The Gauntlet: Chapter 4

Chapter 4

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not right now, Nyarlat,” he said.

“Kadae!” Nyarlat whined.

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

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

“Then you do it,” Kadae said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a knock on the door.

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

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

Scien frowned. “What are you talking about?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were no Soulings hiding upstairs to maul them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“See?” Seraphine said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have months of study,” Cera said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As one, everyone looked at Nyneth.

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

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

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

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

The Gauntlet: Chapter 3

Chapter 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?”

“The Managhalin female.”

“What?”

“The… Nereid?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mistress Seraphine?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All of them,” Sorce said.

Everyone blinked. “All…?Alicia repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seraphine stared at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Venie,” Yoctoha said cheerfully.

“Venie,” Alicia repeated, with a smile.

“Symbol,” Warf said quietly.

“Oh! What alignment?” Yoctoha asked eagerly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The suddenly increased certainty of the possibility of violent death.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… or she would be able to go back home.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the distance, the sky rumbled.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They did not get tickets for a free meal.

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

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

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

“Ah,” Sorce said. “My apologies.”

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

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


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The Gauntlet: Chapter 1

Chapter 1

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ho, little blonde sister!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You don’t know that!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When did you start?” Yoctoha asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Anarkhia asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How old are you?”

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

“How old are you?” Sorce asked patiently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the wall, extending down beneath her arm, the vague, blurry edges of her shadow rippled and firmed, becoming straight and defined, growing darker. Seraphine dropped her arm. Her shadow, crisp and clear, remained. She nodded in satisfaction and let it go, and the shadow instantly disappeared, returning to its usual position under her arm. Ready to check her money, she waited for her new friend to return.

The Gauntlet: Prologue: The First Step

Prologue

Sorce Marionne stared across the water at the slowly receding port of the city of Raguna, the light reflecting from the setting sun dancing in her eyes off the sea, shrouding the ancient metal that lay below the waves. All across the length of the trading docks which ran around the entire side of the city that faced the continent, the port was alive with the flickering lights of lamp and torches, in sharp contrast to the steady electric lights of the city itself. Beyond the port, the windows of the high steel and alloy towers were already lighting up. She saw the 9:75 DT line rolling across its elevated rail, in dull orange light. Even with dulled and old metal, the towers of the city reflected the colors of twilight, glowing in different shades of orange and gold.

She told herself it probably wasn’t the last she’d ever see of home.

It had been only half an hour since she’d parted from her family. Raguna’s port had been filled with travelers, mostly foreigners with their bright and vivid hair, but here and there she’d caught a glimpse of people with their hair in Messiarki shades. Some had been government officials and workers, likely shipping off to embassies on the outside, though a few had the affluent air, good looks and large protective security details of businessmen. A few were dressed as if for an excursion trip, likely to see the forests and hills around Replija. Some of those people had boarded the Yribus with her. It was a relatively inexpensive passage, but because of its primitiveness not many Messiarki preferred it. The others had taken faster, metal-hulled cutters to Relvin, intent on business and government affairs. She herself was in no hurry, and had chosen the ship to begin acclimating herself to the living conditions of the continent.

Her family and a few friends had seen her off. Her younger brother Shad had cried, tugging on the thick trousers of her new wilderness clothes and begged her not to go with a great many fallacies. Neeka, her close intimate since Basic Education, had hugged her and kissed her good-bye. The girl had always been the emotional sort, Sorce  thought as she’d licked her lips in remembrance, but she smiled fondly as she’d thought it. Neeka’s current partner and Sorce’s other intimate since Basic Education had hugged her too, without the kiss. Her current partnership was too new for it to be acceptable unless Sorce initiated it first, which she had chosen not to.

Curtis had hung back, looking awkward when his turn came and shook her hand. They’d seldom met live, but she considered him one of her closest confidantes in the comm forae. They spent hours discussing history and mostly baseless speculations on what was to be found on the outside. This was one of the few times they’d ever been face to face, and she’d been surprised when he’d informed her he’d be coming to see her off. He’d given her a diode light and several spare driver cells for them, saying something about how good light was always useful.

Her mother had been crying, assuring her she wasn’t banished and she could come back any time she wanted. Her father had controlled it better, holding her tight and telling her to take care of herself. If she needed help, he’d assured her, all she had to do was call him from an embassy and he’d arrange to come to her. She’d hugged him back and promised she’d be careful. She’d tried to smile, tried to keep a brave face, and somehow managed to hold the tears back.

