Tag Archives: Taowi Sunrunner

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She moved ever more slowly down the very short hall between the teleporter and the security hub, taking stock of her senses. Milanda didn’t yet have a vocabulary to describe these experiences, but being up here in the sterile environment of the Infinite Order made a very great difference from the little planetoid of the dryads, which teemed with life. Here, she could easily pick out the only living things up ahead, and even what they were from the perceptions they gave her.

Hawthorn, of course, was a blazing presence of a by now familiar nature; it had taken some time for Milanda to sort out her sense of the other life forms on the tiny world due to the proximity of the dryads, which was like counting candle flames in broad daylight. It could be done, but the sun did not help. Walker… That could only be Walker. She was, somehow, an inversion, a gap in her awareness of living things. A space of absence, which somehow radiated as powerfully as the dryads. It was an impossible thing to describe; it was barely possible to perceive. If dryads experienced the world this way, she could well believe they found valkyries disturbing.

The other being present puzzled her for a moment before she remembered the katzil. It was the dimmest flicker, which was appropriate as it had been kept in hibernation for thousands of years. Still alive, though.

The door hissed open at her approach, and she stopped just inside, taking stock.

Part of the scene was familiar; Walker working away at her computer terminal. She had moved to a different one, though, to sit next to Hawthorn, who had claimed a chair nearby and spun it around to fold her arms on the back, gazing avidly at the large screen along the wall. Milanda hadn’t even realized that was a screen, taking it for a piece of the wall paneling, but now it danced with images, and the sounds of shouting and crashing—and, incongruously, music—echoed through the hub.

“There you are,” Walker said with open relief that made her heart warm slightly. “Hawthorn said it was normal for this to take this long, but I was about to go looking for you, regardless.”

“You can’t go through the teleporter,” Milanda pointed out, giving her a smile in return as she approached. Hawthorn waved at her before returning her attention to whatever she was watching. “How long was I down there? There’s a lack of clocks…”

“You can have the Nexus display one, if you want,” Hawthorn said without looking up again. “Or ask the Avatar.”

“…all right, fine, you caught me. I was a little distracted by what happened down there and didn’t think of it.”

“It’s been over seven hours,” Walker said seriously. “The computer finished making its map of the city long ago. You can port out whenever you’re ready.”

Milanda winced. “Oof. Gods know what’s been happening up there… Well, I’m glad you two are getting along, at least.”

“Yes, well, I have some precedent to draw upon,” Walker said, smiling fondly at Hawthorn, who continued to gaze avidly at her show. The noise of it was more than a little distracting. “When I met my disconcertingly alien older sisters, one took the time to sit down with me and watch her favorite movies.”

“This was in Sifan?” Milanda frowned. “They have Infinite Order facilities there, too? And they’re open?”

“No and no,” Walker said with a grin, “but kitsune have never had trouble getting into such places at will. That’s a large part of why the Order found them so threatening.”

“I see. Well, I guess this counts as watching it with her,” Milanda said, smiling. “It might be more of a bonding exercise if you stopped messing around on the computer, yourself.”

“Oh, we already did that,” Hawthorn said distractedly.

“Yes, as I said, it’s been hours. We watched the entire trilogy together—the original one. Then she understandably wanted to see more, and I decided she deserved a more thorough grounding in the classics before we branched out into the expanded material. This is Episode Four again.”

Milanda sighed. “Walker, is there a particular reason I need to understand what you’re talking about?”

“Yes,” Walker said solemnly, but with a mischievous smile, “this is a very important part of humanity’s cultural heritage. But no, it’s not imminently relevant to what you’re doing.”

“You haven’t seen it?” Hawthorn exclaimed, still watching the screen herself, and pointed at it. “You gotta! See that guy in the black, he’s actually that other guy’s—”

“Hawthorn! Remember our discussion about spoilers?”

“Oh. Oops. Sorry.”

“And actually,” Walker said pointedly, “that’s rather distracting, while we’re trying to have a conversation.”

“Oh, of course.” Hawthorn disentangled herself from the chair, then struck a dramatic pose. “Computer!” she cried, lifting her chin, then extended an arm at the screen, palm outward, as if casting a spell. “Pause playback!”

Immediately, the sounds stopped, and the image went still. It had frozen on a shabbily-dressed, shaggy-haired man brandishing what she assumed was some kind of wand, since it was in the process of spitting a beam of red light. A historical drama, maybe? The dryad turned to Milanda and folded her arms, looking tremendously satisfied with herself. “So! Whatcha got?”

“What… Oh, you mean abilities?”

Hawthorn nodded eagerly. “They all end up a little different, but there are some baselines that seem pretty common. Plus, you got a whole different set-up in the first place, so I’m really curious how it turns out!”

Milanda refrained from commenting that she could have been down there helping with the process. The other two had mentioned it often enough she had a feeling Hawthorn was due for an earful as it was. No sense in making herself the object of the dryad’s resentment.

“Senses,” she said, unconsciously shifting her head to where the katzil floated in its tank. “I can feel…life, now. Any living thing. That was really confusing to puzzle out, in a grassy forest, with two dryads right there.”

“Ooh, that’s a good one,” Hawthorn said eagerly. “Those always have a lot of strategic value, Sharidan says! You got the emotions yet?”

“Emotions?” Milanda asked warily. Gods, if this thing was going to start making her as volatile as the dryads…

“Yeah!” Hawthorn blathered on, nodding enthusiastically. “The ones who get the life sense always have an emotional sense develop a little later. It’s a kind of empathy, only works on animals with complex enough brains. Big ones, mostly. Obviously people. But yeah, it’s probably too early. That may start to come in over the next few days, so don’t get taken by surprise.”

“The others didn’t mention anything about that!”

“Oh, those two.” Hawthorn waved a hand dismissively. “I love ’em dearly, but they’re not the ripest berries on the bush.”

“With all due respect, it took you seven hours to acquire that?” Walker asked skeptically.

“I spent the first part unconscious,” Milanda said a little defensively. “And after that… Well, it was overwhelming. Do you have any idea what it’s like to suddenly have your whole perception of the world radically changed?”

“Yes,” Walker said in a softer tone. “Twice. And I of all people should be more understanding. My apologies.”

“No harm done,” Milanda assured her with a smile. “Anyway, that wasn’t all of it. I gained a more reflexive sense of myself, that’s the best way I can think of to describe it.” She lifted her hand and flexed her fingers, gazing thoughtfully at the palm. “That’s what took the most time to work out how to control. My body sort of…moves on its own, when threatened. The girls and I scuffled around quite a bit, working out the parameters of it. They said they’ve seen that one before, too…”

“Oooh, yes, that’s a really good one!” Hawthorn said, beaming. “It often goes with expanded senses. But yeah, you gotta practice if you’re gonna be safe to be around. Otherwise, any time you’re in danger, you just—whoop!” She struck a mock-combat pose, fists upraised. “No prisoners, no regard for bystanders or scenery! It can get messy. It’s for the best they took the time to make sure you’re pretty stable before you left, especially if you’re gonna go right out there and hang out with other humans again. Apparently studying some actual martial arts helps. Have you?”

“As I keep having to remind people,” Milanda said with a grin, “I’m from Viridill.”

Hawthorn tilted her head. “Where?”

Walker stood up. “Well. This has already taken longer than anticipated; not to tell you your business, Milanda, but…”

“Yes, indeed,” she agreed, nodding. “If the teleporter works now, I’d best get up there. No telling what’s been happening…”

“I’m going to walk her to the teleport pad,” Walker said to Hawthorn with a smile. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“And I’ll be back…later,” Milanda added. “See you then.”

“May the Force be with you,” Hawthorn intoned, nodding solemnly.

Milanda blinked at her, then turned to Walker, who grinned.

“Long story. Good story, but…another time. Come on.”

“Computer,” Hawthorn proclaimed, grandly gesticulating at the screen again, “resume playback!”

The noise and music resumed, cutting off behind them as they stepped into the hall and the doors slid shut.

“Walker,” Milanda said thoughtfully, “did she show any familiarity with the Order’s technology at all?”

“No, but she’s certainly having fun with the entertainment system. As you saw.”

“It’s just that… Hm. I wonder if the entertainment database is accessible from their little planet. I guess that much information would take up a lot of space to store.”

“Not the way the Order stored data,” Walker replied as they slipped around the last stack of crates and crowded into the small elevator at the end of the hall. “The whole archive would be small enough for you to pick up. The GIC is isolated, obviously, but if the Avatar is installed there it should have the requisite terminals, and he has all of that on file.”

“And yet, they’ve been down there for decades and not used the computers.” Milanda frowned thoughtfully at the elevator doors. “That Avatar is working an angle of his own.”

“Inevitably,” Walker agreed. The door slid open again, revealing the next hallway, and she preceded Milanda out. “He’s an intelligence as complex as any biological sapient—and arguably more so than some—but it’s an open question whether he qualifies as a free-willed being. There was a whole genre of fiction on Earth about humanity building sapient machines, which then rebel and overthrow humanity. Between the Order’s general paranoia and their fondness for speculative fiction, they were extremely wary about that. Artificial intelligences were tightly regulated.”

“Then,” Milanda said slowly, “he’s actually pursuing the directives given by his maker. He said that, but I’m unsure how much to trust him.”

“Tarthriss sided with the Pantheon in their war, if that helps.”

“Maybe,” Milanda said with a sigh. They had arrived in the array, and she paused, peering around. “He also said we need the help of a skilled fae magic user to finish fixing the Hands. One who understands the systems here would be better, but that obviously isn’t an option. How do I get this thing to send me somewhere in particular?”

She turned to walker, finding the fairy with a most peculiar expression on her face—one Milanda couldn’t quite interpret. Accustomed as she was to Walker by now, her odd features could still be puzzling. At her own stare, though, Walker blinked and shook her head. “It’s very simple, everything here is designed to be user-friendly. I’ll show you.”


Fedora gallantly held the infirmary door open for Tellwyrn, earning nothing in return but a scornful stare. The other occupants of the room turned to her, most with expressions of relief.

“Ah, there you are,” Embras Mogul said lightly. “We were about to send out a search party.”

“Well, I do beg your pardon,” she snapped, glancing back at Fedora, who peeked outside before shutting the door again. “I’ve spent my day reassuring the townspeople who saw a snowstorm on this mountain last night, reassuring the Imperial and provincial governments in Tiraas that the Madouri line is not terminated and the Governor will be back on her feet soon, and reassuring an increasingly nervous student body who keep interrupting me with questions about their safety which I haven’t the heart to brush off. And also, what the hell is this?”

She turned to glare at the piles of floral bouquets arranged around Ravana’s bed, spilling over onto the empty one next to her.

“Quite a story, it seems,” said Professor Ezzaniel. He and Professor Yornhaldt were present, making no pretense of not keeping watch on the two Black Wreath warlocks, while Miss Sunrunner lurked just behind them, making no pretense of not wanting the room cleared. “The short version is that our little Duchess is a politician.”

“Specifically, a populist,” Yornhaldt rumbled, “and I’m interested in seeing how that will go considering it’s a relatively new method, currently only practiced on a large scale by the Archpope. But she doesn’t confine her efforts to her own territory, it seems. Ravana is quite well thought of in the town.”

“Even I’ve heard about it,” added Fedora. “It’s a relatively simple matter of being kind to people, and not acting as if she were better than they. You should give it a try, Professor Tellwyrn.”

The other two Professors present, and Miss Sunrunner, immediately gave him warning stares, at which he winked.

“Apparently,” Embras drawled, “the Duchess has been financing small business loans for people in the town. Mostly newcomers without collateral, the ones at whom Mr. Taft turned up his nose. She’s not only earned some loyal supporters that way, but got the Mayor and the Sheriff on her side, since she’s doing a lot to drive the economy. Smart kid. I hope we can wake her up, I admit I kinda like this one.”

“The subject of why you know so much about Last Rock’s doings can wait for another day,” Tellwyrn said curtly. “What have you found? Mr. Bradshaw, wasn’t it?”

