Tag Archives: Professor Ezzaniel

6 – 4

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Professor Ezzaniel bore their nervousness with exactly four seconds’ worth of patience before loudly clearing his throat.

“If we could all continue through the door, that would be splendid.”

The students shuffled a little further in, with no great enthusiasm, clearing a path for their professor. He strode unhurriedly through the group, moving with his typical sinuous grace, like a stalking cat, and showing absolutely no concern for the various monsters present. The three drow turned their predatory grins on him, which he ignored; the naga paused in her route to give him a flirtatious smile and a wink, complete with a brief flaring of the spiny fins she had in place of hair. Ezzaniel nodded politely to her, continuing on his way. He got about halfway across the main open space before pausing to turn back to the freshmen with an expression of exasperation.

“Children, you cannot live on the threshold. Move forward, please.”

Trissiny started moving first, gripping her sword on the verge of whipping it out. One of the drow laughed, but most of the bar’s occupants ignored them entirely. The ogre didn’t even seem to notice their presence, absorbed in his barrel of whatever he was drinking. The students clustered together, Fross hovering directly above the little knot of them, and moved to rejoin Professor Ezzaniel; no sooner had they reached him than he turned and strode off again.

The room was divided into two levels, separated by a waist-high (on a human) ledge lined by a bannister. Tables and chairs filled the lower level, with a huge hearth on on end of the room, in which burned a cheerfully intense but small-for-the-space fire; the other had a window looking out on the depressing view of the sloping chasm outside. On the second level were bigger, better-padded chairs and a couple of low tables, though this area was clearly more suited to sitting and conversing than eating meals. Opposite the bannister overlooking the entrance was the bar, behind which the bartender grinned wolfishly, watching them approach.

Ezzaniel took the short staircase to the upper level in a single lanky bound; the students followed him much more sedately. It was less populated up here; two more goblins were canoodling together in a chair sized for someone much bigger than they, and a harpy hung upside-down in the far corner, gnawing at a bone and watching them beadily. Aside from that, there was nobody up here but the bartender.

He was gorgeous, with a long face whose full lips and lavish eyelashes made him almost effiminately pretty, while its sharp angles seemed downright rugged. His lean musculature was very much on display; if he was wearing anything, it was only below the waist. Despite his basically human countenance, though, his species was unmistakable. The eyes framed by those girlish lashes were a deep topaz in color and glittered like crystals; his black hair had distinctly blue highlights. Worse were the wings. As they approached, he snapped them once to both sides as though shaking dust from their batlike folds, then settled them back behind him so that only their joints poked up above his shoulders.

Trissiny had never been this close to an incubus before. She could feel the wrongness of him clawing at her subtler senses, the ones that came with Avei’s calling which never flared up unless something was badly wrong. A glance at Toby and the tension in his face said he felt the same. She did not take her hand away from her sword.

“Emilio, it’s been too long!” the incubus said with a companionable grin. “Is it freshman time already? They days run together down here. I must say I’m surprised to see you; doesn’t the loon in the tight pants usually do these groups?”

“Admestus is in the doghouse,” Professor Ezzaniel said with a wry twist of his mouth. “I’m sorry to disappoint you.”

“Well, you could make it up to me.” The demon grinned more broadly, planting an elbow on the bar and leaning toward Ezzaniel; the motion made lean muscles slide under his alabaster skin in a way that was too ostentatious not to have been deliberate. “What’ll it cost me to get you into some tight pants?”

“You can’t afford me,” Ezzaniel said in a disinterested tone, then turned to the students. “This, kids, is the Grim Visage.”

“Yeah, we read the sign,” Ruda snipped.

“I have had you in class for a semester and a half, Miss Punaji; I am no longer so blissfully naïve as to assume you have observed the obvious. This inn is at the effective crossroads of the Crawl; all of the dungeon’s various branches and wings connect directly to this spot. As such, and because it is a sanctuary, it serves as the launching point for student adventures in the dungeon. You will come back here to sleep, resupply and lay such plans as you need to. This,” he nodded at the incubus, who waggled his eyebrows at them in greeting, “is Rowe, the proprietor and your landlord for the next three weeks.”

“I am so indescribably charmed I just can’t tell you,” the demon said smoothly, making an elaborately courtly bow emphasized by a flourish of one of his wings.

“Is that…safe?” Trissiny asked tightly.

“My dear,” said Rowe, straightening up and giving her an earnestly straightforward look that made her skin crawl, “you are as safe in this inn as in the arms of your own goddess.”

“That is both vastly implausible and verges on blasphemy.”

“Oh, what’s a spot of blasphemy between friends?” he said glibly. “But you raise a valid point! As your professor has said, the Grim Visage is a sanctuary. There is no fighting here, no harm of any kind. Remember that well.”

“We are glad to abide by such a rule,” said Shaeine, “so long as we are accorded the same courtesy. What assurance is there that this shall be so?”

“Ah, I’m afraid you misunderstand,” the demon said with a knowing grin. “Sanctuary is not a rule, it’s a fact. Here, I’ll demonstrate for you. Excuse me, kids.”

He snapped his wings outward again, beat them once and sailed over the bar and then over their heads (prompting most of them to duck and Fross to dodge), coming to rest nimbly on the bannister. He was wearing a pair of pink trousers of Punaji style, loose and flowing but gathered in tightly at the ankles above his bare feet. Rowe hopped nimbly down to the lower level, the students meandering over curiously to get a better view.

“Hey, Gomblust!” the demon said cheerfully, waving.

In the nearby corner, the hulking ogre slowly turned his great rocky head toward the incubus, blinking his beady little eyes. “Huh?”

“Can you do me a favor, buddy?” Rowe folded his wings again but spread his arms wide, grinning at the ogre. “Kill me!”

Gomblust blinked at him once more, then sighed heavily, emitting an ill-smelling blast of air that disturbed several hats and blew Fross off course. “Again?”

“Oh, c’mon,” Rowe wheedled, “last time, I promise. It’ll be fun!”

“This is not heroic,” the ogre grumbled, shifting to his feet. Amazingly, he could stand up without trouble, though it had looked as if his head brushed the ceiling while he was seated. “Gomblust is supposed to be punching evils, not bartenders.”

“It totally counts! I’m evil! I’m a demon!”

“You are too silly to be evil,” said the ogre. “Fine, fine.”

For such a ponderous creature, he could move fast enough when he wanted. The ogre drew back one of his massive arms and slammed his fist down on Rowe’s head, prompting a startled shriek from Teal and a nearly-as-shrill outcry from Gabriel.

His fist stopped inches from striking the demon; the air shivered where it impacted, rippling like a disturbed pool. Gomblust drew his hand back more slowly, shaking it. “You are a very silly demon, Rowe. Last time!”

“Yup, I think the point is made,” the incubus said brightly. “Thanks, you’re a pal! Next round’s on me!”

“That is not a good favor,” Gomblust muttered, sitting back down with a muted crash. Even his muttering was loud enough to fill the room. “Gomblust is supposed to be on an adventure, not drinking in a bar. Is very good ale, though…” He picked up his barrel again.

“You see, kids,” said Rowe, strolling back up the steps to rejoin them with an almost feminine sway in his hips, “sanctuary is the rule of the house. It’s not my rule; I may call myself the innkeeper, but no matter what I claim to own, I just work here. The Crawl is the final authority, and the Crawl sets this aside as a neutral meeting place. Whatever magics or weapons you wield, whatever gods you can invoke, you will not break sanctuary. Here, the Crawl is the only god, and its rules are absolute.”

He sauntered back around behind the bar, the students staring at him in silence. “Y’see, my little duckies,” Rowe went on, selecting a dusty bottle and pouring a mug full of thick, amber liquid, “there are doors in this inn to many places. It is a place between places, but not a way between places. You follow?”

“Not in the least fucking little bit,” said Ruda.

The incubus laughed. “What I mean is, we get all sorts through here. Some are residents of the Crawl itself. Oh, there are wandering monsters—though that term is extremely relative, as you’ll learn—but there are whole societies of various kinds in the depths. Then again, some enter that door from entirely other realms, stopping in for a drink or to escape their worlds for whatever reason. You can’t get into anybody else’s world, though. Whatever continuum spat you out will suck you back in, when you go through the door. See? A place, but not a way. You can meet people from other realities in the Visage, but not visit them from here.”

“So…” Gabriel frowned. “How many of these people are from the real world?”

“Is a world less real because you don’t live there?” Rowe asked, raising an eyebrow.

Gabriel scowled. “Fine, the world the Crawl is actually in, then?”

The demon shrugged, idly flicking his wings. “The place you’re from… University at Last Rock, yes? Tiraan Empire, Pantheon, Universal Church, Elilial? All that stuff?”

“Yes, that’s us,” said Teal.

The incubus grinned broadly. “Smashing, me too. But who’s to say that’s the world this dungeon is in?”

They all stared at him in silence for a moment, then glanced around at each other.

“I’m reasonably sure it is,” Rowe confided, “but one can never be sure, eh?”

“What about him?” Ruda jerked a thumb over her shoulder, indicating Gomblust the ogre. “How the hell did he even get in here? I mean… You couldn’t even get his fist through that door.”

“You’re in the Crawl, sweet cheeks. There’s exactly as much space as there needs to be. Now then! I hate to rush you along, but if you’re to be staying here, there’s the matter of payment.” He rubbed his hands together, grinning avidly. “You goslings often stagger in here unprepared on your first outing—Arachne’s favorite little joke, as I understand it—so you can pay by the day if you’re strapped for funds. You’d best get to adventuring quickly in that case, though. There’s more than enough treasure in these halls, but only for those willing and able to get out there and bleed for it.”

The students glanced around at each other again; most of their gazes found their way to Professor Ezzaniel.

“No, the University will not be financing your expenses,” he said in a bored tone. “You will find or create such resources as you need to fulfill your quest. That is the point of the exercise.”

“Hey, Professor!” Gabriel said brightly. “As a personal favor, can we borrow—”

“No.”

“Um,” Teal said hesitantly, reaching into her coat pocket, “I don’t suppose you can accept Tiraan bank notes?”

Rowe laughed long and hard at that. “Ah, kiddo, you’re just precious,” he said finally, wiping a tear from his eye. “Seriously, though, where am I going to redeem those? I could maybe use them to start a fire…”

“Ugh, fuck it,” Ruda grumbled, reaching into her own coat pocket. She withdrew a coin and tossed it down on the bar. “If we’re going to be looting treasure, you can repay me out of our first hall. How many days will that buy us?”

“This?” Rowe picked up the coin, squinting at it skeptically. “This isn’t even breakfast, duckie.”

“What?” Ruda yelled, stomping forward and thrusting her face into his. “Are you out of your buttfucking mind? That’s an Imperial decabloon! They don’t make coins more valuable than that!”

“I think you precious little poppets are laboring under some misunderstandings about the economics of this place,” said Rowe, seemingly unfazed by her tirade. “We operate on a sort of barter system here. Sure, gold, jewels, precious metals… Stuff like that has its uses. There are, as I said, functional societies in the Crawl. There’s a whole warren of goblins, as well as several less sociable groups, all of which have an economy of some kind or other. We get drow in here regularly enough I’m pretty sure there’s an opening to the Underworld somewhere near the bottom, though the hell I’m going down there to look. And, of course, there are the odd visitors from other dimensions who are wont to engage in a spot of trade. By and large, though, coins are chiefly valuable as a conveniently carryable, roughly—and I mean very roughly—standardized measurement of gold, which can be melted down and made into other things.”

He held up the decabloon, shifting it slowly back and forth so that it glinted in the torchlight. “This thing here? This is a thin lip of gold surrounding a core of platinum, layered with enchantments to prevent wear and tear—and prevent people counterfeiting or melting it down, which is precisely what we’d need to be able to do to make it valuable. You kids are new, so I won’t take it personally, but for future reference, handing somebody in the Crawl a coin like that is tantamount to telling them where to shove it.” He rolled the coin across his knuckles once, then flicked it at Ruda; she snatched it out of the air, glaring. “You’ve got to get used to thinking in terms of the value of things. What are they good for? That, metal content aside, is like your friend’s bank notes: chiefly valuable in the presence of a large society that agrees it has value.”

Ruda snorted in disgust, stuffing the decabloon back in her coat pocket. When she withdrew her hand again, though, it was full of other coins, which she threw down disdainfully on the bar.

“Oh, now we’re talking!” Rowe said delightedly, sweeping them up. “Punaji gold! Best kind—soft enough to re-cast and verifiably the real thing. Shiny new ones, too! Who’s this guy?” he asked curiously, holding a coin up to the light so he could study the face profiled on it.

“That’d be King Rajakhan, the Blackbeard,” Ruda said dryly. “I gather you don’t see too many of those.”

“Indeed not, my lamb, and for this many you may consider yourselves paid up for the entirety of your stay!” Rowe made the coins vanish into his pants, which was impressive as they had no visible pockets, and made another grand bow at them. “And just to put it on the table, you kids probably don’t have much to trade, but if you’re of a mind to swap that sword, missy, I might just give you the whole damn place.”

“If I give you my sword,” Ruda said quietly, “it’ll be the wrong end of it in your ribs.”

“Not in this bar, you won’t,” Rowe replied with a cheeky grin. “Well, my dears, congratulations! You are officially guests of the Grim Visage.”

“Not him,” said Ruda, pointing at Professor Ezzaniel.

“Excuse me?” the professor said, looking mildly offended.

She grinned nastily at him. “My gold, my rules. You don’t wanna help us pay our way? Hope you brought enough coin for yourself, then.”

Ezzaniel rolled his eyes. “My usual room, please, Rowe. I may have to owe you for the last week or so.”

“Your word’s as good as gold in this bar, Emilio,” the demon replied graciously, then clapped his hands and rubbed them together. “All right! Meals aren’t part of the deal, I’m afraid, but you may not find that onerous. We always have food and drink available; it’s quite easy to ferment stuff, but… As far as food goes, expect variations on a theme of meat, fish and fungus. There are sometimes fruits and vegetables, but you can expect to break the bank on those.” He spread his hands in a shrug, smiling disarmingly. “We serve what there is to be served.”

“Um,” Teal said hesitantly, “what kind of meat would that be?”

“I will answer that question if you truly wish,” Rowe said solemnly, “but understand this, young seeker: knowledge does not bring happiness.”

“We will pass,” Gabriel said firmly. “Embrace the mystery, Teal.”

“If you’re gonna be spending a lot of time out there in the corridors, anyway, you’ll probably find it more cost effective to hunt up your own grub.” Rowe waggled his eyebrows again, leering. “That, by the way, is not a euphemism.”

Gabriel grimaced horribly and turned a plaintive look on Ezzaniel. “Is it too late to go back up top and just take the F?”

“Yes.”

“Let me show you to your new home away from home,” Rowe continued in his cloyingly bright tone. “Sarriki! Come watch the bar!”

The naga quickly appeared from below, carrying her now-empty tray. She appeared to have a little trouble with the stairs, using one hand to pull herself up the bannister and leaning forward in the ascent as though moving against a headwind. Her snake-like lower body was clearly not designed for such footing.

“Yessss, bosss,” she replied with sibilant deference, nodding deeply to Rowe and slithering around behind the bar.

