“I dunno, it seems kinda perfect, dunnit?” Billie said cheerfully as they finally approached the gates of the University. “I mean, given what kind a’ school this is an’ who runs it, makes sense you’d have ta put yerself out t’get there. I’m a little disappointed there’s not a labyrinth or somethin’.”
“None of which counters my original point, which is that this is a gratuitous pain in the ass,” Weaver grumbled. “If anything, it proves the point.”
“Oh, c’mon, you just look for reasons to complain. You’ve gotta be used to this, right? You used ta live here!”
“No,” the bard said sourly, “because when I lived here, I damn well stayed on the campus for exactly this reason.”
“Aye, this reason an’ I’m sure the world’s crawlin’ with people who’d love ta put yer head on a pike.”
“Nobody does that, Fallowstone. When was the last time you ever saw a pike? Outside a museum, I mean.”
“We talkin’ polearms or fish?”
“You’re an idiot, you know that?”
Joe wisely kept out of their argument. He actually agreed with Billie’s point—the University’s difficult-to-reach position and the grueling path to it seemed totally appropriate, both for the institution itself and for Tellwyrn. Apart from his general desire not to involve himself in pointless bickering, though, he was a bit shorter of breath than he wanted to admit. Mid-afternoon in early autumn on the Great Plains was not the best time to be climbing mountains, however gentle the slope.
In fact, he was busy mulling over the implications of the fact that his two companions seemed to have plenty of energy to jabber away. Billie was no surprise; gnomes were known for their resilience and durability. Weaver, though, if his claims were true, had spent the last several years sitting in a library. He was barely even sweating. The man was dressed mostly in black.
No one was watching the University’s arched gates, but the campus was far from deserted. Weaver led them to the left, then right, up a wide flight of stairs and onto a gently wandering path bordered by a colonnaded hall on one side and a wide lawn on the other. A young dwarf woman was reading quietly in the shade of the building’s exterior, while three boys were kicking a much-battered leather ball around the lawn, watched by a small gaggle of fellow students.
All this came to an abrupt halt at the arrival of the three visitors.
A thin blond boy with sharp features gasped melodramatically, then began running around in circles like a beheaded chicken, waving his arms and shouting.
“It returns! Repent, sinners, for the beast walks among us once again! The ancient horror is unleashed! Flee for your pathetic lives!”
He suited the words with action, pelting away down the path into a stand of trees, flapping his arms overhead the whole way.
“Hey!” Billie said, grinning hugely and slugging Weaver just above the knee. “Ain’t that sweet, they remember you!”
“Afternoon, Mr. Weaver,” a dark-skinned human boy said mildly. “You remember Chase, of course.”
“Not particularly,” Weaver grunted. “As you were, kids, we’re just passing through.”
“I thought you quit,” said a drow woman with a green-dyed mohawk. Her tone was overtly unfriendly, quite unlike the drow Joe had met in Sarasio last year; he remembered Shaeine as politeness incarnate. Also, this one’s hairstyle was far from flattering, not that he was about to mention it.
“Well, if you thought at all, you’ve made some progress in my absence,” Weaver snorted, stalking off along the path.
“Yeah, sorry ’bout him,” Billie said, waving to the students. “He’s got this condition where he’s a ruddy asshole.”
“We know,” the drow replied flatly.
Joe tipped his hat to her politely in passing, which gained him nothing but a hostile stare, and picked up his pace slightly to catch up with the others.
Weaver, blessedly, had ceased his grousing as they traversed the campus. Billie was too busy staring avidly at everything they passed to try to rekindle their argument, and Joe did likewise. They were watched curiously by students as they passed, and greeted a few times, but no one attempted to interfere with them; the students mostly seemed an affable lot, if more diverse than any group of people Joe had thus far encountered. Humans predominated, of course, but there were representatives from every sentient species he knew of, including one lizardman. Or lizardwoman. It could be hard to tell from a distance.
The place had a weight and a presence that made it seem older than he knew it to be. Greenery was everywhere, a number of the towering trees looking positively ancient, but of course there were ways to grow trees quickly with the proper fae magic. For that matter, many of these species wouldn’t have grown unprompted at this altitude, anyway. Nothing was crumbling or in disrepair—in fact, after Sarasio and even Tiraas, the whole place was absolutely squeaky clean. Still, it looked aged, and he couldn’t put his finger on why. That bothered him a lot more than perhaps it should. Joe lived in a world of calculated variables; he was deeply uncomfortable with vague feelings. The only thing he knew of that gave him vague feelings was witchcraft.
