Tag Archives: Tanq

9 – 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We talkin’ polearms or fish?”

“You’re an idiot, you know that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We know,” the drow replied flatly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Arachne! Busy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, uh, this is—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is she here?” Weaver asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My apologies, ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You brought him up,” Weaver pointed out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billie was giving him that look again.

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

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

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

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

“Oh? Like Sarasio?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Joe,” she said gently. “Honey. No.”

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

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

They set off back through the campus in silence.

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7 – 13

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“So, we’ve got that hangin’ over us all fuckin’ summer,” Ruda groused. “Come back for our sophomore year and immediately get put to work scrubbing mulch and basting doors and whatever the hell housekeeping tasks Stew thinks up until Tellwyrn gets tired of our suffering. Hoo-fucking-ray.”

“Scrubbing mulch?” Gabriel said, his eyebrows shooting upward. “Have you ever cleaned anything in your life, Princess?”

“Arquin, you will never be demonic enough or divine enough that I will refrain from kicking your ass. Bring the skeevy dude in the hat down here and I’ll kick his ass, too.”

“Sorry to interrupt your blasphemy,” Trissiny said, raising an eyebrow, “but I won’t be joining in your mulch-scrubbing this fall. I’m staying on campus over the summer.”

“Yup!” Fross chimed, bobbing around them. “Professor Tellwyrn is letting us do our punishment duty over the summer and get it out of the way. It’s pretty accommodating of her! We broke a lot of campus rules.”

“Considering she’s still punishing us for obeying a direct command from the gods, I’m not gonna get too worked up about her generosity,” Gabriel muttered.

“To be technical,” said Fross, “she’s punishing Trissiny and Toby for obeying a direct command from the gods, which is actually not at all out of character given her history. The rest of us don’t really have an excuse. I mean, if she’s not gonna accept a divine mandate as a good reason, citing friendship probably isn’t gonna help. Anyhow, I’ve gotta go finish cleaning up the spell lab I was using. Nobody leave campus before I can say goodbye! Oh, Ruda, looks like your dad is here. See ya later!”

The pixie zipped off toward the magical arts building in a silver streak, leaving the others staring after her.

“What?” Ruda demanded. “My—what? Oh, shit.”

It was a characteristically sunny day, with a brisk wind across the mountain cutting the prairie heat. The campus of the University was teeming with people, despite the fact that many of the students were already gone. Parents, friends and family members were everywhere, picking up their kids and being shown around on one of the few occasions when non-initiates of the University were welcomed there. A few curiosity-seekers had also snuck in, though they seldom lasted long before Tellwyrn found and disposed of them. Professor Rafe had already been informed that if he didn’t remove the betting board set up in the cafeteria speculating on where various journalists and pilgrims had been teleported to, he himself would be walking home from Shaathvar.

Now, a sizable party of men and women in feathered hats, heavy boots and greatcoats were making their way up the avenue to the main lawn, on which the six freshmen had just come to a stop. Toby and Juniper had both departed that morning, leaving the rest to make more leisurely goodbyes as they still had time.

Trissiny touched Ruda’s shoulder lightly from behind. “Are you okay? Do you need—”

“No,” she said quietly. “I have to face this. Guys, if I don’t get to talk to you again, enjoy your summer.” Squaring her shoulders, she stepped forward, striding up to the group of oncoming Punaji.

They stopped at their princess’s approach, parting to let the towering figure in the middle come forth. King Rajakhan was a looming wall of a man, a bulky mass of muscle who would have looked squat due to his build if the proximity of more normally-sized people didn’t reveal that he was also hugely tall. The bushy black beard which was the source of his nickname did not conceal a tremendous scowl. He stepped up, folding brawny arms across his massive chest, and stared down at his daughter.

Ruda, uncharacteristically subdued, removed her hat respectfully and stopped a mere yard from him. The onlooking pirates watched, impassive and silent; the remaining freshmen edged closer.

“The news I hear has impelled me to spend from our people’s treasury to have portal mages bring me here,” he rumbled. “I am pleased to see you whole, daughter. Less pleased by the report I have from Professor Tellwyrn. I understand that you were given an order to evacuate, and you disobeyed it. Through magical subterfuge. This is true?”

“My friends—my crew—had to stay, by orders of the gods,” she said quietly. “I wasn’t raised to leave people behind in danger.”

“I hear your justifications, but not the answer I asked for,” Blackbeard growled.

Ruda stiffened her shoulders slightly. “This is true, sir.”

He snorted. “I further understand that you slew three shadowlord demons and uncounted buzzers yourself, placing your own life in danger.”

“Yes, sir,” she said woodenly. “Alongside eight of the best people I know.”

“I further understand that you were stopped only because you somehow ingested the poison blood of your enemy.”

“Yes, sir. We grappled too closely for swords. I bit its throat.” Her lips twisted in remembered disgust. “They have very tough hides.”

He slowly began drawing in a very deep breath, his huge chest swelling even further, then let it out in one explosive sigh that made his beard momentarily flap like a banner. Somehow, it occurred to nobody to laugh at what would otherwise be a comical sight.

“In all the nations on land or sea,” the Pirate King said with a faint tremor in his voice, reaching out to place one enormous hairy hand on Ruda’s shoulder, “there has never been a prouder father.”

“Papa!” Ruda squealed, launching herself into his arms. Rajakhan’s laughter boomed across the quad as he spun her around in circles, the pirates around him adding their cheers to the noise (and half of them brandishing weapons).

“As I live and breathe,” Gabriel said in wonder.

“I feel I have just gained a better understanding of Ruda’s upbringing,” Shaeine said softly, “and some of what has occurred thereafter.”

“Hey, Teal,” Tanq said, approaching the group but watching the loud pirates curiously. “Does your family own a zeppelin?”

Teal abruptly whirled toward him, growing pale. “…why do you ask?”

“I just wondered. There’s a little one moored at the Rail platform down in town; I saw it when I was sending a scroll… It’s got the Falconer Industries crest on the balloon. I just wondered if it was a company craft or if FI was making them now. Pretty sweet little rig, if I’m any judge.”

“Oh no,” Teal groaned, clapping a hand over her eyes. “Oh, no. I told them… Augh!”

She took off down the path at a near run.

Tanq blinked, staring after her, then turned to the rest of the group. “What’d I say?”

“Teal laboriously made plans regarding our travel arrangements from the campus,” Shaeine replied. “I gather they have just been abruptly modified. Excuse me, please? If I don’t see you again, my friends, I wish you the best over the coming months and look forward to our reunion.” She bowed to them, then favored them with one of her rare, sincere smiles, before turning and gliding off after Teal.


She was about to unleash Vadrieny and swoop upward for a better view when a fortuitous gap between buildings happened to give her a view down onto Last Rock, including a familiar silver shape perched at its edges, with an even more familiar sigil emblazoned on its side.

“Why!?” she groaned. “Why would they do that? I had everything arranged!”

They care about you, and this campus was recently the site of a major crisis. Which we jumped into the middle of. Makes perfect sense to me.

“Oh, whose side are you on?” she snapped. Vadrieny’s silent laugh bubbled through her.

It’ll be all right, Teal. They’ll understand.

“I know how to deal with them. I was gonna have time to explain things on the magic mirror, and then they’d have had the carriage ride to get used to it… Oh, gods, this is gonna be so awkward. Damn it, why don’t they ever listen?”

So they may not understand as quickly, or as easily. They will, though.

“Teal!”

She whirled at hearing her name, beholding two well-known figures striding quickly toward her from the direction of the upper terrace.

“Speak of the demon,” she said fatalistically.

“Well, that’s a nice way to greet your parents,” Marguerite Falconer said, trying without success to look annoyed. Beside her, Geoffrey grinned in delight, not even making the effort.

“This place is somehow smaller than I was imagining it,” he said. “But so…gothic. With all this grandiose architecture and these overgrown paths, I almost can’t believe it’s only fifty years old. We actually managed to get lost, if you can believe that!”

“I can believe it,” Teal said in exasperation. “What are you doing here with that airship? I made plans! Everything was arranged!”

“Well, excuse us for jumping the wand,” Marguerite replied, raising her eyebrows and pushing her spectacles back up her nose. “What with our only child, who has already suffered far more than her fair share of disasters, being stuck in the middle of a hellgate, we were just a little anxious to see you again.”

“C’mere,” Geoffrey ordered, stepping up and sweeping Teal into a hug. She hugged him back, despite her annoyance, relaxing into the embrace as her mother joined it from behind.

“It’s not that I’m not happy to see you,” she mumbled into her father’s cardigan. “I just wanted to… I mean, I had a plan. There was some stuff I wanted to, uh, get you ready for before it, y’know…”

“Oh, Teal,” Marguerite said reproachfully, finally stepping back. Geoffrey released her, too, ruffling her hair. “Dear, it’s all right. It’s not as if this is some great secret. You know we’re fine with it.”

“I mean, for heaven’s sakes, our best friend is an elf,” Geoffrey added with a grin. “You said you were bringing someone special home for the summer holiday. We can manage to put two and two together.”

“I’m sure we’ll love her. Our daughter can only have good taste!”

Teal sighed heavily, staring hopelessly at them. At a glance, nobody would take the Falconers for two of the richest people in the Empire. They were a matched set, both with mouse-brown hair cut short, which looked almost boyish on Marguerite and rather shaggy on Geoffrey. He had a round, florid face decorated by a beard in need of trimming, while her pointed features had been described as “elfin,” but they shared a preference for comfortable, casual clothes in a masculine style. Even their glasses were identical.

“Well, I did try,” she said finally. “Give me credit for that much, at least, when this is all falling out.”

“Oh, Teal, I’ve missed you,” Marguerite said fondly. “Dramatic streak and all.” Geoffrey snorted a laugh.

“Teal? Is everything all right?”

Teal heaved a short, shallow sigh, then half-turned to smile at Shaeine as the priestess glided up to them. “Well, that remains to be seen. Mom, Dad, may I present Shaeine nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion. Shaeine, these are my parents, Marguerite and Geoffrey Falconer.”

“It is an honor and a pleasure,” Shaeine said, bowing deeply to the Falconers. “Your daughter is a great credit to your lineage.”

“My, isn’t she well-mannered,” Marguerite said with a broad smile. “Teal, I can only hope the rest of your friends are such a good influence.”

“I gather you have not introduced them to Ruda yet,” Shaeine said calmly. Teal snorted a laugh.

“Ruda Punaji?” Geoffrey said with a grin. “I’m curious to meet that one, after your letters. But maybe in a more, you know, controlled environment.”

“Oh, stop it,” Marguerite chided, swatting him playfully. “It’s lovely to meet you, Sheen. Don’t mind my husband, he belongs in a workshop, not among civilized people.”

“That was an excellent try,” the drow replied with a smile. “It’s actually Sha-ayne.”

“It’s all one vowel,” Teal added. “Just changes pronunciation partway.”

“Really?” Geoffrey marveled. “I fancy I speak a smidge of elvish. Not as well as Teal, of course, but that’s a new one.”

“Don’t be an ass, Geoff, she’s Narisian. Of course they have a different dialect. Shaeine, yes? How did I do?”

“Perfect,” Shaeine replied, smiling more broadly. “You have an agile tongue, Mrs. Falconer.”

“I’ll say she—”

“Don’t you dare!” Marguerite shrieked, smacking her husband across the back of his head. He caught his flying glasses, laughing uproariously. Teal covered her eyes with a hand.

“Anyway,” Marguerite said with more dignity as Geoffrey readjusted his glasses, still chuckling, “I’m sure we’ll be glad to meet all your classmates, honey, but we should see about getting your luggage together.”

“We saw that crazy tower you’re apparently living in,” Geoffrey added, “but I guess it’s not open to visitors. Inconvenient, but a fine policy in my opinion! I remember my own college days. Barely. It’s also a fine policy that this is a dry campus.”

“Will your girlfriend be meeting us there?” Marguerite asked. “I’m just about beside myself with curiosity! Don’t look at me like that, it’s a mother’s prerogative.”

Teal closed her eyes, inhaled deeply through her teeth, and let the breath out through her nose, trying to ignore the hysterical mirth echoing in her mind from her demon counterpart. Shaeine half-turned to look at her, raising an eyebrow.

The silence stretched out.

Suddenly Marguerite’s face paled in comprehension, and she settled a wide-eyed stare on Shaeine. “Oh.”

