13 – 5

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“You are more!”

The Rust cultist had chosen a good spot, right at a broad intersection where a street running perpendicular to the wharves was crossed by another leading into the city in one direction and onto Kapadia’s pier on the other. It was broad enough that the street preacher could not be justifiably shooed away by the city guard for blocking traffic, though the two standing nearby would dearly have liked to, judging by their scowls. She had indeed drawn a crowd, some dozen loitering about out of the path of vehicles and pedestrians, few looking particularly taken in by the ongoing speech. Their expressions ranged from amused to skeptical to, at best, thoughtful. The preacher seemed not the least dissuaded by this lack of enthusiasm.

“So much of life, of the things which surround us, are nothing more than illusion—in fact, the bars of a cage!” She was really into her sermon now, actually pacing up and down a small stretch of the path, gesticulating with her artificial arm. “The things which bind us to what we think of as our place: our roles in society, our lack of resources, our obligations, these are only excuses! The truth, the only real, ultimate truth, is in here!” She paused, facing her audience directly, and tapped at her temple with one fingertip. A metal fingertip, which produced an audible ping against the piece of metal running along the side of her head. “These things bind us because—and only so long as—we accept them! The true work of life is to decide our own reality. To decide what life we wish, and then to decide that is our life—and by deciding, make it so. In the end, it is nothing but our own thoughts with determine what our reality is.”

She was a Punaji woman in her later middle years, her face lined and hair entirely gray, though in movement she was vigorous as a much younger person. Attired in the traditional baggy pants, cloth wrap wound around her chest, and sailcloth greatcoat, her only unusual aspect of costume was that the left sleeve had been torn off her coat to display the metal arm.

It was clear, from this, where the Rust got their name, assuming all the others looked similar. The type of metal was hard to place; its color was coppery from a distance, but in a flat matte tone which did not gleam under the tropical sun. It was the color of rust, though smoothly even, without the variation in hue that actual rust tended to have. And whatever it was made of, the arm was clearly quite functional, moving smoothly and without so much as a squeak. Her metal shoulder was hidden by the ragged edge of the greatcoat’s torn sleeve, but the elbow was a simple hinge with a rotating socket below that, the wrist similar; a set of taut wired like extended tendons attached controlled the movement of her fingers. In the center of her metal palm was a circular hole in which a red metal frame like a jewelry setting held a wide disc of blue glass. She had a similar but smaller blue piece set between her eyebrows, in the same place where Ruda wore her tiny jewel, though the street preacher’s was attached to a strip of metal which ran from that point to somewhere behind her ear, where it was lost in her hair.

“It can be a painful thing,” she continued, pacing again, “a frightening thing, to acknowledge and accept responsibility—to accept the role each of us has played in creating our own disappointments. But in that responsibility is freedom! When you realize that nothing has been forced upon you, that you have created the reality in which you live, when you truly realize that, then you realize that you alone have the power to make your world anew!”

“This is nothing but arcane mysticism,” Fross muttered in annoyance. The group standing off to one side of the intersection had drawn almost as many odd looks at the Rust street preacher, though with Juniper wearing her disguise ring only Tellwyrn and Fross seemed truly outlandish; Ruda was the only one who was clearly Punaji, and the contrast with everyone else on the docks made it clear from her attire that she was a rich Punaji. “That’s just disappointing. I thought at least they’d have something interesting to say.”

“It’s what, now?” Juniper asked in the same soft tone.

“Oh, I guess Professor Yornhaldt hasn’t really gone into that in the intro to magic classes… Well, if you take a lot of his electives like I do you’ll hear him complain about this. Arcane mysticism, that’s what she’s talking about. The idea that thoughts influence reality, because of stuff that only works on the sub-atomic level. You know, wave functions collapsing when they’re observed, all that.”

Juniper tilted her head inquisitively. “Isn’t that just…magic?”

“Yes!” Fross chimed irritably, raising her voice slightly, though not enough to compete with the preacher who continued to rant. “It’s a description of how magic works, but for it to be valid, you need actual magic. That’s what magic is; that’s the whole point of it! Without magic, you have zero interaction with anything pertaining to arcane physics. Thinking happy thoughts does absolutely nothing to change the world! The world has lots of inertia; thoughts have none at all.”

Tellwyrn grinned, glancing at the pixie. “I’m glad to see you’re not going to go through an arcane mysticism phase, Fross. A lot of magic majors do, the first year or two. There’s a reason Alaric is so annoyed by it.”

“You mean, magic majors at our school?” Fross sounded downright offended. “Oh, now that’s really disappointing.”

“Hey, yeah, question!” Before any of them could stop him, Gabriel raised his hand and stepped out into the intersection. Instantly, he caught the attention of most of the onlookers, and also the preacher, who paused mid-speech to peer at him. “How come you guys attacked the Silver Legion?”

A murmur ran through the crowd. Toby sighed heavily and rubbed at the bridge of his nose.

“Real fuckin’ subtle, Arquin,” Ruda muttered, jamming her hands in her pockets. She didn’t intervene, however. Tellwyrn just watched this unfold with an eyebrow slightly cocked.

“You aren’t from around here, are you, my young friend?” the preacher asked, smiling indulgently at Gabriel.

In fact, having black hair and a dark complexion for a Tiraan, he could almost have passed for Punaji, especially in the Punaji-style coat he wore. He didn’t even look as rich as Ruda, aside from his belt from which Ariel and his wand hung: both were clearly expensive. All hope of that vanished as soon as he opened his mouth and displayed an Imperial accent, however.

“Are you?” Gabriel shot back. “I mean, sure, the Punaji have been wearing enchantments longer than almost anyone. These coats would be idiotic in this climate without their weatherproof charms. That metalwork, though, that’s some freaky stuff. Something tells me you didn’t pick that up at a local blacksmith. Does that have something to do with what you hit the Legion with?”

The murmurs intensified, but the street preacher did not betray unease even by glancing around at her audience.

“And why,” she asked, “would you cast blame for such a thing at me?”

Gabriel shrugged. “Who else?”

