Sanders knew his aversion to the campus was irrational. It was an intriguing and objectively beautiful place, the students were typically friendly toward him, or at least respectful, and he had Tellwyrn’s explicit permission to visit at need, or even socially. Nonetheless, climbing the mountain was like putting half a world between himself and his town, for all that he could see the entire thing from up here. He belonged down below, in the streets and humble structures of Last Rock, among its straightforward people. The University was a place for…someone else. A whole other kind of someone else.
Still, he navigated adroitly through the stairs and switchbacks leading up through the terraces, returning cheerful greetings from passing students with as much poise as he could muster. The passage through Helion Hall was similarly well-remembered, all because he had taken great pains to memorize the route. Getting lost in this place…well, once had been enough.
The door to Professor Tellwyrn’s office was open. Voices sounded within, but he approached anyway. The Professor was not one to act carelessly; if she wanted to be private, she would have been. He eased up to the doorway, making sure she could see him from behind the desk, and tugged the brim of his hat respectfully to her when her eyes cut to him from the student standing in the office.
“No one is restricting your right to practice your religion, November,” Tellwyrn was saying patiently. “In fact, I’m not requiring you to do anything. I am simply advising you in the strongest terms, for your own benefit, to take down that absurd shrine to the Hand of Avei you’ve put up in the campus chapel. She’s on the same freshman trek you participated in, not off crusading against the barbarians.”
“All I’m hearing is you telling me not to show support for the champion of my faith,” retorted the young woman stridently. Sanders winced; November Stark was one of the more annoying of the current crop of students. A tall young woman with her dark hair hacked boyishly short, she wore, as usual, a white shirt and trousers in an approximate imitation of the uniform of lay clerics of Avei. The best thing he could say about her was that she rarely visited the town.
“Be with you in a moment, Sam,” said Tellwyrn past the girl’s shoulder. “Stark, if you want to argue further, maybe you’d like to postpone it till you don’t have an audience?”
November glanced over her shoulder at Sanders, and a catlike smile appeared on her face. Turning back to face Tellwyrn, she folded her arms, adopting a smug posture. “What, you’re not comfortable discussing your stance on religious freedoms in front of an agent of the law? I don’t mind if he doesn’t.”
I mind a little, Sanders thought, but wisely kept his opinions out of it.
“Is that really what you want?” Tellwyrn asked in a very mild tone that really should have warned the girl off.
“Absolutely.” November set her jaw firmly, her expression proud and confident.
“Very well,” said Tellwyrn. “As I said, I’m not going to make you take it down. For the record I do have that authority, but despite what you like to tell yourself, I have absolutely no interest in anybody else’s religious practices on this campus unless they convert to the Black Wreath or something. I am suggesting that you remove it for your sake and Trissiny’s, Miss Stark.”
“No.” Tellwyrn’s voice cracked like a whip, and she leaned forward, planting an elbow on the desk to point a finger at Stark. “Don’t fucking start with me, you irritating little rash. I put up with that from Trissiny because she was raised in a Temple of Avei and actually has a deep understanding of feminist philosophy. You are a self-absorbed child who’s less than a year on from discovering how cloyingly righteous it feels to be oppressed by the patriarchy.
“That ridiculous shrine is not a religious expression, it’s an extension of your schoolgirl crush, which by the way, everyone has well and truly noticed. The only people who are not embarrassed on your behalf are yourself because you lack sense, Trissiny because she’s not here to see it, and Chase, who runs on pure schadenfreude and is probably glorying in the awkwardness. You can avoid at least one of those by getting rid of the damn thing before Trissiny comes back and has to share in the general humiliation.
“And for the gods’ sake, child, quit pussyfooting around. If you want her, ask her. The worst case scenario is that she’ll say ‘no,’ and you can avoid wasting the best years of your life pining after what you can’t have.
“Now,” Tellwyrn finished sweetly, folding her hands on the desktop, “is there anything else you would like to discuss in front of the Sheriff, while he’s here?”