Geoffrey looked at his wife, then his daughter, then shrugged, still smiling innocently. “What?”


“So, is this the new thing?” Trissiny asked, pointing at the sword hanging from Gabriel’s belt opposite his new wand, which rested in a holster. “You’re a swordsman now?”

“Oh…well.” He shrugged uncomfortably, placing a hand on Ariel’s hilt. “I just… I don’t know, I find it kind of comforting, having it there. Is that weird?”

“Taking comfort in the weight of a sword is certainly not weird to me,” she said with a smile. “I’m a little surprised you would enjoy it, though.”

“Yeah, I kind of am, too,” he said ruefully. “It’s just… The whole world just got turned upside-down on me, you know? I’ve only had Ariel here for a couple months, but it’s still something familiar. Something I can literally hang onto.”

“I do, know,” she said quietly. “I remember the feeling all too well. It was a very different circumstance, of course… I couldn’t begin to guess whether that would make it more or less shocking to experience.”

He laughed. “Less. Much less. Modesty aside, Triss, you’re pretty much a model Avenist. Me, I’m not even Vidian. I never even thought about whether I’d want to be. It’s not as if I ever prayed, after that one time. Burned my goddamn tongue, and I mean that as literally as possible.”

Trissiny nodded. “There’s… I guess there is just no precedent for what you’re having to deal with. I’ll help if I can at all, though. Anything you need to talk about, just ask. And not just me, of course. Do you know how soon Toby is coming back to campus?”

“Just a couple of weeks, actually. He needs to spend some time with the Omnists and the Universal Church over the summer, but apparently shepherding my clumsy ass is also a significant priority.”

“I have the same duties,” she said solemnly. “But I’m not making my trips to Tiraas and Viridill until later in the summer. I guess I just drew the first Gabriel shift.”

“Har har.” He stopped walking, and she paused beside him. They were in a relatively shady intersection of paths, with the bridge to Clarke Tower just up ahead. Towering elms, swaying and whispering softly in the gentle wind, shielded them from the direct sun. “Triss, I am scared out of my fucking mind.”

“I know.” She squeezed his shoulder. “I know. Look, Gabriel, it’s… It’s just a hell of a thing, okay? But…and I mean this sincerely…you will be all right. I truly do believe you can do this. I would never have predicted it in a million years, but in hindsight, it makes a great deal of sense. This will work. You’ll be fine.”

“That…” He swallowed painfully. “Hah. That means a lot, Trissiny. Especially from you. More than from anyone else, maybe.”

“Well, there’s that, too,” she said, smiling. “Whatever else happens, Gabe, you can always count on me to let you know when you screw up.”

“Well, sure. It hardly even needs to be said, does it?”

She laughed softly. “Well…anyhow. I’ve got to head inside here for a minute. You’re going to be in the cafeteria for dinner?”

“Along with the other losers who are staying over the summer, yup.” He stuck his hands in his coat pockets. “I do need to visit the Vidians at some point, but they’re coming here. So’s my dad. Apparently there’s kind of a controversy around me at the moment. Can’t imagine why.”

“Probably best not to have you in circulation just yet,” she said with a grin. “Well… I guess I’ll see you around campus, then?”

“Yeah,” he said, smiling back. “See you around.”

Gabriel watched her go, until she passed through the gate onto the bridge itself, then shook his head, still smiling, and resumed his slow way along the path.

“That girl has a powerful need for your approval.”

“What?” He laughed aloud. “That is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. And considering what recently—”

He stopped, frowning and staring around. There was no one nearby.

“Granted, I only know what I’ve heard from conversations around you, but didn’t she try to murder you once? That would weigh on the conscience of anybody who has one. The more she gets to know you as a real person, rather than the imaginary monster she was reacting to at the time, the uglier that whole business must look to her. Of course, a properly spiritual person could recognize all this and deal with it, but… Let’s be honest, Avei doesn’t go out of her way to pick deep thinkers.”

He had spun this way and that, growing increasingly agitated as the voice droned on, finally resting his hand on the sword’s hilt. Through it, he could feel something. Not quite energy, but the potential for it; the same feeling he was used to experiencing when working with raw magic.

“You… You’re the sword!”

“’The sword.’ That’s lovely, Gabriel, really charming. It’s not as if you don’t know my name. Look, I suggest you find a relatively private place to sit for a while. We’ve got a lot to talk about.”


Tellwyrn was grumbling to herself, mostly about journalists, as she kicked the door shut behind her and strode toward her desk. She hadn’t gotten three steps into the office before her chair spun around, revealing a grinning figure in a red dress perched therein.

“Arachne! Darling!”

“Out of my seat, Lil,” she said curtly.

“Ooh, have I told you how much I love this new schoolmarm thing you have going on?” Elilial trilled, giggling coquettishly. “So stern! So upright! It’s very convincing, dear. A person would never guess how much fun you are in bed.”

The chair jerked sideways and tipped, roughly depositing its occupant on the carpet.

“Oof,” the goddess of cunning said reproachfully, getting back to her feet and rubbing her bum. “Well, if you’re going to be that way…”

“What do you want?” Tellwyrn demanded, stepping around the desk and plopping down in her recently vacated chair. “It’s not as if I ever see you unless you’ve just done something terrible or are about to. You’re just as bad as the others in that regard. Though in this case I guess there’s rather a large elephant in the room, isn’t there?”

“All right, yes, that’s true,” Elilial allowed, strolling casually around to the front of the desk. “I do owe you an apology. Believe me, Arachne, boring new hellgates onto your property is most definitely not on my agenda. It seems one of my gnagrethycts took it upon himself to assist in that idiotic enterprise, which I consider a breach of my promise not to bring harm on you or yours. I am humbly sorry for my negligence.”

“Mm,” the Professor said noncommittally. “I heard you were down to seven of them.”

“Six, now,” the goddess said with grim satisfaction. “Demons get agitated if you lean on them too hard; I do try to let them have some leeway. But there are some things I simply will not put up with.”

“A gnagrethyct, or anything else—even you—couldn’t rip open a dimensional portal without having someone on the other side to work with,” Tellwyrn said, leaning back in the chair and staring at the goddess over the tops of her spectacles. “And nobody on this campus could have pulled off such a thing without tripping my wards…unless they were an initiate of my University. Any thoughts on that?”

“I may have a few ideas, yes,” Elilial purred. “What’s it worth to you?”

“You are having a deleterious effect on my already-strained patience.”

“Oh, Arachne, this is your whole problem; you’ve totally forgotten how to enjoy life. Yes, fine, I may have given a helping hand to some of your dear students.”

“You promised to leave them alone, Lil.”

“I promised to bring them no harm.” Elilial held up a finger. “In fact, I went one better and did the opposite. You know I caught a couple of those little scamps trying to summon a greater djinn? I cannot imagine what possessed them to think they could control such a thing. Pun intended. Really, you should keep a closer eye on your kids; I can’t be saving their lives all the time.”

“You haven’t spent much time around college students if you believe they think before doing shit,” Tellwyrn growled. “Did they at least try to hide in the Crawl first? If any of those little morons did that in one of my spell labs I swear I’ll visit them all at home in alphabetical order and slap their heads backwards.”

“Yes, yes, you’re very fearsome,” she said condescendingly. “But enough about that, why don’t we discuss the future?”

“Oh, you’re already going to tell me what you actually want?” Tellwyrn said dryly. “That has to be a record. Are you in a hurry for some reason?”

“Don’t trouble yourself about my problems, dear, though I do appreciate the concern. But yes, I am interested in, shall we say, tightening our relationship. We’ve worked so well together in the past, don’t you think?”

“I remember us working well together once.”

“And what a time that was!” Elilial said with a reminiscent smile.

“You called me a presumptuous mealworm and I goosed you.”

“A whole city left in flames and shambles, panicked drow fleeing everywhere, Scyllith’s entire day just ruined. Ah, I’ve rarely enjoyed myself so thoroughly. Don’t you miss it?”

“I have things to do,” Tellwyrn said pointedly. “Teaching my students. Looking after their safety. Getting tangled up with you is hardly a step in pursuit of that goal.”

“I think you’re wrong there, darling,” the goddess said firmly, the mirth fading from her expression. “This weeks little mess was but a taste. No, before you get all indignant, I am not threatening you. I am cautioning you, strictly because I like you, that the world is going to become increasingly dangerous in the coming days, and the wisest thing a person can do is develop a capacity to contend with demons. And lucky you, here you have an old friend who is the best ally a person could have in such matters!”

“Oh, sure,” Tellwyrn sneered. “And all I’d have to do to achieve that is make an enemy of the Empire on which my campus is built, not to mention that crusading spider Justinian.”

“Well, there’s no reason you have to tell them about it, you silly goose.”

“Mm hm. And in this…partnership…you would, of course, be telling me the total, unequivocal truth about everything you’re doing, in all detail?”

“Now you’re just being unreasonable, Arachne. I’m still me, after all. I can’t function without a few cards up my sleeve.”

“This sounds increasingly like a bargain that benefits no one but you,” Tellwyrn said shortly. “I can’t help thinking I’m better off with my current allies. None of them are invested in ending the world.”

“You know very well I have no interest in ending the world. Merely the deities lording over it. Really, I am very nearly hurt. You of all people know me better than that.”

“I do indeed, which is why I’m declining your very generous proposal.”

“Are you sure?” Elilial asked with a sly smile. “You’re not even a little bit curious to know which of your little dears are opening hellgates and fooling about with dark powers beyond their ken?”

“You could just tell me, you know. It would be exactly the kind of nice gesture that might have led me to consider your offer if you’d made a habit of making them before now.”

“Now, now, giving something for nothing is against my religion. I’m just saying, Arachne, I’m a good friend to have. In general, and in your case, very specifically.”

“So the world at large is about to have demon trouble, is it?” Tellwyrn mused, steepling her fingers. “And I’m likely to see my students imperiled as a result, yes? Well, I now know who to blame if they do suffer for it. You have my word, Elilial, that if that happens, I will be discussing the matter with you. Thoroughly, but as briefly as possible.”

The goddess’s smile collapsed entirely. “Only you could be so bullheaded as to turn this into an exchange of threats so quickly. I came here in good faith to propose a mutually beneficial partnership, Arachne.”

“You came here to use me,” Tellwyrn shot back. “I don’t particularly mind that. I don’t even much object to being lied to about it. I might actually have been amenable to the idea, except that you want to use my University and my students in the process. That will not happen, Elilial. I strongly advise you not to try.”

“Do you truly believe yourself equal to the task of opposing me?” the goddess asked coldly.

Tellwyrn clicked her tongue. “And now come those threats you didn’t come here to make…”

“If you insist on relating in those terms, I’ll oblige. You’re a blunt instrument, Arachne. Oh, you were clever enough in the distant past. Your deviousness in Scyllithar was inspiring, and I mean that sincerely. I was deeply impressed. But you have spent the entirety of the intervening three thousand years swaggering around throwing sucker punches and fireballs until you’ve forgotten how to do anything else. It’s gotten to the point that all I have to do to aim you in the direction I want you to look is scrawl a warning outside your door telling you not to. That barely even counts as manipulation, Arachne. It’s embarrassing to both of us. And you think you’re going to set yourself up against me? In the wide world, with all its subtleties and illusions waiting to serve as my props?” She snorted. “Please.”

“Well, perhaps you have a point,” Tellwyrn said placidly, shrugging. “After all, I’ve spent three millennia trying to get close to all the various gods, seeking their help. You, meanwhile, have been trying devotedly to destroy them for more than twice that time. Tell me, since you’re so much more dangerous than I…” She smiled sweetly. “How many of them have you killed?”

They locked eyes in silence, neither wavering by a hair.

Finally, Elilial let out a soft sigh through her nose. “I think you just enjoy being difficult for its own sake.”

“Well, no shit, Professor.”

“I’ll repeat my offer, Arachne,” the goddess said mildly, stepping back from the desk. “But not often, and not infinitely. You’ll have a limited time in which to come to your senses.”

“That’s fine, if you insist. But I’m not any more fond of repeating myself than you are, Lil. Really, if you want to save yourself the bother, I won’t blame you in the slightest.”

Elilial smiled slightly, coldly, and vanished without a sound. Only the faint scent of sulfur remained behind her.

Tellwyrn just sat without moving, frowning deeply in thought.