She shook her head. “That question has countless answers. The one I asked is better: Why do you feel the need to blame me, in particular?” Her kind smile never wavered as she continued. “I have found that people who are eager to cast blame are struggling to create a sense of order in their own lives. If you can identify an enemy, it grants a feeling of control. That is an illusion, though, and a dangerous one. To define oneself in relation to an enemy is to give up all power in one’s own life. Trust me, my friend, you will not find your answers in designating villains—they are in you. Everything you need, you already have, and already know! All you require is to master yourself!”

“Okay,” he said, grinning. “But if I think you guys are the ones who attacked the Legions, doesn’t that make it so?”

At this, a good number of the onlookers laughed outright, and some started drifting away. The preacher showed no hint of unease, however, smiling more broadly still.

“From blame to mockery—you are running down the list of the desperate gambits I’ve seen in everyone struggling to find meaning in life. Farther down that list comes real hardship, friend. If you would like to talk over what is really troubling you, perhaps I can help?”

“Another time, maybe,” Gabriel said noncommittally, turning and sauntering back to the others.

“Well handled,” said a new voice, prompting the students to turn to the spot to Tellwyrn’s right, where Kapadia had been before he’d gone back to oversee his business.

Though he did not wear the traditional furs, which would have been suicidal in Puna Dara’s heat, they didn’t need to see the bronze wolf’s head pinned to the shoulder of his light tunic to recognize the man as a Huntsman of Shaath. He wore his hair long and his beard untrimmed, the former tied back with a simple length of leather and the latter in apparent need of brushing. From his heavy belt hung a tomahawk and quiver bursting with arrows; he carried his longbow in one hand, and had an enormous hunting knife, almost large enough to pass for a short sword, lashed to one boot.

“Thanks,” Gabriel said, while behind him the preacher resumed exhorting the passersby to think their way out of their problems. “I was kinda gambling she wouldn’t hex me or whatever in front of all those people. She doesn’t seem to be making much headway, though. Nobody seems really interested; the only ones watching seem to think this is a comedy show.”

The Huntsman shook his head. “They do not need to believe, they just need to listen. We are seeing only part of the strategy here; elsewhere, others of the Rust will be deliberately seeking out the vulnerable. People down on their luck, adrift from the familiar, people in need of a friendly ear. Those are ripe for recruitment into cults. This one is serving to spread their philosophy so that it does not seem as alien when it is encountered more intimately.”

“And you know a thing or two about this strategy, do you?” Teal said flatly, folding her arms.

The Huntsman turned to her and bowed; his beard made it hard to tell, but by the shifting lines next to his eyes, he seemed to be smiling slightly. “Among our duties is to seek out whose who are called by Shaath and guide them to his path. I have often found myself in this role, being less uncomfortable in cities than some of my brother Huntsmen. We, however, do not…preach.” He glanced sidelong at the gesticulating Rust cultist, who appeared to be paying them no attention now. “Some faiths want every soul they can gather in; Shaath only needs those who are truly called to his side. Not for nothing are we the smallest of the Pantheon cults.”

Ruda cleared her throat. “Apropos of nothing, why do I have the feeling you bein’ here isn’t a coincidence?”

He glanced again at the cultist, then lowered his voice slightly and took a step closer. “I had the same thought. Forgive me, Professor Tellwyrn, but you are distinctive, and your habit of bringing groups of your students into crises is known. When I saw you here, amid the troubles assailing Puna Dara and watching an example of their source, accompanied by a group of somewhat exotic young people…” He smiled up at Fross. “Well, I made an assumption. I am Brother Ermon. Well met to you all.”

“Interesting,” Tellwyrn mused. “The Huntsmen aren’t generally interventionist. Why take an interest in this?”

Ermon’s expression fell into a frown, and he again glanced at the Rust preacher. “It’s no secret that my religion and Avei’s agree on virtually nothing. In the end, though, they are sister servants of the gods, however misguided. The cults stand united against such as the Wreath…and I fear this may be something similar. When so many are so brazenly attacked, even the lodges must take notice, and take action. I understand that several of the cults are sending people to Puna Dara. After what befell the Fourth Legion and their Salyrite companions, though, they are doing so less openly.”

“Oh, perfect,” Ruda groaned, rubbing at her eyes with both fists. “That is just absolutely fuckin’ gorgeous. That’s exactly what this city needs right now, half a dozen surreptitious crusades.”

“I think we’d better get a handle on this as quickly as possible,” Toby said seriously.

“No shit,” Ruda growled. “It was real nice meetin’ you, Mr. Ermon, but if you’ll excuse us, we gotta get to the Rock.”

“Wait, we’re going where?” Juniper asked.

“That’s the name of the Punaji palace,” Teal explained.

“Just Ermon is fine,” the Huntsman said, smiling again. “And of course, I quite understand. I will walk you there.”

“Yeah, I know the way, but thanks,” Ruda said wryly.

“Oh, I don’t doubt it! This is clearly your city, after all. But it’s no inconvenience—a brother Huntsman and I have the honor of being guests of the King, as well. Shall we go?”


All this skulking in alleys offended Ildrin’s sense of propriety, particularly since she was on the side of right, here. Realistically, though, she had already resigned herself to having to do more of it in the future. Especially once Syrinx had finished dragging her name through the mud, it might be some time before she could do much of anything openly again. Events and the need to act wouldn’t wait for that, though, so…here she was.

It was a very discreet house in a very discreet neighborhood, to the point that coming around back to the servant’s entrance, hidden by a tall garden wall and the house itself, seemed almost excessive. Her business here was that sensitive, though, and still not as sensitive as that of the house’s occupant. She could not afford to take risks.

And so, as she’d been directed to do in the case of emergency, she had come here, ignored the kitchen door, and carefully twisted the housing of the fairy lamp next to it in a full circle. Several minutes ago, in fact, and yet here she still stood, her increasingly irritated breath misting on the air. Ildrin shuffled her feet, regretting having chosen to use a warming charm instead of a scarf or hat; it kept her head warm enough, but the little gusts of wind were still almost painful on her ears. Twisting the sconce had caused no immediately evident reaction; she debated doing it again, but still hesitated. If it was anything like a doorbell, standing there and doing it repeatedly would be rude. Still…she had been assured that if she needed to avail herself of this approach, it would always be answered.

She had just given up and was lifting her hand to try a second time when a section of the wall next to her shifted. The seams had not been apparent, being cunningly worked into the pattern of the mortar between the bricks, but now a whole door-sized piece moved soundlessly outward till there was a hairline gap between the edges of the bricks and the wall. Then it swung fully open, revealing the hidden hinges affixed to one side.

