“I hadn’t thought about it since my first bardic elective last year when it was brought up,” Teal said animatedly as the group strolled through the campus toward the cafeteria, “but Fross talking about Sifanese the other day brought it to mind, which was why I mentioned it in class. Actually, Sifanese is the exception; most languages are cyclical, like Tanglish.”
“Wait, just Sifanese?” Gabriel asked. “I mean, isn’t elvish kind of always the same, too?”
“Not exactly!” Teal replied, clearly enjoying the topic. “Sifanese is unique because it doesn’t evolve; the oldest known manuscripts…actually, Fross, I’m fuzzy on that. How old are they?”
“Writings in Sifanese dating back five thousand years are still archived in Kiyosan!” the pixie reported. “And you’re correct, the language has remained exactly that time for the entire duration, and presumably even earlier.”
“Exactly!” Teal nodded. “And the reason for that is the language, and in fact the culture, are shepherded by powerful immortals. People in Sifan have to deal regularly with the kitsune, and they are very particular about how they’re addressed.”
“Yeah, I damn well know,” Gabriel said sourly. Ruda chortled and slugged his shoulder.
“Elvish, though,” Teal continued, “is an evolving language like the others—in fact, it’s similar to both Sifanese and mortal languages. There is turnover and attrition in elvish populations, which is what drives linguistic evolution. It’s really only the wood elves who tend to live for thousands of years, you see. Elves don’t die of age, but among the plains tribes and drow, where they lead more dangerous lives, they rarely live longer than a few centuries. So the language does shift over time, but at a glacial pace compared to human languages. Human languages, though, evolve cyclically, like I mentioned in class.”
“All of ’em?” Ruda asked. “Cos I gotta tell you, Teal, I had a pretty okay education before coming here, and I never heard about this before.”
“It’s the kind of thing that’s really only interesting to bards, Nemitites, and other linguistics buffs,” Teal admitted. “But yeah. For example, the oldest known writings from the Tira Valley civilizations are the…aw, dang, I always forget that name.”
“The Ocklund Texts!” Fross supplied.
“Yes! Ocklund, right!” Teal grinned up at her. “They’re a collection that have been in a Nemitite temple for thirteen centuries; before that, they were in a dragon’s hoard. And when they were first discovered, they were considered gibberish. Modern scrying has dated them to six thousand years ago, and most experts think they’re actually gnomish in origin. But anyway, they’ve gradually become more comprehensible over time, until they’re completely legible now, because they are in perfect modern Tanglish.”
“Well, slightly archaic Tanglish, now,” Fross corrected. “It was extremely correct a hundred years ago, though!”
“You’re making that up,” Juniper accused.
“I’m dead serious!” Teal assured them. “You can look it up!”
“She’s right,” Fross agreed. “And you can. The Ocklund Texts are the best example in Tanglish, but there are also some really good examples of the same principle in Glassian and Sheng. And the Vastreyovich Manuscript, which is four thousand years old, and is broadly incorrect but generally legible for readers of modern Syrrinski.”
“And so most linguists assume it’s a universal phenomenon,” Teal said. “Languages naturally evolve over time, but for whatever reason, over the space of four to six thousand years, they come back full circle to a point where they’re functionally the same as they were before.”
“Actually, that’s just one interpretation,” Fross disagreed. “Tanglish and Glassian are exceptions because they keep popping up in the same general region, but some languages appear to re-develop spontaneously in entirely new countries. And even those examples may not be completely right; there are indications that some form of Tanglish existed thousands of years ago in what’s now Arkhross. Not definitive indications, but compelling. So it may not be that they come full circle so much as they get periodically reborn.”
“That seems to strain credibility,” Toby observed.
“Yeah, no shit,” Ruda snorted. “You ask me, that’s Vesk playing pranks. There’s no way that could just happen by accident.”
“That’s the consensus, yeah,” Teal agreed, nodding. “Nobody’s believed it’s a coincidence in centuries. There are different theories, but most scholars think it’s either due to the gods in some way, or to the influence of the elves. Elvish does contain the root words for a lot of other languages. And they’re mostly pretty reclusive, but elves do interact with humans in various ways, all over the world. Not constantly, but pretty regularly.”
“Hm,” Gabriel grunted. “Y’know, elvish words are kinda trendy. Recently, I mean, what with modern presses and telescrolls.”
“Yeah, they’ve always had a subtle influence on human culture,” Teal agreed. “It’ll be very interesting to see how that develops with modern communications.”
“Interesting for some people,” Ruda said, grinning.
