A/N: References to Azure City in this fic make use of anime (principally Neon Genesis Evangelion and Sailor Moon, from which characters may or may not be massacred). Debt is owed to Terry Pratchett. Occasional D&D references are attempted. The author has not read the prequel books. Also the summary demands the following claim: tTly nOT a maRy suE!~!1!.

Warnings: Mention of speciesist prejudice.

--

Assorted results from Klonja's noisy tooth-picking were landing on his book.

"Would you stop that?" Roy flicked off a blackened fragment of highly untrustworthy vintage.

"Whatever, Greenhilt." Klonja discarded the +5 adamantine pick for a tankard of ale Roy knew would have been heavily watered down, bubbling a frothy white and spilling a faint trail of pale liquid on the rickety cafeteria table. "So what're you reading?"

He flashed her the cover of the rule supplement. "Cramming up on feats for Professor Mouser."

"Extreme." She yawned. The moment of inattention cost her; their mutual friend Xerox the Barbarian*, attempting to seat himself while managing his own meal of cafeteria ale, bread, and cheese**, collided with her chair. Roy easily raised his book above the resulting carnage and continued to read.

* Xerox the First-Level Barbarian And Third-Level Fighter, in fact. The story of how young Xerox rebelled and ran away from his traditional barbarian tribe to enrol in Fighter College is a fascinating, original and truly enthralling tale that will not be told here.

** This is standard adventurer fare as defined in any number of related novels. In his first year Roy had presented the cafeteria staff with an annotated and heavily footnoted treatise on nutrition, but to no discernible effect. His complaints on the matter to his mother in correspondence home ceased once she too suggested an intention to raise the matter.

"Hey, Roy," Xerox said after a while, his head protruding from the crook of Klonja's right arm. "Did you get forty-two on the fifth homework question for the reach rules?"

"Sure I did," Roy replied.

"Oh, no." Maintaining her headlock, Klonja rummaged in both Xerox's pack and her own for the answer sheet. "Lessee...I must've got it wrong in step three." She used Xerox' back to rest her paper and scrawl in her correction. "Got it. Thanks!"

"Ladies and gentlemen! Swordwenches, fightingmen, and elves (I can't tell with elves)! Silence!" Dean Fitzdunsany called. He sighed, and began to bang a club on a spare ale tankard. Eventually, the noise and assorted barfights lowered to a dull growl. "This eve I have a most interesting announcement. For a short while, the college will host..."

Roy blinked. Suddenly the Dean was concealed and his speech silenced by a stealth of ninjas appearing on the dais. Clearly they were ninjas; all carried at least one shuriken and wore hoods. One ninja to the left was particularly concealed by a dark blue gi, gloves, heavy boots, and a silken mask held in place by a scarf wrapped completely over her head and fastened in place; the only apparent fact about her physical description was that she was indeed female. A white-bearded male ninja bowed amidst the centre of them.

"We thank you most graciously for inviting our ninja school students to learn much from your fighter college for this brief time. May this experience bring great learning and understanding between our two ancient institutions."

"Extra credit points for students maintaining a friendly atmosphere with our visitors," the Dean muttered from behind the ninjas.

With that, the dull buzz of cafeteria conversation resumed.

"There are some cross-class skills coming up in the syllabi," Roy said; Klonja and Xerox were both third-years, but the three shared a common major and several classes.

"Where do you think their school is?" Xerox said.

Klonja threw a few copper pieces in the direction of the lunch lady. "That's my Gather Information check. A secret ninja school probably goes with the southern gods," she said.

"Gather Information checks do not work that way even if your ears are a little pointy," Xerox said; Klonja's red eyebrows drew fiercely together. Her trace of elven ancestry gave her a remarkably low tolerance for alcohol, a few elvish swear-words to employ in her harshest imprecatory tones, and a lot of teasing*.

* As well as a lot of excuses to exercise her class skills.

"I guess we'll see them soon enough," Roy said. The ninja students had already disappeared from the dais. He could no longer see them, and failed on every Spot check he tried. "You have to return the homework, Klonja."

--

"Come in, come in..." Sir de Payens-Payme was a retired paladin and a combat tutor; his face was reddened and his expansive belly* wobbled. "Squires***, allow me to introduce you all to Sensei Quirkypersonality, who will broaden your combat expertise by explaining a few things about his quaint little school."

* It is a little known fact that 90% of paladins still living beyond the age of fifty** will retire as soon as they find themselves unable to fit into their armour.

** This is a miniscule statistical sample to begin with, which may or may not distort results.

*** They also have a tendency to take many blows to the head, which may affect capability to properly recall their students.

A smile lingered below Sensei Quirkypersonality's well-curled white mustache. "Very important, meditation is. First sit down and contemplate the universe, we will."

"Likely more it is contemplate navel we will," Xerox whispered to Roy, rolling his eyes.

"Meditation's worth a try," Roy returned. He wondered why Sensei Quirkypersonality had used better grammar the previous day.

"Aha, miscreants we have!" The Sensei pointed happily at Xerox and Roy. "Meditate silently you will, then spar with my two best students for practice, yes?"

A blue-clad boy who looked pale and ill peeled himself from his group to pair with Roy, and the completely concealed ninja Roy had noticed upon their entrance approached Xerox.

