The Party: Prologue + Chapter 1, Part 1

Prologue: First Time Log-In Cool CG Action Trailer!

In Medias Res

“Class Change! Sorcerer! Fireball!

Near-spherical, the spell came into being within the demons’ midst with a gesture and a near-sociopathic laugh. The air was filled with the strange, syrupy-sweet scent of demon blood, which now possessed a disturbing, caramel-like tinge. Arm upraised from the casting, the child with pale hair smiled widely, letting out another laugh. “Fireball!”

Fire flew again.

“Summon!”

With the word, sparks of light danced for a moment at a clear spot, spinning and growing denser and more numerous until finally an elephant stood there, tusks perfectly white and gleaming. With a trumpet blast from its trunk, it charged into the fray, ignoring teeth and claws as it slammed into the demons with its much greater bulk, goring and trampling underfoot. Face pale with fear, little brunette gestured wildly at the air again. “Summon!”

A second elephant joined the first in its rampage.

“Liz, weapon!” the dark-haired girl cried.

“Same!” the blond boy called.

The blonde snapped out her hand. “Juan, mats!”

A flicker in the air, and a length of wood and an ingot of steel were in her hands. Her own hands danced in strange gestures, and in a cloud of light wood and metal were gone, replaced by a long, finely crafted spear, it’s point long and sharp and shining. With a toss, the weapon flew through the air into the dark-haired girl’s hands. Another flicker, and another length of wood, another ingot. Another cloud of light, another spear. Another toss.

The spears flashed, drew back and flashed again, quickly coating in pale pink demon blood. Again and again the spears stabbed, each movement true and sure. Though the girl’s hands were surer, smoother, more practiced, the boy’s moved with strength and determination, punching clean through bodies with disproportionate strength.

They fought on, and demons died.

 

Chapter 01: Character Creation

A month after he’d been abducted while attending an anime convention, Juan Peso lay in bed eating a chocolate peanut butter cup and stared towards the ceiling.

Once upon a time he had been, as the cliché went, a perfectly ordinary high school student, of the sort you could find anywhere, traveling abroad with his parents on a family vacation. In stories, usually of the kind read by self-same ordinary high school student types, that usually meant ‘main character’. Unless they were in a vampire romance novel, in which case it meant ‘victim’, ‘food’ or ‘background nobody’. Possibly all three.

At this point, he was fairly certain he wasn’t in a vampire romance novel, so he was safe on that score.

Idly, he reached off to one side. When his hand came back, it was holding another chocolate peanut butter cup wrapped in gold foil. Not even bothering to look at it, he unwrapped the foil with an easy, practiced motion, rolling the foil into a ball and throwing with a flick over the edge of the bed to his left. There was a crinkling sound as it fell on the pile of foil he’d already thrown there. The paper cup followed as he popped the chocolate peanut butter cup into his mouth and chewed.

Most people probably wouldn’t use the word ‘abducted’ to describe his situation. They’d probably have gone with ‘Chosen One’ or ‘Fated Savior’ or ‘Something Destined’ or ‘Legendary Magic Knights’. ‘Summoned Hero From Another World’ was also fairly popular. ‘Trapped in Another World’ would have been closer in his opinion although it reeked of descriptive inadequacy, as if they’d gotten stuck inside the mall after closing time. These are the sort of people who’d never been kidnapped, had never given the inherent horror of the ascribed scenario any thought, and obviously hadn’t been keeping up with the deconstructive interpretations.

Locally they used ‘Sent By The Gods’, or ‘Godsent’, which pretty much tells you everything you needed to know about what they thought of the matter. Juan still hadn’t gotten a handle on how corrupt established religious authority was around here.

