Tag Archives: Hildred

12 – 4

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Tellwyrn came in through the door. She had been spoken to about teleporting in and out of the infirmary, and while she adamantly maintained her authority over the campus in general, her policy was to accept Miss Sunrunner’s dictates with regard to the management of her little domain. That practice had served them both well, as it had the student body (and their various frequently injured student bodies), so it stood unchallenged. Thus, despite the urgency with which she had been summoned, she now came striding through the infirmary’s entrance.

“All right, what have we got?” she barked.

Miss Sunrunner gave her a flat look. “Lower your voice, Arachne. I have told you not to shout in here; recuperating patients require a calm atmosphere.”

“Taowi, there is no one else here, except the patient who won’t wake up.”

“It’s the principle of—”

“We can rehash this argument yet again at a less urgent time,” Tellwyrn snapped. “Now what is going on?”

She turned an expressive look on Professor Yornhaldt, who stood to one side of Chase’s bed, watching. He nodded to her in greeting, then pointedly directed his attention to the campus healer, yielding the floor.

“You already know the salient points,” Miss Sunrunner said, folding her hands and gliding back over to join Yornhaldt at the bedside. Chase was stretched out, uncovered, and looking actually rather peaceful. “We cannot awaken him. He is uninjured, and there is no trace of either alchemical or mundane poison in his system. Undetectable agents can’t be ruled out, obviously, but as you know we’re equipped to detect things most hospitals are not. Altogether, Chase is in the same generally good health as always. He simply will not wake up. The sleep itself appears quite natural, aside from the fact that we cannot bring him out of it.”

“Mm,” Tellwyrn said noncommittally, studying Chase through her spectacles. “I gather you’re here to expand the battery of tests being run, Alaric.”

“Indeed, I can check for a few things Taowi can’t,” Yornhaldt replied, nodding apologetically at Miss Sunrunner. “And based on the examinations I have done, I’m reasonably sure he has been cursed.”

Tellwyrn shot the healer a look. “That’s what you call generally good health?”

“In point of fact,” Sunrunner said with muted asperity, “that is exactly the issue. What we have detected is that Chase’s body is in a state of suspension. It is far too early to have observed the effects naturally, which is why I asked Alaric to come and examine him magically, but we have determined that he has the standard protections. He will not require food or water while in this state, nor experience any muscular or skeletal atrophy from lack of exercise. He is in generally good health, in short, and will remain that way until we work out how to awaken him.”

“This is where it begins to worry me,” Yornhaldt said seriously. “You know very well that suspended animation is a standard feature of sleeping curses and has been…well, longer than you’ve been alive, even. The troubling thing is that this is the only indication we have of what has befallen him. I can detect no curse at all. No trace of one. Arachne, the state of his body shows that magic has to be acting upon it in a powerful way, but I cannot find any magic.”

“We had hoped,” Miss Sunrunner said in a softer tone, “that you would be able to discern something we have missed. Failing that, I can also have Admestus do some tests, but…alchemical procedures are necessarily more invasive than scrying, and in any case, Arachne, I trust your judgment substantially more.”

Tellwyrn looked at her, then at Yornhaldt, then sighed softly and turned her gaze back to the patient, peering through the lenses of her glasses. After a moment, she reached up to hold one side of the golden frame between her thumb and forefinger, narrowing her eyes.

“…you’re right,” she murmured at last. “Nothing. Not a thing. He could just be asleep. There’s no magic there.”

Miss Sunrunner tilted her head to one side. “Can those detect the suspended animation?”

“No, they see magic. I assume you were scrying for specific cellular activities, Alaric?”

“Exactly,” he said, nodding. “But I see no harm in you double-checking…”

Tellwyrn waved a hand impatiently, shaking her head. “In all the years I’ve known you, I’ve observed two things: you don’t make pronouncements unless you’re sure, and you’re never sure unless you’re right. I’m quite comfortable taking your word for it, Alaric. So that leaves…this exciting dilemma.”

Yornhaldt drew in a deep breath, his blocky frame swelling till it seemed to strain his tweed jacket. “Well, I shall point out the oliphaunt in the room if no one else will. We all know that magic concealed from detection is Black Wreath craft.”

Still frowning down at Chase, Tellwyrn shook her head slowly. “The Wreath didn’t do this.”

“How can you be sure?”

“For one thing,” she said, “I know how their evasion tricks work. I’m sure they have some I don’t know, but I’m familiar enough with the others to spot the patterns. Not that I can reliably catch them in the wild if I’m not paying attention, but with a comatose subject and the luxury of time to study him? No, if the Wreath had cursed him with Elilial’s gift, I’d be able to see that. And magic aside, Embras Mogul is too intelligent and self-interested to make himself my personal chew toy by attacking one of my students. Moreover, Elilial specifically promised me, in person, that she would not harm the kids.”

“You trust a promise from the demon-wrangling goddess of cunning?” Sunrunner said skeptically.

“I do,” Tellwyrn said softly, nodding. “Elilial is sneaky; she isn’t a liar. The really, really good deceivers often aren’t. And she doesn’t want me for a devoted enemy, either. Even if I were wrong about that, this is not her pattern. She’s more careful about bystanders than some of the Pantheon gods; I’ve never actually known her to target innocents in order to provoke someone.”

“Magic aside, then,” Yornhaldt said gravely. “The reason my mind sprang directly to the Wreath, aside from the obvious, was that there is one person on this campus whom they wish to annoy possibly even less than yourself, Arachne. Or there was, until yesterday. Literally as soon as Kaisa departed, this happened. It’s a coincidence I cannot make myself credit.”

Tellwyrn heaved a slow sigh, finally lifting her eyes to his. “Yes, I thought of that, too. But my points stand; Elilial has no reason to provoke me this way, and her cult has far too much to lose and nothing at all to gain by it. Plus, as I said, I think I could detect it if this were their handiwork—but that is due to my specific familiarity with their handiwork. It’s easier for me to believe that someone else out there found a way to conceal magic from me than that it’s them.”

“The prospects become more horrifying the longer I dwell on them,” Yornhaldt muttered. “Who in the world can work spellcraft that sophisticated? The Empire, the Church, the College of Salyrene, the Wizard’s Guild? No one I can imagine would wish to antagonize you this way…”

“Unless I misremember,” Sunrunner said archly, “one entity on that short list has already deliberately antagonized her, for no discernible reason beyond curiosity as to what would happen.”

“This is pointless,” Tellwyrn said curtly. “We do not have enough data to begin pointing fingers; we will collect evidence before forming theories, not the other way round. Taowi, is it possible he did this to himself?”

“I did think of that,” the healer said. “It’s Chase, after all. Maureen said they found him sitting against a wall, in a stable position; while it’s not impossible to fall into that pose, it more suggests someone put him there. If he did it to himself, I would assume it to have been an accident, as not even Chase Masterson would have any reason to do something as utterly daft as deliberately curse himself to sleep. He can’t enjoy any of the things he lives for in this condition. Anyhow, if he were to do such a thing, why on a random path in the middle of campus? Anything might have happened to him. Many of his classmates owe him a few pranks.”

“Not to mention,” Yornhaldt said with a sigh, “the boy barely has the magical aptitude to get through my classes. He’s not one I’d expect to pull out a brand-new sleeping curse from beyond the cutting edge.”

“So,” Tellwyrn mused, “the only one who knows what happened to Chase is Chase. We shall simply have to ask him.”

“Arachne, I have no idea how long it will take to fix this,” Yornhaldt said seriously. “For all our investigations thus far, I cannot even claim to have truly begun. We can’t even detect the curse; removing it could potentially be a major undertaking.”

“If you go about it the scientific way, yes,” she said flatly, folding her arms and giving him a challenging look. “Alaric, what do I usually do when something intractably complex stands in my way?”


The tiny, jewel-like bottle looked out of place affixed to the rest of the contraption; little larger than a bean, it was cut in facets like a diamond, seemingly empty. Professor Rafe screwed its stoppered end into the apparatus attached to Chase’s face with the utmost care. Aside from the nozzle holding the bottle in place, and the gadgetry contained within that which would remove the stopper without breaking the airtight seal, it was just a contoured suction cup that fit over the patient’s mouth, leaving his nose free.

“I’m impressed, Admestus,” Yornhaldt commented. “I’ve never actually seen a bottle of anything that size, and yet you had a device right on hand which fit its mouth perfectly.”

“Oh, this actually wasn’t designed for this bottle,” Rafe said cheerily. “I just slapped this thing together out of bits and bobs I had lying about. Really, though, it’s a simple enough gadget; every bit of what it does is all part and parcel of working with gaseous reagents. The nozzle there was meant to be attached to rubber tubing—actually, I’ve wedged a ring of the stuff in the opening to tighten its grip on the bottle. Be a pal and check my seals? I’ve already done it myself, but I don’t want to pop the cork until you’ve triple-verified we don’t have any leaks. There is a very tiny amount of hellhound breath in that bottle and pretty much no earthly way of getting more.”

“Agreed,” Yornhaldt rumbled, gesticulating with one of his thick fingers. A cerulean spell circle flared into being directly below Chase’s head, then slowly drifted up through it, flickering out once it passed above the little bottle of hellhound breath. “Clear. No air or other gases escaping from the device.”

“You had a spell on hand to do that?” Sunrunner asked, impressed. “I expected a more elaborate casting, like you had to do previously.”

“It isn’t every day I have to scry for activity on the cellular level,” Yornhaldt explained. “Checking anomalous air currents is a common enough need in several forms of spellcasting. The wrong breath of wind can mess up…well, that’s not important right now,” he added, glancing at Tellwyrn’s expression.

“Are we ready, then?” she demanded, frowning at Rafe.

“Yeah,” he said, straightening up and turning to her with an uncharacteristically even look. “Good to go on your command. Before we do that, though, let me just point out that if what happened to Chase is as mysterious as you all say, there’s nothing to suggest it won’t happen again. This could be a one-off event, or we may soon have other students coming in under undetectable sleeping curses. Are you sure you want to do this now? Or maybe reserve this, the only sample of foolproof anti-sleep gas which is worth more than the land this campus is built on and can’t be replaced, for a future victim who’s generally less of a butthole?”

“Admestus,” Tellwyrn stated, staring at him over the rims of her glasses, “you are already on my short list right now.”

Rafe shrugged, turning back to the patient. “Yes, fine. I’m not saying anything everyone in the room wasn’t thinking. I just wanted it out in the air so you all know you’re not the only ones thinking it, and the idea isn’t without merit. But, you’re the boss.”

So saying, he took a careful grip on the apparatus sealed to Chase’s mouth and twisted the screw attached to its nozzle.

There was no hissing or any other sound; there just wasn’t enough gas involved to make one. Rafe removed his hands, and they all stared down at the still-sleeping patient.

“Oh, dear,” Yornhaldt murmured, squeezing his hands together. “It’s possible there just wasn’t enough—”

Chase shot upright with a protracted gasp, his eyes snapping open. He quickly began coughing and retching, the sound muffled until he succeeded in wrenching the suction cup off his face with a wet pop.

“Oh—ack. Ew. What the fuck? Why do I taste like I’ve been snogging Scorn?”

“How do you feel?” Miss Sunrunner asked gently, leaning forward to place a hand on his shoulder.

Chase blinked twice, turning to her. “Uh… Well, what most springs to mind is the snogging Scorn thing. Seriously, it’s like a mouthful of sulfur.”

“You were under some kind of sleeping spell, boyo,” Rafe said brightly. “We had to pump you full of hellhound breath.”

Chase blinked again, then his eyes widened. “Whoah, what—wait a second, now. I did not authorize that! I refuse to be held financially liable for— I mean, holy shit, man, why would you waste that stuff on me? Really, this ever happens again you’ve got my permission to just chuck my ass in a ditch, much more cost effective. Need me to sign something?”

“Chase.” Tellwyrn’s voice was not raised, but her tone was firm enough to immediately command his attention. “What happened?”

He licked his lips, staring at her, then grimaced. “Okay, uh…look, it was just a figure of speech. I assume Scorn would taste like brimstone. I’ve never actually snogged her. Not that I wouldn’t give my left nut to try that at least once, but I’m pretty sure she’d literally eat my face. I have it on good authority that most other women do not go for a half-eaten face.”

Tellwyrn blew out her breath in a sigh that was half-growl. “Young man, my patience today is even less generous than usual. We need to know what you remember most recently. You were found propped against a wall below the quad. How did you get cursed? Did someone attack you?”

Chase blinked twice more, then suddenly leaned forward with an animated expression. “Oh—oh, yeah! Man, there were dozens of them, I think they were demons. I gave ’em hell, you better believe that, but one of the cowardly bastards snuck behind me—”

“Chase.” Tellwyrn leaned forward, staring balefully at him from barely a foot away. “This. Is not. The time.”

He met her gaze for a long moment, looking suddenly a little alarmed, then dropped his eyes. “I…sorry, Professor. I don’t know. I, uh, actually was sitting down by the wall, I remember going there myself. I like to be alone with my thoughts—” He glanced up at her and broke off, managing a weak half-grin. “Okay, fine, it’s a great spot to hide and jump out at people. I was that bored, yes. Anyway, I remember sitting there…” He stared at the far wall, frowning in concentration. “…I don’t remember falling asleep. I think someone…walked up to me? Yeah, someone did. A shadow fell across me from behind, and I was annoyed cos they came from the wrong angle for me to surprise ’em. That’s…” He shook his head. “Man, I’ve got nothing past that. I wouldn’t swear it’s the last thing that happened. It’s kinda like falling asleep naturally, y’know? I don’t remember it specifically happening. That’s just the last distinct impression I had of anything.”

Tellwyrn straightened up, letting out a much softer sigh, and exchanged a worried glance with Yornhaldt and Sunrunner.

“So,” said Rafe, “correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this pretty much the worst case scenario? He knows nothing, we’ve blown our only stock of the one damn thing that can cure this, and with it cured now we don’t even have anything to examine.”

“Uh, what’s the big deal?” Chase asked, looking around at them. “So some joker zapped me with a sleeping charm. We learned to do those in your class, Professor Yornhaldt.”

“Alaric, you didn’t,” Tellwyrn said in exasperation.

Yornhaldt gave her a long-suffering look. “You know I like to show them a few fun spells every semester. It’s the lion’s share of what keeps the non-magic majors interested, Arachne. Those of us who don’t terrify our students have to think of these things. Anyway, no, I just show them the standard, extremely basic sleep charm. As you well know, it’s easily detectable, blockable, breakable, and even if one hasn’t the opportunity to do any of that doesn’t last but ten minutes.”

“Uhhh.” Again, Chase panned an inquisitive stare around at them. “What’s going on? Is there something I should be worried about?”

“Are we keeping it from him?” Rafe asked, scratching his head. “Cos, y’know, the boy pretty much knows something’s up. I mean, I can bash him over the noggin with a bedpan, see if that erases his memories—”

“Admestus,” Sunrunner said very evenly, “what have I told you concerning what is and is not appropriate joking matter in my infirmary?”

“I really couldn’t say, Taowi my dear,” Rafe simpered. “I just get so distracted gazing into your pretty eyes—”

“Shut up, Admestus,” Tellwyrn snapped. “No, I don’t see any benefit in keeping secrets. We don’t know what happened to you, Chase; it was some kind of sleeping curse, and it baffled even the collected expertise you see standing before you. So yes, this is potentially serious.”

Chase stared at her uncomprehendingly for a moment, then frowned. “Huh. That’s interesting. Who the hell would wanna do something like that? I mean, I don’t think I’ve pissed off anyone important…”

“He’s got a point,” Rafe agreed. “Trissiny’s off-campus this semester, and anyway, I’m like eighty percent sure she was just letting off steam. I can’t see her actually beheading him.”

“Just for the record, she did try to do that to someone her first week,” Chase said helpfully, “but anyhow I should clarify: I don’t think I’ve pissed off anyone important who could do that kind of advanced magic. Also, holy shit, anybody doing that on this campus is pretty much asking to get transmogrified into a grease stain, right?”

Tellwyrn sighed. “Sounds like you’re up to speed. For now, Chase—”

She broke off abruptly, turning to face the door. Sunrunner did the same; both elves frowned in apparent consternation.

“Yeeesss?” Chase prompted after a moment. “For now, Chase, what? You can forget about homework for the week? We’re taking you out back and putting you down? I’m on tenterhooks, here.”

The infirmary door burst open, and a senior arcane studies major named Laria backed inside. Once into the room, she stepped aside and turned, revealing both her worried expression and the prone body of the classmate she was levitating along behind her.

Natchua lay face-up in midair, her arms hanging limply, as were her legs below the knee. Her green-dyed mohawk sagged in that position like the fronds of a thirsty plant. As soon as she cleared the doorway, Hildred squeezed in behind her, looking nearly distraught.

“Miss Sunrunner!” the dwarf cried. “Please—we can’t figure out what’s wrong. She won’t wake up!”


Calming and getting rid of Laria, Hildred, and Chase had taken a few minutes, during which Miss Sunrunner swiftly examined Natchua. By the time they had again cleared the infirmary of students, she was able to report, grim-faced, that the drow’s case appeared identical to Chase’s.

“I realize you’re gonna hex me for saying I told you so,” Rafe informed Tellwyrn, “so let me just take a moment to emphasize that I don’t care, because I damn well did and now look.”

“This is extremely rapid,” Yornhaldt rumbled. “Two in the space of one afternoon. If it continues at this pace, we’ll be out of students in a matter of weeks.”

“I do not want to hear that kind of talk again,” Tellwyrn said firmly. “No accusations, no doomsaying, no whining. What we’re going to have is action. Taowi, Alaric, and I will examine Natchua as intensively as we can while we’re waiting for the more reliable cure to be replenished. In fact, I’m going to bring this to the attention of the rest of the faculty; I want anyone who has even a glimmer of an idea to have a go at this. They can’t possibly make it worse, and anyone might find something we missed.”

“Um.” Rafe held up a hand. “Waiting for the reliable cure to be replenished? Arachne, the reliable cure is hellhound breath. You cannot get that stuff on this plane of existence.”

“You can, it’s just prohibitively hard,” she said patiently, “and less hard for those of us standing here than probably anyone else on the planet. Un-panic yourself and think, Admestus, you know the answer, here. There are two hellhounds on Level 2 in the Crawl. I want you to gather up whatever equipment you need, then haul ass down there and harvest as much of the stuff as you can get.”