“And stop that hissing,” he said irritably. “Honestly, every time they send down the freshmen! You may think stereotypes are funny, but that kind of crap is why the rest of us can’t hold down a job topside.”

“Aw, let me have my fun,” she pouted, then winked at the students. Her eyes were yellow and slitted like a snake’s.

“Have fun on your own time; just man the bar,” he said with a mock-scowl, then spoiled it by grinning. “All right, my little gumdrops, this way! Follow the handsome and dashing barkeep!”

A few doorways led off from the upper level of the bar, one in the corner with an actual door covering it, the others blocked only by ragged curtains. Rowe let them through the widest of these, his tail waving behind him as he went. The broad staircase beyond twisted slowly but unevenly; where a human-built stairwell would probably form a geometric path, this one seemed to have been repurposed from a natural tunnel. The width of the stairs varied widely, narrowing at one point so much they couldn’t walk two abreast, and the curve was not consistent. A single window was set into one of the walls just out of sight of the lower floor, providing another grim view of the red-tinged cavern. After a relatively short ascent, they emerged into an upper hall.

Once again, the students came to a stop just past the doorway, staring. Behind them, Ezzaniel sighed melodramatically.

“You have got to be shitting me,” said Gabriel.

The space was oddly reminiscent of the upper floor lounge they had occupied in the inn in Lor’naris: a simple square area from which doors branched, leading into bedrooms. This one had a few stone benches set into the walls rather than free-standing chairs, and no window. There was also no table set in the middle of the room.

Instead, there was a bronze statue of Arachne Tellwyrn.

“She’s kind of a big deal around here,” Rowe said cheerfully, “especially these days. I’ll let you know up front that your doors all lock, the locks are all serviceable, and I advise you to use them; management is not responsible for lost or stolen property, and the drow have a tendency to come up here and gawk at the statue. The hell if I know why they care so much.”

“Why do you?” Trissiny demanded. “I mean… Why is this here?”

Rowe shrugged extravagantly, fluttering his wings. “I have no idea. This isn’t my idea of décor; believe me, I can find better uses for this quantity of metal, I assure you. As far as I know, the Crawl put this here.”

Ruda snorted. “That bitch has the weirdest friends.”

“Corner door in the back wall is to the bathroom; I’m afraid you’ll have to share. There’s running water, from a hand-pump, and a stove to heat it. The toilets…well, let’s just say if anybody lives directly below this inn, I’ve never met them and I really hope I never do.” He grinned cheekily, tail waving like a pleased cat’s.

“Lovely,” Toby muttered.

“All hours are pretty much one in a sunless place,” the incubus went on, “but if memory serves, dear Arachne likes to roust you morsels out of your beds at an absurd hour for her little field trips, yes? I’ll just leave you to the rooms, then, if you want to grab some sleep. Don’t worry, they’ll be reserved for you until you check out, but that just means we won’t let anybody else sleep here. I suggest you not leave anything behind that you don’t want strangers pawing through while you’re gone.”

“We don’t have anything to leave behind,” Teal muttered, fingering the lapel of her coat where her Talisman was pinned. “Didn’t even get to bring a change of clothes…”

“It’s positively amazing what you can loot in the Crawl,” Rowe said brightly, already halfway back to the stairs. “Don’t fret, pumpkin, you’ll get by. When you come back down for breakfast, I’ll show you the commercial wing, where you can do some trading, get supplies and sell off whatever scratch you rustle up. For now, kiddies, ta ta!”

Wiggling his fingers flirtatiously, he vanished down the steps, leaving the students staring at each other. Ezzaniel had gone with him without a word.

“I think,” Trissiny said slowly, “we had better be careful about locking our doors, and not just when we’re out.”

“What about the sanctuary thing?” Gabriel asked. He reached out and tried to flick Ruda’s ear; his fingers didn’t connect, deflecting off midair with a tiny ripple of light. “Damn, it’s serious. Also, ow.”

“I’m gonna remember that when we’re out of here,” Ruda said, smirking at him.

“Don’t joke,” Trissiny said sharply. “This is a serious problem.”

“Oh, you and demons,” Gabriel shot back. “Sometimes I think you just don’t feel complete unless you’re condemning somebody. Just because he was born with wings and a tail doesn’t mean he wants to suck out all our blood.”

“Uh, incubi don’t do that,” Fross pointed out.

Trissiny tilted her head slightly, studying Gabriel. “I can’t figure you out, Gabe. Some days you seem full of guilt and self-loathing about being a demonblood, and others it’s like you’re ready to launch a demon rights movement.”

He shrugged irritably, stuffing his hands into his pockets. “It’s a complicated matter. I have complicated feelings about it.”

“Mm. You don’t actually know a thing about demonology, do you?”

“Why would I?” he demanded challengingly.

“Are you serious?”

“His dad was pretty firm about that,” Toby cut in, placing a hand on Gabriel’s shoulder. “Sshitherosz like to target half-demons. The less he was exposed to the whole thing…”

“I can narrate my own backstory, thanks,” Gabriel said, giving him a look.

“Incubi,” Trissiny said loudly, “are reincarnated humans. To begin with, when they died, their souls were denied entry into the divine plane and sent to Hell. That already is a very bad sign; Vidius isn’t exactly stringent. A moderate attempt to live a relatively decent life is generally enough to avoid damnation. Once in Hell, if they survive and manage to thrive despite being incorporeal and subject to enslavement and all manner of abuse by demonic magic-users, the souls eventually gain the attention of Prince Vanislaas, who gives them…” Her lips twisted contemptuously. “A second chance. New bodies, new powers, and a mission to make their way back to the mortal plane and corrupt more humans to swell the ranks of the succubi and incubi. An incubus, Gabriel, is someone who has repeatedly and vigorously proved himself evil of his own choices, demonstrated a considerable skill at being evil, and then been empowered and sent forth for the specific and express purpose of doing evil. They’re not like hethelaxi; they’re not just people who were born in the wrong dimension. The fact that he’s personable and charming makes him more dangerous, not less.”

“Let me just stick my nose in here,” said Ruda. “You know I’m generally on the side of anyone who knows how to have fun, and anyone who’s serving booze, so that’s twice over I’m inclined to think well of Rowe, without even getting into how I hate to encourage Boots when she’s being pompous.”

Trissiny sighed. “Thanks.”

Ruda grinned at her before continuing. “That said, I’ve gotta back her up on this one. Demonology isn’t a big thing in Puna Dara, but I was definitely taught to know and respect the great dangers of the world; I’m gonna lead my people one day and can’t be caught with my pants down. Incubi and succubi are bad fucking news. Like, one even being in the city is officially considered a crisis. We better watch our asses as long as we’re staying in a place where that guy’s in charge.”

A silence fell. Gabriel glanced between Ruda and Trissiny, then at Toby, and finally at the ground, a thoughtful frown covering his face.

“I’m tired,” Juniper said abruptly. They all started; she hadn’t spoken the entire time they’d been in the Grim Visage. The dryad trudged past them, around the statue of Tellwyrn and into the nearest room without bothering to close the door. Moments later there came the soft sound of her flopping down on a bed.

“Well,” said Toby, “that sounds like as good an idea as any.”

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6 – 3

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The upper levels of the Crawl were disappointingly plain. The rooms were square, unadorned, and empty, connected by simple doorways. Now and again there would be side rooms whose entrances were covered by iron gates, but Professor Ezzaniel ignored these, leading them through a sequence of chambers cut from the granite of the mountain and lit by occasional torches.

Ezzaniel himself was uncommunicative, to which the students were accustomed; even in class, though he could be quite snide with uncooperative pupils, he did not speak unless he had something in particular to say. The freshmen were mostly too groggy to make conversation anyway, and trooped after him in silence. Fortunately, he seemed to know where he was going. The dungeon thus far seemed more tedious than ominous, but the interconnecting identical square rooms with multiple doors would have been a very effective maze if one did not know the path.

“It’s clean,” said Teal after several minutes. “…too clean.”

Ruda groaned.

“I’m serious! Look, there’s no dust, no cobwebs. No mouse droppings or dead insects… See the torches? No soot marks on the walls or ceiling above them, no ash below. And who’s keeping those burning anyway? This does not look like the kind of place that’s been locked behind a heavy door and metal grate.”

“Maybe Stew cleans in here, too?” Gabriel suggested, half-heartedly smothering a yawn.

Fross chimed excitedly. “The Crawl, like most adventuring dungeons which are classified as such, is a self-regulating genius loci subject to massive magical interference with objective natural law. Among other things, it’s apparently self-cleaning!”

“Can somebody please put that in Tanglish for me?” Gabe asked.

“That was Tanglish!”

“He’s making a joke, Fross,” Teal explained. “It means—”

“I know, I’ve heard that one before. I reject the joke because I was speaking quite plainly and Gabriel is an arcane arts major who really should know all those terms!”

“First, it’s stupid o’clock in the morning and my brain is not awake yet,” said Gabriel irritably. “Second, I’m a first-year arcane arts major and haven’t been putting in nearly as much study time as you apparently have, because I do need sleep, and also a social life.”

“Porking the resident dryad whenever she isn’t too busy does not constitute a social life,” said Ruda, grinning.

“Up yours, Punaji, I have other friends.”

“Who’s porking?” Juniper demanded shrilly. “I haven’t—I would never— The only pork I eat is actual pork! I don’t know where this ‘long pig’ thing got started but I wish people would stop throwing it in my face!”

The group staggered to a stop, everyone staring at her. Ezzaniel got a few paces ahead and paused in the doorway to the next dim chamber, turning to look back at them with a raised eyebrow. Juniper folded her arms defensively around herself, her eyes darting back and forth.

“Oh, what are you all looking at?” she demanded huffily, then turned and stalked off after Ezzaniel. The others trailed after somewhat more slowly.

“Right. Well. Anyway.” Toby cleared his throat. “For those of us who aren’t arcane majors, Fross, can you put it in layman’s terms?”

“Layperson’s terms,” said Gabriel, grinning and nudging Trissiny with his elbow. “Amirite?” She gave him a disdainful look.

“All right, well, I assume you all remember Professor Yornhaldt’s class last semester?” Fross said, buzzing about their heads and casting her glow in erratic patterns around the chamber through which they were passing. “The difference between magical and non-magical physics is the difference between subjective and objective reality. Right? That was our very first lesson.”

“Right,” said Toby when nobody else replied.

“Okay, so! A genius loci is a place that has totally subjective physics! The very rules of reality themselves are completely different there!”

“That is deeply disturbing,” Trissiny muttered, glancing suspiciously around at the apparently empty room through which they were passing.

“So,” Fross nattered on, “it needs two things: an absolutely massive abundance of raw magical energy, and some kind of guiding intelligence. This results in places like the Golden Sea and the Deep Wild, where the rules are just plain different. It’s also the case in the great dungeons.”

“Wait, stop,” said Ruda. “You’re telling me this place is intelligent? Holy fuck. I’m seriously tempted to take the F and bug out.”

“What? You? Run away?” Gabriel turned to grin at her. “And me without my lightcapper.”

“Get fucked, Arquin. I’ll fight anything that lives, but being fucking digested by a giant sentient dungeon… Shit, I wanna go home.” She peered nervously around at the blank walls.

“It’s probably not that bad or Professor Tellwyrn wouldn’t have sent us here,” Fross said consolingly. “I mean, there are intelligences and then there are intelligences, y’know? Generally they don’t even think in anything like the way we do, so it’s not like we could actively communicate. People have tried. And they’re all different! Most of the dungeons are the result of things the Elder Gods did at various times. More recently, there’s Athan’Khar, which is powered by the residue of Tiraan superweapons and the dead souls of all that died there. As far as I know, nobody’s sure who or what is running the Golden Sea or how it happened, but the Deep Wild is Naiya’s domain. So…different rules in all!”

“Right,” said Teal, nodding. She seemed to have become more alert over the course of the discussion. “So the Golden Sea has several predictable rules and doesn’t get nasty unless people try to screw with it, like the centaurs do. Athan’Khar, on the other hand, pretty much wants to kill everyone who sets foot in there. I’m guessing Tellwyrn wouldn’t have sent us in here if the Crawl was quite that hostile?”

“Ex-fucking-cuse me?” Ruda snorted. “Which Tellwyrn are you talking about?”

“Well, this mountain was once the stronghold of an Elder God before another Elder God destroyed it,” Fross said cheerfully. “I don’t figure it’s too friendly. But yeah, students go in here every year and rarely die. We’ll be fine!”

Trissiny sighed loudly.

The group came up short, several of the less attentive colliding with others. Professor Ezzaniel had stopped ahead of them, studying a blank surface of stone.

“Welp,” said Gabriel after a moment. “That sure is a wall.”

“It seems to have shifted again,” Ezzaniel noted. “The upper rooms are usually fairly stable, but the Crawl does like to change things around. No matter, it’s always fairly straightforward before you descend the main stairs. Excuse me.” They made way as he moved back through the group, exiting the way they’d come and turning left in the next chamber.

Lacking anything better to do, the students trooped after him.

“Pardon me, but does this mean you don’t actually know where we’re going?” Gabriel asked.

“I have the basics of an idea,” Ezzaniel said calmly from up ahead, his voice echoing in the semi-lit chamber. “As I said, the upper Crawl is quite benign, and I’m accustomed to it. Incidentally, I will only be guiding you through this initial stretch. Once we reach the actively dangerous areas, you will be responsible for finding your own way.”

“Lovely,” Gabriel groused. “What the hell is the point of all this, anyway? I mean, this is like learning to churn butter by hand. That shit isn’t relevant anymore. Nobody goes dungeon-delving!”

“Gnomes do,” Trissiny noted.

“So does the Empire,” Toby added.

“Right, sure, fine, but that’s because they own all the dungeons! Is anybody here planning to join an Imperial strike team after graduation?” Gabriel divided a pointed look among the rest of them. “Anyone? Yeah, me either. I don’t see what the purpose is of teaching us how to be an adventuring party. This is stupid.”

“Have you shared that opinion with Professor Tellwyrn?” Ezzaniel asked mildly.

“Do I look immolated to you?”

The Professor chuckled. “Arachne, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, is rather more laid back than I in many respects. She doesn’t mind being yelled at, cursed at or even threatened—convenient, as she has a tendency to inspire those responses in people. She would be quite offended if you questioned her intelligence, however. I advise you not to learn firsthand what her offense looks like. Her methods may be confusing, but nothing Arachne Tellwyrn directs you to do is pointless.”

“What could we possibly gain from this?” Gabriel exclaimed. “Hell, five years ago I’d have thought it was the most awesome thing possible, to be on an actual dungeon dive. Okay, yeah, fine, it’s still sort of awesome. But right now I’m more concerned with the fact that I could die and it’d be for no purpose except learning how to have a successful career three hundred years ago.”

“The adventuring party enjoys a prominent place in Tiraan culture and legend, I have observed, and perhaps rightly so,” said Shaeine. “If nothing else, this will be an excellent lesson in teamwork.”

“And in appreciating history!” Teal chimed.

“Bah.” Gabriel stuffed his hands in his coat pockets and slouched sullenly. “Screw this place.”

