Tag Archives: November Stark

15 – 7

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Ingvar yielded to their pleading, since they at least managed to do it without descending back into shouted insults at each other, and so the conversation was taken to a more private venue. Brother Nandu was just as happy to offer them a quiet place to hold their discussion, where Tholi and November would incidentally not be within range of any of the monks going about their business in the temple. The chamber offered was a small prayer room, with a tiny round window opposite the door which projected sunbeams onto the floor, and stone benches lining both its longer walls. It was a little cramped with four people present, but not uncomfortably so. It was, additionally, located clear on the other end of the monastery and featured thick walls and a thick wooden door doubtless intended to provide a meditating monk with silence and privacy, which coincidentally would serve just as well to shield everyone else from any yelling which broke out within.

Four people because Aspen so blithely assumed she was included that nobody bothered to contradict her. Brother Nandu gently shooed away the surly monk who had met them on the road, and Rainwood accompanied them, chattering on about catching up on the news. Tholi frowned when Aspen strolled into the cell with them, and got as far as opening his mouth to comment before Ingvar caught his eye.

“Very well,” Ingvar said as soon as he had shut the door behind them. “Here we are. Now I want to hear those explanations. Starting with you, Tholi.”

“Excuse me,” November exclaimed, “but I was sent here on a divine quest, which I am sure is more important than—”

“So, nothing would happen if I just clobbered her, right?” Aspen said cheerily.

They all turned to stare at her, November going white.

“I mean, if I understand what people tell me about Imperial law,” the dryad continued. “How it basically doesn’t apply to me. So, if I was to get tired of someone mouthing off and punched her through the wall, nothing important would actually happen, right, Ingvar?”

“Several important things would happen,” he said patiently. “To begin with, a human being would be dead, which is a serious matter as we have discussed several times. Our hosts would be horrified, and I would hope you would not do them the discourtesy of making them clean up such a mess. Also, just because the Empire doesn’t claim dominion over dryads does not mean they wouldn’t do anything if you murdered an Imperial citizen. In particular I think our own mission is better off without drawing that kind of scrutiny.”

“Ah, I see,” she said gravely. “Okay, thanks. Anyway, you were about to talk, Tholi?”

November swallowed and edged away along the bench until she was bunched into the corner. Tholi gave her an openly amused glance, but at least refrained from any active needling. That was probably the best behavior Ingvar could hope for, from either of them.

His expression quickly sobered when he turned back to Ingvar, though. “Things have been getting…strange at the lodge since you left, Brother. That’s why I came looking for you: looking back, that’s the moment that it started getting serious.”

“Strange in what way?”

“With every passing day we feel less and less like Huntsmen,” Tholi said, now frowning deeply. “At least to me. And…I’ve kept my mouth shut about it, mostly, because I know I’m young to the brotherhood. And also because when I have said anything, I either get told to mind my place or brushed off because nobody has the time to educate me. That’s the thing, I remember when brother Huntsmen did have the time to educate each other. You in particular, Brother Ingvar, bopped my nose at least twice a day when I was a youngling, but you always explained. The younglings growing up now… They’re being taught to obey, not to understand. I feel like I’m the last Huntsman raised to actually grasp what being a Huntsman means.”

“What’s happening to the lodge, Tholi?” Ingvar asked quietly.

“Well, we hardly ever see Brother Andros anymore, he’s constantly down at the Cathedral or doing something with the other cults. Much more than he used to, even—it feels like it goes well beyond him being Bishop. There are strangers in the lodge all the time, Church people and others I don’t know. The Archpope keeps sending that Snowe woman with the jugs and the slimy blond Eserite around, and the both of them are wrapping Huntsmen around their little fingers like… Well. At least that rabid Syrinx woman has been gotten rid of.”

“Bishop Syrinx?” Ingvar said, raising his eyebrows. “Not that I’m surprised, but what happened to her?”

Tholi sneered contemptuously. “Apparently even the Avenists had enough of her. The way I heard, it came out that she was molesting Legionnaires. The Hand of Avei herself came to Tiraas and whipped the shit out of her right in the middle of Imperial Square, and good on her for it, I say.”

November was practically shaking with some repressed emotion; Ingvar gave her a level look, concluded that she was continuing to repress it, and opted to leave well enough alone. “Interesting. Well, go on. The Church is meddling in the lodge?”

“It’s worse than that,” Tholi said, frowning again as his thoughts returned to the matter. “Men are coming and going in a way I don’t like. Huntsmen do less hunting now, rites have become more and more infrequent and they keep being sent to do things with other cults, and on secretive missions…”

“What kind of missions?”

“Don’t know.” Tholi shook his head, looking frustrated. “I guess I’m too young. And also I haven’t been happy about the way things are shaping up; that probably contributed to me being cut out. But the Huntsmen in Tiraas are becoming agents of the Archpope’s agenda. Like, brazenly. It feels like Justinian leads us as much as Veisroi does. The Grandmaster had already sent away every Huntsman from the lodge who might challenge him for the weakness and brought in men from other lodges who’ll support him. You saw that happening when you were still around, Brother.”

“I do remember the trend,” Ingvar murmured. “I trusted the Grandmaster to have a plan and the good of the Huntsmen in mind, though, and Brother Andros to check him if he went too far.”

“Well, I think your trust may have been misplaced, Brother Ingvar,” Tholi said grimly. “Since you left it’s been getting worse. Veisroi has moved on to chasing away anybody who raises a voice to protest what’s happening, and surrounded himself with bootlickers. Men who like power, and politics, and see following him and the Archpope as a way to get them. And Brother Andros hasn’t said or done a thing about it. I wasn’t close enough to know why—he might be fully behind the Grandmaster, or maybe Veisroi and Justinian just keep him too occupied to protest. Either would explain him being gone all the time. When I left… Well, I was starting to get pretty firm hints that I’d be better off moving to a different lodge, anyway.”

“I see,” said Ingvar, frowning. “I’m sorry, Tholi. You deserved better than that. It doesn’t explain why you are here, though, or how you knew I would be.”

Tholi’s expression brightened. “I was led here, Brother! I heard that before you set off on your vision quest, you started to have dreams telling you to go, right?” He paused just long enough for Ingvar to nod in confirmation before pressing on. “Well, I have too! I…honestly tried to ignore it for months. I’ve never thought of myself as some kind of spirit-speaker—I just wanted to embrace the wild and hunt alongside my brothers. You know, find a good wife, provide for a family. A simple life, that’s what I felt I was heading toward. But every night I had these dreams, too vivid and always clearly remembered when I woke up. They didn’t feel natural. I kept seeing…” He hesitated, glancing at the window. “…guides. Birds leading me west. Sometimes they talked, and told me to find you. When I started to see wolves as well, always urging me west, and the men at the lodge were starting to freeze me out anyway, I gave up and left. I guess sometimes the spirits don’t care if you’re not attuned to them. If they have a task for you, they won’t let up until you get off your butt and do it.”

“I can relate to that,” Ingvar said wryly.

“And I was right!” Tholi unconsciously gripped his bow in both hands, gazing avidly at Ingvar now. “I found you, Brother! The spirits led me here, to some backwater at the ass end of N’Jendo where there’s no reason I could’ve expected to find you and you didn’t even know you were going to be. It has to mean something! Doesn’t it?”

“Isn’t that kind of exactly what happened to you, Ingvar?” Aspen prompted.

“Kind of exactly,” Ingvar agreed. “Well, who knew. All right, November, you’ve been patient. What’s your story?”

“As I told you,” she burst out with a sudden force that suggested she had been struggling to contain herself while Tholi talked, “I was sent here on a direct mission from Avei herself!”

“Avei,” Ingvar said, not troubling to disguise his skepticism. “The goddess personally told you to come find me?”

“Well, she also ended up here, after all,” Tholi said somewhat grudgingly. “Not that I think much of this brat, but that’s obviously…not insignificant.”

“Oh, you’re right about that,” said Ingvar, still studying November thoughtfully. “I’m just trying to make sense of it. Gods rarely reach out to people in person. I doubt if anybody but Trissiny Avelea and Farzida Rouvad have heard directly from Avei in the last decade.”

“Well, I can assure you I did,” November snapped. “It’s not the sort of experience I could be mistaken about. Furthermore, Professor Tellwyrn herself validated my quest and gave me the semester off for this. Whatever else you may think about Tellwyrn, she knows the gods as well as anyone does.”

“I do have a lot of respect for Tellwyrn,” Ingvar acknowledged. “A very impressive woman, and more sly than she likes to appear.”

Tholi shrugged. “I guess the girl’s a priestess of Avei, after all. And clearly something is going on that’s getting the attention of gods and spirits.”

“She’s not a priestess of Avei,” Aspen said.

“What?” Tholi frowned at her. “No, I saw her using divine light, she’s definitely a priestess.”

November opened her mouth, but Aspen blithely chattered over her. “No, I’ve been sitting here remembering. I pretty much forgot all about November after we left Last Rock because she wasn’t all that important to me, but I do remember Juniper talking about her while we were there. She’s an Avenist and kind of a bitch about it, but not a priestess—she’s a mutant.”

“Now, just a minute!” November burst out.

“A…mutant?” Tholi frowned quizzically.

“Yeah, she’s a whatchamacallit, an anomaly. She can use divine magic without a god’s help, like a dwarf. Juniper also said most of her classmates find her annoying, she’s in love with Trissiny Avelea, and is pretty mediocre in bed.”

November went scarlet and began physically shaking. Tholi impressed Ingvar by not overtly piling mockery on the young woman’s humiliation, though clearly his discretion had improved only a little since they had last met. The young Huntsman turned his back, but either couldn’t or didn’t bother to stifle the shaking of his shoulders.

“Aspen,” Ingvar said flatly, “we have talked about this. People have the right to privacy, especially with regard to romantic and sexual matters. The fact that you can sense things they’d rather keep quiet means you have a responsibility to keep such knowledge to yourself. I know your sister Juniper understands and practices this; there is no reason you can’t.”

“Right,” she said with a sigh. “Sorry, Ingvar.”

“Don’t apologize to me,” he ordered. “I’m not the one you offended.”

“Oh, okay then.”

Aspen smiled brightly, placing her hands demurely in her lap, and looked deliberately innocent.

He stared her down. “Aspen.”

“Oh, all right,” the dryad said with poor grace. “Sorry, November, that was rude of me. I won’t do it again.”

November answered with the red-faced silence of someone who did not trust her own voice.

“Tholi, act your age,” Ingvar said disapprovingly. “Laughing at someone else’s misfortune is childish and unbecoming a Huntsman of Shaath. Putting all that nonsense aside, Ms. Stark, what was it exactly that Avei ordered you to do?”

“To find you.” November was still red-faced and trembling, but clearly grateful for the change of subject. “Avei said… She said that you are undertaking an important quest, Huntsman Ingvar, something that greatly concerns the entire Pantheon, and that you would need help. She commanded me to find you and help you in any way you need, and told me to come to this location to meet you.”

“Avei said that,” Ingvar muttered. “That’s… I’m not questioning your word, November. After all, if you were lying or wrong I don’t see how you could have ended up here, looking for me. But it’s a lot to take in.”

“For me, too,” she mumbled.

“Hey, Tholi,” Aspen said suddenly. Ingvar looked up to find the dryad staring at Tholi with an almost predatory interest and Tholi himself looking uncomfortable and shifty. “You said you dreamed about birds leading you here, right?”

“Uh, yes.”

“What birds, exactly?”

He shrugged. “You know, just birds…”

“Yes, but what kind?”

“Crows.” Tholi glanced over at November, then finally met Ingvar’s eyes, and finished with visible reluctance. “And… A golden eagle. I didn’t… That is, at the time, I didn’t think it could possibly… Well, a bird is a bird, and dreams are just… Brother Ingvar, what is going on?”

Ingvar stepped over to the window, staring at the mountain beyond. “First this…frankly incredible quest. This whole time I’ve been thinking there was no way I could do this, just because it would require a kind of shift from within the Huntsmen that… And yet, it sounds like the Huntsmen are already suffering the beginnings of what could become a schism if it isn’t mended. And now… Now, another god of the Pantheon takes an interest. The absolute last one I would have expected. Well.”

He turned around to face them, nodding once. “Very well. You two are not the help I would have summoned for this task. Then again, if I’d been the one handing out cosmic assignments, I would not have nominated me for it, either. We must trust that the gods know something we don’t.”

“Of course they do,” Aspen said reasonably. “They’re gods.”

“Gods are creatures with agendas,” Tholi added, “just like anyone. I’m not so sure I like the sound of running around doing Avei’s bidding.”

“I’m pretty sure Avei doesn’t want you trying to do her bidding, either,” November sneered.

“Are you?” Ingvar shook his head. “You may both feel differently once you hear what is actually happening. All right, where to begin…”

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15 – 5

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“All right, let me just make sure I’m following this,” said Aspen. “People have all these customs and they’re all arbitrary and I try to be real certain of details when something confuses me.”

“Entirely reasonable,” Rainwood replied, giving her a smile.

“So… We need to go to this Omnist temple.”

“It’s more a compound; there is a temple on the grounds but the monastery encompasses a large farm, too. But yes, that is the crux of it.”

“Uh huh. And you don’t know why we need to go to the temple.”

“When dealing with spirit guides, it’s best not to press for details they don’t want to give. So no, I do not.”

“And you don’t know who we’re going to meet there.”

“Well, Omnists, one presumes! But I’m open to being surprised.” He grinned at her, an expression she did not return. “We’re going to meet someone, that much is given. There are people there who will be instrumental in your quest. But no, there’s no hint yet of who they are.”

“Right.” She turned her head toward Ingvar, who was walking on her other side. “And… You want to go with this guy because…?”

Rainwood laughed, which she ignored, but Ingvar patted her shoulder. “All that is bog standard fae divination, Aspen. I would be more perturbed if these unknowns were truly unknowable, but all of this is exactly what I have come to expect from fairy magic.”

“Don’t tell me about fairy magic,” she said petulantly. “I’m a fairy. I’m made of the stuff!”

“And is that the same as knowing how it works?” he replied mildly. “I could not assemble a working human from the pieces of one; the greatest medical minds alive can’t do that. And hasn’t it been something of a running theme with you that your mother rather neglected to teach you anything useful about yourself before turning you loose?”

“I guess,” she muttered, kicking a rock out of the path hard enough that it sailed into the canopy and impacted a tree trunk with a crack that resounded through the forest. “This is just…a lot of I-don’t-know-what for us to be suddenly running off and doing what he wants.”

Ingvar patted her again, soothingly. “As I said, it’s familiar enough to me that I don’t inherently mistrust it. We Huntsmen work with the Mother’s blessings more than with divine magic, and I in particular have followed a quest commanded through visions. That’s how we met, remember? Fae spirits may be helpful, if they are so inclined, but very rarely do they give straight answers.”

“Well put,” Rainwood agreed. “There’s also the old saw about the journey being more important than the destination. Which I’m not so sure I concur with, actually, but I’ve found that the journey always matters. Finding your way and figuring stuff out is exactly how you become the person who can accomplish the goal. If you just skipped to the end without struggling along the way you wouldn’t know what to do with it when you got there.”

“Hnh,” Aspen grunted.

“I think it’s time, Aspen,” Ingvar added more solemnly. “Remember, I have been given a quest of the utmost seriousness. The last several months have been a lot of journeying with no destination in sight. We have learned and grown from our various visits with Rangers and elves and even your sister’s school, but none of it so far has been explicitly germane to Shaath’s predicament.”

“I like journeying with you,” she said quietly. “It’s been… It’s been good, Ingvar. I’m not sure I’m ready for things to change.”

“I’ve enjoyed traveling with you, too,” he replied, smiling at her. “Watching how quickly you’ve grown has been a privilege. But everything does change, you know. That’s the one absolute in all of nature. The time was always going to come.”

“Yeah, but are you sure you wanna trust this guy in particular?” she muttered, glancing sidelong at Rainwood. The elf grinned as he strolled along, clearly taking no offense.

“I can’t say that I’m sure about much,” Ingvar mused. “All I ever wanted was to hunt in the company of my brothers; I used to think that adapting myself to the political needs of the Huntsmen and tangling with Tiraan society was the great bend in my path. Now everything revolves around gods, ancient secrets, and trying to tease out the lies that have wormed through my faith. Not to mention grappling with huge questions of how to actually change a god.” He shook his head slowly. “If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that it does not pay to become too attached to an idea of what you think the future should be. And anyway, I guess I have a good feeling about this guy.”

