Tag Archives: Maru

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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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12 – 25

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“I apologize for keeping you waiting,” Eleanora said as she entered the kitchen.

“Not at all, your Majesty.” Elder Mylion did not rise to greet her, but bowed politely from his position cross-legged on the floor, next to some kind of spell circle. “I’m certain your time is precious and your business important.”

“I also needed directions,” she admitted, stopping to peer around. “At the risk of sounding like an aristocratic cliché, I’ve never actually been in this room.”

“I’m sure it doesn’t usually look like this,” he said gravely. “Your staff seems quite efficient.”

Indeed, the harem wing’s kitchen was something of a mess. Mylion was surrounded by barrels, bags, and in some cases, disorganized heaps of food. Fruits and vegetables, beans and rice, various grains, sausages, spices both bottled and bagged, countless other items. There was some pattern to the disorder, things being generally separated into categories, but almost every container had been opened and some of its contents spilled out, as well as samples contained in the dozen ritual circles laid out on the flagstones all around him.

“All kitchen staff are currently being examined by my people,” Lord Vex said, lounging against a nearby counter and looking bored as usual. They were alone in the kitchen at present, Imperial Guards being stationed outside all the doors.

“Gently, I hope,” Eleanora said.

“Of course, your Majesty. At present, our assumption is that these are all loyal and dutiful servants, and the assumption will stay thus until we have solid evidence otherwise. In fact, according to the Elder’s findings, we may not have a spy here at all.”

“Oh?” She turned expectantly to the shaman. “Your message said you had found widespread sylphreed contamination.”

“Widespread is putting it mildly,” Mylion replied, frowning up at her. “Your Majesty…this is most peculiar. Most unnatural. I began by examining a random sampling of food containers, and found the presence of sylphreed in every one of my samples, without exception. Then I went through them more carefully; it took most of the morning, but I have determined that every single container in this kitchen, from the largest barrel to the smallest spice bottle, is tainted.”

“We’ve brought him samples from the main Palace kitchens,” Vex interjected, “and those apparently turned up negative. Only the harem wing’s supplies are affected. And that is a logistically significant finding; all the supplies that come here start there.”

“When I have finished here,” Mylion added, “I mean to prepare a sampling of the plant for your alchemists to examine, so they can test for it themselves. Alchemical methods may yield different results, or at least more precise ones. If I may be permitted to take some samples from the stocks here, I believe I can distill the essence of sylphreed for them from the food without needing to send to a grove for some. That would take weeks, at minimum. My own grove does not cultivate it.”

“Of course,” said the Empress, nodding. “Whatever you need.”

“Moving on,” he continued, “I began a series of more intensive divinations. Your Majesty… It’s everywhere. Everywhere. Every bean, every grain of rice, every infinitesimal speck of spice is touched by sylphreed. At least, every one I have tested. Obviously I’ve not examined every single iota of food in the kitchens that intensively, as I’ve not spent the requisite months at it. But at this point, I’ve been over what I consider a representative sampling, and am confident that is what I would find.”

Eleanora frowned, then looked between him and Vex. “That seems…excessive.”

“It almost completely rules out a physical delivery vector,” the spymaster agreed, nodding. “The only possible way such could be done would be to somehow distill sylphreed into some kind of liquid and spray all the food.”

“Which,” Mylion added, “would alter the texture and taste of most of it, and also would be impossible to do without attracting notice. Either your entire kitchen staff are involved, or none are.”

“When you say it rules out a physical delivery vector…”

“Yes, Lord Vex, I think the Empress should know of your other finding,” Mylion said seriously.

Vex actually sighed. “I’ve had my aide collate reports on the personal lives of every staff member who has worked in this wing of the Palace during Emperor Sharidan’s entire reign thus far. Beginning with the kitchen staff, but I expended it to all servants, and then soldiers. Your Majesty… I have to admit a serious failure in having failed to catch this before now, but we were simply not watching for patterns of this kind, and don’t habitually examine these aspects of everyone’s family life. I assure you, that is about to change. But to the point, none of the female staff, not one, have become pregnant while on duty here, nor within two years thereafter.”

“Two years is a highly significant time frame,” Mylion continued. “I assume a person of your education is aware of the way elves metabolize food?”

She nodded. “Yes, go on.”

“Two years,” the Elder explained, “is approximately how long the effects of sylphreed would remain in an elvish woman’s aura if she ingested the plant. That is an elf, though; our auras are slow to change once affected. In the case of humans, the dose would need to be administered weekly, at least, to remain effective. That is a large part of why your kind’s over-harvesting all but wiped it out. That, and habitat destruction, which…is a topic for another time.”

“If the substance is not being delivered physically,” she said, “and is affecting the humans exposed the way it would an elf…”

“And the third significant fact,” Mylion said, nodding, “is the distribution throughout the entirety of your food supply. Your Majesty, I don’t believe the actual plant has been introduced to your food. Its effects appear to be delivered by the dissemination of its magical essence into this wing of the Palace.”

