Instinct could be trained, and in gnomish children, it was; a parent’s first task was to replace fight-or-flight panic with automatic decision making. Maureen did not even have to think about the situation or overcome her shock and horror. With a weapon suddenly pointed directly at her, she burst into motion, and the act of doing so snapped her back to cogent awareness.
She bolted to the side, whipping around the corner of the shelves and deliberately setting off in an unpredictable zig-zag course. Thanks to Arachne Tellwyrn’s peculiar sensibilities, the library was laid out in a deliberately confusing fashion; when complained to about this she either made vague statements about knowledge being the reward of effort, or just cackled. Now, the architectural obstinacy might have saved Maureen’s life.
The Hand came after her, of course, and she listened to his every step. He was fast for a human, but necessarily less agile than she, and not as familiar with the twists and erratic turns of the stacks. Maureen’s mind caught up, and she deliberately brought strategy to the forefront—both to survive and to push aside unproductive fear and grief over Crystal. Evading humans was often a matter of getting into places they physically couldn’t, and as per her Aphorisms she had scouted everything on the campus for usable scenery to exploit. The Hand clearly had better-than-normal senses, based on how adeptly he kept after her, but she stayed ahead. It became easier after she darted across the central aisle of the main room into what students called the Old Stacks, even though every wing of the library had been built simultaneously. Here, the bookcases were of a baroque style, built on tall, clawed feet that made a space beneath them which was very handy for hiding things in, or rolling under if you were a gnome.
Maureen went three rows back until she made the transition from marble to carpeted floor, planning as she went. Reaching into her Pack, she produced a length of iron pipe she’d found among the blacksmith’s scraps and not yet devised a use for. Hearing the Hand closing on her location, she took aim between the stacks and, in one of the basic moves she’d trained in from early childhood till she could perform it perfectly under pressure, hurled the object in an overhand spin.
It hit the carpeted ground and bounced forward end over end, almost as if rolling. The rhythm of its ends striking the carpet as they moved away closely mimicked the impact of gnome feet in a run. It was a standard trick and wouldn’t fool any gnome, but tall folk fell for it almost every time unless they were in the habit of chasing gnomes. And tall folk who made a habit of chasing gnomes did not tend to linger upon the mortal coil any longer than necessary.
She crouched and held her breath. The Hand paused, and then took the bait, heading off to Maureen’s right. Still not breathing and moving with great care for stealth, she slipped around the nearest corner in the opposite direction just in time to avoid his sight.
Silence slowed her, but not by much. In her first Youngling Games she had taken the ribbon for balancing stealth and speed, and though she was a wee bit out of practice, it remained one of her specialties. In a way, Maureen was the perfect gnome for this situation, having tailored her personal adventuring strategies for avoiding and escaping trouble rather than pummeling it. The powers of Hands of the Emperor were kept deliberately vague, but they were known among the Folk as beings who should not be taken on directly.
With her ears flat back, listening for pursuit, she detected the Hand’s awkward movements as he began prowling more carefully among the Old Stacks, while she slipped across the library’s main atrium toward its invitingly open front door, her softboots silent on the polished marble floor. Designed after wood elf moccasins, they featured untextured leather soles which could be slapped roughly down to create a sharp tapping noise on most surfaces; this made it all the more surprising that they could also, with a more careful step, be used to walk in near-total silence. Maureen’s great-uncle Tomkins had famously snuck up on a plains elf once.
Not until she had passed through the door and whipped around it to press herself against the front of the building did she indulge in a breath again.
It wouldn’t take him long to discern that she’d left the library. She should be putting space between herself and here…
This. This was exactly why her folks had sent her off to this cockamamie school, and why she’d wanted to flee weeks ago. It was a great education, great teachers, mostly fine classmates and already she’d made valuable friends, but… Light’s own goggles, she didn’t want adventure. A quiet workshop with a steady paycheck, that was the life, and gnomish sensibilities be damned. Now…
…now, her hand was in her Pack, and she only belatedly realized her fingers had closed around the handle of an arcane welding torch. The Hand’s modified weapon was apparently meant for short range, judging by the fact that he hadn’t fired it after her, or used it to destroy the stacks providing her cover.
Maureen wanted nothing to do with any adventures, but now her face settled in a grim scowl, and she drew the torch from her Pack. Life wasn’t about what you wanted, it was about what you did with what you had.
She had a murdering bastard and a welding torch.
