After all that had happened since they arrived, it seemed surreal to return to class.
The mages were teachers themselves now, but they had not completed their college courses, so they resumed learning the mundane subjects as before. Some were able to pick it right back up, while others struggled. It didn’t ultimately matter how well or poorly they did with their classwork, though. They had nothing but time, and there was no tuition to worry about. They weren’t learning for the purpose of career advancement or whatever reason they had been attending college.
They were learning because the very real possibility that they would be here forever had occurred to them. They might never return to Earth. They might be here forever. If that was the case, they would need to know all they could learn, and more. They had to build something at least superficially resembling a civilization, and prepare for the inevitable future generations to live in that civilization.
It was easier now. The forest was taking better than anticipated to the introduction of a food chain. It seemed to be going too well to be true, but some people had their suspicions that the efforts were being influenced by something other than the campus mages – exactly what that might be was a point some people disagreed on.
A few new buildings had appeared, in much the same manner as the Campus Housing had. Some included numerous fully-furnished classrooms. Others included various facilities to aid in day-to-day life (many had missed, for instance, taking showers, and one kitchen had hardly been enough for the entire campus). The new buildings looked mostly similar to the original campus buildings, except cleaner and more expensively constructed and furnished, and appearing in many cases to be larger on the inside than they were on the outside, which itself was expected by now. No new people had turned up, and it wasn’t really clear whether that was a good thing or a bad thing.
Fallor hadn’t been heard from in the weeks since his stronghold vanished. The other mages hoped that meant he wasn’t coming back.
“Oh, he’ll be back for sure,” Tom had said, in response to that idea.
Tom and Lee hadn’t been seen lately, either. When asked what they were up to, Nick shrugged and replied, “Planeswalker stuff, I guess.” None of the people they associated with – which in Tom’s case was a huge chunk of the campus – knew any more than that.
Nick had taken on far more work than he could handle to help keep things on track. Maytee had her hands full as well, but now it looked like they might get a break. With each new building, there were some resources, and the workload could be spread out a little bit more. Most of the more powerful mages had been able to secure a laboratory for themselves, as opposed to the previous setup, working out of abandoned rooms and the not-usually-sufficient labs in the science buildings. These new laboratories were fully stocked, even containing networked computers, and research consequently became more efficient, freeing up the assistants for other things.
Alex had taken to scouting the buildings when he was able. He usually had no other way to kill time when he wasn’t hunting, and he was good at it. It wasn’t the most entertaining activity, but he did get the first look inside and sometimes there was actually something interesting. Other mages would lend him support from time to time, usually in the form of summoned creatures; Zeke’s squirrels were particularly efficient. Occasionally one of the mages would actually join Alex. This was partly because they were fond of their mascot, but also more than a little because it was something that they could relax while doing and still say it was important.
Five weeks after the fight with Fallor, the buildings had spread to the edges of the potrero and part of the way down the slope.
It was now evident that the phenomenon was not going to stop, and investigating these seriously became a higher priority. A rotation was established. Searching the buildings would still be Alex’s job most of the time, but he would now be accompanied by two other mages on each trip. A system of reporting with mobile devices had been worked out. Zeke nearly raised an objection to using things that shouldn’t plausibly work without access to Earth’s Internet services or communications satellites and towers, but held his tongue.
The next building, to be examined by Zeke, Chebon, and Alex, had, to some surprise, appeared in the forest, just at the edge. It was actually close enough to the cliff to jump onto the roof – though, rather than risk it, they walked over a magical floor. A permanent physical bridge would have to be erected later, Zeke noted. From here, they were able to take an elevator down. It would make a much faster way to get to the forest than by walking, and a much easier way than by descending the cliff face.
They examined one floor at a time, splitting up at any point where it would be convenient, rejoining when it was time to travel down a floor. It seemed to be another laboratory building, but this one was different. Instead of the pristine, well-stocked, unused labs in previous buildings, this one seemed rundown, with a half-finished experiment in nearly every room, and plants and fungi growing out of cracks all over. Alex thought briefly about a movie this reminded him of before dismissing the notion.
