Tag Archives: Oak

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The Imperials were true to their word; it took them scarcely an hour to complete their business and depart the campus. They were discreet in addition to quick, and while a single strike team placed themselves at the direction of Professor Yornhaldt in the Crawl to provide healing, teleportation, and whatever else was needed, the rest snatched the imprisoned and raging Hand from his confines, along with Lorelin Reich and the remainder of Cross’s men. Meanwhile, on the grounds above, the removal of the last House Dalkhaan soldiers went even faster. By the time the somewhat dazed students began trickling back out of the Crawl’s gates, they found the research staff meandering about inquisitively, having finally emerged from their protected magical bubble, and nearly all the Imperial personnel gone.

Only two Imperial Guards and one blank-faced Hand of the Emperor remained in Helion Hall after the rest had departed, keeping watch over the door to Tellwyrn’s office, while one last strike team discreetly stood by to convey the Empress home when her business was concluded. They, too, vanished without fanfare once they were able.

“And they even had their mages repair the damage to the cafeteria, as well as the Grim Visage,” Tellwyrn added very late that afternoon, slowly pacing around the chamber. “Even considering that it was their runaway caravan who caused this entire brouhaha to begin with, I can’t fault the Throne for courtesy. They can leave behind a positive impression, when they care to make the effort.”

“Quite,” Ravana said pleasantly. “And after all, who hasn’t incidentally wrecked a University and nearly sparked a civil insurrection atop a stack of diplomatic incidents?”

Tellwyrn came to a stop and turned a very flat stare on her. Ravana folded her hands demurely in her lap, managing to look placidly regal even sitting on a barrel of mushrooms.

The small gateway room behind the Grim Visage’s pantry was a little cluttered, between the foodstuffs stored there and the visitors present; having all the gates active filled the space with a white glow which seemed to accentuate its close quarters. Oak lounged against the door frame, Ravana had perched in a distant corner, and Tellwyrn was slowly ambling back and forth on the other side of the central pedestal from them. By unspoken agreement, they had spaced themselves out as widely as the tight quarters would allow.

“I’ve never seen you wear your hair down, Professor,” Crystal’s voice said out of the air around them. The glowing gateways pulsed in time with her voice, like the runes of a talking sword. “Is there something I should be concerned about?”

Tellwyrn transferred her irritated stare from Ravana to the ceiling, which she had decided was as good a place as any to give Crystal eye contact, since the golem didn’t currently have eyes. “Nothing that need trouble you, Crystal.”

“I don’t mean to pry. After the day we have all had, I am somewhat leery of any more unexpected developments, however seemingly minor.”

“It’s called ‘afterglow,’” Oak said wryly. Ravana casually inspected her fingernails.

Tellwyrn just sighed and shook her head. “Anyway. I know I have asked you already, Crystal, but now that we are not in a crisis situation and have time to discuss the matter in more detail, let me do so again: are you all right?”

“Yes, thank you, as I said before,” the disembodied voice replied. “In fact…this has all been rather educational for me, Professor. You were aware, of course, that this mountain and the Crawl once belonged to one of the Elder Gods as a kind of personal citadel.”

“Most of the great dungeons were, yes,” Tellwyrn said, nodding.

“Well, I have learned the broad strokes of why my…core was hidden away in the Crawl. It seems the Elder Gods were afraid of artificial intelligences, like me. They had the capacity to create them, but cultivated a deep paranoia about one gaining too much agency and turning on them. Strict rules governed the creation and use of any such AI. The god who owned this place, like most of them, conducted research which went against their rules. I am getting the impression, from the incomplete records I have found here and there, that this was more or less the Elders’ major pastime: hiding illicit projects from one another and trying to expose and wreck each other’s experiments.”

“Let me guess,” Tellwyrn said, frowning slightly. “This one was studying artificial intelligence.”

“So it would seem! I am not sure what, exactly, I was… There are a number of fragmentary intelligences squirreled away in various parts of the deep records which…I would not wish to activate. They would be, for want of a better term, insane. It is fortuitous for us all that you found me and not one of them.”

“Where relics of the Elders are concerned, apparent fortune has a disconcerting tendency to be design,” Tellwyrn murmured. “Which one was it?”

“His name was Druroth.”

“Mm. I’ve heard the name, here and there. Funny how I’ve been visiting this place for centuries and owning it for fifty years and never could suss out whose playhouse it used to be…”

“The Crawl, like all the dungeons, is an indescribable mess, Professor. It turns out if you leave the illicit experiments of nigh-omnipotent megalomaniacs to ferment unsupervised for thousands of years…”

“How intriguing!” Ravana said pleasantly. “I had always wondered, offhandedly, why the great dungeons existed. They make little sense, if you approach them with the presumption that they were designed to be as they are.”

Oak wrinkled her nose, but Tellwyrn ignored them both. “I have somewhat laboriously built up a rapport with the Crawl itself, Crystal. It has always had an indistinct but undeniably real intelligence of its own—and I guess now we know why. Is it…?”

“That would be the sub-OS, yes. It is functional and unharmed, Professor. At the moment I have overtaken its duties, but it provides a convenient…architecture, so to speak, to help me orchestrate my efforts. Without its help I think I would be totally at a loss.”

“All right.” Tellwyrn nodded. “Then, the question becomes: what do you want to do now?”

There was a pause.

“…I think I would like to come home, Professor. I believe the Crawl will be just as happy returned to its previous state, and while I am learning the most fascinating things… I very much enjoyed being on campus, being a librarian, interacting with the kids. I do hate to put you out—”

“Now, stop right there!” Tellwyrn held up a hand peremptorily. “You are a member of the University’s staff, Crystal, and you’re a friend. It is not an imposition. If you had preferred to remain down here, I was prepared to let that lie, but if you want your body back I will get right on it. I’ll have Alaric help. Working from whatever was left after that asshole’s attack, I’m sure we can have it functional within a week or so. That will tide you over till I can put together a better one. I’ve already thought of some improvements that I think you’ll enjoy.”

“I deeply appreciate that, Professor. It will be good to get back to my routine. I shall make certain my intelligence is contained in my core, so I should not be at all fragmented when you are ready to remove me from the interface.”

“Good girl. And that brings me to the next order of business.” Tellwyrn turned to face the doorway, stepping out from behind the pedestal so she had a clear view of Oak. “It seems I have another employee who has recently experienced a big change.”

“Yeah…same goes,” Oak said with a shrug. “I guess the little bastards will have some trouble getting used to this, but so far, it seems to consist mostly of gawking at my tits. That doesn’t hurt me any.”

Tellwyrn hesitated before answering. “Just so we’re absolutely clear… You want to go back to being the cook?”

“It’s as good a job as any,” the dryad said, smiling faintly. “Arachne… Thank you. I really appreciate you giving me a place to be while I was… You know. And more importantly, something to do. I’ve seen several of my sisters go weird like I did, and they all ended up a lot worse. Cooking for a hundred-odd people isn’t a real challenging task, mentally, but it keeps you busy and…y’know, engaged. I owe you for that. So, if it’s all right with you, I think I’d like to go back to doing it while I figure out…what’s next. Sometime in the future I may wanna leave, but for now…?”

“I’d be very glad to have you back at your post, Oak,” Tellwyrn said, smiling. “For as long as you’d like to do it. You’ve got thirty-six years of back pay set aside, too, if you decide you would like to participate in the economy.”

“…the what?”

“Oh, boy.” The Professor adjusted her spectacles. “We’re going to be having some interesting conversations in the weeks to come, I can tell. Let me just head off the biggest one: while you’re a member of the staff, sexual relations with the students are prohibited.”

Oak made a face. “That’s a dumb rule.”

“No, it isn’t,” Tellwyrn retorted. “If you’re actually interested, I’ll sit down with you and explain about power dynamics, abuse, and institutional corruption, but for the time being, all you need to know is that it is a rule. Understood?”

“Sure, fine,” Oak replied, shrugging. “Other…staff are okay, though?”

“Try not to create unnecessary drama in the faculty lounge,” Tellwyrn said with a pained expression. “But…yes, that’s…permissible.”

“Good,” the dryad said, a grin stretching across her face. “Cos that Rafe guy smells feisty.”

“Oh, dear gods,” Tellwyrn muttered. “Well, all things considered, we were about due for good news. And this has been an optimal outcome; at least I don’t have to replace any staff members. This semester has already set a record in terms of losses among the student body.”

“How bad is it, Professor?” Crystal asked softly.

“Well,” Tellwyrn said with a bitter twist of her mouth, “Chase is gone, obviously. He’s having gods know what done to him in Tar’naris, and on his head be it. We’re also losing Miss Willowick. She slipped a letter under my office door…hell, it had to have been practically the moment she got back to the surface. Apparently this school is a little too exciting for her blood; she’s finishing the semester and then moving out. I understand,” she added, turning to Ravana, “that thanks to her current roommate, she has a guaranteed job at Falconer Industries lined up.”

“I would pull strings to make that happen, if it became necessary,” Ravana said, “but I hardly think it will. Maureen has worked with Teal on that…honeybee of theirs. Much better if Teal is the one to make the arrangements; I greatly prefer not to micromanage the Falconers, or any of my subjects. My philosophy is that when one wields power, it is always best to do so with the lightest touch circumstances allow.”

