The campsite where those who’d managed to make it to the tent had been sent was located some way into the forest next to an old stone watchtower and barracks located at the base of one of the aqueducts. The tower was still manned, since the Valieriter Kysla believed in always being prepared. Because they also believed in seasoning, it was manned with young cadets in some disfavor who had probably been sent there as an informal punishment. A small stone basin was built into the side of the watchtower, with a water barrel standing beside it, and many people were already there filling flasks of water to drink or simply pouring it over their faces. In the small clearing next to the structures, another tent had been set up, a flag in front with the ribbon, knife and flame emblem of a healer. A small line of people were waiting their turns, none very badly injured, but many were crudely bandaged and bleeding.
“Finally!” Seraphine groaned in relief, stumbling towards the basin. She’d used up her water on the walk here after all the excitement had worn out and her body had patiently reminded her how tired it was. It took all her self-control not to dunk her head into the water and just reach in with her tin cup for a drink. Oh, it was so cold. She took another drink.
The walk back down the tunnel had been easy enough. Seraphine hadn’t even needed to guide her board, just make it slide and let the slope do all the work. Vaydiriun had been pleasant company, though he kept sighing about losing his hat. Seraphine had been all set to take a final long walk up to the camp the survivors– and no one could argue there was no more appropriate term– had been told to rally at. Vaydiriun, however, had wanted to go back and recover his buried luggage, and though Sorce had volunteered to go with him, he had demurred, setting off alone. Sorce had actually looked mildly worried as she watched him go, but the Messiarki had soon turned towards the long walk in front of them.
Now, having reached their destination, Seraphine had to wonder what was coming next. Though some people were sitting around and talking, some even laughing, a lot just sat quietly, catching their breath. There were barely thirty of them. While a bare handful looked almost as unharmed as she and Sorce were, many sported signs of having had wounds. Other bore small cuts and other injuries, which had likely not been considered serious enough for the attention of a healer.
Seraphine was having her third drink when she realized she was being watched. She turned.
In the barrel, a black and yellow-striped head slipped back under the surface, silent ripples marking where it had been. For a moment, Seraphine stared.
She felt a sensation of significant height-ness behind her. “Are you not worried about getting sick?” Sorce asked, looking dubiously at the water as she washed her face from the small wash basin to the side.
Seraphine gave her a look. “You’re not likely to get sick drinking from running water,” Seraphine said. “Don’t you know that?”
“I have heard of it,” Sorce said. “I have been uncertain whether I should believe it.”
“Believe it,” Seraphine said. “It’s either that or go without water for days. Don’t worry. My Pyrotheurgy is strong. If you do get sick, I can burn it out.” She paused, then felt compelled to add, “Probably. Most likely in any case.”
“The way you presented that statement is not very reassuring,” Sorce said.
“No, it probably wasn’t,” Seraphine admitted.
Sorce gave her a long look, then turned towards the basin, and drew a strange arrangement of small brightly colored rings from a belt pouch. Seraphine blinked as Sorce pulled at the rings, somehow locking them together to form a rather strange cup and scooped up some water to take a drink. She tilted her head. “Very cool and refreshing,” Sorce said, dipping it again for another drink. “Have you seen Nyneth? She does not seem to be readily visible.”
“The Managhalin female.”
“Oh!” Seraphine pointed. “She’s in the barrel.”
“Ah.” Sorce paused. “Obvious, in hindsight. I must remember that.”
She walked to the barrel and leaned over it. Soon, a head warily peeked out of the water and crooned something that sounded like a question. Sorce replied in the same language.
“While you’re talking, can you ask her why she’s in the rain barrel?” Seraphine said.
Sorce paused and attempted to relay the question. “Apparently they would not allow her to enter the basin for fear of contamination. This was the alternative,” she said. “This detachment had apparently received word from the group who had accompanied Nyneth with the water wagon, and they had this prepared for her arrival.”
Seraphine nodded gravely. “Does she know if there’s anything to eat?”
There wasn’t, apparently. Seraphine moved off to let someone else have a drink at the basin, leaving Sorce talking to the Nereid, the former sounding coaxing as the latter warily raised herself a bit more out of the water. The Enthalpist looked for somewhere for her to sit and rest so she could finally let her Tenebrætry go. Her head was pounding now, and she was eager for the surcease letting go would grant her. Finding a convenient tree, she lay down her board and settled back, closing her eyes, her arms wrapped around her haversacks. They just needed a rest, that was all.
Suppressing a groan, Seraphine opened one eye. The two familiar-looking Anaydi women loomed over her, but that wasn’t what had made her start in surprise. The woods were filled with the colors of sunset, and more people crowded around the trees. How had she not noticed the rising murmur of voices? She straightened, wincing as a cloak fell off her. “Um, Alissa, right?”
“Alicia,” the blonde corrected gently. “The food has arrived. Do you want us to bring you some?”
“Uh… oh, sure,” she said, still confused and wondering whose cloak this was. She looked around and blinked. “Why is that barrel there?”
“Mistress Sorce didn’t want Nyneth to be alone, so we helped her move the barrel next to us,” the other one– Yoctoha, Seraphine recalled– said.
“We?” She looked around, noticing all the bags. “How long was I asleep?” She struggled to stand, dropping her sacks to try and get the cloak off.
Yoctoha and Alicia helped her up, Yoctoha folding the cloak over her shoulder and handing it to back to Seraphine. “Most of the afternoon,” she said. “Master Vaydiriun and Mistress Sorce invited us for company.”
“I suppose I should watch the bags?” Seraphine looked around, noticing the fire pit and the packs next to her. “Who’s here, exactly? Uh, anyone I know?”
“Well, there’s Master Vaydiriun,” Alicia said, tapping her lips thoughtfully. “And Master Warf, remember him? There was Master Scien as well.”
“So, everyone we had dinner with?” Seraphine said. A vague, meaty smell was wafting through the air. Stew?