Yornhaldt cleared his throat. “You have specifically forbidden that as a condition of allowing Melaxyna to keep them, Arachne…”

“Because,” Tellwyrn snapped, “hellhound breath is illegal and dangerous, and sufficiently rare that if it gets out we have any, even my reputation won’t stop necromancers and other undesirables from coming here after it. For that reason, this needs to be done as discreetly as possible. Admestus, take Emilio down there with you for backup, and as much as possible, prevent it getting out what’s going on.”

“You know that won’t work for long, Arachne,” Rafe said seriously. “Not with the student body we have.”

“Yes, I know it all too well,” she said with a sigh, glancing over at Natchua. “But the need is too great right now to pass up the opportunity.”

“Arachne.” At Yornhaldt’s tone, they all turned to look at him. “On the subject of secrets… You have to know what’s going on here. You said we have students to whom Elilial gave untold demonic knowledge. We have never figured out who opened the hellgate. This started virtually the instant our predatory arch-fairy departed the campus. It’s too perfect.”

“It could be any of the students,” Sunrunner whispered.

Tellwyrn shook her head. “The current freshmen weren’t here then. The current sophomores are not suspects. That group is too close-knit, half of them are light-wielders, none of them are the particular kind of daft that would be trying to summon demons in the Crawl, and they stayed to throw themselves at the hellgate in defiance of all orders. No…it could be any of the upper half of the student body.”

“Gotta say, that is less of a comfort than it probably sounded like in your head,” Rafe informed her. “That’s a good fifty young’uns with generally more personality than sense.”

“I did not intend it to be comforting,” Tellwyrn shot back. “We cannot afford to be comfortable or complacent right now. It’s not going to be long before it becomes known what’s happening, and it won’t be long after that before suspicion starts making people crazy. We are under an unforgiving timetable, here, people. I will not have a witchhunt on my campus.”

“A witchhunt is not something you can end by declaring it so,” Yornhaldt said.

“Precisely,” she agreed, “which is exactly why we need to get in front of this and head it off now.” Tellwyrn paused, chewing her lower lip for a moment. “And this time, I’m afraid we’re going to need help.”

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10 – 17

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Tellwyrn paused in chewing when the newspaper was slapped down on the table inches from her plate. She then resumed and swallowed her bite of fish before even looking up.

“You know, Emilio, there are countries in this world where you can be summarily dismissed for approaching your employer that way. Or beheaded.”

“Have you seen this, Arachne?” Professor Ezzaniel demanded curtly.

“No, of course I haven’t,” she said, delicately cutting off another piece of trout without even glancing at the paper. “I make a determined effort to have no idea what’s going on in the world, especially right after a Bishop of the Universal Church starts taking public potshots at me, and of course, you are the only person on this campus clever enough to think of bringing me a newspaper of course I’ve seen it. Let me eat in peace, damn you!”

“I have sufficient restraint not to interrupt classes for this, thank you,” Ezzaniel replied calmly. “It’s not as if we never discuss business over lunch. And this is most definitely business.”

“Pshaw,” Rafe snorted from the other end of the table. “How bad can it be? I wasn’t even mentioned.”

“Gods and ministers of grace preserve us,” Yornhaldt rumbled into his beer.

“Exactly!” Rafe cried. “I mean, really. They’re looking for embarrassing dirt on the University and don’t even hint at me? Bunch of amateur dilettante hacks, is all.”

“Admestus,” Tellwyrn said without rancor, “shut up.”

“Oh, that’s what you always say.”

“And it never works, but I continue to hold out hope. And the rest of you—yes, I see you gearing up to argue—just relax and eat, will you? Mrs. Oak did not slave away over a hot stove just so you could ignore today’s excellent main course in favor of gossip.”

The faculty lounge in Helion Hall was not full, many of the professors preferring to eat alone in their classrooms or living quarters (or the cafeteria, occasionally), but as usual several of the staff had assembled there. Including Professor Yornhaldt, who despite his protestations of enjoying his sabbatical, had become markedly more sociable since returning to the campus and finding himself with no academic duties.

“I am not one to get worked up about anything in the press ordinarily,” Ezzaniel said with a deep frown, “but I just received a telescroll from Marjorie Darke’s mother. She paid the extra fee to have a runner bring it up to me directly from the scrolltower office.”

Taowi Sunrunner looked up from her own plate, raising an eyebrow. “The scrolltower employs a runner now?”

“It turns out Silas Crete occasionally employs his granddaughter,” Ezzaniel said to her, “who incidentally has begun to reek of cigarettes since I last spoke with her, which I suspect is related. Regardless, this has officially reached the point where the kids’ parents are getting nervous.”

“Lady Annabelle Darke,” said Tellwyrn, cutting herself another piece of fish, “has nothing going for her except far too much inherited money and a surname that her grandfather was dashing enough to get away with and which just sounds laughably pretentious on anyone else. Marjorie is only here because Sebastian Darke and I did some jobs back in the day—which turns out to be lucky for all of us, as that kid’s the first one in the line who’s got some of the old man’s spark. The point being, we are officially hearing from the slow-witted, easily agitated demographic. Don’t rush to join them, Emilio.”

“I’m well aware of the Lady Annabelle’s shortcomings,” Ezzaniel said, seating himself across the table from her. “I am paying attention to her because the woman is a weather vane. Not an admirable character trait, but it does make her a useful sign of which way the social winds are blowing this week. It’s going to get worse, Arachne. This is in all the papers.”

“Really, you’ve read all the papers that came out this morning?” she mused, eying him languidly. “Who was teaching your classes, then?”

“Arachne!” he exclaimed in exasperation.

“Calm yourself, Emilio,” Yornhaldt urged, reaching across to pull the paper toward himself. “Just because she is calmly eating lunch doesn’t mean she is ignoring the issue.”

“I prescribe a calm meal as the go-to treatment for many minor ailments,” Taowi added.

“It’s like this,” said Tellwyrn, finally setting down her fork. “Yes, I am aware that this is a concern. No, I am not going to run around in a panic, or in any other way interrupt my routine. The day I deprive myself of an excellent plate of fish over clumsy politicking by the likes of Justinian, I will probably drill a hole to the planet’s core and let out all the molten iron out of sheer spite.”

“From anyone else I would assume that to be empty hyperbole,” Ezzaniel said warily. Rafe cackled around a mouthful of steamed vegetables. “Anyway, isn’t it a leap to pin this on Justinian? It was Snowe who made that speech, and she’s definitely got contacts in the papers. Almost all of them run her column.”

“Branwen Snowe,” said Tellwyrn, “despite being possessed of considerable gifts—”

“They are very nice,” Rafe said, nudging Yornhaldt with an elbow.

“—has never had an original thought in her life,” Tellwyrn continued. “Sorry to disabuse you of this notion that I am sitting obliviously atop an ivory tower, Emilio, but I have been keeping track of political, social and theological trends. This secular humanism Snowe has been spouting for the last few months is a direct extension of ideas the Archpope has been promoting with more circumspection. And the fact that she’s an Izarite Bishop in and of itself signifies that she’s his creature; the followers of Izara regard Church politics as an unnecessary burden, and fob those positions off on people they want to get rid of.”

“If anything, that makes it worse,” Ezzaniel said with a scowl.

Tellwyrn rolled her eyes, gesticulating disparagingly with her (fortunately almost empty) teacup. “There is not a damn thing Justinian can do to me or this University except earn my ire, and he’s far too savvy not to know it. This isn’t directed at us, Emilio. He’s using it for some other purpose. That is why I’m not rushing to take action. It would be rash to blunder into any plan without understanding what’s actually going on, and that has yet to be revealed. What is fascinating to me is that Justinian isn’t the first source of these up-with-people notions he and Snowe have been propounding. It’s point-for-point Black Wreath theology.”

“Oh, dear,” said Rafe. “How villainous. Do you think we should assassinate him?”

“Didn’t I tell you to shut up?” Tellwyrn said irritably.

“Yes, you did, and may I just say your persistence in the face of impossible odds is one of the things I admire about y—”

His voice abruptly stopped, though his mouth kept moving. Rafe paused, blinking, and tried to speak again, then turned a scowl on Professor Yornhaldt, who smiled innocently back even as he lowered his casting hand.

“Thank you, Alaric,” Tellwyrn said dryly.

“My pleasure,” Yornhaldt replied while Rafe dug in his belt pouches for the anti-magic potions he always kept on hand.

“Arachne,” said Taowi, “you seem to be trying to reassure us, but each revelation you drop about Archpope Justinian is only more alarming than the last. Now you suggest that he’s involved with the Black Wreath?”

“Hardly,” Tellwyrn snorted. “If anything he’s been more persistent than his last three predecessors in hounding them. No, those ideas are basically good ones, I’ve always thought so. There are cults within the Pantheon that have similar priorities, notably the Eserites and Veskers. It has never been Church doctrine, though, far from it. Justinian’s not with the Wreath, but he’s up to something that he knows the general public is likely to be leery of. Hence designating a scapegoat. It’s the oldest trick in the book, when you want a great mass of people not to notice what you’re actually doing to them.”

“You’re very calm, considering you speak for the scapegoat in question,” Yornhaldt noted.

Tellwyrn shrugged, picking up her fork and resuming work on her fish. “Even if I considered this a crisis, I’ve never found freaking out to be a useful strategy for anything. It’s not a crisis, though, and even so I’m not ignoring it. Just stay the course, ladies and gentlemen—if you have any more irate communications from parents, handle them as best you can while I deal with this.”

“Why would we be fielding communications from parents?” Taowi inquired. “In fact, come to think of it, why did Lady Annabelle send that directly to you, Emilio?”

“I may have incidentally encouraged her to think of me as a sympathetic ear,” Ezzaniel said noncommittally.

“What he means,” Rafe said with a deranged leer, “is that he nailed her. Good on you for not boasting, old man! I would. She’s quite the hottie for a dame her—”

He fell abruptly silent again, paused, and then snatched a handful of vegetables from his plate and hurled them at Yornhaldt. They splattered across a shield of blue light that appeared around him.

“Boys,” Taowi said scathingly. “Cease that immediately. And clean it yourselves!”

Tellwyrn shook her head. “As I was saying, I am dealing with this. I’m not going to ignore it, but managing public opinion is a task outside my usual skill set. As such, and since I have no afternoon class, I am going to seek the counsel of an expert. But not, I repeat, until I finish my lunch.”


 

“Well, well, wouldja look at that,” Ruda drawled. “Arquin’s figured out the dog-in-the-park trick.”

Scorn came to a stop, frowning at the scene on the lawn before them. “Trick? Is for what?”

“Is for gettin’ girls,” Ruda said, grinning.

“Getting…” The demon blinked her eyes. “Where is dog? That is thing… The word I am told is ‘horse,’ yes?”

“Barely,” Trissiny murmured.

Gabriel was, indeed, surrounded by several girls, including most of those from the freshman class, as well as Hildred and a couple of seniors. As they watched avidly, with a variety of high-pitched noises of approval, he drew back his arm and hurled the branch he was holding the length of the lawn.

Whisper’s invisible hooves were soundless on the grass as she charged after it; her ephemeral mane and tail streamed behind her, leaving a wispy trail of smoke like the exhaust of a dwarven engine. She skidded to a halt by the stick and picked it up in her teeth, pausing to prance a few steps in place before trotting back to her master, head held high.

“I have never seen a horse play fetch,” Trissiny said.

“I think you had the right of it, Boots,” Ruda replied. “That thing’s just barely a horse. Hey, maybe Arjen would like a game of fetch!”

“He wouldn’t,” Trissiny said curtly, walking forward again. Ruda and Scorn trailed after her, the pirate chuckling.

“Oh, c’mon, have you ever tried? Or do you just treat him like a big, armored carriage for your convenience?”

Trissiny let out an irritated snort. “Arjen doesn’t need to eat and exists in a state of perpetually perfect grooming, but I still brush him and give him apples. I am not neglecting my horse just because I don’t play fetch with him. Horses don’t do that!”

“And yet…” Ruda grinned.

“I thought we’d established that Whisper is barely a horse.”

“Well, hello to you too,” Gabriel replied, the girls having drawn close enough to be heard by the end of that comment. Whisper nickered a greeting.

“Don’t make that face, Arquin,” Ruda said lightly. “You’ve apparently just finished demonstrating she’s at least part puppy.”

“Yeah, she’s fun, isn’t she?” he said, grinning up at Whisper as he stroked her nose. She whinnied in delight, bouncing once in place, very much like an overeager dog. Szith, Maureen and Ravana all took a couple of steps back from her at this; the “puppy” in question was still big enough to crush someone if she moved too carelessly.

“She is pretty,” Scorn breathed, stepping forward and reaching out with one clawed hand to pat the horse.

Whisper immediately bellowed in outrage and reared up, slashing at the Rhaazke with her front hooves. Scorn yelped and bounded backward, and the rest of Gabriel’s audience scattered in fright, even Iris, who had been stubbornly sticking by his side.

“Whoah, whoah!” he exclaimed, fearlessly stepping in front of the rearing horse and reaching up to pat her on the neck. “Easy, girl. Be nice to Scorn, she’s a friend. Easy, now.”

“Your dog-horse is a butt!” Scorn shouted, baring her teeth. Whisper thrust her head over Gabriel’s shoulder and snorted disdainfully, ears laid back.

“And you be nice, too,” he snapped, pointing at her. “Whisper is from the divine plane—she’s not going to take to a demon easily, or quickly. You have to be patient with animals. She’s very smart; as long as you’re not a jerk to her, she’ll come around.”

“Why am I being not the jerk?” Scorn snapped, stomping a foot childishly. “I being the nice and horse stupid dog get rrhaash k’thavkh nhak drroughn!”

“Scorn,” Trissiny said firmly, “Tanglish.”

The demon swelled up in fury. For a moment she tremble with repressed anger, clenched fists vibrating at her sides, then she whirled and stomped away. “Bah! Not being my problem, your horse is cannot behave! Come on, we go see the town. Find your demon trails!”

“Oh, that sounds like a great fuckin’ idea with her in this mood,” Ruda muttered.

“Come, paladin!” Scorn shouted, stopping and turning to glare over her shoulder.

Trissiny folded her arms, braced her feet, and stared at her.

For just a moment, it seemed like Scorn was on the verge of another outburst. After a moment, however, she drew in a deep breath and spoke in a slightly less furious tone. “Will you please to come, yes?”

Trissiny sighed and shook her head, but strode off toward the demon. “We’re not going off this campus unless you calm down, Scorn. It’s going to be enough of a challenge to introduce you to the townspeople, especially with all this newspaper nonsense going around. Animals don’t like demons, and you absolutely cannot react this way every time something snarls at you.”

“I being am calm!”

“Then why are you shouting?”

“I NOT ARE SHOUTING!”

Whisper snorted again, pawing at the ground. Her hooves weren’t visible, but nonetheless tore up a clump of grass.

Gabriel let out a low whistle, patting Whisper on the nose. “Well, none of that was encouraging.”

“What was that about demon trails?” Szith inquired. “I’m not certain that was translated correctly… But she did sense the same demon Trissiny did. Are they actually hunting for one?”

“Honestly, all that worries me less than the dialect,” Gabriel said thoughtfully, still petting Whisper and gazing in the direction in which Trissiny and Scorn had gone. “Her Tanglish hasn’t made any progress in a while.”

“Well, give the girl a bit o’ credit,” Maureen said reasonably. “She’s only been learnin’ it a handful o’ weeks, aye? I’d say she’s doin’ pretty well, considerin’ that.”

“That’s the thing,” Gabriel replied, frowning. “She does speak it pretty well for being new at it… But most of that progress she made in the first week. It was crazy how fast she picked up the language. Seriously, there’s nothing wrong with Scorn’s intelligence, quite the opposite. But then she just quit. She’s been talking that way ever since.”

“Why d’you think that is?” Iris asked, gazing at him with wide eyes while patting Whisper’s neck. Behind her back, Hildred repressed a grin, winking at Maureen.

“Mm,” Gabriel mused, finally turning back to face the rest of them. “I grew up in Tiraas, which is a big melting pot of a city. People from all over settle there, including lots of immigrants. And you can kind of tell the degree of investment someone puts into fitting in. There were people from outlandish places like Shengdu and Glassiere who had basically no accent after just a couple of years, because they were constantly working to improve their diction. And then there were those who still speak this barely comprehensible pidgin Tanglish after living here for decades and raising their children in Imperial culture, who just couldn’t be bothered.”

“Languages do not come to all with equal facility,” Szith noted. “They are much easier to learn if one starts young.”

“That’s true,” Gabriel acknowledged, nodding to her.

“I think I see what he’s getting at, though,” said Ruda, frowning. “And it’s a good point. There comes a point where someone decides they’ve learned enough for their purposes and just doesn’t fuck with it anymore. Arquin’s right, Scorn’s as sharp as a tack when she wants to be. It’s a real issue if she’s just not gonna worry about improving her Tanglish now she’s gotten mostly understandable, most of the time. She’s supposed to be proving she can fit in and make her way on this plane. Proving it to Tellwyrn, who doesn’t accept ‘meh, good enough’ as a valid attitude from anybody.”

“What’s going to happen to her if she doesn’t learn to fit in?” Iris asked.

“Not sure,” Gabriel mused. “I highly doubt it’ll be pretty, though.”

“I think we might wanna bring this up with Teal,” Ruda said to him. “Scorn’s doin’ okay with listening to people in general, but Vadrieny’s still the only one she seems actually motivated to please.”

Behind them, Ravana was still gazing down the path the paladin and demon had taken, her expression deeply thoughtful. After a moment, a faint smile crossed her features.

“Hmm.”


 

The central temple of Vesk in Tiraas was a deliberate study in contrasts. Most of it was built in rounded patterns, a rather chaotic arrangement of white marble towers and domes, surmounted by a minaret wreathed by a spiraling staircase, atop which musicians would perch to entertain the entire district on days considered holy to the Veskers—who considered any occasion holy when they could get away with creating a spectacle. Its uppermost great hall, however, was almost like a Shaathist lodge in design and layout, right down to its enormous exposed timbers. It had better lighting and a sloping tile roof, but even its décor seemed deliberately evocative of the Huntsmen’s aesthetics, with old instruments and weapons prominently displayed in place of animal trophies. Along its walls, between the windows, stood statues of various gods of the Pantheon, Vesk himself notably not among them.

