“Rise and shine!” Tellwyrn crowed, throwing the door open and slapping the light switch.
Trissiny and Ruda were both on their feet in seconds, aiming swords at her.
“Congratulations, you two are officially the most alert residents of your dorm,” the Professor said, grinning diabolically. “I think Teal’s still not out of bed. You’ve got thirty minutes to be packed and at the Rail platform. We’re going on a field trip! Plan on at least three days away. Anybody not there will be teleported into place, no matter how unpacked or naked you are. Chop chop!”
“What…” Trissiny began.
“Time’s wasting!” Tellwyrn said cheerfully, ducking back out.
The girls looked at each other, then at the window. It was still fully dark outside.
“What the fuck.”
“But there was no announcement! This is unscheduled! There’s supposed to be an announcement of field trips at least two weeks in advance! It’s the rules!”
“That’s a policy, not a rule,” Tellwyrn said patiently, tromping through the dew-damp grass of the mountainside with most of the inhabitants of Clarke Tower trailing along behind her in various states of wakefulness.
“Fross, what did I tell you concerning situations like this?”
The pixie emitted a discordant chime. “The rules are whatever you say they are,” she said fatalistically.
“Damn skippy.” Tellwyrn nodded. “Anyhow, this isn’t a completely anomalous situation; it’s not what you’re used to, but that’s because you’re new. I’ve been called away to consult on an academic matter; when that happens, I customarily consider which if any of my groups of little bastards would educationally benefit from a visit to wherever I’m going, and if there’s a match, they come along. This time, it’s you. Don’t you feel lucky?”
“Hoo-fuckin’-ray,” Ruda mumbled, then stifled a yawn.
“Where’s Juniper?” Trissiny asked.
“She’ll be along presently,” said Tellwyrn. “She needed a little extra preparatory time for the trip to Tiraas.”
“What?!” Fross shot four feet straight upward, sparking in alarm. “We’re going to Tiraas? You can’t take a dryad into Tiraas! It’s illegal!”
“Many years ago,” Tellwyrn said, “there was an actual Heroes’ Guild. They were quite the institution, really; the Guild Hall was one of the world’s great cultural centers. Of course, that was before the earthquake. It’s at the bottom of a lake now, which is a shame. Besides the loss of life, I mean; it was a beautiful structure. I always particularly enjoyed the frescoes inside the main rotunda. They were of scenes from legend, and portraits of the great adventurers and villains of the age, interspersed with calligraphic adages pertaining to the adventuring way of life. Naturally, my favorite part was the one that said ‘Never tell Arachne not to do something.’ Even painted my good side; nobody ever seems to get that right.”
“If you are quite finished publicly fondling your ego,” Trissiny said acidly, “taking a dryad into a major city is a terrifyingly irresponsible act. It’s considered a crisis when a dryad wanders too close to a village. The sheer horrifying number of things that could go disastrously wrong boggles the imagination!”
“You know, Avelea, you get positively poetic when you’re being pompous. Damn it, child, I have told you not to grind your teeth. Listen up, all of you: Juniper will not be unescorted. In addition to you lot, we’re bringing along the soldier boys, whose job will be to ride herd on her at all times. This project was cleared with Imperial Intelligence, agents of which will be shadowing your group.” She glanced over her shoulder at them, grinning. “So if any of you were planning to overthrow the Empire, pick a different trip. This, like Juniper’s very presence on this campus, is an experiment. We’ll have safeguards in place, but the whole point of her being here is for her to learn how to get along with mortal society. This had to happen at some point.”
“This is still a terrible idea,” Trissiny said.
“In the catalog of good ideas, few of them looked like such the first time,” Tellwyrn said airily.
“What’re you going to consult about?” asked Teal.
“Never you mind. Ah, here they come!”
Four figures were making their way down the hill after them. The campus’s three uniformed soldiers were easily identifiable, for all that their navy blue coats tended to fade in the pre-dawn gloom. With them was a young woman in a somewhat ill-fitting dress, at whom the students had to look twice.
“Wow, Juniper,” Teal said as they caught up. “You look…different.”
