The entire sophomore class appeared in Tellwyrn’s dimly-lit office with a series of small pops, over the course of about five seconds.
“Dammit!” Ruda shouted after getting her bearings. “Can you not at least ask first, woman? What if somebody had been changing?”
“Someone was,” Toby exclaimed, feeling nervously at his clothes. “I don’t know whether I’m less or more disturbed to find myself fully dressed, now.”
“Wow, that’s really impressive,” Fross chimed. “That’s a whole order of magnitude more complex than a standard teleportation.”
“At least twice that,” Professor Tellwyrn said calmly. She was seated behind her desk as usual, framed by the unshuttered windows granting a view of the clear night sky. Only the small fairy lamp above the desk was active, leaving the room mostly in semi-darkness. “Based on my observations of you precious little buggers, I am playing a hunch. Mr. Arquin has just brought something rather unsettling to my attention which, at first glance, seems it should concern only himself and Juniper, but I have the most peculiar feeling I’m about to find that the lot of you will either become involved, or already are.”
“Peculiar feeling?” Juniper said nervously, hugging her jackalope to her chest. Jack hung with his back legs dangling, and to judge by the way he kicked and squirmed, wasn’t enjoying it. Being continually prodded about the head and neck with his antlers didn’t seem to discomfort the dryad. “About something unsettling involving Gabe and me? What’d I do?”
“It appears,” said Tellwyrn, staring at her, “there is a new dryad sniffing around Last Rock.”
“What?” Juniper squawked. “Which?”
“She said her name was Aspen,” said Gabriel.
“Oh!” Juniper brightened considerably. “That’s probably okay, then, she’s really nice.”
“June, I don’t know how to break this to you gently,” he said with a wince, “but she tried to kill me.”
“I’m guessing you talked to her first,” Trissiny said dryly.
Gabe shot her a long look, then sighed. “Look, I know when I’ve provoked someone, and I didn’t. I was very diplomatic. She came here looking for a fight.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Juniper whispered. Jack finally kicked free of her, and she had to lunge after him as he bounded for the door. It was closed, fortunately.
“I actually met Aspen once,” said Fross. “She seemed nice to me, but it was a brief sort of conversation. Why’d she try to kill you?”
“More important,” said Teal, “how did you get out of that situation? You’re obviously not killed, and I think we’d have noticed if somebody nearby had harmed a dryad.”
“I can’t take credit,” he said ruefully, rubbing at his neck with one hand. “This was on the Vidian temple grounds. Soon as she got her hand on my throat, the valkyries chased her off.”
There was a moment’s silence.
“There are valkyries around here?” Trissiny exclaimed.
Wordlessly, Gabriel and Tellwyrn both pointed at an empty space in front of the Vernis Vault with the music player on top. Everyone immediately shuffled back from it.
“There are usually several around the last few months,” Gabriel said. “They sorta rotate in and out; they’ve all got other things to do but it seems like they hang around me in their free time. This is Vestrel; she’s the only actually assigned to help me. She says hello.”
“Hi, Vestrel!” Fross chirped enthusiastially.
“Gods, please tell me I’m not the only one who doesn’t see anybody,” said Ruda.
“Valkyries don’t actually occupy the mortal plane,” Tellwyrn explained. “They can’t even be seen here except on Vidian holy ground and in places where the dimensional barriers have thinned. They also cannot interact physically with anything that’s not…out of place. Undead, ghosts, Vanislaad demons, things like that.”
“So, could they be present, say, around a fresh hellgate?” Ruda asked in an interested tone. “Cos I’ve gotta say, couple of those woulda been really useful this spring. What with tall, dark and creepy clearly hanging around anyway.”
“And incidentally,” Tellwyrn added with asperity, “this fact should not be mentioned in front of Aspen, should any of you find yourselves having a conversation with her. We’ve found one way of scaring her into behaving; she doesn’t need to know its limitations.”
“Why would a dryad be afraid of valkyries, though?” Juniper asked, frowning and stroking Jack’s fur. She had him settled in a more comfortable position in her arms. “Dryads are, like, the ultimate apex predator. Nothing is dangerous to us.”