“I had no idea that was even possible.”

“It is fae magic of an extremely sophisticated level,” he said seriously. “And it has its limits. There would be no way to focus the effect on the Palace or even the people here; that would take a constant, massive supply of sylphreed, applied to a constantly maintained spell. It would require less of the plant to just administer the drug conventionally to everyone. However, impregnating—forgive the pun—the food supplies here with its essence is another matter. There is a sympathetic principle at work, since these items are all biological in origin, most also being plants, and all are food. For this? A sufficiently skilled caster would not even need a sample of sylphreed. He or she could project its essence directly, from memory, assuming they had internalized it at some point in the past.”

“You suggest not just any shaman could do this,” she mused. “How much does this narrow the prospects?”

“Considerably.” Mylion finally rose, smoothing his hands along his vest. “Your Majesty, I am not certain I could do this. Examining the evidence, I can conceive a method in reverse, so the speak, but the actual doing would be exceedingly…tricky. Fae magic is far more organic and less methodical than the arcane, or even the divine. Each caster’s methods are different, at least subtly. But this? Only the most powerful shamans could create this effect. And that means the oldest. Your Majesty… If an elf is behind this, it is almost certainly a grove Elder. That being the case, we must know who, and address this recklessness. The tribes cannot tolerate such brash intervention in the Empire’s affairs; it threatens us all directly. Done by another sovereign state, this would be…”

“An act of war,” she said quietly when he trailed off.

Mylion nodded, his expression grim, almost haunted. “I must insist upon knowing who is responsible, if your agents are able to learn.”

“You insist?” Vex asked mildly.

“Quentin.” Eleanora’s tone of reproof was gentle, but unmistakable. “Elder Mylion is an honored guest, and is putting forth great effort for us, not to mention protecting our secrets—all of which are favors. Don’t forget that. Besides, in his position it is an extremely reasonable request. However,” she added to the shaman, “I must warn you, Elder, that if we identify and apprehend the culprit, the Empire will exercise its own right to justice in this matter. He or she is very unlikely to be handed over to any other party, for any reason.”

“I understand that,” he agreed. “I personally will not contest it, nor do I imagine that any of my fellow Elders would. I simply want to know who is behind this. We must identify any such behavior among our own, and yank it out, stem and root. The groves cannot afford to be implicated in antagonizing the Empire this way.”

“If anything,” Vex said lazily, “this raises prospects beyond the groves. This has clearly been going on longer than the Conclave has existed, so I doubt the dragons in the city could be involved. However, after the recent business in Viridill, we have word that Khadizroth the Green is not part of the Conclave, and has been associated with actors hostile to the Empire.”

“A green dragon could do this,” Mylion mused, frowning. “Any but the very youngest.”

“Also,” Vex added, “Mary the Crow has been repeatedly seen in the city of late.”

Mylion’s expression soured further. “The Crow could definitely do this. My intuitive response to the thought, though, is that it isn’t likely.”

“Oh?” Eleanora raised an eyebrow. “She is certainly hostile to the Empire, and this kind of roundabout scheme is far more her style than anything overtly violent. There is, in fact, a historical precedent of her interfering in lines of succession.”

“Yes,” the Elder agreed, “but as I said, actions of this kind bring danger to all elves. If she were caught, her position among the groves would be damaged irreparably. Even as tauhanwe as she is, the Crow values elves too much to take the risk, I think, much less to provoke the Elders this way.”

“And is that an impression, or certainty?” Vex inquired.

“An impression,” Mylion admitted. “One of which I am fairly confident, but it is not proof.”

Vex nodded. “Proof we don’t have. Not yet. But this is definite progress.”

“Doesn’t the Palace have wards against magical attack?” Eleanora demanded.

“The very best in existence, your Majesty,” Vex replied, his face falling into an irritated scowl. “But there is, as they say, always a bigger fish. I assure you, I will be revisiting this subject at length with our magical defenders in the days to come.”

“That’s not what I meant,” she said impatiently, waving a hand. “For something like this to be in constant effect for ten years, through multiple cyclings and upgrades of the wards, it would have to be done by an entity with a clear and decisive magical advantage—over the Empire itself, which employs the best defenses available. That seems implausible.”

“It is, at the very least, highly mysterious,” Mylion agreed.

“If,” she continued, “it were penetrating the wards. But Quentin, do these wards function like shields around the Palace, or like detection fields within it?”

“That…depends on the wards in question, your Majesty,” he said, frowning in thought. “The wards are complex and multi-layered; that is an absolute necessity, considering they are meant to counter all four major schools and every known manifestation of shadow magic. Not all of them have identical coverage.”

“Then,” she said, “it seems to me that the most obvious blind spot someone could use against our defenses is if this magic were being cast from inside the Palace.”


