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“There is really no way to work your mind around the inherent limitations other than practice,” Professor Harklund said as he paced slowly around the room, watching his students creating staves of golden light and then hitting them against things—the walls and floor, mostly, though some were very carefully sparring, testing the magical weapons against one another. “Remember, the clock is ticking from the moment you summon an object, but its duration depends upon you, and not merely upon the depth of the power you can call up. Every contact with the physical world will weaken it further—the harder the blow, the greater the damage. There are simply too many amorphous variables to properly quantify the lifespan of a summoned object; over time, with practice, you will develop an intuitive sense of what you have made, and what it can withstand. And unfortunately, divine magic does not offer spells of the kind that would let you know this. Your sense will be built of experience, nothing more. Hence, practice. Yes, I will be repeating it even more,” he added with a grin, coming to a stop next to November, who was grimly battering her glowing staff against an identical one held up by Trissiny. “If you are to get any use of these constructs in the real world, timing is essential. You’ll only have them for so many seconds, and if you do not know the timing, your efforts may prove not only useless, but backfire. Practice, practice!”
November’s staff flickered out of existence at her next blow, causing her to stumble forward; Trissiny caught her with one hand, her own glowing staff still extant but notably dimmer than before.
“All due respect, Professor,” said Gabriel, pounding the butt of his against the floor, “but this seems like the kind of unstructured activity we could be doing on our own time. How about learning something new?”
“Are you seriously asking for homework?” exclaimed one of the new freshmen.
“Rest assured, Mr. Arquin, the schedule for this class is carefully planned out,” Harklund replied with a smile. “You will be practicing things on your own, don’t you worry. As a rule, though, I prefer that you do your initial experiments under supervision. Of course, I can’t stop you kids from working ahead on your own, nor would I. Do keep it in mind, though. Striking off on your own may result in the rapid expansion of your abilities, but it can also lead to the acquisition of bad habits I will have to drill out of you before you can proceed to the next step. Everyone should please feel free to ask my help outside of class, too! My office hours are posted.”
Toby stood by himself, facing one wall, methodically re-summoning his staff after every time it flickered out—which it did every time he struck it against the wall. The staff glowed dimly to begin with, and never seemed fully solid. It also took a few seconds longer to fully form than did the other students’ attempts, which were mostly instantaneous. He would focus energy into his hand until the golden rod slowly flickered into being, shift into a proper striking stance and slam it against the well, whereupon it would vanish from existence.
After glancing around the room at her fellow students, Trissiny wandered over to him. “Hey, that’s better!” she said encouragingly. “If it helps, think of it—”
“Trissiny,” Toby said abruptly, not looking at her, “I will get there. Would you please leave me alone?”
She actually jerked backward, blinking her eyes. “I… Um, sure. Sorry.” Looking nonplussed, she stepped away from Toby as he laboriously called up another staff, her gaze meeting Gabriel’s. He looked purely shocked, his expression slowly shifting to one of worry as he moved it to Toby’s back.
November scowled and opened her mouth, then shut it with an audible snap when Trissiny pointed a finger at her and shook her head firmly.
Several of the other students had stopped what they had been doing and were looking askance at the exchange between the paladins. Only when Gabriel turned to sweep a frown across the room did most of them resume their own practice. The exception was Shaeine, who was still watching Toby intently.
Toby manifested another staff, slammed it against the wall, and began patiently calling up the next one.
“All right,” Professor Harklund said in his customarily mild tone, smiling at them as he finished his rounds at the front of the room, “that’s our class time. This was good practice, everyone—remember, keep practicing on your own, and don’t be afraid to experiment a little, but also don’t try to run before you can crawl. I’ll see everyone on Friday. Mr. Caine, could you stay for a moment, please?”
Toby nodded, and just waited calmly while the others filed out of the room, his expression blank. Most of the freshmen and upperclassmen talked and laughed among themselves, but the sophomores and November, exiting as a group, remained pensively quiet, at least until the door finally closed behind them.
“So,” November said, frowning, “what’s eating him?”
The others looked at each other, but nobody had an answer.
“I cannot believe you let her do this,” Sheyann said disparagingly as she paced in a slow circle around the frozen form of Aspen.