“I’ve found your curse, in short,” Bradshaw said, straightening and pulling back the hood of his gray robe to reveal a bluff, bearded face. He looked more like the popular stereotype of a teamster than the popular stereotype of a warlock. “This is by a wide margin the most complex application of the Lady’s gift of stealth I have ever seen. The curse must have taken quite some time to design, and with all respect, Professors, it’s no reflection on you that you weren’t able to detect it through arcane means.”

“Explain,” Tellwyrn ordered.

Bradshaw turned back to Natchua, seemingly unfazed by her tone. “Using the Lady’s gift to conceal spell effects is complex, but an old and familiar technique. If not for your explanation about where this Sleeper got his knowledge, I would conclude from what I’ve seen here that one of ours had gone rogue. The basic problem with any stealth spell is that it affects its subject, not the whole world, and nothing exists except in context. There are always traces left by the passage of a concealed person, object, or enchantment, if you know where to look for them. Those traces are what most of your detection measures would look for. In this case, the traces are also concealed.”

“Clever,” Yornhaldt acknowledged, “but our efforts have been rather more exhaustive than that…”

“Yes,” Bradshaw said, nodding at him. “And then the traces of the traces were concealed. And the traces of those, and so on. The incredible thing is that the farther out this goes, the more actual illusion is required, in addition to simple concealment. The complexity grows exponentially with each step.”

“To how many degrees?” Tellwyrn demanded.

“Thirteen,” the warlock said solemnly. “Under almost any circumstances, I would consider this melodramatic overkill. At the level of this obscurity, the only perceptible remnants of the spell left exposed are discernible only at the sub-atomic level, and indistinguishable from the random background noise of the universe. Well before reaching that point, it would be sufficiently obscured that no one except possibly a god would be able to detect or make sense of the traces. But…considering this character was deliberately designing a spell to put one over on Arachne Tellwyrn, I suppose his over-caution is somewhat justified.”

“Then we can break it,” Tellwyrn said, staring down at Raolo, her expression lightening for the first time.

“We can start to break it,” Embras cautioned. “Consider it this way: you have been trying to solve an invisible puzzle box. With our intervention, the box can finally be seen, but that doesn’t solve the puzzle itself.”

“This curse is unlike anything I have ever seen,” Bradshaw said, wearing a deep frown. “It’s complex enough on its own merits to suit the wildly excessive layers of protection over it. Just from the relatively brief analysis I’ve managed to do so far, I can tell it has both infernal and arcane components, as well as using at least one school of shadow magic. All the types I’ve identified are used at an astonishing level of complexity, they interact with each other in ways I’ve never seen before, and there are gaps in the spell matrices where there are clearly other schools being used. Probably other kinds of shadow magic, since no warlock should be able to use the fae or divine. Still, though… With this character, perhaps it would be wiser not to make assumptions.”

Tellwyrn stared at him through narrowed eyes for a moment before speaking. “And, of course, you would like to hang around as long as it takes to unravel this.”

“You’re welcome, by the way,” Mogul said pointedly.

Bradshaw glanced at him, still frowning, received a nod, then turned his attention back to Tellwyrn. “In fact, Professor, I think the effort would be better served by walking you and Professor Yornhaldt through the necessary steps to see past the concealment.”

“We’re aware you already know the technique to do so, in general,” Mogul added with a grin. “I reckon giving you a leg up on this piece of work isn’t damaging our security any further.”

“I am willing to stay and continue to help,” Bradshaw added, “and truthfully I’d be grateful for the opportunity to analyze a curse like this as we untangle it. But… I have to acknowledge this is over my head. It would take me months, potentially years to straighten this mess out. It just makes more sense to put it in your hands.”

“Good,” Tellwyrn said curtly. “Show me.”

“Arachne,” Yornhaldt said gently, “before we burn any bridges, here, consider keeping them on call.”

Very slowly, she turned to stare at him.

“I am not proposing to extend unwarranted trust,” he said, “but only to acknowledge everyone’s self-interest here. The Wreath has much to gain by getting on your good side, and none of their objectives involve harming the school or the students. In fact, Mr. Mogul and Mr. Bradshaw saved my life in Svenheim.”

“I am glad to see you’re mended, by the way, Professor,” Bradshaw added with a grin.

Yornhaldt nodded politely to him, then continued. “I have not mistaken that for charity—it was strategic, and they’d have just as amiably left me to die if that served their interests. But the situation being what it is… We are neither of us infernomancers, Arachne. We’re dealing with an incredibly complex spell with a major infernal component. Don’t tell me you can’t see the utility of having a highly skilled warlock on hand to assist.”

“You don’t know how much I know, Alaric,” Tellwyrn said softly. “About anything.” She shifted her head, her gaze lingering on Natchua, then Ravana, and sighed. “Still…your point is well-taken. And while my instinct is to show these gentlemen the door, that is mostly because their bitch goddess caused all this, just to get under my skin.”

“I cannot, of course, speak for the Lady,” Mogul said diffidently, “but I rather suspect the lack of orders on her part for us to butt out of this suggests she meant no harm of this kind, and may even regret the outcome. The Lady has always shown the utmost care with regard to bystanders.”

“She actually does,” Fedora added. “I’m not hugely enamored of her myself, but Yornhaldt’s right. Don’t accuse people of being every kind of evil just ‘cos they’re against you at the moment. It’s hard for me to believe Elilial would have done this if she’d known it would turn out this way, specifically.”

“By the by,” Mogul said to Tellwyrn, pointing at the Inspector. “Are you aware that this guy is—”

“Yes,” she snapped, “and so are his Imperial handlers.”

“Ah. Well, I wish that surprised me at least a little bit.”

Fedora grinned toothily at him. “While I have everybody’s attention, let me just add something in my professional opinion. All this,” he gestured around the room, “needs to remain secret. The Sleeper likes to play games—which is the point of this whole bullshit. He’s prone to escalating when challenged. Most importantly, this sleeping curse was inordinately complex and probably took him months to work on, during that period when he didn’t dare show his colors due to a kitsune prowling around the campus. He hasn’t got the time to put together another one. As soon as he realizes the Wreath is getting into this, and his spell is on the road to being broken, then this game is not fun anymore—because he’s no longer winning. At that point,” he turned a serious expression on Tellwyrn, “he will probably start killing.”

She met his gaze in silence for a few heartbeats, then slowly nodded. “The Inspector makes good sense. All right, you heard him, everyone. No Black Wreath are involved in this—no, you were seen by a student. Mogul took a look, couldn’t find anything, and buggered off with a hail of curses from me. We are no closer to cracking this curse than we were this morning.” She glanced again at Fedora. “And that will be the story until we’ve dealt with the Sleeper himself.”

“That’s going to inhibit our ability to work on the curse,” Yornhaldt pointed out.

“It will be easier once all the victims are moved to the chapel. I can secure that against encroachment; it will be declared off-limits until this is resolved. Stew told me he has it arranged in there. We’ll move them as soon as we’re done here.”

“A-hem,” Fedora said pointedly. “With regard to that, there’s still the matter of me chasing down the Sleeper himself. I still require your blessing to proceed, Professor.”

“You can be patient a little longer,” she said irritably. “At the very least, until I hear from Admestus that he’s got results which will make that worthwhile.”

“Of course, I understand,” Fedora agreed. “But do keep in mind who I work for and what my mandate is, Professor. The fact that a sitting Imperial Governor has been affected by this changes things. You’re not the only one who was contacted by Tiraas today. Much more foot-dragging on your part, and I’m going to have to choose whether to say ‘fuck your rules’ to you or the Silver Throne. I’d take it as a personal kindness if you’d not place me in that position.”

“You can be patient,” she repeated, “for a little longer. I assure you, I am not dithering or leaving all of you to solve this for me. I have plans of my own being laid. I fully understand the pressure we are all under, but right now, rash action will only make this worse. We should have at least tonight to come up with something more. I doubt the Sleeper will make another grand spectacle so soon, especially with me here.”

Fedora rolled his jaw once as if chewing on the idea, then shrugged, his expression skeptical.

“Maybe.”

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Dawn was just beginning to lighten the infirmary’s tall windows, barely noticed by the exhausted students within. Several of the group had split off after everyone had been treated for infernal exposure, but most of the sophomores were still nearby, standing or sitting on the beds (in Ruda’s case, stretched out and seemingly asleep), keeping quiet but maintaining a kind of vigil.

Ravana’s roommates, having arrived only minutes before, kept a closer one.

“You idiot,” Iris whispered. Maureen, Szith, and Scorn all looked over at her, the rest of the students being clustered a few beds away. “You smug, arrogant… Why would you do something like this? Dammit, what’s wrong with you!”

“Iris, stop,” Szith said firmly, placing a hand on her shoulder. By the end of her tirade, she had raised her voice to a shout, prompting Miss Sunrunner to head in their direction, scowling. The healer paused, though, at a frantic gesture from Maureen.

“You know she did it on purpose,” Iris said, scrubbing tears from her face. “Thought she could do better than everyone, so she just…”

“Yes.” Szith sighed, and squeezed her shoulder gently. “Yes, and I should have been watching her for something like this.”

“It’s not your fault,” Iris snorted, glaring down at Ravana, who appeared to be sleeping quite peacefully. “Nobody did this to herself but her!”

“An’ the Sleeper,” Maureen said quietly. “Don’t forget him.”

“The Sleeper will pay for all of this,” Scorn growled.

“My mother served for many years as a personal bodyguard to a noble of House An’sadarr,” Szith said. “They have a certain…psychology. I don’t believe Ravana meant any harm, but this…belief…she has, that she is both smarter than everyone, and responsible and entitled to do what she thinks no one else can do properly, which is everything…” She sighed, shook her head. “Drow, human, apparently some things are the same everywhere. My mother has always told me that watching over a noble means protecting them from themselves as much as from their enemies.”

“You smug idiot,” Iris growled at Ravana. She lunged forward at the sleeping girl, prompting the others to try to grab her, but Iris simply folded her arms on the bed beside Ravana and buried her face in them.

“Well.” Maureen hopped down from the bed and went over to Scorn, who was only a few feet distant, but that still made a bit of a walk for her. Smiling, she patted the demon on the knee. “I’m sorry you’re stuck on this plane an’ all, Scorn, but truth be told, it’s at times like this I’m glad t’have you here with us.”

Scorn sighed softly, then smiled briefly at the gnome before her expression stilled again. “I can go home any time,” she said.

Szith looked over at her in surprise, and Iris lifted her head. “But I thought…”

“Me getting here, that is what was impossible in the first place. But I’ve studied this world, and thought about the situation… The hellgates, they are all under Imperial control, yes? But that means just that it is known where they all are. And the Empire, I think they will not be sad to see me leave.” She shrugged. “I bet, if they wanted to be difficult, Professor Tellwyrn could get them to let me through a gate. Then… In Hell, most things either honor the Rhaazke or do not challenge us, and I can avoid everything else. Eventually I could find other Rhaazke, or at least forces who follow the Dark Lady who can bring me to Rhaazke. They could bring me to a portal to the Grey Planes. Then… Getting back to my home would be a matter just of walking. It would be an adventure, but more a long one than a dangerous one, at least for me. I can go.”

Scorn very gently placed a hand on Ravana’s forehead, brushing back her blonde hair. The demon’s hand seemed large enough to crush the girl’s skull, its short claws and mottled skin a stark contrast with the young aristocrat’s porcelain complexion.

“But here… I am learning things. Getting education which will make me a more worthy successor when my mother needs one. And… I have friends, here. Someday I will have to leave friends behind, and that will be a sad day. But I don’t want to, yet. And right now, I can’t.” She stroked Ravana’s hair again. “Not while friends need my help. Especially since I need to wait for one to wake up so I can yell at her.”

Iris emitted a faint huff of breath, a noise that might have become a laugh if given time to grow. “It’s a date. We’ll have to form a line.”

