It was a most peculiar sensation, to become aware that she was dreaming. She drifted, while all around her the act of drifting itself petered off into more linear movement. Reality crystallized, the churned amorphousness of dream logic retreating as solidity intruded, and whatever she had been dreaming about faded away from the sharpening of her consciousness.
She had arrived, with no memory of the act of moving, at a peaceful little rooftop garden very like those kept by the wealthy in Tar’naris. This was not Tar’naris, though, but a vast cavern that seemed empty, its walls studded generously with dimly glowing crystal, and night-blooming jasmine and other flowering plants she did not recognize decorating the little terrace—plants which fared poorly underground. There was a table and chairs made of glass (the latter with embroidered red cushions) in a style she had never seen anywhere. One chair was pulled out invitingly, while at the other sat a woman in red.
“Hello, Shaeine, dear,” she said with a kind smile. “Please, have a seat. It’s high time we had a talk, you and I.”
Slowly, Shaeine stepped forward, settling herself into the proffered chair and scooting it up to the table, all while studying her new acquaintance. She was a drow woman with her white hair hanging long and unbound down her back in the classical style, and skin the shade of pure black that had become rare in Tar’naris. Only the very old still had the unadulterated bloodline fostered by the spider goddess of long ago; most Narisians had grayish complexions from thousands of years of slight but steady infusions of human blood.
Pure drow or not, the red dress the woman wore was a cocktail gown of a Tiraan cut, and her broad-brimmed matching hat in the Punaji style. The dress was low-cut, immodest by both Narisian and (to a lesser extent) Imperial standards. She smiled knowingly at Shaeine and began pouring tea.
The tea service had not existed a moment ago, and had not appeared. It was simply there, now, and suddenly had always been.
“This is a dream,” Shaeine said aloud, more to herself than to her…guest? Host? Whose dream was it?
“Quite so, dear,” the woman in red replied, nodding and adding three spoonfuls of honey to her tea, just the way she liked. “In fact, you are under the influence of an unnecessarily elaborate sleeping curse, lying with your fellow victims in the chapel on the campus of your University. And that, I’m afraid, is as good as the news gets. The chapel’s defenses have been activated, a most impressive combination of divine shields, arcane deflection charms and a fae effect tied to the geas upon the University that keeps it slightly out of phase with physical reality. Arachne is away from the campus and most of the rest of the faculty and students have been evacuated into the Crawl, while enemies close in upon you. A damaged, deranged Hand of the Emperor, gone rogue from his own government, leading a consortium of random thugs and a few magic-users he does not know were hand-picked by the Archpope of the Universal Church to cause maximum havoc to both him and poor Arachne. They will probably get into the chapel before Arachne gets back to stop them. Whether they can dig your classmates out of the Crawl is another matter. Have some tea, dear, you could probably use it.”
Shaeine accepted the proffered cup and took a sip, keeping her expression politely blank. “It sounds as if I have missed some interesting events.”
The woman smiled again. “You don’t believe me.”
“On the contrary,” Shaeine said diplomatically, “I do not rush to accept or dismiss your assertions. Either would seem unwise, as I don’t know who you are, much less why you are telling me this. Although… We have met, have we not? Yes, in Sarasio. You’re Professor Tellwyrn’s friend, Lily. Though you wore a different face at the time.”
“Quite so! I’m pleased you remember,” Lily said with a most un-Narisian grin. “I’m the Lady in Red; it’s a new thing I’m trying out. Do you like it?”
“It seems to suit you,” Shaeine said neutrally. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Oh, well, you know how it is. By and large I prefer to keep my distance from mortal events. You are different, though, now. I’m sure you are aware what must have happened when you were struck down by the Sleeper.”
“I imagine a number of things happened,” Shaeine said in her most careful tone, mind already racing after the implications of that question.