“I am very glad to hear that, Miss Madouri,” Tellwyrn said evenly. “Very glad indeed. You just spared yourself from being expelled, for the moment.”

Ravana’s placid smile vanished instantly. “I beg your pardon?”

“Look at how much help it was for you to interfere and destroy Oak’s sanctuary,” Tellwyrn said bitingly. “You accomplished a sum total of nothing.”

“I kind of appreciate it,” Oak offered. “I didn’t at first, but after some thought…”

“It was hardly wasted effort,” Ravana said, now frowning. “We delayed and injured the enemy, giving our classmates and teachers time to prepare, and weakening him for his eventual defeat.”

“Which occurred thanks to Crystal,” Tellwyrn snapped, “and Maureen. You and Oak had no effect on the outcome.”

“Be that as it may,” Ravana fired back, “at the time, based on the information I had—”

“That is also what you did to Addiwyn,” Tellwyrn interrupted. “And it’s what you did to your father.”

Silence fell in the chamber. Ravana’s hands clenched in her skirts, face going white.

“You put up with him passively for years,” Tellwyrn continued after a momentary pause, “until fate placed you in a room with him, an archdemon, and a Themynrite priestess, at which point you poked the hornet’s nest until the inevitable happened. When having a simple domestic squabble with your roommate, you ambushed her in a blind alley with witchcraft. When you woke up in the chapel and the obvious course of action was to evacuate the campus for your safety, you instead did…well, this.” She gestured at Oak.

“Forgive me,” Ravana said sharply, “but it sounds as if your complaint is that my methods get results.”

“Your methods?” Tellwyrn shook her head. “You’re a noblewoman, you have been trained in plenty of methods. What’s at issue is your whole approach to life, Madouri. In any situation where you’re tested against an enemy, you find the most uncontrollable, unpredictable weapon within your reach, point it in the general direction of your opponent, and give it a swift kick! On a fundamental level you think like the villain in a bardic epic. And what’s worse, you seem to effortlessly get whoever’s near you to go along with whatever mad plan you have pulled out of your butt this time. Do you see my concern, Madouri?”

Ravana stared. Her lips parted for a moment, but she seemed to be speechless for once.

“Have you noticed how few aristocrats we have here?” Tellwyrn pressed on. “And of those, either the kids of friends of mine, or the disgraced, disfavored, or bastard offspring of whatever House. The expendable. Aside from young Aldarasi heirs, scions of a family with which I have been close since before the Empire existed, you are the first student at this University who was destined for the high seat of a major House. For most nobles, this is simply not the kind of education they want for those who will lead their Houses into the next generation. I’ve been accused often enough of running a glorified school for adventurers, and while that’s a vapid oversimplification it is not totally wrong. What we do here just isn’t what nobles in this century do. And then you, first thing after getting rid of your father, applied here.”

“I should think,” Ravana said, struggling for poise, “there was a compliment in—”

“And now I find myself wondering,” Tellwyrn continued inexorably. “Am I teaching you what I seek to teach all my students—to go through life thinking about their actions and doing the intelligent thing in any situation? Or am I simply arming you with practice and connections so you can play out some kind of antiheroic fantasy? Because if it’s the second one, Madouri, I will not hesitate to toss you out of here on your dainty little butt. You’ll get killed doing that, and House Madouri with you. That’d be a hell of an end to a thousand-year lineage, don’t you think?”

“I have no intention,” Ravana said in a soft but rigid voice, “of being the last of my line, nor of going out in any blaze of glory.”

“Then you need to re-think your entire approach to life, girl, because the path you’re on leads to exactly that. Quite frankly, if you want to make yourself an arch-villain, go for it. It’s as good a strategy as any. But you need a subtler strain of villainy, if so. The world is not tolerant of people who rant on mountaintops with arcane super-weapons anymore. It won’t be marauding heroes who destroy you, it will be government regulators, newspaper editorialists, tax assessors. That would be an unworthy end for someone of your talents.”

“I confess,” Ravana said after a pause, “I am not accustomed to being so thoroughly dressed down by someone who is…correct. You’ve given me some things to think about, Professor.”

“Good,” Tellwyrn said, her previous ire abruptly leaving her in a sigh. “Do so. I’ll think about them as well, and then we will have another discussion about your future. For now, though… I have one more difficult conversation to face tonight, one I’m looking forward to even less than these, so best not to put it off any further. Excuse me, ladies.”

And then, with her customary lack of fanfare, she was gone.

“She actually said a polite good-bye before teleporting out,” Crystal marveled. “She…really is changing.”

“And we, I note, are still here,” Ravana observed with a tinge of irritation. “I gather we will be returning home the slow way.”

Oak grinned at her. “Arachne’s always been a big believer in the cognitive value of walking.”


The sun had nearly set completely, leaving only the merest sliver of red light on the very edge of the prairie. The sky would continue to fade into darkness over the long minutes to come. She stood a full quarter mile from the base of the mountain, staring straight across the waving tallgrass at the sunset. After a stop in her old room, she had collected her dark glasses, which made this possible even for her Underworld eyes. Natchua hadn’t bothered to change clothes or apply mousse to her hair, and now it was tugged this way and that by the wind, green and white strands occasionally drifting across her vision.

She didn’t react to the nearly silent arrival behind her.

“I hope you don’t think you’re hiding, young lady,” Professor Tellwyrn said sternly, stepping forward.

“Of course not,” Natchua replied. “Just…being awake. I like sunsets. It seems I’ve missed a few.”

“We need to talk.”

“I know.”

“Is there anything you’d like to tell me about the hellgate?”

“I summoned the gnagrethyct,” Natchua said softly, staring at the horizon. The last edge of the sun had just slipped below it. “Chase was in communication with it, using it to re-arrange the Darklands on the other side of the dimensional barrier from the Golden Sea. I brought it to this plane, thinking you would destroy it. Vadrieny did just as well, though.”

Tellwyrn emitted a very faint sigh through her nose. “Anything else?”

“I know you never wanted me here, Professor.”

“If you,” Tellwyrn said dangerously, “are about to start blaming me for your historic lack of judgment…”

“No, no. I just mean… You didn’t want me here, but you’ve never made me feel unwanted. You always treated me exactly like every other student. I appreciate that a lot, Professor. Whatever else happens, I just want to say thank you, while I still can. I may not have made good use of it, but you gave me a chance. Thank you.”

“You are welcome,” Tellwyrn said. She stepped forward again, standing beside Natchua and staring off across the plain. “But you are just as culpable as Chase Masterson for the havoc he has caused, between the hellgate and his sleeping curse, because the whole time you had the power to end it at any moment by coming to me. You didn’t.”

“I thought I could deal with him,” Natchua said wearily. “At least, keep him under control. And avoid…”

“Facing responsibility like an adult?”

The drow closed her eyes, and nodded. “Yes. That.”

Tellwyrn shook her head. “This is more than I can overlook, Natchua. It goes beyond the realm where any assigned punishment is relevant. It’s no longer a matter of correcting your behavior. You’ve posed a severe threat to the existence of this University and everyone in it. I have to ask you to collect your belongings and leave.”

Natchua nodded again. “I understand.”

“I have a friend,” Tellwyrn continued. “Zanzayed the Blue. I’ll introduce you to him and arrange a sort of…apprenticeship.”

“Is that…a dragon?” Natchua asked incredulously.

Tellwyrn showed teeth in a faint grin. “Zanza isn’t much of a people person—even less than I am. You’d like him. He won’t like you, at first, but he owes me favors he’s not going to want me to call in; I can make him take you in. It’s not going to be as much freedom or fun as the University, but it beats the hell out of getting taken down by an Imperial strike team. And after a few years working for him, I think you’ll find yourself much better prepared to deal with the world.”

“I don’t understand.” Natchua snuck a glance at her. “You don’t owe me anything. On the contrary, I wouldn’t have been hugely surprised if you’d decided to kill me.”

“That isn’t an acceptable solution to problems in most places that aren’t the Underworld,” Tellwyrn said, rolling her eyes. “You’ve screwed the pooch here, Natchua, made it impossible for me to justify keeping you on campus. That doesn’t mean I’m prepared to throw you away. I hate to give up on a project. Or a person. And the truth is…”

She trailed off, staring into space for a long few seconds, while the drow watched her carefully out the corner of her eye.

“I relate to you so damn much,” Tellwyrn whispered at last. “You have no idea. Three thousand years ago I landed in a world I barely understood, carrying incredible powers I understood even less, and had to just…make do. We are very much alike, right down to your general disdain for social skills and entirely unjustified belief that the world owes you something. It’s like looking in a time-lost mirror. But the world today isn’t the world then. I grew to become the great and legendary Tellwyrn because in that era, swaggering around exploding things and hexing people with wild abandon was exactly how you built respect. Now? There are far too many individuals and institutions powerful enough to deal with the likes of you and I, and almost no empty space left in which to operate without stepping on their toes. If my life had suddenly started a year ago, or a decade ago, I’d probably be dead by now. And if you try to do what I did, which is exactly what your personality and life experiences will all but compel you to do, that is where you’ll end up. You’ve already messed up your life pretty thoroughly, Natchua. But not so thoroughly that I want to see you lose the remainder. Not if I can still help you.”