The infirmary door swung open, prompting everyone to look in that direction. Immediately, several of the sophomores straightened up, Ruda lifting her head, and then swinging her legs over the side of her bed to sit upright with a grunt. It was Toby who stepped forward, bringing himself nearly even with Ravana’s bed, to address her.

“We failed, Professor.”

Tellwyrn nodded briefly at him, before returning her attention to the infirmary’s newest permanent resident. “I’ve heard an accounting already. Fedora and Rafe are in the latter’s lab, processing evidence.”

“Evidence?” Teal asked. “What evidence did they find?”

“Apparently that’s still somewhat up in the air,” the Professor said, sounding as weary as they felt. “Hopefully something useful. Ingvar and the dryads—all three dryads, the gods help us—are loitering outside the lab, catching up. I got more answers out of Ingvar than everyone else combined, thus far. She’s just like the others, Taowi?”

“Not quite,” Miss Sunrunner said, her lips pinched in an expression of disapproval. “You’re in good time, Arachne; I just finished applying the alchemical purgative before these girls arrived. Ravana had been dosed with Nightmare’s Dream. As she is trapped in a state of sleep, I made especially sure to expunge all alchemical agents from her bloodstream.”

“Wait, she what?” Maureen asked. “Whassat, then?”

“Madouri, you insufferable little…” Tellwyrn trailed off, closing her eyes, and drew a deep breath. “Nightmare’s Dream is a potion. An illegal one, as it is used chiefly as an instrument of torture. It causes the imbiber to experience excruciating pain if they fall asleep.”

“Holy shit,” Gabriel whispered, staring aghast at Ravana from across the room.

“We are fairly sure the Sleeper didn’t apply it,” Miss Sunrunner said sourly, “but that Miss Madouri herself did. How she acquired such a thing, I’ve no idea. Admestus denies having supplied either the potion or any of the necessary ingredients.”

“It would surprise me if she had not inherited that and worse from her father,” Szith noted. “She has supplied Rafe with hellhound breath, let us not forget. There is no telling what else lies in House Madouri’s vaults.”

“Oh, quite,” Tellwyrn agreed, glaring down at Ravana. “It wasn’t a bad idea, strategically speaking. It is very hard to knock someone out magically while they’re in pain; you need drugs for that. Clever, reckless, and utterly typical of this particular ingenious little fool.”

“And I thought the Sleeper was bad,” Ruda breathed. “What kind of goat-fucking lunatic…”

“It seems to have worked, at least at first,” said Shaeine. “We heard her screaming in obvious pain before we arrived on the scene.”

“Bloody hell,” Maureen choked.

“Uh, Professor?” Gabriel said hesitantly. “I don’t know how many bushy-tailed people there are in Sifan, but I think you brought back the wrong one…”

Everyone shifted their focus to the figure trying to hide behind Tellwyrn. This was a lost cause; despite being considerably shorter than she, he was at least twice as broad.

The elf grimaced, turned and spoke a few rapid words in Sifanese. The fluffy banded tail sticking out from behind the level of her knees quivered once, and then what appeared to be an overweight, gnome-sized raccoon wearing a monk’s robes stepped out, bowed to the room, and chattered several soft sentences in the same language.

“This is Maru,” Tellwyrn said dourly. “He is pleased to meet you all and looks forward to working with you. Since assigning Crystal to the library I’ve been feeling the lack of a secretary, anyway, so…here we are.”

“Arachne,” Miss Sunrunner said, staring at the new arrival, “would I be correct in inferring that your new secretary does not speak Tanglish?”

Tellwyrn sighed. “Yeah, well, he owes me a favor. And when I find myself satisfied with its repayment, he’s got worse coming to him back home, so Maru’s incentive here is not toward competence, anyway. That aside, tanuki tend to be puckish even by fairy standards. I have a great deal of mislaid correspondence to look forward to, I suspect.”

“About your mission…?” Teal prompted.

“Kaisa is not coming back,” Tellwyrn said shortly. “You kids…did the best you could. Even if you didn’t capture the Sleeper, the effort wasn’t wasted. It seems you’ve learned quite a bit; Fedora was eager as a kid at Wildfeast to tell me all he’s discovered, but I figured it could wait till he and Admestus have finished playing with their alchemy set. I’ll hear reports from you lot, as well, but…after you’ve had some sleep. The lot of you resemble the leftovers too mangled for Death to bother to take.”

“Vestrel would like you to know she resents that,” said Gabriel, then paused. “…and I’m supposed to repeat something in elvish which I can barely pronounce and refuse to try because I’m pretty sure it’s—”

“Shut up, Arquin.”

“Gladly, thank you.”

“Taowi,” Tellwyrn said, turning to the healer, “there is nothing you can do for these kids until we get some answers about this curse. As soon as Stew and Harland finish cleansing and fixing up the area this lot demolished last night, I’m going to set them to work on the campus chapel.”

“You’re moving the victims there?” Sunrunner asked quietly.

Tellwyrn nodded. “It doesn’t see a lot of use anyway. Stew can re-purpose the pews as comfortable beds, and nobody alive can match Harland Harklund’s skill at divine wards. At bare minimum it’ll keep them safe from more infernomancy; I’m hoping, now we know for certain this is a warlock, just keeping them there may erode the curse over time.”

“Very well,” she agreed, nodding. “Let me know when they’re ready to be—”

“I trust even you can appreciate the seriousness of this.”

Several of them jumped, Ruda cursing, and Maru actually yelped and bounded onto an unoccupied bed. The black-coated Hand of the Emperor now stood next to Iris, who skittered away from him. He lifted his stare from Ravana’s prone form to glare at Tellwyrn.

“This is the sitting governor of Tiraan Province itself, now lying cursed because you were off gallivanting in Sifan rather than protecting your students. This is more than I can overlook, Tellwyrn.”

“I bet if you tried real hard you could manage not to stick yourself into this and make it worse,” she said. Several of the students exchanged nervous glances; there was a dull weariness in Tellwyrn’s voice now, quite unlike her usual acidic demeanor, and under the circumstances it was more than a little alarming.

“I will be sending back to the capital for more assistance,” the Hand said, with just enough vindictive relish to be clear in his tone. “A thorough review of your educational practices is now necessary, Tellwyrn. I suggest you clean house quickly, if you intend to. There will not be much more time.”

“You can review whatever the hell you like, nothing around here is going to change in response to your orders,” she said flatly.

He bristled. “Must I remind you that I speak for the Emperor himself?”

“Glad we understand each other.”

The infirmary door opened again, and a student stuck her head in. “Miss Sunrunner, did you see—oh, thank flip, Professor Tellwyrn! I’ve been looking all over for you.”

“It’s not even dawn,” Tellwyrn complained. “Why am I already surrounded by whining and demands? Miss Darke, I am busy.” She jerked her head at the Hand, who simply folded his arms and looked supercilious.

“Okay, I’ll let you decide if this is worth it,” Marjorie Darke said, edging carefully into the room. “You’ve got a visitor. Um, another one.”

“At this hour?” Miss Sunrunner said disapprovingly.

The door swung the rest of the way open, revealing the guest, and immediately the remaining sophomores and Scorn leaped to their feet.

“I do apologize for the hour,” Embras Mogul said, tipping his hat politely, “but it seems you’ve been gone from the campus until just now, and I am in rather a hurry to have this done with.”

“What the hell do you want?” Gabriel snarled.

“Nothing to do with you, my young friend,” Mogul said kindly. “Take a seat, son, you look half-dead.”

“He, uh, claims to be the leader of the Black Wreath,” Marjorie said helpfully.

“He is,” Tellwyrn snapped. “Iris, don’t even think about it. I can still hear you thinking about it; desist. And you.” She whipped a golden saber out of nowhere and pointed it at Mogul. “Answer the paladin’s question, and pray you answer it well enough to satisfy me.”

“My apologies for interrupting what seems a very interesting conversation,” Mogul said, pulling his left hand from behind his back; it was holding a large bag which appeared to be made from lizard skin, and was squirming faintly. “Truthfully I want nothing here at all, but I was directed to deliver this to Schkhurrankh, here. I want you to know, Professor, I thought very seriously about just chucking it into a hellgate, rather than pluck your strings any further, to say nothing of being reduced my own self to the status of delivery boy. But getting mail from across two dimensional bridges is a thing entirely without precedent. It seemed to me there’d be more trouble than any of us needs if it failed to arrive.”

He tossed the packaged in Scorn’s direction, prompting both Iris and Maureen to dive out of the way, and Szith to draw her sword. Scorn caught it, though, staring.

“What is this?” she demanded.

He shrugged. “I didn’t open it. Unless I was deceived, it’s apparently from your mother.”

“What?” several people chorused incredulously.

Scorn was already ripping open the top of the package, and in the next moment further conversation was stifled by her squeal. None of them had ever heard her squeal before; the sound was distinctly terrifying. She thrust one hand into the bag and pulled out a charred wedge of some black, sticky substance which smoked faintly. “Cookies! My favorite!” As they all stared in horror, the “cookie” sprouted three misshapen insectile legs, which waved languidly. She thrust it at Iris, who clapped a hand over her mouth, not quite stifling a retch. “Here, try!”

“We simply could not,” Szith said quickly. “Those are a gift from a mother to a daughter far from home. It would be very wrong for anyone else to partake.”

“So very, very wrong,” Gabriel agreed.

“You.” Tellwyrn pointed at Mogul, who had started to turn back toward the door. “You can get things from the Rhaazke dimension. Can you get me some hellhound breath?”

He coughed. “Uh, Professor… That is expressly forbidden by the Lady. Also, consider how many months it took for this to get through after we sent word to Scorn’s mother in the first place—and it seems she is quite highly placed down there. She’d have to be, to make this happen. Not to mention, or mention again as I said it in the first place, that nothing like this has ever happened before. No, I am genuinely sorry to have to say it, but I cannot get you hellhound breath.”

Scorn was already munching her second treat, and avidly reading from the next object she’d taken from the bag: a scroll of pale leather, covered with cramped, spidery script in blue ink.

“And on top of everything else,” the Hand whispered, “open traffic with the Black Wreath. I’m afraid you leave me no choice, Tellwyrn. As of this moment, this University and all its holdings are—”

“Boy, you picked the wrong day,” the archmage announced, pointing a finger at him.

The pop which resounded was louder than her usual teleportation, and accompanied this time by a visible blue sparkle of arcane magic. The Hand vanished.

“What did you do?” Gabriel screeched. “That was a Hand of the Emperor! Where is he?!”

“Suffering,” Tellwyrn stated, turning back to Mogul. “You made me an offer some time ago, Mogul. Is it still good?”

Slowly, the warlock nodded. “I didn’t place a time limit on it, as I’m sure you recall. Something I can do for you, Professor?”

“Maybe. It remains to be seen.” She stepped aside, gesturing at the still form of Ravana. “You’re here…have a look. Tell me whatever you can about this.”


Kapa’a set down his fishing pole at the first hum of magic over the stone dais which stood on the shore. This was why he always came here to fish, though it wasn’t the best fishing spot by far; he so loved being there to greet the new arrivals when they came.

Blue magic flashed along the grooves carved into the dais, and with a soft retort of displaced air, a man appeared. He was of average height and middle age, balding and with craggy features, dressed all in black completely with a long coat. That would have to go, or he’d never survive in this climate. Like they all did immediately upon arriving, he spun, gaping this way and that in shock.

Kapa’a stood upon his rock, threw his arms wide, and bellowed the traditional greeting.

“Welcome, hapless traveler! Welcome, to the Dread Kingdom of Suffering!”

The new arrival stared at him in silence for a long moment, taking in his bare chest, broad grin, and fishing pole, then turned more slowly, studying his new surroundings in detail.