“No,” said November in a strangled voice. Her posture was so rigid now that she practically quivered, her face flushed almost crimson. Sanders felt a rush of pure pity, which he very carefully kept from going anywhere near his expression. It would only have made it worse.
“Right, then. Run along.”
Sanders stepped aside to allow her room to exit, tugging his hat politely. November avoided his eye, stalking stiffly past and away down the hall.
“Sorry about that,” said Tellwyrn as he stepped into the room. She had removed her glasses and was scrubbing wearily at her eyes with one hand. “I don’t mind keeping discipline in an unruly classroom, but gods, how I hate it when they force me to act like their mom. What can I do for you, Sam?”
“I’m in a somewhat awkward position, Professor,” he said, stepping up to the desk. “Something’s moved into town which, if it becomes a problem, I have to frankly acknowledge I won’t have the capacity to deal with.”
“Do tell.” He managed not to flinch as she focused her attention fully on him. She had never been anything but polite, both to him and to his predecessor, but damn it, a man couldn’t stand in a room with a living, breathing legend without being keenly aware of his shortcomings, unless he was an enormous fool.
“A new fellow stepped off the Rail yesterday,” he said, keeping his tone as even as possible. “Name of McGraw. He didn’t identify himself as such, but others have. It’s Longshot McGraw, in the flesh.”
“Longshot, huh,” she mused. “I wonder what kind of pissing contest he had to win to get a moniker like that.”
Sanders blinked, taken aback. “You’re…not familiar with him?”
“Sam, it’s been more than twice your lifespan since I bothered to keep track of who’s who in adventuring. As my students love to keep reminding me, the whole concept of adventurers is a holdover from another time. Give me the basics?”
“Well, today’s frontier wandfighters aren’t exactly the same breed of adventurers you remember,” he said. “Longshot McGraw is a name mentioned alongside the likes of Tinker Billie and the Sarasio Kid. Which…I guess you might not be familiar with, either…ahem. He’s an actual wizard, not just some wandslinger. Popular imagination paints a somewhat contradictory picture, but he’s roamed around the frontier for decades, taking down any wandfighter who challenged him. A man like that doesn’t come to a town like this to just take in the sights.”
“Hm. What’s he done?”
“So far? Had a civil conversation with Ox, sat in on a poker game with several of your students, and then pulled aside Principia and that guy Shook for a brief conversation that left them both lookin’ spooked.”
“Principia.” She closed her eyes momentarily. “Why is it always Principia?”
“My thoughts exactly, ma’am.”
“Who the hell is this Shook?”
“New face in town. So far he ain’t done anything worthy of note, but he’s not somebody I enjoy having around. Oily-lookin’ fellow, which is suitable enough as he claims to be a salesman, but I can’t find a single person to whom he’s sold anything. Mostly loafs around in the A&W, drinkin’ and playin’ cards, when he’s not hanging out with Prin. He’s got a habit of looking at women in a way that makes ’em leave the room. I’m not the only one who’s noticed.”
“So that’s two undesirables rolling into town on Prin-related business,” she said grimly. “This verges on impacting my interests.”
“I thought that might be the case, Professor,” he said. “I don’t rightly know why Prin moved in but it stands to reason it’s University-related.”
“Oh, it is. She wants something she’s not going to get and hasn’t the sense to set herself more attainable goals.”
“Well…be that as it may, I can deal with Shook, and probably Principia, if it comes down to it. McGraw, though, is way outta my pay grade. If any serious trouble starts and he’s involved… This is the kind of thing that gets towns burned to the ground.”
“Mm. Where is this McGraw at the moment?”
“He’s stayin’ at the A&W. It’s only been one day, but he’s been a model guest so far. Probably’ll be sitting down to lunch along with everybody else here in a bit.”
“I do believe I’ll be sociable, head down and introduce myself.” She stood, straightening her glasses. “You can walk me down the mountain, if you’ll just give me a minute to grab my privates first.”
It took Sanders a moment to remember to say something, at which point he discovered that his mouth was conveniently already open. “…I’m sorry, what?”
