“You ever wonder why we’re here?”
Rook paused in his eighteenth consecutive game of solitaire to peer upward at Finchley. “Interesting. Now, is this an existential-type question, such as ‘what is the meaning of life’ or ‘why did the gods see fit to place us in these bodies at this time in history?’” He reached into the unbuttoned collar of his uniform jacket to scratch himself. “…or more along the lines of ‘why in fuck’s name did the Army assign us to guard this here empty box canyon approximately five clicks west of nowhere’s asshole?’”
“Our orders specifically prohibit speculation as to the nature of this assignment,” their other companion growled, not looking up from polishing his Army-issue wizard staff.
“Blargle largle blumble boo,” said Rook airily, sweeping up his cards and beginning to loudly shuffle the deck. “Look at us, Moriarty. Five privates on two duty shifts assigned to a hatbox-sized ‘fort’ in the aforementioned empty-ass box canyon, with no officers present. Even by Army standards, this whole thing is idiotic. I bet they want us to start ignoring orders. It’s the only explanation that makes sense.”
Finchley sighed, recognizing a new chorus of an old quarrel warming up. He leaned forward against the rail, not minding the way the entire structure vibrated; experience had taught him that it would probably hold, and if not, tumbling off the roof would at least alleviate the tedium. Their ‘fort’ was little more than a wooden hut with a railed observation platform on top, occupying one end of the small box canyon. Behind it was the retractable rope ladder leading to the stairs out of the canyon. They really had nothing to do while on ‘watch’ but to stare at the abandoned mine opening at the other end of the canyon, which they had been emphatically ordered never to approach.
“It was a practical question,” he said, cutting off the gathering argument. “And don’t glare at me like that, Moriarty, you know he’s right.”
Private Moriarty harrumphed and bent over his staff again, dipping his rag in the jar of polish. The thing already gleamed blindingly in the sun. The hot, hot sun… Finchley cast a longing look up at the trees rimming the canyon’s lip. It must be so shady and cool up there…
“You better leave that thing alone or you’re gonna rub all the magic out of it,” Rook said, his customary sly grin creeping across his swarthy face. “How’s about you go below and polish your other staff for a while? Might improve your disposition.”
“If I bothered to report every flouted regulation or act of open insubordination that goes on in this wretched excuse for a base,” Moriarty said woodenly, “I’d have no time to do anything but write reports. If not for me, Rook, you’d be running a still and a brothel here by now.”
“That just isn’t true, brother, and I’ll tell you why.” Rook tucked the cards into the pocket of his jacket and folded his arms behind his head, leaning against the rail. “This is an answer to your question, too, Finchley. See, my theory is we’re part of some big experiment. I mean, seriously. Five privates, middle of nowhere, no officers? It makes no sense. And what the hell are these?” He lifted a hand to tap one of the clouded crystal orbs that surmounted the corner posts of the railing. “I think these are some kind of scrying equipment. I think they’re studying how long it takes discipline to completely break the hell down when they don’t bother to maintain it.”
“That’d be useful for them to know if we ever go to war again,” Finchley mused, shifting his staff to the other hand.
Rook nodded. “Excatly! See? He gets it! So yeah, that is why you chumps don’t have the privilege of living in Rook’s Hookerarium and Moonshine Palace. I figure they expect us to let the uniform situation slide a bit, but I try to keep my court-martial-worthy offenses to no more than three a day.”
Indeed, of the three of them only Moriarty kept his navy-blue Imperial Army uniform to regulation standards. Finchley had, after the third week of not being checked up on by Imperial Command, stopped buttoning his jacket as a concession to the heat. Rook didn’t even bother to tuck in his shirt most days, nor to lace up his boots properly, and only a truly epic tantrum from Moriarty had prevented him from tearing the sleeves off his coat.
“I think it’s a hellgate,” Finchley said.
“Hellgates are classified material,” Moriarty all but shouted. “Speculating about them while on duty is a class four act of insubordination!”
