Addiwyn pushed open the dormitory door and stalked through as usual, making a beeline for her own room without pausing to engage with anyone present. This time, however, she paused, half-turning to peer through narrowed eyes at Szith.
The drow stood alone against the front wall, between the room’s two doors. Her posture appeared relaxed, but she was just…standing, doing apparently nothing. None of the other freshman girls were present.
“What are you doing?” Addiwyn demanded suspiciously.
“Waiting,” Szith said in perfect calm.
“Waiting for what?”
Szith looked over at her, raising one eyebrow. After a moment, Addiwyn snorted disdainfully and entered her own room, slamming the door behind her.
Half a minute later, she came storming back out, stomping right up to Szith and glaring murderously.
“I suppose you think you’re clever,” the elf snarled.
“Compared to whom?”
Addiwyn bared her teeth. “What have you done with my things?”
“I haven’t touched anything of yours.”
“All right, fine. Very amusing. We can do this all night, bitch. Where are they?”
“By ‘they,’” Szith asked mildly, “are you referring to your belongings, or the rest of our roommates?”
“I’ve got a funny feeling those two questions have the same answer!”
“Why are you so hostile?” Szith inquired.
“Is that a joke?” Addiwyn snapped. “You’re holding my entire wardrobe hostage and you want to ask why I’m hostile?”
“You know very well what I mean,” the drow said with inexorable calm. “If all you wanted was to be left alone, you could have had that easily. Your words and actions create a stark disconnect, Addiwyn. If you are so disinterested in us, why go so far out of your way, risking the consequences you have, to cause us all hurt?”
“I will see you rotting in your grave before I deign to explain myself to you, darkling,” the elf said venomously.
Szith raised an eyebrow. “If it were just me, I doubt I would even wonder. Yet you’ve attacked every one of the others, and I know your people are not at war with humanity or the gnomes. There is no logic to your actions, and it is beginning to grow disturbing.”
“Good,” Addiwyn sneered. “Be disturbed. Now where. Are. My. Clothes?”
“I am trying to get through to you,” Szith persisted, “because if I do not, you’ll have to deal with Ravana. Not knowing what you want or intend, she is of the opinion that you represent an actual threat to our well-being, and will address you accordingly.”
“I really cannot stress enough how little I fear the wrath of that stuck-up porcelain doll.”
“Then you fail to comprehend what you are dealing with,” Szith said, a sharp edge entering her tone. “And for your information, I don’t believe she understands restraint in dealing with her opponents. The consequences for challenging House Madouri would be significant.”
“I’m getting tired of this, Szith.”
“As am I,” the drow shot back. “Whatever you may believe, I am trying to help you, and all of us. Just explain, Addiwyn. We only want to understand.”
Addiwyn curled her lip contemptuously. “Why don’t you just be a good little lackey and lead the way to your mistress?”
Szith held her stare for a long moment, then sighed very softly and shook her head. “As you wish.”
Among the campus’s numerous nooks and hideaways was a shadowed grove along the east wall, at the middle terrace. Ronald Hall rose above, but had not been built against the actual wall of the campus—nor, for whatever reason, had the terrace itself. The result of this was a small alcove, about nine yards square, buried beneath the terrace wall and the perimeter wall, which lurked in deep shadow, accessible only from one direction. There was no paving or furniture, nothing placed there to indicate it had been intended for use, but it did have a carpet of dense brown clover, several fluffy little bushes and even three small trees of a thick, twisted shape, all species from the Deep Wild which thrived beneath the shadows of the thick canopy. They did quite well in this dark little nook.
Needless to say, it was popular among students for a variety of purposes. Thanks to Stew’s industriousness, the area remained clean no matter what took place there. Relatively clean, at least.
Despite the brief time they had been on campus, Addiwyn apparently knew the spot well enough to recognize the goal of their trek and pull ahead of Szith once they rounded the corner under Ronald Hall, pausing only to sneer at the drow in passing. Szith continued without altering her speed, or her expression, and arrived a few moments after the girl she was escorting.
Addiwyn came to a stop just within the shade of the little nook, planting her fists on her hips and glaring.
