“Ladies,” Gabriel said in greeting as the two groups met at the stairs to Helion Hall’s second floor. “Wow, this makes everybody. You also got a summons from her Majesty, then?”
“Yeah,” said Teal. “And I have to admit the thing that bothers me most is how little it bothers me to have imperious notes spontaneously appear in the room where I sleep. After all the times Tellwyrn’s surprise-teleported us places, it just doesn’t seem as invasive anymore.”
“We’re being fuckin’ trained,” Ruda said fatalistically, leading the way up the steps. “Which, granted, is the point of a college education, but my papa isn’t paying to have me turned into a goddamn show pony.”
“Toby, are you all right?” Shaeine asked gently. Gabriel’s eyes cut back to his friend, full of concern.
Toby sighed softly, his dour expression not lightening. “Just got back from taking Raolo to the infirmary,” he said tersely.
“Oh, no!” Juniper said, eyes widening. “Is he okay? What happened?”
“Like the others,” Toby answered, eyes ahead as they topped the stairs and entered the hallway. “He seems fine. Just asleep.”
“Fuck,” Ruda spat, turning to give him a look of commiseration.
“This is getting out of hand!” Fross chimed. Patterns of white light shifted along the walls as she zipped spastically back and forth above their heads. “People are getting really worried, and frankly I think they’re right to! How much longer can this possibly go on?!”
“Hey,” Teal said gently, squeezing Toby’s shoulder. “If you need—”
“Thanks,” he said sharply, then immediately sighed again and gave her an apologetic look, which she answered with a smile. “Thanks…but this isn’t suddenly worse because it’s affected a personal friend of mine. If anything, the lesson here is how I should’ve been more concerned with it from the beginning.”
“Caine, enough,” Ruda said flatly. “It is suddenly worse because it affects someone you know. Sounds harsh, but that’s just how people think. Paladin or no, you’re a person.”
“I’m a person called to serve others,” he retorted. “A paladin is expected to do better. And this is not about me!”
“What happened to Raolo isn’t about you,” she said. “The whole Sleeper bullshit isn’t about you. But this, how you feel? That is. You’re allowed to have feelings and flaws—what the hell would gods need paladins for if they didn’t want a human perspective? Let your friends care about you, dumbass.”
Gabriel patted him on the back. “As usual, she’s not wrong and it’s annoying as hell. Look, man, despite what we all know Tellwyrn will think, maybe it’s time we look into doing something ourselves.”
“Such as?” Teal said wryly.
Juniper cleared her throat. “Uh, assuming Tellwyrn’s in her office, which seems likely since she told us all to go there, we’re probably within her earshot here.”
“Yeah, well, Tellwyrn’s also smart enough to see this coming,” Gabriel replied.
They turned at the sound of feet on the stairs, beholding the craggy-face balding man in the long black coat leading the campus’s three resident soldiers up to the hall.
“Move,” the Hand spat, shouldering roughly past Ruda.
“Excuse you?” she said incredulously.
“Sorry,” Rook muttered in passing. Finchley gave her a look of desperate apology; Moriarty seemed occupied with worrisome thoughts of his own.
“The hell’s that about?” Gabriel asked aloud, watching the group fast-march down the hall toward Tellwyrn’s office.
“Dunno,” Ruda said shortly, “but let’s go have a look-see.”
Ahead, the Hand simply opened Tellwyrn’s office door without knocking and barged right in, prompting winces from all three of his followers and several of the pursuing students. They picked up their own pace to join him around the now-open door, but did not attempt to enter themselves. They weren’t the only ones.
“Get in here!” the man said in clear exasperation to the three soldiers, who were hanging back outside the doorway.
“Why, how lovely to see you again,” Tellwyrn said from inside. She was seated behind her desk, regarding him with a sardonic expression. “Still hanging around, are we? Please, won’t you come in. Make yourself right at home.”
“I have observed,” he said curtly, “that you are keeping Imperial personnel in a state of useless idleness on your campus.”
