The Disgruntled Professor
Hey, Red Dragon Inn fans, here’s a new lore drop from Geoff Bottone!
The guests at the soiree were an even mix of city councilors, tenured and retired professors of the Mages’ Collegium, ranking members of Greyport’s various guilds, and, of course, well-heeled donors with deep pockets and a love of brass plaques with their names on them. The entire purpose of the gathering was to wine, dine, and impress these donors in particular, to ensure that a steady supply of gold continued to pour into the Collegium’s coffers. Because of that, the senior faculty had been warned to be on their best behavior. No tales of magical experiments gone awry. No mention of the Collegium’s interesting extradimensional spaces. No stories of faculty members that had gone mad with power.
This left Zot, who was one of the most adventurous and well-traveled of the senior faculty, with precisely nothing to talk about. He had even gone so far as to leave Pooky with Deirdre for the evening. This ensured that his familiar would not get into trouble, or into the copious stores of alcohol displayed on various tables around the room, but it left Zot without his go-to small talk topic of having a rabbit as a familiar.
It was one of the rare times he envied Professor Marah, the Chair of Hexen Charms and Battle Wizardry, who had gotten special dispensation to skip these functions. This was due, in no small part, to her seniority. As someone of elvish ancestry who also had tenure, she had been teaching at the Collegium for the better part of two hundred years.
It was also due to what her peers tactfully described as her “strong personality,” when they were talking around the Ewer of Endless Water in the staff room. She was from a distant and much harder time, where students improved their finger dexterity by dodging blows from her staff, and when the phrase, “see me after class,” carried the implied threat of being turned into an animal or an inanimate object.
Zot felt his palms go slick with sweat as he recalled the most traumatic incidents from his studies in Battle Magic, so many semesters ago. He had dared to call out Professor Marah’s more draconian (with no offense meant to dragons) punishments, only to be challenged to a mage’s duel in front of the entire class. He had lost, of course, and spent the next week as a particularly hideous looking clock. He still had nervous tics any time he thought about it. Like now.
Zot shook his head furiously to dispel the unwanted floods of memory. He was here at this meet-and-greet, sad as that was, but at least Professor Marah was holed up in her office somewhere, likely glaring the varnish off of the wooden paneling. He decided that he might as well try to enjoy himself and, to that end, drifted over to the dessert table. Zot helped himself to pastries as, nearby, one of the more tedious alumni droned on about his thrilling research into illusion magic.
“…there are entire quarters of the city that are so gauche and common-looking, certainly not fit places for such peoples as ourselves,” said the alumnus, to a trio of slightly dazed and nodding members of the Greyport nobility. “With these low-energy, long-lasting, permanent illusions, I could tidy up the streets, improve the facades of numerous buildings, and even make the so-called, ‘common folk,’ look naturally more presentable…”
Zot turned away from the conversation, brushing crumbs out of his beard. He imagined how Eve would make the alumnus ‘naturally more presentable,’ if she could get him alone for two minutes. This improved his mood substantially.
He glanced over at the tall wall clock in the Library’s atrium, and saw that, despite his daydreaming and his pastry eating, he still had well over an hour before he could politely excuse himself and go get Pooky. Groaning inwardly, he surveyed the atrium, looking for anyone he could talk to for a bit without reflexively wanting to jab a fork into his wrist.
His eyes alighted on Melvyn, who stood among the Library’s collection of taxidermied magifauna trophies. Melvyn had arranged himself in such a way so that anyone looking at him quickly might assume that his minotaur head was just one more wall ornament. Melvyn looked as bored and miserable as Zot felt, and it seemed that his gently glowing beverage—complete with umbrella and long straw—was doing very little to take the edge off.
Sensing a kindred spirit at last, Zot filled up his little plate with more delicacies before losing himself in the shadows at the edge of the room.
“Melvyn,” he said, offering his plate. “Dessert?”
Melvyn took something fluffy and raspberry-flavored from the top of the pile and chewed it meditatively. He swallowed.
“I hate these parties,” he said, in a low voice tinged with relief.
Zot nodded in reply. “I hear that you’ve been overseeing some new magical security measures for the Library.”
Melvyn brightened, the pained expression slowly disappearing from his face. “Yes, indeed. We just finished the last of the sealing spells today.”
