Tag Archives: Shaiene

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Vadrieny sighed, peering around. Morning sun blazed from a gap in the passing clouds; the mountain air was fresh and bracing, the manor grounds quiet but enlivened by birdsong from outside the walls.

There was a total lack of warlocks or demons.

“Well, fine,” the archdemon said in exasperation. “It’s for the best; I feel ridiculous, shouting into thin air.”

“The woman merely said to call,” Shaeine said calmly, not for the first time. “She seemed quite eager to gain your favor; as Trissiny has explained, they have ample reason to be. If there were more to it, she would have said so.”

“And yet, here we are,” Vadrieny said, folding her arms. “Really, I think this is for the best. Trissiny was right about getting involved with the Wreath, and anyway, this just means they’re not listening. I’m more comfortable knowing I’m not being scryed on.”

“Arcane scrying would not be a practical way for them to be notified if you reached out,” Shaeine said, gently placing a hand on the back of Vadrieny’s shoulder. “Your voice is powerfully magical, Vadrieny; it’s far more likely the Wreath can pick up on that.”

“I don’t think I like that better,” Vadrieny replied, frowning deeply.

“You didn’t expect ’em to just pop up right away, didja?” Ruda inquired from her perch on the manor’s steps, pausing to swig from her bottle of rum. “They’ve gotta check out the situation before doing anything. On the subject of which, this whole idea is pointless on account of the Black fucking Wreath aren’t careless.”

“Be that as it may,” said Shaeine, “if Trissiny’s idea does not pan out, communicating with them may still be—”

She broke off at the sudden appearance of a spell circle on the gravel path in front of them. Vadrieny moved between Shaeine and the circle, subtly flexing her claws and spreading her fiery wings. It was a small circle, though, and simple in design, glowing sickly green and marked only with a sparse few runes.

In the next moment, a puff of smoke erupted from it, reeking of sulfur. It cleared swiftly in the light breeze, revealing an imp, which immediately fell to its knees and prostrated itself face-down on the ground.

“Oh, great, wise, talented and undeniably attractive lady!” the imp wailed in a thin, scratchy voice. “It is the greatest honor inflicted upon this humble servant to have the opportunity to humbly service you! Speak your command and it shall be done, preferably not in a fashion that gets me killed!”

Vadrieny blinked her blazing eyes, glancing at Shaeine before returning her gaze to the imp. It was a gangly little creature, rather like a monkey with some features of a goat: horns, hooves, and an elongated face. The fur with which it was covered was greasy and matted into clumps, and the smell that clung to it was of worse than sulfur. Altogether it couldn’t have been more than a foot tall, standing upright.

“You are supposed to help me?” Vadrieny demanded. “This is the assistance the Wreath promised?”

“Not exactly, oh euphonious one!” the imp declaimed. “Your humble servicer’s task is to learn what you need and carry this information back to your legion of warlocks just waiting on tenterhooks to fulfill their duty to your exalted person. Oh, yes, and I’m also supposed to tell you something from them.” He scrambled to his feet and drew himself up as if at attention, tucking on hand behind his back and discreetly coughing into the other. “Ahem. I am to say hello to your paladin and fairy friends and your vampire hostess and express with the greatest respect that no, we will not be charging headlong into an insultingly obvious trap. Honestly, is babysitting the little thug going to be like this every time? Why couldn’t Arvanzideen have been the one who survived?” He trailed off, blinked his beady eyes once, then swallowed heavily and began folding himself back down into a crouch. “I, uh… It just occurred to me I wasn’t supposed to repeat the whole thing verbatim…”

Ruda howled with laughter. “Ah, man, that is priceless. Since saying ‘I told you so’ is gauche and cliché, I’ll have to upgrade my contribution to ‘I fucking told you so!’”

Vadrienly flexed her claws once, very deliberately; the imp let out a shrill squeak and huddled into a ball.

“Very well,” the archdemon said stiffly, reaching out one leg to prod him with a single talon. “That’s fair. I need two things from the Wreath. First, I want to know if they attacked the Imperial barracks in Veilgrad, and if so, what they took.”

“I can do that!” the imp said, peeking up and nodding vigorously. “Yes indeed, I’m your hellspawn, oh wise and mellifluous, not to mention devastatingly good-looking purveyor of all that is—”

“Please stop!” Vadrieny exclaimed. “Second, we have a Rhaazke demon here who needs a way home. I want to know if the Wreath can help with that.”

“You’ve got a what?” Seeming to forget his terror, the imp unfolded himself, blinking owlishly up at her. “What’re you doing with a Rhaazke? We are on the mortal plane, right? How did you do that?”

“Never you mind!” she barked. “Just get me the answers I asked for. Is that clear?”

He snapped to attention again and saluted. “Yes, ma’am, my greatest and most beneficent—“

“And stop that! Simple answers only, please!”

The imp froze, blinked, worked his mouth slowly as if rolling something around his tongue, and finally spoke hesitantly. “Okay.”

“Now, what information are you supposed to get me?” Vadrieny said sharply.

The imp frowned reproachfully. “You wanna know whether the Wreath attacked the Imperial barracks, and how to send a Rhaazke home. Honestly, lady, you don’t gotta be condescending. I’m not stupid. I was given the task of charging headlong into an insultingly obvious trap just to speak with you! I’m somebody trusted!”

Vadrieny snorted musically. “That, or they don’t care if you die.”

“That…well…I…oh.” His posture slowly deflated until he slouched with a hangdog expression. “I guess I’ll just go…deliver your message, then. Bye.”

With another puff of foul-smelling smoke, the demon vanished. A moment later, the tiny summoning circle faded out.

Vadrieny clapped a clawed hand to her face. “Augh. Why do I feel guilty about that?!”

“Because it was mean,” Shaeine said quietly, patting her shoulder again. “And because you are a good person, if a trifle impatient.”

The crunch of feet on gravel announced the arrival of the others from behind Malivette’s vine-encrusted tool shed.

“I liked him,” Juniper announced with a beaming smile. “He was adorable! We didn’t really get to spend any time with the imps in Melaxyna’s place.”

“Imps,” Trissiny said disapprovingly, “are among the better-behaved but less stable species of sentient demons. They tend to leak infernal radiation wherever they are.”

“Actually, that’s debated among scholars,” Fross chimed. “There’s usually a lot of infernal residue where imps have been, but in most such cases there are lots of dead imps where imps have been, and all magical creatures release energy upon expiring. They’re kind of careless, as I understand it.”

“Either way,” said Trissiny, “I am going to bless this space before—”

“Here’s an idea,” Toby interrupted. “Let’s ask our undead hostess if she minds having blessings laid on her property before we do anything. Malivette has already been more patient with us than we have any right to expect. I really don’t think it would be nice of us to create a patch of her front drive that she can’t walk over.”

“Oh. Right.” Trissiny looked abashed. “Right, that’s a good point.”

“Anyway!” Ruda ambled toward them, casually tossing her bottle from hand to hand. “There’s that much out of the way. The day’s still young, and we’re still up shit creek without a clue. Do what you need to with Vette and the driveway, and then let’s go collect Gabe and get on with the next stage of the plan.”


 

“Captain!”

Dijanerad dismissed Lieutenant Vriss with a pat on the shoulder before turning to face the elf stalking across the parade ground toward her, brandishing a piece of parchment. The rest of Squad One trailed after their sergeant in precise formation, with carefully blank expressions.

“Good morning, Locke,” said the captain. “You know, you get increasingly witty the madder you are. Sometimes I feel tempted to tick you off on purpose, just to enjoy the comedy that follows.”

Principia halted a few yards distant, frowning. “Well…thank you?”

“It wasn’t a random comment,” Dijanerad said dryly. “I’ve learned to associate that observation with the expression on your face right now. Let me just ask for formality’s sake: what’s on your mind?”

“May I be allowed to know why my squad is being punished?” Principia demanded, holding out the paper accusingly.

