Tag Archives: Vestrel

13 – 27

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

Darkness receded into dimness, and most of the group shifted physically, both to fall into balanced stances and to peer around at their surroundings. It was a tunnel, that much was no surprise, but after the few seconds it took to make sense of the view they discovered that the walls were curved lengths of glass, or at least something transparent. The murky landscape outside and the relatively faint light they emitted was due to the view being of the bottom of the harbor. There was little to see except mud and the odd strand of kelp, and at that depth there would have been little sunlight even had it not been storming above. The broken wreck of a ship barely visible through the gloom off to their right helped put it all into perspective.

“Ta dah!” Mogul sang, spreading his arms and grinning at them. “Here’s what I can tell you: the Rust themselves stay away from here, and have for years now. They do try to control the access tunnels so you’d have had some issues pushing through, but this place is dangerous as hell and they’ve long since got what they need outta there. So, you’ll have privacy, at least.”

“And you know this because…?” Ruda turned a scowl on him, fingering the hilt of her sword.

“We keep an eye on them,” he said. “I’ve already been over this. I also warned you that I am not going in there, but it bears repeating: this is where we part ways. Nor am I gonna loaf around out here; I don’t mind doing the odd favor but I’m not a taxi service. You’ll have to make your own way back. Try not to let your friend in the cloak get killed and you should be able to find the path. And with that, I will wish you good luck and bid you farewell.”

He stepped back into the dimness, bowing and doffing his hat, and darkness thickened to encompass him, then dissipated to leave nothing behind.

“How thick would this glass have to be to be…um, solid, under this kind of water pressure?” Gabriel asked, touching his fingertips to the curved, transparent wall.

“I am pretty sure that’s not glass,” Fross replied, “if only because the answer to your question is ‘no.’ Really, I don’t get the utility of making the tunnel transparent, anyway. It’s not like there’s anything to see.”

“If this is part of the original construction, then ‘utility’ probably wasn’t a factor,” Milady said, squeezing past the rest of them in the crowded tunnel to approach the door up ahead. “The Infinite Order liked everything grandiose and extravagant. And also, it may not have been underwater, then. It was Naiya who flooded or buried all their facilities, and that was long after the Pantheon’s uprising. Let’s see…”

The tunnel terminated in a metal wall just beyond them, a smooth surface too glossy to be steel and inset with an unfamiliar sigil. It was encircled by an arc of glass—or otherwise transparent—tubing where it met the arched walls of the tunnel, which emitted a weak purple glow. Nearby, a few small screens were attached directly to the transparent walls, flickering faintly.

Milady stepped up to touch the sigil in the center of the door. Nothing happened.

“Surely you didn’t think it would be that easy?” Principia asked, slipping through the press of bodies more adroitly after her.

“Not really,” Milady replied with a sigh, turning to the nearest screen that was still active. “But it was worth trying. It’s awfully embarrassing to try to pick a lock, only to find it wasn’t locked in the first place.”

“Hah! You’re not kidding. I’ve actually had that experience.”

“You, the great thief?”

“We all start somewhere, kid.”

Principia hovered back slightly, watching, but let Milady fiddle with the screen, the pair of them leaving the students to their own devices. Ruda positioned herself at the rear of the group, facing down the empty tunnel with her sword drawn, while Toby pressed himself awkwardly against the arched wall, trying to get a look at what lay ahead. The angle made that fruitless, unfortunately.

“This place is spooky,” Juniper muttered, wrapping arms around herself. “I know I’ve abused the word in the past, but it’s unnatural. I hope my bunny’s okay…”

“I hope my city’s okay,” Ruda said, absently poking the curved wall with the tip of her sword.

“Uh, maybe don’t do that?” Gabriel suggested. “If it’s reinforced by magic, prodding it with mithril…”

“Yeesh.” Ruda whipped the blade away from the walls and stepped to the center of the tunnel.

“Okay, this doesn’t even constitute security,” Milady said, straightening. Even as she spoke, the purple tube encircling the wall ahead began to glow more brightly. “I think the Rust tried to shut this down without really knowing how it works; they turned off the power to the door but didn’t manage to lock it.”

“Probably didn’t have permission,” Principia said, watching the door. “This thing seems to think Scyllith is using it, so it probably wants her credentials before it’ll do anything too—”

She was cut off when, with a flash of the sigil in its center, the metal door abruptly slid straight downward into the floor, opening an archway into the space beyond. Immediately, an ungodly torrent of noise blasted out, a blended cacophony of thumps like distant thunder and the constant roar of rushing water. Before the group could even begin to make sense of this, or the bare glimpse of a large open space beyond, the noise was overwhelmed by an even louder sound: a shrill burst like nails on a blackboard, causing all of them to cringe back and cover their ears and Principia to fall against Milady with a cry of pain.

And then, a scream.

“YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE!” howled an echoing voice from within, and the door slammed shut again. This time, the purple half-ring around it turned a dull red and began pulsing slowly.

For a moment, they just stood there, straightening up and staring. Then Principia laughed weakly.

“Hey, good news!” she said, massaging her long ears with both hands. “We’re in the right place.”

“Hm.” Milady was already back at the panel. “Now it’s locked. Avatar override… Drat, we need a member of the Infinite Order to countermand this.”

“Well, we don’t fucking have one of those,” Ruda growled.

“We might,” Milady said, frowning thoughtfully at the screen. “I’ve previously convinced devices like this that I had Naiya’s permission to use them by getting help from her daughters… But that was with more than one, and with a stable Avatar that was willing to work with me in the first place. I don’t have a better idea, though. Juniper?”

The dryad was already at her side, peering at the screen. “How’s this work?”

“It responds to either touch or speech,” Milady explained. “And the facility should have the ability to sense your connection to Naiya’s transcension field. I mean, magic. Here, I’ve pulled up the door controls. Touch that green rectangle there, please.”

Juniper did so, and received a pleasant chime from the screen in response.

“Access insufficient?” she read from the result. “Rude.”

“If I may?” Gabriel stepped forward, drawing his wand, which then extended to its full scythe form. “Give me a little room if you would, ladies. I would really hate to nick somebody with this.”

Everyone backed up while he approached the door. There was no room in the tunnel to swing the long weapon, but he grasped it just below the blade and, carefully holding its haft out of the way as best he could in the confined space, drove it against the metal.

Incredibly, even with his relatively weak swing, the ragged-looking blade sank fully half its length into the glossy door, right in the middle of the Infinite Order sigil.

Reddish tendrils of oxidation began to spread outward from the rent, deepening as they expanded. Right before their eyes, metal darkened and curled away, beginning to fall in flakes to the ground. Rust spread like a colony of lichen, arms reaching all the way to the edges of the door, and the innermost surface rippling and crumbling to emit the chaotic noise from the facility.

“I…don’t know what that alloy is, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t rust,” Milady said weakly, staring at the door as the ancient metal rotted away.

“Nothing doesn’t die,” Gabriel said in a soft tone which was almost obliterated by the sounds from within. Enough of the door had dissolved that the scythe had come loose, and he set about scraping it against the edges of the hole he had made, encouraging the oxidation to spread further.

“Holy fuck, Arquin,” Ruda exclaimed above the noise emerging from the gap. “And you’ve just been carrying that fucking thing around for the last year?!”

“Perhaps Vidius entrusted it to him because he’s not the sort of person who would carelessly swing it about,” Toby suggested.

“Hey, June, a little help?” Gabriel turned to her with a grin. “I think the rest of this calls for more muscle than I’ve got.”

“Now that I can do,” she said, stepping up and grabbing one edge of the rusted gap he had made. Her first few handholds simply collapsed in her grip, but finally she managed to seize a relatively solid edge and pull. The weakened metal tore away in her grasp, and with a little more tugging she finally ripped a large chunk entirely free, exposing a gap big enough for them to step through.

By that point, there was nothing between them and the clamor inside the facility; it was almost too loud to converse. Gabriel slipped through first, ducking under the bent exposed edge of the torn door, Juniper right behind him. The two stepped forward into the space beyond, forming an advance guard while the rest of their party came through in single file—with the exception of Fross, who zipped in right behind Juniper.

Fabrication Plant One was a vast open space apparently set deep into the floor of the bay; at any rate, they emerged right under the ceiling. In fact, directly above the metal platform onto which they stepped was a transparent dome supported by an artistic lattice of metal filaments, revealing the murky light of the ocean above. Stairs descended from directly in front of them to a series of walkways which mostly extended around the edges of the huge chamber, though one, supported by apparently nothing, stretched out dead ahead to terminate in a machine-lined emplacement right above the center of the room.

Ladders extended down to the open area below, where enormous machines stood upon the floor, or were attached to the walls. Or so it appeared they should be; it was hard to tell, because the chamber was partially flooded. About three stories down, seawater rippled under the glow of the room’s bright lighting. There was little order in the equipment there, as well, further obscuring the architecture. It was not like the mess of lichen-like machine parts that characterized the Rust’s hideaway; all the devices here were built on a much larger scale and mostly at angles, lacking the sense of organic growth. It was still chaotic, though, with screens, cranes, grasping arms, and other devices of inscrutable purpose protruding randomly from the water and poking this way and that, affixed to each other in peculiar arrangements serving no obvious purpose. Some moved in evidently pointless patterns, others emitting various noises of constant motion—and in some cases, impact, as they crashed against each other and the walls, showing no evidence of any governing intelligence.

