Tag Archives: Maru

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“You said Chase couldn’t be the Sleeper!” Rafe accused.

“What I said,” Fedora retorted testily, “is that it doesn’t make sense and is a complete departure from his personality and all established patterns. Masterson is all about trouble for trouble’s sake, sure, but he always stops short of challenging boundaries once he knows where they are. Furthermore, if he’s the Sleeper, it means he started by Sleeping himself, forcing you to expend the hellhound breath and establishing an alibi while some kind of delayed reaction cast the curse on Natchua. That would be a brilliant, devious action, and totally outside his wheelhouse.”

“I’ll vouch for that analysis,” Yornhaldt added, glancing at Tellwyrn. “If Chase had ever exhibited that kind of lateral thinking… Well, his grades would be an entirely other story.”

Standing by the office door, Ezzaniel cleared his throat. “Our conversations have been very instructive in the short time you’ve been here, Murgatroyd. I have learned a great deal about the children of Vanislaas, I feel. You’ve spoken of a compulsion to scheme and cause trouble. The manifestation of the aggressive nature that comes from infernal corruption, channeled into subtlety by Prince Vanislaas’s protection.”

Fedora stopped in his pacing, where he was already threatening to wear a groove in the carpet before Tellwyrn’s desk, and turned to frown at him. “The Sleeper’s a warlock, not an incubus.”

“Yes,” Ezzaniel agreed, folding his arms. “And as we all know, a warlock’s first and most important task is always to keep the corruption at bay. Using infernal magic without becoming tainted by it requires patience, restraint, and exactitude… Traits which Chase Masterson decisively lacks. To speak hypothetically, if Elilial appeared and gave him vast knowledge of the infernal, the very first thing he would do would be to cast something reckless and corrupt himself good and proper. And then, draw upon that knowledge to contain and conceal the taint, but if he could not excise it—which to my knowledge no warlock can… I could well imagine such methods having a similar effect to the blessing of Vanislaas. Warlocks historically tend to be as devious as they are belligerent, do they not?”

A hush fell on the office, Fedora frowning in thought. One by one, the assembled Professors turned to look at Tellwyrn, who was sitting behind her desk, elbows propped on its surface and chin resting on her interlaced fingers, staring into the distance. In the corner behind her, Maru stood holding a tray of teacups, which now rattled as he trembled slightly.

“It’s plausible,” Fedora finally said, almost grudgingly. “But one hundred percent wall-to-wall conjecture. It’s a critical mistake in criminal investigation to form theories before you’ve got facts. What we know, now, is that he’s been seen suddenly using infernal magic at a level of skill way beyond what a junior would know even if that were a course of study at this school. Professor.” He turned around to face Tellwyrn. “How certain are you that Masterson wasn’t dabbling in the dark arts before you brought him here?”

“Absolutely,” she replied tonelessly.

Fedora nodded. “Then this is academic. Chase is one of the kids the Dark Lady blessed; if he’s not the Sleeper, he knows who is. Either way, he’s our answer to the sleeping curse.”

“Alaric,” Tellwyrn said quietly, shifting her gaze to him, “how close are you to a cure?”

Yornhaldt heaved a heavy sigh. “Arachne… I am working with one of the greatest arrays of magical talent ever assembled to unravel what might well be the most excessively elaborate curse ever devised. There is simply no frame of reference for predicting something like this. We could have the key breakthrough literally any hour. Or it could take…potentially years.”

“And the Hand sent him off to Tiraas, knowing we’d have to go fetch him,” Rafe said in disgust. “Damn, but that’s some good bait.”

“It should go without saying he did this specifically to get you off the mountain,” Fedora said to Tellwyrn. “Obviously, he means to make a move of some kind as soon as you’re gone.”

“I have other warning of that already, yes,” she agreed. “He’s diverted the Imperial presence away from the research program. Is there any chance, do you think, that order came from a legitimate Imperial source?”

“My connections there are long-distance and a lot weaker than they were,” Fedora cautioned, “but I can’t see it. Vex was well pleased with the results he was getting from this partnership, and Sharidan listens to him. If you’ve gone and done something to piss off the Throne, that’s another matter, but if not… No, that was just this guy clearing the way. They won’t have canceled his rank or warned anybody about him; if they wouldn’t admit there was a problem when all the Hands were haywire, they won’t for this one guy. The Silver Throne can’t afford to look any weaker than it is.”

“Do you think, gentlemen,” she asked softly, “you could find and retrieve Chase if I sent you all to Tiraas after him?”

“If we could persuade him to come…perhaps,” Yornhaldt rumbled. “I am not absolutely sure that’s possible, nor would I really know how to do so. If you are talking about forcing him, Arachne, may I remind you the Sleeper fought the entire sophomore class to a standstill?”

“If we instigate something like that in Tiraas, it could mean the end of this school,” Ezzaniel added. “And Alaric’s right. We wouldn’t win, anyway.”

“And the other option,” she continued in the same quiet tone. “If I leave the mountain and you are left to protect it…can you?” This time, she fixed her gaze directly on Fedora, who shrugged helplessly.

“Pound for pound, against a disgraced Hand of the Emperor and whatever allies he’s cobbled together?” He grimaced. “Sure, absolutely we can take him. The faculty could, the new research fellows could…hell, the students probably could, even without the sophomores. But this guy’s nuts, Professor. I can’t diagnose his brain but the symptoms I observed were paranoia and blind aggression. There’s no predicting what the hell he’ll try, and the fact that he can’t win isn’t going to stop him. That’s a battle that will have casualties. As your head of security, I have to tell you we can’t guarantee the students’ safety if it comes to that.”

“Veth’na alaue,” Rafe muttered.

“All right.” She stood up abruptly, her tone suddenly filled with its characteristic iron. “Thank you, gentlemen, for helping me organize my thoughts; I believe I see the whole situation, now. I am going to Tiraas to retrieve Chase. Now, this is what you will do…”


“You have got some fucking nerve,” Ruda snarled, drawing her rapier.

“Honestly,” Embras Mogul said with a grin, adjusting his lapels and ignoring the soldiers who surged forward with staves leveled at him, “do you kids plan out your one-liners ahead of time? Concurrently?”

“And what is this now tracking mud on my floors?” Rajakhan rumbled. He seemed quite relaxed, lounging in his chair at the head of the long table, but his dark eyes were fixed piercingly on Mogul. At his side, Anjal practically vibrated with tension, a hand on the hilt of her saber.

“This, your Majesty,” Toby said quietly, “is the leader of the Black Wreath.”

“Ah,” the King rumbled. “Stand down, men.”

“Why, your Majesty, I am truly touched!” Mogul tipped his hat courteously. “I so rarely—”

“Don’t read a welcome into my refusal to waste lives trying to wrangle one of the world’s greatest warlocks,” Rajakhan said disdainfully. “If it turns out I need you dead, these preposterous young people will see to it. Explain your intrusion.”

Mogul had shadow-jumped straight into the conference chamber where they were tensely waiting for Teal to return. Now, as the guards lowered their weapons and grudgingly stepped back, he carefully settled the hat back on his bald head and took a discreet step back himself, placing a little more distance between him and the students.

“I’m here as a favor to Vadrieny,” he said, “with whom I just had a conversation. She regrets that she will not be accompanying you on your excursion; she’s gone to Tiraas to fetch the Sleeper.”

“The longer that sentence went on, the less sense it made,” Gabriel snorted. “You wanna try again?”

“That is how manipulators operate,” Toby warned. “The longer he talks, the more ground he gains…”

“Oh, honestly,” Embras exclaimed, throwing up his hands. “This whole mess is already enough of a debacle without me poking the bear. I’ll tell you frankly, Vadrieny heading off after the Sleeper is a mistake. She was baited into it specifically to make your job harder, now that you’ve gotta do it without her, and I told her not to go. I guess I can take some blame, there,” he added more thoughtfully. “Given a little effort I probably could’ve manipulated her into doing the smart thing and my say-so did have the opposite effect… In my defense, that girl is just irritating as hell to talk to.”

“I suggest you watch what you say about Teal in our presence,” Juniper growled.

“Oh, I was talking about Vadrieny,” he clarified, grinning again. “Truth be told, I’ve a rather high opinion of Miss Falconer. Somehow I doubt she’d appreciate hearing it, though.”

“And just what does the Sleeper have to do with Tiraas?” Gabriel demanded.

“Here’s what you need to know,” the warlock continued, his expression growing serious. “Your problems in Puna Dara are one chapter in a thicker book. There’s trouble going down in Tiraas and Last Rock, and our mutual opponent in this has just made a move designed to exacerbate and prolong these conflicts. The Sleeper was just exposed as Chase Masterson—” Here he paused for a moment until the cursing died down. “—who was then directed to flee to Tiraas and seek shelter working with the Imperial government. I doubt he’ll actually find any, but that’s not the point. The ploy was to get Tellwyrn out of Last Rock and Vadrieny out of Puna Dara, to make sure none of what’s about to happen in either place gets wrapped up too quickly.”

“That checks out,” Milady said suddenly. “Archpope Justinian’s whole gambit here is to try to forge an alliance between the Empire, the cults, and his Church, so he can evade the consequences for some of his recent antics. You kids are too close to cleaning this up and most of his people haven’t even got here yet; he needs this drawn out longer.”

“Well, then,” Anjal said dryly, “we would know exactly whom to thank for our recent troubles, if only any of the people talking where remotely trustworthy.”

“Hey,” Gabriel said reproachfully. “What’d I do?”

“Shut the fuck up, Arquin,” Ruda sighed. “Question is, are we gonna believe this guy?”

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,” Mogul said airily, “you should never trust anybody. What you should do is know who you’re dealing with—know their personalities, their agendas, the situations in which you interact with them. Trust’ll just lead you into mistakes, but understanding helps you predict what someone will do.”

“Damn good advice,” Principia said approvingly. “And on that note, the Black Wreath will absolutely trick you into doing whatever gets you out of their way, but they don’t just wreck people’s lives for the fun of it, despite what the Church likes to preach. Most people who aren’t summoning random demons have nothing to fear from ’em, but the sheer concentration of paladins in this group means you kids had better step carefully around this guy.”

“Fuck that, I say we stab him,” Ruda snorted, taking a step toward Mogul.

He retreated, raising his hands. “Now, now. You remember what I said last time we talked?”

“I remember a lot of sniggering about stealing our divine disruptors,” Fross chimed, “and then a lot of whining when Malivette single-handedly kicked your butt.”

“There was no sniggering or whining,” Mogul said reproachfully. “Really, young lady, I expected you to gloss over the part where I saved your lives, but such casual slander is beneath you. No, I was referring to my ultimate goal. Beyond these little squabbles and adventures, the business in which my Lady and her faithful have been engaged for millennia. Your gods have lied to you.” He grinned broadly, tilting his head forward just enough that the wide brim of his hat concealed his eyes, leaving his smile a white gash in his dark face. “What I want is to see what shakes loose if their own precious paladins find out their secrets. I can think of no better shortcut to that goal than helping you kids get yourselves into one of the Elder Gods’ strongholds.”

“You know about that, do you,” Rajakhan said quietly.

“We know where all of them are,” Mogul replied. “Our mandate is to protect the mortal plane from demon incursions, and there are still more than a few demons who once bowed to Scyllith. Demons or modern warlocks getting their mitts on Elder God junk is a worst-case scenario. These Rust aren’t demonic and thus not our problem, but you’d better believe we noticed and have been watching them. Yeah, I know all about that thing under the harbor and I’ve taken pains to be up to date on what’s happening here. Justinian wants you slowed down, and Vadrieny is halfway to Tiraas by now. You’re looking at hours more to make your way through the old mining tunnels.”

“Hang on, halfway to Tiraas? There’s no way,” Gabriel snorted. “She’s not that fast.”

“Vadrieny’s flight has little respect for the laws of physics,” Mogul said, tilting his hat up to wink at them. “One of her sisters once circumnavigated the planet in two days, and that was on a wide zig-zagging course being chased by a Hand of Salyrene. How fast she goes is a function of how anxious she is to get somewhere. So yeah, from here to Tiraas? I’d say half an hour, tops. More importantly, I oppose whatever the Church desires. As I was just saying to your classmate, I’m starting to question whether Justinian’s agenda really lines up with the Pantheon’s, but after due consideration I’ve decided I don’t like the son of a bitch anyway. If he wants you wasting time, then I want you making progress. So!” He swept off his hat and executed a deep bow. “I’m not goin’ in there with you, but I can have you at the entrance in seconds.”

“Or,” Juniper said, folding her arms, “you could shadow-jump us to the bottom of the ocean, or into a volcano, or…”

“The Wreath is part of Tellwyrn’s new research initiative,” Fross pointed out. “It wouldn’t make sense for him to harm us. Or even to refuse to help us, not that we asked.”

“Full disclosure,” said Milady, “my agenda aligns with his on this one point. If Justinian is trying to slow down our progress, I’m all the more eager to get there faster. Remember, we have no idea what we’ll have to do down there, or how long it might take. I’m willing to risk working with him, if you are. I’ve dealt with scarier beings,” she added, giving Mogul a cool look.

“I don’t trust this, obviously,” Toby said. “And please don’t start lecturing about trust again. Ruda? This is your city, and we’re here explicitly to back you up. I’ll follow your judgment on this.”

Ruda drew in a breath and let it out slowly, looking at him, and then over at her parents.

“You know the risks, and you have a good mind, little minnow,” the King said, nodding gravely. “I share your friends’ misgivings. And their regard for your judgment. I have already declared this mission is yours.” Anjal took his hand, inclining her head once toward her daughter.

“Fuck it,” Ruda said, turning back to Mogul. “We passed the point of pussyfooting around when we let our bard spit in a goddess’s eye. Bunch up, everybody. We’re letting the asshole help.”

Gabriel cleared his throat. “Can I just remind everyone that last time he helped—”

“He saved your lives,” she interrupted, “did exactly what he promised, and also tried to further his agenda at our expense. I expect exactly the same shit this time, and it’s my judgment we can clean up whatever additional fuckery he causes after we put out the immediate fires. I’m not gonna force you, Arquin. Either you trust me or you don’t.”

“Aw, you know I’m with you, Zari,” he said with a grin. “If I was gonna break from the group I think it’d have been when you fucking stabbed me.”

Mogul cocked his head to one side. “You kids have some interesting stories, don’t you?”


“It’s not much of a plan, is all.”

“Well, Darius, you’ve got till we get there to come up with a better one,” Tallie said, striding along at the head of the group alongside Jasmine. Meesie hadn’t left the latter’s shoulder, and was their guide, pointing the way and squeaking urgently the whole time. They’d had to ignore a lot of passersby, many of whom stopped to stare at the little elemental. “I’m really, really hoping that Ross is following them, too, and didn’t also get captured. But if not…that’s what we got. Find ’em, get Schwartz back on his feet an’ let him make with the mojo.”

“It’s not that I mind charging into certain death,” Darius growled from behind them. “They’ve got our friends; that’s what you do. Certain death or no, you don’t leave people behind. But we’re dragging my baby sister along on this…”

“Yes, because gods forbid she make any decisions for herself,” Layla huffed.

“You are sixteen!”

“Really, Darius. Where do you see that argument leading? In what possible outcome does it end well for you?”

“How’ll you feel if I’m the one who gets hexed into ashes, hm?”

“Insert obligatory comment about peace and quiet,” she said lightly. A moment later, though, she shifted closer to him, and he draped an arm around her shoulders as they walked.

He could be forgiven for being on edge; even apart from the inherent tension of the situation, Layla had circumvented the need for Jasmine to round everyone up back at the house by emitting a blood-curdling shriek at a pitch and volume that had set dogs barking all through the neighborhood. It had also brought Darius crashing into the kitchen in a panic, half-dressed and hefting a candlestick in preparation to bash someone.

That was also when they had learned that Ross was absent, as well. He was ordinarily so quiet, there was no telling how long that might have taken to discover, had they tried to find him the old-fashioned way.

“It’s not that Darius is wrong, though,” Tallie said more softly. “Pretty scary enemies. Lot of unknowns.”

Jasmine nodded, glancing back and forth between Meesie and the sidewalk ahead of them. They had just emerged from Glory’s expensive residential neighborhood into an equally expensive shopping district; their plain clothes and shabby coats made them stand out somewhat, not that any of them cared.

Tallie looked at her sidelong and sighed, her breath misting on the air. “Look, I don’t wanna—”

All of them stopped and reflexively flattened themselves against the storefront they were passing when screams suddenly broke out along the street behind them. The four apprentices braced themselves for action, turning to face whatever was coming as the cries of shock and fear spread.

A streak of living fire had just crested the city walls, soaring toward them, even as the mag cannons spaced along the guard toward began clumsily turning, trying to track the intruder. Its form grew clearer as it approached; it was a person, held aloft on wings of pure flame. All of them except Jasmine ducked slightly when the creature arced directly over their street and banked, gliding away toward the center of the city.

“What the fuck,” Darius wheezed, pressing Layla against the wall with one arm. “What was that? A phoenix?”

“An archdemon,” Jasmine corrected, staring after the flying creature, which had vanished over a nearby rooftop. The cries around them were still ongoing, having changed in tone as the demon vanished from view but not begin to abate.

“A what?” Tallie exclaimed.

“A daughter of Elilial,” Jasmine clarified. “The last living one, actually. Vadrieny.”

“Oh, gods,” Layla whispered. “That has nothing to do with us… Please, please let that have nothing to do with us.”

“Is there any point in asking how you know this?” Tallie asked wearily.

“I’ve seen illustrations…” Jasmine trailed off, shrugging irritably when they all turned to stare at her. “And I’ve seen her in person before. She has a Talisman of Absolution; she’s not going to go around attacking people.”

“Well, that’s dandy, I suppose,” Darius snapped. “Any insight into what the fuck she’s doing in Tiraas?”

“Not a glimmer,” Jasmine admitted, then winced when Meesie began tugging violently on her ear, squealing shrilly and pointing ahead. “Walk and talk, guys. We’re still losing time.”

