“I warn you,” the man on the crates said, his voice rising, “we will defend ourselves if need be! Lay down your weapons and state who you are, and what you’re doing here!”
Ruda grasped the hilt of her rapier, but Toby placed his own hand on the pommel before she could draw it.
“We were teleported here against our will,” he stated, his voice not upraised but projected well enough to be audible to all the armed onlookers. “Sorry for intruding like this, but you probably know it’s dangerous to ‘port someone into a storm. I guess we should be grateful that purple guy bothered to find us an indoor space at all.”
The speaker lowered his arms fractionally, squinting down at them. None of the surrounding people lowered their own weapons.
“Purple…guy?” he said after a momentary pause.
“Oh, man is it a long story,” Gabriel chimed in. “Seriously, you wouldn’t believe most of it anyhow. Didn’t you say you guys were the Infinite Order? As in, the Rust people?”
“That…is not a name we prefer,” replied the speaker. His tone seemed calmer now, at least. “For the last time, put those weapons down. If you truly mean no harm, you’ll come to none here. We always offer shelter during storms to those in need. But you can’t just teleport in here, heavily armed!”
“Everyone else is armed,” Fross pointed out.
“I don’t know you people, and—is that a pixie?”
“Yes, I am a pixie, and I prefer not to be referred to as ‘that,’” she said irritably.
“My name’s Toby.” His voice was the same: calm, low, but spoken from the diaphragm with a strength that cut through the burgeoning argument. “These are my friends, and we actually don’t have any business with you. If you’d kindly just make a path to the nearest door, we’ll be out of your hair.”
“Daksh?” said someone from the surrounding crowd. “Maybe we ought to let them out. If they’re here by accident, letting ’em leave solves the problem.”
This earned a few mutters of agreement, but another voice piped up in response. “You can’t be serious! Tonight of all nights, you’re gonna let armed adventurers just wander off?”
“Peace, Sayur,” the man on the improvised dais said quellingly, but his critic didn’t so much as pause.
“What if they’re out to interfere? I say we disarm them and hold them!”
The mutters this time were louder, and several people on the front of the crowd pressed forward. The whole throng began moving; the group had landed in a clear space between them and the dais, but now people at the edges started creeping forward on the sides to fully surround them.
“Don’t,” Milady said sharply. “Please, stop.”
“Hey, you guys with the staves might wanna refrain,” Principia added in a more aloof tone. “You don’t encircle someone with ranged weapons in close quarters, guys. You’re just setting up a crossfire that’ll kill your friends.”
“Is that a threat?” someone from the crowd snapped.
“Enough!” Daksh shouted. “All of you, cut it out. The elf is correct, back up with those things. You lot, I’m afraid this has already gone too far. You will now be disarmed.”
“Uh, Daksh?” someone else said warily. “I don’t know. I think that’s a dryad.”
“Yes, I am,” Juniper said, raising her hand.
“Question!” Ruda lifted her own. “What makes tonight special? And a follow-up, if I may: if you guys are the Rust, where’s all the people with the metal pieces?”
Silence fell, all mutterings cut off. Wind howled around the building, and a flicker of lightning through the windows cast a brief, eerie illumination over the scene. Now the faces around them had gone grim. Grips on weapons were adjusted, and no one moved to retreat by an inch.
On the dais, Daksh sighed. “I suppose that tears it. If you truly are here by accident and not to interfere with us, I will owe you all an apology. But for now, we must be certain. Vishal, collect their weapons.”
“Don’t do it,” Milady warned, her eyes wide with obvious fear. “Please, you need to step back.”
This only made the man who came forward focus on her first. He was an unremarkable-looking Punaji man, in a somewhat threadbare greatcoat over a workman’s clothes, and holding a wand which he now trained on her.
“I apologize, miss,” he said in a deep voice, “but with garments like that, I will need to search you. I will have a woman do it if you prefer, but right now I need you to place your hands on top of your head.”
“Don’t,” she repeated shrilly.
“Hey, easy,” Principia murmured, touching the back of her cloak.
“She’s got a point, though,” Ruda snorted. “I’m already tired of pretending to indulge these yahoos.”
