Tag Archives: Addiwyn

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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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8 – 16

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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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“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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8 – 9

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“I dunno, maybe it’s all the chapel sessions they made us sit through in basic, but I can kinda see it,” Farah said somewhat dreamily. The rest of Squad Thirteen eyed her askance.

“Really, now,” Merry said. “First week of active duty and you’re already planning your retirement and how many kids you want. I think you skipped seven or eight hundred steps, there, private.”

“Oh, hush,” Farah retorted without rancor. “I’m just saying, it’s a point, you know? The spiritual power of motherhood, the bond between mothers and daughters. I’d never really considered it, but I can see myself wanting that. Can’t you?”

“Babies terrify me,” Casey muttered in between bites of porridge.

“You know, there’s no reason you’d necessarily have daughters,” Merry pointed out. “It’s kinda random.”

“Nonsense, you can pick!”

Merry snorted. “It’s possible to pick. You can’t, though. Not on a Legionnaire’s salary.”

“The expensive alchemical methods aren’t a hundred percent certain, anyway,” Prin commented. “You want certainty, you need a good shaman. And even then they mostly won’t do it. Blah blah, messing with nature, wakka wakka spontaneity, yakety yak respect the balance. Pfft.”

“See?” Merry said, grinning, and tucked back into her own breakfast.

“Oh, you’re a bunch of wet blankets,” Farah said crossly. “I’m just saying, I think having a daughter would be a beautiful thing. Come on, I bet even you’d settle down for that, Locke.”

“I have a daughter,” Principia said mildly. “About your age, in fact.”

Farah blinked. “Oh. Um…well, then you’ll know what I mean, about that connection!”

Prin shrugged, eyes on her porridge. “Well, not really. She won’t talk to me.” A half-grin flitted across her face. “Can’t really argue with the kid. I’m arguably the worst mother who’s ever lived.”

They fell silent, the sounds of the busy mess hall washing over them.

“You really know how to kill a conversation,” Merry said at last.

Principia grinned at her. “You’re in the army now, woman. Killin’ is our business.”

“Attention!”

There was a mass scraping of benches and clattering of dropped utensils as every woman in the cohort sprang upright, saluting. Two figures were approaching the center of the mess hall’s open front area, which was commonly used by officers to address the assembled troops. Squad Thirteen were disciplined enough not to react to either the speaker or the Legionnaire who paced along behind her carrying a stack of papers under one arm.

“There has been a disruption of our normal schedule, ladies,” Bishop Syrinx announced, coming to a stop in the center of the space and folding her hands behind her back. Private Covrin fell to attention behind and to her right. “You will be informed of further details at a later time if command deems it necessary, but for now, Captain Dijanerad is among several officers called away on an urgent matter. As I have an interest in this cohort’s progress, I am delivering your assignments for today.”

She paused, angling her head slightly to one side and giving them assembled cohort a look that was both contemplative and slightly supercilious. “One day’s duty is hardly indicative of your skills, ladies, but as I told you yesterday, you are being watched and evaluated closely. The High Commander and your captain appreciate your patience with the unconventional manner in which this unit is being run, for the moment, as do I. A few of you are already beginning to stand out…and I mean that in both positive and negative respects.” Her eyes flicked back and forth to a few specific spots, none of which included anyone in Squad Thirteen. “The plan at present is for squad leaders to be assigned by the end of the week, after which you will not need to be nursemaided by more seasoned units and will draw more conventional duties. Those of you who have distinguished yourselves already, do not get complacent. Those who have not managed to stand out in any way still have time to do so. Several of you are on very short notice to get your act together. The Silver Legions have no place or the incompetent or the weak.

“Thus far, by and large, I’m pleased with you. Keep up the good work, troops. In fact, improve upon it. Private Covrin will now distribute assignments. At ease.”

She turned and stepped over to the side to speak quietly with Lieutenant Vriss, who was the only officer attached to the cohort currently present in the hall.

“I have a very bad feeling about this,” Farah muttered as the assembled Legionnaires relaxed, some hurriedly finishing off their meals.

“Mm,” Principia mused, eyes on the Bishop.

By chance or design, they were approached in reverse order, meaning Squad Thirteen was the first to be handed its orders, a sheet of cheap parchment bearing the Third Legion’s seal and an illegible signature at the bottom. Ephanie accepted this wordlessly.

“Covrin,” Farah said in an icy tone.

Private Covrin paused just barely long enough to ensure that her faint sneer was visible before moving on to Squad Twelve’s table.

“It’s bad, isn’t it,” Casey said, eyes on Ephanie, whose expression bore out her prediction.

“We’re to meet up with Squad Nine from Cohort Six,” she said slowly, eyes darting across the page. “They’re…heavily patrolling the Steppes. Specifics are to be given once we’re in the field, but that squad is positioned to intercept a major operation by the Thieves’ Guild, targeting a shipment of gold arriving at a Vernisite bank.”

The silence hung for a beat.

“But…we can’t have an assignment that involves the Guild!” Farah protested. “Locke has a conflict of interest. It’s against regulation!”

“Welcome to the conversation,” Merry said acidly.

“Heel, Tazlith,” Prin said.

Merry snarled at her. “Don’t you dare—”

“Treat your squadmates with respect and you’ll get the same in kind,” Prin said relentlessly. “It’s not as if Szaravid is wrong. Hell, we should’ve all been expecting something like this, but it’s faster than I’d imagined she would move.”

“This is what yesterday was about,” Casey said softly, frowning into the distance. “She was priming you to expect something like this. She wants you to challenge the order. Why? That’s not punishable, is it? Avelea?” She turned to Ephanie, who suddenly straightened up, eyes widening.

“Wait,” she said. “Come with me!”

