued finally, “we are going to visit a monster. But she’s a monster who’s managed to be a decent person under pressures we could hardly imagine, which frankly makes her a better person than we can claim to be. And who does not need any more stress from the likes of us. So when we get there, if she has time to chat with us, you be respectful, and be kind.”

“Won’t be a problem,” Joe said quickly. “I’m gettin’ good practice at addressing high-born ladies, I believe.”

“You are unlikely to receive the same reception as at Grusser’s residence,” Ingvar noted with the ghost of a smile. “Miss Feathership clearly has a gnome’s priorities; a vampire will be much less smitten with the legend of the Sarasio Kid.”

“It was one autograph,” Joe muttered, hunching in his coat. “She was so excited… What was I supposed to do?”

“Sometimes,” Darling said solemnly, “you’ve gotta bite the belt and give your traveling companions an anecdote to hold over your head for weeks. Here we are, Volk Street.”

He made another right turn and continued a few more paces before slowing to a stop. Up ahead were the open side gates to the city, a much smaller aperture than the front one through which they had entered. This street was all but deserted; the road here was lined with houses, not businesses, and past the gate led to only one destination. The road continued onward and upward, winding back and forth deep into the forested hills. More than a mile distant, visible above the towering city wall, were the gabled roofs of what had to be Dufresne Manor.

“Not too late to reconsider that carriage,” Darling remarked. “Just sayin’.”

Ingvar sighed and stepped past him. “Let’s just go. I feel more comfortable trusting my own feet.”

“Yours aren’t the only pair of feet at stake here!” Darling protested. Joe passed him, grinning, and the Bishop finally sighed dramatically and trudged along after them.

They had passed a good fifty yards up the street, nearing the gate, when three more men rounded the same corner behind them in silence. All three were bearded, dressed in rugged leathers, and armed with hunting knives, tomahawks and bows. The trio, an older man with gray in his beard flanked by two younger ones, strode forward on silent moccasins, eyes fixed on the diminishing party up ahead.

“Ahem.”

The Huntsman halted abruptly, whirling to face the alley whose mouth they were passing. Just inside, incongruously in that setting, stood two strikingly lovely young women in extravagant evening gowns, one in green, one blue.

The woman in green smiled and wagged a finger at them. “Uh uh.”

Both the younger Huntsmen glowered; one took a menacing step toward the women.

The elder held out an arm to block him, turning his head to give him a very flat stare. They locked eyes for a long second, then finally, the younger man snorted softly and stepped back. His elder turned back to the women and bowed politely.

“Ladies,” he rumbled, then turned on his heel and walked back the way they had come. The other two paused to stare at the women a moment longer, one eying them up and down approvingly, before following.

“Creeps,” Sapphire muttered. “Still. They were downright heroic during the battle. Do you think we should have warned them? Considering who they’re stalking…”

“We don’t know who they’re stalking,” Jade countered. “With the exception of Sweet. He’s the one Vette was warned about. Any thoughts about the other two?”

Sapphire shrugged, stepping forward to lean out of the alley. Both groups of men were out of sight now, the Huntsmen back around the corner, the travelers beyond the gate. “Some rich kid who thinks he’s a wandfighter, and… I could swear that was a woman dressed as a Huntsman of Shaath. Which, I suppose, would explain what set those three off. I’m looking forward to learning what their story is.”

Jade shook her head. “And that’s the point: we don’t know the story. Come on, we’ll see what Lars and Eleny have to say. And we will definitely wait to hear Vette’s opinion before acting.”

She stepped out into the street, Sapphire falling into step beside her, and they followed after the departing Huntsmen toward the center of the city and Lars Grusser’s home and office.

“I suspect they’re bringing trouble, whoever they are,” Sapphire murmured.

Jade laughed. “Saff, honey, that’s Sweet. He was Boss of the Guild for years. They’re not bringing trouble; trouble’s bringing them.”

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The first secret passage was in the upstairs hallway, behind a grandfather clock. The door itself was a pretty tight squeeze for most of them—especially Trissiny, who despite being slimmer than most found her armor ill-suited to cramped spaces—and the dark spiraling stairwell behind it not much better.

It opened at the bottom, after enough turns to be well below ground level, onto some sort of makeshift museum. The long basement room was illuminated by dim fairy lamps which cast it into a maze of shadows, many of its contents reduced to blurs. They could see a variety of statuary, though, as well as several racks of armor, weapons and tapestries hung on the walls, a few bookcases and multiple free-standing displays, showing an assortment of objects on cushions behind glass. Malivette glided straight through this, not giving them time to examine anything, and opened the second secret passage. This was behind a tapestry, and involved pressing a certain brick to cause the wall behind it to swing inward with a coarse rasp of stone on stone.

“You are extending a great deal of trust,” Shaeine observed as they followed the vampire into the dark passage beyond. “I would never have expected to be shown the secrets of your manor in this fashion. Particularly after we intruded upon you so abruptly.”

“There, you see?” Malivette said, grinning over her shoulder at Trissiny. “That is how you express suspicion politely. The prospect that I’m leading you into a dark hole to murder you all is obliquely touched upon without hurting my feelings.”

“You’re not going to murder us,” Trissiny said flatly. “We may or may not be a match for you, but nothing you do will substantially harm Juniper or Vadrieny. Or, possibly, the rest of us. Speaking of discussing things obliquely, I assumed it didn’t need to be said that nobody here wanted to start an unwinnable fight.”

“There are fights, and then there are fights,” Malivette mused, turning her head back to face the darkness before them. The passageway was long and slowly spiraled downward, illuminated only by magical lights spaced so widely that they were just barely within sight of each other around the curve. They weren’t modern fairy lamps, but classical magefire torches: blue, silent and emitting no heat. “You think I’m afraid to die? I’d regret abandoning my girls, but…existence isn’t such a great deal in my circumstances. It’s how one dies that one should consider. You know how Professor Tellwyrn convinced me to come out of my house and attend the University?”