Juniper came to a sudden halt, going completely rigid. Her classmates straggled to a stop in a loose cluster around, her, turning to frown in unison.
“Juniper?” Shaeine prompted. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t believe—” The dryad broke off abruptly and took off at a dead run down the path.
“I think we’d better follow,” Toby said, already moving forward.
“Uh, guys?” Fross darted back and forth above their heads. “Full disclosure, I’m a little rusty at fairy stuff in general and this does feel slightly different from what I recall but I think there’s a dryad coming up the mountain.”
“Oh, crap,” Gabriel muttered, setting off after Juniper at a dash. The others came right behind, accompanied by the rhythmic slapping of Teal’s sandals.
“Whoah, where’s the fire?” Chase called as they tore past him on the lawn.
“Hi, Chase,” Gabriel puffed. “Bye, Chase.”
“That’s right, little sophlings, flee! Flee for your paltry lives!” he howled after them, waving his arms. “Fear the Sleeper!”
“Can’t be a coincidence he was the first one hexed,” Ruda commented. Despite her short stature and stout build, she wasn’t even slightly out of breath.
“I didn’t wanna say it cos it seemed mean but honestly I thought it was kind of a shame the only dose of the cure they had got used on him,” Fross chimed, fluttering along above them. Nobody could spare the breath while running to laugh, but Gabriel tried.
They trailed to a halt near the front gates of the campus; Juniper had gone right through, but she had stopped just beyond, staring at the two figures coming up the mountain.
A shaggy-haired man in travel-stained clothing that ran heavily to leather was on the right, carrying a longbow and with a tomahawk, hunting knife, and quiver all hanging from his belt. His shirt was open at the neck and he wore no ceremonial pelt, which would have been insane in the prairie climate, but the bronze wolf’s head pinned to his shoulder identified him as a Huntsman of Shaath. Beside him walked a slender woman with pale green hair and an almost golden complexion, wearing a simple bleached leather dress in the elven style. Both slowed to a stop, staring at Juniper.
“…hi,” the other dryad said after a moment of awkward silence. “I, uh… Well, this is—”
She broke off as Juniper lunged down the slope at them, backing away reflexively, but Juniper hurled herself into her sister’s arms, squeezing her tight and burying her face in her hair.
The Huntsman smiled fondly at the two, discreetly circling around to give them a moment, and approached the gates as the sophomores also trickled forward.
“Persons with no business on the campus are subject to removal at the administration’s discretion,” he read, peering at the sign which had been hung beside the gate at the start of the semester. “The diagram really sells it. Is the little person being kicked off the mountain, or just kicked in general?”
“See, I said that sign was vague,” said Gabriel. “But if Tellwyrn made it big enough to be clear, it’d be all tacky.”
“Mm, I see your point,” the visitor said solemnly. “It’s extremely tasteful as is.” His voice, though deep, was distinctly feminine.
Ruda snorted a laugh. “So, this is a surprise. I don’t think we’ve ever had a Huntsman visit here before. Least, not in the time I’ve been here.”
“Which, in fairness, was a year and a half, not counting class excursions and breaks,” Fross chimed. “Hardly definitive!”
“Probably correct, though,” the Huntsman said, and bowed to them. “I doubt any of my brother Huntsmen have ever found business here, before. I am Brother Ingvar, a friend and traveling companion of Aspen. And of course, you must be friends of Juniper.”
“There’s quite a story behind this, isn’t there?” Teal asked, watching the two dryads.
Shaeine cleared her throat softly. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Brother Ingvar. I am Shaeine nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion.”
“Oh!” Teal flushed. “Teal Falconer. Likewise.”
They introduced themselves quickly; Ingvar looked more interested with each name, but not overawed by any of them. By the time that was done, Juniper and Aspen had separated and now approached the group, holding hands. Aspen looked a great deal more relaxed.
“Aspen,” Ingvar said pointedly, “this is Gabriel.”
“Yeah,” Gabe said, casually laying one hand on Ariel’s pommel. “We’ve met.”
Ingvar cleared his throat. Aspen sighed softly, squeezed Juniper’s hand once, then released it to step forward. “Hi, Gabriel. It’s been a while.”
“Yup,” he said noncommittally.
“I just wanted to say,” the dryad continued in an earnest tone, “I’m sorry. Y’know, for grabbing you by the neck and threatening to kill you. That was wrong of me. I apologize.”
He blinked. “Wait. Really?”