Ildrin stood there in affronted silence, glaring down at the figure on the other side of the secret door.

It stood no taller than her knee, apparently some creepy combination of a lizard, monkey, and rat, covered with rough black scales and occasional tufts of wiry fur. It was wearing, preposterously, a tuxedo coat, and staring up at her with gleaming red eyes beneath the brim of a tiny top hat.

After a long pause, she spoke, stiffly. “I need to see Mr. Tanenbaum.”

The imp’s tiny shoulders shifted in a sigh. “Uh…is this really important? The boss is…doing something. This isn’t a great time.”

“I wouldn’t be here, using this entrance, if it weren’t urgent,” she snapped, bitterly resenting having to speak with demon filth, even such a tiny specimen. “I was assured that if I came here…”

“Yeah, I know, them’s the rules,” the imp said with ill grace. “All right, well…you better come on in, then. But you can’t interrupt the boss, okay? He can talk with you when he’s done, which should be pretty soon, but what he’s doing…well, interrupting would be bad.”

“I don’t doubt it,” she said stiffly, striding inside. In fact, she stepped over the imp, not waiting for him to get out of the way. To judge by his barely audible mutters, he didn’t miss the implied insult.

She paused inside the cramped little hallway while the imp clambered up the wall, spider-like, to pull a lever at doorknob height, which caused the hidden panel to swing closed again. It was dim in the hall, lit only by a tiny fairy lamp, and there was only one way to go; stairs leading down into darkness.

This time, she waited for the imp to lead the way.

At the bottom it was practically pitch black; Ildrin was still making her way down the staircase, groping carefully for each step, when a scrabble announced the little demon was climbing a wall again, followed by the click of another switch being activated. To her relief, another door swung open, revealing a room lit by the warm glow of oil lamps.

She stepped through quickly, glancing around. It was clearly a study, with a desk on one side and the walls lined with bookcases. Fully lined, in fact; one swung shut behind them to conceal the stairwell. It could have passed for any intellectual’s small private library, if not for the cleared spot in the center of the floor in which the summoning circle had been placed.

There were two occupants already there: a middle-aged man in tweed with a neatly trimmed beard sitting behind the desk, facing a stunningly beautiful woman who stood in the middle of the circle. A woman with alabaster skin, violet-tinged hair, crystalline topaz eyes, spiny wings and a spaded tail. She wore only a crude leather wrap around her waist.

Both the warlock and demon looked up at Ildrin and the imp upon their arrival; the man nodded politely to her, while the succubus sneered, and then they focused once more on each other.

“Forgive the interruption,” he said courteously. “We were discussing your qualifications. Now, of course, I well understand your reason for desiring the position; you needn’t go to further detail on that. Tell me, what would you say is your greatest asset?”

“Well, that’s something I don’t get asked every day,” the demon purred. She cocked her hip to one side, languidly dragging her fingertips down the side of her body in a motion which exaggerated its inherent curve. “If they’re not to your liking, I can, of course, make…adjustments.”

Her heated smile widened slightly, and her body shifted, the curve of her waist drawing inward an inch, her bare breasts swelling. Ildrin repressed the urge to make a disgusted noise, folding her arms and scowling.

The man behind the desk cleared his throat. “Yes, I am of course aware of your innate gifts, my dear, no need to reiterate the basics. There is, however, only the one position, and many prospects who might fill it. I wonder why you, in comparison to other children of Vanislaas I might summon, are uniquely qualified to form a pact?”

“Oh, come now,” she said coyly. “If you’re familiar with my kind, you must know that versatility is what we do. The question isn’t what I’m like, but what you would like me to be like. You’ve already cast the summons; you have me here, ready…and waiting.” She licked her lips slowly, and Ildrin just barely managed not to retch. “Tell me what you want, and that is what I’ll be…master.”

The warlock sighed, shook his head, and closed the book open in front of him on the desk, shifting a sheet of parchment to lie on top of it. From her angle, Ildrin could make out that it appeared to be a list of names, several with lines drawn through them.

“Well,” he said, “I believe that concludes our business here. Thank you for coming, Jezrathin. It appears that you’re not what I am looking for in a familiar at this time, but I will keep your details on file for future needs, and of course I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors. Hixlpik, the honorarium? Ah, thank you.”

The imp had skittered over to a cabinet beneath a bookcase and pulled out a vial of glittering powder, apparently enchanting dust. Though it was almost as big as his torso, he had no trouble handling it, and in fact easily tossed it through the air into the summoning circle, where the nonplussed succubus caught it apparently by reflex.

“I realize it is an inconvenience to be so abruptly summoned in this manner,” the man said politely, “so consider that a small token of my thanks and apology for the imposition. It’s a sample of very basic arcane enchanting dust, quite versatile for someone who practices the craft, and of course easily transmutable to infernal power. Even if you don’t personally use magic, it will be quite valuable in Hell to those who do. Thank you for coming by.”

The succubus stared at the vial in her hand, then up at the warlock, her previous sultriness giving way to clear frustration. “What are you, some kind of idiot?”

He coughed softly. “Far be it from me to tell you your business, Jezrathin, but as a word of friendly advice, I believe you’ll find that a more professional demeanor opens more opportunities to you. Now, I must bid you good day.”

He gestured almost dismissively with one hand, and the runes on the circle pulsed once with orange light. The demon immediately began fading from view—and from sound, fortunately, as she left them with a string of curses in at least three languages that seemed to linger on the air even after she had vanished entirely. Finally, though, the circle went fully dark. And silent.

The warlock sighed, picked up a pen, and carefully drew a line through another name on his list, then turned to Ildrin and stood.

“Well! Thank you for waiting, I apologize for keeping you. As you can imagine, it is best not to dawdle in these matters, and especially not to discuss sensitive business in front of a child of Vanislaas.”

“That…looked more like a job interview than a summoning,” Ildrin said, intrigued in spite of herself.

“Of course.” Willard Tanenbaum smiled benignly at her. “They are individuals, you know. If one must deal with a Vanislaad, it pays to do all due diligence and select one with the utmost care.”

“And must you deal with them?” she asked skeptically.

