Tag Archives: Crystal

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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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“This is almost criminal, how much crap there is to deal with. They actually make poor Mrs. Oak do all this without help? How does she manage when nobody’s being punished?”

Trissiny ignored him, stoically washing dishes. He wasn’t entirely wrong; the pile of detritus that resulted from the feeding of a hundred-odd people was taller than either of them, but she had never been one to be intimidated by work. If anything, she would have found the monotony rather soothing, if not for his constant patter.

Mrs. Oak just grunted at him in passing as he mentioned her, stomping back over to the ovens, which she was scrubbing out by hand. If she felt any particular way about Gabriel’s commentary, she gave no sign. The woman uncannily resembled a tree stump in a stained apron. Almost cylindrical in shape, she had a flattish head crowned with a thatch of wiry brown hair, a face composed entirely of horizontal lines and folds which all but hid her eyes, and beefy arms dusted with dark hair and old scars. If she had more expressions than the disgruntled one now wore, there had been no hint of it thus far.

Getting no response from his last foray, Gabriel tried again as he swabbed at a plate with a threadbare towel. “What do you reckon the odds are we’ll be outta here before midnight?”

She shot him a sidelong look, not pausing in her scrubbing. She was washing, he drying, and so far they were still on the flatware. For all the complaining the boy was doing, he looked to be in annoyingly good spirits. His posture was relaxed and carefree, and he couldn’t seem to keep the grin off his face. It was, she decided, ominous.

“What are you in such a good mood for?”

“Me? Oh, nothin’. I just had a really good day. Well, good afternoon, actually. Okay, to be precise, a good hour and a half.” He glanced over at her, as if expecting to be prompted for more. When she refused to look up from the dishes, he finally burst out. “With Juniper!”

“Oh,” Trissiny replied, filling the word with the full weight of her disdain.

“What, you’ve got a problem with Juniper, too?” That, at least, seemed to finally puncture his bubble of happiness.

“None whatsoever, I like Juniper just fine. She’s one of the more consistently kind people on this campus. Of course, even if I were interested in women, I wouldn’t go to bed with her.”

“Wait, you’re not? I thought all you Silver Legion types were supposed to be les—” He cut himself off, a syllable too late.

For the first time since they had begun, Trissiny paused in her work, bracing her hands on the edges of the sink. She drew in a deep breath, then very slowly let it out, relaxing the sudden tension in her shoulders with visible effort. Then, making no further comment, picked up her rag again.

“In hindsight,” he mused, “it occurs to me that since we’re supposed to be learning to get along, repeating rumors about Avenists is probably not gonna be my best approach.”

“I bet you discover a lot of baldly obvious things in hindsight.”

“Yeah, that right there is a big improvement.”

Trissiny went back to ignoring him, and for about two minutes was able to work in blessed silence, scrubbing plates clean and passing them to him to be dried. The slosh of water, the chink of porcelain were their only accompaniment. She almost dared to believe he would let up…

“What’s your big problem with me sl—uh, dat—um, being with Juniper, then?”

“No problem. By all means, do that.” She glanced at him again, carefully keeping her face neutral; he was watching her suspiciously. “Of course, a smart man would do some research on dryads before sticking anything of his into one, but that is clearly none of my business.”

“I do believe, Trissiny my dear, that the overall lesson of the last few days is that I am not a smart man.”

“We agree.”

They got through the rest of the plates in relative peace, by dint of making no conversation. Gabriel, though, would not be repressed for long, and made another stab as they were getting into the cups.

“Does it really bother you that much?”

“Many things bother me. Pick one.”

He sighed. “I meant me being half…blooded.”

“You have full agency regardless of your heritage,” she said immediately. “Demonbloods have been known to go their whole lives without harming so much as a mouse. No, I take no interest in your bloodline.”

“Well…that’s good, I guess.”

“The fact that you are an arrogant, belligerent, self-entitled, disrespectful fool, however…”

“I think I see where this is going.”

“…makes the fact that you have hellfire in your very veins a matter of immediate concern.”

“Yup, there it is.”

He let the silence hang for a few more minutes before speaking again, in a more subdued tone.

“I’m sorry.”

She shot him a glance. “Excuse me?”

Gabriel paused in wiping, leaning his head back to look up at the ceiling, and heaved a sigh. “For…well, all of it. Especially for calling you names, that was a really shitty thing to do. I’m sorry for getting in your face in the first place. I was reacting to stuff in my head, not anything you’d done. I just… I was an asshole, and I actually do really regret it. So…sorry.”

She stayed still for a few seconds, peering at him from the corner of her eye, before realizing that she had paused in her work, and resumed scrubbing. “Apology accepted.”

“…just like that?”

“Yes.”

He grinned. “So…we’re all right, then?”

“Of course not,” she said scornfully. “You’re still the person who did all that. I see nothing to suggest you won’t turn right round and do it all again. Words are easy, Gabriel. I choose not to hold grudges for my own sake; it’s exhausting and morally deficient. That doesn’t mean you’ve earned any trust, or respect.”

“Well,” he replied after a moment, picking up his towel again, “how…refreshingly honest.”

Mrs. Oak came over to collect an armload of plates and trundled off with them to the cabinet they called home. She did not speak to or acknowledge her two enforced helpers for the three trips it took to pack them all away. Gabriel held his peace until she finished and went back to her own cleaning.

“So, apparently they hold a big harvest dance down in the town every year. Not that there’s much of a harvest, Last Rock does business mostly in trade and cattle. But hey, it’s a dance! People need to relax once in a while, let their hair down.”

He grinned at her; she carried on ignoring him.

“So?” he prompted.

“So?”

“So, you wanna go?”

Trissiny set down the cup she was working on, hard enough to earn a warning growl from Mrs. Oak.

“Gabriel,” she said stiffly to the wall behind the sink, “I think I may be suffering from hallucinations. I could swear I just heard you ask me to go to a dance with you.”

“That’s not a no.”

Finally, she turned fully to face him, pulling her sopping hands out of the dishwater. She hadn’t worn her armor or shield for this task, for obvious reasons, but carried her sword belted at her waist, and had to repress an urge to place a wet hand on its hilt.

Gabriel stepped back from her fierce expression, holding up his hands placatingly. “Now look, just hear me out. Tellwyrn wants us to get along, right? We can either spend who the hell knows how long doing this crap every night without killing each other until she decides the point is made, or we can do something a little more proactive to demonstrate how chummy we are. What, I ask you, is more chummy than dancing?”

“You’re insane,” she snorted, turning back to the dishes. “Anyway, that wouldn’t work. Tellwyrn isn’t going to fall for an obvious ruse.”