She held them back now as she held her bytcomm contemplatively in her pale-brown hand, staring at the 5-bar readout that indicated reception strength. It was down to the last one, and they weren’t all that far from shore. A couple of zens, maybe two, and it would be gone. The Yribus wasn’t Messiarki, and smelled of tar and cellulose and other things she couldn’t identify. It was a wooden steam ship, and thus didn’t have a transceiver onboard, so when she lost reception, that would be it. No contacting anyone until they reached the port of Rondiumiun in Replinja in five days and she got to the Messiarki embassy. Her thumb hovered over the icon that would bring up her contact list. It brushed the glass, and the icon opened, scrolling open the list of names of the people she knew.

The last bar disappeared

With a sigh, Sorce swiped her thumb across the screen, bringing it back to the root menu. She tapped another icon, bringing up the camera and raised the bytcomm, aiming it at the receding city, framing the image. Tap.

She stared at the image on her bytcomm’s screen, wondering if she should take another. It was kinda lopsided. She could probably do better. Instead she flipped shut the protective accessory lid to hibernate it and preserve power, then slipped the bytcomm securely back into her inside vest pocket. It was an old model, about a year old, and it was all she really had from her old life. All her images, all her music… everything. Most of the clothes in her new trunk and backpack had been recently bought, since she didn’t own much that was as hardy as she’d need to face the world. It had cost her family a lot. She tried not to think of it as her family paying her to go away. After all, leaving had been her idea.

Her black eyes began to sting again, and she clenched them shut, rubbing them with her fingers, feeling a little moisture leaking out. She’d never been good at self-control. It was why she was here. At her feet, outlined by the setting sun, her shadow was sharp and long, angling away from her and seemed decapitated by the ship’s railing. It seemed to quiver, the edges rippling. She could feel it move, as if someone were blowing gently on a third limb.

“Stop it,” she said quietly, her temper not helped by a sudden gust of wind that threw her long black hair into her face. She angrily flicked them away from her, shaking her head to get them to fall into something resembling order as she wiped at her eyes. When she looked back down, her shadow was as it should be again.

Her let her fingers rest on the smooth, varnished wooden rail as she regained control of herself. Control of herself, after all, was exactly why she was doing this. When she felt she had recovered sufficiently, she turned to go back to her cabin, such as it was, putting the view of the shining city behind her. The wooden deck didn’t creak as she thought it would, and she could feel the vibration of the steam driver through her feet. It was a relaxing sensation, a reminder of things she was familiar with. It just wasn’t right if the vehicle didn’t hum around her. The Yribus was a steam ship, a luxury vessel carrying mostly small goods and people. It was 30 and a half zens long, an easy five minute walk from one end to the other, the hull made completely out of wood and painted white. When she was younger, she’d once wondered how they kept boats such as this, without proper metal hulls, from leaking. She gathered primitive adhesive was used in lieu of proper welds.

Now that she wasn’t turned away from the rest of the ship, she could no longer pretend she was alone. Not far from her, another of her countrymen, one of the naturalists wearing wilderness gear more worn than hers, was also making images of the city, politely ignoring her. Beyond him, a group of older women were seated together, the hems of their needlessly long skirts railing messily on the ground as they talked. A man and a woman were walking together down the walkway on the sunward side, the man in a sharply cut and fine suit of green, the woman in an orange dress that set off her vivid purple hair. A few others were standing by the rails, though most sat on the upper deck conversing and inhaling from some kind of primitive combustion vaporizer. For all that the Yribus was primitive by Messiarki standards, it was meant as an exclusive vessel to ferry the rich ore traders from the continent. Its rich woods were worn smooth, its paint was neat, and most things were accented bright brass fittings meant to represent gold, or possibly really was gold. They used the venecite standard as a means of exchange in much of the continent, or so she’d heard. She’d never understood what venecite was, though she gathered it was some sort of crystal or gemstone, a valuable mineral.

Below, she knew, Messiarki goods were being carried. Synthetic fabrics like thermisol and mithliline, mass-machined metal goods with special friction co-efficient reduction coatings, perfectly flat panes of glass, powdered drinks, spices and antibiotics. Probably more. She only knew the basics of what they traded with the rest of the world in exchange for shiploads of ores, slag and bullion containing aluminum, titanium, iron, and other metals, as well as raw components for such things like glass, paper and leather. Messiark had few mines and had difficulty providing for their own materials needs. After nine thousand years, there was only so much recycling could do.

