“Sorry I’m late!”
Teal tossed something to Ruda as she entered the spell lab before crossing to join Shaeine by the wall. The two shared a reserved smile, shifting their hands to briefly touch the backs against each other, while Juniper looked on with a sappy smile.
“You’re not even the last one here, and holy hell, did you drive?” Ruda was examining the object Teal had thrown her: a set of control runes for an enchanted carriage, their engraved sigils putting off a fierce blue glow, attached to a small bronze fob.
“Nah, that’s my tardy note,” Teal said, grinning. “I was helping Maureen with our project; we got hung up applying the control enchantment, and kept at it because if you leave that half done, you pretty much have to start over. Jokes on us, cos we flubbed it somehow and have to start over anyway. Those are the runes we were trying to use.”
“Oooh, yeah, they’re not supposed to glow like that,” Fross commented, fluttering closer. “Huh, that’s really peculiar. What went wrong?”
“I actually don’t know,” Teal confessed. “Neither does Maureen. But when it comes to enchanting, I pretty much just know theory and she was following along from the book…”
“Are they gonna blow up?” Ruda asked, showing no alarm at the prospect of holding a potentially explosive spell misfire.
“Nah, there’s not enough juice in those to make a good firecracker,” said Teal. “They’ll probably just glow until they burn through their stored power. Don’t toss ’em in a spell circle or anything, though. Mis-enchanted gadgets can be unpredictable if you add them to half-finished spells.”
“Hell, I wouldn’t be going near something like that anyway,” Ruda said, carefully tucking the fob into one of the buttonholes on her coat, where the glowing runes hung to just above her belt. “Thanks, T! Cheap, tacky and potentially dangerous. Best jewelry I’ve ever gotten!”
“I figured you’d like it,” Teal said, winking. “Speaking of which, Fross, d’you think you could give us a hand alter when we try to apply control enchantments again? I think it’ll go better with an actual enchanter on hand.”
“I would be glad to help, however!” Fross darted back and forth in midair as she often did to punctuate a point. “I would suggest you ask Gabe first. He’s a specialized enchanter while I’m a more general arcanist, and also he really likes being included and having his skills acknowledged, which, y’know, everybody does, but personally I don’t feel I need the validation and Gabe’s still working through some stuff.”
“That is very perceptive, Fross,” Shaeine said with a warm little smile, “and very kind.”
“Thank you! I try to be both of those things!”
“It’s a good idea,” Teal agreed, again brushing Shaeine’s hand with hers. “Thank you, Fross, I’ll mention it to him.”
“After the meeting, if you please,” Ruda said. “We’re already running a bit behind, and I prefer to get this business out of the way as soon as possible. That is, if the rest of our—well, it’s about fucking time.”
The lab door opened again, and Gabriel himself entered, followed closely by Toby. Gabe paused in the doorway, his gaze zeroing in on the glowing control runes hanging just over Ruda’s belt buckle. After a moment, he grinned broadly.
“Yarr! It’s drivin’ me nuts!”
“Arquin, so fucking help me—”
“Whuh?” Juniper blinked. “I don’t get it.”
“Old joke,” Gabriel explained. “So a pirate walks into a bar, and there’s a ship’s wheel hanging from his belt buckle—”
He broke off and ducked, Ruda having yanked a bottle of beer from within her coat and hurled it at his head. The bottle came to a stop midair before reaching him, however.
“Hey, don’t make a mess in the spell lab,” Fross said reproachfully, levitating the bottle gently to the floor. “We’ll have to clean it up before we leave.”
“Silly as always, I see,” Scorn grumbled, stepping in after Toby and as usual having to duck to get her horns under the door frame.
“Oh…hi, Scorn,” Ruda said, frowning up at her. “Wasn’t expecting you to come.”
“I invited her,” Toby said firmly. “Considering what you wanted to discuss, I think she could contribute very well. And besides, we could stand to make more of an effort to spend time with her.”
“You know what they say,” Gabriel agreed, nudging Scorn with an elbow, which barely reached up to the base of her ribs. “You bust it out of a psycho holy sex dungeon, you buy it!”
The Rhaazke looked down her nose at him, nostrils flaring once in a silent snort of irritation. “Are you lot going to be like this the whole time, again? Always jokes and prodding each other when you should be focusing?”
“Hey, don’t knock it,” Ruda said easily. “Bickering helps us concentrate.”