“Well, yeah,” she said, nodding. “I know it’s a little counterintuitive, but I’ve thought about this and talked it over with Ingvar, and it actually was wrong. Even if you did have your horrible invisible friends scare me, which was just mean.”
Gabriel stared at her for a moment, then turned to Ingvar, ignoring Ruda collapsing against the gatepost in laughter right behind him. “This…is progress, isn’t it.”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” the Huntsman said with a faint smile.
“Um, excuse me?” Aspen said, frowning in annoyance. “You were talking to me. There’s no need to be rude.”
“Right. Well, then.” Gabriel actually bowed to her. “Apology accepted, Aspen. Water under the bridge. We can put all that behind us.”
“Great!” She beamed with almost childlike satisfaction.
Ingvar cleared his throat. “In light of the sign, I feel I should be certain before stepping onto the campus proper. Is it a problem if we enter uninvited?”
“The sign’s mostly to discourage the wrong kind of visitors,” Ruda said, still grinning. “Ever since Arquin got himself paladinized we’ve had an occasional reporter problem. Various other curiosity-seekers have wandered in from time to time. There’s an argument to be made that this University may not be safe for non-initiates, but frankly, Tellwyrn just doesn’t like dealing with nuisances. But nah, guests come up from the town, too, and students’ family members, and nobody says boo to ’em. Long as you act like a civilized person and don’t interfere with anybody…and, now that I think about it, don’t hang around too long without having a good reason to be here… You’ll probably be fine.”
“Civilized person?” Aspen cleared her throat. “Well, I guess that tears it. That was a good thought, Ingvar, but—”
“Aspen,” he said flatly.
She dropped her eyes, muttering sullenly to herself, and kicked at the grass with one bare foot. Juniper gave her a quizzical look.
“In fact,” Ingvar continued, “we both wished to speak with Professor Tellwyrn herself, for different reasons. But there is no rush. Aspen would doubtless like a chance to catch up with her sister.”
“Aw, you guys can stick around as long as you want!” Juniper said brightly. “Honestly, if you’ve gotta talk with Tellwyrn, it’s probably better to do that first, so we have time to chat afterward.”
“Hey, yeah, I like that,” Aspen said, nodding. “Get it out of the way early. I’m sold.”
“Great! I’ll show you where her office is. The campus isn’t big, but you can get lost if you don’t know the way around. C’mon, this way! We can get some lunch after, the food’s surprisingly good!”
“It was a pleasure to meet all of you,” Ingvar said politely, bowing to them. “Perhaps we shall speak again before we depart.” He had to trot a few steps to catch up with the dryads; Juniper’s good mood showed in her exuberant pace.
“So,” Gabriel said, frowning after the little group as they retreated uphill into the campus, “was that…a man, or a woman?”
Ruda snorted. “Arquin, in any situation where someone else’s gonads are any of your fucking business, believe me, you’ll know in advance.”
“Sure you wouldn’t rather talk in your office?”
“I am pacing,” Tellwyrn said testily. “My office has inadequate pacing room. Since you insist on depriving me of the chance to be alone with my thoughts, I see no reason to accommodate you.”
“Isn’t it easier to think in a comfy chair in your office, though? Nice and private.”
“Walking is good for thinking, and this isn’t improving my patience. You’d better have something worthwhile to report, if you’re being this pushy about it.”
“Not really,” Fedora said with a shrug. “But you insisted on me checking in with you regularly, so here I am, checking. Or shall I suspend this policy?”
“Just spit it out,” she grunted.
“Well, as I said, not much to report.” The Inspector jammed his hands in the pockets of his trench coat and slouched along beside her, seeming to have no trouble matching her rapid pace. The upper hallways of Helion Hall were marble-floored, but graced with a strip of carpet down the middle; Tellwyrn kept veering closer, forcing him off it, which he ignored. “For the most part, I’m still stuck analyzing motive and the psychology of our perp, which is the most unreliable and inconclusive of all investigative methods. However, with regard to that, I’ve at least decided my initial theory was incorrect. This character isn’t a serial killer.”
“So you’ve noticed no one’s been killed, have you,” she snorted.
“Serial attackers exhibit an oddly consistent psychology even if they don’t kill,” he said cheerfully. “Lots of rapists, arsonists, kidnappers… Actually, the kidnap almost always leads to torture. Point is, that is a fairly consistent profile. The suave murderer who haunts the chapbooks is pretty much entirely fiction. These types tend to be on the low-functioning end of insanity. Poor social skills and hygiene, as a rule. Also a marked predilection for pyromania and, for some reason, bedwetting. Regardless, you don’t really have anybody on campus who fits the profile. Besides, serial offenders are usually acting out of some sort of compulsion, whereas this Sleeper’s attacks have a cerebral element.”
