Tag Archives: Professor Ezzaniel

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Dawn had just graced the mountain when they returned.

“Enter,” Tellwyrn said in response to the sharp knock on her office door.

It swung open and Professors Rafe and Ezzaniel stepped inside, the martial arts instructor pausing to shut the door behind them.

“All right, gentlemen,” Tellwyrn said, watching them expressionlessly. “How bad is it?”

Rafe blinked at her, then scowled. “Okay, come on now, really. Just how sharp are those ears? You could tell we have bad news just from listening to our footsteps outside?”

“I can tell you have bad news because I can see your face,” she said in exasperation. “You look like someone just drowned your puppy in a pond. Both of you.”

He grimaced. “I sort of wish you’d expressed that differently…”

“I’m not getting my hellhound breath, am I?” Tellwyrn asked, her eyebrows lowering into a scowl.

“No,” Ezzaniel replied, folding his arms behind his back. “The hellhounds are gone.”

A moment of silence followed, in which Rafe sighed irritably. The office was lit only by the windows, leaving it pleasantly dim, but bright enough for them to clearly see the University president’s expression. Unfortunately.

“Gone?” Tellwyrn asked softly. “Can you be more specific, please?”

“I’m afraid not,” Ezzaniel replied. “It is quite the mystery. Khavibosh, who is now in charge on Level 2, has been stomping about in a fury about it for the last week. Apparently, both hellhounds just up and…vanished.”

“I’m sure I need not explain to you two how very impossible that is,” she said.

“No indeed,” Rafe agreed. “Level 2 is supposed to be instanced and sealed, and Melaxyna’s jiggery-pokery to overcome its multiple-version effect should make it even harder to extract things from it. In fact, rather than just come straight back here empty-handed, we looked around in the Crawl for some answers. Hence this trip taking all damn night.”

“Unfortunately,” Ezzaniel continued, “there is a dearth of persons to ask. Our ideas ran dry after Melaxyna, as she is the only denizen of the Crawl we know of who has been placed in Level 2 and yet escaped.”

“She didn’t escape,” Tellwyrn said curtly. “The Crawl let her out, at my request. I prefer to have a Vanislaad or something similarly manipulative watching over the Grim Visage. A more brutal kind of demon can keep order on Level 2 just as easily, but Sarriki does not need to be slithering about without a significant check on her movements. What did she say?”

“She affected to be incensed at the news,” Ezzaniel said with a shrug. “Frankly, the only definitive result we can claim from the encounter is evidence that she does not have the hellhounds in the Visage itself. Beyond that… I am not going to take anything a succubus tells me at face value.”

“She brought Xsythri to the Visage with her, too,” Rafe added. “That hethelax who follows her around. Did you authorize that?”

Tellwyrn’s eyes narrowed. “…not explicitly. But in retrospect, I can see how she might have arranged that loophole.”

“So,” Ezzaniel said in satisfaction, “she could be behind their disappearance.”

“Maybe,” said Rafe. “Xsythri was heartbroken at the news her puppies had vanished. Emilio’s right, a child of Vanislaas is more likely to lie than breathe, but I don’t think Xsythri has the imagination to be deceitful. It’s not the first time I’ve had that thought.”

“Whatever happened to the hellhounds,” Ezzaniel said, “we are not going to get information, much less their breath, without conducting some serious investigations. And that involves a dungeon delve of the old school. Not one of our comparatively tame class trips with the Crawl itself watching out for the students; we’ll be down there looking for answers, facing the native dangers, and probably not with the cooperation of the dungeon itself.”

“Don’t rush to conclusions,” Tellwyrn warned. “Before it comes to that, I’ll see what I can get from the Crawl myself. We get along well.”

“Regardless,” he replied, “if it does come down to an investigation of the type I referred to, it will mean several members of the faculty will be occupied doing that for a significant amount of time. Right at a moment when we need every one of us on campus and alert.”

“Yeeaah,” Rafe drawled. “We were pretty much running with the conclusion that none of this is a coincidence. It’s a virtual certainty that whoever’s casting this sleeping curse is a student, and probably one who’s been here at least two years. They all know about the hellhounds on Level 2. And a student is more likely than most to be able to get the Crawl to cooperate with them in mussing things up down there. More likely than anybody who lives in it, anyway.”

“And now you’re speculating,” said Tellwyrn. “Don’t do that. We need information, not baseless theories.”

“Well, pertaining to that,” said Ezzaniel, “dare I hope you have made some progress up here while we were occupied?”

“Of a sort,” she replied with a sigh. “To the extent of ruling out possibilities. Alaric and I have been at the scrying arrays and studying Natchua, and we seem to have established that whatever this curse is, it’s simply not detectable by magic.”

“I thought we already knew that,” said Rafe.

“Not exactly. Both the incidents were recent enough that Alaric could scry them through the ley line network. We had perfectly clear views of Chase and then Natchua just drifting off to sleep, apropos of apparently nothing. In her case, while she was walking between buildings. Something about the curse, or something done by the person who casts it, corrects the sight when viewed through a scrying apparatus.”

“Perhaps that is literally what happened,” Ezzaniel suggested. “We know nothing about how this curse is transmitted.”

“Perhaps,” she said. “Then again, Chase recalled someone approaching him from behind just before he was struck.”

Rafe groaned. “When Chase is our most reliable source of information, we’re pretty well boned.”

“We also spent some more time studying Natchua,” Tellwyrn continued, giving him a sour glance. “None of our tests have yielded any direct evidence of magic at work. By all appearances, her body is simply maintaining and infinitely rejuvenating itself at the cellular level for no reason at all, which of course is impossible. It’s made somewhat more difficult by the fact that she is an elf; her body doesn’t decay nearly as quickly as a human, but even drow aren’t meant to lie still for more than hours at a time. The unfortunate fact is that to get more data, we will have to hope she remains that way for a long period, or that other students of more short-lived races are struck. Obviously, I can’t bring myself to hope for either outcome.”

“Well,” Ezzaniel mused, “there is some precedent for things being invisible to magic. Or antithetical to it.”

“I am still certain this isn’t the Wreath’s doing,” Tellwyrn replied, “and I don’t see how mithril could be a factor here, thought it does block scrying. For it to be doing this, it would pretty much have to be ground to a fine powder and introduced directly to the subject’s bloodstream. Leaving aside the horrendous expense of obtaining a sufficient quantity of the stuff, it’s physically impossible to reduce that way. Also, elves require magic on a basic biological level. If that were possible, doing it to a drow would simply kill her.”

“Chaos disrupts magic,” Rafe said quietly.

“Chaos does not behave itself when used,” Tellwyrn said, shaking her head. “I did think of that, but no. Wielding chaos involves grand, dramatic spells, which don’t work in any consistent fashion at the best of times. This is extremely precise. No…we’re still in the dark.”

“Fuck a duck,” Rafe grumbled.

Tellwyrn sighed. “Well, anyway. Thank you both for making the effort. I’ve already posted notices that your morning classes are canceled; go get some rest.”

“Nonsense!” Rafe proclaimed, puffing out his chest and planting his fists on his hips, while Ezzaniel gave him a long, sardonic look. “I’ll just throw back a vial of one of my many sources of bottled vitality and be rarin’ to go!”

“Admestus,” she said more gently, “no. Keep those for later—I have a feeling we may need them. You and I both know, and even you have to acknowledge, that no shortcuts or replacements for natural sleep are as good as the real thing. I’m going to need both of you—and everyone else—in their best shape. No more students have been struck down yet, but I’m not enough of an optimist to assume this thing has run its course.”

“Nor I,” Ezzaniel agreed. “I rather suspect it’s only beginning. Very well, I’ll grab a few winks and be back to class after noon. What’s your plan for the time being, Arachne?”

“For now,” she said, pushing back her chair and standing, “I’ve let the faculty know to keep their eyes open; any students found inexplicably and unwakeably asleep are to be brought straight to Taowi. I’ve first period today free, and I need to go deal with yet another perplexing new thing that’s come up.”

“Anything bad?” Rafe asked, raising an eyebrow.

She grimaced. “I really, really hope not.”


The Saloon kept evening hours exclusively and the town’s sole inn did not serve food, which left but one place where people could congregate in public over breakfast. The Ale & Wenches seemed marginally less ridiculous in the morning, occupied only by a few townsfolk and with the windows open to admit the sunlight, than it did in the more raucous evening shift, when University students and passing would-be adventurers were the main clientele.

He had been here nearly twenty-four hours, not long enough yet that he needed to start thinking about food or sleep. It wasn’t his plan to stay in Last Rock enough time to make those a necessity. Nothing he was doing here was terribly urgent. It had been a well-spent day, though; wandering invisibly about, he had observed much and heard some extremely enlightening conversations. Vex’s intelligence reports generally agreed with what he had now seen, but he did not like to rely overmuch on secondhand information. Considering what might be at stake, it was well worth it to take a day and see for himself.

Now, another such interesting conversation was occurring at the next table over.

“Just don’t feel right, Hiram,” Ox Whipporwill rumbled, folding his arms across his chest. “I know, it’s all in good fun, but after the events a’ the last year…”

“Omnu’s breath, Ox, you’re getting downright stodgy in your old age,” huffed the banker, who was easily fifteen years the deputy’s senior. “You’re right, it is just a bit of fun. As Sam is so fond of reminding us, if the pool ever did pay out, we’d be in too much of a cataclysm for anybody to collect.”

“That’s what I mean,” Ox replied. “I like the kids, Hiram, you know I do. Even the ones I don’t like; as a group, I got no quarrel with ’em. An’ if you ain’t heard, Loretta’s girl will be enrolling next semester—seems Tellwyrn was serious about havin’ Last Rock’s kids sign up if they’re interested.”

“Should be a grand opportunity for young May,” Hiram Taft agreed.

“But,” Ox continued, pointing a finger across the table at him, “last time we had the freshman pool was before the hellgate, an’ then that near riot. I just don’t think it’s the same.”

“It’s very easy to say that now,” Taft replied petulantly.

“I said it then,” Ox shot back. “That hellgate was pretty fresh in everyone’s minds when you were organizin’ it first thing last semester. Matters ain’t a lot better now, despite Tellwyrn’s promise…”

“Ox, old boy, I’m going to have to disagree with you there,” said Taft. “Things are better. I rather wish the good Professor had done this years ago, if for no other reason than that it has improved the general feeling toward the University here in town. But aside from that, the fact that there’s lingering tension makes it all the more important, in my view, that we not walk on eggshells. Having our little annual joke as usual sends the message that nothing has changed. We’re still the same town, it’s still the same school, and we’re no more afraid or resentful of them than in any year before.”

“I s’pose I see the reason in that,” Ox said grudgingly. “Still makes me a mite nervous, though.”

Suddenly, the A&W’s door burst open with far more force than it required, and Arachne Tellwyrn strode in.

She made a beeline for his table, passing the startled locals without a glance, stopped right in front of him, folded her arms and stared down her nose, over the rims of her spectacles.

“Hi there, and welcome to Last Rock. Might I have a word with you in private?”

Gasps and murmurs rose all around; the tavern wasn’t busy at this hour, but half a dozen people were scattered about, all now staring at him. The serving girl went pale and actually knelt.

The Hand of the Emperor sighed softly and rose from his seat. His magic did not provide true invisibility, but it served to deflect all notice from his presence when he so chose. That technique had its weaknesses, however. Such as when someone on whom it did not work deliberately called attention to him in a way that no one could ignore.

“Good morning, Professor,” he said, nodding to her, then turned his head to nod again at the room at large. “Please, everyone, go about your business. Rise,” he added gently to the waitress, who jibbered something incoherent and actually scuttled backward a few feet without getting off her knees. Well, at least even in this backwater they knew how a Hand of the Emperor was to be treated. “Is this going to be a friendly conversation?” he added pointedly to Tellwyrn.

“As far as I know, it is,” she replied. “I have absolutely no quarrel with the Empire and my interactions with it have mostly been quite satisfactory.”

“Yes,” he said dryly, “I understand the Treasury quite enjoys receiving your taxes every year.”

Tellwyrn grinned unrepentantly. “What concerns me is the question of why a Hand of the Emperor would feel the need to skulk around here without announcing himself.”

“Perhaps my presence has nothing to do with you.”

She made a face. “Do we have to fence and banter in front of the citizenry? Nobody here needs the awkwardness of being in that crossfire.”

“There will be no crossfire,” he said firmly as the whispers started up again. “The Empire has only the highest opinion of your University, Professor. In any case, yes, I believe we should speak, now that we already are. Would you care to provide teleportation to a suitable spot? I’m sure you know the town better than I.”

She actually raised her eyebrows in visible surprise. “Don’t mind if I do, then.”

He knew her teleportation was smoother than that of any mage in the Empire’s employ, but knowing wasn’t the same as experiencing it. The world changed around him so suddenly and without fanfare that it was quite disorienting.

They now stood in a long, wide hallway, one wall consisting of glass windows overlooking the Golden Sea from atop the mountain; the rest of it was thronged with potted plants of various kinds. One lifted a blossom to face him. It had an eyeball in its center.

“Of all the highly secured, soundproof labs on my campus,” Tellwyrn said, pacing over to the windows to gaze out, “this one has the best view. Keep well back from the plants. There’s a reason these species are kept in a secure lab.”

“Duly noted,” he said, following her. “So, Professor, what can the Empire do for you?”

She turned to give him a look. “What does the Empire want from me?”

“Certainty,” he said promptly.

She actually grinned. “Something tells me I can’t help you there.”

“I quite meant what I said in front of the townsfolk,” he went on. “His Majesty’s government bears you no ill will, and in fact, Lord Vex speaks highly of your cooperation over the last two years. Regardless, there are…uncertainties. Your relationship with the entire Tirasian Dynasty has been somewhat tumultuous. And it must be said that the Throne bears half the responsibility.”

Tellwyrn blinked in apparent surprise. “You really think I harbor animosity toward the Throne?”

“It has hardly been forgotten,” he said, “that the Tirasian Dynasty exists in part because you ended the previous one.”

She shrugged. “Emperor Arvusham was incompetent, corrupt, weak, and had instigated a civil war at the same time the Universal Church was undergoing its own coup literally across the street from his house. If I hadn’t taken him off the Silver Throne, someone would.”

“Yes, but the fact remains, someone didn’t. You did. When we consider the nature of your relationship to the government, that is exceedingly relevant. The Throne appreciates your recent aid, but it also recalls that unfortunate business with the Ministry of Mysteries, not to mention Emperor Sarsamon’s attempted abduction of you just before you vanished. And, Professor, just because we cannot prove where that vodka elemental came from does not mean we don’t know.”

