The Crawl shuddered.
The rumble was low, but it echoed through the vast slanted cavern, accompanied by the distant clatter of falling rocks and a few small plumes of dust that drifted down from above. And, moments later, by fearful mumbling from the ill-equipped soldiers gathered on the stone bridge which arched down to the entrance of the Grim Visage.
“Steady,” said their captain, his voice nearly as gravelly as the Crawl’s.
“Focus,” snapped the Hand of the Emperor a moment later.
Willard Tanenbaum did not lift his eyes from the great carved face that gave the Visage its name, despite the sweat dripping from his brow. “Sir… The Crawl is known to have a sentience of its own.”
“A rudimentary and diffuse intelligence, mechanistic and barely aware,” the Hand said curtly, also staring at the Visage. To the observers behind them, the two men seemed simply to be standing there, frowning; the subtle magic they worked made no visible effect, aside from the minor seismic reactions it was beginning to provoke. “Like a god’s. In fact, rather like a sleeping bear. Keep focused, work slowly and steadily, and don’t jostle it. We can finish our work and be gone before it wakes, if we’re careful.”
“Tiptoeing around a bear is one thing,” Tanenbaum replied, still without breaking his stare. “Carving a hole in the wall of its den without waking it, in the short time it’ll take Tellwyrn to get back here—”
One of the rough-looking soldiers cursed—in Glassian, oddly enough—and turned to bolt back toward the exit. He froze with a yelp, finding himself face-to-face with the Hand who had an instant before been in front of him, next to the warlock.
“So long as we are not incompetent,” the Hand said icily, staring at the would-be deserter without expression, “it will work. So long as we are not cowardly, we will not be summarily tossed off the bridge. Do I make myself clear?”
Another faint rumble sounded from the depths. The men pressed closer together, the one faced down by the Hand retreating frantically into their midst.
“Clear,” Tanenbaum said after a short pause. The Hand kept his gaze on the men for a moment longer, then stepped to the side, moving around them to rejoin the warlock.
“Sir.” The captain stepped out of the group to meet him. “The Duchess sent us for what we were told was a simple police action on a college campus.”
“Are you protesting your treatment, Captain?” the Hand asked quietly, a dangerous sibilance creeping into his tone.
The soldier did not react. He was clearly made of sterner stuff than the rest of his command, possibly the only one among them to whom the word “soldier” truly applied, though in most militaries he would have been considered too old for active duty.
“I’ll serve however I’m ordered, sir,” the Captain replied evenly. “And I’ll shoot any man who deserts right in the back before he gets ten paces, as we did in the old days. But I warn you, sir, this isn’t the old days, and this isn’t the Imperial Army, nor even the House guard that trained me. These boys are not a group I would pit against adventurers and monsters, or whatever else is coming outta there, sir. They’ll not stand up to that, no matter what you or I threaten ’em with, sir, begging your pardon.”
“It won’t come to that,” the Hand said, relaxing somewhat. “Keep your men in line, Captain; all they’ll be needed for is to keep the retreat orderly, as we’ll have prisoners in tow. I have all of this under control.”
He stepped past the officer, rejoining Tanenbaum, and no one who doubted his assurance was daft enough to voice it. Even when the Crawl rumbled another sleepy protest.
“You tryin’ to catch flies?” one of the guards sniggered.
His companion finished his long, luxuriant yawn before turning to give him a rude gesture, earning another coarse laugh in reply.
In front of them, a few feet away, Lorelin Reich lowered her arms, turned around, and stared at them.
“Sorry, ma’am,” the first man said unrepentantly. The one who’d yawned, at least, cleared his throat and straightened to a semblance of attention.
“Do you have any idea how difficult this is?” the priestess demanded.
“Not really, no.” He shrugged, and scratched the side of his neck. “No offense, I can’t actually see you doing anything. Just standing there in front of the door.”
She had, in fact, been at it for over half an hour now, standing and staring, occasionally making hand gestures. The campus chapel’s magical defenses were visible to the naked eye: the walls and door were slightly blurry, as if seen through murky water, and a few inches in front of that was an almost transparent layer of blue light, cast by an arcane shield. Lorelin’s guards, in truth, weren’t giving her enough credit; what she was doing had caused both of these effects to occasionally flicker or ripple.
