Tag Archives: Ravana

Prologue – Volume 5

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After everything, it was strangely pleasing just to be out in nature.

He walked at a moderate pace, being in no hurry. Golden tallgrass stretched away in all directions, a sight familiar from the border of the Golden Sea, though this was subtly different country. The ground here rolled and undulated slightly, the grass helping to conceal little valleys and subtle hillocks; it was the kind of terrain that could easily have tripped him up had he tried to rush through it, city boy that he was. This grass, too, seemed a shorter variant than what lived around the Great Plains. Its upper fronds rose barely to the level of his chin, not obscuring his view the way the tallgrass of the Golden Sea did. It was darker in color, too, closer to amber.

The sun was arcing toward its zenith and beating down from a cloudless sky, the kind of weather that threatened to burn exposed skin, were his skin vulnerable to that. He found the heat a little tiring, but also not unpleasant. Cicadas, invisible in the grass all around, provided a constant music underscored by a faint, refreshing breeze and the rustling it caused among the stalks. Once in a while there came the cry of a distant hawk.

On he walked, toward the line of trees in the distance. Though he hardly needed the support, he had his scythe out, held in one hand near the blade, and used it as a walking stick. Occasionally a strand of tallgrass would be nicked in passing and immediately wither, but luckily the weapon was long enough that few reached it. It was a good few miles from the nearest town—not a small hike. He had time, though. He’d never been an outdoorsy person, really, but something about the peace and quiet made him begin to appreciate some of Juniper’s speeches.

He tilted his head slightly, glancing to the side and listening to a voice not physically audible. After a few moments, he came to a stop, planting the butt of the scythe’s haft on the ground and slowly peering about. As far as the eye could see, he was totally alone out here on the rolling plain, still a long walk from the forest and already beyond sight of the town.

“Well, I appreciate not being shot,” he said aloud. “How close were you planning to let me get before saying anything?”

There was no sign of any response for another few moments. After pausing, he shrugged and took another step.

The elf seemed to materialize right out of the tallgrass, holding a staff and garbed in a robe dyed in patterns of white and bronze that blended perfectly with the plants. He inclined his head, expression remaining impassive. Three more popped up, one carrying a bow, two with tomahawks in hand. Though armed, they kept their weapons at their sides and their stances free of aggression, staring flatly at the person they had surrounded.

“Well met,” the man with the staff said. “I am Adimel. What brings you?”

“I’m Gabriel Arquin,” he replied, carefully nodding his head back to precisely the same degree.

“The Hand of Vidius.”

“Oh!” Gabriel blinked. “You know about that, then.”

“We live in a grove,” Adimel replied dryly, “not the underside of a rock.”

“Uh, sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it,” Gabriel said, wincing. “I’m not used to being…known. It’s barely been a year and I was kind of a nobody before. It’s eerie that word’s traveled all the way out… Y’know, that’s neither here nor there. First of all, I’m not looking to bring trouble, don’t worry.”

“Most of the trouble brought to the groves of woodkin has come packaged in good intentions,” Adimel said evenly. “I intend no disrespect. To answer your question, we have been studying you, and considering. An uninvited human would have been intercepted already, but you present…a puzzle.”

“I get that a lot,” he said solemnly.

“You smell of demon blood and divine magic. You have a soul reaper following you, which could be a great character reference or the opposite. You carry a weapon of the gods, but also…” Drawing his lips into a thin line, Adimel pointed at Ariel. “That.”

“I didn’t make Ariel, if that’s what you’re concerned about,” Gabriel said, placing his free hand on her hilt. “I don’t know who did. She’s helpful, if not exactly personable…”

“That wasn’t the worry at all; no one your age would know such craft. And…Ariel?” The elf raised an eyebrow. “You couldn’t find one called Jane?”

“What does everyone think that’s so very clever?” Ariel asked aloud.

“Shh.” Gabriel patted her scabbard. “Look, I know elves like your privacy, and I’m sorry to just show up like this. It isn’t my intention to be disruptive; I just need to ask your Elders for help with something.”

“What do you need, paladin?” Adimel asked in a neutral tone. “Your status as Hand trumps most other considerations, in the end. The grove would ordinarily be glad to host you, but this is an awkward time. If your request is important, the Elders will still hear it, at the least.”

Gabriel hesitated, glancing to the side; the elf followed his eyes, clearly somehow able to perceive Vestrel even if he couldn’t actually see her.

“I would like to speak with the Avatar.”

The cicadas sang over the wind in the silence which followed.

“I encountered one in an old Elder God complex under Puna Dara,” Gabriel explained when it became clear none of the elves intended to say anything. “That facility is, uh…no longer accessible. Vestrel said there are only two others still open on this continent, and the other one’s under Tiraas and being used by the Imperial government. I sort of figured the grove Elders would be more reasonable to talk to than the Emperor.”

“Why,” Adimel said slowly, “do you want to speak with another Avatar?”

“I have questions. About where the world comes from, how it ended up this way. About the gods, in particular.”

“Some of those answers may be dangerous to acquire,” the elf warned.

Gabriel nodded. “Vidius also has questions. He called me because of that. Because he thinks the gods have been wrong about some important things, and fears what might happen if they don’t adapt. The Pantheon is shifting all over; the new Hand of Avei is a half-elf who’s been trained by Eserites. My whole purpose is going to involve changing things. And… It’s dangerous to introduce change into a system you don’t understand. I’d think elves would know something about that.”

Adimel glanced at each of his comrades in turn; none of them spoke, but stared back with subtle changes of expression which seemed to communicate something to him.

“Well.” The shaman thumped the butt of his staff against the earth once. “At the very least, the Elders will wish to hear your request, Gabriel Arquin. If nothing else, it is news to us that there are accessible Elder God systems available to the Tiraan and Punaji. I will not make you a promise on the Elders’ behalf, but I believe that if you are willing to share information, they will respond in fairness.”

“Well, that sounds good to me,” Gabriel said with a broad grin. “Fairness is pretty much the best anybody can hope for, right?”

“Indeed,” Adimel said gravely, inclining his head again. “If they are very lucky.”


“I don’t know,” Aspen said worriedly. “This place… It’s not safe for humans. I mean, with us he’s fine, but if you want to leave him out here…”

“All of that,” Kaisa said severely, “would have been worth considering before you insisted on dragging him along, girl.”

“If you really thought I was gonna just leave him behind,” the dryad flared.

“Please.” Ingvar nodded to the kitsune, reaching over to touch Aspen’s cheek. “I am very honored to have been included this far. No Huntsman has ever journeyed so far into the Deep Wild. If I can go no farther, it’s not as if I’ve a right to complain. This is family business, after all. And if Ekoi-sensei says the protection she has left will be enough, I see no reason at all to doubt her. Has she misled us yet?”

“She was pretty much a butthole to me in Last Rock,” Aspen grumbled, folding her arms.

“No offense, sis, but you kinda brought that on yourself,” Juniper pointed out.

“I was worried about you!”

“Yeah, I know. And I love you for it. But that, and then what happened to you right after…” Juniper shook her head, turning to Kaisa. “That’s really what all this is about, isn’t it? Maybe it’s just the two of us so far, but dryads are starting to interact with the mortal world. And we can’t keep doing it the way we have. It just gets people hurt.”

“That is the heart of it, Juniper,” Kaisa replied. “The world is changing. The daughters of Naiya must change, as well, and change is an inherently difficult thing for us to face—but no less important for that. I have done everything I can to make my own sisters see this, and by and large they simply will not. Perhaps we can still salvage something of your generation, however. I allowed you to bring your young man on this journey which is manifestly none of his business, Aspen, because I deem him an extremely positive influence on you. I strongly advise you to listen when he speaks. And for that alone, you can be certain I won’t allow him to come to harm.”

“Go see to your sister,” Ingvar said gently, squeezing Aspen’s hand once. Then he stepped back, beneath the branches of the cherry tree Kaisa had just caused to sprout from nothing. It now fanned overhead to a great height, heavily laden with pink blossoms which continually drifted downward, already having laid down a plush carpet over its roots, delineating a circle of protection. “I will be here when you return.”

“Stay safe, Ingvar,” Fross chimed, zipping around him once in a quick pixie hug before returning to the others.

Kaisa led the way into the deeper, darker grove, Fross hovering along right behind her and casting a silver glow upon the shadowy underbrush. Aspen brought up the rear, constantly turning to look back until Ingvar was out of sight through the trees. He stood calmly, with his longbow in hand, gazing out at the jungle of the Deep Wild.

Within the forested crater of Jacaranda’s grove it was both cooler and darker, with moisture in the air as well as resounding through the stillness in the form of numerous streams trickling down toward the deep pool in the center. Tiny flickers of light and color were visible in the near distance, but none of the pixies were brave enough to approach the group.

“You’re unusually quiet, Fross,” Juniper observed softly as the procession picked their way steadily downward.

“Yeah, sorry. It’s just…memories, you know? This place seemed a lot bigger in my mind than it looks now. And scarier. Now it’s just…trees.”

“It’s called growing up,” Kaisa said from the head of the group, not glancing back at them. Amusement faintly laced her voice. “By and large, Fross, you have done well at it. The price for wisdom is innocence, but that is life’s best bargain. The only value of innocence is that which it persuades you it has—which is a lie.”

“Um, Professor Ekoi?” Fross chimed, drifting forward to flutter along beside the kitsune.

“It’s very unlikely I will be returning to Arachne’s school, Fross,” she replied, glancing at the pixie with a smile. “At least, not as a teacher. Since there is only family business between us now, you should call me Kaisa.”

“I, uh…okay. It’s just… Do you really think we can help her?”

A faint frown settled on Kaisa’s features, and one of her triangular ears twitched sideways twice. “A basic rule of life is that you cannot help a person who refuses to be helped. This entire situation…is tricky. Jacaranda’s predicament is not entirely her own fault. Any more than Juniper or Aspen’s is. Or yours. Or mine.” She shook her head. “Our mother scarcely deserves to be called by the word; we are all abandoned in one way or another, and none of you were taught anything you need to know before being hurled from the nest. This kind of intervention carries risk and no promise of success. But we must act on the presumption that any sister of ours is worth the effort. Jacaranda will not thank us for what we’re about to do…at least, not any time soon. But in the fullness of time, she yet may.”

“…okay.” Fross chimed a soft descending arpeggio.

“And Fross, purge irritating non-communication like ‘uh’ and ‘um’ from your speech. A wise person who has nothing to say says nothing; fools fill the air with meaningless noise. You are the daughter of a goddess, even if once removed, and the heir of a cultural legacy older than life on this world. Act like it.”

“Yes, ma’am!”

“Welcome to the family,” Aspen muttered from the back of the line.

The pool was visible before they reached it, and the thick clustering of multicolored pixies around it apparent long before that; their chiming was audible form halfway up the sides of the crater, even with the intervening trees and underbrush to soak up noise. Activity over Jacaranda’s pool itself was a lot more fervent than normal. Clearly, the Pixie Queen had been warned of their arrival.

