“They look so happy,” Iris murmured. The two drow glanced at her, Shaeine with a small smile, before everyone’s attention was recaptured by a sharp crackle of discharged energy and yelps from Teal and Maureen, who hopped backward from their contraption.
“It’s fine, I’m okay,” Teal said, grimacing and shaking her singed hand. Shaeine had surged to her feet, but stopped at the reassurance. “And this is why we let the one with the invincible archdemon handle the exposed power grid.”
“Aye, because usin’ proper safety equipment is just crazy talk,” Maureen said in exasperation. “I told ye we ‘ad a loose connector in there!”
“To be fair, you said a loose something…”
“Somethin’ bein’ loose was the only reasonable explanation fer the weird power spikes in th’motive matrix, an’ an excellent reason not t’go stickin’ your appendages into th’wires!”
“Is that what was causing you to keep ramming the front door?” Iris asked. “Because I’m not sure how much more abuse this shed can take.”
“Hey, I’m all for safety measures,” Teal said reasonably. “But why take the time to set up a grounding charm when we have someone indestructible who can just reach in there?”
“She is correct, Teal,” Shaeine said in a tone which cut through the growing argument despite her soft voice. “Safety precautions are a habit with inherent value, no matter how confident you are in your durability. We ought not discourage them in others.”
“All right, you’re right,” Teal agreed a little bashfully. “Sorry, Maureen. Next time, full charms. It’s not like we’re running on a schedule, after all.”
“Wow, she’s well-trained,” Maureen said, shooting a grin in Shaeine’s direction. “’ow come I can’t get that kind o’ agreement?”
“I have my methods,” Shaeine replied with a placid little smile. “Though I fear you and I would have a problem if you were to employ them.”
Teal and Maureen both flushed and busied themselves picking charms and replacement components from the nearby tool rack, while Iris barked a coarse laugh. Szith, not for the first time that evening, managed to look uncomfortable without altering her expression or posture by a hair.
It was a little close in the shed, with all five of them plus the vehicle, even with three clustered on a bench against the back wall, merely spectating. They weren’t the only group on campus who felt the need to congregate together lately, though. Szith had fallen without comment into an attendant role, as she tended to do in the presence of either Ravana or Shaeine, standing impassively off to one side with her hands clasped behind her, as if awaiting orders. Iris and Shaeine had both brought books and writing implements, but little schoolwork had been accomplished. Even aside from the entertainment provided by Teal and Maureen’s back and forth, the work was rather interesting to watch.
Their machine seemed to be nearing completion. It resembled an enormous copper beetle wearing a saddle, its tail currently propped up on a sawhorse; the levitation charms that normally held it up were inactive while the enchantments were being worked on. In addition to the now-affixed saddle, it had handlebars with runic controls worked right into the grips—Maureen’s invention—and fairy lamps attached to the front of its central shell, rather like eyes. Arrays of copper pipes sprang out from below the handlebars, positioned to shield the rider’s legs; when the thing was running, they also produced a fierce arcane glow, though the two enchanters had replied to questions about their purpose only with fiendish grins. Right now, it rested inert on its sawhorse and over-broad rubber wheel, all charms deactivated and with a panel on its side open, exposing its magical innards.
Suddenly, Teal jerked upright, dropping a power crystal and spinning toward the door.
Everyone else in the room tensed, zeroing in on her; Szith stepped forward, grasping the hilt of her saber.
“Trouble?” the drow asked tersely.
Fiery light flooded the small space; there simply wasn’t room for Vadrieny’s wings to spread, but even kept folded tightly against her back, their glow and that of her hair was almost overpowering in these confines.
“Trouble,” the archdemon replied. “Everyone stay together. We need to get out of here.”
