“So, yeah, maybe asking Melaxyna for a perspective wasn’t the wisest thing I’ve ever done,” Toby admitted. “It’s just that… My whole life, the perspectives around me have been kind of uniform. Even here, for all that this place is crazy and full of differing opinions. Some things people just consider universal. So when I’m questioning a universal truth…” He trailed off, shrugged, and took another bite of his pastry.
They were munching as they meandered back to their dorm from the cafeteria. Mrs. Oak did not generally take (or appreciate) special requests, but she had by happenstance reproduced quite closely the apple-raspberry tarts Toby and Gabriel remembered from the neighborhood bakery of their youth, and they’d made a point of stopping by for seconds after meals whenever those were on offer. Once in a while, as today, fresh ones found their way to their plates at dinner, when the cafeteria happened not to be too busy. Despite the cook’s taciturn and standoffish nature, it seemed Juniper was right to insist she wasn’t a bad sort at heart.
“I dunno, man,” Gabriel mused after swallowing the last bite of his. “I definitely follow your logic; she sounds like a great source of outside opinion. Just, you know, don’t take anything she says too closely to heart. Remember what Trissiny warned us about children of Vanislaas.”
“Yeah,” Toby agreed, nodding. “Actually… I made time to research some demonology after her big rant in the Crawl, and she was pretty much spot on. You have to be extremely careful with Vanislaads. Them and djinn—they use words to sow chaos, twist people’s minds. Melaxyna is the only one I’d even consider approaching, with her being stuck in the Grim Visage and out of touch with everything.”
“Funny thing,” Gabriel said with a grin. “Demons, feminism, or whatever else, I notice Trissiny’s rants are usually correct. Y’know, factually. If she ever figures out that ranting at people does not make them want to listen to her, she’ll be very persuasive.”
Toby had to laugh at that.
“I actually kinda miss her,” Gabriel said more soberly. “Well, personally, too, I actually really like Triss once she got the stick out. But right now, more importantly, I feel like we could use another paladin perspective.”
“Yeah,” Toby agreed, sighing heavily. “Though… I’m not sure how much I could lean on her for this. I don’t think Trissiny’s ever had the slightest problem with anything Avei said or did. Me having questions about my god would probably leave her… I dunno. Nonplussed, in the best-case scenario.”
He finished off his pastry while they strolled along in silence. At last, Toby glanced over at Gabriel.
Gabe looked back at him, blinking. “What, what?”
“You’re making that face,” Toby accused. “The one where you’re debating whether to say what you’re thinking.”
“Excuse you,” Gabriel said haughtily, “but I never question saying what I think. It’s my whole thing. I have a thought, out it comes.”
“For nearly the entirety of your life, yes, but in the last year you’ve been working hard to correct that, and it shows. Which is why I recognize that look; I’ve noticed it, and you’re not yet contained enough to hide your facial expressions.”
“Duly noted,” Gabriel said, grimacing deeply. “…also a case in point, huh.”
“So what’s on your mind?”
He sighed. “Well…don’t take this the wrong way.”
“Gabe, when have I ever?” Toby asked in some exasperation, earning a weak grin in response.
“All right, fine. It’s just… I can’t find it in me to have an inherent problem with you questioning Omnu. Have you ever considered that maybe the gods need to be questioned?”
“Well,” Toby said after a pause. “That’s a big question, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“I don’t mean in the cosmic sense, though it is that, too. I mean from you, Gabe. You spent basically your whole life being despised for what you are, not for anything you did, and all because of the Pantheon’s rules. But I almost never heard you complain about it, or about them… Until you started getting directly mixed up with a god and being pretty firmly on his side.”
A silence ensued, in which they continued aimlessly strolling and Gabriel kept his frowning gaze fixed on empty space ahead.
“Anything you want to get off your chest?” Toby finally prompted. “In case I’m not the only one having paladin issues? And if you don’t, that’s completely fine. But you can. You know that, right?”