“Cerebral,” she repeated, narrowing her eyes.
“Mm. It’s a little too early to establish any patterns conclusively, but… Considering who was attacked and which ones worked, I do notice something. This character managed to sneak up on two elves—no mean feat. Masterson, of course, is a soft target, but he was the first one. A trial run, I think, possibly selected on the basis that people wouldn’t be too upset with his being victimized. Where it gets interesting is that Stark fought him off—or more specifically, she was rescued by the intervention of a paladin’s horse when said paladin is nowhere in the vicinity, and let’s face it, that is not a commonly known phenomenon. I certainly never heard of it happening. No, the Sleeper’s a student, one who knows his classmates and is tailoring his attacks to bring each of them down. Stark threw up something he couldn’t plan for. Between that and the highly ambitious but ultimately pointless hellgate thing last year, I believe this kid is…stretching his wings.”
“Makes a twisted kind of sense,” he said, grinning. “This is what college is for, right? Growing skills in a somewhat safe environment which cushions you from the worst effects of your screwups. You’ve got a student with a lot of power he doesn’t know how to use, teaching himself. The other students at this school make for an impressive set of challenges. Our perp’s a strategist, someone who plans his attacks carefully. If I’m right, it won’t be long before he needs to escalate to tougher prey. Which means your faculty and your sophomores will be in the next set of targets, whenever he feels ready to move on to that.”
“Or she,” Tellwyrn said softly.
“Sure, goes without saying,” Fedora shrugged. “Aside from that… I’ve tried to do more concrete investigating, but your kids have done an impressive job of fucking up my crime scenes. It’s to be expected this character doesn’t leave magical traces, or he wouldn’t be able to block your scrying, but people who rely on magic as heavily as he does always overlook the mundane. So far I haven’t got so much as a footprint or a hair sample, but if this continues, I will. That’s one actually important thing I wanted to bring up with you. I know you’ll be making some kind of announcement to the student body before long; do me a solid and tell ’em to keep their grubby hands off the attack sites. I have to collect evidence, and that means they need to not trample it underfoot.”
“What makes you think I’ll be making announcements?”
“Oh, let’s not play this game,” he said dismissively. “So far the biggest source of student upset seems to be the creepy guy hanging around asking intrusive questions, but they are cooped up on a mountaintop with somebody going around hexing people from the shadows. This kind of situation makes people crazy, and stupid. I’m kind of surprised you haven’t already gotten out in front of it.”
She stopped and turned slowly to face the new arrivals, folding her arms.
“Well, well, well,” Tellwyrn drawled. “Just look who it is.”
Fedora discreetly moved aside, watching with undisguised interest as two dryads and a Huntsman of Shaath approached.
“There you are!” Juniper said brightly. “You weren’t in your office—lucky I heard you, or we might have had to wander all over the campus! You remember Aspen, right?”
“She’s not one I’m likely to forget any time soon,” Tellwyrn replied. “Hello, Aspen, and welcome back. Believe it or not, it is actually good to see you in one piece. And your old self. I like the dress.”
“Uh, thanks,” Aspen said nervously. She glanced at her companions, both of whom nodded encouragingly.
“You, though, are new,” Tellwyrn added. “Let’s see… Would I be right in guessing you’re Ingvar?”
“Well, that’s a little disconcerting,” he said with a thin smile. “Yes, I am. What else has Kuriwa told you?”
“Just enough to pique my curiosity, as usual.”
“I suppose I’m gratified she treats her equals that way, too.”
That brought an answering smile from Tellwyrn. “Kuriwa has no equals, or so she firmly believes. What brings you two here?”
Aspen drew in a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “Arachne, I wanted to thank you for all the help you gave me. I know you went to a lot of trouble, and even though it was because you wanted information and my whole problem was your fault in the first place, it was still a really complicated and difficult thing you did on my behalf, and I appreciate it. Also, I wanted to apologize for causing trouble on your campus. I was just worried about Juniper. So…that’s it. Thanks, and sorry.”
“I can tell you’re new at this,” Tellwyrn said dryly. “Just for future reference, Aspen, sincerity is good, but like all positive traits, too much becomes a flaw.”
“See, I told him that!” she said, looking accusingly at Ingvar, who just shook his head.
“The truth is, Professor,” he said, “I wished to speak with you myself, if it’s not an imposition.”