“Right.” Tallie once again took the lead, straightening up and setting off, and the others fell in. She let it rest for a moment before asking, “So, Jas… Is there anything you want to tell me?”

Jasmine sighed again. “I…”

“I don’t mean to put you on the spot.” Tallie kept her eyes forward as she walked. “I’ve been thinking, though. Remember when Style kicked your ass?”

“No, refresh me,” Jasmine said sourly. “How did it go?”

Tallie grinned, but her expression sobered again immediately. “The thing is… Quite apart from you being more physically dangerous than almost anyone else I know, the thing I’ve noticed about you is you don’t overestimate yourself. You know what you can do and don’t push it; your restraint has kept us out of a bunch of trouble. I’m sure you remember that business with the Vernisite caravan.”

“I’m still annoyed I even had to talk you clowns out of that. Boosting anything from the Vernisites is expressly against—”

“Yeah, yeah,” Tallie said impatiently. “What I’m getting at is… You rushed into that thinking you could win it. It’s the only time I’ve seen you screw up that bad, and I’ve been wondering about it, and why Grip was so hellbent on getting you as an apprentice. Why you were so adamant not to go along with her, too. I keep coming around to the idea that you’re used to having more to throw around in a fight than just your own muscles.” She snuck a glance at Jasmine, who was staring ahead as they walked. “I mean… You know an awful lot about alchemy and magic for somebody who doesn’t do them.”

Jasmine heaved a sigh. “Look…”

“When I asked if there was something you wanted to tell me,” Tallie said hastily, “I meant exactly that. It’s your life and we’re all runnin’ from something. You don’t need to share if you’re not ready to. But right now, this situation, we’re going up against Silver Legionnaires and Salyrite casters. People who have already killed. This is serious shit, and all we’ve got for a plan is ‘hopefully wake Schwartz up.’ We only know he’s not dead because Meesie’s still here.”

“When we were riding out of the city,” Layla said suddenly, “that night when we fought the dwarves, you started to suggest something, and Glory cut you off. She said something about not playing your trump card too soon.”

“I just wanna know,” said Tallie. “If it goes as bad in there as it might… Are we as fucked as it seems? Or is there something more we can count on?”

Jasmine was silent for a long moment. Even Meesie trailed off her constant squeaking, watching her in concern.

“Whatever they’ve got to throw at us,” Jasmine said finally, not turning to meet anyone’s gaze, “I’m certain I’ve faced scarier. And killed some of it. But there’s a big difference between being able to dish out pain, and being able to protect people. If this goes as badly as it could, that is still going to be very bad.” She looked over at Tallie, eyebrows drawing together in worry. “Let’s concentrate on Plan A. Schwartz is still our best bet.”

Tallie nodded, and they continued on in silence. After a moment, she reached over and tucked her arm through Jasmine’s.

“Seriously, though, that demon thing,” Darius said suddenly. “That’s not gonna get involved in this business, is it?”

Jasmine sighed. “We should be so lucky.”

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13 – 19

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Much as the children of Vanislaas favored the subtle approach, there was a time and a place. With a renegade Hand of the Emperor bounding toward him at impossible speed, Fedora dropped all camouflage and shot skyward. No one was close enough to see the revealed bone-white perfection of his skin, his crystalline irises or blue-tinged hair, but the wings and tail would have made quite a stir, had anyone been watching. He ascended as fast as those wings could propel him—not specifically to avoid notice, though it would be a nice perk. He had more urgent matters on his mind.

The Hand, however, moved with equally unnatural velocity. Even as Fedora rocketed off the steeple, he landed on the roof of the general store and instantly bounced in a high arc toward the church. The Hand impacted the side of the steeple near its peak, almost exactly where the incubus had been standing, and kicked off again, pushing himself skyward in a wide parabola that would send him crashing back to the outskirts of town from a horrifying height, and stood no realistic chance of catching the airborne demon.

He flung one hand forward and up as he ascended, though, aiming right at Fedora’s rapidly-vanishing tail.

The wash of magic that burst forth was invisible, and mostly fae in nature. It quickly dissipated in the air; Hands of the Emperor were phenomenally deadly in close combat, but had little in the way of flashy magic to throw around. That fistful of raw energy was too unfocused even to qualify as a spell, and barely reached Fedora before flickering out into nothingness. What it did have, however, was sheer power, and “barely” was enough.

Vanislaad were limited to human-like forms in their shapeshifting, and one of the drawbacks of a human form was that nature had never intended it to fly. Fedora’s flight was far more magical than aerodynamic—enough so that when a wash of unfocused fae magic rushed over him, temporarily suppressing the power of his demonic nature, his wings abruptly discovered that they were trying to hold aloft a creature far too heavy and entirely the wrong shape for soaring through the sky.

He tumbled and flopped midair, cursing and frantically flapping his beleaguered wings like a singed moth. Fedora managed, after some struggle, to right himself and get rearranged into an awkward glide, but the fact remained he was going nowhere but down. At least he had enough wingspan to manage a descent that would put him down out of range of the town, and without forming a crater upon impact.

The effort so absorbed him, however, that he failed to realize his position relative to his pursuer.

Just as Fedora was leveling out his fall, the Hand came arcing back down from the apex of his final leap. The incubus’s midair struggles had shoved him far to the side of his descent, inevitably, but he craned his head as he fell, studying the angles.

Then he vanished as though slipping through a crack in midair. Instantly he reappeared, still falling and at exactly the same angle and speed, but now directly above the gliding Inspector. It wasn’t a precise hit—given the forces and speeds involved, that would have been truly uncanny—but it put him close enough to reach out and, as he passed, grab Fedora’s extended tail just above its spaded tip.

The demon let out another aggravated yelp as he was abruptly yanked downward. “Oh, how are you possibly—”

The Hand of the Emperor, not in a conversational mood, swung him around in a complete circle as they plummeted, releasing at exactly the right moment to send him hurtling downward at far greater than terminal velocity.

This time Fedora managed to right himself faster, largely through luck, and snapped his wings back out to their full extent. There was no possibility of another saving glide, however; he was heading down far too fast and at far too steep an angle. Curling himself into a defensive ball with the exception of the wings, outstretched in a desperate makeshift parachute, he came slamming down onto the roof of the barn which stood on the outskirts of Last Rock.

Onto, and through.

The incubus crashed through the timbers, bounced off the edge of the hayloft and hit the ground in an agonized heap, trailing bedraggled wings which flopped over him in a mess of snapped bones and ripped sails.

It took priceless moments for the pain to recede enough for him to think. The Vanislaad were among the least physically powerful demons, but hardy in their way; what did not immediately kill him would right itself in time, and far faster than humans healed. Not fast enough to get him out of the present danger, however.

What broke him from his reverie was a second impact, which caused the entire barn to shake and one corner to partially collapse as something hit it. Timbers and planks fell, luckily far enough from him not to add further injury, but the noise galvanized his attention enough to take inventory.

Broken…lots of things broken. An arm, a leg—no, both legs—wings completely out of commission. Ribs, apparently most of them. Not his spine, good; that wouldn’t paralyze him the way it could a human, but there was only so much muscle and tendon could do around a fractured core. Even luckier, he had avoided hitting anything skull-first. Fortunately none of his internal organs actually did anything—except, less fortunately, ache and bleed when subjected to this caliber of abuse.

After a momentary pause, the wreckage of the corner of the barn began shifting insistently, causing the whole structure to groan in protest. Hands of the Emperor were nothing if not physically hardy. That fall wouldn’t be good for anybody, but the bastard had assuredly been damaged less than Fedora, and would heal much faster.

Marshaling himself, he faded into invisibility and began scuttling away to hide behind a stack of straw bales. With one arm and two legs broken, this was utterly excruciating, but having pushed through the initial shock, he managed to embrace the sensation, forced it to sharpen his mind rather than fogging it. Pain wasn’t preferable to pleasure—at least, not to him, though he’d known incubi and even the odd mortal who felt otherwise—but children of Vanislaas sought out extreme sensations as a matter of course. If they went too long without feeding the itch, whatever stimulated the nerves could provide partial relief.

He managed to conceal himself behind both his native shroud of invisibility and the physical obstruction of the straw, which would hopefully buy a few seconds; he was sure the Hands had extra senses, though of what nature he did not know. Fedora carefully rummaged in the inner pocket of his trench coat with his un-broken hand. The bag-of-holding spell had, of course, shielded the contents from damage and yielded up exactly what he was reaching for. Bless modern enchantment; this situation would’ve been an immediate death sentence fifty years ago.

He reflected wryly, as he flicked off the cork and downed a vial of healing potion imbued with pure infernal magic, that he might have outsmarted himself here. All this ruckus would’ve already been resolved had he not persuaded Tellwyrn to hang back and watch rather than “saving” the day as per her distinctive idiom. Well, it had been the right call, and he’d outmaneuvered the Hand’s gambit. Now he just had to survive the son of a bitch long enough to tell her what she was up against.

Fedora took some tiny satisfaction from the groans that accompanied the Hand’s self-extrication. Precious seconds ticked by, in which they both rapidly improved in condition. The Hand’s innate magic straightening out the comparatively minor injuries he’d suffered, Fedora’s potion working far more rapidly on him. Rapidly or not, though, it was working on much greater damage to a much more fragile vessel. He’d no immediately useful basis of comparison to the Hand’s condition, but best to assume the man would be in better shape than he by the time he couldn’t afford to stall any longer.

That time was fast approaching.

Teeth gritted against the urge to gasp—luckily he did not actually have to breathe—while several bones shifted excruciatingly back into position, he took stock of his surroundings. No exits in the back half of the barn, of course. To reach either the front or side doors he’d have to go back out in the open. Was he faster than a Hand of the Emperor? In this condition, no. In his optimal shape…based on what he’d seen tonight, also no.

He’d just have to be smarter, then.

Easier said than done; brains couldn’t do much without usable options. Fedora quickly discarded extraneous details, fixing upon two of immediate importance: invisible or no, his crawl back here would have left a trail in the dust which the Hand would find sooner than later, and there was exactly one discreet exit from this position.

His arm and leg bones were in their right configuration but still somewhat fractured, which meant that while he could haul himself up the steep ladder into the hayloft, he could not do so in silence. Bracing himself on it and trusting his invisibility, he pulled his battered body upright, peeking over the strawbales and watching the Hand for his moment, already reaching once more into his coat pocket.

As he’d thought, the Hand paused in his pacing, bending over to watch the trail Fedora had left on the ground. That put him seconds at most from pursuing, but also gave the incubus his opening.

He withdrew his hand and hurled the vial he’d just grabbed over the man’s bent head, straight into the wrecked corner of the barn.

It was one of his favorite alchemical explosives: not terribly powerful, but extraordinarily clean. No fire, no light, not even heat or a puff of smoke, just a burst of pure kinetic energy when the vial broke and the solution encountered air. The blast sent broken planks tumbling again, and caused the whole barn to creak ominously. More importantly, it made the Hand whirl to face this new threat, giving Fedora time to scuttle up the ladder with the speed of a spooked squirrel.

He had barely enough mental wherewithal to collapse as gently and silently as possible when he reached the top. Kelvreth’s lashes, that had fucking hurt. Yep, the broken arm was well and truly broken again—and now the effects of his infernal healing potion were fading, so it was gonna stay that way for the immediate term. He didn’t dare take another vial; just the amount he’d already used was risky in the presence of a fae-attuned creature like the Hand. His legs, fortunately, just hurt. Like Hell itself, he thought authoritatively, but at least they were somewhat functional again.

Fedora lay stretched out, wings awkwardly flopping beside him while they continued stitching slowly back together—he might manage one more awkward glide tonight, but he wasn’t flying anywhere—and concentrated on listening and not breathing. The potion helped a bit but he still felt weakened by fae exposure. Or maybe it was just pain. The barn shuddered again due to something the Hand did, but the man was already on the prowl again. Also, there were sounds from within the town, rapidly approaching: footsteps and voices. Whether anybody had noticed them soaring through the air was unknowable at this point, but thanks the the Hand’s efforts at stirring up a mob, plenty of people were out and about to hear two man-sized projectiles plummet to the ground, and the state of this barn would quickly reveal where they had landed.

He lifted his head, again taking stock. Good, he was slightly less cornered now. There was a wide loading window up here, with a sturdy bar extending outward conveniently lined with rope. Why the hell would—oh, lifting hay bales into the loft, of course. If he was going to stay out here in the sticks he needed to familiarize himself better with prairie life. More immediately important, that provided a neat exit. He could also go over the front edge of the hayloft, back to the floor and out one of the exits; the Hand would soon find his trail again, which would lead to the ladder, which would keep him facing away from the front of the barn.

That would require split-second timing, speed he wasn’t sure his battered legs were up to, and would put him out facing the town, right in time for whatever crowd was coming to get here—depending on how Maru was doing, possibly under the effect of mob-maddening Vidian jiggery pokery.

Yeah, that really was not a choice.

Moving as fast as he could without compromising stealth, he stood and crept to the window. Its bottom was even with the floor, which luckily meant one less thing to climb. More importantly, the coast was clear. Fedora grasped the rope with his good arm and hopped out.

Only instinct honed by centuries of cat-and-mouse games like this one saved him.

Before he had consciously processed the noise below him, he’d reflexively yanked upward, hauling his feet and tail out of range of the Hand’s grasp as the man hopped from below. Fedora swung all the way up and landed atop the beam in a crouch; both legs screamed in agony, but they held. For the moment. One was quavering, though, and he knew another maneuver like that was going to send him to the ground.

He peered over the side of the beam; the Hand of the Emperor glared up at him. Clever bastard hadn’t followed his trail at all. To get out here he’d have needed to exit the barn from the side and circle all the way around…which meant he had anticipated Fedora’s reactions and plans in detail, right in the moment.

Well, that was good and fucking ominous.

They stared at one another in silence for a moment, and Fedora was again pleased with himself for cultivating such a disheveled appearance; it neatly concealed the fact that he himself was physically a wreck. The Hand wasn’t so lucky, his usually pristine black coat being torn half off him. Even the fringe of hair surrounding his bald head was sticking out in all directions like a bird’s nest.

Fedora thought as fast as he’d ever thought in his life. Then, powering through the howling pain, he first straightened up and darted forward along the beam, then instantly pivoted and shot back the other way, bounding onto the roof of the barn.

He had a clear shot to the mountainside from the barn’s rear, but that would put him in the position of trying to outrun the Hand on open ground, which he was in no shape to do; his wings weren’t up to flying again, either. This way set him back facing Last Rock and all its hazards, but the poorly-planned little town made a neat obstacle course even before all the construction going up on multiple sides.

Of course, that unwise maneuver immediately caused one of his legs to buckle, exactly as he’d feared it would. Fedora managed to land on the sloping roof, barely, and it was all his frantic scrabbling could do to stop a calamitous slide right over the side. He managed to land on top of his right wing, further ensuring its uselessness—and adding to the pain, of course, though that was a drop in the bucket at this point.

Gritting his teeth, he forced himself upright, stepping carefully on legs which blazed with agony at every step, turning to make for the front of the roof and the town. Maybe he could jump as far as a nearby rooftop, and probably break his leg again, but he had to do something and there’d be only seconds before—

Fedora stopped, staring. The Hand was already standing on the roof, right at the front edge, straddling the very peak.

“Y’know what?” the incubus said aloud. “Just, fuck you, that’s all.”

“Treason,” the Hand said flatly, taking a measured step forward, “applies to citizens of his Majesty’s realm. Despite the fact that you are absent without leave from your sworn duties and in league with an enemy of the Empire…” His lip curled in a contemptuous sneer. “Well, no one should really be surprised, should they?”

Fedora shuffled along the edge of the roof, making slowly for the peak even as the Hand made slowly for him. He couldn’t betray his intentions by glancing down—the moment he moved with any speed, the man would be on him like a pouncing cougar—but if he got to the center of the roof it would be a straight drop back to the protruding beam below. And probably more broken bones, and then he’d still have to make it to the ground and somehow away…

Well, at this point, his every desperate gambit was just to survive a few more seconds. Chain enough of those successes together and he’d be golden.

“Intelligence, of course, anticipated this when they brought you in,” the Hand continued, pacing toward him. “It was not merely expected, but planned. Eventually, when you were no longer worth keeping, it would be necessary to put you down. I suppose Lord Vex will be disappointed that he doesn’t get the satisfaction himself, but that’s what he gets for failing to keep you under control in the first place.”

He was at the peak. Tallest point of the roof, making the drop even worse; in hindsight, maybe he’d have been better off just dropping straight to the ground from a lower height. Orange lamplight illuminated the far edge of the barn and the Hand’s silhouette, signaling the arrival of Last Rock’s citizens.

Maybe the Hand would refrain from physically tearing him apart in public? No, a Hand could legally do anything he liked, and with Fedora’s wings still on display they wouldn’t even object… He tried to shapeshift, which brought nothing but another spike of pain. Probably the combination of fae magic, physical trauma and infernal medicine, in that order.

Would Tellwyrn bother to summon him back from Hell? That wasn’t in his contract… He had a suspicion she didn’t value his services nearly that much just yet, especially not after how displeased she’d been with this night’s work.

The Hand was almost close enough to grab now, and smirking, which was somehow the worst thing tonight. It was bad enough getting outmaneuvered, without the asshole rubbing it in.

“You probably thought you were going to get away with it, didn’t you?” The man twisted his mouth, baring teeth in a truly unsettling expression; there was a grin in there, but also a sneer, and still that smirk, all beneath eyes too wide and with pupils too narrow. The insanity could practically be smelled at this distance. “Now you know otherwise. Nothing defeats the Tiraan Empire.”

“In the Enchanter Wars, pretty much everybody did,” Fedora said sweetly, and “accidentally” twisted his foot on the edge of the roof, flailing his arms for effect as he plummeted. Well, if this was how it ended, at least he got the last word.

The Hand lunged for the edge, then immediately skidded to a stop, staring in disbelief as Fedora bounced right back up, still spinning and flailing. It was an open question which of them was more startled.

