They let Juniper take the lead, without comment. The students had scattered outside the magic building, spreading out to form a net that would hopefully encircle the Sleeper. Ingvar shared Aspen’s doubts about their facility as hunters, but at least they knew the campus. He ran with the two dryads, following Juniper, for the same reason. Indeed, she certainly seemed to know where she was going.
All the while, there came a faint but perceptible buzzing from the folded and inked paper talisman he now held in a belt pouch. So long as it was anywhere on his person, Fross had insisted, he would be able to hear her directives. It seemed to be working.
“Slow up, Scorn,” the pixie chimed as if directly in his ear, despite being back at the spell lab. “You’ve got longer legs than the rest, remember not to get there too early! You’ve all gotta arrive together and leave ‘im no gaps to escape through. Toby, hang a left at the next path, you’re about to collide with Ruda. I need you two to emerge from both sides of the arts pavilion to cover it. Juniper’s group, relax your pace! You don’t have as far to go and you’re pulling ahead of everybody. Uh, Gabe, conversely, can you move a little faster? I don’t wanna push but—there ya go, much better!”
“I can’t believe I’m taking orders from one of Jacaranda’s little thingumajigs,” Aspen muttered, but she did ease up her speed, as did Juniper.
“Fross is a person,” Juniper replied, quietly but firmly. “Not a thingumajig. She’s really sweet and the smartest person I know. Be nice to her, please.”
“All right, all right,” Aspen said peaceably.
Ingvar kept his mouth shut, observing. Aspen’s acerbic streak was noticeably curbed when speaking to her sister, though it didn’t seem to be a dominance thing; he knew Aspen to be the older simply from their conversations. Juniper was difficult to read, even allowing for being a fairy. She had the somewhat childlike quality about her that Aspen did—in fact, she struck Ingvar as a bit daft—but it was tempered with something he couldn’t quite place. She seemed more thoughtful, or perhaps more sad, in the moments when she wasn’t excitedly talking with the other dryad.
His musings were interrupted by a woman’s scream.
Ingvar redoubled his pace before realizing it, the dryads doing likewise and actually pulling several yards ahead. Aspen hadn’t been kidding about their sprinting ability. They hadn’t come far, all things considered, just past a couple of buildings…
“I don’t know what just happened, but everybody stay focused!” Fross chimed frantically. “You’ve gotta encircle the position before revealing yourselves or the Sleeper will get away!”
“Someone’s in trouble!” Juniper protested, to no avail. The pixie was too far away to hear; her instructions continued.
“Slow up sharply, dryads and Ingvar, you’re approaching the open space where—”
The next few words were washed out by another shriek of unmistakable pain.
“—it up, Gabe, you’re gonna be the last one there! Everybody else, move slow and don’t come around corners, you should be able to see the site if you do but the Sleeper can see you, too. I know you’ve all taken your potions but we don’t know this guy’s capabilities. Okay, Gabriel’s in place. Everybody, step forward. Quick but smooth, go!”
Juniper practically lunged around the corner of the stone building they had come up alongside, Ingvar right beside her. As they moved, another scream rang out. Plan or no plan, hunt or no hunt, a woman was clearly in pain. He might be playing into this Sleeper’s hands, but he did not have it in him to stand back while this went on.
They emerged into a small open space where one stone walkway terminated into another; as in most such places, there was a widened patio area there, with two park benches and several decorative plants surrounding it. Ingvar and the dryads spread out to block the path on their side, while the other students began to emerge from the spaces around the stone-columned pavilion opposite, itself surrounded by taller stone structures and filled with sculptures. The crossing path ended in a set of stairs descending to the next terrace down on Ingvar’s right, and off around the building beside them in the other direction.
“Scorn, stop!” Fross shrilled in his ears, fruitlessly.
In the center of the intersection, a diminutive blond girl was just in the process of collapsing to the ground. All around her was a distortion, a strange contraction in the light cast by the standing fairy lamps, like a bruise on reality itself. Her long hair fluttered as it fell, but also seemed to be trying to stick out as if affected by static.
The hulking demon Scorn charged straight into the intersection from up the path. Aspen cursed, but followed the others as they hastily lunged out to encircle their prey. The other students had to do likewise, hurrying around corners, vaulting over bushes, and in Gabriel’s case, tripping on the top stair, in order to get themselves in position so the Sleeper had nowhere to run. The plan had been to position themselves more carefully, relying on Fedora’s potions to keep them unnoticed until they were ready; that was now shot.
The distortion contracted as the blonde girl fell, condensing in both size and intensity till it seemed nothing more than a shadow standing upright. That was still plenty disorienting, but it suggested at least that whatever magic it had been doing was over.
