Tag Archives: Addiwyn

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The Crawl shuddered.

The rumble was low, but it echoed through the vast slanted cavern, accompanied by the distant clatter of falling rocks and a few small plumes of dust that drifted down from above. And, moments later, by fearful mumbling from the ill-equipped soldiers gathered on the stone bridge which arched down to the entrance of the Grim Visage.

“Steady,” said their captain, his voice nearly as gravelly as the Crawl’s.

“Focus,” snapped the Hand of the Emperor a moment later.

Willard Tanenbaum did not lift his eyes from the great carved face that gave the Visage its name, despite the sweat dripping from his brow. “Sir… The Crawl is known to have a sentience of its own.”

“A rudimentary and diffuse intelligence, mechanistic and barely aware,” the Hand said curtly, also staring at the Visage. To the observers behind them, the two men seemed simply to be standing there, frowning; the subtle magic they worked made no visible effect, aside from the minor seismic reactions it was beginning to provoke. “Like a god’s. In fact, rather like a sleeping bear. Keep focused, work slowly and steadily, and don’t jostle it. We can finish our work and be gone before it wakes, if we’re careful.”

“Tiptoeing around a bear is one thing,” Tanenbaum replied, still without breaking his stare. “Carving a hole in the wall of its den without waking it, in the short time it’ll take Tellwyrn to get back here—”

One of the rough-looking soldiers cursed—in Glassian, oddly enough—and turned to bolt back toward the exit. He froze with a yelp, finding himself face-to-face with the Hand who had an instant before been in front of him, next to the warlock.

“So long as we are not incompetent,” the Hand said icily, staring at the would-be deserter without expression, “it will work. So long as we are not cowardly, we will not be summarily tossed off the bridge. Do I make myself clear?”

Another faint rumble sounded from the depths. The men pressed closer together, the one faced down by the Hand retreating frantically into their midst.

“Clear,” Tanenbaum said after a short pause. The Hand kept his gaze on the men for a moment longer, then stepped to the side, moving around them to rejoin the warlock.

“Sir.” The captain stepped out of the group to meet him. “The Duchess sent us for what we were told was a simple police action on a college campus.”

“Are you protesting your treatment, Captain?” the Hand asked quietly, a dangerous sibilance creeping into his tone.

The soldier did not react. He was clearly made of sterner stuff than the rest of his command, possibly the only one among them to whom the word “soldier” truly applied, though in most militaries he would have been considered too old for active duty.

“I’ll serve however I’m ordered, sir,” the Captain replied evenly. “And I’ll shoot any man who deserts right in the back before he gets ten paces, as we did in the old days. But I warn you, sir, this isn’t the old days, and this isn’t the Imperial Army, nor even the House guard that trained me. These boys are not a group I would pit against adventurers and monsters, or whatever else is coming outta there, sir. They’ll not stand up to that, no matter what you or I threaten ’em with, sir, begging your pardon.”

“It won’t come to that,” the Hand said, relaxing somewhat. “Keep your men in line, Captain; all they’ll be needed for is to keep the retreat orderly, as we’ll have prisoners in tow. I have all of this under control.”

He stepped past the officer, rejoining Tanenbaum, and no one who doubted his assurance was daft enough to voice it. Even when the Crawl rumbled another sleepy protest.


“You tryin’ to catch flies?” one of the guards sniggered.

His companion finished his long, luxuriant yawn before turning to give him a rude gesture, earning another coarse laugh in reply.

In front of them, a few feet away, Lorelin Reich lowered her arms, turned around, and stared at them.

“Sorry, ma’am,” the first man said unrepentantly. The one who’d yawned, at least, cleared his throat and straightened to a semblance of attention.

“Do you have any idea how difficult this is?” the priestess demanded.

“Not really, no.” He shrugged, and scratched the side of his neck. “No offense, I can’t actually see you doing anything. Just standing there in front of the door.”

She had, in fact, been at it for over half an hour now, standing and staring, occasionally making hand gestures. The campus chapel’s magical defenses were visible to the naked eye: the walls and door were slightly blurry, as if seen through murky water, and a few inches in front of that was an almost transparent layer of blue light, cast by an arcane shield. Lorelin’s guards, in truth, weren’t giving her enough credit; what she was doing had caused both of these effects to occasionally flicker or ripple.

Nothing of import had happened, though, and the two men were clearly losing patience. They were typical examples of the troops the Hand of the Emperor had found, which was to say, unimpressive. Neither of these was one of the aging House Dalkhaan regulars, but the younger, scruffier generation of hirelings whom very few Houses or militaries would have taken. Both were in need of a shave and some long posture drills, and one was so overweight he couldn’t button his uniform coat. At least neither had so much as leered at her. Fading and decrepit or no, Dalkhaan was still a House of Calderaas, and Calderaas was Avenist country. Men with such habits weren’t drawn to military service there. Not even a “military” slovenly enough to accept these dregs.

“Then take my word for it,” Lorelin said patiently, “it is difficult. I would appreciate it if there were no distractions.”

The man she was speaking to put on a mulish look and opened his mouth, doubtless to complain, but the yawner jabbed him in the hip with the butt of his staff.

“Sorry, ma’am,” he said, nodding.

She nodded back, and turned again to face the chapel. That was undoubtedly as much acquiescence as she was going to get.

Before she could even raise her arms again, there rose a shrill whine at the very edge of hearing, like a particularly large mosquito in the ear. It ended suddenly, followed by the complete disappearance of the force field around the chapel. A second later, the building seemed to solidify before them as it shifted back into phase with the world.

“Hey,” the yawning man said brightly, “it worked!”

Lorelin had her back to them and so didn’t conceal her expression, frowning at the doors in consternation.

Fortunately, she was standing at the base of the three steps leading up to those doors, and so was not close enough to be struck when they suddenly burst open.

Both guards raised their staves, one fumbling so badly he nearly dropped it, to take aim at the group who appeared in the chapel’s doorway. Two drow women stood at the forefront, one in formal robes and holding a puppy of all things, the other with a green streak dyed through the center of her hair.

A wall of silver light snapped into place across the top step. Lorelin shifted backward away from them.

“All right, hold it right there,” one of her guardians said. “Let’s not go and do anything rash, kids. You’re not in trouble, but you need to move off the campus, by the authority of the Emperor. Let’s lower the magic, nice and easy, now.”

“If you do lower the shield,” the green-haired drow said to her companion, “I can kill all three of them before they can fire.”

“Ugh, no, you can’t,” a female plains elf just behind her snorted. “All he has to do is squeeze that clicker—”

“Okay, that’s enough of that kind of talk,” the guard snapped. “You don’t want the trouble that’ll come from defying an Imperial edict, much less attacking troops operating under the Emperor’s banner.”

Lorelin shifted to look back at them, then up the stairs again at the students. Another elf, a woodkin this time, had pushed forward between the two drow, and whatever he had just conjured formed a blue glow from his clenched fist.

Of course, she was aware of the identities of everyone who was supposed to be in that chapel. What were they doing awake?

She held up a hand, and a golden sphere formed around the two troops, sparkling in the sunlight.

“There, see?” the more talkative of the two smirked. “You’re not the only one who can—”

Lorelin clenched her fist and the shield bubble contracted abruptly, slamming both men against each other. One discharged his weapon, which sparked blindingly against the inside of the sphere. It immediately widened again, leaving them staggering.

She clenched the bubble three more times in rapid succession, smacking the pair together until one of the staves cracked and both men were too dazed to stand unaided, then released the shield entirely.

One of them immediately flopped to the grass, unconscious from an unfortunate impact of his head against a staff. The other stumbled woozily, clutching his own skull with both hands.

A rod of pure golden light appeared in Lorelin’s grip. Not bothering with any further finesse, she lifted it overhead and slammed it down atop the distracted soldier’s head. The lightworking dissipated at such sharp contact with solid matter, but not before doing its job; he dropped like a sack of beans.

She turned back to scowl at the five students, who were now staring in confusion through Shaeine’s shield.

“I wish you hadn’t done that,” Lorelin said testily.

“Yeah, I just bet you—wait a second.” Raolo pointed accusingly. “You did that!”

“That chapel,” she said, “was phased out and shielded, with both effects somehow tied to the powerful fae geas laid on this mountaintop. I was tasked with cracking those defenses using my skill at divine magic, based on a very brief demonstration of how the geas could be interfered with. Frankly, I’m far from certain I could have opened that door if my life depended on it, but at the very least, I could have stalled for hours.” She held out her arms in an exasperated shrug. “But then you had to go and open it up yourselves! And now here you are, out in the open where he can get at you.”

A human girl—that would be the young Duchess Madouri—slipped through the cluster of elves to position herself at the forefront of the group.

“Stalled?” she asked in a tone of mild interest.

“All right, listen,” Lorelin said, heaving a short sigh. “It’s too complicated to explain the whole thing right now. Professor Tellwyrn is temporarily absent, and your campus is under attack. Most of your classmates have been evacuated into the Crawl, where they should be safe, at least for the short term. Tellwyrn will be back before too long, and I’ve contacted Imperial Intelligence. Help is coming. But for right now, with you outside the protections of that chapel, you’re in more danger than any of the rest of the students. You need to get off the campus, quickly. Don’t go to the town, the— He has allies in Last Rock, and didn’t bring them up here, so I know they’re waiting below. You’re college kids, I’m sure you know someplace in the area to hide yourselves from official eyes? Don’t tell me where, just get there.”

“Just a moment.” Ravana held up a hand in a peremptory gesture to forestall both Lorelin and her fellows, Natchua and Addiwyn both having opened their mouths. The effect was somewhat ruined by Shaeine’s puppy leaning over to snuffle at her upraised hand.

Lorelin blinked, and squinted. Was that a baby hellhound? Well…that answered one question, and raised a whole host of others.

“Who, exactly, is leading the attack on the University?” Ravana asked calmly, lowering her hand out of the puppy’s reach.

“There’s no time—”

“Natchua, are you able to send a shadowbolt through any shield she can conjure?”

“Not directly,” the drow replied with a tiny, unpleasant smile. “But I know a dozen ways to crack a divine shield in less than four seconds. Then shadowbolts.”

“You see, madam,” Ravana said in that condescendingly pleasant tone aristocrats apparently learned in the nursery, “all we know is that you were engaged in trying to dig us out of our protected chapel and have a predilection for turning on your allies. There is little ground for trust, here. You will have to offer more than vague hints.”

Lorelin let out a long, slow breath, controlling her expression. In the tension of the moment, she had actually not considered the sheer physical danger of her situation, but one of the drow was a fellow light-wielder of some skill, and apparently the other was a warlock. And, as Ravana pointed out, they had no reason to trust her. In this situation, they might well decide that blasting her was a preferable option to walking away.

Well, she’d handled worse. Unlike the Hand, at least these could be reasoned with. Hopefully. How much did they know? Best to play it safe, for now.

“About a month ago,” she said, deliberately glancing up the path to display nervousness, “the Hands of the Emperor began acting strange. Paranoid, aggressive, showing sudden magical abilities they’d never had before. Within a week they were back to normal, with the exception of one. He had been working with Tellwyrn on…your situation. Now, for whatever reason, he is obsessed with her and completely out of his mind. The Empire won’t acknowledge one of their Hands has gone rogue, so he is still acting with the Throne’s full authority until they can get here and put a stop to him. He is behind the attack on the campus, and is down in the Crawl with a Salyrite warlock, trying to dig your classmates out of the Grim Visage.”

She could tell already, even before she finished explaining: they knew. Ravana and Shaeine kept impassive, as she would expect from noblewomen, but Raolo and Addiwyn exchanged a satisfied glance and Natchua nodded slightly. Someone had not only awakened them with a fresh source of hellhound breath, but brought them up to date. Her instinct had been correct: trying to prevaricate would probably have led to a barrage of shadowbolts.

Belatedly, it occurred to Lorelin the only likely source of up-to-date intelligence and hellhounds who could get in and out of Tellwyrn’s heavily-defended chapel without disrupting its wards. Well, Shaeine was involved with Vadrieny’s host, after all…

“Listen to me.” She glanced once more in the direction of the Crawl, affecting subtly more nervous body language. “I realize that for students at what amounts to a school for adventurers, being asked to stand down is tantamount to a challenge, but you need to think strategically. This Hand is a complete lunatic; the only troops he’s brought are losers like these.” Lorelin nudged one of her erstwhile guards with a foot, prompting a soft moan. “The other Church contact working for him here is as wary as I am; I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s called for help, too. Fighting this guy will only escalate matters. There’s no actual way he can win here; all he can do is cause damage. Please get yourselves out of the area so you don’t become that damage.”

Lorelin stared pleadingly up at them. Had it just been the surface elves or Natchua, she’d have put on the mask of a reasonable authority figure, but the two noblewomen made it complicated. They wouldn’t acknowledge any authority on her part, and would be suspicious of too much earnestness. Just a touch of fear and vulnerability should hopefully do the trick…

“Well?” Addiwyn prompted after a pause in which they all just watched her, as if by staring hard enough they could read her intentions. “Are we trusting her or not? She did tell the truth…as far as we know.”

“Trust is a stronger word than I would choose,” Ravana said, glancing at Shaeine as if for confirmation. “But…yes. Fact-checking aside, she is correct on one point: escalation is a concern. An unstable man with the powers of a Hand of the Emperor can cause incalculable damage, not least because he will not act strategically. His very presence here proves this; there is no possible victory in assaulting the University.”

“So…we run, then,” Raolo said with a sigh. “Well, I don’t like it, but it’s sense. I know a place—”

“I will be proceeding with the plan I outlined for you,” Ravana said smoothly.

“Of course you bloody will,” Addiwyn muttered.

“Now, see here!” Lorelin did not have to augment the frustration in her voice.

“If any of you wish to follow the Vidian’s advice and flee, I will not judge you ill,” Ravana stated, stepping forward and turning to face them, the motion neatly placing her at the head of the group and physically excluding Lorelin from the discussion. “Mistaking strategy for cowardice is the mark of the defeated. It is only sensible to secure your welfare. However, the woman is correct: while the Hand cannot win, here, he can cause damage. Our classmates will be in the Grim Visage, and he will be interfering with the Crawl as he taught her to do here. If he can overcome the sanctuary effect, he will be in a confined space with a large group of people, many of whom are physically quite powerful. He will be taken down, but in that situation, it will inevitably be a bloodbath.”

“That is a big ‘if,’” Raolo pointed out, then craned his neck around Ravana to address Lorelin. “Hey, you! What are the chances he can actually do that?”

“…I have no idea,” she said honestly, pausing to think for only a second. “I don’t understand the magic involved, and I don’t know the capabilities of Hands even before they’re…interfered with, or malfunction, or whatever happened to him.”

“Very well, then,” Ravana said briskly. “I will proceed. I welcome anyone who chooses to join me and will not begrude any who would rather retreat. You,” she added, turning to indicate Lorelin with a curt nod, “will report to this Hand, inform him that we have broken out and are on the way to the uppermost terrace of the University to pursue some plan against him. That happens to be the literal truth, by the way, in case you are actually in his pocket. If he cannot get through the Visage’s defenses, we lose nothing by making him run around wasting time. If he can, this will save the lives of many of our classmates.”

“Except you will have a Hand of the Emperor after you!” Lorelin exclaimed. “If you’re expecting your warlock friend to help—”

“The imperviousness of Hands to warlock magic is precisely how it is known among the nobility that they are fae-powered,” Ravana said condescendingly. “Don’t you worry, I know what I am doing.”

“How did you know she’s Vidian?” Raolo asked.

“That’s Lorelin Reich,” Addiwyn sneered. “The one Arquin chased out of town.”

“I recognized her, yes,” Ravana said pleasantly. “Also, it is generally a safe thing to assume of a cleric who is as adept an actress as this one. Now, there is no more time to waste.”

With that, she glided the rest of the way down the stairs, turned right, and headed off up the path toward the upper campus. After the barest pause, the rest of her fellow Sleeper victims followed. Every one of them.

Lorelin watched them go for a long, incredulous moment, then threw up her hands in frustration, turned, and stalked off in the direction of the Crawl, leaving two bruised bodies on the ground behind her.


“Prince Sekandar, can I ask you to keep this safe for me?”

He sighed, but reached out to accept the scabbarded saber. “If you like, Szith. I’m never going to convince you to just call me Sekandar, am I?”

“I’m sure it speaks well of you, in your culture, that you make yourself so approachable,” she said, her face a mask of Narisian calm. “In my culture, the habit of excessive familiarity with one’s betters can be lethal. In a few short years, I will return there, and after Natchua’s…performance…I suspect my conduct will be scrutinized closely.”

“You don’t want that sword, then?” Scorn asked. “It is the bigger one. More powerful, yes?” The Rhaazke sat on the stairs, one arm draped over Maureen. Generally she didn’t enjoy being physically dominated by her classmates, but under the circumstances, Scorn’s towering protective presence was as comforting as Iris on her other side, murmuring to herself and rubbing some dried leaves between her fingers. They smelled pleasant; Iris claimed what she was doing would have a calming effect on the pub’s occupants.

The more than a hundred refugees from the University filled the place to capacity, and had already displaced most of its usual crowd. The tension could have been cut with a knife, but so far it had stayed relatively calm. Maybe Iris actually was helping.

“Do you recall when Matriarch Ashaele visited the campus?” Szith said, putting on one of her tiny smiles. “The guards she brought with her carried sabers like these.”

“Yes, I remember,” Scorn said impatiently. “Powerful swords, like I said.”

“Power is not without is disadvantages. This is a better weapon.” The drow rested a hand on the pommel of her short sword, which was still belted at her waist. “A saber must be swung in wide arcs, which handicaps it in close quarters, and makes formation fighting very difficult. For organized infantry combat, you want short swords—like this one, or those the Silver Legions carry. For precisely that reason, Narisian House guards are not permitted to own them. They may only carry the saber, which is a dueling weapon. Aristocrats and their protectors are trained in a ritualized style of formal combat which leaves them no match for an organized infantry. I am a soldier of House An’sadarr, sworn to fight for the Queen and Tar’naris. Thus, I have a weapon which is better suited to these tight quarters.”

“Interesting stuff,” Maureen said, nervously turning over the chunk of decorated quarts which was (hopefully) the heart of Crystal in her hands. “An’ Sekandar, here, is also trained in Narisian dueling?”

“Well, no,” the prince said with a smile, “but also sort of yes. Up here on the surface, a saber is more of a cavalry weapon—and Calderaan cavalry is rightly famous, if I do say so myself. We also have a dueling style which uses it. Probably not the way Szith was taught, but I can manage not to cut my own leg off, if this comes to a fight. Hopefully,” he added, turning to the drow again with a more sober expression, “it won’t come to that. If I understand how the Visage works, it can’t.”

“One always hopes battle will not come,” she said, shifting her gaze to the front of the tavern. “One always assumes that it will, and prepares accordingly.”

The doors were shut and had been barricaded with furniture, but Melaxyna and Fedora both perched on the second-floor windows which were set in the eyes of the great face that gazed outward at the Crawl’s entrance. Neither of them was putting on any pretense; though his rumpled suit, coat, and hat contrasted with the ragged piece of hide she wore as a dress, both were in fully demonic form, complete with alabaster-pale skin and crystalline eyes—and, more relevantly, wings and tails. These provided an aid to balance, as there was no actual place to sit in front of those windows, leaving them precariously clinging to narrow sills.

A sharp whistle turned every head in the room; Xsythri, Melaxyna’s hethelax henchoman, had clambered up onto the rail near the group on the stairs and was waving frantically for her boss’s attention.

The succubus heaved a dramatic sigh, then shoved herself off the wall and glided the short distance down. Fedora did not follow, but kept his head turned and attention fixed on their conversation, disregarding whatever he was watching outside.

“We’ve got a problem, boss lady,” Xsythri began.

“Wait, wait, don’t tell me,” Melaxyna said sourly. “We’re out of mushroom beer again.”

“Of course not, you know we can’t give that to student—no, dammit, worse than that! I just had to break up a little scuffle in the market room.”

Melaxyna’s lashing tail suddenly went still. “…how bad a scuffle?”

