Dawn came early in the mountains. They had set out from the old Order of the Light station at the first graying of the sky, and so arrived in the ancient, battle-scarred courtyard below the Great Tree just as the first orange light was peeking between the crags to the east.
The group proceeded in silent single file across the pitted ground until they reached a point as near the center of the space as could be reckoned at a glance. They were unaccompanied by animal companions this time, Sniff and F’thaan being back at the camp under Principia’s supervision. Without speaking, they moved smoothly into place, arranging themselves in a circle facing one another. There was silence save for the soft whisper of wind through the Tree’s branches for a moment, and then Gabriel drew in a deep breath, clearly to steady himself.
“Okay,” he said, his voice not quite nervous but just short of certainty. “This was my idea, after all, so I guess I’ll take point in guiding it…but that shouldn’t be a factor for much longer. We’re all equals in this circle, that’s the point. So… We know why we’re here. This started with Teal, but I want to reiterate that while I do hope this helps her…this is for all of us. We’ve all got our… That is, this is about the group.” He hesitated for two beats, unconsciously rubbing his palms against his coat. “This is a Vidian ceremony, or at least, is built on one. Truth is, only one of us here is Vidian and I’m, like, only technically. I’ve been getting the impression Vidius wants me as specifically a kind of anti-priest, which is…neither here nor there. Point is, this is not a ceremony for any one faith. It’s something that occurred to me because it has specific relevance to the issues that have been raised before us. This, I believe, is something we can all benefit from, so long as we make it our own.”
He gained poise as he spoke, straightening his spine and ceasing to hesitate and second-guess his words. “The Doctrine of Masks, like all great religious dogmas, is a very specific way of interpreting a universal observation about life. None of us here observe the Doctrine and several of you might not even be aware of it. We all wear masks, in a way, and we’re here to confront that fact and even make it work for us, but not to embrace Vidian practice exactly. We have all spent the night in contemplation, as I asked. By now, I’m confident that all of you have found the answers I asked you to bring forward. I have, for my part. If you’re less confident about whatever you’ve come up with, I’ll tell you this up front: it is enough. All of you are plenty smart in the ways that matter, and all of us know each other well enough by now to make of this what it needs to be. We will be borrowing from many sources of both power and wisdom, and so we’ll begin by making them ours. It’s dawn, a time of transition, a boundary between two states. To begin, we will define this space, for the duration we need it, as ours. Each of you has something to invoke, to set our ritual space apart. Before the sun rises further, I will begin.”
Gabriel took one step backward, drawing his gnarled black wand from within his coat; in his hand it extended to its full length, the scythe’s blade gleaming sullenly in the dim light, while its knotted haft seemed almost to be cast from shadow. He raised the weapon in both hands.
“By the blade of death itself, I cleave this space from the world. This spot, for as long as we need it, is ours.”
He swept the scythe in a wide arc through the middle of the circle, a mostly symbolic gesture that had an immediate reflection in the physical world. A line of shadow ripped across the ground around the eight students, forming into a ring enclosing them together. It was almost invisible upon the ground, but where the dim light cast shadows upon the ground from the many rocks and roots protruding, they changed angle, as though the light inside that circle had been rotated a few degrees.
Gabriel stepped silently back into line, and there was a momentary pause.
Then Toby stepped forward, hands folded at his waist.
“I ask Omnu’s light upon this place. By the shift in shadow, of Vidius’s own rank in the Pantheon, I will the light only to heal and to calm. None here are to be burned, or judged.”
Golden light descended upon them. Though the sun was only just coming up in the east, scintillating beams of sunlight streamed down from within the leaves of the Great Tree high above. Toby lifted his face to smile up at them, then stepped back into place.
“Uh, scuze me for speaking out of turn here,” Ruda said, sounding uncharacteristically nervous herself, “but is that supposed to happen? I’d like to think I’ve gotten a pretty good handle on paladin shit by now and I had zero idea you two could do that.”
“Actually, that was…a surprise,” Toby admitted.
“Yeah, I was thinking this was gonna be just a ceremonial invocation,” Gabriel agreed. “This…I dunno. It’s not what I would’ve expected, but it feels right.”
“This is an extraordinarily sacred place,” Shaeine said quietly, “and we are each connected to considerable powers through the web of magic. Surprises should not, perhaps, be surprising.”
“Trust your feelings,” Juniper added in just as soft a tone. “We’re safe here. You’ll know if something is wrong. And in fact, let that be my invocation.” She took a step forward into the circle, raising one hand toward the light beaming down from the tree. “Though severed from Naiya by my own crimes, I am still a daughter of nature, and a being animated by fae magic. The magic of emotion, and intuition. I call upon the trust and wisdom within each of us, within this place, and within reality itself. Let us know balance in what we do here.”
Small flowers popped up right out of the rocky ground, in a neat ring around their feet just inside the subtle rim of shadow.
Fross fluttered forward as she stepped back. “I don’t…really know what I am. Pixies don’t work the way I do. How I seem to convert fae magic to arcane just by existing, that’s…that’s never been explained to my satisfaction. But right now, I’m seeing a parallel to this situation here, so that is the invocation I want to offer you all. Building on Juniper’s blessing, I call on whatever it is that animates the arcane to add its gifts. From whatever peace of mind we’re given, let’s also draw comprehension and reason, to apply to whatever happens. I invoke my gift of arcane intellect on behalf of my friends!”
As she returned to her position, a faint tracery of blue lines shimmered into being across the pitted stone, forming a geometric pattern of intricate mathematical perfection linking them all together.
