The grate lifted seemingly on its own and Professor Ezzaniel pushed the doors open, letting in a rush of cool night air laden with the scents of earth and grass. The whole party pressed forward, and would have pushed him out of the way had he not stepped quickly aside. They straggled out and stopped, a unified sigh of relief rippling through the whole group, and all stood, faces up, savoring the coolness and the moonlight.
Only one person was there to meet them.
“Well,” said Professor Tellwyrn, planting her hands on her hips. “Well. We do very occasionally lose someone down there, but this… This is unprecedented, I must say. How exactly did you pick up gnomes?”
“She makes us sound like a case o’ hiker’s foot,” Steinway muttered to his companions.
“They were lost,” Fross reported. “In fact, there may be other things in the Crawl that aren’t supposed to be, these days. Rowe was doing something he shouldn’t in the Grim Visage, trying to get out.”
Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow. “Was? Did you ruffians kill my bartender?”
“He was alive the last we saw,” said Ruda with a leer. “He’ll probably stay that way at least a while. Melaxyna doesn’t strike me as the type to give out swift and merciful punishments.”
“You took him to…” Tellwyrn sighed heavily, rolling her eyes. “Ugh. Now I have to go trap another Vanislaad demon, or something equally sketchy. Leaving a succubus down there without competition isn’t on the table; she’d be running the place within a year. Shamlin, what the hell were you doing in my Crawl?”
“Making my fortune,” he said with a broad grin. “Oh, come on, don’t act surprised, Professor. It’s been two years; I’ve talked with every student group and faculty guide you sent. You had to know I was down there. Nice to see you again, by the way!”
“Well, here it is barely a week on, and here you lot are.” Tellwyrn adjusted her spectacles and fixed her eyes on Teal, who was carrying the long wooden box. “Only the third freshman group even to reach the objective, and you’ve absolutely destroyed the previous speed record. Let’s have a look.”
“I’m sure you already know everything, seeing as how you were here waiting,” Teal said, stepping forward as the others cleared a space. “I got a look at the apparatus in the basement of the Visage, the one that I gather students aren’t supposed to see.” She knelt, setting the box down on the grass, unlatched it, and lifted the lid. Within, in their custom-fitted grooves in the red velvet lining, lay the elven sword and dagger, gleaming lustrously under the moonlight.
Tellwyrn gazed down at them for a long few moments, her expression far away. Then, she blinked, shook herself slightly, and lifted her eyes. “Well! That’s the treasure, all right. Since you were lugging them around, Teal, may I assume the honor of the find was yours?”
“It was a group effort,” Teal said firmly. “I was the one to put my hands on them. We had to divide forces to make that happen.”
“She’s being modest,” said Gabriel, grinning. “Teal made the plans that led to us getting them at all. Fairly earned spoils, I’d say.”
“Well, I certainly cannot argue with results,” Tellwyrn said. “I’ll be reading Professor Ezzaniel’s report in detail, but frankly, you completed your assigned task with flying colors, and showed up every previous group to undertake it in the process. Unless you were transcendently stupid in your approach to every step thereof, which seems improbable, you not only receive an A, but a measure of extra credit for this. Right now, kids, I think you can consider last semester’s Golden Sea debacle obviated.”
“Yay!” Fross cheered.
“And we’ll find lodging for our guests, of course,” Tellwyrn went on, turning to the trio of gnomes, who had moved to the side with Shamlin. “I won’t send you down to the town at this hour; neither of the resident innkeepers would appreciate being roused after midnight. If you can bear with me, though, I’ll have to wake my groundskeeper and have one of the unoccupied student dorms opened up. I’m afraid they’ll be rather dusty.”
“Ma’am,” said Sassafrass respectfully, “we’ve been livin’ in the Crawl these last…what’s it been, lads?”
“Least ten months, I reckon,” said Woodsworth. “Me sense o’ time is understandably a bit off-kilter. I’d no idea it was night out.”
“Point bein’,” Sassafrass continued, grinning up at the Professor, “dust is nothing. If you can offer us a bit o’ somethin’ other than mushrooms and stringy ham, an’ a mattress not made o’ patchy leather, you’ll ‘ave gained three devoted slaves.”
“No, thanks,” Tellwyrn said with a wry smile. “The downside of slaves is having to feed them; they make expensive pets. Anyhow, I believe my hospitality can furnish a higher standard than that.”
“It’s a real honor to meet you, by the way,” Steinway said, grinning broadly.
“Yes, I’m sure. As for you.” Tellwyrn leveled a finger at Shamlin. “You may as well stay the night, too, though I’ll be wanting a prolonged word with you before you skitter off.”