“How dare you come here?” she shrieked as they lined up at the edge of her pool. She had gone so far as to rise from her usual reclining position, and now hovered upright above her little island in the center of the water, gossamer wings buzzing furiously. “I will not have dryads in my realm! Vile creatures, begone with you!”

“Good to see you, too, Jackie,” Aspen said dryly, lounging against a tree trunk and folding her arms. “How’ve you been?”

“DON’T YOU CALL ME THAT!” Jacaranda screamed, turning vivid pink with rage. “Pixies! I want these invaders gone. Get rid of them, my little ones!”

“Fross?” Juniper said warily as the hundreds of glittering lights around began to swirl menacingly, raising a cacophony of shrill little voices and buzzing wings.

Fross hovered forward, putting herself in front of Kaisa; in this proximity to so many of her kind, it was immediately obvious that she had a much brighter glow and larger aura. The surrounding pixies surged forward at the four on the bank of the pool.

Fross emitted a single pulse of pure arcane magic. A blue corona rippled out from her, instantly disorienting and stunning their attackers. Little voices switched from threats to shocked outcries as pixies tumbled from the air all around them, or drifted off-kilter in confusion.

After the first blast, Fross maintained a steadier, more subtle arcane current; not enough to do anything, but plenty to create an unpleasant reaction with the fae magic which absolutely saturated the heart of Jacaranda’s little kingdom. An abrasive whine of protest rose from the air itself, a sound that was thicker than sound, that crawled across the skin.

“Stop that!” Jacaranda wailed, planting her hands over her ears. “Stop it, stop it! No, wait—where are you going? Come back! Don’t leave me!”

All around, the pixies were fleeing, shooting desperately away from the noise and disruption despite their queen’s pleas. Aspen and Juniper were wincing and Kaisa had laid her ears flat against her skull, but none of them seemed nearly as badly affected.

Once they were all gone, Fross let the effect drop. After it, the silence was somehow even louder.

“Hello, my queen,” Fross chimed quietly. “I don’t suppose you even remember me.”

“Remember… You. Fross.” Jacaranda lowered her hands slowly from her ears, her face twisting into a snarl. “How dare you betray your queen? I gave you everything—your very existence! You’re mine, do you understand? I made you. I own you! You will bring the rest of my pixies back here right this second!”

“My queen,” Fross replied evenly. “…mother. It’s time we had a talk.”


“This is unexpected, of course,” Ravana said as she led him through the halls of her ancestral home. “When I submitted my application to the Service Society, it was with the presumption that I would not have an honored place on the waiting list. To be frank, I had not expected to interview a prospect for several years.”

“The Society takes great care to match a Butler with any prospective client with the utmost caution, your Grace,” Yancey said diffidently, following her at a perfectly discreet pace which called no attention to how much longer his legs were than hers. “It is a matter of compatibility rather than seniority. Clients are obliged to wait until a suitable match is made, irrespective of how long it takes.”

“Of course,” she agreed, “a wise system. I understand the relationship is considered quite intimate—though, naturally, my data is all secondhand. I applaud your regard for custom, Yancey; I am something of a traditionalist, myself. Still, Grace is a somewhat archaic form of address for my rank—technically correct, but more commonly associated with Bishops these days. I am phasing it out, along with the rest of my father’s ponderous pomposities.”

“Very good, my lady.”

“I understand,” she said thoughtfully, “you were previously Butler to Duchess Inara of House Tiradegh.”

“I had that honor, my lady.”

Nodding pensively, Ravana paused while Yancey slipped ahead of her to open the door at the end of the hall. He held it for her, bowing, and she glided through.

“I do not wish to seem indelicate.”

“I beg that you speak your mind, my lady. A Butler does not take offense, and the aim of our discussion is to assess honestly our suitability to form a contract.”

“Very well,” she said, eyes forward and voice contained. “Part of a Butler’s function is, of course, as a bodyguard. Rumors abound concerning the late Duchess’s passing, but the official and most credible account is that she was murdered. I wonder how it came to be that you were unable to prevent this.”

“A most reasonable concern, my lady. Please take no insult at the question, but may I presume that anything said between us will go no further?”

“You may rely on my discretion.” He walked at her side, a half-step behind, positioned just forward enough to discern her very faint smile though she didn’t turn to look at him. “I realize trust between us is not yet earned; for the moment, rest assured that I am not fool enough to antagonize the Service Society by betraying a confidence.”

“More than adequate assurance, my lady. Her Grace the Duchess left this world at a time and in a manner of her own choosing, in the pursuit of her own goals. I would have considered it a rank betrayal of our relationship to intervene, however her passing grieved me.”

“Ah. Then Lord Daraspian did not kill her?”

“He did, my lady. She arranged it with the utmost care.”

“Thus disgracing House Daraspian,” Ravana murmured, eyes narrowing infinitesimally in thought, “and further bringing down the scrutiny of the Empire, effectively cutting off its largely illicit sources of funds. And thereby assuring the future of its principal rival, House Tiradegh. What a fearless and fiendishly elegant maneuver. If there is one thing we aristocrats consistently fail to anticipate in one another, it is a willingness to embrace sacrifice.”

“Just so, my lady.”

They had arrived at another set of doors, and again he stepped ahead to open them and bow her through. Ravana emerged onto a balcony, Yancey following and closing the door behind them.

After a thousand years of rule, the manor of House Madouri was a huge complex completely encompassing the rocky hill upon which the city of Madouris had originally been built. The manor itself was a relatively small structure at the apex of the miniature mountain, itself palatial in size but dwarfed by the sprawl of gardens, lawns, fortifications, and other structures which made the complex a self-contained little city within Madouris and the most heavily fortified House position in the Empire.

Madouris itself stretched out in three directions; the towering outcrop of the manor abutted the canyon through which the River Tira coursed far below. It was a sizable city, rivaling Tiraas in scope, though not nearly so tightly packed. Madouris didn’t have much heavy industry compared to its neighbors, and thus had preserved more of its traditional architecture than Calderaas or Tiraas; the scrolltowers were concentrated at a central location for efficiency’s sake rather than spread across multiple offices over the city, and there were relatively few factories. The huge bulk of Falconer Industries rose ominously past the city walls to the northwest, fairly bristling with lightning-wreathed antennae. It, like much of the newer construction, had grown up outside the old walls. The age of fortifications had ended with the Enchanter Wars, according to conventional military wisdom.

The manor had the best view in the province, and this, Ravana’s balcony, had the best view in the manor.

“I am…dithering,” she said pensively, gazing out across the city her ancestors had ruled for a millennium. “The prospect of retaining a Butler may weigh my decisions in one direction or another. Classes resume in a few weeks, and I must decide before then whether to return to Last Rock, or take my education in a different direction altogether. If I do return to the University, having a Butler along would present difficulties. I rather think Professor Tellwyrn would make them even more difficult than necessary. She vividly disapproves of what she considers presumption in her students.”

“I will keep this under consideration, my lady. We are, of course, only in the earliest stages of our acquaintance. It is yet too early to commit to a relationship.”

“Of course, of course. I simply want you to be aware of my situation.”

“I appreciate your candor, my lady.”

“So. You have come to meet me, because you perused my application and felt we might have some compatibility.”

“Just so, my lady.”

“Knowing what I do of Duchess Inara Tiradegh, I take that as high praise indeed. What is it, Yancey, that attracts you to the prospect of my service?”

The Butler’s posture remained exquisitely poised, his expression neutral and speech perfectly diffident. “You remind me of her, my lady, both by reputation and by the details you yourself provided in your application.”

“House Madouri is not presently in nearly so secure a position as House Tiradegh, it pains me to admit. We are older, wealthier, more powerful by any measure, that is a fact. But secure… In truth, my position is precarious indeed. Thanks to my father, many of our old alliances have been squandered to nothing. The Silver Throne is tentatively well-disposed toward me, but entirely out of patience with the Madouri name. I have just barely salvaged a relationship with the Falconers, and I fear I rather traumatized Teal in the process. And after my recent illness in Last Rock, any confidence my people had in me is shaken. You should know that any number of potential calamities might sweep me from power at any moment.”

“Yes, my lady.”

She turned to give him a cool look. “This appraisal does not surprise you, Yancey?”

“I made certain to be aware of it, my lady. It is part of what drew me to you.”

She raised one eyebrow mutely.

“I cannot say what the future holds for you or for House Madouri, my lady. But I can say with certainty that you will continue to face your trials as you have already: with cunning, ferocity, and to the great surprise of your enemies. I confess I am drawn to the prospect of seeing it firsthand.”

Ravana considered him for a moment, then gazed south, toward Tiraas; the capital was just barely too distant to be seen from Madouris, close enough that the two cities had viewed one another as severe threats before the Imperial era. Then she turned, directing her eyes north. Calderaas lay many miles in that direction, well beyond the horizon. And still further beyond that lay Last Rock, at the edge of the Golden Sea.

“Let me pose you a hypothetical question, Yancey,” she said at last, eyes still on the endless distance. “Say that you had it on good authority, from a source so trusted that you must take it as given despite the poetic melodrama of the very claim, that…a great doom is coming. How would you recommend proceeding?”

“I would advise, my lady, that you make yourself a greater doom, and lie in wait for it.”

Slowly, a smile curled her thin lips.

“Yancey… I have a very good feeling about this.”

 

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13 – 50

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“His name was Druroth.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a pause.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…the what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“We need to talk.”

“I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Facing responsibility like an adult?”

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

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

Natchua nodded again. “I understand.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natchua swallowed heavily, again gazing out into the dark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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13 – 49

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The group paused, studying him warily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No demonic presence nearby,” Weiss said crisply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hm,” Natchua grunted, folding her arms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Report,” the Empress ordered curtly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now, why would you assume I—”

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

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

“Now, listen here—”

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

“I have—”

“I. Said. Now.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

She raised her eyebrows. “The what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eleanora stared down at her without expression.

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

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

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

“Most?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And so you picked on his child?”

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

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

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

“I’m sure,” Eleanora said icily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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13 – 44

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

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

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

Addiwyn heaved a loud sigh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most of them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh, what does that—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whatever you think—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m fine,” Natchua snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“YOU. ARE. NOT. SPECIAL.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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“I warn you,” the man on the crates said, his voice rising, “we will defend ourselves if need be! Lay down your weapons and state who you are, and what you’re doing here!”

Ruda grasped the hilt of her rapier, but Toby placed his own hand on the pommel before she could draw it.

“We were teleported here against our will,” he stated, his voice not upraised but projected well enough to be audible to all the armed onlookers. “Sorry for intruding like this, but you probably know it’s dangerous to ‘port someone into a storm. I guess we should be grateful that purple guy bothered to find us an indoor space at all.”