“No, I think Mistress Cera is with her own friends,” Yoctoha said. “Though they’re camped only a few trees over, so they’re not that far away. And I haven’t seen Mistress Anarkhia or Master Sinister yet…”
After seeing that Seraphine was fully awake, the two went off to the get the promised food after Seraphine handed them her wooden bowl. Seraphine looked around. All around, as far as the eye could see, were people. Unlike the gloomy, tired mood of the silent, staring few that she and Sorce had found on their arrival, the air now seemed filled with jovial victory. People were calling to each other, apparently trading stories and gathering around fires. There were apparently enough Pyrotheurgisti willing to lend their services, since many of the fires had no wood and rested on small piles of dirt and stones. A few venelights were shining, and more were coming up in preparation for nightfall, as were floating flames and light-emitting logosi. While there was no raucous laughter– there was still something of a subdued air to everyone– there was a feeling of accomplishment.
“I wasn’t that tired, was I?” Seraphine muttered to herself, making to sit down and have her shadow raise her board for her to sit on. She realized she no longer had Tenebrætry in time to land hard on her rear. “Ow,” she said dully, then sighed and settled herself, examining the cloak in her hands. It was black and felt unusually stiff. Sorce’s cloak, she realized.
The sound of water made her turn. A pair of golden eyes were looking at her over the lip of the barrel. Their cross-shaped pupils were unreadable, but to be on the safe side she gave a nod of greeting, exaggerating it to make up for her relative lack of neck. It was one of the common gestures she knew and had been taught to use it to greet passing Nereidi who came up to the beaches when she had been a child. The one that usually came with it, the invitation to play, she did not think was appropriate at the moment.
The Nereid rose slightly, returning the gesture. The water in her barrel rippled but didn’t spill.
“I don’t suppose you can understand me, can you?” Seraphine tried. The Nereid said nothing, merely continued to stare at her, blinking its wide eyes. “I didn’t think so. So, do we just stare at each other until the Messiarki comes back?”
Silence. The Nereid, apparently growing bored, slipped back under the water.
Seraphine stared, then sighed. “Where’s that food?”
She didn’t have long to wait. The two women soon came back followed by the others, carrying bowls of stew and fresh bread. The latter confused Seraphine greatly as it was handed to her. It seemed fresh baked, not merely reheated.
“Oh, they just made it,” Yoctoha explained as they all sat around the fire pit. “It’s something they do in the army. They have a Thaumy or a Liner make a box that won’t let out heat then have a Burner make a fire inside it. One of the people who made it here used to be a baker’s apprentice, and he’s been making bread all afternoon in exchange for a bed in the barracks.”
Seraphine handed Sorce back her cloak, which the other immediately proceeded to put on as Alicia, her eyes glowing, gathered golden venelight around her hand and gently placed it in the center of the stone-ringed pit. She adjusted the glowing light until she was satisfied, then sat down next to Yoctoha to eat. While Seraphine tried to connect names to faces, Sorce knocked on the barrel forming part of the circle of the gathering. Nyneth eagerly rose from the water, the two of them speaking in the Nereid language.
“Have you ever heard anyone who can speak Nereidi?” Seraphine found herself saying as Sorce handed Nyneth a piece of bread, which the latter cautiously took. When she flinched, the Messiarki was there to catch it.
“Some,” Scien said, balancing his bowl of stew on his knee, then apparently decided that was a stupid idea and instead put his bread there. “There are supposedly some people in Shardesse who can speak it. Some island traders too, the ones who trade with the Nereidi for pearls. I don’t suppose it’s all that uncommon, in the right areas.”
“She is probably more curious,” Vaydiriun said, breaking a piece of bread, “in how a Messiarki would know. I confess I am curious myself. I would not think the Messiarki would have much to do with the Nereidi.” He smiled sardonically. “They do not sell metal of any sort.”
“Knowledge is valuable for its own sake,” Sorce called in Saxoish, not turning to look at them, holding the bowl of stew as Nyneth cautiously took a bite, then started panting at the heat and dunked her head under water. “And my people have a history with the Managhalin. Why should we not have an interest in them?”
“She has good hearing, remember?” Seraphine pleasantly reminded Vaydiriun.
“Ah, yes. I had forgotten,” Vaydiriun said, nodding at Sorce.
“I don’t think she minds, really,” Seraphine said.
“How many languages do you know?” Scien asked interestedly. No one seemed to find it problematic to listen to Sorce speaking in Saxoish. Seraphine figured they’d come to some kind of agreement while she was sleeping. “I heard Messiarki knew only their own language and Saxoish.”
“That is broadly true,” Sorce said, looking up from showing Nyneth how to blow on the stew first before eating it. “Saxoish is the only foreign language we are required to learn during education.”
“So? How many do you know?” Yoctoha asked.
“All of them,” Sorce said.
Everyone blinked. “All…?” Alicia repeated.
“I have studied the basics of all 17 currently used major languages on Khyort, excluding Relren and forae symbol sign, as well as 7 de-facto dead languages, including Latin, Grecus and Hbrw,” Sorce explained. “Admittedly my conjugation and vocabulary is lacking, and I have no context for colloquialisms, but I study every night. My fluency in regional-specific dialects is still unknown.”
They stared. “Why?” Warf eventually said. “I mean, why bother to learn?”
Sorce looked up, tilting her head. “In case I ever needed to speak the language. The Gauntlet is known to pass through many countries and I did not wish to be unable to communicate.”
Everyone looked at each other, then shrugged. That made sense, they suppose. But…
“So, how long have you been studying languages in preparation for the Gauntlet?” Alicia asked.
Sorce paused to consider as Nyneth began to master the basics of hot bread and stew. “Ten months,” she said, leaning against the barrel to keep the Nereid company as she began eating her own supper.
Seraphine found her stew going down the wrong way at her start of incredulous disbelief and Yoctoha frantically patted her on the back to keep her from choking. “Ten months?” she managed to choke out.
“Yes,” Sorce said. “That is why I still have difficulties with word choice and conjugation. I will learn as I am exposed to the languages. I have already learned much about Alvatin since I met Seraphine.”
Seraphine stared at her.
“You have contributed greatly to my knowledge of the application of conjugation and my vocabulary,” Sorce said, misinterpreting her expression.
Seraphine sighed and gave it. Ten months or not, what did it matter?
“So, since we will be traveling together from now on, may I ask what everyone can do?” Scien said, paraphrasing the usual social question.