“You’re sure?”

“Yes, we’re sure,” Fauna said testily. “It’s not really ambiguous.”

“Or difficult,” Flora added. “Took us all of half an hour to sift through the records.”

“The Nemetites organizing the thing are extremely helpful. The nice lady was able to pull the public record for us and explain what all the legalese meant.”

“It’s held through a dummy company, you see, but she knew the legal and cult codes to identify the buyers. So yeah, we had the answer pretty quickly.”

Darling swiveled in his office chair, staring at the unlit fireplace. “Not the trap she was expecting,” he whispered.

“Oh, gods, now he’s muttering to himself,” Fauna groaned.

He returned his gaze to them. “All right, sasspants, since you’re so smart, interpret what you found for me.”

“Oh, come on,” Flora said.

Darling held up a hand peremptorily. “Let’s not forget who the apprentices here are. No matter what the question, whining is never the correct answer.”

Fauna sighed dramatically, but replied. “It wasn’t truly hidden. We were able to get the truth in minutes, using entirely legal means. The means provided by the library itself, even.”

“So, not a secret,” Flora said. “But… Meant to look like a secret.”

He nodded. “Go on…”

“A message, maybe?” Fauna continued, frowning as she got into the exercise. “Either a barrier only to the laziest of inquirers…”

“Or a hidden signal to someone smarter,” Flora finished. “Or possibly both.”

“Very good,” he said approvingly, nodding. “That’s the conclusion to which I came, too. Of course, your guess is literally as good as mine.”

“So you’re in the dark, then? Why was it so important to find out?”

“And no more of your shifty bullshit,” Flora said pointedly, leveling a finger at him. “Damn it, we’ve had enough of that this week. None of this ‘I’ll tell you when it’s time’ crap.”

“Yeah, you sent us to deal with something you could’ve sniffed out yourself in less than an hour; we’re entitled to know what’s going on, here, Sweet.”

“Why is this important? What does it mean that the Thieves’ Guild owns Marcio’s Bistro?”

Darling turned his eyes back to the fireplace, staring sightlessly while his mind rummaged through possibilities. He was quiet for so long that Flora, scowling, opened her mouth to repeat her demand before he finally answered.

“I don’t know.”

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7 – 1

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“She’s evil!”

“Mm.”

“She’s a maniac!”

“Eh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was impossible!” Gabriel complained.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop! No blessings!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gnagrethyct attack,” Tellwyrn said tersely.

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

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

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

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

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

“Seven,” Teal interrupted.

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

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

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

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

“Taowi, how is she?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Professor?” she said uncertainly.

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

“I, uh… What don’t I know?”

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

“What are we talking about?” Teal demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just spit it out!” Teal snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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3 – 5

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

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

“To Heshenaad,” Gabriel said, wincing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Promises, promises!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Or an orgy,” Yornhaldt said, grimacing.

“Oh, come on, that was one time.”

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

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

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

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

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

Yornhaldt shook his head and sighed.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“I’m working on it!”

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

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

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

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

“I’m a wizard!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh? What’d you do to deserve that?”

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

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

“Imagine that,” Trissiny said dryly.

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

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

“It won’t work.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…oh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hildred and the freshmen watched her go in momentary silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh. Right. Yes.”

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

Teal frowned. “Who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe he should stop trying, then.”

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

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

“Well, it was worth a thought.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You underestimate Gabriel,” Trissiny said dryly.

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

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

“Not havin’ fun?” Ruda asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Great! After you, then, m’lady.”

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

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

“Wait, what?” Trissiny frowned at her.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aw, thanks!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“TRISSINY!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Or getting blasted!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then just what were we doing back there?”

“It’s like you said, dryads are a special case. Look, don’t worry about Juniper, she’ll have forgotten all about it by tomorrow. She’s not that bright. Come on, when has she ever said ‘no’ before?”

“You fucking idiots!” Tanq thundered, stomping up to them.

“Oh, look who decided to rejoin the party,” Chase said airily. “Tanq, my man, please tell me your chivalrous knight routine worked. If none of us managed to nail that dryad I’ll have to write this night off as a loss, and I’m just not ready to do that.”

“Do you hear yourself?” Tanq exclaimed, glaring. “What the hell is wrong with you two?! She told us no. That should have been the end of it. You do not push yourself on a woman who doesn’t want you!”

“That wasn’t a woman, you twit,” Jerome said, scowling right back at him. “She’s some kind of fairy plant spirit. Have you ever cracked a book in your life? Dryads are always either screwing people or killing them. And Juniper’s pretty obviously housebroken; Tellwyrn won’t have her killing people here. So what does that leave?”

“You can’t possibly be this stupid,” Tanq said incredulously. “This is a university. You got in. How are you hearing yourself say these things and not dying from embarrassment?”

“Now, let’s be honest with ourselves,” said Chase, grinning nastily. “Are you upset because we’re stupid, or upset because hanging out with us reflects on you morally? Come on, Tanq, unbend a little. We weren’t hurting anybody; it was a bit of harmless fun. She would have had fun too if she’d let us; she always does.”

“I see.”

Chase and Jerome bolted upright off the bench at the new voice, took one look at Trissiny, who had arrived just behind Tanq, then turned and fled in panic for the second time that night.

She turned her gaze on Tanq, who met it warily. “And you were going to what? Reason with them?”

“I think,” he said slowly, “I was going to just hit them, but when I got here… Damn it.” He looked away, folding his arms across his chest. “They’re my friends, have been even since I started at this school. We have fun, but we’ve never hurt anybody. But they were actually going to… I don’t want to believe it.”

“You’re a good man, Tanq,” she said quietly. “I think you should reconsider whether you want to associate with people who’ll try to make you forget that.”

He heaved a deep sigh. “Maybe. Yeah, probably. No, not probably, I know you’re right. Just having trouble with… Well, none of this is about me, anyhow. Is Juniper okay?”

“She says you asked her that several times,” Trissiny said, quirking an eyebrow. “It confused her. Yes, she appears to be fine. While I’m not about to justify anything those two were doing, they weren’t completely wrong about dryads. Juniper just doesn’t react to these things the way a human woman would.”

“She’s still a person,” he said, shaking his head. “It still matters what she thinks, especially about what’s being done to her. How can they look at her and not see a person?”

Now it was Trissiny’s turn to sigh. “The truth is, Tanq, there are some men who won’t be convinced that any woman is truly a person. Otherwise, there would be little need for people like me.” She turned to stare down the darkened path in the direction the two boys had fled, her expression cold. “I wonder if you’d do me a favor?”

“Probably,” he said warily. “What do you need?”

“Please give my apologies to Professor Tellwyrn, and tell her I’m leaving campus. I’ll try to be back before classes Monday morning, but we’ll have to see how things work out.”

“All right,” he said slowly. “I can do that. I…assume you’ll want me to wait till you’re well and truly away before carrying the message? Being that leaving the town is very much not allowed and all.”

“Exactly.” She turned her head; following her gaze, he jumped back and muffled a curse. An absolutely enormous white horse decked with silver armor was standing there. How the hell could anything that huge have arrived so silently? Where had it come from?

Trissiny vanished around the side of the giant animal, then reappeared atop it, springing lightly into the saddle. How she moved so nimbly wearing armor, even light armor, was uncanny.

“Are you going to kill those two?” Tanq asked warily.

“No.” Trissiny shook her head. “That might have been my first response, but…no. That would not be justice. Thanks for your help, Tanq. And for supporting Juniper.”

“I didn’t do much,” he protested.

“You didn’t need to. If she had been an ordinary woman, what would you have done?”

“Thrown the fuckers off the balcony myself,” he answered immediately.

Trissiny grinned down at him. “Good. I’ll see you in a few days.” She clicked her tongue and the horse took off, trotting toward the University’s gates. Tanq stood alone in the night, watching her go.

It was funny… More than a few people had complained in his hearing about Trissiny being judgmental. From what he’d seen, she mostly appeared awkward and uncomfortable, though his perceptions might have been colored by his first sight of her arriving at the campus, as lost and alone as they all were on their first day. But as he watched her slim form atop the massive draft horse vanishing into the night, he had the sudden thought that there went a woman he could have followed into Hell itself.

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2 – 11

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He stepped calmly from the Rail caravan and looked around, resting the butt of his staff on the stone platform. Around him rose Last Rock, a collection of plain stone buildings that weren’t old but would not have looked out of place in a bygone era. Aside from the modern dress of the people passing by, and the scrolltower perched at one edge of the square, it could have been a painting of a medieval village.

To his right, another man weakly extracted himself from another caravan, clutching the edge of its door for support briefly before wobbling out onto the platform. Listing from a combination of dizziness and a limp—probably freshly acquired—he stumbled toward the tavern at one side of the square, its sign proclaiming it the Ale & Wenches.

He snorted. Pretentious. The kind of name designed to sucker in fools who went treasure hunting in the Golden Sea and called themselves “adventurers,” as though they were dungeon delvers of old.

“Made the trip all right?”

He looked to the left, finding himself approached by a towering, burly man with an impressive mustache in a faded old Imperial Army coat. His expression was solicitous, but stern.

“Well enough,” he said easily. Tucking his staff into the crook of one arm, he reached into his coat and pulled out a small cigar case, carefully selected a cigarillo, and lit it by tapping the end against the head of his staff, this whole display giving the big man time to look him over carefully. He knew the way of these small towns.

His appearance, as he was well aware, invited scrutiny. The tan leather duster he wore was old, scarred, and even burnt in places, as was his matching flat-brimmed hat. Around his neck was a sweat-stained bandana, and his boots, though of fine quality, had been with him long enough to bear their own scars, too deep to be healed with polish. Below all that, though, his suit, while also dusty and rumpled from travel, was presentable. Much as it galled him to admit it, his age was an asset. Nobody seemed to expect trouble from a well-lined face framed by steely gray whiskers.

“I think that other fellow came off it a bit worse than I,” he said mildly, jerking his head toward the man who was even now limping through the A&W’s doors.

The big man had fixed his eyes on the lighting of the cigarillo with a faint frown, but apparently decided he passed muster. “That’s Jethro, he comes through here every couple weeks. Works with some bank in Tiraas, has some business with the University. After a whiskey he’ll be good as new. I’m Ox. Welcome to Last Rock, stranger.”

“McGraw.” Clenching the cigarillo between his teeth, he took the proffered hand and shook it firmly. “Good to know you.”

The crack of the Rail re-igniting its transit matrix sounded; a static buzz washed over them and his arcane senses were momentarily blinded by the activation of complex, powerful enchantments so close. It passed quickly, though, as the caravan accelerated away and was soon lost to view.

“Damn fool contraption,” Ox grunted. “I dunno why the Empire lets people ride those things. They kill a couple dozen a year, as I understand it.”

“Control,” he said simply, puffing at his cigarillo. Ox raised an eyebrow. “I was around when the Rails were new, got to ride in some of the very first caravans. They had safety harnesses. The cargo cars still do—all kinds of straps and buckles to hold things steady. Despite what the Empire likes to say, those things were not meant to move troops. They were for moving adventurers, specifically to the frontier.”

“Never heard that,” said Ox, frowning.

“Suppose, friend, you’re in charge of running some rats through a maze. You want ’em to go a specific way, get ’em to the end where you want ’em. Now what’s a better use of your energies: trying to herd and heckle each one along, or move the walls such that they naturally lead where you want?” He glanced over at his new acquaintance; Ox was studying him more closely now, his eyes narrowed. He grinned, teeth clutching his cigarillo. “The world is run by a certain kind of men, my friend. Be it the crowned kings of old or the bureaucrats of today, they’re well-fed men in expensive suits, who have no idea what it means to risk your neck and bust your ass workin’ for a living. To governments, rats in a maze is all we are. The Empire was modernizing, moving from a chaotic loot-based economy to one of systems, structures and laws. Shunting off the well-armed loners to the last place guaranteed to grind ’em up en masse served two purposes: getting them out of society, and helping to push back the frontiers as far as they can be pushed, so society has room to expand. Thus, crazy rattletrap Rails, fit for those willing to risk their necks, but sure to discourage the saner, calmer breed who they want to stay in the cities and pay their taxes. It was…elegant, really.”

“That’s…an interesting theory,” Ox said noncommittally when he finished.

