The Gauntlet: Chapter 4

Chapter 4

 

“Huh,” Alicia said, turning to Yoctoha. “Did you know libraries had rooms like this?”

The other woman shook her head. The room itself was small and sparsely furnished, with a pair of wooden bunk beds inscribed with Logotheurgic formulae to protect against rot, termites and other assorted dangers to wood. There was a table that doubled as a washstand, some shelves and several pegs on the wall. All in all, four people could sleep in here in almost-comfort, provided they didn’t mind knowing the color of each other’s undergarments.

As Seraphine suspected Alicia and Yoctoha not only knew what each other’s undergarments looked like, but what they smelled, felt and tasted, the two Anaydi women probably wouldn’t have too many difficulties. Seraphine, for her part, was reminded of the oven-like bunk in the Messiarki embassy, only not as confining, and possibly not as clean. Putting down her haversacks, she leaned against a wall and narrowing her eyes, beginning her meditation to change her magic. “Let me clean this place first,” she said. “Just to be sure.”

“Good idea,” Yoctoha agreed, glancing at the slim, thick window, the glass distorted but relatively clear, at the pounding rain beyond. “I guess I better go outside and see to that leak in the roof,” she said as a mild pink glow wrapped around her.

“I’ll help,” Alicia volunteered, and Seraphine rolled her eyes at the way they held hands before closing them all the way.

Scien had been the one to lead them here after taking them to what seemed every other library in the city. It was a small library maintained by a local family for the education of local magi containing materials that their masters couldn’t be bothered to keep around, such as books detailing the anatomies of various species, general logosi formulae, books on metallurgy, history, chemistry, alchemy and for some reason a whole shelf on the different kinds of alcoholic spirits. There, Scien had quietly spoken with one of the librarians, and some money had changed hands before they had been led to the back to the rooms. There were four other rooms like this, one occupied by the men and a third by another group of Shardessi hopefuls.

“Some libraries have these,” Scien had explained. “Visitors rooms, for people who know about them. Librarians keep in touch to tell each other what books they have, and sometimes a librarian or Logotheurgist shows up to study a rare volume. If you’re trustworthy, they let you stay here so you can keep reading it, though sometimes you need to assist in the library as well. Besides the coin, which I’ll be collecting later, we have to go up and fix a leak in the roof. Plus someone has to cook.” He and Warf were down in the kitchens, already getting things started.

After aligning herself back to Pyrotheurgy– her uses of Aquatheurgy the previous days hadn’t been enough to significantly diminish her affinity– she went at the bunks one by one with heat but no flame to drive out or kill any insects, ticks or diseases lingering in the pallets. These were musty and a far cry from the clean-smelling mattress in the Messiarki embassy. That had felt so clean she had felt guilty getting into it.

By the time she had finished, the two other women had come down from the roof, drenched to the bone and in dire need of warmth. Yoctoha and Alicia had stripped and wrapped in a blanket and towel in front of the fire by the time Seraphine came down, having finished sterilizing the men’s beds as well. They had stopped shivering by then, and the smell of bread was filling the kitchen as Warf and Scien baked and discreetly ignored the women. At the table, Wade was examining one of his shortshots, oiling the mechanism with a fine brush. The three librarians who ran the buildings, Mistresses Leigh, Eila and Paio, were absent, likely making sure the books in their charge had no other leaks on the roof to worry about.

“What a racket,” Seraphine commented, listening to the sound outside. The wind had risen, and it had the makings of a decent storm. “I’m glad we weren’t caught in the road by this. Speaking of which, where’s our sea folk?”

“Out,” Wade said dryly. “I doubt a little wet like this is really going to inconvenience her. She and our tall dark sister went to buy her a belt pouch. And likely a belt, while they’re at it.”

Seraphine sighed. “That woman… I wouldn’t have thought she’d be so flighty.”

Wade put away the brush and bottle of oil, taking another tool and cleaning the barrel. “In my experience, Messiarki take their responsibilities very seriously, in comparison. Perhaps she sees it as seeing to our companion’s needs,” he said. “After all, she is literally naked and owns all of three things. Had she not been so enthusiastic in attending to it, I suppose I myself would be out there trying to help our Nereid rise from such destitution.”

Seraphine let out a huff, walking over to the clothes strung in a line in front of the over to take advantage of the heat and began using her Pyrotheurgy to heat the air around them to dry them faster. “Still,” she said, then faltered as she groped for something to say.

“I think Nyneth is very lucky to have met Sorce,” Alicia said, gently joining the conversation as she adjusted the cloak around her and turned her legs to warm up the other side. “Imagine how lonely she would have been if she hadn’t met someone who could speak her language.”

“Imagine how much danger she would have been if she’d met someone who would take advantage of her,” Warf commented darkly. The baking done, he was cutting up roots for their dinner. “She would not even be able to accuse the guilty, should they not murder her afterwards. Her magic, whatever it might be, might not be the sort she can use to protect herself.”

“She has claws,” Seraphine felt compelled to point out. “I’ve heard they can use those to cut through ship’s line as thick as my wrist. She can protect herself if she needed.”

“Still, I’m glad she’s with us!” Yoctoha declared as Scien did unknowable things in a bowl with herbs and other things she wasn’t too sure about. Seraphine’s cooking knowledge got only as far as ‘gut and roast’. “I’ve never met a Nereid before three days ago. Maybe I’ll be able to talk to her tonight, with Sorce’s help. Living in the sea must be very interesting! I bet they never have to worry about storms in the sea.”

“No, just sharks,” Seraphine said. Yoctoha laughed as if she’d said something funny.

The door to the kitchen opened, and Mistress Leigh stuck in her head, sniffing at the air before entering. “Oh my, that smells lovely,” she said. A broad-faced woman with surprisingly long and fine fingers, she was the most senior of the librarians, her plain blue hair trailing in a braid at her back. “What else are you cooking, dear?”

“We bought some peppers and potatoes on the way here, and one of our companions gave me some dried meat,” Scien said. “I think with the right sauce I can get it to soften a little. I’m sorry for taking over your kitchen Mistress Leigh.”

She twirled away his objections. “Any excuse not to cook,” she said as thunder rumbled. “Oh my. I hope our other guests make it back here safely. This is what comes of drinking in taverns during the day.”

“I am sure they will all be fine, mistress,” Wade said, discreetly putting away his weapon. “If as you say they are here for the Gauntlet as well, then they would not let a little drizzle like this deter them.”

On cue, something thumped heavily at the back door of the kitchen, the one that lead outside. Wade rose to answer but with a yelp Yoctoha snapped up one hand, a flat pane of vene coming into being in the middle of the room and extending to cut it in half. “Sorry!” she said. “”But I didn’t want to lose any heat on this side! Open it quickly!”

Wade reached the door just as a second strangely-heavy thump knocked on it and opened it smoothly. Immediately several barbed tentacles oozed in through the door, their lengths filled with gnashing teeth, fanged suckers and bulbous, wildly spinning eyes all swirling randomly over their lengths. As Wade stumbled back in surprise, hands darting for holsters, Alicia threw off her blanket, golden vene gathering in her hands in the shape of a massive sword as she fell into a defensive stance, her towel fluttering to the ground as Seraphine let out a scream, a ball of fire appearing in her hands. Balls of pink vene appeared around Yoctoha, ready to throw as Warf smoothly drew his sword, moving to stand in front of Mistress Leigh. The door swung completely open, to reveal a writhing mass of tentacles blocking the view of the world outside, more and more of the things streaming in through the door and latching on to floor, wall and ceiling.

“Hello Mistress Leigh!” every gnashing jaw said cheerfully, sounding like some otherworldly chorus as eyes upon eyes focused on the librarian. “We’re back!”

“Nyarlat!” a vaguely familiar female voice cried. “Change back, you’re scaring the poor woman!”

The words came from the center of the swirling mass, which parted in disgusting ways to reveal five cloaked figures. One of the cloaks was bright pink.

“Oh!” the pink-cloaked figure said, one hand snapping up in greeting. “Hey! I remember you guys! Nice to see you again! Oh my, you seem very excited to see us.”

Alicia gave a yelp and her sword faded as she dove for her cloak and towel, a sphere of golden vene coalescing into opacity around her.

As the five stepped into the kitchen, the mass of jaws, tentacles and eyes nauseously oozed in through the door, the sound of the wind and rain flowing in with it briefly before a mass of tentacles pushed the door shut. The center of mass of the tentacles blurred, becoming a screaming vortex of transparent, fluid magic as the tentacles were pulled into it, jagged teeth and pussy eyes all melting into an oozing heap of flesh before it all became a of ball of energy that, with a swirl, became a naked young woman with long silver hair.

“Hello!” she greeted. “Ooh, that bread smells good!”

Wordlessly, one of the cloaked figures took off their cloak, revealing a young man with dark brown hair, and with a practiced motion swung it around to wrap around the naked woman’s shoulders. “Nyarlat, let’s get you upstairs,” he said mildly. “We need to get you into some clothes.”

“Can we come together on the bed?” Nyarlat asked brightly.

“Not right now, Nyarlat,” he said.

“Kadae!” Nyarlat whined.

“And promise you’ll never agree to that kind of bet again.” Kadae directed a disapproving glare at Cera, who was wiping her face with her own cloak.

“What?” Cera said, smiling brightly. “It’s a perfectly legitimate bet! Besides, we’re Skinwalkers! Worrying about nudity is for other people!”

“Then you do it,” Kadae said.

“All right,” Cera said, beginning to undo her bodice.

“Not in my kitchen, you won’t!” Warf and Mistress Leigh said simultaneously. The latter raised an eyebrow at him and he shrugged, gesturing towards the bowl on the table.

“I’ll leave you to it,” Kadae said as he herded a pouting Nyarlat towards the upstairs rooms.

“I have to ask,” Seraphine said tersely, “were all the tentacles really necessary? I thought it was a Souling coming after Warf.”

“Heh he, sorry,” the woman in the pink cloak said as she pulled it off her. “Nyarlat’s just like that. We weren’t trying to scare you. Peace?” She made a two-fingered gesture at Seraphine. Seraphine just gave her an unamused glare.

Mistress Leigh sighed. “Honestly Immilunelire, it’s too depressing a day for a scare like this. I do not mind a little excitement, but I must confess… that was one of the most disturbing, skin-crawling things I have ever seen in my life.”

“If it makes you feel any better Leigh, imagine how it was for us who had to walking inside it,” the last woman, obviously Immilunelire said, combing her light-green hair with her fingers to straighten it. “She means well, but her execution could use some work.” Looking around, she nodded at everyone. “Immilunelire Cheriode Merctrin, librarian and Symbol of Faith, at your service,” she said in a lilting accent by way of introduction. “Are you here for the Gauntlet as well?”

Introductions were made as the strangers shed their cloaks and squeezed the water out of them before hanging them in front of the fire to dry. Besides Cera, Anarkhia was also there, looking a bit hollow-eyed at being surrounded by Nyarlat, muttering a bit about the eyes on the walls. The person in the pink cloak introduced herself as “Marissa Suarez, Symbol of Love, Champion of Truth and Justice!”.

“She’s harmless,” Immilunelire said when everyone looked at her.

“I am not harmless, I am a champion of Love!” Marissa declared. “All who oppose me shall fall to my lovely love of loveliness!”

“Mostly harmless,” Immilunelire amended with a sigh. Still, she looked sideways at her companion warily.

“Oh, stop looking at me like that,” Marissa said, not turning around. “Everyone knows letting the crazy out in little bits keeps you from going really crazy for a lot longer.”

“I didn’t say anything!” Immilunelire said.

“Yes, and you said it very loudly,” Marissa said. “What’s to eat?”

“Suddenly, I miss the days when the Messiarki was the only one who seemed strange,” Seraphine muttered.

Immilunelire’s head snapped up, her eyes bright. “What was that about a Messiarki?” she asked, suddenly sounding eager.

“Oh, we told you about her, didn’t we?” Cera said, seating herself next to Yoctoha and Alicia in front of the fire, the latter still crimson from her sudden nudity. “I guess they mean the one we met in Schezanar. Tall thing, kept her hood up all the time, had only one color to her clothes.”

“All Messiarki are tall,” Immilunelire said. “Something about how their diet and medicine work.”

Seraphine blinked, her interest perked. “They have medicines to make you taller?”

Immilunelire shrugged. “I’m not sure,” she said. “I didn’t really understand it very well when it was explained to me. But all Messiarki I’ve met have been pretty tall.” Her lips quirked as if at a fond memory. “Well-built too.”

The men coughed. “No comment,” Wade said.

Immilunelire looked around. “Is she here?” she asked eagerly. “I’d really love to meet her. Messiarki seldom leave Rondiumiun or their embassies when they’re away from Messiark. Is this one a mage as well?”

“Tenebræist, as far as we can make out,” Seraphine said. “Though she’s awfully stingy about it.”

Surprisingly, Immilunelire nodded. “Yes, I’ve noticed they’re a little reticent when it comes to magic. It’s strange, given how much they use it in those embassies of theirs. I suspect they use some kind of alchemy to make those fabrics they sell.”

“You are not the first,” Wade said. “I have a brother who thinks they’re some sort of chramecirum glass. ”

There was a knock on the door.

For a moment, everyone paused. Warf drew his sword as both Alicia and Yoctoha materialized vene in the air, Alicia’s having a more arrow-shaped design than Yoctoha’s. Seraphine called fire to her hand.

Wade rolled his eyes at them but held one of his shortshots in hand as he opened the door, quickly stepping back so as not to be caught by it. Sorce stepped inside, her cloak dripping wet as she and a naked and absolutely soaked Nyneth walked into the room. The former paused momentarily as she saw everyone’s weapons and magic, even as they sheepishly relaxed. “I see you have already heard,” Sorce said as she set down a cloth-wrapped bundle and took off her cloak. “I am unsure as to the protocol in this situation. Must we make special preparations?”

Scien frowned. “What are you talking about?”

“Several bodies had been seen floating in the river,” Sorce said dispassionately. “They were likely the victims of flooding. However, rumor has spread that at least one of the bodies has found recently mutilated, their internal organs and significant portions of their rib cage missing while their limbs were relatively whole. If this were correct, then at least one of the corpses has undergone Random Auto Revival Mutateous Carnivore Phenomenon.”

The term meant nothing to Seraphine, but the description seemed relevant. “One of the corpses became a Souling?” Warf asked sharply.

Sorce paused, then slowly nodded. “I suppose. I am unfamiliar with the terminology. But if it has, then we had best be cautious and secure the premises while the matter is dealt with.”

Cera was already on her feet. “Someone help me check the library’s doors and windows,” she said. “No, not you Immi. The Souling might sniff you out. The same to you Marissa.”

Marissa snorted. “Fuck that! The snot wants Symbol power, I’ll give it Symbol power! Right up its–” The word she used was unfamiliar, but she made a vague gesture that suitably got the point across.

Sorce blinked, glancing at the two women. “Why would the Phenomenon Carnivore… the ‘Souling’ be of particular concern to them?” she asked.

Everyone stared at her except for Nyneth, who was dripping on the floor and sniffing the air. Seraphine finally noticed what looked like a chain secured by a carabiner had been wrapped loosely around her hips, the bottle with the bit of paper in it with her admission letter pulling it to one side. A wooden box hung from the other a simple clasp keeping it shut. By its orientation and shape, it looked like a hard belt pouch of some sort. Her feet, too were no longer bare. What looked like pads of leather secured by soft leather words to a loop above her ankle served as sandals for her wide, hand-like feet, the long toes occasionally flexing outward and pulling taut the folds of skin between them. So she had found a way to get around cobbler…

It dawned on Seraphine this must be another of those ‘gaps’ of the Messiarki’s. “Because Soulings are drawn to Symbols,” Seraphine finally said. “Shouldn’t you know that? I mean, it sounds like you have them in Messiark too, even if it is under a ridiculously long name.”

“We have them,” Sorce said patiently. “But until this moment, we did not know they were drawn to Symbols in particular, only that they would seem to focus and attack on particular individuals over others. This information explains why.”

“Perhaps we should discuss this later and focus on securing,” Warf said pointedly.

“Oh, go check your bread,” Seraphine said, jerking her head at Sorce. “You, come with me, we need to secure upstairs.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll protect you,” Anarkhia said, grinning.

Warf sighed. “I’ll go back to cooking, shall I?”

There were no Soulings hiding upstairs to maul them.

“As there appears to be no reason for haste, may I ask what a Souling is, exactly?” Sorce asked, her shineless black eyes returning to their usual state as she finished looking through the walls of the library. “And do you think we should inform Mistress Leigh about the skeleton in the hollow behind the attic wall?”

“Maybe on our way out, just in case she put it there,” Seraphine said. “I thought you’d know all about Soulings, ridiculously long name or not?”

“I know only they randomly happen between three to forty hours of death unless significant portions of the torso is destroyed,” Sorce said. “And that they seem to attack specific people.”

“Latent Symbols,” Seraphine said. She smiled grimly. “Soulings are born from dead latent Symbols and feed on other latent Symbols. Usually ones they’ve killed. They grow stronger from devouring their power.”

Sorce tilted her head. “How is that possible? What sort of mechanism is–”

“Damned if I know,” Seraphine said. “It just happens. We have to deal with it.”

“Functional and prosaic, albeit lacking in introspection,” Sorce commented.

“Well, it works for me,” Seraphine said primly. “Now let’s go down before they eat everything.”

The meal was a loud affair. There wasn’t enough room in the kitchen for all of them, so they ate on one of the library tables, with the three librarians giving stern injunctions not to spill anything. Yoctoha and Alicia lit the area with venelights, the alternating pink and golden lights casting strangely-colored shadows. Seraphine saw Sorce standing around a group of pink venelights manipulating her equally pink shadow on the floor. When she caught Seraphine watching her with an amused smirk, Messiarki stoicism or no, the expression on her face could only have been embarrassment.

The food was warm and crusty bready, and a sort of hash that Warf had made by throwing everything they had brought into a pan and adding spices to it. It was surprisingly good, especially on the bread. There was no shortage of cold water for them to drink, though Seraphine grumbled at how this was decaying her fire affinity. Sorce as usual sat back and ate her food with mechanical efficiency, and Nyneth ate slowly with an air of mild suspicion about what she was being asked to eat with the two only occasionally exchanging song-like tones in the Nereidi tongue.

Through the meal, Seraphine noticed Immilunelire kept darting sideways at the two, and more than once tried to pull Sorce into the conversation. The responses she got were the same sort of bland rudeness Seraphine had become familiar with followed by immediate focus back at the food, but Immilunelire didn’t seem offended. In fact, more of people’s attention was drawn to Nyarlat, who had the very rude tendency of causing her arm, a clump of her hair, or even just random spots on her head or arms to sprout tentacles when she wanted to reach for something across the table, such as more bread or the water pitcher. At each instance Kadae, seated next to her, would gently chide her and she would cheerfully retract the appendages, but after a while she’d slip and do it again.

Mistress Leigh looked mildly exasperated by the hijinks, but Mistress Paio, a tall, long-limbed woman in trousers, blouse and waistcoat just laughed and asked Nyarlat eagerly about the physiological structures she was using for the tentacles. A Vitatheurgist, she was apparently an authority on the fauna and flora, such as it was, of the caverns of the Empty Range, and was often consulted by her ilk or Anthrowymi about their unique anatomical features. Seraphine found herself rudely jotting down notes, adding to her scant physiological data as the woman expounded on the so-called swimming bat that were found in the deeper caverns. Wade for his part was in conversation with Mistress Eila over the hunting prospects he had observed on their way to the town. Something about the ducks, as far as Seraphine could make out.

Anarkhia, surprisingly, had managed to begin a conversation with Nyneth, using Sorce as an intermediary. The two seemed to be flexing their hands and comparing their claws, and from what Sorce was translating the two were having a discussion on the kind of whetstones they used to groom themselves. Seraphine was mildly impressed by how Sorce managed to continue eating with the two of them talking through her.

Seraphine ate quietly, keeping unnoticed through the conversation from a lifetime of practice. With all her sister’s accomplishments, she had long since learned how to maintain an ignorable presence during mealtime conversation, how to be present enough not to cause comment yet ignored enough not to draw attention. It was harder than people thought. She got the feeling Cera seemed to notice what she was doing, if her long looks at Seraphine were any indicator, but the woman said nothing, apparently respecting Seraphine’s desire not to be part of the conversation.

After the meal had been finished and the dishes cleaned, there seemed little to do but listen to the roar of the wind and rain. It was turning into a real storm. Was it an omen of some sort? Seraphine had been taught by her tutor that there were no such things as omens, that such things was merely silliness, but the words of tutors, logical but unsubstantiated, couldn’t completely beat a lifetime of living, where she would sometimes hear her family’s servants and sailors muttering darkly about ill portents. Didn’t the Mysteries teach that it was tempting the wrath of the goddess and god to not giving thanks after receiving their blessing?

Alicia and Yoctoha soon retired after dinner, with Nyarlat cheerfully dragging Kadae upwards with her to follow suit. The thumps and muffled cries that could clearly be heard through the ceiling proved the lie.

“Enthusiastic, aren’t they?” Mistress Leigh said dryly, looking up from the ledger she was working on. “Are they newlyweds, perhaps?”

“Not that we know of,” Anarkhia said dryly.

“I hope they get done soon,” Immilunelire said, annoyed. “I don’t want to turn in too late.”

“I think it’s sweet,” Marissa said brightly as a particularly loud thump and cry came through the ceiling. “To have such strong love between them… I’m sure there is nothing the world can throw in their way they cannot defeat!”

“That is a fallacious statement,” Sorce said, standing next to the fire and inspecting her cloak where it had been hung to dry. “It is a false corollary. Having love does not equate to a capability to be undefeatable.”

“Love laughs at such logical reasoning!” Marissa declared cheerfully, thrusting a fist into the air.

An obviously confused look crossed over Sorce’s face, and Seraphine took pity on her. “Don’t bother arguing about love with a Blisser,” she said. “They’re not really listening, so there’s no point to it.”

“We listen,” Marissa said defensively. “We just ignore all the garbage that doesn’t make sense.”

“See?” Seraphine said.

The men were studiously ignoring their discussion as they tended their equipment. Warf was industriously sharpening a dagger with different stones as Wade carefully cast new rounds of shot. Scien copied down something from a book lying on the table before him into his Logosi, while across from him even Cera seemed to be writing into a notebook of her own, a small, soft volume wrapped in leather and cord. Likely her own personal physiology notes. Skinwalking wasn’t always intuitive. Nyneth lay curled up in front of the fire, not sleeping but clearly soaking in the warmth. The cloth bundle Sorce had carried in had turned out to be a cloak for Nyneth and what seemed like a large sheet of the same material with a hole in the center. Both were neatly folded up beneath Nyneth to give her something to lie down on.

Eventually Seraphine, impatient for the racket above to quiet down, just sighed and headed upstairs, laying a hand to her heart and murmuring a halfhearted blessing as she passed the room Nyarlat and Kadae were in. She knocked loudly on their group’s room next door and waited for a slow count of twenty before she entered.

Alicia and Yoctoa both sat in one of the lower bunks, their legs crossed and eyes glowing as they both cupped their hands together on their laps. There was a mild, restrained glow coming from their hands as they gathered ambient magic into venecite. They both nodded as Seraphine as she came in, and she waved back in greeting. She could see the bits of wax in their ears. Yoctoha took one of her hands away, and grabbed a small wax ball next to her, wordlessly holding it out to Seraphine. Seraphine obligingly took a couple of pinches and stuffed them in her ears. They didn’t fit very comfortably, but they did muffled the sound a little.

Silently, she got undressed to go to bed. She was under the covers in her long shift, her Logosi under her head and contemplating blessing herself when the racket rose to a crescendo and finally stopped. Seraphine tried to ignore the muffled thumps that sounded like tentacles coming to rest. The Mysteries said all such things between people were good in the eyes of the goddess and god… but some things were just too strange for her to think of. She closed her eyes, unblessed, and eventually sleep took her.

The next morning, Sorce was found passed out on one of the library tables. Seraphine went looking for her the next morning after waking up to find no one in the bunk above, the one Sorce had claimed, though the woman’s thick clothes and cloak were folded neatly on top of the sleeping-pallet. She was slumped over the table they had been eating at the night before, barely missing the open book before her. Next to Nyneth’s neatly folded cloak, chain and wooden box was what Seraphine at first thought was a book-sized slate, but as she got closer she saw it darkly reflected the ceiling above. Some kind of mirror? But why have a mirror so dark?

As she got closer, Seraphine realized Sorce was wearing dark clothes similar in style to the ones she’d seen at the Messiarki embassy, consisting of black trousers made of some durable material and a matching long-sleeved blouse that seemed to conform tightly to Sorce’s form. Seraphine felt an eyebrow twitch as she noted how it clung to every curve of the woman’s body. The collar was loose but formed a perfect, uninterrupted round collar around her neck, without buttons or fastening thongs of any sort. How did she put it on? And take it off, for that matter?

Sighing, she nudged at the other woman’s shoulder, feeling some sort of undergarment beneath sliding against the strange blouse, or whatever it was. “Wake up,” she said. “Your neck is going to hurt unless you straighten it. Wake up.”

For a moment, Sorce was still. Then she let out a groan that Seraphine barely recognize change into words in the flat Messiarki tongue. Peeling her face off the table, she winced, rubbing at her neck. Seraphine couldn’t help but chuckle at the large reddish mark on Sorce’s face that had taken on a vague imprint of the grain of the table. Sorce gave her a look that seemed flatter than usual, then muttered a few things under her breath in Messiarki that even to Seraphine’s inexperienced ears sounded uncomplimentary.

“I’ll assume that was the pain in your neck talking,” Seraphine said dryly. “Do you know where the Nereid is?”

Nyneth, to no one’s surprise, was found the next morning sleeping in one of the rain barrels outside the library. Her head was bobbing on the water, her nostrils opening to breathe in a slow, regular rhythm. How she hadn’t already died of exposure, Seraphine had no idea. The storm had cleared the night before, and the sky was one big, empty field of blue, only the smallest wisps of white trailing high above. Puddles littered the streets, but the town, old and well-built, seemed relatively undamaged. She could hear the distant, distinct ring of the nightsoil carts, and there was the slight whiff in the air that said they had already cleared the library’s privy.

They went back inside after seeing that Nyneth was all right, letting her sleep as Seraphine went upstairs carrying a bucket of cold rain water from one of the other rain barrels, already focusing to align herself with fire to heat it. As she heard Sorce putting the chair back in place and collecting Nyneth’s things from the table, Seraphine wondered why the other woman was reading a book on such basic magic. it was probably those gaps again.

Marissa made breakfast that morning, making a sort of soft, buttery pastry instead of bread. Sorce, Nyneth and Nyarlat ate it without hesitation, but everyone just stared strangely at it, perplexed. It wasn’t bad, exactly, but there was no getting around the fact it looked like someone had tried to fry a watery cake.

“Are you sure this isn’t bad for us?” Anarkhia asked warily, poking the flat, yellowish thing with her knife. “You put eggs in this. Funny things happen if you cook egg wrong…”

“We’re eating it, aren’t we?” Marissa said, her words slightly muffled from a mouthful of the… substance.

