Raolo broke the ensuing pause by clearing his throat. “Uh, point of order?”
The Hand transferred his gaze to the elf, who leaned around Natchua’s shoulder, raising a hand hesitantly.
“Was that ‘so be it’ as in you’re going to go fetch a copy of the Imperial edict? Or…?”
Addiwyn heaved a loud sigh.
The Hand’s expression was inscrutable, though he worked his jaw for a moment as if chewing something. Then the man lifted a finger to point at Raolo, opening his mouth to answer.
A gray blur appeared seemingly from nowhere, scaled the Hand’s frame like an accelerated squirrel, came to rest on his outstretched arm, and bit down hard on his extended finger.
The group shied backward as the Hand yelled wordlessly, dancing in agitation and shaking his arm, failing to dislodge the creature doggedly clinging to him.
“Quickly,” Ravana said in a bare whisper, trusting the four pairs of elven ears present to hear her clearly over the scuffle. She turned and stepped away from the agitated Hand, heading further up the lawn.
“Hang on,” Raolo protested, “we can’t just leave him!”
“We can, and must. Sometimes one must be strategic at the expense of—”
A squawk interrupted her. The Hand had managed to get a grip on his attacker, locking the hand being bitten around its neck while grasping the fluffy tail with the other, and brandished the tanuki overhead. Stretched to his full extent, Maru clawed fruitlessly at the Hand’s arms with front and rear claws, gasping for breath. Teeth bared in a feral snarl, the Hand of the Emperor raised Maru higher, and then brought him swiftly down, kicking his knee upward at the same time and aiming to snap the tanuki’s spine across his leg.
He moved nearly as quickly as an elf; none of them were able to intervene, and only Raolo managed to so much as cry out in protest before the blow struck.
And then it was the Hand who howled in pain again, having just slammed a four-foot-tall stone statue down on his knee.
While he staggered to the side, Maru burst back into life, assaulting his remaining leg with claws and teeth and sending the man tumbling to the ground.
“Be careful, Maru!” Ravana called, turning and setting off again at a run. This time, the others followed.
Most of them.
“Jump clear!” Natchua barked, gesturing upward with both hands.
The soil directly underneath the struggling pair erupted violently, sending clumps of sod spraying in all directions—and both parties hurtling several yards into the air.
“Izusi,” Shaeine snapped, skidding to a halt and whirling to hold out the hand not clutching F’thaan.
A silver sphere snapped into being around the soaring form of Maru, halting his trajectory. It vanished a second later, dropping him a few feet onto a flat pane of light just below. Then that one winked out, lowering him further, and so on in three more steps until he was deposited safely upon the ground, landing deftly on his feet after each short drop.
The tanuki turned to her and bowed deeply from the waist. “Arigatou.”
Shaeine’s eyes flicked past him, and then she adjusted her outstretched hand to point at their adversary, conjuring another silver sphere.
This one slammed down on top of the Hand as he was getting to his feet, driving him face-first into the crater Natchua had just made. Then it smashed down upon him a second time for good measure before dissipating.
F’thaan raised his head and let out a tiny, shrill little howl of approval.
“You are welcome,” she finally answered the tanuki, inclining her head politely in reply.
“Maru, please try to delay him if you can,” Ravana ordered. “The rest of you, come. Time is precious.”
“Oh, absolutely, your Highness,” Addiwyn sneered, though she was the first to follow Ravana in putting more distance between herself and the Hand of the Emperor.
“The correct address is your Grace, but you have my permission to call me Ravana.”
“Will you be okay?” Raolo called worriedly, lingering. “That guy is dangerous!”
As if to underscore the point, the Hand had rolled back to his feet. His black suit now rumpled and liberally specked with dirt and grass, he looked crazier than ever even without his nearly feral expression.
Maru turned to give the Hand a deliberate once-over, then turned back to the students and shrugged fatalistically. “Shou ga nai.”
“Uh, what does that—”
“Come on,” Natchua snapped, cutting Raolo off by grabbing his collar and dragging him along.
The Hand pinned his stare on Maru, who had shifted to face him again, then stepped to the side, as if to simply go around him and follow the students toward Helion Hall.
He paused, frowning, upon observing that they had scampered toward the cafeteria, not the building which housed Tellwyrn’s office and classroom. Before he could adjust course, Maru launched himself bodily at his face, limbs fully outstretched and emitting a high-pitched keen.