He shrugged. “And I may be wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time. A funny thing, though… There are hardly any adventurers or adventures left, these days. Lo and behold, the Rails are getting upgraded. The ones serving the interior provinces are downright comfy, now, safe as your mother’s arms. Last I heard, the schedule they’re on, even these frontier lines will have full safety features within two years.”

“Well, whatever the Empire’s motives, that I can get behind. All I know is, these Rail cars are insane. Sooner they get straightened out, the better.”

“On that we can agree.”

“What brings you to Last Rock?”

“Oh, I’m just stopping in on my way elsewhere,” he said easily. “I heard a friend of mine might be loitering in this town and thought I’d see if I could catch him. Name of Shook? Greasy-lookin’ fellow, cheap suit… Ostensibly a salesman but I’ll lay odds he’s not been seen trying to sell jack shit to anybody.”

“I know him,” Ox replied slowly. His increasingly serious expression told McGraw this was, indeed, the place. “He don’t cause any trouble, just hangs around the A&W, playing cards and drinkin’. Seems to be an acquaintance of Prin’s.”

“Prin? That wouldn’t be Principia Locke? Brunette wood elf?”

“You know Prin, too?” Now, Ox looked downright leery.

“Only by reputation. We have acquaintances in common, you might say.”

“You’re not reassurin’ me, McGraw. Shook’s not good for much that I can see, but like I said, he’s no trouble. Prin’s another matter. I’m not sure Last Rock needs any more of their ‘friends’ moving in.”

“Oh, don’t worry none about me,” McGraw said, grinning around his cigarillo. “Like I said, I don’t aim to be here long. Just to pay my respects, and then I’ll be on my way. You attached to the law in this town, by any chance?”

“There’s no budget for a paid deputy,” Ox rumbled, “but I help out Sheriff Sanders when help’s needed. I live on a pension; I’ve got the free time.”

“That’s good to hear, friend, good to hear. Do give the Sheriff my regards, won’t you?” He puffed smoke contentedly for a moment, jabbing his cigarillo in the direction of the A&W. “How’re the accommodations over yonder?”

“Clean. Food’s good, whiskey’s…plentiful. Ain’t a quiet place, though; that’s the common watering hole for the University kids and every wannabe hero who passes through on the way in or out of the Sea.”

“Perfect. I believe I’ll arrange a bed for the night. These old bones don’t look forward to another Rail ride any sooner than they have to.”

“I’ll let the Sheriff know you’re in town, then,” Ox said firmly. There was no mistaking the warning in his tone. McGraw just smiled at him.

“Do that, friend. Perhaps I’ll see you around.”


 

No one had ever accused the Ale & Wenches of false advertising.

There was ale, technically, though frontier tastes being as they were, the A&W did more business in whiskey, with beer coming in second. As for the other part, the serving girls did indeed dress in medieval-style attire, prominently featuring low-bodiced peasant dresses and blouses. That was as far as it went, however. There was invariably at least one burly man with a cudgel and a wand on duty, but they rarely had time to step in, even when the need arose. In a town the size of Last Rock, every one of those girls was the daughter of someone’s friend or neighbor. The University kids knew to treat them politely; out-of-towners seldom had to be told twice. Even had any of the young ladies in question been willing, there was absolutely no chance of a traveler slipping her a coin and taking her upstairs.

Despite the way expectations thus yielded to the reality of modern life, the A&W remained a perennial favorite of the students and the would-be heroes who passed through town, because it played perfectly to their fantasies. The fairy lamps illuminating the common room were of the flickery old style rather than steadier modern versions, and housed behind yellow-tinted glass that made their light resemble that of torches. Maps, hunting trophies and well-used old bladed weapons decorated the walls, and the room itself was of rough timber and plaster with fieldstone accents, just like the illustrations of taverns in modern books full of old stories.

It was an unspoken joke among the citizens of Last Rock that the illusion pitched by the A&W succeeded so well because those who bought into it were no more adventuring heroes than the tavern itself was a real adventurer’s bar, such as had formed a basic economic role throughout the frontiers five hundred years ago. The closest thing to real adventurers present were the University students, who were an odd, eclectic and often dangerous bunch, though they were ironically the better-behaved of the patrons. Those who were actually there for adventuring purposes rarely deserved to be taken seriously. People did, occasionally, still find treasure and glory in the Golden Sea. Most of those who went looking came staggering out weeks later, half-starved, traumatized, and hell and gone from wherever they’d entered…those who came out at all. It wasn’t something rational, well-adjusted people attempted.

Principia loved it here.

She didn’t push the swinging doors open and stand in them—aside form being mindful of the cliché, it wasn’t her habit to be the center of attention unless a specific con required it. Usually there was better hunting to be had in blending in. But she did, as usual, slip to one side of the doors and treat herself to a moment of soaking in the ambiance. This was just like old times. The Age of Adventures was already stumbling toward its slow end by the time she’d started her career, but she was still old enough to have been in a few adventurer bars—the real ones. Those were some of her happiest memories.

But that was then, this was now, and she was on a particularly unforgiving deadline. The reminder of her straits soured some of her nostalgic pleasure, and she narrowed her focus to the night’s business.

It was after sundown on a Friday and the A&W was predictably busy, but she had no trouble zeroing in on her targets; they were ensconced at the largest table in the place. The three privates stood out in their navy blue Army uniforms, and were keeping company with a couple of the more exotic University kids. Chase and Tanq blended in as they would in any group of miscellaneous humans, but Hildred, a honey-blonde dwarf girl, and especially Natchua made for a more distinctive sight. There was a card game in progress, as well as tankards and pitchers and platters of the A&W’s simple but good finger food.

Prin took a moment to consider her approach. She needed those boys’ interest, and first impressions were vitally important.

“Hey! PRIN!” Chase waved at her, grinning delightedly. “Perfect timing, get that perky butt over here!”

Her sly smile wasn’t entirely faked. Once in a while, fortune did favor her.

She threaded her way nimbly through the crowd, pulled out a chair between two of the soldiers and plopped down. “What’s this, then, you started without me? Now my feelings are hurt. Somebody better buy me something to compensate.”

“Something shiny or something alcoholic?” Tanq asked with a grin.

“That’ll do for a start!”

She received a smiling greeting from Hildred and a glare from Natchua, which she knew by now not to take personally. It wasn’t personal, and wasn’t even the usual hostility that drow often held toward surface elves and vice versa; Natchua was simply, as usual, trying for the “brooding badass” look, and as usual managing only to come off as surly. The three soldier boys all eyed her with interest.

“Well, hello,” she purred at them. “I don’t believe you’ve had the pleasure.”

“Not so far,” said the swarthy one to her right, grinning. “Am I going to?”

“I haven’t,” Chase complained. “Rumor has it that makes me the only one in town.”

“Funny thing is,” she said airily, setting a stack of copper coins on the table, “he keeps saying things like that to me, and yet appears to think he’s going to get somewhere. Deal me in.”

“I am very stupid,” Chase agreed, nodding solemnly. “This is known.”

It was a good group to work. Chase and Rook, the soldier with the olive complexion, were jokers and talkers, keeping conversation going. Finchley, Hildred and Tanq were quieter, but affable; Natchua and Moriarty were too sullen and stiff, respectively, to contribute much, but that was fine. A group that size would have been chaos with everybody talking over each other. Prin could apply her charm in chaos—she could apply it anywhere, but chaos was less than ideal.

A few hands and a pitcher of beer were enough for her to get the measure of her targets. Moriarty she dismissed as a prospect to leverage. Not that she couldn’t do it, but guys like him required a lot of effort and very particular tactics, which she had neither time nor inclination to pursue. Finchley and Rook were likelier prospects, though the personalities demanded such different approaches that she wouldn’t really be able to work both at one time. Luckily, she’d placed herself right between them at the table, and both kept giving her eyes of interest. Prin didn’t devote great time or attention to her looks; sometimes, in company like this, being an elf was all it took.

Half an hour after sitting down (it didn’t do to rush these things), she’d settled on Rook as her best prospect, as he was clearly the more careless of them. Getting useful intel on Tellwyrn out of him here, now, during a loud poker game, wasn’t really an option, but she had plenty of room to strike up a rapport to be leveraged later. This couldn’t all be done in one night.

Hopefully that would be enough to keep Thumper off her for a while longer.

She had just gotten down to a seriously, slowly escalating campaigns of subtle touches and flirtatious glances when a man stepped up to their table.

“Evenin’, folks,” he said, tipping his hat politely. “This a closed game or can an old wanderer join in? Ain’t had a good round of cards in far too long.”

Principia gave him a carefully calculated look—not overtly hostile, but not one he’d have mistaken for welcome. Such an addition would shift the dynamic of the group, and she’d have to take time to adjust her tactics. She needed to come out of this with, at minimum, plans to meet up with Rook later. Something concrete, as Thumper wasn’t the sort to understand subtler degrees of progress.

“Glad to have you, stranger!” Chase said cheerily without waiting to get anybody else’s opinion. “I don’t mind taking your money if you don’t mind donating.”

“Much obliged.” The old man pulled over an unoccupied chair from a nearby table and seated himself beside Hildred.

“Another hand like that last one, Chase, and you’ll be out of it for the night,” Tanq warned.

“Nonsense, I’ll just tap into my reserves.”

“You asked us not to let you do that. Remember?”

“Oh, I say lots of things. You should always listen to what I’m saying now. Past me was naïve and innocent, and future me will probably be drunk.”

Prin appraised the new arrival silently. He was clearly well along in years, and had the dark complexion of a westerner, though his skin was several shades lighter than Tanq’s. The ragged old coat and hat gave off a certain impression, but the staff gave another one entirely. That was no mass-produced soldier’s weapon, but an old and hand-crafted object polished to a dull glow, surmounted by a short obelisk of smoky quartz in an asymmetrical iron setting. There was no clicker, or any mechanism to activate it, meaning its owner did so mentally, which she could have guessed anyway; even from across the table she could feel the haze of arcane energy around the thing and its owner.

He caught her looking and nodded politely, giving her a small smile. She returned an equally stiff one.

Their game resumed mostly unchanged. The stranger, who gave his name simply as McGraw, was on the quieter side, or at least seemed so in comparison with some of the others at the table, though he wasn’t shy about joking along, and quickly endeared himself to the party by paying for his own drinks rather than partaking of what was already on hand. Principia let him be, pursuing her own game, which was also going well. Finchley seemed a bit put out at the lack of her attention, but Rook was clearly quite interested.

She felt a little wistful, in truth. It was a good night: food, drink, noise, and the company of friends and cheerful strangers. It would have been nice to simply enjoy it.

McGraw caught the elbow of a serving girl the next time his tankard was empty, beckoning her closer, and murmured a message into her ear along with his order. She smiled, nodded, and gave him a pat on the shoulder as she straightened, then trotted off. Prin seemed to be the only one paying attention to this exchange; again, he caught her looking, acknowledging her with that private little smile.

“What is it you do, McGraw?” Chase asked without looking up from his cards.

“For starters, I take coin from smug kids who try to distract me from considering my bets.”

Chase laughed in response to that. “Well, that must keep you busy. I was just curious—you’ve got sort of the look of an adventurer, but most of those around here are, ah…”

“Younger?” McGraw said dryly. “By a good thirty years’ minimum, I’d say, yeah. Heh, been a while since anybody accused me of having ‘the look.’ Guess it clings to a man.”

“So you were an adventurer, then?” Natchua asked giving him what she probably thought was a piercing look. It made her look nauseous. Not for the first time, Principia felt an urge to pull the girl aside and give her a few pointers on acting.

“One of the last,” McGraw mused, staring down at his cards without really focusing on them. “When I was your age, a body could still make an actual living roaming about, slaying monsters and looting ruins. Not as good of one as previous generations, of course…even then, the end had already begun, so to speak. The times sure are changin’… I had a couple of good scores, though, enough to set me up. Good thing, too, since there ain’t much room for my kind in the world of today.”

“I wish you’d explain that to Professor Tellwyrn,” Hildred commented, taking a sip of her beer. “I think she’s trying to train us up for a new Age of Adventures, sometimes.”

“With regrets, little lady, I’ll leave you to deal with that on your own,” McGraw said with a wry smile, tipping his hat to her. “I managed to have a full career without bein’ in a room with Arachne Tellwyrn or any of her ilk, and I’m long past being foolish enough to be disappointed by it. Anyhow, I fold, and I’ll have to wish you kids good night.” Grunting softly, he rose from his chair, leaning for a moment on his staff. “Get to be my age, you find yourself heading to bed at decent hours whether you want to or not. Enjoy my coin, kids, and thanks for the game.”