He glanced down at Zot’s plate before he said, somewhat apologetically, “How technical would you like me to get?”
Zot offered him another pastry, and urged him to continue. “As technical as you like. Just be careful. It wouldn’t do to be overheard talking about magic at the Mages’ Collegium.”
Melvyn snorted, a vocalization that he was uniquely suited for. “Well, we didn’t do anything extreme for the general stacks other than tighten up and re-energize the fire wards. We also had to fix the area of effect on one of the alarm glyphs. One of the students had altered it so that they could come and go via a nearby window and not alert anyone.”
Melvyn shrugged. “Extra study hours? Various nocturnal activities? Because they were bored and knew they could?”
Zot nodded. He had been a young wizard once, an unusually long time ago, and he still vaguely remembered the desire to pit one’s newly attained magical skills against those of the ‘masters’. Like in that unfortunate duel with Professor Marah.
“The new spells on the Restricted Section and the Vault are much more interesting. We reworked them from the ground up. Since the incident with the–”
“I know,” said Zot, more than a touch embarrassed. “I was there.”
“Right, right. That whole business with the ‘Magical Gang of Thieves’ that ‘Never Existed’.” Melvyn smirked and lowered his quotation-making fingers. “There are multiple overlapping complex enchantments, each of them chained to about a dozen contingency spells. The volunteer who tried to break into the Restricted Section earlier today was stunned, weakened, had their sense of sight replaced with their sense of touch, paralyzed, encased in ice, and teleported naked to the void cell in the dungeons.”
As he spoke, Melvyn’s eyes shone brighter and brighter. Zot felt himself leaning closer and closer to the minotaur, the better to hear and savor every word.
“Would you…” said Melvyn, “like to go see it?”
“Yes,” said Zot, balancing his plate of pastries on the nose of a stuffed basilisk. “Very much, yes.”
As Zot followed Melvyn into the library, he felt his spirits lift. Not only had he managed to get away from a stifling and mentally debilitating party, but he was also able to return to a place that he felt was, more than anything else, uniquely his own.
He had been trapped in the library for fifty years, mostly due to an emergency Time Stop spell and partially due to some unspoken shenanigans perpetrated by Pooky. In that time, he had become intimately acquainted with every shelf, every book, every carrel, every tile on the ceiling, every crack on the ancient, polished granite floor.
Zot was also so in tune with the library’s magical harmonics that he immediately noticed the thaumic changes, especially in the narrow hallway that led to the Restricted Section and the Vault. The security team’s spells were complex in their subtlety, but Zot could still tell that someone had made changes in “his” library.
Melvyn led him up to the heavy door leading to the Restricted Section, before halting him with a warning hand.
“Now then–” The minotaur swung around to face Zot, but turned too quickly. He wobbled on his hooves and recovered, but not before grazing a wall panel with one of his horns.
Immediately, wooden hands manifested out of the panel, grabbing onto Melvyn’s left horn and arm. He let out a bellow of panic as the hands tried to drag him backward into the wall.
“Melvyn!” shouted Melvyn. “Librarian! Dwarf Rockmole Waltz Aleph!”
The hands released the librarian and retreated.
“You all right?” asked Zot.
“Erm, yes.” Melvyn smoothed down his robes. “An unintentional, but very effective demonstration. Sorry for the stumble. I think I must have had a bit too much to drink at the party. I’m just past that level of inebriation where I’m relaxed and just into the level where it feels like my horns are sliding around on my head. Makes corridors tough to navigate.”
“Quite all right,” replied Zot, trying not to raise his eyebrow in amusement. “Well-hidden and fast-acting. Just the sort of thing one would like in a security system.”
Melvyn seemed to have recovered himself. “And you haven’t seen the best enchantments yet. I would like you to try to open the door to the Restricted Section.”
Zot pushed the sleeves of his robes back over his elbows and strode over to the door. The monstrous face on the handle glowered at him as he slowly reached out his hand.
“I would like to point out,” said Melvyn, in a voice much louder than normal, “that Professor Zot is not authorized to enter the Restricted Section.”
Zot felt himself tensing up, reflexively preparing for the deluge of magical discharges that he knew was coming. He took a deep breath through his nose, placed his hand on the cold metal of the handle, and depressed the door latch.
“Lulling me into a false sense of security, are you?” said Zot, as he inched the door open. Beyond the widening gap, he could see the books of the Restricted Section, chained to their iron shelves and shimmering with magical energies.