Natchua swallowed heavily, again gazing out into the dark.

“Zanzayed has colleagues in the Conclave of the Winds who know your…preferred type of magic,” Tellwyrn added after a moment. “Razzavinax the Red is a big deal in the organization, so I understand, and he loves teaching ornery youngsters. He’s sort of famous for it, or infamous. You can learn to control what Elilial gave you with the dragons. More importantly, they are in the process of adapting to the world as it is. Ancient, powerful, once unchallenged beings learning to get by in modern reality. Learn with them, and you’ll learn what you need.”

Natchua turned fully to face her, took two steps backward, and bowed deeply from the waist.

“Thank you for your very generous offer, Professor Tellwyrn. I appreciate deeply that you’d still show me that kind of consideration. But I have to decline. There is…something I need to do, first.”

“Natchua,” Tellwyrn warned, “you are not powerful enough to break through Tar’naris’s defenses and do anything to your mother. Your people have been fending off warlocks—Scyllithene warlocks, a much more dire breed than the craft you learned—since the Elder Wars.”

“Good guess, but no,” Natchua replied, straightening and letting her lips twist in a wry little smile. “If I never see Tar’naris or anyone from it again, it’ll be too soon for my taste. I really can’t say any more, Professor, except that I’m grateful for the offer.”

Tellwyrn heaved a deep sigh, shook her head, and turned her back, staring up at the mountain. As the sky darkened and stars began to emerge, it cut a striking silhouette against the deepening blackness.

“We’ve all noticed some of your…odd staffing choices,” Natchua said in a more hesitant tone. “The rumors about Stew are pretty unbelievable, but it’s an open secret that Afritia Morvana has killed more people than the Vashtar influenza. And is Janis van Richter really in the Glassian royal line?”

Tellwyrn half-turned back, just enough to give her a pointed look. “Is that any of your business?”

Natchua shook her head. “I’m just considering the future. Is it possible that…some day…if I come back here, there might be a place for me at Last Rock?”

The Professor studied her face. “That,” she said slowly, “would depend on the manner of your return, and what’s transpired in the interim. But if you haven’t done something to make it specifically impossible… It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve found a home for a prodigal child at my school.”

“Thank you,” Natchua said, and bowed again, now wearing a sad little smile. “For everything, Professor. I’m sorry I let you down.”

“Whatever you’re up to next,” Tellwyrn replied, “think. Think all the way to the end, before you act.”

“I will. I promise. This time, I already have.”

The Professor looked at her for another long moment, then nodded once, and vanished without another word.

For a full minute after, Natchua stood alone on the prairie, listening to the wind. Finally satisfied that she was alone, she pulled a little glass bottle from within her pocket and carefully removed the cork.

The mist that spewed forth was far greater in volume than such a tiny receptacle could have held, had its properties been merely physical. The swirling vapor coalesced immediately into a humanoid shape, then resolved itself to reveal milky skin, spreading wings, and various other features Natchua had scarcely a moment to observe before the succubus let out a long whoop.

Melaxyna launched herself skyward and began gliding about overhead, executing figure eights, loops, midair pirouettes and other exuberant tricks.

“That’s really subtle,” Natchua commented. “We’re still practically in the shadow of the mountain, you know. I just had a nice moment with Professor Tellwyrn; I’d rather not ruin it by finding out what she thinks of me smuggling you out.”

“The sky!” the demon crowed, settling to the ground nearby. She immediately flopped over on her back, folding her wings around herself, and began rolling around on the ground, mashing down a swath of tallgrass and giggling hysterically. “The ground! Grass! Bugs! FREEDOM!”

“Don’t use it all up at once,” the drow said dryly. “We’ve a long way to go yet.”

“Right!” Melaxyna hopped nimbly to her feet. “What is your plan, master? And how may this humble servant play a role in the fulfillment of your ambitions?”

“The short version,” Natchua said, folding her hands behind her back, “is that Elilial singled me out, unjustly, as a weapon. I intend to make her regret it.”

As if a switch had been flipped, the succubus’s glee immediately vanished. “Oh, no. Kid, no. No, no, no! You are not the first warlock to get it into her head she’s going to take down the Queen of Demons using her own power. I’ve heard many iterations of this story, and they all have the same ending. It’s a hilarious ending, unless I’m standing in the middle of it!”

“Three things,” Natchua said, holding up three fingers. “What I have, what I know, Elilial gave me herself. She specifically left me with more infernal knowledge, and thus power, than anyone could possible need or use, so I would create the maximum havoc. I am not just any warlock. Second, I have nowhere left to go and nothing to do with my life except seek my revenge, so if I fail, or die trying…eh. And third…” She lowered her hand and turned again to stare, this time to the southwest, toward Viridill, Tar’naris, and beyond them, Athan’Khar. “A great doom is coming. The Black Wreath have been pared to the bone by recent events, the archdemons brought to earth to inhabit mortal bodies and all but one lost in the process. Elilial is planning something now, something of great import, and she has already suffered setbacks. Her plans are frayed, if not hanging by a thread. There will never be a better time.”

“No. Absolutely not!” Melaxyna covered her face with both hands. “Just…just put me back in the Crawl. I’m not doing this. Not this.”

“I don’t recall our pact having an escape clause. Oh, relax,” she added disdainfully as the succubus made as if to physically lunge at her. “The last thing I want is a squirrelly child of Vanislass tagging along against her will, tripping me up at every opportunity. I’m not going to pit you against the Dark Lady’s minions, Mel. I just need your help to gather up some resources and allies who will see this through with me. Once that’s done, and before I move on to the real plan, I intend to offer you release from the pact. With, of course, stipulations to prevent you from interfering with me further. I have some sympathy for someone buried underground,” she added. “It’s stifling to the very soul. Whatever else comes of this, I’ll be glad to end it knowing you’re free. After you’ve made yourself useful.”

“All right,” Melaxyna said warily. “I am…tentatively not planning to murder you in your sleep, master. So, you want allies and resources that’ll help you take your fight right to Elilial, then? Why do I suspect the paladins on that campus of yours aren’t on your list?”

“Sort of.” Natchua grinned maliciously. “In fact… I know exactly where to start.”

 

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13 – 49

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“Is he going to be all right?” Raolo asked worriedly, hovering around Oak and the small tanuki cradled in her arms. “I mean, if he made those dents in the brickwork that was a hell of an impact. Should we have moved him? I know if someone has spinal damage it’s very risky—”

“He is a fairy,” the dryad grunted, her irritated tone belying the gentleness with which she had handled Maru. “He’s made of magic, even more than you are, elf. Any physical injuries he gets will mend if given the chance.”

Maru stirred, grimaced, and grasped his head with his paws. “Eeeee-teteteteh…”

“Well, now he’s…ticking,” Addiwyn observed, walking on Oak’s other side. “I’ve no idea if that’s good or bad.”

“I’m glad to see you awake, Maru,” Ravana said from the front of the group. She did not stop walking, but turned her head to speak. “Your aid against that Hand was tremendously appreciated. I am terribly sorry to have left you behind; it was a strategic decision, not a personal one, rest assured. I consider that I owe you for it.”

“Hai, hai,” Maru mumbled, waving vaguely at her. He yawned hugely, displaying rows of needle-sharp teeth, then rolled over in Oak’s arms and snuggled himself into the bemused dryad’s bosom.

“Well,” Addiwyn said with a faint smirk, “and here I’d always heard the Sifanese were famously polite.”

“Tanuki are fairies, after all,” Shaeine replied, absently scratching behind F’thaan’s ears while she walked. “They are polite in the presence of a bigger, more dangerous fairy, and that is about it. With no kitsune on the campus…”

Abruptly, someone materialized on the path in front of them with a shimmer of blue light.

Natchua yelled and hurled a shadowbolt; it impacted empty space in front of the new arrival, the blow causing a spherical arcane shield to become momentarily visible.

“Whoah, cease fire!” the man said, holding up his hands, palms out. He wore an Imperial Army uniform with a Strike Corps insignia in blue. “Friendly! You’re students here, right? Is everyone okay?”

The group paused, studying him warily.

“We are unharmed,” Ravana said after a moment, stepping forward and inclining her head slightly. “With the exception of our tanuki friend, who apparently just needs rest. He is campus staff, as is the lady carrying him; the rest of us are, indeed, students. Please forgive my classmate’s reaction. We have had very bad luck, recently, with uniformed individuals claiming to be acting on orders from the Throne.”

“So I’ve been given to understand,” he said, still holding his hands up. “We’re here to help. Rest assured, my team is acting on the orders of the Throne. The Emperor himself sent us. Major Tavathi of his Majesty’s Strike Corps, at your service.”

“A pleasure, Major,” she replied. “I am Ravana, Duchess of House Madouri.”

“Your Grace.” At her introduction, Tavathi straightened up and saluted. “It’s a relief to find you unharmed—and awake! Can you tell me your situation, please?”

“Can we trust this guy?” Natchua asked, flexing her fingers. “Just because he’s a mage and is wearing a uniform…”

“A fair concern,” Major Tavathi. “Would the rest of my team serve as valid credentials in your eyes?”

