Tag Archives: Natchua

12 – 4

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

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

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

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

“It’s the principle of—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How can you be sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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10 – 9

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The manor gates were standing open when they arrived. The group paused for a moment, glancing around at one another before Darling shrugged, grinned insouciantly, and strolled on in. There was nothing for them to do but follow, Ingvar with a soft sigh.

Though the thief made a (somewhat casually-paced) beeline for the door, Joe and Ingvar carefully studied the grounds as they trailed along in his wake. The gravel walk was even and clean, the house apparently well-repaired, its partial blanket of climbing ivy even cleared away from windows. It didn’t look like a particularly well-maintained property apart from that, however. There was no landscaping of any kind, and the lawn was essentially a walled-in patch of wild prairie in the forest, thick with chest-high grasses, bramble bushes and even occasional small trees that had clearly grown up within the last ten years or so, due to no one bothering to clear them out. There was no statuary, no garden or porch furniture, and the only flowers appeared haphazardly on the edge of the walk where the taller grasses didn’t quite blot out their access to sunlight.

They all stopped again at the top of the short flight of steps to the manor’s doors, because those doors opened before they got close enough to knock. Well, one of the double set did, revealing a beautiful young woman in an expensive red gown. She regarded them with a faint, knowing smile.

“Good afternoon!” Darling said with a grin and a bow. “Would I have the pleasure of addressing Lady Malivette?”

“Hardly,” she said, her smile widening. “But please come in, your Grace. She is expecting you.” With that, she stepped aside, gesturing them demurely through.

“You’re too kind!” Darling, again, strolled right on ahead as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Joe and Ingvar exchanged a significant look before following, hands straying close to holstered wands and tomahawks.

The woman in red stood aside to watch them with that calm smile as they clustered together inside, pushing the door shut as soon as they were clear of it. Inside, the entrance hall of Dufresne Manor was more of the same: clean, well-repaired, but starkly bare of furnishings and apparently not much cared for. The three gave it only a glance, however, being focused upon the person waiting for them at the base of the stairs, directly ahead.

It could only be Malivette Dufresne; the crimson eyes were a dead giveaway. She also wore an exquisite but severe black gown that suited the vampire mystique, but apart from that, she seemed to be just a petite young woman who could be quite pretty if she’d get a good night’s sleep, eat several regular meals and get some sun. Ingvar, naturally, was not about to voice that assessment.

“Bishop Darling,” the lady of the house intoned in a silky contralto voice. “What an interesting visit. I can’t recall the last time a cleric deemed me desirable company—though, now that I’ve said it aloud, it occurs to me that the disciples of Eserion aren’t exactly the standard run of clergy, are you?”

“Why, we take pride in not being the standard run of anything, m’lady,” Darling said with another grandiose bow. “I apologize for dropping in on you like this…though apparently we’re not quite as unexpected as I was expecting.”

“No indeed,” the vampire said with a broad, friendly smile which was both uncharacteristic of the nobles Ingvar had observed, and unnerving in that it showed off her elongated canines. He suspected that was no accident. Malivette oozed forward with a slinky gate that might have been alluring under other circumstances. “This has been the day for unexpected visitations—you’re not half so surprising as what told me to be on the lookout for you. Tell me, your Grace, do you know what a shadow elemental is?”

Darling blinked. “I…confess I haven’t the faintest idea. Sorry, elementals are a bit over my head.”

“I didn’t either,” said the vampire, her smile fading. “Let me tell you, it’s a hell of a thing to have breezing into your living room all of a sudden.”

“And we are exceedin’ly sorry to’ve been such an imposition, however indirectly, ma’am,” Joe said politely, hat in hand. “It’s clear you don’t care for visitors. We’ll aim not to take up a hair more of your time than absolutely necessary.”

Malivette turned her red eyes on him, tilting her head inquisitively. “That’s clear, is it? Now, what makes you think that?”

Joe glanced at Darling, who merely raised his eyebrows, expression a blank mask of curiosity. The Kid cleared his throat. “Well, ah… Just puttin’ together the numbers, so t’speak. Your home is in very good repair, an’ so’s the outer wall. None o’ that’s cheap for a property this size, which means the apparent state of disrepair’s deliberate. Few times I’ve seen rich places fallen on hard times, the furnishings were all kept, an’ all gettin’ shabby together. I reckon you affect a tumbledown aesthetic on purpose, to discourage people comin’ over.”

“Why, what a sharp eye you have,” Malivette cooed, “Mr…?”

“Jenkins, ma’am. Joseph P. Jenkins. Just payin’ attention and applyin’ logic. Your pardon if I step outta turn, I mean no disrespect.”

“Oh, pish tosh,” she said, waving a hand airily. “I do say it’s a delight to meet a young man your age with a sense of did you say Joseph P. Jenkins?”

He swallowed. “I, ah…yes, I did.”

“Well, as I don’t live and breathe!” the vampire enthused, grinning broadly. “The Sarasio Kid, in my front room! What a day this is turning out to be! The Kid, the Bishop, and…” Her gaze fell on Ingvar. “I’m certain this is quite a story, too.”

“This is Brother Ingvar,” Darling said mildly. “Huntsman of Shaath.”

“Brother?” Malivette looked him up and down, and Ingvar refrained from bristling, having had far too much practice at it. “Okay. Quite a story, then.”

“And one with which we won’t bore you,” Ingvar said flatly. “Your pardon, lady, but these gentlemen seek an audience with you; I am merely traveling with them. I’m afraid I’ve nothing to offer or ask of you, and will not trouble you more than I must simply by being here.”

“There’s no need to be defensive, Brother Ingvar,” the vampire said with a faint smile. “We all have our need for privacy—believe me, you will rarely meet someone who understands that better than I.” She transferred her gaze back to Darling. “So! What wind blows you to my door, Bishop?”

“Well,” he said with an easy smile, “we’re following up on a trail of old events, your Grace. I understand you had some houseguests recently!”

“Mm hmm,” she murmured, watching him closely now. “The sort of houseguests about whom lots of people are curious. It’s not my policy to divulge anyone else’s secrets any more than my own—and that’s even for people who aren’t watched over by a certain archmage with an apocalyptic temper.”

“By all means,” he said smoothly, “I’ve no intention of digging into the students’ business; we won’t be at all offended if you can’t tell us anything. It’s not they who chiefly concern us, anyhow. The events in question, though…” He sighed, glancing back at the others. “Well, the truth is, Joe and I are part of a group of folks who were trying to prevent disaster from breaking out here.”

“Good job,” she said, deadpan.

Darling chuckled ruefully. “Yeah, you’ve hit it on the head, my lady. I was the one in charge of planning, Joe more a boots-on-the-ground type. I completely missed my mark—had everybody nosing around up north of Desolation. I misread the intelligence and didn’t pay enough attention to Veilgrad until matters here disintegrated so far there was nothing to be done, except by those already present.” He sighed. “I’ll have to accept your condemnation, Lady Dufresne, for failing you, even if you had no idea I was trying to help. What we are doing here, now, is investigating what happened, why, and at whose behest. The goal is to get a better handle on events so as not to make such mistakes in the future. But it already being well too late to be of use to you, here, so… As I said, I’ll take no offense if you show us the door at this point.”

“Hmm,” she mused, studying him thoughtfully. She turned her unsettling gaze on Joe, and then on Ingvar. “Hmm. Mm hmm hm hmm. Ruby!” The vampire looked past them at the woman in red. “Would you be good enough to show our guests into the dining room?”

“Of course, my lady,” said Ruby, curtsying gracefully to the men when they turned to her. “If you will follow me, please, gentlemen?”

“Most comfortable room in the house that I don’t sleep in,” said Malivette cheerfully. “I’ll be with you in just a tick, lads.”

Abruptly she exploded in a cloud of swirling, squeaking mist. Ingvar leapt back, drawing a tomahawk by reflex, as a swarm of bats whirled out of the place where the vampire had stood. Squealing and chattering, they fluttered up to the second-floor landing and down a hall.

“I apologize for the mistress of the house,” Ruby said calmly. “Social isolation and a rather quirky sense of humor make her, at times, startling to company. This way, please?”