They were on the seashore, serenaded by the sound of waves and the calling of gulls. It was mid-morning, delightfully warm but not yet hot. White sands stretched away to either side, and the ocean to all horizons to the east and south; half a mile out to sea, the towering sentinel rocks stood, carved with massive runes whose blue glow was barely visible in the cloudless sunlight. Northwest, the land steadily climbed to the green-clad mountain, growing ever steeper until its very peak. Greenery rose all the way to the top, now; it had been a good number of years since the volcano had so much as grumbled.

The very air smelled of flowers.

“Where?” the new arrival demanded finally.

“The Dread Kingdom of Suffering!” Kapa’a boomed, feeling his delighted grin widen. “Land of despair and torment, ruled over by its most terrible and malignant queen, her Despicable Majesty Arachne Tellwyrn!” He finally lowered his arms, and laughed aloud. “Didn’t know she was the monarch of a sovereign nation, didja? It’s a surprise to everybody.”

The man gaped at him.

“Yeah, it’ll take some getting used to, friend, but don’t worry! You’re in good hands.” He hopped down from his rock, wading easily through the surf back toward the shoreline. “C’mon down from there—head for the steps on that side, if you don’t wanna get your clothes wet. And you really might want to lose the coat. Take your time, friend, there’s no rush! I’ll show you ’round!”


“The sea provides fish,” Kapa’a explained some time later, leading his flummoxed new neighbor slowly up the winding path through the village. They had already been effusively greeted by the other inhabitants; the man in black now wore several necklaces of flowers draped around his shoulders and chest, placed there by smiling girls, but after the initial excitement they had withdrawn to let the newcomer adjust in peace; they were accustomed to the routine by now. He seemed to be less disconcerted than many upon their first arrival. “On the island itself, there are deer, wild pigs, and fowl, plenty of each for everybody! Lots of fruit trees, too. Plus, we have gardens for whatever doesn’t grow wild.” He stooped without pausing and scooped up a handful of dirt from the side of the path, letting it trail through his fingers. “Volcanic soil. There’s basically nothing we can’t grow. There are two seasons in Suffering: pleasantly warm and dry, and pleasantly warm and rainy. We have no wars, no native diseases and very skilled healers to deal with whatever the guests bring. Not everybody even needs a job, the land provides so well. My friend, you have arrived in paradise itself!”

“You picked an odd name for it,” said the man, who had yet to offer his own name.

Kapa’a didn’t prompt him, simply answering with a grin. “Ah, and there you come to it. For the longest time, the only problem we faced, here, was people who wanted to come take this place from us. Oh, and the mountain exploding; that happened from time to time. The Lady takes care of all that, now. The name was her idea; the Dread Kingdom of Suffering is protected behind the sentinel stones, which keep us…apart from the world. Only one ship ever comes here, with her blessing, piloted by the Ferryman of Eternal Night, Karen.”

The man in black stopped, frowning at him. “Did you say Charon?”

“Karen,” Kapa’a enunciated. “Sweet girl, you’ll like her. She’s a weird sort of critter, though; some kind of fairy. I think she used to be a dryad. Oh, we have one of those, too! Coconut lives up there on the mountain. We pretend to think she’s a goddess and send her offerings; when she gets bored, she’ll come down to one of the villages and pretend to answer prayers, and they hold a feast in her honor. It’s all in good fun.”

“You said there’s a ship?” the man in black said impatiently.

“Yes, Karen’s ferry,” Kapa’a nodded, setting off again. The new arrival followed after a moment. “The only vessel which can travel between the worlds. Or…across the shield, or however it works, I dunno from magic. And the only coin Karen takes is memory. I’m afraid that means all your memories of your time in the Dread Kingdom are lost when you return…except its name. You must go back with only the knowledge that you spent time in the Kingdom of Suffering. There ferry’s due in a few weeks! In the meantime, hunt, fish, play around with the neighbors! Tonight, we’ll hold a feast in your honor! Well, honestly, we would probably have held a feast anyway; we do most nights. But it’s so much better when there’s a reason, don’t you think?”

“Weeks?” the man said plaintively. “I am a Hand of the Emperor—I must return home immediately!”

Kapa’a raised his eyebrows. “Friend, the ferry comes twice a year. If you’re in a hurry, you’re in great luck. A few weeks is nothing. And who knows? You may decide not to go back at all! Quite a few don’t.”

The Hand snarled savagely and kicked at an inoffensive clump of grass, which Kapa’a watched without judgment. He had observed far worse tantrums from new arrivals. “This is intolerable! I’ll see that horrible witch strangled, so help me!”

“You can always leave her a strongly worded note,” Kapa’a suggested, pointing. The Hand followed his arm, which directed his gaze up the hill to a half-collapsed ruin of a house, choked by weeds and surrounded by orange trees. “That’s her place over there.”

The newcomer stared. “…you’re joking.”

“Truthfully we’d like to tidy up a bit,” Kapa’a explained, “but the Lady hates it when people mess with her things. So…there it is. I really would leave it alone if I were you, though. The last fellow who went in there ended up with a broken leg.”

“Booby-trapped her own home.” The Hand sneered disdainfully. “Typical.”

“Oh, nothing like that,” Kapa’a said lightly. “The floor’s rotten. He fell right through.”

“What does she get from all this?” the Hand demanded. “The magic you’re describing, keeping a whole island nation physically isolated from the world… It’s not unprecedented, but the scale and the complexity are staggering! Does she do all this just to have a private vacation spot?”

“Nah,” Kapa’a said cheerfully, waving away the thought. “She just likes having a handy place where she can send people and be sure she won’t have to deal with ’em again for up to six months.”

The Hand stared at him.

“Are you telling me,” he said slowly, “that woman worked one of the largest and most elaborate enchantments known to man, upended the history and culture of an entire nation—”

“Did us a huge favor, really, especially the part where she hardly ever shows up. We don’t need any kings or lords in Suffering; the chiefs take care of what needs taking care of. And not much of that. Mostly, everybody minds their own business.”

“And all this,” the Hand said shrilly, “just so she could inconvenience people who annoy her?!”

Solemnly, Kapa’a reached out to lay a hand on his shoulder. “Friend…clearly, you met the lady. Tell me, which part of that surprises you?”

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12 – 4

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Tellwyrn came in through the door. She had been spoken to about teleporting in and out of the infirmary, and while she adamantly maintained her authority over the campus in general, her policy was to accept Miss Sunrunner’s dictates with regard to the management of her little domain. That practice had served them both well, as it had the student body (and their various frequently injured student bodies), so it stood unchallenged. Thus, despite the urgency with which she had been summoned, she now came striding through the infirmary’s entrance.

“All right, what have we got?” she barked.

Miss Sunrunner gave her a flat look. “Lower your voice, Arachne. I have told you not to shout in here; recuperating patients require a calm atmosphere.”

“Taowi, there is no one else here, except the patient who won’t wake up.”

“It’s the principle of—”

“We can rehash this argument yet again at a less urgent time,” Tellwyrn snapped. “Now what is going on?”

She turned an expressive look on Professor Yornhaldt, who stood to one side of Chase’s bed, watching. He nodded to her in greeting, then pointedly directed his attention to the campus healer, yielding the floor.

“You already know the salient points,” Miss Sunrunner said, folding her hands and gliding back over to join Yornhaldt at the bedside. Chase was stretched out, uncovered, and looking actually rather peaceful. “We cannot awaken him. He is uninjured, and there is no trace of either alchemical or mundane poison in his system. Undetectable agents can’t be ruled out, obviously, but as you know we’re equipped to detect things most hospitals are not. Altogether, Chase is in the same generally good health as always. He simply will not wake up. The sleep itself appears quite natural, aside from the fact that we cannot bring him out of it.”

“Mm,” Tellwyrn said noncommittally, studying Chase through her spectacles. “I gather you’re here to expand the battery of tests being run, Alaric.”

“Indeed, I can check for a few things Taowi can’t,” Yornhaldt replied, nodding apologetically at Miss Sunrunner. “And based on the examinations I have done, I’m reasonably sure he has been cursed.”

Tellwyrn shot the healer a look. “That’s what you call generally good health?”

“In point of fact,” Sunrunner said with muted asperity, “that is exactly the issue. What we have detected is that Chase’s body is in a state of suspension. It is far too early to have observed the effects naturally, which is why I asked Alaric to come and examine him magically, but we have determined that he has the standard protections. He will not require food or water while in this state, nor experience any muscular or skeletal atrophy from lack of exercise. He is in generally good health, in short, and will remain that way until we work out how to awaken him.”

“This is where it begins to worry me,” Yornhaldt said seriously. “You know very well that suspended animation is a standard feature of sleeping curses and has been…well, longer than you’ve been alive, even. The troubling thing is that this is the only indication we have of what has befallen him. I can detect no curse at all. No trace of one. Arachne, the state of his body shows that magic has to be acting upon it in a powerful way, but I cannot find any magic.”

“We had hoped,” Miss Sunrunner said in a softer tone, “that you would be able to discern something we have missed. Failing that, I can also have Admestus do some tests, but…alchemical procedures are necessarily more invasive than scrying, and in any case, Arachne, I trust your judgment substantially more.”

Tellwyrn looked at her, then at Yornhaldt, then sighed softly and turned her gaze back to the patient, peering through the lenses of her glasses. After a moment, she reached up to hold one side of the golden frame between her thumb and forefinger, narrowing her eyes.

“…you’re right,” she murmured at last. “Nothing. Not a thing. He could just be asleep. There’s no magic there.”

Miss Sunrunner tilted her head to one side. “Can those detect the suspended animation?”

“No, they see magic. I assume you were scrying for specific cellular activities, Alaric?”

“Exactly,” he said, nodding. “But I see no harm in you double-checking…”

Tellwyrn waved a hand impatiently, shaking her head. “In all the years I’ve known you, I’ve observed two things: you don’t make pronouncements unless you’re sure, and you’re never sure unless you’re right. I’m quite comfortable taking your word for it, Alaric. So that leaves…this exciting dilemma.”

Yornhaldt drew in a deep breath, his blocky frame swelling till it seemed to strain his tweed jacket. “Well, I shall point out the oliphaunt in the room if no one else will. We all know that magic concealed from detection is Black Wreath craft.”

Still frowning down at Chase, Tellwyrn shook her head slowly. “The Wreath didn’t do this.”

“How can you be sure?”

“For one thing,” she said, “I know how their evasion tricks work. I’m sure they have some I don’t know, but I’m familiar enough with the others to spot the patterns. Not that I can reliably catch them in the wild if I’m not paying attention, but with a comatose subject and the luxury of time to study him? No, if the Wreath had cursed him with Elilial’s gift, I’d be able to see that. And magic aside, Embras Mogul is too intelligent and self-interested to make himself my personal chew toy by attacking one of my students. Moreover, Elilial specifically promised me, in person, that she would not harm the kids.”

“You trust a promise from the demon-wrangling goddess of cunning?” Sunrunner said skeptically.

“I do,” Tellwyrn said softly, nodding. “Elilial is sneaky; she isn’t a liar. The really, really good deceivers often aren’t. And she doesn’t want me for a devoted enemy, either. Even if I were wrong about that, this is not her pattern. She’s more careful about bystanders than some of the Pantheon gods; I’ve never actually known her to target innocents in order to provoke someone.”

“Magic aside, then,” Yornhaldt said gravely. “The reason my mind sprang directly to the Wreath, aside from the obvious, was that there is one person on this campus whom they wish to annoy possibly even less than yourself, Arachne. Or there was, until yesterday. Literally as soon as Kaisa departed, this happened. It’s a coincidence I cannot make myself credit.”

Tellwyrn heaved a slow sigh, finally lifting her eyes to his. “Yes, I thought of that, too. But my points stand; Elilial has no reason to provoke me this way, and her cult has far too much to lose and nothing at all to gain by it. Plus, as I said, I think I could detect it if this were their handiwork—but that is due to my specific familiarity with their handiwork. It’s easier for me to believe that someone else out there found a way to conceal magic from me than that it’s them.”