The castle rose from a hill in the forest, surrounded by an infinite sea of trees stretching to the horizons on all sides. In fact, from its vantage, there should have been ample view of the mountains rising in the center of the island, the coast on the opposite side, and human cities in the distance, but that was not how the Twilight Forest worked.

It was a beautiful structure in the traditional Sifanese style, with high, subtly angled stone walls, battlements and arrow loops, and wooden walls rising above the fortifications, surmounted by decorated, sloping roofs. The boughs of massive, ancient cherry trees rose from multiple courtyards, standing higher than the walls in defiance of the castle’s apparent military purpose. They were heavily laden with pink blossoms, despite this being entirely the wrong season. It was also the wrong season for the thick snow which was falling over the castle, and only over the castle. The effect was beautiful, though, and that was what mattered.

Their feet crunched only subtly in the snowfall as they crossed the bridge to the castle’s opened gates, Emi skipping along ahead, carefree as a lark. Tellwyrn followed more sedately, looking appreciatively around at the scenery.

The tanuki dangled limply from her hand, her fingers clutching him by the scruff of his neck. He whimpered, softly and constantly, front paws covering his eyes, rear ones trailing despondently along in the snow. Considering how fat he was, and how thin Tellwyrn’s arms were, it looked downright odd that she could carry him with no apparent effort.

“Good day.”

There had been no one present when they first approached, but suddenly another kitsune was there, just inside the gates. Taller than Emi and with raven-black ears and tail, she was dressed in a much simpler style of robe, with a traditional sword and short sword thrust in her sash. She regarded the approaching party calmly, one ear twitching.

Tellwyrn stopped and bowed to her.

“Kyomi!” Emi squealed, bouncing up to her. “Look, look who’s come to visit! It’s Kuni-chan!”

“I can’t believe you still let her call you that,” Kyomi said dryly to Tellwyrn. “You know it just encourages her.”

“Yes,” Tellwyrn replied with a faint smile, “but arguing about it would only encourage her more. Someday, I really must find time to come back and play those little games, but I’m afraid I have responsibilities right now, and no free time to endlessly push that boulder up that hill.”

Kyomi nodded in simple understanding, while Emi tittered in delight, now skipping around her with her tail bouncing gaily.

“Well met, then; on whatever business you have come, it is always a pleasure, Arachne. What brings you?”

“Oh, she’s looking for Kaisa,” Emi reported, coming to a stop nearby and smiling coquettishly.

“Ah. I thought she was waiting for someone. Kaisa has been unusually reserved since she got back.”

“Nice to know I’m so predictable,” Tellwyrn muttered. “So she is here?”

“Of course she is,” Emi said reproachfully. “I brought you here, didn’t I?”

“In the courtyard just beyond,” Kyomi said, half-turning to nod at an interior gate which opened onto a snow-dusted garden, past the wider but shallower gravel-paved ground onto which the castle’s main gate opened. “She doubtless is expecting you.”

“Then I’d best not keep her waiting,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. “Something tells me this is a conversation I won’t enjoy.”

“They never are,” Kyomi replied, smiling mysteriously and ignoring Emi’s gales of laughter. “Will you have time for a game of go while you are in the country, Arachne? None of my sisters play with quite your aggressive style.”

“I have to return to my school more urgently than usual, I’m afraid. You know, if you’re that eager to see me embarrassed, you could always visit me, for once.”

“I could do that, yes,” the solemn kitsune replied in a tone suitable for commenting on the weather.

“Go right ahead,” Emi added with a broad grin which showed off her long incisors, pointing at the quivering tanuki still dangling from Tellwyrn’s hand. “I’ll keep an eye on that for you.”

“Thank you, Emi,” the elf said courteously, dropping him to the snowy planks of the bridge with no further ceremony. She paused only to bow again to both women before proceeding toward the inner gate.

“What’s this about?” Kyomi inquired, studying Tellwyrn’s erstwhile captive, who sat huddled in the snow, seemingly without the nerve even to try to run.

“Well,” Emi said with predatory relish, “it seems Maru has been tricking travelers into pit traps with the promise of giving them directions if they do him a favor.”

“Yes,” Kyomi said disinterestedly. “And?”

“And,” Emi drawled, “he tried that on Kuni-chan, and she didn’t fall for it.”

“Well, of course she didn’t.”

“And then, rather than honoring his promise, he tried to run.”

Very slowly, Kyomi turned her head to stare down at the tanuki. Her ears shifted to lie flat backward, and one hand drifted to rest on the pommel of her katana. “Maru.”

He let out a muted wail, prostrating himself in the snow before them.

“Anyway,” Emi continued gaily, “she has a claim on him, obviously. For now.”

“Yes,” Kyomi agreed, “for now. A favor is owed. And after that, we will discuss manners.”

Maru fainted.