As she passed the older women, she listened to what they were saying, testing her language skills. It sounded like they were speaking Saxoish, which made them Replinjani, but their accent was markedly more pronounced than she had learned in school, and she could barely decipher what they were saying. Perhaps it was a regional accent? A speech impediment, possibly? No, it was a feature they all shared, and they looked different enough to discount the possibility they were all related enough to share the same impediment. All had hair of different colors, ranging from a muted green to a brilliant pink. As she passed them, she noted she now had empirical evidence that of those from the continent having a wide range of hair colors was true. Oh, accounts from those who journeyed outside Messiark, whether on economic, political or scientific missions, all mentioned hair in shades beyond the browns, blondes and orange-reds found at home, but Sorce herself had never glimpsed it, not even that time she and her classmates had gone on what she had thought would be her first and only trip over sea to see and collect samples of the forests around Rondiumium, the port city closest to Messiark.

She turned to the small, narrow door than led down towards the ship’s cabins, mindful of her footing in the sway of the waves. Her boots hadn’t been broken in yet and while they felt comfortable she was unsure of their tread, especially on the narrow stairs, almost a ladder. The corridor was low and narrow, so much that she barely kept from bumping her head on the ceiling, and she was not tall for her age. Shining golden lamps at regular intervals lit the way, all on some sort of gimbal that allowed them to sway with the ship’s movements, each letting out a strong white light. She’d been surprised at seeing them at first, having always been told the continent had no electricity. But they’d been dealing with the Messiarki for thousands of years, after all. Perhaps they’d finally managed to develop their technology to the point of primitive drive cells. The lamps had no wires, after all.

Now she just put them out of her mind, heading towards her cabin for some privacy. Now that she could no longer see the city, her emotions threatened to overwhelm her again, and she did not wish to make a spectacle of herself. She had no empirical data on how continentals would respond to such a display, even though she had extensively read of copies their books. Right now she was in no fit state to gather that data. She came to her quarters, reaching into one of her pockets for the primitive metal key she had been assigned. As she reached up to carefully slip it into the access port, her vision flickered. For a moment, everything was overlaid with a strange, monochromatic view. Where her hands were, there were also two vaguely hand-shaped networks of dark lines and dots. She shut her eyes, but she found no escape from the sight. It was as if she were seeing through her eyelids, the monochromatic view becoming clearer for the lack objects in color. Another moment, and the image was gone, replaced with the familiar darkness interrupted with white flashes of optic nerves.

She was shaking, she realized, and sternly ordered herself to stop. This fear-response was baseless, she told herself. She would have to grow used to it in future, if it was a manifestation of her condition. Surely it couldn’t harm her? None of what she’d read had made mention of her condition being inherently self-harmful. True, variations of it could potentially self-harm a person, but only as a secondary effect. She took a deep breath steadying herself. Well, she had a long time to gather empirical information on her condition and compare it against her secondary sources. The rest of her life, in fact.

She fumbled open the look, feeling the unfamiliar scrape as the key slid into the access port, its serrated edge rubbing on what she hypothesized was some sort of spring-loaded mechanical locking mechanism. Mechanically ingenious, but insecure compared to Messiarki systems. The door opened into a dark room lit only by the subdued glow from a single porthole. She stepped inside and let the door close behind her, securing the passive locking mechanism into place and using the key to reset the active lock. Sorce drew out her bytcomm, her thumb making the stroke that would activate its built-in diode light help illuminate her quarters. The narrow beam of white light was intense in the shadowed confines, and she easily found the dial above the bunk that activated the cabin’s single lamp.

Even for one who had lived in a small apartment with her family all her life, the cabin was small and cramped. Besides the bunk, with its curved bed and simple caliper-restraints, structural features she supposed was meant to keep one in place while one slept despite the ships’ constant swaying, there was only room for her luggage, a large backpack possibly filled beyond its normally prescribed capacity. A few hooked pegs lined one wall, which she vaguely recalled was the method of clothing storage on ship. It one of the smaller cabins, meant for a merchant’s minor functionaries, or possibly a not very wealthy merchant. Still, it was in the highest deck, as far above the waterline as possible without actually being outside, a minor and likely futile attempt at self-preservation in the event of catastrophic failure on part of the vessel. Between her only basic skill at swimming, her lack of trained endurance, the ambient temperature of the water and the carnivorous fauna and megafauna that swam the Armeth, she likely had no chance of survival in any case.