Ephanie set off at a sharp trot for the back of the mess hall, making a beeline for the bulletin board with the rest of her squad trailing along behind. Once there, she began rifling through a whole sheaf of papers pinned together to the much-battered cork board, finally pausing on a page half the stack in.

“This was posted a week before we arrived,” she said. “Due to a ‘pattern of incidents’ involving new enlistees, until further notice, privates failing to report for duty will be considered absent without leave and subject to court martial, with a potential penalty of dishonorable discharge.”

“Wait, what?” Casey exclaimed. “Okay, I’m still new to the military. Isn’t that a bit excessive?”

“Failing to report is a serious matter,” Ephanie said, letting the pages drop and turning to face them. “But yes, court martial and dishonorable discharge for one offense verges on the absurd. There are a lot of prescribed disciplinary steps before it should come to that point. It says this is at Command’s discretion…”

“Is Syrinx’s signature on that thing, by any chance?” Prin asked wryly.

“She wouldn’t be so overt,” said Casey, scowling. “There is no way this is a coincidence, though. Are you all seeing what I mean, now? She’s capable of anything.”

They glanced across the hall, past the knots of armored women dispersing to their assigned tasks, at Bishop Syrinx, who was still speaking quietly with the lieutenant.

“How did you even know that was there?” Merry asked Ephanie. “It was buried. It predates us being here!”

“I make a point to read all posted notices carefully,” Ephanie replied, “for exactly this reason. I really cannot afford any slip-ups.” She paused, glancing around at them. “Without meaning to tread on anybody’s privacy, I’ve been getting the impression that nobody in this squad can afford any slip-ups.”

“What the hell do we do now, then?” Casey demanded. “Dijanerad would shut this down, but she’s conveniently elsewhere on what I bet is some urgently made-up bullshit.”

“You need to challenge this as quickly as possible,” Ephanie said to Principia. “An oversight isn’t your fault. You actually reporting for this duty would put you in the wrong. Get on the record pointing it out to a superior…”

Prin was already moving. She wasn’t quite fast enough; as she approached the front of the hall, Lieutenant Vriss nodded to Syrinx and dashed out the side door. The Bishop herself turned to depart through the opposite exit.

“May I help you?” Private Covrin said coldly, interposing herself between Principia and Syrinx. “Hey!”

Prin slipped around her without slowing. “Bishop Syrinx!”

The Bishop paused, glancing over at her. “You have duties, Private Locke, as do I. Be about them.”

“There’s a problem with my squad’s orders, ma’am,” Principia said crisply. “Regulations prohibit—”

“As someone recently reminded me, private, I am not in your chain of command, and I am certainly not your mother. Find someone whose problem this is and pester her about it.”

“Your Grace—”

“You are dismissed, private.” Syrinx stalked off, Covrin following her after giving Principia a hard look.

The rest of Squad Thirteen gathered around Prin as Syrinx and Covrin departed the mess hall. Most of the other squads had already filed out.

“Shit,” Casey said feelingly. “Damned if we do, damned if we don’t. How soon are we supposed to report?”

“We’ve only just got time to get there,” said Ephanie. “We could try to go over the captain’s head, find someone higher up… But by the time we did and actually got their attention we’d be way past late to report.”

Farah straightened up, her face brightening. “Cohort Six will have officers—that’s the whole point of us being assigned to them! They can excuse Locke once we report in.”

“We’re to join Squad Nine in the field,” Ephanie said, re-reading their orders. “We’re given a rendezvous point. That means we’re supporting… If it’s a standard patrol pattern for a district that size, we’ll be meeting up with two soldiers, three at the most. There will be officers, but odds are we won’t see them until after the action.”

“The group we’re sent to meet won’t have any officers,” Principia said softly. “I told you that thuggish display yesterday was beneath her. This is the real play—she won’t have left such an easy out.”

“A court martial is a trial, right?” said Merry. “You’ll have a chance to explain your case there. You’re obviously not at fault here, Locke.”

Principia shook her head. “I’m telling you, this is too thoroughly planned. The notice was posted a week ago; she’s been laying traps long before we even knew we’d be here. There will be some extra surprise waiting at that court martial. Hell, if I were running this con, that’s where I’d have hidden the real trap. It looks like the safest route to take.”

“Well…you can’t go,” Farah said miserably. “You’ll get in trouble with the Legion either way, but if you report for this assignment you’ll be betraying the Thieves’ Guild, too. I sorta got the impression you already aren’t their favorite person in the world.”

“No,” Principia said, narrowing her eyes. “No… We’re not beaten yet, girls. Let’s move out, or we’re AWOL and court martialed. When they put me on trial, I swear it’ll be for something a lot less stupid.”

“The insanity just keeps piling up,” Ephanie muttered, scowling. “Squads sent out without officers, the cohort’s officers all diverted, sweeping changes in regulations hidden… This is not just about Locke. It’s not just about this squad. This kind of nonsense can seriously damage a military unit. In wartime, people would die. I can’t even fathom how she’s getting away with this…”

“A lot can change between here and the Steppes,” said Prin, heading for the exit. “I just need a little time to think of something.”

“Something good?” Merry asked skeptically.

“Trust me, Lang, this isn’t my first time playing this game.”

“The last time you played this game, you got me arrested!”

“Someday I really need to hear that story,” Farah commented.

Principia, at the head of the group, grinned. “That wasn’t the last time.”


The dorm’s relatively quiet morning routine was brought to a halt by an earsplitting shriek.

“What?!” Maureen yelped, leaping reflexively onto her bed and falling into a ready stance. Across the room, Szith had also shifted smoothly to the balls of her feet, one hand grasping the hilt of her sword.