“It’s a bonding exercise!” Fross proclaimed. “I was uncertain at first too but as long as everybody knows each other and trusts there’s no malice it’s actually pretty fun! You should feel free to join in!”
“Except don’t pick on Shaeine,” Gabriel said solemnly. “She’s classy. Everybody else is fair game.”
Scorn grunted. “If you say so. Fine, then. You are short and not good with women.”
“Ehhh…” Gabriel made a waffling motion with his hand. “A decent effort. Ruda, care to critique?”
“Points for being on the nose,” Ruda said seriously. “That was a good hit; Arquin’s manly ego makes a splendid target. It’s all about context, though. You’re meant to fire one off at the appropriate moment in the conversation, not just out of the blue like that.”
“Sounds unnecessarily complicated,” Scorn huffed.
“Nah, you’ll get there,” Ruda said, grinning. “Stick with us, we’ll have you bantering like a pro in no time.”
“I’m even less sure I want to stick with you now,” Scorn grunted.
“And there you go!” Gabriel crowed. “She comes back with a splendid riposte!” The Rhaazke just looked at him in confusion.
Shaeine cleared her throat loudly.
“Yes, right, we’re actually here for a reason, for once,” Ruda said in a much less jocular tone. “I’m sure you lot were wondering why I wanted to talk in one of the spell labs. The reason is this is probably the most secured and private place on campus available to us aside from our dorms, and we can’t have the whole group in either of those, unless we slip Gabe and Toby sex change potions first.”
“That’s actually a lot more complex than a simple potion! There’s a whole course of alchemical treatment involved, which takes days if not weeks, and it should really only be undertaken with the supervision of an expert alchemist and a healer, preferably a fae practitioner—”
“…aaaand I’m being pedantic and going off on a tangent. Sorry.” The pixie drifted a few feet lower, her glow dimming bashfully. Ruda gave her a grin before continuing.
“Tellwyrn, in her dubious wisdom, has asked us to keep an eye on the campus while she fucks off to Sifan, and ideally nab this Sleeper asshole. We need to talk strategy.”
“Wait, Tellwyrn what?” Scorn exclaimed.
“It’s actually really unexpected,” Juniper said, nodding. “I’m still surprised. And intimidated, and kind of honored.”
“We may jabber and fool around, but we get stuff done,” Gabriel said to Scorn. “That, or we get chased by centaurs or tricked by the Black Wreath. Y’know, six of one…”
“And this raises another point,” Ruda said, fixing her gaze on the Rhaazke. “Scorn, on reflection I think Toby has a good point: you’ve earned our trust, you’re smart and powerful, and I think you’re an asset here. So, you know, welcome to the gang. With that said, this is the kind of thing which should not leave this room, hence us talking in a magically sealed space that can’t be eavesdropped on.”
“Easily,” Shaeine corrected in a quiet tone. “Most of our fellow students could not penetrate the defenses on one of Tellwyrn’s spell labs. It would be a mistake to make assumptions about what the Sleeper can or cannot do.”
“Point,” Ruda agreed, nodding at her.
“I’m glad you’re doing well at making friends,” Toby added to Scorn, “but with something like this, Ravana Madouri in particular…”
“There is good sense in that,” Scorn grunted. “Ravana is very clever. Very clever. But she is the kind of clever that tricks itself as often as others. I think she would agree, anyway. I have noticed her best trait is she does not lie about what she is, even to herself.”
“And this is no time for people to be playing politics, which is what Ravana would fucking do even if she decided to help, and we all know it,” Ruda said firmly. “So, glad we’re all on the same page, there. Now, Fross and June and I have been talking and we’ve got an idea.”
“Yes!” Fross chimed, shooting straight up to the ceiling in excitement. “Okay, so, remember when we were chasing spectral demons and I set up a hybrid arcane/divine detection grid over the town?”
“I remember that not turning out so well,” Scorn commented.
“Yes, true, but not really germane to the point; the grid worked perfectly, and in fact accidentally enabled me to dig up some more detail on something it found than I expected. So I’ve been refining that and I think I’ve improved on it in a way we can use to catch the Sleeper!”
“A detection grid over the campus?” Gabriel asked, his interest clearly raised. “No offense, Fross, but what do you think you can do that Tellwyrn hasn’t? She’s got the ley lines rigged so she can temporally scry, and there’s a very powerful fairy geas active…”
“But we have something Tellwyrn doesn’t!” Fross chimed excitedly.