Seraphine looked up sharply at this and before anyone could reply said, “Pardon me a moment.” She turned to look at the Messiarki at her back. “I thought you only invited them for supper.”
Sorce blinked. “No. Given what we have seen of possible future circumstances, I thought it would be in our best interest to ally with others to establish a group of defensible size.” She gestured around her vaguely. “It appears to have been a common idea in the aftermath of the examination. I apologize for not consulting you, but you were unconscious.” Seraphine thought she detected the faintest hint of reproach there.
The short blonde nodded gravely. “All right,” she said, turning to the others. “I apologize for the interruption then. Let me begin the introduction. I am an initiate Enthalpist. My current strengths are Tenebrætry, Pyrotheurgy and Kydlathiantry.” She rubbed her head. “I apologize for not volunteering to start a fire, but I still have a headache.”
“Seer,” Vaydiriun said, mouth twisting into a wry half-smile. “But you all knew that, I think.”
“Logotheurgist,” Scien said, patting the Logosi that hung on a special pouch at his side.
“Venie,” Yoctoha said cheerfully.
“Venie,” Alicia repeated, with a smile.
“Symbol,” Warf said quietly.
“Oh! What alignment?” Yoctoha asked eagerly.
Warf shuffled, looking self-conscious. “Righteousness,” he muttered, as if hoping they wouldn’t hear.
Seraphine looked at him warily. As a group, Symbols were… not unpredictable. Symbols were very predictable. It’s just they had a tendency to grate on people’s nerves, and depending on how long they’d been using their magic tended towards either irrational optimism, irrational anger, blind zealotry or just general insanity. It was a prejudice harder to overcome than others, since in their lucid moments even Symbols admitted they had a tendency toward those things. It was rare to find an old, sane Symbol.
Yoctoha, however, just smiled brightly at Warf. “It’s a pleasure to meet you all! I hope we grow to be good friends.”
Seraphine found surge of dislike rising within her, and chided herself for the unhelpful attitude. There was nothing wrong with someone being cheerful and friendly. It was good she was cheerful in friendly! If they would be traveling together– without Seraphine’s opinion being previously consulted– it was good she was cheerful and friendly rather than argumentative and surly. Seraphine kept repeating this to herself, and eventually the annoyed and wholly irrational urge to wipe that smile off settled down.
Vaydiriun looked over at Sorce, who was finishing her own supper and was looking off speculatively back the way they’d come as if thinking of getting more. The bowl in her hands seemed strangely thin and delicate, like a fine shell. “And you, tall dark sister?” he called jovially in his native Saxoish. “What magic do you manifest?”
The question seemed to catch her off-guard. “Shadows?” she said, as if unsure of her answer. Next to her, Nyneth was licking her bowl clean, seemingly oblivious of the food getting on her face. A few soggy bits of bread floated on the water of the barrel. “I can move my shadow…”
“That’s an odd way to put it,” Alicia said. “Don’t you know what being a shadow weaver is called?”
Sorce shook her head, just the smallest movement of her chin from side to side. “No,” she said. “I have absolutely no point of context. I can deduce from the etymology that it has to do with shadows, but given that it might be a stylistically derived designation rather than a literal one, I cannot say so with absolute certainty. I recognize the terms you use, but have no idea as to what they designate or their proper usage.”
At their stares, she added, “I would be very grateful if you would assist me in correcting this. I do not wish to remain… ignorant.”
There was something about that last word, toneless and inflectionless as it was, that nudged Seraphine. Something about how it was said even flatter than usual…
She shook her head. “Are you telling me,” she said flatly, “that you came all the way here not knowing something as basic as what magic is called?” She supposed that was it possible to learn how to use magic without knowing any of the terms– after all, except for Logotheurgy, which was all about words, you didn’t really know what things were called– but really! The woman seemed to be getting stranger and stranger.
“I am determined to join Shardesse,” Sorce said. “Deficiencies in my education, while unfortunate and requiring immediate correction, are secondary to that purpose.”
Vaydiriun laughed heartily. “Well, I believe we can all agree on that!” he declared. He patted the ground. “Join us, tall dark sister, and we shall see about remedying your basic… deficiencies!”
Sorce seemed to hesitate, glancing down into the barrel, but the Nereid seemed content with her meal, and was playing with the wooden bowl the stew had come in on, likely dirtying her water. Sorce sat down on the ground to one side of it, far enough not to be splashed in case Nyneth made a sudden movement. “I would be thankful if you would educate me,” she said very carefully. Was that a Messiarki formal phrase? “Would you please explain the terms related to magic?”
By the time they had finished filling in Sorce’s staggering gaps in basic knowledge about magic– while one could be forgiven knowing how each worked, exactly, not even knowing what they were called seemed selective ignorance to an astounding degree– Seraphine’s head felt well enough for her to align herself to Pyrotheurgy and exchange Alicia’s venelight for an actual fire. Sorce had left to return the wooden bowl she had contrived to borrow from the barracks for the Nereid, returning with the shovel she had left as security.
Between the food they’d eaten, and the rigors of the day, no one felt like putting off their blankets. Seraphine took the first watch.
“I’m the one who slept the afternoon away,” she said, though in truth it didn’t feel like that was making her proof against drowsiness. “I can make it until midnight, at least. And I can keep the fire going until you’re all asleep so you’re comfortable.”
Warf volunteered to stay up with her to keep her company, and the two near-perfect strangers had settled themselves on opposite ends of the space their group had claimed as the others went to sleep as best as they could. The two Anaydi women had lain together, using one of their cloaks as a sleeping mat and the other as a blanket to stay warm, not seeming self-conscious in the least. Scien had used a logos to make what had looked like a halfway comfortable cushioned mat, laying down on it in his robes and cloak. Sorce had pulled a bedroll out of her pack, sliding into it and donning an absurd heavy eyepiece made of dark, domelike glass mounted on thick metal frames and some kind of mask over her mouth that looked like she should asphyxiate on it. Vaydiriun had merely lain back against a tree with one of his shortshots on his lap and drifted off to sleep.