“Not bad,” Xsythri said, eyes wide and worried. “Very minor, just some jostling from being too close together. Somebody threw a punch and that went nowhere, cos of the sanctuary effect.”

The succubus heaved a deep breath, turning her head to stare sightlessly at the front of the tavern again. She couldn’t see out the windows from this angle, but by that time they all knew the Hand was out there with some of his new lackeys, doing something.

“Why’s that a problem?” Iris asked warily, opening her eyes and pausing in her soft chant. “Sounds like an inevitable little nothing, in a situation like this.”

Melaxyna shifted again to give the witch a long look, then abruptly whirled, wings flaring out for balance, and punched Xsythri in the face.

Her fist stopped an inch from the hethelax’s nose, a soft ripple in the air marking the sanctuary effect’s protection.

“Oh, nice,” Xsythri snapped. “That’s great, boss, thank you for your concern.”

“Yeah, so…we’re protected, right?” Iris prompted. “Ow! Hey!”

Melaxyna had struck again, this time lightly flicking Iris’s ear with a fingertip.

“The sanctuary effect,” the succubus stated grimly, “is absolute. All violence—all violence—is impossible within the Grim Visage.”

Under the demon’s stare, Iris stopped rubbing at her ear, her eyes going wide. Sekandar let out a long breath, and a soft growl rumbled deep in Scorn’s throat.

“But now,” Melaxyna said, again turning to face the entrance, “the effect is…relative. Whatever the hell that guy is doing out there, it’s starting to work.”

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13 – 35

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It was a most peculiar sensation, to become aware that she was dreaming. She drifted, while all around her the act of drifting itself petered off into more linear movement. Reality crystallized, the churned amorphousness of dream logic retreating as solidity intruded, and whatever she had been dreaming about faded away from the sharpening of her consciousness.

She had arrived, with no memory of the act of moving, at a peaceful little rooftop garden very like those kept by the wealthy in Tar’naris. This was not Tar’naris, though, but a vast cavern that seemed empty, its walls studded generously with dimly glowing crystal, and night-blooming jasmine and other flowering plants she did not recognize decorating the little terrace—plants which fared poorly underground. There was a table and chairs made of glass (the latter with embroidered red cushions) in a style she had never seen anywhere. One chair was pulled out invitingly, while at the other sat a woman in red.

“Hello, Shaeine, dear,” she said with a kind smile. “Please, have a seat. It’s high time we had a talk, you and I.”

Slowly, Shaeine stepped forward, settling herself into the proffered chair and scooting it up to the table, all while studying her new acquaintance. She was a drow woman with her white hair hanging long and unbound down her back in the classical style, and skin the shade of pure black that had become rare in Tar’naris. Only the very old still had the unadulterated bloodline fostered by the spider goddess of long ago; most Narisians had grayish complexions from thousands of years of slight but steady infusions of human blood.

Pure drow or not, the red dress the woman wore was a cocktail gown of a Tiraan cut, and her broad-brimmed matching hat in the Punaji style. The dress was low-cut, immodest by both Narisian and (to a lesser extent) Imperial standards. She smiled knowingly at Shaeine and began pouring tea.

The tea service had not existed a moment ago, and had not appeared. It was simply there, now, and suddenly had always been.

“This is a dream,” Shaeine said aloud, more to herself than to her…guest? Host? Whose dream was it?

“Quite so, dear,” the woman in red replied, nodding and adding three spoonfuls of honey to her tea, just the way she liked. “In fact, you are under the influence of an unnecessarily elaborate sleeping curse, lying with your fellow victims in the chapel on the campus of your University. And that, I’m afraid, is as good as the news gets. The chapel’s defenses have been activated, a most impressive combination of divine shields, arcane deflection charms and a fae effect tied to the geas upon the University that keeps it slightly out of phase with physical reality. Arachne is away from the campus and most of the rest of the faculty and students have been evacuated into the Crawl, while enemies close in upon you. A damaged, deranged Hand of the Emperor, gone rogue from his own government, leading a consortium of random thugs and a few magic-users he does not know were hand-picked by the Archpope of the Universal Church to cause maximum havoc to both him and poor Arachne. They will probably get into the chapel before Arachne gets back to stop them. Whether they can dig your classmates out of the Crawl is another matter. Have some tea, dear, you could probably use it.”

Shaeine accepted the proffered cup and took a sip, keeping her expression politely blank. “It sounds as if I have missed some interesting events.”

The woman smiled again. “You don’t believe me.”

“On the contrary,” Shaeine said diplomatically, “I do not rush to accept or dismiss your assertions. Either would seem unwise, as I don’t know who you are, much less why you are telling me this. Although… We have met, have we not? Yes, in Sarasio. You’re Professor Tellwyrn’s friend, Lily. Though you wore a different face at the time.”

“Quite so! I’m pleased you remember,” Lily said with a most un-Narisian grin. “I’m the Lady in Red; it’s a new thing I’m trying out. Do you like it?”

“It seems to suit you,” Shaeine said neutrally. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Oh, well, you know how it is. By and large I prefer to keep my distance from mortal events. You are different, though, now. I’m sure you are aware what must have happened when you were struck down by the Sleeper.”

“I imagine a number of things happened,” Shaeine said in her most careful tone, mind already racing after the implications of that question.

“True, true. I am referring to the only business that brings me here, dear one: family business. You will be pleased, I’m sure, to learn that your mother accepted Vadrieny and Teal’s courtship of you and, as is your people’s custom, immediately validated their adoption when you were cursed. Felicitations, my dear. I’m sorry I missed it.”

Shaeine managed a polite nod, her throat suddenly too tight to speak, which went perfectly with the sudden pressure in her chest. Goddess, Teal, Vadrieny… It must have been horrible for them to see her this way. At least they had each other. At least her mother had embraced them into the family. She had to get out of this somehow, get back to them… And, when she paused to consider it, it suddenly seemed likely that her new acquaintance was leading in that direction.

“Your mother is quite the lady,” Lily continued in a light tone, stirring her own tea. “One of very few people who have fully understood what Arachne is capable of and got right up into her face anyway. And all without losing her composure! I was quite impressed.” She winked. “And I don’t impress easily. When one has seen as many things as I have, not many mortals still have any surprises to offer.”

Shaeine had raised her teacup to cover her near-lapse of composure with a sip, but now suddenly lowered it again, connecting the dots.

“Elilial.”

The goddess smiled warmly at her. “Welcome to the family, dear.”

Oddly enough, the surreality of the situation helped; it was easier to have tea with the divine queen of demons and maintain her public face while nothing around her made sense or even existed than it would have been with the full weight of her mortal frailty making itself felt.

“I must tell you up front,” Shaeine said politely, “that I am an acolyte of Themynra and will not alter my path. If you intend me to aid in your plans, I’m afraid I must disappoint you.”

“Shaeine, dear, please don’t take this as a personal rejection, because it isn’t,” Elilial said seriously, “but I don’t want you anywhere near my plans. Not you, or Vadrieny, or Teal. In the last handful of years I have lost six daughters and now gained two; I intend to lose no more. And that means Vadrieny’s role in all my grand schemes is indefinitely terminated. Not even a clever, determined priestess and a bard with the world’s biggest heart are a replacement for her six elder sisters; the events unfolding now are simply too dangerous. I didn’t come here to ask anything of you, but now that you raise the issue, this is the only request I have: keep them safe.”

“I would do that anyway,” Shaeine said evenly. “Not that I am able to contribute much in my current state.”

“Which,” Elilial said, her smile curling a little wider, “brings us to the reason for my visit!”

“I was under the impression that gods were…constrained from intervening directly. Or at least, dramatically.”

“Oh, pish tosh.” The demon goddess made a dismissive gesture, smiling benignly. “The only individuals who respect the Pantheon’s rules less than I are the Pantheon themselves. For heaven’s sake, Shaeine, you have personally seen Vidius stomping all over the mountaintop as if he owned the place. No, dear, godly restraint is simply a behavior we have all learned is better than the alternative. The more a deity sticks their fingers in, the more others do, and it doesn’t take much of that before the wheels fly off the whole thing. Avei and Sorash burned down half the world between them before Arachne put a final stop to that, just because their respective champions kept butting heads and they couldn’t leave well enough alone. Almost everything modern gods get away with stems from their capacity to show a little restraint. Eserion is by far the most interventionist of them, and that works because none of the Pantheon—or even I—can justify exerting divine force against what are, after all, just the actions of his mortal followers. Vesk, Vidius, Omnu, Verniselle, even Salyrene, they all keep their hands off nowadays, and it’s that very fact which enables their cults to flourish: no other god has an excuse to act against them. Like life itself, it is a game of actions and reactions, of choices and consequences, in which some of the players like to fluff up their egos by by pretending that acting only through intermediaries is some kind of moral virtue.”

“I…see.”

Elilial grinned, lifting her teacup in a little toast. “Ah, but I see I’ve bored you already. I’m afraid you’ll have to get used to that, my dear; the hypocrisy of the gods is a subject upon which I tend to rant. Bringing this back ’round to the point… You’re correct, it would not be circumspect of me to interfere too aggressively. At the minimum, that would draw attention to my Vadrieny that she does not need. Already the agents of the Church are watching her, waiting for an excuse. You should be wary of that as well, dear. But!” She smiled again, and this time it was such a performatively sly expression that Shaeine barely repressed the urge to throw a divine shield around herself. “Even they surely won’t object to me giving my little girl a wedding present.”

“By,” Shaeine said cautiously, “for example, un-weaving the Sleeper’s curse?”

“You may consider this a divine revelation directly from the goddess of cunning, Shaeine dear: simple plans outperform complex ones every time. Each step or factor you have to account for is another opportunity for everything to go wrong. That’s part of the reason Arachne’s various minions have had no success trying to analyze and dismantle this curse in meticulous detail; what they need is a sword to cut the knot.” She set down her teacup and reached across the table to squeeze Shaeine’s hand; Shaeine, for her part, had to hastily squash the urge to draw back. Elilial just smiled warmly at her. “His name is F’thaan. Now go knock ’em dead, daughter.”

“His n…”

She broke off, gagging, as an impossibly wretched stench filled her mouth and nose. It was a melange of rotten eggs, brimstone, and hot metal; more than just a smell, it felt as if the stink had a physical force, pushing her back from the table.

In fact, she was being pushed away. Elilial’s knowing smirk receded, the whole scene around her growing chaotic and fuzzy, and Shaeine felt as if the smell were hauling her bodily upward through an ocean of thought and pressure, until—

Her eyes snapped open.

A furry little face was right in front of her, surmounted by a pair of shining eyes very like Vadrieny’s, pits of swirling orange fire. The sound of eager panting filled her ears; the hot breath in her face reeked like rotting demon flesh.

Shaeine winced and raised a hand to cover her nose and mouth, struggling to straighten up against the pillows on which she lay. At her movement, the little creature retreated, bouncing eagerly down her stomach to rest in her lap. She managed to drag herself up, braced on one elbow, to a reclining position, and get a good look.

It was a puppy.

He yapped excitedly up at her, bouncing on her lap, little tail wagging furiously. Coal black, he might have passed for a perfectly normal young dog, if not for the fiery eyes, and the blunt little nubs of horns sprouting from above them. At least now that he was more distant from her face, the smell of his breath wasn’t so overpowering.

Shaeine carefully reached down to scratch behind the little hellhound’s ear, and he let out another little yip, rubbing ecstatically against her hand and then licking at her fingers.

“F’thaan, I presume,” she said aloud, then cleared her throat. Her voice was slightly hoarse, probably from simple disuse. The puppy barked at her, and began clambering back up her chest toward her face. Shaeine hurriedly straightened the rest of the way up to a sitting position, getting a grip on him with both hands and tousling his ears while holding him down away from her sensitive nose.

He continued to squirm and wag his tail in delight, but after a moment allowed her to settle him down a bit. As long as he was being held and getting scratched behind the ears, he didn’t seem to mind being kept in place. That, at least, gave her the space to look around and find her bearings.

The campus chapel, of course, was familiar. Right now it was dim, the only light coming through its stained glass windows. It had also been thoroughly re-arranged, the pews pushed together and lined with pillows and quilts to form makeshift beds in which she and her classmates now lay. One of these was now so piled at the end with bouquets of flowers that it resembled a funerary display. If her own bed was any indication, though, there were subtler gifts left. Shaeine found that in sitting up she had displaced a number of flowers, notes bearing well-wishes from her classmates, and little talismans representing various faiths, as well as fairy charms. With a pained wince, she extracted a silver Themynrite blessing talisman from underneath F’thaan.

“No,” she said firmly when he tried to grab it in his little jaws. Somewhat to her surprise, the puppy seemed to heed her, settling back down into her lap to gaze up at her, tail still a-wag.

Still holding him, she carefully extricated her legs from beneath the quilt laid over them and clambered upright, then hopped lightly over the side to stand in the middle aisle, before the dais at the head of the chapel. It was a non-denominational space, lacking holy sigils of any faith; there was nothing but a slightly raised platform and an unmarked lectern to mark the front where an altar would be in other temples. From this position, at least, she could see into the beds and take a quick roll.

Natchua, Addiwyn, Raolo, and Ravana slept in pew-beds like her own. Apparently, then, she had been the last to fall victim to the Sleeper. Well, that was good, at least.

F’thaan barked again, craning his neck up to lick at her chin. Shaeine cringed, tilting her head back away from his breath, but obligingly scratched his ears again. He still wriggled with an ecstatic full-body wag at the attention, but seemed a bit calmer now. Adorable as the creature was, dogs and demons were both foreign to her; she had no idea how she was going to manage a fusion of the two.

“Now, you behave yourself,” she said, firmly but gently, looking down at his little face and evening her expression despite the smell of his breath. “This is a sacred place. It is probably the only Pantheon temple you will ever be in, as most priests will not share Professor Tellwyrn’s consideration for demonbloods. Don’t even think of defecating in here.”

He yipped at her and licked her chin again. Was there any chance he’d understood that? Just how smart were dogs?

Shaeine sighed and stepped toward the nearest impromptu bed, which was Ravana’s; it was the one piled with flowers to the point that the girl’s feet were entirely buried in them. Pausing to scratch behind F’thaan’s ear one more time in the way he seemed to like, she adjusted her grip on the puppy and carefully held him out, right in front of Ravana’s face. He eagerly licked the young Duchess’s cheek, panting in excitement.

Ravana’s peaceful expression vanished in a grimace and she twitched violently, rolling her head to the side. “Pfah! What is that?!”

“Hellhound breath,” Shaeine explained, withdrawing F’thaan and holding him against her chest again. “Welcome back, Ravana. We seem to be in a bit of a situation.”

“…so I gather,” the human replied, peering up at her through narrowed eyes. “I am quite eager to hear this story.”

“I’m afraid large swaths of it are unknown to me, but I’ve been warned of the immediate… Actually, let me wake the others, if you don’t mind. There is no sense in going over it multiple times.”

“Indeed, quite right,” Ravana said briskly, after clearing her throat much the way Shaeine had earlier. She set about climbing out of the bed, showing no more sign of stiffness than Shaeine had felt. Odd that the curse allowed the voice to grow rusty but left its victims to awaken feeling quite spry and well-rested. Or perhaps that was an effect of the hellhound breath?

While Ravana explored the piles of offerings left around her bier, quietly bemoaning her lack of shoes, Shaeine set about delivering the necessary but unpleasant dose of hellhound breath that freed each of the others from the Sleeper’s curse. Addiwyn’s first waking act was to snarl insults at her in elvish, though to her credit she looked quite abashed as soon as she was lucid again. Raolo actually yelped and leaped up, and probably would have gone over the side of the pew and to the floor had he not been entangled in his quilt.

She came to Natchua last, noting as she approached that there was another Themynrite talisman resting over her heart. These were crafted by House priestesses, and Natchua’s was identical to her own, decorated with ribbons in Awarrion colors. It was like her mother to be thoughtful enough to bring one for an exile, when apparently House Dalmiss had officially disavowed her. Shaeine carefully moved it to rest in the other drow’s hand before holding F’thaan out to breathe in her face.

F’thaan barked excitedly and licked Natchua’s nose. Unlike the others, she instantly drew her lips back in a furious snarl, snapped her eyes open, and sat bolt upright, forcing Shaeine to yank yer puppy back out of the way.

“CHASE!” Natchua roared, clutching the side of the pew with both hands. “You little bastard, I’ll—” There, finally, she paused, blinking, and turned over the one still holding the Themynrite sigil.

“Well, that answers one question, I guess,” Raolo commented.

“Which is a start,” Addiwyn said pointedly, folding her arms. “I find it odd that we are in the chapel instead of the infirmary, and the doors are both closed and barred.”

“Yes,” Ravana added as they all turned to frown at the wide double doors, which indeed had been secured from the inside with a large wooden bar. “Also that we are being revived by a fellow student and not a member of the faculty. My sincere thanks for the revivification, Shaeine, but I am rather curious why you chose to secure the door behind you.”

“And where under the sun did you get a hellhound puppy?” Raolo amended in a fascinated tone. F’thaan yapped excitedly, squirming around in Shaeine’s arms to keep everybody in view until she finally knelt to set him on the ground.

“Actually, I was cursed as well until moments ago,” she said. “F’thaan was a wedding gift from Elilial, who it seems is now my mother-in-law.”

They all stared.

“Veth’na alaue,” Natchua said at last.

Shaeine cleared her throat, shifting her head to keep an eye on F’thaan, who had bounded over to Ravana’s huge pile of flowers to investigate the fascinating scents therein. “Allow me to explain as best I can…”

Summarizing her recent conversation with Elilial went faster than the dream itself had, and also served to emphasize how little she actually understood of the situation. Shaeine finished, and then went to retrieve F’thaan, who had buried himself fully in flowers and begun repeatedly sneezing. The distraction was welcome; even her diplomatic training did not safeguard her against feeling awkward at having to deliver that painfully incomplete summary of the situation.

Fortunately, Ravana rescued her. “I do say that all sounds quite cogent,” the Duchess proclaimed, nodding sagely. “The campus coming under attack could really only occur in Tellwyrn’s absence, and withdrawing the students into the Crawl is a most reasonable safety precaution. While a number of our classmates represent potent forces themselves, the sanctuary effect of the Grim Visage would serve to keep them safe despite anyone’s best efforts.”

“I don’t know,” Addiwyn said, frowning deeply. “A Hand of the Emperor? Gone rogue? Inconceivable.”

“Nonsense,” Ravana said briskly. “The Empire has kept the means of the Hands’ creation and empowerment carefully secret, but I do know it was done through mostly fae magic—”

“How could you possibly know that?” Addiwyn snapped. “Nobody knows that!”

Ravana smiled primly at her. “I, as you are well aware, Addiwyn, am not nobody. I know many things of which the general public is not aware. My point is, it was only a matter of time before someone found a way to interfere with that craft and suborn a Hand. No plan, system, or spell is perfect; all have weaknesses, and all will eventually be exploited. Politically speaking, a renegade Hand of the Emperor is the perfect means of attacking a hot target like the University. The Empire will not be willing to acknowledge they have lost control of one, and thus will have to act with great circumspection to contain the situation, which prevents them from simply inundating the region with troops and strike teams as the Throne ordinarily would to counter a threat of that caliber. The same facts neatly conceal the identity of whoever tampered with this Hand in the first place, and enable him to cause havoc without risk to themselves. Truly an elegant attack. I wonder what is happening in Puna Dara?”

“You—Puna—what?” Raolo exclaimed.

“The last time a major disaster occurred upon this campus,” Ravana said patiently, “the current sophomore class refused an evacuation order to remain here and contain it, and they collectively represent a threat that even a Hand of the Emperor could not challenge.” She nodded graciously to Shaeine, who was holding F’thaan again and slowly stroking his head. This movement seemed to settle some of his eager squirming. “Given their power and disrespect for rules, and the fact that they would not abandon Shaeine to this kind of danger, obviously they were drawn somewhere else first, probably by a similar threat to loved ones. Nothing else would keep them away during a crisis like this. Most have no such mortal attachments, and woe betide any force which assaulted Avei’s stronghold in Viridill. Logically, then, something dire must be unfolding in Zaruda’s home to have fixed their attention away from the University.”