"Kneel you will in position uncomfortable to you, raise hands in the air, clear minds, and contemplate the infinite while your mantra you mutter!"

Roy looked across at his partner, who had easily twined his legs across each other. The repeated, whispered phrase I mustn't run away I mustn't run away emerged from his lips.

"Hi, I'm Roy Greenhilt. And you're...?"

The ninja opened one eye a crack. "Shinji," he said, and returned to the strange motto.

Roy contemplated his own motto. "Die forces of stupidity." No, not nearly expressive enough. "Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe." Hmm. "There is no evil greater than human or demi-human stupidity."

"Meditation over!" Sensei Quirkypersonality trilled. Xerox came out of it with a startled shake and yawned. "Now combat training! Practice-fight you will, then correct I will and we all learn something!

"No unconcealed weapons, of course," he added as Roy's half of the class went for their sheaths, bows, and shields. "Today you play by visitor rules only!" He gestured to Roy and Shinji to begin their sparring.

"I mustn't run away I mustn't run away," Shinji recited. This was the secret ninja academy's best student? Roy had concentrated his martial proficiency feats upon his ancestral sword, but Klonja liked to give helpful tips on throwing a punch. He aimed a simple strike to his opponent's midsection, hoping it would be over quickly.

Shinji dodged. Yes, he was a ninja* and Roy was a fighter with few unarmed proficiencies. Sooner or later, Roy would roll high enough to beat his saves, a critical hit if nothing else.

* A moderately advanced ninja student, anyway.

"I mustn't run away I mustn't run away--" Ah, psychological warfare! Roy, tired of his many fruitless attempts at pin-the-punch-or-kick-on-the-ninja, tried a verbal technique.

"You're running away now. Have you noticed?" Roy pointed out.

Shinji looked even more startled than he had previously. "Mother!" he swore. A shuriken the size of a dinner plate appeared from his sleeve*, was suddenly launched into the air, and Roy saw several stars.

* He was a ninja. A moderately advanced ninja student, anyway.

"Yes, concealed weapons allowed. Victor is Shinji! Bout over! Now other talking one gets go!" Sensei Quirkypersonality declared.

Xerox's skin seemed to have turned a shade of green, as though he'd just received a Giant-sized dose of Lotus Extract poison. The masked ninja stood confidently. Like Roy, Xerox tried to land some unarmed attacks upon the ninja, but she lithely and double-jointedly dodged almost all of his moves. She seemed more aggressive than Shinji, starting to fight back and even to hit Xerox in return; she had not even drawn any concealed shuriken from her clothing.

Xerox was knocked briefly to the ground, skidding a pace or two along it. Roy saw his eyebrows beetle together in a familiar motion.

"rrr." Air began to whistle through Xerox's mouth. "rrr." His masked opponent watched him, her head cocked curiously to one side. "Rrr, Rrr, Rrr." Now he was beginning to warm up. "Rrr Rrr--" You've got it, Xerox, Roy thought encouragingly. "Rrr Rrr--RRAGH RRAGH RAGE!"

Xerox' one level of barbarian erupted as he flung himself on the masked ninja. It was an impressive display, Roy thought, that would have done Bash U proud if it had not been a barbarian class skill. The masked ninja fought him, though any damage she took was invisible beneath her clothing; and then, in a neat throw, Xerox was on the floor again, gasping and pale from his exertion, his long and thin arms and legs trembling slightly.

"Next!"

Roy stayed to watch the other bouts. Klonja was matched against a ninja dressed in red-and-purple with long dark hair falling from beneath her mask. Her concealed weapon was a red blackjack augmented with a star-shaped weight, and her battlecry something along the lines of, 'In the name of the Red Planet I will punish you!'

Klonja produced a training dagger from the hidden recesses of her eminently sensible leather armour and went at it. The ninja was good at evasion, but with a weapon Klonja had some proficiency in, she couldn't avoid forever. It was a reasonably long battle--Roy suspected many of the ninja students were a level or so higher than his class--and in the end it was called a draw. Roy had to admit that the sight of the ninja exercising her Jump skill had been...interesting. Purely from an academic point of view, of course. Interesting physics in the way the ninja's long curtain of dark hair rose and fell and yet never blocked her vision or caused her inconvenience in the fight. Roy wondered what her alignment was.

"Well done class!" Sensei Quirkypersonality twinkled. "What have we been taught today?"

"Cheating works?" Klonja spoke up. Roy would have echoed her sentiment, but curse a Lawful nature!

"Teach you I shall unarmed and sneaky proficiencies, and you shall sharpen my students' weapon skills in turn, yes?" The Sensei beamed. "Of course, you may have to spend a feat or a proficiency or two to use it in fact, but a valuable experience, no?"

"Bring your heavy armour and specialized weapons tomorrow," de Payens-Payme grunted. "Class dismissed."

"N-nice going, Klonja," Xerox said.

"I think I learned something," Klonja announced, replacing her dagger to its concealed location. "Hey, you, ninja girl with the hair! You have a name?"

"I am Rei," the girl said; Shinji, next to her, stared back in Roy's direction. Roy shook his head to clear it.