“And I’m afraid that’s all we’re going to get out of him for now, your Holiness,” Delilah said apologetically. “He’s…focused, now.”

“So I see,” Justinian replied, favoring her with a brief smile before transferring his gaze back to Rector, who was puttering about his machine, carefully pulling levers with slow, smooth motions. As each slid into place, one of the attached power crystals hummed to life, putting off a steady glow. “It’s quite all right; I have long since resigned myself to appreciating the fruits of his work without necessarily understanding them.”

“Sorry about the delay, your Holiness,” Ildrin added, hovering at his other shoulder on the little porch overlooking the cave in which Rector’s workshop was set up. “After the last…incident…”

“Yes, of course,” Justinian said calmly. “Not to worry. Since our man of the hour is again distracted, ladies, were you able to discern from anything he said at the time whether the disconnection was deliberate?”

“You mean, on the part of the other…Avatar?” Delilah frowned. “Honestly, your Holiness, I have no idea. I was concentrating on keeping him…well, stable. He took that disruption rather hard at the time, though he bounced back from the disappointment unusually quickly. I take that to mean he is close to a breakthrough. His episodes always become both shorter and more frequent in proximity to real progress.”

“He mentioned it as a possibility,” Ildrin said quietly. Delilah turned to her, blinking in surprise, and she shrugged. “You’re better at keeping him happy when he’s in a mood, Dee. At times like that, I concentrate on listening to his muttering. There’s sometimes something worthwhile amid the noise.”

“There’s always something worthwhile,” Delilah said a little defensively. “Every thought he has is worthwhile. They just aren’t always sensible to others.”

“Of course, I didn’t mean to be disparaging,” Ildrin said, nodding. “I certainly don’t doubt Rector’s brilliance. But as you were asking, your Holiness, he mentioned that possibility while talking to himself. I don’t…think he came to a conclusion in that regard. He also muttered about it being an overload in his own system, or just another random failure…”

“I see,” the Archpope mused. “Regardless, I appreciate you keeping me informed. It sounds as if this attempt may yield significant results. It would be quite pleasant to observe one of these successes firsthand, for once, rather than hearing of it after the fact.” He smiled at each of them before turning his focus back to Rector, who had just activated the magic mirror which formed the focus of his sprawling device.

The peculiar symbol appeared on its surface, followed by the circle slowly burning itself down to nothing, and then the mirror turned white.

“Avatar template loaded,” a passionless voice said, crackling from interference. “Warning: personality subroutines inactive. Social subroutines inactive. Ethics parameters disabled. Overall intelligence reduced to ten percent of optimal value. Avatar individuation is impossible. Do you wish to continue using the template in debug mode?”

“Yes!” Rector cried impatiently. “Yes, as always, let’s get on with it!”

“Yes,” Archpope Justinian repeated very softly, watching. “Let it begin.”

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12 – 22

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“Well, this isn’t so bad,” Danny said cheerfully, rubbing a plate dry with a towel. “Almost fun, in a way!”

“Fun,” Sanjay repeated, shooting him a sidelong look.

Their houseguest grinned. “Satisfying, at least. You do the thing, and the thing is done—there’s an inherent substance to it. Or maybe I’m just glad it’s not turned out to be as onerous as Lakshmi suggested. She made it sound like I was being sent to a salt mine.”

“Yeah, well, that’s Shmi for you,” Sanjay said with a shrug, rinsing off a cup. “Always gotta mess with everybody’s head. And she wonders why she’s still single.”

“I can hear you,” Lakshmi shouted from the next room.

“Seems like an Eserite thing, doesn’t it?” Danny remarked, stacking the plate and reaching for the next one waiting in the strainer.

Sanjay snorted. “So, really? You’ve never washed dishes before?”

“Technically, I still haven’t. It’s my fond hope that, in my time with you, I’ll earn enough trust to work my way up from drying.”

“Yeah, but…never?”

“Not once,” Danny mused, eyes on his current plate. “I can’t recall ever actually cleaning anything in my life. Never cooked, either, or had to fix anything…”

Sanjay let out a low whistle and shook his head. “Must be pretty damn nice.”

“Watch your language!” his sister barked from the living room. Danny and Sanjay exchanged a conspiratorial grin.

“It’s been a charmed life, I must admit,” Danny continued, now working on the last plate, while Sanjay loaded the last cup into the strainer and began scrubbing the silverware. “It’s not that I’ve been bored… Actually, they keep me pretty busy. There are always decisions to be made, things to organize, people I have to coddle or bully or placate. Honestly, they keep me busy from dawn till dusk, most days.”

“You poor baby,” Sanjay said, completely without sympathy.

Danny grinned as he continued talking and working. “In terms of just…day to day tasks, like this? The things everybody has to do to take care of themselves? I’ve never had to learn. I didn’t test it, but I have a feeling I wouldn’t have been allowed to learn, even if I’d tried. When it comes down to it, I don’t know how to do… Anything. If I ever lose my position permanently, I’m going to be pretty well screwed.”