The Hand stepped into his attack, lashing out with a punch. Maru shifted in midair, arcing toward the flesh and blood fist as a living missile of stone, but this time he had misjudged; he was not the only one here whose reflexes were faster than the average human’s. The fist coming at him was suddenly an open hand, once again grabbing him by the neck.
Encountering stone, it turned out, was much less an impediment to the Hand when it did not come as a surprise. The full strength and speed of whatever augmentation the Empire had given him came into play, and he whipped the statue back over his shoulder faster than even Maru could adjust. The tanuki burst back into living form a shred of an instant too late, his claws grazing air as he twisted fruitlessly to snag the Hand’s sleeve. And then he was sailing backward down the campus, quickly passing over the ridge onto the next terrace down and vanishing into the distance.
The Hand paused to brush sod from his coat and straighten it, taking the moment to school his expression and demeanor as well before setting off toward the doors of the cafeteria. Its entire wall facing this lawn was of plate glass supported by columns; he could see them in there, heading for the kitchens at the back.
He was listening, now, for the telltale sounds of attack, and though he hadn’t expected Maru to return from that toss so quickly, the rapid skittering of tiny feet alerted him and he spun to face the onrushing tanuki.
Maru was down on all fours, racing at him. The Hand stepped forward, drawing back a foot to meet him with a solid kick to the face.
As expected, the tanuki saw it coming and adjusted. He leaped even as the Hand kicked, angling himself just slightly to evade the attack and grab at his other leg. It was an open question which of them was faster, and how this game of eyeblink-speed chess might have played out had the Hand been inclined to indulge him in it. He did not have the luxury of time, however, nor any interest in so doing.
He simply readjusted space around himself as he did to rapidly travel. Maru’s pinpoint leap was suddenly on a mistaken trajectory, aiming for a target which now was approaching him from the side, still in the middle of launching a running kick.
The Hand’s foot struck the tanuki hard on the flank, with every bit of the momentum he’d built coming from a completely different direction. Winded and dazed by the blow, he wasn’t even able to shift or grab the man’s leg. Maru went hurtling away to the side, bent nearly double from impact. Barely missing one of its front columns, he slammed into the front wall of Helion Hall, creating a crater of shattered brickwork in its facade, and tumbled to the ground.
Pausing to study the fallen tanuki for two seconds, the Hand considered this. He knew far too little about these creatures. Would a blow like that kill him? Daze him? Accomplish nothing, leaving the irritating little fairy to attack again the moment his back was turned?
Time. He had no idea what those children were doing, and had any of the elves been in charge he might proceed more cautiously. But they were clearly following the lead of Ravana Madouri, a vicious little weasel whose only religion was knowing more than she had any right to about everything around her. The very fact that he did not understand what she was up to meant she could not be allowed to do it.
He still listened for the tell-tale skitter of tiny feet as he opened the cafeteria doors and stepped inside. Behind him, though, Maru lay unmoving.
Ravana strode blithely through the kitchen doors and proceeded toward the sinks at the back, the others trailing along behind her with varying degrees of nervousness. Shaeine, as usual, was calm itself, and Natchua seemed to be savoring the petty defiance of entering an area usually off-limits to students who weren’t being made to wash dishes as a punishment. Both surface elves, however, hesitated in the door, then crept along the counter toward Ravana as far from the cook as they could get.
Mrs. Oak turned to stare at them upon their entry—or at least, to face them. Her eyes were not actually visible within the deep lines of her face. She was a matter of some speculation among the student body; it was known that she was some type of fairy, both because some students could sense it and because she never left the kitchen, even apparently to sleep. To the naked eye, she appeared part dwarf. Short for a human but twice as broad, the woman looked nearly cylindrical. Her roundness was not that of a fat person; between her brawny arms, flattish head bristling with wiry hair, and patchy brown complexion, she oddly resembled a tree stump in a stained apron.
The cook emitted a deep grunt, twisting her thick lips into a grimace, and pointed emphatically at the door. That was about as eloquent as she got.
“Uh, hi, Mrs. Oak,” Raolo said hesitantly. “Sorry about this. I guess you might be right, Ravana. If she’s not in the Crawl with everybody else…”
“She did not evacuate during the hellgate crisis, either,” Ravana said smoothly. “And seemingly weathered having the cafeteria building collapse atop her with no ill effect. You three should be positioning and preparing yourselves.”