“Or,” Natchua said disdainfully, “they’re just off on a class assignment and don’t know about it.”

“I rather think even Tellwyrn would have had difficulty shooing Teal away from campus while Shaeine lay cursed here,” Ravana said with that prim little smile.

“Or,” Natchua repeated, curling her lip in a sneer, “since everything we know about this situation came from Elilial, it is all a pack of lies, because that is what she does!”

“I suppose you would know,” Ravana said pleasantly.

Natchua took an aggressive step toward her. “And what is that supposed to mean?”

“Whoah, now,” Raolo interjected. “This is not the time—”

“Why, simply that you are the other warlock endowed by Elilial,” Ravana stated.

“How dare you?!” Natchua snarled. “I should—”

“Hang on, now,” Addiwyn said suddenly. “How’d you know the Sleeper was Chase? He was Sleeped himself when the curse was cast on you.”

“A clever gambit on his part,” Ravana said, nodding. “It was known that Rafe had hellhound breath in his possession, thanks to me, so he could be certain of being awakened by the only such dose available. And applying the curse to someone by some delayed mechanism while he lay under it provided him an alibi. Yes, quite clever. Also,” she added with the hint of a smirk, “a personal encounter with Elilial is the only reason I can think why a Themynrite drow would carry the kind of antipathy toward her that you just expressed, Natchua.”

The silence which followed was tense enough to hang from. Natchua glared daggers at Ravana, fists clenched and quivering; Ravana simply smiled amiably back at her.

Ultimately it wasn’t either of them who broke it. F’thaan let out a yip and squirmed in Shaeine’s grasp, twisting up to lick at her face. She grimaced and turned her head away from his breath again.

Natchua, suddenly, seemed to deflate. Turning her back on the group, she trudged over to the makeshift bed in which she had recently lain, and carelessly shoved one of its two pews aside, causing pillows, flowers, and half the quilt to tumble to the floor. There, she sank down onto the seat and put her head in her hands.

“Has anybody ever told you,” Raolo said to Ravana, “you’re just a little too smart for your own good?”

“Why, yes, in fact,” she mused. “A man did say that to me once, quite shortly after I assumed the head of House Madouri. I had him executed soon thereafter.”

This time, they all stared at her directly; even Natchua lifted her head again to gape in disbelief.

“Well, not for that,” Ravana explained. “He was one of my father’s loyalists who’d been plotting to assassinate me. Not carefully, either, there was an embarrassing plethora of evidence. Really, what do you take me for? One cannot go around executing every person who insults one to one’s face. That is no way to earn the respect one requires to rule.”

“Anyway,” Addiwyn said pointedly, “have we decided we’re taking Elilial’s word for this?”

“I cannot think of any reason she would lie,” said Shaeine. “If she wished us harm, she could simply have refrained from acting at all. We were all lying here, terribly vulnerable, while enemies closed in.”

“I concur,” Ravana added. “It seems most reasonable, under the circumstances, to assume the warning was legitimate. In which case this chapel is defensible, but its defenses will not hold for long. We are apparently alone on campus, surrounded by foes of unknown type and power, and isolated from any potential help until Tellwyrn returns from her unknown errand.”

“We’re hardly helpless, though,” Addiwyn pointed out. “We have here a mage, a priestess…” She glanced uncertainly at Natchua. “…and apparently a warlock. In terms of firepower, that’s not insignificant.”

“Against a Hand of the Emperor, though?” Raolo said, frowning thoughtfully. “Not to mention whatever other help he has. Hand-picked by the Archpope, was it? Able to beat the defenses of the campus? That doesn’t exactly sound like small potatoes. I don’t mind admitting I’m not much of a mage. A rank amateur, to be frank. I understand Shaeine is extremely skilled for her age, and, uh… From what I heard…”

“I haven’t had a lot of practice or anything,” Natchua said suddenly, staring at the floor. “But theoretical knowledge? Sure. Virtually all of it.”

Addiwyn emitted a soft, incongruous laugh. “Well! Sounds like we’ve got three-quarters of our own little strike team, then. I don’t suppose anybody is secretly a powerful witch or shaman?”

She directed that last at Ravana, who started to shake her head, then suddenly straightened up, her eyes widening. A smile spread across the young Duchess’s thin lips.

“Actually,” she said, “that gives me an idea.”

 

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12 – 6

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“This is what you’ve been doing the whole winter break?” Iris asked in awe, slowly pacing around the construct. “This is amazing! I mean, it’s huge, Maureen! Well, maybe not huge, but considering you put it together all by yourself in a week…”

“Mayhap I oughtta stop ye there,” Maureen said, grinning and straightening up from the bolts she had been tightening. “Aye, she’s a substantial chunk o’ hardware, all right, but pretty much just so much metal at the moment. An’ she ain’t just my project. Me an’ Teal ‘ave been at this. Well, me, Teal, an’ ‘er other half.”

“Shaeine helped you with this?” Szith asked, raising an eyebrow.

Maureen cleared her throat. “Oh, uh… That’s not what I meant by… Um, her other other half. Vadrieny. Plus, Scorn likes to ‘ang around with ‘er, so, y’know, between an archdemon an’ a towerin’ great Rhaazke, I didn’t exactly lack fer muscle t’lift the ‘eavy parts.”

“Oh.” Iris’s expression shifted to a rueful grin. “Well, that makes a great deal more sense, then.”

“Quite,” Ravana said brightly. “It would appear to be right up Teal’s proverbial alley, in any case. Am I correct in guessing this is some type of vehicle, Maureen?”

She paused to sip her cordial while raising her eyebrows expectantly. She had had them brought in by the case from Calderaas starting at the end of last semester, after discovering that while the fruity bottled drinks did (barely) contain alcohol, it wasn’t enough to trigger whatever effect Tellwyrn had laid on the campus that rendered it undrinkable. Thus, Ravana had seldom been without a bottle in the last week, despite the fact that she claimed they tasted like mouthwash and the carbonation was purely irritating. According to her, it was a matter of principle. As always, she was generous with her bounty, though most of her roommates were sufficiently put off by her descriptions of the cordials to decline, with the exception of Szith, who actually liked them.

The shed Maureen and Teal had appropriated for their project was theoretically designated as storage for the Well, their dorm, but Afritia had told Maureen to make herself at home. The dorm had only this year been re-opened and had nothing stored, so for the time being at least, it was available and at least this way, someone got some use out of it. The space was not much larger than a somewhat generous stable stall, and had been quite dim and dingy before Maureen had strung up a few fairy lamps, then keyed them all to a single runic switch so that one touch could turn on the lights—a standard arrangement, but Iris had nonetheless been impressed that the gnome had done the enchanting herself.

Taking up the bulk of the space was Maureen’s project, which at the moment mostly resembled a large, confused wheelbarrow: the smoothly rounded copper shell bristled with pipes and wires where various gadgets were to be attached, its rounded side up, and the wheel affixed to its flatter underside. The wheel itself was hugely broad, coated in a springy black material and carved in odd patterns. Extending from the rear of the copper shell was a tail-like structure, currently propped up on two sawhorses, and Maureen was in the process of bolting an enchanted apparatus to its underside.

“What’s all this?” Iris asked, bending to gently run her fingers along the wheel. “It feels…odd.”

“Aye, that’s synthetic rubber,” Maureen explained.

Ravana straightened, frowning. “Rubber? I’ve never seen it that color. And there appears to be quite a lot.”

“Well, sure, it’s alchemical, yeah? We don’t actually ‘ave rubber trees on this continent, as I reckon you know, an’ anyhow the real stuff’s a mite soft for our purposes.” Stepping back from the other end of her invention, she trundled around to join Iris by the wheel. “This ‘ere’s the newest thing outta Falconer Industries! See, y’know how carriages require big enchantments on the wheels to make ’em run smooth an’ hold to the road?”

“Uh, sure,” Iris said, shrugging. “If you say so.”

“Aye, well, that’s cos at the speed they move they tend t’bounce. Carriages still owe a lot o’ their design to the old kind that was pulled by horses. Teal’s parents are workin’ on this: they’re called tires! Rubber coatings on the wheels, see? They’re softer, which absorbs impacts, an’ textured to give ’em traction. That way they can take some o’ the power outta the traction an’ smoothing charms, which leaves more power for the motive charms on the wheels, thus faster carriages.”

“Ingenious,” Ravana marveled, studying Maureen’s device with new interest.

“Aye, it’s all pretty experimental. Teal says they’re findin’ it works better to make a kinda thin shell of the rubber an’ inflate ’em with pressurized air.”

“Inflated wheels?” Szith said incredulously. “That sounds like a disastrous idea.”

“Many innovations do, at first,” said Ravana. “The Falconers know what they are about.”

“According to Teal,” Maureen continued excitedly, “they’re lookin’ at buffin’ ’em up from inside, usin’ springs an’ possibly a kind of gel they can make from petroleum instead of air. More stable that way, an’ less fragile.”

Iris frowned. “What’s petroleum?”

“A kind of mineral oil,” Ravana explained. “It has some industrial and alchemical applications, but it’s not as useful as organic oils for most things. Also, it’s found in deposits underground, like ore, which makes it hugely difficult to extract. If F.I. can make something worthwhile out of it, more power to them. Is the wheel that wide for balance, Maureen?”

“Aye, it ‘elps with that,” Maureen said, grinning. “But the wheel’s that wide because this is the leftover piece from an F.I. experiment that Teal could get fer me, so the rest o’ the thing’s designed around it. Beggars, choosers, an’ all that. All right, ladies, moment o’ truth!”

“I mean the greatest of respect, please do not think otherwise,” Szith said carefully as Maureen stepped back to the other end of the vehicle, “but…how much danger are we in, here?”

“Uh…” The gnome paused in double-checking the runes on the gadget, straightening to frown at her project. “None at all, I shouldn’t think. Provided ye stay on this side. Just physics bein’ what it is, if there’s any trouble it’ll be up front.”

“Righto!” Iris said quickly, scurrying around behind Maureen.

“And now,” the gnome said, pausing to rub her hands together and grinning in delight. “Moment o’ truth, fer real!”

She pressed a rune.

Immediately, the crystal plate she had attached to the underside of the vehicle blazed to life, putting off a brilliant torrent of azure light and a powerful hum of magic at work.

It also shot toward the ceiling, taking the back end of the vehicle with it. The whole thing flipped forward on its wheel, its newly-enchanted tail slamming against the wall above the front door hard enough to shake the whole shed. Still putting out levitative force and with nowhere else to go, the upside-down vehicle began creeping toward them on its sole wheel, which remained firmly affixed to the ground.

Iris shrieked and mashed herself against the back wall; Ravana leaped up adroitly to make her own retreat, Szith stepping between her and the runaway invention.

Maureen, though, yelped and scurried forward, heedless of the erratic motion of her large, metal creation, and threw herself bodily atop it. After a moment’s frantic scrabbling, she found the rune again.

In the next instant, it went dark and silent.

“Okay,” Iris said tremulously from the back. “Needs a little work.”

“Needs a lot o’ work,” Maureen grumbled, scowling at her invention as if feeling betrayed. “That’s a lot more force than it’s s’pposed to put out… Where’d I go wrong? I was sure o’ me figures…” She shook her head, then suddenly looked up. “Oh! Everybody all right?”

“Quite,” Ravana said with a smile, “though perhaps someone should go let Afritia know that no one is being murdered up here.”

“I doubt she could even hear that, from down in the Well,” said Szith.

“I’ll go,” Iris offered, edging around Maureen’s vehicle toward the door. “She may not have heard it, but I bet Addiwyn could. The last thing we need is her stirring up trouble.”

“I think Addiwyn has been making great progress,” Ravana said placidly. “You’ll note the complete lack of vicious pranks since we stuffed her in an entling, and a general lessening of her attitude starting around that time. Whatever issues she was grappling with, she appears to be developing some maturity. Really, Iris, I believe we could make progress with her if everyone would refrain from picking at her.”

“Everyone meaning me?” Iris said sardonically. “I don’t even disagree, Ravana, but some people I just don’t care to get to know. She buttered her bed good and proper.”

“As you like,” Ravana said equably. “Just for the sake of peace in the dorm, then, I merely ask that you not be provocative.”

“I guess I can do that much,” Iris muttered, carefully opening the door and squeezing out through the gap; it was still partially blocked by Maureen’s invention.

No sooner had she stepped outside than she shrieked again and tumbled to the ground.

“Iris!” Szith smoothly strode to the door. “Are you—”

Leaning her head out, she broke off. Iris was gathering herself up, and now both of them stared at what she had tripped over.

Their fifth roommate lay sprawled outside the shed, her legs stretched across the doorway.

“You addle-pated blonde bundle of sticks!” Iris shouted. “What the hell do you think you’re doing out here?”

“Shall I assume that wasn’t directed at me?” Ravana asked, her face appearing in the gap. Szith had already slipped smoothly out and knelt beside Addiwyn.

“Iris,” the drow said flatly, “she’s asleep.”

Iris broke off in the process of drawing breath for more invective, her expression suddenly horrified. “I—what? No, it’s not like—she’s just being a pain, like always. Oy, cut it out!” Scrambling to her feet, she prodded Addiwyn’s hip with her foot, none too gently.

Szith, with more care, rolled the elf onto her back. She looked rather peaceful, if anything, her eyes closed and expression quite relaxed.

“Breath and heartbeat even,” Szith reported. “Slow, as if in natural sleep.” She lightly slapped Addiwyn’s cheek, to no avail.

“Ohhh, no,” Maureen whispered, poking her head through the door below Ravana’s.

“No, this is crazy,” Iris said nervously. “This is just one of her jokes. Come on, first Chase and now her?”

“And Natchua,” Szith said quietly.

“Exactly! You notice it’s only the jerks and assholes? She’s faking. Get up!”

Ravana cleared her throat loudly as Iris drew back her foot for what looked like a more earnest kick. “Rather than do that, Iris, I suggest someone fetch Miss Sunrunner. If this is Addiwyn’s idea of a prank, on her head be it, then. If not, you’ll feel terrible later if you start kicking her.”

“I’ll go,” Maureen volunteered, wriggling out around her. She took off down the path, quickly vanishing around the corner. Despite her short legs, she could move with amazing speed when motivated.

“I will get Afritia,” Szith said, standing up and turning toward the door of the Well, which was a few yards away around a hedge. “She should be informed of this immediately, also.”

“Good idea,” Ravana said approvingly. Szith gave her a nod and strode off.

“Why,” Iris asked weakly, staring down at the sleeping Addiwyn, “is it always us?”

“Based on the stories I hear,” Ravana said with more equanimity, “I wonder if perhaps it is not just the freshman class each year. And honestly, if half the things I’ve been told are true, we shall have to do a lot better than this if we hope to compete.”


The atrium of the building in which she waited had a lovely modern style of architecture, with an entire wall which arched inward two stories up to become a skylight which would have admitted the reddish glow of late afternoon, had there been any. Tiraas lay under a fresh glaze of ice, the heaps of snow having been mostly cleared away, and its sky was a typical gloomy gray. Still, at least the room was pretty.

Tellwyrn paced slowly up and down the atrium, peering now and then out the windows, studying the furnishings, and glancing occasionally at the government functionaries stationed at desks along the rear wall, all of whom were stealing glances at her whenever possible, only to lower their eyes to their paperwork when she happened to meet their gaze.

This place was fairly opulent, though it wasn’t part of the Imperial Palace itself. Several entire blocks behind the Palace were given over to the offices from which the Empire was administered, and the Empire required vast amounts of administration. All of these were designed to be beautiful when observed from without, though many were drab and purely functional on the inside, as befit a good bureaucracy. Quite a few interior spaces, though, were meant to receive important persons who felt they deserved to be entertained in style.

It amused her slightly that she made the list.

Tellwyrn glanced up again, finding a reedy young man peering at her from the corner of his eye. At her gaze, he instantly ducked his head, scribbling so furiously on the paper in front of him that he couldn’t possibly have been producing anything but meaningless scrawl.

She stood still, suddenly, just staring at him.

He held out well for such an apparent milquetoast. It was more than two full minutes before he finally glanced up at her again.

The sharp pop of her passage was almost inaudible amid all the pen-scratching. One moment she stood by the door, the next she was inches from him.

“BOO!”

He actually screamed and fell out of his chair.

“Don’t try that yourselves,” she advised the room full of shocked clerks, backing away and grinning. “You have to be very old before you can get away with being juvenile.”

They were spared more of her boredom by the opening of the door through which her escort had vanished half an hour ago.

“Thank you for your patience, Professor,” the Hand of the Emperor said in his customary clipped tone, striding toward her. This time, Lord Quentin Vex was with him, regarding her with an expression of mingled boredom and idle curiosity. Her face-to-face interactions with Vex had been fairly limited, all things considered, but she knew very well not to be fooled by his sleepy demeanor.

“Not at all, I’m quite confident you know better than to waste my time deliberately. Considering the bureaucratic levers you were apparently back there pulling, I’m impressed this has all gone so quickly. Joining us, then, Quentin?”

“The personnel being requisitioned for this project do answer directly to me,” Vex said, nodding to her. “Always a pleasure, Professor.”

“So formal,” Tellwyrn chided, “after all we’ve meant to each other. I thought you outranked basically everyone,” she added to the Hand. “You need his permission to bring talent on board?”

“This may be a challenging concept for you, Professor, but because one has the power to do something does not mean one ought to. Lord Vex’s work has always been imminently satisfactory, and his Majesty prefers not to needlessly disrupt the functions of his agencies. If you would come this way, please, we shall meet the individual you’ve come to see in a more secure location within.”

She followed wordlessly at his gesture, and the two men led her back into the hall. The décor remained simple but expensive, with glossy wood paneling and a thick carpet, but the only decorations as such were simple Tiraan banners hung along the walls at intervals like tapestries. They turned left twice and then right, passing doors which her guides ignored, and a few yards later the hall terminated against a set of vertical brass bars.

The Hand grasped a handle on these and pushed the whole thing aside into the wall, gesturing her forward into what appeared to be a small room lined with velvet-padded benches and no doors save the one covered by the bars.

“Rest assured, we are not putting you in a cell,” he said with a thin smile. “This is called an elevator. It will—”

“I dearly hope you don’t think you invented elevators,” she snorted, striding past him and taking a seat. “They’ve been used in the dwarven kingdoms for decades.”

“Yes, but this one runs on magic,” Vex said mildly, lounging against the wall a few feet away while the Hand pulled the bars shut behind them and touched runes on a control panel nearby. “No cables, pulleys, gears or anything else which is likely to up and break.”

“Spells break just as easily as anything,” she replied. “One just has to know how.”

“It’s so good to find you in such a cheerful mood,” he said. Tellwyrn grinned at him.

They descended for nearly ten minutes. None of them spoke. If any found the silence awkward, they made no sign.

When the elevator finally came to a stop, Tellwyrn surged impatiently to her feet, barely giving the Hand a chance to pry the bars open again before pushing past him into the space revealed. There, she planted her hands on her hips and looked around.

This had to have been deep underground, but rather than the customary fairy lamps, the rotunda was lined with tall panels of glass which glowed a pale white, approximating windows. They even had curtains to heighten the illusion. The floor was glossy marble, the walls gilt-trimmed, the domed ceiling a mural depicting important scenes from Tiraan history. Two curved staircases swept up to a balcony ringing the second floor, from which doorways led into dark halls.

Dominating the center of the room was an obelisk of gleaming white metal, etched with geometric patterns which glowed a subtle green. On two sides, small arms extended from it, holding up transparent panels in which maps were projected, one of the city, one of the continent. Directly above and centered on the obelisk’s tip was a translucent globe of light depicting the planet, its continents and countries clearly labeled in glowing text, the whole thing so massive it nearly filled the space, rotating slowly. The moon, unattached and similarly translucent, swung around it on its elliptical orbit, almost grazing the balcony in places.

“A very useful gadget,” Vex said idly, giving the globe a disinterested look. “Lets us keep track of our agents. You may have seen similar things here and there.”