Ruda stepped forward next, drawing in a steadying breath of her own. “Okay, well, I’m out of my fucking element here. Magic I understand as something predictable and useful, but there’s some serious spookery going on that I do not get. But it doesn’t feel wrong. It comes from you guys, and hell, I trust you. Hardly anyone else in the world, but if my life and my soul are in the hands of the people here, I’m fine with it. So that’s what I bring to this apparently sacred space we’re apparently carving out.” She drew her sword, the mithril blade hissing gently in the quiet, and strode all the way forward till she could rest it point down in the very center of the circle. “By the unfair, unreasoning, bullshit wrath of the sea, by the blade that cuts magic itself, I claim this spot as ours. None are welcome to interfere.”
She withdrew her hand, and the rapier remained there, perfectly balanced on its tip, even as she backed slowly away to resume her position.
“Did you…know it was going to do that?” Trissiny asked.
“Hell, I know nothing,” Ruda muttered. “It felt right, is all. So, there we are.”
Trissiny nodded, then took a step forward into the circle. “None of the provinces of the particular gods I serve seem relevant to us here, but…there is a universal virtue that’s necessary to everything both Avei and Eserion seek to accomplish. Necessary to everyone, really. I know what we’re doing will involve looking within ourselves, finding and confronting some realities, and having done a bit of that I can tell you it’s harder and more frightening than anything I’ve faced that put my life in physical danger. So, that is what I wish for us. What I invoke, and share with all of you, my friends. Whatever comes next, while we are together in this space, I wish you courage.”
By that point they were accustomed to the occasional sight of the golden eagle wings that flared into being behind her, but this time there were eight pairs, flanking each of the. Only for a startled moment, and then they faded. But gold continued to drift down, accompanying Omnu’s sunbeams; shimmering, intangible feathers of light that drifted like falling leaves from the tree, fading out of being as they touched the ground.
Gabriel made an aborted noise in his throat and pressed his lips together firmly.
“Excuse me,” Trissiny said incredulously, “are you laughing?”
“I’m sorry!” he protested. “It’s just… Fross, with giant golden eagle wings. That image is gonna be burned into my memory forever.”
“Okay, I’m actually sort of sorry I didn’t get to see that,” Fross agreed.
Trissiny heaved an annoyed sigh, but by the time it had finished even she was forced to smile.
Shaeine glided forward a step, folding her hands in the same position Toby had. “My goddess, I think, is specifically relevant here, more so than I am personally. My House trains diplomats, but I think that between us… We are past the point of needing negotiation. I know and trust each of you like…” She hesitated, then swallowed heavily. “…like family. With Themynra’s permission, and by her grace, I ask the gift of judgment, to build upon what Juniper and Fross have already invoked. Whatever we hear, whatever we learn and discover, let us think carefully and seek to understand before reacting.”
Silver mist thickened out of the air, drifting on the ground around them—specifically, concentrated around the tiny flowers, and glittering softly above the blue geometric pattern of the circle.
As Shaeine stepped back into place, Teal took a step forward. She closed her eyes, inhaled deeply, then opened them.
“This will be for us, not just me,” she said quietly, and the fire subsumed her eyes, her hair, spreading from behind her as fiery wings. Claws and talons formed, lifting her almost a full foot higher off the ground. The harmonic chorus of Vadrieny’s voice was somber and incongruously gentle. “I feel we have little to offer of our own, but our gifts may build on what you have already invoked, all of you. Music is harmony, mathematics, emotion, passion, precision… All of it, all of life viewed from every angle. We lend our support to the peace and augmentation you have wished upon this space, to the barrier separating it out, and to the warning that any who mean us harm should not dare encroach. To all of you, to us, to this space, we offer our song.”
She closed her eyes, and hummed a single long note in her throat. The sounds around them were faint, only the distant sea of air and leaves, but a strangely harmonious quality descended upon them as Vadrieny softly lent her voice. The difference it made was barely comprehensible to mortal senses, but it could be felt. She slowly trailed off, her voice fading into silence, and by the end it was impossible to spot the exact point at which Vadrieny herself stopped humming and the music of the wind and earth took over.
As she stepped back into place and withdrew, leaving Teal behind, the silence was no longer silent. For a few long seconds, the whole group simply stood there, listening to inaudible harmonies surrounding them.
“I have the strangest feeling,” Fross finally said quietly. “Like…we’ve set into motion something super important, that we can’t fully understand.”
“I feel the same,” Shaeine agreed. “And that we must stay in motion. It is too late to stop.”
“It’s dangerous to do some things halfway,” said Gabriel, nodding. “But that’s the first half, done, and wherever this is going… Well, now’s the time to go there. This started with Teal, with the fundamental truth about bards, and the utility of masks. It expanded to Shaeine, and the discomfort between the expectations of her culture and how groups of people operate outside it. This…is all about masks. We’re borrowing from Vidian forms, as I said, but what we do here will be for us, by us, and it will be ours. We have a lot to learn from our faiths, but we won’t be defined by any one system.” He glanced at Trissiny and cracked a smile. “There’s an old saying about systems that comes to mind.”
She grinned back. After a momentary pause, Gabriel’s expression sobered and he continued, slowly looking around the group at each of them in turn.
“In our vigil last night, I asked you all to contemplate masks. Specifically, the one you wear which has the most use, the most potential, to be a gift offered to others. A Vesker bard plays a role in life in order to control the story they are in, but all that sets them apart is the skill and consciousness with which they do it. We’re all playing a role, wearing a mask; we wear many of them, in fact, in different situations. This ritual is one of sharing. It…is a great intimacy. Masks will be removed here, exposing true faces beneath. More than that, masks will be offered. Each of us will put forth into the circle the mask we wear most powerfully. In this way we not only make ourselves vulnerable, but we grant that power to each other to use. We will each share our strength eight ways.”
He paused before finishing in a quieter tone. “I love you all. I trust you with this…with the ability to hurt me. And I’m honored as hell that you’re all willingly here, doing the same.”
All of them smiled broadly. Even Shaeine, whose reddish eyes seemed to glitter in the drifting golden light.
