“What kind of evidence, exactly?”
“Several kinds,” Fedora replied with a nonchalant shrug. “Nothing I would call conclusive just yet, Professor. I wish that pixie had mentioned she was planning to dump a thousand gallons of frozen water on my crime scene so I could’ve told her to goddamn well not. Got no footprints from the actual fight location, and most of the samples were pretty thoroughly washed into the soil as it melted off. Still, you’ve got nice paved paths and a lot of the action happened on one, so I was able to lift a few.”
“A few?” Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow. “Samples? Of what?”
“I don’t have the right equipment with me to pick up skin flakes or anything so tiny,” the Inspector admitted. “Just hairs, mostly. A few miscellaneous near-microscopic bits and bobs that I think are fabric—I’m not pinning any hope on them. The hair’s what’ll prove most useful, I think. Rafe is still running the tests that’ll sort out what was dropped during the right time frame, then all I gotta do is gather samples from the people who we knew were there, and whatever’s left over is from our perp. Gotta admit, Prof, this is a guarantee of nothing. We won’t know how useful the evidence is until the analysis is done.”
“You were able to collect hair samples from the pavement in the aftermath of that…absolute debacle?” Ingvar regarded Fedora closely. “That is…very impressive.”
“Yeah, I call bullshit,” Aspen said more bluntly, folding her arms. “There is just no way.”
“Oh, ways he has,” Ashley said with a mysterious little smile.
“It’s all a matter of the right custom-worked enchantments and alchemicals,” Fedora said with ostentatiously false modesty, flipping the lapels of his trench coat up and then smoothing them down again. “Despite the fact that our ranking member of the Imperial government on site completely flipped his shit and then…well, whatever you did with him, lady. Despite that, this is still an operation sanctioned by Intelligence, and I’ve got tools with me that no municipal or provincial police force has access to.”
“Tools nobody but you has access to,” Ashley said, winking.
“Not for want of trying,” Fedora grumbled. “Omnu’s balls, what do I have to suck to get those cobble-pounders to try techniques beyond ‘chase perps around and beat them with clubs?’”
“Yes, your life must be very frustrating indeed, but my points of inquiry here are specific and few,” Tellwyrn said sharply.
“Yes, of course, right.” Fedora nodded. “I got much more reliable samples from right by the gates, where we saw the Sleeper stand still for a little bit, and there was no brawling and no snow. I have a lot more faith in those; Rafe’s working ’em over, too. Honestly, I can’t get enough of watching him work; it’s like listening to a damn symphony. Man’s a genius with alchemy. A batshit insane genius, which is the best kind!”
“I am acquainted with Admestus Rafe,” Tellwyrn snapped. “My questions, here, concern you, your investigative methods, and what happens next if the outcome of his lab work provides you with an unidentified sample. How, precisely, do you propose to find out to whom it belongs? Because if you are about to suggest rummaging through the personal effects of the entire rest of the student body, the ensuing discussion is likely to become impolite.”
“With regard to that—uh, no thanks, Fluffy, I’m good.”
Fedora held up a hand to decline the tray of teacups Maru hoisted at him. The tanuki lowered it, stepped back, bowed over his proffered samples so that his whiskers dipped into ones of the cups and trundled over toward Ingvar. He and the dryads had arranged themselves in front of the wall of bookcases, while Fedora stood before the desk behind which Tellwyrn sat; until a moment ago, Maru had busied himself with her arcane cooking plate in the corner of the office, which was a long process frequently interrupted by his requests, in Sifanese, for instruction on how to operate it. Tellwyrn had been served tea, finally, and now he was making the rounds toward the others.
Before he reached Ingvar, however, Maru tripped on the hem of his robe and went sprawling face-down into his tray, sending tea and broken crockery spraying across the carpet.
“Gomen nasai!” he wailed, rolling to his feet, and actually ran three complete laps around the mess. “Gomen gomen gomen—”
“For the love of—just clean it up!” Tellwyrn barked. Maru froze, trembling violently and gazing up at her with limpid eyes. She sighed, rubbed at her forehead with one hand, then repeated herself more softly in his language.