“Yeah, well,” she said grudgingly, “I guess if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that feelings matter when it comes to fae magic. And dealing with people. And a surprising number of other things.”

“Tell you what, I reckon I’m as surprised about all this as you two,” Rainwood commented. “I’ve learned to trust my spirit guides—it’d be crazy not to, considering how many centuries I’ve been nurturing those relationships. Still, though. I was minding my own business in Calderaas, enjoying a semi-retirement from the adventuring life, and all they told me was that a great quest was afoot and I was to come here and meet some people, then guide them on the next steps. A Huntsman of Shaath and a dryad were definitely a surprising fill-in of that blank. And now I find out you’re after no less than a cure for the core problem of the gods themselves.” He snorted. “Next person who tells me the Age of Adventures is over is getting turned into a mushroom.”

Aspen gave him a much more interested look. “You can do that?”

“One way or another,” Ingvar said, “in the end, everyone gets turned into mushrooms. At least, if they are fortunate enough to die in a forest.”

“See, he gets it!” Rainwood chuckled.

She sighed. “Glad one of us does…”

The forested hills of eastern N’Jendo provided exactly the kind of territory Ingvar and Aspen both loved. Rainwood, clearly a wood elf by the shape of his ears, was doubtless equally in his element here, but in delivering them the urgings of the spirits who had taken an interest in Ingvar’s quest, he had steered them from the truly wild country they preferred and onto an actual path. It was no highway, merely an old game trail, but clearly saw enough traffic that the underbrush had no chance to swallow it up again. Aspen did not particularly mind, though Ingvar couldn’t help being concerned at the prospect of meeting human travelers. They reacted unpredictably to encountering a dryad, he had found, and Aspen reacted very predictably to people shouting at and threatening her.

Elves and Rangers alike were delighted to meet a dryad, but the list of people who felt that way was vanishingly small. And now they were apparently heading right to a Pantheon temple. Well, Omnists were probably likelier than most to welcome a living fertility spirit into their midst, and if worse came to worst, they were rather famous for their equanimity under pressure. Hopefully no pressure would be applied. After all, they were being led here for a reason.

Ingvar did have a good feeling about Rainwood and his guidance, and had learned to trust his intuition, but despite his reassurances to Aspen, the elf’s arrival did raise some thorny questions. If fae spirits were interested enough in Ingvar’s quest to send help his way, who else was aware of it? The Crow herself had seemed to feel positively toward it, but once she had guided them to that last encounter in Viridill, he had heard nothing more from her. Perhaps the intervening months making the acquaintance of elven shamans from Vrandis to Viridill had helped draw the attention of the fae to his cause. Whatever was coming, it would be wise to greet it with circumspection.

If nothing else, Huntsmen were often attuned to the stirrings of the fae. Ingvar himself had needed Mary’s careful guidance—and, it must be said, manipulation—to come to a point from which he was mentally prepared to accept the revelations thrust upon him, and even for him it had been a painful struggle. Other, uninitiated Huntsmen were unlikely to take it so well, if they caught wind of his mission. To them, his goal could very easily seem like nothing less than an assault on everything they valued.

Because, in a sense, it was.

The three of them climbed into more sparsely-wooded territory as the morning wore on. Around midmorning, they emerged from beneath the boughs at the peak of a ridge to find the land changed ahead. The forest had not ended, precisely, but where there had been constant coverage of pines all the way from the Athan’Khar border, there now was rocky, rolling territory ascending to the solid wall of the Wyrnrange in the east, dotted with isolated stands of trees interspersed with windswept open areas. Through these gaps, their destination was clearly visible.

“There she is!” Rainwood said with good cheer, pointing at the complex a few miles ahead, which was truly impossible to miss. The traditional Omnist ziggurat surmounting it stood out from the lower buildings clustered around, but even had there been no visible structure, an entire stretch of the terrain had been carved into terraces for farming, each supported by stone retaining walls. In the distance beyond the temple complex a waterfall plummeted from a great height in the mountains, and away to the southeast wound a river disappearing into the forest beyond. Rainwood shifted his arm to point north. “The Shadow Hunter enclave you were headed for is off to the north thataway, where the trees get thick again. Seems a likely next stop on your journey even after this diversion, but who knows? As we were just discussing, the road ahead is often surprisingly twisty.”

“Rangers,” Aspen corrected primly. “They don’t like to be called Shadow Hunters. That’s a perjorative the Shaathists made up to discredit them.”

“Why, right you are, Aspen,” Rainwood acknowledged. “Forgive me, I’m not accustomed to conversing with people who know that.”

“We told you we’d been visiting their enclaves,” she said in exasperation. “What did you think we talked to them about?”

“I should imagine you discussed a great many things,” he said diplomatically. “Well! The day is only getting older while we stand here, and the temple no closer. Shall we?”


Rainwood, despite all his hints about having been on many adventures over the course of a long life, had clearly never traveled with a dryad before. He tried to set a faster pace once they were walking on open ground and had their destination in sight. Ingvar, though it probably didn’t reflect well on him, took some amusement in not warning the elf.

Aspen’s usual diatribe about dryads and cross-country hiking was swift and loud. Ingvar had noticed that she rarely complained about the walking when they were traveling under trees, but as soon as they were out in the open, suddenly dryads were just not suited for long periods of walking, especially not at speed. Rainwood, to his credit, simply slowed his pace and offered no argument.

Despite being the one slowing them down, Aspen also insisted on keeping in motion rather than stopping for a break as noon neared, blithely commenting that Omnists were so well-known for feeding strangers that even she knew their reputation, and there was no sense in using up their own supplies when there was a free lunch waiting for them straight ahead. As she had grown more accustomed to interacting with people on their travels Ingvar had been pleased to see her maturing rapidly and developing the habit of considering the perspectives of others, but such episodes of unthinking childish greed were still very much in her character. Privately, he wondered if the Omnists would prove to be a good influence on her, or a very bad one. He could imagine that going either way.

In the end, it was over an hour past noon by the time they reached the temple complex. Their little path had led them onto an actual road nearly a mile back, a wide one not paved by Imperial engineers but which clearly saw regular wagon travel. Luckily, this was still the backwoods of N’Jendo and they did not encounter any fellow travelers until the road brought them to the first of the cultivated terraces upon which crops were being grown, and with it their first Omnist monk.

At least, she wore the customary brown robes. The monks of Omnu were famously humble, industrious, and pleased to labor with plants in the fields, but this one was engaged in nothing constructive, ignoring the crops growing around her. Instead, she sat on the edge of the terrace’s stone wall with her legs dangling over the path, whittling a piece of wood with a belt knife. Or had been, anyway; her eyes had remained fixed on the three of them ever since they came into view, the blade and half-carved block sitting immobile in her hands.

“Oh, good,” the young woman said sourly as they stepped into conversational range. “More weirdos.”

“Excuse you?” Aspen snapped, stopping and planting her fists on her hips.

The monk just looked the dryad over insolently, then did the same to the other two. “Let me guess,” she finally drawled, pointing with her knife. “You must be Ingvar.”

He stiffened unconsciously in surprise. “That I am. Forgive me, I did not realize I was expected.”

“Yeeeaaah, this has been a day of surprises all around,” the girl said sardonically. She was very young, clearly only a few years into adulthood, if that; perhaps that played a part in explaining her overtly un-Omnist attitude. The monk was a Westerner, but unless he missed his guess, not local; her lean frame, round face and deep mahogany complexion were more characteristic of the Onkawi from up north than the paler, stockier Jendi. “Well, the important thing is you’re here. Bout time, too, there are some people who are very anxious to meet you.”

“I…see,” he said uncertainly. “Well, then, I am sorry if I kept you waiting. It wasn’t intentional.”

“Well, at least he’s polite,” she said, tossing aside her piece of wood and hopping nimbly down to the path. There she hesitated, squinting at Ingvar. “Um…or is that she?”

“He,” Ingvar said, firmly but without aggression.

“Okay,” the young monk replied with a single nod. “Follow me, then.”

He did so, making soothing gestures at Aspen, who clearly did not care for this girl’s attitude. Ingvar didn’t either, to be sure, but her last comment had raised her half a notch in his estimation. Well, a quarter of a notch. It wasn’t uncommon for people to be unsure of his gender, or to be rude enough to ask, but far too many went so far as to argue with him about it, or at least shamelessly gawked. Sad as it was, a basic modicum of respect was an unusually positive character trait. Rainwood just strolled alongside him, grinning as if this were the most fun he’d had in years. For all Ingvar knew, that was literally the case.

“So,” the monk said, loudly enough to be clearly audible even though she didn’t turn around while walking, “how come your elf has black hair? I’m not even gonna ask about the dryad.”

“He is hardly my elf,” Ingvar replied in the tone of wry disapproval he had cultivated for quelling the excesses of younger brother Huntsmen, the ones who hadn’t outgrown constantly strutting around as if they had something to prove. “If you’re curious about Rainwood, the thing to do would be to ask him.”

“Guess that’s so,” she said laconically, then fell silent.

“I can already tell I’m gonna like it here,” Rainwood said cheerily.

Aspen leaned forward around Ingvar to peer at him. “Is that sarcasm, or are you just some kind of idiot? That’s a serious question, it can be really hard to tell the difference.”

“Eh,” the shaman replied, still grinning irrepressibly. “Little of column A, little of B. Life’s all about balance.”

“I thought life was all about change,” she grumbled. In front of them, the monk chuckled, which earned her a sullen glare from Aspen.

In the temple complex, finally, they began encountering people. Ingvar couldn’t fault them for stopping to stare, especially the younger ones; any of the three of them was an unusual sight, and in combination were worth staring at. Still, he found the Omnists a more courteous group than he had expected of humanity in general; all but the obviously immature novices quickly got over their surprise, greeting the travelers with smiles and polite bows. No more than that, though, as they were clearly being led by the young monk. That was a relief; explaining their business here was going to be interesting enough, since Ingvar himself didn’t fully understand it. He was just as happy not to have that conversation with every single person they passed.

Their guide conducted them on a winding route that was probably still the most direct path, considering how many switchbacks were necessary to ascend the terraces into which the hill had been carved. It quickly became clear that she was leading them all the way to the uppermost level, where the ziggurat itself stood with a a long stone structure extending from one side, which would be the monastery itself. The monk remained nonchalant and quiet for the rest of the walk. None of them minded the silence, if the alternative was her acerbic idea of casual conversation.

Despite the solid stone construction of the monastery, they could plainly hear raised voices in an argument as they approached its doors, a sound most unsuited to the grounds of an Omnist temple complex. The young monk finally turned to give them a wry look prior to entering.

Ingvar frowned, then his eyes widened. “Oh, no.”

“No? What no?” Aspen demanded. “What’s the matter?”

He sighed heavily. “I recognize one of those voices.”

“Yep,” the girl leading them said dryly. “I had a feeling. Welp, here we are.” She pulled one of the double doors open, stepped in and immediately moved to the side, leaving them to file into the monastery.

The entrance led to a long antechamber from which doors branched off in both directions behind a double row of columns. At the far end a fountain splashed in front of a mural depicting the sunburst of Omnu upon the wall. Ingvar and company took all this in with a quick glance before focusing on those present.

The only person who seemed to belong was an older monk who sat on a bench against one of the columns, watching the two young people having their shouting match with the long-suffering expression of someone who had given up trying to peacefully stop this.

Ingvar discovered that he had been wrong: now that he could see them, he recognized both these people. Which meant he could have warned the poor monk of the futility of trying to keep peace here. The prospect of these two being in a room together was so remote he had never had to consider what a disaster it would inevitably be.

“Oh, go out back and play with your bow, you overgrown child!”

“I’m a child! Where I’m from, a woman who acted the way you do would be put over someone’s knee until she learned to act her age!”

“Yeah, well, everywhere you’re not from, people have discovered fire and writing and not behaving like wild animals!”

“A wild animal would be a vast improvement over you, you vulgar gutter wench!”

“If you like animals so much, why don’t you go screw one? That’s what you Huntsmen do, right?”

“Jealousy suits you even less than petty spite, girl.”

“Oh, please, like anyone would touch you except with a weapon.”

“Every word out of your mouth proves the absolute necessity of keeping women—”

“I would like to see you even try—”

“You are very close to seeing—”

“Silence!” Ingvar roared.

It fell, momentarily, both young people and the long-suffering monk turning to him in surprise. Then the two of them immediately began yelling again, though at least this time it was without hostility, now that they were addressing him and not each other.

“Ingvar! Brother, you are here! I’ve been—”

“Brother Ingvar, I have been sent by the goddess to—”

“Oh, no one cares about your fool goddess, you tramp. Let the men talk.”

“That is it!” She burst alight with a golden glow of divine energy, and he hopped back, nocking an arrow to his longbow.

“WHAT DID I JUST SAY?” Ingvar’s voice thundered through the room, again bringing quiet.

“So, this is the famous Ingvar,” said the old monk, his soft voice seeming to quell the aggression in the room. He rose and approached them with a smile. “Welcome to our humble monastery. And you bring even more surprising company! Daughter of Naiya, it is an unprecedented honor. We shall do all in our power to make you comfortable here. I am Nandu, a humble administrator.”

“Brother Nandu is the abbot in charge of this whole place,” said the young woman who had led them here, now lounging against the wall by the door with her arms folded.

“Brother Nandu, I thank you humbly for your hospitality,” Ingvar said, bowing to him. “I am Brother Ingvar, Huntsman of Shaath. And I deeply apologize for the headache I can see you have been dealing with. I had no idea anyone was looking for me, and still don’t know why. Had I known these two of all people would be coming into contact I would have acted swiftly to steer them away from any hapless bystanders.”

“Well, life is an endless surprise,” Nandu said with an amused little quirk of his lips. “Omnu sends us no more trials than we can bear to face.”

“Soooo,” Aspen said pointedly. “Ingvar, why don’t you introduce everybody to your shouty friends, here?”

“One of them you’ve met, Aspen,” he said, turning a quizzical frown on the two before him, both of whom had the good taste to look embarrassed. “The last time we saw her, which was briefly, November Stark was a student at the University at Last Rock.”

“Oh, yeah,” Aspen said, nodding. “I do remember. She’s the one who was mad at you for existing.”

November blushed and looked mulish, simultaneously. “That is not what happened.”

“It lacks nuance, but Aspen also isn’t wrong,” Ingvar said flatly, “and I think you know it. And this is Brother Tholi, a very young Huntsman from the lodge in Tiraas. In point of fact, he is only recently elevated to full membership in the lodge, and it is very much not common practice for one his age to be wandering on his own a thousand miles from his elder Brothers. Not to mention that I am pretty sure the academic year has begun, and something tells me Professor Tellwyrn doesn’t know how far astray one of her lambs has gone. This promises to be two very interesting stories, before we even get to the matter of why you two are looking for me, of all things. And why here. Even I didn’t know I was going to be here until last night!”

“The spirits knew,” Rainwood said smugly.

November and Tholi glanced at each other, then both averted their eyes, scowling in unison.

“Well?” Ingvar prompted. “Explain yourselves.”

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12 – 7

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“So, yeah, maybe asking Melaxyna for a perspective wasn’t the wisest thing I’ve ever done,” Toby admitted. “It’s just that… My whole life, the perspectives around me have been kind of uniform. Even here, for all that this place is crazy and full of differing opinions. Some things people just consider universal. So when I’m questioning a universal truth…” He trailed off, shrugged, and took another bite of his pastry.

They were munching as they meandered back to their dorm from the cafeteria. Mrs. Oak did not generally take (or appreciate) special requests, but she had by happenstance reproduced quite closely the apple-raspberry tarts Toby and Gabriel remembered from the neighborhood bakery of their youth, and they’d made a point of stopping by for seconds after meals whenever those were on offer. Once in a while, as today, fresh ones found their way to their plates at dinner, when the cafeteria happened not to be too busy. Despite the cook’s taciturn and standoffish nature, it seemed Juniper was right to insist she wasn’t a bad sort at heart.

“I dunno, man,” Gabriel mused after swallowing the last bite of his. “I definitely follow your logic; she sounds like a great source of outside opinion. Just, you know, don’t take anything she says too closely to heart. Remember what Trissiny warned us about children of Vanislaas.”

