Shattered bits of glass-like mirror-flesh were everywhere.
Three women stood at the edge of the debris. A long cool woman in a black dress. A hag with over-sized owlish eyes and a lop-sided leer. A tall, elegant woman in a bone-white fighting gown wielding an intricately carved oak staff. Mistress Eberhard. Hedrard. The Headmistress...or her simulacrum...Bujilli wasn't sure if this was the impostor or the actual Headmistress. He hoped Gnosiomandus would have some way to discern the truth of the matter.
There was no sign of either Gudrun or Sharisse. Just the results of their exuberant handiwork.
"That's far enough. I will have some answers..." Headmistress Shaell held up her shimmering left hand. Ice crackled as it frosted across the floor before her. Bujilli could feel the spell's frustration at being held back. It noticed him.
"Now." She stared at Bujilli for much longer than he would have liked before turning her gaze upon Gnosiomandus.
"Good. You're here. Hedrard; Sprague here is in dire need of your assistance."
"Is it Sprague?" Hedrard cocked her head to the side to get a better look at the battered and bedraggled form of the Master Oneirist.
"Yes. That much we managed to get right. This is our Sprague...though I fear, not your Sprague madam." He stared back at the Headmistress.
Hedrard shambled over and began to inspect Sprague's wounds, tut-tutting the while.
"You have engaged the enemy. What did you learn?" Did Mistress Eberhard drew back ever so slightly from the Headmistress? Perhaps it was a trick of the light.
"Explain yourself Gnosiomandus." The Headmistress demanded. Her hair, so like Leeja's, writhed about her head in a false halo of ivory flames. Her eyes flashed violet. Her power was patently obvious and much too immanent for anyone's liking.
"Your husband was taken." Gnosiomandus leaned upon a weathered and worn oak staff that had not been in his hands only a moment before. Bujilli recognized it as his mentor's staff of office. He remembered it from the time in the Arena. During Leeja's Entrance Exam.
"But this is Sprague here..." Headmistress Shael lowered her left hand. The frost curling about it receded back into places in-between legitimate spaces with a soft yowl of irritation. She stood stunned in painful realization.
"Yes. This is Sprague. But this is not the man you married Shael." Gnosiomandus averted his eyes. Steeled himself to face her wrath. Once again.
"Are you sure old man? Absolutely certain? I married the man I knew as Sprague..."
"No. You married his impostor. A twisted reflection. One of the Mirror-born. I'm certain of it, as are both of my pupils."
"And what would they know of this matter?"
Bujilli felt his hackles raise as she regarded him once more; "We were ambushed by the impostor, the Not-Sprague, when we came here earlier..."
"How do you know it was an impostor?"
"I was there Shael. We followed the impostor down past the foundations, deep into the Grimdark. We passed through the gates of Weregall..."
"That is forbidden."
"But not to our enemies. Make all the rules and prohibitions you like, but they are not binding on any but those under your authority. We've neglected and ignored the Mezzoglunes for far too long, and now some one has used our ignorance against us."
"How? How is this possible? We have guards, wards, protections..."
"All defenses can and will be breached, given time and incentive. It is the nature of warfare. The Near Deeps are secured by the Sewer Militia and Unterkorps, despite their bickering and politicking, Beatrice would know of anything coming at us from that quarter, usually well before the commanders of either group. If they had used some sort of Transition Mechanism, or passed through one of the Near Planes, I would have known it, or you would. The Cold Roads and the Woods Between the Worlds are patrolled by Hedrard's kin and their allies. Likewise if they had used a paracosm or crossed over through the Dreamwastes or Slumberland, Sprague would have known."
"Exactly--" Headmistress Shael paused. stared at Gnosiomandus in abject disbelief.
"Yes. He has been held captive in his own room for a considerable while now thanks in no small part to some well-played treachery, as well as our mutually damnable arrogance. They struck by surprise and were able to subdue Sprague but they couldn't transfer him out of his sanctum. So they bound him in Black Iron. Drained his essence. Substituted an Impostor who moved through our ranks unsuspected and unchecked."
"Are you saying that this impostor was not only Mirrorborn but some sort of vampire as well? And all our defenses were...are...effectively useless?"
"I'm not entirely certain, but they were draining his essence, as Hedrad can confirm, and I suspect they were using it to assist in their masquerade. Engorged upon his essence, they would effectively be him. A major flaw in our thinking. As to our defenses, they have been compromised. Severely." Gnosiomandus looked a million years old leaning on his staff. It was bitter news he wished he didn't have to deliver. Not again.