“That’s no vote of confidence,” Cera said, experimentally nibbling on a chunk torn from alleged food. “Nyarlat will eat anything. She tried to eat that tree branch a few days ago, remember?”

“I could digest it,” Nyarlat said cheerfully as she held three of the round things at once stacked in her hands, already cut through with bites. “It’s all about having the right stomach parts…”

Alicia blinked. “How can you even tell what’s being changed in your stomach?”

“You can’t,” Cera said, shuddering. “So no one does it. Otherwise you end up with something indigestible in your stomach and wishing you hadn’t tried to eat it.”

“It’s possible to do,” Scien said after chewing and swallowing contemplatively. “I’ve met a few Shardessi who can do it. They say it took months of study.”

“I have months of study,” Cera said.

“Months of the right kind of study,” Scien clarified, eyeing the round yellow and brown thing on his plate. “Can someone pass me the honey?”

Seraphine found her own fried cake edible, if a bit hard to swallow. The gooey texture would suddenly make her gag in mid-chew, forcing her to calm down and resume slowly. In her mouth, it still seemed like wet dough. Nonetheless, it was filling once you managed to get it down.

After the meal, they helped the librarians prepare the library for opening that day, and were asked to politely make themselves scarce, either in their room or in the town. Seraphine’s group convened in the men’s bunk room for a quick meeting. Food and supplies needed to be procured, and a guide found, or at least a map with the route they needed. They split up into two groups, trying to find what they needed. It was hard going, however, as every other Shardesse candidate in the town was trying to get the same. A few of those who had brought entourages had survived, and were occupying the attentions of the shopkeepers, taking the best supplies. One or two, they found out from rumor, had already left the night before, hoping to get a head start despite the storm, taking guides with them.

“Not very smart guides though,” the one they heard the rumor from said. He grinned nastily. “Not smart enough to remember that floods inside the caverns when the river does.”

Despite Nyneth’s asking, they couldn’t get her a barrel.

That night, they could only report partial success. While Warf, Yoctoha, Alicia and Scien managed to acquire the supplies they needed, as well as a small hand-cart to bring it in, Wade, Seraphine, Sorce and Nyneth were unable to hire the services of a guide.

“They say it’s too dangerous, after a storm,” Seraphine said over supper.

Kadae nodded from across from her. “We heard the same. Apparently there’s too much flooding and slick floors after a heavy rainfall. The one we spoke with wanted to wait three days. Nyarlat, please eat with only one mouth.”

Nyarlat sighed, but closed up the very disturbing slit she had made in her throat. Openings should not be there, especially not with pointy teeth.

“It is a prudent precaution,” Sorce said, putting a slice of cheese a slot she had cut in a piece of bread. “The caverns are dug by erosion caused by water flowing through it. It is not unlikely that many areas are below the elevated water level and would be impassable.”

As one, everyone looked at Nyneth.

“That would not be advisable,” Sorce said, catching their blatantly-obvious stream of thought. “Sediment would likely make visibility nonexistent, currents would be too powerful to risk, and likely dissolve fecal waste in the water would render it infectious.”

“So what, we walk?” Marissa said, cutting a loaf into slices and smearing some kind of mashed fruit preserve on one side.

“To those with the option to do so, yes,” Sorce said. “That or wait. However, given our current land speed and the apparent distance to the city of Halui, a more brisk pace might be recommended.”

Wade smiled. “Good advice. Let us keep it in mind.”

The Gauntlet: Chapter 3

Chapter 3

The campsite where those who’d managed to make it to the tent had been sent was located some way into the forest next to an old stone watchtower and barracks located at the base of one of the aqueducts. The tower was still manned, since the Valieriter Kysla believed in always being prepared. Because they also believed in seasoning, it was manned with young cadets in some disfavor who had probably been sent there as an informal punishment. A small stone basin was built into the side of the watchtower, with a water barrel standing beside it, and many people were already there filling flasks of water to drink or simply pouring it over their faces. In the small clearing next to the structures, another tent had been set up, a flag in front with the ribbon, knife and flame emblem of a healer. A small line of people were waiting their turns, none very badly injured, but many were crudely bandaged and bleeding.

“Finally!” Seraphine groaned in relief, stumbling towards the basin. She’d used up her water on the walk here after all the excitement had worn out and her body had patiently reminded her how tired it was. It took all her self-control not to dunk her head into the water and just reach in with her tin cup for a drink. Oh, it was so cold. She took another drink.

The walk back down the tunnel had been easy enough. Seraphine hadn’t even needed to guide her board, just make it slide and let the slope do all the work. Vaydiriun had been pleasant company, though he kept sighing about losing his hat. Seraphine had been all set to take a final long walk up to the camp the survivors– and no one could argue there was no more appropriate term– had been told to rally at. Vaydiriun, however, had wanted to go back and recover his buried luggage, and though Sorce had volunteered to go with him, he had demurred, setting off alone. Sorce had actually looked mildly worried as she watched him go, but the Messiarki had soon turned towards the long walk in front of them.

Now, having reached their destination, Seraphine had to wonder what was coming next. Though some people were sitting around and talking, some even laughing, a lot just sat quietly, catching their breath. There were barely thirty of them. While a bare handful looked almost as unharmed as she and Sorce were, many sported signs of having had wounds. Other bore small cuts and other injuries, which had likely not been considered serious enough for the attention of a healer.

Seraphine was having her third drink when she realized she was being watched. She turned.

In the barrel, a black and yellow-striped head slipped back under the surface, silent ripples marking where it had been. For a moment, Seraphine stared.

She felt a sensation of significant height-ness behind her. “Are you not worried about getting sick?” Sorce asked, looking dubiously at the water as she washed her face from the small wash basin to the side.

Seraphine gave her a look. “You’re not likely to get sick drinking from running water,” Seraphine said. “Don’t you know that?”

“I have heard of it,” Sorce said. “I have been uncertain whether I should believe it.”

“Believe it,” Seraphine said. “It’s either that or go without water for days. Don’t worry. My Pyrotheurgy is strong. If you do get sick, I can burn it out.” She paused, then felt compelled to add, “Probably. Most likely in any case.”

“The way you presented that statement is not very reassuring,” Sorce said.

“No, it probably wasn’t,” Seraphine admitted.

Sorce gave her a long look, then turned towards the basin, and drew a strange arrangement of small brightly colored rings from a belt pouch. Seraphine blinked as Sorce pulled at the rings, somehow locking them together to form a rather strange cup and scooped up some water to take a drink. She tilted her head. “Very cool and refreshing,” Sorce said, dipping it again for another drink. “Have you seen Nyneth? She does not seem to be readily visible.”

“Who?”

“The Managhalin female.”

“What?”

“The… Nereid?”

“Oh!” Seraphine pointed. “She’s in the barrel.”

“Ah.” Sorce paused. “Obvious, in hindsight. I must remember that.”

She walked to the barrel and leaned over it. Soon, a head warily peeked out of the water and crooned something that sounded like a question. Sorce replied in the same language.

“While you’re talking, can you ask her why she’s in the rain barrel?” Seraphine said.

Sorce paused and attempted to relay the question. “Apparently they would not allow her to enter the basin for fear of contamination. This was the alternative,” she said. “This detachment had apparently received word from the group who had accompanied Nyneth with the water wagon, and they had this prepared for her arrival.”

Seraphine nodded gravely. “Does she know if there’s anything to eat?”

There wasn’t, apparently. Seraphine moved off to let someone else have a drink at the basin, leaving Sorce talking to the Nereid, the former sounding coaxing as the latter warily raised herself a bit more out of the water. The Enthalpist looked for somewhere for her to sit and rest so she could finally let her Tenebrætry go. Her head was pounding now, and she was eager for the surcease letting go would grant her. Finding a convenient tree, she lay down her board and settled back, closing her eyes, her arms wrapped around her haversacks. They just needed a rest, that was all.

“Mistress Seraphine?”

Suppressing a groan, Seraphine opened one eye. The two familiar-looking Anaydi women loomed over her, but that wasn’t what had made her start in surprise. The woods were filled with the colors of sunset, and more people crowded around the trees. How had she not noticed the rising murmur of voices? She straightened, wincing as a cloak fell off her. “Um, Alissa, right?”

“Alicia,” the blonde corrected gently. “The food has arrived. Do you want us to bring you some?”

“Uh… oh, sure,” she said, still confused and wondering whose cloak this was. She looked around and blinked. “Why is that barrel there?”

“Mistress Sorce didn’t want Nyneth to be alone, so we helped her move the barrel next to us,” the other one– Yoctoha, Seraphine recalled– said.

“We?” She looked around, noticing all the bags. “How long was I asleep?” She struggled to stand, dropping her sacks to try and get the cloak off.

Yoctoha and Alicia helped her up, Yoctoha folding the cloak over her shoulder and handing it to back to Seraphine. “Most of the afternoon,” she said. “Master Vaydiriun and Mistress Sorce invited us for company.”

“I suppose I should watch the bags?” Seraphine looked around, noticing the fire pit and the packs next to her. “Who’s here, exactly? Uh, anyone I know?”

“Well, there’s Master Vaydiriun,” Alicia said, tapping her lips thoughtfully. “And Master Warf, remember him? There was Master Scien as well.”

“So, everyone we had dinner with?” Seraphine said. A vague, meaty smell was wafting through the air. Stew?

“No, I think Mistress Cera is with her own friends,” Yoctoha said. “Though they’re camped only a few trees over, so they’re not that far away. And I haven’t seen Mistress Anarkhia or Master Sinister yet…”

After seeing that Seraphine was fully awake, the two went off to the get the promised food after Seraphine handed them her wooden bowl. Seraphine looked around. All around, as far as the eye could see, were people. Unlike the gloomy, tired mood of the silent, staring few that she and Sorce had found on their arrival, the air now seemed filled with jovial victory. People were calling to each other, apparently trading stories and gathering around fires. There were apparently enough Pyrotheurgisti willing to lend their services, since many of the fires had no wood and rested on small piles of dirt and stones. A few venelights were shining, and more were coming up in preparation for nightfall, as were floating flames and light-emitting logosi. While there was no raucous laughter– there was still something of a subdued air to everyone– there was a feeling of accomplishment.

“I wasn’t that tired, was I?” Seraphine muttered to herself, making to sit down and have her shadow raise her board for her to sit on. She realized she no longer had Tenebrætry in time to land hard on her rear. “Ow,” she said dully, then sighed and settled herself, examining the cloak in her hands. It was black and felt unusually stiff. Sorce’s cloak, she realized.

The sound of water made her turn. A pair of golden eyes were looking at her over the lip of the barrel. Their cross-shaped pupils were unreadable, but to be on the safe side she gave a nod of greeting, exaggerating it to make up for her relative lack of neck. It was one of the common gestures she knew and had been taught to use it to greet passing Nereidi who came up to the beaches when she had been a child. The one that usually came with it, the invitation to play, she did not think was appropriate at the moment.

The Nereid rose slightly, returning the gesture. The water in her barrel rippled but didn’t spill.

“I don’t suppose you can understand me, can you?” Seraphine tried. The Nereid said nothing, merely continued to stare at her, blinking its wide eyes. “I didn’t think so. So, do we just stare at each other until the Messiarki comes back?”

Silence. The Nereid, apparently growing bored, slipped back under the water.

Seraphine stared, then sighed. “Where’s that food?”

She didn’t have long to wait. The two women soon came back followed by the others, carrying bowls of stew and fresh bread. The latter confused Seraphine greatly as it was handed to her. It seemed fresh baked, not merely reheated.

“Oh, they just made it,” Yoctoha explained as they all sat around the fire pit. “It’s something they do in the army. They have a Thaumy or a Liner make a box that won’t let out heat then have a Burner make a fire inside it. One of the people who made it here used to be a baker’s apprentice, and he’s been making bread all afternoon in exchange for a bed in the barracks.”

Seraphine handed Sorce back her cloak, which the other immediately proceeded to put on as Alicia, her eyes glowing, gathered golden venelight around her hand and gently placed it in the center of the stone-ringed pit. She adjusted the glowing light until she was satisfied, then sat down next to Yoctoha to eat. While Seraphine tried to connect names to faces, Sorce knocked on the barrel forming part of the circle of the gathering. Nyneth eagerly rose from the water, the two of them speaking in the Nereid language.

“Have you ever heard anyone who can speak Nereidi?” Seraphine found herself saying as Sorce handed Nyneth a piece of bread, which the latter cautiously took. When she flinched, the Messiarki was there to catch it.

“Some,” Scien said, balancing his bowl of stew on his knee, then apparently decided that was a stupid idea and instead put his bread there. “There are supposedly some people in Shardesse who can speak it. Some island traders too, the ones who trade with the Nereidi for pearls. I don’t suppose it’s all that uncommon, in the right areas.”

“She is probably more curious,” Vaydiriun said, breaking a piece of bread, “in how a Messiarki would know. I confess I am curious myself. I would not think the Messiarki would have much to do with the Nereidi.” He smiled sardonically. “They do not sell metal of any sort.”

“Knowledge is valuable for its own sake,” Sorce called in Saxoish, not turning to look at them, holding the bowl of stew as Nyneth cautiously took a bite, then started panting at the heat and dunked her head under water. “And my people have a history with the Managhalin. Why should we not have an interest in them?”

“She has good hearing, remember?” Seraphine pleasantly reminded Vaydiriun.

“Ah, yes. I had forgotten,” Vaydiriun said, nodding at Sorce.

“I don’t think she minds, really,” Seraphine said.

“How many languages do you know?” Scien asked interestedly. No one seemed to find it problematic to listen to Sorce speaking in Saxoish. Seraphine figured they’d come to some kind of agreement while she was sleeping. “I heard Messiarki knew only their own language and Saxoish.”

“That is broadly true,” Sorce said, looking up from showing Nyneth how to blow on the stew first before eating it. “Saxoish is the only foreign language we are required to learn during education.”

“So? How many do you know?” Yoctoha asked.

“All of them,” Sorce said.

Everyone blinked. “All…?Alicia repeated.

“I have studied the basics of all 17 currently used major languages on Khyort, excluding Relren and forae symbol sign, as well as 7 de-facto dead languages, including Latin, Grecus and Hbrw,” Sorce explained. “Admittedly my conjugation and vocabulary is lacking, and I have no context for colloquialisms, but I study every night. My fluency in regional-specific dialects is still unknown.”

They stared. “Why?” Warf eventually said. “I mean, why bother to learn?”

Sorce looked up, tilting her head. “In case I ever needed to speak the language. The Gauntlet is known to pass through many countries and I did not wish to be unable to communicate.”

Everyone looked at each other, then shrugged. That made sense, they suppose. But…

“So, how long have you been studying languages in preparation for the Gauntlet?” Alicia asked.

Sorce paused to consider as Nyneth began to master the basics of hot bread and stew. “Ten months,” she said, leaning against the barrel to keep the Nereid company as she began eating her own supper.

Seraphine found her stew going down the wrong way at her start of incredulous disbelief and Yoctoha frantically patted her on the back to keep her from choking. “Ten months?” she managed to choke out.

“Yes,” Sorce said. “That is why I still have difficulties with word choice and conjugation. I will learn as I am exposed to the languages. I have already learned much about Alvatin since I met Seraphine.”

Seraphine stared at her.

“You have contributed greatly to my knowledge of the application of conjugation and my vocabulary,” Sorce said, misinterpreting her expression.

Seraphine sighed and gave it. Ten months or not, what did it matter?

“So, since we will be traveling together from now on, may I ask what everyone can do?” Scien said, paraphrasing the usual social question.

Seraphine looked up sharply at this and before anyone could reply said, “Pardon me a moment.” She turned to look at the Messiarki at her back. “I thought you only invited them for supper.”

Sorce blinked. “No. Given what we have seen of possible future circumstances, I thought it would be in our best interest to ally with others to establish a group of defensible size.” She gestured around her vaguely. “It appears to have been a common idea in the aftermath of the examination. I apologize for not consulting you, but you were unconscious.” Seraphine thought she detected the faintest hint of reproach there.

The short blonde nodded gravely. “All right,” she said, turning to the others. “I apologize for the interruption then. Let me begin the introduction. I am an initiate Enthalpist. My current strengths are Tenebrætry, Pyrotheurgy and Kydlathiantry.” She rubbed her head. “I apologize for not volunteering to start a fire, but I still have a headache.”

“Seer,” Vaydiriun said, mouth twisting into a wry half-smile. “But you all knew that, I think.”

“Logotheurgist,” Scien said, patting the Logosi that hung on a special pouch at his side.

“Venie,” Yoctoha said cheerfully.

“Venie,” Alicia repeated, with a smile.

“Symbol,” Warf said quietly.

“Oh! What alignment?” Yoctoha asked eagerly.

Warf shuffled, looking self-conscious. “Righteousness,” he muttered, as if hoping they wouldn’t hear.

Seraphine looked at him warily. As a group, Symbols were… not unpredictable. Symbols were very predictable. It’s just they had a tendency to grate on people’s nerves, and depending on how long they’d been using their magic tended towards either irrational optimism, irrational anger, blind zealotry or just general insanity. It was a prejudice harder to overcome than others, since in their lucid moments even Symbols admitted they had a tendency toward those things. It was rare to find an old, sane Symbol.

Yoctoha, however, just smiled brightly at Warf. “It’s a pleasure to meet you all! I hope we grow to be good friends.”

Seraphine found surge of dislike rising within her, and chided herself for the unhelpful attitude. There was nothing wrong with someone being cheerful and friendly. It was good she was cheerful in friendly! If they would be traveling together–  without Seraphine’s opinion being previously consulted–  it was good she was cheerful and friendly rather than argumentative and surly. Seraphine kept repeating this to herself, and eventually the annoyed and wholly irrational urge to wipe that smile off settled down.

Vaydiriun looked over at Sorce, who was finishing her own supper and was looking off speculatively back the way they’d come as if thinking of getting more. The bowl in her hands seemed strangely thin and delicate, like a fine shell. “And you, tall dark sister?” he called jovially in his native Saxoish. “What magic do you manifest?”

The question seemed to catch her off-guard. “Shadows?” she said, as if unsure of her answer. Next to her, Nyneth was licking her bowl clean, seemingly oblivious of the food getting on her face. A few soggy bits of bread floated on the water of the barrel. “I can move my shadow…”

“That’s an odd way to put it,” Alicia said. “Don’t you know what being a shadow weaver is called?”

Sorce shook her head, just the smallest movement of her chin from side to side. “No,” she said. “I have absolutely no point of context. I can deduce from the etymology that it has to do with shadows, but given that it might be a stylistically derived designation rather than a literal one, I cannot say so with absolute certainty. I recognize the terms you use, but have no idea as to what they designate or their proper usage.”

At their stares, she added, “I would be very grateful if you would assist me in correcting this. I do not wish to remain… ignorant.”

There was something about that last word, toneless and inflectionless as it was, that nudged Seraphine. Something about how it was said even flatter than usual…

She shook her head. “Are you telling me,” she said flatly, “that you came all the way here not knowing something as basic as what magic is called?” She supposed that was it possible to learn how to use magic without knowing any of the terms– after all, except for Logotheurgy, which was all about words, you didn’t really know what things were called– but really! The woman seemed to be getting stranger and stranger.

“I am determined to join Shardesse,” Sorce said. “Deficiencies in my education, while unfortunate and requiring immediate correction, are secondary to that purpose.”

Vaydiriun laughed heartily. “Well, I believe we can all agree on that!” he declared. He patted the ground. “Join us, tall dark sister, and we shall see about remedying your basic… deficiencies!”

Sorce seemed to hesitate, glancing down into the barrel, but the Nereid seemed content with her meal, and was playing with the wooden bowl the stew had come in on, likely dirtying her water. Sorce sat down on the ground to one side of it, far enough not to be splashed in case Nyneth made a sudden movement. “I would be thankful if you would educate me,” she said very carefully. Was that a Messiarki formal phrase? “Would you please explain the terms related to magic?”

*

By the time they had finished filling in Sorce’s staggering gaps in basic knowledge about magic– while one could be forgiven knowing how each worked, exactly, not even knowing what they were called seemed selective ignorance to an astounding degree– Seraphine’s head felt well enough for her to align herself to Pyrotheurgy and exchange Alicia’s venelight for an actual fire. Sorce had left to return the wooden bowl she had contrived to borrow from the barracks for the Nereid, returning with the shovel she had left as security.

Between the food they’d eaten, and the rigors of the day, no one felt like putting off their blankets. Seraphine took the first watch.

“I’m the one who slept the afternoon away,” she said, though in truth it didn’t feel like that was making her proof against drowsiness. “I can make it until midnight, at least. And I can keep the fire going until you’re all asleep so you’re comfortable.”

Warf volunteered to stay up with her to keep her company, and the two near-perfect strangers had settled themselves on opposite ends of the space their group had claimed as the others went to sleep as best as they could. The two Anaydi women had lain together, using one of their cloaks as a sleeping mat and the other as a blanket to stay warm, not seeming self-conscious in the least. Scien had used a logos to make what had looked like a halfway comfortable cushioned mat, laying down on it in his robes and cloak. Sorce had pulled a bedroll out of her pack, sliding into it and donning an absurd heavy eyepiece made of dark, domelike glass mounted on thick metal frames and some kind of mask over her mouth that looked like she should asphyxiate on it. Vaydiriun had merely lain back against a tree with one of his shortshots on his lap and drifted off to sleep.

Except for occasional breaks for nature, Seraphine and the Symbol had just stared at each other as she let the flame she maintained grow low and die. Around them, the woods had begun to glow with night insects and luminous molds, ferns and nocturnal flowers. Even with the brightness of the artificial sources of illumination, their glow was substantial, like stars that had gotten lost on their way into the sky. Around them, the camp was relatively quiet, with most people as tired as they were, and only a few others keeping watch. The only disturbances were the sound of insects, the occasional straggler just arriving, the distant booms from those still competing for disks, and, once, a pair of moans and groans that had been terminated by someone yelling, “Will the two of you stop that, I can’t get to sleep!” followed by embarrassed silence and then a sharp, shrill cry of satisfaction. She and Warf had tried to block that out by having their only conversation of the night, which was inane talk about the weather.

By midnight, as Seraphine was waking up Yoctoha and Vaydiriun as they’d planned, the last of the stragglers had arrived. There were predictably far less than fifty and three hundred magi in the final tally. Between injuries and disks simply not found– though Seraphine darkly suspected they’d been lying about the final number of disks available– the morning found the camp giving home to a hundred and sixty-one magi, many of those who had come in late the night before greatly injured. The last group had all come in huddled together and supporting each other. Most had nearly fallen asleep in the healer’s tent, forgoing the bread and stew that had been set aside for them.

There was no bread and stew for breakfast, and while the healer was still there– a silver-haired man who looked in his early forties– and had looked disapproving at the notion of not feeding injured men, all he said on the matter was, “I’m not going to do anything extra for you, put that away, and the next meat that bothers me is going to be incinerated.” There was, however a paper pinned to a board next to the water basin, instructing them to be in the town of Third Gate within five days with their glass disk. On the paper was a crud map marking the location of the town.

“It’s often like this,” Scien explained while they had done what meager packing they needed to do as Sorce tried to explain to Nyneth that, no, they couldn’t bring along the barrel. “The Gauntlet is often about getting from one place to another in a set amount of time with what resources you have. That part doesn’t really make for interesting stories, so most people don’t pass it along. Still, five days is plenty of time, in settled country.”

“Provided we don’t run into anything,” Vaydiriun said with a brightness that tempted disaster.

“We won’t even have to rush,” Yoctoha said p as she and Alicia dusted leaves off each other’s cloaks and backs. “We could walk there, once we get on the road. Third Gate is one of the entryways into the Empty Range, so it’s an active trade route after all. We only need two, three days at most.”

“Let’s go then,” Seraphine said, trying not to sound impatient. “Maybe we can find an inn or something on the way. Or, you know, find something we can gut and roast.” Ah, that had been a disgusting first experience. She thought all you had to do was kill something, impale it on a stick then burn to cook. The burnt hair, offal, and half-cooked meat had made her beg to learn how to clean a catch properly form the first half-way trustworthy-looking person she’d seen who looked like they might know. Stories tended to leave off expounding on parts like that too.

“I have traveling rations,” Sorce said as she helped a reluctant and wary Nereid to climb out of the barrel, glass disk and a firmly-stoppered glass bottle clutched in her wet hands. “We can all have some on the way.”

“Does that mean the same thing for Messiarki as it does for everyone else?” Seraphine said. “Hard, dried, bad-tasting stuff you’d rather not have anything to do with if you had a choice?”

“…Yes,” Sorce admitted. “Broadly speaking…”

“Let’s find something to gut and roast!” Seraphine declared.

Soon they were ready to go. They joined the trickle of people following the cart path that led away from the watchtower. Recovered after a good night’s sleep, most people seemed cheerfully optimistic. The newly-formed group had plenty of company as they walked the path, with other groups walking alongside them, either just come together the night before or already a group previously. Many of the latter had stayed behind, still waiting for people, and along the path there were a few who walked alone, most with faces either haunted or guilty. Some people couldn’t wait.

Nyneth had been loaned Sorce’s cloak to keep her warm since she had begun shivering once out of the water, but this did nothing to disguise her.  She walked awkwardly, wincing occasionally as she walked, and her yellow and white fur contrasted brilliantly against the open front of the cloak, which instantly drew the eye. Sorce had used some string to hang the Nereid’s bottle around her neck, where it kept bumping against her slick chest. The glass disk remained in her hands. There hadn’t been any attempt to hide her the night before and now that people had rested, murmurs were following in her wake. Given snatches of what Seraphine heard, it was probably a good thing the Nereid knew nothing but her own language.

By silent agreement, they walked with the Nereid at their center, Sorce always by her side and speaking to her in the Nereidi tongue.

Despite not being consulted the day before whether she would have these people as company, Seraphine wasn’t really all that annoyed by their presence. In truth, it was something of a relief, since she still couldn’t stop herself from occasionally wondering why the Messiarki had seemed to go to great lengths for Seraphine’s company, and if there was perhaps a more sinister purpose behind it all. True, now she sometimes wondered if there was a sinister purpose to all these peole traveling with her, but that was a general fear of any traveler and thus didn’t cause her any more added anxiety than usual.

When she got past the general suspicion, they were all very good traveling companions. Sure, the Anaydi women had her self-conscious and twitchy inside as she felt even shorter, flatter and plainer than she usually did, but both were very pleasant and generally cheerful almost to the point of her wanting to throw them over the nearest tree. Almost. Wade– as he insisted on being called since ‘Vaydiriun’ had three more syllables then he felt necessary for everyday use– was usually quiet as they walked, though he responded readily enough when his opinion was solicited. Instead his eyes wandered around them, scanning the trees and the other people on the path with what seemed ingrained habit. Occasionally he would reach up to his head only to sigh and let his hand fall, muttering about his hat. Stories about him aside, Seraphine, used to judging and assessing people of their social standing, felt he was relatively trustworthy and certainly less aggravating than her sisters. He actually reminded her of some of her friends back home who were part of the dueling leagues, with his straight-backed, balanced walk and air of confidence in being familiar with a form of skilled violence should he need arise, even with the long and heavy case on his back, almost a rival for Sorce’s own pack in size.