The largest of the twisted trees stood along the back wall of the square nook, slightly off-center. It was a little taller than an average male elf, its thick, spiraling trunk sprouting stubby branches with patchy leaves the color of mold—never an impressive sight at the best of times. Now, it was festooned with skirts, blouses and undergarments like some kind of deranged solstice tree.
Iris stood next to the tree, arms folded, looking smug. Maureen sat upon the small lip of stone at the base of Ronald Hall, some ten feet above, kicking her legs idly. A folding stool had been set up in the center of the nook, and Ravana perched upon this, her spine straight, a faint smile playing about her lips.
“Good evening, Addiwyn,” she said politely.
“My interest in you trollops and your hogwash is at an all-time low,” Addiwyn snarled. “Haul your gangly ass out of my way and I will consider not bringing this to Tellwyrn’s attention.”
“From what I understand of Professor Tellwyrn’s educational ‘talks,’” Ravana said idly, “you are in no position to be carrying complaints to her and won’t be for a while. Indeed, she has a long history of using students of the Unseen University to educate, control and even discipline one another. Quite elegant, really, and more subtle than her reputation would suggest. Of course, there is really no other way she could keep control over this particular student body.”
“I do not have time for—”
“Much as I usually enjoy verbal fencing, let us skip past the obligatory time-wasting, shall we?” Ravana daintily crossed her legs and folded her hands in her lap. “After your persistent, unprovoked, and utterly demented campaign of harassment against your roommates, you will receive no sympathy from the University’s administration or our house mother at finding yourself facing a much gentler version of the same treatment. You have no notable magical skill, and physically? You’re probably not a match for Maureen, definitely not for Szith, and most assuredly not for both. Your father the merchant may be able to buy you out of the little intrigues you created back home, but his fortunes compared to those of my House are a candle against the sun. In short, Addiwyn, you have nothing with which to threaten us. Therefore, if you wish the return of your things, you will discuss whatever we wish. And you will do so politely.”
“I am going to walk past you and collect my clothes,” Addiwyn said flatly. “And if any of you lays one finger on my person to stop me, you’ll be in front of Tellwyrn for assault, and find out how much less sense of humor she has about that than practical jokes.”
She strode forward, coming nearly abreast of Ravana before Iris spoke.
“I wouldn’t, if I were you.”
Iris shifted slightly, moving a step closer to the tree, and abruptly a half-ring of light sprang up around its roots, terminating against the back wall. The entire tree shuddered as if in a breeze, then moved further, its trunk actually twisting faintly. Wood groaned softly, a faint floral scent arose from midair, and there came a tiny, sourceless puff of wind.
Addiwyn froze, her eyebrows drawing together in consternation. Behind her, Szith moved silently into the nook and took up a position against one wall.
“Were you aware that our Miss Domingue is a witch of some skill?” Ravana asked pleasantly. “I was not. Really, it is quite impressive, what she is able to do with trees and plants. If you are concerned at all for the condition of your belongings, I really do suggest that you don’t attempt to touch them until you are told that you may.”
“You’re a contemptible little shit,” Addiwyn said flatly, turning to her.
“That is true,” Ravana said, still wearing a polite smile. “But I am also a clever, powerful little shit, and you have entirely consumed your allotment of my patience. Now, Addiwyn, shall we have that conversation?”
“You know,” Addiwyn said, a tiny little smile quirking her lips, “none of this is going to make Daddy love you.”
Ravana gazed at her in silence for a long moment, her expression altering not a hair. Then she drummed her fingers once against her leg.
“What are you doing, Addiwyn?”
Addiwyn folded her arms. “Waiting for you to finish your pitiful little drama.”
“It is your pitiful little drama that concerns us here,” Ravana said calmly. “None of us have done anything to provoke you until now, and yet you seem willing to defy all reason and the boundaries of civilized society in order to cause us grief. You risk increasingly serious punishment and seemingly disdain the preservation of your own well-being to attack us. And if you were a lunatic out for blood, that would at least be consistent. Yet for all your totally disproportionate aggression, it seems you can manage nothing but contemptibly juvenile pranks. It is puzzling.”