“True, true. I am referring to the only business that brings me here, dear one: family business. You will be pleased, I’m sure, to learn that your mother accepted Vadrieny and Teal’s courtship of you and, as is your people’s custom, immediately validated their adoption when you were cursed. Felicitations, my dear. I’m sorry I missed it.”
Shaeine managed a polite nod, her throat suddenly too tight to speak, which went perfectly with the sudden pressure in her chest. Goddess, Teal, Vadrieny… It must have been horrible for them to see her this way. At least they had each other. At least her mother had embraced them into the family. She had to get out of this somehow, get back to them… And, when she paused to consider it, it suddenly seemed likely that her new acquaintance was leading in that direction.
“Your mother is quite the lady,” Lily continued in a light tone, stirring her own tea. “One of very few people who have fully understood what Arachne is capable of and got right up into her face anyway. And all without losing her composure! I was quite impressed.” She winked. “And I don’t impress easily. When one has seen as many things as I have, not many mortals still have any surprises to offer.”
Shaeine had raised her teacup to cover her near-lapse of composure with a sip, but now suddenly lowered it again, connecting the dots.
The goddess smiled warmly at her. “Welcome to the family, dear.”
Oddly enough, the surreality of the situation helped; it was easier to have tea with the divine queen of demons and maintain her public face while nothing around her made sense or even existed than it would have been with the full weight of her mortal frailty making itself felt.
“I must tell you up front,” Shaeine said politely, “that I am an acolyte of Themynra and will not alter my path. If you intend me to aid in your plans, I’m afraid I must disappoint you.”
“Shaeine, dear, please don’t take this as a personal rejection, because it isn’t,” Elilial said seriously, “but I don’t want you anywhere near my plans. Not you, or Vadrieny, or Teal. In the last handful of years I have lost six daughters and now gained two; I intend to lose no more. And that means Vadrieny’s role in all my grand schemes is indefinitely terminated. Not even a clever, determined priestess and a bard with the world’s biggest heart are a replacement for her six elder sisters; the events unfolding now are simply too dangerous. I didn’t come here to ask anything of you, but now that you raise the issue, this is the only request I have: keep them safe.”
“I would do that anyway,” Shaeine said evenly. “Not that I am able to contribute much in my current state.”
“Which,” Elilial said, her smile curling a little wider, “brings us to the reason for my visit!”
“I was under the impression that gods were…constrained from intervening directly. Or at least, dramatically.”
“Oh, pish tosh.” The demon goddess made a dismissive gesture, smiling benignly. “The only individuals who respect the Pantheon’s rules less than I are the Pantheon themselves. For heaven’s sake, Shaeine, you have personally seen Vidius stomping all over the mountaintop as if he owned the place. No, dear, godly restraint is simply a behavior we have all learned is better than the alternative. The more a deity sticks their fingers in, the more others do, and it doesn’t take much of that before the wheels fly off the whole thing. Avei and Sorash burned down half the world between them before Arachne put a final stop to that, just because their respective champions kept butting heads and they couldn’t leave well enough alone. Almost everything modern gods get away with stems from their capacity to show a little restraint. Eserion is by far the most interventionist of them, and that works because none of the Pantheon—or even I—can justify exerting divine force against what are, after all, just the actions of his mortal followers. Vesk, Vidius, Omnu, Verniselle, even Salyrene, they all keep their hands off nowadays, and it’s that very fact which enables their cults to flourish: no other god has an excuse to act against them. Like life itself, it is a game of actions and reactions, of choices and consequences, in which some of the players like to fluff up their egos by by pretending that acting only through intermediaries is some kind of moral virtue.”
Elilial grinned, lifting her teacup in a little toast. “Ah, but I see I’ve bored you already. I’m afraid you’ll have to get used to that, my dear; the hypocrisy of the gods is a subject upon which I tend to rant. Bringing this back ’round to the point… You’re correct, it would not be circumspect of me to interfere too aggressively. At the minimum, that would draw attention to my Vadrieny that she does not need. Already the agents of the Church are watching her, waiting for an excuse. You should be wary of that as well, dear. But!” She smiled again, and this time it was such a performatively sly expression that Shaeine barely repressed the urge to throw a divine shield around herself. “Even they surely won’t object to me giving my little girl a wedding present.”