“Ugh, we should’ve just stayed with Shaeine and Teal,” Gabriel groaned, rubbing the heels of his hands into his eyes. “Omnu’s balls, I’d be getting a better grasp of these principles watching somebody build something than trying to cram all this theory into my brain…”
“Teal and Shaeine need some alone time, and also aren’t trying to build a time portal,” Fross chided gently, drifting over so that she illuminated the open book in front of him. “Theory is all there is, Gabe, unless you want to get a visit from the Scions of Vemnesthis, which you don’t. C’mon, you’ll get it! It’s just the physics that are confusing at first, but once it clicks you’ll have no trouble!”
“Not everybody gets to spend an extra eight hours a day studying, glitterbug,” Ruda said with a grin. “We’re not quite on your level.”
“Says the person just sitting there,” Gabriel said sourly.
She shrugged. Ruda was leaning back in her chair, balancing on its rear two legs, with her boots propped up on the table before them. “If you think it’s fun for me to be loafing around uselessly ‘cos it’s no longer safe to be alone on this fucking campus—”
“Guys,” Fross protested. “Settle, please. This is still a library.”
They both halted, glancing around guiltily. This particular area of the library was empty save for themselves, but it was the principle of the thing. Nobody liked making Crystal come and remind them of the rules; unlike Weaver, who had at least been entertaining to annoy, she was a much more sympathetic figure, and everyone (except Chase) felt bad for inconveniencing her.
“Okay, let’s back up a step,” Fross continued softly, hovering closer to the book. “All this theory is necessary background for teleportation, Gabe, because of the intertwined nature of space and time. Some arcanists think they’re actually the same thing; at any rate, you have to calculate temporal factors to avoid accidentally time-traveling when teleporting over large distances. You like practical stuff, right?”
He sighed. “Knowing how to teleport would be nice, but come on. These large distances are, like, from here to the moon. And that’s barely large enough to qualify. There’s nowhere you could actually teleport to where these equations would be a factor.”
“The theory is still important! It’s all about accounting for the effects of gravity, which does make a difference for long-range practical teleportation. Gravity is caused by the indentations caused by mass in the fabric of the universe, and that’s important to calculate. Fixing your ‘port to the world’s gravity well is essential for all but the shortest jumps, otherwise you can accidentally shoot yourself off it. The planet is both rotating and orbiting, so if you simply move in absolute units of space instead of with it as a reference point—”
Suddenly her glow dimmed and she dropped almost to the table.
“…guys, we have a problem.”
Ruda smoothly swung her legs to the ground and straightened up. “What kind of problem?”
“Okay, so, you remember how I was piggy-backing an arcane signal on the dryads’ fae magic field so I could detect infernal magic used in its radius? I needed to do that to boost the range over the whole mountain, but for a much smaller effect I can just use my own energy, which I have been for basic security, and we’re being snuck up on right now by something invisible and powered by a lot of infernal magic.”
Both of them came to their feet, drawing blades, and in Gabriel’s case, also a wand.
“Where?” Ruda asked tersely.
“Coming up the main stairs from the lobby,” Fross answered. “Slowly. Like a prowling cat. Don’t think he knows we know yet.”
“Then he’s not listening…” Gabriel muttered. “…yeah. Vestrel sees it now, too; it’s half-concealed from the valkyries, as well, but knowing what to look for and where she says there’s a distortion. And also she thanks you, Fross.”
“You’re welcome, Vestrel! Uh, oh, I think he’s noticed—”
The distortion would have been hard to observe even in the well-lit library had it not come shooting directly at them. Something about it encouraged the eyes to slide way, no doubt deliberately.
It hesitated as a sphere of blue light rose around the three and their table. It was a lopsided sphere, though, flickering and sparking where it intersected with a chair.
“Oh, crap I need to practice this more!” Fross said shrilly.
“Ruda, you’re on defense,” Gabriel said, taking aim with his wand.
Before he could fire, the shadow hurtled forward, impacting Fross’s shield and causing it to collapse in a shower of sparks; the pixie chimed in pain and dropped to the tabletop. It then darted backward as both Ariel and a mithril rapier were slashed through the space where it had been.
Suddenly, a silver blur hurtled out of the stack. Crystal skidded on the carpet, coming to a stop between the shadow and the students with her arms outstretched to shield them. The glow of arcane light which shone from between her joints was so intense it could be seen even through the severe dress she had taken to wearing.