“Oh, blow it out your ass, Moriarty,” Rook said lazily. “And Finchley, get your head out of yours. If this was a hellgate they’d have a platoon here covering it. With artillery and wizards.”
“No, see, my dad is a wizard. He does research for the Guild. Almost all known hellgates are completely quiet, sorta like they’re blocked from the other end or something. But gates that’ve been silent for years have been known to unexpectedly cough out a demon once in a while, so the Empire wouldn’t just leave them unwatched. But there’s only so many troops and so much funding to go around and with most of it on the frontier around the Golden Sea they can’t possibly put full security on every single known hellgate, there are hundreds of ’em. But five soldiers, two or three on duty at a time with wands and staves? A couple blasts would do for most of the kinds of demons that might accidentally slip through. And this one being in the middle of nowhere, if Elilial was gonna invade or something, she wouldn’t use this one.”
“That,” Rook said slowly, “makes a scary amount of sense. Well, fuck, I didn’t want to ever sleep again anyway. Thank you so much, Finchley.”
“If this conversation stops now I’ll forget I heard it,” said Moriarty through gritted teeth. “Otherwise…”
“Otherwise you’ll go and tell on us. I bet your schoolmarm loved you, Moriarty.”
“I bet yours tried to drown you in the well!”
“Nope,” Rook grinned, “but her husband did.”
“Well. This wasn’t here before.”
The three soldiers lifted their heads in surprise at the new voice behind them, then as one, froze and stared in slack-jawed stupefaction.
Standing between their fort and the ladder that offered their only chance of escape stood a woman with skin of a dusky crimson, eyes that were swirling pits of orange flame and a pair of ridged horns sweeping backward from the crown of her forehead. She wore an improbable black leather outfit studded with steel rings and spikes of dubious utility, and with her feet on the ground, towered over their rooftop watch post by a good ten feet. That voice seemed like it would have been a throaty, sultry purr, had it not been powerful enough to rattle the floorboards.
“I see Sharidan has found my little bolt-hole,” she went on with a sly smile. “Such a clever lad, that one. Though honestly, his habit of putting soldiers at all my doors and windows is becoming tiresome.”
“H-h-halt!” Finchley squeaked, though the apparition wasn’t moving. He raised his staff and pointed it at her; the uncontrollable trembling of his arms would have killed his accuracy, had she not been so close and such a huge target. “Id-d-dentify yourself!”
“Oh dear, how rude of me.” That smug smile widened to a grin; she had fangs as long as his forearm. “You would know me as Elilial, among other, less polite monikers. Incidentally, lads, you’ve built your little clubhouse right across my back steps, as it were. That’s hardly neighborly.”
All three of them were now on their feet, Rook after some awkward scrambling and nearly falling off the platform twice. Finchley and Moriarty had staves pointed at her heart; Rook couldn’t reach his, but aimed his sidearm at her (and also Finchley’s, which he’d stolen a week ago to see how long it would take his bunkmate to notice).
“Elilial?” Rook croaked. “Oh, bugger. I pictured someone less hot.”
“Why, aren’t you a sweetie,” she cooed. Her breath smelled of a very confusing blend of sulfur and spearmint. “Suppose you just drop those things, boys? Surely you wouldn’t shoot a pregnant lady.”
A moment of silence held, while the goddess of demons eyed the three petrified Imperial privates with unveiled amusement.
“Elilial,” Moriarty finally said in a shrill squeak, “if that is your real name, you are under arrest on the authority of the Emperor of Tiraas. You are commanded to stand down and submit to—to—to, uh, arrest.”
At this her grin widened to truly appalling proportions. Rook felt the blood rush to his head, and his knees began to buckle.
“Well, just look at you three,” she purred. “Brave, loyal…not too bright. Exactly the way I like my boys. Makes me sad I don’t have time to stop and play, but I have bigger fish in the fire. Take a nap, lads.”
As though she’d flipped a switch, the three soldiers crumpled silently, dropping their weapons with a clatter. Moriarty began to snore.