“Cheers!” Chase said, suiting the words with a lifted mug, which he then drained.

McGraw looked directly across the table at Principia. “Actually, if I could borrow you for a moment, Miss Keys? Won’t take long.”

She did not freeze like a startled rabbit, nor allow any emotion to show on her face except mild confusion. She was too old, too practiced and too good for that. “Wh—is that me?” she asked blankly. “I think you have me confused with somebody else.”

“I might, at that,” he said agreeably. “Wouldn’t be the first time. I’d be mighty grateful if you’d spare a moment to correct me, lest I waste an evening barkin’ up the wrong tree.”

“Eh…sure, I’ll sit this hand out.” She leaned over to Rook with a smile, placing a friendly hand on his arm. “I’ll be right back. Don’t let Chase steal my coins.”

“Shock! Outrage! I would never!”

“’Cos you can’t reach ’em from over there.”

“Precisely!”

She stepped smoothly around the table and wrapped herself around McGraw’s free arm, simpering up at him. Keep your enemies closer; that applied double to casters. Besides, she might ignite a spark of jealousy in Rook that she could make use of later. “So,” she said at a good volume as she led him away, mostly for the benefit of the group, “tell me about this clearly attractive and talented acquaintance of yours. You know, I believe I’ve been approached by friends of every dark-haired elf on the continent; we really do all look alike to some people! I wonder what she would say.”

“I’m curious to find that out myself,” he said more quietly, gently steering them toward the only remotely private spot in the common room, a relatively shady nook under the stairs to the second-floor balcony. He had clearly identified it in advance, and timed his approach for a moment when there was nobody in there having a quick grope. That, plus the fact that the arm coiled up in hers was corded with lean muscle belying his apparent age made her consider him a bit more carefully. This one was more than he appeared.

“If you will indulge me in wasting a bit of your time, ma’am, in the interest of not repeating myself I’d like to wait for—ah, nevermind! Speak of the devil.”

Rounding the bottom of the steps into their shadowy alcove stepped the last person she wanted to meet at that moment.

“Why, Jeremiah,” Prin said coolly, “I was specifically not expecting to see you this evening.”

“Always a pleasure, Miss Locke,” Shook replied dryly. “I was just informed by one of the girls that a patron was asking after me down here? You look to have found him.”

“Indeed, at least we’re all gathered,” McGraw said agreeably, gently disengaging himself from Principia. “My apologies for interrupting your respective evenings. It was a bit of bother to follow you all the way from Tiraas, Mr. Shook, and regretfully I didn’t manage in time to grab a word with you on the way. Regardless, and you may well call me a relic of an older age for this, which would be fair enough, but I feel if you’re going to kill somebody, you owe it to ’em to look ’em in the eyes first. Seems to me what little nobility there was in battle went out of it when we moved from blades and armor to magic bursts from a hundred yards away.”

They both stared at him blankly for a moment. Prin eased a step away from him. “…I’m sorry, I think I must’ve misheard you.”

“That’s one of the great peculiarities common to all sentient beings, I find,” McGraw said, reaching into his coat to pull out a thin cigar case. As he continued speaking, he withdrew a cigarillo, lit it by pressing the tip against the quartz head of his staff, and tucked the case away. “I had an acquaintance some years ago…well, a friend, really, as best as men like myself can reckon such things…with the given name of Bell. No matter how clearly he enunciated, upon introducing himself to just about anyone, he’d get back a ‘Nice to meet you, Bill!’” He puffed calmly at the cigarillo for a moment. “Now, nobody thought this over and decided to change his name for him… I reckon none even decided on a conscious level that they’d misheard and corrected it. It’s a thing that happens quicker than thought. Our fickle brains look for patterns, for the familiar. They see somethin’ outside their register of what makes sense, well, they just erase it and substitute something more comfortable. Thus, a man named Bell gets called Bill. Likewise, a man who states his intention to kill the other party in a civilized conversation must have been misheard. Why not? The way we’re accustomed to treating each other, well, it just doesn’t make a damn lick of sense. My apologies for the language, ma’am,” he added, tipping his hat to her.

“Oh, good,” Prin said sourly. “He’s a talker.”

McGraw laughed at that. “Apologies for that, too. Afraid at my age, I’ve already kicked the bad habits I’m going to and made peace with the rest.”

“Just to be clear,” Shook said softly, “you are talking about killing us?”

“Well, her, specifically. Things bein’ as they are, it’s likely to end up being you, too, ‘less you decide to keep well enough out of it.”

“Now why would you want to go and do a thing like that?” the enforcer asked, still in that mild tone. His hands, though, had curled in on themselves, obviously (to the trained eye) preparing to access the knives hidden up his sleeves.

“I don’t concern myself with the likes of ‘why,’” McGraw said, puffing away. “Ain’t a wise thing to ask about, nor a safe thing to know. Once the money’s paid, I proceed with the job. I will say, as I’ve been authorized to do so, that the Thieves’ Guild has stepped on toes that ought not to’ve been stepped on. A rival cult would very much like to see the end of whatever specific business you two are sniffing around after, in the most absolute manner possible. Hence, here I am.” He spread his hands in a gesture that was half-shrug, as though amused by the vagaries of life.

“What cult?” Shook asked tersely. McGraw just gave him a long look. “…right.”

“This is insane,” Principia protested, backing up again. “If you intend to murder someone, you don’t announce it to them ahead of time.”

“Indeed, assassination must come from the shadows, right?” He shook his head. “That’s just the way it’s done. I wonder how many people a year die from seein’ what they expect to, ‘stead of what’s right in front of ’em.”

“You’re in the middle of a crowded bar full of witnesses, most of whom would love nothing better than to jump into a fight and play hero. And threatening murder is itself a crime under Imperial law! All we have to do is go to the Sheriff and you’ll be in a cell faster than you can finish that foul-smelling cigar.”

“You make an awful lot of presumptions concerning what I do or don’t care about,” he replied calmly. “Yes, you could, indeed, go to the Sheriff, at which point the matter would be your word against mine. That can be a dicey thing, when one’s an outsider in these little towns. Folks are more inclined to believe what’s familiar and comfortable to them, as I think I’ve mentioned recently. Course, matters become different when the familiar faces are the town’s two shiftiest residents. My blank slate looks a lot more attractive in that situation, I think. And I happen to find the smell soothing.”

“You can’t just—”

“My apologies for cuttin’ you off, ma’am, but it’s been a long day and I really would prefer to move this along. There are a couple ways this can proceed. Best of all for me is that you try to get the jump on me. Thank the gods for self-defense laws; they’ve allowed me to put down more than a few targets in public without appearin’ so much as suspicious.”

“You’re assuming we can’t take you,” Shook snarled.

“Why, yes,” McGraw said mildly. “It appears I am assuming that. Slightly less advantageous to me is that you try to flee the town, get yourselves lost in the Golden Sea, or the more mundane prairie in the opposite direction. Killing you out of sight of civilization is similarly clean. Just as a word of warning, though, if either of you puts a foot near the scrolltower office or a Rail car, you’ll be dead before the second foot comes down.”

“You can’t watch us all the time, you know!”

“You think not, miss?” he asked in that same tone of calm. “Down the list to the less preferable alternatives, you could just sit on your hands and wait till I’ve got no choice but to act. I have a generous timetable, but I don’t aim to fool around in this town more than a few days. Or, you could attempt to enlist help. It’d have to be help of the illicit sort, since the law won’t be too kindly disposed toward a couple members of the Thieves’ Guild.”

“You can’t possibly prove—”

“That is actually a lot less challenging than you Eserites like to believe. Most people simply don’t bother.”

“That’s because being a member of the Guild is not against the law!”

“Just so, ma’am,” he said agreeably. “But it sure doesn’t make the law more favorably inclined toward you. And if you optimistically assume you’ll be around to continue your operations after I leave town, well, it’d complicate your life considerably to be outed. So, what’s it to be, then? Care to do me a favor and start this right now?”

He puffed placidly on his cigarillo, watching them. Principia glanced sidelong at Shook; she wasn’t armed, and wasn’t much use in a fight anyway. The enforcer was glaring pure fury at McGraw, every line of his frame rigid. He remained silent, though, and made no movement toward the other man. Whatever his prowess in hand-to-hand combat, it didn’t take much wit to see that they were dealing with a magic user of some kind. The way to attack one of those was not from the front, when they were expecting it.

“Pity,” McGraw mused after the silence had stretched out for a few moments. “But circumstances being as they are, I can hardly fault you for being less than accommodating. No offense is taken, I assure you. Well, in that case, I’ll bid you good night.”

He stepped forward twice, till his way was blocked by Shook, who still stood tensely, glaring at him.

“’Scuze me,” McGraw said politely. He received only a murderous stare in reply. After a moment, he grinned around his cigarillo and shifted sideways to slip around the enforcer. “Be seein’ you two real soon,” he said amiably as he turned to mount the stairs.

They stood in silence, listening to the sound of his footsteps above, until they grew too distant to be audible over the babble of cheerful noise in the tavern.

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“So.” Zaruda broke the slightly dazed silence that hovered over the eight of them as they navigated the University’s paths. “Anyone else have the distinct feeling they’ve accidentally been sent to the loony island and we’re all going to die?” She tugged the lapels of her coat up around her ears, reached inside and somehow pulled out a bottle of bourbon. “I’ve got that, a little.”

“Well…sure, we’re gonna die.” Juniper seemed puzzled. “Everything dies, that’s just science. But not, like…right now. Probably.”

“She wants us to write essays about each other’s weaknesses,” Teal mused, “as some kind of bonding tactic. Does that seem completely ass-backward to anyone else?”

“Armies do something similar, at basic training,” Trissiny said slowly. “Conditions are meant to be intense and drillmasters make themselves into hostile figures. It encourages the soldiers to form a strong bond against any prospective enemies.”

“My people use similar techniques in training,” said Shaeine, as serene as ever. “Though I am not an expert in military matters by any means, I don’t believe soldiers are encouraged to pick at one another’s failings, however.”

“I’m not sure that woman is entirely sane,” said Trissiny.

“Hah! You should talk.” Zaruda took a long swig from her bottle, cocking a thumb at her roommate. “This one was up at buttfuck o’clock in the morning. Came back to the room an hour later, in full armor, looking worn out, and this just when I was getting up. Needless to say, we had us a discussion about shower privileges.”

“I went for a run,” Trissiny said defensively. “The main stairs up the mountain make for a good track.”

“You…you ran down and back up the stairs?” Teal boggled at her. “In armor?”

“Of course in armor,” Trissiny retorted testily. “People who expect to fight in armor should train in armor. The academic life is no excuse for me to get soft.”

“Damn, girl,” said Gabriel. “There’s not getting soft, and then there’s that.”

“What do you know about demons?” she asked, half-turning her head to stare at him.

His expression went flat. “I know to stay the hell away from them. What else does anyone need to know?”

“Hm.” She turned away from him, absently fingering the hilt of her sword.

“I’m assuming, by the way, that somebody knows where the hell we’re going,” Zaruda said, peering around. The campus was lively and lovely in the midmorning sun, with students passing them on the way to their own classes. The eight freshmen had just descended a staircase to the next level down from the upper terrace and Helion Hall.

“We’ve got Introduction to Magic with Professor Yornhaldt,” chimed Fross before Toby could reach for his map. “Derringer Hall, dead ahead! Follow me!” She flitted away down the path, occasionally darting back impatiently to the more slowly-walking students.

They had progressed only another ten feet when a figure plummeted from above, landing directly into their path. “Well,” she drawled, “isn’t this just precious.”

They stopped as one; Fross darted behind Juniper, and Trissiny gripped her sword, eyes narrowing. Zaruda snorted loudly and had a pull of bourbon. Blocking their way was a drow woman in denim trousers and a laced vest that left her muscular arms bare. She wore rectangular shades of black glass that hid her eyes, and her white hair was combed and gelled into a spiked ridge over the top of her head, the ends dyed livid green. Folding her arms across her chest, she sneered. “Another little rat scurries up from below, all prettied up and repressed half to death. Come to learn how to live without being waited on hand and foot?”