“Or,” Addiwyn suggested, “maybe it all makes perfect sense, and you’re just stupid.”
“I don’t think you get it,” said Iris. “You’re not getting your stuff back or leaving here until we have this out, bitch.”
“Iris,” Ravana said with gentle reproof, “let us not be needlessly offensive.”
Iris curled her lip contemptuously. “Why not? She is.”
“That is precisely why, my dear. Ideally we can all come to an understanding and put these hostilities behind us, but if Miss Addiwyn will not oblige us even to that extent, we ought at least to retain the moral high ground.”
Addiwyn looked pointedly at her clothes festooning the twisted tree. “Good job.”
“Really, though,” said Maureen from atop the ledge, “what has gotten up yer bum that makes ye light into us the way you have?”
“It really is a simple enough question,” added Ravana. “All we seek is a little understanding. With that done we can all be finished with this absurdity.”
“All right, enough already!” Addiwyn snapped. “You’ve had your fun, got a little of your own back. Let’s just call it even, agree to a truce and go our separate ways. Fair?”
Ravana shook her head slowly. “At issue, Addiwyn, is the cause of your irrational, aggressive behavior. To be perfectly frank, I am concerned about our well-being. So long as I have to sleep in a complex with a belligerent unknown quantity, the prospect of waking up with a slit throat is not unthinkable.”
Addiwyn stared at her. “You…actually think I’m going to kill you? Woman, are you utterly daft?”
Ravana tilted her head to one side. “I understand your adoptive family are human, Addiwyn. How familiar are you with elvish culture? With the language?”
“My personal history is in no way any concern of yours, you little goblin.”
“Do you understand what the term anth’auwa means?”
Addiwyn jerked back from her, eyes widening. In the next moment, they narrowed to slits. “You are very close to crossing a line.”
Ravana shrugged. “Then convince me otherwise. Explain yourself. You must have reasons.”
The elf stepped closer, leaning forward till her face was less than a foot from Ravana’s, and spoke in an icily quiet tone. “You don’t know me. You will not know me, and you don’t need to know me. I am done with this idiocy. Take yourself out of my way, and give me back my clothes, Madouri. Now.”
They locked eyes in silence. The other three girls looked on, Iris and Maureen frowning, Szith apparently without expression.
“One last time, Addiwyn,” Ravana said quietly. “Answer the question. Why?”
“I have made my final offer,” Addiwyn replied. “Drop this, leave me alone, and we can have peace.”
“Peace is a lie,” said Szith. “There is no peace in you. Show us the root of your belligerence, convince us it’s over. Then we can drop this.”
Addiwyn looked up at her, curled her lip in a sneer, then stepped back from Ravana. She planted herself firmly in the middle of the space, folded her arms, and just stared.
Ravana sighed softly. “Well. Let the record show we attempted to do this the civil way.”
“While the record has been brought up,” Szith said evenly, “let me reiterate that I believe the matter ought to end here.”
“So noted,” Ravana said, turning to nod to her. “Iris, if you would?”
“You asked for it,” Iris said with a note of satisfaction, then knelt, grasped something hidden amid the clover, and abruptly straightened, flinging her arm out to the side. The glowing semicircle surrounding the twisted tree went flying with it, the braided cord that had formed it flicking through the air and sending up a cloud of faintly luminous dust.
A deep, low groan filled the air, and the tree began to move.
It slowly pivoted around itself, its twisting trunk seemingly trying to straighten out. Branches jerked, then flexed, setting the clothes draped on them to swaying. With a soft rumble, it tilted to one side, roots popping loose from the ground.
“You seem fond of practical jokes, Addiwyn,” Ravana said calmly. “We thought we might show you how to properly perform one.”
Staring in fascinated horror at the rising tree, Addiwyn took two reflexive steps backward from it, toward the path out of the nook.
The tree leaned back the other way, wrenching the remainder of its root system free from the earth, its trunk flexing back and forth with a crunching of bark. Branches cracked, bending sharply at specific points.
Ravana slipped quietly from her perch, pacing across the enclosed space to stand alongside Szith.
