Dawn was just beginning to lighten the infirmary’s tall windows, barely noticed by the exhausted students within. Several of the group had split off after everyone had been treated for infernal exposure, but most of the sophomores were still nearby, standing or sitting on the beds (in Ruda’s case, stretched out and seemingly asleep), keeping quiet but maintaining a kind of vigil.
Ravana’s roommates, having arrived only minutes before, kept a closer one.
“You idiot,” Iris whispered. Maureen, Szith, and Scorn all looked over at her, the rest of the students being clustered a few beds away. “You smug, arrogant… Why would you do something like this? Dammit, what’s wrong with you!”
“Iris, stop,” Szith said firmly, placing a hand on her shoulder. By the end of her tirade, she had raised her voice to a shout, prompting Miss Sunrunner to head in their direction, scowling. The healer paused, though, at a frantic gesture from Maureen.
“You know she did it on purpose,” Iris said, scrubbing tears from her face. “Thought she could do better than everyone, so she just…”
“Yes.” Szith sighed, and squeezed her shoulder gently. “Yes, and I should have been watching her for something like this.”
“It’s not your fault,” Iris snorted, glaring down at Ravana, who appeared to be sleeping quite peacefully. “Nobody did this to herself but her!”
“An’ the Sleeper,” Maureen said quietly. “Don’t forget him.”
“The Sleeper will pay for all of this,” Scorn growled.
“My mother served for many years as a personal bodyguard to a noble of House An’sadarr,” Szith said. “They have a certain…psychology. I don’t believe Ravana meant any harm, but this…belief…she has, that she is both smarter than everyone, and responsible and entitled to do what she thinks no one else can do properly, which is everything…” She sighed, shook her head. “Drow, human, apparently some things are the same everywhere. My mother has always told me that watching over a noble means protecting them from themselves as much as from their enemies.”
“You smug idiot,” Iris growled at Ravana. She lunged forward at the sleeping girl, prompting the others to try to grab her, but Iris simply folded her arms on the bed beside Ravana and buried her face in them.
“Well.” Maureen hopped down from the bed and went over to Scorn, who was only a few feet distant, but that still made a bit of a walk for her. Smiling, she patted the demon on the knee. “I’m sorry you’re stuck on this plane an’ all, Scorn, but truth be told, it’s at times like this I’m glad t’have you here with us.”
Scorn sighed softly, then smiled briefly at the gnome before her expression stilled again. “I can go home any time,” she said.
Szith looked over at her in surprise, and Iris lifted her head. “But I thought…”
“Me getting here, that is what was impossible in the first place. But I’ve studied this world, and thought about the situation… The hellgates, they are all under Imperial control, yes? But that means just that it is known where they all are. And the Empire, I think they will not be sad to see me leave.” She shrugged. “I bet, if they wanted to be difficult, Professor Tellwyrn could get them to let me through a gate. Then… In Hell, most things either honor the Rhaazke or do not challenge us, and I can avoid everything else. Eventually I could find other Rhaazke, or at least forces who follow the Dark Lady who can bring me to Rhaazke. They could bring me to a portal to the Grey Planes. Then… Getting back to my home would be a matter just of walking. It would be an adventure, but more a long one than a dangerous one, at least for me. I can go.”
Scorn very gently placed a hand on Ravana’s forehead, brushing back her blonde hair. The demon’s hand seemed large enough to crush the girl’s skull, its short claws and mottled skin a stark contrast with the young aristocrat’s porcelain complexion.
“But here… I am learning things. Getting education which will make me a more worthy successor when my mother needs one. And… I have friends, here. Someday I will have to leave friends behind, and that will be a sad day. But I don’t want to, yet. And right now, I can’t.” She stroked Ravana’s hair again. “Not while friends need my help. Especially since I need to wait for one to wake up so I can yell at her.”
Iris emitted a faint huff of breath, a noise that might have become a laugh if given time to grow. “It’s a date. We’ll have to form a line.”
The infirmary door swung open, prompting everyone to look in that direction. Immediately, several of the sophomores straightened up, Ruda lifting her head, and then swinging her legs over the side of her bed to sit upright with a grunt. It was Toby who stepped forward, bringing himself nearly even with Ravana’s bed, to address her.
“We failed, Professor.”
Tellwyrn nodded briefly at him, before returning her attention to the infirmary’s newest permanent resident. “I’ve heard an accounting already. Fedora and Rafe are in the latter’s lab, processing evidence.”
