Tag Archives: Mabel Cratchley

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A constant background noise of angry mutters filled the square, but for a moment at least, it was still. Wilson cowered under the glow of active battlestaves, the townspeople held position, and the students stood as if frozen in place.

“Teal,” Sekandar said very quietly, “this would be a good time to show your other face, I think.”

Vadrieny shifted her head, fixing Scorn with a fiery stare, and said softly, “Be still.” In the next moment, however, she withdrew, flaming wings and claws vanishing to leave Teal still holding the towering Rhaazke by one arm. Scorn looked unhappy, her jaw clenched, but she obeyed the archdemon’s last command.

A man stepped to the side from the thick of the crowd, seizing the young boy by the arm and bodily tugging him backward, scowling and mouthing an obvious reprimand that was inaudible to the students from beneath the constant babble. Rook drew in a deep breath and let it out explosively, keeping his grip on his staff but sagging physically in relief to the point that the weapon drifted down to aim at the ground.

In that moment of comparative calm, Ravana cleared her throat and stepped forward, attempting to push between Finchley and Rook. When neither man budged and she failed to exhibit the necessary physical strength to force them to, she cleared her throat again, more loudly, and spoke in a well-practiced, resonating voice that projected across the square despite the angry buzzing of the townsfolk opposite.

“Gentlemen, if you will not lower your weapons, kindly power them down, at least? It’s clear to me that we are suffering from a series of misunderstandings. I have no intention of bringing any formal charges against Mr. Wilson. We do not punish people for having opinions.”

Rook and Finchley paused, glancing at each other, but Moriarty immediately relaxed his grip on his staff’s clicker, causing the electric glow limning its business end to fade. Rook followed suit a moment later, and all three shifted their grips to aim the weapons skyward.

The square grew quieter; while the crowd kept up a low, disaffected murmur, the shouting ceased. More people continued to trickle in through side alleys, but they all slowed and peered around on arrival, the additional numbers seeming not to add to the overall tension.

“Very good,” Ravana said with an approving smile. “Now—”

At that second, Trissiny and Gabriel dashed into the square from the direction of the town’s edge, both skidding to a stop and staring at the scene.

Immediately, shouting resumed, louder and angrier than before.

“There she is!”

“What the hell’s wrong with you, girl?!”

“You know how—”

“Repent!”

“Goddammit, Carl!”

“All y’all, settle, let ‘er explain—”

“Please!” Trissiny shouted, raising her hands—which was not as calming a gesture as she seemed to mean it, since she was still holding her sword. “Everyone, please! Is anybody hurt? Did anyone notice something alarming or odd tonight?”

“Y’mean, aside from you?” a woman shouted derisively, prompting a chorus of agreement.

“Triss,” Gabriel said, “I don’t think…”

“Listen to me!” she shouted. “There was a demon in this town tonight! It’s very important that everyone make sure they and their neighbors are unharmed and unaffected.” This had a slight calming effect on the crowd, but angry mutters continued. “If you feel at all unwell or out of the ordinary, please go to the church or the Vidian temple to speak with a priest; symptoms of infernal attack can be—”

“Is that why you broke down the Saloon’s door, you hooligan?” barked an older man in a ragged hat.

Trissiny visibly gritted her teeth. “I was trying—”

“You can’t just warn people about danger, you gotta run around scarin’ folks half to death an’ breakin’ down doors?!”

“Listen to me—”

“You knocked over my front fence! Who’s gonna fix that?”

“Stop,” Szith ordered, thrusting a fist in front of Sekandar when he tried to push forward. “Defending her will only make this worse. We need to disengage, all of us.”

Indeed, Gabriel appeared to be trying to persuade Trissiny to back away, though his muttered pleas were swamped by the slowly increasing roar of the crowd.

“That. Is. ENOUGH!”

Gabriel and Trissiny both jumped apart, whirling to face the stooped figure that emerged from the alley behind them. Finally, actual quiet descended on the scene, broken only by scattered murmurs. She hobbled forward, dragging herself along on two canes, and a veritable chorus of sighs rose from the citizens of Last Rock, accompanied by many rolled eyes and shaken heads.

“Evenin’, Miz Cratchley,” someone said in a tone of ostentatious resignation, earning a few titters.

“I never saw such a sad display,” Mabel Cratchley declared, pulling herself to a stop just inside the square and glaring furiously. “What’s got into you people? Where are the good, solid folk who who’ve weathered prairie storms and elf raids since before that mountain had anything on it but flowers? A hundred years and more Last Rock has stood here, since before the Empire bothered to extend its protection over us, and we’ve stood our ground on our land just the same. We’ve relied on nothing but each other and the gods, and lived to remember it. We earned our lives out here, through work, faith, and god-given skill. And now…now, I find y’all standing around, fixing to throw a fit because of a few bruises and broken fence latches? What, you got shoved and shouted at, and now you have to whip up a mob?” She pointed one cane at the prone form of Wilson, teetering momentarily on the other. “I expect such from fools such as that. I thought better of the rest of you!

“What would make you happy?” the old woman continued, taking another shaky step into the square. The now-quiet crowd actually pressed backward, as if physically driven by the force of her outrage. “There was a demon in our town. A demon! And you’re all pitching a fit because someone rushed down here to warn you, and chase it off? Have every last one of you lost your minds? We have the incredible blessing of a paladin in our midst to protect us, a Hand of a goddess herself, and you’re all complaining? You’d like it better if she left you to see your children corrupted and strangled in their beds, is that what I’m hearing?”

She planted both canes firmly in the dirt, then laboriously straightened her spine, drawing herself up to a surprisingly considerable height to glare at the silent throng. “I’ve no shortage of complaints with that woman and her school. You’ve all heard them. I’ve argued with many of you, and I have never been shy to criticize those who needed it, be they honest Last Rock folk, the Calderaan governors, the Empire, the University, whoever! Yes, I’ve known my share of grievances. But in my eighty-six years until this night, I have never been ashamed of my neighbors.”

The silence was crushing.

Every person in Last Rock had heard Mabel Cratchley complain, and more than otherwise had felt the swat of one of her canes on their backsides while growing up, and been prodded by them many times since. But not a soul present had ever before heard her voice quavering on the edge of tears as it was tonight.

“I can’t even look at you.” The old woman drew in a deep, shaking breath, sinking back down into her customary stoop, then laboriously began turning back the way she had come. “Ms. Trissiny, if the gods have any regard for the opinion of one old woman, then by the time I’ve finished my prayers this night, Avei will know there is one soul in Last Rock who is grateful that she watches over us.”

“Here.” Trissiny sheathed her blade and stepped quickly over to Ms. Cratchley’s side. “Let me help you home, ma’am. It’s late.”

“Bless you, child, but I know my way. You’ve better to do than waste your time on the likes of me.”

“The demon’s gone.” Trissiny’s voice was low and calm, but in the silence left by Ms. Cratchley’s speech, it echoed across the square. “And a paladin is not more important than anyone else. We serve, that’s all.”

The old woman started to speak, then simply cleared her throat and nodded mutely, allowing Trissiny to take her by one arm.

Everyone watched in silence as they retreated back down the alley, till they were lost in the shadows and the soft shuffling of Ms. Cratchley’s feet faded away.

Then Ravana took advantage of her escorts’ distraction to slip between them and out into the square.

“Well, then,” she said briskly, “I understand there was some incidental damage done during Trissiny’s ride through the town? Doors, fences, the like? Why don’t we see if we can help set things straight?”

“Aw, now, you don’t need to trouble yourselves,” a man at the front of the crowd said, doffing his hat, while others shuffled and muttered awkwardly behind him.

“Nonsense,” said Sekandar, pushing his way forward with a smile. “It’s late, and everyone will be wanting to get to bed as quickly as possible; best to get these things squared away.”

“Aye!” Maureen agreed brightly, stepping forward and tugging Iris by the hand; Rook gave up on trying to hold the students back and moved aside, making a wry face. “That’s what neighbors do fer each other, after all!”

The students began shifting forward in unspoken agreement, with the exception of Shaeine, who caught Scorn’s hand and leaned up to murmur to the demon. The townsfolk continued mumbling and shuffling, but without hostility now. Their ranks opened up, letting the students move among them, where Ravana and Sekandar led the way in asking for directions to any property damaged during Trissiny’s ride.

“S-so,” Wilson said tremulously, “that’s that, then? I, uh, reckon I oughtta go apologize to the young lady. Don’t rightly know what got into me…”

“Same as always, isn’t it?” Finchley said rather archly. His expression softened when Wilson slumped his shoulders, lowering his gaze to the ground. “We on for poker as usual on Wednesday?”

“Don’t see why not!” the older man agreed quickly, nodding in eagerness. “Lemme just see if I can get the lady’s attention real quick—”

“You’ll have to do that another time, Wilson,” Moriarty said firmly. “Right now, we’re going to the Sheriff’s.”

“What?” Wilson gaped at him. “B-but she said—”

“She said she would not press charges,” Moriarty replied. “She did not direct us to rescind arrest, and there remains the matter of you interfering with a soldier of the Empire in the protection of an Imperial governor by means of physical assault.”

“Omnu’s balls, Wilson, you’re lucky we know you,” Finchley said in exasperation. “You don’t grab a soldier’s weapon. Ever.”

“Any other trooper in the Empire woulda shot your ass dead in the street,” Rook agreed, “and the inevitable inquest would’ve backed them up. Now, c’mon, let’s go explain to Sam why you’re a towering dumbass. That’s pretty much his usual Monday night, anyway.”

They led the shamefaced man off toward the town center, while the now-blended group of citizens and students dispersed through the side streets.

Behind them all, Scorn scowled heavily at nothing in particular. After a long moment of sulking, she childishly stomped one clawed foot on the ground before turning to stalk back in the direction of the University campus.


“All right,” Basra said, planting her fists on her hips. “This was not what I was expecting.”

There were two Silver Legions currently based in Viridill, the Second on constant patrol through the province and the Fourth encamped in Vrin Shai itself. Soldiers of the Fourth were now spread through the city, forming cordons around each of its multiple canals. So far, though, they were only standing there, enforcing a safe distance between what was in those canals and the citizens who had come out to gawk at it.

Water elementals were clearly visible, amorphous beings formed of the canal water itself, changing shape as they jumped about on the surface and seeming to vanish entirely when they submerged beneath it. They spent an awful lot of time up in the air, though, most splashing each other and shooting jets of water here and there, and occasionally at any people they happened to catch sight of. A few of the onlookers were still soaked from such incidents during the elementals’ first appearance, but by this point, most of those targeted were Legionnaires now standing resignedly in wet armor.

In addition to the near-constant noise of splashing, the elementals had voices which were now audible almost everywhere in the city. They were high-pitched, unearthly, and spoke in no language anyone understood, but they were also unmistakably laughing. Or, more often, giggling.

It seemed all they wanted to do was play.

Basra and her party had edged up to the perimeter enforced by the soldiers, studying the scene, with the exception of Ami, who was keeping a respectful distance and a protective grip on her guitar. A sudden squirt of water shot out of the canal, scattering against the golden shield that flashed into place around Basra and incidentally spraying Schwartz, who squealed rather girlishly and skittered backward.

“Is it possible we were mistaken about the elemental at the house?” Ildrin asked. “I mean…we started in on it almost before it could do anything. These seem harmless enough… Maybe it just wanted to talk.”

“That thing was eight feet tall and built like an ogre,” Ami said from behind them. “It clearly had the brute force to be a danger, and the subtlety to penetrate our defenses without effort. The choice of messenger was the message. Specifically, a threat.”

“Exactly,” said Basra. “Schwartz, you’re certain there are no other elementals called up in the city? Just these…things?”

“I was twenty minutes ago,” he said, wiping off his glasses on the sleeve of his robe. “My divination spread is back at the house… But no, this was what I detected arriving, this and the one specimen that, ah, visited us.”

“The situation is tentatively considered under control,” said the Legionnaire wearing a captain’s insignia who stood nearby, having been grabbed and quickly interrogated by Basra upon their arrival. “At the moment we’re awaiting the arrival of sisters from the temple; General Ralavideh has ordered something called a…frog-in-a-pot maneuver.”

“What does that mean?” Basra demanded.

“I’ve no idea, your Grace,” the captain said with long-suffering patience. This was far from the first very pointed question the Bishop had shot at her. “I’m not a cleric.”

“It’s a reference to the old metaphor,” said Schwartz, now soothingly stroking Meesie, who seemed agitated by all the wetness in the vicinity. “You know, how you can boil a living frog slowly if you increase the heat in its pot by increments, but it’ll jump out if you try to do it all at once? Same applies to using divine magic to neutralize elementals. If you just flare up at them, they’ll be able to tell you’re weakening them, and react to that. If you start very gently, though, and gradually increase the power, you can progressively weaken them until they just…fall apart.”

“Hm,” said Branwen, chewing her lower lip and frowning at the occupied canal. “Offhand I can think of several problems with that plan…”

“Yeah,” Schwartz agreed, nodding. “With all respect to the general and the Sisterhood, I don’t think that’s going to work. For one thing, these are all over the whole city. You’d need an army of priests to cover the whole space to do it all at once; if you did it sequentially, canal by canal, it’d take days. And that’s assuming the elementals stayed gone once banished—what’s happened here is there were charms evoked in the water itself, which means they’re likely to reappear once it’s not being actively channeled at.”

“You could compensate for that by blessing the canals,” Ildrin offered.

“Yes,” Schwartz agreed, “theoretically. But there’s another problem; doing this maneuver requires divine casters to call up and hold a constant stream of energy. You pretty much can’t not do that without risking serious burnout. I, uh…honestly, this sounds to me like something to do when you lack better options.”

“We have our orders,” the captain said stiffly. “I’m sure the general has everything under control.”

“The canals are full of water elementals,” Basra snapped. “Whether or not they’re presenting an active threat, this whole city is very much not under control. Schwartz, are these things as harmless as they seem?”

“You mean potentially?” He shrugged helplessly. “I mean, if they all attacked, that’d be a big problem. And I don’t see what’s stopping them… But, like, tactically speaking, if they were going to do that, wouldn’t they have done it at first, when they had the element of surprise?”

“Maybe this shaman really isn’t trying to start a fight,” Jenell mused.

“The other elemental incidents throughout the province were definitely hostile,” said Basra. “Not nearly as violent as they could have been—in fact, they did seem to specifically avoid causing unnecessary harm. But still hostile. This is a departure.”

“And, again,” Ami added, “that rock elemental was not a friendly thing to send us, whether or not it was planning to bash all our brains in.”

Before anyone could respond to that, another Legionnaire in soaking wet armor came dashing up, saluting. “Captain Veiss! New orders from the general.”

“Ah, good,” the captain said, pointedly turning her back on Basra, whose increasingly sharp questions she’d been enduring with steadily diminishing patience. “We’re ready to begin?”

“No, ma’am,” the soldier replied. “The operation is suspended; new orders will be coming shortly. You’re to hold position, keep the civilians away from the elementals. Bishop Syrinx,” she added, turning to Basra. “That’s…you, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Basra replied. “Ralavideh has orders for me, as well?”

“A request, ma’am,” the messenger said diplomatically. “She would like you to join her to discuss new developments in this situation as soon as possible.”

“Excellent,” Basra said with clear satisfaction. “At the temple?”

“No, ma’am, she’s set up a field command post at a square in a more central location in the city. I’ll guide you.”

“Lead on,” the Bishop replied, glancing aside at the rest of her party with a wry lift of one eyebrow. “Well, fall in, troops. It seems we’re going visiting.”

They had gone right to the nearest canal from their house, which fortunately was, itself, not far from the center of the city. To reach General Ralavideh’s temporary headquarters, they only had to travel a few blocks and descend one tier. It was a mostly uneventful trip, though it required some navigating around rubbernecking residents. So far, no curfew had been declared, and nothing was preventing curious citizens from standing around gawking at the unusual sights; the Legionnaires seemed to mostly be keeping them away from the canals by sheer presence. Silver Legionnaires were very much respected in Vrin Shai.

There was a brief delay when they had to cross a canal and their guide warned them that anyone traversing the bridges could expect to be liberally splashed. Basra had quickly vetoed the use of divine shields, lest it agitate the elementals, but then Ami had flatly (and dramatically) refused to risk getting her guitar wet. Ultimately they had trooped across, Branwen holding a compact little shield over their bard, while the rest of them got soaked. For the remainder of the trip, Schwartz worked some of his own magic to dry them (and their grateful escort) off, while everyone rather irritably gave Ami a cold shoulder.