Mrs. Oak grunted again, more emphatically, and jerked the arm with which she was still pointing at the door.
“Yeah, yeah,” Natchua grunted, stepping to the side of the group and giving the other casters space to form a line in front of Addiwyn and Ravana. “You realize, of course, that if you’re wrong, what we’re about to do will probably get us all sent to the hangman. And we’ll deserve it.”
“Trust me,” Ravana said with just enough smugness to be insufferable but not so much that it could be called out. “My people have compiled dossiers on every member of this school’s faculty and staff. Did you know Stew used to be worshiped as a fertility idol by a small cult of witches?”
“I hear that’s a sweet gig if you can land it,” Addiwyn muttered.
“Here.” Shaeine held F’thaan out toward Ravana with both hands. “I will need to be free of distractions. Hold him, please.”
Finally, Ravana’s poise was penetrated, and her eyebrows drew together as she peered down at the squirming puppy. “I don’t think—”
“Positioning yourself as the strategist does not free you of any obligation to be materially useful, Ravana,” Shaeine said flatly. “Hold him, as if your life depends upon it. If it helps you, assume that to be the case.”
“Of course,” Ravana said, recovering some of her smoothness but reaching for F’thaan with lingering hesitation. “I’m not much for pets, but I’ll do my b—”
She broke off, having to abruptly adjust her grip as F’than began wriggling harder. Once out of Shaeine’s grip, he struggled against the human, extending his head toward Shaeine and yapping insistently.
At this, Mrs. Oak finally seemed to notice the little hellhound. At any rate, her head shifted to stare at him directly. A low growl emerged from deep within the cook’s throat, and lowering her arm, she began stalking aggressively toward them.
After two steps she halted when the Hand of the Emperor burst into the kitchen.
He came to a stop and Mrs. Oak turned to stare at him. For a moment, the two regarded each other with clear confusion. Then he shook himself slightly, shifting his glare back to the students.
“Whatever you think—”
“Out,” Mrs. Oak said clearly in a voice like the bark of a mastiff. She stepped aggressively toward the Hand, picking up a rolling pin from its place on a nearby rack as she came.
“Away, woman,” he said dismissively, planting his hand on her forehead in a blow that was half punch and half shove. She was even more solid than she appeared, though, and was barely rocked back. Growling, the cook smacked the rolling pin into his midsection, eliciting a grunt and a half-step retreat. The Hand paused again, staring at her with surprise, and she raised the rolling pin for another blow.
“Now,” Ravana insisted. “All of you, now!”
Raolo cursed under his breath in elvish, but held out a hand, frowning in concentration.
Blue light flashed around the Hand and the cook, seeming not to affect them but lingering on the surrounding surfaces. The walls, cabinetry, ceiling and floor glittered, arcane energy momentarily glowing from every crack and crevice. For just a moment, it seemed to illuminate the boundaries between floor tiles, between boards, shining along every line where any two things were connected.
The light vanished quickly, but immediately things began to shift. A cabinet fell from the wall with a crash, dissolving into a pile of planks and nails where it hit. The very tiles of the floor were dislodged beneath the Hand’s shifting feet and a chunk of the ceiling crashed down directly on his head, another grazing Mrs. Oak’s. Raolo’s charm had evidently disconnected everything near the door which was supposed to be connected together.
“You just crossed a line, boy,” the Hand began, but before he could move in their direction again, Mrs. Oak let out a deep growl of outrage and slammed the rolling pin into him.
Natchua was already making weaving motions with her fingers, frowning in concentration. While the Hand and the cook struggled, his preternatural strength failing to shift her, matched spell circles of luminous orange appeared on the ceiling and floor, bracketing the pair vertically. Unlike most such diagrams, they had no clear outer boundary circles or discernible glyphs, but were simply round arrangements of gracefully curling lines, not unlike calligraphy. The effect was quite beautiful, for the second and a half that it existed.
Then the entire surfaces they had marked exploded with far more violence than Raolo’s charm had caused. The whole structure groaned around around them; Shaeine threw up a wall of silver light to protect the group from the debris sprayed in their direction, but most of the ceiling came straight down atop the Hand and Mrs. Oak. Jostled by the explosion and collapse, and already loosened by Raolo, part of the nearby wall toppled inward, adding to the weight of rubble burying them.
“Shit,” Addiwyn muttered. “Take it easy with that stuff, will you?”