“Ravana!” Toby called from across the path. “Are you okay?”
The shadow shifted subtly; Ingvar had the impression it was slowly turning, taking in the scene. The University students paced forward, tightening the noose and drawing weapons. Toby and Shaeine flared alight; Gabriel extended his scythe, while Ariel in his other hand blazed with arcane runes. Ingvar drew back his bow, aiming at the center of the shadow he took for the Sleeper. He had a clear shot between Toby and Ruda if he missed—or if the thing were as insubstantial as it looked—but the closer they drew, the riskier that became.
“Scorn, stop!” Ruda snapped, finally halting the demon two steps farther than the rest of their formation. Her towering form practically vibrated with rage, clawed hands flexing. Ingvar surmised that the fallen girl—Ravana?—must be a friend of hers.
He said a brief prayer inside his own head. In fact, after what he’d learned in the last months, he had often debated the ethics and efficacy of prayer with himself, but when it came down to a tense situation, he still did it.
“Conventional wisdom is you’re a student here, asshole,” Ruda commented, aiming her gleaming rapier at the shadow. “That means you know who we are, and that means you know goddamn well how this ends. Wanna make it easier on everybody, or do I get to work off some fucking anger here?”
“Tellwyrn will be back soon,” Toby said, his tone quieter, but his expression no less resolute. “If we can tell her you surrendered willingly, we can still work it out so no one is punished any more than necessary. You know what’ll happen if you make this a conflict.”
“What do you want it alive for?” Aspen asked disdainfully. “This character sounds like a complete piece of trash. Kill it, do the world a favor.”
“He can tell us how to revive the others,” Juniper murmured.
“Oh, he’s gonna tell us everything,” Ruda said grimly, taking a step forward. “Time’s up, buttercup.”
The shadow hunched in on itself momentarily, and then dark smoke began to ripple out from around it on the ground.
“Bad move!” Scorn roared, lunging.
She missed, barely, as the Sleeper shot straight upward.
An instant later it was hurled back to the ground, accompanied by an earsplitting and strangely resonant shriek, as Vadrieny swooped in from overhead and impacted it in midair.
Ingvar, deciding this had now progressed beyond negotiations, took the opportunity to put an arrow in the Sleeper. The shaft, blessed both by a shaman of the Huntsmen, actually exploded in a brief flash of flame an instant before it would have struck home.
In the next moment, a dome of silver light slammed into place around the shadow, holding it to the ground.
Ingvar glanced around, taking stock while this was apparently under control. All the students were present… Where was that demon from Intelligence? He began to have a bad feeling.
“Scorn, please desist,” Shaeine said in a strained voice, and the disgruntled Rhaazke stepped back, having been raking her claws along the surface of the bubble and snarling menacingly at the obscured figure within.
“How is she?” Ruda asked of Toby, who had knelt beside Ravana.
“Asleep,” the paladin said tersely. “Just like the others. I can’t find any other evidence of harm…it’s strange, though.”
“She was screaming,” Gabriel said. “Nobody else did that.”
Slowly, Ruda bent down to pick up an object that had fallen near the Sleeper’s latest victim. “Her lightcapper. You don’t suppose…”
“Ravana would not place herself in danger without a plan,” Scorn insisted, her expression almost anguished. “She doesn’t do anything without a plan.”
“Here…” Gabriel gently took the lightcapper from Ruda, examining it. “Yeah, this thing’s been activated since it was loaded… And this isn’t picture film. We’d best get this to Tellwyrn ASAP. Good girl, Ravana!”
“Our circle seems to have collapsed,” Ingvar commented with an edge to his voice, his attention still on the bubble. The Sleeper was an incongruous dark blot within its glow. The drow priestess looked intent, but he knew maintaining a shield of that kind took effort. If that was the only thing holding this warlock down…
“Relax, we’ve got him,” Gabriel said with a grin.
“Arquin, shut your damn face,” Ruda snapped. “He’s right, this isn’t over till we’ve got this fucker permanently subdued. And thank you, Ingvar, for exhibiting the basic damn common sense I thought I could expect from my friends. Everybody circle up on that thing. Toby, what can you do to un-shadowfy him? We get a look at his face, we can finish this even if he gets away.”
“Countering his magic through technique is probably beyond me,” Toby said, staring at the center of the bubble. “There’s always the brute force approach, though. Shaeine, how are you holding up?”
“I can do this for some time,” the priestess reported, “so long as the shield is not interfered with, but I cannot move her this way. And this being an apparently powerful infernal caster, I am surprised that she is submitting to this extent. A barrage of pure infernal magic will wear down a divine shield fairly quickly if there is a near parity of power involved. Any student here knows the Circles.”