“If you are, nobody informed me,” Dijanerad said calmly. “In which case I am going to scrub my bathtub with someone’s scalp. Yes, yes, fine, I know. I did sign off on those orders, which are not a punishment. It was at the request of your current—ah, what perfect timing. As always, your Grace.”

She saluted the approaching Bishop Shahai, who nodded to her with a smile. “Oh, stop that, Shahdi; we hold the same rank.”

“Until Syrinx comes back, if she does.”

Shahai rolled her eyes. “At ease, then. Do you mind if I borrow Locke and company? It seems I owe them an explanation.”

“I am perfectly willing for someone other than me to endure this conversation, yes,” Dijanerad said with a grin. “As you were, ladies.”

“First,” said Shahai as the captain departed, “I apologize for the fact that you did not hear this firsthand from me. I prefer, of course, for any such disruptive orders to come with an explanation if possible. It’s been an interesting morning; I had to send the message out before I had liberty to join you.”

“Confined to the Temple grounds?” Principia said sharply. “I assumed this was a punishment of some kind, your Grace, because otherwise it smacks of attempting to protect us. As if someone, somewhere, had mistaken a squad of Silver Legionnaires for a gaggle of simpering schoolgirls.”

“It is an attempt to protect you,” Shahai replied calmly. “Nor is that a denigration of your abilities.” She glanced around the parade grounds; the cohort’s other squads were trailing out toward their assigned duties. “The facts as we know them are that you were recently the target of a campaign by Zanzayed the Blue, which seems to have been meant to draw attention to you. As of today, we are reasonably sure it worked.”

“Worked?” Principia said sharply. “How?”

“Individuals have been watching the Legion fortress’s gates,” Shahai said, still in perfect calm. “That is unusual, but not criminal, and by itself not necessarily suspicious. We do not accost people for just hanging around. They fled when approached, which is much more suspicious. However…” She sighed softly, her expression tightening. “First thing this morning a request was delivered to me at the Cathedral by Bishop Ferdowsi for Silver Legion guards, which as you know is somewhat unusual for Nemitites. Someone he described as ‘suspicious and creepy’ was at the Steppe Library yesterday evening, making pointed inquiries after Private Szaravid.”

Farah’s eyes widened and she clutched her lance tighter, trembling faintly in place.

“I assure you,” Shahai said quickly, “all relevant steps have been taken. Lang, I know you don’t speak with your parents, but the main temple in Calderaas was telescrolled anyway; they will be discreetly watched. Steps were taken to protect all of your families, including Avelea’s ex-husband.” She pursed her lips. “Since attempting to post a guard on a Huntsman would have been tantamount to instigating a brawl, I was forced to explain the situation to Bishop Varanus, and endure his subsequent commentary. And, of course, Legionnaires were posted at the Steppe Library as requested.”

“I am going to stab that dragon right in the nuts,” Principia announced. “With his own jawbone.”

“It does appear Zanzayed’s campaign was effective,” Shahai agreed sardonically. “He has managed to publicly mark you, Locke, as a person of interest to him. While we are still without useful leads as to the identities of this anti-dragon organization, this does reveal they have some organizational capability and the capacity for more forethought than their paint-throwing suggested. They’ve identified members of your squad and begun investigating them. Locke, you are jealous of your privacy, I know, but if there is anyone you would like to have protected, you need only ask.”

Principia snorted. “Who? The Thieves’ Guild? My parents’ grove? The Legions? Seriously, I hope these idiots try to attack any of my past associates. That’ll solve this whole problem neatly.”

“Indeed,” Shahai said with a faint smile. “I fear we are not so lucky as to have such foolish foes. For now, Squad One is confined to the Temple grounds, partly for its direct protection, but mostly as a means to control the situation. You are trusted to take care of yourselves, ladies, and that trust will be acted upon soon. In fact, you are now the perfect bait to draw these dragon-haters out. We know they want you. However, this will occur at a time and place of our choosing—a trap laid by the Sisterhood, not an ambush sprung by our opponents. And until we have more information with which to work, that means you must be kept out of sight and inaccessible.”

“This is is totally unacceptable,” Ephanie said tightly. “For the Conclave to use us this way…”

Shahai sighed and shook her head. “Yes. Part of me hates to be so mercenary, but the fact is that we gain immense political capital from this. Such an action by the Conclave, or any member thereof, places them significantly in our debt. And not even dragons will wish to be on the cult of Avei’s bad side on a permanent basis. Hands of Avei and Silver Legions have brought them down in the past.”

“Your Grace,” Principia said icily, “I had training planned for my squad which required access to carefully prepared facilities, which I set up. At my own expense.”

“I can see that you are compensated, of course,” Shahai said.

Principia shook her head. “It’s only money. Not important.”

“Can I have your wages, then?” Merry muttered.

The sergeant gave her a warning glance, but continued. “The training was what mattered. It was…necessary. I need to be able to drill my squad.”

“Is there something wrong with the parade ground here?” Shahai asked mildly.

“I need to be able to drill my squad in private,” Principia clarified, holding her gaze.

“I see.” The Bishop studied her carefully, then glanced across the assembled Squad One. “Considering the nature of Tiraas, I assume this was a prepared indoor space.”

“Yes, your Grace.”

“For what you had in mind, would you need anything other than the space itself?”

Principia hesitated before responding. “Practice dummies. Imperial Army grade, preferably, with shielding charms.”

“Is there something you would like to tell me, Sergeant?” Shahai asked quietly.

Principia drew in a deep breath. “I assure you, your Grace, we are not up to anything against regulations or the Legion code of conduct.”

“But something you don’t wish to be seen doing.”

“There are things beyond regulations and codes binding the Legions,” Principia said evenly. “I might even say strangling them. I think the High Commander will approve of what we’ll have to show her—if I am allowed to conduct the training needed.”

“And you cannot just ask her because…”

“Because,” Principia said stiffly, “I’m reasonably sure she won’t let us do it.”

Shahai studied them all again. The squad stood rigidly at attention, eyes straight ahead, except for Princpia’s, which rested on the Bishop’s face.

“I will secure one of the subterranean gymnasiums for you,” Shahai said abruptly. “You are extending trust to me in this, Locke, so I shall do likewise. You have earned some confidence in your judgment. Please do keep in mind that the outcome of your…experiment…will reflect on me.”

“You will not be disappointed, your Grace.”

“I don’t worry about being disappointed,” Shahai murmured, turning back toward the temple. “Disappointment I can live with. I worry about the things I can’t. Dismissed, ladies.”


“Okay, I’ll admit it,” Gabriel said, “I’m impressed. And a little puzzled. Seriously, how did you know to come here? Are you sure you’ve never been to Veilgrad before?”

“For about ten minutes at a time, on the way to and from Puna Dara.” Ruda snorted. “It’s a city—I know how cities work. Punaji royalty don’t get raised in a palace. People who grow up in palaces have no concept of how actual people live, and that is a recipe for a bad fucking leader.” She shrugged, gesturing expansively around at the shabby, shadowed back street into which they had stepped. “I’ve been watching the city while we’ve wandered through it. Every city has something like this—one any bigger would have several. You just keep an eye on the street layout, check the quality and size of buildings and their state of repair, and watch the movements of people, see where the shabby and/or sneaky ones drift toward.”

“You’ve observed all that just from passing through the city a few times over two days?” Trissiny said. “Well, I’m… Floored, honestly. That’s sort of amazing.”

Ruda turned to wink at her. “You were trained to lead troops, Boots; I was trained to lead everyone else. Neither of you two pay much attention to people, you know that? Anyhow… Since I like you, I’m comfortable admitting that we lucked out, here. The kind of signs I was looking for could just as well lead to an industrial area, or a foreigner-town like Lor’naris. Or several other things.”