“By,” Shaeine said cautiously, “for example, un-weaving the Sleeper’s curse?”
“You may consider this a divine revelation directly from the goddess of cunning, Shaeine dear: simple plans outperform complex ones every time. Each step or factor you have to account for is another opportunity for everything to go wrong. That’s part of the reason Arachne’s various minions have had no success trying to analyze and dismantle this curse in meticulous detail; what they need is a sword to cut the knot.” She set down her teacup and reached across the table to squeeze Shaeine’s hand; Shaeine, for her part, had to hastily squash the urge to draw back. Elilial just smiled warmly at her. “His name is F’thaan. Now go knock ’em dead, daughter.”
She broke off, gagging, as an impossibly wretched stench filled her mouth and nose. It was a melange of rotten eggs, brimstone, and hot metal; more than just a smell, it felt as if the stink had a physical force, pushing her back from the table.
In fact, she was being pushed away. Elilial’s knowing smirk receded, the whole scene around her growing chaotic and fuzzy, and Shaeine felt as if the smell were hauling her bodily upward through an ocean of thought and pressure, until—
Her eyes snapped open.
A furry little face was right in front of her, surmounted by a pair of shining eyes very like Vadrieny’s, pits of swirling orange fire. The sound of eager panting filled her ears; the hot breath in her face reeked like rotting demon flesh.
Shaeine winced and raised a hand to cover her nose and mouth, struggling to straighten up against the pillows on which she lay. At her movement, the little creature retreated, bouncing eagerly down her stomach to rest in her lap. She managed to drag herself up, braced on one elbow, to a reclining position, and get a good look.
It was a puppy.
He yapped excitedly up at her, bouncing on her lap, little tail wagging furiously. Coal black, he might have passed for a perfectly normal young dog, if not for the fiery eyes, and the blunt little nubs of horns sprouting from above them. At least now that he was more distant from her face, the smell of his breath wasn’t so overpowering.
Shaeine carefully reached down to scratch behind the little hellhound’s ear, and he let out another little yip, rubbing ecstatically against her hand and then licking at her fingers.
“F’thaan, I presume,” she said aloud, then cleared her throat. Her voice was slightly hoarse, probably from simple disuse. The puppy barked at her, and began clambering back up her chest toward her face. Shaeine hurriedly straightened the rest of the way up to a sitting position, getting a grip on him with both hands and tousling his ears while holding him down away from her sensitive nose.
He continued to squirm and wag his tail in delight, but after a moment allowed her to settle him down a bit. As long as he was being held and getting scratched behind the ears, he didn’t seem to mind being kept in place. That, at least, gave her the space to look around and find her bearings.
The campus chapel, of course, was familiar. Right now it was dim, the only light coming through its stained glass windows. It had also been thoroughly re-arranged, the pews pushed together and lined with pillows and quilts to form makeshift beds in which she and her classmates now lay. One of these was now so piled at the end with bouquets of flowers that it resembled a funerary display. If her own bed was any indication, though, there were subtler gifts left. Shaeine found that in sitting up she had displaced a number of flowers, notes bearing well-wishes from her classmates, and little talismans representing various faiths, as well as fairy charms. With a pained wince, she extracted a silver Themynrite blessing talisman from underneath F’thaan.
“No,” she said firmly when he tried to grab it in his little jaws. Somewhat to her surprise, the puppy seemed to heed her, settling back down into her lap to gaze up at her, tail still a-wag.
Still holding him, she carefully extricated her legs from beneath the quilt laid over them and clambered upright, then hopped lightly over the side to stand in the middle aisle, before the dais at the head of the chapel. It was a non-denominational space, lacking holy sigils of any faith; there was nothing but a slightly raised platform and an unmarked lectern to mark the front where an altar would be in other temples. From this position, at least, she could see into the beds and take a quick roll.