“Huh,” Aspen grunted. “So what’s he doing in there?”
“Oh, shit,” Ruda hissed. “Toby, flare up! All of it! Now!”
Either his spells were readied at that moment or, more likely, the Sleeper took her order as the cue to unleash whatever he had.
Circles of sullen orange light ignited on the ground all around them, and four horizontally on the walls of nearby buildings. From each poured forth carnage—gouts of fire in various colors, billows of sulfur-smelling smoke, in one case a powerful blast of heated air. In one, a large figure began to slowly materialize. The character of the air itself changed, heated, and Ingvar felt something twisting in his gut. He had never been close to simple, uncontained infernal magic, but had heard the sensation described. He would need to seek a thorough cleansing after all this.
Then golden light washed across the whole scene, centered on Toby. The nova blazed across them all, suppressing the spell circles and outright annihilating several. Between the chaotic infernal radiation, Toby’s holy light and the blessing of Shaath over the whole mountain, the air was thick with magic; through the haze, Ingvar could actually see several dark figures, winged and carrying scythes. Two descended on the summoning circle trying to draw forth some kind of demon, sinking their weapons into it. Half-formed between dimensions, it was actually struck, and twisted as if pained. A third valkyrie raked her scythe across the boundaries of the circle itself, causing it to flicker.
Unsurprisingly, in the chaos, the silver dome winked out.
Immediately, blasts of purple-black light flashed out in all directions from the Sleeper, cutting dark swaths through the divine nova. None made it far with that much loose divine magic in play, and all put off trails of sparks uncharacteristic of shadowbolts as the holy energy grated on them, but they held together well enough to be a menace at short range, which was plenty.
Ingvar avoided being struck because he had instinctively begun moving when the shield collapsed; still the shadowbolt that had been aimed for him passed close enough to make his hackles rise from the sheer wrongness of it. All of the other students were hit, most to minimal effect. The bolt aimed at Toby fizzled before reaching him, unable to bore through that concentration of divine power. Juniper and Aspen surged forward at the warlock, seeming not even to notice the attacks which impacted them. Gabriel and Scorn were momentarily halted by the onslaught, Ruda knocked fully over backward with a cry of pain. Shaeine got a shield re-formed around herself in time to absorb it; the silver barrier rippled at the impact, but held.
Immediately a second spray of smaller shadowbolts flashed indiscriminately about, these much less targeted, and peppered the whole region. At the same moment, the very ground under Toby’s feet heaved upward as some kind of explosive spell ignited beneath the pavement. The paladin kept his balance, but his focus faltered and with it the divine light he was putting out.
The Sleeper took advantage of his distraction to double down; more circles appeared around them, and more shadowbolts shot at them. Then he had to break off his own attack to evade the students who were not much impressed by his onslaught.
Scorn and Gabriel he barely kept at bay with directed attacks. The Rhaazke soaked up the hits and simply kept coming, while a golden shield around Gabriel held up under the assault without interfering with his weapons. The two dryads were totally unaffected by infernal magic, though, and the Sleeper had no recourse but to flee and dodge. He had to dodge again as Gabriel leveled his scythe like a battlestaff and unleashed a blast of black light.
Ingvar had always been told that infernal magic had no direct defensive application, but somehow the Sleeper had found one. An orange spell circle formed in midair in front of him, absorbing the blast.
“He’s getting away!” Gabriel protested, shooting again. Another spell shield intercepted the shot, while more explosions under the ground threw Scorn and the dryads off their footing.
Vadrieny slammed into the shadowed figure from above, impacting on one of those midair circles with a screech. The circle flashed, putting off a pulse of kinetic force that hurled her up and back. And with that, the Sleeper had positioned himself on the path outside the encircling students, with a clear shot back into the campus.
Ingvar watched all of this from a crouch at the edge of the nearest building. It was no cowardice not to throw himself physically into a brawl between magical heavyweights; positioned here, he could await his own opportunity. And now he had it.
The shaft nocked to his bow was the only one like it he had left; Huntsmen on quests carried at least one, more if they knew they would be hunting demons. He raised, drew, sighted along the inscribed arrow, and whispered, “Shaath, guide my arm.”
His arrow ripped straight into the Sleeper’s form, bursting into flame as it drew too close, but lasted long enough to strike home.
The shadowed figure reeled sideways. Aspen, Juniper, and Scorn had now recovered their footing and came forward in a wedge formation with the demon at the center—probably unintentional. Toby and Gabriel dashed after them. Above, Vadrieny soared past to land and pivot on the path ahead, blocking the Sleeper’s escape.