“You’ve never met a dragon,” Tellwyrn remarked. “We can explore that another time.”
“Also, what’s a valkyrie?”
“If I may, Juniper?” the Professor said acidly.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, flushing.
“Aspen’s stated reason for being here, according to Mr. Arquin, is to look for you. She seems to be under the impression that you’re dead.”
Gabriel sighed, looking over at the others. In nearly perfect unison, most of them stiffened, eyes widening. Shaeine merely tilted her head, raising an eyebrow.
“And there it is,” Tellwyrn said with grim satisfaction. “The oh-so-familiar expression of a bunch of kids realizing exactly how they’ve screwed up. It would almost be satisfying if it weren’t going to result in a whole bunch of unnecessary hassle for me. See, I knew the lot of you were involved with this. All right, spit it out. Why is there a dryad poking around my University believing in Juniper’s alleged demise?”
“Well…” Juniper trailed off, gulped, and bent to set Jack on the floor. He immediately hopped off into a corner away from the group. “I think it’s because of what happened in the Crawl.”
She paused, watching Tellwyrn warily; the Professor simply raised an eyebrow.
“There was this…sort of…room. A complex of halls, more like. It was full of illusions that made us face…um, fears.”
Tellwyrn nodded. “Yes, I read Professor Ezzaniel’s report. That is why I wasn’t more irate at you getting rid of my incubus; I obviously can’t have him sending my students on detours that dramatic. Go on.”
“Well, I…” Juniper swallowed again, glancing at the others. Teal stepped over to squeeze her shoulder encouragingly. “I sort of had to…come to grips with…some stuff. I mean… Well…”
“I don’t need to interrogate you about your emerging conscience unless it’s immediately relevant to the issue,” Tellwyrn said. “You’ve been making positive progress in that regard, Juniper. Kindly skip to the non-stuttering part that explains this fresh brouhaha.”
Juniper sighed and nodded. “I was having trouble dealing with it, so… Shaeine helped me by invoking Themynra’s judgment, which was… Well, Themynra seemed not to condemn me. So I asked Trissiny to do the same thing. With Avei’s.”
Tellwyrn’s eyebrows slowly narrowed; her eyes thinned to slits behind her spectacles. “You didn’t.”
“She insisted,” said Trissiny, standing stiffly at attention.
“You do realize,” Tellwyrn said in a dangerously quiet tone, “that given the average dryad’s habits, that could very easily have resulted in your classmate’s death?”
“I knew the risks,” Juniper said hastily. “I asked her to, Professor. She didn’t want to.”
“Why is it,” Tellwyrn said, ignoring her, “that every time you fail to think something through, Avelea, you nearly end up getting somebody murdered?”
Trissiny flushed and lowered her eyes, offering no comment.
“All right, well,” Tellwyrn said after a moment. “Clearly Juniper’s not dead. Thanks for small blessings. But somehow your fellow dryads now think you are?”
“She…” Juniper paused, sighed, and squared her shoulders. “Avei cut me off from Naiya.”
“Bullshit. That would simply have killed you.”
“That’s what Elder Shiraki said,” she replied. “It wasn’t a complete severing, more of a block. It means…I don’t have Naiya’s protection anymore. Avei thought it would be an appropriate punishment to have me, you know, on my own in the world. I…don’t disagree.” She trailed off, looking at the floor. Toby stepped over to her other side, placing an arm around her shoulders.
Tellwyrn stared at them all in silence for a long moment, then removed her spectacles and carefully folded the earpieces, then set them on the desk. She leaned back, her chair squeaking as it partially reclined, and stared at the ceiling. “No matter how many times I tell you little bastards to think before you act, you continually plunge headfirst into the dumbest damn course of action you can come up with. Now, why is that? And more to the point, how long can this go on before you bring this whole bloody place down around our ears?”
“Asking what you’re talking about is just gonna get me called stupid again, isn’t it,” Ruda said sardonically.