“Put that up,” Darling said in a low tone as he followed after her. “What’d you think you were gonna do, chop down the bats?”

“Ease up, your Grace,” Joe said to him, equally softly but with an edge. “It’s instinct. Makes perfect sense to me, an’ I doubt the lady took offense. She seems too intelligent not to know exactly what she’s doin’ with antics like that.”

“Fair enough,” Darling said with a shrug, and offered Ingvar a smile.

The Huntsman slipped his ax back into its belt loop, not acknowledging him.

Ruby led them through a side door into a dining room that was very like the entrance hall in aesthetics—which was to say, clean and bare. A fireplace stood at one end of the room and a long table lined with chairs down its center.

Malivette, somehow, was already waiting for them.

“There you are,” she said cheerfully. “I was afraid you’d gotten lost. I have something for you, Bishop Darling.”

She was, indeed, holding an object, which she lightly tossed to the Bishop. Darling caught it deftly, turning the staff over in his hands; Ingvar and Joe both craned their necks over his shoulder to peer at it. Though about the size of an Army-issue battlestaff, it looked more like a scepter, capped at both ends with large crystals and with hefty spirals of gold embossing half its length. There was an obvious clicker mechanism in the usual place, however.

“I’ve been wanting to get rid of that for weeks,” their hostess said. “My plan was always to get it into the hands of the Thieves’ Guild, but our local representative is a little too closely tied to the Army for my comfort, and well… That makes things complicated with regard to that weapon.”

“Weapon?” Joe said, raising his eyebrows.

“Complicated?” Darling added. “How so?”

Malivette grinned again, which was no less disconcerting. “You boys had best grab some seats—this might take a while. Upon consideration, I believe I’ll be happy to tell you all about what went down in Veilgrad recently. Ruby, bring the gentlemen some refreshments, would you? This might take…a while.”


 

Though the revival had ended, a festive atmosphere lingered over Last Rock, chiefly due to the efforts of the remaining religious institutions to capitalize on the spirit. The Universal Church chapel had remained open and fully staffed with a few priests from the capital lingering in town for that purpose; Father Laws had wisely avoided the temptation to give extra sermons, instead having organized a bake sale. The lure of fresh baked goods, donated by the ladies of the town, and freely available root beer and apple cider had kept people streaming steadily through the chapel and its yard all afternoon, once usual working hours had passed. Students trickled down from the mountain, too, their own classes being done for the day.

With the tents and representatives from the other cults having packed up and left, Last Rock’s newest additions were doing a brisk business, too. The high spirits of the revival lingered but the competition had not, and the new Vidian temple and the Silver Mission were both centers of activity. People clustered and swirled around the Mission’s grounds, on the outskirts of town near the Rail platform, but by far the biggest concentrations of activity were on a different side of the outskirts, between the Vidian amphitheater and the chapel, which were not far separate. In that region, shops along the short stretch of street linking the two had set out festive stands (several complete with free samples), and a sort of impromptu town picnic had formed on the prairie around the temple.

The Vidians themselves were putting on a performance. It was an old morality play, one of those stories with a ham-fisted message which everyone had already heard anyway, but not for nothing was Vidius the patron of false faces; the performers put effort and style into the production, and Val Tarvadegh, the chief priest attached to this temple, was a man with a robust sense of humor, which colored the proceedings to their benefit. Many townsfolk were clustered in and around the small amphitheater, actually watching the show, even as others milled about on the grass, sharing food and gossip.

Big, Church-sponsored festivals were fine and dandy, but now was a day for the good folk of Last Rock to have their own shindig. If a few muttered and cast dark looks at the University students in their midst, they kept it discreet, and nobody seemed to pay them any notice.

A dozen yards or so distant from the amphitheater, another cluster of people had formed around a large blanket laid out on the grass, replete with dishes brought by various citizens. Some stood or sat near it, grazing and chit-chatting, and a handful of children chased each other around nearby, pausing periodically when some adult or other scolded them, though they didn’t seem to be bothering the performers. Quite a few people were gathered on the far side of the blanket, however, watching another impromptu show at the edge of the tallgrass.

It was a little unclear what exactly Juniper was trying to do with her jackalope, expect give him some exercise. She had Jack on a harness and leash—itself a highly impressive feat to those who knew anything of the creatures and their temperament—and was running up and down, back and forth, and in circles with him. Periodically she would give him commands to stop, or to leap, which he occasionally chose to obey. Generally, Jack didn’t seem to mind bounding alongside his companion, and he made short work of the peanuts she gave him after every successful “trick,” but based on his performance he had clearly not learned to associate obedience with reward. It probably didn’t help that she gave him encouraging scratches behind the ear even when he refused to jump on command.

They made for an amusing spectacle anyway, particularly the dryad. With her green hair flying in the breeze, garbed in just her usual sundress, Juniper was an impressive physical specimen, which the exercise just served to highlight. It probably helped to encourage her audience that her antics were bouncy in multiple senses. A few of the women of the town were dividing annoyed looks between the dryad and their male companions. In a slightly separate group off to one side, several University kids loitered around, chitchatting and eyeballing Juniper with even less discretion.

“Am I alone in sensing a certain…coldness?” Sekandar Aldarasi asked quietly, eying the nearby citizens.

“What, you mean the townies?” Chase replied, glancing at them before returning his gaze to Juniper. “Nah, that’s about typical. They always keep a little aloof.”

“You are not alone, Sekandar,” Ravana said calmly. “We’ve been here a relatively short time, but I have noted a subtle yet consistent change in the way the locals look at us since yesterday.”

“Since Bishop Snowe’s very interesting speech,” Sekandar said, nodding.

“Well, maybe you’re right,” Chase said with a grin. “I mean, who’d know better? They’re your people, after all.”

Sekandar barked a short laugh. “Hah! These? The mostly Stalweiss descendants of Heshenaad’s armies, with a culture and dialect heavily influence by the gnomes and plains elves? When the Great Plains were officially claimed, most of them were divided into new provinces; this area was appended to Calderaas only because House Tirasian needed to placate my family after the skulduggery following the Enchanter Wars. The frontiersmen are no one’s people but their own. I think they rather insist on that point.”

“Y’know, this is a lot like one of Tellwyrn’s lectures,” Chase commented. “Except—and I never thought I would say this—she’s prettier than you.”

“Well, you can see the evidence before you,” Sekandar said dryly. “Everyone seems to find Juniper far more interesting than their prince.

Ruda snorted. “Be fair, now. If you had knockers like that, they’d be all over you.”

“Yeah?” Chase turned to her, grinning. “You’ve got knockers like that, and nobody’s bothering you, I see.”

“Maybe because I don’t wave ’em around for everybody to gawk at.”

“Yes, and I’ve been meaning to speak to you about that, now that you mention it. A rack of such proportions is a gift from the gods, Punaji. You have a certain obligation to share—”

“On the subject of confusing me with Juniper, Masterson,” Ruda interrupted. “she’s the one who needs a good reason to beat your ass into the ground.”

“Oh!” Chase bonked himself on the forehead with the heel of his hand. “Right, sorry. I always get those mixed up.”

Ravana gave him a very long, very cool look from the corner of her eye, which he appeared not to notice. Beside her, Szith edged subtly closer, casually flexing her fingers in the vicinity of her sword.

Juniper had either finished her allotted exercise or given up on Jack’s training, and was now wandering toward the other students, the jackalope gathered into her arms. Before getting more than a few yards, however, she was intercepted by a girl of no more than eight who burst out of the crowd of townsfolk.

“Hi!” she squealed, beaming. “Can I pet the bunny?”

“Oh,” Juniper said, blinking at her and carefully adjusting her grip on Jack. “Um, that’s not a really good idea, honey.”

The child’s face immediately crumpled.

“It’s just that he’s still being trained,” Juniper said hastily. “And he doesn’t like strangers. Jackalopes aren’t tame bunnies; those antlers can really hurt you. I wouldn’t want that to happen! Aw, please don’t cry…”

“Hm,” Ravana murmured, her eyes roving over the picnic area; almost everyone else was studying the new drama unfolding. “Why is that child not playing with the others?”