Nothing of import had happened, though, and the two men were clearly losing patience. They were typical examples of the troops the Hand of the Emperor had found, which was to say, unimpressive. Neither of these was one of the aging House Dalkhaan regulars, but the younger, scruffier generation of hirelings whom very few Houses or militaries would have taken. Both were in need of a shave and some long posture drills, and one was so overweight he couldn’t button his uniform coat. At least neither had so much as leered at her. Fading and decrepit or no, Dalkhaan was still a House of Calderaas, and Calderaas was Avenist country. Men with such habits weren’t drawn to military service there. Not even a “military” slovenly enough to accept these dregs.
“Then take my word for it,” Lorelin said patiently, “it is difficult. I would appreciate it if there were no distractions.”
The man she was speaking to put on a mulish look and opened his mouth, doubtless to complain, but the yawner jabbed him in the hip with the butt of his staff.
“Sorry, ma’am,” he said, nodding.
She nodded back, and turned again to face the chapel. That was undoubtedly as much acquiescence as she was going to get.
Before she could even raise her arms again, there rose a shrill whine at the very edge of hearing, like a particularly large mosquito in the ear. It ended suddenly, followed by the complete disappearance of the force field around the chapel. A second later, the building seemed to solidify before them as it shifted back into phase with the world.
“Hey,” the yawning man said brightly, “it worked!”
Lorelin had her back to them and so didn’t conceal her expression, frowning at the doors in consternation.
Fortunately, she was standing at the base of the three steps leading up to those doors, and so was not close enough to be struck when they suddenly burst open.
Both guards raised their staves, one fumbling so badly he nearly dropped it, to take aim at the group who appeared in the chapel’s doorway. Two drow women stood at the forefront, one in formal robes and holding a puppy of all things, the other with a green streak dyed through the center of her hair.
A wall of silver light snapped into place across the top step. Lorelin shifted backward away from them.
“All right, hold it right there,” one of her guardians said. “Let’s not go and do anything rash, kids. You’re not in trouble, but you need to move off the campus, by the authority of the Emperor. Let’s lower the magic, nice and easy, now.”
“If you do lower the shield,” the green-haired drow said to her companion, “I can kill all three of them before they can fire.”
“Ugh, no, you can’t,” a female plains elf just behind her snorted. “All he has to do is squeeze that clicker—”
“Okay, that’s enough of that kind of talk,” the guard snapped. “You don’t want the trouble that’ll come from defying an Imperial edict, much less attacking troops operating under the Emperor’s banner.”
Lorelin shifted to look back at them, then up the stairs again at the students. Another elf, a woodkin this time, had pushed forward between the two drow, and whatever he had just conjured formed a blue glow from his clenched fist.
Of course, she was aware of the identities of everyone who was supposed to be in that chapel. What were they doing awake?
She held up a hand, and a golden sphere formed around the two troops, sparkling in the sunlight.
“There, see?” the more talkative of the two smirked. “You’re not the only one who can—”
Lorelin clenched her fist and the shield bubble contracted abruptly, slamming both men against each other. One discharged his weapon, which sparked blindingly against the inside of the sphere. It immediately widened again, leaving them staggering.
She clenched the bubble three more times in rapid succession, smacking the pair together until one of the staves cracked and both men were too dazed to stand unaided, then released the shield entirely.
One of them immediately flopped to the grass, unconscious from an unfortunate impact of his head against a staff. The other stumbled woozily, clutching his own skull with both hands.
A rod of pure golden light appeared in Lorelin’s grip. Not bothering with any further finesse, she lifted it overhead and slammed it down atop the distracted soldier’s head. The lightworking dissipated at such sharp contact with solid matter, but not before doing its job; he dropped like a sack of beans.
She turned back to scowl at the five students, who were now staring in confusion through Shaeine’s shield.
“I wish you hadn’t done that,” Lorelin said testily.
“Yeah, I just bet you—wait a second.” Raolo pointed accusingly. “You did that!”
“That chapel,” she said, “was phased out and shielded, with both effects somehow tied to the powerful fae geas laid on this mountaintop. I was tasked with cracking those defenses using my skill at divine magic, based on a very brief demonstration of how the geas could be interfered with. Frankly, I’m far from certain I could have opened that door if my life depended on it, but at the very least, I could have stalled for hours.” She held out her arms in an exasperated shrug. “But then you had to go and open it up yourselves! And now here you are, out in the open where he can get at you.”
A human girl—that would be the young Duchess Madouri—slipped through the cluster of elves to position herself at the forefront of the group.
“Stalled?” she asked in a tone of mild interest.
