Tag Archives: Crystal

13 – 45

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“You went and tattled on me?” Professor Yornhaldt said with uncharacteristic exasperation, the result of his last several minutes spent trying to chivvy the students gathered in the rear hall into groups while simultaneously arguing with his colleagues. “Mister Finchley, really.”

“Whoah, now. First of all!” Fedora smoothly inserted himself between Yornhaldt and Finchley, pointing two fingers at his own eyes. “You got a problem with one of my boys, Prof, you take it up with me. And second, you’re goddamn right he went an’ tattled. Good man, Finchley. Oy, Emilio! Were you seriously gonna let him do this?”

“Rest assured, I argued against it,” Professor Ezzaniel said dryly, leaning against Radivass’s stand with his arms folded. “But Alaric has seniority here, and Arachne’s absence does not make this a democracy.”

“I am tired of this debate,” Yornhadt said irritably. “With the sanctuary effect compromised—” He broke off momentarily as Fedora darted forward, trying to punch him in the nose. The incubus’s fist, of course, halted inches away. “Yes, Murgatroyd, I know, but we have also verified that it is beginning to weaken! The students’ safety is of paramount—”

“Okay, here’s your problem,” Fedora interrupted. “First rule of any engagement: know your enemy.” Ezzaniel nodded emphatically, but did not interject as the Inspector continued. “You’re thinking like a wizard, and if we were dealing with a wizard, I’d rely entirely on your judgment, Professor.”

“We are dealing with a warlock, which in terms of—”

“The warlock’s a stooge, at best,” Fedora said dismissively.

“Forgive me,” Yornhaldt snapped, “it seems I keep trying to speak while you are interrupting. Murgatroyd, I don’t even know what that fog effect is, which means this individual—”

“It’s called the Fog of War, and it’s a closely guarded Salyrite secret,” Fedora retorted, ignoring Yornhaldt’s exasperated sigh at being cut off yet again. “You don’t wanna know what I had to go through to learn that spell even exists. The Topaz College is very careful not to bust that out where the Black Wreath might see it and figure out the trick. Which is beside the point: don’t worry about that warlock! He or she is hired muscle, period. The man in charge is that Hand of the Emperor, and he does not think like a wizard, he thinks like an operative. His enemy is in a secure, virtually untouchable position, so rather than bash his head on that in some kind of magical pissing contest he’ll maneuver to get us out, and that is what we are seeing! Fog blinding us, demons coming at the front door and our invincible magic protection on the fritz. He’s made going out the back the most attractive option, which means… Anyone?”

“Means that’s what he wants us to do,” said Gilbert Mosk, who stood at the forefront of the students unabashedly listening to this exchange.

“Bingo!” Fedora crowed. “And when do you do what your enemy wants you to do?”

Hildred tentatively raised a hand. “…never?”

“I was looking for ‘fucking never,’ but I’ll accept that, Hil.”

“Actually,” Ezzaniel said mildly, “if you know more than your enemy it is a very strong ploy to make them think—”

“Thanks, Emilio, but you can stop helping.” Fedora folded his arms, leering at Yornhaldt. “Ergo, sending students out the back is the last bloody thing we should be contemplating, here!”

“It’s not that I don’t respect the logic of your arguments,” Yornhaldt said stubbornly. “I understood and acknowledged all that when Emilio was pointing it out a moment ago! But we must consider the stakes. I cannot, in good conscience, keep the entire student body pinned down in a position we know is not secure!”

“Alaric, he’s right.” Professor Ezzaniel’s calm tone was like a bucket of water on the increasing heat of the argument. “You are thinking like a mage. There are only two entrances to the Grim Visage, both small and accessible only by narrow bridges. Even if the sanctuary effect fails entirely, this is a phenomenally defensible structure. To abandon it would be folly.”

Yornhaldt dragged a hand over his lower face, heaving a deep sigh. In the momentary pause, the sound of the back door clicking shut captured everyone’s attention.

“Conover!” Fedora barked at the young man who had just slipped back inside. “What the goddamn hell do you think you were doing out there?!”

“Having a look,” Jerome said, unfazed by the demon’s ire. “I thought you might want to know, Inspector, you were right. We’re flanked; someone is coming up the bridge toward the door. And it’s Lorelin Reich, so it’s obviously a trap.”

“Reich?” Ezzaniel frowned deeply.

“Okay, how ’bout this.” Fedora turned back to Yornhaldt, tucking his thumbs behind the lapels of his rumpled trench coat. “Before we risk any kids either way, how’s about me and the boys go have a look-see? If there’s a trap, better it springs on us than the students. Fair?”

Another pause fell, in which Yornhaldt nodded slowly, his expression thoughtful.

Behind Fedora, Moriarty nudged Rook. “You’re not going to complain about having traps sprung on us?”

“The way I see it,” Rook replied philosophically, “we were always gonna die to something ridiculous and right out of a particularly half-assed chapbook. If we gotta go, I’d rather go doin’ my damn duty and protecting the kids. Wouldn’t you?”

“Well said,” Finchley agreed.

“Chapbooks.” Moriarty tilted his head. “…you can read?”

“Oh, fuck you,” Rook retorted, grinning broadly.

“Now, now, boys, save some for the villains,” Fedora said cheerfully, making a line for the rear door. “If we’re gonna play it up like it’s story time, you always banter in front of the enemy. Fall in, let’s go lick the strange glowing gem!”

“From anyone else, that’d be a figure of speech,” Rook commented as he brought up the rear, Fedora having already vanished through the doorway into the fog beyond. “You would not believe the shit this guy keeps in his pockets, though…”

“Hang on,” Rafe said suddenly when the last of the campus guards had vanished outside. “If I’m here, and Alaric’s here, and Emilio’s here, and our entire security department is now out there, who’s guarding the front?”

He was answered by shouting and the clatter of booted feet from the door to the Visage’s main commons, followed in just moments by the crack of lightning.


Most of the students present in the common room lost seconds to confusion and panic, but the very moment the front door burst open, Szith and Scorn both surged into action, placing themselves in front of the stairs to the second level, the Rhaazke with arms stretched and claws bared, the drow with her short sword upraised in a fighting stance.

Men in the shabbily-maintained livery of their House barreled inside in complete disorder, bellowing and brandishing battlestaves, and from the moment of their arrival, total chaos reigned.

The intruding soldiers pointed weapons threateningly, shouting orders—most of which were contradictory, demanding that students come quietly, back away, put their hands up, lie down, and more. Some seemed to just be shouting, wordlessly. In no semblance of a formation, they staggered into the room, quite accidentally blocking the door as the sheer press of their comrades pushed them further inward and to the sides.

At the same time, the University students began sorting themselves in response. Some clearly outperformed the invaders in terms of poise, and within seconds a ragged defensive line had stretched to either side of Scorn and Szith, consisting of eight youths wielding either blades or magic. Three shields, two of golden divine light and one of arcane blue, partially blocked them off from the troops. Behind them, though, more of their classmates either panicked or simply froze, some rooted in place and others streaming away toward the merchant hall were the professors were gathered, or toward the stairs to the rented rooms.

In the cacophony of shouts and scuffles, there was no telling who fired the first shot or why, but it was only seconds before one of the Dalkhaan guards discharged a staff. Immediately, lacking any better plan, the rest followed suit, and the din of screams rose amid the cracks and explosions of lightning.

The Grim Visage was still a sanctuary against significant violence, and no lightning bolt struck flesh. The effect had limits, however, and it was only moments before the magical shields were battered down by lightning bolts. Nor was the onslaught harmless, even aside from the panic it induced. The stone walls and furniture were not immune to violence, and it seemed that ricochets did not count as attacks to the sanctuary effect. Splinters and sharp chips of rock went flying, a few inevitably striking people.

The stink of smoke and ozone filled the air, and not a coherent word could be discerned between Szith and Scorn trying to get their fellows into order and the increasingly panicked raving of the armed men now spraying the whole room with lightning.

Amid the carnage, a hand seized Maureen and hauled her bodily to her feet. In the press of bodies she was pulled several yards before managing to twist around and see who had her.

Melaxyna tugged the gnome free of the crowd by the banister and pushed her toward Sarriki, pointing toward the door behind the bar, and then shoved Sekandar, whom she had also pulled along, in the same direction, before diving back into the fray to round up a few of the more panicked students.

Maureen was glad enough to be led along. At least someone was in charge, apparently.

By the time a wall of solid blue light slammed across the front of the common room, effectively isolating the attacking soldiers, Melaxyna and Sarriki had retreated into the pantry with five rescued students.


“I’m gonna go ahead and assume this isn’t what it looks like,” Fedora called, as he sauntered out onto the bridge. “Because it looks like I can have my boys here blast you right off into space and there’s not a damn thing you could do about it. But nah, surely a smooth operator like you would never put herself in such a vulnerable position.” He grinned nastily, coming to a stop, and tucked his hands into the pockets of his coat. “Unless she was takin’ orders from a psycho who would totally put her and everybody else working for him in that position.”

He and the three campus guards had advanced just beyond the range of the Fog of War, to a widening of the bridge which gave Finchley and Rook—the better shots, though not by much—room to spread out a bit and sight along their weapons to either side of Fedora, while Moriarty behind them kept an eye on the surrounding ledges and bridges which bedecked the vast slanted central chamber of the Crawl.

Ahead of them, Lorelin Reich likewise came to a stop, keeping her hands upraised. She paused, studying the four of them, before answering.

“I guess this is the proper place for me to bluster in return. Would you mind awfully if we advanced a bit past that point? I am somewhat pressed for time.”

“Well, I have all the time in the world,” Fedora drawled. “What with my defensible position and clock ticking down till mama bear comes home. But sure, guest’s privilege! What’s on your mind, doll?”

Slowly, Reich lowered her hands. “Here’s the situation: we are ordered to capture your entire student body.”

Fedora leaned slightly to one side, pretending to peer around behind her. “…we?”

“Myself,” she replied, “a little more magical support, and a handful of soldiers.”

“Uh…huh. And you plan to do that…how, exactly?”

“As things stand,” she said in an even tone, “I don’t see any way that is possible. We are, you understand, required by the firmest of commands to assist our patron in this endeavor. To refuse would be nothing less than treason. To fail, however, is another matter.”

“This is starting to veer in an interesting direction,” he remarked. “Do go on.”

“Understand that I can’t simply surrender, or retreat,” Reich continued. “My…employer…has stepped away to attend to an urgent matter on the surface. In his absence, I will of course do my utmost to fulfill the commands he has left. It is my opinion that the utmost I can do in this situation is try to reach a compromise with our targets.”

“Hmmm.” Fedora made a show of stroking his chin, tilting his head back to gaze upward in a pantomime of deep thought. “Quite the pickle you’re in, there, hun. Now, I’m gonna assume you’ve got something good and nasty pointed my way right now, so I won’t be so blithe as to ask how any of that is my problem, but as negotiations go, your position—”

“Boss!” Rook said suddenly. “Watch it!”

He had appeared behind her in total silence. At the soldier’s warning, Fedora snapped his attention back forward and Reich whirled in shock to behold the Hand, where he had simply not been a moment ago. His suit was ragged and torn, stained with grass, and had pieces of glass and wood stuck in it here and there. Though no sign of injury lingered on his exposed skin, drying blood streaked from the top of his bald head down half of his face. It lent an even wilder aspect to his expression, which was very nearly feral.

“Sir,” Lorelin gasped, immediately adopting a tone and posture of relief. “Thank the gods, I was almost out of option—”

With a single backhanded blow, the Hand sent her hurtling off the bridge.


Melaxyna turned from the door, where she had poked her head out through the curtain. “Okay, that’s calmer for the moment. The wizard has cut off those idiots, but between them and your little friends throwing spells back at ’em, that shield of his is under fire from both sides. It can’t stand up long, no matter how much mojo he’s got. Sarriki, let’s get these kids back into the basement until this settles down.”

“The others?” Sekandar asked, holding Szith’s saber at the ready. “Can we get anyone else back here?”

Melaxyna shook her head, approaching him, and also spread her wings; their full span nearly filled the pantry, encouraging the group toward the back door which Sarriki was in the process of unlocking. “They’re either champing at the bit to fight or have buggered off outta there. I realize you ducklings are big damn heroes in your own world, but take my advice: let the grown-ups settle this while you’ve got grown-ups around to settle things for you. All too soon you won’t anymore.”

“I’m just as happy ta sit this out,” Maureen said emphatically, still clutching Crystal’s core fragment to her chest as she gladly retreated through the rear door into the lower chamber.

She’d never been down here before, but Teal had described it to her; this didn’t look anything like she’d been told. Of course, much of that had been due to Rowe’s attempt to subvert the Crawl, but whatever hodgepodge of stolen and cobbled-together magics he had assembled had long since been cleared out. The chamber was octagonal and bordered by what looked like doors with stone frames. No, metal. No…

In spite of her anxiety, Maureen had to step closer to one, reaching out to touch it while the rest of the group streamed past her. It was metal, though its deep gray color and matte texture resembled stone at a casual glance. It was the material of the gates themselves that was more interesting; Teal had said they were like windows into different parts of the Crawl, but whatever power had animated them seemed to be turned off, now. They were simply panels of black. Featureless black which devoured all light and felt like nothing when she carefully prodded at one with a fingertip.

At least it smelled okay down here. The new management was clearly using this as an extension of the pantry to house more expensive foodstuffs that weren’t as readily available in the Crawl, including dried meat and herbs, which made the air pleasantly fragrant compared to the tavern above. There were bags, barrels, and casks to provide a decent range of surfaces on which to sit, of which most of the rather shocked students quickly took advantage. Sekandar took up a position near the stairs, saber in hand, while Sarriki slithered around checking on the others and Melaxyna planted her fists on her hips, surveying the room with an annoyed expression.

There was a stone structure in the center, like an altar. It was taller than Maureen, and apparently built right into the floor. She stepped over to it, studying the odd geometric markings inlaid along its sides.

At the back, facing away from the door, she paused, finding a small rectangular slot just above her eye level. There was a subtle marking right below it which seemed familiar. The whole arrangement jogged something in her memory…she had the feeling she had seen this recently. But Maureen’s recent memory was largely a melange of panic and shock.

“Tsk,” the succubus muttered. “Well, we know this place is of some kind of central significance to the Crawl, after what Rowe was doing down here. Seems like there should be something we could use to defend the Visage from attack, if we only knew how it worked. Sarriki, did any of that asshole’s little pet project survive in some closet?”

“Yes, Sarriki, why don’t you enlighten us.”

Even Sekandar had turned to regard the succubus as she spoke, and now gasped, backing away from the steps and the figure who had appeared in the doorway.

It was Melaxyna.

She held her position, blocking the exit, and fixing a gimlet stare on the other version of herself in the room. The first Melaxyna straightened slowly, staring back, then glancing over at Sarriki.

“Interesting,” the naga mused. “Before this gets too dramatic, let me just remind everybody that at a close enough range, I can smell the difference. Who wants to come get a kiss first?”

“Oh, don’t bother,” the Melaxyna in the door said disdainfully, still glaring at her counterpart. “Of all the weaselly horseshit I might have expected you to try, Rowe, I have to admit this was not on the list.”


“Back! Back away from them, retreat to the merchant hall!” Professor Ezzaniel strode unflinching into the din, grabbing students and bodily moving them away from the soldiers and the already-faltering shield between them. “Domingue, you will cease throwing fireballs at that immediately. Everyone move back past the door!”

“I don’t know how well combat potions will work with this sanctuary dingus, but I can’t throw these until we get the kids out of range,” Rafe said from near the bar. “Hang tight, old man, just a bit longer…”

Yornhaldt’s teeth were gritted in concentration, but he managed to reply. “What…is that?”

“Just a sleeping gas, should put ’em down easy enough. And it’s heavier than air, so we should be safe on the second level. Anything more aggressive I’m afraid the sanctuary will block.”

The dwarf nodded curtly. “You may have to throw through staff fire. This is going down any moment…”

“Scorn,” Ezzaniel was shouting from below, “so help me, if you do not get us all killed here I will fail you. All of you, get back!”

“Didja ever regret not taking a nice, quiet research job?” Rafe asked.

Despite the tension causing the tendons in his neck to stand out, Yornhaldt managed a grin. A tight, strained one, but still. “Did you?”

“How very dare you, sir. The idea.”

Then, with a grunt, the mage slumped forward and the arcane shield collapsed. Emboldened, the soldiers began firing again in earnest, now also pushing forward toward the stairs.

“Aw…shit fire,” Rafe growled, resting his free hand on Yornhaldt’s shoulder and hefting a bottle of potion with the other. “EMILIO! Don’t let them get up the stairs! Draft who you have to, but keep them below our level.”

“Are you serious?” Ezzaniel exclaimed, flinching as he was sprayed with stone chips from a nearby explosion of staff fire against the wall.

“Serious as fine cuisine, brother!”

Ezzaniel didn’t bother to castigate him further. “Scorn! Szith! Get back here! Forget everything I just yelled at you, we are holding this line!”


She didn’t even scream as she fell, too shocked by the suddenness and the blow to her face. And then, seconds into the infinite descent, by having her fall suddenly slowed as she was seized from behind.

Reflexively, Lorelin ignited a divine shield, and there was a yelp from above her.

“Cut that out, ingrate!”

Habit took over. Had to think clearly, had to be someone else in this situation. Find a new mask, someone who would not panic while plummeting to her death. Calm did not come over her, but thanks to years of practice, she managed enough of a facade of calm to fool even herself, mostly. Repressing reflex, she dropped the shield.

Immediately, Fedora grabbed her again, and their fall slowed and became more horizontal. The incubus groaned alarmingly, and as a downside of the more lucid mask she was wearing at the moment Lorelin realized that his wings wouldn’t enable him to fly with her weight tugging on them, but it seemed he could at least manage a glide.

To…where?

The central shaft of the Crawl was dotted with ledges, bridges, and tunnels, but none were conveniently in front of them. Of course.

Fedora tried to bank, but did so too suddenly, and his wings folded up under the pressure. Lorelin shrieked as they shot straight downward again for a few seconds before the demon could get his wings open and steady once more.

“If this doesn’t end up saving my life,” she said tremulously, pitching her voice over the rush of passing air, “I want you to know I still appreciate it!”

“If it doesn’t end up saving your life soon, I’m dropping your ass,” he grated. “I’ve got men up there facing that monster and I care about them a lot more than you!”

“Then—” she started to ask why he was bothering, but instantly thought better of it.


“Everywhere,” the Hand snarled, “I am surrounded by treason. From every corner!”

“Aw, shut your fuckin’ yap,” Rook growled, and fired.