“We weren’t told the story,” Toby said after the silence began to stretch out.

“We made a deal,” said their hostess. “She hunted down the vampire who attacked my family and turned me, and brought me his head. I was almost offended at how quickly she managed it; I’d devoted every effort to the task myself, and nothing. Took her two days. Hmph.”

“Well, that’s…interesting,” said Fross. “You’re probably the only University initiate who was enrolled in exchange for a killing.”

“I’m not prepared to assume that,” Teal muttered.

“Oh, she didn’t kill him,” Malivette said softly.

“Uh…wait, you said she brought his head?” Toby asked hesitantly. “Isn’t that…how you kill a vampire?”

“You have to destroy the head,” Trissiny said, staring at Malivette’s slender back.

“I have him in a jar,” the vampire said cheerfully. “Actually, in the relic room we just passed through. He’s thinking about what he did.”

“Oh, I see,” Fross said thoughtfully. “That’s extravagantly horrible.”

Teal swallowed heavily.

“The point being,” Malivette continued in the same bright tone, “no one who has any idea what they’re doing starts a fight with Tellwyrn. That means not assaulting her students. I assure you, goslings, you are perfectly safe with me. I flatter myself that I am rather an effective menace in my own right—perhaps comparable to your class, come to think of it. I won’t let any harm come to you. That’s a promise. If you don’t believe it, though, believe I know who Professor Tellwyrn is and I don’t want her coming after my head.”

“Fair enough, I suppose,” Trissiny murmured.

Malivette glanced back at her again, smiling in amusement. Her eyes gleamed faintly in the dimness—not lit from within, but reflecting more light than seemed normal, yet without the off-color sheen of a cat’s. “I assume you kids have seen this before. She gets rather aggressive around demons or undead or the like, yes?”

“Ah,” Teal said carefully, “how to put this diplomatically…”

“Yes,” said Shaeine.

The vampire chuckled. “Have you bothered to explain the instinct to them, Trissiny?”

“What’s to explain?” she snapped.

Malivette’s expression grew more thoughtful. “You’ve never… Has anyone explained it to you?”

“Again, what’s to explain? I’m a paladin. It’s my calling to seek out and destroy evil.”

“You’re a paladin of Avei,” Malivette corrected. “You’ll find the Hands of Omnu, Salyrene and others mostly have a more defensive mindset. It’s not just doctrine, Trissiny. Did the Sisters truly never tell you about this? You have instincts. You are a predator. In the presence of the unnatural, you’ll be driven to strike. We’re a lot alike, you and I.”

“What?”

“You’re compelled to hunt and destroy monsters,” Malivette murmured. “I, to hunt and consume people. We both restrain ourselves for a similar blend of ethical and practical reasons. It’s a lonely life, one even the people closest to you will never truly understand. You’ll always have that empty place inside you, the craving, the need for self-control. I can relate to you a lot more than you may be willing to believe.”

“I don’t… You’re talking nonsense,” Trissiny said, though her voice was less certain than her words. “There’s no reason to reach for some metaphysical justification. I have the training…”

“And the indoctrination!” Fross chimed.

“And the personality,” Juniper added.

“Let me ask you this, then,” said Malivette. “What were you like before being called? Would you have described yourself as an aggressive person?”

Silence fell over the group as they descended, and weighed down ever more heavily the longer it stretched out. Malivette kept her back to them, leading the way down into darkness; Trissiny stared blankly ahead, her brow furrowed.

“I can’t imagine any reason the Sisters would have deliberately failed to tell you what you need to know about your calling,” the vampire murmured at last. “Perhaps they don’t remember. There was a long gap between paladins, and they’d been dwindling for many years before that. Even as mortals accumulate knowledge across generations, things do slip through the cracks of memory, and the gods are powerfully disinclined to explain themselves, even to their faithful.”

“Have…you ever heard of the Silver Huntresses?” Trissiny asked quietly.

Malivette glanced back at her. “I’ve read about the Silver Huntresses. I think it has been a very long time since anyone heard about them. Ah, here we are.”

Indeed, the spiraling corridor ended abruptly in a flat wall, in which was set a heavy door of undressed oak timbers bound in thick bands of iron. Malivette produced a key apparently out of her sleeve and unlocked it, then tugged the door open and turned to wink at them.

“Mind your feet, my dears. The first step’s a doozy.”

So saying, she darted through, leaving them to follow more carefully.

The room below was cavernous, large enough to swallow the average village church. Despite being cut into perfectly rectangular dimensions, it had clearly been carved out of the living stone of the mountain. In a few places, uneven sections of the wall where natural fissures existed were filled in with neatly mortared stonework. Brilliant fairy lamps lined the walls, casting the space in gleaming brightness. Beyond that, the room’s features were exceedingly peculiar.

The door stood at least a story off the ground, with a brief metal platform extending into space and a chain-link ladder hanging from it to the floor. Suspended from the ceiling were half a dozen large tanks, held in place by enormous bands of steel bolted securely into the rock above. Most interestingly, there was a pattern of metal set into the floor, forming three concentric rectangles on the ground. The room outside them was empty; in the center sat what appeared to be a very elaborate alchemy lab, with cages filled with squeaking rats and barrels and crates of storage off to one side.

“Welcome to my little science project!” Malivette said proudly, throwing wide her arms in a gesture reminiscent of Professor Rafe. She barely waited until they had all descended the ladder before setting off for the lab in the middle of the room. “I will have to insist that you remain outside the yellow lines, both for operational security and your own safety ow ow ow!”

