“Trissiny, could I borrow you for a moment?”
Trissiny rose smoothly from the crouch she had assumed on the lawn (a position she claimed was quite comfortable, which none of the rest of the group had been able to hold longer than five minutes), turning to face the approaching elf.
“What is it, Ms. Sunrunner?”
“She goes by ‘Miss,’” Ruda said helpfully.
The shaman and paladin both ignored her. “November is awake,” Miss Sunrunner said, “and is…not going to be an easy patient. All she really needs is to lie still and rest for a while, which she seems adamantly averse to doing. She’s requested your presence.”
“Mine?” Trissiny raised her eyebrows.
“I’d hoped you could perhaps get her to listen,” the healer said dryly. “At the very least. Otherwise I’m going to have to sedate her, which I hate to do unnecessarily, even with someone who won’t need to be bundled into a Rail caravan within the hour.”
Trissiny sighed softly. “Oh.. Of course. Be back in a bit, guys,” she added to the others before following Miss Sunrunner into the cafeteria. They simply stepped over the broken sills of its front ledge, the glass having already been swept up.
“That’s gonna be embarrassing,” Gabriel said cheerfully. “Fross, can you rig up a remote-listening spell on the fly?”
“Yes I can, and no I won’t!” The pixie dived in front of him, barely avoiding bopping him on the nose. “That’s extremely rude! How would you like it if someone spied on your private conversation?”
“Whoah, hey!” Gabriel protested, holding up his hands. “It was a joke!”
Fross chimed discordantly. “You know, Gabe, I’m starting to think you just say that when you don’t want to face the social consequences of something you said in earnest.”
“She’s onto you,” Toby murmured. Gabriel shot him a scowl.
There occurred a soft disturbance of raised voices and shifting bodies as the various students and staff assembled on the lawn turned to look upward. The freshmen did likewise, those who had been sitting shooting to their feet.
From the swirling vortex above, an orange streak had materialized and arced outward in a long spiral toward the ground. Vadrieny banked out over the campus so as to approach from a shallower angle and beat her wings upon nearing the ground, settling down softly in a clear space. Before sending her up, Professor Tellwyrn had spoken to her sharply about her habit of plummeting down hard enough to shake the ground, pointing at the fresh gouges in the stone floor outside the cafeteria for emphasis.
“You’re all right?” Tellwyrn asked, striding over to the demon.
“Perfectly,” Vadrieny replied in a clipped tone. “There’s little enough in Hell that can threaten me, and apparently not much that would want to try.”
Tellwyrn nodded. “What did you find?”
“It’s not good,” the archdemon said. Students shifted forward to listen, though her distinctive voice was powerful enough to be plainly audible all over the lawn. “In fact, it’s virtually as bad as it could possibly be. There’s a sizable hiszilisk hive a few miles distant into the Darklands, close enough to be plainly visible. It has a citadel built into the top displaying Scaontar iconography. Most likely the demons there are in control of the hiszilisks. That’s not uncommon.”
The Professor frowned. “Scaontar? What’s that?”
“Oh?” Vadrieny raised an eyebrow. “You mean there’s something the great Professor Tellwyrn doesn’t know?”
“Young lady,” Tellwyrn began, scowling thunderously, “this is not the time—”
“Yes, yes,” the demon snapped, waving a clawed hand. “They’re…not quite a faction, but a philosophy. They oppose Elilial, but not in any organized manner, so she hasn’t moved against them in force. Really, they oppose any organized power; they fought Scyllith during her reign, too. They’ll even fight each other if different groups cross paths. Sort of like centaurs, or some tribes of plains elves.”
“In other words,” Tellwyrn said grimly, “we’re positioned exactly next to a major concentration of the one force in Hell who won’t stand down if you tell them to.” Vadrieny nodded. “Did they appear to be mobilizing?”