“Yeah,” Toby agreed, nodding. “Actually… I made time to research some demonology after her big rant in the Crawl, and she was pretty much spot on. You have to be extremely careful with Vanislaads. Them and djinn—they use words to sow chaos, twist people’s minds. Melaxyna is the only one I’d even consider approaching, with her being stuck in the Grim Visage and out of touch with everything.”

“Funny thing,” Gabriel said with a grin. “Demons, feminism, or whatever else, I notice Trissiny’s rants are usually correct. Y’know, factually. If she ever figures out that ranting at people does not make them want to listen to her, she’ll be very persuasive.”

Toby had to laugh at that.

“I actually kinda miss her,” Gabriel said more soberly. “Well, personally, too, I actually really like Triss once she got the stick out. But right now, more importantly, I feel like we could use another paladin perspective.”

“Yeah,” Toby agreed, sighing heavily. “Though… I’m not sure how much I could lean on her for this. I don’t think Trissiny’s ever had the slightest problem with anything Avei said or did. Me having questions about my god would probably leave her… I dunno. Nonplussed, in the best-case scenario.”

He finished off his pastry while they strolled along in silence. At last, Toby glanced over at Gabriel.

“What?”

Gabe looked back at him, blinking. “What, what?”

“You’re making that face,” Toby accused. “The one where you’re debating whether to say what you’re thinking.”

“Excuse you,” Gabriel said haughtily, “but I never question saying what I think. It’s my whole thing. I have a thought, out it comes.”

“For nearly the entirety of your life, yes, but in the last year you’ve been working hard to correct that, and it shows. Which is why I recognize that look; I’ve noticed it, and you’re not yet contained enough to hide your facial expressions.”

“Duly noted,” Gabriel said, grimacing deeply. “…also a case in point, huh.”

“So what’s on your mind?”

He sighed. “Well…don’t take this the wrong way.”

“Gabe, when have I ever?” Toby asked in some exasperation, earning a weak grin in response.

“All right, fine. It’s just… I can’t find it in me to have an inherent problem with you questioning Omnu. Have you ever considered that maybe the gods need to be questioned?”

“Well,” Toby said after a pause. “That’s a big question, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, pretty much.”

“I don’t mean in the cosmic sense, though it is that, too. I mean from you, Gabe. You spent basically your whole life being despised for what you are, not for anything you did, and all because of the Pantheon’s rules. But I almost never heard you complain about it, or about them… Until you started getting directly mixed up with a god and being pretty firmly on his side.”

A silence ensued, in which they continued aimlessly strolling and Gabriel kept his frowning gaze fixed on empty space ahead.

“Anything you want to get off your chest?” Toby finally prompted. “In case I’m not the only one having paladin issues? And if you don’t, that’s completely fine. But you can. You know that, right?”

“The thing is,” Gabriel said slowly, “Vidius has been hinting at this from the very start. Pretty much the first things he said to me were all about how the gods might have made a mistake in dismissing demonbloods. And it’s been…more of the same. His phrasing is always very careful. Often so much so that I don’t notice the implication until I’m thinking about the conversation long afterward. But I keep getting these hints. My first authorized paladin-specific action was basically terrorizing the Vidians in Last Rock into behaving. He approved of that, strongly. Approved of me having valkyries spy on a priestess of his cult. Toby… I think Vidius believes the gods need to be questioned…maybe even challenged. I am pretty sure that’s a big part of the reason he called me.”

“So,” Toby said after another pause. “An even bigger question than I thought.”

“Yeah.”

“…man, suddenly I really miss having Trissiny to talk to.”

“Yeah.”

“Do, uh, you have any ideas? I mean, what to do about all this?”

“For either or both of us?” Gabriel shrugged. “I don’t think this is the point for having ideas, as such. I mean, if you think about it, we’re noticing odd trends and having questions. This seems like a time to be paying close attention and thinking carefully. Going off and doing anything drastic at this juncture seems pretty damn premature. I suspect any plan we came up with would be half-baked at best.”

“Well, you really do have a good head for planning, when you use it.” Toby grinned and jostled him with a shoulder. “I think you’re right, though. This is kind of a reversal for us, Gabe, but I’m gonna be watching you for cues on this. Wondering what my god is up to and whether I should approve is pretty new for me. I’m way out of my element.”

“Right, so, no pressure at all,” Gabriel said airily. “You know, if we’re going to end up chatting about all this while walking through the campus anyway, you could’ve just brought it up when I asked in the first place.”

“Yeah, well, I think we were just discussing how I’m apparently not the planner, here,” Toby retorted. “Anyway, that wouldn’t have gone anywhere. The very next thing that happened was the Rafe/Ekoi showdown.”

Gabriel’s expression grew somewhat morose. “Yeah. And after that… Chase is up and about again, but whatever they gave him, they don’t seem to have more of. Natchua is still out. And have you heard about that freshman girl?”

“Addiwyn.” Toby nodded soberly. “Raolo told me. I don’t know if Tellwyrn knows yet, she apparently went to Tiraas for something this afternoon. But that’s three people who’ve been hit, and it seems after the first one, Miss Sunrunner can’t cure it anymore. This is…” He trailed off, shaking his head wordlessly.

“It feels asinine to say this campus was supposed to be safe,” Gabriel murmured. “Half of Tellwyrn’s educational plans seem to involve dropping us in shit that should kills us and seeing what happens.”

“No, I get what you mean,” Toby agreed. “The thing is, she doesn’t do the same stuff to everybody. We’re all paladins and demigods and archdemons in our class, and just from comparing notes with others I know we always end up in more dangerous situations than most. That’s the difference. She’s in control, or at least she makes an effort to be. Now…”

Gabriel sighed. “Well, I mean, hell. We’re the paladins here, right? Guess it’s time we step up.”

“Yeah. How?”

He had no answer.


Despite the protests of her professors, roommates, and everyone else, November was accustomed to burning the candle at both ends. It wasn’t that she was a night owl, particularly, she just liked quiet and privacy. The campus had rooms designed to meet those needs, and she could certainly have used them, but she also liked the outdoors. That combination had led to her discovery of her favorite study spot, and her tendency to lurk there well past dark, even on nights when she had early classes the following morning.

In the shadow of the natural sciences building, a small ledge extended from the mountain at an odd angle near its peak, covered with soft grasses. When the campus had been built, it had ended up close to the spot where a path terminated against the exterior wall, and for whatever reason Tellwyrn had chosen to have a door open onto a short bridge leading to it. The ledge had been augmented with a park bench and an overhanging fairy lamp which kept it brightly lit even in the middle of the night, plus a shoulder-high wrought iron fence to prevent people from tumbling off the edge. It wasn’t a friendly place for anyone with a fear of heights, but then, that could be said of most of the campus. It also hadn’t come into favor as a make-out spot, between the omnipresent light and the fact that it was in open and in full view of both Clarke Tower and the open colonnade skirting the side of Helion Hall. Clearly, it had been meant for exactly the purpose to which November put it: studying, enjoying the view over the vast prairie, and just being alone.

Of course, she had twice caught pairs of her classmates being generally shameless there. Despite being a college student herself, she had developed a rather low opinion of them.

Tonight, though, she gave up on studying only an hour or so after dark. With a heavy sigh, November wedged the sheet of paper on which she was taking notes into her book, finished off the last of the bottle of tea she had brought, and stood. She just wasn’t feeling the concentration. Well, it wasn’t as if she had an upcoming test this early in the semester, anyway, just her general habit of staying as up to speed as possible in all her classes. Turning to trudge back to the door, she tried her best not to cast a glance at Clarke Tower. Just in case someone in it happened to be looking out a window.

For far from the first time, she roundly cursed her own stupidity. Trissiny wasn’t even there this time. Wasn’t here, on campus, at all. Maybe that would afford November enough time to quit being the bloody idiot about it she knew she was.

Slouching moodily along the path back toward her dorm, lost in her thoughts, she suddenly missed a step. The most profound feeling of lethargy swept over her; before she knew it, she was stumbling forward toward the ground, her eyes already drifting shut…

Purely by reflex, she seized the well of energy always just out of sight within her. November staggered and caught herself, her aura bursting alight. An instant later, a hard golden sphere slammed into place around her.

Wild-eyed with alarm, she turned rapidly, peering this way and that. No one was nearby… Only belatedly did she realize how peculiar that was. It was before midnight, and most of the population of this mountaintop were college students. This was one of the upper terraces of the campus, highly trafficked at most hours of the day. Someone aside from herself ought to be up and about.

“Hello?” she asked, scowling.

No answer.

Even unusually quiet, the familiar paths were well-lit as always; she couldn’t quite find it spooky. She turned slowly back in the other direction, still seeing no one.

After a long moment, she let the shield drop, but still kept her mental grip on the power coursing through her. Golden light radiated outward, brightening the cooler glow cast by the fairy lamps in the immediate vicinity. November bent to pick up the book and bottle she had dropped, mind churning.

Chase and Natchua… That sudden sleepiness had not been natural, she was sure of it. What would have happened if she hadn’t had divine light to call upon?

Even as she straightened, she felt her connection to the light ripple, as if something was interfering with it. Another surge of weariness washed through her.

It faded immediately when she snapped her shield back into place.

“I know you’re there!” November barked, glaring into the darkness and clutching her book to her chest. As far as her eyes could tell, she was still alone. Slowly, she edged down the path toward her dorm, one step at a time, still peering warily about.

Silence. Where was everyone?

She started moving again, this time at barely short of a run.

No sooner had she rounded the next corner than she skidded to a halt, gasping. There was a shadow on the path ahead.

There just wasn’t any other way to describe it. The thing had no substance or depth; it was not a physical object. Just a patch where the light was obstructed, exactly like a person’s shadow on the ground. This one, though, was not on the ground, but standing upright. Its two-dimensional shape was cast in a fleshed-out, person-sized space. Looking at it made both her eyes and her head hurt.

November poured another torrent of energy in her shield and lashed out with her free hand—she didn’t even know when she’d dropped the bottle again—emitting a blaze of unfocused divine energy right at the shadow.

It flickered and vanished.

She stood, glaring at the spot where it had been and panting in near panic.

A moment later, the disruption flashed through her aura again. This time her shield flickered and fizzled; only a sudden act of concentration kept it from collapsing. She could feel it burning as some counter-force weighed down on it.

November spun, hurling another wash of light behind her, and the pressure immediately abated.

This time, she flew into an outright run.

When the disruption came again, both her aura and shield wavered, enough to let some of the attack through. Exhaustion suddenly fell heavily on her; she staggered to a halt, barely keeping her knees from buckling, and focused on maintaining the energy. It was like trying to lift a chair over her head while someone kept trying to sit in it. If not for Professor Harklund’s class, she would have buckled in the first instant; as it was, she could barely keep up under the pressure.

The shadow drifted back into her field of view, just silently watching her struggle.

November let out a roar and forced herself into a run again—right at it.

It vanished at her charge, as did the attack on her shield. It hardened up, the divine light coursed uninhibited through her aura again, and the unnatural sleep fled from her consciousness. She came to a stop after a few more steps, spinning in a complete circle.

No sign of the shadow. No sign of anyone. She was a whole terrace away from her dorm. Was anyplace safer closer? Ronald Hall was nearby, but it was kept locked at night due to people’s tendency to filch alchemical reagents otherwise. She could reach the quad just past an ornamental hedge in the other direction. Maybe there’d be people there? She couldn’t hear anyone… Apparently no one was close enough to hear her, that or they didn’t think her wordless shout had been anything out of the ordinary. On this campus, that wasn’t impossible.

The attack came again, but milder this time, causing her shield to flicker but not penetrating enough to affect her directly. November bolted in the direction she happened to be facing at that moment, right toward the quad.

A few dashed steps later, she apparently got herself out of range of the enemy, emerging onto the lawn near the gazebo and finding it totally deserted. It only occurred to her belatedly that she had just let herself be deftly herded.

Sure enough, no sooner was she past the hedge than the pressure slammed down again. Her shield faltered entirely once, just for a split second, but it was enough for the attacker to get a grip. Gritting her teeth against the fatigue clawing at the backs of her eyes, November kept herself upright by force of will, pouring her concentration into her aura and fighting against the burning sensation. It was as if the air around her was combusting against her own glow.

Again, she saw the shadow, off to her right. November forced herself toward it, too tired to yell again or run, but managing a weak flash of light in its direction as she approached.

It vanished. Instantly it appeared to the left of her across the lawn, but that tiny moment of its distraction had been enough for its own concentration to waver; her shield firmed up and the sleepiness retreated, driven back by her own renewed surge of energy.

Baring her teeth, November turned toward it again and charged forward, a leaf-bladed sword of golden light appearing in her hand.

The shadow stood its ground until she drew close enough for her aura to encroach on it physically, then vanished again. As before, she had a split-second’s breather in which to regain her equilibrium before the attack resumed.

This time, though, it hit the hardest yet. Also, she realized, it had coaxed her into charging even further from the relative safety of her dorm. She stumbled, and under the renewed assault, her divine shield suddenly shattered entirely.

November fell, barely catching herself on one knee and wrenching her body around to face the shadow, which was now behind her. She poured every ounce of focus she could manage into the glow of her aura, but without the shield, it was like trying to blow out an approaching torch as opposed to having a wall between her and it. Exhaustion clawed at her, whatever magic caused it forcing her down even as the shadow drifted closer.

“You’re going to pay for this,” she snarled, even as she listed to the side, barely catching herself on one hand. “Tellwyrn will finish you. Trissiny will make you pay!”

Moving languidly, as if it hadn’t a care in the world, the shadow drifted toward her. Darkness crept up on her vision from the sides. She was so tired…

“She’ll…make…”

A thunderous equine bellow split the night, and suddenly a huge, white shape blocked her view. Instantly the attack ceased.

He reared and slammed his enormous hooves down on the lawn, neighing another challenge, even as November straightened up, the exhaustion again vanishing from her. It was a true reprieve, giving her space to restore her concentration; her aura blazed back to full strength, and the shield flashed into being within it.

Almost immediately the now-familiar assault resumed, and she spun to behold the shadow across the quad in yet another direction.

Once again, the great white horse bellowed and surged around her, his hooves thundering as he placed himself between her and the attacker. As if his mere presence were a better shield than her own, the pressure faded the moment he did.

It resumed seconds later from another side, and this time Arjen galloped past her, charging bodily at the enemy.

November, by that point, had a sense of how this thing fought, and immediately spun to direct a wash of golden light in the opposite direction behind her. The shadow struck from the flank, however, hitting harder still, so hard her knees buckled and her shield flickered even as she and Arjen both turned to face it.

“NO. YOU. DON’T.”

A cube of translucent blue panels materialized around the shadow—somehow, it looked even more painfully impossible when suspended inside a cage of light. The cage didn’t hold it, however. The shadow vanished, and this time, it stayed gone.

Professor Tellwyrn, teeth bared in a savage growl, stalked forward, planting herself on November’s right, while Arjen approached from the left, tossing his mane and pawing the ground angrily.

November only belatedly realized she was still on the ground, on her knees, panting in fear and weariness. Tellwyrn’s expression shifted to one of concern as she turned to her, and the elf knelt to offer her a hand.

“November, are you all right?”

“I…I…” She swallowed heavily. “Not very. I’m not hurt, though.”

Tellwyrn nodded; clasping her student’s proffered hand, she gently pulled her upright, showing surprising physical strength for someone so seemingly delicate. The professor’s personality sometimes made it easy to forget she was as slender and physically unimposing as any elf.

Something nudged her from the other side, and November turned, regarding the horse with awe. Arjen whickered and bumped her with his nose again. With a trembling hand, she reached up to pat him there, just below the face plate of his silver armor. His nose was impossibly soft.

“I…I don’t understand,” she whispered. “Does this mean…I mean, am I…”

“No, you are not the new Hand of Avei,” Tellwyrn said, her tone now amused, though she still hovered protectively close, keeping a hand on November’s shoulder. “Believe me, if that were the case, you wouldn’t be wondering. Avei doesn’t do subtlety. You’re still very blessed, though. I have seen this before, but very rarely. For Arjen to come to your aid like this, you must have shown both loyalty to his current partner and the kind of valor she would admire.”

Unable to speak around the lump suddenly in her throat, November leaned forward, wrapping her arms around the horse’s enormous neck and pressing her face against his warm hide. He snorted softly, tucking his chin over her shoulder in an equine hug.

Tellwyrn patted her back, and he snorted again, this time much less softly.

“For heaven’s sake, Arjen, she’s been gone for a century, and the whole argument was overblown in the first place,” the elf said in annoyance. “Let it go.”