“That’s the beauty of it,” he said, resuming his own labors alongside her. “We can’t fake this. Even if we’re only pretending to like each other for one night, that’s us, collaborating on something. If we can get through it without breaking down into yelling or fighting, the point is pretty much proven. Or do you really wanna spend the whole semester on kitchen duty?”

“Aside from the company, I rather enjoy this. At the Abbey we were all expected to work to sustain the place; it makes you feel like part of the community. Here, all I do is study, train and attend classes. I’ve been feeling more and more like a…burden. This is comfortable. Homey.”

“You are so weird.”

“I’m not the one who wants to go dancing with me.”

He had the gall to laugh at that, as if she were joking with him. “Okay, fine, so you like doing dishes. Think, though. Remember that horseshit essay assignment where apparently the only right answer was to not follow the instructions? You’ve gotta think like your enemy. Tellwyrn rewards initiative and…let’s say, lateral thinking.”

“Is Tellwyrn our enemy?”

“She has her good points,” he said a little grudgingly, shooting a glance at the door of the kitchen where his green coat hung from a peg. “But for purposes of this problem? She’s the thing we need to work against.”

“I don’t see why. As I’ve said, this situation is fine with me.”

“And what makes you think this situation is going to be the end of it? You really believe she’s gonna let us get away with coasting, with mediocrity?” He let that hang in the air between them for a moment. This time, Trissiny’s lack of response was because she didn’t have one. “No, I’m talking about dances and thinking about strategies, because I’m pretty damn sure if we don’t come up with something extra to deal with this, she will. And I really, really would rather not end up chained to your wrist.”

“That was hyperbole,” said Trissiny without conviction. “She wouldn’t actually do that. It’s completely crazy.”

“If half the things I’ve heard about that woman are true, there’s nothing she wouldn’t do, and not much that she can’t,” he said grimly. “We’re talking about one of the only people known to have killed a god.”

“What?!” Something heavy and cold clutched at her guts; it was an absurd thought, but looking at his face, she had a terrible feeling he wasn’t speaking in ignorance for once. “That’s not even possible.”

“Look it up,” he retorted. “The Church doesn’t like it getting around—obviously—but I’ll bet you anything the story’s not hard to find in this school’s library. The point is… Yeah, I know you don’t like me. I’m not gonna claim you’re my favorite person in the world, either. But we dug ourselves into this hole, and nobody’s gonna dig us back out. Personally I’d rather do that with an evening at whatever kind of hick-ass hoedown they throw around here than…wait to see what Tellwyrn cooks up.”

Trissiny realized that she had stopped working again. The water was growing cold and scummy anyway; she reached into it to pull the plug, watching the suds swirl down the drain around the remainder of the cup. She didn’t speak until more hot water was running to refill the sink.

“I’ll consider it.”

“That’s all I can ask, I guess. Well, except maybe…” He grinned at her expectantly, getting only a raised eyebrow in return.

“What?”

“Come on, there was some mutual responsibility for all this. We’re having a moment, just like in the stories. I apologized, so now you…”

“Apologies are for people who’ve done something they regret,” she said, turning a cold shoulder to him and resuming her scrubbing.

He sighed heavily. “Yeah. Great. Good talk, Triss.”


 

Professor Tellwyrn read over the Imperial proclamation a third time, even more slowly than before. At this point, she wasn’t absorbing any new information; it was simply dramatic effect. It was also rather petty, she knew, since the three soldiers standing in front of her were no more to blame for any of this than a rabbit was for the snare it stepped in. Still, someone had to suffer for this, and Sharidan Tirasian wasn’t here.

Finally, she lifted her eyes and stared at the men over the rims of her spectacles, slowly drumming her fingers on the paper bearing the Imperial seal, now resting on her desk.

“Do you know what this says?” she asked finally.

“Yes, ma’am,” replied the one on the right. Private Moriarty. Dark complexion, proudly stiff posture of a man for whom standing at attention was a nigh-spiritual rite. Polite, too…this would be Mr. By-the-Book. Of course, devotion and a love of regulations didn’t make one a good soldier. He wouldn’t be here if he were.

On the opposite side of the lineup, Rook, the guy who managed to look like he was slouching even while standing at attention, cleared his throat. “Professor, I respectfully ask that you not explode our heads. ‘Specially Moriarty’s. The stick up his ass’d shoot right out and punch a hole in your ceiling.”

“I will take that under advisement,” Tellwyrn said gravely, as Private Moriarty clenched his jaw and Finchley, the third one, swallowed. They were afraid of her, even Rook. Maybe especially Rook; she knew his type well, joking in the face of what he thought was doom.

Good.

“It seems you’re to be staying with us,” she went on in a mild tone. “Now why do you suppose that is?”

The trio exchanged glances.

“Ma’am, if we were the types to ask ImCom what the hell they were thinking, honestly I think we’d’ve started with the empty box canyon in the middle of the wilderness,” Rook offered.

Tellwyrn ignored him. Also Moriarty, who was clearly too preoccupied with presenting the image of a respectable soldier to do any independent thinking. The third one, though… Private Finchley had orange hair, a smattering of freckles and the pale complexion of someone who must spend half his pay on sun lotion if he managed to serve in the Army and not be burned to a crisp by exposure. Moreover, there was something about the set of his eyes that reminded her of the students who aggravated her the least. Especially in the way they narrowed slightly, tracking involuntarily to the side as he accessed memory and cognition, when prompted by a question. This one was a thinker.

He noticed her studying him, and swallowed again, somehow managing to go even paler.

“Something on your mind?” Tellwyrn asked him directly, still in that calm tone.

“What we…that is, the events at Outpost C9-121 are strictly classified,” he said slowly, “but General Panissar himself told us…” He glanced sidelong at Moriarty. “He, uh, hinted that it would be all right if we talked to you about it.”

“According to Lord Vex, you are granted provisional security clearance on this one issue,” Moriarty said stiffly.

“Provisional security clearance,” Tellwyrn mused. “I do believe that’s one of the more idiotic things I’ve ever heard of. Rather defeats the purpose of having things secured in general, doesn’t it? It sounds like the sort of made-up-on-the-spot nonsense they’d tell a person who can’t function in the blind spot between regulations and necessity.”

Moriarty gave no sign of understanding her implication, but Rook snorted a laugh.

“So it’s politics,” Finchley went on, frowning in thought. He grew more confident as his attention drew into his own mind. “Legally you can’t be involved. Off the books…the Empire is willing to accept you as a player, extending an olive branch. Shit, this is way over my pay grade,” he added under his breath, then started and flushed, abruptly remembering who he was talking to.