“It’s pointless, is all I’m saying,” Rook groused, smoothing out his pillow. “Making beds adds nothing to their utility and little to their aesthetic. It’s just bullshit busy work to fill two minutes in the morning when I could still be asleep.”
“Are you done yet?” Moriarty asked woodenly. He and Finchley had finished theirs long since. It was well understood among the group that Rook’s bed would never be made if Moriarty didn’t chivvy him about it every morning, and it was something of a toss-up which of them had developed a bigger attitude on the subject.
“Yes, done, bed is made, for all the good it does anybody. It’s just gonna get unmade again the first time it gets used for its intended purpose.”
“It is no different from keeping your uniform neat! Cultivating a properly ordered environment is a boost to both morale and especially discipline in the service.”
“Moriarty, have you ever heard the fable of the boy who cried wolf?”
Moriarty rolled his eyes. “No, I don’t think I ever have. How does it go?”
“I’m just saying, it’d be a lot easier to take you seriously on the rare occasions when you have a point if you didn’t talk in that metered singsong like you were reading right out of your operations manual. Especially since that’s all you ever do.”
The door burst open before Moriarty could reply—fortunately—and Professor Tellwyrn stuck her head in.
“Ah! Excellent, everybody’s home. And dressed. Come along, boys, we’re going to take a little walk down to the town.”
She ducked back out, leaving the three soldiers to exchange wide-eyed looks. This was the first time Tellwyrn had expressed an interest in having them do anything since their arrival. Much as they had all bemoaned the lack of anything to relieve the tedium, they couldn’t help but see this as an alarming development.
“Morning, Sheriff,” said Finchley when they trooped out into the hall and found Sanders waiting for them.
“Boys,” he replied, nodding.
“So, uh…what’s up, Prof?” asked Rook.
“We are going to pay a little social call on a new resident of Last Rock,” said Tellwyrn, bounding up the stairs at a clip that forced the men to scramble after her. The dormitory housing this year’s freshman boys and the three Imperials was a subterranean gallery built right against the eastern edge of the mountain. Aside from its floor-to-ceiling windows, which afforded a beautiful and terrifying view of the open plain from high above, it appeared to be a long, naturally occurring cave, with a sanded-down floor and uneven walls sloping up to form an arched roof studded with runty stalactites. Reaching it involved a long staircase which terminated in what appeared to be a small storage shed out behind the music building.
Whoever had designed this campus had a weird sense of humor.
Tellwyrn didn’t seem inclined to wait for them, but they hustled up to rejoin her above, falling into step as they reached the main lawn.
“And how can we help with that?” asked Finchley once they were regathered.
“Just stand around looking uniformed,” she replied. “This McGraw character may not have a lot of regard for authority, but if he’s as sensible as he pretty much has to be, he’ll know that getting rough with Imperial soldiers will have far-reaching consequences.”
“Getting rough with you would have immediate and horrible consequences,” Rook pointed out.
“Yes,” she said, grinning, “but you have to understand the mentality of adventurers. The law is one thing; a fellow spellslinger is another. A rival who is unequivocally more powerful, well…some take that as an inherent challenge. I don’t expect him to start tossing fireballs right there in the tavern; I just want to remind him of the lay of the land should he get a notion to plan something more long-term.”
“Wait, McGraw?” said Finchley. “Old guy, long coat, well-spoken in a prairie drawl kinda way?”
“That’s him,” said Sanders.
“What’s he done? He seemed like a nice enough fellow.”
“He’s done nothing,” replied the Sheriff. “We’d all very much prefer to keep it that way. You boys didn’t realize you were talkin’ to Longshot McGraw?”
“Holy shit,” Rook muttered.
“That about sums it up,” said Sanders grimly.
“It’s…not such an uncommon name,” Moriarty protested. “I don’t know about you, but when I meet a scruffy old man my first thought isn’t ‘legendary wandfighter.’”
“So everyone’s heard of this guy but me?” Tellwyrn said with a touch of petulance.