“Uh.” Zot glanced back at Melvyn, whose eyes had become very large and very round. He could almost see the panic pouring out of the librarian in waves. “I’m guessing it’s supposed to trigger when I open the door.”
“It is. It absolutely is.” Melvyn inspected the door, adjusting and readjusting his pince-nez on his bovine nose. After a long moment, he seized the handle and pulled it shut again. “It might not have been latched firmly before, which is a real issue. I’ll have to talk to the security team about that. Anyway, give it another try.”
Zot did. There was a click. And absolutely nothing else.
Melvyn stepped across the threshold, the opening invocation of a detection spell on his lips. Zot raised his own suite of divination spells before following Melvyn deeper into the Restricted Section. Amidst the chaotic crackles thrown out by various arcane tomes, Zot saw the slender, well-ordered threads of the chamber’s magical defenses. Using his magical sight, he followed myriad angles and curves, looking for microfractures in the patterns. The more he didn’t see, the more it worried him.
“I thought that, perhaps, the raw magic from the collection might have damaged–” he began.
“My thought as well,” said Melvyn, “but the shields against wild magic surges are still in–”
“–place,” continued Zot. “I noticed that, too. There doesn’t seem to be any sign of damage at all. In–”
“I agree,” said Melvyn. “It seems as though all the defenses have been intentionally deactivated.”
They froze in place and turned their heads to look at one another. Zot could tell by Melvyn’s expression that they were both thinking the same thing. Someone of considerable power and skill had broken into the Restricted Section. Since they weren’t in the room with them, that meant only one thing.
“The Vault,” they said, in unison.
It was generally known, even by first year students, that the entrance to the Mages’ Collegium’s Maximum Security Magical Vault was located in the Restricted Section of the library. What was much less well-known was where, exactly, that entrance was, and what, exactly, it looked like. This was intentional. Thieves could not break into an extradimensional space that they lacked the capacity to find, after all.
Knowing all this made Zot and Melvyn’s next discovery all the more appalling.
“I can see the door,” said Zot.
“That’s bad,” said Melvyn.
“It’s open,” said Zot.
“That’s worse,” said Melvyn.
“And you received no warning? None at all?”
“Not even a tingle,” said Melvyn, before closing his eyes and muttering under his breath.
Zot swore in Dwarvish. It did not help.
Melvyn’s eyes snapped open. “I just did a Sending to Darvishon. He’s mustering the troops.”
“Did he say how long?”
“Ten minutes, at the most.”
Zot frowned as he considered the doorway of swirling, pinkish mist that marked the boundary between the real world and the magically-created null space that was the Vault. He absently reached up to his shoulder to pet an empty space where an angry, fluffy shape should have been.
“We need to go in,” he said. “If the intruder has already left, we need to find out what was taken, and quickly. If the intruder is still there, we have to delay them until reinforcements arrive. Whoever’s in there is likely–”
“–very magically potent and could be more than a match for the two of us,” said Melvyn. “I know.”
“Sorry,” said Zot. “Force of habit. I’m used to working with people who don’t know much about magic.”
“Not a problem,” said Melvyn, before pausing to trace a rune in the air in front of him. “Shall we?”
Entering the Vault was never a pleasant experience, but then again, it wasn’t supposed to be. It had been created by the founders of the Collegium to store the most dangerous magical artifacts, to keep them out of the hands of the power-mad, the unwitting, and the overconfident. When those ancient mages created this pocket dimension they made its natural laws as different from the physical world as possible.
That was why, upon stepping through the threshold, Zot felt like down was sideways, up was widdershins, his head was deep underwater, and his stomach was somewhere north of Marienburg. And he didn’t even know where Marienburg was.
“Are you all right?” said Melvyn, who was standing at an angle unknown to Zot and who had also, somewhat frustratingly, seemed to have easily found equilibrium.
“No,” Zot admitted, tasting emotions on his tongue. “I don’t come here often enough to have developed aether legs. Pooky usually helps with the transition, but he’s not here, and I…”
Melvyn touched a fingertip to Zot’s forehead and sketched a few runes. “Does this help?”
Zot felt a cooling relief as the worst of the disorientation and nausea subsided. He straightened up. “It did!”