“Not bad,” Tellwyrn murmured approvingly. “Not bad at all. Better than I was expecting, anyhow. So, you three are de facto Imperial ambassadors, without any of the training, competence or diplomatic privilege. That’s quite a promotion from monitoring one of Vex’s little shoebox deathtrap forts. Or, rather, a sidestep. Out of the absurd frying pan into the equally ridiculous fire. This must be a rather trying week for you.”

“I want it known up front that I will not be swayed by money,” Rook intoned. “Beer and girls, sure, I’ll sell you my mum’s bones for those, but financially? My honor has no price. I’m sure my colleagues will say the same.” Moriarty closed his eyes and squeezed his lips shut, visibly repressing a response.

Tellwyrn didn’t validate his posturing with a response. “So. You three met Elilial, then.”

“Met her?” Rook grinned broadly, reaching around Finchley to punch Moriarty in the shoulder. “This crazy bastard tried to arrest her!”

“Don’t touch me,” Moriarty growled.

“And how did that go?” Tellwyrn asked, intrigued in spite of herself.

“How do you think it went? She knocked us the fuck out!” Rook said, incongruously gleeful.

“Stop.” Tellwyrn held up a hand, then pointed at Finchley. “You. Recount the series of events.”

He gawped at her for a moment, then shut his mouth, glancing from side to side at each of his fellow privates.

“While we’re young, please,” Tellwyrn snapped.

“Aren’t you, like, three thousand?”

“Private Rook, do you know how many pounds of pressure are necessary to break a human femur?”

He gaped at her.

“It’s a trick question,” she went on, grinning. “It depends on how long you’re willing to spend at it. And I assure you, I have all day.” She gave that a moment to sink in before returning her gaze to the man in the middle. “Finchley. Report, now.”

As she suspected, receiving an order in a superior officer’s tone galvanized Finchley’s training to overcome his natural wishy-washiness. He spilled out the details of their encounter with the Queen of Demons in a thorough if rather disjointed fashion, helped along by commentary from Rook. Moriarty remained silent throughout, thankfully. It was something of a chore to sit through, but Tellwyrn had absorbed crucial information from even less reliable witnesses, and anyway, the story was a short one. It was impossible not to get the gist of it.

“But why would she do that?” the Professor murmured to herself after Finchley trailed to a halt. Elbows on her desk, hands folded in front of her lower face, she stared through her spectacles at a point in empty space past Moriarty’s shoulder. “Stealth is what she is. Nobody catches Elilial in the act unless she intends them to. But you three? Why do you matter enough to warrant a visitation?”

“Hey, no offense taken,” Rook said lightly.

“The scrying orbs,” Finchley said, frowning again. “Remember, Rook? You thought they were monitoring us through them. It actually was a hellgate, though, so it probably wasn’t us that ImCom was watching. One was broken when we woke up… She wanted the Empire to see. We didn’t matter, she was just…setting it up. Letting the message get sent through the right channels.”

“The right…channels…” Tellwyrn sat bolt upright, startling the three of them. “The right channels. Sending the message… Scyllith’s tits, I’ve been going about this all wrong. Son of a…” Snarling, she launched into a tirade of curses in elvish, pounding the heel of one hand against her forehead. The three soldiers stared wide-eyed for a moment, then slowly began edging backward from her desk as she carried on.

“Private Finchley,” Tellwyrn said abruptly, resuming her former calm demeanor as if none of the preceding had occurred, “you’ve given me the hint that may be just what I need to finish a project I’ve been butting my head against for the last year. Thank you.”

“Oh. Uh, you’re…welcome?”

“In the process, you also made me feel like an idiot.”

“I…” he squeaked.

“I’ve decided the two balance each other out. As such, I’m going to let you live. This time.”

He gulped, hard. Rook and Moriarty eased away from him to either side.

“Relax,” Tellwyrn said wryly. “It’s a joke. You can laugh.”

“I…I don’t think I can, ma’am,” he said weakly.

“So,” she went on briskly, “here you are and here, it seems, you will be staying for a while. I’ll expect you to learn and adhere to the same code of conduct that applies to my students. This is a dry campus; you will not drink or be drunk here. If you must pickle brain cells, go to the town and do it; they’ll be delighted to take your money. Unlike the students, however, you may stay in town until you’re sufficiently dried out to walk a straight line. I don’t want to see you drunk on my campus. Clear?”

“Yes, ma’am!” they chorused.

“The other item of particular note to you three is that you will not interfere with the education of those who are here to get one. I don’t mind you fraternizing with the students; they aren’t prisoners. I’ll even tolerate romantic relationships between you and them, until and unless it begins to interfere with their academic careers. Despite what the storybooks tell you about true love—beginning with the delusion that that’s a real thing—I can and will separate you in the most permanent manner possible.

“Any harassment of female students will, if I’m feeling lenient, result in your immediate expulsion from the mountain. I do mean immediate, and it won’t be down the sloping side. Or, if I’m in a more vindictive move, I’ll simply hand you over to our resident Hand of Avei. Understood?”

Finchley and Moriarty repeated their affirmation, looking progressively more intimidated, but Rook perked up visibly.

“The Hand? She’s here?” He grinned. “Awesome! I’ll have to pay my respects. What’s she like?”

There was a moment’s baffled silence.

“You’re an Avenist?” Finchley finally demanded.

“What, you aren’t?” Rook frowned at him. “Either of you? Come on, how can you not follow the goddess of war? What kind of soldiers are you?” At that, Moriarty clenched is jaw and began to physically swell with repressed fury.

Tellwyrn slapped a hand down on her desk, regaining their wandering attention before this could develop into something truly annoying.

“As luck would have it, there are only two boys in this year’s freshman class, so I have a heavily underoccupied male dormitory in which to stick you. I’ll have someone show you there. In fact, I’m expecting him any time now.”

“Only two boys? Fantastic!” Rook grinned maniacally. “So the ratio of girls is about…uh…that is… Of course, I’m speaking strictly of my admiration of the lads’ good fortune. Not out of any personal interest. I wouldn’t dream of… Well, you know.”

She stared at him evenly.

“…that is a predatory look,” he mumbled after a long pause. “I’m not sure if she wants to eat us or—gn.” Rook broke off with a grunt as Finchley jammed an elbow into his ribs.

“So, um, Professor,” Finchley said somewhat desperately. “What is it you would like us to…ah, do?”

“Do?” Tellwyrn turned her gaze on him. “How should I know?”

