Tag Archives: Hildred

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“Morning,” Jasmine said mildly as Tallie shambled into the kitchen, blinking blearily.

“My ten-year-old self would hate me for asking this,” Tallie replied, pausing to smother a yawn, “but how come I gotta come in here after some food? Glory and Smythe both seem to love playing host. I figured there’d be something laid out in the dining room.”

“You missed them,” Jasmine replied. She was leaning against the kitchen cabinets, idly practicing rolling a coin across the backs of her fingers; at this point she could do it as smoothly as any Guild veteran. It had been harder for her to learn to lean against things rather than standing at parade rest, and her posture still looked a bit affected. Too stiff in the shoulders to be a believable ruffian’s slouch. “Glory left first thing this morning to do some errands and check up on things—she’s got contacts to…uh, contact, both official and less so. Pretty much all of her household went along. Rasha to learn, Smythe for protection because she is still an item of interest to violent conspirators, and Ami…” she grimaced. “Actually I’m less sure about that.”

“To shmooze,” Layla said primly. The only other person present, she was seated at the kitchen table, working on a plate upon which she had assembled slices from the bread, cheese, and summer sausage laid out. “Ami is quite the career girl, and Glory is the best opportunity she’s ever had.”

“This morning has been an interesting experiment in who gets up when, without Style stomping through the dormitories kicking random beds,” Jasmine asked with a grin. “Ross has been through and out; Schwartz came in for some tea and I seriously think he was sleepwalking the whole time. No sign of Darius yet.”

“An’ you’re up, of course,” Tallie grumbled, shuffling over to the table and plopping herself into a seat before reaching for the sausage. “I’ve got no explanation for this one.”

“That’s because you never listen to me,” Layla scoffed. “Little rich girl can’t possibly have anything worthwhile to say.”

“No, no,” Tallie moaned, weakly flapping a hand at her. “No sniping till I’m properly awake. Unfair. What about that thing where all our lives’re in danger, huh? We know anything about that? The Bishops got it all squared away?”

“I think that’s the lion’s share of what Glory went to find out,” Jasmine said more seriously, then straightened up. “The second shift of Legionnaires Syrinx called for came to relieve the others less than an hour ago. This looked like less than a half squad, so hopefully things are simmering down. I know we’re all gonna get stir crazy, but the Bishops were right; better to stay put while this is cleaned up by the professionals. I’m going to go check on the others.”

“Good idea,” said Layla. “Ross was talking about going outside to flirt with the Legionnaires.”

Tallie straightened up, blinking in surprise. Jasmine hesitated in the act of heading for the door, turning a wary look on Layla. “…I thought he was joking. I mean, come on. Have you ever known Ross to flirt with anybody?”

Layla arched an eyebrow. “Have you ever known him to joke?”

Jasmine stared at her for a moment, then shook her head. “Bloody hell,” she muttered, hurrying out through the dining room.

“Are they making the troops stand outside, still?” Tallie asked blearily after swallowing a bite of sausage. “Just cos it hasn’t snowed in a week doesn’t mean it’s balmy out there.”

“They’re troops, that’s what they do,” Layla replied with an indifferent shrug. “Those last night declined offers to come in. And rightly so; they can’t very well guard the house against intruders if they’re not watching for people to approach.”

“Ah, yes, right,” Tallie said, eyes on the sandwich she was now making of cheese and sausage folded into a slice of bread. “Gods know we can’t have those little people acting above their station.”

Layla gazed at her in silence for a moment, then shook her head. “Tallie, I have refrained from rising to your bait because I know enough about my own social class to assume your antipathy is well earned. Let me just ask you this, though: have I, personally, ever acted toward you as if I thought you were somehow lesser than myself?”

“Yes,” Tallie said immediately, still looking at her sandwich. “First day we met, when you showed up in that preposterous fuckin’ carriage.”

“Fair enough. And…since?”

Tallie slowly chewed a bite while Layla regarded her in silence. After she finished and just sat there, staring at her food for a moment, the younger girl sighed and opened her mouth to continue.

“You’re a lady,” Tallie said suddenly. “Look…you’re right, it’s not really fair. You’ve been okay to me, just like anyone else in our little group. But your brother goes out of his way to be as much of an oaf as a boy can; he reminds me of the roadies from the caravan growing up. You, though, you’re just so…everything I associate with people looking down their noses at me. Even when there’s no malice behind it, I can’t help…reacting.”

“I suppose I can understand that,” Layla mused after pausing to consider. “I’m not sure it’s fair, though. I would say that Jasmine is as ladylike in her conduct as I.”

“Jasmine isn’t a lady,” Tallie said immediately. “Truthfully…I dunno what the hell she is. She gives off some weird signals sometimes; only thing I know is she’s trying hard to fit in with us mere mortals. Maybe that’s the difference. I’ve got a category I can fit you in, fair or not, and it’s not exactly a pretty one. Jas is just Jas, in a class of her own.”

“Well, as to that,” Layla said with a faint smile, “I’ve been disappointed, I’ll confess, at not having someone to snipe at Ami with behind her back. I love Jasmine, too, but she’s not very good at…girl things.”

“Boy, ain’t that the truth,” Tallie replied, grinning and finally meeting her eyes. “I honestly don’t think she understands why anyone would dislike Ami.”

“She was raised Avenist,” Layla huffed. “I half wonder if she doesn’t try to sneak glances like the boys do and is just better at hiding it.”

“After sharing a dorm with Jas I am pretty sure she’s not into girls,” Tallie said dryly. “Anyhow, don’t you worry about dearest Ami; let her have her spotlight while she can. As my mom used to say: the bigger they are, the farther they fall.”

Layla was unfortunately in the process of taking another bite and nearly choked, doubling over with laughter.

