Dawn had just graced the mountain when they returned.
“Enter,” Tellwyrn said in response to the sharp knock on her office door.
It swung open and Professors Rafe and Ezzaniel stepped inside, the martial arts instructor pausing to shut the door behind them.
“All right, gentlemen,” Tellwyrn said, watching them expressionlessly. “How bad is it?”
Rafe blinked at her, then scowled. “Okay, come on now, really. Just how sharp are those ears? You could tell we have bad news just from listening to our footsteps outside?”
“I can tell you have bad news because I can see your face,” she said in exasperation. “You look like someone just drowned your puppy in a pond. Both of you.”
He grimaced. “I sort of wish you’d expressed that differently…”
“I’m not getting my hellhound breath, am I?” Tellwyrn asked, her eyebrows lowering into a scowl.
“No,” Ezzaniel replied, folding his arms behind his back. “The hellhounds are gone.”
A moment of silence followed, in which Rafe sighed irritably. The office was lit only by the windows, leaving it pleasantly dim, but bright enough for them to clearly see the University president’s expression. Unfortunately.
“Gone?” Tellwyrn asked softly. “Can you be more specific, please?”
“I’m afraid not,” Ezzaniel replied. “It is quite the mystery. Khavibosh, who is now in charge on Level 2, has been stomping about in a fury about it for the last week. Apparently, both hellhounds just up and…vanished.”
“I’m sure I need not explain to you two how very impossible that is,” she said.
“No indeed,” Rafe agreed. “Level 2 is supposed to be instanced and sealed, and Melaxyna’s jiggery-pokery to overcome its multiple-version effect should make it even harder to extract things from it. In fact, rather than just come straight back here empty-handed, we looked around in the Crawl for some answers. Hence this trip taking all damn night.”
“Unfortunately,” Ezzaniel continued, “there is a dearth of persons to ask. Our ideas ran dry after Melaxyna, as she is the only denizen of the Crawl we know of who has been placed in Level 2 and yet escaped.”
“She didn’t escape,” Tellwyrn said curtly. “The Crawl let her out, at my request. I prefer to have a Vanislaad or something similarly manipulative watching over the Grim Visage. A more brutal kind of demon can keep order on Level 2 just as easily, but Sarriki does not need to be slithering about without a significant check on her movements. What did she say?”
“She affected to be incensed at the news,” Ezzaniel said with a shrug. “Frankly, the only definitive result we can claim from the encounter is evidence that she does not have the hellhounds in the Visage itself. Beyond that… I am not going to take anything a succubus tells me at face value.”
“She brought Xsythri to the Visage with her, too,” Rafe added. “That hethelax who follows her around. Did you authorize that?”
Tellwyrn’s eyes narrowed. “…not explicitly. But in retrospect, I can see how she might have arranged that loophole.”
“So,” Ezzaniel said in satisfaction, “she could be behind their disappearance.”
“Maybe,” said Rafe. “Xsythri was heartbroken at the news her puppies had vanished. Emilio’s right, a child of Vanislaas is more likely to lie than breathe, but I don’t think Xsythri has the imagination to be deceitful. It’s not the first time I’ve had that thought.”
“Whatever happened to the hellhounds,” Ezzaniel said, “we are not going to get information, much less their breath, without conducting some serious investigations. And that involves a dungeon delve of the old school. Not one of our comparatively tame class trips with the Crawl itself watching out for the students; we’ll be down there looking for answers, facing the native dangers, and probably not with the cooperation of the dungeon itself.”
“Don’t rush to conclusions,” Tellwyrn warned. “Before it comes to that, I’ll see what I can get from the Crawl myself. We get along well.”
“Regardless,” he replied, “if it does come down to an investigation of the type I referred to, it will mean several members of the faculty will be occupied doing that for a significant amount of time. Right at a moment when we need every one of us on campus and alert.”
“Yeeaah,” Rafe drawled. “We were pretty much running with the conclusion that none of this is a coincidence. It’s a virtual certainty that whoever’s casting this sleeping curse is a student, and probably one who’s been here at least two years. They all know about the hellhounds on Level 2. And a student is more likely than most to be able to get the Crawl to cooperate with them in mussing things up down there. More likely than anybody who lives in it, anyway.”
“And now you’re speculating,” said Tellwyrn. “Don’t do that. We need information, not baseless theories.”
“Well, pertaining to that,” said Ezzaniel, “dare I hope you have made some progress up here while we were occupied?”