A market square just beyond the bridge had been overtaken by the Fourth Legion; their guide led them past an outer perimeter of soldiers into an orderly beehive of activity, making straight for a cluster of folding tables which seemed to be the center of the whole operation. As they approached, Basra lengthened her stride, passing their escort and striding right up to the General.

Ralavideh was a Tiraan woman in her fifties, short and stocky in her armor, with graying hair trimmed close to her head. She was surrounded by a dozen people, a mix of senior officers, priestesses of Avei, and off to one side a small knot of civilians in diverse attire. She turned away from a cleric upon Basra’s arrival, nodding in greeting.

“Ah, Captain Syrinx—good, I was hoping one of my messengers would find you.”

“Thank you for including me, General,” Basra replied. “I’m long since discharged, though, you needn’t address me by rank. What’s the situation?”

“At this moment,” said Ralavideh, “we have an unprecedented annoyance in Vrin Shai, but the situation appears not to be dangerous. That doesn’t mean we intend to leave it as is; the Governor agrees with me that these beings need to be removed as swiftly as possible. Right now our focus is on doing so without escalating the situation. Have you anything to contribute to our knowledge of the, for want of a better word, enemy?”

“Not of these specifically,” Basra said, nodding to Schwartz. “My elemental specialist, here, had detection wards over the city and hasn’t identified any other incursions, though we were visited by a large rock elemental at our temporary base.”

“Hm,” the General mused, frowning down at a map of Vrin Shai on the table before her. “Then I’m not the only one who knows the Abbess set you on the hunt for this elementalist. Well! In addition to wanting your perspective, we have unexpected help who also asked to see you as soon as possible.”

Indeed, as she was speaking, a man with a familiar bearded face stepped forward, trailed by the other assorted civilians who had been clustered together at one corner of Ralivedeh’s command post. “Your Grace! Good to see you again!”

“Mr. Hargrave,” Basra replied, nodding. “I confess I hadn’t expected to meet again so soon.”

“Yes, I’ve made…well, it’s a long story,” he said seriously. “These are some of the people I went to speak with. Over a dozen have come to Vrin Shai with me; Abbess Darnassy said we could find you here.”

“You brought Viridill’s witches here?” Basra asked, her eyebrows rising in surprise.

“Well, not all of them, by any means,” Hargrave clarified hastily. “You see, it’s—”

General Ralivedeh cleared her throat pointedly.

“Right,” Hargrave said quickly. “Priorities. They were going to try neutralizing the elementals with priestesses, which would have been quite risky and probably ineffective. Now that we’re here, the rest of my friends have fanned out through the city to begin laying preparations, and we’re going to deal with this matter first of all. Barring any further upsets, I believe we can have all this cleared away in a few hours. Tomorrow, though, I’d like to have a lengthy conversation about what we’ve learned.”

“Excellent,” she said emphatically. “Can you use another caster? Schwartz, make yourself useful.”

“Glad to!” the Salyrite said cheerfully, stepping forward. “Actually, I may have some fresh data to add to your findings—I had a good, solid ward network overlaying the city before all this started up, and I was able to detect…”

He melted into Hargrave’s gaggle of witches and they drifted off toward the canal in the near distance, talking among themselves.

“That’s been the theme of the evening,” Ralavedeh said with an annoyed twist of her mouth. “I’m glad they came along, but you know what it’s like working with civilians. Takes a constant effort to know what they’re doing and make sure they don’t screw up my chain of command.”

“I do know,” Basra agreed. “Well, for the time being it seems I’m a little superfluous, here…”

“Actually,” said the General, “since you brought your whole group, I wonder if I could borrow them for a bit?” She turned, nodding to the others. “I understand Bishop Snowe and a trained bard have joined you—we’ve a use for talents exactly like that.”

“Oh?” Basra raised an eyebrow. “Whatever for?”

“Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?” Ami asked dryly. “Or do you intend to just leave this mob to its own devices?”

Beyond the perimeter marked by the Legionnaires, a noisy and energetic crowd were circulating, talking and gesticulating eagerly. No one seemed particularly agitated, though, and while their general noise didn’t yield any specific conversational threads at this distance, it didn’t sound angry.

“I would hardly call that a mob,” Basra began.

“Well, that doesn’t mean you just ignore them,” Branwen said in mild exasperation. “This is what you wanted us for, General?”

“If you’re able and willing,” Ralavedeh replied, nodding. “Citizens of Vrin Shai are a respectful people as a rule, and they trust the Legions, but you simply cannot drop an event like this on top of thousands of civilians and expect it to stay calm indefinitely. Fortunately this happened at dusk; provided we can get it squared away before business hours begin tomorrow, we can hopefully avoid any serious unrest. For now, I would like any help possible in keeping a lid on this.”

“Hm,” Ami mused, absently tuning her guitar and frowning at the onlookers. “That’s hardly the whole population of the city. Nor even a significant percentage…”

“It’s a start, though,” Branwen said with a smile. “Come, Bas, let’s see if we can’t put people’s minds at ease.”

She glided off toward the edge of the square opposite the bridge without waiting for anyone’s approval, apparently not seeing the scowl Basra directed at her back. Ildrin, Ami, and Jenell, who had seen it, followed at a more circumspect distance.

At the other end, the plaza terminated on a broad staircase only four steps tall. It was a short enough drop that they could plainly see the people milling around below it, built mostly for decoration and to prevent wheeled vehicles from entering the market square. Legionnaires were guarding the staircase, however, keeping the civilians isolated in the wide street below.

The crowd focused its attention on the top of the stairs as Branwen arrived, taking a position near the center between two soldiers, who looked quizzically at her and then at a nearby officer. Apparently having been told what to expect, the lieutenant gestured them away, and they shifted to the very edges of the staircase, distancing themselves from the Izarite Bishop. By that point, a few scattered cheers had broken out and people surged forward eagerly, smiling up at Branwen.

“Well, what a night this is!” she said, her light voice projecting skillfully out over the crowd, and earned a laugh from her audience. “I’m a guest here, myself, so please don’t take anything I say as an official pronouncement. General Ralavedeh has very kindly allowed me to speak to you—which works out well for everyone, as I’m sure you know how much I love to hear myself talk.”

During the laugh which followed this, Ami mused aloud, coincidentally having placed herself close enough to Basra to be audible to her, “My, she’s actually rather good at extemporizing, isn’t she? Somehow, I’d though all her speeches were the work of Church handlers.”

“What I can tell you,” Branwen continued as soon as it was quiet enough again, “is that the Sisterhood of Avei has matters well in hand. At this point, it’s not yet certain what is happening or why, but there is no indication that anyone is in any danger. And should these…peculiar visitors take a turn toward hostility… Well, in that event, I find I am still not overly concerned. This is Vrin Shai, after all!”

She beamed proudly down at them, waiting for the cheers to subside before continuing. “It’s hardly a secret that the cults of the Pantheon don’t all see eye-to-eye, and indeed, my faith has its frictions with Avei’s. If I must be surrounded by an invasion of strange elementals, though, I can honestly say there is no one among whom I would rather find myself. Yes, the Sisters of Avei are indeed fearsome in battle, and the presence of all these Legionnaires makes me feel much safer. But there’s far more to it than that! Avei is a goddess who places great trust in people. For all of the Sisterhood’s history, she has encouraged people to find their own courage, to hone their skills, and the result is what you see around you! An invincible city, filled with an unconquerable people, living under the aegis of a goddess who has led them to be the most they can be!”

More cheers, this time slower to subside. Branwen nodded and smiled encouragingly, but before she opened her mouth to speak again, there came a shout from near the front of the crowd. The speaker hadn’t waited for silence, and so most of the words were lost, but the Bishop was apparently close enough to make them out clearly. All that was clearly audible from Basra’s position behind her was “Last Rock.”

Apparently, Branwen was not the only one who’d heard the words. The crowd’s voice faltered into confusion, cheers and applause continuing from various quarters, while others who had been close enough to hear broke off their adulation, murmuring.

“It’s hardly kind to cast aspersion on the people of the frontier,” Branwen said with an artful hint of reproach. “In fact, I was in Last Rock very recently, and I found them to be a most admirable folk as well. They have had a different journey through history than you, and were shaped by different pressures, but I rather think they would cope well with a situation such as this, too. The prairie breeds hardy and adaptive folk.

“If anything, the comparison should only encourage you! For all their strengths, the folk of Last Rock lack a great gift that Avei has bestowed on you: leadership and examples which come from within, not from above. You live with and among the Sisterhood—the Legionnaires rise from within your own families, proving the potential of a whole population. No one sits high atop a mountain, grooming rogue adventurers and denying you a place among them.”

She paused for more reaction again, but this time the result was clearly not as she expected. The onlookers frowned, glancing at one another in apparent confusion—at least, some of them. Quite a few tittered, and open laughs sounded from several direction. Branwen hesitated, for the first time betraying uncertainty.

“So, your Grace,” called a male voice from near the front, the same voice which had shouted about Last Rock. “I take it you haven’t seen today’s papers?”

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Tazlith’s group exchanged a round of glances, Shook began creeping back to place them between himself and Tellwyrn, the three soldiers grinned in unison, McGraw very casually lowered his staff to point in the Professor’s general direction, and Principia said something in elvish that was, even to those who didn’t understand the language, unmistakeably a curse.

“I know what several of you are thinking,” Tellwyrn said, “and the answer is ‘no.’ This nonsense is at an end.”

Marks raised one of his wands. “I think we can take—”

She gestured in his direction and he vanished with an audible snap of arcane energy. In his place a small terrier reappeared at about chest height, yelping when it fell to the ground.

“What the hell?” Tazlith exclaimed. “What did you do?”

“It’s called a baleful polymorph,” Tellwyrn said serenely. “I do not like repeating myself.”

“You can’t just cast a baleful polymorph!” said Lorrie the warlock, her attempts at sententious diction gone in panic. “It takes a ritual circle, multiple spell foci, a huge power source…”

Ox cleared his throat. “That’s Professor Tellwyrn.”

“Oh,” the warlock squeaked, and fell silent, edging behind Tazlith.

“There will be no more acts of violence or general disruptive behavior,” Tellwyrn continued. “Those of you who are under arrest will go quietly with the Sheriff; the rest of you get lost back to your own business.”

“You wretched witch!” Miz Cratchley screeched, brandishing her still-smoking staff at Tellwyrn. “This is all your fault, all of it. This was a good, quiet town before you came along!”

“Except for Mabel, for whom we make allowances,” Tellwyrn said, waving a hand. With a soft pop, Miz Cratchley disappeared.

Sanders cleared his throat. “Ah, if you don’t mind my asking…”

“She’s safely at her home,” Tellwyrn said, “and that staff of hers is in your office. Not sure why I bother,” she added, giving him an exasperated look, “since I know you’re just going to give it back to her again.”

“That staff is an heirloom,” Sanders replied in the weary tone of a man who has had this conversation once too often. “Her husband carried it in the Emperor’s service. It’s also a valuable antique. She’d need to actually hurt someone with it before I can confiscate it.”

“At least have the enchantment stripped off. She’s gonna blow herself up one of these days, and then how will you feel?”

“The vintage enchantment is the better part of what makes it valuable. Damn it, Professor, some of us have to follow the laws!”

“Seems you two could use a mite of privacy,” McGraw said solicitously. “Shall we come back and finish this later?”

“Do you think you’re funny, McGraw?” Tellwyrn asked, turning to face him. She extended an arm and pointed at Rook. “The boy in the scruffy uniform there, he’s funny. You are a pain in the ass.”

“Well, to be fair,” said Rook cheerfully, “I’m also a pain in the ass.”

“With regard to our understanding, ma’am,” McGraw said politely, “I didn’t start this, and I did my very best to prevent it getting out of hand. As I’m sure you are more than aware, reasoning with high-strung youths just ain’t always feasible.”

“Do you know what Zero Twenty means, McGraw?” Tellwyrn asked mildly.

He subtly tightened his grip on his staff. “I’m afraid I do, ma’am.”

“If I may?” the mage with Tazlith said politely. He bowed when Tellwyrn turned to stare at him. “Mr. McGraw speaks truthfully. He made every effort to talk this down before someone intervened, apparently forcing one of Marks’s wands to discharge. It is, by the way, quite an honor to meet you, Professor.”

“Did they, now,” Tellwyrn said quietly. “That’s very interesting.” She shifted her eyes to look straight at Shook.

She wasn’t the only one.

“Anybody who wants to make an accusation had best have more than hearsay backing them up,” Shook said, glaring.

“Oh really? Should I?” Tellwyrn grinned savagely. “And why is that, precisely?”

“If you don’t mind, Professor,” Sanders interjected, “I would prefer to handle this. After all, a fine, upstanding member of the Thieves’ Guild like Mr. Shook here knows better than to resist arrest when he’s fairly caught. Ain’t that right, Jeremiah?”

Shook gave the Sheriff a share of his furious stare, which appeared not to faze him in the slightest.

“It’s true?” Tazlith whispered. She glanced down at Shook’s hands; he tucked them back into his sleeves, but not fast enough. “You stole her rings, too? You said we were protecting her.”

“Oh, shut up, you dimwitted sow,” he snarled. “She’d be dead twice over by now if not for me.”

“Everything was going fine until you blundered into town, dumbshit!” Principia snapped. “Now look. Good fucking job, Enforcer.”

“Yup,” Sanders said. “Looks like everybody’s coming down to the office. Boys, if you don’t mind, I’d appreciate your help a while longer.”

“You kidding?” Rook replied, still wearing a grin. “This is fantastic! Most excitement we had at our last post was when they sent us a shipment of bad beans and Moriarty had the runs for a week. Well, until that thing we can’t talk about.” He staggered, having been elbowed hard from both sides by Finchley and Moriarty.

“Shook’s getting charged,” Sanders went on grimly, then pointed at Tazlith. “Also you, missy, since I know for a fact you’re the organizer of this motley troupe. Whatever your intentions, you need to learn a thing or two about law and order, and why you don’t take them into your own little hands.” Tazlith looked absolutely stricken by the unfairness of it all; mouth hanging open, she couldn’t even formulate a response. The Sheriff continued, moving his pointing finger around at those assembled. “The rest of you… I’ll wait till I’ve heard the whole story from all participants before I decide if it’s worth charging anybody with anything. Um…and that fellow who’s now a dog…” He glanced helplessly at Tellwyrn.

“He’s fine,” she said dismissively. “He’ll revert in about an hour, none the worse for wear. You might give him some water, though. This climate is rough if you’re wearing a fur coat.”

Marks yapped furiously at her.

“And her?” Tazlith demanded shrilly, pointing at Principia. McGraw wasn’t visibly aiming a weapon at her, but the elf still held herself as still and small as possible. “Apparently she’s a thief, too!”

Sanders heaved a sigh. “Being a thief is a crime. Being a member of the Thieves’ Guild is not.”

“What?”

“The Guild is the organized cult of Eserion,” Tellwyrn explained, smiling faintly. “You can’t just outlaw the cult of a god of the Pantheon.”

“And as usual,” Sanders said in annoyance, “Prin is sitting pretty in the gray area between what I’m pretty sure she’s done and what I can prove she did. Apparently all she’s guilty of is getting threatened, stolen from, and kidnapped.”

“I would just like to say,” Principia remarked, “fuck you all. Every last one of you in particular. I’m certain you each knows exactly why.”

“Which just leaves the man of the hour, here.” Sanders turned to face McGraw directly. “Kidnapping. Threats of murder. That’s more’n a slap on the wrist.”

“With the greatest possible respect, Sheriff, you are something of a redundancy here,” McGraw said politely, then tipped his hat in Tellwyrn’s direction. “Professor, I’d take it as a kindness if you could suss out just where we stand. Makes quite the difference with regard to what I do next.”

She shrugged. “If you didn’t cause the trouble, you didn’t cause the trouble. You start messing with the Sheriff and matters will be different, but if all the harm you’ve done is to Principia… Well, I did specifically exempt that from any promises of retribution, didn’t I?”

“Wait,” Prin said, stiffening. “You fucking what?”

“I told him I didn’t care what he did to you,” Tellwyrn replied, grinning nastily. “Are you surprised? Offended? Do you think that’s in any way unfair? Grow up already, Prin.”

“Oh, you absolute unutterable bitch!”

“My, my, gendered insults between women. And in public, no less! What would Trissiny think, I wonder?”

Principia fell silent, but her face went scarlet with rage.