So far, Principia was having a fairly quiet morning. The two Order of the Light guides were still asleep in their own improvised quarters, and the animals were very well behaved—or at least, Sniff was well-behaved, and F’thaan was asleep. By far the worst of her inconveniences was Merry and her pointed comments about Prin not getting the nap she had promised to.
The corporal was just gearing up for another of those when suddenly the elf, the protobird and the hellhound all snapped upright in unison, alert and watchful as deer which had scented a wolf.
“What?” she demanded, unconsciously reaching for her sword. “What is it?”
“Have you given much thought to the ramifications of this scheme of yours, Locke?” a new voice asked.
Merry whirled, then froze, her eyes widening. He was an oddly-dressed man in a truly ridiculous hat, otherwise physically nondescript, but she remembered him well from their previous encounter, brief as it was. Vesk winked cheekily at her in passing but did not slow, sauntering forward to stand next to Principia and stare across the distance at the Great Tree and the shattered fortress spread around its base.
The elf seemed to consider his question carefully before answering, one hand gently smoothing down Sniff’s crest of feathers. F’thaan huddled at her feet, staring up at the god in clear uncertainty whether he should be afraid.
“I give thought to everything I do,” Principia said at last. “But that wasn’t a sincere question, was it? You’re just opening the dialogue so you can talk at me.”
“Well, hey, you do know your theology!” Vesk chuckled, slapping her on the shoulder.
“I get by. What I don’t know is why you are here right now, but none of the possibilities aren’t terrifying. I remember what happened the last time.”
“I was okay with that,” Merry offered tremulously. “I mean, sure, we almost died half a dozen times, but it got us results.”
“See?” Vesk cocked a thumb over his shoulder at her. “She gets it. I’m gonna break character a bit and answer your question, my dear Keys. I’m here because a god is in truth a slave to their core concept. Because a motley collection of attractive and heavily-armed youths have just gathered up a big handful of every string tied to every magical force at work in the world and are fixing to yank on it until reality itself stretches so far that they can tear a piece off. And notably, because fully half of them are individuals I have personally sought out and designated my own protagonists in the big story playing out in the world right now. I’m here, to an extent, because somebody needs to apply a guiding hand to that so the result is something useful to them and not just a giant backlash that upends everybody’s applecart. But ultimately? I am here because I really don’t have a choice.”
“I see, she said sarcastically,” she said warily. “So…how come you are here, and not there? Nothing I’m doing is nearly as interesting as that.”
“Oh, that’s a very self-contained scene,” he explained. “It’s all very intimate; can’t have interlopers, it would throw off the whole dynamic. Nah, I can keep a weather eye on things from this close, and this way I’m not interfering in their business. Plus, this way I can indulge in some of my favorite pastimes! Y’know, light expository dialogue, perhaps a soupcon of character development. Specifically it allows me to ask that piercing question, which contains the hidden answer you’ll need to tell you what you will have to do in the aftermath of what’s about to happen thanks to those kids.”
He turned his head to regard her seriously.
“Do you realize, Principia Locke, what you are doing?”
“Okay, I’ll play along,” she said, subtly leaning away from him. “But not without spoiling the rhetorical game you’re playing by pointing it out. I still have to be me. What, Lord Vesk, am I doing?”
“You are building a bonfire that’s going to burn the world before it peters out,” he said in a much softer tone, turning back to gaze at the distant ruins. “Your actions here and in the days just ahead will gather the kindling and stack the wood, all so you can ignite a new Age of Adventures. And what those precious little bastards are about to do is strike a god damn spark.”
It was Teal who spoke first, after drawing in a steadying breath. “Well. This began with me, and with my own…bloody intransigence, that you all finally called me out for. It’s okay,” she added hastily when Toby and Juniper both opened their mouths to protest. “You were right, and I’m glad you did. I’ve been fighting with this for… Well, for my whole life. And while we were keeping vigil last night, I really focused on why. And I think, finally, I’ve sorted it out.
“Everything I have ever done in life has been a struggle between being myself, and hiding myself. From the very beginning, I think that’s why I was drawn to bards. In every story, the bard’s personality is both their armor and weapon. Gods, how I wanted that. My parents always wanted me to express who I was, but at the same time, there were always expectations… And then, there was Vadrieny, and the stakes suddenly became life or death. We… Well, I could retreat into myself and not be alone anymore. I needed less from others; she never needed others. We could be loved, alone together, and the world outside was nothing but expectations and rules. We managed. Without her own memories, she adopted my goals, and so we still loved the idea of the bard, wanted to be that. It’s just… Well, in our situation, adopting an oversized personality would have been a lethally bad idea.”
She turned her head to smile warmly at Shaeine. “And then there was her. All of you guys, don’t get me wrong, but mostly…her. Another person with whom to be vulnerable, and yet safe. Where there were no expectations, just us together. And… I realize, now, how I let us all slip into that rut. It was just so easy to let the few people we truly trusted give us roles to fulfill. We stopped trying to control our own life, let Tellwyrn and Ashaele tell us who to be. But…not Shaeine.”
Teal shifted to gaze directly at her mate, voice dropping to a whisper. “For all the strength you’ve given to me, to us, my love… Our love, I cherish the most that you were finally willing to stand up to me. Because I know how you hate to cause me pain, but you were willing anyway when I needed it. All of you,” she added, sweeping her gaze around the circle. “This is where we’ve come to after taking the night to try to parse it all. I don’t have answers, but thanks to you, I’ve faced the questions. I thank you for making me confront this. I don’t know where we are going next, but I realize, now, how we got here. And that is what I give you.”
She raised both hands to the sides of her face, pantomiming grasping the edges of a mask as Gabriel had instructed them all the night before. “This has become a crutch and a weakness for me, but it also enabled Vadrieny and I to survive when nothing else would have. I can’t depend on it any longer, but used the right way at the right time, there is great value in being able to project back at people whatever they expect to see. I take it off now, and give that value to you: the Mask of Mirrors.”