“Of a sort,” she replied with a sigh. “To the extent of ruling out possibilities. Alaric and I have been at the scrying arrays and studying Natchua, and we seem to have established that whatever this curse is, it’s simply not detectable by magic.”
“I thought we already knew that,” said Rafe.
“Not exactly. Both the incidents were recent enough that Alaric could scry them through the ley line network. We had perfectly clear views of Chase and then Natchua just drifting off to sleep, apropos of apparently nothing. In her case, while she was walking between buildings. Something about the curse, or something done by the person who casts it, corrects the sight when viewed through a scrying apparatus.”
“Perhaps that is literally what happened,” Ezzaniel suggested. “We know nothing about how this curse is transmitted.”
“Perhaps,” she said. “Then again, Chase recalled someone approaching him from behind just before he was struck.”
Rafe groaned. “When Chase is our most reliable source of information, we’re pretty well boned.”
“We also spent some more time studying Natchua,” Tellwyrn continued, giving him a sour glance. “None of our tests have yielded any direct evidence of magic at work. By all appearances, her body is simply maintaining and infinitely rejuvenating itself at the cellular level for no reason at all, which of course is impossible. It’s made somewhat more difficult by the fact that she is an elf; her body doesn’t decay nearly as quickly as a human, but even drow aren’t meant to lie still for more than hours at a time. The unfortunate fact is that to get more data, we will have to hope she remains that way for a long period, or that other students of more short-lived races are struck. Obviously, I can’t bring myself to hope for either outcome.”
“Well,” Ezzaniel mused, “there is some precedent for things being invisible to magic. Or antithetical to it.”
“I am still certain this isn’t the Wreath’s doing,” Tellwyrn replied, “and I don’t see how mithril could be a factor here, thought it does block scrying. For it to be doing this, it would pretty much have to be ground to a fine powder and introduced directly to the subject’s bloodstream. Leaving aside the horrendous expense of obtaining a sufficient quantity of the stuff, it’s physically impossible to reduce that way. Also, elves require magic on a basic biological level. If that were possible, doing it to a drow would simply kill her.”
“Chaos disrupts magic,” Rafe said quietly.
“Chaos does not behave itself when used,” Tellwyrn said, shaking her head. “I did think of that, but no. Wielding chaos involves grand, dramatic spells, which don’t work in any consistent fashion at the best of times. This is extremely precise. No…we’re still in the dark.”
“Fuck a duck,” Rafe grumbled.
Tellwyrn sighed. “Well, anyway. Thank you both for making the effort. I’ve already posted notices that your morning classes are canceled; go get some rest.”
“Nonsense!” Rafe proclaimed, puffing out his chest and planting his fists on his hips, while Ezzaniel gave him a long, sardonic look. “I’ll just throw back a vial of one of my many sources of bottled vitality and be rarin’ to go!”
“Admestus,” she said more gently, “no. Keep those for later—I have a feeling we may need them. You and I both know, and even you have to acknowledge, that no shortcuts or replacements for natural sleep are as good as the real thing. I’m going to need both of you—and everyone else—in their best shape. No more students have been struck down yet, but I’m not enough of an optimist to assume this thing has run its course.”
“Nor I,” Ezzaniel agreed. “I rather suspect it’s only beginning. Very well, I’ll grab a few winks and be back to class after noon. What’s your plan for the time being, Arachne?”
“For now,” she said, pushing back her chair and standing, “I’ve let the faculty know to keep their eyes open; any students found inexplicably and unwakeably asleep are to be brought straight to Taowi. I’ve first period today free, and I need to go deal with yet another perplexing new thing that’s come up.”
“Anything bad?” Rafe asked, raising an eyebrow.
She grimaced. “I really, really hope not.”
The Saloon kept evening hours exclusively and the town’s sole inn did not serve food, which left but one place where people could congregate in public over breakfast. The Ale & Wenches seemed marginally less ridiculous in the morning, occupied only by a few townsfolk and with the windows open to admit the sunlight, than it did in the more raucous evening shift, when University students and passing would-be adventurers were the main clientele.
He had been here nearly twenty-four hours, not long enough yet that he needed to start thinking about food or sleep. It wasn’t his plan to stay in Last Rock enough time to make those a necessity. Nothing he was doing here was terribly urgent. It had been a well-spent day, though; wandering invisibly about, he had observed much and heard some extremely enlightening conversations. Vex’s intelligence reports generally agreed with what he had now seen, but he did not like to rely overmuch on secondhand information. Considering what might be at stake, it was well worth it to take a day and see for himself.