“Yeah, you’re right,” Tallie said lightly, lounging back and tipping her chair up on two legs. “This is fun. Jas’d just lecture us about body-shaming a fellow woman.”

“Give me credit for recognizing a lost cause,” Jasmine said, striding back into the room. Tallie and Layla both straightened up guiltily, but met each other’s eyes with a conspiratorial little shared smile. Jasmine, however, looked worried. “No one panic yet, but I think we have trouble.”

Both of them instantly sobered, Tallie rising from her chair. “Is everybody okay?”

“I haven’t made a complete sweep of the house,” Jasmine said quickly, “didn’t even get upstairs. But I did poke my nose outside, and the Legionnaires are gone. The whole squad; none of their assigned positions are attended. That is not normal procedure; they should have notified someone if they were being recalled.”

“Did you happen to see any of the boys?” Layla asked, her eyebrows drawing together.

Jasmine shook her head. “I wanted to warn you two something might be up; I haven’t gone looking yet. Darius is probably still asleep, but I want to make sure Ross and Schwartz are—”

“Do you hear that?” Tallie interrupted.

All three of them froze, listening. In the ensuing silence, the noise was plain, if faint; a rapid, almost frantic scratching sound, like claws on wood.

Layla twisted around in her chair. “It’s coming from over there. The door!”

She rose while the others whisked past her, both automatically falling into the rapid, silent movement drilled into them by Guild trainers. All three girls clustered around the kitchen’s back door; it had a glass panel looking out onto Glory’s walled-in garden. The glass was partially obscured by frost, but still, they could tell no one was standing outside.

Tallie crouched, shifting her head closer to the door, then lifted her face to the others and pointed at a spot at the very bottom, where the noise was coming from. Jasmine and Layla both nodded acknowledgment; there was no lock or mechanism there that anyone would be trying to pick, which ruled out one immediately threatening possibility. The three moved silently, as if they had rehearsed the maneuver: Tallie retreated to one side where she had open space and braced her legs to spring in any direction, Layla backed across the room to cover the dining room door, and Jasmine shifted into position next to the outer door, placing her hand on the latch.

She looked at the others, getting a nod of confirmation from each of them, before yanking it open and stepping back, ready to face whatever was there.

A tiny red blur zipped into the kitchen, going straight for Jasmine’s leg, and scaled her in seconds while her poised stance dissolved into hopping and flailing. Not until the passenger arrived on her shoulder, reaching up to grab her ear with tiny paws, did she stop after finally getting a good look.

“Meesie?”

The little elemental squealed frantically, hopping up and down on Jasmine’s shoulder and tugging at her face.

“What’s she doing?” Tallie exclaimed. “I’ve never seen her act like that before. Course, I haven’t spent a lot of time—”

“Tallie,” Layla interrupted, stepping forward, “think. This can only mean one thing.”

Tallie’s eyes widened and the color drained from her cheeks, but it was Jasmine who spoke, accompanied by Meesie’s plaintive little wail.

“They’ve got Schwartz.”


By popular demand, Maureen had wheeled the device out of its housing to work on it; she had only a short break between classes, but between inspiration having struck after seeing the vehicle in action last night and the attention she was getting, she had found a pretext to roll it out and make a few adjustments. There was a much bigger audience than usual, a dozen students having wandered over to admire the machine and its creator.

“But it even looks like a wasp,” Hildred was saying animatedly. “Look how it’s body’s all round, there, and that narrow bit at the end fer the stinger!”

“I suggested calling it the Hornet,” Chase said grandiloquently. “It even makes a sound like an enormous buzz when it’s in motion! But Miss Buzz-kill here pooh-poohed that idea.”

“You lot an’ yer chapbook fantasies,” Maureen grunted, swinging the access panel closed and wriggling out from under the machine. Its rear hover charm was online, holding it off the ground, but the motive enchantments had been disconnected while she made adjustments; now, she re-engaged the controls. It did not hum to life, which would require an extra step, and there was no use in wasting the power crystals anyway. “Wasp this an’ hornet that, tryin’ ta make my girl inta somethin’ fierce an’ mean. She’s not a weapon, okay?” Slowly, she stepped along the length of the vehicle, trailing her fingertips affectionately over its curved lines. “Maybe yer onta somethin’ with that insect talk, though. She’s efficient, beautiful, an’ a hard worker. My little Honeybee.”

Chase clapped a hand over his eyes. “Oh, come on. That has got to be the most—”

“Chase Masterson.”

Most of the assembled students shied backward, some with exclamations of startlement, at the appearance of a craggy-faced, balding man in a long black coat right in their midst. At being addressed, Chase whirled to stare at him, and then blinked.

“Oh. Well, hi there,” he said, nonplussed. “You know, I realize technically Hands are supposed to represent the Emperor in a personal capacity, but nobody’s ever told me the right formal address. Is it your Majesty? Cos that just seems disrespectful to the actual—”

The Hand of the Emperor smoothly drew a wand from his pocket and shot him, twice, point blank.

The students surged back further, most of them shouting now; two divine shields and one blue arcane one flared into being, and Iris thrust a hand into the pocket of her dress. All of them immediately froze, however, staring.

Chase was unharmed; both lightning bolts had sparked fruitlessly against a glowing orange spell circle which had flashed into being—standing vertically, midair, unlike any such circle they had ever seen—between him and the Hand. It faded instantly from sight, but too late to avoid being observed.

“What the—” Hildred swallowed heavily. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

“I have.” Iris’s upper lip had drawn back in an animal snarl, and she withdrew a clenched fist from her pocket, trailing a faintly luminous green dust. Her glare, though, was fixed on Chase, not on the wand-toting Hand.