Sanjay snuck a glance up at the man; he was frowning pensively at the cups as he rubbed water from them with the dampening towel. Initially, he’d found little to respect in the well-groomed, sweet-smelling, uncalloused and unfairly handsome man who had been inexplicably in his home when he got back from school. Danny was personable and hard not to like, though. And now, incredibly, he began to seem actually sympathetic.

“Didja ever think about just…running away?”

“I did, actually!” Danny’s expression brightened, and he winked, lowering his voice. “When I was younger, my best friend and I used to sneak out all the time, to go drinking and chase girls. My mother came down on that pretty hard when she found out, so that was that. It’s a shame I was so young and dumb, then; I could’ve been teaching myself all sorts of useful things instead.”

“Oh, I dunno,” Sanjay said airily. “Sounds like you had your priorities in the right order!” Danny laughed obligingly.

Lakshmi’s face appeared around the doorframe, wearing a suspicious expression. “What are you two snickering about in here?”

“Nothing,” they chorused, turning innocent looks on her.

“Omnu’s balls, that’s disturbing,” she muttered, scowling at them before retreating.

“You hear that?” Sanjay complained. “And then she tells me to watch my language.”

“Well, half the fun of being older is being able to be hypocritical about stuff like that,” Danny said cheerfully. “Wait till you have kids of your own, and you can spend your time making them crazy. I’m told that’s the whole attraction.”

“About running away, though,” Sanjay said more thoughtfully as he deposited the last fork in the strainer and let the water out of the sink. “I meant, like…more permanently.”

Danny’s smile turned wistful. “You know what, I actually do think about it with some regularity. It’s a pretty stressful job, being responsible for people.”

“I bet having your a—” He broke off, darting a glance at the door to the living room. “…getting catered to hand and foot all the time helps.”

“It sure does,” Danny said frankly. “Not gonna lie, the perks are pretty da—pretty nice.” He, too, glanced at the door, then winked. “But they’re not what stops me. The truth is, I enjoy the work, even as tiring as it is. It’s satisfying. I get to make a difference and actually help a lot of people. And…when I mess up, a lot of people can suffer.” His expression faded to a frown and he paused in drying the silverware to stare sightlessly at the wall in front of them. “I sort of feel I blew my chance to walk away the first time I let a bunch of people down in a way that has real consequences for them. You can’t make something like that go away, you know? There’s nothing to do but keep going forward. With every success, I feel more motivated… With every failure, I feel more responsible.”

“Sounds grim,” Sanjay murmured.

“Well, standing here, right now, my recommendation is that if you ever have the option to step into a noble’s place, don’t. This seems much more…free.” He shrugged. “Truthfully, though, I probably know as little about your life as you do about mine. So my opinion there probably isn’t worth much.”

“Yeah, I’m gonna have to agree on that one,” Sanjay said with a grin. “The last part. If I ever get the chance to step into a noble’s place, I’m gonna be all over that.”

“Where do these fellows live?” Danny asked, patting the short stack of plates.

“Top cabinet, to your left, there.” He watched Danny put dishes away in silence for a moment. “How do you learn that? Do they have special schools for nobles?”

“Oh, yes,” Danny said. “Expensive ones.”

“Naturally.”

“Silverware?”

“In the drawer, right in front of you.”

“Thanks. And yeah, there are classes in things like economics… Mostly, though, the craft of ruling is taught a lot the way the Thieves’ Guild trains its apprentices. You learn it by being coached by someone who’s done it a lot longer.”

“Most of the Eserites I know think nobles are worse thieves than they are,” Sanjay said skeptically, folding his arms and leaning against the sink.

“Most of the nobles I’ve met think Eserites are basically boogeymen,” Danny said frankly. “My feeling is both are right. I’ve known aristocrats who I have to say are completely useless human beings, and a few—more than a few—who I’d call outright monsters. The thing is… You see that everywhere, I think. But nobles are supposed to be responsible for a lot. When a leader is useless or evil, it does a great deal more damage than when an average person is.”

“I guess that makes sense. I haven’t met any nobles—before you, I mean—but I’ve met some pretty useless idiots and ass— Jerks.” He shot a look at the doorway and rolled his eyes. “People I’d hate to see in charge of anything.”

“Yeah. The reverse is true, though.” Danny shut the silverware drawer and gave him a contemplative look. “You may not learn about it directly, considering where and how you’re growing up, but it seems like a disproportionate number of the Eserites I end up hearing about are some really vile individuals. Maybe—”

“OI.” A paperback book came sailing through the door and bounced off the wall a few feet from them. “So help me, if I catch you trying to turn my brother against our religion, I will glue your dick to your leg while you sleep, and Sweet can whine about it all he likes!”

“Yep,” Sanjay said quietly, grinning. “Still single.”