Now, another such interesting conversation was occurring at the next table over.
“Just don’t feel right, Hiram,” Ox Whipporwill rumbled, folding his arms across his chest. “I know, it’s all in good fun, but after the events a’ the last year…”
“Omnu’s breath, Ox, you’re getting downright stodgy in your old age,” huffed the banker, who was easily fifteen years the deputy’s senior. “You’re right, it is just a bit of fun. As Sam is so fond of reminding us, if the pool ever did pay out, we’d be in too much of a cataclysm for anybody to collect.”
“That’s what I mean,” Ox replied. “I like the kids, Hiram, you know I do. Even the ones I don’t like; as a group, I got no quarrel with ’em. An’ if you ain’t heard, Loretta’s girl will be enrolling next semester—seems Tellwyrn was serious about havin’ Last Rock’s kids sign up if they’re interested.”
“Should be a grand opportunity for young May,” Hiram Taft agreed.
“But,” Ox continued, pointing a finger across the table at him, “last time we had the freshman pool was before the hellgate, an’ then that near riot. I just don’t think it’s the same.”
“It’s very easy to say that now,” Taft replied petulantly.
“I said it then,” Ox shot back. “That hellgate was pretty fresh in everyone’s minds when you were organizin’ it first thing last semester. Matters ain’t a lot better now, despite Tellwyrn’s promise…”
“Ox, old boy, I’m going to have to disagree with you there,” said Taft. “Things are better. I rather wish the good Professor had done this years ago, if for no other reason than that it has improved the general feeling toward the University here in town. But aside from that, the fact that there’s lingering tension makes it all the more important, in my view, that we not walk on eggshells. Having our little annual joke as usual sends the message that nothing has changed. We’re still the same town, it’s still the same school, and we’re no more afraid or resentful of them than in any year before.”
“I s’pose I see the reason in that,” Ox said grudgingly. “Still makes me a mite nervous, though.”
Suddenly, the A&W’s door burst open with far more force than it required, and Arachne Tellwyrn strode in.
She made a beeline for his table, passing the startled locals without a glance, stopped right in front of him, folded her arms and stared down her nose, over the rims of her spectacles.
“Hi there, and welcome to Last Rock. Might I have a word with you in private?”
Gasps and murmurs rose all around; the tavern wasn’t busy at this hour, but half a dozen people were scattered about, all now staring at him. The serving girl went pale and actually knelt.
The Hand of the Emperor sighed softly and rose from his seat. His magic did not provide true invisibility, but it served to deflect all notice from his presence when he so chose. That technique had its weaknesses, however. Such as when someone on whom it did not work deliberately called attention to him in a way that no one could ignore.
“Good morning, Professor,” he said, nodding to her, then turned his head to nod again at the room at large. “Please, everyone, go about your business. Rise,” he added gently to the waitress, who jibbered something incoherent and actually scuttled backward a few feet without getting off her knees. Well, at least even in this backwater they knew how a Hand of the Emperor was to be treated. “Is this going to be a friendly conversation?” he added pointedly to Tellwyrn.
“As far as I know, it is,” she replied. “I have absolutely no quarrel with the Empire and my interactions with it have mostly been quite satisfactory.”
“Yes,” he said dryly, “I understand the Treasury quite enjoys receiving your taxes every year.”
Tellwyrn grinned unrepentantly. “What concerns me is the question of why a Hand of the Emperor would feel the need to skulk around here without announcing himself.”
“Perhaps my presence has nothing to do with you.”
She made a face. “Do we have to fence and banter in front of the citizenry? Nobody here needs the awkwardness of being in that crossfire.”
“There will be no crossfire,” he said firmly as the whispers started up again. “The Empire has only the highest opinion of your University, Professor. In any case, yes, I believe we should speak, now that we already are. Would you care to provide teleportation to a suitable spot? I’m sure you know the town better than I.”
She actually raised her eyebrows in visible surprise. “Don’t mind if I do, then.”
He knew her teleportation was smoother than that of any mage in the Empire’s employ, but knowing wasn’t the same as experiencing it. The world changed around him so suddenly and without fanfare that it was quite disorienting.
They now stood in a long, wide hallway, one wall consisting of glass windows overlooking the Golden Sea from atop the mountain; the rest of it was thronged with potted plants of various kinds. One lifted a blossom to face him. It had an eyeball in its center.
“Of all the highly secured, soundproof labs on my campus,” Tellwyrn said, pacing over to the windows to gaze out, “this one has the best view. Keep well back from the plants. There’s a reason these species are kept in a secure lab.”