November raised her head, releasing her grip on the horse; he was regarding Tellwyrn with his ears laid flat back.

“Please,” she whispered, stroking his nose again.

He let out a sigh, his breath hot on her palm, then shook his mane again and turned his head away from Tellwyrn.

“Are you sure you’re okay, November?” the Professor asked again, frowning at her.

November nodded. “Yeah. I’m not… It didn’t hurt me, it was using some kind of magic to erode my shield. I could feel it trying to put me to sleep.” She drew a shaky breath. “I’m not… Um, I was terrified.”

Tellwyrn nodded. “That is an appropriate reaction. But you kept moving even despite it, which is exactly what courage is. I would like nothing more than to let you rest right now, November, but you are the first person to have seen this thing and remained awake and with your memories intact. We’re going to get some hot chocolate in you before attempting anything else, but I’m afraid I need you to tell me everything you remember before I can let you turn in.”

Arjen snorted disapprovingly at her, which she ignored.

“Professor,” November said quietly, “this thing… Is this what attacked Chase and Natchua?”

Tellwyrn’s expression lengthened further, impossible as that seemed. “And, as I discovered upon my return tonight, Addiwyn. This is officially a crisis, and you’re the only lead I’ve got.”

November straightened up and squared her shoulders. This she understood: this was war, and she wasn’t about to start retreating now. “All right. Let’s go, then.”


She had kept up her pacing non-stop since resuming it the last time. Now, however many hours or days later it was, she paused again, turning to face the transparent panel as the indicators appeared.

Frowning, she watched in silence. The tampering with the facility’s systems had continued for over an hour last time, mainly of a harmless, surface-level variety. Lights and climate controls, mostly. It had clearly been too much to hope that the fumbling interloper would stumble across the door to her cell. That hadn’t happened, nor had much of anything else. In the interim, no one had come through, either; the Emperor and his Hands did not choose to spend time down here unless they were on specific business.

She was still debating with herself whether she was going to tell them about the tampering next time they came through. Now, though, it looked like that might not even be necessary.

According to the indicators in the screen, someone was probing at deeper systems this time, more central functions. For a moment, the screen itself flickered, its user-friendly display altering to show lines of code before it restored itself.

Still no door. Of course, it was a cell door; it wasn’t designed to open if someone just screwed around with it. Its default position was closed. Only very specific commands would make the aperture appear. The wrong fumbling could very easily deprive her of air, however. She didn’t actually know whether that would do her any harm, but it certainly wouldn’t be comfortable. She had not enjoyed some of the more extreme swings of temperature it had caused previously.

Now, according to the readout, it had moved beyond her cell to another system. The vast majority of the facility was dormant, so it made sense that someone scanning active systems would find one of the only other ones currently running.

Indeed, a dialog opened, showing the running processes that sustained the chamber down the hall, where the dryads were kept.

“Ohhh, no,” she said aloud. “You do not want to mess around with that.”

Obviously, no one was listening. Odds were that if anyone had been, they would not have cared.

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10 – 4

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The clack of wooden swords echoed across the lawn as the paladin and the drow clashed, circled, danced together and retreated. Other students stood around, each holding practice weapons of their own, but now just standing and watching the duel in the pale light of dawn.

Szith was the more mobile, making full use of her elvish speed and reflexes to get around her opponent. Nimble as she was, however, Trissiny very nearly kept pace with her, and the paladin’s more aggressive style, coupled with her greater physical strength, meant that their actual engagements usually ended with the drow in retreat. As the bout wore on, Szith became increasingly aggressive, being wise enough to realize that letting it become a contest of attrition would benefit her opponent. Trissiny, meanwhile, had clearly developed the skill of thinking multiple steps ahead, and made constant use of feints, false charges and sudden retreats to force Szith to adapt, helping to nullify the advantage of her speed.

The end, when it came, was abrupt and clearly a surprise, even to the contestants. Trissiny suddenly staggered, struck on the arm, and in the next moment reeled again, having been jabbed in the chest by one of her foe’s wooden swords. She took a step back, lowering her own weapon and wincing as she shook her left hand.

“I have bad habits,” she said ruefully, her aura faintly glowing for a moment to wipe away bruises and restore feeling in the arm numbed by Szith’s lightning-fast strike. “Muscle memory still wants me to block with that hand.”

“Indeed,” Szith replied, very slightly out of breath. “Had you been using a shield, I think that would have ended differently.”

She bowed formally in the Narisian style, both swords extended behind her. Trissiny replied with a traditional Avenist salute, fist over heart, blade upright alongside her face.

“Ugh, get a room, you two,” Ruda jeered.

Trissiny shot her an irritated look. “You could be practicing instead of spectating, you know.”

“Nah,” said Gabriel, grinning. “That was well worth seeing! Beats getting my ass kicked any day. And it’s really interesting to see Narisian sword work. The style is…different.”

“Are you not accustomed to watching Lady Shaeine fight?” Szith inquired.

“She doesn’t usually join us,” said November, absently twirling her practice sword. She instantly stilled it when Trissiny glanced at her.

“She also prefers to use magic in the field,” added Toby. “And in Ezzaniel’s classes I feel like she’s made a lot more progress with sword work since enrolling here than she ever did before. I guess combat isn’t a big part of a diplomat’s education.”

“Well, that’s all very interesting,” November said dismissively, turning to Ruda. “C’mon, how about another round? You said you’d help me work on my technique.”

“Mm…nah.” Ruda glanced at the sky. “I think we better pack up and move out. We’ve got classes before too much longer, and I want time to clean up a bit. Last time I went straight from practice to Tellwyrn’s class, she spent the whole goddamn hour making passive-aggressive comments about the way everyone smelled. Are elvish noses really that sensitive?”

“I help!” Scorn shouted, bounding up from where she had been sitting at the edge of the group, then turned expectantly to Teal. “Yes?”

“Sure,” said the bard, smiling at her. “You know where everything goes.”

“Everything!” the demon said enthusiastically, rushing forward to collect practice swords.

The sun was fully up, now, and morning classes would indeed be starting soon. The campus was starting to come alive, the odd student passing by the lawn en route to the cafeteria. Most hardly glanced at them; by this point, their little group had become something of an institution. They could be found on the lawn most mornings, either drilling under Trissiny or Toby’s direction, or practicing various forms of armed and unarmed combat. Since Trissiny and Teal had begun the tradition over a year ago, the roster had grown slowly, but those who made regular appearances had benefited greatly. Professor Ezzaniel himself had praised the progress Ruda and Gabriel had made in class, and November’s single-minded dedication and slavish attention to anything Trissiny directed her to do had advanced her own skill considerably.

“So, Shaeine’s title is actually Lady?” Gabriel asked as he and Ruda rolled up the woven reed mat they used for tumbling, to avoid grass stains on clothing. “I don’t think she’s ever actually mentioned that.”

“Not…exactly,” said Teal, glancing at Szith. “Narisians don’t really use titles; their full names reveal everything about their social standing. Those honorifics are practically a language unto themselves.”

“In this context, though,” said Szith, “and in Tanglish, I prefer to err on the side of courtesy. She is noble born, after all.”

“I’m certain Shaeine wouldn’t insist on the formality here,” Teal said with a smile.

“Perhaps,” Szith replied evenly. “But I am of her culture, and owe respect to her station. Different expectations apply to me than to the rest of you.”

Teal frowned slightly and opened her mouth to speak, but at that moment Scorn returned from dumping practice swords in the duffel bag used for the task and grabbed the one Gabriel had been using from his hand. “Here, give!”

He relinquished the weapon, frowning reproachfully at her. “I see we’re still working on those manners.”

“I am not manners. I am lady.” Scorn tossed her head haughtily, looking down her nose at him. “You are manners!” She turned on her heel and stalked back to the bag, where she tossed the last blade in with far more force than the task required, rattling all the way. Since her arrival on campus, she had begun accumulating cheap costume jewelry, mostly given to her by Teal; the lack of available metal in her home dimension had made her inordinately fond of it. Now the demon glittered and clattered wherever she went.

“Easy,” Trissiny said firmly. “Handle weapons with respect.”

“Well,” Gabriel muttered, lifting the rolled mat with a grunt and slinging it over his shoulder. “I guess that tells us a bit about the nature of nobility in her society.”

“In every society,” Szith murmured.

Trissiny suddenly stilled, turning in a slow half-circle with a frown on her face.

“Problem?” Ruda asked, watching her.

“I… There’s something on the edge of my…” Trissiny trailed off, then looked at Gabriel and then Toby. “Do either of you sense something all of a sudden?”

“Like what?” Toby asked.

“Feels demonic,” Trissiny muttered, looking around again. “Very subtle, though. I can’t quite pinpoint it.”

“I, uh…not really,” said Gabriel with a shrug.

“Maybe it’s just Scorn?” Toby suggested. “It started about when she started moving around just now, right? At least, that’s when you reacted.”

“Sort of. Maybe.” Trissiny’s expression did not ease, and she didn’t stop scanning the area. November looked tense and alarmed, creeping over to stand next to her.

“No,” Scorn said, folding her powerful arms and scowling at Toby. “There is a thing. I feel.”

“Really?” said Teal. “What kind of thing?”

The demon chewed her lower lip for a moment. “Hum…feels…like I know. Trissiny is right, very faint. A slave type.”

Ruda rolled her eyes; Gabriel snorted, earning a glare from Scorn.

“Can you be more specific?” Teal asked gently. It had been established previously that from Scorn’s point of view, all demons except Rhaazke were slaves, or ought to be.

“A hvathrzixk, I think. Yes, think so.”

“Bless you,” Gabriel muttered.

“I don’t know that word,” Teal said, frowning, then glanced at the others. “Demonic pronunciation is largely contextual. I’m not sure what that would be in this situation.”

“That language is way more complicated than it needs to be,” Ruda snorted.

“Yes, it is,” Trissiny agreed. “That’s the point of it.”

“Know word, know word,” Scorn was muttering, rubbing her forehead between her horns. “Know this, I read it up… Ah! Yes, slave of Vanislaas, yes?” She turned to Trissiny. “You feel, yes?”

The entire group stilled, then reflexively moved closer together. Trissiny drew her actual sword, which she had only just buckled back on.

“There is not a Vanislaad here,” Gabriel said firmly. “Their invisibility doesn’t work against valkyries, remember? Vestrel is offended at the suggestion.”

“Are you sure?” Trissiny demanded of Scorn. The demon shrugged.

“Not sure to plant my honor on. Feels like.”

“I’m telling you,” Gabriel began.

“Yeah, yeah,” Ruda interrupted him. “I think somebody better go straight to Tellwyrn with this.”

“Are you sure she ought to be bothered with an uncertainty?” Szith inquired. “She is rather prone to…”

“Mock,” November said tersely. “Oh, the mockery.”

“We got four people here who should be able to sense demons,” said Ruda. “Two say there’s nothing here, two sense something, and one says it’s an incubus or succubus. The discrepancy alone is pretty fuckin’ fishy. I’m telling Tellwyrn.”

“I agree,” Toby said seriously. “Keep in mind that of all the paladins here, Trissiny is most attuned to demonic threats.”

“But Vestrel can see through Vanislaad trickery,” Gabriel protested. “And, let’s face it, Scorn puts off a lot of energy. It messes with my senses a bit. That could be the whole thing by itself.”

“That doesn’t explain her sensing another demon,” Teal objected.

“Like feeling the heat of a candle when one is standing near a bonfire?” Szith added. “Does that not imply a greater likelihood a stealthy demon could hide in her presence?”

A brief silence fell; all of them peered around uncertainly.

“Yeah,” said Trissiny after a moment. “Let’s go get Tellwyrn.”


 

Darling pushed open the door of his study and stepped in, his attention on the letter in his hand. This was his third reading, and it still made him chuckle, even as it made him a tad nervous. Quentin Vex’s complaints were always very subtly couched, and rather ironically phrased. This matter had been slowly simmering ever since the fallout of that mess at the south gate; the spymaster was playing it cool and hadn’t even mentioned it at council meetings. The fact that he was now feeling Darling out for assurances that the Thieves’ Guild was not pursuing some kind of vendetta against Imperial Intelligence meant something else had happened.

Tricks’s orders had been to make it plain that their argument with Marshal Avelea had been only, specifically with her. Grip and Toybox had insisted that they’d done so. Why was Vex getting tetchy now? Some Guild agent must have ruffled another Imp, somehow.

The prospects weren’t good. Either the Boss was up to something else and hadn’t bothered to mention it to Sweet—which was unlikely, but all the more unsettling for that—or some random Eserite had crossed paths with an Imp, not realizing what they were messing with.

These things happened, of course. It would mean no end of headaches, going to the Boss and to Style to figure out what had happened and who had done it; Guild members were not generally expected to keep the management informed of all their activities. Tricks was not going to enjoy the extra work. Style would also complain, though in truth she loved having the excuse to storm and rage and crack people’s heads together. Darling would probably end up having to very, very carefully feel Vex out for details without revealing he had no idea what was up. Then again, maybe it’d be better to just up and ask him; Vex was canny enough that he’d likely read the truth between the lines no matter how Darling tried to obfuscate it, and in that circumstance it might be better to foster a sense of openness.

Of course, headaches or no, this still beat the hell out of the alternative. He knew very well that something was going on in the uppermost levels of the Guild that Tricks wasn’t keeping him in the loop about. And that was fine, generally speaking; he knew better than anyone that there were things the Boss and the Big Guy just didn’t discuss with anyone else. But if those things had begun to impact the Imperial government, Sweet’s life was about to become more interesting than he liked it.

Not to mention how that could weigh on his own plans. Occasionally, lately, he’d begun to experience and unfamiliar longing to take a vacation from all this.

“What, exactly,” he asked aloud, “do you think this is going to prove? I know very well how silent you can be. That’s not in question.”

“Oh, come on!” Fauna complained. She and Flora dropped from the ceiling, landing with simultaneous soft thumps on the carpet. Really, cats would have hit the ground harder.

“How the hell did you know we were there?” Flora demanded.

“Oh, don’t get me wrong, flawless performance,” he said, folding the letter and stepping around behind his desk to tuck it in the top drawer. “I know you, though. Most actual marks won’t have that kind of insight into your strategies, though you still need to be prepared for those who do. An actual enemy is never someone you want to take lightly, and they’re the ones most likely to be aware of you. I’ll tell you what, girls; figure out what the tell was and surprise me next time, and I’ll have Price let you off household chores for a week.”

“All right,” Fauna said, grinning broadly.

“We love being bribed!” Flora added with matching enthusiasm.

“They grow up so fast,” he said with a mock sniffle.

Below, the front doorbell chimed. All three of them glanced at the study door.

“Style says you two are doing well, working with the newer apprentices,” he said. “How do you like the work? Some find it boring.”

“It’s actually rather satisfying,” Fauna said. “Learning is good, but teaching’s also fun.”

“And no, we’re not bullying the newbies, which is what you really wanted to ask,” Flora added, smirking.

“Yes, yes,” he said with a smile. “Have you been at the work long enough to’ve noticed how much faster the general pool of apprentices graduates?”

“Not firsthand,” Fauna replied, “but Style’s explained it to us.”

“Personal apprentices serve for much longer periods because they get much more in-depth training from a sponsor.”

“The advantages of that don’t really need to be explained.”

“So no, we’re not resentful of the fact that people from the general apprentice pool have become full Guild members in the time we’ve been studying under you.”

“We’re still getting a better deal.”

“Plus,” Flora added with a wicked grin, “it was rather satisfying when Grip kicked Randy back into the general pool.” She held out a fist, and Fauna bumped it with her own.

“Good,” he said, not troubling to hide his amusement. “I’ll be honest, girls: your skills are already well beyond what the Guild demands of its members, in terms of minimum competence. At this point it’s all specialized stuff. I wouldn’t be offended if you wanted to move forward faster.”

They shared one of those loaded looks.

“We trust your judgment, Sweet,” Fauna said.

“You’ve more than earned that.”

“Besides…we like it here.”

“It’s nice to have, y’know, a home.”

“Omnu’s breath, I’m not gonna boot your butts into the street the moment you graduate,” he said with gentle exasperation. “Soon enough, once you start racking up your own fortunes—and you will—you’ll want space of your own. Till that time, you have a home here. You’re still family.”

Both smiled broadly. Much as he enjoyed word games and dancing around the truth, those little moments of pure, honest feeling were what made all the rest of it seem worthwhile.