Elilial shook her head as she stepped around the fort, heading for the old mineshaft. “Poor kids. You’ve seen what your superiors would rather no one knew was real, and that’s usually a death sentence. Still, at least this time they won’t have me to blame for the deed.” In passing, she tapped one of the smoky crystal orbs with a fingertip; it exploded into powder.
And then she was gone, striding through a hole that opened in the air at the far end of the canyon and snapped shut behind her.
“Well,” said Gabriel, “I’m willing to call it. No one, anywhere, is having a weirder day than we are.”
They stood awkwardly around the University greenhouse, where their first Herbalism class was to be held, watching Juniper dart around in manic glee. She sniffed, rubbed her head against, fondled, greeted and in a few cases sang to every plant she came across, looking as delighted as a child in a candy store. Everyone else kept carefully to the paths and as far from the foliage as possible, due partly to the large sign reading “IF YOU DON’T RECOGNIZE IT, DON’T TOUCH IT,” but mostly to having watched Fross narrowly avoid being eaten by what appeared to be a daisy.
So long as nothing jumped out at anyone, the greenhouse was a place of stunning beauty. Though there had to have been some plan to its layout, it wasn’t readily apparent, and the profusion of plant life resembled a jungle. Green fronds were draped everywhere, vines climbed every available surface and exotic blossoms made explosions of color in all directions. The air was damp and heady with the scent of earth and dozens of flowers.
“A bold assertion,” Shaeine noted. “I think, with respect, that you underestimate the weirdness of the world.”
“Uh, Trissiny?” said Teal nervously. “That vine is going for your foot.”
“What? Yipe!” Trissiny leaped backward onto the path, almost bowling into Toby; the woody protrusion that had been creeping stealthily toward her boot slithered back into the underbrush.
Gabriel raised an eyebrow at Shaeine. “See?”
The greenhouse’s heavy wooden door exploded inward, rebounding off the wall (luckily an interior wall, not a glass one) with a crash, and their professor arrived.
“BEHOLD!” he thundered, pausing in the doorway to strike a dramatic pose, before swaggering the rest of the way in. He was a tall, thinly built man with subtly pointed ears and flowing golden hair that fell nearly to his waist, dressed in painfully tight pants, glossy knee-high boots and a lace-trimmed blouse that hung open halfway to his navel.
“I,” he informed the eight stupefied students, “am Professor Admestus Rafe, master of plants and lord of this verdant domain! Lest you question my utter dominance of this subject, let me reassure you that an affinity with nature is in my blood. I am, as you can see, a half-elf!” He placed a hand just above his belt. “This half, from here up. Everything below is of the meatiest, manliest proportions, I assure you.”
“Gwuh,” said Teal.
“I will be brutally frank,” Professor Rafe intoned, stalking toward them along the gravel path, his hands clasped at the small of his back. “The warm, cozy security of this greenhouse is the greatest comfort you will experience in this class. To learn the lore of plants, we shall go where the plants are—the wild plants, the hungry, crawling children of Naiya’s various drunken indiscretions with dark things born of an inebriated goblin’s nightmares.”
“Hey,” Juniper protested. “You shouldn’t talk about goddesses that way.”
“SOME OF YOU MAY NOT SURVIVE.” Silence fell, during which Rafe examined them slowly with one eyebrow superciliously arched. Then, suddenly, he grinned. “Probably you’ll all survive, but you’re officially warned now, so if somebody doesn’t you can’t blame me. But seriously, kids, this is a lab work class; we’ll do some stuff here in the greenhouse, but for the most part we’ll be traveling. Occasionally by Rail to other parts of the Empire—I hope nobody’s got a weak stomach—but largely into the Golden Sea. I’ve got friends out there and one rarely sees a dragon or minotaur this close to the frontier, so it’ll probably be fine.”
Rafe turned his entire body in a slow half-circle. “So let’s see what I’ve got to work with this semester…hm, good, good, skinny but spry… Uh, I’ve got a sun-blocking oil you can use,” he said to Shaeine. “We’re gonna be in a lot of sun, and I don’t know if your type burns or what. You with the armor, you’re gonna slow us down.”