“Children are unpredictable,” Ruda grunted. “Bunnies are fluffy. Can’t expect a kid to understand that bunny is also a thing of goddamn evil.”

“Who is that?” Ravana inquired, nodding her head toward a lean-faced blonde woman in a black coat, who had come to stand at the front of the group of townsfolk.

“I don’t know her name,” Szith replied. “She is a priestess of Vidius, however, from what I have overheard. Apparently she and an Avenist have stayed on after the revival to be attached permanently to their respective temples.”

“And she’s now here,” Ravana mused, “watching this, instead of the Vidian service going on. Interesting.”

“I’m not sure I’d call a play a Vidian service,” Sekandar began.

“Uh oh,” Ruda said suddenly, frowning, and pointed.

A woman had emerged from the crowd, stalking over to Juniper, who backpedaled, clutching her jackalope. His ears had begun to twitch dangerously, though he had not yet started struggling.

“What are you doing to my child?” she demanded.

“I was just—”

“She ain’t hurtin’ anything,” the woman said sharply, taking the little girl by the hand and glaring at Juniper. “I don’t see any call to be snapping at her.”

“I wasn’t trying to snap,” the dryad said earnestly. “It’s just, she wanted to pet Jack, and I was trying to explain—”

“And what’s wrong with that? Are you really so hard up you can’t let a little girl touch your rabbit?”

“Now, hold on,” Juniper protested.

“Marcy, there ain’t no call to be like that,” a man added, stepping forward and frowning reproachfully. “She weren’t hurtin’ the girl. What would you say if she wanted to pat an ornery mule? You can’t let a kid get too close to disagreeable animals, that’s just sense.”

There were several nods and murmurs of agreement from the onlookers, which seemed to infuriate Marcy. She clutched her daughter close, the child having begun to cry in earnest during all the raised voices.

“It’s a rabbit, Herman. What’s it gonna hurt? All I see’s one o’ them kids from up on the hill who thinks she can walk around our town doin’ what she likes, an’ not show the slightest regard for th’ people livin’ here!”

That brought a few murmurs of its own.

“Omnu’s breath, Marcy, it’s her rabbit!” Herman exclaimed.

“Hey!” Natchua pushed forward through the crowd; Marcy shied back from the glaring drow, huddling protectively around her weeping daughter. “Your child was trying to interfere with an aggressive wild animal with very large horns. Its trainer just explained that it’s only half-trained and not sociable. It’s not going to be the dryad’s fault of someone gets gored. As I see it, the difference between you two is she is being responsible for her little beast!”

“Oh, my,” Chase breathed, grinning from ear to ear. Several of the onlookers had burst out laughing, while others were nodding in agreement—though with whose points it was impossible to say.

“If I may?” The soft voice cut through the noise, clearly delivered by someone accustomed to projecting through the stage. The blonde woman in Vidian black stepped forward, smiling. “Madam, I certainly understand your concern, but having been here a few moments before you arrived, I can assure you I saw no one threatening your child. She was disappointed, not harmed. And the young lady is quite correct: jackalopes are not friendly creatures, as a rule. Might I suggest it would be wise if everyone lowered their voices? The poor creature looks rather stressed. We wouldn’t want to provoke him, now would we?”

At that, most of the onlookers obligingly dropped their tones, or stopped talking entirely, and Juniper eased back further, clutching Jack close and stroking his fur. His nose was twitching furiously, but he still didn’t lunge free; despite appearances, her training seemed to be having some effect on him.

“Well, you can’t blame me,” Marcy muttered, stroking the child’s hair. “I came over to find my girl crying and that…woman right there… We all know dryads ain’t the safest creatures.”

“Juniper seems to have been trying to protect the child from another dangerous creature, if I’m not mistaken,” said the blonde. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I’ve met everyone yet.” She dropped to a crouch, smiling disarmingly at the girl, who peeked out from over her mother’s arm. “Hi, there. My name’s Lorelin. What’s yours?”

“D-daisy,” the child sniffled. “Daisy Summers.”

“Daisy!” the priestess said warmly. “That’s very pretty, your parents have good taste. I’m sorry you didn’t get to pet the bunny, hon. You have to remember, though, he belongs to Miss Juniper. We must respect other people’s things, mustn’t we? You’d want them to respect yours, right?”

Daisy muttered something indistinct; Lorelin smiled up at Marcy and winked, before straightening up. “There, now, just a little misunderstanding. It’s good you came along when you did, ma’am.”

“Well, I’m glad someone ’round here has some sense,” Marcy said, shooting a look at Herman. He threw up his hands and turned away.

“I’m sure we all are,” Natchua said, fairly dripping sarcasm.

“Hmmmm,” Ravana mused from the sidelines. “How very interesting.”

“How so?” Sekandar inquired. She just shook her head.

Juniper had retreated further, back toward the tallgrass, and set Jack down to let him stretch and relax. Chase and a few of the others started toward her, but she looked up, shook her head apologetically and gestured them back, still soothingly stroking the jackalope’s fur.

That was the moment when Jack lunged forward, his powerful legs propelling him like a stone from a catapult. His leash brought him up short, the force of the jump not shifting the startled Juniper by an inch, and so his horns merely grazed Herman’s leg, rather than outright impaling him.

Herman staggered with a yell, other shouts immediately breaking out from the onlookers. Juniper began frantically reeling the struggling jackalope back toward her, even as he continued to bound this way and that, lunging at whoever his eyes caught. People wisely backpedaled away from the dryad and her pet, Marcy picking up Daisy and fleeing at a run. Natchua, standing just outside the range of the jackalope’s diminishing leash, watched them go without moving.

Chase was laughing so hard he had to sit down.

Lorelin had leaped to Herman’s side; she and another man from the crowd helped him away from the struggling jackalope and to a seated position on the ground, where the priestess knelt beside him, hands glowing with healing light.

Amid the hubbub, Ravana caught Sekandar’s elbow and tugged gently. He glanced down at her curiously, but allowed himself to be led; she pulled him back from the gaggle of students toward Ruda, who now stood a few feet distant, idly swirling a bottle of rum and watching the proceedings thoughtfully.

“Your Highnesses,” Ravana said, coming to a stop.

Ruda made a face at her, but Sekandar, merely raising an eyebrow, played along. “Your Grace?”

“I wonder,” said the Duchess, “if you would be good enough to say whether you’ve just seen the same sequence of events I have.”

The Prince, turned his head, frowning thoughtfully at Juniper, who had got Jack back into her arms and was holding him firmly. “Hum. I would have to say this began yesterday, with Bishop Snowe’s speech. In a widespread religious event organized by the Universal Church, a Bishop thereof launched a very sharp verbal attack on the University. Most uncharacteristic behavior for an Izarite, I might add, which suggests on whose behalf she was speaking. Now, we have this little drama, facilitated by a new Vidian cleric who arrived as part of the same function.”

“There’s a new Avenist, too,” Ruda added quietly. “A priestess, apparently gonna be working down at the Silver Mission. That’s interesting to me; Trissiny’s whole point in starting those was having a single cleric on hand to organize, and lettin’ the rest of any staff be volunteer laypeople.”

“I don’t suppose either of you happened to observe what this Lorelin was doing before the child approached Juniper and kicked all this off?” Ravana inquired, still watching the hubbub as it gradually got under control, townspeople drifting away and Herman gingerly testing his leg.

“I’m afraid not,” said Sekandar.

“Because I distinctly recall seeing the town’s children playing together, some yards distant,” Ravana continued. “There could, of course, be perfectly innocent explanations for that one having separated from the group to approach Juniper and the rabbit, but the timing seems odd, to me.”

“Hm,” Ruda said noncommittally.

“And now,” Ravana continued, “we have an incident. A local resident injured, however slightly, by a student. Or at least, I’ve no doubt that is how the story will be told. And all right as this new cleric, placed here by the same organization which funded Bishop Snowe, arrived on the scene.”

“Speculation,” Ruda pointed out.

“Oh without doubt,” Ravana agreed. “I merely point out a suggestive sequence of events. Any of them could be coincidental and harmless. It’s when chained together that a troubling pattern emerges. I’m sure that I needn’t lecture the two of you about suggestive sequences of individually harmless events.”

