Tag Archives: Fross

12 – 18

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“Sorry I’m late!”

Teal tossed something to Ruda as she entered the spell lab before crossing to join Shaeine by the wall. The two shared a reserved smile, shifting their hands to briefly touch the backs against each other, while Juniper looked on with a sappy smile.

“You’re not even the last one here, and holy hell, did you drive?” Ruda was examining the object Teal had thrown her: a set of control runes for an enchanted carriage, their engraved sigils putting off a fierce blue glow, attached to a small bronze fob.

“Nah, that’s my tardy note,” Teal said, grinning. “I was helping Maureen with our project; we got hung up applying the control enchantment, and kept at it because if you leave that half done, you pretty much have to start over. Jokes on us, cos we flubbed it somehow and have to start over anyway. Those are the runes we were trying to use.”

“Oooh, yeah, they’re not supposed to glow like that,” Fross commented, fluttering closer. “Huh, that’s really peculiar. What went wrong?”

“I actually don’t know,” Teal confessed. “Neither does Maureen. But when it comes to enchanting, I pretty much just know theory and she was following along from the book…”

“Are they gonna blow up?” Ruda asked, showing no alarm at the prospect of holding a potentially explosive spell misfire.

“Nah, there’s not enough juice in those to make a good firecracker,” said Teal. “They’ll probably just glow until they burn through their stored power. Don’t toss ’em in a spell circle or anything, though. Mis-enchanted gadgets can be unpredictable if you add them to half-finished spells.”

“Hell, I wouldn’t be going near something like that anyway,” Ruda said, carefully tucking the fob into one of the buttonholes on her coat, where the glowing runes hung to just above her belt. “Thanks, T! Cheap, tacky and potentially dangerous. Best jewelry I’ve ever gotten!”

“I figured you’d like it,” Teal said, winking. “Speaking of which, Fross, d’you think you could give us a hand alter when we try to apply control enchantments again? I think it’ll go better with an actual enchanter on hand.”

“I would be glad to help, however!” Fross darted back and forth in midair as she often did to punctuate a point. “I would suggest you ask Gabe first. He’s a specialized enchanter while I’m a more general arcanist, and also he really likes being included and having his skills acknowledged, which, y’know, everybody does, but personally I don’t feel I need the validation and Gabe’s still working through some stuff.”

“That is very perceptive, Fross,” Shaeine said with a warm little smile, “and very kind.”

“Thank you! I try to be both of those things!”

“It’s a good idea,” Teal agreed, again brushing Shaeine’s hand with hers. “Thank you, Fross, I’ll mention it to him.”

“After the meeting, if you please,” Ruda said. “We’re already running a bit behind, and I prefer to get this business out of the way as soon as possible. That is, if the rest of our—well, it’s about fucking time.”

The lab door opened again, and Gabriel himself entered, followed closely by Toby. Gabe paused in the doorway, his gaze zeroing in on the glowing control runes hanging just over Ruda’s belt buckle. After a moment, he grinned broadly.

“Yarr! It’s drivin’ me nuts!”

“Arquin, so fucking help me—”

“Whuh?” Juniper blinked. “I don’t get it.”

“Old joke,” Gabriel explained. “So a pirate walks into a bar, and there’s a ship’s wheel hanging from his belt buckle—”

He broke off and ducked, Ruda having yanked a bottle of beer from within her coat and hurled it at his head. The bottle came to a stop midair before reaching him, however.

“Hey, don’t make a mess in the spell lab,” Fross said reproachfully, levitating the bottle gently to the floor. “We’ll have to clean it up before we leave.”

“Silly as always, I see,” Scorn grumbled, stepping in after Toby and as usual having to duck to get her horns under the door frame.

“Oh…hi, Scorn,” Ruda said, frowning up at her. “Wasn’t expecting you to come.”

“I invited her,” Toby said firmly. “Considering what you wanted to discuss, I think she could contribute very well. And besides, we could stand to make more of an effort to spend time with her.”

“You know what they say,” Gabriel agreed, nudging Scorn with an elbow, which barely reached up to the base of her ribs. “You bust it out of a psycho holy sex dungeon, you buy it!”

The Rhaazke looked down her nose at him, nostrils flaring once in a silent snort of irritation. “Are you lot going to be like this the whole time, again? Always jokes and prodding each other when you should be focusing?”

“Hey, don’t knock it,” Ruda said easily. “Bickering helps us concentrate.”

“It’s a bonding exercise!” Fross proclaimed. “I was uncertain at first too but as long as everybody knows each other and trusts there’s no malice it’s actually pretty fun! You should feel free to join in!”

“Except don’t pick on Shaeine,” Gabriel said solemnly. “She’s classy. Everybody else is fair game.”

Scorn grunted. “If you say so. Fine, then. You are short and not good with women.”

“Ehhh…” Gabriel made a waffling motion with his hand. “A decent effort. Ruda, care to critique?”

“Points for being on the nose,” Ruda said seriously. “That was a good hit; Arquin’s manly ego makes a splendid target. It’s all about context, though. You’re meant to fire one off at the appropriate moment in the conversation, not just out of the blue like that.”

“Sounds unnecessarily complicated,” Scorn huffed.

“Nah, you’ll get there,” Ruda said, grinning. “Stick with us, we’ll have you bantering like a pro in no time.”

“I’m even less sure I want to stick with you now,” Scorn grunted.

“And there you go!” Gabriel crowed. “She comes back with a splendid riposte!” The Rhaazke just looked at him in confusion.

Shaeine cleared her throat loudly.

“Yes, right, we’re actually here for a reason, for once,” Ruda said in a much less jocular tone. “I’m sure you lot were wondering why I wanted to talk in one of the spell labs. The reason is this is probably the most secured and private place on campus available to us aside from our dorms, and we can’t have the whole group in either of those, unless we slip Gabe and Toby sex change potions first.”

“That’s actually a lot more complex than a simple potion! There’s a whole course of alchemical treatment involved, which takes days if not weeks, and it should really only be undertaken with the supervision of an expert alchemist and a healer, preferably a fae practitioner—”

“Fross.”

“…aaaand I’m being pedantic and going off on a tangent. Sorry.” The pixie drifted a few feet lower, her glow dimming bashfully. Ruda gave her a grin before continuing.

“Tellwyrn, in her dubious wisdom, has asked us to keep an eye on the campus while she fucks off to Sifan, and ideally nab this Sleeper asshole. We need to talk strategy.”

“Wait, Tellwyrn what?” Scorn exclaimed.

“It’s actually really unexpected,” Juniper said, nodding. “I’m still surprised. And intimidated, and kind of honored.”

“We may jabber and fool around, but we get stuff done,” Gabriel said to Scorn. “That, or we get chased by centaurs or tricked by the Black Wreath. Y’know, six of one…”

“And this raises another point,” Ruda said, fixing her gaze on the Rhaazke. “Scorn, on reflection I think Toby has a good point: you’ve earned our trust, you’re smart and powerful, and I think you’re an asset here. So, you know, welcome to the gang. With that said, this is the kind of thing which should not leave this room, hence us talking in a magically sealed space that can’t be eavesdropped on.”

“Easily,” Shaeine corrected in a quiet tone. “Most of our fellow students could not penetrate the defenses on one of Tellwyrn’s spell labs. It would be a mistake to make assumptions about what the Sleeper can or cannot do.”

“Point,” Ruda agreed, nodding at her.

“I’m glad you’re doing well at making friends,” Toby added to Scorn, “but with something like this, Ravana Madouri in particular…”

“There is good sense in that,” Scorn grunted. “Ravana is very clever. Very clever. But she is the kind of clever that tricks itself as often as others. I think she would agree, anyway. I have noticed her best trait is she does not lie about what she is, even to herself.”

“And this is no time for people to be playing politics, which is what Ravana would fucking do even if she decided to help, and we all know it,” Ruda said firmly. “So, glad we’re all on the same page, there. Now, Fross and June and I have been talking and we’ve got an idea.”

“Yes!” Fross chimed, shooting straight up to the ceiling in excitement. “Okay, so, remember when we were chasing spectral demons and I set up a hybrid arcane/divine detection grid over the town?”

“I remember that not turning out so well,” Scorn commented.

“Yes, true, but not really germane to the point; the grid worked perfectly, and in fact accidentally enabled me to dig up some more detail on something it found than I expected. So I’ve been refining that and I think I’ve improved on it in a way we can use to catch the Sleeper!”

“A detection grid over the campus?” Gabriel asked, his interest clearly raised. “No offense, Fross, but what do you think you can do that Tellwyrn hasn’t? She’s got the ley lines rigged so she can temporally scry, and there’s a very powerful fairy geas active…”

“But we have something Tellwyrn doesn’t!” Fross chimed excitedly.

“An excessively high opinion of ourselves?” Gabriel asked, grinning.

“A tendency to wreck things?” Toby added wryly.

“Really great hair!” Ruda chortled.

“Tellwyrn has all that,” Scorn pointed out.

“We have a dryad,” Juniper said smugly.

“Uh, point of order?” Teal raised a hand. “Tellwyrn also has a dryad. The same one. I mean, wouldn’t she have already asked you to help, Juno?”

“She did,” Ruda pointed out.

“I mean, specifically, if there was a way she in particular could.”

“That Tellwyrn didn’t think of a way does not mean one does not exist,” Shaeine observed. “Your idea, Juniper?”

Juniper sighed. “The thing is…the last time she let me help, I made a mess of it. I think that’s probably made her a little wand-shy. Besides, Tellwyrn is a mage; she doesn’t think in terms of mixing schools, or using different ones. Fross and I have worked something out that should let us… Well, Fross is better at explaining it.”

“Okay, so!” the pixie resumed. “First of all, we’re reasonably sure the Sleeper is a warlock.”

“Why?” Scorn demanded.

“Sure might be overstating it, but there’s evidence,” said Ruda, beginning to tick points off on her fingers. “First, some asshole inexplicably opens a hellgate—a major infernal accomplishment. Then, Tellwyrn hires a kitsune, pretty much the most dangerous and powerful kind of fairy there is, to teach at the campus. Then, nothing at all happens; not a peep from any hypothetical warlock. Then, the kitsune storms off in a huff, and immediately this Sleeper bullshit starts up. So, no, we can’t prove anything, but the sequence of events strongly suggests this is a warlock, and the same one who pried that hellgate open.”

“Hmm.” Scorn narrowed her eyes, but nodded after a moment. “Logical. Okay, go on, pixie.”

“Right, so detection networks,” Fross continued. “Do you guys know anything about dryad attunements?”

A round of blank glances was exchanged around the room.

“It’s hard to put into words,” Juniper said, frowning thoughtfully, “because the whole experience is beyond words; I think that’s a large part of the point of it. But it’s something we can do, a way of sensing our surroundings, and especially magic and other fairies. I’m connected to it at all times, but not always actively; it takes focus to consciously sense what’s happening around me. I don’t usually do it, because my range covers pretty much the whole mountain, and other fairies kind of find it disruptive.”

“It’s, uh, sort of like suddenly having an extra sense,” Fross added, “and immediately using it to detect some massive, powerful creature standing right next to you. A little disconcerting.”

“Sorry,” Juniper said, wincing. “But…massive? Really?”

“I mean, uh, your magical profile! Not physically.”

“Massive, no,” Scorn said, suddenly grinning. “They are pretty hefty, but let’s be reasonable.”

Gabriel and Ruda dissolved in laughter; Teal covered her eyes with a hand. Juniper just shook her head.

“Anyway,” Toby said loudly.

“Right, yes,” Fross went on. “Since, as you know, it turns out I myself am basically a small fragment of a dryad’s consciousness given independent agency, I can connect to this attunement with Juniper’s help. What’s more important, I am an anomaly. Fairies are simply not supposed to be able to use arcane magic. I know Jacaranda wouldn’t have deliberately made me that way, and frankly if she’d wanted to, there’s no way she would know how. Even Tellwyrn doesn’t fully understand how it works; I sure don’t.”

“Which means,” Juniper said with a satisfied smile, “it’s an effect that can’t be predicted or countered.”

“How does that help us?” asked Shaeine.

“What I’m gonna do,” Fross said eagerly, “is work on a spell with Juniper that’ll let me broadcast a very small but steady amount of arcane magic through the fairy attunement!”

“Now, I’m not in the magic studies program,” said Toby, “but I do know my Circles. That sounds like a great way to blast everything off the top of the mountain.”

“We’ve tested this on a smaller scale before bringing it up with you guys,” said Juniper. “It works. Fross intuitively blends the arcane and fae; she can extend the effect. And even if that didn’t work, it’s a very small amount of arcane power. If the came into conflict, the fae would just snuff it out. The attunement is powerful.”

“To what end, though?” Gabriel asked.

“We know the Sleeper and his curse are effectively undetectable,” said Ruda. “We also know that the Sleeper was willing to tangle aggressively with November, but fled from Tellwyrn. That’s the profile of someone who relies on stealth, but can be overpowered if caught. And we, my fellow magnificent bastards, have the juice to beat the hell out of just about anybody we can manage to pin down.”

“I’m not talking about blazing with random arcane energy,” Fross added. “Since we can’t detect the Sleeper directly, I’m gonna make a way to catch him. The spell I mean to use will be a tiny, trace amount of arcane magic spread across the whole mountain, small enough nobody should be able to perceive it except me, since I’m the source. More importantly, I will have it rigged to be immediately consumed by any infernal magic it encounters, as per the Circles of Interaction. Even that way, it’s so small the infernal caster in question shouldn’t be able to sense it; it won’t be enough power to actually do anything.”

“So,” Gabriel said, comprehension dawning on his face, “if anybody uses infernal magic anywhere on the mountaintop…”

“It will burn a hole in Fross’s field,” Scorn interrupted eagerly, “where she can know it but he cannot.”

“And so,” Juniper said with smug satisfaction, “it won’t matter how invisible the Sleeper is. We’ll know he’s there, and we’ll land on him.”

“Ingenious,” Teal marveled.

“I see only one downside,” Shaeine said quietly. “This plan hinges on someone else being a victim of the Sleeper’s attack.”

“Not necessarily,” Toby mused. “Wherever he or she is getting this power, the Sleeper’s a very potent warlock—and as a student, someone quite young. I bet you anything they’ll be experimenting; that’s probably the whole point of this sleeping curse, or at least part of it. There’s no reason they wouldn’t be, if they can hide it completely, even from Tellwyrn.”

“Exactly,” Ruda said, nodding. “The pattern of events suggests they were afraid of Ekoi; their activities were probably suspended while she was here. They’ll be branching out now, trying stuff to see what they can pull off.”

“And even if she does curse someone else,” Scorn said with an unpleasant grin, “then we will have her. And then she will tell us how to fix them. Or if not us, she will very much tell Tellwyrn when she is back.”

“Solid points, all,” Shaeine agreed, nodding. “Very well. I think this is a good plan.”

“And the rest is boilerplate,” Roda said briskly. “Fross and June will have to handle the magic; what we need to put together is a plan of attack. We’ll have to be on site from wherever we are pretty much immediately once Fross sounds the alarm.”

“Hm…that presents a logistical muddle,” Teal mused, rubbing her chin. “Also, we’ll need to be very careful it’s the actual Sleeper we’re jumping on. None of the other students are openly warlocks, but several in the magic program use small amounts of infernal energy for various experiments…”

“If I may?”

They all pushed back against the walls with a series of surprised shouts, Ruda and Gabriel both drawing weapons. Inspector Fedora grinned unrepentantly at them, seemingly not in the least perturbed by the show of force. He had just appeared there, standing against one wall, without the door having opened.

“Really, kids, settle down. And future reference? If you’re gonna be up to this kind of duggering of skulls, you need to get in the habit of thoroughly sweeping your meeting places. Before you get to the actual meeting.”

“What are you doing in here?” Scorn snarled, balling her fists.

“Easy now!” Fedora held up a hand, palm out. “I was eavesdropping, obviously. That’s a good plan, I think it’s got every chance of working. And I believe I can help you with that last bit.”

“Why the hell would we trust you?” Ruda demanded, still holding her rapier pointed at him.

“I really can’t advise strongly enough that you don’t do that,” Fedora replied, grinning. “Trust is earned, kids; I haven’t had time to earn it, and full disclosure? Not planning to. But you can work with people you don’t trust. Hell, if anything, trust is a handicap. You’re much better off dealing with people on the basis of clearheaded knowledge of what they want and how they think, rather than some emotional attachment to the idea of them being on your side.”

“How did you just appear there?” Teal snapped.

“He was invisible, obviously,” said Ariel, her runes flickering. Gabriel held her also pointed at the Inspector.

“It’s a neat trick,” Toby said.

“It’s an entirely standard part of their repertory, in fact,” the sword said; Fedora watched her with an evidently delighted grin, offering no interruption as she continued. “The Imperial government may of course employ whoever it wishes. The same goes for Professor Tellwyrn, though quite frankly I am disappointed that she would allow this foolishness to continue. The rest of you, however, should think long and carefully before agreeing to cooperate with an incubus.”

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12 – 12

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“Ladies,” Gabriel said in greeting as the two groups met at the stairs to Helion Hall’s second floor. “Wow, this makes everybody. You also got a summons from her Majesty, then?”

“Yeah,” said Teal. “And I have to admit the thing that bothers me most is how little it bothers me to have imperious notes spontaneously appear in the room where I sleep. After all the times Tellwyrn’s surprise-teleported us places, it just doesn’t seem as invasive anymore.”

“We’re being fuckin’ trained,” Ruda said fatalistically, leading the way up the steps. “Which, granted, is the point of a college education, but my papa isn’t paying to have me turned into a goddamn show pony.”

“Toby, are you all right?” Shaeine asked gently. Gabriel’s eyes cut back to his friend, full of concern.

Toby sighed softly, his dour expression not lightening. “Just got back from taking Raolo to the infirmary,” he said tersely.

“Oh, no!” Juniper said, eyes widening. “Is he okay? What happened?”

“Like the others,” Toby answered, eyes ahead as they topped the stairs and entered the hallway. “He seems fine. Just asleep.”

“Fuck,” Ruda spat, turning to give him a look of commiseration.