“Apparently,” he said with a pensive frown, “the Archpope himself has one on his personal staff. He asked me to find…another. Either as a replacement or to counteract his current Vanislaad, who seems to be growing difficult to manage—as they inevitably do. I strongly doubt the wisdom of bringing another into the equation, but I have observed that his Holiness’s plans always seem to succeed, even when I cannot imagine that they would. It does not pay, I find, to challenge intellects so apparently superior to my own. So! Welcome, Sister Ildrin. Since I was expecting the usual anonymous delivery of reagents, and instead I find you, empty-handed and calling upon my emergency door, I gather something unfortunate has transpired?”

“I’m afraid so,” she said. “Your source of reagents has been cut off. A group of Eserites stuck their noses in, made off with the lot, and then swiped enough paperwork to reveal the whole method of appropriation and put it in the hands of both Avenist and Salyrite leadership. I was able to protect my Legionnaires and your name doesn’t appear anywhere, but by the time the two cults get through digging into this, both Carruthers and I are likely to find ourselves unable to act within them for some time. Maybe ever.”

“That is a serious problem,” he said, frowning heavily. “Poor Carruthers…the Collegium is his whole life. Well, I will be able to continue the Archpope’s special projects for a while, at least. I can’t use the Topaz College’s resources, as those must be rigorously accounted for, but I have some personal stocks. They will not last long, however.”

“Of course, we’ll find a new source of supplies, and can see about reimbursing you…”

“Not at all necessary,” he demurred, holding up a hand. “Nothing I might do with them is more important than the Church’s work. I simply want to make it clear that my assets are limited.”

“Understood. I’ll pass it along.”

“Eserites, hm.” Tanenbaum stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Do we have any allies in the Guild?”

“We don’t,” she said grimly, “and here is the thing: these were apprentices. They were not supposed to be sticking their noses into other cults’ business, and in fact I understand Boss Tricks is about ready to string them up. That doesn’t help us, though, because Basra bloody Syrinx snatched them from me before I could question them in detail.”

“Leaving,” he said slowly, “the extremely troubling question of where a group of apprentice thieves happened upon enough detail to know of our business.”

Ildrin nodded. “It has to be through one or the other cult, if not both. Since my name is about to be mud in the Sisterhood, I’ve had to delegate Raathi to try to hunt down a possible leak on the Avenist side. That kind of work really is not her strong suit, however. I’m hoping you’ll have a better way to get information from the Collegium.”

“I fear I’m a bit of a recluse these days,” he said ruefully. “Such inquiries would not likely lead me far. However! I think I have just the thing to help us find such a lead, wherever it may lie. Hixlpik, please clean up the circle and lay down a standard djinn containment.”

“On it, boss!” the imp said cheerfully, opening the cabinet again. He produced a handheld duster, which for him was ludicrously oversized, and scampered over to the circle, where he began picking up crystals and candles preparatory to sweeping away the burned-out enchanting dust which made up most of the design.

“You’re keeping a djinn in your house?” Ildrin demanded in horror.

“Ah, I’m afraid that is a misconception,” Tanenbaum replied with an indulgent smile. He stepped over to one of the bookcases and carefully pulled out a single volume. With a soft click, the upper half of the case swung outward, and he selected a single, tall brass bottle from the variety of objects concealed in the hidden compartment behind. “One does not, as such, keep them. Djinn are not contained in the bottles, lamps, and other paraphernalia which are used to contact them, you see. There are but thirteen of the lesser djinn, nowhere near enough for every warlock to summon his or her own. They were once warlocks themselves, a circle who operated in Calderaas centuries ago. They attempted to summon something they should not, and…this is their punishment. Like Vanislaads, they are not proper demons, but human souls bound to Hell. Unlike Vanislaads, they can never leave it. These summonings enable them to interact intangibly with the mortal plane; their ethereal nature gives them vast access to information that way. They seem to pluck it out of the warp and weft of magic itself!”

“What did they try to summon?” Ildrin asked, unable to repress her curiosity.

He grimaced, carefully holding the bottle in both hands. “What we now call a greater djinn. A true djinn. A type of demon which should never be summoned by mortals; they have the power to grant actual wishes, which is what prompts people to try, but they are impossible to coerce or control. The Thirteen came closer than anyone, and…you know, now, what happened to them. I suspect I am preaching to the choir, here, but I’ll remind you that any creature of Hell who does not manifest physical mutation must be interacted with only with the greatest of care. They have the aggression inherent to the infernally corrupted, and express it through manipulation, seeking to create strife on this plane. That is the risk in turning to a djinn for information: they know things that neither fae oracles nor arcane scrying can reveal, but they parcel it out in such a way as to deliberately cause the greatest chaos they can. Ah, thank you, Hixlpik.”

“My pleasure, boss!”

The imp was remarkably efficient; he had swept away the old summoning circle and inscribed one which Ildrin, even with her very basic magical education, could tell was meant not to contain something within, but to block outside influences. At least, she was fairly sure that was what it meant that there was a single ring with all the runes on the outside. Well, presumably Tanenbaum knew what he was about.

Hopefully…

The warlock carefully set the bottle upright in the center of the circle, then gently pulled out the stopper. It came loose with an ease she found vaguely troubling.

Mist immediately billowed forth, quickly resolving itself into the form of a man from the waist up, a quiet cyclone of smoke terminating in the bottle’s mouth serving in place of his legs. He bowed deeply, which was a very odd sight.

“Ah, once again you honor me!” the djinn intoned. “Most esteemed practitioner of the arts, it pleases me more than my paltry words can express that I am graced once again by your company. To be a guest in your exalted home, to be granted an audience with a companion in your quests—these are joys the hope of which sustains me through my isolation in the dark realms below. Tell me, most honored one, how may Ali al-Famibad be of service to you and yours?”

“It is pleasant to see you again, as well, Ali,” Tanenbaum replied, his tone perfectly polite but the greeting seeming almost curt in comparison to the effusive djinn’s. “I have summoned you in accordance with our contract; this guest in my home is an observer to this conversation, but not a participant.”

“But of course,” the djinn replied with an ingratiating smile, bowing again, “nothing gives me greater satisfaction than to assist you, unless it is to do so while upholding my part in a bargain fairly struck.”