“There is a lesson here for you, students,” the Hand said flatly, also staring at Chase with his weapon still at the ready. “In how quick and easy it is to do what Arachne Tellwyrn has failed to for two months. Masterson, among the Sleeper’s offenses for which you can be held responsible is the assault of duly appointed ambassadors from Tar’naris, an allied power. That does not necessarily but can carry a charge of high treason, at the officiating Magistrate’s discretion. I can assure you, young man, the Grand Magistrate in charge of your case will find it appropriate to charge you with the capital crime.”

“We can save them the trouble!” Iris snarled, and Szith pounced bodily on her, wrapping both arms around her roommate to inhibit her from throwing her handful of now-smoking dust.

“Stop,” the drow hissed. “If you assault a Hand of the Emperor, even inadvertently, that is also a capital offense!”

“Heed her,” the Hand advised, glancing at Iris. “Once again, Ms. An’sadarr, you demonstrate why your people are such valued allies.”

“You didn’t do it this way just to lecture me, though,” Chase said thoughtfully. Incongruously, he was wearing a fascinated smile, as though an intriguing puzzle were unraveling right before his eyes. “No, this doesn’t make sense at all. This isn’t about little ol’ me, is it?”

“Inspector Fedora offered you a position with Imperial Intelligence,” the Hand said to him, ignoring the increasingly angry mutters of the students, who had started to press closer around them. “He is no longer in a position to make such offers, but I am. Your stupidity has terminated your life as a free agent, Masterson, but you do have better options left than the headsman. The Empire has made use of nastier pieces of work than you, by far.”

“You can’t be serious!” Gilbert Moss shouted, trying to shove forward and rebounding fruitlessly off Anoia’s divine shield.

“Oh, I see,” Chase mused, grinning broadly now. “And if I’d rather not be an Imperial lackey?”

“Your anonymity was your only shield, you little fool,” the Hand said curtly. “Tellwyrn can demolish you in a heartbeat, once she knows who to attack. So can the Empire. Serve, or die. Unlike Tellwyrn, we always have a plan in place before acting. Report to Tiraas, and you will be immediately found and given instructions. Or try to run. It will be a short hunt.” He looked pointedly at Iris, who had stopped struggling with Szith to glare pure hatred at them both. “I’d think quickly, if I were you.”

And then the Hand was simply gone, as if he’d never stood there.

Chase cleared his throat, putting on a bashful expression and shrugging. “Well! This is awkw—”

With a unified roar, they surged in on him, so fast he barely managed to shadow-jump away.


The docks were, if anything, more crowded than usual, though a great deal less busy. Many of the citizens of Puna Dara were clustered along the wharves, muttering and staring out at the great serpent still making slow laps around the center of the harbor. Most of the activities at which they would normally be busy had been suspended.

Being Punaji, there were a few risk-takers among them, and several boats had attempted to launch throughout the day. No one had actually been attacked, yet, because even those reckless souls had had the sense to head back to the docks once the serpent broke off its aimless patrol to move slowly in their direction. So far, no ships had been launched, and a handful of royal privateers who had been outside the harbor when the serpent appeared were maintaining position beyond the lighthouses, warning approaching vessels away.

The people watched their livelihoods slowly wither while the monstrosity lurked, and their mumbling grew increasingly angry. Notably, no Rust cultists had dared show their faces near the wharves today. The dockside warehouse where they made their public home, usually open to all, was buttoned up tight and had been since well before dawn.

Near midmorning, a cry went up on the docks, engendering at first some confusion and then more shouts as people pointed; most of the onlookers, expecting the source of trouble to come from out in the harbor, looked the wrong way initially and had to be directed toward the sky.

She descended slowly on broad wings of pure flame. Vadrieny made a pass over the docks, then circled around and swung in lower, executing another sweep before gliding in a third time, this time clearly making to land. It was an approach obviously designed to make her intentions clear and give people the chance to get out of the way, which they did. She set down gently, pumping her wings and creating a rush of warm air over the onlookers who pressed back from her, before settling lightly to the dock. As soon as she had landed, the flame and overlarge claws withdrew, leaving behind only a girl in deep red Narisian robes, her brown hair in an oddly shaggy style as if it had been cut short and then left to grow out for a few weeks.

She had set down near the southern end of the shallow arc of the docks, on a pier at which only local fishing boats were tied up. Teal turned in a slow circle, taking in the muttering crowds, the beast in the harbor, and the surrounding geography, and then set out inland. She strode off the pier and onto the solid ground of the city, making straight for an open-fronted fishmonger’s shack.

“Good morning,” she said politely to the wary-looking old man seated behind the counter.

“You too,” he said slowly. “So, uh…that fiery bit, there. What’s that about?”

She hesitated before answering. “That was the archdemon Vadrieny. Last surviving daughter of Elilial.”

“And…she’s gone, now?”

“No,” Teal said evenly, touching the Talisman of Absolution pinned to the front of her robes. “Still here.”

“Mm.” He grimaced. “Daughter of Elilial, that’s exactly what we need right now. You can’t go pick on somebody else? Puna Dara’s got enough problems.” His eyes cut past her; he had a perfect view, between the wharves, of the augmented sea serpent moving along its slow, endless sweep.

“Actually,” she said, “we’re here to do something about that. I guess business must be pretty slow today, huh?”

“That your idea of a joke?” the fishmonger demanded.

“No, sir,” she replied, her tone polite. “I’m hoping you’ll be willing to part with a whole barrel of chum. I figure it won’t be much of a hardship if nobody’s fishing today.”

For a moment, the man just stared at her. “You’re…going to get rid of the beast…with a barrel of chum.”

Some of the onlookers had drawn closer; the people of Puna Dara were not as easily intimidated as the average run of civilians, and with Vadrieny not actually in evidence several dozen were emboldened enough to have stepped within earshot by that point.

“Well, there are steps involved,” Teal explained. “Dealing with the serpent may take time, but we can force it down from the surface and neutralize the Rust cultists who summoned it, at least temporarily, by bringing on a storm.”

