“I think I’ve found a flaw in your plan,” Aspen declared.
“Oh, really.” Ruda looked at her sidelong, not shifting from her position leaning against the spell lab’s wall except to take a long drink from her bottle of beer. “If I asked reeeeeaal nicely, wouldja share it with me?”
“Sure,” Aspen said immediately, folding her arms and looking smug. “You don’t actually know when this Sleeper guy will attack, or even if he will. And you’ve got everybody locked in here to wait for it, which… You guys don’t hunt much, do you?”
At that last pointed question, she half-turned to look around the room. Toby and Shaeine were both sitting against a wall in lotus postures with their eyes closed; Teal lounged next to the drow, apparently asleep. Scorn was pacing furiously back and forth, muttering to herself, while Juniper paced in a much less energetic fashion, wandering aimlessly all over the room at a slow amble. Inspector Fedora sat on the floor against the huge window, almost swallowed by his trench coat, which was rumpled up around him by his position. He was reading, of all things, an Avenist libram, and seemed quite absorbed in it. Only Fross and Gabriel were engaged in apparently goal-directed behavior, having claimed a space a few feet distant from Fross’s model of the mountaintop to work on some enchanting project, surrounded by loose sheets of his spell parchment. Their quiet discussion was the predominant sound in the room.
Ingvar, as usual, stood near Aspen, currently watching her conversation with Ruda. The whole evening, as hours had stretched on, he had simply stood, in apparently perfect calm.
“See, like Ingvar,” Aspen said approvingly, pointing at him. “Hunting requires patience. You gotta be able to just wait for a long time without going stir-crazy. I don’t think most of this group has the knack. Specially that one.” She shifted her finger to point at Scorn.
The Rhaazke ground to a stop with a muted screech of her claws upon the stone floor, turning on her and clenching her fists, tail beginning to lash. “Listen here—”
“Scorn,” Teal said without opening her eyes. “Please don’t. Starting a fight with dryads is pointless.”
“I am not the one starting!” Scorn snapped.
“You wouldn’t be the one to finish it, either,” Fedora commented, turning a page in his libram and not lifting his eyes from it. “That’s not a reflection on your personal power, gorgeous, trust me. Our sort would be well-advised not to fuck around with high-level fairies.”
“We do not share a sort,” she said disdainfully.
“Sure,” he agreed. “You have more magic and muscle in your abs than I’ve got in my entire body, while I, contrariwise, have some basic goddamn social skills. And that dryad would puree either of us if we pissed her off, so let’s refrain, yeah?”
“And this is what I mean,” Aspen said with unmistakable satisfaction. “Everybody’s gonna go nuts cooped up in here like this. Especially if the Sleeper never shows.”
“He will,” Fedora stated, still reading. “The cat’s away. The mouse will play.”
“I don’t know what that guy’s talking about half the time,” Aspen complained to Ingvar.
“You are not missing out,” he replied.
“Have you considered,” Ruda said with deceptive mildness, “that you picking at this is, if anything, going to make it worse?”
The dryad scowled. “It’s not my fault!”
“More academically, then, have you ever considered anything in your life before you just hauled off and did it?”
Scorn laughed, far too loudly for the enclosed space.
“Now you listen,” Aspen began, but Ingvar swiftly interrupted.
“Aspen, stop. She has a point.”
The look the dryad turned on him was almost hurt. “I—but—she’s being rude about it!”
“Yes,” he said calmly, “which is her business, not yours. You’re not responsible for what anyone else does, only what you do.”
“Oh, again with the philosophy,” she huffed.
“I don’t have a lot of interest in philosophy,” he said, “unless it has an immediate practical use. Turning the other cheek for moral reasons is Omnist practice, and no concern of mine. What concerns me is that when you react to other people, you let them control you. A man—a person, in order to exercise any power, must be self-contained and controlled.”
“Huh,” she grunted with poor grace.
“Rudeness aside, she is right,” Ingvar went on. “You are also right. This is a tense environment, and pointing it out will only make it more so. Better to set an example. You’re a hunter of no small skill, Aspen; you could teach these students a great deal about patience.”
“That’s true,” Juniper agreed, coming over to loop an arm through one of Aspen’s. “I always thought so, back home in the Deep Wild. You’re a lot more collected than most of our sisters.”
“That is the more collected one?” Scorn said skeptically.
“Scorn,” Teal pleaded with a sigh.
“You.” Ruda lifted the hand holding her bottle by its neck, extending one finger to point at Ingvar. “I like you.”
“That’s good to know,” he said noncommittally. She laughed almost as loudly as Scorn, earning a frown from Aspen.
“Yeah!” Gabriel shouted suddenly, jumping upright. He grinned at everyone as they all turned to look at him. “We got it working!”