“This is awful,” the dryad complained, plucking at her skirts. She wore very typical frontier attire, a dress of conservative cut with a heavy shawl draped over her shoulders. Most strikingly, she now had creamy pale skin and brown hair. “How do you people move around with all this crap hanging all over you all the time? I can’t breathe!”
“You can’t walk around Tiraas in a sundress, is what you can’t do,” said Tellwyrn. “It’s winter.”
“The cold doesn’t bother me, I’m an evergreen.”
“Yes,” the Professor said patiently, “but you are passing as a human, which will not work if you prance about in the city’s characteristically miserable weather showing off half your skin. Remember what I told you, Juniper: you can’t let anyone know you’re a dryad. There’ll be a panic.”
“Maybe I could just stay here this time?” she suggested hopefully.
Tellwyrn snorted. “What is it you think Naiya sent you here to do? This is a golden opportunity for you to immerse yourself in human culture, get a feel for how they do things. Just remember your rules and be on your best behavior.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Juniper said glumly, making futile adjustments to her bodice.
“And you three!” Tellwyrn pointed at the soldiers arrayed behind the dryad. “You are not to let her out of your sight.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Private Moriarty said crisply.
“That means you’ll be rooming together, needless to say. I’m serious; this was a condition of Lord Vex authorizing this. She is to have Imperial escort at all times.”
Ruda barked a laugh. “Something tells me they’ll find ways to pass the time.”
“I resent the implication,” Rook said haughtily. “I would never take advantage of a lady caught in an uncomfortable situation.”
“Bucko, I think what’s at issue here is the lady will take advantage of you.”
“Yes.” He nodded emphatically. “And I am perfectly okay with that.”
“Where are those two boys?” Tellwyrn demanded.
“When we left the room,” said Finchley, “Toby was still packing and I don’t think Gabe was actually awake.”
The Professor grunted and turned to resume walking. “They have a couple of minutes, yet.”
“You look very nice, Juniper,” Shaeine said.
“Really?” The dryad looked forlorn. “I don’t think this coloring agrees with me at all.”
“With respect, I don’t concur. But then, I’ve been learning to appreciate the aesthetic of humanity.”
“Yeah,” said Ruda with a huge grin, “we all know you’ve got a thing for brunettes.”
Shaeine glanced at her and actually smiled slyly. Teal flushed scarlet.
“How’d you do that, anyway?” Trissiny asked, falling into step beside Juniper. “Is it hair dye and makeup?”
“Oh, no, that wouldn’t work on me. I metabolize pretty much anything, magical or alchemical or not. It’s an enchantment.” She wiggled her left index finger, on which was an apparently plain steel ring. “Professor Tellwyrn says I’m not to take it off until we’re back on the campus. Which is… I mean, it’s a little odd-looking, but it’s not so bad. It’s the clothes that are driving me bonkers. I know humans don’t wear them all the time. I can’t wait till we’re in whatever rooms we get. I’m gonna be naked every chance I get.”
“So the gods do love us after all,” Rook said tearfully.
Trissiny shot him a look. “Private.”
“Sorry, General.” He managed a halfhearted look of contrition and she sighed, but didn’t pursue the matter.
They walked through the silent town, conversation petering out. At the Rail platform, Tellwyrn planted her hands on her hips, peering about. “Well, time’s up.”
With a soft pop, two more figures appeared alongside them. Toby was upright and alert, leaning on his staff with a knapsack dangling from one hand. Gabriel was hunched in front of an open suitcase, which appeared in midair, having apparently been resting on something in its previous location. It thunked to the ground, spilling clothes, and he tumbled over sideways.
“Goddammit! Do you have to do shit like that?!”
“Did you think I was kidding?” Tellwyrn asked dryly. “Hope you’ve got everything you need, Arquin. Our caravan will be here momentarily.”
He muttered mutinously, getting up and surreptitiously rubbing his tailbone. “Well, Toby, this’ll teach you to complain about the weather in Tiraas.”
“Yep,” said the paladin wryly. “Back we go to the land of gloom and sleet.”
“Do you, like, lose your powers if you go too long without seeing the sun?” Ruda asked, sipping from a bottle of whiskey.
Toby sighed. “I hope not. If so, I have a feeling we’ll find out.”
“Are you sure?”