“She was utterly confident she could handle it,” Tellwyrn replied, scowling.
“Have you not noticed how consistently Juniper overestimates her reach?”
“In point of fact, I have had distinctly the opposite impression,” Tellwyrn snapped. “In the year I’ve been teaching her, Juniper has consistently acknowledged her unfamiliarity with new subjects, proceeded slowly and always made sure she understood the basics before moving forward. She’s not shy about asking help from other students, and in fact that’s a big part of her knack for making friends. Well, that and her habit of offering sex as a greeting while being absurdly gorgeous. Even despite the need to coach her through basics that almost every other sentient being knows by the age of four, she is one of my least tiresome students.”
Sheyann had come to a stop and turned a look of surprise on the Professor. “Really? That is rather startling to hear. Either myself or Shiraki have been constantly having to pull her back and repair the small disasters she has caused. Not least of which being her choice of a notoriously erratic, intractable and untamable species as her first animal companion.”
“Hm,” Tellwyrn mused, folding her arms and frowning up at Aspen. “On the other hand, you’re mostly teaching her nature-based stuff, correct?”
“That she probably thinks of herself as already knowing more than anyone else.” She shook her head, spectacles glinting in the blue glow of the runes sealing the chamber. “Ugh, one or the other of us really should have put that together. Well, lesson learned. I will not be letting her attempt anything involving fae magic until I see proof she’s competent enough.”
“Indeed,” Sheyann agreed, nodding. “And this raises some possibilities I can use to further her education on her next visit to the grove. But that is tomorrow’s battle. For now, we have this one to deal with.”
For a long moment, they were silent, staring at the partially transformed dryad.
“Is there any way to tell how far into the transformation she is?” Tellwyrn asked finally.
Sheyann shook her head. “There is no point of reference, no way to tell what she was turning into. The effect is all but random. A dryad’s power is nigh-limitless; the question is, what was her imagination in the process of making?”
Tellwyrn heaved a sigh.
“This spell,” Sheyann murmured. “How does it work? She is frozen in time, this I can see. Is she out of phase with the world?”
“Actually, if you do that the subject just vanishes. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that if you dissociate something from physical reality they’re just instantly left behind as the planet orbits. Summoning spells account for that naturally, so I wasn’t thinking in terms of…well. No, she isn’t even frozen in time, merely slowed. Slowed so greatly she might as well be frozen for all practical purposes. Assuming I could ward the room well enough, she’d still be there when the sun goes nova. We’re not short on time.”
The Elder narrowed her eyes. “Then…she would be tremendously vulnerable to impact.”
Tellwyrn nodded. “The room’s built-in protections shielded her to begin with. I’ve since refined them to be sure. She should be safe while in here, provided we don’t introduce any more unknowable variables.”
“All right, then,” Sheyann said, nodding. “That at least tells me the shape of what we must do. It will involve a very intricate blending of arcane and fae energies, which is potentially explosive if we make the slightest mistake.”
The Professor grinned. “Then we’d better not. Fortunately, we’re the best in the world at what we do.”
“I’m not sure I would claim that,” Sheyann murmured.
“I would,” Tellwyrn said bluntly. “I’ll freely admit I rely more on force than technique in many of my workings, but when it comes to time magic I am the leading expert. Not that I blame the other mages; I have an understanding with the extremely persnickety god of time. It’s hard to do the research when you get smote for even thinking about it. And you can be as modest as you like, but I know you’re the eldest living shaman on the continent, if not the world.”
“No,” Sheyann said with a faint quirk of her lips. “I do have at least one senior.”
“Ah, yes. Right.” Tellwyrn grimaced. “When I’m thinking of people I expect to be helpful, she doesn’t spring to mind.” Sheyann actually grinned at her.
“One to handle the temporal magic, then, bridging the gap between Aspen’s frame of time and ours,” she shaman mused to herself, gazing at the dryad but seeing far beyond her. “One to conduct the actual healing. This…will be prohibitively difficult, Arachne. Neither of our systems of magic is innately helpful at touching another’s mind, which is what we must do. I can do it, but that is already a tiring process before the actual work even begins. She must be reached, before she is unfrozen, guided along a path of healing. We are talking about therapy. It is a journey of potentially years, considering the strains upon her mind.”