“This is getting out of hand!” Fross chimed. Patterns of white light shifted along the walls as she zipped spastically back and forth above their heads. “People are getting really worried, and frankly I think they’re right to! How much longer can this possibly go on?!”

“Hey,” Teal said gently, squeezing Toby’s shoulder. “If you need—”

“Thanks,” he said sharply, then immediately sighed again and gave her an apologetic look, which she answered with a smile. “Thanks…but this isn’t suddenly worse because it’s affected a personal friend of mine. If anything, the lesson here is how I should’ve been more concerned with it from the beginning.”

“Caine, enough,” Ruda said flatly. “It is suddenly worse because it affects someone you know. Sounds harsh, but that’s just how people think. Paladin or no, you’re a person.”

“I’m a person called to serve others,” he retorted. “A paladin is expected to do better. And this is not about me!”

“What happened to Raolo isn’t about you,” she said. “The whole Sleeper bullshit isn’t about you. But this, how you feel? That is. You’re allowed to have feelings and flaws—what the hell would gods need paladins for if they didn’t want a human perspective? Let your friends care about you, dumbass.”

Gabriel patted him on the back. “As usual, she’s not wrong and it’s annoying as hell. Look, man, despite what we all know Tellwyrn will think, maybe it’s time we look into doing something ourselves.”

“Such as?” Teal said wryly.

Juniper cleared her throat. “Uh, assuming Tellwyrn’s in her office, which seems likely since she told us all to go there, we’re probably within her earshot here.”

“Yeah, well, Tellwyrn’s also smart enough to see this coming,” Gabriel replied.

They turned at the sound of feet on the stairs, beholding the craggy-face balding man in the long black coat leading the campus’s three resident soldiers up to the hall.

“Move,” the Hand spat, shouldering roughly past Ruda.

“Excuse you?” she said incredulously.

“Sorry,” Rook muttered in passing. Finchley gave her a look of desperate apology; Moriarty seemed occupied with worrisome thoughts of his own.

“The hell’s that about?” Gabriel asked aloud, watching the group fast-march down the hall toward Tellwyrn’s office.

“Dunno,” Ruda said shortly, “but let’s go have a look-see.”

Ahead, the Hand simply opened Tellwyrn’s office door without knocking and barged right in, prompting winces from all three of his followers and several of the pursuing students. They picked up their own pace to join him around the now-open door, but did not attempt to enter themselves. They weren’t the only ones.

“Get in here!” the man said in clear exasperation to the three soldiers, who were hanging back outside the doorway.

“Why, how lovely to see you again,” Tellwyrn said from inside. She was seated behind her desk, regarding him with a sardonic expression. “Still hanging around, are we? Please, won’t you come in. Make yourself right at home.”

“I have observed,” he said curtly, “that you are keeping Imperial personnel in a state of useless idleness on your campus.”

“What, these three?” Tellwyrn said incredulously, glancing past him at the troops, who had entered the office as ordered, but clustered nervously right inside the door. She could also see the sophomores gathered outside, but didn’t acknowledge them yet. “Are you seriously going to get on my case about that? They were stationed on my campus by order from Imperial Command, quartered at my expense, without my permission. Honestly, they don’t eat much and the scruffy one in the middle there is actually mildly amusing. I’ve even known them to be occasionally useful, to the extent of reaching tall shelves, opening stuck jars, that sort of thing. The fact that I don’t find this intrusion by your regime to be onerous is hardly evidence that all this is some sort of plot on my part.”

“I am reassigning them,” he said bluntly. “I’m dissatisfied with the progress you are making on our mutual problem, Tellwyrn, and particularly with your attitude when pressed about it.”

“My heart weeps for your dissatisfaction,” she replied, deadpan.

“You know what your problem is?”

“Yes. But do go on, I’m curious what you think it is.”

“You are of the opinion that you are an unmatched power in this world,” he said, scowling at her. “That rules do not apply to you. That no one can impose consequences upon you. About this, you are mistaken, and since you choose not to apply yourself to the protection of your students, it is high time this was made inescapably clear to you.”

“Literally every single thing you just said is incorrect.”

“At the end of the week,” he stated, ignoring her, “I’m having these three reassigned to Tiraas, and that will be the last you ever hear of them. Unless, perhaps, I see a dramatic improvement in your conduct, and some manner of concrete result. Am I understood?”

Very slowly, she tilted her head to one side. “In all seriousness… Are you feeling all right?”

“I’ve made myself clear,” he snapped. “That is all.”

Suddenly, he just wasn’t there anymore. Gabriel bit back a curse.

“Okay, what the fuck,” Ruda exclaimed. “Was that guy a Hand of the Emperor? What the hell’s he doing here?”

“Kids, get in here,” Tellwyrn said irritably, taking off her spectacles and setting them on the desk.

“Um?” Rook tremulously raised a hand. “Was that ‘last you ever hear of them’ line as pants-shittingly terrifying as it sounded to me?”

“Kinda, yeah,” Gabriel agreed.

“Seriously,” Ruda said, marching up to the desk. “Could you hear what happened out there? The fucker practically shoved me out of his way!”

“I don’t think that’s the most important thing happening here, Ruda,” Teal said.

“You might be wrong about that,” Ruda retorted, turning to scowl at her. “Legally, a Hand of the Emperor speaks on his behalf. I don’t give a shit about people being rude to me, personally, but for a Tiraan representative of the highest possible rank to treat the princess of Puna Dara like a misbehaving chambermaid, there would be consequences.”

“Whoah, now,” Gabriel soothed. “Maybe this isn’t the time to be prideful…”

“Don’t fucking talk to me about pride, Arquin,” she snapped. “Remind me, which of us picked a screaming fight with a volatile paladin on week one, here?”

He scowled. “For the record, I deserved a smack on the head for that, not having a sword drawn on me. And she, at least, didn’t succeed in fucking stabbing me.”

“That’s not the point, either!” Ruda barked. “This isn’t personal. The pride of nations is a very real and important thing. The Punaji can stomach living in the shadow of the Empire because the Silver Throne has always treated us with respect. Nobody has any illusions about who’s the greater power, but we’re allies, not slaves. If that changes…”

“Zaruda,” Tellwyrn said firmly, “while you’re correct in everything you just said, I’m going to ask you to please hold your peace about this for the time being. Don’t make it more of an incident than it already is, and don’t assume anything that particular Hand says is representative of his government, legality or no. Something is wrong with that guy.”

“Uh, yeah,” Finchley piped up. “I mean… He was threatening you with taking us away. Seriously, how can he possibly think that’s even a threat? I can’t imagine anyone thinking we’re that important, especially someone as savvy as he ought to be. It makes no sense.”

“I’m a little bothered by how readily I have to accept your reasoning,” Moriarty muttered.

“It makes a little bit of sense,” Tellwyrn said, grimacing. “It’s a personal attack. You three aren’t exactly a strategic asset, no, but you’ve become a fixture on the campus. You’re liked around here. Still, you’re right. He seemed to think he was holding a much more significant loss than this is over me, which underscores my point. I’ve been dealing with that man for a few days now, and for most of it, he was exactly as professional as every Hand I’ve seen in the past. Suddenly, he’s been absurdly aggressive, and between this scheme and nearly causing a diplomatic incident just now, he’s clearly operating with badly impaired judgment.”

“But…he’s a Hand,” Rook said, aghast. “Of the Emperor. He can’t get impaired!”

“The magic powering the Hands is something way above and beyond what’s widely known to the world,” Tellwyrn said seriously. “I don’t grasp the ins and outs of it myself, but just from the basics I do know, I can assure you it’s without precedent—and risky. Frankly, I find myself surprised it’s taken this long for something to go wrong with one of them. Boys, whatever else you do, I strongly advise you not to seal yourselves in a Rail caravan or any other enclosed space with that guy.”

“He’s a Hand of the Emperor!” Finchley said shrilly. “If he gives us an order—”

“Whoah.” Tellwyrn held up a hand of her own. “I sympathize more than you might think. Even I can’t afford to deny him right to his face—or do you believe I let most unhinged assholes talk to me like that? If I were you, I would start considering my options, and if there aren’t any good ones available, look into creating new ones. In fact, that’s what I plan to do, anyway. You just may face more urgency about it, is all.”

“Fuckin’ lovely,” Rook muttered.

“For now,” she said in a gentler tone, “move along, if you would. I need to have a word with the kids, in private.”

Moriarty saluted; the others just turned and shuffled toward the door in glum silence, the students shifting out of their way.

“And boys,” Tellwyrn said softly, prompting them to pause and look back. “However you end up leaving the campus, be sure to say goodbye before you do. I can’t afford to challenge the Throne openly, like I said. But if you can arrange for it not to be an act of open treason on my part, you’ll have a home here, should you need one.”

“I can’t even begin to imagine how the hell we could arrange that,” Finchley said bitterly.

“You can’t,” she replied with a faint smile. “Totally beyond your power. However, you numbskulls, think carefully about where you are, and who you know. What I said about creating new options? There’s no shame in asking for help. I am not the only person on this mountaintop who can make things happen.”

They paused, glancing at one another speculatively, and then Finchley nodded.

“Thanks, Professor.”

“Yep,” she said, nodding back. “Now go on. Scoot.”

She waited until they were gone and the door shut behind them before speaking again.

“Well, here we are. Thanks for coming relatively promptly, by what passes for your standards.”

“Thanks for not just grabbing and porting us all here in our underwear, for once,” Ruda said bluntly. “Also, are we really done talking about that? There’s a crazy Hand of the Emperor hanging around campus. That’s not a small fuckin’ problem.”

“No,” Tellwyrn said evenly, “and it’s an even less small problem if he’s not the only one. I spent a good chunk of my day in Tiraas making sure the Throne itself is aware of this. That, unfortunately, is the most I can do about it at the moment. Anything I do to that character directly constitutes assault against the Imperial person, which would stir up more trouble than even I can stomp down.”

“Wait, by the Throne itself, you mean…” Gabriel blinked in realization. “Holy shit, you went to see the Emperor? What’s he like?”

Tellwyrn rubbed at her eyes. “Arquin, please shut up.”

“Oh, hey, speaking of that guy and me not doing what you say, Vestrel’s insisting you hear about this,” he said, suddenly frowning. “That wasn’t shadow-jumping or teleporting he just did.”

“What?” Tellwryn straightened, frowning at him. “What do you mean?”

“Apparently,” he said, glancing at an empty spot in the room, “he moved through the place where valkyries are. She says Hands aren’t supposed to be able to do that. Hardly anybody is.”

“Hm,” she grunted, her frown deepening. “Hmmmm. Actually…it makes more sense than shadow-jumping. There are a variety of ways into chaos space, but the most reliable is through powerful fae magic. In fact, I know a certain annoying shaman who is inordinately fond of that trick.”

“Fae magic?” Juniper folded her arms. “I thought that guy smelled familiar!”

“Which is neither here nor there,” Tellwyrn said, suddenly brisk. “Thank you for telling me, Gabriel. And Vestrel. That may be significant. For now, though, I asked you here for a reason, and he wasn’t it.” She sighed. “I just heard about Raolo. Taowi had a note for me waiting, but I only got back to my office a short time ago.”

“Professor?” Fross chimed tentatively. “Is this… Um, what I mean is, is it as bad as it seems like it could be?”

“Well, that’s as good a lead-in as any,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. “The first half of what I wanted to tell you is a warning. According to that character from Imperial Intelligence who’s helping with this—the Inspector, not the Hand—the Sleeper is exhibiting an escalating pattern. He started with Chase, who has no significant magical or martial abilities, and was probably a test case. Then came Natchua and Addiwyn, and ambushing elves is hard, even for other elves. The attack on November failed, but she’s a caster of not-insignificant strength—specifically a divine caster, which seems to be a relevant counter to the Sleeper’s magic. Raolo, now, is not only an elf, but an arcanist, an unusual and very potent combination.”

“She is selecting increasingly challenging targets,” Shaeine said suddenly. “Testing herself.”

Tellwyrn nodded. “That’s Fedora’s theory, and it seems to make sense to me.”

“Wait, she?” Gabriel blinked, looking back and forth between them. “Uh, who? Are we talking about November?”

“About the Sleeper,” said Shaeine.

Teal cleared her throat. “It’s called ‘common gender,’ Gabe. It’s a linguistic convention in languages that lack genderless pronouns, like Tanglish and elvish. Which gender is the assumed default basically depends on the culture; in the Empire, that’s male, in Tar’naris, it’s female.”

“Yes, forgive me,” Shaeine added. “I did not mean to cause confusion.”

Tellwyrn cleared her throat pointedly. “Fascinating as this is, I’m not making idle conversation. The Sleeper is running through the list of interesting but relatively soft targets, and running out of them. Fedora specifically mentioned, as the next likely victims, the faculty, and you kids.”

“What?” Juniper exclaimed. “Us?! Why?”

“Think about it,” Toby said wearily. “How many people now have told us what a bunch of powerhouses we are? Paladins, demigods, archdemons…”

“That’s part of it,” Tellwyrn agreed. “The other part is that you kids are much more close-knit than other classes. In part because there are so few of you, I suspect, but you also seem to be simply…compatible. I admit I was rather pessimistic after your first week on campus last year, but your group has formed into more of a cohesive unit than basically any class I’ve ever had. Use that. From now on, I want you watching each other’s backs at all times. Fross, Juniper and Vadrieny may be impervious to the Sleeper’s curse; we cannot be absolutely sure yet that infernal magic is the vector for its transmission, but the evidence points very strongly toward that. Which means Gabriel, Toby and Shaeine also have potent defenses against it.”

“Y’know what, just insert a long string of curses here,” Ruda said sourly. “You’ve all heard me, you know what to imagine. I’m suddenly feeling too pissed off and depressed even to bother.”

“Self-pity does not become you, Zaruda,” Tellwyrn said sternly. “Despite lacking a lot of the magical advantages of your classmates, in a year and a half you’ve never once showed a problem keeping up with them, and that is damn well incredible. However, in this particular case, it does mean you are uniquely vulnerable, and you can’t afford to ignore that. I’m sorry to invade your personal life like this, but I have to put my foot down. I want you moved out of your room in Clarke Tower; until further notice, you’re to stay with Juniper and Fross. At no point are you to be off on your own.”

“Figures,” she said with a wry grin. “No sooner do I finally get my own room…”

“We’ve got plenty of space!” Fross chimed, zipping around her head. “I’m very small and I don’t even use my bed! It’ll be fun!”

“It’s not supposed to be fun.” At Tellwyrn’s soft, weary tone, they all stilled, turning to look at her again. “As I said, kids, that was half the reason I asked you here. The other…” She sighed heavily, leaning back in her chair, and again rubbed at her eyes with both hands. “What I’m about to say is totally without precedent in the history of this University. As bad as things are right now, I need to leave the campus for a little while.”

“Where are you going?” Toby asked quietly.

Tellwyrn grimaced. “Sifan.”

“You think Professor Ekoi can stop this,” Teal said.

“I think her sudden absence is what’s caused this,” the Professor said bitterly. “And furthermore, she had to have known that. In case you kids haven’t put it together yourselves, this Sleeper is almost certainly the same asshole who opened that hellgate last year, and if he’s a warlock, there’s excellent reason he stayed quiet while there was a kitsune on the campus. So yes, I am going to go find Kaisa, get an explanation for her actions, and try to convince her to come back. And that, kids, places me well outside my realm of expertise. Navigating the Twilight Forest is a potentially nightmarish prospect, even for the likes of me. I may be a match, power for power, for one kitsune, but I absolutely don’t want to find out. Going to where all the kitsune are, in their own home, it is going to take time just to get around, and that’s before I ever start to work persuading Kaisa to come back and help. Obviously, I’m going to hurry as much as I can, but…this is not a small prospect. There’s no way I’d leave the University in these straits if I didn’t think this was the best and only option to straighten all this out.”

“Well…okay,” Ruda said, shrugging. “Why’s that so unprecedented, and what’s it got to do with us?”

“What’s unprecedented,” said Tellwyrn, “is me involving students the way I’m about to. Kids… I want you to look after the place.”

“I’m…not sure I understand,” Juniper admitted, frowning.

“As we’ve been over,” Tellwyrn said evenly, “you’re an individually very powerful bunch, and you function extremely well as a unit. Honestly, assembled in this room is both more firepower and more coordination than the rest of the faculty. And, several false starts aside…you’re good. You all care about other people, and matters beyond yourselves. You’re driven by principle. And you exhibit the one trait I learned to associate with the very best of adventurers during my own long career, the one which exemplified the few I came to call heroes: you have a knack for succeeding in situations where, quite frankly, you should not. So… Please protect my campus. I do not want you hunting the Sleeper; don’t do anything that’ll spark a witch hunt, you know very well from my class how horrific those can be, especially in an enclosed social environment like this one. Fedora’s still around and working, and while that guy is his own bag of horrors, he seems competent; let him do the job. But please be ready. There’s a very good chance you will be targeted, yourselves. In that event…” She paused to clamp her lips into a tight, unhappy line. “In that event, fellow student or not, know that the Sleeper has by now completely worn out his or her right to my protection. If you get the chance, put them down. As finally as is feasible and necessary.”

A silence fell over the room, and hovered while the students stared at her in wide-eyed uncertainty. It was Shaeine who finally broke it.

“Understood,” she said, bowing to the Professor. “We shall do our utmost not to disappoint.”

“Professor Tellwyrn?” Fross said hesitantly. “I know I already asked, but… This is, um… It’s really bad, isn’t it? I mean… The Sleeper, the Hand, everything.”

“Stay away from that Hand,” Tellwyrn ordered. “It’s not practical to expel him from the campus; just keep your distance, and if he tries to mess with you, disengage. But yes, Fross. This is bad. You all know the kind of dangers this University uses for training exercises; the campus has seen significant threats beyond even those in the past. But the Sleeper…between this rash of cursing and the hellgate, this is as bad as it has ever been. This person is an enemy, plain and simple, not a misguided student in need of correction. Add to that the Hand, the Wreath still sniffing around, and who knows what else… Yes. Be aware how serious this matter is.”

She leaned forward, folding her arms on the desk, and gazed at them with uncharacteristic earnestness.

