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.

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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.

Original Fiction 001: Good Neighbors

This is one of my earliest short stories. We all know the drill, written in college for a class, all that jazz. It’s a bit altered from its original incarnation. I’ve streamlined the world I’ve set the story in since then, so I’ve rewritten some parts. Please enjoy.

Anna opened the door, interrupting the loud barrage of whoever was knocking, and blinked at the person framed by the threshold against the darkening sky. She looked at the person on the other side and sighed. “Joel, really, could you go easier on my door? Please? I’d really rather not have to fix it.”

The engineering student blushed, squirming in embarrassment. “Uh, sorry about that, doc.”

Anna sighed tolerantly. “So, what can I do for you?” she asked.

He looked uncomfortable. “I was wondering if I could watch TV here? They’re having a funeral a few blocks over and… well, I’m really hungry.”

Anna rolled her eyes. “Oh, fine, but don’t turn it up too loudly. I want to get some reading done before going to work, and Stephen has to write his thesis. I’ll bring out the extra pillows. Do you want something to drink?”

Joel shook his head firmly as he entered the house, making a bee-line for the room where Anna kept her entertainments. A little channel-surfing found a loud and rambunctious American sitcom, and Joel determinedly sat and watched while Anna bought out the sleeping things. She laid them out on one end of the sofa, which didn’t fold out, but was nicely wide and comfy.

Anna sat down on her favorite rocking chair, spaced just so between the TV, the bookshelf and the door to the kitchen, idly picking up the book she’d been reading when he’d come a-knocking, exchanging the Airline playing card she’d used as a bookmark for her finger. She opened it idly, seemingly blocking out the sound of the TV with the superhuman powers of concentration attained by bibliophiles of a certain level of obsession.

“So,” she said, sounding like she could care less. “Want to talk about it?”

Joel sighed, though his gaze never wavered from the TV, a flat-screen Anna had bought herself during a moment of post-holiday indulgence, the year after she’d gotten her doctorate in medicine. Relative silence descended, except for the TV, which played the end of a punch-line, the network’s annoyingly catchy tune, and several commercials. Anna, humming, read some pages.

“They had lechon sauce in the next room,” Joel said, voice both long-suffering and twitchy. “And sisig. And beer. It was practically a buffet…”

The salivating hunger in his voice was painful to hear, in more ways than one, and Anna fumbled over the side of her rocking chair into the bowl she kept some cheap candy bars in, grabbing a couple and tossing them to Joel. He caught it awkwardly, fumbling the wrapper open and sticking the gooey, fatty, sugary mess in his mouth, chewing determinedly and getting his pointy teeth glued together. Anna helped herself as well.

“I tried working on a banana trunk,” Joel muttered through a mouthful of diabetic hell. “Really working on it, getting all the details right, carving it out slow, see if I could be artistic about it instead of relying on juju, you know, take pride in my work, put those wood-carving lessons to use.”

“Hmm,” Anna said, the appreciative listener. She quite firmly restrained the urge to read.

“It just made me hungrier,” Joel said, and there was a hint of a whine in his voice.

Anna sighed. She’d heard aswang made for good neighbors. That was apparently when they were doing their aswang-thing, walking the aswang-walk and talking the aswang-talk. Not when they were trying to be progressive and not give in to ghoulish urges for human flesh and ninja-like body-switching of corpses. Though she had to give the man credit, he was trying. A crowded subdivision close to the universities that saw a lot of natural births and deaths was hardly the place for an aswang who did not want their diet to veer towards being a humanitarian.

“There, there, Joel,” she said, wanting to lean over and pat him comfortingly, but she was too far. She settled for reaching over the side of the chair again and throwing him another candy bar, which he caught and opened. “It’ll be all right. I heard they’re moving him to his hometown tomorrow, so you just have to last the night. Do you want me to lock you in when I head for work tonight?”

He nodded jerkily, eyes focusing a little too hard on the will-they-won’t-they dynamic of the paleontologist and the fashionista of the show he was watching. Anna sighed. “Here, take the rest of the candy,” she said. “And you should probably take a bath before you go to sleep. You came straight from standing on your head in your listening hole, didn’t you?”

Joel reddened in embarrassment. “Sorry,” he mumbled around another mouthful of candy.

Anna waved a hand dismissively. “I’m used to it. Here, let me open you another pack of candy.”

She locked the door behind her as she left an hour later, heading for her job at an abortionist’s. She admired what Joel was trying to do, she really did, sticking it out in the big city and working to get his engineering degree instead of heading to Mindanao or Mexico and gorging himself stupid on all he could eat like some did. Still, a mananggal’s got to eat, and her mother had always told her they lived in a time of plenty, when none had to starve if only they had the ingenuity to find a way. Liking her lips hungrily as she thought of all the food the night’s work would bring, she made a note to buy Joel some balut and a few sticks of those chicken-intestine barbecues he liked. After all, to have good neighbors, one needed to be a good neighbor.

Whistling, she headed off to catch a jeep, making sure not to leave her legs behind.