“Evidence?” Teal asked. “What evidence did they find?”
“Apparently that’s still somewhat up in the air,” the Professor said, sounding as weary as they felt. “Hopefully something useful. Ingvar and the dryads—all three dryads, the gods help us—are loitering outside the lab, catching up. I got more answers out of Ingvar than everyone else combined, thus far. She’s just like the others, Taowi?”
“Not quite,” Miss Sunrunner said, her lips pinched in an expression of disapproval. “You’re in good time, Arachne; I just finished applying the alchemical purgative before these girls arrived. Ravana had been dosed with Nightmare’s Dream. As she is trapped in a state of sleep, I made especially sure to expunge all alchemical agents from her bloodstream.”
“Wait, she what?” Maureen asked. “Whassat, then?”
“Madouri, you insufferable little…” Tellwyrn trailed off, closing her eyes, and drew a deep breath. “Nightmare’s Dream is a potion. An illegal one, as it is used chiefly as an instrument of torture. It causes the imbiber to experience excruciating pain if they fall asleep.”
“Holy shit,” Gabriel whispered, staring aghast at Ravana from across the room.
“We are fairly sure the Sleeper didn’t apply it,” Miss Sunrunner said sourly, “but that Miss Madouri herself did. How she acquired such a thing, I’ve no idea. Admestus denies having supplied either the potion or any of the necessary ingredients.”
“It would surprise me if she had not inherited that and worse from her father,” Szith noted. “She has supplied Rafe with hellhound breath, let us not forget. There is no telling what else lies in House Madouri’s vaults.”
“Oh, quite,” Tellwyrn agreed, glaring down at Ravana. “It wasn’t a bad idea, strategically speaking. It is very hard to knock someone out magically while they’re in pain; you need drugs for that. Clever, reckless, and utterly typical of this particular ingenious little fool.”
“And I thought the Sleeper was bad,” Ruda breathed. “What kind of goat-fucking lunatic…”
“It seems to have worked, at least at first,” said Shaeine. “We heard her screaming in obvious pain before we arrived on the scene.”
“Bloody hell,” Maureen choked.
“Uh, Professor?” Gabriel said hesitantly. “I don’t know how many bushy-tailed people there are in Sifan, but I think you brought back the wrong one…”
Everyone shifted their focus to the figure trying to hide behind Tellwyrn. This was a lost cause; despite being considerably shorter than she, he was at least twice as broad.
The elf grimaced, turned and spoke a few rapid words in Sifanese. The fluffy banded tail sticking out from behind the level of her knees quivered once, and then what appeared to be an overweight, gnome-sized raccoon wearing a monk’s robes stepped out, bowed to the room, and chattered several soft sentences in the same language.
“This is Maru,” Tellwyrn said dourly. “He is pleased to meet you all and looks forward to working with you. Since assigning Crystal to the library I’ve been feeling the lack of a secretary, anyway, so…here we are.”
“Arachne,” Miss Sunrunner said, staring at the new arrival, “would I be correct in inferring that your new secretary does not speak Tanglish?”
Tellwyrn sighed. “Yeah, well, he owes me a favor. And when I find myself satisfied with its repayment, he’s got worse coming to him back home, so Maru’s incentive here is not toward competence, anyway. That aside, tanuki tend to be puckish even by fairy standards. I have a great deal of mislaid correspondence to look forward to, I suspect.”
“About your mission…?” Teal prompted.
“Kaisa is not coming back,” Tellwyrn said shortly. “You kids…did the best you could. Even if you didn’t capture the Sleeper, the effort wasn’t wasted. It seems you’ve learned quite a bit; Fedora was eager as a kid at Wildfeast to tell me all he’s discovered, but I figured it could wait till he and Admestus have finished playing with their alchemy set. I’ll hear reports from you lot, as well, but…after you’ve had some sleep. The lot of you resemble the leftovers too mangled for Death to bother to take.”
“Vestrel would like you to know she resents that,” said Gabriel, then paused. “…and I’m supposed to repeat something in elvish which I can barely pronounce and refuse to try because I’m pretty sure it’s—”
“Shut up, Arquin.”
“Gladly, thank you.”
“Taowi,” Tellwyrn said, turning to the healer, “there is nothing you can do for these kids until we get some answers about this curse. As soon as Stew and Harland finish cleansing and fixing up the area this lot demolished last night, I’m going to set them to work on the campus chapel.”