As the vampire stepped across the first band of gold in the floor, steam erupted from her skin and she cringed in apparent pain. Despite this, she continued on over the next two.

“Three barriers might ow ow ow seem excessive, but once I’ve explained ow ow ow what we’re doing down here, I think you’ll agree that too way much security is probably the right amount. You see, those bands of gold in the floor form divine barriers calibrated specifically to destroy undead. Now, I’m not much harmed by them for the same basic reason Juniper wouldn’t be much weakened—I’m a very high class of undead. But they suffice as security for what we’ve got in here. There’s more, too! See those tanks?”

Mutely, they craned their necks back to follow her pointing finger, studying the tanks bolted to the ceiling. “Those are part of a failsafe—they are filled with holy water! If one of our experimental subjects escapes—even just one—they’ll burst and flood the whole room.”

“Um, should you be standing there, then?” Juniper asked nervously.

Malivette waved a hand airily. “They’re very unlikely to misfire, and anyway, I believe I’ve already mentioned my thoughts on my own death. There are also metal plates set into the walls all around this room on all sides. Teleported directly into the living stone! The enchantments on them provide a variety of extra barriers, as well as the detection spells that keep the security measures in here functioning correctly, and others that will notify my Imperial sponsors if something truly bad happens down here.”

“This…is sponsored by the Empire?” Trissiny asked, slowly peering around.

“Well, of course! Do you know how much all this cost?” Malivette grinned, pointing at the metal bands in the floor. “That’s gold. I mean, I’ve got family money and some existing business interests, but come on. It takes a government to just drop this kind of cash into a research project that may or may not bear fruit. House Madouri could do it; House Dufresne has to be a great deal more conservative.”

“What are you doing, precisely?” Shaeine inquired, studying the alchemy lab.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Fross chimed. “She’s researching a cure for vampirism!”

“Well done!” Malivette crowed. “They said you were a smart pixie!”

“Aw, shucks.”

“That explains the necromantic materials,” Trissiny said slowly.

“Indeed!” Malivette preened, crossing over to the cages. “To cure a disease, you need test subjects, and the use of animals for experiments is established protocol. So of course, the tricky part is creating a safe environment in which to do the research. In this case, that means an environment guaranteed to destroy the test subjects if they even think too hard about getting out. Obviously, letting rats carrying the vampire curse loose is an absolutely unacceptable prospect, so security must be absolute.” She unfastened a cage, reached inside and pulled out a squirming, squealing rat. “Like so.”

The vampire hurled the creature directly at them. As one the group shied back, Trissiny’s aura flaring alight, but the rat never reached them. It burst into flames as it crossed over the first of the lines in the floor; by the time it reached the air above the third, there weren’t even ashes left.

They slowly eased back, staring at Malivette, who stood beaming proudly over her lab.

“How did you figure out she was studying a cure, Fross?” Toby asked after a long moment.

“Well, I mean, it’s obvious she was researching necromancy, and it’s not like the Empire would support her in making more vampires. Or worse ones.”

“Oh, yes they would,” Malivette said in a much grimmer tone. “The hardest part of getting all this set up was arranging it so that I had loopholes around Imperial security. So that I could share the results of my research without getting charged with high treason. Well, they may charge me anyway, but I’ve got the best lawyers in existence; it won’t even go to trial.”

“Why would the Empire want to keep this secret?” Teal asked. “If you could cure vampirism…that’d be fantastic news. For everyone!”

“Governments,” Shaeine said quietly, “want power.”

“Bingo.” Malivette pointed at the drow. “If you could make a vampire, then unmake it… If you could effectively make temporary vampires, why, as long as you held a monopoly on that power, you would have the best soldiers, the best agents in existence. Vampires in our native state are apex predators; governments have tried to control my kind before, with disastrous results. Imagine what a caged lion would do to its captors if it could bend steel, turn to mist, tear people in half bare-handed…” She stopped, drew in a deep breath and let it out, visibly composing herself. “Well. I consider myself as patriotic as the next accursed social pariah in a position of unmerited political power, but with all respect to his Majesty, no government needs that kind of power. What the world needs to to be free of vampires, permanently. Finding a cure and spreading it to the four winds…that is my life’s work. Unlife. Whatever.”

“I’m sorry,” Trissiny said quietly. “I…misjudged you. Badly.”

“No, you didn’t,” Malivette said kindly. “To misjudge someone, Trissiny, you have to exercise judgment, and you didn’t quite get to that step. Those instincts of yours will serve you well, provided you keep them firmly under control. Work on that, kiddo. In any case, apology accepted.”

Toby laughed suddenly, then looked sheepish when they all turned to stare incredulously at them. “Ah…sorry, I just had a random thought. The nobility in this town is really fond of building divine prisons in their basements.”


 

Outside the embassy, Bishop Shahai surprised them by hailing a cab.

“To the Temple of Avei, please,” she said politely to the uncertain-looking cabbie as Principia and the rest of the squad filed into the vehicle.

“Ah…beggin’ yer pardon, ma’am,” he said respectfully, “but this carriage is only barely meant to seat six passengers, and not designed with armored troops in mind. It’s, er, gonna be a slowish trip. If I strain the charms…”

“That’s quite all right,” Shahai said kindly. “We are not in a rush.”

She climbed in last, and turned to slide shut the window separating the interior from the cabbie’s seat up front, gently enough to avoid the semblance of slamming it in his face. Almost immediately, the vehicle started moving. True to the driver’s word, it didn’t go as fast as the surrounding traffic (to the audible annoyance of other drivers), and there was a subtle, gravelly undertone to the low arcane hum that sounded from its wheel enchantments.

“Sergeant,” said Shahai, “I understand you are an enchanter?”

“Of quite minimal skill, ma’am.”