“On the subject of gray areas,” Sanders said, “out here on the frontier I sometimes have to make a decision between observing the letter of the law and keeping the general peace. If the good Professor doesn’t care to step in, and considering I don’t fancy havin’ a shoot-out with you in particular… And since I’m also not excessively perturbed by crimes committed exclusively against Miss Locke, here, I might be amenable to lettin’ all this go.”

“You fucking WHAT?” Principia screamed.

“I always appreciate reasonable exceptions to silly laws,” McGraw said mildly, stepping around from behind the apoplectic elf. He held his arms wide, grinning disarmingly. “Course, I’m honor-bound to point out that if you did choose to make an issue of this, and I did defend myself, well… I’m pretty sure that’d cross the line drawn by the esteemed Professor, here. Might be small consolation for having half of Last Rock leveled, but you could go down in history as the man who helped bring down Longshot McGraw.”

Sanders strode forward, straight at him. McGraw didn’t back down by so much as an step, and the Sheriff didn’t pause until his nose was a bare inch from the other man’s. He kept his voice low, but in the sudden stillness, the mild wind of the prairie wasn’t enough to prevent his words from being clearly heard by everyone present.

“Get the hell out of my town, McGraw.”

They locked gazes for a long moment, utterly still. Then Longshot McGraw very deliberately stepped backward, nodding politely.

“Fair enough, Sheriff. D’you mind awfully if I loiter on the platform, there, till the next caravan arrives? It’s a long stretch of nothin’ between here and…well, anything at all. You get to be my age, and the thought of hiking through the prairie for weeks just ain’t as exciting as it once was.”

Sanders held his gaze for another long moment, then turned away. “Ox, me an’ the boys’ll take this lot down to the jail. Kindly stay here and make sure Mr. McGraw gets safely on the Rails. He so much as sneezes, blast him.”

“Sheriff,” Ox said, nodding grimly.

“Feh,” Tellwyrn said, making a dismissive gesture with one hand. “Half the morning, wasted. If I have to come deal with this again, everybody dies.” She vanished with a quiet pop of air rushing in to fill the space she had occupied.

“Least one good turn came outta this,” Sanders remarked loudly to Finchley as he and the soldiers began herding Shook and the adventurers down the street at wand point. “Membership in the Thieves’ Guild isn’t a crime, but it does constitute probable cause. So much as a butter knife goes missing in this town from here on an’ I get to search Prin’s rooms as a matter of course. Should make several things easier.”

“Well,” McGraw said ruefully, “this’ll be a blot on the record, I suppose. Guess I’ll have to go give back some money, soon as I get to Tiraas.” Turning to Principia, he tipped his hat politely. “Ma’am.”

She watched him stroll over to the Rail platform and lounge against one of the pillars holding up the awning there, taking out a cigarillo and lighting it with his staff.

For a heartbeat, all was quiet.

Then Principia Locke threw back her head and let out a long, wordless scream.


 

Admestus Rafe swam slowly up through the most delicious dreams. As reality began to coalesce around him, he found it just as agreeable, full of splendid warmth and softness. He opened his eyes, finally, just as gentle lips were withdrawn from his own. For a second, all he was conscious of were the big brown eyes inches from his, and the warm, curvy weight resting across his body.

“Hey, it worked!” Juniper said cheerfully.

“Waugh!” Suddenly lucid, Rafe scrambled backward in panic, throwing her off. “No! Bad! Student! Arachne will eat my liver!”

“Mornin’, sunshine!” Ruda said cheerfully from just above him.

He paused to take stock. They were in a covered wagon, trundling along; to judge by the light filtering through the openings, it was early afternoon. Fross flittered around the interior, Ruda sat on the driver’s seat just behind his head, Juniper was…well, right there. Toby and Shaeine were still laid out, unconscious.

“I wasn’t absolutely sure I could do it,” Juniper said, then yawned hugely. “I mean, basic healing, yeah, but drugs are so much more…complicated. But apparently I can sorta…take it on myself? Sort of. Not, like, the drug, but some of the…badness of it?”

“You can suck drugs out of people?” Fross chimed. “Neat!”

Ruda cackled. “Word around campus is she can suck the enchantment off a battlestaff.”

Juniper yawned again. “It’s not easy, though. Been a rough day… I’m gonna…” She listed over onto one side and curled up, asleep before she finished her sentence. For the first time Rafe realized there was a large hole in the side of her dress, its edges burned black, and the flesh underneath it appeared to be covered in some kind of bark.

“What happened to her?” he asked.

“She got shot,” said Ruda.

Rafe bit back a curse. “Oh…hell. Who’s dead?”

“Just the fuckers that did it. All’s well that ends well an’ all that shit.”

“Whew… I guess Naiya was in an uncharacteristically reasonable mood. Last time I heard about somebody shooting a dryad, it was killer bees and wasps from one horizon to the other.”

“Let me get you caught up,” the pirate went on, still in that cheery tone. “The nice people who gave us dinner drugged us with magic cornbread. It was damn good cornbread, almost worth the drugs. Beans baked right in and a cinnamon glaze, I gotta remember that… Anyway, they were gonna steal our shit, dose us with memory-altering magic and leave us somewhere. Except Fross, who was being made into a lamp.”

“Excuse me, I’m an arcane sciences major! That bottle was only warded against fae magic. I would’ve gotten out eventually.”

“Yeah, but not before the rest of us were goners. I still saved all our asses.”

“That’s right, you did!” She buzzed down to hover in front of Rafe’s face. “She did! Ruda’s very smart.”

“Also good-looking and a goddamn terror in a fight,” Ruda said merrily. “So yeah, yadda yadda, yadda, they knocked us out, I’m awesome, and now here we are and I get to make fun of you, Professor Big Heap Alchemist, for getting drugged by cornbread.”

“I beg your pardon,” he said stiffly, “but I’m a genius, not a deity. Do you know how many tasteless, odorless and basically undetectable compounds can be cooked into food to knock people out? No, you don’t, and neither do I, because that’s just about the simplest thing there is to do.”

“Oh, please,” she said, grinning over her shoulder at him. “’Bella, get the special cornbread.’ They might as well have been twirling their fucking mustaches. Honestly, how the hell any of you so much as buy breakfast without getting swindled outta your goddamn pants is beyond me.”

“You ate it too,” he said irritably, getting up. It wasn’t easy with the lurching progress of the wagon, but he needed to check on Toby and Shaeine.

“I was hungry, and I don’t get drugged. Just one of the many benefits of being Punaji. It’s pretty much all benefits, for the record.”

“And how did you know they weren’t going to just feed us poison, if you’re so smart?”

“It’s called tactics, chucklenuts. Trissiny might be the military expert, but when it comes to knocking people down an’ taking their shit, we’re in my territory. They had staves, see? Practically pointed at us. If I’d made a stink about the cornbread, they’d’ve just shot us. Contrariwise, the fact they didn’t indicated they didn’t want us dead. So I played along until an opportunity came up to turn the tables. Which, inevitably, it did, and here we are. You’re fucking welcome, by the way.”

“What, you want a medal? I’ll see to it Tellwyrn passes you for the exercise, anyway.”

“Eh, that’ll do for a start,” she said airily. “I expect everyone to go on at length about the glory that is me, by the way.”

“You savor that, kiddo,” he said, grinning. “Now you have a taste of what it’s like to be Professor Rafe every day!”

Ruda’s smile faded; she glanced back again. Rafe was bent over Toby, holding a small vial under his nose.

“Ooh, is that smelling salts?” Fross asked, fluttering close. “Will that wake him up?”

“No, no, I don’t want to just pump drugs into them without knowing what we’re dealing with. I’m just working out what they got dosed with. Then I can apply the right counter-agent without risking a bad interaction. Actually, could you fly a little closer? I need to watch how this changes color and you’re the only light in here.”

“So,” said Ruda, turning back to face forward again. “What’s with you, anyway?”

“Me?” Fross asked.

“No, him.”

“Nothing’s with me,” Rafe replied, showing signs of his old bluster returning. “Merely the extravagant and vigorous splendor that is my stock in trade!”

“Cut the bullshit. You spent most of last night practically silent. Well, talking about like a normal person does, which for you is practically silent. Then you got your ass drugged, and you can make excuses all you want but we both know that’s a sign you fucked up. I bet you’d have seen the trap coming if you’d been paying attention. So, spill.”

They were quiet for a minute while he fiddled with his reagents. Fross buzzed around as if uncertain where she wanted to hover. Ruda didn’t prompt him again, and had just about decided he wasn’t going to answer when he finally did.

“We’ve lost students before, of course. C’mon, the kind of people Arachne recruits? You little bastards are one of the better-behaved years I’ve seen in a while. You just don’t throw the Empire’s most powerful weirdos onto a campus together and then send them out against real-world threats three times a semester without having fatalities. But… I’ve never lost someone before. Having a student I alone was personally responsible for get…” He broke off, stuffed a vial back into his belt pouch and took out another one, not looking at her or Fross. “It’s…something to deal with.”

Ruda nodded slowly. “I think I get you. Man… I didn’t even like her. But she was part of my crew, and…now we don’t even know if she’s gone or not. I’m still wondering if there’s even anything I need to deal with, never mind how the fuck I’m actually going to deal.”

“Yeah.”

“So, get the fuck over it.”

He twisted around to scowl at her. “Excuse me? Real sensitive, Punaji.”

Ruda kept her face forward toward the horizon, but spoke loudly enough to be clearly heard. “That’s what leadership means: everything is your fucking fault, and you don’t get to whine about it. You just keep at it and do the job. Instead, you got into your little funk and walked all our asses right into a trap.”

“If you’ll recall,” he said pointedly, “Professor Tellwyrn reminded everyone that I’m along on this little shindig in an observational capacity. I’m not the one giving orders.”

“Bullshit. That went over the side when you shouted Trissiny down for doing her fucking job and giving us advice on dealing with the centaurs. Which, by the fucking way, was good fucking advice and we probably wouldn’t be in all this shit if we’d just followed it. You took the job, so do the job.”

He scowled and turned back toward Toby, gently lifting the boy’s head and tipping a vial of thick fluid into his mouth. Seconds later, Toby coughed weakly, his eyelids beginning to flutter.

“Well, too late now,” Ruda said lightly. “No sign of the mountain yet, but the kidnapping assholes thought they were gonna get to the edge of the Sea by the end of today. Fuck if I know, I’m just figuring they understood how this place works.”

Rafe had no answer for her. He simply occupied himself tending to the others.


 

The mountain at Last Rock cast a long shadow. Unlike its sudden vanishing when they had first headed out into the Golden Sea, it appeared in a geographically normal fashion upon their return, giving the students hours to prepare themselves for their homecoming. It was hours spent mostly in conversation; even after everyone had been fully brought up to date on events, they found comfort—even Shaeine—in just talking.

Consequently, it was a tired and quiet group who drew their captured wagon to a stop at the foot of the mountain.

Professor Tellwyrn stood alone, waiting for them.

Toby had been handling the oxen; Ruda didn’t actually know anything about steering them, and had simply been sitting up front for the view, Juniper having given the beasts their instructions. He took time to stop and pat both animals as the others filed down from the wagon, Juniper still yawning and rubbing her eyes.

“Well?” Tellwyrn said simply when they had finally assembled in front of her.

“Teal,” Shaeine said, “and Gabriel?”

“Are fine. In their respective rooms, as far as I know, worrying about you lot.”

“We scored us a free wagon, and a small fortune in gemstones,” Ruda said.

“Actually, not such a small fortune,” Shaeine corrected.

“Whatever. It’s our plunder, won fair and square. The two demony types get a cut, too. Everybody, otherwise I wouldn’t feel right takin’ my share. And nobody who has any sense better come between a pirate and her booty.” She glared over at the others.

“Miss Punaji,” Tellwyrn said wearily, “three of your classmates—including you—are heirs to massive fortunes and don’t need gems. Two are paladins who have no attachment to worldly wealth, and two are fae who don’t even participate in the economy.”

“Everybody gets a share,” Ruda repeated stubbornly. “Sell ’em, donate ’em, chuck ’em down a well, fuck if I care.”

“Right. Anything else you’d like to report?”

“Professor,” Toby said quietly. “We…lost Trissiny.”

“Really,” she said dryly. “Have you checked your pockets?”

There was a moment of stunned silence before Ruda responded. “Is that a fucking joke to you?!”

“Pretty much,” Tellwyrn replied glibly. “I assure you, Trissiny’s fine and will be along presently.”

“How can you possibly know that?” Toby demanded.

“I keep forgetting you kids grew up in an era without paladins. Have you heard about the Stand at Stavulheim?”

“One Imperial legion held the city gates, alone, against an army of orcs for three days,” Shaeine replied. “Though the relevance of it to this situation escapes me.”

“The relevance is that that is the sanitized, politicized version taught by Imperial historians. I was around then, and I can hardly blame them for changing it up, as the truth is a lot less believable. It was two Hands of Avei who did that. Two. Against two thousand. And you think Trissiny was felled by a handful of centaurs? Please.

“Quite apart from that,” she went on, raising her voice over the comments that arose, “I am far from Avei’s favorite person; I assure you, if her brand new Hand had just gotten killed on one of my training exercises, we would be hearing about it. Also, she’s right behind you.”

They spun, Toby so quickly he nearly overbalanced, to look back at the Sea. Nobody was there.

“Are you just fucking with us now?” Ruda snarled, whirling back to glare at her, one hand falling to the hilt of her sword.

“A little,” Tellwyrn said with a smile. “’Right’ behind you may have been overstating it, but yes, she’s on her way, and making much better time than you did. Should be here in minutes. Trust me, you don’t argue with elven eyes.”

“You wear glasses!” Ruda shouted.

“Meanwhile,” Tellwyrn went on in a more grim tone, “we can discuss your performance, or lamentable lack thereof. To review: Upon being accosted by centaurs, your first move was to send your two most durable combatants away, hopelessly splitting your group and depriving the rest of their best defenders.”

“The centaurs’ war drums—”

“Miss Awarrion, do not interrupt me when I am chastising you. Then, you set out on a long, exhausting fighting retreat, with the inevitable result that your next most durable member—and also your best remaining counter to your opponents’ infernal magic—collapsed from fatigue. Honestly, how could you possibly have thought a tree nymph would fare well on a cross-country run? And finally, you apparently sacrificed your last magically-endowed fighter to the horde while the rest of you went blundering away to…” She trailed off, running her eyes over the wagon and oxen. “…all right, I have to admit I’m baffled how you got to a wagon full of plunder from fleeing for your lives from centaurs. It promises to be a good story, though. Probably not enough to redeem your grade for the exercise, but something.”

“Then how,” Shaeine asked quietly, “did you know we lost Trissiny to the centaurs?”

Tellwyrn tilted her head forward to stare them down over the rims of her spectacles. “Because, despite the fact that I specifically told you to follow Trissiny’s advice on combat matters, I know she didn’t tell you to enact this utterly hambrained plot. Which means you weren’t listening to her. You know what a paladin does when the idiot civilians she’s trying to protect refuse to see reason? She puts herself between them and whatever is out to get them. Ergo, here you are, sans paladin, and plus plunder. I doubt she’d have let you loot the corpses of whoever else you killed, either. Hello, Trissiny.”

They whirled around again; this time, Toby did overbalance, landing on his rump in the grass and staring up at the spectacle approaching them.

It was as if they’d appeared out of a fold in the ground—which was probably close to the literal truth, the Golden Sea being what it was. The horse was absolutely massive, an enormous, barrel-chested draft horse with a thick arched neck, blunt nose and feathered hooves the size of dinner plates. He wore silver armor over his neck, face and rump, and the golden eagle sigil of Avei was worked into his breast collar. Sitting in the saddle, dwarfed by the huge horse despite her height, was Trissiny. She was covered in grime and dried blood, but appeared as alert and unharmed as when they’d last seen her.

“Professor,” she said, nodding as she guided the steed to a halt next to them. For all his size, his hoofsteps were eerily quiet. “Is everyone all right? I passed these travelers’ other wagon a while back, and their bodies. It looked like they were eaten by wild animals.”

“No, that was me,” Juniper said brightly. “Hi, Triss! I’m glad you’re okay!”

“Hi,” the paladin said slowly. “…and you did that because…?”

“Oh, they drugged everybody and captured Fross and were going to rob and abandon us. And then they shot me.”

“Ah.” Trissiny nodded. “Very well, then. I’m just glad you all made it.”

“We made it?” Ruda said, gaping at her. “You’re glad we made it?! We—you were—we left you… How did… WHY THE FUCK DO YOU HAVE A HORSE?”