“Hey, that’s pretty great,” Ruda said. “You got what the fuck working?”
“We’ve solved our communication problem!” Fross reported, whizzing about in an excited circle above them. “Fortunately I had a book in my aura storage with the proper charms described, but we’ve had to adapt it to use the materials on hand, since the proper ones are sorta expensive and there’ll be all manner of trouble if we get into the classroom stocks, so it was real tricky to make it work with just folded spell paper and enchanting ink, and the final product won’t last for very long, but since we only need them to work for tonight it should be fine!”
“I think Ruda’s question stands,” Shaeine said, finally opening her eyes.
“Communication charms!” Gabriel enthused, holding up a square formed of paper folded over multiple times, inked with elaborate patterns which glowed in shifting blue and green. “You just hold it and you can hear the voice of whoever talks to you through it!”
“That solves a lot of problems,” Fedora said, finally looking genuinely interested. “If we can coordinate in the field it’ll overcome our main handicap here.”
“Oh, well, don’t get too excited,” Fross cautioned, suiting the advice herself by slowing to a stationary hover. “Actual two-way communication is orders of magnitude more complex and really can’t be done with these simple materials. I can project through it, cos I’m extremely magical, but you won’t be able to talk back. So I figure, since I’ve gotta run the map model and the fae-arcane field, I can stay here and give directions and you guys can surround the Sleeper!”
“Please understand that I don’t mean to disparage,” Ingvar said carefully, “but organizing a hunt is not as simple a matter as it may appear to one who has never done so. Are you sure you can do this, Fross?”
“Fross is extremely intelligent,” Toby observed quietly. “More to the point… Our group’s actual military strategist is taking a semester off—”
“Which is a goddamn shame,” Ruda interjected, grinning fiendishly, “because I’m really curious what she’d make of Ingvar, here.”
Toby ignored her. “…but Fross has never, in the time I’ve known her, misjudged her capabilities. The safe assumption is that if she says she can do a thing, she can do it.”
“Agreed,” Shaeine added.
“Yeah, that’s pretty well unanimous around here,” Juniper said, grinning. “You can count on Fross.”
“Aww!” Fross chimed bashfully. “I would blush if I had the necessary physiology! But you guys couldn’t see it anyway so I guess that’s maybe kinda pointless.”
“All right, then!” Gabriel said more briskly, sitting back down and tearing another sheet of enchanting paper out of his book, “let’s get to work, Fross ol’ pal. Hopefully we can make enough of these to equip everybody before the Sleeper arrives.”
“Yes! On it!”
“Well, that’s good then,” Aspen muttered. “I guess we’ll just…continue to stand around.”
“Antonio!” Justinian came to meet him at the door when he entered the Archpope’s office, moving as smoothly as always but more quickly than usual. “Splendid. I greatly appreciate you coming on such short notice, and especially at this late hour. Please, stand.”
“Not at all, your Holiness,” Darling said, rising from the kneel he had assumed upon the Archpope’s approach. “I’m always available for necessity—and I figured this must be urgent for you to call at midnight. How can I help?”
“I need to call upon you in your capacity as liaison between the Church and the Imperial government,” Justinian said seriously. He wore a faint frown—very faint, but still more concern by far than he usually displayed in public. “The late hour is specifically relevant—I am counting on your ability to enter the Palace in the middle of the night and find someone of high office willing to speak with you.”
“How high, if I may ask?”
“Ideally, the Emperor himself…though that might be hoping for too much.” The Archpope turned to face the window of his office, concealing his expression for the moment. “What matters most is that we reach out to the Throne as quickly as possible. Something…rather untoward has happened, I’m afraid. There is a risk of hostilities emerging if the matter is left to fester.”
“Your Holiness, what’s going on?” Darling asked tersely, beginning to absorb some of the uncharacteristic tension in Justinian’s shoulders. He had to admire the man’s ability to do that; usually he was far too in charge of himself to be manipulated even so subtly.
“This is difficult.” Justinian shifted again, placing himself in profile from Darling’s view; his frown had deepened. “I trust you will not be offended if I state that there are secrets of the Church which I cannot reveal to you—even now, when I must call upon you for help related to them.”
“Not in the least,” the Bishop said immediately, “I’ve always assumed that was a given. What can you tell me, your Holiness? My ability to access the Palace won’t extend to barging in there in the middle of the night with a vague story.”
“Among my efforts,” the Archpope said slowly, clearly choosing his words with caution, “has been a subtle campaign against an elusive foe, undertaken by specifically skilled and trusted individuals on behalf of the Church, using, among other things, artifacts left behind by the Elder Gods.”
“Dangerous business,” Darling said quietly.
