“I guess we missed the freshmen,” Trissiny noted as they made their way across campus toward magic class. “Rafe must’ve let them out early.”
“Or he’s entombed them to serve as components in his foul experiments!” Gabriel suggested.
“Aw, such a shame,” Ruda said, grinning. “Any particular frosh you were hoping to meet?”
Trissiny glanced at her, forehead creasing in puzzlement. “Not really? I mostly get on with the girls, though. And they’ve been helpful in all the…stuff…going on. Most of my social circle is you guys. More friends can’t hurt.”
“I choose not to take that personally,” Shaeine said serenely.
Trissiny sighed. “You know I didn’t…”
“Yes, I do,” the drow replied, turning to give her a smile.
“Well,” Ruda drawled, “I know poor Sekandar must be devastated he missed you.”
“And that’s the third time today,” Trissiny said irritably. “What is with this obsession you suddenly have with Sekandar?”
“Triss, you are not this obtuse. Nobody is this obtuse.” Ruda leaned over and threw an arm around her roommate’s shoulders, leering insanely, and lowered her voice to a widely audible stage whisper. “He desires to sex you.”
Trissiny flushed slightly. “Ruda…”
“Probably in the butt.”
“Ruda!” The paladin shrugged her roughly off, glaring.
“Hey, don’t shoot the messenger!” Ruda held up both hands, but her grin only widened. “Nobility and especially royalty are some freaky fuckers.”
“I guess you would know!”
“Fuck yeah, I would! This one time—”
“Stop!” Trissiny shouted.
“Um…” Teal came to a stop, causing the others to do likewise, looking at her inquisitively. She was peering at a creased sheet of parchment in her hand as if she’d never seen it before. “It looks like class is canceled. I’ve got a note from Professor Ekoi.”
“Huh?” Juniper frowned. “When’d she give you a note?”
“She didn’t. I just found it in my pocket.”
“I can’t decide if Professor Ekoi is so awesome she’s scary or the other way around,” said Fross, orbiting over Teal’s head.
“Huh. I got one too.” Toby unfolded the note he’d just retrieved from his vest pocket. “…mine just says to tell Teal to check hers.”
“Me too!” said Gabe eagerly. Immediately his face fell, descending into a scowl as he studied his own note. “Okay…does anybody read Sifanese?”
“A lot of Sifanese people do, presumably,” said Fross.
“Man, Arquin,” Ruda said with a grin. “What did you do to get on her bad side?”
“Oh, who knows,” he grumbled, stuffing the folded sheet of unintelligible calligraphy back into his pocket. “Just being my usual charming self, I guess.”
“Yeah, that’d do it.”
Suddenly, Trissiny straightened up as if stung, her eyes widening.
“Oh oh oh oh,” Fross said worriedly, abruptly zipping back and forth. “I just got a ping on—Triss, you felt it too?”
“That demon again?” Toby said sharply.
“Yes,” Trissiny said tersely. “Exactly the same as before. Fross, did you modify the wards at all?”
“Um, was I supposed to? They seemed to work right…”
“No, it’s fine. I was just checking if anything was different about it this time.” Trissiny closed her eyes. “So weird to be able to sense something that far away so precisely… It seems to be just wandering around the town. Just like it was doing last time, at least until I got down there.”
“All right,” said Ruda. “This time, we do this smart. We go in organized, and we do something they’re not expecting.”
“Like what?” asked Juniper.
“Getting help,” said Gabriel, absently clutching Ariel’s hilt. “We get Sheriff Sanders and Father Laws. Plus Val, Sister Alia…” He glanced at Trissiny. “And Takli, I figure. Whatever else she’s doing, she’ll help against a demon.”
“You do realize,” said Teal, “we are talking about leaving the campus during class hours?”
“This is not a coincidence,” Ruda snapped, pointing at the note still dangling from Teal’s hand. “We already know thanks to Arquin’s invisible bugaboos that Tellwyrn and Ekoi are in on this. I say we consider it a class exercise and stick with that if they call us on it. But this is the real deal. It’s a fuckin’ demon, or a shadow of one being puppeted by the Black goddamn Wreath, fucking around Last Rock.”
“And Gabriel’s right,” Trissiny said, turning and climbing smoothly into Arjen’s saddle. “I was in error last time for trying to do this alone. Rallying the townspeople is the best move we can make here—both against the demon, and to help mend the rift Justinian’s propaganda has opened. Gabe, we should go on ahead; we move faster on horseback. We’ll get whoever we can and meet up with the rest of you in town. Fross, can you keep up?”
