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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh,” Joe mused.

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

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

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

“I see,” Darling murmured.

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

“Mm hm,” said Joe. “What’s that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hm,” Liesl mused. “Sent by whom?”

“By Mary the Crow.”

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But—”

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

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

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

“Paper? What paper?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They paused again, staring at their machine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your Highness,” the Butler replied, bowing.

“…where is my mother at the moment?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you very much, Cartwright.”

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Attaboy!” she said brightly, releasing him.

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

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10 – 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He swallowed. “I, ah…yes, I did.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good job,” she said, deadpan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malivette, somehow, was already waiting for them.

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

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

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

“Weapon?” Joe said, raising his eyebrows.

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The child’s face immediately crumpled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was just—”

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

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

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

“Now, hold on,” Juniper protested.

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

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

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

That brought a few murmurs of its own.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chase was laughing so hard he had to sit down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m afraid not,” said Sekandar.

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

“Hm,” Ruda said noncommittally.

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

“Speculation,” Ruda pointed out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I hate politics.”

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9 – 35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, fuck you.”

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

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

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

“Yeah,” Toby said, nodding.

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

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

Ruda laughed so hard she nearly fell over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who the fucking what?” Ruda exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gabriel blinked in astonishment. “Captain Rouvad?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait a second,” Trissiny exclaimed.

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What truth?” Fross demanded.

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

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

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

They all stared at him in silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Give them to me.”

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

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

Shadows swelled around Vanessa and Malivetted, then instantly dissipated.

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

Vanessa emitted a thin keening sound of pure panic.

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

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

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

Vanessa was crying openly now, practically vibrating with tension.

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

Vanessa squeezed her eyes shut, whimpering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The warlock fainted.

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

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

“Most?” Toby said sharply.

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

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

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

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

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

For several moments they could only stand in stunned silence.

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

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

“Most of them, apparently,” said Shaine.

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

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9 – 23

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

“A what?” Trissiny asked distractedly.

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

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

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

“I would never!” Juniper exclaimed in horror.

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

Trissiny had stopped and turned to stare incredulously at Shaeine.

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

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

“Thanks, Fross,” Toby said resignedly.

“No problem!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She paused, staring at the students.

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

“Hello,” said Schkhurrankh.

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

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

“Oh. Right.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello,” she said sheepishly.

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

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

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

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

Schkhurrankh—Scorn—grinned again. “Hello!”

“Vrackdish khnavai?” Teal asked.

Scorn blinked at her twice, then began snickering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello!” Scorn said brightly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I live to serve!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If fher a profful?” she inquired.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh, what?” Juniper asked. “Who is?”

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

“Uh,” said Fross.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sergeant,” she said caustically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Older,” he said idly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Yoo hoo!” Malivette called from the distance as soon as they emerged from the basement. “We’re in the dining room, ducklings. C’mon in, join us!”

Trissiny and Ruda exchanged an expressive look, but obediently stepped out into the hallway and toward the side entrance of the long dining room as directed. Ruda fell back and moved behind Trissiny in the narrow hall, allowing Shaeine to slip in ahead of her; the drow gave her a nod of thanks in passing.

Upon entering the dining room, however, they all clustered in a knot at the door and stared.

Malivette was lounging against one end of the long, heavy table, grinning delightedly, which had the effect of emphasizing her elongated canines. Professor Rafe sat in one of the chairs, also grinning, with a large book open on the table between him and the next chair over. In that chair, sandwiched between Rafe and Malivette, sat Schkhurrankh, her towering form looking painfully out of place even behind the hefty table. In fact, she looked cowed and uncomfortable, which was jarring; even locked in a cage, the demon had not appeared actually intimidated at any point.

“There you are,” Malivette cooed at them, wiggling her fingers in a girlish little wave. Teal approached the door from the side, smiling in relief, and reached out to brush the back of her hand against Shaeine’s; the drow smiled back at her, permitting more warmth in the expression than she usually displayed in public.