“You’ve seriously never heard of Longshot McGraw?” exclaimed Rook. “What rock have you been living under?”
“The rock currently affording you free room and board, boy.”
“And an excellent rock it is,” he said hastily, “which I am very much enjoying, and by the way I’ve been meaning to ask if there’s anything I can do to be more helpful around here. Also your hair looks lovely today.”
“A little artless, but points for enthusiasm. Your backpedaling is accepted, Rook.” She glanced over her shoulder at them, one corner of her mouth turned up wryly. They passed under the wrought archway of the University’s main gate and she set a pace down the steep marble stairs that was just short of reckless. “Anyway, I had a secondary motive for bringing you lads along on this little outing. I’ve been informed of something by Lord Vex which concerns you.”
“Orders?” Moriarty perked up visibly at the prospect.
“Any orders would be sent directly to you, not through me. No, it seems Elilial is back on the mortal plane.”
They digested this in silence for a moment before Finchley replied. “That’s…good to know, I guess, but what’s it got to do with us?”
“Just that you not only saw her, she actually stopped to speak to you. It may mean nothing; a goddess of cunning is hard to predict, by definition. But historically, she’s been something of a…people person. She remembers those with whom she interacts, and sometimes visits them again when she needs something from a mortal.”
“What?” Rook squeaked. “She—you—that’s… She might come after us?!”
“Probably not,” Tellwyrn replied, calm as ever. “I’m reasonably sure your role in her plans was brief, obvious, and already fulfilled. However, as I said, it’s a mistake to make assumptions about someone like that; she thinks in very elaborate patterns. Anyhow, this campus is one of the most magically protected spots on the world, but I’m not sure how much good that’ll do in her case. It seems her purpose in returning to the mortal plane the way she did was to make a point about what she can and cannot do.”
“How so?” Finchley asked nervously.
“Just that she came through the hellgate itself without tripping it, without creating any impression that the thing had opened at all. We only know she had because she paused to make an impression on the scrying orbs set up on site. You may not have covered this in whatever theological education you received, gentlemen, but the reason the Pantheon chose the infernal plane as Elilial’s prison is the nature of passages between them. They can’t exactly keep her there by main force; it’s been effective for eight thousand years because even with all her stealth, it’s never been possible to slip through a hellgate without kicking up a cosmic ruckus. When anything comes through, it’s obvious; when she does, the gods immediately know where and when, and can move to do something about it. But not this time. This is a game-changer, boys; her options have just opened up considerably.”
“Well, fuck a duck,” Rook said eloquently.
“Professor,” Sanders said in the tone of a man clinging to his calm by sheer bloody stubbornness, “what, exactly, would you estimate are the odds of the Mother of Demons showing up in my town in the near future?”
Tellwyrn was silent for a moment, before finally shaking her head. “I wouldn’t lay odds, Sheriff. She may or may not—probably not—have some leftover business with these lads. She definitely has some with me, though I’m not yet sure if anything’ll come of it.” She glanced back at him, smiling faintly. “For what it’s worth, any business she’s likely to have should be of the civil and quiet variety. Anyway, Elilial coming to town is honestly a better prospect than some of the Pantheon gods doing the same. She, at least, is very careful about collateral damage. A few of the others have a tendency to…step on people, so to speak, the way you might a passing anthill.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s some kind of blasphemy,” Rook said.
Tellwyrn made a dismissive gesture. “If the gods were going to gripe at me about blasphemy, I think they’d have done so when I did it to their various faces.”
“With all due respect, Professor, I’m not sure I like going on field trips with you,” Finchley said weakly.
“What he means is, we’ll be only too happy to accommodate your needs, nice lady who can kill us with a thought,” Rook said, grinning.
“Actually, painless death spells are tricky to set up and require rather expensive reagents, and I used the last of mine a month ago. If I were going to kill you, I’d use cheaper elemental magic. Fire, lightning, something like that.”
Moriarty frowned. “Wait…who did you—” he broke off, getting elbowed in the sides by both Finchley and Rook.