The other thing that struck him about the campus, after they had crossed the entirety of it in less than ten minutes, was its size. When one pictured the mysterious University at Last Rock, perched atop the famous mountain and managed by the legendary Arachne Tellwyrn, the image that came to mind was grand, both in style and in scope. This place was less than half the size of Sarasio, if that.
Of course, that made sense, if every class was as small as the one which had visited his town. They had mentioned that they were the smallest class in the University’s recent history, but even so… Fewer than twenty students a year at a four-year school would make a student body of much less than a hundred individuals. There was only so much space they could possibly use. Indeed, even for its small size, the campus was rambling in design, with a lot of greenery and open spaces.
Weaver led them to the highest of the University’s terraces, which consisted of a broad lawn with buildings arranged around it: a tower surmounted by a huge telescope, a sprawling greenhouse complex, a long structure whose wide plate glass windows revealed a cafeteria within, and the final building perched on the northwest edge of the summit, which was apparently their destination. A bronze plaque set into its outer wall proclaimed it Helion Hall; in design, it rather reminded Joe of an Omnist temple, with its accents of golden marble and domed roof.
He didn’t get much chance to appreciate the décor within, which was similarly striking. Weaver set a sharp pace, and anyway, Joe was increasingly nervous about this meeting the closer they got to their destination.
“Does she know we’re coming?” he asked suddenly, straightening his bolo tie.
Weaver shot him a contemptuous look. “How would she possibly know we’re coming? We went straight to the Rail station from Darling’s. Do you remember a stop at a telescroll office?”
“I’d say there’s no need to snap, but look who I’m talkin’ to,” Billie said amiably. She didn’t seem at all out of sorts despite having to take three steps for each of theirs; at Weaver’s pace, she was actually jogging to keep up. “We’re visitin’ the greatest mage alive, aye? Who can say what she knows?”
“Who can say, indeed,” Weaver muttered. “And yet, he asks me.”
Their path took them up a flight of carpeted stairs and down a wide hall, braced by marble columns and with a long blue rug trimmed in gold running down its center. Weaver made a beeline for an open door about halfway down. He paused at the entrance only to rap his knuckles on the doorframe.
“Hey, Arachne! Busy?”
Joe crowded in after him, only belatedly making certain not to jostle Billie. He was usually more careful about that, considering he could easily kick her over. Well, if not for her impressive reflexes, but those were no excuse to be inconsiderate.
The office was longer than wide, mostly open in the center, and lined with shelves of books and other paraphernalia, as well as a number of clearly magical devices with which he was unfamiliar. Her desk sat along the far end, with broad windows behind.
She was exactly as he remembered, right down to her attire. Well, it wasn’t the same green and brown getup, but her since of style had clearly not varied. People who lived for millennia tended to be creatures of habit. She had been in the process of writing something; Joe noted her preference for old-fashioned parchment and a quill pen. Now, though, she had stilled her hand, peering inquisitively up at them. Those eyes, striking green behind her golden spectacles, had that piercing but not unfriendly aspect he remembered distinctly.
“Well,” Professor Tellwyrn said, raising an eyebrow at Weaver and then giving Joe a little smile, which made his heart thud in a way that reminded him uncomfortably of its recent stabbing. “This is several kinds of unexpected. What brings you back here, Damian? Hello, Joseph. Same goes; I suspect this is an interesting story.”
“Ma’am,” he said, belatedly whipping off his hat and nodding deeply. “Um, sorry to just drop in like this.”
“No bother,” she said mildly, pointedly looking down at Billie.
“Oh, uh, this is—”
“Billie Fallowstone, an’ right honored to make your acquaintance, Professor!” the gnome chimed, waving enthusiastically.
“Charmed, I’m sure,” Tellwyrn said, still looking quizzically at them. “Come on in. Is this going to take long? Curious as this visit is, I do have a full schedule…”
“It shouldn’t,” Weaver said, ambling into the room and clearing space for the others. “We’re here on business, Arachne.”
“Whose business?” she asked, staring sharply at him.
“Well,” the bard said with a scowl, “Bishop Darling’s the one who sent us out, but assuming he’s not pulling our legs again, the matter goes well beyond him. We actually have a couple of things to ask you, the first of which is the whereabouts of a missing companion.”
“I highly doubt I have your missing companion,” Tellwyrn said dryly.
“Didn’t expect you would, ma’am,” Joe said, unconsciously turning his hat around and around in his hands. “But the Bishop was under the impression you knew her, and might know where she’d been last. Mary the Crow?”
Tellwyrn suddenly scowled. “Oh. Her. Yes, he’s not wrong in that.”
“Is she here?” Weaver asked.