“Riiight,” Fedora drawled, watching the tanuki scurry across the office toward the closet door at which she pointed. “Anyway. Before we get into that, Professor, there’s the matter of this.” He pulled a small object from the pocket of his coat and stepped forward to lay it on her desk; it resembled an enchanted power crystal. “This was in Ravana Madouri’s lightcapper. Rafe and I didn’t have the means to get data from it and I didn’t wanna go wake Yornhaldt up, so I held onto it for you. But if I’m right about what that is—which I’m pretty sure I am, because Intelligence uses these and this is the first time I’ve seen one in civilian hands—that thing snapped a full record of the magical spectrum in use when it was activated. Ingenious, how they can make that work with an enchantment meant to take pictures. Assuming it fired correctly that’ll give you the full and precise composition of energy being used—all four schools, all known types of shadow magic, electromagnetic spectrum, visible light—”
“I get it, thank you,” she said, reaching out to take the crystal and peering at it thoughtfully. “Fascinating… I had no idea modern enchanters could do this. If it works, it would make it all but impossible for any magic user to hide or disguise themselves. Each would have an energy signature as unique as a fingerprint.”
“More so,” Fedora said cheerfully, “but nah, that’ll only last until more people like you become aware of the technique. Then there’ll be ways found to fool it, no question. Regardless, I’m assuming you of all people can figure out how to get data off that thing without breaking it? If not, I can get a manual from Tiraas, though not without leaving a paper trail. And, of course, once Intelligence knows you can—”
“I’m not going to assume they don’t know everything you do anyway,” she said brusquely, tucking the crystal into her own pocket. “Regardless, thanks for the offer, but if I need more help I’ve my own sources. Now, with regard to my question?”
“Yes, quite,” he said seriously. “Look, Professor, by far the most useful insight I gained from last night’s dust-up was into the Sleeper’s psychology. I’ve got more of an idea, now, why he’s doing what he did, based on his reactions. Most especially the way he went after Ingvar.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the Huntsman, who just continued to watch him calmly. “Obviously the least physical threat to him—and yet, he’s the one who got in a lucky shot, which made the Sleeper fixate on him.”
“So, you’re saying he’s a dickhead,” Aspen huffed. “We knew that.” Juniper sighed, but draped an arm around her shoulders.
“Not all dickheads are created equal, doll,” Fedora said, winking at her. “Specifically, this one is driven by ego. It also answers the question I’ve been mulling over since this started: why sleeping curses? So, so much easier to just kill your targets. I’d been thinking he didn’t want to provoke Tellwyrn to that extreme, but that didn’t quite hold up. This, though, makes sense of it.”
“Uh, how?” Juniper asked, blinking quizzically.
“No one has been able to break the curse,” Ingvar said softly. “He has challenged the greatest mage alive to a contest of magical skill, and so far, he is winning. Ego.”
“Exactly,” Fedora said smugly.
“Interesting, even useful,” Tellwyrn said, watching sidelong as Maru clattered about loudly in the closet, causing a broom to tumble out. “But still not what I asked you.”
“Now, keep your shirt on, I’m working up to it,” Fedora said soothingly. “The point is, yes, you’re right, to get anything useful off those samples, I need something to compare ’em to. That means I need to get active samples from all the students to match. And the reason I paused to talk about the Sleeper’s mindset is because I’ve been pondering his next move, and how we can influence him to make the move we want. Specifically, that move will cause him to attack again—much harder than he has before. I’m talkin’ all stops pulled out. He knows once we uncover his identity, it’s all over. And just because he has chosen not to kill thus far does not mean he lacks the capacity—if anything, he’s one of very few warlocks who are good for anything else. If we antagonize him that way, some of your kids are going to be in extreme peril. Or…all of them.”
“Nothing is more dangerous than a cornered predator,” Ingvar agreed, nodding.
“So, if I do this, I’ll have to do it subtle,” Fedora continued. “It’ll be tricky.”
“I have not agreed to allow this,” Tellwyrn said flatly.
“How can you not?” Aspen burst out. “This is literally the solution to the whole problem!”