“Indeed so.” Justinian turned to him and nodded. “And to be taken only with the utmost caution and restraint, with every possible safeguard in place, and besides all that, only at what seemed the most urgent need. There has been…an enemy on the move. A most elusive one. My specialists have been conducting a remote campaign to attempt to identify and monitor this being, using the aforementioned artifacts.”
“An enemy?” Darling frowned. “If you don’t know who, your Holiness, what makes you think them an enemy?”
“Understand that I do not, under ordinary circumstances, meddle with the works of the Elders,” Justinian said seriously. “The Church has many such relics in its possession, which my predecessors have collected and contained largely because they universally prove all but impossible to destroy. It is, as you yourself know very well, sound general policy to leave the toys of the Elders strictly alone. So long as they are buried in vaults beneath the Cathedral, under the eyes of the Pantheon themselves, those tools are relatively safe, and contained such that they pose no threat. At least, that had been my assumption until quite recently, when one became unexpectedly active.”
“And…your response to this was to have a specialist…poke at it?” Darling cleared his throat. “Forgive me, but…”
“No, no, you are right,” Justinian said wearily. “I do my best, Antonio, but a man who must handle as many delicate threads as I inevitably outsmarts himself once in a while. I suspect you know a thing or two about that, yourself.”
“Well.” Darling couldn’t help but smile. “Maybe one or two.”
“Yes, the safe thing to do would undoubtedly have been to bury it deeper and invoke the Pantheon’s auspices to ensure it took, this time. I have never been one to brush dangers under the rug, however. That which is out of sight and out of mind is more menacing, not less, because one grants it the element of surprise by not engaging. I sought to learn what was happening, what it meant, and who was responsible. It did become clear, at least, that the device’s sudden activity was due to some manner of…sympathetic principle. Someone, somewhere, had a counterpart to it, and was doing this deliberately. Having learned that, I could hardly afford to ignore it. That is the kind of threat which could come to endanger countless uninvolved innocents, if not the world itself.”
“Clearly, yes,” Darling agreed, nodding emphatically.
“Tonight,” Justinian continued gravely, “and quite recently, in fact, after a pattern of several days of exchanges between my agent and this mysterious figure, the device abruptly destroyed itself. The violence of it was…extreme. My people barely escaped with their lives.”
“And…you wish to warn the Throne?”
“Oh, it is more urgent than that, or it could wait till morning. In the moments before it erupted, the artifact projected an image of the silver gryphon.”
There was a moment of silence.
“In other words,” Darling said slowly, “this whole time, you were playing a very dangerous game of chess with what turned out to be agents of the Empire.”
“Even that would be blessedly simple compared to the reality,” Justinian said seriously. “Such a misunderstanding could be explained. In hindsight, this revelation makes sense of much about the exchanges which had baffled my agents. The enemy’s moves frequently made no sense, and we had ascribed them to the idea that he was as awkward and uncertain in his use of the Elders’ crafts as we. Looking back now, though, it becomes apparent that we were dealing with more than one party, themselves at cross purposes. The original aggressor, and more recently, also the Empire. I suppose it should not surprise me that the Throne has similar treasures hoarded away. It only makes sense that if someone had begun to activate them remotely, it would affect more than the one in my own possession.”
Darling’s eyes widened. “Your Holiness… Do you have any idea how many of these things still exist?”
“None,” Justinian said grimly, “and you have hit upon one of my concerns.”
As always, Darling kept his racing thoughts firmly away from his face. The Emperor, the Hands…the timing. This was a moment to tread with extreme care.
“Coordinating with the Throne would obviously be important in that case, yes,” he mused aloud. “But…with all respect, are you certain this entire thing wasn’t the Empire’s doing?”
“Quite.” Justinian nodded. “I have been wrong about people, of course; individuals are endlessly surprising. Those who possess and managed to maintain great power are often much less so. I understand Sharidan quite well. I know his ambitions, both their shape and their extent, and the reckless menace posed by this agent’s initial activities was not in his character.”
“What activities?” Darling asked, frowning again.
“Before the thing began to obstruct scrying efforts,” Justinian replied, “we found a trail leading to Puna Dara.”
“Surely the Punaji wouldn’t…”
“Agreed. It is also not in their nature to poke the bear, as it were; some past leaders of the Punaji might have been so ambitious, but Rajakhan is not the sort to meddle with dangerous powers to begin with, and definitely would not begin to rouse the kind of trouble in his own territory that our early divinations perceived.”
“What sort of trouble?”
“This is what we must discuss with the Throne,” Justinian said seriously. “To begin with, aside from the need to merge our information, there is also the matter that the Throne might consider the Church responsible for these problems if they are not informed otherwise, and I don’t have to tell you all the risks that could pose.”