“I’m gonna stay with these guys,” Fross announced. “Remember, the ward network is keyed to your senses specifically—I can find you through it. That way we can meet up without wasting time.”
“Good thinking,” Trissiny said approvingly.
Gabriel raised two fingers to his lips and let out a piercing whistle. Instantly, an explosion of smoke and shadow blasted out of the ground beside him, sending the others scattering from it, and Whisper dove straight up from the darkness. She landed on her hind hooves, rearing and letting out a challenging whinny, before planting herself firmly on the ground and allowing Gabriel to mount.
“Damn,” Ruda said approvingly. “Sorry, Boots, but his is better.”
Arjen twisted his neck around to face her and snorted so hard her hat blew off.
“You’re the demon expert,” Gabriel said, nodding to Trissiny. “Lead the way.”
She nodded back, gathering her reins, and said to the others, “We’ll see you shortly.”
Then both paladins were galloping down through the campus toward the front gates.
“Never thought I’d say this,” Ruda mused, dusting off her hat, “but I gotta get me a horse.”
There were few meeting spaces of enough size in Last Rock to accommodate any serious fraction of the population, fewer still indoors, and both the church and the town hall were spoken for at this hour of the day. Thus, the unofficial town meeting convened in a disused barn on the outskirts of the village, blissfully unaware of the Black Wreath rituals which had recently been carried out there. A few enterprising attendees had lugged folding stools along with them, but for the most part, the three dozen or so townsfolk were standing, or leaning against the walls.
The barn did have the advantage of a raised platform in the form of an old wagon resting on its axles, the wheels having been commandeered long ago for service in a less rickety vehicle. Despite the aid this provided in increasing his height, Wilson was having trouble keeping the arguing assembly on point.
“Everybody, please!” he exclaimed for the fourth time in the last two minutes. Those who intended to quiet had already done so; the rest of the discussions going on continued, paying him no heed. Helplessly, he looked over to the side, where Sam Sanders lounged against the wall near the wagon. “Sam, can ya give me a hand here?”
“Oh, no, you don’t,” Sanders drawled. “I’m just here to make sure this doesn’t degenerate into shootin’ or somethin’ similarly stupid. You buttered your bed, Wilson, as usual. Have yourself a nice nap.”
Wilson sighed, scowling, and turned back to face the crowd. “Would everybody SHUT UP?!”
Somehow, it worked this time—not instantly, but a hush fell over the front ranks of the throng, rippling backward as people nudged one another and pointed up front, most suddenly looking extremely nervous.
“That’s better,” Wilson said in satisfaction, lowering his hands. “All right, now, thanks to everybody for meetin’ here like this. I know we’re all feelin’ pretty sore about the other night, an’ I’ll acknowledge I made just as much a fool o’ myself as anybody. Still an’ all, there’s still a matter that’s been brung up by all this ruckus that I reckon deserves to be discussed! I think you all know what that is.”
He paused expectantly. The gathered townsfolk were edging backward from the wagon, staring up at it; Wilson frowned at them.
“Oh, c’mon, I ain’t gonna bite anybody. Y’all know dang well what I’m talkin’ about!”
“Wilson,” Sam said wryly. “Might wanna take a glance over your shoulder.”
Wilson scowled at him, but followed his advice. A second later, with a shrill yelp, he jumped so violently away from the back of the wagon that he tumbled to the ground, only missing the front row of his neighbors because they had already edged out of range.
“Very graceful,” Professor Tellwyrn said dryly, unfolding her arms and stepping forward from the rear corner of the wagon onto which she’d teleported. “Interesting time of day to be having a town meeting, isn’t it? I always thought these things took place in the evening because most of you had jobs.”
She glanced around with one eyebrow coolly raised, answered only by nervous shuffling. “Now that I think of it, I don’t see Father Laws…or the Mayor…or any clergy from either temple. Hell, Wilson, you couldn’t even get Hiram Taft to come? At least the banker would provide a veneer of respectability.” Tellwyrn grinned wolfishly down at Wilson, who scuttled backward toward the crowd. “Omnu’s breath, if you’re going to go to the trouble of organizing a meeting when I’m in class, you could at least bother to find out what my class schedule is. It’s easy: just tell Chase Masterson you’re looking to put something over on me.”