“And I wouldn’t ask this of you, or even discuss it with you, if I didn’t have faith in you. Whether you kids can solve this in my absence I wouldn’t say. Frankly, I’d find that rather surprising. But you’re a good group. You’re competent, and you’re good people. You can at least help. Please do.”

“We will,” Toby assured her quietly.

“Thank you.” Tellwyrn blew out a heavy sigh, slumping in her chair. “All right… Classes aren’t canceled, you’ll have a substitute, but I intend to be gone by tomorrow morning. Hopefully this won’t take more than a few days—if it’s going to be more than that, I’ll give up and come right back. In the best case scenario, I’ll be back sooner, and with help. Whatever else happens, hold the line. For now, go get some rest. You’re probably gonna need it soon.

They remained silent and tensely contemplative all the way back outside, none of them speaking up until they were in the hall and the office door shut behind them.

Fross’s sigh was a descending arpeggio of tiny bells.

“I wish Trissiny was here.”

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12 – 10

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“I hadn’t thought about it since my first bardic elective last year when it was brought up,” Teal said animatedly as the group strolled through the campus toward the cafeteria, “but Fross talking about Sifanese the other day brought it to mind, which was why I mentioned it in class. Actually, Sifanese is the exception; most languages are cyclical, like Tanglish.”

“Wait, just Sifanese?” Gabriel asked. “I mean, isn’t elvish kind of always the same, too?”

“Not exactly!” Teal replied, clearly enjoying the topic. “Sifanese is unique because it doesn’t evolve; the oldest known manuscripts…actually, Fross, I’m fuzzy on that. How old are they?”

“Writings in Sifanese dating back five thousand years are still archived in Kiyosan!” the pixie reported. “And you’re correct, the language has remained exactly that time for the entire duration, and presumably even earlier.”

“Exactly!” Teal nodded. “And the reason for that is the language, and in fact the culture, are shepherded by powerful immortals. People in Sifan have to deal regularly with the kitsune, and they are very particular about how they’re addressed.”

“Yeah, I damn well know,” Gabriel said sourly. Ruda chortled and slugged his shoulder.

“Elvish, though,” Teal continued, “is an evolving language like the others—in fact, it’s similar to both Sifanese and mortal languages. There is turnover and attrition in elvish populations, which is what drives linguistic evolution. It’s really only the wood elves who tend to live for thousands of years, you see. Elves don’t die of age, but among the plains tribes and drow, where they lead more dangerous lives, they rarely live longer than a few centuries. So the language does shift over time, but at a glacial pace compared to human languages. Human languages, though, evolve cyclically, like I mentioned in class.”

“All of ’em?” Ruda asked. “Cos I gotta tell you, Teal, I had a pretty okay education before coming here, and I never heard about this before.”

“It’s the kind of thing that’s really only interesting to bards, Nemitites, and other linguistics buffs,” Teal admitted. “But yeah. For example, the oldest known writings from the Tira Valley civilizations are the…aw, dang, I always forget that name.”

“The Ocklund Texts!” Fross supplied.

“Yes! Ocklund, right!” Teal grinned up at her. “They’re a collection that have been in a Nemitite temple for thirteen centuries; before that, they were in a dragon’s hoard. And when they were first discovered, they were considered gibberish. Modern scrying has dated them to six thousand years ago, and most experts think they’re actually gnomish in origin. But anyway, they’ve gradually become more comprehensible over time, until they’re completely legible now, because they are in perfect modern Tanglish.”

“Well, slightly archaic Tanglish, now,” Fross corrected. “It was extremely correct a hundred years ago, though!”

“You’re making that up,” Juniper accused.

“I’m dead serious!” Teal assured them. “You can look it up!”

“She’s right,” Fross agreed. “And you can. The Ocklund Texts are the best example in Tanglish, but there are also some really good examples of the same principle in Glassian and Sheng. And the Vastreyovich Manuscript, which is four thousand years old, and is broadly incorrect but generally legible for readers of modern Syrrinski.”

“And so most linguists assume it’s a universal phenomenon,” Teal said. “Languages naturally evolve over time, but for whatever reason, over the space of four to six thousand years, they come back full circle to a point where they’re functionally the same as they were before.”

“Actually, that’s just one interpretation,” Fross disagreed. “Tanglish and Glassian are exceptions because they keep popping up in the same general region, but some languages appear to re-develop spontaneously in entirely new countries. And even those examples may not be completely right; there are indications that some form of Tanglish existed thousands of years ago in what’s now Arkhross. Not definitive indications, but compelling. So it may not be that they come full circle so much as they get periodically reborn.”

“That seems to strain credibility,” Toby observed.

“Yeah, no shit,” Ruda snorted. “You ask me, that’s Vesk playing pranks. There’s no way that could just happen by accident.”

“That’s the consensus, yeah,” Teal agreed, nodding. “Nobody’s believed it’s a coincidence in centuries. There are different theories, but most scholars think it’s either due to the gods in some way, or to the influence of the elves. Elvish does contain the root words for a lot of other languages. And they’re mostly pretty reclusive, but elves do interact with humans in various ways, all over the world. Not constantly, but pretty regularly.”

“Hm,” Gabriel grunted. “Y’know, elvish words are kinda trendy. Recently, I mean, what with modern presses and telescrolls.”

“Yeah, they’ve always had a subtle influence on human culture,” Teal agreed. “It’ll be very interesting to see how that develops with modern communications.”

“Interesting for some people,” Ruda said, grinning.

Juniper came to a sudden halt, going completely rigid. Her classmates straggled to a stop in a loose cluster around, her, turning to frown in unison.

“Juniper?” Shaeine prompted. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t believe—” The dryad broke off abruptly and took off at a dead run down the path.

“I think we’d better follow,” Toby said, already moving forward.

“Uh, guys?” Fross darted back and forth above their heads. “Full disclosure, I’m a little rusty at fairy stuff in general and this does feel slightly different from what I recall but I think there’s a dryad coming up the mountain.”

“Oh, crap,” Gabriel muttered, setting off after Juniper at a dash. The others came right behind, accompanied by the rhythmic slapping of Teal’s sandals.

“Whoah, where’s the fire?” Chase called as they tore past him on the lawn.

“Hi, Chase,” Gabriel puffed. “Bye, Chase.”

“That’s right, little sophlings, flee! Flee for your paltry lives!” he howled after them, waving his arms. “Fear the Sleeper!”

“Can’t be a coincidence he was the first one hexed,” Ruda commented. Despite her short stature and stout build, she wasn’t even slightly out of breath.

“I didn’t wanna say it cos it seemed mean but honestly I thought it was kind of a shame the only dose of the cure they had got used on him,” Fross chimed, fluttering along above them. Nobody could spare the breath while running to laugh, but Gabriel tried.

They trailed to a halt near the front gates of the campus; Juniper had gone right through, but she had stopped just beyond, staring at the two figures coming up the mountain.

A shaggy-haired man in travel-stained clothing that ran heavily to leather was on the right, carrying a longbow and with a tomahawk, hunting knife, and quiver all hanging from his belt. His shirt was open at the neck and he wore no ceremonial pelt, which would have been insane in the prairie climate, but the bronze wolf’s head pinned to his shoulder identified him as a Huntsman of Shaath. Beside him walked a slender woman with pale green hair and an almost golden complexion, wearing a simple bleached leather dress in the elven style. Both slowed to a stop, staring at Juniper.

“…hi,” the other dryad said after a moment of awkward silence. “I, uh… Well, this is—”

She broke off as Juniper lunged down the slope at them, backing away reflexively, but Juniper hurled herself into her sister’s arms, squeezing her tight and burying her face in her hair.

The Huntsman smiled fondly at the two, discreetly circling around to give them a moment, and approached the gates as the sophomores also trickled forward.

“Persons with no business on the campus are subject to removal at the administration’s discretion,” he read, peering at the sign which had been hung beside the gate at the start of the semester. “The diagram really sells it. Is the little person being kicked off the mountain, or just kicked in general?”

“See, I said that sign was vague,” said Gabriel. “But if Tellwyrn made it big enough to be clear, it’d be all tacky.”

“Mm, I see your point,” the visitor said solemnly. “It’s extremely tasteful as is.” His voice, though deep, was distinctly feminine.

Ruda snorted a laugh. “So, this is a surprise. I don’t think we’ve ever had a Huntsman visit here before. Least, not in the time I’ve been here.”

“Which, in fairness, was a year and a half, not counting class excursions and breaks,” Fross chimed. “Hardly definitive!”

“Probably correct, though,” the Huntsman said, and bowed to them. “I doubt any of my brother Huntsmen have ever found business here, before. I am Brother Ingvar, a friend and traveling companion of Aspen. And of course, you must be friends of Juniper.”

“There’s quite a story behind this, isn’t there?” Teal asked, watching the two dryads.

Shaeine cleared her throat softly. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Brother Ingvar. I am Shaeine nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion.”

“Oh!” Teal flushed. “Teal Falconer. Likewise.”

They introduced themselves quickly; Ingvar looked more interested with each name, but not overawed by any of them. By the time that was done, Juniper and Aspen had separated and now approached the group, holding hands. Aspen looked a great deal more relaxed.

“Aspen,” Ingvar said pointedly, “this is Gabriel.”

“Yeah,” Gabe said, casually laying one hand on Ariel’s pommel. “We’ve met.”

Ingvar cleared his throat. Aspen sighed softly, squeezed Juniper’s hand once, then released it to step forward. “Hi, Gabriel. It’s been a while.”

“Yup,” he said noncommittally.

“I just wanted to say,” the dryad continued in an earnest tone, “I’m sorry. Y’know, for grabbing you by the neck and threatening to kill you. That was wrong of me. I apologize.”

He blinked. “Wait. Really?”

“Well, yeah,” she said, nodding. “I know it’s a little counterintuitive, but I’ve thought about this and talked it over with Ingvar, and it actually was wrong. Even if you did have your horrible invisible friends scare me, which was just mean.”

Gabriel stared at her for a moment, then turned to Ingvar, ignoring Ruda collapsing against the gatepost in laughter right behind him. “This…is progress, isn’t it.”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” the Huntsman said with a faint smile.

“Um, excuse me?” Aspen said, frowning in annoyance. “You were talking to me. There’s no need to be rude.”

“Right. Well, then.” Gabriel actually bowed to her. “Apology accepted, Aspen. Water under the bridge. We can put all that behind us.”

“Great!” She beamed with almost childlike satisfaction.

Ingvar cleared his throat. “In light of the sign, I feel I should be certain before stepping onto the campus proper. Is it a problem if we enter uninvited?”

“The sign’s mostly to discourage the wrong kind of visitors,” Ruda said, still grinning. “Ever since Arquin got himself paladinized we’ve had an occasional reporter problem. Various other curiosity-seekers have wandered in from time to time. There’s an argument to be made that this University may not be safe for non-initiates, but frankly, Tellwyrn just doesn’t like dealing with nuisances. But nah, guests come up from the town, too, and students’ family members, and nobody says boo to ’em. Long as you act like a civilized person and don’t interfere with anybody…and, now that I think about it, don’t hang around too long without having a good reason to be here… You’ll probably be fine.”

“Civilized person?” Aspen cleared her throat. “Well, I guess that tears it. That was a good thought, Ingvar, but—”

“Aspen,” he said flatly.

She dropped her eyes, muttering sullenly to herself, and kicked at the grass with one bare foot. Juniper gave her a quizzical look.

“In fact,” Ingvar continued, “we both wished to speak with Professor Tellwyrn herself, for different reasons. But there is no rush. Aspen would doubtless like a chance to catch up with her sister.”

“Aw, you guys can stick around as long as you want!” Juniper said brightly. “Honestly, if you’ve gotta talk with Tellwyrn, it’s probably better to do that first, so we have time to chat afterward.”

“Hey, yeah, I like that,” Aspen said, nodding. “Get it out of the way early. I’m sold.”

“Great! I’ll show you where her office is. The campus isn’t big, but you can get lost if you don’t know the way around. C’mon, this way! We can get some lunch after, the food’s surprisingly good!”

“It was a pleasure to meet all of you,” Ingvar said politely, bowing to them. “Perhaps we shall speak again before we depart.” He had to trot a few steps to catch up with the dryads; Juniper’s good mood showed in her exuberant pace.

“So,” Gabriel said, frowning after the little group as they retreated uphill into the campus, “was that…a man, or a woman?”

Ruda snorted. “Arquin, in any situation where someone else’s gonads are any of your fucking business, believe me, you’ll know in advance.”


“Sure you wouldn’t rather talk in your office?”

“I am pacing,” Tellwyrn said testily. “My office has inadequate pacing room. Since you insist on depriving me of the chance to be alone with my thoughts, I see no reason to accommodate you.”

“Isn’t it easier to think in a comfy chair in your office, though? Nice and private.”

“Walking is good for thinking, and this isn’t improving my patience. You’d better have something worthwhile to report, if you’re being this pushy about it.”

“Not really,” Fedora said with a shrug. “But you insisted on me checking in with you regularly, so here I am, checking. Or shall I suspend this policy?”

“Just spit it out,” she grunted.

“Well, as I said, not much to report.” The Inspector jammed his hands in the pockets of his trench coat and slouched along beside her, seeming to have no trouble matching her rapid pace. The upper hallways of Helion Hall were marble-floored, but graced with a strip of carpet down the middle; Tellwyrn kept veering closer, forcing him off it, which he ignored. “For the most part, I’m still stuck analyzing motive and the psychology of our perp, which is the most unreliable and inconclusive of all investigative methods. However, with regard to that, I’ve at least decided my initial theory was incorrect. This character isn’t a serial killer.”

“So you’ve noticed no one’s been killed, have you,” she snorted.

“Serial attackers exhibit an oddly consistent psychology even if they don’t kill,” he said cheerfully. “Lots of rapists, arsonists, kidnappers… Actually, the kidnap almost always leads to torture. Point is, that is a fairly consistent profile. The suave murderer who haunts the chapbooks is pretty much entirely fiction. These types tend to be on the low-functioning end of insanity. Poor social skills and hygiene, as a rule. Also a marked predilection for pyromania and, for some reason, bedwetting. Regardless, you don’t really have anybody on campus who fits the profile. Besides, serial offenders are usually acting out of some sort of compulsion, whereas this Sleeper’s attacks have a cerebral element.”

“Cerebral,” she repeated, narrowing her eyes.

“Mm. It’s a little too early to establish any patterns conclusively, but… Considering who was attacked and which ones worked, I do notice something. This character managed to sneak up on two elves—no mean feat. Masterson, of course, is a soft target, but he was the first one. A trial run, I think, possibly selected on the basis that people wouldn’t be too upset with his being victimized. Where it gets interesting is that Stark fought him off—or more specifically, she was rescued by the intervention of a paladin’s horse when said paladin is nowhere in the vicinity, and let’s face it, that is not a commonly known phenomenon. I certainly never heard of it happening. No, the Sleeper’s a student, one who knows his classmates and is tailoring his attacks to bring each of them down. Stark threw up something he couldn’t plan for. Between that and the highly ambitious but ultimately pointless hellgate thing last year, I believe this kid is…stretching his wings.”

“Wings.”

“Makes a twisted kind of sense,” he said, grinning. “This is what college is for, right? Growing skills in a somewhat safe environment which cushions you from the worst effects of your screwups. You’ve got a student with a lot of power he doesn’t know how to use, teaching himself. The other students at this school make for an impressive set of challenges. Our perp’s a strategist, someone who plans his attacks carefully. If I’m right, it won’t be long before he needs to escalate to tougher prey. Which means your faculty and your sophomores will be in the next set of targets, whenever he feels ready to move on to that.”

“Or she,” Tellwyrn said softly.

“Sure, goes without saying,” Fedora shrugged. “Aside from that… I’ve tried to do more concrete investigating, but your kids have done an impressive job of fucking up my crime scenes. It’s to be expected this character doesn’t leave magical traces, or he wouldn’t be able to block your scrying, but people who rely on magic as heavily as he does always overlook the mundane. So far I haven’t got so much as a footprint or a hair sample, but if this continues, I will. That’s one actually important thing I wanted to bring up with you. I know you’ll be making some kind of announcement to the student body before long; do me a solid and tell ’em to keep their grubby hands off the attack sites. I have to collect evidence, and that means they need to not trample it underfoot.”

“What makes you think I’ll be making announcements?”

“Oh, let’s not play this game,” he said dismissively. “So far the biggest source of student upset seems to be the creepy guy hanging around asking intrusive questions, but they are cooped up on a mountaintop with somebody going around hexing people from the shadows. This kind of situation makes people crazy, and stupid. I’m kind of surprised you haven’t already gotten out in front of it.”

“Professor!”

She stopped and turned slowly to face the new arrivals, folding her arms.

“Well, well, well,” Tellwyrn drawled. “Just look who it is.”

Fedora discreetly moved aside, watching with undisguised interest as two dryads and a Huntsman of Shaath approached.

“There you are!” Juniper said brightly. “You weren’t in your office—lucky I heard you, or we might have had to wander all over the campus! You remember Aspen, right?”

“She’s not one I’m likely to forget any time soon,” Tellwyrn replied. “Hello, Aspen, and welcome back. Believe it or not, it is actually good to see you in one piece. And your old self. I like the dress.”

“Uh, thanks,” Aspen said nervously. She glanced at her companions, both of whom nodded encouragingly.

“You, though, are new,” Tellwyrn added. “Let’s see… Would I be right in guessing you’re Ingvar?”

“Well, that’s a little disconcerting,” he said with a thin smile. “Yes, I am. What else has Kuriwa told you?”

“Just enough to pique my curiosity, as usual.”

“I suppose I’m gratified she treats her equals that way, too.”

That brought an answering smile from Tellwyrn. “Kuriwa has no equals, or so she firmly believes. What brings you two here?”

Aspen drew in a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “Arachne, I wanted to thank you for all the help you gave me. I know you went to a lot of trouble, and even though it was because you wanted information and my whole problem was your fault in the first place, it was still a really complicated and difficult thing you did on my behalf, and I appreciate it. Also, I wanted to apologize for causing trouble on your campus. I was just worried about Juniper. So…that’s it. Thanks, and sorry.”

“I can tell you’re new at this,” Tellwyrn said dryly. “Just for future reference, Aspen, sincerity is good, but like all positive traits, too much becomes a flaw.”