“Uh oh,” he said, grinning.
“All right, that’s enough for now,” the elf went on briskly. “It’s an altogether ungodly hour and I have class in the morning. You lot are excused from tomorrow’s classes, of course, but that’s all the time you’ll have to reset your biological clocks. Education waits for no one.”
“Oh, come on,” Juniper protested. “You thought we’d be down there for three weeks! We should get some time off.”
“Juniper,” Tellwyrn said, staring at her over her glasses, “what have I told you about whining?”
“Um…well… Actually, nothing.”
“Mm hm. Would you like to hear my opinions about whining?”
The dryad crept backward a half step. “Actually, now that I think about it, no.”
“Good. All right, off with you. Emilio, have time for a cup of tea with me before retiring?”
“I’m just beginning my day, Arachne,” Ezzaniel said amiably. “I don’t look forward to classes next week. The young can spring back from these sleep cycle disruptions so much more quickly.”
“I have faith in you. Shamlin, the Wells is currently empty. I know you know where that is. Kindly escort our guests there, and I’ll send Stew along to spruce it up for you.”
“Oh, my,” said the bard, grinning. “But Professor, that’s a girls’ dorm!”
“When there are girls in it, yes,” Tellwyrn said acidly. “I’ll just have to trust you not to impregnate the dust bunnies. Move along, Shamlin.”
“Your wish is my command!” he proclaimed, bowing extravagantly. Tellwyrn snorted at him and strode off, Ezzaniel prowling along beside her.
“Welp, it’s been a right pleasure adventurin’ with you kids,” said Woodsworth.
“Aye,” Sassafrass agreed, “you be sure to pay us a visit before we ‘ave to head out.”
“Count on it,” said Toby with a smile.
They stood in silence, breathing in the clean night air and watching the other two groups vanish around corners into the shadows of the campus.
“Well,” Ruda said at last, “who woulda figured it was midnight?”
“I think I’ve had enough of being underground forever,” Juniper muttered. “No offense, Shaeine.”
“None was offered, even by mistake,” Shaeine replied, smiling. “I doubt I would fare well in your home, either.”
“Actually,” said Fross, “Crawl excursions are kind of a big deal at this school. We’ll probably have at least one a year. Maybe one a semester from now on.”
“Here’s what I’m thinkin’,” said Gabriel. “The pubs down in the town are closed, and our dorms are spelled to keep out the opposite sex. But since we’re all awake, and we’ve been subsisting on Crawl food for a week…” He grinned wickedly. “Who’s up for raiding the cafeteria?”
“That is extremely out of bounds!” Fross said shrilly. “It violates multiple school rules as well as personal directives given out by Professor Tellwyrn, Stew, and Mrs. Oak! We could get in so much trouble, especially since we’re supposed to be going to bed!”
“Well,” Ruda began.
“So,” the pixie continued, “you’d better let me go ahead and scan for detector charms. Gabe, I may need your help with the locks!”
Chiming exuberantly, she buzzed off in the direction of the cafeteria.
“Well, blow me down,” Ruda said in wonder. “They really do grow up fast, don’t they?”
“I know how many of us suffer, day by day,” Branwen said. Her voice and expression were painfully earnest; the magical spotlight illuminating her was an expensive piece of spellwork that made her easily visible to anyone looking, as if she were standing right in front of them. The charm that made her words echo throughout the grand auditorium was a more conventional piece of magic. “The sad thing about the trials in everyone’s lives is how they can disconnect us, how they can distract us, encourage us to retreat into ourselves and become fixated upon our own problems. It creeps right up on you, doesn’t it? But if you look around you, at the people here tonight, at the people you pass on the street every day, even at the people you love, people you work with… Each time, you are passing another whole story, someone with his or her own struggles. They are different struggles than yours, but no one’s challenges are less important. What you should mourn is not that you face challenges, but what they can cost you, without you even realizing it. It’s the saddest thing in the world, not to see another’s pain.
“Because it’s in those challenges that we have our greatest opportunities. It’s in the connections we can form with our fellow human beings that we may find the simplest solutions.” She smiled, an expression so brimming with optimism and love that Darling, as a fellow artist working in the medium of facial features, found himself in awe of her mastery. Awed, and wondering just how deep those waters ran, considering her well-established facade of pretty uselessness. “It is natural that we should look upward, to the gods, in our most troubled times. But we must be careful. That can lead to despair when solutions do not come down to us from the gods. And that despair is a trick, played on us by our own minds. It’s not what the gods can give us, but what they have given us, that matters.”