“It’s impossible to tell,” the demon replied. “The hiszilisks were swarming about, but that’s what they do. They can’t have missed seeing the hellgate open, though, even if they weren’t behind it. They definitely won’t pass up the opportunity. Best to assume they are gearing up to attack.”
“Did you seriously not know you were building a University right across the dimensional barrier from something like that?” Anoia burst out. A junior in the divinities program, she was an elf with the horizontal ears of the plains people.
“First,” Tellwyrn said, shifting her body to face the assembled students as a whole, “hellgates don’t just pop open in the normal course of things, which is why no one looks into what’s on the infernal plane when beginning construction unless they plan to be messing with dimensional barriers. Just looking is sometimes enough to let something slip through. Second, the Darklands are a counterpart to the Golden Sea, and in fact are connected to it. That is how centaurs navigate; they use demonic contacts on the other side to move the Darklands, which causes similar shifts in the Sea, until the Sea reorganizes itself to mend the changes.”
“Still, awfully bad luck, though,” Chase noted.
“Luck has absolutely nothing to do with it,” Tellwyrn snapped. “Whoever opened that gate had a powerful demon ally on the other side to communicate with; they have to be worked at from both ends. Most likely that gnagrethyct. A creature like that could easily shift the Darklands to plant something exceptionally nasty next to us, either before opening the gate or right afterward.”
“What’s a hissy-lisk?” Tanq asked.
“Picture a cross between a wasp and an iguana,” said Vadrieny, “the size of a wolf, nominally sentient, and venomous.”
“So… Not answerable to Vadrieny, raider philosophy, and with a bunch of fliers,” said Professor Rafe, who had returned from the town only a few minutes previously. “I do say that’s tailored to be a threat to this campus. Look, kids, if you’re not happy about the food, there’s a suggestion box. This is just excessive.”
“Admestus,” Tellwyrn said wearily, “do shut up.”
Everyone turned to look as one of the three zeppelins parked below began to ascend, the silver Imperial gryphon embossed on its long gas capsule gleaming blindingly in the prairie sun. Two remained on the outskirts of Last Rock, still taking on passengers.
It had been several tense hours on the lawn; Tellwyrn had insisted upon everyone remaining in sight, in case the gnagrethyct returned. Over that time, runners (chosen from the faculty and in groups of two) had moved back and forth between the campus and the town, keeping her appraised of developments, since her teleportation was apparently unsafe to use. Miss Sunrunner had given her an earful about being non-consensually teleported that close to the hellgate, to which Tellwyrn had replied that obviously it wasn’t yet open at that point.
This had set off no end of speculation. Most of the student body had been present in the cafeteria at that time, and clearly none of them had been engaged in infernal portal-opening. Then again, if that order of events was correct, the gnagrethyct had crossed over before the gate had been formed. Either there was something more behind the situation that they hadn’t yet figured out, or whoever was responsible had taken great pains to confuse the issue and cover their tracks. Quite possibly both.
By this point, the University’s non-essential personnel—which Tellwyrn defined as those lacking any skills that would be useful if demons began pouring out of the portal—had already been sent below and evacuated via Rail. The dorm overseers, Stew the groundskeeper and a few of the professors were already gone. The students and more powerful faculty remained, both to pose a threat to anything emerging from the hellgate and to give more vulnerable people first access to the evacuation measures in place. They were also the most likely targets of further gnagrethyct attacks, a risk that was somewhat mitigated by having all of them present and under Tellwyrn’s watchful eye. Even after sending Vadrieny up to scout the portal, she had assured them she could deal with the demon if it returned. She had declined to explain further, and yet no one doubted the claim. For the most part it had all gone quite smoothly, except for a kerfuffle when Mrs. Oak flatly refused to abandon her kitchen and Tellwyrn flatly refused to make her. They both seemed quite unconcerned with the situation, but a number of the students were upset at the thought of leaving her behind, despite the cook’s surly disposition and general lack of popularity.