“…no. No, I just rolled some dice and the omens portend that Tellwyrn has left the campus.”
The other robed, hooded figure stood up, turning its cowled head to stare at the one currently standing in the doorway.
“Yes, I’m sure,” she said sharply. “I watched the caravan leave. They’re halfway to Calderaas by now.”
“All right, all right, no need to get snippy. I think my concern is understandable. This is Tellwyrn we’re talking about.”
“Hm,” his companion said noncommittally, stepping back into the chamber.
It wasn’t deep into the Crawl, but the dungeon beneath the campus was supposed to be off-limits to students except during school-approved exercises. The students at this University being who they were, it was all but traditional for them to sneak in, using the space for various illicit purposes. Most of the corridors and chambers this close to the entrance were relatively secure, long since cleared of monsters and hostile magics, but they did tend to shift about from time to time. Not so dramatically that a person setting foot within was automatically doomed to wander in darkness forever…just enough to make it pointless trying to map the area. This place was the product of the same governing power that had made the Golden Sea; many of the same rules applied.
These two students were garbed in all-concealing robes of deep blood red. Heavy hoods concealed their features, complete with shadowing charms that made their faces invisible underneath. It was the kind of over-the-top getup used only by the most dedicated of cultists, and raw amateurs diligently imitating what they thought a dedicated cultist would do.
The woman paced slowly around the edges, studying the elaborate spell circle inscribed on the floor in faintly glowing enchanting chalk. The man had knelt again, applying the finishing touches to a glyph. Finally, he got somewhat awkwardly to his feet and stepped back.
“Well…there it is. Looks like we’re done. Ready to make a wish?”
“Are you sure you copied the glyphs correctly?”
“No,” he said, deadpan. “I just drew some squiggly lines. I thought they looked pretty.”
“All right,” she muttered. “I guess I deserved that.”
“As long as you’re aware of it. Here.”
She took the sheet of paper he offered, studying its contents. “Ugh. What language is this?”
“You know damn well what language it is. Honestly, what’s with you?”
“I’m stalling,” she groused. “Trying to convince myself this was a good idea.”
“Yeah? How’s that going?”
“About halfway there.”
“Relax, it’ll be contained in the circle, and the magic inherent in the Crawl will keep it from going far if it does escape. Besides, we brought insurance!” He drew a wand from within his voluminous sleeve and waggled it. “Nothing can go wrong.”
“Oh, now, you can’t just say things like that. That’s just asking for the fates to intervene!”
Both of them yelped and staggered backward away from the circle, boggling at the figure now standing within.
“By the way,” she said, grinning, “for future reference, just inscribing a summoning circle is enough to weaken the barriers of reality enough that something can slip through, even before you start casting. As a matter of general practice, it’s smarter not to stand around chitchatting in between steps.”
She was a woman, apparently human, in a slinky red dress with a matching floppy-brimmed hat over her dark hair. A bronze complexion offset the scarlet fabric pleasingly; dark eyes glittered with intelligence above a longish nose.
“…well,” said the man after a moment. He and his companion both had wands out and aimed at her. “That sure doesn’t look like a sshitherosz.”
“Aw, aren’t you sweet,” she said, fluttering her lashes flirtatiously. “I’m the lady in red. It’s something new I’m trying out. You like?” She spread her arms wide as if putting herself on display, cocking her pelvis to one side.
“Very nice,” he said approvingly. “I’d whistle, but you know, I’m not sure what that might mean in demonic and I’d hate to accidentally let you out of that circle. Meanwhile, here we are.” He looked over at his robed companion. “Can we keep her?”
“Kindly don’t be any more idiotic than you can help,” she said caustically. “Now how the hell do we banish her back to wherever she came from?”
“Well, as to that, you don’t,” the lady in red said languidly, waving a hand. Instantly, the white chalk lines on the floor blackened as if scorched, then sizzled away, filling the room with the smell of sulfur.
“Oh, shit,” the female student hissed. She managed to squeeze off two shots with the wand; both lightning bolts slapped harmlessly into the lady’s outstretched palm. Then, suddenly, both wands were bunches of tulips.