Despite being called the great hall and serving as the center of the temple’s own society, it was actually not meant to be accessible to the general public. The temple’s entrances led to public spaces outside its various theaters and performance halls—the areas used by the bards for their own purposes were reached by networks of spiraling, deliberately confusing hallways, which themselves were peppered with barriers ranging from simple locked doors to enchanted alarms and force fields, and a couple of rather whimsical booby traps. It took quite some doing to reach the great hall, which was why everyone congregated there looked up in surprise when it was entered by someone not of the faith.

By the time she had crossed it to the dais at its far end, those who recognized Professor Tellwyrn had whispered her name to the others, which of course explained the matter of how she’d gotten in. The bards began drifting toward her, eagerly anticipating a show. There was nothing they loved like a good show.

Master Harper Roundol was seated on the dais, having been in conversation with two other bards. They all broke off, staring, as the legendary elf made a beeline for them. At her approach, all three rose and bowed respectfully.

“Professor,” Roundol said, straightening back up and absently stroking the neck of his guitar. “This is an unexpected honor! What can we do for you?”

Tellwyrn came to a stop in front of the dais, planted her hands on her hips, and looked him up and down. Then she studied the other two bards for a moment, and finally glanced around the hall.

“Um,” the Master Harper prompted.

She pointed at his guitar. “Can I see that for a moment?”

Roundol protectively tightened his grip on the instrument. “Ah… Might I ask why—”

In the next instant, with barely a puff of displaced air, it was out of his hands and in hers.

“Perfect, thank you,” Tellwyrn said briskly. “Stand back.”

Grasping the guitar by the neck, she lifted it over her head. The sound of wordless protest that tore free from the high priest’s throat was almost musical in its poignancy.

A hand grabbed Tellwyrn’s wrist from behind.

“That instrument,” said Vesk, gently but firmly taking it from her, “is an absolute masterwork. It has passed through the hands of seven of my high priests, cherished by each as if it were a child. The wood from which it’s made is simply not attainable anymore; in addition to being possibly the finest example of its craft to be found, anywhere, it is one of the most sacred objects in the world which is not actually overlaid with divine blessings. And in utterly typical fashion, here I find you threatening to smash it, just to get my attention.”

With another soft breath of air, the guitar was back in its owner’s hands, and Roundol lost not time in retreating from the elf, glaring reproachfully at her as he clutched it protectively to his chest. The god, incarnated as usual in his nondescript form, completely with absurd floppy hat, smiled thinly as Tellwyrn turned to face him. “For once in your interminable existence, Arachne, as a personal favor to me…”

And suddenly layers of reality peeled back, Vesk’s presence filling the temple and beyond. Without seeming to change physically, his very identity blazed forth with such sheer pressure that lesser mortals were driven back against the walls and to the floor, even before he bellowed in a voice that seemed it should have cracked the mountain.

“WOULD. YOU. PLEASE. NOT?!”

“You know, I like this much better than the last time I had to seek you out,” she said smugly, folding her arms. “This is altogether a lot easier when I don’t need your full cooperation. And much, much quicker.”

The god’s awesome presence retreated as quickly as he had brought it forth, leaving only an apparently mortal bard scowling at the Professor. “I suggest you watch that attitude, missy. The Pantheon has several excellent reasons for tolerating your shenanigans—that doesn’t mean each of us has endless patience. You can fulfill your most important purpose in the world just as well sealed away in a dimensional bubble as you can running around on your own. Arguably a lot better, in fact. Several suggested it, after that nonsense you tried to do in the Deep Wild.”

“Oh, don’t worry about me,” Tellwyrn said with a grin. “Remember, I’m the one who’s spent a full human lifetime researching each of you megalomaniacal fuckers. I know who can be pushed, and exactly how far.”

The assembled bards watched all this avidly; with the reality-rending grandstanding apparently over, they seemed mostly interested in the conflict and not unduly impressed by the presence of their primary object of worship. Vesk and Tellwyrn stared flatly at each other from mere feet apart, she smirking, he scowling.

“Oh my gods!”

The new voice belonged to a young woman with somewhat unruly dark hair, who came skittering into the great hall as if late for her own wedding, the lute case slung over her shoulder bouncing against her as she pelted forwards. “Ohmygodsohmygodsohmygods!”

She skidded to a stop barely before crashing into the glaring pair. “Professor Tellwyrn, Arachne, oh gods this is so awesome, it’s such an honor, I’m a huge fan!”

Tellwyrn turned to stare at her. “What.”

“I’ve read all the stories about you, even the ones that are obvious lies because honestly those are the funniest. You have the best stories! I’ve wanted to meet you ever since I first heard the Plavoric Epics recited—I sat through the entire Saga of the Third Hellwar sung in Sheng because nobody performs it anymore just for the parts at the end where you came in. You’re the reason I became a bard! This is just, wow, I can’t even… Will you sign my face?”

“That’s weird,” Tellwyrn said bluntly. “You’re weird. Go away.”

“Eeee heeheehee!” The girl actually did a little jig, clapping her hands in pure delight. “Classic Tellwyrn!”

“Kelsey,” Master Harper Roundol said gently, taking her by the shoulders from behind and starting to pull her away. “The Professor is here on business with Lord Vesk. Let’s give them a moment to chat before she vaporizes somebody. Or worse, my guitar.”

“Oh, she’d never do that,” Kelsey protested, still staring avidly at Tellwyrn. “I mean, the second one—she blasts people to dust all the time, but she’s super respectful of valuable art. She’ll threaten to break things but like in the battle with Almophriscor the Red she only lost cos they were fighting in his lair and she kept pulling her punches to avoid damaging his hoard, he had basically the world’s best collection of marble statuary, and after that he was so impressed he let her stay there to recuperate and even gave her…”

“Yes, yes,” Roundol said soothingly, dragging her bodily back to the dais. “Shush.”

“There, y’see?” Tellwyrn said smugly, jerking a thumb over her shoulder at Kelsey. “Research. You should give it a try, Vesk; I bet you’d be less vulnerable to obvious and transparent ruses.”

The god heaved a sigh. “What do you want, Arachne?”

“To seek your inimitable advice,” she said. “I trust you have noticed the issues I’m having with your Archpope. I must say I’ve never been the target of a campaign of slander that I actually had to care about before.”

“I am not getting rid of Justinian for you,” Vesk said with the ghost of a smile. “And get with the times, Arachne. Slander is spoken—or sung, for that matter. Printed slander is called libel.”

“I don’t need him gotten rid of,” she said in exasperation. “There’ll always be another one. You’re the expert on manipulating public opinion. Don’t think I’ve forgotten how you helped us to both dismantle the Empire during the Enchanter Wars and put it back together afterward. You owe me, Vesk, both for that business and for wasting sixty years of my time!”

“I never told you to do any of that,” he complained. “See, this is why nobody’s happy to see you when you visit—apart from all the smashing, I mean. All this blaming everybody for failing to contend with your various bullshit. You’re like an emotionally abusive old mother. Have you been hanging out with Naiya much lately, by any chance?”

“Actually…wait, that’s right. It was sixty-three years.”

The god of bards groaned dramatically and massaged the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. “If I help you, will you cease harassing my clergy and bugger off?”

“That is the deal I was offering, yes,” she said with a feline smile.

“Fine. Loath as I am to encourage this behavior, your problem really is so incredibly simple it almost pains me to see you floundering with it. Honestly, Arachne, the fact that you don’t have better people skills after three thousand years of this has got to be history’s greatest failure of character.”

“Less character assassination, more practical advice,” she said sharply.

“Justinian’s campaign is a political one,” Vesk said, staring intently at her face now. “Political campaigns are never won—they are only lost. Right now, the attention is on you, as is the onus to refute or validate his accusations. In that position, you have no winning moves. Honestly, your policy of ignoring him could conceivably be used against you, but it might also be your safest way to go. If, however, you decide to actually engage with this issue, what you need to do is make the matter about him, not about you.” He leaned forward, gazing deep into her eyes, and spoke with deliberately excessive emphasis. “And if that is what you intend, then I am not the one you should be speaking to.”

“All right, all right,” she said, leaning back as if he had bad breath. “Point taken. Really, I’d have expected less ostentatious delivery from you of all people.”

“Well, forgive me,” he said sardonically, straightening back up. “I may not be the best at research, but I have met you, after all. Seriously, though, that was all you wanted? Any number of political operatives could have told you that much.”

“Yes, no doubt,” she said with a smile. “But I don’t trust any number of political operatives.”

“And there it is,” Vesk said, shaking his head and smiling ruefully. “The real reason I continue to tolerate your crap. For being such an apparent brute, you do know how to pluck the right strings.”

“I had some good teachers,” Tellwyrn replied cheerfully. “All right, then! Seems I’ve some more planning to do. As you were, ladies, gentlemen…and bards.”

She turned her back on the deity and strolled off toward the door through which she had entered, leaving most of her audience looking incongruously delighted at the spectacle they had just witnessed. Except, of course, for the Vesker high priest, who was again clutching his guitar protectively and giving her back a resentful look.

“Arachne,” Vesk said in a suddenly knowing tone. “You realize that since you think it’s acceptable to show up at my place and take liberties with my people, I’m going to consider that a mutual arrangement.”

“Well, it’s past time, I’d say,” she replied, pausing to glance back at him with a raised eyebrow. “Honestly, I do my best, but there are things that girl needs to learn that I’m just not a good person to teach her. Just try not to disrupt my class schedule too much, please.”

She resumed her path toward the door, and almost got there before being intercepted by Kelsey.

“So, hey, since you’re here, I would love to chat a bit, hear some stories, maybe buy you a drink? Wouldja like to hear the song I’m composing? It’s about you!”

“Oh, I would,” Tellwyrn said brusquely, brushing past her, “but I’m very busy doing absolutely anything except that.”

“My treat! I’ll take ya to the best restaurant in town! Fancy a hundred-year-old scotch? Or a quick screw? Or a slow one? Honestly I’m not even into women—or skinny people, for that matter—but it’d just be such an honor—”

“Young woman, you are one more ill-advised comment from being transformed into something small and edible.”

“Ma’am, that would be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.”

“You’re a creepy little snot, aren’t you?”

Roundol approached Vesk, staring thoughtfully at the door through which the two women had just vanished. “M’lord, do you think we ought to go do something about that? The poor girl’s setting herself up for more trouble than I think she understands.”

Vesk grunted. “She’s survived three thousand years of trials and tribulations, Tamelin. She’ll survive Kelsey. Probably.”

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7 – 1

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“She’s evil!”

“Mm.”

“She’s a maniac!”

“Eh.”

“I sense a lack of solidarity, here,” Gabriel groused.

Toby finally looked up from his report, making a sardonic face. “Gabe, if you want to gripe, don’t let me stop you. Personally, I don’t find much use in it.”

“Look, we’ve had to do some crazy shit at this school,” Gabriel said, slapping his own report down on the table and narrowly missing Teal’s bowl of pudding. “But it was all craziness with a purpose.”

“You and I remember things very differently,” Trissiny murmured, still reading her own.

“Granted, the purpose was usually only apparent in hindsight, but this? It’s over now! We’re in hindsight territory, and it still doesn’t make any goddamn sense! Why the hell would she assign us a test that can’t be passed?!”

“If you think about it,” said Teal with a smile, “this whole pass/fail dynamic really only happens in academia. I see it as a good sign that Tellwyrn isn’t just teaching us how to be good students.”

“Besides, the logic of it is pretty apparent, at least to me,” Trissiny added. “It was an impossible challenge, but one that was still worth attempting. And we’re still being graded on our efforts; it’s not as if our essays were thrown to the wind.”

“I, for one, found Professor Tellwyrn’s commentary unusually insightful,” Shaeine remarked, eyes on her own report sheet. “Acerbic as always, but in depth and clearly intended to be helpful.”

“Well, I liked the assignment,” Fross added. “It was challenging!”

“It was impossible!” Gabriel complained.

“Um, yes, by definition,” the pixie replied. “It doesn’t get much more challenging than that.”

“Really, seems like only one of us is throwin’ a fit about this,” Ruda said, grinning. “Didn’t do so good, didja, Arquin?”

He huffed and folded his arms sullenly, crumpling his report in the process. “I don’t wanna talk about it.”

Ruda cackled. The others continued alternately to read over their reports and work on the remains of lunch in relative quiet. The atmosphere in the cafeteria as a whole mirrored that at the freshman table; somewhat subdued, as students studied the results of exams and finished meals, with here and there outbursts of dismay (mostly relating to the former) and exultation. Beneath the distracted quiet and the periodic upsets, there was a feeling of anticipatory excitement in the air. Classes were over, tests administered, and a few free days remained before the senior class’s graduation and the ensuing mass exodus of the student body for summer break.

“How’d you fare, then?” Gabriel pointedly asked Ruda, who had been busy eating, seemingly unconcerned with such trivialities as her grades. She had only just pushed away her empty plate and opened the folder in which her academic results waited.

“Not bad. Good marks. In Tellwyrn’s exam…huh,” she mused, studying the report sheet. “I passed.”

“Excuse me, you what?” Juniper demanded, setting down her spoon.

“What do you mean you passed?” Gabriel exclaimed. “Nobody passes the freshman history exam. That’s the point!”

“The assignment was to propose and defend a plan to achieve world peace,” Trissiny added, staring at her roommate. “If it could be done, it would have been done. How in heaven’s name…”

“Well, I got to thinking about what peace really means, and how it can be achieved,” Ruda mused, her eyes darting over her report and Tellwyrn’s commentary. “So I laid out an eleven-step plan to obliterate all sentient life on the mortal, divine and infernal planes. I got an academic award.” She turned the page. “…and a notice from Tellwyrn that I’ve been added to some kind of Imperial watch list. Neat! Wait’ll I tell Papa!”

“I desperately want to be surprised by this turn of events,” said Gabriel, shaking his head. “But…it just isn’t there.”

Trissiny grunted. “You don’t have to sleep in a room with her.”

A sudden, bone-chilling wail of agony tore through the room, catapulting students to their feet and all but physically turning them toward its source.

At the table currently occupied by the sophomore class, November Stark had bolted straight upright, howling in pain. In fact, her posture was so erect it was nearly unnatural, right up to the neck, beyond which her head lolled as if she were suspended from a noose. As everyone stared in shock, she rose still higher, till her feet left the floor.

A golden corona flickered to life around November, but an erratic, lopsided one, faltering in multiple places as if the power she was drawing on were being leeched away. In the glow, however, a shadow appeared. It was only a vague shape, but it roughly mirrored that of her own body, only larger. The discoloration, revealed where her divine glow exposed it, seemed to encase her like a cocoon, or to be trying to.

“Something’s got her!” Chase shouted, scrabbling among the silverware on the table as if looking for a weapon.

Tanq and Natchua both grabbed November by the legs, trying to pull her back down; almost immediately he went staggering back with a cry of pain. The drow gritted her teeth, clinging doggedly even as a more visible curl of shadow extended, wrapping around her upper body. All around the room, golden light sprang up as nearly every divinely-gifted student in the cafeteria called up power.

“Stop! No blessings!”

Vadrieny’s choral voice froze everyone, even as another shriek of pain tore itself from November’s throat. The archdemon flared her wings once, propelling herself forward; in a single, enormous leap, she shot across the cafeteria, planting her talons on the sophomore table and reaching out to grab November by the throat. Her enormous claws completely encircled the young woman’s neck. Vadrieny forcibly hauled November and her attacker closer, opened her mouth to fully display her complement of fangs, and screamed.

Everyone reeled backward, clapping hands over their ears; several of the elven students cried out in pain. After two seconds of the noise, the plate glass windows lining the south wall of the cafeteria shattered, followed by glasses and plates all across the room.

And then, another voice joined the screaming. Not as loud as Vadrieny’s, but somehow more terrible; it wasn’t so much a physical sound as a rending vibration through existence itself all around them.

The shadow faded to full visibility, and finally relinquished its victim. Drifting backward from the archdemon, it lost cohesion and shot upward in a cloud of smoke, vanishing into the ceiling.

Vadrieny broke off her cry, carefully catching November before the girl could fall to the ground.

“Healers!” she exclaimed, sweeping the mess of dishes and papers off the table with one clawed foot and lowering November to its surface. Natchua, who hadn’t let go the entire time, helped arrange her, quickly assisted by Hildred. Students began stepping forward through the mess of shattered crockery.

“Back up, all of you!” Professor Tellwyrn ordered, stalking forward from the cafeteria doors. “Clear a space there. Yes, that means you, Warwick. Move.”

At her furious direction, the students shifted back, making an opening near the head of the table on which November was now lying unconscious. Tellwyrn pointed there, and with a soft pop, Taowi Sunrunner materialized in the space. She had clearly been sitting down and staggered, but with characteristic elven agility regained her balance and straightened up, her eyes immediately falling on November.

“What happened?” she demanded, shooing Vadrieny and Natchua aside and bending over the fallen girl’s head.

“Gnagrethyct attack,” Tellwyrn said tersely.

Miss Sunrunner jerked her head up, staring at her in shock, but only for a split second, then was bending over November again, carefully running her fingers over the patient’s head and the sides of her neck.

“W-w-what?” Hildred croaked, ashen-faced.

“Gnagrethycts are also called priestkillers,” Tellwyrn explained, raising her voice slightly to be heard by all those present. Behind her, Vadrieny withdrew, leaving Teal looking shaken until Shaeine approached to take her hand. “They have the gift of transmuting divine and to a lesser extent other types of energy into infernal. A living insult to the Circle of Interaction. Miss Stark was extremely lucky today; about the only thing a gnagrethyct does not want to mess with is a bigger, meaner demon. All your blessings would only have killed her faster. Had Vadrieny not been here, we would be dealing with a corpse.”

“Where did it go?” demanded one of the soon-to-graduate seniors. Several students immediately directed their eyes to the patch of ceiling into which the gnagrethyct had vanished.

“A pertinent question indeed,” Tellwyrn said grimly. “I’m more curious right now about where it came from. Gnagrethycts do not bumble about the mortal plane indiscriminately. These are favored and rare servants of Elilial. There are only nine in existence—”

“Seven,” Teal interrupted.

Tellwyrn turned to stare at her, and the bard’s cheeks colored. “Um…sorry. Go on.”