She grinned again. “Oh, come on. That was funny, admit it.”

“I believe his Majesty agrees with you,” the Hand replied, calmly folding his arms. “I may speak with his voice, in the eyes of the law, but I necessarily cannot share his relaxed attitude toward…practical jokes.”

Tellwyrn’s expression sobered and she turned again to gaze out over the prairie. “You’re really concerned that I’ve been eyeing the Throne since Sarsamon?”

“The facts as they are recorded are that you attempted to penetrate the Palace’s defenses with a very high-level scrying spell, and the Emperor dispatched agents to collect and question you—to no avail.”

“That’s it?”

“Is there more?”

Tellwyrn smiled, this time reminiscently. “I guess he never did leave behind a clear record…well, that doesn’t surprise me. That kerfuffle was the only way we could get in touch with each other one last time without letting on that we were doing so.”

Very slowly, the Hand raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure I understand.”

“Sarsamon Tirasian was my friend.” She shifted to look at him sidelong. “I saved his life a dozen times during the Enchanter Wars. He’d have done the same, but I was the archmage and he the nobleman; our power differential didn’t really work out that way. We once got liquored up to the point of combustibility and spent a whole night bawling about our respective dead lovers. I was about to leave, and… Well, I wanted to say goodbye.”

“Go on,” he said after a silent moment.

“It’s all ancient history now,” she whispered, again staring out the window. “And anyway, you’re the living embodiment of sufficient clearance. The Emperor and I couldn’t let on that we were acquainted for the good of the Empire. You see, House Tirasian was an insignificant little merchant House from southern Calderaas before Sultana Shiranza, Duke Rashond and Archpope Vyara cooked up between them the idea to take advantage of the Empire’s fractured state to install a puppet on the Silver Throne. With the combined influence of House Aldarasi, House Madouri and the Universal Church, they were able to bring enough other nobles and cults on board to make it happen. Once they put Sarsamon in place… We decided the Empire deserved a true leader to help it heal. So some of us put together a conspiracy of our own.” Tellwyrn turned to stare him fully in the eye. “It revolved around another acquaintance of ours. A Stalweiss warlord named Heshenaad. We set him up as a threat, someone we could rally the Empire against and elevate the Emperor above the machinations of his original supporters.”

“…I see,” the Hand said slowly. “And you couldn’t find someone not called Horsebutt? It’s an ongoing humiliation that that has to be written in the history books as someone who seriously threatened the Empire.”

She grinned in open amusement. “There’s a certain savage poetry to the Stalweiss and their honor names. It’s funny, but I originally heard the name translated as Horse’s Ass; the modern version is the improved one, believe me. Really, it’s not so bad. Everyone who’s worked with horses understands the reference. Heshenaad was a man you absolutely did not want to sneak up on from behind.” She shrugged. “So, no. Not only do I not resent the Tirasian Dynasty, I am the lion’s share of the reason it’s a thing at all. I haven’t exactly been active in politics, and I’ve never made the effort to get to know Sarsamon’s descendants, but that’s probably for the best.”

“With regard to that,” he said, “the Silver Throne does owe you an apology for the Ministry of Mysteries affair. It may interest you to know that the Ministry’s dissolution was not directly due to your efforts, but to Empress Theasia’s outrage that it had presumed to pressure you in her name without her consent.”

“She always seemed like a good one,” Tellwyrn mused. “I missed the bulk of her reign, though. That was not how I preferred to be welcomed back to the world. Well, as I said… Certainty I cannot give you. When one has seen governments come and go as often as I have, one learns not to become attached. In point of fact I happen to think the Empire in its present form is a very good thing, and Sharidan seems the best leader this continent has seen in the last century. To you he may be the center of the universe, but to me, he’s one more in a long line, and others will come after him. Someday the Empire will fall; empires always do. Someday long before then it will be afflicted with a government which is neither as competent or as benign as Sharidan’s. It will not find me in a position where I am tied to it excessively closely.” She tilted her head back, again looking down her nose at him. “For now, though, at this moment? I heartily approve of the boy and his work. You need fear no interference or hostility from me, and in fact I’m glad to help out here and there as it is necessary and appropriate.”

The Hand of the Emperor regarded her in thoughtful silence for a moment, then took one step back and sketched a shallow bow.

“The Silver Throne acknowledges and appreciates your sentiment, Professor. And returns it in virtually perfect symmetry.”

That earned another amused smile. “So, then. What specific thing brings you out here sniffing around? And kindly don’t waste my time by dissembling. Vex wouldn’t do this, and I’m well aware that you Hands lack initiative. Sharidan isn’t likely to suddenly be making gestures like this un-prompted, so either he or you are reacting to something.”

The Hand permitted himself the luxury of a soft sigh. “The Empire is…beset.”

“What else is new?”

He shook his head. “The Black Wreath is more aggressive than it has been since the Enchanter Wars, the Archpope has begun making highly disruptive moves, there is unrest simmering in multiple provinces… Both the Punaji and Tidestrider nations test the terms of our treaties, Narisians are suddenly interacting with elven groves on an unprecedented scale, and Sifan has begun making noises to the effect that the Silver Throne should offer formal reparations to the orcish clans for the cataclysm of Athan’Khar. Now, the dwarven kingdoms are suddenly acting with great aggression in Tiraan territory.”

“The dwarves?” She raised her eyebrows in surprise. “That makes no sense. The Empire could roll over in its sleep and pulverize them, and they have to know it.”

“That is precisely the issue,” he said. “A competent, comparable rival will conduct himself in a fairly predictable manner, at least insofar as refraining from rocking the boat too much. Someone cornered and desperate, however, might do absolutely anything at all. The dire condition of the Five Kingdoms is exactly what makes their overtures worrisome, and exactly what makes the Throne’s response uncertain. We can do as we have always done: send our armies, leverage our economic and political might, make the world bow before the power of Tiraas. But…the world is not as it was a hundred years ago. Economically, politically, socially, we are tied to more people and in more ways than ever before. Great shows of force are increasingly inappropriate ways to accomplish the Throne’s aims. It is his Majesty’s considered opinion that they are likely to backfire.”

“Wait a moment,” she said. “Am I on that list? You’re here because you worry I’m going to add to your troubles?”

“As I already assured you, no,” he said firmly. “On the contrary. I am tentatively studying you as a possible…solution.”

Tellwyrn folded her arms. “I’m not sure I like the sound of that.”

“No more do I, but this is the world we live in. Better that we make our accommodations, with it and with each other. Do you not think so?”

She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “What, exactly, are you proposing?”

“Exactly?” He shrugged. “Nothing. But the Throne is interested in fostering…amity. With you, and wherever else it may be possible. The more friendly faces we can see in the world, the better positioned we are to gently counter the hostile ones.”

“That is remarkably forward-thinking,” she said thoughtfully. “Of course, it raises an ugly question.”

“Oh?”

“I find myself quite suddenly beset by problems I am having trouble solving. And here you come, looking to build some kind of…partnership. I have to wonder what role the Throne may have played in arranging for me to need help.”

“None,” he said immediately. “Bothering to say so may be an empty gesture if you are determined to be suspicious, but I assure you the Throne does not want you riled up. If it helps you at all, I did not come here to propose an alliance. I was simply watching and listening in Last Rock to see how you and your school are perceived by the populace. My purpose was to gather information and form opinions, not offer a helping hand.”

“But,” she prompted.

He smiled faintly. “But, if we can offer such a hand… It would seem to be in both our interests, would it not?”

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10 – 17

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Tellwyrn paused in chewing when the newspaper was slapped down on the table inches from her plate. She then resumed and swallowed her bite of fish before even looking up.

“You know, Emilio, there are countries in this world where you can be summarily dismissed for approaching your employer that way. Or beheaded.”

“Have you seen this, Arachne?” Professor Ezzaniel demanded curtly.

“No, of course I haven’t,” she said, delicately cutting off another piece of trout without even glancing at the paper. “I make a determined effort to have no idea what’s going on in the world, especially right after a Bishop of the Universal Church starts taking public potshots at me, and of course, you are the only person on this campus clever enough to think of bringing me a newspaper of course I’ve seen it. Let me eat in peace, damn you!”

“I have sufficient restraint not to interrupt classes for this, thank you,” Ezzaniel replied calmly. “It’s not as if we never discuss business over lunch. And this is most definitely business.”

“Pshaw,” Rafe snorted from the other end of the table. “How bad can it be? I wasn’t even mentioned.”

“Gods and ministers of grace preserve us,” Yornhaldt rumbled into his beer.

“Exactly!” Rafe cried. “I mean, really. They’re looking for embarrassing dirt on the University and don’t even hint at me? Bunch of amateur dilettante hacks, is all.”

“Admestus,” Tellwyrn said without rancor, “shut up.”

“Oh, that’s what you always say.”

“And it never works, but I continue to hold out hope. And the rest of you—yes, I see you gearing up to argue—just relax and eat, will you? Mrs. Oak did not slave away over a hot stove just so you could ignore today’s excellent main course in favor of gossip.”

The faculty lounge in Helion Hall was not full, many of the professors preferring to eat alone in their classrooms or living quarters (or the cafeteria, occasionally), but as usual several of the staff had assembled there. Including Professor Yornhaldt, who despite his protestations of enjoying his sabbatical, had become markedly more sociable since returning to the campus and finding himself with no academic duties.

“I am not one to get worked up about anything in the press ordinarily,” Ezzaniel said with a deep frown, “but I just received a telescroll from Marjorie Darke’s mother. She paid the extra fee to have a runner bring it up to me directly from the scrolltower office.”

Taowi Sunrunner looked up from her own plate, raising an eyebrow. “The scrolltower employs a runner now?”

“It turns out Silas Crete occasionally employs his granddaughter,” Ezzaniel said to her, “who incidentally has begun to reek of cigarettes since I last spoke with her, which I suspect is related. Regardless, this has officially reached the point where the kids’ parents are getting nervous.”

“Lady Annabelle Darke,” said Tellwyrn, cutting herself another piece of fish, “has nothing going for her except far too much inherited money and a surname that her grandfather was dashing enough to get away with and which just sounds laughably pretentious on anyone else. Marjorie is only here because Sebastian Darke and I did some jobs back in the day—which turns out to be lucky for all of us, as that kid’s the first one in the line who’s got some of the old man’s spark. The point being, we are officially hearing from the slow-witted, easily agitated demographic. Don’t rush to join them, Emilio.”

“I’m well aware of the Lady Annabelle’s shortcomings,” Ezzaniel said, seating himself across the table from her. “I am paying attention to her because the woman is a weather vane. Not an admirable character trait, but it does make her a useful sign of which way the social winds are blowing this week. It’s going to get worse, Arachne. This is in all the papers.”

“Really, you’ve read all the papers that came out this morning?” she mused, eying him languidly. “Who was teaching your classes, then?”

“Arachne!” he exclaimed in exasperation.

“Calm yourself, Emilio,” Yornhaldt urged, reaching across to pull the paper toward himself. “Just because she is calmly eating lunch doesn’t mean she is ignoring the issue.”

“I prescribe a calm meal as the go-to treatment for many minor ailments,” Taowi added.

“It’s like this,” said Tellwyrn, finally setting down her fork. “Yes, I am aware that this is a concern. No, I am not going to run around in a panic, or in any other way interrupt my routine. The day I deprive myself of an excellent plate of fish over clumsy politicking by the likes of Justinian, I will probably drill a hole to the planet’s core and let out all the molten iron out of sheer spite.”

“From anyone else I would assume that to be empty hyperbole,” Ezzaniel said warily. Rafe cackled around a mouthful of steamed vegetables. “Anyway, isn’t it a leap to pin this on Justinian? It was Snowe who made that speech, and she’s definitely got contacts in the papers. Almost all of them run her column.”

“Branwen Snowe,” said Tellwyrn, “despite being possessed of considerable gifts—”

“They are very nice,” Rafe said, nudging Yornhaldt with an elbow.

“—has never had an original thought in her life,” Tellwyrn continued. “Sorry to disabuse you of this notion that I am sitting obliviously atop an ivory tower, Emilio, but I have been keeping track of political, social and theological trends. This secular humanism Snowe has been spouting for the last few months is a direct extension of ideas the Archpope has been promoting with more circumspection. And the fact that she’s an Izarite Bishop in and of itself signifies that she’s his creature; the followers of Izara regard Church politics as an unnecessary burden, and fob those positions off on people they want to get rid of.”

“If anything, that makes it worse,” Ezzaniel said with a scowl.

Tellwyrn rolled her eyes, gesticulating disparagingly with her (fortunately almost empty) teacup. “There is not a damn thing Justinian can do to me or this University except earn my ire, and he’s far too savvy not to know it. This isn’t directed at us, Emilio. He’s using it for some other purpose. That is why I’m not rushing to take action. It would be rash to blunder into any plan without understanding what’s actually going on, and that has yet to be revealed. What is fascinating to me is that Justinian isn’t the first source of these up-with-people notions he and Snowe have been propounding. It’s point-for-point Black Wreath theology.”

“Oh, dear,” said Rafe. “How villainous. Do you think we should assassinate him?”

“Didn’t I tell you to shut up?” Tellwyrn said irritably.

“Yes, you did, and may I just say your persistence in the face of impossible odds is one of the things I admire about y—”

His voice abruptly stopped, though his mouth kept moving. Rafe paused, blinking, and tried to speak again, then turned a scowl on Professor Yornhaldt, who smiled innocently back even as he lowered his casting hand.

“Thank you, Alaric,” Tellwyrn said dryly.

“My pleasure,” Yornhaldt replied while Rafe dug in his belt pouches for the anti-magic potions he always kept on hand.

“Arachne,” said Taowi, “you seem to be trying to reassure us, but each revelation you drop about Archpope Justinian is only more alarming than the last. Now you suggest that he’s involved with the Black Wreath?”

“Hardly,” Tellwyrn snorted. “If anything he’s been more persistent than his last three predecessors in hounding them. No, those ideas are basically good ones, I’ve always thought so. There are cults within the Pantheon that have similar priorities, notably the Eserites and Veskers. It has never been Church doctrine, though, far from it. Justinian’s not with the Wreath, but he’s up to something that he knows the general public is likely to be leery of. Hence designating a scapegoat. It’s the oldest trick in the book, when you want a great mass of people not to notice what you’re actually doing to them.”

“You’re very calm, considering you speak for the scapegoat in question,” Yornhaldt noted.