Then the big, soft thing he’d impacted ascended above the rooftop, and the Hand actually stepped back, glaring in consternation. Fedora came down again, bouncing once more, but the next time on his descent he managed to catch one of the blimp’s ears on his way toward the ground, and clung there, dangling and trying to ignore the blistering pain in his shoulder.

The blimp’s…ears?

It wasn’t even the size of the smallest zeppelins, but the huge balloon could have lifted a carriage easily. More distinctively, it had four tiny paws along its rim, a fluffy striped tail hanging from the rear…and an enormous grin facing the Hand, which Fedora was now dangling close enough to see up close.

Maru opened his mouth, puckered his giant lips, and blew possibly the biggest, wettest raspberry anyone had ever heard.

Exactly like a rubber balloon with the air being let out, it produced a blast of wind which sent the Hand of the Emperor tumbling all the way back across the barn’s roof, and the tanuki balloon with its battered passenger shooting away in the opposite direction on a crazy course that bounced them what felt like halfway across the sky and back.

Given Fedora’s condition by that point, it was hardly a surprise that he lost his grip.

“ARE YOU KIDDING ME WITH THIS?!” he shouted more at the universe than at Maru as he found himself plummeting out of the air for the second time in the last few minutes, this time without the benefit of working wings.

Then he was grabbed again—by the collar, now, rather than any portion of his anatomy. Awkward as that was, it was still a step up from his recent treatment.

Fedora craned his neck to peer upward, finding Maru grinning down at him. Back in his normal-sized raccoon form, now, and hanging from what appeared to be a bamboo-and-paper parasol painted with Sifanese calligraphy, which somehow kept them both floating aloft.

“If you find this excessively uncomfortable,” the tanuki suggested, “I could return you below to try the diplomatic approach. Your new friend could greatly benefit from the lesson you just learned about premature monologues.”

“I know what you’re doing,” Fedora accused. “You think you’re too cute for anybody to get pissed at you.”

“Oh, is that what I’m doing?” Maru’s grin widened. He had an awful lot of white, needle-like teeth. “What baffles me the most in all this is how your hat is still on your head.”

Fedora grinned back, reached up, and carefully extracted a long hatpin, holding it aloft for him to see.

“Ah. A fashionable ladies’ accoutrement, is it not?”

“Also a serviceable improvised weapon, and two make a decent set of lockpicks. Never underestimate a fashionable lady, bub.”

“A shame you did not get the chance to use it on our associate down there!”

“And don’t think I wasn’t gonna! If he’d—”

It said something about the night he was having that the sudden disappearance of the entire world was far from the most shocking transition he’d experienced recently. The empty sky vanished from around them, replaced with the domed roof of Helion Hall, and Fedora found himself unceremoniously dumped to the floor, where he lay in a disgruntled heap. Maru lit neatly atop the little table which made the centerpiece of Professor Tellwyrn’s personal little patio, accessible only by teleportation.

“I sincerely hope you two are pleased with yourselves,” she grated. “That way somebody is!”

“Now, now, give the fuzzball a break,” Fedora suggested, raising his least injured arm to hold a finger aloft. Gods in bloomers, he hurt everywhere. “This is a college town, and a magical one at that. I’m sure Maru’s performance will just go down as the new student prank to beat. Hell, Chase Masterson was in town, I have no doubt he’ll take credit when nobody else steps forward.”

She took two steps to loom over him, leaning over to accomplish the feat of staring at him over the rims of her spectacles—not easy to do, given their respective positions. “And what do you have to say about your perching atop the bloody church like a self-important gargoyle?”

He found a new reason to wince. “Ah. So you were watching.”

“In fairness to Murgatroyd,” Maru said diffidently, “that is somewhat redundant, is it not? Gargoyles by nature, almost by definition—”

“Urusai!” she barked. Maru subsided, a satisfied little smile lingering on his sharp muzzle.

“So it wasn’t as clean as anybody woulda liked,” Fedora grunted, finally forcing himself into a sitting position. “Aaaiee—yow, that hurts! Fuck, I feel like the china shop after the bull got through…”

“You engaged a Hand of the Emperor in hand-to-hand combat,” Maru observed, “and are not dead. Nor even dismembered! All things being equal, I believe that counts as a resounding success.”

“What he said!” Fedora agreed quickly, pointing at Maru but keeping his eyes on Tellwyrn. “Look, Prof, this was messier than I hoped and I know it goes against your grain to hang back while other people do the heavy lifting, but we won tonight! The kids are home safe, the enemy didn’t get to make a spectacle of you, which had to’ve been the bulk of what he was after, and we succeeded in turning the scheme around on him. Now he’s got nothing to show for it, you haven’t shown your hand, and we know who our enemy is!”

“A Hand of the Emperor,” she said more quietly.

“The same one from before,” he replied, nodding. “My official connections with Intelligence are cut off, but I keep my ear to the ground. There was plenty of rumor about the Hands going wonky a few weeks back, but it’s widely known they’re stable again. Except…they seem to have missed a spot. That guy was not playin’ with a full deck.”

“Even I know Hands are famed for their discretion and efficiency,” Maru added. “This one cost himself a victory by engaging Murgatroyd in a futile display of wordplay. Really, standing around on the cusp of his victory and making a speech instead of finishing the job. Can you imagine anyone being so unutterably foolish? Not to mention cliché.”

“I know where you sleep, fuzzball,” Fedora warned.

The tanuki turned to him and bowed. “I am very flattered, but you are too tall for me. Also, Tellwyrn-sensei, there is more. This Hand is working with a Vidian priestess, Lorelin Reich. It was she who used her arts to stir up the town against the students.”

Tellwyrn drew in a deep breath through her nose. “Reich. Back in Last Rock. Well, well. Just when I could actually use Arquin for once, and I’ve sent him off to Puna Dara.”

“It might not hurt to let yourself trust the kids a little more,” Fedora said, starting to rise. He changed plans halfway through, easing himself into the little chair she kept by the table with a wince. “Nnnnf… But yeah. Szith made a damn fine show of herself tonight. I tolja she would. That girl’s been training to be a noble’s bodyguard since she was big enough to pick up a sword. If there’s one person up on this mountain who can be relied on to extract somebody from a mob—”

“All right, point taken,” Tellwyrn said impatiently. “Not unconditionally agreed, but you can stop harping on it. We had better deal with what’s coming next.”

“Yeah,” Fedora said, frowning. “Yeah… There’s a downside to victory. It narrows the enemy’s options, forces them to move faster. I’m afraid we may not have as much time to prepare, now. Now that we know who he is, whatever that Hand does next, he’s gonna have to do soon.”


“Sir, I’ll take responsibility for this,” Lorelin said formally, folding her hands behind her back. “When that creature engaged us, I instructed Mr. Carson to hold it at bay while I kept concentrating on my own task. That was a mistake; it was far too much for him to handle. Maybe if I’d dealt with it, I could have resumed focusing the crowd and prevented it from intercepting you later.”

The Hand gazed at her in chilly silence for a moment, then transferred his look to Fred Carson, who flinched. He hadn’t fared nearly as badly as the Hand himself, whose clothes were still in tatters; Fred’s coat was a mass of scrapes and rents from the creature’s tiny claws, though Lorelin’s healing had washed away his actual wounds and hopefully neutralized any fae nonsense that might have lingered on him. Even she was somewhat disheveled after scuffling about in the toolshed. The sole fairy lamp in the basement in which they met was an older model, and cast a flickering light that did none of them any favors.

“Do you know what that thing was, Reich?” the Hand asked finally.

Slowly, she shook her head. “No, sir, I don’t. Some manner of fairy. I’ve never heard of one that looked like an overlarge raccoon.”

“Carson?”

Fred swallowed heavily. “N-no, sir. That is t’say… I mean, I ain’t seen it myself, but I’ve heard from my trips up the mountain that Tellwyrn’s got a critter like that workin’ for her. I…shoulda thought of it. Plumb didn’t occur to me till after it’d left us. S-sorry.”

The Hand finally shook his head. “This was not your fault, Carson. Nor yours, Reich. We were simply…outmaneuvered. It happens.” He reached forward to lay a hand on Fred’s shoulder, ignoring the flinch the gesture prompted, and gave him a light squeeze. “You have served your Emperor well, never fear; sometimes, we simply don’t win. What matters is learning from defeat and applying the lesson. Next time it will be different. For now, Carson, go home, get some rest. I will need to call upon you again soon.”

Fred’s departure was accompanied by much bowing and stammering. He had barely shut the cellar door behind him before Lorelin turned to the Hand and spoke.

“Sir, I have to ask. By designating the gnome as the primary target, were you trying to avoid setting off a major confrontation?”

He narrowed his eyes at her. “What are you talking about?”

“I mean…a dangerous one. Something that could have caused major damage to the town and not involved Tellwyrn.”

“Talk sense, Reich,” he snapped. “That Masterson boy is possibly the least dangerous thing on that mountain, and not even the most annoying.”

She stared, her Vidian mask of control slipping slightly to permit surprise to peek through. “You…don’t know…?”

“What?”

Lorelin swallowed. “I assumed you were… Well. I have no up to date word from my contacts in Intelligence, as you ordered, but I was briefed on the situation unfolding in Last Rock. Your first mission here, and Fedora’s, in response to the Sleeper outbreak. Sir… There is something you should know about Chase Masterson.”

 

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13 – 17

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Jasmine allowed herself a sigh of relief as she set the empty canape tray down on the kitchen counter. None of the others were present; given the sudden availability of free “help,” Glory had not troubled to bring in staff for this event. Ami and Schwartz were circulating among the guests (with differing degrees of skill), but the lady of the house had not hesitated to put the Guild apprentices to work. That left Smythe to handle the cooking, a skill none of the rest of them possessed.

“Well, this hasn’t been nearly as bad as I’d feared,” she said aloud, adjusting the collar of her still jacket. Actually the livery the Butler had found for them didn’t bother her; it reminded her of dress uniform. Layla and Darius, likewise, seemed to find it hilarious to be dressing as servants, but Tallie in particular was not enjoying the role. As usual, it was hard to tell what Ross thought.

“Do not mistake caution for virtue,” Smythe advised, glancing at her with a faint smile but not turning from the sauce he was stirring. He manned the stove without the benefit of an apron, but his uniform was, of course, spotless. Butlers did not make mistakes. “Many of those men and several of the women have fondled waitresses in other venues. No one invited to one of Tamisin Sharvineh’s events, however, would be foolish enough to mistreat working-class people in the home of a prominent Eserite.”

“I hadn’t even thought of that,” Jasmine said, frowning. “I just meant that I’m not as terrible at this as I could be. It’s my first time serving appetizers at a society party. Believe it or not,” she added dryly.

The Butler gave her another glance; his expression relaxed subtly, conveying the aspect of a calm smile without actually moving his lips. It was incredible what the man could communicate with his face. “A military upbringing confers many traits which are crucial in domestic service, notably punctuality, discretion, good posture, and the capacity to behave deferentially toward worthless people. Alone among your friends, I would gladly provide you references toward another position.”

“I have other plans, but I appreciate that,” she said with amusement. He nodded, turning back to his sauce. “Will you need me to take another tray?”

“Not yet. Your compatriots have that in hand. There is a rhythm and a balance to social events; madame prefers her hospitality to seem generous but not excessive. It is a subtle reminder to the powerful individuals present that on Eserion’s ground, even they may go hungry.”

“That’s slightly terrifying,” she observed. “But I’m amazed how you can be so aware of the situation from back here in the kitchen.”

“I am a Butler,” he explained. “It might be wise for you to circulate, however. Ostensibly to see if a guest needs anything, but more significantly to keep an eye on the house. With so many present, opportunities for mischief abound.”

Jasmine frowned. “You don’t think the conspirators would attempt something here, surely? Even the Svennish intelligence service didn’t dare attack this house.”

“The Svennish intelligence service are professionals. Your adversaries have thus far abducted Eserite apprentices practically from the Guild’s doorstep, attempted to unlawfully imprison the same under the very nose of the Sisterhood, and employed intrusive scrying spells on a witch sufficiently powerful to detect and counter them. Reckless or incompetent foes present their own dangers, Jasmine. They may be more easily beaten once confronted, but a person unburdened by strategic sense might attempt almost anything.”

“I see your point,” she said, then deliberately smoothed her expression. “I’ll make the rounds, then.”

Smythe shifted to give her another nod before going back to his stirring, and she slipped back out.

It was odd, she reflected while navigating the busy townhouse, how none of the guests appeared to notice her. When she was carrying food, they would select bites without acknowledging her, as though an unattended tray were floating past. Smythe had lectured the group about the invisibility of servants (she really hoped Tallie’s resentment toward nobles wasn’t already bubbling over), but to Jasmine’s mind the Guild’s doctrine had more to teach about this phenomenon. She wondered, while climbing the servant’s stairs in the back, whether this qualified as “don’t see” or “won’t see.” A bit of both, she decided; for the most part, ignoring servants simply seemed the thing to do, and they had no trouble detecting the canapes and cocktails. But then, after overhearing snippets of conversation, she was starting to suspect that some of these people didn’t regard those below their station as actual people.

And these were Glory’s guests? It was downright horrifying to imagine what must be going on in the houses of the city’s nobility. This party had done more to impart a good Eserite’s resentment of those in power than weeks of Lore’s lectures.

Apparently no one wanted anything, and most of the guests were fully occupied with one another, or clustered in the central salon where Glory was holding court; at any rate, she was not stopped on her way around the lower floor. She did pass Ross holding a tray of drinks, and received a blank-faced nod from him. Technically a breach of Smyth’s rules of servant conduct, but she wasn’t about to rat him out. Her rounds were uninterrupted until she passed the bathroom door on the second floor rear hallway, not far from the servant’s stairs.

It opened so abruptly she had to take a step back to avoid being struck, but did not swing wide. Layla squeezed through the crack and instantly pushed it shut behind her.

“Jasmine,” she hissed. “Thank the gods. That guest this is all about, Carruthers Treadwell? He’s a gnome, right?”

Jasmine tilted her head curiously. “Treadwell? Yes, Schwartz said he was.”

“A little paunchy?” Layla continued in a furious whisper, glancing surreptitiously about in exactly the way Style had told them not to do. “White hair, big mustache…?”

“That I can’t tell you; Glory’s been monopolizing him and I haven’t met the man yet. Apparently he didn’t want to come and she had to apply persuasion, and just winked when I asked what that…” Jasmine trailed off, suddenly frowning. “Why? Did he corner you in the bathroom or something? Layla, even if we need his help you do not have to put up with—”

Layla grabbed her arm, and Jasmine focused on her face, suddenly paying closer attention. The girl had always had an aristocrat’s composure even before the Guild’s coaching in the fine art of lying, but she was two shades paler than normal, her eyes wide and lips pressed into a stressed line. She glanced up and down the empty hall once more, then stepped aside, pulled the door open just a crack, and jerked her head urgently toward it.

Taking the hint, Jasmine shut her mouth and immediately slipped inside, making room for Layla to follow. By the time the younger girl had pulled the door shut behind them, she had already forgotten she was there.

The gnome sat against the wall next to the ornately cast porcelain toilet, eyes staring vacantly at a point near the ceiling. His black tuxedo jacket did not reveal stains, but the white shirt beneath was now more crimson than white, and the blood spreading from around him had rendered the carpet a total loss.

They stared in stunned silence before Layla managed to speak in a thin, tight voice.

“It’s surreal. The one thought I cannot get out of my head is it does not seem there could physically be that much blood inside a gnome. Isn’t that surreal?”

Jasmine blinked, swallowed, shook her head once, and straightened her spine. “Right. Right. Okay. Layla, get Glory. No!” She shook her head, closing her eyes momentarily in thought. “You can’t push through that crowd to get her attention, that’ll kick the beehive for sure. Go to the kitchen, get Smythe. He will get Glory and she’ll direct our next steps. I’ll stay here and make sure nobody else finds…this.”

“Right. Yes. I’m on my way.” Layla seemed energized at having direction, and grasped the door handle again.

“And be careful,” Jasmine added, turning to her suddenly. “This can’t possibly be a coincidence.”

“Yes, I know,” Layla said, drawing a deep breath. “Whoever’s after us is in this house, and now we know how far they’re willing to go. And that they can get around Glory’s wards. I’ll be quick.”

No sooner had they slipped back into the hall than Layla shot off toward the rear staircase at the fastest pace that would not draw attention. Jasmine planted herself in front of the door, falling automatically into parade rest.

Layla had only been gone a minute before a well-dressed man strolled up, drink in hand, and paused to give her an inquisitive look. “Excuse me?”

“I’m terribly sorry, sir,” she said with a deferential little smile. “This one is out of order.”


They went for the slope itself, Maureen stubbornly clinging to her basket of metal—she was not about to relinquish her haul to whatever nonsense this was—but made it only a few feet up the slope before the roar of the crowd abruptly ceased. Naturally, she didn’t slow. When fleeing a pursuer, it was a fatal mistake to sacrifice footing and control to look back; any gnome knew that.

Unfortunately, Chase Masterson had not had the benefit of a gnomish education.

He immediately skidded to a stop, turning in the process to see what made the change, which proved to be a more complex maneuver than he could handle while running up a steep slope. Or, knowing him, probably at all. He slipped on the grass, one ankle twisting out from under him, and went tumbling to the ground, immediately rolling downhill.

Even more unfortunately, a great towering human-sized lummox rolling down the mountain at her from barely more than her height ahead proved an obstacle Maureen could neither vault over nor dodge around. The impact bowled her right over, causing her to lose her grip finally. The basket went tumbling away, strewing scrap metal across the grass.

Being knocked down and rolled upon did not phase her, but for that, she punched him as hard as she could manage in whatever piece of the big oaf it was that currently blocked her vision.

“Ow! My kidney!” Chase scrambled away, but stopped before rising back to his feet, staring back down at the town. “…huh. What the hell’s got into them now?”

The erstwhile mob seemed to have abruptly lost its impetus. Suddenly, it had ceased to be a seething organism and had become a dozen or so prairie townspeople, standing around and staring at each other in confusion, as if unsure what they were doing or why. Silence gradually gave way to subdued muttering.