“Look! Look at this!” Iris, still in a patched nightgown, held up a white dress apparently identical to the one she’d worn yesterday, tears brimming in her wide eyes. It was of smooth and heavy fabric, decorated with subtle embroidery around the hem and cuffs. This one, however, had the word SLUT scrawled in blocky capital letters across the bodice in some thick red substance.

“Hm,” Ravana said, narrowing her eyes.

The door burst open and their house mother dashed in, staring around at them in alarm.

“What is it?” Afritia demanded. “What happened?”

Tears spilling down her cheeks now, Iris turned to face her, holding up the ruined dress.

Afritia stared at it in apparent bemusement for a moment, then her expression turned to one of silent fury. Over the course of a few seconds, she mastered it, and when she next spoke, it was in apparent calm.

“Addiwyn,” she said loudly in the direction of the long room’s other door. “Come in here, please.”

There was a moment’s silence. Ravana stepped over to Iris’s bed, picking up a small object from her nightstand.

Finally, Addiwyn’s door swung open and the elf leaned out, scowling. “What are you people doing? Some of us have classes to prepare for.”

“Do you know anything about this, Addiwyn?” Afritia asked quietly.

Addiwyn turned to stare at Iris, raising her eyebrows at the sight of the dress, then smirked unpleasantly. “Well. If you have to advertise, Iris, I guess you can’t be very good.”

Iris let out an animal scream of fury, throwing the marred dress aside, and launched herself across the room, clawed fingers outstretched.

She made it almost two feet before Szith smoothly intercepted her. One whirl of motion later, the drow had Iris in a firm hold, both arms secured behind her back. The taller human girl didn’t stop trying to squirm free, snarling at Addiwyn.

“She is baiting you,” Szith said sharply. “Contain yourself. You become unequivocally at fault if you commit assault in front of the house mother.”

“Worth it!” Iris screeched.

“No one is committing assault!” Afritia snapped.

“This is mine,” Ravana commented, studying the object she had picked up. It was a small clam shell filled with a thick red substance. “Or…was, I supposed. What’s left is ruined. Given how dry it is, I would guess it’s been left out all night.”

“Are you sure you had nothing to do with this, Addiwyn?” Afritia said, staring at the elf.

Addiwn shrugged, scowling irritably. “Domingue’s clothes turn up with Madouri’s cosmetics scrawled on them? Why am I even part of this conversation?”

“’ere now, just ‘cos somebody owns a thing doesn’t mean they’re the one who used it,” Maureen objected. “Y’don’t think Iris mauled her own gown, surely.”

“If you think me capable of something so unbelievably puerile,” Ravana said archly, “at least believe I take better care of my possessions. Frankly, this rouge cost as least as much as that dress. I wish to discuss that matter with whoever is responsible.”

“We all know who’s responsible!” Iris howled, glaring hatred at Addiwyn. She stopped struggling, however, quivering with rage in Szith’s grasp.

“Addiwyn, go wait for me in my room, please,” Afritia said.

The elf heaved a melodramatic sigh. “We have class in twenty minutes. I am still—”

“Go,” the house mother said flatly.

Addiwyn rolled her eyes, but flounced out, slamming the door behind her for good measure.

“Iris,” Afritia said more gently, “what kind of fabric is that? And Ravana, may I see that rouge, please?”

“It’s…just cotton,” Iris said miserably, finally slumping in Szith’s hold now that Addiwyn was gone. The drow gently released her. “Thickened cotton… I had to have it made. White cotton tends to be transparent otherwise.”

“Any enchantments? Alchemical augmentation?” Afritia asked, accepting the clamshell of makeup from Ravana with a nod of thanks.

“Alchemical, yeah. That’s where the thickness comes from. It’s not actually any heavier for it.”

“All right. I will be right back; I believe I can fix it pretty quickly.”

She slipped out, shutting the door much more carefully than Addiwyn had.

“Fix it?” Iris said morosely, picking up the wadded dress from her bed and staring at the now-smudged epithet scrawled across it. “How? This is ruined. Just look at this gunk! Maybe a professional cleaner…”

“Surely she wouldn’t make a promise like that unless she could back it up?” Maureen said encouragingly.

“Indeed,” added Ravana. “She is herself an alchemist of some considerable renown.”

“Is she?” Szith asked, raising her eyebrows.

“Ah, that’s right,” Ravana said smoothly. “Considering your point of origin, Szith, you are unlikely to have heard of Morvana the Poisoner.”

Everyone stared at her.

“Who?” Iris demanded.

“The what?” Maureen added.

Ravana shrugged, picking up the brush she had dropped and casually resuming work on her pale hair. “Perhaps it’s a matter chiefly of interest to the nobility. She never operated in the Tiraan Empire, at least not that I’ve heard. Morvana the Poisoner was an assassin who spent ten years cutting a swath across the Malderaan continent, striking down dozens of high-profile targets. Over a hundred, possibly; matters become a little confused when people are killed by untraceable alchemical substances. Others may also have taken advantage of the carnage to commit their own murders and blame them on her. The Poisoner published claims in various newspapers that each of her victims were members of the Black Wreath and had been killed for that reason.”

“Wh—that—surely…” Maureen gulped heavily, wide-eyed. “You can’t think that’s the lady who’s in charge of our dorm.”

Ravana only shrugged again, smiling. “Well, it could be a different Afritia Morvana. I’ve certainly never heard either name elsewhere, but it’s a wide world. And really, if you were an alumnus of the Unseen University with a dozen governments and the Black Wreath actively seeking your head, the prospect of hiding behind Arachne Tellwyrn’s skirts would start to seem rather inviting, don’t you think?” She set the brush down on her nightstand, her smile widening to an outright grin. “In any case, I would not like to be the person responsible for disturbing the tranquility of her home.” She angled her head pointedly at the door, tracing her ear with finger and thumb and then extending the gesture outward, as if outlining a longer, pointed ear.