“Okay, let’s not take it out on the place,” Ruda said nervously. She gently patted the stone frame of a doorway as she passed through it. “Good Crawl? Nice Crawl?”

“The Crawl is an excellent teacher,” Professor Ezzaniel said calmly. “Ah, here we are.”

The last square chamber they had entered had, instead of a wall opposite the door, an opening, from which a wide staircase descended. Two torches bracketed the entrance.

“Well, that’s good and ominous,” said Gabriel.

“Yes,” Ezzaniel said equably, stepping to one side. “All right, in you go. The path from here is quite straightforward. It will lead to the place from which the remainder of the expedition will be launched. You have officially moved beyond needing a guide. Go on, then.”

“Right,” said Trissiny, stepping forward into the gap. One by one, the others followed.

“Should we take the torches?” Toby asked.

“We’ve got Fross,” said Teal. “And several of our group can make light if needed.” She smiled at Shaeine.

“Two of those would harm Gabriel in doing so,” Trissiny pointed out.

“I think we’ll be fine,” Gabe said, trooping down the stairs. They descended just far enough that the topmost step was out of sight of the bottom, then terminated in a square landing and turned left, continuing down. Torches hung at the landing, too, but it grew quite dark near the middle of each flight. “Fross glows normally, Shaeine can make light that won’t hurt me. So can Vadrieny, for that matter.”

“All right,” Fross said briskly as they turned the corner onto the second stretch of steps, “we should discuss our strategy. Trissiny! Sponge or deepsauce?”

“…what?”

The pixie chimed sharply and bobbed twice in the air. “I’m talking about damage. Are you output or mitigation?”

“…what?”

“Uh, Fross,” said Teal, “have you by any chance been reading the old bardic scrolls?”

“Yes I absolutely have!” Fross said excitedly, zooming back to flutter around her. “Professor Tellwyrn likes to change up the timing so it’s a surprise, but there’s always a Crawl expedition in the second semester of the freshman year, so I’ve been studying up to be prepared for weeks now!”

“Uh huh,” Teal said with a smile. “And…you found Findlestin’s glossary of adventuring terminology, didn’t you.”

“Yes! It was very informative!”

“Which edition?”

“Well, all of them, but of course I made sure to study up on the most recent one.”

“Right. Fross, hon, the most recent edition of Findlestin was printed in 1031. It’s a hundred and forty-seven years old.”

“Well… I mean, yes, we all know adventuring parties as a formal institution are kind of outdated…”

“The thing is, if you’re talking about slang—which that stuff was—slang is by definition defined by popular use. If there isn’t any popular use, it’s not slang; it might as well be a foreign language. Nobody’s going to understand it.”

Fross drifted lower till she was fluttering along at about the level of their knees. “But…but…I memorized it. The whole thing.”

“Sorry, little glowbell,” said Ruda. “History isn’t always as useful as Tellwyrn likes to think.”

“That’s okay, though!” the pixie declared, rallying and zooming back up to her usual altitude just about their heads. “I’ll walk you all through it in layman’s—I mean, layperson’s terms, sorry, Trissiny—and we’ll all have it down in no time!”

“Oh,” said Ruda. “Good.”

“So! Trissiny! With regard to inflicting harm,” Fross continued, zipping forward to hover in front of the paladin, “would you consider yourself more of a harm-inflicter or someone who prevents the infliction of harm to herself?”

Trissiny came to a stop, staring at her. From the back of the group, Ezzaniel sighed heavily in exasperation.

“Fross,” Trissiny said after a moment, “what are you talking about? In any kind of fight you have to do both.”

“But this is how they did it! There are dedicated party roles, and—”

“Yeah, that’s really not gonna work,” said Ruda. “Do you not pay attention in Ezzaniel’s class?”

“Of course I do! But this is an adventure, and we’re a party. There’s a system.”

“It’s a hundred-year-old system that nobody uses,” Gabriel pointed out.

“That just isn’t true! Standard operating procedure for Imperial strike teams is based directly on the operating manuals written by the ancient Heroes’ Guild!”

“Imperial strike teams,” said Shaeine, “train for the purpose of operating as a single effective unit, relying on each other to act without the need for thought or communication. It is in a way a more intimate relationship than exists between family. Perhaps the adventuring parties of old operated in a similar manner, but… While I have enjoyed growing closer to each of you over the last several months, I would not consider us to be quite that tightly knit.”

“Shaeine, you have got the greatest knack for understatement I’ve ever heard,” said Ruda.

“Look, Fross,” Toby said firmly, “we appreciate your help, but this isn’t going to be functionally different from the Golden Sea, or Sarasio. We can operate as a unit, up to a point, and we’ve been getting better at it. But…it’ll have to be our way, not the way they did it in old-style adventuring parties.”

Fross let out a long sequence of soft chimes as if sighing heavily. “I’m just saying, they did it that way for a reason, is all.”

“Then be ready to consult on adventuring practices as needed,” said Trissiny, resuming her walk. “For the most part, though, Toby’s right. Better we stick to what we know.”

“So, we bicker and bitch at each other, generally fuck everything up and barely pull it out of the bag at the last minute?”

“That’s very helpful, Ruda, thank you.”

“You got it, roomie, I’m here for you.”

They descended for a good half an hour, the path remaining starkly the same. Left turns at right angles, going consistently downward. The group quickly lost any sense of how far they had gone; Ezzaniel offered no opinions, even when pressed.

“This is awful,” Juniper groaned, plodding along. She had fallen to nearly the rear of the group. “This is worse than the Golden Sea. At least there was life out there. Trees are not meant for hiking!”

“Well, you could try rolling down,” Ruda suggested somewhat snidely. “Logs roll, don’t they?”

“That’s a little insensitive,” Gabriel said with a grin. “A log is basically a tree’s corpse, right?”

“Corpses roll too,” she replied. “Downhill, at least. That is a scientific fact.”

“It’s not a bad idea, though,” the dryad mused, picking up her pace and pushing forward past the others. “Clear the way, please.”

“What’re you…” Trissiny stopped mid-step, her eyes widening. “Juniper, no!”

Disregarding her, Juniper rounded the next corner and hurled herself bodily down the steps, smashing down in a series of thumps and grunts. The others, with various outcries of alarm, rushed down the remainder of the flight they were on, regrouping at the landing to stare anxiously down.

“Juno?” Gabriel called. “You okay?”

“Wow!” At the next landing down, the dryad gathered herself and climbed to her feet, waving up at them. “That was actually fun! You guys have gotta try this! Oh, wait, no…you’d probably get hurt.”

“That’s not how you explore a dungeon,” Fross huffed quietly. “What if she springs a trap?”

“There are no traps up here,” said Professor Ezzaniel. “Still, it might be better if she didn’t—”

“Tallyho!” the dryad shouted, dashing forward and diving face-first down the next flight of stairs.

Trissiny sighed heavily, then raised her voice. “Just don’t get too far ahead!”


 

“I share your grief, Branwen,” the Archpope said, looking and sounding like he meant it sincerely. “I am grateful that you, at least, came through the night’s events uninjured. If you would like to take some time to heal…”

“Thank you, your Holiness,” she said quietly, with a faint tremor in her voice. “It would only be time to…to welter, though. I would rather be at work.”

“As you wish,” Justinian said, nodding. “Should you change your mind, you have only to say so. I’m glad you thought to go to her aid, Antonio.”

“I’m afraid everything was done by the time I got there,” Darling admitted.

“That, though, was beyond your control. It pleases me that you so quickly discerned the nature and motive of the attack and that your first action was to help your fellow Bishop.” The Archpope smiled at him, then turned to the two sitting along the other side of the opulent conference table, his expression growing more solemn. “I have heard the basics of what befell you two, as well, but would you kindly add your reports to Branwen and Antonio’s? It’s best if we are all on the same page.”

“The same pattern,” Andros said curtly. “Three warlocks, in robes. They carried, among other things, those syringes with death-drugs, though none of the three which assaulted my lodge had the opportunity to use them. I was meditating in seclusion, and was late to reach the scene of the confrontation. I was last to the battle and able to finish the remaining two warlocks. They entered my personal chambers and assaulted my wives.”

“Good gods,” Darling exclaimed, straightening up in his chair. “Are they all right?”

“They are recuperating,” Andros replied, smiling with such fierce pride that it was visible even through his heavy beard. “The healers tell me they will not bear permanent injury, though they are being given time to mend the various bruises of the battle. It is a common misconception among infidels that because Shaathist women are obedient, they are also weak. Nothing could be further from the truth.” He angled his head defiantly, as if to stare down his nose at the world. “There is neither honor nor satisfaction in dominating a dishrag.”

“I’m glad to hear that, at least,” said Darling. “Though let’s refrain from throwing the i-word around in mixed ecclesiastical company, yes?”

Andros grunted, which was likely as close to acquiescence as he was likely to get.

“Same here,” Basra said. “Three of them in standard Wreath robes. I was hosting the two Legion cadets I’m sponsoring at my residence that evening. I’m afraid they were both roughed up a bit in the action, too, but it was thanks to Elwick that things didn’t go a lot worse. The girl has a great deal of exposure to demons, and gave us warning that something was coming.”

Andros turned to her, scowling. “And just why does a Silver Legion cadet have great exposure to demons?”

“You remember events at Hamlet, I trust?” Basra said, giving him an unpleasantly cloying smile.

“Of course,” he growled. “It’s no stretch of the imagination to deduce that’s the cause of this attack.”

“Well, as you may recall, we appropriated several of the Wreath cultists’ children in the course of that. I’ve given the girl sponsorship in the Legions; she’s training with the Third right now. Elwick is actually quite promising; she’s certainly eager to put the errors of her upbringing behind her.”

“How fortuitous,” Darling murmured, wondering what Basra was up to. It was hardly like her to support the careers of others out of the goodness of her heart. Of course, there was also the question of what she was doing with two young girls at her home at four in the morning—girls whom she held in a vulnerable, subordinate position. At the intersection of both questions was a possibility; he made a mental note to find out whether she lived up to the Legionnaire stereotype with regard to her personal preferences.

“Indeed,” the Archpope intoned, looking directly at him. “Antonio, I suspect that your mind has brought you to the same conclusions at which I have arrived. I wonder if you would share with us your assessment of the Wreath’s motivations?”

“Of course, your Holiness,” Darling said, folding his hands on the tabletop and frowning thoughtfully. “To begin with… I think they won this round.”

“Won? Are you mad?” Andros snorted. “We slaughtered their entire attacking force with only one casualty, and none of their primary targets suffered harm!”

Darling was shaking his head before he finished speaking. “Think about who we’re dealing with, Andros. The Black Wreath serve the goddess of cunning; like all our cults, they take the aspect of their deity as their primary virtue. If this is in response to Hamlet, they’ve had months to study us, lay plans and make preparations. And you really think the result of all that would be a haphazard, half-hearted brute force attack? No… Killing the four of us was not the motive.”

“Whatever you think they were up to, they squandered the lives of twelve magic users to do it,” said Basra, frowning. “They either considered this hugely important or they’ve got a lot more personnel to draw upon than we realized.”

“Those are questions to which we can’t know the answers, I’m afraid,” said Darling.

“What is it you think they were after, then?”

“Think about what they did, or tried to do. Where they directed their efforts. Andros’s wives, Branwen’s servant and friend, Basra’s proteges. I have two live-in apprentices and a convalescing acquaintance at my home; I think they would have been the targets had my Butler not intercepted the Wreath at the door. And you two haven’t mentioned it, but I noted that at both my place and Branwen’s they used the front door.” He shook his head again. “This wasn’t an assassination. This was a provocation. They want us hurt, angry, and striking back.”

There was a brief silence while they all digested this.

“That, indeed, is how the matter appears to me,” Justinian agreed after a moment. “I’m glad to see I wasn’t alone in coming to that conclusion. It raises the very tricky question of what we must do now, however.”

“The obvious thing would be not to give them what they want,” Andros rumbled, “but in dealing with the Wreath, the obvious course is seldom the right one.”

“And that’s why I think they’ve got us good and proper, this time,” said Darling. He reached over to squeeze Branwen’s hand. “The Izarites aren’t interested in revenge, but the rest of our cults are another matter. The Sisters, the Guild and the Huntsmen will not take this lying down—and to be honest, we couldn’t make them even if we wanted to. It’s about to be all-out war on the Wreath.”

“In the streets of Tiraas,” Branwen murmured, visibly appalled.

“A witch hunt of the worst kind,” the Archpope agreed. “I can and will enforce moderation in the Church’s response, but you are right: the independent cults are beyond my control, and those three at least are not tolerant of such brazen affronts.”

“What could they possibly gain by calling down all that wrath on their own heads?” Basra exclaimed.

“I very much fear we’re about to find out,” said Darling. “The pertinent question is: what do we, the four of us, do? We’re in a dicey position; right at the center of this and tied to both the Church and our cults. We can’t really afford to break with either. Both we and whichever organization we sided against would lose face right when we need it most.”

“That can be mitigated by the nature of the Church’s response,” said Justinian, “which, I assure you, will be suitably nuanced. You will have my full support in this matter. As for what we are to do…” He drummed his fingers once on the tabletop, the ring of his office flashing in the light. “For the time being, we must wait and see what the Wreath is up to, along with the rest of the world. That does not mean we shall proceed blindly. In the first place, we will play along.”

“It is sometimes necessary to step into a trap,” Andros agreed, nodding. “The outcome may not be as the trapper wishes, if the prey knows it is there.”

“Just so,” said Justinian, then smiled. “And while we are allowing ourselves to be victimized by the Wreath’s plan… I believe there is a way we can use it.”


 

“Juniper,” Trissiny said, “don’t try to roll down these steps.”

“Well, obviously,” the dryad said reasonably. “I could fall!”

“Astute as always,” Ruda muttered.

It had been more than an hour of walking, and they were all sore in the legs and even more tired than when they had started out; unless the internal geography of the Crawl was truly unhinged—which was apparently not impossible—they were well below the surface of the prairie by this point. Professor Ezzaniel had refused to let them stop for a rest, insisting that the perfect place to do so was up ahead. No one had argued too strenuously, as what they wanted was breakfast, and no one had any food.

Now, they appeared to have reached their destination, or nearly so. The angular, spiraling staircase terminated into a truly vast open space, the size of a stadium in diameter and plunging down an impossible distance. Above were vaguely-glimpsed stalactites in a shadowed ceiling vastly far away; the floor of the cavern, if there was one, was too far down to be visible, but whatever was down there emitted a reddish glow that sullenly lit up the whole chamber. It wasn’t a vertical shaft, either; it plunged at a roughly forty-five degree angle. Almost as if it had been vertical before the mountain was sunk.

Directly from their feet descended another staircase, this one half as broad as the wide ones they had traveled thus far, and arching unsupported across a horrifying stretch of space. There were, of course, no guardrails. Similar stairs could be seen both above and below their level, going to and from points they could not discern. The steps before them ended in the far wall, in which a massive stone head at least four stories in height had been carved into the rock, angled so that it stood upright. The steps ran straight to its open mouth.