More muttering began, on all sides. Teal ignored this, smiling calmly at the fishmonger. He, for his part, just stared.

“You want,” he said at last, “to cause a storm. With a barrel of chum.”

“Yes.”

“…kid, I get the impression you’re new in town.”

“What gave me away?” she asked with a faint smile. “Is it the accent?”

He shook his head. “You don’t cause storms. They just come. Naphthene does what Naphthene wants, and the storm cares not. Welcome to Puna Dara.”

“How about this?” Teal pulled a wallet from one of the pockets of her robe and began flicking through its contents; it was a thin thing, containing only paper money. “Sell me a barrel of chum, and if this doesn’t work out, you’ll have done some business and got to see the last daughter of Elilial look foolish. Win/win, isn’t it?”

She produced the smallest denomination of bank note she had and held it up, smiling.

He stared at her for another two heartbeats before turning his eyes to the note. It was for twenty Imperial decabloons—the better part of a year’s take at his little bait shack.

“Lady,” the fishmonger said in mounting exasperation, “I do not have change for that.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Teal set the note down on his counter. “Share with your neighbors, help offset the lost business from that creature. So, my chum?”

The man looked truly flummoxed, but with a sigh, he carefully picked up the bank note—gingerly, as if holding the most valuable object he had ever touched, which was possibly the case. “Just so you know, all sales here are final.”

“Of course.”

“…right. So…chum’s right here. I’ll just…uh, you want some help carrying this to…wherever? I can call my son over…”

“That’s quite all right. May I?”

At her polite request, he shrugged, then lifted the hinged board separating his counter from the street. Teal stepped behind, gripped the edges of the open barrel he indicated, and picked it up without effort.

The barrel stood as high as her waist and was filled to within inches of the top with fish guts and other effluvia, kept behind the counter to discourage seagulls. Teal appeared as unbothered by the smell as she was by the weight, which a strong man would have been hard-pressed to hoist alone. She held it carefully at arm’s length, away from the front of her robes.

“Thanks,” she said lightly, trundling back out onto the street bordering the wharves. “Pleasure doing business. Now, if I’m not mistaken, I think I saw a little shrine to Naphthene just up that way as we were gliding in. Is that right?”

His eyes widened. “You’re not thinking of…”

“You can come watch, if you want,” she said, turning and setting off down the docks.

Her gait was a little awkward, holding the barrel out in front of herself, but she moved at an average walking pace, which gave the ever-growing crowd plenty of time to get out of her way. Those who hadn’t been close enough to observe the exchange at the bait shack were warned off by the smell as a barrel of half-rotten fish parts made its way along the wharves. Even as they cleared a path, however, the locals followed along, muttering in increasing curiosity over what this clearly possessed, oddly polite foreigner was up to.

Not too far distant from the bait stand, there was indeed a small shrine to Naphthene built adjacent to the water, between two piers. It was a simple thing, the goddess of the sea having no formal cult, just a waist-high circular base of stones, mostly filled with rounded pebbles from the harbor or nearby beaches. A single large, rounded rock stood upright from the middle of it, carved with the trident sigil of Naphthene and turned to face out to sea. Around it, atop the sea stones which made its nest, had been laid a thick melange of shells, fish hooks, coins, and little trinkets, offerings of appreciation and supplication, which were universally ignored—but still offered. Naphthene did not answer prayers, but she was sometimes known to punish the lack of them. It was not visible from the docks, but there would be a pile of similar little treasures in the water directly under the shrine. When the space in the shrine itself became too full, its offerings would be tipped into the sea. No one in this city dared pilfer from the fickle goddess.

Teal approached this directly, and the crowd’s muttering became more urgent as they perceived her intent; most of them began backing away more expeditiously, eager not to be within range of whatever was about to happen.

“Lady, no,” a young boy exclaimed, waving to get her attention. “The goddess cursed the whole royal family cos a prince pissed on one of those shrines! An’ that was by accident!”

Still holding the reeking barrel, Teal paused and turned to give him a calm smile of acknowledgment.

“I,” she said with a faint edge to her tone, “am not a prince.”

Then she effortlessly lifted the barrel, tipped it up, and dumped its entire load of rotting filth over and into the sea goddess’s shrine.

Fish entrails and old pieces no longer fit for human consumption poured down in a rank slurry, quickly filling the space inside the shrine and spilling over it to splatter on the ground. People began turning to flee outright—some, at least. Others gazed on, wide-eyed, apparently unable to tear themselves away from what was sure to be a spectacle.

Immediately, a ripple appeared in the harbor, halfway out to where the serpent lurked, and shot toward the shrine as if something just beneath the surface were heading landward at an incredible speed. At the sight of this, more of the onlookers fled, and even the most stubborn judiciously backed away from the edge of the water.

The surge hit the shore, and erupted in a veritable geyser, blasting the shrine and Teal hard enough to bowl anyone over and sweep them out to sea. Indeed, several of those closest lost their footing in the backwash that rushed back into the harbor, and nobody within earshot avoided getting soaked. Fortunately, no one was sucked out into the ocean. The only one standing close enough to the sea goddess’s little slap had been its target, Teal.

But when the water receded, Teal was gone; Vadrieny stood there, clawed hands braced on the edges of the shrine, talons sunk right into the stone of the harbor wall below for purchase. Her blazing wings and hair hissed, water rapidly burning away to steam and dissipating in the moist air.

Flaring her wings outward, Vadrieny released her hold and hopped up, landing nimbly with her talons on the edges of the shrine. It had been blasted clean by the spray, fish guts and offerings both swept away to leave only stone. While the drenched onlookers stared in horror, the daughter of Elilial deliberately raised one clawed foot and slammed it down, crushing the central rock and obliterating the sigil of Naphthene.