“Are you able to lay a silencing spell on the windows of this vehicle?”

Principia frowned pensively. “Not a strong one, not without enchanting dusts and some tools… I could make one that works partially for several hours or one that works well for a few minutes.”

“A few minutes should suffice; I would prefer greater security.”

“Do you need quiet, your Grace, or just don’t want to be overheard? Or both?”

Shahai tilted her head. “It matters?”

“Somewhat. A simple spell can block sound going one way; it’s not much more complicated to block it both ways, but there’s no point in wasting the energy if you don’t need to.”

“Ah. Then no, arrange it so we will not be overheard. In fact, I would prefer to be able to hear what goes on outside.”

“On it,” said Principia, leaning forward to press her palm against the window. She closed her eyes and fell still.

“Y’know, Sarge,” Merry commented when Principia turned to repeat the procedure on one of the side doors, “for as long as you’ve lived, I’m surprised you have only minimal competence at…well, anything.”

“It’s all about motivation, Lang,” Principia replied a moment later as she crossed to do the opposite door. “Arcane magic is practically taboo to elves. I really only took it up to piss off my mother; when it comes down to it, there are other skills I’d rather use.”

She repeated the brief exercise with the rear window before re-settling herself in her seat. “All secure, ma’am. The carriage is soundproof.”

“Good,” Shahai said serenely. “I would rather not tip off our driver. We will, obviously, need to kill him.”

For a moment, there was stunned quiet inside the carriage, broken only by the noise of traffic from outside. Shahai turned her head to watch the driver through the front window; everyone else gaped at her.

“W-w-what?” Farah stuttered after a moment.

“It was a test,” Casey said tersely. “She’s seeing if he can hear us. At least, I devoutly hope so,” she added under her breath.

“Quite right, Elwick,” Shahai said, giving her a smile. “And indeed, Sergeant Locke’s work appears to be satisfactory. We must have a brief discussion, ladies, before reaching the temple, and it must not be overheard. The Temple of Avei is not designed with such security in mind, and considering the subject matter, I choose to err on the side of paranoia. At issue is what we saw in the Conclave’s embassy.”

“What did we see, ma’am?” Ephanie asked.

“Several important things,” said Shahai, “but the most urgent is the presence of that succubus. You have studied Vanislaads briefly during your training, but let me reiterate that those creatures are incalculably dangerous. Not physically or even magically, but as agents of chaos and destruction. The existence of one openly in the city changes many equations. I will brief the High Commander on this, of course, in private. Apart from that, it is to be kept an absolute secret. You will not discuss the matter even amongst yourselves. Is that clear?”

She waited to receive verbal confirmation from all of them before continuing. “Red dragons are by a wide margin the safest and most reliable practitioners of infernal magic. The demon is clearly in the custody of Razzavinax the Red; this is the only circumstance in which I am willing to consider the situation even theoretically contained. We will need more information, however. Further, there is the complex issue of how this impacts our own mission.” She leaned back in her seat, staring pensively at the ceiling. “The dragons extended an unexpected amount of trust by allowing us to see that… And I can’t imagine that they’re keeping it from the Empire. The Sisterhood will have to make some kind of response, but it must be a measured one. There is an opportunity here, a potentially great one. It may be one we cannot separate from an unacceptable risk, however…”

“Um…” Farah raised her hand tentatively. “Sarge, why didn’t you just ask Zanzayed what he wanted? I thought that was the whole point of the visit.”

“Not time for that yet,” Principia replied, watching Shahai.

“Indeed,” the Bishop nodded. “This is not that kind of game. Not yet, at least. We extracted a concession from Zanzayed and ended the meeting on those terms. Later, we will ask for information from him in a carefully arranged context that does not cede any further ground. The Conclave already has too many advantages.”

Farah sighed. “It just seems to me… With matters this important being up in the air, is it really the time for games like this? Wouldn’t it be better if everybody just talked? Openly and honestly.”

“Most politicians would call you naïve for expressing such a sentiment,” Shahai said with a smile. “Not without a good point, either, but that does not change the fact that you are entirely correct. Open, honest communication would be better. For that to work, though, everyone involved would have to act in good faith and with mutual trust, and the reality is that many…won’t. The risk of offering such trust where it is not earned is simply too great. And so, we play our games.”

“This looks like a game everybody could lose,” Merry said. “Hard.”

“Yes,” Shahai agreed. “We must be certain that we do not lose.” She rubbed her chin with a finger, still frowning into the distance in thought. “If possible, we should protect as many others as we can…”

“Some people don’t deserve protecting,” Principia observed.

Shahai shook her head. “Don’t bother dealing in what people deserve, Locke. In the best case scenario, you’ll only shine a light on the question of what you deserve. Do you want people digging into that?”

Only silence answered her.


 

It was an equally long walk back to the main floors of the manor, and a harder one as it was all uphill; the group was not only pensive, but quite tired by the time they trooped back into the entrance hall. Between that unplanned excursion and the morning’s trouble at the barracks, weariness was starting to wear down on them.

They emerged into the wide front room alone, Malivette having bid them a cheery farewell at the door to her own room. The students weren’t alone for long, however.

“Ah, there you are,” said Jade, waving to them from the floor below. “Good timing. You have a visitor, kids.”

“Us?” Trissiny stepped up to the head of the stairs and frowned down at the other figure standing just inside the door. “Corporal Timms?”

“Aw, how’d you recognize me?” the soldier said cheerily, shrugging off her heavy cloak.

“I don’t think that disguise is going to fool anyone, Corporal,” said Toby, beginning to descend the stairs.

“Oh, let me have my fun,” she replied. “Listen, this isn’t a social call. I wanted to bring you kids into the loop about what happened at the barracks today.”

“We’re listening,” said Trissiny, coming down the steps after Toby. The others followed more slowly.