“Dunno,” Maureen grunted, hopping nimbly back to her feet. “Their problem, an’ I’m out before it becomes ours again. An’ you owe me a basket o’ metal bits, y’great clodhoppin’ galoot!”

“Oh, sure, blame me,” he said cheerfully, scrambling back upright and following her into a dash. They set off up the slope at an angle this time, heading for the stone stairs and their more certain footing. “Surely you don’t think I caused a mob?”

Maureen didn’t spare him a glance. “I dunno, Chase. Did you cause a mob?”

“Well, not that I know of!” he replied with an exuberant laugh. “But let’s face it, if there’s an angry mob and I’m in the same town, there’s at least even odds that somehow—”

“Just bloody well run!”


“Hey!” Fred protested as the shed door was yanked open, whirling to face the intruder. He had to lower his gaze; whoever had interrupted them was about half his height.

“What’s this? What’s all this, now?” wheezed a reedy little voice. “What’re y’all doin’ in my garden shed?”

“Your…” Fred stared, blinking in astonishment. The voice was an old man’s, one he didn’t immediately recognize. “Your… Mister, I think you’re a mite turned around.”

“Don’t you lecture me, sonny boy!” the intruder said shrilly, and Fred stumbled at a sharp jab to his thigh. A moment later he stumbled back again, throwing up a hand to protect his eyes against the brilliance that had suddenly erupted. The tiny old man lifted an old-fashioned oil lamp to illuminate the interior of the shed. Even without the hunch that bent him nearly double, he was short, his head entirely bald with incongruously huge tufts of white hair erupting from his ears, face so lost in wrinkles that his eyes were completely obscured beneath bushy brows. He jabbed at Fred again with a gnarled cane, though this time Fred held his ground; if he backed up any further he’d stumble over Lorelin, who was still seated in meditation. The old man prodded him once more, shaking his lamp aggressively. “This here’s my tool shed, an’ I don’t take kindly to trespassers, nosirree I don’t!”

“You said garden shed,” Fred said dumbly.

That was apparently the wrong answer, and earned him a whack on the hip. For such an apparently frail old fellow, he could swing that cane hard.

“Don’t you correct me, y’little hoodlum! I know my rights! Eighty-seventeen years I’ve worked this farm, an’ I know every inch of it! This here’s my garden toolshed, sure as my name’s Cletus Custer Indominus Boomerang McGee! My poor wife’s buried right behind it, an’ my dog too, Vidius rest both their souls! But not the cat, little bastard never did an honest day’s work in his furry life.”

Rubbing his thigh, Fred snuck a glance back at the priestess, who did not react to the invocation of her god, either. She was still concentrating; his job, after all, was to see she wasn’t interrupted. He shifted position, planting himself between the old man and Lorelin. “Now see here, mister, this here shed’s in an alley behind the Saloon, there ain’t no way…” He trailed off, frowning, then leaned forward. “Hang on. Do I know you? I ain’t never seen you ’round town…”

He really should have expected the ensuing whack to the skull, he reflected when he could think again. In hindsight, it was obvious. When his ears stopped ringing, he found he’d barely caught himself against the wall of the shed. That and…oh, no.

Lorelin grunted, almost sending Fred entirely to the ground in the process of crawling out from under him. The old man was still ranting, shaking his lantern at them.

“…never heard such disrespect, in my day, young ‘uns had a proper regard for their elders, yes sir they did! Why, when I fought off the elves with my trusty lightnin’ staff, even they wasn’t so rude! Elves got proper respect for their elders, yes they do! ‘Mr. McGee,’ they said t’me, ‘beggin’ yer pardon but we’re here to pillage yer farm, if y’please.’ An’ I served ’em tea before I shot ’em all in the face in alphabetical order with lightning, cos in my day we had us a little thing called manners!”

“I’m unsurprised you don’t recognize him, Mr. Carson,” Lorelin said, straightening and brushing off her shirt. “This creature is some kind of fairy.”

“You’re some kinda fairy!” McGee shouted, whacking Fred again. “I never heard o’ such—”

The light that blazed from behind Fred was by a wide margin more blinding than the lamp, and made him distinctly grateful he wasn’t looking in its direction. The pure golden glow of divine magic pulsed outward, and at its impact, Cletus Custer Indominus Boomerang McGee seemed to blow away as if made of dust, leaving behind a shape that made even less sense.

Fred locked eyes with the four-foot-tall raccoon dressed in robes for a moment. Then the creature had the temerity to giggle.

Then it darted forward, dropped to the ground, and bit him on the ankle.

Fred yelled and stumbled over backward, once again collapsing atop Lorelin. This time he bore them both fully to the ground, again breaking her concentration. The light vanished, plunging them once more into oppressive darkness.

“I’m sorry!” he stammered, scrambling off her and accidentally kicking her in the process. “Gods, I didn’t mean—”

“Don’t worry about it, Carson.” Her voice, oddly enough, seemed amused. “It seems this may not be as easy as we were expecting.”

“What the hell is that thing?!”

“I’ve no idea; fairies are over my head.” His vision was gradually adjusting; he could make out a shifting shadow as she altered her position. “But we have our mission, and it looks like yours is no longer the easy part. Do your best to keep him off me, if you please.”

She fell still, and silent, apparently sinking back into meditation. In the ensuing silence, Fred heaved himself upright, lurched over to the door, and swung it shut, pressing himself against it.

The distinct scrabbling of little clawed feet scampered across the roof above them, followed by a shrill and distinctly insane giggle. And then a whimper, which Fred only belatedly realized had been himself.


Whatever caused the lull lasted only moments, and then with a roar, the crowd was after them again.

“Bloody ‘ell, are they gaining?” Maureen protested just as they reached the stairs.

“Well, yeah, their legs alone are taller than you,” Chase pointed out, a little breathless. He had pulled ahead, and now paused, turning back to her. “I could’ve left you behind, but Tellwyrn would turn me into an entire new dumbass-leather wardrobe. Her words, not mine. Oh, fine, I guess I have to do everything around here.”

“Don’t you dare!” she squawked, smacking him and jumping away as he bent and reached for her.

“Ow! You pint-sized idjit, do you want to get torn apart by a mob? Come here!”

“You can barely carry yer own weight, the way yer gaspin’!” Maureen skittered wide, departing the staircase to circle around him outside his reach. The distraction had cost them; she chanced a glance down the mountain, and the inexplicably enraged humans were rapidly gaining.

“Dammit to hell and back in a handbasket,” he complained, huffing as he followed her and lacking the sense to shut up when he was clearly not in good enough shape to be running up mountains in the first place. “This better actually be my fault somehow! If I get killed and it’s not because of something I did, everybody I care about is gonna lose the pool I have going. Best thing I could leave for ’em, not like I’ve got anything worth putting in a will…”

Only when he trailed off for breath did she note the sound. She had never heard it so distantly before, but Maureen knew that sound.

“No,” she breathed.

The lights came into view ahead and above them, a sharp blue glow that descended the mountain right at them at a frightening speed, the noise growing louder. It was a hum both deep and shrill, that seemed to exist somewhere on the boundaries of hearing.

“What the fuck now?” Chase demanded. “I really hope that’s help. Is that help? It doesn’t look like help. Doesn’t sound like help, either…”

“No, no, no!” Maureen wailed, putting on a burst of speed. “No, she’s not ready yet! She’s not done! Aye, she runs but I’ve the whole stabilizing matrix to install!”

“Who’s not ready?” he demanded.

Then the thing drew close enough to come into focus.

It angled away from the staircase, swerving wide to avoid striking them, and immediately began wobbling, which caused Maureen to cry out in panic. No surprise; stabilizing matrix or no, there was nobody alive who had any practice at driving that thing at all, much less down a mountainside at breakneck speed.

Even without practice, Szith’s natural elven balance and agility made a world of difference. She turned the machine entirely sideways till it was sliding horizontally down the slope, its single wide wheel ripping up and spewing a veritable fountain of grass and sod. The arcane blue fairy lamps mounted to its round bronze shell flashed as their beams swept across the two astonished students, then the angle changed, leaving the vehicle backlit by the glow of the levitation charms holding its tapering tail aloft. Szith leaned upslope in its saddle, planting one booted foot on the ground and ripping up another streak of grass as she manually slowed and controlled the descent.

It was unfair, Maureen reflected, how elves were just naturally good at everything. She knew for a fact the drow had never even ridden a horse, much less a…well, she hadn’t quite got around to naming it yet.

The arcane rider’s approach made even the mob trail to a halt, gaping in astonishment. The wheeled vehicle wobbled violently as Szith fought for control, and for a horrifying moment Maureen was certain the whole thing was going to flip over and roll the rest of the way down the mountainside. The drow (and the levitation charm) prevailed, however, and the whine of its motive charms surged as she gave it a boost of power. More dirt flew and it surged back into motion, getting its wheel firmly under itself. Having slid all the way past them now, she angled it back uphill and came after them.

Szith actually leaned out of the saddle, holding one arm out and scooping Maureen up into her lap even as she squeezed the brakes, skidding to a halt. And nearly toppling over again as the vehicle wobbled and swerved in the process.

“Gently!” Maureen squawked. “Ya gotta guide ‘er gently, she’s not got the balance fer this stop-an’-go!”

“On!” Szith barked, pulling to a halt next to Chase.

“Oh, hell yes!” he crowed, vaulting onto the saddle behind her and wrapping his arms around her waist.

“Gently!” Maureen wailed, to no avail. Szith shifted her grip on the handlebars, relaxing the brakes and twisting the throttle forward, sending Marueen’s project into another skid as she poured far too much power far too fast into their acceleration, causing the gnome to regret showing her how the controls worked even though this was very likely saving her life.

But it stabilized quickly, and they shot upward far faster than Maureen had ever climbed this mountain, rhythmically bouncing as the big wheel crossed over the switchbacking paved path. In just moments, the University gates hove into view.

“I WANT ONE!” Chase bellowed, and Maureen really wished she was in a position to push him off.


“Gotcha,” Fedora whispered savagely, peering through the spyglass. Even in a form which lacked his wings and tail for balance, even perched at the top of the church’s steeple in the stiff prairie breeze, he held his stance easily, quite enjoying the dramatic way his trench coat billowed behind him. Up ahead and far below, a single figure in a black coat stood at a distance from both the town and the now-puzzled mob which had staggered to an impotent halt a scant few dozen yards up the mountain.

The Inspector ignored them as he had the pulse of divine light which had briefly illuminated the alley behind the Saloon. Maru had done his job, and nothing Lorelin Reich had in her bag of tricks was going to more than inconvenience the tanuki. For that matter, Fedora had probably better go collect him before her efforts made that game too much fun. Fairies tended to lose themselves in the hunt, and all the University needed right now was for Tellwyrn’s personal secretary to turn somebody into a tree stump.

“It was a good play,” he said aloud into the wind as the Hand of the Emperor shifted to glare at his defeated lynch mob, bringing his familiar profile into focus. “Create a ruckus, threaten students, bring Tellwyrn down here to intervene. If you did your job well enough, she might go overboard, give you an excuse to rile the town further. At the very least, you’d test her, see how she reacted to being poked. But you didn’t count on a dashing, demonic voice of reason to summon student help and persuade the boss lady to butt out, now didja. And now it is Fedora who has seen the face of the enemy! You lose this round, cupcake. What shall we play next?”

His triumphant grin vanished as the Hand of the Emperor abruptly turned to stare directly at him.

“No,” Fedora muttered, lowering the spyglass. It was dark, there was a good quarter of a mile between them. Even an elf could barely have made him out, perched on the steeple. “There’s no way…”

The Hand vanished momentarily from view as he suddenly sped back into the shadow of Last Rock’s buildings. Then he reappeared even more dramatically, having vaulted from the ground onto a rooftop. He proceeded onward, leaping from roof to roof faster than a jungle cat, and making straight for the church.

“Oh, shit.”

 

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13 – 14

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The hum filled the air, powerful enough to make her bones resonate sympathetically, but not loud enough to drown out the screams. She tore through the corridors, a prisoner behind her own eyes, unable even to scream as she carved away lives.

Palace guards tried to shoot her, but she effortlessly swatted lightning bolts aside with the burning shaft of light in her hand. It pulled her onward, hungry for revenge, and she slashed two soldiers into shrieking fragments with one wide swing. The smell of seared meat competed with the sharp tang of ozone in the air.

She did not stop, pulled forward by the sword. Cutting down servants, clerks, more guards, everyone who came within range of her swing. Faces of people she knew, frozen in horror and betrayal as she ended them. The sword didn’t care; it only needed blood.

Somehow, she had made it to the harem wing, and Isolde was ahead of her, fleeing in panic. Fruitlessly, of course; she ran the other consort down and impaled her through the heart from behind, and Isolde fell, screaming a question for which she had no answer.

Around the next corner, Empress Eleanora had barely a moment to give her a shocked look before the blade whipped through her body in a swift Z formation, reducing her to chunks, and still she pushed forward. Beyond the Empress was what the sword wanted.

Sharidan watched her come, wide-eyed. She could hear nothing but the powerful buzz of the weapon, but saw him mouth her name in disbelief as the blade came down.

The screams finally tore past whatever force silenced them, and everything vanished in confused panic. It took her a few seconds to understand where she was and stop shrieking. There was no angrily humming Infinite Order weapon; she was alone in a shabby little room in Puna Dara, entangled in the thin blanket that came with her rented cot, and one of her neighbors was pounding on the wall, shouting imprecations. Also, there was a frightened voice in her ear.

“Milanda! What happened? Are you all right? Say something!”

“Sorry, Walker,” she rasped, then paused, working her mouth to wet it a bit. “Just…a nightmare. I’m fine.”

Walker hesitated. “You’re…alone?”

Milanda paused in extricating herself from the blanket to give the room’s wall a wry look. “Now that the noise has stopped, nobody cares. I chose this neighborhood for a reason; the odd scream here and there won’t draw a response.”

“So these dreams are now determining your choice of where to stay?”

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” Milanda muttered, rising and going to the basin of water to splash her face. “You know why I’m here; the Punaji will not work with Imperial agents on this. They won’t even allow me to work if they find me, and once I’ve been explicitly told to butt out by Rajakhan’s government, my presence becomes a serious provocation. Nobody will look for me here.”

It was a sign of Walker’s concern that she didn’t allow herself to be baited into a long-winded discussion of the situation. “You never did see that mental healer, did you?”

“I haven’t had time,” Milanda said shortly, “and I don’t really care to discuss it.”

“Too bad. Milanda, this is like trying to operate with a high fever or a broken leg. Mental injuries are not less serious because they’re invisible!”

“What time is it?” Milanda asked. Her third-floor shack of a room was luxurious by the neighborhood’s standards for having an attached toilet; a window was not among its amenities.

Walker hesitated, as if about to argue, but then answered the question. “Almost twenty hours. Actually, I was about to wake you anyway. Hope you got some rest; this may be a long night.”

“Why? What’s happened?” The slight tingle of alarm was enough to banish the last of the sleep cobwebs from her brain, and she paused in the middle of the floor, just listening.

“The Avatar wasn’t able to improve the data gain from the transcension field by much, so we’re operating at a very low sensor capacity, but you carrying that receiver in your ear around Puna Dara has helped. We’ve finished mapping the cave systems around the city and found more than one that lead to an obviously artificial shaft which terminates at Fabrication Plant One. One of these, an old mineshaft outside the city, has Infinite Order tech operating at low levels. We weren’t able to interface with any of it to see what it’s doing.”

“That’ll be where the Rust have their base, then,” Milanda said, running a hand over her hair. She probably looked like a mess, but that was a lesser consideration right now. “I’ll have a look before deciding our next steps. Point the way, Walker.”

“Wait,” Walker advised. “The rest of the news isn’t good. Our system was able to identify the technology the Rust cultists are using.”

“Really?” Milanda couldn’t restrain a grin of excited satisfaction. “What is it?”

“I don’t know, and that is the bad part,” Walker said grimly. “It came up as classified. Even the Avatar refused to discuss it. He was very apologetic, but said it’s an absolute rule. He can’t act against his programming.”

Milanda’s smile melted into a frown. “…I thought our whole rigged-up system was logged into the Order’s tech under Naiya’s credentials. Why would anything be classified to her?”

“There are several things that would be; technologies and information that the Order as a whole agreed never, ever to use, or even discuss. Long before their fall they had devolved to infighting of the worst kind. The only thing that brought them all to the table was a weapon or technology which scared them so much they were all willing to permanently give up access to it as long as it meant none of the others could have it either. And these are the people who were screwing around with time travel and solar system-sized spatial distortion fields.”

Milanda drew in a deep breath and blew it out slowly.

“Yeah,” Walker said in response to the sound.

“That’s really bad.”

“Potentially. It also raises very troubling questions. How did these yokels defeat the Infinite Order’s highest security? The Avatar in Fabrication Plant One would never have allowed anyone to access classified technology, and if they somehow disabled him, there should be no way to access it. Only an Avatar governing intelligence is able to extract sealed data from the computers.”

“Hm.” Milanda had been conducting a quick check while Walker was talking; she’d been napping in her clothes and already had everything she needed at hand. Stepping out of the room and shutting the door behind her, she lowered her voice. A young woman walking around muttering to herself was far from the strangest thing to happen in this neighborhood, but still. “Maybe they interfered with the Avatar somehow? Altered him?” The rickety exterior steps creaked woefully as she descended. Milanda had suspicions about the quality of carpentry that had been done after the last hurricane.

“That would almost have to be it, but I can’t see how. Remember that our altered system only works because Empress Theasia convinced the Avatar to help set it up that way in the first place. As nervous as the Order were about AI, they’re supposed to be impervious to tampering. Anyway, I wanted you to be aware of the level of danger you’re walking into—and repeat my objection that you shouldn’t be doing this alone.”