“Now, there’s no need for that,” said the lady reprovingly. “And here after I went to all the trouble to come visit you, and prevented the thing you were trying to summon from coming through. You’re welcome, by the way, since that circle of yours would not have held it. Seriously, do you know how many grammatical errors you made in those glyphs? Demonic is a language, not a set of spell components. How daft do you have to be to try improvising commands when you don’t even speak it?”
“You improvised?” the girl shrieked.
“Oops,” he said weakly.
“You need to have a talk with your buddy, here,” the lady said. “Rule of thumb: never leave the man to work unsupervised. Am I right?”
“If it’s not too impolite to ask,” the man said, edging toward the door, “who are you?”
“And what do you want?” the girl added tersely.
“Oh, I’m just sure you’ve heard of me at some point. Everyone has. Let me see if I can jostle your memory,” said the lady, smiling mysteriously, then dissolved in smoke. The reek of sulfur overpoweringly filled the room. Both robed students immediately whirled and sprinted toward the exit; the dilapidated metal gate slammed shut just as they arrived, causing them to smash themselves against it. Despite its rusted appearance, it was more than sturdy enough to hold up to the impact, barely even shifting in its frame.
“Now, now, don’t wander off. We have things to discuss, you and I.”
Both of them turned slowly.
She towered above, all but filling the room. Its ceiling didn’t seem high enough even to fit her, but she managed, as though space itself didn’t dare to inform her she was wrong. The face with much the same—lean, angular, sharp-nosed—but her skin was a dusky crimson now, her eyes swirling pits of orange flame. Horns sprouting from her forehead swept back over her hair, and her legs terminated in cloven hooves.
“Oh…well, then. Fuck,” the boy said weakly. The girl whimpered.
“Nobody’s ever happy to see me,” Elilial complained. “It’s enough to give a girl a complex. Ah, well, I’ll manage. Let’s talk about you.” She grinned broadly, showing off fangs, and both would-be summoners pressed themselves furiously against the gate as though trying to ooze through the bars. “Here you are, precisely like every lazy fool who’s come before you, looking to take extremely hazardous shortcuts to whatever it is you want and utterly failing to comprehend the cost. Oh, stop looking at me like that, you two, I’m not going to incinerate you or anything. In fact, that is precisely the thing at issue here. I promised dear Arachne I wouldn’t harm any of her students. Despite my reputation, my word is my bond.”
The two cowled heads turned toward each other, then back to the goddess. “Whatever you say,” said the boy.
“Oh, if you only knew how right you are,” she said, smiling broadly. “Now, we don’t need to go into the details of what you wanted with a sshitherosz demon. To be perfectly frank, I’m not interested. To yourselves, you are individuals full of hopes, ambitions and mitigating flaws, the protagonists in your own little stories; to me, you’re something for Arachne to do. Something other than sticking her spectacles into my business. To that end, here’s what I’m going to do for you.”
She folded her arms, still smiling smugly. “Of all the gifts of the infernal arts, all the boons that summoners call up demons to beg or demand, there are none more potent or more dangerous than knowledge. And so, knowledge you shall have.”
“W-what knowledge?” the young woman asked, very nearly masking a quaver in her voice.
“More or less all of it,” Elilial said, her grin widening again. “Oh, there are the standard exceptions, a few little tidbits I really can’t have mortals knowing. But aside from that? The dark arts, in general. The entire library of lore and spellcraft sought by diabolists. What I am giving you, countless others have sacrificed everything up to and including their souls to obtain, and precious few succeeded in their goals.”
Both figures had straightened slightly as she talked; even from within the all-enveloping robes, their body language betrayed their interest.
“That is…alarmingly generous,” the boy said slowly. “What is it you want in exchange for this?”
“Exchange?” she repeated, feigning confusion. “Why, I wasn’t proposing to make an exchange. This is my gift, children, free of charge, free of strings or stipulation. I snap my fingers and you go from zero to grandmaster warlock. Oh, there’s a hell of a learning curve, pun intended, and you’ll have a great deal of work to gather up your power—and, even more, to manage how to handle it without corrupting your mortal shells into uninhabitable husks. But the knowing how, that will jump you vastly farther ahead. Farther than the most ambitious should dare dream.”
“No. Bullshit.” The girl shook her head emphatically. “You’re talking sheer insanity. Nobody hands out power of that magnitude without getting something in return. If you’re not going to reveal the catch, I want nothing to do with this.”