Iris was busy wrapping the still-glowing cord around a small doll she had taken from within the loose sleeve of her dress. Finally knotting it off, she held it up to her face and whispered, “Awake.”
The tree twitched once, shuddered, and suddenly cracks opened in its bark. Two limbs rearranged themselves.
A yawning knot opened in the middle of the trunk, below two horizontal (but uneven) cracks which flexed wide, knocking loose fragments of bark. The matched pair of limbs flexed their furthest extremities—like fingers. Suddenly, its shape held meaning. It had a face, arms, and grasping hands. A low groan emerged from deep within the tree, this time very clearly coming from the single, now-gaping knothole. From its mouth.
“What have you done?” Addiwyn whispered.
“It’s called an entling!” Iris said, beaming in pride. “Isn’t it adorable?”
The entling shook its arms, causing Addiwyn’s skirts and blouses to flutter, and groaned again.
“Oh, and by the way,” Iris added sweetly, “it has your scent. Ah, ah!” she added as Addiwyn took a rapid step backward. “I would not do that. It’s curious, see—your smell is part of the magic animating it, so it’ll be irresistibly drawn to you. Best not to make it chase you, though. If it burns too much energy and needs to replace some, well… There’s a thin line between ‘drawn’ and ‘hungry.’”
“You’re all insane,” Addiwyn breathed, staring at the entling in horror. It began shambling toward her on its groping roots.
Behind her, Maureen suddenly stood and jumped off the ledge. She plunged ten feet straight down, landing right in the thick bush positioned below her, which exploded under the impact, spraying a thick blast of greenish liquid into the middle of the nook, misting Ravana’s sleeve but practically dousing Addiwyn. A sharp, citrusy smell suddenly hung in the air.
The elf shrieked in startlement, leaping straight up and whirling around to glare at the gnome, who was already struggling backward out of the bush, dragging a hefty apparatus that had been hidden therein.
“What the hell?!” Addiwyn squawked. “What is wrong with you people?”
“You’ve used a perfume spritzer, aye?” Maureen said cheerfully, brushing leaves off the device and turning to face the soaked elf with a grin. It appeared to consist of a mess of hoses and brass tanks connected to a huge rubber bladder and a thick nozzle set on a tripod. “Or at least seen one? This is basically that, on a somewhat larger scale. Remarkably simple t’put together! Oh, an’ the stuff in there, we got that from Professor Rafe. Jus’ like the purple ink!”
“Except we had to be a little sneakier about this stuff,” Iris said smugly. “It’s not the kind of thing a professor would let students play around with. It’s basically…bait. For fairy creatures. Makes things smell irresistible to them.”
Addiwyn broke off trying vainly to wring the thick, lime-scented fluid out of her blouse, straightening up, her eyes widening.
Even with all her elven agility, she wasn’t fast enough.
The entling, despite its previously ponderous movements, lashed out with both arms faster than a striking cobra. They extended to twice their length in an eyeblink and grasped Addiwyn by the shoulders, hiking her bodily off the ground. She yelped and kicked, struggling vainly against the summoned creature’s grip.
“I really would be quiet,” Iris advised. “You’re already appetizing twice over to him, you know. Best not make too much noise, or squirm around, or do anything that’ll agitate him. He’s a newborn, y’see, and will be wanting a meal.”
“Have you all lost your minds?” Addiwn squalled, flailing furiously with her legs.
The entling groaned again, more loudly than before, then lifted her up over its center of mass and abruptly lowered her, stuffing her flailing feet into its suddenly gaping mouth.
“Told you,” Iris said with a shrug.
“Help!” Addiwyn shrieked.
The entling shoved her farther down, her legs disappearing up to the knees in its trunk.
“I can make him be still for a bit,” Iris said idly, “but you’ll need to be still for it to work.”
Addiwyn froze, wide-eyed with panic and quivering.
“Attagirl,” Iris said with a fiendish grin, and held up the little doll before her face again. “Calm,” she whispered to it, stroking its head.
The entling emitted a deep, contented rumble from around Addiwyn’s feet, but stopped shoving her downward.
“Now, then!” Ravana said brightly. “Shall we resume our discussion?”