Warf, who walked behind the rest of the group, also reminded Seraphine of some people she knew in the dueling leagues, her eldest sister Altria being one of them. The fact he carried a sword around, for one thing, an old longblade with a wavering finish, prong-like hilt and a long, weighed pommel that ended in a rather vicious and utilitarian blunt spike. Like them, he was a quiet, stern-looking person that some of the more light and fanciful of Seraphine’s friends would have described with words like ‘dark’, ‘tormented’, ‘intense’, ‘repressed’ and ‘in need of a good woman to grant him the goddess’ blessing to bring some light into his life’. Possibly the word ‘brooding’ would have come into it somewhere, as would ‘smoldering’ and likely ‘passionate’, at which point Seraphine would spend time with her other friends until they came back to some semblance of sense. Warf wore slightly worn but serviceable leather trousers, a dark orange coat a bit too large for him, heavy boots, and a long leather overcoat held shut by buckles in a style that had probably last been in fashion a generation ago, possibly two. A plain round shield of vaguely green metal, the color of the venecite mixed into it tinting the chramecirum steel,  hung from his arm, opposite the pack slung over his shoulder.

Seraphine thought he was a decent enough sort. Indeed, she thought she could recognize the signs of an upbringing in one of the hereditary knightly families on Atlam. It wasn’t too different from similar attitudes to be found in her own Verbania, that first-in, last-out mentality that had him taking first watch with her, though she hadn’t been very attentive at the time. That attentiveness, helpfulness to all those around him, that posture… The hairstyle was also something of a giveaway. He seemed slightly different from Seraphine was used to though, a bit more subdued and the wrong kind of stiff. With the knights she knew, the stiffness came from that odd mix of humility and pride that often tended to get mixed into an assured stubbornness. With him, it… wasn’t.

Seraphine grimaced, shook herself and chided herself for baseless fancies. She hardly knew the man, after all.

Scien was a scholar. That was obvious from the robes. Granted, they were traveling robes, hardy and with trousers underneath, but if he’d had as much travel as Seraphine had– which she’d be the first to admit wasn’t a lot– he wouldn’t be wearing lightly colored ones. Thought between the food marks, the ink marks, the dust marks and the travel stains, keeping an impeccable appearance apparently wasn’t foremost on his mind. At least he wasn’t fussy, like a few Seraphine had known, most especially in the schools she’d been banished to. He seemed more… distracted. Not absent-minded, but thinking very intently about something. Seraphine wondered if it was the same thing she was thinking about.

The suddenly increased certainty of the possibility of violent death.

She was, on reflection, very lucky. Not as lucky as the Nereid, who had literally gotten success handed to her, but still very lucky indeed. She’d come from yesterday’s mad ball of violent chaos relatively unscathed by following a near-perfect stranger’s good ideas. They had allowed her to more or less just skirt the fighting. She hadn’t even needed to find her own disk.

This was probably a bad precedent to set for herself. It undermined the reason she had chosen to brave the Gauntlet. It was a silly reason, a childish reason. It belonged to the reasoning of a brat in short skirts who still watered her bed. After all, you couldn’t be forced to enter the Gauntlet. You came knowing it was almost-certain death for the weak, or the unsure, or the idle.

She was here because she wanted to be of Shardesse. To earn the right, the privilege, to call herself Shardessi. To be one of the guardians of the memory of magic and life itself, since their distant, distant ancestors had come from the Vanished Lands. To be above other magi, as one who had strength beyond mere magic, and so had been given the keys to knowledge. To be worthy to bear a charge as old as civilization, knowing the secret strength that made Shardesse nearly a country in itself, feared by armies of magi.

And to do that, she needed to rely on her own self.

Yes, perhaps it wasn’t such an inconvenience not to have been consulted on her opinion of traveling companions. Because in the end, they didn’t matter. If they held her back…

“Seraphine? Are you sure you do not want to try some?”

Seraphine blinked, snapping out of her reverie as she realized Sorce was speaking to her. “W-what?” she said.

Sorce held out an ungloved hand, on which lay a deep red twist of some glistening, leathery thing, occasionally marked by small, pale dots of who-knew-what. “It is a compressed strawberry travel ration,” Sorce said, by way of explanation. “It is not likely to be very filling, but please try some. It may satisfy your appetite until we find something to ‘gut and roast’.”

“It’s actually pretty good,” Yoctoha said enthusiastically, her voice a bit muffled as she chewed. “Like they made beef jerky from fruit! It’s sweet and sour, but actually pretty good, and I think it’ll last a while!”

Hesitantly, Seraphine took the proffered alleged-food and popped it into her mouth, then bit down. She chewed thoughtfully, then in surprise. “It’s… not bad. Thank you.”

Sorce gave a slight forward-back tilt of her head as if nodding, and Seraphine thought her eyes looked satisfied. They all continued walking in pleased, fruit-tasting, leathery silence.

Yes, Seraphine might have to abandon these people if they held her strength back. She would earn the Chain of Colors! But until then… she was glad of the company.


Nyneth, daughter of Bator, daughter of Urobu, chewed through the strange red thing she had been offered and decided that, as things she’d found that one could eat in the Emptiness went, that it wasn’t terrible, though it made her mouth a bit tight and dry. It was an unnatural feeling, but weighed against all the other things she could be feeling– such as hunger, heat, the pain in her lower fin as she made her way with this slow and unnatural method of travel, her arm being torn off, the insides-emptying agony of her banishment– she considered it tolerable. No one seemed to be dying so far, and such a thing was much easier to make out here in the too-bright Emptiness, since back home the currents and waves could make one of the dead move and fool you for a little while. Up here, the currents of the Emptiness were loud, but too weak to move more than the strange weed-topped corals that tried to climb upwards and the dead weeds beneath her.

Still, she was not of these people, of the Banished. Perhaps this food that they could eat was a poison to her. It would certainly be in line with how her life had turned so far.

“Well, are you? Cold, are you?” a dull, weak-sounding voice said.

Nyneth turned towards the source of the words, trying not to let suspicion show in her neck and shoulders. She knew it would not show in her eyes. If there was one thing she could control, it was her eyes. “Fine, I am,” she said, then had to repeat herself when she didn’t seem to say it loudly enough. The Emptiness stole words and sounds, and it didn’t help that the Banished could not hear most of what she said, the low sounds that gave texture and nuance.

The Banished nodded, one of the few gestures Nyneth recognized. It seemed to be the only one they could do properly, with such short necks. When she gestured, she did it with her whole body, like a child. Yet Nyneth did not show her amusement and the touch of condescension she felt. Being surrounded by Emptiness helped. This one was the only one besides the frail, wrinkled one that they had brought to her four days ago who had understood what she was saying. Both spoke the words strangely, like children, without nuances to any of the words, but they had been intelligible. This one actually pronounced things better, the parts she could say, but sometimes her choices of words would be odd. Still, she had come to Nyneth in her time of need, translating for her the words of the other Banished. It was a fortuitous current for her to find someone who not only knew her tongue but seemed willing to stay by her.

With her luck, it was a current leading straight into the jaws of one of the Great Devourers.

Yet what else could she do? When it seemed like she had no choice but to dive into the endless dark, into the chill abyss of the Deep Ones, or take a frail, impossible chance to be found only in the Emptiness, why not take a risk? After all, what else did she have to lose?

She meant no insult to the Banished who wrapped herself in black nets and tied a pack to her back that, as far as Nyneth could make out, was filled with rocks. Indeed, she had been very kind to Nyneth, explaining to her the task of the Gauntlet and even handing her the token she needed to perform it. She had brought Nyneth food, strange Banished food, as hot as rocks under sun in the Emptiness, and had shown her how to eat it without killing herself. Sorce had explained to her why they were moving, and where the Gauntlet was taking them next. She had even promised Nyneth a special sort of net to keep her feet from hurting so much should they reach a trading post, and her own net to keep her warm.

It was far more kindness than Nyneth had expected to find, here in the Emptiness. The Managhalin had songs about the Banished, who lived among the currents one could not swim. Some tales sang them as friends and playmates, to meet in the edge places where the world and the Emptiness met. Some had them as monsters, almost as bad as the Great Devourers, with teeth that swam on their own to bite and showed no mercy, killing and eating all in their wake. In some they were wretches, to be pitied for the forgotten sin that had banished them from the world. Some were simply bizarre, where one of the Banished would mate with the Managhalin, which lead to them giving birth to… oh, all sort of things, like the Singers or the Barkers or even demons like the Devourers. Silly stories. Everyone knew mating did not work like that. Nyneth knew people who had mated with the Banished, and all that came from it was either nothing or a Managhalin who was a little bit strange.

Not that she had any intention to mate with one, no matter what mating calls some sent her way. At least, she assumed they were mating calls. The few she had asked Sorce to translate certainly spoke of mating. No, she would not mate, not with this evil inside her.

She had been normal, once. Just another breeder in the tribe, if a bit more thoughtful than most. She had been a Skymarker, one of those taught to read the lights beyond the world. Nyneth had helped guide hunters back to the rest of the tribe after they set out, and had warned when the cold would be upon them so they could move to warmer waters. She and others like her had been taught to see the patterns in the stars and moons, to always know where they were, and to remember and pass new of dangers to other Skymarkers. By day when she had nothing to do she helped hunt, collected clams and saved the useless pearls she found to be traded to one of the reef clans.

Hers was one of many jobs in the clan. There were the Netbringers, who took it in turns to carry around the clan’s treasures. There were Edges, who were taught the ways of the Banished, their songs and languages, so that they could meet with them. Their clan also had among them their share of the Blessed, those who wielded great power. One, Saika, the most powerful, could control the currents themselves, though most of the time he was too busy turning down women offering to mate with him in hopes their child would be so blessed as well to actually do much.

There had been many stories about Saika, who was one of the oldest men in the clad yet looked almost as young as Nyneth herself. His hands and the whole left side of his body were carved with scars. Half of his face had no fur, instead looking rippled and marked like the sands deep beneath. They said he had gone into the Emptiness in his youth, and had come back the wisest man in the world, that in the net he always had with him was a great treasure.

Like many, Nyneth had hoped to learn that she too was Blessed, to be chosen by the Creators to guard against the Deep Ones. She supposed her curse was their cruel joke.

When her curse had manifested itself and she had been banished, named tainted by the Deep Ones, it had been he who had followed given her a last bit of hope. “Find the reef tribes,” he had said. “Speak to their Blessed. Learn of how to become of Shardesse.” And he had shown her his treasure.

And so, here she was. Banished and among the Banished, here in the too-bright Emptiness, living on the kindness of a stranger whose motives she had no idea about. Her feet throbbed, a new sensation she was beginning to loathe, and the joint above it ached, even with the changes made to it by the Blessed Changer to help her walk better. Such pain. Was this what the Banished lived with every day? She shuddered at the thought of a year aching like this, her claws unsheathing involuntarily, prickling at her palms. All the more reason for her not to fail.

No matter what, this quest, this Gauntlet, known from whispered stories and dark songs, would be the end of her. Either she would die…

… or she would be able to go back home.

*

Every day was agony. By the time the sun was high in the sky, Nyneth’s feet felt tender, and not even the brief rest she and the Banished had had as they ate barbarically mutilated things that reeked of strange smells could do much to ease their throbbing. By sunset she had collapsed, no longer able to bear the pain and tiredness in muscles unused to being worked the way they had been and causing the Banished to stop their journey early. They had swarmed, and she had been afraid, so afraid, that they would eat her, the songs and stories of monstrous Banished coming to her mind. But they had lain her down on a soft place as Sorce spoke gently and reassuringly to her while the one with the one with the ridiculously long golden crest had examined her feet, poking it gently and snapping back every time Nyneth’s claws had involuntarily unsheathed, making sounds at Sorce that even through a different language Nyneth could tell were angry, and Sorce would ask her to calm down and retract her claws.

“Tender, your feet are,” Sorce said. “Unused to walking, the flesh is. This, I should have known. You forgiveness, I beg you.”

“To forgive, there is nothing,” Nyneth sang dismissively. “My feet, they were. The walking, I chose to do.” She had been to the edge places, had walked before, but she hadn’t realized what to expect. Walking was so much harder when you couldn’t go back into the water to rest and take your weight away.

Sorce had coaxed her into eating something, some too-hot meat that was at least cool enough to go into her mouth without breathing on it a lot. She had fallen asleep as soon as the last morsel of strange meat was swallowed.

The next day, Nyneth had insisted on trying to walk again, refusing a proposal to carry her. She’d been told by the Blessed Changer and one of the few Edges that would talk to her that she would need to get her feet used to walking to make them tougher, and she intended to do so. She only got as far as noon before the pain in her feet had become too much, and she had been forced to let the one with the short blue crest on his head carry her for the rest of the day, being put down only a short time before sunset. She had walked with the others again until they had stopped once more. Sorce had been by her side as the one with the ridiculous crest had used her blessing– her magic– to heal her feet again.

The small one called water out of the Emptiness and everyone had drunk their fill. It had tasted strange to Nyneth, as if it too was somehow empty, but it had filled a lack in her she had noticed but hadn’t really understood. The small one, at seemingly Sorce’s instruction, had also wrapped the water around Nyneth, and she had been surprised at how cool it felt. She had been feeling hot and a little dizzy, but she hadn’t realized how bad it was until that moment. When she had fallen asleep, she had still been covered in water.

When she woke later that night, water gone but her fur still cool and wet, as she had stared and memorized the stars and the moons while trying to plot her location out of long habit, she wondered if this had happened to Saika, making progress only with the help of strangers. Was this how he had gotten his strange scars? Had the strangers stopped being kind?

She turned over, and frowned as she felt things sticking to her back. Yes, she’d forgotten about that. She pushed herself up, looking about.

Sorce sat next to her, her face lit by white light that came from the flat thing she was holding. Nyneth saw her eyes close and open quickly, an unnerving thing, and the light vanished. “Nyneth? Sleep, could you not? Water, do you need?”

Nyneth rolled her shoulders in the negative. “Woke, I just,” she said. “Doing, what were you?”

For a moment, Sorce was silent, but from all those strange movement on her face Nyneth guessed she was thinking. “What is known about Managhalin, I was remembering,” she said. “My apologies, I give to you. Because of me, you could have died.”

Nyneth started, the claws in one hand unsheathing in reflex. “Singing about, what are you?” she demanded.

“Difficult to explain, it is,” Sorce said. “Know the right words, I might not. But try, I will.” She paused a moment, then continued. “How much water a Managhalin needs, I did not realize. Enough water you did not have. Killed by heat, you could have been. My fault, it is. Should have known, I should have.”

Nyneth tried to parse through what the Banished was saying. She had nearly died because she hadn’t had enough water? But that was… she stared down at herself, at how wet she was.

“Been keeping you wet all night, I have been,” Sorce said. “More water at morning, I will need. Be annoyed, Seraphine will. In Aquartheurgy, not very strong she is.” She did something strange, as if she was letting out all that was inside her through her mouth. “Right, you were. Brought the barrel, we should have.”

Nyneth stared at her, strangely aware of the water dripping down her back.

“Sleep, you should,” Sorce said. “Your strength tomorrow, you will need. To come, much walking.”

Nyneth shuddered at the idea. “Leave me, why do you not?” she asked quietly.

“Far from home, you are,” Sorce said simply. “Far from home, I am. Know how you feel, I do. Know how you have hurt, I do. To be Shardessi, I want. Do you?”

Nyneth hesitated, then nodded. “To be Shardessi, I want.”

Sorce nodded. “Need to know, what else is there?”

Nyneth’s neck curved in thoughtful curiosity. “Know how to sing, how do you? ”

For a moment, Sorce was silent. Then she said. “For when I met Managhalini, I learned. To learn. To study. To befriend.”

Nyneth swayed in circles. “Just for that, you learned?” she said, surprised.

“Yes,” Sorce said. “I to teach you, do you want? To learn our songs, do you want?”

In the distance, the sky rumbled.


“Finally!” Seraphine cried, thrusting a triumphant little fist into the air. “We have arrived!”

It depressed her slightly that even in her own head she described herself as ‘little’.

Behind her, Yoctoha and Alicia both thrust their fists into the air with her. ”Huzzah!” they agreed good-naturedly. They probably weren’t mocking her. Probably.

Sorce looked about. “Where does one get shoes?” she asked, tugging her cloak’s hood a bit lower on her face as Nyneth stood behind her, arms spread and face to the sky.

Seraphine twitched. “Where do you usually get them?” she asked tartly. She was still annoyed at all the work she’d had to do because of the Nereid Sorce had brought along. She was not strong in Aquatheurgy!

“Here, it would be an embassy,” Sorce said, her pack distending the back of her cloak. “But as this town does not possess an embassy, I suppose an alternative must be sought.”

Warf blinked at her. “Do you buy everything you have from your embassy?” he asked, swaying from one foot to another.

“No,” Sorce said, wiping her face. “Just most of it.”

Seraphine hmphed. ”I don’t see why you’re so insistent on shoes,” she said. “Even if the cobbler gets started right now, it won’t be ready for a few days at least.”

Sorce paused and blinked. Then she said, “That would have been helpful to know much sooner.”

Above them, thunder rolled as if to punctuate her statement, before the long, steady fall of the rain resumed. Well, at least Seraphine hadn’t needed to gather water that morning. There’d been plenty of water all day.

The town of Third Gate was build right up against the Empty Range, in front of one of the major entrances into the caverns. The opening had once been the mouth of a river that had carved its way into the rock, eventually becoming one of the many such waterways into the mountain. Centuries ago a road had been carved into the rock above the river to serve caravans. Now it was just one of many points of entry into the massive cave complex that filled the massive mountain range, serving as a major trade route through to the north and northwest portions of the continent of Relvin. Third Gate had grown at the entrance as one of Atlam’s major trading cities, taxing the goods passing through the caverns both over land and on the river. And, of course, as a choke point should someone come through the caverns to invade.

They’d made it to the town with tomorrow to spare, all but the Nereid in sodden cloaks, with Alicia and Yoctoha both maintaining flat panels of vene around them in an effort to keep the rain off. Given the that the rain kept blowing in their faces, it wasn’t much good. Scien had stopped trying, saying it was a waste of ink and he and Seraphine simple tried to keep their Logosi dry as best as they could. Vaydiriun– Wade, she reminded herself– didn’t even have a cloak, just a leather hood and mantle he put on over his leather coat. He was more concerned about the state of his handshots, muttering in annoyance about the water getting into the mechanism. The winds had been gusting, flipping up their cloaks and getting them wet regardless of what they tried to do. The cobbled streets of the town had been slick with water, most of it flowing down into the river as it roared towards the cavern entrance. The outskirts of the city had been filled with caravan wagons with the beasts and occasional machines to pull them, but as they passed through the heavy gates set into the stone walls surrounding the town, the streets within were strangely empty of vehicular activity, the long, wide main avenue leading down towards the cavern free of anything more significant than the occasional cart or carriage.

“Strange,” Sorce said, looking about as they walked and occasionally checking behind her to see if the Nereid was still there. “Why is there so little traffic?”

“Maybe the road is flooded?” Alicia ventured. She looked behind her. “Nyneth! You shouldn’t drink from puddles on the road, you don’t know what’s been in it!”

The Nereid looked up, recognizing her name, but only stopped trying to drink after Sorce said something in her language. She made a neck and shoulder motion, and seemed only reluctantly raise her head from the water, crooning something back at Sorce, who responded with her own gabble ending in a recognizable word. Poisonous. The last word was repeated multiple times as Nyneth mouthed it, seemingly trying to fit her strange mouth around it.

“How has teaching her to speak been coming along?” Warf asked as they walked along towards the Shardesse chapter house, peeking into every likely inn for any sign of vacancy.

Sorce tilted her head. “Nyneth already knows how to speak. I have begun to instruct her in Saxoish, however, though it will be some time yet. The differences in sentence structure make communication problematic. The placement of…”

Seraphine tuned them out, not really interested in what sounded like a very technical description. She’d heard as much before when she’d first been learning Logotheurgy. Sighing, she looked into another inn they passed, some place with too-bright paint and suggestive gargoyles spewing out water from the eaves. It was full and some of the faces inside looked vaguely familiar. The bandages helped in this regard.

“She should have moved faster,” she muttered to herself. “All the inns are filled already! Now where are we going to sleep?”

Wade patted her reassuringly on the shoulder. “If worse comes to worse, perhaps we can camp in the caverns. We are not likely to be rained on there.”

Seraphine opened her mouth to retort something, but nothing came out. She stared, her steps slowing. Around her, she noticed other people stopping to stare as well. Well, it was more leering in some cases. Most pretended to ignore it, while of course sneaking not-so-covert glances, and several began loudly proclaiming indignation. While glaring unflinchingly and not blinking, of course. Seraphine heard her religion mentioned a few times and felt the familiar stab of annoyance at ignorant heathens with dirty minds.

Behind her, Sorce said, “That woman should not be going about undressed in this weather. It is highly unhealthy.”

The woman in question was walking easily down the street, the spring in her step causing reactions in sizable portions of anatomy that sparked intense jealousy in Seraphine. The long, voluminous silver hair that trailed down to her hips was halfway to being completely waterlogged, and she was absolutely wet, but she paid that as little mind as the puddles she was skipping through. She was looking around at everything with great interest, her wide brown eyes taking everything in.

Next to Sorce, Warf was taking off his cloak, trying to keep his head covered by his round shield as he approached the woman, “Mistress, are you all right?” he asked, holding his cloak out to her as he looked aside. “Were you robbed? Here, take my cloak to cover yourself.”

“Oh, thank you!” she said cheerfully. Seraphine wondered if this nudist was related to Yoctoha. Her eyes were certainly big enough to be Anaydi. “But I already have my own cloak! Besides, I don’t really like the color.” Whistling, she skipped past him and the proffered cloak, and yes, those rhythmic motions were really annoying. The woman turned a corner and disappeared.

As they stood there, blinking at where she had gone– except for Nyneth, who was standing beneath the gush from a gargoyle and seemed to be grooming herself– a group of three figures came running up the street, one carrying a bundled cloak in his arms. They paused, looking about frantically and peering into alleys.

Serahine pointed. “She went that way,” she said blandly. “You just missed her.”

The figure in the lead gave a start, but bowed slightly to Seraphine.  “Thank you,” he said. “Marissa, Immi, come on!”

One of the figures behind him wearing a bright-pink cloak laughed, the sound slightly disturbing. “Oh, relax Kadae, Nyarlat’s a big girl. Nothing is going to happen to her.”

“I think he’s more worried about her happening to someone else, Marissa,” the other figure said dryly, her light-green hair peeking out of her own cloak as she ran past Seraphine.

“So? They deserve anything they get if they’re messing around with a woman naked in the street,” was the laughing reply. “You’re too soft-hearted Immilunelire.”

“Marissa, I swear by the All-Knowledge–”

Sorce’s head snapped up like someone had kicked it hard under the chin, but the two women were gone.

“Something the matter, tall dark sister?” Wade asked as Warf, a bit sheepishly, put his cloak back one, a sympathetic Alicia making him a small roof of vene to keep some of the water off while he did.

Sorce was tilting her head so much it was practically parallel to the ground, but she twirled a hand dismissively. “Nothing currently relevant,” she said absently. “We should get moving.”

There was a small queue at the chapter house, but fortunately for them it was moving rather quickly. The woman at the desk, tall, rather heavy woman, wearing a blindfold, tapped their disks with a glass-topped wand not unlike the one the bearded man had used at Schezanar. She didn’t seem trouble in the least by her blindfold, and Seraphine wondered what her magic was. She could as easily be a Tenebræist as a Seer. She had heard of stories of Seers who could see despite having no more eyes.

They did not get tickets for a free meal.

“Now what do we do?” Scien asked as they stood in the alley next to the chapter house for what little respite against the wind it offered. Alicia and Yoctoha had put up panels of vene above them as the rain redoubled, feeling like someone was emptying a tank right over their heads. Everyone’s cloak but Sorce’s seemed soaked. Her cloak for some reason seemed to just slough the water right off.

“I need to help Nyneth purchase a container for her disk,” Sorce said. “Else she might lose it or drop it.”

Seraphine gave her a flat look. “I meant in terms of finding lodgings. Or do you want to sleep out here?”

“Ah,” Sorce said. “My apologies.”

“I suppose we’ll have to go inn by inn,” Alicia sighed. “They can’t all be full.”

Scien tapped his lips thoughtfully. “If I may make a suggestion?” he said.


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The Gauntlet: Chapter 2

Chapter 2

When Sorce had returned, she had handed Seraphine a sort of thick, fluffy robe and a basket and told her to put on one and put her malodorous dress in the other, showing her how to secure the sliding shutter for privacy. Seraphine had been greatly relieved to strip out of the dress, which she had become irritatingly aware was itchy. She was tempted to scrub her skin right then and there but held herself back. She wasn’t some dog, leaving hair, ticks and fleas everywhere. Definitely not the ticks and fleas, at least, Seraphine was reasonably sure of that.

The robe was very comfortable, though overlong for her, and it trailed on the floor. It was apparently to be held closed by a simple cloth belt, which Seraphine knotted tightly before finally opening the shutter. “All right, it’s your turn,” she said, the basket with her ripe dress, underclothes and Logosi in hand.

Out in the hallway, a naked Sorce was just slipping on her own robe. She turned towards Seraphine as the shutter opened, hands pausing. “Oh, are you already finished changing? I thought it would have taken longer. That dress seemed complicated.”

Seraphine nearly lost her grip on the basket– not to mention her magic– in shock. “W-why are you undressing out here?” she demanded.

Sorce blinked. “You were using the work area,” she replied matter-of-factly, finishing tying her robe around her. “Are you ready to go bathe?”

It was easy not to be envious of the qualities she had that Seraphine didn’t, like height and a sizable bosom. The situation was very distracting. Were all Messiarki like this, disrobing in public without a care for who saw? She latched onto the question as a way of focusing her thoughts, glad she had not lost her concentration on her magic. “Y-yes, I’m ready.”

Seraphine nodded, reaching into the open cabinet behind her– not the one Seraphine where had stored her possessions– and drew out a cylinder. Stepping around Seraphine, she partially closed the shutters and stuck the arm with the cylinder into the opening. There was a long, curious hiss, before Sorce hastily shut the shutters with a click. She placed the cylinder back within the cabinet Seraphine presumed held the Messiarki’s possessions and drew out a small round container of some strange material containing what looked like a bar of soap and a bottle of some colored liquid before shutting the cabinet with a click. Turning, she took the basket from Seraphine, who hastily took her Logosi, and placed the container on top of the dress. “Please follow me,” she said, carrying the basket.

She moved deeper down the hallway, Seraphine struggling to follow without tripping on the hem of her robe. As she did, a horrible thought occurred to her. “Um… these baths,” she hazarded. “Men aren’t allowed there, are they?” She’d heard how in some countries, like Anayd, men and women bathed together. Given the things she was finding out about the Messiarki, it was more than probable they might practice it as well. Still, one could hope.