Timms glanced curiously across the group before continuing. “First off, I want to clarify where I stand. I’m not averse to bending a regulation here or there if it’s a matter of principle, but I am a soldier in the Emperor’s service, and I have a very high opinion of Colonel Adjavegh. So don’t expect anything from me that contradicts either of those loyalties.”

“So noted,” said Toby, smiling. “We’d never ask it of you anyway.”

“With that said,” she continued, “the Colonel is a very by-the-book leader. He was brought in to Veilgrad for that specific reason; the base here got a little weird before he came and straightened things out. We’re in a scenario the book doesn’t cover, though, and that means…unconventional measures. If you need help with that kind of thing, best advice I can give is to get in touch with Major Razsha.”

“I’d already developed that impression,” said Trissiny. “You said Veilgrad was weird before all this. How so?”

“I said the base was weird. The fortress here has always been a research post—in fact, the whole town has. There are multiple Imperial facilities in the city, working on multiple projects. Civilian personnel, mostly, though several of them do have soldiers posted. That ties in to what I came here to warn you about.” Timms frowned in pure displeasure, folding her arms. “The fire was no accident. That was an attack.”

“We had that impression,” said Shaeine.

“And it was a successful attack,” Timms carried on. “It’s only thanks to your intervention that we didn’t lose lives in that. It was messy, and… Well, you know, you were there. Whoever firebombed the infirmary wing was after the research lab directly under it. They were developing experimental weapons, and the lot of them were stolen.”

They digested this in silence for a moment.

“Uh, what kind of weapons?” Fross asked.

“I am not privy to classified details,” the Corporal said sanctimoniously. “I have very carefully avoided becoming privy to classified details so as to exploit a loophole that has stood up in court before: I can tell you what little I do know without running afoul of security regulations. Just from scuttlebutt around the base, I can tell you they were developing magical weapons based on the Circles of Interaction, trying to equip common soldiers to be able to counter spellcasters. The goal was to make something as portable and easy to use as a standard battlestaff.”

“What kind of casters are they meant to work against?” Trissiny demanded. “How many are there? How complete are they? Do they work?”

Timms shrugged expressively. “Like I said, General Avelea, what I know, I just told you. I’m not generally going to come running to you with sensitive information, but this seemed urgent. You lot are obviously planning to keep poking around Veilgrad; you need to know that someone else is active in the city. Someone capable of raiding an Imperial Army fortress, and now with…whatever it was they took. I know it’s not much, but I didn’t want you to be completely blindsided.”

“We greatly appreciate that,” said Shaeine.

“Who could do something like that?” Juniper wondered. “I mean…it’s the Army. They mostly know what they’re doing, right?”

“Oh, the speeches I could give on that,” Timms said dryly. “But yeah, that is the big question. I wasn’t aware of any single group in Veilgrad that had this kind of capability.”

“It sounded like a fairly simple plan, though, right?” said Fross. “Make a distraction and then steal the weapons? Simple plans are usually best.”

“I don’t yet know the full details of how the attack was carried out, and I may not have the clearance to learn what is known,” said Timms. “It’s all classified, anyway.”

“Could the Thieves’ Guild do this?” Trissiny asked, narrowing her eyes. “I suppose you’re the person to ask: who heads the Guild in Veilgrad?”

Corporal Timms grinned and raised a hand. “Yo.”

“I…” Trissiny blinked. “You?”

“Look more shocked, wouldja? Yeah, I understand where you’re coming from, but trust me when I said the Guild was nowhere near this. It’s not our style, it’s way against our policies, and more immediately, we don’t have the means. The Thieves’ Guild in Veilgrad is four people who meet for drinks once a week. Being in charge mostly means I have to cover everyone’s tab. Our old headquarters is currently being leased to the Omnists, who are running a soup kitchen out of it. The cult of Eserion in this town is only barely still a thing.”

“Wait, four?” Teal exclaimed. “I’m sorry, but… Veilgrad is a pretty wealthy town for its size. There’s lots of trade, mining, logging…”

“It’s not about having,” said Timms, looking more serious. “It’s about taking. The Guild exists to humble the arrogant elite, not to just grab whatever isn’t nailed down. Yeah, we’ve been a big presence in Veilgrad in times past; the period between the fall of House Dufresne and the fall of House Leduc was very busy for us. We had dozens of people here, working almost non-stop; the Leducs were the kind of assholes who always needed a comeuppance. But these days…” She shrugged. “Grusser’s both competent and a decent fellow, and our only remaining nobility both keep to themselves. Sherwin doesn’t even have anything worth taking these days, and stealing from Malivette just isn’t any fun.”

“Fun,” Trissiny said flatly.

Timms grinned. “We hit a few of her warehouses; she took to leaving tea and cookies out for us. Not even drugged or anything, just being hospitable. The gall. And then, the last person who tried to hit Dufresne Manor itself ended up, well…” She raised an eyebrow, turning to one side. “How are you doing these days, Jade? Been a while since we spoke.”

“Tip top, Cassidy,” Jade said with a smile. “Thanks for asking.”

“Anyway, we dwindled,” Timms said, turning back to Trissiny. “Folks trickled off in search of greener pastures. There are enough rich abusers in the city to keep a bare handful of us busy and profitable, but only just. As the local underboss, let me just go on record that if you can find whoever’s causing all this bullshit, my people will be there to help take ’em down. All four of us.”

Teal cleared her throat. “Um, there’s something else. This might be a little sensitive…”

“No,” said Trissiny, nodding to her. “She shared information; we should do the same. They have an immediate need to know, anyway.” She turned back to Corporal Timms. “There’s someone else now active in Veilgrad who definitely could assault the Army and get away with it, and probably could learn enough about classified programs to know where to strike.”