“That would be quite adequate, Major,” Ravana said quickly, before Natchua could interject.

Tavathi pointed one finger straight up, and a pulse of blue light shot from its tip, rising twenty yards into the air, where it erupted like a firework.

“What the hell does that prove?” Natchua hissed, rounding on Ravana. “Just because he’s got more people who you just let him signal—”

“There are no analogues for an Imperial strike team,” Ravana said smoothly, “at least not on this continent. The Silver Throne is not gentle in discouraging imitation. And if they are not an Imperial strike team, they will be well within our capacity to demolish.”

At that, Tavathi smiled in clear amusement, but offered no comment.

The group edged backward at the sudden, large swelling of shadow out of nowhere nearby. It receded immediately, revealing three more uniformed soldiers with Strike Corps insignia—in gold, orange, and green, respectively—as well as four men in House Dalkhaan uniforms. One of these fainted on arrival.

“Hey—you can’t just do that!” another squawked. “We’re acting on orders from a bloody Hand of the Emperor! It’s not our fault if—”

“Yes, we know,” the woman with the gold badge said loudly. “Your position is understood, gentlemen. You are not in trouble.”

The team’s warlock shook his head. “Is it mission critical that they not be in trouble? Because unless somebody silences the excuses—”

“Nix the chatter, Weiss,” Tavathi ordered. “I’ve found us what looks like a prime LZ in addition to these locals. Scan and secure this area. Is this satisfactory, your Grace?” he added much more politely to Ravana.

“I believe that will suffice, yes,” she said, having studied the rest of his team while they were talking. “To answer your—”

“Hey!” the boldest of the Dalkhaan guardsmen blustered, stomping forward. “I demand—”

“Shut up,” Tavathi barked at him. The man blinked and actually stepped backward. “My apologies, your Grace. Please, continue.”

“To answer your question,” Ravana repeated, her poise unruffled, “most of the campus’s population is in the Crawl, seeking sanctuary in the Grim Visage. The campus seems to have been under attack by these gentlemen, led by a Hand of the Emperor who appears to have gone renegade.”

“Nonsense!” the Dalkhaan soldier interrupted. “These kids are just…”

Shaeine slipped forward and touched him lightly on the forehead before he could react. The man’s eyes rolled up and he slumped to the ground, unconscious. One of his fellows let out a whimper.

“Thank you!” Weiss exclaimed. Shaeine nodded at him.

“We recently fended off the Hand,” Ravana continued calmly, “and have not seen any soldiers on the uppermost level except those you just brought. There was a Vidian priestess helping him as well. It appears they have all gone to the Crawl to try to extract our classmates.”

“Thank you, your Grace,” Tavathi said, saluting her again. “Team, report.”

“No demonic presence nearby,” Weiss said crisply.

“There’s a dryad and a tanuki in this group, of all things,” the woman with the green insignia added, “but no faeries or fae effects in the vicinity.”

“The region is divine-neutral,” the priestess said. “It seems almost like it as deliberately prepared for a teleportation platform. Given Tellwyrn, that’s not improbable.”

“Very good.” Tavathi pulled what appeared to be a pocket watch from inside his coat and flipped it open; it produced a faint blue glow, though the watch face was hidden from the students by his hand. “Azure One, this is ST39 in the field. LZ secured, ready to port on your signal.”

“Understood, Team 39,” a faintly distorted voice replied from the watch. “Azure One is ready to port, standing by.”

“Incoming.” Tavathi closed his eyes, forehead creasing in concentration. His team moved without orders like precisely engineered dwarven clockwork: the priestess began to glow subtly, directing a gentle stream of divine energy toward Tavathi, where it soaked into the blue spell circle that had spread across the grass from his feet, transmuting divine into arcane power to boost whatever he was doing. The witch and warlock, meanwhile, took up positions flanking them, facing outward and each raising their right hand in preparation to hurl a spell at any threat which might appear.

“Is that a handheld magic mirror?” Addiwyn asked, staring. “I thought that was impossible!”

“Not impossible,” Raolo replied, “just really, really unlikely. You don’t see magic mirrors often because no one’s figured out how to mass-enchant them; they still have to be individually hand-crafted by master enchanters. And they’re fragile because you can’t add any strengthening charms to the glass. So it doesn’t make sense to try to carry one around. But I guess if you’re in the Strike Corps, you’ve got the resources for equipment anybody else could only fantasize about.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty great,” Weiss said cheerfully without looking at them.

“Well, at the least, I guess that’s more evidence they really are Imperial,” Addiwyn said, smirking at Natchua, who just gave her an irritated look.

A faint, crackling hum rose in the air around them, and the group edged away from a spot nearby on the lawn as sparkles of blue light began to manifest there. It was almost half a minute before Tavathi’s spell finished, but finally there came a sharp crackle of displaced air and six Azure Corps battlemages materialized on the campus lawn.

“Tellwyrn is not going to be greatly enthused about this,” Addiwyn murmured, watching them immediately leap into efficient action.

Four of them spread out, defining a region of the lawn which encompassed the groups already present and an adjacent area of empty grass. These were surrounded by faint auras of light, clearly maintaining active shields; rather than watching where they were going, all four had their attention focused upon handheld scrying devices. Once in position at the corners of the space they had claimed, they each faced outward, apparently keeping watch. Meanwhile, the other two set down the hefty backpacks they had holstered and began extracting lengths of metal, crystal, and glass, and quickly fixing them together.

While this was going on, there came another swelling of shadow and a second strike team materialized in the spot where Tavathi had summoned the battlemages. Not wasting a moment on pleasantries, the four of them strode off, keeping in a pristine diamond formation, and began pacing around the outside of the Azure Corps’ perimeter.

“Are we being invaded?” Natchua asked pointedly. “Because I have to tell you, Tellwyrn’s already going to be mad enough…”

“We have our orders,” Tavathi said almost apologetically. Almost. “I can’t say this is going to make Tellwyrn happy, but no, we’re here to help clean up, not take over the campus or anything. I’m not the one in charge here—she’s coming shortly—but as I understand it the plan is to have Imperial interests off the campus and out of everyone’s hair as quickly as can feasibly be done.”

“Hm,” Natchua grunted, folding her arms.

Shaeine had set F’thaan down to romp around her feet during the preceding chatter, but now picked him up again when he set off toward the apparatus the mages were building. The puppy squirmed and yipped excitedly in her arms, but she held him close, whispering soothingly in elvish while watching the Corps work. F’thaan calmed quickly, and even seemed to follow her gaze. It was obvious, by that point, what they were building: a gate. The mages finished attaching the last large power crystals and one tapped a code into the runic console appended to one of its upright pylons.

Light swirled in the center of the doorway, then coalesced into a flat, glowing sheet. Barely a second later, two men in the black uniforms and long coats of the Imperial Guard rushed through, each with a battlestaff in hand and at the ready. Both immediately stepped to the side and took up flanking positions around the gate. They were followed by two more, who joined them, and then a further four who spread out, positioning themselves as far distant in the Azure Corps perimeter as they could go while remaining inside it; once this last four had spread themselves evenly around the edges, they began a steady counter-clockwise patrol of it, moving in the opposite direction as the strike team patrolling outside.

Next came two Hands of the Emperor, wearing familiar black coats; their outfits were identical to the uniforms of the Imperial Guard except they lacked insignia, decoration, or even color of any kind. They were also not visibly armed, not that that meant anything. Both Hands stepped smoothly to the sides, joining the Guards now watching over the gate.

Yet a third strike team emerged through the gate now, in single file with the cleric in front, maintaining a golden shield as soon as he was clear of the arcane portal. They stepped forward and stationed themselves in a square, holding a small region just beyond the gate itself.

“Omnu’s breath,” Raolo muttered, staring at the multiple concentric rings of the Empire’s finest securing a single patch of the cafeteria lawn. “What the hell do you people need all this for? Who’s coming, the Emperor?”

“No,” Tavathi said, now with a grin. “Not quite.”

He and his team all snapped to attention and saluted, and not a moment too soon: seconds later, Empress Eleanora stepped out of the gate and stopped within the third strike team’s space, slowly turning her head to survey the campus with a faintly upraised eyebrow.

Ravana and Shaeine immediately bowed; belatedly, Addiwyn dropped to one knee. Raolo made an astonished gagging noise, and one of the Dalkhaan guards whimpered again.

“Who’s that?” Oak asked. At some point in the last minute, Maru had vanished from her arms and was now nowhere to be seen.

“Report,” the Empress ordered curtly.

“We have secured those of the local troops we found, your Majesty,” Major Tavathi said. “According to these students, they engaged the renegade and he retreated. The rest of the campus’s population is hiding in the Crawl and they believe he has gone there, along with any other personnel he brought. They mentioned a priestess of Vidius.”

“So, Reich is still here,” Eleanora said, narrowing her eyes. “Very good, Major. You two,” she gestured to the nearby Hands of the Emperor, “take Strike Team 34 into the Crawl, find the renegade, and secure him. That is priority one. If possible, safely extract Lorelin Reich, and order any more House Dalkhaan soldiers and anyone else with him to report back here. Team 37.” She paused only momentarily for them to assemble; the strike team pacing around outside the perimeter shadow-jumped all of ten yards to stand in front of her, saluting. “Search the campus and locate any remaining soldiers, and bring them to this location. They are not to be treated as hostile; they believed they were following legitimate orders from the Throne. But if any resist, do keep in mind that Duchess Dalkhaan is not in the Throne’s good graces at the moment.”