“All right, we should check for traps before proceeding,” Fross declared. “I have a statistical divination spell that can randomize outcomes on a scale of twenty reference points corresponding to magical threat levels. Once I code in the variables we’re checking for, it should warn us of any traps within an acceptable margin of error. This’ll just take a second.”

“Fross,” Gabriel said impatiently, “I may not be up to your study habits but even I know the Gygax Charm hasn’t been used in decades. Modern divinations are vastly more accurate.”

“It’s traditional!”

“There are no traps,” Professor Ezzaniel said wearily from behind them. “There will be no traps, nor enemies, until you have proceeded beyond what lies at the bottom of these steps. For heaven’s sake, students, get on with it. And watch where you put your feet.”

“You’re good with levitation spells, right, Fross?” Trissiny asked.

“Well, of course! That’s how I mostly interact with the world. You’d be amazed how much picking up of stuff is necessary in human society! Well, I mean, you would if you’d never actually thought about it, which I’ve noticed most of you haven’t. Uh, no offense.”

“None taken,” the paladin said gravely. “We’re all going to step carefully, but I need you to watch over the group and catch anybody if they fall.”

“Oh!” Fross zipped back and forth in excitement. “I can do that!”

“Good. All right, everyone…single file. I know it’s not that narrow, but let’s take no risks.”

She set off down the stairs, the others falling into line behind her.

The staircase was indeed broad enough that any of them could have laid down on the steps and neither their heads nor feet would have come near the edge. However, given the lack of rails and the staggering heights involved, it was still a nerve-wracking descent.

“What d’you suppose is down there?” Gabriel asked about halfway down. “Lava?”

“Can’t be,” said Toby. “The heat would whoosh up this shaft and cook us right where we stand.”

“Shut. The fuck. Up,” Ruda growled.

Trissiny stepped onto the small landing below the gloomy face’s nose with relief. In addition to being off those infernal stairs, from this vantage she didn’t have to see that huge thing scowling at them. The others clustered around her, several with soft sighs mirroring her reaction.

The face’s open mouth formed a short tunnel; set into the wall just in front of the was a wooden door with an iron latch. Next to it hung a sign, in Tanglish.

“The Grim Visage,” Teal read. “Well, it certainly is that.”

“Care to give us a hint on what lies ahead, Professor?” Toby suggested.

“Yes,” said Ezzaniel, deadpan. “If you open the door, you will find out.”

“This is gonna be one of those trips, isn’t it,” Ruda muttered.

Trissiny clenched her jaw, grasped the handle and pulled the door open. She stepped cautiously through, moving forward enough to give the others room to enter. They did so slowly, fanning out in a cluster just inside the door.

They found themselves in a room full of monsters.

An ogre sat in the far corner, his head brushing the ceiling even sitting down, clutching a barrel from which he drank like a pint glass. Near the door, three drow were clustered around a table, two women and a man; to judge by their “armor,” which was flattering but more decorative than functional, and the matching unpleasant grins they gave the students, they weren’t Narisian. A small group of gnomes were playing cards near a roaring hearth, two goblins were arm wrestling the next table over, and at the far end of the room, behind a bar, stood an improbably pretty man with pale skin and no shirt on. He grinned at the sight of the students, stretching spiny incubus wings. As they stood there staring, a naga slithered past them, carrying a tray of mugs.

The occupants of the room looked up at the new arrivals, and then mostly went right back to their drinks, games and conversations.

“Why is it,” Gabriel asked after a moment’s silence, “that wherever we go, we end up in some kind of bar?”

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6 – 2

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The lock was no more than a formality; it had never needed to be. No one skilled in the bypassing of locks would have attempted to break through this particular one. As such, the soft scratching of lock picks at work went on for a fairly short time before the tumbler gave, the latch turned and the door was pulled silently open.

It was so late it was early; well beyond midnight, the first gray lightening of dawn not yet visible, but not far off. There were lights in the street, but they were dim and far apart, the residents of this neighborhood preferring that their rest not be disturbed overmuch by the omnipresent glow of Tiraas. The three figures who entered were barely silhouetted against the gloom outside, and all but vanished in their gray robes when they pulled the door shut behind themselves. Stepping warily, tense and as silent as they could manage, they passed through the foyer and into the hall, spreading out to fill the narrow space and studying their surroundings. Moonlight streamed in through upper windows in the tall space, which rose a full two stories. The hall was cast in a faint glow, pale, but adequate for human eyes.

Behind them, the relatively narrow space separating the hall from the foyer was narrowed still further by decorative molding just above head height. It was still a considerable gap, however; Price’s legs were spread widely, one foot braced against each inch-wide ledge. She studied the intruders dispassionately as they passed beneath, then lifted herself lightly by the toes, snapped her legs together and dropped to the ground.

Between her cat-like landing and the construction of her shoes, one of the Service Society’s trade secrets, she landed in total silence, behind the oblivious trio.

“Good morning, gentlemen.”

They whirled to face her, and the two on either side immediately fell, gurgling and gasping, with throwing knives embedded in their throats. The man in the center wasted seconds staring in shock, which cost him dearly.

Price launched herself forward, and belatedly he reacted, throwing up a hand. Enormous whip-like black tendrils lashed out from within his sleeve, limned by a sickly purple glow. She changed course mid-run, kicking off the wall to the opposite side of the hall. The demonic tentacles followed, but remained always an instant behind her, tied as they were to the reflexes of the caster. They smashed against the wall just after she bounced off it, then again on the opposite side, crushing glossy wood paneling and shredding wallpaper, and then the Butler was upon the warlock.

Launching herself off the wall from mere steps away, she grabbed the collar of his robes with both hands and flipped over him, somersaulting in midair to plant both feet against his back and kick, shoving herself forward and sending him tumbling face-first to the floor, his magical weapons vanishing instantly. Price landed in a smooth roll and was immediately on her feet again, whirling to face the fallen warlock.

Much less gracefully, he scrambled over onto his back, throwing out his hand desperately in her direction.

As he tried to call up his tentacle spell again, the charm she had planted on his collar erupted. A multilayered thing, it unleashed a blast of pure divine energy, cutting off his spell and slamming him to the ground, and also laid a light fae blessing over him. Neither was powerful enough to hold on its own, at least not for long, but it was plenty adequate to put a warlock momentarily out of commission.

“Now, then,” Price said evenly, “we can discuss the matter of who sent you.”

“T-tell you nothing,” the warlock rasped, scrambling backward from her in a desperate crab-walk.

Two slim figures burst out of the side hall, skidding to a stop at Price’s peremptorily upheld hand. Ignoring Flora and Fauna, she stepped forward between the two slain warlocks, bearing down on their last companion.

“As I hope you are aware, when I have finished you will converse avidly on any subject I choose to raise,” she said calmly. “Your only input shall be into what transpires before we reach that point.”

He came up against the wall, pressing his robed hands together before him and glaring up at her. “Have your little victory, then! It doesn’t matter. A great doom is coming, whether you are ready for it or not!”

“You are not, one presumes, referring to yourself,” Price said, raising one eyebrow sardonically.

Joe came staggering in, wearing a long nightshirt but with a wand in each hand. Flora and Fauna grabbed him from either side before he could bring up his weapons.

Price paused, tilting her head to study the felled warlock as he began to convulse. In seconds, he had actually begun frothing at the mouth.

“Ah,” she said. “Dear me.”

The Butler knelt and pried the man’s hands apart, revealing a brass-bound syringe pressed into his wrist, the plunger fully depressed and its contents emptied.

“Too late?” Darling asked, striding down the stairs.

“Indeed, sir,” she said. “My apologies. This device matches the description from the Tellwyrn incident in Hamlet.”

“Hm,” he noted, coming to a stop between the three youths and the three slain warlocks. The last one’s convulsions were already trailing off. Darling wore a hastily-donned robe over his silk pajamas; his feet were bare and the condition of his hair suggested recent proximity to a pillow. He seemed fully awake and alert, however. “Drat. I liked them better when they were too chicken to carry suicide measures.”

“This sorta thing happen often?” Joe asked carefully.

“Not in the least,” said the Bishop, shaking his head. “These numbnuts just declared war on the Thieves’ Guild, coming here; that’s not a mistake anyone’s ever made twice. It’s pretty alarming. The Black Wreath hasn’t openly scrapped with the Guild in centuries. Why now?”

Price discreetly cleared her throat. “If I may, your Grace, they did not approach the Guild itself. I believe you identified yourself to a representative of theirs in Hamlet, suggesting you were on Imperial business?”

“Yes,” he said slowly, frowning. “That was months ago, though… But if they’re finally aiming to clean up that loose end, the others would also…” His eyes widened, a quick calculation taking place behind them. “Oh, gods, Branwen.”

“We can help!” Fauna said eagerly.

“Just tell us where to go,” Flora added.

“Right. Yes.” Darling whirled to face them. “Split up. One of you go to the Casino, one to the Cathedral. Let the Guild and the Church know what’s happened here. Approach carefully; if the Wreath is attacking them, too, do not engage. Come back here in that event and secure the house.”

Their faces fell. “But we can help—”

“I know you can handle yourselves,” he said, adding pointedly, “You can help by not placing yourself in a position where anyone has to see how well you can handle yourselves. Clear?”

“Yes, sir,” they chorused somewhat glumly, but both turned and strode off to their rooms to get dressed.

“Ah,” Joe said tentatively, reflexively making awkward motions at his sides as he attempted to holster his wands in sheathes that weren’t there, “anything I can do?”

“Back to bed,” Darling ordered, already moving toward the front door. “You’re still disabled.”

“I’m practically as good as new,” Joe said somewhat rebelliously.

“Kid, you’re ready for action when that mother hen of a Crow declares you are. That way, nobody gets turned into a newt. If you can’t sleep, help Price and keep an eye on the house. I’ve gotta get to Bishop Snowe’s house, and pray I’m not too late…”

“Your Grace,” Price said pointedly, “if this attack was carried out with the Wreath’s characteristic forethought, and the other Bishops were indeed targets, the strikes are likely to have been simultaneous. You are very unlikely to reach Bishop Snowe before any putative warlocks.”

“Yes,” he said impatiently, his hand on the latch. “All the more reason—”

“All the more reason,” she interrupted firmly, “to take the time to approach carefully. Beginning, perhaps, by putting on shoes.”

Darling sighed heavily in annoyance.

“I merely suggest, of course,” Price said humbly. “If your Grace wishes to do battle with the Black Wreath without pants on, that is your Grace’s prerogative. Doubtless they will find it tremendously amusing.”

“You are severely annoying when you’re right, Price,” he said curtly, turning and stomping past her toward the stairs, peevishly kicking one of the slain warlocks as he went by.

“Yes, sir,” she said calmly, folding her hands behind her back and watching him go. Joe, wisely, had retreated down the hall toward his own room in search of clothes.

Alone with the bodies, Price surveyed the hall, finally permitting herself a small frown of annoyance as she studied the shattered wall paneling.

“I just polished that.”


 

“She’s insane,” Gabriel mumbled around a yawn. “What freaking time is it, anyway?”

“Approximately one minute later than the last time you asked,” said Toby with a smile.

“But why here?” he whined, yawning again as he tugged open the heavy front doors. “Why now? And why couldn’t she have just told us to be up early? And for fuck’s sake, why does she have to wake people up that way?! I don’t care if it was an illusion, I swear I’ve got water in my shoes.”

“Gabe, I realize you’re not exactly at your best right now, but stop and consider that you’re asking why Professor Tellwyrn does what she does. Do you really expect to get anywhere with that?”

“Crazy,” Gabriel groused, stepping into the library and leaving Toby to catch the door on his own way in. “I expect to get crazy. It’ll be a nice change from sleep-deprived.”

“And I see we’re last to the party as usual,” Toby said amiably, waving at those assembled in the main entryway. “Morning, ladies.”

“It’s not morning until there’s sun, for the record,” Teal grumbled. “G’night, Toby.”

“I’ve been here all night!” Fross said brightly. “It’s a great time to get some out-of-class research done. Nobody bothers me.”

“That’s because we need sleep,” Gabriel moaned.

“Yes, I know! I have kind of an unfair advantage, which I sometimes feel a little guilty about, but it’s not like I can help it. If you want, Gabe, I can help you study any time! We’re in the same degree program, after all!”

“I’ll file that away for grah!” Catching sight of the figure that had just appeared behind the receptionist’s desk, he stumbled backward against the doors, apparently coming fully awake in a wide-eyed panic. “What the hell is that?!”

“Tellwyrn’s experimental golem,” said Ruda, who was lounging in one of the reading chairs, sipping from a bottle of bourbon.

“She has a name,” Fross said reproachfully. “Hello, Crystal!”

“Good morning, Fross,” the golem said politely. At first glance, she resembled a slim woman in elaborate armor, if the armor in question were banded in gold, embossed with arcane runes and inset with pale blue crystals. It didn’t add the bulk that armor would have, though, but outlined her own slight frame, a metal suit of skin. From the gaps at the joints, muted blue light streamed out, occasional puffs of mist emerging when she moved. Her face was an eerily lifelike but expressionless steel mask, its eyes empty holes opening onto an intense blue glow. “Good morning, students. May I help you find anything?”

“I don’t think so,” said Trissiny, who looked more alert than most of her classmates. “Professor Tellwyrn told us to meet her here.”

“Ah, very good,” Crystal replied.

“What’s she doing here?” Gabriel stage-whispered.

“She’s the head librarian now,” Fross replied. “And really, you can talk to her yourself, she’s right there. You’re being rude, Gabe.”

“Sorry,” he said with a grimace, then turned to Crystal and repeated himself. “Uh, sorry. I was just…startled.”

“It’s quite all right,” the golem replied. “I expect there will be an acclimation period. It has already extended further than I had calculated. My initial data seems to have been in error.”

“What happened to Grumpypants McPonytail?” Toby asked.

“Weaver?” Fross fluttered in a circle around his head. “He’s been gone for weeks. Seriously, how have you not noticed this before now?”

“We try to stay out of the library,” said Gabe, grimacing.

“But—but—but you’re university students! You need to use the library!”

“We need to stay away from that crankety-ass freak, is what,” Gabe replied. “Although if he’s gone, I’ll probably start spending more time here. Why does nobody ever tell me anything?”

“Combination of factors, really,” said Ruda, beginning to tick off points on her fingers. “We don’t think about you when you’re not here, you’re not all that important, nobody likes you…”

“That’s playing a little rough, Ruda,” Trissiny said, frowning.

Her roommate snorted loudly. “Oh, come on. You tried to kill him.”

“I think you lost the right to throw that at me when you stabbed him!”

“I just love my life,” Gabriel said to no one in particular.

“What did happen to Weaver?” Toby asked hastily.

“He felt the call of adventure!” Fross proclaimed.

There was a moment of silence as they all stared at her.

“What does that mean?” Juniper asked finally.

“I don’t know,” the pixie admitted. “That’s what Professor Tellwyrn said when I asked her. And then she laughed. You know that kind of mean laugh, like when somebody says something silly in class and she spends five minutes making fun of them?”

They all nodded in unison.

“Mr. Weaver is on indefinite sabbatical,” Crystal said into the silence. “And I am detecting a buildup of translocative arcane energy focused on this spot, characteristic of a scrying spell and minor dimensional fold, so I infer you are—”

They never got to hear the rest, as with a sharp pop the scenery changed.