“No, she’s right,” Juniper said, now studying Fedora. “This Sleeper thing is important, but it’s not the only thing going on at this University.”
“Exactly,” said Tellwyrn. “I have aristocrats here, Inspector. Royalty. Paladins. All manner of fascinating people, linked to many of the great powers on this continent and beyond. And you propose I should allow a child of Vanislaas, one who works for Imperial Intelligence, no less, to rummage through their personal effects?”
“I can see how that would ruffle some feathers if it got out,” Fedora agreed, grinning. “But since we’ve already covered that I need to do it subtle-like anyway…”
“Do I strike you as someone who cares whose feathers are ruffled?” Tellwyrn sneered. “I am thinking about what you will do with that kind of access.”
He shrugged, spreading his arms. “Well, I dunno what to tell ya, lady. You’re not wrong, it’s a fair concern. But the situation is what it is. This is what I need to do to wrap this up.”
“Mm.” Tellwyrn stared at him in silence for a long moment, which he bore without any sign of discomfort. “I will think about this. We can discuss it again when you get results from Rafe’s lab work—if it turns out that there’s anything to discuss. In the meantime, with regard to this newfound psychological understanding you claim… What, in your opinion, is the Sleeper’s next likely move?”
“Retaliation,” Fedora said immediately. “Given the way he got away from the fight last night… He could’ve done that at any time during it, but instead he broke his pattern to make shows of force that weren’t necessary or useful. He didn’t cut and run until it became completely clear that he was overmatched, after failing to inflict a single casualty in an all-out contest of power. What with the way he thinks, this can’t stand. He’s gotta even the score.”
“Who is his most likely target?” she demanded.
“Well,” Fedora said, grinning, “Ingvar and I are both tempting prospects! Neither of us has much physical defense against a warlock of that caliber, and we both managed to personally insult the bastard last night. But each of us has a dryad companion, and bruised ego or no, the Sleeper’s shown a pattern of avoiding people who are a real threat to him. I can’t see him risking a head-to-head with Aspen or Ash.”
“He handled us all pretty well last night,” Juniper muttered.
“He took advantage of chaos by exacerbating it,” Ingvar disagreed. “All we need to do is equip you three with fireproofing charms, and there won’t be a thing a warlock can do to you. Or, in all probability, near you.”
“So,” Fedora continued, “he’ll be going after the sophomores next. It fits his overall pattern, too. They’re about what he’s escalated to the level of, and they slapped him down.”
Tellwyrn narrowed her eyes. “How soon?”
Fedora shrugged in exasperation. “I’m a detective, not a freakin’ oracle! I can form a good framework of how this clown thinks; that doesn’t mean I can read his mind.”
“But you spoke of using that insight to manipulate him,” she said slowly, leaning back in her desk chair.
“Yeah, I did say that,” the Inspector replied, now studying her warily. “You’ve got the cadence of somebody having an idea, there.”
“This time, he was prompted to attack in part by my absence from the campus,” Tellwyrn said softly. “If we wished to set a trap, then, perhaps we could determine at least the timing of his next attack by me leaving again.”
There was a momentary silence.
“I think,” Fedora said at last, “if you wanna play that card, you’d better have a damn good idea what you’re doing.”
“Well, you guys look about as well-rested as I am,” Ruda said, pausing to swig from a bottle of rum. “So, let me pose the obvious question: what the fuck was that last night?”
“We lost,” Fross said glumly, hovering over the middle of the table. The whole class hadn’t assembled; Tellwyrn had given them the morning off classes, and several were probably still asleep. The two paladins had wandered into the cafeteria to find Ruda and Fross present, though, and they had taken sandwiches to one of the outdoor tables for lunch, being in no mood for the company of their fellow students.
“I’m not really sure what went wrong,” Gabriel said, yawning. “I thought we had a good plan.”
“We did have a good plan,” Ruda snorted. “Somehow, at the first sign of confusion, that plan gave way to ‘obligingly come at the bastard single-file.’ C’mon, we’ve been over this in Ezzaniel’s class. That is how you take on a group, you make ’em deal with you one at a time, neutralize the advantage of numbers. We fuckin’ handed it to the asshole.”