“Duly noted,” he said, following her. “So, Professor, what can the Empire do for you?”
She turned to give him a look. “What does the Empire want from me?”
“Certainty,” he said promptly.
She actually grinned. “Something tells me I can’t help you there.”
“I quite meant what I said in front of the townsfolk,” he went on. “His Majesty’s government bears you no ill will, and in fact, Lord Vex speaks highly of your cooperation over the last two years. Regardless, there are…uncertainties. Your relationship with the entire Tirasian Dynasty has been somewhat tumultuous. And it must be said that the Throne bears half the responsibility.”
Tellwyrn blinked in apparent surprise. “You really think I harbor animosity toward the Throne?”
“It has hardly been forgotten,” he said, “that the Tirasian Dynasty exists in part because you ended the previous one.”
She shrugged. “Emperor Arvusham was incompetent, corrupt, weak, and had instigated a civil war at the same time the Universal Church was undergoing its own coup literally across the street from his house. If I hadn’t taken him off the Silver Throne, someone would.”
“Yes, but the fact remains, someone didn’t. You did. When we consider the nature of your relationship to the government, that is exceedingly relevant. The Throne appreciates your recent aid, but it also recalls that unfortunate business with the Ministry of Mysteries, not to mention Emperor Sarsamon’s attempted abduction of you just before you vanished. And, Professor, just because we cannot prove where that vodka elemental came from does not mean we don’t know.”
She grinned again. “Oh, come on. That was funny, admit it.”
“I believe his Majesty agrees with you,” the Hand replied, calmly folding his arms. “I may speak with his voice, in the eyes of the law, but I necessarily cannot share his relaxed attitude toward…practical jokes.”
Tellwyrn’s expression sobered and she turned again to gaze out over the prairie. “You’re really concerned that I’ve been eyeing the Throne since Sarsamon?”
“The facts as they are recorded are that you attempted to penetrate the Palace’s defenses with a very high-level scrying spell, and the Emperor dispatched agents to collect and question you—to no avail.”
“Is there more?”
Tellwyrn smiled, this time reminiscently. “I guess he never did leave behind a clear record…well, that doesn’t surprise me. That kerfuffle was the only way we could get in touch with each other one last time without letting on that we were doing so.”
Very slowly, the Hand raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure I understand.”
“Sarsamon Tirasian was my friend.” She shifted to look at him sidelong. “I saved his life a dozen times during the Enchanter Wars. He’d have done the same, but I was the archmage and he the nobleman; our power differential didn’t really work out that way. We once got liquored up to the point of combustibility and spent a whole night bawling about our respective dead lovers. I was about to leave, and… Well, I wanted to say goodbye.”
“Go on,” he said after a silent moment.
“It’s all ancient history now,” she whispered, again staring out the window. “And anyway, you’re the living embodiment of sufficient clearance. The Emperor and I couldn’t let on that we were acquainted for the good of the Empire. You see, House Tirasian was an insignificant little merchant House from southern Calderaas before Sultana Shiranza, Duke Rashond and Archpope Vyara cooked up between them the idea to take advantage of the Empire’s fractured state to install a puppet on the Silver Throne. With the combined influence of House Aldarasi, House Madouri and the Universal Church, they were able to bring enough other nobles and cults on board to make it happen. Once they put Sarsamon in place… We decided the Empire deserved a true leader to help it heal. So some of us put together a conspiracy of our own.” Tellwyrn turned to stare him fully in the eye. “It revolved around another acquaintance of ours. A Stalweiss warlord named Heshenaad. We set him up as a threat, someone we could rally the Empire against and elevate the Emperor above the machinations of his original supporters.”
“…I see,” the Hand said slowly. “And you couldn’t find someone not called Horsebutt? It’s an ongoing humiliation that that has to be written in the history books as someone who seriously threatened the Empire.”
She grinned in open amusement. “There’s a certain savage poetry to the Stalweiss and their honor names. It’s funny, but I originally heard the name translated as Horse’s Ass; the modern version is the improved one, believe me. Really, it’s not so bad. Everyone who’s worked with horses understands the reference. Heshenaad was a man you absolutely did not want to sneak up on from behind.” She shrugged. “So, no. Not only do I not resent the Tirasian Dynasty, I am the lion’s share of the reason it’s a thing at all. I haven’t exactly been active in politics, and I’ve never made the effort to get to know Sarsamon’s descendants, but that’s probably for the best.”
