“All right, we trust ye an’ all,” Maureen said nervously as they followed Vadrieny out of the shed, “but a little warnin’ as to what in specific we oughtta—”
A roar interrupted her and she yelped, darting behind Iris’s skirts. A silver shield flashed into place around them, interrupting Szith’s attempt to place herself in front of the group.
Only Vadrieny was left outside the bubble to face the thing which approached. It charged from the main path on burly, gorilla-like front legs, then skidded to a halt three yards away, snapping its long, fang-lined jaws. Incredibly, the creature whined, dancing from side to side as if nervous, before finally emitting another roar of frustration and lunging forward, jaws open.
Vadrieny caught it by its nose, picked the creature up, and hurled it. The poor demon gouged a long divot in the ground as it skidded to a halt against a low stone wall, which collapsed upon it under the impact.
“That was a khankredahg,” Iris said shakily. “On campus.”
“And it attacked Vadrieny,” Shaeine added in a grave tone. “Which no demon of less than sapient intellect would do…unless compelled by a warlock.”
“Does that answer your question?” Szith asked, turning to Maureen.
“Aye,” the gnome muttered. “An’ we can stop talkin’ as if we don’t know exactly who is up to these shenanigans. Bugger it all, I don’ wanna get sleeped…”
“We should head for the Well,” Vadrieny stated, panning her gaze around the scene. Dusk had fallen and the fairy lamps were lit, but aside from the fallen chunk of garden wall, under which the khankredahg’s corpse was already smoking as it dissolved to charcoal, the campus looked quite normal. “Student dormitories have extra protections.”
“Rather specific ones,” Szith pointed out. “If the Sleeper happens to be male, that will protect us, but…”
“I don’t know the specifics, but she is right,” said Shaeine. “There are additional layers of protection on dorms beyond that one. We would be safest locating Professor Tellwyrn, but that will take time, and the Well is near. She may come in search of us soon, anyway.”
“All right,” Szith said, stepping out from the radius of Shaeine’s shield as she let it fall. “The fastest way—”
Iris suddenly shouted and gesticulated skyward, causing the drow to draw her saber and plant herself in a defensive stance, following the witch’s arm. A moment later, a petrified katzil plunged to the ground, where its already-decaying corpse broke into fragments, disturbing the flowers and leaves which had begun to blossom from it.
“That is a very nice trick,” Vadrieny said approvingly.
“Thanks,” Iris replied, a quaver in her voice. “Takes a lot of power, though, and I’ve only got so much. I don’t know how many times I can do that tonight…”
“Conserve yourself, then,” Shaeine advised, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Vadrieny and Szith are more than capable of dealing with lesser demons such as we have seen thus far. We will need magic if the Sleeper shows herself, or brings out something more dangerous.”
“Hm.” Holding up a hand to halt them, Szith swept her gaze back and forth. “Stand still a moment.”
She abruptly hopped forward, planting herself a yard and a half closer to the main path than Vadrieny stood, then immediately leaped back to her starting point. No sooner had she moved than another katzil plunged from the sky at them, seemingly out of nowhere. Hissing as it came, it spewed a gout of green fire, which splashed across the silver shield Shaeine threw back up.
And over Vadrieny, who was totally unaffected. She slashed the beast out of the air with her claws, almost contemptuously.
“Well spotted, Szith,” the archdemon said tersely. “We’re being herded away from the path.”
“We can take the longer route,” Maureen suggested, pointing to their right. “I go that way a lot, it’s shady an’ small, and…”
“And altogether a good place for an ambush,” Szith finished. “I know the path. Narrow and mostly hidden. We are being pushed that way for a reason.”
“Very well,” Shaeine said firmly. “If we can neither plow into our enemy’s traps nor go the way she desires, we require a third path.”
She pointed at the tall structure directly ahead of them. The others followed her gaze, then turned back to her with matching frowns.
“The music building?” Vadrieny said. “I know it very well. There’s no exit on the other side; the only other entrance would take us right back out onto the main path, where the Sleeper will be waiting in ambush.”
“At least we’d be closer to the Well?” Iris offered.
“Close enough, perhaps, to ambush the Sleeper,” Szith added.
“I think that won’t work,” said Shaeine. “The Sleeper is adept at stealth and evasion, and Vadrieny at least is a nearly unstoppable physical force. She won’t seek direct confrontation. In any case, I don’t propose to use the other door—the idea is to outmaneuver our foe, which demands an action she does not anticipate. And that being the case, the lack of another exit means the Sleeper will not expect us to make our own.”