“See, I told him that!” she said, looking accusingly at Ingvar, who just shook his head.

“The truth is, Professor,” he said, “I wished to speak with you myself, if it’s not an imposition.”

“Oh?” She raised an eyebrow. “Well, you’re suitably polite, which beats the hell out of the last dozen nosy jerks who wandered in here. Very well, I don’t see why not. Is this a private matter?” she added sardonically as he gave Fedora a pointed look.

“Private,” Ingvar agreed, “and in fact rather sensitive. I apologize for being a bother, and of course will gladly wait until you have a convenient—”

He broke off, shifting back and reflexively grasping his tomahawk, his gaze on a point behind the Professor now.

“Whoah!” Juniper said, blinking. “Where’d you come from?”

Tellwyrn turned around again, tilting her head inquisitively. “That’s actually a really good question. Have you been picking up new tricks in the last few days?”

“And what do you think this is?” the Hand of the Emperor demanded, glaring at Aspen. “Dryads are not permitted to wander about in Imperial territory, especially this close to civilians!”

“Hey!” Juniper said, frowning.

“You have an arranged exemption,” he snapped. “This one will have to go.”

“Hey!” Aspen exclaimed.

“There is exactly one person here who gets to decide who stays and who goes on my campus,” Tellwyrn said softly. “Care to guess who it is? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not you.”

“I will remind you, Professor, that your precious University is built on Imperial territory and both staffed and attended predominantly by Imperial citizens,” he replied, actually clenching his fists and glaring at her. “You have been extended a great deal of undeserved leeway. It’s time you started appreciating it.”

“Are you feeling all right?” she asked mildly.

“Do not change the subject,” the Hand snapped. “Your students are in grave danger, and now I find you not only wasting time up here, but fraternizing with a threat level eight monster! The Empire will not tolerate this wild irresponsibility! You have the children of nobles on this campus!”

“Whoah, wait a sec,” Aspen said, scowling. “Did this guy just call me a monster?”

Ingvar and Fedora were both frowning at the Hand with oddly identical expressions.

“This is being handled,” Tellwyrn said, still regarding him quizzically. “In fact, you’ve been heavily involved in it. Your help has been much appreciated.”

“Then think about this,” the Hand said, stepping closer to her and staring stonily into her eyes. “The Silver Throne is not a charity organization. There will be recompense for the resources being spent to clean up your mess. And if I don’t see immediate and significant progress in ensuring the safety of these students, your failure to protect them will have consequences. No one’s invincible, Tellwyrn. Perhaps you’re overdue for a reminder of that fact.”

Fedora cleared his throat. “Perhaps—”

“Do you remember when I said I thought very well of the Emperor and his government, and had no intention of harming or interfering with it at all?” Tellwyrn said quietly, matching the Hand’s gaze. “Stop trying to change my mind.”

“There’s a line, Arachne,” he whispered. “You just put a toe across it. Back. Away.”

“Excuse me,” Inspector Fedora said pointedly, “but if I may be so bold—”

“You may not.” The Hand rounded on him, pointing. “You will produce results, or find yourself sent right back where you came from—or stuck in a bottle for the rest of eternity. The Empire chooses to tolerate things like you so long as you are useful, and cause no trouble. I don’t see you being useful right now.”

Fedora blinked languidly, simply staring at him without expression.

The Hand snorted loudly, sweeping his gaze around the small crowd. “Get rid of the dryad and make some progress. Both of you. Quickly. That is not a request.”

Suddenly, he just wasn’t there anymore.

“Um,” Ingvar said hesitantly after a moment’s stunned silence. “Was that a Hand of the Emperor?”

“He smelled…familiar,” Juniper said, frowning.

“You’ve dealt with him before, yes?” Tellwyrn asked, turning to Fedora.

“Him, and others,” the Inspector replied, nodding. “They’re theoretically interchangeable. That’s the point of them, or part of it.”

“Hm. Did he seem to be acting…”

“Dramatically out of character? Yes. Yes, he did. Also, they can’t teleport, or shadow-jump, or whatever that was.” He grinned unpleasantly. “I’ve made very certain to know.”

“Out…of…character,” Tellwyrn whispered, staring into space. “…I’m blind.”

“Oh, how I wish any of the responses to that were safe to say,” Fedora said to no one in particular.

Tellwyrn suddenly turned back to Ingvar. “Anyway, sorry about that. Do you plan on being around long, Ingvar?”

“My schedule is entirely open,” he said, glancing at Aspen. “We do have a sort of mission, but it has no time frame. Why do you ask?”

“I would indeed like to talk with you,” she said, “but if it’s not too much trouble, I’ll have to ask that you wait for a bit. It turns out I need to pay a couple of urgent visits.”

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12 – 3

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Out of nowhere, beneath the clear dawn sky, a circular patch of tallgrass vanished from existence, taking with it the top layer of soil and leaving behind a round patch of dirt and exposed roots which might as well have been carved off with a razor. It only stayed smooth for moments, however, before two figures materialized upon it with a similar lack of fanfare.

The vegetation made for problems when it came to teleportation; a person who materialized with their body phased through dozens of large stalks of grass had an excruciating death to look forward to. These preparatory measures were necessary, though they raised problems of their own.

Both men turned in half-circles facing the opposite directions, looking around. The prairie was empty and quiet, lit golden red by the rising sun, and stretching featurelessly away in all directions but one. To the west, the thin line of the Rail marked the horizon, and in the near distance due northwest of their position rose the mountain, with the town of Last Rock huddling against its base.

The man in the Army uniform with the Azure Corps insignia turned to his companion and bowed. “Will you require us to remain alert for extraction, sir?”

“No,” mused the Hand of the Emperor, studying Last Rock. He was middle-aged in appearance, balding and with sharp dark eyes set deep in his craggy features. The Hands were, in theory, all one voice, that of the Emperor, but in practice they did tend to specialize. This man habitually sat on the security council, but they would have to accustom themselves to his replacement for a while. “No, don’t focus any scrying on the area. She’s very likely to detect it, and I don’t wish to introduce myself until I am ready.”

“Yes, sir,” the battlemage replied, saluting. “Will you require any further aid in case she detected the teleportation?”

“I’m employing my own countermeasures against that. In any case, no. Tellwyrn is not classified as hostile, and I can deal with her.”

“Understood, sir. By your leave, then.”

The Hand gave him a nod, then strode off toward the town without another word. He walked only far enough to be out of the cleared circle, pushing his way into the surviving tallgrass, then turned to face the mage.

At that signal, a shrill buzzing rose from the air around them, accompanied a second later by a cerulean shimmering in the air, and then the battlemage vanished with a sharp pop of displaced atmosphere.

The Hand waited attentively for nearly another minute until the buzzing returned, and seconds later the displaced tallgrass reappeared.

It started to fall immediately, of course, but as if drifting down through syrup, its velocity slowed to roughly one hundredth of normal. Instantly, the Hand gestured with both arms, and it slowed further. Earth congealed together, roots re-attached, a few stalks which had been shorn off above ground level merged back into place, with the exceptions of a few which were too displaced by the time the healing took effect, and continued to tumble downward.

The slowing effect decayed rapidly, and had vanished in less than another minute. The replaced tallgrass listed drunkenly this way and that, most of it again attached but still feeling the effects of the trauma it had just undergone. The Hand studied this thoughtfully, then closed his eyes in concentration.

Stalks shifted, righted, regained some of their vitality. It wasn’t a huge difference, but when he was done, most of them stood more or less upright.

Opening his eyes, the Hand surveyed his work critically. Obviously, it was plain something strange had happened here—and to anyone who knew what to look for, a close inspection would reveal exactly what. This should be enough, though. Given how the students (and occasionally townspeople) ranged, a mirror-smooth patch of dirt in the middle of the prairie ran the serious risk of attracting attention; this would have to be noticed before anyone inspected it closely, and in its present state was unlikely to be. Most of those who vanished into the tallgrass from the town or University did so in pairs, and were more interested in privacy than botany. The next rain would set it more or less right, and by then it wouldn’t matter.

Of course, it still might be noted, but the risk was minor, as was the cost if he were exposed. He did not intend to conceal his presence long, anyway. This was standard procedure, though, and it was a procedure which existed for excellent reason. He approved of thoroughness. The Emperor approved of thoroughness.

Nodding once in satisfaction, the Hand of the Emperor straightened his black coat, turned, and strode away through the tallgrass toward the town.


“Something’s amiss.” Gabriel squinted suspiciously, peering around the classroom. “Something…is different. I can’t quite put my finger on it…but maybe if I study closely…”

“Arquin, quit bein’ a dickhead,” Ruda ordered, plopping down in her seat and taking a jug of moonshine from inside her coat.

“Aw, c’mon,” he said, grinning, “if I did that, how would you know it was me?”

“Cos out of the only two present who dress in men’s casual, Teal actually dresses in it, as opposed to accidentally falling most of the way into whatever was lying on the floor in the morning. And she combs her hair.”

“Nice to have my efforts acknowledged,” Teal said with a smile.

The classroom was devoid of the decorations which had appeared at the beginning of the last semester—no silk screens, no potted plants, no blossoming cherry tree. Every sign of Professor Ekoi’s unique presence had abruptly vanished. Though this left the room in more or less the state to which they had become accustomed over their first year, it suddenly looked empty.

“It’s actually kinda sad,” Juniper whispered, gazing around with wide eyes. “The walls look lonely, now. Do you think Professor Ekoi’s okay?”

“Based on what I’ve been reading about kitsune,” Fross chimed, “I would be absolutely astonished if anything was able to actually harm her.”

“Really?” Gabriel looked up at her. “I tried to read up on kitsune after it became clear I was gonna be her favorite punching bag, and I couldn’t find much in the library.”

“Well, there’s not much in Tanglish,” Fross explained. “I had to order some things from a Nemitite temple, and before I could read them I had to learn to read Sifanese. That slowed down my research by a good six weeks, but that was still quicker than having to look up every single thing with a bilingual dictionary and grammar codex as I went.”

Teal dropped her book; fortunately she was already at her desk. Staring at Fross, she didn’t seem to notice that it had fallen. “You taught yourself Sifanese in six weeks? When?!”

“Well, I had some spare time. I don’t sleep; it gives me an extra few hours a day to pursue personal research projects. And I don’t need a lamp, which is very handy for reading at night!”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Gabriel said grandly, “I give you our future overlord, Fross the pixie.”

“That’s a damn difficult language,” Ruda added. “Seriously impressive shit, glitterbug.”

“Arigatou gozaimashita,” Fross said modestly.

“What I wonder,” said Toby with a frown, “is if this has something to do with what happened yesterday.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty suggestive,” Gabriel agreed in a more serious tone. “I mean, just the timing alone.”

“The way you described it,” said Ruda, “she was just pissed off, not hurt.”

“Wait, what happened?” Juniper demanded. “I didn’t hear about this.”

“Well,” Gabriel said with a sigh, “apparently, yesterday Rafe slipped Professor Ekoi one of his anti-magic potions.”

“He did WHAT?” Fross shot upward until she bounced off the ceiling, chiming in agitation. “Professor Ekoi is a fairy! She’s made of magic! That’s like making someone drink poison, or strong acid!”

“She’s made of a lot of magic,” Toby said soothingly. “Ruda’s right, she didn’t seem hurt. Just angry, and…um, interfered with.”

“Yeah,” Gabriel added, “apparently she doesn’t actually speak Tanglish and was using her magic to translate. We couldn’t puzzle out a word until Tellwyrn showed up. And she actually walked away instead of doing that melodramatic non-teleport thing she loves so much.”

“That’s still a nasty prank!” Fross exclaimed, now buzzing about in figure eights above their heads. “I am extremely disappointed in Professor Rafe!”

“Why?” Ruda asked lazily. “You’ve met the fucker, haven’t you?”

“Questions of Professor Ekoi’s welfare aside,” Shaeine said quietly, “kitsune are rather notorious pranksters, and she is somewhat unpredictable herself. I have greatly enjoyed her class, but I fear if Professor Rafe has instigated some kind of practical joke war, the collateral damage is likely to be considerable.”

“Oh, dear gods in fancy hats,” Ruda groaned, tugging her own hat down over her eyes.

“Good morning, students!”

The classroom’s lower door had opened, and they all turned to regard Professor Yornhaldt, who strolled in wearing a smile.

“Take your seats, please, it is time for class to begin. Ah, I confess this is rather satisfying,” he said, stepping up behind the lectern and beaming at them. “I have quite missed teaching. And all of you, of course! Now, then! Fortunately this has befallen us no more than a week into the semester, so we should be able to proceed with only minimal disruption to the curriculum. First of all, I must announce, as you have undoubtedly intuited already, that Professor Ekoi has rather suddenly departed the campus. Until further notice, I am resuming duties as your primary magic teacher for the remainder of the semester.”

“Is she…okay?” Juniper asked somewhat tremulously.

The dwarf sighed. “Well. To the best of my knowledge, yes, she is well. Beyond that, anything I could say as to the reasons for this would be mere speculation. Or rather, it would be gossip, which is a most inappropriate use of my classroom time.”

“What about your office hours?” Ruda asked, grinning.

Yornhaldt gave her a wry look. “Miss Punaji, have you ever known me to gossip? Professor Ekoi’s personal business is just that. And I should perhaps take a further moment to mention,” he added more severely, “that Professor Tellwyrn shares my feelings on the subject of discussing faculty business with nosy students. And, in addition to being her usual charming self, she is already rather piqued about this entire affair. Anyone considering asking her for more details should be forewarned. And, ideally, refrain.”

“Well, there ya go,” Ruda said cheerfully. “We have now known you to gossip!”

“I find,” Yornhaldt said with a sigh, “that warning my students against terrible errors in judgment is usually worth the relaxation of certain other standards. Not that they necessarily listen, but the effort is still worthwhile. Now, then! I shall have to ask you, students, what you have already covered in the last week. I’m afraid my predecessor was not one for leaving detailed notes.”


“Okay,” Iris said, nodding earnestly and clutching her books to her chest. “Okay. It’s gonna be this semester, girls. I’m gonna do it.”

“That leaves you a great deal of time,” Szith noted.

Iris nodded again, her eyes fixed with determination on the path ahead of them, but not seeing anything. “Yes. Right. Exactly. I have time to psych myself up. I can do this.”

“I meant rather the opposite,” the drow said gently. “The whole semester gives you plenty of time to back away and find excuses. Perhaps setting yourself a shorter timetable would be wiser.”

Iris’s eyes widened in near panic. “I…I… Shorter? I don’t know if…”

“Aye, that right there’s the look of a lass just rarin’ to charge off after ‘er ‘eart’s desire,” Maureen said cheerfully.

Iris gave her a sour look. “Don’t make fun of me.”

“Iris, hon, y’know I love ye, right?” The gnome stepped closer to affectionately jostle Iris’s leg as they walked. “That’s why I make fun. I mean, wantin’ the boy by itself ain’t doin’ you any good in the ‘get out there an’ get ‘im’ department. I figure, maybe a little friendly joshin’ from yer roomies’ll help? Cos between you, me, an’ the tree, you’re bein’ ridiculous.”

“It’s not ridiculous,” Iris said sullenly.

“Wanting him is not ridiculous,” Szith replied in her usual placid tone. “All this melodrama about it, however…”

“It’s just not that easy,” Iris whined.

“Perhaps my own cultural background sabotages my sympathy,” Szith mused. “In Tar’naris, the only obstacle in your way would be his rank. He is lowborn, however, which mitigates that; those of granted rank have little prerogative to look down their noses at being approached by others beneath their station. He is, after all, a man. It’s your right and obligation to reach out a seize him, if you desire him.”

“Szith,” Iris said in exasperation, “for the last time, that’s not how we do things here!”

“Indeed,” the drow said solemnly. “Bad enough you have to suffer under such a backward system without perpetuating it yourself.”

“And I don’t want to seize anyone,” Iris added, scowling now. “I want Gabriel to like me! I just…I don’t know how to make him. Ravana’s really helpful to me in learning social skills, but…um…”

“Aye, now ye bring it up, it’s a mite hard to imagine Ravana gettin’ a boy to chase after ‘er,” Maureen mused. “I bet she’d reckon any lad she couldn’t just order to report to ‘er chambers an’ perform was beneath ‘er. An’ not in th’fun sense.”

“Now that is the proper attitude for a noblewoman to have,” Szith said approvingly.

“Is there such a thing as a Hand o’ Izara?” Maureen asked. “Cos this campus could sure as flip use one. I mean, we’ve got all the other paladins, aye?”

“You two are a tremendous help,” Iris growled.

“Iris,” Szith said with one of her rare smiles. “Friend. You only hurt yourself, doing this. Just ask the boy. It does not have to be perfect, and it does not have to be impressive. We do not live in a bard’s tale, and quite frankly, the male upon whom you’ve set your sights is the local champion of well-meaning awkwardness, himself. Just ask him, honestly. I quite think the results will go in your favor.”

Iris closed her eyes. “But what if he says no?” she whispered.

“Then,” Szith replied, “you will know, and can stop torturing yourself. But honestly, why would he?”

“He likes th’ladies, that one,” Maureen said cheerfully. “Ask me, you’d do him a world o’ good in addition to gettin’ over yer own hurdle, here. That’s a lad who needs a lass to settle ‘im down.”

“Even more than most,” Szith agreed.

Maureen suddenly stopped, turning to her right, and the other two halted as well. They had just passed a low retaining wall atop which was a raised flower bed; suddenly revealed sitting in the shadow of it was one of their classmates.

“All right, there, Chase?” Maureen asked, frowning.

He was slumped against the brickwork, arms hanging limply at his side, eyes closed and mouth open. At Maureen’s prompting, he made no reply.

“Oh, my gods,” Iris said, her eyes widening. “He’s not dead, is he?!”

“He breathes,” Szith reported, “and his heart beats. Both at about the speed that is normal for a sleeping human, if you and Ravana are average examples.”

“’ere, now, this ain’t the best place to take a nap,” Maureen said severely. “C’mon, just cos you’re the leadin’ source o’ tomfoolery on the campus don’t make all yer classmates harmless. Chase? Oi, I’m talkin’ to—”

She reached out to jostle his shoulder, then broke off, going pale, as he slumped over on his side.