“FOR THE EMPEROR!” Finchley bellowed, doing likewise.

Their eyes didn’t want to make sense of what transpired next; the Hand seemed to flow around the lightning bolts that ripped toward him point-blank. Rook managed to squeeze off another shot before their target was somehow upon them.

He grabbed Rook’s staff, and the soldier had the presence of mind to let it go rather than engage in a tug-of-war with a being far stronger than himself on a narrow footbridge.

“Down!” Moriarty shouted from behind them, leveling his own weapon. Finchley dropped to the floor, but Rook wasn’t fast enough.

The Hand seized him by the throat, hauling him around in front to stand squarely in Moriarty’s sights. Rook grasped at his arm with both hands, trying to claw the man’s grip loose, but the effort was as futile as trying to dig up an oak tree.

“Fire at will, Private Moriarty,” the Hand sneered, locking eyes with his prisoner. “By all means, give your comrade a quicker end than I will. In fact, all of you, feel free to spare one another the full punishment for your betrayal. Whichever is last to go shall suffer the retribution meant for all three. Well? Who’s going to—”

Rook released his arm and jabbed him right in both eyes with his index fingers.

With a roar, the Hand hurled him off into space.


Of course. That symbol was…

Maureen held up the rectangular piece of quartz she had been clutching. In the distance, the volume of crackles and explosions increased as the battle in the tavern picked up again. Near at hand, the first Melaxyna was slowly easing back to the side of the pedestal, bringing her even with Maureen’s position. The gnome, though, stared at the engraving on the metal capping one end of the crystal. It matched. And holding them side by side, she could see how neatly the thing would fit in that slot.

“Now, let’s nobody go and get too excited,” the nearest Melaxyna said soothingly. “We’re still under sanctuary, remember?”

“And it had limits even before it was under attack,” replied the other succubus. “You may remember, Rowe. A nice, slow application of force can slip by it. Or—”

Suddenly, a hand came to rest on Maureen’s head, fingers curling into her hair. “Ah, ah, ah,” the demon clutching her cooed. “I do remember, cupcake. But there are some here who haven’t seen it yet!”

She did the only thing she could think of, and shoved the crystal into the slot.

Sekandar whirled, taking aim with the saber. “Take your hands off her.”

“Oh, I don’t think so.” And suddenly, it was Rowe’s voice again; Melaxyna’s shape melted away to reveal him. “Sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose, my little eclairs. Now then, we’re all going to have a nice, calm—”

The entire structure trembled. All around them, tiny lights appeared from hidden crevices in the walls between the gateways, which themselves suddenly shifted to display a pure, glowing white.

Heaving a sigh, Rowe roughly twisted Maureen’s head up to meet her eyes. “All right, kid. What did you just—”

Suddenly his grip was torn loose form her hair and the incubus was bodily hurled across the room by an unseen force to impact one of the white gates. Upon striking its surface, he slipped neatly through and vanished.


Rook unabashedly screamed, a long, high wail that echoed in the vast cavern, even as he curled himself into a fetal position. Not until he had fully run out of breath did he process the fact that he wasn’t actually falling.

Cracking one eye open, he peeked out from under his arms. He was lying on his side, in midair, a few yards from the bridge on which Finchley, Moriarty, and the Hand were all staring at him in stupefaction.

Further inspection revealed that he was resting upon a square panel of pure white light, suspended in midair.

“Oh,” he said weakly. “Well. All righty, then.”


“You made it,” Lorelin gasped as soon as he released her, slumping to hands and knees on the transparent panel onto which Fedora had just dropped her. This afforded her a dizzying view of the horrific drop still stretching out below, but at least it felt solid, which was a great step up from her situation of a moment ago. “Thank you. Oh, gods, thank you.”

“Uh…yeah, sure.” Standing behind her, Fedora tilted his hat back so he could scratch his head, turning in a slow circle to peer around them. “Yeah, I’ll take credit for this. Why the hell not?”


It wasn’t silence, but the quiet which descended upon the common room felt like it after the incredible noise which had just reigned. The blue beams of light which sprang up from the floor produced a deep, arcane-sounding hum that filled the room. More importantly, however, they each seized one of the intruding soldiers, forcing him bodily into a stiff, upright position, and held him.

The assembled students and professors stared, dumbfounded, at their suddenly imprisoned foes. The soldiers’ expression were of pure terror, but it seemed they couldn’t move anything but the muscles in their faces.

Battlestaves littered the floor where they had been wrenched out of hands by some invisible force and dropped.

Slowly, Rafe lowered the arm he’d been in the process of hauling back to toss his bottle of sleeping gas. “Well…damn, old man. I did not know you could do that.”

Still panting from mental exertion, Professor Yornhaldt had to swallow heavily before he could answer. “I can’t.”


The Hand blurred, then snapped back into focus, and suddenly his expression was of pure shock at finding himself unable to shift space. In the next moment it got worse.

He was jerked physically upward as if on an invisible string, and in midair, six square panels of light identical to the one supporting Rook appeared around him. These, however, snapped together to form a cube, catching him in the air.

“AND JUST WHAT,” Crystal’s voice thundered through the Crawl, “DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING TO MY KIDS?”

 

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13 – 30

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“Somehow, we always end up skulking in alleys,” Layla muttered.

“We’re thieves,” Tallie retorted. “Some cliches exist for a reason. Shall I take the chitter-chatter to indicate you’ve got that thing open?”

“Almost,” Layla said, her attention still focused on the lock.

“On the subject of cliches,” Jasmine said from a few feet away, “it is too quiet. Whoever else is in there, we know they’re accompanied by Silver Legionnaires, who would know to post lookouts. Especially if they were up to anything illicit. Especially since they had to know we’d be in pursuit!”

“They didn’t necessarily know that,” Darius replied from the other end of the alleyway; he and Jasmine were positioned to either side of the house’s kitchen door, keeping watch in both directions. “No reason to assume they understand how Meesie works. If she was smart enough and fast enough, they may not’ve noticed her.”

“That isn’t very comforting,” Jasmine said, even as she soothingly stroked Meesie. The little elemental, having led them to this house, had not un-tensed for a moment, and was glaring at the door, chattering softly. “It’s all conjecture, and anyway, they still should have posted lookouts. Something’s not right. I mean…aside from the obvious.”

Both turned at the soft, distinctive click.

“This,” Layla said in clear satisfaction as she extracted her picks from the door, “is a better lock than belongs on a townhouse in a neighborhood like this.”

“No surprise there,” Tallie muttered. “So, do we…go in?”

Meesie squeaked a shrill affirmative, squirming out of Jasmine’s hand to bounce to her shoulder and point insistently at the door.

“Wait,” Jasmine insisted. “Guys, I’m not just being paranoid. This isn’t right. There’s no explanation for there not being guards; if there are no guards, their role is being fulfilled by something else. We are chasing magic-users. If there are wards, we’ve likely already tripped them, but that’s the least of our concerns. There may be traps. Do I even have to tell you how ugly magical booby traps can get?”

Layla sidled uneasily away from the door she had just jimmied open, while Darius backed up from his end of the alley to join them.

Meesie had led them only a few blocks, to a residential neighborhood somewhat less rich than Glory’s, to judge by the size of the townhouses and their lack of garden space, but just as quiet and discreet. They had cased this one carefully, finding it locked, quiet, and apparently unoccupied; they’d done a somewhat hasty job of it due to trying to avoid notice. There were people out in the main street, and nothing would draw the attention of locals in an area like this faster than a gang of shifty youths peeking into windows and trying door handles. Now, they were gathered in a dim space behind the house with their backs to another just like it—hopefully one from which no one was looking out a window.

Now, even as Layla retreated from the door, Jasmine and Darius closed in on the group, and they all stared at it for a silent moment.

“Well, it’s not like we’ve got any other options,” Tallie said finally. “They’ve got Schwartz and probably Ross; we can’t leave this. Jas, you seem to know more about this than the rest of us. We gotta go in there, so what’s the best thing we can do to prepare?”

Jasmine frowned, drew in a deep breath, and opened her mouth to answer.

“For starters, pay attention.”

All of them whirled, Jasmine bracing herself for a fight. An instant later, she had to shift to snatch Meesie, who charged down her arm and hurled herself bodily at the speaker, squealing furiously.

“What the hell are you doing here,” Tallie demanded, “and holy shit, why does the mouse hate you so much?”

Basra Syrinx glanced disinterestedly at Meesie, who was struggling in Jasmine’s grip, then swept her eyes across the group, finally shifting to peer at the back door of the house.

“It was an unpardonably foolish mistake to stop carrying those scrying bafflers once you got the dwarves off your case,” she said curtly. The Bishop clearly had not slept; her eyes were sunken and her short hair was lank and greasy. Despite that, she did not seem any more irritable than usual, even when shooting a pointed stare at Jasmine as she continued. “The Sisterhood of Avei had taken pains to be able to locate you, missy. Getting access to the tracking charms was just a matter of throwing my political weight around. It’s a good thing I went to the Temple first instead of back to Sharvineh’s place. Where is the rest of your group?”

“Glory, Rasha, Smythe, and Ami are…elsewhere,” Jasmine reported, frowning at Basra and shifting her other hand to help restrain Meesie. “Glory was following up on your progress and they all went with her. The Legionnaires sent to guard the house after the squad from last night apparently abducted Schwartz. Ross is also missing; we’re assuming they either got him too, or he followed them and…well, in that case, they probably got him anyway.”

“Oy.” Darius poked her in the back. “Why the hell is the Sisterhood tracking you? What’d you do, steal a temple idol? Sucker-punch the Hand of Avei?”

She shrugged him off, still watching Syrinx and soothingly stroking Meesie, who had settled down to vibrate furiously, no longer struggling. “I take it your efforts to corral the conspirators didn’t go off without a hitch.”

“No, due to my own High Commander,” Basra snapped, scowling in disgust. “Thanks to her squeamishness about letting outsiders take custody of Sisters, a bunch of them slipped the net. This is also the cause of your problems, as the holes she created in our dragnet not only let Avenist conspirators get through but tipped them off that we were coming, which is how you ended up with corrupt Legionnaires set to guard you. Now you know who to thank. Regardless, did you little snots even notice the emblem of the Topaz College on the front of this house?”

Jasmine sucked in a breath and Layla cringed. Tallie just frowned. “Uh, the what?”

“It’s discreet, but Eserites of all people should know to look for it,” Basra stated. “It’s there to warn the kind of people who mess with other people’s houses not to. This is the home of a Salyrite warlock. That’s the kind of magic you’re facing.”

“The nasty kind,” Darius muttered. “Typical.”

“But it also presents solutions.” The Bishop turned her back on them and strode away. Without thinking, they all fell into step behind her, listening as she rounded the corner and headed back up the side of the house toward the street. “The composition of forces we have is uniquely suited to handle a warlock—if Schwartz isn’t dead and we can get him back into play. He’s a pinhead even by the standards of young men in general, but he is a very competent witch, and his magic will swiftly demolish a warlock’s. And then, there is me.”

Jenell Covrin stood guard at the front of the house, watching people passing by on the street, several of whom slowed to study their group as they went. The Legionnaire looked over at them, but turned back to her vigil immediately with no further reaction.

“Here’s what we’ll do,” Basra stated, bounding up the front steps in a single hop. “I will go in the front and draw attention; you little sneaks go back around to the rear entrance, give me a few minutes to make myself the focus of whatever happens, and then proceed with whatever it was you were trying. That has something of a chance to work if you’re not the sole recipient of whatever reaction ensues. Have Jasmine walk in front and your chances improve further. You need to find Schwartz, quickly, and take care of whatever hold they’ve got on him. With that done we should be in the clear.”

“Hang on,” Tallie protested. “What if he’s drugged? It’s not like we can—”

Basra suddenly flared alight, a golden corona flashing into being around her. Immediately, a series of pops and crashes sounded from within the house, followed by a sharp, acrid smell. Her glowing aura eclipsed the front of the building, and had clearly interacted badly with infernal wards on the inside.

She drew her sword with a flourish, and the blade itself began to glow furiously. Basra brought it up overhead, deftly reversed her grip, and drove the tip into the top edge of the latch fixture where it was set in the wood. A burst of orange fire puffed out of the keyhole as if a tiny infernal explosion had been set off within, and the door itself began to blacken and smoke. The Bishop, ignoring this, yanked back and forth on the blade, and moments later had wrenched the latch entirely free of its mountings, causing the door to jerk open a few inches. Her sword was a pretty and clearly expensive piece, but obviously as sturdy as a crowbar.

“So, hey, thanks for hearing us out and taking time to plan,” Tallie said sourly.

“Wards are tripped,” Basra stated. Behind her, Jenell drew her own weapon and stepped forward. “The peanut gallery back there will be fetching the police. Tick tock, kids.”

With that, she yanked the door all the way open and stepped into the warlock’s house, sword first.


“That’s blackmail!” Ruda snarled.

“I apologize,” the Avatar said, sounding quite sincere. “I do not mean to underplay the seriousness of your concerns. In fact, the security breach in question is of the greatest magnitude; nanites loose on the planet’s surface present a potential catastrophe. But in order to deal with this, I must reassert control over my own systems, and with that I require aid. It is a question of task prioritization.”

“Okay, whoah,” Toby said, stepping up behind Ruda and placing his hands gently on her shoulders. “It sounds like he’s got a point. Let’s try to be logical about this. If we could just ask a few questions to clarify, Mr. Avatar?”

“Most assuredly,” the man of purple light said with a smile. Unlike his previous flat appearance in the screens, his translucent form was now projected in midair by one of the nearby machines. “No honorific is needed, by the way. If your customs require a personal form of address, I am known by my designation, Zero Two.”

“Ah…okay,” Toby said carefully. Ruda, meanwhile, pulled away from him, grumbling, but did not speak up again. “Then, I guess the most urgent questions are what do you need us to do, exactly, and why can’t you have your golem here do it?”

The Caretaker chimed disconsolately, changing its face to a sad one.

“Also,” Milady added, “who messed all this up in the first place?”

“Apt questions, all,” the Avatar said, nodding. “In short, my core system has been interrputed and a link interposed directly into my central processing network, requiring the information flow which constitutes my personality to be routed through the devices you see here. This is a direct link to the gate to Alt Earth One. As a result, data being broadcast from that world—which is a more advanced society than yours and transmits vast quantities of data—is interjected directly into my mind. This, obviously, is…distracting.”

“Holy crap,” Fross chimed. “No wonder you went crazy!”

“Significant program corruption is the inevitable consequence of this, yes,” he said soberly. “My memory is able to store the entire Internet of the period, but having to sort through it anew every second puts a massive strain on my processors. I believe I can remain lucid long enough to help you conduct repairs; as best as I have been able to determine, it took my previous iteration years to degrade to the point that I began to so badly mismanage this facility. But as for the question of who did this, I do not know. Extreme data corruption has occurred, making it difficult for me to extract useful information from my former self’s memories. At a glance, however, I find the lack of specific data on that point suggestive, and suspicious. Some data would inevitably be lost, but I think this was deliberately deleted. Unfortunately, the overall corruption has made it all but impossible to determine how, by whom, or for what purpose. I will of course reconstruct the surviving data to the best of my ability, but that will take time, and I suspect the saboteur covered their tracks too well.”

Milady muttered a soft curse.

“And as for why you need our help?” Ruda said pointedly.

“Ah, yes. I need someone able to interface with the consoles for me. I have been locked out of certain relevant functions, which complicates this. Simply shutting off these machines, or pulling them out, would likely destroy me entirely. That would swiftly result in the destruction of this facility and have unknowable repercussions for the nanites loose above. Ordinarily I should be able to bypass this device in several ways, but those methods have all been disabled. I require the aid of sapients to re-activate them and disable this parasite apparatus so it can be dismantled.”

“That still doesn’t explain why the golem can’t do it,” Gabriel objected.

“Actually it does,” Ruda said grudgingly. “Look, Arquin, all the doodads we’ve seen require you to either talk to ’em in a voice or touch ’em with fingers, right? Well, the Caretaker hasn’t got either of those things, just bells and claws. The Elder Gods were the prototypical fucking assholes who set the mold we Punaji have had to deal with for centuries. If you wanna keep somebody enslaved, you gotta make sure they have no means of ever becoming anything more.”

The Caretaker let out a soft chime, then suddenly rolled across the alcove toward Ruda. She shied backward, but the little golem kept coming, gently pressing its squat bulk against her and wrapping two of its limbs around her gently. One patted her back.

“Uh…okay,” she said uncertainly, awkwardly patting the top of the golem in response.

“I have a question!” Juniper raised her hand. “What’s nanites?”

The Avatar hesitated before answering. “This topic is highly classified… But the proverbial ship has well and truly sailed, it seems. Nanites are molecule-sized machines which are deployed in swarms of millions. They work in unison to accomplish tasks.”

“Huh,” Gabriel mused, absently watching Ruda gently disentangle herself from the Caretaker’s hug. “And…how come everybody’s so scared of them?”

“Think,” Principia said wryly. “Think about it real hard.”

“Well, we know they can turn people in o machine hybrids,” Toby said slowly, “cause machine parts to grow over stuff like moss…”

“And act like a disease to take out enemy troops,” Gabriel finished, wincing. “Yikes, point taken. And if they’re not even magical, most of our methods of countering them wouldn’t work.”

“Finally, a cooperative Avatar,” Milady murmured. “Walker said ours shut off whole chunks of the entertainment database to hide references to them once she started asking questions.”

“Yes, that is also what I would do, were the situation other than what it is,” the Avatar agreed. “But it is clear you have a need to understand. The Infinite Order were paranoid about some forms of technology, but the power of nanites they knew firsthand. On Earth, they acquired permission to colonize this world by assembling a complete record of the evolution of life using their temporal viewing technology. They were not highly thought of, so this service was vital in securing the colonization license. Earth was at that time in the process of rebuilding from global environmental catastrophe, and this knowledge was priceless in its applications toward reconstructing the biosphere.

“Upon coming here, they did exactly that. The Order first constructed Luna Station, then retreated there, secured the planet itself in a temporal bubble and unleashed nanite swarms to spend the next several billion years of vastly accelerated time to replicate the process of evolution as it had occurred on Earth. Nanites guided the development of life according to this pre-established pattern by intervening constantly on the cellular level, in a planet-wide, coordinated process. The result, when the process reached its endpoint and the planet’s temporal state was re-aligned with the universe, was an organically evolved biosphere ninety-six percent identical to Earth’s. This gave them a familiar environment with which to work.”

There was a momentary silence, in which only the hum of machinery and the rush of water was heard.

“That,” Ruda said finally, “has got to be the most grandiose, overblown, unnecessarily fucking complicated means anybody in the history of the universe has ever used to accomplish any task.”