"We're going to the town for a beer!" Roy managed to say to the girl. "Would you like to come and see the area?" They could in theory, of course, be ninja spies of an invading army. But they must have gained the Dean's approval anyway for their visit, and with their ninja Hide skill, they would surely have been able to sneak into the town anyway. The proper and Lawful response was obviously to accompany and observe.

"All right. Coming, Shinji?" Rei took her friend's arm. That made five of them.

Xerox sighed and went to his masked ninja, probably simply out of politeness. Also possibly the extra credit to students 'maintaining a friendly atmosphere with the visitors'. "Er--would you like to come too?"

"No." A very deep voice. No, she was still certainly female, Roy thought. Ah well. He wasn't pleased with the advantages the ninjas had taken in this class, or about Shinji, but Rei looked interesting to get to know. Klonja liked it when she met someone new who could fight well.

"I already have a job after graduation," Shinji boasted, his face slightly flushed from the drinking. It looked like he could hold his alcohol about as well as Klonja. "As long as I stay class valedictorian, Ku--this noble will pay me. I've done a summer internship and I'm really looking forward to it. What are the career options for fighters?"

"I'm going to be an adventurer and apply some measure of justice and practicality throughout the land," Roy replied automatically with his ambition.

"Really, Greenhilt? I'm going to kick arse, tail, and/or tentacle, drink lots of beer, and have a golden statue built out of my loot to remember me when I die." Klonja drank another glass of her watery beverage.

"To live a l-long and happy and interesting life," Xerox said.

"What about you, Rei?" Roy said. If her reply was something along the lines of, 'I want to be a ninja assassin and spy and kill innocent people in chaotic ways', well, she clearly wasn't an appropriate friend to make. But if not, she was very pretty even if--and he couldn't quite recall the rules there--she was not Lawful enough to bring home to meet his mother.

"I am the granddaughter of a noble of my homeland and my future goal is to use my skills to protect and serve my sister and our people upon her ascension to the title," Rei said. Roy felt relieved. "Her name is Bunny--I have miniature portraits--"

"Never mind!" Klonja said. "Cute mantras you people have."

"The Red Planet is a translation of my ancient and noble family name," Rei said. "I have no idea about Shinji's mother issues but I do for some reason consider it my duty to look after him." She bent across the table and tweaked Shinji's ear in a way that made Roy's consumption from the nut platter rest uneasily in his stomach. She yawned. "I'm still teleport-lagged, I fear. Shall we return to your campus?"

Early evening; Roy thought about the essay due on build-optimizing third-level feats and the goat-herding class he had just skipped, and stopped thinking. Enjoy the moment with his weird friends, obnoxious ninja opponent, and attractive and possibly Good (perhaps even leaning toward Lawful) ninja girl. Past the local Adventurers' Mart, into the fields that helped support the university; two tall boys who appeared to be Commoners stood next to a large tree.

"Hey, Baldy!" one called, referencing Klonja's practical hairstyle that Roy thought he might one day adopt himself. "Where's the chainmail bikini?"

"Excuse me. No, don't wait, I'll catch up." His friend took off at a run; Roy sighed and decided not to watch the expected carnage. Klonja enjoyed being hassled far too much for anyone's own good.

"Rei, what year are you and Shinji in your school?" Roy asked.

"We are all level four ninjas. I also have one level as a shugenja," she said calmly.

"That's great," Roy said. Two levels above him. "You graduate soon, right?"

"Another year," Shinji said, interrupting again. They were nearing the goat pens; Roy felt the urge to walk more quickly so that he would not be noticed.

"Barbarian!" A second-year student, standing near the animal gates, hailed Xerox. "I challenge you to single combat!"

Roy shook his head. What was up with this disturbed walk?...Something that left him alone with Rei and Shinji. Xerox, of course, had his traditional clan's obligation not to turn down a trial by combat. (There was also the traditional barbarian rule that he could only marry a foe who defeated him in fair combat, which Xerox preferred not to communicate to others.)

"What do you like to do in your spare time, Rei?" he said.

"I love to read classical literature and I play the guitar."

"So...would you like to come up to my room? I have a First Edition character sheet and a trumpet for duets?" Roy cursed himself for lack of confidence. He was not an anti-social loser; he was proud to be in Bash U and ready to ask a real girl who was not a friend to his quarters.

"I'm teleport-lagged, like I said." But Rei smiled as she said it. "Perhaps another time."

"We could do a musical trio," Shinji said. Roy sighed.

"Do you know any funk?" he said contemptuously.

"No, I prefer classical music," Rei said. Roy sighed again.

There was distant bleating. Roy looked, and gasped: loose goats running about the field. Would the distractions ever be over? He had only one choice to avoid failing that easy 'A':

"Sorry! Goat emergency! Bye!"

Goats. Stupid goats. Roy caught Little Swan* quickly and wrapped the end of his 50-foot hempen rope around her neck, then ran to the strawberry patch to retrieve Little Bear before she could do further damage to the gardening minors' term projects. Then there was Turk tearing toward the female students' laundry, and Greenfinch trying to climb a tree for some unknown goatly reason; Roy dragged them back, keeping an eye out for Little White Snowflake and swearing under his breath.

* Roy did not name the goats.