As he inspected each laboratory, Chebon began to worry. There was something wrong about this place, more than anything they had seen yet. He couldn’t quite place it, but it was unnerving. Though the obvious differences from other buildings seemed harmless enough, he had a sense of something here to be feared.
Reaching the third floor after long, careful searches of each floor above, Alex noted there was no light showing through the window. It might have been the location, far below the canopy and shielded by the cliff, but by their best estimates night had fallen.
“What do you think?” he asked the others. “Should we go on and finish, or head back?”
“It’s just three more floors,” Zeke said. “We might as well be thorough.”
Chebon nodded. “No need to be hasty,” he added.
They parted ways here again. This floor had corridors in three directions from the elevator; Alex took the left path, Zeke the right, and Chebon headed down the middle.
As Zeke entered what looked like yet another laboratory – how many did this make? Surely there were enough now for anyone on campus who could be interested and more – he paused, ear twitching in the direction of a faint noise. It sounded like breathing. Cautiously, he eased into the room and crept to a counter. Peering behind it, he saw something that looked vaguely like a large green canine.
And, at approximately the same time, something that looked vaguely like a large green canine saw him.
Chebon and Alex received the message simultaneously. It read:
“Help it’s got my”
There was no more. Fortunately, neither had traveled too far from the elevator. Returning to where Zeke had gone was not difficult. Several doors down, they could hear the sounds of a struggle. They burst in to find something that looked vaguely like a very large green canine, nearly as big as a human, with its jaw locked upon Zeke’s tail. Zeke, for his part, was now suspended off the floor, and looked to be in a lot of pain; the dog had leapt onto the counter.
Alex wasted no time casting his spell, causing a small fireball to erupt under the dog’s belly. Zeke winced at the heat, but was held just outside the flames. The dog caught fire, part of its midsection seeming to burn away. Abruptly, however, the fire extinguished, and the damaged area regenerated. The dog seemed to grow in response. “Mossdog,” Chebon noted. “It’ll just get bigger with each spell. Can you banish it or something?”
“Not with Zeke where he is, I’d catch him with it,” Alex replied. Zeke tried to turn himself to face the dog, but there was no gaining a good angle on it. Suddenly, violently, it began shaking him. He let out a yell of pain and fear. The thing was going to break him, and anything they could do would only make the situation worse.
Midway through, Zeke’s yell began to change. It took on a strange, subhuman quality, and in a swift motion, he raked at the dog, sciurine claws lashing viciously at it. This drew the intended reaction, and it released him. He wasn’t through with it yet; he hit the ground and immediately pushed off, angling himself toward the dog’s underbelly and thrusting an arm into its soft, mossy exterior. This failed to incapacitate or apparently even seriously hurt the thing, and he dropped back onto the counter, sliding out of sight behind it.
“Now!” Alex yelled, casting another spell, and in a flash, the dog was gone.
“Hey, uh, you okay back there?” Chebon called, approaching the counter. He got an answer moments later, when Zeke reemerged, jumping onto the counter with a wild expression on his face. For a moment, the room was silent and still. Then, without warning, Zeke propelled himself toward Chebon, striking him and causing him to stumble back. Chebon managed to block the main impact, but there was now a bleeding cut on his arm.
“What the hell was that for?” Chebon demanded. “We just came to save your life!” Zeke showed no sign of comprehension, but made a harsh hissing noise, taking a few steps toward Chebon, who took a few steps back in response.
“If it’s going to go that way,” Chebon said, “fine.” He placed one hand on the ground in front of him, and another hand reached up from the ground next to Zeke and grabbed his leg. This was followed by another hand, and another, some stretching forth from surfaces, some appearing from thin air, all grasping at Zeke until he was restrained. Zeke shrieked and thrashed, but couldn’t pull free.
“I’d like to make a suggestion,” Alex chimed in.
“What would that be?”
“Get the hell out of here, now.”