The speaker lowered his arms fractionally, squinting down at them. None of the surrounding people lowered their own weapons.

“Purple…guy?” he said after a momentary pause.

“Oh, man is it a long story,” Gabriel chimed in. “Seriously, you wouldn’t believe most of it anyhow. Didn’t you say you guys were the Infinite Order? As in, the Rust people?”

“That…is not a name we prefer,” replied the speaker. His tone seemed calmer now, at least. “For the last time, put those weapons down. If you truly mean no harm, you’ll come to none here. We always offer shelter during storms to those in need. But you can’t just teleport in here, heavily armed!”

“Everyone else is armed,” Fross pointed out.

“I don’t know you people, and—is that a pixie?”

“Yes, I am a pixie, and I prefer not to be referred to as ‘that,’” she said irritably.

“My name’s Toby.” His voice was the same: calm, low, but spoken from the diaphragm with a strength that cut through the burgeoning argument. “These are my friends, and we actually don’t have any business with you. If you’d kindly just make a path to the nearest door, we’ll be out of your hair.”

“Daksh?” said someone from the surrounding crowd. “Maybe we ought to let them out. If they’re here by accident, letting ’em leave solves the problem.”

This earned a few mutters of agreement, but another voice piped up in response. “You can’t be serious! Tonight of all nights, you’re gonna let armed adventurers just wander off?”

“Peace, Sayur,” the man on the improvised dais said quellingly, but his critic didn’t so much as pause.

“What if they’re out to interfere? I say we disarm them and hold them!”

The mutters this time were louder, and several people on the front of the crowd pressed forward. The whole throng began moving; the group had landed in a clear space between them and the dais, but now people at the edges started creeping forward on the sides to fully surround them.

“Don’t,” Milady said sharply. “Please, stop.”

“Hey, you guys with the staves might wanna refrain,” Principia added in a more aloof tone. “You don’t encircle someone with ranged weapons in close quarters, guys. You’re just setting up a crossfire that’ll kill your friends.”

“Is that a threat?” someone from the crowd snapped.

“Enough!” Daksh shouted. “All of you, cut it out. The elf is correct, back up with those things. You lot, I’m afraid this has already gone too far. You will now be disarmed.”

“Uh, Daksh?” someone else said warily. “I don’t know. I think that’s a dryad.”

“Yes, I am,” Juniper said, raising her hand.

“Question!” Ruda lifted her own. “What makes tonight special? And a follow-up, if I may: if you guys are the Rust, where’s all the people with the metal pieces?”

Silence fell, all mutterings cut off. Wind howled around the building, and a flicker of lightning through the windows cast a brief, eerie illumination over the scene. Now the faces around them had gone grim. Grips on weapons were adjusted, and no one moved to retreat by an inch.

On the dais, Daksh sighed. “I suppose that tears it. If you truly are here by accident and not to interfere with us, I will owe you all an apology. But for now, we must be certain. Vishal, collect their weapons.”

“Don’t do it,” Milady warned, her eyes wide with obvious fear. “Please, you need to step back.”

This only made the man who came forward focus on her first. He was an unremarkable-looking Punaji man, in a somewhat threadbare greatcoat over a workman’s clothes, and holding a wand which he now trained on her.

“I apologize, miss,” he said in a deep voice, “but with garments like that, I will need to search you. I will have a woman do it if you prefer, but right now I need you to place your hands on top of your head.”

“Don’t,” she repeated shrilly.

“Hey, easy,” Principia murmured, touching the back of her cloak.

“She’s got a point, though,” Ruda snorted. “I’m already tired of pretending to indulge these yahoos.”

“When we stop pretending to indulge them,” Toby said in a low tone, “a lot will inevitably die. I would rather have as little blood on my hands as possible. Rebellious or not, these are your people, Ruda.”

“Now, please,” Vishal said in a louder tone, straightening his wand arm. “I have to insist. Hands on your heads, all of you. I do not want blood on my hands, either.”

“Don’t point that at me,” Milady hissed. “Put it down.”

“You are making it impossible to believe your good intentions,” the man replied. “I will not ask you again.”

In a tiny movement almost impossible to notice in the dim warehouse, his index finger moved to rest on the clicker.

Milady surged forward with nearly elven speed. Vishal fired the wand by sheer reflex, and the impact of the lightning bolt on her shield charm at that range overloaded it in one hit, causing a blue flash that momentarily blinded everyone nearby.

Toby’s reflexes were only a hair slower; even as he blinked away the aftereffects of that arcane pulse, he brought down a golden hemisphere over the group. Over most of them, at any rate; Milady was already outside its radius.

Somehow, during the second they had all been blinded, Vishal had ended up on the floor with his head twisted the wrong way, and Milady had flung herself bodily into the crowd, where she immediately began proving Principia’s warning. The suddenly panicking Rust sympathizers tried to turn on the whirling dervish in their midst, swinging swords and discharging firearms, and haplessly destroying each other while she darted, untouched, through them.

Immediately, the warehouse was full of screams and lightning bolts, creating a havoc which drowned out even the storm.

Toby gritted his teach, squeezing his eyes shut in concentration. The divine shield over them continued to ripple and spark as it was repeatedly struck by arcs of electricity.

“Fross,” he grated, falling to one knee, “help.”

“Helping!” the pixie shouted, and zipped straight upward. Her silver glow flickered, let out a pulse of light, and somehow she phased through the shield to hover above it, where she immediately began spraying arcs of pure ice in a circle. Her work was frequently interrupted by the need to replace pieces of the growing wall as they were pulverized by staff shots, but within moments she had them encased in most of an igloo.

“What the hell was she thinking?” Ruda exclaimed, trying to peek through a hole blasted in the ice wall before Fross quickly refilled it. The pixie had stopped building the wall a few feet above head height, to focus on repairing the damage caused by all the violence going on.

“That looked like a panic reaction,” Juniper said, then hurriedly jumped away as a body slammed into the wall next to her. Between the ice and the golden shield, it was nothing but a vague shadow.

“I don’t think so,” Principia started to add, cutting off at another explosion of lightning and ice near her head.

“Can I help, Toby?” Gabriel asked. “I can barely make a divine shield over myself, but I think I can feed you more energy?”

“Thanks, I think we’ve got it,” Toby replied, his voice much less strained. “I’ve been practicing, but I’m still not Shaeine. Fross is doing most of the work now; I’m just keeping this up in case two shots hit in the same spot before she can patch it.”

“Okay, well, Milady’s ass is dead,” Ruda said bluntly. “In a couple more seconds this is gonna stop and any of the Rust who’re still alive will not be in a surrendering mood. Arquin, since that staff of yours is so much more destructive than any of us realized until an hour ago, how wide can you swing it?”

“This is a divine weapon, Ruda,” he retorted. “Just because it can murder people in large numbers doesn’t mean it’s going to. Do you know what happens when paladins abuse their god-given powers? Because I’ve had that made extremely clear to me, and trust me, you don’t wanna be standing nearby.”

“Goddammit, Arquin, do you think I wanna see all these tax-paying assholes reduced to chum right in front of me? I don’t have time for your squeamishness, those machine fuckers are off doing something right now, and—”

“Kids!” Principia said sharply. “Shush.”

In fact, relative quiet had descended. The storm still raged, but the only lightning was from outside, now. Wind and water were blowing into the warehouse through multiple holes shot in its walls, but it seemed the violence was over.

“Uh, guys?” Fross said quietly from above them. “I think you can come out now. This is… You’ve gotta see this yourselves.”

They glanced at each other warily, but Toby finally let the shield drop. Gabriel raised his wand overhead, fully extending it into scythe form, then lightly brought it down to tap the upper edge of the ice wall. Immediately the entire thing crumbled to fragments, many no bigger than snowflakes. No one bothered to focus on this display, however, as they all stared around the warehouse.

It was in ruins, obviously, thanks to all the wild shooting. The smells of ozone, burning wood and scorched flesh hung heavy in the air, as did the groans of the wounded. Those of the cultists not dead were huddled around the edges of the room, sheltering behind any piece of furniture they could find. There was no telling how many had managed to hide, but at least twenty were dead or dying.

In the middle of the floor, Milady was curled up into a ball with arms around her knees, rocking back and forth on her heels, heedless of the blood squelching under her, and sobbing quietly.

“What,” Ruda whispered, “the fuck.”


The action on the bridge had calmed considerably. The warlock’s fog still hung over the Grim Visage, but his summoning installations had all been destroyed by stray staff fire or petered out by now, and with the lack of anything to shoot at, the soldiers perched in the great face’s eye-windows seemed to have grown tired of wearing down their power crystals. Between the fog and the patchy layer of charcoal littering the bridge attesting to all the minor demons which had died there, the scene was even creepier than the Crawl ordinarily had to be.

But at least, for the moment, it was calmer.

“All right, fuck this, I’m out,” proclaimed one of the Dalkhaan House guards clustered nervously at the base of the stairs. Shouldering his staff, he turned and began climbing.

“Where the hell do you think you’re going, Carsten?” another snarled. “The fuck I’m sittin’ here while you fuck off to—”

“Then quit your bellyachin’ and come with, Faisal,” the first man snapped, pausing and half-turning to glare down at him. “This is bullshit. We were told we’d be chivvying some disobedient college kids into order, breaking up a protest or some piddly crap like that. I never signed up for demons and warlocks and adventurers and fucking dungeon delving. This shit gets guys like us killed! And that Hand of the Emperor is so fucking crazy you can smell it on him. No, fuck this. I am out.”

He turned again and began stomping off up the staircase once more. Amid the nervous muttering from the soldiers left behind, a couple more shifted in the direction of the opening above.

All froze, however, when Captain Cross suddenly stepped around the corner ledge. Without saying a word, he snatched the staff held by the nearest soldier, planted himself at the base and took aim up the staircase.

“Carsten!” one of the men shouted.

Before Carsten could even turn again, Cross shot him in the back.

At that range, the firepower of a battlestaff was inescapably deadly. Carsten was flung about five more steps upward by the impact, losing his grip on his own weapon. Upon landing, though, he began rolling back down the steps.

Men pressed and shuffled out of the way, making no move to intercept the body that came tumbling down. Carsten’s corpse finally slid to a stop at the bottom, right before Cross’s boots. His staff bounced a couple of times before rolling the rest of the way, and came to a rest with one end atop its erstwhile owner.

Cross neatly transferred his weapon to one hand, nudged a toe under Carsten’s battlestaff, kicked up upward and caught it.

“Well?” he said grimly. “Anybody else wanna take a walk?”

Shocked silence answered him. A moment later, the assembled men flinched back as a couple more lightning bolts blasted outward from the Visage, those within apparently having heard the staff fire. Passing through the Fog of War, none of them went near the bridge. Even so, the troops huddled backward away from the noise, with the exception of Cross. With his back to the incoming fire, he did not appear even to have noticed it.