He dragged in the goats, thanking his largely atheistic beliefs for his high Strength score, and closed the open gate. (He had closed it himself, surely, but sometimes people came into the goat paddocks.) Fortunately Little White Snowflake* did not seem to have chosen to leave the paddock, drinking happily alone from the stream. Funny. That had been a lot of diversions from a simple beer outing he and his friends had faced. Hopefully Rei wouldn't get lost on her way back to the guest dorms.

* Roy did not name the goats.

The masked ninja was in the corner of the field. Roy hailed her; was she the one who'd left the gate open? Instead of replying, she promptly disappeared in the shadow of the hedge, and fragments of Roy's Fighter's Useful Paranoia unit began to return to him. Rei was alone. (Except for Shinji, who didn't count.)

Roy ran back to the main path and saw a red-haired ninja wearing a physics-defying classic red catsuit standing over the two ninja school students. Shuriken in her hands glinted brightly in the sun.

"Rei!" She was lying still on the ground, Shinji not far from her. Roy thought; he had his ancestral sword, two Fighter levels, and a secret weapon against a woman who looked like a ninja assassin if anyone looked like a ninja assassin. Excuse me, ma'am, but are you a ninja assassin? It appears you've knocked out two ninja students, so I was wondering if...

Roy replaced any eloquence for a simple, "Hey!" The red-haired ninja turned her head--a pair of triangular clips doing very little to hold her hair in place shook in motion--and stared at the large goat racing toward her. Nobody expects a large goat racing toward them.

It had been a good idea to train the Turk as a fighting goat even if it had originated as a drunken bet, Roy thought. The goat rammed the ninja in the stomach and sent her flying five feet back. Score for the circumstantial bonus for an unexpected weapon. "Help!" Roy called, trusting that some college security would arrive. He drew his eponymous sword in preparation for an attack. Ah, there: two first-year students rushing in from the concealed romantic grove nearby, their clothing in disarray but an axe and halberd at the ready.

The ninja dived into the air and performed a series of impressive acrobatic moves, then vanished in a haze of ninja stealth. Roy hurried to Rei's side (and made sure to re-secure the goat):

"What happened? Are you okay?"

Rei sat up and rubbed her head. "I do not feel well. An assassin, no doubt.--Shinji, are you all right?" She quickly went to him.

"," Shinji muttered incoherently. "Mother...mustn'trunaway..."

"There may be nothing more we can do," Rei said. "Did you see any more than her? I assume she engaged in bribery to have us alone. You must talk to those who took away your friends."

"Yes. I've a goat pen to ask about..." Roy said. "Do you know why? Your family?"

"Most likely, indeed," Rei said. "Shinji also has his future service to a noble house, but it is more probable that her true target was I."

"Then I'll walk you back to the dorms and investigate," Roy said stoutly. An adventure; if there wasn't XP in this he would be surprised. If he achieved third level by the end of the term that was a definite A grade.

Klonja's hospitalized heckler described a red-haired woman in a cloak who had offered 5 gp for the distraction, as did Xerox' challenger. Not the most imaginative of adventuring-hook clues to offer, Roy thought, but then there was also the ninja with the goats. Treachery within Rei and Shinji's own school.

The masked ninja was walking via the mapped path from the goats' field to the guest dormitories; she didn't know where to take the shortcuts yet. Roy jumped out of the hedge and confronted her at the fountain, seeing no shadows for her to leap within.

"Did you leave the gate open?" he demanded.

"Leave me alone! I don't have to talk to you!"

"Then I can talk to your Sensei," Roy retorted. Or was it acceptable in the rules of a ninja school to hire external aid to kill one's fellow students? Well, an obviously nice girl like Rei wouldn't be enrolled in such a school.

"What are you, official Bash U Goat Custodian? You let your stupid goats out, not me." She folded her arms. "Watching you drag them back was hilarious, it's too bad the white one was too stupid to escape. I don't care anyway if you tell Sensei, it's not like you could lower my reputation."

"So, you didn't see who opened the gate?" Roy said. A plot twist: should he believe that the student wasn't guilty? Innocent until proven, of course.

"I shut the gate and even if I didn't you're stupid to make a fuss. Now do I get to go eat your stupid Northern table scraps? That wasn't asking permission, by the way, I'm going."

"Wait!" Roy called, hurrying to catch up with her. "Why were you with the goats?"

"Why do you care?"

"Because I herd them five times a week." Nobody ever told the complete truth to a suspect in interrogation; it was one of the standard rules. "Goats are great!" Their meat, for example, tasted quite nice as a change from the typical beef. Roy had unfortunately gone off their cheese and milk thanks to the production labour involved.

"Yeah? For your information, Northener, I've a druid aunt who keeps sixty of the things in an semi-autonomous eco-friendly collective."

"Oh. You went to look at them to remind you of home?" Roy said.

"No, I went to look at them because I like reminding myself that I don't have to spend another summer holiday swimming in goat shit ever again."

Roy laughed, half against his will. "Heh. You didn't mention who you were..."

The masked ninja had reached the building's shadows, and promptly disappeared. Roy pondered. Perhaps the masked ninja was a diversion and the red-clad ninja worked alone? He'd return to Rei with the knowledge he had and see if it was enough to get a date.

--

"Hurry up, slackers, Nature does not wait and neither should you." Malarina, a fighter and a druid, greeted her students in her usual charming manner. "Today I attempt to beat enough information about these creature types into you so that you might stand a chance against them when you exit to the real adventuring world. But given your thick skulls I have no idea why I bother.