Ildrin kept quiet. Part of her bridled at being excluded, but she well understood the point; interacting with this creature, as Tanenbaum had just explained, was inherently dangerous. Much better it be left to a professional.

“I seek information,” the warlock said. “A group of young thieves have intervened in my business. You know the ones, of course.”

“Oh, but of course,” Ali replied, smiling widely. Too widely. How did he already know… Oh, right; warp and weft of magic, and so on. “Most interesting, most interesting indeed. I can tell you little of them, I regret to say. A powerful hand indeed lays heavy upon this affair, one at whose fingers the likes of myself should not pluck.”

“I see,” Tanenbaum mused. “Well, actually, I had not meant to inquire about them directly, but only at their connections. I must learn how they discovered our activities—the source of their information.”

“Ah, the things I could tell you!” Ali exclaimed in tones of dramatic woe. “Alas, ours is a very strict contract, a testament to your most admirable caution. Of course, if you were to relax the terms only a—”

“Quite out of the question, I’m afraid,” Tanenbaum said pleasantly, but with iron firmness.

“Indeed, I greatly respect your wisdom in this,” Ali said solicitously. “Then with my most effusive apologies, honored practitioner, I must be vague.”

“That will be satisfactory,” the warlock replied, nodding.

“I see, indeed, an agent within the house of most noble Salyrene, through whom information flows to these playful young thieves. I see a young man, a man of books and letters more than adventures, a man who nonetheless shies from nothing if pressed. A man who is used to the ways of other faiths. A man who travels with a friendly fireball upon his shoulder.”

A pause ensued, in which Tanenbaum apparently waited for more detail. The djinn only grinned at him, though.

“And that is all you can tell me?” the warlock asked at last.

“Oh, but such things I could tell you!” Ali lamented. “Yet, we have our contract. I must not do less than uphold my part.”

“Tall?” Ildrin said suddenly, frowning. “Dishwater blonde hair, glasses, has a little fire elemental for a familiar?”

“A friendly fireball,” Tanenbaum mused. “Is that description accurate, Ali?”

“Indeed, indeed!” Disturbingly, the djinn appeared inordinately pleased by this turn of events. “Sometimes, I am able to aid my cherished friends even beyond the scope of our formal dealings, simply by connecting one source of information with another. Your compatriot has all she needs to proceed, I believe.”

Ildrin drew in a deep breath, and let it out slowly, frowning into the distance even as Tanenbaum turned an inquisitive gaze on her.

“Schwartz.”

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58 thoughts on “13 – 5

    1. It’s likely she is limited to acting only if they stick their noses directly into her business. Brushing her Hand gives her far more leeway to act than she otherwise has.

      Ie: She can’t randomly hit them, but if they open the door it’s their fault.

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      1. They don’t know and don’t try to know? How does knowledge let Avei smite people she can’t ordinarily attack?

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      2. @random_human It isn’t the knowledge, rather it’s the way they get it by dredging the magic fields. She can hurt them for it for the same reason she can act to protect her paladin if someone tries some other kind of absurd magic on them.

        They are basically holding up a giant flashing “kick me!” sign.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. There we go. Stomach bug cleared up after just a few hours, so here we are, only a couple of hours late rather than the day or so I feared.

    So… I don’t often use my site to rant about things not immediately germane to the story or my own life, and that chiefly just to the extent that it affects the story. I think the last and only time was last November, when you all know what happened. And generally I’m still not going to do so, just for professionalism’s sake. But hell, it’s my platform, and if I want to embarrass myself once in a while, I will. Ranting will now commence.

    Those of you who follow news in nerd circles may have heard about the revelations from Joss Whedon’s ex-wife. That’s a sordid enough business and I don’t intend to go into it. But in connection with that, today I happened across this hot take from John Scalzi, noted sci-fi author who enjoys a reputation for progressivism. I read the whole thing, physically twitching throughout.

    I have read only one of Scalzi’s books, by chance, and won’t read another. He’d been on my “to read” list for a long time on the strength of his reputation, but between my personal proclivities and my day jobin a bookstore, my “to read” list is impossible to ever get through. Until he came out with one thing whose premise so intrigued me that I had to move it to the top of the list.

    That thing was Redshirts.

    It wasn’t very good.

    That fact alone is forgivable, but the reasons I disliked it are immediately relevant to this. It was a poor example of deconstruction, consisting of long rants about the point it was heavily trying to make without a persuasive presentation of that point in the story itself–telling, not showing. In short, it’s an attempted repudiation of the “redshirt” trope, taking the side of characters who are casually killed off for shock value and trying to reject that practice. It doesn’t really work because the book has almost no descriptive language of any kind; its core group of red-shirted ensigns get no physical description, a terse backstory, and one identifying character trait. The dialog is snappy, which isn’t an asset, because it’s the same snappy dialog from every character. They are all Chandler Bing with one additional schtick; there’s the redshirt who’s the protagonist, the redshirt who knows a guy who knows a guy, etc. It’s hard to feel enough for these cardboard cut-outs to care when they die, which seriously undercuts the core message of the book.

    Aaaaand there’s the redshirt who is a woman.

    In the core group of characters, yes, there is one female. Like the others, she gets one hat to hang on her otherwise paper-thin characterization, and that is her sex. And that is called the Smurfette Principle, a trope which is problematic as fuck.

    Unfortunately, it gets worse. Spoilers for the book to follow.

    The sole female character in this group, Duvall, advances the plot by seducing someone the ensigns need to abduct in order to complete their…well, honestly, it’s pretty silly; read it if you’re that curious, but I personally wouldn’t recommend it. What’s significant here is that the Smurfette of the cast uses her sexuality to advance the plot and I really wish I could stop there, but after that she dumps the male character she did this to–who, despite not being part of the book’s core cast, goes on to get some character development, which is more than can be said for Duvall. And no, I’m still not done. Finally, after all this indignity, she begins flirting with the protagonist. The audience surrogate who doesn’t have much of a personality beyond that. He, being too pure, turns her down.

    So the sole female member of the core cast, whose sole interesting traits are her sex and sexuality, uses her vagina to advance the story, and then defaults to the role of reward for the audience surrogate.

    As sexism in the genre goes, unfortunately, that’s not even particularly egregious. If you’re familiar with sci-fi in general, you’ll know this well. It’s a pretty irritating thing to read, however, from an author who puts himself forth as a feminist.

