The scene at the central Rail station in Calderaas was one of orderly chaos, a familiar sight to those who had lived through well-mannered disasters. In accordance with the Imperial proclamation freezing Rail travel, the station was emptied of its normal clientele and much of its normal staff. With the throngs of travelers gone, the cavernous space turned out to have ample room for the refugees from Last Rock, though they were huddled uncomfortably close together in some cases.
Imperial personnel moved rapidly about, mostly civilians from the Ministry of the Interior in suits and dresses, distinct from the townsfolk chiefly by their silver gryphon badges and brisk manner. Uniformed soldiers carrying staves were posted at the entrances and windows and strategically throughout the station, keeping watch; more of them, sans weapons, had been put to work helping to shift cargo. For the most part, the townsfolk were admirably calm and orderly. The frontier bred hardy people more inclined to work than to complain, and the proximity to the University had taught these particular souls a degree of comfort with the unexpected. Nonetheless, there were raised voices, minor scuffles and the odd backup of traffic as someone misunderstood directions or refused to follow them. Clerics were moving through the crowd, mostly Universal Church parsons, Omnist monks and several Izarites, helping to keep people calm and seeing to whatever needs they found.
The townsfolk were being settled into hastily-cleared offices and storage warehouses, with several in tents erected along the wider thoroughfares and main lobby, while the students were being set up along the platforms suspended above the actual Rail lines. Imperial officers, familiar with the handling of upset civilians in a crisis, had taken one look at the two groups and promptly separated them. Even now, with distance and casually wandering soldiers between them, a lot of the townspeople were directing angry looks and mutters at the students. Even aside from the general presumption that the University was responsible for whatever nonsense befell the town, there were more than a few Rockies intelligent enough to do the arithmetic on the situation and deduce that a student, or students, had to be personally responsible for the hellgate. By this point, that awareness had sifted through the entire population, and even some of the more laid-back citizens were growing irate. The usual run of University tomfoolery was one thing, but they’d now been separated from their homes and were facing the possibility of having no homes to which to return. The priests had a full job maintaining calm.
Professors were helping with that. They moved among the students, keeping order better than the Imperials could (apparently enough of the Interior personnel were acquainted with college students to know not to try clamping down on them), and also speaking with the civilians. University staff grew to be more familiar to the folk of Last Rock than students, simply by virtue of having more time to get to know them. Most were liked, at least to an extent, and they had a measure of trust accumulated which was paying off in this situation.
Nobody was under the delusion that this was a long-term solution. Apart from the simple sanitary concerns of having that many people in a confined space, the simmering tensions would only get worse the longer people were kept in such a tight situation. It was just a matter of time until someone lashed out, one way or another, and that raised the very real possibility of an escalating conflict. In theory, it should all be resolved one way or another within two days, but the Ministry of the Interior was already drawing up a resettlement plan for the refugees. So far, only some of the senior University faculty and the mayor and Sheriff of Last Rock had been informed of this, on the reasoning that seriously discussing the possible destruction of the town would only escalate tensions. For the time being, everyone was focusing on tending to the needs of the refugees and keeping calm and order among them.
Professor Tellwyrn stood nose-to-nose with a man whose Army uniform bore a captain’s stripes below a Strike Corps insignia; he stared back at her with remarkable calm considering the situation.
“We are not embarking for Last Rock, or anywhere else,” the captain said patiently. Behind him, the three other members of his strike team stood in relaxed postures that belied the cold stares they all directed at Tellwyrn. A second strike team stood off to the side, having casually arranged themselves into a staggered diamond formation that gave them all a direct line of sight at the Professor, placing their warlock at the head of the group and the cleric in the back.
“Tell me that again,” Tellwyrn hissed. “This time, speak slowly and use small words, as I appear to have gone completely insane. There is no other possible explanation for what I thought I just heard.”
“The orders are directly from the Emperor. Forces are being dispatched from Tiraas, and as I just said, Professor, all other details are classified. I couldn’t tell you more even if I knew more.”
He smiled thinly. “That’s also classified.”
“That’s nonsense!” she barked. “Calderaas is the provincial capital and the established staging area. There is no reason to re-route resources from Tiraas, hundreds of miles south, when there are soldiers, zeppelins and strike teams here!”
“I am confident that his Majesty knows what he is doing,” the captain said calmly.
“Maybe I should go ask him,” Tellwyrn snorted, taking a step back.