“Paladins get mounts,” Tellwryn said serenely. “Avei usually doesn’t bequeath one until the Hand in question has proven herself in actual combat. I guess the centaurs were an adequate test.”

“Less trouble than I expected, honestly,” Trissiny said. “Once I killed their leader, the rest scattered.”

“Yes, for all their size and ferocity, they really aren’t militarily impressive. Which makes it all the sadder that you lot got yourselves routed by them. Honestly, if anybody important had been along to see that, it would go down in the annals of tactical incompetence. I can’t believe you let them do this,” she added directly to Trissiny.

The paladin raised an eyebrow. “Oh, so they have to listen to me, now? Splendid. I want everyone assembled on the main lawn at six AM for drill.”

“You joke,” Tellwyrn said grimly, “but after this debacle I’m half-tempted to authorize that.”

“You got,” Ruda said slowly, as though trying to convince herself of it, “a fucking horse.”

“His name’s Arjen,” Tellwyrn said helpfully.

“How do you know that?” Trissiny demanded.

“There’s a limited number of celestial steeds in Avei’s stable,” the Professor said cheerfully. “These creatures are truly immortal, not merely ageless like elves. If killed on this plane, they just return to their divine point of origin, ready to be summoned again. This fellow has served the Hands of Avei for millennia. We’ve met before,” she added, raising a hand as if to pat Arjen’s nose. He snorted disdainfully and twisted his head away. “See?” she said wryly.

“Arjen, is it,” Trissiny murmured, leaning forward to pat his neck. He whickered softly.

“You know what?” Ruda said flatly. “I fucking hate you.”

Trissiny sat bolt upright in her saddle, gaping at her in shock. “What?”

“Can you just for once not try to fucking show me up?” She clawed a bottle out of her coat and took a long swig. “But,” she added, wiping her mouth on her sleeve, “I’m really glad you’re not dead.”

Trissiny stared at her, open-mouthed, unable to formulate a reply.

“All right, it’s been great adventuring with you lot, but I’ve had enough,” said the pirate. “Tellwyrn can tell us all how much we suck another time, I’m done with this horseshit. Anybody needs me, too fucking bad. I’m gonna be in town, and I will not be back till I’ve drunk my weight in the dilute pisswater that passes for beer around here and screwed at least three local boys. Concurrently if I can find enough of these hicks without too many goddamn hangups. Have a good fucking night, all.”

Still drinking from her bottle, she stomped off in the direction of Last Rock.

“Don’t get pregnant!” Tellwyrn called after her.

“Fuck you!”

“So!” Rafe said brightly. “How’ve things been back here?”

“Eh.” Tellwyrn waved a hand dismissively. “Nothing ever happens in this town.”

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McGraw began to have a fatalistic feeling about the day when he wasn’t even allowed to finish breakfast. It wasn’t that the food at the A&W was particularly sumptuous, or even that he could afford to give it his undivided attention. He always kept an eye and ear on his surroundings when out on a mission, and in this particular town he also had his mental senses attuned to the wards that would notify him of his quarry attempting to flee via Rail. It was breakfast, though. There were some things to which a man was simply entitled, things he took it amiss when someone interrupted them.

He had, as usual, chosen a seat in the front corner of the room, which afforded him a view out the windows and one of the inn’s common room itself. After Tellwyrn’s surprise visit, he’d also taken to keeping a weather eye on the door. As such, he of course noted the five figures assembling in the square outside, but didn’t assign any particular attention to them until the one in the middle bellowed his name.

With a sigh, he glanced down at his plate of eggs, beans and hash browns, currently half-finished. The thought of just ignoring them crossed his mind, but with some regret he dismissed it. The sort of fool who stood outside a tavern yelling for someone to come out was the sort of fool who’d create an even more disruptive ruckus if they weren’t obliged. He brought the bite currently sitting on his fork to his mouth and stood, carefully wiping his face and beard with his napkin, and strolled across the room to the bar while chewing.

He swallowed just before reaching the waitress currently minding the tavern and tipped his hat politely to her. “Mornin’, miss. Just wanted to settle up here, in case I don’t get the chance later.” Smiling unthreateningly at her wary expression, he set a small stack of coins on the counter.

“That’s…uh, that’s well more than enough,” the girl said carefully.

“I’m aware. Listen, those kids outside yelling in the street? If they’re in a position to take advantage later, give ’em a round on me. They’re likely to need it.”

Nodding to her again, he turned and strode unhurriedly toward the door.

McGraw stepped outside and descended the short steps to the square, then came to a stop a couple of yards from the front of the tavern.

“Mornin’,” he said politely, tipping his hat. “It’s a mite early for it, don’t you think? I don’t suppose you kids would care to do this later.”

Two of the five—the women—he recognized from the tavern and around town; they were by far the more distinctive. The more absurd, if he was to be honest. The one in the center who’d been yelling was the attractive young lady in the dramatic black leather that showed a distracting amount of skin. He’d done his best not to be distracted, of course. McGraw’s policy was never to ogle a woman unless she specifically indicated that she wanted him to, and this one looked more the type to invite attention just so she could ream some poor fellow out for showing it. The other was a short, waifish, rather hollow-cheeked girl in sweltering black robes, clutching a staff of dark-stained hardwood. A magical staff, but not one that fired bolts of lightning at the press of a switch. No, it was a wizard’s staff in the tradition of his own, an aid to spellcasting. For all that, he didn’t perceive any arcane energies around her. A witch, then, or warlock? Either way, an amateur. People who meddled with either fairies or demons quickly learned to be serious and not waste time on such melodramatic touches as sweeping black robes and ornately-carved staves, or they came to a swift and sticky end.

The men were slightly more respectable-looking, with the exception of the mage, who was actually wearing hooded robes straight out of the last century. The man was middle-aged at least, with a slight paunch and as much gray as brown in his beard; of all people, he ought to know better. Beside him stood a fellow who wasn’t a cowboy but had dressed as one, his leather and denim attire brand-spanking new and embellished with needless embroidery, surmounted by a white ten-gallon hat. He also sported late-model wands holstered at his belt, over which his hands hovered menacingly. On the other side was a nervous-looking fellow in a plain suit, a bronze badge at his lapel marking him a cleric of Salyrene.

“Justice,” said the girl in leather self-importantly, “doesn’t wait till it’s convenient for you.”

“Now, I might be mistaken,” McGraw said mildly, “it wouldn’t be the first time. But I was under the impression that justice in this town was the province of a nice fellow with a badge, who has the actual authority of the Empire to hand it out.”

“Our weapons are all the authority we need,” sneered the “cowboy.”

“That’s no way to live, son,” McGraw told him gravely. “It makes for a world that ain’t fit for anybody to live in.”

“There are things more important than the law,” the girl in leather said sharply, clearly trying to steer the conversation back toward herself. “Especially when assassins hide behind the law to do their dirty work.”

“Was that directed at me?” he asked. “I didn’t realize I was hiding behind anything.”

“There are higher powers,” intoned the girl in the black robe. She had a thin, strained voice. “Higher concerns. A great doom is coming; it is whispered on the wind in every corner of the world. Those who care to stand against the darkness must do so, ere it is too late.”

“Kid,” he said wearily, “nobody talks like that.”

“Enough,” snapped Leather. “We’re not here to argue the point. Any point. We know what you’re here for, Longshot, and it’s not happening. I think you should leave town.”

“If there’s a problem with me minding my own business in this fair little burg, I believe I’ll wait till I hear about it from an official source. Just as a point of curiosity, though, are you kids aware the people you’re protecting are members of the Thieves’ Guild?”

That caused a stir in their ranks. The girl in the leather narrowed her eyes; the cleric actually twitched as if startled, looking over at the leader as if for direction.

“So,” said the mage with a smile, “you not only know who we’re discussing, but that they need protection. Sounds like an admission to me.”

“Well, it seems I’ll have to grant you that one,” McGraw said, chuckling ruefully. “Fairly caught. That’s what happens when I don’t get to finish my breakfast. What’s your story, friend? Forgive my pointin’ it out, but you don’t seem to quite fit in among these whippersnappers.”

“Rotscale,” the other wizard replied, holding up an arm and pulling back the sleeve of his robe to show a long streak of black, hardened skin. “I’ve been to every cleric in Tiraas; they can’t do a thing. The doctors say I’ve got two years, tops. Always wanted to be a hero, ever since I was a boy. Facing the prospect of actually dying in bed, well… A man reassesses what’s naïve and what’s true.”

“That, I can respect,” McGraw said, nodding gravely. The other man nodded in return, his expression still calm and faintly amused.

“So what’s it gonna be, McGraw?” asked the girl in the leather. “Are you gonna leave on your own terms? Or do we have to do this…the hard way?”

“Ideally,” he replied calmly, “the outcome here is that I go back inside and finish my meal, and y’all cut this foolishness out and go get a real job. Ain’t my policy to tell anybody how they oughta live, but I do wish you’d consider the consequences of your actions for people who aren’t you. This here’s an inhabited town,” he nodded to the side, where a dozen or so townfolk had gathered to watch the proceedings with great interest. “Anybody starts shootin’, there’s likely to be bystanders injured and sure to be property damage. Also, the way you’ve been carryin’ on out here, I expect the Sheriff to arrive any second, and as things stand it ain’t me who’s aimin’ to spend a night in the pokey.”

That brought them up short. Some of the bluster leaked out of the leader; she glanced uncertainly around at the buildings and people nearby, while the cleric and the robed girl looked to her for guidance. The cowboy only stared at McGraw, a faint grin hovering around his mouth. That one was going to be trouble, no matter how this played out.

“All of this,” McGraw went on, “is leaving aside that you poor saps have been suckered in by some authentically bad people to do their dirty work. So I’ll turn your question back around on you, miss. You wanna step inside, have a seat, talk this out like civilized folk? Or would you prefer to do something foolish and get buried under the consequences of it? What’s it gonna be?”


 

Watching from the shadows of a nearby alley, Thumper cursed softly to himself. Already it was all going wrong. All those damned kids had to do was be their stupid selves, and they couldn’t even do that right. Even as he watched, he could see their resolve faltering.

As usual, he had to do everything himself.

He pulled a small hinged case from the inside pocket of his coat and flipped it open; inside were several vials from his potion kit. He might be a fake salesman, but the props provided for his cover were quite real, and he had taken the precaution of bringing several along in case they came in handy for today’s work. Selecting one, he shut the case and tucked it back away, flicked the cork off the vial with his thumb, and drank it down, grimacing at the bitter taste. Would it interfere with the functioning of alchemy to add some damn flavor?

At least it worked. In seconds, his own arms faded from view. Clothes and all, luckily; he’d read horror stories of adventurers caught in sticky situations when their invisibility elixirs had only concealed flesh, but thankfully modern alchemy was more reliable.

Shook was no sneak-thief, but he’d grown up on the streets of Tiraas and knew how to move quietly. For all that sneaking out in the open in broad daylight set his nerves jangling, he circled around the little tableau unfolding in the square without being spotted by any of the participants. He’d half-expected McGraw to be able to see through the effects of the potion, but it seemed luck was with him.

He ghosted around behind the five would-be heroes, creeping up on the fool in the cowboy hat just as McGraw was finishing up his little speech. He was right about one thing: the sheriff would be here very soon. Thumper had singled out this guy when Tazlith had introduced him around to the posse she’d put together: he was aggressive, reckless, and exactly the sort of fellow who could be relied on to start trouble. Even if he didn’t actually start it, nobody would have a hard time believing that he had.

As the fives wannabes hesitated, glancing at each other, Thumper crouched, moved in closer, and then lunged. He grabbed one of the cowboy’s hands with one of his and his wand with the other. The man cried out in surprise and tried to pull away, but Thumper was faster, stronger and had the element of surprise. He mashed the wand against the man’s hand, twisted it in the general direction of McGraw, and squeezed the clicker.

The shot missed, of course, cracking one of the wooden supports holding up the A&W’s awning. That didn’t matter; what mattered was that to those watching, it looked like the man had performed a quick draw and fired from the waist.

It had been a gamble; it would have backfired had his targets shown any introspection or reserve, but human nature didn’t fail him. Once the shooting started, the thinking stopped.

McGraw hadn’t been in the path of the wandshot, but he nevertheless threw up a shield, a sparkling blue sphere around himself, which protected him from the blast of unfocused shadow magic hurled by the girl in the black robe. People screamed and ran in all directions. The cowboy had dropped his wand when Thumper let it go, and was looking around in confusion.

The Sheriff would be there in seconds, surely.

Thumper was already on his way back into the alley.


 

Principia had chosen a good spot once she heard the shouting begin. For all the trouble-making types who came through Last Rock, few bothered to make use of the town’s rooftops, which was almost a shame; the stone structures were extremely solid and their slate shingles kept in good repair. They also didn’t transmit sound well, so as long as she stepped lightly, nobody knew she was making her way over their house.

It helped that people never thought to look up.

The sloping roof of the general store had a conveniently-placed chimney from behind which she peeked down at the action in the square. She had marked the alley into which Shook had vanished prior to the action starting, and thus noted the faint disturbance of invisible footsteps in the dust heading toward the adventurers. It was, she had to acknowledge, a good effect. If not for elven eyes and the fact that she’d been watching specifically for something from that point of emergence, she would have missed it.

“You bastard,” she murmured with a faint smile. He was nothing if not predictable.

Prin ducked lower as the first shot went off, hiding herself completely and thus losing her view of the action. There followed two more wandshots and the less distinctive sounds of spells being cast, then a lull. She peeked out again a moment later, taking stock of the scene.

McGraw had vanished. Unless one of those fool casters had managed to disintegrate him—about as likely as a sudden revelation that she was in line for the Imperial throne—that meant he had moved to reclaim the advantage. The fact that she didn’t know where he was…well, that could be all kinds of bad.

Tazlith was trying to rally her troops, who were varying degrees of frightened, confused and pissed off. Principia decided none of this needed to be dealt with by her.

Moving lightly as a squirrel, she darted across the rooftops to the large house where she rented an attic, slipping neatly through her open window into her chambers. Even using her unconventional paths, nowhere in Last Rook took long to reach.

Prin shut the window behind herself, turned to her enchanting table…and froze. She darted over to the door—yes, it was open, the lock broken. Naturally Shook didn’t have the skill, and probably also not the inclination, to pick a lock like a professional. She looked back to the table, where her row of carefully enchanted rings were missing.

“Bastard,” she said with more feeling.

Right. Predictable.

Speaking of, at that moment her broken door pushed open and Longshot McGraw ducked inside.

“Ma’am,” he said courteously, tugging the brim of his hat to her. “Pardon my intrusion, but it seems I need to move up my timetable considerably.”

She stared at him for one silent moment before bolting.

Prin threw down a coin as she fled; its simple anti-magic charm wouldn’t have held against anything a wizard of McGraw’s caliber threw at it deliberately, but it disrupted the stasis spell he tossed after her enough that she only felt a brief tugging sensation before she managed to dive through the still-open window.

She somersaulted midair and landed on her feet in a slide, shooting straight down the sloping roof tiles. In the alley below, she kicked off the far wall to blunt her momentum and rolled as she reached the ground, sprinting for the mouth of the alley.

McGraw’s teleportation wasn’t as tidy or potent as Tellwyrn’s; his appearance was presaged by a split-second flash of blue light, giving Prin enough warning to skid to a stop rather than plow into him, and his reappearance came with a crack of energy and a static buzz that made her hair try to stand up.

“It seems,” he said conversationally as though nothing had just happened, “that your friend Mr. Shook has set a pack of ravenous puppies on me. I actually have to admire his cleverness; I’d feel quite bad if I brought harm to any of those silly kids, which hampers me more than a little. My feeling, though, is they’ll maybe be a bit less trigger-happy if I show up again with you in tow. They did turn up to protect you from my depredations, after all,” he added with a grin.

Principia backed up two careful steps. “Why are you doing this?”

He shrugged. “The money’s good.”

“That is what I meant. Why? You could have apprentices…wealth, a life of comfort. You’re ten times the mage any of those turkeys who go adventuring in the Sea are. Why this?”

McGraw tilted his head to one side, regarding her curiously for a moment before replying. “Short answer is, it’s something to do.”

“Seriously? That’s it?”

“Miss, when you get to my age—”

“I’m at least twice your age.”