“Sorry,” Natchua grunted. “It’s hard to gauge—”
“Next phase,” Ravana said urgently. “Quickly, this is the important part!”
Raolo took a deep breath to steady himself, raising both hands. “Here we go…”
All three elves aside from Addiwyn held their hands out, and began pouring forth torrents of pure energy that brilliantly lit the half-collapsed room. Shaeine produced a spiraling stream of silver light, with occasional white and gold sparks; Raolo’s was a steady, even beam of arcane blue. Natchua held up both hands in rigidly clawed positions, and rather than channeling infernal power anywhere near herself or the others, it emerged from two tiny rifts conjured in midair across the room, emitting flickering tongues of hungry orange fire. All of them simply beamed unfocused power into the large pile of rubble created by the recent magical destruction, under which the Hand and Mrs. Oak were buried.
It began shifting immediately, of course, though it was impossible to tell how much of that might be due to the two underneath it. Flashes of infernal orange, especially where it interacted with a stray flow of Shaeine’s divine power, created tiny explosions, further dislodging pieces and sending them flying away. Raolo’s unfocused arcane energy, by contrast, seemed to be naturally trying to restore some semblance of order against the chaos. As the seconds passed, some of the larger chunks of masonry and wood took on a blue glow and rose to hover in the air around the pile.
“It may be too late to worry about this,” Addiwyn said, raising her voice slightly above the rush of power in the room, “but are you certain of what we’re doing, here?”
“It’s called Closing the Circles,” Ravana said, finally getting a good grip on F’thaan and holding him against her chest. “Don’t worry, it was created by House Madouri magi many years ago for this precise purpose. When a being effectively made of magic becomes corrupted or distorted, if you overload it with a balanced flow of all three of the schools except that which natively animates it, eventually its magical system will reset, so to speak, to protect itself. The result will be a reversion to its proper form. An ancestor of mine had to have this done semi-regularly, you see; he fell in love with a dryad, who adapted poorly to the rigors of court life. If you can name it, some Madouri has romanced it,” she added, turning a coy little smile on Addiwyn. “It’s one of the keys to our success, in fact. Most aristocracies will only marry within their social class, and thus become morbidly inbred within three centuries, but by regularly bringing in fresh blood—”
She broke off suddenly and yanked F’thaan away from herself, holding him out and turning him so that the stream of pee arced toward the floor and not her dress.
“Yes, your family history is very fascinating to people besides yourself,” Addiwyn said dryly. “But are you certain of what we’re doing here?!”
“Well,” Ravana said a little less blithely, “I am having three students perform, under severe duress and with minimal instruction, a ritual meant for highly advanced casters working in laboratory conditions, and which has not to my knowledge been attempted in two centuries. So there is a margin of error.”
Without breaking off their channeling, all three elves turned their heads to stare at her.
“I assure you, the theory is quite sound,” Ravana said sincerely.
“So you know,” Raolo said in a strained tone, “I can’t keep this up much longer. Their magic comes from an outside source, but I’ve only got so much juice in my aura.”
“None of us can cast indefinitely,” Shaeine agreed, her voice tight but focused. “Especially burning power as recklessly as this. I will risk burnout eventually, and the more tired Natchua gets, the greater the danger—”
“I’m fine,” Natchua snapped.
“None of you push to the point of risking mana fatigue,” Ravana ordered. “In fact, there should quickly come a point where you will sense—”
Abruptly all three of them broke off their efforts, Natchua and Raolo with gasps of surprise. Silence fell, and the light level in the half-collapsed kitchen dropped suddenly, leaving only a single surviving fairly lamp and the apparently non-magical flames licking at the rubble pile to illuminate it.
“Well, that, I presume,” Ravana finished.
“Uh,” Addiwyn said hesitantly, peeking over Natchua’s shoulder. “Did that—”
The pile of debris shifted, heaved, and a dark shape rose up from within, fragments of the kitchen pouring from him. His suit was a wreck, and his expression was a twisted rictus that promised murder.
“He does not look reset!” Raolo said in alarm, backpedaling even as Shaeine summoned a wall of light between them and the Hand. “I think you just made him madder!”
The students pressed backward, but they had literally cornered themselves. The corner of the kitchen into which they were wedged was not even the one which opened onto the pantry. Snarling savagely, the Hand kicked up a violent spray of rubble to free his leg, and stepped forward, drawing back one fist to punch Shaeine’s barrier.