Natchua, Addiwyn, Raolo, and Ravana slept in pew-beds like her own. Apparently, then, she had been the last to fall victim to the Sleeper. Well, that was good, at least.
F’thaan barked again, craning his neck up to lick at her chin. Shaeine cringed, tilting her head back away from his breath, but obligingly scratched his ears again. He still wriggled with an ecstatic full-body wag at the attention, but seemed a bit calmer now. Adorable as the creature was, dogs and demons were both foreign to her; she had no idea how she was going to manage a fusion of the two.
“Now, you behave yourself,” she said, firmly but gently, looking down at his little face and evening her expression despite the smell of his breath. “This is a sacred place. It is probably the only Pantheon temple you will ever be in, as most priests will not share Professor Tellwyrn’s consideration for demonbloods. Don’t even think of defecating in here.”
He yipped at her and licked her chin again. Was there any chance he’d understood that? Just how smart were dogs?
Shaeine sighed and stepped toward the nearest impromptu bed, which was Ravana’s; it was the one piled with flowers to the point that the girl’s feet were entirely buried in them. Pausing to scratch behind F’thaan’s ear one more time in the way he seemed to like, she adjusted her grip on the puppy and carefully held him out, right in front of Ravana’s face. He eagerly licked the young Duchess’s cheek, panting in excitement.
Ravana’s peaceful expression vanished in a grimace and she twitched violently, rolling her head to the side. “Pfah! What is that?!”
“Hellhound breath,” Shaeine explained, withdrawing F’thaan and holding him against her chest again. “Welcome back, Ravana. We seem to be in a bit of a situation.”
“…so I gather,” the human replied, peering up at her through narrowed eyes. “I am quite eager to hear this story.”
“I’m afraid large swaths of it are unknown to me, but I’ve been warned of the immediate… Actually, let me wake the others, if you don’t mind. There is no sense in going over it multiple times.”
“Indeed, quite right,” Ravana said briskly, after clearing her throat much the way Shaeine had earlier. She set about climbing out of the bed, showing no more sign of stiffness than Shaeine had felt. Odd that the curse allowed the voice to grow rusty but left its victims to awaken feeling quite spry and well-rested. Or perhaps that was an effect of the hellhound breath?
While Ravana explored the piles of offerings left around her bier, quietly bemoaning her lack of shoes, Shaeine set about delivering the necessary but unpleasant dose of hellhound breath that freed each of the others from the Sleeper’s curse. Addiwyn’s first waking act was to snarl insults at her in elvish, though to her credit she looked quite abashed as soon as she was lucid again. Raolo actually yelped and leaped up, and probably would have gone over the side of the pew and to the floor had he not been entangled in his quilt.
She came to Natchua last, noting as she approached that there was another Themynrite talisman resting over her heart. These were crafted by House priestesses, and Natchua’s was identical to her own, decorated with ribbons in Awarrion colors. It was like her mother to be thoughtful enough to bring one for an exile, when apparently House Dalmiss had officially disavowed her. Shaeine carefully moved it to rest in the other drow’s hand before holding F’thaan out to breathe in her face.
F’thaan barked excitedly and licked Natchua’s nose. Unlike the others, she instantly drew her lips back in a furious snarl, snapped her eyes open, and sat bolt upright, forcing Shaeine to yank yer puppy back out of the way.
“CHASE!” Natchua roared, clutching the side of the pew with both hands. “You little bastard, I’ll—” There, finally, she paused, blinking, and turned over the one still holding the Themynrite sigil.
“Well, that answers one question, I guess,” Raolo commented.
“Which is a start,” Addiwyn said pointedly, folding her arms. “I find it odd that we are in the chapel instead of the infirmary, and the doors are both closed and barred.”