“Ah,” Maureen said, nodding. She and Iris still looked slightly spooked. Szith simply gazed thoughtfully at the door.

Both Iris and Maureen jumped when it opened suddenly and Afritia stepped in. She held Ravana’s small make-up pad in one hand and a black silk pouch in the other.

“I think you’re right, Ravana; the rest of this is not salvageable,” she said apologetically, handing back the clamshell. “I’m sorry.”

“Not at all,” Ravana said smoothly. “It clearly is no fault of yours.”

“Iris,” Afritia went on, stepping over to hand her the pouch. “Sprinkle this on the stain and wait five minutes. Just brush it off after that; the rouge should come right off with the powder. Just… On the floor is fine, if you avoid the rug. I’ll come in and sweep it up while you’re in class. Will that leave you enough time to get ready? I can send word to your professor if you’ll be late.”

“I…no, that’ll be enough,” Iris said, blinking back fresh tears. “I just… Thanks so much. I’m sorry to be a bother.”

“You are not a bother,” Afritia said firmly, smiling at her. “Call if you girls need anything else. I need to have a few words with your other roommate before she’s late for class, too.”

Nodding again to them all, she ducked back out.

They stared at the door in silence for a moment, then Iris shook herself as if waking from a daydream and began laying out the marred dress across the bedspread, preparatory to applying the alchemical powder.

“Um,” Maureen said hesitantly. “Were you serious about…”

Ravana smiled slyly and placed a finger against her lips.


Deep beneath the peaks of the Dwarnskolds—the Spine, as some races called the vast wall of mountains that blocked off the continent from the tropics—the great library of the Svenheim Academy of Arcane Arts and Sciences occupied a chamber vast enough to accommodate a dragon. In fact, it once had, for all that none of its entrances were large enough to admit a creature of such size. A surprising number of would-be dragonslayers over the years had passed over their targets’ lairs by failing to account for their dual forms. In this era, though, rather than the piles of hoarded wealth it had once held, the cavern contained one of the world’s great treasure troves of knowledge.

Bookshelves climbed the walls all the way to the distant ceiling, accessed by balconies, narrow staircases and in some spots ladders, several on sliding tracks. Nearly the entire floor was lined by row upon row of bookcases, each heavily laden, several climbing upward in open-sided arrangements of rails and wooden floors to create towers and pyramids scattered about the middle of the open space. Everything was carefully filed, of course, though the necessities of the library’s odd architecture could make it difficult to find a given title if one were not intimately familiar with the layout of the room.

Most visitors ended up turning for help to the librarians.

Gwen caught herself humming very softly as she pushed the cart between the stacks and cut herself off with a grimace. It had hardly been loud enough to be heard a few feet beyond her, but still. It was a library. Someday, she really had to find a way to kick that habit. Her work kept her satisfied and happy, though, and happiness unfortunately resulted in music, no matter how inappropriate the environment.

She passed into a tunnel branching off from the main, well-lit chamber. The library was illuminated brightly by massive fairy lamps suspended from the ceiling in upside-down towers of metal scaffolding, which also contained the arcane charms that regulated the temperature and moisture in the air. The dwarves, by and large, preferred to use machinery above magic, but the technology to control environments so minutely was still in its relative infancy—and also, it was heavy. The vital task of protecting and preserving the Academy’s precious stores of knowledge was, for the time being, entrusted to the finest of Tiraan enchantments, no matter the current political tensions between the Kingdom and the Empire.

It was dimmer, of course, in the smaller side gallery into which she emerged, but that was mostly for atmosphere. Gwen hummed a few more bars before catching and stifling herself as she trundled along the well-worn carpet path with her cart of books, past a long row of doors, until she finally reached her destination.

Pausing outside, she rapped gently with her knuckles. “Professor Yornhaldt?”

No answer.

She waited, trying once more, before chuckling softly to herself and pushing the door open. A quick glance around the small study showed the Professor hunched over an entire desk full of open tomes, currently with a long scroll sprawled out across the top of the lot. Gwen backed in, pulling the cart after him.

“These are the last of the volumes you requested, Professor,” she said, a touch more loudly than before.

Professor Yornhaldt jumped in his chair, then half-turned to blink up at her. Lost as he was in some ancient lore, it took a few seconds of blinking before his gaze came back into focus.

“Oh! Miss Pjernssen, forgive me. Bless you, my dear, many thanks. I’m sorry, I was off in another world.”

“Not at all, Professor,” she said with an amused little smile. “It’s not as if you’re the first absent-minded academic I’ve tended to—and not the dustiest, by far. Anywho! These are the alignment records you requested from the Venalde Astrological Collection. You can only have them through the close of normal business hours, I’m afraid, and then they have to be tucked back into their own little beds.”

“Ah. Of course, of course…” He cast a regretful glance at his desk full of books before turning fully around on his swiveling chair and wheeling it over to the table as she laid out more volumes on it from the cart. “I suppose I’d best be about it, then. Hopefully I can gather everything I need from these today, and spare you having to cart them back and forth yet again.”

“Officially, I’m obliged to tell you it’s no bother at all,” she said solemnly, then winked. “But still, I appreciate it. Now, don’t let me catch you trying to put up your own books! The last fellow who requested anything from the Venalde Collection made the most abominable mess, attempting to helpfully clean up after himself. Let the professionals do their jobs, I beg you.”

“My dear,” Professor Yornhaldt said with a grin, “you have nothing to fear from me on that account. Believe me, if you had met the previous librarian at my own University, you would understand how careful I have learned to be with such rules.”

Gwen smiled and stepped back, pushing her cart toward the door. “I’m glad to hear it, Professor. Will there be anything else I can get you?”

“I believe that’s all, Miss Pjernssen, thank you kindly. Oh! Wait a moment!”