"Also, welcome to our exchange students and enjoy your time here. The Dean wrote that down for me to say. Greenhilt! Unlike the vast majority of your peers--" Roy hated it when teachers spoke along these lines; the vast majority of his peers resented this trait of his, and mentioning it brought him only rejection. "You have been known on occasion to pick up pen and paper for homework. Describe the common gibberling."

"Gibberlings use the Small creature template, they're nocturnal..." He'd attempted to flirt with Rei instead of studying. Roy floundered. "They try to eat adventurers...and...uh..."

"Xerox, finish for him."

Xerox shot Roy an apologetic glance. "They frequent deep forests and underground caverns, they fear bright light, they attack in mobs, and if they use weapons it's usually ordinary short swords or crude bone clubs." He'd a good memory for textbooks.

"Adequate. Have our exchange students seen gibberlings before?" The masked ninja was one of several who raised their hands. "Low-level monsters, but problematic if they mob you. Of course, all of Nature's creatures must be left alone in balance and harmony unless they first attack you. The purity and beauty of the forests are infinitely more important than your experience points." Most students rolled their eyes at that. "Diseased gibberlings, today's subject, are slightly more dangerous. The infection typically gives them a nasty bite attack and Strength bonuses, although they take Constitution damage. Diseased gibberlings, of course, are a pestiferous nuisance that must be destroyed to prevent them from infecting other creatures. And in fact today--"

Malarina pulled a cloth covering from a large cage. A single diseased gibberling chittered inside it, covering its eyes from the daylight. "I procured several for the purposes of instruction. The best technique to defeat a diseased gibberling given the probability of infection, is, of course--"

"High Fort saves?" Klonja volunteered.

"Ranged weapons," Malarina said, scowling. "For today: Greenhilt, Lavender-Smythe--" She had used the hated surname, and Klonja's expression turned to a ferocity unmatched by any bar the most vile princes of hell--"Use the weapons I see you brought to class, and the exchange students can have the privilege of finishing it off." Shuriken appeared from sleeves. "Watch and learn, class. It's a low-level monster but when fifty attack you in a mob you'll need some ideas of how to defeat it." The rest of the class drew back from Roy and Klonja; Malarina broke the cage's lock with a blow of her long quarterstaff, and stepped away from them.

Roy felt cruel, swatting the small gibberling away with the end of his sword; it was like bullying, one small creature against a whole class. These gibberlings were diseased, and Malarina was probably right that they needed to be put down, but he preferred fighting at the field trips or against fellow students. Two shuriken had hit the gibberling already.

There was a scream from behind him. A second large cage; a broken lock--and six gibberlings crowding around Rei.

"Well? Go rescue her, Roy!" Klonja nudged him, and kept at the diseased gibberling herself; she'd easily win.

Rei was brave, and her classmates helped, but the gibberlings seemed focused upon her alone no matter how Roy tried to distract them. She was bitten; Roy saw her fall down, a torrent of stray shuriken slipping from her sleeves like falling silver rain. He killed one gibberling with his ancestral sword, struggling to get to her; Shinji battled another. The class descended into pandemonium.

Four gibberlings went flying in one blow and the tip of Malarina's staff caved the last one's head in a second, tearing Shinji's gi off in the process. "This is why I prefer research. Xerox! Run and get the school cleric, I'll do a quick Neutralise Poison."

Roy bent over Rei. She was a vivid green; Malarina's quickly cast spell seemed to help her, but-- It was terrible to see her like this. The adventure was more than XPs; Rei's life.

"mustn'trunawaymustn'trunawaymustn'trunaway..." Shinji abjectly attempted to encourage her. Roy sighed. Rei pulled away from him, groaning and thrashing, her eyes still closed.

"Give her some air," Malarina said. "(Gods I hate students.)"

Near him on the ground was Shinji's gi. For something to do, Roy picked it up; a small ring fell from it. Malarina saw.

"Don't return that to him just yet, Greenhilt." She turned it over in her hands. "A Ring of Animal Control. Gibberling control, to be precise. I've seen these before." She looked suspiciously at Shinji. "Right, kid. So did you direct the gibberlings to try and murder your classmate?"

"What--" Shinji, a tear leaking from his right eye, stared blankly. "No! Rei--did that ring do this to her? Of course I didn't! She's my friend!"

Roy did not have time to be relieved at that epithet.

"Do you have any druid levels?" Malarina asked.

"No. No!" Shinji said. "I can prove it too!"

"Any druidic relatives?" Malarina twirled the ring around her little finger. Relatives, Roy thought. "Or just a trip down to an Adventurers' Mart could have bought you this."

Rei coughed, threw up, and sat up. Roy drew away from her. "It hurts," she said. "Was it..."

"A Ring of Gibberling Control," Malarina said. "Well, it's none of my business which of you ninjas want to kill each other. Lavender-Smythe, hold back her hair and see she doesn't die waiting for the cleric."

Roy looked to the masked ninja. To his surprise, Shinji was pointing in the same direction.

"Her human auntie came and guest lectured on medicinal herbs once, didn't she?" he said. "She hates you, Rei."