“Well, everyone made it all right, then!” said Juniper, peeking over Ruda’s shoulder. “We were a little worried about you carrying her all the way here. She looks heavy.”

“We carried Gabe to Last Rock from halfway into the Golden Sea,” Teal pointed out. “Frankly, this was easier. She is heavier, but Vadrieny’s strength and flight are magical, so that doesn’t matter much. It was a much shorter flight, and she squirmed less, and didn’t complain at all.”

“Well,” said Rafe with an insane grin. “Not till you got back here, anyway.”

“Is…everything all right?” Trissiny asked carefully.

Teal cleared her throat, jerking her head toward the other end of the long dining room. The rest of the girls crept farther into the room, peering down in the direction she indicated.

“Oh,” said Fross. “Oops.”

At the opposite end of the room stood a heavy sideboard, which was now scattered around in pieces. The floral wallpaper had been ripped completely away from most of that wall, and even the oak paneling beyond was smashed in several places. There was a large dent in the floor, with the jagged end of a broken floorboard poking upward. The entire area was marred by scorch marks.

Teal cleared her throat. “There was a bit of a…”

“Yeah,” said Ruda, “looks like there was.”

“Well, as I said,” Teal continued quickly, “Rhaazke are are matriarchal culture. Now that it’s been established who’s the dominant female in this house, there won’t be any more issues.”

“Which is almost a shame,” Rafe said happily. “That was a hell of a spectacle. Pun not intended, but so perfect now that I think of it that I am retroactively claiming it was.”

“You beat down that?” Ruda exclaimed, turning to Malivette. The vampire was scarcely taller than she, gaunt as a winter tree, and her expensive black dress didn’t appear so much as rumpled.

“Don’t fight with vampires,” Trissiny advised quietly.

“Anyway, do watch your step if you have reason to be down at that end of the dining room,” Malivette said gaily. “I’ll have it all fixed up as quick as I can, but the way things are in Veilgrad right now, getting workmen is going to be a time-consuming prospect. They don’t much love coming up here at the best of times. It’s likely to remain that way for the duration of your visit; my apologies.”

“I brought her here,” Teal said quickly. “I’ll pay for the damages.”

“Oh, pish tosh,” Malivette said, waving her away. “I’ve got scads of money, and nothing to spend it on. I don’t eat, I hardly ever have guests, and I can only buy my girls so many pretty dresses before they start to ask what I’m bribing them for. Honestly, you kids are the most fun I’ve had in years! You’re even more interesting than my class at the University, and they sent me to Hell once!”

Rafe straightened up, swiveling his head around to frown at her. “Wait, they did freakin’ what?”

“It was very exciting!” Malivette said, beaming. “I was down there almost two days and actually got to meet Prince Vanislaas! He sent me back with a very strongly-worded letter for Professor Tellwyrn. Charming fellow.”

Everyone stared at her in dead silence. Schkhurrankh’s eyes darted back and forth; she seemed almost afraid to move.

“Well, the girls are preparing a room for our new guest,” Malivette continued lightly, “and Admestus is working on teaching her some Tanglish. Oh, but what happened to your boy?”

“Toby went back with Gabriel,” said Juniper. “He didn’t want Gabe to have to go home alone. He’s a very thoughtful person.”

“Gabriel, from what I understand, isn’t really alone most of the time,” Malivette noted, some of the good cheer leaking from her expression.

“Yeah, well,” Ruda snorted, “his personal company consists of grim reapers and fuckin’ Ariel. I can’t blame him for wanting some better conversation. If that sword had a head I’d say it was broken.”

“Ariel lacks empathy and isn’t able to adapt her personality to social changes,” Fross chimed. “That’s pretty standard for sentient objects; Gabe and I looked it up.”