“Okay, very funny, Chase,” Iris said nervously. “That’s kind of cheap by your standards, isn’t it?”

Chase lay there, inert.

“Chase?” Maureen whispered, looking up at the others. “Um…”

Szith stepped over and knelt by his head. “Chase!” she said sharply, shaking his shoulder, to no effect. She pried open one eyelid, lightly slapped his cheeks, then as a last resort plucked a hair from his eyebrow.

“What’s wrong with him?” Iris demanded shrilly. “Are you sure he’s breathing?”

“Yes,” Szith said tersely. “He is asleep. This close, I could tell if he were faking; neither his breath nor heart rate change in response to pain. Do you sense any magic on him?”

“Nothing like that,” Iris said, shaking her head rapidly, “but I’d only be able to pick up on fae magic, anyway…”

“Keep an eye on ‘im,” Maureen ordered. “I’ll fetch Miss Sunrunner.”


She often paced, as much as the space in the cell allowed. For days, even weeks on end, she kept moving, back and forth and in circles, long enough that in any normal cell her feet would have worn grooves in the floor. Not this cell, of course. She had naturally tried her strength over every inch of it, which yielded nothing. Its floor, ceiling, and three walls were all one piece without joints, made of the pale alloy known in this era as mithril. Its fourth wall was transparent, but not glass; the material dampened her inherent magic just as well, and was just as impervious to her physical strength. She’d never bothered to learn what they called the stuff, back in the old days. It had just been…there.

Not that she’d ever had much in the way of physical strength, which just added to the irony. In this cell, of all places, physical strength was the only kind that mattered—and was even more irrelevant, as in addition to its magic-dampening properties, mithril was hard enough once cast to survive passage through the corona of the sun.

That was neither exaggeration nor a random example. She had had the good fortune to observe that particular test. Or at least its aftermath.

The “glass” wall would surely be the weak point, anyway. Mithril just had to be impervious; that wall had features. It was in it that the doorway formed when the command phrase was spoken, though she had not seen that done since the Hands of the Emperor had first put her in here. That panel emitted the light, illuminating both her cell and the corridor outside—a neat trick, since it did not seem like a light source when looked at directly. It was also in that transparent wall that the signs and sigils appeared, little notations in a language which had not been used on this planet in millenia. They came and went rarely; there was very seldom anything for them to report. The facility itself ran silently along, only rarely registering any data on significant events, which were never anything but minor seismic activity. Occasionally there would be a solar flare, which was of no import to this facility, but she had instructed it to report on anything its sensors could detect.

No, the only significant data registered on the transparent panel was the arrival of visitors. It very obligingly informed her when the facility was accessed. Not that it did her much practical good to know when the Emperor or one of his Hands was about to pass through, but there was a small satisfaction in knowing. Especially since they did not know that she knew, much less how.

They didn’t know how any of this worked. They’d just found it down here, deep below the city. She was mildly curious whether it had been located by accident, or some of the original passages had survived and the Imperial Palace been built deliberately above them for that reason. They certainly did not know how the panels worked. That it wouldn’t acknowledge the command to open if spoken from inside was none of their doing, that was just how the Order had programmed their holding cells. After all these years, she knew how the local humans thought and what they thought of her. They didn’t know she could get information from the panel; they’d have instructed it to deny her if they knew that, and if they knew how. She had never even heard them speak in the language to which the Order’s systems defaulted. Of course, the sub-OS recognized even their bastard English, so why would they need to?

They knew nothing. Silly children playing with the tools of a true civilization which they mistook for toys, distracted by their glossy surfaces and blinking lights. Such a pity nothing down here was likely to harm them if mishandled.

Well, except herself, of course. If she ever got out. She had to acknowledge that in this cell she was basically helpless; the stripped-down state of the facility worked against her, there. Had there been an Avatar running, by this point she could surely have manipulated it into giving her some concessions, if not actually releasing her.

At the moment, she was not pacing. Sometimes she didn’t; such little changes in her routine were the only distractions she could arrange for herself. The panels certainly were not programmed to provide any entertainment. Being cooped up in here would have long since driven her mad, had that ship not well and truly sailed long before she had been imprisoned. So she sat, idly, in the corner, just staring out through the panel at the empty cell across the corridor.

They could at least imprison someone else down here. She couldn’t possibly have been the only anomalous being to be caught in a vulnerable position. They were increasingly clever, these Tiraan, and becoming rather sophisticated for primitives. And they were certainly fascinated by Naiya’s experiments, to judge by the presence of those dryads down the hall. Eventually they would surely poke at something with which they couldn’t contend; she’d just have to hope they managed to stick it in one of these cells, first. Hopefully something that could help her get out. But no, there she sat, alone, as always. For now.

Indicators appeared.

She stood, not moving like a creature made of bone and muscle, but simply straightening upright as if lifted by a string attached to the top of her head, staring at the text which now flashed in the upper corner of the transparent panel.

System activation.

Interesting.

“System,” she said in Esperanto, “status of aperture?”

The facility doors were sealed, no sapients in range. So the humans were not visiting.

“Identify current user.”

The panel calmly informed her that she did not have clearance to access that data.

“Display user activity.”

Still no clearance.

Then the light level shifted, dimming slightly before resuming its customary brightness. A moment later, it changed, becoming magenta, then blue, then returning to normal.

After that the temperature altered. It grew several degrees warmer, then plunged to near freezing, then normalized again.

Condensation appeared on the panel as the humidity was tampered with. Seconds later it was gone.

“Report system damage.”

No damage, everything was functioning normally.

So someone was doing this. Someone who knew how to activate an Infinite Order sub-OS.

Someone, she reflected as the lights flickered again, who could activate the computers but didn’t know what they did. They were apparently poking at the system blindly, trying to puzzle out their functions. Someone who either had physical access to the Imperial Palace in Tiraas, or had managed to patch the transcension field linking the Order’s facilities and was operating from another one.

She smiled.

“Well, well, well. And who might you be?”

No one answered, of course. They might be able to tell she was in here, if they figured out how to access the internal sensors. Whether they would care was another question; what they might do about it, another still.

Still smiling, she began once more to pace.

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10 – 49

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“Movement!” the Legionnaire with her eye pressed to the telescope suddenly announced.

Everyone in the command tent was instantly alert and facing her, which wasn’t much of a change as they had all been tense and pretending with varying degrees of effort to be engaged in other things. The exception, of course, was Aspen, who at first had seemed not to understand the problem, but revealed upon having it explained that she actually just didn’t care. She and Ingvar had been engrossed in a quiet conversation in a rear corner of the pavilion. Whatever they were talking about had occasionally drawn startled looks from Yrril, despite her Narisian reserve.

“Well?” General Vaumann said tersely.

“They’re getting up,” the Legionnaire reported. “Standing and… No signs of agitation. Still seem to be talking… Everything’s still quiet.”

Joe let out an audible sigh, and several of those assembled slouched in quieter imitation. Ami, who had given up strumming her guitar after her attempts to “lighten the mood” had drawn annoyed looks and finally a shouted reprimand from Colonel Nintaumbi, wrapped her arms around it and looked sullen.

“Wait,” the watcher said, and the crowd tensed again.

“Make up your mind,” Ami muttered.

“They’re… Separating. Bishop Syrinx is leaving, coming back this way.”

“And the elf?” Nintaumbi exclaimed.

“He’s turning… Appears to be departing as well. Yes—confirmed! The headhunter is retreating back into the forest.”

An audible exhalation from multiple throats passed around the tent. Schwartz muttered something unintelligible, sagging against at tent pole hard enough to shake it and earn an irritated look from a nearby Legionnaire.

“Continuing…target is lost to sight in the treeline, now. Bishop Syrinx is proceeding back this way on foot.” Basra’s horse, left unattended, had wandered off earlier, which the scout had also reported.

“Sir?” an Imperial Army soldier wearing a captain’s bars said to Nintaumbi. “Shall I stand down the alert?”

“Absolutely not,” the Colonel said firmly. “We wait at minimum to hear what Syrinx has to say about her conversation. Agreed?”

He glanced up at Vaumann, who nodded. Yrril just stood in apparent calm, watching down the field. The exact acuity of her eyes was something she hadn’t seen fit to elaborate upon; a surface elf would be able to see almost as well as the human with the telescope, and while drow theoretically had similar capabilities, they were significantly disadvantaged by the sunlight.

“Well,” Nintaumbi added more softly, “I guess the only casualty here has been Bishop Darling. He had to have crossed paths with that creature… There’s only one way that could end up.”

“With all respect, Colonel,” Joe said, “I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions about Darling.”

“I’m not certain what combat capabilities he may have,” Ingvar agreed, “but if anyone living could talk his way out of fighting a headhunter…”

“Um…” Everyone turned to stare at the scout, who was still watching through her spyglass. “Now that you mention it…”


“Why, fancy meeting you here!”

At being hailed, Basra halted her march back toward the armies, turning to stare at Darling, who was strolling casually toward her from the coastline to the southeast.

“Antonio,” she said at a more normal volume as he drew close enough to hear it. “It seems this should surprise me, but somehow, it just doesn’t. I think I’ve lost the ability to be taken aback by anything you do.”

“Now, you mustn’t say things like that, Bas,” he said brightly, coming up to stand alongside her. “That’s the next best thing to a challenge!”

She shook her head. “How did your conversation go?”

“I realize you asked first and there’s a certain etiquette attached to that,” he replied, “but really. Your conversation was obviously a lot more important, and I’m betting a lot more interesting. So…?” He gazed at her expectantly.

Basra grunted and turned to resume her stride toward the front lines, her fellow Bishop falling into step beside her. “About like I expected, though it took longer than I thought.”

“You expected a successful negotiation with a headhunter?”

“I expected to be able to pull his strings, but… That man was more obviously insane than even the stereotype suggests. I don’t know if you’ve dug up anything on headhunters in your infamous research into Elilial, but you’ve talked with that creep Mary enough to probably know they aren’t quite like the rumors tell us. That fellow was clearly far gone. He can’t have been fresh from Athan’Khar, unless he was wildly unstable even before going in. I wonder what he’s been doing up till now; I didn’t get much out of him about that.”

“And yet, you got him to turn around and leave.” Darling shook his head in wonder. “That has to be the century’s foremost feat of diplomacy.”

Basra grinned. “Well, I think so, but most diplomats seem to object to my characterization of diplomacy as piles and piles of lies and manipulations. Most people don’t much like having their illusions exposed. Anyway, he’s gone for now. I don’t know how much time this has bought, but he probably won’t attack in the direction of Viridill again. So that’s my conversation, and if you want the fine details, you’ll have to wait. I’ve no doubt you plan to invite yourself along for the full debriefing I’ll need to give the commanders, anyway, and I don’t enjoy repeating myself.” She glanced shrewdly at him. “Which brings us to you. Since you were coming from the shoreline, hell and gone from the road you went in on, I assume one of your shifty friends found and warned you before you stumbled across the creature?”

“Right,” he said more seriously. “On to the next battle. Before we reach the others, there are a few things I think you should know.”


The trip back to campus was a slow one, being long, uphill, and taken on foot (with the obvious exception of Fross). Trissiny and Gabriel had dismissed their mounts, considering it awkward to ride when nobody else could; Whisper wasn’t built for multiple riders, and Arjen couldn’t carry everybody. For the most part, it was also a quiet walk. The sounds of continued jubilation from the town below had mostly faded into the distance by the time they’d exhausted their efforts to theorize as to Embras Mogul’s true motives.

Their general feeling about the encounter was not celebratory.

“Uh…” Gabriel craned his neck back to glance up at the position of the sun as they passed through the archway onto the campus proper. “Crap, can’t see Clarke Tower from here.”

“It’s a relief,” Ruda commented, “to learn that you don’t automatically know the spots from which our dorm is visible, Arquin.”

He rolled his eyes. “It’s the biggest clock on campus. I’m fairly sure we’re gonna miss lunch if we wanna get to class on time.”

“Always on top of priorities,” Toby said with a smile.

“Hey, proper nutrition is important,” Juniper said seriously. “That’s true even when we haven’t just climbed a mountain.”

“Yes, this has been altogether inconvenient,” Shaeine said solemnly. “In the future, we should ask any deranged warlocks we encounter to schedule their assaults no earlier than four o’clock.”

“Huh,” Fross mused. “I wonder if that would work.”

“Well, I’ll certainly do my best to accommodate you,” Embras Mogul said cheerfully, stepping out from behind a tree just ahead. “All you have to to is ask!”

Weariness and malaise vanished in an instant; weapons came out, various auras sprang to life, and Vadrieny burst forth from Teal.

“You have made your last mistake!” Trissiny roared, golden wings blazing.

“Children!”

Everyone hesitated, though no one powered down or disarmed, and only half of them took their eyes off the warlock to glance up at the gatepost beside the arch, atop which Professor Ekoi suddenly sat, her tail twitching in disapproval.

“For once, would you think before attacking? The wards over this campus would repel incursions by far greater foes than this. Mr. Mogul is an invited guest. I expect initiates of this University to evince sufficient decorum to treat him as such.”

“Have you lost your mind?” Gabriel exclaimed.

“What a curious question,” Ekoi mused. “If I had, clearly I would not know it. And if I had not, I would take offense at the implication. What possible motivation could you have for saying such a thing, Mr. Arquin?”

“I’m thoughtless and fed up with your crap, that’s what!” he shouted.

“For heaven’s sake, boy, hush. I realize class is not formally in session, but this is still an institution of learning. I have arranged, at great effort, a demonstration for you. Compose yourselves and learn, please.”

“Well, pardon me for contradicting your point, General,” Mogul said cheerfully, recapturing everyone’s attention, “but I expect to make a great many more mistakes. Perhaps if you pay attention to the good Professor, here, you’ll someday find yourself in a position to take advantage of one!”

“That does it.” Trissiny took a step forward, sword upraised.

“Avelea.” Ekoi’s tone was calm. “Do not make me come down there.”

“Would it matter if I pointed out that Arquin can see up your robe?” Ruda asked.

“What?” Gabriel said shrilly. “I wouldn’t—Ruda, for once can you not be such a creep?”

“They’re rather cute, aren’t they?” Mogul said to Ekoi. “With the banter, and everything. I didn’t realize adventuring groups actually did that! The chapbooks don’t seem historically authoritative, at a casual glance.”

“Because they do it doesn’t make it sound policy,” Ekoi remarked.

“Well, I for one always respect a spot of good drama. Well? Don’t be shy, let me have it.” He spread his arms wide, grinning and seemingly unconcerned with the array of destructive power poised to descend on him. “How was it? The yokels seemed to eat it up, but I dunno… Not one of my best performances, I don’t think. It felt a little overworked. Wouldn’t you say?”

“We’re not doing this,” Toby said flatly. “We are not going to indulge you in conversation. Just do whatever it is Professor Ekoi is tolerating your presence for, please.”

“Unless you want to learn whether she’s actually capable of stopping all of us from tearing you apart,” Vadrieny snarled.

“It’s so odd,” the Professor mused, “being among people who think that is in question. This is why I should make time to leave Sifan more often; too long away from the wild world and one forgets. Vestrel, that language is not acceptable. There are children here, for heaven’s sake.”

Gabriel clutched Ariel and his staff in a white-knuckled grip, suddenly looking rattled.

“Indeed, tempers appear to be fraying even as we speak,” Mogul said, tipping his hat to them. “So, dear students, the question is, as always: What have we learned today?”

“Fuck it, let’s kill him,” Ruda suggested.

“Wait,” said Shaeine softly.

“You arranged that whole thing,” Fross accused. “The demon trace thing, all of it. From the beginning. Why? What do you get from that?”

“Turning us against the Archpope, for starters,” Toby said tersely.

“Ah, ah, ah.” Mogul wagged a chiding finger at them. “Nothing so crude. Turning you against someone is…well, it’s such a limited gambit. That’s the kind of thing you do to bit players who don’t really matter in the long run. It’s usually all too simple. No, consider the fact that the most esteemed Ekoi-sensei finds my presence and activities here tolerable. Aside from clear evidence that I’m not here to harm you, that shows what, specifically, I’m out to help you do. Which is…?”

He smiled expectantly at them.

“Learn,” Shaeine whispered.

“Bingo!” Mogul pointed at her. “The fact that you and I are nominally enemies is a condition of circumstance, not essential nature. You don’t seem to grasp, yet, how ephemeral all your affiliations and bonds truly are. Unlike the various cults that trained you before now, I’m not out to tell you who you should trust, what you should believe.” He folded his arms and adopted a cocky pose, smirking from beneath the brim of his hat. “What I want is the same thing your teacher, here, wants. The same thing Professor Tellwyrn wants. I want you to think. I want you to look beyond the surface, to question what you are told, to take nothing for granted. I told you before: the Black Wreath is on the side of truth. But I also told you that the truth would be devalued if I just dropped it on you. You’ll have to learn to seek it out for yourselves.”

“This guy is so full of it,” Gabriel muttered, unconsciously raising Ariel. Blue sigils along her blade flared to life.

“That I most certainly am,” Mogul agreed. “For the love of all that’s unholy, don’t take anything I tell you at face value—surely you’ve got that much figured out already. This time you made a lot of assumptions and a lot of rash actions. You thought like adventurers.” He shook his head. “As I’m sure a few people have mentioned to you, adventuring is a thing of the past. To succeed in this world, you need to be insightful, careful, and mindful of the subtle connections between things. This time,” he added, looking directly at Trissiny and grinning, “I made you a hero in the eyes of the public. I prevented a certain schemer in the Universal Church from getting hooks into you. You fought me the whole way, and yet you ended up doing exactly as I wished at every step. Now, just imagine what would have happened if I had actually meant you harm!”

“Did you seriously come up here just to gloat?” Juniper exclaimed.

“Of course not.” Mogul tipped his hat to her. “Merely to demonstrate. I don’t mind acknowledging that I’m not smarter than you, kids—at least, not collectively. You lost this one because you were playing the wrong game. Learn to play the right one. And now!” Turning toward Ekoi’s pillar, he bowed deeply, sweeping off his hat to reveal a shiny bald head. “Professor, it has been both a high honor and an unmitigated pleasure to work with you.”