She paused in the act of departing, looking inquisitively back at him.

“I meant to bring this up sooner, forgive me. Never to early to start making arrangements, though. I’ll need to access the Vankstadt Archives at some point this week, Miss Pjernssen, if you could kindly start the process. I understand there’s rather a significant amount of paperwork involved.”

Gwen blinked, her polite smile frozen in place. “The… Vankstadt Archives, Professor? I’m afraid we don’t have any such wing in this library. To my knowledge, Professor Vankstadt never endowed a collection before he passed.”

Yornhaldt frowned up at her in puzzlement. “What? But I was assured… Oh! Blast me for an old fool, I really am forgetting things left and right. Of course, of course, here.” He withdrew a slightly rumpled letter from an inner pocket of his coat and handed it to her. “One must have the requisite permissions, naturally. I believe you’ll find that entirely in order.”

Gwen accepted the paper and unfolding it, noting its unusual weight. Indeed, within were the wax seals of the Chancellor of the Academy and the King’s Counselor Dornvelt, as well as their signatures. The brief note, on royal stationary, gave him the stated right to access the secret archives in question.

“Ah,” she said, handing the document back after studying it closely. “That is, of course, an entirely different matter. Sorry for the subterfuge, Professor, but they take great care to keep those documents out of reach of the general public.”

“Of course, I well understand that,” he said firmly. “And heartily approve.”

“Having seen that myself, I can begin the paperwork,” she said, “but you’ll need to show it to Master Reichter, and possibly to other officials. Just to let you know.”

“No trouble at all,” he assured her with a smile, tucking the letter away inside his coat again. “As I said, the procedures are all there for excellent reason. The last thing I want is to upset your system.”

“That, too, I appreciate,” she said wryly. “Then, will that be all?”

“Yes, thank you very much, Miss Pjernssen.”

“Very good. I’ll leave you to it, Professor Yornhaldt.”

He made no response, already half-lost in his new collection of books. Gwen heard a belated acknowledgment an instant before pulling the door gently shut behind herself.

She deposited the empty cart in its allotted place beside her desk, then paused, glancing around the open cavern. Her station was tucked into a small recess, giving her a decent view of the surrounding stacks, which were not too tall in the immediate vicinity. Several dwarven scholars moved about nearby, and two humans were hunched together over a book at the very end of the nearest row, but no one approached the reference desk itself. Gwen double-checked that the small summoning gong was clearly displayed, then stepped through the door into her office in the back.

Quickly and quietly, she removed the silken covering over the magic mirror hung on the wall opposite her filing cabinets. A melange of gray and greenish clouds swirled silently in its surface, marking it a very old specimen. Newer ones functioned simply as reflective surfaces until activated, a much more energy-efficient enchantment. Magic mirrors were still made, but they were priceless even so; the spells involved had to be laid by hand, as not even the wizards of Tiraas had yet figured out a way to automate those enchantments. They were not simple to make, and not many even now possessed the skill.

Double-checking that the door was shut, Gwen stepped up to the mirror and cleared her throat.

“Mr. Greyhand, please.”

The mirror only continued to swirl, apparently ignoring her. Gwen waited, patiently staring at it, until…

There. It was only the faintest flicker, gone so soon one would likely not have noticed it unless one had been watching specifically.

“Potential problem,” she said tersely. “Tellwyrn by proxy investigating cosmic alignments. Getting close; has support from the Academy and government. First intervention circumvented. Please advise.”

She fell silent, waiting for the acknowledgment that her message was received. It came, after a few more seconds, in the form of another almost-unnoticeable flicker, the ephemeral shape gone almost before it had come. Only from long experience with this system did she recognize it as the form of a spiky black wreath.

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8 – 5

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“I can’t believe she scratched me,” Gabe said, for far from the first time. He was rubbing at his throat with one hand, despite the fact that he had healed the tiny pinpricks as soon as they had been inflicted in a rather excessive display of divine light. “How is everyone always scratching or stabbing or breaking me? Why do I even bother being an invulnerable half-demon if everybody gets a free shot?!”

“I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that you continually seek out and provoke the only people wherever you are who can actually do these things to you,” Toby said mildly.

“You make it sound like I have a death wish,” Gabriel grumbled. “I’m unlucky and dense, not suicidal.”

“I honestly can’t decide which would put you in more danger,” said Trissiny.

“And for the record! I did nothing to antagonize Ruda, she’s just a bi—a jerk,” he finished, glancing guiltily at Trissiny.

“I give you credit for the effort,” she said dryly.

Gabriel cleared his throat. “Sorry. Habits. But seriously, how Ekoi managed to scratch me is a pertinent question.”

“She’s a kitsune,” Fross explained, fluttering over to hover between them. “A potentially very powerful kind of fairy from Sifan. It’s actually really rare to see one outside their home country; they don’t like to travel. But then I guess it’s no surprise that Professor Tellwyrn has friends everywhere.”

“Maybe that means Professor Yornhaldt will come back soon,” Trissiny murmured.

“Be that as it may,” November chimed in, bodily inserting herself into the conversation, “whatever Gabriel did doesn’t justify a professor assaulting a student!”

“I actually think Professor Tellwyrn will agree with you on that,” said Shaeine from the sidelines. “Regardless of the very slight nature of the injury, she has strict rules about such things. If this has not been brought to her attention, I suggest we do so. If Professor Ekoi is as potent a force as Fross implies, it is doubtless best if she is prevented from making a habit of corporal punishment.”

“That’ll be an interesting conversation,” Toby said fatalistically. “Tellwyrn doesn’t have a high opinion of tattletales, even when they’re in the right.”

“Tellwyrn’s opinions are irrational and arbitrary,” Trissiny snorted. “The rules are the rules; she made them. November and Shaeine are right: Ekoi cannot get away with this.”