“As I was saying,” Tellwyrn continued, finally tearing her piercing gaze away from Teal, “these are powerful demons which are very seldom seen. I have made my own arrangements to ensure that Elilial does not personally encroach upon this campus, which means that thing is here because one of you little bastards summoned it. And that means somebody has gotten neck-deep into something they absolutely should not have.” She panned a grim stare around the assembled student body. “Look, kids. I didn’t assemble the best and brightest destructive troublemakers in the Empire onto one mountaintop without expecting some seriously twisted shit to occur from time to time. I’m a reasonable woman—Avelea, if I turn around and see that you’ve opened your mouth—good. I’m a reasonable woman, and I’ll deal with this reasonably. Meaning, if the person responsible for this comes to me and explains what happened, how, and why, I will do what is necessary to clean it up without being a whit more vindictive than the situation absolutely demands. If, however, I have to chase down the culprit, she or he will be treated as a traitor and enemy to this campus and a threat to the students under my protection. People who fall under that description learn things about pain that none of you possess a sufficient frame of reference to adequately fear. Is that understood?”

The students stared back in silence, several unwilling to meet her icy stare.

“Yes, ma’am!” Chase said loudly, saluting. Tellwyrn gave him a sour look before turning back to the campus healer.

“Taowi, how is she?”

“Weak,” Miss Sunrunner replied immediately. She had her eyes closed and one hand resting on November’s forehead, concentrating. “No worse than that, as best I can tell. I detect only the most minor physical damage, and no infernal corruption worth noting. This is a case without precedent, Arachne; not a lot of people have been attacked by gnagrethycts, and this is the first survivor ever, to my knowledge. I will learn more when she wakes, but for now, this seems very like a bad case of mana fatigue. The best cure would be rest.”

“Good,” Tellwyrn said tersely, nodding. “Commandeer any of these layabouts for any assistance you need. Falconer! Come along, I want a word with you.”

She turned and strode toward the cafeteria’s side exit, students parting before her in silence. Teal sighed, glanced nervously back at her fellow freshmen, and followed.

Behind and around the building, everywhere except for the glass-walled (and currently unwalled) south face looking over the lawn, ran an open-sided but roofed walkway, shady and pleasantly cool in the summer weather. It was also relatively private; along the western side, it overlooked a small drop to a decorative pond, beyond which was a sunken garden and then only the exterior wall of the University grounds, separating them from a plunge to the prairie far below. Tellwyrn led the way to the halfway point of this stretch of colonnade, then turned.

She gave Shaeine, who had silently followed, a long look, then grimaced, shook her head and turned to Teal. “All right, out with it.”

Teal glanced at Shaeine and then back at Tellwyrn. “Professor?”

“Falconer, my patience for nonsense is even lower than usual at this moment. That demon of yours is supposed to be amnesiac. First I find that someone has summoned one of Elilial’s own servants onto my campus, which not just any warlock could do at the best of times. And then you start spouting specific and hitherto unknown tactical information about the forces of Hell. Believe me, if there were any record on the mortal plane of two of the gnagrethycts having been lost, I’d have heard of it. None of them have been here in six centuries. Vadrieny’s memories starting to return would be a serious concern under any circumstances. Right now, it’s officially a problem.”

Teal’s eyes had progressively widened as she spoke. She shifted her gaze to the near distance, apparently focusing inward; Tellwyrn gave her a moment of quiet, crossing her arms and drumming her fingers against her sleeve impatiently.

“She…doesn’t know,” Teal said finally. “It’s like…common knowledge. Not anything with a personal meaning attached.”

“Mm,” Tellwyrn grunted. “In fiction, retrograde amnesia which deletes personal memories while leaving general knowledge intact is a common enough plot device. In reality, that’s something that technically could happen but pretty much never does, because that is not how brain damage works. Such effects generally only occur as a result of magical manipulation, where someone imposed them deliberately. So even if Vadrieny’s memories are not starting to spontaneously return… This isn’t a good sign.”

“I understand,” Teal said seriously. “But, Professor… Even if Vadrieny’s memory came back, it’s not as if she would suddenly return fully to what she was. She and I are too integrated… And even with the restored memory of her old life, the new one isn’t nothing. I don’t think it would be as simple as her just…reverting to a destructive demon.”

Tellwyrn sighed, turned, and began to slowly stroll along the colonnade. Both girls fell into step behind her. “That’s all well and good… But I’m left with the question of just who the hell has been summoning powerful demons onto my campus. It has to be an initiate of the University itself; the geas on these grounds would stop most warlocks and alert me to any powerful enough to beat it. Initiates necessarily occupy a blind spot, as I can’t come running every time a student casts a spell around here. For the record, Teal, I do believe you. However, until this matter is cleared up one way or another, Vadrieny has to remain a suspect.”

“I get it,” Teal said softly. “I guess I’ll…work extra hard to keep away from demonic influences then.”

“That is what you should do to deflect suspicion,” Tellwyrn said slowly. “But…I’m not sure that’s the most important priority right now. If Vadrieny looks to be regaining her past, for whatever reason, it’s probably best that this happen on her own terms, and yours, rather than according to the plans of whoever sent her here.”

“I cannot believe that having Vadrieny research demonology would yield a positive result,” Shaeine said quietly.

“Not demonology,” Tellwyrn retorted with some asperity. “Demonic history, though, is another thing. I’m sure you were told the basics by the Church, but we have things in the archives here that they don’t show to people, and even a few they may not have. I’ll instruct Crystal to help you.”

“That…actually, I think that would be good for her,” Teal said slowly. “We’re doing pretty well, making friends and connections here, but it’s hard for her, having no hint of where she comes from. I mean…someone could be missing her, you know? I don’t know how they do things in Hell, but surely even demons have families.”

Tellwyrn abruptly came to a halt and pivoted to stare at her, wide-eyed. Both girls stopped, Teal’s expression growing nervous under the elf’s uncharacteristic look of shock.

“Professor?” she said uncertainly.

Tellwyrn’s voice was quiet. “You don’t…know?”

“I, uh… What don’t I know?”

“I never imagined… You spent months with the Universal Church. You were personally examined by several deities. They didn’t tell you?”

“What are we talking about?” Teal demanded.

Tellwyrn shook her head slowly, still staring at her. “Teal, I… I’m sorry. It was never my intention to keep it from you… The thought simply never crossed my mind that you hadn’t been told. The Church has buried a lot of records, but it’s not unknown. It doesn’t make sense; they had to expect you would find out sooner or later. I thought even Trissiny might know, given her upbringing…but I guess not, if you’re still in the dark. That girl can no more keep her mouth shut than she could punch the moon.”

“Professor,” Shaeine said sharply, “the dramatic suspense grows excessive.”

Tellwyrn pulled off her spectacles and polished them on her sleeve, dropping her gaze from Teal’s. “Vadrieny is a known figure, Teal. She’s been on the mortal plane before, and made quite an impression every time. I’ve not personally encountered her before you came along, but I was alive for quite a few of those incidents. We know exactly where she comes from, and who she is.”

“What?!” Teal exclaimed, stiffening. “You do? How can… Wait, the Church knows this?”

“The Church, the Wreath, the Empire… It’s sort of classified, but not very. Kept out of the general public’s eye, but any Nemitite in a central temple could probably dig up the records if you asked them.”

“How is that…” Teal trailed off and she swallowed heavily. “They never said a thing about it. Well, who is she, then?”

Tellwyrn stared at her in silence for a moment as if gathering her thoughts, then sighed and put her glasses back on. “Vadrieny is one of the seven daughters of Elilial.”

It took Teal a long few moments to close her mouth, swallow, and manage a whispered reply. “What?”

“This is beyond ridiculous,” Tellwyrn muttered, frowning into space. “Especially after you were sent here. What the hell is Justinian playing at? He can’t possibly have expected it would be kept a secret from you forever.”

“She…has a family?” Teal asked, her voice trembling. “You said seven daughters? She has sisters?”

Tellwyrn looked back at her, then closed her eyes and shook her head slowly. “Ugh… I really am the worst possible person to deliver news like this…”

“Just spit it out!” Teal snapped.

The Professor sighed. “Teal… We’ve identified all the attack sites. Seven occurred simultaneously, Vadrieny’s possession of you and six other identical attempts. You…were the only one who managed to integrate the demon.”

“No,” Teal whispered. Shaeine stepped close, wrapping an arm around her.

“I have since had personal confirmation from Elilial,” Tellwyrn said quietly. “The other girls perished. The demons, too, in the attempt. Vadrieny…is the last. I’m sorry.”

Teal pulled roughly away from Shaeine, hunching forward and clutching her head. The sound that emerged from her was not one a human throat could have produced.

“Love, please.” Shaeine said urgently. “You are not alone.”

Vadrieny emerged in a rush, claws gouging deep rents in the stone floor. Her wings fanned out behind her, barely missing Shaeine. “Please,” she rasped. “I need…just let me…”

The demon clenched her teeth, then suddenly threw back her head and let out a long wail of anguish. In the next moment, she had staggered to the side, out from under the roof, and shot skyward.

Shaeine clenched her fists at her sides. “I don’t disagree, Professor,” she said tightly. “You are the worst possible person to deliver news like that.”

Tellwyrn sighed again. “She’ll be all right.”

The drow slowly turned to stare at her. “In what possible manner do you think she will be all right?”

“Do not get snippy with me, miss. I didn’t say it would be quick or easy. But yes, she will heal. People do, you know. And she’s not alone. She’ll be less alone when she calms down enough to talk with you about it, but even now, she has Teal. I have faith in them both.”

The Professor turned and set off toward the front of the building, her forehead creased in a frown.

“You do?” Shaeine asked quietly, following. “Just moments ago you were suggesting she was guilty of summoning demons.”

“Look at it this way, Miss Awarrion: I can either have faith in Teal, or put her down like a rabid animal. Which would you prefer?” Tellwyrn shook her head. “Anyhow, as I said at the time, I don’t seriously consider them suspects in this, though they logically have to remain such on paper. Neither has the aptitude for such skullduggery. Vadrieny has always been something of a brute, and Teal… Well, I’ve rarely met a bard so straightforwardly ethical, let me put it that way.” Abruptly she stopped, lifting her head. “…do you feel that?”

The ground shook from the impact of Vadrieny landing a few feet away, in front of the cafeteria.

“Well,” said Tellwyrn, “that was fast. Feeling any—”

“No,” the archdemon said curtly, “but my problems are not the center of the universe. There’s something you need to see.” She pointed one long, curving talon skyward.

Tellwyrn stepped out from under the roof, turning and craning her head to look. Shaeine followed suit, even as she pressed herself against Vadrieny’s side, wrapping an arm around her waist. They weren’t the only ones there; students had begun to trickle out of the damaged cafeteria, several already looking upward. Most of the rest did likewise, to see what so commanded everyone’s attention.

“No,” Tellwyrn whispered. “Damn it, no.”

It was a very standard sort of day for the region—clear, but windy, with puffs of white cloud scudding rapidly across the sky. Except that now, they seemed to have halted in their course and begun to swirl around a central point directly above the University, rather like water going down a drain. The broad spiral of white vapor was already wider than the mountain, slowly revolving and shifting in size as more clouds were caught in it.

Professors Rafe and Ezzaniel stepped up next to Tellwyrn, having evidently been inside the cafeteria. Ezzaniel remained silent; Rafe muttered something in elvish.

“Yeah,” Tellwyrn agreed quietly, then placed a fingertip against her throat. In the next moment, her voice boomed across the entire mountain, audible in every room on the campus. “All students and faculty will immediately assemble on the lawn outside the cafeteria. This is an emergency. Do not use any kind of teleportation, nor attempt to access any bag of holding or other dimensional storage. There is an effect active over the mountain which makes any kind of portal magic extremely dangerous.” She removed her finger, turning to the two professors, and spoke in a normal voice. “You two, get down to the town pronto. Emilio, go to the scrolltower office and contact the Empire. Hold nothing back; we need help, immediately. Admestus, speak with Sheriff Sanders, have him pass the word on to the mayor. Last Rock needs to be evacuated. Within hours, as soon as it can be done. Go.”

“Evacuated?” Ruda demanded stridently, stomping up to her as the two men nodded and dashed off toward the stairs down the mountain. “What the fuck is the big crisis? What’s going on with those clouds? Is that swirly thing dangerous? Doesn’t look like any storm I’ve ever seen; a cyclone would be moving a hell of a lot faster and this isn’t typhoon country.”

“That swirly thing,” Tellwyrn said grimly, “is the result of air pressure equalizing across a rift between two different atmospheres. As for why it’s dangerous, Punaji, look at the expressions of any of your classmates who can sense infernal energy. That, kids, is a brand-new hellgate.”

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3 – 7

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There were fourteen persons in the current sophomore class, and most days on which classes were held, the majority of them arrived early enough to have breakfast in the dining hall. So did the seniors, Toby and Gabriel and the three soldiers. The junior class rarely showed, nor did the girls of Clarke Tower. The freshman girls usually awoke to a fresh breakfast prepared by Janis. What arrangement the juniors had, Trissiny had never inquired; student housing on the campus was apparently somewhat idiosyncratic.

She replied to Toby’s welcoming smile with a nod, but didn’t pause as she passed his table, heading straight for the sophomores.

They were grouped around two tables, one circular and one rectangular, and her target sat at the latter. By happenstance or design the ten students seated there had arranged themselves with the girls on one side and boys on the other, and it was the girls who had a view of the door and the approaching paladin. Two of them, whom Trissiny didn’t know, watched her warily, but November gave her a brilliant smile, Hildred a cheerful wave, and Natchua narrowed her eyes.

Most of the boys she didn’t know either—Tanq apparently hadn’t come to breakfast this morning—but several turned to see who was approaching, including Chase and Jerome.

Chase, exhibiting a typical lack of self-awareness, grinned broadly at her. “Well! The prodigal paladin. I hope you enjoyed your little jaunt, kiddo. Tellwyrn’s gonna scrub out her sink with your scalp.”

Jerome was watching her with more appropriate wariness. Trissiny came to a stop by their table, pulled a libram from her largest belt pouch and carefully extracted the envelope that had been tucked into its cover for safekeeping. She held this out to Jerome.

“This is for you,” she said, “from your father.”

His eyes narrowed to slits. Across the table, Hildred covered her mouth with a hand, eyes wide; Natchua actually grinned faintly. “Why,” Jerome asked in a tightly controlled voice, “do you have a letter from my father?”

“I expect the contents will explain that,” she replied calmly, still holding it out. After staring at her for a long moment, he finally reached out and took it.

Not waiting to see any further reactions, Trissiny turned and left the dining hall.


 

“Hello, Trissiny.”

“Oh! Hi, Shaeine,” she replied, somewhat startled at being approached. She had been lost in her thoughts. It had been a mostly average morning with a few moments of tension, such as when Tellwyrn opened history class by giving her a blistering look. But no one had asked prying questions and even Tellwyrn hadn’t said anything further. Trissiny didn’t doubt for a moment that retribution for flouting the campus rules was coming; in fact, she was starting to wonder if stretching out the anticipation like this was part of the punishment. That would be exactly like Tellwyrn.

Now, in the lull between Intro to Magic and their lunch period, Shaeine had caught up with her on a winding path which Trissiny had selected specifically because it was a long route to nowhere and gave her time to think.

“Was your mission successful?” the drow inquired politely.

“Partially,” she said. “I had an unexpected interruption, and… I’m sort of stymied on half of what I set out to accomplish. But I did get some of it done.”

“I am glad to hear that much, at least.” Shaiene produced a small rectangular box from within the folds of her robe. “I have something for you.”

“For me?” Nonplussed, Trissiny accepted the box and lifted its lid. Nestled within was a folding knife. A remarkably thick one. “My goodness,” she said, carefully extracting it. “How many blades does this have?”

“Two, of different sizes. Most of those attachments are tools of various kinds. It has tweezers, bottle and can openers, scissors, a magnifying lens and several other items whose purpose I do not understand. Apparently these are manufactured in the dwarven kingdoms, and becoming quite popular among gnomish adventurers. You like useful things; I saw this in a shop in town and thought it would suit you well.”

“That’s…incredibly thoughtful,” Trissiny said, raising her eyes from the utility knife to Shaeine’s serene face. “You really shouldn’t have. How much do I owe you?”

Shaeine raised her eyebrows a fraction of an inch, then smiled faintly, permitting a touch of ruefulness into her expression. “Ah…forgive me, I failed to express myself clearly. That is a gift.”

“It is?” Trissiny’s response might have been less than polite, but she was startled. “Why? What’s the occasion?”

Shaeine glanced to the side for a moment as if marshaling her thoughts. “I must ask your pardon if I trespass upon a sensitive subject; I assure you it is inadvertent, if so. I know you have had a stressful time recently.”

“You…could say that.”

She nodded. “I have observed that Imperial customs favor feasting, gatherings of loved ones and gift-giving on celebratory occasions, and largely symbolic gestures and platitudes when someone has been hurt. Among my people, it is much the opposite. A friend’s most troubled moments are seen as the appropriate time to remind them that they are valued. And kind words do only so much.”

“I see,” she said slowly, feeling a smile stretch unbidden across her face. “Thank you.” Her voice was soft, but full of feeling.

Shaeine nodded at her, and for once that polite little smile of hers didn’t seem standoffish. “Perhaps it is a failure on my part to adapt to local customs, but I cannot help feeling that in this instance, the Narisian way is the wiser.”

“I’d never thought about it, but now that you bring it up I think you have a point.” Trissiny turned the knife over in her hand silently for a moment. “Is it… Are you badly stressed by how things are up here? You left the party so early, I was concerned.”

The drow tilted her head, considering, and began moving at a slow pace; Trissiny fell into step beside her. “I would not claim that my culture shock is worse than yours,” she said at last, “but the particular nature of it may impact me more directly. Among my people, reserve is cultivated from early childhood primarily as a measure of respect for others. We live in very close quarters, and it can be stressful indeed to cope with the feelings of everyone around you, constantly pressed in upon your awareness. In Tar’naris, emotional openness is practiced between family members and occasionally other intimates. Among friends, colleagues and particularly strangers, we seek not to impose the weight of our feelings on others.”

“I see,” she said. That actually explained quite a bit.

Shaeine nodded. “Everything is so much louder and more open here; even still, I find myself constantly startled by the frankness of those around me. Yet, there is much more space in which we can spread out, so the pressure is mitigated somewhat. That party, though… It was an enclosed space filled with loud talk, laughter and a general…letting go of inhibitions. The proximity to so much feeling began very quickly to be an almost tangible pressure to me.”

“I’m sorry,” she said automatically.

“Please do not be, you’ve done no wrong. Nor did anyone else there. I suppose I am rather a poor diplomat, to be coming to terms with this culture so slowly.”

“I wouldn’t dismiss yourself that easily,” Trissiny protested. “It’s only been a couple of months. You’re already the most even-natured and understanding person I know.”

“I appreciate that very much.”

“So…are you empathic, then? Is that typical for drow?”