She placed a hand over her own heart, a gesture that was totally innocent and yet drew attention right to her impressive bosom. The plain Bishop’s robes she wore, with the pink lotus pin of Izara at the shoulder, were far more carefully tailored than those of her colleagues, emphasizing her voluptuous figure in a manner that was just subtle enough not to be called out upon, while still pushing the envelope of ecclesiastical dignity.
“Each of the gods stands for something which they have bestowed on the world for our use. To cry out to them to solve our problems for us is missing the point of these precious gifts. The gods have given us the means to raise ourselves up. They ask that we have faith in them, because they have faith in us!” Her expression stayed solemn, though her eyes were alight with passion. “The gods believe in you. I believe in you. Whatever you face in your life, I know you can rise to meet it. You must believe in you!”
The mostly-silent crowd stirred at that, a smattering of applause and hushed voices rising up. It was a bit more exuberant than the last such; Branwen was working this audience with absolutely masterful skill. Darling had seen this done before, many a time, in his observations of religious ceremonies. There was a rhythm to it, a familiar pattern. It would be a while yet before she built it to its climax. Tonight’s festivities had only just begun.
He tore his gaze from Branwen to look around the darkened theater. She’d drawn quite a crowd, with the full resources of the Church and every major newspaper in the Empire pushing her forward to fame. The place was full of the hoi palloi thronging the cheap seats below, the slightly more upscale classes in the balconies and the wealthy few occupying boxes like himself. The arrangement tickled at his mind. It somehow seemed very appropriate to have used a commercial theater for this address rather than the Cathedral.
“Damn, but she makes a good speech,” Embras Mogul remarked, dropping heavily into the seat next to Darling and stretching out his long legs. “Fills out that robe quite exquisitely, too, doesn’t she? I have to say, that was a genius move on Justinian’s part. I wonder how long he’s been grooming her for this? Doubtless the lady has her own ambitions, but his Holiness doesn’t strike me as the type to catapult one of his underlings into power without spending a good long while sculpting them first.”
Darling was aware that he was staring, and didn’t bother to stop. “Well,” he said finally. “You’re not quite the last person I expected to see tonight, but… If Scyllith pops in here, too, I may just have to check outside and see if the world has ended.”
“If you encounter Scyllith under any circumstances, I think that’s a worthy concern,” Mogul said, grinning broadly.
“To what do I owe the honor, Embras?”
“Oh, this’n that. I thought you might be missing your tracking charm.” Mogul’s spiderlike fingers deposited a small metal object on the arm of Darling’s chair. It had been badly scorched and bent nearly in half. “Somehow it ended up under my collar. Funny, the way these little things wander off, isn’t it?”
“You said it,” Darling said easily, picking up the destroyed charm and making it vanish up his sleeve. “I owe you one, old man. I tore my whole study apart last night looking for this.”
“I don’t doubt it.” Mogul crossed his legs, lounging back in the plush chair. Below them, Branwen continued to soliloquize, but neither man spared her a glance. “After our little game of tag yesterday, I found myself mulling over your motivations.”
“And I’m curious. Here’s a man clearly playing both ends against the middle. Or all three ends, or more. The point is, you’re balancing far too many loyalties to be truly loyal to all of them.”
“It does seem to keep people on their toes,” Darling agreed solemnly.
“Loyalty, now, people don’t generally understand how that works,” Mogul mused. “It’s a lot less important than they think. What matters is motivations, those are what lie at the root of loyalties, and everything else. So I got to wondering, and decided to arrange a little test.” He leaned away from Darling and angled his body toward him so he could spread his arms wide. “Thus, here I am! The big, bad leader of the Black Wreath, sitting not a foot away, in a theater just crawling with the Church’s agents. A golden opportunity for you to raise the cry and try your luck at cutting off the snake’s head, so to speak!”
“This speech has the smell of an approaching ‘but’ about it,” Darling said wryly.
“Oh, I dunno,” Mogul replied, grinning broadly. “Or at least, that is what we’re here to find out, isn’t it? After all, you’d be pitting the assembled powers of the Church against whatever I have prepared to come to my aid, which you just know is gonna be something nasty. Obviously I’m a powerful player and I wouldn’t have come here unless I were pretty confident of my chances. On the other hand, Justinian wouldn’t have placed his newest, prettiest pet in such an easily shootable position without ample protections at the ready. Sounds to me like a pretty close contest! The only thing that makes it complicated…” He leaned forward, crossing his arms on the box’s low wall, and peered down at the rapt crowd below. “…are aaaallll those innocent people, just waiting to be pulverized in the crossfire. Priests and demons and the gods know what else, running amok in a crowded theater. Why, it fairly scalds the imagination, doesn’t it?”