“An excessively high opinion of ourselves?” Gabriel asked, grinning.
“A tendency to wreck things?” Toby added wryly.
“Really great hair!” Ruda chortled.
“Tellwyrn has all that,” Scorn pointed out.
“We have a dryad,” Juniper said smugly.
“Uh, point of order?” Teal raised a hand. “Tellwyrn also has a dryad. The same one. I mean, wouldn’t she have already asked you to help, Juno?”
“She did,” Ruda pointed out.
“I mean, specifically, if there was a way she in particular could.”
“That Tellwyrn didn’t think of a way does not mean one does not exist,” Shaeine observed. “Your idea, Juniper?”
Juniper sighed. “The thing is…the last time she let me help, I made a mess of it. I think that’s probably made her a little wand-shy. Besides, Tellwyrn is a mage; she doesn’t think in terms of mixing schools, or using different ones. Fross and I have worked something out that should let us… Well, Fross is better at explaining it.”
“Okay, so!” the pixie resumed. “First of all, we’re reasonably sure the Sleeper is a warlock.”
“Why?” Scorn demanded.
“Sure might be overstating it, but there’s evidence,” said Ruda, beginning to tick points off on her fingers. “First, some asshole inexplicably opens a hellgate—a major infernal accomplishment. Then, Tellwyrn hires a kitsune, pretty much the most dangerous and powerful kind of fairy there is, to teach at the campus. Then, nothing at all happens; not a peep from any hypothetical warlock. Then, the kitsune storms off in a huff, and immediately this Sleeper bullshit starts up. So, no, we can’t prove anything, but the sequence of events strongly suggests this is a warlock, and the same one who pried that hellgate open.”
“Hmm.” Scorn narrowed her eyes, but nodded after a moment. “Logical. Okay, go on, pixie.”
“Right, so detection networks,” Fross continued. “Do you guys know anything about dryad attunements?”
A round of blank glances was exchanged around the room.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Juniper said, frowning thoughtfully, “because the whole experience is beyond words; I think that’s a large part of the point of it. But it’s something we can do, a way of sensing our surroundings, and especially magic and other fairies. I’m connected to it at all times, but not always actively; it takes focus to consciously sense what’s happening around me. I don’t usually do it, because my range covers pretty much the whole mountain, and other fairies kind of find it disruptive.”
“It’s, uh, sort of like suddenly having an extra sense,” Fross added, “and immediately using it to detect some massive, powerful creature standing right next to you. A little disconcerting.”
“Sorry,” Juniper said, wincing. “But…massive? Really?”
“I mean, uh, your magical profile! Not physically.”
“Massive, no,” Scorn said, suddenly grinning. “They are pretty hefty, but let’s be reasonable.”
Gabriel and Ruda dissolved in laughter; Teal covered her eyes with a hand. Juniper just shook her head.
“Anyway,” Toby said loudly.
“Right, yes,” Fross went on. “Since, as you know, it turns out I myself am basically a small fragment of a dryad’s consciousness given independent agency, I can connect to this attunement with Juniper’s help. What’s more important, I am an anomaly. Fairies are simply not supposed to be able to use arcane magic. I know Jacaranda wouldn’t have deliberately made me that way, and frankly if she’d wanted to, there’s no way she would know how. Even Tellwyrn doesn’t fully understand how it works; I sure don’t.”
“Which means,” Juniper said with a satisfied smile, “it’s an effect that can’t be predicted or countered.”
“How does that help us?” asked Shaeine.
“What I’m gonna do,” Fross said eagerly, “is work on a spell with Juniper that’ll let me broadcast a very small but steady amount of arcane magic through the fairy attunement!”
“Now, I’m not in the magic studies program,” said Toby, “but I do know my Circles. That sounds like a great way to blast everything off the top of the mountain.”
“We’ve tested this on a smaller scale before bringing it up with you guys,” said Juniper. “It works. Fross intuitively blends the arcane and fae; she can extend the effect. And even if that didn’t work, it’s a very small amount of arcane power. If the came into conflict, the fae would just snuff it out. The attunement is powerful.”
“To what end, though?” Gabriel asked.