Tellwyrn rubbed at her face with one hand. “During our impromptu class at the inn in Lor’naris, I spoke to you about the nature of the gods. The conditional nature of their agency, and how it is sometimes possible to subvert or manipulate them. Please tell me you remember that?”
“We do,” Shaeine said after a moment when nobody else spoke.
The Professor sighed. “Well, Miss Avelea, that’s what you just did to your goddess.”
“What?!” Trissiny exclaimed.
“The goddess of justice, invoked physically by her chosen Hand, and asked to render judgment on a complex moral case with far-reaching implications?” Tellwyrn shook her head. “She pretty much wasn’t able to refuse. Such judgments are a large part of what she is. And so, you basically coerced Avei the deity into doing something that Avei the mortal strategist of eight thousand years ago would’ve had the sense to not damn well do!”
“Hang on,” Gabriel protested. “I get how this leads to Aspen thinking Juniper’s dead, but isn’t it a little harsh to get on Avei’s case about it? Justice as an absolute concept has to be above the overreactions of random dryads.” Trissiny shot him a look that started out surprised and became grateful.
“I do not give a bowl of chilled rat’s ass consomme about Aspen, and neither does nor should Avei,” Tellwyrn snapped. “Juniper wasn’t cut off from Aspen, except perhaps incidentally. The issue here is Naiya. Naiya, who now thinks Juniper is dead, and either told Aspen about it or quite possibly sent her here to investigate. Please, please tell me I don’t have to spell this out any further? Can you kids not see the potential catastrophe unfolding here?”
“Um?” Juniper raised a hand. “Pardon me for interrupting your tirade, but people keep pointing out to me how Naiya is, uh…not terribly attentive. It’s not something I enjoy hearing but I don’t really have an argument against it, y’know?”
“Juniper,” Tellwyrn said in exasperation, “you know you’re an exceptional circumstance. And the rest of you frankly have no excuse for not having figured this out! Honestly, how many dryads have been sent to attend a school in all of history? How many have been permitted by the Empire to attend said school and move around Tiraan territory? You cannot possibly have failed to put together that Juniper has a higher degree of Naiya’s attention than most of her kind—or so I would have assumed, and yet, here we damn well are!”
“I hardly think that’s fair,” Shaeine said coolly. “Several of us are in unprecedented circumstances, in one way or another, and our interactions have been geared—quite deliberately by you, I might add—toward teaching us to work together more than to intellectually ponder one another’s origins.”
“Also,” Ruda added, “some of us are from places like the sea and deep underground and can reasonably be forgiven for knowing fuck all about fucking dryads.”
“Well, this is an argument we can have at length another time,” Tellwyrn began.
“Why is it the argument gets moved to another time when you’re losing it?” Trissiny demanded.
“Because I’m in charge, Avelea, and on a related note, shut up. Right now we have to deal with this dryad situation which you’ve created. Regardless of how dim it was or wasn’t for you to have helped get Juniper into this state, there is no good reason why I’m only hearing about it now. What you have done is potentially set Naiya and Avei on a course for direct conflict. There are a million possible ways this can play out, and you’d better believe I will be bending my energies toward making sure one of the relatively harmless options is what occurs, but the worst-case scenario is nothing less than the bloody Elder Wars revisited in miniature! Kids… If you have to fuck around with deities, will you at least tell me about it before I find myself with demigoddesses assaulting my students?!”
“I think she’s got us there, guys,” Fross said.
“Whose side are you on?” Ruda muttered.
“…there are sides?”
“All right, enough,” Tellwyrn said, putting her spectacles back on. “I’ve set up wards around Last Rock so I’ll know if and when Aspen returns. It’s not clear to me why she would be especially bothered by valkyries, so I can’t guess how frightened she was or how quickly she’ll come back, but it can be assumed she didn’t hike all the way here from the Deep Wild to be turned back at the first opposition.”
“Wait, when did you set up wards?” Gabriel demanded. “You’ve been sitting right here ever since I came and told you about this.”
Tellwyrn gave him a sardonic look.