As to the locality…

Finishing the chocolate peanut butter cup, he sighed and levered himself upright on the bed, reaching over to the side and pulling a golden goblet towards him. It was filled with ice water, with a couple of ice cubes floating in it. Washing it all down, he negligently tossed the goblet, ice and all, in the same general direction as the foil wrapper. There was a ringing clatter as it fell on top of the many, many goblets that had gone that way previously. Sighing, he lay back down, reaching over to the side for a silvery tablet. By now he’d already read most of the ebooks he liked at least once and was about halfway through the stock he’d liked the description and gotten but had never actually read, which was considerable. A month with, when you got right down to it, nothing to do and no reason to look for any could push you to great extremes of boredom. The clock along the top of the tablet read that it was eight in the evening. His wristwatch said it was closer to midnight. The midmorning sun outside his arched stone window said both were lying. As far as he could make out, this place seemed to have a day that was somewhere between 23 and 23 and a half hours long, if that day he’d timed the sunset was any indicator.

This hadn’t been a result of faulty timekeeping devices of haphazard time setting on his part. It was a natural consequence of having suddenly been summoned to another world against his will and without his knowledge.

Summoned to another world. It was a familiar concept, having been a prominent part of the anime of his childhood, the pulpy fantasy literature of his pre-pubescence, and the translated light novels of his current adolescence, among other things. Where the magical, yet struggling kingdom or even just a lone wizard or other comely female main character for some reason thought it was a good idea to just reach into another world, have a random rummage around, and yank back the first person that came to hand, believing said random person for some reason would be able to accomplish something far more motivated and desperate local people hadn’t been able to against a seemingly hopeless and insurmountable problem. The phrase ‘Demon Lord’ tended to show up a lot in such works. So did ‘The End Of The World’.

As with all right thinking people, even the ones who wrote really bad self-insert fanfics, Juan had always put this down to being just another stock fiction scenario, somewhere far above ‘a highly brief and non-mutating, gender-specific plague has killed all the males in an isolated jungle village and we need you, male main character, to get all the surviving women pregnant to continue our people’ and somewhere slightly below ‘giant robots, saving the world with’. Juan no longer had the luxury to do that now. It had gone from stock fiction scenario to being the synopsis of his day to day life.

The summoning package usually came with magical powers of some sort, which had fortunately been the case in this instance. Many stories tended to be particularly harsh, just dropping the poor summoned everyman hero into the mess with nothing but the clothes on his back, with the only saving grace being a love interest in convenient narrative range, with even odds of them being the ‘comically abusive’ sort. Such things tended to rely on the main character being… well, the main character… to get him to the other end of the book or TV season alive. It was a very bad omen for him that off the top of his head, the only stories (not counting print media, of which he’d only become a purveyor of relatively recently) in the last two decades where the summoned heroes had actually be successful in saving the world could be counted on one hand, involving a trio that had needed to murder the very person who had summoned them, and a track and field athlete who’d mainly provided moral support and ominous prophecies.

If pressed, Juan would not have been able to give a coherent narrative of the events of his arrival. A short, non-informative summary would have been his speed. All he really remembered was the cold, as if he were suddenly several hundred kilometers closer to the poles, and him dressed for a California July. There had been the panicked cries of a little girl calling out in fear. Seven dead bodies, all in their own pools of blood. The indignant protests and demands that, had he been watching the scene on TV, would have had him calling the people making them clueless idiots due to die within the next ten minutes to show how dangerous the situation was.

There had been the sounds of violence, and he had a distinct memory of a little girl tanned skin, Asian features and blonde hair that looked real violently attacking a much taller, metal-armored figure. They’d eventually had to tie the little girl up, since she’d eventually drawn blood (her own) and had knocked two people to the ground and seemed to be trying to grab their own knives so she could stab them. There had been the regal woman with green hair who’d several times tried to begin what sounded like a conciliatory and informative speech only to be interrupted by demands and, in one instance, the little girl slamming both feet hard into someone’s kneecap. He vividly recalled the woman making an ‘oh, I give up, let’s get a move on’ gesture though, foreign and unfamiliar as it was. It had the same air of annoyed resignation.

The journey that followed was a blur of darkness, a really hard, really uncomfortable, really bumpy surface that he bounced and smacked into a lot, and intense, uncomfortable cold. There had been a blanket that smelled intensely of some kind of unfamiliar animal, and he had a distinct recollection of wondering if it was getting shit on him.