"Wait," Roy said. The ninjas were giving the masked girl a wide berth, open suspicion in their eyes.* "I saw her near my goat gate too--when they got out yesterday and I left to isolate Rei--but that doesn't mean she necessarily..."

*As far as he could tell given their hoods, of course.

Rei, too, was staring at the masked girl. "So you assisted my previous assailant in moving witnesses from the scene, and you use your aunt's abilities to control these creatures. Who hired you?" she demanded. "Some rival of my family with no scruples, I imagine. One willing to consort with your kind."

"Your kind?" Roy repeated, bewildered. "Hey, it's not right to judge people like..."

"What Therkla is we will not say for the honour of our school," Rei said glacially. "But I cannot believe Shinji guilty of this attempt upon my life, and thus I must look to this quarter. Come with the Northerner and I to the cleric, Shinji."

One of the ninja students shoved the masked girl--Therkla. "Too stupid for an assassination?"

"Not so stupid as you, Gendo!" she cried. "I hate you all! You too, Northener! I hate you!"

This was the place for, It was my brilliant plan to frame Shinji to assassinate you, Rei, and if it wasn't for that damned meddling Northener I would've done it too. But she did not say that; she turned and ran, the end of her headscarf blowing in the wind behind her.

Was the plot twist Shinji after all? He was the top ninja student, but the red ninja had knocked him out; had he deliberately made it easy for her? And then it would have been possible for him to use the ring and pretend it had been planted. Or was it Therkla working with the assassin all along? She had been near the open gate and had the druid aunt.

Roy ran after her, hoping for some answers. He didn't listen to Shinji calling him back. His movement speed gradually caught up to hers, the terrain he had run across a hundred times to avoid being late to class; "Wait!" he yelled.

"How dare you assume I wouldn't kill her effectively!"

"Maybe you didn't!" Roy called breathlessly. He was close enough to grasp her scarf, the end of it trailing behind her mask; he reached and grabbed for it. "We can pr--"

It came loose. Dark green hair, a few flashes of paler green skin: Therkla was a half-orc. She reached back and punched him.

"So you think I did it. So just because I'm a half-orc means I--"

Roy sighed. "I never said anything about that. I didn't even know." Making sensible arguments to indignance was not one of his favourite activities.

"Therkla's a half-orc, just as well she wears the mask and gloves and doesn't shame the school, isn't it? She's probably the one leaving red Southern silk in hedges, she's got to be the one doing something against the rules and stupid, blame it on me again--"

"Your teacher seems to think you're salutatorian. It can't be that bad, right?" It was certainly possible she hadn't attacked Rei, and Roy listened for evidence that this was true.

"You have no idea what it's like! They all treat me like a subhuman--I'm obviously not human, but like some dirt on the floor--especially the spoilt brats like Rei, or precious valedictorian Shinji with his stupid reflexes like a cat on a hot +5 tin roof and his stupid job after graduation! Heh, you saw her go green just like me, but nobody called her a monster. Maybe I am--I'll show them all!"

Therkla didn't appear to have taken 'Psychological Stability' as a skill. "Uh, people call me a loser sometimes too," Roy said. He decided to open up himself. His own wounds of social and parental ostracism were near the surface. "I like to read books. It's a geat skill that teaches strategy and many other advantages, but bullies like to steal my books and call me a sissy for not being the standard, big, dumb, fighter with an Int stat equal to the temperature of an Ice Plane."

"Yeah? I keep a diary, and write a poe... I'm not talking to you any longer," Therkla said. Her small tusks quivered briefly in her mouth. "Go away, human, and I'll prove I didn't do it by myself."

--

Times Rei had nearly been assassinated: 2. Times Shinji had been annoying to him: too many to count. Total XP gained from this adventure: one gibberling. (If he hadn't fought the ninja by goat-butting, perhaps... No, she'd have beaten him at her apparent level. He bet Rei and Shinji, if the latter wasn't a collaborator, had gained some XP there.)

It was the last day of the student exchange. The lesson was in the deep catacombs of the college, perhaps an attempt to show off the facilities to the ninja school. Down in the darkness, a fighter had to be prepared to face traps, surprise attacks, and any number of creatures emerging from hidden holes.

In training, of course, any number of creatures amounted to fellow students and captured, low-level monsters. And de Payens-Payme's inability to remember names.

"Yellowshaft, take the dark passage to the left...watch out for ambushes, eh? Don't forget your torch...rule number one..."

"Unless you are trained to operate best in darkness," Sensei Quirkypersonality muttered, and looked quickly around as though to hope the non-atypical grammar had gone unnoticed.

Roy carefully advanced, his sword at the ready. At least one of the ninja students, no doubt, would be his ambush; he held somewhat precariously a lantern to guide him.

"Good afternoon!" Rei's blackjack hit him in greeting. "I do believe that's a point to me, though there is much I owe you for your help." She spun into a ninja crouching position, from which it was likely she could leap into various martial strikes. Roy readied his defences.

"It's the last day," he said. "Is security stronger at your school?"

The flickering shadows of the lantern crossed Rei's face. "Yes, it is easier to infiltrate a school like this rather than a school trained for espionage, so perhaps she'll strike again. Of course, once you locate the infiltrator, your skills are better suited to end the threat." She attacked; Roy used the flat of his blade to fend her off. He could enjoy this. And, it being the last opportunity, the adventure was sure to advance.