“When we stop pretending to indulge them,” Toby said in a low tone, “a lot will inevitably die. I would rather have as little blood on my hands as possible. Rebellious or not, these are your people, Ruda.”
“Now, please,” Vishal said in a louder tone, straightening his wand arm. “I have to insist. Hands on your heads, all of you. I do not want blood on my hands, either.”
“Don’t point that at me,” Milady hissed. “Put it down.”
“You are making it impossible to believe your good intentions,” the man replied. “I will not ask you again.”
In a tiny movement almost impossible to notice in the dim warehouse, his index finger moved to rest on the clicker.
Milady surged forward with nearly elven speed. Vishal fired the wand by sheer reflex, and the impact of the lightning bolt on her shield charm at that range overloaded it in one hit, causing a blue flash that momentarily blinded everyone nearby.
Toby’s reflexes were only a hair slower; even as he blinked away the aftereffects of that arcane pulse, he brought down a golden hemisphere over the group. Over most of them, at any rate; Milady was already outside its radius.
Somehow, during the second they had all been blinded, Vishal had ended up on the floor with his head twisted the wrong way, and Milady had flung herself bodily into the crowd, where she immediately began proving Principia’s warning. The suddenly panicking Rust sympathizers tried to turn on the whirling dervish in their midst, swinging swords and discharging firearms, and haplessly destroying each other while she darted, untouched, through them.
Immediately, the warehouse was full of screams and lightning bolts, creating a havoc which drowned out even the storm.
Toby gritted his teach, squeezing his eyes shut in concentration. The divine shield over them continued to ripple and spark as it was repeatedly struck by arcs of electricity.
“Fross,” he grated, falling to one knee, “help.”
“Helping!” the pixie shouted, and zipped straight upward. Her silver glow flickered, let out a pulse of light, and somehow she phased through the shield to hover above it, where she immediately began spraying arcs of pure ice in a circle. Her work was frequently interrupted by the need to replace pieces of the growing wall as they were pulverized by staff shots, but within moments she had them encased in most of an igloo.
“What the hell was she thinking?” Ruda exclaimed, trying to peek through a hole blasted in the ice wall before Fross quickly refilled it. The pixie had stopped building the wall a few feet above head height, to focus on repairing the damage caused by all the violence going on.
“That looked like a panic reaction,” Juniper said, then hurriedly jumped away as a body slammed into the wall next to her. Between the ice and the golden shield, it was nothing but a vague shadow.
“I don’t think so,” Principia started to add, cutting off at another explosion of lightning and ice near her head.
“Can I help, Toby?” Gabriel asked. “I can barely make a divine shield over myself, but I think I can feed you more energy?”
“Thanks, I think we’ve got it,” Toby replied, his voice much less strained. “I’ve been practicing, but I’m still not Shaeine. Fross is doing most of the work now; I’m just keeping this up in case two shots hit in the same spot before she can patch it.”
“Okay, well, Milady’s ass is dead,” Ruda said bluntly. “In a couple more seconds this is gonna stop and any of the Rust who’re still alive will not be in a surrendering mood. Arquin, since that staff of yours is so much more destructive than any of us realized until an hour ago, how wide can you swing it?”
“This is a divine weapon, Ruda,” he retorted. “Just because it can murder people in large numbers doesn’t mean it’s going to. Do you know what happens when paladins abuse their god-given powers? Because I’ve had that made extremely clear to me, and trust me, you don’t wanna be standing nearby.”
“Goddammit, Arquin, do you think I wanna see all these tax-paying assholes reduced to chum right in front of me? I don’t have time for your squeamishness, those machine fuckers are off doing something right now, and—”
“Kids!” Principia said sharply. “Shush.”
In fact, relative quiet had descended. The storm still raged, but the only lightning was from outside, now. Wind and water were blowing into the warehouse through multiple holes shot in its walls, but it seemed the violence was over.
“Uh, guys?” Fross said quietly from above them. “I think you can come out now. This is… You’ve gotta see this yourselves.”
They glanced at each other warily, but Toby finally let the shield drop. Gabriel raised his wand overhead, fully extending it into scythe form, then lightly brought it down to tap the upper edge of the ice wall. Immediately the entire thing crumbled to fragments, many no bigger than snowflakes. No one bothered to focus on this display, however, as they all stared around the warehouse.