“Artifacts of the Elder Gods should be left buried,” she said disapprovingly. “A good number of them thought weaving deadly booby traps into mundane objects was the height of comedy. Those things have been known to go off after centuries, prompted by nothing.”

“Your advice is appreciated,” the Hand said curtly. “What you see here is, in a sense, the direct descendant of the old Ministry of Mysteries.”

“His Majesty wouldn’t let me revive the name,” Vex said with a languid smile. “Shame. I really wanted to make my people carry badges that said MOM.”

The Hand gave him a sour glance, but continued. “The original Ministry’s mandate was to respond to and potentially make use of unexplained phenomena, which is an inherently foolish and romantic notion. The Imperial government’s current policy is that anything unexplained has been insufficiently investigated, and we will not indulge in mysticism. Nonetheless, there are assets we may choose to leverage which are difficult to fit into the normal order of government or society. Those of them who answer to Imperial Intelligence do so via this division.”

“What, exactly, did you bring me here to see?” Tellwyrn asked, slowly studying the room.

“A specialist,” said the Hand. “Someone gifted, trained, and experienced in complex criminal investigation; in fact, the very author of the Empire’s ongoing reforms in police work. For a long time, catching criminals has been an extremely slapdash affair. Our man here has developed methods of gathering and analyzing evidence which have both exonerated many falsely accused subjects and led to the capture of countless guilty parties who might otherwise have escaped justice. I contacted Lord Vex from Last Rock and ordered that he be briefed.” He turned to raise an eyebrow at the spymaster. “I thought you said he was coming?”

“I told him to come,” Vex replied. “And then, since I knew he’d be late, I sent Ashley to fetch him. Should be along any moment—ah.”

“Ah, indeed!” said the new arrival, bounding out of a second-floor hallway and landing with his rump on the marble banister of one of the staircases. He slid all the way down, his trench coat fluttering in passing, and hit the bottom in an elaborate bow. “So this is the great and terrible Professor Tellwyrn! I had honestly hoped never to be in a room with you, but clearly nobody cares what I want.”

He was a rather diminutive man, not even as tall as she, and correspondingly slim. Though quite handsome, he was also markedly scruffy, in need of a shave and haircut, and wearing a slightly shabby coat and hat even indoors.

Tellwyrn gave him a long, baleful look, then pushed her spectacles up her nose to stare through the lenses, then turned to the other two men.

“Are you aware—”

“Of course we are,” the Hand said irritably. “This is why I began by explaining the mandate of this agency. Inspector Fedora is the best detective in the Tiraan Empire, and possibly beyond it, and has been briefed on your problem to the extent that he can be.”

“Murgatroyd to my friends,” the Inspector said, giving her a smile which did not disguise the hostility in his eyes. “Which doesn’t and won’t include you, but I understand you enjoy being presumptuous.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Murgatroyd Fedora? You were going for maximum possible absurdity, then?”

“Well, I think if one’s going to choose a name, it ought to be pleasing to its owner,” he replied, grinning impudently. “Of course, some people prefer names that are laden with heavy-handed meaning. But then, look who I’m telling, Miss Spider-Priestess Yells-At-Dragons.”

“That’s Professor,” she said flatly.

Vex cleared his throat. “Did you manage to lose Ashley again?”

“Nah,” said a voice from above. “He just wanted to make an entrance. Don’t worry, I’m not about to leave him unattended in company.”

A young woman was leaning over the balcony above, giving them a sunny smile. She had a pixiesh face, with brown hair cut boyishly short, and seemed to be dressed in a man’s suit, or at least had on a jacket and tie.

Tellwyrn craned her head back to stare at the latest arrival through her glasses for a moment, then turned again to Vex and the Hand.

“Do you realize—”

“Yes,” they chorused.

“Inspector,” the Hand continued, “kindly tell us what you have so far.”

“What I have so far is virtually nothing,” Fedora stated, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his coat and slouching. “All I’ve been able to do is consider the overview of the situation and pull a few files on known personalities at the University. That’s nothing. If you want any actual, useful answers, I will need to be on site and given a significant amount of access. And anyway, while this case does look like it could shape up to be something fascinating, I rather think there’s just not enough yet to begin closing in on a perpetrator, even if I could see firsthand whatever little there is.”

“This,” Tellwyrn stated, pointing at the Inspector and addressing herself to the Hand, “will not be visiting my campus.”

“Well, then, I’m just a pretty face here,” Fedora said, shrugging. “If she won’t let me do my work, that’s that.”

“Troy,” Ashley said reprovingly from above, “be nice.”

“Everyone, please,” Vex said soothingly. “Professor, I realize this is a troubling suggestion and we’re asking a lot, but for the record, you came to the Empire for help; the Empire doesn’t have a direct stake in your problem. We are doing a favor—with the expectation of favors in return, let us not dissemble, but still. I think it would be appropriate for us all to extend some tolerance toward each other.”

She snorted and folded her arms. “Fine, then. Impress me, detective.”

“Can’t do it, probably,” Fedora said glibly. “But what I’ve got so far is a short list of suspects. Now, let me begin with the disclaimer that to call criminal profiling an inexact science is giving it way too much credit, but just on an overview, my instinct is to approach this as a serial attacker. Two victims thus far isn’t a pattern, but striking people down at apparent random fits that profile. Much will depend on what develops—how many more victims appear, how frequently, how they are connected.”

“I’m sure you have something,” said Vex.

“I’ve got a few names who have files that are suggestive,” the Inspector replied, turning his sharp gaze back to Tellwyrn. “First, of course, your first victim, Chase Masterson. He left an impressively consistent record of incidents at the Shaathist lodge which had the misfortune to have raised him. No close friendships, charming demeanor, a general pattern of rulebreaking and manipulative behavior to get his way. Textbook social pathology. Literally, I’ve got a fantastic book from the Svenheim Polytheoric Institute on this, which I just flipped through for reference.”

“Aside from being the first victim,” Tellwyrn said, narrowing her eyes, “Chase was unconscious when the second was attacked.”

“And that may or may not be significant,” Fedora replied, shrugging. “We know nothing about how these attacks are carried out, yes? It’s clearly magical, which opens up a whole world of possibilities. However, that is significant, and it’s for that reason that I don’t particularly like Masterson for the crime. I list him just on the strength of his nature—a boy like that doesn’t need a motive, he just does things, and that’s what argues against him doing this. Striking down himself and then arranging the next victim to happen while he was out would be, if he did it, a mastermind’s ploy. The action of someone who thinks multiple steps ahead. That isn’t Masterson’s pattern; he’s a dog chasing carriages. Anth’auwa aren’t all cut from the same cloth, and the profile he left behind at the lodge was of the ‘harmless pain in the ass’ variety. Unless you’ve seen something in his two and a half years under your tutelage which contradicts that?”

“No,” she said slowly, “no, I tend to agree. Chase is not a planner. He’s impulsive and lacks both restraint and remorse, but he just doesn’t care enough about the future to think ahead.”

Fedora nodded. “I’ve got two others I consider more likely. Lord Jerome Conover has been disinherited thanks to his antics while on your campus and even by the standards of young noblemen he’s established enough of a pattern as a grudge-holder that Intelligence had a file on him before he set off for your University. I consider it extremely noteworthy that his primary contention was with Trissiny Avelea, who is far too powerful for him to threaten, and whose sudden absence from your campus immediately preceded the start of these attacks.”

“Hum.” Tellwyrn frowned deeply, but offered no further comment.

“My personal favorite,” Fedora continued with a grim smile, “isn’t a student. What you’ve got happening at your school, Professor, is exactly the established mode of attack of Morvana the Poisoner.”

“Afritia has my complete trust,” Tellwyrn snapped.

He shrugged again. “Well, clearly, someone who has your trust has betrayed it. That does nothing at all to narrow down our suspects, now does it?”

“Troy,” Ashley said, coming down the stairs behind him, “ease up. There’s no need to make this any worse for her than it is.”

“I will say,” he acknowledged, “that this clashes with her established motive. The Poisoner went after much higher-profile targets, most Wreath-affiliated. Unless you’ve got some truly skeevy shit going on at your school, this isn’t that. However, if this curse proves to be transmitted through an alchemical vector, I’d have to call her suspect number one.”

“And that’s all you have,” Tellwyrn said scathingly.

“Yes!” he exclaimed, throwing his arms wide in a melodramatic shrug. “That is all I have! This looks like it might be an interesting puzzle and I’d love to have a crack at it, but let’s be honest: standing here, with nothing to go on but your descriptions and Imperial records? I’m as useless as a beat cop in Ninkabi.” He turned to give Vex an expressive stare. “So what’s it gonna be? Am I on the case, or are we all wasting each other’s time, here?”

Vex looked at the Hand, who cleared his throat and nodded to Tellwyrn.

“You’re right to have reservations, Professor. But…this could be a start.”

She was staring at Fedora, who grinned right back. Finally, she heaved a short sigh and let it out through her nose.

“I guess…we shall see.”

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8 – 22

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“Almost exactly a year ago,” Tellwyrn said pleasantly, folding her hands on her desk, “a gaggle of your predecessors instigated a brawl that ranged from the campus to the great northern desert to the stratosphere itself, and I made the mistake of telling them that was one of the worst things a freshman class had done in their first week. Clearly the fates took that as a challenge, because…here you are.”

“W-what’s a stratosphere?” Iris asked tremulously.

Tellwyrn’s expression sharpened. “A dark, cold place filled with deadly radiation and not enough air,where I am thinking very seriously about sending the lot of you.”

“Really, Professor,” Ravana said reasonably, “with the greatest respect, aren’t you overstating this somewhat? A simple campus prank—”

“YOU TRIED TO FEED YOUR ROOMATE TO AN ENTLING!” Tellwyrn roared, slapping her hands down on the desk.

“But we didn’t!” Iris protested. “It was just—an entling wouldn’t eat a person, you have to know that! We were just scaring her a bit!”

“Honestly,” Ravana added, “I think it’s worth considering that a few minutes of discomfort and manhandling are an equitable recompense for the way she’s been treating us.”

“And she’s not our roommate,” Maureen said sullenly.

“That stuff was just perfume with citrus oil!” Iris babbled. “How were we supposed to know it would actually attract kitsune? I mean, what are even the chances of that?”

“A pertinent question,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “You of all people, Miss Domingue, should know that fae are not so easily ensnared. Kitsune, for your edification, are attracted to people playing tricks, and strongly impelled to join the fun. Even aside from my rules, Ekoi Kaisa is fortunately enough of a teacher at heart to shove a dose of empathy down your throat rather than begin dismantling your whole reality as most of her cousins would. That doesn’t mean you should try to play any further games with her. You will lose.”

Tellwyrn drew in a long breath through her nose and let it out through her teeth; the rest of the office’s occupants, arranged in front of her desk, hunched slightly, with the exception of Szith, who stood calmly at attention. Ravana was sitting primly in one of the two provided chairs; Addiwyn hunched in the other, sipping occasionally from a steaming cup of herbal tea that Tellwyrn claimed had calming properties. She was somewhat physically isolated, the rest of the girls from her dorm being clustered around Ravana. If anything, that probably helped restore her equanimity.

“All right,” the Professor said finally. “Miss Madouri, you’re an evil little hobgoblin on your best day. You two have ‘lackey’ written all over you.”

“Excuse me?” Maureen exclaimed, offended. Iris dropped her gaze.

“Believe me, we will be working on all of that during your stay at this University. What somewhat surprises me is your involvement in this, Miss An’sadarr. From you, at least, I expected a great deal more circumspection.”

“Being present and observant seemed to me a wiser course than allowing this to unfold behind my back, as it were,” Szith said calmly.

“Really,” Tellwyrn retorted, her voice heavy with sarcasm. “And the thought of informing someone in authority that your roommates were planning to abduct and interrogate Addiwyn never crossed your mind?”

“I do not begrudge anyone the prerogative to defend or avenge themselves,” Szith said flatly, “even when I choose not to do so on my own behalf. And with all respect, Professor, nothing I have observed in the wake of Addiwyn’s actions has suggested that the administration is able or willing to address this. In Tar’naris, her campaign would have ended, immediately and decisively, after its opening act.”

Tellwyrn drummed her fingers once on the desk, her expression sardonic. “We don’t put people in spider boxes here.”

“Indeed,” Szith said pointedly.

“I wish to state for the record,” Ravana said, “that this was my idea and occurred at my instigation. The others acted at my encouragement.”

“We can make our own decisions, y’know,” Maureen muttered.

“No part of that was news to me, Miss Madouri,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh.

“Very well, then,” Ravana replied, smiling. “I will accept whatever disciplinary action you deem appropriate, Professor.”

Addiwyn lifted the cup and took a sip of tea, watching Ravana from the corner of her eye.

“Appropriate,” Tellwyrn mused, her stare fixed on Ravana. “Well, there’s the matter of theft of Addiwyn’s belongings, the destruction of campus property—that tree is probably salvageable, Domingue, but it’s never going to be the same—unauthorized use of a powerful summon, vandalism…and oh, yes, lots and lots of assault.”

“That all sounds correct,” Ravana said pleasantly. “Let’s be on with it, then.”

Professor Tellwyrn stared expressionlessly at her over the rims of her glasses for a long moment before replying.

“You are extremely poised, Miss Madouri.”

“Why, thank you, Professor.”

“One would almost take your attitude for a lack of concern.”

“Well,” Ravana said modestly, “it does not do to become unduly agitated. I do, after all, seek to be an example to others.”

“I wonder if you’ve ever considered that there are situations in which poise is inappropriate.”

“I cannot say I have,” Ravana replied, arching an eyebrow. “In fact, by the very nature of—”

With a sharp little pop of displaced air, she vanished.

“Uh,” Iris said, wide-eyed. “What’d you…”

Tellwyrn imperiously held up a hand, palm out. A moment later she folded the thumb inward, followed in the next moment by her index finger. They all watched in total silence as she counted down, one finger at a time. Three, two, one…

The pop of Ravana’s reappearance was inaudible beneath her screaming. She flailed frantically with all four limbs, dress disheveled and with her wispy blonde hair forming a crazed tangle around her. Her antics nearly pitched her out of the chair; Iris and Maureen both grabbed her, preventing a spill. With their hands gripping her arms, Ravana finally stilled, gasping for breath and gaping, wide-eyed, at Tellwyrn.

“What did you do?!” Iris exclaimed. “Where did you send her?”

“Up,” said Professor Tellwyrn in perfect calm. “Two miles, straight up.”

“Bloody hell,” Maureen whispered.

“While I applaud your willingness to take responsibility, Miss Madouri,” Tellwyrn went on in the same even tone, “I am troubled by your attitude. You seem to regard your violations of both my rules and your roommate’s person as…moves in some sort of game, divorced of any real meaning or consequence. As if you were simply entitled to do whatever you felt necessary to her. There’s more to living in a society than accepting consequences, Ravana. These things matter. Other people matter. The solipsistic arrogance you exhibit is, unfortunately, a common enough result of the kind of upbringing you had, but that does not make it acceptable. You live in a world of Emperors, gods and dragons, and the very fact of your high social rank means you will come into contact with such beings. If you cannot bend your neck in their presence, you’ll lose it. It is appropriate to show a little humility before individuals who can bounce you through the sky like a rubber ball, especially when you are in the wrong. Perhaps, if you really do have a conscience under all that privilege, that will be a first step toward showing some of the same regard to those you consider your lessers.”

“I think I see,” Szith murmured. “You don’t need spider boxes.”

Tellwyrn turned a gimlet stare on the drow. “You are on thin ice, missy.”

Szith bowed to her.

Ravana was only beginning to get her breathing and expression under control, one hand pressed to her thin chest. Iris still had an arm around her shoulders, and she hadn’t made any effort to straighten out her hair. Windblown and wild-eyed, she was a far cry from the picture of calm she usually presented.

“Well, anyway,” Tellwyrn said, suddenly brisk, “last spring one of the graduating seniors’ final projects was interrupted by the hellgate crisis. It was actually rather ingenious, using principles and techniques of necromancy in a fae magic context to accelerate growth of lifeforms. Quite impressive, really; if the experiment hadn’t been wrecked and had succeeded, it could have provided a framework for arcane magic users to perform a number of feats currently only attainable by fae users. Unfortunately, things being as they are, all that resulted was a whole bank of secured spell labs three levels under Mercedes Hall filled with wildly growing plant monsters.”

She folded her hands neatly on top of the desk and smiled at them. “I’ve cleaned out the dangerous things, of course—did that first. What’s left is basically harmless. It grows very rapidly and tends to move around more than your average run of greenery, but none of it presents a danger. I could, of course, have finished the job, but it occurred to me that four chambers full of slime molds, mushrooms and hanging moss that will try to crawl over you even as you attempt to clean them up would be a fantastic thing to have around next time I find myself with some students who desperately need duties to fill their free time. And now, fortuitously, here you are!”

Iris gulped audibly.

“After classes tomorrow,” Tellwyrn said in a grimmer tone, “you four will report to Stew, who will escort you to Sublevel Three and provide your equipment. You may not use magic. Your punishment duty is over when those labs are spotless. Enjoy. For now, ladies, you may go. Except you,” she added, leveling a finger at Addiwyn. “I want a few words with you, young lady.”

The others filed out with no further commentary, though Iris continued to whimper under her breath. Ravana finally began trying to smooth down her tousled hair with shaking hands. She was the last out, and paused in the doorway to stare at Tellwyrn for a moment. The Professor gave her a sunny smile.

She shut the door very gently behind her.

Tellwyrn drew in a long breath and let out a deep sigh, slumping back in her chair for a moment. The faint tingle of a silencing spell passed over them both as it filled the room, sealing it against outside listeners. Straightening up, she removed her glasses and set them on the desk, then spoke more gently. “You okay, Wynn?”

Addiwyn took a deeper sip of her tea then leaned forward to set the cup down on Tellwyrn’s desk. “Well, Arachne, you wanted to find out what would happen if we pushed them. And now we damn well know, don’t we?”

Tellwyrn sighed again. “I’ll grant you, that was a little more heavy than I was expecting out of that group. Honestly, I figured Ravana would just try to match you in mean-girl charades…”

“Let’s establish one thing up front,” Addiwyn said sharply. “Not to downplay the responsibility those girls have for tonight’s actions, but they didn’t create this situation. You did.”

“I think that’s a little strong,” Tellwyrn said irritably. “Look, if you’re having second thoughts about this job…”

“Oh, I’m not planning to quit,” Addiwyn said with a small grin. “However, I am adding conditions to my continued employment here. If you want me to do this, then from now on, you will quit micro-managing me. Just tell me what you want me to learn or do about whom and I will design and act on the method. That’s my specialty, after all. But this, Arachne, the crap you’ve been having me do all week… It’s ridiculous. A prank campaign like that makes no sense. Someone in the position you put me in might play jokes in a lighter spirit, or someone in a position of power might have done things as deliberately hurtful. But for me, the outsider, to be so psychotically, unrelentingly vicious? Nobody does that!”

“That’s not even remotely true,” Tellwyrn said, scowling. “In fifty years I’ve watched a lot of teenage girls—”

“Yes, yes, and you’ve watched them from on high, apparently not paying close attention to the social dynamics in place. And honestly, Arachne, in three thousand years have you ever needed to be closely attentive to social dynamics? You know how to be polite to the few people more powerful than yourself, you avoid the few people as powerful as you, and everyone else you just push around. That’s my point! You don’t know how these things work! Yes, girls can be cruel to each other, but that is goal-directed behavior that follows certain predictable patterns.” She leaned forward, staring hard at the Professor. “You just about blew it this time, lady. That was the specific thing that set Ravana on the warpath; the situation was wrong and made no sense, and she was willing to pull out all the stops to figure out just who I really was and what I was up to. You’re not paying me enough to stand up to torture, just so you know. She came quite close to blowing this whole thing open.”

“You know,” Tellwyrn said peevishly, “if you really want to quit, I can find a replacement. I only keep one agent among the student body at a time, and it doesn’t even have to be an elf. It’s handy to have a person with some experience and wisdom who can pass for eighteen, but there are other ways around that.”