“You’re moving the victims there?” Sunrunner asked quietly.
Tellwyrn nodded. “It doesn’t see a lot of use anyway. Stew can re-purpose the pews as comfortable beds, and nobody alive can match Harland Harklund’s skill at divine wards. At bare minimum it’ll keep them safe from more infernomancy; I’m hoping, now we know for certain this is a warlock, just keeping them there may erode the curse over time.”
“Very well,” she agreed, nodding. “Let me know when they’re ready to be—”
“I trust even you can appreciate the seriousness of this.”
Several of them jumped, Ruda cursing, and Maru actually yelped and bounded onto an unoccupied bed. The black-coated Hand of the Emperor now stood next to Iris, who skittered away from him. He lifted his stare from Ravana’s prone form to glare at Tellwyrn.
“This is the sitting governor of Tiraan Province itself, now lying cursed because you were off gallivanting in Sifan rather than protecting your students. This is more than I can overlook, Tellwyrn.”
“I bet if you tried real hard you could manage not to stick yourself into this and make it worse,” she said. Several of the students exchanged nervous glances; there was a dull weariness in Tellwyrn’s voice now, quite unlike her usual acidic demeanor, and under the circumstances it was more than a little alarming.
“I will be sending back to the capital for more assistance,” the Hand said, with just enough vindictive relish to be clear in his tone. “A thorough review of your educational practices is now necessary, Tellwyrn. I suggest you clean house quickly, if you intend to. There will not be much more time.”
“You can review whatever the hell you like, nothing around here is going to change in response to your orders,” she said flatly.
He bristled. “Must I remind you that I speak for the Emperor himself?”
“Glad we understand each other.”
The infirmary door opened again, and a student stuck her head in. “Miss Sunrunner, did you see—oh, thank flip, Professor Tellwyrn! I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“It’s not even dawn,” Tellwyrn complained. “Why am I already surrounded by whining and demands? Miss Darke, I am busy.” She jerked her head at the Hand, who simply folded his arms and looked supercilious.
“Okay, I’ll let you decide if this is worth it,” Marjorie Darke said, edging carefully into the room. “You’ve got a visitor. Um, another one.”
“At this hour?” Miss Sunrunner said disapprovingly.
The door swung the rest of the way open, revealing the guest, and immediately the remaining sophomores and Scorn leaped to their feet.
“I do apologize for the hour,” Embras Mogul said, tipping his hat politely, “but it seems you’ve been gone from the campus until just now, and I am in rather a hurry to have this done with.”
“What the hell do you want?” Gabriel snarled.
“Nothing to do with you, my young friend,” Mogul said kindly. “Take a seat, son, you look half-dead.”
“He, uh, claims to be the leader of the Black Wreath,” Marjorie said helpfully.
“He is,” Tellwyrn snapped. “Iris, don’t even think about it. I can still hear you thinking about it; desist. And you.” She whipped a golden saber out of nowhere and pointed it at Mogul. “Answer the paladin’s question, and pray you answer it well enough to satisfy me.”
“My apologies for interrupting what seems a very interesting conversation,” Mogul said, pulling his left hand from behind his back; it was holding a large bag which appeared to be made from lizard skin, and was squirming faintly. “Truthfully I want nothing here at all, but I was directed to deliver this to Schkhurrankh, here. I want you to know, Professor, I thought very seriously about just chucking it into a hellgate, rather than pluck your strings any further, to say nothing of being reduced my own self to the status of delivery boy. But getting mail from across two dimensional bridges is a thing entirely without precedent. It seemed to me there’d be more trouble than any of us needs if it failed to arrive.”
He tossed the packaged in Scorn’s direction, prompting both Iris and Maureen to dive out of the way, and Szith to draw her sword. Scorn caught it, though, staring.
“What is this?” she demanded.
He shrugged. “I didn’t open it. Unless I was deceived, it’s apparently from your mother.”
“What?” several people chorused incredulously.
Scorn was already ripping open the top of the package, and in the next moment further conversation was stifled by her squeal. None of them had ever heard her squeal before; the sound was distinctly terrifying. She thrust one hand into the bag and pulled out a charred wedge of some black, sticky substance which smoked faintly. “Cookies! My favorite!” As they all stared in horror, the “cookie” sprouted three misshapen insectile legs, which waved languidly. She thrust it at Iris, who clapped a hand over her mouth, not quite stifling a retch. “Here, try!”