The students dropped about half a foot to the grass—except Fross, of course—with varying degrees of grace. Ruda landed on her butt, cursing; Teal had to flail her arms for balance until Shaeine steadied her. Gabriel very nearly fell over sideways.

“Goddammit!” he shouted. “Why? Why must you do that?”

“Three reasons,” Professor Tellwyrn said brightly. “It’s the most efficient way to get around, it serves the purpose of protecting the surprise, and your suffering amuses me. Note, Arquin, that that was not a plural ‘your.’ Nobody else suffers with quite the distinctive self-pity you have. It’s inspiring, really.”

“I hate you.”

“I don’t care,” she said, still cheerfully. “Good morning, students, and welcome to your midterm test!”

“Why are we on the quad?” Toby asked, peering around.

“Because I just teleported you here. You’re not at your quickest first thing in the morning, are you, Mr. Caine?”

“I wonder what would happen if we all rushed her?” Trissiny asked grimly.

“Fuck that, I’ve had enough pain in my ass already today without getting teleported into the sun,” Ruda grumbled, discreetly rubbing her bum.

“As for why I asked you to meet up at the library,” Tellwyrn continued, “you might say it’s tradition. I like to send the kids off on their freshman delve as unprepared as possible, so as to simulate the real conditions faced by your adventuring forebears, which were often woefully spontaneous. Thus, a cheap and simple misdirection. Your goal is in there.”

She turned and pointed to the wooden gates set into the terrace wall opposite the gazebo, beside which they stood. On command, they swung outward with a hideous groan of hinges badly in need of oiling. Behind that was an iron portcullis, which slid into the ground almost as soon as it was revealed, leaving nothing between them and a broad stone staircase down into darkness.

“That’s the Crawl,” Ruda said softly.

Tellwyrn rolled her eyes. “You kids really aren’t at your best without your precious beauty sleep, are you? Yes, Miss Punaji, that is the Crawl. Any other blindingly obvious observations you’d like to share with the class?”

“In a few hours,” said Ruda, “the sun will rise, I’ll have breakfast, and at some point after that I’ll begin to care what the fuck you think. Meanwhile, you can shove it sideways.”

“All right, enough folderol,” Tellwyrn went on more briskly. “Professor Ezzaniel will be your accompanying faculty member on this excursion. Rafe usually does the freshman delve, but I try not to inflict him on a class more than once a year if I can help it. Also, after he stuck his fingers into your Golden Sea excursion, I’ve lost some faith in his objectivity. Ezzaniel, at least, I can trust to leave you all to die if that’s what you deserve.”

Professor Ezzaniel, who had been standing behind her so quietly they hadn’t even noticed him in the dimness, stepped forward, raising an eyebrow and glancing at Tellwyrn after that last remark. He was in his usual open-collared suit, with his customary saber belted at his waist and a simple knapsack flung over one shoulder. It was a plain leather affair, not the enchanted carpet bag in which he kept the practice weapons for their martial arts class.

“Your assignment,” Tellwyrn continued, “is to retrieve a treasure from below. It is a rectangular wooden chest, bound in brass and embossed with floral patterns, in which reside a matched sword and dagger set of elven make. Professor Ezzaniel will be along to observe; he will not aid you or interfere in your actions. It is upon his observations that I will determine your grade. Actually retrieving the chest is not essential; most freshman groups don’t. The last party which succeeded was nine years ago; this particular treasure has been down there for that long. If you do manage to fetch it back, though, the group gets an automatic A on the exercise, which will comprise a substantial chunk of your grade for the semester, and the individual who gets it gets to keep it.”

“A sword and dagger?” Gabriel scoffed. “Sounds like a consolation prize.”

“Those were my personal weapons for a good many years,” Tellwyrn said, giving him a long look. “They are older than the Empire and heavily enchanted. If none of that impresses you, Arquin—and based on your performance in combat class, I rather suspect it won’t—if you get your hands on those, you can quite possibly buy your way into the nobility.”

“Always did enjoy getting consolation prizes,” he said thoughtfully.

“Hang on,” Trissiny protested. “We don’t have any supplies! No food, no equipment, only Ruda and I have weapons…”

“Yes, Avelea, that’s the point,” Tellwyrn said patiently. “As I explained moments ago. You’ll find the Crawl an exemplary arbiter of fates. If you are intelligent, if you deserve to survive, it will provide more than adequately for you. If not, it’ll see to it you meet whatever end most befits you. All right! You have three weeks.”

“Three weeks?” Teal demanded, wide-eyed.

“Three weeks,” said Tellwyrn. “Good gods, you kids are like an echo today. You can come back as soon as you get the sword and dagger, but if you haven’t got them in three weeks, your Professor will call short the assignment and lead you back to the surface. All right, that’s more than adequate jibber-jabber. Begin!”

She smirked, snapped her fingers, and vanished with a quiet pop.

“I think we shoulda rushed her,” Gabriel mused.

Professor Ezzaniel cleared his throat. “Come along, then, students,” he said, and with no more ado strode into the darkness of the Crawl.

There was nothing left for them to do but follow him.


 

Naturally, he didn’t approach the house head-on. The open front door would have warned him away, if nothing else. Luckily, Branwen’s neighborhood—a wealthier one even than his own—gave him plenty of above-ground territory on which to prowl, and the elaborate houses on all sides were easily climbable. There was only one close enough to her house to be worth the trouble of ascending, but the gardens had suitably high walls separating the lots. It was from the top of this structure that he got his first glimpse into Branwen’s own sprawling garden, positioned behind her house, and determined it was safe to descend.

Darling landed deftly in a leafy bush, which would have been very uncomfortable for some, but he had long since mastered the knack. Brushing leaves from his coat, he carefully paced forward, studying the surrounding carnage. Blood spattered the walkway, with here and there pieces of bodies. They weren’t too widely distributed; he could mentally piece them together easily enough to determine that there were three of the robed figures, just as there had been at his house.

Branwen sat silently on the stone lip of a reflecting pool, a fourth body pulled half into her lap. It was of an older woman, looking almost asleep from the waist up. Her legs were crushed, mangled completely, and a veritable pond of blood surrounded the pair. Branwen gazed vacantly down at the woman, stroking her white hair with one hand.

“Branwen?” he asked quietly, creeping closer.

“Tieris has been with my family her whole life,” the Izarite said quietly. “She practically raised me. It’s so…absurd. It just seemed she would always be there.”

“Bran, I’m so sorry,” he said, carefully seating himself beside her.

“You too, then,” she murmured. “…thank you for thinking of me, Antonio. You should have gone to help the others, though.”

Darling frowned. “I—Bas and Andros? Well, they’re both surrounded by cult members. I know you were out here alone…”

“And you thought I was helpless and useless and would need rescue,” she said. There was no emotion in her voice, only a deep exhaustion.

“Branwen…”

“It wasn’t a complaint. You think what I want you to think. So does everyone else.” She reached behind her to trail her fingers through the water.

Something rose up from within.

Darling bounded to his feet and danced backward, staring. The creature that crawled, dripping, out of the pool was the size of an alligator and had a head shaped very like one, though its scaled body was more like a bulldog’s in proportion. Steam rose from its flaring nostrils.

They were mistakenly called hellhounds, by people who had never seen a real hellhound. Kankhradahg demons were favored tools of the Black Wreath: easily summoned, easily controlled, and not intelligent enough to be rebellious. Usually.

Branwen scratched the demon under its chin; it closed its red eyes, beginning to purr softly.

“Wreath summoners don’t always take good care of their charges,” she said in that same dull tone. “Their victims, really. This fellow wasn’t treated well at all. It just took a little persuasion, and just the right kind of blessing to break his former master’s control…”

“That’s…impressive,” Darling said carefully, keeping his eyes on the apparently contented demon. Gods, she had her delicate little hand just inches from those teeth…

“This is about Hamlet, isn’t it? Only reason they would do something like this, antagonize our cults and the Church this way. You should have gone to the others, Antonio. Those who came here underestimated me. Whatever they sent at the Huntsman and the Legionnaire will be intended to finish off more powerful targets.”

“Well,” he said after a moment, “I suppose you’re not wrong. Unfortunately it’s a little late now.”

“Yes,” she said softly. “What will be, will be. Looks like we won.”

Branwen gathered up the body of her servant in her arms, leaning over her, and finally began to weep.

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Bonus #6: A Light in Dark Places

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Jacaranda’s grove had been formed eons ago during the Elder Wars, when a rival god had launched an attack into the Deep Wild, aimed at Naiya. That wasn’t even his greatest mistake, but it was his last; Mother Nature had little sense of humor and no capacity for forgiveness. Jacaranda hadn’t come along until uncounted centuries later, long after life had come back. At this point, she’d had plenty of time to make it her own, and her claim was respected by all the Deep Wild’s inhabitants, even the dryads. Occasionally they, or the odd satyr, would poke their heads in at the very edges, and sometimes would stop to talk with a pixie if they met one, but mostly the grove was left to its own peace. There was ancient bad blood there.

Of course, the little frost fairy knew none of that; she mostly knew that it was safest where it was loneliest, around the uppermost, outermost edges. Dryads, satyrs and the odd questing adventurer were interesting and a little scary, but for the most part, they were harmless.

The crater had, over time, been reclaimed by nature, as everything ultimately was, and now was home to a deep, ancient forest of towering sentinel trees that all but blotted out the sky above, leaving only deep blue-green gloom throughout the crater’s floor. Relatively few plants could flourish in the dimness, just mosses, lichens and fungi, several of which were luminous. A few streams cut through the massive roots, descending to form a deep pool at the very bottom. From the center of this rose a little rounded hill, topped by lushly soft moss, where perched the Pixie Queen, surrounded by her court.

There were no animals in the grove beyond insects, and of those, only species adept at hiding. Nothing else lasted long.

She went in cycles, lurking in the outer reaches, then gradually drawing closer to the middle before fleeing back to safer, darker territory. The closer one flew to the center, the more pixies one encountered, and the reverse was true; the outer reaches were dim and silent, nothing but wide open spaces between massive tree trunks. At the very middle and the bottom, of course, Jacaranda’s mossy throne was the center of pixiedom, and they buzzed about her with such intensity that the whole clearing was always as bright as day. The frost fairy was one of relatively few who could make the comparison; she had flown up above the canopy to see what daylight looked like, several times.

This time she was drifting closer to the middle again, warily greeting other pixies as she passed through the gradations of population density. There were lots of new pixies today; the Queen had made a bunch more, which was the thing that had piqued her curiosity enough to draw her in. New pixie days were always…interesting. She would get carefully closer and closer, possibly until she could see the court itself with all those hanging about their Queen, until something happened to spook her into retreat. An encounter with an aggressive pixie, perhaps. Or maybe, if she stayed long enough, a brush with that idea which had begun growing in the back of her mind. She wasn’t sure quite what the idea was, just that when it came almost close enough to consciousness for her to recognize, it scared her into fleeing.

The woods weren’t quite bright at this elevation, but they were neither silent nor as dim as she was used to. Pixies were about, not in any great concentration, but on all sides, filling the near distance with their chiming and their multicolored glow. She paid careful attention to them. None seemed too interested in her, unless—

“Hello!”

One popped up from under the dirt, hovering right in front of her. The frost pixie jangled in alarm and shot upward and back, quivering. He just hovered there, staring quizzically up at her. He was a dirt fairy, with a green glow. She’d begun to think, lately, that the earth-type elementals really ought to be brown or something, yet they were always green. She wasn’t sure where the thought came from.

“Hello,” she said cautiously. “You startled me.”

“I’m sorry!” His tone was bright and obliviously cheerful, even by pixie standards. “I’m exploring! I like it out here. How are you?”

Comprehension dawned. “Ohh. Are you…new?”

“Yes!” He bobbed up and down. “I am! It’s nice to meet you!”

The frost fairy relaxed, drifting down closer to him. “You should be more careful. If you startle people, something bad might happen.”

“Like what?”

She sighed, chiming softly. “You’ll find out soon enough, I suppose. Nice to meet you.”

She fluttered by him, giving him a respectful berth, and continued on her way toward the middle. The concentration of other pixies was growing; at the point where she could see the constantly-shifting inferno of multi-hued light around Jacaranda’s throne sparkling through the trees, but not quite see the clearing itself, she paused, darting upward to hover above a thick branch and observe. Most pixies, she’d noticed, didn’t go up too high, not much farther from the ground than the Queen could physically reach them if she happened to be standing there. Not that she ever left her perch. They also tended not to look up; sitting on a branch or just over it kept her relatively hidden.

“You’re making frost on the bark! Are you an ice fairy?”

She chimed in alarm and shot straight upward. That silly earth fairy had followed her and was now floating just behind her perch.

“What are you doing?” she demanded furiously.

“Following you!” he said brightly. “You’re my first friend! It’s nice to meet you! Are you going to the middle? I like it in the middle, everyone’s there. She’s there,” he added with a dreamy sigh. “It’s so busy, though, very crowded, so I decided to go exploring. You know, have a look around.”

The frost fairy slowly drifted back down as he spoke, her alarm abating. He seemed harmless. “Yes, I’m an ice fairy. And I might go closer to her throne. It depends on what I see. Sometimes it’s risky.”

He chimed in puzzlement. “Why?”

“Um… Have you ever had a…bad encounter with another pixie? Or seen one?”

“What kind?”

She sighed. “Nevermind. I’m going closer.”

“Okay! Wait for me!”

She was annoyed. The fool fluttered along behind her, chattering aimlessly and making stealth quite impossible; she had to keep a careful eye out for other pixies, but despite their increasing prevalence as she drew closer to the middle, none approached. The frost fairy kept to the higher reaches, going up a few more feet whenever she saw another pixie rise to her elevation; it was the surest tactic she’d found for being left alone. Though she wasn’t exactly alone this time; her new friend hovered right with her.

Even he fell silent, though, when she brought them to stop in the high fork of a tree, just where they had the best view of the throne. This tree leaned inward, as a lot of them did so close to the pool, and the frost fairy’s selected perch put them only a short distance away from Jacaranda’s spot and nearly above it, closer horizontally than vertically.

“Hush,” she urged. “Someone will hear you.”

He didn’t seem to hear her. “There she is,” he whispered in awe. “Isn’t she beautiful?”

“Yeah,” the frost fairy agreed, sighing. Some of the tension slipped away from her and she joined him in just staring dreamily down at their Queen.

She really was beautiful. Jacaranda resembled an elf in size and general build, though her hair was a cloud of wispy azure the floated about her in the breeze. Her ears, too, were resplendently long, though basically elvish in shape; they towered above her and leaned somewhat out to the sides, sort of like a rabbit’s. Glorious dragonfly wings sprang from between her shoulder blades, sometimes waving slowly, sometimes buzzing as she moved about, this way and that. They glittered with a profusion of colors, four crystalline stained glass sculptures carrying her on the breeze. All she wore was a sheer, diaphanous “dress” assembled from scraps of fabric that concealed nothing but accentuated nicely. The effect was wasted on the pixies, but Jacaranda liked to occasionally take lovers from the adventurers who stumbled into her grove.