Addiwyn actually laughed at her. “Oh, listen to yourself. Let’s skip past some of this posturing: you’re going to accept my terms, let me do my job and in the future you will damn well listen when I tell you something you’ve planned is a terrible idea, and not insist on it. And you’re not going to do this because you’re in any way impressed by ultimatums, but because you know you hired the right person for this, and you’re wasting your own gold if you don’t let me work.”

Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow. “Oh, is that what’s going to happen. And is there anything else, Wynn?”

“Yes, in fact,” Addiwyn said flatly. “If it comes close enough to another situation like tonight that I have to make the call, you will bring Ravana in on it and swear her to secrecy. Quite frankly I think she’ll be glad to play along, and pleased as punch to be involved. But more to the point, that girl has resources that extend across the planet, and I did not sign up to have my friends and family leaned on by House Madouri thugs.”

Tellwyrn shook her head, scowling off to the side. “All right, all right. Assuming, just for the sake of argument, that I accept your statements, here… How badly is this blown? Can you still salvage the situation?”

“Not easily,” Addiwyn said frankly. “The situation is good and screwed up. As far as those girls know, they’re rooming with a crazy woman who’d as soon set their hair on fire while they sleep as look at them. Iris, in particular, is about as mad as anyone’s ever been at me, and she’s got ample reason. That was a nasty thing you had me do to her, Arachne. It’s going to take me the rest of the semester, at minimum, to normalize relations. I can maybe be on friendly terms with them by the end of the academic year. The tricky part is going to be moving gradually enough to be believable. Any sudden swings in behavior on my part will only set Ravana off again.”

The Professor sighed. “You do know the reason I had to do this, right?”

“Yeah,” Addiwyn said, regarding her seriously. “And no, none of the other three produced any surprises. Ravana Madouri, however, is a case potentially as bad as you feared. Arachne… Look, quite apart from the absurd nature of this prank war, I don’t think it was a good idea to begin with. That girl has already been tested hard. Pushing at her isn’t the way to find out what she’s capable of—or at the very least, not pushing from within the student body. She doesn’t need to be sharpening her claws on any classmates. I know very well you have assets from outside that you can bring to bear.”

“Hell, that’s more or less the entire point of most field exercises.”

Addiwyn nodded. “Right. In fact, I think I can leverage those to undo some of the damage we’ve already done here. Those excursions are full of bonding opportunities. If the freshman Golden Sea trip is anything like the one I remember from when I was actually a student, there should be plenty of chances to both mend some of those bridges and find out more about Ravana’s capabilities.”

“You are actually a student,” Tellwyrn noted with a faint smile. “The education is still valuable; nobody ever has too much learning. And I note you’ve signed up for a completely different degree program this time.”

Addiwyn waved a hand, dismissing that. “Are you at least listening to me, Arachne?”

“Yes, yes. Listening and pondering. You do make some worthwhile points.”

“I’m glad to hear that, at least.”

“However,” the Professor continued, leaning forward, “I don’t know whether I can really afford to let Miss Madouri ramble around the way I do the other kids. Most of them come relatively unformed, at that age. I do have some experience with those who have backgrounds full of trauma or training, things that make them more set in their ways…”

“I don’t think either of those is the issue here,” Addiwyn said, frowning thoughtfully. “Sure, the girl’s had her share of pain, but… I think she is simply a prodigy. A ruthless, political prodigy. And the more you pick at her, the more chances you create for her to figure out something is up.”

“I spoke the simple truth to her, you know. I’ve got to get through to that girl somehow. As she is, she’s a nightmare waiting to happen for her subjects.”

Addiwyn nodded. “It’s not that I disagree with your assessment or your motives, Arachne.”

“Merely my methods?” Tellwyrn said wryly.

“Exactly. Look… You remember Percy Doulain, right? The one raised by those two Silver Legionnaires?”

“Of course,” Tellwyrn said with a reminiscent smile. “Oddly sweet boy, for such a hammerhead.”

“Well, that’s the thing—he came from a military background, and understood what basic training was. How it’s designed to completely break people down and rebuild them as soldiers. He spotted what you were doing immediately, and clued the rest of our class in.”

“Is that so,” Tellwyrn said thoughtfully. “You know, I thought you kids were unusually well-behaved.”

“Yeah, well… You need to keep in mind how this all looks to someone who’s been here a week. All Ravana and the girls know is that they’re rooming with a maniacal asshole and your first homework assignment was a cruel mind game. Not to mention they’ve got that freaking kitsune to deal with instead of Professor Yornhaldt’s moderating influence. They’ve had no opportunity to see the purpose yet. Arachne, you’ve got alumni from all over the world who would drop everything and come running if you put out a call for help. Hell, I bet most of your seniors would do the same. But it takes time to get to that point, and at this point in time, these kids can’t tell what you’re doing. They just see you being a ravening bitch from atop a pedestal of unfathomable power. If you continue to lean on Ravana, all she’ll know is that she’s being singled out—because you’d better believe she’ll spot it. And what does a sitting Duchess who organized her own coup do when she is targeted by an enemy?”

“Hmm,” Tellwryn mused, stroking her chin. “That’s… Well, it’s a compelling theory.”

“If you want my opinion,” Addiwyn said more quietly, “being hounded and pushed is absolutely the last thing that girl needs. What she needs is encouragement, friends, and to internalize the understanding that people can be more than tools or enemies. If you’re going to single her out, show the kid some damn kindness.”

Tellwyrn sighed heavily, pinching the bridge of her nose. “Of all the fluffy-headed Izarite folderol…”

“Spoken like someone who doesn’t have a counter-argument,” Addiwyn said with amusement.

The Professor grunted irritably. “All right, no need to be snippy. I will think about these things. For now!” She straightened up again, leaning her arms on the desk. “All right, Wynn, I accept your modified terms, with the proviso that I expect you to try not to have to invoke the second clause. Let us try, if at all possible, not to involve Ravana in any plans that may concern her or the others.”

“I certainly have no argument with that,” Addiwyn said firmly.

“Anything else come to mind?”

She shrugged. “That’s a good crop of girls. I would suggest steering Iris toward some of the upperclassmen. From what I know of them, the sophomore girls could be a good influence, and she’s nursing quite the crush on Gabriel Arquin…”

Tellwyrn groaned. “Ugh, you just gave me a week of nightmares.”

“Yes, well.” Addiwyn grinned at her. “The fact remains, Iris is another who needs some kindness and positive influences; we need to not let Ravana shape her into a follower on a leash. As for the others, Maureen’s got depths I’ve not glimpsed yet, and Szith is quite level-headed. I think those two will be a good influence on both of the others. And I wish you would consider involving the other faculty in this scheme of yours. I’ve already caused Afritia a bunch of trouble she doesn’t deserve, and she is not someone I enjoy having mad at me.”

“I’ll consider that.”

“If the answer’s ‘no,’ just say so,” Addiwyn said, scowling.

“If it were, I would,” Tellwyrn replied pointedly. “I’m leaning strongly toward a probable ‘no,’ but I will consider it. Anything else?”

Addiwyn picked up the cooled tea and took a sip, leaning back in her chair. “Just out of curiosity, who was your agent on campus when I was studying here before?”

Tellwyrn smiled sweetly. “You know, I can’t seem to recall.”

“All right, fine,” Addiwyn replied, rolling her eyes. “Just one other request, then.”

“Yes?”

She grimaced, glancing at the door. “Can I maybe sleep here tonight?”

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8 – 20

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Addiwyn pushed open the dormitory door and stalked through as usual, making a beeline for her own room without pausing to engage with anyone present. This time, however, she paused, half-turning to peer through narrowed eyes at Szith.

The drow stood alone against the front wall, between the room’s two doors. Her posture appeared relaxed, but she was just…standing, doing apparently nothing. None of the other freshman girls were present.

“What are you doing?” Addiwyn demanded suspiciously.

“Waiting,” Szith said in perfect calm.

“Waiting for what?”

Szith looked over at her, raising one eyebrow. After a moment, Addiwyn snorted disdainfully and entered her own room, slamming the door behind her.

Half a minute later, she came storming back out, stomping right up to Szith and glaring murderously.

“I suppose you think you’re clever,” the elf snarled.

“Compared to whom?”

Addiwyn bared her teeth. “What have you done with my things?”

“I haven’t touched anything of yours.”

“All right, fine. Very amusing. We can do this all night, bitch. Where are they?”

“By ‘they,’” Szith asked mildly, “are you referring to your belongings, or the rest of our roommates?”

“I’ve got a funny feeling those two questions have the same answer!”

“Why are you so hostile?” Szith inquired.

“Is that a joke?” Addiwyn snapped. “You’re holding my entire wardrobe hostage and you want to ask why I’m hostile?”

“You know very well what I mean,” the drow said with inexorable calm. “If all you wanted was to be left alone, you could have had that easily. Your words and actions create a stark disconnect, Addiwyn. If you are so disinterested in us, why go so far out of your way, risking the consequences you have, to cause us all hurt?”

“I will see you rotting in your grave before I deign to explain myself to you, darkling,” the elf said venomously.

Szith raised an eyebrow. “If it were just me, I doubt I would even wonder. Yet you’ve attacked every one of the others, and I know your people are not at war with humanity or the gnomes. There is no logic to your actions, and it is beginning to grow disturbing.”

“Good,” Addiwyn sneered. “Be disturbed. Now where. Are. My. Clothes?”

“I am trying to get through to you,” Szith persisted, “because if I do not, you’ll have to deal with Ravana. Not knowing what you want or intend, she is of the opinion that you represent an actual threat to our well-being, and will address you accordingly.”

“I really cannot stress enough how little I fear the wrath of that stuck-up porcelain doll.”

“Then you fail to comprehend what you are dealing with,” Szith said, a sharp edge entering her tone. “And for your information, I don’t believe she understands restraint in dealing with her opponents. The consequences for challenging House Madouri would be significant.”

“I’m getting tired of this, Szith.”

“As am I,” the drow shot back. “Whatever you may believe, I am trying to help you, and all of us. Just explain, Addiwyn. We only want to understand.”

Addiwyn curled her lip contemptuously. “Why don’t you just be a good little lackey and lead the way to your mistress?”

Szith held her stare for a long moment, then sighed very softly and shook her head. “As you wish.”


 

Among the campus’s numerous nooks and hideaways was a shadowed grove along the east wall, at the middle terrace. Ronald Hall rose above, but had not been built against the actual wall of the campus—nor, for whatever reason, had the terrace itself. The result of this was a small alcove, about nine yards square, buried beneath the terrace wall and the perimeter wall, which lurked in deep shadow, accessible only from one direction. There was no paving or furniture, nothing placed there to indicate it had been intended for use, but it did have a carpet of dense brown clover, several fluffy little bushes and even three small trees of a thick, twisted shape, all species from the Deep Wild which thrived beneath the shadows of the thick canopy. They did quite well in this dark little nook.

Needless to say, it was popular among students for a variety of purposes. Thanks to Stew’s industriousness, the area remained clean no matter what took place there. Relatively clean, at least.

Despite the brief time they had been on campus, Addiwyn apparently knew the spot well enough to recognize the goal of their trek and pull ahead of Szith once they rounded the corner under Ronald Hall, pausing only to sneer at the drow in passing. Szith continued without altering her speed, or her expression, and arrived a few moments after the girl she was escorting.

Addiwyn came to a stop just within the shade of the little nook, planting her fists on her hips and glaring.

The largest of the twisted trees stood along the back wall of the square nook, slightly off-center. It was a little taller than an average male elf, its thick, spiraling trunk sprouting stubby branches with patchy leaves the color of mold—never an impressive sight at the best of times. Now, it was festooned with skirts, blouses and undergarments like some kind of deranged solstice tree.

Iris stood next to the tree, arms folded, looking smug. Maureen sat upon the small lip of stone at the base of Ronald Hall, some ten feet above, kicking her legs idly. A folding stool had been set up in the center of the nook, and Ravana perched upon this, her spine straight, a faint smile playing about her lips.

“Good evening, Addiwyn,” she said politely.

“My interest in you trollops and your hogwash is at an all-time low,” Addiwyn snarled. “Haul your gangly ass out of my way and I will consider not bringing this to Tellwyrn’s attention.”

“From what I understand of Professor Tellwyrn’s educational ‘talks,’” Ravana said idly, “you are in no position to be carrying complaints to her and won’t be for a while. Indeed, she has a long history of using students of the Unseen University to educate, control and even discipline one another. Quite elegant, really, and more subtle than her reputation would suggest. Of course, there is really no other way she could keep control over this particular student body.”

“I do not have time for—”

“Much as I usually enjoy verbal fencing, let us skip past the obligatory time-wasting, shall we?” Ravana daintily crossed her legs and folded her hands in her lap. “After your persistent, unprovoked, and utterly demented campaign of harassment against your roommates, you will receive no sympathy from the University’s administration or our house mother at finding yourself facing a much gentler version of the same treatment. You have no notable magical skill, and physically? You’re probably not a match for Maureen, definitely not for Szith, and most assuredly not for both. Your father the merchant may be able to buy you out of the little intrigues you created back home, but his fortunes compared to those of my House are a candle against the sun. In short, Addiwyn, you have nothing with which to threaten us. Therefore, if you wish the return of your things, you will discuss whatever we wish. And you will do so politely.”

“I am going to walk past you and collect my clothes,” Addiwyn said flatly. “And if any of you lays one finger on my person to stop me, you’ll be in front of Tellwyrn for assault, and find out how much less sense of humor she has about that than practical jokes.”

She strode forward, coming nearly abreast of Ravana before Iris spoke.

“I wouldn’t, if I were you.”

Iris shifted slightly, moving a step closer to the tree, and abruptly a half-ring of light sprang up around its roots, terminating against the back wall. The entire tree shuddered as if in a breeze, then moved further, its trunk actually twisting faintly. Wood groaned softly, a faint floral scent arose from midair, and there came a tiny, sourceless puff of wind.

Addiwyn froze, her eyebrows drawing together in consternation. Behind her, Szith moved silently into the nook and took up a position against one wall.

“Were you aware that our Miss Domingue is a witch of some skill?” Ravana asked pleasantly. “I was not. Really, it is quite impressive, what she is able to do with trees and plants. If you are concerned at all for the condition of your belongings, I really do suggest that you don’t attempt to touch them until you are told that you may.”

“You’re a contemptible little shit,” Addiwyn said flatly, turning to her.

“That is true,” Ravana said, still wearing a polite smile. “But I am also a clever, powerful little shit, and you have entirely consumed your allotment of my patience. Now, Addiwyn, shall we have that conversation?”

“You know,” Addiwyn said, a tiny little smile quirking her lips, “none of this is going to make Daddy love you.”

Ravana gazed at her in silence for a long moment, her expression altering not a hair. Then she drummed her fingers once against her leg.

“What are you doing, Addiwyn?”

Addiwyn folded her arms. “Waiting for you to finish your pitiful little drama.”

“It is your pitiful little drama that concerns us here,” Ravana said calmly. “None of us have done anything to provoke you until now, and yet you seem willing to defy all reason and the boundaries of civilized society in order to cause us grief. You risk increasingly serious punishment and seemingly disdain the preservation of your own well-being to attack us. And if you were a lunatic out for blood, that would at least be consistent. Yet for all your totally disproportionate aggression, it seems you can manage nothing but contemptibly juvenile pranks. It is puzzling.”

“Or,” Addiwyn suggested, “maybe it all makes perfect sense, and you’re just stupid.”

“I don’t think you get it,” said Iris. “You’re not getting your stuff back or leaving here until we have this out, bitch.”

“Iris,” Ravana said with gentle reproof, “let us not be needlessly offensive.”

Iris curled her lip contemptuously. “Why not? She is.”

“That is precisely why, my dear. Ideally we can all come to an understanding and put these hostilities behind us, but if Miss Addiwyn will not oblige us even to that extent, we ought at least to retain the moral high ground.”

Addiwyn looked pointedly at her clothes festooning the twisted tree. “Good job.”

“Really, though,” said Maureen from atop the ledge, “what has gotten up yer bum that makes ye light into us the way you have?”

“It really is a simple enough question,” added Ravana. “All we seek is a little understanding. With that done we can all be finished with this absurdity.”

“All right, enough already!” Addiwyn snapped. “You’ve had your fun, got a little of your own back. Let’s just call it even, agree to a truce and go our separate ways. Fair?”

Ravana shook her head slowly. “At issue, Addiwyn, is the cause of your irrational, aggressive behavior. To be perfectly frank, I am concerned about our well-being. So long as I have to sleep in a complex with a belligerent unknown quantity, the prospect of waking up with a slit throat is not unthinkable.”

Addiwyn stared at her. “You…actually think I’m going to kill you? Woman, are you utterly daft?”

Ravana tilted her head to one side. “I understand your adoptive family are human, Addiwyn. How familiar are you with elvish culture? With the language?”

“My personal history is in no way any concern of yours, you little goblin.”

“Do you understand what the term anth’auwa means?”

Addiwyn jerked back from her, eyes widening. In the next moment, they narrowed to slits. “You are very close to crossing a line.”

Ravana shrugged. “Then convince me otherwise. Explain yourself. You must have reasons.”

The elf stepped closer, leaning forward till her face was less than a foot from Ravana’s, and spoke in an icily quiet tone. “You don’t know me. You will not know me, and you don’t need to know me. I am done with this idiocy. Take yourself out of my way, and give me back my clothes, Madouri. Now.”

They locked eyes in silence. The other three girls looked on, Iris and Maureen frowning, Szith apparently without expression.

“One last time, Addiwyn,” Ravana said quietly. “Answer the question. Why?”

“I have made my final offer,” Addiwyn replied. “Drop this, leave me alone, and we can have peace.”

“Peace is a lie,” said Szith. “There is no peace in you. Show us the root of your belligerence, convince us it’s over. Then we can drop this.”

Addiwyn looked up at her, curled her lip in a sneer, then stepped back from Ravana. She planted herself firmly in the middle of the space, folded her arms, and just stared.

Ravana sighed softly. “Well. Let the record show we attempted to do this the civil way.”

“While the record has been brought up,” Szith said evenly, “let me reiterate that I believe the matter ought to end here.”

“So noted,” Ravana said, turning to nod to her. “Iris, if you would?”

“You asked for it,” Iris said with a note of satisfaction, then knelt, grasped something hidden amid the clover, and abruptly straightened, flinging her arm out to the side. The glowing semicircle surrounding the twisted tree went flying with it, the braided cord that had formed it flicking through the air and sending up a cloud of faintly luminous dust.

A deep, low groan filled the air, and the tree began to move.

It slowly pivoted around itself, its twisting trunk seemingly trying to straighten out. Branches jerked, then flexed, setting the clothes draped on them to swaying. With a soft rumble, it tilted to one side, roots popping loose from the ground.

“You seem fond of practical jokes, Addiwyn,” Ravana said calmly. “We thought we might show you how to properly perform one.”

Staring in fascinated horror at the rising tree, Addiwyn took two reflexive steps backward from it, toward the path out of the nook.

The tree leaned back the other way, wrenching the remainder of its root system free from the earth, its trunk flexing back and forth with a crunching of bark. Branches cracked, bending sharply at specific points.

Ravana slipped quietly from her perch, pacing across the enclosed space to stand alongside Szith.

Iris was busy wrapping the still-glowing cord around a small doll she had taken from within the loose sleeve of her dress. Finally knotting it off, she held it up to her face and whispered, “Awake.”

The tree twitched once, shuddered, and suddenly cracks opened in its bark. Two limbs rearranged themselves.

A yawning knot opened in the middle of the trunk, below two horizontal (but uneven) cracks which flexed wide, knocking loose fragments of bark. The matched pair of limbs flexed their furthest extremities—like fingers. Suddenly, its shape held meaning. It had a face, arms, and grasping hands. A low groan emerged from deep within the tree, this time very clearly coming from the single, now-gaping knothole. From its mouth.

“What have you done?” Addiwyn whispered.

“It’s called an entling!” Iris said, beaming in pride. “Isn’t it adorable?”

The entling shook its arms, causing Addiwyn’s skirts and blouses to flutter, and groaned again.