Carefully, she peeked her head around the door frame, one ear extended to listen. The sodding great lummox had actually gone deeper into the library, to judge by the faintness of his sounds…
Maureen jumped and jerked back around, igniting the torch and stepping back. The towering figure just looked at it quizzically, showing no fear of a heat source meant to melt steel, then turned her frown back on Maureen.
“Scorn!” she hissed, shutting the torch off. “What’n—how’d ye sneak up on me? Yer the size of a barn! I didn’t know ye could turn invisible!”
“No, can’t,” the demon said, studying her quizzically. “I can do a thing that makes people to not notice me. It’s not easy though, lots of energy and total concentration needed. Also even harder here, where I am the world’s only Rhaazke. People notice me very easy. But we are told to evacuate to the Crawl and I am seeing strange men on the campus who don’t belong. I figure, best be safe. Looks like you met some, too.” She glanced again at the torch. “Best not, Maureen. Crystal will not be happy about fighting in the books.”
Maureen felt her face crumple, and she lowered her hand. “Scorn, Crystal…” Unbidden, the fresh images flashed across her vision again. Crystal rising off the ground, twisting in obvious pain, her metal plates stretching to reveal… Her eyes widened. “Crystal. That’s it. Crystal!”
“Hey!” Scorn exclaimed as the gnome scuttled back into the library. Maureen ignored her, dashing straight across the atrium into the stacks.
Almost immediately, he re-appeared in front of her, holding out his modified wand.
“You are not an Imperial subject,” the Hand grated, baring teeth. “If you surrender peacefully and provide intelligence, I can see—”
“Up yers,” Maureen snapped, dashing around a corner at full tilt. She came immediately to a silent halt—a difficult move, as inertia wanted to push her forward into a telltale skid or crash that would reveal her intentions to a pursuer. This, too, she had practiced.
Sure enough, the Hand came barreling around the corner right behind her, and Maureen hurled her entire weight into a pinpoint punch that hit the side of his knee. She felt and heard something important give in the joint, and he went crashing against the nearest wall of books with a howl. Before he could finish falling, she was running again.
Choosing a straight path this time, she made it back to her corner in seconds, eyes already scanning the ground.
Yes. There it way, lying amid a ring of scorch marks on the carpet, exactly where she remembered seeing it fall. While the rest of the golem’s body had been violently ripped apart, one piece had descended straight to the ground, glowing as if shielded. Cursing herself for not paying enough attention or connecting the dots at the time, Maureen dashed past, snatching up the rectangular chunk of what looked like quartz mounted in a bronze housing, and ran back for the exit.
Once again, the Hand blocked her path. He was on his feet, which was impressive considering that blow would have crippled an ordinary human (healing powers?). Also, his snarl was wider, and this time he seemed disinclined to talk, leveling his wand.
Maureen didn’t slow, and he didn’t look behind him. Consequently it came as an apparent surprise to him when his neck was seized by a single hand large enough to wrap the fingers around it fully.
Scorn casually picked the Hand up and hurled him away; he crashed to the ground a good ten yards distant, knocking over a bookcase in the process. Maureen never slowed, aiming to dart between the Rhaazke’s legs on her way back to the door.
She didn’t protest, however, when Scorn scooped her up in one hand and set off for the front of the building herself.
“Sorry if this is insulting for gnomes,” the demon grunted as they shot back out into the open. “Your whole stride is as long as the circumference of my grip and we need to get—oh, isn’t this good.”
They were indeed making much better time, each of Scorn’s bounds covering several yards, but now she skidded to a halt, claws tearing gouges in the grass.
“These’d be some o’ the ones you mentioned, then,” Maureen said quietly, clutching the piece of crystal to her chest.
“All right…ladies,” one of them men before them said, slowly eyeing Scorn up and down. “If that’s the right term. We’re gonna have to take you into custody, in the Emperor’s name.”
They wore uniforms, but not those of the Imperial Army, and really did not much resemble soldiers. All three were middle-aged at least; the one in the center had solid gray hair and a potbelly straining at his slightly threadbare coat. The man who had addressed them wore an eyepatch and had a thick carpet of stubble from not having shaved in at least three days. Altogether he looked so much like a villainous Eserite from a chapbook it was almost as if he was trying to. They all held staves, though, and two of them were pointed right at Scorn and Maureen.
“This campus is private property,” Scorn informed them. “We are students, and you are not supposed to be here.”
“Yeah, well, we’re actin’ on orders from his Majesty the Emperor,” the paunchy man in the middle stated, grinning. “This ain’t likely to be private property much longer, not that that’s for the likes of you or I to fret over. Now, we don’t have time to pussyfoot around, so this is your last warning. Come along quiet-like, or get shot down.”