Except for occasional breaks for nature, Seraphine and the Symbol had just stared at each other as she let the flame she maintained grow low and die. Around them, the woods had begun to glow with night insects and luminous molds, ferns and nocturnal flowers. Even with the brightness of the artificial sources of illumination, their glow was substantial, like stars that had gotten lost on their way into the sky. Around them, the camp was relatively quiet, with most people as tired as they were, and only a few others keeping watch. The only disturbances were the sound of insects, the occasional straggler just arriving, the distant booms from those still competing for disks, and, once, a pair of moans and groans that had been terminated by someone yelling, “Will the two of you stop that, I can’t get to sleep!” followed by embarrassed silence and then a sharp, shrill cry of satisfaction. She and Warf had tried to block that out by having their only conversation of the night, which was inane talk about the weather.
By midnight, as Seraphine was waking up Yoctoha and Vaydiriun as they’d planned, the last of the stragglers had arrived. There were predictably far less than fifty and three hundred magi in the final tally. Between injuries and disks simply not found– though Seraphine darkly suspected they’d been lying about the final number of disks available– the morning found the camp giving home to a hundred and sixty-one magi, many of those who had come in late the night before greatly injured. The last group had all come in huddled together and supporting each other. Most had nearly fallen asleep in the healer’s tent, forgoing the bread and stew that had been set aside for them.
There was no bread and stew for breakfast, and while the healer was still there– a silver-haired man who looked in his early forties– and had looked disapproving at the notion of not feeding injured men, all he said on the matter was, “I’m not going to do anything extra for you, put that away, and the next meat that bothers me is going to be incinerated.” There was, however a paper pinned to a board next to the water basin, instructing them to be in the town of Third Gate within five days with their glass disk. On the paper was a crud map marking the location of the town.
“It’s often like this,” Scien explained while they had done what meager packing they needed to do as Sorce tried to explain to Nyneth that, no, they couldn’t bring along the barrel. “The Gauntlet is often about getting from one place to another in a set amount of time with what resources you have. That part doesn’t really make for interesting stories, so most people don’t pass it along. Still, five days is plenty of time, in settled country.”
“Provided we don’t run into anything,” Vaydiriun said with a brightness that tempted disaster.
“We won’t even have to rush,” Yoctoha said p as she and Alicia dusted leaves off each other’s cloaks and backs. “We could walk there, once we get on the road. Third Gate is one of the entryways into the Empty Range, so it’s an active trade route after all. We only need two, three days at most.”
“Let’s go then,” Seraphine said, trying not to sound impatient. “Maybe we can find an inn or something on the way. Or, you know, find something we can gut and roast.” Ah, that had been a disgusting first experience. She thought all you had to do was kill something, impale it on a stick then burn to cook. The burnt hair, offal, and half-cooked meat had made her beg to learn how to clean a catch properly form the first half-way trustworthy-looking person she’d seen who looked like they might know. Stories tended to leave off expounding on parts like that too.
“I have traveling rations,” Sorce said as she helped a reluctant and wary Nereid to climb out of the barrel, glass disk and a firmly-stoppered glass bottle clutched in her wet hands. “We can all have some on the way.”
“Does that mean the same thing for Messiarki as it does for everyone else?” Seraphine said. “Hard, dried, bad-tasting stuff you’d rather not have anything to do with if you had a choice?”
“…Yes,” Sorce admitted. “Broadly speaking…”
“Let’s find something to gut and roast!” Seraphine declared.
Soon they were ready to go. They joined the trickle of people following the cart path that led away from the watchtower. Recovered after a good night’s sleep, most people seemed cheerfully optimistic. The newly-formed group had plenty of company as they walked the path, with other groups walking alongside them, either just come together the night before or already a group previously. Many of the latter had stayed behind, still waiting for people, and along the path there were a few who walked alone, most with faces either haunted or guilty. Some people couldn’t wait.
Nyneth had been loaned Sorce’s cloak to keep her warm since she had begun shivering once out of the water, but this did nothing to disguise her. She walked awkwardly, wincing occasionally as she walked, and her yellow and white fur contrasted brilliantly against the open front of the cloak, which instantly drew the eye. Sorce had used some string to hang the Nereid’s bottle around her neck, where it kept bumping against her slick chest. The glass disk remained in her hands. There hadn’t been any attempt to hide her the night before and now that people had rested, murmurs were following in her wake. Given snatches of what Seraphine heard, it was probably a good thing the Nereid knew nothing but her own language.
By silent agreement, they walked with the Nereid at their center, Sorce always by her side and speaking to her in the Nereidi tongue.
Despite not being consulted the day before whether she would have these people as company, Seraphine wasn’t really all that annoyed by their presence. In truth, it was something of a relief, since she still couldn’t stop herself from occasionally wondering why the Messiarki had seemed to go to great lengths for Seraphine’s company, and if there was perhaps a more sinister purpose behind it all. True, now she sometimes wondered if there was a sinister purpose to all these peole traveling with her, but that was a general fear of any traveler and thus didn’t cause her any more added anxiety than usual.
When she got past the general suspicion, they were all very good traveling companions. Sure, the Anaydi women had her self-conscious and twitchy inside as she felt even shorter, flatter and plainer than she usually did, but both were very pleasant and generally cheerful almost to the point of her wanting to throw them over the nearest tree. Almost. Wade– as he insisted on being called since ‘Vaydiriun’ had three more syllables then he felt necessary for everyday use– was usually quiet as they walked, though he responded readily enough when his opinion was solicited. Instead his eyes wandered around them, scanning the trees and the other people on the path with what seemed ingrained habit. Occasionally he would reach up to his head only to sigh and let his hand fall, muttering about his hat. Stories about him aside, Seraphine, used to judging and assessing people of their social standing, felt he was relatively trustworthy and certainly less aggravating than her sisters. He actually reminded her of some of her friends back home who were part of the dueling leagues, with his straight-backed, balanced walk and air of confidence in being familiar with a form of skilled violence should he need arise, even with the long and heavy case on his back, almost a rival for Sorce’s own pack in size.