“I’m not gonna like this, am I,” Timms said resignedly.

Trissiny shook her head. “The Black Wreath is here.”

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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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9 – 2

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The Rail caravans slowed dramatically as they approached the interchange at Veilgrad. It was a complex system; the town was not overly large, but it was a hub, connecting Rail lines that extended west to Calderaas, southwest toward the Tira Valley and the capital, north into the Badlands and eventually the border of the dwarven kingdom of Vjarstadt, and northeast into the Stalrange itself. The interchanges between these lines demanded such precision that speed limits were considerably reduced for miles out from the station, and by the time caravans reached the town itself they were traveling no faster than the average horse-drawn stagecoach.

There had never been a collision between two caravans since the founding of the Rail network; its enchanters went to enormous lengths to ensure this. Though the fact was not widely known outside the Imperial bureau that administered the Rails, the device from which they had been developed was originally an experimental weapon. Using them as transportation had been a stroke of insight initially laughed at, its designers conceiving only one purpose for any object moving that fast.

Unlike the Wyrnrange far to the west, which rose gradually out of the plains by way of rolling hills growing ever steeper as they approached the peaks, the Stalrange ascended abruptly out of the flat territory at its edge. Eons ago, it had bordered an inland sea, and slightly less distantly in the past, a deep swamp. The Great Plains were formed of sediment from beneath those long-ago bodies of water. This fact, plus the unusual geographic feature on which it sat, had made Veilgrad a place of great strategic import for the entirety of recorded history. The town stood atop a long peninsular outcropping of stone extending into the plain and towering twenty yards above it. Once its walls had been completed, the ancient fortress city of Veilgrad had been considered nigh-impregnable, one of the best-defended locations on the continent.

That was then; this was now.

The city had long since outgrown its walls, and roads now tracked up into the surrounding mountainside, where little pockets of construction were visible amid the surviving stands of Stalrange pines, overlooking the old city from above. More spread out from the base of the peninsula, patches of younger urban sprawl slowly creeping across the plain. The Rail platform was surrounded by the largest of these, due west of the farthest tip of Veilgrad and facing its ancient main gate.

The caravan eased to a halt, its hatches hissed open, and Professor Rafe bounded nimbly forth, planting his feet widely on the flagstones of the large platform as if he expected to be blown down by an errant gust of wind. He placed his fists on his hips and drew in a deep breath, his thin chest swelling.

“Don’t do it!” Toby exclaimed, dragging himself out of the hatch with a little less grace, still off-kilter from the Rail ride. “Don’t—”

“BEHOLD!” the Professor roared, throwing wide his arms to embrace the Rail platform, the looming shape of Veilgrad beyond, and the several dozen people crossing the area. Nearly all of them stopped, turning to stare.

Veilgrad was an important city, but not a large one, and was so far from the center of Tiraan civilization that its name was a euphemism for distant, unsettled places. These were not cosmopolitan urbanites to be unfazed by the eccentric professor, as their stares indicated.

“You stand upon the precipice of Veilgrad,” Rafe boomed, turning his back to the onlookers and brandishing a fist at his disembarking students with a melodramatic grimace. “The most eeeevil place in the Tiraan Empire! Step carefully, my children, for you shall never again see such a wretched hive of… Oh, what’s the expression I’m looking for…”

“Scum and villainy?” Gabriel suggested, rubbing his lower back.

“Arquin!” Rafe exclaimed in horror. “You can’t just say that about a place, all these people can hear you! Honestly, boy, were you raised in a barn?”

Gabriel stared at him. “…this is gonna be the trip where I finally shoot you, isn’t it.”

“You have been brought here,” the Professor intoned, “to uncover the putrid perfidy at the very heart of the—oh, hey, our ride’s here! Form a line, kids, let’s be civilized about this.”

Most of the onlookers had already backed away or gone on about their business, but several were still watching the University party, none with friendly expressions. The students drifted together in a knot as they followed their professor toward the edge of the platform.

A matched pair of stagecoaches were just pulling up at the side of the road running past the outdoor Rail terminal. They were glossy, ostentatious things, lacquered a gleaming black with a crest embossed in a lighter shade of black—or a very dark gray—on their doors, barely visible and that only because it was a matte interruption in the gleaming finish. The device was a heavily stylized letter M, bracketed by laurels bristling with overlarge thorns. Each coach was drawn by two matched horses, all four coal-black and all groomed to a glossy shine. Altogether the vehicles were a portrait of wealth and grandeur straight out of the last century.

Each was driven by a lovely young woman perched on the driver’s seat, reins in hand. They didn’t look alike enough to be related, but both were clearly of the local Stalweiss stock, being tall, pale and fair-haired. Both were attired in expensive-looking gowns with high collars, which appeared to be of identical cut, though the one in front was red while her counterpart wore dark green. They smiled in unison at Professor Rafe as he approached, the woman in red lifting a hand to wave.

Trissiny, however, had come to a stop, staring at the coaches. Beside her, Toby did the same; Gabriel squinted as if unsure what he was looking at.

“What’s the matter?” Teal asked.

“Something’s weird about those horses…” Gabriel muttered, frowning. “I’m not sure… They give me this feeling.”

“Congratulations,” Trissiny said tersely. “Apparently paladins of Vidius have the ability to sense evil.”

“I sense no evil,” Shaeine said serenely. “Your reactions suggest, however, that they are somehow in opposition to your gods. Are they perhaps demonic?”

“Well, they aren’t moving,” Ruda noted. “They just stand. Real horses look…alive. Those could be stuffed.”

“Not demonic,” said the driver in the lead coach, smiling languidly down at them. “Undead. Don’t worry, students, they are entirely harmless; there is no contagious element in their condition, and they’re quite docile. Kindly refrain from throwing divine magic at them. They would be difficult to replace.” Her smile faded slightly as she finished the admonition, and she fixed her stare on Gabriel.