Trissiny emerged from the cafeteria and stalked back toward her classmates, just as Vadrieny withdrew, leaving Teal to do the same. They reached the group at more or less the same time. Shaeine gently took Teal’s hand in both of her own; Trissiny just came to a halt, glaring into the distance with her jaw set. A faint but noticeable blush hung over her cheeks.
“So,” Gabriel said sweetly, “how did it go?”
“She’ll be fine,” Trissiny said shortly. “I could have done without hearing her deathbed confession.”
“Wait, deathbed?” Juniper frowned. “I thought you said she’ll be fine.”
“I did. She will. I think she was rather embarrassed to learn it, afterwards.”
“How the hell did she not learn it until you got there?” Gabe asked, grinning in delighted schadenfreude. “I mean, she had to have woken up with Miss Sunrunner right there explaining things…”
“You’ve met November, haven’t you?” Trissiny snapped.
“And what did she confess, exactly?” Ruda asked, grinning insanely.
“There is no need to discuss it,” Trissiny said curtly. The pirate burst into laughter.
“We should respect other people’s privacy,” Toby said, carefully keeping his expression neutral. “I actually hadn’t realized before today that November was a priestess of Avei.”
“She is not,” Trissiny said firmly.
“But…we all saw her, with the glowing,” Gabe said, frowning. “And everyone knows she’s an Avenist. I think she’s managed to make that clear to everybody in the province.”
“November discovered Avei last year, after arriving at the University,” Trissiny said with a sigh. “She was born with the ability to channel divine energy without a relationship to any god.”
“What?” Juniper tilted her head. “I thought that was impossible.”
“A lot of dwarves can do it, but yes, for humans it’s unheard of,” Trissiny replied. “That’s why she’s here, instead of at a school for normal people.”
“Maybe she’s part dwarf,” Gabriel speculated.
“Are you kidding?” Ruda snorted. “I could fit both my hands around her waist. If anything, she’s part elf. She’s got the pointy features.”
“Anyway,” said Toby more firmly. Trissiny looked up, meeting his gaze, and after a moment they nodded at each other. In unison, the two paladins turned to stare seriously at their classmates. “Guys…we need your help. Fross, can you do some kind of silencing spell over us so we can’t be overheard?”
“Simplicity itself!” the pixie boasted, zipping outward and flying in a complete circle around the group. A very faint shimmering effect rose in the air, roughly spherical and isolating them from the rest of their classmates. Within the pale blue ball, all sound from outside was abruptly cut off.
“Neat,” Gabriel noted. “For the record, I could’ve done something similar.”
“Yeah, but you mostly use glyph engraving,” Fross replied. “That would’ve taken longer. More stable, though. So, uh, why did I need to do that?”
Toby took a deep breath and held it for a moment, apparently looking for word. Trissiny spoke before he could find them.
“We have to stay,” she said simply. “We need you guys to cover for us.”
The others stared at them in silence. Toby let out his breath, finally nodding in mute agreement.
Outside their bubble, several other students were watching them curiously, plainly aware what the spell was for, but no one was moving to approach. Tellwyrn was currently distracted by a conversation with Professor Ezzaniel, who had just returned from the town.
“Gonna need a little more detail than that,” Gabriel said tersely.
“Omnu spoke to me while Professor Tellwyrn was talking just now,” Toby said quietly, carefully angling his body so no one outside the group would be able to read his lips. He raised an eyebrow, glancing at Trissiny. “I assume Avei said the same to you? Right. This is a paladin thing, a matter of our calling. We’re to remain here after the mountain has been evacuated, and face whatever comes out of that portal.”
“Obviously, Tellwyrn isn’t going to have it,” Trissiny added. “She’s made it abundantly plain, numerous times, that she has no regard for the command of the gods. So…we need help. I’m sorry to have to ask this, but we need you guys to conjure some kind of illusion to make it seems we’re bugging out with everyone else, and make sure she and Professor Yornhaldt don’t get a close enough look to penetrate it. You can do that, right, Fross? Gabriel?”