“Hm,” Tellwyrn said, frowning in a similar expression. “I can possibly speed things along while shifting the… Hm. I will need to be very careful with that, though. Even more than the rest. We’re on thin ice to begin with, emotionally speaking; dissociating someone from their ordinary passage through time can have dicey psychological effects.
“Yes,” Sheyann agreed, nodding. “Anyone participating in this endeavor will be taking on risks.”
“Well, I got her into this; I can’t just leave the girl there, and I’m not just saying that because I still need to know the situation with Naiya regarding Juniper.”
“You do not need to defend yourself to me, Arachne,” Sheyann said mildly, still staring up at the dryad. “I know very well you are far from heartless.”
“My point was, I’m not going to pass judgment if you decline to risk your own sanity over this.”
“That, I think, exaggerates the danger somewhat,” the Elder said dryly. “You are yourself aged enough to absorb a little extra time spent in a pocket dimension without being unduly befuddled by the experience. I was ancient even by elvish reckoning when you first appeared.”
“Mm hm,” Tellwyrn said with a reminiscent smile. “Thinking about it now, I have to agree with Chucky. It really is counterintuitive that I’ve survived this long, isn’t it?”
Sheyann gave her an exasperated glance before resuming her study of Aspen. “Even so, Arachne… This is more than I can take on alone.”
Tellwyrn drew in a deep breath and let it out explosively. “Okay. All right, then. Who else do you need? I don’t mind involving a few other Elders, provided you can temper their attitudes somewhat.”
“I am sure they would say the same to me about you. I could seek help from several Elders—it would take multiples pooling their skills to achieve what we will need to do. I understood, however, that this matter is somewhat sensitive. Elder shamans would be very inquisitive about an issue that may involve Naiya becoming agitated. It might be better not to spread this any farther than we must.”
“Oh, please.” Tellwyrn waved a hand dismissively. “By the time enough of them speak to each other to spread a rumor, all of this will be long done with. You’re probably the most wide-ranging of the bunch, and I’ll eat my spectacles if you’ve been out of your grove in the last thirty years.”
“What a suspiciously specific and accurate number,” Sheyann mused. “Anyway, Arachne, trust me when I say the other Elders would talk. Things change.”
“I am well aware that they do. I’ll be astonished if the Elders are.”
The shaman smiled broadly at that, but the expression just as quickly faded. “There is, though I hesitate to say it, a more pragmatic option. More discreet, and also a better source of help to begin with.” She turned to face Tellwyrn directly. “Do you happen to know how to get in touch with Kuriwa?”
Tellwyrn scowled deeply at her. “You would be far more likely than I to know how to do that. Mary and I have developed the perfect relationship that keeps us away from each other’s throats. At the core of the method is staying as far away from each other as the breadth of this continent will permit.”
“And then, in typical fashion, you settled yourself down as close to the center of the continent as you could,” Sheyann said dryly. “In any case, though I have much less of a personality clash with her, I find I also sleep better when Kuriwa is nowhere near my grove. Nonetheless, she is the best prospect to help with this. Her command of the necessary magics outstrips mine considerably, as does her knowledge of it. And she has had many long and fruitful dealings with dryads; there may not be any higher authority on the subject. We can settle for involving a few other Elders if you are willing to embrace the risks, the inconveniences, the wait and the fact that it is second-rate assistance. If we can find her, though, we’ll need her.” She sighed, and shrugged. “But then, that may be too distant a possibility to consider anyway.”
Tellwyrn closed her eyes, shook her head, and hissed something obscene to herself, shifting through four languages in two seconds. “Last year,” she said finally, “she actually contacted me obliquely. She’d found Caledy’s old amulet and returned it to me. Through an intermediary, though, and without any personal message attached.”
“Both wise precautions,” Sheyann said gravely.
Tellwyrn rolled her eyes. “Yes, well, her contact was Antonio Darling. He strongly implied he was in regular, consistent communication with her.”