“All right, then,” the Captain drawled after a sufficient pause. “New orders, boys: across the bridge and into the building.”

“Now, wait just a goddamn—” The man who’d spoken fell silent as Cross leveled one of the staves at him.

“I get where you’re coming from,” Cross said flatly. “Really, boys, I do. You’re a sorry lot of assholes on your best day, and I don’t tell you that enough. This is over your pay grade, and not what you signed up for. Well, tough titties, ladies. This is the shit we’re all in up to our necks. If we’re dumb enough to run, we’re traitors to the Throne itself, and there’s nowhere in the Empire for us to run to. So let’s have no more of that.” He disdainfully nudged Carsten’s body with one foot. “You get the urge to bolt, you just keep in mind that what you’d be running toward is a lot worse than what you’re running from.

“But here’s the good news, lollipops! The big muckety-mucks that Hand stuck us with want us across the bridge and in that building to hold the doors. That’s because that jiggery-pokery they were doing before was to convince the people inside that the sanctuary effect is broken—but it’s not. Serious violence is still impossible in the Grim Visage. So! You stay here, you might get hit by a stray shot, or whatever the hell crawls up out of the depths. You try to leave, you’ll have that Hand hunting you down and it’ll be a miracle if you live long enough to regret it. Right now, boys, the only safe place for us is right where we’re ordered to be: in the sanctuary zone, forming a wall of bodies preventing the students from coming through those doors. Once we’re inside, it doesn’t matter who those kids are or what powers they have: there’s not a thing they can do.”

He let that hang for a moment, then smiled thinly, raising his chin.

“So if you want to be certain of living through this, girls, get your asses moving.”

Another moment stretched out, while the men stared uncertainly at him, at the Fog, at each other.

Cross let out a heavy sigh, and fired one of his staves into the air. “MARCH! MOVE MOVE MOVE! DOUBLE-TIME IT, YOU MAGGOTS!”

At that, finally, they stumbled into motion, heading straight up the bridge toward the Visage. It was at a pace far short of double time, but at least they were going. Most of them cast wary glances at their captain in passing, but Cross ignored them, except to toss his borrowed staff back to the man from whom he’d taken it, just hanging on to Carsten’s.

“Never heard you cuss that much at one time, Captain,” a boy hardly out of his teens offered as he passed. “I think I like you better like this.”

“Son, I don’t give a damn. Move your ass and don’t you eyeball me!” With the last of them finally on the bridge and heading toward the door, he stepped onto the path behind them, chivvying them along. “Eyes front, you daisy-pickers! First man who so much as looks back at me gets one right in the butt! And I don’t mean like you do back in the barracks!”

Trailing along at the end of the loose straggle which no officer in any military would have deigned to call a formation, he allowed himself a wide, gleeful, borderline psychotic grin before schooling his features back into the more staid expression customary for Captain Cross.


“Shaeine, you will have to be our primary point of both defense and attack,” Ravana lectured briskly as they climbed the stairs to the uppermost terrace. “Of all of us, your magic alone poses a potential impediment to a Hand of the Emperor. Remember, we need not incapacitate him on our own, but if he arrives before we reach our destination—”

“I understand,” Shaeine said, adjusting her grip on F’thaan, who it seemed was growing tired of being carried. “With respect, Ravana, I don’t believe I require coaching on how to best apply my only combat specialty.”

“Quite right,” Ravana said lightly. “Natchua, you represent our most destructive form of offensive power, but do keep in mind that you are uniquely disadvantaged against this foe.”

“Yes, I know,” the drow snapped.

“I am aware that you do,” Ravana replied. “I don’t want you to think you are useless, however. If we are caught in a pitched engagement with this enemy, remember that our goal is to buy time and keep moving, and the capacity to destroy the landscape can be very helpful in that regard. Any disruptions or barriers you can create may tip the balance. Under the circumstances, I believe Professor Tellwyrn will forgive us for any property damage. If not, I will compensate her.”

“I see,” Natchua said, apparently mollified.

“Raolo, the same goes. You may feel your arcane skills less developed, but sorcery is very useful for creating barriers.”

“I will do my best to keep it in mind, your Ladyship,” he said gravely. Ravana half-turned while walking to give him a coy little smile.

“Addiwyn, feel free to use your tongue.”

“I beg your pardon?” Addiwyn drawled.

“You and I may lack magic, but keep in mind that our aim is to delay and befuddle, not destroy. If circumstances so dictate, that wicked little shiv between your lips may prove a useful weapon indeed.”

“You needn’t patronize me, Ravana,” the elf said dryly. “In this particular situation I’m fairly happy not to be included.”

“I have patronized you enough times, Addiwyn, that I would expect you to know the difference by now.”

“Okay, but this whole plan,” Raolo interjected. “I don’t know. You’re making some big assumptions…”

“I know things you do not,” Ravana replied, eyes forward. “Trust that I wouldn’t risk my own life on an uncertain gambit. You had the opportunity to flee; the time for questioning is past.”

They were on the wide lawn on the uppermost terrace by now, the space bordered by Helion Hall, the cafeteria building, and the astronomy tower. It was commonly used by students as a gathering place, and sometimes by faculty to hold public addresses. Coincidentally, it was at this spot last year that the class ahead of them had made their stand against the hellgate.

The walk here from the chapel ordinarily took minutes, but Ravana had led them on a circuitous route through the campus, avoiding the main walkways and relying on the elven hearing of her companions to evade contact with patrolling guards. It was hard to tell how many troops were present; she insisted that House Dalkhaan was tiny and couldn’t possibly have that many guardsmen, much less be able to spare enough levies for a venture like this to really pose a threat, but they kept having to duck behind or through buildings.

Natchua had suggested simply attacking any invading soldiers they encountered, but was overruled.

Since they’d not only left injured enemies behind at the chapel, but sent Reich specifically to get the Hand’s attention, it was reasonable to conclude they were now being actively hunted. This development had unfolded much faster than any of them had anticipated, though.

Now, there was no more room for sneaking; the stairways to the uppermost terrace were all out in the open, and they would have to cross the broad lawn to reach their destination. Ravana had not slowed by a hair, striding boldly across the green without glancing to the left or right.

She had to stop very suddenly when the Hand of the Emperor appeared right in front of them.

His arrival was like no shadow-jumping or arcane teleportation any of them had ever seen. Indeed, it didn’t appear that he actually arrived; in a way, it was as if he had always been standing there, and they had only suddenly noticed his presence.

They had to slam to a halt nearly within arm’s reach of the man, with an abruptness that might have sent most of their classmates reeling. They, however, were four elves and Ravana Madouri. They simply stopped, without loss of poise.

“Ah,” Ravana said mildly. “We were just discussing you.”

The Hand studied her closely, his eyes slightly narrowed but otherwise without expression. He was the same indeed who had come to visit Professor Tellwyrn in the days before most of them had been cursed, a man of ordinary olive Tiraan complexion, with craggy features and a balding head. Like all Hands of the Emperor, though, he had previously been silent discretion personified. Now, his very stance practically vibrated with tension. There was an intensity to his very presence that could not be taken as anything but a threat.

“You have been incapacitated,” the Hand said abruptly after considering them in silence. “I will not condemn any of you for what you do not know. Arachne Tellwyrn is guilty of treason against the Tiraan Empire—”

“Arachne Tellwyrn is not a citizen of the Tiraan Empire,” Ravana said smoothly. “She is roughly thrice its age.”

The Hand stared daggers at her, getting a placid little smile in reply.

“…and this University is to be seized in the name of His Majesty the Emperor and closed,” he continued finally. “Students are directed to vacate the premises. Unless you intend not to comply peaceably with this order, there is no reason you need be in trouble here.”

“It was Tellwyrn herself who once pointed out to me a thing which had escaped my notice before,” Ravana said mildly. “The foundation of all statehood is a monopoly upon violence. A state which cannot exercise the sole prerogative of force is not a state. By issuing a proclamation and orders which you do not have the power to enforce, you have struck a grievous blow to the legitimacy of the Silver Throne. For shame.”

By this point, his eyes were slits, and the tension in his frame had somehow increased further. Addiwyn and Raolo both took judicious half-steps backward, but the two drow simply stood flanking Ravana and staring flatly back. F’thaan had stopped wriggling in Shaeine’s grip, but growled at the Hand.

Ravana’s pleasant little smile did not falter for an instant.

“Your actions here will reflect upon more than yourself,” the Hand stated. “As representatives of the sovereign city-state of Tar’naris, and of the House of Madouri, there will be repercussions if you intend to defy the orders of the Emperor upon territory held by Tiraas.”

“Let me see this order,” Ravana replied. “I will obey a legal edict from the Silver Throne. Which, as I’m sure I need not remind you, are always to be available in written form when presented to a Head of House, such as myself.”

“I am a Hand of the Emperor,” he grated. “I speak with his Majesty’s voice! And I have spoken.”

“House Madouri stands with the Silver Throne,” she replied, smile suddenly gone. “Unequivocally. It is clear to me that you do not. I name you traitor, and I will not permit you to harm the interests of my Emperor.”

He held her gaze, boring down upon her with the full weight of his power, which seemed to hang about him like an aura. Ravana simply stared back—cold, haughty, supremely confident in her will, as if she were lecturing a disobedient housemaid. After a long pause, the Hand finally inclined his head.

“So be it.”

 

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13 – 38

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The Crawl shuddered.

The rumble was low, but it echoed through the vast slanted cavern, accompanied by the distant clatter of falling rocks and a few small plumes of dust that drifted down from above. And, moments later, by fearful mumbling from the ill-equipped soldiers gathered on the stone bridge which arched down to the entrance of the Grim Visage.

“Steady,” said their captain, his voice nearly as gravelly as the Crawl’s.

“Focus,” snapped the Hand of the Emperor a moment later.

Willard Tanenbaum did not lift his eyes from the great carved face that gave the Visage its name, despite the sweat dripping from his brow. “Sir… The Crawl is known to have a sentience of its own.”

“A rudimentary and diffuse intelligence, mechanistic and barely aware,” the Hand said curtly, also staring at the Visage. To the observers behind them, the two men seemed simply to be standing there, frowning; the subtle magic they worked made no visible effect, aside from the minor seismic reactions it was beginning to provoke. “Like a god’s. In fact, rather like a sleeping bear. Keep focused, work slowly and steadily, and don’t jostle it. We can finish our work and be gone before it wakes, if we’re careful.”

“Tiptoeing around a bear is one thing,” Tanenbaum replied, still without breaking his stare. “Carving a hole in the wall of its den without waking it, in the short time it’ll take Tellwyrn to get back here—”

One of the rough-looking soldiers cursed—in Glassian, oddly enough—and turned to bolt back toward the exit. He froze with a yelp, finding himself face-to-face with the Hand who had an instant before been in front of him, next to the warlock.