“The prospects become more horrifying the longer I dwell on them,” Yornhaldt muttered. “Who in the world can work spellcraft that sophisticated? The Empire, the Church, the College of Salyrene, the Wizard’s Guild? No one I can imagine would wish to antagonize you this way…”

“Unless I misremember,” Sunrunner said archly, “one entity on that short list has already deliberately antagonized her, for no discernible reason beyond curiosity as to what would happen.”

“This is pointless,” Tellwyrn said curtly. “We do not have enough data to begin pointing fingers; we will collect evidence before forming theories, not the other way round. Taowi, is it possible he did this to himself?”

“I did think of that,” the healer said. “It’s Chase, after all. Maureen said they found him sitting against a wall, in a stable position; while it’s not impossible to fall into that pose, it more suggests someone put him there. If he did it to himself, I would assume it to have been an accident, as not even Chase Masterson would have any reason to do something as utterly daft as deliberately curse himself to sleep. He can’t enjoy any of the things he lives for in this condition. Anyhow, if he were to do such a thing, why on a random path in the middle of campus? Anything might have happened to him. Many of his classmates owe him a few pranks.”

“Not to mention,” Yornhaldt said with a sigh, “the boy barely has the magical aptitude to get through my classes. He’s not one I’d expect to pull out a brand-new sleeping curse from beyond the cutting edge.”

“So,” Tellwyrn mused, “the only one who knows what happened to Chase is Chase. We shall simply have to ask him.”

“Arachne, I have no idea how long it will take to fix this,” Yornhaldt said seriously. “For all our investigations thus far, I cannot even claim to have truly begun. We can’t even detect the curse; removing it could potentially be a major undertaking.”

“If you go about it the scientific way, yes,” she said flatly, folding her arms and giving him a challenging look. “Alaric, what do I usually do when something intractably complex stands in my way?”


The tiny, jewel-like bottle looked out of place affixed to the rest of the contraption; little larger than a bean, it was cut in facets like a diamond, seemingly empty. Professor Rafe screwed its stoppered end into the apparatus attached to Chase’s face with the utmost care. Aside from the nozzle holding the bottle in place, and the gadgetry contained within that which would remove the stopper without breaking the airtight seal, it was just a contoured suction cup that fit over the patient’s mouth, leaving his nose free.

“I’m impressed, Admestus,” Yornhaldt commented. “I’ve never actually seen a bottle of anything that size, and yet you had a device right on hand which fit its mouth perfectly.”

“Oh, this actually wasn’t designed for this bottle,” Rafe said cheerily. “I just slapped this thing together out of bits and bobs I had lying about. Really, though, it’s a simple enough gadget; every bit of what it does is all part and parcel of working with gaseous reagents. The nozzle there was meant to be attached to rubber tubing—actually, I’ve wedged a ring of the stuff in the opening to tighten its grip on the bottle. Be a pal and check my seals? I’ve already done it myself, but I don’t want to pop the cork until you’ve triple-verified we don’t have any leaks. There is a very tiny amount of hellhound breath in that bottle and pretty much no earthly way of getting more.”

“Agreed,” Yornhaldt rumbled, gesticulating with one of his thick fingers. A cerulean spell circle flared into being directly below Chase’s head, then slowly drifted up through it, flickering out once it passed above the little bottle of hellhound breath. “Clear. No air or other gases escaping from the device.”

“You had a spell on hand to do that?” Sunrunner asked, impressed. “I expected a more elaborate casting, like you had to do previously.”

“It isn’t every day I have to scry for activity on the cellular level,” Yornhaldt explained. “Checking anomalous air currents is a common enough need in several forms of spellcasting. The wrong breath of wind can mess up…well, that’s not important right now,” he added, glancing at Tellwyrn’s expression.

“Are we ready, then?” she demanded, frowning at Rafe.

“Yeah,” he said, straightening up and turning to her with an uncharacteristically even look. “Good to go on your command. Before we do that, though, let me just point out that if what happened to Chase is as mysterious as you all say, there’s nothing to suggest it won’t happen again. This could be a one-off event, or we may soon have other students coming in under undetectable sleeping curses. Are you sure you want to do this now? Or maybe reserve this, the only sample of foolproof anti-sleep gas which is worth more than the land this campus is built on and can’t be replaced, for a future victim who’s generally less of a butthole?”

“Admestus,” Tellwyrn stated, staring at him over the rims of her glasses, “you are already on my short list right now.”

Rafe shrugged, turning back to the patient. “Yes, fine. I’m not saying anything everyone in the room wasn’t thinking. I just wanted it out in the air so you all know you’re not the only ones thinking it, and the idea isn’t without merit. But, you’re the boss.”

So saying, he took a careful grip on the apparatus sealed to Chase’s mouth and twisted the screw attached to its nozzle.

There was no hissing or any other sound; there just wasn’t enough gas involved to make one. Rafe removed his hands, and they all stared down at the still-sleeping patient.

“Oh, dear,” Yornhaldt murmured, squeezing his hands together. “It’s possible there just wasn’t enough—”

Chase shot upright with a protracted gasp, his eyes snapping open. He quickly began coughing and retching, the sound muffled until he succeeded in wrenching the suction cup off his face with a wet pop.

“Oh—ack. Ew. What the fuck? Why do I taste like I’ve been snogging Scorn?”

“How do you feel?” Miss Sunrunner asked gently, leaning forward to place a hand on his shoulder.

Chase blinked twice, turning to her. “Uh… Well, what most springs to mind is the snogging Scorn thing. Seriously, it’s like a mouthful of sulfur.”

“You were under some kind of sleeping spell, boyo,” Rafe said brightly. “We had to pump you full of hellhound breath.”

Chase blinked again, then his eyes widened. “Whoah, what—wait a second, now. I did not authorize that! I refuse to be held financially liable for— I mean, holy shit, man, why would you waste that stuff on me? Really, this ever happens again you’ve got my permission to just chuck my ass in a ditch, much more cost effective. Need me to sign something?”

“Chase.” Tellwyrn’s voice was not raised, but her tone was firm enough to immediately command his attention. “What happened?”

He licked his lips, staring at her, then grimaced. “Okay, uh…look, it was just a figure of speech. I assume Scorn would taste like brimstone. I’ve never actually snogged her. Not that I wouldn’t give my left nut to try that at least once, but I’m pretty sure she’d literally eat my face. I have it on good authority that most other women do not go for a half-eaten face.”

Tellwyrn blew out her breath in a sigh that was half-growl. “Young man, my patience today is even less generous than usual. We need to know what you remember most recently. You were found propped against a wall below the quad. How did you get cursed? Did someone attack you?”

Chase blinked twice more, then suddenly leaned forward with an animated expression. “Oh—oh, yeah! Man, there were dozens of them, I think they were demons. I gave ’em hell, you better believe that, but one of the cowardly bastards snuck behind me—”

“Chase.” Tellwyrn leaned forward, staring balefully at him from barely a foot away. “This. Is not. The time.”

He met her gaze for a long moment, looking suddenly a little alarmed, then dropped his eyes. “I…sorry, Professor. I don’t know. I, uh, actually was sitting down by the wall, I remember going there myself. I like to be alone with my thoughts—” He glanced up at her and broke off, managing a weak half-grin. “Okay, fine, it’s a great spot to hide and jump out at people. I was that bored, yes. Anyway, I remember sitting there…” He stared at the far wall, frowning in concentration. “…I don’t remember falling asleep. I think someone…walked up to me? Yeah, someone did. A shadow fell across me from behind, and I was annoyed cos they came from the wrong angle for me to surprise ’em. That’s…” He shook his head. “Man, I’ve got nothing past that. I wouldn’t swear it’s the last thing that happened. It’s kinda like falling asleep naturally, y’know? I don’t remember it specifically happening. That’s just the last distinct impression I had of anything.”

Tellwyrn straightened up, letting out a much softer sigh, and exchanged a worried glance with Yornhaldt and Sunrunner.

“So,” said Rafe, “correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this pretty much the worst case scenario? He knows nothing, we’ve blown our only stock of the one damn thing that can cure this, and with it cured now we don’t even have anything to examine.”

“Uh, what’s the big deal?” Chase asked, looking around at them. “So some joker zapped me with a sleeping charm. We learned to do those in your class, Professor Yornhaldt.”

“Alaric, you didn’t,” Tellwyrn said in exasperation.

Yornhaldt gave her a long-suffering look. “You know I like to show them a few fun spells every semester. It’s the lion’s share of what keeps the non-magic majors interested, Arachne. Those of us who don’t terrify our students have to think of these things. Anyway, no, I just show them the standard, extremely basic sleep charm. As you well know, it’s easily detectable, blockable, breakable, and even if one hasn’t the opportunity to do any of that doesn’t last but ten minutes.”

“Uhhh.” Again, Chase panned an inquisitive stare around at them. “What’s going on? Is there something I should be worried about?”

“Are we keeping it from him?” Rafe asked, scratching his head. “Cos, y’know, the boy pretty much knows something’s up. I mean, I can bash him over the noggin with a bedpan, see if that erases his memories—”

“Admestus,” Sunrunner said very evenly, “what have I told you concerning what is and is not appropriate joking matter in my infirmary?”

“I really couldn’t say, Taowi my dear,” Rafe simpered. “I just get so distracted gazing into your pretty eyes—”

“Shut up, Admestus,” Tellwyrn snapped. “No, I don’t see any benefit in keeping secrets. We don’t know what happened to you, Chase; it was some kind of sleeping curse, and it baffled even the collected expertise you see standing before you. So yes, this is potentially serious.”

Chase stared at her uncomprehendingly for a moment, then frowned. “Huh. That’s interesting. Who the hell would wanna do something like that? I mean, I don’t think I’ve pissed off anyone important…”

“He’s got a point,” Rafe agreed. “Trissiny’s off-campus this semester, and anyway, I’m like eighty percent sure she was just letting off steam. I can’t see her actually beheading him.”

“Just for the record, she did try to do that to someone her first week,” Chase said helpfully, “but anyhow I should clarify: I don’t think I’ve pissed off anyone important who could do that kind of advanced magic. Also, holy shit, anybody doing that on this campus is pretty much asking to get transmogrified into a grease stain, right?”

Tellwyrn sighed. “Sounds like you’re up to speed. For now, Chase—”

She broke off abruptly, turning to face the door. Sunrunner did the same; both elves frowned in apparent consternation.

“Yeeesss?” Chase prompted after a moment. “For now, Chase, what? You can forget about homework for the week? We’re taking you out back and putting you down? I’m on tenterhooks, here.”

The infirmary door burst open, and a senior arcane studies major named Laria backed inside. Once into the room, she stepped aside and turned, revealing both her worried expression and the prone body of the classmate she was levitating along behind her.

Natchua lay face-up in midair, her arms hanging limply, as were her legs below the knee. Her green-dyed mohawk sagged in that position like the fronds of a thirsty plant. As soon as she cleared the doorway, Hildred squeezed in behind her, looking nearly distraught.

“Miss Sunrunner!” the dwarf cried. “Please—we can’t figure out what’s wrong. She won’t wake up!”


Calming and getting rid of Laria, Hildred, and Chase had taken a few minutes, during which Miss Sunrunner swiftly examined Natchua. By the time they had again cleared the infirmary of students, she was able to report, grim-faced, that the drow’s case appeared identical to Chase’s.

“I realize you’re gonna hex me for saying I told you so,” Rafe informed Tellwyrn, “so let me just take a moment to emphasize that I don’t care, because I damn well did and now look.”

“This is extremely rapid,” Yornhaldt rumbled. “Two in the space of one afternoon. If it continues at this pace, we’ll be out of students in a matter of weeks.”

“I do not want to hear that kind of talk again,” Tellwyrn said firmly. “No accusations, no doomsaying, no whining. What we’re going to have is action. Taowi, Alaric, and I will examine Natchua as intensively as we can while we’re waiting for the more reliable cure to be replenished. In fact, I’m going to bring this to the attention of the rest of the faculty; I want anyone who has even a glimmer of an idea to have a go at this. They can’t possibly make it worse, and anyone might find something we missed.”