“Yeah,” he said with a sigh, “I realized why it was dumb as soon as I said it.”
“Story of your life. Anyway, I’m not leaving it at that; too much potential for bystanders to be harmed. There are people moving about the periphery of the town much of the time, and while the wannabe adventurers can be annoying, I doubt most of them deserve to have a run-in with a pissy dryad. If all goes well, I should have Aspen in hand by morning.”
“She went off into the Golden Sea,” Gabriel said. “Gonna be hard to track her there. And by ‘hard’ I mean ‘technically impossible.’”
“You let me worry about that, Arquin.”
“Please don’t hurt Aspen,” Juniper said worriedly. “She’s really super nice. She’s just upset about me dying, I’m sure she doesn’t mean any harm.”
“She did try to kill me,” Gabriel pointed out.
“Oh, everyone tries to kill you,” Ruda said, grinning. “You’ve gotta stop taking these little things so personally, boy.”
He sneered at her; Trissiny patted him on the shoulder.
“It isn’t even a question of who deserves what degree of manhandling,” Tellwyrn said impatiently. “Harming a dryad is off the table, for reasons you all know very well. Odds are good I’m already on Naiya’s shit list, thanks to you brats. That’s just one of the things I will need to learn from Aspen as soon as I have her secured. But no, she will not be harmed in any way. This won’t be the first time I’ve had to take a dryad out of commission without ticking off her mother. It’s not terribly hard if you’re careful.”
“That seems even more ominous, somehow,” Juniper mumbled.
“Anyway, I will come get you as soon as I’ve got her,” Tellwyrn continued. “Obviously, hearing from you will be the first step in settling her down. I’m hoping a lot of this can be made to just go away once she understands you are alive.”
“And once she understand that, I’ll be wanting an apology,” Gabriel added.
“It is unlikely to be so simple,” Shaine pointed out. “We will then have to explain why Juniper appears dead to Naiya’s senses, which, as Professor Tellwyrn has said, could become complicated.”
“I assure you I’ll be getting information from Aspen before I give her any,” Tellwyrn said grimly. “But you’re right, Miss Awarrion. I can’t detain a dryad indefinitely—not safely, anyway, especially when her mother may already be tetchy about this. We’ll have to do something with her. And figuring out exactly what will have to wait until I know more about the situation.”
“So…what else do you need from us, then?” Trissiny asked.
“For now? That should be it. You can all go back to bed, or studying, or more likely wasting time. Whatever you were doing. Juniper, this is important enough that you may be excused from class to speak with Aspen when she’s available. Otherwise, you just keep the rest of your classmates informed, and I will notify you all if I need you for anything. Oh, and Mr. Arquin, you have handled all this rather well. Not that your role was particularly complex or challenging, but it’s pleasing to see you not buggering up a simple task.”
“Stop, I’m gonna blush,” he said flatly.
“All right, everybody be off,” said Tellwyrn, then paused, scowling at the far corner. “…except Juniper, who will be reporting to Stew for cleaning supplies and then back here to remove the essence of rabbit shit from my carpet.”
Self-doubt was a new sensation for Aspen, and she was not enjoying it.
It had been a long day of walking, followed by a stressed, sleepless night. Now, the sun had not yet arrived, but the sky was lightening and taking on the first reddish tinges in the east that signaled the rise of a new day. Aspen didn’t stop in her pacing to appreciate it, much as she hadn’t stopped to rest all night. She didn’t actually feel at all tired; her nerves were still too twinged by the encounter at the human temple.
Really, that was her own fault. She should’ve known better than to confront a human on holy ground. The magic of their gods wasn’t healthy for fairy kind. Still… A priest she could have handled. Those things, though. Nothing could have prepared her for those.
Well, she was gaining some insights into what had happened to Juniper. Not that she intended to stop until she’d found the Arachne and squeezed some answers out of her, but this was progress. If there were things like that around the human town where poor Juniper had been living, no wonder she’d come to grief.
Poor, silly little Juniper. It made Aspen furious even to think of. What must her brief time here have been like, if that was the kind of company she was forced to keep?