“Yes,” Ravana added as they all turned to frown at the wide double doors, which indeed had been secured from the inside with a large wooden bar. “Also that we are being revived by a fellow student and not a member of the faculty. My sincere thanks for the revivification, Shaeine, but I am rather curious why you chose to secure the door behind you.”
“And where under the sun did you get a hellhound puppy?” Raolo amended in a fascinated tone. F’thaan yapped excitedly, squirming around in Shaeine’s arms to keep everybody in view until she finally knelt to set him on the ground.
“Actually, I was cursed as well until moments ago,” she said. “F’thaan was a wedding gift from Elilial, who it seems is now my mother-in-law.”
They all stared.
“Veth’na alaue,” Natchua said at last.
Shaeine cleared her throat, shifting her head to keep an eye on F’thaan, who had bounded over to Ravana’s huge pile of flowers to investigate the fascinating scents therein. “Allow me to explain as best I can…”
Summarizing her recent conversation with Elilial went faster than the dream itself had, and also served to emphasize how little she actually understood of the situation. Shaeine finished, and then went to retrieve F’thaan, who had buried himself fully in flowers and begun repeatedly sneezing. The distraction was welcome; even her diplomatic training did not safeguard her against feeling awkward at having to deliver that painfully incomplete summary of the situation.
Fortunately, Ravana rescued her. “I do say that all sounds quite cogent,” the Duchess proclaimed, nodding sagely. “The campus coming under attack could really only occur in Tellwyrn’s absence, and withdrawing the students into the Crawl is a most reasonable safety precaution. While a number of our classmates represent potent forces themselves, the sanctuary effect of the Grim Visage would serve to keep them safe despite anyone’s best efforts.”
“I don’t know,” Addiwyn said, frowning deeply. “A Hand of the Emperor? Gone rogue? Inconceivable.”
“Nonsense,” Ravana said briskly. “The Empire has kept the means of the Hands’ creation and empowerment carefully secret, but I do know it was done through mostly fae magic—”
“How could you possibly know that?” Addiwyn snapped. “Nobody knows that!”
Ravana smiled primly at her. “I, as you are well aware, Addiwyn, am not nobody. I know many things of which the general public is not aware. My point is, it was only a matter of time before someone found a way to interfere with that craft and suborn a Hand. No plan, system, or spell is perfect; all have weaknesses, and all will eventually be exploited. Politically speaking, a renegade Hand of the Emperor is the perfect means of attacking a hot target like the University. The Empire will not be willing to acknowledge they have lost control of one, and thus will have to act with great circumspection to contain the situation, which prevents them from simply inundating the region with troops and strike teams as the Throne ordinarily would to counter a threat of that caliber. The same facts neatly conceal the identity of whoever tampered with this Hand in the first place, and enable him to cause havoc without risk to themselves. Truly an elegant attack. I wonder what is happening in Puna Dara?”
“You—Puna—what?” Raolo exclaimed.
“The last time a major disaster occurred upon this campus,” Ravana said patiently, “the current sophomore class refused an evacuation order to remain here and contain it, and they collectively represent a threat that even a Hand of the Emperor could not challenge.” She nodded graciously to Shaeine, who was holding F’thaan again and slowly stroking his head. This movement seemed to settle some of his eager squirming. “Given their power and disrespect for rules, and the fact that they would not abandon Shaeine to this kind of danger, obviously they were drawn somewhere else first, probably by a similar threat to loved ones. Nothing else would keep them away during a crisis like this. Most have no such mortal attachments, and woe betide any force which assaulted Avei’s stronghold in Viridill. Logically, then, something dire must be unfolding in Zaruda’s home to have fixed their attention away from the University.”
“Or,” Natchua said disdainfully, “they’re just off on a class assignment and don’t know about it.”
“I rather think even Tellwyrn would have had difficulty shooing Teal away from campus while Shaeine lay cursed here,” Ravana said with that prim little smile.
“Or,” Natchua repeated, curling her lip in a sneer, “since everything we know about this situation came from Elilial, it is all a pack of lies, because that is what she does!”