“That’s a lie,” she said, smiling benignly, “but since it should have been, I shall accept the compliment.”

“With that, I really must be off—I can only imagine the stress poor Professor Tellwyrn is under right now, allowing me to stand here without smiting me into a puddle.” He placed his hat back on his head, straightened it carefully with both hands, then winked at them. “See you ’round, kids.”

Shadows gathered, and then he was gone.

Professor Ekoi hopped nimbly down, landing on the grass as lightly as a cat. “What you just heard was wisdom, students. It was not necessarily truth. The difference is important. Think on these things—think deeply, and carefully. But later, yes? For now, off to class with you.”

She turned and strolled casually away, the white tip of her tail bobbing behind her. The entire class stared at her retreating back, too dumbfounded to speak.

With the exception of Trissiny, who was staring at the spot from which Embras Mogul had vanished, her sword dangling limply from her fingers.


Though the remaining members of Basra’s party had clustered around trying to command her attention immediately upon her return, she had brushed them off to join the commanders in a private conference in Fort Naveen. Schwartz and Ami had both been loudly disappointed when it was made clear that they were not invited to attend. Only Branwen had managed to include herself, and that apparently on the pure basis of rank, not because she had anything in particular to contribute. Darling’s companions, though they had been similarly glad to see him alive and well, had been more restrained. Or perhaps, less interested in being cooped up with stuffy military leaders.

In any case, it wasn’t as if dallying was an option; after a relatively short exchange, a messenger from the fort had arrived with word that a very important figure had just been teleported in.

“I am absolutely astonished,” said General Toman Panissar in the fort’s secure conference room, “that you managed to persuade that deranged thing to back down, Bishop Syrinx.”

“I’m somewhat astonished that your response to that deranged thing’s presence was to come here,” Darling said, lounging back in the chair he had commandeered by the fireplace. “Wouldn’t the Empire find itself in a bit of a pickle if the supreme commander of the Army were suddenly killed by a headhunter?”

“His Majesty is the supreme commander of the Army,” Panissar said, giving him an irritated look, “and that is why I didn’t come until the Azure Corps brought word that the headhunter had retreated.”

“The point remains,” Yrril said calmly, “it was an incredible feat of negotiation, Bishop. I must add my commendation.”

“Thank you, but ‘negotiation’ implies more rationality on the part of the participants,” Basra said with a faint smile. “I was manipulating, twisting the facts and lying through my teeth, and he was, not to put too fine a point on it, batshit crazy. As I said before going, that was a situation that called for a politician.”

“It was still incredibly brave to go out there,” Branwen said earnestly. “I mean, I think I can consider myself a politician as well, and I feel no shame that I didn’t volunteer.”

“I am, among other things, a soldier,” Basra said with a shrug. “It had to be done. That’s what soldiers do.”

“I could only dream of filling my ranks with men and women who would willingly face such a thing,” Panissar replied. “But the important question remains: how much time have you bought us?”

“That I can’t say exactly,” Basra said, her expression falling into a frown. “I managed to convince him that messing with the Sisterhood wasn’t in his best interests. That much I was confident I could do before I went out there; whatever that elf thinks of anything, the actual danger comes from the spirits inside him, and Athan’Khar and Viridill respected each other for a long time, even when they fought. It was the attack on Athan’Khar that made Viridill turn on the Empire, after all. As to what he’ll do next, or when, or where…” She shrugged fatalistically. “This is a temporary reprieve, make no mistake.”

“Then we’ve gained nothing,” Colonel Nintaumbi said, scowling.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Panissar disagreed. “Time to prepare makes all the difference—it’s exactly the thing we’ve never had before, with any other headhunter’s appearance. Bishop Syrinx saved a lot of good soliers today; that thing would have torn right through those armies. Now, I’ve had time to alert Lord Schraede and notify Imperial Intelligence.”

“Schraede?” Yrril asked, tilting her head.

“Commander of the Strike Corps,” Darling explained.

“Indeed,” Panissar said, nodding. “The entire Corps has been pulled from their duties and set on high alert. Considering the headhunter’s known ability to shadow-jump, we must assume his next move could occur anywhere. Strike teams are moving into position across the Empire, each accompanied by portal mages of the Azure Corps to stay in communication. As soon as he shows his face again, the entire Strike Corps will land on him. Not even a headhunter can contend with that. And besides,” he added more thoughtfully, “while it’s a long shot, his Majesty had the idea to seek aid from…our allies. If they are willing and prove able, we may be able to head this off before the creature can attack.”

“Allies?” Vaumann asked, raising an eyebrow.

“The Emperor prefers that that matter remain classified for now,” Panissar said briskly. “Continuing with that line of thought, this business of stirring up elementals shows far more planning ability than any past headhunter has displayed, not to mention skills beyond them.”

Basra and Darling exchanged a glance.

“Well,” Darling said, straightening up, “it turns out that wasn’t the headhunter’s doing.”

“Oh?” Nintaumbi said sharply.

“I did manage to have a short conversation with Khadizroth the Green while I was very briefly in the woods,” the Bishop continued. “He and Mary the Crow are still down there—after rescuing me from blundering across that crazy critter, they stayed behind to see what they could do about it. But yes, back on point, it turns out we were both right, Bas. Khadizroth was down there to help, and he was behind the elemental attacks.”

“What?” Nintaumbi exclaimed.

Basra nodded, though. “Yes…I can see it. In fact, that explains the one glaring flaw in my theory that was troubling me. The elemental summoner showed a knowledge of the history and social nature of Viridill and the Sisterhood; it was odd in the extreme that he might think they would step aside and let him invade Tiraas.”

“Exactly,” Darling agreed. “Between that and his ploy to get Mary’s attention through Ingvar… He wasn’t attacking Viridill, he was trying to rally the province’s defenders.”

“Why?” Panissar demanded, narrowing his eyes. “If he had forewarning of this creature’s intentions, he could have just come to us.”

“There’s a lot about Khadizroth I don’t know, or understand,” Darling admitted. “Today was my first actual encounter with him; what I’ve heard previously has been secondhand at best. We do know, however, that he’s not involved with the Conclave, despite their claim to represent every dragon in Imperial territory, and I’ve had reason to believe before now that he has worked with the Universal Church in some capacity. That’s odd behavior from any dragon but a gold. I highly doubt he trusts or likes the Empire. The Crow doesn’t, either, but neither of them go for the kind of indiscriminate slaughter a headhunter causes. They moved to save lives, even those of their declared enemy. But yes, Toman, you’re correct.” He nodded grimly. “These are powerful beings with their own agendas, who should never be trusted or taken for granted. I think we’ll be a long time yet unraveling the threads beneath all this.”

“If we even can,” Basra said fatalistically. “Unless we can capture either Mary the Crow or Khadizroth the Green, we’re unlikely to learn anything more. Whatever other truths are out there…they’re buried in Athan’Khar, now.”

“Then I think that sums up the situation,” Panissar said. “The crisis has passed, for now, but this is not over.”

“If you look far enough beneath the surface,” said Darling, “there are always strings connecting events to other events. I can’t find it in me to believe all this just happened.”

“Headhunters,” General Vaumann pointed out, “are essentially chaos and randomness personified. If anything, the lack of connection to a greater pattern has been the most difficult part of this whole mess. I don’t think it’s necessary to conclude there’s some broader purpose at play, here.”

“We may be able to learn something more, either from the dragon or the Crow, or possibly even the headhunter,” Panissar replied, “but on the whole, I am inclined to agree with Bishop Darling. Lord Vex is of the same mind.”

“You can add me to that list,” Basra stated. “There’s just too much going on for us to assume this is over. Even once the headhunter is destroyed… I think we had all better keep these events firmly in mind, and be watchful going forward.”

For a moment, her gaze met and held Darling’s, and then they both turned back to the group, expressions betraying nothing.

Positioned in the room’s most comfortable chair in the far corner, Branwen let the continuing discussion wash over her, studying each of her fellow Bishops in turn, and wearing the faintest little smile.

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“All right, everyone, listen up!” Trissiny gently urged Arjen forward into the center of the little square, commanding the attention of everyone gathered. “This is the plan.”

Everybody had assembled with admirable speed—almost as adroitly as proper troops, though the way they straggled in and milled about somewhat ruined the image. The rest of her class had found them shortly after she sent the townsfolk to arm themselves, Fross bouncing and chiming at the head of the group. The crowd which had returned wasn’t quite the same one that had left; it seemed a few people had decided to sit this out at home, while others had rallied to the call. All four of the local priests were present, and clustered together nearby at the front of the crowd. Sisters Takli and Aria wore matching intent expressions; Trissiny didn’t actually know whether either had served in the Legions, but a cleric of Avei would be no stranger to following orders and facing peril. Val Tarvadegh looked a bit out of place, hands folded nervously in front of him, but kept his expression schooled. Father Laws was older than any of his colleagues by far, but had also brought a staff, an older model with a large and elaborate clicker mechanism, though not as dated as Miz Cratchley’s old thunderbuss.

In fact, as Trissiny surveyed her assets, it occurred to her that this sight was actually somewhat familiar.

“This is a variation on something we’ve done once before, in Sarasio,” she said to the assembled crowd, “so we do know what we’re doing. Our quarry is a single demon—based on my own experience, I can tell you it’s quick, agile, and invisible to the naked eye, which makes this complicated.”

“How dangerous is it?” someone whose name she didn’t know asked.

“That remains to be seen,” Trissiny said, raising her voice among the agreeing murmur which rose after the question. “On its last appearance the creature did nothing overtly destructive, but it is still a demon. Most of them are not safe even to be around; hethelaxi and the like are exceptions to the rule. Many demons leak infernal energy, which makes them a hazard to anyone in the vicinity. That’s why we are not going to tolerate this one’s presence in the town; if possible, we will learn what it wants before dispatching it, but the first priority is everyone’s safety. I want you all to keep that in mind, and don’t take any needless risks.”

“How’re we s’posed to chase it if it’s invisible?” a middle-aged woman demanded.

“I was just coming to that,” Trissiny said, smothering her irritation. Not soldiers; they couldn’t be expected to know how to behave during a briefing. “Fross and I are able to sense the demon’s presence, so we’re going to work with that. Teal, can we talk with Vadrieny please?”

Teal raised her eyebrows sharply, glancing around. “Um…”

“She’s as much a citizen as any of us,” Toby said firmly. “And I think we’ve all learned to trust Trissiny’s strategies by now.”

“Okay.” Looking resigned and still slightly nervous, Teal took a step forward into the open space surrounding Trissiny.

Vadrieny’s emergence was somewhat less explosive than usual, no doubt a deliberate choice to avoid agitating the townsfolk. Fiery wings blossomed, claws appeared, her hair flickered alight, and moments later the archdemon stood among them, wearing a faint frown.

There was some agitated murmuring and general shuffling back, but her presence didn’t incite a panic; practically everyone in town knew of Vadrieny, and some had had actually seen her before.

“Vadrieny, as you can see, is very easy to spot,” said Trissiny. “I want you and Fross to get aloft when we’re ready to begin. Fross, you’ll keep focused on the demon and position yourself directly above it. Vadrieny, follow her. That way, everyone can tell where it is by looking up.”

“Can do!” Fross chirped enthusiastically.

“Pretty slick use of assets, Boots,” Ruda commented with an approving nod.

“The rest of us,” Trissiny continued, “are going to organize ourselves into six groups, spread as evenly as possible. Three of these will arrange themselves on the outskirts of the town to the northeast, three to the southwest. You’ll all spread yourselves out to create as nearly continuous a line as possible; the groups are to create units that can stay together as we move into the streets and the buildings break up formations. The objective is to herd our quarry into the middle of the town and surround it. As I said before, if we simply drive the creature off, it’ll only come back. We are going to put a stop to this.”

The outburst of approval which followed that verged on cheering at points; she had to hold up a hand for a few moments to gain quiet. Arjen stood patiently beneath her, apparently unmoved by the agitated crowd, though Whisper seemed to want to dance and was demanding most of Gabriel’s concentration. He wasn’t exactly a veteran rider.

“We’ll try to bring the creature to the center of town: the intersection of Main and Division, in front of the courthouse. I’ll need…” She took a quick visual headcount. “…four volunteers to proceed directly there, make sure the mayor knows what’s happening and keep everyone in the surrounding buildings calm and safe.”

There was some murmuring, shuffling and glancing about in response.

“Sheriff Sanders,” she said, “I’d like you to take charge of organizing the six groups, please, and that includes designating any ‘volunteers’ if none come forward.”

“You got it, General,” he said with a grin, tipping his hat.

“Each group is to have one light-wielder,” Trissiny continued, “who will provide the primary means of controlling the demon, since I’m not sure how impressed it’ll be by armed townsfolk. Takli, Aria, Mr. Tarvaegh, Father Laws, Toby, Shaeine. Please step over to the Sheriff so he can assign you to a group.”

“Seems you left some gaps in the formation, there,” someone commented.

“Yes,” Trissiny said, nodding. “The three groups on each designated side are to assume a bowed formation, encircling the town as completely as possible, but I do expect there to be gaps to the southwest and northeast. Small ones, if possible, but they’ll be there. Gabriel and I are going to fill those. With no offense meant to Toby or anyone else present, I think we’re the two a demon is going to be least likely to want to challenge. More to the point, we’re mounted and thus far more mobile, able to cover a wider territory. Gabe, I’m going to cover the southwest gap, since I can sense the demon directly. You watch the opposite one; I doubt the thing’s going to try to escape up the hill to the University. If it does, I suspect Tellwyrn will make all this moot before we have time to react.”

“Yes,” he said, grinning. “Finally, I get the cushy job!” Whisper nickered and bobbed her head enthusiastically, pawing at the ground with one invisible hoof.

“Now, a final point before we move out,” Trissiny said seriously. The Sheriff was moving through the crowd, directing people with pointing fingers and soft words; he didn’t create enough noise to be distracting, by and large, and everyone remained focused on her. “Light-wielders, this thing is agile and speedy; don’t try to chase it down. I want everyone to focus on wide, splashy uses of energy. Yes, I’m well aware this is the least efficient possible use of divine magic, but remember, you aren’t attempting to take it down, just to create an inhospitable region of space it won’t want to try pushing through. Everyone else, please keep weapons at hand, but do not fire except at need. You are present and armed because we don’t know what’s going to happen when this thing is hemmed in. Most creatures lash out when cornered, and most kinds of demons burn just like anything else when struck by lightning. Be mindful of the fact that we’re moving into an inhabited town, and that your fellow citizens will be directly across from you. Do not take a shot unless a situation arises in which you are completely sure of that shot, and of its necessity. Better to have the weapons at hand and not need them than to face that event unarmed.”

Everyone murmured in approval, even as they shuffled into six distinct clusters around her, each of which had one of the designated clerics at its head. Trissiny noted that Ruda and Juniper had been placed in separate groups, apparently at random, and both seemed to be already making friends.

“I had hoped, in addition,” she said, glancing inquisitively at Gabriel, “that we might be able to arrange some kind of blessing for everyone. Something beyond the standard benediction; that’ll do everyone well, but I’m interested in a means of spreading divine power to everyone to help caulk the gaps in our formation, make it harder for the demon to push past. Could the weapons be charmed, perhaps?”

Gabriel was shaking his head before she finished her question. “Divine magic won’t hold on wands and staves; the inherent arcane energy will purge it in seconds. Any blessing powerful enough to override that would mess up their enchantments, and wear you out besides.”

“Also…wouldn’t that take forever?” Juniper added. “There are dozens of people here.”

“Well, it was a thought,” Trissiny said with a sigh. “Then if no one has any questions…?”

She trailed off as Toby stepped forward from his group, moving toward the center of the gap in which she and Arjen stood. Something in his expression was intent and focused in a way that brought her pause, even if she couldn’t quite place a finger on it. He paced into the middle, Trissiny unconsciously nudging Arjen with her knees to make way. In a moment, he stood in the center, she off to the side, everyone present watching curiously, quite silent now.

Toby closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them, and a warm smile lit up his face. “Everyone, be calm,” he said, and his voice seemed to resonate with a quality that encouraged it. “Fross, Juniper, this won’t bother you.”

Then he closed his eyes again, and began to glow. His aura lit up as it usually did when he was calling on Omnu’s power, then slowly began to expand, the quality of the light streaming off him shifting more white than gold.

The sun was almost directly overhead; a single beam streamed straight down from it to the top of Toby’s head, and the light flared out from him like the birth of a new star. Its sheer intensity was blinding, and yet it didn’t hurt at all to look at; in fact, no one closed their eyes, even by instinct.

Only seconds later, it was over. The sunbeam vanished, and the paladin’s aura faded, leaving him standing before them, relaxed and calm. He opened his eyes at last; they glowed gold for a split second before that light, too, faded, leaving the Hand of Omnu looking as normal as anyone.

Except that his aura now bedecked everyone present. Only in the faintest sense, barely visible under the prairie sunlight, but the light around each person there was subtly brighter, some remnant of Omnu’s touch radiating from each of them. Only Juniper (and presumably Fross, though her innate glow made it impossible to tell) were exempt from the effect. The dryad seemed totally unharmed by the divine blasting, however. In fact, she looked oddly pleased, smiling fondly at Toby.

“Holy smokes,” someone said in awe. “Does everybody else suddenly feel like a million doubloons?”

Where there had been only the hard-packed dirt of the old street, they now stood in a thick patch of clover, bedecked with little white and purple blossoms.

“I think,” Trissiny said firmly, regaining everyone’s attention, “we should all take the time once this is done to offer thanks to Omnu for this. Right now, is everyone ready?”

She swept her gaze around the assembled group, meeting firm nods and vocal agreement, and nodded herself.

“Then let’s move.”


After the repeated blunders and humiliations of the last few days, it was almost eerie to have something go so smoothly.

The townspeople of Last Rock didn’t march in anything resembling a formation, but despite the way their disorganized movement made her want to twitch, they unquestionably got where they were going in short order. Nobody got lost, nobody forgot what group they were in, and there was no shoving or scuffling. The folk of the prairie might not be a disciplined militia, but as had been pointed out to her several times recently, they knew what they were about and didn’t require much supervision once the action started.