Teal moved her hands forward from her face, and there was a flash. She actually jumped, several of them gasped, and Ruda muttered a curse. Teal was holding an actual, physical mask, a simple oblong bowl shape with holes for the eyes and mouth. The entire thing was chrome, polished to such a gloss that it reflected in perfect detail like an actual mirror.
“Uh, whoah,” Teal said nervously. “I didn’t know it would make an actual… Gabe?”
“That…wasn’t supposed to…” He scratched the top of his head, squinting in puzzlement. “It’s a ceremony, all of this was supposed to be kind of metaphorical.”
“Yeah, so, here’s a theory,” said Ruda. “Maybe when you bring together a bunch of people intimately connected to a bunch of the major metaphysical powers of the world, have ’em improvise a ritual to magically define a sacred space right on top of one of the most already sacred spaces in the world and then have ’em do a ceremony they barely understand… Shit goes down.”
All of them were silent for a moment, staring at the light glittering across the Mask of Mirrors as Teal shifted it this way and that in her hands.
“Here’s what I can tell at a glance:” Fross said at last. “That thing is lousy with magic and I can’t tell at all what any of it does. Also, this part bothers me a little that I can’t articulate exactly why, but I’m not bothered. This feels okay. Is anybody else getting the same?”
There was a round of nods and murmurs of agreement.
“We are operating under a stack of blessings to judgment, intellect, and intuition,” Toby added. “I think if we were in danger, we would know. What I feel is that we should proceed.”
“Here,” Teal said softly. Holding up the Mask of Mirrors, she stepped forward two paces, turned its surface to face her, and then slowly released it, as though hanging it on a wall.
The mask remained in position when she let go. Teal stepped back into the line, and the Mask of Mirrors began a slow orbit, gliding in a continuous circle around Ruda’s sword as if to gaze at each of them in turn.
“Huh,” Juniper said in sheer wonder. “How’d you know it would do that?”
Teal shrugged. “It just felt right.”
“Well, then.” Trissiny stepped forward next. “I don’t even know what powers are operating here, but after last night I believe I know what I need to do. In a way…last night was kind of a point of closure for me. I know I’ve been apart from this group a lot lately, sorting out my own stuff, and while meditating on that I came to a surprising conclusion.”
She hesitated, then shook her head, smiling ruefully. “It’s the strangest thing. Going off on my own was what enabled me to find some truths I desperately needed. To grow in ways that were long overdue. It’s while I’ve been with you guys that I feel I’ve failed the most. Not because you were holding me back or anything—quite the opposite. Maybe because…because you were there to catch me when I fell.” Her eyes met Gabriel’s across the circle. “You have all seen me at my worst. And yet, I’m still welcome here. You’ve both backed me up and stood up to me when I needed it. I had friends, when I went to the Guild in Tiraas, this is true. People who helped me learn and supported me as I did them. It’s you who’ve come to define… Not who I am, but I think, the potential of who I could…who I want to be.”
Trissiny raised her hands as Teal had done, taking a deep breath and preparing to grasp the edges of a mask that did not yet exist. “My delusion was always the assumption that Avei was one thing, and Eserion something opposite. It’s more than those two; they aren’t even poles on one continuum. Life is vague, chaotic…there’s value in structures and systems, but we cannot be defined by them. The truth will not be handed to you. It must be hunted down, and it hides in surprising places. None of you are me; I know a bit about your personal journeys, by now. My answers won’t help you. But my means of finding them can. That is what I surrender, to offer my friends: the will and the method to seek out your own truth. The Mask of the Huntress.”
She pulled her hands away, the light flared in the circle, and Trissiny was holding a second mask. This one was identical to Teal’s in shape, but seemed to be carved of ebony. The right half of its face was marked with a silver eagle’s wing, just like the traditional tattoos worn by the Silver Huntresses of old. Trissiny held it up, hesitated, then released her fingers.
The Mask of the Huntress floated forward in the air to join the Mask of Mirrors, and began orbiting opposite it.
Gabriel blew out a short breath. “Man, this is all getting more real than I was planning on… Okay, here goes.” He stepped forward as Trissiny moved back into line. “I relate hard to a lot of what Trissiny just said. You guys…you’ve all see me do some pretty dumb stuff. I feel like you pretty much know what my foibles are by now so it’s not really worth reciting the list. If you really wanna hear the list I’m sure Ruda has it written down somewhere.” He paused, grinning, then let the expression of amusement subside quickly. “I fail a lot, even now. I’m not done growing, not by a long shot. The single most important thing I’ve learned is…to learn. Nobody has all the answers, or even most of them. Vidius himself told me that screwing around is my greatest strength, and I think I finally understand what he meant. You have to try things. Sometimes you’ll succeed, and gain a new trick. Sometimes you’ll fail, and get hurt, and gain a lesson. I couldn’t actually say which I think is the more valuable.”
He raised his hands to his face, taking a breath to steel himself. “Since this all started with talk about bards and archetypes, I’ve found myself thinking about that a lot. I remember some of the names people have called me over the years—including several of you lot—and something I picked up from a half-demon shopkeeper I met in Tiraas about fortune-telling: a tarot deck is just a list of archetypes, and a spread of cards doesn’t tell the future, it tells a story. That’s why the first card is the Fool, the ignorant kid who starts every great story not being worth a damn, but has the potential to grow into a hero. That’s the most valuable trait I have, and the one I want to share with you all:” He pulled, the air flashed, and he was holding up a third mask. “The Mask of the Fool.”
It was a little larger than the other two, due to its upper half being carved in the semblance of a multi-pointed jester’s hat. The rest was plain white ceramic, different from the previous two only in that its mouth was turned upward in a big smile.
Upon being released, it joined the other two in their slow circle, all three adjusting to be an equal distance apart.
