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“Will you need anything else? There are further volumes which I can pull for a more in-depth study.”

“No, thank you,” said Ravana, surveying the dozen books already stacked on their table. “The assignment calls for a two-page paper; more material than this will simply swamp us, I think.”

“Very well,” said Crystal, nodding her head. The expressionless mask that formed her face was an eerie contrast to her pleasant voice. “Don’t hesitate to ask at the front desk if you require any help.”

“We won’t, thank you.”

The golem turned and walked back through the stacks toward the front of the library and her customary seat behind its broad desk, leaving the four girls seated around a small table in a reading alcove. As she went, the light emitted from between her joints and the plates of her “skin” cast shifting patterns of illumination on the nearby bookshelves.

It wasn’t dim in the library by any means; there were tall windows and abundant fairy lamps, creating plenty of light to read by. Its architecture, though, trended toward narrow spaces and dark tones, making it feel cozy and even a little gloomy despite the light level. Crystal’s blue-white glow made for a stark contrast.

“She’s amazing,” Maureen breathed, staring after the golem even once she was gone from sight.

“Oh?” Iris said warily. “Uh, that’s… Well, she’s not really my type, but I guess…”

“What?” The gnome blinked at her, then blushed. “Oh, for the— No! Are ye daft? She’s a machine. That’s what I meant; the way she talks an interacts, it’s incredible. There’ve been talking enchantments basically forever, but those were rare, an’ always stuck on static objects; havin’ something that moves around attached to ’em mucked up the old methods, as I understood it. No, she’s a modern golem, but almost like a real person!”

“Is she not a person?” Szith asked, raising an eyebrow. “If she can communicate as one, what other measure is there by which to judge her? She certainly appeared as sentient as you or I.”

“You can tell if y’pay attention an’ know what to listen for,” said Maureen. “She uses exactly the same inflection on everything she says, an’ there’s a faint pause, like, after ye speak to ‘er. Somethin’ bein’ processed in there, the machinery finding the right response an’ spittin’ it out. ‘Course, it’s all arcane magic, not really a true machine, but still, it’s far and away beyond any other golem I ever heard of.”

“It seems my question remains valid, then,” said Szith. “Even if she is an artificial creation, is she not a sentient thing?”

Maureen had begun shaking her head before the drow was finished speaking. “Actual sentience, that’s still beyond modern enchantment. Some o’ the old archmages came close, with talkin’ mirrors an’ swords an’ the like, but in the end they were a lot simpler than an actual person. No real psychology, I mean, just…patterns o’ behavior. Also, most o’ those were made by killin’ somebody and fixin’ a bit o’ their soul to the object, so… That’s highly illegal in the Empire.”

Iris went wide-eyed, turning to stare in the direction Crystal had gone. “You…you don’t suppose…”

“If Tellwyrn had done something like that,” said Ravana with an amused little smile, “I hardly think she would encourage the results to circulate among her students. In any case, I doubt she would have done so to begin with.”

“Aye,” said Maureen, “an’ no matter how reclusive she is, if she’d cracked actual golem sentience, there’d be word of it all over. That’s one of the great unsolveds, y’know? Like mass-producible magic mirrors or automated teleportation.”

“You know, your accent kind of comes and goes,” Iris remarked, frowning. Maureen shrugged, averting her eyes, and pulled one of the books over to herself. She had to stand on her chair to see comfortably over the table, but she was used to long hours on her feet.

“I still don’t feel my question was addressed,” said Szith. “So Crystal is perhaps a bit simple-minded; there are no shortage of biological people in the same state. What truly differentiates her? Your explanation implied a definitive line between speaking enchantments and sentient beings, but you didn’t define it.”

“Well…it’s vague,” Maureen said. “I’ve never spoken with a sentient enchantment till today, but I could tell. Like I said, she processes speech like a machine, sortin’ out what she hears and findin’ the right combination o’ words to reply. Supposedly the older talking enchantments really only started to look sketchy when studied in detail.”

“Is that not what we all do, though?” Szith asked. “Perhaps Crystal does not find her words quite as adroitly, but the end result seems to be the same…”

“In my opinion,” said Ravana, “the difference is one of degree, not of nature. We are all of us nothing but machines, differentiated from an abacus only by a level of complexity. The mind is just a function of the body, after all.”

Szith frowned slightly. “When you put it that way, it sounds rather nihilistic.”

“Oh?” Ravana smiled at her. “Do you know much about the sea goddess Naphthene?”

“I do not.”