“Are you addressing me?” Shaeine said mildly. Upon leaving the classroom she had donned a dark cloak and put the hood up to shelter her face from the sunlight.

“Well, I wasn’t talking to the pixie.” The drow woman’s sneer grew to an animal ferocity. “Let me guess, Narisian? Pampered pet of the Empire, never had to work a day in your life? Word of advice, little bitch-pup: go home.”

“Okay, I think that’s just about enough of that,” said Toby firmly, stepping in front of Shaeine. “If you’ll excuse us, miss, we have class.”

She transferred her gaze to him, eyed him up and down, and smirked. “Yeah? And?”

“So this is what we’re doing? We’re hassling the freshmen now? Good, great. That’s an excellent use of our time when we’re about to be late for class.”

Two figures appeared on the ledge of the terrace above, from which the drow had jumped: a grinning boy with sharp features and pale blonde hair, who had spoken, and the dark-complexioned young man in the bone-decorated vest who had sat over the arch yesterday giving out directions.

“Hey, guys,” said the latter with a cheerful wave. “Finding your way around all right?”

“Until very recently, yes,” said Shaeine.

“Yeah, sorry about her,” said the blonde. “I’d do something, but, y’know how it is. She terrifies me. Also, I’m hoping to sleep with her at some point.”

“Fuck you, Chase,” snapped the drow, glaring up at them.

“I’ll pencil you in! How’s Thursday at eleven?”

She bared her teeth and actually growled, then turned on her heel and stalked off.

“Tanq, do correct me if I’m mistaken, but Natchua’s in our next class, right?” said Chase from atop the wall.

“That she is, my friend,” his companion replied.

“Which is very much not in the direction in which she just departed.”

“The sacrifices that must be made for a dramatic exit.”

“Do you suppose we ought to be late, too? As a show of solidarity?”

“If by ‘solidarity’ you mean ‘not setting off our insane classmate,’ then your reasoning is sound.”

“Seems like we’ve got a plan, then.” Chase seated himself on the wall, dangling his legs over, and waved down at them. “Flee, little froshes! Flee whilst you can!”

“Yeah, okay.” Zaruda shouldered through the pack and swaggered off ahead, the others trailing after her.

“Nice to see you again!” called Teal, waving up at Tanq. He nodded gravely in return.

Trissiny shook her head, muttering. “I really don’t think I like it here.”


 

Derringer Hall resembled a medieval castle from the outside, though within it was done in marble and dark wood, much like most of the University appeared to be. The campus was actually only a few decades old, despite the antique sensibilities of its styling, and nothing had had time to get properly dilapidated. There wasn’t even any graffiti on the desks, as the freshman class discovered while finding seats in the room where Professor Yornhaldt’s Introduction to Magic was to be held.

Given the brevity of their class with Professor Tellwyrn, and even after making a slow way across the campus and being interrupted by the ill-tempered elf, they were in plenty of time. The eight of them prowled about the classroom, talking in small groups, before drifting toward seats as the time for their class approached.

This time, Gabriel perched beside Zaruda, and leaned over to her as soon as she was seated. “So, yeah, I’m with you. Crazy island. All gonna die. How many of ’em do you reckon we can take out with us?”

She took a drink from her bottle, which was already half-empty. “Is this a strategic planning session, or are you just makin’ small talk ’cause you want to bone me?”

“Hey, don’t try to pin me down. I’m a multi-tasker.”

“You’re cute.” She grinned. “Remind me of a puppy I used to have.”

“Aha! Then my plan is working!”

Her grin widened. “Nope. Unless you’re planning to get stabbed.”

He was spared further embarrassment by the arrival of their professor.

“Good morning,” said Professor Yornhaldt in a deep baritone that seemed almost to vibrate the air. He was unmistakably a dwarf: less than shoulder-high on an average human and twice as broad, but clearly with muscle. The man resembled a brick, with nothing round or soft anywhere on his frame. That was as far as the resemblance to the famous wild-bearded, leather-and-loincloth wearing dwarves of the north went, however. Professor Yornhaldt was in a dapper tweed suit, with neatly combed black hair and a short, very precisely trimmed beard that outlined his jaw. “Ah, good, everyone’s already seated. My congratulations, you are officially better students than last year’s freshmen. Welcome,” he proclaimed with a smile, coming to stand at the front of the room, “to Introduction to Magic.”

“Thanks for havin’ us,” replied Zaruda, lifting her bottle.

“Ah. Miss Punaji, if you would please put that away.”

“Hey, I’ve got an exemption to the drinkin’ policy.”

“For the campus, yes, I was told. But there is no eating or drinking in this classroom.”

She grunted, but tucked the bottle back into her coat.

“What is magic, then?” asked Yornhaldt with a jovial smile. “Most are of the opinion that magic is a form of energy, which, like most conventional wisdom, entirely misses the point. Some energy is magical, yes: the divine, the arcane, the infernal and the even less-understood work of the fae, to name a popular few. But magic itself is not a means of acting, but a means of classifying actions.”

The Professor turned and opened the top drawer of his desk, pulling out carved wooden hummingbird the size of his palm; its tail was fully spread, its wings flung forward past its head. “There are two kinds of natural law,” he said, turning again to face them. “Objective, and subjective. Objective natural law governs the realm of physics. It is what it is, and what anyone thinks of it is totally irrelevant. In the physical world, there is nothing free from the interconnected forces that move all things. Every step you take is affected by the pull of gravity and the friction of air through which you must pass. It has been theorized that the weather can be changed on a grand scale by something so seemingly inconsequential as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings on the other side of the world. This is why so many things, of which weather is a good example, are beyond our power to predict: though the processes by which they come about are rational, consistent and in theory predictable, we are never able to know the entirety of the forces at work. With me so far?”

He grinned at them, and in the absence of any disagreement, continued. “This is an example of physics in action.” The Professor gently placed the tip of the hummingbird’s long wooden beak against one of his thick fingers and released it with his opposite hand. Incredibly, it hung there, rocking slightly, apparently balanced on one of the carving’s furthest ends. “Now how does this little beauty work? Any ideas?”

“It’s enchanted?” guessed Juniper.

“I’m afraid not! No, there is no magic at all at work here, merely a bit of carnival trickery. There are weights very cunningly hidden in the wingtips, you see, which shifts the whole bird’s center of mass. It balances on the tip of its beak because that truly is its most perfect balancing point. That, kids, is physics at work. No matter how much it seems like a thing should or should not be, it is. It will do what it does and nobody can gainsay it.

“This brings us to the opposite principle: subjective natural law. As one might expect from the name, this principle gives reality to what is subjectively true.” He began to stroll slowly up and down the front of the room, the carefully balanced hummingbird held in front of him on his fingertip the whole time. “While the realm of physics functions just the same no matter who is there to see it, or if anyone is, the realm of magic is what happens when the perspectives of intelligent beings are imposed upon physical reality. Magic is not the divine, or the arcane: those are magical in nature, yes, but they are merely expressions of magic. The nature of magic is that things become what it seems like they should be, to whoever is doing it. The logic of physics goes completely out the window. By casting a spell, you re-write all rules. You become, at least as far as the tiny amount of the world you are able to affect is concerned, a god. It should go without saying that the potential for disaster in casting even the simplest spell is immense.”

Raising his free hand above the balancing hummingbird, he went on. “I am going to cast a minor spell here. All this does is map a small network of artificial ley lines across this object; it’s a necessary first step for most enchantments, but has no effect on its own except to make the item amenable to having arcane magic worked upon it. In essence, it is the minimum possible thing you can do and still be working magic.”

There was no light or sound, merely his hovering hand and intent expression, but quite suddenly the hummingbird tumbled from his finger and clattered to the floor.

Professor Yornhaldt spread his hands wide, casting a long look about the room. “To perform magic is to introduce subjectivity to a physical system. It is to replace consistent rules and a resilient physical connection with the rest of the world with…whatever happens to be in your own head. It is to create chaos. Hopefully, a small and controllable amount of chaos, but by its very nature, chaos is unpredictable and uncontainable.”

“How does anyone do it, then?” asked Gabriel. “You make it sound like every act by any wizard could potentially end the world.”

“Actually, Mr. Arquin, there aren’t any wizards capable of acts that could end the world; the world is quite large. Some of the primary gods probably could, but they are generally more careful. But yes, that it somewhat beside your point, is it not? The question is, just how in blazes do wizards have any control over anything they do, when what they are doing is taking bits of our rational, predictable world and turning them into the kind of blathering soup that occurs when a person dreams?”

He tapped his temple with a blunt fingertip, smiling. “The answer, my friends, is that magic is more art than science. The answer is intuition. A wizard knows, and thus can control, what a spell will do under a given set of circumstances because he feels it. And the only way to develop this intuition is through practice. Long, arduous, potentially quite destructive practice. And that, kids, is why, despite advances in enchantment and the proliferation of mass-producable magical technologies, an actual wizard is still a rare and powerful thing. Also why getting them to do anything is damnably expensive.”

“What about enchantments, though?” Fross piped up. “I mean, they can do those in factories now and crank out piles and piles of things that are just loaded down with magic and if magic is all the subjective thoughts of one person given reality I don’t understand how that works, especially since they all do the same basic thing no matter who’s using them.”

“Ah…you must be Fross,” Professor Yornhaldt said. “Enchantment is its own realm of study, and one to which we’ll be giving a great deal of attention this semester. But you’ve struck upon a very relevant point! To enchant something is to use magic to alter it in a way that can then interact consistently and predictably with the rest of the world. It takes the enchanted object out of your little space of creative chaos and puts it back into the network of physical forces that binds all the world together, with a piece of magic now tied to it that is also part of that network. So enchantments by their very nature must be logical, predictable and reproducible. It is by capitalizing on this principle that modern magical mass-production works, but the underlying properties are the same for a factory-made moving carriage as a two-thousand-year-old enchanted sword.”

He cracked his knuckles, flexed his arms and shook his hands as though limbering up, wearing a cheerful grin. “But I believe that’s enough dry recitation for our first day. I like to start my freshmen off with a few simple tricks; they say a picture is worth a thousand words, after all. Now, nobody panic.”

Yornhaldt snapped his fingers and the room was plunged into darkness. Gabriel cursed and there came a wordless exclamation from Fross, but his injunction not to panic proved unnecessary. It was not pitch-black, but merely quite dim; they could all still see each other plainly, especially Fross, who illuminated those nearest to her in a cold blue glow.

“To begin with, let’s see who’s carrying enchantments, shall we?” said Yornhaldt from the front of the room. He did not appear to move his hands again, but suddenly a bright glow sprung up around Teal, Trissiny and Zaruda. Tobias blinked against the sudden light, frowning; upon second reflection, the girls themselves weren’t glowing, but rather objects they were carrying were. It was a bit confusing in Zaruda’s case, as it was apparently her coat that put off light.

“This is a variant of an old trap-detection spell I developed,” said their professor. “Not much use tactically as it’s fairly easily blocked, but still good for a bit of fun. Now, let’s see what we’ve got here. Ah, yes, Miss Falconer’s talisman. The Church does tend to be a bit heavy-handed with their enchantments, but given what that little badge has to do, I suppose it’s called for.”

“What does it do?” Gabriel asked curiously.

“Now, Mr. Arquin, time enough for you two to get to know each other outside of class. Moving toward the middle of the room, we see Ms. Avelea’s sword and shield putting off even more light! Nothing surprising about that, either. Important safety tip, kids: never touch a paladin’s weapon without its owner’s permission. Those are gifts directly from their patrons, and not only just about the most magical items in existence, but directly connected to the power of the gods. Accidentally offending a deity is a very silly reason to die. And over here…goodness, Miss Punaji, that’s an awful lot of power on that coat. If I may ask, what manner of enchantments do you have there?”

“Oh, this?” Zaruda slid her thumbs along her lapels. “Was a present from my Uncle Raffi when I got accepted to the University. It’s weatherproof, slightly armored and has bag-of-holding spells on the pockets.”

“Hrum. That is…an awful lot of energy for such comparatively minor enchantments. Are you sure that’s it?”

She shrugged. “Well, I guess you could say they’re bag of a lot of holding spells. He insisted I’ve got about as much cargo capacity as a merchant ship in this thing, but Uncle Raffi tends to exaggerate. He just wanted to make sure I could go a few weeks without having to make a beer run.”