“What, these three?” Tellwyrn said incredulously, glancing past him at the troops, who had entered the office as ordered, but clustered nervously right inside the door. She could also see the sophomores gathered outside, but didn’t acknowledge them yet. “Are you seriously going to get on my case about that? They were stationed on my campus by order from Imperial Command, quartered at my expense, without my permission. Honestly, they don’t eat much and the scruffy one in the middle there is actually mildly amusing. I’ve even known them to be occasionally useful, to the extent of reaching tall shelves, opening stuck jars, that sort of thing. The fact that I don’t find this intrusion by your regime to be onerous is hardly evidence that all this is some sort of plot on my part.”
“I am reassigning them,” he said bluntly. “I’m dissatisfied with the progress you are making on our mutual problem, Tellwyrn, and particularly with your attitude when pressed about it.”
“My heart weeps for your dissatisfaction,” she replied, deadpan.
“You know what your problem is?”
“Yes. But do go on, I’m curious what you think it is.”
“You are of the opinion that you are an unmatched power in this world,” he said, scowling at her. “That rules do not apply to you. That no one can impose consequences upon you. About this, you are mistaken, and since you choose not to apply yourself to the protection of your students, it is high time this was made inescapably clear to you.”
“Literally every single thing you just said is incorrect.”
“At the end of the week,” he stated, ignoring her, “I’m having these three reassigned to Tiraas, and that will be the last you ever hear of them. Unless, perhaps, I see a dramatic improvement in your conduct, and some manner of concrete result. Am I understood?”
Very slowly, she tilted her head to one side. “In all seriousness… Are you feeling all right?”
“I’ve made myself clear,” he snapped. “That is all.”
Suddenly, he just wasn’t there anymore. Gabriel bit back a curse.
“Okay, what the fuck,” Ruda exclaimed. “Was that guy a Hand of the Emperor? What the hell’s he doing here?”
“Kids, get in here,” Tellwyrn said irritably, taking off her spectacles and setting them on the desk.
“Um?” Rook tremulously raised a hand. “Was that ‘last you ever hear of them’ line as pants-shittingly terrifying as it sounded to me?”
“Kinda, yeah,” Gabriel agreed.
“Seriously,” Ruda said, marching up to the desk. “Could you hear what happened out there? The fucker practically shoved me out of his way!”
“I don’t think that’s the most important thing happening here, Ruda,” Teal said.
“You might be wrong about that,” Ruda retorted, turning to scowl at her. “Legally, a Hand of the Emperor speaks on his behalf. I don’t give a shit about people being rude to me, personally, but for a Tiraan representative of the highest possible rank to treat the princess of Puna Dara like a misbehaving chambermaid, there would be consequences.”
“Whoah, now,” Gabriel soothed. “Maybe this isn’t the time to be prideful…”
“Don’t fucking talk to me about pride, Arquin,” she snapped. “Remind me, which of us picked a screaming fight with a volatile paladin on week one, here?”
He scowled. “For the record, I deserved a smack on the head for that, not having a sword drawn on me. And she, at least, didn’t succeed in fucking stabbing me.”
“That’s not the point, either!” Ruda barked. “This isn’t personal. The pride of nations is a very real and important thing. The Punaji can stomach living in the shadow of the Empire because the Silver Throne has always treated us with respect. Nobody has any illusions about who’s the greater power, but we’re allies, not slaves. If that changes…”
“Zaruda,” Tellwyrn said firmly, “while you’re correct in everything you just said, I’m going to ask you to please hold your peace about this for the time being. Don’t make it more of an incident than it already is, and don’t assume anything that particular Hand says is representative of his government, legality or no. Something is wrong with that guy.”
“Uh, yeah,” Finchley piped up. “I mean… He was threatening you with taking us away. Seriously, how can he possibly think that’s even a threat? I can’t imagine anyone thinking we’re that important, especially someone as savvy as he ought to be. It makes no sense.”
“I’m a little bothered by how readily I have to accept your reasoning,” Moriarty muttered.
“It makes a little bit of sense,” Tellwyrn said, grimacing. “It’s a personal attack. You three aren’t exactly a strategic asset, no, but you’ve become a fixture on the campus. You’re liked around here. Still, you’re right. He seemed to think he was holding a much more significant loss than this is over me, which underscores my point. I’ve been dealing with that man for a few days now, and for most of it, he was exactly as professional as every Hand I’ve seen in the past. Suddenly, he’s been absurdly aggressive, and between this scheme and nearly causing a diplomatic incident just now, he’s clearly operating with badly impaired judgment.”