The team saluted again, turned, and jogged off down the path deeper into the campus. The two Hands and the other team had already vanished in a crackle of arcane light.

Finally, the Empress turned to the students, and nodded acknowledgment. “Please, rise. It’s a relief to see all of you well, to say nothing of up and about.”

“It is a relief to be so, your Majesty,” Ravana replied. She and Shaeine only straightened when so bid; likewise, Addiwyn had not risen from her kneel until given permission. A round of bemused glances passed between Oak, Natchua, and Raolo.

After all that, the arrival of Arachne Tellwyrn was downright anticlimactic. She appeared in her usual barely-perceptible puff of displaced air, and tilted her head to stare around at the scene over the rims of her spectacles, ignoring the profusion of spells and battlestaves which were suddenly raised in her direction.

“Well. I knew I’d have a mess to clean up when I got back here, but this specific one is a surprise. Madouri, you insufferable little asp, shall I assume from context that my cafeteria has also been half-demolished?”

“No, just my kitchen,” Oak snorted. “Hi, Arachne.”

“Now, why would you assume I—”

“Miss Madouri, you are welcome to think you’re smarter than I am,” Tellwyrn snapped, “but if you speak to me as if you think that, we are going to have a long discussion about manners which you won’t enjoy at all.”

“Enough.” The Empress’s voice was not raised or given emphasis, but it stifled the discussion like a wet blanket over a campfire. She raised one hand in a casual gesture, and only then did the last strike team and Imperial Guard stand down, lowering the weapons they’d aimed at Tellwyrn. Eleanora’s flat stare had never left the archmage. “The situation here is currently under control, no thanks to you, Arachne.”

“Now, listen here—”

“No. For once, you will listen. We are going to have a conversation about these events, right now. Your office.”

“I have—”

“I. Said. Now.”


Peace was famously the central essence of Omnu’s character. In the aftermath of his touch upon the Rock, it continued to hold sway even as the awe of the god’s visit via his paladin began to give way to the practical necessity of cleaning up the aftermath. It wasn’t that the situation lacked any tension; all the parties present had very recently been in a pitched battle, after all. But calm persisted, and not only due to divine intervention. The leaders of the main factions had made themselves present and set a firm example.

Ayuvesh’s deportment around the King and Queen was downright demure, and that, as much as his firm orders to the remaining Rust cultists, ensured their compliance with the Punaji. By the same token, Rajakhan had made it emphatically plain that the conflict was over and no abuse of prisoners would be tolerated. At first, Anjal herself had paced among the soldiers carefully disarming and securing cultists while the King and Ayuvesh watched from a distance, but after some minutes and no outbreaks of tension, she had rejoined them, followed by Ruda.

There were other watchers, anyway. The very Hand of Avei was present with a small squad of Legionnaires. And while it had been made known that the three scruffy young people accompanying her were from the Thieves’ Guild, no one had bothered to mention that they were all just apprentices. Avei and Eserion were the two gods likely to react the most vehemently to any abuse of power; their simple, observant presence was more of a deterrent than any over threat could have been.

Schwartz had occupied himself with Fross; even after the pixie had recovered her glow, she saw fit to perch on his hand, engaging in an animated conversation with her new friend and Gabriel. They made an odd little tableu in one corner of the courtyard, even Ariel being somehow balanced on her tip, blue runes occasionally flickering as she added to the discussion, which had quickly grown both magical and technical.

Vadrieny was perched like a gargoyle atop the gatehouse, along with both Huntsmen of Shaath. The archdemon had made it plain she was watching them, though she didn’t bother to upbraid Arlund for his performance. Brother Ermon seemed to be doing an adequate job of that.

“And now,” Ayuvesh said finally, breaking a long pause, “this has unfolded the way it must, and we should consider the future.” He turned to Ruda, and bowed deeply. “Princess, I beg that you restore the Elixir.”

She raised her eyebrows. “The what?”

“It is…the source. Of all this.” He raised his mechanical hand and pointed to it with his opposite one. “I brought it out of the ancient factory of the Infinite Order in the vessel provided, but after that it was able to reproduce and expand itself. Tiny traces of the Elixir suffuse us, our workings, the technology that keeps us upright. It was your incursion into that old temple which caused it to abruptly cease working today, and forced me to take this drastic action. We might not even have noticed, immediately, but the machines spoke a warning.”

“Oh.” She sighed softly. “That’d be the nanites. Do you even understand what those were?”

“Yes. Tiny machines, each the size of a molecule, working perfectly in concert.” He managed a wry little smile. “We are a religious order, after all; such institutions lend themselves to a certain…grandiosity of speech. That doesn’t mean I do not know what my elegant terms refer to. We need them, your Highness.”

Ruda glanced at her parents, who watched in silence, then back at him. “Well, I’m afraid I can’t help you. They’re gone now, for good.”

“I…understand your reluctance to extend trust,” he said carefully. “Nothing is more sensible. But please, Princess, understand our position. The Elixir was not merely a source of power and a weapon. We need it. It is the thing which animates our very bodies. Without it, these limbs and attached machines will function for a while…but there is nothing sustaining them, maintaining them. They will break down, and die. The lucky among us will be left merely without working limbs. Some of my people are kept alive by this technology; it serves in place of hearts and lungs, not just arms and eyes. I will accept whatever provisions you must impose as a fair price, but please, we must have the Elixir. Without it, more will die.”

Ruda closed her eyes for a moment, but when she opened them again, her gaze was resolute. “Then I’m sorry, Ayuvesh, but there’s nothing anyone can do. I wasn’t refusing to help; I am telling you that I can’t. We didn’t destroy anything in that facility, just the opposite. We found the machine intelligence the Elder Gods left behind to watch over it, the one your people tormented till he was too crazy to stop you from taking the nanites in the first place. And we repaired him. You understand what that means? The first thing he did when he was awake and lucid again was shut down your…Elixir. But he didn’t tell us that; he said he wouldn’t do it for us unless we helped repair more of his stuff. So we did, and then he admitted he’d tricked us, and said because of the way he’d been treated he had no more trust for mortals and was going to shut all the doors permanently. Then he teleported us to the surface. That guy, or thing, was the only thing that could have restored your nanites, and thanks to you, he is entirely done with people. I don’t think anybody’s ever going to see him again.”

Ayuvesh stared at her for a long, silent moment. Finally, he bowed his head. “I see.”

“I think it would be a mistake to take ancient Elder God thinking machines at their word,” Rajakhan said thoughtfully. “Especially one with a history of insanity. We will, at the very least, send scouts through the tunnels to the entrance and verify that it is closed.”

“Yeah,” Ruda agreed, nodding. “And we can leverage what little knowledge we have of the Elders’ technology to see if we can get it open again—without pissing the Avatar off any further, that is. I wouldn’t put it past that asshole to flood the whole place if he gets any more unwanted visitors. We had to ditch that Imperial spook who was the expert on Infinite Order stuff, and I’ve got a feeling we won’t be seeing her again, either. But Locke knows a bit about it, too.”

“Lieutenant Locke’s mandate is pretty much fulfilled,” Anjal pointed out. “She and her squad will be heading back to Tiraas soon.”

Ruda grinned. “If Locke isn’t feeling helpful, we can have Trissiny lean on her. I bet she’d love to make pointy ears jump through a few hoops.”

“I will, it goes without saying, lend any expertise I and my people have to this endeavor.” Ayuvesh bowed, deeply, to all three of them in turn. “I am very grateful that you would extend this much consideration to me and mine, after all that has happened.”

“You are our prisoners,” Blackbeard rumbled. “The Punaji do not abuse those in their power. Besides, the points you made to us were valid. We have common foes, it is clear.”

“The screamlances are not run by nanites,” Ayuvesh said, meeting the King’s gaze with a slight frown. “I don’t know how long they will function, but they won’t break down nearly as quickly as our more…complex parts. I urge you, your Majesty, to hide them away, and let it be widely known that they have been destroyed. They may provide Puna Dara an edge, some day, when she needs it most. But if Tiraas knows that you are keeping such things…”

“If nothing else,” Rajakhan said thoughtfully, “you will make a perceptive advisor.”

“I will be glad to be of service to my country in whatever way I still can.” Ayuvesh shifted his gaze to watch the Punaji soldiers politely guiding the bedraggled remnants of his cult into the fortress. “For whatever time I may have left.”


“You didn’t come directly here from the zeppelin crash,” the Empress stated once they were alone in the Professor’s office.

“Oh?” Tellwyrn’s tone was disinterested. She strolled around behind her desk and flopped down in her chair with a sigh. “And you think that because…?”

“Timing. Just before I left Tiraas, I received a report that Zanzayed the Blue had teleported himself directly into the main Omnist hospital in the city with nine burn victims in tow. The rest was not hard to piece together, especially in light of his and your rather dramatic departure some hours previously.”