“We simply could not,” Szith said quickly. “Those are a gift from a mother to a daughter far from home. It would be very wrong for anyone else to partake.”
“So very, very wrong,” Gabriel agreed.
“You.” Tellwyrn pointed at Mogul, who had started to turn back toward the door. “You can get things from the Rhaazke dimension. Can you get me some hellhound breath?”
He coughed. “Uh, Professor… That is expressly forbidden by the Lady. Also, consider how many months it took for this to get through after we sent word to Scorn’s mother in the first place—and it seems she is quite highly placed down there. She’d have to be, to make this happen. Not to mention, or mention again as I said it in the first place, that nothing like this has ever happened before. No, I am genuinely sorry to have to say it, but I cannot get you hellhound breath.”
Scorn was already munching her second treat, and avidly reading from the next object she’d taken from the bag: a scroll of pale leather, covered with cramped, spidery script in blue ink.
“And on top of everything else,” the Hand whispered, “open traffic with the Black Wreath. I’m afraid you leave me no choice, Tellwyrn. As of this moment, this University and all its holdings are—”
“Boy, you picked the wrong day,” the archmage announced, pointing a finger at him.
The pop which resounded was louder than her usual teleportation, and accompanied this time by a visible blue sparkle of arcane magic. The Hand vanished.
“What did you do?” Gabriel screeched. “That was a Hand of the Emperor! Where is he?!”
“Suffering,” Tellwyrn stated, turning back to Mogul. “You made me an offer some time ago, Mogul. Is it still good?”
Slowly, the warlock nodded. “I didn’t place a time limit on it, as I’m sure you recall. Something I can do for you, Professor?”
“Maybe. It remains to be seen.” She stepped aside, gesturing at the still form of Ravana. “You’re here…have a look. Tell me whatever you can about this.”
Kapa’a set down his fishing pole at the first hum of magic over the stone dais which stood on the shore. This was why he always came here to fish, though it wasn’t the best fishing spot by far; he so loved being there to greet the new arrivals when they came.
Blue magic flashed along the grooves carved into the dais, and with a soft retort of displaced air, a man appeared. He was of average height and middle age, balding and with craggy features, dressed all in black completely with a long coat. That would have to go, or he’d never survive in this climate. Like they all did immediately upon arriving, he spun, gaping this way and that in shock.
Kapa’a stood upon his rock, threw his arms wide, and bellowed the traditional greeting.
“Welcome, hapless traveler! Welcome, to the Dread Kingdom of Suffering!”
The new arrival stared at him in silence for a long moment, taking in his bare chest, broad grin, and fishing pole, then turned more slowly, studying his new surroundings in detail.
They were on the seashore, serenaded by the sound of waves and the calling of gulls. It was mid-morning, delightfully warm but not yet hot. White sands stretched away to either side, and the ocean to all horizons to the east and south; half a mile out to sea, the towering sentinel rocks stood, carved with massive runes whose blue glow was barely visible in the cloudless sunlight. Northwest, the land steadily climbed to the green-clad mountain, growing ever steeper until its very peak. Greenery rose all the way to the top, now; it had been a good number of years since the volcano had so much as grumbled.
The very air smelled of flowers.
“Where?” the new arrival demanded finally.
“The Dread Kingdom of Suffering!” Kapa’a boomed, feeling his delighted grin widen. “Land of despair and torment, ruled over by its most terrible and malignant queen, her Despicable Majesty Arachne Tellwyrn!” He finally lowered his arms, and laughed aloud. “Didn’t know she was the monarch of a sovereign nation, didja? It’s a surprise to everybody.”
The man gaped at him.
“Yeah, it’ll take some getting used to, friend, but don’t worry! You’re in good hands.” He hopped down from his rock, wading easily through the surf back toward the shoreline. “C’mon down from there—head for the steps on that side, if you don’t wanna get your clothes wet. And you really might want to lose the coat. Take your time, friend, there’s no rush! I’ll show you ’round!”
“The sea provides fish,” Kapa’a explained some time later, leading his flummoxed new neighbor slowly up the winding path through the village. They had already been effusively greeted by the other inhabitants; the man in black now wore several necklaces of flowers draped around his shoulders and chest, placed there by smiling girls, but after the initial excitement they had withdrawn to let the newcomer adjust in peace; they were accustomed to the routine by now. He seemed to be less disconcerted than many upon their first arrival. “On the island itself, there are deer, wild pigs, and fowl, plenty of each for everybody! Lots of fruit trees, too. Plus, we have gardens for whatever doesn’t grow wild.” He stooped without pausing and scooped up a handful of dirt from the side of the path, letting it trail through his fingers. “Volcanic soil. There’s basically nothing we can’t grow. There are two seasons in Suffering: pleasantly warm and dry, and pleasantly warm and rainy. We have no wars, no native diseases and very skilled healers to deal with whatever the guests bring. Not everybody even needs a job, the land provides so well. My friend, you have arrived in paradise itself!”