The handful of other students present simply stood at the periphery of the room, watching November and the sophomores in silence, several with frowns or raised eyebrows in response to tales of the new magical sciences teacher sinking her claws into Gabriel.

They were meeting in Martial Spell Lab 3, an octagonal room attached to the gymnasium, with a padded floor and enormous plate glass windows for three of its wall sections, which looked out over the prairie to the east. That glass, however, was no less fragile than the stone which comprised the rest of the room, and all of it would stand up to mag artillery fire. This was one of the chambers in which spell combat was taught and practiced; the defensive charms covering every inch of the room were the best that could be had. Allegedly they’d only needed to be replaced three times since the University’s founding, which was impressive considering the nature of the student body.

Further discussion was interrupted by the arrival of Professor Harklund through the door opening onto the main gymnasium. He was a man in his middle years, with the receding hairline and expanding waistline to prove it, but his jowly face carried a smile, as it habitually did. Despite his Stalweiss surname, he had the dark complexion of a Westerner. He dressed in traditional wizard robes of plain blue, a custom so outdated as to be an affectation, but despite that Harklund was one of the least-mocked professors at the University. A bronze pin displaying the moon and stars sigil of Salyrene was affixed as always to the breast of his robe.

“Hello, eager learners!” he said cheerfully, sweeping his gaze across the assembled students, pausing at each of them as he did a quick mental count. Class sizes at the University were small enough that most teachers didn’t bother reading names off a list; they knew who to expect and could tell at a glance if someone was absent. Professor Harklund, this time, had the opposite problem. “Ah, Ms. Fross, you are not enrolled in this class. I’m afraid you don’t meet the prerequisites, my dear.”

“Yes, I know!” Fross said brightly. “I happen to have a free period now this semester and I like to study my own projects, so I wondered if you wouldn’t mind if I audit this class? I’m very interested in different methods of using magic.”

“It’s not that I mind,” the Professor replied. “I never object to students wishing to learn. This is a strictly practical class, however; we will be wielding divine energies in significant concentration every day. That is potentially injurious to fairies.”

“Oh, but—”

“And,” he interrupted gently but firmly, “any methods you might use to mitigate that risk could disrupt the actual workings of the class. If you clear it with Professor Tellwyrn and Miss Sunrunner, and get their assurance that your being here is both safe and not disruptive, I certainly don’t mind if you watch. For this session, though, I’ll have to ask you to clear the premises.”

“Okay,” Fross said rather glumly. “I’ll see you later, guys.” She fluttered to the door, which opened to admit her, then drifted gently shut once she was gone.

“Well, then!” Professor Harklund went on more briskly. “Welcome to Introductory Lightworking! This is, as I’m sure you know, a new addition to the University’s offerings. I’m sure you know this because several of you were instrumental in getting it added to the curriculum! The only firm prerequisite for enrollment in this class is an established ability to wield divine magic. An awful lot of lightwielders do nothing but call on the energy and just…spray it out, unfocused. That includes a number of fairly high-ranking priests who really have no excuse not to know better.”

“Not all cults emphasize magic use,” Trissiny said pointedly. “Salyrene is the only goddess of healing and magic; other faiths have other priorities.”

“You are correct, Ms. Avelea,” Harklund said amiably. “To put it in more Avenist terms, then, would you send any soldier onto the battlefield as poorly-trained in the use of a sword as the average Avenist cleric is in the use of the light?” He gave her a moment to consider that, just long enough for her to develop a good scowl, before continuing. “As a counter-example, Themynra’s faith is about reasoning and judgment, which has nothing to do with magic…except when it has everything to do with magic. It certainly does not show good judgment to use tools without developing skill in their use. And indeed, I understand our Ms. Awarrion has a proven facility at magical shields, is it not so?”

“I believe I have attained a certain basic competency, if I may be forgiven for boasting,” Shaeine said diffidently.

“Shaeine is modesty personified,” Gabe said with a grin. “She’s crazy good with shields.”

Professor Harklund grinned. “We’ll take the time to explore the skills each of you already have, of course. I will be demonstrating new subjects as they arise, but as I told our pixie friend just now, this is a practical class. There should be time in each class period for everyone to receive individual instruction, and you will of course be expected to practice on your own. Now then, for the most part I plan to limit my talking to explanations of specific actions I expect you to take, but I will begin our semester with this one piece of theory.”

He paused, glancing around at them with a knowing half-smile, before continuing. “The light is caught up inevitably in religious concepts, coming to us as it does through the auspices of the gods. Interestingly, even among the dwarves, who can touch the light without any god’s help, an animistic faith devoted to it is common. All this leads us to a whole slew of misconceptions about just what divine magic is, and what it does. The truth is this: the guiding principle of the divine is order.”

“I thought divine light encouraged life,” said a boy unfamiliar to the sophomores, probably one of the new freshmen.

Harklund pointed at him. “That’s one of the more common misperceptions, Mr. Mosk. It arises from confusion between the two schools of magic used for healing. It is the fae which encourages life, and the distinction between it and the divine helps illuminate—pardon the pun—their respective strengths and weaknesses when it comes to the healing arts. For example, fae healing is excellent for major tissue damage, and even can reset broken bones if the proper spells are used. However, it has a tendency to accidentally encourage conditions that are caused by an overgrowth of life where one is not wanted. Infections, viruses, cancer. Divine healing, on the other hand, attempts to restore the body to its own base state, which also serves to purge it of alien incursions. However, a simple surge of divine energy hasn’t a physical component, and thus does not repair physical disruptions in the body of a certain size or severity. For instance, if you heal someone with a bone broken and left in the wrong position, you can cripple them for life. Heal someone with a blade embedded in their organs, and you likely condemn them to an excruciating death.”