“Um.” Rafe held up a hand. “Waiting for the reliable cure to be replenished? Arachne, the reliable cure is hellhound breath. You cannot get that stuff on this plane of existence.”

“You can, it’s just prohibitively hard,” she said patiently, “and less hard for those of us standing here than probably anyone else on the planet. Un-panic yourself and think, Admestus, you know the answer, here. There are two hellhounds on Level 2 in the Crawl. I want you to gather up whatever equipment you need, then haul ass down there and harvest as much of the stuff as you can get.”

Yornhaldt cleared his throat. “You have specifically forbidden that as a condition of allowing Melaxyna to keep them, Arachne…”

“Because,” Tellwyrn snapped, “hellhound breath is illegal and dangerous, and sufficiently rare that if it gets out we have any, even my reputation won’t stop necromancers and other undesirables from coming here after it. For that reason, this needs to be done as discreetly as possible. Admestus, take Emilio down there with you for backup, and as much as possible, prevent it getting out what’s going on.”

“You know that won’t work for long, Arachne,” Rafe said seriously. “Not with the student body we have.”

“Yes, I know it all too well,” she said with a sigh, glancing over at Natchua. “But the need is too great right now to pass up the opportunity.”

“Arachne.” At Yornhaldt’s tone, they all turned to look at him. “On the subject of secrets… You have to know what’s going on here. You said we have students to whom Elilial gave untold demonic knowledge. We have never figured out who opened the hellgate. This started virtually the instant our predatory arch-fairy departed the campus. It’s too perfect.”

“It could be any of the students,” Sunrunner whispered.

Tellwyrn shook her head. “The current freshmen weren’t here then. The current sophomores are not suspects. That group is too close-knit, half of them are light-wielders, none of them are the particular kind of daft that would be trying to summon demons in the Crawl, and they stayed to throw themselves at the hellgate in defiance of all orders. No…it could be any of the upper half of the student body.”

“Gotta say, that is less of a comfort than it probably sounded like in your head,” Rafe informed her. “That’s a good fifty young’uns with generally more personality than sense.”

“I did not intend it to be comforting,” Tellwyrn shot back. “We cannot afford to be comfortable or complacent right now. It’s not going to be long before it becomes known what’s happening, and it won’t be long after that before suspicion starts making people crazy. We are under an unforgiving timetable, here, people. I will not have a witchhunt on my campus.”

“A witchhunt is not something you can end by declaring it so,” Yornhaldt said.

“Precisely,” she agreed, “which is exactly why we need to get in front of this and head it off now.” Tellwyrn paused, chewing her lower lip for a moment. “And this time, I’m afraid we’re going to need help.”

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10 – 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, that’s what you always say.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Arachne!” he exclaimed in exasperation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, Alaric,” Tellwyrn said dryly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

“Barely,” Trissiny murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And yet…” Ruda grinned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I being am calm!”

“Then why are you shouting?”

“I NOT ARE SHOUTING!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmm.”


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um,” the Master Harper prompted.

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

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

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

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

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

A hand grabbed Tellwyrn’s wrist from behind.

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

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

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

“WOULD. YOU. PLEASE. NOT?!”

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

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

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

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

“Oh my gods!”

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

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

Tellwyrn turned to stare at her. “What.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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7 – 3

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

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

“What is it, Ms. Sunrunner?”

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

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

“Mine?” Trissiny raised her eyebrows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tellwyrn nodded. “What did you find?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s a hissy-lisk?” Tanq asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She is not,” Trissiny said firmly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Seven?” Toby said sharply.

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

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

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

“Now, hold on,” Toby protested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trissiny sighed. “All right.”

“What?” Toby exclaimed. “Triss—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone turned to stare at her.

“What?” Gabriel said finally.

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

“Natchua hates us,” Gabriel protested.

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

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

“In bed?” Ruda said resignedly.

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

“Later,” Ruda said firmly.

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

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

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

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

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

“On second thought, ignorance is bliss.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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7 – 1

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“She’s evil!”

“Mm.”

“She’s a maniac!”

“Eh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was impossible!” Gabriel complained.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop! No blessings!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gnagrethyct attack,” Tellwyrn said tersely.

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

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

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

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

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

“Seven,” Teal interrupted.

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

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

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

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

“Taowi, how is she?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Professor?” she said uncertainly.

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

“I, uh… What don’t I know?”

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

“What are we talking about?” Teal demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just spit it out!” Teal snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1 – 11

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“A black-haired elf?”

Trissiny studied the necklace lying in her palm as she walked; it was not hard to identify, and not merely because Avei’s eagle symbol had been an omnipresent part of her life since birth. She distinctly remembered the pushy elf who had tried to give her this item right as she stepped off the caravan into Last Rock.

“Yeah,” said Teal, walking along beside her. She had stuck her hands in the pockets of her coat immediately after giving Trissiny the necklace, as though glad to be rid of it and worried it would be handed back. “She’s a waitress at the saloon in town, said she moonlights as an enchanter. Um, I’m blanking on the name…it was one of those polysyllabic elvish monikers.”

“Principia,” Shaeine supplied from Teal’s other side. “And I believe it is actually Old Tanglish. It comes from no branch of elvish with which I am familiar.”

“Sorry,” Teal said with a wince. Shaeine touched her lightly on the shoulder, earning a smile in return.

“I remember her.” Trissiny carefully tucked the necklace into one of her belt pouches. She’d put it away somewhere when they were back at the tower; she did not wear jewelry. “She tried to give me this the other day when I first got to town. The hair is distinctive.”

Shaeine and Teal exchanged a glance. “Really?” said the bard. “Because she seemed to have trouble remembering your name.”

“She knew my name well enough when we met in person,” Trissiny said slowly.

“A small deception,” said Shaeine, “merely an attempt to underplay the degree of her interest in you to avoid raising our concern. A person of upright motives has no need for such tricks. It might be prudent to have that item examined by someone schooled in enchantment.”

“I think you’re right.” The necklace suddenly seemed to weigh more heavily at her belt. “Thanks, Teal, Shaeine.”

“I’d have brought it up last night, but we got back lateish. Your door was closed.”

“No worries, this clearly wasn’t urgent.” Trissiny smiled at her before returning her attention to watching the path, mulling the matter of Principia and the necklace over in her mind.

The freshmen straggled toward their Tuesday morning class in a broken line. Tobias brought up the rear, close enough to have heard their conversation, but he offered no comment; Trissiny resisted the urge to turn back and see if she could read anything from his expression. Ahead of them, Gabriel strolled along between Ruda and Juniper, flirting unabashedly with both. Trissiny was not well-schooled in such interactions, but even she could tell that Ruda was egging him on for her own amusement. The girl was increasingly difficult to like. Juniper…was hard to read. She clearly enjoyed the attention, but at different times she had displayed startling insights into what people were thinking and complete obliviousness to things others found obvious. It wasn’t clear whether Gabe was getting anywhere with her. Fross flittered about excitedly, shooting ahead and then coming back to rejoin them, bobbing impatiently at their slow bipedal pace. She appeared never to stop talking, though the thread of her speech was often inaudible as she wandered out of range.

Ronald Hall was on the second-lowest terrace, just above the library. For whatever reason, it was a battlemented structure clearly modeled after a medieval barracks, flying the University’s banner from each of the four squat towers which stood at each corner. Trissiny felt a wave of mingled comfort and homesickness as they approached; the obviously militaristic style was a reminder of where she came from, though why the alchemic sciences building had such styling was beyond her. Knowing what she did of Professor Tellwyrn, she was willing to believe that a lot of things on this campus had no purpose whatsoever.

She was looking forward to this class. The professor’s name wasn’t on her schedule, but if Rafe had some sort of vendetta against him, he must have at least some redeeming value.

Gabe darted ahead to open the door and hold it for the girls, bowing grandly to each as they passed and receiving a mixture of flirtatious and polite responses; Teal ruffled his hair, while Trissiny glared at him. He winked in response to that, and Toby had to ward off a likely confrontation by gently pushing her into the building.

The Ronald foyer looked appropriate to the exterior of the building and totally unlike the other interiors they’d seen on campus, with well-trodden wood floors and stone walls decorated by weapons and shields, all of which had clearly seen active duty. Directly across from the entrance was the main auditorium; a note beside the doors informed them that this was where the freshmen Introduction to Alchemy class would be held. They proceeded in the same order in which they’d entered, except with Gabriel in the rear this time, but quickly became bottlenecked in the door.

Juniper and Fross wandered right in, seeing nothing amiss, but Ruda stopped in the doorway, gaping; Trissiny did the same beside her.

“Is there a problem?” Teal finally asked. Wordlessly, they parted, allowing the others to enter.

This room looked more academic in design and out of place in the roughness of Ronald Hall. Much like Tellwyrn’s history classroom, rows of desks descended toward a dais at the bottom level opposite their entrance, accessed by doors on either end. Various alchemy paraphernalia was scattered about this and along the edges of the auditorium, though nobody gave it more than a cursory glance. Everyone was staring at the mural. It covered the entire huge wall behind the dais.

After nearly a full minute of silent contemplation, Teal finally spoke. “Is everyone else seeing what I’m seeing?”

Shaeine descended the steps gracefully to study the vast painting up close. “It appears to depict Professor Rafe.” She tilted her head slowly. “…shirtless, playing a lute and kicking a rearing dragon between the legs. Framed by lightning bolts. This is very good work; the brush strokes are exquisitely precise.”

“I think dragons are bigger than that,” Teal said weakly.

“Also,” added Shaeine with the same unflappable calm, “they don’t keep their genitalia in the same place as bipeds. I suspect this depicts an entirely fictional scene.”

Gabriel snorted. “You think?”

“I thought Professor Rafe hated the guy who teaches this class,” said Ruda, idly sipping from a bottle of vodka.

“Maybe he snuck in here to prank the classroom,” said Toby.

“The effort involved would have been extraordinary,” Shaeine replied, returning to the group. “As I said, though the subject matter is trite and the composition uninspired, the mural is a masterpiece in terms of technique. It would have taken considerable time and effort—”

She was interrupted by one of the lower doors flying open with such force that it rebounded off the opposite wall, its inset glass panel shattering. Professor Rafe himself burst onto the dais, flinging an arm outward melodramatically.

“BEHOLD!”

“You’ve gotta be shitting me,” said Gabriel.

Fross almost fell out of the air in shock. “I have to what?”

Fortunately, Rafe missed this exchange, having turned to regard the damage caused by his entrance. “Oh…bugger. That’s the third door this year. Arachne’s gonna throw me off the astronomy tower again… Ah, well.” With a shrug, he tossed his head, sending his golden hair sailing about, and strode toward the center of the dais. “It’s only to be expected. No mere edifice is up to the task of CONTAINING MY GLORY!” So declaring, he slammed his armful of books down on the lectern and grinned maniacally up at him.

“Dude,” said Gabe, “are you on the shrooms?”

“Doubtless,” Rafe intoned, “you ducklings are curious about yesterday’s encounter in the greenhouse. I have it on good authority that that dastardly oaf Professor Rafe has been filling your head with calumnies and lies about my fitness to hold this post. I think you will find, my children, that it is he and not I whose incompetence and moral turpitude will result in his expulsion from this fine seat of higher learning. It is only a matter of time.”

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Ruda demanded.

“Tell it like it is, Punaji!” he crowed, pumping a fist in the air. “Ten points extra credit! Anyway, it’s quite simple. Academic rivalries are all part of the faculty experience at any fine university. You can’t be taken seriously down in the faculty lounge unless someone else there hates your guts and spends their free time plotting against you. But woe is unto me, for there are none who DARE stand against the magnificence that is Professor Rafe!” He shrugged nonchalantly, beginning to leaf through one of the textbooks he’d deposited on the lectern. “But be not dismayed on my behalf, children! For such is my versatility and vigor that I, in addition to teaching multiple disciplines, am able to serve as my own greatest rival! Thus, you shall soon behold the inevitable triumph of the glorious Professor Rafe over the nefarious and cowardly Professor Rafe!”