“Aw, now, a lot of gentlemen go for women with spirit!”

“Ew.” The boy wrinkled his nose. “That’s my sister. I don’t need to be thinking about that!”

“You’re probably right,” Danny said gravely. “It’s for the best.”

“Anyway, that’s not the same, though,” Sanjay said thoughtfully. “Nobles and thieves. Or nobles and anything else, really. You can apprentice to be a thief no matter who you are. Legacy families are actually pretty rare in the Guild; most Eserites come from other places, other cults, even. And, like, most crafts are that way. There are some family businesses, but I think most people come to their trade because they have talent for it, or just want to do it.”

“I guess you’re right about that,” Danny acknowledged, turning to lean against the wall next to the sink and face him directly.

“Nobles, though, you have to be born noble.”

“Mm…not necessarily. That’s the most common way, sure. You can also marry into nobility, or be adopted.”

“Come on, how often does that happen?”

“Less often than it should,” Danny said ruminatively. “I think it would help keep the Houses fresh. You know, House Madouri has always made a point of marrying commoners, seeking out fresh blood. And they’ve been actual rulers of Tiraan Province for a thousand years, longer than almost any other House has even existed. I think there’s a lesson in that.”

“Does your House do that?”

“No, actually, my House is too young for that to have been a factor. And that’s the other thing. You always have to keep in mind that nobles got noble in the first place by accomplishing something, and then capitalizing on it. The gods didn’t select the Houses.” He smiled. “I’d have thought the Guild would make a point of mentioning that.”

“Well, I’m not old enough for proper Guild training yet, but yeah…I’ve heard that idea mentioned a time or two,” Sanjay admitted, grinning ruefully. “From Eserites and Punaji both. Shmi always says, the only reason she’s comfortable raising me outside Punaji culture is that Eserite culture is pretty much the same thing, with less fish.”

Danny laughed at that; Sanjay, emboldened, went on.

“So where’s your House from?”

“To the north of here,” Danny said vaguely.

Sanjay rolled his eyes dramatically. “Danny, Tiraas is on the southern coast. Everything is north of here.”

“Sanjay.” Lakshmi appeared in the door again. “That’s called an evasive answer, and you know it. Danny is in hiding, we’re being paid to help him, and we don’t ask questions about other people’s jobs.” She glanced back and forth between them and grimaced. “You know what, if you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean. And you,” she added, pointing balefully at her guest, “if you’re just gonna encourage him anyway, you can help him.”

“Sounds good!” Danny said gamely, even as Sanjay groaned. “More education! I shall be a wiser and stronger man when I go back home.” Lakshmi just snorted and disappeared back into the living room.

“Here,” Sanjay said with poor grace, tossing him a rag he’d just taken from the drawer. “The kitchen’s fine, just fix it up enough she doesn’t have an excuse to complain. Wipe down water off the sink and cabinet, see if you can find dust or something on the shelves. It’s not like we’re gonna be having tea with the Empress in here, anyway,” he added sullenly.

“You’d better hope not,” Danny agreed, already wiping off the edge of the sink. “I hear she’s pretty unforgiving.”

“Have you ever met her?”

“First rule of being powerful: try to stay away from people who are more powerful than you. They’ll cause you all kinds of headaches.”

“Hey, that sounds almost Eserite!” Sanjay glanced at him again, from his position standing on a chair, where he was halfheartedly flicking dust off the top of the cabinets. “So…who taught you? About ruling, I mean. You make it sound like your mother’s sort of strict.”

“Oh, that she was.”

“Was?”

“She’s been gone for a few years now.”

“Oh.” He lowered his eyes. “Sorry. I didn’t mean…”

“It’s fine,” Danny said, giving him a quick smile. “She wasn’t that bad, though. Yes, she’s the one I learned from, mostly. In a way… Have you ever noticed how you can love someone completely without ever liking them all that much?”

“Yes,” Sanjay said emphatically. “Yes, I have. I think that’s called family.”

“I know where you sleep, y’little brat!”

“And there she is now,” he added, smirking. “Yeah, that’s not just you. That’s everybody’s family.”

“Well, good, I feel a little better about it.” Danny’s smile quickly faded, and he slowed the motion of his hands until he was just leaning on the sink. “I miss her a lot, though. She was my mother and I loved her, but it isn’t just that. I believe I’ll always feel she was just better at this than I’ll ever be. It seems like at least once a day I’ll find myself baffled by something, and my first thought is always, ‘Mother would know what to do.’” The smile returned to his face, more wistful now. “And oddly enough, she still helps me, in that way. Thinking about what she would do always points me toward a solution. Of course, I don’t always do what she’d have done, but it’s a reliable starting point.”

“I didn’t get to know my mother,” Sanjay said quietly, staring at the remaining dust on the cabinet.