They reached their assigned positions quickly and fanned out, placing the net around Last Rock and beginning to close in. Trissiny could feel the demon in the distance, darting back and forth, testing first one side of the formation, then another, then yet another, looking for gaps that failed to materialize. The glow Omnu’s blessing had laid over the people remained in full effect; they formed a living screen that seemed to intimidate it. The invisible presence did, now and again, try for a weak spot, but the clerics she had sent with each group did their jobs. That had been a point of some concern for Trissiny, who didn’t know what kind of education in divine magic any of the four locals had, but every attempt by the demon to rush a point on the perimeter was answered by a flash of gold in the distance, and once by a wall of silver light.

At one point it seemingly gave up on that project and veered straight toward her. This early in the plan, she was covering an area some thirty yards wide by herself, which must have seemed a tempting target. Sensing the thing coming, however, Trissiny flared up as brightly as she could and urged Arjen forward to charge straight at it, flinging indiscriminate bursts of divine light to the left and right as she came.

The demon veered aside long before she got close enough to actually hit, and Trissiny turned to keep even with the advancing flanks of the groups to either side of her. Following that confrontation, it shot through the streets directly opposite, right at the mountain.

She couldn’t see or sense what Gabriel did, but it zipped away even faster that time, retreating to probe at the thin space between Shaeine’s group and Father Laws’s, where a burst of mingled silver and gold dissuaded it.

All the while, Vadrieny circled overhead. She wasn’t built to hover, and so she drifted in tight circles above the demon whenever it lingered in one spot, like an enormous burning vulture. The sight was surely enough to instigate a panic by itself, if her purpose hadn’t been already known to the townspeople. Trissiny couldn’t see Fross, nor feel her through the scrying network (apparently Fross’s ability to sense her had to do with her enchanting skill), but she could pinpoint the demon’s position, and Vadrieny was never more than a few seconds behind. It was fast enough, at least, that every time the demon went for a weak point in the encircling formation, Vadrieny heading for that spot was all the warning the townsfolk needed to draw together and head it off.

The longer it went on, the more they closed the loop, the fewer gaps there were. By the time they reached the outer ring of buildings, the only openings were around Trissiny and Gabriel, and even they were just a few seconds’ canter from the flanks on either side.

While the maneuver was similar to what they had done in Sarasio, it was going much, much better. Last Rock was smaller than Sarasio, and fully inhabited, by well-fed, civic-minded people who had both weapons and a healthy gossip network. By the time the members of the posse had reached the outlying buildings, most houses had people standing in their doors or windows, many muttering prayers or clutching idols and sigils of various gods. Similar sacred objects had suddenly appeared decorating door jams and fence posts, and the ankh of the Universal Church, as well as the insignia of Avei, Omnu, and Vidius, had been hastily scrawled on numerous surfaces in chalk, charcoal, and paint.

Their quarry had no space in which to get lost, and its movements became increasingly frantic.

“Slow and steady!” Trissiny shouted, projecting as hard as she could. Her lungs were well-exercised, having been used to command novices back home at the Abbey, but she doubted her voice would reach all the way across the town. “It’s cornered now—this is when it’ll attack if it’s going to. Stay calm, do not rush, and keep in formation! Pass it down the line!”

The call went up on either side as her order was obeyed, instructions being relayed across the ranks. Hopefully the message wouldn’t grow too mangled in the process.

The townspeople were moving into the streets proper, now, passing wary residents standing guard over their businesses and homes with weapons and holy sigils. Trissiny nodded in what she hoped was a reassuring manner to an old man and a housewife as she urged Arjen past them at a walk. The groups to either side had to break up their lines to get around buildings, now, but Trissiny could sense more than see the glow of divine energy streaming off them—faint, but holding longer than it seemed it should have, and clearly serving to keep the demon hemmed in. It seemed their enterprise here merited Omnu’s direct attention, unless Toby had abilities she’d never heard of. Which, upon reflection, was possible.

“You’ve put this together very well, Trissiny,” a voice said from her left, and she glanced aside to behold Sister Takli, who had stepped to the flank of her group to address her. Tarvadegh’s group had closed in on the other side, now; he kept near the center, eyes on Vadrieny above, but they had narrowed the gap enough that there was no open space around her any longer. “I’m sorry for speaking harshly to you before, though I think what I said was correct. In any case, your performance here is more than admirable enough to make up for it.”

“Have you found what you were looking for in Last Rock, sister?” Trissiny asked, keeping her eyes ahead and attention focused on the demon. It was making sweeps around their steadily tightening perimeter—she noted that it was moving around buildings, this time, not trying to go through them. Perhaps those sigils people were putting up were doing some good. In any case, it was calm enough for the moment she felt she could spare a few seconds to converse.

“I’m not sure I was looking for anything in particular,” Takli replied calmly. “But I have found the town more pleasant than I’d expected. I think I may remain here unless specific business calls me elsewhere, at least for a time.”

“Perhaps you should find some business elsewhere without waiting for it to call.”

Even without looking, she could hear the sudden scowl in the Sister’s voice. “I beg your pardon?”

“I would never dream of intruding deliberately on your privacy, sister,” Trissiny said, glancing down at her now and making no effort to moderate her voice. Takli wore a reproachful frown, which deepened as she spoke. “However, I cannot control what valkyries do or who they observe, or what they tell Gabriel, or what he tells me. So I’ve ended up knowing about your relationship with the Universal Church without meaning or really wanting to.”

“How dare—”

“Considering the case of Lorelin Reich,” Trissiny carried on calmly, now looking ahead again, “it would probably be best if you took yourself and your affiliations elsewhere. And kindly remind Archpope Justinian that I work for Avei, not for him. If I have to go down there and tell him myself, it won’t be pleasant for anyone.”

Takli made no verbal response, and Trissiny didn’t glance at her again to see what effect her words had. They earned a dry chuckle from a member of the group to her right, though.

They made the rest of the remaining walk in a tense silence, which Trissiny ignored, focusing on her prey.

The square outside the town hall was more or less the geographic center Last Rock, and the largest open space within the city limits aside from the square by the Rail platform. By the time the encircling forces reached the mouths of streets opening onto it, they had been compressed into ranks four bodies deep; the clerics had continued to place themselves on the front, as had Juniper and Ruda, who had her rapier unsheathed. With everyone clustered that close together, the residual glow of Omnu’s touch upon them was again visible to the naked eye, though faint; in the bright sunlight, it had the effect of making the air seem paler, not to mention bolstering the spirits of all those present. Despite that, the faces visible were all focused to the point of grimness.

Gabriel and Trissiny heeled their mounts forward into the square, ahead of the others. Vadrieny continued to make a circle directly above.

The demonic presence had come to a stop in the dead center.

“Hold ranks!” Trissiny called. “Clerics, step forward two paces. Auras alight at a sustainable intensity—you are to hold this line, not assault.”

“It’s here?” somebody called from a street across the way.

“Oh, it’s here,” Trissiny said grimly. “And now it’s going to account for itself.”

As if responding to her order, the thing burst into visibility. What appeared was bruise-purple, a hovering spot of shadow radiating an aura of sickly darkness that seemed to glow—it was confusing to look at. It oddly resembled an overlarge, sinister pixie.

“Hold your fire!” Trissiny roared as wands and staves were leveled all around. She drew her own sword, urging Arjen forward while Gabriel likewise approached from the opposite side, his scythe fully extended. “No one has a clear shot—let us handle it!”

The presence wasn’t idle as she spoke. It wheeled around in a rapid circle, spitting shadows at the ground. Trissiny only realized what it was doing belatedly, too late to interrupt. The spell circle seemed to appear fully formed, as if the demon were able to lay down elaborate sections in single bursts of light. After only seconds, it flared alight, and something rose up from the center.

It was a hideous thing, all suckered tentacles, pincers, and plates of gleaming chitin; it looked like something that belonged on the ocean floor. Trissiny’s aura blazed to life around her, while Gabriel drew back his scythe, preparing to strike.

An ear-piercing scream split the air, and Vadrieny plunged straight down from above. Before either paladin or the demon had the chance to act, she struck it hard enough to bear its towering bulk to the ground. Natural armor cracked and flesh tore under her claws with a truly sickening cacophony, leaving her standing not so much atop the creature’s back but in it, her talons apparently dug into the ground below.

Under her feet, it immediately began crumbling away to charcoal and ash. The creature hadn’t so much as managed to growl or raise a pincer.

Unfortunately, the original demon had continued to work during their momentary distraction, and with the same dizzying speed. It laid down five more spell circles, each materializing fully formed in a single puff of purple light. That was incredibly complex spellwork, Trissiny noted; very few warlocks would be able to achieve such a feat. She had no time to dwell on this, however, for the smaller circles immediately spat forth snarling katzil demons.

“Clerics, shield!” she shouted. “Everyone raise weapons—wait till they’re above the rooftops to fire!”

The demons seemed more agitated and confused than aggressive, wheeling about in the air and hissing at one another in the confined space in which they found themselves. Once again, however, action was made unnecessary before anyone could take it.

From a single point high above, spears of ice flashed downward in a cone-like formation around Vadrieny and the crumbling ruins of the other demon. Fross struck unerringly, bearing the shrieking katzils to the ground, their bodies partially encased. With the exception of one whose entire head was sealed in a block of ice, they spat flames haphazardly. Only two managed to direct theirs, whether deliberately or not, at actual people; Shaeine brought up a wall of silver light to protect her group from one, while the other flashed harmlessly across the golden shield which formed around Gabriel and Whisper. Though unharmed, the mare whinnied in protest and danced a few steps away.

Even those last gasps ended quickly, however; having immobilized her targets, Fross followed up with blasts of pure arcane energy, reducing each of the five demons to ash and steam in seconds.

“Good work, Fross!” Trissiny shouted, keeping her attention on the circling purple summoner demon.

“Only kind I do!” the pixie called cheerfully from above, her silver glow invisible against the sun.

The original demon shot toward the town hall rather than trying to summon anything else. Trissiny wheeled Arjen around to follow, fully prepared to charge right through the doors if necessary. It wasn’t, however; the thing was apparently not seeking escape.

It arced upward a few feet, prompting Fross to zip toward it in a visible flurry of snow forming into more ice lances as she went, but it did not try to fly away, merely slamming down onto the top of the steps leading up to the hall.

Upon impact, it exploded into a burst of shadow and smoke which rushed outward hard enough to blow everyone’s hair back, carrying the acrid stink of sulfur.

Where it had landed stood a man, limned in an aura of evil-looking purple and black from which orange flames flickered at the edges, wearing an incongruously pristine white suit.

“I suppose you think you’re pretty damn clever,” Embras Mogul snarled, pointing accusingly at Trissiny.

“I think you’re pretty clever,” she shot back, urging Arjen forward a few steps, Gabriel and Whisper prancing up alongside. “And I think we just outmaneuvered you anyway, warlock.”

Mogul sneered from beneath the wide brim of his hat at the cheers which rose up on all sides.

“Wipe those smug looks off your faces, you galoots—do you think any of you would’ve done a damn thing to stop me if you didn’t have this paladin nipping at your heels?” He actually grinned at the shouts of derision brought by that. “Aw, what’s wrong, don’t enjoy the ring of truth? Tell me, the last time she came down here to warn you, did you idiots try to help? Did you even listen? Or did you pitch a big collective fit about a few bruised egos and broken latches?”

“Enough!” Trissiny barked. “You don’t get to stand there and belittle these people! You will leave this town, now, and permanently, or you will leave this plane of existence!”

Arjen trumpeted a challenge, stomping forward, and Trissiny raised her sword, golden wings flaring into being behind her.

“Do you have any idea the hard work you’ve just undone, you snot-nosed little guttersnipe?” Mogul bellowed, again flinging an arm dramatically out at Trissiny. In fact, the pose he struck reminded her incongruously of Professor Rafe in one of his moods. “Do you know how difficult it was to worm into the confidences of the Church itself? To push at Bishop Snowe’s buttons, to get extra clerics placed here and acting under nonsense orders of my choosing? It’s not so very easy to convince followers of the Church to act against their own obvious interest! But no, you’ve no appreciation for all the time and effort you’ve unmade, you just run around smashing things like a good Hand of Avei. You’re nothing but a bear loose in a tea shop, aren’t you!”

“Oh, shut your drama hole, you jackass,” Gabriel exclaimed, leveling his scythe at Mogul like a lance. The beam of light which burst forth from its shaft resembled a standard staff blast, except shot through with streams of violet and blue.

The flash of lightning struck Mogul’s aura, then arced around him and shot away harmlessly into the sky.

“Have your way, paladins,” the warlock sneered. “Keep your wretched little fleabit town. The rest of you—remember, when the gods are falling and your whole world is coming to pieces around you, that the Black Wreath came to try to shield you from their perfidy. Think on that while you’re being crushed underfoot by your own so-called protectors!”

“Shooting isn’t working,” Trissiny said to Gabriel. “Let’s just stab him.”

“I like the way you think.”

They heeled their mounts forward in unison, but before they made it two steps, another eruption of smoke and shadow occurred around him, accompanied by a blast of wind that made them squint and slow.

“You’ve won today, but this is not over!” Mogul shrieked, his voice rising to the edge of hysteria. “Not till every god lies at the Dark Lady’s feet!”

Shadows swelled up around him, and he sank back into them, leaving behind only a peal of deranged laughter.

In its aftermath, the silence was absolute and startling. There were a few beats of quiet beneath the pure sunlight.

The surrounding citizens of Last Rock, though, burst into cheers as if ordered, shouting and clapping one another on the back. A few weapons were discharged into the air, before bellowing from the Sheriff and Ox put a stop to that. All the while, Trissiny and Gabriel sat their saddles, staring at the spot from which Mogul had vanished with identical frowns on their faces, ignoring the jubilation around them.

“It’s not just me, right?” Gabriel said finally, turning to look at her. “That was…weird, wasn’t it? Wrong, somehow.”

“No…it’s not just you.” She sheathed her sword, her own frown not lessening. “I’m not absolutely certain why, but I have a feeling that…”

“I’ll tell you why,” Ruda announced, striding over to stand by Trissiny’s stirrup. The rest of their class had assembled as well, threading through the celebrating townspeople around them to cluster together around the two mounted paladins; Vadrieny had withdrawn into Teal, and Fross hovered about Gabriel’s head, close enough to be seen despite the sunlight. “Last time we saw that guy,” Ruda continued, “he went out of his way to seem as reasonable and approachable as he possibly could. Now, that time?”

“That time,” Teal finished, nodding, “he was hamming it up. Acting like a villain, in the way that an actor does, not like any actual villains do. It was like…”

“Like Rafe,” Shaeine finished softly, her voice nearly lost in the surrounding tumult. “In some ways, like Ruda. He was trying to create an impression.”

“In short,” Ruda said grimly, “that was a performance from start to finish. I think all of it was. I don’t think we actually won here, guys.”

“This isn’t over, is it,” Trissiny said.

No one bothered to answer. It hadn’t been a question.

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10 – 45

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“I guess we missed the freshmen,” Trissiny noted as they made their way across campus toward magic class. “Rafe must’ve let them out early.”

“Or he’s entombed them to serve as components in his foul experiments!” Gabriel suggested.

“Aw, such a shame,” Ruda said, grinning. “Any particular frosh you were hoping to meet?”

Trissiny glanced at her, forehead creasing in puzzlement. “Not really? I mostly get on with the girls, though. And they’ve been helpful in all the…stuff…going on. Most of my social circle is you guys. More friends can’t hurt.”

“I choose not to take that personally,” Shaeine said serenely.

Trissiny sighed. “You know I didn’t…”

“Yes, I do,” the drow replied, turning to give her a smile.

“Well,” Ruda drawled, “I know poor Sekandar must be devastated he missed you.”

“And that’s the third time today,” Trissiny said irritably. “What is with this obsession you suddenly have with Sekandar?”

“Triss, you are not this obtuse. Nobody is this obtuse.” Ruda leaned over and threw an arm around her roommate’s shoulders, leering insanely, and lowered her voice to a widely audible stage whisper. “He desires to sex you.”

Trissiny flushed slightly. “Ruda…”

“Probably in the butt.”

“Ruda!” The paladin shrugged her roughly off, glaring.

“Hey, don’t shoot the messenger!” Ruda held up both hands, but her grin only widened. “Nobility and especially royalty are some freaky fuckers.”

“I guess you would know!”

“Fuck yeah, I would! This one time—”

“Stop!” Trissiny shouted.

“Um…” Teal came to a stop, causing the others to do likewise, looking at her inquisitively. She was peering at a creased sheet of parchment in her hand as if she’d never seen it before. “It looks like class is canceled. I’ve got a note from Professor Ekoi.”

“Huh?” Juniper frowned. “When’d she give you a note?”

“She didn’t. I just found it in my pocket.”

“I can’t decide if Professor Ekoi is so awesome she’s scary or the other way around,” said Fross, orbiting over Teal’s head.

“Huh. I got one too.” Toby unfolded the note he’d just retrieved from his vest pocket. “…mine just says to tell Teal to check hers.”

“Me too!” said Gabe eagerly. Immediately his face fell, descending into a scowl as he studied his own note. “Okay…does anybody read Sifanese?”

“A lot of Sifanese people do, presumably,” said Fross.

“Man, Arquin,” Ruda said with a grin. “What did you do to get on her bad side?”

“Oh, who knows,” he grumbled, stuffing the folded sheet of unintelligible calligraphy back into his pocket. “Just being my usual charming self, I guess.”

“Yeah, that’d do it.”

Suddenly, Trissiny straightened up as if stung, her eyes widening.

“Oh oh oh oh,” Fross said worriedly, abruptly zipping back and forth. “I just got a ping on—Triss, you felt it too?”

“That demon again?” Toby said sharply.

“Yes,” Trissiny said tersely. “Exactly the same as before. Fross, did you modify the wards at all?”

“Um, was I supposed to? They seemed to work right…”

“No, it’s fine. I was just checking if anything was different about it this time.” Trissiny closed her eyes. “So weird to be able to sense something that far away so precisely… It seems to be just wandering around the town. Just like it was doing last time, at least until I got down there.”