A couple of people chuckled nervously.
“For heaven’s sake,” Tellwyrn said with a grimace, “quit creeping toward the door, you turkeys. I teach college students for a living. Believe me, if I were in the habit of vaporizing people for arguing with me, you’d have damn well heard about it before now. If you have a problem with me or my University, tell me so. Well, we’re all here now. What’s on your mind?”
A few coughs were all that answered her. Tellwyrn sighed and glanced over at the Sheriff.
“Hey, I’m supervising these galoots, not participating,” he said, holding up a hand. “In fact, with you here I reckon I just might be entirely unnecessary.”
She fixed her gaze on Wilson, staring down at him over the tops of her spectacles. “I’m sure we all know the answer to this, but is there any chance the person who organized this little charade would like to step up?”
“Ah—well—uh—um—” He had managed to clamber to his feet and now nervously clutched his hat in front of himself with both hands, not meeting her gaze.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Jonas Crete exclaimed, pushing forward out of the crowd. He tipped his hat to Professor Tellwyrn. “Ma’am, I have to confess came along here outta ruffled feelings as much as the belief there was any point to this, after one a’ your students tore through my saloon, damaged my stuffed bear an’ broke into my kitchen.”
“I heard about that,” Tellwyrn said mildly. “I was also told that the kids spent the remainder of the evening fixing damage, but let’s be honest; they’re not always the most industrious little bastards without someone cracking a whip at their heels.”
More chuckles sounded at that, and Jonas cracked a smile himself.
“It didn’t amount to more’n a busted lock an’ some scuffed furniture, easily fixed. Miss Fross came by th’next day an’ even fixed up my bear with a stitchin’ charm, which I thought was right neighborly. Still, a man’s home an’ business is his castle, know what I mean?”
She nodded. “Quite. If anyone wants to put forth a claim for any damages to the University, I assure you it’ll be taken seriously. Sam and the Mayor can reach me at need, if you don’t feel like making the climb.”
“I, uh, can’t speak for nobody else, ma’am, but I don’t feel the need.” Jonas drew in a breath to steel himself, squaring his shoulders. “It’s like this. We’re mostly over all that, ‘specially once it came out what that Vidian witch had been doin’ to the town. In all the ruckus, though, somethin’ came up that still deserves consideration.”
Tellwyrn nodded again. “Go on.”
“It’s like this,” Jonas said seriously. “The way the papers were all carryin’ on, an’ the way Bishop Snowe put it, made it seem like the folks up at the University were holdin’ themselves above us all. Now, for my part, it never really felt that way to me till very recently. This town was a sad little patch o’ farmhouses before the University came along, an’ even if I wasn’t around then to remember it, my pa told me plenty. It’s cos o’ you an’ your staff an’ students that most of us have a livelihood, yours truly included.”
“But?” Tellwyrn prompted when he paused for a moment.
“The thing is,” Jonas continued with a frown, “It gets hard to overlook the fact that who you got up there is nobles, royals, demigods, paladins… An’ a lot o’ miscellaneous others who’re scary powerful, whatever else they are. An’ aside from wherever they come from, they all got places to go. Kids who graduate from that University can write their own ticket in the world. I ain’t bothered to follow up on most of ’em, but the way the papers’ve been carryin’ on, I’d had the chance to learn. The ones who’ve spoken up to journalists all seem to be leadin’ pretty remarkable lives, an’ the lot of ’em give credit for it to you an’ your school.”
“That’s rather the point of education, you know,” Tellwyrn said mildly.
“I don’t disagree, ma’am. In fact…that’s kinda the point. Last Rock’s got kids, too. Not so many, but more of us grew up here than otherwise. All this business… Well, it’s pointed out there’s a divide there. Now, we all know you’ve got a good number o’ just common folk like us attendin’ school, but that’s just it. Them kids go on to lead great lives out there in the world. Those of us just reared down here in the town…well, we stay in the town.”
Jonas got a lot more sympathy than Wilson had; there were a great many nods and more than a few spoken agreements in the wake of his speech.
Tellwyrn, too, nodded slowly, her eyebrows drawing together in thought.
“It ain’t that I mean to criticize,” Jonas said hastily as the chorus died down.
“Of course you do,” Tellwyrn said. “That was a criticism, Mr. Crete. You’ve taken your stand; don’t spoil the effect by backing down from it.”