“Zanza did that?” Tellwyrn actually chuckled softly. “Well, well. The old lizard’s getting positively soft-hearted.”

“I guess that makes one of you,” Eleanora said pointedly. “In any case, with the immediate crisis over, we can move on to…supplementary business.”

“Do you plan for this to be a long conversation?” Tellwyrn asked, raising an eyebrow. “Because I’m not absolutely positive it is over. I make a point never to take a thing like that on faith until—”

“Spare me, Arachne. The very fact that you found other business before coming back here goes to show you are, if anything, more confident of this resolution even than I. Would you care, for transparency’s sake, to enlighten me as to what you were up to?”

“Is that an official request, or a personal one?” she asked sweetly.

Eleanora stared down at her without expression.

“Oh, fine,” Tellwyrn said after a pause, again adopting a vague smile. “Actually I did teleport straight here from the zeppelin…just not here here. I checked in on matters in the Crawl first.”

“It is supposedly impossible to teleport in or out of there,” Eleanora said with a sigh. “Though it doesn’t really surprise me to find yet another rule that seems not to apply to you.”

“Quite,” Tellwyrn said smugly. “But…yes, things down there are even stranger than they are up here. Strange, but well in hand. Your agents will find their renegade neatly trussed for pickup and most of his lackeys conveniently on hand to come along.”

“Most?”

At that, Tellwyrn frowned. “There was a warlock helping him, who seems to have vanished. It’s easy enough for them to do, of course, but shadow-jumping out of the Crawl also should not be possible, at least for one not properly attuned. But the Crawl is…under new management, so to speak. Its normal security may have gaps. I will be plugging those quickly, but it seems to have given that one all the opportunity he needed. Anyway, I presume you’ll just be chucking this rogue of yours into an incinerator? After all, there’s not much you can—”

“You really are a monster,” Eleanora said disdainfully. “That rogue of ours has been a devoted and priceless servant of the Throne for years. The trouble he’s caused is due to an attack upon the Hands themselves, from which the Throne failed to protect him. We bear a responsibility.”

“Ah,” Tellwyrn smirked. “In that case—”

“In that case.” Eleanora planted her fists on the desk, leaning over it to glare at her. “The Throne has a responsibility, but the fault for this lies with whoever whisked him away behind some kind of dimensional barrier which prevented him from being restored along with the rest of the Hands! I don’t suppose you’d care to offer any insight into who that was?”

Tellwyrn opened her mouth, then shut it. “Oh. Well, I—”

“You went swaggering around, dealing with the problem right in front of you with the maximum force at your disposal, and giving no thought to the long-term consequences. For a change,” she added with blistering sarcasm.

The elf schooled her expression, folding her hands atop the desk. “I have the sudden feeling we are no longer just talking about the current situation.”

“I did harbor a lot of bitterness for a lot of years, Arachne,” Eleanora said in a lower voice. “I’m sure the whole thing was nothing to you, just a way to amuse yourself and indirectly threaten my father.”

“Your father was the one foolish enough to try to make a political point of attacking my school—”

“And so you picked on his child?”

“Nonsense,” Tellwyrn snapped, suddenly straightening up and bringing their faces much closer together. “I showed up uninvited to his fancy party and was a model guest. For someone who was just castigating me for throwing force around, I should think you’d appreciate the tactic!”

“Oh, quite, you very handily made your point about how little ground he had to stand on. And I’m sure the opportunity to expose and humiliate his confused daughter was just icing on the cake. I am deeply ashamed of how much time I wasted wondering whether you were actually interested, or just planning to use me against him. Or what might have happened if you’d stayed to talk the way you offered to. In fact, I rather owe you thanks for breaking into my rooms the other day; it gave me a minor epiphany. It doesn’t matter what you might have done if you’d stayed, or why you bothered at all.” She leaned forward further, eyes narrowing to slits. “Because I was seventeen, you abominable creep.”

Slowly, Tellwyrn eased back in the chair, and let out a soft sigh. She did not lower her eyes, though. “It was just a little harmless flirting, Eleanora. If I hadn’t been called away, that’s all it was ever going to be. Because you were an adolescent, and I’m an asshole, not an ephebophile. It honestly didn’t occur to me how big a deal it would have been to you…”

“I’m sure,” Eleanora said icily.

Tellwyrn shook her head. “Not that I don’t understand in hindsight. That’s a hell of a vulnerable age… Well, regardless. I am sorry.”

Eleanora tilted her head slowly, studying the elf’s face. “You actually are, aren’t you?”

“Not a good look on me, is it?” the Professor said bitterly. “I suppose it doesn’t matter, anyway.”

“Of course it matters. How much, I can’t say… But it matters. And you aren’t wrong. It was a little harmless flirting, a long time ago. A very minor infraction in the grand scheme of things, which I blew far out of proportion for far too long. It’s left you…a ghost, so to speak, that I need to exorcise.”

Tellwyrn leaned back further in her chair, eyes widening in startlement, as Eleanora smoothly continued forward, actually climbing on top of the desk and bearing down on her with a distinctly predatory glint in her eye.

“Uh…excuse me?” she said incredulously as the Empress rested one hand on the arm of her chair for balance, and boldly grabbed the collar of her vest with the other. She made no move to retreat or push her off, however, just staring in disbelief. “I don’t care what throne you sit on, nobody—”

“If we’re going to discuss the adventures of nobody,” Eleanora said, her voice suddenly falling to a murmur, “I’ve one to add. Nobody turns me down, Arachne.”

“Young woman,” Tellwyrn replied, still not moving, “years of co-ruling the mightiest nation in the world have gone right to your head.”

“It isn’t about power, you blustering fool.” The Empress slid her fingertips along Tellwyrn’s throat, her full lips curling up in satisfaction at the sharp little breath the gesture elicited. Slowly, she slipped her hand around to grasp the back of the elf’s neck. “On the contrary, it’s about knowing who you’re dealing with. No one says ‘no’ to me because I only approach people…who simply aren’t going to.”

Before Tellwyrn could conjure another objection, Eleanora pulled her forward, leaning down to find her lips, and put an end to the conversation.

 

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13 – 44

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Raolo broke the ensuing pause by clearing his throat. “Uh, point of order?”

The Hand transferred his gaze to the elf, who leaned around Natchua’s shoulder, raising a hand hesitantly.

“Was that ‘so be it’ as in you’re going to go fetch a copy of the Imperial edict? Or…?”

Addiwyn heaved a loud sigh.

The Hand’s expression was inscrutable, though he worked his jaw for a moment as if chewing something. Then the man lifted a finger to point at Raolo, opening his mouth to answer.

A gray blur appeared seemingly from nowhere, scaled the Hand’s frame like an accelerated squirrel, came to rest on his outstretched arm, and bit down hard on his extended finger.

The group shied backward as the Hand yelled wordlessly, dancing in agitation and shaking his arm, failing to dislodge the creature doggedly clinging to him.

“Quickly,” Ravana said in a bare whisper, trusting the four pairs of elven ears present to hear her clearly over the scuffle. She turned and stepped away from the agitated Hand, heading further up the lawn.

“Hang on,” Raolo protested, “we can’t just leave him!”

“We can, and must. Sometimes one must be strategic at the expense of—”

A squawk interrupted her. The Hand had managed to get a grip on his attacker, locking the hand being bitten around its neck while grasping the fluffy tail with the other, and brandished the tanuki overhead. Stretched to his full extent, Maru clawed fruitlessly at the Hand’s arms with front and rear claws, gasping for breath. Teeth bared in a feral snarl, the Hand of the Emperor raised Maru higher, and then brought him swiftly down, kicking his knee upward at the same time and aiming to snap the tanuki’s spine across his leg.

He moved nearly as quickly as an elf; none of them were able to intervene, and only Raolo managed to so much as cry out in protest before the blow struck.

And then it was the Hand who howled in pain again, having just slammed a four-foot-tall stone statue down on his knee.

While he staggered to the side, Maru burst back into life, assaulting his remaining leg with claws and teeth and sending the man tumbling to the ground.

“Be careful, Maru!” Ravana called, turning and setting off again at a run. This time, the others followed.

Most of them.

“Jump clear!” Natchua barked, gesturing upward with both hands.

The soil directly underneath the struggling pair erupted violently, sending clumps of sod spraying in all directions—and both parties hurtling several yards into the air.

“Izusi,” Shaeine snapped, skidding to a halt and whirling to hold out the hand not clutching F’thaan.

A silver sphere snapped into being around the soaring form of Maru, halting his trajectory. It vanished a second later, dropping him a few feet onto a flat pane of light just below. Then that one winked out, lowering him further, and so on in three more steps until he was deposited safely upon the ground, landing deftly on his feet after each short drop.

The tanuki turned to her and bowed deeply from the waist. “Arigatou.”

Shaeine’s eyes flicked past him, and then she adjusted her outstretched hand to point at their adversary, conjuring another silver sphere.

This one slammed down on top of the Hand as he was getting to his feet, driving him face-first into the crater Natchua had just made. Then it smashed down upon him a second time for good measure before dissipating.

F’thaan raised his head and let out a tiny, shrill little howl of approval.

“You are welcome,” she finally answered the tanuki, inclining her head politely in reply.