“Sounds like something they’d do,” Milady said with a sigh.

“The universe is incomprehensibly vast and almost entirely unknown,” replied the Avatar, “but…your point is well taken. The Infinite Order were very interested in the scientific discoveries incidentally gleaned from this process. And, it must be said, in being able to boast that they had done it.”

“Yeah, so, clearly we can’t have those things running loose, especially not working for the Rust,” Fross agreed. “Also, what’s Luna Station?”

“Upon their arrival here, the Infinite Order removed this planet’s three natural satellites and constructed its current artificial one in the same configuration as Earth’s moon. It consists of an outer crust of habitable indoor space surrounding a mostly hollow area with a dark matter generator at its core, which not only provided the necessary power for the early stages of the Ascension Project, but also exerts the gravitational pull that reproduces the tidal forces exerted upon Earth by Luna.”

“Wait, the fucking moon is—no, stop.” Ruda covered her eyes with a hand, slightly dislodging her hat. “No more vast revelations, I can’t deal with this shit right now. We’ve got more immediate concerns, people.”

“Yeah, keeping it a bit more on point,” Gabriel agreed, “let’s fix all this crap before the place floods.”

“About that, you need not worry,” the Avatar reassured them. “Fortunately, the Fabrication Plant’s teleportation array is on a lower level and is completely submerged. I am constantly teleporting large blocks of water out to sea; I can do this much faster than it is coming in. The flooding is under control. Other systems over which I still have control are re-enforcing the damaged areas to prevent a collapse due to water pressure. You are no longer in physical danger here. But I do require urgent aid to dismantle this disruptive construction so I can regain full control and then deal with the nanite problem.”

“All right, sounds good,” Toby said, cracking his knuckles. “What do you need us to do?”


“There you are.”

Maureen started guiltily, peeking over the top of the large book she had in her lap. It was a hefty dwarven engineering text, designed to be left open on a reference desk and not held; the size of the thing nearly obscured her body.

“Ah…here I am,” the gnome said, smiling tentatively at Crystal, who had approached the dim corner of the library stacks in which she had tucked herself away. “Were ye lookin’ for me?”

“I have been conducting a sweep of the library; your name is still on the unaccounted list,” the golem librarian said seriously. Her diction and elocution had improved recently with some of Tellwyrn’s last modifications, but her face was still a blank metal mask. “I gather you skipped classes this morning, or you would know about the campus-wide state of alert.”

“Alert?” Maureen lowered the book carefully to the floor and wiggled out from under it at the same time. “What’s goin’ on?”

“I do not know, exactly, but students are all instructed to report to the Crawl immediately,” Crystal said.

“Wait, the Crawl? What the blazes do we need—”

“I don’t know, Maureen,” the golem said patiently. “But it is general knowledge that the Crawl has a single, defensible entrance, which leads directly to the Grim Visage, a zone in which violence is impossible. It is not hard to surmise that Professor Tellwyrn perceives immediate danger, to have issued this order. Campus security has been trying to round up the students for the last hour. I need to finish checking over the library; you need to report to the Crawl as ordered. Professor Ezzaniel is there to coordinate, along with Mr. Fedora. They will direct you further.”

Maureen swallowed heavily. “I…this… This is why I was hidin’ in the corner. I dunno how much more o’ this I can take.”

“I understand, Maureen,” Crystal said gently. “It has been a very stressful few weeks. But for now, you need to go. The Crawl is safe, and you’ll be with the rest of the students and most of the fac—”

She broke off and started to turn; Maureen barely glimpsed the black shape which had suddenly materialized out of nowhere behind the librarian, and then before Crystal could finish pivoting to face it, she froze.

Light blazed out from the openings in the golem’s joints, along with a high-pitched keening of enchantments being strained to the breaking point as far too much power was poured into them. Crystal actually rose slowly off the ground, arching her back in apparent pain. Her body continued to stretch, the gaps between solid segments widening and glowing ever brighter as if some tremendous force was being exerted from within.

Maureen dropped the book and scrambled backward into the corner. She had room, there, to escape around one end of the nearest row of shelves, but for the moment she only stared in horror.

With a shrill grinding noise, the metal plates themselves began coming apart, arcs of static snapping between them, revealing filaments, pieces of crystal and other interior workings of the golem’s body, barely visible within the brightness.

A shriek finally burst forth—a sound in Crystal’s actual voice, not the noise of metal and magic being tested beyond its limits.

And with a tremendous shockwave that knocked over the shelves and slammed Maureen against the wall, her body exploded. Fragments of metal peppered the entire area, a piece barely missing the gnome’s head.

Behind her, still holding up the illegally modified wand which he had used to overload the golem, stood a balding, hawk-faced man in a long black coat.

“There is but one punishment for treason,” he said, pointing the device at her. “In the Emperor’s name.”

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12 – 47

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“Hey. How you holding up?”

Teal lifted her head, which had been resting against the back of the couch, and gave Ruda a weary smile. “Actually… Considering everything, not bad. It’s one of those things where… I can see myself overreacting to stuff and can’t stop it.”

“Well, sure, this whole thing’s a fuckin’ mess,” Ruda agreed, strolling over to sit down beside her. For the moment, they had Clarke Tower’s first-floor living room to themselves, Nahil having departed only minutes before after a long visit with Teal. “You know you’re not alone and you can count on us for anything. I mean, I credit you with enough smarts to know that, but I’m sayin’ it anyway. Sometimes it’s just good to hear.”

“Yes, it is,” Teal agreed, her smile widening slightly. “Thanks, Ruda. Honestly, I hate to sound ungrateful; the support of—of family has been wonderful right now. But on the other hand, trying to fit myself into a new family is a tricky enough thing to keep me tired all by itself. And…and I hadn’t expected to be doing it alone.” The smile drained away, leaving her looking just pale and tired again, and she allowed her head to slump.

Ruda draped an arm around her shoulders. “I know, hon. It’s… Okay, look, the last thing I want is to add to your concerns right now. But I gotta say something before it turns into the kind of issue this can if nobody talks it out with you. Teal… You’re wearing her clothes. I’m startin’ to worry.”

At that, Teal cracked a more genuine smile, going so far as to chuckle softly. She was, indeed, dressed in Awarrion robes, of green trimmed in red, and both in shades so dark they weren’t immediately distinguishable from black to human eyes, at least under indoor lighting.

“I appreciate the concern, Ruda, but come on. You don’t really think I would fit in Shaeine’s clothes, do you? I’m taller and…you know, a good bit bigger around, in several places.”

“Well, okay,” Ruda said, her eyebrows still drawn together in an expression of concern. “And, yeah, you’re right, those fit you like hers fit her, which is…sorta the same worry, Teal, if it means you’re getting them tailored. Any time somebody suddenly changes their personal habits right on the heels of a major shock, I get worried. My Uncle Raffi suddenly started collecting seashells after his boat went down in a storm. We didn’t think anything of it until one of the maids went in his room and—”

“Seriously, Ruda, I’m fine,” Teal interrupted, shaking her head. “It’s…family stuff. Like I was saying. There’s still a member of House Awarrion attending this school, and now that’s me. I want to represent it properly, is all.”

If anything, Ruda’s frown deepened. “Um…exactly what kind of pressure are they putting on you?”

“It’s not like that,” Teal explained. “The truth is… The haircut, the men’s clothes, it was never because they’re exactly me. It’s more that they weren’t what I was brought up to see as socially acceptable. I wasn’t trying to be anything, just to…make a point that I wasn’t something. Does that make sense?”

“I’ve gotta say, you never struck me as the rebellious type,” Ruda said skeptically.

“I’m really not,” Teal replied with a small grin. “And besides, it’s hard to be rebellious when your parents are as easygoing as mine. I just reached a point where I had to give Imperial society the finger, you know? If the alternative was letting it constantly beat me down with admonitions about how wrong it is just to be who I am…”

“Totally getcha,” Ruda said, nodding.

“Yeah, so. I’m not giving anything up, and nobody’s pressuring me, Ruda, don’t worry. This is nothing like growing up being told I had to wear dresses and kiss boys. I just landed in Tiraan Province at birth, and had the whole world dictating terms at me right from the start. Tar’naris may be virtually alien in many ways, but the difference is it’s something I chose.” She smiled again, self-consciously running a hand over her head. “I’m going to start letting my hair grow out, too. They don’t have the same ideas about hairstyles down there, but there is a perception that short hair on a woman indicates a martial path in life. It’s common for soldiers. Like Szith. Ol’ Tom will be delighted; he makes the most mournful faces at me whenever I go into town for a trim.”

Ruda leaned back against the couch, staring at her thoughtfully. “Well…okay. As long as nobody’s giving you a hard time about it.”

“Nobody but the Sleeper,” Teal said, her face falling into grim lines.

“Sooo. Now you find yourself the de facto ambassador for a family and whole culture you’re only just starting to understand. Wow, no fuckin’ pressure, huh?”

Teal sighed, and shifted to lay her arm across Ruda’s shoulders in kind. “You know, Ruda, I’ve always liked you. Even right from the beginning, when you thought Trissiny was going to murder you in your sleep. I’m glad to call you a friend.”

“…but shut the hell up?”

“Please and thank you.”


“Well, as far as I can tell, you’re fine,” Tellwyrn stated, folding up the scrying apparatus she’d been using. It resembled an overlarge book with panes of inscribed glass for pages, bound with thick brass hinges. “At least, in comparison to my last examination of you. The truth is, Crystal, you are a sort of…perpetual work in progress. I was never absolutely sure how all your functions operate, and the spells are complex enough that changes could very well be hidden in the background. Your natural state is adaptive; it would be odd if there weren’t any changes from the last recorded point of reference.”

“I see,” the golem replied.

Tellwyrn sighed, and held the scrying panes out to one side. “Maru, put this up, please.”

The tanuki eagerly skittered forward from the corner where he’d been waiting. Halfway across the carpet, he tripped on his robes and went sprawling at her feet. He bounded swiftly back upright, though, reaching for the apparatus, only to have Tellwyrn yank it back out of his grasp.

“On second thought,” she said dourly, “I’ll do it.”

Crystal shifted her metallic head to follow the Professor as she stepped over to the closet and carefully replaced the scrying device on the high shelf where it belonged. Maru retreated to his corner, anxiously dry-washing his paws and watching them both.

“There is one thing,” Tellwyrn said, shutting the closet door and turning to face the golem again. “The interference you describe was clearly caused by absorbing one of the Sleeper’s projections. Infernal projections are…well, not exactly a thing. The Sleeper is clearly operating close to the threshold where the schools of magic blur together. It’s said the highest application of any form of magic is to be able to use it without limitation, moving past the inherent boundaries and strictures imposed by the nature of the specific school.”

“I’m familiar with the principle, Professor,” Crystal said softly.

“The point being, I can’t be sure what you absorbed would register as fully infernal magic… But the Wreath agents we have on campus at the moment recognized the description. Projections of that kind aren’t any part of what infernal craft I know, so they must be very advance Elilinist technique. If you would like, I can ask them to examine you. That carries its own risks, however,” she added with a scowl. “It would inevitably lead to the Black Wreath gaining an insight into what makes you tick. I trust I don’t have to explain why that is a chancy proposition.”

“Indeed not, Professor.” Crystal tilted her head infinitesimally to one side, in one of the little gestures of curiosity she had carefully learned. “What do you think I should do?”

Tellwyrn was silent for a moment, staring at her with a frown. At last, she sighed and shook her head. “Crystal… My original intention was to activate you, see how you ran, then deactivate you and make improvements. Repeating as needed till I got an effect I liked, the way most spells are run. The truth is, I underestimated how sophisticated and potent your core enchantments are. Almost immediately, you were…a person. A somewhat stiff and glitchy one, yes, but right from the beginning, it turned out I didn’t have it in me to just…shut you off. Oh, I’m not shy about killing someone who needs it, but murder for the sake of my intellectual curiosity crosses a line I avoid. And yes…it would have been murder. The reason for all this rambling is… Well, this has to be your decision, Crystal. Me? I don’t want the Wreath anywhere near you. But Imperial law notwithstanding, I can’t see you as a thing I own. It’s your health we’re talking about, so if you want to ask for their help, it would be pretty damn hypocritical of me to bar you after I’ve already had the assholes looking at our curse victims.”

She paused, then shook her head again, and folded her arms, leaning back against the desk.

“But let me help you make an informed decision, with my bias acknowledged. This is a matter into which the Wreath may—or may not—have some specific insight. They will probably help, if it turns out their help is needed, and they actually can. That Mogul character is quite dedicated to sucking up to me these days. But at the end of the day, this is the Black Wreath we’re talking about. They are philosophically incapable of having an advantage without exploiting it to the fullest, and they assuredly respect fewer moral lines than most people. Fewer even than I, which as I’m sure you know is really saying something. I can’t say for sure that what they could learn from examining your enchantments would harm you eventually. I’d say, though, there’s a pretty good chance it’ll end up harming someone, at some point.”

Crystal stood in silence, then slowly folded her hands in front of her, almost bashfully. “Professor… What does make me tick?”

Tellwyrn drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “…all right. This is a conversation I’ve seen coming for a while. I expect it to be a rather long one. Right now, Crystal, I don’t have time to sit down and discuss this with you. I’ve got a full night planned, and it’s going to take me halfway around the world and back before I’m done.”

“Of course, Professor, I completely understand. I can come back when things are less—”

“Now, wait a moment,” Tellwyrn said, holding up a hand. “I’m not blowing you off. If you really want to have a sit-down and discuss this in detail when you have my undivided attention, I fully understand that. In that case, we’ll have to postpone it. But my errands tonight are going to involve a fair amount of travel time and more than a little waiting around, I expect. If you’d like to come with me, we can talk while in progress.”

“You mean…” For a moment, Crystal seemed actually lost for words. “Off the campus? Me, out exploring the world?”

“There’ll be no exploring,” Tellwyrn said with a wry smile. “Specific errands, Crystal, and no unnecessary dallying. But…yes, it’ll be a chance to see—”

“I would like to come, please.” The golem hesitated. “Oh…excuse me. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“No harm done,” Tellwyrn said, grinning. “Maru… I have not left the campus. Understand?”

He bowed. “Wakata.”

“All right. Off we go, then.”

There was no further fanfare; the elf and the golem simply vanished from the room with a soft pop of displaced air.

Maru stood in the middle of the carpet for a moment, glancing about as if uncertain that Tellwyrn had actually gone. Then a grin stretched his pointed muzzle. He suddenly began spinning around in a circle, faster and faster until he’d have been too blurry to make out any details, had anyone been there to see. His blurred shape shifted, growing taller, its hazy colors altering…

And then suddenly, slammed to a stop. Professor Tellwyrn stood in the center of the carpet, blinking. After a moment, she held out one hand and snapped her fingers, and a pair of golden spectacles popped into being above her palm. She deftly caught them and slipped them onto her nose.

“Growr!” she barked. “I’m Arachne Tellwyrn, goddammit! I’m gonna turn you into a newt, asshole! A dead newt! Or just a dead asshole, that sounds more efficient. Where’s my damn tea?!”

The elf grinned fiendishly at nothing, then turned and strolled toward the office door, giggling to herself.


They appeared in an enormous cavern, carved into cathedral-like dimensions around a square base, with pillars as thick as towers holding it up at each of the four corners of the room. A stone platform stood in the center, occupying most of the available space, and lined with iron rails except at one end, where stairs descended toward the only doorway into the chamber.

“Come along,” Tellwyrn said, stepping forward toward the metal stairs and beckoning Crystal along behind her. “It’s best not to loiter on the teleport pad. It’s heavily enchanted to prevent accidents, but just the possibility of one of those is enough to be wary of.”

“Yes, Professor,” the golem said, shifting into motion and following her. Tellwyrn’s steps were as soundless as any elf’s, but Crystal’s made heavy thinks on the iron stairs as they descended.

A gatehouse stood, half-filling the arched tunnel leading out of the chamber, with the remaining path blocked off into two lanes by iron rails matching those on the pad behind them. Dwarves were manning the checkpoint, two in military uniform standing to one side of the tunnel, another inside the gatehouse, visible only from the waist up. All three were watching them with slightly widened eyes; at the pair’s approach, the two soldiers bowed slightly. Tellwyrn nodded to them in reply.

“Greetings, Professor Tellwyrn, and…” The dwarf behind the counter peered curiously at Crystal. “…guest. Welcome to Rodvenheim. May I ask what brings you?”

“Academic business,” Tellwyrn said crisply. “I need to consult with Professor Arnheldt at Undertower College.”

“Of course,” he said politely. “And… If you would like to register your golem for a nominal fee, you can be reimbursed for accidental damage to it by the city’s enchanted facilities. Whether you choose to take advantage or not, you will be expected to be responsible should the reverse occur.”

“My librarian,” Tellwyrn said sharply, “is not chattel and shall not be entered into your records as such.”

He blinked, then looked warily at Crystal again. “Ah…if…um, very well. Regardless, Professor, with the greatest respect…”

“Don’t worry, I’ve no intention of causing any trouble,” Tellwyrn said, her tone softening slightly. “And Crystal has never damaged anything in her life. But yes, if she does, I will take responsibility.”

“Ah, very well then,” the gate guard said with obvious relief. “Then, Rodvenheim hopes you enjoy your stay.”

She just nodded to him, and continued on up the tunnel, Crystal following in silence.

It opened into a cavern of titanic proportions, far longer than it was wide—and it was wider than many city blocks were long. In fact, an entire city was clearly present here. The cavern stretched perpendicular to the access tunnel from which they now emerged, vanishing entirely into a haze caused by the faint smoke in the air on their left, and opening out into an even wider, round space off to their right. Directly in front of them ran a broad street, with beyond it a row of three-story buildings such as might have been constructed in any aboveground city. Past another street on the other side, more windows climbed the walls, to a height of almost ten stories, before the arch of the roof began, sweeping upward to meet in the center. The faint taste of wood and coal smoke hung on the air, but most of the light appeared to be the steady gleam of modern fairy lamps.

“I’m biased as hell, of course,” Tellwyrn said, stepping forward onto the sidewalk, “but Rodvenheim has always been my favorite of the Five Kingdoms.”

“Because they appreciate magic more than the others?” Crystal asked, falling into step beside her. At this hour the sidewalk wasn’t crowded, but Rodvenheim was as busy as any city anywhere would be at dusk, and they were hardly alone. Many of the passersby watched them, some actually stopping to stare. An elf was a rare enough sight here (though they did see a smattering of humans), but some might have recognized Tellwyrn by description, like the gate guard had. It was at Crystal that most of the stares were directed, however.