“No more than the average person anywhere, I suspect,” she said with a smile. “Merely unaccustomed to certain kinds of emotional expression. And, more to the point, certain volumes thereof.”

Trissiny nodded slowly. “With everything I learn about Narisian culture, I feel like I understand you a little better and Natchua a little less.”

“I have had the converse experience. With exposure to Imperial life, I am constantly gaining insights into my own culture that reflect its imperfections. Yet, I feel I’m developing an understanding of my cousin that I initially lacked.”

“You made it sound as if all the fuss and prattle up here was almost painful for drow.”

“I would draw a distinction between Narisians and drow in general. The Scyllithene drow are far more aggressive than any human I have ever met. As for pain…” She tilted her head, mulling. “Perhaps…in the way that slipping into a very cold pool is uncomfortable at first. Very quickly, it becomes bracing. At home I would never dream of revealing every thought or feeling that passed across my mind; it would be the height of disrespect to those around me, making them deal with my emotions on top of their own. But here, where everyone does exactly that and is accustomed to coping with it, where I might relax myself with the assurance that it is harming no one to do so… Well, I have begun to understand why Natchua has so fervently embraced Imperial life.”

“Yet you don’t, and she does.”

“Because I am more than my own desires. I am a representative of Tar’naris and House Awarrion; my conduct reflects upon my mother, my people and my queen. I would not dream of disappointing them. Besides, even as I grow to recognize that my culture has its flaws, it remains mine, the way of life in which I am invested. I feel no desire to show a lack of respect for it.”

Trissiny nodded. “I’ve been feeling much the same, in some ways. Strangely liberated, yet…focused.”

“Oh?” Shaeine raised an eyebrow.

To her own surprise, Trissiny laughed softly. “I’m half elf. Who would have thought it?”

“I suspected; you have the aspect, and it has been my impression that a typical human even in excellent shape would balk and running down and up the mountain stairs in full armor every morning. I saw neither opportunity nor reason to broach the subject, though.”

“Yes, a lot of things are suddenly making sense to me in hindsight. And at first I was… Scared, and upset, because it felt like I no longer knew who I was. But… I’ve come to see that as a blessing.”

Shaeine was silent as they walked, her head slightly tilted toward Trissiny to show her attention. After a moment spent gathering her thoughts, the paladin continued.

“Ever since Avei called me, I’ve felt the weight of expectations. It was like I couldn’t afford to be flawed any more. Everything I did reflected upon her, and the thought of letting her down was just…unbearable.”

“I doubt Avei would call any mortal to her service if she expected flawlessness.”

“Which I can understand intellectually,” she said, nodding, “but feeling it was a different matter. It doesn’t even make sense, really. This revelation has no bearing at all on my calling, but it’s somehow freeing. I’m not that girl I thought I was. I’ve been so wrong about something so pivotal, it’s like I’ve rediscovered the prerogative to be wrong. And,” she added, wincing, “in hindsight I keep finding things I’ve been wrong about, that I wouldn’t back down from because to retreat, any retreat, felt like failing my goddess.”

“Perhaps you should not discount the chance that she has had a hand in events,” Shaeine suggested. “It may be that this is her way of opening your mind.”

“That has occurred to me. Of course, it’s not the kind of thing you can up and ask a deity. They don’t generally seem inclined to explain themselves.”

“I have noticed that,” Shaeine said dryly.

“Trissiny!”

Trissiny managed not to wince at being called. November Stark was approaching them rapidly, wearing a bright smile. “Hi, November. Have a good weekend?”

“Hail and well met, Hand of Avei!” To Trissiny’s horror, she stopped and dropped to one knee, bowing her head. “I pray your mission met with success!”

“Please don’t do that!” Trissiny said in alarm, resisting the urge to grab the girl and drag her upright. “We don’t kneel. A Sister would salute a superior officer, but even the High Commander doesn’t get more than that.”

“Oh…ah, of course.” November bounced back upright, raised a hand and then let it hang in midair as if uncertain what to do with it. “Um, how do… I mean, what’s the proper way…”

“You don’t,” Trissiny said firmly. “You’re not a Legionnaire or even in the Sisterhood. Lay Avenists don’t owe me anything but basic courtesy.”

“That can’t be!” November insisted, staring ardently at her. “You’re the Hand of Avei, the chosen representative of our goddess on this world. Surely some show of respect—”

“Courtesy,” she interrupted, “is plenty of respect. Avenists don’t grovel or subjugate themselves. Even the goddess doesn’t demand that. Really, November, you’re overthinking it. Just be yourself.”

“I can do that,” she said, nodding eagerly, and Trissiny held back a sigh.

The Sisters of Avei prized discipline, order and clear thinking above mysticism and blind faith. These were the priorities their goddess encouraged. As a result, the cult didn’t tend to attract fanatics, and Trissiny had rarely met any. Mother Narny had told her that such women nearly always came from a background of some kind of abuse and desperately needed something to believe in. As such, she remained as patient and positive as she could with November, no matter how uncomfortable the girl made her.

“November, have you met Shaeine?” she said, seizing upon a distraction. “Shaeine nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion, this is November Stark.”

“Pleasure,” November said distractedly, barely glancing at the drow before returning her gaze to Trissiny. There was an almost worshipful light in her eyes that the paladin found unsettling.

“The honor is mine,” Shaeine replied politely, despite the fact the person to whom she was being introduced was no longer paying her any mind, then she, too, returned her attention to Trissiny. “I must say that surprised me. I do not recall introducing myself by Narisian honorifics on this campus.”

“I looked it up,” she explained a little self-consciously. “It’s seemed to me you don’t get as much respect around here as you deserve… And maybe I still feel a little guilty about almost drawing steel on you when we first met.”

“I see,” the drow said quietly, then gave Trissiny one of those rare smiles that had real feeling behind it. “That was extremely thoughtful. You even got it right. I have been incorrectly addressed by members of the Imperial diplomatic corps on multiple occasions.”

“Oh, good, I was worried about that. I did my best, but you guys have a lot of honorifics and I’m none too sure I understand the hierarchies they all apply to.”

“Trissiny’s very considerate,” November said somewhat loudly. She was looking at Shaeine now, and her expression held tension verging on hostility. “You should see her in our divinity class.”

Trissiny was trying to recall what she’d done in divinity class that was particularly considerate when she was addressed by someone else to whom she really did not want to talk.

“Hey, Trissiny!” Gabriel called, strolling over to them. “Hi, Shaeine. Ms. Stark, good to see you,” he added almost deferentially, actually bowing his head. Despite herself, Trissiny felt amusement bubbling up. He really didn’t want to provoke November, and she couldn’t say he was wrong in that. It raised the question of what he wanted to urgently that he was willing to risk it.

“Gabriel,” she said calmly in unison with Shaeine’s greeting. November just stared at him through narrowed eyes.

“Sorry to bother you, I won’t be long,” he said almost hurriedly, “but this is the first time I’ve caught you since Friday, and I wanted to ask you something.”

“Yes?”

“Well, y’know that fighting practice you do with Teal and Ruda in the mornings?”

“Yes, I know it,” she said carefully. “How do you?”

“It’s…sort of interesting to the gossip mill around here,” he said with a wince. “I was just wondering, I mean… If it’s a girls only thing, that’s fine, I won’t bother you, I know how it is with Avenists sometimes. But if not, would you mind if I tagged along?”

“You?” Her eyebrows shot up. “Why?”

“Well, in case you haven’t noticed in class…and I’m pretty sure you have…I kind of suck at fighting,” he said, grinning ruefully. “And you’re the best one in the class. If you’re teaching people anyway… I mean, if it’s not too much trouble, I’d really like to benefit from your experience.”

She stared at him blankly for a moment, and he actually took a step back.

“Hey, if not, that’s fine, I don’t want to be a bother. It was just a—”

“You’re coaching other students in hand-to-hand combat?” November burst out, her eyes practically shining.

Trissiny pressed down a sudden urge to slug Gabriel on general principles.

“YOU!” Jerome roared, stalking toward her from the bend in the path up ahead. In his fist was clutched a crumpled sheet of paper.

“You are extremely popular of late,” Shaeine commented quietly.

“This one, at least, I was expecting,” Trissiny replied in the same soft tone. That was all she managed before Jerome stomped right up to her, brandishing the letter.

“You fucking bitch, you got me disinherited!”

“Uh…not your best approach, man,” Gabriel said carefully.

“I think you will find,” Trissiny replied calmly, “you got yourself disinherited. The matter is probably explained in some detail in that missive.”

“Because of you!” he snarled, wagging the crumpled letter in her face so rapidly she wouldn’t have had a chance of reading it, even had she been so inclined. “If you hadn’t stuck your fucking nose in—”

“How dare you!” November shot back, matching his tone for ferocity. “Do you have any idea who you’re talking to?!”

“November, I can handle this,” Trissiny said firmly, stepping to one side to place herself between the two sophomores.

“Oh, yeah, you just love handling things,” Jerome raged. “Are you fucking happy now? Does this make you feel powerful, you fucking cunt?”

Gabriel winced. “Oh, Jerry…no.”

“Your parents were absolutely crushed when I spoke to them,” Trissiny said, holding tightly to her calm. “Devastated to learn you had attempted to force yourself on a female classmate, and humiliated at having to hear about it from me.”

“You—”

“What they were not,” she went on loudly, “was surprised. They have a portrait of you in their formal parlor, Jerome. Hunting trophies displayed with your name on them. I could see touches of you all over the house; it wasn’t the home of heartless people who would cast aside their son at the first report of wrongdoing on his part. This has been building for some time, hasn’t it? I wonder what else you’ve done that has been a disappointment to your House?”

“How dare you—”

“You will note that you are, as of receipt of this letter, disinherited. Not disowned. It seems to me your family is leaving open the door for you to redeem yourself. There is no time like the present to start.”

He gaped at her, fishlike, opening and closing his mouth, before finding words. They came out in a strangled screech. “Do you have any idea who I am?!”

“You’re some guy,” Trissiny said evenly, “without the backing of a powerful House, who is getting aggressive with the Hand of Avei. Tell me, in what scenario does this end well for you?”

Jerome glared at her, quivering with impotent rage. Finally he stuffed the letter into his pocket and spat, “Whore,” before turning to stomp away.

“The boy just doesn’t learn,” Gabriel said wonderingly.

“Gabriel.” She turned to face him, and he actually shied back from her. “I’m sorry.”

Gabe blinked twice, then glance at Shaeine and November, as if for clarification, before returning his attention to Trissiny. “I, uh… You what, now?”

“For my role in our altercation,” she said. “I acted wrongly, and owe you an apology.”

“Oh. That.” He managed a weak grin, waving her off. “Well, I pretty much started the whole stupid thing, so…”

“Yes, you did,” she agreed, nodding, “but I escalated it to violence. That was both foolish and morally wrong. So, I am sorry. Especially for that, and also for being so stubborn. I should have apologized weeks ago.”

“Water under the bridge.” He seemed to have regained some of his equanimity. “I’ll forget about it if you will.”

“I’d like that.” She managed a smile.

“That’s so kind of you,” November whispered in something like awe.

Trissiny was spared having to reply to that by the arrival of Professor Tellwyrn out of thin air with a soft pop.

“Ah, there you are,” she said grimly. “My office, Trissiny.”

“Right,” she said resignedly. “Let me just—”

“I was informing you, not instructing you.” There came a second pop and she vanished, this time taking Trissiny with her.


 

She reappeared in the familiar office, off to one side of the room. Chase and Jerome were already present, the latter looking shocked as well as furious; they had evidently been collected as abruptly as Trissiny. Chase, as usual, seemed delightedly intrigued, as if everything going on had been arranged for his amusement.

Tellwyrn seated herself behind her desk, folded her hands on top of it, and glared at them over her spectacles.

“Well. What a busy weekend we’ve all had.”

“Best kind!” Chase said brightly.

“Shut up. I’ve held off dealing with this to find out what Miss Avelea was up to in Tiraas. Yes, Trissiny, I know where you were, and you’d better believe I could have retrieved you, had I been so inclined. I determined this was not necessary, and indeed things have played out in…a marginally satisfactory fashion. Jerome is already somewhat chastened, in a fashion I find rather satisfying. That was impressively quick research, by the way. How did you manage it in the course of one weekend?”

“The Nemitite clerics in Tiraas seemed quite eager to be of service. It appears there are Imperial records on everything. The bureaucracy is daunting, but professional guidance gets one through it quite quickly.”

“Then I’m sure you discovered that no one cares enough about the doings or fate of Chase Masterson to take an interest in the matter.” Across the room, Chase grinned brightly at them. “I wonder, how did your meeting with the Shaathist monastery in which he was raised go?”

“I didn’t bother,” Trissiny admitted. “Shaathists would be as likely to greet me with arrows as agree to a meeting, and anyway, the Huntsman who filed Chase’s final reports quite specifically indicated their order had no further interest in him.” She glanced coolly over at Chase, earning another grin in reply.

Tellwyrn shook her head. “In one respect, I find I’m rather proud of you. Rather than going for your sword, you found a pretty graceful way to dispense justice.”

“Thank you,” Trissiny said.

“Don’t get too comfortable,” Tellwyrn said grimly. “You are still in trouble.”

“I assumed as much.”

“Good, then you’re doing better than these two.” The Professor shifted her stare to the boys. “As I see it, we have two big problems here: First and foremost, you don’t seem to grasp the seriousness of what you’ve done. As a disturbing bonus, you don’t understand the stupidity of it.”

“What we did?!” Jerome burst out. “We were just flirting with the dryad, there’s no need for—”

“I WILL INFORM YOU WHEN YOU MAY SPEAK.”

Tellwyrn’s voice filled the room so thoroughly the framed pictures on the walls rattled. She had to have been using magic. For a moment, she allowed silence to reign, then continued.

“To begin with, you will both research and present to me five-page annotated papers on the known habits of dryads. By the end of this, you will at the very least understand how close you came on Friday night to an exceedingly grisly fate. That leaves the first and greater of my concerns: your disdain for the severity of this offense. Boys… It’s not just Avenists who get excited when you press your attentions on a woman who has indicated she doesn’t want them. That doesn’t go over well anywhere. I want you to consider that there were over a dozen elves in that building, all of whom could hear very well what was happening on the balcony, and every one of them—yours truly included—decided to let you antagonize the dryad and get reduced to a pile of giblets.”

“Giblets?” Chase said in a fascinated tone. “Juniper? You’re joking.”

“I think you’ll find your assigned research very enlightening. Back to the point, I’m in the position of almost regretting the responsibility I have for your welfare. When I find men acting this way at large in the world, I generally just teleport their skeletons three feet to the left and have done with it. Here…it seems I’ll have to find a better way to deal with you. Something…educational.”

She opened a drawer in her desk, reached in and pulled out a handful of glass vials, each stoppered and containing a murky purple liquid. Tellwyrn tossed one of these to Chase; he caught it reflexively.

“What’s all this, then?”

“Impotence.”

Chase jerked his gaze up to hers from his perusal of the tiny vial. “Um. Pardon?”

“You heard me,” Tellwyrn said with a hint of grim amusement. “That is an alchemical treatment which will, for a time, deny you the use of the organ which you’ve been allowing to make some of your decisions recently. It’s my hope that a month or so spent like that will give some of the blood time to redirect itself to your brain. You will report to Professor Rafe every evening immediately following your last class for your treatment until I say otherwise. Both of you.” She tossed another to Jerome, whose face had lapsed into morose sullenness.

For just a moment, Chase stared at her with something very like rage, before marshaling his expression so completely it almost seemed as if it had never been anything but affably unconcerned. “I see. That’s actually kind of clever. And, just hypothetically, if we…decline to drink this vial of voodoo?”

“Then I’ll have to find a less sophisticated way of punishing you,” Tellwyrn said sweetly. “Making use of whatever resources are available. And oh, look! I have a Hand of Avei right here. You can deal with me, boys, or you can deal with her.”

Chase glanced quickly back and forth between them, then actually chuckled. “Well then! I find this a poetic and very appropriate resolution to this little misunderstanding, and look forward to being properly chastened. Bottoms up!” He plucked the cork from the vial and swiftly drank down its contents, then raised his eyes in surprise. “Mm…not bad. Blackberry!”

“It’s flavored?!” Tellwyrn burst out before catching herself, then removing her spectacles to pinch at the bridge of her nose. “…Admestus. All right, you too, Lord Conover.”

Jerome looked for a moment as if he might try an outright rebellion right there in the office, but then his shoulders slumped defeatedly. Without a word, he uncorked and drank his vial.

“And that just leaves you, Avelea. I trust you understand why you are facing disciplinary action?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Trissiny said crisply. “Leaving the vicinity of Last Rock without permission is prohibited. I apologize for disrespecting your rules, Professor. It was a matter of my calling.”

“Well, you’ve got half of it. The other, and perhaps greater issue, is that you usurped my authority. I make the rules on this campus, Trissiny, and I enforce them. I may, as in cases exactly like this one, sometimes ask your assistance in dealing with certain matters, but that is up to my discretion. You do not take it upon yourself to deal out punishments for infractions of my rules at my University.” Her green eyes bored into Trissiny’s, their expression relentless. “I don’t care what is at stake or whose Hand you are. On this campus, I am god.”

A crack of thunder struck so close that the whole room rattled; all three of those standing before the desk jumped violently in startlement, then gaped at the windows behind Tellwyrn, which had the curtains drawn back to show a stunning view of the cloudless blue sky over the Golden Sea.

Professor Tellwyrn’s left eye twitched slightly. She tore off her glasses and tossed them down on the desk so hard they bounced, then stood, turned, opened the window, leaned out so far that her whole upper body was suspended over the drop down the cliff, and roared at the empty sky.

“YOU HEARD ME!”

Thunder rumbled again, much more distantly.

Growling, Tellwyrn ducked back in and slammed the window shut hard enough to rattle the panes. “Nosy bastards. Gods are like police: never at hand when you need one and knee-deep in your business the rest of the time. Anyway, Trissiny, you will report to Stew every night for a week for your disciplinary action. He will direct you to dig a hole deep enough for you to stand in.”

Trissiny frowned. “And then?”

“And then, fill it in.”

“…I don’t understand.”