Warf, who walked behind the rest of the group, also reminded Seraphine of some people she knew in the dueling leagues, her eldest sister Altria being one of them. The fact he carried a sword around, for one thing, an old longblade with a wavering finish, prong-like hilt and a long, weighed pommel that ended in a rather vicious and utilitarian blunt spike. Like them, he was a quiet, stern-looking person that some of the more light and fanciful of Seraphine’s friends would have described with words like ‘dark’, ‘tormented’, ‘intense’, ‘repressed’ and ‘in need of a good woman to grant him the goddess’ blessing to bring some light into his life’. Possibly the word ‘brooding’ would have come into it somewhere, as would ‘smoldering’ and likely ‘passionate’, at which point Seraphine would spend time with her other friends until they came back to some semblance of sense. Warf wore slightly worn but serviceable leather trousers, a dark orange coat a bit too large for him, heavy boots, and a long leather overcoat held shut by buckles in a style that had probably last been in fashion a generation ago, possibly two. A plain round shield of vaguely green metal, the color of the venecite mixed into it tinting the chramecirum steel, hung from his arm, opposite the pack slung over his shoulder.
Seraphine thought he was a decent enough sort. Indeed, she thought she could recognize the signs of an upbringing in one of the hereditary knightly families on Atlam. It wasn’t too different from similar attitudes to be found in her own Verbania, that first-in, last-out mentality that had him taking first watch with her, though she hadn’t been very attentive at the time. That attentiveness, helpfulness to all those around him, that posture… The hairstyle was also something of a giveaway. He seemed slightly different from Seraphine was used to though, a bit more subdued and the wrong kind of stiff. With the knights she knew, the stiffness came from that odd mix of humility and pride that often tended to get mixed into an assured stubbornness. With him, it… wasn’t.
Seraphine grimaced, shook herself and chided herself for baseless fancies. She hardly knew the man, after all.
Scien was a scholar. That was obvious from the robes. Granted, they were traveling robes, hardy and with trousers underneath, but if he’d had as much travel as Seraphine had– which she’d be the first to admit wasn’t a lot– he wouldn’t be wearing lightly colored ones. Thought between the food marks, the ink marks, the dust marks and the travel stains, keeping an impeccable appearance apparently wasn’t foremost on his mind. At least he wasn’t fussy, like a few Seraphine had known, most especially in the schools she’d been banished to. He seemed more… distracted. Not absent-minded, but thinking very intently about something. Seraphine wondered if it was the same thing she was thinking about.
The suddenly increased certainty of the possibility of violent death.
She was, on reflection, very lucky. Not as lucky as the Nereid, who had literally gotten success handed to her, but still very lucky indeed. She’d come from yesterday’s mad ball of violent chaos relatively unscathed by following a near-perfect stranger’s good ideas. They had allowed her to more or less just skirt the fighting. She hadn’t even needed to find her own disk.
This was probably a bad precedent to set for herself. It undermined the reason she had chosen to brave the Gauntlet. It was a silly reason, a childish reason. It belonged to the reasoning of a brat in short skirts who still watered her bed. After all, you couldn’t be forced to enter the Gauntlet. You came knowing it was almost-certain death for the weak, or the unsure, or the idle.
She was here because she wanted to be of Shardesse. To earn the right, the privilege, to call herself Shardessi. To be one of the guardians of the memory of magic and life itself, since their distant, distant ancestors had come from the Vanished Lands. To be above other magi, as one who had strength beyond mere magic, and so had been given the keys to knowledge. To be worthy to bear a charge as old as civilization, knowing the secret strength that made Shardesse nearly a country in itself, feared by armies of magi.
And to do that, she needed to rely on her own self.
Yes, perhaps it wasn’t such an inconvenience not to have been consulted on her opinion of traveling companions. Because in the end, they didn’t matter. If they held her back…
“Seraphine? Are you sure you do not want to try some?”
Seraphine blinked, snapping out of her reverie as she realized Sorce was speaking to her. “W-what?” she said.
Sorce held out an ungloved hand, on which lay a deep red twist of some glistening, leathery thing, occasionally marked by small, pale dots of who-knew-what. “It is a compressed strawberry travel ration,” Sorce said, by way of explanation. “It is not likely to be very filling, but please try some. It may satisfy your appetite until we find something to ‘gut and roast’.”
“It’s actually pretty good,” Yoctoha said enthusiastically, her voice a bit muffled as she chewed. “Like they made beef jerky from fruit! It’s sweet and sour, but actually pretty good, and I think it’ll last a while!”
Hesitantly, Seraphine took the proffered alleged-food and popped it into her mouth, then bit down. She chewed thoughtfully, then in surprise. “It’s… not bad. Thank you.”
Sorce gave a slight forward-back tilt of her head as if nodding, and Seraphine thought her eyes looked satisfied. They all continued walking in pleased, fruit-tasting, leathery silence.
Yes, Seraphine might have to abandon these people if they held her strength back. She would earn the Chain of Colors! But until then… she was glad of the company.
Nyneth, daughter of Bator, daughter of Urobu, chewed through the strange red thing she had been offered and decided that, as things she’d found that one could eat in the Emptiness went, that it wasn’t terrible, though it made her mouth a bit tight and dry. It was an unnatural feeling, but weighed against all the other things she could be feeling– such as hunger, heat, the pain in her lower fin as she made her way with this slow and unnatural method of travel, her arm being torn off, the insides-emptying agony of her banishment– she considered it tolerable. No one seemed to be dying so far, and such a thing was much easier to make out here in the too-bright Emptiness, since back home the currents and waves could make one of the dead move and fool you for a little while. Up here, the currents of the Emptiness were loud, but too weak to move more than the strange weed-topped corals that tried to climb upwards and the dead weeds beneath her.
Still, she was not of these people, of the Banished. Perhaps this food that they could eat was a poison to her. It would certainly be in line with how her life had turned so far.
“Well, are you? Cold, are you?” a dull, weak-sounding voice said.
Nyneth turned towards the source of the words, trying not to let suspicion show in her neck and shoulders. She knew it would not show in her eyes. If there was one thing she could control, it was her eyes. “Fine, I am,” she said, then had to repeat herself when she didn’t seem to say it loudly enough. The Emptiness stole words and sounds, and it didn’t help that the Banished could not hear most of what she said, the low sounds that gave texture and nuance.