“So long as we are not incompetent,” the Hand said icily, staring at the would-be deserter without expression, “it will work. So long as we are not cowardly, we will not be summarily tossed off the bridge. Do I make myself clear?”

Another faint rumble sounded from the depths. The men pressed closer together, the one faced down by the Hand retreating frantically into their midst.

“Clear,” Tanenbaum said after a short pause. The Hand kept his gaze on the men for a moment longer, then stepped to the side, moving around them to rejoin the warlock.

“Sir.” The captain stepped out of the group to meet him. “The Duchess sent us for what we were told was a simple police action on a college campus.”

“Are you protesting your treatment, Captain?” the Hand asked quietly, a dangerous sibilance creeping into his tone.

The soldier did not react. He was clearly made of sterner stuff than the rest of his command, possibly the only one among them to whom the word “soldier” truly applied, though in most militaries he would have been considered too old for active duty.

“I’ll serve however I’m ordered, sir,” the Captain replied evenly. “And I’ll shoot any man who deserts right in the back before he gets ten paces, as we did in the old days. But I warn you, sir, this isn’t the old days, and this isn’t the Imperial Army, nor even the House guard that trained me. These boys are not a group I would pit against adventurers and monsters, or whatever else is coming outta there, sir. They’ll not stand up to that, no matter what you or I threaten ’em with, sir, begging your pardon.”

“It won’t come to that,” the Hand said, relaxing somewhat. “Keep your men in line, Captain; all they’ll be needed for is to keep the retreat orderly, as we’ll have prisoners in tow. I have all of this under control.”

He stepped past the officer, rejoining Tanenbaum, and no one who doubted his assurance was daft enough to voice it. Even when the Crawl rumbled another sleepy protest.


“You tryin’ to catch flies?” one of the guards sniggered.

His companion finished his long, luxuriant yawn before turning to give him a rude gesture, earning another coarse laugh in reply.

In front of them, a few feet away, Lorelin Reich lowered her arms, turned around, and stared at them.

“Sorry, ma’am,” the first man said unrepentantly. The one who’d yawned, at least, cleared his throat and straightened to a semblance of attention.

“Do you have any idea how difficult this is?” the priestess demanded.

“Not really, no.” He shrugged, and scratched the side of his neck. “No offense, I can’t actually see you doing anything. Just standing there in front of the door.”

She had, in fact, been at it for over half an hour now, standing and staring, occasionally making hand gestures. The campus chapel’s magical defenses were visible to the naked eye: the walls and door were slightly blurry, as if seen through murky water, and a few inches in front of that was an almost transparent layer of blue light, cast by an arcane shield. Lorelin’s guards, in truth, weren’t giving her enough credit; what she was doing had caused both of these effects to occasionally flicker or ripple.

Nothing of import had happened, though, and the two men were clearly losing patience. They were typical examples of the troops the Hand of the Emperor had found, which was to say, unimpressive. Neither of these was one of the aging House Dalkhaan regulars, but the younger, scruffier generation of hirelings whom very few Houses or militaries would have taken. Both were in need of a shave and some long posture drills, and one was so overweight he couldn’t button his uniform coat. At least neither had so much as leered at her. Fading and decrepit or no, Dalkhaan was still a House of Calderaas, and Calderaas was Avenist country. Men with such habits weren’t drawn to military service there. Not even a “military” slovenly enough to accept these dregs.

“Then take my word for it,” Lorelin said patiently, “it is difficult. I would appreciate it if there were no distractions.”

The man she was speaking to put on a mulish look and opened his mouth, doubtless to complain, but the yawner jabbed him in the hip with the butt of his staff.

“Sorry, ma’am,” he said, nodding.

She nodded back, and turned again to face the chapel. That was undoubtedly as much acquiescence as she was going to get.

Before she could even raise her arms again, there rose a shrill whine at the very edge of hearing, like a particularly large mosquito in the ear. It ended suddenly, followed by the complete disappearance of the force field around the chapel. A second later, the building seemed to solidify before them as it shifted back into phase with the world.

“Hey,” the yawning man said brightly, “it worked!”

Lorelin had her back to them and so didn’t conceal her expression, frowning at the doors in consternation.

Fortunately, she was standing at the base of the three steps leading up to those doors, and so was not close enough to be struck when they suddenly burst open.

Both guards raised their staves, one fumbling so badly he nearly dropped it, to take aim at the group who appeared in the chapel’s doorway. Two drow women stood at the forefront, one in formal robes and holding a puppy of all things, the other with a green streak dyed through the center of her hair.

A wall of silver light snapped into place across the top step. Lorelin shifted backward away from them.

“All right, hold it right there,” one of her guardians said. “Let’s not go and do anything rash, kids. You’re not in trouble, but you need to move off the campus, by the authority of the Emperor. Let’s lower the magic, nice and easy, now.”

“If you do lower the shield,” the green-haired drow said to her companion, “I can kill all three of them before they can fire.”

“Ugh, no, you can’t,” a female plains elf just behind her snorted. “All he has to do is squeeze that clicker—”

“Okay, that’s enough of that kind of talk,” the guard snapped. “You don’t want the trouble that’ll come from defying an Imperial edict, much less attacking troops operating under the Emperor’s banner.”

Lorelin shifted to look back at them, then up the stairs again at the students. Another elf, a woodkin this time, had pushed forward between the two drow, and whatever he had just conjured formed a blue glow from his clenched fist.

Of course, she was aware of the identities of everyone who was supposed to be in that chapel. What were they doing awake?

She held up a hand, and a golden sphere formed around the two troops, sparkling in the sunlight.

“There, see?” the more talkative of the two smirked. “You’re not the only one who can—”

Lorelin clenched her fist and the shield bubble contracted abruptly, slamming both men against each other. One discharged his weapon, which sparked blindingly against the inside of the sphere. It immediately widened again, leaving them staggering.

She clenched the bubble three more times in rapid succession, smacking the pair together until one of the staves cracked and both men were too dazed to stand unaided, then released the shield entirely.

One of them immediately flopped to the grass, unconscious from an unfortunate impact of his head against a staff. The other stumbled woozily, clutching his own skull with both hands.

A rod of pure golden light appeared in Lorelin’s grip. Not bothering with any further finesse, she lifted it overhead and slammed it down atop the distracted soldier’s head. The lightworking dissipated at such sharp contact with solid matter, but not before doing its job; he dropped like a sack of beans.

She turned back to scowl at the five students, who were now staring in confusion through Shaeine’s shield.

“I wish you hadn’t done that,” Lorelin said testily.

“Yeah, I just bet you—wait a second.” Raolo pointed accusingly. “You did that!”

“That chapel,” she said, “was phased out and shielded, with both effects somehow tied to the powerful fae geas laid on this mountaintop. I was tasked with cracking those defenses using my skill at divine magic, based on a very brief demonstration of how the geas could be interfered with. Frankly, I’m far from certain I could have opened that door if my life depended on it, but at the very least, I could have stalled for hours.” She held out her arms in an exasperated shrug. “But then you had to go and open it up yourselves! And now here you are, out in the open where he can get at you.”

A human girl—that would be the young Duchess Madouri—slipped through the cluster of elves to position herself at the forefront of the group.

“Stalled?” she asked in a tone of mild interest.

“All right, listen,” Lorelin said, heaving a short sigh. “It’s too complicated to explain the whole thing right now. Professor Tellwyrn is temporarily absent, and your campus is under attack. Most of your classmates have been evacuated into the Crawl, where they should be safe, at least for the short term. Tellwyrn will be back before too long, and I’ve contacted Imperial Intelligence. Help is coming. But for right now, with you outside the protections of that chapel, you’re in more danger than any of the rest of the students. You need to get off the campus, quickly. Don’t go to the town, the— He has allies in Last Rock, and didn’t bring them up here, so I know they’re waiting below. You’re college kids, I’m sure you know someplace in the area to hide yourselves from official eyes? Don’t tell me where, just get there.”

“Just a moment.” Ravana held up a hand in a peremptory gesture to forestall both Lorelin and her fellows, Natchua and Addiwyn both having opened their mouths. The effect was somewhat ruined by Shaeine’s puppy leaning over to snuffle at her upraised hand.

Lorelin blinked, and squinted. Was that a baby hellhound? Well…that answered one question, and raised a whole host of others.

“Who, exactly, is leading the attack on the University?” Ravana asked calmly, lowering her hand out of the puppy’s reach.

“There’s no time—”

“Natchua, are you able to send a shadowbolt through any shield she can conjure?”

“Not directly,” the drow replied with a tiny, unpleasant smile. “But I know a dozen ways to crack a divine shield in less than four seconds. Then shadowbolts.”

“You see, madam,” Ravana said in that condescendingly pleasant tone aristocrats apparently learned in the nursery, “all we know is that you were engaged in trying to dig us out of our protected chapel and have a predilection for turning on your allies. There is little ground for trust, here. You will have to offer more than vague hints.”

Lorelin let out a long, slow breath, controlling her expression. In the tension of the moment, she had actually not considered the sheer physical danger of her situation, but one of the drow was a fellow light-wielder of some skill, and apparently the other was a warlock. And, as Ravana pointed out, they had no reason to trust her. In this situation, they might well decide that blasting her was a preferable option to walking away.

Well, she’d handled worse. Unlike the Hand, at least these could be reasoned with. Hopefully. How much did they know? Best to play it safe, for now.

“About a month ago,” she said, deliberately glancing up the path to display nervousness, “the Hands of the Emperor began acting strange. Paranoid, aggressive, showing sudden magical abilities they’d never had before. Within a week they were back to normal, with the exception of one. He had been working with Tellwyrn on…your situation. Now, for whatever reason, he is obsessed with her and completely out of his mind. The Empire won’t acknowledge one of their Hands has gone rogue, so he is still acting with the Throne’s full authority until they can get here and put a stop to him. He is behind the attack on the campus, and is down in the Crawl with a Salyrite warlock, trying to dig your classmates out of the Grim Visage.”

She could tell already, even before she finished explaining: they knew. Ravana and Shaeine kept impassive, as she would expect from noblewomen, but Raolo and Addiwyn exchanged a satisfied glance and Natchua nodded slightly. Someone had not only awakened them with a fresh source of hellhound breath, but brought them up to date. Her instinct had been correct: trying to prevaricate would probably have led to a barrage of shadowbolts.

Belatedly, it occurred to Lorelin the only likely source of up-to-date intelligence and hellhounds who could get in and out of Tellwyrn’s heavily-defended chapel without disrupting its wards. Well, Shaeine was involved with Vadrieny’s host, after all…

“Listen to me.” She glanced once more in the direction of the Crawl, affecting subtly more nervous body language. “I realize that for students at what amounts to a school for adventurers, being asked to stand down is tantamount to a challenge, but you need to think strategically. This Hand is a complete lunatic; the only troops he’s brought are losers like these.” Lorelin nudged one of her erstwhile guards with a foot, prompting a soft moan. “The other Church contact working for him here is as wary as I am; I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s called for help, too. Fighting this guy will only escalate matters. There’s no actual way he can win here; all he can do is cause damage. Please get yourselves out of the area so you don’t become that damage.”