“It’s just…we’re to be stationed here, but… There are no officers present and we weren’t given any orders except to be…ah…stationed. I’m just wondering what our duties will be.”

“The hell if I care,” she said. “Don’t cause a ruckus on my campus and you can spend your days playing poker or learning piano for all it matters to me. If the Army didn’t give you anything to do, I certainly don’t have a stake.”

They exchanged another series of dubious glances.

“But,” Moriarty began, “what if—” He was interrupted by a knock at the office door.

“Ah, what timing,” Tellwyrn said dryly, then raised her voice. “Come in, Mr. Arquin.”

The door opened and Gabriel poked his head in, peering around its edge. He frowned on seeing the three soldiers.

“Gentlemen,” said Tellwyrn, “you will kindly wait in the hall till I’m done here, which I don’t expect to take too long. Then Mr. Arquin will escort you to your new residence.”

“Wait, I’ll what?” Gabriel said. “What’s their new residence?”

“Your residence. In case you failed to notice, which I’m not going to rule out at this point, you and Mr. Caine are living in a suite meant to house ten.”

He scowled at the three privates. “Who are these guys?”

“The comedy relief,” the Professor said, “so you can give it a rest. Outside, boys, you’ll have plenty of time to get to know Gabriel later.”

They filed past him and out the door; he watched with a frown as they went, then turned back to Tellwyrn. “What’s going on?”

“Imperial politics. You’re going to be ass-deep in it soon enough, I expect, but that’s a headache for another day. Right now, I believe you have an assignment?”

“Yeah, well…sort of.” He pulled a slightly rumpled sheaf of paper from an inner pocket of his coat and unfolded it. “I took citations of every legal textbook I could find that mentioned demonbloods, and according to all of them, what you asked about is… Um, it’s not. Legally you don’t have the right to execute me, under any circumstances. If I were attacking you with deadly force you might be excused for using deadly force in return, but…that’s it.”

She stared at him for a long moment. “And that’s all you’ve got?”

“That’s all there is.” His voice rose with annoyance.

“Do you recall your question a few days ago about…let’s see, how did you put this, it was rather poignant…ah, yes, ‘sadistic mind games?’”

“Yeah, I had a feeling this was gonna be one of those.” He re-folded the paper and stuffed it back into his coat. “Let me guess, I failed to find the trap.”

“Fortunately for you, I don’t apply the results of punishment assignments to your grade in my class; I just break your fingers if you don’t do them. So you’re still passing. You did the work…well, half of it.”

“What the fuck was the other half?!”

“The assignment was to prepare a report on the legal statues that allow me to kill you. There were two things for you to research there: you, and me. You only did one.”

He stared at her for a moment, then glanced furtively back at the door, behind which waited the three Imperial soldiers. “Do… Are you an Imperial agent?”

Tellwyrn threw back her head and barked a laugh. “Ohh, that’s rich. Really, I’m gonna have to remember that one. Seriously, though. Ever heard of Designation: Zero Twenty?”

“Um…I think maybe at one point…” He trailed off under her stare. “No.”

“It’s a code used by Imperial Intelligence,” she explained. “Part of Quentin Vex’s new system of categorizing threats to the Empire; before he came along the relevant classification was Class Zero Personified Event. Standards for identifying a Zero Twenty are a little vague, as the spooks like to leave themselves some room for interpretation…but basically, it refers to an individual who is immortal, sufficiently powerful that even the full resources of the Empire could not easily put them down, and while not directly hostile to the Empire, prone to being…difficult.” Professor Tellwyrn leaned back in her chair, smiling smugly at him. “My personal designation is Z20-136. Do keep that under your hat; I’m looking forward to seeing the look on Vex’s face when he finds out I know it.”

“…wow,” he said dryly after a moment in which she paused, evidently for a reaction.

“You think you’re being ironic, but after some thought I believe you’ll realize how ‘wow’ that is. What this means, legally, is that a person designated a Zero Twenty becomes a walking act of the gods. They are not regarded as a sentient being by the Empire, but a force of nature. You don’t jail a typhoon or execute an earthquake for treason, after all. So if I heal someone, they had a miraculous recovery. If I kill someone, they died of natural causes.” She spread her arms as if to embrace the office. “Legally, this University just sprang up out of the ground like a patch of mushrooms.”

“Hell, that wasn’t even two subjects to research,” he said. “Only thing that matters here is you.”

“No.” Tellwyrn sat up straight glaring. “No, dammit, Gabriel! You need to think about context. So the Empire won’t intervene in every little thing I do or hold me responsible as they would just about anyone else. That doesn’t mean they’ll let me wander around doing whatever the hell I please. So, I’m a walking natural disaster. How does the Empire respond when a natural disaster hits? What does it do?”

“I guess,” he said slowly, “it depends on the situation.”

She pointed a finger at him. “Bingo! It depends on the situation. So…what’s the situation? What response is merited? Big bad Tellwyrn has just offed some whiny half-demon. What reaction does this get?”

“’Whiny’ is a little strong,” he muttered.

“If I were to kill someone important, or a large enough group of people, that would pretty much require an Imperial response. So the question becomes: how important are you? If you die, who cares?”

“My father,” he said immediately.

“Ah, yes, your father. I’m sure that would make an impact on Imperial policy. A washed-up ex-soldier, discharged for ‘gross indecency.’ Which is a bit of a catch-all, as they don’t have specific regulations to cover doing something with a hethelax demon that results in an offspring. Sounds like ‘gross’ was the operative word, there. I can practically hear his old Army buddies telling him to be glad the evidence of that lapse in judgment is gone. Worst case scenario, he decides to come up here and avenge you and I have to waste two minutes dealing with it.”

“I know what you’re doing,” he snarled.

“Oh, is that what you think.”

“You’re just trying to make me angry!”

“Gabriel, look at yourself,” she said dryly. “I’m not trying anything; you’re pretty angry. Seriously, though, who else?”

“Toby,” he shot back. “Toby cares what happens to me.”

“Yes, Toby. The chosen Hand of a god whose core teaching is unconditional compassion, a boy who happens to think of you as a brother. That, and your only blood relative, is all you can muster? Doesn’t look encouraging.”

“Juniper likes me!”

“Oh, yes. That.” Tellwyrn wrinkled her nose in disgust. “I did hope you’d go at least a week without plunging into more trouble… No, I’m not even going to get into that right now, you can learn all about dryads on your own time. Suffice it to say that yes, Juniper would probably miss you, and no, she wouldn’t do anything about it. So…where are we, then? Gabriel Arquin is dead, and it just doesn’t matter enough for anybody to bother dealing with the one who did it. Seems kind of sad, don’t you think?”