Vadrieny sank her claws into the stone with a crunch, leaned forward to glare out to sea, spread her wings and arms wide—claws fully extended in an obvious threat—and screamed, jaws stretching wider than a human mouth was physically meant to open, baring her full complement of fangs. The unearthly howl blasted forth with enough physical force to make the water ripple back from the destroyed shrine; everyone nearby clapped hands over their ears, many crying out in protest. They were unheard, of course. Nothing was heard except the roar of a challenge from the infernal demigoddess.

In the distance, the entire horizon turned black.

The ocean itself changed color, and began to heave; white foam appeared, accompanying a sudden rise of wind whistling straight ashore. The sky itself thickened, thunderheads appearing seemingly from nowhere and spreading out from that ominous line of clouds. Already flickers of lightning appeared along the leading edge of the storm, flashing nearly constantly, though it was still too far out to sea for the thunder to be audible.

Still, but not for long.

Vadrieny turned and hopped down from the wrecked shrine, putting her back contemptuously to the storm. Immediately, lightning snapped out of the still-clear sky overhead, arcing into the harbor and sending a crack of thunder booming across Puna Dara, a herald of the tempest rapidly on its way. The archdemon did not even flinch.

“I suggest you all get ready,” she said over the rising howl of the wind. “It’s coming fast.”

 

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13 – 4

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Captain Leingardt wasn’t destined for a career in politics; her expression clearly showed the normal reaction of a military officer to having her post invaded by a ranking politician. She managed to speak politely, however.

“Your Grace, what an unexpected…surprise. To what do we owe this…honor?”

The look Syrinx gave her was openly amused, but the Bishop chose not to make anything of it. “Just doing my job, Captain. No need to worry, I mean to do it as quickly as possible and be out of your hair, taking all this baggage with me. So! It seems we have a ‘she said, they said’ dilemma here.” She turned her gaze briefly on Sister Falaridjad, showing the tips of her teeth in a strange little grin, before shifting her focus to the apprentices. “As it happens, I am personally acquainted with all the players in this little drama, and I can attest from experience that these kids are sneaky, unscrupulous troublemakers who evince no care for the repercussions of their antics, nor regard for anyone outside their immediate circle.”

“Now, see here,” Layla began, but Syrinx simply raised her voice and continued.

“And, that being the case, if this were nothing but their word against Ildrin Falaridjad’s, I would still be more inclined to believe them.”

“This is none of your business, Syrinx,” Falaridjad said, practically vibrating with tension.

“As usual, Ildrin, you are cataclysmically wrong,” the Bishop replied, granting her a syrupy smile. “I have spent my morning dealing with this mess in particular—because that is literally my job. We have a tangle of Eserites and Salyrites having created a mess in an Avenist temple, precisely the kind of interfaith issue the Bishops exist to address. As such, Ildrin, I happen to know exactly what transpired on every level of this.” She turned to Captain Leingardt, who was now watching all this unfold without expression. “I have the full reports on the incident at the temple, and no, there was no assault. Of any kind. The only remotely physical altercation was between these two.” She pointed at Jasmine and Layla. “And since they are clearly in league, I rather doubt either intends to press any sort of charge. Further, I made it here so rapidly on their heels because Ildrin, showing her customary lack of basic sense, saw fit to forcibly remove three apprentices of the Thieves’ Guild from the region they most heavily monitor, and was followed all the way here by enforcers.”

Ildrin actually bared her teeth. “That doesn’t explain why you—”

“You will be quiet or you will be punched quiet,” Basra said curtly.

“That is crossing a line, your Grace,” the Captain interjected.

Basra ignored this, continuing. “To answer the question, I was nearby, in the process of being updated by the Eserite Bishop on these very events, and learning the most fascinating things. For example: this was an unsanctioned operation, and Boss Tricks is furious at these little know-nothings for sticking their fingers where they had no business being. However they did, no doubt by accident, manage to accomplish something worthwhile. You see, Captain, the goods they stole were voluntarily returned to the Collegium, along with stolen documentation from both the Salyrite and Avenist sides of some kind of interfaith embezzlement scheme.” She shifted her gaze back to Ildrin, and grinned broadly. “Copies also found their way to Commander Rouvad. And guess whose name featured prominently in this report!”

Slowly, Captain Leingardt turned to regard Sister Falaridjad, and raised one eyebrow. Ildrin herself held silent, glaring at Basra with her fists clenched. The four Legionnaires and three apprentices kept perfectly still, watching all this unfold with wide eyes.

“Well, that was unquestionably a robbery,” Syrinx said, turning back to the Captain. “But it seems their intentions were good, no harm was ultimately done, and in fact both the Sisterhood and the Collegium have benefited. At this point, my own concern is to soothe the ruffled feathers these brats have caused by acting out of line. It’s your call, of course, Captain, but in my official capacity as Bishop I highly recommend, and ask, that you leave the disciplining here to be handled internally by the Thieves’ Guild.”

“You don’t even have to ask, your Grace,” Leingardt replied, nodding. “I reached the same conclusion before you were done explaining. You three can go.” Narrowing her eyes, she looked at Falaridjad again. “I suppose I ought to have this one taken into custody, considering…”

The priestess folded her arms defiantly, but addressed herself to Syrinx, not Leingradt. “You have no cause or authority to do such a thing. I promise you would regret the attempt.”

“The testimony from someone of Bishop Syrinx’s rank, especially backed by documents, is adequate probable cause,” Jasmine said.

The Bishop, priestess, and Captain all turned to glare at her.

“Well,” Tallie drawled, stuffing her hands in her pockets, “as people keep pointing out, if there’s one thing we Eserites understand, it’s the process of getting arrested.”