“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy, as Trissiny likes to say,” Toby remarked quietly.
Gabriel sighed. “I miss Trissiny…”
“Well, Trissiny isn’t here,” Ruda snapped, slamming her bottle down on the table. “And while it would be nice if we had our pet strategist on hand to solve our fucking problems for us, that is also a recipe for long-term failure. We three at least are gonna be planning and fighting a lot of battles over the course of our lives, and after the next two years we’re gonna be doing most if not all of that without fucking Trissiny!”
“It would probably be best if you guys did most things without fucking Trissiny,” Fross observed. “She’s kinda straight-laced.”
Dead silence fell. The pixie’s glow dimmed slightly under their combined dumbfounded stares. “Um. Sorry. Inappropriate?”
“Sorry, Fross,” Gabriel said, finally grinning. “We’re just not used to you slipping in a really good one like that.”
“Yeah, har de har har, laugh it up,” Ruda growled. “Meanwhile—”
“Ruda, enough,” Toby said firmly. “You’re right. We flubbed that. We will have to do better. But recrimination isn’t helpful; what we need is to go over what went wrong, make a better plan, and learn to adapt better. And we should do that when the rest of the group is here.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she grunted, taking a swig of rum. “I know, I know. It’s just… Fuck. This whole fucking thing…”
“You’re taking this kinda personally,” Gabriel said, frowning quizzically at her. “Are you okay?”
“Am I okay?” she exclaimed. “Did you seriously just fucking ask me that?”
“I mean, aside from the obvious,” he said hastily.
Ruda growled wordlessly and took another long drink. “It’s—”
“Oh, what the fuck is this now?” she grumbled, as Chase came dashing up to their table, grinning insanely. Jerome Conover was stomping along in his wake, wearing a thunderous scowl on his face and a sling on his arm.
“You are just not gonna believe this one,” Chase said gleefully.
“Well, you’re happy, so I assume it has to do with him getting hurt,” Gabriel observed.
Jerome halted by the table and glared at each of them in turn. “Which of you is good with a bow and arrow?”
“A bow?” Gabriel raised his eyebrows. “I honestly don’t think I’ve ever even held one. I asked about it in class once, and Ezzaniel made a wiseass comment about me pinning my own feet to the ground.”
“I’ve practiced the basics, but it’s been years,” Toby said, tilting his head. “Why?”
“Somebody shot him!” Chase cackled. “In the arm! With an arrow! This morning!”
“Somebody shot you with an arrow?” Ruda exclaimed, turning to Jerome.
“Oh, aren’t you quick on the uptake,” he said scathingly.
“When did this happen?” Toby demanded.
“First damned thing this morning!” Jerome snapped. “I stepped outside our dorm and wham!”
“I’d’ve thought it’d be more of a twang,” Ruda observed.
“I think he was referring to the sound of his ass hitting the ground,” Chase snickered.
“Honestly, I expect this bullshit from him,” Jerome snorted. “I should think this merits a little more concern from those of us who allegedly have more on their minds than aimless trouble-making!”
“That’d have more weight coming from someone who isn’t usually helping him make the trouble,” Gabriel pointed out.
“Someone is shooting people on this campus with arrows!” Jerome shouted. “First this Sleeper insanity, and now this!”
“Okay, but, let’s be fair,” said Fross. “The Sleeper is a whole thing. He’s going after people in general. Somebody shot you, Jerome. Unless more victims start turning up, it might make more sense to assume it was personal.”
“Oh, now you’re just being silly!” Chase said cheerfully. “If anybody on this mountaintop was gonna be personally attacked, it’d be me. Need I remind you who had the honor of being the first victim of the Sleeper?” He cocked both his thumbs to point at his chest. “That’s right, this guy right here, an’ don’t you forget it, plebeians.”
“Chase, shut the hell up,” Jerome snapped. “Everything is not about you.”
“Hey, uh, Jerome,” Gabriel commented, “Miss Sunrunner can fix an arrow wound in five minutes unless it hit a vital organ. What’s with the sling?”