“That,” Tellwyrn agreed. “And they are generally less stuck in the mud. Less than other dwarves, and most societies in general. To someone with elven groves as a basis for comparison, this place is positively anarchic. And yet…not. The strong dwarven sense of social order and intellectual curiosity, with almost human adaptiveness and willingness to experiment. It’s no wonder this city alone isn’t suffering an economic depression right now. In Svenheim they can’t even afford to keep all the street lamps on.”

They proceeded in silence for a few moments toward the larger, open cavern up ahead. Tellwyrn wore a frown behind her spectacles. Only after gathering her thoughts for a couple of minutes did she speak again.

“To answer your earlier question, Crystal…I don’t know.”

“You don’t know…?”

“What ultimately powers you.” Tellwyrn glanced at her briefly before returning her eyes to the path ahead. “I did build you, but…from something. I found it deep in the Crawl, in one of my early explorations down there, right when I was first establishing the campus.”

“And what is…it?” Crystal asked, tension audible in her normally calm tone.

“Your namesake,” Tellwyrn said with a smile. “A piece of crystal, capped with metal. Actually, it looks rather like a modern power crystal, though larger. It took me quite a bit of divination and experiment to figure out what it was: a device that stored information. It took a lot more to figure out what that information was, since it clearly was designed to interface with other enchanted components, none of which were around. Your core was just thrown in a vault with a bunch of other artifacts, from dozens of sources and eras, all jumbled together. These things exist, you have to understand. Mages lived in the distant past who could do things that modern enchanters can barely dream. It’s the mass production of modern magic that is new; its actual scope and sophistication isn’t all that greater than what the archmages of old could manage. And nothing next to what existed in the days of the Elder Gods. Yes, there are still artifacts left over from them.”

“Am…I…one?”

“I just don’t know, Crystal,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. “Understand… You were my hobby for years. Decades. The whole time since the University’s founding, I’ve been working on you in my spare time. Most of that was spend puzzling out what was in that crystal and how it works. Once I discerned it held a kind of base program for a personality—structured like a golem’s but many orders of magnitude more complex—I set to working out a means of activating it. The information wasn’t much use stored in a crystal. That was honestly the easy part, though; your initial activation only took about a year. It’s been less than four semesters since then, of course. And after that…well, you have memories from that point. Building a serviceable body for you was the simplest part yet, once I knew how to make it respond to your mind.”

Crystal’s face was a frozen mask; she had no expression. She turned her head as they walked, though, gazing at Tellwyrn. “Why? How does this body help your experiment?”

Tellwyrn kept her eyes straight ahead. “The experiment’s over, Crystal. I told you that. You’re…you, now. You have been since I first turned you on, though I’m a little ashamed how long it took me to really grasp that. I made you a body designed to interact with people because…I thought you should have one. And there are more improvements I plan to make, when there’s time. Things have been hectic.”

They walked in silence for another full minute.

“Thank you, Professor.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“I think I would prefer not to have the Black Wreath investigate me closely.”

Tellwyrn nodded. “Good.”

“I appreciate the offer, though, and your willingness to leave the choice to me. And… Professor, if it turns out that I’ve been corrupted in some way, I trust you to do what’s right.”

Tellwyrn sighed heavily. “I barely trust myself to know what’s right, anymore…”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

The Professor frowned deeply. “The issue with the Wreath… Is not the issue I was first thinking it would be. Elilial did this, Crystal. She gave knowledge to students, knowledge she knew they wouldn’t be able to handle, for the specific purpose of having them cause trouble even she wouldn’t be able to control.”

“I thought you were on good terms with Elilial, Professor. At least relatively speaking. That sounds like a specifically hostile action.”

“Considering I’ve been hounding her steps for a while before that… Well, yes, it was hostile, but not totally unprovoked. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum, though. The Wreath has been doing the same.”

“The same?”

“Last year,” Tellwyrn said thoughtfully, “in Onkawa, I came across Kheshiri, a succubus I know they had bound in a bottle. I know because I helped put her there, over a century ago. The only way she got out is if they let her out—which would be a damn fool thing to do, considering the trouble she caused. Kheshiri not only screwed over the Wreath itself, I’m more than half convinced she had a hand in High Chief Tambisi naming himself Emperor after Tiraas fell to the Church. One careful action creating a mess that resonated across a continent—that has Vanislaad written all over it. And the kicker is that I know Elilial is rushing toward some kind of deadline—this ‘great doom’ I keep hearing about—and that her carefully laid plans are in ruins, thanks to what happened to Vadrieny and her sisters. They’re desperate. When you’re losing a game, sometimes your best bet is to jostle the board, and hope the pieces settle in a better configuration for you.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“What it all means,” Tellwyrn said as they passed into the larger cavern and proceeded right around its outer wall, “is that as much as Elilial and the Wreath’s actions make me want to personally ass-kick them all right up each other’s noses… Their situation creates an opportunity, if I’m willing to restrain my instincts and accept that I have to let them get away with some of the shit they’ve pulled recently.”

“I see,” Crystal said. “Are matters so desperate that you need them as allies, Professor?”

Tellwyrn came to a stop before a wide tunnel, blocked off by a set open gates. Above it, inscribed in both Tanglish and dwarven runes, was the label Undertower College.

“Matters are that desperate,” Tellwyrn said quietly, “and they’ll only become more so if I let myself be locked in an alliance with the Wreath, of all people. No, Crystal, it’s time for us to branch out. Take control of the board ourselves. And for that… I’m afraid we’re going to have to make some compromises.”

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“All right, we trust ye an’ all,” Maureen said nervously as they followed Vadrieny out of the shed, “but a little warnin’ as to what in specific we oughtta—”

A roar interrupted her and she yelped, darting behind Iris’s skirts. A silver shield flashed into place around them, interrupting Szith’s attempt to place herself in front of the group.

Only Vadrieny was left outside the bubble to face the thing which approached. It charged from the main path on burly, gorilla-like front legs, then skidded to a halt three yards away, snapping its long, fang-lined jaws. Incredibly, the creature whined, dancing from side to side as if nervous, before finally emitting another roar of frustration and lunging forward, jaws open.

Vadrieny caught it by its nose, picked the creature up, and hurled it. The poor demon gouged a long divot in the ground as it skidded to a halt against a low stone wall, which collapsed upon it under the impact.

“That was a khankredahg,” Iris said shakily. “On campus.”

“And it attacked Vadrieny,” Shaeine added in a grave tone. “Which no demon of less than sapient intellect would do…unless compelled by a warlock.”

“Does that answer your question?” Szith asked, turning to Maureen.

“Aye,” the gnome muttered. “An’ we can stop talkin’ as if we don’t know exactly who is up to these shenanigans. Bugger it all, I don’ wanna get sleeped…”

“We should head for the Well,” Vadrieny stated, panning her gaze around the scene. Dusk had fallen and the fairy lamps were lit, but aside from the fallen chunk of garden wall, under which the khankredahg’s corpse was already smoking as it dissolved to charcoal, the campus looked quite normal. “Student dormitories have extra protections.”

“Rather specific ones,” Szith pointed out. “If the Sleeper happens to be male, that will protect us, but…”

“I don’t know the specifics, but she is right,” said Shaeine. “There are additional layers of protection on dorms beyond that one. We would be safest locating Professor Tellwyrn, but that will take time, and the Well is near. She may come in search of us soon, anyway.”

“All right,” Szith said, stepping out from the radius of Shaeine’s shield as she let it fall. “The fastest way—”

Iris suddenly shouted and gesticulated skyward, causing the drow to draw her saber and plant herself in a defensive stance, following the witch’s arm. A moment later, a petrified katzil plunged to the ground, where its already-decaying corpse broke into fragments, disturbing the flowers and leaves which had begun to blossom from it.

“That is a very nice trick,” Vadrieny said approvingly.

“Thanks,” Iris replied, a quaver in her voice. “Takes a lot of power, though, and I’ve only got so much. I don’t know how many times I can do that tonight…”

“Conserve yourself, then,” Shaeine advised, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Vadrieny and Szith are more than capable of dealing with lesser demons such as we have seen thus far. We will need magic if the Sleeper shows herself, or brings out something more dangerous.”

“Hm.” Holding up a hand to halt them, Szith swept her gaze back and forth. “Stand still a moment.”

She abruptly hopped forward, planting herself a yard and a half closer to the main path than Vadrieny stood, then immediately leaped back to her starting point. No sooner had she moved than another katzil plunged from the sky at them, seemingly out of nowhere. Hissing as it came, it spewed a gout of green fire, which splashed across the silver shield Shaeine threw back up.

And over Vadrieny, who was totally unaffected. She slashed the beast out of the air with her claws, almost contemptuously.

“Well spotted, Szith,” the archdemon said tersely. “We’re being herded away from the path.”

“We can take the longer route,” Maureen suggested, pointing to their right. “I go that way a lot, it’s shady an’ small, and…”

“And altogether a good place for an ambush,” Szith finished. “I know the path. Narrow and mostly hidden. We are being pushed that way for a reason.”

“Very well,” Shaeine said firmly. “If we can neither plow into our enemy’s traps nor go the way she desires, we require a third path.”

She pointed at the tall structure directly ahead of them. The others followed her gaze, then turned back to her with matching frowns.

“The music building?” Vadrieny said. “I know it very well. There’s no exit on the other side; the only other entrance would take us right back out onto the main path, where the Sleeper will be waiting in ambush.”

“At least we’d be closer to the Well?” Iris offered.

“Close enough, perhaps, to ambush the Sleeper,” Szith added.

“I think that won’t work,” said Shaeine. “The Sleeper is adept at stealth and evasion, and Vadrieny at least is a nearly unstoppable physical force. She won’t seek direct confrontation. In any case, I don’t propose to use the other door—the idea is to outmaneuver our foe, which demands an action she does not anticipate. And that being the case, the lack of another exit means the Sleeper will not expect us to make our own.”


It was almost sad, how little there was for him to do.

“To you left!” Ingvar barked, aiming an arrow at the shadow which was approaching Aspen from that direction. She glanced over at it, unconcerned, and went back to chasing the katzil spiraling above her head, reminding him incongruously of a child leaping at butterflies.

The shadow changed course, though, coming right for Ingvar, and he let fly. The arrow ripped straight through it, having to effect.

“Aspen!”

She glanced up again, and seeing his danger got her attention. By happenstance or design, that was the point when she caught her own prey. In the next moment, gripping the hissing demon by its tailfin, she swung it like a bizarre flail.

Upon impact, both shadow and katzil burst. Aspen grimaced, brushing charcoal off her palms.

“Ugh. Again with this stuff. Why do they make such a mess when they die?”

“Be grateful that’s the only mess they make,” Ingvar said, stepping forward and frowning up the path ahead, searching with his eyes. “Demon bodily fluids would leak infernal residue over everything, killing or tainting the very grass. Fortunately, once dead, they don’t have the life force necessary to hold themselves together and the infernal—there.”

“The infernal where?”

He pointed. “Other side of that gazebo. They didn’t all come from that direction exactly, but from the general area, and that’s the only spot on that lawn not in our field of view.”

“Ah, well spotted,” she said in a satisfied tone, already stomping forward. “Have I mentioned lately how nice it is to hang around with such a good hunter?”

“The same goes,” he replied, and they exchanged a quick smile as they approached.

None too soon; another serpentine shape was winding its way up from a summoning circle charred into the grass, hidden in the lee of the gazebo. Ingvar put an arrow through it, and the half-formed katzil dissolved into ash.

“This exceeds my expertise,” he admitted. “All I know about demons and warlocks is how to kill them; canceling an in-progress summon—Aspen, wait!”

Too late; she simply stomped forward and slammed her foot down on one edge of the circle.

Instantly, the angry orange glow of it winked out, leaving a vaguely circular patch of charred ground smoking. Aspen sniffed, then gave him a look which, to his surprise, was actually apologetic.

“Sorry. I know you give good advice and you’re usually right to be cautious, Ingvar, but this is another matter. It was infernal magic, and I’m a dryad. It’s called the Circles of Interaction, Juniper explained it to me. Works like a charm!”

“Indeed,” he acknowledged. “There’s a time for bold action, after all. Well done. So now,” he added, turning to frown around at the darkened campus, “what else is going on? This doesn’t feel to me like the whole plan. The Sleeper we faced last night would do something more grandiose, and more…well thought out.”

“I dunno about that second one,” she muttered. “This Sleeper jerk makes a good plan up front, but then he loses his temper and flaps around like a dumbass.”

Both spun to face the new vortex of shadows which formed before them, crackling with miniature lightning bolts; Ingvar nocked another arrow and took aim, while Aspen crouched in preparation for a lunge.

The instant a shape formed from the darkness, he loosed, and an instant later, cringed.

Fortunately, she caught it, which gave him pause. He’d have expected the arrow to bounce off an arcane shield, but Tellwyrn just gave it a critical look and tossed it back to him. “Quick reflexes there, Ingvar.”

“Professor!” he blurted. “I’m sorry—”

She waved him off. “No time, it was a wise reaction, and I know exactly how that thing looks. I’m sorry, but there’s a mess on my mountain that’s designed to interfere with scrying and teleportation. I can work around it, but it’s not pretty. Anyway. You two are all right?”

“We’re just dandy,” Aspen reported. “How’s everybody else? Those katzils only just started coming at us.”

“Is this happening everywhere? Are others being attacked?” Even as he asked, Ingvar pondered her last trick. Any elf would be fast enough to catch an arrow, but no elf should have the physical strength. A shaft fired from a longbow at that range would be moving with tremendous force.

“I’ve got Alaric and some helpers working to push through the haze and get accurate scrying,” Tellwyrn said, scowling, “but for now, my own senses suffice to take me to where active summons are going on. There aren’t enough of those to cover the whole campus or even most of the student body; Fedora thinks the Sleeper is targeting everybody who stood up to him yesterday. I diverted here to grab some more personnel before heading to Rafe, because I’m confident he can defend himself.”

“Ah, good idea,” Aspen said. “If he’s out for revenge, clustering us together’ll bring him. I don’t think the actual Sleeper was, like, here. This way we don’t have to chase his ass all over the mountain, hopefully.”

“Smart girl,” Tellwyrn said thoughtfully. “Which represents great personal growth since the last time you were here.”

“Well, you don’t have to be a jerk about it.”

“How can we help?” Ingvar asked.

“Hold tight,” Tellwyrn replied, raising a hand. “This feels about as icky as it looks.”

That wasn’t a word he would have chosen, but it sufficed, Ingvar decided as shadows swirled around them. A moment later, though, they receded, leaving the three of them standing in a room he did not recognize. It was a mess, splattered with various fluids, the walls marred by scorch marks and the splinters of wrecked furniture. Most surfaces practically sparkled with shattered glass.

“Admestus!” Tellwyrn exclaimed. “Are you all right?”

“Ah, Arachne,” Rafe said in an uncharacteristically mournful tone, turning to nod distractedly at her without lifting his gaze from the bottle he held. “I’m afraid I have to report total failure. The Sleeper’s little projection shadow avatar thingy wrecked the whole day’s work. All Fedora’s samples, pfft!” He paused, pursing his lips thoughtfully. “Actually, in hindsight, it was more of a fwoosh.”

“Okay, that’s bad,” Tellwyrn said impatiently. “But if you’re still standing, it clearly wasn’t a total failure. And my question stands. Are you all right?”

“How can you ask me that?” he practically wailed. “Rafe is undone! Thwarted! Foiled! My staggering intellect brought to naught by a few fireballs and shadowbolts and a really nifty cloud of something corrosive that I wish I’d managed to get a sample of! Woe, Arachne, woe unto—”

“Oh, stop it,” she said in disgust. “It’s a shame about the evidence, but I had my doubts about that whole enterprise to begin with. Everything in here but you was replaceable.”

“That’s true,” he acknowledged. “Ain’t nothin’ like Rafe but Rafe, baby.”

“Was the Sleeper himself here?” Aspen demanded.

“Hm? Oh, no, it was one of those shadow projections. Oh, which reminds me!” Suddenly grinning, Rafe held up the bottle to show them. The gaseous substance inside was purplish-black and glowed faintly; Ingvar had the strangest feeling it was glaring at him, which became somewhat less strange at Rafe’s next words. “I captured it! Think Fedora can do something with this?”


“I hear no sounds of approach,” Szith said tersely, “but if the Sleeper is paying the slightest attention to either of the escape routes she wished us to take, she will notice that. Sooner than later.”

“Aye, specially with us suddenly disappearin’,” Maureen added. “Not hard t’figure we went into the building…”

“You’re right,” Shaeine replied, turning to Teal. “I think a diversion is necessary.”

“I know somebody who’s great at drawing attention,” Teal replied, grinning and holding up a hand, her fingers curled to pantomime claws. “Iris, how you holding up?”

“Fine,” the witch grunted. “Almost there…”

She was leaning partially over the low wall lining the roof of the music building, Szith holding the back of her dress with one hand even as she constantly scanned the sky and nearby grounds for threats. Below, a trio of vines, thick as tree trunks, were steadily crawling their way up the rear of the building, screened somewhat from view from the paths by trees, but still easily noticeable. They sprouted leafy branches every few feet as they came, designed to provide easy hand- and foot-holds for climbing, as several of them were specifically not used to that. Their upper fronds had reached the third floor windows, not far below the roof now. Iris was breathing in low rasps, scowling in concentration.

Still no sign of demon pursuit. Another khankredahg had attempted to follow them into the building and was swiftly dispatched by Vadrieny, but the Sleeper apparently knew the music building as well as they. With the exits covered, he seemed content for the moment to wait them out.

“I assume that demon is still watching the side entrance,” Shaeine said calmly. “I haven’t heard it leave. Szith?”

“Nor I.”

“Good. Teal, don’t transform up here; let us not draw our foe’s attention to the roof, in case she has not yet noticed us. Go down to the second floor and attack from the window; make a show of attempting to clear out demons from the area. The more opposition you face, the better.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Teal said with a grin. “See you soon, love.”

“Count on it,” Shaeine replied with the hint of real warmth her public smiles held only for Teal. Szith turned her head, so ostentatiously expressionless her discomfort was practically palpable.

Teal swiftly lowered herself back through the trapdoor into the third floor below.

“I will be the last to descend,” Shaeine said, turning to the others. “My magic is best used defensively. Maureen, may I assume you are as skillful a climber as most gnomes?”

“Well, I dunno how many gnomes ye—uh, that is, yes. I can get up an down that shrubbery easy as me own dorm staircase.”