The Professor finally tucked her quill back into its stand on the desktop. “I’m afraid you’re defeated by your own timing, Damian. In fact, Mary has been here off and on for the last month. This is one of the ‘off’ periods, and quite frankly I was relishing it.”
“Aye, she’s a mite difficult, isn’t she?” Billie said ruminatively.
“I’m a mite difficult,” Tellwyrn said with a scowl. “She is insufferable.”
Joe, who had not had that impression at all, kept his mouth firmly shut.
Weaver sighed heavily. “That’s just typical. Well…shit.”
“Language,” Joe said before he could think better of it. “You’re in a lady’s own office, for heaven’s sake.”
Weaver just turned back to Tellwyrn, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at Joe and making a face.
“Thank you, Joseph, but it has been a very long time since I needed anyone to defend me,” the elf said with a wry little smile.
“My apologies, ma’am.”
The smile grew slightly. “And I thought I asked you not to call me ‘ma’am.’”
“I…” He swallowed heavily, squeezing his hat. “…am regretfully unable to comply…Professor.”
Billie turned to give him a strange look, then peered closely at Tellwyrn.
The Professor herself smiled more broadly, nearly grinning at him outright, before transferring her gaze back to Weaver. “What do you need Mary for, exactly?”
“Well, that pertains to the other matter we came to speak to you about,” he replied. “We’re going off on a mission shortly, and it would be nice to have the Crow along. We expect significant opposition, not to mention the hazards of the thing itself.”
“I’m on tenterhooks,” Tellwyrn said, deadpan.
“Nothing too serious,” Weaver said, grinning and stuffing his hands in his pockets. “We’re just going to recover the skull of Belosiphon the Black. Mind if we bring it back here?”
Tellwyrn blinked once, slowly, then folded her hands on the desk. “I’m sorry, but could I possibly get that in writing? With signatures? I want something to show the next asshat who lectures me about how the Age of Adventures is over.”
“Ha ha, but seriously,” Weaver said. “We’ve no idea what to do with the fucking thing if we do manage to get our hands on it. The whole point is to keep it out of everyone else’s hands. The Church and the Empire can’t be trusted with something like this, and Darling doesn’t want to touch it with a ten-foot pole, which is far and away the most sensible thing he’s said in the whole time I’ve known him. I suggested you, Arachne, with apologies for intruding on your orderly little life.”
“Orderly little life,” she said flatly, reaching over to tap a finger on the document she had been writing. “This is a letter to a Shaathist lodge in the upper Wyrnrange, which has just contacted me to verify details on a correspondence they’ve been carrying on with one of my students. Apparently Chase Masterson has been trying to trade his classmate Natchua to the son of their lodge master as a wife. The asking price is two oxen and a stack of beaver pelts.”
“That is…possibly the most contemptible thing I’ve ever heard,” Joe said, stunned.
Tellwyrn rolled her eyes. “He’s not actually trying to do that. Natchua is a drow with the disposition of a hungover badger at the best of times; this is Chase’s idea of a joke. Of course she will probably try to slit his throat, and now I’ve got a bunch of offended Huntsmen to mollify, and it grates on my nerves that they’re legitimately the wronged party in this. Honestly, I’m running out of ways to punish that boy. He just doesn’t seem to care what anyone does to him. So, no, this is a refreshing change from these damn kids and that damn Crow. Yes, Damian, if you happen to get your hands on that skull I’ll take it off them; I can tuck it away between the planes like the others, and that’ll be that. How flattering that you would think of me.”
“Chase,” said Billie. “Wasn’t that the daft lollipop who went runnin’ across the yard like his bum was full o’ bees when we showed up?”
“Sounds about right,” Tellwyrn said, scowling. “Enough about him.”
“You brought him up,” Weaver pointed out.
“Anyway,” she said more loudly, “while taking a chaos artifact out of circulation is a worthwhile use of my time, I’m afraid I just can’t spare it right now, Damian. In addition to the University I have a rather involved side project, which is what Mary’s been doing here.”
“Oh?” he said. “Any idea when she’ll be back?”
“I don’t even know why she left,” Tellwyrn complained. “Not that I was looking that particular gift horse in the mouth. The woman is terminally unable to explain herself.”
“Completely unlike someone else I know,” Weaver said, grinning.
“Well, she’s a meddler, with her fingers in a dozen pies on a slow day,” the Professor continued. “The upside of that is she takes pains to keep tabs on her various projects. If something this urgent has come up and you’re already involved with the Crow, you can be assured she’ll turn up on her own. Probably sooner than later.”
“I’d hope so,” Billie said. “Hard ta guess what’s more important than the skull of a chaos dragon resurfacing.”