The shaman tilted her head. “Who is this?”
“He’s a priest of Eserion, a politician in the Imperial capital, and currently the Eserite Bishop for the Universal Church.”
Sheyann raised her eyebrows. “Indeed. A Tiraan official? And an Eserite, to boot? That is very peculiar company for Kuriwa to keep.”
“He’s not Tiraan,” Tellwyrn said, “just lives there. Seemed like frontier stock to me. You know the type: Stalweiss complexion, old gnomish name. That might make a difference to her… Still, and even considering how odd it would be for Mary to be loitering in Tiraas, I believed him. The man had no motive to deceive me, and is certainly intelligent enough not to torque me without substantial reason.” Tellwyrn paused and sighed heavily. “Are you adamant that we need her?”
“I wouldn’t put it that way. However, this will go much faster, be much easier and involve fewer complications with her help than without.” She paused for a moment, then spoke more gently. “I don’t believe anyone actually likes Kuriwa, Arachne. Possibly not even herself. However, I have learned to understand her, somewhat, and I know the ulterior motive she will bring to this. Other Elders will involve the politics of their groves; she will only see the advantage to herself in befriending a dryad, particularly one as old as this. That won’t harm our efforts and will, in fact, encourage her to be helpful. I would not suggest involving her if I did not deem it more than worth the drawbacks. I think, though,” she added in a wry tone, “I had better be the one to approach her. No offense intended.”
Tellwyrn snorted. “When was the last time you were in Tiraas?”
“It has been…let’s see…at least four centuries,” Sheyann said thoughtfully. “I will be very interested in seeing how the city has changed.”
“Good gods,” Tellwyrn muttered. “Well. On the subject of discretion… If you’re planning to approach Bishop Darling, let me pass on a word of warning about his apprentices.”
“Oh, my,” Ravana said, stopping at the top of the staircase just inside the Well’s front door. “What is all this?”
“Oh, just a little project,” Marueen said modestly, tucking a wrench back into her Pack and hopping down from the rail. “Afritia said I could. I’ve got th’easy part all set up there, see? Those wires an’ pulleys, see how they’re all connected t’that little lever that gets flicked whenever the door opens?”
“I do,” Ravana agreed, craning her neck to peer upward. Indeed, the taut network of white cables vanished from the small apparatus down the stairwell to the floor far below.
“That sounds a little bell in our dorm room when somebody comes in or goes out,” Maureen said rather smugly. “And this,” she patted the much more hefty network of metal rods she was in the process of bolting to the bannister, “when it’s done, will be a means of sending packages down to the bottom from up here.”
“But…why, though?” Ravana asked. “Afritia handles our mail. Anyone bringing a package to the dorm will likely be going there herself.”
Maureen shrugged, leaning through the bars of the bannister—and suspending her upper body terrifyingly over the drop—to tighten the next row of bolts. “The joy of the thing is in making it, not necessarily in havin’ or usin’ it. That’s the only reason I bother at all, since it’s doubloons to doughnuts Addiwyn’ll just take an axe t’the whole thing first chance she gets. It’s… It helps me think, y’know? Straighten out me thoughts, get the blood flowin’ an’ the body workin’.”
“I believe I understand,” Ravana said, nodding slowly. “I have my own thought-inducing exercises. Mine happen to be a bit more cerebral, but then, I was not raised to exert myself physically.” She smiled ruefully.
“Aye, well…I’m also revelin’ in the freedom, a bit,” Maureen grunted, still working on bolts. “Back home, tinkerin’ wasn’t considered a proper thing to do.”
“Forgive me, but my knowledge of your culture is entirely secondhand,” Ravana said, frowning. “It was my understanding that gnomes greatly valued adventuring. And is not one of your most famed current adventurers known for her mechanical skills?”
“Aye!” Maureen paused in her work to grin up at her. “Aye, you’re dead on, but those two facts are in spite of each other, not because of each other. Tinker Billie gets respected because of what she’s accomplished—y’don’t argue with results. But she had a hard road of it, settin’ out. She was always me hero, growin’ up. Let’s just say Mum did not approve.”
“Well.” Ravana moved toward the stairs. “I am glad you’ve found a chance to indulge your passion.”