“With regard to that,” he said, “the Silver Throne does owe you an apology for the Ministry of Mysteries affair. It may interest you to know that the Ministry’s dissolution was not directly due to your efforts, but to Empress Theasia’s outrage that it had presumed to pressure you in her name without her consent.”
“She always seemed like a good one,” Tellwyrn mused. “I missed the bulk of her reign, though. That was not how I preferred to be welcomed back to the world. Well, as I said… Certainty I cannot give you. When one has seen governments come and go as often as I have, one learns not to become attached. In point of fact I happen to think the Empire in its present form is a very good thing, and Sharidan seems the best leader this continent has seen in the last century. To you he may be the center of the universe, but to me, he’s one more in a long line, and others will come after him. Someday the Empire will fall; empires always do. Someday long before then it will be afflicted with a government which is neither as competent or as benign as Sharidan’s. It will not find me in a position where I am tied to it excessively closely.” She tilted her head back, again looking down her nose at him. “For now, though, at this moment? I heartily approve of the boy and his work. You need fear no interference or hostility from me, and in fact I’m glad to help out here and there as it is necessary and appropriate.”
The Hand of the Emperor regarded her in thoughtful silence for a moment, then took one step back and sketched a shallow bow.
“The Silver Throne acknowledges and appreciates your sentiment, Professor. And returns it in virtually perfect symmetry.”
That earned another amused smile. “So, then. What specific thing brings you out here sniffing around? And kindly don’t waste my time by dissembling. Vex wouldn’t do this, and I’m well aware that you Hands lack initiative. Sharidan isn’t likely to suddenly be making gestures like this un-prompted, so either he or you are reacting to something.”
The Hand permitted himself the luxury of a soft sigh. “The Empire is…beset.”
“What else is new?”
He shook his head. “The Black Wreath is more aggressive than it has been since the Enchanter Wars, the Archpope has begun making highly disruptive moves, there is unrest simmering in multiple provinces… Both the Punaji and Tidestrider nations test the terms of our treaties, Narisians are suddenly interacting with elven groves on an unprecedented scale, and Sifan has begun making noises to the effect that the Silver Throne should offer formal reparations to the orcish clans for the cataclysm of Athan’Khar. Now, the dwarven kingdoms are suddenly acting with great aggression in Tiraan territory.”
“The dwarves?” She raised her eyebrows in surprise. “That makes no sense. The Empire could roll over in its sleep and pulverize them, and they have to know it.”
“That is precisely the issue,” he said. “A competent, comparable rival will conduct himself in a fairly predictable manner, at least insofar as refraining from rocking the boat too much. Someone cornered and desperate, however, might do absolutely anything at all. The dire condition of the Five Kingdoms is exactly what makes their overtures worrisome, and exactly what makes the Throne’s response uncertain. We can do as we have always done: send our armies, leverage our economic and political might, make the world bow before the power of Tiraas. But…the world is not as it was a hundred years ago. Economically, politically, socially, we are tied to more people and in more ways than ever before. Great shows of force are increasingly inappropriate ways to accomplish the Throne’s aims. It is his Majesty’s considered opinion that they are likely to backfire.”
“Wait a moment,” she said. “Am I on that list? You’re here because you worry I’m going to add to your troubles?”
“As I already assured you, no,” he said firmly. “On the contrary. I am tentatively studying you as a possible…solution.”
Tellwyrn folded her arms. “I’m not sure I like the sound of that.”
“No more do I, but this is the world we live in. Better that we make our accommodations, with it and with each other. Do you not think so?”
She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “What, exactly, are you proposing?”
“Exactly?” He shrugged. “Nothing. But the Throne is interested in fostering…amity. With you, and wherever else it may be possible. The more friendly faces we can see in the world, the better positioned we are to gently counter the hostile ones.”
“That is remarkably forward-thinking,” she said thoughtfully. “Of course, it raises an ugly question.”
“I find myself quite suddenly beset by problems I am having trouble solving. And here you come, looking to build some kind of…partnership. I have to wonder what role the Throne may have played in arranging for me to need help.”
“None,” he said immediately. “Bothering to say so may be an empty gesture if you are determined to be suspicious, but I assure you the Throne does not want you riled up. If it helps you at all, I did not come here to propose an alliance. I was simply watching and listening in Last Rock to see how you and your school are perceived by the populace. My purpose was to gather information and form opinions, not offer a helping hand.”
“But,” she prompted.
He smiled faintly. “But, if we can offer such a hand… It would seem to be in both our interests, would it not?”