Her hopes were promptly dashed when Sorce said. “Of course they are. There’s only one bathing area after all. But don’t worry,” Sorce said. “Most have already had their bath for the day, so if you are not at risk of breaking your culture’s nudity taboo. I checked when I went to procure you a robe, and there were currently no men present. If there are, I can ask them to look away, and we can find a bathing stall for you where you will not be inadvertently seen.” She turned to look at Seraphine, and the smaller woman had the strangest feeling the Messiarki was trying to comfort her. “I understand you might not find the situation ideal, but it is the best that can currently be managed. I apologize if you are finding accommodations difficult.”

“Th-they’re not difficult,” Seraphine said hastily. “I’m just unused to them. I have never been in a Messiarki embassy before.”

“Few have, it seems,” Sorce said. “Trade negotiations are usually conducted in the common room when none are about and I have heard whores generally don’t stay longer than their allotted time. You are probably the first outsider to use the bathing facilities.”

Seraphine did not doubt it. She did not think the whores would have stayed to bathe.

They reached the door at the end of the hall, and Sorce drew out a card from the pocket of her robe. It looked different from the one she had handled before, and when she slid it over the ubiquitous red mark on the door it slid open. Beyond was a room with a doorway against each wall, and had the look of another antechamber. Shelves lined the walls, with one wall full of folded toweling, though Seraphine recognized a few shelves containing folded robes. There were other things on the shelves too that were less recognizable. Serphine wasn’t sure if they were boxes or implements. Other smaller shelves held empty baskets not unlike the one that held Seraphine’s dress, though Seraphine saw wrinkled garments in a few. One shelf was conspicuously empty of clothes or basket.

“Do not worry,” Sorce said, placing the basket containing Serahpine’s dress in the empty shelf and removing the container. She gestured towards the clothes. “I checked and the ones currently inside are women. It is not considered too great a violation for you to be seen naked by another woman, is it?”

“No,” Seraphine said, though she mentally added that it was sometimes still embarrassing. “It is not, as long as they don’t ogle.”

Sorce nodded, reaching for towels. Seraphine moved to take them, feeling she had to make a contribution of some sort. The toweling was immensely heavy and thick, and Seraphine couldn’t help but admire their texture. She followed Sorce to one of the doorways, which was covered by a sort of curtain cut into long strips. The curtain glistened with water, which slid down to the floor and into a basin that led into a drain. When Sorce passed through, steam wafted through. Seraphine put her Logosi between the towels and followed after, her feet leaving the thick carpet and coming on to a strange, textured surface that felt like rough wood covered with thick paint.

She glanced down, to see she was standing on a pale floor she could not identify. Really, what did the Messiarki build things out of? It might have been stone, but it didn’t seem as hard. Seraphine looked around. Along one was a long mirror in front of a counter of some sort with deep, bowl-like depressions on it. All along the edges of the room, were stalls separated by panels, each with a sort of door in front. The door stopped about a pace off the ground, and rose only partway to the ceiling, leaving an opening a person– well, a person other than Seraphine– would be able to crane their neck over. In the center of the room were twelve large square tubs, each looking able to accommodate about ten people comfortably, filled with water with mist rising up from it. It was all brightly lit, as seemed the Messiarki way, and she could hear the echoes of some kind of conversation in the Messiarki tongue.

“This way,” Sorce said to her. “The stalls on the far side should be empty, and none are likely to go there deliberately when there are free stalls close to the entrance. Will that be sufficient?”

“Yes, thank you,” Seraphine said, following after her and trying to keep her Logosi dry in the humidity. She placed one hand on top of the towels, and felt her shadow touching the weak, blurred shadows cast by the towel. Without even needing to think, she claimed them, adding their surface area to the own shadow. No one noticed the dark space between the towels grow darker as she gave the shadows mass, then increased their density, wrapping her Logosi in an impenetrable solid shadow not even air could pass through.

Sorce led her to the farthest stall on the same wall as the door, opening the door for her since it was annoyingly high up. It was big enough for four people to stand comfortably in, and there was some sort of spout built into the ceiling, a wide metal thing with multiple nozzles. A drain was set on the floor, and a rack made of metal rods, almost wire thin, extended from one stall panel. Next to the door was a cabinet where she was apparently supposed to store her towel and robe as she bathed. On the wall opposite were two handles like the taps on a barrel, one red, the other blue. Seraphine stared at it all in confusion as Sorce took one of the towels, and Seraphine hastily let the shadows she had made dissolved, folding her towel over her Logosi and quickly stuffing it into the cabinet. She glanced at the pools in the center of the room? Were they supposed to get water from the pools? But were where the buckets, the ladles?

Sorce, about to say something, paused. “Is something the matter?”

Seraphine waved blankly at the stall. “I… don’t know how I’m supposed to use this,” she said, letting her confusion show. She was confused, after all.

Sorce glanced at the stall, then at Seraphine. Her eyes widened, the first recognizable expression Seraphine had seen. “No, you would not, would you?” she said. There was a pause. Finally, she said, “Do you have any particular objections to bathing with me? I could demonstrate the facilities, but you might require more assistance.”

Seraphine stared, and wondered for a moment whether this had all been some intricate plan to get her alone and naked to take advantage of her in some fashion. But Sorce was patiently waiting for her answer, and seemed perfectly willing to accept whatever she said. Seraphine looked at the unknowable stall again, then at the pools. She could find a way to bathe herself, simply jump into a pool and scrubbing, but that didn’t seem what the facilities were for, and would likely be seen as very rude. And she supposed if the other woman had intended to take advantage of her here, she wouldn’t have asked, merely tried to overpower Seraphine.

“No, I suppose not,” she said reluctantly, slowly backing into the stall.

Sorce stepped in slowly, easily discarding her robe and roughly folding before storing it into the cabinet along with her towel. The other woman had a lean but healthy build, her skin a bit pale where the sun didn’t hit it much, in contrast to her lightly tan face. Seraphine hastily looked away so she would not be thought to be ogling and reluctantly undid the robe. She folded it, not as neatly, while Sorce placed the container she’d been carrying on the rack and began to manipulate the taps. Seraphine was just glancing upwards and subtly moving her shadow to connect with what little shadow the cabinet cast to claim it when water erupted from the spout on the ceiling, worming several hot, stinging streams, Seraphine yelped in surprise, backing away.

“My apologies,” Sorce said. “The water from the heater is always too hot by itself, allow me a moment to find the right mix…” Sorce fiddled with the two tap handles for a while, occasionally stretching out one arm into the spray to test the heat. “It feels fine now,” she said after a while. “Will you try it, and tell me if I must adjust it colder or warmer?”

Seraphine cautiously stepped into the spray. She had, on one memorable occasion, been caught in the rain on the way to this city, and had been forced to camp early so as to keep from freezing to death. This was nothing like that at all. The water was pleasantly hot without being scalding, flowing in mildly stinging streams that instantly soaked her as she stepped full under it, feeling her the tug on her scalp as her hair noticeably gained weight. She opened her mouth to speak, but the water was too thick to speak through without it getting into her mouth, and she moved out of the spray. “It’s just right,” she said.

They took turns moving under the spray of water, Sorce noticeably giving her precedence. She had heard of baths like these, used in some parts of the world. It was some kind of rain barrel on the roof connected by pipe to a tap and a perforated nozzle of some sort, supposedly. Sometimes there was  a pump in there somewhere. This was certainly nothing of the sort, and she had to wonder at the effort that went into this. Was there a boiler somewhere, constantly heating water should someone wish to bathe? Did they use magic instead? Given all the lights and doors that worked by magic in this place, she had no trouble thinking they’d use it to constantly keep water heated to be used.

When they were both wet and scrubbed, Sorce handed Seraphine the soap, a dark, hard, blocky thing that smelled of mildly of medicine. Seraphine could practically feel it at work as she scrubbed at her skin with a pumice stone Sorce handed her. When they were both scrubbed, Seraphine reluctantly allowing the other to scrub her back and returning the favor in kind, Sorce showed her how to use the mixture, a kind of liquid soap, to clean her hair. They had to use it several times, with the two of them cooperating to lather Seraphine’s voluminous hair to get all the oil and dirt out. A few small insects, several peddles, and a feather fell out. In all that time, the hot water never ran out.

With the bottle of liquid soap reduced a great deal and both of their skins rubbed raw pink, they finally stepped out of the stall. Seraphine was told that it was usual to finish a bath by taking a warm soak in one of the pools, followed by heavy petting or conversation, but she demurred, her tiredness hitting her like a load of bricks. Sorce helped her don one of her clean shifts– it was a bit late for modesty at that point, and she was too sleepy to care– and she managed to crawl into one of the oven-like bunks without feeling she was going into a coffin to be buried, letting Sorce close dim the lights and close the door behind her. She was asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow, her Logosi clutched in her arms.

*

Sorce had brought her breakfast from the Embassy’s kitchen that morning, several buns filled with shredded meat and some sort of pickled vegetables in a thick sauce. They’d eaten in the recess next to where they’d slept. Sorce had shown her how a panel of the wall on one side could unfold down into a table surface, while the wall on the other side could flip down into a bench. They ate with the shutter closed, as Seraphine was clad only in the shift she had slept in, making the quarters seem strangely intimate. Sorce herself was wearing what appeared to be cloth trousers and a blouse made of very light, fine material. The buns were actually quite tasty, and she ate three before slowing down and finishing the last in a more dignified manner. When Sorce had proposed she stay another night, she had found herself accepting. She knew she should have made to leave, but strange as this place was, it was… fairly comfortable. Besides, finding an inn was not likely to be easier than the night before. Quite the opposite, most likely. Besides, her dress and other clothes still hadn’t come back from cleaning. And yet…

“Why?” she suddenly found herself asking as Sorce handed her a cup of water. The cup, at least, was normal enough pottery. “Why are you being so generous towards me?”

She distinctly saw the Messiarki hesitate. “You seemed… in need,” Sorce said slowly.

Seraphine had bristled slightly, but it was morally difficult to be righteously indignant after sleeping in a bed someone had provided and eating the food they had brought you. Still, she gave it a try. “You helped me out of pity, is that it?”

“In part,” Sorce said. “But I will admit to some ulterior motive.”

At Seraphine’s sternly raised eyebrow, she continued, “Would it be possible for us to travel together during the Gauntlet?”

Seraphine hid her surprise. “Would we not be doing so anyway?” she said. While the Gauntlet would start here in Schezanar, it would not finish here.

“So I have read,” Sorce said. “But I meant we should travel together as companions. Such a journey would be… lonely, even in the company of many people.”

“Why me?” Seraphine asked. “Why not Vaydiriun, or anyone else with us the night before.”

“They did not appear to be in need of company themselves,” Sorce said.

Seraphine glared. She hadn’t seemed like that, had she? “Well, I suppose I could let you hang around,” Seraphine said airily. “But we each carry our own weight in the Gauntlet itself, all right? I’m not going to do your test for you.”

Sorce tilted her head slightly. What she had to be curious about, Seraphine didn’t know, but eventually she nodded. “Agreed. It is our abilities being tested, after all. You dress will be ready soon. If you like, as long as you are staying here, we can have the rest of your clothing laundered.”

“If it’s no trouble,” Seraphine said. “But I cannot say here all day. I need to make preparations for tomorrow.”

They agreed to meet at the same pavilion as last night at around sunset, thought Sorce seemed bemused at such an inexact time. As Seraphine put on her second-cleanest dress, she mentally reviewed her itinerary. She would have to risk visiting a banker and draw funds, both for supplies and for the Gauntlet itself. They were given few resources during the event, only destinations to reach and tests to overcome. Although she’d heard Shardesse would sometimes supply food and lodgings, most of the time she would have to provide for herself.

The dark blue dress she put on was a far cry from her clothes the night before in terms of cleanliness, yet all the same, as Seraphine found herself parting was with Sorce in front of the embassy, she wondered if there would be time to also have it cleaned. Asking about, Seraphine was glad to find the banking office her family used in Anilam had a chapter house in the city. Her family had apparently not yet learned of her current misadventure, and so after some scrutiny of her sigil stamp and her letter of rights from her banker in Anilam, she walked away with a considerable amount of money to try and provision herself for the Gauntlet.

She’d learned from the months it had taken her to get here from Holvidai. Nothing sweet, since it drew insects; no fruits, since they turned bad; no flour, since she couldn’t cook anyway and bread wasn’t as simple as throwing bread and flour together then sticking it in the fire. She’d found a lumberyard and came away with a long sturdy board about half a pace wide. Both sides had been sanded smooth and the edges rounded. She’d used a fallen log for some time on the way until she hadn’t found enough dry wood one night. It just wasn’t the same doing it using your skirt. Flying with Thaumaturgy was faster, but she was better at Tenebrætry, and she didn’t have enough time to work up her affinity.

She went through the rest of her errands standing on the board, gliding through the streets on a cushion of shadow about two knuckles thick. Seraphine wasn’t the only one traveling that way, though most people doing so where transporting goods of some sort. Tenebræisti preferred to leap from shadow to shadow when they traveled,  through the air between buildings of flying through the shadows between alleys. Still, it worked for her. It was quick, convenient and easy to maintain. She found, with some difficulty, jerky almost as tough as leather and nearly as appetizing but edible enough as long as she kept her mouth wet, and a foray to the docks found her some ships’ biscuit, which was almost the same. Both went into a new haversack, of good leather along with new soap, thread and some clean linen to repair her clothes or to use as bandages. Medicine wouldn’t be an issue, since she was strong in Pyrotheurgy and good at healing, but she bought some remedies in case it became too wet for her to use those particular skills.

The sparklers were just starting to appear, cutting their line across the sky as she made her way back to where she had arranged to meet Sorce in front of the embassy. The Messiarki was already waiting for her, and they’d stored Seraphine’s supplies before heading out to see if Vaydiriun would be at the eating pavilion to meet them. They found him there with a new group of people, some more strays that had come in that morning, others those who’d come in much earlier.

“Have you heard?” Vaydiriun said, one introductions had been made.

“No,” Seraphine said succinctly as she seated herself, Sorce next to her. The other woman, for some unfathomable reason, had again come to dinner wearing her cloak with the hood over her head. “Heard what?” They were all speaking in Alvatin now, for which Seraphine was grateful. As fluent as she was in other languages, it was nice to speak her own tongue.

“They found a Nereid in one of the fountains this morning,” Terwin, a Logotheurgist with boyish silver hair said, twirling a pink pen in her fingers and occasionally tapping it on her Logosi. “Passed out in the water, struggling to breath. They think the poor thing was overcome by the dock water. People are always throwing trash in, no matter what the Water Witches tell them.”

“The knights who found her had to take her to Shardesse,” one of her companions said, a woman with chestnut hair and wine-red eyes. “No one in the city knew anything about healing a Nereid, and she was too wet for a Burner to heal.”

“But what was it doing this far south?” Seraphine asked, confused. “The Sea People prefer to live in warm water. It must be freezing around here.” She knew about the Nereidi, the folk who lived beneath the sea. They visited Anilam all the time, for rope or worked metal or spirits. There was a tribe who lived not far from the city, growing rats rafts and competing with the locals over the fish and other edible things of the sea. Seraphine had sometimes played with their young ones in the shallows when she’d been younger, thought she could remember any names right at that moment.

“I heard it was carrying an application letter in a bottle,” a tall woman with long pink hair in a tail said. “It must have been trying to apply.”

The consensus seemed to be along the lines of ‘poor thing’ as the stew and bread were brought over. Seraphine said a blessing, as did a few of the others, but most, Sorce included, just started eating right away. The Messiarki ate slower than the night before, thoughtfully. Seraphine was dipping her beard into her stew again– it was such wonderful bread for dipping– when Sorce turned to her and asked, “What is Nereid?”

There were a bunch of confused and amused looks around the table, as much for the question as for the mangled grammar.

“She’s Messiarki,” Seraphine said by way of explanation. “They don’t have Nereidi around there.” Messiark was northeast of Rondiumiun, if she remembered correctly, and it snowed there. That was more than cold enough to discourage Nereidi.

Everyone looked at Sorce with varying levels of curiosity and interest. She, for her part, stared right back, face more expressionless than a statue. At least statues had the excuse of being stone. Finally, she turned back to Seraphine. “What is Nereid?” she repeated.

Seraphine struggled to explain, a bit annoyed at the interruption of dinner. “The Nereidi are the sea folk,” she said. “Haven’t you at least heard about them in Messiark? They’re shaped like people, except they can breathe water…?”

Sorce blinked. “Oh!” she almost seemed to exclaim. “To refer you Managhalin.”

Seraphine couldn’t held wincing at the complete lack of conjugation, but nodded. “Yes, I suppose I am,” she said. She’d almost forgotten the Nereidi had a name for themselves. It was something of a surprise Sorce was more familiar with it than the common term for them.

Sorce began eating again, but her concentration was clearly divided now. “I have always wanted to see a Managhalin,” she seemed to be musing, switching to Saxoish. “Do you think perhaps they’d let me examine the specimen?”

“Likely not,” Vaydiriun said dryly. “But perhaps she will recover and will be joining us tomorrow. You can ask to examine her then.”

Sorce nodded, as if this was a perfectly sensible suggestion, and resumed eating, soon as intent on her food as before, with no sign she was paying attention to anyone around her. Seraphine sighed at little. She supposed she would have to get used to it, if they would be keeping company. ”Pass the wakebean tea, will you?”

*

It was dark, cloudy and gloomy the following morning as Seraphine stepped out of the Messiarki embassy, her haversacks over her shoulder and her board being pulled along on her shadow. She wore what had been her third cleanest dress, a subdued dark green and smelling faintly of the Messiarki soap that had been used to clean it, her cloak over her shoulders and her hair pulled back. Behind her, Sorce was dragging along a monstrosity of a pack, with wheels actually built into the bottom to make it easier for her. Though made of some sort of green and dark tan-patterned cloth, it was about the size of a small trunk and clearly bulging, with the two straps obviously meant to go other Sorce’s shoulders looking ridiculously undersized. Sorce was wearing a thick coat and trousers, the same as she had been since Seraphine had met her, if cleaner and less worn. A short cape hung from her shoulders, trailing to down to cover her to the wrists, while a mantle wrapped around her. Over that she wore her cloak with the hood up and a scarf was wrapped around the lower art of her face.

“Aren’t you warm under that?” she had to comment as they made their way toward the city gates.

“Yes, I am. Pleasantly so,” Sorce said, carrying her pack on her back, her gloved hands holding the straps in what seemed a practiced way. “It is far colder here than it is in Messiark.”

Seraphine frowned. “I thought Messiark was far to the north? Doesn’t it snow there?”

“Sometimes,” Sorce admitted. “We stand in the middle of a stream of warm air from the equator, you see. It makes our climate warmer than it should be for the latitude. Even in winter it usually only rains.”

“Really?” Seraphine said, interested despite herself. She stood on her board, legs spread for balance, carrying both of her haversacks. One smelled pleasantly of new leather, the other of cleaning oil and the soaps that had been used to launder her clothes. “Well, that explains why you’re not used to the cold then.”

Already the streets were beginning to grow crowded. The two hurried to take advantage of the relative lack of people, Sorce’s long legs letting her keep up with Seraphine’s quickly skimming board. Seraphine wondered why the other woman wasn’t shadow-skimming along as well. That pack of hers was big enough to use for it, certainly. Well, she could hardly complain. For such a lean woman, she seemed to have great endurance, keeping up with Seraphine all the way to the city gates.

A large number of people were blocking the road, many in groups of what Seraphine guessed were families. Adults were carrying small children, and some people were carrying baskets as if off to a picnic lunch. And of course, there were the magi. Most were easy to mark out, moving much faster than most of the crowd. Thaumaturgisti flew overhead sheathed in glowing vene, while abnormally large animals, usually horses and wolves, but also some definitely not city-born creatures like deer, dire birds and in one instance a full-sized greatdire, its long, feather legs taking strides longer than most carts, marked the passage of the Anthrowyrmi. Some Logotheurgisti went by carried by their creations. Tenebræisti moved in bubbles of darkness, either leaping through the air on springs of shadow, black tendrils before and behind them or rolling quickly across the ground and sometimes leaving people, carts and animals with less shadow than they started with. While some children yelled shrilly at finding their shadow gone, most paid it no mind. Everyone had experienced having their shadow temporarily claimed by someone to add to their surface area, though there were some who muttered it was rude to do it without permission. Seraphine, for her part, never understood what they were moaning about. Most people wouldn’t notice until it was brought to their attention. Really, who paid any attention to shadows but Tenebræisti? Seraphine even saw an Aquatheurgist passing by inside a large sphere of water, rolling along the road and collecting rocks, dust and several different species of animal manure. It had already needed to stop twice for its passenger to eject all such material, much to Seraphine’s amusement.

They were in no hurry though. While the woods north of the city were some distance away, Seraphine had passed it on her way and she knew they would have plenty of time to get there before noon. The Vitatheurgisti who maintained the woods and countryside around Schezanar kept the edge of the forest far from the city proper, far enough away that no one could get within striking range of the city without being seen, but that wasn’t so far as to make it too impractical for woodcutters. Beyond that were more isolated and less maintained woods, the surrounding towns and village that grew Schezanar’s food.

She and her companion hadn’t spoken much, except for when she announced they needed to leave the road and continue overland, although Sorce would glance at her occasionally. She did not seem to tire from her exertion, and indeed, she kept up with Seraphine well enough, even when she had increased her speed slightly to try and spur her on. It took a while Seraphine to notice how the other woman seemed to glide after every step, and she belatedly realized the woman was shadow-skimming, using her own boots as a surface. She couldn’t help but be impressed. Shadow-skimming created an absolutely frictionless surface to glide along, if you did it right. Hence why most people used it in conjunction with boards, canvases, creates and other things with a wide surface area. If you weren’t careful and used the method on something with a high center of mass– like, say, a person standing up– when you tried to slide you were liable to have your feet go out from under you. The technique wasn’t unknown, but it was mostly used by people in the far north and far south, where it snowed and they had long winters to think of odd stuff. Something called skates was apparently involved.

The sun hadn’t risen halfway to noon before they saw what looked like their destination. The arrow in the sky flashing in many colors and pointing downward helped. Seraphine had seen signs like that before, usually used to guide ships to harbor during storms and fogs. Sorce, however, slowed when she saw it, her movement stopping to a crawl as she simply stood and stared, the shadows under her feet letting her slide along. She, apparently, had not seen such things used before.

The arrow was pointing to a tent pavilion at the edge of the woods. Already there was a crowd around it, and in a circle farther away was another crowd, which Seraphine supposed were the gawkers who hadn’t applied but had come along to watch or possibly sell to or rob those who’d come to watch. Given how much things would likely cost there, it wasn’t much of a difference. The gawkers had been kind enough to leave a path open to the tent, and once Sorce got moving again they took to it, joining a stream of some of the slower or possibly just less showy magi. Many were laden as they were, though more than a few looked in askance and not a little amusement at Sorce’s giant of a pack. A few came in riding horses or wolves, both keeping on opposite sides of the road and as far from each other as possible. While tamed wolves would seldom attack and kill a horse, they did tend to bark and nip at them playfully, and a horse wouldn’t know or care it wasn’t likely to get eaten.

“Are they allowed to bring those?” Sorce asked, watching a wolf and its rider pass by, the top of its back two heads above the Messiarki’s.

It looked like a Merthiani breed, all black with a long muzzle and built for showiness and ability to jump high. Seraphine kept her sneer inside. “They can, if they want,” she said dryly, keeping her voice low so as not to carry. “Damned things eat as much as a woman does and bark all night besides, so in the morning you don’t have anything to hunt to feed to it. But when it finally keels over dead, at least you’ll finally have something to eat.”

“That doesn’t sound very sensible,” Sorce said.

Seraphine gave her a flat look. “Don’t they have sarcasm where you come from?”

Sorce blinked. “Oh,” she said. “Is that what you meant? I apologize for not recognizing it, I am not used to encountering it in casual speech.”

It was Seraphine’s turn to be surprised. “What do you use it for?”

“Closing statements in formal academic or philosophical arguments,” Sorce said.

Seraphine stared and couldn’t help herself. She laughed.

*

The tent and crowd they were expecting.

The water wagon, not so much.

They saw it as they came closer, Sorce disengaging her shadow so that she wouldn’t have to concentrate on it while she looked. The wagon was basically a barrel with wheels and places for the controller and miscellaneous others to sit or hang from, and a pump at one end to move the water. The pump didn’t look well-used or well-maintained. She supposed they used magic to move the water most of the time. Or possibly they never used it. Who knew how they used magic?

Take the board, for one thing. Sorce hadn’t known you could do that, extend your shadow’s effect to other objects. Perhaps that’s why Seraphine wore long skirts, so that her shadow would be wide enough to encapsulate other objects and be included in the effect? She’d have to experiment on that, when next she had a chance. She’d been surprised when her new associate had displayed ability similar to hers, if only because it also involved shadows. Her readings had informed her that there were 14 major forms of magic, but that implied there were more minor forms, and her information hadn’t included what that might be. The book, a copy of a journal by someone who had gone to the Shardesse-controlled city of Bantai, had apparently been written with the assumption any reader would know already. That implied it was common knowledge.

If the information was so common, why hadn’t she found anything about it after six months?

All right, there were some difficulties– all right, a lot of difficulties– regarding her mastery of some– all right, all– of the languages besides Rondiumiun-dialect Saxoish that were making her attempts to gain this information unsuccessful. She was still learning conjugation, but she was fairly certain she was getting her point across in Alvatin, which seemed to be the most commonly used language. She’d be speaking it like a native any day now. Any week, tops. Any month, at the latest. Surely no more than a year!

As they drew closer, Sorce saw that the wagon bore the symbol of the local peace-keeping force of Schezanar. There were even a few of their armored soldiers around it, keeping people back and strangely refusing requests for water. Sorce had filled her water containers to capacity before she had left, and in case of emergency she had a small water condenser to distill water for her, but some it seemed had not have been so prepared. If they hadn’t been sent to supply water, then why were they there with what was apparently a full water wagon? The water dripping from a leak revealed it was full, so it was unlikely to be due to a lack of supply.

“I wonder what that’s about?” Seraphine said, her curiosity almost childish. It had surprised Sorce at first how intensely people outside of Messiark expressed their feelings. All those open displays, it had almost seemed like they were mocking her. They couldn’t really be so obvious, could they? It had felt like she’d be surrounded by a Preparatory Education class, or a group enacting horribly overdone pantomime. Fortunately, the protocol educator at the embassy in Rondiumiun had informed her about this before she had wrongly assessed a situation. Sorce had been informed that this was how continentals regularly expressed themselves. What Messiarki considered as childishly overt, even grotesque displays were actually the cultural norm, she had learned during the short orientation seminar. It still seemed a little silly to her all these people would walk around being so unrestrained, but she had integrated the information and made use of it. One of the workers in another embassy she visited had even taught her how to turn it into an advantage by teaching her how to play a gambling game involving dice. It had been easy for her to read the expressions of those she had attempted to play the game with later, although after nearly being killed once when she had been unfairly accused of cheating she had restrained herself from repeating the activity excessively.