There were no less than four visible leaks in the walls, all near spots where pieces of machinery were flailing with particular abandon, one emitting sparks from some kind of energy cutter. Streams of seawater of varying size poured into the chamber. Large networks of pipes had been built, lattices chaotically extending over the other equipment, attached to pumps which were taking the water away…somewhere. A number of them had been broken by other machines and were squirting seawater back into the flood.

Oddly enough, once they were out in the open space and not the confined, echoing tunnel, the noise didn’t seem nearly so oppressive. At least, they had no trouble hearing Ruda’s muttered observation.

“What a fuckin’ mess.”

“Whatever we’re going to do, we’d better get to quickly,” Principia noted. “I don’t know how long this has been going on, but sooner or later it’s gonna flood completely. Or maybe just collapse under the water pressure.”

“WHO DARES!” bellowed the voice from before. One of the huge machines extended an arm to grab at another, and ripped free a large transparent panel, then raised this to hover near their platform at an angle. In the large sheet of what was probably not glass there suddenly appeared the translucent image of a man, seemingly made of purple light. He was bald, clad in a tight suit of some kind, and leering at them with wide eyes and bared teeth. “Who dares intrude upon the sanctum sanctorum of the Infinite Order?!”

Milady stepped forward and raised her voice. “We’re here to—”

“Hah! It was a rhetorical question, fool! NONE SHALL PASS!”

The arm abruptly dropped the panel, which splashed into the flood below, and reached down in a different direction, this time seizing another extending arm which held at its tip a spark-spraying arc of energy clearly designed to cut, judging by the singed and sliced-off state of several nearby chunks of metal. The larger arm grabbed it behind the cutting device and yanked; with an appalling screech, the second arm was torn free, its damaged end emitting a gout of sparks and occasional arcs of electricity. The machine raised this up, rearing back in clear preparation to slash at them.

“No, you don’t,” Gabriel snapped, leveling his scythe. Black light blasted from its tip, impacting the improvised weapon and knocking the cutting arm cleanly from its grip to tumble into the floodwaters below. Where the dark energy struck, the original arm began to seize up, its joints ceasing to function as rust spread along them.

“Well played!” cried the eerie voice again, and another transparent panel popped up from below, this one held aloft unevenly by two hovering machines. It bobbed and wove awkwardly about, the poorly-coordinated flyers apparently trying to tug it in different directions, but it was steady enough to give them a ghastly view of the purple man grinning insanely at them. “But I have many weapons in my arsenal, oh yes! SOON YOUR DOOM SHALL—”

They never did find out what to expect of their doom, as one of the flying machines abruptly won the tug-of-war, jerking away and subsequently losing its grip on the display panel, which sailed off to clatter against the wall and then tumble gracelessly down to the water.

“There is a crazy man living in the walls,” Fross reported. “Is that normal?”

“All major Infinite Order facilities have an Avatar,” Milady explained, “an artificial intelligence installed in the machines who runs the place, keeps it in order. The one I’ve dealt with before was the very soul of self-possession; the state of this poor fellow is probably the reason this place is such a disaster, and also how he lost control of whatever it is the Rust are using. I think we need to get to there.”

She pointed ahead, at the central platform. It was a partially enclosed spot, with transparent walls sloping outward such that whoever stood within would have a good view around the fabrication plant’s floor. It had also clearly suffered a great deal of recent construction, most of which was visibly haphazard. Machines had been grafted on, parts of the transparent walls ripped away and some shattered to let beams, wires, and pipes pass through. The large clusters of technology affixed to it were supported by a mixture of pillars rising from the flooded floor below and beams attached to the ceiling above.

The ceiling was mostly transparent; some of them had been bolted right into the clear surface. Several of those attachment points were emitting tiny sprays of water.

“Of course we fucking do,” Ruda said fatalistically.

“It occurs to me,” said Toby, “that crossing that narrow walkway while the crazed Avatar flings pieces of machines at us is going to be…dicey.”

“This one’s got a knack for understatement,” Principia noted.

“Gabriel!” Ariel said suddenly. “Grounding and deflecting charm, applied to the platform, now!”

“What?” he exclaimed. “I can’t just do that without—”

“I can!” Fross chimed, zipping around them in a circle and emitting a blue glow as she did so. A gleaming set of runes appeared on the metal beneath their feet.

Barely a second later, a snake-like protrusion slithered up from one of the nearby banks of machinery, its “head” sparking with unevenly discharged electricity, and jabbed itself against the metal walkway adjacent to them. Immediately, a circular area around them lit up and sparked violently as voltage surged against and around it. Fross’s enchantment held, however, keeping the current being pumped into the metal from reaching them.

“Why, you sneaky bastard,” Gabriel said almost admiringly, taking aim with his scythe again. Another dark blast of energy reduced the metal tentacle to shrapnel and cutting off the voltage.

“Will you stop doing that?!” came the Avatar’s voice from somewhere below them. “Security protocols require that you just DIE already!”

“There’s no way,” said Juniper. “These catwalks are horribly vulnerable. And if we make it there, what then? All he has to do is knock that whole mess down and that’s it.”

“That’s clearly a command center,” said Milady, “and he has obviously augmented it. I think it’s too important to destroy; if we get there…”

“You’re counting on two very uncertain things,” said Ruda. “That you’re right, which we can’t know, and that this guy’s lucid enough not to stab himself in the heart even if that is his heart. Which, from the looks of him, he’s not.”

“Actually,” Principia said thoughtfully, “I suggest we retreat.”

“We can’t fucking leave!” Ruda exclaimed. “We have to fix this shit!”

“I said retreat, not surrender,” the elf replied patiently. “Back up, guys, out into the tunnel. We need to regroup and come up with a plan.”

“Yeah, you’d BETTER run,” the Avatar crowed at them as they clambered backward through the wrecked door. “Flee for your insignificant lives! FLEE MY WRATH!”

“It’s a little disappointing that we can’t slam this,” Juniper said as she climbed through. They went in reverse order, making her the next to last to exit, Gabriel right on her heels with his scythe shortened back to wand form.

“Here’s the thing,” Principia said once they were back outside the immediate range of the mad Avatar’s machinations. “Infinite Order systems are supposed to be decentralized.”

“Of course!” Milady exclaimed. “Some functions may be locked to certain consoles, but there are screens out here. If we can get into them, we can do…something, surely.”

“I thought you said he locked those down,” Ruda snapped.

“Yeah, but he’s crazy,” Fross chimed thoughtfully. “If we can get him to make a mistake…”

“How?” Toby asked.

“Arquin.” Principia turned to him. “I know valkyries are only able to interact with the mortal plane under certain conditions. Can you make those conditions?”

Gabriel frowned, then tilted his head and looked off to the side the way he did when listening to Vestrel.

“…apparently I can,” he replied after a moment. “It’s within the purview of the highest-ranking priests of Vidius, which includes me, and the divine scythe provides a shortcut. What did you have in mind?”

“You said you got the Infinite Order’s computers to recognize you as Naiya by getting her daughters to help,” Principia said to Milady. “We’ve got a dryad, a valkyrie, and a pixie.”

“What does the pixie have to do with it?” Milady asked, frowning.

“Oh!” Juniper straightened up. “Well, she’s sort of a…granddaughter of Naiya. Pixies are created by one of my fallen sisters, Jacaranda.”

Milady blinked. “They are?”

“You think that’ll be enough?” Toby asked.

“Not for anything too complex,” Principia said. “Look, I’m no expert on this technology but I have had brushes with old Elder God machines a handful of times, and I do know one trick that consistently works. If they’re not functioning right, you can reset them.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” Ruda demanded.

“Shut them off,” Milady said, her eyes widening, “and then turn them back on. Yes! When these systems boot up, they’ll automatically seek to identify and correct any flaws in their program. If the computer will recognize Juniper, Vestrel and Fross as having Naiya’s credentials, we can trigger an emergency shutdown. That’s an important but simple command, so hopefully they’ll be enough. Then we can deal with the sub-OS and find out what’s wrong with the Avatar!”

“The sub…what?” Gabriel scratched his head.

“Long story,” she said impatiently. “It’s a good idea. What do you need to do to get Vestrel out here?”

He was looking off to the side again. “Okay. Vestrel says a simple invocation will do; apparently these things are connected enough to magic that if she can just brush the mortal plane, it’ll detect her presence. I’ll just need a little space here. Clear a circle, if you would.”

They all backed away while he extended his scythe again and began gesticulating carefully with it, marking a circular area on the floor in front of the door.

“Brace yourself,” Milady said softy to Juniper. “One thing I discovered working with a mix of valkyries and dryads is that for some reason, your older sisters are inherently frightening to your generation.”

“I know a bit about that,” she replied. “Aspen told m—”

Juniper cut herself off, eyes widening, and stumbled backward into Toby. The circle Gabriel had lightly scraped on the floor had begun to glow a faint gold, and a wavering figure appeared in its center. She was translucent and obscured, as if seen through cloudy water, but they could make out the shape of a person garbed in black, with folded wings, carrying a scythe.

“You okay?” Toby asked, bracing Juniper by the shoulders.