“I’m not an idiot, Trissiny. The purpose of your dish washing sessions with Mr. Arquin was to force you into his company in the hope that you would find an accommodation. It was a less cordial one than I was going for, but peaceable enough. It was not lost on Mrs. Oak or myself that you enjoyed the work. Hell, being raised as you were, I’m sure you get a lot of satisfaction from contributing to the upkeep of whatever place shelters you. So yes, I’m well aware that giving you the kind of busy work that would infuriate your roommate is the opposite of punishment. Thus, you will wear yourself out performing humiliating, counterproductive and generally useless tasks until I’m satisfied the memory will flash across your mind any time in the future that you feel an urge to stick your nose into my running of this University. Does that explain matters?”

“Perfectly,” Trissiny said rigidly.

“I’m so glad.” Tellwyrn gave them all an unpleasant smile. “Unless there are any questions…? No? Good. That being the case, everyone knows their assignments. Get lost, all of you.”

“Say, Professor,” Chase said with an ingratiating grin, “if it’s not too much trouble, how about sending us out the way we came in? I was right in the middle of—”

“OUT!”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

3 – 5

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

“This is long overdue,” Ruda said firmly. “We owe a debt, and circumstances being as they are, it’s one we may never be able to repay. At the very least, we can offer our respects, and I say there’s no better time. A libation for the dead!” She upended her bottle of ale, pouring a generous slosh onto the floorboards, then lifted it high. “And honor to a memory. TO HORSEBUTT!”

“To Horsebutt!” the rest of the freshman class chorused, raising their glasses. With one exception.

“To Heshenaad,” Gabriel said, wincing.

“Aw, look at the froshes belatedly celebrating their victory,” Chase crooned from around the card table on the other side of the room.

“Everybody’s celebrating,” Hildred said. “Don’t be an ass. You remember the aftermath of our first excursion into the Golden Sea? It’s worth savoring, let them have it.”

“Not as well as I remember the adventure itself!” he proclaimed, grinning. “We had some good times, didn’t we?”

“Yeah,” said Natchua. “My favorite part was when you tried to sell me to those witches.”

“Are you still on about that? They weren’t buying, and anyway, it was obviously a ruse on my part.”

“Did they really find the tomb of Heshenaad the Enemy?” Hildred asked, tilting her head to regard the freshman class, who were arranged on a couch and set of loveseats flanking a low table. “Damn, that’s not half bad. Makes Connor’s magic sword seem like chump change.”

“She’s right! We’ve been shown up!” Chase nodded seriously, shuffling the cards. “Looks like we better find ourselves a new round of heroics! Hm, but if it’s extracurricular we’ll have to fund it ourselves. Anybody know what the going rate for a surly drow is on the black market?”

“Boy, do you know how many ways I could hurt you?”

“Promises, promises!”

The music building formed a U-shaped open space on three sides of the main auditorium. Balconies ringed the upper floor, leaving most of the space open for two stories up, with a dangling chandelier of crystal beads occupying the large, formal foyer inside the front doors. There in the front it was all decorative statuary and small potted trees, the chandelier hanging directly from a domed skylight, though the same open chamber became more intimate, furnished with a scattering of chairs and sofas, in the two wings. It was large enough to host a gathering of this size, all one room yet affording a semblance of privacy to those who sought it, and the balconies above made an excellent perch from which one could keep watch on the area.

Professor Tellwyrn idly swirled her glass of punch in one hand, seemingly studying the chandelier with a vague smile, but listening to conversations from throughout the space. She had the central stretch of balcony to herself, for the moment. The acoustics of the building were carefully designed; even someone without the benefit of elven hearing might have been able to keep an ear on the whole place from this perch.

Professors Yornhaldt and Rafe approached, her, the latter swigging a clear liquid from an unmarked glass bottle. Surely not vodka; he knew better.

“Anything of interest?” Alaric asked in the basso rumble that was his version of a whisper.

“Plenty, but nothing I feel the need to intervene in. Two hearts being broken and a couple more due to fall before the night is out. Several ill-conceived pranks being planned, most of which I will allow to unfold, but I am not going to permit the girls of Isaac Gallery to summon an incubus. I know you can hear me, Cailwyn. Tell your roommates to put that book back and drop this foolishness before I have to make them. All and all, lads, it’s a nice little party. Not often we encourage the whole student body to assemble, and it’s always a pleasure when it doesn’t devolve into gladiatorial matches.”

“Or an orgy,” Yornhaldt said, grimacing.

“Oh, come on, that was one time.”

“And there was no end of fuss and complaints from the parents, as I recall.”

“As I recall, there was an end once I taught a couple of them the meaning of Suffering. Anyway, we’re not going to have a repeat of the incident with this group. This, as I say, is a much better party.”

“Bah!” said Rafe, grinning and gesticulating with his bottle. “A party has drinking, dancing and debauchery! This is, at best, a social.”

Tellwyrn glanced at the bottle, noting the way the liquid within flowed slowly, clearly thicker than alcohol. “Admestus, what are you drinking?”

“Corn syrup! We got the most marvelous fresh elven corn from the Sea, and I do hate to waste good reagents.”

Yornhaldt shook his head and sighed.

“What in the world is wrong with you?” Tellwyrn demanded.

“Corn syrup deficiency! Don’t worry, I’ve got it under control.”

“Right. You do that.” She stepped past him, heading for the stairs. “I’m going to go terrorize people.”


“Mind if I join you?” Hildred asked, strolling up to the freshman alcove.

“Hey, Hil,” said Gabe, waving at her. “Sure, pull up a…” He glanced around at the fully occupied couches. “Um. Lap?”

“Oh ho! Are you volunteering?” she grinned.

“No distractions,” Fross said severely. “You’re helping me draw, remember? I can’t exactly handle a pencil. I mean, I can, but that’s using a modified levitation spell and while I got course credit for designing it there’s a lot of really fine control involved and it tires me out. Also, this is your project too!”

“Easy, Fross, I’m not abandoning you,” Gabe said with a grin, tapping the diagram sketched on a sheaf of parchment on the low table. “These equations are a bit over my head, though. Just tell me what to write down when you figure it out.”

“I’m working on it!”

“What’re you two up to?” Hildred asked with interest, perching on the arm of the loveseat next to Gabe.

“Oh, Fross had an idea after we covered the Circle of Interaction in Yornhaldt’s class. We’re pretty much just goofing around, but as the only two arcane majors here, it seems like nobody else is interested enough to join in.”

“You’re studying the arcane, then?” she asked.

“Enchanting, is the plan. But it’ll be next year before they let me take courses in it. Lots of ground work to cover first, apparently. Fross is doing a more general course of study.”

“I’m a wizard!”

“And a damn good one!” he said, grinning.

“So I’ve gotta ask,” the dwarf said, placing a hand on his shoulder and leaning subtly against him. “Did you guys really find the tomb of Horsebutt the Enemy?”

“Rafe thinks it was,” Trissiny replied. She was standing at the other end of the long sofa, next to Toby, who was perched on the end seat. “It could have been, though without any actual writing it’s hard to say for sure.”

“I’m pretty certain,” Teal said from the loveseat opposite Gabe and Hildred. “It was definitely a Stalweiss warlord’s tomb, and come on, how many of those would be out in the Golden Sea? I took a good look at the tomb paintings, and they seemed to depict a lot of the same scenes as we know of from history. Of course, that stretch of history is murky, and when you’ve seen one Stalweiss battle painting, you’ve sort of seen them all.”

“That’s pretty amazing,” Hildred said, squeezing his shoulder. “You’ll have to tell me all about it sometime.”

“Well, history isn’t really my thing,” he said, glancing up at her with a grin. “Teal can tell you a lot more than I can. Or Rafe, and we all know how he loves to hear himself talk.”

“Right. Yeah, maybe I’ll look into that,” she said disinterestedly, turning her gaze to the diagram over which Fross was hovering, chiming quietly to herself. Across the way, Teal exchanged a look with Shaeine, who was sitting beside her, and rolled her eyes, repressing a grin.

“I know going into the Golden Sea looking for specific things is pretty much a waste of time,” Ruda said, “but I’d still like to visit again. It doesn’t feel right, the way we left it. You shouldn’t disturb a warrior’s final rest.”

“You are really fixated on that,” Trissiny noted.

“It’s called respect, blondie. Look into it.”

“If only you showed the same regard for the floors in here,” Hildred said, grinning. “I just about slipped in your patch of rum.”

“That’s ale. Come on, what kind of dwarf are you?”

“The kind who doesn’t drink off the floor, you hooligan,” she replied, matching Ruda’s easy smile. “I feel sorry for Stew, having to clean up after all this.”

“I don’t. He enjoys a challenge, he told me himself. Also, whether he does or not, I don’t much care. The guy made me mulch flower beds.”

“Oh? What’d you do to deserve that?”

“She attacked Trissiny with a sword!” Fross said helpfully. Hildred raised an eyebrow, looking over at the paladin.

“Really? I don’t recall you looking any the worse for wear.”

“Imagine that,” Trissiny said dryly.

Ruda scowled. “All that’s beside the point. I’m a pirate, dammit! If I’m mulching anything that doesn’t involve the body of an enemy, a great travesty has occurred.”

“So!” Hildred turned her attention back to Gabriel, leaning more heavily on him to peer at Fross’s diagram. “What’s all this then? How’s it work?”

“It won’t work.”

In unison, they started and swiveled their head to look at Professor Tellwyrn, who had ambled up and was peering down at the parchment, idly swirling a glass of punch.

“You’re trying to design an amulet to cycle powers around the Circle of Interaction, right? Transmute one into the next around the ring so you can turn an enemy’s spell against him in the form of whatever he’s weakest against?”

“That’s the general idea,” Fross said, sounding a little put out. “Why won’t it work?”

“In the first place, that kind of power transmutation has to be done mentally, not with an artifact or static system. They’ve made amazing strides in enchantment in my lifetime; someday we may well be able to transmute forms of energy with static enchantments, but nobody is anywhere near that point now.”

“Oh,” said the pixie, crestfallen. “Well… We’ve still got the basic equations sketched out, maybe if we formulate it into a ritual circle…”

“In the second place,” Tellwyrn went on lightly, “you’ve misunderstood the method of converting power. You’re not actually changing one kind of energy into another; you’re draining energy out of a spell and using that raw, unformed energy to power one of a different school. They don’t alter around the circle, it’s more that they prey on each other.”

“…oh.”

“And if you somehow got past those two fundamental reasons why this won’t work, there are practical considerations, too. The power loss is fairly significant in most cases, and it grows exponentially if you try to cycle energy between spell networks. If you hypothetically made this work, by the time you got three points around the circle your power would be down to effectively nothing. Plus, there’s still the fact that you’d need to personally be able to use all those schools of magic to do it, and battlemages of any type don’t try that as it precludes carrying magical objects or prepared spells; shifting schools messes those up something awful. That, and re-working a spell takes time. It’s rarely done in combat, and then only if you have a way to keep your enemy from reacting during a long casting.”

“Aw.” Fross drifted slowly down like a falling leaf, coming to rest atop her diagram. Gabe sighed and set the pencil down alongside her.

“Well, that’s that, then. Sorry, Fross. It sounded like a good idea to me.”

“No, no, this is good work,” Tellwyrn said, with an easygoing smile that was so unlike her usual predatory grin it was downright disturbing. “You’re thinking ahead of what you’ve been told, applying things in unconventional ways, doing your own research and working outside of class. This is perfect, kids; this is what makes for good students, not to mention good mages. Just have a sense of proportion, hey? What you were trying to design would have revolutionized the practice of magic. Generally speaking, if you were the kind of savants who could come up with something like that in their first weeks of formal schooling, you’d have seen signs of it before now.”

“Wait a sec,” said Gabriel, frowning up at her. “Hold that thought, I have an important question. Where’d you get fizzy punch?”

Tellwyrn chuckled and flicked a finger in his direction. The red liquid in his glass began to bubble cheerfully.

“Oh.” He blinked down at it. “Uh, thanks.”

“Keep it up, kids,” she said cheerfully, strolling off. “Enjoy the party.”

Hildred and the freshmen watched her go in momentary silence.

“Okay, that was weird,” Ruda said finally. “She was acting like a… Like a person. Think somebody murdered Tellwyrn and is walking around wearing her skin?”

“Um, that’s not as easy to do as it sounds,” Juniper said. “Believe me, we’d notice.”

A second silence descended, everyone turning to look at her.

“What?” she said, then her eyes widened. “Oh! No, I didn’t… I’ve never done that. Good grief, no, what a mess.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” Ruda said as some of the tension went out of the group.

“One of my sisters tried it like four times, though. Every time woodcutters came too close to our grove. I mean, get a hint, right? I’m pretty sure she was just being ghoulish by the third time. She can’t have been that dumb.”

“Anyway,” Gabriel said loudly, “Tellwyrn has her good points. Nobody’s all asshole, all the time.”

“She has at least some capacity for kindness,” Trissiny agreed. “More than you might think.”

“Also, she can still hear us,” Toby noted. “Those ears aren’t for decoration.”

“I’m a little surprise to hear that from you, Shiny Boots,” Ruda said, grinning at Trissiny. “Gabe, not so much, especially when he watches her butt all the way out—”

“What?” Gabriel exclaimed, almost choking on the last of his newly fizzy punch. “I wasn’t! I wouldn’t! I don’t… Damn it, I go for curvy girls! Um,” he added weakly, glancing quickly around the group. Ruda’s grin took on fiendish proportions as he tried to extricate himself. “Not that, I mean… You’re all very pretty. All due respect. Um.”

“I don’t know whether to be annoyed or relieved,” Trissiny said, arching an eyebrow.

“I appreciate your respect, Gabriel,” Shaeine said in such a tone of overwrought solemnity that Teal burst out laughing.

“Welp, that’s it for me tonight,” he said resignedly. “If you’ll all excuse me, I’ll just go die in a hole now.”

“Wait, what?” Fross buzzed about in alarm. “Don’t you think you’re overreacting just at little?!”

“Hyperbole, Fross. Remember? We talked about this.”

“Oh. Right. Yes.”

“Look on the bright side,” Hildred said cheerfully, “at least November wasn’t in earshot of that one!” Gabriel groaned, covering his face with a hand.

Teal frowned. “Who?”

“She’s in my divinity class,” Trissiny said, then frowned down at empty space next to the table. “An Avenist. Very…devout.”

“That’s one word for it,” Hildred said merrily. “Makes our paladin here look like a tavern wench.”

“I’m not sure I appreciate the comparison.”

“Oh, lighten up for once in your life, it’s a fucking party,” Ruda said. “I haven’t met this November, either. You already got on her bad side, Gabe?”

“I’m not on any of her sides,” he said firmly. “I stay away from her. Gods in kilts, Ruda, I’m not dense enough to mess around with an oversensitive Avenist. I manage to piss Trissiny off just by being in the room.”

“The fact that you think it’s that arbitrary is possibly why it keeps happening,” Trissiny noted.

“Come on, now, it’s a little arbitrary,” said Ruda. “Yeah, Gabe likes to stick his foot in his mouth, but sometimes I think you get even madder at him when he’s trying to be nice.”

“Maybe he should stop trying, then.”

“I believe they’ve forgotten I’m here,” Gabriel said to Hildred. “Think I could sneak away?”

“I’d offer to smuggle you out under my skirt, but I don’t come much higher than your chest standing up.”

“Well, it was worth a thought.”

“Might be worth a second thought, eh?” she said, waggling her eyebrows. “What with you liking curvy girls and all.”

“Yup. It’s official, I am never gonna live that down.”

“Aw, there are worse things,” she replied, patting him on the shoulder. “I’m not holding anything against you. Unless you ask me to, of course.”

“You’re a pal, Hil,” he said, then bent to pick up his empty glass from the table and stood, gently disentangling himself from her. “I’m gonna go grab some more punch. Anybody else want any?” A round of negatives answered this. “Cheers, then,” he said, ambling off.

Hildred stared after him, then turned to the others, wide-eyed. “He…that… I just got turned down, right? The boy can’t possibly be that thick.”

“You underestimate Gabriel,” Trissiny said dryly.

“Oh, he’ll realize what just happened sometime tomorrow,” Toby said, grinning. “Then he’ll come groveling. You can probably get major concessions out of it if you’re still interested.”

Shaeine stood smoothly. “If you will all pardon me, I believe I will return to the tower.”

“Not havin’ fun?” Ruda asked.

“On the contrary, I have enjoyed the conversation,” the drow replied with one of her polite little smiles. “However, I am accustomed to a much more…low-key form of socialization. Entertaining as this event is, it is somewhat emotionally taxing. I mean no offense.”

“None is taken, Shaeine,” Trissiny said with a smile. “We’re always glad to hang out with you, but please don’t feel obligated if you’re tired.”

“Thank you,” Shaeine replied, bowing slightly in her direction.

Teal cleared her throat, getting to her feet. “I’m a little worn out, too. If you’re not, uh, too overtaxed, would you mind some company walking back?”

“Not at all, that would be most agreeable,” the drow said politely. “Secure as the campus reputedly is, I always feel safer in company.”

“Great! After you, then, m’lady.”

“Good evening, all,” Shaeine said to the others, receiving a wave of farewells in reply.

Ruda managed to wait until they were fully out of the building before commenting. “Man, those two need to hurry the hell up. The suspense is drivin’ me nuts.”

“Wait, what?” Trissiny frowned at her.

Ruda gave her an incredulous look, which slowly blossomed into a sly grin. “…nevermind, Trissiny. I’ll tell you when you’re older.”


Having slipped away during the conversation, Juniper loitered on one of the small balconies off the side wing. She had shut the glass door behind her, muting the sounds of the party in progress, and was enjoying the relative quiet. Climbing roses covered the side of the building, where subtle trellises had been laid against the stone to give the support, and the dryad leaned herself against one of these, savoring the smell of the flowers and leaves, the subtle prickle of thorns against her skin, the communion with the earth provided by the plants. They hadn’t a very interesting story to tell; they were young, and domesticated. But all life was beautiful.

It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy her new life at the University, but it didn’t afford her as many opportunities to enjoy the quiet and just…commune.

The balcony door swung open and Chase popped through, grinning. “Hey there! I thought I saw you head out here. Cuddling with the flowers?”

“Hi, Chase,” she said cheerfully, then added to the two boys who followed him onto the balcony. “Hi, guys! You got tired of the noise, too?”

“Eh, noise, crowds, you know, it’s all very oppressive,” said Jerome, a junior, dragging his gaze slowly up and down her and lingering on her chest. Juniper smiled in response, enjoying the attention.

“Evenin’, Juno,” said Tanq, nodding politely and leaning against the door after pulling it shut. She noted that he had loosened the interior curtains first, hiding them from the view of those inside. “This a bad time?”