Removing her jacket, she hung folded it into a replacement for the bunk’s pillow of questionable cleanliness, leaving her in her base clothes. Lying down on the bunk, she considered her situation and tried to remind herself she was on an expedition of hope rather than an eternal bleak exile. Had it only been a month since she her condition had been identified? It seemed subjectively longer. She had been removed from her educational precinct and moved to isolation facilities, where she had continued her education over comm while her condition had been observed, her vision flickering and her shadow altering independent of light sources. In the end, she herself had volunteered to leave when her condition continued to be uncontrollable.

Sorce closed her eyes. 5 days. In half a week, she’d be on the continent of Relvin. Away from civilization. Away from bytcomm reception. Away from– she shuddered– plumbing. In a land full of unwashed, uneducated, illiterate, rainbow-haired, horse-riding people who had the one thing that you couldn’t get in Messiark.

Empirical information on the possession and control of magic.

She supposed it could be worse. As recently as a hundred fifty years ago, well within her father’s father’s lifetime, people with magic had been outright outlawed on Messiark and its city states, exiled to live outside civilization. Now those kind of people– her kind of people, she realized– could live and even practice there, provided they kept their power under control.

Sorce didn’t have control. So she was going to the people who could teach it to her.

Shardesse.

The name of the organization was a legend even in Messiark, the only land besides the apocryphal Wrath Wastes that they did not hold sway. Travellers spoke of them in the reproductions of communal eating facilities along the docks, passed on word of them in books and scrolls and all forms of writing copied and translated from the continent. From what they could understand, they were part research organization, police force, sample repository, library, political block, government, and society, one who held authority and power of restriction and prosecution over all practitioners in Khyort.

Sorce intended to find them, join them, and learn all she could about her condition. How I manifested, how it was spread, how it was controlled and restricted. Its applications, limitations and properties. She would learn all this so she could return and properly reintegrate with her peer group and nation, no longer a danger to those around her due to random uncontrolled manifestations, a proper, contributing and orderly member of society.

So she could return home.

She nearly shuddered at the thought. Home. Sorce chided herself. She had barely left Messiarki territorial waters and already she was experiencing withdrawal symptoms. How childish. She had lasted three days when she had gone on the excursion with her classmates. Surely she had not regressed in willpower? How shameful, to think she had lost maturity.

Reaching into one of her many trouser pockets, she extracted her wired earpieces, fitting them on and inserting them into their proper port on her bytcomm. Though less convenient than her wireless ones, they utilized far less power, a practical consideration when all she would have to power her unit would be individual drive cells. She had fifteen in storage, a number so excessively cautious it was almost silly. The potential energy there would allow her to run her bytcomm and miscellaneous electronics for up to a year, but she doubted they’d be needed. She could have her devices recharged at an embassy building, after all. Still, it was best to learn to be frugal. She had no knowledge on travel durations once she landed. For all she knew, it would require a day, possibly two, to go between cities, instead of the hours and half-hours she was used to. Some accounts by scientists and naturalists she’d read spoke of durations of weeks, even months, but that was surely irregular. However, it was best to keep usage to a minimum until she had established a baseline from which to draw estimates herself.

Her family had helped her with other preparations as well, assigning a credit allowance to her identity designation and purchase needful products. It had been like they were preparing her to go on a naturalist excursion, and in a way they were, such that it had almost taken on the air of the mundane. Her mother had contacted an old classmate who had become a naturalist herself and interviewed her on what equipment was vital. Most of their choices they had made on her advice, though they had forgone the documentation equipment, normally indispensable on such an expedition. They had purchased her sets wilderness clothes, new base clothes, her travel rations, shelter gear, survival tools, self-defense equipment and other such supplies.

At the time, it had seemed needlessly excessive. Now, in the privacy of her cabin, starting off on this journey, Sorce wasn’t so sure. The self-defense equipment, a canister of capsaicin-derivative and a pair of extending metal batons seemed insufficient to actually protect her from the dangers of the continent. The descriptions of creatures, of strange predators only barely glimpsed by expeditions and heard of only from possibly unreliable second-hand sources, fanciful and improbable while in her room at home, suddenly seemed all too real. She suddenly thought of the megafauna that lived in the deep waters between Messiark and the continent of Relvin. She’d once seen a full-sized replica of a megalodon jaw in Raguna’s museum exhibition halls. The thought of this suddenly fragile-seeming vessel encountering such a creature made her shudder.