She shrugged, a minute twitch of her shoulders. “Do you wish to ask?” she said in the overly formal Saxoish she’d learned in Education. She’d read of the more relaxed and informal modes in books, but there weren’t enough examples there for her to accurately adapt it. Running into Seraphine had been statistically favorable for her. She was already learning a lot of colloquial Saxoish, especially the way she combined certain words together into single one.

Seraphine shrugged hugely. It was clearly affected, since she still looked intensely curious. “We’d better not waste our energy,” she said. “We might need it all for whatever is going to happen at noon.”

Sorce found herself frowning slightly in thought, but nodded. “Do you wish to eat while we wait?” she asked. “I brought some breakfast bread with me from the embassy kitchen. It should still be warm.”

Many of the waiting people, both magi and gawkers, had settled under themselves under trees on the edges of the woods, some breaking out their woven baskets to have picnics. A few tents had even been set up, many of them quite fine, with a few even having the sheen of mithliline. The artificial fabric was considered a luxury item on the continent, though Sorce found making any kind of tent out of it silly. It was hardly waterproof.

When she pointed it out to Seraphine, she sniffed and sneered. “Idiots,” she said, and Sorce winced at such a strong invective used so casually. “Do they really think they’ll be allowed to bring along their servants on the Gauntlet?”

“I believe there is no rule against it,” Sorce said.

“There doesn’t need to be,” Seraphine retorted strongly. “Everyone knows the Gauntlet is deadly. Sure, you can probably hire guards and magi to come with you and protect you on the Gauntlet, but anyone good enough to do that would be Shardessi already or applying to be Shardessi, and anyone less is a dead woman walking. The early stages of the Gauntlet are said to be planned to weed out such people. ”

“Ho, little blonde sister, tall dark sister!”

Sorce and Seraphine exchanged glances at the call, and Sorce was fairly certain they were thinking the same thing. “We seem to meet him quite often,” Sorce observed.

Vaydiriun Daiyamir was taking his ease on the branches of a tree, his back against its trunk and one leg swinging back and forth lazily. He was dressed similar to the merchants and other rich of Rondiumiun, but Sorce recognized the dark lining under his red coat as thermisol, meant to keep him insulated, and while his boots where of dark leather they were heavier built and well-broken in. The two long-barreled guns on his back had been joined by a crossed pair of belts at his waist, each carrying a pair of metal and wood objects. It took Seraphine a moment to recognize them through the artistry and stylistic embellishment as smaller guns, likely short-range models. On the belt hung replacement cartridges. A pack and a long case stood at the foot of the tree, likely his own supplies. Sitting next to them was a robed man Sorce vaguely recognized as from the evening meal two days ago. Scien, if she remembered correctly. He looked up from his book at their approach, the annoyed and uncomfortable look on his face changing to one of surprise and a different kind of discomfort as he hastily stood up and made a polite bow of greetings, capping his pen.

“How nice to see you again,” Vaydiriun greeted more boisterously, his smile broad. Somehow, the expression didn’t seem as comical on him. It was like his face had been designed for wide smiles. “And better to see you have become friends! Perhaps you will not find this journey so lonely.”

“Two days do not make a friendship,” Seraphine retorted, but made her way towards the tree. Sorce did the same, looking round warily for scat, animals or hive insects. Unpleasant encounters with all three had made her wry. “We are acquaintances, at best.”

Sorce nodded agreement, but no one seemed to notice the gesture. “Indeed,” she said. “Though the company is certainly pleasant. And the companion as well.”

Seraphine gave her one of those looks Sorce couldn’t read. So far, she had, by context and similarity to the expressions she knew, found in it elements of disbelief, suspicion, wariness, and constipation, though she wasn’t sure about that last part. It seemed there was a very complicated emotion behind that expression. Best to gather empirical data about it for now. She carefully lay her pack on the ground, unzipping the side-pouch where she’d put the food. Seraphine had seemed to enjoy them, so she had taken a few and put it in an insulated pack. She’d originally planned with only Seraphine in mind, but since they had met acquaintances, it would be impolite to not offer. “Would you like one?” she said, opening the insulated pack and showing Vaydiriun the bread.  “We have some to spare.”

Seraphine brightened at the sight of the food, and Sorce smiled slightly. So, she had guessed right. Seraphine took one of the buns, eyes widening in pleasant surprise. “Oh! They’re still warm!”

“The pack is specially made to keep food warm,” she explained, taking one for herself, and offering another to Scien. “Would you like some?” she asked– hoped she asked– in Alvatin. She was somehow sure she hadn’t conjugated that correctly. She kept getting the conjugation rules mixed up with Merthiani.

He hesitated, but accepted a bun. “Thank you,” he said, even as his inky fingers smeared black marks on the bread. He looked at the marks in dismay even as Sorce hurried to get him another bun, but he twirled her off, biting into the bread despite the ink. Sorce hoped it wasn’t lead-based or had similar poisonous substances in it.

She turned to offer Vaydiriun some as well, but hesitated as as she realized he was still up on the tree’s branches. As she paused, wondering how she was going to get him the bun– it was probably a bad idea to throw it up there– Sorce caught sight of movement on the ground out of the corner of her eye. As she turned, a transparent black… thing… lifted up from the ground, and darkened almost solid. She froze in surprise, watching as the thing lengthened, the tip of it dipping into the bag of buns and drawing out one. It wrapped around it, then arched upward towards Vaydiriun, who nonchalantly took it.

Sorce unfroze, and she looked down, following the black tendril to where it connected with the shadow Seraphine cast. The older woman noticed her looking and gave her that complicated look again.

“Would you like another one?” Sorce asked, taking another herself and holding out the open bag. Seraphine hesitated, then made a rather bad attempt at nonchalance as she took another one. Sorce smiled again.

The two men had no objections to the two of them sharing their tree. Seraphine and Sorce made themselves comfortable as Vaydiriun called out to other people he knew. A few stopped to talk to him, but most just waved and went on their way.

“It is rather rude of them not to stop a moment,” Sorce said disapprovingly. After all, it wasn’t like they were in any hurry to go somewhere.

“They probably want to avoid contact with anyone until the first event is done,” Scien said, looking up from his book. He’d continued writing in it as soon as they finished all the buns, though what little Sorce had glimpsed in passing made no sense. A cypher of some sort. “It would be awkward if the first event had us in direct competition. Despite his limited abilities, Vaydiriun has garnered a reputation.”

“Who are you calling limited, scribbler?” Vaydiriun called down dryly.

Scien shrugged. “My apologies. But you must admit, it is a rather passive ability.”

“So is breathing,” Vaydiriun said. “But I doubt you’ll find anyone who has a low opinion of it.”

“He has you there,” Seraphine said. She glanced again at the water wagon, sitting not far from them and still turning away the occasional person who came to asked for water. Occasionally one of the armored soldiers would open the grill at the top and reach in as if to stir the water, their hand wet after they pulled it out.

“Perhaps we should ask them why they are here?” Sorce proposed.

Seraphine turned towards her, looking annoyed. “What?”

“If you are curious about why they have a water wagon on hand, we can go ask them,” Sorce said. Truthfully, she didn’t understand what was so interesting about it.

“I’m not curious,” Seraphine huffed, lying very badly. “It’s just that if they’re not here to give people water, then what’s the point of dragging a single water wagon in the middle of nowhere?”

“Maybe the first event carries a risk of fire?” Scien proposed.

“That can be stopped by only one water wagon?” Seraphine said. “We probably have enough magi here to deal with any fire that small.”

Sorce wasn’t all that curious herself, but Seraphine seemed unable to bet the subject out of her mind. They watched as one of the soldiers– the same one as before, Sorce noted, always the same one– stirred the water again.

The world flickered.

After six months, Sorce knew enough not to close her eyes, instead quickly suppressing the involuntary impulse. They were like hiccups, she’d come to learn, random twitches that came and went. They’d become less common as she’d learned to voluntarily initiate the impulse on her own. Still, the momentary flicker gave her pause. There’d been something…

She let her sight change. It had taken her a while to realize what she saw when this happened, when the strange black shapes and spots came into her sight, even through closed eyelids. They always made such strange shapes, and it had taken a while for Sorce to see what they corresponded to in her environment. She’d realized what she was seeing after it had happened to her one night as she lay waiting to fall asleep though. The world had flickered, and when she’d sat up in annoyance, she had seen, across from her, a sort of negative image of the inside of the storage cabinet at the foot of her bed. The explanation had come to her, as clear and obvious as it had been irrational, and no subsequent empirical data had contradicted her conclusion. The black shapes were lightless spaces, she had realized, areas of little to no light. The lines that she saw on her hands and arms had become obvious then, the veins and capillaries of blood that ran through her body. Shadows were more muted in comparison but stood out more than before, but lost in the view of the pure blacks of the dark places where no light passed that she should not have been able to see.

Now, as the shadows she normally didn’t really notice seemed to stand out in her eyes and the shape of people’s bodies became outlined through their clothes by the shape of the shadows beneath the fabric, she looked at the water wagon. The dark shape was firmly outlined around the edges but diffusing in the middle, likely due to the grille on top. She could just make out the impression left by a large, round shape with many curves, and hundreds of thin, branching lines and…

Oh.

“There appears to be a body floating in the water inside the wagon,” she said, surprised and not a little nauseous at the thought.

Seraphine, Vaydiriun and Scien all turned to stare at her. Then Vaydiriun looked up and stared intently at the water wagon. “Oh my. So there is. And it appears to be alive.”

Sorce glanced at him, surprised, then looked back. She recognized the spaces of a body as she usually saw it in this mode, the blood vessels and lungs and stomach, the network of spaces in the skull, and even the small, twitching bundle of darkness that was the heart, which she could see was beating, although there was something off about the rhythm. She saw the lungs inflate and deflate.

She released her concentration, the world returning to simple colors and light as her eyes stung. She was slowly getting used to it. The sun was hot overhead, and she had removed her cloak and folded it back into her pack. How could it be so hot and so cold at the same time? Surely such a paradox should be impossible. Wasn’t it noon yet? “That is certainly incongruous,” she finally said. “I wonder how they are managing to breathe? I do not think I saw a hose or tube of any sort.”

Everyone paused.

“You don’t think…” Seraphine began.

“Well, it would certainly explain why they do not seem to have any breathing apparatus,” Sorce said.

“But in a water wagon?” Scien said.

“The Valieriter Kysla are stern as an organization, but its members surely have a romantic streak,” Vaydiriun said. “While their high command would not order it, a few officers taking it upon themselves to aid someone who has gone so far to reach their ambition would certainly not be a surprise.”

“But in a water wagon?” Scien repeated.

“It might have been the only way to transport the subject safely,” Sorce said, then paused. “We are speaking of the Managhalin, correct? The ‘Nereid’? I wish to be sure.”

“Yes, I believe we are,” Vaydiriun said, looking amused.

She nodded. “To be sure.”

A murmur rose, and they all looked up. The soldier was on top on to the water wagon, bent down with an arm stuck in once more. This time however, dark arms where  rising out of the opening. As they watched, a small, obviously feminine, figure emerged from the wagon. The murmurs rose, many people craning to see.

Sorce rose, slung her pack over her back and began to walk quickly towards the water wagon.

Seraphine frowned at her. “Where are you going?” the blonde asked.

“To examine a subject!” she called back.

The Managhalin was being helped to the ground as Sorce walked over. Other were also coming for a closer view, but the guards around the water wagon stood between them. Sorce paused where she had a clear view, watching. Though the tips of her limbs to her knees and elbows were a dark blue verging on green, the rest of her limbs and torso were decorated in stripes of white and bright yellow. The Managhalin’s naked body, while small– she looked only a head taller than Seraphine–  had a sleek, elongated look. There was thick, heavy skin stretched between her fingers. Before Sorce could make out any more details, one of the soldiers wrapped a large towel over her. She let out a high-pitched cry of clear distress, cringing and curling herself into a ball. The soldiers shared confused looks as the Managhalin scrambled out from under the towel, still very wet. One of them picked it up and reached to dry her again, and she let out another cry of distress, turning and trying to scramble back up and into the water wagon. .

“She thinks you are trying to capture her,” Sorce called, hoping they understood.

One of the nearest soldiers glanced at her, and warily placed herself between Sorce and the Managhalin. “Capture her?” she repeated. “But that’s absurd.”

Sorce shrugged. “In the seas around the Scattered Islands– ” that was the name, wasn’t it? “– where the Managhalin and certain isolated tribes still fight, the Managhalin are captured by means of nets and heavy cloths thrown over them to blind and entangle them. Given known Managhalin migratory patterns, it is possible this one has encountered them at least once and is familiar with her people’s lore on the tactic.” Sorce smiled, trying to seem friendly and useful.

“Push off, this is no business of yours,” she said, turning her back on Sorce. Well, so much for being helpful.

Sorce coughed trying to clear her throat. Managhalin were known to utilize super- and sub-aural tones when communicating in the water, but despite that most of their language was in the audible range, so… “No harm, they mean you,” she said, or attempted to, trying to get the part-croak, part-shriek, part-croon sounds right. “Misunderstand, please do not. To help you, let them.” Did she say that right?

The Managhalin froze and seemed to collapse to lie against the surface of the barrel-like wagon. She began to slip off, leaving a wet trail until one hand reach forward, long nails digging into the wood. Her progress stopped.

Sorce warily approached, putting her pack down after making sure nothing had defecated on the spot. The soldiers let her, glancing at her warily. One held the towel out to her, but Sorce twirled it away. She was getting the hang of that gesture. “No harm, they mean you,” she repeated, hoping she was pronouncing this right. She was already wishing she had something to drink. “Come down, I ask you. Help you, please let us. Hungry, are you?” she asked.

The Managhalin turned towards her with cross-pupiled golden eyes on black schlera. Up close, Sorce could see what she had assumed was colored and striped skin was actually some kind of very fine fur. It clumped into pointy tufts at her wrists, elbows and other joins, sticking wetly to her body, while a mane-like yellow and whilte crest fell back over her neck and shoulder. Her feet had webbed, elongated toes tipped with small sharp nails– claws?– and her ankle seemed adapted to allow the analog of her foot a wide range of motion.

Before she could catalogue more details, the Managhalin hissed at her, face completely impassive. Sorce struggled to translate the sounds. She hoped she was getting it right. “Cold were you, they thought,” she hazarded. “To warm your body, they tried.”

The Managhalin said something to her again, short and concise.

“What are you saying?” the female soldier asked. “What is she saying?”

Sorce twirled her wrist at her to be silent. “Apologies, I give. Speak well, I do not. Help you, let us,” she said. “Help you, let us.”

Silence. Then the Managhalin said a single word, a question, and even with her strange intonations, it was recognizable. “Shardesse?”

“No,” Sorce said, forgoing body language. She didn’t know enough to be familiar with what the Managhalin would recognize. “Shardesse, I am not. To be Shardesse, I hope to be. To be Shardesse, do you hope to be?”

The Managhalin crooned a hesitant positive, which Sorce took as a good sign. “Come down, will you?” she asked and the Managhalin tentatively released her hold on the water wagon. She immediately began to slide again. Sorce hurriedly rushed forward to catch her, the Managhalin falling into her arms, where she almost slipped off. Her wet fur was very slick, and Sorce hastily tried to get her on her feet. She wavered, one arm making a waving gesture before she caught herself and placed one hand on the water wagon for balance.

Up close, Sorce could better make out her features. It was covered with the same fine fur that covered her body to her fingertips, with a triangular nose and a v-shaped, slit-like nostrils. Her neck was long, and her face and skull elongated. An adaptation for smoother swimming, Sorce supposed. Her nails were long, narrow and pointed, with a slight dark red gleam, her fingers slightly elongated. Her torso was flat, and Sorce wondered if her species came with more than one pair of mammary glands.

One of the soldiers, arms wet to the elbows, stepped forward to help Sorce, gesturing for a towel. “No, do not,” she said. “Being wet will not harm her, and it is more likely to be detrimental to her to be dry.”

The soldier frowned. “It’ll be hard to put clothes on her if she’s soaking wet.”

“She might not agree in any case,” she said. “As I understand it, Manag– Nereidi do not use clothing. She might not understand what they are for.”

The soldier grimaced, looking over her shoulder. Already a crowd was gather, many pointing at the naked Managhalin. There were what Sorce recognized as raucous and derogatory calls, though there were none of the usual primary and secondary sexual characteristics present to incite such calls. Whatever organs the Managhalin possessed, they were well-hidden beneath her fine fur. “Could you explain it to her”

Sorce frowned skeptically, but turned and tried to convey that the Managhalin being naked was causing a disturbance. All she got back was confusion, and many words she couldn’t understand and which blended together into masses of confused sound.

“It would appear she does not understand,” Sorce said, turning back to the soldier as her companions stood round them, trying the block the view of the crowd with their bodies. “I do not think her people have a concept of nudity.”

The soldier looked at the crowd again and uttered a word for coitus.

“Was that an invitation?” Sorce asked, confused.

The soldier glared at her for some reason. “Look, we have to get her dressed,” she said. “It looks like she doesn’t need to keep warm, but we can’t have her exposing herself in front of everyone. Can you just tell her that?”

Sorce shrugged and turned towards the Managhalin, who was regarding the crowd. She was shifting from foot to foot and kept flexing her fingers. Sorce noted with interest that the nails seemed to have the ability to lengthen and retract to some degree. The crowd was making her nervous, Sorce realized, likely because how they appeared to be swarming. “Afraid, do not be,” she tried to say soothingly, all the while knowing she had no idea how Managhalin conveyed that. “Cover you, we must. Your state, it…” Sorce struggled to convey a reason. She looked at the crowd, looked at the number of leering males and finished her sentence.

The Managalin also looked that way, the crooned something that, by context, seemed derisive.

“What did she say?” the soldier asked.

“She said ‘even if they are aroused, I am not in the mood to copulate’,” Sorce conveyed. “Do you perhaps have a cloak or a blanket you would not mind parting with? While standard clothes might be too restrictive, if it is her nudity that is the problem, we can simply– ”

Somewhere, a bell began to toll.

Immediately, the crowd began to disperse, crowding towards the tent. The soldier said something about coitus again, glancing at the Managhalin, then reached owards her belt pouch. In it was a bottle with a rolled up piece of paper inside. “The Gauntlet is beginning,” she said. She held the bottle out to the naked female. “Tell her she must go,” she said.

The Managhalin took the bottle, turning it over in her hands as Sorce conveyed the soldier’s words. Golden eyes stared silently at the amroered woman, and then their owner leaned forward rubbed her face against the soldier’s in what was clearly an affectionate gesture. The soldier stood awkwardly as the crowd slowly dispersed. Sorce heaved her pack onto her back. “We must, go,” she called, and the Managhalin stepped away from the soldier hesitantly.

Sorce began to hurry towards the tent, glancing over her shoulder at the Managhalin to see if she was following. She wasn’t. Sorce stopped. The Managhalin was staring at the crowd around the tent, holding her bottle tightly in her hands. Her face almost completely impassive, and her eyes were unreadable to Sorce, but there was something expressive about how her neck was moving. Sorce could guess what the sea folk was feeling. She turned back and when she neared, held a hand out to the other girl. She flinched at the gesture and too late Sorce realized that given their nails, such a move might have been considered hostile, or at least confrontational.

“Worry, you need not,” she tried to say gently, lowering her hand, aware that time was passing. No gestures with her hands, then. What would work…?

An idea came to Sorce, and she jerked her head towards the tent. The Managhalin’s head cocked to the side, a gesture she hoped she was interpreting correctly. Sorce repeated the jerk. “Come,” she said. “Follow. The Gauntlet, it awaits.”

Hesitantly, the Managhalin began to walk towards her. Behind her, the soldier nodded gratefully at Sorce, and she and her companions made a gesture at her, their clenched fists pumping at hip level, those with swords touching the pommel. A salute? A sign of respect, at least. She wondered if she should repeat it, but settled with a nod, exaggerating childishly as she had sometimes needed to do to make sure people noticed it. Then with another gesture of her head she and the Managhalin headed for the tent.

As they walked, a thought came to her. “Sorry, I am,” she said, or hoped she said. “Your name, what is?”

After all, it would be rude to study a subject without even knowing their name.

*

Seraphine glanced over, annoyed as Sorce approached. “Took you long enough,” she said from her position on the outside of the crowd as she glared at the smooth-faced Messiarki. She threw the Nereid with her some too, though she knew she wouldn’t understand the significance. Most Nereidi who casually met with people couldn’t read their expressions. Not waiting for a response she turned and faced the tent. She was standing on top of her board, which itself was floating on a column of shadow. The crowd in front of her was too tall to been seen over otherwise. She wasn’t the only one doing so. There were many small forms trying to get a view this way as well, floating or elevated in some manner.

Truth be told, it wasn’t really noon yet, but mustering so many people always took time. She guessed there were over a thousand applicants on the field, half again that at most. Most would be like her, here to attempt to take the Gauntlet for the first time. Others were, for one reason or another, those who had lived through a previous Gauntlet but for one reason or another had not been admitted into Shardesse. They were the lucky ones. Stories abounded of what constituted Gauntlets that had come before, of encountering restless Soulings in the wilderness wastes beyond civilization, of strange creatures from the wars of old, made by long-dead Vitatheurgisti and breeding true, that they had stumbled upon. It wasn’t only parents trying to scare children who spoke of this, but also grown men and scholars. It gave the stories horrific weight.

And this was on top of the tests of the Gauntlet itself. Some were simple, brutal tests meant to turn applicant against applicant. Other were cunning and complicated. Seraphine had once heard of a test where the applicants had needed to solve a murder in a city that had a happened one the very day they had arrived. When days had passed and none had found so much as a trace, the Gauntlet had ended with no admissions. Other tests were more primal, sending the applicants to remote places and ordering them to survive. Those stories rarely ended well.

The harshness of such tests had meant very few rules were part of it. Applicants could bring anything they could carry, including servants, mounts, a whole traveling band, a High Armor, and even Artifacts, be they the legendary Creator Arms themselves. Applicants could quit at any time as well, simply leaving the Gauntlet when it became too much. All that was required was they perform the test as specified and to arrive at their checkpoint destinations within allotted times, if any. They were not even required to follow the laws of the countries they passed through, though evading capture was also up to them. Applicants would have to police themselves… if they felt like it.

As Seraphine looked over her shoulder, she realized how far away the spectators were. They had seemed closer before, when the area around the had been full of dispersed groups of magi taking their ease. Now only a few tents hastily being struck down were left, some mounts tied to nearby trees. Even as she watched, a familiar-looking black Merthiani wolf was being unhitched by a rather shabby-looking individual and nonchalantly being led away my means of a steak on a stick. Someone was going to get a nasty surprise.

There was another toll of the bell and murmurs quieted as the tent flaps opened. A figure wearing simple traveling clothes and holding a walking stick and a speaking trumpet painted with some basic Logotheurgic formulae stepped out, accompanied by another man who seemed to be some kind of assistant carrying a short stepladder. The assistant laid it out in front and with a nod of thanks the first man mounted it. Far as he was, Seraphine caught only a glimpse of sun-darkened skin and a trimmed beard that looked gray with age, rather than being its natural color. Setting the tip of his walking stick and holding it by its knob like a cane, the figure raised the speaking trumpet to his lips. “Can you hear me?” he said in Alvatin, his magically enhanced voice rolling across the crowd. The front-most recoiled slightly, apparently taking the brunt of the sound of his words. “You can? Well, good.

He lowered the speaking trumpet and coughed. “Well. A lot of fresh meat this time. All right new meat, listen up! Old meat that wasn’t up to snuff last time, listen harder! Maybe you’ll finally learn something this time, you good for nothing leavings!” He looked around, and Seraphine guessed he was glaring at those around him before he raised the trumpet and spoke again. “Welcome to the Gauntlet, meat! If any of you have more important things you want to do, like living to see the next year, turn around and go back home! Go back to your studies and your anvils, your workshops and your barracks! Go pack to thieving houses in the night and slitting throats in dark alleys. Go back to your corner and ring your bells! Go on home to your mothers, brats!” There was a pause. The crowd had gone silent. “No one? You sure? A lot of you are too pretty to die. You, Wade Dead-Eye! You sure you don’t want to go back to your safe little city, almost getting killed at night, and have people make more stories about you? No? Well, your graveless funeral. How about you, pretty? Don’t want to shake that rear of yours to ring at some street corner? Suit yourself. No one?

He made a show of looking about. Some people in the crowd were snickering to themselves as if they were watching a show.

Well, if you’re so eager to get yourselves killed, then we’ll oblige you,” he said, and held a hand out to the side. The assistant handed him something and he held it up in the air, letting his walking stick clatter to the ground. “There’s too many of you right now. Normally we wait a while before we start culling you sorry meat sacks, but tough for you, we hate you this year. You see this?” He waved the thing. Seraphine could barely see something in his palm, round and reflecting the light of the sun. “There are three hundred and fifty hidden within three miles of this tent. Find one and bring it back here. Anyone who can, goes on to the next thing. Anyone who can’t… well, there’s always next year. Try not to kill anyone. Try not to get killed. Don’t leave a mess. You have until midnight.” He paused. “Well? Get into the forest, meat!

Next to Seraphine, one of the magi turned and slugged the man next to him, sending him falling as the man raced off. That seemed to be the signal to those around her, and people began to run in all directions as Seraphine hastily wrapped herself in a bubble of darkness in case anyone tried to attack her. Already flashes of light, balls of fire, and more mundane means of attack were happening as people tried to trip up or slow down those around them before they too ran.

Eventually, she found herself alone, one of several cocoons on the field. She cautiously lowered the bubble. At the foot of it, Sorce and the Nereid lay huddled together, the Messiarki speaking to the latter in, Seraphine realized with surprise, the Nereid tongue. Bizarrely, her words, such as they were, were as flat and as ever.

“What are you doing?” Seraphine asked, glancing about warily.

Sorce looked up. “I am explaining the terms of the test,” Sorce said smoothly. “I do not believe Nyneth understood, and I do not wish her to be adversely disadvantaged. I am almost finished. If I may continue?” She turned and switched back to the Nereid’s language as Seraphine stared at her blankly.

In the woods far behind the tent, a tree exploded in fire and vene. Seraphine snapped her shadows back over her head like a canopy, claiming all the shadows beneath her dress, in her belt pouches, in her baggage, and under every blade of grass she could to add to her surface area. The more surface area the shadow already had, the less magic she expended enlarging it. Honestly, what sort of madmen resorted to violence so soon?

Seraphine kept her shadows firm, closing her eyes for a moment and affirming her Tenebrætry was strong. If she was going to continue with this Gauntlet, she would need to act fast to find and keep one of the 350 glass disks, and that meant she didn’t have time to change to another form of magic. As a means of protecting oneself, the magic of shadows was strong, with little able to pierce through it directly save for Thaumaturgy, or so conventional wisdom held, but it also wasn’t much good for finding things. It was a magic of physical manipulation, not perception like Sight or Necromancy except in its most advanced manifestation, and Seraphine was far from advanced.