“Crystal, get back!” Gabriel shouted. “We can deal with this guy!”
“I’m familiar with your methods, Gabriel,” the golem replied. “Not in the library, please.”
The shadow darted to the side, clearly angling to get around her, but before it got two yards, the whole region lit up with a fierce blue glow, causing the students’ hair to stand up from static.
Crystal turned to face the shadow, her arms still flung outward. For some reason, it was plainly visible now within the arcane field she had raised, as if the energy blunted its attention-deflecting ability. It was also still struggling to reach the students, but moving sluggishly and erratically, as if trying to push against a powerful wind.
“Oh, crud, my head,” Fross groaned, lifting back into the air. “…wait a sec, what’s going on? Is she doing that?”
“Crystal?” Ruda said in alarm. “Are you okay?”
The golem’s face showed no expression, of course, being a silver mask with glowing eye holes and a slit for a mouth. She didn’t answer, seemingly focused on whatever she was doing.
The distortion shimmered once, then fired a shadowbolt at Gabriel. The purplish burst of energy barely made it a yard before arcing away to slam into Crystal instead as if she were somehow sucking it in. The golem rocked from the impact, but kept on her feet, and did not relent in her efforts.
“Okay, that does it,” Gabriel snapped, taking a step forward, his wand extending to a full-length scythe.
He was halted by Ruda grabbing his shoulder. “Whoah, hang on. I think you’d better not go charging into that, Gabe.”
The shadow rippled back and forth now, as if struggling against whatever held it, but was being drawn toward Crystal as inexorably as the shadowbolt had been. The students could only watch in alarmed fascination as it crept closer, until it finally got within her physical reach.
Like a mousetrap springing, Crystal abruptly wrapped her arms around the vague shape, pressing it close to herself.
A pulse of brilliant light rippled through the library as her arcane field collapsed. The golem was hurled backward to impact the wall, where she slid down to sit crumpled at its base. The light streaming from her eyes flickered out, then came back, now cycling rapidly between colors: blue, purple, orange, pure white, and then back to arcane blue.
“Crystal!” Gabriel shrugged Ruda off and dashed to her side, kneeling. “Are you okay? Say something!”
Crystal’s eyes flashed once more, settling on a pale purple glow, then she did begin speaking, albeit in a language none of them knew.
“Uhh…” Ruda looked helplessly at Fross. “Does that sound at all familiar to you?”
“Familiar, yes; intelligible, no.” The pixie drifted closer to the fallen golem. “I think it shares some root words with Tanglish, but no, I don’t even know what language that is.”
“Um, say something in Tanglish?” Gabriel clarified with a worried expression.
Crystal’s whole body twitched once.
“Contact—recog—English,” she sputtered. “Failure—rebooting. Unrecognized hardware, unrecognized tran…transcen—scen—scen—” Again she twitched, more feebly this time. “I can’t—Professor, the kids—”
She thrashed violently, her head impacting the wall hard enough to leave a dent, then slumped, eyes going dark.
“Crystal!” Fross cried.
Suddenly the glow returned to the golem’s eyes, this time their normal, steady arcane blue. She lifted her head to regard Gabriel, who knelt by her side.
“Ouch,” Crystal said. “That was altogether unpleasant. Are you all right, students? What happened?”
“Us?” Ruda exclaimed.
“We’re fine,” Gabriel assured her. “More worried about you. That was pretty scary, Crystal. Are you okay? How do you feel?”
“As if…I just woke up from a long sleep,” she said slowly, then began getting to her feet. “Or so I imagine this would feel, based on descriptions. I’ve never slept. I think I’d rather not do that again.”
“Uh, yeah,” said Ruda. “You ate the Sleeper. That’s gotta give you some wicked fuckin’ indigestion.”
“That was some kind of projection,” Fross disagreed. “You can’t just absorb a living person like that, though it’s fairly easy to do with most kinds of magic if you’re powerful enough. I didn’t know you could do that, Crystal!”