“No, you needn’t,” Ruda said, now watching the Vidian priestess, who was in earnest conversation with Herman and two other town citizens.

“I wonder,” Sekandar mused, “how difficult would it be for a cleric to manifest an object of divine light. Something small enough to, say, prod a jackalope, or flick its ear.”

“Hmm,” Ravana said thoughtfully, tapping her lips with one finger. “It was my understanding that light-created objects had to remain in contact with the caster.”

“What about divine shields? They are clearly solid, and not physically connected to their creators.”

“You have a point,” she acknowledged. “Of course, the tricky part would have to be doing it without garnering attention. If I’m not mistaken, isn’t such misdirection a known skill of higher-ranking Vidian clerics?”

“Almost half my class is taking divine casting with Harklund this semester,” said Ruda. “I’ll ask about the possibilities. Discreetly.”

“Yes,” Ravana agreed, nodding. “I’m sure you both understand the importance of discretion, here. It might be unfortunate if one of the paladins were to hear an accusation without proof at this juncture.”

“That would muddy the waters,” Sekandar said, frowning. “I dislike the thought of sneaking around them…”

“Don’t sneak,” Ruda advised, “and don’t lie. This is nothing but unconfirmed theory as of right now; there’s no reason at all for them to hear about it until there’s something significant for them to hear. Trust me, I know those three. One would shrug and blow you off, and the other two would fly right the hell off the handle.”

“Quite so,” said Ravana. “If it all turns out to be nothing, it will be better not to have sown any further seeds of discord. But if, for whatever reason, the Universal Church is angling to undermine the University, it seems best, to me, that someone be on site to angle right back. Don’t you agree?”

Standing a few yards distant, separate from all the various groups of people present, Szith stared into space, one hand resting lightly on the hilt of her sword. The drow heaved a soft sigh and spoke in a low tone inaudible to anyone but herself.

“I hate politics.”

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9 – 3

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“I dunno, it seems kinda perfect, dunnit?” Billie said cheerfully as they finally approached the gates of the University. “I mean, given what kind a’ school this is an’ who runs it, makes sense you’d have ta put yerself out t’get there. I’m a little disappointed there’s not a labyrinth or somethin’.”

“None of which counters my original point, which is that this is a gratuitous pain in the ass,” Weaver grumbled. “If anything, it proves the point.”

“Oh, c’mon, you just look for reasons to complain. You’ve gotta be used to this, right? You used ta live here!”

“No,” the bard said sourly, “because when I lived here, I damn well stayed on the campus for exactly this reason.”

“Aye, this reason an’ I’m sure the world’s crawlin’ with people who’d love ta put yer head on a pike.”

“Nobody does that, Fallowstone. When was the last time you ever saw a pike? Outside a museum, I mean.”

“We talkin’ polearms or fish?”

“You’re an idiot, you know that?”

Joe wisely kept out of their argument. He actually agreed with Billie’s point—the University’s difficult-to-reach position and the grueling path to it seemed totally appropriate, both for the institution itself and for Tellwyrn. Apart from his general desire not to involve himself in pointless bickering, though, he was a bit shorter of breath than he wanted to admit. Mid-afternoon in early autumn on the Great Plains was not the best time to be climbing mountains, however gentle the slope.

In fact, he was busy mulling over the implications of the fact that his two companions seemed to have plenty of energy to jabber away. Billie was no surprise; gnomes were known for their resilience and durability. Weaver, though, if his claims were true, had spent the last several years sitting in a library. He was barely even sweating. The man was dressed mostly in black.

No one was watching the University’s arched gates, but the campus was far from deserted. Weaver led them to the left, then right, up a wide flight of stairs and onto a gently wandering path bordered by a colonnaded hall on one side and a wide lawn on the other. A young dwarf woman was reading quietly in the shade of the building’s exterior, while three boys were kicking a much-battered leather ball around the lawn, watched by a small gaggle of fellow students.

All this came to an abrupt halt at the arrival of the three visitors.

A thin blond boy with sharp features gasped melodramatically, then began running around in circles like a beheaded chicken, waving his arms and shouting.

“It returns! Repent, sinners, for the beast walks among us once again! The ancient horror is unleashed! Flee for your pathetic lives!”

He suited the words with action, pelting away down the path into a stand of trees, flapping his arms overhead the whole way.

“Hey!” Billie said, grinning hugely and slugging Weaver just above the knee. “Ain’t that sweet, they remember you!”

“Afternoon, Mr. Weaver,” a dark-skinned human boy said mildly. “You remember Chase, of course.”

“Not particularly,” Weaver grunted. “As you were, kids, we’re just passing through.”

“I thought you quit,” said a drow woman with a green-dyed mohawk. Her tone was overtly unfriendly, quite unlike the drow Joe had met in Sarasio last year; he remembered Shaeine as politeness incarnate. Also, this one’s hairstyle was far from flattering, not that he was about to mention it.

“Well, if you thought at all, you’ve made some progress in my absence,” Weaver snorted, stalking off along the path.

“Yeah, sorry ’bout him,” Billie said, waving to the students. “He’s got this condition where he’s a ruddy asshole.”

“We know,” the drow replied flatly.

Joe tipped his hat to her politely in passing, which gained him nothing but a hostile stare, and picked up his pace slightly to catch up with the others.

Weaver, blessedly, had ceased his grousing as they traversed the campus. Billie was too busy staring avidly at everything they passed to try to rekindle their argument, and Joe did likewise. They were watched curiously by students as they passed, and greeted a few times, but no one attempted to interfere with them; the students mostly seemed an affable lot, if more diverse than any group of people Joe had thus far encountered. Humans predominated, of course, but there were representatives from every sentient species he knew of, including one lizardman. Or lizardwoman. It could be hard to tell from a distance.

The place had a weight and a presence that made it seem older than he knew it to be. Greenery was everywhere, a number of the towering trees looking positively ancient, but of course there were ways to grow trees quickly with the proper fae magic. For that matter, many of these species wouldn’t have grown unprompted at this altitude, anyway. Nothing was crumbling or in disrepair—in fact, after Sarasio and even Tiraas, the whole place was absolutely squeaky clean. Still, it looked aged, and he couldn’t put his finger on why. That bothered him a lot more than perhaps it should. Joe lived in a world of calculated variables; he was deeply uncomfortable with vague feelings. The only thing he knew of that gave him vague feelings was witchcraft.

The other thing that struck him about the campus, after they had crossed the entirety of it in less than ten minutes, was its size. When one pictured the mysterious University at Last Rock, perched atop the famous mountain and managed by the legendary Arachne Tellwyrn, the image that came to mind was grand, both in style and in scope. This place was less than half the size of Sarasio, if that.

Of course, that made sense, if every class was as small as the one which had visited his town. They had mentioned that they were the smallest class in the University’s recent history, but even so… Fewer than twenty students a year at a four-year school would make a student body of much less than a hundred individuals. There was only so much space they could possibly use. Indeed, even for its small size, the campus was rambling in design, with a lot of greenery and open spaces.

Weaver led them to the highest of the University’s terraces, which consisted of a broad lawn with buildings arranged around it: a tower surmounted by a huge telescope, a sprawling greenhouse complex, a long structure whose wide plate glass windows revealed a cafeteria within, and the final building perched on the northwest edge of the summit, which was apparently their destination. A bronze plaque set into its outer wall proclaimed it Helion Hall; in design, it rather reminded Joe of an Omnist temple, with its accents of golden marble and domed roof.

He didn’t get much chance to appreciate the décor within, which was similarly striking. Weaver set a sharp pace, and anyway, Joe was increasingly nervous about this meeting the closer they got to their destination.

“Does she know we’re coming?” he asked suddenly, straightening his bolo tie.

Weaver shot him a contemptuous look. “How would she possibly know we’re coming? We went straight to the Rail station from Darling’s. Do you remember a stop at a telescroll office?”

