The Gauntlet: Chapter 2

Chapter 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

The tent and crowd they were expecting.

The water wagon, not so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The world flickered.

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

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

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

Oh.

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

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

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

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

Everyone paused.

“You don’t think…” Seraphine began.

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

“But in a water wagon?” Scien said.

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

“But in a water wagon?” Scien repeated.

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

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

She nodded. “To be sure.”

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

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

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

“To examine a subject!” she called back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did she say?” the soldier asked.

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

Somewhere, a bell began to toll.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you staring at?” she demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

“Still in the tent?” Seraphine said.

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

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

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

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

“Why should they not?” Sorce asked.

“It sounds like cheating,” Seraphine said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seraphine nodded, then followed Sorce into the tunnel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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