“Nonsense, there are no bad times!” Chase proclaimed, sidling up to Juniper and wrapping his arms around her, nuzzling at her hair. “It’s just not our kind of party, is all. You know me, I prefer to be knee-deep in trouble.”

“I know you,” she said dryly, snaking an arm around to pat him on the back, “and you’re more interested in being penis-deep in me.”

“Alas, my clever ruse is uncovered!” he said, pecking her lightly on the lips. “Well, it was a thin one, anyway. At least now we can get down to the fun part.”

“You know how we treasure every moment of your company,” Jerome added smoothly, easing up to her other side while Tanq approached from the front. “It’s not just that so few women anywhere have a shred of your beauty.”

“Aw, thanks!”

“It’s also that even fewer women enjoy a good three-on-one like you,” Chase murmured, ducking his head to lick the side of her neck.

“You guys are really sweet,” she said, gently pushing him away. “I had a lot of fun the last time. I’m just not in the mood right now, sorry. Another time?”

“Aw,” Tanq made a try of pouting at her, his grin spoiling it. “Well, no worries, June. You enjoy the flowers.” He stepped back, reaching for the door handle.

“Now, don’t be silly, my little blossom,” Chase said reprovingly, pulling her close again while Jerome wrapped arms around her from the other side. “Mood is a fickle thing, no? I bet we can improve yours pretty quickly.”

Both boys bent their heads to nuzzle at her neck from both sides, hands stroking her waist, but she frowned. “Um…no thanks, I’m pretty much in charge of my own moods.”

“Be fair,” Jerome wheedled, nipping at her ear. “Give us a bit to work.”

“Um, could you not?” she said, beginning to be annoyed. “Personal space, please.”

“Guys.” Tanq was frowning heavily now, his expression as much disbelieving as disapproving. “She doesn’t want to. That’s it, end of. It’s not a discussion.”

“Oh, she doesn’t know what she wants,” Chase said dismissively, slipping a hand between Juniper’s legs and trying to tug her thighs apart. “She’ll change her tune soon enough.”

“Excuse me?” she said incredulously. “That’s enough. Please let go of me.”

“She’s a dryad,” Jerome said, grinning over his shoulder at Tanq. “They don’t get to say no.”

“Something tells me that’s the least of the things you don’t know about dryads,” Juniper said.

“Okay, that’s enough.” Tanq stepped forward, glaring. “You two need to start thinking with your heads. She asked you to leave her alone.”

“It’s true, I read it in a book once,” said Chase, sliding around Juniper and trying to lift her up off the bannister. He might as well have tried to uproot a tree with his bare hands. “They’re always willing, it’s in their blood. She just needs a little reminder, don’t you, baby?” He squeezed her breast, none too gently. Jerome began tugging down her sundress in the back.

Juniper looked at one of them, then the other. Her previously cheerful expression had fully vanished.

“Juno,” Tanq said frantically, “easy. Jerome’s a noble, there’ll be hell to pay if he turns up dead. Goddammit, you two, get off her! You have no idea what you’re screwing around with!”

“Tanq, what are you going on about?” Jerome said irritably, glancing up at him. “If you’re not gonna join in, go away.”

Juniper took in a deep breath, raised her head and shouted at the top of her lungs.

“TRISSINY!”

“Oh, shit,” Chase hissed, instantly letting go of her and tossing himself backward off the balcony. It was only a very short drop into the bushes; Jerome landed right beside him and they made a terrific crashing and crunching as they struggled loose, then bolted off around the side of the building.

“Gods, Juno, are you okay?” Tanq asked, looking rattled. “I’m sorry, I should’ve just punched the morons instead of talking at them… You all right? I didn’t seriously think they’d… I’m so sorry.”

“Tanq, I’m fine,” she said, tilting her head in puzzlement. “What are you sorry about? You were perfectly nice.”

“I’m just… Those two assholes, I’m gonna bend them in half.”

The balcony door burst open and Trissiny stepped through, peering about with her hand on her sword. “What is it? Juniper, are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” the dryad said cheerily. “I’m sorry to take you away from the party! It was a false alarm, I guess.”

“Are you sure?” Trissiny squinted suspiciously at Tanq.

“No,” he said grimly. “There was a problem. It’s gone now. Thanks for coming, Triss.”

“Of course,” she said slowly. “Does anyone feel like telling me exactly what the issue was?”

“I hate to cause any more trouble,” Juniper said earnestly. “I’m already interrupting your evening. Really, I just wanted to enjoy the flowers for a bit, but it seems like something’s always happening around here, doesn’t it? Anyhow, thanks again for being so quick, Triss. I don’t care what anybody says, you’re a good friend.”

“Well…thank you,” Trissiny said, slowly easing up out of a ready stance and taking her hand away from her sword. “And you’re welcome. And… Wait, what?”


“Well, that was a wash,” Jerome said irritably, coming to a stop and brushing leaves off his suit. “Ugh, look at my jacket. This is the last time I follow you on one of your escapades.”

“Oh, you say that every time,” Chase said dismissively, flopping down on one of the benches. They had come to a stop in the little cul-de-sac outside Ronald Hall. It was well lit by the floating fairy lamps, but quiet and deserted at this hour. “And you’re being melodramatic every time. You know we end up having a blast more often than not.”

“Or getting blasted!”

“Don’t disallow for the possibility of some overlap there!”

“You’re such an idiot,” Jerome said, but couldn’t repress a grin. “Damn it, now I’m horny, too.”

“Why, Jerry!” Chase widened his eyes, affecting a shocked expression. “I had no idea! Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!”

“Shut the fuck up, you asshole.” Jerome aimed a halfhearted, easily-dodged punch at him. “And this little fleabait town doesn’t even have whores. Three years I’ve been here and I still can’t believe that. Feh, after getting an armful of dryad there’s no way I’m ending this night without getting laid. Think I’ll go try my luck with Amelie.”

“Ooh, now there’s an idea! Maybe we can talk her into a little menage!”

“First of all,” Jerome said severely, “Amelie is a nice girl who is not into any kind of outlandish modern kinkiness. More’s the pity. Second, I thought we agreed that dryads are a special case. Under any normal conditions, I don’t want to be in proximity to your naked junk. Or any man’s.”

“Spoilsport,” Chase pouted, slumping down on the bench and pouting. “What am I supposed to do, then? There’s a sad shortage of amenable womanflesh on this campus since last year’s seniors graduated. Bunch of terrible prudes, our generation.”

“Why don’t you go try your luck with Natchua?” Jerome replied, grinning.

“Hey, don’t joke, I’m working on that. It’s a process. It’ll take time. Ideally, I’ll be in and out of her bed without incurring some kind of vendetta, but if she’s still being obstreperous by the time we’re set to graduate, I’ll take my chances. When else am I going to have a chance to bed a drow?”

“Don’t make me laugh, you’d never wrestle her into submission. That girl can kick your ass without trying.”

“What the hell are you babbling about? I don’t wrestle women into submission, you brute. Honestly, the way you combine poetry with barbarism boggles the mind.”

“Then just what were we doing back there?”

“It’s like you said, dryads are a special case. Look, don’t worry about Juniper, she’ll have forgotten all about it by tomorrow. She’s not that bright. Come on, when has she ever said ‘no’ before?”

“You fucking idiots!” Tanq thundered, stomping up to them.

“Oh, look who decided to rejoin the party,” Chase said airily. “Tanq, my man, please tell me your chivalrous knight routine worked. If none of us managed to nail that dryad I’ll have to write this night off as a loss, and I’m just not ready to do that.”

“Do you hear yourself?” Tanq exclaimed, glaring. “What the hell is wrong with you two?! She told us no. That should have been the end of it. You do not push yourself on a woman who doesn’t want you!”

“That wasn’t a woman, you twit,” Jerome said, scowling right back at him. “She’s some kind of fairy plant spirit. Have you ever cracked a book in your life? Dryads are always either screwing people or killing them. And Juniper’s pretty obviously housebroken; Tellwyrn won’t have her killing people here. So what does that leave?”

“You can’t possibly be this stupid,” Tanq said incredulously. “This is a university. You got in. How are you hearing yourself say these things and not dying from embarrassment?”

“Now, let’s be honest with ourselves,” said Chase, grinning nastily. “Are you upset because we’re stupid, or upset because hanging out with us reflects on you morally? Come on, Tanq, unbend a little. We weren’t hurting anybody; it was a bit of harmless fun. She would have had fun too if she’d let us; she always does.”

“I see.”

Chase and Jerome bolted upright off the bench at the new voice, took one look at Trissiny, who had arrived just behind Tanq, then turned and fled in panic for the second time that night.

She turned her gaze on Tanq, who met it warily. “And you were going to what? Reason with them?”

“I think,” he said slowly, “I was going to just hit them, but when I got here… Damn it.” He looked away, folding his arms across his chest. “They’re my friends, have been even since I started at this school. We have fun, but we’ve never hurt anybody. But they were actually going to… I don’t want to believe it.”

“You’re a good man, Tanq,” she said quietly. “I think you should reconsider whether you want to associate with people who’ll try to make you forget that.”

He heaved a deep sigh. “Maybe. Yeah, probably. No, not probably, I know you’re right. Just having trouble with… Well, none of this is about me, anyhow. Is Juniper okay?”

“She says you asked her that several times,” Trissiny said, quirking an eyebrow. “It confused her. Yes, she appears to be fine. While I’m not about to justify anything those two were doing, they weren’t completely wrong about dryads. Juniper just doesn’t react to these things the way a human woman would.”

“She’s still a person,” he said, shaking his head. “It still matters what she thinks, especially about what’s being done to her. How can they look at her and not see a person?”

Now it was Trissiny’s turn to sigh. “The truth is, Tanq, there are some men who won’t be convinced that any woman is truly a person. Otherwise, there would be little need for people like me.” She turned to stare down the darkened path in the direction the two boys had fled, her expression cold. “I wonder if you’d do me a favor?”

“Probably,” he said warily. “What do you need?”

“Please give my apologies to Professor Tellwyrn, and tell her I’m leaving campus. I’ll try to be back before classes Monday morning, but we’ll have to see how things work out.”

“All right,” he said slowly. “I can do that. I…assume you’ll want me to wait till you’re well and truly away before carrying the message? Being that leaving the town is very much not allowed and all.”

“Exactly.” She turned her head; following her gaze, he jumped back and muffled a curse. An absolutely enormous white horse decked with silver armor was standing there. How the hell could anything that huge have arrived so silently? Where had it come from?

Trissiny vanished around the side of the giant animal, then reappeared atop it, springing lightly into the saddle. How she moved so nimbly wearing armor, even light armor, was uncanny.

“Are you going to kill those two?” Tanq asked warily.

“No.” Trissiny shook her head. “That might have been my first response, but…no. That would not be justice. Thanks for your help, Tanq. And for supporting Juniper.”

“I didn’t do much,” he protested.

“You didn’t need to. If she had been an ordinary woman, what would you have done?”

“Thrown the fuckers off the balcony myself,” he answered immediately.

Trissiny grinned down at him. “Good. I’ll see you in a few days.” She clicked her tongue and the horse took off, trotting toward the University’s gates. Tanq stood alone in the night, watching her go.

It was funny… More than a few people had complained in his hearing about Trissiny being judgmental. From what he’d seen, she mostly appeared awkward and uncomfortable, though his perceptions might have been colored by his first sight of her arriving at the campus, as lost and alone as they all were on their first day. But as he watched her slim form atop the massive draft horse vanishing into the night, he had the sudden thought that there went a woman he could have followed into Hell itself.

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2 – 11

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He stepped calmly from the Rail caravan and looked around, resting the butt of his staff on the stone platform. Around him rose Last Rock, a collection of plain stone buildings that weren’t old but would not have looked out of place in a bygone era. Aside from the modern dress of the people passing by, and the scrolltower perched at one edge of the square, it could have been a painting of a medieval village.

To his right, another man weakly extracted himself from another caravan, clutching the edge of its door for support briefly before wobbling out onto the platform. Listing from a combination of dizziness and a limp—probably freshly acquired—he stumbled toward the tavern at one side of the square, its sign proclaiming it the Ale & Wenches.

He snorted. Pretentious. The kind of name designed to sucker in fools who went treasure hunting in the Golden Sea and called themselves “adventurers,” as though they were dungeon delvers of old.

“Made the trip all right?”

He looked to the left, finding himself approached by a towering, burly man with an impressive mustache in a faded old Imperial Army coat. His expression was solicitous, but stern.

“Well enough,” he said easily. Tucking his staff into the crook of one arm, he reached into his coat and pulled out a small cigar case, carefully selected a cigarillo, and lit it by tapping the end against the head of his staff, this whole display giving the big man time to look him over carefully. He knew the way of these small towns.

His appearance, as he was well aware, invited scrutiny. The tan leather duster he wore was old, scarred, and even burnt in places, as was his matching flat-brimmed hat. Around his neck was a sweat-stained bandana, and his boots, though of fine quality, had been with him long enough to bear their own scars, too deep to be healed with polish. Below all that, though, his suit, while also dusty and rumpled from travel, was presentable. Much as it galled him to admit it, his age was an asset. Nobody seemed to expect trouble from a well-lined face framed by steely gray whiskers.

“I think that other fellow came off it a bit worse than I,” he said mildly, jerking his head toward the man who was even now limping through the A&W’s doors.

The big man had fixed his eyes on the lighting of the cigarillo with a faint frown, but apparently decided he passed muster. “That’s Jethro, he comes through here every couple weeks. Works with some bank in Tiraas, has some business with the University. After a whiskey he’ll be good as new. I’m Ox. Welcome to Last Rock, stranger.”

“McGraw.” Clenching the cigarillo between his teeth, he took the proffered hand and shook it firmly. “Good to know you.”

The crack of the Rail re-igniting its transit matrix sounded; a static buzz washed over them and his arcane senses were momentarily blinded by the activation of complex, powerful enchantments so close. It passed quickly, though, as the caravan accelerated away and was soon lost to view.

“Damn fool contraption,” Ox grunted. “I dunno why the Empire lets people ride those things. They kill a couple dozen a year, as I understand it.”

“Control,” he said simply, puffing at his cigarillo. Ox raised an eyebrow. “I was around when the Rails were new, got to ride in some of the very first caravans. They had safety harnesses. The cargo cars still do—all kinds of straps and buckles to hold things steady. Despite what the Empire likes to say, those things were not meant to move troops. They were for moving adventurers, specifically to the frontier.”

“Never heard that,” said Ox, frowning.

“Suppose, friend, you’re in charge of running some rats through a maze. You want ’em to go a specific way, get ’em to the end where you want ’em. Now what’s a better use of your energies: trying to herd and heckle each one along, or move the walls such that they naturally lead where you want?” He glanced over at his new acquaintance; Ox was studying him more closely now, his eyes narrowed. He grinned, teeth clutching his cigarillo. “The world is run by a certain kind of men, my friend. Be it the crowned kings of old or the bureaucrats of today, they’re well-fed men in expensive suits, who have no idea what it means to risk your neck and bust your ass workin’ for a living. To governments, rats in a maze is all we are. The Empire was modernizing, moving from a chaotic loot-based economy to one of systems, structures and laws. Shunting off the well-armed loners to the last place guaranteed to grind ’em up en masse served two purposes: getting them out of society, and helping to push back the frontiers as far as they can be pushed, so society has room to expand. Thus, crazy rattletrap Rails, fit for those willing to risk their necks, but sure to discourage the saner, calmer breed who they want to stay in the cities and pay their taxes. It was…elegant, really.”

“That’s…an interesting theory,” Ox said noncommittally when he finished.

He shrugged. “And I may be wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time. A funny thing, though… There are hardly any adventurers or adventures left, these days. Lo and behold, the Rails are getting upgraded. The ones serving the interior provinces are downright comfy, now, safe as your mother’s arms. Last I heard, the schedule they’re on, even these frontier lines will have full safety features within two years.”

“Well, whatever the Empire’s motives, that I can get behind. All I know is, these Rail cars are insane. Sooner they get straightened out, the better.”

“On that we can agree.”

“What brings you to Last Rock?”

“Oh, I’m just stopping in on my way elsewhere,” he said easily. “I heard a friend of mine might be loitering in this town and thought I’d see if I could catch him. Name of Shook? Greasy-lookin’ fellow, cheap suit… Ostensibly a salesman but I’ll lay odds he’s not been seen trying to sell jack shit to anybody.”

“I know him,” Ox replied slowly. His increasingly serious expression told McGraw this was, indeed, the place. “He don’t cause any trouble, just hangs around the A&W, playing cards and drinkin’. Seems to be an acquaintance of Prin’s.”

“Prin? That wouldn’t be Principia Locke? Brunette wood elf?”

“You know Prin, too?” Now, Ox looked downright leery.

“Only by reputation. We have acquaintances in common, you might say.”

“You’re not reassurin’ me, McGraw. Shook’s not good for much that I can see, but like I said, he’s no trouble. Prin’s another matter. I’m not sure Last Rock needs any more of their ‘friends’ moving in.”

“Oh, don’t worry none about me,” McGraw said, grinning around his cigarillo. “Like I said, I don’t aim to be here long. Just to pay my respects, and then I’ll be on my way. You attached to the law in this town, by any chance?”

“There’s no budget for a paid deputy,” Ox rumbled, “but I help out Sheriff Sanders when help’s needed. I live on a pension; I’ve got the free time.”

“That’s good to hear, friend, good to hear. Do give the Sheriff my regards, won’t you?” He puffed smoke contentedly for a moment, jabbing his cigarillo in the direction of the A&W. “How’re the accommodations over yonder?”

“Clean. Food’s good, whiskey’s…plentiful. Ain’t a quiet place, though; that’s the common watering hole for the University kids and every wannabe hero who passes through on the way in or out of the Sea.”

“Perfect. I believe I’ll arrange a bed for the night. These old bones don’t look forward to another Rail ride any sooner than they have to.”

“I’ll let the Sheriff know you’re in town, then,” Ox said firmly. There was no mistaking the warning in his tone. McGraw just smiled at him.

“Do that, friend. Perhaps I’ll see you around.”


 

No one had ever accused the Ale & Wenches of false advertising.

There was ale, technically, though frontier tastes being as they were, the A&W did more business in whiskey, with beer coming in second. As for the other part, the serving girls did indeed dress in medieval-style attire, prominently featuring low-bodiced peasant dresses and blouses. That was as far as it went, however. There was invariably at least one burly man with a cudgel and a wand on duty, but they rarely had time to step in, even when the need arose. In a town the size of Last Rock, every one of those girls was the daughter of someone’s friend or neighbor. The University kids knew to treat them politely; out-of-towners seldom had to be told twice. Even had any of the young ladies in question been willing, there was absolutely no chance of a traveler slipping her a coin and taking her upstairs.