A soft rap sounded at the door, and Price pushed it open. Taking in the elves with a glance, she turned to Darling and opened her mouth.

“Your Grace, you have a visitor,” both apprentices intoned in unison, the imitation uncanny.

“I see you have already been informed,” Price said in perfect calm. “As your study is currently infested with rodents who clearly have time to thoroughly clean the kitchen, I have taken the liberty of having him wait in the downstairs parlor.”

“Aww!”

“C’mon!”

“It’s your own fault,” he said severely. “I dunno why you still think it’s a good idea to taunt her. Price, who’ve we got on deck?”

“A Huntsman of Shaath,” she said. “Brother Ingvar, whom I believe you may recall. He insists his business with you is personal.”

Both elves turned to face him in surprise.

“That,” he said slowly, “is fascinating. All right, take ’em away. And make sure they have to keep the eavesdropping subtle.”

“Of course, sir.”

The girls adopted hangdog expressions, which of course had not the slightest effect on Price as she herded them down the stairs and toward the kitchen. He followed more slowly, mentally taking stock. At the moment, having been about to head out on Guild affairs, he was in one of Sweet’s loud, shabby suits. Well, Ingvar had been introduced to him that way, anyhow. Probably best not to surprise him any more than necessary.

He entered the study, finding the Huntsman standing stiffly with his hands folded behind him, examining the nicknacks on the mantle. Ingvar turned swiftly at his arrival, his face calm but, to a veteran observer of people like Sweet, his posture betraying tension. He did not want to be here. Well, considering how some of their previous conversations had gone, that was pretty understandable.

“Brother Ingvar,” Sweet said warmly, striding across the room to offer his hand. The Huntsman took it almost gingerly, though his grip was firm, and he immediately altered his tactics. This one wouldn’t be softened up by charm. “So sorry to keep you waiting,” he said more briskly, though it had only been a few minutes. “I was dealing with my apprentices; you know how young ones can be. How can I help you?”

“I am sorry to intrude, your Grace,” the Huntsman said with stiff formality. Voice and face remained calm, but his posture was still rigid, and one hand kept creeping toward his hatchet. Not a threat; it looked to Darling more like a gesture seeking comfort. Ingvar had either been slightly trained in diplomatic conduct, or had a knack for it that compensated for a lack of training. The two looked very similar. “I shall try not to take too much of your time; I merely have a favor to ask of you.”

“Well, of course,” Darling said smoothly, fading more into a Bishoply demeanor; Sweet was bound to grate on this guy’s nerves, by nature. “Please, have a seat, be comfortable. I’ll be glad to help if I can.”

Ingvar folded himself gingerly onto the loveseat while Darling slipped into his customary chair. He’d considered not offering; the Huntsman would naturally be more comfortable on his feet, but offering a guest a seat was such a universal mark of courtesy that failing to do so would be an insult under virtually any circumstances.

He studied his guest’s face in the moment of silence while Ingvar gathered words; this was clearly a request he was loathe to make, which made it all the more intriguing. Darling had taken the time to do a little research on his particular condition. It wasn’t an issue in Eserion’s service, where people had a very simple, rather limited code of behavior to adhere to and were expected to carry on however the hell they pleased in their personal lives. The cults of Avei, Izara and Vidius all had specific provisions for individuals whose gender didn’t match their sex, however, and conveniently had those doctrines written down, so he didn’t have to have awkward conversations with any of their priests to learn them. Needless to say, their doctrines contradicted one another quite flatly. Still, the reading had given him a little insight, he felt.

Ingvar, at least, clearly had not made use of any kind of body-altering alchemy, which could very well be a Shaathist thing. The Huntsmen did not record their beliefs, at least not where outsiders could read them, but their love of all things natural made it likely they would eschew cosmetic alchemy. There was only so much it could do, anyway. Ingvar’s beardless face could certainly belong on a man, especially given his attire and hairstyle, though it did make him seem younger than he was; Darling guessed him to be around thirty, maybe a tad less. With a simple trick of concentration, however, he could also see the face of a woman with a rather strong jaw and heavy eyebrows. It really did come down to how one chose to perceive what one saw.

“I have been given to understand,” Ingvar said finally, “that you have some contact with Mary the Crow.”

Oh, bloody hell. Honestly. What now?

“My goodness,” he said mildly. “You do know that Mary the Crow is a declared enemy of the state, I assume? That’s not an accusation to throw around lightly.”

“I have no desire to cause you any trouble, your Grace,” the Huntsman said quickly. “I am sorry to bother you even this much. Nothing you say to me will find its way to Imperial ears.”

“Oh, that’s not necessary,” Darling said with a smile. “You’re correct, I do know her. And I also keep Lord Vex appraised of my acquaintance with her and other dangerous individuals. That’s just sensible. He likes to amuse himself by surveilling my house, anyway. What’s your interest in the Crow?”

“I have been troubled, lately, by visions,” Ingvar replied, finally untensing the slightest bit as his gaze focused on a point not within the room. “Repeated and disturbing dreams which… Well, I will not bore you with details. In short, the most recent finally offered me a hint of the way forward, rather than vague warnings. It suggested I seek the guidance of the Crow.”

“I see,” Darling murmured. He did not see, but he could most certainly conjecture. Visions, Mary, and shamanic quests all fit together quite neatly. As a priest and a human, however, shamanic stuff in general was rather over his head. “If I may ask, who directed you to my door?”

Ingvar’s left eyebrow twitched in what looked like it had wanted to be a wry expression before he marshaled it. “Principia Locke.”

Darling had to chuckle at that; for some reason, Ingvar looked mildly offended.

“Sorry, old business. Principia’s name does tend to turn up whenever anything untoward happens; I guess it shouldn’t surprise me by now. That was good thinking, though; you probably knew about the family link there before I did.”

“Is it possible you can put me in contact with Mary?” Ingvar asked, betraying no overt impatience. It was there, though; in his situation, it would have to be.

“Oh, most certainly,” said Darling. “However, you should be aware that the Crow comes and goes like a cat, only far less reliably. I’ll be only too glad to let her know you are looking for her; at that point, she’ll seek you out if she’s interested. What I cannot do is pin her down for you, nor make any kind of appointment. Or guarantee that she’ll be interested in speaking. Or, frankly, give you a timetable. She popped in on my every few days for months, but then in the last half a year I’ve seen her all of three times.”

“I see,” Ingvar said, his shoulders moving subtly in a nearly repressed sigh. “Well. That is not nothing; it’s the first concrete progress I have made in this. I thank you greatly for your assistance, Bishop Darling.”

“Not at all, think nothing of it,” Darling said, waving him away. “Giving aid between faiths is the central duty of my position; we are all allies under the Pantheon’s aegis.”

Ingvar pointedly did not comment on that hollow platitude. “Nonetheless, I feel I owe you a debt for helping me in this.”

“Let’s not forget that you were among those who came to my rescue against the Black Wreath,” Darling said more softly, and more sincerely. “If you must think in terms of debts, consider any favors I do you here a repayment.”

“Very well,” the Huntsman replied with very slight but still evident relief.

Darling rose, suspecting his guest would be glad to terminate this audience without further small talk; the swiftness with which Ingvar followed suit bore out his hypothesis. “I’ve only one method which has worked in the past to get Mary’s attention; I retired it after she tacitly expressed displeasure, but for you, I believe we can trot it out again. Price!”

The parlor door instantly opened, revealing the Butler.

“Ah, there you are! Price, I need you to assemble another scarecrow.”

“Really, sir?” she said with that magical expressionlessness of hers that somehow conveyed withering disapproval in a way that couldn’t be called out.

“A…scarecrow?” Ingvar repeated, looking somewhere between amused and aghast.

“Yes indeed!” Darling said cheerfully. “And you know what, put a silly hat on this one. We can’t have our good friend Mary getting the idea that she should take herself too seriously. That’s terrible for a person’s blood pressure.”

“Your Grace,” Price intoned, “may I respectfully suggest that escalating a prank war with Mary the Crow is among the most ill-advised notions in the history of civilization?”

“Not in front of a guest, you may not,” he said glibly. “Honestly, Price, you’re making the poor man uncomfortable. Who taught you to behave?”

“Oh, uh,” Ingvar stammered.

“Brother Ingvar,” Darling said more warmly, turning to the Huntsman. “Once again, I cannot predict how swiftly I’ll have word for you, or what that word will be, but I’ll be in touch just as soon as anything develops.”

“I…appreciate your help very much, your Grace,” Ingvar said, and Darling couldn’t help feeling amused at his clear discomfort. He felt a little bad about that, though.

Well, it was good that he could feel guilty about such small things. When you didn’t, anymore, you were wandering into territory that he sometimes feared he would find himself in before he knew what had happened.


 

The light autumn wind tasted of rain; it tugged playfully at her hair and the fringes of her sleeves and leggings. She ignored it, perched on the edge of Darling’s roof right where the whole neighborhood could have seen her, if anyone bothered to look up. Humans rarely did.

Mary watched impassively as Ingvar the Huntsman made his way back up the street, moving with an alacrity that suggested eagerness to get well out of this ritzy neighborhood.

“Hmm.”

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“There is really no way to work your mind around the inherent limitations other than practice,” Professor Harklund said as he paced slowly around the room, watching his students creating staves of golden light and then hitting them against things—the walls and floor, mostly, though some were very carefully sparring, testing the magical weapons against one another. “Remember, the clock is ticking from the moment you summon an object, but its duration depends upon you, and not merely upon the depth of the power you can call up. Every contact with the physical world will weaken it further—the harder the blow, the greater the damage. There are simply too many amorphous variables to properly quantify the lifespan of a summoned object; over time, with practice, you will develop an intuitive sense of what you have made, and what it can withstand. And unfortunately, divine magic does not offer spells of the kind that would let you know this. Your sense will be built of experience, nothing more. Hence, practice. Yes, I will be repeating it even more,” he added with a grin, coming to a stop next to November, who was grimly battering her glowing staff against an identical one held up by Trissiny. “If you are to get any use of these constructs in the real world, timing is essential. You’ll only have them for so many seconds, and if you do not know the timing, your efforts may prove not only useless, but backfire. Practice, practice!”

November’s staff flickered out of existence at her next blow, causing her to stumble forward; Trissiny caught her with one hand, her own glowing staff still extant but notably dimmer than before.

“All due respect, Professor,” said Gabriel, pounding the butt of his against the floor, “but this seems like the kind of unstructured activity we could be doing on our own time. How about learning something new?”

“Are you seriously asking for homework?” exclaimed one of the new freshmen.

“Rest assured, Mr. Arquin, the schedule for this class is carefully planned out,” Harklund replied with a smile. “You will be practicing things on your own, don’t you worry. As a rule, though, I prefer that you do your initial experiments under supervision. Of course, I can’t stop you kids from working ahead on your own, nor would I. Do keep it in mind, though. Striking off on your own may result in the rapid expansion of your abilities, but it can also lead to the acquisition of bad habits I will have to drill out of you before you can proceed to the next step. Everyone should please feel free to ask my help outside of class, too! My office hours are posted.”

Toby stood by himself, facing one wall, methodically re-summoning his staff after every time it flickered out—which it did every time he struck it against the wall. The staff glowed dimly to begin with, and never seemed fully solid. It also took a few seconds longer to fully form than did the other students’ attempts, which were mostly instantaneous. He would focus energy into his hand until the golden rod slowly flickered into being, shift into a proper striking stance and slam it against the well, whereupon it would vanish from existence.

After glancing around the room at her fellow students, Trissiny wandered over to him. “Hey, that’s better!” she said encouragingly. “If it helps, think of it—”

“Trissiny,” Toby said abruptly, not looking at her, “I will get there. Would you please leave me alone?”

She actually jerked backward, blinking her eyes. “I… Um, sure. Sorry.” Looking nonplussed, she stepped away from Toby as he laboriously called up another staff, her gaze meeting Gabriel’s. He looked purely shocked, his expression slowly shifting to one of worry as he moved it to Toby’s back.

November scowled and opened her mouth, then shut it with an audible snap when Trissiny pointed a finger at her and shook her head firmly.

Several of the other students had stopped what they had been doing and were looking askance at the exchange between the paladins. Only when Gabriel turned to sweep a frown across the room did most of them resume their own practice. The exception was Shaeine, who was still watching Toby intently.

Toby manifested another staff, slammed it against the wall, and began patiently calling up the next one.

“All right,” Professor Harklund said in his customarily mild tone, smiling at them as he finished his rounds at the front of the room, “that’s our class time. This was good practice, everyone—remember, keep practicing on your own, and don’t be afraid to experiment a little, but also don’t try to run before you can crawl. I’ll see everyone on Friday. Mr. Caine, could you stay for a moment, please?”

Toby nodded, and just waited calmly while the others filed out of the room, his expression blank. Most of the freshmen and upperclassmen talked and laughed among themselves, but the sophomores and November, exiting as a group, remained pensively quiet, at least until the door finally closed behind them.

“So,” November said, frowning, “what’s eating him?”

The others looked at each other, but nobody had an answer.


“I cannot believe you let her do this,” Sheyann said disparagingly as she paced in a slow circle around the frozen form of Aspen.

“She was utterly confident she could handle it,” Tellwyrn replied, scowling.

“Have you not noticed how consistently Juniper overestimates her reach?”

“In point of fact, I have had distinctly the opposite impression,” Tellwyrn snapped. “In the year I’ve been teaching her, Juniper has consistently acknowledged her unfamiliarity with new subjects, proceeded slowly and always made sure she understood the basics before moving forward. She’s not shy about asking help from other students, and in fact that’s a big part of her knack for making friends. Well, that and her habit of offering sex as a greeting while being absurdly gorgeous. Even despite the need to coach her through basics that almost every other sentient being knows by the age of four, she is one of my least tiresome students.”

Sheyann had come to a stop and turned a look of surprise on the Professor. “Really? That is rather startling to hear. Either myself or Shiraki have been constantly having to pull her back and repair the small disasters she has caused. Not least of which being her choice of a notoriously erratic, intractable and untamable species as her first animal companion.”

“Hm,” Tellwyrn mused, folding her arms and frowning up at Aspen. “On the other hand, you’re mostly teaching her nature-based stuff, correct?”

“Almost entirely.”

“That she probably thinks of herself as already knowing more than anyone else.” She shook her head, spectacles glinting in the blue glow of the runes sealing the chamber. “Ugh, one or the other of us really should have put that together. Well, lesson learned. I will not be letting her attempt anything involving fae magic until I see proof she’s competent enough.”

“Indeed,” Sheyann agreed, nodding. “And this raises some possibilities I can use to further her education on her next visit to the grove. But that is tomorrow’s battle. For now, we have this one to deal with.”

For a long moment, they were silent, staring at the partially transformed dryad.

“Is there any way to tell how far into the transformation she is?” Tellwyrn asked finally.

Sheyann shook her head. “There is no point of reference, no way to tell what she was turning into. The effect is all but random. A dryad’s power is nigh-limitless; the question is, what was her imagination in the process of making?”

Tellwyrn heaved a sigh.

“This spell,” Sheyann murmured. “How does it work? She is frozen in time, this I can see. Is she out of phase with the world?”

“Actually, if you do that the subject just vanishes. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that if you dissociate something from physical reality they’re just instantly left behind as the planet orbits. Summoning spells account for that naturally, so I wasn’t thinking in terms of…well. No, she isn’t even frozen in time, merely slowed. Slowed so greatly she might as well be frozen for all practical purposes. Assuming I could ward the room well enough, she’d still be there when the sun goes nova. We’re not short on time.”

The Elder narrowed her eyes. “Then…she would be tremendously vulnerable to impact.”

Tellwyrn nodded. “The room’s built-in protections shielded her to begin with. I’ve since refined them to be sure. She should be safe while in here, provided we don’t introduce any more unknowable variables.”

“All right, then,” Sheyann said, nodding. “That at least tells me the shape of what we must do. It will involve a very intricate blending of arcane and fae energies, which is potentially explosive if we make the slightest mistake.”

The Professor grinned. “Then we’d better not. Fortunately, we’re the best in the world at what we do.”

“I’m not sure I would claim that,” Sheyann murmured.

“I would,” Tellwyrn said bluntly. “I’ll freely admit I rely more on force than technique in many of my workings, but when it comes to time magic I am the leading expert. Not that I blame the other mages; I have an understanding with the extremely persnickety god of time. It’s hard to do the research when you get smote for even thinking about it. And you can be as modest as you like, but I know you’re the eldest living shaman on the continent, if not the world.”