“You are completely insane,” Addiwyn whispered, staring at her in horror.
Ravana shrugged. “I was raised in a disgusting degree of privilege with a regrettable dearth of affection. It tends to warp a person. What’s your excuse?”
“All right, I have to register an objection,” Szith said rather sharply. “I understood that the plan here was to intimidate her, which in frankness I only consented to so as to present myself as a moderating influence. This verges on torture. I think you should release her, Iris.”
“Oh, come now,” Ravana chided, “we are so close to reaching an accord. As you can see, my dear Addiwyn, we can play jokes, too. The difference is, we have considerable resources and the will to exert them beyond childish sabotage. Are you at least convinced to cease your own campaign?”
“Help,” Addiwyn whispered.
“I would still prefer a diplomatic solution,” Ravana said in perfect calm. “But if you decline to oblige, we can begin by establishing that your continued aggression will lead only to—”
“HELP!” Addiwyn howled.
Iris flicked the doll’s head with her finger. The entling grunted in displeasure and shoved the elf a few inches deeper into its maw. She squeaked and froze again.
“If this does not cease immediately,” Szith said sharply, “I will be forced to insist.”
“Aye, I’m startin’ ta be in agreement,” Maureen said nervously. “Iris, ye described this as a prank. She looks scared half t’death, there.”
“I think she can only benefit from knowing what it feels like,” Iris said grimly.
“We are undoubtedly in violation of numerous campus rules as it is,” Szith stated, “simply by virtue of this being an extravagantly cruel action. I am all for displaying strength, but it should be done with restraint.”
“She looks plenty restrained to me,” Iris said.
“It seems we’ve a difference of opinion, then,” Ravana mused. “Well, Addiwyn, rather than encourage further discord within the ranks, I’m inclined to oblige my friends and call a halt to this.”
“Aw,” Iris complained, frowning.
“On the other hand,” Ravana continued, “we can hardly afford to back down without gaining some concessions. That’s simple politics. Have you anything to add?”
“Tellwyrn is going to skin you imbeciles alive!” Addiwyn grated.
Ravana shrugged. “Do you imagine that is news to me? Now you understand that you are not the only one willing to face consequences in order to strike at an enemy. It would seem the difference between us is that our enmity has been earned.”
A soft giggle sounded. They all froze, then turned toward the front of the shaded nook.
Full dark had fallen over the campus, but thanks to its omnipresent fairy lamps, a dim light prevailed even in the middle of the night. Now, a black silhouette stood between the freshmen and the exit from their secluded nest—a silhouette surmounted by slowly twitching triangular ears. Eyes gleamed an eerie green in the dimness.
“Well,” a silken voice purred. “What have we here?”
“P-professor Ekoi!” Addiwyn spluttered. “I’m being murdered! Get them off me!”
“Mmmurdered?” Ekoi’s ears twitched once more and she angled her head to one side. “You’re being manhandled, you silly thing. Entlings do not eat. Your feet have reached the bottom of that trunk. It can’t do more than push you in, and can’t push much farther than you already are. Someone has been pulling your little leg.”
Addiwyn blinked, then blinked again, then her expression of fear slowly melted into a deep scowl. She twisted as far as she could in the entling’s grasp to glare at Iris. “Oh, you vicious, snub-eared little whore!”
“Ah, well,” Ravana said resignedly. “It was a good trick while it lasted.”
“It’s…it’s just a bit of fun, Professor,” Iris said nervously. “We were just scaring her a bit. Nobody’s in any real danger… I mean, you know that, surely.”
“I would have appreciated knowing that beforehand,” Szith said sharply.
“Nobody’s in danger?” Ekoi mused, gliding forward a couple of steps. Her luminous eyes suddenly seemed excessively wide in her shadowed face. “You think not?”
A tense silence fell, in which the girls glanced uncertainly at each other and even Addiwyn stopped struggling against the entling.
“Professor?” Szith said carefully. “Are you quite all right?”