“This is the whole point,” Milanda muttered, tucking her chin down as she reached the street. Nobody was paying her any attention; dark had fallen, but the city was still lively at this hour. “The Archpope is trying to rally everybody under one banner to prevent the Throne from turning on him, and I don’t buy for a second that he didn’t knowingly penetrate our system in the first place. I’ll buy that the Rust are a serious threat, but I also don’t want to let him scapegoat them. If I can deal with this quietly, without involving the Punaji or the cults…”

“Let me remind you that I do not work for the Empire, nor does Akane or the Avatar or the dryads. You’re the only party here who has an opinion on the Silver Throne’s political goals. What matters to the rest of us is that some humans are messing with the most dangerous technology the Infinite Order possessed and have already shown themselves willing to weaponize it somehow.”

“Noted,” Milanda said with a sigh.

“And even that wasn’t why I wanted to wake you. While doing those scans, the system identified someone it recognized moving through Puna Dara, and according to what I’m tracking toward the Rust-infested mineshaft I just mentioned.”

Milanda frowned, picking up her pace, then came to a stop, realizing she didn’t know where she was going. “Which way, Walker? And who is it? I thought those sensors weren’t acute enough for that kind of detail at this range.”

“If you’re determined to stick your nose into this, head to the southern edge of the city and toward the mountains, and I’ll guide you further from there. And no, they generally aren’t, but the presence it picked up resonates very strongly through the specific transcension field it’s using. It identified them as Administrator Naiya with thirty percent certainty.”

“Wait… That means—”

“One of her avatars, yes,” Walker said. “This system knows what kitsune and valkyries are; it’s able to accept our girls as having Mother’s clearance specifically because it doesn’t recognize dryads as a specific, separate thing. That, in fact, is how it identifies them: as Naiya, but without complete certainty.”

Milanda ran a hand roughly over her face. “Omnu’s balls… Walker, I need a favor.”

“It’ll cost you,” Walker said solemnly.

She almost missed a step, then smiled ruefully and picked up her pace. “Uh huh, good one. Has the Emperor made his nightly visit yet?”

“I don’t know, Milanda. It’s not as if he comes down to my hidey-hole.”

“Right. Well…any way you can, please try to get in touch with Lord Vex.”

Walker hummed thoughtfully into the headset. “You understand the handicap we’re under with regard to getting anybody’s attention up top? Everyone down here either physically can’t get to the surface, or really, really shouldn’t.”

Milanda made a mental note to see about having a Hand of the Emperor stationed down there at all times. Waste of talent for what amounted to a pageboy’s job, but given how Hands were made, she doubted they’d begrudge the chance to loiter with the dryads. Akane, though, was another matter…

“I understand. Whatever you can do, please. It’s very unlikely that this is just some random dryad wandering through. That would have created a major incident by now.”

“I’ve already checked the Empire’s reports on dryad activity, which Sharidan so helpfully brought us last week,” Walker replied. “Banana roams up and down the Punaji Coast, but in two centuries she’s never shown the slightest interest in approaching human settlements. Seems more standoffish than most of her generation.”

“Right. Which leaves two possibilities that I’m aware of. Either this is Ash, who works for Lord Vex, in which case he is meddling in my mission without my knowledge and I am going to have words with him… Or, unfortunately more likely, the sophomore class of Last Rock U has showed up to…help.”

“If they have,” Walker suggested, “let them. You’re in over your head, Milanda. If you absolutely insist on not involving any of the cult assets that have been moving into the city, those kids at least don’t have political ties to the Empire.”

Milanda did not bother to address that erroneous statement. “I’m more concerned with their particular manner of help. They shot Sarasio to hell, almost started a riot in Tiraas and burned half of Veilgrad. I’m just going to hope I’ll have to yell at Vex—or maybe deal with a rogue dryad. The last thing I need right now is those meddling kids.”


Fred kept his head down, hurrying on through the gathering darkness toward his destination. Last Rock wasn’t as sleepy a town as it had been not long ago, but even so, it was notably less active than in daylight. Also dimmer, lacking an organized system of street lamps. The mayor had been talking about adding just such a thing, what with all the new construction going on. Privately, Fred somewhat resented these changes in his comfortable life, but at the same time, he knew that for the silliness it was. Progress happened. All a man could do was buckle down and do his best.

“All right there, Mr. Carson?”

He came to a stop a bit too abruptly, so much so that he staggered and nearly fell, but that beat the alternative. Even so, Maureen backed away in alarm, clutching her basket of metal parts and staring up at him with wide eyes.

“Omnu’s—I’m so sorry, missy!” Fred blurted, snatching off his hat. “I plumb wasn’t looking. Didn’t step on you, did I?”

“Not so much as a toenail, don’t you worry,” the gnome assured him, smiling now. “I’m pretty quick on me feet; even the tall folk who keep a lookout can’t always spot me in the dark. Really, though, are ye doin’ all right? Y’look a wee bit under th’weather.”

In fact, he was suddenly feeling even worse, but plastered on a smile, gamely trying to conceal his unease. “Oh, pardon me, miss. Not to worry, just rushin’ to finish off errands I should’ve managed earlier. One o’ those days, y’know the kind.”

“Aye, that I do,” she agreed, nodding.

“Can I, uh, offer you a hand?” he asked politely.

“Oh, that’s all right, it ain’t as heavy as it looks,” she said cheerfully. “Just pickin’ up some scrap fer me pet project. I won’t keep ye any longer. Sorry fer almost trippin’ ye!”

“My fault entirely, Miss Willowick,” he said, tipping his hat again. “You have a good evenin’, now.”

“Same t’you!”

Once he was past her, Fred allowed himself to cringe. That…that was absolutely the last thing he’d wanted to see…

His path took him through the back ways of the old town, along dark alleys that just barely deserved the name. As Last Rock grew, it was developing such features in truth, but in the oldest parts of the village the spaces between the backs of buildings had never been used for much; it had barely had enough streets for such alleys even to exist. Fred stepped carefully in the darkness, mindful of old rubbish tossed back here, and even despite all his efforts stumbled repeatedly over unseen obstacles, having to bite his lip to keep from cursing aloud.

He found the shed without difficulty, though. Annoyance and discomfort, but not difficulty. It had been there his whole life, the storage shed behind the Saloon, tucked into a little nook left by the odd shape of the alchemy shop which had been constructed closer to the mountain and the students who had always been its main custom. In Fred’s youth the Crete’s tool shed had been kept locked and chained shut, but Jonas Crete’s fixation on magical gizmos had resulted in him moving all his stuff into the convenience of extradimensional storage inside the Saloon itself. Thus, the shed was empty, and had been for years.

And tonight, was occupied.

He slipped inside and carefully pulled the door shut behind him, turning to face those present. It was even darker, obviously, though the slits between loose boards admitted faint moonlight, enough to discern two dim figures, and the faint glint of their eyes. Fred couldn’t tell which was which, and so bowed deeply in the general direction of the space between them. Obviously, this wasn’t going to get any better; those same gaps would light the whole shed up like a beacon if they ignited a lamp. All it would take was one person glancing down the alley to see that something improper was happening in the old Crete toolshed.

“Carson,” said the Hand of the Emperor’s voice from the figure to his left. “Well?”

Fred cleared his throat self-consciously, tugging his hat off and kneading it in both hands in front of his body. “Well, sir, like you said, I found a student. Um, students, that is, here in town. The Masterson boy is just across the other side of the square down there, around the A&W.” He paused; the other dark figure had shifted as if turning to stare at the Hand.

“And?” the Hand prompted in a sharper tone. “You said students. There are more?”

Fred swallowed against the lump in his throat. “Th-there’s one other. As I was comin’ to meet you I ran across young Miss Willowick, comin’ out of the blacksmith’s. I dunno what Chase is up to, but she’ll be headin’ up the mountain toward campus. Maureen’s a good girl.”

“Mm. Even better,” the Hand said quietly. “Then we have our target. Reich, focus your ability on the crowd in the Saloon; rile up everyone amenable and target them at the gnome.”

“Oh, but sir!” Fred burst out, forgetting himself. “She’s the sweetest little thing, ain’t never said boo to a goose! Nobody cares what happens to Chase, that boy’s a prick. Couldn’t we—”

“That is precisely the point,” the Hand said in a dangerous tone. “The more sympathetic the target, the stronger the reaction.”

“But—”

“Carson, I want you to keep two things in mind. First, I am always aware of details you are not, and my plans extend well beyond you; what may seem a cruel action from one perspective may lead to ultimately benign results. Second, I speak for the Emperor. I must balance complex needs and make hard choices—and, if need be, sacrifices for the greater good. Any harm that results will be on my head, not yours. You have served your Emperor well. Do it, Reich.”

“I will,” the voice of Lorelin Reich replied from the other dark figure, “but I want it noted that I am doing this under severe protest.”

The Hand spun on her so abruptly that Fred staggered back against the closed door.

“Why is it,” the Hand grated, “that just now, when I am finally moving to enact all the planning we have done, I find myself surrounded by disloyalty?”

Fred opened his mouth to protest that he wasn’t disloyal, immediately thought better of that, and shut it again, grateful his lapse had been invisible in the dark.

“I know my duty,” Reich replied, her tone perfectly calm as far as Fred could tell. “I will serve my Emperor’s will without hesitation. But I have just spent a great deal of time being reprimanded by my cult, by an Imperial Grand Magistrate, and by Imperial Intelligence that exerting this kind of influence on unsuspecting citizens is a repulsive abuse of my abilities. I took those lessons to heart, sir. I will obey, and trust that a greater good is being served. But for the record, I consider this action vile, and am in a better position than most to know.”

“Your objections have been noted,” the Hand snapped, “and in the future, you will register them after the moment to act is not rapidly escaping us. Do it, Reich! Thanks to you two, I now have to go pull other strings to slow down our quarry, or this will all be for nothing. Carson, make sure she’s not disturbed.”

He shoved brusquely past Fred, who almost literally fell over himself to get out of the way, then vanished through the door into the night.

They stood in frozen silence for two heartbeats before Reich spoke in a soft tone.

“Carson, I think we have a smilodon by the tail, here.”

“W-what’s a smilodon?” he stammered.

Her shadow shifted incrementally as she shook her head. “Something agile enough to kill you no matter where you grab it.”

With that cheerful observation, she sank down into a lotus position to concentrate her magic on whipping up maximum carnage among the people of Last Rock.


As the black-coated figure of the Hand slipped away down the alley, moving silently in the dimness and with none of the tripping that had plagued Fred, a much smaller, chubbier shape reared upright on the roof of the little shed. After watching, whiskers a-twitch, until the Hand had vanished into a nearby cellar, the raccoon scampered to the edge of the roof and then climbed down one corner of the shed, its claws inaudible against the old wood.

Moving with impressive speed despite its waddling gait, the raccoon skittered off the other way up the alley, then rounded a corner and across the backyard of a small house, around to its front porch. There, an old woman in a heavy shawl sat in a rocking chair, creaking steadily while knitting a pair of socks by the light of a single oil lamp. The raccoon scrambled up the porch rail and shuffled rapidly along till it stood right beside her.

Quite unlike the usual prairie-dweller’s response to the sudden presence of a disease-carrying wild animal, she leaned subtly toward it while the raccoon stood on its haunches, craning its neck forward to chitter softly in her ear.

Moments later, she dropped her knitting and rose from the chair with astounding speed and agility. Fortunately no one was in the nearby street to see as the incredibly spry granny vanished entirely from sight in the act of vaulting over the porch rail. There came a rush of air from the beat of invisible wings, and then a figure flickered into view high above, shooting upward toward the distant campus.

The raccoon waddled over to the oil lamp, neatly opened its shutter, and blew it out. In the ensuing darkness, it scampered back into the town, in the direction of the old shed behind the Saloon.

No one was close enough to hear it giggling.

 

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12 – 47

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“Hey. How you holding up?”

Teal lifted her head, which had been resting against the back of the couch, and gave Ruda a weary smile. “Actually… Considering everything, not bad. It’s one of those things where… I can see myself overreacting to stuff and can’t stop it.”

“Well, sure, this whole thing’s a fuckin’ mess,” Ruda agreed, strolling over to sit down beside her. For the moment, they had Clarke Tower’s first-floor living room to themselves, Nahil having departed only minutes before after a long visit with Teal. “You know you’re not alone and you can count on us for anything. I mean, I credit you with enough smarts to know that, but I’m sayin’ it anyway. Sometimes it’s just good to hear.”

“Yes, it is,” Teal agreed, her smile widening slightly. “Thanks, Ruda. Honestly, I hate to sound ungrateful; the support of—of family has been wonderful right now. But on the other hand, trying to fit myself into a new family is a tricky enough thing to keep me tired all by itself. And…and I hadn’t expected to be doing it alone.” The smile drained away, leaving her looking just pale and tired again, and she allowed her head to slump.

Ruda draped an arm around her shoulders. “I know, hon. It’s… Okay, look, the last thing I want is to add to your concerns right now. But I gotta say something before it turns into the kind of issue this can if nobody talks it out with you. Teal… You’re wearing her clothes. I’m startin’ to worry.”

At that, Teal cracked a more genuine smile, going so far as to chuckle softly. She was, indeed, dressed in Awarrion robes, of green trimmed in red, and both in shades so dark they weren’t immediately distinguishable from black to human eyes, at least under indoor lighting.

“I appreciate the concern, Ruda, but come on. You don’t really think I would fit in Shaeine’s clothes, do you? I’m taller and…you know, a good bit bigger around, in several places.”

“Well, okay,” Ruda said, her eyebrows still drawn together in an expression of concern. “And, yeah, you’re right, those fit you like hers fit her, which is…sorta the same worry, Teal, if it means you’re getting them tailored. Any time somebody suddenly changes their personal habits right on the heels of a major shock, I get worried. My Uncle Raffi suddenly started collecting seashells after his boat went down in a storm. We didn’t think anything of it until one of the maids went in his room and—”

“Seriously, Ruda, I’m fine,” Teal interrupted, shaking her head. “It’s…family stuff. Like I was saying. There’s still a member of House Awarrion attending this school, and now that’s me. I want to represent it properly, is all.”

If anything, Ruda’s frown deepened. “Um…exactly what kind of pressure are they putting on you?”

“It’s not like that,” Teal explained. “The truth is… The haircut, the men’s clothes, it was never because they’re exactly me. It’s more that they weren’t what I was brought up to see as socially acceptable. I wasn’t trying to be anything, just to…make a point that I wasn’t something. Does that make sense?”

“I’ve gotta say, you never struck me as the rebellious type,” Ruda said skeptically.

“I’m really not,” Teal replied with a small grin. “And besides, it’s hard to be rebellious when your parents are as easygoing as mine. I just reached a point where I had to give Imperial society the finger, you know? If the alternative was letting it constantly beat me down with admonitions about how wrong it is just to be who I am…”

“Totally getcha,” Ruda said, nodding.

“Yeah, so. I’m not giving anything up, and nobody’s pressuring me, Ruda, don’t worry. This is nothing like growing up being told I had to wear dresses and kiss boys. I just landed in Tiraan Province at birth, and had the whole world dictating terms at me right from the start. Tar’naris may be virtually alien in many ways, but the difference is it’s something I chose.” She smiled again, self-consciously running a hand over her head. “I’m going to start letting my hair grow out, too. They don’t have the same ideas about hairstyles down there, but there is a perception that short hair on a woman indicates a martial path in life. It’s common for soldiers. Like Szith. Ol’ Tom will be delighted; he makes the most mournful faces at me whenever I go into town for a trim.”

Ruda leaned back against the couch, staring at her thoughtfully. “Well…okay. As long as nobody’s giving you a hard time about it.”

“Nobody but the Sleeper,” Teal said, her face falling into grim lines.

“Sooo. Now you find yourself the de facto ambassador for a family and whole culture you’re only just starting to understand. Wow, no fuckin’ pressure, huh?”

Teal sighed, and shifted to lay her arm across Ruda’s shoulders in kind. “You know, Ruda, I’ve always liked you. Even right from the beginning, when you thought Trissiny was going to murder you in your sleep. I’m glad to call you a friend.”

“…but shut the hell up?”

“Please and thank you.”


“Well, as far as I can tell, you’re fine,” Tellwyrn stated, folding up the scrying apparatus she’d been using. It resembled an overlarge book with panes of inscribed glass for pages, bound with thick brass hinges. “At least, in comparison to my last examination of you. The truth is, Crystal, you are a sort of…perpetual work in progress. I was never absolutely sure how all your functions operate, and the spells are complex enough that changes could very well be hidden in the background. Your natural state is adaptive; it would be odd if there weren’t any changes from the last recorded point of reference.”

“I see,” the golem replied.

Tellwyrn sighed, and held the scrying panes out to one side. “Maru, put this up, please.”

The tanuki eagerly skittered forward from the corner where he’d been waiting. Halfway across the carpet, he tripped on his robes and went sprawling at her feet. He bounded swiftly back upright, though, reaching for the apparatus, only to have Tellwyrn yank it back out of his grasp.

“On second thought,” she said dourly, “I’ll do it.”

Crystal shifted her metallic head to follow the Professor as she stepped over to the closet and carefully replaced the scrying device on the high shelf where it belonged. Maru retreated to his corner, anxiously dry-washing his paws and watching them both.

“There is one thing,” Tellwyrn said, shutting the closet door and turning to face the golem again. “The interference you describe was clearly caused by absorbing one of the Sleeper’s projections. Infernal projections are…well, not exactly a thing. The Sleeper is clearly operating close to the threshold where the schools of magic blur together. It’s said the highest application of any form of magic is to be able to use it without limitation, moving past the inherent boundaries and strictures imposed by the nature of the specific school.”

“I’m familiar with the principle, Professor,” Crystal said softly.

“The point being, I can’t be sure what you absorbed would register as fully infernal magic… But the Wreath agents we have on campus at the moment recognized the description. Projections of that kind aren’t any part of what infernal craft I know, so they must be very advance Elilinist technique. If you would like, I can ask them to examine you. That carries its own risks, however,” she added with a scowl. “It would inevitably lead to the Black Wreath gaining an insight into what makes you tick. I trust I don’t have to explain why that is a chancy proposition.”

“Indeed not, Professor.” Crystal tilted her head infinitesimally to one side, in one of the little gestures of curiosity she had carefully learned. “What do you think I should do?”