A thought suddenly came to her, and she glanced out the porthole nervously, though by now it only showed the dark skies of late twilight and a brief sparkle of stars, more visible and numerous away from the light-saturated skies of the city. Still, it did not damp her worries. Should they encounter a dragon, in the open sea, without any means of shelter and protection…

Shuddering, Sorce activated her bytcomm with an experienced flick of her finger and after some navigating selected a language training audio file. She knew she was in denial. Worse yet, she was in denial over the possibility of a remote possibility.

That did not make her fear any less real.

Settling herself on her bench and keeping a part of her mind listening for the call for the evening meal, Sorce Marrione listened to recordings of words in a language foreign to her and tried not to think of dragons and storms.

Nanowrimo! Wordcount and Summary!

And thus ends my first day of Nanowrimo. I’ve started on a fairly good note with some buffer for tomorrow, but I hope to keep up the output all month. I’ll be posting chapters here, perhaps not daily but as much as I can. Without further do, here’s the goods!

Title: The Gauntlet

Summary:

In the world of Khyort, there are 14 different major forms of magic.

In a country of science and technology, one girl has been born gifted with Tenebrætry, the magic of shadows, and must travel to distant lands to learn how to use her gifts. Armed with every modern convenience she thinks she needs, and a few indulgences she doesn’t, she sets out to run The Gauntlet, the legendary test of admission into the elite magical organization Shardesse. The Gauntlet is a world-spanning, cross-country, live-or-die test of endurance, intelligence, knowledge, skill and cooperation. Success means learning secrets of magic never before revealed to anyone from her land. Failure means ignorance or death…

Tired of endless schools, a young noble seeks to prove herself by earning an honor none of her siblings have ever attained– the Chain of Colors, symbol of admission to the elite of Shardesse. She must endure walking on her own two feet, carrying her own luggage, meals of questionable origin, and a surprisingly persistent lady’s maid intent on bringing her back to school!

The last scion of a disgraced and fallen line of knights sets out to gamble his life with nohtng but his sword, his shield, and his family’s ancient magic armor. If he wins, he brings honor to his family’s name, a few contacts of proven merit, and the right to the resources of a powerful organization to help him rebuild his house. If he loses, he dies and his family is lost to ignominious obscurity.

A scholar seeking to join his family in the ranks of Shardesse braves the outside world for the first time. Can a lifetime’s study in magic help him survive, or is he going to  die a horrible death at the hands of a random thief on the first month and shamefully disgrace his family? But hey, no pressure.

Two girls, seeking to lose themselves among many, hand-in-hand in a forbidden relationship.

A barbarian princess, who made a bet with her court wizard because this Gauntlet thing couldn’t possibly be as hard as people make it out to be. If she wins, he shuts up about it. If she loses, she dies and never has to listen to him again. either way, win!

A Nereid, outcast from the sea for having the magic to bind souls, seeks to prove her purity. Can she survive in a place without water where there are more dangerous things than sharks… like the food?

Thieves and scholars, warriors and writers, princess and eldritch abominations, knights and rogues, each with a touch of magic. They all come together to test themselves against the Gauntlet. Against them is everything the world has to bar their way.

This is going to be fun.

Whole Plot Reference: Harry Potter Goes To Prison, With Identical Results…

Tell me if you’ve heard this one: a naive, entirely benign young boy (let’s call him Harry) is betrayed by the last people he would have expected and whom he relied upon. Framed for a crime he didn’t commit, he is sent out to an infamous prison in the middle of the sea from which there is supposedly no escape.

In the prison, however Harry meets someone there who becomes a close and perhaps only companion. The friend educates Harry in a variety of subjects, helps piece together the truth about how he was framed, and assists in his escape, most likely dying in the process.