At a very superficial glance, Rose Street was just another shopping neighborhood, lined with stores and stalls and wavering very slightly in its course; in contrast to the ordered grid of Tiraas, Veilgrad had meandering streets that had clearly been allowed to grow organically. It was a shadier avenue than most in the literal sense, sheltered by the city wall on one side and the towering bulk of warehouses and factories on the other, its smaller storefronts sandwiched into a space that had probably been a mandated gap between the wall and the town proper long ago, in more militaristic times.

It wasn’t that everything was in particularly bad repair, either. In fact, a few of the storefronts they passed were clean and formed of ostentatiously carved wood, with gilded signs and broad glass windows graced by velvet curtains. Others were shabby, and this variety of shops here mixed together in a way that rich and poor rarely did in most places. The signs were subtler, but unmistakeable once noticed. Rough-looking, unsmiling people loitered in alleys and in front of the pricier shops, staring flatly at everyone who passed, and making up for the total lack of actual constables. Well more than half of the stores, despite being clearly open, had boarded windows, no signs and generally no indication of what sort of business they did. There was a disproportionate number of weapon and magic stores, and far too many all-purpose pawn shops with discreet signage. Nearly every window had bars, either permanently in place or fixed to be latched onto storefront displays once business hours ended. A good number of places that were too clean and well-repaired to be abandoned were closed and shuttered, their own business hours clearly occurring after dark.

“This is exactly the kind of neighborhood my father warned me to stay out of,” Gabriel murmured.

“Oh, c’mon, what’s going to happen to you?” Ruda asked breezily. “You’re practically invulnerable. Yes, Arquin, fucking stabbed you, and so on. You need some new fucking material.”

“I wasn’t going to say that,” he replied, “and it loses emphasis when said by someone who uses ‘fucking’ as punctuation. Anyhow, it’s not about physical vulnerability. If a mob had jumped me and any of them got so much as a broken nail, the story would be how the half-demon mauled a bunch of upstanding citizens. Even assuming a magistrate enforced the actual laws, every incident like that brings me closer to a headsman with a blessed ax. Brought, I guess,” he added. “I don’t think I’ll ever be used to being someone…significant.”

“We don’t seem to be making any friends, here,” Trissiny murmured. “Why is everyone just staring? If they’d run, or attack, or… I can’t figure out what to expect.”

Indeed, their passage down the street brought most activity nearby to a stop, with thugs, passersby and shopkeepers pausing to gaze flatly at them.

“Normal people don’t flee or attack strangers, Trissiny, that’s just you,” Ruda said cheerfully. “Here we have three teenagers, very well-dressed and with needlessly expensive weapons. One, however, is in armor that clearly means serious fucking business even if you haven’t read enough books to know what a Hand of Avei looks like. We’re clearly marks, but also possibly not to be fucked with, so they don’t know what to think. Usually the presence of the Thieves’ Guild determines how the rough element behaves, but if that soldier told you the truth, they aren’t around anymore. That leaves a gray area in everyone’s expectations.”

“Hmp,” Trissiny grunted disapprovingly, glaring at a brawny man in a sleeveless vest. He blinked once, then nodded respectfully at her and eased backward into the shadows of an alley. “What do all these people do if there’s no Guild? They can’t all be criminals, or the Guild would come back to stomp on them. They like to talk about bringing down the powerful, but what they really don’t tolerate is competition.”

Ruda shrugged. “Probably just folk doing business in less-than-socially-acceptable materials, mostly. Maybe some light smuggling, a little gambling, harmless stuff like that. I guarantee the local shroom farms are in basements on this street.”

“Wait, back up. I look expensive?” Ariel asked, sounding mildly surprised.

“To someone who knows weapons, you’re clearly elven and old,” said Ruda. “That automatically means expensive, if you can find the right buyer.”

“So…what is our plan, here?” Gabriel asked. “So far, this seems about as useful a day as Toby and the fairies are probably having.”

“They might still get something out of the cultist prisoners,” Trissiny murmured.

“Yeah, but we aren’t getting anything out of the local rough element,” Gabe retorted. “I thought the big idea was to see if we can find information about dangerous business in town.” He frowned, glancing up and down the street. “Actually…hasn’t everyone been telling us the citizens of Veilgrad have been more aggressive than usual lately? This seems too quiet…”

“Well, obviously, you learn things by talking to people.” Ruda paused, turned to look at them critically, then continued. “Okay, you two hang out here for a bit while I go talk to someone.”

“Why?” Trissiny demanded.

“Because,” the pirate said with a grin, “neither of you has the slightest concept how to have the kind of conversation I’m about to have, and you will fuck it up.”

“She’s almost certainly right,” Ariel noted.

“Thanks,” Gabriel said sourly.

“Be right back,” Ruda said, and strolled off toward a stall selling bread and sausage in front of a moneylender’s store with iron bars over its windows. No less than five scruffy, muscular, well-armed men loitered around the front of the building.

Ruda walked right up to the stand and leaned on it, conversing with the stout woman behind it, who looked wary but gradually seemed to un-tense as the pirate spoke. A moment later, she was smiling and deftly slicing a tough little bun with a knife, forming a kind of pocket into which she stuffed a hot sausage and a helping of sauerkraut. The whole time, Ruda chattered on aimlessly.

“None of that seems too difficult,” Trissiny muttered.

“Yeah,” Gabe agreed. “And do you notice how she’s not ordering any food for us?”

“I’m not hungry anyway. What, doesn’t Grusser feed you?”

“That’s not the point,” he huffed. “It’s rude.”

“Then analyze the message,” Ariel suggested. “Unlike you, Princess Zaruda is rude for specific purpose, not due to a lack of social skills.”

“Yeah?” he said irritably. “What’s your excuse?”

“I was designed for magical assistance, not social interaction. It’s my nature to render straightforward opinion, which is helpful toward my primary purpose but, I have noticed, often counterproductive when people’s feelings come into play.”

“You could refrain from sharing all your opinions?” Trissiny suggested.

“I do. You have never heard me observe, for example, that that dryad of yours desperately needs to be muzzled and leashed. Sometimes, however, personal observations are imminently relevant to the situation at hand.”

Trissiny started to speak again, but fell still, staring at the action around the stall.

One of the toughs watching over the moneylender’s building had straightened from his lounging position at the corner, swaggered over to Ruda and leaned forward to say something inaudible at that distance, leering. His compatriots were staring at this expressionlessly, making no move to get involved.

Ruda glanced up at the man, said something curt, and turned her attention back to the sausage vendor, who now also looked nervous.

Scowling, the thug grabbed Ruda by the shoulder, attempting to spin her around.

Her rapier formed a silver arc as she whipped it out of its sheath and stabbed him through the foot.

“Wait,” Gabriel said urgently, grabbing Trissiny’s pauldron as she started forward. “Just wait. Ruda knows what she’s doing; if the others get involved, we’ll go help.”

They didn’t, though. One of the tough’s fellows rolled his eyes and another burst out laughing, but no one made a move to help him. He hopped backward, flailing for balance and cursing loudly, which lasted until Ruda landed a vicious kick between his legs.

She came strolling back to her friend, munching on her sausage roll and leaving the man huddled in a ball on the sidewalk. The sausage vendor gave him a pitiless look and snorted; one of his friends finally stepped forward to help him up, while another called “Nice kick!” after Ruda.

“Hey, you didn’t butt in,” Ruda said cheerfully. “You’re finally learnin’ some discretion, Shiny Boots!”

“Gabriel stopped her,” Ariel said. “Even more impressive, he is finally learning some discretion.”

“Shut up, Ariel,” the paladins said in unison.

“Did you gain anything from that besides a second breakfast?” Trissiny added.

Ruda chewed, swallowed, and grinned. “Yup. Some insight into where the creepy shit in this town tends to come from and congregate. Did you know there are catacombs?”

“No, but of course there are catacombs,” Gabriel groaned. “There are always catacombs.”