“Is this really the point of this whole thing?” he demanded. “So you can make me feel like shit? Or did you just want to brag about how you can do whatever you like around here?”

Professor Tellwyrn planted an elbow on her desk and leaned her face into her palm, displacing her glasses. “Arquin…seriously. This has got to stop. Your first response whenever anybody challenges you is to complain about it, instead of thinking about what it means.” Lifting her head, she pulled the spectacles off and tossed them down carelessly on the desk, staring up at him almost sadly. “I’ll spell it out for you: you cannot carry on as you have. Too many people are going to want to take a piece out of you just for being what you are, and you just can’t fight them all off, no matter how skilled or dangerous you become. You need friends. You need for there to always be someone willing to back you up. You’ve got the raw material for that, I told you as much last night. Funny, sort of charming, generally well-intentioned, intermittently clever. But it’s a long road to developing personality traits into a useful skill set, and in this case it begins with you learning to stop pissing everybody off.”

Silence stretched out in the office while he shuffled his feet, staring down at them. Tellwyrn let him, remaining still in her pose. Finally, he lifted his eyes again, and spoke much more softly.

“That was the point of this…whole assignment? You want me to be nice?”

“Nice is a starting point,” she said wearily. “Frankly, it won’t get you far. Being useful would be even better. There are a thousand ways to go about it, but in the end, you just need to matter to people. Build connections, create an identity as someone the world is better off having, with people willing to vouch for that. You’re safer at this University than probably anywhere else on the planet, but right now, the path you’re on, you’ll be lucky to live long enough past graduation to collect your diploma.”

“…any advice?”

“For the very basics? Talk less, listen more. You have an irritating habit of making everything about you. Try focusing on the other people around you, learn about them, make them the focus of your interactions. You will be flabbergasted how popular you become, and how quickly.”

“Really?” He perked up a bit.

“All right, that’s enough of that for tonight. While you’re here, though, how are you enjoying Trissiny’s company?”

“She, uh…seems to like the work. Honestly, I don’t think that girl has a personality.”

“Well,” Tellwyrn said wryly, “you’re off to a great start, then. Run along, Arquin. Show those soldiers to their new lodgings, introduce them to Toby. You might take this as a golden opportunity to practice what I just told you: those three lads have no idea what a boneheaded pain the ass you are. Make a good impression.”

“Yes, sir, ma’am, sir,” he said, saluting crisply.

“Cute,” she replied. “Out.”

After he had gone, she sat alone in her office for several minutes, simply staring into space while her thoughts churned. Eventually she stood and stepped over to her closet, opened the door, and pulled out a trunk which had been stashed in the bottom beneath a pile of old tapestries. Tellwyrn raised its lid and stepped back.

Crystal drifted disjointedly from the trunk, reassembling her various parts back into a semi-coherent shape. She was a bit more cohesive than before, floating chunks of quartz operating in a tighter formation and the cloud of pure magical energy which sustained her more solidly resembling a physical shape, rather than a puff of mist. From one side of her form hung an obvious arm, the elbow nothing but a glowing patch of empty space between alabaster bones etched with runes, but an elaborate gauntlet of gold, studded with gems, gave her a functioning hand.

“How can I help you, Professor?” the arcane golem intoned.

“I’m going to need you to take down a letter,” Tellwyrn said, returning to her seat and slumping down into it. “No, actually, I’m going to give you some general instructions and you sort it out into a letter. Contact my solicitor’s office in Tiraas; I need some favors called in. I want investigators, information brokers… Check my files for a list of essential ingredients used by diabolists in…let’s call it target selection. Finding the names of demons, sending them to the correct places with proper instructions. Cull it down to the rarest and most expensive, send that list to the lawyers, my banker and the thief-catcher I keep on retainer. I want to know who’s been buying and selling that stuff in the last year. I want a map formed of where it’s moved to and from, and wherever that map intersects one of the attack sites for the girls like Teal, I want a list of everyone who ever had anything to do with them. Time is of the essence; I want this scrolled out tonight.”

“That will take time and considerable investment, Professor,” Crystal noted. “Tracking illicit channels carries the risk of drawing attention back to you, the surcharges for these activities will be enormous, and even the fee for sending such an involved set of instructions via telescroll will be considerable.”

“And?” Tellwyrn said irritably.

“You asked me to prompt you, Professor, when you seemed to be making large and/or reckless expenditures without considering the consequences.”

“Yes, all right, fine,” she said, “but this time it’s necessary. Like an idiot I’ve been relying on magic and my own sleuthing to follow spell traces and people. This century, this new era, it’s all about systems, about structure. I need to think like a bureaucrat, not an adventurer. The Black Wreath may have gone to ground, but the stuff this took to accomplish has to have left a paper trail. If nothing else, the Thieves’ Guild will have records.”

“You also asked me to prompt you, Professor, if you seemed about to do something rashly aggressive. Please do not attempt to steal from the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Oh, nonsense, there’s not even a point. Eserion and I go way back, he’ll do me a favor. Even if not, they can be bought off.”

“Very well, Professor. Do you need anything else before I begin?”

Arachne sighed heavily, closing her eyes. “…I’ve taken a side, Crystal. Almost fifty years I’ve managed to put it off, but everything’s going to hell and this University can’t fight off the whole world. Letting the Empire plant those boys here is tantamount to mooning Justinian.” She shook her head. “Seems like I ought to be worried, but I can’t make myself regret it. The Empire is politicians; they’re predictable up to a point. It’s not like I could have aligned us with the Church or any of its component cults. Gods and their followers might up and do any damn thing at all.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?” Crystal asked gently after a moment. Tellwryn shot her a sharp look. That was both more initiative and more personality than she had designed the golem to have. Maybe keeping the thing around and continuing to tinker was a bad idea; she’d intended to scrap Crystal at the experimental stage days ago and start the next model from scratch. It was just so interesting, though, the way she was developing. Plus, Tellwyrn hadn’t had such a competent secretary in decades.

“That’ll be all. Let me know when you’re done, I’ll need to go down there and wake Crete up myself to get a telescroll sent at this hour.”

“Yes, Professor. At once.”

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“Hey.”

“Mm?”

“You ever wonder why we’re here?”

Rook paused in his eighteenth consecutive game of solitaire to peer upward at Finchley. “Interesting. Now, is this an existential-type question, such as ‘what is the meaning of life’ or ‘why did the gods see fit to place us in these bodies at this time in history?’” He reached into the unbuttoned collar of his uniform jacket to scratch himself. “…or more along the lines of ‘why in fuck’s name did the Army assign us to guard this here empty box canyon approximately five clicks west of nowhere’s asshole?’”