“Naphthene has no cult or worshipers,” Ravana said, folding her hands serenely in her lap. “Nor does she want any; she either ignores people who try, or sometimes takes exception to their temerity if they are particularly stubborn. Nonetheless, seafaring cultures revere her, for obvious reasons. No ship sets out to sea without making a small offering to Naphthene, for to omit that step is to reliably court disaster. And yet, storms still happen. Those who have made the requisite sacrifices are still vulnerable. The sea is not a thing to be tamed.”

“She sounds…unjust,” said Szith, her frown deepening.

“Precisely!” Ravana replied. “Unfair, arbitrary, random. And that is the lesson absorbed by a lot of coastal societies: life is simply a matter of luck and fickle fate. What is fascinating, and relevant to our discussion, is how they deal with this worldview. In the west and south, the Tidestrider clans are known to be brutal and, as you say, nihilistic. The Empire has brought them somewhat to heel, but in the old days they rendered that ocean all but impassable, mostly raiding each other, but they would descend in force on anyone else who dared to sail their waters. They took no prisoners and gave no quarter, and the few who visited among them described them as a dour and unsmiling folk. On the other hand, in the east and north are the Punaji, who are famously high-spirited and cheerful. And both societies arrived at their value systems from the same starting point: observing the unfairness of life.” She leaned back in her chair, her smile broadening. “There’s an old Punaji proverb I very much like: ‘When nothing means anything, everything means everything.’”

The group fell silent, three of them frowning thoughtfully at the empty space in the center of the table.

“I’m a wee bit flummoxed how we came ’round to this from me admiring the golem,” Maureen said at last.

“Quite so!” Ravana replied, suddenly brisk, and leaned forward to pick up a book. “Now, we have here several volumes on history, adventuring and magic which make reference to Arachne Tellwyrn. I propose that we divide them up; that will give us this evening to skim through and isolate references to her failures and defeats, and then we can pool our notes and compose the actual essay tomorrow in time for Wednesday’s class. Does anyone object if I do the writing myself?”

“Forgive me,” said Szith, “but I object to your presumption. We’ve followed you this far, as requesting books from the golem scarcely constitutes effort, but the group has not agreed to pursue this course of action. In frankness, you have not justified it.”

“Uh, yeah,” Iris piped up, her expression worried. “I don’t like the sound of that assignment to pick at each other’s weaknesses, but I really don’t see how starting a fight with Tellwyrn is gonna help us.”

“Very well, it’s a fair concern.” Ravana leaned forward again, folding her hands on the table and interlacing her fingers. “To begin with, do you believe me when I say that the assignment itself is not meant to be taken at face value?”

The other three girls exchanged glances.

“I dunno,” Iris said doubtfully.

“This project is by no means the first time I have engaged in research about our professor,” said Ravana. “Upon being accepted here I commissioned a detailed analysis of her, the better to know what to expect. While Tellwyrn herself has historically bludgeoned her way through obstacles with sheer magical might, she has an entirely other set of priorities for other people. Particularly students. In fact, she is rather fond of subtle tests of character, of placing obstacles in people’s paths and engineering situations to gauge their moral and mental capabilities. I came prepared to be on the lookout for these; I did not expect to find one so quickly, or for it to be so blatant.”

“Blatant?” Maureen asked.

Ravana grinned faintly. “May I at least assume you have all noticed, as I have, the insanity of the assignment in question? The sheer, emotionally destructive absurdity of it?”

They all nodded, slowly, and she spread her hands. “Arachne Tellwyrn is not someone who does insane, absurd things—at least, not to students or others under her protection. She is someone who likes to carefully feel people out using oblique methods before subjecting them to her bombastic approach to life. I suspect that’s why she is still alive; it has prevented her from picking a fight with someone too close to her level.”

“That makes sense, then,” said Szith, again nodding. “Very well, I can accept your assertion, and thank you for the analysis. I for one would likely have stepped right into the trap otherwise.”

“Ought we to clue the others in?” Maureen asked.

Ravana shrugged. “If you wish. We were assigned our room groups to do this with, however; I don’t think we will be expected to extend our efforts beyond that.”

“Still,” said Szith, “you have yet to explain why you think antagonizing Professor Tellwyrn is a wise academic move.”

Iris nodded emphatically. “I think your exact words were ‘rub her face in it.’ Failing us is the least of what she can do to us, you know.”