“I…yeah,” she whispered, straightening up. “Thanks. That’s just… She’s just…”

“Over here,” Milady said gently, beckoning her. “Fross, you too. I’m hoping Vestrel is close enough to register automatically… I need you to instruct the computer to initiate an emergency shutdown of the Avatar.”

“I…okay.” Juniper edged toward her, eyes never leaving the vague shape of Vestrel within her summoning circle until she reached the screen closest to it. There, finally, she turned away, leaning down toward it. “Um… What was the word? Computer? Computer!” she said more forcefully in response to Milady’s encouraging nod. “I…instruct you to…initiate an emergency…shutdown…of the Avatar!”

Nothing happened.

“Tell it who you are,” Principia muttered urgently.

The dryad cleared her throat. “My name’s Jun—oh,” she said, breaking off as Milady elbowed her. “Right. I am…Naiya!” Juniper winced, mumbling to herself, “that seems really disrespectful to say…”

Abruptly, all the screens changed to a flat white display with the sigil of the Infinite Order in its center.

Beyond, the noise of the fabrication plant did not let up.

“I don’t think it’s working,” Ruda said sardonically. “What was Plan B?”

“Computer!” Fross chimed, zooming straight up to the nearest screen. “We are avatars of Naiya, here because this is an emergency and she is not able to come in person! Check our inherent magic—uh, transcension field connections to verify this! You will need to compensate for a partial translocation to the chaos dimension in the case of the third avatar present. This is an emergency command, due to the obvious state of disrepair of this facility! You will shut down the Avatar and all connected systems immediately.”

“Acknowledged,” an oddly resonant feminine voice suddenly said from nowhere. “User Naiya identified with seventy percent confidence. Confidence sufficient to initiate reboot in safe mode. Rebooting.”

And then, abruptly, the lights in the fabrication plant went off, the machines shut down, and total silence descended.

“How,” Milady asked incredulously of Fross, who was now the only source of illumination, “did you know how to do that?”

“Well, it’s a machine, right?” the pixie replied. “A thinking machine? It stands to reason that a machine which thinks would do so in the most logical way possible. I can kinda relate. That’s how I would’ve preferred to—”

Something enormous landed right on top of the arched transparent ceiling with a deep thud, making all of them jump and several shout. In the faint glow of Fross’s silver aura, they could make out a patchwork of scales and metal plates pressed right against the tunnel walls, all but blotting out the entire view.

“It’s…the serpent,” Ruda said slowly. “Holy shit. Is it…dead? Does that mean we won?”

“I really hope this stuff is a lot stronger than it looks,” Gabriel muttered, reaching out to touch the transparent barrier.

“If it can stand up to the water pressure for thousands of years I don’t think that is going to hurt it,” Fross chimed. “Also, it may not be dead. Some creatures go dormant in bad weather; I don’t know anything about sea serpent biology but we did arrange for that storm in part to make it retreat from the surface. So, hey, at least we’re making progress!”

Milady drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Don’t celebrate prematurely. Now we have to figure out what damaged the Avatar, fix that, turn him back on, figure out what nanites are and how the Rust got them, put a stop to that…”

“And,” Gabriel added, cracking his knuckles, “it occurs to me that with everything shut off, those machines are no longer pumping out the water coming in through those leaks, so we just put ourselves under a very unforgiving deadline. Let’s get to work, guys.”


< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                 Next Chapter >


10 – 13

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                          Next Chapter >

“All right, hear ye and all that shit,” Ruda proclaimed as soon as everyone was seated. “I’m callin’ this meeting of the Class of 1182 to order.”

“And Schkhurrankh,” Scorn added, raising a hand.

“Right, yes,” Ruda agreed. “Class of 1182 and their sidekick, Phlegm the Mighty.”

Suddenly scowling thunderously, Scorn started to rise from her chair.

“Vrash’khai nkh thrimpf,” Teal said softly. The Rhaazke paused, glancing at her guiltily, then sank back down. Teal turned to Ruda, scowling herself, now. “Will you please not mock her? She’s working to adjust.”

“Fuck yes I’m gonna mock her,” Ruda said bluntly. “I mock everybody. She’s supposed to be learning how to get along on this plane, right? Well, she can’t be flying off the handle at anybody who looks at her crosswise.”

“That actually is true, and important to learn,” Gabriel said more quietly, directing himself to Scorn. “Being demon-blooded on this plane means trying extra hard not to make waves. A lot of people barely need an excuse to attack you to begin with.”

“Let them,” Scorn huffed, folding her arms. “I collect they faces!”

“Who has been teaching her words?” Juniper asked, frowning at Ruda.

“I think we need to have a few conversations about this later,” Toby murmured.

“Anyfuckingway!” Ruda shouted. “Before this digressed into a discussion of demon social skills, we were gathered here for a reason!”

“A reason in addition to lunch?” Gabriel asked, picking up his sandwich.

“Arquin, by Naphthene’s pendulous teats, I swear—”

“Yes, yes, fucking stabbed, I know,” he said around a mouthful.

There were several spots around campus with picnic tables, all isolated from each other and most somewhat shaded by trees or buildings. No space had been provided for the entire student body to move an organized meal outside the cafeteria, unless they wanted to lay it out on the lawn, but the outdoor tables represented opportunities for smaller groups to gather for food or study sessions. The sophomores had, at Ruda’s insistent urging, collected lunch from the cafeteria as usual and made their way to a nook close to the alchemy building near the campus’s east wall. Actually, the table here had appeared only a few weeks ago; previously the spot had only held a few trees, one of which had been altered somehow during the first week of classes to look almost anthropomorphic.

When asked about this, Professor Tellwyrn had only said cryptically that anyone seeking to torture classmates should do it their damn selves and not involve innocent shrubbery.

“Here’s the issue,” Ruda said, laying her hands down flat on both sides of her plate and panning a stare around the table. “Trissiny keeps sensing demons.”

“It was just twice,” Trissiny said hastily. “It’s the circumstances that are strange.”

“Right,” said Ruda, nodding. “Both times, other people present who should have been perceptive to a demon felt nothing. The first time, though, Scorn did feel it, and could even identify it by species.”

“Vanislaas child, yes, I remember,” said Scorn, looking bored and still somewhat annoyed. “But that is one time. Last night, you interrupt my sleep for nothing.”

“Right, that’s what I was coming to,” said Ruda. “The difference is, the first time Scorn was right there, while the second, she was five floors down.”

“For stealthy species of demon, such as Vanislaads,” said Shaeine, “that distance would make all the difference in whether a sensitive individual would detect its presence.”

Gabriel raised his hand. “I am being invisibly harangued to insist that there is not and hasn’t been a Vanislaad demon on this campus, and Vestrel is beginning to be insulted at the lack of faith being expressed.”

“Hard to have faith in something you can’t see,” Juniper murmured, absently lowering her hand to pat her jackalope, who was back at Clarke Tower. He had been banned from the cafeteria after charging at Mrs. Oak and demolishing a rack of glasses.

“Isn’t that what faith…is?” Fross chimed.

“Right!” Ruda said loudly, slapping the table for emphasis. “Fuck’s sake, people, I’m starting to empathize with Tellwryn, and that pisses me off. Can’t you lot keep your focus for thirty seconds at a time?”

“Is food time,” Scorn mumbled around an unnecessarily visible mouthful. Everyone averted their eyes. “Better things to do than watch you speech.”

“I see two basic possibilities here,” Ruda went on, ignoring her. “One, to get it out of the way, is that Trissiny’s losing her mind.”

Trissiny sighed.

“Uh,” said Gabriel. “I don’t think…”

“Yeah, I’ve honestly ruled that out immediately,” Ruda continued. “And not just out of personal attachment. If the Hand of Avei were suffering mental disturbances…well, that would create notice. Anything from the Sisterhood discreetly sending people here to collect her to Avei coming down and putting a stop to it. You can’t have your soul hooked up to a deity and them not take note when shit’s seriously wrong with you.”

“That’s more correct than you may realize,” Toby added. “Paladins don’t go insane—there have been observations written on this for centuries. It’s another reason paladins are used as front-line defenders in the case of chaos incidents. That kind of direct mental connection to a deity protects the mind from severe damage.”

“Right,” said Ruda, nodding. “So, unless anybody can think of something I haven’t, we’d best assume that Trissiny and her ‘sense evil’ thingamajig are functioning as intended.”

“What’s your actual idea, then?” Teal asked after a moment, in which there was no sound except chewing.

“Assuming that her senses are working correctly isn’t the same as assuming what they’re sensing is true,” said Ruda. “Senses can be fooled. We’ve got two other paladins to contradict Trissiny’s impressions, and especially Gabe’s valkyries. I get the idea they’re kind of specialized anti-incubus agents. Right?”

“Anti-undead would be more accurate,” Gabriel replied, setting down his sandwich. “Remember that Vanislaads are demonic undead, not true demons. But yes, their extra-dimensional origin makes them especially visible to valkyries, who themselves exist multi-dimensionally. Vanislaad stealth and shape-shifting absolutely do not work against soul reapers.”

“You are suggesting that someone is deliberately sending false positive demon signals to Trissiny?” Shaeine asked, frowning faintly.

“Nothing else makes sense to me,” Ruda replied. “That just leaves the questions of who and why.”

“I should think the how is also a significant concern,” said Ariel.