Right now, the Pixie Queen drifted above a patch of luminous toadstools on her island, reclining backward in the air. Her wings fluttered slowly, not enough to keep her aloft through aerodynamics; like her little creations, she flew by magic. The wings were mostly decorative.

Those creations were putting on a show for her benefit. The little coterie of pixies who constituted her present court swirled and danced through the air around her, creating trails and flashes of their elemental effects; the rest of the eager cloud of pixies had retreated from the immediate vicinity, likely after a few of them had been singed, splashed, and/or blasted. Little bursts and streamers of fire followed the largest, an orange flame fairy; there were sprays of water, artful gusts of wind that swirled fallen leaves into their own little dance (before being incinerated in a spiteful display by the fire fairy), shoots of grass that sprang up from the moss and danced to their own rhythm. Flowers blossomed from nothing, even a few in midair, where they drifted down to rest in the water. Even small spires of rock and crystal sprouted artistically from the ground around the island, quickly crumbling and falling into the pool.

These were the pixies who had names. The others were nearly as much in awe of them as they were of Jacaranda herself—largely because those names were a sign of her favor, of the lucky recipients’ intimate place at their Queen’s side. A pixie’s fondest dream was to one day be given a name and join Jacaranda’s court.

The frost fairy didn’t know them all; their roster tended to shift. She recognized Fiero, though, as well as Flurr, Arokk, Wautri, Gusti and Kistral. A few she remembered from previous visits were missing; a few others were here now. Fiero, the fire fairy, was the only one who had always been here, at least since the frost fairy had been made. By this point, he was the biggest and brightest, and unquestionably Jacaranda’s favorite. Everyone knew it, even if they didn’t come out and say it.

Their uncoordinated display staggered to a rather destructive halt as flashy elemental effects interfered with each other until most of their individual efforts to show off had turned into clouds of steam, dust and ashes. Just when it seemed about to devolve into an outright fight, however, Jacaranda sat up straight, beaming with happiness, and applauded, as though the mess had been a perfectly orchestrated climax. And just like that, the pixies forgot their ire at each other, swooping over to swirl around her adoringly. From around the clearing came enthusiastic chiming from the rest of those present.

“Didja see that?” the earth fairy chattered. “How she brought them all together like that? She’s so smart!”

“Yeah,” the frost fairy said with a wistful sigh. She really was. Smart and beautiful and just perfect.

And then, like the creeping scent of a predator stalking her through the trees, that thought began trying to bubble up. She tensed, about to shoot off into the darkness as usual. She couldn’t flee from her own mind, but the act of fleeing was usually enough to distract her…

“Oh, how you do keep me entertained,” Jacaranda said below, and her voice—her beautiful voice—arrested the frost fairy completely. “Whatever should I do without you, my little friends?”

“You’ll never be without us!” Wautri cried, the assurances of the others coming a split second behind her. Fiero aggressively bumped into the water fairy, irked at not being the first to praise the Queen, but it went no further than that.

“I’m just so in need of distractions lately,” Jacaranda said with a melancholy sigh, settling backward to lounge in midair and raising a hand to her brow. “It’s just so tedious, all these…these people. I can’t get any privacy in my own grove anymore!”

“Stupid adventurers!” shouted Arokk. “Stupid humans, bothering our queen!” There came a chorus of outraged agreement from the others. Above, the frost fairy buzzed her wings thoughtfully. Not more than a handful of adventurers came to the grove a year; Jacaranda usually wanted them brought to her pool for sex before having them disposed of. Was that too many? How often had they come before? For that matter…how old was she?

“So…do you not want us to bring them to you anymore, my Queen?” Gusti asked hesitantly when it quieted enough for him to be heard.

“Oh, don’t be silly, my pet,” Jacaranda chided, laughing. She raised her hand, allowing him to perch on her fingers for a moment to take the sting out of the rebuke.

“It’s just awful that you should have to suffer for this,” Fiero said decisively.

“We should try to catch some satyrs or something to patrol the grove!” Arokk added.

“Yeah,” Flurr chimed, sparking in excitement. “The big dumb fairies outside should be doing their jobs! What are those dryads thinking, letting humans into your grove?!”

“What was that?” Jacaranda sat bolt upright, her expression suddenly fierce. The overall light level in the clearing plummeted as panicked pixies fled in all directions from her displeasure.

Flurr’s lavender glow dimmed as she realized her mistake. “Oh, I… I didn’t mean… I didn’t say… It was just a slip—”

“Those creatures are not to be spoken of in my presence!” the Pixie Queen raged. “I won’t have it! I hate them! You’re not to remind me! You know this!”

“I’m sorry!” Flurr wailed. “I didn’t mean—”

“Remove her!” Jacaranda commanded.

“Yes, my queen!” the rest of the court chimed in unison.

“Nooo!” Flurr sped off toward the treeline in terror.

Not fast enough.

It was Fiero who caught up to her. It was almost always Fiero anymore, the frost fairy noted, shifting her position to watch. A blast of fire sent the flower fairy fluttering to the ground with singed wings; in half a second, he was on her.

Despite their distance, the two fairies lurking on the branch high above could clearly see what followed. It took only seconds; Flurr’s wail died away quickly as Fiero landed on top of her, her glow diminishing to nothing and the tiny physical form beneath it withering away to wisps of vapor that streamed upward and into the fire fairy. His own aura flared brighter for a moment, and then he sprang upward, giddy with the rush of energy.

“How awful,” the earth fairy whispered. “Why would he do that?”

“Because he can,” said the frost fairy just as quietly. “That’s what I meant about aggressive pixies. We have basically infinite energy, you know; we’re all connected directly to the Queen herself. There’s really only one kind of creature that’s a threat to a pixie.” She buzzed her wings once. “Other pixies. Look around. Down, outward, at the others.”

He drifted over to the other side of the branch, peering down. Now that she’d pointed it out, he could see the spectacle of Fiero and Flurr being repeated here and there amid the rest of the random gyrations of pixie lights.

“…why?”

“That’s how we get stronger,” the frost fairy said noncommittally. “It’s how you gain power. You have to get a lot to be allowed close to the Pixie Queen. If you’re not strong enough to assert yourself to the rest of the court…they’ll eat you. I mean, literally. This is what happens to most new ones. Not a lot last.”

“Wow,” he said in an awed tone. “Wow, I’m really lucky to be up here with you.”

The frost fair buzzed again, turning to peer at him. “You know, I’m older and a lot stronger than you. What makes you think I won’t do that to you?”

“You wouldn’t do that,” he said immediately. “You’re my friend.”

She chimed in confusion. “Why are you so convinced we’re friends?”

“Why wouldn’t we be?”

She was spared having to answer by the sound of the Queen’s voice, which immediately commanded the full and undivided attention of every pixie in earshot.

“Well, anyway,” Jacaranda tittered, “what were we talking about?”

“How pretty you are!” Arokk proclaimed. He was swiftly echoed by the others.

“Oh, stop, you,” Jacaranda said modestly, beaming.

The frost fairy quailed. That thought was creeping up on her again.

“We really ought to do something,” the Pixie Queen went on, again seizing her attention. “The humans have never been so aggressive before. I mean, there’s an awful lot of them these days. I don’t know what they think they’re even doing in the Deep Wild, but if Naiya won’t rein them in, I suppose it falls to me.” She sighed tragically. “As it always does.”

There came a round of sycophantic condemnation of Naiya and humans from the surrounding pixies; they all blended together. The frost fairy didn’t bother trying to pick out individual voices, fixated as she was on the Queen.

Jacaranda, for once, seemed to be ignoring her hangers-on, frowning in thought. “All right, it’s decided,” she said suddenly, cutting them all off in an instant. “We must address the humans directly! I’ll send them an emissary. Let’s see… Who rules the nearest kingdom?”

She peered around expectantly; bashful pixies dimmed, drifting downward to hover a bit lower.

“Oh, honestly,” Jacaranda exclaimed, planting her fists on her hips and frowning in disapproval. “Doesn’t anyone know?”

“We…we don’t like to leave your side, my Queen,” Wautri said hesitantly. “We don’t know much about the world outside your grove.”

“What else could we want?” Fiero added. “You’re here!”

“Aww.” Jacaranda gave him a little smile, then suddenly brightened in earnest. “I know! I’ll send someone to the Arachne. She knows fairy ways and human ways; she can introduce my emissary to the human king. It’s perfect!”

Above, while the pixies of the court fell over themselves to assure their Queen how brilliant it truly was over her modest protests, the earth fairy asked, “What’s the Arachne?”

“I don’t know,” the frost fairy admitted.

“But who shall I send?” Jacaranda asked in a voice that made the question a proclamation. “Who shall go forth into the world on my behalf?”

Her court hesitated, caught on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, they longed for nothing more than to please her; on the other, this duty would mean leaving her side, when everything they had struggled for was represented by being in her presence.

Other pixies, not having made the same risks and sacrifices to attain their positions, were not so conflicted. They also weren’t accustomed to being addressed directly by their Queen, and so the cloud of would-be volunteers drifting out over the pool was slow, hesitant.

With the exception, of course, of one who’d not yet learned circumspection.

“Me!” shouted the little earth fairy, plunging over the edge of the branch and down into the court. “I’ll go!”

“What are you doing?!” the frost fairy hissed, unheard.

“I’ll go!” he cried obliviously, fluttering down toward the Pixie Queen. “Send me, my Queen!”

Jacaranda glanced up at him, and he froze in midair, poleaxed by her smile.

“Hey, now!” Seizing an opportunity to deflect attention from his own recent failure to volunteer, Fiero shot upward, hovering menacingly before the earth fairy. That close, the differences between them were blatant; the fire fairy’s aura was a whole order of magnitude larger and brighter. “Who do you think you are to bother the Queen? Were you given permission to approach?”

“She—she asked for someone to go,” the earth fairy said dumbly.

“She asked for someone to go,” Fiero mocked, eliciting a chorus of derisive giggles from the rest of the court. “And you thought that meant you?”

“Well, I—hey!” He plunged a few feet, buffeted by a burst of flame. “Ow! What’d you do that for?”

Above, the frost fairy wanted to look away, and found she couldn’t.

“Stop it!” the earth fairy cried plaintively, trying to flutter away now. Fiero was too fast, and too strong. The next wash of flame was in earnest, sending the little earth fairy careening toward the ground with a scorched wing. The fire fairy dived after him.

The frost fairy finally tore her eyes away, edging back over the branch to hide the spectacle from view.

It was only seconds later that Fiero re-emerged. “Pfft, hardly worth the effort. No energy at all!”

The other pixies of the court joined in his mocking laughter.

And suddenly, the frost fairy was mad.

She tried to repress it. Getting mad didn’t help anything. This was the world; this was just how life was.

“Yes, yes,” the Pixie Queen said languidly. “Enough of your little games, now, though, let’s be serious.”

“Little games?” the frost fairy heard herself say quietly. Suddenly that thought was there, clawing at the gates to her consciousness. She could feel it about to break through. Reflexively, she plunged into action to drive it away.

Yet this time, she wasn’t running away.

Fiero was still grandstanding, hovering above the others. Jacaranda was looking in another direction. It was perfect. The frost fairy plummeted down into the court’s space and hit Fiero from behind with a blast of elemental frost.

“WHAT the—” he squawked, buffeted off course. Righting himself, he pivoted to stare incredulously at the icy pixie, no more than half his size and a fraction of his power, hovering a few feet away. The frost fairy gave him another blast for good measure, then turned and buzzed off into the darkness as fast as her wings could carry her.

“WHY YOU!” Fiero was right behind her in seconds.

The rest of the pixies scattered from their path, unwilling to face Fiero’s wrath. Some few might have the foresight to try to curry favor by helping him, but they wouldn’t be willing to risk him in this mood. She could count on there being no interference.

She led him on a spiraling course through the trees, laying down a trail of frost for him to follow across the ground, over roots and through fallen logs. He blasted it to vapor as he went in a showy display of magical ferocity. For the first few tense moments, she wasn’t sure of her surroundings, but soon enough she found a landmark, and then another, and then she was on familiar ground, just outside the center of pixiedom. Leading him on the same course she’d led all the others. Still, she backtracked and pivoted, making ice tracks and permitting herself some grim satisfaction as he blazed them away. It cost her almost no energy to lower the temperature around her, turning the moisture in the air into frost; it was costing him a lot to throw all those fire blasts.

The longer this played out, the less energy he had.

Still, she couldn’t tire him out too much; biggest and strongest pixie or no, Fiero was still a pixie, and had a strictly finite attention span. Very quickly, he began to slow behind her, the fire blasts petering out.

“Yeah, you better run,” he called out, coming to a stop. She halted as well, but he didn’t see; he’d already turned and was fluttering back toward Jacaranda’s pool.

No good.

She hit him from behind with another ice blast.

This time he let out a yowl of wordless fury, streaking off after her again.

The bursts of fire which followed were aimed at her, now, and she decided to cut this short. He wasn’t a very accurate shot, but if he set the forest on fire the Queen would be annoyed. Was he weakened enough? Well, no time to wonder. She followed the familiar turns of the ground, around the big old tree with the tunnel under its roots, then around and down into the darkness, slowing just enough on the turn to make sure Fiero saw which hole she entered.

She’d done this maneuver enough times for it to be nearly instinctive. The tunnel branched off ahead; she coated the rim of the hole leading straight down with frost, then zipped around a blind turn. She was just far enough ahead in the twisting darkness that he shouldn’t have seen which way she’d gone, hence the false trail of ice. This particular tunnel twisted around, coming out right above the fork. She arrived back at that point just in time to see Fiero plunge into the iced hole with a cry of triumph, thinking her cornered.

He was quick; he managed to come to a halt before plunging into the water that filled the deep hole. He wasn’t so quick that he didn’t stop and stare dumbly at it, completely at a loss as to what had just happened.

They all did.

The frost fairy plunged down on him from above, channeling a tight, focused burst of her power onto him. The fire fairy was forced downward into the water, where his power was stifled. He tried to boil the liquid around him, but she continued pouring cold on. He wasted energy flailing blindly, spewing instantly-doused flames in all directions, no longer even sure which way was up, while all around him the water froze faster than he could boil it. Tired out before he’d been lured here, panicked, confused and in the very unfamiliar position of total vulnerability, all his power did him no good. If he’d focused, he could probably have beaten her. Easily, even.

None of them understood what she did: smarter was better than stronger.

The first time she’d done this had been a total accident. A stronger pixie was chasing her, and she’d tried to hide in the tunnels… The second, she’d done it deliberately, remembering the useful twists down here. For a while, the frost fairy had used this tree’s root complex as a defense mechanism for when she couldn’t avoid a confrontation, honing her method, developing the false trail of frost for those enemies a bit more quick-witted than the rest. This was the first time she had deliberately goaded someone into the trap.

Fiero’s critical moment of weakness came, and she reached out with her mind, with her being, seizing that which was him and drawing it into herself. He flailed harder, sensing what she was doing, but he was an aimless ball of panic at this point, and could do nothing to stop her.

Amazing, how quickly that much energy was absorbed. It was almost fast enough that she absorbed the sheer power for its own sake, rather than doing the thing that only she knew how to do…but she held onto herself, and changed the power as it rushed into her.