It was around that point Juan’s recollections became clearer and more vivid, though given the darkness, there hadn’t been much to see. He knew now that they’d been taken into a walled city, but at the time, the walls had merely been more darkness. There had been too little light to see buildings, and what he’d seen had reminded him of the overcrowded shanty towns back home. Though he knew now that the wood and stone buildings he’d passed had significantly better construction quality and hygiene, at the time he’d wondered if he’d been dragged to Mexico (which was probably cruel to the Mexicans, who no doubt knew about cement).

He’d been pulled out of what he’d later see was a wagon, and hadn’t been roughly manhandled. He’d later concede his treatment his treatment had been gentle but firm. They’d stood him on some sort of stone paving, before bright lights and a cold wind. He remembered feeling grateful someone had gotten him another, thicker blanket, one that didn’t stink. There’d been a guy with a beard. In hindsight, it was a bit reassuring that no one from Game of Thrones immediately came to mind on the sight of him. The explanation he gave for why they were here was, in his considered opinion, a horrible and cliché-ridden plot. Desperate kingdom, rare and powerful magic, invocation of unfamiliar gods of the plural and local variety, ‘you’re our only hope’, etcetera and so on. There were some weird nouns too, but since Juan had a lousy memory for those he promptly forgot them until the next time someone brought them up.

In short, the setting was like something out of a low-action, high-pun 1980’s fantasy novel, and his personal circumstances were something out of a bad self-insert fanfic. Possibly of the sort written by idiots who believed themselves divinely inspired and able to divide by zero.

Apparently, it was a shared sentiment, since the violent little girl swore at the bearded guy and threatened him.

He’d since learned her name was Chloe, and she was rather nice company once pacified with chocolate.

He’d also later learn the bearded guy was named Selash and was the king. It had probably been mentioned the first time around, but given how cold it was, it wasn’t surprising it missed his notice. That and his lifelong problems with remembering names.

There was a polite but perfunctory knock before the door rattled heavily, then swung open, and a tall, pale, dark-haired person made their way in. Sigmund Lien was the kind of person that Juan found vaguely annoying. He had an optimistic, accepting, get-up-and-go personality that seemed terminally unable to take the hint he should get up and go away, leaving the lazy people to their own devices. The kind of person described as ‘a people person’ and was annoyingly solicitous to the point they couldn’t seem to get the hint when you gave monosyllabic answers, trying to draw it out into a conversation. He was also old. Like, had a real job, paid taxes old. Probably almost thirty.

The cold draft from the hallway outside which blew foil and waxed paper all over the floor and under furniture matched the downturn of Juan’s mood at this sudden intrusion. He shivered at the sudden drop in temperature. “Close the damned door, you’re letting all the heat out!” Juan snapped reflexively. In truth, between the braziers at the corners and the small stove under the bed the room was sort of toasty, but he felt like complaining.

“Sorry,” Sigmund said conscientiously enough that Juan immediately felt bad for being unreasonable. He didn’t close the door right away though. “But can you watch Alicia? I’m going to train with Megan.”

A little girl stepped nervously into the room, even though this wasn’t the first time she’d been there. Alicia Cruz was small, kinda chubby, was ten years old but looked eight, and might be a very nice person. Might, because so far she’d been too busy crying and being scared, which Juan thought was a perfectly reasonable reaction to being abducted, but it was starting to wear a little thin. She was always cold too, and was even now bundled up in a heavy blanket, a substantial portion of which dragged on the floor behind her. Sigmund finally shut the door, and Alicia soon began extricating herself from the blanket as the heat began to build up again.

“As long as she picks up after herself,” Juan said, looking pointedly at the blanket. Alicia guiltily began folding it neatly.

Sigmund looked significantly at the sizable pile of golden goblets, the just as sizable though smaller pile of foil and waxed paper, the pile of aluminum cans of various beverages, a stack of dead tablets and a couple of large, empty kettles. “You won’t even notice anything,” Sigmund said blandly.

“Oh, ha-ha,” Juan said. “Elizabeth’s getting all the metal stuff for raw materials, so it’s fine. It’s not like there’s any point in cleaning up after myself. The maids will take care of it.”

“There’s no reason to make it harder for them,” Sigmund said.

“Their government abducted us and we can no longer go back home,” Juan said, pointedly lying back down again. “Compared to that, picking stuff off the floor is easy.”