“Our orders specifically prohibit speculation as to the nature of this assignment,” their other companion growled, not looking up from polishing his Army-issue wizard staff.

“Blargle largle blumble boo,” said Rook airily, sweeping up his cards and beginning to loudly shuffle the deck. “Look at us, Moriarty. Five privates on two duty shifts assigned to a hatbox-sized ‘fort’ in the aforementioned empty-ass box canyon, with no officers present. Even by Army standards, this whole thing is idiotic. I bet they want us to start ignoring orders. It’s the only explanation that makes sense.”

Finchley sighed, recognizing a new chorus of an old quarrel warming up. He leaned forward against the rail, not minding the way the entire structure vibrated; experience had taught him that it would probably hold, and if not, tumbling off the roof would at least alleviate the tedium. Their ‘fort’ was little more than a wooden hut with a railed observation platform on top, occupying one end of the small box canyon. Behind it was the retractable rope ladder leading to the stairs out of the canyon. They really had nothing to do while on ‘watch’ but to stare at the abandoned mine opening at the other end of the canyon, which they had been emphatically ordered never to approach.

“It was a practical question,” he said, cutting off the gathering argument. “And don’t glare at me like that, Moriarty, you know he’s right.”

Private Moriarty harrumphed and bent over his staff again, dipping his rag in the jar of polish. The thing already gleamed blindingly in the sun. The hot, hot sun… Finchley cast a longing look up at the trees rimming the canyon’s lip. It must be so shady and cool up there…

“You better leave that thing alone or you’re gonna rub all the magic out of it,” Rook said, his customary sly grin creeping across his swarthy face. “How’s about you go below and polish your other staff for a while? Might improve your disposition.”

“If I bothered to report every flouted regulation or act of open insubordination that goes on in this wretched excuse for a base,” Moriarty said woodenly, “I’d have no time to do anything but write reports. If not for me, Rook, you’d be running a still and a brothel here by now.”

“That just isn’t true, brother, and I’ll tell you why.” Rook tucked the cards into the pocket of his jacket and folded his arms behind his head, leaning against the rail. “This is an answer to your question, too, Finchley. See, my theory is we’re part of some big experiment. I mean, seriously. Five privates, middle of nowhere, no officers? It makes no sense. And what the hell are these?” He lifted a hand to tap one of the clouded crystal orbs that surmounted the corner posts of the railing. “I think these are some kind of scrying equipment. I think they’re studying how long it takes discipline to completely break the hell down when they don’t bother to maintain it.”

“That’d be useful for them to know if we ever go to war again,” Finchley mused, shifting his staff to the other hand.

Rook nodded. “Excatly! See? He gets it! So yeah, that is why you chumps don’t have the privilege of living in Rook’s Hookerarium and Moonshine Palace. I figure they expect us to let the uniform situation slide a bit, but I try to keep my court-martial-worthy offenses to no more than three a day.”

Indeed, of the three of them only Moriarty kept his navy-blue Imperial Army uniform to regulation standards. Finchley had, after the third week of not being checked up on by Imperial Command, stopped buttoning his jacket as a concession to the heat. Rook didn’t even bother to tuck in his shirt most days, nor to lace up his boots properly, and only a truly epic tantrum from Moriarty had prevented him from tearing the sleeves off his coat.

“I think it’s a hellgate,” Finchley said.

“Hellgates are classified material,” Moriarty all but shouted. “Speculating about them while on duty is a class four act of insubordination!”

“Oh, blow it out your ass, Moriarty,” Rook said lazily. “And Finchley, get your head out of yours. If this was a hellgate they’d have a platoon here covering it. With artillery and wizards.”

“No, see, my dad is a wizard. He does research for the Guild. Almost all known hellgates are completely quiet, sorta like they’re blocked from the other end or something. But gates that’ve been silent for years have been known to unexpectedly cough out a demon once in a while, so the Empire wouldn’t just leave them unwatched. But there’s only so many troops and so much funding to go around and with most of it on the frontier around the Golden Sea they can’t possibly put full security on every single known hellgate, there are hundreds of ’em. But five soldiers, two or three on duty at a time with wands and staves? A couple blasts would do for most of the kinds of demons that might accidentally slip through. And this one being in the middle of nowhere, if Elilial was gonna invade or something, she wouldn’t use this one.”

“That,” Rook said slowly, “makes a scary amount of sense. Well, fuck, I didn’t want to ever sleep again anyway. Thank you so much, Finchley.”

“If this conversation stops now I’ll forget I heard it,” said Moriarty through gritted teeth. “Otherwise…”

“Otherwise you’ll go and tell on us. I bet your schoolmarm loved you, Moriarty.”

“I bet yours tried to drown you in the well!”

“Nope,” Rook grinned, “but her husband did.”

“Well. This wasn’t here before.”

The three soldiers lifted their heads in surprise at the new voice behind them, then as one, froze and stared in slack-jawed stupefaction.

Standing between their fort and the ladder that offered their only chance of escape stood a woman with skin of a dusky crimson, eyes that were swirling pits of orange flame and a pair of ridged horns sweeping backward from the crown of her forehead. She wore an improbable black leather outfit studded with steel rings and spikes of dubious utility, and with her feet on the ground, towered over their rooftop watch post by a good ten feet. That voice seemed like it would have been a throaty, sultry purr, had it not been powerful enough to rattle the floorboards.

“I see Sharidan has found my little bolt-hole,” she went on with a sly smile. “Such a clever lad, that one. Though honestly, his habit of putting soldiers at all my doors and windows is becoming tiresome.”

“H-h-halt!” Finchley squeaked, though the apparition wasn’t moving. He raised his staff and pointed it at her; the uncontrollable trembling of his arms would have killed his accuracy, had she not been so close and such a huge target. “Id-d-dentify yourself!”

“Oh dear, how rude of me.” That smug smile widened to a grin; she had fangs as long as his forearm. “You would know me as Elilial, among other, less polite monikers. Incidentally, lads, you’ve built your little clubhouse right across my back steps, as it were. That’s hardly neighborly.”

All three of them were now on their feet, Rook after some awkward scrambling and nearly falling off the platform twice. Finchley and Moriarty had staves pointed at her heart; Rook couldn’t reach his, but aimed his sidearm at her (and also Finchley’s, which he’d stolen a week ago to see how long it would take his bunkmate to notice).