“If that’s actually what’s happened,” Joe pointed out. “The source of our orders has proven himself less than trustworthy, and his source is admittedly vague and confusing.”
“This is all sounding increasingly intriguing,” Tellwyrn said with a small smile. “If you lot don’t hush up I may be forced to evict you out of self-preservation. Much more of this and I’ll be feeling tempted to go haring off myself after adventure. Gods know I could use the change of pace.”
“Well, why not come along?” Joe heard himself say. “With Mary absent, we could sure use the backup! And it’d be great to spend some time with you. Get to know each other, all that.”
Billie was giving him that look again.
“More tempting than you know,” Tellwyrn said dryly. “But I have responsibilities. I’ll tell you what, Joseph: if this turns into a real crisis, which is more than probable considering what you’re mucking about with, come see me again and I’ll reconsider getting involved. After all, I do have to live on this planet. I have an interest in not letting it get demolished.”
“It’s a date, then,” Joe said, grinning. He had to physically repress the urge to smack himself in the face. Now Weaver was also looking at him askance.
Joe cleared his throat; to break the crushing (it seemed to him) silence which had descended, he grasped for the first topic of conversation he could think of. “So, while we’re all here anyway, how’re the gang? The freshmen. Ah, well, sophomores now, I guess. I’d be nice to catch up.”
“There, too, I’m afraid you’ve got bad timing,” Tellwyrn said with a lopsided smile that he couldn’t stop staring at. “They’re away on another trip.”
“Oh? Like Sarasio?”
“Like Sarasio but potentially worse,” she said. “Honestly it’s best not to go into it; sounds like you’ve got plenty to think about already.”
“Besides which,” Weaver said petulantly, “we do not have time for social calls or faffing around with college kids. We have a job, and time is a factor. Well, Arachne, sorry to interrupt your letter-writing; we’ll let you get back to it. Hopefully you’ll be hearing from us soon with an object of unspeakable horror in our possession.”
“Just don’t show it to any of the kids on your way through,” she said, shaking her head.
Weaver nodded curtly and turned to leave, Billie following with a final wave at Tellwyrn. Joe was the last to go, turning away reluctantly.
“Damian,” the Professor said quietly behind them, bringing the whole group to a halt. “I told you before you’d be welcome back here if you need to, and I won’t go back on that. But… If you’ve taken up adventuring again, and considering who you’ve apparently got handing you quests… Well, it’s not hard to figure out what he’s offering you, is it?”
“I know what I’m doing,” Weaver said coldly, his back still to her.
“I’m aware of that,” Tellwyrn replied, her tone calm. “And you also know of recent developments with regard to a certain god, his cult and his new paladin in this town?”
“Well, like I said, you’ve earned a place here and I’ll back you up. Just know that if you keep doing what I think you’re doing, you might make that too complicated to work out in practice.”
Weaver half-turned to look at her sidelong over his shoulder, then smiled. Oddly for him, the expression was calm and held real warmth.
“I do appreciate you looking out for me, Arachne,” he said in a much more gentle tone than his usual one. “Like I said, though. I do know what I’m doing. And if it’s a mistake… Well, there are mistakes that just have to be made. You know?”
“I do indeed,” she said gravely. “Safe travels, Damian.”
“As always,” he replied, nodding again, then turned back and strode out of the office, Billie on his heels.
“And if you find time between adventures, Joseph,” she added as Joe as about to go, “you can visit on your own. I bet the sophomores would be glad to see you again, too.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, grinning broadly. “I absolutely will. That’s a promise.”
“Good.” She gave him a warm smile, and it was all he could do to force himself backward. With a final wave, he ducked back out, only letting out the breath he’d been holding when he was in the hall again.
Weaver was already halfway to the stairs; Billie had waited for him, though. She gave him an unreadable look as he emerged, but fell into step beside him.
“Well, we’re likely to be stuck here for a little while, anyway,” Weaver was grousing up ahead. “The Rail platform in this bumfuck town doesn’t even have a dedicated telescroll tower, so we’ll have to go to the Imperial facility and pay to summon a caravan and redeem our return tickets. No telling how bloody long that’ll take…”
They ignored him, walking on in silence, Joe lost in his thoughts.
Billie didn’t stop him until they were out of the building—not coincidentally, out of the easy range of elvish hearing. She placed a hand on his leg; Joe paused, shaken out of his reverie, and looked quizzically down at her. The gnome’s expression was one of pure concern.
“Joe,” she said gently. “Honey. No.”
Joe flushed, hating his inability to stifle that reaction. It was totally involuntary; no other bodily process seemed to interfere with it. He’d checked.
“C’mon,” he said gruffly. “He’ll leave us behind.”
They set off back through the campus in silence.