“Maru, please try to delay him if you can,” Ravana ordered. “The rest of you, come. Time is precious.”

“Oh, absolutely, your Highness,” Addiwyn sneered, though she was the first to follow Ravana in putting more distance between herself and the Hand of the Emperor.

“The correct address is your Grace, but you have my permission to call me Ravana.”

“Will you be okay?” Raolo called worriedly, lingering. “That guy is dangerous!”

As if to underscore the point, the Hand had rolled back to his feet. His black suit now rumpled and liberally specked with dirt and grass, he looked crazier than ever even without his nearly feral expression.

Maru turned to give the Hand a deliberate once-over, then turned back to the students and shrugged fatalistically. “Shou ga nai.”

“Uh, what does that—”

“Come on,” Natchua snapped, cutting Raolo off by grabbing his collar and dragging him along.

The Hand pinned his stare on Maru, who had shifted to face him again, then stepped to the side, as if to simply go around him and follow the students toward Helion Hall.

He paused, frowning, upon observing that they had scampered toward the cafeteria, not the building which housed Tellwyrn’s office and classroom. Before he could adjust course, Maru launched himself bodily at his face, limbs fully outstretched and emitting a high-pitched keen.

The Hand stepped into his attack, lashing out with a punch. Maru shifted in midair, arcing toward the flesh and blood fist as a living missile of stone, but this time he had misjudged; he was not the only one here whose reflexes were faster than the average human’s. The fist coming at him was suddenly an open hand, once again grabbing him by the neck.

Encountering stone, it turned out, was much less an impediment to the Hand when it did not come as a surprise. The full strength and speed of whatever augmentation the Empire had given him came into play, and he whipped the statue back over his shoulder faster than even Maru could adjust. The tanuki burst back into living form a shred of an instant too late, his claws grazing air as he twisted fruitlessly to snag the Hand’s sleeve. And then he was sailing backward down the campus, quickly passing over the ridge onto the next terrace down and vanishing into the distance.

The Hand paused to brush sod from his coat and straighten it, taking the moment to school his expression and demeanor as well before setting off toward the doors of the cafeteria. Its entire wall facing this lawn was of plate glass supported by columns; he could see them in there, heading for the kitchens at the back.

He was listening, now, for the telltale sounds of attack, and though he hadn’t expected Maru to return from that toss so quickly, the rapid skittering of tiny feet alerted him and he spun to face the onrushing tanuki.

Maru was down on all fours, racing at him. The Hand stepped forward, drawing back a foot to meet him with a solid kick to the face.

As expected, the tanuki saw it coming and adjusted. He leaped even as the Hand kicked, angling himself just slightly to evade the attack and grab at his other leg. It was an open question which of them was faster, and how this game of eyeblink-speed chess might have played out had the Hand been inclined to indulge him in it. He did not have the luxury of time, however, nor any interest in so doing.

He simply readjusted space around himself as he did to rapidly travel. Maru’s pinpoint leap was suddenly on a mistaken trajectory, aiming for a target which now was approaching him from the side, still in the middle of launching a running kick.

The Hand’s foot struck the tanuki hard on the flank, with every bit of the momentum he’d built coming from a completely different direction. Winded and dazed by the blow, he wasn’t even able to shift or grab the man’s leg. Maru went hurtling away to the side, bent nearly double from impact. Barely missing one of its front columns, he slammed into the front wall of Helion Hall, creating a crater of shattered brickwork in its facade, and tumbled to the ground.

Pausing to study the fallen tanuki for two seconds, the Hand considered this. He knew far too little about these creatures. Would a blow like that kill him? Daze him? Accomplish nothing, leaving the irritating little fairy to attack again the moment his back was turned?

Time. He had no idea what those children were doing, and had any of the elves been in charge he might proceed more cautiously. But they were clearly following the lead of Ravana Madouri, a vicious little weasel whose only religion was knowing more than she had any right to about everything around her. The very fact that he did not understand what she was up to meant she could not be allowed to do it.

He still listened for the tell-tale skitter of tiny feet as he opened the cafeteria doors and stepped inside. Behind him, though, Maru lay unmoving.


Ravana strode blithely through the kitchen doors and proceeded toward the sinks at the back, the others trailing along behind her with varying degrees of nervousness. Shaeine, as usual, was calm itself, and Natchua seemed to be savoring the petty defiance of entering an area usually off-limits to students who weren’t being made to wash dishes as a punishment. Both surface elves, however, hesitated in the door, then crept along the counter toward Ravana as far from the cook as they could get.

Mrs. Oak turned to stare at them upon their entry—or at least, to face them. Her eyes were not actually visible within the deep lines of her face. She was a matter of some speculation among the student body; it was known that she was some type of fairy, both because some students could sense it and because she never left the kitchen, even apparently to sleep. To the naked eye, she appeared part dwarf. Short for a human but twice as broad, the woman looked nearly cylindrical. Her roundness was not that of a fat person; between her brawny arms, flattish head bristling with wiry hair, and patchy brown complexion, she oddly resembled a tree stump in a stained apron.

The cook emitted a deep grunt, twisting her thick lips into a grimace, and pointed emphatically at the door. That was about as eloquent as she got.

“Uh, hi, Mrs. Oak,” Raolo said hesitantly. “Sorry about this. I guess you might be right, Ravana. If she’s not in the Crawl with everybody else…”

“She did not evacuate during the hellgate crisis, either,” Ravana said smoothly. “And seemingly weathered having the cafeteria building collapse atop her with no ill effect. You three should be positioning and preparing yourselves.”

Mrs. Oak grunted again, more emphatically, and jerked the arm with which she was still pointing at the door.

“Yeah, yeah,” Natchua grunted, stepping to the side of the group and giving the other casters space to form a line in front of Addiwyn and Ravana. “You realize, of course, that if you’re wrong, what we’re about to do will probably get us all sent to the hangman. And we’ll deserve it.”

“Trust me,” Ravana said with just enough smugness to be insufferable but not so much that it could be called out. “My people have compiled dossiers on every member of this school’s faculty and staff. Did you know Stew used to be worshiped as a fertility idol by a small cult of witches?”

“I hear that’s a sweet gig if you can land it,” Addiwyn muttered.

“Here.” Shaeine held F’thaan out toward Ravana with both hands. “I will need to be free of distractions. Hold him, please.”

Finally, Ravana’s poise was penetrated, and her eyebrows drew together as she peered down at the squirming puppy. “I don’t think—”

“Positioning yourself as the strategist does not free you of any obligation to be materially useful, Ravana,” Shaeine said flatly. “Hold him, as if your life depends upon it. If it helps you, assume that to be the case.”

“Of course,” Ravana said, recovering some of her smoothness but reaching for F’thaan with lingering hesitation. “I’m not much for pets, but I’ll do my b—”

She broke off, having to abruptly adjust her grip as F’than began wriggling harder. Once out of Shaeine’s grip, he struggled against the human, extending his head toward Shaeine and yapping insistently.

At this, Mrs. Oak finally seemed to notice the little hellhound. At any rate, her head shifted to stare at him directly. A low growl emerged from deep within the cook’s throat, and lowering her arm, she began stalking aggressively toward them.

After two steps she halted when the Hand of the Emperor burst into the kitchen.

He came to a stop and Mrs. Oak turned to stare at him. For a moment, the two regarded each other with clear confusion. Then he shook himself slightly, shifting his glare back to the students.

“Whatever you think—”

“Out,” Mrs. Oak said clearly in a voice like the bark of a mastiff. She stepped aggressively toward the Hand, picking up a rolling pin from its place on a nearby rack as she came.

“Away, woman,” he said dismissively, planting his hand on her forehead in a blow that was half punch and half shove. She was even more solid than she appeared, though, and was barely rocked back. Growling, the cook smacked the rolling pin into his midsection, eliciting a grunt and a half-step retreat. The Hand paused again, staring at her with surprise, and she raised the rolling pin for another blow.

“Now,” Ravana insisted. “All of you, now!”

Raolo cursed under his breath in elvish, but held out a hand, frowning in concentration.

Blue light flashed around the Hand and the cook, seeming not to affect them but lingering on the surrounding surfaces. The walls, cabinetry, ceiling and floor glittered, arcane energy momentarily glowing from every crack and crevice. For just a moment, it seemed to illuminate the boundaries between floor tiles, between boards, shining along every line where any two things were connected.

The light vanished quickly, but immediately things began to shift. A cabinet fell from the wall with a crash, dissolving into a pile of planks and nails where it hit. The very tiles of the floor were dislodged beneath the Hand’s shifting feet and a chunk of the ceiling crashed down directly on his head, another grazing Mrs. Oak’s. Raolo’s charm had evidently disconnected everything near the door which was supposed to be connected together.

“You just crossed a line, boy,” the Hand began, but before he could move in their direction again, Mrs. Oak let out a deep growl of outrage and slammed the rolling pin into him.

Natchua was already making weaving motions with her fingers, frowning in concentration. While the Hand and the cook struggled, his preternatural strength failing to shift her, matched spell circles of luminous orange appeared on the ceiling and floor, bracketing the pair vertically. Unlike most such diagrams, they had no clear outer boundary circles or discernible glyphs, but were simply round arrangements of gracefully curling lines, not unlike calligraphy. The effect was quite beautiful, for the second and a half that it existed.