“I will not,” Trissiny snapped.
“You totally will. You’re wearing like half your body weight in metal.”
“Would you like to step outside and have a footrace?”
Rafe threw back his head and roared with laughter. “Excellent! Stick it to the man, Avelea! Ten points extra credit!”
“But seriously, the armor’s not gonna work. If you want to wear it, fine, but don’t whine to me when you sink in a bog. Let’s see…nice hat, Punaji. Oh, my.” He eyed Juniper up and down slowly. “Any more like you at home?”
“Um…not exactly like me?”
“Splendid. Show me sometime; we’ll have privacy. All righty then!” Rafe clapped his hands together and rubbed them briskly. “Considering it’s morally wrong to do actual work on the first day of classes, we’re pretty much done here. Your homework! Before our next class, I expect you each to investigate the properties of grains by drinking something distilled from some. I am far too important to follow you around checking up on you, so you’re on the honor system. Also, it has come to my attention that tomorrow morning you all have Introduction to Alchemy.” He glowered at them so hard that Teal took a step back. “I will warn you up front that your instructor in that course is a blasted swaggering troglodyte who is unworthy to suck down the oxygen of my magnificent greenhouse. Extra credit will be awarded in this class for pelting him with books while his back is turned. And with that, you are dismissed. Yes, oh great pirate princess?”
“Yeah, question.” Zaruda lowered her hand. “Are you an idiot?”
“Ehh…” He made a waffling gesture with one hand. “I’ll give you five points. Defying authority is less impressive when you’re the second person in a row to try it. Nobody likes a brown-noser, Punaji. And now: ONWARD TO GLORY!”
Professor Rafe spun on his heel and charged out of the greenhouse, kicking up a spray of gravel. Seconds later, he popped back in, grabbed the door and slammed it shut. They heard the muffled echoes of maniacal laughter receding into the distance.
“He didn’t answer my question,” Zaruda noted.
“Oh,” Gabe said grimly, “I think he did.”
“Got you.” Arachne Tellwyrn grinned down at her rebuilt scrying table, deftly marking a location on the attached map and jotting down a notation next to it.
She had promised both Alaric and herself that she would focus on school business for now, but the siren call of research—and, to be honest, of adventure—was too much to ignore, particularly when the automatic warnings she had set up had pinged to indicate a huge spike of demonic energy just outside the Home Province.
The golem she had set to observe the scrying array had taken detailed notes, which she had just finished analyzing. The opening of a hellgate left an unmistakable energy signature; reassuringly, this one had been open for barely a second. The bad news was that this meant it was not a bear-in-a-tavern situation, but a purposeful crossing by a demon powerful enough to pry the gate open. The good was that, based on the lack of residual energy in the area, whatever had opened it had gone in, rather than come out, otherwise the gate would have bled infernal radiation all over the site. It was strange for a demon to want into hell; everything ever recorded having made the crossing had adamantly refused to go back. Unless this one was on specific business…
“Crystal, you’re positive about your readings? I don’t find any trace of divine energy in the area now.”
“Positive, Professor,” the golem chimed softly. Crystal was unimaginatively named (well, she was a prototype, no point getting too attached); her form was little more than a set of large, faceted white stones suspended in a cloud of pure arcane energy. Gold-embossed sigils carved into her primary center of mass collected and suspended both her physical form and the free-floating energy that powered her, as well as holding the spells that governed her behavior. “It was brief and difficult to pick out from the background noise, but distinctive during its duration.”
“And your analysis?”
“I extrapolate from the evidence that a deity opened the hellgate and entered.”
“Mm.” The question was a test; Arachne had come to the same conclusion, but Crystal was a work-in-progress and it paid to check up on her reasoning abilities.