Despite the way expectations thus yielded to the reality of modern life, the A&W remained a perennial favorite of the students and the would-be heroes who passed through town, because it played perfectly to their fantasies. The fairy lamps illuminating the common room were of the flickery old style rather than steadier modern versions, and housed behind yellow-tinted glass that made their light resemble that of torches. Maps, hunting trophies and well-used old bladed weapons decorated the walls, and the room itself was of rough timber and plaster with fieldstone accents, just like the illustrations of taverns in modern books full of old stories.

It was an unspoken joke among the citizens of Last Rock that the illusion pitched by the A&W succeeded so well because those who bought into it were no more adventuring heroes than the tavern itself was a real adventurer’s bar, such as had formed a basic economic role throughout the frontiers five hundred years ago. The closest thing to real adventurers present were the University students, who were an odd, eclectic and often dangerous bunch, though they were ironically the better-behaved of the patrons. Those who were actually there for adventuring purposes rarely deserved to be taken seriously. People did, occasionally, still find treasure and glory in the Golden Sea. Most of those who went looking came staggering out weeks later, half-starved, traumatized, and hell and gone from wherever they’d entered…those who came out at all. It wasn’t something rational, well-adjusted people attempted.

Principia loved it here.

She didn’t push the swinging doors open and stand in them—aside form being mindful of the cliché, it wasn’t her habit to be the center of attention unless a specific con required it. Usually there was better hunting to be had in blending in. But she did, as usual, slip to one side of the doors and treat herself to a moment of soaking in the ambiance. This was just like old times. The Age of Adventures was already stumbling toward its slow end by the time she’d started her career, but she was still old enough to have been in a few adventurer bars—the real ones. Those were some of her happiest memories.

But that was then, this was now, and she was on a particularly unforgiving deadline. The reminder of her straits soured some of her nostalgic pleasure, and she narrowed her focus to the night’s business.

It was after sundown on a Friday and the A&W was predictably busy, but she had no trouble zeroing in on her targets; they were ensconced at the largest table in the place. The three privates stood out in their navy blue Army uniforms, and were keeping company with a couple of the more exotic University kids. Chase and Tanq blended in as they would in any group of miscellaneous humans, but Hildred, a honey-blonde dwarf girl, and especially Natchua made for a more distinctive sight. There was a card game in progress, as well as tankards and pitchers and platters of the A&W’s simple but good finger food.

Prin took a moment to consider her approach. She needed those boys’ interest, and first impressions were vitally important.

“Hey! PRIN!” Chase waved at her, grinning delightedly. “Perfect timing, get that perky butt over here!”

Her sly smile wasn’t entirely faked. Once in a while, fortune did favor her.

She threaded her way nimbly through the crowd, pulled out a chair between two of the soldiers and plopped down. “What’s this, then, you started without me? Now my feelings are hurt. Somebody better buy me something to compensate.”

“Something shiny or something alcoholic?” Tanq asked with a grin.

“That’ll do for a start!”

She received a smiling greeting from Hildred and a glare from Natchua, which she knew by now not to take personally. It wasn’t personal, and wasn’t even the usual hostility that drow often held toward surface elves and vice versa; Natchua was simply, as usual, trying for the “brooding badass” look, and as usual managing only to come off as surly. The three soldier boys all eyed her with interest.

“Well, hello,” she purred at them. “I don’t believe you’ve had the pleasure.”

“Not so far,” said the swarthy one to her right, grinning. “Am I going to?”

“I haven’t,” Chase complained. “Rumor has it that makes me the only one in town.”

“Funny thing is,” she said airily, setting a stack of copper coins on the table, “he keeps saying things like that to me, and yet appears to think he’s going to get somewhere. Deal me in.”

“I am very stupid,” Chase agreed, nodding solemnly. “This is known.”

It was a good group to work. Chase and Rook, the soldier with the olive complexion, were jokers and talkers, keeping conversation going. Finchley, Hildred and Tanq were quieter, but affable; Natchua and Moriarty were too sullen and stiff, respectively, to contribute much, but that was fine. A group that size would have been chaos with everybody talking over each other. Prin could apply her charm in chaos—she could apply it anywhere, but chaos was less than ideal.

A few hands and a pitcher of beer were enough for her to get the measure of her targets. Moriarty she dismissed as a prospect to leverage. Not that she couldn’t do it, but guys like him required a lot of effort and very particular tactics, which she had neither time nor inclination to pursue. Finchley and Rook were likelier prospects, though the personalities demanded such different approaches that she wouldn’t really be able to work both at one time. Luckily, she’d placed herself right between them at the table, and both kept giving her eyes of interest. Prin didn’t devote great time or attention to her looks; sometimes, in company like this, being an elf was all it took.

Half an hour after sitting down (it didn’t do to rush these things), she’d settled on Rook as her best prospect, as he was clearly the more careless of them. Getting useful intel on Tellwyrn out of him here, now, during a loud poker game, wasn’t really an option, but she had plenty of room to strike up a rapport to be leveraged later. This couldn’t all be done in one night.

Hopefully that would be enough to keep Thumper off her for a while longer.

She had just gotten down to a seriously, slowly escalating campaigns of subtle touches and flirtatious glances when a man stepped up to their table.

“Evenin’, folks,” he said, tipping his hat politely. “This a closed game or can an old wanderer join in? Ain’t had a good round of cards in far too long.”

Principia gave him a carefully calculated look—not overtly hostile, but not one he’d have mistaken for welcome. Such an addition would shift the dynamic of the group, and she’d have to take time to adjust her tactics. She needed to come out of this with, at minimum, plans to meet up with Rook later. Something concrete, as Thumper wasn’t the sort to understand subtler degrees of progress.

“Glad to have you, stranger!” Chase said cheerily without waiting to get anybody else’s opinion. “I don’t mind taking your money if you don’t mind donating.”

“Much obliged.” The old man pulled over an unoccupied chair from a nearby table and seated himself beside Hildred.

“Another hand like that last one, Chase, and you’ll be out of it for the night,” Tanq warned.

“Nonsense, I’ll just tap into my reserves.”

“You asked us not to let you do that. Remember?”

“Oh, I say lots of things. You should always listen to what I’m saying now. Past me was naïve and innocent, and future me will probably be drunk.”

Prin appraised the new arrival silently. He was clearly well along in years, and had the dark complexion of a westerner, though his skin was several shades lighter than Tanq’s. The ragged old coat and hat gave off a certain impression, but the staff gave another one entirely. That was no mass-produced soldier’s weapon, but an old and hand-crafted object polished to a dull glow, surmounted by a short obelisk of smoky quartz in an asymmetrical iron setting. There was no clicker, or any mechanism to activate it, meaning its owner did so mentally, which she could have guessed anyway; even from across the table she could feel the haze of arcane energy around the thing and its owner.

He caught her looking and nodded politely, giving her a small smile. She returned an equally stiff one.

Their game resumed mostly unchanged. The stranger, who gave his name simply as McGraw, was on the quieter side, or at least seemed so in comparison with some of the others at the table, though he wasn’t shy about joking along, and quickly endeared himself to the party by paying for his own drinks rather than partaking of what was already on hand. Principia let him be, pursuing her own game, which was also going well. Finchley seemed a bit put out at the lack of her attention, but Rook was clearly quite interested.

She felt a little wistful, in truth. It was a good night: food, drink, noise, and the company of friends and cheerful strangers. It would have been nice to simply enjoy it.

McGraw caught the elbow of a serving girl the next time his tankard was empty, beckoning her closer, and murmured a message into her ear along with his order. She smiled, nodded, and gave him a pat on the shoulder as she straightened, then trotted off. Prin seemed to be the only one paying attention to this exchange; again, he caught her looking, acknowledging her with that private little smile.

“What is it you do, McGraw?” Chase asked without looking up from his cards.

“For starters, I take coin from smug kids who try to distract me from considering my bets.”

Chase laughed in response to that. “Well, that must keep you busy. I was just curious—you’ve got sort of the look of an adventurer, but most of those around here are, ah…”

“Younger?” McGraw said dryly. “By a good thirty years’ minimum, I’d say, yeah. Heh, been a while since anybody accused me of having ‘the look.’ Guess it clings to a man.”

“So you were an adventurer, then?” Natchua asked giving him what she probably thought was a piercing look. It made her look nauseous. Not for the first time, Principia felt an urge to pull the girl aside and give her a few pointers on acting.

“One of the last,” McGraw mused, staring down at his cards without really focusing on them. “When I was your age, a body could still make an actual living roaming about, slaying monsters and looting ruins. Not as good of one as previous generations, of course…even then, the end had already begun, so to speak. The times sure are changin’… I had a couple of good scores, though, enough to set me up. Good thing, too, since there ain’t much room for my kind in the world of today.”

“I wish you’d explain that to Professor Tellwyrn,” Hildred commented, taking a sip of her beer. “I think she’s trying to train us up for a new Age of Adventures, sometimes.”

“With regrets, little lady, I’ll leave you to deal with that on your own,” McGraw said with a wry smile, tipping his hat to her. “I managed to have a full career without bein’ in a room with Arachne Tellwyrn or any of her ilk, and I’m long past being foolish enough to be disappointed by it. Anyhow, I fold, and I’ll have to wish you kids good night.” Grunting softly, he rose from his chair, leaning for a moment on his staff. “Get to be my age, you find yourself heading to bed at decent hours whether you want to or not. Enjoy my coin, kids, and thanks for the game.”

“Cheers!” Chase said, suiting the words with a lifted mug, which he then drained.

McGraw looked directly across the table at Principia. “Actually, if I could borrow you for a moment, Miss Keys? Won’t take long.”

She did not freeze like a startled rabbit, nor allow any emotion to show on her face except mild confusion. She was too old, too practiced and too good for that. “Wh—is that me?” she asked blankly. “I think you have me confused with somebody else.”

“I might, at that,” he said agreeably. “Wouldn’t be the first time. I’d be mighty grateful if you’d spare a moment to correct me, lest I waste an evening barkin’ up the wrong tree.”

“Eh…sure, I’ll sit this hand out.” She leaned over to Rook with a smile, placing a friendly hand on his arm. “I’ll be right back. Don’t let Chase steal my coins.”

“Shock! Outrage! I would never!”

“’Cos you can’t reach ’em from over there.”

“Precisely!”

She stepped smoothly around the table and wrapped herself around McGraw’s free arm, simpering up at him. Keep your enemies closer; that applied double to casters. Besides, she might ignite a spark of jealousy in Rook that she could make use of later. “So,” she said at a good volume as she led him away, mostly for the benefit of the group, “tell me about this clearly attractive and talented acquaintance of yours. You know, I believe I’ve been approached by friends of every dark-haired elf on the continent; we really do all look alike to some people! I wonder what she would say.”

“I’m curious to find that out myself,” he said more quietly, gently steering them toward the only remotely private spot in the common room, a relatively shady nook under the stairs to the second-floor balcony. He had clearly identified it in advance, and timed his approach for a moment when there was nobody in there having a quick grope. That, plus the fact that the arm coiled up in hers was corded with lean muscle belying his apparent age made her consider him a bit more carefully. This one was more than he appeared.

“If you will indulge me in wasting a bit of your time, ma’am, in the interest of not repeating myself I’d like to wait for—ah, nevermind! Speak of the devil.”

Rounding the bottom of the steps into their shadowy alcove stepped the last person she wanted to meet at that moment.

“Why, Jeremiah,” Prin said coolly, “I was specifically not expecting to see you this evening.”

“Always a pleasure, Miss Locke,” Shook replied dryly. “I was just informed by one of the girls that a patron was asking after me down here? You look to have found him.”

“Indeed, at least we’re all gathered,” McGraw said agreeably, gently disengaging himself from Principia. “My apologies for interrupting your respective evenings. It was a bit of bother to follow you all the way from Tiraas, Mr. Shook, and regretfully I didn’t manage in time to grab a word with you on the way. Regardless, and you may well call me a relic of an older age for this, which would be fair enough, but I feel if you’re going to kill somebody, you owe it to ’em to look ’em in the eyes first. Seems to me what little nobility there was in battle went out of it when we moved from blades and armor to magic bursts from a hundred yards away.”

They both stared at him blankly for a moment. Prin eased a step away from him. “…I’m sorry, I think I must’ve misheard you.”

“That’s one of the great peculiarities common to all sentient beings, I find,” McGraw said, reaching into his coat to pull out a thin cigar case. As he continued speaking, he withdrew a cigarillo, lit it by pressing the tip against the quartz head of his staff, and tucked the case away. “I had an acquaintance some years ago…well, a friend, really, as best as men like myself can reckon such things…with the given name of Bell. No matter how clearly he enunciated, upon introducing himself to just about anyone, he’d get back a ‘Nice to meet you, Bill!’” He puffed calmly at the cigarillo for a moment. “Now, nobody thought this over and decided to change his name for him… I reckon none even decided on a conscious level that they’d misheard and corrected it. It’s a thing that happens quicker than thought. Our fickle brains look for patterns, for the familiar. They see somethin’ outside their register of what makes sense, well, they just erase it and substitute something more comfortable. Thus, a man named Bell gets called Bill. Likewise, a man who states his intention to kill the other party in a civilized conversation must have been misheard. Why not? The way we’re accustomed to treating each other, well, it just doesn’t make a damn lick of sense. My apologies for the language, ma’am,” he added, tipping his hat to her.

“Oh, good,” Prin said sourly. “He’s a talker.”

McGraw laughed at that. “Apologies for that, too. Afraid at my age, I’ve already kicked the bad habits I’m going to and made peace with the rest.”

“Just to be clear,” Shook said softly, “you are talking about killing us?”

“Well, her, specifically. Things bein’ as they are, it’s likely to end up being you, too, ‘less you decide to keep well enough out of it.”

“Now why would you want to go and do a thing like that?” the enforcer asked, still in that mild tone. His hands, though, had curled in on themselves, obviously (to the trained eye) preparing to access the knives hidden up his sleeves.

“I don’t concern myself with the likes of ‘why,’” McGraw said, puffing away. “Ain’t a wise thing to ask about, nor a safe thing to know. Once the money’s paid, I proceed with the job. I will say, as I’ve been authorized to do so, that the Thieves’ Guild has stepped on toes that ought not to’ve been stepped on. A rival cult would very much like to see the end of whatever specific business you two are sniffing around after, in the most absolute manner possible. Hence, here I am.” He spread his hands in a gesture that was half-shrug, as though amused by the vagaries of life.

“What cult?” Shook asked tersely. McGraw just gave him a long look. “…right.”

“This is insane,” Principia protested, backing up again. “If you intend to murder someone, you don’t announce it to them ahead of time.”

“Indeed, assassination must come from the shadows, right?” He shook his head. “That’s just the way it’s done. I wonder how many people a year die from seein’ what they expect to, ‘stead of what’s right in front of ’em.”

“You’re in the middle of a crowded bar full of witnesses, most of whom would love nothing better than to jump into a fight and play hero. And threatening murder is itself a crime under Imperial law! All we have to do is go to the Sheriff and you’ll be in a cell faster than you can finish that foul-smelling cigar.”

“You make an awful lot of presumptions concerning what I do or don’t care about,” he replied calmly. “Yes, you could, indeed, go to the Sheriff, at which point the matter would be your word against mine. That can be a dicey thing, when one’s an outsider in these little towns. Folks are more inclined to believe what’s familiar and comfortable to them, as I think I’ve mentioned recently. Course, matters become different when the familiar faces are the town’s two shiftiest residents. My blank slate looks a lot more attractive in that situation, I think. And I happen to find the smell soothing.”

“You can’t just—”

“My apologies for cuttin’ you off, ma’am, but it’s been a long day and I really would prefer to move this along. There are a couple ways this can proceed. Best of all for me is that you try to get the jump on me. Thank the gods for self-defense laws; they’ve allowed me to put down more than a few targets in public without appearin’ so much as suspicious.”

“You’re assuming we can’t take you,” Shook snarled.

“Why, yes,” McGraw said mildly. “It appears I am assuming that. Slightly less advantageous to me is that you try to flee the town, get yourselves lost in the Golden Sea, or the more mundane prairie in the opposite direction. Killing you out of sight of civilization is similarly clean. Just as a word of warning, though, if either of you puts a foot near the scrolltower office or a Rail car, you’ll be dead before the second foot comes down.”

“You can’t watch us all the time, you know!”

“You think not, miss?” he asked in that same tone of calm. “Down the list to the less preferable alternatives, you could just sit on your hands and wait till I’ve got no choice but to act. I have a generous timetable, but I don’t aim to fool around in this town more than a few days. Or, you could attempt to enlist help. It’d have to be help of the illicit sort, since the law won’t be too kindly disposed toward a couple members of the Thieves’ Guild.”

“You can’t possibly prove—”

“That is actually a lot less challenging than you Eserites like to believe. Most people simply don’t bother.”

“That’s because being a member of the Guild is not against the law!”

“Just so, ma’am,” he said agreeably. “But it sure doesn’t make the law more favorably inclined toward you. And if you optimistically assume you’ll be around to continue your operations after I leave town, well, it’d complicate your life considerably to be outed. So, what’s it to be, then? Care to do me a favor and start this right now?”

He puffed placidly on his cigarillo, watching them. Principia glanced sidelong at Shook; she wasn’t armed, and wasn’t much use in a fight anyway. The enforcer was glaring pure fury at McGraw, every line of his frame rigid. He remained silent, though, and made no movement toward the other man. Whatever his prowess in hand-to-hand combat, it didn’t take much wit to see that they were dealing with a magic user of some kind. The way to attack one of those was not from the front, when they were expecting it.

“Pity,” McGraw mused after the silence had stretched out for a few moments. “But circumstances being as they are, I can hardly fault you for being less than accommodating. No offense is taken, I assure you. Well, in that case, I’ll bid you good night.”

He stepped forward twice, till his way was blocked by Shook, who still stood tensely, glaring at him.

“’Scuze me,” McGraw said politely. He received only a murderous stare in reply. After a moment, he grinned around his cigarillo and shifted sideways to slip around the enforcer. “Be seein’ you two real soon,” he said amiably as he turned to mount the stairs.

They stood in silence, listening to the sound of his footsteps above, until they grew too distant to be audible over the babble of cheerful noise in the tavern.

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