“The thing is,” Gabriel said slowly, “Vidius has been hinting at this from the very start. Pretty much the first things he said to me were all about how the gods might have made a mistake in dismissing demonbloods. And it’s been…more of the same. His phrasing is always very careful. Often so much so that I don’t notice the implication until I’m thinking about the conversation long afterward. But I keep getting these hints. My first authorized paladin-specific action was basically terrorizing the Vidians in Last Rock into behaving. He approved of that, strongly. Approved of me having valkyries spy on a priestess of his cult. Toby… I think Vidius believes the gods need to be questioned…maybe even challenged. I am pretty sure that’s a big part of the reason he called me.”
“So,” Toby said after another pause. “An even bigger question than I thought.”
“…man, suddenly I really miss having Trissiny to talk to.”
“Do, uh, you have any ideas? I mean, what to do about all this?”
“For either or both of us?” Gabriel shrugged. “I don’t think this is the point for having ideas, as such. I mean, if you think about it, we’re noticing odd trends and having questions. This seems like a time to be paying close attention and thinking carefully. Going off and doing anything drastic at this juncture seems pretty damn premature. I suspect any plan we came up with would be half-baked at best.”
“Well, you really do have a good head for planning, when you use it.” Toby grinned and jostled him with a shoulder. “I think you’re right, though. This is kind of a reversal for us, Gabe, but I’m gonna be watching you for cues on this. Wondering what my god is up to and whether I should approve is pretty new for me. I’m way out of my element.”
“Right, so, no pressure at all,” Gabriel said airily. “You know, if we’re going to end up chatting about all this while walking through the campus anyway, you could’ve just brought it up when I asked in the first place.”
“Yeah, well, I think we were just discussing how I’m apparently not the planner, here,” Toby retorted. “Anyway, that wouldn’t have gone anywhere. The very next thing that happened was the Rafe/Ekoi showdown.”
Gabriel’s expression grew somewhat morose. “Yeah. And after that… Chase is up and about again, but whatever they gave him, they don’t seem to have more of. Natchua is still out. And have you heard about that freshman girl?”
“Addiwyn.” Toby nodded soberly. “Raolo told me. I don’t know if Tellwyrn knows yet, she apparently went to Tiraas for something this afternoon. But that’s three people who’ve been hit, and it seems after the first one, Miss Sunrunner can’t cure it anymore. This is…” He trailed off, shaking his head wordlessly.
“It feels asinine to say this campus was supposed to be safe,” Gabriel murmured. “Half of Tellwyrn’s educational plans seem to involve dropping us in shit that should kills us and seeing what happens.”
“No, I get what you mean,” Toby agreed. “The thing is, she doesn’t do the same stuff to everybody. We’re all paladins and demigods and archdemons in our class, and just from comparing notes with others I know we always end up in more dangerous situations than most. That’s the difference. She’s in control, or at least she makes an effort to be. Now…”
Gabriel sighed. “Well, I mean, hell. We’re the paladins here, right? Guess it’s time we step up.”
He had no answer.
Despite the protests of her professors, roommates, and everyone else, November was accustomed to burning the candle at both ends. It wasn’t that she was a night owl, particularly, she just liked quiet and privacy. The campus had rooms designed to meet those needs, and she could certainly have used them, but she also liked the outdoors. That combination had led to her discovery of her favorite study spot, and her tendency to lurk there well past dark, even on nights when she had early classes the following morning.
In the shadow of the natural sciences building, a small ledge extended from the mountain at an odd angle near its peak, covered with soft grasses. When the campus had been built, it had ended up close to the spot where a path terminated against the exterior wall, and for whatever reason Tellwyrn had chosen to have a door open onto a short bridge leading to it. The ledge had been augmented with a park bench and an overhanging fairy lamp which kept it brightly lit even in the middle of the night, plus a shoulder-high wrought iron fence to prevent people from tumbling off the edge. It wasn’t a friendly place for anyone with a fear of heights, but then, that could be said of most of the campus. It also hadn’t come into favor as a make-out spot, between the omnipresent light and the fact that it was in open and in full view of both Clarke Tower and the open colonnade skirting the side of Helion Hall. Clearly, it had been meant for exactly the purpose to which November put it: studying, enjoying the view over the vast prairie, and just being alone.
Of course, she had twice caught pairs of her classmates being generally shameless there. Despite being a college student herself, she had developed a rather low opinion of them.