November gulped audibly. Professor Harklund nodded, his expression solemn.

“In both schools of healing there are, of course, ways around these handicaps, which is what distinguishes a true healer from someone flinging around holy light or fairy dust. Healing is not the focus of this class, though we will of course cover it in some detail later in the semester. For now, however, we’ll begin with a relatively simple form of lightworking: the manifestation of solid objects.”

He held out a hand, a golden glow springing up around him, and suddenly a long, narrow cylinder appeared in his palm, apparently made of pure light. Harklund casually twirled the radiant golden quarterstaff as he continued speaking. “Some deities, notably Avei, grant shielding as an inherent gift to their clerics. If you do not come from a deific tradition which has this ability, however, you can make a shield simply by making something solid. You can, in fact, make just about anything—with certain limitations on size and complexity. There are differences and outliers, but the rule of thumb is you can’t create any object more massive than your own body. Only rigid things can be made, nothing flexible or malleable. A light-crafted object also cannot be changed once it exists; if you want something else, you must dismiss your creation and start over. There are further limitations and provisos, but they tend to situational and can be particular to the source of your magic, so we will address those in detail at a later date.”

The staff vanished, and in the next moment he was holding a traditional leaf-bladed short sword. “I often marvel that this practice is not favored among the Sisterhood. A priestess who can do it would never be disarmed. Ah, but do please correct me if I start to wander into theology,” he said with a wink. “As I was saying earlier, it naturally comes up when we discuss the divine, but isn’t directly germane to this class. Now then, holding a physical object made of divine light requires some concentration, but much less than it takes to create it in the first place. Today we will be attempting to make a simple object—the staff, as I just demonstrated.” He did so again, first dismissing the sword. “Its very simple form is an easy first project, and it also happens to be a particularly useful thing to know. There are a thousand and one uses to which a good staff can be put. Next time we meet, we’ll start to work on holding divinely created objects in existence without focusing your whole concentration on it. The trick can be dicey to acquire initially, but I think you’ll find, once you get there, it’s quite easy. All right, then! Who would like to start?”

Gabriel and November stepped forward simultaneously, then had a short, polite scuffle as each tried to yield the floor to the other. Professor Harklund had to end it by nominating Gabriel to try, admonishing each of them to pay close attention but please not attempt to follow the instructions until he could work with them individually.

The directions given were all about focusing, concentrating and feeling, the kind of talk that was familiar to anyone experienced with using magic but quite difficult for particularly concrete thinkers to initially grasp. Gabriel went about it with a most peculiar expression, a frown of intense concentration that kept flickering into a look of pure, childlike delight.

Trissiny eased over next to Toby, who was watching with a smile. “He looks so…”

“Yeah,” Toby agreed, nodding, his smile broadening. “He does.”

Gabriel’s lesson was interrupted by a yelp from November, who had manifested a golden quarterstaff in her hand, positioned so that she clocked herself in the head with it and tumbled over backwards.

Professor Harklund was by her side in seconds, placing a hand on her forehead and illuminating her with a gentle golden light.

“By far the greater part of your time spent in this class will be in individual practice,” he said to the others as he gently helped a wincing November to sit up. “However, Ms. Stark has just demonstrated the reason I ask that you not attempt new lessons unsupervised. As we get into more complex studies, the potential hazards become more severe. All right, Mr. Arquin, where were we?”

Gabriel got it a few moments later, after Harklund suggested he give up the two-handed staff grip he was holding, as the second point of contact increased the complexity of the initial summon. He absently rested his left hand on the hilt of his sword, and almost immediately found himself holding a staff made of light. No sooner had he whooped in triumph than it flickered out, leaving him grimacing.

“Very good!” Professor Harklund said approvingly, clapping him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, Gabriel, holding it is another matter entirely, as I said. We’ll get to that in due course. Some of you may find that a magical aid to concentration can help with the initial summons, if you’re having trouble making that breakthrough. If any of you are still struggling by the end of this class and don’t possess any such devices yourself, I can provide one. This really is very much like learning to walk; getting the trick of it in the first place is the only hard part. All right, Ms. Stark, I believe you demonstrated a prodigious grasp of the basic technique without even meaning to. Ms. Avelea, would you care to go next?”

They went around the room in that fashion, each of the nine students attempting the feat individually. Trissiny did it all but instantly and without apparent effort, as did Shaeine; Professor Harklund left them to practice on their own, occasionally directing them to assist classmates who were getting irregular results from their repeated attempts. Once a student had managed to create a staff from midair, the Professor instructed them to keep at it and get a feel for the act. This caused steadily increasing tension among the remainders before they were called up to be walked through the process, but he had a very calming manner and was adept at handling classes of nervous pupils. By the time the session ended, more than half of them, working alone, had figured out the trick of holding a manifested staff in existence. Of those, only Trissiny, Shaeine and a junior girl named Clara had managed to keep one without actively concentrating on it. Everyone else lost theirs as soon as they attempted to speak or do anything with their staves—which probably averted several impromptu duels.

Everyone except Toby ended up having fun.

He simply could not get it to work. He never grew frustrated or nervous, simply staring at his open hand with a fixed, blank expression, creating futile spurts of light. Golden beams shot forth from either end of his fist at one point, but they were just light, with no solidity. At another, he conjured up a glittering outline, as if a layer of dust had settled over a staff, but not the staff itself. Eventually the Professor partnered him with Gabriel and Trissiny to practice and moved on to the next student, pausing only to give Toby a few encouraging words.

Still, despite all their best efforts, the class time came to an end without Toby having achieved more than a few interesting light effects. Harklund spoke with him quietly at one side of the room while the other students filed out, though Toby’s classmates waited to accompany him.