“But…he’s a Hand,” Rook said, aghast. “Of the Emperor. He can’t get impaired!”
“The magic powering the Hands is something way above and beyond what’s widely known to the world,” Tellwyrn said seriously. “I don’t grasp the ins and outs of it myself, but just from the basics I do know, I can assure you it’s without precedent—and risky. Frankly, I find myself surprised it’s taken this long for something to go wrong with one of them. Boys, whatever else you do, I strongly advise you not to seal yourselves in a Rail caravan or any other enclosed space with that guy.”
“He’s a Hand of the Emperor!” Finchley said shrilly. “If he gives us an order—”
“Whoah.” Tellwyrn held up a hand of her own. “I sympathize more than you might think. Even I can’t afford to deny him right to his face—or do you believe I let most unhinged assholes talk to me like that? If I were you, I would start considering my options, and if there aren’t any good ones available, look into creating new ones. In fact, that’s what I plan to do, anyway. You just may face more urgency about it, is all.”
“Fuckin’ lovely,” Rook muttered.
“For now,” she said in a gentler tone, “move along, if you would. I need to have a word with the kids, in private.”
Moriarty saluted; the others just turned and shuffled toward the door in glum silence, the students shifting out of their way.
“And boys,” Tellwyrn said softly, prompting them to pause and look back. “However you end up leaving the campus, be sure to say goodbye before you do. I can’t afford to challenge the Throne openly, like I said. But if you can arrange for it not to be an act of open treason on my part, you’ll have a home here, should you need one.”
“I can’t even begin to imagine how the hell we could arrange that,” Finchley said bitterly.
“You can’t,” she replied with a faint smile. “Totally beyond your power. However, you numbskulls, think carefully about where you are, and who you know. What I said about creating new options? There’s no shame in asking for help. I am not the only person on this mountaintop who can make things happen.”
They paused, glancing at one another speculatively, and then Finchley nodded.
“Yep,” she said, nodding back. “Now go on. Scoot.”
She waited until they were gone and the door shut behind them before speaking again.
“Well, here we are. Thanks for coming relatively promptly, by what passes for your standards.”
“Thanks for not just grabbing and porting us all here in our underwear, for once,” Ruda said bluntly. “Also, are we really done talking about that? There’s a crazy Hand of the Emperor hanging around campus. That’s not a small fuckin’ problem.”
“No,” Tellwyrn said evenly, “and it’s an even less small problem if he’s not the only one. I spent a good chunk of my day in Tiraas making sure the Throne itself is aware of this. That, unfortunately, is the most I can do about it at the moment. Anything I do to that character directly constitutes assault against the Imperial person, which would stir up more trouble than even I can stomp down.”
“Wait, by the Throne itself, you mean…” Gabriel blinked in realization. “Holy shit, you went to see the Emperor? What’s he like?”
Tellwyrn rubbed at her eyes. “Arquin, please shut up.”
“Oh, hey, speaking of that guy and me not doing what you say, Vestrel’s insisting you hear about this,” he said, suddenly frowning. “That wasn’t shadow-jumping or teleporting he just did.”
“What?” Tellwryn straightened, frowning at him. “What do you mean?”
“Apparently,” he said, glancing at an empty spot in the room, “he moved through the place where valkyries are. She says Hands aren’t supposed to be able to do that. Hardly anybody is.”
“Hm,” she grunted, her frown deepening. “Hmmmm. Actually…it makes more sense than shadow-jumping. There are a variety of ways into chaos space, but the most reliable is through powerful fae magic. In fact, I know a certain annoying shaman who is inordinately fond of that trick.”
“Fae magic?” Juniper folded her arms. “I thought that guy smelled familiar!”
“Which is neither here nor there,” Tellwyrn said, suddenly brisk. “Thank you for telling me, Gabriel. And Vestrel. That may be significant. For now, though, I asked you here for a reason, and he wasn’t it.” She sighed. “I just heard about Raolo. Taowi had a note for me waiting, but I only got back to my office a short time ago.”