Tellwyrn shrugged, picking up her fork and resuming work on her fish. “Even if I considered this a crisis, I’ve never found freaking out to be a useful strategy for anything. It’s not a crisis, though, and even so I’m not ignoring it. Just stay the course, ladies and gentlemen—if you have any more irate communications from parents, handle them as best you can while I deal with this.”

“Why would we be fielding communications from parents?” Taowi inquired. “In fact, come to think of it, why did Lady Annabelle send that directly to you, Emilio?”

“I may have incidentally encouraged her to think of me as a sympathetic ear,” Ezzaniel said noncommittally.

“What he means,” Rafe said with a deranged leer, “is that he nailed her. Good on you for not boasting, old man! I would. She’s quite the hottie for a dame her—”

He fell abruptly silent again, paused, and then snatched a handful of vegetables from his plate and hurled them at Yornhaldt. They splattered across a shield of blue light that appeared around him.

“Boys,” Taowi said scathingly. “Cease that immediately. And clean it yourselves!”

Tellwyrn shook her head. “As I was saying, I am dealing with this. I’m not going to ignore it, but managing public opinion is a task outside my usual skill set. As such, and since I have no afternoon class, I am going to seek the counsel of an expert. But not, I repeat, until I finish my lunch.”


 

“Well, well, wouldja look at that,” Ruda drawled. “Arquin’s figured out the dog-in-the-park trick.”

Scorn came to a stop, frowning at the scene on the lawn before them. “Trick? Is for what?”

“Is for gettin’ girls,” Ruda said, grinning.

“Getting…” The demon blinked her eyes. “Where is dog? That is thing… The word I am told is ‘horse,’ yes?”

“Barely,” Trissiny murmured.

Gabriel was, indeed, surrounded by several girls, including most of those from the freshman class, as well as Hildred and a couple of seniors. As they watched avidly, with a variety of high-pitched noises of approval, he drew back his arm and hurled the branch he was holding the length of the lawn.

Whisper’s invisible hooves were soundless on the grass as she charged after it; her ephemeral mane and tail streamed behind her, leaving a wispy trail of smoke like the exhaust of a dwarven engine. She skidded to a halt by the stick and picked it up in her teeth, pausing to prance a few steps in place before trotting back to her master, head held high.

“I have never seen a horse play fetch,” Trissiny said.

“I think you had the right of it, Boots,” Ruda replied. “That thing’s just barely a horse. Hey, maybe Arjen would like a game of fetch!”

“He wouldn’t,” Trissiny said curtly, walking forward again. Ruda and Scorn trailed after her, the pirate chuckling.

“Oh, c’mon, have you ever tried? Or do you just treat him like a big, armored carriage for your convenience?”

Trissiny let out an irritated snort. “Arjen doesn’t need to eat and exists in a state of perpetually perfect grooming, but I still brush him and give him apples. I am not neglecting my horse just because I don’t play fetch with him. Horses don’t do that!”

“And yet…” Ruda grinned.

“I thought we’d established that Whisper is barely a horse.”

“Well, hello to you too,” Gabriel replied, the girls having drawn close enough to be heard by the end of that comment. Whisper nickered a greeting.

“Don’t make that face, Arquin,” Ruda said lightly. “You’ve apparently just finished demonstrating she’s at least part puppy.”

“Yeah, she’s fun, isn’t she?” he said, grinning up at Whisper as he stroked her nose. She whinnied in delight, bouncing once in place, very much like an overeager dog. Szith, Maureen and Ravana all took a couple of steps back from her at this; the “puppy” in question was still big enough to crush someone if she moved too carelessly.

“She is pretty,” Scorn breathed, stepping forward and reaching out with one clawed hand to pat the horse.

Whisper immediately bellowed in outrage and reared up, slashing at the Rhaazke with her front hooves. Scorn yelped and bounded backward, and the rest of Gabriel’s audience scattered in fright, even Iris, who had been stubbornly sticking by his side.

“Whoah, whoah!” he exclaimed, fearlessly stepping in front of the rearing horse and reaching up to pat her on the neck. “Easy, girl. Be nice to Scorn, she’s a friend. Easy, now.”

“Your dog-horse is a butt!” Scorn shouted, baring her teeth. Whisper thrust her head over Gabriel’s shoulder and snorted disdainfully, ears laid back.

“And you be nice, too,” he snapped, pointing at her. “Whisper is from the divine plane—she’s not going to take to a demon easily, or quickly. You have to be patient with animals. She’s very smart; as long as you’re not a jerk to her, she’ll come around.”

“Why am I being not the jerk?” Scorn snapped, stomping a foot childishly. “I being the nice and horse stupid dog get rrhaash k’thavkh nhak drroughn!”

“Scorn,” Trissiny said firmly, “Tanglish.”

The demon swelled up in fury. For a moment she tremble with repressed anger, clenched fists vibrating at her sides, then she whirled and stomped away. “Bah! Not being my problem, your horse is cannot behave! Come on, we go see the town. Find your demon trails!”

“Oh, that sounds like a great fuckin’ idea with her in this mood,” Ruda muttered.

“Come, paladin!” Scorn shouted, stopping and turning to glare over her shoulder.

Trissiny folded her arms, braced her feet, and stared at her.

For just a moment, it seemed like Scorn was on the verge of another outburst. After a moment, however, she drew in a deep breath and spoke in a slightly less furious tone. “Will you please to come, yes?”

Trissiny sighed and shook her head, but strode off toward the demon. “We’re not going off this campus unless you calm down, Scorn. It’s going to be enough of a challenge to introduce you to the townspeople, especially with all this newspaper nonsense going around. Animals don’t like demons, and you absolutely cannot react this way every time something snarls at you.”

“I being am calm!”

“Then why are you shouting?”

“I NOT ARE SHOUTING!”

Whisper snorted again, pawing at the ground. Her hooves weren’t visible, but nonetheless tore up a clump of grass.

Gabriel let out a low whistle, patting Whisper on the nose. “Well, none of that was encouraging.”

“What was that about demon trails?” Szith inquired. “I’m not certain that was translated correctly… But she did sense the same demon Trissiny did. Are they actually hunting for one?”

“Honestly, all that worries me less than the dialect,” Gabriel said thoughtfully, still petting Whisper and gazing in the direction in which Trissiny and Scorn had gone. “Her Tanglish hasn’t made any progress in a while.”

“Well, give the girl a bit o’ credit,” Maureen said reasonably. “She’s only been learnin’ it a handful o’ weeks, aye? I’d say she’s doin’ pretty well, considerin’ that.”

“That’s the thing,” Gabriel replied, frowning. “She does speak it pretty well for being new at it… But most of that progress she made in the first week. It was crazy how fast she picked up the language. Seriously, there’s nothing wrong with Scorn’s intelligence, quite the opposite. But then she just quit. She’s been talking that way ever since.”

“Why d’you think that is?” Iris asked, gazing at him with wide eyes while patting Whisper’s neck. Behind her back, Hildred repressed a grin, winking at Maureen.

“Mm,” Gabriel mused, finally turning back to face the rest of them. “I grew up in Tiraas, which is a big melting pot of a city. People from all over settle there, including lots of immigrants. And you can kind of tell the degree of investment someone puts into fitting in. There were people from outlandish places like Shengdu and Glassiere who had basically no accent after just a couple of years, because they were constantly working to improve their diction. And then there were those who still speak this barely comprehensible pidgin Tanglish after living here for decades and raising their children in Imperial culture, who just couldn’t be bothered.”

“Languages do not come to all with equal facility,” Szith noted. “They are much easier to learn if one starts young.”

“That’s true,” Gabriel acknowledged, nodding to her.

“I think I see what he’s getting at, though,” said Ruda, frowning. “And it’s a good point. There comes a point where someone decides they’ve learned enough for their purposes and just doesn’t fuck with it anymore. Arquin’s right, Scorn’s as sharp as a tack when she wants to be. It’s a real issue if she’s just not gonna worry about improving her Tanglish now she’s gotten mostly understandable, most of the time. She’s supposed to be proving she can fit in and make her way on this plane. Proving it to Tellwyrn, who doesn’t accept ‘meh, good enough’ as a valid attitude from anybody.”

“What’s going to happen to her if she doesn’t learn to fit in?” Iris asked.

“Not sure,” Gabriel mused. “I highly doubt it’ll be pretty, though.”

“I think we might wanna bring this up with Teal,” Ruda said to him. “Scorn’s doin’ okay with listening to people in general, but Vadrieny’s still the only one she seems actually motivated to please.”

Behind them, Ravana was still gazing down the path the paladin and demon had taken, her expression deeply thoughtful. After a moment, a faint smile crossed her features.

“Hmm.”


 

The central temple of Vesk in Tiraas was a deliberate study in contrasts. Most of it was built in rounded patterns, a rather chaotic arrangement of white marble towers and domes, surmounted by a minaret wreathed by a spiraling staircase, atop which musicians would perch to entertain the entire district on days considered holy to the Veskers—who considered any occasion holy when they could get away with creating a spectacle. Its uppermost great hall, however, was almost like a Shaathist lodge in design and layout, right down to its enormous exposed timbers. It had better lighting and a sloping tile roof, but even its décor seemed deliberately evocative of the Huntsmen’s aesthetics, with old instruments and weapons prominently displayed in place of animal trophies. Along its walls, between the windows, stood statues of various gods of the Pantheon, Vesk himself notably not among them.

Despite being called the great hall and serving as the center of the temple’s own society, it was actually not meant to be accessible to the general public. The temple’s entrances led to public spaces outside its various theaters and performance halls—the areas used by the bards for their own purposes were reached by networks of spiraling, deliberately confusing hallways, which themselves were peppered with barriers ranging from simple locked doors to enchanted alarms and force fields, and a couple of rather whimsical booby traps. It took quite some doing to reach the great hall, which was why everyone congregated there looked up in surprise when it was entered by someone not of the faith.

By the time she had crossed it to the dais at its far end, those who recognized Professor Tellwyrn had whispered her name to the others, which of course explained the matter of how she’d gotten in. The bards began drifting toward her, eagerly anticipating a show. There was nothing they loved like a good show.

Master Harper Roundol was seated on the dais, having been in conversation with two other bards. They all broke off, staring, as the legendary elf made a beeline for them. At her approach, all three rose and bowed respectfully.

“Professor,” Roundol said, straightening back up and absently stroking the neck of his guitar. “This is an unexpected honor! What can we do for you?”

Tellwyrn came to a stop in front of the dais, planted her hands on her hips, and looked him up and down. Then she studied the other two bards for a moment, and finally glanced around the hall.

“Um,” the Master Harper prompted.

She pointed at his guitar. “Can I see that for a moment?”

Roundol protectively tightened his grip on the instrument. “Ah… Might I ask why—”

In the next instant, with barely a puff of displaced air, it was out of his hands and in hers.

“Perfect, thank you,” Tellwyrn said briskly. “Stand back.”

Grasping the guitar by the neck, she lifted it over her head. The sound of wordless protest that tore free from the high priest’s throat was almost musical in its poignancy.

A hand grabbed Tellwyrn’s wrist from behind.

“That instrument,” said Vesk, gently but firmly taking it from her, “is an absolute masterwork. It has passed through the hands of seven of my high priests, cherished by each as if it were a child. The wood from which it’s made is simply not attainable anymore; in addition to being possibly the finest example of its craft to be found, anywhere, it is one of the most sacred objects in the world which is not actually overlaid with divine blessings. And in utterly typical fashion, here I find you threatening to smash it, just to get my attention.”

With another soft breath of air, the guitar was back in its owner’s hands, and Roundol lost not time in retreating from the elf, glaring reproachfully at her as he clutched it protectively to his chest. The god, incarnated as usual in his nondescript form, completely with absurd floppy hat, smiled thinly as Tellwyrn turned to face him. “For once in your interminable existence, Arachne, as a personal favor to me…”

And suddenly layers of reality peeled back, Vesk’s presence filling the temple and beyond. Without seeming to change physically, his very identity blazed forth with such sheer pressure that lesser mortals were driven back against the walls and to the floor, even before he bellowed in a voice that seemed it should have cracked the mountain.

“WOULD. YOU. PLEASE. NOT?!”

“You know, I like this much better than the last time I had to seek you out,” she said smugly, folding her arms. “This is altogether a lot easier when I don’t need your full cooperation. And much, much quicker.”

The god’s awesome presence retreated as quickly as he had brought it forth, leaving only an apparently mortal bard scowling at the Professor. “I suggest you watch that attitude, missy. The Pantheon has several excellent reasons for tolerating your shenanigans—that doesn’t mean each of us has endless patience. You can fulfill your most important purpose in the world just as well sealed away in a dimensional bubble as you can running around on your own. Arguably a lot better, in fact. Several suggested it, after that nonsense you tried to do in the Deep Wild.”

“Oh, don’t worry about me,” Tellwyrn said with a grin. “Remember, I’m the one who’s spent a full human lifetime researching each of you megalomaniacal fuckers. I know who can be pushed, and exactly how far.”

The assembled bards watched all this avidly; with the reality-rending grandstanding apparently over, they seemed mostly interested in the conflict and not unduly impressed by the presence of their primary object of worship. Vesk and Tellwyrn stared flatly at each other from mere feet apart, she smirking, he scowling.

“Oh my gods!”

The new voice belonged to a young woman with somewhat unruly dark hair, who came skittering into the great hall as if late for her own wedding, the lute case slung over her shoulder bouncing against her as she pelted forwards. “Ohmygodsohmygodsohmygods!”

She skidded to a stop barely before crashing into the glaring pair. “Professor Tellwyrn, Arachne, oh gods this is so awesome, it’s such an honor, I’m a huge fan!”

Tellwyrn turned to stare at her. “What.”

“I’ve read all the stories about you, even the ones that are obvious lies because honestly those are the funniest. You have the best stories! I’ve wanted to meet you ever since I first heard the Plavoric Epics recited—I sat through the entire Saga of the Third Hellwar sung in Sheng because nobody performs it anymore just for the parts at the end where you came in. You’re the reason I became a bard! This is just, wow, I can’t even… Will you sign my face?”

“That’s weird,” Tellwyrn said bluntly. “You’re weird. Go away.”

“Eeee heeheehee!” The girl actually did a little jig, clapping her hands in pure delight. “Classic Tellwyrn!”

“Kelsey,” Master Harper Roundol said gently, taking her by the shoulders from behind and starting to pull her away. “The Professor is here on business with Lord Vesk. Let’s give them a moment to chat before she vaporizes somebody. Or worse, my guitar.”