Still, Ingvar couldn’t shake the feeling the shadow was glaring directly at him.
Vadrieny simply wasn’t large enough to completely block the path, and she had planted herself too far away; there were gaps between building on both sides their foe could slip into. Ingvar could see at a glance that they had effectively lost this. In the next moment, the Sleeper would vanish.
The Sleeper, though, apparently had a different plan.
The light turned briefly orange as though they stood next to a furnace, and a shockwave of heated air ripped out in all directions, bowling all but Scorn and the dryads physically down, flattening bushes and tipping over one of the park benches. Vadrieny had her wings spread, and was physically picked up and hurled a dozen yards into the air. In that moment, the Sleeper could easily have slipped away. Instead, the shadow solidified.
A circle of deep, red light appeared on the ground around him, marked with jagged runes unlike any Ingvar had seen before. For a moment, amid them stood a human-sized figure of pure black, like a silhouette cut into the face of the world itself. Then, a scream rent the air—not the kind of scream made by a throat, but a sound like metal plates being scraped together. The circle blazed and a whole column of red flashed upward from the ground.
When it receded, the Sleeper stood before them, fully eight feet tall, a figure sculpted of overlapping chitinous plates, gleaming sullenly in the light. Its eyes were two pits of orange flame.
While the students bounced back to their feet, it turned to point at Ingvar, then made a beckoning gesture.
Ingvar fired an arrow directly at its face.
The Sleeper caught the shaft, which then burst aflame, dissolving into ash.
“Now,” Scorn snarled, “you are playing my song!”
She charged forward, ignoring a shouted warning from Toby, and struck the Sleeper head-on. For a moment, the two hulking figures grappled, the slightly smaller Rhaazke pushing him backward, then the Sleeper got a grip on her forearms, physically picked her up, and whirled, hurling her into the stone face of the nearby arts building.
Its next gesture sent a blast of black lightning straight at Gabriel; the paladin got a divine shield up, which pulsed at the impact and shattered. He stumbled backward, but before the Sleeper could attack again, Vadrieny landed on him from behind and both dryads piled into his legs.
The confused tangle which ensued ended moments later with the archdemon again hurled away, but the Sleeper seemed to be having more trouble with the dryads.
“You gotta grip him,” Ruda wheezed, limping forward. “Get your claws in and hold on!”
“He’s physically slippery and my claws can’t breach that armor,” Vadrieny retorted, pumping her wings to shoot back to her feet from the heap into which she’d fallen.
A burst of pure flame sent both dryads reeling back with shrieks of pain. Ingvar, baring his teeth in fury, fired another shot. This one struck the Sleeper right on the neck, which had absolutely no effect.
The huge figure turned to look at him again, then started forward.
Toby planted himself in its path, glowing behind a divine shield; the Sleeper launched three consecutive blasts of shadow-lightning, busting the shield and then sending him hurling away.
Ingvar set aside his longbow, drew his hatchet and belt knife, and stood, watching the armored warlock come.
“Quit rushing him!” Ruda exclaimed. “Guys, we got this, just form up and—”
A silver shield barely intercepted the blast of dark lightning that came at her. The Sleeper stomped one huge foot, making a crater in the pavement, and another enormous rush of sheer force ripped out from him, knocking most of them down, even Scorn and Aspen. This time, it hit hard enough to shatter windows and nearby fairy lamps.
Suddenly the color of the light shifted again, this time to silver. They all stared upward in surprise, even the Sleeper; above, between them and the whirling clouds of Shaath’s blessing, an enormous silver snowflake had formed in the air, glowing and slowly rotating.
“I WILL END YOU RIGHT IN THE FACE!”
At the shrill bellow from above, the snowflake suddenly dissolved and rushed at them. A solid blanket of snow slammed down on the whole scene, two feet thick on the ground, burying most of them. A tiny silver light zipped down from above, laying into the Sleeper with blasts of lightning, spear-like icicles, bolts of pure arcane destruction, even sprays of water which instantly hardened into a thick coating of ice.
The Sleeper staggered under the onslaught, firing blasts of lightning, fire, and more conventional shadowbolts, but seemingly unable to hit the pixie. Then he tripped and tumbled over backward; Juniper was the first to extricate herself from the snow, and tackled his legs from behind.
Snow and blasts of destructive magic were being hurled in all directions. Ingvar took the opportunity to dart past the brawl to where it had started. It took a little bit of aimless digging, but he found the prone form of Ravana, and lifted her out of the snow, then quickly carried her up the path to where the ground was clear.