“Tiraas doesn’t have catacombs,” Trissiny pointed out. “And honestly, how many places have you been to that did?”

“Come on, that’s quibbling over terminology. Tiraas has a network of unusually large sewer tunnels, and the University has the Crawl. There’s always something nasty underground, where the nasty things go to hide.” He sighed. “And we have to go down there, don’t we?”

“What, us? Just like that, at the first sign of the existence of such a thing?” Ruda snorted, took a bite of her sandwich and carried on talking around it. “Try not to be such a towering fucknut, Arquin. You need to read some comics; doin’ shit like that is exactly what always gets the heroes into trouble. No, if we’re going into any goddamn catacombs, we’re bringin’ the whole group. We handled the Crawl, nothing under this town’s gonna take on the ten of us.” She paused to swallow. “But. Before we bring the others in, let’s get some more information. The nice lady told me where the nearest entrance is—it’s under a Universal Church chapel, so should be safe enough. And by the way, this stuff is awesome. I can’t believe I never had sauerkraut before. Gotta import some of this back home.”

“Ew.” Gabriel wrinkled his nose. “That crap tastes like pissed-on feet.”

“People are eating here, you fucking cretin. Mind your goddamn language.”

“A chapel sounds good,” Trissiny agreed. “We can ask the priests there about the catacombs.”

“Yeah, except there aren’t any,” said Ruda. “My new friend back there said the Universal Church has been pulling out of the city since early summer. Only their central cathedral still has any staff at all, and it’s down to a skeleton crew.”

“Oh, so it’s an abandoned church,” Gabriel groaned. “That’s good and creepy.”

“Less creepy than roomin’ with a vampire,” Ruda said, grinning, which was a horrible sight given the tendency of sauerkraut and sausage to stick in the teeth. “C’mon, whiner, she said it was just up the street a ways.”

“Odd that the Universal Church would have a chapel in this neighborhood,” Trissiny said, frowning. They moved off down Rose Street, following Ruda.

“Probably just seems that way because you’re an elitist, Boots. If you’re running any kind of organization that does charity, you go where the people who need charity are. Isn’t that the whole point of your Silver Missions?”

“Yes, you’re right,” Trissiny said thoughtfully. “In fact, now that you bring that up, this is an excellent place to put one, especially if the local church has closed up. I’ll send a scroll to the Temple next chance I get.”

“I thought the Avenists stayed out of Veilgrad because it was full of Shaathists?” Gabriel said.

“At no point in all of history have the Sisters of Avei permitted the Huntsmen to push us around,” she said frostily. “There’s not a significant Sisterhood facility in Veilgrad because there aren’t enough Avenists worshipers to make it worthwhile, and we don’t proselytize as a rule.”

“Okay, okay,” he said, raising his hands. “No need to snap.”

“Gabriel, for your own well-being and general peace of mind, refrain from telling irate feminists to mind their tone.”

Ruda howled with laughter, spraying flecks of her sandwich. Luckily she was facing away from them, but that still served as enough of a distraction to end the discussion.

Most of Rose Street was much the same as the parts they had already seen. They did, at one point, pass a stone building which stood out from its mostly wooden counterparts; its only sign advertised free meals for the poor, and there was a discreet sunburst of Omnu painted above the door. Another block or so beyond that, not long after Ruda finished her sandwich, they finally came to the old chapel.

It was a typical representation of the Church’s preferred style: stone, rectangular and with tall windows. None were stained glass, and all were behind iron bars; encouragingly, none had been broken. The place was still and silent, an accumulation of dead leaves and other minor debris on its steps and sills attesting to its disused state, though it had clearly not been abandoned long enough for any real decay to set in. As far as could be observed from the street, the chapel had suffered no actual damage.

“So,” Gabriel drawled, stuffing his hands into his pockets. “Do we…knock?”

“Do I have to do everything around here?” Ruda said, rolling her eyes. “You two are fucking paladins. I’m pretty sure you’ve got the right to go in a Universal Church chapel if you want. Hell, I doubt anybody would bitch too much if you broke in the door.”

“Ruda,” Trissiny said, turning to gaze evenly at her.

“What?”

Trissiny held her gaze for a long, silent moment, until Ruda sighed and shuffled her boots, looking actually uncomfortable. “All right, fine, sorry. I doubt anybody would complain if you broke the door. Better?”

“Yes, thank you,” Trissiny said with a smile.

“Well, there’s always the traditional approach to try before that,” Gabriel said, bounding up the two steps leading to the doors. “It’d be a shame to damage these.” Indeed, they were of the local dark hardwood, once well-polished, though their sheen was quite dull now, and ornately carved to form a large ankh split down the middle where the double doors opened. He grasped the handle and pulled.

The hinges squealed in complaint at their long disuse, but the door opened easily. Gabriel froze, blinking, then turned to stare down at the others.

“Is it just me, or is that…ominous?”

“It’s a little ominous, yeah,” Ruda agreed. “Unless the Church had gotten too bureaucratic for its own good, someone should’ve thought to at least lock it.”

“Well, actually,” said Trissiny with a slight smile, “according to—”

“I’m sorry to interrupt this charming banter,” said Ariel, “but you should be aware there is magic active in that building, and not of the divine nature one would expect on a chapel. In fact, its normal blessings have been eroded far more than a few months of disuse would account for. Someone did that deliberately.”

“What kind of magic?” Trissiny demanded, frowning. “I don’t sense anything…evil.”

“It is vague and extremely difficult for me to pin down,” the sword replied. “Which, in conjunction with your own failure to identify a magical signature, suggests what I am perceiving is some kind of ward intended to obscure what is happening within.”

The three of them exchanged a round of looks, frowning, then turned as one to peer up at the silent chapel. The street around them was even quieter than normal, it seemed.

“We’d better have a look,” Gabriel said finally. “And I’m not just saying that because I’d feel ridiculous running away from something just because it’s kind of creepy. If we’re going to go get the others in on this, we should have something actually useful to tell them.”

“Agreed,” said Trissiny, stepping up to join him. “A quick look.”

They filed inside, Gabriel leaving the door standing open, and paused, letting their eyes grow accustomed to the dimness. The interior was laid out on a standard plan, with a wall right in front of them serving to divide the main sanctuary from its entryway. It covered only the center of the space, leaving gaps to either side into the chapel proper. After a moment, Trissiny drew her sword, nodding pointedly to the others, who followed suit. Gabriel pulled his wand out, somewhat awkwardly drawing Ariel left-handed.

“I sense something now,” Trissiny murmured. “Faint, obscured, but…it makes me a little edgy. Be wary.”

They stepped around the corner into the sanctuary, and froze.

The sanctuary was a wreck. Its pews were demolished, scattered about as little more than kindling, leaving a wide plowed track running erratically through the debris instead of the orderly central aisle there would have been before. The entire pulpit was destroyed, the very dais on which it had stood ripped up, floorboards and flagstones alike. All this had been piled in the choir loft, leaving a gaping hole in the floor where the pastor would have stood to give sermons.

More immediately, the room was occupied.

The man standing to the right of the hole was tall and hunched, wearing a hooded robe that had been blood red before getting as filthy as it was; it served handily to conceal his appearance. The students gave him, the destruction and the hole into the underground only a passing look before focusing on the other creature present.

At least nine feet tall, it was made of bones—apparently human bones, though its own form was not at all human. A rough melange of ribcages and pelvises formed its lower body, which was laid out roughly like a horse’s, with four bowed limbs cobbled together from multiple long bones supporting it. In fact, it was proportioned like a centaur, a secondary torso (also stitched together from pieces of skeletons) rising from the front of its lower body. Four spindly arms extended from this, at uneven intervals, seemingly attached wherever a suitable end of a collarbone happened to jut from its asymmetrical construction. On the top of the towering monstrosity perched an incongruously normal-sized human skull, banded with iron, marked with runes and lit from within by eerie green fire. The whole construct was bound together with a combination of metal joints and supports, and networks of black, oozing tissue serving as ligaments. All of its fingers, of which it had an uneven number on each hand, were tipped in iron claws; its four feet were huge iron horseshoes, each connected to its legs by the bones of three distinct human feet.