“But additionally, Puna Dara is beyond the direct control of Tiraas—and largely outside the influence of the Church. Between their association with Naphthene and a native spiritual practice which focuses on their windshaman, the Punaji generally have little use for gods. If someone intended to probe at both the Church and Empire, or even set them against one another, they could hardly pick a more perfect place from which to strike…and it becomes more ominous still in light of rumors I have begun to hear from Punaji territory. In this matter, Antonio, I hope you may have information to add that I do not.”
“I might have to disappoint you there, your Holiness,” Darling admitted. “The Guild’s presence among the Punaji is pretty slender, as well. Their culture makes Eserites sort of…redundant. Rajakhan is possibly the only world leader who discourages the Guild’s activities in a way that doesn’t provoke the Boss to double down on them. Only the Five Kingdoms do a more thorough job of keeping us out.”
“I am aware of this,” Justiniain said, nodding. “Nonetheless, you may still have information I do not—and of course, I cannot begin to guess what Imperial Intelligence may know. Tell me, Antonio, in any of the whispers you may have heard from Puna Dara, has there been anything about the Rust?”
Even under the circumstances, Ravana enjoyed the atmosphere of the campus after dark. Its peace was rather like that of her private gardens at home in Madouris, one of the few outdoor spaces where she could be free of the pestering attentions of the countless people who demanded a slice of her time. Professor Tellwyrn’s emphatic discouragement of interlopers had finally quelled the upsurge of interest which had begun with Gabriel Arquin’s calling last year, and relatively few of her classmates were knocking about at this hour. For the most part, she had the path to herself.
Especially these days, for obvious reasons. She tightened her grip on her lightcapper for a moment before forcing herself to relax it again. And, then, to relax herself overall. The wind in the trees, the sound of crickets and night birds, even the pleasant warm glow of the fairy lamps; all the details of her surroundings conspired deliberately to be comfortable, even if she generally found the faux-gothic stylings of Tellwyrn’s taste in architecture rather gauche.
The oppressive drowsiness hit suddenly, as she had expected. Immediately following came the stab of blinding agony in her temples—also expected, but she had not been able to test the potion before taking it (obviously), and Ravana was not accustomed to physical pain. She was unable to repress a shriek, barely catching herself before taking a tumble which would have damaged her personal dignity—or worse, her lightcapper.
A moment later, though, it faded, and she straightened, a predatory smile stretching across her features.
Mages were so obsessed with magic, they always tried to counter it with more magic. A noblewoman knew to play to her own strengths, to find mundane solutions to the threats posed by even the most capable wizards and warlocks. Even if, in this case, the solution had been provided through the auspices of expensive (and extremely illegal) alchemy, it was still a basically mundane one: a person simply could not fall asleep while in severe pain.
“Predictable,” Ravana said aloud, raising her lightcapper and turning to face the Sleeper.
“Contact!” Fross shouted, shooting toward the ceiling and chiming loudly. “We’ve got him! South lawn, the path outside the music building roughly equidistant between the gazebo and the Wells!”
Ingvar had already thrown open the door of the spell lab and strode out, Aspen right on his heels. There came a disorganized rush as the sophomores, Scorn, and Fedora followed, but the Huntsman moved with swift purpose and total calm. In seconds he had strode the length of the hall and out the side door, raising his longbow as soon as he had a view of the sky.
The arrow he nocked wasn’t exactly identical to the one which he had made with his own shaman in Tiraas; he had had to improvise, lacking the shaman’s expertise and rank in Shaath’s faith. Thanks to the help of the fairies, though, its blessings and charms should be correct. Ingvar angled his bow to aim straight skyward, drew, and released.
The arrow burst into light as it soared aloft. For a moment he experienced uncertainty; would it work? But it continued, shooting straight skyward, as it was meant to. The shaft climbed far higher than the power of his draw could have propelled it, till even with its glow it had vanished from visibility with sheer distance.
Only for seconds, though. When it erupted, it was with a surge of clouds that spread out over the mountaintop as rapidly as a cup of ink poured into a bucket of water. With it came the low howl of wind, swirls of snow, and the sharp cold of the upper Stalrange, unheard of on the prairie.
The very light shifted, taking on a pale bluish tinge. The blessing of Shaath lay over Last Rock, and across the very dimensions, blocking all shadow-jumping.
“That is a bit more ostentatious than I was expecting,” Gabriel remarked from behind him. “People might notice this, guys.”
“It works, though,” said Juniper, turning to him. “Right?”
He hesitated, listening, then nodded. “Yes! Vestrel confirms. We’ve got the Sleeper pinned down!”
“Magically, at least,” said Ingvar. “The easy part. Now…we hunt.”