    On the one hand, I related a lot to Scalzi’s words in the blog post I linked above. I have similar feelings as a writer. I consider feminism important, as I’m sure you’ve all noticed, but I am very conscious of my own human frailty and leery of the idea of calling myself any kind of role model.

    On the other hand, I doubt those words. Despite Scalzi claiming to be shy about this, it is part of his brand. It’s right there on his Wikipedia page, how his support for feminism invites harassment. Ever since reading that damn book, I’ve been quietly puzzled and irked by this, and by the fact that no one, anywhere, has seemed willing to call him out on it.

    The upshot of all this is that, despite my irritation at “all men” comments, I totally (intellectually, I obviously haven’t lived it) understand the frustration women feel about stuff like this, and I get why some commenters have despaired about how male feminists who make an issue of that stance always seem to end up being…let us politely say “disappointing” and leave it at that, plenty of stronger words have been used elsewhere.

    I guess this just goes to show there’s some kind of extraordinary social inertia that seems to help men get away with it. Male feminists, or “feminists,” aren’t challenged about this stuff. I mean, it’s certainly not a case like Bill Cosby or Trump where there’s huge money and legal pressure involved in silencing opposition; I’m sure that in the very unlikely event that John Scalzi even learns I wrote all this, his entire response will be “who the fuck is D. D. Webb?” It’s just…the world. Men get away with this shit. It’s depressing.

    There you go, rant complete. Don’t worry, it’ll probably be a good long while before the next one. Meanwhile, our story continues Monday.

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    1. I’ve read some of the Old Man’s War series, but couldn’t finish it. I had hoped Redshirts would be better, and I’ve come to the conclusion that Scalzi is just not a very good writer. He has a collection of plot tokens he tosses in, some of them rather clever, but doesn’t really think deeply about how they impact the world as a whole (like, if you have this capability, why don’t you have that one), or how intelligent people would take advantage of them.

      That’s a problem you are really good at avoiding. Your world feels like a real place.

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    2. Leery of the idea you may be, but I want you to know that I delight in using your writing as an example of excellent progressive media: giving representation and affirmation without being preachy. It’s a rare thing, so I think you should be proud of the accomplishment.

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      1. Seconded; nothing will ever be a perfect example of representation, but TGaB is one of the best I’ve read. It’s been quite hard to go from this to other, less stellar works, because it’s so nice having a story like it. I generally don’t use it as the biggest reason people should read TGaB when I try to get more people into it, but it’s definitely something I mention as a point in the story’s favour.

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    3. I have had similar feelings from the few attempts at his work I’ve made.

      A story that may delight you. At a panel at Phoenix Comicon a few years back, there were four authors talking about anti heroes and less than heroic heroes.

      I forget what the specific question was, but the response from one of the panelists was, “As much as I love the idea, it’s not something you could do and hope to make any money off it. Well, unless you’re John Scalzi.”

      In unison, all four panelists look down, and , again, in UNISON, mutter into their mics, “Fuckin Scalzi….”

      They then looked up, glanced at each other, grinned, and moved on.

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    4. I had a friend recommend me the Belgariad, which he said was his favorite epic fantasy series of all time. I started to read it and … wow holy *shit* was it sexist. (And threw itself whole-hog behind an ideology often used to justify racism too, but that’s not really the point here).

      I brought this up with my friend and asked, “Does this get better? Because unless it does I’m putting this book down right now, I just can’t get past the literal nausea I feel every time I read Edding’s description of a woman.”

      My friend replied, “What? The Belgariad isn’t sexist.”

      And he really believed that. When I pressed him on “how the fuck can you not see this?” it turned out that he was judging it by the standards of some of the other old fantasy books he’d been exposed to as a child, the kind of books which explicitly and outright denigrated women as a gender. He thought that because the Belgariad had multiple female characters (a mother figure, a literal romantic prize, the ur-housewife, and an oversexed villain who is sexually obsessed with the hero) and never explicitly said “women are inferior to men” that it couldn’t be described as sexist.

      Because that was how low his bar had been set.

      And I think that explains a lot of these male sci-fi/fantasy authors who think, who truly believe, that they are feminists. Sci-fi/fantasy authors tend not to read out of the genre. They tend not to read romances or historical dramas or slice of life. Their literary world does not extend beyond the borders of this intensely sexist genre. And the books which are glorified in sci-fi/fantasy tend to be ur-books which spawned mini-genres or spawned specific concepts, which are of course the older and most sexist books. And beyond that sci-fi/fantasy is a men-dominated genre, so these authors are unlikely to spend a lot of time getting serious constructive criticism and feedback from women.

      So you’ve got a bunch of authors who have been consistently exposed to the most heinous and explicit sexism imaginable, who have never seen actually feminist literature (or not often enough to get a good grasp on what makes it feminist), and no way to passively receive commentary from women whose opinions they respect saying “yeah your work is sexist”. And so there are authors who maybe in theory agree with the idea “women and men are equal”, but who have no fucking clue that their worldview is one in which women are not equal to men and whose idea of what bar they need to clear to not be sexist is a bar buried ten feet underground.

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  2. This has Djinn all over it. Hints at a powerful and mysterious player’s hand which naturally they must now work to identify and counteract. Maneuver the summoners to the least capable of their foes (and someone that they know is rather incapable) so they will do something rush, quick and overconfident.

    Very sloppy performance Mr.Tanenbaum. Very sloppy indeed. You exposed someone much less professional and experienced to a Djinn and let her listen in. You gave the Djinn a new vector to exploit and manipulate the situation and he in turn, said something very vague (as he is only allowed to do) to tell something to Ildrin that you aren’t aware of (and make an impression that you don’t fully see and understand). You allowed the Djinn to maneuver out of his contract and start affecting less careful people than you.

    To compare to Embras’ Djinn interaction, in that situation the contract seems to be better made (less paranoid and more specific like no lies) and the only people who the Djinn could affect are Embras himself, and the reporter who has no emotional connection to the information the Djinn gives and is therefore less easily manipulated. Embras still probably got Djinn’d for that with the brutal arc 7, he “learned humility” as the Djinn said he will, but at least he hadn’t given the Djinn a chance to do much more wide range damage to less experienced people.

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    1. yes, this is going to end badly.