“So you should be able to clean up around here,” Sigmund said pointedly.

“Don’t want to,” Juan said. “It’s the principle of the thing. They brought me here, they deal with everything that comes from that. Anyway, don’t you have to be somewhere for a girl to beat you up?”

Sigmund sighed disapprovingly, but took the hint and left.

When the door had shut again and the air warmed up, Juan pushed himself off the bed. “Can you sit on the bed Alicia, I’m going to sweep,” he asked gently. First rule of dealing with enthusiastic personalities: never let them see you working. It gave them strange ideas of getting you to work on command, instead of only when it was absolutely necessary. Weirdoes.

Taking out his broom, he gathered the foil and wax paper together, trying not to get too much dirt on them and separated them into piles, and gathered the stray aluminum cans and goblets that had bounced off haphazardly. He put them all into sacks by type to be send to Megan’s workshop later.

Looking around the now-neater room, he nodded in satisfaction, and glanced at the bed. Juan glanced down at his stomach and gave it an experimental pat. He sighed and grabbed the heavy coat slung over one of the room’s chairs. “I’m going for a walk, Alicia. Do you want to stay here? I’ll leave you some chocolate to eat.”

The alacrity in which she scrambled off them bed and wrapped her blanket around herself answered that question. Juan offered her his hand. Her grip was small, tight and slightly desperate. He gave her what he hoped was a reassuring squeeze. He wasn’t quite sure how to deal with this. He was a bit distant from his cousins her age, and wasn’t sure if her silence was her natural personality or stemming from the trauma of her kidnapping.

They left the room, and Juan instantly felt his face was turning to ice. Outside his room, the castle was freezing. There was no snow or icicles or condensation anywhere, but it sure felt like it. It was as if someone had set an air conditioner as low as it would go and pointed it at his face. He felt Alicia’s hand shivering as she used her free arm to pull the blanket over her head.

The moment they were out of the room one of the maids, a green-haired girl who looked about his age, rushed in to clean. They’d all been assigned one, separate from the three guards each who followed them around wherever they went. The three that presumably made up Alicia’s bodyguard team was standing with his. They were all fit, serious-looking men and women in dark uniforms, armed with short swords, a baton of some kind of wood painted blue (or maybe it was blue wood, he wasn’t willing to bet on anything) and light breastplates. They all followed silently after the two of them.

The kingdom of Feyai that had abducted– sorry, ‘summoned’– sorry, ‘begged the gods to send’– them was apparently very far south on whatever planet they were on (they’d managed to confirm they’d ended up on a classically spherical world rather than, say, a gigantic artificial ring around a star, or the more commonly known disc on the back of some elephants on the back of a giant turtle sailing through the stars), which was why it was as so cold. Between the tall, perpetually snow-capped mountains, the system of wide valleys and the near-constant northern wind (which he’d heard was actually quite warm, and the subject of much poetry, or the local equivalent thereof), it was a wonder anyone would want to live there voluntarily. They did though, and apparently made their living either farming or mining from the local mountains, of which there were plenty. They were so plentiful, in fact, it was safer to describe the area as all mountain with a few livable dips in the ground.

It was truly a foreign land and, more importantly, a foreign land that Juan had no idea what to expect from, since he’d never seen it on TV, and what he’d read mostly came from fiction, which was a stupid thing to make assumptions from. For one thing, everyone here seemed capable of magic. While the means that had abducted them and brought him here was apparently some form of divine intervention from the local pantheon, and thus an extreme example, most of the maids he’d seen seemed capable of very basic magic. He’d seen them easily light lamps and candles and fires with a thought and a short string of murmured words and some not even that. Of course, when he’d tried saying them, absolutely nothing happened. Maybe he was saying it wrong.  They seemed amused and exasperated every time he had to ask one of them to light the braziers and lamps in his room, so he’d had to get better at gauging if they were going to run out and refilling hem himself.