“Oh, she’d never do that,” Kelsey protested, still staring avidly at Tellwyrn. “I mean, the second one—she blasts people to dust all the time, but she’s super respectful of valuable art. She’ll threaten to break things but like in the battle with Almophriscor the Red she only lost cos they were fighting in his lair and she kept pulling her punches to avoid damaging his hoard, he had basically the world’s best collection of marble statuary, and after that he was so impressed he let her stay there to recuperate and even gave her…”

“Yes, yes,” Roundol said soothingly, dragging her bodily back to the dais. “Shush.”

“There, y’see?” Tellwyrn said smugly, jerking a thumb over her shoulder at Kelsey. “Research. You should give it a try, Vesk; I bet you’d be less vulnerable to obvious and transparent ruses.”

The god heaved a sigh. “What do you want, Arachne?”

“To seek your inimitable advice,” she said. “I trust you have noticed the issues I’m having with your Archpope. I must say I’ve never been the target of a campaign of slander that I actually had to care about before.”

“I am not getting rid of Justinian for you,” Vesk said with the ghost of a smile. “And get with the times, Arachne. Slander is spoken—or sung, for that matter. Printed slander is called libel.”

“I don’t need him gotten rid of,” she said in exasperation. “There’ll always be another one. You’re the expert on manipulating public opinion. Don’t think I’ve forgotten how you helped us to both dismantle the Empire during the Enchanter Wars and put it back together afterward. You owe me, Vesk, both for that business and for wasting sixty years of my time!”

“I never told you to do any of that,” he complained. “See, this is why nobody’s happy to see you when you visit—apart from all the smashing, I mean. All this blaming everybody for failing to contend with your various bullshit. You’re like an emotionally abusive old mother. Have you been hanging out with Naiya much lately, by any chance?”

“Actually…wait, that’s right. It was sixty-three years.”

The god of bards groaned dramatically and massaged the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. “If I help you, will you cease harassing my clergy and bugger off?”

“That is the deal I was offering, yes,” she said with a feline smile.

“Fine. Loath as I am to encourage this behavior, your problem really is so incredibly simple it almost pains me to see you floundering with it. Honestly, Arachne, the fact that you don’t have better people skills after three thousand years of this has got to be history’s greatest failure of character.”

“Less character assassination, more practical advice,” she said sharply.

“Justinian’s campaign is a political one,” Vesk said, staring intently at her face now. “Political campaigns are never won—they are only lost. Right now, the attention is on you, as is the onus to refute or validate his accusations. In that position, you have no winning moves. Honestly, your policy of ignoring him could conceivably be used against you, but it might also be your safest way to go. If, however, you decide to actually engage with this issue, what you need to do is make the matter about him, not about you.” He leaned forward, gazing deep into her eyes, and spoke with deliberately excessive emphasis. “And if that is what you intend, then I am not the one you should be speaking to.”

“All right, all right,” she said, leaning back as if he had bad breath. “Point taken. Really, I’d have expected less ostentatious delivery from you of all people.”

“Well, forgive me,” he said sardonically, straightening back up. “I may not be the best at research, but I have met you, after all. Seriously, though, that was all you wanted? Any number of political operatives could have told you that much.”

“Yes, no doubt,” she said with a smile. “But I don’t trust any number of political operatives.”

“And there it is,” Vesk said, shaking his head and smiling ruefully. “The real reason I continue to tolerate your crap. For being such an apparent brute, you do know how to pluck the right strings.”

“I had some good teachers,” Tellwyrn replied cheerfully. “All right, then! Seems I’ve some more planning to do. As you were, ladies, gentlemen…and bards.”

She turned her back on the deity and strolled off toward the door through which she had entered, leaving most of her audience looking incongruously delighted at the spectacle they had just witnessed. Except, of course, for the Vesker high priest, who was again clutching his guitar protectively and giving her back a resentful look.

“Arachne,” Vesk said in a suddenly knowing tone. “You realize that since you think it’s acceptable to show up at my place and take liberties with my people, I’m going to consider that a mutual arrangement.”

“Well, it’s past time, I’d say,” she replied, pausing to glance back at him with a raised eyebrow. “Honestly, I do my best, but there are things that girl needs to learn that I’m just not a good person to teach her. Just try not to disrupt my class schedule too much, please.”

She resumed her path toward the door, and almost got there before being intercepted by Kelsey.

“So, hey, since you’re here, I would love to chat a bit, hear some stories, maybe buy you a drink? Wouldja like to hear the song I’m composing? It’s about you!”

“Oh, I would,” Tellwyrn said brusquely, brushing past her, “but I’m very busy doing absolutely anything except that.”

“My treat! I’ll take ya to the best restaurant in town! Fancy a hundred-year-old scotch? Or a quick screw? Or a slow one? Honestly I’m not even into women—or skinny people, for that matter—but it’d just be such an honor—”

“Young woman, you are one more ill-advised comment from being transformed into something small and edible.”

“Ma’am, that would be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.”

“You’re a creepy little snot, aren’t you?”

Roundol approached Vesk, staring thoughtfully at the door through which the two women had just vanished. “M’lord, do you think we ought to go do something about that? The poor girl’s setting herself up for more trouble than I think she understands.”

Vesk grunted. “She’s survived three thousand years of trials and tribulations, Tamelin. She’ll survive Kelsey. Probably.”

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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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“Trissiny, could I borrow you for a moment?”

Trissiny rose smoothly from the crouch she had assumed on the lawn (a position she claimed was quite comfortable, which none of the rest of the group had been able to hold longer than five minutes), turning to face the approaching elf.

“What is it, Ms. Sunrunner?”

“She goes by ‘Miss,’” Ruda said helpfully.

The shaman and paladin both ignored her. “November is awake,” Miss Sunrunner said, “and is…not going to be an easy patient. All she really needs is to lie still and rest for a while, which she seems adamantly averse to doing. She’s requested your presence.”

“Mine?” Trissiny raised her eyebrows.

“I’d hoped you could perhaps get her to listen,” the healer said dryly. “At the very least. Otherwise I’m going to have to sedate her, which I hate to do unnecessarily, even with someone who won’t need to be bundled into a Rail caravan within the hour.”

Trissiny sighed softly. “Oh.. Of course. Be back in a bit, guys,” she added to the others before following Miss Sunrunner into the cafeteria. They simply stepped over the broken sills of its front ledge, the glass having already been swept up.

“That’s gonna be embarrassing,” Gabriel said cheerfully. “Fross, can you rig up a remote-listening spell on the fly?”

“Yes I can, and no I won’t!” The pixie dived in front of him, barely avoiding bopping him on the nose. “That’s extremely rude! How would you like it if someone spied on your private conversation?”

“Whoah, hey!” Gabriel protested, holding up his hands. “It was a joke!”

Fross chimed discordantly. “You know, Gabe, I’m starting to think you just say that when you don’t want to face the social consequences of something you said in earnest.”

“She’s onto you,” Toby murmured. Gabriel shot him a scowl.

There occurred a soft disturbance of raised voices and shifting bodies as the various students and staff assembled on the lawn turned to look upward. The freshmen did likewise, those who had been sitting shooting to their feet.

From the swirling vortex above, an orange streak had materialized and arced outward in a long spiral toward the ground. Vadrieny banked out over the campus so as to approach from a shallower angle and beat her wings upon nearing the ground, settling down softly in a clear space. Before sending her up, Professor Tellwyrn had spoken to her sharply about her habit of plummeting down hard enough to shake the ground, pointing at the fresh gouges in the stone floor outside the cafeteria for emphasis.

“You’re all right?” Tellwyrn asked, striding over to the demon.

“Perfectly,” Vadrieny replied in a clipped tone. “There’s little enough in Hell that can threaten me, and apparently not much that would want to try.”

Tellwyrn nodded. “What did you find?”

“It’s not good,” the archdemon said. Students shifted forward to listen, though her distinctive voice was powerful enough to be plainly audible all over the lawn. “In fact, it’s virtually as bad as it could possibly be. There’s a sizable hiszilisk hive a few miles distant into the Darklands, close enough to be plainly visible. It has a citadel built into the top displaying Scaontar iconography. Most likely the demons there are in control of the hiszilisks. That’s not uncommon.”

The Professor frowned. “Scaontar? What’s that?”

“Oh?” Vadrieny raised an eyebrow. “You mean there’s something the great Professor Tellwyrn doesn’t know?”

“Young lady,” Tellwyrn began, scowling thunderously, “this is not the time—”

“Yes, yes,” the demon snapped, waving a clawed hand. “They’re…not quite a faction, but a philosophy. They oppose Elilial, but not in any organized manner, so she hasn’t moved against them in force. Really, they oppose any organized power; they fought Scyllith during her reign, too. They’ll even fight each other if different groups cross paths. Sort of like centaurs, or some tribes of plains elves.”

“In other words,” Tellwyrn said grimly, “we’re positioned exactly next to a major concentration of the one force in Hell who won’t stand down if you tell them to.” Vadrieny nodded. “Did they appear to be mobilizing?”

“It’s impossible to tell,” the demon replied. “The hiszilisks were swarming about, but that’s what they do. They can’t have missed seeing the hellgate open, though, even if they weren’t behind it. They definitely won’t pass up the opportunity. Best to assume they are gearing up to attack.”

“Did you seriously not know you were building a University right across the dimensional barrier from something like that?” Anoia burst out. A junior in the divinities program, she was an elf with the horizontal ears of the plains people.

“First,” Tellwyrn said, shifting her body to face the assembled students as a whole, “hellgates don’t just pop open in the normal course of things, which is why no one looks into what’s on the infernal plane when beginning construction unless they plan to be messing with dimensional barriers. Just looking is sometimes enough to let something slip through. Second, the Darklands are a counterpart to the Golden Sea, and in fact are connected to it. That is how centaurs navigate; they use demonic contacts on the other side to move the Darklands, which causes similar shifts in the Sea, until the Sea reorganizes itself to mend the changes.”

“Still, awfully bad luck, though,” Chase noted.

“Luck has absolutely nothing to do with it,” Tellwyrn snapped. “Whoever opened that gate had a powerful demon ally on the other side to communicate with; they have to be worked at from both ends. Most likely that gnagrethyct. A creature like that could easily shift the Darklands to plant something exceptionally nasty next to us, either before opening the gate or right afterward.”

“What’s a hissy-lisk?” Tanq asked.

“Picture a cross between a wasp and an iguana,” said Vadrieny, “the size of a wolf, nominally sentient, and venomous.”

“So… Not answerable to Vadrieny, raider philosophy, and with a bunch of fliers,” said Professor Rafe, who had returned from the town only a few minutes previously. “I do say that’s tailored to be a threat to this campus. Look, kids, if you’re not happy about the food, there’s a suggestion box. This is just excessive.”

“Admestus,” Tellwyrn said wearily, “do shut up.”

Everyone turned to look as one of the three zeppelins parked below began to ascend, the silver Imperial gryphon embossed on its long gas capsule gleaming blindingly in the prairie sun. Two remained on the outskirts of Last Rock, still taking on passengers.

It had been several tense hours on the lawn; Tellwyrn had insisted upon everyone remaining in sight, in case the gnagrethyct returned. Over that time, runners (chosen from the faculty and in groups of two) had moved back and forth between the campus and the town, keeping her appraised of developments, since her teleportation was apparently unsafe to use. Miss Sunrunner had given her an earful about being non-consensually teleported that close to the hellgate, to which Tellwyrn had replied that obviously it wasn’t yet open at that point.

This had set off no end of speculation. Most of the student body had been present in the cafeteria at that time, and clearly none of them had been engaged in infernal portal-opening. Then again, if that order of events was correct, the gnagrethyct had crossed over before the gate had been formed. Either there was something more behind the situation that they hadn’t yet figured out, or whoever was responsible had taken great pains to confuse the issue and cover their tracks. Quite possibly both.

By this point, the University’s non-essential personnel—which Tellwyrn defined as those lacking any skills that would be useful if demons began pouring out of the portal—had already been sent below and evacuated via Rail. The dorm overseers, Stew the groundskeeper and a few of the professors were already gone. The students and more powerful faculty remained, both to pose a threat to anything emerging from the hellgate and to give more vulnerable people first access to the evacuation measures in place. They were also the most likely targets of further gnagrethyct attacks, a risk that was somewhat mitigated by having all of them present and under Tellwyrn’s watchful eye. Even after sending Vadrieny up to scout the portal, she had assured them she could deal with the demon if it returned. She had declined to explain further, and yet no one doubted the claim. For the most part it had all gone quite smoothly, except for a kerfuffle when Mrs. Oak flatly refused to abandon her kitchen and Tellwyrn flatly refused to make her. They both seemed quite unconcerned with the situation, but a number of the students were upset at the thought of leaving her behind, despite the cook’s surly disposition and general lack of popularity.

Trissiny emerged from the cafeteria and stalked back toward her classmates, just as Vadrieny withdrew, leaving Teal to do the same. They reached the group at more or less the same time. Shaeine gently took Teal’s hand in both of her own; Trissiny just came to a halt, glaring into the distance with her jaw set. A faint but noticeable blush hung over her cheeks.

“So,” Gabriel said sweetly, “how did it go?”

“She’ll be fine,” Trissiny said shortly. “I could have done without hearing her deathbed confession.”

“Wait, deathbed?” Juniper frowned. “I thought you said she’ll be fine.”

“I did. She will. I think she was rather embarrassed to learn it, afterwards.”

“How the hell did she not learn it until you got there?” Gabe asked, grinning in delighted schadenfreude. “I mean, she had to have woken up with Miss Sunrunner right there explaining things…”

“You’ve met November, haven’t you?” Trissiny snapped.

“And what did she confess, exactly?” Ruda asked, grinning insanely.

“There is no need to discuss it,” Trissiny said curtly. The pirate burst into laughter.

“We should respect other people’s privacy,” Toby said, carefully keeping his expression neutral. “I actually hadn’t realized before today that November was a priestess of Avei.”

“She is not,” Trissiny said firmly.

“But…we all saw her, with the glowing,” Gabe said, frowning. “And everyone knows she’s an Avenist. I think she’s managed to make that clear to everybody in the province.”

“November discovered Avei last year, after arriving at the University,” Trissiny said with a sigh. “She was born with the ability to channel divine energy without a relationship to any god.”

“What?” Juniper tilted her head. “I thought that was impossible.”

“A lot of dwarves can do it, but yes, for humans it’s unheard of,” Trissiny replied. “That’s why she’s here, instead of at a school for normal people.”

“Maybe she’s part dwarf,” Gabriel speculated.

“Are you kidding?” Ruda snorted. “I could fit both my hands around her waist. If anything, she’s part elf. She’s got the pointy features.”