“All right,” said Ruda. “This time, we do this smart. We go in organized, and we do something they’re not expecting.”

“Like what?” asked Juniper.

“Getting help,” said Gabriel, absently clutching Ariel’s hilt. “We get Sheriff Sanders and Father Laws. Plus Val, Sister Alia…” He glanced at Trissiny. “And Takli, I figure. Whatever else she’s doing, she’ll help against a demon.”

“You do realize,” said Teal, “we are talking about leaving the campus during class hours?”

“This is not a coincidence,” Ruda snapped, pointing at the note still dangling from Teal’s hand. “We already know thanks to Arquin’s invisible bugaboos that Tellwyrn and Ekoi are in on this. I say we consider it a class exercise and stick with that if they call us on it. But this is the real deal. It’s a fuckin’ demon, or a shadow of one being puppeted by the Black goddamn Wreath, fucking around Last Rock.”

“And Gabriel’s right,” Trissiny said, turning and climbing smoothly into Arjen’s saddle. “I was in error last time for trying to do this alone. Rallying the townspeople is the best move we can make here—both against the demon, and to help mend the rift Justinian’s propaganda has opened. Gabe, we should go on ahead; we move faster on horseback. We’ll get whoever we can and meet up with the rest of you in town. Fross, can you keep up?”

“I’m gonna stay with these guys,” Fross announced. “Remember, the ward network is keyed to your senses specifically—I can find you through it. That way we can meet up without wasting time.”

“Good thinking,” Trissiny said approvingly.

Gabriel raised two fingers to his lips and let out a piercing whistle. Instantly, an explosion of smoke and shadow blasted out of the ground beside him, sending the others scattering from it, and Whisper dove straight up from the darkness. She landed on her hind hooves, rearing and letting out a challenging whinny, before planting herself firmly on the ground and allowing Gabriel to mount.

“Damn,” Ruda said approvingly. “Sorry, Boots, but his is better.”

Arjen twisted his neck around to face her and snorted so hard her hat blew off.

“You’re the demon expert,” Gabriel said, nodding to Trissiny. “Lead the way.”

She nodded back, gathering her reins, and said to the others, “We’ll see you shortly.”

Then both paladins were galloping down through the campus toward the front gates.

“Never thought I’d say this,” Ruda mused, dusting off her hat, “but I gotta get me a horse.”


There were few meeting spaces of enough size in Last Rock to accommodate any serious fraction of the population, fewer still indoors, and both the church and the town hall were spoken for at this hour of the day. Thus, the unofficial town meeting convened in a disused barn on the outskirts of the village, blissfully unaware of the Black Wreath rituals which had recently been carried out there. A few enterprising attendees had lugged folding stools along with them, but for the most part, the three dozen or so townsfolk were standing, or leaning against the walls.

The barn did have the advantage of a raised platform in the form of an old wagon resting on its axles, the wheels having been commandeered long ago for service in a less rickety vehicle. Despite the aid this provided in increasing his height, Wilson was having trouble keeping the arguing assembly on point.

“Everybody, please!” he exclaimed for the fourth time in the last two minutes. Those who intended to quiet had already done so; the rest of the discussions going on continued, paying him no heed. Helplessly, he looked over to the side, where Sam Sanders lounged against the wall near the wagon. “Sam, can ya give me a hand here?”

“Oh, no, you don’t,” Sanders drawled. “I’m just here to make sure this doesn’t degenerate into shootin’ or somethin’ similarly stupid. You buttered your bed, Wilson, as usual. Have yourself a nice nap.”

Wilson sighed, scowling, and turned back to face the crowd. “Would everybody SHUT UP?!”

Somehow, it worked this time—not instantly, but a hush fell over the front ranks of the throng, rippling backward as people nudged one another and pointed up front, most suddenly looking extremely nervous.

“That’s better,” Wilson said in satisfaction, lowering his hands. “All right, now, thanks to everybody for meetin’ here like this. I know we’re all feelin’ pretty sore about the other night, an’ I’ll acknowledge I made just as much a fool o’ myself as anybody. Still an’ all, there’s still a matter that’s been brung up by all this ruckus that I reckon deserves to be discussed! I think you all know what that is.”

He paused expectantly. The gathered townsfolk were edging backward from the wagon, staring up at it; Wilson frowned at them.

“Oh, c’mon, I ain’t gonna bite anybody. Y’all know dang well what I’m talkin’ about!”

“Wilson,” Sam said wryly. “Might wanna take a glance over your shoulder.”

Wilson scowled at him, but followed his advice. A second later, with a shrill yelp, he jumped so violently away from the back of the wagon that he tumbled to the ground, only missing the front row of his neighbors because they had already edged out of range.

“Very graceful,” Professor Tellwyrn said dryly, unfolding her arms and stepping forward from the rear corner of the wagon onto which she’d teleported. “Interesting time of day to be having a town meeting, isn’t it? I always thought these things took place in the evening because most of you had jobs.”

She glanced around with one eyebrow coolly raised, answered only by nervous shuffling. “Now that I think of it, I don’t see Father Laws…or the Mayor…or any clergy from either temple. Hell, Wilson, you couldn’t even get Hiram Taft to come? At least the banker would provide a veneer of respectability.” Tellwyrn grinned wolfishly down at Wilson, who scuttled backward toward the crowd. “Omnu’s breath, if you’re going to go to the trouble of organizing a meeting when I’m in class, you could at least bother to find out what my class schedule is. It’s easy: just tell Chase Masterson you’re looking to put something over on me.”

A couple of people chuckled nervously.

“For heaven’s sake,” Tellwyrn said with a grimace, “quit creeping toward the door, you turkeys. I teach college students for a living. Believe me, if I were in the habit of vaporizing people for arguing with me, you’d have damn well heard about it before now. If you have a problem with me or my University, tell me so. Well, we’re all here now. What’s on your mind?”

A few coughs were all that answered her. Tellwyrn sighed and glanced over at the Sheriff.

“Hey, I’m supervising these galoots, not participating,” he said, holding up a hand. “In fact, with you here I reckon I just might be entirely unnecessary.”

She fixed her gaze on Wilson, staring down at him over the tops of her spectacles. “I’m sure we all know the answer to this, but is there any chance the person who organized this little charade would like to step up?”

“Ah—well—uh—um—” He had managed to clamber to his feet and now nervously clutched his hat in front of himself with both hands, not meeting her gaze.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Jonas Crete exclaimed, pushing forward out of the crowd. He tipped his hat to Professor Tellwyrn. “Ma’am, I have to confess came along here outta ruffled feelings as much as the belief there was any point to this, after one a’ your students tore through my saloon, damaged my stuffed bear an’ broke into my kitchen.”

“I heard about that,” Tellwyrn said mildly. “I was also told that the kids spent the remainder of the evening fixing damage, but let’s be honest; they’re not always the most industrious little bastards without someone cracking a whip at their heels.”

More chuckles sounded at that, and Jonas cracked a smile himself.

“It didn’t amount to more’n a busted lock an’ some scuffed furniture, easily fixed. Miss Fross came by th’next day an’ even fixed up my bear with a stitchin’ charm, which I thought was right neighborly. Still, a man’s home an’ business is his castle, know what I mean?”

She nodded. “Quite. If anyone wants to put forth a claim for any damages to the University, I assure you it’ll be taken seriously. Sam and the Mayor can reach me at need, if you don’t feel like making the climb.”

“I, uh, can’t speak for nobody else, ma’am, but I don’t feel the need.” Jonas drew in a breath to steel himself, squaring his shoulders. “It’s like this. We’re mostly over all that, ‘specially once it came out what that Vidian witch had been doin’ to the town. In all the ruckus, though, somethin’ came up that still deserves consideration.”

Tellwyrn nodded again. “Go on.”

“It’s like this,” Jonas said seriously. “The way the papers were all carryin’ on, an’ the way Bishop Snowe put it, made it seem like the folks up at the University were holdin’ themselves above us all. Now, for my part, it never really felt that way to me till very recently. This town was a sad little patch o’ farmhouses before the University came along, an’ even if I wasn’t around then to remember it, my pa told me plenty. It’s cos o’ you an’ your staff an’ students that most of us have a livelihood, yours truly included.”

“But?” Tellwyrn prompted when he paused for a moment.

“The thing is,” Jonas continued with a frown, “It gets hard to overlook the fact that who you got up there is nobles, royals, demigods, paladins… An’ a lot o’ miscellaneous others who’re scary powerful, whatever else they are. An’ aside from wherever they come from, they all got places to go. Kids who graduate from that University can write their own ticket in the world. I ain’t bothered to follow up on most of ’em, but the way the papers’ve been carryin’ on, I’d had the chance to learn. The ones who’ve spoken up to journalists all seem to be leadin’ pretty remarkable lives, an’ the lot of ’em give credit for it to you an’ your school.”

“That’s rather the point of education, you know,” Tellwyrn said mildly.

“I don’t disagree, ma’am. In fact…that’s kinda the point. Last Rock’s got kids, too. Not so many, but more of us grew up here than otherwise. All this business… Well, it’s pointed out there’s a divide there. Now, we all know you’ve got a good number o’ just common folk like us attendin’ school, but that’s just it. Them kids go on to lead great lives out there in the world. Those of us just reared down here in the town…well, we stay in the town.”

Jonas got a lot more sympathy than Wilson had; there were a great many nods and more than a few spoken agreements in the wake of his speech.

Tellwyrn, too, nodded slowly, her eyebrows drawing together in thought.

“It ain’t that I mean to criticize,” Jonas said hastily as the chorus died down.

“Of course you do,” Tellwyrn said. “That was a criticism, Mr. Crete. You’ve taken your stand; don’t spoil the effect by backing down from it.”

He coughed, suddenly looking nervous. “Uh, well, anyway…”

“You make a pretty good point, too,” Tellwyrn continued, cutting him off. She nodded slowly, staring into space above their heads. “Hm. I’ll be frank: the fact is, I know very well I’m not the most approachable person. Habits older than the Empire are difficult to shake, I’m afraid. Furthermore, I have a tendency to latch onto ideas that are important to me and not consider other things going on around me. For that reason…if there’s a problem in this town, specifically one with my University, I really need people to let me know. Just because I don’t notice or think about things like this doesn’t mean I don’t care, or that I don’t think you matter.”

Sam nodded approvingly.

“Very well, then,” Tellwyrn said, her tone suddenly brisk. “This is an extremely valid concern, and I thank you for bringing it up, Jonas. And Wilson,” she added puckishly, smiling down at him; Wilson squeaked and backed up into the crowd. “And it seems to have a simple enough solution. Starting with enrollment season next year, any citizens of Last Rock who can meet the academic requirements will be welcome to attend the University, irrespective of any other qualifications. Hm… We normally enroll at age eighteen, but considering the circumstances… I’ll make that open to anyone between fifteen and, let’s say, twenty-two. Any older than that and they’ll be on a different level entirely than the rest of the student body. So, appropriate age, able to pass a basic admissions exam, and at least five years’ residence in Last Rock for qualifications. In fact, I’ll do you one better: we’ll make that a scholarship for anyone who meets the criteria. Last Rock citizens can attend the school at no charge.”

She had to stop there, as the swelling commentary from the crowd became too much to easily talk over. This time, though, the voices were almost entirely jubilant in tone. Some few were still obviously shouting questions, but no hostile or argumentative voices rose above the throng.

Tellwyrn let this continue for almost a minute before snapping her fingers and causing a crack like a thunderclap to ring through the room. “All right, enough! It’s more than half a year till we start enrolling, which should be enough time to work out any kinks. I’ll draw up a more comprehensive document, and anybody with questions or concerns can send them up. I’ll also want to talk with Miss Tanner, who I note is one of those with more important things to do at this hour than attend Wilson’s latest vanity project,” she added more severely. The town schoolmarm, indeed, was at work at this time of day. “And Omnu’s breath, people, if you have something to say, say it. Those old stories are mostly exaggerated anyway; I do not blast people unless they richly and specifically deserve it.”

She shook her head, snorted, and vanished with a soft puff of air.

“Welp,” Sanders drawled, finally straightening up. “That pretty well address your concerns, Wilson?”

“I think that was a, uh, satisfactory conclusion, yeah,” Wilson replied trying at dignity.

“Hey,” Jonas added suddenly, “how come he ain’t in jail, Sam? There was that business about assaulting the Duchess if I recollect rightly…”

“You don’t,” Wilson said furiously. “I never got near the lady!”

“It was assaulting Imperial troops,” Sanders said, rolling his eyes. “And not only did nobody wanna press charges, Duchess Madouri specifically interceded on Wilson’s behalf, requesting leniency.”

“She don’t know him too well, I guess,” someone chimed in from the back of the crowd, earning widespread laughter.

“I got nothin’ bad to say about that young lady an’ I won’t hear nothin’ said against her,” Wilson proclaimed, swelling up like a cockerel. “A right stand-up gal, that one!”

Sam’s attention shifted abruptly; Ox had just entered the barn through its wide-open doors. He towered above almost everyone, making the worried frown on his mustached face very apparent. The Sheriff strode toward him around the side of the mostly-oblivious crowd, rather than trying to push his way through. Ox took the same route, coming to meet him, and as soon as he stepped out of the doorway, Trissiny and Gabriel became visible in it behind him.

They were quickly noticed by the rest of the crowd, and another hush spread through the barn, this one marred by whispers and mutters.

“Sam,” Ox rumbled, “the kids have news you might wanna hear.”

“I see,” said the Sheriff, glancing between them. “Should we head to my office an’ talk in private?”

“I think not,” said Trissiny, her voice low but carrying well through the barn. “This affects everyone.” She turned to face the crowd, all of whom were focused on her now, quite a few still muttering. “There’s another demonic presence in the town.”

At this, there came a mass outburst of shouting and waving arms.

“Will y’all SHUT UP!” Ox thundered.

The quiet was instantaneous.

“Is this anything like the last one?” Jonas asked, pushing forward and folding his arms.

“Exactly like the last one,” said Trissiny, nodding, “and probably the same thing. And after last time, I realize that I made a serious mistake in trying to deal with it. If we just keep chasing this thing away, it’ll just keep coming back.” She glanced across the sea of faces aimed at her, and took in a deep breath. “More importantly, I’ve come to realize that Ms. Cratchley hit the nail on the head. You are all capable people who are accustomed to being responsible for your town and your own lives. For a paladin to come riding in here trying to rescue everybody is a completely wrong-headed approach. This thing is interested in Last Rock, specifically; it’s for Last Rock to fix.”

Sanders nodded approvingly, as did some of the onlookers.

“What can we do?” someone asked.

“It’s an invisible demon!”

“Repent!”

“Carl, I’m beggin’ you.”

“Please!” Trissiny called, holding up both hands, and for a wonder everyone quieted. “We have the outlines of a plan. Some of our friends are on the way down from the campus right now, but to do this we need numbers. Specifically, we need men and women who have weapons and know how to use them, and who can keep a level head under pressure.”

“To put it plainly,” said Gabriel, smiling thinly, “we’re rounding up a posse.”

“The demon is currently on the other edge of the town,” Trissiny continued over the low hubbub that arose, “and so far it doesn’t seem to be hurting anyone directly. We should have a little time, but it’s best not to dawdle. Everyone who’s willing to help, please gather in the intersection right outside here; take time to run home and grab wands if you can, and bring along anybody who might want to help. I’ll also need someone to collect Val Tarvadegh, and Sisters Aria and Takli.”

“Ox, Jonas,” said Sanders, nodding to each of them, “head to the temples an’ do as she says, please.”

“Sheriff,” Jonas said in acknowledgment, tipping his hat and following after Ox, who had simply nodded and strode out into the streets.

“Time is a factor, everyone,” Trissiny said seriously. “Don’t rush, but move as efficiently as you can. Remember that this creature’s method so far has hinged on agitating people and causing damage incidentally, so it’s vitally important that everyone remain calm. I believe I can trust the people of this town to do what’s needed. All right, let’s all get moving. We’re going to try to set out from this spot in fifteen minutes, so I’ll need everyone back here in time to go over the plan.”

Nods and verbal agreements met her pronouncement, but the people appeared to be taking her plea for calm to heart; there were no cheers or shouts this time. People poured out of the barn, streaming around Sanders and the paladins and heading off into the side streets.

“You certain about this, Avelea?” Sanders asked pointedly. A handful of townsfolk remained nearby, those who apparently had nothing and no one to collect; most were now holding wands, pointed safely at the ground. Frontier people were generally most conscientious about wand safety.

“It’s a mistake to be too certain about anything,” Trissiny replied seriously. “This is a demon, after all, and a tricksy one besides. Also…” She hesitated, glancing around at those listening nearby, then nodded almost imperceptibly, as if to herself. “We have intelligence suggesting the Black Wreath is involved in this directly.”

“Here now,” said a middle-aged woman in denim and flannel, two wands holstered at her belt, “think somebody oughta go get Tellwyrn?”

“If someone wants to,” said Gabriel, “we won’t argue. We didn’t, though.”

“Why not?” asked a younger man.

“It comes down to this,” said Trissiny, resting the palm of her left hand on the pommel of her sword. “This demon, or warlock, or whatever is behind it, has not targeted the University—probably because they’re afraid to challenge Tellwyrn. Which is just sensible. What they’re doing is feeling out the town, seeing what reaction they get from poking at people here. Last time, I came charging down here to drive it off, doing a lot of incidental damage and accomplishing nothing in the end. I owe you all an apology for that. And, notably, as soon as things calmed down, it came right back. This is not a problem that can be solved by higher powers coming to the rescue. Demons, warlocks, and servants of evil stop when they are stopped, and not before. They are held back only by the awareness that they cannot win, and only when and where that point has been made inescapably. I don’t intend to leave them any gap to wiggle through, no hint that they can come back here and work their mischief as soon as there’s no paladin or archmage keeping an eye out.”

She drew her sword, pointing the blade at the ground, and spoke subtly more loudly, her voice ringing with confidence. “I intend, by the end of this day, for there to be a very chastened warlock out there who won’t be trying their luck on Last Rock again. Not because of any University on a hill, but because they’ll have seen the character of the people here, and will know that they came to the wrong town.”

This time, the cheers broke out in earnest, and neither she nor the Sheriff made any attempt to stop them.

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