“—you start to think about who you are and what you really want, whether you intend to or not. I stumbled into the adventuring life quite by accident and spent a couple decades moaning about it…but come time to retire, I found the thing I truly fear is… Well. Apprentices, wealth, comfort, and all the trappings of a staid life. Won’t say I crave adventure, as such, just…not to be bored. Things like this suit me fine.”

She crept back another step. “I could only wish I had your problems.”

“I imagine my situation looks a fair bit better’n yours at this moment. Not that I’m not enjoying this discussion, ma’am, but I also am not a fool. We can carry on chatting while we walk, if you are so inclined.” He leveled his staff at her and smiled politely. “This way, please.”


 

Shook made a point of breathing hard as he dashed up to the adventurers, who were huddled together in the square. Townspeople had fled; they had the place effectively to themselves for the moment. Where the hell was that Sheriff? It had been more than a couple of minutes already; Sanders had never been so slow to respond to a disturbance, at least not from what the locals had told him over the last few days. He’d had to wait for the counteragent to the invisibility elixir to take effect, and had been sure he’d come back to find his minions slugging it out with the law while their actual quarry slipped away. Well, odd as it was, he’d take it.

“Everybody all right?” he panted, doing his best to look concerned. “Damn, he moves fast. I didn’t even have a chance to get in behind him.”

“Jeremiah,” Tazlith said with obvious relief, turning to him. “Marks says he was grabbed; somebody got his wand and made him shoot at McGraw.”

“We are not of one mind on what to make of this story,” said Lorrie, the warlock. “It seems terribly convenient for him. Terribly inconvenient for us.”

“I didn’t detect any invisible presence,” the mage (whose name Shook hadn’t troubled to learn) intoned pompously. It was all Shook could do not to roll his eyes.

“Dammit, I should’ve expected that,” he said, putting on a rueful face.

“What?” said Tazlith. “What do you mean?”

“The whole point of this was to stand him down, prevent it coming to a fight, right? McGraw told me to my face he’d like nothing better than if I started the shooting so he could claim self-defense. If he realized we weren’t going to oblige him, obviously he made it seem you were starting the fight.”

“Can…can he do that?” Marks asked uncertainly.

“Man’s a famous battlemage. Who can say what he can do?”

“It’s an interesting theory.”

They all spun toward the speaker in unison, those who had weapons raising them. Sheriff Sanders was striding toward them, his stare promising murder. With him came Ox Whipporwill… And the three Imperial soldiers quartered at the University.

So that’s what had taken him so long.

“I cannot recommend strongly enough that you lower those wands,” Sanders said grimly. “Needless to say, a thorough investigation of everyone involved in this mess is forthcoming. If there’s been magical meddling, we’ll find out, one way or another. In the meantime, though, you are all coming down to the office with me. It’ll look much better for you if I don’t have to be assertive about it.”

“All we wanted to do was protect that girl McGraw is after,” Tazlith said stridently. “We’ll cooperate in any way we can, but right now he is still out there, and so is she. We aren’t the threat here. Do your job, Sheriff!”

Shook would have winced if her blustering didn’t so perfectly suit his aim of deflecting the trouble toward herself. That was one of the top ten things you absolutely did not say to law enforcement.

“This ain’t a conversation, miss,” Sanders shot back, placing a hand on his own wand. “I am gonna repeat myself one more time, and after that I’ll assume you’re resisting. We are going—”

“Excuse me,” said the robed mage, “but you should all see this.”

They turned to look where he pointed, Sanders a second after the others as if expecting to be attacked from behind if he averted his eyes. It was no trap, though, at least not for them. McGraw and Principia were entering the empty square from the street beyond. She walked in front, stiffly, her hands balled into fists at her side. The old wizard strolled behind her, staff resting over his shoulder, puffing idly on a cigarillo.

“Hello again,” he said. “Ah, ah, ah, let’s nobody go an’ do something rash. There’s been enough dust kicked up for one morning, I think. Seein’ as how Ms. Locke and myself seem to be the source of all this commotion, we’ve talked it over amongst ourselves and decided the most responsible course of action is for us to remove ourselves from town till everything has a chance to settle down again.”

“That true, Prin?” Sanders asked tersely.

She glared at him. “Of course it’s not fucking true, you half-wit, I’m being kidnapped! Do something!”

McGraw shook his head. “Nobody around here can ever let me do anything the easy way,” he said fatalistically. “Y’know, I believe I’m beginning to actively dislike this town.”

“Feeling’s mutual,” Sanders said, drawing his wand. “Elias ‘Longshot’ McGraw, you’re under arrest.”

“If you consider the matter carefully,” McGraw replied calmly, smiling, “I think you will find that I am not. As I was saying, Ms. Locke and I will be leaving the town now. I leave it to you and these lovely people to decide how much needs to get broken in the process, Sheriff.”

“You are astronomically outnumbered, villain,” the warlock intoned. “Submission is your only wise course.” Around her, the others readied their weapons; wands and staves were aimed at him, and Tazlith drew a pair of throwing knives.

“It seems to me,” McGraw said evenly, stepping up behind Principia so that he addressed them over her shoulder, “a show of force isn’t appropriate in your situation. I’m assuming, of course, that you would rather Ms. Locke not get shot in the process. I might be wrong about that. Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“We fan out, take him from all angles,” Shook said tersely. “He can’t hide behind her skirts if he’s encircled.”

“Thank you for your input,” Sanders said sarcastically.

“What?” Principia screeched, a note of hysteria entering her voice. “No shooting!”

“Do you wanna get hauled off into the prairie to be executed like a dog?” Shook replied. “Just keep your head down and try not to get shot.”

“No! Fuck you, Shook! No shooting!”

“Prin—”

“Go to hell!” She was shrieking now, eyes wide in panic. “Nobody’s taking shots in my direction just because you would rather I’m out of the picture! You stole my fucking enchanted rings and left me high and dry, you faked the shot at McGraw with that invisibility charm! This bullshit is entirely your fault!”

“Wait, you did what?” Tazlith said, whirling on him.

He glared at her. “This is not the time—”

“He’s wearing rings,” the robed man noted. “Rather a lot of them. I wondered about that.”

“Seems I’m gonna need a bigger cell,” Sanders said wearily. “Goddamn it, the middle of the street with weapons pointed in all directions is not the place for this. Everybody stop whatever the hell you’re doing and stand down!”

“Y’all clearly have matters to discuss amongst yourselves,” McGraw said cheerfully. “We’ll just be heading—”

“No, you don’t!” Sanders raised his arm, aiming his wand right for McGraw and disregarding Principia’s squeal of protest. “Nobody fucking moves!”

McGraw opened his mouth to reply, but cut off, his eyes widening as they shifted to look past the group. Immediately he and Principia were wreathed in a sparkling sphere of transparent blue light. Two wandshots splashed against it, causing it to flicker and dim—Marks and one of the soldiers had apparently been spooked by the sudden spell effect.

“Hold your fire!” Sanders roared, to no effect.

McGraw pointed his staff at the ground between them; light flashed along its length, and an elaborate circular glyph appeared on the paving stones. Everyone backed rapidly away from it, Rook and Moriarty swiveling to point their weapons at the shape that began forming out of mist above it.

“What the fuck?” Marks moved one hand to aim at the figure, keeping his other wand pointed at McGraw and Principia.

“He summons something,” said Lorrie, shifting her staff to rest in the crook of her arm and folding her hands together. “Two can play at this game.”

“No!” Tazlith shouted, whirling on her. “Dammit, we talked about this! Do not bring that damn thing out, this’ll all go to hell if you lose control of it!”

“An elemental!” exclaimed the mage as the missed coalesced into a figure. It wasn’t even vaguely humanoid, though it had two arm-like protrusions. “How does an arcane wizard have access to a water elemental?!”

“Oh, shit.” Sanders’s outburst wasn’t aimed at the elemental, however; he’d glanced over his shoulder, following McGraw’s eyes.

“Shoot it!”

“Don’t shoot it! Don’t make it mad!”

“Will somebody do something?!”

CRACK!

The bolt of power that roared across the square, making all their hair stand up and momentarily blinding everyone, was massive enough nearly to suit a magical artillery shot. It struck the creature dead center; half its mass evaporated on the spot, the rest splashing harmlessly to the ground, apparently now inert.

The weapon that had fired it was clearly antique. Shorter than modern battlestaves and at least twice as thick, it was a throwback to the age when such enchanted weapons were a new invention borrowing from older sensibilities; elaborately carved, decorated across its whole length with bands of silver and surmounted by a globe of glowing crystal, it looked like what an artist designing a cover for a penny dreadful might imagine an old-fashioned wizard’s staff to be.

The person carrying it had made that perfect shot with the cumbersome weapon one-handed, using the other to prop herself up on one of her canes. She glared coldly at McGraw.

“Shame on you,” said Mabel Cratchley.

With a burble and a huge gout of steam, the elemental rose up from the ground; it was smaller now, but clearly re-forming itself.

This time, Marks, Lorrie and the cleric dived away as Miz Cratchley blasted it again, Rook stumbling backward from the incredible force and falling on his rear. It made a smoking crater in the middle of the square where it struck.

The staff, too, was smoking now, though Miz Cratchley didn’t pay it any mind, shifting her aim to McGraw.

“Don’t do it!” Principia wailed, cowering back against him.

“Impressive shootin’, ma’am,” McGraw said, tipping his hat to her. At some point in the last minute he had dropped his cigarillo. “But there’s a reason those old thunderbuses were taken out of service. One more shot and the thing’s likely to blow up.”

“I’ve lived long enough,” she replied, staring him down. “I’m ready to account for myself to the gods. Are you?”

McGraw stared back at her, apparently lacking an answer to that.

Before anybody could act or come up with something to say, there came a soft pop from right between the two groups, the effect rather underwhelming after the recent show of firepower. The effect on the group of the figure who materialized was another matter entirely.

“All right,” Arachne Tellwyrn said flatly, “that’s enough.”

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“Off to dinner, girls?” Janis said cheerily as she puttered about Clarke Tower’s sitting room, applying a feather duster to the furniture. “Remember, just let me know if you ever want to eat in. Not that the cafeteria food isn’t just wonderful, but we’ve a fully-stocked kitchen here, and sometimes a lady doesn’t feel up to facing the crowds. You know how it is.”

Shaeine and Juniper had just entered the room from the stairs; Teal sat on the couch, strumming a soft melody on her guitar. She looked up and grinned without pausing.

“Pertaining to that,” said Shaeine, “I have a favor to ask. Has anyone seen Trissiny or Zaruda?”

“Not since we got back,” replied Teal, still playing. “If they’re both up in their room…well, we maybe should go break up whatever’s going on, but I’m not so sure it’d be safe to.”

“Tut, tut, those girls just need a bit of time to get used to each other,” Janis scolded gently. “Mind your head, duckie, let me just get the back of the couch.”

“I see.” Shaeine folded her hands together, causing them to vanish in the wide cuffs of her sleeves. “I need to visit the scrolltower office in Last Rock and dispatch a message to Tar’naris. I would greatly appreciate a human escort, if such is available. The more open-minded of Imperial citizens, I find, react to my race with mere suspicion. I will be glad to pay for a dinner in town, as thanks.”

“Oh!” Juniper bit her lower lip. “Oh, that actually sounds like a lot of fun, but I’ve already made plans this evening. I promised Mrs. Oak I’d be back at the dining hall for dinner, and then I have a date.”

“Already?” Janis tittered. “But I shouldn’t be surprised, you’re such a lovely little thing. Just be careful, dear, a lady must mind her reputation.”

“I’ll come along,” said Teal, her melody easing to a stop. “Mind if I bring my guitar? I’ve been wanting to have a go at playing the local taverns anyway; my parents never let me do it back home.”

“I should be very grateful of the company,” Shaeine replied, bowing to her. “And I never object to music.”

“That’s what I like to hear!” Grinning, Teal gently laid the guitar in the case at her feet and snapped it shut, then slung it over her shoulder as she stood. “I’m good to go whenever you are.”

“I would not dream of making you wait. Shall we?”

Juniper watched, her head tilted inquisitively, till the girls had shut the door behind them, then turned back to Janis. “What about my reputation?”


 

“Hold up. Can we stop a minute?”

“Of course.”

Teal sank to the ground, sitting on the lower step of the great marble staircase with the main street of Last Rock opening before her, and placed the guitar case across her knees. She leaned on it with both elbows, panting. Shaeine stood silently nearby, only the faint shine of her eyes visible from within her hood.

“In Tiraas I once got to visit Thomas Esdel’s factory. He’s got this thing, called an escalating staircase. Basically the steps just sort of flow upward like a backwards river; no walking required. I think it’s powered by an elemental turning a wheel.” She lifted her head and wiped sweat from her face with her sleeve. “I’m gonna suggest Tellwyrn put one of those in here.”

“It was my supposition that Professor Tellwyrn arranged this approach to her University specifically to discourage easy access,” Shaeine replied. “Such would befit someone of her reputation.”

“Ugh…I swear I’m not out of shape. There just aren’t any mountains to climb where I’m from.”

“In my home, level surfaces are scarce and not found on a single, convenient plane. We build where building is possible. Stairs are a fact of life to which I am, I think, more accustomed than most of our classmates.”

“I bet Clarke Tower is downright homey to you, then.”

“Its interior, yes, in some ways. I am only able to sleep by cultivating deep denial of what lies outside its walls.”

Teal chuckled, then heaved herself back to her feet with a grunt. “Well, that’s not just you. I mean, who builds a floating tower? Honestly.”

“Wizards?”

“Wizards who are jerks.”

“Or merely ostentatious.”

“Ostentatious jerks!”

They attracted some long looks from the townsfolk as they passed into the town proper, but no overt hostility. The citizens of Last Rock were doubtless used to unusual types, living in the literal shadow of the University; several offered polite greetings in passing, which Teal returned cheerily and Shaeine with a formal bow.

“Teal, I wish to ask what may be a personal question, but I desire not to offend. I do not yet understand the limits of acceptable conversation in Imperial society.”

“Ask away,” she replied lightly. “I reserve the right not to answer, but I won’t be offended by curiosity.”

Shaeine’s nod was a barely perceptible shuffle of her cowl. “In the dining hall, I heard two upperclassmen express fascination that a Falconer is in attendance this year. Are you of the nobility?”

“I…ehhh. Not as such.” She made a wry face. “That is, a pedigreed aristocrat would be offended at the suggestion, but…partly because my family are richer than most of them.”

“I see. Please forgive my impertinence.”

“Shaeine, it’s fine. If you tread on my privacy I’ll tell you, but questions aren’t a bother. That’s how people get to know each other, after all.”

“I will keep it in mind.”

They walked in silence, occasionally nodding to locals. Last Rock was surprisingly busy, considering the hour; the sky was streaked with crimson shadows, the sun having long since vanished behind the mountain.

“Not very convenient of ’em to build the scrolltower office at the outer edge of town.”

“Inconvenient for University residents, perhaps, but not for the sake of commerce. It is, after all, adjacent to the Rail platform.”

“I can hardly imagine anyone coming here just to send a telescroll,” Teal grumbled. “Students and faculty probably give them more business than anybody stumbling off a caravan.”

“Perhaps they take satisfaction in making us walk.”

“I just bet they do. First Tellwyrn with her bloody staircase and then all these…fine people.” She glanced around warily; nobody appeared to be close enough to listen in. “You know, we should visit town more often. It’s rare I can walk among the proletariat and not be the center of suspicious attention.”

“Honored to be of service,” Shaeine said dryly. “Though, with respect, I would assume that your manner of dress did not signal an aversion to attention.”

Teal kicked a pebble out of her way. “It’s…maybe not so prudent. I suppose I’ll have to up and grow out of it one of these days. I just…gah. It got to where I felt like I’d explode if I couldn’t just be me and not what’s expected of me. You know?”

“I confess that I don’t. In Tar’naris, expectations are a fact of life, and the consequences for flouting them are not merely social.”

“…you must think I’m pretty shallow.”

“Not in the least. I think your concerns reflect the world in which you live, and are shaped by pressures wholly alien to me.” She turned her cowled head to look at Teal directly. “I am accustomed to the demands of a society with rigid gender roles; sometimes I think that integrating into a culture that lacked them would be easier than adapting to one whose roles are so utterly different.”

“How so?”

“There is no word for ‘patriarchy’ in my language. Explaining the concept would incite either derision or violence, depending on circumstance. I am…given to understand that Imperial society is not accepting of persons attracted to their own gender.”

“Not especially, no.” Teal sighed heavily.

“If the subject bothers you, of course I will not press.”