“Professor?” Fross chimed tentatively. “Is this… Um, what I mean is, is it as bad as it seems like it could be?”
“Well, that’s as good a lead-in as any,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. “The first half of what I wanted to tell you is a warning. According to that character from Imperial Intelligence who’s helping with this—the Inspector, not the Hand—the Sleeper is exhibiting an escalating pattern. He started with Chase, who has no significant magical or martial abilities, and was probably a test case. Then came Natchua and Addiwyn, and ambushing elves is hard, even for other elves. The attack on November failed, but she’s a caster of not-insignificant strength—specifically a divine caster, which seems to be a relevant counter to the Sleeper’s magic. Raolo, now, is not only an elf, but an arcanist, an unusual and very potent combination.”
“She is selecting increasingly challenging targets,” Shaeine said suddenly. “Testing herself.”
Tellwyrn nodded. “That’s Fedora’s theory, and it seems to make sense to me.”
“Wait, she?” Gabriel blinked, looking back and forth between them. “Uh, who? Are we talking about November?”
“About the Sleeper,” said Shaeine.
Teal cleared her throat. “It’s called ‘common gender,’ Gabe. It’s a linguistic convention in languages that lack genderless pronouns, like Tanglish and elvish. Which gender is the assumed default basically depends on the culture; in the Empire, that’s male, in Tar’naris, it’s female.”
“Yes, forgive me,” Shaeine added. “I did not mean to cause confusion.”
Tellwyrn cleared her throat pointedly. “Fascinating as this is, I’m not making idle conversation. The Sleeper is running through the list of interesting but relatively soft targets, and running out of them. Fedora specifically mentioned, as the next likely victims, the faculty, and you kids.”
“What?” Juniper exclaimed. “Us?! Why?”
“Think about it,” Toby said wearily. “How many people now have told us what a bunch of powerhouses we are? Paladins, demigods, archdemons…”
“That’s part of it,” Tellwyrn agreed. “The other part is that you kids are much more close-knit than other classes. In part because there are so few of you, I suspect, but you also seem to be simply…compatible. I admit I was rather pessimistic after your first week on campus last year, but your group has formed into more of a cohesive unit than basically any class I’ve ever had. Use that. From now on, I want you watching each other’s backs at all times. Fross, Juniper and Vadrieny may be impervious to the Sleeper’s curse; we cannot be absolutely sure yet that infernal magic is the vector for its transmission, but the evidence points very strongly toward that. Which means Gabriel, Toby and Shaeine also have potent defenses against it.”
“Y’know what, just insert a long string of curses here,” Ruda said sourly. “You’ve all heard me, you know what to imagine. I’m suddenly feeling too pissed off and depressed even to bother.”
“Self-pity does not become you, Zaruda,” Tellwyrn said sternly. “Despite lacking a lot of the magical advantages of your classmates, in a year and a half you’ve never once showed a problem keeping up with them, and that is damn well incredible. However, in this particular case, it does mean you are uniquely vulnerable, and you can’t afford to ignore that. I’m sorry to invade your personal life like this, but I have to put my foot down. I want you moved out of your room in Clarke Tower; until further notice, you’re to stay with Juniper and Fross. At no point are you to be off on your own.”
“Figures,” she said with a wry grin. “No sooner do I finally get my own room…”
“We’ve got plenty of space!” Fross chimed, zipping around her head. “I’m very small and I don’t even use my bed! It’ll be fun!”
“It’s not supposed to be fun.” At Tellwyrn’s soft, weary tone, they all stilled, turning to look at her again. “As I said, kids, that was half the reason I asked you here. The other…” She sighed heavily, leaning back in her chair, and again rubbed at her eyes with both hands. “What I’m about to say is totally without precedent in the history of this University. As bad as things are right now, I need to leave the campus for a little while.”
“Where are you going?” Toby asked quietly.
Tellwyrn grimaced. “Sifan.”
“You think Professor Ekoi can stop this,” Teal said.