It was in ruins, obviously, thanks to all the wild shooting. The smells of ozone, burning wood and scorched flesh hung heavy in the air, as did the groans of the wounded. Those of the cultists not dead were huddled around the edges of the room, sheltering behind any piece of furniture they could find. There was no telling how many had managed to hide, but at least twenty were dead or dying.
In the middle of the floor, Milady was curled up into a ball with arms around her knees, rocking back and forth on her heels, heedless of the blood squelching under her, and sobbing quietly.
“What,” Ruda whispered, “the fuck.”
The action on the bridge had calmed considerably. The warlock’s fog still hung over the Grim Visage, but his summoning installations had all been destroyed by stray staff fire or petered out by now, and with the lack of anything to shoot at, the soldiers perched in the great face’s eye-windows seemed to have grown tired of wearing down their power crystals. Between the fog and the patchy layer of charcoal littering the bridge attesting to all the minor demons which had died there, the scene was even creepier than the Crawl ordinarily had to be.
But at least, for the moment, it was calmer.
“All right, fuck this, I’m out,” proclaimed one of the Dalkhaan House guards clustered nervously at the base of the stairs. Shouldering his staff, he turned and began climbing.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going, Carsten?” another snarled. “The fuck I’m sittin’ here while you fuck off to—”
“Then quit your bellyachin’ and come with, Faisal,” the first man snapped, pausing and half-turning to glare down at him. “This is bullshit. We were told we’d be chivvying some disobedient college kids into order, breaking up a protest or some piddly crap like that. I never signed up for demons and warlocks and adventurers and fucking dungeon delving. This shit gets guys like us killed! And that Hand of the Emperor is so fucking crazy you can smell it on him. No, fuck this. I am out.”
He turned again and began stomping off up the staircase once more. Amid the nervous muttering from the soldiers left behind, a couple more shifted in the direction of the opening above.
All froze, however, when Captain Cross suddenly stepped around the corner ledge. Without saying a word, he snatched the staff held by the nearest soldier, planted himself at the base and took aim up the staircase.
“Carsten!” one of the men shouted.
Before Carsten could even turn again, Cross shot him in the back.
At that range, the firepower of a battlestaff was inescapably deadly. Carsten was flung about five more steps upward by the impact, losing his grip on his own weapon. Upon landing, though, he began rolling back down the steps.
Men pressed and shuffled out of the way, making no move to intercept the body that came tumbling down. Carsten’s corpse finally slid to a stop at the bottom, right before Cross’s boots. His staff bounced a couple of times before rolling the rest of the way, and came to a rest with one end atop its erstwhile owner.
Cross neatly transferred his weapon to one hand, nudged a toe under Carsten’s battlestaff, kicked up upward and caught it.
“Well?” he said grimly. “Anybody else wanna take a walk?”
Shocked silence answered him. A moment later, the assembled men flinched back as a couple more lightning bolts blasted outward from the Visage, those within apparently having heard the staff fire. Passing through the Fog of War, none of them went near the bridge. Even so, the troops huddled backward away from the noise, with the exception of Cross. With his back to the incoming fire, he did not appear even to have noticed it.
“All right, then,” the Captain drawled after a sufficient pause. “New orders, boys: across the bridge and into the building.”
“Now, wait just a goddamn—” The man who’d spoken fell silent as Cross leveled one of the staves at him.
“I get where you’re coming from,” Cross said flatly. “Really, boys, I do. You’re a sorry lot of assholes on your best day, and I don’t tell you that enough. This is over your pay grade, and not what you signed up for. Well, tough titties, ladies. This is the shit we’re all in up to our necks. If we’re dumb enough to run, we’re traitors to the Throne itself, and there’s nowhere in the Empire for us to run to. So let’s have no more of that.” He disdainfully nudged Carsten’s body with one foot. “You get the urge to bolt, you just keep in mind that what you’d be running toward is a lot worse than what you’re running from.