“No, no…really, if anything it’s nice to talk with someone who’s not just…tolerating me. I guess elves are okay with…with that?”

Shaeine cocked her head to one side. “Orientation is a human concept. Among elves, both surface and subterranean, refusing sexual contact with an entire gender is considered a sign of mental illness.”

“…wow. I guess I might not fit in so well in Tar’naris after all.”

“On the contrary. You might not be welcomed among a plains or forest tribe, but my people have a more lenient view of the mind. Any condition which does not inhibit an individual’s ability to contribute is considered a personality trait, not a problem. Drow do not waste resources.”

“So…really? By that standard, elves would consider almost all humans crazy.”

“Oh, we do.”

Teal’s laughter was loud and bright; Shaeine smiled at her in return.

The scrolltower was impossible not to find; it was the tallest thing short of the mountain in the region, and in any case the road led almost directly to it. Last Rock’s tower was an unpretentious pillar of metal scaffolding topped by the great crystal orb, which flickered dimly in the twilight as information passed through it. There was apparently little for Last Rock to transmit, and at present it served simply as a waypoint for messages flying across the Empire.

Teal pulled the door open and held it for Shaeine, bowing grandly; she received a nod and a smile in return.

Inside, the office more resembled stereotypical frontier sensibilities than did most of Last Rock. The interior walls were paneled with wood and decorated with maps and a few hunting trophies. Mounted heads of bear, elk, unicorn and some kind of enormous cat glared down at them, and a single preserved dragon wing was stretched across one entire wall. Benches were upholstered in patched red leather in a style that had been popular in Imperial offices twenty years ago, and the wall sconces pulsed and flickered, clearly the original prototype fairy lights rather than the steadier modern variety.

“Well, hey there! Y’all are just in time, I was about to close up. C’mon in, let’s see what we can do for you.” Behind the counter opposite the door grinned an old man with bristly white sideburns, and the silver gryphon badge of an Imperial officer pinned to his flannel shirt. Over his shoulder they could just see the pale blue glow of arcane magic at work.

“Good evening,” Shaeine replied, gliding toward him with Teal strolling along behind. “I apologize for the late hour. I must dispatch a message to the Narisian consulate at Fort Vaspian.” She produced a neatly folded sheaf of parchment from within her robe and placed it on the counter.

“Vaspian, that’s right over by the path to the Underworld…message to Tar’naris, then? Well, of course, just listen to me babble.” He laughed as he opened the paper. “’Course to Tar’naris, not likely you’d be writin’ to Svenheim. Sure thing, little lady, comin’ right up! Oh, this is a diplomatic code. That’s a priority, then. Not that there’s any waitin’. Lessee…”

He turned his back and stepped two feet to the machinery that formed the base of the scrolltower; Teal and Shaeine both stepped up against the counter, craning their necks to watch. Off to one side was an enormous scroll of paper, with a pen hovering over it attached to a metal arm. Atop this assembly sat the tiny globe of a fairy light, no doubt an indicator, currently dark. The operator went to a station next to it, where his body blocked their view, but shifting patterns of blue light limned him as he fed Shaeine’s message into the device.

“Folks came up from Tiraas ’bout four years ago to put this here girl in,” he said amiably as he worked. “Used to be, us scrollmasters were a trained an’ disciplined corps! Had to know our geography and the numeric code the towers use to transmit. Nowadays, it’s a scrying apparatus does it, reads the message an’ parses it out into code an’ all. She’s even smart enough to interpret your transmission code. Ain’t that a hell of a thing? They got enchantments smarter’n people now. Soon enough a monkey’ll be able to do this job.”

He turned back to face them with a smile; behind, the tray in which he’d placed the letter continued to gleam, casting a shifting pattern of light on the walls like the reflection of moonlight on water. “Now, it’ll take ‘er just a minute or two to percolate. I still got the old-style interface for when things get busy; these ol’ fingers are still nimble enough to get the job done faster’n any machine! Oh, ‘scuze my manners, I get used to knowin’ everybody in this town. Silas Crete, Imperial scrollmaster, fer whatever that’s still worth.”

They introduced themselves, Shaeine with a formal bow, to the grinning scrollmaster. “Pleasure to meet new faces. Y’all just started up at the school? Pretty sure I ain’t seen ya in town before.”

“We did,” Shaeine replied.

“Well, missy, it’s good to see you. Some folks are all het up about how fast things’re changin’, but I don’t hold with that kinda backward thinkin’. Ol’ Silas remembers when we used to have troops at the entrance to Tar’naris all the time. Big ol’ waste, y’ask me. Damn good thing to see people getting’ along. That’s progress I kin get behind!” He turned to glance at the reader, which was still working. “Hmf, damn thing takes forever, but they want me to use ‘er unless it’s too busy. Pencil jockeys in Tiraas, no idea how things work in a real office… Say, missy, if it ain’t an imposition, I wonder if you could settle an argument.”

Shaeine tilted her head curiously. “I will be glad to help if I can.”

“Me an’ my nephew—he was in the army, used to be stationed at Vaspian, ‘course this was after the treaty—me an’ my nephew Jonas have a disagreement ’bout drow customs. He keeps tryin’ to feed me this line about how drow women kill their men after they, y’know…get with the business of makin’ the next generation. That ain’t so, is it?”

For the first time since Teal had met her, Shaeine seemed taken aback. “That…would be a recipe for population collapse. No, that is not our custom. A matriarchial culture does not presuppose institutional hostility toward males.”

Haw! Exactly what I told ‘im, miss, exactly what I told ‘im. That’s just beautiful, finally I get to shut the little punk up. You just made my week!”

“Happy to be of service,” Shaeine said carefully. Teal bit down on both her lips, concentrating on restraining her laughter.

“Oop, there she goes! Message sent, no problems, and you’re all set.” He retrieved the letter, refolded it and handed it back to Shaeine. “Anything else, little lady?”

“That is all I require at present, thank you. What do I owe you?”

He waved her off. “Don’t you worry about that, darlin’, it’s on ol’ Silas this time. Jes’ my way of sayin’, welcome to the Empire! I surely do hope you enjoy your stay.”

“You are extremely kind, sir,” she said, bowing again.

“Say,” Teal chimed in, “can you recommend a place in town where we can get some dinner?”

“Well, the Ale an’ Wenches does a lotta good business, it’s pretty popular with the students. You can see it right outside the door, other side of the Rail platform.”

“Mm, right, I heard about that one up at campus,” she said, nodding slowly. “How about…anyplace a little quieter, maybe?”

Silas grinned broadly at her. “Not much for carousin’? Well, that’s a good thing to hear, ma’am. Not sayin’ all the University kids are loud an’ destructive, a’course. It really don’t need to be said.” His laugh was a tenor bark like a seal’s. “Well, remember my nephew Jonas? He’s a little numbnut sometimes, but a good kid. Runs the town saloon, keeps it quieter than the A&W an’ they got pretty good food.”

“Sounds perfect!”

“You can get there easy enough, ain’t nothin’ hard to find in this town. Up the main street toward the mountain, hang a left just past the barber shop, head down a few doors an’ it’ll be on your right. Can’t miss it, the sign says Saloon and hangs over the dang street, too low for a horse to walk under.”

“Thank you again,” Shaeine said with another bow.

The sun had set while they were in the scrolltower office. Back on the street, Shaeine left her hood down, and though most of the townsolk had cleared out indoors, those who remained frequently stopped and stared, now. With the Narisian treaty barely ten years old, drow weren’t a common sight anywhere in the Empire, and their reputation as enemies of anyone who dwelt in the sunlight was millennia old. Shaeine greeted anyone who gave her a look with a bow and one of her polite half-smiles, and nobody challenged them, but even so, Teal stayed close. Last Rock might be an open-minded place for a frontier town, but one never knew.

“I confess to a measure of excitement at this prospect,” said Shaeine, sounding no more excited than usual. “The ‘saloon’ is a fixture of our popular fiction about the Imperial frontier. I had hoped to visit one at least once during my stay on the surface.”

“Really, you guys have popular fiction about the Empire?”

“Have you never encountered popular fiction about drow?”

Teal winced. “I, uh…actually own a couple of novels. I figured they weren’t very accurate…”

“Those I have seen tended to be quite erotic.”

By this point, Teal’s face was burning. “I’ve…heard that.”

“Well, that is both an amusing irony and a basic fairness. Humans are often sexualized in my culture as well.”

“They…we…really?”

“Our standards of beauty emphasize that which differentiates us from our paler surface cousins,” Shaeine went on serenely, “including muscularity and curvaceousness. Humans are more prone to both than even we. There are other cultural factors at play, especially the universal allure of the exotic. It’s a fascinating topic; I will perhaps write a paper on it during my tenure at the University.”

“I think I’d like to read that,” Teal sad wonderingly.

Everything was exactly where old Silas had said it would be. The Ale & Wenches cast a glow of golden light and a babble of happy voices across the square fronting the Rail platform, but they went nowhere near it. Finding the saloon was simple enough, following his directions. Just approaching it they could tell it suited Teal’s request for a quieter venue, though the cheerful sound of a slightly off-tune piano trickled out from the swinging wooden doors. This time, Shaeine went in first, pushing the doors wide, and stepped to one side once within to admit Teal.

It was a clean and well-lit space, its furnishings slightly shabby but clearly cared for. The décor reflected the same sensibilities as the scrolltower office had, with mounted animal heads on the wall and a full-sized stuffed bear rearing in one corner opposite the piano. The patrons filled the room with a cheerful but muted babble, which faded upon Shaeine’s entrance as they turned to stare at her.

The two students found a table near the wall, by the bear, and slid into seats; already the murmur of conversation began to pick back up. A slender figure dodged nimbly around tables and patrons, sliding to a stop beside them.

“Hi there, ladies. What’ll it be?”

Teal had to force herself not to stare; the waitress was an elf. Aside from the fact that elves seldom chose to live in human towns, they were nearly always too prideful to take on any kind of servant work. This woman, furthermore, had black hair, which was a striking rarity.

“Ah…” She glanced at Shaeine, who tilted her head slightly, indicating that Teal should proceed. “Just here for dinner. What’s good?”

“Good,” mused the elf, as though this were a foreign concept to her. “Now, do you mean good by the standards of the fancy-feasting Imperial rich kids up at the University? Because I’m afraid we don’t serve that here. Or what’s good for someone treating themselves to a night out on a cobbler’s wages? There’s a whole spectrum of good to explore.”

Teal found herself relaxing; the woman had a somewhat cheeky attitude, but she, herself, was right in her element when it came to banter. “Let me put this another way. What would you order?”

“Ahh, this one’s got a mind. Well done.” The elf smiled broadly at her, with a semblance of actual warmth. “That sounds to me like a steak dinner with the works. However, you being strangers, there’s an obligatory gold check before anything that pricey comes to the table.”

Shaeine reached into the folds of her robe, but Teal was faster, placing a small stack of Imperial doubloons on the table. “This being cattle country, I can’t imagine steak is too outlandish.”

“Not nearly as outlandish as that,” she replied, nodding to the coins. “Put those away, the losers around here can smell money. And to drink? I can’t say I’d recommend the wine, but the beer is better than decent.”

Teal glanced at Shaeine questioningly.

“Tea, please,” said the drow.

“Coming up.” The elf deftly pocketed a couple of coins before Teal retrieved the remainder of the stack. “I’m Principia; sing out if you need anything. Just don’t call me Sippy unless you want a surprise in the bottom of your glass.” With that and a wink, she darted toward the door at the back of the common room.

“That,” Shaeine mused, “was an altogether unfamiliar experience. Doubtless local standards differ, but I am very unaccustomed to hearing insults and threats from servants.”

“She was a little mouthy,” said Teal, “but yeah, things are a little more relaxed around here. I suspect there was an element of elvish pride there; I’m honestly astonished to find one waiting tables. Though on the other hand, a waitress isn’t exactly a servant as such.”

“Hm. Her duty is to serve, is it not?”

“Maybe I’m imposing my own perspective,” Teal admitted. “My family has servants; they’re actually professionals with training and take a lot of pride in being attached long-term to one employer. Our Butler would be pretty offended if I compared him to a saloon waitress.”

“I see. I am not alone in being out of my element, then.”

“You’re a little farther out, maybe.” Teal returned her companion’s smile. “But we can all stand to learn.”

“That is always true.”

Principia returned, carrying a tray with a full tea service; the china was coarse and unadorned, but not chipped. “Here we are,” she said lightly, sliding it onto their table. “The good part will be along presently. Say, are you two new this year?”

“Yup,” said Teal. “Second day.”

“Thought so. There’s only one other drow up there, to my knowledge, and she lacks…social graces. Nice to meet you both.” She grinned and slid away again, this time to check on another table.

“Would you excuse me for a minute?”

Shaeine nodded. “Of course.”

“Thanks. Be right back.” Teal slid from her seat and crossed over to the pianist, who was just finishing up a piece. He played with the exuberant imprecision of long practice and no particular talent; there was no applause when he finished, but saloon music wasn’t really intended to hold an audience’s attention. As the man turned sideways on his stool to grab a tankard of beer that had been resting (on a coaster) atop the piano, she noted a striking resemblance to Silas Crete, right down to the sideburns; this might be the same man twenty years younger, his bushy brown hair just beginning to go gray. This must be the nephew, Jonas.

“Evening,” she said pleasantly. “That’s nice work. You have live music in here all the time?”

“Well, not all the time, miss,” he replied with an easy smile. “These fingers can’t go every minute a’ the day, and I’ve got the bar to run, too. But I like to play now’n again, when I can.”

“A personal touch, I like it,” she said, matching his laid-back good humor. “I have a guitar with me tonight. Would you mind if I played a song or two after dinner?”

“Sure, long as you keep it clean an’ don’t expect me to pay for the entertainment.”

“Nah, it’s just for the fun of it.”

“Then consider yourself on the program, miss…?”

“Falconer. Teal Falconer. Thanks, I’ll wander over after we eat. I’ve heard good things about the steak here.”

He just smiled and nodded at her again, took a long pull of his drink and turned back to the keys.

She barely made it back to rejoin Shaeine before Principia reappeared, this time balancing another tray laden with steaming plates. Teal goggled at her as she slipped back into her chair.

“Wow. Doesn’t steak take time to cook?”

“Everything takes time, my young learner,” the elf intoned, sliding plates in front of each of them, then grinned. “Things take less time when the owner of the establishment is obsessed with having all the latest magical doodads from Calderaas in his kitchen.”

“It was my impression,” said Shaeine, “that cooking times cannot be artificially accelerated without adversely affecting the product.”

Principia glanced to the left, then the right, lifting her head and checking that Jonas was absorbed with the piano. Then she leaned in close to them, one side of her mouth curling up in a mischievous smirk. “Can you keep a secret?”

“Sure,” said Teal warily.

Principia’s smile widened to a grin. “Me too.” She straightened up and dusted off her hands. “Enjoy your dinner, girls.”

“I begin to see,” said Shaeine, watching the waitress leave, “why surface elves customarily avoid serving work. They seem ill-suited to it.” She examined her silverware, then peered at Teal’s, which she had already picked up.

“Oh, um… Not what you’re used to?”

“I am accustomed to a single knife as an eating impliment.”

“Wow, that sounds…messy.”

“Potentially. I am struck by the irony that your society and not mine invented those portable items we had for lunch. On the other hand, we seldom have bread.”

“Sandwiches? Yeah, those are handy. Here, just hold it like this. Don’t worry about doing it wrong, it’s just me here and nobody else is watching.”

“But there is clearly a customary way to do it. There are no meaningless rituals, no matter how small; from such things is culture built.”

Dinner was pleasant. Teal scooted her chair closer to Shaeine’s to show the drow how to handle the silverware, and managed not to laugh at the intensity with which she approached this task. It was like watching a child learning a new subject for the first time. Their conversation was more casual, when they spoke, and chiefly about growing up in Tar’naris and Tiraan province, respectively. They really were from totally different worlds, so much so that it hardly seemed to either that sentient people could truly live as the other described. Long pauses were devoted simply to chewing, however. Shaeine had never had a steak before. She strongly approved.

“How’re we doing?” Principia asked, coming by their table as they were finishing up. Both girls were chewing at that moment, but Teal gave her a thumbs up, getting a grin in reply. “Tolja the steak was good here. Hey, I wonder if you could do me a favor?”

Teal swallowed. “Uh, maybe. What would that be?”

The elf dipped a hand into her apron pocket and pulled it out, closed; a gold chain dangled from her fist at both ends. “You’re freshman girls, so you’ll be living with that new paladin, right? Trinity?”