Immediately, a faint buzz of arcane energy sprang up around all eight Strike Corps members, along with a small but noticeable increase in the ambient temperature and a golden glow wreathing the two clerics. Both fae magic users slipped hands into their coat pockets.
“Be extremely careful, Professor,” warned the captain quietly. “That was uncomfortably close to a threat to the Emperor.”
“Boy,” she said disdainfully, “do you really imagine I’m impressed by—”
“Do you imagine I am?” he shot back. “Yes, yes, we know, big bad Arachne can bring this whole place down around all our heads. Either do it or pipe down and behave yourself, lady. There’s a crisis going on, if you haven’t noticed, and nobody has time for your grandstanding. The Empire is handling this. You will be informed of anything you need to know.”
Behind him, the priestess in his team sighed heavily and shook her head. The warlock next to her grinned.
Tellwyrn regarded the captain with a curious expression for a moment before opening her mouth to speak again.
“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?”
“Oh, what now,” Tellwyrn muttered, turning her back on the Strike Corps to seek out the new disturbance.
She stalked through the informal blockade of soldiers, none of whom moved close enough to make that difficult, to the platforms where the student groups were being organized. A mixed gaggle of sophomores and freshmen were clustered together, confronted by Janis van Richter, who was scarlet-faced and hyperventilating with a mixture of panic and fury.
As Tellwyrn arrived, Professor Yornhaldt emerged from the crowd in response to the noise, several other faculty members and a couple of Imperial Marshals gravitating over behind him.
“Janis,” Tellwyrn said sharply, “what is the—”
“Look!” Janis shrieked, reaching out to grab Ruda by the shoulder. Her hand passed straight through, eliciting no reaction from the girl. Next to her, Tanq and Natchua exchanged a nervous glance.
Tellwyrn halted, frowned, and pushed her spectacles up her nose, peering at the students through rather than over them. Her expression immediately grew an order of magnitude more angry. She held up one hand and snapped her fingers.
Instantly, the entire freshman class dissolved in a clatter of sparks and falling objects. Smoke drifted up from the wreckage of charred enchanting components now lying inert on the metal platform. The one exception was Fross, who immediately veered sideways and went shooting drunkenly off over the Rail tracks. In seconds, she lost cohesion and dissolved in a blur of mist.
“Wh—that—they—“ Professor Yornhaldt clapped a hand to his forehead. “I didn’t even— Arachne, I’m afraid I must immediately tender my resignation on the grounds that I have become a senile old fool.”
“Oh, shut up, Alaric,” she growled. “If I expected you to match wits with duplicitous teenagers I’d have to pay you better. What’s more to the point is they could not have done this alone; eight illusionary kids boarding a caravan would have drawn some notice.” She tilted her head down, glaring at the members of the sophomore class now standing around the destroyed golems. “Unless someone was covering for them.”
“The Hand of Avei has a calling, and an obligation to face the demons,” November said stridently. “It’s an honor to be of service to her in that!” She was only present because a caravan with a special safety harness had been found to carry her, and was now (much to her irritation) confined to a wheeled chair with a heavy lap quilt on Miss Sunrunner’s orders.
Beside her, Natchua shrugged, folded her arms and looked away. “If the froshes all want to get killed, I respect their choices.”
“Wait, wait, stop,” said Chase, his eyes wide. His lower lip started to tremble dramatically. “You man…that wasn’t really them? D-does this mean me and Trissiny aren’t getting married?” November shot him a filthy look.
“Those. Little. Shits.” Tellwryn hissed.
Behind her, Professor Ezzaniel cleared his throat. “It’s not like that group to do something so dangerous without a specific reason, Arachne. Considering the situation, I suspect Omnu and Avei are directly behind this.”
“Who did you think I was talking about?” she snarled, whirling and stalking away up the platform.
There was a clatter and a fountain of sparks as the connector between the Rail driver car and the compartment immediately behind it severed. Instantly, the entire empty caravan fell onto the Rail itself with a tremendous crash that brought people running from all directions. Except the driver car, which floated up into the air, turning completely around as it drifted back past the wrecked caravan and settled gently onto the Rail, facing back the way it had come.
Immediately, its hatch swung outward and a shaken-looking Imperial enchanter leaned out. “What in Omnu’s flaming name—?”
“Change of plans!” Tellwyrn said, stomping up to him. “This car is going back to Last Rock. Now. Out.”
“I’ve received no such orders,” he blustered.
“You just did, boy,” she snapped. “Get out of the car before I have to get you out.”