“Make a beer…” Professor Yornhaldt stared at her in awed silence for a moment. “…Miss Punaji, exactly how much alcohol are you carrying?”

“I dunno. How much is there?”

“Yes. Well. All right, then. Moving on.” He waved a hand, and the three glows vanished. “There’s one more trick I like to do; it never fails to be a crowd-pleaser. This is strictly stage magician stuff, you understand. The Wizards’ Guild would make exceedingly stern faces at me if they knew I was doing it in public. Still and all, I think everyone should have a look at their aura at least once in their life, and what better time than at the outset of a magic class? Behold!”

Professor Yornhaldt threw out his hands, and suddenly the room blazed with light.

Both Trissiny and Tobias gleamed with coronas of pure gold that seemed to reach into the farthest corners of the room. They didn’t obscure the other students’ auras, however; they immediately discovered that only the aura at which one directly looked would be clear in one’s vision, with the others merely dimly perceived details in the background. Gabriel was surrounded by a cloud of darkness, shot through with streaks of green and purple; he looked like he was wearing a giant bruise. From Teal there blared an intense orange blaze as if she were on fire, which pushed outward even more aggressively than the paladins’ auras did. Zaruda had a simple but pretty halo in shades of blue. Shaeine gleamed a cold, pure white. The two fae had by far the most interesting effects: Fross appeared to be within a tiny blizzard, completely with clouds and whirling snowflakes, that almost blotted her from view, and Juniper was illuminated by a beam of sunlight from above, with vivid grass constantly growing and vanishing from the floor below her and illusory butterflies flitting about her head.

“Shiiiiiiiiiiiny…” whispered Fross in awe.

Yornhaldt gave them a few minutes to study each other before gesturing again. At his command, the glows faded from around them and light came back up. The classroom looked suddenly drab and somehow surreal after the light show.

“I know very well how tricky this campus can be to adjust to,” he said, “so I’ll spare you the indignity of homework on your first day. Besides, if I know Professor Tellwyrn, and I do, she’s got you doing something absurd and borderline sadistic. Bear with, kids, she takes a bit of getting used to but I think you’ll come to quite enjoy her classes. And, I would hope, this one. For now, though, you are dismissed, and I’ll bid you good morning.”

With a final smile and a wave of his stubby hand, he turned and strolled from the room, humming.

“Now that one I like,” said Zaruda, “even if he won’t let me drink in class. I wonder if any of our other professors will be reasonable people, or more like Tellwyrn?”

“Well, Tellwyrn hired all of them,” Gabriel noted.

“I liked her,” Juniper protested.

“The professors don’t worry me nearly as much as the other students,” Trissiny said grimly, “if that…what’s her name was any kind of indication.”

“Natchua,” Shaeine supplied.

“Thanks. Anyhow, we’re free until early afternoon. I think I’m going to go find the chapel.”

“Wait, wait.” Teal stood up, grinning conspiratorially. “If you don’t want to run into the rest of the student body—and I’m with you there, at least for now—consider this: the dining hall is open whenever we want to use it, and it’s a bit early for lunch, which means we’re less likely to have to share.”

“Eating in relative privacy sounds delightful,” said Shaeine quietly.

The others exchanged glances and shrugs.

“Ah, what the hell,” said Zaruda, standing and pulling her half-finished bourbon back out of her enchanted coat. “I could eat.”

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1- 2

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Once again, she landed in chaos.

Trissiny’s mental picture of a frontier town admittedly came from comics and cheap novels (what few had slipped past the Abbey’s defenses); she should hardly have been surprised to find that Last Rock was not a single dusty street lined with wooden buildings. Cobblestone streets fanned out from the Rail platform, framing solid and quite elegant structures of well-dressed stone that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a medieval village. Really, that only made sense, positioned as the town was at the base of a mountain with no trees in sight.

She barely had a chance to appreciate the town, however, as a roar of pandemonium went up as soon as she stepped off the caravan. The streets and the edges of the platform were thronged with townsfolk apparently in their churchday best, cheering and applauding as though greeting victorious soldiers just back from the trenches. Somewhere nearby, barely visible through gaps in the crowd, an enthusiastic but clearly unpracticed brass band struck up a sprightly tune. Colorful streamers and buntings were draped everywhere, wreaths hung from darkened streetlamps, and strung across the main avenue directly ahead of her was a huge banner reading:

WELCOME, FRESHMEN!

And below that, a slightly larger one:

WELCOME BACK, ASSHOLES!

That was…troubling.

Before she’d decided how to react to all this, a door was flung open two cars behind her and a boy came staggering out. Trissiny gathered only an impression of dark, tousled hair and a long black coat before he stumbled to his knees and was loudly, violently sick. At this, the cheering on all sides intensified and a few catcalls rang out.

She scowled, letting go of her trunk and turning toward the poor boy. Riding the Rails the first time without the benefit of a lot of physical training must have been a nightmarish experience; even she would have come out of the Belt bruised at the least if not for Mr. Paxton’s warnings. And it was not right for people to treat someone’s misfortunes as entertainment.

A second young man, casually dressed and with a very dark complexion, had emerged from the same car and now knelt by his fallen companion, ignoring the crowd. Trissiny hesitated; if it were herself, she’d rather people gave her space and didn’t acknowledge her discomfort so publicly, but that was just her. Besides, Avei expected her to render aid wherever it was needed, and though she wasn’t a healer by calling, just channeling raw holy power at someone would soothe a lot of ailments.

“You there! You, girl, in the armor!”

Warily, she twisted back the other way, in time to see an old woman in a black gown nearly a century out of fashion swat a grinning boy of about twelve out of the way with one of the two canes on which she dragged herself along.

“You’re that paladin, right?” The old woman grinned broadly, and Trissiny forced herself not to flinch; her teeth, those that remained, were as brown as old wood. “Paladin of Avei. Finally the gods are sending us a message again, yeah? Finally the paladins are coming back, and they’re both coming here! That’s you, right?”

“I am a Hand of Avei,” Trissiny said carefully, having to pitch her voice a little louder than she liked to be audible over the crowd. Several of the closest bystanders immediately cheered even more loudly at her; nobody offered up any of the rude commentary they’d thrown at the boy who’d lost his lunch. She glanced over at him; he was standing, weakly, with his friend’s arm about his shoulders, and the pair were being pressed in upon by several of the locals carrying small trays. More detail than that she didn’t manage to catch before the old woman in front of her let out a loud crow like a cockerel.

“I knew it!” she chortled, thumping one of her canes against the stone platform. “It’s about time, is all! Yes, time for the gods to send someone to straighten out that nest of iniquity and vice up there on the hill. Elves and wizards and perverts, the lot of ’em! You’ll fix ’em good, won’t ya, paladin? Eh?”

“Ah…” Trissiny glanced around again. Over a dozen pairs of eager eyes were upon her; she was surrounded by grins. By all the Pantheon, did these people think this was street theater?

“Oh, Mabel, give the poor girl a moment to get her boots on the ground before you start preaching,” said a new voice in a throaty purr that really seemed too soft to carry as well as it did over the noise. Trissiny spun again and found herself almost nose-to-nose with a strikingly pretty black-haired woman. Only as an afterthought did she realize it was an elf.

Dark hair was supposed to be rare among the elvish tribes, so she’d heard. Trissiny had rarely met elves and never been this close to one; the differences from humans weren’t so glaring. This woman was of slender build, but not abnormally so; her eyes were on the large side and her features rather pointed, but not enough to seem out of place on a human face. Trissiny herself had some of those traits. Only the long, tapered ears poking up through her hair marked the elf for certain.

“Hussy!” screeched the old woman, clobbering the elf with a cane, to no effect. Apparently there wasn’t much strength in those bony arms. “Freak! Harlot! Painted trollop! I know what you get up to, over in the taverns! Sub-human thing from Elilial’s bosom! You get away from that girl. She’s a good girl, she is! And you!” Trissiny jerked back as a cane was pointed directly into her face. “You smite this heathen slattern! She’s of the Black Lady’s own stock, she is! Do yer duty, girl!”

“I see you’ve met my fan club,” said the elf airily, ignoring repeated blows from the cane. “It’s such a pleasure to meet you at last, Trissiny. Welcome to Last Rock. I have something here I think you’ll like.” Smiling disarmingly, she produced a small, flattish wooden box from within her coat and opened it; a golden pendant formed in the eagle symbol of Avei rested upon black velvet within.

“Do I know you?” Trissiny asked loudly, resisting the urge to grip her sword. Symbol of her faith or no, something about this woman set her on edge; she smiled the way that oily man who sold the Abbey produce did. Mother Narny had to supervise him very closely.

“I know you, my dear, which will do for a start. Everyone knows about the new paladins joining the student body this year. I’m just a simple enchanter and purveyor of magical trinkets, and purely honored to make your acquaintance. I’d like you to have this as a gift, from me, at no charge.” Smiling broadly, she pressed the box forward again, then had to jerk it back as the crone tried to swat it out of her hands.

CRACK!

Even the band faltered. Townspeople who’d been pressing ever closer to her scuttled back, revealing a man in denim and flannel, with a wand pointed skyward and a silver gryphon pinned to his shirt. In the confusion she hadn’t even seen the lightning bolt, but the tip of his wand still smoked faintly.

“Okay, folks, that’ll do. Show’s over. Let’s all take a step back before I have to feel disappointed in somebody.”

“Sheriff,” Trissiny said desperately, cocking a head at her two admirers. Tugging the broad brim of his hat to her, he ambled over.

“Omnu’s breath, you two, were you raised in a barn? Do we have to go through this every year?”

“I was raised in a tree,” said the elf with a grin. “And unless it’s suddenly illegal to talk to paladins, nobody’s doing anything wrong here. Ms. Avelea, here. Please take this.”

“Don’t you pull that attitude on me, master Samuel Sanders!” squawked the old woman, brandishing a cane. “Just because you’ve got a big fancy badge now doesn’t mean you don’t have to respect your elders! And taking a god’s name in vain, for shame! I know your poor mother, Omnu rest her soul, raised you better than that.”

“Well, you’ve caught me dead to rights, Miz Cratchley,” the sheriff said easily. “It’d serve me right if you went and wrote a letter to the editor about my deplorable behavior right this minute.”

“You see if I don’t, you young hellion!” She waved the cane at him once more, then began the complicated process of turning around and ambling off, still shrilly complaining. “Young people these days. No respect. None! In my day, we knew how to pay respect to the gods, yes sir. And to our elders!”

“Welp, that takes care of the one I’d feel bad about shootin’.” He raised an eyebrow at the elf, who fluttered her eyelashes at him.

“All right, all right, keep it in your pants, Sam. Trissiny, if you’d just—”

“No, thank you,” she said firmly. “I don’t need jewelry. Of any kind.”

“Oh, but I know what a young adventurer needs! Trust me, I deal only in the most magical of—”

“That will do, Sippy,” said the Sheriff, all humor gone from his voice. “She’ll be here all year. You can bide your time and make a pest of yourself when the poor girl’s had a chance to settle in. Move along.”

The elf closed her box with a loud snap. For just a moment she glared daggers at Sanders, then turned an amiable grin on Trissiny. “Well, the man’s not wrong. It’s wonderful to have you in town, Trissiny. I look forward to seeing you again.” Bowing, she backed away into the crowd.

“Thank you,” she said with feeling. The sheriff smiled at her.

“Not at all, ma’am, that’s why they pay me the big bucks. Can I offer you an escort past the town?”

“I appreciate your help,” she said a little stiffly, “but I don’t require any man’s protection.”

“I am well aware that you don’t, miss, but there’s more to life than what a body requires. I thought you might like a little protection anyway. See that?” He cocked a finger at the crowd where the two boys had been moments ago. There was no sign of them now; apparently they’d managed to escape. In their place stood half a dozen well-dressed people carrying trays of snacks, toys and baubles, all eying her hungrily. “My beloved constituency. Good folks, as a rule, but you should know up front that they view you and the rest of the students as walking coin purses. They’ll leave you alone if you’re with me, but if you’d rather not…” He shrugged. “You can always beat ’em back with your sword, I guess, but the we’ll have to have an entirely different kind of conversation.”

Abruptly, the fine hairs along Trissiny’s arms stood on end; her scalp tingled distractingly. Then, with an earsplitting crack of arcane energy, the caravan behind her began moving. Its acceleration was a frightening thing to behold; it was over the horizon in seconds. How had she survived riding that wretched thing? How did anyone?