“I think I like the way Fross put it,” Ruda said after a momentary pause. “I’m bothered that I’m not bothered. Yeah, this all feels weirdly correct, but… We are obviously fucking around with high-quality mojo that we weren’t expecting and don’t even slightly understand, and it’s doing some incredibly vivid shit that’s… I don’t even know what to make of this. Should we consider that maybe we ought to be more concerned than we are? I mean, Fross’s addition to that invocation was explicitly encouragement to trust our intellect.”
“It’s always wise to be wary of unknown magic,” Trissiny agreed, “but not every rule applies in every situation. This has a major fae component, it’s highly personal to us, and it is happening in one of the magically safest and most neutral spots in the world. At the moment, my intellect tells me to trust my feelings.”
“Yeah, I can see your point,” Ruda said, though she still frowned.
“Be mindful of what Yornhaldt and Ekoi have taught us,” Shaeine added. “In ritual magic, it is often far more dangerous not to finish what you start. In the interests of that, if no one objects, I would like to offer my contribution.”
The drow stepped forward one pace into the circle, again folding her hands at her waist, but unusually she inhaled a long deep breath, which was closer to a loss of composure than she usually betrayed in public.
“I hope that you will forgive my arrogance in saying this, but I feel that my journey at the University has been of a fundamentally different type than any of yours. I have found great joy in the privilege of watching you all grow into the people you will be, but for my part, I was assiduously trained and molded into the person I was to become long before we met. Not perfect by any means, and most certainly with a great deal to learn. But my path has been the least transformative of any of ours, I believe. I am a creature of Tar’naris, and would not—cannot—change that.”
She paused, lowering her eyes for a moment, then raised them again resolutely.
“Instead…I have been increasingly forced to face the limits of my perspective, even as I have become ever more committed to them. To be Narisian in an isolated society is a very different matter than to be Narisian in a wider, connected world. My people are grappling with this truth, and we must find answers as a society. Perhaps I can help with that, but I cannot presume to determine the solution Tar’naris as a whole will embrace. I only know what I feel I must do. And… And I am increasingly pained by the barriers between us. I need those; they are a central part of my identity. But the walls that define social roles, to me, are immutable and not for me to determine alone. Yet while I am outside my home city, they are not how things work. Not how people exist together. I am deeply grateful to all of you, to Gabriel, for this ceremony, for the half-measure it offers. To protect my identity as I must, while opening myself at least a little, as I so desperately want to.”
She met Teal’s eyes, the human smiling warmly with her eyes practically glowing with love. Shaeine raised her hands to touch the sides of her face, taking another long breath.
“I offer this mask to you all, partly in the hope that it may serve you. Because you all do tend to wear your hearts pinned to your robes, and some of you in particular might be better off with a bit of reserve to hide behind. But mostly, I do this to finally be able to remove it, and be…among you. One of the mess that is us.”
The change was the most dramatic yet, not just because she conjured a featureless gray mask out of thin air just by moving her hands, but because lowering it transformed her entire face. Suddenly, Shaeine was grinning at them, her features alight with joy, tears glistening unshed in her eyes.
“By the goddess, it feels good to say this. I love you. Each of you wonderful, ridiculous, brilliant, blithering idiots. I’d shed the last drop of my blood for the sake of any one of you, and I’m not just saying that because I know that having a bunch of ham-fisted powerhouses for friends means I’ll probably never have to back it up. Nobody gets to choose their family, and I sure as hell didn’t choose any of you weirdos—except Teal and Vadrieny, who already know this—but you’re as dear to me as any being alive and not for anything in the cosmos would I give up a single one of you. So I offer you the Blank Mask, and may it serve you at need. I’m just as glad to be rid of it.”
They were all grinning widely in return as the plain gray mask floated forward to join the others. Ruda chuckled aloud.
“Man, it really says something that the single most touching thing I’ve ever been told included calling me a blithering idiot.”
“Well, say what you will about this group,” Gabriel agreed, “we know who we are! And Shaeine, just, wow. You almost look like a different person! I wish I’d gotten to see you smile like that before, it makes you twice as gorgeous. I mean!” he said hastily, eyes widening as they shifted to look at Teal. “Not that I was—you know, I would never… Aw, crap.”
“Oh, look,” Juniper teased, “Gabe did an awkward.”
“At this point,” Trissiny said innocently, “shouldn’t we just call that doing a Gabriel?”
“Thank, Triss, that’s great.”
“I don’t mean to be a wet blanket or anything,” Fross chimed, “but is it maybe a bad idea to interrupt this inexplicably powerful sacred ritual with jokes and bickering?”
“Well, this is an extremely personal sacred ritual,” Toby replied, still smiling, “in a way the metaphysical and surprisingly literal embodiment of us. Looked at from that perspective, it might not work at all if we didn’t.”
“Okay, yeah, I’ve got no counterpoint and wow isn’t that just a little telling.” Fross fluttered forward a couple of feet to the accompaniment of laughter. “Since I’m already talking, then, I guess I’ll go next! So, irrespective of how this ceremonial thing works out, I’m already really grateful to Gabe for having this idea because of the vigil part last night. I’ve been learning and growing such a tremendous amount in just the last couple of years that I feel like an almost unrecognizably different person than I was when I first came to Last Rock, but I’ve never really stopped to look inward and think about why and how I’ve changed. Last night I realized I’m just not a very introspective person in general, and I feel like that might be a character flaw which I should watch out for in the future… But anyway, I feel like I’ve gained some valuable perspective here and I’m very glad for that. You all probably remember how I spent the first semester basically trying to memorize every rule and use that to get by in society?”
“The University isn’t exactly society,” Trissiny answered when the pixie paused, “but I don’t think I’ll ever forget you trying to teach us century-old adventurer slang on our first Crawl delve.”