Ruda sighed. “Arquin, do you have to bring that thing with you everywhere?”

“Funny. I was going to ask Trissiny the same thing, but it turns out this meeting was your idea.”

“She always has a helpful perspective on magical matters,” said Gabriel, “you just have to learn to tune out the other commentary. Speaking of which, Ariel, you have any insight on this? And kindly refrain from irrelevant personal observations.”

“If you would refrain from associating with irrelevant persons, I would have none to make. To answer the question, however, the key issue here is that two other paladins in proximity to Trissiny were not alerted during the first incident. Sending out signals to trigger senses of that kind is rather simple magic, and would not be noticeable to valkyries; Fross could probably do it.”

“Aw, thanks!” Fross chimed. “I don’t actually know a spell for that, but now that you mention it, it seems pretty easy to reverse-enchant from the description…”

“At issue,” Ariel continued, “is that sending such a signal in such a way that it triggered only one specific person’s senses while avoiding others is inordinately complex magic. I can extrapolate arcane, infernal and fae methods of doing such a thing, but all would require significant energy reserves and a highly sophisticated casting. I frankly do not know what to make of the fact that the demon perceived the same signal. Data on Rhaazke is generally lacking on this plane of existence.”

Everyone turned to look at Scorn, who was busily licking the napkins in which she had carried her sandwich, and eying Toby’s half-eaten one. He nudged it away from her.

“Well, the sword’s not wrong,” Ruda admitted. “How is indeed a concern. But to backtrack, I think who and why are still things we should discuss, since we seem to be at a dead end there.”

“The who would explain the why if we knew it, I think,” Teal mused. “Any number of people might want to take potshots at the Hand of Avei. Most of those have motivations built right into their affiliations.”

“Something about that troubles me,” said Shaeine. “In Tar’naris we have a saying: ‘Evil yields only to a greater evil.’”

“Well, that’s grim,” Gabriel commented.

“I believe I understand what she’s getting at, though,” said Trissiny, nodding. “The Avenist proverb is ‘if the wicked feared the righteous, they would be righteous themselves.’ Assuming this is the work of someone with an established enmity to me… I don’t have any personal nemeses, that I know of. And if it’s someone opposed to Avei, it is very strange that they would attack me here.”

“Uh, here’s where you are, though,” Juniper said.

“Perhaps I muddied the issue with my choice of words,” said Shaeine. “My apologies. ‘Evil’ is a somewhat naïve concept most often used to dismiss foreign perspectives. My point, and Trissiny’s if I am not mistaken, is that any of the parties who would be inclined to assault Avei’s interests would also tend to shy away from antagonizing Professor Tellwyrn. Between her and Avei, I would hesitate to guess whose wrath is more fierce, but Tellwyrn’s is indisputably more indiscriminate.”

“This who becomes an increasingly interesting question,” Ruda mused.

“Well, one prospect springs right to mind,” said Gabriel. “I assume you all remember that asshole in the white suit from Veilgrad. He played us all like fiddles—if Malivette hadn’t jumped into that, the whole thing would’ve been a clean Black Wreath victory. Here, we don’t have a vampire backing us up, and even then she pulled it off through sheer element of surprise.”

“That is a significant point,” Shaeine agreed, nodding. “Professor Tellwyrn is, at present, a somewhat static entity, and it has been observed before that she can be maneuvered around. These particular tactics suggest discretion of exactly that kind.”

“And the Black Wreath are excellent candidates for someone looking to start trouble for the Hand of Avei,” said Toby. “What’s curious is that they specifically avoided doing the same to me and Gabe. Seems like they should have just as much of a problem with us.”

“Maybe not,” said Trissiny. “I mean no offense, but Omnu and Vidius aren’t usually represented on the front lines against the Wreath. Avei’s forces are.”

“Hn,” Ruda grunted. “If anything, this makes the motive more obscure, not less. It’s fine and dandy to call this general Black Wreath fuckery, but remember their defining characteristic is they don’t do shit without a plan in place. What do they gain from ruffling Trissiny’s hair?”

“Provocation?” Shaeine suggested.

“I could see them maybe wanting to goad her into making a mistake,” Gabriel said, frowning, “but I can’t see how this leads to that. If I were the Wreath, aimlessly pissing off the Hand of Avei would not be on my agenda. Stop me if I’m wrong, Trissiny, but based on the crash courses Tarvadegh’s been feeding me, the Wreath’s strength is its cunning. In a straight-up fight, hardly any warlock is a match for a paladin, especially one of Avei’s. If it’s them, there’s gotta be something more going on.”

“We don’t have any actual info on that yet,” Ruda cautioned, “but you’re right, Gabe. We’d best be on the alert for something further to develop. Anyhow, while this is a productive theory, remember we haven’t established for a fact that this is the Wreath’s doing.”

“Who else?” asked Teal.

Ruda drummed her fingers once on the picnic table. “Well. There’s one other prospect…maybe. Ravana has a theory.”

Teal stiffened. “When were you talking with Ravana about this?”

“Ravana’s the little blonde one, right?” said Gabriel. “Of the new froshes I’ve only really talked to Iris.”

“Let me backtrack a bit,” said Ruda. “This started with the revival, and Bishop Snowe’s very un-Izarite shot across Tellwyrn’s bow. Then, after the cults packed up and left, there were two extra priests left over—an Avenist and a Vidian.”

“There’s a new Vidian priest?” Gabriel said, straightening up. “I haven’t been really involved at the temple since this weekend…”

“Sister Takli isn’t assigned to the Silver Mission in any official capacity,” Trissiny added. “But she’s staying in Last Rock for awhile, and wanted to volunteer while she’s around. That seemed perfectly admirable to me.”

“Has there ever been a priestess of Avei who randomly moved to town before?” Ruda said pointedly.

“The Mission wasn’t here before,” Trissiny replied. “Neither was I. I thought it was odd, but nothing about it seems sinister. I’m not sure where you’re going with this, Ruda.”

“Well,” Ruda continued, “yesterday there was the play, and the impromptu picnic, where Juniper’s bunny caused a scene, remember? Well, that new Vidian was there, right before, and immediately got involved.”

“What’s your point?” Gabriel asked, frowning.

“I’m repeating a theory, not proposing it,” Ruda replied. “Ravana found the sequence of events suspicious—she wanted to come to the paladins with this, but I asked her not to. That’s just something I prefer to do myself. Honestly, I’ve seen that girl’s type, and she’s trouble; it remains to be seen whether she’s trouble for us or someone else.”

“You have no idea how right you are,” Teal said grimly. Shaeine reached to hold her hand under the table.

“But her theory is that Archpope Justinian is using proxies to move against the University. Agitating the townsfolk, that kinda thing. Remember how Jack suddenly lunged at that guy from a standstill?” Ruda turned to Gabriel. “Arquin, hypothetically speaking, how possible would it be for a Vidian cleric to use a little spark of divine magic to flick a rabbit’s ear, and more cult-specific gifts to make sure no onlookers noticed it?”

“What?” Juniper sat bolt upright in her seat.

“Easy, there,” Toby murmured, patting her arm.

“Hypothetically speaking?” Gabriel pursed his lips, frowning at the table. “It’s the divine spark bit that would be tricky, there, but it could be done with a very small shielding spell. That’s possible, Ruda, but this whole thing seems really tenuous to me.”

“What?” Juniper snarled, rising from her seat. “Are you saying that woman hurt my bunny?!”

“Whoah!” Toby and Teal immediately lunged from both sides, taking her by the shoulders. Not that they were physically strong enough to hold the dryad down, but she at least stopped while Toby continued. “Nobody’s saying that, June. Gabe’s right, the idea is seriously a stretch. Why would a priest do such a thing?”

“Now who is fly off the handle?” Scorn commented, smirking.

“I thought something was wrong!” Juniper growled. “Jack doesn’t just freak out like that for no reason!”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Ruda exclaimed. “He does that all the damn time!”

“He really does, June,” said Toby. “Everyone’s noticed it. Haven’t you seen how people leave the area when you bring him around?”

“I hate to have to tell you this,” Gabriel added, “but that rabbit’s a menace.”

“He’s not a rabbit,” Juniper said sullenly, finally letting herself be nudged back into her seat. “He’s a jackalope. There’s a difference. They’re excitable. It’s not his fault!”

“That is correct,” Ariel observed. “Since wild animals cannot be expected to train themselves, it is clearly your fault.”

Gabriel silently stood up, unbuckled the sword from his belt, laid her on the bench and sat on her.

“Thank you,” Ruda said to him.

“I believe I follow Ravana’s line of thinking,” said Shaeine. “If her theory is correct, this priestess’s actions would be consistent—assuming she actually committed such an action instead of simply being present while Jack exhibited perfectly characteristic behavior. Agitating the bunny to create a scene between students and citizens would advance this hypothetical goal. However, that scenario is constructed almost entirely of unverified assumptions.”

“Ravana’s a sly little snake,” added Teal. “If there are political machinations afoot, then it’d be a very good idea to listen to her—she’s probably more of an expert on that than anyone our age has a right to be. But the other side of that is I think she’ll be pretty likely to see hidden motives where they don’t actually exist.”

“Why on earth would the Archpope want to attack the University?” Trissiny exclaimed. “How could he possibly gain from that?”