“All right, listen,” Lorelin said, heaving a short sigh. “It’s too complicated to explain the whole thing right now. Professor Tellwyrn is temporarily absent, and your campus is under attack. Most of your classmates have been evacuated into the Crawl, where they should be safe, at least for the short term. Tellwyrn will be back before too long, and I’ve contacted Imperial Intelligence. Help is coming. But for right now, with you outside the protections of that chapel, you’re in more danger than any of the rest of the students. You need to get off the campus, quickly. Don’t go to the town, the— He has allies in Last Rock, and didn’t bring them up here, so I know they’re waiting below. You’re college kids, I’m sure you know someplace in the area to hide yourselves from official eyes? Don’t tell me where, just get there.”
“Just a moment.” Ravana held up a hand in a peremptory gesture to forestall both Lorelin and her fellows, Natchua and Addiwyn both having opened their mouths. The effect was somewhat ruined by Shaeine’s puppy leaning over to snuffle at her upraised hand.
Lorelin blinked, and squinted. Was that a baby hellhound? Well…that answered one question, and raised a whole host of others.
“Who, exactly, is leading the attack on the University?” Ravana asked calmly, lowering her hand out of the puppy’s reach.
“There’s no time—”
“Natchua, are you able to send a shadowbolt through any shield she can conjure?”
“Not directly,” the drow replied with a tiny, unpleasant smile. “But I know a dozen ways to crack a divine shield in less than four seconds. Then shadowbolts.”
“You see, madam,” Ravana said in that condescendingly pleasant tone aristocrats apparently learned in the nursery, “all we know is that you were engaged in trying to dig us out of our protected chapel and have a predilection for turning on your allies. There is little ground for trust, here. You will have to offer more than vague hints.”
Lorelin let out a long, slow breath, controlling her expression. In the tension of the moment, she had actually not considered the sheer physical danger of her situation, but one of the drow was a fellow light-wielder of some skill, and apparently the other was a warlock. And, as Ravana pointed out, they had no reason to trust her. In this situation, they might well decide that blasting her was a preferable option to walking away.
Well, she’d handled worse. Unlike the Hand, at least these could be reasoned with. Hopefully. How much did they know? Best to play it safe, for now.
“About a month ago,” she said, deliberately glancing up the path to display nervousness, “the Hands of the Emperor began acting strange. Paranoid, aggressive, showing sudden magical abilities they’d never had before. Within a week they were back to normal, with the exception of one. He had been working with Tellwyrn on…your situation. Now, for whatever reason, he is obsessed with her and completely out of his mind. The Empire won’t acknowledge one of their Hands has gone rogue, so he is still acting with the Throne’s full authority until they can get here and put a stop to him. He is behind the attack on the campus, and is down in the Crawl with a Salyrite warlock, trying to dig your classmates out of the Grim Visage.”
She could tell already, even before she finished explaining: they knew. Ravana and Shaeine kept impassive, as she would expect from noblewomen, but Raolo and Addiwyn exchanged a satisfied glance and Natchua nodded slightly. Someone had not only awakened them with a fresh source of hellhound breath, but brought them up to date. Her instinct had been correct: trying to prevaricate would probably have led to a barrage of shadowbolts.
Belatedly, it occurred to Lorelin the only likely source of up-to-date intelligence and hellhounds who could get in and out of Tellwyrn’s heavily-defended chapel without disrupting its wards. Well, Shaeine was involved with Vadrieny’s host, after all…
“Listen to me.” She glanced once more in the direction of the Crawl, affecting subtly more nervous body language. “I realize that for students at what amounts to a school for adventurers, being asked to stand down is tantamount to a challenge, but you need to think strategically. This Hand is a complete lunatic; the only troops he’s brought are losers like these.” Lorelin nudged one of her erstwhile guards with a foot, prompting a soft moan. “The other Church contact working for him here is as wary as I am; I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s called for help, too. Fighting this guy will only escalate matters. There’s no actual way he can win here; all he can do is cause damage. Please get yourselves out of the area so you don’t become that damage.”
Lorelin stared pleadingly up at them. Had it just been the surface elves or Natchua, she’d have put on the mask of a reasonable authority figure, but the two noblewomen made it complicated. They wouldn’t acknowledge any authority on her part, and would be suspicious of too much earnestness. Just a touch of fear and vulnerability should hopefully do the trick…
“Well?” Addiwyn prompted after a pause in which they all just watched her, as if by staring hard enough they could read her intentions. “Are we trusting her or not? She did tell the truth…as far as we know.”