“I’d say there’s no need to snap, but look who I’m talkin’ to,” Billie said amiably. She didn’t seem at all out of sorts despite having to take three steps for each of theirs; at Weaver’s pace, she was actually jogging to keep up. “We’re visitin’ the greatest mage alive, aye? Who can say what she knows?”

“Who can say, indeed,” Weaver muttered. “And yet, he asks me.”

Their path took them up a flight of carpeted stairs and down a wide hall, braced by marble columns and with a long blue rug trimmed in gold running down its center. Weaver made a beeline for an open door about halfway down. He paused at the entrance only to rap his knuckles on the doorframe.

“Hey, Arachne! Busy?”

Joe crowded in after him, only belatedly making certain not to jostle Billie. He was usually more careful about that, considering he could easily kick her over. Well, if not for her impressive reflexes, but those were no excuse to be inconsiderate.

The office was longer than wide, mostly open in the center, and lined with shelves of books and other paraphernalia, as well as a number of clearly magical devices with which he was unfamiliar. Her desk sat along the far end, with broad windows behind.

She was exactly as he remembered, right down to her attire. Well, it wasn’t the same green and brown getup, but her since of style had clearly not varied. People who lived for millennia tended to be creatures of habit. She had been in the process of writing something; Joe noted her preference for old-fashioned parchment and a quill pen. Now, though, she had stilled her hand, peering inquisitively up at them. Those eyes, striking green behind her golden spectacles, had that piercing but not unfriendly aspect he remembered distinctly.

“Well,” Professor Tellwyrn said, raising an eyebrow at Weaver and then giving Joe a little smile, which made his heart thud in a way that reminded him uncomfortably of its recent stabbing. “This is several kinds of unexpected. What brings you back here, Damian? Hello, Joseph. Same goes; I suspect this is an interesting story.”

“Ma’am,” he said, belatedly whipping off his hat and nodding deeply. “Um, sorry to just drop in like this.”

“No bother,” she said mildly, pointedly looking down at Billie.

“Oh, uh, this is—”

“Billie Fallowstone, an’ right honored to make your acquaintance, Professor!” the gnome chimed, waving enthusiastically.

“Charmed, I’m sure,” Tellwyrn said, still looking quizzically at them. “Come on in. Is this going to take long? Curious as this visit is, I do have a full schedule…”

“It shouldn’t,” Weaver said, ambling into the room and clearing space for the others. “We’re here on business, Arachne.”

“Whose business?” she asked, staring sharply at him.

“Well,” the bard said with a scowl, “Bishop Darling’s the one who sent us out, but assuming he’s not pulling our legs again, the matter goes well beyond him. We actually have a couple of things to ask you, the first of which is the whereabouts of a missing companion.”

“I highly doubt I have your missing companion,” Tellwyrn said dryly.

“Didn’t expect you would, ma’am,” Joe said, unconsciously turning his hat around and around in his hands. “But the Bishop was under the impression you knew her, and might know where she’d been last. Mary the Crow?”

Tellwyrn suddenly scowled. “Oh. Her. Yes, he’s not wrong in that.”

“Is she here?” Weaver asked.

The Professor finally tucked her quill back into its stand on the desktop. “I’m afraid you’re defeated by your own timing, Damian. In fact, Mary has been here off and on for the last month. This is one of the ‘off’ periods, and quite frankly I was relishing it.”

“Aye, she’s a mite difficult, isn’t she?” Billie said ruminatively.

“I’m a mite difficult,” Tellwyrn said with a scowl. “She is insufferable.”

Joe, who had not had that impression at all, kept his mouth firmly shut.

Weaver sighed heavily. “That’s just typical. Well…shit.”

“Language,” Joe said before he could think better of it. “You’re in a lady’s own office, for heaven’s sake.”

Weaver just turned back to Tellwyrn, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at Joe and making a face.

“Thank you, Joseph, but it has been a very long time since I needed anyone to defend me,” the elf said with a wry little smile.

“My apologies, ma’am.”

The smile grew slightly. “And I thought I asked you not to call me ‘ma’am.’”

“I…” He swallowed heavily, squeezing his hat. “…am regretfully unable to comply…Professor.”

Billie turned to give him a strange look, then peered closely at Tellwyrn.

The Professor herself smiled more broadly, nearly grinning at him outright, before transferring her gaze back to Weaver. “What do you need Mary for, exactly?”

“Well, that pertains to the other matter we came to speak to you about,” he replied. “We’re going off on a mission shortly, and it would be nice to have the Crow along. We expect significant opposition, not to mention the hazards of the thing itself.”

“I’m on tenterhooks,” Tellwyrn said, deadpan.

“Nothing too serious,” Weaver said, grinning and stuffing his hands in his pockets. “We’re just going to recover the skull of Belosiphon the Black. Mind if we bring it back here?”

Tellwyrn blinked once, slowly, then folded her hands on the desk. “I’m sorry, but could I possibly get that in writing? With signatures? I want something to show the next asshat who lectures me about how the Age of Adventures is over.”

“Ha ha, but seriously,” Weaver said. “We’ve no idea what to do with the fucking thing if we do manage to get our hands on it. The whole point is to keep it out of everyone else’s hands. The Church and the Empire can’t be trusted with something like this, and Darling doesn’t want to touch it with a ten-foot pole, which is far and away the most sensible thing he’s said in the whole time I’ve known him. I suggested you, Arachne, with apologies for intruding on your orderly little life.”

“Orderly little life,” she said flatly, reaching over to tap a finger on the document she had been writing. “This is a letter to a Shaathist lodge in the upper Wyrnrange, which has just contacted me to verify details on a correspondence they’ve been carrying on with one of my students. Apparently Chase Masterson has been trying to trade his classmate Natchua to the son of their lodge master as a wife. The asking price is two oxen and a stack of beaver pelts.”

“That is…possibly the most contemptible thing I’ve ever heard,” Joe said, stunned.

Tellwyrn rolled her eyes. “He’s not actually trying to do that. Natchua is a drow with the disposition of a hungover badger at the best of times; this is Chase’s idea of a joke. Of course she will probably try to slit his throat, and now I’ve got a bunch of offended Huntsmen to mollify, and it grates on my nerves that they’re legitimately the wronged party in this. Honestly, I’m running out of ways to punish that boy. He just doesn’t seem to care what anyone does to him. So, no, this is a refreshing change from these damn kids and that damn Crow. Yes, Damian, if you happen to get your hands on that skull I’ll take it off them; I can tuck it away between the planes like the others, and that’ll be that. How flattering that you would think of me.”

“Chase,” said Billie. “Wasn’t that the daft lollipop who went runnin’ across the yard like his bum was full o’ bees when we showed up?”

“Sounds about right,” Tellwyrn said, scowling. “Enough about him.”

“You brought him up,” Weaver pointed out.

“Anyway,” she said more loudly, “while taking a chaos artifact out of circulation is a worthwhile use of my time, I’m afraid I just can’t spare it right now, Damian. In addition to the University I have a rather involved side project, which is what Mary’s been doing here.”

“Oh?” he said. “Any idea when she’ll be back?”

“I don’t even know why she left,” Tellwyrn complained. “Not that I was looking that particular gift horse in the mouth. The woman is terminally unable to explain herself.”

“Completely unlike someone else I know,” Weaver said, grinning.

“Well, she’s a meddler, with her fingers in a dozen pies on a slow day,” the Professor continued. “The upside of that is she takes pains to keep tabs on her various projects. If something this urgent has come up and you’re already involved with the Crow, you can be assured she’ll turn up on her own. Probably sooner than later.”

“I’d hope so,” Billie said. “Hard ta guess what’s more important than the skull of a chaos dragon resurfacing.”

“If that’s actually what’s happened,” Joe pointed out. “The source of our orders has proven himself less than trustworthy, and his source is admittedly vague and confusing.”

“This is all sounding increasingly intriguing,” Tellwyrn said with a small smile. “If you lot don’t hush up I may be forced to evict you out of self-preservation. Much more of this and I’ll be feeling tempted to go haring off myself after adventure. Gods know I could use the change of pace.”

“Well, why not come along?” Joe heard himself say. “With Mary absent, we could sure use the backup! And it’d be great to spend some time with you. Get to know each other, all that.”

Billie was giving him that look again.