“Ah, yes?” Moving slowly and very carefully, as if not to spook them, Scorn bent and lowered Maureen gently to the ground. The one with the eyepatch smirked and the man in the center grinned more broadly still.
Then Scorn, with a speed that would have been astonishing for her bulk even had she not just set them up with her slow movements, seized the two on either side of the little formation by their collars and slammed them all bodily together. The older one was knocked to the ground, losing his grip on his staff, but she hiked the other two up and, turning left and then right, hurled them with all her strength.
One slammed against the wall of the gymnasium two stories up and then flopped to the ground like a broken doll; the other clipped a tree in passing, which sent him into a spin. He vanished into a hedge a good thirty yards away. Neither had a chance to scream.
Scorn leaned forward over the remaining man, grinning more to display her fangs than because she was amused. Gaping up at her, he tried to crab-walk backward as her shadow descended over him.
“You,” she said, “and what army?”
“There’s the last two,” Yornhaldt said in obvious relief. “And…company, I see.”
“Now, Scorn,” Fedora said solicitously as the Rhaazke came to a stop before them, “a pet is a big responsibility! I know he’s cute and all, but are you sure you’re ready for—”
“You are worse than Teal’s friends!” Scorn barked. “You’re not the funny character in a story, and this is no time for your silly. We are invaded, and this fool will tell us intelligence!”
Her prisoner, who had been frog-marched here with both arms twisted behind his back and the wrists trapped in just one of her large hands, sneered and spat on the ground. Scorn ignored this, simply flexing her knees and helping Maureen clamber down from her shoulder with her free hand.
The gates of the Crawl stood open, and Professors Rafe and Yornhaldt stood to one side of them, along with Fedora. Moriarty had taken up position at the other side, staff in hand, and now focused his attention on Scorn’s prisoner, though he did not raise his weapon. That would have put both students in his line of fire.
“Fair enough,” Fedora said easily. “Fine work, Scorn. You got through all right, then? Any trouble?”
“I think the other two he was with might be dead,” she grunted. “This one seemed sort of in charge, though. He will have answers if any of them do. And Maureen saw the Hand of the Emperor.”
“Not telling you shit,” the captured man grated with impressive defiance, considering Scorn’s grip on his twisted arms now had him bent almost double. Judging by the way his knees were buckling, he wasn’t flexible enough for that position.
“Yeah, you will,” Fedora said cheerfully, “and you know it. Just a question of how long it takes, is all.”
Yornhaldt sighed. “We should continue this discussion below, then. We’ve done all we can up here, and apparently hostiles are overtaking the campus.”
Fedora scowled at him. “Professor, we can’t just leave the kids in—”
“We have no time, Murgatroyd,” Rafe said with uncharacteristic seriousness. “We cannot transport unconscious students across the campus while it’s under attack. The protections on that chapel are damn near absolute; they’ll be okay.”
“Nothing is ever gonna make me trust a passive set of magical defenses over having my eyes and hands on the scene,” Fedora growled.
“Yes, any defensive measures can be cracked,” Yornhaldt agreed. “But I activated the chapel’s wards myself and verified that they are all functioning. The time it would take someone to get through them is much longer than it will take Arachne to return, at which point it becomes moot. I don’t take risks with the kids’ welfare, Murgatroyd. I would not leave them there if they were not as safe as we could make them, but Admestus’s assessment of the situation is correct. You two are the last,” he added to Scorn and Maureen. “Bradshaw and Magelord Tyrann have secured the research fellows in their new meeting hall; it is apparently out of phase with this reality and unapproachable until the Magelord decides the coast is clear.”
“It’s in phase enough for him to issue taunts,” Moriarty grumbled. “Rook thought he was hilarious, which is proof positive of unprofessional conduct…”
“I don’t care whose feelings get hurt as long as he can keep the research staff safe,” Fedora said, grinning. “Truth be told, I like that guy. Did you two see Stew or Crystal? We directed them to the fellows’ hall, but…”
“Sir,” Maureen said miserably, stepping forward. She held up the slightly scorched piece of quartz. “Th-the Hand, he… He got Crystal. I salvaged what I could. This piece was…it was protected, somehow, seemed important. I’m just hoping…”
Rafe, Yornhaldt, Fedora, and Moriarty fell silent, and their faces changed in perfect unison. First sobering, then turning icy glares upon the prisoner.
“Serves you freaks right,” the man grated.
“I don’t recognize that uniform,” Fedora commented flatly. “Looks like House livery, though. Whom do you serve, soldier?”