“Anyhow,” Malivette went on, brightly, straightening up, “we’ll just keep something warm for Toby, and dinner will be ready for the rest of you in two shakes. Sapphire’s working up something marvelous; she hardly ever has people to cook for, you’ve just made her year! This is turning out to be such an exciting visit! I can’t wait to see what happens next!”

Beaming, she patted Schkhurrankh on the head, right between her horns. The demon flinched.


 

It took Trissiny more than an hour to give up on sleeping. The house was quiet; she didn’t want to disturb any of her classmates, or Malivette’s friends, and especially not the demon. Vampires did not sleep, but Rhaazke were an unknown species to her, and of unknown nature and habits. Regardless, she didn’t particularly want to have a conversation with either of them. Malivette made her nervous for reasons not necessarily related to her condition.

Moving as quietly as possible and taking nothing but her sword, rather than clunking around in full armor, Trissiny slipped out of the house. She paused for a moment outside, drawing in a deep breath and just experiencing the night. It was only partially cloudy, and cooler than Last Rock was at this time of year. For all that, though, if she lifted her eyes to gaze above the walls ringing the manor grounds, the view reminded her of home. While the Stalrange were craggy, younger peaks crowned by sharp edges rather than the ancient rounded mountains of Viridill, they had the same effect of blocking out swaths of the night sky all around. Feeling encircled by mighty, ancient sentinels was, for just a moment (if she squinted a bit), like standing on the parade ground of the Abbey at night.

She had entertained thoughts of taking a stroll around the property, but quickly changed her mind. Clearly no one bothered to trim or tend anything on these grounds; the lawn was overgrown and interrupted by small thorny bushes. Trissiny was willing to wade through any number of horrors, but not to collect ticks, fleas and scratched knees just to stretch her legs. With a soft sigh, she stepped down from the porch, heading slowly toward the gates of the manor, thinking a couple of laps up and down the path would help settle her nerves. The unease that lapped at her had diminished outdoors; she knew it wasn’t her senses for evil setting it off, for all that she could still pinpoint Malivette’s exact location in the house (she was in the far southeast corner of the attic). It was just…the situation.

Her plan was changed by the music.

It was a thin, high sound, clearly some kind of flute. It came from somewhere not too far distant, though obviously outside the manor grounds. Moreover, the melody was as familiar to her as the weight of her sword—no, more so, since she’d known it longer. Mother Narny had hummed that tune when calm and happy, usually when tending to the young girls in her charge, those not yet old enough for the barracks. Trissiny associated that tune with the happiest, calmest memories of her childhood, to the point that hearing it here of all places brought her to a physical stop. She had never heard it elsewhere.

Even while considering the various kinds of suspicious this was, she found her feet moving, her face falling into a scowl and her hand finding the hilt of her sword. She did not believe in coincidences of this magnitude; someone wanted her attention. If they meant her harm…well, they could try.

The wrought iron gates were not locked, nor were they as heavy as they looked; unlike the yard, they were well-cared for and didn’t even squeal as she pushed one open just enough to slip through. After a moment’s thought, Trissiny pushed it nearly shut, leaving just enough of a gap to slip a hand in. It would be extremely bad manners to leave Malivette’s estate open to the night, but she was aware that this excursion might result in a need for her to quickly re-enter the grounds.

After another moment’s thought, she braced her feet, focused her will and murmured a short prayer. Gold flared from her aura, along with blazing wings; for just a second, she lit up the night like a sunrise. When the light faded, she wore her silver armor and had her shield slung over her back. For the moment, she left it there, though she drew her sword as she advanced toward the music.

A convenient path branched off from the road just a few yards from the gates, leading into a dense stand of pine trees. As Trissiny paused at its entrance, the music grew slightly in volume, just a hair more than could be explained by her increasing proximity to the musician. She narrowed her eyes and started forward, the faintest limning of gold arising over her form.