“Trissiny,” Teal corrected automatically. “Yeah, she’s in our building.”

“Trissiny, right. Totally knew that, I was just testing you.” She winked and unfolded her fingers; in her hand rested a gold necklace, Avei’s eagle symbol on a braided chain. “I do a little side business in trinkets and charms, and…well, I guess you could say I’m a big fan. Could you give this to her, please?”

“What kind of charms?” asked Shaeine.

“Oh, all kinds,” Principia replied glibly. “Minor enchantments, I’m not wizard. You can’t put much on a holy symbol, of course, beyond a simple brightening charm. Not that I would, anyway.”

“You’re an Avenist?” Teal said in surprise.

The elf frowned at her. “What, you aren’t? Avei is the protector of all womankind. No exceptions for pointy ears.”

“I know, I just…I’d never heard of elves being…” Teal swallowed and reached for the necklace. “Yeah, sure, I can give this to Trissiny. I’m sure she’ll appreciate the gesture.”

“Prin,” called Jonas from across the room, “I’m not payin’ you to stand around jawin’ with the customers!”

“Whoops, the master calls,” the waitress said with a roll of her eyes, then flashed Teal a brilliant smile. “Thanks, doll. You’re a peach!” She whisked away to another table whose occupants were calling for beer.

“I mistrust that girl,” Shaeine said softly.

“Hm.” Teal looked down at the necklace in her hand for a moment before tucking it into her pocket. “She’s probably harmless; someone like Triss is bound to have admirers. Though I’m going to ask her how she feels about getting gifts for future reference. No point in making her uncomfortable.”

“Indeed.”

Teal caught Jonas’s eye; he grinned at her and nodded. Nodding back, she picked up her guitar case and rose. “Well, wish me luck!”

“You don’t need it,” replied her companion, “but good luck.”

The proprietor cleared the way for Teal to seat herself on the piano stool; he patted her shoulder once, smiling, then strode off toward the kitchen. Apparently the younger Mr. Crete was a man of fewer words than his uncle. She pulled out her guitar, gently plucking at the strings and adjusting the pegs. It had been in tune earlier, but been carried down a mountain since then.

“Hey, Ox, check this out,” called a reedy man at the table nearest her. “A college student with a guitar! Will wonders never cease.” He leaned one arm over the back of his chair, grinning at Teal. “How ’bout we make a bet, darlin’. If we ain’t already heard all three o’ the chords you know, your drinks’re on me tonight.”

“No bet,” she replied. Her fingers lightly fell on the strings, and the guitar sang. A soft waterfall of notes poured forth, growing in volume and speed and climbing back up the scale, swirling about each other in a playful dance that distracted from their utter precision. Teal brought the sequence to a close with a relatively simple arpeggio, then winked at the man, who was now gaping at her. “I’d hate to take your money.” Then she began to truly play, and sang.

It was a love song, but barely. She sang of a life that was peaceful and in order, suddenly upended by the arrival of a beautiful, beloved enemy; of the confusion of passion and frustration, of coming together and breaking apart until nobody knew where they stood. The song wove a bittersweet story of beauty and pain, the guitar added its coppery voice, and all throughout the saloon silence fell as every patron stopped drinking and stared fixedly at the bard, many with mouths open. Principia leaned against the far wall, watching with a wistful smile; Jonas and the portly cook both leaned out from the kitchen. Shaeine straightened till she was barely still seated, her gaze fixed on Teal with an intensity she had never shown in class.

No one could have said how long it went on; time stopped having any meaning. Three more people arrived while Teal sang, but they didn’t make it any farther inside than the door, immediately transfixed by the music. As long as the song lived, they were her prisoners. Teal never noticed, never looked up to see; her eyes were closed, her entire being wrapped around the guitar, coaxing the river of music from its strings.

And then it ended. The song came to a predictable close as good songs do, the notes of the accompaniment winding to a conclusion for a few seconds after the words stopped and ending on a tonic chord, but still the audience leaned back as one at the severance of the invisible chains binding them in place. A tiny exhalation echoed around the room, as dozens of people in unison let out the smallest breath, each too soft to have been heard in isolation.

For a moment, silence reigned. Then someone cleared his throat roughly and began, “That was—”

“HEATHENS!”

The swinging doors burst open to admit a stooped figure in a severe black gown, leaning on two canes, her wizened old face contorted with rage.

“Evenin’, Miz Cratchley,” somebody said in a resigned tone.

“You should every last one of you be ashamed!” the old woman screeched. “Carousing and drinking and listening to devil music! This used to be a good town, a town that feared the gods, and then SHE came. Now there’s poison in the streets, and honest human folks who can’t say they don’t know better have heads full of evil elvish ideas and would rather spend their nights in a saloon than a chapel!”

“Oh, brother,” said Principia, just loud enough to be clearly audible. Teal, taking advantage of the distraction, quickly bent to put away her guitar.

“And YOU!” Miz Cratchley shrieked, pointing a cane at Prin, who stuck out her tongue in reply. “Shameless slattern! Walking filth, corrupting the young of this town! You, and all the deviants and lunatics up there on the hill, pouring down their poison like sewage! What is that?!” Her voice rose to a thin scream of rage as she caught sight of Shaeine.

“Now, Mabel,” said Jonas, striding toward her with his arms open. “You seem tired. Maybe it’s time to head home and—”

“Don’t you dare to touch me, Jonas Crete, not when you’ve opened your doors to the demons of hell itself!” Several of the locals stood up in alarm; Mabel Cratchley had actually begun to foam at the mouth, her eyes rolling wildly as she ranted. “Monsters and wizards and the forces of evil walk among us! You’ll see what happens to a town that turns its back on the gods! YOU’LL SEE!” She flailed ferociously with both canes, swaying in place. “A great doom is coming, and woe to those who fail to repent! A GREAT DOOM!”

Then Shaeine was there, having slipped nimbly through the crowd. At her sudden approach, Miz Cratchley drew in a deep breath to unleash a bellow, her face twisting in incoherent rage. Before she could finish, Shaeine reached out and touched her lightly between the eyes with a fingertip.

Mabel Cratchley crumpled like a paper doll. Shaeine dived forward and caught her before she could hit the floor and eased her the rest of the way down, showing surprising strength for someone so diminutive. Gingerly letting the old woman’s head come to rest on the floorboards, she placed a slate-gray hand over Mabel’s forehead and closed her own eyes in concentration. Men rose to their feet on all sides and crowded around.

“I find no physical ailment,” the drow said, “beyond the stresses of age. However, I am not as familiar with human anatomy, and problems in the mind are difficult to diagnose at best. Is this normal behavior?”

“No,” rumbled a huge man in a faded old Imperial Army coat. “Miz Cratchley is a lady of strong opinions, but I never seen her get like that. Never.”

“Here now,” someone said near the back, “what’s the dark elf done to ‘er? We oughtta—”

“You shut the hell up, Wilson,” Mr. Crete snapped. “The elf just saved her from prob’ly busting her own heart, and we all know it. Ain’t nobody got time for your trouble-makin’. Tommy, run quick and fetch Dr. Akers. And Prin, you go get Father Laws and the Sheriff.”

“I’m an errand girl now?” Principia muttered, but did so while moving. In seconds she was out the door, right on the heels of the boy who had exited at Jonas’s first command.

“Is there…I mean, can we help at all?” Teal asked worriedly. She had worked her way around to the door and managed to squeeze in next to Shaeine.

“Best leave this to the professionals now,” Jonas replied, scratching his head. He nodded respectfully to Shaeine. “You stopped her from doin’ herself real harm there, miss, an’ I appreciate that. But I think now we need to give her some space till the doc gets here. That means y’all! Everybody move back, let the woman breathe.”

Grumbling, the crowd shuffled backward from the fallen old woman, only Mr. Crete staying close to watch over her.

“Maybe we should just…” Teal trailed off, but Shaeine nodded to her, and they slipped through the swinging doors.

The huge man in the army coat came out right behind them. In the dimness of the moonlit street, his enormous mustache and bushy eyebrows made his size even more intimidating. “Ladies,” he said, nodding respectfully to them, “If you don’t mind I’d feel better if you allowed me to walk you back to the stairs.”

“I believe we are capable of looking after ourselves,” Shaeine replied.

“Ain’t what concerns me, ma’am,” he said. “On average, one of you University kids is worth at least four drunk galoots in a scrap. But if it should happen that you need to ‘look after yerselves,’ there’ll be real trouble after that. The kind that don’t go away as long as anybody’s left alive to remember it. Nobody in this town’ll have a go at you if I come with.”

The girls exchanged a look. “Um, yeah,” Teal said at last. “We’d appreciate the company.”

He nodded and fell in alongside them, and they headed up the street.

“How likely is it that there will be ‘real’ trouble, do you think?” asked Shaeine.

“Not very likely at all,” he replied. “This here’s a good town, full of good people. Folks who’re more familiar with the outlandish than the average run o’ frontiersmen, besides. You did a good turn for Miz Cratchley when nobody’d have blamed you for just lettin’ her bust ‘er own heart, and that’s what most in that room will remember.” He snorted, rather like a bull, causing his huge mustache to flutter. “But, only takes one idjit to wreck the peace for everybody. I learnt that in the army: if a given outcome is bad enough, you plan for it, no matter how unlikely it is to happen.”

“That is a wise policy,” Shaeine said approvingly.

He nodded. “I’m Ox Whipporwill, by the way, an’ pleased to make your acquaintance. I hope this don’t put you off visitin’ the town.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” said Teal, having regained most of her equilibrium. “Like you said…it only takes one. And there’s a few like that in every town. Doesn’t pay to let them upset you.”

“Well said, miss, well said.” They had kept a brisk pace; Ox didn’t rush, but the easy reach of his enormous legs had them both making quick steps. In just a few minutes, they had reached the edge of town and the abrupt beginning of the steps up the mountain. He turned to face them and tugged the brim of his hat to Teal. “Ma’am, I surely did enjoy your singin’. I never heard nothin’ like it before, an’ I got to see the opera in Tiraas once. I do hope you’ll come an’ play for us again sometime.”

“I’d love to,” she said, unable to repress a grin of pleasure.

He tugged his hat again to Shaeine, receiving a bow in return. “Night, ladies. You have a safe trip home.”

They had ascended almost to the height of the scrolltower before Shaeine spoke. “Your song… It is the strangest thing, but I cannot recall any of the lyrics.”

Teal stumbled over a step, clutching her guitar case protectively against her body before regaining her balance. Then she sighed and continued trudging upward, not meeting her companion’s questioning gaze. “There weren’t any lyrics, Shaeine. I was humming.”

The dark elf’s eternally calm face grew considerably more intent, the closest Teal had seen to a frown on her. “I was certain the song told a story. Now that I recall, I am not sure why…”

“I…it’s…I didn’t mean to…ugh.” She threw back her head, took a deep breath and let it out slowly, and said, “Her name’s Vadrieny. My…partner. She has a kind of voice magic, really the only magic she can use…sometimes, when I play, it sort of seeps out. I don’t do that on purpose; I think it’s cheating. A bard should be able to move an audience with the sheer power of the music itself, or nothing at all. But, we’re…we’re still working out how to exist together, and things like that sometimes happen. I can’t control it. The only way to control the effect would be for me to let her take over, completely, which…is probably not a good spectacle to show a saloon full of cowboys.”

Shaeine nodded. “I understand, then. Thank you.”

After a dozen more steps, Teal spoke again, very softly. “Thank you, too. For not digging.”

Shaeine turned her head and smiled, and this time there was no doubt at all of the genuine feeling behind it. “You will speak of it when you choose to. There is no hurry.”

They climbed the rest of the way in comfortable silence.

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1- 2

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Once again, she landed in chaos.

Trissiny’s mental picture of a frontier town admittedly came from comics and cheap novels (what few had slipped past the Abbey’s defenses); she should hardly have been surprised to find that Last Rock was not a single dusty street lined with wooden buildings. Cobblestone streets fanned out from the Rail platform, framing solid and quite elegant structures of well-dressed stone that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a medieval village. Really, that only made sense, positioned as the town was at the base of a mountain with no trees in sight.

She barely had a chance to appreciate the town, however, as a roar of pandemonium went up as soon as she stepped off the caravan. The streets and the edges of the platform were thronged with townsfolk apparently in their churchday best, cheering and applauding as though greeting victorious soldiers just back from the trenches. Somewhere nearby, barely visible through gaps in the crowd, an enthusiastic but clearly unpracticed brass band struck up a sprightly tune. Colorful streamers and buntings were draped everywhere, wreaths hung from darkened streetlamps, and strung across the main avenue directly ahead of her was a huge banner reading:

WELCOME, FRESHMEN!

And below that, a slightly larger one:

WELCOME BACK, ASSHOLES!

That was…troubling.

Before she’d decided how to react to all this, a door was flung open two cars behind her and a boy came staggering out. Trissiny gathered only an impression of dark, tousled hair and a long black coat before he stumbled to his knees and was loudly, violently sick. At this, the cheering on all sides intensified and a few catcalls rang out.

She scowled, letting go of her trunk and turning toward the poor boy. Riding the Rails the first time without the benefit of a lot of physical training must have been a nightmarish experience; even she would have come out of the Belt bruised at the least if not for Mr. Paxton’s warnings. And it was not right for people to treat someone’s misfortunes as entertainment.

A second young man, casually dressed and with a very dark complexion, had emerged from the same car and now knelt by his fallen companion, ignoring the crowd. Trissiny hesitated; if it were herself, she’d rather people gave her space and didn’t acknowledge her discomfort so publicly, but that was just her. Besides, Avei expected her to render aid wherever it was needed, and though she wasn’t a healer by calling, just channeling raw holy power at someone would soothe a lot of ailments.

“You there! You, girl, in the armor!”

Warily, she twisted back the other way, in time to see an old woman in a black gown nearly a century out of fashion swat a grinning boy of about twelve out of the way with one of the two canes on which she dragged herself along.

“You’re that paladin, right?” The old woman grinned broadly, and Trissiny forced herself not to flinch; her teeth, those that remained, were as brown as old wood. “Paladin of Avei. Finally the gods are sending us a message again, yeah? Finally the paladins are coming back, and they’re both coming here! That’s you, right?”

“I am a Hand of Avei,” Trissiny said carefully, having to pitch her voice a little louder than she liked to be audible over the crowd. Several of the closest bystanders immediately cheered even more loudly at her; nobody offered up any of the rude commentary they’d thrown at the boy who’d lost his lunch. She glanced over at him; he was standing, weakly, with his friend’s arm about his shoulders, and the pair were being pressed in upon by several of the locals carrying small trays. More detail than that she didn’t manage to catch before the old woman in front of her let out a loud crow like a cockerel.

“I knew it!” she chortled, thumping one of her canes against the stone platform. “It’s about time, is all! Yes, time for the gods to send someone to straighten out that nest of iniquity and vice up there on the hill. Elves and wizards and perverts, the lot of ’em! You’ll fix ’em good, won’t ya, paladin? Eh?”

“Ah…” Trissiny glanced around again. Over a dozen pairs of eager eyes were upon her; she was surrounded by grins. By all the Pantheon, did these people think this was street theater?

“Oh, Mabel, give the poor girl a moment to get her boots on the ground before you start preaching,” said a new voice in a throaty purr that really seemed too soft to carry as well as it did over the noise. Trissiny spun again and found herself almost nose-to-nose with a strikingly pretty black-haired woman. Only as an afterthought did she realize it was an elf.

Dark hair was supposed to be rare among the elvish tribes, so she’d heard. Trissiny had rarely met elves and never been this close to one; the differences from humans weren’t so glaring. This woman was of slender build, but not abnormally so; her eyes were on the large side and her features rather pointed, but not enough to seem out of place on a human face. Trissiny herself had some of those traits. Only the long, tapered ears poking up through her hair marked the elf for certain.

“Hussy!” screeched the old woman, clobbering the elf with a cane, to no effect. Apparently there wasn’t much strength in those bony arms. “Freak! Harlot! Painted trollop! I know what you get up to, over in the taverns! Sub-human thing from Elilial’s bosom! You get away from that girl. She’s a good girl, she is! And you!” Trissiny jerked back as a cane was pointed directly into her face. “You smite this heathen slattern! She’s of the Black Lady’s own stock, she is! Do yer duty, girl!”