“Oh, and by the way,” Iris added sweetly, “it has your scent. Ah, ah!” she added as Addiwyn took a rapid step backward. “I would not do that. It’s curious, see—your smell is part of the magic animating it, so it’ll be irresistibly drawn to you. Best not to make it chase you, though. If it burns too much energy and needs to replace some, well… There’s a thin line between ‘drawn’ and ‘hungry.’”

“You’re all insane,” Addiwyn breathed, staring at the entling in horror. It began shambling toward her on its groping roots.

Behind her, Maureen suddenly stood and jumped off the ledge. She plunged ten feet straight down, landing right in the thick bush positioned below her, which exploded under the impact, spraying a thick blast of greenish liquid into the middle of the nook, misting Ravana’s sleeve but practically dousing Addiwyn. A sharp, citrusy smell suddenly hung in the air.

The elf shrieked in startlement, leaping straight up and whirling around to glare at the gnome, who was already struggling backward out of the bush, dragging a hefty apparatus that had been hidden therein.

“What the hell?!” Addiwyn squawked. “What is wrong with you people?”

“You’ve used a perfume spritzer, aye?” Maureen said cheerfully, brushing leaves off the device and turning to face the soaked elf with a grin. It appeared to consist of a mess of hoses and brass tanks connected to a huge rubber bladder and a thick nozzle set on a tripod. “Or at least seen one? This is basically that, on a somewhat larger scale. Remarkably simple t’put together! Oh, an’ the stuff in there, we got that from Professor Rafe. Jus’ like the purple ink!”

“Except we had to be a little sneakier about this stuff,” Iris said smugly. “It’s not the kind of thing a professor would let students play around with. It’s basically…bait. For fairy creatures. Makes things smell irresistible to them.”

Addiwyn broke off trying vainly to wring the thick, lime-scented fluid out of her blouse, straightening up, her eyes widening.

Even with all her elven agility, she wasn’t fast enough.

The entling, despite its previously ponderous movements, lashed out with both arms faster than a striking cobra. They extended to twice their length in an eyeblink and grasped Addiwyn by the shoulders, hiking her bodily off the ground. She yelped and kicked, struggling vainly against the summoned creature’s grip.

“I really would be quiet,” Iris advised. “You’re already appetizing twice over to him, you know. Best not make too much noise, or squirm around, or do anything that’ll agitate him. He’s a newborn, y’see, and will be wanting a meal.”

“Have you all lost your minds?” Addiwn squalled, flailing furiously with her legs.

The entling groaned again, more loudly than before, then lifted her up over its center of mass and abruptly lowered her, stuffing her flailing feet into its suddenly gaping mouth.

“Told you,” Iris said with a shrug.

“Help!” Addiwyn shrieked.

The entling shoved her farther down, her legs disappearing up to the knees in its trunk.

“I can make him be still for a bit,” Iris said idly, “but you’ll need to be still for it to work.”

Addiwyn froze, wide-eyed with panic and quivering.

“Attagirl,” Iris said with a fiendish grin, and held up the little doll before her face again. “Calm,” she whispered to it, stroking its head.

The entling emitted a deep, contented rumble from around Addiwyn’s feet, but stopped shoving her downward.

“Now, then!” Ravana said brightly. “Shall we resume our discussion?”

“You are completely insane,” Addiwyn whispered, staring at her in horror.

Ravana shrugged. “I was raised in a disgusting degree of privilege with a regrettable dearth of affection. It tends to warp a person. What’s your excuse?”

“All right, I have to register an objection,” Szith said rather sharply. “I understood that the plan here was to intimidate her, which in frankness I only consented to so as to present myself as a moderating influence. This verges on torture. I think you should release her, Iris.”

“Oh, come now,” Ravana chided, “we are so close to reaching an accord. As you can see, my dear Addiwyn, we can play jokes, too. The difference is, we have considerable resources and the will to exert them beyond childish sabotage. Are you at least convinced to cease your own campaign?”

“Help,” Addiwyn whispered.

“I would still prefer a diplomatic solution,” Ravana said in perfect calm. “But if you decline to oblige, we can begin by establishing that your continued aggression will lead only to—”

“HELP!” Addiwyn howled.

Iris flicked the doll’s head with her finger. The entling grunted in displeasure and shoved the elf a few inches deeper into its maw. She squeaked and froze again.

“If this does not cease immediately,” Szith said sharply, “I will be forced to insist.”

“Aye, I’m startin’ ta be in agreement,” Maureen said nervously. “Iris, ye described this as a prank. She looks scared half t’death, there.”

“I think she can only benefit from knowing what it feels like,” Iris said grimly.

“We are undoubtedly in violation of numerous campus rules as it is,” Szith stated, “simply by virtue of this being an extravagantly cruel action. I am all for displaying strength, but it should be done with restraint.”

“She looks plenty restrained to me,” Iris said.

“It seems we’ve a difference of opinion, then,” Ravana mused. “Well, Addiwyn, rather than encourage further discord within the ranks, I’m inclined to oblige my friends and call a halt to this.”

“Aw,” Iris complained, frowning.

“On the other hand,” Ravana continued, “we can hardly afford to back down without gaining some concessions. That’s simple politics. Have you anything to add?”

“Tellwyrn is going to skin you imbeciles alive!” Addiwyn grated.

Ravana shrugged. “Do you imagine that is news to me? Now you understand that you are not the only one willing to face consequences in order to strike at an enemy. It would seem the difference between us is that our enmity has been earned.”

A soft giggle sounded. They all froze, then turned toward the front of the shaded nook.

Full dark had fallen over the campus, but thanks to its omnipresent fairy lamps, a dim light prevailed even in the middle of the night. Now, a black silhouette stood between the freshmen and the exit from their secluded nest—a silhouette surmounted by slowly twitching triangular ears. Eyes gleamed an eerie green in the dimness.

“Well,” a silken voice purred. “What have we here?”

“P-professor Ekoi!” Addiwyn spluttered. “I’m being murdered! Get them off me!”

“Mmmurdered?” Ekoi’s ears twitched once more and she angled her head to one side. “You’re being manhandled, you silly thing. Entlings do not eat. Your feet have reached the bottom of that trunk. It can’t do more than push you in, and can’t push much farther than you already are. Someone has been pulling your little leg.”

Addiwyn blinked, then blinked again, then her expression of fear slowly melted into a deep scowl. She twisted as far as she could in the entling’s grasp to glare at Iris. “Oh, you vicious, snub-eared little whore!”

“Ah, well,” Ravana said resignedly. “It was a good trick while it lasted.”

“It’s…it’s just a bit of fun, Professor,” Iris said nervously. “We were just scaring her a bit. Nobody’s in any real danger… I mean, you know that, surely.”

“I would have appreciated knowing that beforehand,” Szith said sharply.

“Nobody’s in danger?” Ekoi mused, gliding forward a couple of steps. Her luminous eyes suddenly seemed excessively wide in her shadowed face. “You think not?”

A tense silence fell, in which the girls glanced uncertainly at each other and even Addiwyn stopped struggling against the entling.

“Professor?” Szith said carefully. “Are you quite all right?”

Professor Ekoi moved closer, languidly holding up one hand. A palm-sized orb of blue fire burst alight in her grip, then slowly drifted away to float aimlessly through the air around the stilled entling. In its eerie illumination, they could finally see her expression. Her eyes were insanely wide, her mouth stretched in a grin that displayed a great many very shiny teeth. As they stared, she slowly licked her lips.

“Tell me,” the kitsune all but whispered, “what is that absolutely delicious scent?”

“Oh, bugger,” Maureen mumbled.

“Iris?” Ravana said, a note of tension in her voice for the first time.

“It’s—it’s just a floral p-perfume,” Iris stuttered. “C’mon, it’s not really fairy pheromones, that’s…that’s ridiculous. There’s no such…”

“It’s been just so long,” Ekoi crooned, “so long since I’ve had a proper hunt. The taste of fresh prey, so delicately seasoned…”

“Ah, Professor,” Ravana said carefully, “I think perhaps—”

Ekoi moved faster than even an elven eye could follow, flickering around behind Ravana and wrapping both arms around the girl. One hand gripped Ravana’s slender neck, tiny claws pressing against the pulse in her throat.

“Why,” the Professor cooed, “you reek of it, delicious little morsel.”

“Professor, I believe you should release her,” Szith said, drawing her sword.

Ekoi’s gleaming eyes flicked to the drow. “Why, Miss An’sadarr, why ever are you holding that sssssssnake?”

Szith gasped; the serpent whose tail was in her hand twisted around to hiss menacingly at her. She flung it away, hopping backward.

Her sword landed in a bush on the opposite side of the space, eliciting a yelp from Maureen, who stood uncomfortably close.

“Professor,” Ravana whispered, wide-eyed and trembling, “please unhand me.”

“Arachne won’t miss one,” Ekoi murmured, her tongue darting out to flick across Ravana’s cheek. She glanced slyly around the group. “Or four. Or five.”

“You unspeakable bloody idiots,” Addiwyn rasped. “I wish I had wanted to kill you!”

“How was I supposed to know!” Iris babbled. “It was supposed to be a fake perfume, how could it possibly—”

A sharp pop sounded, and suddenly the space was flooded with brilliant white light.

Professor Tellwyrn stood at the mouth of the nook, a blazing globe of light hovering over her head.

“Kaisa,” she said flatly, “what did I tell you about eating the students?”

Ekoi pouted, loosening her grip on Ravana. “I know, I know. Not until they graduate.”

“There is no circumstance in which you should be fondling one of your pupils quite that intimately, Kaisa. Step back.”

“Oh, pooh,” the kitsune said sullenly, abruptly shoving Ravana away. “You’re no fun.”

Ravana immediately skittered to the opposite side of the nook, pressing herself against the wall.

Tellwyrn turned her gaze on Addiwyn. “Miss Domingue, do I even need to say it?”

Iris gulped heavily, then lifted the doll to her face with a trembling hand. “R-release,” she whispered.

The entling grumbled softly, but lifted Addiwyn carefully from its mouth and set her feet down on the ground, then finally let go.

The freed elf instantly bolted away, zipping around to hide behind Professor Tellwyrn.

“Kaisa,” Tellwyrn said calmly, “I need to borrow these…delightful little scamps for a bit. Can you put that damned thing back the way it was? And perhaps return Addiwyn’s clothing to her room?”

“Can I?” Professor Ekoi asked, tilting her head inquisitively and peering upward as if in thought. “Why…yes, I do believe I can. Is that really the requisite question here, Arachne?”

Tellwyrn heaved a sigh. “Why do you insist on being difficult?”

“Why must the sun rise in the east? It’s just so arbitrary, don’t you think?”

“Ugh. Fine, go tell Stew to straighten all this up.”

“We weren’t going to hurt her,” Iris said tremulously. “It was just a—”

“Domingue,” Tellwyrn said flatly, “shut up.”

Another, louder pop echoed through the space, and suddenly Tellwyrn and all five students were gone.

The entling twisted in place, the clothes festooning its branches swaying, and let out a guttural mumble that sounded almost inquisitive.

Ekoi Kaisa examined it thoughtfully for a moment, then smiled. Humming to herself, she turned and strolled casually away, her bushy tail waving behind her.

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Toby opened his eyes slowly, beholding the relative calm of the afternoon on the campus lawn. As usual, he’d been left alone to meditate. He liked doing so outdoors, under the sun, and over the last year the other students had learned to leave him be.

It usually brought him more calm.

With a sigh he stood up from his seat beneath the oak tree, the same one Professor Ezzaniel had ordered Gabriel to punch almost exactly a year ago. They had all been new to the campus and its peculiar rules and customs, all out of place, nervous, tense… Which was preferable to how he felt now.

“Funny, that looked like it should have been more relaxing. Something on your mind?”

Toby actually jumped very slightly at being addressed, but immediately mastered himself, turning to study the speaker.

He was an elf, and seemed familiar, though Toby could not recall having met him. The elves on campus were a mixed lot; this one had upright ears, marking him a wood elf, and wore Tiraan-style shirt and trousers with sturdy boots.

“Oh, just…this and that,” he said evasively, trying to clear the frown from his expression. “I’m sorry, I could swear I’ve seen you before but I can’t recall your name now.”

“You saw me briefly,” the elf said with a grin, stepping forward and extending his hand. “I was with a few of the other freshmen, coming from class.”

“Oh! That’s right!” Toby grasped his hand in return, smiling. “And now I remember, you were pulled away before we could speak. Another wood elf…a friend of yours?”

He winced. “Ah. Well. Addiwyn seemed to latch onto the idea that since we are both of the same race, and both somewhat ostracized from our kin, we should be the best of friends and perhaps more. Unfortunately, I do believe that girl is the single most unpleasant person I have ever met.”

“Ouch,” Toby said, grimacing sympathetically.

His new acquaintance grinned, a slightly lopsided expression that promised mischief. “I’m Raolo. Glad to know you.”

“Toby, and likewise.”

“But of course, you are the great and inimitable Tobias Caine!”

Now it was his turn to wince. “Ah, well… I think ‘great’ is really pushing it.”

“Well, how many paladins are there in the world, after all? Wait, don’t answer that, I know this one.” Raolo grinned. “Three. There are exactly three.”

“Yes, but I’m the most senior by at least two weeks,” he said solemnly. “That makes me the most boring.”

Raolo laughed brightly. “Well, I can’t argue with that logic. Guess I’ll just have to make do with you until I can work my way up to a more interesting paladin. If you’re so dull, though, why so gloomy? It takes some imagination to really suffer, I think.”

“That’s…oddly profound,” Toby mused.

“Something one of the Elders used to say. Which means, I suppose, I really ought to leave it back in the grove…” For a moment, Raolo frowned himself, glancing aside. “New place, new rules, and all that.”

“It’s certainly been an adjustment, getting my bearings in this place,” Toby said, glancing around the lawn. “It doesn’t help that Professor Tellwyrn’s idea of education is to keep everyone as off-kilter and nervous as possible at all times.”

“Should I be frightened?” the elf asked, raising his eyebrows.

“Yes,” Toby nodded solemnly. “Yes, you should. For what it’s worth, she makes a pretty solid effort not to get anybody killed.”

“Well…damn.”

“I have to admit I find myself nostalgic for the peace and quiet of the monastery on a regular basis.”

A shadow passed over Raolo’s face. “Ah, well… I don’t really have that problem. Getting almost killed should at least let me practice my skills a bit. Uh, forget a said that.” He grimaced, glancing away. “I seem to keep dragging up my problems in every conversation since I got here. You don’t need to hear about it.”

Toby shrugged, keeping his expression open and calm. “I don’t need to, no, and you certainly have no obligation to tell anybody your business. But if you keep finding yourself doing so, maybe it’s a sign you want to talk about it?”

Raolo looked uncomfortable. “Well…no shit. I mean… Dang, I’m sorry, that came out a lot harsher than I intended. Never mind, it’s just that I’m trying to find my footing here without making a pest of myself.”

“Admirable,” Toby said, nodding. “I’ll tell you what, though; as the Hand of a peacemaking god, there’s not much that’s more central to my calling than listening to other people’s problems. You ever feel the need to unburden yourself, look me up.”

At that, a slightly amused expression flitted across the elf’s face. “Do you offer therapy to everyone you meet?”

“…huh,” Toby said after a moment spent staring into space. “You know, now that you mention it, I more or less do. Wow, that must be kind of annoying for people, right?”

Raolo laughed again. “Well, it’s one way to make friends. How’s it work for you?”

“Eh… Well, you remember Ruda?”

“Ah, yes, the Punaji princess! Don’t tell me, let me guess. She punched you.”

Toby valiantly tried to repress a grin. “In my defense, not for that.”


 

There came a short, sharp rap on the door, and then it swung inward and Afritia leaned into the room, wearing a slight frown.

“Maureen,” she said, “could you come here for a moment, please?”

“Sure!” Maureen set aside her textbook and hopped down from her bed. “What’s up?”

“Follow me,” Afritia replied, ducking back out. The gnome trundled after her without further comment. Szith, Iris, and Ravana exchanged a look, then rose in unison and followed them.

The cause of the house mother’s concern was apparent as soon as they stepped into the stairwell, from the broken fragments of metal lying on the stone floor, though the frame of steel pipes comprising Maureen’s package-delivering apparatus remained intact and secured to the bannister down here. The gnome heaved a small sigh, but said nothing, following Afritia up the stairs. The house mother glanced back at them, her lips twisting wryly at the sight of the rest of the dorm trailing along behind, but did not rebuke them.

At the top, the damage was much more severe. A whole segment of the framework was in shambles, all but severed and ripped free of its moorings, pipes twisted and broken in a few places. Oddly enough, the bell rope connecting the door to their room had been left untouched.

The entire area was splattered with purple ink. It made a couple of sprays on the stone wall and practically soaked the stairs themselves. A few purple footprints were visible heading down, but they trailed off after several steps.

“When I said you could build this,” Afritia said archly, “it honestly didn’t occur to me to stipulate that it should not be filled with paint and explosives.”

“There were no explosives!” Maureen exclaimed. “C’mon, what would be th‘point o’ that? I’m not an idiot!”

Afritia shook her head. “Look at this, Maureen. Whatever this stuff is, it didn’t just leak out. It’s sprayed everywhere. What part of a simple metal framework should have had any components that would do this? And for that matter, what is this stuff, and why was it necessary?”

Maureen cleared her throat and shuffled her feet slightly. “It, ah, wasn’t strictly necessary for the function of the device, ma’am.”

Afritia raised an eyebrow.

“It’s a simple alchemical dye,” Ravana said smoothly. “Professor Rafe provided it. He also gave us a solvent which will remove it from any surface without causing further damage.”

The house mother grimaced. “Rafe. I should have known. How, exactly, did you convince him to give you this stuff? I’m fairly certain that whatever this is, it belongs on the list of substances students aren’t to be issued outside of class.”

Ravana smiled. “We told him it was for a prank. He handed over several bottles, and gave us extra credit in both of his classes.”

“That imbecile,” Afritia growled, rolling her eyes.

“An’ there were no explosives, see?” Maureen said, holding up a broken piece of pipe. The interior was entirely stained purple. “The innards, ‘ere, were just pressurized. Break ’em open an’ the ink sprays out. Simple. Just takes a li’l equipment an’ some extra elbow grease! Nothin’ dangerous.”

Szith took the pipe from her and held it up to the light. “This was severed with a bladed implement. An axe, I believe—see how this side is heavily dented, right at the cut? It was struck with significant force.” She turned slowly, pointing. “Considering how quickly this dries, whoever left those footprints was obviously here right when the spray occurred. And look at this spray pattern on the wall. It’s a single, wide splatter, with an interruption in the middle. Considering the positioning involved, I would say that break is perfectly sized to have been a person standing right in the spray.”

“Just as a point of edification,” Ravana said sweetly, “Professor Rafe assured us this dye would adhere to skin and hair as perfectly as anything else. We’ll just go get the solvent and get to work cleaning this up, shall we?”

Afritia stared at them in silence for a long moment, then looked away to the side, not quite succeeding in suppressing a smile. “Yes…you do that, girls. And later, if you’re asked, you be sure to tell Professor Tellwyrn I lectured you in a very stern voice about pranks and vigilantism in general. For now, excuse me.”

She didn’t turn to look as they all followed her back down the stairs. Afritia walked more quickly this time, heading straight into their room and toward the extra door at the back. The others clustered around Ravana’s bed as she opened her trunk and began extracting and handing out vials of an effervescent transparent liquid, but none made any pretense they were not watching the house mother.

Afritia rapped sharply on the door. “Addiwyn, come out here, please.”

“I’m not feeling well,” came a muffled voice from within. “Can this wait till later?”

Iris grinned with savage glee.

“Now.”

“I said I don’t feel well.” Addiwyn’s petulance was audible even through the wood.

“Young lady, I am offering you a chance to grasp at some dignity which I suspect will be sorely needed. If you are not out here in a count of five I will come in and get you.”

There came a muted thump, then a moment of silence, then finally the door opened a crack.

Afritia grabbed the knob and pushed it all the way inward. Addiwyn skittered back, but not in time to conceal the purple streak splashed across her face and soaked into her golden hair. She had at least changed her clothes; only her person was marked.