“You lot were told to shove off,” Syrinx said curtly. “Be about it. And as for you.” She fixed another stare on Ildrin, again wearing a small, predatory grin. “Your last trick involved burglarizing a temple of Izara, nearly killing two Bishops, and almost starting a war. I can’t fathom how your buddies at the Universal Church managed to get you out of that one, but I’m willing to bet there aren’t a lot of strings left for them to pull. So I’ll tell you what, Ildrin, for old time’s sake.” She took one step closer; Ildrin stood her ground, fists actually quivering with repressed fury now. “How much trouble you decide to cause me from here out will determine whether I lean on the High Commander with every ounce of influence I have to throw the book at you…” She took another step, her smile widening. “…or lean on her to cut you loose entirely, and notify the Guild you were trying to frame and abduct some of their apprentices. Since you have so little regard for Avei’s justice, perhaps you would find a taste of Eserion’s version…enlightening.”

“You,” Ildrin said tensely, “are a monster.”

Syrinx winked. “And you are just pathetic, Falaridjad. If there’s any justice in the world, I will be there when you learn how very sad you truly are.”

“All right, that’s enough,” Captain Leingardt interjected. “I don’t know what’s going on between you two, but it’s clearly more personal than this business warrants. Your Grace, I would appreciate it if you didn’t bring political vendettas into my post.”

“For the record, I’m clearly not the one who brought anything here,” Basra said with a placid smile, “but your point is taken. Your cooperation is much appreciated, Captain Leingardt. I’ll leave you to your business.”

She nodded politely to the Captain, turned her back on Falaridjad, and strolled over to the apprentices, where she paused.

“Well? Planning to stand around in here all day?” The Bishop arched an eyebrow at them, then continued on to the doors.

They watched her go, then looked at each other, then back at the rest. Leingardt was already in the process of upbraiding Falaridjad’s four escorting Legionnaires while the priestess glared venom at them. In unspoken unison, they turned and hurried to the doors.

Bishop Syrinx was waiting for them right outside, her breath misting softly in the winter air.

“So! After being hounded very nearly to death by the Svennish secret service, the next thing you decided to do was body-slam your way into dicey interfaith politics you clearly don’t understand. Interesting choice.”

“Hardly the next thing,” Tallie protested. “That was over a month ago.”

“Oh, yes, a whole month.” Syrinx raised an eyebrow. “You kids aren’t the most luminous beacons in the firmament, are you? Well, if for some reason you insist on making enemies, Ildrin Falaridjad is a good place to start. She’s devious, pathologically self-involved, and also a fumbling imbecile.”

“Thanks for the advice,” Tallie said dryly, “and the save.”

“If I’d done you a favor you’d better believe I would hold it over you, but it’s as I said: all this is no more or less than my job. Presumptuous neophytes meddling where they shouldn’t make it more interesting, but smoothing over incidents like this is why the cults bother to have Bishops and the Universal Church itself. Now if you will excuse me, I have to go home and supervise the decorators.” She gave Jasmine in particular a vulpine smile. “There was a small fire at my house recently, with the upshot that I’m getting it completely redone for free. Well, free to me, I suppose technically it’s being paid for by everyone who does business with Tallithi Mutual. A Vernisite could explain insurance in detail; I just sign the forms. You know, the police said there were signs of arson. Clearly not by anyone who had thought through the ramifications of that action.”

“Oh, why ever would anyone want to set you on fire, your Grace?” Layla asked sweetly.

Basra grinned at her. “Perhaps the sort of person I could easily make wait to speak with me simply by telling them to leave? I’m so accustomed to dealing with the sharks of Tiraas’s politics; once in a while it’s downright refreshing to toy with presumptuous guppies.”

She let the silence hang for a moment while all three stared at her, Tallie with her mouth slightly open.

“I suggest you kids cast your lines more carefully in the future,” Syrinx finally said, in a flat tone. “You are not ready to sail these waters. Listen to your teachers, and leave the politics to those who understand them.”

With that, and a final superciliously arched eyebrow, she turned and strolled away up the street, tucking her hands in the pockets of her fur-lined coat.

“What a singularly unpleasant woman,” Layla observed, unconsciously gripping her shopping bag in front of herself.

“Yeah,” Tallie agreed, nodding. “She’s kind of awesome, though.”

Jasmine stared after the Bishop in silence, her mouth pressed into a thin line.


“Hey, Mr. Carson! What’d you bring us?”

“Nothin’ more interesting than usual, Hildred,” Fred said, pausing to give her a smile. “Now, don’t go pressin’ me for special treatment. You know how Mrs. Oak likes to keep it a surprise.”

She was clearly going somewhere, carrying an armful of books, and so Fred wasn’t bothered when she just laughed and continued on her way. He went back to his, pushing the empty cart through the gate.

Well, the old gate.

He didn’t stop himself from peering around curiously as he continued on down the path, this stretch of which was longer than it used to be. The land shaping for the campus extension had been finished two weeks ago, rendering this section of the mountain’s slope into terraces like the old campus, and now the main thoroughfare zigzagged a bit, navigating ramps, rather than being the straight staircase that ran down the rest of the mountain. Fred always took the long, back-and-forth path when pushing his full produce cart uphill, but on the way down it was light enough to just drag down the stairs. Thanks to the levitation charms which made it easy for a single person to haul, it didn’t even bounce much on the steps. For the Saturday weekly delivery, of course, he brought the much larger mule cart up, but the daily shipment of fresh produce to the kitchens required only his magically lightened push cart.

Construction had begun on the buildings just a week ago, and there were a few in partially finished states, interspersed around twice their number of still-vacant lots. Fred had actually seen Tellwyrn herself working on one in passing, summoning enormous slabs of marble apparently from thin air and levitating them into place. There were now a few people around in the near distance, hunching over diagram-laden tables rather than doing any construction work. Apparently the archmage chose to tend to that part herself, but just because she could conjure and move parts of buildings with just her big brain did not mean she was qualified to design them, or so Fred had gleaned from the gossip on campus. Architects and surveyors were at work planning the new additions, still, as well as extra magical types who would be working on the additional protections the new research facilities needed. Fred hadn’t approached them personally, but had heard they included both Salyrites from the Sapphire College and secular mages from the Wizard’s Guild, and even that snooty fellow from Syralon who figured himself too good to do business in Last Rock.