“Trust is a stronger word than I would choose,” Ravana said, glancing at Shaeine as if for confirmation. “But…yes. Fact-checking aside, she is correct on one point: escalation is a concern. An unstable man with the powers of a Hand of the Emperor can cause incalculable damage, not least because he will not act strategically. His very presence here proves this; there is no possible victory in assaulting the University.”
“So…we run, then,” Raolo said with a sigh. “Well, I don’t like it, but it’s sense. I know a place—”
“I will be proceeding with the plan I outlined for you,” Ravana said smoothly.
“Of course you bloody will,” Addiwyn muttered.
“Now, see here!” Lorelin did not have to augment the frustration in her voice.
“If any of you wish to follow the Vidian’s advice and flee, I will not judge you ill,” Ravana stated, stepping forward and turning to face them, the motion neatly placing her at the head of the group and physically excluding Lorelin from the discussion. “Mistaking strategy for cowardice is the mark of the defeated. It is only sensible to secure your welfare. However, the woman is correct: while the Hand cannot win, here, he can cause damage. Our classmates will be in the Grim Visage, and he will be interfering with the Crawl as he taught her to do here. If he can overcome the sanctuary effect, he will be in a confined space with a large group of people, many of whom are physically quite powerful. He will be taken down, but in that situation, it will inevitably be a bloodbath.”
“That is a big ‘if,’” Raolo pointed out, then craned his neck around Ravana to address Lorelin. “Hey, you! What are the chances he can actually do that?”
“…I have no idea,” she said honestly, pausing to think for only a second. “I don’t understand the magic involved, and I don’t know the capabilities of Hands even before they’re…interfered with, or malfunction, or whatever happened to him.”
“Very well, then,” Ravana said briskly. “I will proceed. I welcome anyone who chooses to join me and will not begrude any who would rather retreat. You,” she added, turning to indicate Lorelin with a curt nod, “will report to this Hand, inform him that we have broken out and are on the way to the uppermost terrace of the University to pursue some plan against him. That happens to be the literal truth, by the way, in case you are actually in his pocket. If he cannot get through the Visage’s defenses, we lose nothing by making him run around wasting time. If he can, this will save the lives of many of our classmates.”
“Except you will have a Hand of the Emperor after you!” Lorelin exclaimed. “If you’re expecting your warlock friend to help—”
“The imperviousness of Hands to warlock magic is precisely how it is known among the nobility that they are fae-powered,” Ravana said condescendingly. “Don’t you worry, I know what I am doing.”
“How did you know she’s Vidian?” Raolo asked.
“That’s Lorelin Reich,” Addiwyn sneered. “The one Arquin chased out of town.”
“I recognized her, yes,” Ravana said pleasantly. “Also, it is generally a safe thing to assume of a cleric who is as adept an actress as this one. Now, there is no more time to waste.”
With that, she glided the rest of the way down the stairs, turned right, and headed off up the path toward the upper campus. After the barest pause, the rest of her fellow Sleeper victims followed. Every one of them.
Lorelin watched them go for a long, incredulous moment, then threw up her hands in frustration, turned, and stalked off in the direction of the Crawl, leaving two bruised bodies on the ground behind her.
“Prince Sekandar, can I ask you to keep this safe for me?”
He sighed, but reached out to accept the scabbarded saber. “If you like, Szith. I’m never going to convince you to just call me Sekandar, am I?”
“I’m sure it speaks well of you, in your culture, that you make yourself so approachable,” she said, her face a mask of Narisian calm. “In my culture, the habit of excessive familiarity with one’s betters can be lethal. In a few short years, I will return there, and after Natchua’s…performance…I suspect my conduct will be scrutinized closely.”
“You don’t want that sword, then?” Scorn asked. “It is the bigger one. More powerful, yes?” The Rhaazke sat on the stairs, one arm draped over Maureen. Generally she didn’t enjoy being physically dominated by her classmates, but under the circumstances, Scorn’s towering protective presence was as comforting as Iris on her other side, murmuring to herself and rubbing some dried leaves between her fingers. They smelled pleasant; Iris claimed what she was doing would have a calming effect on the pub’s occupants.
The more than a hundred refugees from the University filled the place to capacity, and had already displaced most of its usual crowd. The tension could have been cut with a knife, but so far it had stayed relatively calm. Maybe Iris actually was helping.