Fross emitted an amused arpeggio of chimes. “Yeah, that’s pretty much what I mean. The thing is…it stems from the place I come from, what pixies are like, and how I’m inherently different. Not just the arcane magic thing, though I’m certain that’s connected. I had the chance to reflect a bit on this when Juniper and Aspen and…Professor Ekoi and I went to the Deep Wild a while ago.”
“You did what?” Gabriel asked, blinking.
Fross chimed again. “Long story, but anyway. There’s just not a lot to pixies, intellectually. As annoying as it is when people are surprised that I’ve got a functioning mind, I can’t a hundred percent blame them. Pixies are flying bundles of magic and emotion, and given how much I hated living that way I’ve tried really hard to devote myself to intellectual pursuits. And I regret none of that! Probably because all this has come along before I had the chance to find a way to really get myself in trouble with it, which I’m sure I would have because it seems like a core lesson of all history and psychology is that every virtue becomes a fault if you let it run away with you.
“What really struck me after spending a night pondering on it is how much I’ve been shaped as a person, and not just an intelligent being, by you guys. It seems like everything I’ve learned about functioning as a person in relation to other people was shaped by this class, and I’m suddenly incredibly grateful that I was in a class with you specifically and not a lot of the other people we’ve met, because wow. People can be pretty awful. Shaeine’s right, all of us can be ridiculous and weird and flawed at times, but when it comes down to it? You guys are the family I wouldn’t have known to ask for if anyone had told me beforehand that I needed one, and I’m so grateful for you.
“In the end it wasn’t hard at all for me to see the mask I’ve been hiding behind. And you know what, I still appreciate it. It’s a very useful quality which, no offense, most of you could use a little more of. But I’m glad for this chance to introspect, and see how I shouldn’t over-rely on one trait at the expense of others that are also valuable. So I’m taking off the Mask of Logic, and sharing it with you, but it’s a mask I plan to wear again. A lot. Maybe not as much, though.” She paused, then chimed discordantly. “I’m sure you can’t see but I’m totally doing that ceremonial gesture Gabe told us about. If this produces a pixie-sized mask I’m really gonna laugh.”
In fact, the flash of light seemed somewhat muted as the color of Fross’s bright aura reduced it to an anomalous flicker in context, but the Mask of Logic itself was full-sized to match the others. Its oval shape was the same, though its eye and mouth holes were simple, narrow rectangular slits, the mask’s porcelain white surface marked with angular geometric patterns in pale blue that were reminiscent of Fross’s addition to the protective circle around them now.
There was a short, pensive pause while they watched the five masks spin in their slow midair circle, the stylized faces seeming to study each of them in turn as they passed by.
It was Juniper who broke the quiet, stepping forward and unconsciously fingering her new sunburst pendant.
“I’ve really appreciated hearing all this,” the dryad said quietly. “Maybe I’m pretty self-centered, but I guess I never really understood that you were all grappling with these issues, too. You’ve all matured a lot and changed some while I’ve known you, but all of you always seemed… Well, it seemed to me like you understood what you were going through in a way I never did. Now I kinda feel like I was wrong about that. Um, no offense meant.”
“None’s taken,” Trissiny said a little wryly. “That’s a really valid observation, Juniper.”
“The more I learn,” Gabriel intoned with utter solemnity, “the more I understand that I understand fuck all about anything.”
“The more I learn,” Ruda added in the same tone, “the more I understand that Gabe knows fuck all about anything.”
“Your parents didn’t stab you nearly enough growing up, Ruda.”
“Guys,” Toby interjected. “Please go on, Juniper.”
“It’s okay,” she said, smiling. “I like this. It’s…gentle. I sort of appreciate how we are as a group, how we can joke and needle and even be a little hostile and yet there’s always this unspoken certainty that we’re safe together. It’s…a nurturing context that I badly needed, and I’ve only just learned how much.”
She hesitated, her expression wavering, and then steeled herself, squaring her shoulders.
“I started my personal adventure among society thinking that living by impulse and animal instinct made me natural and right, and all the rest of everything civilized people did was aberrant and I didn’t have to respect it. And…immediately I started to realize how wrong that was, but I hid from it for a long time. Until things built to a head and I couldn’t anymore, and…well, you were all there.” Juniper paused to take another deep, steadying breath. “I don’t know how much better I’ve done since then. I’ve tried. I’ve succeeded some…failed a lot. I’ve done some good and a lot of harm. The truth is, I have no idea what I’m doing, or where I’m going, or how to be a person. But… But I feel, for maybe the first time, like I’m getting there. Like I can afford to make mistakes, and be wrong sometimes, and it’ll be an opportunity to learn and grow and not just another disaster. Almost everything I understand about how to not be a monster, I got from you all. You’re my family, more than Naiya or even my sisters have ever been. You’re the forces that have shaped me the most in directions that I’m proud of. I will always be grateful for you all.
“And so.” She lifted her hands to her face, closing her eyes. “I still don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m gonna keep trying. And I now formally disavow this crutch, this lie that I’ve used to hide from reality. I will not touch it again. Maybe it will be of some use to you. I don’t really see how, but I mean to do my very best to be a good friend, and try to give you all the support you’ve given me. As a person, not as a vehicle for magical bullshit. And I will do all that, whatever happens, without hiding behind the Mask of the Wild.”
It emerged from nothingness in a flash, a deep crimson mask painted in the countenance of a great fanged, snarling mouth. Notably, it had no eye holes, only painted-on eyes with slitted snakelike pupils. Rather than just letting it go as the others had done, Juniper pushed it firmly away from herself. The action didn’t seem to affect the speed of its motion as it joined the rotating circle of masks.
Ruda took one stride forward even before Juniper had retreated. “Well! Sorry, Tobes, maybe this is selfish but I just don’t wanna be last.”
“It’s okay,” he said, smiling at her.