“Well,” Ruda said after a moment, “do you fucking sense that?”

“Fools and interlopers,” the bent man hissed, dry-washing his hands in front of his filthy robe. The ragged ends of a graying brown beard emerged from the deep hollow of his hood, all that could be seen of his features. “Running around, trying to spoil everything. Try, little bugs, just try. More fun in the end.”

“Oh, gods,” Gabriel muttered. “He’s one of those.”

“Enjoy your last moments!” the man suddenly shrieked, and skittered toward the hole with an oddly spider-like gait. He vanished into the darkness below, deranged laughter echoing after him.

The bone construct took a deliberate step forward, a wet rumble sounding from within one of its chests. Framed by rib bones, there were several pulsing organs that might have been hearts, lungs, or something comparable.

“We can take this thing, right?” Gabriel muttered tersely.

“Standard necromancy, not chaos,” Ariel reported. “It is safe to use magic against it.”

“Hang on,” said Trissiny. She stepped forward and raised her voice. “Hey, you! Can you understand me? Do you talk?”

The construct halted its slow advance, peering down at her. “Khhrrr?”

“I’ll take that for a yes,” she said. “We surrender.”

It leaned forward; there was no interpreting any expression on its fleshless face, but it lowered its arms to a slightly less menacing position. “Surrrr?”

“What?” Ruda hissed. “What the fuck are you doing?”

“Here, see?” Trissiny carefully reversed the grip on her sword, holding it point-down. “All yours. Close your eyes,” she added in a much lower tone, and tossed the sword forward, straight at one of the construct’s hands.

Apparently by reflex, it caught the weapon by its hilt.

The chapel filled with a deafening roar and an obliterating blaze of white light.

“Motherfucker!” Gabriel squawked, staggering to one side and furiously rubbing his eyes.

“She warned you.”

“Oh, shut up!”

“She did, though,” said Ruda, lowering her hands from her own eyes to survey the damage.

Just like that, the towering abomination was gone. Not so much as a splinter of bone remained, though its four smoldering horseshoes still rested on the floor amid the debris. None of the wooden scraps had been burned, despite the flecks of ash drifting on the air.

Trissiny’s sword rested on the ground, its point improbably driven into the floorboards. She stepped forward and picked it up, looking smug.

“That was pretty damn underhanded,” Ruda noted with approval. “Good to see you branching out your tactics and all, Triss, but isn’t using surrender as a cover for attack pretty damn well frowned upon? That doesn’t seem very Avenist.”

“I didn’t attack it,” Trissiny replied, sliding her sword back into its scabbard. “Anyone picking up this sword is inviting Avei’s direct attention. She surely wouldn’t smite someone for catching something I threw at them, but by someone, I refer to an actual person. A necromantic abomination of the worst kind is an entirely different matter.”

“Sounds to me like you’re splitting hairs,” Ruda said skeptically.

“Mm. You may have a point.” Trissiny frowned thoughtfully. “I will pray on that later.”

“Meanwhile!” Gabriel snapped, still blinking his eyes. “Needless to say, we are not going down that hole. This seems like exactly the kind of intel we should bring back to the others so we can form a plan and act on it.”

“Yeah,” Ruda agreed. “I feel even worse about Toby, Juniper and Fross being sent off to the prison, now. They’re obviously wasting their time.” She glanced at the ragged tunnel leading underground, into which the robed man had fled. “No point interrogating the chaos cultists dumb enough to get caught, when we should be worried about the ones still loose.”

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“Well, it’s mostly good, right?” Juniper said brightly. “I mean, honestly I don’t expect a lot to come of talking with the cultists, especially if they’re already in prison. If they knew anything useful, the Empire surely woulda had it out of ’em long before now. But it sounds like we’ve got sources of help!”

“None of that is help we need!” Trissiny said stridently. An expression of alarm had descended upon her features as Teal and Shaeine described their odd encounter on the street outside, and not diminished since. “Dragging Eserites into anything invariably leads to more trouble, and accepting help from the Black Wreath is so totally out of the question I can’t believe I even have to say it!”

“It’s funny to me how you assume you have to say it,” Ruda remarked idly from the stairs.

“You don’t,” Teal assured Trissiny. “I know, Triss. Believe me, I know. This is one of the lectures I got most often from the Church. I understand how the Wreath operates. It’d start with one small, very reasonable favor, and escalate wildly from there. The only way to win with them is not to engage them at all. Never let them work so much as a fingernail into a crack.”

Trissiny drew in a breath and let it out slowly. “Right. Yes, you’re right. Sorry, Teal, I should’ve considered you would know all this. The subject just makes me edgy.”

“Rightly so,” Toby said, wearing a concerned frown.

“What worries me,” Trissiny continued, “is that the Wreath are totally without scruples. We’ve got enough trouble in Veilgrad already, and I can easily imagine them making more if they have a presence here.”

“They operate magically, though,” Gabriel said. “If chaos is the problem, that puts them under the same disadvantage as everyone else.”

“Wrong and wrong!” Trissiny snapped. “The chaos isn’t everywhere; all of us have used magic since coming here without having it misfire.” Ruda cleared her throat loudly. “Sorry, most of us.”

“Yeah!” Fross chimed. “If I fall out of the air or suddenly stop existing, guys, that’s a warning sign.”

“More to the point,” Trissiny barreled on, “the Black Wreath are not dangerous because they’re warlocks—or not chiefly. As warlocks go, they are usually more in control and less likely to cause messy splash effects than random self-taught practitioners. They are dangerous because they are crafty, insidious and very skilled at manipulation and…and…con artistry.”

“And we’re back to the Eserites,” Ruda said, grinning.

“Trissiny, we know,” Teal said gently.

“What worries me,” the paladin said, “is that if the Wreath can’t tempt you to reach out to them…they are very capable of creating a need. Causing a problem that’ll make their particular brand of help look especially attractive, possibly even necessary.”

“We’ll have to be watchful, then,” said Shaeine. “What else can we do? I concur, Trissiny, that it is necessary to be alert and aware of the danger they represent, but dwelling on them excessively poses its own hazards.”

“Well,” Ruda said cheerfully, “as the group’s acknowledged expert on both evil and pomposity, Boots pretty much can’t not give a lecture when the Wreath is about!”

“Your commentary is helpful as always, Princess.”

“Y’know, sword,” Ruda retorted, “coming from anyone else, that would be slightly rude. From you? Comedy gold. A real visit from the irony fairy.”

“Excuse me, but those are a myth,” said Fross.

“Okaaaay,” Juniper said pointedly. “Wreath bad. Point made, and made again. But…what about that Eserite corporal? Are you sure she was an Eserite?”

“It’s not as if she came out and said it,” Toby replied, “but she did that coin thing they do and quoted the first and most famous line of the Eserite catechism. I’m pretty sure she’s Guild.”

“Coin thing?” Shaeine tilted her head inquisitively.

“Rolling a coin across the backs of the fingers,” Toby said, holding up his own hand, fingers a-waggle to demonstrate. “It’s… Well, it’s not something official, and it’s not like they punish other people for doing coin tricks, but that particular one is something they often use to signal their affiliation.”

“Huh,” Gabriel mused. “Sounds like that’d be easy enough to fake.”

Ruda snorted, not looking at them. For far from the first time during that conversation, she was peering through a crack in the wall near the ceiling of the dim basement, which afforded a narrow view of the warehouse floor up ahead. Faint sounds of commerce filtered into the basement from above, hopefully enough to mask their conversation. Malivette had assured them, anyhow, that everyone working in that warehouse knew better than to hear anything happening in the basement. “Pretending to be in the Thieves’ Guild is an excellent way for dumbasses to lose the use of their fingers.”