“Good,” Shaeine said crisply, nodding. “You go first, then, followed by Iris. Szith is undoubtedly our best physical combatant, but the Sleeper’s methods will need to be countered by magic. Between her witchcraft and my shields, we should be able to fend off a warlock at least long enough to make the Well, provided we secure a head start. That means stealth is still our first line of defense.”

At that moment, a streak of orange fire roared out from the side face of the building, emitting a furious scream, followed by a hoarse bark from the khankredahg as she landed on it.

“Katzils,” Szith reported, bending her knees to lower her profile. “Two, I think…not making for us. Good, they’ve taken the bait.”

“Then we are doing well,” said Shaeine. “Vadrieny has nothing to fear from any demon. Iris?”

“Almost…there…”

The priestess nodded, drawing in a breath and letting it out slowly. “Goddess grant this continues as smoothly. We are nearly free.”


“Never fails!” Ruda said cheerfully. “Looking for Toby? Follow the sunrise where there shouldn’t be one!”

“Hey, guys,” Juniper said, waving at them. “You okay? You got hit, too?”

“In the library!” Fross chimed in outrage. “This Sleeper has no respect for knowledge! Infernal or other destructive magic being flung around would be seriously damaging to the books!”

“I guess that explains you being along, Crystal,” said Toby, nodding to the golem. “I’m glad you’re all okay. Have you checked on any of the others yet?”

“You’re the first we’ve found,” said Gabriel. “That light show you just put on was impossible to miss.”

“Yeah,” Toby said, grimacing. “Sorry about that, Juniper. I hope it didn’t…”

“Not pleasant,” the dryad grumbled. “I like it better when Omnu does it, he makes it so the light doesn’t weaken me. Still, you fried the demons. Seems like it was worthwhile.”

“How bad did you get hit?” Ruda asked.

“Just katzils,” Toby said, shaking his head. “Small fry. There were four of them, enough to be a threat to most people, but I was really only concerned because they spit fire and June’s vulnerable to that.”

“We are heading for Helion Hall,” Crystal interjected, “to find Professor Tellwyrn.”

“That is an excellent idea,” Toby said firmly. “If anybody can straighten this out, she can.”

“Mm. Yeah, walk and talk,” Ruda agreed, setting out up the path toward the next terrace up, but frowning pensively as she went. “Shit’s pretty wiggy, though. The Sleeper’s careful—I still dunno what to make of him pulling this shit while Tellwyrn’s right here on campus. At the very least, he’s gotta have some kind of plan for dealing with her.”

“I don’t think Tellwyrn is the kind of thing you deal with,” Gabriel said with a grin.

“There’s something wrong with arcane magic over the campus,” Fross reported. “I can barely detect it; I think it’s designed to operate on a level pretty well beyond mine. That’s probably aimed at Tellwyrn.”

“I would be quite surprised if any student spellcaster, whatever the source of their powers, could challenge Professor Tellwyrn’s mastery of the arcane,” said Crystal.

“Oh, yeah, totally, she’s got that down,” Fross agreed, bobbing affirmatively in the air in front of them. “The Sleeper’s not a match for Tellwyrn, there’s just no way, or he wouldn’t’ve been so much more aggressive in her absence. By the same token, he won’t challenge her head-on; it’d make more sense to try to trip her up and slow her down. Because you can bet she’s already working on this, and we clearly haven’t seen her yet. That’s probably what this is.”

“That’s a good point,” Gabriel said, nodding. “Several good points. I’ve got the girls fanning out to find the others, but no luck yet. Apparently no Vanislaads were summoned, so there’s not a lot they can do besides scout. Sometimes they can interrupt a summoning ritual if they catch it at the right moment, but nothing on that so far.”

All of them halted mid-stride, turning to stare at the familiar sound of Vadrieny’s aggressive cry. It was distant, far enough away that even the archdemon’s glow wasn’t visible through the intervening buildings and trees.

“Okaaay,” Ruda said. “New plan? Head for that?”

“She can take care of herself,” Fross said uncertainly. “Tellwyrn’s the one who can fix this… Oh, but I don’t wanna leave a friend in trouble…”

“I do not see a dilemma,” Crystal stated, executing a sharp right face and stepping off the path. “Professor Tellwyrn is undoubtedly already at work. It would be unconscionable to leave a student in danger. I, at least, must go render assistance.”

“Good,” Toby said with a grin, following her, as did they all. “I’ll feel better if we get the whole group back together for this, anyway. Odds are good Shaeine’s with her.”

They skirted the edge of Stew’s maintenance barn, seeing no sign of the groundskeeper in evidence, and emerged onto another path on the other side, overlooking a drop to the terrace below.

“Damn, she picks now to go quiet,” Gabriel muttered. “Did anybody happen to get a fix on—”

A pillar of fire erupted from the ground right in front of them, causing everyone to leap backward, several yelling in surprise. It passed quickly, though, and in its wake there stood a figure.

It resembled the shadow-armored form the Sleeper had taken the previous night—but smaller, leaner, as if this armor were more carefully and compactly designed. It also glowed a sullen red-orange, rather than deep purple.

The Sleeper shifted, planting his feet in a familiar combat stance, and made a beckoning gesture at them.

“I can’t imagine what you think you’re going to gain from this,” Toby said flatly, stepping forward to the head of the group, “but it’s gone far enough. This is the last time I am going to offer. Surrender, and—”

A bolt of lightning roared past from over his head, striking the Sleeper in the chest and sending him staggering backward, followed by a shrill bellow from Fross.

“SUCK PIXIE DUST, ASSHOLE!”


“All right, ye got it!” Maureen stage-whispered reassuringly up. “Almost there!”

Iris finally made it to the bottom, pausing to catch her breath. “I…whew. I’m gonna need a long nap and some food. That much magic and then climbing…”

“We are not out of danger yet,” Szith said, actually leaping from the vines to land beside them rather than clambering down the last few yards. “We will not be out of danger until the Sleeper is apprehended, but in the short term, at least not until we’ve made the Well. Vadrieny is still dispatching katzils. Shaeine, are you almost down?”

They all turned to look up the vines. No one at all was climbing them.

Iris frowned. “Shaeine? Do you see her?”

“Shaeine!” Szith hissed, staring upward, alarm leaking through her reserve. “…you two make for the Well. I’m going back up.”

“Wait!” Iris said, grabbing her shoulder. Above them, Vadrieny’s glowing form arced through the air to land on the roof. “Whatever happened, she can handle it. You’ll just be putting yourself in danger.”

“I—” Szith swallowed, clearly agonizing over the decision. “She is a lady of House Awarrion, I can’t just leave if she may be…”

“All respect, the archdemon’s a better bodyguard than y’ever could be,” said Maureen. “We’re in more trouble down ‘ere. Whatever we’re doin’, we do together, ladies. What’s it to be? Stay an’ check this out, or trust they’ve got it an’ head fer safety?”

“I…” Iris started to speak, then broke off, swaying. Szith reflexively caught her by the arm. “I’m sorry… Guys, I can’t. I’m so tired…”

“We move,” Szith said quietly, shooting a final, pained look upward. “I will have to trust—”

She broke off suddenly at the sound from the rooftop.


Fross’s next attack splashed harmlessly off the cube of translucent blue light which snapped into place out of nowhere around the Sleeper.

“That. Will. Do.”

“Professor,” Crystal said in obvious relief, stepping aside to allow Tellwyrn’s approach. The elf didn’t even glance at her, glaring at the imprisoned form across the path.

She stalked right up to the edge of the cage, staring at the Sleeper over her spectacles. “Well? Anything to say on your behalf that might mitigate what’s about to happen?”

The fire-armored figure turned to her, and executed a courtly bow.

Then it exploded.

Several of them shied back, though the only effect the eruption had was to turn the cube momentarily orange. Moments later, though, the fiery glow vanished, leaving the magical prison still standing there, now empty.

“Uhh…” Gabriel swallowed. “Did he…just…suicide?”

“Highly doubtful,” Tellwyrn said acidly. “We should be so lucky. That’s hardly in this fool’s nature, though, that much is well established.”

“Professor, don’t take this the wrong way,” said Ruda, “but is it possible he could’ve shadow-jumped or something outta your little box?”

“No,” Tellwyrn snapped. “No, this was another of those damned projections. The kid really is remarkably good with them; those are extremely hard to make using infernal magic. I am quite impressed, and on a certain level I regret how much I’m going to kill the little shit. For now, are you all—”

She broke off suddenly, cringing, and clutched her ears with both hands.

“Professor?” Toby said in alarm. “What’s…?

In the next moment, Juniper grimaced in discomfort, raising her fingertips to her own right ear. “Oh, no…”

“What?” Ruda demanded. “What the fuck is…”

At that point, though, the sound finally climbed down from its piercing origins into the register of human hearing. It was another moment before they could make sense of it, but by then it was too familiar not to recognize: Vadrieny’s voice, raised in a long wail of anguish.

“No, no, no,” Fross said frantically, shooting off in the direction of the sound. The rest followed at varying speeds, Tellwyrn fastest of all by teleporting.

Even she was too late.

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12 – 39

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“They look so happy,” Iris murmured. The two drow glanced at her, Shaeine with a small smile, before everyone’s attention was recaptured by a sharp crackle of discharged energy and yelps from Teal and Maureen, who hopped backward from their contraption.

“It’s fine, I’m okay,” Teal said, grimacing and shaking her singed hand. Shaeine had surged to her feet, but stopped at the reassurance. “And this is why we let the one with the invincible archdemon handle the exposed power grid.”

“Aye, because usin’ proper safety equipment is just crazy talk,” Maureen said in exasperation. “I told ye we ‘ad a loose connector in there!”

“To be fair, you said a loose something…”

“Somethin’ bein’ loose was the only reasonable explanation fer the weird power spikes in th’motive matrix, an’ an excellent reason not t’go stickin’ your appendages into th’wires!”

“Is that what was causing you to keep ramming the front door?” Iris asked. “Because I’m not sure how much more abuse this shed can take.”

“Hey, I’m all for safety measures,” Teal said reasonably. “But why take the time to set up a grounding charm when we have someone indestructible who can just reach in there?”

“She is correct, Teal,” Shaeine said in a tone which cut through the growing argument despite her soft voice. “Safety precautions are a habit with inherent value, no matter how confident you are in your durability. We ought not discourage them in others.”

“All right, you’re right,” Teal agreed a little bashfully. “Sorry, Maureen. Next time, full charms. It’s not like we’re running on a schedule, after all.”

“Wow, she’s well-trained,” Maureen said, shooting a grin in Shaeine’s direction. “’ow come I can’t get that kind o’ agreement?”

“I have my methods,” Shaeine replied with a placid little smile. “Though I fear you and I would have a problem if you were to employ them.”

Teal and Maureen both flushed and busied themselves picking charms and replacement components from the nearby tool rack, while Iris barked a coarse laugh. Szith, not for the first time that evening, managed to look uncomfortable without altering her expression or posture by a hair.

It was a little close in the shed, with all five of them plus the vehicle, even with three clustered on a bench against the back wall, merely spectating. They weren’t the only group on campus who felt the need to congregate together lately, though. Szith had fallen without comment into an attendant role, as she tended to do in the presence of either Ravana or Shaeine, standing impassively off to one side with her hands clasped behind her, as if awaiting orders. Iris and Shaeine had both brought books and writing implements, but little schoolwork had been accomplished. Even aside from the entertainment provided by Teal and Maureen’s back and forth, the work was rather interesting to watch.

Their machine seemed to be nearing completion. It resembled an enormous copper beetle wearing a saddle, its tail currently propped up on a sawhorse; the levitation charms that normally held it up were inactive while the enchantments were being worked on. In addition to the now-affixed saddle, it had handlebars with runic controls worked right into the grips—Maureen’s invention—and fairy lamps attached to the front of its central shell, rather like eyes. Arrays of copper pipes sprang out from below the handlebars, positioned to shield the rider’s legs; when the thing was running, they also produced a fierce arcane glow, though the two enchanters had replied to questions about their purpose only with fiendish grins. Right now, it rested inert on its sawhorse and over-broad rubber wheel, all charms deactivated and with a panel on its side open, exposing its magical innards.

Suddenly, Teal jerked upright, dropping a power crystal and spinning toward the door.

Everyone else in the room tensed, zeroing in on her; Szith stepped forward, grasping the hilt of her saber.

“Trouble?” the drow asked tersely.

Fiery light flooded the small space; there simply wasn’t room for Vadrieny’s wings to spread, but even kept folded tightly against her back, their glow and that of her hair was almost overpowering in these confines.

“Trouble,” the archdemon replied. “Everyone stay together. We need to get out of here.”


“Ugh, we should’ve just stayed with Shaeine and Teal,” Gabriel groaned, rubbing the heels of his hands into his eyes. “Omnu’s balls, I’d be getting a better grasp of these principles watching somebody build something than trying to cram all this theory into my brain…”

“Teal and Shaeine need some alone time, and also aren’t trying to build a time portal,” Fross chided gently, drifting over so that she illuminated the open book in front of him. “Theory is all there is, Gabe, unless you want to get a visit from the Scions of Vemnesthis, which you don’t. C’mon, you’ll get it! It’s just the physics that are confusing at first, but once it clicks you’ll have no trouble!”

“Not everybody gets to spend an extra eight hours a day studying, glitterbug,” Ruda said with a grin. “We’re not quite on your level.”

“Says the person just sitting there,” Gabriel said sourly.

She shrugged. Ruda was leaning back in her chair, balancing on its rear two legs, with her boots propped up on the table before them. “If you think it’s fun for me to be loafing around uselessly ‘cos it’s no longer safe to be alone on this fucking campus—”

“Guys,” Fross protested. “Settle, please. This is still a library.”

They both halted, glancing around guiltily. This particular area of the library was empty save for themselves, but it was the principle of the thing. Nobody liked making Crystal come and remind them of the rules; unlike Weaver, who had at least been entertaining to annoy, she was a much more sympathetic figure, and everyone (except Chase) felt bad for inconveniencing her.

“Okay, let’s back up a step,” Fross continued softly, hovering closer to the book. “All this theory is necessary background for teleportation, Gabe, because of the intertwined nature of space and time. Some arcanists think they’re actually the same thing; at any rate, you have to calculate temporal factors to avoid accidentally time-traveling when teleporting over large distances. You like practical stuff, right?”

He sighed. “Knowing how to teleport would be nice, but come on. These large distances are, like, from here to the moon. And that’s barely large enough to qualify. There’s nowhere you could actually teleport to where these equations would be a factor.”

“The theory is still important! It’s all about accounting for the effects of gravity, which does make a difference for long-range practical teleportation. Gravity is caused by the indentations caused by mass in the fabric of the universe, and that’s important to calculate. Fixing your ‘port to the world’s gravity well is essential for all but the shortest jumps, otherwise you can accidentally shoot yourself off it. The planet is both rotating and orbiting, so if you simply move in absolute units of space instead of with it as a reference point—”

Suddenly her glow dimmed and she dropped almost to the table.

“…guys, we have a problem.”

Ruda smoothly swung her legs to the ground and straightened up. “What kind of problem?”

“Okay, so, you remember how I was piggy-backing an arcane signal on the dryads’ fae magic field so I could detect infernal magic used in its radius? I needed to do that to boost the range over the whole mountain, but for a much smaller effect I can just use my own energy, which I have been for basic security, and we’re being snuck up on right now by something invisible and powered by a lot of infernal magic.”

Both of them came to their feet, drawing blades, and in Gabriel’s case, also a wand.

“Where?” Ruda asked tersely.

“Coming up the main stairs from the lobby,” Fross answered. “Slowly. Like a prowling cat. Don’t think he knows we know yet.”

“Then he’s not listening…” Gabriel muttered. “…yeah. Vestrel sees it now, too; it’s half-concealed from the valkyries, as well, but knowing what to look for and where she says there’s a distortion. And also she thanks you, Fross.”

“You’re welcome, Vestrel! Uh, oh, I think he’s noticed—”

The distortion would have been hard to observe even in the well-lit library had it not come shooting directly at them. Something about it encouraged the eyes to slide way, no doubt deliberately.

It hesitated as a sphere of blue light rose around the three and their table. It was a lopsided sphere, though, flickering and sparking where it intersected with a chair.

“Oh, crap I need to practice this more!” Fross said shrilly.

“Ruda, you’re on defense,” Gabriel said, taking aim with his wand.

Before he could fire, the shadow hurtled forward, impacting Fross’s shield and causing it to collapse in a shower of sparks; the pixie chimed in pain and dropped to the tabletop. It then darted backward as both Ariel and a mithril rapier were slashed through the space where it had been.

Suddenly, a silver blur hurtled out of the stack. Crystal skidded on the carpet, coming to a stop between the shadow and the students with her arms outstretched to shield them. The glow of arcane light which shone from between her joints was so intense it could be seen even through the severe dress she had taken to wearing.

“Crystal, get back!” Gabriel shouted. “We can deal with this guy!”

“I’m familiar with your methods, Gabriel,” the golem replied. “Not in the library, please.”

The shadow darted to the side, clearly angling to get around her, but before it got two yards, the whole region lit up with a fierce blue glow, causing the students’ hair to stand up from static.

Crystal turned to face the shadow, her arms still flung outward. For some reason, it was plainly visible now within the arcane field she had raised, as if the energy blunted its attention-deflecting ability. It was also still struggling to reach the students, but moving sluggishly and erratically, as if trying to push against a powerful wind.

“Oh, crud, my head,” Fross groaned, lifting back into the air. “…wait a sec, what’s going on? Is she doing that?”

“Crystal?” Ruda said in alarm. “Are you okay?”

The golem’s face showed no expression, of course, being a silver mask with glowing eye holes and a slit for a mouth. She didn’t answer, seemingly focused on whatever she was doing.

The distortion shimmered once, then fired a shadowbolt at Gabriel. The purplish burst of energy barely made it a yard before arcing away to slam into Crystal instead as if she were somehow sucking it in. The golem rocked from the impact, but kept on her feet, and did not relent in her efforts.

“Okay, that does it,” Gabriel snapped, taking a step forward, his wand extending to a full-length scythe.

He was halted by Ruda grabbing his shoulder. “Whoah, hang on. I think you’d better not go charging into that, Gabe.”

The shadow rippled back and forth now, as if struggling against whatever held it, but was being drawn toward Crystal as inexorably as the shadowbolt had been. The students could only watch in alarmed fascination as it crept closer, until it finally got within her physical reach.

Like a mousetrap springing, Crystal abruptly wrapped her arms around the vague shape, pressing it close to herself.

A pulse of brilliant light rippled through the library as her arcane field collapsed. The golem was hurled backward to impact the wall, where she slid down to sit crumpled at its base. The light streaming from her eyes flickered out, then came back, now cycling rapidly between colors: blue, purple, orange, pure white, and then back to arcane blue.