He looked around, surveying the huge and mostly empty expanse of the Vault. He realized that he was standing on a fluffy, white cloud, which seemed more than solid enough to bear his weight. Other clouds, some larger, some smaller, zipped around on air currents above, below, and all around him. Most of them carried jumbles of crates, chests, bookcases, and other storage containers.
“I see you made some changes to the Vault, too,” said Zot. “Very wise, considering the recent security breach. The clouds are a nice touch, though I did like the hovering platforms. I also notice that you seem to have gotten rid of the globe portal.”
“We did,” said Melvyn.
A flare of magical energy fountained upward from a distant cloud formation. It transformed into a flickering beam of sickly, greenish fire that pierced the sky.
“That’s them!” shouted Melvyn. “It has to be!”
“We’ve got to get over there!” Zot got down on his hands and knees and peered over the edge of the cloud. Several smaller clouds rushed by far below. “All right, there’s a couple coming up, maybe big enough to support us. If we jump and timed our spells just right–”
“Jump?” Melvyn’s voice was a mix of surprise and utter horror. “Absolutely not! Are you out of your mind?”
Zot transformed from seasoned adventurer and learned professor to a castigated student in an instant. He looked up at Melvyn with the expression he had often worn in his early classes at the Collegium, usually for Professor Marah’s benefit.
“No,” he said, quietly. “It’s just that…well, that’s how we did it before. I mean, it was mostly Fiona and Gog that did the leaping, but it worked.” Zot dropped his eyes from Melvyn’s face and slowly rose from the edge of the cloud. “Why? How do you do it?”
Melvyn stretched out his arm and drew a runic symbol in the air beside him. With a wiggle of light and a burst of anti-noise, a freestanding door appeared. With a stiff gesture, Melvyn opened the door and gestured for Zot to step inside.
“Well,” said Zot, in a desperate attempt to regain his dignity, “I didn’t know about the invisible doors, now did I?”
“In fairness,” said Melvyn, his features softening into a wry smile. “You’re not supposed to.”
The door opened out into a maze made of heavily warded bookcases. Dusty tomes and relics adorned the shelves, kept in place by powerful spells and by rune-inscribed bars of iron and silver. Even with all these protections, Zot still felt the raw power of the artifacts. The energies pressed down heavily on the top of his head, making it feel as if his brain was on the verge of oozing out of his ears.
He let Melvyn take the lead, following the librarian through the bookcase maze to the center of the disturbance. Some of the cases showed signs of recent damage, their cases scorched by fire, their bars melted and torn apart. More disturbingly, the relics stored inside of the damaged cases had been reduced to piles of silvery, smoking ash.
“Someone’s been casting a lot of disjunctions,” whispered Zot. “But only on certain artifacts. Does that make any sense to you?”
Melvyn studied the runic labels on several of the cases. “Actually, yes. These are–were–cursed magical items. Backstabbing Blades, Cloaks of Weight, Slippers of the Siniestre Pedes, that sort of thing.”
“Very dangerous to cast disjunction spells on cursed items,” said Zot. “They’d need a lot of power and precision for that.”
“If I wasn’t worried before…” muttered Melvyn, as they rounded a final corner in the bookcase maze.
Ahead of them lay a massive, circular cloud. It featured an open area of swirling mist, with spokes made up of rows of rune-engraved lead pillars. Many of these pillars held magical artifacts that hummed with power and were protected by crystalline domes. Others held only perfectly conical piles of twinkling ash. The domes from these pillars had been carefully removed and set down on the insubstantial floor.
A figure, dressed in a patched cloak that was decorated with strips of ragged parchment, lifted another dome from another pillar, and gingerly lowered it to the floor. Tiny, trapped fragments of clouds whirled inside of the dome, swiftly boiling up into a miniature, crackling storm front.
Melvyn and Zot nodded at one another and separated. Zot went to the right around the edge of the cloud platform, the ethereal winds whipping at his robes. Melvyn mimicked his actions, but headed left. When the two were far enough apart, they turned and marched between two of the lead pillar spokes, until they were on either side of the figure.
“Hello, boys,” the figure said, in a voice that made Zot’s hands shake and sent icy shivers down his spine.
“P…professor M…Marah?” he stammered.
She turned slowly, fanning her hands so that they moved away from her body and down toward her hips. Her smile was hard and bright. Seeing it, Zot unconsciously tensed himself for the “corrective discipline” that he knew was to come.