“Now see here!” He drew himself up fully, which was quite impressive as he was still leaning awkwardly forward out of the hatch. “The Imperial Rails answer to no one but his Majesty! If you think for one moment—”
“Driver!” a voice shouted from the near distance. The crowd of nervous onlookers parted, disgorging three Imperial soldiers with Private Moriarty at their head, pointing imperiously at the enchanter. “A further crisis has developed. On the authority of his Imperial Majesty I am commandeering this vehicle. I’ll need you to step out, please.”
“Oh, well,” he hemmed, glancing back into his compartment. “I guess if that’s—eep!” The enchanter staggered, barely catching his balance as Tellwyrn tugged him out onto the platform.
“Good work,” she said curtly, pausing just inside to point at the trio. “You three! Get in here, I may need some warm bodies to throw at a problem.”
“Well, if you’re gonna sweet talk us, I guess we have no choice,” Rook drawled, ambling forward.
It was crowded with four of them in the compartment. The three soldiers pressed themselves back onto the padded bench along its rear wall, groping for the provided handholds, of which there were not enough for all of them.
“Ugh, what is this?” Tellwyrn growled, yanking the hatch shut and glaring at the runic console. “What a mess. I told them to keep the controls simple. What does this even do?” She prodded a bank of symbols and immediately the Rail beneath them began to glow blue, humming furiously and emitting odd sparks. “Oh, I see. Well, that’s handy, needed that anyway. What are you leering at?” she demanded, turning her head to look at Rook, whose insane grin had been reflected on the inside of the windscreen.
“Moriarty broke a rule!” he crowed.
“The exalted rank of private doesn’t give us the authority to commandeer anything,” Finchley added. “Especially Imperial property.”
“An Imperial Rail driver wouldn’t yield his assigned place under any threat,” Moriarty huffed, folding his arms. “And he was standing between Arachne Tellwyrn and what she wanted. I just saved that man’s life.”
“You are rapidly becoming my favorite, Moriarty,” Tellwyrn said, turning back to the controls. She flicked her fingers across two runes and grasped a lever.
“Oh, gods,” he groaned, and that was as far as he got before she pulled the lever.
The car shot forward like a bolt of lightning, accelerating faster and far less smoothly than Rail caravans were meant to. Within seconds, they were outside the city and rounding the first gentle curve, smashing the three men into the wall and eliciting a chorus of screams. Tellwyrn gripped the lever and a hanging strap, balancing upright without apparent difficulty.
“For heaven’s sake, cut out that racket,” she snapped. “Let me concentrate! I’ve got about ten minutes to figure out how to stop this thing.”
For some reason, that didn’t seem to help.
“Did you see them go?” Ruda asked as the girls stepped onto the bridge toward the main campus from Clarke Tower. After months of making the trip, they barely gave the frightening drop a glance.
“Fross came to collect us,” Shaeine replied. “We were not attending the window at the time, but I gather it is confirmed? We are alone on campus?”
“Oh ho,” Ruda said, waggling her eyebrows. “And what were you attending—”
“Somehow that was the first time I’ve watched a Rail caravan depart from the vantage of our room,” Trissiny interrupted her. “It was a surprisingly awesome sight. Makes me feel like I’ve wasted opportunities all these months to see it happen. You just don’t appreciate how fast those things move when you’re inside one.”
“On the inside you mostly appreciate how roughly they move,” Teal said with a grin.
“Well, it’s not like you can just sit at your window waiting for it,” Juniper said reasonably. “Last Rock is only barely on the regular stop roster, and most the time nobody’s coming here, much less leaving. The caravans don’t come around all that often.”
“How do you know that?” Ruda asked.
The dryad shrugged. “I read, I talk to people. It’s not exactly a secret.”
“I thought the plan was to meet up on the cafeteria lawn,” Trissiny said as they reached the gate to the main campus and found Toby and Gabriel there waiting.
“Yes, well, we decided to surprise you,” said Toby with a smile. “Purely out of concern for your well-being and not at all because this place is unbearably creepy when it’s deserted.”
“It’s hard to tell,” Gabe added, “but I think it would be even without… You know.” He pointed skyward, and they all paused to look up.
The wispy spiral of clouds had, over the last hour, grown to a huge thunderhead, twisted into a slowly rotating vortex and casting a shadow over the mountain, the town and their surroundings. There were no other clouds in the sky, as if all had been drawn to the hellgate. As the sun was falling and the sky reddening, a sickly orange glow illuminated the clouds. It might have been a natural result of the sunset, except that it was too faint, and the way it reflected on the swirls of vapor made it plain that the source was at the center of the spiral. There was no thunder, no sound of any kind, but flashes occurred periodically among the clouds, like distant lighting, except an ominous red in color.