“Do you recall when Matriarch Ashaele visited the campus?” Szith said, putting on one of her tiny smiles. “The guards she brought with her carried sabers like these.”
“Yes, I remember,” Scorn said impatiently. “Powerful swords, like I said.”
“Power is not without is disadvantages. This is a better weapon.” The drow rested a hand on the pommel of her short sword, which was still belted at her waist. “A saber must be swung in wide arcs, which handicaps it in close quarters, and makes formation fighting very difficult. For organized infantry combat, you want short swords—like this one, or those the Silver Legions carry. For precisely that reason, Narisian House guards are not permitted to own them. They may only carry the saber, which is a dueling weapon. Aristocrats and their protectors are trained in a ritualized style of formal combat which leaves them no match for an organized infantry. I am a soldier of House An’sadarr, sworn to fight for the Queen and Tar’naris. Thus, I have a weapon which is better suited to these tight quarters.”
“Interesting stuff,” Maureen said, nervously turning over the chunk of decorated quarts which was (hopefully) the heart of Crystal in her hands. “An’ Sekandar, here, is also trained in Narisian dueling?”
“Well, no,” the prince said with a smile, “but also sort of yes. Up here on the surface, a saber is more of a cavalry weapon—and Calderaan cavalry is rightly famous, if I do say so myself. We also have a dueling style which uses it. Probably not the way Szith was taught, but I can manage not to cut my own leg off, if this comes to a fight. Hopefully,” he added, turning to the drow again with a more sober expression, “it won’t come to that. If I understand how the Visage works, it can’t.”
“One always hopes battle will not come,” she said, shifting her gaze to the front of the tavern. “One always assumes that it will, and prepares accordingly.”
The doors were shut and had been barricaded with furniture, but Melaxyna and Fedora both perched on the second-floor windows which were set in the eyes of the great face that gazed outward at the Crawl’s entrance. Neither of them was putting on any pretense; though his rumpled suit, coat, and hat contrasted with the ragged piece of hide she wore as a dress, both were in fully demonic form, complete with alabaster-pale skin and crystalline eyes—and, more relevantly, wings and tails. These provided an aid to balance, as there was no actual place to sit in front of those windows, leaving them precariously clinging to narrow sills.
A sharp whistle turned every head in the room; Xsythri, Melaxyna’s hethelax henchoman, had clambered up onto the rail near the group on the stairs and was waving frantically for her boss’s attention.
The succubus heaved a dramatic sigh, then shoved herself off the wall and glided the short distance down. Fedora did not follow, but kept his head turned and attention fixed on their conversation, disregarding whatever he was watching outside.
“We’ve got a problem, boss lady,” Xsythri began.
“Wait, wait, don’t tell me,” Melaxyna said sourly. “We’re out of mushroom beer again.”
“Of course not, you know we can’t give that to student—no, dammit, worse than that! I just had to break up a little scuffle in the market room.”
Melaxyna’s lashing tail suddenly went still. “…how bad a scuffle?”
“Not bad,” Xsythri said, eyes wide and worried. “Very minor, just some jostling from being too close together. Somebody threw a punch and that went nowhere, cos of the sanctuary effect.”
The succubus heaved a deep breath, turning her head to stare sightlessly at the front of the tavern again. She couldn’t see out the windows from this angle, but by that time they all knew the Hand was out there with some of his new lackeys, doing something.
“Why’s that a problem?” Iris asked warily, opening her eyes and pausing in her soft chant. “Sounds like an inevitable little nothing, in a situation like this.”
Melaxyna shifted again to give the witch a long look, then abruptly whirled, wings flaring out for balance, and punched Xsythri in the face.
Her fist stopped an inch from the hethelax’s nose, a soft ripple in the air marking the sanctuary effect’s protection.
“Oh, nice,” Xsythri snapped. “That’s great, boss, thank you for your concern.”
“Yeah, so…we’re protected, right?” Iris prompted. “Ow! Hey!”
Melaxyna had struck again, this time lightly flicking Iris’s ear with a fingertip.
“The sanctuary effect,” the succubus stated grimly, “is absolute. All violence—all violence—is impossible within the Grim Visage.”
Under the demon’s stare, Iris stopped rubbing at her ear, her eyes going wide. Sekandar let out a long breath, and a soft growl rumbled deep in Scorn’s throat.
“But now,” Melaxyna said, again turning to face the entrance, “the effect is…relative. Whatever the hell that guy is doing out there, it’s starting to work.”