“Ah, yes,” Ravana replied with a rueful smile. “Forgive me, I do like to indulge in tiny little melodramas. No, being aggressive with Tellwyrn is probably not a good idea. If nothing else, it would be a metatextual failure; seeing the subtle trap and using it to act brutishly seems self-defeating. No, what I had in mind is a simple message, and if anything a gentle one. Or at least a subtle one.”

“Go on,” said Szith when no one else commented.

Ravana leaned forward to tap one of the books. “Rather than the assigned analysis of each other, I propose that we collaborate on a general essay detailing strategies a group of people can use against a more powerful opponent, with examples—each of which will be an instance of someone overcoming Tellwyrn herself. At no point do I plan to make threats or personal statements. It will be far more oblique, and yet pointed, indicating that we have discerned both the trap and the true nature of the assignment, and that we have identified the real aggressor here.”

Another quiet fell; Ravana smiled beatifically at the others, who looked pensive.

“When you explain it that way,” Szith said finally, “I still think the idea is excessively confrontational. We can surely present a statement without encroaching upon her personal history.”

“Her personal history is public,” Ravana replied, “and I assure you, we will get nowhere with Tellwyrn if we do things by half-measures. Let’s be realistic, ladies; we are under no circumstances going to intimidate her, and I frankly doubt we can even offend her. She simply doesn’t take us that seriously, or personally. This is about not being walked over. The risk is slight, but for that, at least, I am willing to take it.”

Szith nodded at that; Iris and Maureen frowned at each other.

“Or,” Ravana went on mildly, “if you are more comfortable establishing up front that you will always be a victim, we can run with that, too.”


 

Last Rock’s expansion over the summer had been minor, but it was a relatively static town most of the time, and even a minor growth had upended everything. Coming as it did right on the heels of the evacuation and subsequent return, there was more muttering than usual in the town about the students and the disruption they caused, but for the most part, this was overruled. The students were still the biggest source of revenue for local business—or at least, they always had been. Last Rock’s newest additions were beginning to call that into question.

The new Silver Mission stood on the outskirts, close enough to the Rail platform to be immediately visible to arriving travelers. It was a modest building in size, but very much Avenist in its sensibilities, all white marble, domed roofs and with a fence of iron bars topped in spear-like points. Aside from the one assigned priestess, who lived on site, the Mission had few regulars, most of its visitors being the would-be adventurers who passed through the town en route to the Golden Sea. There didn’t seem to be any residents of Last Rock itself who felt the need to call on Avei’s protection.

At least, not so far, though that might change, given the additions to the population brought by the other new addition. The Vidian temple, too, was small, little more than a shrine—but it had come with personnel, and continued to attract more. Three new houses and another inn were under construction on the outskirts of town, the Mayor was busy drawing up plans to extend a couple of the streets, and Sheriff Sanders had been sufficiently pressed to keep order among the new arrivals that he had officially deputized Ox Whippoorwill and another man. Imperial surveyors had visited, and there was even talk of an Imperial Marshal being assigned too the town.

Aside from the clerics and others who had moved in, people continued to pass through, seldom staying long, but all hoping for at least a glimpse of the new paladin—or either of the old ones, for that matter. Tellwyrn had made it sufficiently plain that sightseers were not welcome on campus that few tried that anymore, especially after the newspapers had begun circulating horror stories of tourists teleported to Tidestrider islands, Tar’naris, the Stalrange and other unwholesome vacation spots. Still, even after that and the natural waning of interest over the summer months, the Imperial Rail Service had finally been force to designate Last Rock a justification-only destination—meaning tickets there could only be purchased by people who could provide a reason for their trip to the Rail conductor. It wasn’t much of a barrier, only keeping out the particularly stupid and deranged, but it did the trick. Anybody intelligent enough to come up with an excuse to be in Last Rock was intelligent enough not to cause trouble once they got there.

Even so, Gabriel’s visits to the Vidian temple were necessarily crowd-pleasing affairs. In just a few short weeks he had perfected the art of nodding, smiling and waving to people without stopping to engage with them. He also usually didn’t go without escort. Toby and Trissiny would have only drawn more attention, Juniper might have created a panic and none of his other classmates were particularly intimidating, but the three privates with whom he roomed often accompanied him into town. Sanders or one of his deputies sometimes shadowed him once there. It was awkward at times, but it worked.

This evening, though, he was alone, which was the point. The sky had long since fallen red, and the sun was only partially visible on the horizon. Now, at the point between day and night, was a sacred time to Vidians; dusk and dawn were favored for their gatherings and rituals. More to the point, certain powers of Vidius granted to certain of his followers were at their peak in these between times.