“Oh?” She raised an eyebrow. “Well, you’re suitably polite, which beats the hell out of the last dozen nosy jerks who wandered in here. Very well, I don’t see why not. Is this a private matter?” she added sardonically as he gave Fedora a pointed look.
“Private,” Ingvar agreed, “and in fact rather sensitive. I apologize for being a bother, and of course will gladly wait until you have a convenient—”
He broke off, shifting back and reflexively grasping his tomahawk, his gaze on a point behind the Professor now.
“Whoah!” Juniper said, blinking. “Where’d you come from?”
Tellwyrn turned around again, tilting her head inquisitively. “That’s actually a really good question. Have you been picking up new tricks in the last few days?”
“And what do you think this is?” the Hand of the Emperor demanded, glaring at Aspen. “Dryads are not permitted to wander about in Imperial territory, especially this close to civilians!”
“Hey!” Juniper said, frowning.
“You have an arranged exemption,” he snapped. “This one will have to go.”
“Hey!” Aspen exclaimed.
“There is exactly one person here who gets to decide who stays and who goes on my campus,” Tellwyrn said softly. “Care to guess who it is? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not you.”
“I will remind you, Professor, that your precious University is built on Imperial territory and both staffed and attended predominantly by Imperial citizens,” he replied, actually clenching his fists and glaring at her. “You have been extended a great deal of undeserved leeway. It’s time you started appreciating it.”
“Are you feeling all right?” she asked mildly.
“Do not change the subject,” the Hand snapped. “Your students are in grave danger, and now I find you not only wasting time up here, but fraternizing with a threat level eight monster! The Empire will not tolerate this wild irresponsibility! You have the children of nobles on this campus!”
“Whoah, wait a sec,” Aspen said, scowling. “Did this guy just call me a monster?”
Ingvar and Fedora were both frowning at the Hand with oddly identical expressions.
“This is being handled,” Tellwyrn said, still regarding him quizzically. “In fact, you’ve been heavily involved in it. Your help has been much appreciated.”
“Then think about this,” the Hand said, stepping closer to her and staring stonily into her eyes. “The Silver Throne is not a charity organization. There will be recompense for the resources being spent to clean up your mess. And if I don’t see immediate and significant progress in ensuring the safety of these students, your failure to protect them will have consequences. No one’s invincible, Tellwyrn. Perhaps you’re overdue for a reminder of that fact.”
Fedora cleared his throat. “Perhaps—”
“Do you remember when I said I thought very well of the Emperor and his government, and had no intention of harming or interfering with it at all?” Tellwyrn said quietly, matching the Hand’s gaze. “Stop trying to change my mind.”
“There’s a line, Arachne,” he whispered. “You just put a toe across it. Back. Away.”
“Excuse me,” Inspector Fedora said pointedly, “but if I may be so bold—”
“You may not.” The Hand rounded on him, pointing. “You will produce results, or find yourself sent right back where you came from—or stuck in a bottle for the rest of eternity. The Empire chooses to tolerate things like you so long as you are useful, and cause no trouble. I don’t see you being useful right now.”
Fedora blinked languidly, simply staring at him without expression.
The Hand snorted loudly, sweeping his gaze around the small crowd. “Get rid of the dryad and make some progress. Both of you. Quickly. That is not a request.”
Suddenly, he just wasn’t there anymore.
“Um,” Ingvar said hesitantly after a moment’s stunned silence. “Was that a Hand of the Emperor?”
“He smelled…familiar,” Juniper said, frowning.
“You’ve dealt with him before, yes?” Tellwyrn asked, turning to Fedora.
“Him, and others,” the Inspector replied, nodding. “They’re theoretically interchangeable. That’s the point of them, or part of it.”
“Hm. Did he seem to be acting…”
“Dramatically out of character? Yes. Yes, he did. Also, they can’t teleport, or shadow-jump, or whatever that was.” He grinned unpleasantly. “I’ve made very certain to know.”
“Out…of…character,” Tellwyrn whispered, staring into space. “…I’m blind.”
“Oh, how I wish any of the responses to that were safe to say,” Fedora said to no one in particular.
Tellwyrn suddenly turned back to Ingvar. “Anyway, sorry about that. Do you plan on being around long, Ingvar?”
“My schedule is entirely open,” he said, glancing at Aspen. “We do have a sort of mission, but it has no time frame. Why do you ask?”
“I would indeed like to talk with you,” she said, “but if it’s not too much trouble, I’ll have to ask that you wait for a bit. It turns out I need to pay a couple of urgent visits.”