“I think her sudden absence is what’s caused this,” the Professor said bitterly. “And furthermore, she had to have known that. In case you kids haven’t put it together yourselves, this Sleeper is almost certainly the same asshole who opened that hellgate last year, and if he’s a warlock, there’s excellent reason he stayed quiet while there was a kitsune on the campus. So yes, I am going to go find Kaisa, get an explanation for her actions, and try to convince her to come back. And that, kids, places me well outside my realm of expertise. Navigating the Twilight Forest is a potentially nightmarish prospect, even for the likes of me. I may be a match, power for power, for one kitsune, but I absolutely don’t want to find out. Going to where all the kitsune are, in their own home, it is going to take time just to get around, and that’s before I ever start to work persuading Kaisa to come back and help. Obviously, I’m going to hurry as much as I can, but…this is not a small prospect. There’s no way I’d leave the University in these straits if I didn’t think this was the best and only option to straighten all this out.”
“Well…okay,” Ruda said, shrugging. “Why’s that so unprecedented, and what’s it got to do with us?”
“What’s unprecedented,” said Tellwyrn, “is me involving students the way I’m about to. Kids… I want you to look after the place.”
“I’m…not sure I understand,” Juniper admitted, frowning.
“As we’ve been over,” Tellwyrn said evenly, “you’re an individually very powerful bunch, and you function extremely well as a unit. Honestly, assembled in this room is both more firepower and more coordination than the rest of the faculty. And, several false starts aside…you’re good. You all care about other people, and matters beyond yourselves. You’re driven by principle. And you exhibit the one trait I learned to associate with the very best of adventurers during my own long career, the one which exemplified the few I came to call heroes: you have a knack for succeeding in situations where, quite frankly, you should not. So… Please protect my campus. I do not want you hunting the Sleeper; don’t do anything that’ll spark a witch hunt, you know very well from my class how horrific those can be, especially in an enclosed social environment like this one. Fedora’s still around and working, and while that guy is his own bag of horrors, he seems competent; let him do the job. But please be ready. There’s a very good chance you will be targeted, yourselves. In that event…” She paused to clamp her lips into a tight, unhappy line. “In that event, fellow student or not, know that the Sleeper has by now completely worn out his or her right to my protection. If you get the chance, put them down. As finally as is feasible and necessary.”
A silence fell over the room, and hovered while the students stared at her in wide-eyed uncertainty. It was Shaeine who finally broke it.
“Understood,” she said, bowing to the Professor. “We shall do our utmost not to disappoint.”
“Professor Tellwyrn?” Fross said hesitantly. “I know I already asked, but… This is, um… It’s really bad, isn’t it? I mean… The Sleeper, the Hand, everything.”
“Stay away from that Hand,” Tellwyrn ordered. “It’s not practical to expel him from the campus; just keep your distance, and if he tries to mess with you, disengage. But yes, Fross. This is bad. You all know the kind of dangers this University uses for training exercises; the campus has seen significant threats beyond even those in the past. But the Sleeper…between this rash of cursing and the hellgate, this is as bad as it has ever been. This person is an enemy, plain and simple, not a misguided student in need of correction. Add to that the Hand, the Wreath still sniffing around, and who knows what else… Yes. Be aware how serious this matter is.”
She leaned forward, folding her arms on the desk, and gazed at them with uncharacteristic earnestness.
“And I wouldn’t ask this of you, or even discuss it with you, if I didn’t have faith in you. Whether you kids can solve this in my absence I wouldn’t say. Frankly, I’d find that rather surprising. But you’re a good group. You’re competent, and you’re good people. You can at least help. Please do.”
“We will,” Toby assured her quietly.
“Thank you.” Tellwyrn blew out a heavy sigh, slumping in her chair. “All right… Classes aren’t canceled, you’ll have a substitute, but I intend to be gone by tomorrow morning. Hopefully this won’t take more than a few days—if it’s going to be more than that, I’ll give up and come right back. In the best case scenario, I’ll be back sooner, and with help. Whatever else happens, hold the line. For now, go get some rest. You’re probably gonna need it soon.
They remained silent and tensely contemplative all the way back outside, none of them speaking up until they were in the hall and the office door shut behind them.
Fross’s sigh was a descending arpeggio of tiny bells.
“I wish Trissiny was here.”