For another, the animals were very strange. They had nothing like horses, and he hadn’t seen anything resembling a dog or cat, or even a rat– which was a good thing, but still. Even back home you saw rats sometimes. There were plenty of birds though. Well, Juan thought of them as birds, but between the long tails, the bent-forward bodies, and the uncanny resemblance they had to velociraptors, saw-like teeth included, he had to wonder if there weren’t any horses because they’d all been eaten. They were all huge too. The smallest was the size of a German Shepherd and was apparently domesticated, the largest about the size of the horses that weren’t there and used for pretty much the same thing. None seemed capable of flight.

He’d just sort of glanced and nodded along when he saw those. So they had animals he’d never seen before. Of course they did, duh.

Right now they were in Castle… eh, he was blanking on the name right now, but it was the castle in Feyai’s capital city. And it was a seriously big, definitely non-Disney castle. It was the kind built for sieges and wars and general human unpleasantness, with the aim of surviving them and dancing on the corpses of those who hadn’t. Or possibly eating them, if they got desperate enough. The place was huge, built on a larger scale that the castles back home he’d seen pictures of. It was bigger than the Mall of Asia. It made the walls of Intramuros look like child-lock gates. It looked like the love child of Helms Deep and a hydroelectric dam. Its stone walls looked like they’d give modern penetrating explosive shells a hard time.

Juan had asked why the walls were so huge, since they seemed completely overkill for keeping armies out. He’d been told they were like that to allow them to last against magical bombardment.

That had driven him to bed for a day, staring at internal visions of men who could throw around the equivalent of atomic bombs with a thought.

So far he’d seen a large stable of dinosaur birds, several gardens that were clearly for food and not decoration, four barracks of soldiers, and a small town’s worth of support industries and workers, not to be confused with the city right outside. Oh, and people. Lots and lots of people. Many of whom had green or blue hair.

He’d learned to ignore their staring. Apparently, black hair was very rare around here.

There was a parade ground outside the soldiers barracks. Or a training field, or a drill square, or gym class, whatever it was called. Juan wasn’t up on the terminology. It was a wide, packed dirt space that had been compressed enough to not turn into mud no matter how much it rained, which tended to happen with great, freezing frequency in Feyai, usually in the afternoons and evenings. He and Alicia stood on one of the elevated walks that looked out over it, where, in addition to several professional soldiers drilling and practicing, a teenaged girl and a skinny office worker were apparently making fools of themselves.

They were wielding wooden practice swords, since it was obviously a bad idea to let them use anything else, and wore padded armor, which some of the soldiers watching seemed to think was childishly silly. After two weeks of actually being taught how to use a sword (Juan was a bit vague on when they had actually started), they had progressed to the ‘actually more of a danger to others than to themselves’ stage. Megan Goodspeed, dark-haired, athletic and self-admittedly nerdy, moved like she really knew what she was doing now, which might actually have been the case. Sigmund was slower and more awkward in his movement, but seemed to know what he was doing well enough. They were a long way from a showy Hollywood fight scene, or even a slightly farcical tokusatsu fight scene, though they were at least beyond a Saturday Night Live fight scene. They were definitely getting better, although it was a given that Megan would quickly outstrip Sigmund in skill.

As mentioned earlier, it was not uncommon for those summoned to another world to also magically gain some sort of strange and irregular power in the process. That uncommon event had happened, and was actually why they had been abducted. The seven of them hadn’t been abducted specifically. Any seven people would have done, since the process would have given them powers. They’d just been the ‘lucky’ ones.

Idly, Juan reached off to the side and drew out a few chocolate peanut butter cups. He handed some to Alicia, who accepted and began eating, heedless of getting chocolate on her blanket. Juan began doing the same, more carefully.

The two below were sparring to hone the powers they had received. Sigmund had been the first of them to realize his power, when a pop-up box had appeared in his line of sight during the ride in the dark to inform that said ‘Congratulations! You have leveled up! Your level is now lvl. 2! You have received 6 Ability Points!’. It had been a pop-up only he could see, and it had taken him a while to figure out how to get rid of it, by which time he’d apparently leveled up several times more.

Sigmund’s power was ‘Level Up’, which apparently restored his physical condition– he explicitly mentioned having an HP and MP bar– after he’d acquired enough experience points, or exp, to reach the next level, as well as awarded him ‘ability points’ to allocate for him to get stronger. There was apparently a passive gain of exp even when he did nothing, at a rate of 29 exp per minute. He also gained exp in combat, deadly or otherwise, hence his sparring with Megan. Between the sparing and the constant trickle of exp he was level 23 and rising. There didn’t seem to be a level cap on his abilities.