Professor Ekoi moved closer, languidly holding up one hand. A palm-sized orb of blue fire burst alight in her grip, then slowly drifted away to float aimlessly through the air around the stilled entling. In its eerie illumination, they could finally see her expression. Her eyes were insanely wide, her mouth stretched in a grin that displayed a great many very shiny teeth. As they stared, she slowly licked her lips.
“Tell me,” the kitsune all but whispered, “what is that absolutely delicious scent?”
“Oh, bugger,” Maureen mumbled.
“Iris?” Ravana said, a note of tension in her voice for the first time.
“It’s—it’s just a floral p-perfume,” Iris stuttered. “C’mon, it’s not really fairy pheromones, that’s…that’s ridiculous. There’s no such…”
“It’s been just so long,” Ekoi crooned, “so long since I’ve had a proper hunt. The taste of fresh prey, so delicately seasoned…”
“Ah, Professor,” Ravana said carefully, “I think perhaps—”
Ekoi moved faster than even an elven eye could follow, flickering around behind Ravana and wrapping both arms around the girl. One hand gripped Ravana’s slender neck, tiny claws pressing against the pulse in her throat.
“Why,” the Professor cooed, “you reek of it, delicious little morsel.”
“Professor, I believe you should release her,” Szith said, drawing her sword.
Ekoi’s gleaming eyes flicked to the drow. “Why, Miss An’sadarr, why ever are you holding that sssssssnake?”
Szith gasped; the serpent whose tail was in her hand twisted around to hiss menacingly at her. She flung it away, hopping backward.
Her sword landed in a bush on the opposite side of the space, eliciting a yelp from Maureen, who stood uncomfortably close.
“Professor,” Ravana whispered, wide-eyed and trembling, “please unhand me.”
“Arachne won’t miss one,” Ekoi murmured, her tongue darting out to flick across Ravana’s cheek. She glanced slyly around the group. “Or four. Or five.”
“You unspeakable bloody idiots,” Addiwyn rasped. “I wish I had wanted to kill you!”
“How was I supposed to know!” Iris babbled. “It was supposed to be a fake perfume, how could it possibly—”
A sharp pop sounded, and suddenly the space was flooded with brilliant white light.
Professor Tellwyrn stood at the mouth of the nook, a blazing globe of light hovering over her head.
“Kaisa,” she said flatly, “what did I tell you about eating the students?”
Ekoi pouted, loosening her grip on Ravana. “I know, I know. Not until they graduate.”
“There is no circumstance in which you should be fondling one of your pupils quite that intimately, Kaisa. Step back.”
“Oh, pooh,” the kitsune said sullenly, abruptly shoving Ravana away. “You’re no fun.”
Ravana immediately skittered to the opposite side of the nook, pressing herself against the wall.
Tellwyrn turned her gaze on Addiwyn. “Miss Domingue, do I even need to say it?”
Iris gulped heavily, then lifted the doll to her face with a trembling hand. “R-release,” she whispered.
The entling grumbled softly, but lifted Addiwyn carefully from its mouth and set her feet down on the ground, then finally let go.
The freed elf instantly bolted away, zipping around to hide behind Professor Tellwyrn.
“Kaisa,” Tellwyrn said calmly, “I need to borrow these…delightful little scamps for a bit. Can you put that damned thing back the way it was? And perhaps return Addiwyn’s clothing to her room?”
“Can I?” Professor Ekoi asked, tilting her head inquisitively and peering upward as if in thought. “Why…yes, I do believe I can. Is that really the requisite question here, Arachne?”
Tellwyrn heaved a sigh. “Why do you insist on being difficult?”
“Why must the sun rise in the east? It’s just so arbitrary, don’t you think?”
“Ugh. Fine, go tell Stew to straighten all this up.”
“We weren’t going to hurt her,” Iris said tremulously. “It was just a—”
“Domingue,” Tellwyrn said flatly, “shut up.”
Another, louder pop echoed through the space, and suddenly Tellwyrn and all five students were gone.
The entling twisted in place, the clothes festooning its branches swaying, and let out a guttural mumble that sounded almost inquisitive.
Ekoi Kaisa examined it thoughtfully for a moment, then smiled. Humming to herself, she turned and strolled casually away, her bushy tail waving behind her.