“Will you be finished any time soon?” she demanded haughtily. Definitely haughtily, and not at all nervously. They stood alone now, most people having entered the trees. All around them, fallen packs, bags, and even a few long cases lay on the ground, apparently abandoned in the rush, amidst small fire, scorch marks, patches of mud and furrows in the ground. Already, some… enterprising individuals at the edges of the field were collecting them. In the clear noon light she could see people digging, climbing trees and assaulting people digging and climbing. Another tree exploded. She nervously looked about, a crawling feeling sliding up and down her neck and back, afraid that someone was sneaking up one her.

Sorce turned abruptly towards Seraphine. “Done,” she said, getting on all fours before rising to her feet. She had to get up on all fours, the pack on her back was weighing her down. She made as if to hold out a hand to the Nereid. Before Seraphine could warn her this was an extremely bad idea, since they found it a very provocative gesture, Sorce paused, then deliberately tucked her hands behind her back and made a beckoning gesture with her head.

“How do you know about the hands?” Seraphine asked, surprised as the Nereid warily got on all fours, then more slowly to her feet. This one must have been away fro the water for a long time, Seraphine supposed. Nereid newly out of the city preferred to move on all fours, apparently not used to their own weight out of the water.

“It is self-evident, is it not?” she said. “Their hands are sharply tipped, and so have offensive capability. Displaying hands might carry the same significance as brandishing a bladed weapon.” Sorce began walking towards the tent, the Nereid hesitantly following.

“Where are you going?” Seraphine asked. “Why are you going to the tent?”

“To see the sample,” Sorce called back. “I need to confirm what I am looking for.”

Seraphine opened her mouth to say that was ridiculous, paused to think about it, and hurried after them, mounting her board and skimming ahead of them.

Within the tent was a table and the two Shardessi, both sitting in wait. There was a ledger on the table, and next to it was a piece of glass. It was the size of Seraphine’s palm, dark but clear and looking like someone had made a lens out of a glob instead of grinding. There was a glowing spot in the center of it. It was definitely glowing, and not just reflecting light.

The bearded man crossed his arms with a sneer. “Done already meat?” he said in Alvatin. “Did you get lucky?”

“No,” Sorce said, bending down a little to examine the glass object. “We to want to see what for to look.”

The bearded man and his assistant, a rather plain young man with nondescript pink hair, both blinked.

“She’s not good with the language yet,” Seraphine said wearily. “She’s saying she needs to see what she’s looking for to make sure.”

The bearded man grinned. “Smart girl,” he said, sounding pleased. “Didn’t think anyone would be smart enough to work that out.” His grin widened. “It’ll give the poor meat who find all the mirrors we buried something to think about, next time.”

Sorce nodded. “Thank you for to direct them in the forest,” she said. “We can search the field.”

The man grinned wider. “Be quick,” he said jovially. “They’ll start thinking of it soon.”

Sorce nodded again, then reached over and took the lens from the table and handed it to the Nereid. “One,” she said as the confused Nereid turned the glass over in her hands.

As Seraphine stared at her, the man cheerfully opened the ledger, drew a quill and a bottle of ink. “Name?”

As the blonde whirled at him, he smirked. “What? We never said you couldn’t get this one.”

*

“Why,” Seraphine seethed, “did you give it to her?”

“I weighed the possibilities and came to the conclusion that she needed it more,” Sorce said as she opened one of the side compartments of her pack. It had one of those ingenious sliding mechanisms that the Messiarki were so good at making. Sorce drew out a short rod with a strange wide head. There was a snap of a mechanism, and Sorce was holding what was apparently a small shovel. “I believe we are both better equipped to pursue this event than she is.”

“But why her?” Seraphine said. She was not whining. Definitely not.

“I found it,” Sorce said, pulling the pack on, the shovel in hand. “I decide what to do with it. I can find another one.”

“I doubt it’s that easy,” Seraphine said.

Sorce looked up, eyes completely black. They did not gleam or reflect even the smallest speck of light, as if shadow filled her eyes. “Transparent objects can have shadows within them. I can just dig out another one.”

Seraphine blinked. “Oh,” she said. Of course. Advanced Tenebrætry. “You can see them?”

Sorce nodded. “Those nearby at least. Would you like to temporarily redact our agreement not to interfere with each other in the Gauntlet?”

Seraphine tried not to look too embarrassed. “Well, if you have no objections…”

They had just dug the second disk out of the ground when they were attacked.

Sorce was awkwardly using the shovel as Seraphine impatiently tore out dirt with her shadows. The glass disk was only a short way down, and the dirt was loose as if only recently dug. Another glass disk nestled in one of Seraphine’s belt pouches. Sorce had calmly handed it to Seraphine when they’d first dug it out of the ground, who had quickly slipped it into one of her belt pouches. They stood far from the treeline, standing out in the open. Already many people were pouring out of the tree line, some fighting, though most were heading for other patches of ground.

Sorce was just slipping the disk into a pocket of her thick coat as Seraphine turned away to head back to the tent when former suddenly gave a cry and tackled the smaller woman, knocking her off the board she’d been standing on. They both fell, rolling awkwardly because of the pack Sorce still carried on her back, as a blast of flame passed over where they’d been, barely missing their fallen bodies. The Pyrotheurgist who had attacked them swore, before flame roared around his hands again.

Sorce rolled, pushing Seraphine in the opposite direction and twisted. Her pack rolled from her back as came lightly to her feet, her arms and body spinning. Even as another gout of flame blasted towards them, the shovel she’d been holding tumbled and over end and slammed right into the burner’s face. The man let out a cry of pain and surprise as Sorce darted toward him, body low and fast. He swept his arm, flame erupting around him, trying to defend himself while half-blinded. Sorce dove, one hand landing in the small pile of dirt they’d dug up. Fingers grabbed a small rock and she threw, the projectile slamming into their attacker’s head. As he staggered at the second hit, Sorce made a sweeping grab of his extended arm and, with a smooth, practiced motion, twisting it outward slightly even as she rose, slammed the palm of her other hand upward into his elbow.

There was a sickening crack and the man screamed as his flames suddenly died away. Sorce released his arm, bending it the wrong way before it flapped loose, and the man let out another scream of pain.

“Please do not do that again,” Sorce said, and kicked him in the face before bending down to retrieve her shovel.

Seraphine scrambled to her feet as Sorce retrieved her pack, holding the straps in her hands instead of slinging it. Seraphine grabbed her board in a tendril of shadow, pulling it to herself and hastily getting on board. She nearly fell off, not really used to boarding while it was floating. There was another cry off to the side, and a half-naked man with a wolf-like helm on his head charged at them, yelling out in rage. Seraphine threw a block of solid shadow at him, and he slammed into it like a brick wall and stumbled back.  The Symbol shook his head, but before he could react the block turned into a tendril and Seraphine rather heartlessly threw him at the Pyrotheurgist with the broken arm.  The Symbol, finding a newer target for his fury, began to beat the man to death as the other mage frantically tried to blast him away.

They ran back to the tent. Well, Sorce ran. Seraphine practically flew on her board. The shadow supporting her underneath rolled across the ground as Sorce followed after her, legs taking long, almost leaping strides. Around them, Seraphine noticed, other people were being mobbed, while some tried to blast the ground apart trying to get at the disks buried beneath as quickly as possible. The onlookers, she saw, had gone, barely visible in the distance.

A horse suddenly cut into their path, an enormous stallion larger than normally equine-ly possible. Without turning to face them it seemed to stumble, almost rolling as it hit the ground. Even as it fell, its body blurred, becoming a swirling storm of quietly howling fury that warped the light passing through it as the Anthrowyrmist’s body collapsed into raw magic, only to congeal again as quickly and a serpent with an abnormally large head and rams’ horns lashed at them. Sorce swung her pack, managing to swat the serpent in midair as Seraphine threw her shadows at the main body, took it in her grasp and heaved it away and behind them, now missing its shadow. There was a hiss behind them that metamorphosed into angry swearing that they ignored.

In front of the tent, anarchy reigned. Magi were fighting, many ganging up on someone standing alone. The two slowed as they saw what had erupted. Seraphine recognized Kydlathiani moving faster and smoother than a normal person possibly could, fists and knives flashing, Thieves moving slower but no less skillfully. Fire and water clashed as a Pyrotheugist and an Aquatheurgist fought, the former winning despite the latter’s natural advantage. A gaunt man, naked but for vines around his body was slowly crawling towards the tent as the area around him writhed with thorns and brambles, even as a someone clad in shining blue scholar robes leapt at him, a club over her head. Music could vaguely be heard as strange things like beasts or at least the caricatures of beasts and other, more fanciful creatures fought. There was even a pair dueling right in the tent entrance itself, glowing veneblades whipping through the air silently, sparkles exploding with every impact as streams of light and spheres of vene clashed. One finally managed to get into the tent itself. The other charged in after him, sword thrusting forward, only to be thrown out the tent flaps in a wave of shadows.

“No fighting inside the tent,” an almost cheerful voice said, magnified to be heard.

Seraphine stared, stiff with fear. Next to her, Sorce let her pack fall on the ground, panting and clenching her fingers. The other hand experimentally swung her shovel. “I do not think it would be possible for us to force our way to our goal,” she said. “There are too many hazards for us to force our way through.”

“Really?” Seraphine said dryly. “What an interesting way to put it. I’d have said it would be a death sentence. I would say it was swimming with the sharks bleeding and wearing steaks. I would say we might as well have a nap in a smithy forge.”

Sorce glanced at her. “Are you exaggerating for emphasis? I doubt it would be as deliberately self-destructive as all that. Regardless, we are at risk of attack here. We should remain mobile.”

Seraphine pursed her lips. “Then you’d better start riding that monstrosity you’re lugging around instead of carrying it. You’re too slow on foot.”

There was a pause. “That is not an option,” she said finally. “I am… not very skilled in that method.”

Seraphine stopped and stared. “What?” she said flatly.

Sorce twirled a hand dismissively. “It is a hole in my education. I have been planning to rectify it, but…”

Seraphine slumped. “I am going to die a horrible, ignoble death.”

“That was also exaggeration for effect, was it not?”

“At the moment, it appears to be an accurate assessment,” Seraphine snapped.

Sorce grabbed her by the shoulders. Before she could let out a cry, the Messiarki had rolled them out of the way of a woman, naked except for a loin cloth and covered in tattoos that writhed on her skin, who slid off at impact, rolling as she went. A figure wearing glowing orange plates of armor leapt after her, followed by an oversized greatdire, its feathers in unnatural gold and black.

Sorce quickly rose, straddling Seraphine and looking quickly around. “We need to move,” she said, then seemed to waver, one hand rising to her head as blackness filled her eyes. She shook her head, face twisting slightly in annoyance, then paused. Seraphine followed her gaze and blushed, instinctively covering her breasts even as she realized what a silly reaction that was.

“What are you staring at?” she demanded.

Sorce’s faced moved fractionally, and Seraphine got the feeling her eyes had flicked up to look at her. “I have a plan,” the other woman said confidently. She stood, turning to grab her pack and looking for her shovel as Seraphine got to her feet as well.

“Is it better than giving that Nereid girl the first disk?” Seraphine asked sarcastically.

“I have no objective means of assessing,” Sorce said.

Seraphine glared, glancing at the mess behind them. “Athridisi, grant me strength,” she prayed, snaring her board with a shadow and mounting it even as she tried to look in all directions. Her head was starting to ache, a sustained throb that she knew would eventually get worse if she didn’t let go of her magic. She had plenty of time yet though.

Sorce glanced at her and began to run briskly away from the fighting. Sighing, Seraphine slid after her.

*

They ran only a short way, Sorce constantly looking back at her with her shineless black eyes, before turning to enter the trees. Seraphine paused. The trees were quite bright, with many rays of sunlight lancing down from the noonday sun, but she was wary of having her vision obscured. The sounds of fighting still echoed in the woods, though muffled. Occasionally a tree crashed, or exploded, or was torn to pieces, or fell. The flashes of color she was seeing wasn’t helping.

Ahead of her, Sorce’s back was quickly receding. Seraphine looked back, but sighed and followed after. Why not. The woman had been full of good ideas so far. She sped up on her board, keeping pace with the woman. The Messiarki was breathing hard, but it was controlled and she looked like she could keep at this for some time. “Where are we going?” she demanded.

“How likely do you think it is that those in that battle would allow someone who was entered the tent to leave unmolested?” Sorce asked.

“Not likely,” Seraphine said. “Anyone passing through there is a target. Even if only the Seers and possibly some of the other Tenebræisti could see the disks, the rest might just attack on principle.”

Sorce nodded. “So I wondered, where are those who managed to get through to the tent already?”

“Still in the tent?” Seraphine said.

Sorce shook her head. “I saw only three people in that tent. We know that Nyneth has already been admitted but we did not see her leave, and she would have nowhere else to go.”

Seraphine frowned. That seemed flimsy reasoning. “What does this have to do with why we’re heading away from the tent?”

Sorce pointed down at their feet. “There is a tunnel running under the tent and into the woods. I believe it is brightly lit– there are few shadows to see– but the last man to enter the tent was passing through it when I looked by chance, and he cast shadows. I am following him. If we can find the other end, we can use the tunnel to head back to the tent and submit evidence of our completion of the task.”

Seraphine stared, then looked down, wishing her affinity with Sight wasn’t so low as to make it unfeasible to switch to it to confirm what she’d been told. “Will they allow that?”

“Why should they not?” Sorce asked.

“It sounds like cheating,” Seraphine said.

“How? They mentioned no rule barring us from doing so.”

Seraphine considered this. “Fair point. There was a distinct lack of mentioned rules.”

They passed an impromptu clearing where several people were fighting, though it was obviously centered on a trio in the middle, one of whom was just tucking a disk into a belt-pouch. The group was just charging towards one another as the two of them ran away. Seraphine tried to ignore the signs of bloodshed, the spots of red on the leaves and trees. Once she saw a handful of venecite glittering on the ground next to a bush, a twitching hand sticking out from under it, as if reaching for the precious minerals. Seraphine left them behind, not wanting to know if the hand’s owner was dead or alive. The ground began to slope downwards slightly.

At the bottom of a slope was what appeared to be a pile of boulders next to a long mound of fresh earth and stone badly covered by new growth. A woman was patiently sitting there on a stool, a clipboard on her lap. Even as they arrived, the man they had seen entering the tent emerged from a dark spaced between some rocks, and the woman waved him forward. Even as he tiredly began to limp towards her– Seraphine saw a bandage wrapped around one leg–  the two women came sliding down the slope, causing the limping man and the woman on the stool to look up in surprise.

Sorce nodded towards them. “Excuse me,” she said, and dove into the dark space the man had come from, became stuck a moment because of the awkward size of her pack, and disappeared into the tunnel.

“Hey!” the man cried, sounding indignant as Seraphine followed. “You can’t go through there!”

Seraphine smiled brightly at him. “No rule against it. Incidentally, did our friend pass through here? About my size, naked, a Nereid?”

The woman gave her a dry smile and pointed upslope along the dirt mound. “She came this way. Poor thing looked confused.”

Seraphine nodded, then followed Sorce into the tunnel.

The tunnel made two sharp turns after the entrance and led into a long tunnel brightly lit by bars of venelights. They were bright and regular, close enough to prevent any pools of shadow to form between them. The walls had a fused look to them, and Seraphine suspected a Pyrotheurgist had melted the tunnel smooth. For a moment, she wondered how long this tunnel had taken to make.

Sorce was already far ahead of her, moving at an easy jog, and Seraphine hastily went after her, riding her board. The tunnel was just barely wide enough for two people abreast and was a gentle walk upslope. With a sigh of relief, Seraphine divested herself of some of the shadows she had claimed, and felt her headache ease noticeably. That was one of the many drawbacks of being an Enthalpist. You had to deal with problems those with other forms of magic didn’t. No Tenebræisti ever got a headache from claiming too many shadows. Pyrotheurgisti and Aquatheurgisti never get sick either, but it wasn’t so for Enthalpisti, who actually had it worse if they tried to use either while sick. And so on.

“Give me your pack,” Seraphine said as she drew level with taller woman. As Sorce turned to look at her, head tilted to one side, Seraphine twirled a hand. “If you can’t ride, you can’t ride, but you’ve been carrying that monstrosity all day. I can at least drag it up this tunnel.”

“Thank you,” Sorce said, and Seraphine actually heard what sounded like a sigh of relief as the Messiarki lowered the heavy pack. Seraphine claimed its shadow and towed it behind her as they continued on up the tunnel, Sorce moving noticeably faster without the weight.

They weren’t very far down the passage when they passed someone coming the other way. Seraphine urged Sorce to the right-hand side of the tunnel, as was polite. The woman, a silver-haired Verbaniani gave them a curious look, but passed by with a nod. They passed others on the way up, an irregular stream of pedestrians in various states of injury. They passed two vaguely familiar-looking Anaydi women, who smiled at them as they passed. Seraphine thought she could recall their names. Well, maybe later.

Eventually they reached the end of the tunnel just as it opened and a familiar fashionable coat swung down the ladder. Vaydiriun blinked when he saw them emerging as he came down the ladder. He was missing his hat and there was some blood on his face. “Sisters! I did not see you come in.”

“That’s the point of coming in this way,” Seraphine said. “Could you please move? We need to go up to get registered.”

He looked confused for a moment, then laughed. “Oh! Ingenious. I should have thought of it myself instead of fighting my way through those madmen. By all means, feel free to go up.” He swung off the rungs. “Shall I wait here for you, and we can go together?”

“As you please,” Seraphine said as Sorce began her ascent after giving Vaydiriun a nod. “Do you mind keeping an eye on our baggage? It’s kind of pointless to bring it up with us.”

“I do not mind. I hope I’ll still be able to find my own luggage,” he mused. “Good thing I found a nice hole to put them in.”

Seraphine rose on her board rather than climbing the ladder, finding herself coming up behind the table in the tent. Outside the fighting sounded as furious as ever, but that sound was cut through by a hearty laugh from the bearded man as Sorce signed her name on the ledger. He was turning to face Seraphine as she came up. “Hah! Two of you! Looks like we have a lot of smart meat this time around!”

“Are we such an anomaly?” Sorce asked, finishing writing her name as Seraphine came up and presented her glass disk.

The bearded man snorted. “You can hear that mess out there, don’t you? Someone’s dying out there, you can be sure of that. But hey, they knew the risks, and if they’re gonna be idiots this early we’d rather not have them.” He took Seraphine’s disk and tapped it with a short rod topped by a glowing glass sphere. The disk flared briefly. “There you go. Sign your name, talk to Afena at the other end of the tunnel for what to do next.”

“That is a rather callous way of putting things,” Sorce said, turning the ledger and handing Seraphine the pen she’d been using. Seraphine paused momentarily to look with interest at the boxy lines and dots Sorce had used to sign her name in the Messiarki script before she’d switched to the familiar Alvatin cuneiforms that most languages had used. Seraphine quickly wrote her name.

“Can’t stay the best if you let all the obvious idiots in,” the man said cheerfully. He waggled his wrist where a Chain of Colors hung. Seraphine tried not to stare hungrily. “Otherwise we might as well give these to just anyone. But I think you might have what it takes. One.” He chuckled. “Maybe I’ll see you in Bantai one of these days. Now get moving.”

Sorce and Seraphine climbed back down into the hole, and the hatch closed behind them.

The Gauntlet: Chapter 1

Chapter 1

 

Seraphine Ataraxia Vitalia Cerer, fourth daughter of the ancient and noble house of Cerer, found herself standing alone in the city of Schezanar with nothing but her cloak, the clothes on her back, her belt pouches, a haversack with all she’d been able to cram into it, and her Logosi, and began to seriously doubt what had once seemed like a good idea. Schezanar was nothing like Alinam. For one thing, it was absurdly cold. One would think that a country so far south would be pleasantly warm, but no. It was as cold as ice, and if it wasn’t snowing, the world was probably saving it for when it would cause her the most inconvenience. The travel-stained long green skirt, leggings and multiple petticoats she’d put on barely kept the chill back, and she was embarrassingly aware her nipples were erect beneath her closed dress. The heavy fabrics and closed cuts were a far cry from the light, open garments of her home, but they were necessary in the much colder climes where the schools she had essentially been banished to were located.

The familiar dull ache of her feet began their soft pounding as she finally roused herself to start walking, her knee-length curling blonde hair matted and worn as it swayed with her steps, and wondering if she had enough money left for an inn for the night or if she would have to trade some of the venecite she’d gathered for more coins. She was wary of visiting a banker to call on her family’s funds, lest Setanta get word and find her. At least she wouldn’t have to find a moneychanger and lose even a fraction of what little she had to fees. A city as large as Schezanar would pragmatically accept coinage from any land, as long as it tested true. Perhaps she could even lose some of the glass Anaydi coins she carried. Those always made her nervous she’d break them to worthlessness, chramecirum glass or no.

Despite the cold, the streets of Schezanar bustled with activity. Indeed, it had an almost festival air to it. There seemed more tumblers, singers, illusionists, dancers, Auditheurgisti, jugglers, and other street performers than usual even for a main thoroughfare, with none trying to chivy them away to make room for traffic under the stone archways of aqueducts that crisscrossed the city. Indeed, not far from the city gate a group of knights, their heads bare but still wearing their armor, were clapping and throwing coins towards a woman who sang and dance as fire flickered in a dozen colors between her fingers and along her long silver hair. Whores of all ages and genders were more indiscrete than usual, some openly ringing the small bells they usually in hid in a sleeve or pocket. Yet the buildings, tall and somehow long fortress-like things, with narrow and barred slits for windows and metal-enclosed balconies were unadorned with the usual favors to denote a festival.

That might not mean anything though, Seraphine thought as she delicately navigated her way through the crowd while above the usual aerial traffic of glowing Thaumaturgisti, Tenebræisti arching through the air as they darted from shadow to shadow, Logotheurgisti on flying beasts or platforms of one form or another, even Kydlathiani and Thieves running from rooftop to rooftop, though in a more orderly way than they usually did in other cities. The Valieriter Kysla, the ancient knightly order that had settled in Schezanar three hundred years ago after the Tarnish and acted as its armed forces and de-facto secondary government, had imprinted its stark, military aesthetic upon the city, where every road from the city walls leading inward was a deathtrap waiting to happen and every building a stronghold and archers’ nest. The stones beneath her feet were thick so as not to break under the weight of the Great Armors, the building-sized, man-shaped engines of war that these streets had originally been made to accommodate, with pedestrians and trade a secondary consideration. She supposed the atmosphere was to be expected. The Valieriteri were considered a sort of martial offshoot of Shardesse, with many of its most famous and powerful warlords honored the Chain of Colors, the mark of membership in Shardesse. With the Gauntlet beginning in their very own city, it was no wonder the Valieriteri would feel like celebrating, in their own restrained, disciplined way.

Still, Seraphine kept her pack close, her wide crimson eyes watchful of other passersby with what she probably thought was a wary, discerning gaze that merely made her look mildly constipated and looking for someplace to relieve herself as she searched for the city’s Shardesse chapter house to present her letter of admission and eventually asked directions of a passing knight. The woman’s virulent green eyes were small and hard, and she had a lofty air that made Seraphine suspect she was a noble– from Merthia, possibly, given her nose– but her words were kind enough, giving her detailed directions on the route. Seraphine was thankful for that, though she was annoyed at the fond pat on the head the woman gave her as she parted. She didn’t look that much of a child, did she? Granted, she probably weighed only two anchors and a tackle, but still, she wasn’t that short. Well, all right, the top of her head barely reached the woman’s breasts and that woman hadn’t been all that tall, but hadn’t the woman noticed her dress or the Logosi she was carrying?

No, she likely wouldn’t have, Seraphine realized, covered as they were by her cloak. She’d probably thought Seraphine was some child not yet manifest, playing at being a great mage of Shardesse. Many children did, and with the Gauntlet there was likely even more than usual. For a moment, she considered changing to Tenebræist and taking to the air as other did to get to the chapter house sooner, but cautioned warned her. Her tutors had taught her the basics of the laws and customs of other countries, and she recalled Schezanar had particularly defined and extensive overflight codes. Best not to gamble with trouble. Besides, with her luck she’d lose her sack and it would tear open in midair. Her aching feet protested, but the headache throbbing at her temples in synch with the dry feeling of hunger at her throat won out. She didn’t have enough energy for such excitement. Instead, she walked steadily with the flow of traffic towards the area the knight had directed her to. It took her most of the afternoon, the cold of the wind contrasting oddly with the heat of the sun and the smothering crowd. She often had to stop and climb a post to see where she was. She was probably the only person in her family who’d ever managed to climb a post in every city in Khyort.

That was probably not an achievement she could be proud of.

The Shardesse chapter house was located around the Deployment Ground, a large, empty square of paved ground in the center of the city large enough to dry-dock six of her family’s largest trading ships with some room left over for a small fleet of landing boats. Other important institutions and buildings fronted the square as well, such as the Lieutenant Governor’s Headquarters, three of the city’s oldest banks from the time of the Tarnish, the city’s largest granaries, smokehouses and coldhouses, and the Venequary, Schezanar’s repository of venecite, more heavily guarded than all the other buildings combined. No overflight traffic came anywhere close to it.

At the head of the Deployment Ground was the Valieriteri Commons, the seat of their central command. In a city already filled with buildings only a hair away from being fortresses, this was a fortress. Seraphine had heard that in addition to quarters for nearly ten thousand knights and staff, it also housed a thousand horses, a hospital, one of the great libraries of Khyort and enough venecite, weapons and Armor to hold against an army at all times. It was known that originally the purpose of the Deployment Ground was as a killing field and a place to for war preparations. The Valieriteri were always prepared, even if there seemed nothing to be prepared against.

At the far end of the Deployment ground from the Commons, the buildings were less exalted. The enormous metal bulk of a Messiarki embassy, enormous metal chimneys rising in the air to blow near-steady streams of white steam, sat next to wood and stone taverns and inns, wine shops and restaurants, tailors, armorers and venequarians. At the four corners of the square, water gushed down from the aqueducts into wide, deep and economical stone basins, each with one end terraced lower than the rest. Those had been to allow people to wash without tainting the rest of the water, Seraphine recalled, and indeed, not a few travel worn individuals were doing just that, washing their clothes right in the street under the watchful gazes of uniformed boy and girls who Seraphine deduced were Valieriteri squires while others refilled water skins and bottles from higher basins. No one was allowed to be idle in the Valieriter Kysla.

The great square wasn’t empty, instead filled with seemingly hundreds of wooden structures that could almost have been buildings except for a lack of walls, rather like pavilions. Many rose as tall three floors into the air, with one dubious specimen rising as high as five, swaying ominously despite thick ropes anchoring it to other buildings. They were a mix, from what Seraphine could see, selling practically any kind of food drink or whatever else their owner seemed to think it was a good idea to sell. She wondered if these were permanent structures or had been built to take advantage of the Gauntlet. Indeed, many on the outskirts of the square looked well built, permanent structures, while those deeper inside looked less sound. Every thoroughfare between them, each as wide as a decent road, was filled with people going to and fro. Yes, definitely a festival air.