“Actually,” Gabe mused, “I might have just the thing. It’s something new, so Tellwyrn probably isn’t aware of it. It’s actually based on something a succubus tried to do in Onkawa earlier this year, making portable self-directing illusion golems to impersonate people. Substituting arcane techniques for the infernal magic used, some of the big experimental spellcrafters in Calderaas replicated the effect and published their work. All so they could make a quick doubloon, of course; they’re selling kits. I bought some.”
“You bought magic golem kits?” Ruda asked, raising her eyebrows. “With what money? We didn’t clear that much from the Crawl.”
“Actually this was months ago, before the Crawl,” he said, “and it wasn’t that expensive. It’s called mass-production, Ruda, join the century. Anyhow, remember when you guys got jewels from the Golden Sea expedition and you insisted I get a share? That’s how I can afford it.”
“I thought you were going to build up some savings,” Toby said with a note of reproach.
“I was,” said Gabe, grinning unrepentantly, “but then this one started kicking my ass in the class rankings.” He nodded at Fross. “Since I can’t skip sleep to study, I’ve subscribed to several trade journals and catalogs and I’ve been ordering junk to tinker with. Come on, you’ve seen my collection. Did you think I was stealing it?”
“How many of these kits have you got?” Fross asked. “If you show me the diagrams I can help you put them together. Depending on how complex it is, we can maybe rig up some spares from general components if you haven’t got enough to cover all seven people.”
“Seven?” Toby said sharply.
“Should have plenty,” Gabriel replied to the pixie. “I got these to tinker with, remember, and you should always count on ruining some units. I should have about a dozen left. If we’re careful not to overload or miswire any it oughtta be enough.”
“You’re gonna need biological samples from each of us, aren’t you,” Ruda said resignedly. “Ugh, fine, you may pluck one hair. I’m not donating any fucking fluids.”
“Will it be okay to use mine?” Juniper asked worriedly. “I’m pretty much made of fae magic; that can react badly to arcane stuff.”
“Now, hold on,” Toby protested.
“There’s a standard spell lattice to work around that,” Gabriel assured the dryad. “It’s…hm, it takes some specific reagents, though, and we’ll have to be very careful about integrating it into the golem units. I don’t have the materials on hand.”
“I’ve got some,” Fross assured him, “and I can swipe the rest from one of the spell labs. Easy peasy, it’ll take me two minutes, tops.”
“Of course, you’re easy enough to duplicate,” he said, grinning up at her.
Fross bobbed up and down, chiming excitedly. “Standard will-o’-the-wisp illusion! I can anchor it to one of the golems without messing it up, I think.”
“Stop,” Trissiny said firmly. “You are not coming with us.”
“Trissiny,” Shaeine said serenely, “you know that I like and respect you, I trust?”
“I… Well, I suppose so,” the paladin said, frowning. “But—”
“Good. With that established, in this case, I must regretfully instruct you to shove it sideways.” Trissiny and Toby rocked back from her in unison; the rest of the group turned to stare, with the exception of Teal, who tried to cover a smile with her free hand. “It is an insult and a diminishment of our friendship that you so blithely assume we would abandon you to face such a threat,” the drow said firmly. “Do you note that every one of us immediately assumed we would accompany you? It seems to have been obvious to all except yourselves.”
“This is something we have to do,” Trissiny insisted. “It’s about what we are. There’s no reason for you guys to put yourselves in the same kind of danger.”
“Before you build up that stand-alone complex too much, let the resident bard lay a little lore on you,” Teal said. “Historically speaking, paladins rarely acted alone. And in fact, only a few gathered up followers exclusively or even mainly from within their own religions. You guys may be used to feeling isolated because there haven’t been paladins in a few decades, but most of your predecessors depended heavily on their allies. Heck, a lot of the greatest adventurer teams were built around some paladin or other.”