"Any more ambushes waiting?" Roy scored a point with the blunted end of his blade.

"Yes. Therkla the assassin." Rei scowled, as usual, when the subject was mentioned. "I would still wager her responsibility, despite hers and your claims. And to attempt to frame Shinji: a foul deed."

"She's--what she is--" And uncooperative as Turk the goat on a very bad day, ungracious, and completely uncommunicative as far as any work she had done on the adventure went. "Keep an open mind, Rei--"

Rumblings in the cavern startled them.

"Is there danger?" Rei whispered to him. Sometimes, Bash U did introduce these sorts of elements for uncertainty. There were a number of explosive potions stored in the basement that should be...two doors down from this particular cave, and used to create earthquake trauma for inspiring the students. He hadn't heard anything about the potions being used today, but...

The walls were coming down, and something hit Roy on the head.* He knew no more.

* Hits on the head have the standard physiological effect of brief and convenient unconsciousness; lingering effects such as brain damage, concussion, internal bleeding, or skull fractures are extremely rare and scoffed at by all reputable clerics. Please consult your local cleric if you think you are experiencing these problems.

He woke with a slab of rock across his right leg. "Rei!" She did not answer. "Rei? Are you all right? " The lantern was out. There was no light. He blinked; he would have to get accustomed to the darkness.* Where had the lantern fallen? Somewhere to the left of him. If he could find the lantern, he could light it, and then he would not be alone in the dark. His leg was the loss of at least ten hit points; he could feel his toes, but was unable to pry the masonry from his body. The lantern--the tinder was still on his body, easily reachable. If he could just find the lantern-- His grip rested on limp flesh. It horrified him; he snatched his hand away. He thought better, and reached back to see if it retained a pulse. Yes; Rei was alive still.

* Sometimes it is plot convenient for heroes to see in the darkness without resorting to darkvision or a cumbersome light carried alongside their weapons. This is not one of those times.

The lantern, the lantern, the lantern. His fingers at last found the edge of its string, his arm stretching to the breaking point of his tendons. He tried to grab it, but could not attain a firm purchase; strained his muscles, and grunted heavily until it occurred to him that someone might overhear.

"Looking for this?" a deep voice said. A weight hit his stomach. "Actually, she'll probably notice it if you light it. She shouldn't have Darkvision."

"Therkla!" Roy strained against the masonry pinning him down. "You came!"

"Don't make me regret it, Northener. I'm only doing this to prove that, when I want to kill Rei, I'll do it quickly. She's hurt, but she's not going to die now unless someone helps her along." A potion bottle was placed to his mouth. "Hurry up. I don't have any more of these."

Roy thought that he was trusting her that it was a healing potion, and swallowed anyway. Yes. His leg felt better despite the huge weight pressing down on him. "Help?" he asked again.

"Oh, you assume I've got a high Strength score just because I'm a half-orc?"

"...Frankly, yes." The masonry came free when they lifted together.

"Shut up. No, actually, start planning and do it fast, Greenhilt." It was the first time the ninja had called him by name.

"What have you found out?" Roy whispered.

"She left red fragments of her costume all over the place and took up a third violin chair in the Fighters' Orchestra," Therkla said. Bash U's traditional bardic celebrations of students and former students' achievements always required new musicians for some combat-related injury or another. Roy had had creative disagreements with the band upon musical genre. "She's obviously a medium high level ninja, possibly some wizard levels... And describing her has brought her right behind me, hasn't it?"

"Goot day," Roy heard spoken in an accent resembling dwarven speech. Therkla fell.

Roy thrust his sword forward; his blade met a second, deflecting his attack. He shifted his position to stand over Rei.

"Who are you? Why?" He could hope to delay her at most, and then see if the school cleric could resurrect him--unlikely that the assassin would leave the means for the same for Rei.

"You will please get out of the way, my little fighter. I had you removed from the scene once; nobody is paying for your death."

"So I take it my father didn't hire you," Roy muttered under his breath in a free action. He could barely see her; Rei lay below his feet, the heel of his boot touching a flaccid leg. He saw the assassin moving again through the dark.

"You're great! I want to be your apprentice instead of this stupid school!" Therkla called out from the ground, weak-voiced but clinging to her few positive hit points. "How did you do it?"

She's not going to buy that. She's not going to b-- Roy thought.

"Well, thank you, kid. I'm Asuka. You see, I was hired by Daimyo Nonamezaki to kill old Daimyo Anonyzaki's granddaughter and frame Kubota's intern for it, so Nonamezaki could block an alliance between them, so the first attempt, ..."

Bluff was clearly a class skill Therkla had invested some points into. Roy understood this was an inappropriate time to speculate on her Charisma, and refrained from attempting to remember the dimensions of her physical details.

"I bribed a few and opened the gate, to get rid of the Northern witnesses, which I thought was quite clever of me, then I thought I could make it look like the kids had killed each other in a dramatic stand-off. If it wasn't for that damned meddling goat I would've done it too," the assassin said.

Yes, definitely the villain here.

"Then I got into the laundry and hid my spare Ring of Gibberling Control I picked up from the Adenturers' Mart in Kubota's intern's outfit, where I knew it would be found sooner or later in any death investigation. I'd snapped the lock on the second gibberling cage and just had to wait for the right moment. If that blasted meddling teacher hadn't been so quick with the Neutralise Poison I would've won too."