It was almost sad, how little there was for him to do.
“To you left!” Ingvar barked, aiming an arrow at the shadow which was approaching Aspen from that direction. She glanced over at it, unconcerned, and went back to chasing the katzil spiraling above her head, reminding him incongruously of a child leaping at butterflies.
The shadow changed course, though, coming right for Ingvar, and he let fly. The arrow ripped straight through it, having to effect.
She glanced up again, and seeing his danger got her attention. By happenstance or design, that was the point when she caught her own prey. In the next moment, gripping the hissing demon by its tailfin, she swung it like a bizarre flail.
Upon impact, both shadow and katzil burst. Aspen grimaced, brushing charcoal off her palms.
“Ugh. Again with this stuff. Why do they make such a mess when they die?”
“Be grateful that’s the only mess they make,” Ingvar said, stepping forward and frowning up the path ahead, searching with his eyes. “Demon bodily fluids would leak infernal residue over everything, killing or tainting the very grass. Fortunately, once dead, they don’t have the life force necessary to hold themselves together and the infernal—there.”
“The infernal where?”
He pointed. “Other side of that gazebo. They didn’t all come from that direction exactly, but from the general area, and that’s the only spot on that lawn not in our field of view.”
“Ah, well spotted,” she said in a satisfied tone, already stomping forward. “Have I mentioned lately how nice it is to hang around with such a good hunter?”
“The same goes,” he replied, and they exchanged a quick smile as they approached.
None too soon; another serpentine shape was winding its way up from a summoning circle charred into the grass, hidden in the lee of the gazebo. Ingvar put an arrow through it, and the half-formed katzil dissolved into ash.
“This exceeds my expertise,” he admitted. “All I know about demons and warlocks is how to kill them; canceling an in-progress summon—Aspen, wait!”
Too late; she simply stomped forward and slammed her foot down on one edge of the circle.
Instantly, the angry orange glow of it winked out, leaving a vaguely circular patch of charred ground smoking. Aspen sniffed, then gave him a look which, to his surprise, was actually apologetic.
“Sorry. I know you give good advice and you’re usually right to be cautious, Ingvar, but this is another matter. It was infernal magic, and I’m a dryad. It’s called the Circles of Interaction, Juniper explained it to me. Works like a charm!”
“Indeed,” he acknowledged. “There’s a time for bold action, after all. Well done. So now,” he added, turning to frown around at the darkened campus, “what else is going on? This doesn’t feel to me like the whole plan. The Sleeper we faced last night would do something more grandiose, and more…well thought out.”
“I dunno about that second one,” she muttered. “This Sleeper jerk makes a good plan up front, but then he loses his temper and flaps around like a dumbass.”
Both spun to face the new vortex of shadows which formed before them, crackling with miniature lightning bolts; Ingvar nocked another arrow and took aim, while Aspen crouched in preparation for a lunge.
The instant a shape formed from the darkness, he loosed, and an instant later, cringed.
Fortunately, she caught it, which gave him pause. He’d have expected the arrow to bounce off an arcane shield, but Tellwyrn just gave it a critical look and tossed it back to him. “Quick reflexes there, Ingvar.”
“Professor!” he blurted. “I’m sorry—”
She waved him off. “No time, it was a wise reaction, and I know exactly how that thing looks. I’m sorry, but there’s a mess on my mountain that’s designed to interfere with scrying and teleportation. I can work around it, but it’s not pretty. Anyway. You two are all right?”
“We’re just dandy,” Aspen reported. “How’s everybody else? Those katzils only just started coming at us.”
“Is this happening everywhere? Are others being attacked?” Even as he asked, Ingvar pondered her last trick. Any elf would be fast enough to catch an arrow, but no elf should have the physical strength. A shaft fired from a longbow at that range would be moving with tremendous force.
“I’ve got Alaric and some helpers working to push through the haze and get accurate scrying,” Tellwyrn said, scowling, “but for now, my own senses suffice to take me to where active summons are going on. There aren’t enough of those to cover the whole campus or even most of the student body; Fedora thinks the Sleeper is targeting everybody who stood up to him yesterday. I diverted here to grab some more personnel before heading to Rafe, because I’m confident he can defend himself.”
“Ah, good idea,” Aspen said. “If he’s out for revenge, clustering us together’ll bring him. I don’t think the actual Sleeper was, like, here. This way we don’t have to chase his ass all over the mountain, hopefully.”
“Smart girl,” Tellwyrn said thoughtfully. “Which represents great personal growth since the last time you were here.”