“Innocent people.” Darling chuckled darkly, turning his gaze back to Branwen. “We both know there’s no such animal.”
“That a fact?” Mogul leaned back again. “Why not kick off the festivities, then, Antonio? Unless you’re bothered by the thought of unleashing hell on their heads.”
“Have you learned nothing about the modern world from this little campaign?” Darling said mildly, gesturing at Branwen. “Everything’s connected. There are a lot of reasons beyond the moral not to start a fire in a crowded theater.”
“Yes, and we could discuss in detail why the Church doesn’t need to worry about those matters, but that would be a tediously long back-and-forth and quite frankly, I believe we’re done here. At any rate, I’ve got what I came for.” Mogul smiled at him, a thin, smug expression. “So there is a core of decency motivating you, old fellow. Well, I must say, that is…fascinating.”
“I’ll be honest, this kind of gloating seems beneath you,” Darling remarked. “You can’t possibly be that bored. Are you really that sore about losing out to the Archpope on this project? I’m sure your pet columnists would have been valuable and all, but just look at her! Isn’t she adorable? A gift to the world, if you ask me.”
“Losing out,” Mogul mused, raising his eyebrows. “Maybe you can clarify that for me. I have a respected journalist setting out to present my perspective to the world. I have that bosomy little piece speaking what amounts to secular humanism, mortal ambition and self-empowerment—all the things the Wreath stands for. And frankly I have to admit she does make a better mouthpiece than anything I had lined up to do the job, and with the Church’s own credibility behind her, too! The people of this city and the Empire have begun questioning the line of divine bullshit they’ve been fed from the cradle. The cults that pose the greatest threat to me have lost face, while that scheming spider Justinian has gained power, and don’t even pretend you fully understand what he aims to do with it. So, what is it, exactly, that I have lost? I confess the point escapes me.”
“You know, I am trying to watch a speech. If you want to exchange taunts, we can do that in the heat of battle sometime. Butting in like this is rather rude.”
“Why, you are absolutely right.” Mogul stood, swept off his hat and bowed deeply. “My most sincere and humble apologies, Antonio. You enjoy the rest of the evening, now. It’s a great speech.”
“See you later, Embras,” Darling said, waving languidly at him, his face already turned back toward Branwen.
Mogul didn’t even try to move silently and didn’t shadow-jump out, simply pacing back to the curtained door of the box, whistling. Darling listened to him leave, ignoring Branwen for now. With his back to the warlock’s exit, he permitted his features to fall into a grim scowl.
Midnight had long passed and the moon was drifting toward the horizon when the doors to the Crawl eased open again. A wary, slate-gray face peered out, glancing left and right, before pushing them wider. The figure who stepped forth was followed by two others, all looking around in blended wonder and nervousness.
“Just as he said,” the lone male whispered in the subterranean dialect of elvish.
“We will go directly,” said the woman in the lead. “There are sure to be wards and defenses, and we are not out for a fight. Stay low, and—”
The soft pop was the only warning they got.
“Right on schedule,” Professor Tellwyrn said grimly, stepping out of thin air. “Congratulations! Most of your compatriots aren’t dumb enough to try this. You get the rare honor of being an example.”
The three drow had fallen to their knees before her as soon as she spoke.
“Arachne,” the second woman said breathlessly. “We’ve—”
“I don’t think I like hearing that from you,” Tellwyrn interrupted. “Well, the good news is, with Rowe’s nonsense at an end, it shouldn’t be too hard to find and plug whatever hole you lot are creeping out of. I do not need drow in my Crawl, except the ones I send in myself. Hm,” she added thoughtfully, frowning. The three kneeling elves flinched. “Now, there’s an idea. A Scyllithene priestess would be a worthy check on Melaxyna’s ambitions. If, that is, I could find one of a modest enough nature not to be an excessive pest. Doesn’t seem likely.”
“We are both priestesses of Scyllith,” the second drow woman said eagerly, not seeing or ignoring her companion’s frantic expression of warning. “I would be—”
“Well, not you, obviously,” Tellwyrn said with a grimace.
The flames were brief, lasting only a split-second, but more intense than the interior of a blast furnace while they burned. In the darkness and quiet after they had vanished, Tellwyrn dismissed the invisible shield over her and brushed drifting ash from her sleeves. A circular patch had been scoured completely clean just in front of the Crawl’s entrance, the upper layers of dirt melted to a puddle of still-steaming glass. It was rapidly hardening, cracking as it did so, the energy of the fire having been removed far more swiftly than simple physics would allow. Nothing was left, not even skeletons. They had not even had time to scream.