“We know the Sleeper and his curse are effectively undetectable,” said Ruda. “We also know that the Sleeper was willing to tangle aggressively with November, but fled from Tellwyrn. That’s the profile of someone who relies on stealth, but can be overpowered if caught. And we, my fellow magnificent bastards, have the juice to beat the hell out of just about anybody we can manage to pin down.”
“I’m not talking about blazing with random arcane energy,” Fross added. “Since we can’t detect the Sleeper directly, I’m gonna make a way to catch him. The spell I mean to use will be a tiny, trace amount of arcane magic spread across the whole mountain, small enough nobody should be able to perceive it except me, since I’m the source. More importantly, I will have it rigged to be immediately consumed by any infernal magic it encounters, as per the Circles of Interaction. Even that way, it’s so small the infernal caster in question shouldn’t be able to sense it; it won’t be enough power to actually do anything.”
“So,” Gabriel said, comprehension dawning on his face, “if anybody uses infernal magic anywhere on the mountaintop…”
“It will burn a hole in Fross’s field,” Scorn interrupted eagerly, “where she can know it but he cannot.”
“And so,” Juniper said with smug satisfaction, “it won’t matter how invisible the Sleeper is. We’ll know he’s there, and we’ll land on him.”
“Ingenious,” Teal marveled.
“I see only one downside,” Shaeine said quietly. “This plan hinges on someone else being a victim of the Sleeper’s attack.”
“Not necessarily,” Toby mused. “Wherever he or she is getting this power, the Sleeper’s a very potent warlock—and as a student, someone quite young. I bet you anything they’ll be experimenting; that’s probably the whole point of this sleeping curse, or at least part of it. There’s no reason they wouldn’t be, if they can hide it completely, even from Tellwyrn.”
“Exactly,” Ruda said, nodding. “The pattern of events suggests they were afraid of Ekoi; their activities were probably suspended while she was here. They’ll be branching out now, trying stuff to see what they can pull off.”
“And even if she does curse someone else,” Scorn said with an unpleasant grin, “then we will have her. And then she will tell us how to fix them. Or if not us, she will very much tell Tellwyrn when she is back.”
“Solid points, all,” Shaeine agreed, nodding. “Very well. I think this is a good plan.”
“And the rest is boilerplate,” Roda said briskly. “Fross and June will have to handle the magic; what we need to put together is a plan of attack. We’ll have to be on site from wherever we are pretty much immediately once Fross sounds the alarm.”
“Hm…that presents a logistical muddle,” Teal mused, rubbing her chin. “Also, we’ll need to be very careful it’s the actual Sleeper we’re jumping on. None of the other students are openly warlocks, but several in the magic program use small amounts of infernal energy for various experiments…”
“If I may?”
They all pushed back against the walls with a series of surprised shouts, Ruda and Gabriel both drawing weapons. Inspector Fedora grinned unrepentantly at them, seemingly not in the least perturbed by the show of force. He had just appeared there, standing against one wall, without the door having opened.
“Really, kids, settle down. And future reference? If you’re gonna be up to this kind of duggering of skulls, you need to get in the habit of thoroughly sweeping your meeting places. Before you get to the actual meeting.”
“What are you doing in here?” Scorn snarled, balling her fists.
“Easy now!” Fedora held up a hand, palm out. “I was eavesdropping, obviously. That’s a good plan, I think it’s got every chance of working. And I believe I can help you with that last bit.”
“Why the hell would we trust you?” Ruda demanded, still holding her rapier pointed at him.
“I really can’t advise strongly enough that you don’t do that,” Fedora replied, grinning. “Trust is earned, kids; I haven’t had time to earn it, and full disclosure? Not planning to. But you can work with people you don’t trust. Hell, if anything, trust is a handicap. You’re much better off dealing with people on the basis of clearheaded knowledge of what they want and how they think, rather than some emotional attachment to the idea of them being on your side.”
“How did you just appear there?” Teal snapped.
“He was invisible, obviously,” said Ariel, her runes flickering. Gabriel held her also pointed at the Inspector.
“It’s a neat trick,” Toby said.
“It’s an entirely standard part of their repertory, in fact,” the sword said; Fedora watched her with an evidently delighted grin, offering no interruption as she continued. “The Imperial government may of course employ whoever it wishes. The same goes for Professor Tellwyrn, though quite frankly I am disappointed that she would allow this foolishness to continue. The rest of you, however, should think long and carefully before agreeing to cooperate with an incubus.”