She turned and resumed her pacing. After several hours spent wandering aimlessly through the Sea, she’d settled down to a fairly limited spot and had been pacing like a restless lion. By this point she’d worn a track of mashed tallgrass and was simply stalking back and forth on that line.
How was she supposed to get past those things? The sheer horror of them made her shudder even in recollection. Nothing like that had ever existed in the Deep Wild. Surely they weren’t of human origin, for all that she’d found them in that human temple. The truly terrible thing had been the way she could feel them through attuning. Almost exactly like she could feel her sisters, except… Wrong. Backwards. Inverted.
Anti-dryads, that’s what they were, which made no sense. How could something like that even exist? And what were they doing with humans? If this was what humans were up to, the Arachne had been right. Somebody needed to start domesticating them. It seemed Aspen’s warnings had been both wrong and horribly right: Juniper’s mission had been very important, and she had surely come to grief from it.
But what to do?
She reached the other end of her track and was about to turn around again when a face appeared suddenly in the tallgrass right in front of her.
Aspen yelped and hopped backward in surprise. It was a humanoid face—a woman, pretty, with lustrous black hair and almond-shaped eyes. She also had triangular fox ears, which Aspen was fairly sure humans were not supposed to. More to the point, now that she saw the fox-woman, she could feel the torrent of Naiya’s power rushing through her, which she had not sensed a second before. She’d either been hiding or had simply not been there before—which wasn’t too farfetched, considering how the Golden Sea behaved.
“Um,” Aspen said. “Hello?”
The woman smiled broadly, revealing excessively long canines. Aspen smiled tentatively back.
Then a hand flashed out of the tallgrass and slapped her hard across the face.
The dryad could only stare in shock, lifting her own fingers to probe at the four stinging scratches laid across her cheek by the woman’s wicked claws. They were already closing up, of course, but that had hurt.
“Tag!” the fox-woman chirped. “You’re it!”
Then, laughing brightly, she whirled and dashed off into the tallgrass, a bushy, white-tipped tail bobbing behind her.
Aspen let out a roar of fury and charged after her.
She kept a short distance behind her quarry, the laughing woman always just out of reach, so close Aspen could almost grab her tail. She would sprint ahead, then pause, turning to grin and wave until the dryad was nearly on her again, then dart off in another direction.
Despite the frustration of it, and the obvious fact that she was being toyed with, the chase very quickly started to clear her head. Weltering in uncertainty wasn’t good for her; a good chase, though, this she understood. A hunt was exactly what she needed.
At least, for the first few minutes. Quickly, the frustration started building, and the gap between her and the fox-woman grew wider and stayed wider. Was she getting slower? Surely not. She could go forever.
Aspen lunged through a dense stand of tallgrass stalks into a relatively cleared space and paused, looking around. She had been sure the woman was just ahead, but now she couldn’t see anybody. The sky was red with dawn; there was ample light to make out her environs even without borrowing night vision from one of the animals. There was just nobody here.
Then someone off to her left cleared their throat.
Aspen whirled, beholding the woman, who was wearing an ornate silk robe, sitting calmly in an ornately-carved wooden chair which had no business being out here on the prairie, sipping tea from a dainty porcelain cup. A second ago that spot had been empty.
“Good morning,” she said pleasantly. “Allow myself to introduce me: I am Ekoi Kaisa, and you are exceedingly disappointing. Really, is this the best you can do? This almost isn’t even fun.”
Aspen snarled and lunged forward.
Kaisa laughed and dived underneath her own chair in a whirl of silk and bushy tail. Aspen skidded to a stop right next to her and savagely kicked the chair aside.
It burst apart into a spray of blood red maple leaves, which swirled on the air, drifting into the tallgrass all around. Once again, there was no one and nothing else there.
“Stop doing that, you jackass!” Aspen raged, whirling and glaring around.
“Really, there is no need to be rude,” Kaisa said reprovingly from the other end of the clearing. “Just because you’re slow and clumsy doesn’t mean you need to be boorish.”
