The Gauntlet: Chapter 4

Chapter 4

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not right now, Nyarlat,” he said.

“Kadae!” Nyarlat whined.

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

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

“Then you do it,” Kadae said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a knock on the door.

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

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

Scien frowned. “What are you talking about?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were no Soulings hiding upstairs to maul them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“See?” Seraphine said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have months of study,” Cera said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As one, everyone looked at Nyneth.

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

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

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

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

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