Sanders heaved a sigh, and refused to ask.
One of the fringe benefits of being an old man in less than pristine garb was that he was commonly left to enjoy his meals in peace. The A&W was somewhat less rowdy during the midday meal than it had been the night before, but a hubbub of conversation still filled the room, and more tables were full than otherwise. McGraw had found a seat at an unoccupied circular table in the corner, and so far had been left to enjoy it alone. The waitress having just delivered his plate of sausages and potatoes, he was looking forward to a quiet meal, unless the wards he’d set warned of Principia or Shook making for the telescroll office.
She moved fast. Scarcely had the sudden hush of an attention-grabbing arrival fallen over the common room when Arachne Tellwyrn pulled out a chair and sat down across from him.
That, McGraw reflected wryly, was what he got for boasting of a perfect record. The very next day, there it went.
“Ma’am,” he said politely. “Pardon me for not standing; you kinda snuck up on me there. Can I offer you a bite to eat? My treat.”
“To be frank, I only bother to fence and dance about with pleasantries when my sparring partner exceeds a certain level of significance,” she said, folding her hands on the table and staring at him over the rims of her spectacles. “Don’t take offense; there are very few individuals who make the cut, and most of them refuse to have anything to do with me anyway. So I’ll come to the point, McGraw: what the hell are you doing in Last Rock?”
He chewed a bite of sausage carefully, weighing his options. The buzz of arcane energy around her was palpable, but also…less so than it should have been. Less than his own, even, which far from suggesting that she was a lesser mage, raised the disturbing prospect that she was simply able to consciously contain her aura to a degree that was beyond his abilities. It was Tellwyrn; he wasn’t about to underestimate her.
Her commentary suited her reputation: blunt, aggressive, and heavy-handed. McGraw didn’t much care for needless confrontation, himself, but he knew when trying to deflect would cause more harm than good.
“I’ve been employed by an outside party,” he said calmly after swallowing, “to remove Principia Locke from Last Rock.” Past her, he noted those three soldier boys making a brave but inept try at looking imposing. The Sheriff pulled it off much better, lounging against the wall by the door.
“Define ‘remove,’” Tellwyrn said flatly.
“The young lady is under the impression that I’m here to kill her. I’d take it as a professional courtesy if you didn’t correct her.”
The elf raised an eyebrow. “Then you’re not, in fact, after her head?”
“At this stage in my career, it’d be pretty hypocritical to balk at a little homicide,” he said, carefully maintaining his calm tone, despite the ratcheting tension in the room. Around them, other patrons were steadily finding excuses to cut short their lunches and go elsewhere. Nobody was obviously within earshot. “But no, killing is very seldom necessary, and certainly not my first choice of method in a civilized place like this. Ain’t like the old days,” he went on reminiscently, stirring potatoes around his plate with his fork. “Seems nowadays, nobody’s so inconsequential that a whole mess of paperwork doesn’t ensue when they turn up dead. I do hate dealing with lawyers.”
“But as long as Prin thinks you’ve got a contract on her life, she’s likely to go and do something rash… Which will make it that much easier to chase her out of Last Rock.” She nodded approvingly. “Elegant. I like it. Provided, of course, that you’re not lying to me.”
McGraw finished chewing a bite of potato and swallowed. “Granted, you’ve no reason to take me at my word. Let me assure you, ma’am, that if I am lying, I’m well aware I’d be gambling my life on the outcome. You can trust me to proceed with all due caution and restraint.”
“Well, that’s something, I suppose. I will be frank, then: it would suit me admirably to have Principia out of this town and out of my hair. I can’t say I’d shed any tears if that involved her death, but I agree that cleaner methods are usually preferable.”
“Mm. I’m less inclined to be careful around her buddy, Mr. Shook,” he mused. “Been listening to the local scuttlebutt… Honestly, a man like that is better off removed from the mortal coil.”