“Anyway,” said Toby more firmly. Trissiny looked up, meeting his gaze, and after a moment they nodded at each other. In unison, the two paladins turned to stare seriously at their classmates. “Guys…we need your help. Fross, can you do some kind of silencing spell over us so we can’t be overheard?”

“Simplicity itself!” the pixie boasted, zipping outward and flying in a complete circle around the group. A very faint shimmering effect rose in the air, roughly spherical and isolating them from the rest of their classmates. Within the pale blue ball, all sound from outside was abruptly cut off.

“Neat,” Gabriel noted. “For the record, I could’ve done something similar.”

“Yeah, but you mostly use glyph engraving,” Fross replied. “That would’ve taken longer. More stable, though. So, uh, why did I need to do that?”

Toby took a deep breath and held it for a moment, apparently looking for word. Trissiny spoke before he could find them.

“We have to stay,” she said simply. “We need you guys to cover for us.”

The others stared at them in silence. Toby let out his breath, finally nodding in mute agreement.

Outside their bubble, several other students were watching them curiously, plainly aware what the spell was for, but no one was moving to approach. Tellwyrn was currently distracted by a conversation with Professor Ezzaniel, who had just returned from the town.

“Gonna need a little more detail than that,” Gabriel said tersely.

“Omnu spoke to me while Professor Tellwyrn was talking just now,” Toby said quietly, carefully angling his body so no one outside the group would be able to read his lips. He raised an eyebrow, glancing at Trissiny. “I assume Avei said the same to you? Right. This is a paladin thing, a matter of our calling. We’re to remain here after the mountain has been evacuated, and face whatever comes out of that portal.”

“Obviously, Tellwyrn isn’t going to have it,” Trissiny added. “She’s made it abundantly plain, numerous times, that she has no regard for the command of the gods. So…we need help. I’m sorry to have to ask this, but we need you guys to conjure some kind of illusion to make it seems we’re bugging out with everyone else, and make sure she and Professor Yornhaldt don’t get a close enough look to penetrate it. You can do that, right, Fross? Gabriel?”

“Actually,” Gabe mused, “I might have just the thing. It’s something new, so Tellwyrn probably isn’t aware of it. It’s actually based on something a succubus tried to do in Onkawa earlier this year, making portable self-directing illusion golems to impersonate people. Substituting arcane techniques for the infernal magic used, some of the big experimental spellcrafters in Calderaas replicated the effect and published their work. All so they could make a quick doubloon, of course; they’re selling kits. I bought some.”

“You bought magic golem kits?” Ruda asked, raising her eyebrows. “With what money? We didn’t clear that much from the Crawl.”

“Actually this was months ago, before the Crawl,” he said, “and it wasn’t that expensive. It’s called mass-production, Ruda, join the century. Anyhow, remember when you guys got jewels from the Golden Sea expedition and you insisted I get a share? That’s how I can afford it.”

“I thought you were going to build up some savings,” Toby said with a note of reproach.

“I was,” said Gabe, grinning unrepentantly, “but then this one started kicking my ass in the class rankings.” He nodded at Fross. “Since I can’t skip sleep to study, I’ve subscribed to several trade journals and catalogs and I’ve been ordering junk to tinker with. Come on, you’ve seen my collection. Did you think I was stealing it?”

“How many of these kits have you got?” Fross asked. “If you show me the diagrams I can help you put them together. Depending on how complex it is, we can maybe rig up some spares from general components if you haven’t got enough to cover all seven people.”

“Seven?” Toby said sharply.

“Should have plenty,” Gabriel replied to the pixie. “I got these to tinker with, remember, and you should always count on ruining some units. I should have about a dozen left. If we’re careful not to overload or miswire any it oughtta be enough.”

“You’re gonna need biological samples from each of us, aren’t you,” Ruda said resignedly. “Ugh, fine, you may pluck one hair. I’m not donating any fucking fluids.”

“Will it be okay to use mine?” Juniper asked worriedly. “I’m pretty much made of fae magic; that can react badly to arcane stuff.”

“Now, hold on,” Toby protested.

“There’s a standard spell lattice to work around that,” Gabriel assured the dryad. “It’s…hm, it takes some specific reagents, though, and we’ll have to be very careful about integrating it into the golem units. I don’t have the materials on hand.”

“I’ve got some,” Fross assured him, “and I can swipe the rest from one of the spell labs. Easy peasy, it’ll take me two minutes, tops.”

“Of course, you’re easy enough to duplicate,” he said, grinning up at her.

Fross bobbed up and down, chiming excitedly. “Standard will-o’-the-wisp illusion! I can anchor it to one of the golems without messing it up, I think.”

“Stop,” Trissiny said firmly. “You are not coming with us.”

“Trissiny,” Shaeine said serenely, “you know that I like and respect you, I trust?”

“I… Well, I suppose so,” the paladin said, frowning. “But—”

“Good. With that established, in this case, I must regretfully instruct you to shove it sideways.” Trissiny and Toby rocked back from her in unison; the rest of the group turned to stare, with the exception of Teal, who tried to cover a smile with her free hand. “It is an insult and a diminishment of our friendship that you so blithely assume we would abandon you to face such a threat,” the drow said firmly. “Do you note that every one of us immediately assumed we would accompany you? It seems to have been obvious to all except yourselves.”

“This is something we have to do,” Trissiny insisted. “It’s about what we are. There’s no reason for you guys to put yourselves in the same kind of danger.”

“Before you build up that stand-alone complex too much, let the resident bard lay a little lore on you,” Teal said. “Historically speaking, paladins rarely acted alone. And in fact, only a few gathered up followers exclusively or even mainly from within their own religions. You guys may be used to feeling isolated because there haven’t been paladins in a few decades, but most of your predecessors depended heavily on their allies. Heck, a lot of the greatest adventurer teams were built around some paladin or other.”

“But—”

“Look,” Ruda said, cutting Toby off. “We can stand here jabbering in a circle about history and responsibility and whatever other shit you wanna bring into it, but at the end, what’s goin’ down is that we are not leaving you. You can accept this with or without me needing to slap the stupid off your face, Boots, but the outcome will be the same. I don’t get the feeling we can spare the time to argue about it. Am I right?”

Trissiny sighed, looking down at the grass between them. “I just… I’ve been prepared to die since I was called. I’m a lot less prepared to be responsible for you dying.” Toby nodded agreement.

“Bullshit,” Ruda snapped. “Every one of us is capable of making our own goddamn decisions. Being a paladin may be about sacrifice, but it doesn’t give you the right to decide where anyone else spends their own lifeblood.”

“You’re our friends,” Juniper said simply. “I can’t let you do this alone, not when I could help you.”

“Hell, you guys are the only friends I’ve got,” Gabriel added, grinning. “And think about what you have here. Half-demon with wands and spells, fairy mage, dryad, archdemon, shield-specialized priestess, swordswoman with a magic-blocking weapon. This group is practically custom-tailored to beat back a demon invasion. Come on, guys, did the gods specifically tell you that you’d have to do this without help?”

Trissiny and Toby locked eyes, a silent question passing between them.

“Didn’t think so,” Gabriel said smugly. “So maybe entertain the possibility that the gods want us to help you, yeah?”

“We have not spent the last year learning to work together for nothing,” Shaeine added.

Trissiny sighed. “All right.”

“What?” Toby exclaimed. “Triss—”

“Maybe this is the bias of my own upbringing talking,” she said, “but I don’t have it in me to tell brave people they can’t fight when their conscience commands them to. That doesn’t mean I feel good about this,” she added, dragging a baleful look around the rest of the group. None of them looked remotely repentant.

“All right,” Toby said grudgingly. “I just… Augh. You’re right that we don’t have time to argue. But this leaves us in exactly the same position. No, a worse one! The whole class can’t just disappear, and those golems aren’t going to fool Tellwyrn. I bet she can see right through one.”

“If she has reason to look closely, yeah,” said Gabriel, frowning. “Tricking an archmage isn’t exactly part of my novice repertoire…”

“If you think like an arcanist, sure, that’s a tall order,” said Ruda. “That calls for a more basic kind of trickery; we just need to arrange for her to be looking in another direction. Let’s be honest, Tellwyrn is a hammer-headed brute. Surely we can work around her.”

“Once again, same position,” Toby said in annoyance. “We need somebody to actually do that for us, and if you guys all insist on being there, that won’t work. Someone has to stay behind.”

“Nah,” Juniper said brightly, “we’ll just have the sophomores do it.”

Everyone turned to stare at her.

“What?” Gabriel said finally.

“The sophomore class,” she explained. “I mean, think about it. There’s several people there who’ll help us out, for various reasons. November would do pretty much anything Triss asked of her.” Trissiny flushed again, looking away, but the dryad carried on blithely. “And she’s laid up, and she’s being difficult about it, so that’s a distraction right there. With some of the others to help, she can hold attention. I bet Natchua would help, too.”

“Natchua hates us,” Gabriel protested.

“No, she does not,” Shaeine said quietly. “Natchua is grappling with her own issues. She can be generally rather hostile, but I do not believe she harbors actual malice.”

“Not even toward you,” Juniper agreed, nodding. “I’ve actually talked with her.”

“In bed?” Ruda said resignedly.

The dryad shrugged. “Yeah. Most people are more willing to talk about personal stuff after sex, I’ve noticed. I keep meaning to ask why that is.”

“Later,” Ruda said firmly.

“Yes, right. Anyway, Natch’ll help if we ask her the right way, and Chase and the guys definitely will.”

“Whoah, hang on,” Gabriel protested. “Chase and the guys who tried to…um, y’know, get too handsy with you last semester?”

“Yeah,” Juniper said matter-of-factly. “They mostly follow his lead, and Chase was pretty accommodating even before that. Now that he knows I can give him really great sex or yank out his spine with one hand, he pretty much falls over himself to do whatever I ask.”

“Something about that is profoundly wrong,” Gabe muttered, “but I can’t quite put my finger on it.”

“If we survive this, I’ll explain it in detail,” Trissiny sighed.

“On second thought, ignorance is bliss.”

“Okay, so!” Ruda said. “We split up as soon as Tellwyrn lets us. Juno had better talk to the sophomores, since she’s the one with all the ins. Or maybe we should have Triss speak to November?” She grinned at Trissiny’s expression.

“Nah, I’ll talk to her,” said Juniper. “After that confession she’s probably too embarrassed to talk to Triss anyway. She’ll be especially eager to make amends.”

“Right,” Ruda went on. “Fross, Gabe, where can you go to work on that golem shit?”

“Our room,” Gabriel said immediately. “The lads went down to the town with the first group, so we have it to ourselves. It’s where I’ve got all my stuff anyway.”

“Except that female students can’t get into your dorm,” Teal protested.

“Nah, Fross and I work together on homework a lot anyway,” Gabriel said with a dismissive wave of his hand.

“Yeah!” Fross chimed. “Remember Tellwyrn said the sex barrier is to lower the chances of someone getting pregnant? Well, I’m nominally feminine but I don’t have a biological sex, so it doesn’t bar me.”

“Handy,” said Ruda. “We have a plan, then?”

“I wish you guys would just stay behind,” Toby muttered.

“Yeah, well, sorry. Your friends love you.” Teal grinned at him. “Life’s hard, Toby. Suck it up.”

Sound abruptly rushed in on them as their sonic barrier collapsed. They whirled in unison, finding themselves face-to-face with Tellwyrn, who still had a finger upraised from pricking their magic bubble.

“Now that we are all present and attentive,” she said dryly, “it’s time to begin heading out. The town is nearly emptied; there are just a few left to get on the zeppelins. There are Rail caravans standing by; it’ll take several trips to move all of us, but the caravans will keep coming as soon as room is made. The Empire is devoting a lot of extra resources to this, but there is only a single Rail line through the town. The situation is this: we have likely a few hours until something comes out of the portal, and according to Professor Shinhai and Miss Sunrunner, the gnagrethyct appears to have left the area. However, this is no time to be complacent. I want you in groups of no less than two at all times, and I would prefer much greater. You have half an hour to collect any necessities from your rooms and re-assemble at the campus gates. That much time should be enough to get the last of the townsfolk out and begin moving you lot and the faculty. I will be down in Last Rock attending to a few final matters.”

“Professor?” asked a junior. “What’s going to happen to the University?”

“I am not ceding my campus to whatever idiot did this,” Tellwyrn growled. “As soon as you are all safely away, I will be coming back here to close that damned hole. I’ll need help, but the Empire is surely sending strike teams at the least. Don’t you worry about that; we’ll all be back in time for graduation.”

She turned in a full circle, taking stock of those present. “All right, time’s wasting. If any of you feel the need to say last-minute goodbyes or anything else in private, tough. You should’ve emulated the freshman class, here. Get whatever stuff you urgently need and that you can’t afford to possibly lose to demons, and above all, don’t make me come get you. That, you will regret till the end of your days, I promise.”

“We’ll have to move fast, then,” Gabriel murmured.

“Yes, Mr. Arquin,” Tellwyrn said acidly. “If only you displayed such a keen grasp of the obvious in class. Alaric, you stay here and keep your eyes on that portal. If anything comes through, dissuade it. Taowi, Admestus, stay and help him in any way he requires.” She peered around at the assembled students and teachers one last time. “All right, kids, time is not on our side. Move it.”

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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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6 – 33

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The grate lifted seemingly on its own and Professor Ezzaniel pushed the doors open, letting in a rush of cool night air laden with the scents of earth and grass. The whole party pressed forward, and would have pushed him out of the way had he not stepped quickly aside. They straggled out and stopped, a unified sigh of relief rippling through the whole group, and all stood, faces up, savoring the coolness and the moonlight.

Only one person was there to meet them.

“Well,” said Professor Tellwyrn, planting her hands on her hips. “Well. We do very occasionally lose someone down there, but this… This is unprecedented, I must say. How exactly did you pick up gnomes?”

“She makes us sound like a case o’ hiker’s foot,” Steinway muttered to his companions.

“They were lost,” Fross reported. “In fact, there may be other things in the Crawl that aren’t supposed to be, these days. Rowe was doing something he shouldn’t in the Grim Visage, trying to get out.”

Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow. “Was? Did you ruffians kill my bartender?”

“He was alive the last we saw,” said Ruda with a leer. “He’ll probably stay that way at least a while. Melaxyna doesn’t strike me as the type to give out swift and merciful punishments.”

“You took him to…” Tellwyrn sighed heavily, rolling her eyes. “Ugh. Now I have to go trap another Vanislaad demon, or something equally sketchy. Leaving a succubus down there without competition isn’t on the table; she’d be running the place within a year. Shamlin, what the hell were you doing in my Crawl?”