Not a moment too soon; stomping feet sounded behind him, only slightly muffled by the snow. Ingvar set Ravana down and whirled, tomahawk upraised, but the Sleeper dashed past him, heading for the stairs downward to the lower terrace. A silver wall of light appeared in front of him, then was broken by a furious barrage of black lightning bolts. No sooner had the warlock made it past the barrier, though, than a pumpkin-sized ball of pure arcane power ripped into him from behind, trailing a swirling vortex of snow.
At the impact, the Sleeper’s hulking form physically exploded.
For a moment, there was finally silence.
“I…did I kill him?” Fross asked uncertainly.
“No,” Gabriel grunted, brushing snow out of his eyes. “Just that…shell he was wearing. Vestrel says the original shadow-guy is still going, heading for the gates.”
“Come on!” Scorn bellowed, taking off down the stairs at a run. The rest followed.
“You’re not coming?” Aspen demanded of Ingvar, who had knelt next to Ravana and was rubbing warmth back into her chilled hands.
“This is more urgent,” he said tersely. “Besides, it’s over. He’s gone.”
Still unable to shadow-jump, the dark shape skimmed across the pavement, making a beeline for the campus’s gates. It slid to a stop mere yards short, though, when a figure standing in the gate itself suddenly popped into visibility.
“Good show!” Fedora said, slowly clapping his hands. “Really, top-notch example of throwing your weight around like a wild boar. You’ve given me just all kinds of evidence to work from. I’ll have your ass on a silver platter by the end of the week. And then you’ll be facing Tellwyrn’s tender mercies, which would be a shame, because you know what she’ll do. I’ve got a better idea.”
Grinning, he turned back the lapel of his coat, revealing his silver gryphon badge.
“You’ve got potential, kid. You’ve got power, and there’s some kind of rudimentary smarts in there. Undeveloped, but still; there’s a hint of real strategy under your nonsense. You waste so much time on this bullshit, though. The way you’re going, you’re just gonna eventually piss off the wrong person and get pulped. What if I offered you something better?” He grinned, folding his coat back to conceal the badge. “My…department…is interested in talented people. Talented, dangerous, destructive people. Oh, there are restrictions, not gonna lie. It’s annoying as hell, is what it is; I really hate working under other people’s rules. But on balance, take it from me, it’s a lot less annoying than trying to survive alone in a world which is wholly devoted to destroying you. I could arrange—”
A small circle of orange light formed on the nearby gate post, from which shot a chain which wrapped itself around the Inspector’s neck.
“Ah, yes,” he said with a sigh, tugging experimentally at it. “Warlock, demon, we all know how that goes. Before you go and do something too reckless, maybe you oughtta stop and think about why I was willing to confront you like this?”
The chain retracted, pulling rapidly into the tiny spell circle, and yanked him away to slam his back against the gate post.
“Right,” Fedora grunted in a strangled voice, “not really the stop-and-think type. Ashley, honey, do ya mind?”
She stepped out from behind the gate, a young woman in a dark suit, shaking her head.
“Honestly, Troy, I told you this was the wrong way to do it. He’s in full fight-or-flight mode right now; you’re just not gonna get him to settle down and listen.”
“Well, it’s not as if I can invite him over for tea,” the incubus grunted.
“Whoah, there!” Ashley said, holding up a hand at the Sleeper as his shadowed form surged forward for the open gate. “We’re not done talking to you. Now, settle down and—”
He shot her point-blank with a shadowbolt. It fizzled out harmlessly upon impact.
“Seriously?” she said wryly, then reached up to touch the spell circle behind Fedora’s neck. Instantly it flickered out, chain and all, dropping the Inspector. “Look, it’s been a trying night for you, I get that. You run along now, and think about what Inspector Fedora said. You’ve got options, if you quit being such a goober. I bet you can figure out how to get in touch with us.”
Pounding feet sounded from the campus beyond. The Sleeper’s indistinct shape wavered, then zipped sideways, following the campus wall to the east.
Moments later, Scorn burst onto the scene, skidding to a halt and glaring at Fedora, who was still rubbing at his neck.
“Oh, don’t tell me,” the demon spat. “You have lost him.”
“Excuse me, but we lost him,” Fedora replied archly. “As in, all of us, collectively, because yes, he is gone. Fortunately one of us had the foresight to hang back and observe rather than go in swingin’. Hey, kids, welcome to the party. As I was just telling your tall friend, here, our boy has slipped away. But we’ve made some real progress tonight. I wanna look over the scenes carefully; bet you anything I can hone in on him pretty quickly from here.”
Juniper pushed forward past the other students, staring in disbelief. “Ash?!”
Ashley sighed, and waved. “Hey there, li’l sister. I guess we’ve got some stuff to talk about, huh?”