He walked with a frown of concentration on his face, focusing internally and barely paying enough attention to where he was going to get there intact. By far the biggest threat to his focus was his success; he’d made it all the way to the temple without anyone noticing his presence, and jubilation threatened to wreck it for him. The final stretch of the race was ahead: the temple itself, and the Vidian worshipers gathered there.

The temple was, of course, of two parts. The public area was a roofless stone amphitheater, the materials for which (like the white marble of the Silver Mission) had been brought in by Rail and assembled rapidly with the aid of Wizards’ Guild artisans. The half dozen Vidians who had emigrated to Last Rock for the chance to be near their new paladin were all present, rehearsing a play that was to be performed in a few weeks. Even for those who weren’t professional actors, drama was considered a sacred art to the god of masks, one most of his followers involved themselves in.

Gabriel did not slow or look up at them as he arrived, stepping up onto the stone outer rim of the amphitheater. This was not far from the spot from which he and his classmates had embarked into the Golden Sea almost a year ago, right on the north edge of town. He passed quickly around the edge of the ring, ignoring the performers, none of whom even looked up at him, to reach the half-pyramid positioned at one edge and the door set into it.

Opening the door, for whatever reason, brought attention. Immediately voices were raised behind him, but he swiftly ducked inside, pulling it shut, and then slumped against it, letting out a long breath of relief.

The staircase in which he found himself was well-lit by small fairy lights, descending straight forward without any curves or turns. Gabriel, having regathered his composure, set off down toward the bottom, confident in the door’s ability to protect him from his adoring public. He could still hear them clearly, clamoring outside; the enchantments on it were designed to conduct rather than to muffle sound, so that those below could be aware of anything important happening above. Still, he knew they would respect the barrier, as Vidians respected all barriers. This half of the temple was not entered except on specific business.

Right now, its position was obvious, as the prairie grasses hadn’t yet had time to settle in above the underground complex, leaving a long rectangle of bare earth adjacent to the amphitheater. In time, though, the lower half of the temple would be invisible from above, only the door revealing that such a thing existed. Some temples favored trapdoors, even hidden entrances, as if to deny that they even had a lower half. The facility at Last Rock was not only small, it was simple, and didn’t seem to feel any need for such touches.

At the bottom was a long, narrow room terminating in a shrine to Vidius himself and lined with benches—not an uncommon arrangement for places of worship. Doors to either side led to the apartments of the priest in residence, and…what else Gabriel did not know, never having been invited in. All his conversations and lessons had taken place here, in the chapel.

The priest, Val Tarvadegh, was a lean man in his middle years, whose beakish nose and widow’s peak conspired to make his face rather birdlike in aspect. He was dressed, as always, in the black robes of his office—as was the other person present.

Gabriel paused at the base of the stairs, sizing up the woman. Bronze of skin and black of hair, she was a perfectly average-looking Tiraan like himself and Tarvadegh, but he couldn’t shake a feeling of familiarity at seeing her.

“Gabriel!” the priest said, turning to him with a smile. “And here you are, unmolested! How did it go?”

“Brilliant,” he said, a grin breaking across his own features. “I made it the whole way this time! Well…almost. It broke when I got to the door. As you can probably hear,” he added ruefully, glancing behind. Indeed, in the sudden quiet, the excited babble of voices was still dimly audible. “I’m sorry, am I early? I don’t mean to interrupt…”

“Oh, pay no attention to me,” the woman said, rising from her seat on one of the chapel’s benches. “I merely stopped by to see Val; far be it from me to impede our new paladin’s education.”

“Are…you a priestess?” he asked hesitantly. “I’m sorry, it’s just I’ve got this feeling I know you from somewhere.”

“You have possibly noticed me on campus,” she said with a smile. “Afritia Morvana. I’m the new house mother for the Well.”

“Oh! The freshman girls, right. So, what’re they like?”

“If they decide that’s any of your business,” she said placidly, “I’m sure they will inform you.”

“Whoah, point taken.” Gabriel raised his hands in surrender; Tarvadegh grinned, hiding a chuckle behind a cough. “I assure you, madam, your charges are in no danger from me. You can ask anybody how awkward I am with women.”

“Yes, I begin to see that,” she said, her smile widening. “Anyway. I must be off; I’ll see what I ca do about dispersing your fan club, shall I?”

“You are my new favorite person,” he said fervently. Morvana laughed and glided past him up the stairs.