“I’m gonna chew your ears off!” Aspen yelled, charging at her. The giggling kitsune darted away into the tallgrass.
This time, she led the dryad on a straight dash, eschewing her zig-zagging pattern of before. Aspen growled as her legs pumped at their maximum speed, and even so, the fox-woman was pulling ahead slightly. The dryad, tasting bitter outrage in the back of her throat, tried to pour more energy into her run, but she simply hadn’t been designed for speed. She staggered to a halt, half-doubled over, feeling the ache in her joints.
“And by the way,” said her quarry from just ahead. Aspen lifted her eyes, glaring at the kitsune, who had folded her arms and was staring severely down at her. “What were you thinking, setting foot in a town as naked as a piglet? The disgrace.”
This was ridiculous. The woman was obviously a fairy. Fairies were supposed to respect dryads!
“Do you have any idea who I am?” Aspen demanded, straightening up.
“Why, yes!” Kaisa said with another fang-baring grin. “Your name is Aspen. You are belligerent, pushy, ill-mannered, slatternly and slow.”
Aspen roared in wordless fury and lunged at her again. Kaisa dashed away, cackling in delight.
The kitsune ducked to the side, hopping over a stand of tallgrass that made an impenetrable clump near the ground, passing through its less dense upper fronds with ease. Aspen tried to follow, and the grass stalks springing back from Kaisa’s passing smacked her in the face with the force of a punch. She landed hard on her rump, blinking stars out of her vision.
The vulpine face appeared in the tallgrass, grinning down at her. “I think we can add ‘dense’ to your resume. In both senses of the word.”
Scrambling to her feet, Aspen grabbed a handful of the thickest part of the tallgrass stand and ripped it bodily out of the ground, hurling the whole thing aside.
Kaisa blew her a kiss and darted off again, the dryad right on her heels.
Abruptly they burst out of the tallgrass entirely into a vast cleared space. She skidded to a halt, realizing belatedly that she was back in the environs of Last Rock. The buildings of the town were sprawled dead ahead; there was the huge shape of the mountain, blotting out the sky, and off to one side stood that odd flat temple where she’d run into the things.
In front of her, the fox woman had halted as well, turned to face her, and bowed politely. Straightening up, she waved. “Well, thank you for playing with me! Good-bye.”
“You’re not going anywhere!” Aspen snarled.
“That is correct,” Kaisa said equably.
Then, with a sharp little pop, the world disappeared.
Aspen was suddenly in a room. Square, not large, made of reddish bricks with heavy granite blocks reinforcing the corners and its sole doorframe. There were no windows; the illumination came from those artificial magic lights humans had started using recently. More slabs of granite made up the floor and ceiling. Additional panels of the smooth gray stone were set into the walls at intervals, engraved with glowing blue sigils.
She didn’t need that, or the prickly sensation on her skin of arcane magic at work, to know this was some kind of wizardry. Aspen had materialized three feet off the floor, and wasn’t falling. She kicked, reached for the floor and ceiling, and only succeeded in making herself spin impotently about in midair. Once she stopped flailing, the spell holding her up gradually returned her to an upright position. That was a small courtesy, at least.
When she got her hands on that stupid fox, she was gonna kill her in an unnecessarily messy fashion. For the first time, Aspen was starting to empathize with Larch.
Another little pop sounded, and she found herself face-to-face with the Arachne, who studied her grimly over the rims of her spectacles.
“…aw, crud,” she sighed.
“Well put,” the elf said dryly. “And thank you, Kaisa. That was very neatly done.”
The kitsune leaned out from behind the Arachne, grinning up at Aspen. “I hope you find something more interesting for me next time, Arachne. She’s not clever enough or powerful enough to have been any proper fun. Really, how disappointing. Dryads are such a let-down.”
“Perhaps I should introduce you to Jacaranda sometime,” Arachne said, raising an eyebrow, then turned her attention back to Aspen. “For now, though, you and I are going to have a chat, Aspen. Let’s begin with the matter of you laying your hands on one of my students.”