“Elilial?” Rook croaked. “Oh, bugger. I pictured someone less hot.”

“Why, aren’t you a sweetie,” she cooed. Her breath smelled of a very confusing blend of sulfur and spearmint. “Suppose you just drop those things, boys? Surely you wouldn’t shoot a pregnant lady.”

A moment of silence held, while the goddess of demons eyed the three petrified Imperial privates with unveiled amusement.

“Elilial,” Moriarty finally said in a shrill squeak, “if that is your real name, you are under arrest on the authority of the Emperor of Tiraas. You are commanded to stand down and submit to—to—to, uh, arrest.”

At this her grin widened to truly appalling proportions. Rook felt the blood rush to his head, and his knees began to buckle.

“Well, just look at you three,” she purred. “Brave, loyal…not too bright. Exactly the way I like my boys. Makes me sad I don’t have time to stop and play, but I have bigger fish in the fire. Take a nap, lads.”

As though she’d flipped a switch, the three soldiers crumpled silently, dropping their weapons with a clatter. Moriarty began to snore.

Elilial shook her head as she stepped around the fort, heading for the old mineshaft. “Poor kids. You’ve seen what your superiors would rather no one knew was real, and that’s usually a death sentence. Still, at least this time they won’t have me to blame for the deed.” In passing, she tapped one of the smoky crystal orbs with a fingertip; it exploded into powder.

And then she was gone, striding through a hole that opened in the air at the far end of the canyon and snapped shut behind her.


 

“Well,” said Gabriel, “I’m willing to call it. No one, anywhere, is having a weirder day than we are.”

They stood awkwardly around the University greenhouse, where their first Herbalism class was to be held, watching Juniper dart around in manic glee. She sniffed, rubbed her head against, fondled, greeted and in a few cases sang to every plant she came across, looking as delighted as a child in a candy store. Everyone else kept carefully to the paths and as far from the foliage as possible, due partly to the large sign reading “IF YOU DON’T RECOGNIZE IT, DON’T TOUCH IT,” but mostly to having watched Fross narrowly avoid being eaten by what appeared to be a daisy.

So long as nothing jumped out at anyone, the greenhouse was a place of stunning beauty. Though there had to have been some plan to its layout, it wasn’t readily apparent, and the profusion of plant life resembled a jungle. Green fronds were draped everywhere, vines climbed every available surface and exotic blossoms made explosions of color in all directions. The air was damp and heady with the scent of earth and dozens of flowers.

“A bold assertion,” Shaeine noted. “I think, with respect, that you underestimate the weirdness of the world.”

“Uh, Trissiny?” said Teal nervously. “That vine is going for your foot.”

“What? Yipe!” Trissiny leaped backward onto the path, almost bowling into Toby; the woody protrusion that had been creeping stealthily toward her boot slithered back into the underbrush.

Gabriel raised an eyebrow at Shaeine. “See?”

The greenhouse’s heavy wooden door exploded inward, rebounding off the wall (luckily an interior wall, not a glass one) with a crash, and their professor arrived.

“BEHOLD!” he thundered, pausing in the doorway to strike a dramatic pose, before swaggering the rest of the way in. He was a tall, thinly built man with subtly pointed ears and flowing golden hair that fell nearly to his waist, dressed in painfully tight pants, glossy knee-high boots and a lace-trimmed blouse that hung open halfway to his navel.

“I,” he informed the eight stupefied students, “am Professor Admestus Rafe, master of plants and lord of this verdant domain! Lest you question my utter dominance of this subject, let me reassure you that an affinity with nature is in my blood. I am, as you can see, a half-elf!” He placed a hand just above his belt. “This half, from here up. Everything below is of the meatiest, manliest proportions, I assure you.”

“Gwuh,” said Teal.

“I will be brutally frank,” Professor Rafe intoned, stalking toward them along the gravel path, his hands clasped at the small of his back. “The warm, cozy security of this greenhouse is the greatest comfort you will experience in this class. To learn the lore of plants, we shall go where the plants are—the wild plants, the hungry, crawling children of Naiya’s various drunken indiscretions with dark things born of an inebriated goblin’s nightmares.”

“Hey,” Juniper protested. “You shouldn’t talk about goddesses that way.”

“SOME OF YOU MAY NOT SURVIVE.” Silence fell, during which Rafe examined them slowly with one eyebrow superciliously arched. Then, suddenly, he grinned. “Probably you’ll all survive, but you’re officially warned now, so if somebody doesn’t you can’t blame me. But seriously, kids, this is a lab work class; we’ll do some stuff here in the greenhouse, but for the most part we’ll be traveling. Occasionally by Rail to other parts of the Empire—I hope nobody’s got a weak stomach—but largely into the Golden Sea. I’ve got friends out there and one rarely sees a dragon or minotaur this close to the frontier, so it’ll probably be fine.”

Rafe turned his entire body in a slow half-circle. “So let’s see what I’ve got to work with this semester…hm, good, good, skinny but spry… Uh, I’ve got a sun-blocking oil you can use,” he said to Shaeine. “We’re gonna be in a lot of sun, and I don’t know if your type burns or what. You with the armor, you’re gonna slow us down.”

“I will not,” Trissiny snapped.

“You totally will. You’re wearing like half your body weight in metal.”

“Would you like to step outside and have a footrace?”

Rafe threw back his head and roared with laughter. “Excellent! Stick it to the man, Avelea! Ten points extra credit!”

“I…wh…huh?”

“But seriously, the armor’s not gonna work. If you want to wear it, fine, but don’t whine to me when you sink in a bog. Let’s see…nice hat, Punaji. Oh, my.” He eyed Juniper up and down slowly. “Any more like you at home?”

“Um…not exactly like me?”

“Splendid. Show me sometime; we’ll have privacy. All righty then!” Rafe clapped his hands together and rubbed them briskly. “Considering it’s morally wrong to do actual work on the first day of classes, we’re pretty much done here. Your homework! Before our next class, I expect you each to investigate the properties of grains by drinking something distilled from some. I am far too important to follow you around checking up on you, so you’re on the honor system. Also, it has come to my attention that tomorrow morning you all have Introduction to Alchemy.” He glowered at them so hard that Teal took a step back. “I will warn you up front that your instructor in that course is a blasted swaggering troglodyte who is unworthy to suck down the oxygen of my magnificent greenhouse. Extra credit will be awarded in this class for pelting him with books while his back is turned. And with that, you are dismissed. Yes, oh great pirate princess?”

“Yeah, question.” Zaruda lowered her hand. “Are you an idiot?”