He glanced across the circle at Melvyn, hoping to draw some resolve from his friend’s presence. Unfortunately, Melvyn had not only experienced an unpleasant semester under Marah’s tutelage, but was frequently subjected to her outrageous demands and caustic invective whenever she took issue with library policy. Melvyn looked like he had lost two feet of height and about forty years of age and experience in two seconds. It was clear that Marah had him cowed.
“Aren’t you boys supposed to be at a mandatory Collegium function?” said Professor Marah, wiggling her fingertips. “Shouldn’t you get back to it and leave me to my work?”
Zot started to obey, not because of any compulsory magic, but because of the deep dread and terror that Professor Marah had instilled in him for so many years. He felt himself step back, felt himself succumb to the old shivering anxiety that would make him retreat to the bookcase maze and, from there, back to the library.
He felt a phantom weight on his shoulder, a memory of something fluffy, heavy, and angry that should have been there. He gritted his teeth. He was a wizard, by the Four! He had tangled with dragons and liches and upstart, self-proclaimed goblin kings. He had tenure! He was not going to lie down and show his belly to a crabby, unpleasant, unlikeable old woman with an anger management problem.
“Professor,” he said, cursing himself for the unsteady timbre of his voice. “Out of respect for your long tenure, I’ll ask you to come along with us, quietly. We can discuss your intrusion and your destruction of Collegium property with Darvishon. He will–”
She threw back her head and laughed, an ugly, grating sound. “Darvishon?! That mildewed dishrag? Please. I’m not answerable to him, Bunny Boy, or to you, or to that miserable coat-rack of a book jockey you brought along with you.”
On the other side of Professor Marah, Melvyn straightened. He raised his fingers in a preparatory gesture and slowly circled around, hoping to find a good angle from which to launch his attack. Zot opened his arms and circled in the opposite direction, trying to keep Marah’s attention divided between two fronts.
“Oh, you’re joking.” Professor Marah sniggered and calmly backed up, her hands unmoving at her sides. “You’re not joking! You’re actually thinking about trying to fight me. In a wizard’s duel. Please! I’ve been doing battle magic since before you were disappointments to your parents!”
The three of them, now engaged in a strange, slow moving dance, drifted down to the center of the cloud, where the rows of pillars came to an end, forming a boundary around a large, open circle of swirling mist. They spread apart, until they were equidistant from one another, their hands raised.
“I mopped the floor with both of you when you were students,” said Marah, “and I’ll scrub the baseboards with you now! You may have gotten your fancy plaques and your accolades and your back pats, but the pair of you have never gotten any better with magic. Whereas I’ve only gotten stronger. And now, with this Mantle of Malediction I’ve made, I’ll–”
“Oh!” said Melvyn, “now I see. You’ve been gathering up the negative energy from cursed items to enchant that garment you’re wearing. Presumably because your own magical power is flagging in your old age, and–”
“You stupid child!” shouted Marah, causing the air to crackle with portentous magical energy. “You rude, dull little brat! How dare you speak to me that way? I am your teacher and I will not be questioned. When we’re done here, I will turn you into a doorstop for a hundred years and scrape my filthy boots on what used to be your face. Yes, you and Zort the Rabbit Lover will be the first to feel the wrath of my new Mantle of Maled–”
Melvyn’s eyes flicked over to Zot. Zot answered with a glance of his own, before saying, “It’s a cloak.”
Professor Marah turned the full force of her rage on him, and Zot felt himself fluttering like a leaf in a storm.
“Well,” Zot swallowed, trying to lubricate his dry throat. “The garment you’re wearing is not really a mantle. It’s more of a cloak. They are two very different things. I’m assuming you’re referring to it as a mantle for alliterative purposes, but you could have just called it a Cloak of Curs–”
A red whipcrack of energy tore across the circle. Thunder boomed and rolled as Zot parried the blow with a flick of his hand.
“Spare me your pedantic droning, you dried up old prune,” shouted Marah. “I’m not one of your illiterate adventurer friends that you can dazzle with definitions.”
“Well, then,” said Zot. “How about this?”
Melvyn launched the rune that he had drawn tiny and nearly unnoticeable in the air in front of him. It shrieked toward Professor Marah, who raised her hand. The crackling lines of the rune exploded in a shower of noise and light.