“Making my fortune,” he said with a broad grin. “Oh, come on, don’t act surprised, Professor. It’s been two years; I’ve talked with every student group and faculty guide you sent. You had to know I was down there. Nice to see you again, by the way!”

“Well, here it is barely a week on, and here you lot are.” Tellwyrn adjusted her spectacles and fixed her eyes on Teal, who was carrying the long wooden box. “Only the third freshman group even to reach the objective, and you’ve absolutely destroyed the previous speed record. Let’s have a look.”

“I’m sure you already know everything, seeing as how you were here waiting,” Teal said, stepping forward as the others cleared a space. “I got a look at the apparatus in the basement of the Visage, the one that I gather students aren’t supposed to see.” She knelt, setting the box down on the grass, unlatched it, and lifted the lid. Within, in their custom-fitted grooves in the red velvet lining, lay the elven sword and dagger, gleaming lustrously under the moonlight.

Tellwyrn gazed down at them for a long few moments, her expression far away. Then, she blinked, shook herself slightly, and lifted her eyes. “Well! That’s the treasure, all right. Since you were lugging them around, Teal, may I assume the honor of the find was yours?”

“It was a group effort,” Teal said firmly. “I was the one to put my hands on them. We had to divide forces to make that happen.”

“She’s being modest,” said Gabriel, grinning. “Teal made the plans that led to us getting them at all. Fairly earned spoils, I’d say.”

“Well, I certainly cannot argue with results,” Tellwyrn said. “I’ll be reading Professor Ezzaniel’s report in detail, but frankly, you completed your assigned task with flying colors, and showed up every previous group to undertake it in the process. Unless you were transcendently stupid in your approach to every step thereof, which seems improbable, you not only receive an A, but a measure of extra credit for this. Right now, kids, I think you can consider last semester’s Golden Sea debacle obviated.”

“Yay!” Fross cheered.

“And we’ll find lodging for our guests, of course,” Tellwyrn went on, turning to the trio of gnomes, who had moved to the side with Shamlin. “I won’t send you down to the town at this hour; neither of the resident innkeepers would appreciate being roused after midnight. If you can bear with me, though, I’ll have to wake my groundskeeper and have one of the unoccupied student dorms opened up. I’m afraid they’ll be rather dusty.”

“Ma’am,” said Sassafrass respectfully, “we’ve been livin’ in the Crawl these last…what’s it been, lads?”

“Least ten months, I reckon,” said Woodsworth. “Me sense o’ time is understandably a bit off-kilter. I’d no idea it was night out.”

“Point bein’,” Sassafrass continued, grinning up at the Professor, “dust is nothing. If you can offer us a bit o’ somethin’ other than mushrooms and stringy ham, an’ a mattress not made o’ patchy leather, you’ll ‘ave gained three devoted slaves.”

“No, thanks,” Tellwyrn said with a wry smile. “The downside of slaves is having to feed them; they make expensive pets. Anyhow, I believe my hospitality can furnish a higher standard than that.”

“It’s a real honor to meet you, by the way,” Steinway said, grinning broadly.

“Yes, I’m sure. As for you.” Tellwyrn leveled a finger at Shamlin. “You may as well stay the night, too, though I’ll be wanting a prolonged word with you before you skitter off.”

“Uh oh,” he said, grinning.

“All right, that’s enough for now,” the elf went on briskly. “It’s an altogether ungodly hour and I have class in the morning. You lot are excused from tomorrow’s classes, of course, but that’s all the time you’ll have to reset your biological clocks. Education waits for no one.”

“Oh, come on,” Juniper protested. “You thought we’d be down there for three weeks! We should get some time off.”

“Juniper,” Tellwyrn said, staring at her over her glasses, “what have I told you about whining?”

“Um…well… Actually, nothing.”

“Mm hm. Would you like to hear my opinions about whining?”

The dryad crept backward a half step. “Actually, now that I think about it, no.”

“Good. All right, off with you. Emilio, have time for a cup of tea with me before retiring?”

“I’m just beginning my day, Arachne,” Ezzaniel said amiably. “I don’t look forward to classes next week. The young can spring back from these sleep cycle disruptions so much more quickly.”

“I have faith in you. Shamlin, the Wells is currently empty. I know you know where that is. Kindly escort our guests there, and I’ll send Stew along to spruce it up for you.”

“Oh, my,” said the bard, grinning. “But Professor, that’s a girls’ dorm!”

“When there are girls in it, yes,” Tellwyrn said acidly. “I’ll just have to trust you not to impregnate the dust bunnies. Move along, Shamlin.”

“Your wish is my command!” he proclaimed, bowing extravagantly. Tellwyrn snorted at him and strode off, Ezzaniel prowling along beside her.

“Welp, it’s been a right pleasure adventurin’ with you kids,” said Woodsworth.

“Aye,” Sassafrass agreed, “you be sure to pay us a visit before we ‘ave to head out.”

“Count on it,” said Toby with a smile.

They stood in silence, breathing in the clean night air and watching the other two groups vanish around corners into the shadows of the campus.

“Well,” Ruda said at last, “who woulda figured it was midnight?”

“I think I’ve had enough of being underground forever,” Juniper muttered. “No offense, Shaeine.”

“None was offered, even by mistake,” Shaeine replied, smiling. “I doubt I would fare well in your home, either.”

“Actually,” said Fross, “Crawl excursions are kind of a big deal at this school. We’ll probably have at least one a year. Maybe one a semester from now on.”

Juniper groaned.

“Here’s what I’m thinkin’,” said Gabriel. “The pubs down in the town are closed, and our dorms are spelled to keep out the opposite sex. But since we’re all awake, and we’ve been subsisting on Crawl food for a week…” He grinned wickedly. “Who’s up for raiding the cafeteria?”

“That is extremely out of bounds!” Fross said shrilly. “It violates multiple school rules as well as personal directives given out by Professor Tellwyrn, Stew, and Mrs. Oak! We could get in so much trouble, especially since we’re supposed to be going to bed!”

“Well,” Ruda began.

“So,” the pixie continued, “you’d better let me go ahead and scan for detector charms. Gabe, I may need your help with the locks!”

Chiming exuberantly, she buzzed off in the direction of the cafeteria.

“Well, blow me down,” Ruda said in wonder. “They really do grow up fast, don’t they?”


 

“I know how many of us suffer, day by day,” Branwen said. Her voice and expression were painfully earnest; the magical spotlight illuminating her was an expensive piece of spellwork that made her easily visible to anyone looking, as if she were standing right in front of them. The charm that made her words echo throughout the grand auditorium was a more conventional piece of magic. “The sad thing about the trials in everyone’s lives is how they can disconnect us, how they can distract us, encourage us to retreat into ourselves and become fixated upon our own problems. It creeps right up on you, doesn’t it? But if you look around you, at the people here tonight, at the people you pass on the street every day, even at the people you love, people you work with… Each time, you are passing another whole story, someone with his or her own struggles. They are different struggles than yours, but no one’s challenges are less important. What you should mourn is not that you face challenges, but what they can cost you, without you even realizing it. It’s the saddest thing in the world, not to see another’s pain.

“Because it’s in those challenges that we have our greatest opportunities. It’s in the connections we can form with our fellow human beings that we may find the simplest solutions.” She smiled, an expression so brimming with optimism and love that Darling, as a fellow artist working in the medium of facial features, found himself in awe of her mastery. Awed, and wondering just how deep those waters ran, considering her well-established facade of pretty uselessness. “It is natural that we should look upward, to the gods, in our most troubled times. But we must be careful. That can lead to despair when solutions do not come down to us from the gods. And that despair is a trick, played on us by our own minds. It’s not what the gods can give us, but what they have given us, that matters.”

She placed a hand over her own heart, a gesture that was totally innocent and yet drew attention right to her impressive bosom. The plain Bishop’s robes she wore, with the pink lotus pin of Izara at the shoulder, were far more carefully tailored than those of her colleagues, emphasizing her voluptuous figure in a manner that was just subtle enough not to be called out upon, while still pushing the envelope of ecclesiastical dignity.

“Each of the gods stands for something which they have bestowed on the world for our use. To cry out to them to solve our problems for us is missing the point of these precious gifts. The gods have given us the means to raise ourselves up. They ask that we have faith in them, because they have faith in us!” Her expression stayed solemn, though her eyes were alight with passion. “The gods believe in you. I believe in you. Whatever you face in your life, I know you can rise to meet it. You must believe in you!”

The mostly-silent crowd stirred at that, a smattering of applause and hushed voices rising up. It was a bit more exuberant than the last such; Branwen was working this audience with absolutely masterful skill. Darling had seen this done before, many a time, in his observations of religious ceremonies. There was a rhythm to it, a familiar pattern. It would be a while yet before she built it to its climax. Tonight’s festivities had only just begun.

He tore his gaze from Branwen to look around the darkened theater. She’d drawn quite a crowd, with the full resources of the Church and every major newspaper in the Empire pushing her forward to fame. The place was full of the hoi palloi thronging the cheap seats below, the slightly more upscale classes in the balconies and the wealthy few occupying boxes like himself. The arrangement tickled at his mind. It somehow seemed very appropriate to have used a commercial theater for this address rather than the Cathedral.

“Damn, but she makes a good speech,” Embras Mogul remarked, dropping heavily into the seat next to Darling and stretching out his long legs. “Fills out that robe quite exquisitely, too, doesn’t she? I have to say, that was a genius move on Justinian’s part. I wonder how long he’s been grooming her for this? Doubtless the lady has her own ambitions, but his Holiness doesn’t strike me as the type to catapult one of his underlings into power without spending a good long while sculpting them first.”

Darling was aware that he was staring, and didn’t bother to stop. “Well,” he said finally. “You’re not quite the last person I expected to see tonight, but… If Scyllith pops in here, too, I may just have to check outside and see if the world has ended.”

“If you encounter Scyllith under any circumstances, I think that’s a worthy concern,” Mogul said, grinning broadly.

“To what do I owe the honor, Embras?”

“Oh, this’n that. I thought you might be missing your tracking charm.” Mogul’s spiderlike fingers deposited a small metal object on the arm of Darling’s chair. It had been badly scorched and bent nearly in half. “Somehow it ended up under my collar. Funny, the way these little things wander off, isn’t it?”

“You said it,” Darling said easily, picking up the destroyed charm and making it vanish up his sleeve. “I owe you one, old man. I tore my whole study apart last night looking for this.”

“I don’t doubt it.” Mogul crossed his legs, lounging back in the plush chair. Below them, Branwen continued to soliloquize, but neither man spared her a glance. “After our little game of tag yesterday, I found myself mulling over your motivations.”

“I’m flattered!”

“And I’m curious. Here’s a man clearly playing both ends against the middle. Or all three ends, or more. The point is, you’re balancing far too many loyalties to be truly loyal to all of them.”

“It does seem to keep people on their toes,” Darling agreed solemnly.

“Loyalty, now, people don’t generally understand how that works,” Mogul mused. “It’s a lot less important than they think. What matters is motivations, those are what lie at the root of loyalties, and everything else. So I got to wondering, and decided to arrange a little test.” He leaned away from Darling and angled his body toward him so he could spread his arms wide. “Thus, here I am! The big, bad leader of the Black Wreath, sitting not a foot away, in a theater just crawling with the Church’s agents. A golden opportunity for you to raise the cry and try your luck at cutting off the snake’s head, so to speak!”

“This speech has the smell of an approaching ‘but’ about it,” Darling said wryly.

“Oh, I dunno,” Mogul replied, grinning broadly. “Or at least, that is what we’re here to find out, isn’t it? After all, you’d be pitting the assembled powers of the Church against whatever I have prepared to come to my aid, which you just know is gonna be something nasty. Obviously I’m a powerful player and I wouldn’t have come here unless I were pretty confident of my chances. On the other hand, Justinian wouldn’t have placed his newest, prettiest pet in such an easily shootable position without ample protections at the ready. Sounds to me like a pretty close contest! The only thing that makes it complicated…” He leaned forward, crossing his arms on the box’s low wall, and peered down at the rapt crowd below. “…are aaaallll those innocent people, just waiting to be pulverized in the crossfire. Priests and demons and the gods know what else, running amok in a crowded theater. Why, it fairly scalds the imagination, doesn’t it?”

“Innocent people.” Darling chuckled darkly, turning his gaze back to Branwen. “We both know there’s no such animal.”

“That a fact?” Mogul leaned back again. “Why not kick off the festivities, then, Antonio? Unless you’re bothered by the thought of unleashing hell on their heads.”

“Have you learned nothing about the modern world from this little campaign?” Darling said mildly, gesturing at Branwen. “Everything’s connected. There are a lot of reasons beyond the moral not to start a fire in a crowded theater.”

“Yes, and we could discuss in detail why the Church doesn’t need to worry about those matters, but that would be a tediously long back-and-forth and quite frankly, I believe we’re done here. At any rate, I’ve got what I came for.” Mogul smiled at him, a thin, smug expression. “So there is a core of decency motivating you, old fellow. Well, I must say, that is…fascinating.”

“I’ll be honest, this kind of gloating seems beneath you,” Darling remarked. “You can’t possibly be that bored. Are you really that sore about losing out to the Archpope on this project? I’m sure your pet columnists would have been valuable and all, but just look at her! Isn’t she adorable? A gift to the world, if you ask me.”

“Losing out,” Mogul mused, raising his eyebrows. “Maybe you can clarify that for me. I have a respected journalist setting out to present my perspective to the world. I have that bosomy little piece speaking what amounts to secular humanism, mortal ambition and self-empowerment—all the things the Wreath stands for. And frankly I have to admit she does make a better mouthpiece than anything I had lined up to do the job, and with the Church’s own credibility behind her, too! The people of this city and the Empire have begun questioning the line of divine bullshit they’ve been fed from the cradle. The cults that pose the greatest threat to me have lost face, while that scheming spider Justinian has gained power, and don’t even pretend you fully understand what he aims to do with it. So, what is it, exactly, that I have lost? I confess the point escapes me.”

“You know, I am trying to watch a speech. If you want to exchange taunts, we can do that in the heat of battle sometime. Butting in like this is rather rude.”

“Why, you are absolutely right.” Mogul stood, swept off his hat and bowed deeply. “My most sincere and humble apologies, Antonio. You enjoy the rest of the evening, now. It’s a great speech.”

“See you later, Embras,” Darling said, waving languidly at him, his face already turned back toward Branwen.

Mogul didn’t even try to move silently and didn’t shadow-jump out, simply pacing back to the curtained door of the box, whistling. Darling listened to him leave, ignoring Branwen for now. With his back to the warlock’s exit, he permitted his features to fall into a grim scowl.