He coughed, suddenly looking nervous. “Uh, well, anyway…”
“You make a pretty good point, too,” Tellwyrn continued, cutting him off. She nodded slowly, staring into space above their heads. “Hm. I’ll be frank: the fact is, I know very well I’m not the most approachable person. Habits older than the Empire are difficult to shake, I’m afraid. Furthermore, I have a tendency to latch onto ideas that are important to me and not consider other things going on around me. For that reason…if there’s a problem in this town, specifically one with my University, I really need people to let me know. Just because I don’t notice or think about things like this doesn’t mean I don’t care, or that I don’t think you matter.”
Sam nodded approvingly.
“Very well, then,” Tellwyrn said, her tone suddenly brisk. “This is an extremely valid concern, and I thank you for bringing it up, Jonas. And Wilson,” she added puckishly, smiling down at him; Wilson squeaked and backed up into the crowd. “And it seems to have a simple enough solution. Starting with enrollment season next year, any citizens of Last Rock who can meet the academic requirements will be welcome to attend the University, irrespective of any other qualifications. Hm… We normally enroll at age eighteen, but considering the circumstances… I’ll make that open to anyone between fifteen and, let’s say, twenty-two. Any older than that and they’ll be on a different level entirely than the rest of the student body. So, appropriate age, able to pass a basic admissions exam, and at least five years’ residence in Last Rock for qualifications. In fact, I’ll do you one better: we’ll make that a scholarship for anyone who meets the criteria. Last Rock citizens can attend the school at no charge.”
She had to stop there, as the swelling commentary from the crowd became too much to easily talk over. This time, though, the voices were almost entirely jubilant in tone. Some few were still obviously shouting questions, but no hostile or argumentative voices rose above the throng.
Tellwyrn let this continue for almost a minute before snapping her fingers and causing a crack like a thunderclap to ring through the room. “All right, enough! It’s more than half a year till we start enrolling, which should be enough time to work out any kinks. I’ll draw up a more comprehensive document, and anybody with questions or concerns can send them up. I’ll also want to talk with Miss Tanner, who I note is one of those with more important things to do at this hour than attend Wilson’s latest vanity project,” she added more severely. The town schoolmarm, indeed, was at work at this time of day. “And Omnu’s breath, people, if you have something to say, say it. Those old stories are mostly exaggerated anyway; I do not blast people unless they richly and specifically deserve it.”
She shook her head, snorted, and vanished with a soft puff of air.
“Welp,” Sanders drawled, finally straightening up. “That pretty well address your concerns, Wilson?”
“I think that was a, uh, satisfactory conclusion, yeah,” Wilson replied trying at dignity.
“Hey,” Jonas added suddenly, “how come he ain’t in jail, Sam? There was that business about assaulting the Duchess if I recollect rightly…”
“You don’t,” Wilson said furiously. “I never got near the lady!”
“It was assaulting Imperial troops,” Sanders said, rolling his eyes. “And not only did nobody wanna press charges, Duchess Madouri specifically interceded on Wilson’s behalf, requesting leniency.”
“She don’t know him too well, I guess,” someone chimed in from the back of the crowd, earning widespread laughter.
“I got nothin’ bad to say about that young lady an’ I won’t hear nothin’ said against her,” Wilson proclaimed, swelling up like a cockerel. “A right stand-up gal, that one!”
Sam’s attention shifted abruptly; Ox had just entered the barn through its wide-open doors. He towered above almost everyone, making the worried frown on his mustached face very apparent. The Sheriff strode toward him around the side of the mostly-oblivious crowd, rather than trying to push his way through. Ox took the same route, coming to meet him, and as soon as he stepped out of the doorway, Trissiny and Gabriel became visible in it behind him.
They were quickly noticed by the rest of the crowd, and another hush spread through the barn, this one marred by whispers and mutters.
“Sam,” Ox rumbled, “the kids have news you might wanna hear.”
“I see,” said the Sheriff, glancing between them. “Should we head to my office an’ talk in private?”
“I think not,” said Trissiny, her voice low but carrying well through the barn. “This affects everyone.” She turned to face the crowd, all of whom were focused on her now, quite a few still muttering. “There’s another demonic presence in the town.”
At this, there came a mass outburst of shouting and waving arms.
“Will y’all SHUT UP!” Ox thundered.
The quiet was instantaneous.
“Is this anything like the last one?” Jonas asked, pushing forward and folding his arms.