“I suppose you would know,” Ravana said pleasantly.
Natchua took an aggressive step toward her. “And what is that supposed to mean?”
“Whoah, now,” Raolo interjected. “This is not the time—”
“Why, simply that you are the other warlock endowed by Elilial,” Ravana stated.
“How dare you?!” Natchua snarled. “I should—”
“Hang on, now,” Addiwyn said suddenly. “How’d you know the Sleeper was Chase? He was Sleeped himself when the curse was cast on you.”
“A clever gambit on his part,” Ravana said, nodding. “It was known that Rafe had hellhound breath in his possession, thanks to me, so he could be certain of being awakened by the only such dose available. And applying the curse to someone by some delayed mechanism while he lay under it provided him an alibi. Yes, quite clever. Also,” she added with the hint of a smirk, “a personal encounter with Elilial is the only reason I can think why a Themynrite drow would carry the kind of antipathy toward her that you just expressed, Natchua.”
The silence which followed was tense enough to hang from. Natchua glared daggers at Ravana, fists clenched and quivering; Ravana simply smiled amiably back at her.
Ultimately it wasn’t either of them who broke it. F’thaan let out a yip and squirmed in Shaeine’s grasp, twisting up to lick at her face. She grimaced and turned her head away from his breath again.
Natchua, suddenly, seemed to deflate. Turning her back on the group, she trudged over to the makeshift bed in which she had recently lain, and carelessly shoved one of its two pews aside, causing pillows, flowers, and half the quilt to tumble to the floor. There, she sank down onto the seat and put her head in her hands.
“Has anybody ever told you,” Raolo said to Ravana, “you’re just a little too smart for your own good?”
“Why, yes, in fact,” she mused. “A man did say that to me once, quite shortly after I assumed the head of House Madouri. I had him executed soon thereafter.”
This time, they all stared at her directly; even Natchua lifted her head again to gape in disbelief.
“Well, not for that,” Ravana explained. “He was one of my father’s loyalists who’d been plotting to assassinate me. Not carefully, either, there was an embarrassing plethora of evidence. Really, what do you take me for? One cannot go around executing every person who insults one to one’s face. That is no way to earn the respect one requires to rule.”
“Anyway,” Addiwyn said pointedly, “have we decided we’re taking Elilial’s word for this?”
“I cannot think of any reason she would lie,” said Shaeine. “If she wished us harm, she could simply have refrained from acting at all. We were all lying here, terribly vulnerable, while enemies closed in.”
“I concur,” Ravana added. “It seems most reasonable, under the circumstances, to assume the warning was legitimate. In which case this chapel is defensible, but its defenses will not hold for long. We are apparently alone on campus, surrounded by foes of unknown type and power, and isolated from any potential help until Tellwyrn returns from her unknown errand.”
“We’re hardly helpless, though,” Addiwyn pointed out. “We have here a mage, a priestess…” She glanced uncertainly at Natchua. “…and apparently a warlock. In terms of firepower, that’s not insignificant.”
“Against a Hand of the Emperor, though?” Raolo said, frowning thoughtfully. “Not to mention whatever other help he has. Hand-picked by the Archpope, was it? Able to beat the defenses of the campus? That doesn’t exactly sound like small potatoes. I don’t mind admitting I’m not much of a mage. A rank amateur, to be frank. I understand Shaeine is extremely skilled for her age, and, uh… From what I heard…”
“I haven’t had a lot of practice or anything,” Natchua said suddenly, staring at the floor. “But theoretical knowledge? Sure. Virtually all of it.”
Addiwyn emitted a soft, incongruous laugh. “Well! Sounds like we’ve got three-quarters of our own little strike team, then. I don’t suppose anybody is secretly a powerful witch or shaman?”
She directed that last at Ravana, who started to shake her head, then suddenly straightened up, her eyes widening. A smile spread across the young Duchess’s thin lips.
“Actually,” she said, “that gives me an idea.”