“Addy, honey, you don’t look so good,” Iris said, still grinning. The elf gave her a murderous stare.

“Oh, yes, laugh it up,” she sneered. “I’m sure it’s great fun to booby-trap the stairwell. It would serve you right if it was a visiting professor caught in your little trap—”

“That’s bollocks and you know it!” Maureen shouted, brandishing the broken length of pipe, which she had retrieved from Szith. “Look at this! Look at it! The purple stuff was fully contained inside—nobody would ever have known it was there unless somebody deliberately took an axe to the thing!”

“Well, that’s interesting,” Addiwyn said, folding her arms. Her smirk looked purely ridiculous with half her face painted purple. “You know your accent completely vanishes when you’re angry?”

“Enough,” Afritia said quietly. “Girls, you have cleaning up to do. Save some of that solvent for her to use later. You, miss, will come with me.”

“Oh, great,” Addiwyn sneered. “Another very fascinating conversation. Can I bring a book this time?”

“You’ll find I have limited patience for wasting my time on hopeless causes,” Afritia said flatly. “You declined to listen to me, so now you get to have a talk with Professor Tellwyrn.”


 

“So, no, attending the University isn’t exactly a point of pride in the grove,” Raolo said, leaning against the stone balustrade separating them from the one-story drop to the lower terrace. “Not in any grove, I would imagine. In mine, at least, it’s not exactly a mark of shame, but heck… That would be pretty redundant in my case, anyway.”

“Wow,” Toby said, leaning beside him. “That sounds… Well, honestly, rather hard to believe. It sounds like you’re quite good at magic.”

“I may have exaggerated my gift a little bit,” the elf confessed, grinning at him. “I’m very egotistical, I’m told. But, well, it’s the wrong kind of magic. Tradition is a huge concern to elves, considering most of our communities have people still alive who remember why the traditions were founded.” He idly held out one hand, palm up, and produced a small cloud of blue sparks, which began to dance in intricate patterns in the air.

“I don’t want to tread on any sensitive cultural taboos or anything,” Toby said with a frown, “but I have to ask… Why are elves so opposed to the arcane? I think Professor Tellwyrn is the only other elven mage I’ve even heard of, and I’ve seen hints that other elves don’t think terribly highly of her, either.”

“It’s because it’s too easy,” Raolo said, closing his fist and cutting off the display of sparks. He straightened up and turned to Toby. “This is another thing we don’t like to discuss with humans, but the hell with it. Do you know anything of how elvish metabolism works?”

“I didn’t realize it works any differently than ours,” Toby admitted.

Raolo grinned. “We don’t process energy with our squishy internal bits like you do—it’s all in the aura. Everything we take in, food, sunlight, air, every source of energy, goes right to the aura. Elves don’t generally eat with any regularity; we tend to have large quantities at wide intervals. In fact, an elf with a highly charged aura can hold their breath basically forever. Don’t need air when we can recharge the blood straight from our personal energy stock.”

Toby blinked. “Wow.”

“So, related to that, we have a much higher capacity for storing energy than other intelligent races. Shamanism, now, is all about connection. You grow in power as a shaman by forming relationships with fairies, gathering totems and objects of power…all paths that root you in the world. It’s all very much in line with the elven perspective on our role in nature. The arcane, though… You gain power in the arcane by increasing your capacity to store power. Elves start out with a large advantage, there. Almost any elf has the arcane storage capacity of a professional wizard, even if they don’t know how to use such power should they try to gather it.” He shrugged.

“Why don’t the drow have mages, then?” Toby asked curiously. “I can’t see them turning down a source of power, but I’ve never actually heard of a drow wizard.”

“That’s just their genetic peculiarity,” Raolo said, “like how dwarves can use divine magic on their own, but no other races can, or how gnomes are the only sentient race that can’t interbreed with the others. Who knows why? Drow just don’t generally have the ability to grasp the arcane. Actually a few do, a handful every generation. I understand they’re basically treated like royalty down there.”

“I’ll bet,” Toby mused.

“There are old legends—old even as we reckon time—about the first origins of the arcane and why it shouldn’t be messed with, but that aside, it’s seen as cheating. As laziness, selfishness, and hunger for power. You start dabbling in the arcane, and you’ve basically declared your intention to go tauhanwe, at the very least.”

“But you did,” Toby said quietly.

Raolo sighed. “It’s just that… I’m good at it. It feels as natural, to me, as breathing. It’s a part of who I am. After growing up with lectures on the nature of being, I just can’t see how it’s fair to expect me not to be who and what I am. Y’know?”

“I think I do,” he said, nodding slowly.

The elf grinned again, his dour expression of a moment ago evaporating in an instant. “Well! I bet you’re good at empathizing with other people’s problems, after all. You are clearly a people-pleaser.”

“Now, what makes you think that?” Toby asked, amused. “Almost the whole time we’ve been talking, we talked about you.”

“And that is why,” Raolo said, prodding him in the chest with a finger. “I came upon you looking all tense and broody, despite being right out of a meditation. But a few minutes listening to someone else blather on about his problems, and you’re the very portrait of serenity! Simple deduction.”

“Well, I guess you’re pretty perceptive, then,” Toby said, now fighting a smile.

“Don’t feel bad, I also ensnared you in my trap,” the elf replied with a bow. “I am very clever. So let me ask you, Toby the Paladin, what would you do if you came upon somebody looking as glum as you were earlier? How do you fix that?”

“People are not for fixing,” Toby said, frowning. “Most aren’t truly broken. Everyone just needs a little bit of a boost, now and again, to sort themselves out.”

“Okay, well, the question stands. Put yourself outside yourself. You don’t know this Toby guy, but he’s clearly got a good, solid glum worked up. What’s your approach?”

Toby sighed, turning his head to stare out over the campus. “You can’t make somebody talk to you, any more than you can make somebody better. I guess… I’d just offer to listen.”

“Check,” said Raolo, leaning sideways against the stone rail and keeping his eyes on Toby. “Doesn’t seem to me like he wants to talk, though.”

“Sometimes people don’t,” Toby said with an irritable shrug. “Then you leave them alone.”

“Even when they clearly need to?”

“Yes. Even then. Besides, a lot of people have trouble opening up to people they don’t know.”

“And what about people they do?”

He sighed. “Well, there’s… I mean, yeah, if they…”

Toby trailed off, staring into space.

“I’ve got a feeling some of those people have noticed already,” Raolo said in a more gentle tone. “Bet they’d be glad to be supportive of you for once. I don’t need to know your history to conclude you’re the only who usually plays that role.”

“You know what?” Toby said, staring into space. “I’m an idiot.”

“I’m sure you are,” the elf said gravely, then winked when Toby turned to scowl at him. “But don’t take it to heart. We all are, at one point or another.”


 

“So that much is cleared up,” Ravana said lightly. “I think we all assumed it was Addiwyn behind these attacks, but it’s pleasing to have confirmation. Now we can decide what to do about it.”

“Need we do anything?” Szith asked pointedly. “She is being reprimanded by the University’s highest authority as we speak. The matter is being dealt with.”

“To assume that matters are simply dealt with is to confer imaginary and impossible powers upon authority figures,” Ravana replied. “One must consider the nature of the crimes and the person responsible. Were Addiwyn responsive to reprimand, she would likely have at least slowed her pattern after being lectured by Afritia. In reality, though, she proceeded immediately to her next attack. More to the point, we may be dealing with an individual suffering from a severe personality disturbance. It may be that even Tellwyrn can’t bring her to heel.”

Despite her dainty frame and uncalloused fingers, the young Duchess was working vigorously alongside the rest of them without complaint. Truthfully, it wasn’t onerous labor. The solvent had a pleasantly mild but antiseptic scent, and the purple dye dissolved apparently into nothing under its touch. They had simply to damp their rags with it and apply them to stained areas. By far the most difficult part of the job was making sure they didn’t miss any spots.

“The cause of Addiwyn’s behavior is an immediate concern,” Ravana continued, frowning pensively at the bannister she was currently scrubbing. “Her actions were at once absurdly juvenile and frighteningly cruel, and the context in which they occurred defies my understanding. Not knowing what motivates her, I cannot guess what she will do next. This leaves me quite unsettled.”

“She’s a bully,” Iris snorted from a few feet above, where she was on her knees, scrubbing dye off the steps. “Simple as that.”

Ravana shook her head without lifting her own eyes from her task. “Bullying occurs for specific reasons, according to specific patterns. It is, ultimately, about power. A bully will consistently place her victims in weaker positions, using her actions to emphasize how much lesser they are in power than she. That is the entire point. Addiwyn, though, might as well have been deliberately knitting us into a united front against her. She never tried to exercise any leverage or build a power base. It was just…lashing out, without pattern. Not consistent with any bullying I’ve ever seen. She would have tried to control the situation somehow.”

“So she’s a stupid bully,” Iris said disparagingly.

“Somehow, I doubt there are any stupid people of any kind admitted to this University,” Maureen noted.

“Having discarded that idea,” Ravana went on, “I considered the possibility that she might be anth’auwa.”

Szith stopped scrubbing the wall and half-turned to give her a sharp look.

“Uh, sorry?” Iris said, also looking up. “What’s that in Tanglish?”

“Unfortunately,” Ravana said ruefully, “it’s nothing in Tanglish. Human scholarship is lamentably behind the elder races in categorizing mental illness. The elvish word I just used literally means heartless. The dwarven scholars call it ‘social pathology.’ It refers to an aberrant personality which lacks any empathy or ability to connect emotionally with others.”

Iris snorted again, turning back to her work. “That sounds about right to me.” Szith slowly followed suit, a faint frown creasing her brow.

Ravana sighed softly, still wearing her own thoughtful little frown, though she straightened up and flexed her back as she continued speaking. “I am not ready to definitively rule it out, but… No, that, too, falls apart upon closer inspection. I have known several such individuals. The nobility, ever eager to conform to stereotype, tends to produce them at a higher rate than the general population.” She bent back to her scrubbing, continuing to speak. “At issue is that this is a severe personality disturbance. The primary concern of anth’auwa is always to hide what they are. They make a consistent effort to imitate normal social behavior; you have to catch them when they aren’t being careful to see the truth. Addiwyn has done precisely the opposite: she is surly and disagreeable whenever interacting with anyone, but at other times appears quite calm, even happy.”

“When have you seen her calm or happy?” Iris demanded, looking up from her task to stare incredulously at Ravana.

“She is hostile, erratic and probably emotionally unstable,” Ravana said dryly. “I watch her carefully. Don’t you? In fact, in just a few days I have observed that she quite enjoys Tellwyrn’s class, seems oddly fond of Professor Rafe and is even more suspicious of Professor Ekoi than the rest of us.”

“That is sayin’ something,” Maureen muttered.

“Not a bully,” Ravana mused, “not a heartless… Completely irrational and aggressive. It is very curious indeed.”

“So, maybe she’s just crazy,” Iris said disdainfully.

“No one is just crazy,” Ravana replied. “That is not how the mind works. Insanity follows patterns—a thinking person cannot be truly random in their behavior, though the pattern may be opaque to the outside observer. No… I don’t even see Addiwyn as insane, to be frank. Her conduct is generally that of a mentally normal person who is…doing something.”

“Doing what?” Szith inquired.

“That is the question, isn’t it?” Ravana said, staring thoughtfully at the rail she was scrubbing. “If I knew that, I suspect all of this would make perfect sense. That, ladies, is what I think we must determine, if we are to ensure our own safety.”

“’ere, now,” Maureen said worriedly. “Y’don’t think she’d actually harm us, do ye? I mean…sabotaging our belongings is one thing…”

“I cannot say what she might do,” Ravana admitted, “because I do not know what she wants. Right now, that she might harm us remains a possibility, as yet untested.”

“And how do you propose to find out?” Iris demanded. “You wanna just ask her nicely?”

“Asking her seems a good approach,” Ravana said, beginning to smile slightly. “After all, who else but she knows the answer? But I think we are well past the point of doing anything nicely. Don’t you?”


 

Sheyann slowly opened her eyes and smiled down at the translucent blue hare which had materialized on the rooftop before her. It had taken a good fifteen minutes of concentration to weave the magics just right. Hopefully this one would last longer than its predecessors.

The inn she had chosen was low, dwarfed by the surrounding buildings, though it was an amusing irony that she had come to think of a four-story structure as small. Its attached iron fire escape made a serviceable path for her spirit hare to reach the street below. The last three had generated some small outcry as they passed, but less than she had feared; apparently citizens of the great metropolis were accustomed to unusual sights.

Now, though, a few were gathering on the sidewalk opposite to see if another hare would come down from the roof. This would have to be her last attempt of the day; aside from her disinclination to put on a show for the locals, drawing too much attention here could lead to citizens or even authorities interrupting her work.

“You know whom I seek, little friend,” she whispered to the hare. “Find her for me.”

It stared up at her for a moment, spectral nose twitching, then turned and bounded onto the fire escape.

Sheyann settled back into a meditative pose, closing her eyes and attuning her senses to the hare’s. It made it to the street, seeking the faint traces of Kuriwa’s distinctive aura that she had instilled from her own memory.

There were muted cries of excitement from the onlookers as the hare reached the street, which both it and Sheyann ignored. Already she could tell this was going better, thanks to her fine-tuning; the last two had decayed rapidly under assault from all the loose arcane magic in the city. This one was more stable, existing in much less inherent conflict with its surroundings. It quested about for traces of the magic it sought, turned and bounded across the street…

And burst apart in a flash of light as it was crushed by a passing carriage.

Several cries of dismay and one loud cheer rose from the audience. Sheyann winced, opened her eyes, and sighed heavily in irritation.

“You might try asking down at the Shaathist lodge. Their spirit wolves and hawks seem to operate just fine in the city. Clearly they’ve mastered the method.”

Sheyann lifted her eyes, showing no hint of surprise on her features, to behold Kuriwa herself seated on the inn’s currently inert chimney, smiling down at her. She was dressed in soft buckskins, like a plains warrior. When had she started doing that?

“Or,” Sheyann said evenly, “you could explain the method yourself, as I strongly suspect you have it down.”

“On the other hand, I’m sure you would work it out yourself quite quickly, were you inclined to continue experimenting,” the other shaman said lightly. “What brings you out to seek me, Sheyann? This is a most peculiar place to find you. Virtually the last I would have expected.”

“I could say the same.”

Kuriwa shook her head. “I have always gone where the trouble is. You, though, seldom stir from your grove unless there is an apocalypse brewing.”

“Fair enough,” Sheyann said wryly. “Arachne and I need your help.”

Kuriwa straightened up slowly. “Arachne…and you? Now I begin to be worried. Is the world actually ending?”

“We consider that a lesser probability,” Sheyann said, folding her hands into her sleeves, “but I am not yet prepared to conclusively rule it out.”

“Do tell.”

“The short version is that we have two injured dryads on our hands. Juniper is mostly well and in fact making greater progress toward being an emotionally stable, responsible person than most of her sisters have ever achieved. She is, however, grieving, and has a blockage placed in her aura by Avei herself, which seems to have lead Naiya to believe she is dead. That brought in Aspen, who currently is severely traumatized and began to transform before being fixed in a time-altering spell by Arachne. She remains thus, in a secure room at the University. And she is the only one who knows what Naiya thinks and plans to do about this.”

Kuriwa narrowed her eyes, but made no other sign of distress. “Naiya is not the patient sort. I suspect her plans would have become clear already if she had any.”

“Ordinarily, I would concur. Juniper, however, is living proof that she can act with more agency and subtlety. Arachne had to spend some time campaigning for it, I understand, but Naiya sent her out specifically to learn the ways of mortals, as a first step toward making peace between them and the fey kingdom. With regard to this, at least, Naiya is not only able to act with more discretion than usual, but highly motivated.”

The Crow sighed, shaking her head. “And Aspen is with Arachne. Frozen in time? That sounds typical of her.”

“In that it is overbearing, inefficient and undeniably effective?” Sheyann said dryly. “Yes, that’s Arachne all over.”

“What do you think of her at present, Sheyann?” Kuriwa asked, watching her carefully.

“Arachne is one of the things that worries me least about the world,” Sheyann replied. “She remains mostly in her chosen place, training young ones. Training them as tauhanwe, to be sure, but I have noted that she teaches them how to think, not what to think. She stands as a living impediment to other mortal powers, and her presence serves to strongly discourage destructive influences. All in all, and aside from being an arcanist, she would be the very picture of a respected Elder if she were not such a tauhanwe to her core. Rather like someone else I could name,” she added with a smile.

Kuriwa returned one of her own. “That much is a relief, then. I’ve not had any interaction with her since she vanished into the Wild, and none with that school of hers. This assuages some of my worry.”

“You trust my judgment on the matter?” Sheyann asked with mild surprise.

“I have frequently disagreed with your judgment, Sheyann. When have I ever disparaged it?”

She acknowledged this with a nod. “Fair enough. For now, can we count on your help with the dryads?”

Kuriwa frowned pensively. “Hm. In your opinion, how likely is it that Naiya will take violent action?”

“In my opinion, not likely at all. Plans or no, she isn’t patient, and as you know, she has little ability to act on the world directly, except in just the kind of dramatic assaults we fear. Those are brief in duration and highly localized, though. I think if she were going to react, she would have by now. This is, of course, nothing but opinion. Naiya’s mind is unknowable.”

Kuriwa nodded. “Good. Yes, of course I will lend any help I can; this issue is clearly serious, even apart from then need to be of aid to the dryad in question. But if it is not an immediate urgency, Sheyann, I am monitoring a situation here in Tiraas that I hate to leave unattended until it reaches a conclusion.”

“Yes, your human friend Darling,” Sheyann said disapprovingly. “You are surely aware he has two eldei alai’shi in his custody? I see no way that can end in anything but catastrophe.”

“Actually,” Kuriwa replied, “he has kept those girls stable longer than any previous headhunter has ever been, and even taught them to be happy and somewhat well-adjusted.”

“You’re not serious.”

“Entirely. I consider him worth preserving for that alone. But no, that is a long-running affair, and anyway, it is business. My immediate concern is a family matter.”

“I see. I won’t pry…”

“Oh, I don’t mind if you pry,” Kuriwa said with a slight grin. “In fact, you would be welcome to watch, if you wish. It appears that Lanaera’s daughter is actually doing something constructive with her life.”

Sheyann raised her eyebrows. “Principia? Headhunters, dryads and apocalypses are one thing. That I will believe when I see it.”

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8 – 11

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“I’m thinking,” Principia said tersely.

“Well, you’re thinking on a schedule,” Merry shot back. “I don’t know the city all that well, but we’re at most a quarter hour from stepping into one or the other trap.”

“Less,” said Farah.

“I can think faster if people wouldn’t distract me,” Prin said, grimacing.

“So let us in on your thought process, then,” Merry replied.

Principia shook her head. “I have it in hand.”

“Shortcut here,” said Farah, pointing with her lance at an opening between tall buildings, a bit too wide to be called an alley, but still a little less than a street. “Are we wanting to dawdle so Locke can think, or shave a few minutes off the trip so we’re not late, if we’re going?”

At this hour of the morning, Tiraas was alive and vigorous despite the looming thunderheads above—its citizens were more than used to being rained on, anyway. The five Legionnaires had no difficulty getting down the sidewalk, though, given everyone’s tendency to step out of their way, either out of respect or unease.

“Let’s take the shortcut,” Merry said abruptly, breaking ranks and striding into the tiny side street. It was dim and presently unoccupied, a stark contrast to the main avenue down which they had been walking. The others followed her without comment.

Only for a dozen yards, though, enough to leave behind the bustle of the main street, before Merry came to a stop and turned around.

“All right, Locke, spit it out,” she ordered, planting the butt of her lance on the rain-slick cobblestones and staring flatly.

“Look,” Principia said irritably, “if you will just let me—”

“I don’t know if you’ve actually noticed this, Locke, but while you may still be in the Thieves’ Guild, you are not there now. This is a unit, inadequately staffed as it is. And this problem affects us all; you’re just the means of it. So, no, this is not a thing where you personally out-scheme Syrinx and we all trail along behind you like ducklings to marvel at your cleverness.”