It wasn’t a long walk, but a slightly winding one through just enough turns to hide the destination from view of the road. In short order, the path terminated in a small clearing which was obviously of some importance. Standing stones ringed it, defining a cleared space apart from the forest on all sides, and a lower altar of the same ancient granite stood just off-center amid the circle.

On that altar sat an elf.

She was a wood elf to judge by her ears, but was dressed in stereotypical plains elf style, fringed buckskins bleached pale and dyed with subtle vertical patterns that would provide camouflage in the Golden Sea’s tallgrass. The object she held to her mouth was clearly the source of the music, though Trissiny couldn’t quite make out how; it was palm-sized and potato-shaped, dark brown in color. Most strikingly, she had coal-black hair.

She also had impressive timing. The tune came to an end just as Trissiny stepped carefully within the circle of standing stones.

“Where did you hear that song?” the paladin demanded.

“It’s an old ballad,” the elf replied calmly, lowering her peculiar instrument. “Old even by the standards of my people. The story of an elven warrior and his human bride. Obviously, it does not end happily. The spirits told me that tune was the specific thing that would get your attention, so I find myself wondering where you heard it. I actually have not in several decades. Things fall out of favor with the passing of time, the shift of trends.”

“So you wanted my attention,” Trissiny said curtly. “You have it. Speak.”

The elf rose in one fluid motion, nodding deeply to her; standing atop the altar, she towered over the paladin. “My name is Kuriwa. Tell me, Trissiny, have you ever looked at someone and felt an inexplicable but powerful sense of kinship?”

“What?” Trissiny frowned, staring suspiciously up at her. “What are you talking about?”

“I see.” Kuriwa looked disappointed. “The blending of kinds can have middling effects on things like the shape of ears, general build, the acuity of senses… But there are elven traits that one either inherits, or not, always in whole, never in part. You have the aura and metabolism, I can see that much at a glance. I had thought perhaps… Well. Elves are not neatly sorted into generations like humans; we have a more complex relationship with heredity. An extra sense, a way to tell when we are in the presence of genetically close family. No doubt an adaptation against inbreeding. If you possessed it, you would know the feeling.”

“I’ve only met one elf who I was related to,” Trissiny said, scowling, “and all I felt was suspicion and disappointment.” She already had a sense of where this was going.

“Yes,” Kuriwa said with a rueful little smile, “she has that effect, though I think she would be hurt to hear you say it. For your future edification, however, the combination of black hair and the ears of a forest elf exists only in one bloodline. When you see it, you are in the presence of family.”

“The Sisters of Avei are my family,” she stated. This was not a surprising revelation after that build-up, but she was surprised at how little she felt toward this woman. After Principia, she had not really considered her heritage, nor felt inclined to seek it out.

“Yes,” Kuriwa repeated, nodding in agreement. “The bond of family goes far beyond blood, and may in truth have nothing to do with it. You have been denied even the opportunity to know those who are kin to you, however. I offer you the chance to rectify that lack, if you wish to take it.”

“What are you doing here, now?” Trissiny exclaimed. “If you were interested, you’ve had years to track me down. This is not exactly a convenient time for me to deal with this!”

“Convenient times do not exist,” Kuriwa said with an oddly roguish grin, which made her resemble Principia more strikingly. “But yes, you’re right. In truth, you have always been in competent care and once grown, admirably in command of yourself. Had I had cause to worry, I would indeed have sought you out. But no, this was something distantly related to happenstance. I have been in Last Rock a great deal lately, working on something with Arachne. She naturally prefers that her students not be meddled with—which I more than understand—but while at the University, I noticed you. It has made me think that it might be worthwhile for us to talk.”

Trissiny sighed heavily. “With all due respect, Kuriwa, I have not had great luck with relatives so far. What is it you want from me?”

“Nothing,” said the elf. “Not a thing. It is as I said: I came to offer you a connection to your heritage, if you want it. The only request I make is that you do not commit to a definitive answer right now. This is indeed a hefty thing to drop on you out of the sky, as it were.”