“It’s not uncommon for the deflection to be disrupted by such things as opening doors,” Tarvadegh said as Gabriel approached him. “You are diverting people’s attention from yourself. If you change anything in your environment, they will tend to notice that—and then, in looking around to find what caused it, will quite quickly pierce your deflection. Anything which calls attention to you will unmake it.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Gabe said with a grimace. “Is it possible to get around that?”

“To extend it to other objects? Most certainly, yes, even to other people. That is very advanced, though.” Tarvadegh winked. “Crawl before you fly, my friend. You made good progress today.”

“It still takes a lot out of me,” he admitted. “Well…not out of me. It’s not very tiring, and I don’t feel like I’m using much energy. But it’s the concentration. If I let up for a second, poof. There it goes.”

“Yes,” the priest said, nodding. “You mentioned how it doesn’t drain energy; that’s because this is a very passive effect. Unfortunately, that means you can’t just power through it with more magical oomph. It’s a trick of concentration. Once you learn how, and can make it habitual, you’ll find yourself able to do almost anything you normally could while holding the deflection.” He smiled and shrugged. “Till you do, though… It’s a process.”

“Sounds like my lightworking class,” Gabriel muttered.

“Depending on what you’re working, yes, it can be similar. Come, have a seat.” Tarvadegh suited the words with action, sitting down on a bench and pointing to the one across from him. “How have you been doing with your masks?”

Gabriel sighed heavily, slumping down onto the padded surface. “I just… I don’t know, Val. This is the thing that most makes me think Vidius made a mistake.”

“Perhaps he did,” Tarvadegh said mildly, earning a startled look. “I think it’s unlikely, however. Gods have insight beyond our imagining, and access to undreamable amounts of information. I’ve mentioned this before, Gabriel, but the masks are not something made up by Vidian theology; rather something codified by it. We have different facets of ourselves to display to different people, at different times. This practice is nothing more than becoming conscious of the effect and making use of it.”

“It feels like lying.”

“It can be,” the priest said, nodding, “if you are unethical or careless. But if so, that is not a true mask, in the sense that we use the term. It is a true aspect of yourself, one that you possess naturally, and are simply taking control of, putting to better use.”

“It’s just… I’ve always been a bit of a…a buffoon. I’m the guy who says the thing we’re all thinking but everyone else was too polite. The least Vidian person in the room, in other words. All of this, now…” He shrugged. “Maybe I’m just afraid of losing myself.”

Tarvadegh tilted his head to one side. “That’s interesting, you hadn’t mentioned that before.”

“Sorry…”

“No, no! These things are not meant to be done all at once, Gabriel; we’ll figure it out. For now, what you just said makes me think I have been trying to start you off too far ahead. It was always my assumption that a demonblood would have learned to play it very safe to get along in society. How does one do that without being…extremely circumspect?”

Gabriel sighed again and leaned back against the wall behind him. “One does it by hiding behind one’s soldier dad and monk friend when one accidentally sparks off a problem. You’ve kinda hit the nail on the head for me, though. If I couldn’t manage to suss all this out when it was arguably a matter of life and death, how’m I supposed to figure it out now?”

“Well, now you have the benefit of teaching,” Tarvadegh said with a smile. “Let’s go back to a much more basic thing, then, the different masks that I know you have. You are not the same person exactly with your father as with, say, your classmate Trissiny, correct?”

Gabriel blinked. “Hm. Actually… Maybe I’d have gotten along better with Trissiny from the start if I’d been a little less relaxed and kept my mouth shut. See, this is what I mean. The more you talk about these masks as a normal thing that everyone has, the more I just realize how I’ve been screwing up my whole life by not doing this.”

“So perhaps you’re a much more forthright person than most,” Tarvadegh said, grinning now. “But I guarantee, Gabriel, you have some different shades. Let me try a more pointed example. You don’t behave the same when talking with Toby as you do when in Juniper’s arms, right?”

Gabe averted his eyes, flushing.

“Sorry to be so blunt,” said Tarvadegh. “But are you beginning to see my point?”

“Kinda hard not to, with that image dropped into my head,” Gabriel muttered.

“Then it’s something for you to think about. And perhaps this will help you out socially. Everyone does not need to hear the first thought that crosses your mind, nor to see your feelings written on your face. In fact, sometimes it is kinder to spare them that. The Narisians have a philosophy that I have enjoyed reading—”

He broke off mid-sentence and both of them turned toward the stairwell. Above, there suddenly came the sound of screaming.