“I dunno,” Gabriel mused. “Snowe did make that speech—we all saw it. And what she did afterward, or tried to. Plus, Tarvadegh’s warned me to be careful about the Universal Church; Justinian has a reputation for being a smooth operator.”

“He seems pretty popular with the general public,” Teal said, frowning.

“You do understand what a smooth operator is, right?” Ruda said dryly.

“Mother Narny and Commander Rouvad have both said similar things to me, now that you mention it,” Trissiny mused, her expression growing thoughtful.

“No one’s said anything like that to me,” Toby objected.

“It stands to reason that the various cults would have different attitudes toward the Universal Church,” suggested Shaeine. “A defining trait of Omnists seems to be their inclination to get along with everyone. By contrast, Avenists are constitutionally more combative, and Vidians more…subtle.”

“You can say it,” Gabriel said with a grin. “’Two-faced’ isn’t even taken as an insult in the faith.”

“Guys, I think this is wandering off the point,” Fross chimed. “Remember where we started from? Are you seriously going to suggest that the Universal Church is trying to antagonize Trissiny with false fragments of demon aura?”

A short silence fell across the table.

“Yeah, I’m inclined to agree with Fross, here,” said Ruda, nodding slowly. “Figured I should mention Ravana’s ideas; if there’s underhanded fuckery afoot, they’re worth considering. But this kind of shit in particular seems a lot more characteristic of the Black Wreath than the Universal Church. Pretty much by definition.”

“I’m not entirely convinced this Church thing has anything to it,” Teal added. “Though…I may be biased. Ravana Madouri really makes me nervous.”

“At some point, Teal,” said Gabriel, “I think we’re gonna need to hear the story behind that.”

“Regardless of that, she has a point,” said Toby. “Even if Justinian’s as much of a politician as you’re suggesting, and even considering Bishop Snowe’s behavior—which was extremely creepy at minimum, I’ll agree—I can’t see any possible motivation for the Archpope to try to start trouble with the University.”

“You children should make more of an effort to keep up with the news,” Professor Ekoi said brightly. Everyone jumped, staring; she was standing at the head of the table, smiling benignly, and had definitely not been a moment before. The kitsune laid a short stack of newspapers on the end of the picnic table. “There are fascinating things in the headlines today, quite relevant to your discussion. I happened to pick up the fresh editions in Calderaas this morning.”

“What were you doing in Calderaas?” Gabriel demanded.

Ekoi fixed her eyes on him, her smile widening to show her long canines. “On the subject of invasive personal questions, Mr. Arquin, why are your undershorts flying from a flagpole on the main lawn?”

“What?” he exclaimed. “There’s not a flagpole on the lawn. I don’t even know what you’re talking oh gods please tell me you didn’t.”

Ruda collapsed in laughter, nearly sliding off the bench.

“Remember, Mr. Arquin,” Ekoi said solemnly, “manners are miniature morals. You kids may keep those—I think you will find them enlightening. I shall see you in class.”

She turned and sauntered away, tail waving languidly behind her.

“I disavow any knowledge of anything flying from any flagpoles,” Gabriel announced. “On an unrelated subject, you guys know if there’s a shop in Last Rock where you can get clothes on the cheap?”

“Don’t buy cheap clothes,” Teal said, lips twitching. “They just need to be replaced faster.”

“Uh, guys?” Juniper said, holding up the topmost newspaper so they could all see the headline.

“Snowe vs. Tellwyrn?” Teal read aloud. “How does anyone think that’s even a contest?”

“Are they all like that?” Trissiny asked, reaching for the remaining stack.

Ruda grabbed it first, spreading them across the table amidst the remains of their sandwiches. “Looks like…yup. Wow, I wouldn’t have expected one Bishop’s speech to generate this much interest in the newspapers. Was it really that newsworthy?”

“I…guess?” Teal said uncertainly.

“Or,” Shaeine murmured, “someone has exerted influence on the papers to make this happen.”

Another brief silence fell.

“So,” Ruda said, drumming her fingers on top of one of the newspapers, “the Church or the Wreath. Well, they both have a motive, though I still can’t tell what the Church’s is. They clearly are taking aim at the University, though.”

“Is this something we should be worried about?” Fross asked nervously. “I have to admit I’ve sorta skipped politics in my reading. I mean, apart from what we’ve been over in Professor Tellwyrn’s class, which isn’t exactly…current.”

“This is something for Professor Tellwyrn to worry about,” Toby said firmly. “Someone targeting Trissiny is our business.”

“And hers,” Gabriel pointed out. “Come on, you know that’s exactly what she’d say. Don’t you guys think we ought to take this to her?”

“I’m not sure I want to approach her, with the mood she’ll be in when she sees this,” Juniper muttered, still reading the paper.

“We’re not gonna have Tellwyrn’s skirts to hide behind forever,” Ruda snapped. “And we will have many of these same problems. We know the Wreath is after Vadrieny, and from what you guys said about what happened in Veilgrad, that guy seemed weirdly interested in the paladins. It stands to reason the Archpope would have similar interests, whatever it is he’s doin’ here. No, we deal with this.”

“How?” Teal asked.

“Well,” Ruda said thoughtfully, leaning backward and staring absently at the scattered newspapers, “we’re gonna need more information, first. Which of our prospects is actually behind the demon shit getting thrown at Triss?”

“Wreath,” Scorn snorted. “Is obvious. You are stupid?”

“Teal, I’m gonna stab your demon in a minute,” Ruda growled.

“Why is it obvious?” Teal asked Scorn.

The Rhaazke shrugged. “Sword say the hard part being the hiding, yes? Easy spell, but hard to make Trissiny only sense the aura? Well, I sense it too, so is Wreath hiding.”

“What?” Gabriel frowned. “What did she say?”

“Why does that mean it’s a Wreath spell?” Trissiny demanded.

Scorn looked incredulously around the table at them. “I am Rhaazke.”

“Yep,” Ruda said. “Gonna stab her.”

“Scorn,” Gabriel said irritably, “pretend for a moment that you’re from a completely different plane of existence with different rules, and nobody here knows what the hell you are talking about!”

“If I understand correctly,” Shaeine said before Scorn could react to that, “you are saying that the Wreath’s gift of stealth does not work against Rhaazke?”

“How’d you get that outta that word salad?” Ruda exclaimed. “And that’s another thing, Tanglish isn’t demonic. You can’t just mix words together at fucking random!”

“That’s what I thought she said,” Fross chimed.

Scorn sighed dramatically. “You know nothing. Fine, I explain. The goddess, she does not trust demons. They are made by Scyllith, and made to be hard for control. Also some still being loyal to Scyllith. Rhaazke are different; Scyllith throws us out, very long ago. So in Hell, when Elilial takes command, she does not trust demons to be in charge. Her highest…um… What is word?” She turned to Teal. “Servants in charge?”

“Lieutenants?” Teal suggested.

“Llllluuuutennn…” Scorn drawled out the word and gave up halfway through, shaking her head. “You all complain my language is silly.”

“Anyway,” Gabriel prompted.

“Yes, fine, going on. Highest… People being in charge under the goddess, they are the archdemons,” she nodded to Teal, “and some others she makes herself. Very unique beings, not like the demon races. Prince Vanislaas, the Shroudwraith, Kelvreth of the Eyes… Others like them. Not being of Hell’s races, they are loyal to her. Well, our queen, Srkhankhvrithz, she is one of these highest leewww…in charge. But the other Rhaazke, we serve a little lower, but still over the demons. Hell is not our home, we have always hated Scyllith, and the Lady Elilial gives us everything, so we are trusted servants,” she said proudly.

“So…Rhaazke are middleman administrators in Hell?” Ruda said, frowning. “What’s that got to do with you being able to sense through Wreath fuckery?”

Scorn shrugged irritably. “Obviously, we have powers given to do our tasks, yes? We served the Lady before the Wreath was made, and we stand closer to her. Humans are not permitted in Hell, but humans are also not trusted. Some try things, even some Wreath. Rhaazke must be able to hunt through their tricks, yes?” She grinned. “Not all Rhaazke have as many gifts, but I am noble bloodline, being trained for high service. This stealth the Black Wreath has, it is the Lady’s gift, and she decides where it does not work.”

“Fascinating,” said Ariel, slightly muffled under Gabriel.

“If that’s true,” Trissiny said slowly, “we have a perfect counter to the Black Wreath’s greatest weapon.”

“It also means Scorn’s right,” added Toby. “That would explain perfectly why the spell aimed at Trissiny caught her as well. If the concealment was a Wreath stealth that doesn’t work on her… It has to be them.”

“It also means we can beat them,” said Gabriel, grinning fiercely.

“Yes!” Scorn said, smiling back.

“Hang on,” Ruda interrupted. “Scorn, does the Wreath know Rhaazke can do this?”

“Not for them to know,” Scorn said haughtily. “If they know, they can sneak around it, yes? Then is pointless.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?” Juniper asked.

“She literally just explained it,” said Ruda in exasperation. “After Veilgrad the Wreath know we’ve got a Rhaazke. If they knew their concealment doesn’t work on her, they could compensate. But if Scorn is right, they don’t.”

“Which means,” said Trissiny, her eyes widening, “we have exactly what we need to outmaneuver them.”

“Yes!” Scorn cried, grinning broadly.