“When you put it that way,” she said carefully, bending to grasp the handle of her trunk, “I think I would appreciate an escort.”

“I live to serve. Shall we?”

He was as good as his word. The cheering had begun to fade as soon as the caravan departed, people drifting away to tend to their own business; though she remained the center of attention, nobody else pressed forward or tried to intercept her with the Sheriff by her side. He led her at an easy pace away from the Rail platform and down what appeared to be the main avenue of the tiny town.

“Is it like this every year?” she asked cautiously. Stands and stalls, most looking rather cobbled-together, occupied the edges of the street, displaying a wide variety of goods and obstructing the actual storefronts. Bright banners, pennants and bunting were hung everywhere, including several with text welcoming the students to Last Rock. None after the big one across the road referred to them as assholes, which was a positive sign.

“We’re a college town,” he said with an amiable grin. “Last Rock is probably the most cosmopolitan village of its size in the whole Empire. We’ve got entertainment and specialty goods such as you’d expect to see in the capital itself, including more taverns than we need. Students bring money from all over the place, and the population has mostly adjusted to suit their needs. Pretty open-minded folks, as a rule, at least compared to most frontier stock, despite a few holdouts like Miz Cratchley. Of course, the downside of being so dependent on the University is the summers around here are a dry season, and I don’t just mean the weather. So yeah, the kids coming back is a pretty big deal.”

“I don’t have much in the way of spending money,” she said carefully. “Or want any. My needs are few.”

He nodded. “I can spread that around, if you’d like. Might spare you a certain amount of harassment next time you visit.”

“Is there much trouble between townspeople and students?”

“Oh, rarely. You can’t have those two groups in one spot without some butting of heads, but Professor Tellwyrn’s a good neighbor. You cause trouble in my town and I’ll have to wait for her to finish scraping and smoking your hide for embarrassing her University before I even get to toss you in a cell. Not exactly a boon to my manhood, but I can’t argue with the results.”

“I have no intention of causing any trouble,” she said frostily.

“My apologies, ma’am, didn’t mean to imply that. It was a general ‘you.’ I end up having to have this talk with most of the kids at one point or another; force of habit. And to speak the plan truth, it’s not you I’m worried about. It was a right breath of fresh air to learn we’d be getting two paladins this year. Actually…if I’m not mistaken, Principia was actually trying to give you something, which is downright weird; usually when she’s around it’s wise to keep a hand on your wallet. I guess everybody loves a paladin.”

“Hm.” She didn’t know what to say to that. Trissiny hadn’t been offered much detail on the other students, but she had been told there was a Hand of Omnu her own age who’d be starting school alongside her. Hopefully they could compare notes. But it was hard to know what was expected of her, here. The citizens of Last Rock clearly saw her as a person of action, much as she wanted to see herself, but Avei seemed to have different plans. Why else would she be here and not someplace like Sarasio, where a sword of the Goddess would actually be useful?

“And this is as far as my authority extends,” he announced, coming to a halt. Indeed, they had reached the edge of the town; directly ahead, even with the walls of the last buildings, the cobbled street abruptly became stairs of white marble, which marched the entire way up the mountain. Above, the University loomed, offering her only a vague impression of towers and walls from this angle. She could also see two dark figures who had to be those boys from her caravan, climbing the stone stairs.

It was an awe-inspiring sight, especially compared to the gray stone of the town and the rusty gold plains that stretched in every direction. The grass climbing the slope was lushly green, and the marble steps almost blinding under the bright sun. She saw, now, that in addition to the stairs marching directly upward, a broad, flatter path zigzagged back and forth all the way to the University, probably for wheeled conveyances that couldn’t navigate the stairs. It had a much gentler slope, obviously, and would be easier in terms of pulling her trunk…but it’d also take about ten times as long. This was going to be quite the hike, whichever path she chose.

“Thank you, Sheriff, for everything.”

“My pleasure, Ms. Avelea. And please, it’s Sam, so long as you’re on my good side.” He winked. “Welcome to Last Rock. I truly hope you enjoy your stay.” With one more tip of his hat, he turned and strolled back into his town, leaving her to face the rest of her journey alone.

Trissiny drew a deep breath, tightened her grip on her trunk, and started up the steps. The sturdy wheels were big enough to climb each step without too much banging, but the repeated bumps quickly began to jar her arm even worse than sword practice. Well, back home, she started her day with a run up and down the steep hills of Viridill, in full armor, on ancient stone steps far more treacherous than these. Granted, the sun at home was never quite this oppressively hot, but Trissiny wasn’t about to admit defeat this early in her journey.

She glanced back. About…twenty feet up. Gritting her teeth, she focused on her breathing, on the mechanical motions of her legs. One step at a time.

Fifteen minutes later, Trissiny had developed a theory that between the Rail rides and this infernal staircase, Professor Tellwyrn was attempting to weed out the weak and unworthy from even approaching her precious University. She was in excellent physical shape and bore the strain of the climb without complaint, though her arm was already aching something fierce. She considered switching the trunk to her other side, but instinct compelled her to keep her sword arm limber and free. The heat was worse than the exercise, really. Those poor boys…she was pretty sure one had been in a long black coat. There was no sign of them ahead now.

A thin, reedy sound of music had begun to grow as she’d climbed, becoming more and more distinct with each step. The tune was a cheerful one she didn’t recognize; it helped, a bit, in distracting her from the rigors of the climb. Now, as she finally approached the gates of the University itself, she discovered the source.

Though the dark stone walls weren’t battlemented, she was impressed by their height. This was clearly a defensible structure. There was only one gate, positioned in the center of the slope and with the broad marble steps leading directly to it; a small plaza had been carved from the mountain and paved in matching white marble to accommodate the two huge, iron-bound wooden gates, which presently stood open. An arch of decorative wrought metal spanned the gap between them, and upon this perched what she assumed was a student, playing an ocarina.

He had thick, black hair tied back in a long tail, and the mahogany complexion common in the western provinces. All he wore were loose canvas trousers and an open-fronted leather vest decorated with bits of bones and tusks. At Trissiny’s approach, he broke off his playing and grinned down at her.

“Frosh?”

“Excuse me?”

“Freshman,” he clarified.

“Um…” She’d seen that word on the banners below. Apparently it was the opposite of asshole?

“You’re a first-year student?” the young man clarified further, his grin broadening. It was a friendly expression, though; she didn’t feel mocked or belittled.

“Oh! Yes. Yes, I am.”

“Welcome to the University!” He had a deep voice, and sounded like he was laughing even when he merely spoke. “You’ll like it here. Probably. At the very least you won’t be bored. This year’s freshman girls are living in Clarke Tower. Just follow the blue flags along the path, and you’ll head right there. And don’t worry, it hardly ever falls.”

With that and a final grin, he lifted the ocarina back to his lips and resumed playing.

“Oh. Uh, thank you,” she said weakly. He didn’t stop, but blew a high trill, wiggling his fingers at her, and winked. Trissiny ducked her head and strode forward, passing under him and into the University itself.

Three paths branched off from the gates; a wide one that seemed to continue directly on from the stairs, and one meandering away to each side. The path on her left was marked with a small blue pennant. Drawing closer, she noted that the slim pole to which it was tied was not stuck in the ground; it floated, immobile, about a foot off the grass. Opposite that, a red one hovered by the other side. She drew another deep breath and set off down the marked path.

Here, the slope of the mountain had been re-shaped into terraces, and Trissiny’s route, marked with more floating blue flags every few feet, took her along a meandering course down broad thoroughfares, through narrow alleys and across a few patches of open lawn. There was an amazing variety of scenery, and Trissiny quickly came to the conclusion that the path she was directed to take was designed to show off the campus rather than get her anywhere efficiently. Not that it wasn’t pretty, or that she wouldn’t appreciate knowing where things were, but after her hike up the mountain she didn’t enjoy it as much as she otherwise might.

The University made the best possible use of the space available to it. Many of the walled terraces had doors leading into subterranean chambers, and the stepped architecture meant there was shade everywhere. There were plants in every available space; shrubs, flowers, vines climbing stone walls and even several trees, where room existed for them to grow. Three levels up from the gates she passed along the edge of a broad, flat area carpeted with lush grass, with a gazebo near the front, perched on the edge of the terrace.

She passed few other people, all of them clearly students. Some nodded or called out greetings, which she returned politely, and all gave her long considering looks; nobody offered to engage her in conversation, for which Trissiny was actually grateful. She wanted to get settled in before having to deal with any more people, especially if they were all going to be as weird as those she’d already met in the town. Humans predominated the student body, what little she saw of it, but there were a handful of elves as well, and she actually spotted two dwarves, both women. On the flat lawn by the gazebo, a lizardfolk person in a nice suit fenced with a human girl, the clash of blades intermingling with cheerful taunts and laughter in a way that made her homesick for the Abbey and her sisters-in-training.

Eventually her path brought her to the very edge of the mountain, and a nasty surprise.

A wall surrounded the perimeter of the University, where buildings weren’t perched right on the edge, to keep people from accidentally wandering off the cliff. The blue flags led Trissiny directly to a gate in this wall, which opened onto a stone footbridge bordered by tall iron railings; a plaque right by the gate proclaimed this the way to Clarke Tower. She had to stop at the foot of the bridge and stare in horror.

The bridge was gently arched and about thirty feet long, and terminated at the top of a colossal stalactite at least four stories tall. It tapered to a jagged point aiming downward, and had a flat top upon which was built a thick round tower with a conical roof that had a huge clock face inset. And the whole island just…floated in midair, above a nauseating drop to the prairie far below.

Hesitantly, she crept across the bridge. It certainly felt solid. In her rational mind, Trissiny knew this all had to be perfectly fine. This was a University run by the most famous former adventurer still living, a woman who was a formidable wizard in her own right. Magic was ancient and well-understood. Furthermore, they wouldn’t have built a building on this and housed students in it if it weren’t entirely safe.

But all that was merely cognitive. She was stepping on a thin bridge to an island in the sky on which they apparently expected her to sleep. In her heart of hearts, Trissiny knew she was about to plunge to her horrible death.

Only by keeping her eyes firmly fixed on the door to Clarke Tower did she make it across the bridge, and that despite the strong breeze that seemed to perpetually flow across it. The door was actually quite lovely, made of old iron-bound wood with stained glass panels inset. Coming to a stop before it, she had to pause and take a few deep breaths. This was good; nothing in her vision but the door and stonework. She could almost forget she was standing on ground that was floating on nothing.

Trissiny decided she was beginning to hate this place.

She raised her hand to knock, then shook her head. If they expected her to live here, she wasn’t going to mince around. Grasping the handle, she pulled the door open and dragged her trunk inside.

“Oh! Hi there!”

Blinking, she surveyed her new surroundings. It was a comfortably furnished living room lined with overstuffed chairs surrounding a coffee table, with a battered couch along one wall; a grandfather clock ticked away in one corner. There were no windows, Avei be praised.

Upon her entrance, a woman rose quickly from one of the chairs and bustled toward her, beaming. She was a head shorter than Trissiny and at least twice as broad, her plump frame squeezed into a very fancy corseted gown of black and purple silk that displayed a dizzying expanse of cleavage. She wore a heavy layer of makeup that made her lips and eyes seem almost to pop off her rouged face; Trissiny was aware of cosmetics in theory but had seldom seen them used, and couldn’t help staring. Waves of glossy ebon hair were wound around her head in an elaborate bun, decorated with sprays of purple feathers.

“And you must be Trissiny!” the woman gushed. “Oh, it’s so good to meet you at last! Imagine, a paladin staying under my roof. Arach—that is, Professor Tellwyrn’s told me all about you. You’re one of the first to arrive, dear.”

“Uh. Thank you?”

“I’m Janis Van Richter, the house mother. Please, just call me Jan! I’m here to look after the place and you girls, make sure everyone’s comfy and right at home. Any problems you have, just come to me and we’ll get it all sorted, okay? Oooh, this is going to be such a good year! C’mon, I’ve put you in the upper room, so let’s not waste any time getting you settled in.”

Janis seized Trissiny’s free hand in both of her own—they were plump and bedecked with far too many rings—and beamed up at her.

“Welcome to the University, Trissiny. Welcome to Clarke Tower. Welcome home!”

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