“Frankly, this is less hefty than finding out I was a half-blood in the first place. Much of that had to do with who the source of that half turned out to be. She’s not a very impressive example of your race.”

“Half-blood,” Kuriwa mused. “That term, I’ve found, is nearly universal…it seems odd to me, and somewhat annoying. You are clearly not half a person. If anything, you are twice-blooded. Both, not less.”

“Uh…” Trissiny took a half-step back, still watching her askance. “I never really thought about it.”

“You have more immediate things to think about,” the elf agreed, nodding. “I hope, though, that should you meet any more of your elven kin, you will greet them hospitably. Ours is a diverse an often fractious line, infamous among elves for its non-compliance with tradition, but there are no kinslayers among us, nor many who would disappoint your own standards. In fact, your own mother is the one example most likely to offend both elven and Avenist sensibilities.”

“She is not my mother,” Trissiny said firmly.

“Have a care,” Kuriwa replied, and while her tone remained calm, her gaze turned similarly firm. “Bearing and birthing a child may be a common enough thing, in the greater scope of the world, but you don’t get to decide it’s a small thing until you’ve done it. I know Principia’s numerous flaws very well, and I will not deny her what measure of credit she has earned. However disappointing you find her, it is to her that you owe your existence.”

“I can be lectured any time I like if that’s what I want,” Trissiny retorted. “By any number of people. I’m not interested in hearing about or discussing Principia, and if having family among the elves means being chewed out in the woods, I’ll pass. Good night.”

“Wait,” Kuriwa said, and her calm tone actually did prompt Trissiny to hesitate in turning away where a more commanding one might simply have spurred her on. The elf hopped lightly down from the altar; standing on the ground, she was almost exactly as tall as the paladin. “You’re right, of course; I ask your pardon. As a shaman and an elder I have developed a habit of dispensing wisdom to people, sometimes when they don’t want any. Meeting someone who feels like kin to me, it’s easy to forget that I have really no right to tell you what to do. Narnasia raised you well, and has much to be proud of; you’re doing fine without me. Again, my apologies. For now, I would like to give you something.”

She tossed the peculiar little instrument; Trissiny snagged it out of the air more by reflex than plan. It was carved from a single piece of wood, polished smooth and without any adornment. The instrument was a hollow, round-edged oval rather like a flattened egg, with irregularly-spaced holes for fingers and a small protrusion ending in another hole, presumably to blow into.

“Um,” she said intelligently.

“It’s called an ocarina,” Kuriwa explained with a smile.

“A traditional elvish instrument, I suppose?”

“Actually,” the shaman mused, “I believe it comes originally from the Tidestrider islands, though I have seen them in many places. It’s a conveniently portable and durable instrument. That one also has just a touch of magic.”

“Just a touch?” Trissiny repeated, holding it gingerly.

“Just enough to get my attention,” said Kuriwa, nodding. “Something I prepared for you, as it seemed unlikely you would want to sit and have a long talk here in the woods in the dark. Play the tune I was playing on that instrument, and I will come find you. It gives you a way to call me if you decide you wish to learn about your heritage—or if you are in trouble. Remember, whatever you may think about me, Principia or elves in general, I look upon you as kin, and I will not suffer you to be harmed if I can prevent it. If you play and I do not come, it means I am myself in immediate and extreme danger. Nothing else restrains me from my blood.”

“Ah,” Trissiny said, raising an eyebrow, “you do realize I have no idea how to play this thing?”

“It’s actually quite simple,” Kuriwa said with a grin. “That’s another reason they are popular in multiple cultures. You have a friend who is a bard, correct? Teal? I’m sure she wouldn’t mind teaching you how.”

“I’m pretty sure Teal doesn’t know how to play it, either. I’ve never even seen one of these.”

“Whether she does or not, I guarantee she can figure it out in moments, and teach you in only minutes more. The ocarina is a simple instrument for anyone, and as easy to play as a tree is to fall from for an actual musician.”