“Um,” Toby said, “you do realize that in order to capitalize on this advantage, you’re going to have to keep Scorn near you and…wait for them to strike again?”

“Oh,” Trissiny said, frowning.

“Yes!” Scorn repeated. “We will have fun! We go to classes and visit the town and when the Wreath moves again, we crush them!”

“…great,” Trissiny said weakly.

“Whoah, now, stop,” Ruda interjected. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, we need a plan. First, this advantage has to be protected; we can’t let the Wreath learn that Scorn can see through their defenses.”

“Yes, very true,” Scorn said, deflating. “This is secret—Wreath is not to learn.”

“Also,” Teal added, “it’s not clear to me exactly how we can capitalize on this. If the Wreath is just making Trissiny sense the presence of demons that aren’t there, having Scorn sense them too changes…what?”

“Right,” Ruda said, nodding. “We need to come up with a plan.”

“To begin with,” Fross chimed, “I may be able to work out a spell to augment Trissiny’s senses—there has to be a way to track those signals more precisely, rather than just perceiving them. It’ll be really tricky for me to work with divine magic, though…”

“I know a spell for that,” Ariel said from under Gabriel. “Trissiny will have to cast it herself, but I can walk her through the process. After a few weeks of basic schooling in divine spellwork, she hopefully possesses the basic competence.”

“That sounds like a skill I would be interested in learning anyway,” Trissiny agreed.

While they carried on talking, Gabriel surreptitiously shifted, pulling Ariel out from under himself and gripping her by the hilt. Her scabbard hid the patterns of faint blue light that flickered along her blade as he ignited a charm they had worked out previously.

“Vestrel,” his voice echoed from the sword, silently but resonating through the dimensional medium in which the valkyries dwelt.

Invisible to the others, a black-clad figure approached him from behind, spreading one ebon wing protectively over him as she leaned forward. “Something on your mind, little brother?”

He glanced fleetingly up at her with a small smile, quickly enough that his classmates did not notice, absorbed in their discussion. “What do you know about this new cleric in town?”

“Nothing, really. We don’t keep track of them all. Why?”

“There’s something going on. It’s too perfect, more priests arriving just as Bishop Snowe starts trouble with Tellwryn and the newspapers start carrying these tales. Are the girls too busy to do me a favor?”

“Never,” Vestrel said with a grin, affectionately brushing him with her pinions. They didn’t physically connect, of course. “We can spare the time to see what the new priestess gets up to when she thinks no one is looking. The Avenist, too?”

His eyes flickered at Trissiny, who was paying attention to what Toby was saying. “I don’t know… That seems wise, but also like it’d be stepping on Triss’s toes.”

“What she doesn’t know hurts nothing. And if a cleric of her faith is indeed trying to manipulate her…”

“Point taken. If you would, then.”

“Oh, this sounds like it’ll be fun!”

“Stop, back up,” Ruda said sharply in response to Juniper’s last objection. “Nothing just happens without context—just because we’re pretty sure the Wreath is behind these specific events does not mean we can just ignore whatever the hell the Church is up to.”

“Indeed,” Shaeine agreed. “Even if the Wreath are not responsible for the trouble presently being stirred up, trouble can be taken advantage of by anyone. We must not develop blind spots—everything going on here deserves our attention.”

“I’m still lost as to why the Church would attack the University, though,” Toby said, shaking his head. “I just don’t see any benefit in that. And in its own way, the Church is almost as inscrutable as the Wreath; Triss, Gabe and I can probably get some information from them, but you can be sure they’ll stonewall us about anything they’re doing with regard to the University we all attend.”

“Maybe not, though!” Fross chimed. “Can it hurt to ask?”

“Fuck yes it can,” Ruda said firmly. “If they’re playing games with us, letting them know we’re onto them will only make it worse. I can’t see the Universal fucking Church backing down from a challenge.”

“Well,” Gabriel said mildly, “keep in mind that just because we don’t know everything now doesn’t mean we won’t learn more.”

“How exactly are we going to learn more?” Ruda asked, exasperated.

He shrugged. “I’m pretty sure something will come up.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

8 – 8

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

The entire sophomore class appeared in Tellwyrn’s dimly-lit office with a series of small pops, over the course of about five seconds.

“Dammit!” Ruda shouted after getting her bearings. “Can you not at least ask first, woman? What if somebody had been changing?”

“Someone was,” Toby exclaimed, feeling nervously at his clothes. “I don’t know whether I’m less or more disturbed to find myself fully dressed, now.”

“Wow, that’s really impressive,” Fross chimed. “That’s a whole order of magnitude more complex than a standard teleportation.”

“At least twice that,” Professor Tellwyrn said calmly. She was seated behind her desk as usual, framed by the unshuttered windows granting a view of the clear night sky. Only the small fairy lamp above the desk was active, leaving the room mostly in semi-darkness. “Based on my observations of you precious little buggers, I am playing a hunch. Mr. Arquin has just brought something rather unsettling to my attention which, at first glance, seems it should concern only himself and Juniper, but I have the most peculiar feeling I’m about to find that the lot of you will either become involved, or already are.”

“Peculiar feeling?” Juniper said nervously, hugging her jackalope to her chest. Jack hung with his back legs dangling, and to judge by the way he kicked and squirmed, wasn’t enjoying it. Being continually prodded about the head and neck with his antlers didn’t seem to discomfort the dryad. “About something unsettling involving Gabe and me? What’d I do?”

“It appears,” said Tellwyrn, staring at her, “there is a new dryad sniffing around Last Rock.”

“What?” Juniper squawked. “Which?”

“She said her name was Aspen,” said Gabriel.

“Oh!” Juniper brightened considerably. “That’s probably okay, then, she’s really nice.”

“June, I don’t know how to break this to you gently,” he said with a wince, “but she tried to kill me.”

“I’m guessing you talked to her first,” Trissiny said dryly.

Gabe shot her a long look, then sighed. “Look, I know when I’ve provoked someone, and I didn’t. I was very diplomatic. She came here looking for a fight.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Juniper whispered. Jack finally kicked free of her, and she had to lunge after him as he bounded for the door. It was closed, fortunately.

“I actually met Aspen once,” said Fross. “She seemed nice to me, but it was a brief sort of conversation. Why’d she try to kill you?”

“More important,” said Teal, “how did you get out of that situation? You’re obviously not killed, and I think we’d have noticed if somebody nearby had harmed a dryad.”

“I can’t take credit,” he said ruefully, rubbing at his neck with one hand. “This was on the Vidian temple grounds. Soon as she got her hand on my throat, the valkyries chased her off.”

There was a moment’s silence.

“There are valkyries around here?” Trissiny exclaimed.

Wordlessly, Gabriel and Tellwyrn both pointed at an empty space in front of the Vernis Vault with the music player on top. Everyone immediately shuffled back from it.

“There are usually several around the last few months,” Gabriel said. “They sorta rotate in and out; they’ve all got other things to do but it seems like they hang around me in their free time. This is Vestrel; she’s the only actually assigned to help me. She says hello.”

“Hi, Vestrel!” Fross chirped enthusiastially.

“Gods, please tell me I’m not the only one who doesn’t see anybody,” said Ruda.

“Valkyries don’t actually occupy the mortal plane,” Tellwyrn explained. “They can’t even be seen here except on Vidian holy ground and in places where the dimensional barriers have thinned. They also cannot interact physically with anything that’s not…out of place. Undead, ghosts, Vanislaad demons, things like that.”

“So, could they be present, say, around a fresh hellgate?” Ruda asked in an interested tone. “Cos I’ve gotta say, couple of those woulda been really useful this spring. What with tall, dark and creepy clearly hanging around anyway.”

“And incidentally,” Tellwyrn added with asperity, “this fact should not be mentioned in front of Aspen, should any of you find yourselves having a conversation with her. We’ve found one way of scaring her into behaving; she doesn’t need to know its limitations.”

“Why would a dryad be afraid of valkyries, though?” Juniper asked, frowning and stroking Jack’s fur. She had him settled in a more comfortable position in her arms. “Dryads are, like, the ultimate apex predator. Nothing is dangerous to us.”

“You’ve never met a dragon,” Tellwyrn remarked. “We can explore that another time.”

“Also, what’s a valkyrie?”

“If I may, Juniper?” the Professor said acidly.

“Sorry,” she mumbled, flushing.

“Aspen’s stated reason for being here, according to Mr. Arquin, is to look for you. She seems to be under the impression that you’re dead.”

Gabriel sighed, looking over at the others. In nearly perfect unison, most of them stiffened, eyes widening. Shaeine merely tilted her head, raising an eyebrow.

“And there it is,” Tellwyrn said with grim satisfaction. “The oh-so-familiar expression of a bunch of kids realizing exactly how they’ve screwed up. It would almost be satisfying if it weren’t going to result in a whole bunch of unnecessary hassle for me. See, I knew the lot of you were involved with this. All right, spit it out. Why is there a dryad poking around my University believing in Juniper’s alleged demise?”

“Well…” Juniper trailed off, gulped, and bent to set Jack on the floor. He immediately hopped off into a corner away from the group. “I think it’s because of what happened in the Crawl.”

She paused, watching Tellwyrn warily; the Professor simply raised an eyebrow.

“There was this…sort of…room. A complex of halls, more like. It was full of illusions that made us face…um, fears.”