“I’m very nearly offended,” Elilial said mildly. “I’ve told you my motives already. I am in the middle of something, and a handful of stubborn interlopers, including your charming professor, are increasingly determined to do something about it. I simply cannot spare the effort or personnel to go chasing down every last little threat to my plans. Thus, you.” She raised a hand languidly, inspecting her claw-like fingernails. “Have you heard the expression ‘power corrupts?’ It’s extremely true. So what do you suppose power over corruption itself does? I’ll tell you exactly what I gain from this arrangement, kids: Red herrings. Ticking time bombs. Mad dogs with torches tied to their tails, set loose in my enemies’ fields. You want to know who hands out vast quantities of unearned, unappreciated power?” A cruel smirk tugged the side of her mouth upward. “Someone who doesn’t care one little bit about the welfare of the person receiving it, or anyone they come into contact with.”
“And how do you know we won’t just use it against you?” The girl swatted him in the midsection with the back of her hand, eliciting a grunt. “Ow! What? It’s a fair question!”
“You could try,” Elilial said with amusement. “You’d hardly be the first. I really can’t express how little I worry about the revenge of mortal warlocks. Besides, you’ll be quite busy, you see. You’ve got to get through the remainder of your education here without Arachne sniffing you out and blasting you to atoms. Then make your way out there in the wide world, avoiding the many hazards that await the powerful. The Tiraan Empire is a dangerous enough thing these days that few if any high-level casters dare challenge it. There are no shortage of other members of the elite club you will have joined, most with power as great as yours and every last one with vastly more experience. Some will regard you as competition, some as a threat to the world. A highly capable druid, priest or even a mage might be able to make friends out there, but you will be hunted and alone, effectively at war with everything which becomes aware of you. Oh, the sheer wreckage you’ll cause in your desperate flailing… It positively chills the blood.
“Or,” she went on, looking viciously self-satisfied, “you could try to counter my plans with a little honesty. Take the gamble that Tellwyrn, or the Empire, or the Pantheon, or the dragons or fairies or anyone else, will give you a fair shake. That they’ll not react to you exactly as any sensible person would to Elilial’s chosen archwarlocks. When you get tired of trying to stay alive—and oh yes, my children, you will—go right ahead and roll those dice.”
“There’s a better option,” the girl said tightly. “We can counter your plans quite effectively by not taking the deal. Count me out.”
“Deal?” the goddess said softly. “My dear, sweet little poppet… No one is offering you a deal.”
She made no gestures, spoke no magic words; there was no visible spell effect, not so much as a puff of sulfur. Elilial simply stood there, smiling thinly down at them, but when she had done speaking, both students rocked abruptly backward as if struck, bouncing against the closed gate.
They crumpled slowly, the boy slouching against the doorframe and sliding down, the girl pitching forward, both clutching at their heads, their minds assaulted by unnavigable torrents of information. Very quickly, the effects escalated and they lost what remained of their footing entirely, their whole nervous systems faltering under the strain of absorbing impossible amounts of knowledge, delivered through a mechanism the brain was never meant to accept.
Elilial watched, her faint smile fading to impassivity, as the pair devolved into kicking, twitching messes on the ground, no longer consciously aware of her—or of anything.
“In a few weeks, or years, or however long it takes for your whole life to come unraveling around you,” she said softly, “and you’re cursing my name… Just remember, you are the brain who decided demonology was a workable shortcut to what you want. Dabbling in what you were… Oh, there are so, so many ways this could have ended so much worse for you. Then again, by the time you’re thinking about it, you’ll understand that full well.”
She turned away, then paused and glanced back over her shoulder. The boy had fallen mostly still, his breath coming in labored rasps; the girl was still twitching feebly.
“Believe it or not,” she said, “I actually am sorry. You’re a means to an end…eggs in a greater omelet than you can imagine. Somebody has to suffer. Might as well be you.”
She made a casual gesture with her hand as though drawing back a curtain, and stepped through. With no visible distortion in the air, she was simply, suddenly gone, leaving behind nothing but the acrid tang of sulfur and the two felled University students, just beginning to regather their senses.