“Exactly like the last one,” said Trissiny, nodding, “and probably the same thing. And after last time, I realize that I made a serious mistake in trying to deal with it. If we just keep chasing this thing away, it’ll just keep coming back.” She glanced across the sea of faces aimed at her, and took in a deep breath. “More importantly, I’ve come to realize that Ms. Cratchley hit the nail on the head. You are all capable people who are accustomed to being responsible for your town and your own lives. For a paladin to come riding in here trying to rescue everybody is a completely wrong-headed approach. This thing is interested in Last Rock, specifically; it’s for Last Rock to fix.”
Sanders nodded approvingly, as did some of the onlookers.
“What can we do?” someone asked.
“It’s an invisible demon!”
“Carl, I’m beggin’ you.”
“Please!” Trissiny called, holding up both hands, and for a wonder everyone quieted. “We have the outlines of a plan. Some of our friends are on the way down from the campus right now, but to do this we need numbers. Specifically, we need men and women who have weapons and know how to use them, and who can keep a level head under pressure.”
“To put it plainly,” said Gabriel, smiling thinly, “we’re rounding up a posse.”
“The demon is currently on the other edge of the town,” Trissiny continued over the low hubbub that arose, “and so far it doesn’t seem to be hurting anyone directly. We should have a little time, but it’s best not to dawdle. Everyone who’s willing to help, please gather in the intersection right outside here; take time to run home and grab wands if you can, and bring along anybody who might want to help. I’ll also need someone to collect Val Tarvadegh, and Sisters Aria and Takli.”
“Ox, Jonas,” said Sanders, nodding to each of them, “head to the temples an’ do as she says, please.”
“Sheriff,” Jonas said in acknowledgment, tipping his hat and following after Ox, who had simply nodded and strode out into the streets.
“Time is a factor, everyone,” Trissiny said seriously. “Don’t rush, but move as efficiently as you can. Remember that this creature’s method so far has hinged on agitating people and causing damage incidentally, so it’s vitally important that everyone remain calm. I believe I can trust the people of this town to do what’s needed. All right, let’s all get moving. We’re going to try to set out from this spot in fifteen minutes, so I’ll need everyone back here in time to go over the plan.”
Nods and verbal agreements met her pronouncement, but the people appeared to be taking her plea for calm to heart; there were no cheers or shouts this time. People poured out of the barn, streaming around Sanders and the paladins and heading off into the side streets.
“You certain about this, Avelea?” Sanders asked pointedly. A handful of townsfolk remained nearby, those who apparently had nothing and no one to collect; most were now holding wands, pointed safely at the ground. Frontier people were generally most conscientious about wand safety.
“It’s a mistake to be too certain about anything,” Trissiny replied seriously. “This is a demon, after all, and a tricksy one besides. Also…” She hesitated, glancing around at those listening nearby, then nodded almost imperceptibly, as if to herself. “We have intelligence suggesting the Black Wreath is involved in this directly.”
“Here now,” said a middle-aged woman in denim and flannel, two wands holstered at her belt, “think somebody oughta go get Tellwyrn?”
“If someone wants to,” said Gabriel, “we won’t argue. We didn’t, though.”
“Why not?” asked a younger man.
“It comes down to this,” said Trissiny, resting the palm of her left hand on the pommel of her sword. “This demon, or warlock, or whatever is behind it, has not targeted the University—probably because they’re afraid to challenge Tellwyrn. Which is just sensible. What they’re doing is feeling out the town, seeing what reaction they get from poking at people here. Last time, I came charging down here to drive it off, doing a lot of incidental damage and accomplishing nothing in the end. I owe you all an apology for that. And, notably, as soon as things calmed down, it came right back. This is not a problem that can be solved by higher powers coming to the rescue. Demons, warlocks, and servants of evil stop when they are stopped, and not before. They are held back only by the awareness that they cannot win, and only when and where that point has been made inescapably. I don’t intend to leave them any gap to wiggle through, no hint that they can come back here and work their mischief as soon as there’s no paladin or archmage keeping an eye out.”
She drew her sword, pointing the blade at the ground, and spoke subtly more loudly, her voice ringing with confidence. “I intend, by the end of this day, for there to be a very chastened warlock out there who won’t be trying their luck on Last Rock again. Not because of any University on a hill, but because they’ll have seen the character of the people here, and will know that they came to the wrong town.”
This time, the cheers broke out in earnest, and neither she nor the Sheriff made any attempt to stop them.