“But here’s the good news, lollipops! The big muckety-mucks that Hand stuck us with want us across the bridge and in that building to hold the doors. That’s because that jiggery-pokery they were doing before was to convince the people inside that the sanctuary effect is broken—but it’s not. Serious violence is still impossible in the Grim Visage. So! You stay here, you might get hit by a stray shot, or whatever the hell crawls up out of the depths. You try to leave, you’ll have that Hand hunting you down and it’ll be a miracle if you live long enough to regret it. Right now, boys, the only safe place for us is right where we’re ordered to be: in the sanctuary zone, forming a wall of bodies preventing the students from coming through those doors. Once we’re inside, it doesn’t matter who those kids are or what powers they have: there’s not a thing they can do.”
He let that hang for a moment, then smiled thinly, raising his chin.
“So if you want to be certain of living through this, girls, get your asses moving.”
Another moment stretched out, while the men stared uncertainly at him, at the Fog, at each other.
Cross let out a heavy sigh, and fired one of his staves into the air. “MARCH! MOVE MOVE MOVE! DOUBLE-TIME IT, YOU MAGGOTS!”
At that, finally, they stumbled into motion, heading straight up the bridge toward the Visage. It was at a pace far short of double time, but at least they were going. Most of them cast wary glances at their captain in passing, but Cross ignored them, except to toss his borrowed staff back to the man from whom he’d taken it, just hanging on to Carsten’s.
“Never heard you cuss that much at one time, Captain,” a boy hardly out of his teens offered as he passed. “I think I like you better like this.”
“Son, I don’t give a damn. Move your ass and don’t you eyeball me!” With the last of them finally on the bridge and heading toward the door, he stepped onto the path behind them, chivvying them along. “Eyes front, you daisy-pickers! First man who so much as looks back at me gets one right in the butt! And I don’t mean like you do back in the barracks!”
Trailing along at the end of the loose straggle which no officer in any military would have deigned to call a formation, he allowed himself a wide, gleeful, borderline psychotic grin before schooling his features back into the more staid expression customary for Captain Cross.
“Shaeine, you will have to be our primary point of both defense and attack,” Ravana lectured briskly as they climbed the stairs to the uppermost terrace. “Of all of us, your magic alone poses a potential impediment to a Hand of the Emperor. Remember, we need not incapacitate him on our own, but if he arrives before we reach our destination—”
“I understand,” Shaeine said, adjusting her grip on F’thaan, who it seemed was growing tired of being carried. “With respect, Ravana, I don’t believe I require coaching on how to best apply my only combat specialty.”
“Quite right,” Ravana said lightly. “Natchua, you represent our most destructive form of offensive power, but do keep in mind that you are uniquely disadvantaged against this foe.”
“Yes, I know,” the drow snapped.
“I am aware that you do,” Ravana replied. “I don’t want you to think you are useless, however. If we are caught in a pitched engagement with this enemy, remember that our goal is to buy time and keep moving, and the capacity to destroy the landscape can be very helpful in that regard. Any disruptions or barriers you can create may tip the balance. Under the circumstances, I believe Professor Tellwyrn will forgive us for any property damage. If not, I will compensate her.”
“I see,” Natchua said, apparently mollified.
“Raolo, the same goes. You may feel your arcane skills less developed, but sorcery is very useful for creating barriers.”
“I will do my best to keep it in mind, your Ladyship,” he said gravely. Ravana half-turned while walking to give him a coy little smile.
“Addiwyn, feel free to use your tongue.”
“I beg your pardon?” Addiwyn drawled.
“You and I may lack magic, but keep in mind that our aim is to delay and befuddle, not destroy. If circumstances so dictate, that wicked little shiv between your lips may prove a useful weapon indeed.”
“You needn’t patronize me, Ravana,” the elf said dryly. “In this particular situation I’m fairly happy not to be included.”
“I have patronized you enough times, Addiwyn, that I would expect you to know the difference by now.”
“Okay, but this whole plan,” Raolo interjected. “I don’t know. You’re making some big assumptions…”
“I know things you do not,” Ravana replied, eyes forward. “Trust that I wouldn’t risk my own life on an uncertain gambit. You had the opportunity to flee; the time for questioning is past.”
They were on the wide lawn on the uppermost terrace by now, the space bordered by Helion Hall, the cafeteria building, and the astronomy tower. It was commonly used by students as a gathering place, and sometimes by faculty to hold public addresses. Coincidentally, it was at this spot last year that the class ahead of them had made their stand against the hellgate.