“It’s like he said,” Gabe said, slinging an arm over Toby’s shoulders. “It’s just…a trick. Once you get it, it’s the easiest thing. Hard to wrap your mind around in the first place, though.”

Toby just nodded, as calm and as distant as before.


 

“The man is absolutely barmy,” Maureen said in an awed tone.

Most of the freshman class had split after escaping the crowded, humid greenhouse, which had somehow seemed to become twice as crowded while Professor Rafe’s excessive personality was present. Now, the girls were on the way back to…

“Wait, where are we going?” Maureen asked, looking around. “This isn’t the path to the Well.”

“I frankly do not know,” Ravana declared, “nor am I terribly interested. We’re unlikely to fall down a hole or encounter a minotaur provided we stay outdoors and on campus, and to be quite honest, I feel an urgent need for some fresh air.”

“Imperial society is, on the whole, far more expressive than Narisian,” Szith said slowly. “Am I correct, then, in concluding that Professor Rafe was exuberant well beyond local standards of behavior?”

“Exuberant,” Maureen said, “irrational… I think the term would be eccentric if he were rich or a noble. Me, I’m goin’ with shoes-on-ears batscratch crazy.”

“Traditionally, academics are allowed to be eccentric, as well,” Ravana commented.

“He didn’t even notice me,” Iris burst out.

All five of them came to a stop, staring at her. At the rear of the group, several paces behind, Addiwyn snorted disdainfully.

“Professor Rafe?” Maureen asked cautiously.

“Lord Gabriel,” Iris said, seeming on the verge of tears. “He didn’t even…augh, not that I blame him, I babbled like an idiot. I’m such an idiot.”

“He noticed you,” said Szith. “In fact, he spoke to you.”

“You’re right,” Addiwyn snapped. “You are an idiot.”

“Excuse you?” Iris shrieked, whirling on her.

“If you spent a little more time worrying about your studies and less obsessing about boys,” the elf sneered, “perhaps you would be a happier, calmer type of idiot. Are you even aware that you were just in a class?”

“I’ve me doubts whether that qualified as a class,” Maureen mused, while Szith subtly interposed herself between Addiwyn and Iris, who had gone from the brink of crying to the brink of attack, judging by her posture and suddenly balled fists.

“It is hardly unconventional or inappropriate for college students to dwell on their love lives, or lack thereof,” Ravana said mildly.

“Besides which,” Szith added, “apart from Professor Tellwyrn’s frankly lunatic homework assignment and Professor Rafe’s instructions to drink something distilled from grains, which I personally am going to regard as a joke, we hardly have any school work about which to be concerned.”

“Really, Addiwyn,” Ravana added, “I don’t presume to know the reason for this directionless hostility of yours, but I cannot imagine how you expect it to end well for you.”

Addiwyn stalked forward until she was within arm’s reach of Ravana and stood, glaring down at her. They made an odd tableau: both girls slender, blonde and attired in a similarly old-fashioned style. The elf towered over the human, though, and wore an expression of almost childish fury—while Ravana, who looked the more physically childlike of the two, was calm and seemed faintly amused.

“Are you threatening me, little girl?” Addiwyn asked coldly.

“I am exercising common sense,” Ravana replied. “That you took it as a threat is a case in point. It is never a good idea to indiscriminately alienate everyone you meet.”

Addiwyn curled her lip, sniffed disdainfully, and shoved rudely past her, flouncing off down the sidewalk.

“Just what the hell is that girl’s problem?” Iris growled at her back.

“She can still hear you,” Szith observed.

“Good!”

“As Addiwyn has fortuitously walled herself off from our shared room, I believe we can dismiss her airs and nonsense from concern,” said Ravana. “She will either come around or come to grief; on her head be it. Meanwhile! You mentioned Professor Tellwyrn’s homework, Szith. I think it’s time we got a head start on it.”

Maureen and Iris drew back from her hesitantly; Szith just raised an eyebrow.

“Y-you’re eager to get started drawing up plans to ambush and…what was the word? Oh, right, neutralize each o’ yer roommates?” Maureen asked hesitantly.

“Oh, goodness, no,” said Ravana, waving a hand as though brushing away cobwebs. “We will not be doing that, ladies.”

“So…you want to do the homework, but you don’t want to do the homework?” Iris blinked twice. “I’m confused.”

“It’s not homework,” Ravana said with a smile, “it is a test. Tellwyrn’s pushing us, seeing how we react to pressure. To manipulation.”

“Apparently I react by getting confused,” said Iris.

“Aye, add me t’that!”

Szith remained silent, watching Ravana closely.

The blonde turned and resumed walking along the path, forcing the others to fall into step or be left behind, and carried on speaking. “Rather than let her turn us against one another, girls, we are going to do an equivalent group project, which will require some research. Let us make for the library while we have some free time.”

“Research on each other?” Maureen asked. “In the library?”

“No, no, Maureen. We’ll all get to know one another organically, over time, as such things are meant to happen. No, the subject of research will be the true enemy here. Arachne Tellwyrn is rather famous for being inexorable and unstoppable, but there are cracks in that awesome resume of hers. She has been beaten. She’s been outwitted, she has made mistakes, she has several times allowed herself to be manipulated by becoming overly emotional. We are going to perform a brief review of everything known about her adventuring career, find all the weaknesses, all the areas in which she can be and has been beaten…” She grinned, eyes fixed on the distance far ahead. “…and rub them in her face.”

A weighty silence hung over the group for several long seconds.

“Ravana,” Maureen said at last. “I like ye an’ all, please don’t think I don’t. But that… I really believe that is the worst idea I have ever heard.”

“It certainly sounds that way, doesn’t it?” Ravana said, half-turning as she walked to give the gnome a pleased smile over her shoulder. “And that is why it will work.”

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