Tellwyrn nodded. “Yes, I read Professor Ezzaniel’s report. That is why I wasn’t more irate at you getting rid of my incubus; I obviously can’t have him sending my students on detours that dramatic. Go on.”

“Well, I…” Juniper swallowed again, glancing at the others. Teal stepped over to squeeze her shoulder encouragingly. “I sort of had to…come to grips with…some stuff. I mean… Well…”

“I don’t need to interrogate you about your emerging conscience unless it’s immediately relevant to the issue,” Tellwyrn said. “You’ve been making positive progress in that regard, Juniper. Kindly skip to the non-stuttering part that explains this fresh brouhaha.”

Juniper sighed and nodded. “I was having trouble dealing with it, so… Shaeine helped me by invoking Themynra’s judgment, which was… Well, Themynra seemed not to condemn me. So I asked Trissiny to do the same thing. With Avei’s.”

Tellwyrn’s eyebrows slowly narrowed; her eyes thinned to slits behind her spectacles. “You didn’t.”

“She insisted,” said Trissiny, standing stiffly at attention.

“You do realize,” Tellwyrn said in a dangerously quiet tone, “that given the average dryad’s habits, that could very easily have resulted in your classmate’s death?”

“I knew the risks,” Juniper said hastily. “I asked her to, Professor. She didn’t want to.”

“Why is it,” Tellwyrn said, ignoring her, “that every time you fail to think something through, Avelea, you nearly end up getting somebody murdered?”

Trissiny flushed and lowered her eyes, offering no comment.

“All right, well,” Tellwyrn said after a moment. “Clearly Juniper’s not dead. Thanks for small blessings. But somehow your fellow dryads now think you are?”

“She…” Juniper paused, sighed, and squared her shoulders. “Avei cut me off from Naiya.”

“Bullshit. That would simply have killed you.”

“That’s what Elder Shiraki said,” she replied. “It wasn’t a complete severing, more of a block. It means…I don’t have Naiya’s protection anymore. Avei thought it would be an appropriate punishment to have me, you know, on my own in the world. I…don’t disagree.” She trailed off, looking at the floor. Toby stepped over to her other side, placing an arm around her shoulders.

Tellwyrn stared at them all in silence for a long moment, then removed her spectacles and carefully folded the earpieces, then set them on the desk. She leaned back, her chair squeaking as it partially reclined, and stared at the ceiling. “No matter how many times I tell you little bastards to think before you act, you continually plunge headfirst into the dumbest damn course of action you can come up with. Now, why is that? And more to the point, how long can this go on before you bring this whole bloody place down around our ears?”

“Asking what you’re talking about is just gonna get me called stupid again, isn’t it,” Ruda said sardonically.

Tellwyrn rubbed at her face with one hand. “During our impromptu class at the inn in Lor’naris, I spoke to you about the nature of the gods. The conditional nature of their agency, and how it is sometimes possible to subvert or manipulate them. Please tell me you remember that?”

“We do,” Shaeine said after a moment when nobody else spoke.

The Professor sighed. “Well, Miss Avelea, that’s what you just did to your goddess.”

“What?!” Trissiny exclaimed.

“The goddess of justice, invoked physically by her chosen Hand, and asked to render judgment on a complex moral case with far-reaching implications?” Tellwyrn shook her head. “She pretty much wasn’t able to refuse. Such judgments are a large part of what she is. And so, you basically coerced Avei the deity into doing something that Avei the mortal strategist of eight thousand years ago would’ve had the sense to not damn well do!”

“Hang on,” Gabriel protested. “I get how this leads to Aspen thinking Juniper’s dead, but isn’t it a little harsh to get on Avei’s case about it? Justice as an absolute concept has to be above the overreactions of random dryads.” Trissiny shot him a look that started out surprised and became grateful.

“I do not give a bowl of chilled rat’s ass consomme about Aspen, and neither does nor should Avei,” Tellwyrn snapped. “Juniper wasn’t cut off from Aspen, except perhaps incidentally. The issue here is Naiya. Naiya, who now thinks Juniper is dead, and either told Aspen about it or quite possibly sent her here to investigate. Please, please tell me I don’t have to spell this out any further? Can you kids not see the potential catastrophe unfolding here?”

“Um?” Juniper raised a hand. “Pardon me for interrupting your tirade, but people keep pointing out to me how Naiya is, uh…not terribly attentive. It’s not something I enjoy hearing but I don’t really have an argument against it, y’know?”

“Juniper,” Tellwyrn said in exasperation, “you know you’re an exceptional circumstance. And the rest of you frankly have no excuse for not having figured this out! Honestly, how many dryads have been sent to attend a school in all of history? How many have been permitted by the Empire to attend said school and move around Tiraan territory? You cannot possibly have failed to put together that Juniper has a higher degree of Naiya’s attention than most of her kind—or so I would have assumed, and yet, here we damn well are!”

“I hardly think that’s fair,” Shaeine said coolly. “Several of us are in unprecedented circumstances, in one way or another, and our interactions have been geared—quite deliberately by you, I might add—toward teaching us to work together more than to intellectually ponder one another’s origins.”

“Also,” Ruda added, “some of us are from places like the sea and deep underground and can reasonably be forgiven for knowing fuck all about fucking dryads.”

“Well, this is an argument we can have at length another time,” Tellwyrn began.

“Why is it the argument gets moved to another time when you’re losing it?” Trissiny demanded.

“Because I’m in charge, Avelea, and on a related note, shut up. Right now we have to deal with this dryad situation which you’ve created. Regardless of how dim it was or wasn’t for you to have helped get Juniper into this state, there is no good reason why I’m only hearing about it now. What you have done is potentially set Naiya and Avei on a course for direct conflict. There are a million possible ways this can play out, and you’d better believe I will be bending my energies toward making sure one of the relatively harmless options is what occurs, but the worst-case scenario is nothing less than the bloody Elder Wars revisited in miniature! Kids… If you have to fuck around with deities, will you at least tell me about it before I find myself with demigoddesses assaulting my students?!”

“I think she’s got us there, guys,” Fross said.

“Whose side are you on?” Ruda muttered.

“…there are sides?”

“All right, enough,” Tellwyrn said, putting her spectacles back on. “I’ve set up wards around Last Rock so I’ll know if and when Aspen returns. It’s not clear to me why she would be especially bothered by valkyries, so I can’t guess how frightened she was or how quickly she’ll come back, but it can be assumed she didn’t hike all the way here from the Deep Wild to be turned back at the first opposition.”

“Wait, when did you set up wards?” Gabriel demanded. “You’ve been sitting right here ever since I came and told you about this.”

Tellwyrn gave him a sardonic look.

“Yeah,” he said with a sigh, “I realized why it was dumb as soon as I said it.”

“Story of your life. Anyway, I’m not leaving it at that; too much potential for bystanders to be harmed. There are people moving about the periphery of the town much of the time, and while the wannabe adventurers can be annoying, I doubt most of them deserve to have a run-in with a pissy dryad. If all goes well, I should have Aspen in hand by morning.”

“She went off into the Golden Sea,” Gabriel said. “Gonna be hard to track her there. And by ‘hard’ I mean ‘technically impossible.’”

“You let me worry about that, Arquin.”

“Please don’t hurt Aspen,” Juniper said worriedly. “She’s really super nice. She’s just upset about me dying, I’m sure she doesn’t mean any harm.”

“She did try to kill me,” Gabriel pointed out.

“Oh, everyone tries to kill you,” Ruda said, grinning. “You’ve gotta stop taking these little things so personally, boy.”

He sneered at her; Trissiny patted him on the shoulder.

“It isn’t even a question of who deserves what degree of manhandling,” Tellwyrn said impatiently. “Harming a dryad is off the table, for reasons you all know very well. Odds are good I’m already on Naiya’s shit list, thanks to you brats. That’s just one of the things I will need to learn from Aspen as soon as I have her secured. But no, she will not be harmed in any way. This won’t be the first time I’ve had to take a dryad out of commission without ticking off her mother. It’s not terribly hard if you’re careful.”

“That seems even more ominous, somehow,” Juniper mumbled.

“Anyway, I will come get you as soon as I’ve got her,” Tellwyrn continued. “Obviously, hearing from you will be the first step in settling her down. I’m hoping a lot of this can be made to just go away once she understands you are alive.”

“And once she understand that, I’ll be wanting an apology,” Gabriel added.

“It is unlikely to be so simple,” Shaine pointed out. “We will then have to explain why Juniper appears dead to Naiya’s senses, which, as Professor Tellwyrn has said, could become complicated.”

“I assure you I’ll be getting information from Aspen before I give her any,” Tellwyrn said grimly. “But you’re right, Miss Awarrion. I can’t detain a dryad indefinitely—not safely, anyway, especially when her mother may already be tetchy about this. We’ll have to do something with her. And figuring out exactly what will have to wait until I know more about the situation.”

“So…what else do you need from us, then?” Trissiny asked.

“For now? That should be it. You can all go back to bed, or studying, or more likely wasting time. Whatever you were doing. Juniper, this is important enough that you may be excused from class to speak with Aspen when she’s available. Otherwise, you just keep the rest of your classmates informed, and I will notify you all if I need you for anything. Oh, and Mr. Arquin, you have handled all this rather well. Not that your role was particularly complex or challenging, but it’s pleasing to see you not buggering up a simple task.”