Tonight, though, she gave up on studying only an hour or so after dark. With a heavy sigh, November wedged the sheet of paper on which she was taking notes into her book, finished off the last of the bottle of tea she had brought, and stood. She just wasn’t feeling the concentration. Well, it wasn’t as if she had an upcoming test this early in the semester, anyway, just her general habit of staying as up to speed as possible in all her classes. Turning to trudge back to the door, she tried her best not to cast a glance at Clarke Tower. Just in case someone in it happened to be looking out a window.
For far from the first time, she roundly cursed her own stupidity. Trissiny wasn’t even there this time. Wasn’t here, on campus, at all. Maybe that would afford November enough time to quit being the bloody idiot about it she knew she was.
Slouching moodily along the path back toward her dorm, lost in her thoughts, she suddenly missed a step. The most profound feeling of lethargy swept over her; before she knew it, she was stumbling forward toward the ground, her eyes already drifting shut…
Purely by reflex, she seized the well of energy always just out of sight within her. November staggered and caught herself, her aura bursting alight. An instant later, a hard golden sphere slammed into place around her.
Wild-eyed with alarm, she turned rapidly, peering this way and that. No one was nearby… Only belatedly did she realize how peculiar that was. It was before midnight, and most of the population of this mountaintop were college students. This was one of the upper terraces of the campus, highly trafficked at most hours of the day. Someone aside from herself ought to be up and about.
“Hello?” she asked, scowling.
Even unusually quiet, the familiar paths were well-lit as always; she couldn’t quite find it spooky. She turned slowly back in the other direction, still seeing no one.
After a long moment, she let the shield drop, but still kept her mental grip on the power coursing through her. Golden light radiated outward, brightening the cooler glow cast by the fairy lamps in the immediate vicinity. November bent to pick up the book and bottle she had dropped, mind churning.
Chase and Natchua… That sudden sleepiness had not been natural, she was sure of it. What would have happened if she hadn’t had divine light to call upon?
Even as she straightened, she felt her connection to the light ripple, as if something was interfering with it. Another surge of weariness washed through her.
It faded immediately when she snapped her shield back into place.
“I know you’re there!” November barked, glaring into the darkness and clutching her book to her chest. As far as her eyes could tell, she was still alone. Slowly, she edged down the path toward her dorm, one step at a time, still peering warily about.
Silence. Where was everyone?
She started moving again, this time at barely short of a run.
No sooner had she rounded the next corner than she skidded to a halt, gasping. There was a shadow on the path ahead.
There just wasn’t any other way to describe it. The thing had no substance or depth; it was not a physical object. Just a patch where the light was obstructed, exactly like a person’s shadow on the ground. This one, though, was not on the ground, but standing upright. Its two-dimensional shape was cast in a fleshed-out, person-sized space. Looking at it made both her eyes and her head hurt.
November poured another torrent of energy in her shield and lashed out with her free hand—she didn’t even know when she’d dropped the bottle again—emitting a blaze of unfocused divine energy right at the shadow.
It flickered and vanished.
She stood, glaring at the spot where it had been and panting in near panic.
A moment later, the disruption flashed through her aura again. This time her shield flickered and fizzled; only a sudden act of concentration kept it from collapsing. She could feel it burning as some counter-force weighed down on it.
November spun, hurling another wash of light behind her, and the pressure immediately abated.
This time, she flew into an outright run.
When the disruption came again, both her aura and shield wavered, enough to let some of the attack through. Exhaustion suddenly fell heavily on her; she staggered to a halt, barely keeping her knees from buckling, and focused on maintaining the energy. It was like trying to lift a chair over her head while someone kept trying to sit in it. If not for Professor Harklund’s class, she would have buckled in the first instant; as it was, she could barely keep up under the pressure.
The shadow drifted back into her field of view, just silently watching her struggle.
November let out a roar and forced herself into a run again—right at it.
It vanished at her charge, as did the attack on her shield. It hardened up, the divine light coursed uninhibited through her aura again, and the unnatural sleep fled from her consciousness. She came to a stop after a few more steps, spinning in a complete circle.
No sign of the shadow. No sign of anyone. She was a whole terrace away from her dorm. Was anyplace safer closer? Ronald Hall was nearby, but it was kept locked at night due to people’s tendency to filch alchemical reagents otherwise. She could reach the quad just past an ornamental hedge in the other direction. Maybe there’d be people there? She couldn’t hear anyone… Apparently no one was close enough to hear her, that or they didn’t think her wordless shout had been anything out of the ordinary. On this campus, that wasn’t impossible.