“I will say it again,” Ruda repeated, “what the fuck is wrong with you?!”

“All right, that’s enough folderol, kids. Butts in seats; we’re here to learn. Anybody who wants to hear me wax poetical about how awesome I am, my office hours are clearly posted. Now then!” he went on as they trickled into chairs, still staring at him askance, “In this class we will explore the exacting art of alchemy, the wonderful wizardry whereby the simplest of substances become the most magical of mixtures! Alchemy has practical potential that rivals that of conventional magic, but is far more logically organized and has a somewhat lesser chance of accidentally ending the world or teleporting yourself to the moon.

“We shall pursue an aggressive curriculum here! By the end of the quarter I fully expect you to be able to poison each of your classmates, and also to prevent your classmates from doing the same to you. By the way and while we’re on the subject…no spoilers, but…” He leaned forward over the lectern, grinning insanely. “Guess what your semifinal is!”

Trissiny repressed a groan; the rest of her classmates sat in stupefied silence. She really was starting to hate this place.


 

They were still dazed and quiet an hour and a half later. In front of Ronald Hall was a pleasant little garden-like area, a round patch of tallgrass and wildflowers that looked as if it had been lifted directly from the Golden Sea below, ringed by a circular path from which other paths branched of to other parts of the campus. A few benches were placed around the perimeter.

The eight freshmen came to a stop out of sheer lack of momentum, straggling to a halt once they were safely clear of the Hall. Even Fross appeared subdued, fluttering around Juniper’s head. Teal flopped on her back on one of the benches and covered her eyes with an arm.

“How is your stomach?” Shaeine asked solicitously, perching beside her head at the very edge of the bench.

“Better,” the young bard grunted. “Should be fine in a bit. Hopefully.”

Ruda gave up on adjusting her hat and tossed it into the grass, growling. Her hair was still bright blue, but true to Rafe’s word, the color was starting to recede, the roots already returned to her normal lustrous black. “Okay, yesterday I was at least half kiddin’ around. But seriously, now. Are they actually trying to kill us?”

“My theory is this all some kind of test,” said Toby, scratching his enormous beard. According to Rafe, it would fall out overnight. “It would fit with what we’ve seen so far, and what I know of Professor Tellwyrn from…other sources. I don’t think the Unseen University is the kind of place where they ease you in. Hopefully things will calm down once we’ve proved we can handle the pressure.”

“You’re assuming we’ll prove we can handle the pressure,” grumbled Gabriel, flopping down on another bench and cradling his burned hand.

“Is that the same one Ezzaniel made you hit the tree with?” asked Juniper, sitting next to him.

He grunted. “Yeah, about that. Next time a professor orders me to do something retarded, somebody please remind me to pretend I’m left-handed.”

Trissiny seated herself slowly on his other side, frowning in thought. Class had been a whirlwind of “demonstrations,” most of which were interesting and some actually entertaining, but Rafe had certainly not taken it easy on them. Only she and the two fae were free of lingering side effects; they appeared to be naturally resistant to alchemy, and she had flatly refused to participate, going so far as to reach for her blade after Gabriel had tested the “Burn in a Bottle” to demonstrate the properties of faked wounds. Rafe had given her an F for participation and then awarded her sufficient extra credit for defiance that she was now (as he had not hesitated to tell everyone) setting the curve for the class.

“This is too…chaotic,” she said. “Abuse for a purpose is pattered. Rafe is a lunatic and Tellwyrn herself doesn’t seem too stable. This may all be some kind of sick test, but even if so, I think it’s just because the inmates are running the asylum.”

“I’m—and I can’t believe I’m saying it—with Stabby on this one,” said Ruda.

“Thanks,” Trissiny said sourly.

“Got your back, babe.”

“Hang onto your britches, kids, our day’s about to get even better,” said Gabriel. Everyone looked up at him, then followed his gaze.

The drow with the dyed mohawk was striding up the path toward them. Behind her trailed Chase, the blond human boy they’d met the previous day, carrying a stack of books—probably including hers. He appeared to be trying to engage his companion in conversation, but Natchua was visibly fixated on the freshman class, wearing a gleefully intent expression.

Shaeine rose smoothly, gliding forward to place herself at the center of their group; the other drow would have to step between Toby and Fross to reach her. Indeed, Natchua seemed intent on her specifically, but she stopped short of surrounding herself. Chase had trailed off talking as they came within earshot, and was now watching everyone with the eager expression of someone who had bought a ticket for a boxing match.

“Can we not, please?” said Toby. “We’ve just had a rather—”

“Yeah, I bet you’ve had a rather,” Natchua smirked. “First class with Rafe, eh?”

“Second,” he said.

“Ah, then you’ve found out about his multiple academic personality.” She grinned, and he relaxed slightly. Her bearing was still aggressive, but it was a positive sign that she didn’t launch right into threats and insults.

“Is he actually as crazy as he acts?”

“Kid, nobody is as crazy as Admestus Rafe acts. Nobody who can put on their own pants and doesn’t drool when they’re awake. He’s definitely not all there, though. My theory is he tried to play the part of the madman for whatever reason and lost himself in the role somewhere.”

“My theory is Tellwyrn tortures him regularly,” Chase piped up. “Whips, chains, dripping water… Actually, she’s probably got a better setup than that. I wonder if she takes bookings…?”

“You goslings have barely seen the tip of the iceberg,” Natchua said with visible relish, grinning at them all in a way that was startlingly reminiscent of Tellwyrn herself. “Still feeling good about coming to the grand and glorious Unseen University?”

“Is there some reason you need to be a bitch about it?” asked Gabriel. “Do you have a condition or something?”

She actually laughed at him, loudly. “Boy, if anything I’ve said gets under your skin, you won’t last a week here. The professors alone will eat you alive. You, especially.” She turned her wolfish grin directly on Shaeine. “Are you feeling homesick for your fancy manor and army of servants, yet?”

“I would ordinarily not presume to correct any person’s manners in public,” Shaeine replied calmly, “but your lack of decorum reflects poorly on us all.”

“Oh, that’s just priceless. Decorum, she says.” She stepped forward; Toby eased closer himself, but Natchua didn’t move within arm’s reach of Shaeine, though she lowered her voice to a sneering hiss. “Maybe a rich Narisian kid can afford to care about decorum, but you’re not there anymore. The surface is like the Deep Dark, little one. Eat or be eaten.” She snorted, and turned her back. “We can discuss it further if you ever decide to ‘correct’ my manners yourself. As if you’d have the spine.”

“That has already been seen to,” Shaeine said evenly. “I told your mother.”

There came a sharp indrawing of breath, followed by utter silence. Natchua froze; Chase looked like his birthday presents had all arrived early.

Few on the surface world understood Narisian culture in any detail, but it was common knowledge that drow in general were matriarchal. It wasn’t a reach, from there, to conclude that using the M-word was the first step to a fight.

“What,” Natchua said softly, “did you say about my mother?”

“I contacted her,” Shaeine replied, then tilted her head. “Do you truly not recognize me?” Natchua just glared at her, nostrils flaring, and she let out a soft sigh of regret. “I see. That being the case, I am truly sorry for my actions. I would have preferred to stay out of your business, but as your logical next move in protecting your charade would be to contact Tar’naris and cast aspersions on my character to undercut my credibility, I deemed it necessary to report your actions to your House immediately, as a simple matter of self-preservation. If I have done you harm for no reason, I deeply apologize.” She bowed from the waist, which was a mistake; it meant she wasn’t looking when Natchua let out a feral scream and lunged for her.

Somehow, instantly, Trissiny was between them, catching the charging drow’s weight on her shield and throwing her back, hard enough to send her tumbling to the ground, knocking Chase aside in the process. Natchua yelped, having landed hard on her tailbone, and glared pure hatred up at the paladin.

“Don’t,” Trissiny said firmly.

The fallen drow scrabbled awkwardly to her feet, bunching her fists and falling into a combative stance.

“Do not!” Trissiny’s voice cracked like a whip; she gripped the hilt of her sword.

Natchua drew in a long, hissing breath through her teeth, then abruptly spun and dashed away back down the path. Evidently dark elves could move as quickly as their surface-dwelling cousins; she was out of sight in two heartbeats.

“Ohhh, boy,” said Chase, running a hand through his hair. “That isn’t good. You’ve made her back off twice now. In public, no less! Next time she’s gonna go right for somebody’s jugular.” Despite his ominous words, his face beamed with the glee of a child in a toy store.

“How did you get over there so fast?” Gabriel demanded. Seconds before, Trissiny had been sitting beside him on the bench.

“It’s what I do,” she replied, still watching the path down which Natchua had vanished as she slung her shield on her back.

“Let me see if I got this straight,” Chase went on, still grinning madly. “You’re telling me that Natchua the deep dark drow from below is from the same effete, civilized culture that produced you?”

“She is my cousin,” Shaeine said evenly. “Our Houses have been allied for generations. We were never close, and in fact have met only a handful of times, but I am frankly surprised that she failed to recognize me.”

“Ohh, but this is just too…I can’t even…” Chase dragged a hand across his face, as if trying to scrub away that grin. It didn’t work. “This whole act she’s been putting on for the last year… Gods on bicycles, I have no words.”

“I do not presume to understand Natchua’s motivations,” Shaeine said, a hint of sharpness in her voice now, “but the kind and respectful thing a friend would do is leave the matter alone until you know her intentions.”

“Oh, of course, surely.” He bent and gathered up his dropped books; his grin was, if anything, broader now. “If you guys’ll excuse me, I have to go and not tell every single person I know about this.”

Chase strode off, whistling, down the path in a different direction from that which Natchua had taken. The eight freshmen watched in silence till he vanished down a staircase onto the lower level.

“I’m…um…I wanna say ‘confused’ but the word isn’t quite confused-sounding enough,” said Fross.

“So, that guy fits in pretty well around here,” said Gabriel. “By which I mean, he’s a dick.”

“I truly did not intend to cause her grief.” The merest hint of distress was audible in Shaeine’s voice, all the more startling because she was ordinarily so composed.

“You were protecting yourself,” Teal reassured her. “And it sounds like your reasoning was solid. I don’t really know enough about your culture to guess how much trouble this’ll mean for her, but…”

“Potentially a great deal,” said Shaeine. “Her mother will in all likelihood recall her to Tar’naris. What awaits her there will depend upon her House’s traditions, but I cannot imagine it being gentle.”

“Really?” asked Gabriel. “I mean…sure, she’s a mean-spirited little piece, but it doesn’t seem so bad. People go off to college and reinvent themselves. It’s almost expected.”

“The expectations of my people are very different. We have lived for millennia scrounging the barest survival from the rocks of the Underland. Those who will not contribute to the best of their ability are not accorded a share of the resources needed for survival, and those who turn against own are dealt with harshly, of necessity. Such behavior cannot be allowed to spread. To come here, in Imperial territory, and deny association with her House and city…”

“Yeah…I get that it’s rude, at minimum. It’s just, it seems like a pretty harmless sort of rebellion.”

“The concept of adolescent rebellion is fairly unique to human societies, and not all of those,” Shaeine said, a hint of sorrow hanging in her voice. “I gather that a human who disgraces her family is not placed in a spider box.”

There was a moment’s silence.

“Okay,” said Gabriel finally, “I’ll bite. What is a sp—”

“Exactly what it sounds like.”

Trissiny slowly returned and retook her seat next to him, her head swirling with commentary that she was determined not to make. She had put her foot in her mouth plenty of times already. The ways of Shaeine’s people sounded harsh, but if their existence was as grim as all that, perhaps they had their reasons. On the other hand, Tar’naris had become positive verdant since the Imperial treaty. On a third hand, she could manage little sympathy for Natchua. Trissiny had been raised in what amounted to a barracks. She’d never lacked for love and care, but had also never lacked for discipline, and associated the shirking of one’s duties with the worst kind of fundamental weakness of character.