Lorelin stared pleadingly up at them. Had it just been the surface elves or Natchua, she’d have put on the mask of a reasonable authority figure, but the two noblewomen made it complicated. They wouldn’t acknowledge any authority on her part, and would be suspicious of too much earnestness. Just a touch of fear and vulnerability should hopefully do the trick…

“Well?” Addiwyn prompted after a pause in which they all just watched her, as if by staring hard enough they could read her intentions. “Are we trusting her or not? She did tell the truth…as far as we know.”

“Trust is a stronger word than I would choose,” Ravana said, glancing at Shaeine as if for confirmation. “But…yes. Fact-checking aside, she is correct on one point: escalation is a concern. An unstable man with the powers of a Hand of the Emperor can cause incalculable damage, not least because he will not act strategically. His very presence here proves this; there is no possible victory in assaulting the University.”

“So…we run, then,” Raolo said with a sigh. “Well, I don’t like it, but it’s sense. I know a place—”

“I will be proceeding with the plan I outlined for you,” Ravana said smoothly.

“Of course you bloody will,” Addiwyn muttered.

“Now, see here!” Lorelin did not have to augment the frustration in her voice.

“If any of you wish to follow the Vidian’s advice and flee, I will not judge you ill,” Ravana stated, stepping forward and turning to face them, the motion neatly placing her at the head of the group and physically excluding Lorelin from the discussion. “Mistaking strategy for cowardice is the mark of the defeated. It is only sensible to secure your welfare. However, the woman is correct: while the Hand cannot win, here, he can cause damage. Our classmates will be in the Grim Visage, and he will be interfering with the Crawl as he taught her to do here. If he can overcome the sanctuary effect, he will be in a confined space with a large group of people, many of whom are physically quite powerful. He will be taken down, but in that situation, it will inevitably be a bloodbath.”

“That is a big ‘if,’” Raolo pointed out, then craned his neck around Ravana to address Lorelin. “Hey, you! What are the chances he can actually do that?”

“…I have no idea,” she said honestly, pausing to think for only a second. “I don’t understand the magic involved, and I don’t know the capabilities of Hands even before they’re…interfered with, or malfunction, or whatever happened to him.”

“Very well, then,” Ravana said briskly. “I will proceed. I welcome anyone who chooses to join me and will not begrude any who would rather retreat. You,” she added, turning to indicate Lorelin with a curt nod, “will report to this Hand, inform him that we have broken out and are on the way to the uppermost terrace of the University to pursue some plan against him. That happens to be the literal truth, by the way, in case you are actually in his pocket. If he cannot get through the Visage’s defenses, we lose nothing by making him run around wasting time. If he can, this will save the lives of many of our classmates.”

“Except you will have a Hand of the Emperor after you!” Lorelin exclaimed. “If you’re expecting your warlock friend to help—”

“The imperviousness of Hands to warlock magic is precisely how it is known among the nobility that they are fae-powered,” Ravana said condescendingly. “Don’t you worry, I know what I am doing.”

“How did you know she’s Vidian?” Raolo asked.

“That’s Lorelin Reich,” Addiwyn sneered. “The one Arquin chased out of town.”

“I recognized her, yes,” Ravana said pleasantly. “Also, it is generally a safe thing to assume of a cleric who is as adept an actress as this one. Now, there is no more time to waste.”

With that, she glided the rest of the way down the stairs, turned right, and headed off up the path toward the upper campus. After the barest pause, the rest of her fellow Sleeper victims followed. Every one of them.

Lorelin watched them go for a long, incredulous moment, then threw up her hands in frustration, turned, and stalked off in the direction of the Crawl, leaving two bruised bodies on the ground behind her.


“Prince Sekandar, can I ask you to keep this safe for me?”

He sighed, but reached out to accept the scabbarded saber. “If you like, Szith. I’m never going to convince you to just call me Sekandar, am I?”

“I’m sure it speaks well of you, in your culture, that you make yourself so approachable,” she said, her face a mask of Narisian calm. “In my culture, the habit of excessive familiarity with one’s betters can be lethal. In a few short years, I will return there, and after Natchua’s…performance…I suspect my conduct will be scrutinized closely.”

“You don’t want that sword, then?” Scorn asked. “It is the bigger one. More powerful, yes?” The Rhaazke sat on the stairs, one arm draped over Maureen. Generally she didn’t enjoy being physically dominated by her classmates, but under the circumstances, Scorn’s towering protective presence was as comforting as Iris on her other side, murmuring to herself and rubbing some dried leaves between her fingers. They smelled pleasant; Iris claimed what she was doing would have a calming effect on the pub’s occupants.

The more than a hundred refugees from the University filled the place to capacity, and had already displaced most of its usual crowd. The tension could have been cut with a knife, but so far it had stayed relatively calm. Maybe Iris actually was helping.

“Do you recall when Matriarch Ashaele visited the campus?” Szith said, putting on one of her tiny smiles. “The guards she brought with her carried sabers like these.”

“Yes, I remember,” Scorn said impatiently. “Powerful swords, like I said.”

“Power is not without is disadvantages. This is a better weapon.” The drow rested a hand on the pommel of her short sword, which was still belted at her waist. “A saber must be swung in wide arcs, which handicaps it in close quarters, and makes formation fighting very difficult. For organized infantry combat, you want short swords—like this one, or those the Silver Legions carry. For precisely that reason, Narisian House guards are not permitted to own them. They may only carry the saber, which is a dueling weapon. Aristocrats and their protectors are trained in a ritualized style of formal combat which leaves them no match for an organized infantry. I am a soldier of House An’sadarr, sworn to fight for the Queen and Tar’naris. Thus, I have a weapon which is better suited to these tight quarters.”

“Interesting stuff,” Maureen said, nervously turning over the chunk of decorated quarts which was (hopefully) the heart of Crystal in her hands. “An’ Sekandar, here, is also trained in Narisian dueling?”

“Well, no,” the prince said with a smile, “but also sort of yes. Up here on the surface, a saber is more of a cavalry weapon—and Calderaan cavalry is rightly famous, if I do say so myself. We also have a dueling style which uses it. Probably not the way Szith was taught, but I can manage not to cut my own leg off, if this comes to a fight. Hopefully,” he added, turning to the drow again with a more sober expression, “it won’t come to that. If I understand how the Visage works, it can’t.”

“One always hopes battle will not come,” she said, shifting her gaze to the front of the tavern. “One always assumes that it will, and prepares accordingly.”

The doors were shut and had been barricaded with furniture, but Melaxyna and Fedora both perched on the second-floor windows which were set in the eyes of the great face that gazed outward at the Crawl’s entrance. Neither of them was putting on any pretense; though his rumpled suit, coat, and hat contrasted with the ragged piece of hide she wore as a dress, both were in fully demonic form, complete with alabaster-pale skin and crystalline eyes—and, more relevantly, wings and tails. These provided an aid to balance, as there was no actual place to sit in front of those windows, leaving them precariously clinging to narrow sills.

A sharp whistle turned every head in the room; Xsythri, Melaxyna’s hethelax henchoman, had clambered up onto the rail near the group on the stairs and was waving frantically for her boss’s attention.

The succubus heaved a dramatic sigh, then shoved herself off the wall and glided the short distance down. Fedora did not follow, but kept his head turned and attention fixed on their conversation, disregarding whatever he was watching outside.

“We’ve got a problem, boss lady,” Xsythri began.

“Wait, wait, don’t tell me,” Melaxyna said sourly. “We’re out of mushroom beer again.”

“Of course not, you know we can’t give that to student—no, dammit, worse than that! I just had to break up a little scuffle in the market room.”

Melaxyna’s lashing tail suddenly went still. “…how bad a scuffle?”

“Not bad,” Xsythri said, eyes wide and worried. “Very minor, just some jostling from being too close together. Somebody threw a punch and that went nowhere, cos of the sanctuary effect.”

The succubus heaved a deep breath, turning her head to stare sightlessly at the front of the tavern again. She couldn’t see out the windows from this angle, but by that time they all knew the Hand was out there with some of his new lackeys, doing something.

“Why’s that a problem?” Iris asked warily, opening her eyes and pausing in her soft chant. “Sounds like an inevitable little nothing, in a situation like this.”

Melaxyna shifted again to give the witch a long look, then abruptly whirled, wings flaring out for balance, and punched Xsythri in the face.

Her fist stopped an inch from the hethelax’s nose, a soft ripple in the air marking the sanctuary effect’s protection.

“Oh, nice,” Xsythri snapped. “That’s great, boss, thank you for your concern.”

“Yeah, so…we’re protected, right?” Iris prompted. “Ow! Hey!”

Melaxyna had struck again, this time lightly flicking Iris’s ear with a fingertip.

“The sanctuary effect,” the succubus stated grimly, “is absolute. All violence—all violence—is impossible within the Grim Visage.”

Under the demon’s stare, Iris stopped rubbing at her ear, her eyes going wide. Sekandar let out a long breath, and a soft growl rumbled deep in Scorn’s throat.

“But now,” Melaxyna said, again turning to face the entrance, “the effect is…relative. Whatever the hell that guy is doing out there, it’s starting to work.”

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13 – 35

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It was a most peculiar sensation, to become aware that she was dreaming. She drifted, while all around her the act of drifting itself petered off into more linear movement. Reality crystallized, the churned amorphousness of dream logic retreating as solidity intruded, and whatever she had been dreaming about faded away from the sharpening of her consciousness.

She had arrived, with no memory of the act of moving, at a peaceful little rooftop garden very like those kept by the wealthy in Tar’naris. This was not Tar’naris, though, but a vast cavern that seemed empty, its walls studded generously with dimly glowing crystal, and night-blooming jasmine and other flowering plants she did not recognize decorating the little terrace—plants which fared poorly underground. There was a table and chairs made of glass (the latter with embroidered red cushions) in a style she had never seen anywhere. One chair was pulled out invitingly, while at the other sat a woman in red.

“Hello, Shaeine, dear,” she said with a kind smile. “Please, have a seat. It’s high time we had a talk, you and I.”

Slowly, Shaeine stepped forward, settling herself into the proffered chair and scooting it up to the table, all while studying her new acquaintance. She was a drow woman with her white hair hanging long and unbound down her back in the classical style, and skin the shade of pure black that had become rare in Tar’naris. Only the very old still had the unadulterated bloodline fostered by the spider goddess of long ago; most Narisians had grayish complexions from thousands of years of slight but steady infusions of human blood.

Pure drow or not, the red dress the woman wore was a cocktail gown of a Tiraan cut, and her broad-brimmed matching hat in the Punaji style. The dress was low-cut, immodest by both Narisian and (to a lesser extent) Imperial standards. She smiled knowingly at Shaeine and began pouring tea.