“You picked an odd name for it,” said the man, who had yet to offer his own name.
Kapa’a didn’t prompt him, simply answering with a grin. “Ah, and there you come to it. For the longest time, the only problem we faced, here, was people who wanted to come take this place from us. Oh, and the mountain exploding; that happened from time to time. The Lady takes care of all that, now. The name was her idea; the Dread Kingdom of Suffering is protected behind the sentinel stones, which keep us…apart from the world. Only one ship ever comes here, with her blessing, piloted by the Ferryman of Eternal Night, Karen.”
The man in black stopped, frowning at him. “Did you say Charon?”
“Karen,” Kapa’a enunciated. “Sweet girl, you’ll like her. She’s a weird sort of critter, though; some kind of fairy. I think she used to be a dryad. Oh, we have one of those, too! Coconut lives up there on the mountain. We pretend to think she’s a goddess and send her offerings; when she gets bored, she’ll come down to one of the villages and pretend to answer prayers, and they hold a feast in her honor. It’s all in good fun.”
“You said there’s a ship?” the man in black said impatiently.
“Yes, Karen’s ferry,” Kapa’a nodded, setting off again. The new arrival followed after a moment. “The only vessel which can travel between the worlds. Or…across the shield, or however it works, I dunno from magic. And the only coin Karen takes is memory. I’m afraid that means all your memories of your time in the Dread Kingdom are lost when you return…except its name. You must go back with only the knowledge that you spent time in the Kingdom of Suffering. There ferry’s due in a few weeks! In the meantime, hunt, fish, play around with the neighbors! Tonight, we’ll hold a feast in your honor! Well, honestly, we would probably have held a feast anyway; we do most nights. But it’s so much better when there’s a reason, don’t you think?”
“Weeks?” the man said plaintively. “I am a Hand of the Emperor—I must return home immediately!”
Kapa’a raised his eyebrows. “Friend, the ferry comes twice a year. If you’re in a hurry, you’re in great luck. A few weeks is nothing. And who knows? You may decide not to go back at all! Quite a few don’t.”
The Hand snarled savagely and kicked at an inoffensive clump of grass, which Kapa’a watched without judgment. He had observed far worse tantrums from new arrivals. “This is intolerable! I’ll see that horrible witch strangled, so help me!”
“You can always leave her a strongly worded note,” Kapa’a suggested, pointing. The Hand followed his arm, which directed his gaze up the hill to a half-collapsed ruin of a house, choked by weeds and surrounded by orange trees. “That’s her place over there.”
The newcomer stared. “…you’re joking.”
“Truthfully we’d like to tidy up a bit,” Kapa’a explained, “but the Lady hates it when people mess with her things. So…there it is. I really would leave it alone if I were you, though. The last fellow who went in there ended up with a broken leg.”
“Booby-trapped her own home.” The Hand sneered disdainfully. “Typical.”
“Oh, nothing like that,” Kapa’a said lightly. “The floor’s rotten. He fell right through.”
“What does she get from all this?” the Hand demanded. “The magic you’re describing, keeping a whole island nation physically isolated from the world… It’s not unprecedented, but the scale and the complexity are staggering! Does she do all this just to have a private vacation spot?”
“Nah,” Kapa’a said cheerfully, waving away the thought. “She just likes having a handy place where she can send people and be sure she won’t have to deal with ’em again for up to six months.”
The Hand stared at him.
“Are you telling me,” he said slowly, “that woman worked one of the largest and most elaborate enchantments known to man, upended the history and culture of an entire nation—”
“Did us a huge favor, really, especially the part where she hardly ever shows up. We don’t need any kings or lords in Suffering; the chiefs take care of what needs taking care of. And not much of that. Mostly, everybody minds their own business.”
“And all this,” the Hand said shrilly, “just so she could inconvenience people who annoy her?!”
Solemnly, Kapa’a reached out to lay a hand on his shoulder. “Friend…clearly, you met the lady. Tell me, which part of that surprises you?”