Gabriel was still absently rubbing the reddened burn on his hand. “Here,” she said, reaching over to take it.

“Hm?” He looked up at her in puzzlement, then his eyes widened. “Oh. Wait, don’t—”

She had already clasped his hand between both of hers and concentrated. The warm, familiar glow of the divine grew around her—

A burst of acrid smoke rose from Gabriel’s hand. He shrieked in agony, jerking away from her and tumbling over backward off the bench and incidentally clocking Juniper in the face with his knee on the way down, which didn’t cause the dryad to so much as blink. She, like everyone else, was staring down at Gabriel where he lay, panting and clutching his hand.

“Wh—I don’t…I’m sorry,” Trissiny spluttered. “I was trying to help, that’s never happened before….”

“Move.” Toby brushed past her, and her heart plummeted still further at his curt command. She’d never heard him speak with anything but kindness. He knelt beside Gabriel, gently forcing him to relinquish his grip.

“The hell did you do?” Ruda demanded.

“It was just holy light!” Trissiny exclaimed, near tears. “It’s a simple healing spell!”

“Juniper, do you know any healing?” Toby asked sharply. “Anything non-divine.”

“I, uh… I mean, I’ve never tried. Basic life magic is supposed to heal wounds, though…”

“Could it hurt him?”

“I don’t see how.” She knelt beside them; Toby had coaxed Gabe to a seated position.

Trissiny stared down at them, shocked and confused. Teal had approached and placed a hand on her shoulder; Zaruda was saying something snippy again. She was barely aware of either of them.

The light of the gods healed. There was no reason it should cause pain to anyone. Had she done it wrong? Could she do it wrong? The power wasn’t hers, but channeled directly from Avei. What would have to be wrong with her to make it come out so horribly backward?

All at once, the hints clicked into place in her mind. Tellwyrn had all but spelled it out in class yesterday, but she’d been too obtuse to follow the reasoning through. There was one obvious and simple explanation. There was one type of being always struck down by the power of the divine.

Trissiny grabbed her sword, shaking herself free of Teal, and a glow sprang up along the scabbard before she even pulled it free.

“Demon.”


 

The infirmary was built at the very edge of the plateau; its east wall was the east wall of the University itself, and the tall windows in it opened directly over a nauseating drop. The view was stunning, though.

It was a long room, wide enough to hold a row of beds along each wall with an ample aisle between them. The beds and nightstands were clearly handmade, elaborately carved of a strangely glossy, whitish-yellow wood that Trissiny only realized after careful examination was actually bone. Dreamcatchers hung over the head of each bed, every one unique, and on a long counter on the far wall were a number of elven ritual tools that she could recognize from illustrations, but did not know the purpose of.

The infirmary matron back at the Abbey had bustled about briskly, often humming to herself; she was a comforting memory. The University’s healer was somewhat eerie by comparison. She was a plains elf, with hair a shade of blonde that was nearly white, and ears which protruded more from the sides of her head than Professor Tellwyrn’s. Miss Sunrunner, as she had introduced herself, wore a simple dress of leather bleached nearly as light as her hair, dyed at the cuffs, hem and neckline with organic patterns in green and pale yellow. She moved gracefully and in near total silence, which was disconcerting and left the students mostly to stew in their own awkwardness.

Gabriel and Ruda were both unhappy at being confined to beds; Trissiny privately agreed that his burned hand and her black eye did not require lying down, but Miss Sunrunner had been adamant as to how patients were treated. Trissiny herself sat on another bed alongside Toby, who hadn’t spoken to her since the drama outside of Ronald Hall. She had mostly avoided looking at him; the sheer weariness on his face when she did made her feel horribly guilty. Fross buzzed around in obvious agitation, but at least she had finally stopped chattering. Long before that point her speech had grown so fast and high-pitched that no one could pick out any actual words.

It was almost a relief when Professor Tellwyrn herself breezed into the room, though her presence almost certainly heralded some administrative retaliation for them all. Brawling on University property was not an activity approved by the student handbook.

“Congratulations, Punaji,” she said lightly, moving down the aisle with a casual, strolling gait that somehow propelled her as fast as most humans could run, “first punishment of the academic year.”

“What?” Ruda squawked, jerking upright and ignoring Miss Sunrunner’s pointed throat-clearing. “Me? I just—that’s a load of—she started it!” She pointed an accusing finger at Trissiny.

“Ah, yes, the battlecry of mature adults everywhere,” Tellwyrn said drily. “Here’s a bit of useful knowledge for you kids: the ley lines on this campus are carefully adjusted to suit my needs, which include scrying. This morning’s events having been recent enough, I was able to get Professor Yornhaldt to show me a full replay on his crystal ball. He was so disappointed at having to do such a thing this early in the semester, the poor dear. I wish you could have seen those big puppy eyes he does so well. I’d show you, but I can’t really pull it off. I’m told it makes me look homicidally insane.”

“Which differs in what way from the norm?” Gabriel asked the ceiling without raising his head.

“Glad you’re feeling better,” Tellwyrn replied. “In any case, here’s what I saw go down out there: Miss Avelea—”

“Ms.”

“Shut. Up. Avelea here found out about Mr. Arquin’s little family secret and reacted exactly the way I’d expect a paladin to do: by flaring up and going for her blade.”

“See?” Ruda screeched.

“The next person who interrupts me is going to find themselves with a good reason to be in the infirmary.”

“There will be no threats of violence here,” Miss Sunrunner said firmly.

Tellwyrn heaved a sigh and shoved her spectacles up the bridge of her nose. “As I was saying, Trissiny then allowed herself to be persuaded to stand down by the intervention of Caine and Falconer. Since she is notably not attempting to murder Arquin in his bed, she has clearly come round to the understanding that a person with a human soul who has clearly done no harm, as he’s allowed to run around freely and attend college, is not someone she needs to put down. Which is also how paladins usually react to nonviolent demonbloods, once they get over the initial shock. Despite her general stuck up narrow-mindedness and trigger-happy ignorance—”

“Excuse me?” Trissiny all but shouted.

“You are, in this instance, excused. Despite these failings, our resident Hand of Avei is not a complete imbecile. Avei tends not to employ those, unlike some deities I could name. And that would have been that, except that you,” she turned to glare at Ruda over her glasses, “decided to ‘protect’ Mr. Arquin by pulling your sword on your roommate.”

“I—” Ruda broke off as Tellwyrn held up a hand.

“I am giving you credit for not having lethal intent,” she said. “You were pretty clearly beating on her shield rather than going for flesh. Maybe next time you’ll think twice about pulling a sneak attack on someone who’s been drilling in combat forms since she could walk. For future reference, Miss Punaji, if you must pick a fight with a Sister of Avei, go for one of the older ones. They’ve been training long enough to neutralize you harmlessly. A neophyte Sister your own age is likely to kill you before she can figure out what else to do with you.”

“So she got in a lucky shot,” Ruda said sullenly.

“No,” Tellwyrn replied, her voice suddenly silken, “she did not get in a lucky shot. Be assured I get reports from all your teachers, including Professor Ezzaniel. In any kind of fair combat, Trissiny would obliterate you. Aww,” she cooed at Ruda’s furious expression. “What’s the matter, Punaji, does reality ruffle your pirate sensibilities?”

“Arachne,” Sunrunner warned, “this is a place of healing. Behave yourself.”

“So, yes, Punaji,” the Professor went on in a more businesslike tone, “punishment. Immediately following your last class of the day, you will report to Stew the groundskeeper and see to whatever tasks he assigns until he is satisfied with your work. He put a lot of effort into the campus over the summer, so there shouldn’t be much to be done. With any luck, you’ll be able to sleep tonight.”

“Professor?”

Tellwyrn lifted her gaze. “Yes, Fross?”

“Should I be punished, too? I mean, I did attack Trissiny. Sorry, Triss,” she added for the fourth time since the incident.

“For purposes of this discussion, Fross, freezing someone’s boots to the ground does not constitute assault. You may have saved Miss Punaji’s life, in fact; I wouldn’t be inclined to blame Miss Avelea too much if she had reflexively lopped off an arm.”

“Am I in trouble, then?” Trissiny asked.

Professor Tellwyrn tilted her head. “For what?”

“Well, I…” She glanced guiltily over at Gabriel, who was still staring at the ceiling, and then at Toby, who was watching Gabe. “I did sort of start it.”

“Avelea, if being naïve and hotheaded were an offense that warranted punishment, this University and all others would essentially be forced labor camps. You badly need to find a better default problem-solving tool than your sword, but the fact is you didn’t actually draw the thing until somebody was coming at you with another one. So no, you are not in trouble. At least not as far as the school is concerned. I can’t say how long that condition will persist if you don’t straighten up.”

Trissiny ducked her head. “Sorry.”

“To whom, exactly, are you apologizing, and for what?”

“I don’t…” she shot another glance at Gabriel. Knowing what he was, it was a lot harder to feel bad for him. “I’m just sorry.”

“Oh,” Tellwyrn said acidly, “still harboring a bit of animosity there, are we? Splendid, for a moment I was worried we’d have to put all this idiocy behind us.”

Miss Sunrunner had been busy with Gabriel while they talked, cleaning his burned hand and wrapping it in a poultice. She finished this just as Tellwyrn wrapped up her little speech, and cleared her throat loudly. “Tobias, since you’re here, would you kindly come and heal Zaruda’s bruise?”

“Gladly,” Toby said, and indeed, he sounded very glad to have something productive asked of him.

“Hang on, now,” Ruda protested. “Not interested. I’ve seen what that stuff does…”

“You saw what it does to a half-demon,” Miss Sunrunner said wryly. “Unless there’s something you really should have told me when you first came into my infirmary, a touch of divine magic will do you nothing but good.”

“But…what if I don’t wanna…”

“Zaruda Punaji, you lose the right to be irrationally stubborn the moment you fall into a healer’s care. Now hold still.”

“This really should take just a second,” Toby said encouragingly, holding a hand over Ruda’s black eye. She didn’t stop grumbling all through the gentle glow of Omnu’s healing light, though Trissiny knew for a fact that a cleric’s healing was one of the most pleasant sensations a person could experience.

“Is there going to be any problem treating Arquin in the future?” Tellwyrn asked. “Avelea here seems to have gotten her head out of her ass, albeit somewhat belatedly…”

“Hey!”

“…but there’s always next time, and there’ll probably be more holy types enrolling every year.”

“Gabriel is quite resistant to most forms of damage, as a result of his heritage,” Miss Sunrunner replied, “and apart from that, heals much the way an ordinary human does. My default methods do not rely on divine magic, though I won’t hesitate to make use of a paladin when I have two at hand. We won’t have a problem.”

“Still in the room, by the way,” Gabe said.

“Well, that was less mystical than I was expecting,” Tellwyrn mused. “Which I suppose is to the good.”

“Really? You want mystical?” Miss Sunrunner turned and lifted a couple of heavy items from her cabinet along the wall, draping one over herself. When she turned back around, she wore a large cow skull over her head, outfitted with branching antlers and rattling strands of bone beads, with a richly-dyed leather cape bordered in feathers attached to the back. She carried a gnarled wooden staff with three differently-sized gourds on the tip, also bristling with colorful feathers, which rattled when she shook it. She did this now, in Tellwyrn’s direction. “Shaman speaks! The boy’s aura seethes with shadow and flame, a living touch of the dark beyond! Woe to those who gaze upon his spirit! But for any physical injuries, modern medical science is very good medicine.”

“You don’t need to be a brat, Taowi,” Tellwyrn snapped.

Sunrunner rattled the staff at her again. “Whatever gets you out of my infirmary.”

“Let this be a lesson to you, students: never hire a friend’s kid. All right, you’re all patched up and properly abashed, and you all have class. Move it along.”

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