Only the new exterior wall was finished, and notably was a lot more serious than the old one—taller, thicker, with a hefty manned gatehouse and actual battlements. As usual, Fred silently chewed on the implications of this as he passed through the open gates, noting the man asleep at the guard post, slumped in his chair with a hat tugged down over his eyes.

“AH HAH!” Rook bellowed suddenly, bounding upright, and Fred yelped and shied away, losing his grip on the cart.

“Omnu’s balls, Tom! What the hell?!”

“Thought I was sleeping, didn’t’cha?” Rook replied, grinning insanely. He still wore his old Army jacket, even after having been discharged, though he had torn off the sleeves. “That’s right, nothing gets past campus security!”

“Does Tellwyrn know you’re pulling that shit on honest tradesmen?”

“Nah, but my immediate boss does. In fact, Fedora’s running a pool on who I can make squeal like a girl. You just cost me five doubloons, by the way.”

Fred snorted, taking up the handles of his cart again. “Any other man I’d pick up the next round as compensation, but I’ve seen how you bet. If he didn’t take your money, somebody was gonna.”

Rook grinned and flopped back down onto the chair. “Yeah, yeah. Take it easy, Fred. See you tomorrow.”

“Don’t work too hard,” Fred said dryly as he continued on his way. Behind him, Rook practically bawled with laughter.

He let his expression grow solemn with contemplation as he began the long trek down the mountain. Aside from keeping his legs in top shape, his daily trips up and down gave him plenty of time to think. He had a lot to think about, these days.

Fred liked the people on the campus. Most of the students were good kids. There were one or two troublemakers, but those existed everywhere; even the noble ones, though clearly stuck up, weren’t usually rude. He liked those of the faculty with whom he’d had conversations. He actually liked the groundskeeper, Stew, who despite being an altogether weird kind of a thing struck him as a regular guy, hard-working and amiable. Horns, hooves, and all. The person with whom he had the most direct commerce, Mrs. Oak, was one of the least personable individuals he’d ever met, but he didn’t hold that against her. She wasn’t nasty, just wanted to be about her work with a minimum of chitchat. Fred knew a couple like that in town, too, introverted types who meant no harm but preferred to be left alone.

He even liked Professor Tellwyrn, for all that the likes of him seldom encountered her directly, and despite also being quite reasonably terrified of her. What Fred knew about magic would fit in a thimble; he’d heard somewhere that eating too much conjured food was unhealthy somehow, but even so, it was no stretch to realize that a woman who could summon whole buildings out of her own mind did not need to buy produce from the merchants in town to keep her campus fed. And yet, she did, which was the lion’s share of the reason he made a living. Some folks muttered about it being condescending, mostly perennial malcontents like Wilson who were just never going to be happy about anything. For Fred’s part, he saw it as a sign of respect on the Professor’s part for the little people who dwelled around her feet. Some folks in this world were just bigger and mightier, and it didn’t pay to take that personally, especially when they made an effort not to rub it in.

All this had been the backdrop of existence in Last Rock for his whole life. Lately, he’d had cause to dwell on it pretty heavily, and not very happily.

Fred made it back down and into town on the force of sheer habit, absently returning greetings from his neighbors as he returned to the store and packed away the cart. No shipments today; tomorrow would be busy, due to several scheduled deliveries in town and a fresh load due via Rail from Calderaas. For the moment, though, Rick was manning the front of the store, leaving him more or less at liberty.

He brought his mind back to the business at hand as he folded back the rug in the smaller storeroom, carefully undid the three locks on the trapdoor, lifted it and passed through, then pulled it back down after himself. It was a pricey rug for one tucked away in the storeroom, not because it was pretty but because of its straightening charm. The enchantment was designed to make life a little easier for housewives, but it also served to neatly cover up the trapdoor once somebody had vanished under it.

Fred descended the wooden steps cautiously, hearing voices below. Calm voices, including the one he recognized, so hopefully there was no trouble… Maybe he should’ve checked in with Rick before coming down. Nobody would’ve got through the trapdoor without Rick knowing it.

At the bottom of the stairwell, he rounded the corner into the basement room and paused. The basement’s current resident was there, of course, along with someone Fred recognized and had never expected to see again.

“Ah, Carlson,” the Hand of the Emperor said calmly. “Please, rise. I understand you may be acquainted with Ms. Reich?”

Fred had started to kneel, and straightened as ordered. “Uh…not personally, sir, but I saw her ’round town. Before. Welcome back, ma’am,” he added carefully.

Lorelin Reich gave him one of those Vidian smiles he found so unsettling, all placid good manners on the surface and layers of meaning at which he couldn’t even guess below that. He didn’t know how she did it…but then, maybe it was all in his own head. Last he’d heard of her, after all, she had been hauled away by Imperial Intelligence after being exposed by Gabriel Arquin. Exposed, specifically, for having cast some kind of agitation charm over the whole town. She was not someone he was particularly happy to see back in Last Rock.

“I understand your unease,” the Hand said in his brusque manner, which Fred was only lately starting to realize was just his way and didn’t mean anything personal.

“Oh, uh, I…”

“It’s all right,” Reich said, still smiling. “I’ve certainly earned some mistrust around here; I won’t begrudge you that. All I can do is try to atone for my mistakes, and be careful not to become so caught up again that I lose sight of my judgment, and ethics, in the same way.”

“Her presence here would cause some agitation in the town, obviously,” said the Hand, folding his hands behind his back, “and as such will remain secret for the time being. Understood?”