“Well, you don’t have to be a jerk about it.”
“How can we help?” Ingvar asked.
“Hold tight,” Tellwyrn replied, raising a hand. “This feels about as icky as it looks.”
That wasn’t a word he would have chosen, but it sufficed, Ingvar decided as shadows swirled around them. A moment later, though, they receded, leaving the three of them standing in a room he did not recognize. It was a mess, splattered with various fluids, the walls marred by scorch marks and the splinters of wrecked furniture. Most surfaces practically sparkled with shattered glass.
“Admestus!” Tellwyrn exclaimed. “Are you all right?”
“Ah, Arachne,” Rafe said in an uncharacteristically mournful tone, turning to nod distractedly at her without lifting his gaze from the bottle he held. “I’m afraid I have to report total failure. The Sleeper’s little projection shadow avatar thingy wrecked the whole day’s work. All Fedora’s samples, pfft!” He paused, pursing his lips thoughtfully. “Actually, in hindsight, it was more of a fwoosh.”
“Okay, that’s bad,” Tellwyrn said impatiently. “But if you’re still standing, it clearly wasn’t a total failure. And my question stands. Are you all right?”
“How can you ask me that?” he practically wailed. “Rafe is undone! Thwarted! Foiled! My staggering intellect brought to naught by a few fireballs and shadowbolts and a really nifty cloud of something corrosive that I wish I’d managed to get a sample of! Woe, Arachne, woe unto—”
“Oh, stop it,” she said in disgust. “It’s a shame about the evidence, but I had my doubts about that whole enterprise to begin with. Everything in here but you was replaceable.”
“That’s true,” he acknowledged. “Ain’t nothin’ like Rafe but Rafe, baby.”
“Was the Sleeper himself here?” Aspen demanded.
“Hm? Oh, no, it was one of those shadow projections. Oh, which reminds me!” Suddenly grinning, Rafe held up the bottle to show them. The gaseous substance inside was purplish-black and glowed faintly; Ingvar had the strangest feeling it was glaring at him, which became somewhat less strange at Rafe’s next words. “I captured it! Think Fedora can do something with this?”
“I hear no sounds of approach,” Szith said tersely, “but if the Sleeper is paying the slightest attention to either of the escape routes she wished us to take, she will notice that. Sooner than later.”
“Aye, specially with us suddenly disappearin’,” Maureen added. “Not hard t’figure we went into the building…”
“You’re right,” Shaeine replied, turning to Teal. “I think a diversion is necessary.”
“I know somebody who’s great at drawing attention,” Teal replied, grinning and holding up a hand, her fingers curled to pantomime claws. “Iris, how you holding up?”
“Fine,” the witch grunted. “Almost there…”
She was leaning partially over the low wall lining the roof of the music building, Szith holding the back of her dress with one hand even as she constantly scanned the sky and nearby grounds for threats. Below, a trio of vines, thick as tree trunks, were steadily crawling their way up the rear of the building, screened somewhat from view from the paths by trees, but still easily noticeable. They sprouted leafy branches every few feet as they came, designed to provide easy hand- and foot-holds for climbing, as several of them were specifically not used to that. Their upper fronds had reached the third floor windows, not far below the roof now. Iris was breathing in low rasps, scowling in concentration.
Still no sign of demon pursuit. Another khankredahg had attempted to follow them into the building and was swiftly dispatched by Vadrieny, but the Sleeper apparently knew the music building as well as they. With the exits covered, he seemed content for the moment to wait them out.
“I assume that demon is still watching the side entrance,” Shaeine said calmly. “I haven’t heard it leave. Szith?”
“Good. Teal, don’t transform up here; let us not draw our foe’s attention to the roof, in case she has not yet noticed us. Go down to the second floor and attack from the window; make a show of attempting to clear out demons from the area. The more opposition you face, the better.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Teal said with a grin. “See you soon, love.”
“Count on it,” Shaeine replied with the hint of real warmth her public smiles held only for Teal. Szith turned her head, so ostentatiously expressionless her discomfort was practically palpable.
Teal swiftly lowered herself back through the trapdoor into the third floor below.
“I will be the last to descend,” Shaeine said, turning to the others. “My magic is best used defensively. Maureen, may I assume you are as skillful a climber as most gnomes?”
“Well, I dunno how many gnomes ye—uh, that is, yes. I can get up an down that shrubbery easy as me own dorm staircase.”