“Which brings me to a point of concern,” she said flatly. “I neither run this town nor enforce the law in it. Generally speaking, the citizens of Last Rock do not need, nor would they appreciate, my help in seeing to their business. I do, however, have an ancillary interest in the doings of the town, for obvious reasons. So, let me establish my ground rules: if you cause such a degree of collateral damage that my help is requested to come down here and deal with it, I kill you. If any of your actions result in harm to my University or any of my students, I may or may not kill you, but I guarantee you will have ample time to repent your mistakes before that final judgment is made. Anything else you get up to is between you, the law, and whoever you do it to. Understood?”
McGraw calmly carried on eating, swallowing another bite as she finished speaking. Many years of practice kept his expression even as ever, despite the unaccustomed frisson of fear that passed through him. It wasn’t often he had been so baldly threatened by someone who could unquestionably back up their bluster. “Seems quite reasonable, ma’am. As I said, I don’t aim to do anything that’ll run afoul of your rules, but a little extra motivation never hurts.”
“Glad we understand each other,” she replied, standing up to leave.
“I was recently reminded,” McGraw said mildly, “that making threats of murder are, in fact, grounds for imprisonment under Imperial law.” He glanced over at Sheriff Sanders, who was still lounging by the door, too obviously not looking at them to be unaware of every detail of the conversation.
Tellwyrn gave him a condescending smile. “That’s adorable.”
Gathering up her uniformed entourage with a peremptory gesture, she swept out as suddenly as she’d arrived, leaving behind only Sanders, who calmly straightened up and wandered over toward the bar in search of a drink.
McGraw chuckled to himself, and tucked back into his lunch.
Tazlith made a show of frowning in contemplation as she examined the amulets behind the glass barrier of their display case, hoping the shopkeeper would interpret her expression as a sign she was carefully weighing the pros and cons of each enchantment as they were described on the accompanying notecards. In truth, she was weighing the pros and cons against what remained of her money purse.
She’d been sold on the idea that stocking up on equipment back home in Calderaas was foolish, when things were bound to be cheaper out on the frontier. Last Rock, however, did most of its commerce in the hopes and dreams of people like herself, and she was finding that the pendulum swung the opposite direction. Not by very much, but weaponry and enchanted gear was proving to be a touch pricier than she’d seen it advertized in the city. Foodstuffs, at least, were cheaper, whatever sense that made. Economics was over her head.
Occupied with her grim thoughts, her general disappointment with the way reality was sullying her excitement at setting off into the Golden Sea and her efforts to look as upstanding as possible—the shopkeeper’s patience with her browsing had visibly begun to fray—she didn’t realize she had been approached until the man cleared his throat softly.
Tazlith jumped, and immediately flushed with embarrassment. Great, very heroic. Luckily, he wasn’t laughing at her, though she was hardly delighted to meet the guy with the oily hair and cheap suit who she’d caught checking out her butt yesterday in the tavern.
“Can I help you?” she asked in her unfriendliest tone. Had she been interested in ending up as some jerk’s bedwarmer, the prospects had been better in Calderaas.
“Depends, ma’am,” he said. Well, at least he was polite, and seemed to have less trouble keeping eye contact than some men. “You’ll doubtless find this a presumptuous question, for which I apologize in advance.” Oh, great, here it was. “Are you one of those adventurers in it for the fortune and glory… Or more the storybook-inspired type? Looking to right wrongs and smite evil, that kinda thing?”
She frowned at him. This was a setup to an insult or a scam, she just knew it…and to her embarrassment, a flutter of hope stirred deep inside her. “What’s it to you?”
“I’m just hoping it’s the latter, is all. ‘Fraid I don’t have a lot of budget to hire on muscle, but there’s somethin’ bad about to unfold in this town. Someone who aims serious harm to a good friend of mine, and needs to be stopped. If you require fair payment for your time, I’ll have to leave you to your shopping…” Jeremiah Shook smiled, and maybe it was Tazlith’s own repressed dreams that did it, but suddenly he looked a lot less crooked. “But if you have plans to be a hero, it may be that only you can help.”