“No,” Sheyann said with a faint quirk of her lips. “I do have at least one senior.”

“Ah, yes. Right.” Tellwyrn grimaced. “When I’m thinking of people I expect to be helpful, she doesn’t spring to mind.” Sheyann actually grinned at her.

“One to handle the temporal magic, then, bridging the gap between Aspen’s frame of time and ours,” she shaman mused to herself, gazing at the dryad but seeing far beyond her. “One to conduct the actual healing. This…will be prohibitively difficult, Arachne. Neither of our systems of magic is innately helpful at touching another’s mind, which is what we must do. I can do it, but that is already a tiring process before the actual work even begins. She must be reached, before she is unfrozen, guided along a path of healing. We are talking about therapy. It is a journey of potentially years, considering the strains upon her mind.”

“Hm,” Tellwyrn said, frowning in a similar expression. “I can possibly speed things along while shifting the… Hm. I will need to be very careful with that, though. Even more than the rest. We’re on thin ice to begin with, emotionally speaking; dissociating someone from their ordinary passage through time can have dicey psychological effects.

“Yes,” Sheyann agreed, nodding. “Anyone participating in this endeavor will be taking on risks.”

“Well, I got her into this; I can’t just leave the girl there, and I’m not just saying that because I still need to know the situation with Naiya regarding Juniper.”

“You do not need to defend yourself to me, Arachne,” Sheyann said mildly, still staring up at the dryad. “I know very well you are far from heartless.”

“My point was, I’m not going to pass judgment if you decline to risk your own sanity over this.”

“That, I think, exaggerates the danger somewhat,” the Elder said dryly. “You are yourself aged enough to absorb a little extra time spent in a pocket dimension without being unduly befuddled by the experience. I was ancient even by elvish reckoning when you first appeared.”

“Mm hm,” Tellwyrn said with a reminiscent smile. “Thinking about it now, I have to agree with Chucky. It really is counterintuitive that I’ve survived this long, isn’t it?”

Sheyann gave her an exasperated glance before resuming her study of Aspen. “Even so, Arachne… This is more than I can take on alone.”

Tellwyrn drew in a deep breath and let it out explosively. “Okay. All right, then. Who else do you need? I don’t mind involving a few other Elders, provided you can temper their attitudes somewhat.”

“I am sure they would say the same to me about you. I could seek help from several Elders—it would take multiples pooling their skills to achieve what we will need to do. I understood, however, that this matter is somewhat sensitive. Elder shamans would be very inquisitive about an issue that may involve Naiya becoming agitated. It might be better not to spread this any farther than we must.”

“Oh, please.” Tellwyrn waved a hand dismissively. “By the time enough of them speak to each other to spread a rumor, all of this will be long done with. You’re probably the most wide-ranging of the bunch, and I’ll eat my spectacles if you’ve been out of your grove in the last thirty years.”

“What a suspiciously specific and accurate number,” Sheyann mused. “Anyway, Arachne, trust me when I say the other Elders would talk. Things change.”

“I am well aware that they do. I’ll be astonished if the Elders are.”

The shaman smiled broadly at that, but the expression just as quickly faded. “There is, though I hesitate to say it, a more pragmatic option. More discreet, and also a better source of help to begin with.” She turned to face Tellwyrn directly. “Do you happen to know how to get in touch with Kuriwa?”

Tellwyrn scowled deeply at her. “You would be far more likely than I to know how to do that. Mary and I have developed the perfect relationship that keeps us away from each other’s throats. At the core of the method is staying as far away from each other as the breadth of this continent will permit.”

“And then, in typical fashion, you settled yourself down as close to the center of the continent as you could,” Sheyann said dryly. “In any case, though I have much less of a personality clash with her, I find I also sleep better when Kuriwa is nowhere near my grove. Nonetheless, she is the best prospect to help with this. Her command of the necessary magics outstrips mine considerably, as does her knowledge of it. And she has had many long and fruitful dealings with dryads; there may not be any higher authority on the subject. We can settle for involving a few other Elders if you are willing to embrace the risks, the inconveniences, the wait and the fact that it is second-rate assistance. If we can find her, though, we’ll need her.” She sighed, and shrugged. “But then, that may be too distant a possibility to consider anyway.”

Tellwyrn closed her eyes, shook her head, and hissed something obscene to herself, shifting through four languages in two seconds. “Last year,” she said finally, “she actually contacted me obliquely. She’d found Caledy’s old amulet and returned it to me. Through an intermediary, though, and without any personal message attached.”

“Both wise precautions,” Sheyann said gravely.

Tellwyrn rolled her eyes. “Yes, well, her contact was Antonio Darling. He strongly implied he was in regular, consistent communication with her.”

The shaman tilted her head. “Who is this?”

“He’s a priest of Eserion, a politician in the Imperial capital, and currently the Eserite Bishop for the Universal Church.”

Sheyann raised her eyebrows. “Indeed. A Tiraan official? And an Eserite, to boot? That is very peculiar company for Kuriwa to keep.”

“He’s not Tiraan,” Tellwyrn said, “just lives there. Seemed like frontier stock to me. You know the type: Stalweiss complexion, old gnomish name. That might make a difference to her… Still, and even considering how odd it would be for Mary to be loitering in Tiraas, I believed him. The man had no motive to deceive me, and is certainly intelligent enough not to torque me without substantial reason.” Tellwyrn paused and sighed heavily. “Are you adamant that we need her?”

“I wouldn’t put it that way. However, this will go much faster, be much easier and involve fewer complications with her help than without.” She paused for a moment, then spoke more gently. “I don’t believe anyone actually likes Kuriwa, Arachne. Possibly not even herself. However, I have learned to understand her, somewhat, and I know the ulterior motive she will bring to this. Other Elders will involve the politics of their groves; she will only see the advantage to herself in befriending a dryad, particularly one as old as this. That won’t harm our efforts and will, in fact, encourage her to be helpful. I would not suggest involving her if I did not deem it more than worth the drawbacks. I think, though,” she added in a wry tone, “I had better be the one to approach her. No offense intended.”

Tellwyrn snorted. “When was the last time you were in Tiraas?”

“It has been…let’s see…at least four centuries,” Sheyann said thoughtfully. “I will be very interested in seeing how the city has changed.”

“Good gods,” Tellwyrn muttered. “Well. On the subject of discretion… If you’re planning to approach Bishop Darling, let me pass on a word of warning about his apprentices.”


“Oh, my,” Ravana said, stopping at the top of the staircase just inside the Well’s front door. “What is all this?”

“Oh, just a little project,” Marueen said modestly, tucking a wrench back into her Pack and hopping down from the rail. “Afritia said I could. I’ve got th’easy part all set up there, see? Those wires an’ pulleys, see how they’re all connected t’that little lever that gets flicked whenever the door opens?”

“I do,” Ravana agreed, craning her neck to peer upward. Indeed, the taut network of white cables vanished from the small apparatus down the stairwell to the floor far below.

“That sounds a little bell in our dorm room when somebody comes in or goes out,” Maureen said rather smugly. “And this,” she patted the much more hefty network of metal rods she was in the process of bolting to the bannister, “when it’s done, will be a means of sending packages down to the bottom from up here.”

“But…why, though?” Ravana asked. “Afritia handles our mail. Anyone bringing a package to the dorm will likely be going there herself.”

Maureen shrugged, leaning through the bars of the bannister—and suspending her upper body terrifyingly over the drop—to tighten the next row of bolts. “The joy of the thing is in making it, not necessarily in havin’ or usin’ it. That’s the only reason I bother at all, since it’s doubloons to doughnuts Addiwyn’ll just take an axe t’the whole thing first chance she gets. It’s… It helps me think, y’know? Straighten out me thoughts, get the blood flowin’ an’ the body workin’.”

“I believe I understand,” Ravana said, nodding slowly. “I have my own thought-inducing exercises. Mine happen to be a bit more cerebral, but then, I was not raised to exert myself physically.” She smiled ruefully.

“Aye, well…I’m also revelin’ in the freedom, a bit,” Maureen grunted, still working on bolts. “Back home, tinkerin’ wasn’t considered a proper thing to do.”

“Forgive me, but my knowledge of your culture is entirely secondhand,” Ravana said, frowning. “It was my understanding that gnomes greatly valued adventuring. And is not one of your most famed current adventurers known for her mechanical skills?”

“Aye!” Maureen paused in her work to grin up at her. “Aye, you’re dead on, but those two facts are in spite of each other, not because of each other. Tinker Billie gets respected because of what she’s accomplished—y’don’t argue with results. But she had a hard road of it, settin’ out. She was always me hero, growin’ up. Let’s just say Mum did not approve.”

“Well.” Ravana moved toward the stairs. “I am glad you’ve found a chance to indulge your passion.”

“Aye, you too. I ‘ad me doubts, right up till the end, but you did get us the only A in the class with that scheme of yours.”

“And made us no friends,” Ravana said with a satisfied little smile, “but all things considered, I would rather we be respected than liked.”

Maureen stopped what she was doing, resting her arms on one of the bannister’s horizontal bars to peer up at the human girl. “So… How’s that factor into your plans to bribe and manipulate your way into friendship with the three of us?”

Ravana’s expression closed down. “I beg your pardon?” she asked softly.

“I’m not trying to start somethin’ up, here,” Maureen said quietly, gazing up at her. “It wasn’t even an accusation. I mean… You really weren’t trying not to be obvious, y’know? And I was more’n a mite offended for a brief bit, but… I get the strong impression you really do want to make friends, here, an’ just don’t know any other way to go about it. And that’s just too achingly sad to let me stay miffed.”

“You are…more perceptive than I fear I’ve given you credit for, Miss Willowick,” Ravana said, staring at her.

Maureen shrugged and turned back to her bolts. “Aye, well, we gnomes are comfortable bein’ underestimated. Better’n bein’ stepped on, which is the other most likely option! Anyhow, it’s been all o’ three days; I’m not too worried about things just yet. We’ll all get our sea legs in time. I hold out hope even Addiwyn’ll come around.” She paused, studying her half-built contraption. “Though I may change me mind after we find out what she does to this beauty of a target I’m settin’ up. This is turning out to be more effort an’ love than I was plannin’ to pour into it.”

“You sound absolutely confident that she will sabotage it.”

The gnome shrugged again, grinning. “Well. I am makin’ an assumption about who’s causin’ the trouble around here, but…c’mon. Is it an unlikely outcome?”

“Hm.” Ravana tapped her thin lips with a finger, and a smile slowly blossomed across her features. “Hm. Not to second-guess your creativity, Maureen, but… I wonder if I could persuade you to make a modification?”


“I assure you, I have been forewarned,” Sheyann said, stepping into the sunlight from the door of Helion Hall.

Tellwyrn sighed, following her. “Forewarned is one thing. The experience of riding a Rail caravan is not the kind of thing for which one can truly prepare. I would be happy to teleport you…”

“Arachne,” the Elder said flatly, “if it turns out that I hate the Rails more than that, we can revisit this conversation. Quite frankly, though, I would find that outcome extremely surprising.”

“Ah, yes,” Tellwyrn said in the same tone. “I know how you venerable Elders despise anything convenient or efficient.”

Sheyann just shook her head, smiling. “I’ll have to ride back anyway, unless you were planning to chauffeur me all over the continent.”

“It would be worth it just for the look on your face.”

They were silent for a long moment, standing on the top step. In the near distance, four students tussled playfully on the lawn outside the cafeteria. A few others walked past on the paths, and two young women were hunched over a book in the shade of the astronomy tower’s small front porch.

“You are actually doing this,” Sheyann said softly. “This…University. I honestly thought you would lose interest within a decade.”

“Yeah, that seems to have been the general assumption,” Tellwyrn snorted. “I don’t know why. It’s not as if I have ever lacked focus or discipline—it’s just that the thing I was focusing on forced me to completely change the whole pattern of my life every few years.”

Sheyann turned to regard her in quiet thought for a moment before speaking softly. “I am sorry, Arachne, that you never found what you were looking for.”

Still gazing out across the campus, Tellwyrn slowly shook her head. “I’m not. All these years later, I find my only regret is how long I spent on it. This is a much better use of my time.”

The shaman smiled. “Well. It is surprisingly pleasing to see you settling down to something, finally.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Tellwyrn waved her off. “Away with you, the Crow isn’t going to conveniently collar herself. Be nice to Darling, he’s a useful sort of person to know, despite the dramatic horrors he’s meddling with. And, as always, give my love to Chucky.”

Sheyann paused in the act of descending the stairs to look curiously back at the Professor. “Why do you insist on taunting him so?”

Tellwyrn grinned wolfishly. “Why do you?”

The Elder was still laughing as she made her way across the lawn.

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8 – 5

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“I can’t believe she scratched me,” Gabe said, for far from the first time. He was rubbing at his throat with one hand, despite the fact that he had healed the tiny pinpricks as soon as they had been inflicted in a rather excessive display of divine light. “How is everyone always scratching or stabbing or breaking me? Why do I even bother being an invulnerable half-demon if everybody gets a free shot?!”

“I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that you continually seek out and provoke the only people wherever you are who can actually do these things to you,” Toby said mildly.

“You make it sound like I have a death wish,” Gabriel grumbled. “I’m unlucky and dense, not suicidal.”

“I honestly can’t decide which would put you in more danger,” said Trissiny.

“And for the record! I did nothing to antagonize Ruda, she’s just a bi—a jerk,” he finished, glancing guiltily at Trissiny.

“I give you credit for the effort,” she said dryly.

Gabriel cleared his throat. “Sorry. Habits. But seriously, how Ekoi managed to scratch me is a pertinent question.”

“She’s a kitsune,” Fross explained, fluttering over to hover between them. “A potentially very powerful kind of fairy from Sifan. It’s actually really rare to see one outside their home country; they don’t like to travel. But then I guess it’s no surprise that Professor Tellwyrn has friends everywhere.”

“Maybe that means Professor Yornhaldt will come back soon,” Trissiny murmured.

“Be that as it may,” November chimed in, bodily inserting herself into the conversation, “whatever Gabriel did doesn’t justify a professor assaulting a student!”

“I actually think Professor Tellwyrn will agree with you on that,” said Shaeine from the sidelines. “Regardless of the very slight nature of the injury, she has strict rules about such things. If this has not been brought to her attention, I suggest we do so. If Professor Ekoi is as potent a force as Fross implies, it is doubtless best if she is prevented from making a habit of corporal punishment.”

“That’ll be an interesting conversation,” Toby said fatalistically. “Tellwyrn doesn’t have a high opinion of tattletales, even when they’re in the right.”

“Tellwyrn’s opinions are irrational and arbitrary,” Trissiny snorted. “The rules are the rules; she made them. November and Shaeine are right: Ekoi cannot get away with this.”

The handful of other students present simply stood at the periphery of the room, watching November and the sophomores in silence, several with frowns or raised eyebrows in response to tales of the new magical sciences teacher sinking her claws into Gabriel.

They were meeting in Martial Spell Lab 3, an octagonal room attached to the gymnasium, with a padded floor and enormous plate glass windows for three of its wall sections, which looked out over the prairie to the east. That glass, however, was no less fragile than the stone which comprised the rest of the room, and all of it would stand up to mag artillery fire. This was one of the chambers in which spell combat was taught and practiced; the defensive charms covering every inch of the room were the best that could be had. Allegedly they’d only needed to be replaced three times since the University’s founding, which was impressive considering the nature of the student body.

Further discussion was interrupted by the arrival of Professor Harklund through the door opening onto the main gymnasium. He was a man in his middle years, with the receding hairline and expanding waistline to prove it, but his jowly face carried a smile, as it habitually did. Despite his Stalweiss surname, he had the dark complexion of a Westerner. He dressed in traditional wizard robes of plain blue, a custom so outdated as to be an affectation, but despite that Harklund was one of the least-mocked professors at the University. A bronze pin displaying the moon and stars sigil of Salyrene was affixed as always to the breast of his robe.

“Hello, eager learners!” he said cheerfully, sweeping his gaze across the assembled students, pausing at each of them as he did a quick mental count. Class sizes at the University were small enough that most teachers didn’t bother reading names off a list; they knew who to expect and could tell at a glance if someone was absent. Professor Harklund, this time, had the opposite problem. “Ah, Ms. Fross, you are not enrolled in this class. I’m afraid you don’t meet the prerequisites, my dear.”