“I don’t think you’re right,” Danny said frankly. Sanjay turned to frown at him. “A mother’s a lot more than the person who gave birth to you, I think. You’ve got someone who loves you, provides for you, makes sure you’re getting an education and an upbringing. Someone who cares enough to be certain you go out into the world with the best preparation she knows how to give you. Sorry if I’m being presumptuous, Sanjay, but it seems to me you have as good a mother as anyone can.”

Sanjay coughed awkwardly, his cheeks coloring, and lowered his eyes. A moment later, they both turned, noticing Lakshmi standing silently in the doorway, arms folded, leaning against the frame.

“You,” she said to Danny, “are dangerous, aren’t you?”

“Oh, well.” He gave her a disarming smile. “Maybe a little.”


One could usually tell day from night, provided the sky was clear; beyond that, the passage of time in the Twilight Forest was inscrutable. In darkness, the ambient light was pale and blue, while by day it held a golden orange tone, and in either case, a haze hung in the air which inhibited the view even more than the underbrush and the shadows of the massive trees. It never grew brighter or dimmer, though. Dawn was a sudden thing, and dusk such a perpetual state that its arrival was impossible to notice. Aside from the light, it looked very much like any old growth forest, with the occasional path winding around the roots of ancient sentinel trees, and here and there the odd ruin appearing suddenly amid the shadows. The sounds, though, were eerie at best. The noises of insects, birds, and small animals were there, but less than in most such woods, and often one could hear what might have been the distant sound of laughter, the rapid patter of tiny feet, occasionally a note in the wind that could have been the agonized wail of someone far away.

Aside from the odd tauhanwe passing through one of the coastal cities, there were no elves in Sifan, and not because they were made unwelcome, either by the kitsune or the Sifanese. Elves liked their forests natural, and the full force of Naiya’s wild magic kept at a respectful distance. The presence of the Twilight Forest could be felt for miles out to sea in all directions from the archipelago, to those sensitive to it. In truth, there were no fairies of any kind, here, save those whose being sprang from the auspices of the kitsune. There were few clerics on the islands, the cults organized in ways that were often strange to their brethren elsewhere in the world. There were, assuredly, absolutely no demons. Sifan was a land unlike any other, and the Twilight Forest in many ways as alien as Hell.

But at least it was pretty.

Tellwyrn hadn’t been to Sifan often, and not to the Forest in decades. As frustrating as the experience of wandering aimlessly through the woods was when she was in urgent need of results, it did provide the opportunity to appreciate its oddly lovely scenery, an opportunity she rarely had. For now, that was the best she could do. One did not rush things, here.

“Why, hello there.”

She was not surprised at being suddenly addressed by someone standing very close, whose presence she had not detected through any of her enhanced senses, elvish or magical. It was unwise to let the Twilight Forest take you by surprise. Truthfully, it as unwise to be in it at all; best not to add foolishness on top of risk.

“Good day,” she said politely, bowing to the short old man who had appeared at the base of a tree next to the path. Little taller than her waist, portly, bald, and smiling beatifically with a face so wrinkled she could barely make out his eyes, he was dressed in the robes of a monk and carrying a staff more than twice his height.

“I don’t think I have seen you here before, my dear. Are you lost?”

“In fact, I am,” Tellwyrn replied. “Can you tell me how I might find the kitsune?”

The old man hummed softly to himself. “Dear me, what an unusual quest. Most who enter this forest would prefer to avoid the kitsune.”

“And yet, here I am,” she said with a patient smile.

He hmm-hmmed again. “The humans have shrines outside the woods, devoted to the fox-goddesses. That is the safest way to seek them out.”

“Alas, my business compels me to hurry. I have no time for the safest way.”

“Ah, so?” The old man rubbed his double chin with his free hand in a show of thought. “Well, perhaps I can help you, indeed. If you will do a favor for a fellow traveler, I shall do one in return.”

“What is it you need?”

“It’s a little embarrassing,” he said bashfully. “I seem to have lost my knapsack up a bush. It is wedged quite securely; I cannot prod it loose with my staff, nor reach it with my fingers. You, though, are so tall and graceful! I’m sure you could retrieve it for me with ease.”

“Why, however did you manage to lose it?” Tellwyrn asked with a smile.

The little old man sighed. “A mischievous monkey took it from me, and tangled it among the branches just out of my reach. They are such annoying creatures, monkeys. But if you will kindly help me retrieve my knapsack, I shall be only too glad to help you find what you seek.”

“Very well, it’s a bargain,” Tellwyrn said politely. “Where is this bush?”

“It’s just this way!” the old man replied, beaming happily. “I am fortunate you came along so quickly; who knows what might have happened to it, had I been forced to go down the path to seek help! Just through here.”

He turned and led the way off the little trail, Tellwyrn following without complaint at the slow pace he set. She didn’t bother glancing back at the path. Odds were good it wouldn’t be there the next time she looked.