“More tempting than you know,” Tellwyrn said dryly. “But I have responsibilities. I’ll tell you what, Joseph: if this turns into a real crisis, which is more than probable considering what you’re mucking about with, come see me again and I’ll reconsider getting involved. After all, I do have to live on this planet. I have an interest in not letting it get demolished.”

“It’s a date, then,” Joe said, grinning. He had to physically repress the urge to smack himself in the face. Now Weaver was also looking at him askance.

Joe cleared his throat; to break the crushing (it seemed to him) silence which had descended, he grasped for the first topic of conversation he could think of. “So, while we’re all here anyway, how’re the gang? The freshmen. Ah, well, sophomores now, I guess. I’d be nice to catch up.”

“There, too, I’m afraid you’ve got bad timing,” Tellwyrn said with a lopsided smile that he couldn’t stop staring at. “They’re away on another trip.”

“Oh? Like Sarasio?”

“Like Sarasio but potentially worse,” she said. “Honestly it’s best not to go into it; sounds like you’ve got plenty to think about already.”

“Besides which,” Weaver said petulantly, “we do not have time for social calls or faffing around with college kids. We have a job, and time is a factor. Well, Arachne, sorry to interrupt your letter-writing; we’ll let you get back to it. Hopefully you’ll be hearing from us soon with an object of unspeakable horror in our possession.”

“Just don’t show it to any of the kids on your way through,” she said, shaking her head.

Weaver nodded curtly and turned to leave, Billie following with a final wave at Tellwyrn. Joe was the last to go, turning away reluctantly.

“Damian,” the Professor said quietly behind them, bringing the whole group to a halt. “I told you before you’d be welcome back here if you need to, and I won’t go back on that. But… If you’ve taken up adventuring again, and considering who you’ve apparently got handing you quests… Well, it’s not hard to figure out what he’s offering you, is it?”

“I know what I’m doing,” Weaver said coldly, his back still to her.

“I’m aware of that,” Tellwyrn replied, her tone calm. “And you also know of recent developments with regard to a certain god, his cult and his new paladin in this town?”

“Right.”

“Well, like I said, you’ve earned a place here and I’ll back you up. Just know that if you keep doing what I think you’re doing, you might make that too complicated to work out in practice.”

Weaver half-turned to look at her sidelong over his shoulder, then smiled. Oddly for him, the expression was calm and held real warmth.

“I do appreciate you looking out for me, Arachne,” he said in a much more gentle tone than his usual one. “Like I said, though. I do know what I’m doing. And if it’s a mistake… Well, there are mistakes that just have to be made. You know?”

“I do indeed,” she said gravely. “Safe travels, Damian.”

“As always,” he replied, nodding again, then turned back and strode out of the office, Billie on his heels.

“And if you find time between adventures, Joseph,” she added as Joe as about to go, “you can visit on your own. I bet the sophomores would be glad to see you again, too.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, grinning broadly. “I absolutely will. That’s a promise.”

“Good.” She gave him a warm smile, and it was all he could do to force himself backward. With a final wave, he ducked back out, only letting out the breath he’d been holding when he was in the hall again.

Weaver was already halfway to the stairs; Billie had waited for him, though. She gave him an unreadable look as he emerged, but fell into step beside him.

“Well, we’re likely to be stuck here for a little while, anyway,” Weaver was grousing up ahead. “The Rail platform in this bumfuck town doesn’t even have a dedicated telescroll tower, so we’ll have to go to the Imperial facility and pay to summon a caravan and redeem our return tickets. No telling how bloody long that’ll take…”

They ignored him, walking on in silence, Joe lost in his thoughts.

Billie didn’t stop him until they were out of the building—not coincidentally, out of the easy range of elvish hearing. She placed a hand on his leg; Joe paused, shaken out of his reverie, and looked quizzically down at her. The gnome’s expression was one of pure concern.

“Joe,” she said gently. “Honey. No.”

Joe flushed, hating his inability to stifle that reaction. It was totally involuntary; no other bodily process seemed to interfere with it. He’d checked.

“C’mon,” he said gruffly. “He’ll leave us behind.”

They set off back through the campus in silence.

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The scene at the central Rail station in Calderaas was one of orderly chaos, a familiar sight to those who had lived through well-mannered disasters. In accordance with the Imperial proclamation freezing Rail travel, the station was emptied of its normal clientele and much of its normal staff. With the throngs of travelers gone, the cavernous space turned out to have ample room for the refugees from Last Rock, though they were huddled uncomfortably close together in some cases.

Imperial personnel moved rapidly about, mostly civilians from the Ministry of the Interior in suits and dresses, distinct from the townsfolk chiefly by their silver gryphon badges and brisk manner. Uniformed soldiers carrying staves were posted at the entrances and windows and strategically throughout the station, keeping watch; more of them, sans weapons, had been put to work helping to shift cargo. For the most part, the townsfolk were admirably calm and orderly. The frontier bred hardy people more inclined to work than to complain, and the proximity to the University had taught these particular souls a degree of comfort with the unexpected. Nonetheless, there were raised voices, minor scuffles and the odd backup of traffic as someone misunderstood directions or refused to follow them. Clerics were moving through the crowd, mostly Universal Church parsons, Omnist monks and several Izarites, helping to keep people calm and seeing to whatever needs they found.

The townsfolk were being settled into hastily-cleared offices and storage warehouses, with several in tents erected along the wider thoroughfares and main lobby, while the students were being set up along the platforms suspended above the actual Rail lines. Imperial officers, familiar with the handling of upset civilians in a crisis, had taken one look at the two groups and promptly separated them. Even now, with distance and casually wandering soldiers between them, a lot of the townspeople were directing angry looks and mutters at the students. Even aside from the general presumption that the University was responsible for whatever nonsense befell the town, there were more than a few Rockies intelligent enough to do the arithmetic on the situation and deduce that a student, or students, had to be personally responsible for the hellgate. By this point, that awareness had sifted through the entire population, and even some of the more laid-back citizens were growing irate. The usual run of University tomfoolery was one thing, but they’d now been separated from their homes and were facing the possibility of having no homes to which to return. The priests had a full job maintaining calm.

Professors were helping with that. They moved among the students, keeping order better than the Imperials could (apparently enough of the Interior personnel were acquainted with college students to know not to try clamping down on them), and also speaking with the civilians. University staff grew to be more familiar to the folk of Last Rock than students, simply by virtue of having more time to get to know them. Most were liked, at least to an extent, and they had a measure of trust accumulated which was paying off in this situation.

Nobody was under the delusion that this was a long-term solution. Apart from the simple sanitary concerns of having that many people in a confined space, the simmering tensions would only get worse the longer people were kept in such a tight situation. It was just a matter of time until someone lashed out, one way or another, and that raised the very real possibility of an escalating conflict. In theory, it should all be resolved one way or another within two days, but the Ministry of the Interior was already drawing up a resettlement plan for the refugees. So far, only some of the senior University faculty and the mayor and Sheriff of Last Rock had been informed of this, on the reasoning that seriously discussing the possible destruction of the town would only escalate tensions. For the time being, everyone was focusing on tending to the needs of the refugees and keeping calm and order among them.

“YOU WHAT?”

Almost everyone.

Professor Tellwyrn stood nose-to-nose with a man whose Army uniform bore a captain’s stripes below a Strike Corps insignia; he stared back at her with remarkable calm considering the situation.

“We are not embarking for Last Rock, or anywhere else,” the captain said patiently. Behind him, the three other members of his strike team stood in relaxed postures that belied the cold stares they all directed at Tellwyrn. A second strike team stood off to the side, having casually arranged themselves into a staggered diamond formation that gave them all a direct line of sight at the Professor, placing their warlock at the head of the group and the cleric in the back.

“Tell me that again,” Tellwyrn hissed. “This time, speak slowly and use small words, as I appear to have gone completely insane. There is no other possible explanation for what I thought I just heard.”

“The orders are directly from the Emperor. Forces are being dispatched from Tiraas, and as I just said, Professor, all other details are classified. I couldn’t tell you more even if I knew more.”

“Do you?”

He smiled thinly. “That’s also classified.”