“Yes, I know!” Fross said brightly. “I happen to have a free period now this semester and I like to study my own projects, so I wondered if you wouldn’t mind if I audit this class? I’m very interested in different methods of using magic.”

“It’s not that I mind,” the Professor replied. “I never object to students wishing to learn. This is a strictly practical class, however; we will be wielding divine energies in significant concentration every day. That is potentially injurious to fairies.”

“Oh, but—”

“And,” he interrupted gently but firmly, “any methods you might use to mitigate that risk could disrupt the actual workings of the class. If you clear it with Professor Tellwyrn and Miss Sunrunner, and get their assurance that your being here is both safe and not disruptive, I certainly don’t mind if you watch. For this session, though, I’ll have to ask you to clear the premises.”

“Okay,” Fross said rather glumly. “I’ll see you later, guys.” She fluttered to the door, which opened to admit her, then drifted gently shut once she was gone.

“Well, then!” Professor Harklund went on more briskly. “Welcome to Introductory Lightworking! This is, as I’m sure you know, a new addition to the University’s offerings. I’m sure you know this because several of you were instrumental in getting it added to the curriculum! The only firm prerequisite for enrollment in this class is an established ability to wield divine magic. An awful lot of lightwielders do nothing but call on the energy and just…spray it out, unfocused. That includes a number of fairly high-ranking priests who really have no excuse not to know better.”

“Not all cults emphasize magic use,” Trissiny said pointedly. “Salyrene is the only goddess of healing and magic; other faiths have other priorities.”

“You are correct, Ms. Avelea,” Harklund said amiably. “To put it in more Avenist terms, then, would you send any soldier onto the battlefield as poorly-trained in the use of a sword as the average Avenist cleric is in the use of the light?” He gave her a moment to consider that, just long enough for her to develop a good scowl, before continuing. “As a counter-example, Themynra’s faith is about reasoning and judgment, which has nothing to do with magic…except when it has everything to do with magic. It certainly does not show good judgment to use tools without developing skill in their use. And indeed, I understand our Ms. Awarrion has a proven facility at magical shields, is it not so?”

“I believe I have attained a certain basic competency, if I may be forgiven for boasting,” Shaeine said diffidently.

“Shaeine is modesty personified,” Gabe said with a grin. “She’s crazy good with shields.”

Professor Harklund grinned. “We’ll take the time to explore the skills each of you already have, of course. I will be demonstrating new subjects as they arise, but as I told our pixie friend just now, this is a practical class. There should be time in each class period for everyone to receive individual instruction, and you will of course be expected to practice on your own. Now then, for the most part I plan to limit my talking to explanations of specific actions I expect you to take, but I will begin our semester with this one piece of theory.”

He paused, glancing around at them with a knowing half-smile, before continuing. “The light is caught up inevitably in religious concepts, coming to us as it does through the auspices of the gods. Interestingly, even among the dwarves, who can touch the light without any god’s help, an animistic faith devoted to it is common. All this leads us to a whole slew of misconceptions about just what divine magic is, and what it does. The truth is this: the guiding principle of the divine is order.”

“I thought divine light encouraged life,” said a boy unfamiliar to the sophomores, probably one of the new freshmen.

Harklund pointed at him. “That’s one of the more common misperceptions, Mr. Mosk. It arises from confusion between the two schools of magic used for healing. It is the fae which encourages life, and the distinction between it and the divine helps illuminate—pardon the pun—their respective strengths and weaknesses when it comes to the healing arts. For example, fae healing is excellent for major tissue damage, and even can reset broken bones if the proper spells are used. However, it has a tendency to accidentally encourage conditions that are caused by an overgrowth of life where one is not wanted. Infections, viruses, cancer. Divine healing, on the other hand, attempts to restore the body to its own base state, which also serves to purge it of alien incursions. However, a simple surge of divine energy hasn’t a physical component, and thus does not repair physical disruptions in the body of a certain size or severity. For instance, if you heal someone with a bone broken and left in the wrong position, you can cripple them for life. Heal someone with a blade embedded in their organs, and you likely condemn them to an excruciating death.”

November gulped audibly. Professor Harklund nodded, his expression solemn.

“In both schools of healing there are, of course, ways around these handicaps, which is what distinguishes a true healer from someone flinging around holy light or fairy dust. Healing is not the focus of this class, though we will of course cover it in some detail later in the semester. For now, however, we’ll begin with a relatively simple form of lightworking: the manifestation of solid objects.”

He held out a hand, a golden glow springing up around him, and suddenly a long, narrow cylinder appeared in his palm, apparently made of pure light. Harklund casually twirled the radiant golden quarterstaff as he continued speaking. “Some deities, notably Avei, grant shielding as an inherent gift to their clerics. If you do not come from a deific tradition which has this ability, however, you can make a shield simply by making something solid. You can, in fact, make just about anything—with certain limitations on size and complexity. There are differences and outliers, but the rule of thumb is you can’t create any object more massive than your own body. Only rigid things can be made, nothing flexible or malleable. A light-crafted object also cannot be changed once it exists; if you want something else, you must dismiss your creation and start over. There are further limitations and provisos, but they tend to situational and can be particular to the source of your magic, so we will address those in detail at a later date.”

The staff vanished, and in the next moment he was holding a traditional leaf-bladed short sword. “I often marvel that this practice is not favored among the Sisterhood. A priestess who can do it would never be disarmed. Ah, but do please correct me if I start to wander into theology,” he said with a wink. “As I was saying earlier, it naturally comes up when we discuss the divine, but isn’t directly germane to this class. Now then, holding a physical object made of divine light requires some concentration, but much less than it takes to create it in the first place. Today we will be attempting to make a simple object—the staff, as I just demonstrated.” He did so again, first dismissing the sword. “Its very simple form is an easy first project, and it also happens to be a particularly useful thing to know. There are a thousand and one uses to which a good staff can be put. Next time we meet, we’ll start to work on holding divinely created objects in existence without focusing your whole concentration on it. The trick can be dicey to acquire initially, but I think you’ll find, once you get there, it’s quite easy. All right, then! Who would like to start?”

Gabriel and November stepped forward simultaneously, then had a short, polite scuffle as each tried to yield the floor to the other. Professor Harklund had to end it by nominating Gabriel to try, admonishing each of them to pay close attention but please not attempt to follow the instructions until he could work with them individually.

The directions given were all about focusing, concentrating and feeling, the kind of talk that was familiar to anyone experienced with using magic but quite difficult for particularly concrete thinkers to initially grasp. Gabriel went about it with a most peculiar expression, a frown of intense concentration that kept flickering into a look of pure, childlike delight.

Trissiny eased over next to Toby, who was watching with a smile. “He looks so…”

“Yeah,” Toby agreed, nodding, his smile broadening. “He does.”

Gabriel’s lesson was interrupted by a yelp from November, who had manifested a golden quarterstaff in her hand, positioned so that she clocked herself in the head with it and tumbled over backwards.

Professor Harklund was by her side in seconds, placing a hand on her forehead and illuminating her with a gentle golden light.

“By far the greater part of your time spent in this class will be in individual practice,” he said to the others as he gently helped a wincing November to sit up. “However, Ms. Stark has just demonstrated the reason I ask that you not attempt new lessons unsupervised. As we get into more complex studies, the potential hazards become more severe. All right, Mr. Arquin, where were we?”

Gabriel got it a few moments later, after Harklund suggested he give up the two-handed staff grip he was holding, as the second point of contact increased the complexity of the initial summon. He absently rested his left hand on the hilt of his sword, and almost immediately found himself holding a staff made of light. No sooner had he whooped in triumph than it flickered out, leaving him grimacing.

“Very good!” Professor Harklund said approvingly, clapping him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, Gabriel, holding it is another matter entirely, as I said. We’ll get to that in due course. Some of you may find that a magical aid to concentration can help with the initial summons, if you’re having trouble making that breakthrough. If any of you are still struggling by the end of this class and don’t possess any such devices yourself, I can provide one. This really is very much like learning to walk; getting the trick of it in the first place is the only hard part. All right, Ms. Stark, I believe you demonstrated a prodigious grasp of the basic technique without even meaning to. Ms. Avelea, would you care to go next?”

They went around the room in that fashion, each of the nine students attempting the feat individually. Trissiny did it all but instantly and without apparent effort, as did Shaeine; Professor Harklund left them to practice on their own, occasionally directing them to assist classmates who were getting irregular results from their repeated attempts. Once a student had managed to create a staff from midair, the Professor instructed them to keep at it and get a feel for the act. This caused steadily increasing tension among the remainders before they were called up to be walked through the process, but he had a very calming manner and was adept at handling classes of nervous pupils. By the time the session ended, more than half of them, working alone, had figured out the trick of holding a manifested staff in existence. Of those, only Trissiny, Shaeine and a junior girl named Clara had managed to keep one without actively concentrating on it. Everyone else lost theirs as soon as they attempted to speak or do anything with their staves—which probably averted several impromptu duels.

Everyone except Toby ended up having fun.

He simply could not get it to work. He never grew frustrated or nervous, simply staring at his open hand with a fixed, blank expression, creating futile spurts of light. Golden beams shot forth from either end of his fist at one point, but they were just light, with no solidity. At another, he conjured up a glittering outline, as if a layer of dust had settled over a staff, but not the staff itself. Eventually the Professor partnered him with Gabriel and Trissiny to practice and moved on to the next student, pausing only to give Toby a few encouraging words.

Still, despite all their best efforts, the class time came to an end without Toby having achieved more than a few interesting light effects. Harklund spoke with him quietly at one side of the room while the other students filed out, though Toby’s classmates waited to accompany him.

“It’s like he said,” Gabe said, slinging an arm over Toby’s shoulders. “It’s just…a trick. Once you get it, it’s the easiest thing. Hard to wrap your mind around in the first place, though.”

Toby just nodded, as calm and as distant as before.


 

“The man is absolutely barmy,” Maureen said in an awed tone.

Most of the freshman class had split after escaping the crowded, humid greenhouse, which had somehow seemed to become twice as crowded while Professor Rafe’s excessive personality was present. Now, the girls were on the way back to…

“Wait, where are we going?” Maureen asked, looking around. “This isn’t the path to the Well.”

“I frankly do not know,” Ravana declared, “nor am I terribly interested. We’re unlikely to fall down a hole or encounter a minotaur provided we stay outdoors and on campus, and to be quite honest, I feel an urgent need for some fresh air.”

“Imperial society is, on the whole, far more expressive than Narisian,” Szith said slowly. “Am I correct, then, in concluding that Professor Rafe was exuberant well beyond local standards of behavior?”

“Exuberant,” Maureen said, “irrational… I think the term would be eccentric if he were rich or a noble. Me, I’m goin’ with shoes-on-ears batscratch crazy.”

“Traditionally, academics are allowed to be eccentric, as well,” Ravana commented.

“He didn’t even notice me,” Iris burst out.

All five of them came to a stop, staring at her. At the rear of the group, several paces behind, Addiwyn snorted disdainfully.

“Professor Rafe?” Maureen asked cautiously.

“Lord Gabriel,” Iris said, seeming on the verge of tears. “He didn’t even…augh, not that I blame him, I babbled like an idiot. I’m such an idiot.”

“He noticed you,” said Szith. “In fact, he spoke to you.”

“You’re right,” Addiwyn snapped. “You are an idiot.”

“Excuse you?” Iris shrieked, whirling on her.

“If you spent a little more time worrying about your studies and less obsessing about boys,” the elf sneered, “perhaps you would be a happier, calmer type of idiot. Are you even aware that you were just in a class?”

“I’ve me doubts whether that qualified as a class,” Maureen mused, while Szith subtly interposed herself between Addiwyn and Iris, who had gone from the brink of crying to the brink of attack, judging by her posture and suddenly balled fists.

“It is hardly unconventional or inappropriate for college students to dwell on their love lives, or lack thereof,” Ravana said mildly.

“Besides which,” Szith added, “apart from Professor Tellwyrn’s frankly lunatic homework assignment and Professor Rafe’s instructions to drink something distilled from grains, which I personally am going to regard as a joke, we hardly have any school work about which to be concerned.”

“Really, Addiwyn,” Ravana added, “I don’t presume to know the reason for this directionless hostility of yours, but I cannot imagine how you expect it to end well for you.”

Addiwyn stalked forward until she was within arm’s reach of Ravana and stood, glaring down at her. They made an odd tableau: both girls slender, blonde and attired in a similarly old-fashioned style. The elf towered over the human, though, and wore an expression of almost childish fury—while Ravana, who looked the more physically childlike of the two, was calm and seemed faintly amused.

“Are you threatening me, little girl?” Addiwyn asked coldly.

“I am exercising common sense,” Ravana replied. “That you took it as a threat is a case in point. It is never a good idea to indiscriminately alienate everyone you meet.”

Addiwyn curled her lip, sniffed disdainfully, and shoved rudely past her, flouncing off down the sidewalk.

“Just what the hell is that girl’s problem?” Iris growled at her back.

“She can still hear you,” Szith observed.

“Good!”

“As Addiwyn has fortuitously walled herself off from our shared room, I believe we can dismiss her airs and nonsense from concern,” said Ravana. “She will either come around or come to grief; on her head be it. Meanwhile! You mentioned Professor Tellwyrn’s homework, Szith. I think it’s time we got a head start on it.”

Maureen and Iris drew back from her hesitantly; Szith just raised an eyebrow.

“Y-you’re eager to get started drawing up plans to ambush and…what was the word? Oh, right, neutralize each o’ yer roommates?” Maureen asked hesitantly.

“Oh, goodness, no,” said Ravana, waving a hand as though brushing away cobwebs. “We will not be doing that, ladies.”

“So…you want to do the homework, but you don’t want to do the homework?” Iris blinked twice. “I’m confused.”

“It’s not homework,” Ravana said with a smile, “it is a test. Tellwyrn’s pushing us, seeing how we react to pressure. To manipulation.”

“Apparently I react by getting confused,” said Iris.

“Aye, add me t’that!”

Szith remained silent, watching Ravana closely.

The blonde turned and resumed walking along the path, forcing the others to fall into step or be left behind, and carried on speaking. “Rather than let her turn us against one another, girls, we are going to do an equivalent group project, which will require some research. Let us make for the library while we have some free time.”

“Research on each other?” Maureen asked. “In the library?”

“No, no, Maureen. We’ll all get to know one another organically, over time, as such things are meant to happen. No, the subject of research will be the true enemy here. Arachne Tellwyrn is rather famous for being inexorable and unstoppable, but there are cracks in that awesome resume of hers. She has been beaten. She’s been outwitted, she has made mistakes, she has several times allowed herself to be manipulated by becoming overly emotional. We are going to perform a brief review of everything known about her adventuring career, find all the weaknesses, all the areas in which she can be and has been beaten…” She grinned, eyes fixed on the distance far ahead. “…and rub them in her face.”

A weighty silence hung over the group for several long seconds.

“Ravana,” Maureen said at last. “I like ye an’ all, please don’t think I don’t. But that… I really believe that is the worst idea I have ever heard.”

“It certainly sounds that way, doesn’t it?” Ravana said, half-turning as she walked to give the gnome a pleased smile over her shoulder. “And that is why it will work.”

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7 – 5

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The scene at the central Rail station in Calderaas was one of orderly chaos, a familiar sight to those who had lived through well-mannered disasters. In accordance with the Imperial proclamation freezing Rail travel, the station was emptied of its normal clientele and much of its normal staff. With the throngs of travelers gone, the cavernous space turned out to have ample room for the refugees from Last Rock, though they were huddled uncomfortably close together in some cases.

Imperial personnel moved rapidly about, mostly civilians from the Ministry of the Interior in suits and dresses, distinct from the townsfolk chiefly by their silver gryphon badges and brisk manner. Uniformed soldiers carrying staves were posted at the entrances and windows and strategically throughout the station, keeping watch; more of them, sans weapons, had been put to work helping to shift cargo. For the most part, the townsfolk were admirably calm and orderly. The frontier bred hardy people more inclined to work than to complain, and the proximity to the University had taught these particular souls a degree of comfort with the unexpected. Nonetheless, there were raised voices, minor scuffles and the odd backup of traffic as someone misunderstood directions or refused to follow them. Clerics were moving through the crowd, mostly Universal Church parsons, Omnist monks and several Izarites, helping to keep people calm and seeing to whatever needs they found.