“Crystal!” Gabriel shrugged Ruda off and dashed to her side, kneeling. “Are you okay? Say something!”

Crystal’s eyes flashed once more, settling on a pale purple glow, then she did begin speaking, albeit in a language none of them knew.

“Uhh…” Ruda looked helplessly at Fross. “Does that sound at all familiar to you?”

“Familiar, yes; intelligible, no.” The pixie drifted closer to the fallen golem. “I think it shares some root words with Tanglish, but no, I don’t even know what language that is.”

“Um, say something in Tanglish?” Gabriel clarified with a worried expression.

Crystal’s whole body twitched once.

“Contact—recog—English,” she sputtered. “Failure—rebooting. Unrecognized hardware, unrecognized tran…transcen—scen—scen—” Again she twitched, more feebly this time. “I can’t—Professor, the kids—”

She thrashed violently, her head impacting the wall hard enough to leave a dent, then slumped, eyes going dark.

“Crystal!” Fross cried.

Suddenly the glow returned to the golem’s eyes, this time their normal, steady arcane blue. She lifted her head to regard Gabriel, who knelt by her side.

“Ouch,” Crystal said. “That was altogether unpleasant. Are you all right, students? What happened?”

“Us?” Ruda exclaimed.

“We’re fine,” Gabriel assured her. “More worried about you. That was pretty scary, Crystal. Are you okay? How do you feel?”

“As if…I just woke up from a long sleep,” she said slowly, then began getting to her feet. “Or so I imagine this would feel, based on descriptions. I’ve never slept. I think I’d rather not do that again.”

“Uh, yeah,” said Ruda. “You ate the Sleeper. That’s gotta give you some wicked fuckin’ indigestion.”

“That was some kind of projection,” Fross disagreed. “You can’t just absorb a living person like that, though it’s fairly easy to do with most kinds of magic if you’re powerful enough. I didn’t know you could do that, Crystal!”

“Nor did I,” the golem replied, experimentally flexing her arms. “I think I’m all right.”

“I think you’d better see Professor Tellwyrn,” Gabriel said firmly.

“…perhaps that’s a good idea. Thank you, Mr. Arquin.”

“In fact, we’d better go find her, too,” he said, turning to the others. “After last night, we know for a fact the three of us wouldn’t be able to handle the actual Sleeper that easily. He probably wouldn’t try, though, with Tellwyrn back on campus. If that was just a projection, I bet we weren’t the only ones who just got visited.”

“Then hadn’t we better find the others?” Fross exclaimed.

“No, he’s right,” Ruda said, sheathing her sword. “Tellwyrn needs to know. And she’s the lady who can scry the ley lines over this campus and teleport. We get to her, we can get to the rest. C’mon, guys, better not dawdle. Fuck knows what else is happening right now.”


Rafe hummed softly to himself as he dismantled the apparatus which had been in use all day, separating out bits and pieces of Fedora’s “evidence.” Already, he had set aside several carefully labeled sample vials, the results of that day’s long efforts. It was dim in his lab; as was often the case when he immersed himself in an interesting project, he’d never quite gotten around to such mundane considerations as turning on the lamps when night fell outside, and now only the small work light next to his experimental station served as illumination for the whole room.

Facing away from the door, he did not observe the tendrils of liquid shadow streaming in through the crack at the bottom. The darkness gradually built upon itself, rising to a nearly person-sized form. It made no sound and cast no shadow in the gloom. After a full minute, though, it stood fully upright, entirely within the room, and its form rippled once as if organizing itself.

Rafe rather abruptly set down the beaker he’d been holding, slumping forward to brace himself against the counter.

The shadow rippled again.

It stopped when the alchemist began to laugh.

“Somebody doesn’t think things all the way through,” he chuckled, turning. The half-elf showed no surprise or alarm at the sight of the sentient darkness blocking his access to the door. “I am not a presumptuous freshman dabbling in alchemy she doesn’t understand. You presume to sleep the Rafe himself?!” He interlaced his fingers and stretched his arms before himself, cracking his knuckles and grinning insanely. “Well, sonny Jim, you know what we’re all here for. Come forth and get your ass educated!”

The shadow emitted an audible hiss. Its shape rippled again, but Rafe had already dipped one hand into one of his belt pouches and produced a vial of potion, which he hurled past it at the wall. The vial shattered, splattering a sticky black substance over the wall next to the door, which clung there as if making a puddle on the ground.

A purple-black shadowbolt ripped outward from the dim shape, aimed initially at Rafe, but it immediately spun wildly off course, arcing widely around to slam into the puddle on the wall. The black smear pulsed with light, briefly, before falling inert again.

Next it tried a fireball; this impacted another vial hurled by Rafe in midair. The vial didn’t even shatter, but dissolved, leaving behind a waist-high dust devil of whirling air, which was lit briefly with flame as it siphoned the fireball into itself. Fire arced all the way to the point at which it danced upon the floor, then flickered out.

“HAH!” Rafe held up both hands, fingers splayed, with eight vials of different colors braced between them. “If that’s the way you want it, then step right up and BEHOLD!”


Professor Yornhaldt was rather enjoying the familiar old routine of grading papers after his sabbatical; even during this stressful time on the campus, it added a measure of comfort to his day. Especially during this time, in fact.

When a swirling vortex of darkness appeared in the middle of his office, he was thus even more annoyed than he might otherwise have been.

Rising quickly but smoothly, he carefully closed the heavy folder into which he’d sorted his paperwork and tucked it away in his top desk drawer for safekeeping. Whatever was about to transpire, he would rather the students’ work not be destroyed in the process. It would be quite unfair to them to make them re-do it.

Yornhaldt stepped around from behind his desk, a blue shield snapping into place around himself, and held up one hand, a fireball forming above his palm and glowing blue-white with intensity.

A crackle sounded through the office, tiny arcs of lightning flashing from the vortex to scorch the carpet. A moment later, they snapped sharply, releasing a burst of white light, and then whole thing vanished, leaving Professor Tellwyrn standing there, looking even more annoyed than usual.

He lowered his hand slightly, not releasing the conjured fireball. “Arachne?”

“Alaric, good,” she said briskly. “I was afraid you might have detected what was going on and attempted to intervene.”

“I confess the first thing I detected was your arrival just now,” he said. “What was that? Is something wrong with your usual means of transportation?”

“In a word, yes. There’s an infernal field suddenly in place over my mountain, not ordinarily detectable, which is designed to infiltrate arcane spells used within its radius and corrupt them. Do not attempt to teleport until I have straightened this nonsense out; the result is what you just saw. With all respect to your skills, Alaric, I have abilities in that regard that you simply don’t.”

“Arachne, I wouldn’t still be working for you if I took it personally to be occasionally overshadowed,” he replied with a grim smile, finally letting his shield and fireball vanish. “What’s going on, and what’s the plan?”

“I’m assuming this is that idiot Sleeper kid,” she snorted, “rapidly getting far too big for his britches. As for the plan, to begin with, I need you in place helping to coordinate this response, and most particularly to keep an eye on the other individuals doing so. You, unlike them, I trust. Hold on, this may be uncomfortable.”

It was uncomfortable, especially to someone accustomed to the seamless transition of arcane teleportation. It felt rather like being dragged through a pool of slimy muck which crackled with static electricity. A moment later, though, it was over, and another dark vortex spat them back out in her office.

Yornhaldt grimaced, needlessly adjusting the lapels of his coat and taking stock; he knew better than to bother complaining at Tellwyrn’s brusque treatment. Only three others were present, two standing over her scrying table: Inspector Fedora and the warlock Bradshaw. He immediately understood her concern about trust. Ashley lounged against the bookcase, giving him a smile and a wave upon his arrival.

“That was quick,” Fedora commented, his eyes on the image displayed in the crystal globe around which the table was built. “Good. We’ve got at least a dozen of these things popping up, going after various people.”

“I’m compensating for the infernal interference as best I can,” Bradshaw added, “but without a dedicated mage working on this—ah, Professor Yornhaldt, perfect.”

“As he was about to say,” Fedora added, “we haven’t got a reliable fix on everyone and every place being targeted.”

“I’m on it,” Yornhaldt said, stepping forward to place his hands on the scrying table, flanking the crystal.

“Good,” said Tellwyrn. “Help them coordinate; I’ll be back for updates as frequently as I can. For now, though, I need something to start with. What’s the most urgent priority?”

“It’ll take me a moment, Arachne. I need to make certain I’m properly warded before wading into this, or I risk blowing up your scrying equipment and possibly myself.”

“I understand that, Alaric, I was asking the Inspector. You’ve been fairly reliable at guessing the Sleeper’s movements, Fedora. Thoughts?”

“These tactics are clearly designed to counter the overwhelming force you represent on campus,” Fedora said immediately. “Hell, just what he faced last night was more force than he wanted to. Most of these will be diversions.”

“I can figure out that much myself, not being an utter buffoon,” she snapped. “Have you anything useful to suggest?”

“Ingvar insulted and provoked him last night,” the Inspector replied. “Rafe’s current project is an immediate and severe threat to him. The sophomores and myself are both; I think Ingvar is the least likely target, assuming that dryad stuck with him like we asked her to.” He winked at Ashley. “They’re not the most reliable of critters.”

“She did,” Ashley said, not rising to the bait. “Aspen is extremely fond of him anyway.”

“Right, then he’s probably a lower priority. Likewise me, for the same reasons exactly.”

“Good,” Tellwyrn said briskly. “Then Rafe’s the first stop; at least I know where his lab damn well is without needing to scry it. Try to have something more for me when I return, people. Find the sophomore class. Tonight, we put a stop to this nonsense.”

With another whirl of dark energy and flicker of lightning, she was gone.

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8 – 6

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“Will you need anything else? There are further volumes which I can pull for a more in-depth study.”

“No, thank you,” said Ravana, surveying the dozen books already stacked on their table. “The assignment calls for a two-page paper; more material than this will simply swamp us, I think.”

“Very well,” said Crystal, nodding her head. The expressionless mask that formed her face was an eerie contrast to her pleasant voice. “Don’t hesitate to ask at the front desk if you require any help.”

“We won’t, thank you.”

The golem turned and walked back through the stacks toward the front of the library and her customary seat behind its broad desk, leaving the four girls seated around a small table in a reading alcove. As she went, the light emitted from between her joints and the plates of her “skin” cast shifting patterns of illumination on the nearby bookshelves.

It wasn’t dim in the library by any means; there were tall windows and abundant fairy lamps, creating plenty of light to read by. Its architecture, though, trended toward narrow spaces and dark tones, making it feel cozy and even a little gloomy despite the light level. Crystal’s blue-white glow made for a stark contrast.

“She’s amazing,” Maureen breathed, staring after the golem even once she was gone from sight.

“Oh?” Iris said warily. “Uh, that’s… Well, she’s not really my type, but I guess…”

“What?” The gnome blinked at her, then blushed. “Oh, for the— No! Are ye daft? She’s a machine. That’s what I meant; the way she talks an interacts, it’s incredible. There’ve been talking enchantments basically forever, but those were rare, an’ always stuck on static objects; havin’ something that moves around attached to ’em mucked up the old methods, as I understood it. No, she’s a modern golem, but almost like a real person!”

“Is she not a person?” Szith asked, raising an eyebrow. “If she can communicate as one, what other measure is there by which to judge her? She certainly appeared as sentient as you or I.”

“You can tell if y’pay attention an’ know what to listen for,” said Maureen. “She uses exactly the same inflection on everything she says, an’ there’s a faint pause, like, after ye speak to ‘er. Somethin’ bein’ processed in there, the machinery finding the right response an’ spittin’ it out. ‘Course, it’s all arcane magic, not really a true machine, but still, it’s far and away beyond any other golem I ever heard of.”

“It seems my question remains valid, then,” said Szith. “Even if she is an artificial creation, is she not a sentient thing?”

Maureen had begun shaking her head before the drow was finished speaking. “Actual sentience, that’s still beyond modern enchantment. Some o’ the old archmages came close, with talkin’ mirrors an’ swords an’ the like, but in the end they were a lot simpler than an actual person. No real psychology, I mean, just…patterns o’ behavior. Also, most o’ those were made by killin’ somebody and fixin’ a bit o’ their soul to the object, so… That’s highly illegal in the Empire.”

Iris went wide-eyed, turning to stare in the direction Crystal had gone. “You…you don’t suppose…”

“If Tellwyrn had done something like that,” said Ravana with an amused little smile, “I hardly think she would encourage the results to circulate among her students. In any case, I doubt she would have done so to begin with.”

“Aye,” said Maureen, “an’ no matter how reclusive she is, if she’d cracked actual golem sentience, there’d be word of it all over. That’s one of the great unsolveds, y’know? Like mass-producible magic mirrors or automated teleportation.”

“You know, your accent kind of comes and goes,” Iris remarked, frowning. Maureen shrugged, averting her eyes, and pulled one of the books over to herself. She had to stand on her chair to see comfortably over the table, but she was used to long hours on her feet.

“I still don’t feel my question was addressed,” said Szith. “So Crystal is perhaps a bit simple-minded; there are no shortage of biological people in the same state. What truly differentiates her? Your explanation implied a definitive line between speaking enchantments and sentient beings, but you didn’t define it.”

“Well…it’s vague,” Maureen said. “I’ve never spoken with a sentient enchantment till today, but I could tell. Like I said, she processes speech like a machine, sortin’ out what she hears and findin’ the right combination o’ words to reply. Supposedly the older talking enchantments really only started to look sketchy when studied in detail.”

“Is that not what we all do, though?” Szith asked. “Perhaps Crystal does not find her words quite as adroitly, but the end result seems to be the same…”

“In my opinion,” said Ravana, “the difference is one of degree, not of nature. We are all of us nothing but machines, differentiated from an abacus only by a level of complexity. The mind is just a function of the body, after all.”

Szith frowned slightly. “When you put it that way, it sounds rather nihilistic.”

“Oh?” Ravana smiled at her. “Do you know much about the sea goddess Naphthene?”

“I do not.”

“Naphthene has no cult or worshipers,” Ravana said, folding her hands serenely in her lap. “Nor does she want any; she either ignores people who try, or sometimes takes exception to their temerity if they are particularly stubborn. Nonetheless, seafaring cultures revere her, for obvious reasons. No ship sets out to sea without making a small offering to Naphthene, for to omit that step is to reliably court disaster. And yet, storms still happen. Those who have made the requisite sacrifices are still vulnerable. The sea is not a thing to be tamed.”

“She sounds…unjust,” said Szith, her frown deepening.

“Precisely!” Ravana replied. “Unfair, arbitrary, random. And that is the lesson absorbed by a lot of coastal societies: life is simply a matter of luck and fickle fate. What is fascinating, and relevant to our discussion, is how they deal with this worldview. In the west and south, the Tidestrider clans are known to be brutal and, as you say, nihilistic. The Empire has brought them somewhat to heel, but in the old days they rendered that ocean all but impassable, mostly raiding each other, but they would descend in force on anyone else who dared to sail their waters. They took no prisoners and gave no quarter, and the few who visited among them described them as a dour and unsmiling folk. On the other hand, in the east and north are the Punaji, who are famously high-spirited and cheerful. And both societies arrived at their value systems from the same starting point: observing the unfairness of life.” She leaned back in her chair, her smile broadening. “There’s an old Punaji proverb I very much like: ‘When nothing means anything, everything means everything.’”

The group fell silent, three of them frowning thoughtfully at the empty space in the center of the table.

“I’m a wee bit flummoxed how we came ’round to this from me admiring the golem,” Maureen said at last.

“Quite so!” Ravana replied, suddenly brisk, and leaned forward to pick up a book. “Now, we have here several volumes on history, adventuring and magic which make reference to Arachne Tellwyrn. I propose that we divide them up; that will give us this evening to skim through and isolate references to her failures and defeats, and then we can pool our notes and compose the actual essay tomorrow in time for Wednesday’s class. Does anyone object if I do the writing myself?”

“Forgive me,” said Szith, “but I object to your presumption. We’ve followed you this far, as requesting books from the golem scarcely constitutes effort, but the group has not agreed to pursue this course of action. In frankness, you have not justified it.”

“Uh, yeah,” Iris piped up, her expression worried. “I don’t like the sound of that assignment to pick at each other’s weaknesses, but I really don’t see how starting a fight with Tellwyrn is gonna help us.”

“Very well, it’s a fair concern.” Ravana leaned forward again, folding her hands on the table and interlacing her fingers. “To begin with, do you believe me when I say that the assignment itself is not meant to be taken at face value?”

The other three girls exchanged glances.

“I dunno,” Iris said doubtfully.

“This project is by no means the first time I have engaged in research about our professor,” said Ravana. “Upon being accepted here I commissioned a detailed analysis of her, the better to know what to expect. While Tellwyrn herself has historically bludgeoned her way through obstacles with sheer magical might, she has an entirely other set of priorities for other people. Particularly students. In fact, she is rather fond of subtle tests of character, of placing obstacles in people’s paths and engineering situations to gauge their moral and mental capabilities. I came prepared to be on the lookout for these; I did not expect to find one so quickly, or for it to be so blatant.”

“Blatant?” Maureen asked.

Ravana grinned faintly. “May I at least assume you have all noticed, as I have, the insanity of the assignment in question? The sheer, emotionally destructive absurdity of it?”

They all nodded, slowly, and she spread her hands. “Arachne Tellwyrn is not someone who does insane, absurd things—at least, not to students or others under her protection. She is someone who likes to carefully feel people out using oblique methods before subjecting them to her bombastic approach to life. I suspect that’s why she is still alive; it has prevented her from picking a fight with someone too close to her level.”

“That makes sense, then,” said Szith, again nodding. “Very well, I can accept your assertion, and thank you for the analysis. I for one would likely have stepped right into the trap otherwise.”

“Ought we to clue the others in?” Maureen asked.

Ravana shrugged. “If you wish. We were assigned our room groups to do this with, however; I don’t think we will be expected to extend our efforts beyond that.”

“Still,” said Szith, “you have yet to explain why you think antagonizing Professor Tellwyrn is a wise academic move.”

Iris nodded emphatically. “I think your exact words were ‘rub her face in it.’ Failing us is the least of what she can do to us, you know.”

“Ah, yes,” Ravana replied with a rueful smile. “Forgive me, I do like to indulge in tiny little melodramas. No, being aggressive with Tellwyrn is probably not a good idea. If nothing else, it would be a metatextual failure; seeing the subtle trap and using it to act brutishly seems self-defeating. No, what I had in mind is a simple message, and if anything a gentle one. Or at least a subtle one.”