“Ehh…” He made a waffling gesture with one hand. “I’ll give you five points. Defying authority is less impressive when you’re the second person in a row to try it. Nobody likes a brown-noser, Punaji. And now: ONWARD TO GLORY!”

Professor Rafe spun on his heel and charged out of the greenhouse, kicking up a spray of gravel. Seconds later, he popped back in, grabbed the door and slammed it shut. They heard the muffled echoes of maniacal laughter receding into the distance.

“He didn’t answer my question,” Zaruda noted.

“Oh,” Gabe said grimly, “I think he did.”


 

“Got you.” Arachne Tellwyrn grinned down at her rebuilt scrying table, deftly marking a location on the attached map and jotting down a notation next to it.

She had promised both Alaric and herself that she would focus on school business for now, but the siren call of research—and, to be honest, of adventure—was too much to ignore, particularly when the automatic warnings she had set up had pinged to indicate a huge spike of demonic energy just outside the Home Province.

The golem she had set to observe the scrying array had taken detailed notes, which she had just finished analyzing. The opening of a hellgate left an unmistakable energy signature; reassuringly, this one had been open for barely a second. The bad news was that this meant it was not a bear-in-a-tavern situation, but a purposeful crossing by a demon powerful enough to pry the gate open. The good was that, based on the lack of residual energy in the area, whatever had opened it had gone in, rather than come out, otherwise the gate would have bled infernal radiation all over the site. It was strange for a demon to want into hell; everything ever recorded having made the crossing had adamantly refused to go back. Unless this one was on specific business…

“Crystal, you’re positive about your readings? I don’t find any trace of divine energy in the area now.”

“Positive, Professor,” the golem chimed softly. Crystal was unimaginatively named (well, she was a prototype, no point getting too attached); her form was little more than a set of large, faceted white stones suspended in a cloud of pure arcane energy. Gold-embossed sigils carved into her primary center of mass collected and suspended both her physical form and the free-floating energy that powered her, as well as holding the spells that governed her behavior. “It was brief and difficult to pick out from the background noise, but distinctive during its duration.”

“And your analysis?”

“I extrapolate from the evidence that a deity opened the hellgate and entered.”

“Mm.” The question was a test; Arachne had come to the same conclusion, but Crystal was a work-in-progress and it paid to check up on her reasoning abilities.

The Professor began to pace back and forth, her feet marking an already-worn groove in her carpet. Which deity? Tellwyrn was on speaking terms with more gods than most priests, and couldn’t immediately suss out why one of them would do such a thing. Elilial was the only one who had any business in hell, but unless she’d recently learned a great deal more circumspection than Arachne suspected her capable of, she couldn’t have gotten out of the infernal plane without kicking up a cosmic ruckus, and certainly wouldn’t have slipped quietly back in. Such would be utterly out of character for the Demon Queen. Avei? No… Even if Avei took a notion into her head to attack hell, she’d have gone in with an army. And what with her new paladin on this plane, indications were that Avei’s attention was focused here. That line of reasoning also ruled out Omnu, who’d never have done such a thing anyhow. Vesk might do something like this, or Eserion, but speculating on the trickster gods’ motives was an exercise in futility. Shaath or Calomnar might either of them be rash enough to try a one-god war on hell, but the allure of getting rid of those two menaces was probably clouding her mind with wishful thinking; they’d never tried it before. Vidius? She could imagine several reasons he’d be interested in hell. The god of death occasionally found a need to bend his own rules and return a soul to the mortal plane, which might necessitate retrieving it first.

She came to a stop mid-pace, fingers twitching with the desire to grab books and begin searching for answers. She had responsibilities, damn Alaric and his relentless logic. The very beginning of the semester was no time to go haring off on a quest. Nothing indicated these events were urgent; the matter would keep.

Still…

“Crystal, pull the reference material on temporal magic and Vankstadt’s notes on experimental scrying methods. Cross-reference them for…”

Crystal let the silence stretch on for a moment before gently prompting her. “For what, Professor?”

Tellwyrn snapped her wandering attention back to the present. “For any points of mutual applicability, I suppose. Anything that might be relevant to time scrying.”

“Yes, Professor. If you intend to scry in the past, may I suggest studying the works of Telonius the Great? His theories on the subject of time travel are considered fundamental.”

“Pfft, I taught Telonius. Smart boy, but a pure theorist, and I need something practical. Just get me what I asked for to start with and we’ll go from there. Oh, and Varing’s treatise on boundary spells, too, the, uh…which is the one that focuses on protecting scrying systems?”

“His Eighth Treatise, Professor.”

“Yes, that one. Pull it. Have ’em all prepared for me after classes tomorrow.”

“Yes, Professor. Will there be anything else for now?”

Tellwyrn chewed her lip, staring down at the scrying table. “Gods in pants, I hope not.”


 

“Teal?”

She jerked her head up at the soft voice at her shoulder. The freshman girls were on their way back to Clarke Tower, having parted from Toby and Gabriel outside the greenhouses. The other four went up ahead, loudly speculating and complaining about their professors; Teal and Shaeine trailed along behind them, both content with the quiet. At least, they had been until the dark elf had spoken.

“Hm? I’m sorry, did I miss something?”

“The path, nearly. You seem preoccupied.”

Teal laughed softly, echoed by another laugh within her mind, which of course Shaeine could not hear. “Just…conversing with the voice in my head.”

Shaeine’s garnet-colored eyes dropped for a moment to study Teal’s talisman. “I see.”

“It’s… Sorry, that probably sounded random. I’m not crazy…it’s a real voice.”

“I know.”

She bit her lip hesitantly. “And you’re not…bothered?”

“If you are not, why should I be?” The elf gave one of her small, polite smiles; as sometimes happened, Teal had the feeling there was real amusement hiding behind the practiced expression, but Shaeine was hard to read. “If it is not presumptuous to ask, what does it say?”

“Only what I already know.” She shook her head. “Or what I feel, anyway. A little bit of the excitement has bled out of this place for me. I’ve got this expectation of…doom.”

“Even Rafe was not that bad, surely.”

Teal had to laugh at that; Shaeine’s small smile widened almost imperceptibly in response.

“I have never imagined feeling so out of my element, either. But I also do not doubt that we will prevail. Those who are not challenged do not grow.”

“Spoken like a priestess.”

“I am a priestess. But if that does not comfort your worries, what does the outlook of a bard say about the obstacles before us?”

Teal grinned, a slow, sly expression. “To a bard? Obstacles are the first step of an adventure.

“As we were recently told, then: Onward, to glory.”

“Yeah. To glory.”

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