The townsfolk were being settled into hastily-cleared offices and storage warehouses, with several in tents erected along the wider thoroughfares and main lobby, while the students were being set up along the platforms suspended above the actual Rail lines. Imperial officers, familiar with the handling of upset civilians in a crisis, had taken one look at the two groups and promptly separated them. Even now, with distance and casually wandering soldiers between them, a lot of the townspeople were directing angry looks and mutters at the students. Even aside from the general presumption that the University was responsible for whatever nonsense befell the town, there were more than a few Rockies intelligent enough to do the arithmetic on the situation and deduce that a student, or students, had to be personally responsible for the hellgate. By this point, that awareness had sifted through the entire population, and even some of the more laid-back citizens were growing irate. The usual run of University tomfoolery was one thing, but they’d now been separated from their homes and were facing the possibility of having no homes to which to return. The priests had a full job maintaining calm.

Professors were helping with that. They moved among the students, keeping order better than the Imperials could (apparently enough of the Interior personnel were acquainted with college students to know not to try clamping down on them), and also speaking with the civilians. University staff grew to be more familiar to the folk of Last Rock than students, simply by virtue of having more time to get to know them. Most were liked, at least to an extent, and they had a measure of trust accumulated which was paying off in this situation.

Nobody was under the delusion that this was a long-term solution. Apart from the simple sanitary concerns of having that many people in a confined space, the simmering tensions would only get worse the longer people were kept in such a tight situation. It was just a matter of time until someone lashed out, one way or another, and that raised the very real possibility of an escalating conflict. In theory, it should all be resolved one way or another within two days, but the Ministry of the Interior was already drawing up a resettlement plan for the refugees. So far, only some of the senior University faculty and the mayor and Sheriff of Last Rock had been informed of this, on the reasoning that seriously discussing the possible destruction of the town would only escalate tensions. For the time being, everyone was focusing on tending to the needs of the refugees and keeping calm and order among them.

“YOU WHAT?”

Almost everyone.

Professor Tellwyrn stood nose-to-nose with a man whose Army uniform bore a captain’s stripes below a Strike Corps insignia; he stared back at her with remarkable calm considering the situation.

“We are not embarking for Last Rock, or anywhere else,” the captain said patiently. Behind him, the three other members of his strike team stood in relaxed postures that belied the cold stares they all directed at Tellwyrn. A second strike team stood off to the side, having casually arranged themselves into a staggered diamond formation that gave them all a direct line of sight at the Professor, placing their warlock at the head of the group and the cleric in the back.

“Tell me that again,” Tellwyrn hissed. “This time, speak slowly and use small words, as I appear to have gone completely insane. There is no other possible explanation for what I thought I just heard.”

“The orders are directly from the Emperor. Forces are being dispatched from Tiraas, and as I just said, Professor, all other details are classified. I couldn’t tell you more even if I knew more.”

“Do you?”

He smiled thinly. “That’s also classified.”

“That’s nonsense!” she barked. “Calderaas is the provincial capital and the established staging area. There is no reason to re-route resources from Tiraas, hundreds of miles south, when there are soldiers, zeppelins and strike teams here!”

“I am confident that his Majesty knows what he is doing,” the captain said calmly.

“Maybe I should go ask him,” Tellwyrn snorted, taking a step back.

Immediately, a faint buzz of arcane energy sprang up around all eight Strike Corps members, along with a small but noticeable increase in the ambient temperature and a golden glow wreathing the two clerics. Both fae magic users slipped hands into their coat pockets.

“Be extremely careful, Professor,” warned the captain quietly. “That was uncomfortably close to a threat to the Emperor.”

“Boy,” she said disdainfully, “do you really imagine I’m impressed by—”

“Do you imagine I am?” he shot back. “Yes, yes, we know, big bad Arachne can bring this whole place down around all our heads. Either do it or pipe down and behave yourself, lady. There’s a crisis going on, if you haven’t noticed, and nobody has time for your grandstanding. The Empire is handling this. You will be informed of anything you need to know.”

Behind him, the priestess in his team sighed heavily and shook her head. The warlock next to her grinned.

Tellwyrn regarded the captain with a curious expression for a moment before opening her mouth to speak again.

“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?”

“Oh, what now,” Tellwyrn muttered, turning her back on the Strike Corps to seek out the new disturbance.

She stalked through the informal blockade of soldiers, none of whom moved close enough to make that difficult, to the platforms where the student groups were being organized. A mixed gaggle of sophomores and freshmen were clustered together, confronted by Janis van Richter, who was scarlet-faced and hyperventilating with a mixture of panic and fury.

As Tellwyrn arrived, Professor Yornhaldt emerged from the crowd in response to the noise, several other faculty members and a couple of Imperial Marshals gravitating over behind him.

“Janis,” Tellwyrn said sharply, “what is the—”

“Look!” Janis shrieked, reaching out to grab Ruda by the shoulder. Her hand passed straight through, eliciting no reaction from the girl. Next to her, Tanq and Natchua exchanged a nervous glance.

Tellwyrn halted, frowned, and pushed her spectacles up her nose, peering at the students through rather than over them. Her expression immediately grew an order of magnitude more angry. She held up one hand and snapped her fingers.

Instantly, the entire freshman class dissolved in a clatter of sparks and falling objects. Smoke drifted up from the wreckage of charred enchanting components now lying inert on the metal platform. The one exception was Fross, who immediately veered sideways and went shooting drunkenly off over the Rail tracks. In seconds, she lost cohesion and dissolved in a blur of mist.

“Wh—that—they—“ Professor Yornhaldt clapped a hand to his forehead. “I didn’t even— Arachne, I’m afraid I must immediately tender my resignation on the grounds that I have become a senile old fool.”

“Oh, shut up, Alaric,” she growled. “If I expected you to match wits with duplicitous teenagers I’d have to pay you better. What’s more to the point is they could not have done this alone; eight illusionary kids boarding a caravan would have drawn some notice.” She tilted her head down, glaring at the members of the sophomore class now standing around the destroyed golems. “Unless someone was covering for them.”

“The Hand of Avei has a calling, and an obligation to face the demons,” November said stridently. “It’s an honor to be of service to her in that!” She was only present because a caravan with a special safety harness had been found to carry her, and was now (much to her irritation) confined to a wheeled chair with a heavy lap quilt on Miss Sunrunner’s orders.

Beside her, Natchua shrugged, folded her arms and looked away. “If the froshes all want to get killed, I respect their choices.”

“Wait, wait, stop,” said Chase, his eyes wide. His lower lip started to tremble dramatically. “You man…that wasn’t really them? D-does this mean me and Trissiny aren’t getting married?” November shot him a filthy look.

“Those. Little. Shits.” Tellwryn hissed.

Behind her, Professor Ezzaniel cleared his throat. “It’s not like that group to do something so dangerous without a specific reason, Arachne. Considering the situation, I suspect Omnu and Avei are directly behind this.”

“Who did you think I was talking about?” she snarled, whirling and stalking away up the platform.

There was a clatter and a fountain of sparks as the connector between the Rail driver car and the compartment immediately behind it severed. Instantly, the entire empty caravan fell onto the Rail itself with a tremendous crash that brought people running from all directions. Except the driver car, which floated up into the air, turning completely around as it drifted back past the wrecked caravan and settled gently onto the Rail, facing back the way it had come.

Immediately, its hatch swung outward and a shaken-looking Imperial enchanter leaned out. “What in Omnu’s flaming name—?”

“Change of plans!” Tellwyrn said, stomping up to him. “This car is going back to Last Rock. Now. Out.”

“I’ve received no such orders,” he blustered.

“You just did, boy,” she snapped. “Get out of the car before I have to get you out.”

“Now see here!” He drew himself up fully, which was quite impressive as he was still leaning awkwardly forward out of the hatch. “The Imperial Rails answer to no one but his Majesty! If you think for one moment—”

“Driver!” a voice shouted from the near distance. The crowd of nervous onlookers parted, disgorging three Imperial soldiers with Private Moriarty at their head, pointing imperiously at the enchanter. “A further crisis has developed. On the authority of his Imperial Majesty I am commandeering this vehicle. I’ll need you to step out, please.”

“Oh, well,” he hemmed, glancing back into his compartment. “I guess if that’s—eep!” The enchanter staggered, barely catching his balance as Tellwyrn tugged him out onto the platform.

“Good work,” she said curtly, pausing just inside to point at the trio. “You three! Get in here, I may need some warm bodies to throw at a problem.”

“Well, if you’re gonna sweet talk us, I guess we have no choice,” Rook drawled, ambling forward.

It was crowded with four of them in the compartment. The three soldiers pressed themselves back onto the padded bench along its rear wall, groping for the provided handholds, of which there were not enough for all of them.

“Ugh, what is this?” Tellwyrn growled, yanking the hatch shut and glaring at the runic console. “What a mess. I told them to keep the controls simple. What does this even do?” She prodded a bank of symbols and immediately the Rail beneath them began to glow blue, humming furiously and emitting odd sparks. “Oh, I see. Well, that’s handy, needed that anyway. What are you leering at?” she demanded, turning her head to look at Rook, whose insane grin had been reflected on the inside of the windscreen.

“Moriarty broke a rule!” he crowed.

“The exalted rank of private doesn’t give us the authority to commandeer anything,” Finchley added. “Especially Imperial property.”

“An Imperial Rail driver wouldn’t yield his assigned place under any threat,” Moriarty huffed, folding his arms. “And he was standing between Arachne Tellwyrn and what she wanted. I just saved that man’s life.”

“You are rapidly becoming my favorite, Moriarty,” Tellwyrn said, turning back to the controls. She flicked her fingers across two runes and grasped a lever.

“Oh, gods,” he groaned, and that was as far as he got before she pulled the lever.

The car shot forward like a bolt of lightning, accelerating faster and far less smoothly than Rail caravans were meant to. Within seconds, they were outside the city and rounding the first gentle curve, smashing the three men into the wall and eliciting a chorus of screams. Tellwyrn gripped the lever and a hanging strap, balancing upright without apparent difficulty.

“For heaven’s sake, cut out that racket,” she snapped. “Let me concentrate! I’ve got about ten minutes to figure out how to stop this thing.”

For some reason, that didn’t seem to help.


 

“Did you see them go?” Ruda asked as the girls stepped onto the bridge toward the main campus from Clarke Tower. After months of making the trip, they barely gave the frightening drop a glance.

“Fross came to collect us,” Shaeine replied. “We were not attending the window at the time, but I gather it is confirmed? We are alone on campus?”

“Oh ho,” Ruda said, waggling her eyebrows. “And what were you attending—”

“Somehow that was the first time I’ve watched a Rail caravan depart from the vantage of our room,” Trissiny interrupted her. “It was a surprisingly awesome sight. Makes me feel like I’ve wasted opportunities all these months to see it happen. You just don’t appreciate how fast those things move when you’re inside one.”

“On the inside you mostly appreciate how roughly they move,” Teal said with a grin.

“Well, it’s not like you can just sit at your window waiting for it,” Juniper said reasonably. “Last Rock is only barely on the regular stop roster, and most the time nobody’s coming here, much less leaving. The caravans don’t come around all that often.”

“How do you know that?” Ruda asked.

The dryad shrugged. “I read, I talk to people. It’s not exactly a secret.”

“I thought the plan was to meet up on the cafeteria lawn,” Trissiny said as they reached the gate to the main campus and found Toby and Gabriel there waiting.

“Yes, well, we decided to surprise you,” said Toby with a smile. “Purely out of concern for your well-being and not at all because this place is unbearably creepy when it’s deserted.”

“It’s hard to tell,” Gabe added, “but I think it would be even without… You know.” He pointed skyward, and they all paused to look up.

The wispy spiral of clouds had, over the last hour, grown to a huge thunderhead, twisted into a slowly rotating vortex and casting a shadow over the mountain, the town and their surroundings. There were no other clouds in the sky, as if all had been drawn to the hellgate. As the sun was falling and the sky reddening, a sickly orange glow illuminated the clouds. It might have been a natural result of the sunset, except that it was too faint, and the way it reflected on the swirls of vapor made it plain that the source was at the center of the spiral. There was no thunder, no sound of any kind, but flashes occurred periodically among the clouds, like distant lighting, except an ominous red in color.

“Might as well get over there, anyway,” said Fross. “I don’t know how much difference it’ll make, but…that’s where the center of it is.”

“Yeah,” Trissiny agreed, nodding, and set out on the path toward the cafeteria. The rest fell into step with her.

“Arquin, just what the fuck do you think you’re doing with that thing?” Ruda demanded.

Gabriel placed a hand protectively on the hilt of the black sword hanging at his side. “Well, considering what we’re up against… I figured it was best to be as prepared as possible.”

“Being prepared means knowing how to use the weapons you have,” she snorted. “You’re prepared to cut your damn foot off.”

“It doesn’t cut me,” he said, scowling. “I checked.”

“Yeah, way to really hone in on the important point there.”

“Gabriel has been training with the sword,” said Trissiny, “with my help. He’s making progress.”

“Really?” Ruda raised her eyebrows. “Well, damn. Color me impressed.”

“I do what I can,” Gabriel said with blatantly false modesty.

“Progress,” Trissiny clarified, “in this case meaning that I trust him, barely, not to harm himself more than an enemy. I’m a lot less confident about him swinging that thing around while the rest of us are standing nearby. Please stick to the wands, Gabe.”

“I was planning to anyway,” he said with a sigh.

“Why do you even still have that?” Fross asked. “I thought you were gonna have the spells on it analyzed. Somehow it seems like Tellwyrn would have made you get rid of it.”

“Which is why I didn’t take it to Tellwyrn,” he said, winking at her. “I showed it to Professor Yornhaldt; he said it’s very old and was clearly the work of an archmage or something similar.”

“That’s it?” Teal asked. “No word on what the spells actually do?”

“He couldn’t tell. Apparently they’re extremely complicated and very tightly woven together, or…something. It got a bit technical for me; I learned some new terms to look up but even so I never did follow the whole thing. But no, he said to really understand what the magic was supposed to do, he’d have to start unraveling the enchantments on it, which would probably ruin them. He did suggest I could probably sell it to a collector for a good sum, or even turn it into the Empire for a bounty. Apparently the government likes to take powerful magical artifacts out of circulation whenever possible.”

“And yet…there it still is,” Toby noted.

Gabriel shrugged, looking self-conscious; he touched the hilt again, lightly brushing his fingers over it. “It’s… I dunno. It just didn’t feel right. It’s almost like I rescued her, y’know?”

Ruda snorted. “Her?”

“Well, Ariel’s a girl’s name, right?”

“I’m a little more concerned with the fact that you’re carrying a weapon loaded down with extremely powerful spells and you don’t even know what they do,” Trissiny said, turning to glance at him as they walked. “I wish you’d just left it in your room, Gabriel. Failing that, please leave it in the sheath. We are assuredly not going to need extra sources of trouble tonight.”

“Yes, General,” he grumped.

They walked in silence the rest of the way to the lawn, and by unspoken design formed into a loose circle outside the broken cafeteria windows, gazing upward. Silent lightning flickered through the clouds. It was subtle, but distinct: the flashes were coming more regularly now.

“It will be all right,” said Toby quietly. “This isn’t an accident. The gods sent us here; they have a plan.”

“Yup,” said Ruda, unconsciously gripping the jeweled hilt of her rapier. “I’m just hoping the plan isn’t ‘these paladins suck, let’s waste ’em and get new ones.’”

Everyone turned to look at her, wide-eyed.

“No,” Trissiny said solemnly. “Omnu would never do such a thing.”

The tension abated just like that; Toby actually had to clap a hand over his mouth to stifle a burst of laughter.

“I’m telling her you said that,” Ruda said with a grin, lightly punching her roommate’s shoulder.

“By all means, do,” Trissiny replied, smiling. “That’s a conversation I would dearly love to see.”

“Guys,” Gabriel said tersely. “Look.”

They saw them just barely before they heard them. They started as tiny black specks, pouring out from the center of the maelstrom, but in the quiet, the sound of buzzing immediately became audible…and then, grew. Figures continued to stream out, still too distant to be distinct, but swarming ever closer to the ground. Dozens of them, scores… Quickly, though they were uncountable in their multitudes, it became clear they numbered in the hundreds, at least. As they came, the sound of buzzing wings grew ever more insistent.

“Just so we’re clear,” Trissiny said grimly, “nobody minds if I kill these, right?”

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