“You deaf?” he spat. “You’re not getting shit out of me!”
“I respect that,” Fedora replied, nodding. “Scorn, please break his arms.”
“WaitwaitwaitwaitWAIT!” the soldier squalled, growing progressively more shrill as Scorn tightened her grip. “Stop, I’ll talk!”
“Oh, splendid,” Fedora said pleasantly. “Last Rock University thanks you for your cooperation. We’ll get to that in just a moment, though, there’s something we need to do, first. Scorn, I believe I just gave you a task.”
She grinned and tightened her grip again.
“Desist,” Yornhaldt said flatly over the man’s renewed yowling. “Enough, Scorn. And you ought to know better,” he added to Fedora, who shrugged.
“Tellwyrn would think it was funny.”
“She isn’t here. Carry on your interrogation without undue violence, please. Maureen,” he added in a gentler tone, giving her a smile. “May I see that?”
Swallowing heavily, Maureen stepped up to him, raising the piece of crystal in both hands. Yornhaldt took it from her with extreme care, slowly turning it over in his grip, studying it from all sides with a pensive frown. Behind him, Fedora had leaned in to speak to their prisoner in a low tone, while Scorn kept him firmly pinned and Rafe looked on. Moriarty, apparently considering all this under control, constantly scanned their surroundings, holding his staff ready to be upraised.
“You did very well,” Yornhaldt said at last, smiling at her. “You said this piece looked protected?”
“Aye, she…” Maureen paused and had to swallow again. “He used some kind o’ energy-overloadin’ device on ‘er. Just…it just pumped power straight into ‘er, till she swelled up an’ couldn’t take it.”
“Part of the magekiller’s toolkit,” Yornhaldt said soberly. “A standard wand’s shots are no match for a standard wizard’s shield, but that modification works exactly as you describe. Most spells will go off explosively if fed too much power. It has its drawbacks, like the short range and very limited charge, but I can see how someone like Crystal would be exceptionally vulnerable to it. Please, go on.”
“Aye, well… She exploded, Professor. Bits went just…all over. ‘cept that piece, it kinda floated down. I… I was near panickin’ at the time, this happened right in front o’ me an…”
She trailed off, and Yornhaldt transferred the last piece of Crystal to one of his thick hands, so he could lay the other gently upon her shoulder. Maureen drew in a steadying breath and raised her head again.
“But when I paused fer thought, I remembered seein’ it. That bit, there, was mostly protected from the blast. Obviously she was made with interior defenses to preserve that in case o’ some disaster, so I thought… Well, I mean, I hoped.”
Yornhaldt nodded. “The enchantments upon this are beyond me, Maureen, but I can tell it is a data storage device of astounding complexity and depth. If there were any piece that could contain Crystal’s memory and personality, I should think this is it.”
“Then… Then she’ll be okay?” Maureen asked tremulously, hope rising in her. “We can fix ‘er? Well, I mean, Tellwyrn can?”
“I was not part of Crystal’s construction,” he cautioned, “and I do not understand these enchantments. I won’t promise you any outcome, Maureen. But it’s just as I said: if there is any part from which Arachne can restore Crystal, this is it. You did the best thing possible by retrieving it. Here: please keep this safe until this crisis is resolved.”
“Oh, but,” she protested as he held the object out to her. “Shouldn’t you hang onto it? Wouldn’t that be better?”
“Until we have secured the campus and Professor Tellwyrn is back,” he said, “my job will be to defend the students from whoever attacks them, and yours will be to stay safe. She is better off with you, Maureen. You have amply proved that already.”
Reverently, she accepted the crystal back from him and hugged it to her chest, nodding. Her throat was suddenly too tight to speak.
Then, the quiet was rent by a sharp crack, followed by a scream of pain, and then sobs.
Yornhaldt whirled to glare at the prisoner, who now hung limply from his captor’s clawed hands.
Holding the man’s un-broken arm in one hand, she pointed with the other at Fedora. “He told me to.”
Fedora pointed at Rafe. “Admestus said I could!”
“’strue, I did,” Rafe agreed. “C’mon, if we decide he doesn’t deserve to suffer, we can always fix him. Ooh, or I can do experiments on him! Arachne never lets me test potions on the students!”
The paunchy man wailed louder.
“Anyway,” Fedora said, raising his voice, “we did learn some—”
“Sir!” Moriarty barked. “Movement ahead! Multiple incoming, wearing the same uniform as this guy.”
“All right, enough,” Yornhaldt snapped. “Everybody into the Crawl. It seems our battle has just begun.”