Jerome’s face turned two shades redder; Chase practically fell over laughing.
“That’s right, you idiots sit here cracking jokes,” Jerome snarled. “Look at what’s happening here! Sleeping curses, Professors vanishing, magic snowstorms, and now snipers! This school is going straight to Hell without even the aid of a handbasket. You’ll have plenty to laugh about while the whole goddamned thing is burning down around your ears!”
He actually spat on their table, then turned and stalked away.
“Wait!” Chase called, scampering after. “Wait for me! You can’t go off and lose your temper at more people without letting me watch!”
“Fuck off, Chase!”
“Aw, baby, don’t be like that, I can change!”
“There was a valid point buried in all that,” Toby said quietly, watching them go. “What with one thing and another… I’m beginning to seriously worry about this place.”
“Hey,” Ruda said, peering critically at her bottle of rum. “Is my curse wearin’ off, or did we just get yelled at by a giant, anthropomorphic penis?”
By the time Tellwyrn ended the meeting in exasperation, Maru’s efforts to clean the tea stain had resulted in most of the cleaning supplies being strewn across the floor around the closet, a whole row of books being swept off their shelf by an errant swing of a broomstick, a nonplussed Juniper being jabbed in the thigh with a mop, and Maru getting his tail pinned under one leg of the Vernis Vault after lifting it to retrieve a bottle of carpet cleaning solution which had rolled beneath. All the while, the tea had sat there, soaking into the carpet with no progress made toward its removal. The Professor had finally shooed everyone out so she could supervise the process directly rather than continually interrupting herself to give increasingly irritated directions in Sifanese to the increasingly frantic tanuki.
Once everyone had left the office, though, everything changed.
Maru set about silently and efficiently packing the cleaning supplies back away into their closet home, while Tellwyrn, with a couple of gestures, put the books back where they went, re-constructed the broken teacups, and lifted all the liquid from the carpet to hover in the air in an amorphous ball. She opened the window with her hands, if only because it was conveniently within arms reach of her chair, and flung it out to plummet toward the prairie far below.
“Such a shame,” Maru clucked, shutting the closet door. “That is rather good tea, you know.”
“Mm hm,” she said, taking a sip from her own cup. “So. It seems, among the likely outcomes of last night’s work, I may be forced to let that…demon…rustle about among the students’ living quarters and possessions in order to retrieve evidence.”
“I am touched by the trust you display in your associates, sensei,” he said with the highest level of formality his language offered.
Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow. “Our acquaintance began with you impugning my intelligence, Maru. I’d have thought you were at least clever enough to learn something from that experience.”
“In fairness, sensei, you were my first elf.”
“I advise you not to judge any other elves you meet by my example,” she said wryly.
“Yes, Kyomi-sama warned me of that as well, but I appreciate it nonetheless.”
“I thought you performed quite well, all things considered,” she continued. “Carry on that way, and by the time it becomes relevant, Fedora will hopefully dismiss you from consideration as a factor.”
“Unless I am carrying tea near his feet?” Maru grinned, displaying a snout full of needle-like teeth. “He is suspicious of everyone, by dint of both his kind and his profession. I think he has found no reason to be suspicious of me in particular, however.”
“Good. If it comes down to letting him snoop around in secret… I will want someone snooping around after him under the same terms. If you don’t think yourself a match for an incubus, Maru, this is the time to say so. There’s no shame in it, and I won’t hold you in violation of our contract. Those creatures are dangerous, and all the more so because they make themselves so easy to underestimate.”
If anything, Maru’s grin widened.
“Don’t fret,” he said in perfect Tanglish. “He’ll never see me coming. Where I come from, things like him are nothing but prey.”
Tellwyrn smiled coldly. “I’m glad to hear that. You recall what I told you about students being sacrosanct?
“Of course. Explicitly.”
“For purposes of that subject, the Sleeper, once identified, will not be considered a student.”
Maru’s ears perked up, his tail quivering in barely-repressed eagerness. “And to think, I was afraid I wouldn’t have any fun here.”