“So, real talk,” she said, tucking her hands into her pockets. “I feel a little like Shaeine in that I mostly had my shit sorted before I ever met you guys. Which is not to say the last two years haven’t been life-changing and revelatory, but more in the sense of giving me context than changing who I am. I, uh…” She cleared her throat. “Okay, truth is, I kinda let my guard down on this back during the hellgate crisis. Just with Trissiny, though. I mean, honestly, for someone I mostly wanted to stab from the moment we met, that girl really turned out to be a sister to me. In the sense that I never asked for or wanted her but god damn if my whole world wouldn’t fall apart without her.”
“I love you too, Ruda,” Trissiny said, grinning.
Ruda flipped her off, which only make her smile wider. “Here’s my truth: I’m the destined leader of what looks a lot like a doomed nation, and before I came to Last Rock I’d mostly made peace with the fact that the Punaji people were going to fall apart with me at the helm and that was just that. And when I said as much to Shiny Boots back then, she pointed out that we, this group here, are a passel of the most well-connected heavy-hitters in the world and something I could rely on for help. To change even the inevitable. It was…a nice thought. But then… But then you all came to Puna Dara with me…well, even if it was just most of you…and suddenly it wasn’t a thought anymore.”
She stopped, closed her eyes, and was utterly still for a long stretch of seconds. The rest of them just watched patiently until she was ready.
“I’m so fucking scared,” Ruda finally said, her voice cracking. “I can’t do this. I have no idea how to save my people, but I have to try, and I was so sure I would obviously fail. The first time I killed a man, my papa sat me down and told me how important it was to have family, people I could trust to be close enough to be vulnerable with. I listened, then, but I didn’t learn. It took you preposterous fucking assholes to really make me understand. When I say I’ve come to rely on you all, both now and in the future, it’s not because you’re an adventuring party of demigods and titans and shit that could tear apart an empire with your bare fucking hands. Well, all right, not just that, not even mostly that. It’s…” She scrubbed angrily at her eyes. “Fuck. My whole life has been projecting this…this mask of strength and savagery and it’s so fucking exhausting. I’m so grateful for you. It’s not easy for me to let it down, but…I know I can. I can be vulnerable, with you guys. And that means everything.”
Ruda inhaled deeply, her breath shuddering a bit, then rubbed at her eyes once more before putting her hands to the sides of her face. “I will always need the Storm’s Mask, but fuck am I glad to be able to take it off once in a while.”
And she did, pulling it away with a flash of light. The mask in Ruda’s hands glittered cerulean, it surface jewel-like with surprising depths like the sea itself. The single jagged white line of a lightning bolt descended from its crow to between its eyes, where it forked to bracket a snarling mouth. Ruda held it up and out slowly, in a gesture of more reverence than she showed to almost anything, and it drifted into place with the others.
“We may be a bunch of blithering weirdo assholes,” Gabriel said, “but we’ve got your back, Ruda. All the way.”
“That’s what family means,” Shaeine agreed, wearing an open smile that seemed to delight in its own existence. “Your people are our people, your problems our own. I’m sorry I didn’t get to help at Puna Dara last time. Next time somebody threatens your home I’ll be right there helping you fuck ’em up.”
“Okay, that’s even weirder than Boots coming back all smug and thiefy,” Ruda replied, grinning helplessly even while continuing to wipe away tears. “But y’know what, damn if I don’t dig it.”
Toby glided one step forward, but then just stood unobtrusively for a few moments, wearing a gentle smile while the group subsided and calmed on its own time, gradually turning their attention toward him.
“I’m very comfortable being last,” he said frankly. “That’s pretty much the theme I’ve come down to after spending a night contemplating on it. I’ve always been one to put others first, and I’m okay with that about myself. Even, as Shaeine once pointed out to me, when I take it too far; nobody can help anybody else if they use themselves up first. Virtues really do become vices when you stretch them past their natural end point. I’ll try to do better at remembering my place, relative to others, and looking out for myself. But honestly, one of the things I cherish about this group is how I get to just…take care of you guys. Because you take care of me, even when I forget to.”
He paused to grin broadly, the expression slowly subsiding to a softer smile as he continued. “I say this without pride or false modesty: I’m a good person. I don’t consider that a source of pride, even. I believe that people are good, that if you guide them away from mistakes what lies underneath is something fundamentally virtuous. Everything good about me was given to me by others. Because I had the opportunity to be raised by monks, and trained in virtue from the cradle, rather than having to develop selfish habits just to survive. A principled, austere childhood is an enormous luxury. I am very grateful for what I was given.
“But good or not, I am a very flawed person…as much as anyone, I think.” Toby’s face grew sober, and his eyebrows drew together. “That insight has been really important to me, the fact that you can take a good trait too far and make it a bad one. I’ve been guilty of that. Worse… This doctrine of masks has been a real eye-opener to me, and I’m very glad for having spent the night meditating on it. Because that’s exactly the stupid thing I have done my whole life. Not just abusing the kindness and calm I was taught to my own detriment, but using them…misusing them to hide from myself, and from reality. I’ve had a series of rude shocks and a serious talking-to by an actual goddess recently about how I’ve spent my whole life twisting the virtues of peace around to make myself functionally useless, and now that I’ve spent some time really contemplating it, I feel like I understand what I did wrong. How the truth has been in front of me the whole time. How, specifically, you have been a huge blessing that I’ve completely squandered from the moment I met you all. I’m deeply ashamed, and deeply sorry.”
“I don’t think you’re squandered, Toby,” Fross chimed.
“Let him get this out,” Trissiny said softly.