The Banished nodded, one of the few gestures Nyneth recognized. It seemed to be the only one they could do properly, with such short necks. When she gestured, she did it with her whole body, like a child. Yet Nyneth did not show her amusement and the touch of condescension she felt. Being surrounded by Emptiness helped. This one was the only one besides the frail, wrinkled one that they had brought to her four days ago who had understood what she was saying. Both spoke the words strangely, like children, without nuances to any of the words, but they had been intelligible. This one actually pronounced things better, the parts she could say, but sometimes her choices of words would be odd. Still, she had come to Nyneth in her time of need, translating for her the words of the other Banished. It was a fortuitous current for her to find someone who not only knew her tongue but seemed willing to stay by her.
With her luck, it was a current leading straight into the jaws of one of the Great Devourers.
Yet what else could she do? When it seemed like she had no choice but to dive into the endless dark, into the chill abyss of the Deep Ones, or take a frail, impossible chance to be found only in the Emptiness, why not take a risk? After all, what else did she have to lose?
She meant no insult to the Banished who wrapped herself in black nets and tied a pack to her back that, as far as Nyneth could make out, was filled with rocks. Indeed, she had been very kind to Nyneth, explaining to her the task of the Gauntlet and even handing her the token she needed to perform it. She had brought Nyneth food, strange Banished food, as hot as rocks under sun in the Emptiness, and had shown her how to eat it without killing herself. Sorce had explained to her why they were moving, and where the Gauntlet was taking them next. She had even promised Nyneth a special sort of net to keep her feet from hurting so much should they reach a trading post, and her own net to keep her warm.
It was far more kindness than Nyneth had expected to find, here in the Emptiness. The Managhalin had songs about the Banished, who lived among the currents one could not swim. Some tales sang them as friends and playmates, to meet in the edge places where the world and the Emptiness met. Some had them as monsters, almost as bad as the Great Devourers, with teeth that swam on their own to bite and showed no mercy, killing and eating all in their wake. In some they were wretches, to be pitied for the forgotten sin that had banished them from the world. Some were simply bizarre, where one of the Banished would mate with the Managhalin, which lead to them giving birth to… oh, all sort of things, like the Singers or the Barkers or even demons like the Devourers. Silly stories. Everyone knew mating did not work like that. Nyneth knew people who had mated with the Banished, and all that came from it was either nothing or a Managhalin who was a little bit strange.
Not that she had any intention to mate with one, no matter what mating calls some sent her way. At least, she assumed they were mating calls. The few she had asked Sorce to translate certainly spoke of mating. No, she would not mate, not with this evil inside her.
She had been normal, once. Just another breeder in the tribe, if a bit more thoughtful than most. She had been a Skymarker, one of those taught to read the lights beyond the world. Nyneth had helped guide hunters back to the rest of the tribe after they set out, and had warned when the cold would be upon them so they could move to warmer waters. She and others like her had been taught to see the patterns in the stars and moons, to always know where they were, and to remember and pass new of dangers to other Skymarkers. By day when she had nothing to do she helped hunt, collected clams and saved the useless pearls she found to be traded to one of the reef clans.
Hers was one of many jobs in the clan. There were the Netbringers, who took it in turns to carry around the clan’s treasures. There were Edges, who were taught the ways of the Banished, their songs and languages, so that they could meet with them. Their clan also had among them their share of the Blessed, those who wielded great power. One, Saika, the most powerful, could control the currents themselves, though most of the time he was too busy turning down women offering to mate with him in hopes their child would be so blessed as well to actually do much.
There had been many stories about Saika, who was one of the oldest men in the clad yet looked almost as young as Nyneth herself. His hands and the whole left side of his body were carved with scars. Half of his face had no fur, instead looking rippled and marked like the sands deep beneath. They said he had gone into the Emptiness in his youth, and had come back the wisest man in the world, that in the net he always had with him was a great treasure.
Like many, Nyneth had hoped to learn that she too was Blessed, to be chosen by the Creators to guard against the Deep Ones. She supposed her curse was their cruel joke.
When her curse had manifested itself and she had been banished, named tainted by the Deep Ones, it had been he who had followed given her a last bit of hope. “Find the reef tribes,” he had said. “Speak to their Blessed. Learn of how to become of Shardesse.” And he had shown her his treasure.
And so, here she was. Banished and among the Banished, here in the too-bright Emptiness, living on the kindness of a stranger whose motives she had no idea about. Her feet throbbed, a new sensation she was beginning to loathe, and the joint above it ached, even with the changes made to it by the Blessed Changer to help her walk better. Such pain. Was this what the Banished lived with every day? She shuddered at the thought of a year aching like this, her claws unsheathing involuntarily, prickling at her palms. All the more reason for her not to fail.
No matter what, this quest, this Gauntlet, known from whispered stories and dark songs, would be the end of her. Either she would die…
… or she would be able to go back home.
Every day was agony. By the time the sun was high in the sky, Nyneth’s feet felt tender, and not even the brief rest she and the Banished had had as they ate barbarically mutilated things that reeked of strange smells could do much to ease their throbbing. By sunset she had collapsed, no longer able to bear the pain and tiredness in muscles unused to being worked the way they had been and causing the Banished to stop their journey early. They had swarmed, and she had been afraid, so afraid, that they would eat her, the songs and stories of monstrous Banished coming to her mind. But they had lain her down on a soft place as Sorce spoke gently and reassuringly to her while the one with the one with the ridiculously long golden crest had examined her feet, poking it gently and snapping back every time Nyneth’s claws had involuntarily unsheathed, making sounds at Sorce that even through a different language Nyneth could tell were angry, and Sorce would ask her to calm down and retract her claws.
“Tender, your feet are,” Sorce said. “Unused to walking, the flesh is. This, I should have known. You forgiveness, I beg you.”
“To forgive, there is nothing,” Nyneth sang dismissively. “My feet, they were. The walking, I chose to do.” She had been to the edge places, had walked before, but she hadn’t realized what to expect. Walking was so much harder when you couldn’t go back into the water to rest and take your weight away.
Sorce had coaxed her into eating something, some too-hot meat that was at least cool enough to go into her mouth without breathing on it a lot. She had fallen asleep as soon as the last morsel of strange meat was swallowed.