Megan’s power was ‘Skill Tree’, and was the reason she was progressing much faster than Sigmund when it came to learning how to fight. It apparently allowed her to learn skills at an absurdly fast rate. Everything she learned was represented by one or more ‘Skills’, divided between Passive and Active. Every time she did something that directly utilized the skill, she gained skill points that would level up the skill. As the skills increased in level, they unlocked other, related skills in an increasingly wide array of interconnected skills. This was why she was now so good at fighting. Her rising skill level directly manifested as increased competence.

As someone who had been trying to learn drawing and other skills for years and had barely progressed from ‘childishly laughable’ to ‘barely adequate’, Juan found this power to be monstrously unfair.

A little ways down the elevated walk, someone else was watching the two spar, surrounded by his own guards. Keith Kirche was a perfectly average-looking boy in his mid-teens, of the sort you could find anywhere. He was in fact so average it had taken Juan three weeks to remember his face, since he kept getting it confused with that of other people in the castle, despite the fact that green or blue hair was more common than brown. He was that ridiculously average.

Keith was watching the two intently, as if trying to commit their movement’s and actions to memory. It seemed a pointless gesture to Juan. The other boy’s power, ‘Album’, was very strange. It allowed him to show everything he had ever seen, heard or read (and some things he should have had absolutely no idea about, which was really creepy) as either a picture, a movie complete with audio, a sound bite or a screen of text and illustrations.

Keith glanced up and finally seemed to notice they were there. He made his way towards the two of them, his guards trailing behind. “I’m surprised Sig agreed to this,” Keith said. “He’s usually busy playing mother hen and trying to keep Chloe from killing someone.”

“I think he just wants to make sure Meg has someone to spar with who’ll hold back,” Juan said, reaching off to the side. “Chocolate?” he offered.

Keith accepted. “Thank God you had these on you,” he said. “Otherwise this world would not be worth living in.”

Juan, Alicia and Keith all nodded in agreement of this self-evident fact.

Juan leaned forward, resting his weight on the railing. “So, how badly is he making a fool of himself, do you think?”

Keith titled his head thoughtfully. “Well, if this was a training montage, the lyrics wouldn’t have reached the first ‘eye of the tiger’ yet.”

“Are we talking an extended montage using the full song or the kind that only does the first two verses and the chorus?” Juan asked.

“The first kind,” Keith said.

 

The Party

The Party

A small country under threat resorts to the Zordon method of heroic recruitment. They with some teenagers, a lousy attitude, and a college senior. Gifted with strange powers that mark them as main characters chosen by the gods, they must… well, primarily they must find it in themselves to give a damn about their abductors’ well-being and not use said powers to get revenge.

New Original Fiction Project Underway

So after a long stint of procrastination, alleged planning, more procrastination, more alleged planning, some fanfic chapters that weren’t announced here (I should probably do something about that), as the title says, I have a new original fiction project underway, which I’m sure will be of great interest to the two people who’ll see it on this website.

Yeah, that’s probably more than the safe daily exposure to sarcasm.

Anyway, new project and all, very excited and will hopefully be able to keep excitement level higher than the ‘don’t feel like writing’ level, which is always a good sign. Last time I had this feeling was in the middle of German class and led to the creation of Green Lantern Nanoha.

I’m definitely still working on that, BTW.

Anyway, the tentative title is ‘The Party’. The premise is basically ‘Summon Everyman Hero + RPG Mechanics Universe‘–

Wait! Don’t go! I swear it’s not cheap Light Novel-generic as it sounds! Although, yes, admittedly I’ve been inundated by Gate and 1632 and Sword Art Online and Log Horizon and Only Sense Online and The Gamer and–

WAIT! Please, don’t go I swear I’m trying for something original! After all, it’s all in the execution, right? Right? I mean, Codex Alera is basically Roman Legions + Pokemon, and that worked out!

Anyway, please give The Party a chance.

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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