“Professor,” Trissiny said tersely, “what have you gotten us into?”

“Now, there you go, being rude again,” Rafe admonished. “And here we’ve only just arrived! Honestly, I can’t decide whether you kids needed more spankings or more hugs growing up. Ruby! Jade! It’s such a delight to see your lovely faces again! Ladies, it has been far too long, and for once I’m not referring to anything of mine.”

“Good morning, Professor Rafe,” the woman in green said with a smile that appeared quite genuine. “It’s good to see you again, too. The Mistress will be anxious to catch up.”

“All right, little ducklings, in you go,” Rafe said briskly, clapping his hands and rubbing them together. “Sort yourselves as you will; they’ll be a little roomy with just four each, but we can’t all crowd into one. Gabe, your coach isn’t here yet. You want us to wait and see you off?”

“Nah, you guys go on ahead,” Gabriel said absently, still staring at the chillingly immobile horses. An enormous horsefly had landed on the ear of one, eliciting not a twitch. Moments later, the insect tumbled off, lifeless.

“Whoah, hang on, what’s this?” Ruda demanded. “Why’s Arquin not coming with us?”

“A stipulation of our hostess, I’m afraid,” Rafe said solemnly. “You are all welcome in her house, with the specific exception of Gabriel. Did I not know better, I might think she’d met him at some point.”

Toby folded his arms. “Then I don’t believe we are welcome there, either. Or…I’m sorry, guys, I shouldn’t speak for you. But for my part—”

“Guys, guys!” Gabriel said, finally turning from his study of the horses to hold up both hands calmingly. “It’s okay. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you this; Tellwyrn’s orders. This isn’t a demonblood prejudice thing, the person we’re meeting actually has a pretty solid reason not to want me around. I… Ugh, I hate keeping you in the dark, but Tellwyrn was, you know, emphatic. As only she can be. You’re not supposed to hear about it till you get there.”

“Well, this is increasingly bullshit,” Ruda said acidly.

“I have a bad feeling about it,” Teal said, frowning. “Gabe…are you sure? If you know what’s going on, are we walking into a trap?”

“What utter nonsense,” Rafe huffed. “Our hostess is an alumnus of the University; she would never harm you. Would never have reason to, and even if she did, she knows firsthand what Arachne would do about it. You’ll be safe as houses!”

“The manor is one of the most secure and defensible structures in the entire province,” said the woman in red, presumably Ruby. “And the Mistress’s hospitality is second to none. We apologize for Mr. Arquin’s exclusion.”

“I don’t think I want to stay with someone whom one of our friends has to be afraid of,” Trissiny said flatly.

“That’s not it,” Fross said. “She’s afraid of him.”

There was a beat of silence, all of them turning to stare up at the pixie. Rafe rolled his eyes dramatically.

“Put it together, guys,” Fross continued. “She’s got undead horses and doesn’t want the Hand of the god of death on her property. It’s pretty obvious, right? This Mistress is undead herself. Haven’t several of the professors mentioned a vampire who was once a student at the University?”

“That does it,” Trissiny announced, folding her arms. “I believe I will stay wherever Gabriel is staying.”

“And this is exactly why you were not to be informed until you got there,” Rafe said in exasperation. “Honestly, kids, Malivette is just about the most cuddly person I know. Isn’t she, girls?”

“The cuddliest,” Jade said solemnly, her eyes sparkling with repressed mirth.

“But,” Rafe continued, scowling at Trissiny, “some of you are just bound to be on the defensive about her little condition. Because some of you are thoughtless and prone to making inappropriate snap judgments.”

“Hey,” Toby said, his voice quiet but firm. “Don’t glare at her; any of us with any sense would object to this. You are asking us to stay in the home of a vampire. Someone who, whatever her intentions, thinks of the lot of us as food. This trip is supposed to be at least a week, right? We’re expected to sleep in that place?”

“Um, point of order,” Fross chimed. “Ruda’s the only one who’s in the slightest danger from a vampire.”

“Everyone is in danger from a vampire!” Trissiny exclaimed.

“Well, not really, no,” the pixie said reasonably. “They can’t eat elves or half-elves, the inherent fae magic reacts badly with them. They can’t eat clerics or paladins; even trying would result in an automatic smiting from their patron gods. And they definitely can’t eat dryads or pixies.”

“Ain’t it a thrill to be me,” Ruda said fatalistically.

“Congratulations,” Gabriel said solemnly. “You now are in possession of the slightest glimpse of what my life is like. If you want to get even more insight, I could fucking stab you.”

“Children!” Rafe bellowed. “Enough! We are going to stay in the home of my dear friend and former student Malivette, for a variety of excellent reasons which I will explain when we’re no longer out in public creating a scene!”

“He’s getting onto us about creating a scene?” Juniper muttered.

“And if you fail to comply with this directive,” Rafe continued ominously, “I will toss my ass right back in that caravan, return to Last Rock and complain to Arachne that you little buggers are being difficult.”

“She’d make fun of you for that for the next ten years,” Teal pointed out.

“Yeah?” the Professor said smugly, folding his arms and smirking. “I’m sure that’ll make you feel better while she’s kicking your asses up and down the mountainside.”

“I hate every part of this,” Trissiny muttered, unconsciously gripping her sword.

“And if you didn’t make a point of hating half the crap you encounter, Avelea, somebody might care about that,” Rafe said, grinning.

“Guys,” Gabriel said soothingly. “I promise you, it is okay. Tellwyrn wouldn’t send us to someone who can’t be trusted, and I fully understand this Malivette’s concern, all right? All it would take is one little poke from a valkyrie’s scythe and she’d be dust; she’d never even see it coming. Wouldn’t you be worried about that?”