The attack came again, but milder this time, causing her shield to flicker but not penetrating enough to affect her directly. November bolted in the direction she happened to be facing at that moment, right toward the quad.
A few dashed steps later, she apparently got herself out of range of the enemy, emerging onto the lawn near the gazebo and finding it totally deserted. It only occurred to her belatedly that she had just let herself be deftly herded.
Sure enough, no sooner was she past the hedge than the pressure slammed down again. Her shield faltered entirely once, just for a split second, but it was enough for the attacker to get a grip. Gritting her teeth against the fatigue clawing at the backs of her eyes, November kept herself upright by force of will, pouring her concentration into her aura and fighting against the burning sensation. It was as if the air around her was combusting against her own glow.
Again, she saw the shadow, off to her right. November forced herself toward it, too tired to yell again or run, but managing a weak flash of light in its direction as she approached.
It vanished. Instantly it appeared to the left of her across the lawn, but that tiny moment of its distraction had been enough for its own concentration to waver; her shield firmed up and the sleepiness retreated, driven back by her own renewed surge of energy.
Baring her teeth, November turned toward it again and charged forward, a leaf-bladed sword of golden light appearing in her hand.
The shadow stood its ground until she drew close enough for her aura to encroach on it physically, then vanished again. As before, she had a split-second’s breather in which to regain her equilibrium before the attack resumed.
This time, though, it hit the hardest yet. Also, she realized, it had coaxed her into charging even further from the relative safety of her dorm. She stumbled, and under the renewed assault, her divine shield suddenly shattered entirely.
November fell, barely catching herself on one knee and wrenching her body around to face the shadow, which was now behind her. She poured every ounce of focus she could manage into the glow of her aura, but without the shield, it was like trying to blow out an approaching torch as opposed to having a wall between her and it. Exhaustion clawed at her, whatever magic caused it forcing her down even as the shadow drifted closer.
“You’re going to pay for this,” she snarled, even as she listed to the side, barely catching herself on one hand. “Tellwyrn will finish you. Trissiny will make you pay!”
Moving languidly, as if it hadn’t a care in the world, the shadow drifted toward her. Darkness crept up on her vision from the sides. She was so tired…
A thunderous equine bellow split the night, and suddenly a huge, white shape blocked her view. Instantly the attack ceased.
He reared and slammed his enormous hooves down on the lawn, neighing another challenge, even as November straightened up, the exhaustion again vanishing from her. It was a true reprieve, giving her space to restore her concentration; her aura blazed back to full strength, and the shield flashed into being within it.
Almost immediately the now-familiar assault resumed, and she spun to behold the shadow across the quad in yet another direction.
Once again, the great white horse bellowed and surged around her, his hooves thundering as he placed himself between her and the attacker. As if his mere presence were a better shield than her own, the pressure faded the moment he did.
It resumed seconds later from another side, and this time Arjen galloped past her, charging bodily at the enemy.
November, by that point, had a sense of how this thing fought, and immediately spun to direct a wash of golden light in the opposite direction behind her. The shadow struck from the flank, however, hitting harder still, so hard her knees buckled and her shield flickered even as she and Arjen both turned to face it.
“NO. YOU. DON’T.”
A cube of translucent blue panels materialized around the shadow—somehow, it looked even more painfully impossible when suspended inside a cage of light. The cage didn’t hold it, however. The shadow vanished, and this time, it stayed gone.
Professor Tellwyrn, teeth bared in a savage growl, stalked forward, planting herself on November’s right, while Arjen approached from the left, tossing his mane and pawing the ground angrily.
November only belatedly realized she was still on the ground, on her knees, panting in fear and weariness. Tellwyrn’s expression shifted to one of concern as she turned to her, and the elf knelt to offer her a hand.
“November, are you all right?”
“I…I…” She swallowed heavily. “Not very. I’m not hurt, though.”
Tellwyrn nodded; clasping her student’s proffered hand, she gently pulled her upright, showing surprising physical strength for someone so seemingly delicate. The professor’s personality sometimes made it easy to forget she was as slender and physically unimposing as any elf.