“Go on,” said Szith when no one else commented.

Ravana leaned forward to tap one of the books. “Rather than the assigned analysis of each other, I propose that we collaborate on a general essay detailing strategies a group of people can use against a more powerful opponent, with examples—each of which will be an instance of someone overcoming Tellwyrn herself. At no point do I plan to make threats or personal statements. It will be far more oblique, and yet pointed, indicating that we have discerned both the trap and the true nature of the assignment, and that we have identified the real aggressor here.”

Another quiet fell; Ravana smiled beatifically at the others, who looked pensive.

“When you explain it that way,” Szith said finally, “I still think the idea is excessively confrontational. We can surely present a statement without encroaching upon her personal history.”

“Her personal history is public,” Ravana replied, “and I assure you, we will get nowhere with Tellwyrn if we do things by half-measures. Let’s be realistic, ladies; we are under no circumstances going to intimidate her, and I frankly doubt we can even offend her. She simply doesn’t take us that seriously, or personally. This is about not being walked over. The risk is slight, but for that, at least, I am willing to take it.”

Szith nodded at that; Iris and Maureen frowned at each other.

“Or,” Ravana went on mildly, “if you are more comfortable establishing up front that you will always be a victim, we can run with that, too.”


 

Last Rock’s expansion over the summer had been minor, but it was a relatively static town most of the time, and even a minor growth had upended everything. Coming as it did right on the heels of the evacuation and subsequent return, there was more muttering than usual in the town about the students and the disruption they caused, but for the most part, this was overruled. The students were still the biggest source of revenue for local business—or at least, they always had been. Last Rock’s newest additions were beginning to call that into question.

The new Silver Mission stood on the outskirts, close enough to the Rail platform to be immediately visible to arriving travelers. It was a modest building in size, but very much Avenist in its sensibilities, all white marble, domed roofs and with a fence of iron bars topped in spear-like points. Aside from the one assigned priestess, who lived on site, the Mission had few regulars, most of its visitors being the would-be adventurers who passed through the town en route to the Golden Sea. There didn’t seem to be any residents of Last Rock itself who felt the need to call on Avei’s protection.

At least, not so far, though that might change, given the additions to the population brought by the other new addition. The Vidian temple, too, was small, little more than a shrine—but it had come with personnel, and continued to attract more. Three new houses and another inn were under construction on the outskirts of town, the Mayor was busy drawing up plans to extend a couple of the streets, and Sheriff Sanders had been sufficiently pressed to keep order among the new arrivals that he had officially deputized Ox Whippoorwill and another man. Imperial surveyors had visited, and there was even talk of an Imperial Marshal being assigned too the town.

Aside from the clerics and others who had moved in, people continued to pass through, seldom staying long, but all hoping for at least a glimpse of the new paladin—or either of the old ones, for that matter. Tellwyrn had made it sufficiently plain that sightseers were not welcome on campus that few tried that anymore, especially after the newspapers had begun circulating horror stories of tourists teleported to Tidestrider islands, Tar’naris, the Stalrange and other unwholesome vacation spots. Still, even after that and the natural waning of interest over the summer months, the Imperial Rail Service had finally been force to designate Last Rock a justification-only destination—meaning tickets there could only be purchased by people who could provide a reason for their trip to the Rail conductor. It wasn’t much of a barrier, only keeping out the particularly stupid and deranged, but it did the trick. Anybody intelligent enough to come up with an excuse to be in Last Rock was intelligent enough not to cause trouble once they got there.

Even so, Gabriel’s visits to the Vidian temple were necessarily crowd-pleasing affairs. In just a few short weeks he had perfected the art of nodding, smiling and waving to people without stopping to engage with them. He also usually didn’t go without escort. Toby and Trissiny would have only drawn more attention, Juniper might have created a panic and none of his other classmates were particularly intimidating, but the three privates with whom he roomed often accompanied him into town. Sanders or one of his deputies sometimes shadowed him once there. It was awkward at times, but it worked.

This evening, though, he was alone, which was the point. The sky had long since fallen red, and the sun was only partially visible on the horizon. Now, at the point between day and night, was a sacred time to Vidians; dusk and dawn were favored for their gatherings and rituals. More to the point, certain powers of Vidius granted to certain of his followers were at their peak in these between times.

He walked with a frown of concentration on his face, focusing internally and barely paying enough attention to where he was going to get there intact. By far the biggest threat to his focus was his success; he’d made it all the way to the temple without anyone noticing his presence, and jubilation threatened to wreck it for him. The final stretch of the race was ahead: the temple itself, and the Vidian worshipers gathered there.

The temple was, of course, of two parts. The public area was a roofless stone amphitheater, the materials for which (like the white marble of the Silver Mission) had been brought in by Rail and assembled rapidly with the aid of Wizards’ Guild artisans. The half dozen Vidians who had emigrated to Last Rock for the chance to be near their new paladin were all present, rehearsing a play that was to be performed in a few weeks. Even for those who weren’t professional actors, drama was considered a sacred art to the god of masks, one most of his followers involved themselves in.

Gabriel did not slow or look up at them as he arrived, stepping up onto the stone outer rim of the amphitheater. This was not far from the spot from which he and his classmates had embarked into the Golden Sea almost a year ago, right on the north edge of town. He passed quickly around the edge of the ring, ignoring the performers, none of whom even looked up at him, to reach the half-pyramid positioned at one edge and the door set into it.

Opening the door, for whatever reason, brought attention. Immediately voices were raised behind him, but he swiftly ducked inside, pulling it shut, and then slumped against it, letting out a long breath of relief.

The staircase in which he found himself was well-lit by small fairy lights, descending straight forward without any curves or turns. Gabriel, having regathered his composure, set off down toward the bottom, confident in the door’s ability to protect him from his adoring public. He could still hear them clearly, clamoring outside; the enchantments on it were designed to conduct rather than to muffle sound, so that those below could be aware of anything important happening above. Still, he knew they would respect the barrier, as Vidians respected all barriers. This half of the temple was not entered except on specific business.

Right now, its position was obvious, as the prairie grasses hadn’t yet had time to settle in above the underground complex, leaving a long rectangle of bare earth adjacent to the amphitheater. In time, though, the lower half of the temple would be invisible from above, only the door revealing that such a thing existed. Some temples favored trapdoors, even hidden entrances, as if to deny that they even had a lower half. The facility at Last Rock was not only small, it was simple, and didn’t seem to feel any need for such touches.

At the bottom was a long, narrow room terminating in a shrine to Vidius himself and lined with benches—not an uncommon arrangement for places of worship. Doors to either side led to the apartments of the priest in residence, and…what else Gabriel did not know, never having been invited in. All his conversations and lessons had taken place here, in the chapel.

The priest, Val Tarvadegh, was a lean man in his middle years, whose beakish nose and widow’s peak conspired to make his face rather birdlike in aspect. He was dressed, as always, in the black robes of his office—as was the other person present.

Gabriel paused at the base of the stairs, sizing up the woman. Bronze of skin and black of hair, she was a perfectly average-looking Tiraan like himself and Tarvadegh, but he couldn’t shake a feeling of familiarity at seeing her.

“Gabriel!” the priest said, turning to him with a smile. “And here you are, unmolested! How did it go?”

“Brilliant,” he said, a grin breaking across his own features. “I made it the whole way this time! Well…almost. It broke when I got to the door. As you can probably hear,” he added ruefully, glancing behind. Indeed, in the sudden quiet, the excited babble of voices was still dimly audible. “I’m sorry, am I early? I don’t mean to interrupt…”

“Oh, pay no attention to me,” the woman said, rising from her seat on one of the chapel’s benches. “I merely stopped by to see Val; far be it from me to impede our new paladin’s education.”

“Are…you a priestess?” he asked hesitantly. “I’m sorry, it’s just I’ve got this feeling I know you from somewhere.”

“You have possibly noticed me on campus,” she said with a smile. “Afritia Morvana. I’m the new house mother for the Well.”

“Oh! The freshman girls, right. So, what’re they like?”

“If they decide that’s any of your business,” she said placidly, “I’m sure they will inform you.”

“Whoah, point taken.” Gabriel raised his hands in surrender; Tarvadegh grinned, hiding a chuckle behind a cough. “I assure you, madam, your charges are in no danger from me. You can ask anybody how awkward I am with women.”

“Yes, I begin to see that,” she said, her smile widening. “Anyway. I must be off; I’ll see what I ca do about dispersing your fan club, shall I?”

“You are my new favorite person,” he said fervently. Morvana laughed and glided past him up the stairs.

“It’s not uncommon for the deflection to be disrupted by such things as opening doors,” Tarvadegh said as Gabriel approached him. “You are diverting people’s attention from yourself. If you change anything in your environment, they will tend to notice that—and then, in looking around to find what caused it, will quite quickly pierce your deflection. Anything which calls attention to you will unmake it.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Gabe said with a grimace. “Is it possible to get around that?”

“To extend it to other objects? Most certainly, yes, even to other people. That is very advanced, though.” Tarvadegh winked. “Crawl before you fly, my friend. You made good progress today.”

“It still takes a lot out of me,” he admitted. “Well…not out of me. It’s not very tiring, and I don’t feel like I’m using much energy. But it’s the concentration. If I let up for a second, poof. There it goes.”

“Yes,” the priest said, nodding. “You mentioned how it doesn’t drain energy; that’s because this is a very passive effect. Unfortunately, that means you can’t just power through it with more magical oomph. It’s a trick of concentration. Once you learn how, and can make it habitual, you’ll find yourself able to do almost anything you normally could while holding the deflection.” He smiled and shrugged. “Till you do, though… It’s a process.”

“Sounds like my lightworking class,” Gabriel muttered.

“Depending on what you’re working, yes, it can be similar. Come, have a seat.” Tarvadegh suited the words with action, sitting down on a bench and pointing to the one across from him. “How have you been doing with your masks?”

Gabriel sighed heavily, slumping down onto the padded surface. “I just… I don’t know, Val. This is the thing that most makes me think Vidius made a mistake.”

“Perhaps he did,” Tarvadegh said mildly, earning a startled look. “I think it’s unlikely, however. Gods have insight beyond our imagining, and access to undreamable amounts of information. I’ve mentioned this before, Gabriel, but the masks are not something made up by Vidian theology; rather something codified by it. We have different facets of ourselves to display to different people, at different times. This practice is nothing more than becoming conscious of the effect and making use of it.”

“It feels like lying.”

“It can be,” the priest said, nodding, “if you are unethical or careless. But if so, that is not a true mask, in the sense that we use the term. It is a true aspect of yourself, one that you possess naturally, and are simply taking control of, putting to better use.”

“It’s just… I’ve always been a bit of a…a buffoon. I’m the guy who says the thing we’re all thinking but everyone else was too polite. The least Vidian person in the room, in other words. All of this, now…” He shrugged. “Maybe I’m just afraid of losing myself.”

Tarvadegh tilted his head to one side. “That’s interesting, you hadn’t mentioned that before.”

“Sorry…”

“No, no! These things are not meant to be done all at once, Gabriel; we’ll figure it out. For now, what you just said makes me think I have been trying to start you off too far ahead. It was always my assumption that a demonblood would have learned to play it very safe to get along in society. How does one do that without being…extremely circumspect?”

Gabriel sighed again and leaned back against the wall behind him. “One does it by hiding behind one’s soldier dad and monk friend when one accidentally sparks off a problem. You’ve kinda hit the nail on the head for me, though. If I couldn’t manage to suss all this out when it was arguably a matter of life and death, how’m I supposed to figure it out now?”

“Well, now you have the benefit of teaching,” Tarvadegh said with a smile. “Let’s go back to a much more basic thing, then, the different masks that I know you have. You are not the same person exactly with your father as with, say, your classmate Trissiny, correct?”

Gabriel blinked. “Hm. Actually… Maybe I’d have gotten along better with Trissiny from the start if I’d been a little less relaxed and kept my mouth shut. See, this is what I mean. The more you talk about these masks as a normal thing that everyone has, the more I just realize how I’ve been screwing up my whole life by not doing this.”

“So perhaps you’re a much more forthright person than most,” Tarvadegh said, grinning now. “But I guarantee, Gabriel, you have some different shades. Let me try a more pointed example. You don’t behave the same when talking with Toby as you do when in Juniper’s arms, right?”

Gabe averted his eyes, flushing.

“Sorry to be so blunt,” said Tarvadegh. “But are you beginning to see my point?”

“Kinda hard not to, with that image dropped into my head,” Gabriel muttered.

“Then it’s something for you to think about. And perhaps this will help you out socially. Everyone does not need to hear the first thought that crosses your mind, nor to see your feelings written on your face. In fact, sometimes it is kinder to spare them that. The Narisians have a philosophy that I have enjoyed reading—”

He broke off mid-sentence and both of them turned toward the stairwell. Above, there suddenly came the sound of screaming.

Both men were on their feet in a heartbeat, Gabriel pushing ahead to dash up the stairs. He withdrew the black wand Vidius had given him as he went, grabbing Ariel’s hilt with his left hand, and pushed the door latch down with his fist when he reached it.

He emerged onto the amphitheater in the gathering darkness in time to see the last of the assembled Vidians fleeing back into the town, a couple still shrieking in panic. Gabriel gave them little more than a glance, his attention fixed on the thing that had set them to running. They were fortunate that there was someone in their number who knew what they were looking at, otherwise somebody might have made a very severe mistake.

“Hello!” she said brightly.

“Hi,” Gabriel replied in a much more wary tone. The dryad was of a slimmer build than Juniper, less voluptuous, her skin a pale gold that was nearly white and her hair a much lighter shade of green, but she was still excruciatingly lovely. Also, she was completely nude. “Are you lost, miss?”

“Nope!” she said, pointing over his head at the slope of the mountain. “This is where I was going to! Last Rock, just like the name says. I made really good time! Well, the Golden Sea helped me a bit. My name’s Aspen!”

“Hi, Aspen,” he said warily. He didn’t point the wand at her, but kept it out, and his hand on the sword. “I’m Gabriel. You realize it’s kind of a problem for you to be here, right? Dryads aren’t supposed to be in human settlements.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” she said lightly, striding toward him, “I don’t care about that. So, do you live here? Did you know my sister?”

“Juniper? Sure, I know her. She’s a good friend of mine.”

“Good.” Aspen stopped barely beyond arm’s reach, still smiling, but with something intent and distinctly predatory in her gaze now. “Do you know what killed her?”

Gabriel blinked. “I… What? Killed her? Juniper’s not dead. I talked with her just a few—”

“Now, see, that’s gonna be a problem,” Aspen interrupted, taking one more step closer. He fought the urge to back away; he was still framed in the door, with Tarvadegh behind him. “Our mother felt it when she was snuffed out. You’re just lucky it’s me you’re talking to and not her, but I’m still gonna start getting annoyed if you lie to me. It sure does seem like you know something about this, Gabriel, so let’s try the truth this time.” The smile vanished from her face. “What happened to my sister?”

“I think there has been a misunderstanding,” he said carefully. “If you want to talk to Juniper…in fact, that’s probably the best thing, now that I think of it. If you could just stay right here for a bit, I’ll go and get—”

He saw her lunge and tried to jerk backward away from her, but not fast enough. Aspen grabbed his neck with one hand, squeezing just hard enough to hold him. He reflexively brought up the wand, but just as quickly pointed it elsewhere; the situation wasn’t nearly so bad that he couldn’t make it a thousand times worse by shooting a dryad.

“I told you, I don’t like lying,” Aspen said coldly. “And I don’t like being tricked. So no, I will not wait here while you run away, or go fetch someone to get me like they got Juniper. Now you get one more chance to tell me the truth, Gabriel, and then I’m just gonna kill you and go find someone else.”

“Please, calm down,” he said hoarsely around the constriction of his throat. She only squeezed harder.

“Last chance. Spit it out, before—”

A sound like howling wind rose up around them, though there wasn’t a breeze. A peculiar tinge grew in the air above the amphitheater, as if everything were seen through a haze of fog, but the distance was not obscured. Aspen stopped, staring around in surprise.

Then the figures appeared.

Seven of them, lining the edges of the amphitheater in a semicircle. They were watery and indistinct, but there were several obvious features they had in common. Each was garbed in black, had enormous black wings, and each carried a scythe in her right hand.

Aspen gasped, releasing Gabriel and stumbling backward. One of the shadowy figures followed, stepping forward until she was only two yards from the dryad.

The valkyrie transferred her scythe to her left hand, reached forward with her right, and then very slowly wagged one finger back and forth in front of Aspen’s face.

The dryad swallowed once, convulsively, then whirled and fled back into the prairie. In moments she was lost among the tallgrass.

As abruptly as it had come, the haze faded, the seven reapers vanishing along with it, leaving Gabriel and Tarvadegh standing alone in the doorway, suddenly conscious of raised voices and movement in the town.

“Well,” Gabe said, shaking himself off. “Um…can you talk to the Sheriff, please? I think I’d better go find Juniper. And Professor Tellwyrn,” he added.

“Good plan,” said Tarvadegh, nodding. “Oh, and Gabriel, for future reference…”

“Yes?”

“Never,” said the priest, “ever tell a woman to calm down.”

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6 – 2

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The lock was no more than a formality; it had never needed to be. No one skilled in the bypassing of locks would have attempted to break through this particular one. As such, the soft scratching of lock picks at work went on for a fairly short time before the tumbler gave, the latch turned and the door was pulled silently open.

It was so late it was early; well beyond midnight, the first gray lightening of dawn not yet visible, but not far off. There were lights in the street, but they were dim and far apart, the residents of this neighborhood preferring that their rest not be disturbed overmuch by the omnipresent glow of Tiraas. The three figures who entered were barely silhouetted against the gloom outside, and all but vanished in their gray robes when they pulled the door shut behind themselves. Stepping warily, tense and as silent as they could manage, they passed through the foyer and into the hall, spreading out to fill the narrow space and studying their surroundings. Moonlight streamed in through upper windows in the tall space, which rose a full two stories. The hall was cast in a faint glow, pale, but adequate for human eyes.

Behind them, the relatively narrow space separating the hall from the foyer was narrowed still further by decorative molding just above head height. It was still a considerable gap, however; Price’s legs were spread widely, one foot braced against each inch-wide ledge. She studied the intruders dispassionately as they passed beneath, then lifted herself lightly by the toes, snapped her legs together and dropped to the ground.

Between her cat-like landing and the construction of her shoes, one of the Service Society’s trade secrets, she landed in total silence, behind the oblivious trio.

“Good morning, gentlemen.”