“Pathetic!” she shouted, as she launched twin beams of coruscating light–one from each hand, at Zot and Melvyn.
Zot tried to dodge, but wasn’t quick enough. The energy beam clipped him in the shoulder, searing his robes. He let out a roar of agony and staggered backward.
“First blood goes to me, Bunny Boy!” cackled Marah. “I think it’s time that you–”
“Shut up!” roared Melvyn, launching a swarm of rune-covered, spectral meteorites at Professor Marah. The salvo blew her off her feet and sent her careening into one of the lead pillars. Its crystal dome detonated in a shower of glittering fragments.
Zot got to his feet, hand pressed on his cauterized shoulder wound. With his free hand, he conjured forth a bolt of lightning. Marah rolled out of the way, leaving a sparking, half-melted pillar in her wake.
“You all right?” shouted Melvyn.
Zot nodded, the words of another lightning bolt spell forming on his lips.
“Good,” Melvyn moved all ten of his fingers independently, tracing ten runes in the air in front of him. “Let’s get this over with.”
“Boys, boys, boys,” muttered Marah, as she heaved herself upright. “I’ve seen baby elves with better spellcraft. You’re never going to beat me.”
She dove sideways, reaching her hands out, but not to cast a spell. Her fingers closed on the empty air. Zot fired off his lightning bolt, watching in confusion as something solid and rectangular formed out of the air, deflecting the bolt away from Marah.
“Rush her, Zot!” shouted Melvyn. “She knows where the doors are! She knows–”
In the time it took Zot to process what he was seeing and hearing, Melvyn was already bounding forward. He had almost reached Professor Marah when the door swung open, revealing a swirling portal that led back to the reinforced stacks of the Restricted Section. Professor Marah leaped through, followed by Melvyn. Zot grunted away his pain, steeled himself, and leapt through the door after them.
“Melvyn,” he shouted, “Crab claw! We have to hold her in the library until Darvis–”
The air stiffened and grew cold around him. He felt the oncoming dislocation of a teleport spell. An all-encompassing black mist descended over his eyes. His ears felt like they had been stuffed with cotton.
Ahead of him, a large, shadowy figure that was probably Melvyn turned and looked back.
“Oh, no!” came the librarian’s distant, echoing voice. “Zot! She rearmed the library’s defenses. When you wake up in t h e d u n g e o n, y o u ’ l l…”
Zot, his teeth chattering, wrapped in a banner that he had torn down from one of the Collegium’s many galleries, ran barefoot down the corridor that led to the library. His head pounded with the residual energy from the library’s security spells, and his stomach felt like a tureen of pea soup in a tornado, but he ignored them and kept running. He had to rejoin Melvyn and help him delay Marah until the other wizards arrived.
With a small cry of fury, he shouldered open the library doors, only to find the atrium beyond was littered with a collection of strange objects and cast off articles of clothing that belonged to members of the senior faculty. The Ombudsman’s pointed hat rested jauntily atop a bowl of colorful begonias. A very confused frog hopped out of a tall boot belonging to the Adjunct Professor of Creative Expression. Most disturbingly, someone seemed to have dressed a grandfather clock in the gaudy robes and jewelry worn by Darvishon’s personal secretary.
Zot looked down and saw that he stood over the loose pile of Chancellor Darvishon’s robe and personal effects. A bewildered-looking red rooster had poked its head up from the neck hole of Darvishon’s robe. It stared at Zot, cocked its head, and blinked its beady little eyes rapidly.
“Damn,” said Zot, mostly to himself. Then, being careful to position his stolen toga so that it continued to cover his nakedness, he knelt down beside the rooster.
“Which way did she go?”
The rooster shook itself free from the neckhole of Darvishon’s robe, flapped its wings, and scurried over to the library doors. It pecked on the leftmost door several times before turning its head to blink at Zot.
“That leads to the lecture halls, the vestibule, the Events Hall, and the…oh no!”
“He pelted out of the library, barely giving the rooster a backward glance.
“I’ll be back soon with help! Don’t you worry!”
The closer Zot got to the event hall, the more he felt like a salmon trying to swim upriver. The attendees of the previously tedious soiree streamed past him as they fled in the opposite direction, screaming and shouting. They bumped into one another, and into Zot, as they ran.