The next day, Nyneth had insisted on trying to walk again, refusing a proposal to carry her. She’d been told by the Blessed Changer and one of the few Edges that would talk to her that she would need to get her feet used to walking to make them tougher, and she intended to do so. She only got as far as noon before the pain in her feet had become too much, and she had been forced to let the one with the short blue crest on his head carry her for the rest of the day, being put down only a short time before sunset. She had walked with the others again until they had stopped once more. Sorce had been by her side as the one with the ridiculous crest had used her blessing– her magic– to heal her feet again.
The small one called water out of the Emptiness and everyone had drunk their fill. It had tasted strange to Nyneth, as if it too was somehow empty, but it had filled a lack in her she had noticed but hadn’t really understood. The small one, at seemingly Sorce’s instruction, had also wrapped the water around Nyneth, and she had been surprised at how cool it felt. She had been feeling hot and a little dizzy, but she hadn’t realized how bad it was until that moment. When she had fallen asleep, she had still been covered in water.
When she woke later that night, water gone but her fur still cool and wet, as she had stared and memorized the stars and the moons while trying to plot her location out of long habit, she wondered if this had happened to Saika, making progress only with the help of strangers. Was this how he had gotten his strange scars? Had the strangers stopped being kind?
She turned over, and frowned as she felt things sticking to her back. Yes, she’d forgotten about that. She pushed herself up, looking about.
Sorce sat next to her, her face lit by white light that came from the flat thing she was holding. Nyneth saw her eyes close and open quickly, an unnerving thing, and the light vanished. “Nyneth? Sleep, could you not? Water, do you need?”
Nyneth rolled her shoulders in the negative. “Woke, I just,” she said. “Doing, what were you?”
For a moment, Sorce was silent, but from all those strange movement on her face Nyneth guessed she was thinking. “What is known about Managhalin, I was remembering,” she said. “My apologies, I give to you. Because of me, you could have died.”
Nyneth started, the claws in one hand unsheathing in reflex. “Singing about, what are you?” she demanded.
“Difficult to explain, it is,” Sorce said. “Know the right words, I might not. But try, I will.” She paused a moment, then continued. “How much water a Managhalin needs, I did not realize. Enough water you did not have. Killed by heat, you could have been. My fault, it is. Should have known, I should have.”
Nyneth tried to parse through what the Banished was saying. She had nearly died because she hadn’t had enough water? But that was… she stared down at herself, at how wet she was.
“Been keeping you wet all night, I have been,” Sorce said. “More water at morning, I will need. Be annoyed, Seraphine will. In Aquartheurgy, not very strong she is.” She did something strange, as if she was letting out all that was inside her through her mouth. “Right, you were. Brought the barrel, we should have.”
Nyneth stared at her, strangely aware of the water dripping down her back.
“Sleep, you should,” Sorce said. “Your strength tomorrow, you will need. To come, much walking.”
Nyneth shuddered at the idea. “Leave me, why do you not?” she asked quietly.
“Far from home, you are,” Sorce said simply. “Far from home, I am. Know how you feel, I do. Know how you have hurt, I do. To be Shardessi, I want. Do you?”
Nyneth hesitated, then nodded. “To be Shardessi, I want.”
Sorce nodded. “Need to know, what else is there?”
Nyneth’s neck curved in thoughtful curiosity. “Know how to sing, how do you? ”
For a moment, Sorce was silent. Then she said. “For when I met Managhalini, I learned. To learn. To study. To befriend.”
Nyneth swayed in circles. “Just for that, you learned?” she said, surprised.
“Yes,” Sorce said. “I to teach you, do you want? To learn our songs, do you want?”
In the distance, the sky rumbled.
“Finally!” Seraphine cried, thrusting a triumphant little fist into the air. “We have arrived!”
It depressed her slightly that even in her own head she described herself as ‘little’.
Behind her, Yoctoha and Alicia both thrust their fists into the air with her. ”Huzzah!” they agreed good-naturedly. They probably weren’t mocking her. Probably.
Sorce looked about. “Where does one get shoes?” she asked, tugging her cloak’s hood a bit lower on her face as Nyneth stood behind her, arms spread and face to the sky.
Seraphine twitched. “Where do you usually get them?” she asked tartly. She was still annoyed at all the work she’d had to do because of the Nereid Sorce had brought along. She was not strong in Aquatheurgy!
“Here, it would be an embassy,” Sorce said, her pack distending the back of her cloak. “But as this town does not possess an embassy, I suppose an alternative must be sought.”
Warf blinked at her. “Do you buy everything you have from your embassy?” he asked, swaying from one foot to another.
“No,” Sorce said, wiping her face. “Just most of it.”
Seraphine hmphed. ”I don’t see why you’re so insistent on shoes,” she said. “Even if the cobbler gets started right now, it won’t be ready for a few days at least.”
Sorce paused and blinked. Then she said, “That would have been helpful to know much sooner.”
Above them, thunder rolled as if to punctuate her statement, before the long, steady fall of the rain resumed. Well, at least Seraphine hadn’t needed to gather water that morning. There’d been plenty of water all day.
The town of Third Gate was build right up against the Empty Range, in front of one of the major entrances into the caverns. The opening had once been the mouth of a river that had carved its way into the rock, eventually becoming one of the many such waterways into the mountain. Centuries ago a road had been carved into the rock above the river to serve caravans. Now it was just one of many points of entry into the massive cave complex that filled the massive mountain range, serving as a major trade route through to the north and northwest portions of the continent of Relvin. Third Gate had grown at the entrance as one of Atlam’s major trading cities, taxing the goods passing through the caverns both over land and on the river. And, of course, as a choke point should someone come through the caverns to invade.
They’d made it to the town with tomorrow to spare, all but the Nereid in sodden cloaks, with Alicia and Yoctoha both maintaining flat panels of vene around them in an effort to keep the rain off. Given the that the rain kept blowing in their faces, it wasn’t much good. Scien had stopped trying, saying it was a waste of ink and he and Seraphine simple tried to keep their Logosi dry as best as they could. Vaydiriun– Wade, she reminded herself– didn’t even have a cloak, just a leather hood and mantle he put on over his leather coat. He was more concerned about the state of his handshots, muttering in annoyance about the water getting into the mechanism. The winds had been gusting, flipping up their cloaks and getting them wet regardless of what they tried to do. The cobbled streets of the town had been slick with water, most of it flowing down into the river as it roared towards the cavern entrance. The outskirts of the city had been filled with caravan wagons with the beasts and occasional machines to pull them, but as they passed through the heavy gates set into the stone walls surrounding the town, the streets within were strangely empty of vehicular activity, the long, wide main avenue leading down towards the cavern free of anything more significant than the occasional cart or carriage.