They whirled to face her, and the two on either side immediately fell, gurgling and gasping, with throwing knives embedded in their throats. The man in the center wasted seconds staring in shock, which cost him dearly.

Price launched herself forward, and belatedly he reacted, throwing up a hand. Enormous whip-like black tendrils lashed out from within his sleeve, limned by a sickly purple glow. She changed course mid-run, kicking off the wall to the opposite side of the hall. The demonic tentacles followed, but remained always an instant behind her, tied as they were to the reflexes of the caster. They smashed against the wall just after she bounced off it, then again on the opposite side, crushing glossy wood paneling and shredding wallpaper, and then the Butler was upon the warlock.

Launching herself off the wall from mere steps away, she grabbed the collar of his robes with both hands and flipped over him, somersaulting in midair to plant both feet against his back and kick, shoving herself forward and sending him tumbling face-first to the floor, his magical weapons vanishing instantly. Price landed in a smooth roll and was immediately on her feet again, whirling to face the fallen warlock.

Much less gracefully, he scrambled over onto his back, throwing out his hand desperately in her direction.

As he tried to call up his tentacle spell again, the charm she had planted on his collar erupted. A multilayered thing, it unleashed a blast of pure divine energy, cutting off his spell and slamming him to the ground, and also laid a light fae blessing over him. Neither was powerful enough to hold on its own, at least not for long, but it was plenty adequate to put a warlock momentarily out of commission.

“Now, then,” Price said evenly, “we can discuss the matter of who sent you.”

“T-tell you nothing,” the warlock rasped, scrambling backward from her in a desperate crab-walk.

Two slim figures burst out of the side hall, skidding to a stop at Price’s peremptorily upheld hand. Ignoring Flora and Fauna, she stepped forward between the two slain warlocks, bearing down on their last companion.

“As I hope you are aware, when I have finished you will converse avidly on any subject I choose to raise,” she said calmly. “Your only input shall be into what transpires before we reach that point.”

He came up against the wall, pressing his robed hands together before him and glaring up at her. “Have your little victory, then! It doesn’t matter. A great doom is coming, whether you are ready for it or not!”

“You are not, one presumes, referring to yourself,” Price said, raising one eyebrow sardonically.

Joe came staggering in, wearing a long nightshirt but with a wand in each hand. Flora and Fauna grabbed him from either side before he could bring up his weapons.

Price paused, tilting her head to study the felled warlock as he began to convulse. In seconds, he had actually begun frothing at the mouth.

“Ah,” she said. “Dear me.”

The Butler knelt and pried the man’s hands apart, revealing a brass-bound syringe pressed into his wrist, the plunger fully depressed and its contents emptied.

“Too late?” Darling asked, striding down the stairs.

“Indeed, sir,” she said. “My apologies. This device matches the description from the Tellwyrn incident in Hamlet.”

“Hm,” he noted, coming to a stop between the three youths and the three slain warlocks. The last one’s convulsions were already trailing off. Darling wore a hastily-donned robe over his silk pajamas; his feet were bare and the condition of his hair suggested recent proximity to a pillow. He seemed fully awake and alert, however. “Drat. I liked them better when they were too chicken to carry suicide measures.”

“This sorta thing happen often?” Joe asked carefully.

“Not in the least,” said the Bishop, shaking his head. “These numbnuts just declared war on the Thieves’ Guild, coming here; that’s not a mistake anyone’s ever made twice. It’s pretty alarming. The Black Wreath hasn’t openly scrapped with the Guild in centuries. Why now?”

Price discreetly cleared her throat. “If I may, your Grace, they did not approach the Guild itself. I believe you identified yourself to a representative of theirs in Hamlet, suggesting you were on Imperial business?”

“Yes,” he said slowly, frowning. “That was months ago, though… But if they’re finally aiming to clean up that loose end, the others would also…” His eyes widened, a quick calculation taking place behind them. “Oh, gods, Branwen.”

“We can help!” Fauna said eagerly.

“Just tell us where to go,” Flora added.

“Right. Yes.” Darling whirled to face them. “Split up. One of you go to the Casino, one to the Cathedral. Let the Guild and the Church know what’s happened here. Approach carefully; if the Wreath is attacking them, too, do not engage. Come back here in that event and secure the house.”

Their faces fell. “But we can help—”

“I know you can handle yourselves,” he said, adding pointedly, “You can help by not placing yourself in a position where anyone has to see how well you can handle yourselves. Clear?”

“Yes, sir,” they chorused somewhat glumly, but both turned and strode off to their rooms to get dressed.

“Ah,” Joe said tentatively, reflexively making awkward motions at his sides as he attempted to holster his wands in sheathes that weren’t there, “anything I can do?”

“Back to bed,” Darling ordered, already moving toward the front door. “You’re still disabled.”

“I’m practically as good as new,” Joe said somewhat rebelliously.

“Kid, you’re ready for action when that mother hen of a Crow declares you are. That way, nobody gets turned into a newt. If you can’t sleep, help Price and keep an eye on the house. I’ve gotta get to Bishop Snowe’s house, and pray I’m not too late…”

“Your Grace,” Price said pointedly, “if this attack was carried out with the Wreath’s characteristic forethought, and the other Bishops were indeed targets, the strikes are likely to have been simultaneous. You are very unlikely to reach Bishop Snowe before any putative warlocks.”

“Yes,” he said impatiently, his hand on the latch. “All the more reason—”

“All the more reason,” she interrupted firmly, “to take the time to approach carefully. Beginning, perhaps, by putting on shoes.”

Darling sighed heavily in annoyance.

“I merely suggest, of course,” Price said humbly. “If your Grace wishes to do battle with the Black Wreath without pants on, that is your Grace’s prerogative. Doubtless they will find it tremendously amusing.”

“You are severely annoying when you’re right, Price,” he said curtly, turning and stomping past her toward the stairs, peevishly kicking one of the slain warlocks as he went by.

“Yes, sir,” she said calmly, folding her hands behind her back and watching him go. Joe, wisely, had retreated down the hall toward his own room in search of clothes.

Alone with the bodies, Price surveyed the hall, finally permitting herself a small frown of annoyance as she studied the shattered wall paneling.

“I just polished that.”


 

“She’s insane,” Gabriel mumbled around a yawn. “What freaking time is it, anyway?”

“Approximately one minute later than the last time you asked,” said Toby with a smile.

“But why here?” he whined, yawning again as he tugged open the heavy front doors. “Why now? And why couldn’t she have just told us to be up early? And for fuck’s sake, why does she have to wake people up that way?! I don’t care if it was an illusion, I swear I’ve got water in my shoes.”

“Gabe, I realize you’re not exactly at your best right now, but stop and consider that you’re asking why Professor Tellwyrn does what she does. Do you really expect to get anywhere with that?”

“Crazy,” Gabriel groused, stepping into the library and leaving Toby to catch the door on his own way in. “I expect to get crazy. It’ll be a nice change from sleep-deprived.”

“And I see we’re last to the party as usual,” Toby said amiably, waving at those assembled in the main entryway. “Morning, ladies.”

“It’s not morning until there’s sun, for the record,” Teal grumbled. “G’night, Toby.”

“I’ve been here all night!” Fross said brightly. “It’s a great time to get some out-of-class research done. Nobody bothers me.”

“That’s because we need sleep,” Gabriel moaned.

“Yes, I know! I have kind of an unfair advantage, which I sometimes feel a little guilty about, but it’s not like I can help it. If you want, Gabe, I can help you study any time! We’re in the same degree program, after all!”

“I’ll file that away for grah!” Catching sight of the figure that had just appeared behind the receptionist’s desk, he stumbled backward against the doors, apparently coming fully awake in a wide-eyed panic. “What the hell is that?!”

“Tellwyrn’s experimental golem,” said Ruda, who was lounging in one of the reading chairs, sipping from a bottle of bourbon.

“She has a name,” Fross said reproachfully. “Hello, Crystal!”

“Good morning, Fross,” the golem said politely. At first glance, she resembled a slim woman in elaborate armor, if the armor in question were banded in gold, embossed with arcane runes and inset with pale blue crystals. It didn’t add the bulk that armor would have, though, but outlined her own slight frame, a metal suit of skin. From the gaps at the joints, muted blue light streamed out, occasional puffs of mist emerging when she moved. Her face was an eerily lifelike but expressionless steel mask, its eyes empty holes opening onto an intense blue glow. “Good morning, students. May I help you find anything?”

“I don’t think so,” said Trissiny, who looked more alert than most of her classmates. “Professor Tellwyrn told us to meet her here.”

“Ah, very good,” Crystal replied.

“What’s she doing here?” Gabriel stage-whispered.

“She’s the head librarian now,” Fross replied. “And really, you can talk to her yourself, she’s right there. You’re being rude, Gabe.”

“Sorry,” he said with a grimace, then turned to Crystal and repeated himself. “Uh, sorry. I was just…startled.”

“It’s quite all right,” the golem replied. “I expect there will be an acclimation period. It has already extended further than I had calculated. My initial data seems to have been in error.”

“What happened to Grumpypants McPonytail?” Toby asked.

“Weaver?” Fross fluttered in a circle around his head. “He’s been gone for weeks. Seriously, how have you not noticed this before now?”

“We try to stay out of the library,” said Gabe, grimacing.

“But—but—but you’re university students! You need to use the library!”

“We need to stay away from that crankety-ass freak, is what,” Gabe replied. “Although if he’s gone, I’ll probably start spending more time here. Why does nobody ever tell me anything?”

“Combination of factors, really,” said Ruda, beginning to tick off points on her fingers. “We don’t think about you when you’re not here, you’re not all that important, nobody likes you…”

“That’s playing a little rough, Ruda,” Trissiny said, frowning.

Her roommate snorted loudly. “Oh, come on. You tried to kill him.”

“I think you lost the right to throw that at me when you stabbed him!”

“I just love my life,” Gabriel said to no one in particular.

“What did happen to Weaver?” Toby asked hastily.

“He felt the call of adventure!” Fross proclaimed.

There was a moment of silence as they all stared at her.

“What does that mean?” Juniper asked finally.

“I don’t know,” the pixie admitted. “That’s what Professor Tellwyrn said when I asked her. And then she laughed. You know that kind of mean laugh, like when somebody says something silly in class and she spends five minutes making fun of them?”

They all nodded in unison.

“Mr. Weaver is on indefinite sabbatical,” Crystal said into the silence. “And I am detecting a buildup of translocative arcane energy focused on this spot, characteristic of a scrying spell and minor dimensional fold, so I infer you are—”

They never got to hear the rest, as with a sharp pop the scenery changed.

The students dropped about half a foot to the grass—except Fross, of course—with varying degrees of grace. Ruda landed on her butt, cursing; Teal had to flail her arms for balance until Shaeine steadied her. Gabriel very nearly fell over sideways.

“Goddammit!” he shouted. “Why? Why must you do that?”

“Three reasons,” Professor Tellwyrn said brightly. “It’s the most efficient way to get around, it serves the purpose of protecting the surprise, and your suffering amuses me. Note, Arquin, that that was not a plural ‘your.’ Nobody else suffers with quite the distinctive self-pity you have. It’s inspiring, really.”

“I hate you.”

“I don’t care,” she said, still cheerfully. “Good morning, students, and welcome to your midterm test!”

“Why are we on the quad?” Toby asked, peering around.

“Because I just teleported you here. You’re not at your quickest first thing in the morning, are you, Mr. Caine?”

“I wonder what would happen if we all rushed her?” Trissiny asked grimly.

“Fuck that, I’ve had enough pain in my ass already today without getting teleported into the sun,” Ruda grumbled, discreetly rubbing her bum.

“As for why I asked you to meet up at the library,” Tellwyrn continued, “you might say it’s tradition. I like to send the kids off on their freshman delve as unprepared as possible, so as to simulate the real conditions faced by your adventuring forebears, which were often woefully spontaneous. Thus, a cheap and simple misdirection. Your goal is in there.”

She turned and pointed to the wooden gates set into the terrace wall opposite the gazebo, beside which they stood. On command, they swung outward with a hideous groan of hinges badly in need of oiling. Behind that was an iron portcullis, which slid into the ground almost as soon as it was revealed, leaving nothing between them and a broad stone staircase down into darkness.

“That’s the Crawl,” Ruda said softly.

Tellwyrn rolled her eyes. “You kids really aren’t at your best without your precious beauty sleep, are you? Yes, Miss Punaji, that is the Crawl. Any other blindingly obvious observations you’d like to share with the class?”

“In a few hours,” said Ruda, “the sun will rise, I’ll have breakfast, and at some point after that I’ll begin to care what the fuck you think. Meanwhile, you can shove it sideways.”

“All right, enough folderol,” Tellwyrn went on more briskly. “Professor Ezzaniel will be your accompanying faculty member on this excursion. Rafe usually does the freshman delve, but I try not to inflict him on a class more than once a year if I can help it. Also, after he stuck his fingers into your Golden Sea excursion, I’ve lost some faith in his objectivity. Ezzaniel, at least, I can trust to leave you all to die if that’s what you deserve.”

Professor Ezzaniel, who had been standing behind her so quietly they hadn’t even noticed him in the dimness, stepped forward, raising an eyebrow and glancing at Tellwyrn after that last remark. He was in his usual open-collared suit, with his customary saber belted at his waist and a simple knapsack flung over one shoulder. It was a plain leather affair, not the enchanted carpet bag in which he kept the practice weapons for their martial arts class.

“Your assignment,” Tellwyrn continued, “is to retrieve a treasure from below. It is a rectangular wooden chest, bound in brass and embossed with floral patterns, in which reside a matched sword and dagger set of elven make. Professor Ezzaniel will be along to observe; he will not aid you or interfere in your actions. It is upon his observations that I will determine your grade. Actually retrieving the chest is not essential; most freshman groups don’t. The last party which succeeded was nine years ago; this particular treasure has been down there for that long. If you do manage to fetch it back, though, the group gets an automatic A on the exercise, which will comprise a substantial chunk of your grade for the semester, and the individual who gets it gets to keep it.”

“A sword and dagger?” Gabriel scoffed. “Sounds like a consolation prize.”

“Those were my personal weapons for a good many years,” Tellwyrn said, giving him a long look. “They are older than the Empire and heavily enchanted. If none of that impresses you, Arquin—and based on your performance in combat class, I rather suspect it won’t—if you get your hands on those, you can quite possibly buy your way into the nobility.”

“Always did enjoy getting consolation prizes,” he said thoughtfully.

“Hang on,” Trissiny protested. “We don’t have any supplies! No food, no equipment, only Ruda and I have weapons…”

“Yes, Avelea, that’s the point,” Tellwyrn said patiently. “As I explained moments ago. You’ll find the Crawl an exemplary arbiter of fates. If you are intelligent, if you deserve to survive, it will provide more than adequately for you. If not, it’ll see to it you meet whatever end most befits you. All right! You have three weeks.”

“Three weeks?” Teal demanded, wide-eyed.

“Three weeks,” said Tellwyrn. “Good gods, you kids are like an echo today. You can come back as soon as you get the sword and dagger, but if you haven’t got them in three weeks, your Professor will call short the assignment and lead you back to the surface. All right, that’s more than adequate jibber-jabber. Begin!”

She smirked, snapped her fingers, and vanished with a quiet pop.

“I think we shoulda rushed her,” Gabriel mused.

Professor Ezzaniel cleared his throat. “Come along, then, students,” he said, and with no more ado strode into the darkness of the Crawl.

There was nothing left for them to do but follow him.


 

Naturally, he didn’t approach the house head-on. The open front door would have warned him away, if nothing else. Luckily, Branwen’s neighborhood—a wealthier one even than his own—gave him plenty of above-ground territory on which to prowl, and the elaborate houses on all sides were easily climbable. There was only one close enough to her house to be worth the trouble of ascending, but the gardens had suitably high walls separating the lots. It was from the top of this structure that he got his first glimpse into Branwen’s own sprawling garden, positioned behind her house, and determined it was safe to descend.

Darling landed deftly in a leafy bush, which would have been very uncomfortable for some, but he had long since mastered the knack. Brushing leaves from his coat, he carefully paced forward, studying the surrounding carnage. Blood spattered the walkway, with here and there pieces of bodies. They weren’t too widely distributed; he could mentally piece them together easily enough to determine that there were three of the robed figures, just as there had been at his house.

Branwen sat silently on the stone lip of a reflecting pool, a fourth body pulled half into her lap. It was of an older woman, looking almost asleep from the waist up. Her legs were crushed, mangled completely, and a veritable pond of blood surrounded the pair. Branwen gazed vacantly down at the woman, stroking her white hair with one hand.

“Branwen?” he asked quietly, creeping closer.

“Tieris has been with my family her whole life,” the Izarite said quietly. “She practically raised me. It’s so…absurd. It just seemed she would always be there.”

“Bran, I’m so sorry,” he said, carefully seating himself beside her.

“You too, then,” she murmured. “…thank you for thinking of me, Antonio. You should have gone to help the others, though.”

Darling frowned. “I—Bas and Andros? Well, they’re both surrounded by cult members. I know you were out here alone…”

“And you thought I was helpless and useless and would need rescue,” she said. There was no emotion in her voice, only a deep exhaustion.

“Branwen…”

“It wasn’t a complaint. You think what I want you to think. So does everyone else.” She reached behind her to trail her fingers through the water.

Something rose up from within.

Darling bounded to his feet and danced backward, staring. The creature that crawled, dripping, out of the pool was the size of an alligator and had a head shaped very like one, though its scaled body was more like a bulldog’s in proportion. Steam rose from its flaring nostrils.

They were mistakenly called hellhounds, by people who had never seen a real hellhound. Kankhradahg demons were favored tools of the Black Wreath: easily summoned, easily controlled, and not intelligent enough to be rebellious. Usually.

Branwen scratched the demon under its chin; it closed its red eyes, beginning to purr softly.

“Wreath summoners don’t always take good care of their charges,” she said in that same dull tone. “Their victims, really. This fellow wasn’t treated well at all. It just took a little persuasion, and just the right kind of blessing to break his former master’s control…”

“That’s…impressive,” Darling said carefully, keeping his eyes on the apparently contented demon. Gods, she had her delicate little hand just inches from those teeth…

“This is about Hamlet, isn’t it? Only reason they would do something like this, antagonize our cults and the Church this way. You should have gone to the others, Antonio. Those who came here underestimated me. Whatever they sent at the Huntsman and the Legionnaire will be intended to finish off more powerful targets.”

“Well,” he said after a moment, “I suppose you’re not wrong. Unfortunately it’s a little late now.”

“Yes,” she said softly. “What will be, will be. Looks like we won.”

Branwen gathered up the body of her servant in her arms, leaning over her, and finally began to weep.

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