“Might as well get over there, anyway,” said Fross. “I don’t know how much difference it’ll make, but…that’s where the center of it is.”
“Yeah,” Trissiny agreed, nodding, and set out on the path toward the cafeteria. The rest fell into step with her.
“Arquin, just what the fuck do you think you’re doing with that thing?” Ruda demanded.
Gabriel placed a hand protectively on the hilt of the black sword hanging at his side. “Well, considering what we’re up against… I figured it was best to be as prepared as possible.”
“Being prepared means knowing how to use the weapons you have,” she snorted. “You’re prepared to cut your damn foot off.”
“It doesn’t cut me,” he said, scowling. “I checked.”
“Yeah, way to really hone in on the important point there.”
“Gabriel has been training with the sword,” said Trissiny, “with my help. He’s making progress.”
“Really?” Ruda raised her eyebrows. “Well, damn. Color me impressed.”
“I do what I can,” Gabriel said with blatantly false modesty.
“Progress,” Trissiny clarified, “in this case meaning that I trust him, barely, not to harm himself more than an enemy. I’m a lot less confident about him swinging that thing around while the rest of us are standing nearby. Please stick to the wands, Gabe.”
“I was planning to anyway,” he said with a sigh.
“Why do you even still have that?” Fross asked. “I thought you were gonna have the spells on it analyzed. Somehow it seems like Tellwyrn would have made you get rid of it.”
“Which is why I didn’t take it to Tellwyrn,” he said, winking at her. “I showed it to Professor Yornhaldt; he said it’s very old and was clearly the work of an archmage or something similar.”
“That’s it?” Teal asked. “No word on what the spells actually do?”
“He couldn’t tell. Apparently they’re extremely complicated and very tightly woven together, or…something. It got a bit technical for me; I learned some new terms to look up but even so I never did follow the whole thing. But no, he said to really understand what the magic was supposed to do, he’d have to start unraveling the enchantments on it, which would probably ruin them. He did suggest I could probably sell it to a collector for a good sum, or even turn it into the Empire for a bounty. Apparently the government likes to take powerful magical artifacts out of circulation whenever possible.”
“And yet…there it still is,” Toby noted.
Gabriel shrugged, looking self-conscious; he touched the hilt again, lightly brushing his fingers over it. “It’s… I dunno. It just didn’t feel right. It’s almost like I rescued her, y’know?”
Ruda snorted. “Her?”
“Well, Ariel’s a girl’s name, right?”
“I’m a little more concerned with the fact that you’re carrying a weapon loaded down with extremely powerful spells and you don’t even know what they do,” Trissiny said, turning to glance at him as they walked. “I wish you’d just left it in your room, Gabriel. Failing that, please leave it in the sheath. We are assuredly not going to need extra sources of trouble tonight.”
“Yes, General,” he grumped.
They walked in silence the rest of the way to the lawn, and by unspoken design formed into a loose circle outside the broken cafeteria windows, gazing upward. Silent lightning flickered through the clouds. It was subtle, but distinct: the flashes were coming more regularly now.
“It will be all right,” said Toby quietly. “This isn’t an accident. The gods sent us here; they have a plan.”
“Yup,” said Ruda, unconsciously gripping the jeweled hilt of her rapier. “I’m just hoping the plan isn’t ‘these paladins suck, let’s waste ’em and get new ones.’”
Everyone turned to look at her, wide-eyed.
“No,” Trissiny said solemnly. “Omnu would never do such a thing.”
The tension abated just like that; Toby actually had to clap a hand over his mouth to stifle a burst of laughter.
“I’m telling her you said that,” Ruda said with a grin, lightly punching her roommate’s shoulder.
“By all means, do,” Trissiny replied, smiling. “That’s a conversation I would dearly love to see.”
“Guys,” Gabriel said tersely. “Look.”
They saw them just barely before they heard them. They started as tiny black specks, pouring out from the center of the maelstrom, but in the quiet, the sound of buzzing immediately became audible…and then, grew. Figures continued to stream out, still too distant to be distinct, but swarming ever closer to the ground. Dozens of them, scores… Quickly, though they were uncountable in their multitudes, it became clear they numbered in the hundreds, at least. As they came, the sound of buzzing wings grew ever more insistent.
“Just so we’re clear,” Trissiny said grimly, “nobody minds if I kill these, right?”