“I see,” Trissiny said carefully, the frown not leaving her face. “Well, then. Thank you, I suppose.”

“You are suspicious.” Kuriwa smiled at her. “Good. The world is full of enemies, and you have more than most—and the most dangerous among them are those who come bearing gifts and a fair countenance. Keep in mind, though, that the world is also full of friends, and teachers. You’ll find there’s more overlap than you expect between those categories.”

Trissiny sighed. “Okay.”

“And now I see I have strained your patience.”

“It’s just, this…inscrutable elvish wisdom. I’ve known enough elves by now that I’m surprised to find one actually matching the stereotype.”

At that, Kuriwa laughed aloud. “All right, all right, fair enough. I should be moving along anyway; your next teacher is on the way here as we speak.”

“Excuse me, my what?” Trissiny straightened up, hefting her sword. Having the ocarina in her other hand rather than her shield made the movement feel oddly incongruous.

“Keep your wits about you and your guard up,” Kuriwa advised. “I rather suspect you’ll do that anyway, but it bears repeating. Those you are about to meet can be trusted, and you can learn several very important things from them—both for yourself in the long term, and with regard to your mission here. Trust, but trust carefully.”

“What?” Trissiny exclaimed. “Who? What are you talking about?”

“You’ll find out by the time I could explain it, and things will go better if I’m not here. If you want to speak to me again, young one, you have the means. Go well.” With a final, warm smile, Kuriwa took two steps backward from her.

And then there wasn’t an elf there, just a crow that fluttered up above the level of the standing stones and then soared smoothly away into the darkened trees, cawing once as it went.

Trissiny stood for a long moment staring after it, then shook herself off as if banishing a dream from her mind. She had little idea what to make of that encounter, but suspected she would be chewing on it for a while. Perhaps tonight was going to turn out even more sleepless than she’d previously suspected.

With a soft sigh, she carefully tucked the ocarina into one of her belt pouches and turned to go back. The armor could be summoned, but not dismissed the same way; she was going to have to clank through the house, which would inevitably culminate in explaining to Ruda what she was doing up and armored at that hour. Odd that they would agree to share a room again when there were enough rooms for everyone, but neither felt fully relaxed around their hostess, and preferred known company in that house. That arrangement hadn’t been made with this specific situation in mind, though.

Abruptly she stopped. The forest was silent. She hadn’t particularly noticed while talking with Kuriwa, and anyway wasn’t attuned enough to nature in general to find meaning in the noises of various animals, but when she had set out there had been a constant hum of crickets, and the occasional calls of night birds. Owls, and others she did not recognize. Now, nothing. No birds, which meant a predator. No insects, which meant something unnatural.

Trissiny fired up her divine aura, reached out with her senses. Detecting evil wouldn’t necessarily work on…

The growl came from behind her.

She turned—quickly, but in a careful, smooth motion. Anything sudden or jerky might provoke an attack.

The werewolf towered over her, dwarfed only by the standing stone beside which it stood, and that not by much. It had to be as tall as Schkhurrankh, and similarly bulky with muscle. The creature’s pelt was a pale, tawny color that likely meant blonde hair when it was human, which was all she could deduce about its other form. Even its sex was hidden; it wore the ragged and torn remains of a shirt and pants, which hid its groin, and female werewolves in that form had no visible breasts. They weren’t even reliably smaller than males.

A dozen yards of space yawned between them. It could be across that in one bound. Exactly how aggressive the creature might be depended on a number of unknowable factors, but they were always more prone to attack than any simple animal. Like wolves, they fought with tooth and fang; like humans, they tended to kill what they had no intention of eating. The malice of whatever arch-fae had first created this curse left them unreasoning and violent in many cases, likely to show savagery in this form that their human selves would bitterly mourn later.

It wasn’t even a full moon. Something was horribly awry in this town; Gabriel’s chaos theory gained more weight with everything she learned.