Pixies didn’t gain the full energy of another pixie they absorbed, not by a long shot. There was substantial energy loss in the process. The frost fairy’s method didn’t take in the energy directly, though, but channeled it into…something else. Something smarter. She didn’t have a way to measure, but she had the impression she kept a lot more of the power this way, even if she didn’t get power from it, exactly. Energy flowed into her mind, sharpening, organizing, heightening. Her senses grew more acute; connections she hadn’t been conscious of before were suddenly there. Everything about the world made a little bit more sense.

Her ice wasn’t any stronger, but that was fine. She had something better.

No…more than a little bit more sense. She’d never taken in a member of the Court before. This changed a lot. Fiero’s power represented enough mental acuity to shift her thinking several steps ahead.

In that moment, an understanding settled on her, followed by an idea.

The understanding was that she hated living here. The idea was that she had the chance of a way out.

The frost fairy shot out of the tunnel complex, making a silver streak back toward the Pixie Queen’s island. This time, not recognizing her, the other pixies didn’t get out of her way; she navigated swiftly around them, single-minded in her goal.

It had only been moments. Tense as her deadly encounter with Fiero had been, it had gone at the highest speeds the two of them could manage, and she made it back before too much had changed.

“Well,” the Pixie Queen was saying with some asperity, “if nobody wants to go, I can always just pick someone. I would have hoped you’d all care enough about me to volunteer, but I see—”

The frost fairy zipped out of the treeline, right past the startled members of the court, and slammed to a midair halt directly in front of the Pixie Queen’s face, where they wouldn’t have dared create a disturbance.

“My Queen, I volunteer! It would be my honor to serve you!”

“Why, what have we here?” Jacaranda said, tilting her head bemusedly. “It’s a little ice spirit. Hello, little one. Have I spoken to you before?”

The answer to that was simply no, but the frost fairy had a newer, subtler understanding now, derived from all the time she’d spent watching the court from above. “I have never had the honor, my Queen. I’m sorry to presume like this. But no one else was coming forward, and I just couldn’t stand to leave you without the help you need!”

The chiming from the pixies of the court took on a distinctly annoyed tone, but Jacaranda smiled in pure delight. “Why, what a dutiful little pixie you are, my dear. Yes, indeed! For this service… Yes, I believe you deserve a name of your own.”

The frost fairy almost fell out of the air in shock. Volunteering to be sent on a mission outside was one thing, but this… “I…I’d be honored, my Queen,” she whispered tremulously.

“It’s no more than you deserve, my newest little friend,” Jacaranda proclaimed. “Hm, let’s see, you’re an ice fairy, aren’t you? Yes… We shall call you Fross.”

Fross. She had a name!

The sheer bliss of it was spoiled by an unwelcome rush of comprehension. Fross, like “frost.” Fiero, fire, Wautri, water… They were all like that. She’d just named them after their elements, with no imagination at all.

In that moment the thought she’d been avoiding all this time finally crashed through:

The Pixie Queen was kind of stupid.

Very fortunately, the sheer, horrified shock of having had this treasonous thought paralyzed her, preventing her from blurting it out. That very likely saved her life.

“Now, Fross,” Jacaranda was saying imperiously, “my most faithful little servant, here is the task I have for you…”


 

Nothing had prepared Fross for how big the world was. She counted forty-three days of travel, but that was after quite a few had gone by before it occurred to her to keep count.

She’d found a helpful dryad in the Deep Wild beyond Jacaranda’s grove to give her directions and advice. She was nervous about approaching the tree spirit—despite her Queen’s loathing of dryads, she knew very well where they stood on the hierarchy of fairies, and it was well beyond the reach of anyone she should be speaking to. Aspen had been friendly and seemed glad to help, though, and over time her directions had proved spot-on.

Fross had learned to keep up as high as possible. The ground was full of predators; at a given altitude, there were only hawks to deal with. Being eaten wouldn’t have harmed her significantly in the long run, but it would have been inconvenient, not to mention gross. She’d had to ice a good few birds on her journey, but they were the lesser hazard. The winds up high were something else; it was tricky to stay on course.

Choosing to err on the side of caution, she’d swung to the south to avoid the Golden Sea, which, from above, wasn’t really distinguishable from the non-magical prairie surrounding it. Thanks to Aspen’s advice, she learned to recognize the landmarks of human construction as signs she was safely outside the Sea’s radius. In fact, they proved extremely useful. Once she came to the Sea’s edge, she just had to follow the towns, forts and whatever else, making sure to drift southward for safety’s sake in the long stretches between them, before she eventually, finally came to the one she needed.

Last Rock was well-named and truly unmistakable.

Luck was on her side when she finally got there; she didn’t have to look far to find the Arachne. Upon being smacked into a windowsill by an errant gust of wind, Fross decided that was as good a place as any to stop and rest, which she’d not done in several days. The window was open slightly, and she could hear conversation from within.

“But only seven? It’s without precedent.”

“Eight, Alaric. We won’t be seeing Vadrieny most of the time, gods willing, but she’ll be conscious, so I’m putting her on the rolls.”

“Eight, then. Even so, Arachne, that’s less than half the size of any previous incoming class.”

Fross buzzed upward, her weariness forgotten. She was through the open window in an instant.

The room was an office, carpeted in royal blue and surrounded by bookcases, inscrutable devices and old maps on the walls. Four people were present: an elf sitting behind a desk, a dwarf standing before it, a half-elf lounging in a chair against the wall and a human standing at ease near the door.

She knew immediately who her goal was. Quite apart from being the only elf present, the Arachne was just like the dryad’s description: She wore green clothes, gold-rimmed lenses over her eyes and a scowl.

“I refuse to pad the rolls, Alaric,” the Arachne was saying. “Besides, there’s an argument to be made about quantity as opposed to quality.”

“I wasn’t aware we took on students of poor quality,” the human said in a mild tone.

“Ahem,” said the half-elf, looking directly at Fross. None of the others paid him any mind.

“You know what I mean, Emilio,” the Arachne said impatiently. “Consider the names we’ve already got. I very much fear it’s going to be all we can do to attend to them properly. Yes, it’ll be a small class, but as things stand I don’t feel a need to go looking for more. And that’s what we’d have to do, gentlemen. These are the students who’ve been brought forward to us, and that’s how we’ve always recruited. The University does not ask for attendees.”

“Hey, guys?” said the half-elf.

“For heaven’s sake, Admestus, what?” the Arachne exclaimed.

He pointed at Fross. “Whose pixie is that?”

Everyone turned to stare at her.

“Hello!” she said. “My name is Fross!”

“What the hell is this now?” the Arachne said by way of greeting.

“That’s not a very nice word,” Fross admonished.

“Yes, I know. Just what are you doing in here? If your witch is trying to get my attention, there are easier ways.”

“Uh, my… I’m sorry, I don’t have a witch,” she said nervously. This wasn’t going at all the way she’d anticipated. “I’m here on a mission from the Pixie Queen to the human lands!”

“Fross, was it?” the human said in his calm tone. “Are you sure that’s the story you want to stick with?”

“Arachne,” the dwarf said softly, frowning up at Fross.

“Yeah,” said the elf. “I see it.”

“Care to let us in on the joke?” asked Admestus the half-elf.

“This pixie is brimming with arcane magic,” said the Arachne.

“I, uh… I don’t know what that means,” Fross said, keenly aware that this conversation had well and truly gotten away from her.

“It means you’re not much like any other pixie that’s ever existed,” said the Arachne.

“Well…I sort of knew that.”

“Is it even possible?” the human asked, frowning.

“I would not have said so,” replied the dwarf, “but…there she is. Arachne…she can’t be more than a few years old. They have tiny auras, but the energy they draw upon… If she’s somehow converting it into the arcane, and storing it up, why… In a couple of centuries, she could rival any archmage in existence.”

“Is that…good?” Fross asked uncertainly.

“Well, it could be good,” the Arachne mused. “Or, alternatively, it could be very, very, incredibly bad. That all depends on you, Fross.”

“What are you talking about, converting fae magic into arcane?” the half-elf scoffed. “Even I know my Circles of Interaction better than that. Even Ezzaniel does, I bet. Converting pressurized oil into fire is more like it.”

“Do you suppose this is a latent trait of pixies that no one’s discovered before?” the dwarf asked thoughtfully.

“I can’t credit the idea,” said the Arachne, shaking her head. “Witches who have pixie familiars tend to be of the more ambitious sort. Someone would have noticed and made use of it. No… I don’t think pixies are secretly the gnagrethycts of the fairy world. Far more likely we’re looking at an outlier. Sort of like our November.”

“What does that mean?” Fross asked. “And what’s it have to do with me?”

“That is the question, isn’t it?” the Arachne said thoughtfully, staring up at her.

“Well, yes. That’s the question.”

The elf smiled. “I think you’d better tell us your story, Fross.”

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Their first Martial Arts class with Professor Ezzaniel met on the big lawn on the University’s middle level, near the gazebo. Having eaten early, the freshman class arrived long before the professor. To their mild discomfort, several other students were already lurking about the periphery of the lawn, obviously watching them. None came close enough to introduce themselves or offer greetings. Despite not yet being entirely comfortable with one another, the eight found themselves edging closer together under the scrutiny.

“So, you really packed away that chicken,” Zaruda said to Juniper, who tilted her head in evident confusion.

“Is that bad? It was really good chicken! I’ve never had cooked food before, and Mrs. Oak is very good at cooking.”

“Yeah, but…you’re a dryad.”

“Yeeesss…” Juniper looked even more puzzled. “And you’re a human.”

“I thought you nymphs were all vegetarians. Y’know, not eating Mother Naiya’s creatures and all that.”

“What? Where did you get that idea? You know how many things in nature eat animals? Including quite a few plants!”

“Oh. Uh…”

“And besides, almost all life forms exist by consuming other life forms. Plants are nourished by decomposition of dead matter in the soil, and are then eaten by animals. It’s a vast, intricate web, and everything in it is food for something else.”

“I…guess that’s so…never really thought about…”

“What, you thought I’d value the lives of animals more?” Juniper planted her fists on her hips, frowning. Even that was pretty on her. “It’s fine to kill broccoli and rice but Naiya forbid anyone harm a chicken? Maybe you should get out more, Ruda!”

“Okay, okay, whoah now,” said Teal soothingly, sliding between them. “It was an honest misunderstanding. I’m sure Ruda didn’t mean any harm. And we all got to learn a bit about dryads. Everybody wins, right?”

“I guess so,” Juniper said slowly, then suddenly broke into a dazzling smile. “I’m sorry, Ruda, I misunderstood what you meant. I’ll get better at that, promise.”

“Hmp.” If anything, Zaruda looked even more annoyed than before.

“So, that’s a pretty amazing sword,” said Teal cheerfully, carefully moving to block Zaruda’s view of the dryad. “Where’d you get that from?”

“Ah, yes. My sword.” Zaruda removed her hat, dropping it behind her; deprived of its shade, her face suddenly looked deadly serious. Slowly, she drew the rapier and held it out for them all to see. Sunlight gleamed along steel and gold and glittered in the facets of a dozen gems. “My grandfather was one of the greatest sword crafters who ever lived. This…this was his final masterpiece, a great gift commissioned by the king of a foreign land. He labored on it for a year, and when it was done, the king’s ambassador returned to collect the blade—but offered only a tenth of the promised price! My grandfather, of course, refused. Without saying a word, the ambassador stabbed him through the heart, and fled, with a dozen furious pirates on his tail.” She let the blade fall slowly, resting its gleaming tip against the ground. “They did not catch him, for he used some form of shadow magic to escape. But I swore to my father that I would take up this blade, and once I was strong enough and skilled enough, hunt down that ambassador wherever he may hide, and end his life with this very sword.”

She bowed her head in the sudden, heavy silence.

“Zaruda,” Trissiny said hesitantly, “I had no idea. I’m sorry if I…”

“Nah, I’m just funnin’ ya.” Ruda lifted her chin and grinned. “I read all that in a book once. My papa gave me this for a sweet fifteen present. Isn’t it sparkly? I think it’s dwarf-made.”

Trissiny went pale, then scarlet, stammering in apoplectic rage. “I—that—I—that—you—”

“Breathe,” Teal murmured, placing a hand on her back.

“Good morning, students.”

Professor Ezzaniel appeared almost as if by magic, striding toward them with the easy grace of a prowling cat. He was a tall man with a proud eagle’s beak of a nose and a neatly trimmed mustache and goatee, his black hair cut just long enough for its natural wave to be apparent, and beginning to show silver at the temples to match the faint crows’ feet bracketing his eyes. He was dressed simply in slacks, an open-collared shirt and a coat with a saber belted over it, and carrying a large carpet bag.

“Good, no one has seen fit to begin their academic career by playing hooky. Most years, there’s at least one. As I know each of you by name and your rather distinctive descriptions, we shall dispense with roll call and proceed directly to…theory.” Ezzaniel placed the bag at his feet and folded his arms, sweeping his eyes across the group thoughtfully. “I understand that Professor Tellwyrn has you analyzing one another’s strengths and weaknesses.”

“Yeah,” said Gabriel. “Is that, uh…normal?”

“’Normal,’ Mr. Arquin, is a word you will find has little bearing on this campus and none whatsoever on your history professor. However, this dovetails nicely with a test of your analytical abilities which which I like to open our first class. In your opinion, students, which of your classmates is the most dangerous combatant?”

Nobody bothered to answer, but everyone immediately turned to look at Trissiny, who straightened her spine and lifted her chin, saying nothing.

“Ah, yes. A reasonable conclusion, but a shallow analysis. The focus of this course will be to give you the tools needed to preserve your life and health in a hostile situation, and based on my experience with teaching those new to the martial arts, I expect several of you will be surprised by the cerebral elements of this course. Combat is, to a great extent, in the mind. More than merely studying combat, we will also, chiefly on days when weather prevents meeting outdoors, study many of the dangers of this world and how to most effectively counter them. Knowledge is power; power is survival.”

He stroked his goatee, smiling slightly. “To begin with, while Ms. Avelea is indeed a force you would be wise not to challenge, Miss Falconer is a far deadlier one. For that error I cannot blame you, as there are certain things I should imagine you have not yet been told. However, it was an error in judgment to dismiss Juniper. Given the choice, I personally would prefer to duel a paladin than a dryad.”

There were several raised eyebrows at this, and Juniper looked uncomfortable, but Gabriel openly scoffed. “What? Seriously? I mean…look at her.”

“Ah, yes, because appearance is always a sure indicator of substance. I see we have a budding tactician in our midst.” Zaruda laughed loudly, earning a glare from Gabriel. “Mr. Arquin, let us engage in a little test. You see that tree?” Ezzaniel pointed at a towering oak that stood at the far edge of the lawn.

“Yes?”

“Good. Go over there and hit it.”

He stared at the Professor blankly for a moment. “…I’m sorry, what?”

“Is your hearing less than nominal? Do please tell me so up front; that will make a difference in the methods I use to train you.”

“No, Professor, my hearing’s fine,” Gabe snapped. “I’m simply questioning what it tells me because it’s hard to believe a teacher would say something so dumb.”