“Look,” Ruda said, cutting Toby off. “We can stand here jabbering in a circle about history and responsibility and whatever other shit you wanna bring into it, but at the end, what’s goin’ down is that we are not leaving you. You can accept this with or without me needing to slap the stupid off your face, Boots, but the outcome will be the same. I don’t get the feeling we can spare the time to argue about it. Am I right?”
Trissiny sighed, looking down at the grass between them. “I just… I’ve been prepared to die since I was called. I’m a lot less prepared to be responsible for you dying.” Toby nodded agreement.
“Bullshit,” Ruda snapped. “Every one of us is capable of making our own goddamn decisions. Being a paladin may be about sacrifice, but it doesn’t give you the right to decide where anyone else spends their own lifeblood.”
“You’re our friends,” Juniper said simply. “I can’t let you do this alone, not when I could help you.”
“Hell, you guys are the only friends I’ve got,” Gabriel added, grinning. “And think about what you have here. Half-demon with wands and spells, fairy mage, dryad, archdemon, shield-specialized priestess, swordswoman with a magic-blocking weapon. This group is practically custom-tailored to beat back a demon invasion. Come on, guys, did the gods specifically tell you that you’d have to do this without help?”
Trissiny and Toby locked eyes, a silent question passing between them.
“Didn’t think so,” Gabriel said smugly. “So maybe entertain the possibility that the gods want us to help you, yeah?”
“We have not spent the last year learning to work together for nothing,” Shaeine added.
Trissiny sighed. “All right.”
“What?” Toby exclaimed. “Triss—”
“Maybe this is the bias of my own upbringing talking,” she said, “but I don’t have it in me to tell brave people they can’t fight when their conscience commands them to. That doesn’t mean I feel good about this,” she added, dragging a baleful look around the rest of the group. None of them looked remotely repentant.
“All right,” Toby said grudgingly. “I just… Augh. You’re right that we don’t have time to argue. But this leaves us in exactly the same position. No, a worse one! The whole class can’t just disappear, and those golems aren’t going to fool Tellwyrn. I bet she can see right through one.”
“If she has reason to look closely, yeah,” said Gabriel, frowning. “Tricking an archmage isn’t exactly part of my novice repertoire…”
“If you think like an arcanist, sure, that’s a tall order,” said Ruda. “That calls for a more basic kind of trickery; we just need to arrange for her to be looking in another direction. Let’s be honest, Tellwyrn is a hammer-headed brute. Surely we can work around her.”
“Once again, same position,” Toby said in annoyance. “We need somebody to actually do that for us, and if you guys all insist on being there, that won’t work. Someone has to stay behind.”
“Nah,” Juniper said brightly, “we’ll just have the sophomores do it.”
Everyone turned to stare at her.
“What?” Gabriel said finally.
“The sophomore class,” she explained. “I mean, think about it. There’s several people there who’ll help us out, for various reasons. November would do pretty much anything Triss asked of her.” Trissiny flushed again, looking away, but the dryad carried on blithely. “And she’s laid up, and she’s being difficult about it, so that’s a distraction right there. With some of the others to help, she can hold attention. I bet Natchua would help, too.”
“Natchua hates us,” Gabriel protested.
“No, she does not,” Shaeine said quietly. “Natchua is grappling with her own issues. She can be generally rather hostile, but I do not believe she harbors actual malice.”
“Not even toward you,” Juniper agreed, nodding. “I’ve actually talked with her.”
“In bed?” Ruda said resignedly.
The dryad shrugged. “Yeah. Most people are more willing to talk about personal stuff after sex, I’ve noticed. I keep meaning to ask why that is.”
“Later,” Ruda said firmly.
“Yes, right. Anyway, Natch’ll help if we ask her the right way, and Chase and the guys definitely will.”