Trissiny itched to reach for her shield, but there was no telling what reaction that would get. There were just so many variables, and she was not a specialist in werewolves, having known only one before. Depending on the individual, the specific strain of the curse, and the innumerable ways in which these and other factors interacted, a werewolf might be in nearly complete control of itself, or as vicious as a rabid dog. This one wasn’t charging on sight… But then, a sentient being didn’t stand and snarl at people with its hackles raised.

“If anything of the person you truly are can hear me,” she said quietly, “restrain yourself. I will not, and it is beyond my means to incapacitate you without doing grievous harm.”

If anything, the creature’s lips drew farther back; its growl deepened in tone, and it hunched forward, shifting toward her. Its half-human, partially canine form blurred the body language of either, but the pose of a creature preparing to lunge was unmistakeable.

That shaman would have been very useful right now. Trissiny shifted into a fighting stance, raising her sword and beginning to move her free hand carefully toward her shield.

The chime of a bell rang through the silent forest, and the werewolf twitched, turning to its right to stare into the darkened trees, its snarl vanishing. Ears pricked upright, it waited. Across the clearing, Trissiny waited, too. Anything which might lead to this ending without violence was worth a bit of patience on her part.

The bell rang again, and forms melted out of the darkness into the thin moonlight which illuminated the clearing, then came closer, close enough to be shown in more detail by the golden light streaming off her aura. There were five of them, all human, three men and two women. They wore sturdy leather clothes in shades of brown and green; two carried bows, two axes, and the last man held a bell in one hand and small mallet in the other.

As they eased carefully within the circle of stones, he struck the bell a third time.

The werewolf laid its ears back and actually whined, but then turned and shuffled away into the night, in the opposite direction from which they had come.

“She’s heading toward Malivette’s place,” said one of the men with a bow. “Klara, Rolf, follow. The vampire’s scent will turn her aside and there’s no telling which direction she’ll go.”

A woman carrying two tomahawks and the man with the bell both nodded at him and strode off after the departed werewolf, keeping their pace even and their footsteps eerily quiet against the forest floor. In moments they, too, were lost again among the shadows.

The man in the lead, who had spoken, turned to Trissiny, bowing. He had a full beard, originally a ruddy brown but now flecked with gray, and smile lines radiating from the corners of his eyes. “General Avelea, well met. You’re unharmed, I trust?”

“It—she didn’t attack me,” Trissiny said carefully. “Do I know you?”

“Well,” he replied with a grin, “you are the only person on the planet with armor like that, and we were made aware of your presence in Veilgrad. But no, we’ve not met before. I had dearly hoped that we might. There’s a great deal I have wanted to discuss with you.”

“I see,” she said, frowning. “And…you are…?”

“Oh!” He clapped one hand to his forehead, disturbing the cowl of his green cloak. “Bah, I’m sorry. Wolf-herding duty tires the brain. My name’s Raichlin; these are Tabitha and Frind.”

“It’s an honor,” said the remaining woman, bowing. The other man just nodded deeply to her.

“You’re…” Trissiny studied the woman, who carried a longbow and had a tomahawk and heavy hunting knife hanging from her belt. “…not Shaathists, are you. The Shadow Hunters?”

Tabitha rolled her eyes; Frind grunted.

“Not the name we choose,” said Raichlin with a humorless little smile, “but it suits well enough, for now. You are here to see to the troubles plaguing Veilgrad, yes?”

“That’s the plan,” she said warily. “Progress has been…spotty.”

“I can only imagine,” he said, his smile broadening again. “Well, General, I would certainly never have set out to take up your time in the middle of the night. But since you are up and about, may I offer you the hospitality of our lodge? It is only a few minutes’ walk away. We would dearly love to speak with you.”

“Your lodge is within walking distance of the manor?” she said in surprise.