“Stew is going to gripe about this for weeks,” Tellwyrn remarked, wrinkling her nose at the hardening glass. “Ah, well. He loves griping.”
She stepped around the burned area to the doors, pushing them carefully shut, then paused. The Professor laid a hand against the dark wood for a moment, smiling fondly, before turning and setting off to wake the groundskeeper for the second time that night.
“Good evening, your Grace,” Price said serenely, taking his coat. “I trust the presentation was enjoyable?”
“Good morning, Price,” he said, yawning. “The presentation was fine, as propaganda shows go. I never object to staring at Branwen. Then I had to go to the Intelligence office and the Church and report on more Wreath nonsense. Brandy, please.”
“Of course,” said Price. “Your Grace has a guest, waiting in the downstairs parlor.”
“I have a— It has to be one o’clock in the morning!”
“Yes, your Grace,” she said calmly. “The Crow appears generally unconcerned with such trivialities.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” he muttered, stalking off toward the parlor.
“Ah, Antonio,” Mary said as he entered. She was sitting on the back of his favorite chair, her feet perched on one of its armrests, nibbling one of Price’s scones. “It seems I picked a poor moment to leave the city on business. You managed, though, did you not?”
“Mary, it’s an absolutely stupid hour of the morning and I’m exhausted. What do you want?”
She tilted her head. “You are unusually tetchy. I’m accustomed to seeing you more smooth under pressure. Was it really that stressful?”
“If by it, you mean the grand cavalcade of stalking and violence you missed, then no. It was actually rather fun. But I’ve just had my nose rubbed in it by the Wreath’s mortal head and had to explain all this twice, to two separate groups of superiors, so yes, I’m damn well tetchy. Even more so now that I find myself again having to repeat. What do you want, Mary?”
“Merely to discuss events,” she said, hopping lightly to the floor. “I waited, as I’ve found you generally amenable to holding late hours, but if you are unduly stressed I can return tomorrow. Would you like me to ease your weariness before I go?”
“Thank you, no,” he grumbled. “But do you happen to know a time travel spell? What I would like is to go back about a week and a half and warn myself not to get into it too closely with Embras bloody Mogul.”
“As I should hardly have to remind a Bishop of the Church,” she said evenly, “messing with time travel is an extraordinarily bad idea. Vemnesthis punishes such infractions without mercy. Even I don’t aggravate the gods in person. You might ask Arachne.”
“It was a joke,” he said wearily. “The last damned thing I need is Tellwyrn anywhere near anything I’m trying to do.”
Mary studied him in silence for a moment. “What happened?” she asked, her voice more gentle. “You are rattled. I confess it’s a little disconcerting, coming from someone so self-assured.”
“Yes, well, circumstances and other people’s bullshit I can cope with just fine,” he said. “Ah, thank you, Price.” Darling tossed back the proffered brandy in one gulp, then set the glass back on her tray. “It’s more disappointing when I screw up. I’ve been going about this all wrong, sneaking around, playing the thief against the Black Wreath. It’s been mentioned often enough lately—hell, I’ve had reason to comment that Eserites and Elilinists think very much alike. I should never have tried to match them at their own game.”
“Is that not also your game?” Mary asked mildly.
“Yes, and that would be the problem,” he said, striding past her to the window, where he pulled aside the curtain and glared out at the dark street. “The whole reason the Empire has done so well militarily is its doctrine of asymmetrical warfare. Not just the Strike Corps utilizing the Circles of Interaction to advantage, but leveraging different kinds of assets against different enemies. Hit them where they’re weakest. The Guild against the Wreath is just…attrition. For all the Church’s resources, Justinian is a schemer, too. He and Vex have been doing the same thing. We’re never going to get anywhere if we keep obliging their love for skullduggery.”
“What, then?” Mary inquired. “If the Empire were able to pin down the Wreath and use its military power against them, it would have done so long since.”
“I can pin them down,” he said. “Next time, I am going to hit the bastards with sheer overwhelming force.”
“You don’t have overwhelming force,” she pointed out.
He turned from the window, grinning broadly at her, a predatory expression that was not meant to be pleasant. Mary, unsurprisingly, seemed totally unimpressed, which didn’t bother him.
“I cannot fathom why people keep saying things like that to me,” he said. “New strategies or not, I’m still a priest of Eserion. When I need something, I’ll take it.”