“That’s nonsense!” she barked. “Calderaas is the provincial capital and the established staging area. There is no reason to re-route resources from Tiraas, hundreds of miles south, when there are soldiers, zeppelins and strike teams here!”

“I am confident that his Majesty knows what he is doing,” the captain said calmly.

“Maybe I should go ask him,” Tellwyrn snorted, taking a step back.

Immediately, a faint buzz of arcane energy sprang up around all eight Strike Corps members, along with a small but noticeable increase in the ambient temperature and a golden glow wreathing the two clerics. Both fae magic users slipped hands into their coat pockets.

“Be extremely careful, Professor,” warned the captain quietly. “That was uncomfortably close to a threat to the Emperor.”

“Boy,” she said disdainfully, “do you really imagine I’m impressed by—”

“Do you imagine I am?” he shot back. “Yes, yes, we know, big bad Arachne can bring this whole place down around all our heads. Either do it or pipe down and behave yourself, lady. There’s a crisis going on, if you haven’t noticed, and nobody has time for your grandstanding. The Empire is handling this. You will be informed of anything you need to know.”

Behind him, the priestess in his team sighed heavily and shook her head. The warlock next to her grinned.

Tellwyrn regarded the captain with a curious expression for a moment before opening her mouth to speak again.

“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?”

“Oh, what now,” Tellwyrn muttered, turning her back on the Strike Corps to seek out the new disturbance.

She stalked through the informal blockade of soldiers, none of whom moved close enough to make that difficult, to the platforms where the student groups were being organized. A mixed gaggle of sophomores and freshmen were clustered together, confronted by Janis van Richter, who was scarlet-faced and hyperventilating with a mixture of panic and fury.

As Tellwyrn arrived, Professor Yornhaldt emerged from the crowd in response to the noise, several other faculty members and a couple of Imperial Marshals gravitating over behind him.

“Janis,” Tellwyrn said sharply, “what is the—”

“Look!” Janis shrieked, reaching out to grab Ruda by the shoulder. Her hand passed straight through, eliciting no reaction from the girl. Next to her, Tanq and Natchua exchanged a nervous glance.

Tellwyrn halted, frowned, and pushed her spectacles up her nose, peering at the students through rather than over them. Her expression immediately grew an order of magnitude more angry. She held up one hand and snapped her fingers.

Instantly, the entire freshman class dissolved in a clatter of sparks and falling objects. Smoke drifted up from the wreckage of charred enchanting components now lying inert on the metal platform. The one exception was Fross, who immediately veered sideways and went shooting drunkenly off over the Rail tracks. In seconds, she lost cohesion and dissolved in a blur of mist.

“Wh—that—they—“ Professor Yornhaldt clapped a hand to his forehead. “I didn’t even— Arachne, I’m afraid I must immediately tender my resignation on the grounds that I have become a senile old fool.”

“Oh, shut up, Alaric,” she growled. “If I expected you to match wits with duplicitous teenagers I’d have to pay you better. What’s more to the point is they could not have done this alone; eight illusionary kids boarding a caravan would have drawn some notice.” She tilted her head down, glaring at the members of the sophomore class now standing around the destroyed golems. “Unless someone was covering for them.”

“The Hand of Avei has a calling, and an obligation to face the demons,” November said stridently. “It’s an honor to be of service to her in that!” She was only present because a caravan with a special safety harness had been found to carry her, and was now (much to her irritation) confined to a wheeled chair with a heavy lap quilt on Miss Sunrunner’s orders.

Beside her, Natchua shrugged, folded her arms and looked away. “If the froshes all want to get killed, I respect their choices.”

“Wait, wait, stop,” said Chase, his eyes wide. His lower lip started to tremble dramatically. “You man…that wasn’t really them? D-does this mean me and Trissiny aren’t getting married?” November shot him a filthy look.

“Those. Little. Shits.” Tellwryn hissed.

Behind her, Professor Ezzaniel cleared his throat. “It’s not like that group to do something so dangerous without a specific reason, Arachne. Considering the situation, I suspect Omnu and Avei are directly behind this.”

“Who did you think I was talking about?” she snarled, whirling and stalking away up the platform.

There was a clatter and a fountain of sparks as the connector between the Rail driver car and the compartment immediately behind it severed. Instantly, the entire empty caravan fell onto the Rail itself with a tremendous crash that brought people running from all directions. Except the driver car, which floated up into the air, turning completely around as it drifted back past the wrecked caravan and settled gently onto the Rail, facing back the way it had come.

Immediately, its hatch swung outward and a shaken-looking Imperial enchanter leaned out. “What in Omnu’s flaming name—?”

“Change of plans!” Tellwyrn said, stomping up to him. “This car is going back to Last Rock. Now. Out.”

“I’ve received no such orders,” he blustered.

“You just did, boy,” she snapped. “Get out of the car before I have to get you out.”

“Now see here!” He drew himself up fully, which was quite impressive as he was still leaning awkwardly forward out of the hatch. “The Imperial Rails answer to no one but his Majesty! If you think for one moment—”

“Driver!” a voice shouted from the near distance. The crowd of nervous onlookers parted, disgorging three Imperial soldiers with Private Moriarty at their head, pointing imperiously at the enchanter. “A further crisis has developed. On the authority of his Imperial Majesty I am commandeering this vehicle. I’ll need you to step out, please.”

“Oh, well,” he hemmed, glancing back into his compartment. “I guess if that’s—eep!” The enchanter staggered, barely catching his balance as Tellwyrn tugged him out onto the platform.

“Good work,” she said curtly, pausing just inside to point at the trio. “You three! Get in here, I may need some warm bodies to throw at a problem.”

“Well, if you’re gonna sweet talk us, I guess we have no choice,” Rook drawled, ambling forward.

It was crowded with four of them in the compartment. The three soldiers pressed themselves back onto the padded bench along its rear wall, groping for the provided handholds, of which there were not enough for all of them.

“Ugh, what is this?” Tellwyrn growled, yanking the hatch shut and glaring at the runic console. “What a mess. I told them to keep the controls simple. What does this even do?” She prodded a bank of symbols and immediately the Rail beneath them began to glow blue, humming furiously and emitting odd sparks. “Oh, I see. Well, that’s handy, needed that anyway. What are you leering at?” she demanded, turning her head to look at Rook, whose insane grin had been reflected on the inside of the windscreen.

“Moriarty broke a rule!” he crowed.

“The exalted rank of private doesn’t give us the authority to commandeer anything,” Finchley added. “Especially Imperial property.”

“An Imperial Rail driver wouldn’t yield his assigned place under any threat,” Moriarty huffed, folding his arms. “And he was standing between Arachne Tellwyrn and what she wanted. I just saved that man’s life.”

“You are rapidly becoming my favorite, Moriarty,” Tellwyrn said, turning back to the controls. She flicked her fingers across two runes and grasped a lever.

“Oh, gods,” he groaned, and that was as far as he got before she pulled the lever.

The car shot forward like a bolt of lightning, accelerating faster and far less smoothly than Rail caravans were meant to. Within seconds, they were outside the city and rounding the first gentle curve, smashing the three men into the wall and eliciting a chorus of screams. Tellwyrn gripped the lever and a hanging strap, balancing upright without apparent difficulty.

“For heaven’s sake, cut out that racket,” she snapped. “Let me concentrate! I’ve got about ten minutes to figure out how to stop this thing.”

For some reason, that didn’t seem to help.


 

“Did you see them go?” Ruda asked as the girls stepped onto the bridge toward the main campus from Clarke Tower. After months of making the trip, they barely gave the frightening drop a glance.

“Fross came to collect us,” Shaeine replied. “We were not attending the window at the time, but I gather it is confirmed? We are alone on campus?”

“Oh ho,” Ruda said, waggling her eyebrows. “And what were you attending—”

“Somehow that was the first time I’ve watched a Rail caravan depart from the vantage of our room,” Trissiny interrupted her. “It was a surprisingly awesome sight. Makes me feel like I’ve wasted opportunities all these months to see it happen. You just don’t appreciate how fast those things move when you’re inside one.”