Behind him, the remainder of the rubble pile exploded like a volcano. The Hand whirled to face this new threat, but not fast enough to avoid being grabbed by the throat and hiked bodily off the ground. She spun him fully around and slammed his back against what remained of the nearest wall, pushing him through the fragments of a cabinet to impact the masonry behind.
She looked so much like Juniper the family connection was unmistakable, but she was taller, visibly more muscular, and darker, with nut-brown skin and hair of a deep mossy green hanging in thick tangles to her lower back. It had dense strands which resembled miniature vines woven through it. Even her attire was now reminiscent of Juniper’s, the cook’s apron and gingham dress stretched to the point of ripping on her powerful frame, leaving most of her legs and arms bare.
The dryad pulled the Hand out of the wrecked cabinet, then smashed him back into it once more for good measure, before tugging him forward a final time to hang nose-to-nose with her. The man actually seemed too dazed to react.
“Get out of my kitchen,” she snarled, then turned and hurled him bodily through the gap which had been the door.
He bounced off a cafeteria table, then crashed into a second beyond, making kindling of both before sliding to a stop.
“I can’t believe that worked,” Raolo whispered. “Veth’na alaue, Tellwyrn is going to eviscerate us backwards.”
“That being the case, Raolo,” Ravana said while gratefully handing F’thaan back to Shaeine, “I wonder why you followed me on this venture.”
“Yeah, that’s just what I was wondering,” he muttered.
“YOU.” All the elves retreated sideways along the wall at the dryad’s roar, but Ravana calmly stood her ground, even as the much taller fairy stomped over to her, crossing the ruined kitchen in three long rubble-crunching strides. “What have you done?! I was supposed to be left alone! Arachne promised me a quiet place to—”
“You have sulked quite long enough, Oak,” Ravana interrupted briskly. “I hope your vacation was indeed a restful one, especially since you sat out the last major assault on this campus which also caused the destruction of your little domain here. Now your—”
“I WAS SUPPOSED TO BE LEFT ALONE!” The power of her lungs suited the obvious strength of her frame; her bellowing set dusk trickling in streams from the damaged walls. “I WAS PROMISED A—”
“YOU. ARE. NOT. SPECIAL.”
To the shock of everyone present, including herself, Oak jerked backward, stumbling on a loose floor tile. Ravana actually followed her, and amazingly the dryad continued to retreat from the tiny noblewoman now brandishing a finger up into her face and projecting her voice with the power trained into orators, opera singers, and anyone who might one day have to shout orders on a battlefield.
“To exist in this world is to be connected to others, and to bear responsibility! For years, you’ve been given a safe harbor here, and protection better than that enjoyed by almost anyone in this world. Well, the world is unpredictable and violent, and no one gets to live in peace forever. You are not an exception. Now the campus that has sheltered you is in grave danger, and the woman who provided you this place is not here to defend it, or you, or us. Now is the time for us to act to protect our home. You are part of this University, Oak, and you! Will! Do! Your! Part!”
She punctuated the last line of her tirade by jabbing her fingertip viciously into Oak’s collarbone with each word. Ravana had to reach upward to do it, and the impact had to have caused her a lot more pain than the dryad, but it was Oak who pulled meekly backward, at a loss for words.
Ravana held her gaze, glaring upward while the dryad’s mouth worked in silent, fishlike protest.
“He’s gone,” Addiwyn remarked, cutting the tension. “No sign of him out there in the cafeteria. It looks like he’s booked it.”
“Then he will be heading back to the Crawl to resume his assault upon our friends.” As if at the flip of a switch, Ravana was suddenly brisk and collected again, turning away from the astonished dryad to step to the side and peer out into the mess of dislodged tables beyond the wrecked kitchen door. “We must go as quickly as possible to stop him. But first, we have to find and help Maru. That he did not resume his intervention in here tells me the Hand did something to him; we cannot abandon him after he came so courageously to our aid. Come along, quickly.”
She was already picking her way over and through the heap of masonry and wood which obstructed the doorway, and quickly lengthened her stride once she got past it into the wider space of the cafeteria beyond. Oak, incredibly, followed the diminutive girl without a peep of further protest. The elves, though, had to stare in disbelief after them before gathering themselves enough to come after them.
“Considering who’s here,” Addiwyn mused, bringing up the rear, “that dainty little human should not be the scariest person in the room. And yet…”