“Strange,” Sorce said, looking about as they walked and occasionally checking behind her to see if the Nereid was still there. “Why is there so little traffic?”
“Maybe the road is flooded?” Alicia ventured. She looked behind her. “Nyneth! You shouldn’t drink from puddles on the road, you don’t know what’s been in it!”
The Nereid looked up, recognizing her name, but only stopped trying to drink after Sorce said something in her language. She made a neck and shoulder motion, and seemed only reluctantly raise her head from the water, crooning something back at Sorce, who responded with her own gabble ending in a recognizable word. Poisonous. The last word was repeated multiple times as Nyneth mouthed it, seemingly trying to fit her strange mouth around it.
“How has teaching her to speak been coming along?” Warf asked as they walked along towards the Shardesse chapter house, peeking into every likely inn for any sign of vacancy.
Sorce tilted her head. “Nyneth already knows how to speak. I have begun to instruct her in Saxoish, however, though it will be some time yet. The differences in sentence structure make communication problematic. The placement of…”
Seraphine tuned them out, not really interested in what sounded like a very technical description. She’d heard as much before when she’d first been learning Logotheurgy. Sighing, she looked into another inn they passed, some place with too-bright paint and suggestive gargoyles spewing out water from the eaves. It was full and some of the faces inside looked vaguely familiar. The bandages helped in this regard.
“She should have moved faster,” she muttered to herself. “All the inns are filled already! Now where are we going to sleep?”
Wade patted her reassuringly on the shoulder. “If worse comes to worse, perhaps we can camp in the caverns. We are not likely to be rained on there.”
Seraphine opened her mouth to retort something, but nothing came out. She stared, her steps slowing. Around her, she noticed other people stopping to stare as well. Well, it was more leering in some cases. Most pretended to ignore it, while of course sneaking not-so-covert glances, and several began loudly proclaiming indignation. While glaring unflinchingly and not blinking, of course. Seraphine heard her religion mentioned a few times and felt the familiar stab of annoyance at ignorant heathens with dirty minds.
Behind her, Sorce said, “That woman should not be going about undressed in this weather. It is highly unhealthy.”
The woman in question was walking easily down the street, the spring in her step causing reactions in sizable portions of anatomy that sparked intense jealousy in Seraphine. The long, voluminous silver hair that trailed down to her hips was halfway to being completely waterlogged, and she was absolutely wet, but she paid that as little mind as the puddles she was skipping through. She was looking around at everything with great interest, her wide brown eyes taking everything in.
Next to Sorce, Warf was taking off his cloak, trying to keep his head covered by his round shield as he approached the woman, “Mistress, are you all right?” he asked, holding his cloak out to her as he looked aside. “Were you robbed? Here, take my cloak to cover yourself.”
“Oh, thank you!” she said cheerfully. Seraphine wondered if this nudist was related to Yoctoha. Her eyes were certainly big enough to be Anaydi. “But I already have my own cloak! Besides, I don’t really like the color.” Whistling, she skipped past him and the proffered cloak, and yes, those rhythmic motions were really annoying. The woman turned a corner and disappeared.
As they stood there, blinking at where she had gone– except for Nyneth, who was standing beneath the gush from a gargoyle and seemed to be grooming herself– a group of three figures came running up the street, one carrying a bundled cloak in his arms. They paused, looking about frantically and peering into alleys.
Serahine pointed. “She went that way,” she said blandly. “You just missed her.”
The figure in the lead gave a start, but bowed slightly to Seraphine. “Thank you,” he said. “Marissa, Immi, come on!”
One of the figures behind him wearing a bright-pink cloak laughed, the sound slightly disturbing. “Oh, relax Kadae, Nyarlat’s a big girl. Nothing is going to happen to her.”
“I think he’s more worried about her happening to someone else, Marissa,” the other figure said dryly, her light-green hair peeking out of her own cloak as she ran past Seraphine.
“So? They deserve anything they get if they’re messing around with a woman naked in the street,” was the laughing reply. “You’re too soft-hearted Immilunelire.”
“Marissa, I swear by the All-Knowledge–”
Sorce’s head snapped up like someone had kicked it hard under the chin, but the two women were gone.
“Something the matter, tall dark sister?” Wade asked as Warf, a bit sheepishly, put his cloak back one, a sympathetic Alicia making him a small roof of vene to keep some of the water off while he did.
Sorce was tilting her head so much it was practically parallel to the ground, but she twirled a hand dismissively. “Nothing currently relevant,” she said absently. “We should get moving.”
There was a small queue at the chapter house, but fortunately for them it was moving rather quickly. The woman at the desk, tall, rather heavy woman, wearing a blindfold, tapped their disks with a glass-topped wand not unlike the one the bearded man had used at Schezanar. She didn’t seem trouble in the least by her blindfold, and Seraphine wondered what her magic was. She could as easily be a Tenebræist as a Seer. She had heard of stories of Seers who could see despite having no more eyes.
They did not get tickets for a free meal.
“Now what do we do?” Scien asked as they stood in the alley next to the chapter house for what little respite against the wind it offered. Alicia and Yoctoha had put up panels of vene above them as the rain redoubled, feeling like someone was emptying a tank right over their heads. Everyone’s cloak but Sorce’s seemed soaked. Her cloak for some reason seemed to just slough the water right off.
“I need to help Nyneth purchase a container for her disk,” Sorce said. “Else she might lose it or drop it.”
Seraphine gave her a flat look. “I meant in terms of finding lodgings. Or do you want to sleep out here?”
“Ah,” Sorce said. “My apologies.”
“I suppose we’ll have to go inn by inn,” Alicia sighed. “They can’t all be full.”
Scien tapped his lips thoughtfully. “If I may make a suggestion?” he said.
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