“On the inside you mostly appreciate how roughly they move,” Teal said with a grin.

“Well, it’s not like you can just sit at your window waiting for it,” Juniper said reasonably. “Last Rock is only barely on the regular stop roster, and most the time nobody’s coming here, much less leaving. The caravans don’t come around all that often.”

“How do you know that?” Ruda asked.

The dryad shrugged. “I read, I talk to people. It’s not exactly a secret.”

“I thought the plan was to meet up on the cafeteria lawn,” Trissiny said as they reached the gate to the main campus and found Toby and Gabriel there waiting.

“Yes, well, we decided to surprise you,” said Toby with a smile. “Purely out of concern for your well-being and not at all because this place is unbearably creepy when it’s deserted.”

“It’s hard to tell,” Gabe added, “but I think it would be even without… You know.” He pointed skyward, and they all paused to look up.

The wispy spiral of clouds had, over the last hour, grown to a huge thunderhead, twisted into a slowly rotating vortex and casting a shadow over the mountain, the town and their surroundings. There were no other clouds in the sky, as if all had been drawn to the hellgate. As the sun was falling and the sky reddening, a sickly orange glow illuminated the clouds. It might have been a natural result of the sunset, except that it was too faint, and the way it reflected on the swirls of vapor made it plain that the source was at the center of the spiral. There was no thunder, no sound of any kind, but flashes occurred periodically among the clouds, like distant lighting, except an ominous red in color.

“Might as well get over there, anyway,” said Fross. “I don’t know how much difference it’ll make, but…that’s where the center of it is.”

“Yeah,” Trissiny agreed, nodding, and set out on the path toward the cafeteria. The rest fell into step with her.

“Arquin, just what the fuck do you think you’re doing with that thing?” Ruda demanded.

Gabriel placed a hand protectively on the hilt of the black sword hanging at his side. “Well, considering what we’re up against… I figured it was best to be as prepared as possible.”

“Being prepared means knowing how to use the weapons you have,” she snorted. “You’re prepared to cut your damn foot off.”

“It doesn’t cut me,” he said, scowling. “I checked.”

“Yeah, way to really hone in on the important point there.”

“Gabriel has been training with the sword,” said Trissiny, “with my help. He’s making progress.”

“Really?” Ruda raised her eyebrows. “Well, damn. Color me impressed.”

“I do what I can,” Gabriel said with blatantly false modesty.

“Progress,” Trissiny clarified, “in this case meaning that I trust him, barely, not to harm himself more than an enemy. I’m a lot less confident about him swinging that thing around while the rest of us are standing nearby. Please stick to the wands, Gabe.”

“I was planning to anyway,” he said with a sigh.

“Why do you even still have that?” Fross asked. “I thought you were gonna have the spells on it analyzed. Somehow it seems like Tellwyrn would have made you get rid of it.”

“Which is why I didn’t take it to Tellwyrn,” he said, winking at her. “I showed it to Professor Yornhaldt; he said it’s very old and was clearly the work of an archmage or something similar.”

“That’s it?” Teal asked. “No word on what the spells actually do?”

“He couldn’t tell. Apparently they’re extremely complicated and very tightly woven together, or…something. It got a bit technical for me; I learned some new terms to look up but even so I never did follow the whole thing. But no, he said to really understand what the magic was supposed to do, he’d have to start unraveling the enchantments on it, which would probably ruin them. He did suggest I could probably sell it to a collector for a good sum, or even turn it into the Empire for a bounty. Apparently the government likes to take powerful magical artifacts out of circulation whenever possible.”

“And yet…there it still is,” Toby noted.

Gabriel shrugged, looking self-conscious; he touched the hilt again, lightly brushing his fingers over it. “It’s… I dunno. It just didn’t feel right. It’s almost like I rescued her, y’know?”

Ruda snorted. “Her?”

“Well, Ariel’s a girl’s name, right?”

“I’m a little more concerned with the fact that you’re carrying a weapon loaded down with extremely powerful spells and you don’t even know what they do,” Trissiny said, turning to glance at him as they walked. “I wish you’d just left it in your room, Gabriel. Failing that, please leave it in the sheath. We are assuredly not going to need extra sources of trouble tonight.”

“Yes, General,” he grumped.

They walked in silence the rest of the way to the lawn, and by unspoken design formed into a loose circle outside the broken cafeteria windows, gazing upward. Silent lightning flickered through the clouds. It was subtle, but distinct: the flashes were coming more regularly now.

“It will be all right,” said Toby quietly. “This isn’t an accident. The gods sent us here; they have a plan.”

“Yup,” said Ruda, unconsciously gripping the jeweled hilt of her rapier. “I’m just hoping the plan isn’t ‘these paladins suck, let’s waste ’em and get new ones.’”

Everyone turned to look at her, wide-eyed.

“No,” Trissiny said solemnly. “Omnu would never do such a thing.”

The tension abated just like that; Toby actually had to clap a hand over his mouth to stifle a burst of laughter.

“I’m telling her you said that,” Ruda said with a grin, lightly punching her roommate’s shoulder.

“By all means, do,” Trissiny replied, smiling. “That’s a conversation I would dearly love to see.”

“Guys,” Gabriel said tersely. “Look.”

They saw them just barely before they heard them. They started as tiny black specks, pouring out from the center of the maelstrom, but in the quiet, the sound of buzzing immediately became audible…and then, grew. Figures continued to stream out, still too distant to be distinct, but swarming ever closer to the ground. Dozens of them, scores… Quickly, though they were uncountable in their multitudes, it became clear they numbered in the hundreds, at least. As they came, the sound of buzzing wings grew ever more insistent.

“Just so we’re clear,” Trissiny said grimly, “nobody minds if I kill these, right?”

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7 – 1

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“She’s evil!”

“Mm.”

“She’s a maniac!”

“Eh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was impossible!” Gabriel complained.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop! No blessings!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gnagrethyct attack,” Tellwyrn said tersely.

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

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

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

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

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

“Seven,” Teal interrupted.

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

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

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

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

“Taowi, how is she?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Professor?” she said uncertainly.

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

“I, uh… What don’t I know?”

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

“What are we talking about?” Teal demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just spit it out!” Teal snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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3 – 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

“Hello, Trissiny.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You…could say that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry,” she said automatically.

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

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

“I appreciate that very much.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yet you don’t, and she does.”

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

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

“Oh?” Shaeine raised an eyebrow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have noticed that,” Shaeine said dryly.

“Trissiny!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?”

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

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

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

“You?” Her eyebrows shot up. “Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You fucking bitch, you got me disinherited!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gabriel winced. “Oh, Jerry…no.”

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

“You—”

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

“How dare you—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’d like that.” She managed a smile.

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

“Best kind!” Chase said brightly.

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” Trissiny said.

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

“I assumed as much.”

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

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

“I WILL INFORM YOU WHEN YOU MAY SPEAK.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s all this, then?”

“Impotence.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“YOU HEARD ME!”

Thunder rumbled again, much more distantly.

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

Trissiny frowned. “And then?”

“And then, fill it in.”

“…I don’t understand.”

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

“Perfectly,” Trissiny said rigidly.

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

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

“OUT!”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

3 – 5

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

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

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

“To Heshenaad,” Gabriel said, wincing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Promises, promises!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Or an orgy,” Yornhaldt said, grimacing.

“Oh, come on, that was one time.”

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

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

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

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

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

Yornhaldt shook his head and sighed.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“I’m working on it!”

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

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

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

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

“I’m a wizard!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh? What’d you do to deserve that?”

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

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

“Imagine that,” Trissiny said dryly.

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

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

“It won’t work.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…oh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hildred and the freshmen watched her go in momentary silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh. Right. Yes.”

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

Teal frowned. “Who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe he should stop trying, then.”

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

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

“Well, it was worth a thought.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You underestimate Gabriel,” Trissiny said dryly.

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

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

“Not havin’ fun?” Ruda asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Great! After you, then, m’lady.”

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

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

“Wait, what?” Trissiny frowned at her.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aw, thanks!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“TRISSINY!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Or getting blasted!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then just what were we doing back there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t do much,” he protested.

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

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

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

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

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