 

Midnight had long passed and the moon was drifting toward the horizon when the doors to the Crawl eased open again. A wary, slate-gray face peered out, glancing left and right, before pushing them wider. The figure who stepped forth was followed by two others, all looking around in blended wonder and nervousness.

“Just as he said,” the lone male whispered in the subterranean dialect of elvish.

“We will go directly,” said the woman in the lead. “There are sure to be wards and defenses, and we are not out for a fight. Stay low, and—”

The soft pop was the only warning they got.

“Right on schedule,” Professor Tellwyrn said grimly, stepping out of thin air. “Congratulations! Most of your compatriots aren’t dumb enough to try this. You get the rare honor of being an example.”

The three drow had fallen to their knees before her as soon as she spoke.

“Arachne,” the second woman said breathlessly. “We’ve—”

“I don’t think I like hearing that from you,” Tellwyrn interrupted. “Well, the good news is, with Rowe’s nonsense at an end, it shouldn’t be too hard to find and plug whatever hole you lot are creeping out of. I do not need drow in my Crawl, except the ones I send in myself. Hm,” she added thoughtfully, frowning. The three kneeling elves flinched. “Now, there’s an idea. A Scyllithene priestess would be a worthy check on Melaxyna’s ambitions. If, that is, I could find one of a modest enough nature not to be an excessive pest. Doesn’t seem likely.”

“We are both priestesses of Scyllith,” the second drow woman said eagerly, not seeing or ignoring her companion’s frantic expression of warning. “I would be—”

“Well, not you, obviously,” Tellwyrn said with a grimace.

The flames were brief, lasting only a split-second, but more intense than the interior of a blast furnace while they burned. In the darkness and quiet after they had vanished, Tellwyrn dismissed the invisible shield over her and brushed drifting ash from her sleeves. A circular patch had been scoured completely clean just in front of the Crawl’s entrance, the upper layers of dirt melted to a puddle of still-steaming glass. It was rapidly hardening, cracking as it did so, the energy of the fire having been removed far more swiftly than simple physics would allow. Nothing was left, not even skeletons. They had not even had time to scream.

“Stew is going to gripe about this for weeks,” Tellwyrn remarked, wrinkling her nose at the hardening glass. “Ah, well. He loves griping.”

She stepped around the burned area to the doors, pushing them carefully shut, then paused. The Professor laid a hand against the dark wood for a moment, smiling fondly, before turning and setting off to wake the groundskeeper for the second time that night.


 

“Good evening, your Grace,” Price said serenely, taking his coat. “I trust the presentation was enjoyable?”

“Good morning, Price,” he said, yawning. “The presentation was fine, as propaganda shows go. I never object to staring at Branwen. Then I had to go to the Intelligence office and the Church and report on more Wreath nonsense. Brandy, please.”

“Of course,” said Price. “Your Grace has a guest, waiting in the downstairs parlor.”

“I have a— It has to be one o’clock in the morning!”

“Yes, your Grace,” she said calmly. “The Crow appears generally unconcerned with such trivialities.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” he muttered, stalking off toward the parlor.

“Ah, Antonio,” Mary said as he entered. She was sitting on the back of his favorite chair, her feet perched on one of its armrests, nibbling one of Price’s scones. “It seems I picked a poor moment to leave the city on business. You managed, though, did you not?”

“Mary, it’s an absolutely stupid hour of the morning and I’m exhausted. What do you want?”

She tilted her head. “You are unusually tetchy. I’m accustomed to seeing you more smooth under pressure. Was it really that stressful?”

“If by it, you mean the grand cavalcade of stalking and violence you missed, then no. It was actually rather fun. But I’ve just had my nose rubbed in it by the Wreath’s mortal head and had to explain all this twice, to two separate groups of superiors, so yes, I’m damn well tetchy. Even more so now that I find myself again having to repeat. What do you want, Mary?”

“Merely to discuss events,” she said, hopping lightly to the floor. “I waited, as I’ve found you generally amenable to holding late hours, but if you are unduly stressed I can return tomorrow. Would you like me to ease your weariness before I go?”

“Thank you, no,” he grumbled. “But do you happen to know a time travel spell? What I would like is to go back about a week and a half and warn myself not to get into it too closely with Embras bloody Mogul.”

“As I should hardly have to remind a Bishop of the Church,” she said evenly, “messing with time travel is an extraordinarily bad idea. Vemnesthis punishes such infractions without mercy. Even I don’t aggravate the gods in person. You might ask Arachne.”

“It was a joke,” he said wearily. “The last damned thing I need is Tellwyrn anywhere near anything I’m trying to do.”

Mary studied him in silence for a moment. “What happened?” she asked, her voice more gentle. “You are rattled. I confess it’s a little disconcerting, coming from someone so self-assured.”

“Yes, well, circumstances and other people’s bullshit I can cope with just fine,” he said. “Ah, thank you, Price.” Darling tossed back the proffered brandy in one gulp, then set the glass back on her tray. “It’s more disappointing when I screw up. I’ve been going about this all wrong, sneaking around, playing the thief against the Black Wreath. It’s been mentioned often enough lately—hell, I’ve had reason to comment that Eserites and Elilinists think very much alike. I should never have tried to match them at their own game.”

“Is that not also your game?” Mary asked mildly.

“Yes, and that would be the problem,” he said, striding past her to the window, where he pulled aside the curtain and glared out at the dark street. “The whole reason the Empire has done so well militarily is its doctrine of asymmetrical warfare. Not just the Strike Corps utilizing the Circles of Interaction to advantage, but leveraging different kinds of assets against different enemies. Hit them where they’re weakest. The Guild against the Wreath is just…attrition. For all the Church’s resources, Justinian is a schemer, too. He and Vex have been doing the same thing. We’re never going to get anywhere if we keep obliging their love for skullduggery.”

“What, then?” Mary inquired. “If the Empire were able to pin down the Wreath and use its military power against them, it would have done so long since.”

“I can pin them down,” he said. “Next time, I am going to hit the bastards with sheer overwhelming force.”

“You don’t have overwhelming force,” she pointed out.

He turned from the window, grinning broadly at her, a predatory expression that was not meant to be pleasant. Mary, unsurprisingly, seemed totally unimpressed, which didn’t bother him.

“I cannot fathom why people keep saying things like that to me,” he said. “New strategies or not, I’m still a priest of Eserion. When I need something, I’ll take it.”

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6 – 30

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“Are you sure you should be confronting this guy?” Carter asked as they strode rapidly along the rooftop. “And no, I’m not making a tactical suggestion; this is in my professional capacity of looking for information.”

“Duly noted,” Mogul said with a grin. “I’m curious about the question, however. This chap and his various lackeys have attempted to spy on our interview and then assaulted and killed my personnel when confronted about it. While I happen to have a miscellaneous handful of warlocks and demon thralls in the area, this seems like an ideal opportunity to have a word with him.”

“But the djinn strongly advised you not to. I’m just puzzled that you’d ignore his advice after summoning him to ask for it.”

There came a pause in the conversation when they reached the edge of the building. The darkness swelled around them, and then they were stepping onto the next roof over, two stories up and thirty feet away across a broad street. Carter stumbled again, but less dramatically; he was growing more accustomed to the disorientation.

“Mr. Long,” the warlock said as they resumed walking, “I’ve just spent much of the afternoon making the case to you that the Black Wreath are not at all as you believe them to be. With that established, let me just emphasize that demons are every bit as dangerous as you’ve always been told, and worse. That is why the Wreath is important, because believe me, no one else who tries is adept at handling them without creating a mess. Making allowances for individual personalities, they are highly aggressive. Infernal magic has that effect on any form of life it corrupts. Now, djinn aren’t able to physically interact with the world, which doesn’t diminish their propensity to cause trouble; it only limits the methods by which they can do so.”

The roof along which they were walking wasn’t another flat top like the previous one; their path was a lip of stone along the edge of a steep incline shingled in ragged old slate tiles. They came to the corner, where the path was interrupted by a decorative finial, and Carter had to accept a hand to navigating his way over the smooth slope and back onto even ground on the other side. It was an apparently L-shaped structure, to judge by the long distance it stretched out on the side ahead. Embarrassing as it might be to be handed about like a lady in silks and slippers, Carter wasn’t too proud to admit he needed the assistance. Despite the excitement of this assignment, he was keenly aware of being out of his element. His avuncular suit and briefcase didn’t lend themselves to nocturnal rooftop shenanigans.

“Ali and I have a well-negotiated contract,” Mogul continued as they moved on again. “He doesn’t lie to me and answers direct queries with a minimum of obfuscation. But beyond the simple answers to my questions, in the realm of his personal opinions and asides? You’re damn right I ignore his advice. It’s calculated to trip me up, without exception. Either with the goal of weaseling out of our contract, or just to create general mayhem.”

“But…if he can’t lie…”

“And what did he say, exactly?” Mogul grinned and winked. “That I would learn humility? Come on, what does that mean? You have to be eternally on guard when negotiating with demons. Any demons, but particularly the crafty ones. Sshitherosz, djinn, Vanislaad, all the schemers. They’ll promise you your own doom in a frilly dress, and you’ll step right into it if you make the mistake of paying too much attention to the frills. The exact wording gets you every time.”

“That sounds…exhausting,” Carter mused.

“Warlocks and lawyers, Mr. Long,” Mogul said cheerfully. “Warlocks and lawyers. Ah, here we are. You may want to keep back, we’re about to have some company.”

They had come to the end of the building, where there was a small rooftop patio. Raised beds held sad-looking old dirt and the twisted skeletons of small shrubs. Mogul hopped down from their improvised walkway and positioned himself against the bannister looking over the square below, beckoning Carter over to join him.

In the next moment the shadows gathered and took shape in the lee of the overhanging roof, then receded, leaving two figures standing there. One, dressed in obscuring gray robes, was hunched over with an arm across its midsection, supported by the other, which was clearly some kind of demon. Armored plates covered its forehead and limbs.

“Ah, still breathing,” said Mogul. “I’m glad to see that.”

“I had to confiscate her potion belt,” noted the demon. “She may have already taken more than the safe dosage.”

“It hurts,” the robed figure rasped, her voice taut with pain. “Inside. Bricks landed on my back… Think I have ribs broken. And lower.”

“That’s bad,” Mogul said, frowning, “especially if you’ve been chugging potions on top of internal bleeding. You know better, Vanessa. Hrazthax, get her to a healer. You two are out of this evening’s events.”

“You sure you won’t need me here?” the demon asked.

Embras waved a hand. “She’s urgent, and by the time you got back this would all be over. Be careful, though. Speak to Ross on your way out and have him pass along the word: anyone with a Vanislaad thrall needs to send it away, and everybody watch for holy symbols popping up in surprising places. There’s a reaper on the loose.”

Hrazthax frowned heavily. “A reaper? A real one? Just on patrol, or… It’s not good if Vidius is taking an interest in this.”

“You let me worry about that,” Mogul said firmly. “Take Vanessa’s talisman and get her to help. And when you find Ross, tell him to get everyone organized; our quarry is heading to the intersection of 31st East Street and Alfarousi Avenue. Don’t impede them; get everyone set up and ready to spring at that location, on my command.”

“Got it,” said Hrazthax, nodding. “But what about—”

Vanessa groaned and slumped against him.

“Go.”

The hethelax nodded to Mogul once more and took something from Vanessa’s hand, which she relinquished without argument. There came a few soft clicks as he manipulated it one-handed, and then the shadows welled up again, swallowing them.

“Busy, busy,” Mogul said, straightening his lapels. “Ah, well. When things go the way I want them to, I have the damnedest time keeping myself entertained. Ironic, isn’t it? This way, if you please.”

One shadow-jump later, they were on yet another rooftop across the street, and heading toward…Carter didn’t know what. The district was like an island of quiet and darkness. On all sides, not too far distant, the lights of Tiraas blazed like a galaxy come to earth, and at this altitude the sounds of carriage traffic and periodic Rail caravans were audible, but immediately around them was desolation. He doubted he could have navigated this jumble of broken-down structures even with the streetlights working, but Embras seemed to know where he was going.

“What’s a reaper?” Carter asked, regretting having put his notebook away. Ah, well, he wasn’t great at writing while walking at the best of times, and would likely have broken his neck trying to do it while navigating rooftops.

“Grim reaper,” Mogul said as they moved, “soul harvester, valkyrie. You’ve surely heard of them under one name or another.”

It took the journalist a few seconds to gather his thoughts before he could reply.

“Well… I must say, this night is going to leave me without things not to believe in.”

Embras grinned at him. “Oh, they’re very real, but you can be forgiven for not knowing it. The Vidians don’t encourage people to ask about them, and really, nobody on the mortal plane is likely to interact with one at all unless they dabble in necromancy. It’s the reapers who usually get sent to shut that down. Oh, and Vidian exorcisms? All theater. If the death-priests want a spirit laid to rest, they put on a big show to make you think they’re being useful while a valkyrie quietly gets rid of it. Warlocks only need to know about them because they have the same authority over incubi and succubi—which, as you may know, are human souls who are not supposed to be on this plane.” He shook his head and chuckled. “Vlesni is going to wring every ounce of pathos out of this anecdote she possibly can. I hear tell getting sent back by a reaper is…uncomfortable.”

“Do you really think you can intercept your opponent if he’s got an invisible spirit working with him?” Carter asked, glancing around somewhat nervously.

“Intercept him? I’m going to do no such thing.” Mogul stopped at the edge of the current roof, one long leg raised with the foot propped on the low wall surrounding it, and grinned at him. “We’re meeting him at the end. The man’s going excessively out of his way to spell out a message. I really ought to let him finish it, don’t you think? That’s just good manners.”


“Where the hell are we going?” Weaver snarled. “And don’t feed me that bullshit about just wasting time. You keep insisting on taking specific routes!”

“Lang—“

“Child, I swear by Omnu’s hairy third testicle I will shoot you right in the fucking mouth.”

“Settle down, good gods,” Darling reproved. “And yes, Weaver, you’re right, we are heading for an intersection a few blocks up.”

“Great, well, you should know there are warlocks and demons moving parallel to us in the same direction. We’re either walking into an ambush or being escorted by a mobile one.”

“Okay, how do you know this stuff?” Peepers demanded. “Where are you getting intel?”

“He’s got a spirit companion,” Joe explained.

“I want one. You have any idea how valuable that would be in my line of work?”

“You wouldn’t get along,” Weaver grunted.

“Don’t even ask,” added Joe, “it just gives him an opportunity to be standoffish and coy about it. He loves that.”

“About how many?” Darling interrupted.