“I see you’ve met my fan club,” said the elf airily, ignoring repeated blows from the cane. “It’s such a pleasure to meet you at last, Trissiny. Welcome to Last Rock. I have something here I think you’ll like.” Smiling disarmingly, she produced a small, flattish wooden box from within her coat and opened it; a golden pendant formed in the eagle symbol of Avei rested upon black velvet within.

“Do I know you?” Trissiny asked loudly, resisting the urge to grip her sword. Symbol of her faith or no, something about this woman set her on edge; she smiled the way that oily man who sold the Abbey produce did. Mother Narny had to supervise him very closely.

“I know you, my dear, which will do for a start. Everyone knows about the new paladins joining the student body this year. I’m just a simple enchanter and purveyor of magical trinkets, and purely honored to make your acquaintance. I’d like you to have this as a gift, from me, at no charge.” Smiling broadly, she pressed the box forward again, then had to jerk it back as the crone tried to swat it out of her hands.

CRACK!

Even the band faltered. Townspeople who’d been pressing ever closer to her scuttled back, revealing a man in denim and flannel, with a wand pointed skyward and a silver gryphon pinned to his shirt. In the confusion she hadn’t even seen the lightning bolt, but the tip of his wand still smoked faintly.

“Okay, folks, that’ll do. Show’s over. Let’s all take a step back before I have to feel disappointed in somebody.”

“Sheriff,” Trissiny said desperately, cocking a head at her two admirers. Tugging the broad brim of his hat to her, he ambled over.

“Omnu’s breath, you two, were you raised in a barn? Do we have to go through this every year?”

“I was raised in a tree,” said the elf with a grin. “And unless it’s suddenly illegal to talk to paladins, nobody’s doing anything wrong here. Ms. Avelea, here. Please take this.”

“Don’t you pull that attitude on me, master Samuel Sanders!” squawked the old woman, brandishing a cane. “Just because you’ve got a big fancy badge now doesn’t mean you don’t have to respect your elders! And taking a god’s name in vain, for shame! I know your poor mother, Omnu rest her soul, raised you better than that.”

“Well, you’ve caught me dead to rights, Miz Cratchley,” the sheriff said easily. “It’d serve me right if you went and wrote a letter to the editor about my deplorable behavior right this minute.”

“You see if I don’t, you young hellion!” She waved the cane at him once more, then began the complicated process of turning around and ambling off, still shrilly complaining. “Young people these days. No respect. None! In my day, we knew how to pay respect to the gods, yes sir. And to our elders!”

“Welp, that takes care of the one I’d feel bad about shootin’.” He raised an eyebrow at the elf, who fluttered her eyelashes at him.

“All right, all right, keep it in your pants, Sam. Trissiny, if you’d just—”

“No, thank you,” she said firmly. “I don’t need jewelry. Of any kind.”

“Oh, but I know what a young adventurer needs! Trust me, I deal only in the most magical of—”

“That will do, Sippy,” said the Sheriff, all humor gone from his voice. “She’ll be here all year. You can bide your time and make a pest of yourself when the poor girl’s had a chance to settle in. Move along.”

The elf closed her box with a loud snap. For just a moment she glared daggers at Sanders, then turned an amiable grin on Trissiny. “Well, the man’s not wrong. It’s wonderful to have you in town, Trissiny. I look forward to seeing you again.” Bowing, she backed away into the crowd.

“Thank you,” she said with feeling. The sheriff smiled at her.

“Not at all, ma’am, that’s why they pay me the big bucks. Can I offer you an escort past the town?”

“I appreciate your help,” she said a little stiffly, “but I don’t require any man’s protection.”

“I am well aware that you don’t, miss, but there’s more to life than what a body requires. I thought you might like a little protection anyway. See that?” He cocked a finger at the crowd where the two boys had been moments ago. There was no sign of them now; apparently they’d managed to escape. In their place stood half a dozen well-dressed people carrying trays of snacks, toys and baubles, all eying her hungrily. “My beloved constituency. Good folks, as a rule, but you should know up front that they view you and the rest of the students as walking coin purses. They’ll leave you alone if you’re with me, but if you’d rather not…” He shrugged. “You can always beat ’em back with your sword, I guess, but the we’ll have to have an entirely different kind of conversation.”

Abruptly, the fine hairs along Trissiny’s arms stood on end; her scalp tingled distractingly. Then, with an earsplitting crack of arcane energy, the caravan behind her began moving. Its acceleration was a frightening thing to behold; it was over the horizon in seconds. How had she survived riding that wretched thing? How did anyone?

“When you put it that way,” she said carefully, bending to grasp the handle of her trunk, “I think I would appreciate an escort.”

“I live to serve. Shall we?”

He was as good as his word. The cheering had begun to fade as soon as the caravan departed, people drifting away to tend to their own business; though she remained the center of attention, nobody else pressed forward or tried to intercept her with the Sheriff by her side. He led her at an easy pace away from the Rail platform and down what appeared to be the main avenue of the tiny town.

“Is it like this every year?” she asked cautiously. Stands and stalls, most looking rather cobbled-together, occupied the edges of the street, displaying a wide variety of goods and obstructing the actual storefronts. Bright banners, pennants and bunting were hung everywhere, including several with text welcoming the students to Last Rock. None after the big one across the road referred to them as assholes, which was a positive sign.

“We’re a college town,” he said with an amiable grin. “Last Rock is probably the most cosmopolitan village of its size in the whole Empire. We’ve got entertainment and specialty goods such as you’d expect to see in the capital itself, including more taverns than we need. Students bring money from all over the place, and the population has mostly adjusted to suit their needs. Pretty open-minded folks, as a rule, at least compared to most frontier stock, despite a few holdouts like Miz Cratchley. Of course, the downside of being so dependent on the University is the summers around here are a dry season, and I don’t just mean the weather. So yeah, the kids coming back is a pretty big deal.”

“I don’t have much in the way of spending money,” she said carefully. “Or want any. My needs are few.”

He nodded. “I can spread that around, if you’d like. Might spare you a certain amount of harassment next time you visit.”

“Is there much trouble between townspeople and students?”

“Oh, rarely. You can’t have those two groups in one spot without some butting of heads, but Professor Tellwyrn’s a good neighbor. You cause trouble in my town and I’ll have to wait for her to finish scraping and smoking your hide for embarrassing her University before I even get to toss you in a cell. Not exactly a boon to my manhood, but I can’t argue with the results.”

“I have no intention of causing any trouble,” she said frostily.

“My apologies, ma’am, didn’t mean to imply that. It was a general ‘you.’ I end up having to have this talk with most of the kids at one point or another; force of habit. And to speak the plan truth, it’s not you I’m worried about. It was a right breath of fresh air to learn we’d be getting two paladins this year. Actually…if I’m not mistaken, Principia was actually trying to give you something, which is downright weird; usually when she’s around it’s wise to keep a hand on your wallet. I guess everybody loves a paladin.”

“Hm.” She didn’t know what to say to that. Trissiny hadn’t been offered much detail on the other students, but she had been told there was a Hand of Omnu her own age who’d be starting school alongside her. Hopefully they could compare notes. But it was hard to know what was expected of her, here. The citizens of Last Rock clearly saw her as a person of action, much as she wanted to see herself, but Avei seemed to have different plans. Why else would she be here and not someplace like Sarasio, where a sword of the Goddess would actually be useful?

“And this is as far as my authority extends,” he announced, coming to a halt. Indeed, they had reached the edge of the town; directly ahead, even with the walls of the last buildings, the cobbled street abruptly became stairs of white marble, which marched the entire way up the mountain. Above, the University loomed, offering her only a vague impression of towers and walls from this angle. She could also see two dark figures who had to be those boys from her caravan, climbing the stone stairs.

It was an awe-inspiring sight, especially compared to the gray stone of the town and the rusty gold plains that stretched in every direction. The grass climbing the slope was lushly green, and the marble steps almost blinding under the bright sun. She saw, now, that in addition to the stairs marching directly upward, a broad, flatter path zigzagged back and forth all the way to the University, probably for wheeled conveyances that couldn’t navigate the stairs. It had a much gentler slope, obviously, and would be easier in terms of pulling her trunk…but it’d also take about ten times as long. This was going to be quite the hike, whichever path she chose.

“Thank you, Sheriff, for everything.”

“My pleasure, Ms. Avelea. And please, it’s Sam, so long as you’re on my good side.” He winked. “Welcome to Last Rock. I truly hope you enjoy your stay.” With one more tip of his hat, he turned and strolled back into his town, leaving her to face the rest of her journey alone.

Trissiny drew a deep breath, tightened her grip on her trunk, and started up the steps. The sturdy wheels were big enough to climb each step without too much banging, but the repeated bumps quickly began to jar her arm even worse than sword practice. Well, back home, she started her day with a run up and down the steep hills of Viridill, in full armor, on ancient stone steps far more treacherous than these. Granted, the sun at home was never quite this oppressively hot, but Trissiny wasn’t about to admit defeat this early in her journey.

She glanced back. About…twenty feet up. Gritting her teeth, she focused on her breathing, on the mechanical motions of her legs. One step at a time.

Fifteen minutes later, Trissiny had developed a theory that between the Rail rides and this infernal staircase, Professor Tellwyrn was attempting to weed out the weak and unworthy from even approaching her precious University. She was in excellent physical shape and bore the strain of the climb without complaint, though her arm was already aching something fierce. She considered switching the trunk to her other side, but instinct compelled her to keep her sword arm limber and free. The heat was worse than the exercise, really. Those poor boys…she was pretty sure one had been in a long black coat. There was no sign of them ahead now.

A thin, reedy sound of music had begun to grow as she’d climbed, becoming more and more distinct with each step. The tune was a cheerful one she didn’t recognize; it helped, a bit, in distracting her from the rigors of the climb. Now, as she finally approached the gates of the University itself, she discovered the source.

Though the dark stone walls weren’t battlemented, she was impressed by their height. This was clearly a defensible structure. There was only one gate, positioned in the center of the slope and with the broad marble steps leading directly to it; a small plaza had been carved from the mountain and paved in matching white marble to accommodate the two huge, iron-bound wooden gates, which presently stood open. An arch of decorative wrought metal spanned the gap between them, and upon this perched what she assumed was a student, playing an ocarina.

He had thick, black hair tied back in a long tail, and the mahogany complexion common in the western provinces. All he wore were loose canvas trousers and an open-fronted leather vest decorated with bits of bones and tusks. At Trissiny’s approach, he broke off his playing and grinned down at her.

“Frosh?”

“Excuse me?”

“Freshman,” he clarified.

“Um…” She’d seen that word on the banners below. Apparently it was the opposite of asshole?

“You’re a first-year student?” the young man clarified further, his grin broadening. It was a friendly expression, though; she didn’t feel mocked or belittled.

“Oh! Yes. Yes, I am.”

“Welcome to the University!” He had a deep voice, and sounded like he was laughing even when he merely spoke. “You’ll like it here. Probably. At the very least you won’t be bored. This year’s freshman girls are living in Clarke Tower. Just follow the blue flags along the path, and you’ll head right there. And don’t worry, it hardly ever falls.”

With that and a final grin, he lifted the ocarina back to his lips and resumed playing.

“Oh. Uh, thank you,” she said weakly. He didn’t stop, but blew a high trill, wiggling his fingers at her, and winked. Trissiny ducked her head and strode forward, passing under him and into the University itself.

Three paths branched off from the gates; a wide one that seemed to continue directly on from the stairs, and one meandering away to each side. The path on her left was marked with a small blue pennant. Drawing closer, she noted that the slim pole to which it was tied was not stuck in the ground; it floated, immobile, about a foot off the grass. Opposite that, a red one hovered by the other side. She drew another deep breath and set off down the marked path.

Here, the slope of the mountain had been re-shaped into terraces, and Trissiny’s route, marked with more floating blue flags every few feet, took her along a meandering course down broad thoroughfares, through narrow alleys and across a few patches of open lawn. There was an amazing variety of scenery, and Trissiny quickly came to the conclusion that the path she was directed to take was designed to show off the campus rather than get her anywhere efficiently. Not that it wasn’t pretty, or that she wouldn’t appreciate knowing where things were, but after her hike up the mountain she didn’t enjoy it as much as she otherwise might.

The University made the best possible use of the space available to it. Many of the walled terraces had doors leading into subterranean chambers, and the stepped architecture meant there was shade everywhere. There were plants in every available space; shrubs, flowers, vines climbing stone walls and even several trees, where room existed for them to grow. Three levels up from the gates she passed along the edge of a broad, flat area carpeted with lush grass, with a gazebo near the front, perched on the edge of the terrace.

She passed few other people, all of them clearly students. Some nodded or called out greetings, which she returned politely, and all gave her long considering looks; nobody offered to engage her in conversation, for which Trissiny was actually grateful. She wanted to get settled in before having to deal with any more people, especially if they were all going to be as weird as those she’d already met in the town. Humans predominated the student body, what little she saw of it, but there were a handful of elves as well, and she actually spotted two dwarves, both women. On the flat lawn by the gazebo, a lizardfolk person in a nice suit fenced with a human girl, the clash of blades intermingling with cheerful taunts and laughter in a way that made her homesick for the Abbey and her sisters-in-training.

Eventually her path brought her to the very edge of the mountain, and a nasty surprise.

A wall surrounded the perimeter of the University, where buildings weren’t perched right on the edge, to keep people from accidentally wandering off the cliff. The blue flags led Trissiny directly to a gate in this wall, which opened onto a stone footbridge bordered by tall iron railings; a plaque right by the gate proclaimed this the way to Clarke Tower. She had to stop at the foot of the bridge and stare in horror.

The bridge was gently arched and about thirty feet long, and terminated at the top of a colossal stalactite at least four stories tall. It tapered to a jagged point aiming downward, and had a flat top upon which was built a thick round tower with a conical roof that had a huge clock face inset. And the whole island just…floated in midair, above a nauseating drop to the prairie far below.

Hesitantly, she crept across the bridge. It certainly felt solid. In her rational mind, Trissiny knew this all had to be perfectly fine. This was a University run by the most famous former adventurer still living, a woman who was a formidable wizard in her own right. Magic was ancient and well-understood. Furthermore, they wouldn’t have built a building on this and housed students in it if it weren’t entirely safe.

But all that was merely cognitive. She was stepping on a thin bridge to an island in the sky on which they apparently expected her to sleep. In her heart of hearts, Trissiny knew she was about to plunge to her horrible death.

Only by keeping her eyes firmly fixed on the door to Clarke Tower did she make it across the bridge, and that despite the strong breeze that seemed to perpetually flow across it. The door was actually quite lovely, made of old iron-bound wood with stained glass panels inset. Coming to a stop before it, she had to pause and take a few deep breaths. This was good; nothing in her vision but the door and stonework. She could almost forget she was standing on ground that was floating on nothing.

Trissiny decided she was beginning to hate this place.

She raised her hand to knock, then shook her head. If they expected her to live here, she wasn’t going to mince around. Grasping the handle, she pulled the door open and dragged her trunk inside.

“Oh! Hi there!”

Blinking, she surveyed her new surroundings. It was a comfortably furnished living room lined with overstuffed chairs surrounding a coffee table, with a battered couch along one wall; a grandfather clock ticked away in one corner. There were no windows, Avei be praised.

Upon her entrance, a woman rose quickly from one of the chairs and bustled toward her, beaming. She was a head shorter than Trissiny and at least twice as broad, her plump frame squeezed into a very fancy corseted gown of black and purple silk that displayed a dizzying expanse of cleavage. She wore a heavy layer of makeup that made her lips and eyes seem almost to pop off her rouged face; Trissiny was aware of cosmetics in theory but had seldom seen them used, and couldn’t help staring. Waves of glossy ebon hair were wound around her head in an elaborate bun, decorated with sprays of purple feathers.

“And you must be Trissiny!” the woman gushed. “Oh, it’s so good to meet you at last! Imagine, a paladin staying under my roof. Arach—that is, Professor Tellwyrn’s told me all about you. You’re one of the first to arrive, dear.”

“Uh. Thank you?”

“I’m Janis Van Richter, the house mother. Please, just call me Jan! I’m here to look after the place and you girls, make sure everyone’s comfy and right at home. Any problems you have, just come to me and we’ll get it all sorted, okay? Oooh, this is going to be such a good year! C’mon, I’ve put you in the upper room, so let’s not waste any time getting you settled in.”

Janis seized Trissiny’s free hand in both of her own—they were plump and bedecked with far too many rings—and beamed up at her.

“Welcome to the University, Trissiny. Welcome to Clarke Tower. Welcome home!”

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