Ah, villain's exposition. Roy had a sudden flash of hope that this was close to a level-appropriate encounter.

"And then I set off the entire stock of potions of explosion to create the earthquake, cast a Darkvision spell on myself, got Nonamezaki's granddaughter alone, knocked out Shinji here and used a belt of Giant strength to drag him along take the blame..." There was a sound of something heavy dropped, probably Shinji's body hitting the ground.

The assassin had cast a spell to see in the dark. Like Therkla the half-orc should also be able to see better in the dark than a human, if Roy recalled the rules correctly.

"Wow, you've really shed some light on this." Roy said, placing a slight emphasis upon the third last word. He hoped Therkla would understand his idea.

"So, now that's over, I'll be stabbing the brat and..."

"Command!"

Rei, suddenly awakening, shrieking out a cleric spell from her shugenja level. It gave Roy a single extra second to light the lantern: let the sudden brightness distract the assassin's Darkvision. In that brief moment he was grateful to see Therkla had covered her eyes with her hands.

Asuka struck. The light disappeared again and Roy blundered in the sudden darkness. Therkla-- Yes, Therkla* had leaped to the assassin's back, grappling her in the dark; for that moment Asuka's Darkvision must have been disrupted and Therkla's not, as he'd attempted to plan. (He'd been working to pressure; it didn't have to be a good plan.) Roy hurried to fight as best he could.

* One of the first combat maxims Roy had committed to memory: if there is one hit point left, a foe should be regarded as equally dangerous as if they have one thousand hit points left.

"I think we defeated her," Therkla said after a while. "I lied about having no healing potions left, Greenhilt. Grab the one hidden in my leggings, please. Soon."

The fight--Roy wasn't sure how many times he had hit the assassin, or what disabling equipment Therkla might have used in her own attack. He could feel the stiff red suit on a body lying on the ground; they'd knocked the assassin out on an overhanging rock, most likely. He could feel the dinging of XP. Therkla lay next to her, Roy felt ("That's not my leg, by the way"); he retrieved Therkla's potion, lit the lantern, and began to wait for the college staff to come and find them. Rei had collapsed again; Shinji also made no standard movements. Therkla sat up, stretching out her body beside Roy. For a while neither spoke.

Roy thought back upon the experience points. "D' you think you've learned anything from this adventure?" he asked sanctimoniously. "Besides broadening my knowledge in school, I suppose I've learned, or had it reinforced, that nobody should be judged on their appearance."

:"That's very amusing, Greenhilt." The ninja adjusted her elbow, twisting it both forwards and backwards. It didn't look particularly pleasant.

There was a pause. "Klonja's part-elf," Roy said optimistically. "I realize it's not the same, but she doesn't let stupid teasing bother her..."

Therkla shook back her long green hair. "You think I should shove it into all their stupid faces? Maybe...that's not such a bad idea."

This was one step toward self-acceptance. Roy decided not to challenge the reasoning behind it. "You have nice hair." And she had tusks, but they lent a certain individuality to her mouth; her features were heavy compared to a human, but well-shaped.

Therkla sniffed in disdain. "Before this temporary bonding as a result of life-threatening danger gets any further, I prefer blondes," she said.

"Well, I like brunettes," Roy said defensively. "Some blondes too, though. Maybe someday I'll rescue some fairy princess and..."

"They're Small-sized. You're a creepy tiny-tracker." Therkla stuck out a pink tongue at him.

"Oh. Well, there goes that dream."

Sounds of tunneling rescue met them.

--

The ninja students departed as scheduled, Therkla's green ponytail flaring behind her like a kite's bold flight. Rei approached him, fresh and recovered.

"Thank you for saving my life, Sir Greenhilt." She offered Roy her hand. "Shinji and I alike owe you the debt."

"That's fine. Therkla did a lot of it," Roy said.

"Oh," Rei answered. "To another matter, Roy, you seem an attractive boy. I thought that you seemed...interested, before. I'm sorry, but I would like to make it clear to you that I am under an oath of celibacy, if you wanted to go out with me."

"No, that's fine. You're not the first girl who's said that line to me," Roy said truthfully. Rei was very pretty; but she was on her way home, and the speciesism was a major turnoff.

"Then we shall depart. Come, Shinji."

"Nice meeting you all. Let's run away now!" Shinji flashed Roy--and Klonja--a brief grin.

Asuka the assassin was struggling in chains, being deported back to her homeland with the school. "If it wasn't for you damned meddling kids I'd have won...I'll have my revenge, you damned little half-orc..."

Therkla watched her being dragged away, a small smile visible upon her face. "A rival of my very own. I feel almost like a PC."

"Thanks, Therkla. Good luck with everything," Roy said.

"I've revised my career plan," she said. "I'm going to take everything from Rei and Shinji and replace him as valedictorian, then I'll steal his career with that noble, train and command my own personal squad of ninjas, and fight for everything I want. I won't let my creature type hold me back any more."

"Well...take care," Roy said, deciding not to preach against ninja career paths, not at this last second. "Maybe we'll meet again sometime."

"Not likely," Therkla said.

--

end