“The manor was not always the home of a vampire,” he said seriously. “The Dufresnes have always been good neighbors, and often good friends. Malivette, for obvious reasons, keeps her distance… But like our other acquaintance whom you just met, she suffers from a cursed condition that grants her a predatory nature, and goes to great lengths not to actually prey upon anyone. Such restraint and honor one cannot help but respect.”

“I see,” she said, frowning. Kuriwa had said to trust these people, that they could teach her something important… But how much could she trust Kuriwa? Even if the elf was actually family, the only confirmed family she had was possibly the least trustworthy individual she had ever met.

Trissiny reached within herself, seeking that core of light that was the goddess’s presence. Avei rarely communicated with her directly unless she sought her out in ritual prayer, but she felt only calm within. No warning, just strength and serenity.

“I’d be honored,” she said, finally lowering her sword.


 

Dawn came late to the mountain-sheltered town, with the Stalrange barring the east. It would be hours until actual sunlight fell upon Veilgrad, and some time in fact before it even glowed over the mountaintops. But there was a gray pallor to the sky, now, that hinted the sun was at least considering making its ascent.

Trissiny yawned, carefully securing the gate behind herself and then trudging back up the path toward the manor. Sword sheathed and shield slung over her back, she had a hand free, holding the book the Hunters had given her; her other hand kept straying of its own accord toward the pocket in which rested Kuriwa’s ocarina.

This had been a strange night indeed, but fruitful.

And now she had a reception waiting.

There wasn’t normally any furniture on the manor’s porch—it seemed to eschew outward signs that people were actually welcome there. Rafe had apparently dragged one of the dining room chairs all the way out, and now sat with it propped up on its back two legs, leaning against the wall beside the door.

“Rough night?” he said sympathetically as she climbed the steps.

“Eh,” Trissiny grunted.

“Do me a favor,” said the Professor, gazing past her at the gate and its view of the mountain road beyond. Veilgrad itself was barely visible in the valley below, partially hidden by the bend of the road and the intervening forest.

“Hm?” Trissiny paused, turning her head to look at him.

“Next time you go haring off on a solo nighttime adventure, take your roommate along.”

She frowned. “I’m able to take care of myself, Professor.”

“Oh, for sure,” he said easily. “Nobody doubts that. But, aside from the fact that there’s hellacious trouble afoot in this region and people do actually care enough about you to be worried out of their fucking minds when you mysteriously vanish in the middle of the night… Zaruda needs the exercise.”

“She…what?” Trissiny stared at him, not sure whether to be more flummoxed by that statement or the oblique rebuke which had preceded it.

“Ever stopped to consider what you’re dealing with out here?” Rafe said in a mild tone. “And how Ruda might respond to it? She’s a fantastic kicker of asses, but you’ve yet to narrow the search to a culprit who can be apprehended. She’s a people person who’s good at motivating groups, but the locals are standoffish and specifically mistrustful of you lot, which denies her the chance to use that skill. She’s clever, good at making plans and unraveling mysteries, but there’s just so damned little to go on, you’re all still in the dark, at least mostly.” He shifted in his chair, making it wobble slightly, to face her directly. “Can you imagine anything that would grind on Zaruda Punaji more painfully than feeling useless?”

Trissiny gaped. “I…that…”

“Not much of a people person, are you, Avelea?”

“Excuse me?”

Rafe shrugged. “Well, you aren’t. Should think about looking into it; people are actually really interesting. I bet if you bothered to pay attention to the ones who don’t need to be rescued or stabbed, you’d enrich your life considerably.”

It took her a few seconds to remember to shut her jaw.

“Well, anyway,” he carried on, leaning his head back against the wall and closing his eyes. “Imma nap out here for a while, but you’re probably better off back in your own bed, if you wanna try to catch some Zs before breakfast. Got at least an hour or so, I reckon. Go on, skedaddle.”

After a moment, she did. Mostly because she couldn’t think of a better idea, or a response.

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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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