Presumed dead, he returns to his old stomping grounds many years later as mysterious, brooding, immensely wealthy and highly cultivated personality, completely changed in every way from how he used to be. He discovers that his betrayers have all become very rich and powerful, and sets about using their own evil pasts and tainted passions to enact an elaborate and cruel revenge on all of them. A complication is that their associates are, by and large, genuinely good people who Harry quickly numbers among his friends harem. Plus, there’s that girl he left behind…

Sound familiar? It should. It’s a common plot line of the Harry Potter fandom. It usually happens after fourth year, which is about the book the fandom started disliking Dumbledore (which I find really unfair, since he had good reason for how he was acting in the book, but this isn’t the time for that. Maybe next time). As the old saying goes, ‘Hater’s gonna hate’, but they like giving in-story reasons for Harry to hate him as well.

This plot, however, is also exactly the plot of The Count Of Monte Cristo. If you only know it by the movie of the same name, trust me, either watch the Black and White version or read the book. It’s infinitely better.

While the “Harry Potter gets sent to prison/Azkaban” plot line is relatively old, the first known instance where someone connected the dots and said so out loud was during the fanfic Harry Potter and the Something Something, a mockfic/parody of Harry Potter Fanfic cliches by Legendary Legacy (normally I’d link right to the chapter in question, but it’s a good fic, and worth a read).

This seems to be a very strange instance of parallel plotline evolution. I have no data as to the reading habits of the Harry Potter fandom (beyond, of course, that they read Harry Potter, and even that is questionable because of the movies) but given the quality of some of the writing I’ve seen (I will not name names, as I want to be polite), some of those writers seem too young to have read Dumas’ doorstopper of a book (of course, I could be wrong. I read the count in high school, freely and of my own will. I thought, by the title, that he was a vampire. What? The only count I knew was on Sesame Street and Dracula). Of course, in this day of ‘wrongfully imprisoned’ storylines (The Fugitive, Prison Break, etc), there are other sources besides Dumas for the plot line.

In analysis, breaking down the storyline into its constituent parts/phases might be most helpful. First, the imprisonment. In these sorts of fanfics, Harry is always unfairly imprisoned, with a better than even chance he is betrayed by someone he trusted, usually Ron or Dumbledore (Ron, because some people find him, not without cause, annoying, and Dumbledore because he’s an authority figure, ad people don’t like him ‘controlling’ Harry). The stated reason for Harry being sent to prison never matters (it can be anything from murder, under aged magic and jaywalking), as long as he is unjustly sent. We’re usually supposed to hate those who “betrayed” him, especially if they’re in on the plot, especially if it IS a plot (a common reason for Dumbledore “betraying” him is because Harry can no longer be controlled. I’m sensing pubescent authority issues…).

There is, of course either a montage or block of paragraph about how demeaning this is. The graphicness of the violence varies, as well as the vindictiveness. It could be anything. I once found on where they cut off his arm just because (though it later becomes obvious this is just so the writer can give him a cool cyborg arm, and no other reason).

Then of course, IT happens. The Plotpoint. Perhaps he finds an ancient treasure map cunningly drawn into the stone of his cell with a snake’s tooth, so of course he’s the only one to notice up to now (because Parseltongue can do anything, not just talk to snakes. Silly ignorant reader, of course that’s not in the book, it’s dangerous information…). Perhaps there conveniently happens to be a Blackened Denarius possessed by a fallen angel in his cell. Or that he learns to be an Animagus and escapes. Or he learns how to be tough from a grizzled but kindhearted old convict (never mind that the only ones there would be Deatheaters… if HE could be unfairly imprisoned, so could others, doubtlessly also by the evil Ministry/Dumbledore/Ron). Or he finds Excalibur under his bed being used to prop it up. Or he finds an old priest who just happens to know about a treasure buried in the island of Monte Cristo…

The he escapes. Easily. So easily you wonder why he was stuck in there in the first place (ah, but of course! The guards, in addition to being evil, are also incompetent. Silly of me to forget). And then he becomes rich/powerful/sexy. And vengeance happens. The end. Or NOT end, if the writer tries to draw it out. Gotta get those reviews…

Okay, first, the imprisonment. As well as the thing that gets the whole story going, it’s also a fairly good barometer for the mood of the whole fic. But beyond that, it’s also usually the story’s excuse for any morally questionable/downright evil actions of the protagonist. It produces a strange feeling of entitlement in the lead. The system has failed them or outright turned against them, so now they are no longer beholden to it, or actively working to bring it down and humiliate it. It gives tacit karmic permission to screw the rules. Plus, the in-story miscarriage of justice somehow naturally overshadows any lawbreaking they themselves commit, or, in some instances, contrast sharply with how they don’t break the law but rather twist it into an N-dimensional pretzel to get what they want (for story reasons, beyond the initial bout of lawbreaking [if there is one] the authority figures/designated antagonists either never resort to the same tactics, or are comically ineffectual and/or out maneuvered when they try).