“Belief is a crutch that cripples your faculties, Mr. Arquin. You are wasting your classmates’ time. Get over there. Now.”

With a long-suffering roll of his eyes, Gabriel turned and stalked over to the indicated oak tree. He paused beside it, looking back at the group as if to double-check that Ezzaniel could possibly be serious. The Professor gestured at him to proceed. With a shrug, he lifted a hand and slapped the tree.

“Pitiful!” Ezzaniel shouted. “Once more, and pretend that you mean it.”

Not even looking back at him, Gabriel straightened his shoulders and threw a punch into the trunk. He took a step backward, grimacing and shaking his hand.

“We can do this all day, Mr. Arquin,” called the Professor. “Let me see whether there’s any meat in those arms at all, which frankly I begin to doubt.”

This time, Gabe actually snarled at him, then drew back his fist and slammed it into the bark with a thump that was clearly audible all over the lawn. There were some scattered cheers from the onlookers, but Gabriel doubled over, clutching his hand in obvious pain.

“Very good, Mr. Arquin. You may rejoin us.”

He stomped back over, glaring furiously and breathing loudly through his teeth. “Right. Fine. Very cute. Now, am I allowed to know the freaking point of that?”

“Quite.” Ezzaniel folded his hands behind his back and turned to address the group as a whole. “This has been an example of the price of ignorance. As Mr. Arquin has just demonstrated, punching a tree is a painful and pointless exercise. The reason for this is physics: a tree is immobile, massive and dense, especially in comparison with most of you. A dryad, students, is a magical creature, and thus physics alone fail to account for her full traits and capabilities. She has all the properties of a tree, but more conscious control of them. Being punched by a dryad is very similar to being struck by the full weight of an oak, moving at the speed at which she can swing her fist.” One corner of his mouth quirked upward in a sly half-smile. “Dryads are, for the most part and making allowances for individual personality, peaceably inclined. They can afford to be; if you irritate a dryad, she will simply remove you from her personal space. This can extend for several miles, and she can do it with one blow.”

Juniper, by now, looked positively mortified; everyone else was eying her nervously.

“Our first class, as you may have already surmised, will focus on gauging everyone’s level of skill,” Ezzaniel went on crisply. “More on analysis later. First of all, those of you with weapons, remove them. We will exclusively use safety equipment in this class. Miss Punaji, Miss Awarrion, come here, please.”

Zaruda had already unbuckled her rapier and dropped it to the grass beside her hat. At his summons, she shrugged and swaggered over to him, grinning, with Shaeine gliding along behind her.

Professor Ezzaniel knelt to open the clasp on his battered carpet bag. “Within this bag are the practice weapons you will use for this class. Each of them is an enchanted item which will mimic the properties of a normal weapon but inflict no harm upon anyone, and there lies within sufficient variety to appease even the most exotic tastes. Simply put in your hand, grasp the first object you find, and pull; you will produce a weapon appropriate to your fighting style.”

“Neat,” said Ruda, bending over and plunging in her hand. She straightened, dragging a rapier from the bag, hilt-first. It was far plainer than her own, but apparently the same in basic design. She stepped aside to make room for Shaeine, who knelt, reached in with both hands, and pulled out a pair of matched scimitars.

“Heh, not bothering to defy the cliché, are we?” Zaruda asked, grinning.

“You used that word at lunch, as well,” replied Shaeine, tilting her head inquisitively. “I am not able to infer the meaning from context.”

“What, cliché? That’s, uh… You know how a phrase or idea or something is really awesome when it’s first invented, but gets repeated so often everybody gets sick of it and it loses all meaning?”

“Ah, yes.” Shaeine nodded in understanding. “We call that a drizzt.

“Enough chatter,” Ezzaniel said brusquely. “Ladies, square off. Now, we shall observe the requisite etiquette in this class, so a duel will begin with a bow.”

Still grinning, Zaruda swept an elaborate bow, flourishing her rapier. Shaeine simply bowed from the waist, swords held loose at her sides.

“Very good,” said the Professor. “Begin!”

Zaruda lunged forward, the tip of her sword aimed for Shaeine’s heart. It was slapped deftly aside by a scimitar, and the drow fell back, blocking each blow with small precise movements, allowing the pirate to push her around in a circle. Ruda, for her part, threw her weight into each thrust, seemingly tireless. Then, like a pendulum reversing its swing, they changed roles, with Shaeine pressing forward in a sequence of whirling, dancelike movements that forced Zaruda back, her rapier barely intercepting each hit.

Back and forth they went, first one way, then the other. The onlookers, both their own classmates and the other miscellaneous students at the periphery, watched avidly, the latter occasionally shouting advice and encouragement. As time went on, Zaruda’s face grew sweatier and more frustrated, while Shaeine remained as collected as ever, despite her heavy robes and cloak.

“All right, enough,” Ezzaniel finally called when a break occurred in the combat. Shaeine stepped back, lowering her weapons, but Zaruda lunged at her again.

The Professor was a blur in a stylish black suit. He bore Zaruda to the ground, her sword flying off in the opposite direction; after a brisk tangle of limbs she ended up face-first in the grass with both arms pinned behind her back.

“When I call an end to combat,” Ezzaniel said mildly, “combat ends. Is that entirely clear, Miss Punaji?”

Ruda lifted her head and spat out a few blades of grass. “That was amazing! Do that again, but slower. I wanna see how it—erk!”

“Clear?”

“Yes clear ow ow leggo!”

Smoothly, he released her and stood. “See that you remember. Now, then. Miss Punaji, you were handed a sword as soon as you were old enough to lift one, set against an opponent roughly your own size or possibly slightly more and told not to die. Miss Awarrion, you have been carefully trained to exacting competency in a ritualized style of combat but never had to defend yourself in your life. Am I correct?”

“Correct,” Shaeine said crisply.

“Wow.” Zaruda got to her feet, brushing grass off her coat. “You got all that just from watching us fight?”

“I got all that because I know how pirates and drow nobility, respectively, raise their children. However, nothing I just saw contradicted my expectations. This is why I selected the two of you as opponents: one is all street-learned skill with zero technique, the other just the opposite. You can learn a great deal from one another, and I’ll expect you to do so. Return your weapons to the bag, please.”

He swept his gaze across the remaining students speculatively while they did so, then nodded. “Ms. Avelea, Mr. Caine, you know the drill. Weapons, then face off.”

Toby pulled a simple wooden staff from the bag; Trissiny, having left her goddess-given armaments at the edge of the circle, produced plainer replicas of her shield and short sword.

“That’s amazing,” said Toby with a grin. “How’d you manage to pull that shield out? I’m pretty sure it’s wider than the mouth of the bag.”

“You know, I…” she looked down at the round shield thoughtfully. “I have no idea.”

“Each year, I am surprised anew at the talkativeness of youth,” Ezzaniel mused. “There is a time for conversation and a time for combat, and you confuse them at your lethal peril. Bow, and begin.”

They did so, Toby with a simple bend of the waist, Trissiny saluting with her blade at the heart as she bowed. Then she surged forward, shield first.

Toby clearly knew what he was doing. His movements were swift, precise and powerful, and he was not limited by a purely technical knowledge of the staff, but able to improvise when she tried to trip him up. His choice of weapon also gave him the advantage of reach, which he used well, trying to keep her at too great a distance to employ her sword. The one advantage she pressed was that he was clearly not accustomed to an opponent with a shield; rather than trying to hook his longer weapon behind her shield and throw her off balance as she had learned to do at the Abbey, he simply beat against it to push her back when she closed in. And he never went on the attack. Trissiny chased him in a circle first one way, then the other, at first waiting for him to reverse the tide of their engagement, then growing increasingly confused when it never happened. It occurred to her that he might be trying to outlast her, which would be a good tactic. His conservative style forced her to expend a lot more energy trying to penetrate the wide range of his whirling defense.

“Enough,” said Ezzaniel quite abruptly. “Cease.”

Trissiny immediately stepped back, though she did not lower her shield, which at that moment had Toby’s staff heading straight for it at blinding speed. He managed to rein it in at the last possible instant, and they exchanged a slightly awkward grin.

“Ms. Avelea,” said the Professor, “I’m afraid this class will be an utter waste of your time. Your level of skill is well beyond the scope of this level of study. Beginning next year I will place you in advanced courses; you are not nearly so skilled that I have nothing to teach you. However, given Professor Tellwyrn’s insistence upon keeping the eight of you as a unit during this semester at the least, skipping a level is not currently an option. I may make use of your talents to assist your classmates.”

“I’ll be glad to help in any way I can, Professor,” Trissiny said modestly, bowing to him. Behind her, Zaruda sneered and rolled her eyes, receiving an elbow in the side from Teal.

“Mr. Caine,” Ezzaniel went on, “You are clearly not new at this either, but you have a long way to go. I saw several opportunities for you to end that contest using the superior reach and speed of your weapon. I cannot be sure, yet, whether your skill was simply inadequate to the task, but I am sure that you lacked the initiative even to try. We must work on teaching you to employ some aggression.”

“I don’t do aggression, sir,” Toby said quietly. “It’s against Omnu’s way. I train only to defend myself.”

“Do you imagine, Mr. Caine, that you are the first holy warrior ever to lack a taste for violence? This is the great irony of your position, paladin. It will simply not always be possible to defuse conflict before it occurs. Once the weapons come out, there remains only one way to end violence.” He stepped closer to Tobias, staring directly into his eyes. “Finish it.”

Ezzaniel turned and walked away, folding his hands behind his back. “If your role in life is that of peacemaker, you must resign yourself to the fact that sometimes, peace can only be made through force. Peace is a condition that exists only when those who hate to fight are better prepared to do so than those who love to. Furthermore, as far as finishing blows are concerned, it is very simple and very easy to kill. If you would learn to neutralize an opponent while doing them the minimum possible amount of harm, you must master the art of attack; master it more thoroughly than any killer ever needs to. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.” Toby dropped his gaze, looking profoundly troubled.

The Professor sighed. “All right, return your weapons. Fross, Juniper…we’re going to have to skip your contribution to today’s events. I am forced to design an alternative curriculum for each of you. Fross, in particular, will simply not be able to engage in physical combat, but that doesn’t mean you have nothing to learn about protecting yourself. I will be working with Professor Yornhaldt to arrange your studies, but in the meantime, I do want you to pay close attention and learn as much theory as you can absorb from this class.”

“Can do, Professor!” the pixie chirped.

“And Juniper…you won’t have a strictly hands-off class, but for the time being, I’m not sending you against a classmate in a duel until I have a better idea of your level of skill and your ability to control yourself. I mean no insult, but the potential for catastrophic injury is simply too high.”

“Okay,” Juniper said in a very small voice, eyes downcast. Fross settled on her shoulder.

“Which leaves only two.” He turned and raised an eyebrow at those remaining; Gabriel bared his teeth, still clutching his hand. “Mr. Arquin, Miss Falconer, choose your weapons.”

“Sir?” Teal raised her hand. “I…can’t. I’m an avowed pacifist.”

“Then you will die by violence,” said Ezzaniel curtly. “Pick a weapon, Falconer.”

Her eyebrows lowered. “Perhaps you didn’t hear me…”

“Perhaps you failed to attend me when I explained this very issue to Mr. Caine just now. Your convictions are not my concern; your ability to defend yourself is. Rest assured, Miss Falconer, considerable safeguards are in place in this class to prevent you from doing any harm to your fellow students, accidentally or on purpose. However, you will acquire the necessary skill to do so—or, more precisely, to prevent such being done to you.”

“I would rather suffer violence than inflict it,” she retorted.

“And once you have passed this class, that will be your business. Until you do, it is mine. I promise you, Miss Falconer, your compliance is not optional. I strongly recommend you offer it voluntarily.”

Teal drew in a long, slow breath, then stalked over to the carpet bag and thrust in her hand. Moments later, she withdrew it, empty.

Ezzaniel rolled his eyes. “Close your fingers around whatever item you find, Falconer. Your stalling tactics are neither original nor acceptable.”

“I tried!” she protested. “There’s nothing in there!”

“Oh?” He raised an eyebrow. “Try again.”

This time, Teal sank her arm in the bag up to her shoulder, making a show of rooting around for a full minute, before coming up empty.

“Reach in and pull out a quarterstaff.”

With a sigh, she put her hand into the bag a third time, and almost immediately pulled out a staff just like Toby had used, possibly the same one. She blinked at it in surprise. “…huh.”

“My, my. You actually are a pacifist. Most people will find a certain weapon that resonates with them, even if they have no knowledge of its use.”

“Did you think I was kidding?” she snapped.

“I think you’re an eighteen-year-old, and I have dealt with far too many of those to presume that you know your own mind. Regardless…put the staff back, Miss Falconer, this is as good a time as any to begin working on open-handed techniques. Mr. Arquin, my apologies; this means you won’t be starting off with a weapon, either.”

“Whatever,” Gabriel grunted.

“Square off and bow,” Ezzaniel ordered. They did so, both looking unhappy and uncertain. “Begin.”

Teal awkwardly raised both hands, bracing her legs. She didn’t even form fists, and looked like she was trying to catch a ball. Gabriel just stood there looking at her, then at the Professor.

“Did you two perhaps intend to sign up for a comedy improv class instead of Introduction to Martial Arts?” Ezzaniel demanded. “Fight. Now.”

“I…” Gabriel looked back at Teal, who shuffled her feet, still watching him warily. “I can’t hit a girl.”

“Oh, by all the gods in the sky,” Ezzaniel groaned. “I’d hoped to go at least one year without one of these. Very well, Arquin, fate has graced us with a remedy to your ignorance. Falconer, step back, please, since you’re clearly only going to hurt yourself here. Ms. Avelea, if you would be so kind, go over there and punch Mr. Arquin in the mouth.”

“Yes, sir,” Trissiny said grimly, striding forward.

“What?! Wait! No!” Gabriel tried to scramble backward, tripped over his coat and tumbled to the grass, where he attempted to crab-walk away from Trissiny until she got too close. Then he curled himself into a fetal position, arms over his head.

“Ugh,” said their professor in tones of utter despair. “Avelea, stand down. This is like kicking a retarded, three-legged puppy with two lazy eyes. Well, at least I know who my special projects this year are going to be. Falconer, Arquin, I’m going to tell you this once: no grades are being assigned today, but if you keep up this hilarity, you will find yourself failing my class, and thus repeating it. I am fully prepared to prevent you from graduating until I am satisfied that you are capable of protecting yourself, if that takes until you are my age and I am forced to teach from a rocking chair. Furthermore, Professor Tellwyrn will back me every step of the way, and feel free to go ask her if you doubt it.”

He knelt to snap the carpet bag closed and lifted it. “The purpose of today was for me to learn what I will need to teach to whom. Mission accomplished. All of you should have something to think about before we meet on Wednesday, at which time we will begin training in earnest. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of being earnest. If you are not capable of caring about your own self-preservation, then care about your grades. Until that time, you are dismissed.”

With that, Ezzaniel turned and strode away in the direction from which he had come, still with that easy loping step; it was as if he were part liquid. The freshmen stood—or in Gabriel’s case, huddled—and watched him go.

Then Zaruda grinned broadly. “I like that guy!”

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