Tellwyrn was silent for a moment, staring at her with a frown. At last, she sighed and shook her head. “Crystal… My original intention was to activate you, see how you ran, then deactivate you and make improvements. Repeating as needed till I got an effect I liked, the way most spells are run. The truth is, I underestimated how sophisticated and potent your core enchantments are. Almost immediately, you were…a person. A somewhat stiff and glitchy one, yes, but right from the beginning, it turned out I didn’t have it in me to just…shut you off. Oh, I’m not shy about killing someone who needs it, but murder for the sake of my intellectual curiosity crosses a line I avoid. And yes…it would have been murder. The reason for all this rambling is… Well, this has to be your decision, Crystal. Me? I don’t want the Wreath anywhere near you. But Imperial law notwithstanding, I can’t see you as a thing I own. It’s your health we’re talking about, so if you want to ask for their help, it would be pretty damn hypocritical of me to bar you after I’ve already had the assholes looking at our curse victims.”

She paused, then shook her head again, and folded her arms, leaning back against the desk.

“But let me help you make an informed decision, with my bias acknowledged. This is a matter into which the Wreath may—or may not—have some specific insight. They will probably help, if it turns out their help is needed, and they actually can. That Mogul character is quite dedicated to sucking up to me these days. But at the end of the day, this is the Black Wreath we’re talking about. They are philosophically incapable of having an advantage without exploiting it to the fullest, and they assuredly respect fewer moral lines than most people. Fewer even than I, which as I’m sure you know is really saying something. I can’t say for sure that what they could learn from examining your enchantments would harm you eventually. I’d say, though, there’s a pretty good chance it’ll end up harming someone, at some point.”

Crystal stood in silence, then slowly folded her hands in front of her, almost bashfully. “Professor… What does make me tick?”

Tellwyrn drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “…all right. This is a conversation I’ve seen coming for a while. I expect it to be a rather long one. Right now, Crystal, I don’t have time to sit down and discuss this with you. I’ve got a full night planned, and it’s going to take me halfway around the world and back before I’m done.”

“Of course, Professor, I completely understand. I can come back when things are less—”

“Now, wait a moment,” Tellwyrn said, holding up a hand. “I’m not blowing you off. If you really want to have a sit-down and discuss this in detail when you have my undivided attention, I fully understand that. In that case, we’ll have to postpone it. But my errands tonight are going to involve a fair amount of travel time and more than a little waiting around, I expect. If you’d like to come with me, we can talk while in progress.”

“You mean…” For a moment, Crystal seemed actually lost for words. “Off the campus? Me, out exploring the world?”

“There’ll be no exploring,” Tellwyrn said with a wry smile. “Specific errands, Crystal, and no unnecessary dallying. But…yes, it’ll be a chance to see—”

“I would like to come, please.” The golem hesitated. “Oh…excuse me. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“No harm done,” Tellwyrn said, grinning. “Maru… I have not left the campus. Understand?”

He bowed. “Wakata.”

“All right. Off we go, then.”

There was no further fanfare; the elf and the golem simply vanished from the room with a soft pop of displaced air.

Maru stood in the middle of the carpet for a moment, glancing about as if uncertain that Tellwyrn had actually gone. Then a grin stretched his pointed muzzle. He suddenly began spinning around in a circle, faster and faster until he’d have been too blurry to make out any details, had anyone been there to see. His blurred shape shifted, growing taller, its hazy colors altering…

And then suddenly, slammed to a stop. Professor Tellwyrn stood in the center of the carpet, blinking. After a moment, she held out one hand and snapped her fingers, and a pair of golden spectacles popped into being above her palm. She deftly caught them and slipped them onto her nose.

“Growr!” she barked. “I’m Arachne Tellwyrn, goddammit! I’m gonna turn you into a newt, asshole! A dead newt! Or just a dead asshole, that sounds more efficient. Where’s my damn tea?!”

The elf grinned fiendishly at nothing, then turned and strolled toward the office door, giggling to herself.


They appeared in an enormous cavern, carved into cathedral-like dimensions around a square base, with pillars as thick as towers holding it up at each of the four corners of the room. A stone platform stood in the center, occupying most of the available space, and lined with iron rails except at one end, where stairs descended toward the only doorway into the chamber.

“Come along,” Tellwyrn said, stepping forward toward the metal stairs and beckoning Crystal along behind her. “It’s best not to loiter on the teleport pad. It’s heavily enchanted to prevent accidents, but just the possibility of one of those is enough to be wary of.”

“Yes, Professor,” the golem said, shifting into motion and following her. Tellwyrn’s steps were as soundless as any elf’s, but Crystal’s made heavy thinks on the iron stairs as they descended.

A gatehouse stood, half-filling the arched tunnel leading out of the chamber, with the remaining path blocked off into two lanes by iron rails matching those on the pad behind them. Dwarves were manning the checkpoint, two in military uniform standing to one side of the tunnel, another inside the gatehouse, visible only from the waist up. All three were watching them with slightly widened eyes; at the pair’s approach, the two soldiers bowed slightly. Tellwyrn nodded to them in reply.

“Greetings, Professor Tellwyrn, and…” The dwarf behind the counter peered curiously at Crystal. “…guest. Welcome to Rodvenheim. May I ask what brings you?”

“Academic business,” Tellwyrn said crisply. “I need to consult with Professor Arnheldt at Undertower College.”

“Of course,” he said politely. “And… If you would like to register your golem for a nominal fee, you can be reimbursed for accidental damage to it by the city’s enchanted facilities. Whether you choose to take advantage or not, you will be expected to be responsible should the reverse occur.”

“My librarian,” Tellwyrn said sharply, “is not chattel and shall not be entered into your records as such.”

He blinked, then looked warily at Crystal again. “Ah…if…um, very well. Regardless, Professor, with the greatest respect…”

“Don’t worry, I’ve no intention of causing any trouble,” Tellwyrn said, her tone softening slightly. “And Crystal has never damaged anything in her life. But yes, if she does, I will take responsibility.”

“Ah, very well then,” the gate guard said with obvious relief. “Then, Rodvenheim hopes you enjoy your stay.”

She just nodded to him, and continued on up the tunnel, Crystal following in silence.

It opened into a cavern of titanic proportions, far longer than it was wide—and it was wider than many city blocks were long. In fact, an entire city was clearly present here. The cavern stretched perpendicular to the access tunnel from which they now emerged, vanishing entirely into a haze caused by the faint smoke in the air on their left, and opening out into an even wider, round space off to their right. Directly in front of them ran a broad street, with beyond it a row of three-story buildings such as might have been constructed in any aboveground city. Past another street on the other side, more windows climbed the walls, to a height of almost ten stories, before the arch of the roof began, sweeping upward to meet in the center. The faint taste of wood and coal smoke hung on the air, but most of the light appeared to be the steady gleam of modern fairy lamps.

“I’m biased as hell, of course,” Tellwyrn said, stepping forward onto the sidewalk, “but Rodvenheim has always been my favorite of the Five Kingdoms.”

“Because they appreciate magic more than the others?” Crystal asked, falling into step beside her. At this hour the sidewalk wasn’t crowded, but Rodvenheim was as busy as any city anywhere would be at dusk, and they were hardly alone. Many of the passersby watched them, some actually stopping to stare. An elf was a rare enough sight here (though they did see a smattering of humans), but some might have recognized Tellwyrn by description, like the gate guard had. It was at Crystal that most of the stares were directed, however.

“That,” Tellwyrn agreed. “And they are generally less stuck in the mud. Less than other dwarves, and most societies in general. To someone with elven groves as a basis for comparison, this place is positively anarchic. And yet…not. The strong dwarven sense of social order and intellectual curiosity, with almost human adaptiveness and willingness to experiment. It’s no wonder this city alone isn’t suffering an economic depression right now. In Svenheim they can’t even afford to keep all the street lamps on.”

They proceeded in silence for a few moments toward the larger, open cavern up ahead. Tellwyrn wore a frown behind her spectacles. Only after gathering her thoughts for a couple of minutes did she speak again.

“To answer your earlier question, Crystal…I don’t know.”

“You don’t know…?”

“What ultimately powers you.” Tellwyrn glanced at her briefly before returning her eyes to the path ahead. “I did build you, but…from something. I found it deep in the Crawl, in one of my early explorations down there, right when I was first establishing the campus.”

“And what is…it?” Crystal asked, tension audible in her normally calm tone.

“Your namesake,” Tellwyrn said with a smile. “A piece of crystal, capped with metal. Actually, it looks rather like a modern power crystal, though larger. It took me quite a bit of divination and experiment to figure out what it was: a device that stored information. It took a lot more to figure out what that information was, since it clearly was designed to interface with other enchanted components, none of which were around. Your core was just thrown in a vault with a bunch of other artifacts, from dozens of sources and eras, all jumbled together. These things exist, you have to understand. Mages lived in the distant past who could do things that modern enchanters can barely dream. It’s the mass production of modern magic that is new; its actual scope and sophistication isn’t all that greater than what the archmages of old could manage. And nothing next to what existed in the days of the Elder Gods. Yes, there are still artifacts left over from them.”

“Am…I…one?”

“I just don’t know, Crystal,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. “Understand… You were my hobby for years. Decades. The whole time since the University’s founding, I’ve been working on you in my spare time. Most of that was spend puzzling out what was in that crystal and how it works. Once I discerned it held a kind of base program for a personality—structured like a golem’s but many orders of magnitude more complex—I set to working out a means of activating it. The information wasn’t much use stored in a crystal. That was honestly the easy part, though; your initial activation only took about a year. It’s been less than four semesters since then, of course. And after that…well, you have memories from that point. Building a serviceable body for you was the simplest part yet, once I knew how to make it respond to your mind.”

Crystal’s face was a frozen mask; she had no expression. She turned her head as they walked, though, gazing at Tellwyrn. “Why? How does this body help your experiment?”

Tellwyrn kept her eyes straight ahead. “The experiment’s over, Crystal. I told you that. You’re…you, now. You have been since I first turned you on, though I’m a little ashamed how long it took me to really grasp that. I made you a body designed to interact with people because…I thought you should have one. And there are more improvements I plan to make, when there’s time. Things have been hectic.”

They walked in silence for another full minute.

“Thank you, Professor.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“I think I would prefer not to have the Black Wreath investigate me closely.”

Tellwyrn nodded. “Good.”

“I appreciate the offer, though, and your willingness to leave the choice to me. And… Professor, if it turns out that I’ve been corrupted in some way, I trust you to do what’s right.”

Tellwyrn sighed heavily. “I barely trust myself to know what’s right, anymore…”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

The Professor frowned deeply. “The issue with the Wreath… Is not the issue I was first thinking it would be. Elilial did this, Crystal. She gave knowledge to students, knowledge she knew they wouldn’t be able to handle, for the specific purpose of having them cause trouble even she wouldn’t be able to control.”

“I thought you were on good terms with Elilial, Professor. At least relatively speaking. That sounds like a specifically hostile action.”

“Considering I’ve been hounding her steps for a while before that… Well, yes, it was hostile, but not totally unprovoked. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum, though. The Wreath has been doing the same.”

“The same?”

“Last year,” Tellwyrn said thoughtfully, “in Onkawa, I came across Kheshiri, a succubus I know they had bound in a bottle. I know because I helped put her there, over a century ago. The only way she got out is if they let her out—which would be a damn fool thing to do, considering the trouble she caused. Kheshiri not only screwed over the Wreath itself, I’m more than half convinced she had a hand in High Chief Tambisi naming himself Emperor after Tiraas fell to the Church. One careful action creating a mess that resonated across a continent—that has Vanislaad written all over it. And the kicker is that I know Elilial is rushing toward some kind of deadline—this ‘great doom’ I keep hearing about—and that her carefully laid plans are in ruins, thanks to what happened to Vadrieny and her sisters. They’re desperate. When you’re losing a game, sometimes your best bet is to jostle the board, and hope the pieces settle in a better configuration for you.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“What it all means,” Tellwyrn said as they passed into the larger cavern and proceeded right around its outer wall, “is that as much as Elilial and the Wreath’s actions make me want to personally ass-kick them all right up each other’s noses… Their situation creates an opportunity, if I’m willing to restrain my instincts and accept that I have to let them get away with some of the shit they’ve pulled recently.”

“I see,” Crystal said. “Are matters so desperate that you need them as allies, Professor?”

Tellwyrn came to a stop before a wide tunnel, blocked off by a set open gates. Above it, inscribed in both Tanglish and dwarven runes, was the label Undertower College.

“Matters are that desperate,” Tellwyrn said quietly, “and they’ll only become more so if I let myself be locked in an alliance with the Wreath, of all people. No, Crystal, it’s time for us to branch out. Take control of the board ourselves. And for that… I’m afraid we’re going to have to make some compromises.”

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12 – 34

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“What kind of evidence, exactly?”

“Several kinds,” Fedora replied with a nonchalant shrug. “Nothing I would call conclusive just yet, Professor. I wish that pixie had mentioned she was planning to dump a thousand gallons of frozen water on my crime scene so I could’ve told her to goddamn well not. Got no footprints from the actual fight location, and most of the samples were pretty thoroughly washed into the soil as it melted off. Still, you’ve got nice paved paths and a lot of the action happened on one, so I was able to lift a few.”

“A few?” Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow. “Samples? Of what?”

“I don’t have the right equipment with me to pick up skin flakes or anything so tiny,” the Inspector admitted. “Just hairs, mostly. A few miscellaneous near-microscopic bits and bobs that I think are fabric—I’m not pinning any hope on them. The hair’s what’ll prove most useful, I think. Rafe is still running the tests that’ll sort out what was dropped during the right time frame, then all I gotta do is gather samples from the people who we knew were there, and whatever’s left over is from our perp. Gotta admit, Prof, this is a guarantee of nothing. We won’t know how useful the evidence is until the analysis is done.”

“You were able to collect hair samples from the pavement in the aftermath of that…absolute debacle?” Ingvar regarded Fedora closely. “That is…very impressive.”

“Yeah, I call bullshit,” Aspen said more bluntly, folding her arms. “There is just no way.”

“Oh, ways he has,” Ashley said with a mysterious little smile.

“It’s all a matter of the right custom-worked enchantments and alchemicals,” Fedora said with ostentatiously false modesty, flipping the lapels of his trench coat up and then smoothing them down again. “Despite the fact that our ranking member of the Imperial government on site completely flipped his shit and then…well, whatever you did with him, lady. Despite that, this is still an operation sanctioned by Intelligence, and I’ve got tools with me that no municipal or provincial police force has access to.”

“Tools nobody but you has access to,” Ashley said, winking.

“Not for want of trying,” Fedora grumbled. “Omnu’s balls, what do I have to suck to get those cobble-pounders to try techniques beyond ‘chase perps around and beat them with clubs?’”

“Yes, your life must be very frustrating indeed, but my points of inquiry here are specific and few,” Tellwyrn said sharply.

“Yes, of course, right.” Fedora nodded. “I got much more reliable samples from right by the gates, where we saw the Sleeper stand still for a little bit, and there was no brawling and no snow. I have a lot more faith in those; Rafe’s working ’em over, too. Honestly, I can’t get enough of watching him work; it’s like listening to a damn symphony. Man’s a genius with alchemy. A batshit insane genius, which is the best kind!”

“I am acquainted with Admestus Rafe,” Tellwyrn snapped. “My questions, here, concern you, your investigative methods, and what happens next if the outcome of his lab work provides you with an unidentified sample. How, precisely, do you propose to find out to whom it belongs? Because if you are about to suggest rummaging through the personal effects of the entire rest of the student body, the ensuing discussion is likely to become impolite.”

“With regard to that—uh, no thanks, Fluffy, I’m good.”

Fedora held up a hand to decline the tray of teacups Maru hoisted at him. The tanuki lowered it, stepped back, bowed over his proffered samples so that his whiskers dipped into ones of the cups and trundled over toward Ingvar. He and the dryads had arranged themselves in front of the wall of bookcases, while Fedora stood before the desk behind which Tellwyrn sat; until a moment ago, Maru had busied himself with her arcane cooking plate in the corner of the office, which was a long process frequently interrupted by his requests, in Sifanese, for instruction on how to operate it. Tellwyrn had been served tea, finally, and now he was making the rounds toward the others.

Before he reached Ingvar, however, Maru tripped on the hem of his robe and went sprawling face-down into his tray, sending tea and broken crockery spraying across the carpet.

“Gomen nasai!” he wailed, rolling to his feet, and actually ran three complete laps around the mess. “Gomen gomen gomen—”

“For the love of—just clean it up!” Tellwyrn barked. Maru froze, trembling violently and gazing up at her with limpid eyes. She sighed, rubbed at her forehead with one hand, then repeated herself more softly in his language.

“Riiight,” Fedora drawled, watching the tanuki scurry across the office toward the closet door at which she pointed. “Anyway. Before we get into that, Professor, there’s the matter of this.” He pulled a small object from the pocket of his coat and stepped forward to lay it on her desk; it resembled an enchanted power crystal. “This was in Ravana Madouri’s lightcapper. Rafe and I didn’t have the means to get data from it and I didn’t wanna go wake Yornhaldt up, so I held onto it for you. But if I’m right about what that is—which I’m pretty sure I am, because Intelligence uses these and this is the first time I’ve seen one in civilian hands—that thing snapped a full record of the magical spectrum in use when it was activated. Ingenious, how they can make that work with an enchantment meant to take pictures. Assuming it fired correctly that’ll give you the full and precise composition of energy being used—all four schools, all known types of shadow magic, electromagnetic spectrum, visible light—”

“I get it, thank you,” she said, reaching out to take the crystal and peering at it thoughtfully. “Fascinating… I had no idea modern enchanters could do this. If it works, it would make it all but impossible for any magic user to hide or disguise themselves. Each would have an energy signature as unique as a fingerprint.”