It all ties in, I suspect, with authority issues, whether in the story or in real life. Not that I mean anything anarchist. But the fear of authority, of the System, the Man, turning against you, when you feel you’ve done nothing to warrant it, is a very real fear, more so in some countries where it’s VERY likely to happen. The betrayal of close friends, even more so, because if you can’t trust anyone, who can you rely on? But entwined with this is the fantasy of defying authority, defying the System, the Man, because they turned against you first. That comes later, but the seeds for it are laid now, in the set-up of how trust is broken. Because people only bow to outside authority by consent. Sometimes fear is involved, what with police and ad,IRS and such, but generally, the government can only tell you what to do because you let them. You can stop at any time, and even if they threaten you back in line, obeying is no one’s choice but your own.

Huh, maybe there IS something anarchist going on here…

Next, the Plotpoint. We’ll gloss over the suffering montage because it’s usually only there to underline how evil the imprisonment is. The treasure map. The mentor. The magical/mystical/legendary/whatever Macguffin. The object of wish fulfillment. It’s a rare story of this sort that doesn’t have revenge as a motivation (by murder or humiliation, for preference), so that’s already a given, but this bit of writer-desire is usually how it is accomplished. It comes in many forms. Money. Power. Respectability/Prestige (amazing how Harry can find evidence of how he’s the reincarnation/Heir/long lost cousin/whatever of a Founder in a prison). But why settle for one? Most fics go with all three. The psychoanalyzing depends on the fic, but expressed wish fulfillment is expressed wish fulfillment. That’s always been one of the points, as such, of writing. To express what you want to have or happen.

Next, the escape. A more subtle bit of wish fulfillment, as a expression of what the author would do in this situation, but story-wise, sometimes it’s used to show who’s trustworthy. If Harry escapes unassisted, then he’s an avenge loner. If friends break him out of prison, he knows there are some who can be trusted. If he arranges to be broken out, same thing, except he has a more dominant role. It all boils down to social standing, I suppose. The feeling of alienation,of whether you have to do things alone or in company of others.

Finally, the revenge. It happens. Sometimes it’s long Nd subtle. Sometimes it’s swift and brutal. Either way, it never ends well for the characters the authors don’t like, even if they weren’t all that bad in the books. The only hard and fast rule is no one ever takes revenge on Luna Livegood. Ever. For any reason. Cause for some weird reason, everyone’s cool with her. I think she reminds then of Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe in early episodes of Friends…

I think I’ll stop here and not get into the harems, which is only shipping anyway.

So there we have it. Fear of authority and or betrayal. Wish fulfillment. An ascertaining of social standing/alienation. And the invincible Luna Lovegood. Near central to any Prisoner!Harry plot, and most appear in Dumas’ book (yes, probably even Luna. She can do things like that).

In conclusion, I’d like to take a moment to ruminate over this. Not everyone who writes this subgenre (and it IS big enough to be a subgenre) have like read of the Count. I think that this combination of betrayal, wish fulfillment and and vengeance is a recurring theme in human story telling. You don’t need to squint very hard to see it in Aladdin, or Alibaba and the Forty Thieves, or the story of Perseus. It’s just that the protracted tale of subtle vengeance, plots, and madness that is the Count of Monte Cristo is one of the most well-developed, beautifully engineered examples. Still, I think it says something about humanity in general that this sort of story, of high intrigue and betrayal and power and power abused, should show up so strongly in a fandom like Harry Potter. Why does this particular storyline keep recurring, when it already has its own version in the canonical Sirius Black? It can’t be the lack of intrigue. Most of the books are, when you get right down to it, mystery-based conflicts (who is the Heir of Slytherin? Who is Voldemort’s agent in the Triwizard Tournament? Who is the Master of Death? What’s the big deal with the hall of prophecy?) every book has at least one traitor. And everyone can use magic, surely wish fulfillment in action.

So why? Why does this particular plot line keep recurring?

What, you expect an answer? I’m just a blogger, not God. Still, I think we should all sit down and wonder why the mistrust of authority, betrayal, power and vengeance speak so strongly to so many in such a fandom…