“Whoah, hang on,” Gabriel protested. “Chase and the guys who tried to…um, y’know, get too handsy with you last semester?”
“Yeah,” Juniper said matter-of-factly. “They mostly follow his lead, and Chase was pretty accommodating even before that. Now that he knows I can give him really great sex or yank out his spine with one hand, he pretty much falls over himself to do whatever I ask.”
“Something about that is profoundly wrong,” Gabe muttered, “but I can’t quite put my finger on it.”
“If we survive this, I’ll explain it in detail,” Trissiny sighed.
“On second thought, ignorance is bliss.”
“Okay, so!” Ruda said. “We split up as soon as Tellwyrn lets us. Juno had better talk to the sophomores, since she’s the one with all the ins. Or maybe we should have Triss speak to November?” She grinned at Trissiny’s expression.
“Nah, I’ll talk to her,” said Juniper. “After that confession she’s probably too embarrassed to talk to Triss anyway. She’ll be especially eager to make amends.”
“Right,” Ruda went on. “Fross, Gabe, where can you go to work on that golem shit?”
“Our room,” Gabriel said immediately. “The lads went down to the town with the first group, so we have it to ourselves. It’s where I’ve got all my stuff anyway.”
“Except that female students can’t get into your dorm,” Teal protested.
“Nah, Fross and I work together on homework a lot anyway,” Gabriel said with a dismissive wave of his hand.
“Yeah!” Fross chimed. “Remember Tellwyrn said the sex barrier is to lower the chances of someone getting pregnant? Well, I’m nominally feminine but I don’t have a biological sex, so it doesn’t bar me.”
“Handy,” said Ruda. “We have a plan, then?”
“I wish you guys would just stay behind,” Toby muttered.
“Yeah, well, sorry. Your friends love you.” Teal grinned at him. “Life’s hard, Toby. Suck it up.”
Sound abruptly rushed in on them as their sonic barrier collapsed. They whirled in unison, finding themselves face-to-face with Tellwyrn, who still had a finger upraised from pricking their magic bubble.
“Now that we are all present and attentive,” she said dryly, “it’s time to begin heading out. The town is nearly emptied; there are just a few left to get on the zeppelins. There are Rail caravans standing by; it’ll take several trips to move all of us, but the caravans will keep coming as soon as room is made. The Empire is devoting a lot of extra resources to this, but there is only a single Rail line through the town. The situation is this: we have likely a few hours until something comes out of the portal, and according to Professor Shinhai and Miss Sunrunner, the gnagrethyct appears to have left the area. However, this is no time to be complacent. I want you in groups of no less than two at all times, and I would prefer much greater. You have half an hour to collect any necessities from your rooms and re-assemble at the campus gates. That much time should be enough to get the last of the townsfolk out and begin moving you lot and the faculty. I will be down in Last Rock attending to a few final matters.”
“Professor?” asked a junior. “What’s going to happen to the University?”
“I am not ceding my campus to whatever idiot did this,” Tellwyrn growled. “As soon as you are all safely away, I will be coming back here to close that damned hole. I’ll need help, but the Empire is surely sending strike teams at the least. Don’t you worry about that; we’ll all be back in time for graduation.”
She turned in a full circle, taking stock of those present. “All right, time’s wasting. If any of you feel the need to say last-minute goodbyes or anything else in private, tough. You should’ve emulated the freshman class, here. Get whatever stuff you urgently need and that you can’t afford to possibly lose to demons, and above all, don’t make me come get you. That, you will regret till the end of your days, I promise.”
“We’ll have to move fast, then,” Gabriel murmured.
“Yes, Mr. Arquin,” Tellwyrn said acidly. “If only you displayed such a keen grasp of the obvious in class. Alaric, you stay here and keep your eyes on that portal. If anything comes through, dissuade it. Taowi, Admestus, stay and help him in any way he requires.” She peered around at the assembled students and teachers one last time. “All right, kids, time is not on our side. Move it.”