“More so,” Fedora said cheerfully, “but nah, that’ll only last until more people like you become aware of the technique. Then there’ll be ways found to fool it, no question. Regardless, I’m assuming you of all people can figure out how to get data off that thing without breaking it? If not, I can get a manual from Tiraas, though not without leaving a paper trail. And, of course, once Intelligence knows you can—”

“I’m not going to assume they don’t know everything you do anyway,” she said brusquely, tucking the crystal into her own pocket. “Regardless, thanks for the offer, but if I need more help I’ve my own sources. Now, with regard to my question?”

“Yes, quite,” he said seriously. “Look, Professor, by far the most useful insight I gained from last night’s dust-up was into the Sleeper’s psychology. I’ve got more of an idea, now, why he’s doing what he did, based on his reactions. Most especially the way he went after Ingvar.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the Huntsman, who just continued to watch him calmly. “Obviously the least physical threat to him—and yet, he’s the one who got in a lucky shot, which made the Sleeper fixate on him.”

“So, you’re saying he’s a dickhead,” Aspen huffed. “We knew that.” Juniper sighed, but draped an arm around her shoulders.

“Not all dickheads are created equal, doll,” Fedora said, winking at her. “Specifically, this one is driven by ego. It also answers the question I’ve been mulling over since this started: why sleeping curses? So, so much easier to just kill your targets. I’d been thinking he didn’t want to provoke Tellwyrn to that extreme, but that didn’t quite hold up. This, though, makes sense of it.”

“Uh, how?” Juniper asked, blinking quizzically.

“No one has been able to break the curse,” Ingvar said softly. “He has challenged the greatest mage alive to a contest of magical skill, and so far, he is winning. Ego.”

“Exactly,” Fedora said smugly.

“Interesting, even useful,” Tellwyrn said, watching sidelong as Maru clattered about loudly in the closet, causing a broom to tumble out. “But still not what I asked you.”

“Now, keep your shirt on, I’m working up to it,” Fedora said soothingly. “The point is, yes, you’re right, to get anything useful off those samples, I need something to compare ’em to. That means I need to get active samples from all the students to match. And the reason I paused to talk about the Sleeper’s mindset is because I’ve been pondering his next move, and how we can influence him to make the move we want. Specifically, that move will cause him to attack again—much harder than he has before. I’m talkin’ all stops pulled out. He knows once we uncover his identity, it’s all over. And just because he has chosen not to kill thus far does not mean he lacks the capacity—if anything, he’s one of very few warlocks who are good for anything else. If we antagonize him that way, some of your kids are going to be in extreme peril. Or…all of them.”

“Nothing is more dangerous than a cornered predator,” Ingvar agreed, nodding.

“So, if I do this, I’ll have to do it subtle,” Fedora continued. “It’ll be tricky.”

“I have not agreed to allow this,” Tellwyrn said flatly.

“How can you not?” Aspen burst out. “This is literally the solution to the whole problem!”

“No, she’s right,” Juniper said, now studying Fedora. “This Sleeper thing is important, but it’s not the only thing going on at this University.”

“Exactly,” said Tellwyrn. “I have aristocrats here, Inspector. Royalty. Paladins. All manner of fascinating people, linked to many of the great powers on this continent and beyond. And you propose I should allow a child of Vanislaas, one who works for Imperial Intelligence, no less, to rummage through their personal effects?”

“I can see how that would ruffle some feathers if it got out,” Fedora agreed, grinning. “But since we’ve already covered that I need to do it subtle-like anyway…”

“Do I strike you as someone who cares whose feathers are ruffled?” Tellwyrn sneered. “I am thinking about what you will do with that kind of access.”

He shrugged, spreading his arms. “Well, I dunno what to tell ya, lady. You’re not wrong, it’s a fair concern. But the situation is what it is. This is what I need to do to wrap this up.”

“Mm.” Tellwyrn stared at him in silence for a long moment, which he bore without any sign of discomfort. “I will think about this. We can discuss it again when you get results from Rafe’s lab work—if it turns out that there’s anything to discuss. In the meantime, with regard to this newfound psychological understanding you claim… What, in your opinion, is the Sleeper’s next likely move?”

“Retaliation,” Fedora said immediately. “Given the way he got away from the fight last night… He could’ve done that at any time during it, but instead he broke his pattern to make shows of force that weren’t necessary or useful. He didn’t cut and run until it became completely clear that he was overmatched, after failing to inflict a single casualty in an all-out contest of power. What with the way he thinks, this can’t stand. He’s gotta even the score.”

“Who is his most likely target?” she demanded.

“Well,” Fedora said, grinning, “Ingvar and I are both tempting prospects! Neither of us has much physical defense against a warlock of that caliber, and we both managed to personally insult the bastard last night. But each of us has a dryad companion, and bruised ego or no, the Sleeper’s shown a pattern of avoiding people who are a real threat to him. I can’t see him risking a head-to-head with Aspen or Ash.”

“He handled us all pretty well last night,” Juniper muttered.

“He took advantage of chaos by exacerbating it,” Ingvar disagreed. “All we need to do is equip you three with fireproofing charms, and there won’t be a thing a warlock can do to you. Or, in all probability, near you.”

“So,” Fedora continued, “he’ll be going after the sophomores next. It fits his overall pattern, too. They’re about what he’s escalated to the level of, and they slapped him down.”

Tellwyrn narrowed her eyes. “How soon?”

Fedora shrugged in exasperation. “I’m a detective, not a freakin’ oracle! I can form a good framework of how this clown thinks; that doesn’t mean I can read his mind.”

“But you spoke of using that insight to manipulate him,” she said slowly, leaning back in her desk chair.

“Yeah, I did say that,” the Inspector replied, now studying her warily. “You’ve got the cadence of somebody having an idea, there.”

“This time, he was prompted to attack in part by my absence from the campus,” Tellwyrn said softly. “If we wished to set a trap, then, perhaps we could determine at least the timing of his next attack by me leaving again.”

There was a momentary silence.

“I think,” Fedora said at last, “if you wanna play that card, you’d better have a damn good idea what you’re doing.”


“Well, you guys look about as well-rested as I am,” Ruda said, pausing to swig from a bottle of rum. “So, let me pose the obvious question: what the fuck was that last night?”

“We lost,” Fross said glumly, hovering over the middle of the table. The whole class hadn’t assembled; Tellwyrn had given them the morning off classes, and several were probably still asleep. The two paladins had wandered into the cafeteria to find Ruda and Fross present, though, and they had taken sandwiches to one of the outdoor tables for lunch, being in no mood for the company of their fellow students.

“I’m not really sure what went wrong,” Gabriel said, yawning. “I thought we had a good plan.”

“We did have a good plan,” Ruda snorted. “Somehow, at the first sign of confusion, that plan gave way to ‘obligingly come at the bastard single-file.’ C’mon, we’ve been over this in Ezzaniel’s class. That is how you take on a group, you make ’em deal with you one at a time, neutralize the advantage of numbers. We fuckin’ handed it to the asshole.”

“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy, as Trissiny likes to say,” Toby remarked quietly.

Gabriel sighed. “I miss Trissiny…”

“Well, Trissiny isn’t here,” Ruda snapped, slamming her bottle down on the table. “And while it would be nice if we had our pet strategist on hand to solve our fucking problems for us, that is also a recipe for long-term failure. We three at least are gonna be planning and fighting a lot of battles over the course of our lives, and after the next two years we’re gonna be doing most if not all of that without fucking Trissiny!”

“It would probably be best if you guys did most things without fucking Trissiny,” Fross observed. “She’s kinda straight-laced.”

Dead silence fell. The pixie’s glow dimmed slightly under their combined dumbfounded stares. “Um. Sorry. Inappropriate?”

“Sorry, Fross,” Gabriel said, finally grinning. “We’re just not used to you slipping in a really good one like that.”

“Yeah, har de har har, laugh it up,” Ruda growled. “Meanwhile—”

“Ruda, enough,” Toby said firmly. “You’re right. We flubbed that. We will have to do better. But recrimination isn’t helpful; what we need is to go over what went wrong, make a better plan, and learn to adapt better. And we should do that when the rest of the group is here.”

“Yeah, yeah,” she grunted, taking a swig of rum. “I know, I know. It’s just… Fuck. This whole fucking thing…”

“You’re taking this kinda personally,” Gabriel said, frowning quizzically at her. “Are you okay?”

“Am I okay?” she exclaimed. “Did you seriously just fucking ask me that?”

“I mean, aside from the obvious,” he said hastily.

Ruda growled wordlessly and took another long drink. “It’s—”

“Hey, guys!”

“Oh, what the fuck is this now?” she grumbled, as Chase came dashing up to their table, grinning insanely. Jerome Conover was stomping along in his wake, wearing a thunderous scowl on his face and a sling on his arm.

“You are just not gonna believe this one,” Chase said gleefully.

“Well, you’re happy, so I assume it has to do with him getting hurt,” Gabriel observed.

Jerome halted by the table and glared at each of them in turn. “Which of you is good with a bow and arrow?”

“A bow?” Gabriel raised his eyebrows. “I honestly don’t think I’ve ever even held one. I asked about it in class once, and Ezzaniel made a wiseass comment about me pinning my own feet to the ground.”

“I’ve practiced the basics, but it’s been years,” Toby said, tilting his head. “Why?”

“Somebody shot him!” Chase cackled. “In the arm! With an arrow! This morning!”

“Somebody shot you with an arrow?” Ruda exclaimed, turning to Jerome.

“Oh, aren’t you quick on the uptake,” he said scathingly.

“When did this happen?” Toby demanded.

“First damned thing this morning!” Jerome snapped. “I stepped outside our dorm and wham!”

“I’d’ve thought it’d be more of a twang,” Ruda observed.

“I think he was referring to the sound of his ass hitting the ground,” Chase snickered.

“Honestly, I expect this bullshit from him,” Jerome snorted. “I should think this merits a little more concern from those of us who allegedly have more on their minds than aimless trouble-making!”

“That’d have more weight coming from someone who isn’t usually helping him make the trouble,” Gabriel pointed out.

“Someone is shooting people on this campus with arrows!” Jerome shouted. “First this Sleeper insanity, and now this!”

“Okay, but, let’s be fair,” said Fross. “The Sleeper is a whole thing. He’s going after people in general. Somebody shot you, Jerome. Unless more victims start turning up, it might make more sense to assume it was personal.”

“Oh, now you’re just being silly!” Chase said cheerfully. “If anybody on this mountaintop was gonna be personally attacked, it’d be me. Need I remind you who had the honor of being the first victim of the Sleeper?” He cocked both his thumbs to point at his chest. “That’s right, this guy right here, an’ don’t you forget it, plebeians.”

“Chase, shut the hell up,” Jerome snapped. “Everything is not about you.”

“Hey, uh, Jerome,” Gabriel commented, “Miss Sunrunner can fix an arrow wound in five minutes unless it hit a vital organ. What’s with the sling?”

Jerome’s face turned two shades redder; Chase practically fell over laughing.

“That’s right, you idiots sit here cracking jokes,” Jerome snarled. “Look at what’s happening here! Sleeping curses, Professors vanishing, magic snowstorms, and now snipers! This school is going straight to Hell without even the aid of a handbasket. You’ll have plenty to laugh about while the whole goddamned thing is burning down around your ears!”

He actually spat on their table, then turned and stalked away.

“Wait!” Chase called, scampering after. “Wait for me! You can’t go off and lose your temper at more people without letting me watch!”

“Fuck off, Chase!”

“Aw, baby, don’t be like that, I can change!”

“There was a valid point buried in all that,” Toby said quietly, watching them go. “What with one thing and another… I’m beginning to seriously worry about this place.”

“Hey,” Ruda said, peering critically at her bottle of rum. “Is my curse wearin’ off, or did we just get yelled at by a giant, anthropomorphic penis?”


By the time Tellwyrn ended the meeting in exasperation, Maru’s efforts to clean the tea stain had resulted in most of the cleaning supplies being strewn across the floor around the closet, a whole row of books being swept off their shelf by an errant swing of a broomstick, a nonplussed Juniper being jabbed in the thigh with a mop, and Maru getting his tail pinned under one leg of the Vernis Vault after lifting it to retrieve a bottle of carpet cleaning solution which had rolled beneath. All the while, the tea had sat there, soaking into the carpet with no progress made toward its removal. The Professor had finally shooed everyone out so she could supervise the process directly rather than continually interrupting herself to give increasingly irritated directions in Sifanese to the increasingly frantic tanuki.

Once everyone had left the office, though, everything changed.

Maru set about silently and efficiently packing the cleaning supplies back away into their closet home, while Tellwyrn, with a couple of gestures, put the books back where they went, re-constructed the broken teacups, and lifted all the liquid from the carpet to hover in the air in an amorphous ball. She opened the window with her hands, if only because it was conveniently within arms reach of her chair, and flung it out to plummet toward the prairie far below.

“Such a shame,” Maru clucked, shutting the closet door. “That is rather good tea, you know.”

“Mm hm,” she said, taking a sip from her own cup. “So. It seems, among the likely outcomes of last night’s work, I may be forced to let that…demon…rustle about among the students’ living quarters and possessions in order to retrieve evidence.”

“I am touched by the trust you display in your associates, sensei,” he said with the highest level of formality his language offered.

Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow. “Our acquaintance began with you impugning my intelligence, Maru. I’d have thought you were at least clever enough to learn something from that experience.”

“In fairness, sensei, you were my first elf.”

“I advise you not to judge any other elves you meet by my example,” she said wryly.

“Yes, Kyomi-sama warned me of that as well, but I appreciate it nonetheless.”

“I thought you performed quite well, all things considered,” she continued. “Carry on that way, and by the time it becomes relevant, Fedora will hopefully dismiss you from consideration as a factor.”

“Unless I am carrying tea near his feet?” Maru grinned, displaying a snout full of needle-like teeth. “He is suspicious of everyone, by dint of both his kind and his profession. I think he has found no reason to be suspicious of me in particular, however.”

“Good. If it comes down to letting him snoop around in secret… I will want someone snooping around after him under the same terms. If you don’t think yourself a match for an incubus, Maru, this is the time to say so. There’s no shame in it, and I won’t hold you in violation of our contract. Those creatures are dangerous, and all the more so because they make themselves so easy to underestimate.”

If anything, Maru’s grin widened.

“Don’t fret,” he said in perfect Tanglish. “He’ll never see me coming. Where I come from, things like him are nothing but prey.”

Tellwyrn smiled coldly. “I’m glad to hear that. You recall what I told you about students being sacrosanct?

“Of course. Explicitly.”

“For purposes of that subject, the Sleeper, once identified, will not be considered a student.”

Maru’s ears perked up, his tail quivering in barely-repressed eagerness. “And to think, I was afraid I wouldn’t have any fun here.”

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12 – 32

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Dawn was just beginning to lighten the infirmary’s tall windows, barely noticed by the exhausted students within. Several of the group had split off after everyone had been treated for infernal exposure, but most of the sophomores were still nearby, standing or sitting on the beds (in Ruda’s case, stretched out and seemingly asleep), keeping quiet but maintaining a kind of vigil.

Ravana’s roommates, having arrived only minutes before, kept a closer one.

“You idiot,” Iris whispered. Maureen, Szith, and Scorn all looked over at her, the rest of the students being clustered a few beds away. “You smug, arrogant… Why would you do something like this? Dammit, what’s wrong with you!”

“Iris, stop,” Szith said firmly, placing a hand on her shoulder. By the end of her tirade, she had raised her voice to a shout, prompting Miss Sunrunner to head in their direction, scowling. The healer paused, though, at a frantic gesture from Maureen.

“You know she did it on purpose,” Iris said, scrubbing tears from her face. “Thought she could do better than everyone, so she just…”

“Yes.” Szith sighed, and squeezed her shoulder gently. “Yes, and I should have been watching her for something like this.”

“It’s not your fault,” Iris snorted, glaring down at Ravana, who appeared to be sleeping quite peacefully. “Nobody did this to herself but her!”

“An’ the Sleeper,” Maureen said quietly. “Don’t forget him.”

“The Sleeper will pay for all of this,” Scorn growled.

“My mother served for many years as a personal bodyguard to a noble of House An’sadarr,” Szith said. “They have a certain…psychology. I don’t believe Ravana meant any harm, but this…belief…she has, that she is both smarter than everyone, and responsible and entitled to do what she thinks no one else can do properly, which is everything…” She sighed, shook her head. “Drow, human, apparently some things are the same everywhere. My mother has always told me that watching over a noble means protecting them from themselves as much as from their enemies.”

“You smug idiot,” Iris growled at Ravana. She lunged forward at the sleeping girl, prompting the others to try to grab her, but Iris simply folded her arms on the bed beside Ravana and buried her face in them.

“Well.” Maureen hopped down from the bed and went over to Scorn, who was only a few feet distant, but that still made a bit of a walk for her. Smiling, she patted the demon on the knee. “I’m sorry you’re stuck on this plane an’ all, Scorn, but truth be told, it’s at times like this I’m glad t’have you here with us.”

Scorn sighed softly, then smiled briefly at the gnome before her expression stilled again. “I can go home any time,” she said.

Szith looked over at her in surprise, and Iris lifted her head. “But I thought…”

“Me getting here, that is what was impossible in the first place. But I’ve studied this world, and thought about the situation… The hellgates, they are all under Imperial control, yes? But that means just that it is known where they all are. And the Empire, I think they will not be sad to see me leave.” She shrugged. “I bet, if they wanted to be difficult, Professor Tellwyrn could get them to let me through a gate. Then… In Hell, most things either honor the Rhaazke or do not challenge us, and I can avoid everything else. Eventually I could find other Rhaazke, or at least forces who follow the Dark Lady who can bring me to Rhaazke. They could bring me to a portal to the Grey Planes. Then… Getting back to my home would be a matter just of walking. It would be an adventure, but more a long one than a dangerous one, at least for me. I can go.”

Scorn very gently placed a hand on Ravana’s forehead, brushing back her blonde hair. The demon’s hand seemed large enough to crush the girl’s skull, its short claws and mottled skin a stark contrast with the young aristocrat’s porcelain complexion.