The walk here from the chapel ordinarily took minutes, but Ravana had led them on a circuitous route through the campus, avoiding the main walkways and relying on the elven hearing of her companions to evade contact with patrolling guards. It was hard to tell how many troops were present; she insisted that House Dalkhaan was tiny and couldn’t possibly have that many guardsmen, much less be able to spare enough levies for a venture like this to really pose a threat, but they kept having to duck behind or through buildings.
Natchua had suggested simply attacking any invading soldiers they encountered, but was overruled.
Since they’d not only left injured enemies behind at the chapel, but sent Reich specifically to get the Hand’s attention, it was reasonable to conclude they were now being actively hunted. This development had unfolded much faster than any of them had anticipated, though.
Now, there was no more room for sneaking; the stairways to the uppermost terrace were all out in the open, and they would have to cross the broad lawn to reach their destination. Ravana had not slowed by a hair, striding boldly across the green without glancing to the left or right.
She had to stop very suddenly when the Hand of the Emperor appeared right in front of them.
His arrival was like no shadow-jumping or arcane teleportation any of them had ever seen. Indeed, it didn’t appear that he actually arrived; in a way, it was as if he had always been standing there, and they had only suddenly noticed his presence.
They had to slam to a halt nearly within arm’s reach of the man, with an abruptness that might have sent most of their classmates reeling. They, however, were four elves and Ravana Madouri. They simply stopped, without loss of poise.
“Ah,” Ravana said mildly. “We were just discussing you.”
The Hand studied her closely, his eyes slightly narrowed but otherwise without expression. He was the same indeed who had come to visit Professor Tellwyrn in the days before most of them had been cursed, a man of ordinary olive Tiraan complexion, with craggy features and a balding head. Like all Hands of the Emperor, though, he had previously been silent discretion personified. Now, his very stance practically vibrated with tension. There was an intensity to his very presence that could not be taken as anything but a threat.
“You have been incapacitated,” the Hand said abruptly after considering them in silence. “I will not condemn any of you for what you do not know. Arachne Tellwyrn is guilty of treason against the Tiraan Empire—”
“Arachne Tellwyrn is not a citizen of the Tiraan Empire,” Ravana said smoothly. “She is roughly thrice its age.”
The Hand stared daggers at her, getting a placid little smile in reply.
“…and this University is to be seized in the name of His Majesty the Emperor and closed,” he continued finally. “Students are directed to vacate the premises. Unless you intend not to comply peaceably with this order, there is no reason you need be in trouble here.”
“It was Tellwyrn herself who once pointed out to me a thing which had escaped my notice before,” Ravana said mildly. “The foundation of all statehood is a monopoly upon violence. A state which cannot exercise the sole prerogative of force is not a state. By issuing a proclamation and orders which you do not have the power to enforce, you have struck a grievous blow to the legitimacy of the Silver Throne. For shame.”
By this point, his eyes were slits, and the tension in his frame had somehow increased further. Addiwyn and Raolo both took judicious half-steps backward, but the two drow simply stood flanking Ravana and staring flatly back. F’thaan had stopped wriggling in Shaeine’s grip, but growled at the Hand.
Ravana’s pleasant little smile did not falter for an instant.
“Your actions here will reflect upon more than yourself,” the Hand stated. “As representatives of the sovereign city-state of Tar’naris, and of the House of Madouri, there will be repercussions if you intend to defy the orders of the Emperor upon territory held by Tiraas.”
“Let me see this order,” Ravana replied. “I will obey a legal edict from the Silver Throne. Which, as I’m sure I need not remind you, are always to be available in written form when presented to a Head of House, such as myself.”
“I am a Hand of the Emperor,” he grated. “I speak with his Majesty’s voice! And I have spoken.”
“House Madouri stands with the Silver Throne,” she replied, smile suddenly gone. “Unequivocally. It is clear to me that you do not. I name you traitor, and I will not permit you to harm the interests of my Emperor.”
He held her gaze, boring down upon her with the full weight of his power, which seemed to hang about him like an aura. Ravana simply stared back—cold, haughty, supremely confident in her will, as if she were lecturing a disobedient housemaid. After a long pause, the Hand finally inclined his head.
“So be it.”