The area in front of the chapter house was greatly crowded even compared to the rest of the square, though few people seemed to be entering the building itself. Instead, long wooden tables had been set up on barrels, and there seemed to be some kind of free-for-all of some sort taking place. Or perhaps that had been a waiting area for applicants earlier in the day that had now been colonized by eaters. Small venelights like fireflies glowing in all the colors of the eyes danced and drifted in the air there, lighting up the ground and the front of the building, its front already brilliant in the fading light of day with the glow of lime lights and more magical sources of illumination.  A brightly lit tent stood to one side of the chapter house’s front doors, glowing venecrafted orange lines in the air spelling out ‘admissions checking’ in her native Alvatin cuneiforms.

Seraphine looked longingly at the eateries, and her stomach made its desires known to the rest of her as her mouth and throat suddenly felt so dry and hungry she almost gagged and retched. She staggered over to the nearest fountain and barely managed to claw out her tin cup before thrusting it at the water and gulping the liquid to both satisfy her thirst and assuage her hunger. She internally cringed at the undignified spectacle she was making of herself but drank five more times, filling her stomach and trying to fool it into thinking she had eaten. With shaking determination, she walked towards the tent.

By the time she reached it, the smells of food and drink had long undone her attempts to fool herself, and it was all she could do to keep from actually drooling or seating herself in the closest eatery of any sort and telling them to send her food until she exploded. She was very aware of how little money she had. So instead she trudged towards the tent, eyes fixed on the glowing, floating letters. By the time she reached the glowing, crowded area in front of the tent, night had fallen and her feet were all but dragging at her conflicting hungers and goals. There was no queue in front of the tent, only a small slate lit by a single glowing ball of magical light directing applicants to have their admission letter from their place of application prepared and to enter one at a time. Seraphine raised her Logosi to open it and paused, some caution kicking itself into her active mind. She looked about, and settled for putting her back against one of the tent’s walls. Eyes flicking about warily, she unlocked the stout steel lock on the front of her Logosi, opening the heavy leather book, its brass corners glinting in the lights. Pressed among the pages of her handwritten notes and the few Logotheurgic arrays she’d copied down was her admission letter in the safest place she could put it and still have it on her person. One’s Logosi was sacrosanct, a part of one’s self. Of course, that wouldn’t deter some people, but at that point one was likely too dead to protest the violation.

Admission letter in hand, she turned towards the tent entrance and was about to step in when she saw someone was already inside. She grimaced in impatience, but remained outside, waiting with letter in hand. Whoever they were was outlined in the bright light inside the tent. Honestly, why had they waited so long to provide their admission letter? Such procrastination was unseemly and spoke a lack of commitment, or at least a lack of respect for the honor they were applying for. Then they moved and Seraphine was further annoyed to find not one but two people inside, both speaking in Anayd accents. Typical lewd Anaydi women, no doubt using their wiles on the person in charge of the tent for special treatment. She would have thought better of a Shardessi.

Before she’d finished her huff of indignation, both young women were stepping out of the tent hand in hand, thanking the person within once more over their shoulder, and Seraphine realized it was her turn. Indeed, the person was already waving her in, looking a bit impatient at what had no doubt been a long day. Hurriedly, she scrambled inside, wondering if she was supposed to offer some formal greeting. She tried to remember the formal way people greeted one another in Schezanar, but man– no, a woman she realized belatedly, a pale-skinned Merthiani with pale, nearly whitish blue hair and matching eyes– was already gesturing impatiently for her letter. She gave it hurriedly, folding her hands to wait as the woman opened it, giving it a cursory look before picking up a cylinder, half its length a crystal glowing in faint violet, lying to the side with some other strange objects. She held it above the letter, and Seraphine was surprised to see that new writing appeared, luminous and shifting in the violet light. The rod glowed with unseen light, she realized, one of the invisible colors that normally only a Seer or certain Pyrotheurgisti could see.

The woman noticed her gaze, which had lingered, though mostly from her thoughts growing distracted. “Forgeries, it helps identify,” she said in Alvatin with a thickly pronounced and drawling Merthiani orchards accent, putting down the light and putting on a pair of wire frames with several strangely-colored lenses. She looked at the letter while flicking the lenses in and out of her gaze for a few moments more before taking a brush out of a pot from the collection of items and turning the letter over to brush at the lower left corner. “Each region, it uses a different marking, and so that a particularly thorough forger or group of forgers would be unable to replicate them all in time, we use several. You are Seraphine of House Cerer, yes?”

The sudden question made her start. “Y-yes,” she said, cursing herself at the stuttering. What happened to her dignity? Had her stomach eaten it or something? She hurriedly composed herself inside. “Seraphine Ataraxia Vit–”

“So-so,” the woman interrupted, twirling her hand dismissively. “What were you doing applying in Holvidai, a delicate young Anilami thing like you. Where you applied, it is far-far from islands. For you to be so far, you are too-too young. Who you fooling, you are a child!”

Anger rose within Seraphine, an old, familiar anger whose flames she knew well. “I,” she said, her icy dignity a sharp contrast to the heat in her eyes, “am 27 summers this year, good mage, as I explained when I applied and as I believe was written down by the one who interviewed me and I have been manifest for almost half that time. And even if I was a child, the Gauntlet allows for such things! Negius of Atios–”

The woman snorted dismissively. “Again him. We should not let it be told so-so much, a silly story. Children we have to chase away, half the time. They will be the next, they are dreaming. And you too, playing Reader, big book, you borrow from who? So short, my bosom you do not even reach.”

Serapine felt her teeth grinding and stopped herself, though for one fantastical second she imagined leaping at the woman over the table and sinking her teeth into her neck. Gales and storms, she needed to eat, and soon. “Are you finished with this childish test now?” she asked with cold serenity. The hunger must have been going to her head, or she would have realized sooner. After all, she had been interviewed thoroughly when she had applied, her admission letter crafted before her eyes from her responses.

The woman glared at her for a moment more, than another. Suddenly she smiled, chuckling and reaching for an ink-stamp. “Yes, I suppose I am,” she said, the rustic accent gone from her voice completely, replaced with the melodious and cultured tones of a scholar as she stamped Seraphine’s letter and began writing on a ledger. “Pardon, but we need to be sure. The letters aren’t then the only forgeries we get. I thought you were going to chew my face off. You’re not that hungry, are you?”

Seraphine was halfway to protesting when her stomach gave a gurgling rumble and her throat felt so dry she did gag, and she had to take deep, panting breaths and dignity be drowned at birth. The woman had partially risen from her seat, but Seraphine waved her off, swallowing her spit in lacking anything else and thinking very, very strongly it was water for her gullet to get the hint and quiet down. A few deeper, calmer breaths and she turned back towards the woman. “I am fine,” Seraphine said, only a little pink in the cheeks. “Your face is in no danger.”

“Who you fooling?” the woman said dryly as she reached for a stack of small tickets. She chose one and signed it, then added an ink-stamp. “You are not the first to arrive tired and hungry on the penultimate night of the Gauntlet child, and as Bantai flies you will likely not be the last. We will be waiting for strays like you all night. Well, you are in the books now dear. Be at the edge of the woods north of the city the day after next. The Gauntlet begins then.” She held up the ink-stamped ticket.

Seraphine frowned, taking the ticket in puzzled hands and careful not to smear ink on herself. “The day after next? I thought this was the penultimate night?” She suddenly heard what she was saying and stiffened, horrified as she realized how close to disaster she had come. She had lost track of the days as she had traveled, but had thought she had arrived with a margin of at least three days to spare.

The woman smiled, likely knowing her thoughts. “Oh, it is child. The extra day is to give strays like you at least a night to rest yourselves. Shardesse is high and exalted, but not cruel. At least, we try not to be. Take that ticket to any of the pavilions outside and they’ll feed you as much as you can handle tonight. You look ready to eat your own book.” She handed Seraphine her letter. “Take it. A souvenir should you find the Gauntlet too hard.”

Seraphine took it. “I have crossed six countries afoot to be here,” she said, exaggerating slightly. “It cannot possibly be as difficult.”

The woman’s smiled widened, and there was a hint of self-satisfaction and smugness to it. “Hold on to that thought child, and remember it should we ever meet again. Now go and eat. You’ll need all your strength to find a place to sleep tonight.”

Seraphine was halfway to the promised food of the pavilions, ticket clutched in her hands like treasure when the full weight of those final words hit her. The city was filled like a festival by the Gauntlet. There would be no finding an inn tonight. She would be lucky if she were allowed a spot in front of a hearth… or the kitchen… or a barn! She stood in mute horror for a moment before she sighed and continued on, only a hint of trudging in her footsteps. Best to take the advice given her and eat first. She would think clearer on a full stomach.

Still, she wasn’t so desperate for food she went inside of the closest pavilion and sat down on one of the benches. Only mostly so. With the promise of a free meal before her, she sniffed at the air, trying to find what smelled best to her sensibilities. Although all the scents mingled together into mouth-watering mix that had Seraphine involuntarily reaching for her now-empty water skin, up close the pavilions always had something disagreeable to them, like a boisterous crowd or too much drinking, or the smell of frying carrots. How she hated carrots. And what madman would want one fried?

Eventually, she came to a sturdy, permanent-looking pavilion filled with the smell of spicy meat stew and wakebean tea, the scents prickling her nose and finally giving her appetite enough impetus to order her to stop. Though the buzz of conversation was no less loud, the place was far less raucous then other places she had passed. Perhaps it had something to do with the large man standing at one of the corner posts of the establishment next to a barrel of rainwater and a pile of stools, his expression clearly foreboding. He only gave her the merest glance as she passed by, peering hopefully for a place to sit, preferably alone. It wasn’t to be however. This wasn’t a quiet night in some small town, where that was sometimes an option. There were several round tables but they all seemed full and none looked likely to have space for her. She cast about desperately, but there seemed no opening and she sighed, turning to go and hoping some other pavilion smelled as good.

“Ho, little blonde sister!”

She paused at those words, spoken in her native tongue, glancing about. A further call allowed her to narrow it down to a nearby table. A slim, man with a narrow, pointed goatee sat there, his skin dark like a Sommejelleni or a Mitini, but wearing a red and black suit of a Rondiumiun dandy, his tall hat on the table next to him. On second glance though, the materials of his clothes looked worn enough for him to be a merchant, or even an accountant. An accountant did not wear crossed longshots on his back though, the dark wooden stock of the weapons of some heavy, expensive wood and she would bet the barrels had precision rifled bores rather than the more common smooth bores. Whoever he was, he was smiling welcomingly towards her even as those next to him grudgingly moved over to make space among themselves. As she hesitated, wondering where she would sit– there were no free stools at the table– a seat suddenly flew from the pile next to the foreboding bouncer, clutched in pink venelight and dropped sedately into the freed space.

Seraphine made her way towards the seat. Though still wary at this sudden welcome, it would be rude to refuse it at this point, given the trouble they’d gone through to make a place for her. She sat and found herself sitting across from the two Anaydi women who had come out of the tent before her, both with a bowl of stew before them. One of them had bright pink eyes that were still glowing slightly as Seraphine sat. So, she had been the one that had fetched the chair for her. Seraphine nodded towards her in reluctant gratitude. “Thank you,” she said, reasonably certain the brownish orange-haired young woman, clad in worn but respectable travel clothes, would understand her.

A twirled hand was her reply. “It’s all right,” the young woman said with a gentle smile and lyrical voice, and despite herself Seraphine felt at ease. “You’re the one who went into the tent after us, aren’t you? I thought so,” she continued at Seraphine’s nod. “Well, think nothing of it. We strays have to stick together.” She waved at one of the serving boys running around until she got one’s attention and waved a ticket at him, one identical to Seraphine’s. That done, she took a length of bread she had dipped in stew and handed it to Seraphine. “Here. Something to chew on until your stew arrives. I’m Yoctoha, by the way. Yoctoha Hoshin.”

Dignity took a further beating as Seraphine greedily accepted the bread, and was swallowing down her first bite as the introduction was made. She hastily swallowed. “Seraphine,” she said quickly. The lack of a formal greeting set the tone of her response, and to be honest she was too hungry to care at this point, with food not only right before her but in her hands. “Seraphine Vitalia Ataraxia Cerer,” she continued, giving her name with unseemly haste. A memory of her mother’s upbringing compelled her to add, “I thank you for having me. Where is that bilged wakebean tea I smell?”

She blushed as she realized that last had slipped out of her mouth, and many of those around the table laughed. Someone handed her a carved wooden mug full of wakebean, untouched if a little cooler than she preferred, but she gulped it down, to her embarrassment. As to be expected, the people around the table came from all nations. Besides the dark-skinned man and Yoctoha, there was her companion; a thin person wearing scholarly traveling robes and of indeterminate gender with a book on the table in front of them, a heavy Logosi that looked more worn, battered and aged than her own, marking them either a Logotheurgist or an Enthalpist like herself; a tall woman, her blouse pulled low to bare her shoulders and her bodice tight around her ample chest that in no way incited righteous jealousy in Seraphine’s heart, no it did not; a young Atlami man, almost a boy really, with sun-darkened skin and sun-bleached blue hair with worn eyes in his tired face; a young Makili woman, from the Moosrab plains by the notches on her ears, with striking eyes, one of blue, the other green; a gaunt man with a sickly cast to his skin, who smiled pleasantly at her; and a tall, dark-haired woman, still wearing cloak and hood even as she dined, who was mechanically eating her stew and bread with a studied, determined efficiency. It had been she who had given Seraphine the mug of wakebean tea.

“It’s all right,” Yoctoha’s companion laughed as Seraphine reluctantly put down the empty mug, her words equally lyrical. “Wakebean is divine. Drink in worship. I’m Alicia Rossa,” she said, before enthusiastically spooning stew into her mouth. She was clearly as hungry as Seraphine herself was.

“And this is Warf, Scien and Sinister,” Yoctoha continued for her, the Atlami and the indeterminate one nodding to Seraphine at their names, the gaunt one waving at his.

“Call me Cera,” the tall woman said with breezy Merthiani city resonance. She really did look in serious danger of her blouse falling down around her waist, bodice or no. “And the little savage is Anarkhia.”

“I am not little!” Anarkhia barked, the catlike ears of the top of her flicking wildly. Her dark nails, so narrow and pointed, drummed on the table. “Come on, where’s that brat with the refill? Stew!”

“They will be not any faster for your yelling, dear one,” the dark-skinned man said.

“You don’t know that!”

He shrugged and smiled at Seraphine. “As for myself, I am Vaydiriun Daiyamir, formerly of Rondiumiun, currently where the winds and the Gauntlet take me. Unlike some, I do not consider it a burden to give my full name.”

“We’re hardly standing on ceremony here, Wade,” Sinister said liltingly, scooping some stew onto his bread and swallowing the mass.

Seraphine had nearly choked on the last of her bread. Where WAS that stew? “Wade Dead-Eye?” she panted, clearing her throat and giving the first word a Calrische pronunciation as Sinister had. “I thought you were already Shardessi?” The name wasn’t unfamiliar to her, though she’d never met the man himself until now. His name was famous–  or depending on who you asked, infamous–  among among society circles as something of a rogue and miscreant, who helped tend his exasperated family’s holdings and his not-inconsiderable own and in his spare time apparently went about pursing criminals and somehow blundering into foiling elaborate plots with his perfect aim and weapons incredible accuracy. She had never imagined he affected such ridiculously villainous facial hair.

“Alas, a common misconception,” Vaydiriun said, stroking his goatee. “I am but a humble Seer, on this quest to make this rumor truth.”

“I suppose you are,” Seraphine said. She turned to the last of their company. “And you are?”

The woman seemed not to hear her, continuing to eat, but Alicia said, “She is, as near as we can understand, Sorce Marionne. At least, we think so. Her accent makes it hard to understand.”

At the mention of her hypothetical name, the woman slowed in her mechanical consumption. “That is my name, it is correct,” she said, voice completely flat, toneless and inflectionless, making Seraphine blink at the strange accent. “You speak my name, it is correct.” There was a rote-like rhythm to her tuneless words, as if she knew the sounds but had never used them much before, and didn’t know the meaning to them.

Before Seraphine could wonder about it, a serving boy arrived with a tray filled with bowls of stew. Anarkhia let out a pleased cheer, instantly grabbing two bowls for herself with one hand and a handful of bread rolls in the other, speared through by her nails, which had elongated somewhat to do so. Seraphine held out her ticket and found a bowl of stew, some bread, and a new clay jar of hot wakebean tea placed in front of her. Resting her left hand on her heart and her right over her womb, she spoke a quick blessing to Athridisi and Erthos, drew out her utensils from her belt pouch and enthusiastically began to eat, careful not to splatter her Logosi, lying on the table next to her.

“So, Scien,” Alicia said pleasantly to Scien. “You were saying?”

“We are all strays, you see,” Vaydiriun explained to Seraphine as she ate, and she nodded to show she was listening. “And we were just comparing stories of our tardiness.”

“I was barely tardy,” Scien said, their words well-projected, as if trying to talk through a high wind. “As I said, I arrived early this morning. Plenty of time!”

“Then explain why you were behind me in line at dusk, when I myself arrived after noon?” Vaydiriun said, idly spinning his tall hat on the edge of its stiff brim.

There was general laughter and Seraphine listened with half an ear at the amicable conversation amongst near strangers. It was a pleasant sound, and she enjoyed it heartily as she stuffed enough stew and bread into her belly to reassure it that, yes, it was getting fed, so quiet down. Her feet still ached, but there was enough space under the table for her to cool her heels and give her soles a rest as she listened to the conversation. Scien had apparently been delayed from having visited his correspondences in the city and, not knowing the proper overflight codes, had been caught and fined for irresponsible flight. She laughed along with everyone at the story and was privately glad she had not allowed her impatience to get the better of her.

Yoctoha and Alicia’s reason was less criminal, having apparently been laid up for three days gathering together enough venecite for the last leg of their journey. The two Thaumaturgisti had taken it in turns to gather magic together while the other rested, and despite having had to stay in an inn for all that time, they’d managed to gather enough to make a tidy reserve. They’d then taken it in turns to fly supporting the other and consuming the venecite for more strength or selling it for coin as needed. Seraphine was faintly jealous at the implication that they were so skilled as to gather so much venecite in three days as to have sufficient largesse to use it with impunity, and of superior enough quality to fetch a good price, though intellectually she knew she need not have been. An Enthalpist such as herself would never be so skilled with a form of magic unless they devoted themselves to it exclusively, and thus sacrifice the flexibility that was their advantage compared to the other forms.

Cera would have told her story, but she had barely begun with, “I was out drinking last night,” when everyone groaned and shushed her, apparently of the united opinion that a story that ended with a hangover would be too predictable to be worth hearing.

“Since when has any story that begins with drinking and ends with a hangover been too predictable to hear?” Cera asked in mock indignity.

“Since you to not seem to have any broken bones, new tattoos, interesting or amusing injuries,” Sinister said pleasantly. “Unless you wish to try and convince us you applied to run the Gauntlet while you were drunk, in which case you’d need a witness to prove it.”

“Agreed!” Anarkhia declared. “No one’s ever that drunk by themselves, and if they are, they forget all the interesting bits!”

“I protest most strongly at the implication that my drunken story wouldn’t be as interesting as an overflight code violation,” Cera retorted, waving a hand to call for more drink.

“She has you all there,” Warf said, wiping his stew bowl with bread.

“It would still be a drinking story,” Vaydiriun said, twirling his hand. He nudged Seraphine. “What of you, little blonde sister? You won’t be boring us with a drinking story too, will you?”

“A drinking story is, by its nature, not boring!” Cera protested before a serving girl finally came with more ale.

“There’s not much to tell,” Seraphine said. “It mostly took me so long because of all the walking.”

Alicia gave her a skeptical look. “Surely you didn’t walk all the way here?”

“Oh, no, I used every means I could lay hands to,” Seraphine admitted, sipping from her hot mug of wakebean. “Walking, carts, gliding, boats, flying. It couldn’t fly all the time, since the headache of being in one form for so long makes it hard to rest properly, but I feel I managed good time crossing six countries.”

“When did you start?” Yoctoha asked.

“Four months ago, in Holvidai,” Seraphine said, taking another sip. Ah, drink divine.

“Four months? From Holvidai?” Anarkhia exclaimed. Seraphine was finding her very loud. ”That’s not six countries! You can jump around in the right place and cross three countries on the way there. I could have done it in month.”

“You wouldn’t have had my maid chasing you,” Seraphine retorted loftily.

Everyone blinked. “Your maid was chasing you?” Warf said quietly, looking bewildered. “What for?”

“Oh, I expect to drag me back to that school,” Seraphine said. “Or was it a temple? Convent? One forgets when you can’t be bothered a wilted rats raft to stay. My mother had charged her to keep me there, you see. Well, it was boring, the Enthalpisti there couldn’t be bothered to push their lesson plans to the point I’d learn something I didn’t already know until the next year, and I was already sneaking off to the town anyway. When word of where the Gauntlet would start this year came out, I thought, ‘that’s close by, I shall give it a try’, and ran away as soon as I managed to sneak enough provisions.”

“Predicable,” Cera chirped, though not without justification. An eighth of all stories about those who ran the Gauntlet started that way, in one form or another. “Where does the maid you’re so eager to avoid come in?”

“Well, I stopped at an inn after dark,” Seraphine explained, remembering. “And in the middle of the night, who should come sneaking in through my window to drag me back but my maid. I barely managed to leave there with my pack, and I lost most of my food. It was probably for the best though. Cake doesn’t keep very well. I just hope that inn didn’t burn down. I had to use fire to get away…”

Everyone was laughing by the time she finished, and so it was something of a shock when a flat, toneless, inflectionless voice said, “You left the location of to arson?”

Everyone started, turning to the last person at the table. Sorce sat there, her utensils neatly resting on one side of her bowl, looking at Seraphine intently. Her face was slightly shadowed by her hood, but there seemed a curious look in her eyes despite how smooth her face was.

“What?” Anarkhia asked.

“You left the location of to arson?” Sorce repeated, then her browed crinkled slightly. “Pardon, speak I was wrong? You left the location of to burning? To be baking? Was frying?” She sighed, then switched from Alvatin to Saxoish. “My apologies, I am not yet proficient in conjugating in that language and in the consistent application of its grammar. Did you say you committed arson upon a location?”

“It wasn’t arson,” Seraphine said defensively, still in Alvatin. “I sort of… left a fire burning… on the floor. But it was only a small fire and I think one of the maids had a little Aquatheurgy. They’d gotten it under control by the time I had crossed the town green. I’m sure there was only a stain on the wood.”

“But that was dangerously and criminally irresponsible,” Sorce said, though there was no accusation in her voice. There was nothing in her voice. Seraphine had never heard anyone with such an accent, though she had heard tell of it.

“Are you Messiarki?” Seraphine asked, astonished. She’d never heard of a Messiarki entering the Gauntlet before, despite their country using magic more than anyone else. They seemed to use it for everything, or so she’d heard.

“Yes,” Sorce answered shortly, head tilting ever so slightly. “I am of Messiark. Why do you ask? Is this relevant?”

Cera directed a look towards Vaydiriun. “You brought her, you explain,” she said dryly.

The dark-skinned man took on a practiced look of infinite patience. “It is probably relevant in that she has probably never met one from your country before, and is not familiar with your ways,” he said in his native language to match the Messiarki. “As to her anecdote, we need not be held responsible to report it so as to facilitate any sort of legal action or reprimand. We are far from the area of responsibility of those who would have dealt with the incident, and by her account it caused no lasting damage. Should any reparation need have been made, I am sure the maid left at the scene must have seen to it,”

“She did,” Seraphine felt compelled to add. “That wasn’t the only time she caught up with me. She made sure to report the specifics to me when we next met.”

“There, you see?” Vaydiriun said. “It has all been resolved, and you need not worry our little blonde sister is a wanted fugitive.”

Sorce’s head tilted slightly back the other way. “But she is a wanted fugitive. Did not she herself relate that she is being pursued by her maid for…” She paused, seemingly having trouble with the last word, as if she could not believe she was saying it. “… truancy?”

“I don’t see what any business it is of yours,” Seraphine snapped. She felt her good humor withering and became annoyingly aware of the dull ache of her feet. “It’s my story. Anyway, why are you a stray?” she challenged.

“Today was the most convenient day for me to perform the application procedures,” Sorce said simply. “The days prior I was performing research in the publicly accessible sections of the library of the Valieriter Kysla. I had to enact the admission procedures for that as well, which were time-consuming.”

An awkward silence descended upon the table. The Messiarki, not seeming to notice, raised a hand. “More stew?”

*

The gathering had divided soon afterwards. Though the Messiarki had returned to eating mechanically as if nothing had happened, it was clear the mood was broken. The young Anaydi women made their excuses first, saying something about looking for a place to spend the night as they departed and prompting the others to rise as well, except for said Messiarki, who continued to eat. Seraphine belatedly wished she could have gone with them and perhaps have had their company. She still needed a place to stay too. She glanced about, but it would have been unseemly and likely misunderstood if she had asked one of the men– she learned she could count Scien among this number– to accompany her as she searched. The only other women of the group, the Makili and the Merthiani, announced their intention to go drinking until morning, which was equally unsuitable.

As they left, Anarkhia and Cera already breaking out into what sounded like a raucous drinking song, Vaydiriun gave her an inquiring look. “Do you have a place to stay?” he asked politely.

Seraphine shook her head as she gathered up her belongings from under the table, her Logosi in hand as new people began sitting down and calling for stew, some waving their own tickets. “I haven’t yet had a chance to look,” she said. “The application was more important.”

He nodded slowly, a troubled look on his face. Seraphine was unsure what he was thinking. To invite her to his accommodations, whatever those were, would be highly suspect, given they had really only just met and she only knew him from reputation and one ruined meal. Surely nothing to build any amount of real trust upon. On the other hand, the rumors about him said he was a good, if a roguish one, and if true he would likely wish to see she had made arrangements that night and was in no difficulty.

“If she has not yet found lodgings, I can provide her with a place to stay,” the Messiarki suddenly said in Saxoish, deftly wiping her bowl with the last of her bread and consuming it.

The other two looked at her, Seraphine more sharply than the other man. “Is this your idea of an apology?” she said tartly.

The Messiarki blinked, the first the Seraphine had seen like an honest expression on her face. “Apology? What for?”

Seraphine stared, wondering if she was joking. Was she genuinely ignorant of the insult she had offered Seraphine, accusing her of arson? Even without the shadow of her hood, she was difficult to read. Her face was almost completely smooth, making no expression beyond the most minute shifts in muscle.

“That is a very kind offer,” Vaydiriun said, and Seraphine glanced at him, but let him take the lead. Replinjani, Rondiumiuni most especially, where the ones who did the most business with the strange people of Messiark, and she figured he’d understand her best. “What prompted it?”

Seraphine was bewildered at this directness, but the Messiarki seemed to find nothing offensive about such straightforwardness. “She seemed in need of immediate rest. And given the current population density of the city, she is unlikely to find lodgings nearby or soon. My destination is both.” There was a pause. “Provided a promise is given that no arson will be committed.”