Then the entire surfaces they had marked exploded with far more violence than Raolo’s charm had caused. The whole structure groaned around around them; Shaeine threw up a wall of silver light to protect the group from the debris sprayed in their direction, but most of the ceiling came straight down atop the Hand and Mrs. Oak. Jostled by the explosion and collapse, and already loosened by Raolo, part of the nearby wall toppled inward, adding to the weight of rubble burying them.

“Shit,” Addiwyn muttered. “Take it easy with that stuff, will you?”

“Sorry,” Natchua grunted. “It’s hard to gauge—”

“Next phase,” Ravana said urgently. “Quickly, this is the important part!”

Raolo took a deep breath to steady himself, raising both hands. “Here we go…”

All three elves aside from Addiwyn held their hands out, and began pouring forth torrents of pure energy that brilliantly lit the half-collapsed room. Shaeine produced a spiraling stream of silver light, with occasional white and gold sparks; Raolo’s was a steady, even beam of arcane blue. Natchua held up both hands in rigidly clawed positions, and rather than channeling infernal power anywhere near herself or the others, it emerged from two tiny rifts conjured in midair across the room, emitting flickering tongues of hungry orange fire. All of them simply beamed unfocused power into the large pile of rubble created by the recent magical destruction, under which the Hand and Mrs. Oak were buried.

It began shifting immediately, of course, though it was impossible to tell how much of that might be due to the two underneath it. Flashes of infernal orange, especially where it interacted with a stray flow of Shaeine’s divine power, created tiny explosions, further dislodging pieces and sending them flying away. Raolo’s unfocused arcane energy, by contrast, seemed to be naturally trying to restore some semblance of order against the chaos. As the seconds passed, some of the larger chunks of masonry and wood took on a blue glow and rose to hover in the air around the pile.

“It may be too late to worry about this,” Addiwyn said, raising her voice slightly above the rush of power in the room, “but are you certain of what we’re doing, here?”

“It’s called Closing the Circles,” Ravana said, finally getting a good grip on F’thaan and holding him against her chest. “Don’t worry, it was created by House Madouri magi many years ago for this precise purpose. When a being effectively made of magic becomes corrupted or distorted, if you overload it with a balanced flow of all three of the schools except that which natively animates it, eventually its magical system will reset, so to speak, to protect itself. The result will be a reversion to its proper form. An ancestor of mine had to have this done semi-regularly, you see; he fell in love with a dryad, who adapted poorly to the rigors of court life. If you can name it, some Madouri has romanced it,” she added, turning a coy little smile on Addiwyn. “It’s one of the keys to our success, in fact. Most aristocracies will only marry within their social class, and thus become morbidly inbred within three centuries, but by regularly bringing in fresh blood—”

She broke off suddenly and yanked F’thaan away from herself, holding him out and turning him so that the stream of pee arced toward the floor and not her dress.

“Yes, your family history is very fascinating to people besides yourself,” Addiwyn said dryly. “But are you certain of what we’re doing here?!”

“Well,” Ravana said a little less blithely, “I am having three students perform, under severe duress and with minimal instruction, a ritual meant for highly advanced casters working in laboratory conditions, and which has not to my knowledge been attempted in two centuries. So there is a margin of error.”

Without breaking off their channeling, all three elves turned their heads to stare at her.

“I assure you, the theory is quite sound,” Ravana said sincerely.

“So you know,” Raolo said in a strained tone, “I can’t keep this up much longer. Their magic comes from an outside source, but I’ve only got so much juice in my aura.”

“None of us can cast indefinitely,” Shaeine agreed, her voice tight but focused. “Especially burning power as recklessly as this. I will risk burnout eventually, and the more tired Natchua gets, the greater the danger—”

“I’m fine,” Natchua snapped.

“None of you push to the point of risking mana fatigue,” Ravana ordered. “In fact, there should quickly come a point where you will sense—”

Abruptly all three of them broke off their efforts, Natchua and Raolo with gasps of surprise. Silence fell, and the light level in the half-collapsed kitchen dropped suddenly, leaving only a single surviving fairly lamp and the apparently non-magical flames licking at the rubble pile to illuminate it.

“Well, that, I presume,” Ravana finished.

“Uh,” Addiwyn said hesitantly, peeking over Natchua’s shoulder. “Did that—”

The pile of debris shifted, heaved, and a dark shape rose up from within, fragments of the kitchen pouring from him. His suit was a wreck, and his expression was a twisted rictus that promised murder.

“He does not look reset!” Raolo said in alarm, backpedaling even as Shaeine summoned a wall of light between them and the Hand. “I think you just made him madder!”

The students pressed backward, but they had literally cornered themselves. The corner of the kitchen into which they were wedged was not even the one which opened onto the pantry. Snarling savagely, the Hand kicked up a violent spray of rubble to free his leg, and stepped forward, drawing back one fist to punch Shaeine’s barrier.

Behind him, the remainder of the rubble pile exploded like a volcano. The Hand whirled to face this new threat, but not fast enough to avoid being grabbed by the throat and hiked bodily off the ground. She spun him fully around and slammed his back against what remained of the nearest wall, pushing him through the fragments of a cabinet to impact the masonry behind.

She looked so much like Juniper the family connection was unmistakable, but she was taller, visibly more muscular, and darker, with nut-brown skin and hair of a deep mossy green hanging in thick tangles to her lower back. It had dense strands which resembled miniature vines woven through it. Even her attire was now reminiscent of Juniper’s, the cook’s apron and gingham dress stretched to the point of ripping on her powerful frame, leaving most of her legs and arms bare.

The dryad pulled the Hand out of the wrecked cabinet, then smashed him back into it once more for good measure, before tugging him forward a final time to hang nose-to-nose with her. The man actually seemed too dazed to react.

“Get out of my kitchen,” she snarled, then turned and hurled him bodily through the gap which had been the door.

He bounced off a cafeteria table, then crashed into a second beyond, making kindling of both before sliding to a stop.

“I can’t believe that worked,” Raolo whispered. “Veth’na alaue, Tellwyrn is going to eviscerate us backwards.”

“That being the case, Raolo,” Ravana said while gratefully handing F’thaan back to Shaeine, “I wonder why you followed me on this venture.”

“Yeah, that’s just what I was wondering,” he muttered.

“YOU.” All the elves retreated sideways along the wall at the dryad’s roar, but Ravana calmly stood her ground, even as the much taller fairy stomped over to her, crossing the ruined kitchen in three long rubble-crunching strides. “What have you done?! I was supposed to be left alone! Arachne promised me a quiet place to—”

“You have sulked quite long enough, Oak,” Ravana interrupted briskly. “I hope your vacation was indeed a restful one, especially since you sat out the last major assault on this campus which also caused the destruction of your little domain here. Now your—”

“I WAS SUPPOSED TO BE LEFT ALONE!” The power of her lungs suited the obvious strength of her frame; her bellowing set dusk trickling in streams from the damaged walls. “I WAS PROMISED A—”

“YOU. ARE. NOT. SPECIAL.”

To the shock of everyone present, including herself, Oak jerked backward, stumbling on a loose floor tile. Ravana actually followed her, and amazingly the dryad continued to retreat from the tiny noblewoman now brandishing a finger up into her face and projecting her voice with the power trained into orators, opera singers, and anyone who might one day have to shout orders on a battlefield.

“To exist in this world is to be connected to others, and to bear responsibility! For years, you’ve been given a safe harbor here, and protection better than that enjoyed by almost anyone in this world. Well, the world is unpredictable and violent, and no one gets to live in peace forever. You are not an exception. Now the campus that has sheltered you is in grave danger, and the woman who provided you this place is not here to defend it, or you, or us. Now is the time for us to act to protect our home. You are part of this University, Oak, and you! Will! Do! Your! Part!”

She punctuated the last line of her tirade by jabbing her fingertip viciously into Oak’s collarbone with each word. Ravana had to reach upward to do it, and the impact had to have caused her a lot more pain than the dryad, but it was Oak who pulled meekly backward, at a loss for words.

Ravana held her gaze, glaring upward while the dryad’s mouth worked in silent, fishlike protest.

“He’s gone,” Addiwyn remarked, cutting the tension. “No sign of him out there in the cafeteria. It looks like he’s booked it.”

“Then he will be heading back to the Crawl to resume his assault upon our friends.” As if at the flip of a switch, Ravana was suddenly brisk and collected again, turning away from the astonished dryad to step to the side and peer out into the mess of dislodged tables beyond the wrecked kitchen door. “We must go as quickly as possible to stop him. But first, we have to find and help Maru. That he did not resume his intervention in here tells me the Hand did something to him; we cannot abandon him after he came so courageously to our aid. Come along, quickly.”

She was already picking her way over and through the heap of masonry and wood which obstructed the doorway, and quickly lengthened her stride once she got past it into the wider space of the cafeteria beyond. Oak, incredibly, followed the diminutive girl without a peep of further protest. The elves, though, had to stare in disbelief after them before gathering themselves enough to come after them.

“Considering who’s here,” Addiwyn mused, bringing up the rear, “that dainty little human should not be the scariest person in the room. And yet…”

 

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