“Yes, sir,” Fred replied, nodding.

The Hand nodded curtly back. “Very good. You are back from your daily campus visit, then? If you are here, I assume you learned something?”

“Nothing solid, sir, but there are rumors now that I think you’ll want to know.” Fred paused, glancing uncertainly at the Vidian priestess.

“Ms. Reich is assisting me, just as you are,” the Hand said impatiently. “You may speak in front of her.”

“Uh, yes, sir. Well, like I said, no official confirmation, but the whole campus is buzzing about Tellwyrn having approved the first major research project. Apparently it just happened this morning.”

The Hand narrowed his eyes. “And have you any idea what the project is?”

“Just conjecture, sir, but here’s the thing: three of the people who presented the proposal to Tellwyrn were warlocks. One from the Wreath and that dwarf from Rodvenheim. Plus! The Salyrite representative, and in fact they actually called back their mage and sent a warlock from the Topaz college, apparently specially for this. Also, that Syralon guy. So…it’s almost certainly some kind of infernal thing, something to do with demons. I mean, I don’t have it confirmed, but why else so many warlocks?”

“I see,” the Hand said, scowling. “Excellent work, Carson, I commend you.”

“Just doin’ my part, sir,” Fred replied modestly, ducking his head. “For the Emperor.”

Turning to Reich, the Hand raised an eyebrow. “What do you think?”

“Forewarned is forearmed,” she said. “I am at your disposal, of course, but there are significant risks if I were to try to investigate personally. I doubt my methods of stealth would beat Tellwyrn’s perceptions. Besides, I have ample proof they are not a match for Arquin, or his valkyrie friends.”

“Arquin has left the campus as of this morning, along with his classmates,” the Hand stated. Fred perked up; that much he hadn’t known. How many people were bringing the Hand information? “I am curious whether that means those valkyries went with him. Can you find out?”

“Hmm.” Reich frowned in thought. “Yes, I believe I can, though it will have to be done with the utmost care. They hang around him, specifically; none would be left stationed at the campus unless he asked it of them. And I am very curious how they are getting along with that incubus Tellwyrn is keeping up there now.”

“This is why I brought you here,” the Hand replied. “Find out what you can.”

She bowed. “Immediately, sir.”

“Carson, you look troubled.”

Fred jumped slightly; he hadn’t been aware that his thought were showing on his face, or that the Hand was watching him. “Oh, uh…it’s nothin’, sir. Just, um, the usual.”

The Hand raised one eyebrow in silence.

Fred swallowed. “I’m just…Tellwyrn’s always done right by the town. I’m with you, sir, don’t worry none about that. It’s just a hell of a thing, is all. I hate to think of her havin’ turned on the Emperor like this.”

“Don’t fall into the trap of considering Tellwyrn either a monster or a saint,” the Hand said firmly. “She is a self-interested individual doing what she deems best to secure her interests. That has long involved protecting Last Rock to a degree, and now, apparently, working against the interests of the Empire. Our task is to protect his Majesty, without hesitation, and without any unnecessary brutality. Don’t waste your time loathing her or feeling betrayed, Carson. Just go about the work.”

“Yes, sir,” he said, bowing his head again.

It still didn’t feel right. But what else was he to do? Fred Carson was the Emperor’s man, right down to his bones. If that meant he had to work against the University that provided his own livelihood… Well, the gods weren’t always kind. A man had to do what was right, whether he felt like it or not.


Raathi caught up with her less than an hour later at the prearranged spot. Ildrin did not enjoy loitering in alleys like some Eserite thug, but they had to be extra cautious at a time like this.

“Sergeant,” she said with relief at the Legionnaire’s approach. “Are you all right? The others?”

“We’re fine, no trouble,” Sergeant Raathi replied. “They’re back on patrol; I have to join them quickly. Leingardt grilled us, but our excuse is solid. This was your operation, ma’am, and Legionnaires don’t get punished for following a priestess’s directives in good faith. I’m sorry, Sister. I didn’t enjoy having to throw you under the wheels like that…”

“No,” Ildrin said firmly, “that was exactly the right thing. Leingardt was already after me, thanks to Syrinx. No sense in damaging anyone else’s cover.” She heaved a sigh, producing a brief white cloud, and ran a hand over her hair. “What a mess. I could kill that woman.”

“The Bishop didn’t seem to like those kids much, ma’am…”

“The Bishop doesn’t like anyone,” Ildrin said curtly. “And I need you to be extra careful. Now that we’ve lost the opportunity to interrogate them directly, we’re going to have to ask around to figure out what they know and who they learned it from, which I don’t have to tell you is risky. Probing for information tends to draw the Guild’s attention, and in this case maybe Syrinx’s, which is worse. She’s just as cruel as the Guild at their worst, and often for less reason.”

Raathi nodded. “What’s the plan, then?”

“We have to assume we have a leak,” Ildrin said, frowning. “Those apprentices didn’t do this at random, it was much too targeted. We have no friends in the Guild, so someone either in the Sisterhood or the Collegium had to have tipped them off. Probably not someone highly placed, or they’d have contacted the right authorities and not some random Eserite know-nothings. I’m going to have to keep my head down for a while once this gets out, which means finding their link in the Sisterhood will fall to you. If there is one.”

The Sergeant nodded again. “And the Collegium?”

“I’ll have to reach out to some of our allies for that. Beyond plugging leaks, Sergeant… Find out anything you can without risking your cover about who these kids are. Why are they so connected outside their own cult? Why does Syrinx of all people know them?”

“This is getting riskier by the minute, Sister…”

“I know,” Ildrin said grimly. “You must be prepared for the worst. Not only for danger to us, but for the possibility that we are going to have to silence someone.”

Raathi sighed, but nodded resolutely. “Whatever it takes, Sister.”

“Whatever it takes.”

 

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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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