The tea service had not existed a moment ago, and had not appeared. It was simply there, now, and suddenly had always been.

“This is a dream,” Shaeine said aloud, more to herself than to her…guest? Host? Whose dream was it?

“Quite so, dear,” the woman in red replied, nodding and adding three spoonfuls of honey to her tea, just the way she liked. “In fact, you are under the influence of an unnecessarily elaborate sleeping curse, lying with your fellow victims in the chapel on the campus of your University. And that, I’m afraid, is as good as the news gets. The chapel’s defenses have been activated, a most impressive combination of divine shields, arcane deflection charms and a fae effect tied to the geas upon the University that keeps it slightly out of phase with physical reality. Arachne is away from the campus and most of the rest of the faculty and students have been evacuated into the Crawl, while enemies close in upon you. A damaged, deranged Hand of the Emperor, gone rogue from his own government, leading a consortium of random thugs and a few magic-users he does not know were hand-picked by the Archpope of the Universal Church to cause maximum havoc to both him and poor Arachne. They will probably get into the chapel before Arachne gets back to stop them. Whether they can dig your classmates out of the Crawl is another matter. Have some tea, dear, you could probably use it.”

Shaeine accepted the proffered cup and took a sip, keeping her expression politely blank. “It sounds as if I have missed some interesting events.”

The woman smiled again. “You don’t believe me.”

“On the contrary,” Shaeine said diplomatically, “I do not rush to accept or dismiss your assertions. Either would seem unwise, as I don’t know who you are, much less why you are telling me this. Although… We have met, have we not? Yes, in Sarasio. You’re Professor Tellwyrn’s friend, Lily. Though you wore a different face at the time.”

“Quite so! I’m pleased you remember,” Lily said with a most un-Narisian grin. “I’m the Lady in Red; it’s a new thing I’m trying out. Do you like it?”

“It seems to suit you,” Shaeine said neutrally. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Oh, well, you know how it is. By and large I prefer to keep my distance from mortal events. You are different, though, now. I’m sure you are aware what must have happened when you were struck down by the Sleeper.”

“I imagine a number of things happened,” Shaeine said in her most careful tone, mind already racing after the implications of that question.

“True, true. I am referring to the only business that brings me here, dear one: family business. You will be pleased, I’m sure, to learn that your mother accepted Vadrieny and Teal’s courtship of you and, as is your people’s custom, immediately validated their adoption when you were cursed. Felicitations, my dear. I’m sorry I missed it.”

Shaeine managed a polite nod, her throat suddenly too tight to speak, which went perfectly with the sudden pressure in her chest. Goddess, Teal, Vadrieny… It must have been horrible for them to see her this way. At least they had each other. At least her mother had embraced them into the family. She had to get out of this somehow, get back to them… And, when she paused to consider it, it suddenly seemed likely that her new acquaintance was leading in that direction.

“Your mother is quite the lady,” Lily continued in a light tone, stirring her own tea. “One of very few people who have fully understood what Arachne is capable of and got right up into her face anyway. And all without losing her composure! I was quite impressed.” She winked. “And I don’t impress easily. When one has seen as many things as I have, not many mortals still have any surprises to offer.”

Shaeine had raised her teacup to cover her near-lapse of composure with a sip, but now suddenly lowered it again, connecting the dots.

“Elilial.”

The goddess smiled warmly at her. “Welcome to the family, dear.”

Oddly enough, the surreality of the situation helped; it was easier to have tea with the divine queen of demons and maintain her public face while nothing around her made sense or even existed than it would have been with the full weight of her mortal frailty making itself felt.

“I must tell you up front,” Shaeine said politely, “that I am an acolyte of Themynra and will not alter my path. If you intend me to aid in your plans, I’m afraid I must disappoint you.”

“Shaeine, dear, please don’t take this as a personal rejection, because it isn’t,” Elilial said seriously, “but I don’t want you anywhere near my plans. Not you, or Vadrieny, or Teal. In the last handful of years I have lost six daughters and now gained two; I intend to lose no more. And that means Vadrieny’s role in all my grand schemes is indefinitely terminated. Not even a clever, determined priestess and a bard with the world’s biggest heart are a replacement for her six elder sisters; the events unfolding now are simply too dangerous. I didn’t come here to ask anything of you, but now that you raise the issue, this is the only request I have: keep them safe.”

“I would do that anyway,” Shaeine said evenly. “Not that I am able to contribute much in my current state.”

“Which,” Elilial said, her smile curling a little wider, “brings us to the reason for my visit!”

“I was under the impression that gods were…constrained from intervening directly. Or at least, dramatically.”

“Oh, pish tosh.” The demon goddess made a dismissive gesture, smiling benignly. “The only individuals who respect the Pantheon’s rules less than I are the Pantheon themselves. For heaven’s sake, Shaeine, you have personally seen Vidius stomping all over the mountaintop as if he owned the place. No, dear, godly restraint is simply a behavior we have all learned is better than the alternative. The more a deity sticks their fingers in, the more others do, and it doesn’t take much of that before the wheels fly off the whole thing. Avei and Sorash burned down half the world between them before Arachne put a final stop to that, just because their respective champions kept butting heads and they couldn’t leave well enough alone. Almost everything modern gods get away with stems from their capacity to show a little restraint. Eserion is by far the most interventionist of them, and that works because none of the Pantheon—or even I—can justify exerting divine force against what are, after all, just the actions of his mortal followers. Vesk, Vidius, Omnu, Verniselle, even Salyrene, they all keep their hands off nowadays, and it’s that very fact which enables their cults to flourish: no other god has an excuse to act against them. Like life itself, it is a game of actions and reactions, of choices and consequences, in which some of the players like to fluff up their egos by by pretending that acting only through intermediaries is some kind of moral virtue.”

“I…see.”

Elilial grinned, lifting her teacup in a little toast. “Ah, but I see I’ve bored you already. I’m afraid you’ll have to get used to that, my dear; the hypocrisy of the gods is a subject upon which I tend to rant. Bringing this back ’round to the point… You’re correct, it would not be circumspect of me to interfere too aggressively. At the minimum, that would draw attention to my Vadrieny that she does not need. Already the agents of the Church are watching her, waiting for an excuse. You should be wary of that as well, dear. But!” She smiled again, and this time it was such a performatively sly expression that Shaeine barely repressed the urge to throw a divine shield around herself. “Even they surely won’t object to me giving my little girl a wedding present.”

“By,” Shaeine said cautiously, “for example, un-weaving the Sleeper’s curse?”

“You may consider this a divine revelation directly from the goddess of cunning, Shaeine dear: simple plans outperform complex ones every time. Each step or factor you have to account for is another opportunity for everything to go wrong. That’s part of the reason Arachne’s various minions have had no success trying to analyze and dismantle this curse in meticulous detail; what they need is a sword to cut the knot.” She set down her teacup and reached across the table to squeeze Shaeine’s hand; Shaeine, for her part, had to hastily squash the urge to draw back. Elilial just smiled warmly at her. “His name is F’thaan. Now go knock ’em dead, daughter.”

“His n…”

She broke off, gagging, as an impossibly wretched stench filled her mouth and nose. It was a melange of rotten eggs, brimstone, and hot metal; more than just a smell, it felt as if the stink had a physical force, pushing her back from the table.

In fact, she was being pushed away. Elilial’s knowing smirk receded, the whole scene around her growing chaotic and fuzzy, and Shaeine felt as if the smell were hauling her bodily upward through an ocean of thought and pressure, until—

Her eyes snapped open.

A furry little face was right in front of her, surmounted by a pair of shining eyes very like Vadrieny’s, pits of swirling orange fire. The sound of eager panting filled her ears; the hot breath in her face reeked like rotting demon flesh.

Shaeine winced and raised a hand to cover her nose and mouth, struggling to straighten up against the pillows on which she lay. At her movement, the little creature retreated, bouncing eagerly down her stomach to rest in her lap. She managed to drag herself up, braced on one elbow, to a reclining position, and get a good look.

It was a puppy.

He yapped excitedly up at her, bouncing on her lap, little tail wagging furiously. Coal black, he might have passed for a perfectly normal young dog, if not for the fiery eyes, and the blunt little nubs of horns sprouting from above them. At least now that he was more distant from her face, the smell of his breath wasn’t so overpowering.

Shaeine carefully reached down to scratch behind the little hellhound’s ear, and he let out another little yip, rubbing ecstatically against her hand and then licking at her fingers.

“F’thaan, I presume,” she said aloud, then cleared her throat. Her voice was slightly hoarse, probably from simple disuse. The puppy barked at her, and began clambering back up her chest toward her face. Shaeine hurriedly straightened the rest of the way up to a sitting position, getting a grip on him with both hands and tousling his ears while holding him down away from her sensitive nose.

He continued to squirm and wag his tail in delight, but after a moment allowed her to settle him down a bit. As long as he was being held and getting scratched behind the ears, he didn’t seem to mind being kept in place. That, at least, gave her the space to look around and find her bearings.

The campus chapel, of course, was familiar. Right now it was dim, the only light coming through its stained glass windows. It had also been thoroughly re-arranged, the pews pushed together and lined with pillows and quilts to form makeshift beds in which she and her classmates now lay. One of these was now so piled at the end with bouquets of flowers that it resembled a funerary display. If her own bed was any indication, though, there were subtler gifts left. Shaeine found that in sitting up she had displaced a number of flowers, notes bearing well-wishes from her classmates, and little talismans representing various faiths, as well as fairy charms. With a pained wince, she extracted a silver Themynrite blessing talisman from underneath F’thaan.

“No,” she said firmly when he tried to grab it in his little jaws. Somewhat to her surprise, the puppy seemed to heed her, settling back down into her lap to gaze up at her, tail still a-wag.

Still holding him, she carefully extricated her legs from beneath the quilt laid over them and clambered upright, then hopped lightly over the side to stand in the middle aisle, before the dais at the head of the chapel. It was a non-denominational space, lacking holy sigils of any faith; there was nothing but a slightly raised platform and an unmarked lectern to mark the front where an altar would be in other temples. From this position, at least, she could see into the beds and take a quick roll.

Natchua, Addiwyn, Raolo, and Ravana slept in pew-beds like her own. Apparently, then, she had been the last to fall victim to the Sleeper. Well, that was good, at least.

F’thaan barked again, craning his neck up to lick at her chin. Shaeine cringed, tilting her head back away from his breath, but obligingly scratched his ears again. He still wriggled with an ecstatic full-body wag at the attention, but seemed a bit calmer now. Adorable as the creature was, dogs and demons were both foreign to her; she had no idea how she was going to manage a fusion of the two.