Weaver cocked his head as if listening for a moment before replying. “Nine warlocks. Six of them have companion demons of various kinds. No incubi or succubi. And…a guy in a white suit almost straight behind us on the rooftops. With Peepers’s friend.”

“He’s not my friend,” she said with a sigh. “Never was, probably sort of hates my guts now.”

“Shame,” Weaver said, grinning nastily. “He was cute. Ah, well, guess you’re destined to be an old maid.”

“Joe, please shoot him in the foot.”

“Maybe after we deal with the demons.”

“You’re not wrong,” said Darling, “we are heading somewhere. There’s a small square up ahead close to the bordering canal of this district. That street leads straight to one of the bridges out.”

“The ones you said not to go near because they’d be guarded?” Joe asked.

“Yup!” Darling didn’t slacken his pace in the slightest; none of them were having trouble keeping up, though Peepers was starting to look a little haggard. “But it’s been enough time, approximately. I hope. I chose this particular bridge to approach because it leads to the most direct route toward the main temple of Shaath.”

“And…that is relevant…why?” Peepers asked.

“This must all be part of that plan he doesn’t have,” said Weaver, rolling his eyes.

“The Wreath has both oracular and divinatory sources of information,” Darling said lightly. “Many warlocks can use enough arcane magic to scry, and there are demons who trade information for favors. Any plans we made could be found out and countered, heading up against what we were.”

“There are methods to block both of those,” Joe noted.

“Yes,” said Darling, nodding, “and when I have time to arrange a real campaign against the Wreath, with Church and Imperial support, you better believe I’ll be using them. On the fly like this, though, there’s a loophole that can be exploited: they can’t scry a plan that doesn’t exist.”

“Not having a plan doesn’t strike me as a great plan,” Peepers muttered.

“I know the board,” Darling said more quietly, “and I know the pieces. I set in motion the ones most likely to lead to the result I want. Plans are nice, kids, but sometimes they’re a luxury you can’t afford to count on. If you know what’s going on, and if you’re a little lucky, you can tell more or less how things are going to play out. Even arrange them the way you want, sometimes.”

The other three glanced at each other.

“This is not how I wanted to die,” Peepers sighed.

“Oh?” said Joe. “How did you?”

“Of sex-induced heart failure on top of a gigolo in my eighties, wearing a fortune in jewels and nothing else. And drunker than any woman has ever been.”

He flushed deeply and didn’t manage to form a reply. Weaver actually laughed.

“And,” Peepers said in a more subdued tone, “certain my little brother was going to be taken care of…”

“He’ll be fine,” said Darling soothingly. “We will be fine.”

“You are so full of it,” Weaver snorted.

“Yeah.” Darling glanced over his shoulder and winked. “Luckily I keep enough of it on hand to throw into my enemies’ eyes. It’s always worked so far.”

“Ew,” said Peepers, wrinkling her nose.

“I think that metaphor got away from you,” Joe added.

Weaver shrugged. “Eh, they can’t all be winners.”

“Oh, shut up, all of you. We’re almost there. Mouths shut, eyes open, and be ready to fight or flee.”


“Of course,” Andros rumbled to himself, staring across the canal at the darkened district up ahead. “What better place? I’m a fool for not thinking of it.”

“Holy shit, that all looks abandoned,” Flora marveled. “How long has it been like this?”

“Less than a week,” said Savvy. “It’s not going to be left this way long, but while it’s there… Yes, it really is an ideal venue.”

They had stopped in the shade of two warehouses flanking the road which became a bridge into the condemned district. The spirit wolf had come unerringly here, then halted, glaring ahead with his hackles raised. He growled quietly until Andros rested a hand on his head.

Ingvar and Tholi immediately set to prowling around, investigating, with Flora and Fauna following suit after a moment. The elves, after peering in every direction, nimbly shimmied up lamp posts and perched improbably atop the fairy lights, peering ahead into the district. The two Huntsmen kept their attention chiefly on the ground, tracking back and forth.

“Cities,” Tholi muttered disparagingly. “Nothing leaves tracks.”

“Not easy tracks,” Ingvar said in a more even tone. “And the rains wash away what little there is very quickly. These are not elk, Tholi; be sure you are not following the wrong kind of spoor. Look.”

He had crossed to the foot of the bridge and knelt, drawing his hunting knife and carefully scraping it across the pavement.

“Infernal magic isn’t useful for stable area-of-effect spells, unlike arcane wards,” Ingvar said, holding up the knife. “It is anchored to something physical. In this case, the paving stones.”

The tip, where he had dragged it against the ground, was now spotted with rust. Even as they all stared, the reddish stain crept up the blade another half an inch.

“Infernal wards cause rust?” Fauna asked, frowning down at them.

“The weapons of Huntsmen are blessed by the Mother,” said Andros, glaring over the bridge.
“They do not decay, nor suffer damage from the elements. Heat, cold, moisture… Such an effect is the result of magical corruption. They are here, and they have warded this bridge against intrusion.” He began to glow subtly.

“What mother?” Flora asked.

“Honestly,” said Savvy, pointing at the wolf. “Have you ever seen divine magic used for anything like that? Most of the Huntsmen’s arts are fae in nature. I really need to explain this? I was almost certain you two were elves.”

“I don’t like you out of uniform,” Fauna announced.

“Enough,” Andros growled. “What can you see from that vantage?”

“Movement,” Flora said, peering into the dark district. “Through windows and gaps in walls, mostly. There’s activity directly ahead, hidden behind things. People moving inside buildings.”

“Without lights,” said Ingvar, nocking an arrow to his bow. “That’ll be the Wreath. Once we go in there it will be increasingly hard to track our quarry. They won’t appreciate our presence.”

“Let them come,” Tholi said, grinning savagely. Behind him, Ingvar rolled his eyes. “I just hope the Eserite we’ve come to rescue isn’t dead. If he’s running around in there with warlocks and demons after him… Doesn’t look good, does it?”

“Darling would die swiftly in our wilds,” Andros said, “but we fare almost as poorly in his. The man is adaptable and this is his city. He chose to enter there. I will believe he has fallen when I’ve buried him. We proceed.”

“Agreed,” Savvy said crisply, deftly smoothing her hair back with both hands. She shrugged out of her coat, reversed it and swept it back on, and just like that the illusion vanished, leaving the immaculately attired Butler straightening her tie.

“Uh,” Fauna asked, “what was the point of that, then?”

“Camouflage,” Andros said, nodding approvingly. “There are few enough Butlers in the city that some know all their faces, and their masters. Best not to advertize that Bishop Darling has run into trouble.”

“Wait!” Flora said suddenly, straightening. “I see people coming into the square— It’s him! And the others!”

“And more coming out of hiding,” Fauna added. “In robes. With demons.”

“Then this is the time,” Andros declared, starting forward and raising his bow. The spirit wolf stalked at his side. “Ingvar, Tholi, strike down the demons. I will attend to any infernal arts used against us.”

“And the people?” Ingvar asked. “The warlocks?”

Before he had finished speaking, Price strode forward onto the bridge, gliding smoothly down its center. Flora and Fauna leaped from their perches, landing on either side of the Butler. The three of them walked without apparent hurry, but at a pace that devoured the distance between them and Darling.

“That,” said Andros with a grim smile as he stepped forward after them, “appears to be attended to.”


Teal staggered slightly upon materializing, but quickly caught her balance and straightened, self-consciously smoothing her coat.

“That’s a neat trick,” Sarriki noted, pausing as she slithered past with a tray of empty mugs, bound for the bar. “You shouldn’t be able to teleport into here. Are you even a wizard?”

“Not using arcane magic, no,” the bard said with a smile, holding up a waystone. “But the Crawl’s methods work just fine.”

The naga cocked her head to the side. “I thought you kids couldn’t afford to buy from Shamlin.”

“Shamlin has decided to return to the surface,” Teal explained. “As such, he was quite interested in Tiraan bank notes. Where’s Professor Ezzaniel?”

“Here,” he said from the second level of the bar. “And what are you up to, Miss Falconer? It is not generally wise to split up the party.”

Teal tilted her head back, staring mutely up at him for a moment. “It’s funny how you’re supposed to be evaluating our progress down here, yet you haven’t been around for any of it. You just sit here drinking and chatting with the other patrons.”

“Since you make such a point of my absence, what makes you think you know what I’ve been doing while not under your eyes?” Ezzaniel leaned one arm against the railing and smiled down at her.

Teal stared at him thoughtfully, then glanced at Sarriki, who chuckled and set about pulling herself up the steps.

“It’s not like you to nakedly evade a question like that, Professor,” she said quietly.

Ezzaniel raised an eyebrow. “I assure you, Miss Falconer, everything is attended to. Professor Tellwyrn has made appropriate arrangements for you to be graded fairly.”

“I don’t doubt she has. Where is Rowe?”

The Professor shrugged. “I don’t much wonder about him when he is not in front of me. He is entertaining company, but in a rather exhausting way. One does get tired of always keeping a hand on one’s purse strings.”

She turned from him and bounded up the stairs in two long leaps, then paused, glancing around. The Grim Visage was fairly quiet at the moment. A lone drow man was nursing a drink in the far corner; he nodded politely to her as her gaze fell on him. A small party of five goblins were conversing quietly next to the fireplace. Not far away, Sarriki was clearing dishes and trash off an empty table.

Teal squared her shoulders and strode past the naga, straight through the curtained doorway next to the bar.

She paused only momentarily in the kitchen beyond, quickly taking in its meager furnishings and stored food at a glance, then stepped across the floor to study the door opposite the exit. It was secured with multiple locks. Unlike most of the rusted, battered and apparently recycled equipment the students had seen in most parts of the Crawl, these looked new. Clean, strong, and highly effective. Teal didn’t need to start tampering with them to know there was magic at work, too. This door would not be opened by someone who wasn’t entitled.

“You know, you’re not supposed to be back here.”

She turned slowly to look at Sarriki, who stood framed in the doorway, her arms braced against it on both sides.

“My friends are going directly to Level 100,” she said quietly.

“Oh?” The naga smiled, a bland, languid expression. The light framing her wasn’t bright enough to make her features difficult to see, but it was sufficiently darker in the kitchen than in the bar that the contrast made for good dramatic effect. “Excellent. I had a feeling, you know. And I’ve just won a bet. If they manage to beat the boss, I’ll be absolutely rolling in it.”

“The going theory,” Teal went on, “is that the final boss of the Descent is the Naga Queen.”

“Interesting idea. My people mostly live far below, you realize. It’s rare that any of us climb to this level.”

“Mm hm. It would fit, though, wouldn’t it? She’s easily the most formidable personality in the Crawl… One possibly powerful enough the Professor Tellwyrn wouldn’t want to leave her running around at liberty.”

Sarriki shrugged. “Whatever. Your friends are hard-hitters; they have as good a chance as anyone. I’m fairly confident of my odds.”

“You have more at stake here than a bet, don’t you?” Teal asked softly.

The naga’s eyes hardened. “Little girl, it is seldom wise to stick your nose into other people’s business. Now, if you’re hungry, kindly come back out front and I’ll make you something. This area is not for patrons.”

“Where’s Rowe? It’s odd for him not to be around. With Melaxyna placing bounties on his head, it’s not exactly safe for him to leave, is it?”

“Child,” Sarriki said sharply, “I’m losing patience. There’ll be no fighting in here, but you’ll find there is a lot I can do to make your stay in the Visage and the Crawl unpleasant if you disrupt the peace in my bar. Now, for the last time, out.”

“Actually,” said Teal, stepping aside and pointing at the locked cellar door, “I need to get through here.”

Sarriki actually laughed, loudly. “Oh, you silly little thing. That is not going to happen.”


They were familiar with the drill by now, after making extensive use of Melaxyna’s portal and waystone. Immediately upon landing, the students unlinked arms, Fross zipping out from under Ruda’s hat, and fell into formation, weapons up, eying their new surroundings carefully.

It was definitely the Descent. The distinctive proportions of the room were right, and the staircase behind them was just like those they had seen dozens of times before. It was the contents of the room that made them all straighten, staring.

“Well,” Toby said after a moment, “I don’t know what I was expecting.”

The wall were covered with masterfully painted murals, all depicting in exquisite detail their adventures through the Crawl thus far. The scenes blended one into the next as they marched around the walls, but everything was familiar, if portrayed somewhat more dramatically than the events had actually occurred. Juniper laughing in delight as she hugged a capling, Trissiny standing at the foot of the throne with Melaxyna smirking down at her, the whole group in disarray and being chased by boars, Gabriel studying an invisible maze with an expression of intense thought while the others ostentatiously bickered around him, the group lined up facing a row of chessmen. The scenes continued, wrapping around the chamber and showing the details of every step of their journey through the Descent, though they did not portray anything from before or after that. Nothing of the Grim Visage, the complex of dream-inducing mists, Shamlin’s grotto or the Naga Queen’s shrine.

There were statues, too, nine of them. Towering marble depictions of the students lined an avenue straight toward the opposite end of the chamber, each over eight feet tall even without the plinths on which they stood. At the far end, rather than another staircase downward, there was a semicircular indentation in the wall, in which stood an even larger statue, this one of the Naga Queen.

Of the Queen herself, there was no sign.

“I kind of wish I had one of those lightcappers,” Juniper mused. “Remember, from Tiraas? I mean, just look at these portraits! Makes me feel kinda proud, y’know?”

“Maybe we can come back with one?” Gabriel suggested.

“Unlikely,” said Fross. “This was all arranged for us on this visit. I bet it’ll all be blank as soon as we leave.”

“Experience is by nature a transient thing,” Shaeine said quietly.

“Only one direction to go,” Trissiny said, stepping forward. Ruda fell into step right beside her, the others quickly following suit.

They came up short a moment later, before they’d gone ten feet, when the sound of clapping began to echo throughout the chamber. Slow, rhythmic, and coming from only a single pair of hands, it resounded sourcelessly from the stone on every side, leaving them peering around again, weapons raised.

He materialized then, fading from invisibility into view atop the Naga Queen’s statue, where he was perched on her stone shoulder. Rowe continued to applaud, smirking down at them.

“Well done, kids. Well done. I congratulate you on your highly improbable victory.”

“Son of a bitch,” Gabriel murmured, not noticing the sour look Trissiny shot him. “Teal was right.”


“I have a theory,” Teal said, drawing the snake flute from within her coat. “One I’ve been working on since we came here. A lot of the pieces to the puzzle were hard to find, but several of the more important ones fell into place for us just recently.”

Sarriki had fallen still, eyes fixed on the flute. Her expression was purely hungry. Teal raised the instrument toward her lips.

“Let’s see if we can come to an understanding, your Majesty.”

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