“Stop, I’m gonna blush,” he said flatly.

“All right, everybody be off,” said Tellwyrn, then paused, scowling at the far corner. “…except Juniper, who will be reporting to Stew for cleaning supplies and then back here to remove the essence of rabbit shit from my carpet.”

Self-doubt was a new sensation for Aspen, and she was not enjoying it.

It had been a long day of walking, followed by a stressed, sleepless night. Now, the sun had not yet arrived, but the sky was lightening and taking on the first reddish tinges in the east that signaled the rise of a new day. Aspen didn’t stop in her pacing to appreciate it, much as she hadn’t stopped to rest all night. She didn’t actually feel at all tired; her nerves were still too twinged by the encounter at the human temple.

Really, that was her own fault. She should’ve known better than to confront a human on holy ground. The magic of their gods wasn’t healthy for fairy kind. Still… A priest she could have handled. Those things, though. Nothing could have prepared her for those.

Well, she was gaining some insights into what had happened to Juniper. Not that she intended to stop until she’d found the Arachne and squeezed some answers out of her, but this was progress. If there were things like that around the human town where poor Juniper had been living, no wonder she’d come to grief.

Poor, silly little Juniper. It made Aspen furious even to think of. What must her brief time here have been like, if that was the kind of company she was forced to keep?

She turned and resumed her pacing. After several hours spent wandering aimlessly through the Sea, she’d settled down to a fairly limited spot and had been pacing like a restless lion. By this point she’d worn a track of mashed tallgrass and was simply stalking back and forth on that line.

How was she supposed to get past those things? The sheer horror of them made her shudder even in recollection. Nothing like that had ever existed in the Deep Wild. Surely they weren’t of human origin, for all that she’d found them in that human temple. The truly terrible thing had been the way she could feel them through attuning. Almost exactly like she could feel her sisters, except… Wrong. Backwards. Inverted.

Anti-dryads, that’s what they were, which made no sense. How could something like that even exist? And what were they doing with humans? If this was what humans were up to, the Arachne had been right. Somebody needed to start domesticating them. It seemed Aspen’s warnings had been both wrong and horribly right: Juniper’s mission had been very important, and she had surely come to grief from it.

Poor Juniper…

But what to do?

She reached the other end of her track and was about to turn around again when a face appeared suddenly in the tallgrass right in front of her.

Aspen yelped and hopped backward in surprise. It was a humanoid face—a woman, pretty, with lustrous black hair and almond-shaped eyes. She also had triangular fox ears, which Aspen was fairly sure humans were not supposed to. More to the point, now that she saw the fox-woman, she could feel the torrent of Naiya’s power rushing through her, which she had not sensed a second before. She’d either been hiding or had simply not been there before—which wasn’t too farfetched, considering how the Golden Sea behaved.

“Um,” Aspen said. “Hello?”

The woman smiled broadly, revealing excessively long canines. Aspen smiled tentatively back.

Then a hand flashed out of the tallgrass and slapped her hard across the face.

The dryad could only stare in shock, lifting her own fingers to probe at the four stinging scratches laid across her cheek by the woman’s wicked claws. They were already closing up, of course, but that had hurt.

“Tag!” the fox-woman chirped. “You’re it!”

Then, laughing brightly, she whirled and dashed off into the tallgrass, a bushy, white-tipped tail bobbing behind her.

Aspen let out a roar of fury and charged after her.

She kept a short distance behind her quarry, the laughing woman always just out of reach, so close Aspen could almost grab her tail. She would sprint ahead, then pause, turning to grin and wave until the dryad was nearly on her again, then dart off in another direction.

Despite the frustration of it, and the obvious fact that she was being toyed with, the chase very quickly started to clear her head. Weltering in uncertainty wasn’t good for her; a good chase, though, this she understood. A hunt was exactly what she needed.

At least, for the first few minutes. Quickly, the frustration started building, and the gap between her and the fox-woman grew wider and stayed wider. Was she getting slower? Surely not. She could go forever.

Aspen lunged through a dense stand of tallgrass stalks into a relatively cleared space and paused, looking around. She had been sure the woman was just ahead, but now she couldn’t see anybody. The sky was red with dawn; there was ample light to make out her environs even without borrowing night vision from one of the animals. There was just nobody here.

Then someone off to her left cleared their throat.

Aspen whirled, beholding the woman, who was wearing an ornate silk robe, sitting calmly in an ornately-carved wooden chair which had no business being out here on the prairie, sipping tea from a dainty porcelain cup. A second ago that spot had been empty.

“Good morning,” she said pleasantly. “Allow myself to introduce me: I am Ekoi Kaisa, and you are exceedingly disappointing. Really, is this the best you can do? This almost isn’t even fun.”

Aspen snarled and lunged forward.

Kaisa laughed and dived underneath her own chair in a whirl of silk and bushy tail. Aspen skidded to a stop right next to her and savagely kicked the chair aside.

It burst apart into a spray of blood red maple leaves, which swirled on the air, drifting into the tallgrass all around. Once again, there was no one and nothing else there.

“Stop doing that, you jackass!” Aspen raged, whirling and glaring around.

“Really, there is no need to be rude,” Kaisa said reprovingly from the other end of the clearing. “Just because you’re slow and clumsy doesn’t mean you need to be boorish.”

“I’m gonna chew your ears off!” Aspen yelled, charging at her. The giggling kitsune darted away into the tallgrass.

This time, she led the dryad on a straight dash, eschewing her zig-zagging pattern of before. Aspen growled as her legs pumped at their maximum speed, and even so, the fox-woman was pulling ahead slightly. The dryad, tasting bitter outrage in the back of her throat, tried to pour more energy into her run, but she simply hadn’t been designed for speed. She staggered to a halt, half-doubled over, feeling the ache in her joints.

“And by the way,” said her quarry from just ahead. Aspen lifted her eyes, glaring at the kitsune, who had folded her arms and was staring severely down at her. “What were you thinking, setting foot in a town as naked as a piglet? The disgrace.”

This was ridiculous. The woman was obviously a fairy. Fairies were supposed to respect dryads!

“Do you have any idea who I am?” Aspen demanded, straightening up.

“Why, yes!” Kaisa said with another fang-baring grin. “Your name is Aspen. You are belligerent, pushy, ill-mannered, slatternly and slow.”

Aspen roared in wordless fury and lunged at her again. Kaisa dashed away, cackling in delight.

The kitsune ducked to the side, hopping over a stand of tallgrass that made an impenetrable clump near the ground, passing through its less dense upper fronds with ease. Aspen tried to follow, and the grass stalks springing back from Kaisa’s passing smacked her in the face with the force of a punch. She landed hard on her rump, blinking stars out of her vision.

The vulpine face appeared in the tallgrass, grinning down at her. “I think we can add ‘dense’ to your resume. In both senses of the word.”

Scrambling to her feet, Aspen grabbed a handful of the thickest part of the tallgrass stand and ripped it bodily out of the ground, hurling the whole thing aside.

Kaisa blew her a kiss and darted off again, the dryad right on her heels.

Abruptly they burst out of the tallgrass entirely into a vast cleared space. She skidded to a halt, realizing belatedly that she was back in the environs of Last Rock. The buildings of the town were sprawled dead ahead; there was the huge shape of the mountain, blotting out the sky, and off to one side stood that odd flat temple where she’d run into the things.

In front of her, the fox woman had halted as well, turned to face her, and bowed politely. Straightening up, she waved. “Well, thank you for playing with me! Good-bye.”

“You’re not going anywhere!” Aspen snarled.

“That is correct,” Kaisa said equably.

Then, with a sharp little pop, the world disappeared.

Aspen was suddenly in a room. Square, not large, made of reddish bricks with heavy granite blocks reinforcing the corners and its sole doorframe. There were no windows; the illumination came from those artificial magic lights humans had started using recently. More slabs of granite made up the floor and ceiling. Additional panels of the smooth gray stone were set into the walls at intervals, engraved with glowing blue sigils.

She didn’t need that, or the prickly sensation on her skin of arcane magic at work, to know this was some kind of wizardry. Aspen had materialized three feet off the floor, and wasn’t falling. She kicked, reached for the floor and ceiling, and only succeeded in making herself spin impotently about in midair. Once she stopped flailing, the spell holding her up gradually returned her to an upright position. That was a small courtesy, at least.

When she got her hands on that stupid fox, she was gonna kill her in an unnecessarily messy fashion. For the first time, Aspen was starting to empathize with Larch.

Another little pop sounded, and she found herself face-to-face with the Arachne, who studied her grimly over the rims of her spectacles.

“Hello, Aspen.”

“…aw, crud,” she sighed.

“Well put,” the elf said dryly. “And thank you, Kaisa. That was very neatly done.”

The kitsune leaned out from behind the Arachne, grinning up at Aspen. “I hope you find something more interesting for me next time, Arachne. She’s not clever enough or powerful enough to have been any proper fun. Really, how disappointing. Dryads are such a let-down.”

“Perhaps I should introduce you to Jacaranda sometime,” Arachne said, raising an eyebrow, then turned her attention back to Aspen. “For now, though, you and I are going to have a chat, Aspen. Let’s begin with the matter of you laying your hands on one of my students.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                          Next Chapter >