“Aye, you too. I ‘ad me doubts, right up till the end, but you did get us the only A in the class with that scheme of yours.”
“And made us no friends,” Ravana said with a satisfied little smile, “but all things considered, I would rather we be respected than liked.”
Maureen stopped what she was doing, resting her arms on one of the bannister’s horizontal bars to peer up at the human girl. “So… How’s that factor into your plans to bribe and manipulate your way into friendship with the three of us?”
Ravana’s expression closed down. “I beg your pardon?” she asked softly.
“I’m not trying to start somethin’ up, here,” Maureen said quietly, gazing up at her. “It wasn’t even an accusation. I mean… You really weren’t trying not to be obvious, y’know? And I was more’n a mite offended for a brief bit, but… I get the strong impression you really do want to make friends, here, an’ just don’t know any other way to go about it. And that’s just too achingly sad to let me stay miffed.”
“You are…more perceptive than I fear I’ve given you credit for, Miss Willowick,” Ravana said, staring at her.
Maureen shrugged and turned back to her bolts. “Aye, well, we gnomes are comfortable bein’ underestimated. Better’n bein’ stepped on, which is the other most likely option! Anyhow, it’s been all o’ three days; I’m not too worried about things just yet. We’ll all get our sea legs in time. I hold out hope even Addiwyn’ll come around.” She paused, studying her half-built contraption. “Though I may change me mind after we find out what she does to this beauty of a target I’m settin’ up. This is turning out to be more effort an’ love than I was plannin’ to pour into it.”
“You sound absolutely confident that she will sabotage it.”
The gnome shrugged again, grinning. “Well. I am makin’ an assumption about who’s causin’ the trouble around here, but…c’mon. Is it an unlikely outcome?”
“Hm.” Ravana tapped her thin lips with a finger, and a smile slowly blossomed across her features. “Hm. Not to second-guess your creativity, Maureen, but… I wonder if I could persuade you to make a modification?”
“I assure you, I have been forewarned,” Sheyann said, stepping into the sunlight from the door of Helion Hall.
Tellwyrn sighed, following her. “Forewarned is one thing. The experience of riding a Rail caravan is not the kind of thing for which one can truly prepare. I would be happy to teleport you…”
“Arachne,” the Elder said flatly, “if it turns out that I hate the Rails more than that, we can revisit this conversation. Quite frankly, though, I would find that outcome extremely surprising.”
“Ah, yes,” Tellwyrn said in the same tone. “I know how you venerable Elders despise anything convenient or efficient.”
Sheyann just shook her head, smiling. “I’ll have to ride back anyway, unless you were planning to chauffeur me all over the continent.”
“It would be worth it just for the look on your face.”
They were silent for a long moment, standing on the top step. In the near distance, four students tussled playfully on the lawn outside the cafeteria. A few others walked past on the paths, and two young women were hunched over a book in the shade of the astronomy tower’s small front porch.
“You are actually doing this,” Sheyann said softly. “This…University. I honestly thought you would lose interest within a decade.”
“Yeah, that seems to have been the general assumption,” Tellwyrn snorted. “I don’t know why. It’s not as if I have ever lacked focus or discipline—it’s just that the thing I was focusing on forced me to completely change the whole pattern of my life every few years.”
Sheyann turned to regard her in quiet thought for a moment before speaking softly. “I am sorry, Arachne, that you never found what you were looking for.”
Still gazing out across the campus, Tellwyrn slowly shook her head. “I’m not. All these years later, I find my only regret is how long I spent on it. This is a much better use of my time.”
The shaman smiled. “Well. It is surprisingly pleasing to see you settling down to something, finally.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Tellwyrn waved her off. “Away with you, the Crow isn’t going to conveniently collar herself. Be nice to Darling, he’s a useful sort of person to know, despite the dramatic horrors he’s meddling with. And, as always, give my love to Chucky.”
Sheyann paused in the act of descending the stairs to look curiously back at the Professor. “Why do you insist on taunting him so?”
Tellwyrn grinned wolfishly. “Why do you?”
The Elder was still laughing as she made her way across the lawn.