"As has Sprague..." Mistress Eberhard stood before Gnosiomandus. Put one talon-like hand upon his shoulder; "For how long? How long have they been among us?"
"Hedrard will know."
"More than a year, I'd say, based upon his condition. I need to get him back to my rooms where I can do more for him. He's in a bad way. They would have killed him in another couple of weeks of this sort of treatment. As it is, it'll be touch and go whether he survives. I'm calling Lemuel to help carry him back, and I'll have a strixin to serve as my proxy while I'm tending to Sprague." She looked over to Shael; "With your permission, of course."
"Yes. Do what you think best. Do what you can for him."
"No promises. But I'll do what can be done. I always do."
"More than a year then. That coincides with the unsealing of the closed Arena and the Old Governor's attempt to subvert the Entrance Exams." Mistress Eberhard looked meaningfully at Bujilli and Leeja.
"They've had time to do quite a bit of mischief."
"You pursued the Impostor...my husband...past the barred gates of Weregall..."
"The Great Doors were already open--"
"Excuse me. I will see to it that they are fully closed and re-warded." Mistress Eberhard stalked off to attend to the matter personally.
"Lemuel is here. We'll take Sprague now. For what it is worth, I have full confidence in Shael's ability to get things sorted out and set to rights. I don't envy you what lies ahead. Not one bit. But I believe that you'll do what needs to be done." And Hedrard waddled off with Lemuel carrying Sprague's unconscious body.
"Please continue." Shael leaned on her staff. Her burdens seemed to be multiplying by the minute.
"To make a long story short, we were unable to get to the boat in time. They were taking your husband in the direction of Aman Utal by way on the Underchannels."
"But Weregall does not extend that far."
"No. It doesn't. It's a distorted reflection, hence it was declared off-limits during the Achuin Occupation. They were the ones who instituted the laws against uncovered mirrors and all that. They were not heading to Aman Utal, but rather were moving to the periphery of the space, probably with then intent to slip past the spatial membrane at some point and reach any number of alternate locales...parallel realms...any number of regions we have not even begun to explore."
"So they intended for you to see them going in that direction. But was it to throw us off their trail, or to falsely implicate someone else, or what? Why would they do any of this?" Her voice cracked. It was too much, too fast, and far too twisted to sort out easily. For a moment Shael looked like a hurt little girl, an old woman withered by too many years of crises and challenges.
"I hesitate to speculate as to their strategy or motives at this time. But now that we know something of what has been going on, and we have Sprague delivered from their un-tender mercies, we can begin to--"
"You will recall your nephew from Iltarsha. He is to be here within the week and he will assume captaincy and command over the riders patrolling the Cold Roads. As he petitioned, and as you advised months ago. You will also recall your daughter from Ustria, with or without her husband. She is to assume command of the Academy Guard, in tandem with Beatrice's efforts, of course."
"If you wish--"
"I do wish it and so command it. As of now. We all have a lot of work to do. I am going to go meet with the Commandant Zulmer of the Wall Guard stationed at the Inner Ramparts and afterwards I'll go see Silas Grompf. The old bastard owes me a drink, so he cannot refuse to meet with me."
"I wasn't finished. I am going to have Beatrice pay a call on her allies in the Red Watch and the Cellar Inspectors. Hedrard can contact the crones and grand-dams among the Midwives. Jilleen will go speak to the Mayor's office and I will ask Runeeth to serve as a liaison with those who prefer to not be named. You are going to go talk to your friends and allies. I am calling for a Summit."
"There's never been--"
"This affects everyone. We've been hiding behind our walls for too long. Holding back from getting directly involved in local events. We can no longer rely upon our old defenses, nor our old ways. Those days are over. Everything changes now." Headmistress Shael seemed to be speaking directly to Bujilli.
"They'll never agree--"
"I couldn't care less what they think that they will or won't do. They'll come. Now. As to these two pupils of yours. I have a task I would assign them, but I do not wish to interrupt their training--"
"Neither of us have been able to begin our actual training, Headmistress." Leeja bowed demurely.
"No. They haven't. Every time I turn around they're both off and running and having adventures and getting entangled with sordid schemes and--"
"Excellent. Then you won't mind if I send them on an errand?"
"Go ahead. You will any how."
"Yes. I will. but I am being polite while I still can. Soon enough that may not be an option."
"How may we serve you Headmistress?" Bujilli stood next to Leeja, both of them eager to get going.
"You can either bring your friend Idvard to me within the hour, or you can go to see Morquin in the Athenaeum and request his presence in the Chamber of Consultation, also within the hour."