A man dressed in an outfit that was mostly clashing colors and ostrich plumes slammed into Zot.
“She turned my arms into snakes! She turned them into snakes!”
The aforementioned arms slithered in their sleeves, tasting the air with their tongues.
“Well, we’ve all got problems at the moment,” said Zot, trying to push past the man. “At the very least, they appear to be the non-venomous variety.”
“But aren’t you a wizard?! Can’t you help me?!”
Zot was grateful that the man’s snake arms weren’t the constrictor type. He extricated himself, muttered hasty apologies, and at last pushed his way through the crowd and into the event hall.
The air within was oppressively hot, stifling, and impregnated with curse magic. Tables bucked and galloped like horses, sending their contents sliding and crashing to the floor. The taxidermied heads had returned to a semblance of life, baying and howling at their disembodied predicaments. A wetland’s worth of amphibians hopped, crawled, and slithered in and around piles of discarded clothing.
In the center of the room, trapped inside of a pulsing nimbus of magical energy, Melvyn and Marah fought a desperate magical duel. The long parchment strips on Marah’s cloak snapped in an unseen wind, while glowing magical script wrote, erased, and rewrote itself all down their lengths. A sphere of shifting, flickering runes surrounded Melvyn, flaring brightly and then winking out of existence as they absorbed Marah’s vicious assault. Melvyn’s fingers were a blur as he conjured more runes to replace them.
Zot assessed the magical maelstrom before him. Throwing another spell into the mix might have disastrous consequences for Melvyn, even if it was precisely conjured. He looked around and spotted a silver serving dish on the floor nearby. Dodging a particularly lively chair, he picked up the disk, took aim, and hurled it at the back of Marah’s head.
The dish transformed into a custard pie midway through its flight and impacted against the back of Marah’s head with a comedic squishing noise. While the delivery method wasn’t what Zot intended, the end result was more or less the same. Marah’s concentration wavered for a fraction of a second and, considering the forces she was marshaling against Melvyn, a fraction of a second was more than enough time for those forces to break free of her control.
The explosion cracked the hall’s great, stone fireplace, transformed the parquet flooring into purple grasslands, and blew both duelists across the room. Zot ran to Melvyn’s aid as the minotaur sat up, beating out the tendrils of chartreuse flame that threatened to consume his robes.
“You all right?” asked Zot, extending a hand.
“Runes took the brunt of it.” Melvyn grabbed Zot’s hand and pulled himself upright. “Come on, we’ve got to immobilize–”
“Pathetic! You resorted to cheating and you still lost!” came a triumphant cackle from across the room.
Marah had already recovered from the explosion. She stood triumphant atop an upside down table, whose legs pawed helplessly at the air.
Zot and Melvyn flung hastily woven spells of immobilization across the room, only to watch them wither in the face of Marah’s horrible curse magic. She cackled in response, and intoned the first syllables of a teleport spell.
“Tell Darvishon to consider this my letter of resignation,” she sneered. “I’m done with the half-wits and pampered sorcerers of the Collegium, and I’m done with you two failures!”
Zot and Melvyn took advantage of her monologing to try to quickly conjure additional magics, but by the time they released them at Marah, she was already vanishing.
“Damn,” said Melvyn, his voice almost a sob.
Zot patted his friend on the shoulder. “It’s all right.”
“It’s not.” Melvyn started shaking. “One mage against the Collegium, against all of our defenses, and she beat us. Maybe she’s right about us, Zot. Maybe we are all frauds and failures.”
“No,” said Zot. “That’s what she wants us to think, but it’s not true. She may have gotten Darvishon and the others, but she didn’t get you. You fought her to a standstill. And she didn’t resume her attack, or curse you when she could have done so easily. She just ran. Oh, she certainly put up a lot of bluster before she did it, but that’s only to mask the fact that you chased her out of here with her tail between her legs.”
“You’re right. Gods, I’ve been scared of her for so long she had me believing it, but you’re right.” Melvyn sniffed and stood up straighter. “We’ve got to get after her.”
“We will,” said Zot, “but first we need to return Darvishon and the senior faculty to normal, uncurse the party guests, resecure the Vault–”
“And get you some pants.”
Zot ruefully glanced down at the banner he had wrapped, toga-like, around his pale, bony frame.
“Yes,” he said, chuckling. “And also that.”