“Nor did I,” the golem replied, experimentally flexing her arms. “I think I’m all right.”
“I think you’d better see Professor Tellwyrn,” Gabriel said firmly.
“…perhaps that’s a good idea. Thank you, Mr. Arquin.”
“In fact, we’d better go find her, too,” he said, turning to the others. “After last night, we know for a fact the three of us wouldn’t be able to handle the actual Sleeper that easily. He probably wouldn’t try, though, with Tellwyrn back on campus. If that was just a projection, I bet we weren’t the only ones who just got visited.”
“Then hadn’t we better find the others?” Fross exclaimed.
“No, he’s right,” Ruda said, sheathing her sword. “Tellwyrn needs to know. And she’s the lady who can scry the ley lines over this campus and teleport. We get to her, we can get to the rest. C’mon, guys, better not dawdle. Fuck knows what else is happening right now.”
Rafe hummed softly to himself as he dismantled the apparatus which had been in use all day, separating out bits and pieces of Fedora’s “evidence.” Already, he had set aside several carefully labeled sample vials, the results of that day’s long efforts. It was dim in his lab; as was often the case when he immersed himself in an interesting project, he’d never quite gotten around to such mundane considerations as turning on the lamps when night fell outside, and now only the small work light next to his experimental station served as illumination for the whole room.
Facing away from the door, he did not observe the tendrils of liquid shadow streaming in through the crack at the bottom. The darkness gradually built upon itself, rising to a nearly person-sized form. It made no sound and cast no shadow in the gloom. After a full minute, though, it stood fully upright, entirely within the room, and its form rippled once as if organizing itself.
Rafe rather abruptly set down the beaker he’d been holding, slumping forward to brace himself against the counter.
The shadow rippled again.
It stopped when the alchemist began to laugh.
“Somebody doesn’t think things all the way through,” he chuckled, turning. The half-elf showed no surprise or alarm at the sight of the sentient darkness blocking his access to the door. “I am not a presumptuous freshman dabbling in alchemy she doesn’t understand. You presume to sleep the Rafe himself?!” He interlaced his fingers and stretched his arms before himself, cracking his knuckles and grinning insanely. “Well, sonny Jim, you know what we’re all here for. Come forth and get your ass educated!”
The shadow emitted an audible hiss. Its shape rippled again, but Rafe had already dipped one hand into one of his belt pouches and produced a vial of potion, which he hurled past it at the wall. The vial shattered, splattering a sticky black substance over the wall next to the door, which clung there as if making a puddle on the ground.
A purple-black shadowbolt ripped outward from the dim shape, aimed initially at Rafe, but it immediately spun wildly off course, arcing widely around to slam into the puddle on the wall. The black smear pulsed with light, briefly, before falling inert again.
Next it tried a fireball; this impacted another vial hurled by Rafe in midair. The vial didn’t even shatter, but dissolved, leaving behind a waist-high dust devil of whirling air, which was lit briefly with flame as it siphoned the fireball into itself. Fire arced all the way to the point at which it danced upon the floor, then flickered out.
“HAH!” Rafe held up both hands, fingers splayed, with eight vials of different colors braced between them. “If that’s the way you want it, then step right up and BEHOLD!”
Professor Yornhaldt was rather enjoying the familiar old routine of grading papers after his sabbatical; even during this stressful time on the campus, it added a measure of comfort to his day. Especially during this time, in fact.
When a swirling vortex of darkness appeared in the middle of his office, he was thus even more annoyed than he might otherwise have been.
Rising quickly but smoothly, he carefully closed the heavy folder into which he’d sorted his paperwork and tucked it away in his top desk drawer for safekeeping. Whatever was about to transpire, he would rather the students’ work not be destroyed in the process. It would be quite unfair to them to make them re-do it.
Yornhaldt stepped around from behind his desk, a blue shield snapping into place around himself, and held up one hand, a fireball forming above his palm and glowing blue-white with intensity.