“Do…are ducklings known for that?” Casey asked, frowning.

“I agree with Lang,” said Ephanie. “It’s not that I doubt your wits, Locke, but she’s right: you aren’t in command, here, and we all have a stake in this. If you’re laying plans, let us in on them.”

Principia looked back and forth between them, then sighed heavily in defeat. “I don’t have anything I’d call a plan yet, just… Ideas.”

“So, share your ideas,” Merry said.

The elf shook her head. “It’s a fairly standard rock versus hard place dilemma. When you can’t go in either of the available directions, you have to find or create a third one.”

“And what would a third direction be, here?” Farah asked.

“That is where I’m stalled,” Prin admitted.

“Well, that seems like a perfect place to ask your squadmates for help, then,” Merry said with a small grin. “The walls of this maze are made of regulations. And oh, look! We’ve got a walking encyclopedia of regulations right here!”

They all turned to look at Ephanie, whose cheeks colored slightly.

“I don’t know if encyclopedia is fair. I just have a history with the Legions.”

“Well, still,” said Principia, “Lang has a point. We’re in a trap between rules: we can neither obey nor disobey our orders. What would be something that gets us out of it?”

“You don’t get out of obeying orders,” Ephanie said with a faint scowl. “That’s the point of them.”

“Okay, well, the Silver Legions haven’t been the world’s predominant military for thousands of years by being too hidebound to function,” said Casey. “There has to be something that’s considered a good cause not to show up.”

“It’s not much more than a thousand years, actually,” said Farah, “and given the Tiraan Empire’s success over that period I don’t know whether—”

“Is that really important right now?” Merry exclaimed in exasperation. Farah flushed and fell silent.

“There is a precedent for the refusal of morally or tactically unacceptable orders,” Ephanie said with a frown, staring into the distance. “But this isn’t a moral dilemma, it’s a…clerical one. I don’t think that would fly.”

“All right, what else?” Merry prompted. “What’s a good reason not to report for duty?”

“Casualties bringing the squad below functional numbers would demand a retreat,” Ephanie said, still wearing a thoughtfully distant expression. “But as we started out below strength, that seems like a reach. Also, if some crisis arose in which we had a clear moral obligation to help, we would be expected to attend to that above a routine assignment like this one.”

“Well, I guess we could burn something down,” Prin said sourly. “Or maybe Avei will take pity on us and create a disaster.”

“That is…not exactly Avei’s style,” Farah said, lips twitching.

“Our orders also can be countermanded by a superior officer,” Ephanie continued.

“Wait,” Merry interrupted. “Back up. What was that about casualties?”

“I don’t see that just up and happening, either,” said Casey.

“Well, that’s the point of casualties,” Merry said with a grim smile. “They happen because someone makes them happen.”

“Self-inflicted injury to get out of duty is a serious offense,” Ephanie warned.

“Let’s come back to that,” Merry said impatiently. “If one of us were injured, would the squad be obligated to retreat?”

“It’s…hard to say,” Ephanie admitted. “By regulations, yes. But by regulations, we wouldn’t be sent out with only five of us in the first place. By regulations, we wouldn’t be sent out without an officer. I think our whole problem is that for our cohort, the regulations say whatever Bishop Syrinx wants them to.”

Merry rubbed her chin with a thumb, frowning in thought. “If there were one injured member of the squad… Two of us would be needed to carry her to help. That’d leave two to report for duty. There’s understaffed, and then there’s ridiculous.”

“One would need to be sent to tell the squad we’re to rendezvous with what happened,” Ephanie said, “but yes, still. You’re right.”

“And Locke is the only one who can’t report for this,” Casey added, her face brightening. “So if she’s the one injured, we sidestep the whole problem!”

“This discussion is veering in a direction that makes me nervous,” Principia said, scowling.

“Have you managed to come up with a better idea?” Merry demanded.

“Time’s wasting,” Farah warned. “At this point we better do something; if we’re going to report in, we’ll be late now even if we run.”

“Aw, hell,” Principia muttered. “Wouldn’t be the worst thing I’ve subjected myself to for the sake of a job.”

“All right, ladies, here’s what went down,” Merry said crisply, peering around the alley. Her gaze fell on a particularly deep puddle, and she stepped over and planted a boot in it. “I was walking in the lead, Locke right behind me. Stepped in this here puddle, slipped…” Slowly, she pantomimed flailing with her arms, including the one holding her lance, which she then brought backward, jabbing the butt at Principia’s face. “Thwack.”

“Ow,” the elf said, grimacing.

“It’ll be fine, you’re wearing a helmet,” Merry said with a grin. “For real this time, though. Don’t dodge.” She planted her feet and raised the lance again, her grip much more serious.

“Hold it,” said Casey. “About face, Locke. Elves have reflexes like cats; no one will believe she failed to dodge a wild hit she saw coming.”

“And why the hell would I be walking backwards?” Principia demanded sourly.

“You weren’t walking,” Casey said, frowning in thought and nodding slowly as she went along. “You were…turned around to… Argue with Farah about this alleged shortcut. Yes, and Lang tried to turn mid-stride to see what the trouble was, and that’s when she slipped in the puddle.”

“You’ve done this before,” Merry said approvingly. Casey shrugged, lowering her eyes.

“Just to state the obvious,” Ephanie said grimly, “we are all trusting each other very deeply, here.”

“Some more than others,” Principia snapped.

“Conspiracy, assault, evading duty… We’re all going to be in serious trouble if anybody finds out what happened here,” Ephanie said. “The kind of trouble that gets people who are already on short notice dishonorably discharged.”

They glanced around at each other.

“Oh, the hell with it,” Principia said with a grin. “I trust you girls.”

“You do?” Casey asked suspiciously. “Why?”

“Elwick, nobody is truly trustworthy,” Prin said. “Trusting someone is a choice. It’s something you do because you have to, or because it improves your lot. If they’re important enough to you, you keep trusting them even after they let you down.”

“That’s a very Eserite philosophy,” Farah commented.

“Well, if we’re doing this, best be about it,” said Merry, hefting her lance again. “Like the girl said, Locke, face the other way.”

Principia sighed heavily, but obediently turned around. “You’ve just been waiting for an opportunity like this, haven’t you.”

“I am not even going to dignify that with a flimsy denial,” Merry said cheerfully, and slammed the butt of her lance into the back of Principia’s helmet.


Szith was first into the room, and came to a dead stop right in the doorway.

“Is there a problem?” Ravana asked after a moment.

The drow slowly stepped forward. While the others trailed in behind her, she crossed to her own bed, and picked up a sheet of ripped fabric that had been laid out atop the quilt.

A banner had been hung to the wall beside her bed. It now lay in two pieces, the larger of which she now held in her hands.

“Oh,” Maureen said softly, raising a hand to her mouth. “Oh, dear…”

“Szith,” Ravana said softly, “is that your House flag?”

The drow nodded slowly, still staring down at the swatch of ripped spidersilk in her hands. Her expression, usually calmly aloof, was frozen and blank.

“She left class before us,” Iris said in a low growl, subconsciously running her fingers across the front of her white dress. Afritia’s alchemy had proved as effective as she claimed, and there was no sign of the smear of paint that had been there that morning. “She was moving so fast we didn’t even see her coming back… I should’ve known.”

“This crosses a line,” Ravana said, and there was real anger in her expression. “One does not deface a House insignia. Even in war it is a needless insult. Duels and assassinations have been prompted by considerably less!”

“Addiwyn!” Szith said sharply, raising her voice above normal speaking tones. Maureen, wincing, crept over to her own bed, where she pulled off the omnipresent backpack she always wore and stuck a hand into one of its pockets. There was no sound of movement behind the door to Addiwyn’s private room. After waiting a few seconds, Szith spoke again, this time in an outright shout. “Come in here now!”

There came a thump from behind the door. Finally, it opened and Addiwyn herself leaned out, one hand on the knob, and scowled at them.

“For heaven’s sake, what? This had better be important; you trollops have wasted enough of my time for one day already.”

Szith held up the ruined banner. “What possible satisfaction could you get from this?” she demanded.

Addiwyn stared at the ripped flag, frowned, and then straightened up. Her expression cleared, then morphed into an outright smirk.

Szith let go of the length of fabric with one hand, in order to grip the hilt of her sword.

“Oh, I see,” Addiwyn said, folding her arms and lounging against the frame of her door. “Allow me to let you in on a little secret, girls: I didn’t come here to make friends.”

“That’s your idea of a secret?” Iris snapped.

“I’m not interested in being buddy-buddy with any of you, or anyone, really,” the elf continued. “I mean to get my degree and get out of here. I don’t expect you to like me, nor do I care. So, since I’m the least liked person present, I guess that makes me the natural choice when there’s blame to be thrown around. Thus, whoever is taking it upon herself to trash all your belongings has a ready-made scapegoat. You won’t even think to look anywhere else.” She shrugged, straightened up, and grabbed the doorknob. “Think about that. Think about which of you seem to have a proven knack for being underhanded and cruel. And think carefully before you decide to do anything about this. Mess with me or my things and you’ll barely have time to regret your own stupidity.”

With that, she ducked back into her room, slamming the door far harder than was necessary. The assembled roommates stared at it with varying expressions of outrage and disbelief.

“This is just nasty, this is,” Maureen said from behind them. Szith whirled to find the gnome standing beside her bed, holding up the other half of the torn flag. “It’s authentic Narisian spidersilk, aye? That’s basically un-rippable. Aside from how tough it is, it stretches. Right?”

“Yes,” Szith said in a hollow tone. “It’s used in armor.”

Maureen nodded. “So, this wasn’t torn, it was cut. But see, look here, how the ends are jagged and frayed? As if it was torn. Somebody went well out of their way to use a special tool fer this. Made it as ugly as possible, so it’s less likely to be mended.” She grimaced. “I’m sorry, Szith, fabric arts ain’t exactly me strong suit. I’m better with tools and gadgets. Mayhap it can be fixed with magic?”

Wordlessly, Szith took the other half of the banner from her, and began tenderly folding them together.

“I had hoped this was a mere case of poor social skills, or overcompensating for the nervousness of being in a new place,” Ravana said, staring at Addiwyn’s door through narrowed eyes. “This behavior, however, is only escalating. This act demands retaliation.”

“Here, now,” Maureen said worriedly. “Gettin’ into a feud ain’t exactly smart. I don’t think Professor Tellwyrn likes it when people scrap on her campus, somehow.”

“I am hardly proposing to ambush her,” Ravana said, “nor participate in some kind of prank war. These antics are sickeningly juvenile; I would like to think that each of you, like myself, are above such foolishness.”

“The bitch can hear you, y’know,” Iris pointed out.

“That’s fine,” Ravana said with a shrug. “She’s the one flouting rules and disrespecting the personal space and possessions of others. That will carry its own repercussions. There are innumerable ways to add a little extra sting to the whip when it finally falls.”

“If she is the one doing this,” Szith said suddenly. While the others turned to stare at her, she gently tucked the folded banner into her armored tunic. “Excuse me. I am going…out.”

“Okay,” Maureen said in a small voice. No one else spoke as the drow strode across the room and back out through the door, shutting it gently but firmly behind her.

“We really ought to go get Afritia,” Iris said after a moment. “Even with Szith gone, she needs to know about this.”

“Agreed,” Ravana murmured, staring at Addiwyn’s door again with a thoughtful frown. As the other two watched her warily, the expression shifted, momentarily becoming a smile. A very small, subtly unpleasant smile. “By all means, let us do things through the proper channels. For the moment, at least.”

Iris and Maureen exchanged a dubious look. Ravana only smiled more widely.


Captain Dijanerad strode into the mostly empty sick ward, fully armored and looking not in the least flustered, stressed or adversely affected from whatever crisis had kept her from the mess hall that morning.

Principia was under orders to remain in bed, but she offered a salute from her reclining position. Merry, standing beside her bed, came smartly to attention and saluted as well.

“Captain,” she said, staring straight ahead. “I take full responsibility. This was entirely due to my clumsiness.”

“I object to that,” Principia chimed in. “If I’d been paying attention I could have avoided this easily.”

Dijanerad came to a stop alongside them, studied each in silence for a moment, then turned to the only other person in the room. “What’s the verdict, Sister?”

Sister Tyrouna, the healer currently on duty, was a dark-skinned Westerner with a broad, subtly sly smile habitually in place. She picked up the helmet hanging from the bedpost as she answered.

“Private Locke has a rare medical condition named, according to the textbooks I’ve consulted, a ‘goose egg.’” She tossed the helmet lightly to the Captain, who snagged it out of the air. “That was the real casualty, here, and exactly why we make the troops wear them. In seriousness, she doesn’t even have a concussion, and that little bump was the work of moments to heal away, but I’m keeping her in the ward overnight for observation. She was unconscious, briefly. This is SOP for head injuries, as you well know.”

“Mm hm,” Dijanerad murmured, turning the helmet over to study it. There was a substantial dent in the back. “Good hit, Lang. Now, if we could just teach you to do this on purpose we might make a real soldier of you.”

Merry opened her mouth to reply, then closed it silently and swallowed.

“So, here’s a funny thing,” the Captain continued, studying them with a mild expression. “When I got back to the temple, I had paperwork waiting for your entire squad to be court-martialed for failing to report waiting for me. Actually, I got that before I was notified of Locke’s injury. Isn’t that interesting? It’s as if somebody had the forms all filled out and ready to file, just itching for a reason to materialize.”

Merry swallowed again. Principia frowned slightly. “The papers were sent to you, Captain?”

“I am your commanding officer,” Dijanerad said dryly.

“Of course,” Principia replied quickly. “It’s just….”

“It’s just,” the captain finished, “this business smacks of the kind of thing that by all appearances should have gone behind my back, yes? As it happened, I intercepted a certain Private Covrin en route to Command with the papers in question. Needless to say, I confiscated them. Discipline in my cohort is mine to hand out.”

“Covrin,” Merry murmured, frowning.

Dijanerad glanced pointedly at Sister Tyrouna, who smiled languidly and strolled off to busy herself at the other end of the room.

“I am not an idiot, ladies,” the captain said in a lower tone. “Nor do I want you to be. However, you should consider the fact that women in your position may be well advised not to be excessively clever, either. I told you once, Locke, if any political shenanigans occur, I expect you to leave them to me to handle.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I’m not even sure how you knew about that crackpate court-martial order,” Dijanerad continued, scowling, “but that was posted in response to some nonsense that happened in a completely different cohort and doesn’t have the force of the High Commander’s seal behind it. I am still in charge of discipline in our ranks, and the order to court martial you lot would have gone nowhere under me. As its author surely realized. Right now, ladies, I am dealing with a much more persistent bureaucratic hassle pertaining to your squad. Someone has opened an investigation suggesting that Squad Thirteen deliberately engineered an accident to get out of duty. I am reasonably sure I can also get that shut down, as by chance I got forewarning of it before it got into hands that outrank me. I don’t want to keep having to do this, though.”

Merry and Prin risked glancing at each other; the captain stared flatly at them both. “Clever people are ironically easy to trick into doing something stupid, ladies. You are soldiers, and whatever backroom deals are flying around here, none of them involve the kind of stakes that could get you seriously in trouble—unless, that is, you are goaded into doing something that’ll get you in trouble. Just be soldiers, and good ones. Use your common sense, not your animal cunning; follow your orders and trust the chain of command. And for future reference, Locke, you are to consider the prohibition on you getting between the Legion and the Guild to have greater force than any incidental orders that originate from outside this cohort.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said with obvious relief. “Thank you, ma’am!”

“For now,” the captain said with a cold smile, “since you have both so graciously taken responsibility for this horsewash… Well, Locke, I’ll deal with you once you’re out of the healer’s care. Lang, report to the cohort parade ground and mop it.”

“M-mop it, Captain?” Merry stuttered.

“Have you developed a hearing problem, Lang?”

“No, ma’am!”

“Good. Mop it till it’s dry, private. Or until I tell you to stop.”

Merry looked at the window, which was currently being pounded with warm rain. Principia cringed sympathetically.

“Yes, ma’am,” Merry said resignedly.


“Very good,” Elder Shiraki said approvingly. The young shaman acknowledged him with only the barest hint of a smile, focused as she was on her task. Before them, a vine had risen out of the ground in the grove’s wide central space; it was currently standing upright, to the height of their shoulders, and under the apprentice’s gentle hands what minutes ago had been a single berry had swollen and hardened, gradually becoming a sizable watermelon. It was delicate work, producing the fruit while supporting the vine in an upright position not natural to it, carefully drawing energy and nutrients from the earth to supply all of this and not causing a backlash that would damage the other plants in the vicinity, which was why Shiraki preferred it as a training exercise. He stood by, ready to intervene in case of problems. He would certainly not salvage the apprentice’s melon, but he would prevent a mishap from adversely affecting her, or their environment.

The young elf was also getting practice in maintaining focus under mild duress. Though the others in the grove knew better than to interfere with or deliberately distract a shaman being trained by an Elder, they did not hesitate to stop and watch, and they were all certainly cognizant that an audience could, by itself, be ample distraction.

His praise was not idly given, however. She was doing quite well, especially in comparison to her previous attempt.

The warning was scant, a mere split-second, but the harsh buzz of arcane magic was alarming enough to provoke a reaction, and a split-second was plenty of time for the dozen elves present to spring into ready positions, those who had weapons placing hands on them.

Of course, the young shaman’s spell collapsed, and Shiraki had to reach out with his mind to prevent the suddenly uncontained energies she had been working from damaging either her or the soil. The melon withered, of course, but there was nothing to be done about that. Clearly not the student’s fault.

Before the watermelon had even started to turn brown, before any of the suddenly tense elves could call out a warning, there came a short, soft puff of displaced air, and then she was standing among them.

Tellwyrn turned in nearly a full circle, studying the assembled wood elves through those pretentious golden spectacles of hers, and then her gaze fell on Shiraki. She straightened up, holding out her arms as if for a hug, and grinned in evident delight.

“Chucky!”

Shiraki sighed heavily, gently allowing the last of the shamanic energies he had seized to dissipate harmlessly into the ground. His apprentice took two steps back, scowling at the mage; several of the other elves had similarly unfriendly expressions, though a few of the younger ones studied her with a degree of interest he did not like.

“In all the time that has passed, Arachne,” he intoned, “and all that has passed in that time, I begin to think it is a cruel cosmic joke at my expense that neither of us has managed to be killed yet.”

“Such sweet things you always say,” she retorted, her grin actually broadening. “I did save your life that one time, you know.”

“Yes, I know,” he replied calmly. “I am quite clearly indebted to you for it. Considering that, it would take quite a long and intense pattern of deeply annoying behavior to leave me so unimpressed whenever we meet. And yet, you managed.”

Tellwyrn laughed. “Well, fair enough. I think the real issue is that I saved you from being saved by Sheyann. Face it, you’d be a lot more annoyed at owing her one.”

At that, he had to smile. “All that aside, Arachne, you’re hardly known for your habit of making casual social calls. What brings you to our grove?”

“Straight to business, then, is it?” She shook her head, the mirth leaking rapidly from her expression. “All right, the truth is, I need the help of a shaman. A powerful and learned a shaman as the grove can spare me for a bit.”

“Oh?” he said, intrigued despite himself. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard—or heard of—you asking such a thing before. What disaster has brought this on?”

Tellwyrn sighed and folded her arms. “To make a very long story short, I’ve got a sick dryad on my hands, and damn if I know a thing to do with her.”

“What have you done to Juniper?” Elder Sheyann demanded, striding toward them and dispersing the onlookers with a sharp gesture.

“Juniper is fine,” Tellwyrn replied, turning to face the new arrival. “Somewhat distraught at the moment, but unharmed. What I did,” she added with a rueful grimace, “was severely overestimate her capabilities and her knowledge of them. I let her attempt something she was clearly not ready for. The dryad who’s been harmed is named Aspen.”

Shiraki and Sheyann exchanged a sharp look, before returning their attention to the sorceress.

“It sounds,” Sheyann said firmly, “as if we had better hear the long version.”

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