“Good,” Shaeine said crisply, nodding. “You go first, then, followed by Iris. Szith is undoubtedly our best physical combatant, but the Sleeper’s methods will need to be countered by magic. Between her witchcraft and my shields, we should be able to fend off a warlock at least long enough to make the Well, provided we secure a head start. That means stealth is still our first line of defense.”
At that moment, a streak of orange fire roared out from the side face of the building, emitting a furious scream, followed by a hoarse bark from the khankredahg as she landed on it.
“Katzils,” Szith reported, bending her knees to lower her profile. “Two, I think…not making for us. Good, they’ve taken the bait.”
“Then we are doing well,” said Shaeine. “Vadrieny has nothing to fear from any demon. Iris?”
The priestess nodded, drawing in a breath and letting it out slowly. “Goddess grant this continues as smoothly. We are nearly free.”
“Never fails!” Ruda said cheerfully. “Looking for Toby? Follow the sunrise where there shouldn’t be one!”
“Hey, guys,” Juniper said, waving at them. “You okay? You got hit, too?”
“In the library!” Fross chimed in outrage. “This Sleeper has no respect for knowledge! Infernal or other destructive magic being flung around would be seriously damaging to the books!”
“I guess that explains you being along, Crystal,” said Toby, nodding to the golem. “I’m glad you’re all okay. Have you checked on any of the others yet?”
“You’re the first we’ve found,” said Gabriel. “That light show you just put on was impossible to miss.”
“Yeah,” Toby said, grimacing. “Sorry about that, Juniper. I hope it didn’t…”
“Not pleasant,” the dryad grumbled. “I like it better when Omnu does it, he makes it so the light doesn’t weaken me. Still, you fried the demons. Seems like it was worthwhile.”
“How bad did you get hit?” Ruda asked.
“Just katzils,” Toby said, shaking his head. “Small fry. There were four of them, enough to be a threat to most people, but I was really only concerned because they spit fire and June’s vulnerable to that.”
“We are heading for Helion Hall,” Crystal interjected, “to find Professor Tellwyrn.”
“That is an excellent idea,” Toby said firmly. “If anybody can straighten this out, she can.”
“Mm. Yeah, walk and talk,” Ruda agreed, setting out up the path toward the next terrace up, but frowning pensively as she went. “Shit’s pretty wiggy, though. The Sleeper’s careful—I still dunno what to make of him pulling this shit while Tellwyrn’s right here on campus. At the very least, he’s gotta have some kind of plan for dealing with her.”
“I don’t think Tellwyrn is the kind of thing you deal with,” Gabriel said with a grin.
“There’s something wrong with arcane magic over the campus,” Fross reported. “I can barely detect it; I think it’s designed to operate on a level pretty well beyond mine. That’s probably aimed at Tellwyrn.”
“I would be quite surprised if any student spellcaster, whatever the source of their powers, could challenge Professor Tellwyrn’s mastery of the arcane,” said Crystal.
“Oh, yeah, totally, she’s got that down,” Fross agreed, bobbing affirmatively in the air in front of them. “The Sleeper’s not a match for Tellwyrn, there’s just no way, or he wouldn’t’ve been so much more aggressive in her absence. By the same token, he won’t challenge her head-on; it’d make more sense to try to trip her up and slow her down. Because you can bet she’s already working on this, and we clearly haven’t seen her yet. That’s probably what this is.”
“That’s a good point,” Gabriel said, nodding. “Several good points. I’ve got the girls fanning out to find the others, but no luck yet. Apparently no Vanislaads were summoned, so there’s not a lot they can do besides scout. Sometimes they can interrupt a summoning ritual if they catch it at the right moment, but nothing on that so far.”
All of them halted mid-stride, turning to stare at the familiar sound of Vadrieny’s aggressive cry. It was distant, far enough away that even the archdemon’s glow wasn’t visible through the intervening buildings and trees.
“Okaaay,” Ruda said. “New plan? Head for that?”
“She can take care of herself,” Fross said uncertainly. “Tellwyrn’s the one who can fix this… Oh, but I don’t wanna leave a friend in trouble…”
“I do not see a dilemma,” Crystal stated, executing a sharp right face and stepping off the path. “Professor Tellwyrn is undoubtedly already at work. It would be unconscionable to leave a student in danger. I, at least, must go render assistance.”
“Good,” Toby said with a grin, following her, as did they all. “I’ll feel better if we get the whole group back together for this, anyway. Odds are good Shaeine’s with her.”
They skirted the edge of Stew’s maintenance barn, seeing no sign of the groundskeeper in evidence, and emerged onto another path on the other side, overlooking a drop to the terrace below.