      Trissiny is willing to keep up the act as long as she is here, but if her friends are in serious danger she will (and has) dropped it in the blink of an eye. And you do not piss off a Hand of Avei.

      No, I suspect this Djinn just stepped all over Justinian’s plans.

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    2. It’s even better: we all know that our Schwartz is no pushover and can actually handle himself very well in a fight. But, how did Ali sell him? Why, just as a meek and mild bookworm of no real account! Only the fireball to vaguely worry about!

      Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Well played, “Ali”.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Gabriel in this chapter was awesome!! And Fross as always.

    The Huntsmen intrigue me, and are probably an example of very good worldbuilding, because it really annoys me how sympathetic I find them. Their opinions and general philosophy are skin-crawlingly horrific, but almost every single one of them has been perfectly nice and respectful in their own way. Like, sure, Andros has been condescending and dismissive to Squad One and Flora and Fauna, but never properly rude. Even Tholi and Feldren, examples of less than stellar Hunstmen, honestly aren’t really as bad as some of the worst Eserites we’ve seen. And then there’s Ingvar who I absolutely love. It’s just a really good example of grey morality and as much it pains me to admit it, I like them.

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    1. Yes, that is an annoying discontinuity. The extent to which people’s personal beliefs cause widespread suffering and injustice if implemented on a societal scale* is often camouflaged by the way that they personally interact with people outside their community. To me, Shaathists loudly evoke real-world religious fundamentalists**, with their well-meaning yet harsh oppression of the women in their communities even as they can be quite personable and charming when reaching out to outsiders.

      As for the Eserite thing, I think we’ve seen, up close and personal, some of the worst ways that the Eserites go horrifically wrong. Izarites too, I think, with Branwen and Justinian. I don’t think we’ve really gotten that much close-up time on the most vicious madness of the Shaathists yet, though, aside from short bits here and there with Ephanie and Ingvar.

      *or the extent to which they lead to the person mistreating some subset of people within their community.

      **of most religions, as far as I can tell, but particularly of the Big Three Monotheisms

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      1. Personally I don’t see it as a discontinuity, I think it’s the whole point, or at least part of the point. Often people can have disgusting personal views and yet interact with other people in a perfectly polite, charming way. Even raging misogynists and the worst homophobes have interacted with me in very calm, respectful manners while simultaneously spouting horrifying opinions about people like me. I have no personal experience with racism, but I know not everyone is a demagogue or a white supremacist; sometimes they’re just cloyingly patronising and condescending, which is still awful, just not as loud.

        It can be really hard to come to grips with people who act nicely but you know have opinions that make you feel unsafe or angry. A personal example would be my school chaplain; he’s a Creationist, a religious fundamentalist and one of the most homophobic people I’ve ever met. I’ve been in classes with him where he will have spoken against women’s rights and gay rights and I’ve been incredibly angry, and yet worried whether my anger is justified because he’s just so nice. To your face, outside of political opinions, he can be lovely, and that makes everything he says harder to come to terms with.

        I don’t know if Webb intended for the Shaathists to be an exercise in those kinds of people, but that’s how I’ve read it. They’re the people you can have perfectly normal, if condescending and infuriating, conversations with, only to discover that, in this case, they think all women should be enslaved. Which, like you were saying, is fundamentalist and would have horrifying repercussions on a society, but can be hard to combat or get other people to combat because they haven’t acted against you personally…yet. Eserites, Avenists and Izarites are, I don’t think, on the same page because they don’t advocate organised violence against any particular group at every level – sure, Avenists have a tendency to be racist towards demonbloods, but that’s mostly misguided zealousness, and unlike the Shaathists it’s not a matter of doctrine.

        Liked by 5 people

      2. Shaathists seem more likeable on the whole to me. They haven’t been as condescending as most of the fundamentalists I’ve met, and most of them make a point that they don’t force women to join their cult, they take volunteers.

        Obviously there are exceptions and some of them are assholes or pressure people into acting certain ways, but they seem less overt about their ‘superiority’.

        The existence of the chapter that accepts Ingvar might also have something to do with it for me. That could be coloring my overall perception.

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      3. Hah right, if the Shaathists were supposed to parallel IRL fundamentalists, they’d also have to think that THEIR group gets discriminated against above all others!

        Because believe this shit or not, IRL fundamentalists (these are white, often wealthy people) feel strongly that they face worse discrimination than blacks, women, gays, or even gay black women. This is despite the fact that these very people are the ones doing the lion’s share of the discriminating…

        I guess that makes sense, like how liars always think everyone else is always lying too. Why do you think Trump goes on about the fake news? He’s the biggest liar of anyone!

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      4. It would at least make some sense if they were Mormons (who the US government has a history of discriminating against), but most fundamentalists get a pretty sweet deal in America.

        Even Mormons aren’t really oppressed now.

        I think fundies just can’t take jokes. They assume jokes about fundamentalism is discrimination or something.

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      5. We shouldn’t forget that not every woman joins the cult willingly, some are born into it and raised in these beliefs. Indoctrinated and beaten into submission.

        It was also mentioned that Shaatists are so nice because they require many women to join them, first because each man should have several wives and secondly because of the high turnover rate.

        You may not remember Andros, the Shaatist bishop. He’s basically the ideal Huntsman: self confident, strong, in control and he’s not using threats or violence to make his point. He’s still treating women as if they were dumb children, if he even deigns to speak with them at all. I also remember his dominance posturing with Sweet and his constant attempts to establish himself as the leader.
        And he’s one of the nice ones…

        Such a fundamental belief which is contrary to reality requires effort to maintain. That means that a Huntsman has to establish their dominance in pretty much every interaction by treating women as less, otherwise their entire faith would be proven nonsense by reality.

        I am leery of statements like “All men are…”, “All women are…” … because they are generalizations and, in my experience, never true. Even with discounting rare exceptions they never are.
        While it is true that some women are submissive and that some men are dominant… that’s not enough to make a statement about either gender.
        I felt bad for Ephanie, she was serious about her submission, about the gift she gave to her husband… and to him it didn’t even matter. He didn’t care, all he saw was the prestige of claiming a former Sister of Avei as his own.
        To me it seemed as if he just went through the motions, because that’s how he was taught the world works… only he wasn’t really dominant, he lacked the passion and care that comes with that.
        I’m sure that this is true for the majority of Huntsmen, which would explain why so many women join and then leave shortly after realizing that the reality of being married to these guys is not what they envisioned.