“I’ll repeat my inherent distrust of Eserites,” Trissiny said, frowning, “but in all fairness…this is a somewhat different matter. For one thing, what we dealt with in Tiraas last winter was very unusual; the Guild doesn’t generally operate in any concerted fashion. Eserites don’t like organizations, and only tolerate them out of necessity. One thief hinting she might want to help us is more likely to be just that, not a sign that the Guild itself is involved.”

“Even so, it’s weird,” said Gabriel. “I mean, a thief in the Army?”

“Weird, yes,” Toby agreed, “but not impossible. Eserites are allowed in the Army.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Juniper commented.

“The Thieves’ Guild is the cult of a Pantheon god,” Toby replied. “You can’t just ban them. No smart organization would try to prohibit their membership, either. That’s exactly the kind of thing that would make them take an unhealthy interest. What’s odd is that one would become a soldier. The whole… I mean, army life is pretty much the opposite of what Eserites are all about.”

“Yeah,” Gabriel agreed, nodding. “I don’t know whether to be impressed or puzzled that the Colonel picked the local Eserite for his personal aide.”

Still staring out the crack, Ruda snorted again. “Cute how you assume he knows.”

“Besides,” Trissiny added, “her obvious motivation for joining the Army is to keep an eye on it, or someone in it. Either on general principles or because she wants access to something in particular. Remember our dealings with the guards in Lor’naris, how the quartermaster said their paperwork was a mess? Armies tend to get like that, no matter how well-organized they try to be. Someone in the right position could acquire all kinds of stuff; military gear must be a very lucrative slice of the black market. All of which brings us back to the original point: Corporal Timms is not a danger even close to the Black Wreath, and even may possibly be useful if she wants to, but we need to think very carefully before asking for her help. There will be a price.”

“That by itself shouldn’t be an argument against it,” Ruda murmured. “Nothing doesn’t have a price.”

“What is so fascinating out there?” Gabriel demanded.

The pirate shrugged, finally turning away from the crack and shuffling around on the staircase to face them directly. “Some interesting goings-on in the warehouse. Maybe…well, I’ll check back on that later. For now, it occurs to me all this recapping was premature. I am still waiting to hear about Shiny Boots and her nighttime adventures.”

“Excuse me, her what?” Gabriel turned to Trissiny, raising his eyebrows.

“Ah, yes,” she said briskly. “Well. I went outside the Manor grounds last night—”

“Wait,” Toby interjected, frowning. “Alone?”

“Yes, alone,” she said testily. “Anyway—”

“Trissiny!”

“I know!” she exclaimed. “I’m sorry, it was—look, never mind that. The point is, I met the Shadow Hunters and learned some interesting things.”

“Interesting how?” Shaeine asked quietly.

“Interesting,” Trissiny said slowly, “in a general sense. They’re actually a fascinating group, and a lot more personable than people have implied to us. Also potentially useful to our immediate purposes here. They, at least, are specifically inclined to be helpful, and might be in a position to do so, depending on what develops.”

“There, see?” Juniper said in satisfaction. “I told you we’d found help!”

“You didn’t even know about this when you said so,” Ariel pointed out.

“I have intuition,” the dryad said haughtily.

“You seem downright positive about these guys, Triss,” said Ruda. “Gotta say, that’s startling. I always thought you were allergic to Shaathists.”

“Well, that’s the thing,” Trissiny replied. “They aren’t Shaathists. The way Raichlin—the one who I mostly talked to—explained it, they predate modern Shaathism. Actually… Well, we didn’t discuss it in a lot of detail, but he strongly implied that Shaathism has changed a lot in the last thousand years. At least, he did say the Huntsmen were a lot closer to what they’re like before the Imperial era.”

“You mean, closer to what the Shadow Hunters are like?” Fross asked. “The grammar there was dicey.”

“Yes, sorry.” Trissiny paused, frowning thoughtfully. “The Hunters…seemed to me like a peculiar fusion of sensibilities. Shaathist, Nemitite, Eserite, with a little bit of Omnist.”

“That is an odd-sounding mix,” Toby said, raising his eyebrows.

“Well, they’re hunters and survivalists, like the Huntsmen of Shaath,” Trissiny explained. “But they also collect and preserve knowledge, mostly about the natural world. They have a huge library, it takes up half their lodge, and most of their books are on natural history, though there’s a lot of other stuff.”

“I think I’d like to see that,” said Juniper, straightening up.

“I bet they’d be glad to have you,” Trissiny said with a smile. “They also had strong opinions about freedom from organized systems, but were pretty committed to respecting life and avoiding needless conflict.”

“So, how’s that fit with them agitating the Huntsmen in town?” Ruda asked.

“Bear in mind I haven’t seen any of those interactions any more than you have,” said Trissiny, “but the way the Shadow Hunters tell it, they’ve just come into Veilgrad like they always have, trading and recruiting, and the Huntsmen have been starting trouble with them lately. Raichlin thought the Huntsmen are being affected by whatever’s causing trouble in the city.”

“They recruit from among the populace?” Shaeine asked.

“Apparently so. It’s not an insular community. Oh, and they’ve got these eagles!” Trissiny’s voice accelerated in excitement. “It was the middle of the night, so they didn’t take me into their eyrie and wake the birds up, but they use eagles instead of dogs as hunting companions, and I got to see one. Raichlin’s personal pet slept in his room, and it was amazing! The most beautiful creature—gold and brown, and it was huge. Much bigger than…than a gnome, for example I bet a gnome could ride one!”

“Two crests on its head?” Juniper asked, holding her hands next to her own head with forefingers extended. “Like little ears?”

“Exactly!”

The dryad lowered her hands, nodding. “Greater golden harpy eagles, native to the mountains here. They are pretty awesome birds. Very smart, disproportionately large talons—almost the size of Vadrieny’s. They’re known to hunt mountain goats.”

“Greater golden harpy eagles?” Ruda snorted. “That is too many names for one bird. Who comes up with this shit? I bet you could cut out half of that and not confuse them with anything else.”

“Well, actually,” Juniper said reasonably, “there are three subspecies of golden harpy eagles, though only the one on this continent. And those aren’t to be confused with tropical harpy eagles that live in the jungles of—”

“Holy shit, these things can carry off a goat?” Gabriel interrupted.

“Well, not carry it,” Juniper clarified. “They knock them off the mountains and then eat them where they fall. Those are pretty much as big as raptors get without having metabolism trouble. Well, mundane raptors. Plains rocs are bigger, of course, but those are fae-touched. Oh!” She peered at Trissiny’s breastplate. “Those little tufts, like ears! Those are the eagles on Avei’s sigil. I never put that together before!”

“Yeah,” Trissiny said, her expression growing thoughtful. “The Shadow Hunters know more about the history of the Sisterhood than I expected. Some things I didn’t know, even. Raichlin gave me a book…”

“I don’t wanna sound like this isn’t interesting, because it is,” Ruda interrupted. “Sounds like something we could have a long talk about over a meal. But for right now, today, what impact are these Shadow Hunters gonna have on Veilgrad’s issues, do you think?”

“Right.” Trissiny nodded. “You’re right, sorry. For one thing, they’re keeping watch over the werewolves—they have methods of driving them away without harming them. Raichlin said if this keeps going much longer, the werewolves transforming without the moon being full, they’re going to be stretched increasingly thin, but for now he was confident they have that under control. So that’s one less immediate worry. More generally, they’re competent people with significant combat and wilderness skills who want to help end this threat.”

“That’ll be very useful if we have to go into the mountains in pursuit of this,” Teal said slowly.

“Yeah,” Ruda agreed. “But, I’m getting the impression it’ll be less useful in Veilgrad itself. Right?”

“Probably right,” Trissiny admitted. “So, for the moment…”

“For the moment,” Toby finished, “our most solid lead is still the imprisoned cultists.”