“Damn, she picks now to go quiet,” Gabriel muttered. “Did anybody happen to get a fix on—”
A pillar of fire erupted from the ground right in front of them, causing everyone to leap backward, several yelling in surprise. It passed quickly, though, and in its wake there stood a figure.
It resembled the shadow-armored form the Sleeper had taken the previous night—but smaller, leaner, as if this armor were more carefully and compactly designed. It also glowed a sullen red-orange, rather than deep purple.
The Sleeper shifted, planting his feet in a familiar combat stance, and made a beckoning gesture at them.
“I can’t imagine what you think you’re going to gain from this,” Toby said flatly, stepping forward to the head of the group, “but it’s gone far enough. This is the last time I am going to offer. Surrender, and—”
A bolt of lightning roared past from over his head, striking the Sleeper in the chest and sending him staggering backward, followed by a shrill bellow from Fross.
“SUCK PIXIE DUST, ASSHOLE!”
“All right, ye got it!” Maureen stage-whispered reassuringly up. “Almost there!”
Iris finally made it to the bottom, pausing to catch her breath. “I…whew. I’m gonna need a long nap and some food. That much magic and then climbing…”
“We are not out of danger yet,” Szith said, actually leaping from the vines to land beside them rather than clambering down the last few yards. “We will not be out of danger until the Sleeper is apprehended, but in the short term, at least not until we’ve made the Well. Vadrieny is still dispatching katzils. Shaeine, are you almost down?”
They all turned to look up the vines. No one at all was climbing them.
Iris frowned. “Shaeine? Do you see her?”
“Shaeine!” Szith hissed, staring upward, alarm leaking through her reserve. “…you two make for the Well. I’m going back up.”
“Wait!” Iris said, grabbing her shoulder. Above them, Vadrieny’s glowing form arced through the air to land on the roof. “Whatever happened, she can handle it. You’ll just be putting yourself in danger.”
“I—” Szith swallowed, clearly agonizing over the decision. “She is a lady of House Awarrion, I can’t just leave if she may be…”
“All respect, the archdemon’s a better bodyguard than y’ever could be,” said Maureen. “We’re in more trouble down ‘ere. Whatever we’re doin’, we do together, ladies. What’s it to be? Stay an’ check this out, or trust they’ve got it an’ head fer safety?”
“I…” Iris started to speak, then broke off, swaying. Szith reflexively caught her by the arm. “I’m sorry… Guys, I can’t. I’m so tired…”
“We move,” Szith said quietly, shooting a final, pained look upward. “I will have to trust—”
She broke off suddenly at the sound from the rooftop.
Fross’s next attack splashed harmlessly off the cube of translucent blue light which snapped into place out of nowhere around the Sleeper.
“That. Will. Do.”
“Professor,” Crystal said in obvious relief, stepping aside to allow Tellwyrn’s approach. The elf didn’t even glance at her, glaring at the imprisoned form across the path.
She stalked right up to the edge of the cage, staring at the Sleeper over her spectacles. “Well? Anything to say on your behalf that might mitigate what’s about to happen?”
The fire-armored figure turned to her, and executed a courtly bow.
Then it exploded.
Several of them shied back, though the only effect the eruption had was to turn the cube momentarily orange. Moments later, though, the fiery glow vanished, leaving the magical prison still standing there, now empty.
“Uhh…” Gabriel swallowed. “Did he…just…suicide?”
“Highly doubtful,” Tellwyrn said acidly. “We should be so lucky. That’s hardly in this fool’s nature, though, that much is well established.”
“Professor, don’t take this the wrong way,” said Ruda, “but is it possible he could’ve shadow-jumped or something outta your little box?”
“No,” Tellwyrn snapped. “No, this was another of those damned projections. The kid really is remarkably good with them; those are extremely hard to make using infernal magic. I am quite impressed, and on a certain level I regret how much I’m going to kill the little shit. For now, are you all—”
She broke off suddenly, cringing, and clutched her ears with both hands.
“Professor?” Toby said in alarm. “What’s…?
In the next moment, Juniper grimaced in discomfort, raising her fingertips to her own right ear. “Oh, no…”
“What?” Ruda demanded. “What the fuck is…”
At that point, though, the sound finally climbed down from its piercing origins into the register of human hearing. It was another moment before they could make sense of it, but by then it was too familiar not to recognize: Vadrieny’s voice, raised in a long wail of anguish.
“No, no, no,” Fross said frantically, shooting off in the direction of the sound. The rest followed at varying speeds, Tellwyrn fastest of all by teleporting.
Even she was too late.