“I note,” Shaeine observed, “that it is you and not she who is being asked to extend trust in that regard.”

He shrugged. “That’s true, but come on. Is it really that unfair? She’s the one with the manor she’s letting us use, and an established life here. Well, unlife. Whatever.”

“Are you sure you’ll be okay on your own?” Toby said worriedly. “I mean…leaving you completely alone out here…”

“Oh, that’s very nice, thank you,” Ariel commented.

“Yes, yes, you’re great company,” Gabriel said soothingly, patting her pommel. “Particularly when you don’t talk. Anyhow, guys, you don’t need to worry about me.” He grinned smugly. “In fact, I might be the only one who’s gonna be put in better digs than you guys.”


 

“But why dragons?”

“There are several acceptable responses to receiving orders, Sergeant,” Captain Dijanerad said mildly, not slowing her pace. “None of them contain the word why.”

“Captain,” Principia said in a tone barely above a growl, “I have spent the last month vigorously drilling and training my squad as ordered. In keeping with our mandate we have been extensively studying the Church and its member cults so as to serve in a diplomatic capacity with other faiths. My girls have done a damn fine job, too, considering how little time they’ve had to work on it; I have every confidence that the High Commander will be pleased with our results. Or at least I would if we got to put that into practice. Instead, we’re apparently going to deal with dragons! Nobody knows how to do that! Why are we any better than any random squad?”

“Yes, yes,” Dijanerad said with a grin. “You’ve trained specifically in one field and are now being sent off to do a random task that has no bearing on your specialization. Welcome to the military, Locke.”

“Captain, permission to kvetch!”

“Denied. I think.” The Captain glanced curiously at her. “What is that, orcish?”

“Not exactly,” Principia muttered.

Dijanerad came to a stop, forcing Principia to follow suit. They were in an out-of-the-way intersection of the Temple’s halls, not far from the exit to the rear parade grounds around which the Ninth Cohort were bunked.

“Squad One has drawn this assignment,” the Captain said, “because I recommended you for it. I have, in fact, seen the way you’ve been training your squad, Sergeant Locke, and taken notice of your results. To be frank there was some initial disagreement among the cohort’s officers about whether you would take your position at all seriously, but that, at least, you’ve put to bed. Now it only remains to be seen how well the results will stack up in a real-world situation.”

“So we’re being sent into a real-world situation that has nothing to do with what we’ve trained for?”

“Locke, shut up. I’ve also taken note of the way you and your girls have been repairing your relations with the rest of the cohort, which is no small thing considering you went overnight from being the resident punchlines to having the much-coveted designation One. You can do diplomacy. The basic principles are the same whoever you’re dealing with, be they fellow soldiers, priests, or yes, dragons. I recommended you because I am confident that you can do this. The High Commander either things so as well or places a lot more value on my opinion than I thought, and frankly I suspect it’s the former.”

Principia drew in a deep breath and shook her head. “Veth’na alaue…”

“Watch it,” Dijanerad warned. “I’m a career soldier, Locke; I speak only Tanglish but I can cuss fluently in every dialect used on this continent. That is approaching a type and degree of obscenity I’d have to reprimand you for.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said tersely. “Captain…with apologies for using the word again…why are Legionnaires being sent to deal with this at all?”

“They aren’t,” Dijanerad said, resuming her walk, “at least not officially or directly. The city’s only just come down from a state of alert; our word of what the dragons want is less than a hour old. We don’t know enough to make any detailed plans. But the bones of it is they’re establishing some kind of government and want to open diplomatic relations with the Empire. If that’s what they’re doing, the cult of Avei has an immediate interest in making similar contact.”

“I have a very hard time picturing dragons converting to Avenism, Captain.”

“There’s a lot more an organized religion can do with people than convert them, Locke. Besides, the Sisterhood is both a civil and military organization; we don’t have the option of ignoring the formation of what is sure to be another major world power. It makes sense to get on good terms with them if possible; the alternative would be a nightmare. And that’s all I have to say on the subject, because your specific orders are to present yourselves to Bishop Shahai, who will be heading up this effort, and my analysis of the situation is irrelevant. Hers is what you need to care about. Officially, on the books, you are to be merely her bodyguards; unofficially, she requested women who could be called upon to do more than a soldier’s duty in dicey political circumstances. That’s how you, in particular, ended up nominated for this.”

“Interim Bishop Shahai,” the elf murmured.

“You know very well how she is to be addressed while she’s doing the job, and once again you are flirting with insubordination. Bat one more eyelash in its direction and I’ll be obligated to rip it off your face and feed it to you, is that clear?”

“Clear, ma’am. They aren’t ready for this,” Principia said more quietly. “I don’t mean to sound insubordinate; I’m concerned for the state of the mission if it’s given to us. I have the highest opinion of the women in my squad, and of their skills, but the fact is we don’t have the experience for something of this magnitude. These stakes. Are there no more seasoned units available?”

“Yes,” Dijanerad replied, “but they have not been given this assignment. You have. These are your orders, Sergeant, and I have discussed them with you as much as I intend to, and this much only because your unique situation demands greater understanding than an average soldier needs to do her job. You need to not be in the habit of questioning orders this way, Locke; keep that firmly in mind next time you’re given a mission. You will assemble your squad and report to Bishop Shahai’s office at fourteen hundred hours; she will inform you of what she expects. For the duration of this assignment, which means until I tell you otherwise, I am placing you directly under the Bishop’s command.”

“Captain—”

“That will be all, Locke. Dismissed.”

They emerged into the courtyard, finally, and Dijanerad stopped and gave the sergeant a flat look. Principia saluted and said the only thing she could.

“Yes, ma’am.”

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