“I still say nothing’s gonna come of that,” Juniper muttered.

“You may be right,” Toby agreed. “You’ve got a point: if the Empire didn’t get anything out of them, I don’t know what our chances are. But it’s a lead, it’s right in front of us, and I think we’d be negligent not to at least try.”

“Not to mention,” Gabe added with a grin, “the good Colonel went out of his way to get us permission to go to the prison. Best not waste his time. I don’t think he loves the idea of us rattling around his town much to begin with.”

“Welp!” Ruda hopped down from the staircase, brushing off the seat of her coat. “That’s our morning arranged, then. Next stop, tea time with crazy assholes!”

She led the way to the exterior doors of the basement, the others slowly shuffling into position behind her. They didn’t exit until Ruda had carefully peeked out through the provided peephole to verify that the alley onto which the doors opened was deserted. From that point, though, it was the work of moments to file outside and shut the door behind them. On the exterior wall, it was carefully constructed to resemble an old wooden loading palette propped up against the building.

“What do the bells signify?” Shaeine asked quietly. Everyone turned to look at her.

“Bells?” Toby asked.

“I hear ’em,” Juniper said, frowning. “Not close to here. Wow, they’re ringing those things nonstop.”

“That is never a good sign,” Trissiny said. “Bells are usually for alarms. Which way, Shaeine?”

“Up the street, in this direction.”

Following the drow’s pointing hand, they strode quickly toward the mouth of the alley. Rounding the corner, the sound of tolling bells became audible—distant, but quiet. Other people in the sleepy little avenue had also stopped, turning to look.

“Uh oh,” Gabriel said, staring. In the distance, over the rooftops of Veilgrad, a column of smoke was drifting skyward. A very wide column. “Hey…isn’t that the direction we came from?”

“The barracks,” Trissiny whispered.

“Now, come on,” Toby protested. “What are the odds?”

“Whatever they are, something’s on fire,” she replied curtly. “How quickly can everyone move?”

Several screams rang out and the watching townfolk fled as Vadrieny emerged from within Teal. “We’d better split up. Some of us can get there faster than others.”

“What the fuck can you do about a fire?” Ruda protested.

“She can rescue people from it!” Trissiny snapped, bounding nimbly into Arjen’s saddle. “Fross, stick with me—we may need some ice. Everyone else, catch up as you can!”

“Right behind ya!” Friss chimed, zooming off after Trissiny as she took off down the street in a gallop. Vadrieny soared overhead, burning vividly even against the bright morning sky.

“Somebody remind me,” Ruda huffed as the others set off after them on foot, “next time there’s a crisis, to keep my eyes on Trissiny. I wanna see where that fucking horse comes from.”


 

The Imperial barracks was burning—part of it, anyway.

The original fortress was compact and nearly cubic, a starkly utilitarian design, but it had been expanded at least twice. The north and east faces had long wings jutting out—sturdy and defensible in design as the rest of the barracks, but made from stone in different-sized blocks, with differently shaped windows, all revealing that they had been added on as afterthoughts. The far end of the north wing was smoldering, orange flames still flickering in a few of its windows.

It was also soaking wet and partially sheathed in steaming ice.

When the rest of the students came pelting up to the front of the barracks, most of them panting, they found an argument in session, with two ranking Imperial soldiers standing nearly nose-to-nose, Vadrieny framed between them and looking uncomfortable.

“That is the most secure wing of the fortress for a reason,” Colonel Adjavegh was shouting, apparently heedless of the watching soldiers. Men and women in Army uniform thronged the area, and had mostly cleared the watching citizens back to a relatively safe distance. None of them attempted to prevent the students, who were led by Toby and Gabriel, from approaching. “I will not have civilians entering, especially not demons!”

“We’ve got people still unaccounted for,” Major Razsha shot right back. “If she can get them out, I do not care—”

She broke off at a nearby gathering of shadows. It receded in the next second, revealing the soot-stained form of Durst, who was straightening his coat.

“That’s the last of them,” the warlock reported briskly. “We found the rest of the research team, Major; they’ve got a secure room in a sublevel where they’ve holed up.”

“Thank the gods,” Adjavegh muttered. Despite his apparent willingness to forsake help for the sake of security, his entire frame slouched momentarily in relief. In the next moment he had regathered his poise. “All are accounted for?”

“Yes, Colonel,” Durst replied, nodding. “Simmons and Teloris are still there, providing healing. They’re pretty safe from the fire, but it’s hard to get any actual healing done through the walls, which is what they’re having to do. The room’s pretty damn secure; can’t even shadow-jump through.” He grinned. “Impressive warding on that safe room. We probably could have extracted them, but Doctor Svarnheld gave us an earful about damaging his precious containment spells. Anyhow, none of them have anything worse than some bruises and mild smoke inhalation, and the good doctor says the room will automatically unseal itself once the danger has passed.”

“So…we’re too late to help, then?” Toby said, stepping forward.

“Yes,” Colonel Adjavegh snapped, turning to glare at him.

“No.” Trissiny emerged from the doors to the main part of the barracks, beckoning them forward. She was sweaty and had blood on her hands. “We’ve got wounded in here, more than two dozen. The first casualties were the medical staff—the infirmary is right above where the fire broke out. No fatalities yet, but some of these people are burned badly, and I’m not the best healer. Shaeine, Toby, Juniper…”

“On it,” Toby said, dashing past her. Shaeine glided on his heels, moving no less quickly for her even pace. Watching them go, Adjavegh opened his mouth, then snapped it shut, scowling.

“Need my help, too?” Gabriel asked, stepping up to Trissiny. “I mean, I’m probably even worse at this than you are, but the light is the light…”

“Both of you get in there,” Ariel ordered. “There’s a spell that will help you absorb some risk of burnout from the other two clerics, and share your energy reserves. I can walk you through it; we should be able to get those healers back on their feet, at least.”

“Bless you,” Razsha said feelingly. “You and…whoever was just talking.”

“Thank you,” Adjavegh added somewhat grudgingly as the remaining two paladins ducked back into the barracks.

At that moment, a silver streak shot around the edge of the burned wing, coming to a halt in front of the group.

“Fire is extinguished, Colonel, sir!” Fross reported. “You’re gonna have some serious water damage on top of the burning—sorry, I couldn’t figure a way around that. Also, the stone walls are solid but most of the interior is wood and badly damaged. Be careful about going in there. Top two floors are pretty much about to collapse.”

“That has to be a new record,” the Major said wonderingly. “You’re sure? Everything’s put out?”

“Yes, ma’am!” Fross bobbed up and down excitedly. “Actually it’s been out for at least two minutes now but I went back and did a complete run-through to look for large pieces of wood still smoldering internally; they weren’t likely to combust again, what with how wet everything is, but I’m ninety percent sure this fire was magical in origin and you don’t take chances with stuff like that.”

“That is…frankly amazing,” said the Colonel. “I don’t suppose any more of your kind are interested in joining the Army?”

“I very much doubt it, sir,” the pixie chimed. “Also, it would be better to say that none of my kind are interested, rather than no more, since I’m not either. Um, sorry. No offense.”

“You could always go visit Jacaranda and ask nicely,” Ruda said with a broad grin.

“No!” Fross sparked in agitation. “Do not do that! She’s—the Pixie Queen does not like visitors, and I don’t even wanna think what’d happen if she got her hands on an Imperial officer. Oh, that would be bad.”

“Is this under control, then?” Vadrieny interjected, her polyphonic voice cutting through the discussion. “I’m not needed?”

“Unless you’re about to very much surprise us all with some healing magic, no,” Adjavegh said, staring narrowly at her. “I would like to have an extended word with you, Vadrieny, but… Perhaps not right now.”

“I can come back tomorrow,” the archdemon offered. “Or later this evening? Whenever you have things settled.”