The Professor began to pace back and forth, her feet marking an already-worn groove in her carpet. Which deity? Tellwyrn was on speaking terms with more gods than most priests, and couldn’t immediately suss out why one of them would do such a thing. Elilial was the only one who had any business in hell, but unless she’d recently learned a great deal more circumspection than Arachne suspected her capable of, she couldn’t have gotten out of the infernal plane without kicking up a cosmic ruckus, and certainly wouldn’t have slipped quietly back in. Such would be utterly out of character for the Demon Queen. Avei? No… Even if Avei took a notion into her head to attack hell, she’d have gone in with an army. And what with her new paladin on this plane, indications were that Avei’s attention was focused here. That line of reasoning also ruled out Omnu, who’d never have done such a thing anyhow. Vesk might do something like this, or Eserion, but speculating on the trickster gods’ motives was an exercise in futility. Shaath or Calomnar might either of them be rash enough to try a one-god war on hell, but the allure of getting rid of those two menaces was probably clouding her mind with wishful thinking; they’d never tried it before. Vidius? She could imagine several reasons he’d be interested in hell. The god of death occasionally found a need to bend his own rules and return a soul to the mortal plane, which might necessitate retrieving it first.
She came to a stop mid-pace, fingers twitching with the desire to grab books and begin searching for answers. She had responsibilities, damn Alaric and his relentless logic. The very beginning of the semester was no time to go haring off on a quest. Nothing indicated these events were urgent; the matter would keep.
“Crystal, pull the reference material on temporal magic and Vankstadt’s notes on experimental scrying methods. Cross-reference them for…”
Crystal let the silence stretch on for a moment before gently prompting her. “For what, Professor?”
Tellwyrn snapped her wandering attention back to the present. “For any points of mutual applicability, I suppose. Anything that might be relevant to time scrying.”
“Yes, Professor. If you intend to scry in the past, may I suggest studying the works of Telonius the Great? His theories on the subject of time travel are considered fundamental.”
“Pfft, I taught Telonius. Smart boy, but a pure theorist, and I need something practical. Just get me what I asked for to start with and we’ll go from there. Oh, and Varing’s treatise on boundary spells, too, the, uh…which is the one that focuses on protecting scrying systems?”
“His Eighth Treatise, Professor.”
“Yes, that one. Pull it. Have ’em all prepared for me after classes tomorrow.”
“Yes, Professor. Will there be anything else for now?”
Tellwyrn chewed her lip, staring down at the scrying table. “Gods in pants, I hope not.”
She jerked her head up at the soft voice at her shoulder. The freshman girls were on their way back to Clarke Tower, having parted from Toby and Gabriel outside the greenhouses. The other four went up ahead, loudly speculating and complaining about their professors; Teal and Shaeine trailed along behind them, both content with the quiet. At least, they had been until the dark elf had spoken.
“Hm? I’m sorry, did I miss something?”
“The path, nearly. You seem preoccupied.”
Teal laughed softly, echoed by another laugh within her mind, which of course Shaeine could not hear. “Just…conversing with the voice in my head.”
Shaeine’s garnet-colored eyes dropped for a moment to study Teal’s talisman. “I see.”
“It’s… Sorry, that probably sounded random. I’m not crazy…it’s a real voice.”
She bit her lip hesitantly. “And you’re not…bothered?”
“If you are not, why should I be?” The elf gave one of her small, polite smiles; as sometimes happened, Teal had the feeling there was real amusement hiding behind the practiced expression, but Shaeine was hard to read. “If it is not presumptuous to ask, what does it say?”
“Only what I already know.” She shook her head. “Or what I feel, anyway. A little bit of the excitement has bled out of this place for me. I’ve got this expectation of…doom.”
“Even Rafe was not that bad, surely.”
Teal had to laugh at that; Shaeine’s small smile widened almost imperceptibly in response.
“I have never imagined feeling so out of my element, either. But I also do not doubt that we will prevail. Those who are not challenged do not grow.”
“Spoken like a priestess.”
“I am a priestess. But if that does not comfort your worries, what does the outlook of a bard say about the obstacles before us?”
Teal grinned, a slow, sly expression. “To a bard? Obstacles are the first step of an adventure.”
“As we were recently told, then: Onward, to glory.”
“Yeah. To glory.”