A crackle sounded through the office, tiny arcs of lightning flashing from the vortex to scorch the carpet. A moment later, they snapped sharply, releasing a burst of white light, and then whole thing vanished, leaving Professor Tellwyrn standing there, looking even more annoyed than usual.
He lowered his hand slightly, not releasing the conjured fireball. “Arachne?”
“Alaric, good,” she said briskly. “I was afraid you might have detected what was going on and attempted to intervene.”
“I confess the first thing I detected was your arrival just now,” he said. “What was that? Is something wrong with your usual means of transportation?”
“In a word, yes. There’s an infernal field suddenly in place over my mountain, not ordinarily detectable, which is designed to infiltrate arcane spells used within its radius and corrupt them. Do not attempt to teleport until I have straightened this nonsense out; the result is what you just saw. With all respect to your skills, Alaric, I have abilities in that regard that you simply don’t.”
“Arachne, I wouldn’t still be working for you if I took it personally to be occasionally overshadowed,” he replied with a grim smile, finally letting his shield and fireball vanish. “What’s going on, and what’s the plan?”
“I’m assuming this is that idiot Sleeper kid,” she snorted, “rapidly getting far too big for his britches. As for the plan, to begin with, I need you in place helping to coordinate this response, and most particularly to keep an eye on the other individuals doing so. You, unlike them, I trust. Hold on, this may be uncomfortable.”
It was uncomfortable, especially to someone accustomed to the seamless transition of arcane teleportation. It felt rather like being dragged through a pool of slimy muck which crackled with static electricity. A moment later, though, it was over, and another dark vortex spat them back out in her office.
Yornhaldt grimaced, needlessly adjusting the lapels of his coat and taking stock; he knew better than to bother complaining at Tellwyrn’s brusque treatment. Only three others were present, two standing over her scrying table: Inspector Fedora and the warlock Bradshaw. He immediately understood her concern about trust. Ashley lounged against the bookcase, giving him a smile and a wave upon his arrival.
“That was quick,” Fedora commented, his eyes on the image displayed in the crystal globe around which the table was built. “Good. We’ve got at least a dozen of these things popping up, going after various people.”
“I’m compensating for the infernal interference as best I can,” Bradshaw added, “but without a dedicated mage working on this—ah, Professor Yornhaldt, perfect.”
“As he was about to say,” Fedora added, “we haven’t got a reliable fix on everyone and every place being targeted.”
“I’m on it,” Yornhaldt said, stepping forward to place his hands on the scrying table, flanking the crystal.
“Good,” said Tellwyrn. “Help them coordinate; I’ll be back for updates as frequently as I can. For now, though, I need something to start with. What’s the most urgent priority?”
“It’ll take me a moment, Arachne. I need to make certain I’m properly warded before wading into this, or I risk blowing up your scrying equipment and possibly myself.”
“I understand that, Alaric, I was asking the Inspector. You’ve been fairly reliable at guessing the Sleeper’s movements, Fedora. Thoughts?”
“These tactics are clearly designed to counter the overwhelming force you represent on campus,” Fedora said immediately. “Hell, just what he faced last night was more force than he wanted to. Most of these will be diversions.”
“I can figure out that much myself, not being an utter buffoon,” she snapped. “Have you anything useful to suggest?”
“Ingvar insulted and provoked him last night,” the Inspector replied. “Rafe’s current project is an immediate and severe threat to him. The sophomores and myself are both; I think Ingvar is the least likely target, assuming that dryad stuck with him like we asked her to.” He winked at Ashley. “They’re not the most reliable of critters.”
“She did,” Ashley said, not rising to the bait. “Aspen is extremely fond of him anyway.”
“Right, then he’s probably a lower priority. Likewise me, for the same reasons exactly.”
“Good,” Tellwyrn said briskly. “Then Rafe’s the first stop; at least I know where his lab damn well is without needing to scry it. Try to have something more for me when I return, people. Find the sophomore class. Tonight, we put a stop to this nonsense.”
With another whirl of dark energy and flicker of lightning, she was gone.