Vaydiriun seemed amused at the condition, but Seraphine bristled at the words. She was about to retort that she had no need for this charity, especially from this rude woman who had quite thoroughly ruined her meal, and that she was equally suspect. She was ready to say all this, but when she made to speak an enormous yawn escaped her, and she immediately slapped her hand over her mouth, Logosi and all.

“I am sorry, I am afraid I am unfamiliar with that colloquialism,” the Messiarki said. “Was that a gesture of assent of some sort?”

Seraphine gave her a level look, wondering if the woman was mocking her as she icily lowered her book, face composed and mouth firmly closed. She would not consider the offer. She wasn’t desperate. Surely there was still an inn in this city with room to let to her. True, it would probably be found in a slum run by some Thief who indecently spied on his boarders through the walls and robbed them blind at night while slitting their throats before morning, but it was probably there for her to find.

Vaydiriun leaned towards her and said quietly, in Lonvaal this time, “She is probably completely serious about her question. Messiarki don’t seem to have a sense of humor. Well, they’ve never laughed that I’ve seen, and you need some kind of malicious humor to mock someone.”

She glanced at him, surprised he knew the dead language– these days known mostly in written form to scholars and those who used Logotheurgy– but replied in kind, “She’s strange.”

“All Messiarki are strange,” he said. “Personally, I suspect the air on their island has something to do with it. It did not smell right, the one time I went there. But she seems a good sort. It was she who pointed you out to us and asked us to invite you. I believe she thought you looked in need of company. Personally, I think she means you no harm,”

She blinked at that. Beyond the rude comment and handing her the mug of wakebean, the woman hadn’t so much as glanced at her. Seraphine eyed her. She didn’t look like a thief or intending indecent assault…

“If it won’t be too much trouble…” she said, internally grudging as she tiredly tried to recall the woman’s name now that they would be in contact a little bit longer. Sorce, wasn’t it?

“It will be no great difficulty, though you might find the accommodations unusual,” the Messi… Sorce said, Seraphine mentally editing herself. “I can offer you a bath as well, should you desire it.”

At the word ‘bath’ Seraphine suddenly became acutely aware of how grimy she was, wearing a dress she had last washed by sticking it into a stream and pounding it against a rock. Her hair suddenly felt uncomfortably hot, and her entire skin seemed to itch at her. Seraphine reluctantly committed herself, adjusting her haversack to be able to face Sorce and formally held her arms out to the other woman, the left hand palm down the right one palm up, if holding her book as she fell into instinctive social graces. “Against sky and wind, my thanks,” she said formally, then belatedly realized Sorce might not know the correct response.

Sorce tilted her head again, but slowly raised up her own arms. It wasn’t exactly the right response– she met Seraphine’s hands fingertips-first rather than with the heel of her palms– but she met Seraphine’s hands more or less correctly and said, in a voice even more rote-like than before, “Harbor until sail.”

She did not let go of Seraphine’s hands, however, and Seraphine, in a flash of insight, realized she might not know when to disengage. She hastily pulled back her hands, disguising the abruptness of the gesture by making unnecessary adjustments to her sack and beltpouch. Vaydiriun, she noticed, was amused.

“We are taking up space,” he said, eyeing the bouncer who was sending annoyed looks their way. “Let us go. I shall accompany you until your destination. It is still the city, after all. One never knows when there are thieves about.” He smiled, as if at a private joke.

Seraphine did so as well, knowing what he meant, but Sorce appeared not to know. Instead, she stepped past them into the night, looking over her shoulder to see if they would follow before setting off. Full dark had fallen, but as in the way of cities this did not dampen the festival atmosphere one bit. On the contrary, people seemed to take it as encouragement. Seraphine saw showers of venelights in all colors of the eye shooting up into the air rising or falling as twinkling showers. Others were less defined, flickering balls of firelight, equally colorful though higher in the air, to prevent fires. There were even rippling walls of color similar to the sky curtains they were said to have in the cold skies of the far north and south. The more structured but equally brilliant shapes of logoi danced in the air, some incredibly simple, others surely elaborately formulated designs, no doubt the work of master Logotheurgisti. It seemed like they hardly needed the light from various kinds of lamps around them that hung from the other pavilions.

Sorce took a moment to study the crowd, as if charting their course. The light from a venelight of a passing Thaumaturgist fell square on her face, and in its brown light Seraphine saw her eyes, already very dark, seem to become pools of utter blackness, not even a gleam reflected from them as she scanned the crowd on way and another. So, she was a Tenebræist. Well, that explained her eyes and dark hair. It was common folk wisdom that shadow weavers had darker colors to them than most, and black was more common among them than in other people. Still, Seraphine was grudgingly impressed. Darksight was the most difficult of the Tenebræist skills to learn, often taking years to unlock. Most she had heard do not manage it until two decades of mastering their craft, many Enthalpisti not for twice that. She herself hadn’t the vaguest idea of how to get it to work.

As Sorce finished her considerations and began walking purposefully, her eyes reverting to normal, Seraphine, walking to the side and slightly behind her with Vaydiriun at her other side said politely, “You are very skilled. Were you a prodigy?”

Sorce turned towards her, head once more tilted in that way Seraphine was beginning to recognize. “I inquire your pardon? I believe I lack context to understand your remark. Please define your use of the word ‘prodigy’.”

It was Seraphine’s turn to be confused. She didn’t know that? But it was the simplest thing in the world… were they really so strange in Messiark, to use magic so much yet know so little of it? Perhaps the gossip was true, and it was all run by Artifacts. “A prodigy. You know, someone who doesn’t need to be taught how to first manifest their magic, they just begin to.”

“Ah,” Sorce said, and if Seraphine thought her voice had been flat before, that was nothing to what it was now. “Then yes, I am a prodigy.”

Seraphine was surprised to hear the first tinges of emotion in that featureless voice. Just the faintest touch of bitterness. “Did I distress you?” she said, confused. “If so, I apologize. I did not mean to. I only meant to be polite.”

“Yes, you did distress me,” Sorce said bluntly, and the bitterness was gone, though Seraphine could still feel the echoes of it. “And I accept your apology. I suppose you would have no way to know. Your intention towards politeness is noted. No blame is attached.”

Again the blunt statements. As a confused Seraphine wondered what to make of it, Vaydiriun leaned towards her. “Messiarki communicate quite literally,” he said in Lonvaal, voice a low murmur.

“Yes, do we,” Sorce said in the same language, and the two gave a start. She was looking back at them, and Seraphine thought she saw a corner of her lips twitch as it curled just the slightest bit. “Also, we do to hear excellently, but please you speak louder. I fear,” and here she switched back to Alvatin, “that the crowd is very loud, and it will be difficult enough conversing when you speak so quietly. I apologize for my grammar. My proficiency in that language is also not very great. I am better at reading and writing it.”

Seraphine’s cheeks burned in embarrassment at having been caught out being so impolite. Even if Sorce had been rude first, to be caught speaking of her so frankly behind her back, when she had understood them the whole time! “I apologize most profusely for my rudeness,” she forced herself to say instead, hoping the redness of her cheeks convinced the other woman of her sincerity as she crossed her limp wrists before her. “I ought not to have done that.”

“I apologize as well, citizen,” Vaydiriun said. “I should have known better myself.”

Sorce blinked at the two of them, and the second emotion of the night colored her voice. “You were rude?” She asked, sounding vaguely confused.

Seraphine and Vaydiriun exchanged glances and she had to wonder again if this woman was mocking her.

They did not have to push through the crowds for long. Seraphine’s destination was surprisingly close. At first Seraphine thought she had somehow managed to find accommodations in one of the fine inns fronting the Deployment Ground, until she made an abrupt turn and Seraphine realized her intended destination all too clearly. “The Messiarki embassy?” she said, surprised. “You’re staying there?”

“Of course,” Sorce said, glancing back at her. “Where else would I be staying?”

“But,” Seraphine floundered. “I thought we would be going to an inn…” Even as she said it she realized it was a foolish notion. Everyone knew of Messiarki clannishness, about how they never took rooms in inns, not even to bed whores, of the richly appointed and comfortable ‘whore rooms’ in their embassies. She shook her head. “Are you a member of the embassy or perhaps an official’s relative?” she asked instead. “Is that why you’re staying here?”

Seraphine thought she saw the faintest trace of confusion briefly cross the Messiarki’s face. “No, I am not with the embassy or a relative,” she said, explaining patiently. “All Messiarki embassies have quarters set aside for citizens to stay in, uncommon as that is. It is one of the basic functions of an embassy, to be a part of Messiark in the midst of a foreign place.”

“Oh,” Seraphine said, glancing at the building in a slightly different light. Well, that certainly explained why they never took rooms in inns. The embassy was probably better than an inn for them, reminding them of home. “And… they will let me stay here with you?” A creeping thought came over her, and she leaned forward to hiss. “You aren’t proposing to take me to a whore room, do you?”

“’Whore room’?” Sorce repeated. “Do you mean a coital room?”

Seraphine found she still had more blood to blush with. Their name for the chambers in question was, if anything, even more embarrassing. “Yes! Surely you don’t intend for us to stay there do you?” Was she expecting Seraphine to…?

The horrifying continuation to that thought was cut short as Sorce said, “But it has the much larger bed. The standard sleeping areas have only narrow beds you might not find as comfortable. I have read that non-Messiarki asked to accompany someone to them find them too small and cramped. Indeed, they are barely larger than the bunks on ship I rode from Raguna, if much more comfortable and clean.”

“I am used to sleeping in such bunks,” Seraphine said quickly. “Truly, I will not mind such accommodations. There is no need to hire a… coital room.” She said the last very low and hoped no one heard. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Vaydiriun valiantly but failing to suppress an expression of amusement. “Not one word out of you,” she said sternly.

“I would not dream of it,” he said, voice innocent.

Sorce led the way towards the front  of the embassy, an imposing thing all of steel. Messiarki always used steel, or so Seraphine had heard. Never wood and only rarely stone. She eyed the building’s walls, which was more smooth steal, interrupted at regular intervals by horizontal metal slats. Bizarrely, she could make out the shine of mirrors behind the slats. The walls curved as they went upward, giving the entire thing the appearance of a half-buried log. No wonder they bought as much pig iron and raw ore straight from the mines they could get their hands on. An army’s worth of swords and armor was to be found just in this building alone. As they neared what looked like a door however, Seraphine experimentally knocked on the metal and was forced to revise her estimate. It felt liked she bruised her fingers. There was no hollow ring as she had expected. It had, instead, felt like knocking on an enormous bell, solid and thick. How much steel was in this building?

Perhaps it was not all steel. Maybe the builders had place a plate of steel and had filled in the space behind it with stones and other materials. No, that didn’t feel right. The material felt too solid. Had they poured lead behind it to fill in all the spaces? That didn’t feel right either. “Is it all steel?” she couldn’t keep herself from asking.

“Yes,” was the simple reply as Sorce stopped in front of a deep recess in the front wall next to two large gates. Seraphine had seen their like before, in her home city.

She frowned at the Messiarki. “But how is that possible?” she demanded.

There was a slight movement to Sorce’s shoulders. “I am not a construction engineer. I would not be able to answer you reliably. This is the entrance.”

Seraphine turned towards the smooth metal surface. They were dulled somehow and seemed to be too bright to be steel. She’d also seen its like before in Anilam, though only at a distance, and she had not paid any attention to it then. “Should we knock?” she asked.

“If you like,” Sorce said, moving to step to one side where, Seraphine now noticed, a red square was painted on the wall mildly recessed. Sorce rummaged under her cloak and withdrew something Seraphine couldn’t make out, waving it over the painted area. Immediately a section of the metal wall began to slide aside silently, the area behind it brightly lit.

“Well, I shall be taking my leave of you,” Vaydiriun said, waving his hat at them in salute. “If you wish, we can meet again tomorrow night for supper. At the same place?”

“If we wish,” Sorce said. Seraphine noted the literal non-commitment of the statement.

“Fair sailing,” Seraphine replied, twirling a hand goodbye.

She noticed, however, that he lingered as Sorce stepped into the opening and turned partially to bid Seraphine to come in. Quashing a sudden ill feeling of foreboding, which seemed a bit late at this point, Seraphine followed her within, trying not to think of cell doors locked eternally as Sorce touched a square outlined on one wall and the metal panel behind them began to slide shut. Looking back, Seraphine was surprised to see, instead of a wall of featureless metal, what looked like a panel of thick glass closing, but even clearer than any glass she’d ever seen, with no distortions of any sort. She could clearly see Vaydiriun stand there a moment before turning to walk away slowly, occasionally glancing behind him. Thus, he was slightly distracted when a group of three toughs waylaid him and pushed him into a nearby alley.

Seraphine was mildly concerned, but she was sure he wouldn’t hurt the toughs too much. He did not have a reputation as a cold-blooded killer, despite the number of people rumor said he’d shot.

She turned back to consider her nominal host, who was doing something to a portion of the wall, partially hidden from Seraphine’s view by a panel likely deliberately placed there to do just that. The blank wall opposite the inexplicably one-sided transparent panel slid aside as well, revealing a larger space beyond with more bright light shining through. It was a single room, with not furnishings but a raised desk or podium immediately in front of them. The only other feature was a door to one side of the desk, of a grayish metal and flush against the wall it was in, some sort of rug before it in a recess on the floor. Seraphine suspected it also slid aside rather than swing. A strange smell hung in the air, not unpleasant, but noticeable.

Occupying the desk was an attentive man who, for all his strange clothes and foreign looks, had the air of a gatekeeper of some sort. Sorce walked confidently towards him, speaking in a language Seraphine didn’t understand but from how smoothly it came from the other woman’s mouth and how the toneless, empty accent fit around it, it was the Messiarki tongue. She listened to it for a moment, wondering what kind of people would have a language so… bland.

Shaking her head, she looked around and noted that the sliding door panel behind them was also somehow transparent. She could see clearly through them out to the streets beyond. This way, she supposed the person watching the door would know who was outside without those outside knowing, even if it was a little difficult due to the bright lights reflecting off the… glass? She tugged off one of her gloves and tentatively reached out to touch the panel. No, not glass. For all its transparency, it felt like some kind of metal. What sort of chramecirum glass was this? To think this sort of formulation was possible….

Wonderingly, she looked about her. The floor under her feet felt like metal, for some reason painted white. Their footprints already marked it, she saw to her dismay. The walls were white as well, but when she touched them, they felt… strange. They were smooth, but seemed to give a little under her fingers, despite standing solidly. So, the whole building was not all metal after all. Light came from panels in the ceiling, glowing a strong but diffuse white light, more than enough to illuminate the antechamber.

And it was warm, she realized. Though some kind of draft blew, the air was much warmer than it was outside, if still cool. It felt like an early morning in Anilam, when the sky was still a dark blue, brightening with the promise of sunrise. She pulled offer her other glove, tucking them into her belt and undid the cloak off her back, folding it under her arm. Yes, just like an early morning, with the potential to be warm very quickly if not for the draft. She shrugged her shoulders, trying to shift her clothes a little to get a little air over her skin.

“How old are you?”

Seraphine started at the sudden question. “W-what?” she started.

“How old are you?” Sorce asked patiently.

Rude questions again. Seraphine supposed she should just begin expecting them. “W-what business is it of yours?” she countered.

“The attendant needs to know how old you are. He wishes to ensure you are not beneath a certain legal age. I have explained you are not a whore, but given your relative size–” Sorce said.

Seraphine blushed in a mix of anger and embarrassment. He thought she was some sort of child-whore? “I am one and twenty summers old,” she declared haughtily. “Far too old to by any stretch of the imagination to be considered a child and am certainly not a whore! I am a mage and a scholar!” Well, how else was she supposed to describe herself? After all, she was hardly a mistress of the sword like her sisters, nor some cunning woman of business. She might at least put her years of tutelage, schools and enforced study to some use by claiming the title.

Again that head tilt! Sorce said nothing to her, however, instead turning back to the attendant. The man seemed to accept it, finally, and some kind of exchange took place. Seraphine watched intently. Some sort of… card? The two exchanged a few more words before Sorce suddenly turned towards her. “Come with me,” the Messiarki said walking to the door and stopping to wipe her boots on the rug, which seemed to squelch as she did so. “Please clean the soles of your boots as thoroughly as you can before passing through the door. We can store your things before we proceed to the baths. Do you have any spare clothes? While we are here we can also have your current clothing cleaned.” The door behind the desk slid open, releasing a murmuring buzz of conversation and Sorce began walking, so Seraphine had no choice but to follow.

Seraphine tugged at her dress, even as she did as she was asked. The rug smelled strange, a intense scent not unlike strong drink or acid. “It’s fine,” she said, aware her dress was looking worn. “I would not have you go to any further trouble on my account.” She followed Sorce through the open door.

“No, it is not fine,” Sorce said as the door slid shut behind them. “It has obviously not undergone general cleaning and maintenance in some time, and it also possesses an intense odor. Given that we are to be in close quarters tonight, I would rather such a malodorous garment be elsewhere, preferably being decontaminated. And it would not trouble me further.”

Seraphine glared– malodorous? Well, it was a bit ripe, but there was no call to use that word!– but had to admit the reasoning was sound. Still, such rudeness was aggravating, especially since she had no grounds to challenge it. There was never any malice, only a directness that, she had to admit, was kindly materially aiding her. “I… thank you,” she said. “If it would not be too much trouble, I would be thankfully for my dress cleaned. And you need not worry about close quarters. I have some clean clothes in hand.”

Sorce nodded, pausing to refer to some indecipherable glowing characters painted on a plaque on the wall. Seraphine was surprised to realize there was carpet under their feet, covering every square inch of visible floor. It was all a uniform mild gray color, but it felt very soft. She wondered at the expense of covering so much floor with such material. The room they were in was large, and half-full of table and chairs arranged in an orderly fashion that reminded Seraphine more than a little of the pavilion they had eaten their meal. A common room or meeting hall of some sort? Possibly both. One wall of that side was composed of shelving, cupboards, and what Seraphine vaguely recognized as a long food preparation surface of some kind, with knives, rollers and other recognizable kitchen tools sharing space with less identifiable utensils, all hanging neatly in an organized fashion. The other half was full of long couches and thickly-padded, almost throne-like chairs arranged in groups, some around low tables. Shelves of books and other, more unidentifiable things leaned against the walls, and several large mirrors, their surfaces tinted almost to blackness were arrayed along one wall in regular intervals. Such strange decorations.

There were people there as well, of course, many wearing variations of what the attendant guard in the antechamber outside had been wearing, with only minor differences. Seraphine wondered whether the variations had to do with rank or merely personal decoration. Were they guards off duty, perhaps? She was willing to bet on the latter. The others wore no single fashion she could recognize, instead bedecked in a variety of colors and styles. Long sleeves, short sleeves, no sleeves, coats, shirts, blouses, trousers cut as low as the ankles and as high as the tops of the calves, and skirts of varying length, not always on the women. Despite this, the scene was strangely domestic. There was the smell of cooking food in the air, and many were eating. The smell seemed too be coming from a line of serving dishes on top of the food preparation area, just left there with no one attending them. Many people were eating and conversing casually as they did so, while others were lounging about on the chairs. Some were reading, while many seemed to be sitting around staring at slates or varying sizes, occasionally tapping or sliding their fingers along the surface. A few, to her shock, were kissing on the couches as if they were not out in public, their arms around each other and lips pressed together.

Many looked up when the entered, and Seraphine found herself the subject of several very intense states. There was nothing hostile about it, and indeed many dismissed her immediately, but Seraphine had never been comfortable being the sole focus of a crowd. She turned to Sorce, ignoring them, and was mildly disturbed to realize the characters on the plaque her host had been looking at had changed. Indeed, the characters changed again even as she watched, disappearing entirely before being replaced by the shield of Messiark, three concentric circles with the outermost one edged with teeth like a gear, gray on a white field.

Sorce turned towards her. “I apologize for the delay,” Sorce said before she could inquire about the changing plaque. “I was checking the weather projections for the following days. Shall we go?”

Seraphine just nodded, and began to follow the taller woman towards an open archway that lead to a long hallway. Partway there however, one of the other Messiarki called out what Seraphine recognized as her host’s name, and Seraphine slowed, exchanging a few words with the man. Seraphine found the exchange hard to follow, and not just because she didn’t know the language. There was no tone to it, no rhythm, just uninterrupted monotonous words. She couldn’t tell if they were acquaintances exchanging a friendly greeting or if the two were exchanging insults and death threats. Seraphine glanced over to find the man looking intently at her and she repressed as shiver. His face was completely blank. Not one of the familiar blank expressions that denoted one of a dozen different meanings, few of them friendly, just… blank. As if  he was too lazy to move his face to smile or frown. The corners of his lips seemed to curl slightly, but that could just have been the angel of light.

Eventually Sorce started walking again, and Seraphine hastily followed, staying close and no longer looking about or making eye contact. As they passed through the archway, she quietly asked, “What was that about?” she asked.

Sorce, who’d slowed down slightly so they could walk abreast, looked sideways at her. “Could you please specify?”

“That man who spoke to you,” Seraphine clarified. “What did he want?”

Sorce blinked. “Ren? He was just telling me my drive cells were recharged. Why do you ask?”

“Oh!” Seraphine said, wondering what in the waves a ‘drive cell’ was. “I thought… I don’t understand the language, so I wasn’t sure if it was something I should be concerned about.”

“You need not worry yourself,” Sorce said, glancing every so often at the doors and nodding at those they occasionally passed heading the opposite way. “I think he thought you were a whore I had hired, or possibly a local child I was seducing.”

Seraphine’s head snapped towards her. “What?-!” she said, outraged. Why did everyone here seem to think she was a child, a whore, or both?

“I think he thought you were a whore I had hired, or possibly a local child I was seducing,” Sorce repeated dutifully. “Absurd, of course. I am not so young that it would be acceptable for me to seduce a child of your apparent age, but some of my new acquaintances here insist on treating me as being younger than I am.” Again, the vaguest tinge of recognizable emotion colored her words, and Seraphine found it mildly comforting that the Messiarki would also find such treatment as annoying as she herself did. “We are here. You may leave your belongings with the storage spaces.”

Seraphine started, realizing they had stopped before a door. This one, too, slid open to reveal another long corridor. On one side were tall cabinets in a row, each with a handle marked by a symbol and a red mark. Opposite each cabinet in alternating order were two doors, one atop the other, all apparently made of the same materials as the walls. They reminded her of the large oven doors in her family’s kitchens, or the heavy, insulated doors of a coldroom. Next to each double door was a deep recess, easily four of her long paces deep that could be concealed by a kind of folding screen secured to rails on ceiling and floor. About half, the ones closest to them, were lit, while those at the end of the hall stood dark, though light glowed along a line on the ceiling of the hall itself.

Seraphine, bewildered, followed Sorce to a point about halfway down the strange chamber, before a darkened recess. The taller woman touched a marked circle on the wall and light in on the ceiling of the recess came to life. Taking the same thick card, Sorce held it against the red mark on one of the cabinets. There was a click, and the door popped ajar, revealing a deep space with several pegs, and shelves. “You may store your things here,” Sorce said as Seraphine peered within. She held up the card. “This key unlocks your access to this sleeping hall, your storage cabinet, and your bunk. Due to certain restrictions, I need to accompany you to the bathing area. ”

Seraphine stared at the cabinet, at the strange card Sorce called a key, and down either end of the hallway. “Is this a barracks of some sort?” she asked, wondering where the beds were.

“I suppose you could say that,” Sorce said, turning to one of the ominous doors opposite the cabinets. Those had red marks as well. She opened the lower one and slid it wide, then gestured for Seraphine to see. Curious, Seraphine bent down to get a better view.

The space behind it was fairly wide, tall and deep, and what was clearly a mattress was laid down on it. Seraphine, bemused, bent down lower, and saw a folded blanket and a large, thick pillow. Abruptly, she made the connection and straightened. “I’m supposed to sleep in there?” she demanded.

“It is either there,” Sorce said placidly, “or in a coital room. You made your preference against the latter clear.”

Despite her own lack of expressions, she seemed to have no trouble interpreting the aghast look on Seraphine’s face. “Do not be concerned,” she said. “The bunk is well-ventilated, despite its appearance, and very comfortable.  And if you are concerned about privacy, the door has a locking mechanism, with a manual release on the inside.” She demonstrated on the open door which, Seraphine saw, was transparent on the other side as well.

Seraphine stared at the odd sleeping area. She stared at Sorce. She thought of the money she had and slumped a little inside. Well, she had come this far.

“Well… I suppose we must got to the baths next then,” she said tiredly. “I must remove this malodorous dress.”

Sorce left her to stow her meager belongings in the generous space. As little as she owned, that basically meant throwing her haversack into the cabinet and calling it job well done. Then, not knowing how long she had until her host returned, Seraphine sat on the carpeted floor of the recess, crossed her legs with her Logosi on her lap, and closed her eyes. As her father said, trust your friends but check your money. And strangely kind a she had been so far, this Messiarki was not her friend. Surprise after surprise had made her drop her guard, but now, with a clear moment to think by herself, wariness made Seraphine take action. While it seem like Sorce had no ill intent towards her, the same might not be said of the others in the building. It was best to be prepared, and hope there was no need.

Enthalpy, form of magic Seraphine had found herself blessed with upon testing, was often derided as being ‘flexible but weak’ by those who saw magic in terms of purely overt destructive power. Indeed, Seraphine herself had seen her magic like this, before education and her own determined pride made her change her own views. The strength of her magic was not the ease with which it destroyed. It was the options it presented, options that an intelligent, creative mind could use to great affect for many things.

Seraphine was well able to admit she was intelligent. Creative was another matter. Still, one did not have to be too creative.

Behind closed eyelids, Seraphine felt her magic. It seemed a mass within her, full of potential and ready to be used, if only it could be fashioned into the right shape. With the familiarity of long practice and a quickness that spoke of long repeated use without utilizing its inverse, Seraphine began to shape her magic for use. She shaped it slowly with thought and intent, in her mind’s eye slowly directing it into her lungs, her heart, her stomach, all the dark, empty spaces in her by. She imagined it spreading, up her arteries, following with the paths of her blood. Seraphined shaped her magic, relying on discovered shapes of thought and sensation, each meticulously noted within her Logosi, to act as shapers upon the clay of her magic as she felt the power take shape.

The power seemed to settle beneath her and set as she opened her eyes. She raised her arm, passively concentrating on keeping her magic in the form she had shaped it, and extended the limb towards the nearest wall. The light was bright, leaving weak, intersecting shadows, but it was enough. Seraphine split her concentration, no longer only intent on the form of the magic but also of acting through the magic she had shaped.

On the wall, extending down beneath her arm, the vague, blurry edges of her shadow rippled and firmed, becoming straight and defined, growing darker. Seraphine dropped her arm. Her shadow, crisp and clear, remained. She nodded in satisfaction and let it go, and the shadow instantly disappeared, returning to its usual position under her arm. Ready to check her money, she waited for her new friend to return.