Something nudged her from the other side, and November turned, regarding the horse with awe. Arjen whickered and bumped her with his nose again. With a trembling hand, she reached up to pat him there, just below the face plate of his silver armor. His nose was impossibly soft.
“I…I don’t understand,” she whispered. “Does this mean…I mean, am I…”
“No, you are not the new Hand of Avei,” Tellwyrn said, her tone now amused, though she still hovered protectively close, keeping a hand on November’s shoulder. “Believe me, if that were the case, you wouldn’t be wondering. Avei doesn’t do subtlety. You’re still very blessed, though. I have seen this before, but very rarely. For Arjen to come to your aid like this, you must have shown both loyalty to his current partner and the kind of valor she would admire.”
Unable to speak around the lump suddenly in her throat, November leaned forward, wrapping her arms around the horse’s enormous neck and pressing her face against his warm hide. He snorted softly, tucking his chin over her shoulder in an equine hug.
Tellwyrn patted her back, and he snorted again, this time much less softly.
“For heaven’s sake, Arjen, she’s been gone for a century, and the whole argument was overblown in the first place,” the elf said in annoyance. “Let it go.”
November raised her head, releasing her grip on the horse; he was regarding Tellwyrn with his ears laid flat back.
“Please,” she whispered, stroking his nose again.
He let out a sigh, his breath hot on her palm, then shook his mane again and turned his head away from Tellwyrn.
“Are you sure you’re okay, November?” the Professor asked again, frowning at her.
November nodded. “Yeah. I’m not… It didn’t hurt me, it was using some kind of magic to erode my shield. I could feel it trying to put me to sleep.” She drew a shaky breath. “I’m not… Um, I was terrified.”
Tellwyrn nodded. “That is an appropriate reaction. But you kept moving even despite it, which is exactly what courage is. I would like nothing more than to let you rest right now, November, but you are the first person to have seen this thing and remained awake and with your memories intact. We’re going to get some hot chocolate in you before attempting anything else, but I’m afraid I need you to tell me everything you remember before I can let you turn in.”
Arjen snorted disapprovingly at her, which she ignored.
“Professor,” November said quietly, “this thing… Is this what attacked Chase and Natchua?”
Tellwyrn’s expression lengthened further, impossible as that seemed. “And, as I discovered upon my return tonight, Addiwyn. This is officially a crisis, and you’re the only lead I’ve got.”
November straightened up and squared her shoulders. This she understood: this was war, and she wasn’t about to start retreating now. “All right. Let’s go, then.”
She had kept up her pacing non-stop since resuming it the last time. Now, however many hours or days later it was, she paused again, turning to face the transparent panel as the indicators appeared.
Frowning, she watched in silence. The tampering with the facility’s systems had continued for over an hour last time, mainly of a harmless, surface-level variety. Lights and climate controls, mostly. It had clearly been too much to hope that the fumbling interloper would stumble across the door to her cell. That hadn’t happened, nor had much of anything else. In the interim, no one had come through, either; the Emperor and his Hands did not choose to spend time down here unless they were on specific business.
She was still debating with herself whether she was going to tell them about the tampering next time they came through. Now, though, it looked like that might not even be necessary.
According to the indicators in the screen, someone was probing at deeper systems this time, more central functions. For a moment, the screen itself flickered, its user-friendly display altering to show lines of code before it restored itself.
Still no door. Of course, it was a cell door; it wasn’t designed to open if someone just screwed around with it. Its default position was closed. Only very specific commands would make the aperture appear. The wrong fumbling could very easily deprive her of air, however. She didn’t actually know whether that would do her any harm, but it certainly wouldn’t be comfortable. She had not enjoyed some of the more extreme swings of temperature it had caused previously.
Now, according to the readout, it had moved beyond her cell to another system. The vast majority of the facility was dormant, so it made sense that someone scanning active systems would find one of the only other ones currently running.
Indeed, a dialog opened, showing the running processes that sustained the chamber down the hall, where the dryads were kept.
“Ohhh, no,” she said aloud. “You do not want to mess around with that.”
Obviously, no one was listening. Odds were that if anyone had been, they would not have cared.