Both men were on their feet in a heartbeat, Gabriel pushing ahead to dash up the stairs. He withdrew the black wand Vidius had given him as he went, grabbing Ariel’s hilt with his left hand, and pushed the door latch down with his fist when he reached it.

He emerged onto the amphitheater in the gathering darkness in time to see the last of the assembled Vidians fleeing back into the town, a couple still shrieking in panic. Gabriel gave them little more than a glance, his attention fixed on the thing that had set them to running. They were fortunate that there was someone in their number who knew what they were looking at, otherwise somebody might have made a very severe mistake.

“Hello!” she said brightly.

“Hi,” Gabriel replied in a much more wary tone. The dryad was of a slimmer build than Juniper, less voluptuous, her skin a pale gold that was nearly white and her hair a much lighter shade of green, but she was still excruciatingly lovely. Also, she was completely nude. “Are you lost, miss?”

“Nope!” she said, pointing over his head at the slope of the mountain. “This is where I was going to! Last Rock, just like the name says. I made really good time! Well, the Golden Sea helped me a bit. My name’s Aspen!”

“Hi, Aspen,” he said warily. He didn’t point the wand at her, but kept it out, and his hand on the sword. “I’m Gabriel. You realize it’s kind of a problem for you to be here, right? Dryads aren’t supposed to be in human settlements.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” she said lightly, striding toward him, “I don’t care about that. So, do you live here? Did you know my sister?”

“Juniper? Sure, I know her. She’s a good friend of mine.”

“Good.” Aspen stopped barely beyond arm’s reach, still smiling, but with something intent and distinctly predatory in her gaze now. “Do you know what killed her?”

Gabriel blinked. “I… What? Killed her? Juniper’s not dead. I talked with her just a few—”

“Now, see, that’s gonna be a problem,” Aspen interrupted, taking one more step closer. He fought the urge to back away; he was still framed in the door, with Tarvadegh behind him. “Our mother felt it when she was snuffed out. You’re just lucky it’s me you’re talking to and not her, but I’m still gonna start getting annoyed if you lie to me. It sure does seem like you know something about this, Gabriel, so let’s try the truth this time.” The smile vanished from her face. “What happened to my sister?”

“I think there has been a misunderstanding,” he said carefully. “If you want to talk to Juniper…in fact, that’s probably the best thing, now that I think of it. If you could just stay right here for a bit, I’ll go and get—”

He saw her lunge and tried to jerk backward away from her, but not fast enough. Aspen grabbed his neck with one hand, squeezing just hard enough to hold him. He reflexively brought up the wand, but just as quickly pointed it elsewhere; the situation wasn’t nearly so bad that he couldn’t make it a thousand times worse by shooting a dryad.

“I told you, I don’t like lying,” Aspen said coldly. “And I don’t like being tricked. So no, I will not wait here while you run away, or go fetch someone to get me like they got Juniper. Now you get one more chance to tell me the truth, Gabriel, and then I’m just gonna kill you and go find someone else.”

“Please, calm down,” he said hoarsely around the constriction of his throat. She only squeezed harder.

“Last chance. Spit it out, before—”

A sound like howling wind rose up around them, though there wasn’t a breeze. A peculiar tinge grew in the air above the amphitheater, as if everything were seen through a haze of fog, but the distance was not obscured. Aspen stopped, staring around in surprise.

Then the figures appeared.

Seven of them, lining the edges of the amphitheater in a semicircle. They were watery and indistinct, but there were several obvious features they had in common. Each was garbed in black, had enormous black wings, and each carried a scythe in her right hand.

Aspen gasped, releasing Gabriel and stumbling backward. One of the shadowy figures followed, stepping forward until she was only two yards from the dryad.

The valkyrie transferred her scythe to her left hand, reached forward with her right, and then very slowly wagged one finger back and forth in front of Aspen’s face.

The dryad swallowed once, convulsively, then whirled and fled back into the prairie. In moments she was lost among the tallgrass.

As abruptly as it had come, the haze faded, the seven reapers vanishing along with it, leaving Gabriel and Tarvadegh standing alone in the doorway, suddenly conscious of raised voices and movement in the town.

“Well,” Gabe said, shaking himself off. “Um…can you talk to the Sheriff, please? I think I’d better go find Juniper. And Professor Tellwyrn,” he added.

“Good plan,” said Tarvadegh, nodding. “Oh, and Gabriel, for future reference…”

“Yes?”

“Never,” said the priest, “ever tell a woman to calm down.”

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