“But here… I am learning things. Getting education which will make me a more worthy successor when my mother needs one. And… I have friends, here. Someday I will have to leave friends behind, and that will be a sad day. But I don’t want to, yet. And right now, I can’t.” She stroked Ravana’s hair again. “Not while friends need my help. Especially since I need to wait for one to wake up so I can yell at her.”

Iris emitted a faint huff of breath, a noise that might have become a laugh if given time to grow. “It’s a date. We’ll have to form a line.”

The infirmary door swung open, prompting everyone to look in that direction. Immediately, several of the sophomores straightened up, Ruda lifting her head, and then swinging her legs over the side of her bed to sit upright with a grunt. It was Toby who stepped forward, bringing himself nearly even with Ravana’s bed, to address her.

“We failed, Professor.”

Tellwyrn nodded briefly at him, before returning her attention to the infirmary’s newest permanent resident. “I’ve heard an accounting already. Fedora and Rafe are in the latter’s lab, processing evidence.”

“Evidence?” Teal asked. “What evidence did they find?”

“Apparently that’s still somewhat up in the air,” the Professor said, sounding as weary as they felt. “Hopefully something useful. Ingvar and the dryads—all three dryads, the gods help us—are loitering outside the lab, catching up. I got more answers out of Ingvar than everyone else combined, thus far. She’s just like the others, Taowi?”

“Not quite,” Miss Sunrunner said, her lips pinched in an expression of disapproval. “You’re in good time, Arachne; I just finished applying the alchemical purgative before these girls arrived. Ravana had been dosed with Nightmare’s Dream. As she is trapped in a state of sleep, I made especially sure to expunge all alchemical agents from her bloodstream.”

“Wait, she what?” Maureen asked. “Whassat, then?”

“Madouri, you insufferable little…” Tellwyrn trailed off, closing her eyes, and drew a deep breath. “Nightmare’s Dream is a potion. An illegal one, as it is used chiefly as an instrument of torture. It causes the imbiber to experience excruciating pain if they fall asleep.”

“Holy shit,” Gabriel whispered, staring aghast at Ravana from across the room.

“We are fairly sure the Sleeper didn’t apply it,” Miss Sunrunner said sourly, “but that Miss Madouri herself did. How she acquired such a thing, I’ve no idea. Admestus denies having supplied either the potion or any of the necessary ingredients.”

“It would surprise me if she had not inherited that and worse from her father,” Szith noted. “She has supplied Rafe with hellhound breath, let us not forget. There is no telling what else lies in House Madouri’s vaults.”

“Oh, quite,” Tellwyrn agreed, glaring down at Ravana. “It wasn’t a bad idea, strategically speaking. It is very hard to knock someone out magically while they’re in pain; you need drugs for that. Clever, reckless, and utterly typical of this particular ingenious little fool.”

“And I thought the Sleeper was bad,” Ruda breathed. “What kind of goat-fucking lunatic…”

“It seems to have worked, at least at first,” said Shaeine. “We heard her screaming in obvious pain before we arrived on the scene.”

“Bloody hell,” Maureen choked.

“Uh, Professor?” Gabriel said hesitantly. “I don’t know how many bushy-tailed people there are in Sifan, but I think you brought back the wrong one…”

Everyone shifted their focus to the figure trying to hide behind Tellwyrn. This was a lost cause; despite being considerably shorter than she, he was at least twice as broad.

The elf grimaced, turned and spoke a few rapid words in Sifanese. The fluffy banded tail sticking out from behind the level of her knees quivered once, and then what appeared to be an overweight, gnome-sized raccoon wearing a monk’s robes stepped out, bowed to the room, and chattered several soft sentences in the same language.

“This is Maru,” Tellwyrn said dourly. “He is pleased to meet you all and looks forward to working with you. Since assigning Crystal to the library I’ve been feeling the lack of a secretary, anyway, so…here we are.”

“Arachne,” Miss Sunrunner said, staring at the new arrival, “would I be correct in inferring that your new secretary does not speak Tanglish?”

Tellwyrn sighed. “Yeah, well, he owes me a favor. And when I find myself satisfied with its repayment, he’s got worse coming to him back home, so Maru’s incentive here is not toward competence, anyway. That aside, tanuki tend to be puckish even by fairy standards. I have a great deal of mislaid correspondence to look forward to, I suspect.”

“About your mission…?” Teal prompted.

“Kaisa is not coming back,” Tellwyrn said shortly. “You kids…did the best you could. Even if you didn’t capture the Sleeper, the effort wasn’t wasted. It seems you’ve learned quite a bit; Fedora was eager as a kid at Wildfeast to tell me all he’s discovered, but I figured it could wait till he and Admestus have finished playing with their alchemy set. I’ll hear reports from you lot, as well, but…after you’ve had some sleep. The lot of you resemble the leftovers too mangled for Death to bother to take.”

“Vestrel would like you to know she resents that,” said Gabriel, then paused. “…and I’m supposed to repeat something in elvish which I can barely pronounce and refuse to try because I’m pretty sure it’s—”

“Shut up, Arquin.”

“Gladly, thank you.”

“Taowi,” Tellwyrn said, turning to the healer, “there is nothing you can do for these kids until we get some answers about this curse. As soon as Stew and Harland finish cleansing and fixing up the area this lot demolished last night, I’m going to set them to work on the campus chapel.”

“You’re moving the victims there?” Sunrunner asked quietly.

Tellwyrn nodded. “It doesn’t see a lot of use anyway. Stew can re-purpose the pews as comfortable beds, and nobody alive can match Harland Harklund’s skill at divine wards. At bare minimum it’ll keep them safe from more infernomancy; I’m hoping, now we know for certain this is a warlock, just keeping them there may erode the curse over time.”

“Very well,” she agreed, nodding. “Let me know when they’re ready to be—”

“I trust even you can appreciate the seriousness of this.”

Several of them jumped, Ruda cursing, and Maru actually yelped and bounded onto an unoccupied bed. The black-coated Hand of the Emperor now stood next to Iris, who skittered away from him. He lifted his stare from Ravana’s prone form to glare at Tellwyrn.

“This is the sitting governor of Tiraan Province itself, now lying cursed because you were off gallivanting in Sifan rather than protecting your students. This is more than I can overlook, Tellwyrn.”

“I bet if you tried real hard you could manage not to stick yourself into this and make it worse,” she said. Several of the students exchanged nervous glances; there was a dull weariness in Tellwyrn’s voice now, quite unlike her usual acidic demeanor, and under the circumstances it was more than a little alarming.

“I will be sending back to the capital for more assistance,” the Hand said, with just enough vindictive relish to be clear in his tone. “A thorough review of your educational practices is now necessary, Tellwyrn. I suggest you clean house quickly, if you intend to. There will not be much more time.”

“You can review whatever the hell you like, nothing around here is going to change in response to your orders,” she said flatly.

He bristled. “Must I remind you that I speak for the Emperor himself?”

“Glad we understand each other.”

The infirmary door opened again, and a student stuck her head in. “Miss Sunrunner, did you see—oh, thank flip, Professor Tellwyrn! I’ve been looking all over for you.”

“It’s not even dawn,” Tellwyrn complained. “Why am I already surrounded by whining and demands? Miss Darke, I am busy.” She jerked her head at the Hand, who simply folded his arms and looked supercilious.

“Okay, I’ll let you decide if this is worth it,” Marjorie Darke said, edging carefully into the room. “You’ve got a visitor. Um, another one.”

“At this hour?” Miss Sunrunner said disapprovingly.

The door swung the rest of the way open, revealing the guest, and immediately the remaining sophomores and Scorn leaped to their feet.

“I do apologize for the hour,” Embras Mogul said, tipping his hat politely, “but it seems you’ve been gone from the campus until just now, and I am in rather a hurry to have this done with.”

“What the hell do you want?” Gabriel snarled.

“Nothing to do with you, my young friend,” Mogul said kindly. “Take a seat, son, you look half-dead.”

“He, uh, claims to be the leader of the Black Wreath,” Marjorie said helpfully.

“He is,” Tellwyrn snapped. “Iris, don’t even think about it. I can still hear you thinking about it; desist. And you.” She whipped a golden saber out of nowhere and pointed it at Mogul. “Answer the paladin’s question, and pray you answer it well enough to satisfy me.”

“My apologies for interrupting what seems a very interesting conversation,” Mogul said, pulling his left hand from behind his back; it was holding a large bag which appeared to be made from lizard skin, and was squirming faintly. “Truthfully I want nothing here at all, but I was directed to deliver this to Schkhurrankh, here. I want you to know, Professor, I thought very seriously about just chucking it into a hellgate, rather than pluck your strings any further, to say nothing of being reduced my own self to the status of delivery boy. But getting mail from across two dimensional bridges is a thing entirely without precedent. It seemed to me there’d be more trouble than any of us needs if it failed to arrive.”

He tossed the packaged in Scorn’s direction, prompting both Iris and Maureen to dive out of the way, and Szith to draw her sword. Scorn caught it, though, staring.

“What is this?” she demanded.

He shrugged. “I didn’t open it. Unless I was deceived, it’s apparently from your mother.”

“What?” several people chorused incredulously.

Scorn was already ripping open the top of the package, and in the next moment further conversation was stifled by her squeal. None of them had ever heard her squeal before; the sound was distinctly terrifying. She thrust one hand into the bag and pulled out a charred wedge of some black, sticky substance which smoked faintly. “Cookies! My favorite!” As they all stared in horror, the “cookie” sprouted three misshapen insectile legs, which waved languidly. She thrust it at Iris, who clapped a hand over her mouth, not quite stifling a retch. “Here, try!”

“We simply could not,” Szith said quickly. “Those are a gift from a mother to a daughter far from home. It would be very wrong for anyone else to partake.”

“So very, very wrong,” Gabriel agreed.

“You.” Tellwyrn pointed at Mogul, who had started to turn back toward the door. “You can get things from the Rhaazke dimension. Can you get me some hellhound breath?”

He coughed. “Uh, Professor… That is expressly forbidden by the Lady. Also, consider how many months it took for this to get through after we sent word to Scorn’s mother in the first place—and it seems she is quite highly placed down there. She’d have to be, to make this happen. Not to mention, or mention again as I said it in the first place, that nothing like this has ever happened before. No, I am genuinely sorry to have to say it, but I cannot get you hellhound breath.”

Scorn was already munching her second treat, and avidly reading from the next object she’d taken from the bag: a scroll of pale leather, covered with cramped, spidery script in blue ink.

“And on top of everything else,” the Hand whispered, “open traffic with the Black Wreath. I’m afraid you leave me no choice, Tellwyrn. As of this moment, this University and all its holdings are—”

“Boy, you picked the wrong day,” the archmage announced, pointing a finger at him.

The pop which resounded was louder than her usual teleportation, and accompanied this time by a visible blue sparkle of arcane magic. The Hand vanished.

“What did you do?” Gabriel screeched. “That was a Hand of the Emperor! Where is he?!”

“Suffering,” Tellwyrn stated, turning back to Mogul. “You made me an offer some time ago, Mogul. Is it still good?”

Slowly, the warlock nodded. “I didn’t place a time limit on it, as I’m sure you recall. Something I can do for you, Professor?”

“Maybe. It remains to be seen.” She stepped aside, gesturing at the still form of Ravana. “You’re here…have a look. Tell me whatever you can about this.”


Kapa’a set down his fishing pole at the first hum of magic over the stone dais which stood on the shore. This was why he always came here to fish, though it wasn’t the best fishing spot by far; he so loved being there to greet the new arrivals when they came.

Blue magic flashed along the grooves carved into the dais, and with a soft retort of displaced air, a man appeared. He was of average height and middle age, balding and with craggy features, dressed all in black completely with a long coat. That would have to go, or he’d never survive in this climate. Like they all did immediately upon arriving, he spun, gaping this way and that in shock.

Kapa’a stood upon his rock, threw his arms wide, and bellowed the traditional greeting.

“Welcome, hapless traveler! Welcome, to the Dread Kingdom of Suffering!”

The new arrival stared at him in silence for a long moment, taking in his bare chest, broad grin, and fishing pole, then turned more slowly, studying his new surroundings in detail.

They were on the seashore, serenaded by the sound of waves and the calling of gulls. It was mid-morning, delightfully warm but not yet hot. White sands stretched away to either side, and the ocean to all horizons to the east and south; half a mile out to sea, the towering sentinel rocks stood, carved with massive runes whose blue glow was barely visible in the cloudless sunlight. Northwest, the land steadily climbed to the green-clad mountain, growing ever steeper until its very peak. Greenery rose all the way to the top, now; it had been a good number of years since the volcano had so much as grumbled.

The very air smelled of flowers.

“Where?” the new arrival demanded finally.

“The Dread Kingdom of Suffering!” Kapa’a boomed, feeling his delighted grin widen. “Land of despair and torment, ruled over by its most terrible and malignant queen, her Despicable Majesty Arachne Tellwyrn!” He finally lowered his arms, and laughed aloud. “Didn’t know she was the monarch of a sovereign nation, didja? It’s a surprise to everybody.”

The man gaped at him.

“Yeah, it’ll take some getting used to, friend, but don’t worry! You’re in good hands.” He hopped down from his rock, wading easily through the surf back toward the shoreline. “C’mon down from there—head for the steps on that side, if you don’t wanna get your clothes wet. And you really might want to lose the coat. Take your time, friend, there’s no rush! I’ll show you ’round!”


“The sea provides fish,” Kapa’a explained some time later, leading his flummoxed new neighbor slowly up the winding path through the village. They had already been effusively greeted by the other inhabitants; the man in black now wore several necklaces of flowers draped around his shoulders and chest, placed there by smiling girls, but after the initial excitement they had withdrawn to let the newcomer adjust in peace; they were accustomed to the routine by now. He seemed to be less disconcerted than many upon their first arrival. “On the island itself, there are deer, wild pigs, and fowl, plenty of each for everybody! Lots of fruit trees, too. Plus, we have gardens for whatever doesn’t grow wild.” He stooped without pausing and scooped up a handful of dirt from the side of the path, letting it trail through his fingers. “Volcanic soil. There’s basically nothing we can’t grow. There are two seasons in Suffering: pleasantly warm and dry, and pleasantly warm and rainy. We have no wars, no native diseases and very skilled healers to deal with whatever the guests bring. Not everybody even needs a job, the land provides so well. My friend, you have arrived in paradise itself!”

“You picked an odd name for it,” said the man, who had yet to offer his own name.

Kapa’a didn’t prompt him, simply answering with a grin. “Ah, and there you come to it. For the longest time, the only problem we faced, here, was people who wanted to come take this place from us. Oh, and the mountain exploding; that happened from time to time. The Lady takes care of all that, now. The name was her idea; the Dread Kingdom of Suffering is protected behind the sentinel stones, which keep us…apart from the world. Only one ship ever comes here, with her blessing, piloted by the Ferryman of Eternal Night, Karen.”

The man in black stopped, frowning at him. “Did you say Charon?”

“Karen,” Kapa’a enunciated. “Sweet girl, you’ll like her. She’s a weird sort of critter, though; some kind of fairy. I think she used to be a dryad. Oh, we have one of those, too! Coconut lives up there on the mountain. We pretend to think she’s a goddess and send her offerings; when she gets bored, she’ll come down to one of the villages and pretend to answer prayers, and they hold a feast in her honor. It’s all in good fun.”

“You said there’s a ship?” the man in black said impatiently.

“Yes, Karen’s ferry,” Kapa’a nodded, setting off again. The new arrival followed after a moment. “The only vessel which can travel between the worlds. Or…across the shield, or however it works, I dunno from magic. And the only coin Karen takes is memory. I’m afraid that means all your memories of your time in the Dread Kingdom are lost when you return…except its name. You must go back with only the knowledge that you spent time in the Kingdom of Suffering. There ferry’s due in a few weeks! In the meantime, hunt, fish, play around with the neighbors! Tonight, we’ll hold a feast in your honor! Well, honestly, we would probably have held a feast anyway; we do most nights. But it’s so much better when there’s a reason, don’t you think?”

“Weeks?” the man said plaintively. “I am a Hand of the Emperor—I must return home immediately!”

Kapa’a raised his eyebrows. “Friend, the ferry comes twice a year. If you’re in a hurry, you’re in great luck. A few weeks is nothing. And who knows? You may decide not to go back at all! Quite a few don’t.”

The Hand snarled savagely and kicked at an inoffensive clump of grass, which Kapa’a watched without judgment. He had observed far worse tantrums from new arrivals. “This is intolerable! I’ll see that horrible witch strangled, so help me!”

“You can always leave her a strongly worded note,” Kapa’a suggested, pointing. The Hand followed his arm, which directed his gaze up the hill to a half-collapsed ruin of a house, choked by weeds and surrounded by orange trees. “That’s her place over there.”

The newcomer stared. “…you’re joking.”

“Truthfully we’d like to tidy up a bit,” Kapa’a explained, “but the Lady hates it when people mess with her things. So…there it is. I really would leave it alone if I were you, though. The last fellow who went in there ended up with a broken leg.”

“Booby-trapped her own home.” The Hand sneered disdainfully. “Typical.”

“Oh, nothing like that,” Kapa’a said lightly. “The floor’s rotten. He fell right through.”

“What does she get from all this?” the Hand demanded. “The magic you’re describing, keeping a whole island nation physically isolated from the world… It’s not unprecedented, but the scale and the complexity are staggering! Does she do all this just to have a private vacation spot?”

“Nah,” Kapa’a said cheerfully, waving away the thought. “She just likes having a handy place where she can send people and be sure she won’t have to deal with ’em again for up to six months.”

The Hand stared at him.

“Are you telling me,” he said slowly, “that woman worked one of the largest and most elaborate enchantments known to man, upended the history and culture of an entire nation—”

“Did us a huge favor, really, especially the part where she hardly ever shows up. We don’t need any kings or lords in Suffering; the chiefs take care of what needs taking care of. And not much of that. Mostly, everybody minds their own business.”

“And all this,” the Hand said shrilly, “just so she could inconvenience people who annoy her?!”

Solemnly, Kapa’a reached out to lay a hand on his shoulder. “Friend…clearly, you met the lady. Tell me, which part of that surprises you?”

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