The old man was as good as his word, at least. Despite the almost nonexistent speed mandated by his tiny stride and the rheumatic shuffling of his feet, they emerged after only a few minutes into a small clearing, floored with verdant moss and the occasional fern. Directly opposite this was a bush with dark, spiny leaves, and hanging in the upper branches, just beyond the reach of the little old man’s arms, hung a battered leather satchel by its strap.

“There, you see?” he said, pointing. “Look, we are in good time, it hasn’t been further disturbed!”

“How fortunate,” she said.

“I will wait here and keep watch,” he said seriously, nodding and thumping the butt of his staff against the ground in emphasis. “Thank you for helping an old man, traveler. Please bring me my knapsack, and then we shall see about your request.”

“Of course,” Tellwyrn replied, giving him a smile, then strode briskly across the clearing.

Behind her back, the old man’s beatific expression melted to one of shock.

She reached the bush, finding the strap draped over a thick branch, and not excessively entangled at all. It took hardly any effort to lift it clear; the spiky leaves caught on the leather, but not enough to impede her, and the sack itself was not heavy.

Holding the knapsack, she turned, evincing no surprise to find the little man gone.

Panting, he scampered back through the underbrush as fast as his paws could carry him, chancing a glance over his shoulder toward the clearing, which cost him dearly; he plowed directly into the shabby bulk of his own knapsack.

“Here you are!” Tellwyrn said brightly, again standing right in front of him. “I see you found time to change into something a little more comfortable.”

His robes were the same, but his body had become furred, wrinkled old face replaced by a sharp snout, clever little eyes, and a pattern of darker fur forming a black mask. He gaped up at her, then yelped and turned to flee again.

Tellwyrn seized the tanuki by the scruff of his neck before he made it another step, hiking him bodily off the ground like his knapsack.

“Now, then,” she said briskly, “that’s my part of the bargain fulfilled. Take me to the kitsune, please.”

He squealed in agitation, then twisted himself around with astonishing agility and sank his needle-sharp teeth into her wrist.

Blue arcane light blazed from the skin-hugging shield invisibly lining her arm; it was like biting into a firecracker. The tanuki hung, dazed by the blast, while Tellwyrn carried him back to the clearing.

“Now, this is where we were,” she said, “in case you were lost. Which direction shall we go?”

“I can’t!” he squealed, having recovered enough to squirm. “They don’t want to be bothered! They’ll kill me!”

“That,” she replied, “is a problem for the future. They aren’t here; I am. And believe me, my furry little friend, I have neither their playfulness nor their forgiving nature.”

“You don’t know what they’re like!” he wailed.

“Here’s what I know,” she stated flatly. “This conversation will end with you helping me to find what I seek. What I tell them at the end of that search will depend upon how the conversation goes. Am I going to have a story about how helpful and courteous you were?” Calmly, she tossed his knapsack to the ground in the center of the clearing, and the whole thing collapsed as if made of paper, the wafer-thin coating of moss disintegrating and dumping fern fronds and the unfortunate knapsack into the yawning pit concealed below. Tellwyrn stepped forward and dangled the squirming tanuki above the chasm. “Or, will they hear a very sad tale of a very stupid raccoon who smears their good name by breaking his oath to travelers in their forest?”

“Y-you don’t scare me, elf! N-not nearly as much as they do!”

She hefted him higher, enough that she could stare grimly into his eye from inches away.

“You don’t know me,” Tellwyrn said quietly. “You really, really don’t want to.”

A soft giggle sounded.

Slowly, Tellwyrn turned, lowering the tanuki but not relaxing her grip, and making no note at all of his redoubled but still useless attempts to wriggle free.

A young woman perched in the lower branches of the tree behind her, clad in a silk kimono white as snow, embroidered with patterns of blossoms in palest lavender. Her complexion was like bleached ivory, even her triangular ears and bushy tail a snowy white, though they were tipped in black.

“You’re such fun,” the kitsune tittered. “I do wish you would visit more often, Arakuni-chan!”

“If only I could find the time,” Tellwyrn said evenly. “How lovely to see you again, Emi. Can you tell me where I might find Kaisa?”

“Oh, no.” Emi hopped lightly from the branch, landing on a nearby fern which hadn’t enough structure to support a sparrow and balancing effortlessly on her toes. “No, I don’t think that would be any fun at all, do you? I can, however, show you where you might find Kaisa.”

“Oh, good,” the tanuki said shrilly, “I guess you don’t need m—”

“Noisy,” Emi commented, the levity abruptly vanishing from her face, and he broke off with a strangled croak. “I believe you owe this honored guest a favor, Maru. I know you value your word far too much to renege upon such an obligation. I’m sure, sooner or later, she will find some…use for you.”

Tears beaded up in his beady eyes; he whimpered, which the elf and kitsune both ignored. Emi turned a once again sunny smile upon Tellwyrn.

“This way, if you please!”

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