“Now, you behave yourself,” she said, firmly but gently, looking down at his little face and evening her expression despite the smell of his breath. “This is a sacred place. It is probably the only Pantheon temple you will ever be in, as most priests will not share Professor Tellwyrn’s consideration for demonbloods. Don’t even think of defecating in here.”

He yipped at her and licked her chin again. Was there any chance he’d understood that? Just how smart were dogs?

Shaeine sighed and stepped toward the nearest impromptu bed, which was Ravana’s; it was the one piled with flowers to the point that the girl’s feet were entirely buried in them. Pausing to scratch behind F’thaan’s ear one more time in the way he seemed to like, she adjusted her grip on the puppy and carefully held him out, right in front of Ravana’s face. He eagerly licked the young Duchess’s cheek, panting in excitement.

Ravana’s peaceful expression vanished in a grimace and she twitched violently, rolling her head to the side. “Pfah! What is that?!”

“Hellhound breath,” Shaeine explained, withdrawing F’thaan and holding him against her chest again. “Welcome back, Ravana. We seem to be in a bit of a situation.”

“…so I gather,” the human replied, peering up at her through narrowed eyes. “I am quite eager to hear this story.”

“I’m afraid large swaths of it are unknown to me, but I’ve been warned of the immediate… Actually, let me wake the others, if you don’t mind. There is no sense in going over it multiple times.”

“Indeed, quite right,” Ravana said briskly, after clearing her throat much the way Shaeine had earlier. She set about climbing out of the bed, showing no more sign of stiffness than Shaeine had felt. Odd that the curse allowed the voice to grow rusty but left its victims to awaken feeling quite spry and well-rested. Or perhaps that was an effect of the hellhound breath?

While Ravana explored the piles of offerings left around her bier, quietly bemoaning her lack of shoes, Shaeine set about delivering the necessary but unpleasant dose of hellhound breath that freed each of the others from the Sleeper’s curse. Addiwyn’s first waking act was to snarl insults at her in elvish, though to her credit she looked quite abashed as soon as she was lucid again. Raolo actually yelped and leaped up, and probably would have gone over the side of the pew and to the floor had he not been entangled in his quilt.

She came to Natchua last, noting as she approached that there was another Themynrite talisman resting over her heart. These were crafted by House priestesses, and Natchua’s was identical to her own, decorated with ribbons in Awarrion colors. It was like her mother to be thoughtful enough to bring one for an exile, when apparently House Dalmiss had officially disavowed her. Shaeine carefully moved it to rest in the other drow’s hand before holding F’thaan out to breathe in her face.

F’thaan barked excitedly and licked Natchua’s nose. Unlike the others, she instantly drew her lips back in a furious snarl, snapped her eyes open, and sat bolt upright, forcing Shaeine to yank yer puppy back out of the way.

“CHASE!” Natchua roared, clutching the side of the pew with both hands. “You little bastard, I’ll—” There, finally, she paused, blinking, and turned over the one still holding the Themynrite sigil.

“Well, that answers one question, I guess,” Raolo commented.

“Which is a start,” Addiwyn said pointedly, folding her arms. “I find it odd that we are in the chapel instead of the infirmary, and the doors are both closed and barred.”

“Yes,” Ravana added as they all turned to frown at the wide double doors, which indeed had been secured from the inside with a large wooden bar. “Also that we are being revived by a fellow student and not a member of the faculty. My sincere thanks for the revivification, Shaeine, but I am rather curious why you chose to secure the door behind you.”

“And where under the sun did you get a hellhound puppy?” Raolo amended in a fascinated tone. F’thaan yapped excitedly, squirming around in Shaeine’s arms to keep everybody in view until she finally knelt to set him on the ground.

“Actually, I was cursed as well until moments ago,” she said. “F’thaan was a wedding gift from Elilial, who it seems is now my mother-in-law.”

They all stared.

“Veth’na alaue,” Natchua said at last.

Shaeine cleared her throat, shifting her head to keep an eye on F’thaan, who had bounded over to Ravana’s huge pile of flowers to investigate the fascinating scents therein. “Allow me to explain as best I can…”

Summarizing her recent conversation with Elilial went faster than the dream itself had, and also served to emphasize how little she actually understood of the situation. Shaeine finished, and then went to retrieve F’thaan, who had buried himself fully in flowers and begun repeatedly sneezing. The distraction was welcome; even her diplomatic training did not safeguard her against feeling awkward at having to deliver that painfully incomplete summary of the situation.

Fortunately, Ravana rescued her. “I do say that all sounds quite cogent,” the Duchess proclaimed, nodding sagely. “The campus coming under attack could really only occur in Tellwyrn’s absence, and withdrawing the students into the Crawl is a most reasonable safety precaution. While a number of our classmates represent potent forces themselves, the sanctuary effect of the Grim Visage would serve to keep them safe despite anyone’s best efforts.”

“I don’t know,” Addiwyn said, frowning deeply. “A Hand of the Emperor? Gone rogue? Inconceivable.”

“Nonsense,” Ravana said briskly. “The Empire has kept the means of the Hands’ creation and empowerment carefully secret, but I do know it was done through mostly fae magic—”

“How could you possibly know that?” Addiwyn snapped. “Nobody knows that!”

Ravana smiled primly at her. “I, as you are well aware, Addiwyn, am not nobody. I know many things of which the general public is not aware. My point is, it was only a matter of time before someone found a way to interfere with that craft and suborn a Hand. No plan, system, or spell is perfect; all have weaknesses, and all will eventually be exploited. Politically speaking, a renegade Hand of the Emperor is the perfect means of attacking a hot target like the University. The Empire will not be willing to acknowledge they have lost control of one, and thus will have to act with great circumspection to contain the situation, which prevents them from simply inundating the region with troops and strike teams as the Throne ordinarily would to counter a threat of that caliber. The same facts neatly conceal the identity of whoever tampered with this Hand in the first place, and enable him to cause havoc without risk to themselves. Truly an elegant attack. I wonder what is happening in Puna Dara?”

“You—Puna—what?” Raolo exclaimed.

“The last time a major disaster occurred upon this campus,” Ravana said patiently, “the current sophomore class refused an evacuation order to remain here and contain it, and they collectively represent a threat that even a Hand of the Emperor could not challenge.” She nodded graciously to Shaeine, who was holding F’thaan again and slowly stroking his head. This movement seemed to settle some of his eager squirming. “Given their power and disrespect for rules, and the fact that they would not abandon Shaeine to this kind of danger, obviously they were drawn somewhere else first, probably by a similar threat to loved ones. Nothing else would keep them away during a crisis like this. Most have no such mortal attachments, and woe betide any force which assaulted Avei’s stronghold in Viridill. Logically, then, something dire must be unfolding in Zaruda’s home to have fixed their attention away from the University.”

“Or,” Natchua said disdainfully, “they’re just off on a class assignment and don’t know about it.”

“I rather think even Tellwyrn would have had difficulty shooing Teal away from campus while Shaeine lay cursed here,” Ravana said with that prim little smile.

“Or,” Natchua repeated, curling her lip in a sneer, “since everything we know about this situation came from Elilial, it is all a pack of lies, because that is what she does!”

“I suppose you would know,” Ravana said pleasantly.

Natchua took an aggressive step toward her. “And what is that supposed to mean?”

“Whoah, now,” Raolo interjected. “This is not the time—”

“Why, simply that you are the other warlock endowed by Elilial,” Ravana stated.

“How dare you?!” Natchua snarled. “I should—”

“Hang on, now,” Addiwyn said suddenly. “How’d you know the Sleeper was Chase? He was Sleeped himself when the curse was cast on you.”

“A clever gambit on his part,” Ravana said, nodding. “It was known that Rafe had hellhound breath in his possession, thanks to me, so he could be certain of being awakened by the only such dose available. And applying the curse to someone by some delayed mechanism while he lay under it provided him an alibi. Yes, quite clever. Also,” she added with the hint of a smirk, “a personal encounter with Elilial is the only reason I can think why a Themynrite drow would carry the kind of antipathy toward her that you just expressed, Natchua.”

The silence which followed was tense enough to hang from. Natchua glared daggers at Ravana, fists clenched and quivering; Ravana simply smiled amiably back at her.

Ultimately it wasn’t either of them who broke it. F’thaan let out a yip and squirmed in Shaeine’s grasp, twisting up to lick at her face. She grimaced and turned her head away from his breath again.

Natchua, suddenly, seemed to deflate. Turning her back on the group, she trudged over to the makeshift bed in which she had recently lain, and carelessly shoved one of its two pews aside, causing pillows, flowers, and half the quilt to tumble to the floor. There, she sank down onto the seat and put her head in her hands.

“Has anybody ever told you,” Raolo said to Ravana, “you’re just a little too smart for your own good?”

“Why, yes, in fact,” she mused. “A man did say that to me once, quite shortly after I assumed the head of House Madouri. I had him executed soon thereafter.”

This time, they all stared at her directly; even Natchua lifted her head again to gape in disbelief.

“Well, not for that,” Ravana explained. “He was one of my father’s loyalists who’d been plotting to assassinate me. Not carefully, either, there was an embarrassing plethora of evidence. Really, what do you take me for? One cannot go around executing every person who insults one to one’s face. That is no way to earn the respect one requires to rule.”

“Anyway,” Addiwyn said pointedly, “have we decided we’re taking Elilial’s word for this?”

“I cannot think of any reason she would lie,” said Shaeine. “If she wished us harm, she could simply have refrained from acting at all. We were all lying here, terribly vulnerable, while enemies closed in.”

“I concur,” Ravana added. “It seems most reasonable, under the circumstances, to assume the warning was legitimate. In which case this chapel is defensible, but its defenses will not hold for long. We are apparently alone on campus, surrounded by foes of unknown type and power, and isolated from any potential help until Tellwyrn returns from her unknown errand.”

“We’re hardly helpless, though,” Addiwyn pointed out. “We have here a mage, a priestess…” She glanced uncertainly at Natchua. “…and apparently a warlock. In terms of firepower, that’s not insignificant.”

“Against a Hand of the Emperor, though?” Raolo said, frowning thoughtfully. “Not to mention whatever other help he has. Hand-picked by the Archpope, was it? Able to beat the defenses of the campus? That doesn’t exactly sound like small potatoes. I don’t mind admitting I’m not much of a mage. A rank amateur, to be frank. I understand Shaeine is extremely skilled for her age, and, uh… From what I heard…”

“I haven’t had a lot of practice or anything,” Natchua said suddenly, staring at the floor. “But theoretical knowledge? Sure. Virtually all of it.”

Addiwyn emitted a soft, incongruous laugh. “Well! Sounds like we’ve got three-quarters of our own little strike team, then. I don’t suppose anybody is secretly a powerful witch or shaman?”

She directed that last at Ravana, who started to shake her head, then suddenly straightened up, her eyes widening. A smile spread across the young Duchess’s thin lips.

“Actually,” she said, “that gives me an idea.”

 

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