        It’s fortunate that divorce and leaving a cult is possible in these modern times. Before the Universal Church things must have been bad for any unwilling wife.

        This is only one aspect of the faith… and the most problematic one. I doubt anyone has an issue with the rest of it. Hunting, being close to nature, using Fae magic and spirit companions… none of that is bad. I can see why some people join up because of it and then simply accept the misogyny as a tradition.

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      6. True. It clearly isn’t a philosophy that is 100% acceptable, but they aren’t as bad as one would expect from their doctrine.

        I think the other facets of their philosophy are pretty nice though. I’d be down for fae magic, nature, and spirit companions. Sounds like a super snazzy version of the Boy Scouts.

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      7. Great memory, I usually need to have read something through twice to casually recall that much detail. However,

        >”a Huntsman has to establish their dominance in pretty much every interaction by treating women as less, otherwise their entire faith would be proven nonsense by reality.”

        I wouldn’t go that far. I’m sure each individual will have no problem developing an internally inconsistent “system” for determining which interactions “count” and which don’t (it probably goes something like ‘if I established dominance, then it counted’) 😉

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      8. As we’ve learned, aspects of the Shaathist cult have been deliberately distorted years ago. I look forward to when the story gets back to Ingvar’s quest to get to the bottom of this and ‘free Shaath”.

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      9. One of the Shaathist lodges sees nothing wrong with slave trading to get wives.

        Chase was negotiating with them to sell them Natchua, to be the lodgemaster’s son’s wife.

        And buying enslaved drow noble women is apparently so accepted as proper in the cult that Chase’s failure to deliver was being used as a weapon to chip away at the Central lodge’s authourity.

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    2. The Huntsman scare the pants off of me, because they’re almost something I interact with daily, until they aren’t.

      See, I’m kinky, and in a commited relationship with other kinky people. To my perspective, Huntsman present themselves as people interested in 24-hour dominant/submissive behavior. In their defense, they claim to that such relatoinships can be affirming and healthy and wonderful, and I’ve seen enough examples of that to believe it.

      But, then you look at how they view such relationships, seemingly genuinely, and it’s like a checklist of all the red flags to look for in the kink community- a systemic interest in enforcing the aesthetics of the dualism of the relationship over the strength and healthiness of the relatoinship, itself. Consent to enter the relationship was an act of agency, so the submissive party is an agent, so this is an equal pairing, so I can continue controlling my ‘partner’ as much as I want, is the line of argument.

      I say all this, because I would expect that my perspective is skewed enough that I’m missing cues and reading-in expectations that people experienced in more conventional relationships might not have. So, I wonde what the sight is like from a different side, and if I might be projecting too hard. Thoughts?

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      1. Ingvar casually thought it was a disgrace that Feldren hasn’t brought Ephanie back into line, implicitly by force, as if their divorce was meaningless.

        That’s not a healthy take on consent and Andros implies it and considering wives as trophies rather than people, isn’t uncommon among the younger members of what is apparently the most cosmopolitan Shaathist lodge.

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  4. A great thing about this story is we have different philosophies interacting, and nobody gets to be right all the time.

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  5. “Disturbingly, the djinn appeared inordinately pleased by this turn of events.”
    Oh Ildrin this should have tipped you off. An entity who thrives on causing chaos in the world by selective information/misinformation being happy is never a good thing. I can’t wait to find out how much trouble she lands herself in.

    On a side note, I wonder if Schwartz or Trissiny is aware of their connection to each other?

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  6. Interestingly hasn’t “creating maximum chaos” has been proposed to be Justinian’s strategy, i.e. in the hopes that when the chips fall out he will be in a position to take advantage?. It always sounded to me like a rather desperate and dubious strategy for someone as smooth and controlling as Justinian. I suppose Justinian couldn’t actually be a demon…or could he??.

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    1. Nah, it’s just Justinian’s actual plan has completely fallen apart and is no longer viable.

      At this point effectively every major player that had a plan has had their plan torn into pieces and thrown back in their face.

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  7. Chapter’ll be later Monday rather than the target midnight release. My fault, I have completely screwed my sleep schedule over the last two weeks to the point I think I have honest to god jet lag. Hit a depressive episode on top of that and I have to go rest a bit. I have it partially done, should be able to finish pretty quick once I grab some sleep.

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    1. *wags finger* Sleep schedule shenanigans practically guarantee a nosedive, you know this. *hugs* But, hey: catching up on the sleep debt should have you feeling peachy pink surprisingly quickly. 🙂

      Just… don’t grow reliant on debt-dreams to think outside the box. That way collisions lie. xP

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  8. Feel free to delete this purely-typo-spotting comment.

    “In the end, it is nothing but our own thoughts with determine what our reality is.”
    thoughts which determine

    “a set of taut wired like extended tendons attached”
    I think you mean ‘wires’?

    “drawn almost as many odd looks at the Rust street”
    odd looks as the

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      1. Huh? Really?

        Ok. Maybe you’re new here and it’s not your fault. But Webb (the author, I hope you know that much) usually posts new chapters on Monday. He hasn’t as of Tuesday afternoon, thus my concern for him. Is that clear now?

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    1. Appreciate the concern, but I’m not a coin-powered carnival attraction. Having a very bad depressive episode right now and have been struggling for two days to get through the one damn chapter. Hoping to have it up for Wednesday.

      I’m way north of Harvey; it’s been sunny and pleasant all week. Everything’s fine, just mental illness, still working.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. If your brain decides to screw your over there’s little to be done but toughing it out and taking the right meds… Believe me, I don’t have bipolar, but that’s about the only thing I’ve been spared of x) Glad to hear you’re okay. Best of luck with the chapter, and please take care of yourself ^^

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    1. He’s poking fun that Webb didn’t update on time and didn’t post an update on why. Nothing serious, he’ll post when he can, but he;s making fun of the whole cartoon shtick where you wave money over them and they snatch it despite playing dead.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Joking or not, didn’t Webb live in the Midwest somewhere? Nathan’s where Harvey’s coming through at the moment? Cause I’m a massive worrywart and this gets me worrying aaaaah

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