“I appreciate that,” he said gruffly. “Let me get you my—TIMMS! Where the hell is that girl…” He turned and strode through the door of the main building.

“Thank you,” Razsha said feelingly, “once again, for intervening. This hit us fast and hard; if it wasn’t for you, it would have been a lot worse. Fross, you likely saved the fortress from being completely demolished. That fire was definitely more than natural. It’s only thanks to you two and General Avelea that our healers survived at all.”

“Aw, no big deal! I’m just glad to help!”

“So,” Ruda drawled, “unnatural fire, started right where it would hit both your medical staff and apparently some kind of research project in the basement that the Colonel doesn’t want a rescuing archdemon stumbling across… Interesting morning you’re having.”

The Major’s mouth thinned into a tense line. “None of this is wasted on me, Princess. What goes on in this barracks is Colonel Adjavegh’s domain; I’m not authorized to reveal anything that might be even slightly classified. However…” She glanced around at the soldiers thronging the square in front of the fortress. “…I want you to know that if it comes down to hunting whatever is responsible for this, and my strike team is given any share of that responsibility, we will be glad to work with you in whatever capacity you’re willing to help.”

Standing off to the side, Durst grinned.

“I’ll be sure to pass that along,” Ruda said. “All right! Enough standin’ around like fucking statuary. Vadrieny! Haul ass back into where the infirmary was an’ see what medical supplies you can salvage. Fross, go help, your aura storage’ll be needed.”

“Good idea,” Vadrieny agreed, shooting aloft with a great flap of her wings. Fross streaked after her, and in moments they had vanished around the scorched corner of the building, apparently seeking out a window not blocked by fallen beams. Most of the roof on that wing seemed to have collapsed inward.

“I’m gonna go lend a hand in there with the wounded,” Ruda said to Razsha, turning and striding toward the door. “Sing out if you’ve got anything else I can help with…though it doesn’t look like you’re hurting for warm bodies,” she added, glancing around at the assembled soldiers.

“Thank you, your Highness,” said the Major. “You have medical training, then?”

Ruda laughed. “Darlin’, I’ve got the one thing everyone always needs in a medical emergency.” She produced a bottle from within her coat and held it aloft as she made for the door. “Booze!”


 

It was a dirty, bedraggled and exhausted line of students who filed back into the warehouse basement hours later. The five healers had managed to wash up, to the extent of cleaning off the blood, but Trissiny still had soot in her hair. Juniper was limping and wincing, having discovered that her particular brand of healing—taking harm onto herself, as Fross had explained it—gave her trouble with the harm was caused by fire. Teal was visibly weary and practically leaning on Shaeine, who was as calm as ever, but moving stiffly and more slowly than usual. They had all expended a great deal of energy, even Ruda, who had busied herself with conventional first aid while the others worked their magic.

Toby finished shutting the door behind him, and turned to find the others clustered together, staring glumly at the panel behind which lay the tunnel to Dufresne Manor.

“That is gonna be a long walk,” Gabriel stated, summing up everyone’s unspoken thought. “You know what? I have come to a decision.” He sat down on the basement’s dirt floor, heedless of his long coat. “Fuck it, that’s what. Fross, you happen to have any food in your dimensional pockets?”

“How can you think of eating?” Trissiny groaned.

“I’m hungry, too,” Juniper said, stretching her arms with an unnerving series of cracking noises like breaking wood. “It’s well past lunch time and we’ve spent the morning using up lots of energy. Maybe we should’ve gone to a restaurant or something before coming back here. I want something to eat before we make that hike. I hate tunnels,” she added rather sullenly.

“I, for one, do not feel up to a large crowd of strangers,” Shaeine said quietly. “Especially since, to judge by the reactions we saw on the way back, we are likely to be the target of great interest by the populace.”

“At least they seem to like us better now,” Toby noted.

“I, uh, don’t have any food, I’m sorry,” Fross said, emitting a desultory chime. “After the hellgate incident I’ve started carrying first aid supplies, but we just sort of donated all of those. I’m sorry, guys, I should have thought of that. It seems so obvious in hindsight…”

“Ruda, what are you doing?” Trissiny demanded. The rest of the group turned to find Ruda at the top of the stairs, turning the latch of the trapdoor.

“It’s dead quiet up there,” she announced. “Apparently everyone’s gone to gawk at the barracks. Nothin’ like a good crisis to give everybody an excuse to slack off, eh?”

“That doesn’t explain what you’re doing up there,” Gabriel said. “Hey!” he added in a near shout as she pushed the trapdoor open and stepped out.

“I wanna check on something,” Ruda’s voice drifted back down to them. “Been watching this guy…”

“Guy?” Trissiny muttered. “She’s been watching a guy?”

“Well, it’s not like she did anything really crazy, like go strolling alone through werewolf-infested woods at night.” Juniper patted Trissiny on the shoulder as she passed her on the way to the stairs. “C’mon, I wanna see what she’s doing. Ruda always knows what she’s about.”

“I don’t wanna get up,” Gabriel whined.

Nevertheless, he did, though he moved slowly enough to be the last up the stairs. They emerged into the warehouse proper, peering uncertainly around. As Ruda had said, it appeared to be deserted.

The pirate herself was already at the far wall beside the door to what appeared to be an office, setting aside a wood panel which matched those separating the small room from the main warehouse floor. Behind it gaped a deep cubbyhole, in which sat a stack of boxes.

“Saw him tuckin’ stuff into here every few minutes, when the other guys were outside getting something off a cart,” Ruda announced, bending forward to pull one of the boxes out. “Or putting stuff on, hell if I know.”

“What do you think you’re doing?” Trissiny demanded. “Don’t rummage around in—this is all Malivette’s property! Hers and whoever she does business with.”

“Did I miss something?” Ruda said, glancing up at her and grinning. “Did we decide we’re trusting Malivette unconditionally now?”

“An inadvisable course of action, in my opinion, but oddly late to change your mind,” said Ariel. “You did, after all, leave your super-demon from beyond in her care.”

“This is hidden away and was being handled by somebody who didn’t want to be seen doin’ the handling,” Ruda said. “That is all the reason we need to be interested, when we’re surrounded by inscrutable bullshit that’s trying to get us killed. There we go!” She finally worked the lid off the uppermost crate and set it aside, then blinked down at the collection of bottles and other objects nestled in the straw within. “Huh. So…anybody know what all this shit is?”

Gabriel stepped forward, plodding with ostentatious weariness, and peered over her shoulder. “Bones, oils, enchanting powders, some kind of stone talisman… Looks like high-grade stuff, too. Spell components. I, uh, can’t really tell what kind or what for, though…”

“Those are demon bones,” Ariel announced. “Vials of powdered blood, grave dust, crypt etchings. This is for necromancy.”

In unison, they all straightened up, seeming to forget some of their weariness in alarm.

“Are you sure?” Trissiny demanded, unconsciously fondling the pommel of her sword. “Could they be used for anything else?”

“Individually, in conjunction with other reagents, certainly. Any number of other things. But this particular assortment, taken together, means necromancy.”

For a moment, Trissiny’s aura flared gold.

“Easy, Triss,” Toby cautioned. “There are no necromancers here.”

“Just a little pick-me-up,” she said tersely. “I haven’t slept much, and that was before this morning’s exertions. I just want to be at my best.” She turned and stalked back down the stairs into the basement. “For the conversation we are about to have with Malivette.”

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9 – 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It didn’t last long.

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

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

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

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

“Damn, pixie,” Ruda said approvingly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You feel it too?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I miss my bunny,” Juniper mumbled.

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

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

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

“Welcome, guests,” they intoned simultaneously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oy, wench, some of us have jobs!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My name is Juniper,” she said sharply.

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

“Abode, Mistress,” Sapphire corrected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You literally just said—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruby winked at them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cults?” Shaeine asked, raising an eyebrow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trissiny sighed heavily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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