Toby smiled at both of them in turn. “Thanks, Fross, Triss. The thing is… Peace is good. Compassion is good. Serenity is good. I was taught to think they are the ultimate good, the core of life, and I still don’t think that’s wrong. But they’re not the only good. And worse, they become an easy mask for apathy and laziness and fear. If you dwell too much on peace, you can very easily start using that to hide from the world and from responsibility. From reality. From…the practical truth that Professor Ezzaniel laid down for me from day one, that I’ve taken an inexcusably long time to really accept: peace doesn’t happen unless someone forces it to. And that is the thing: you, as a group, are basically the best role models I could have had when it comes to controlled, careful, mindful, principled violence. Even at your worse, all of you are constantly trying to be better, to do better, both for yourselves and more importantly for others, and I’ve consistently betrayed that example. Looking back, the whole time we’ve known each other, I have been at my worst when I’ve tried to lead and teach you instead of watching and learning from you, which has been most of that time. I’m glad for however I’ve been able to help you, but the way I’ve wasted the example you’ve set is just shameful. I appreciate each and every one of you, as individuals, and all of you as a whole, and I have never appreciated you enough. I resolve to do better from now on.”
He lifted his hands, closing his eyes and letting his expression relax into a meditative calm. “There is great value in serenity, and I hope you can gain some from what I give up to you now. But there’s a dark side to it; serenity is a hair’s breadth from fatal passivity at its best. May you get good use from the Mask of Serenity in the future, as I have, and as I will. I must stop using it to hide from myself, and I thank you for teaching me that. I’m sorry it took me so long to listen.”
Toby pulled it away from himself, and then was holding the final mask. It was a gentle, matte gold, its carved mouth set in a faint smile, with a branch of dogwood flowers painted across its surface. He held it up with one hand and pushed it away, and it took its place with the others, the circle shifting to settle into its ultimate rotation of eight masks.
“Something about the sight of that, though,” Ruda murmured. “Just…those faces. It’s kind of uncomfortable. They don’t even look like people, but I can see how each one of them is one of us.”
“I can, too,” Juniper agreed. “I think…it’s because we know each other.”
“I feel kind of raw,” Trissiny said frankly. “It’s weird… I’m not used to ‘exposed and vulnerable’ being a good feeling.”
“It’s a good sort of pain,” said Shaeine. “Like the burn after good exercise.”
“Well, Gabe?” Toby asked, turning toward him. “How much is the rest of the ceremony thrown off by being, ah, unexpectedly physical?”
“I think,” Gabriel said thoughtfully, “the thing to do is just continue and let whatever’s going on sort itself out, the way it’s been doing. Shaeine was right, it’s a bad idea to start something like this and leave it half-done. Especially if it starts getting more real than you expected.”
He cleared his throat, deliberately marshaling his expression, and instinctively they all sobered as well, embracing the gravitas of the moment.
“This is about intimacy,” Gabriel said, his voice now ringing with purpose. “We are exposed to one another by lowering these masks, and baring our true faces. But it goes much deeper than that, and will continue to do so going forward. By sharing these masks, by explaining them, we grant to each other the opportunity to wear our own face, to see through our own eyes, to suffer our weaknesses and gain our strengths. We are bonded to one another through this. Whatever happens in the future, we have been open, together, and nothing will undo that.”
He paused, watching the masks spin, as did they all.
“And let’s be honest,” Gabriel said with a sudden grin. “The point was for this to be about us, and it could only be truthful this way: with a lot of aimless, time-wasting dicking around and fooling about with incredible powers we don’t understand. But hey, we made it work. We will make it work. I love you all, and I’m honored to be by your side.
“Truth is, guys…the world’s a mess. With the great doom and all, and also a million lesser forces trying to carve out a place for their own petty ambitions. Maybe it’s more of a mess now than it always is, but then again, maybe not. We can’t know that and aren’t qualified to judge it. We can’t save the world; as powerful as we are, even the gods have their limitations and we sure as hell have our own. But we can help. We’ve made ourselves better, and made each other better, and with all our various nonsense up till now, we’ve even made the world around us a little better. And that is all that’s asked of anyone, all that’s required of everyone.
“Do better. Be more. Keep on trying, and give it your best. That, my friends, we can do.”
The masks began to whirl faster. The students instinctively braced themselves as the orbiting circle continued to accelerate, and then light and shadow began to be drawn in as though by their very gravity. The circle of masks shrank, pulling ever tighter, and even the circles around them followed suit. Sunbeams and drifting feathers appeared to focus their descent onto a single point just above Ruda’s rapier, wisps of silver light streaming toward the same point from where they rose from the ground. The arcane traceries shifted inward, followed by the almost imperceptible ring of shadows outside them, and then even the tiny flowers springing up from the stones. Faster, deeper, everything was gathered toward a single point, the very wind around them rising and blowing inward as the gentle sound of harmonious air through leaves rose to a gale pitch.
It took only seconds, eight masks and multiple sources of light and magic coalescing to a single point. When it was all fully compressed, the thunderclap that split the air drove all of them to their knees, causing even Fross to plummet to the ground.
Disorienting as that was, though, it was no worse than that; the group slowly pulled themselves back up, blinking and taking stock, none of them hurt.
Ruda’s rapier lay untouched upon the stones. There were no more flowers or unusual light effects, only the soft sound of leaves rustling high above, and the pale light of early dawn rising in the east.
And in the center, still hovering in the air and slowly rotating, was a single mask.
It didn’t look much like any of the eight which had coalesced to form it: the mask was of wood, pale and polished with a deep reddish grain. Its small mouth opening seemed to show a neutral expression, but its eye slits were curved upward in a way that suggested a smile. Its only decoration was a rounded tracery of softly glowing silver lines over its left side, encircling the eye and descending to one corner of its mouth.
“So…what the fuck?” Ruda inquired.
Fross drifted closer. “Okay, well… Remember when I said the Mask of Mirrors was incredibly magical and I couldn’t tell how?”
“Yes,” said Trissiny. “I take it this is the same?”
“Not really the same. All the other masks were the same. This… You guys can sense it too, right? Those of you who are used to detecting magic?”
“Yeah,” Gabriel said quietly, straightening up. “Magically speaking… That thing is like standing next to the sun.”
“I’m pretty sure it incorporates all four major schools and a good bit of shadow magic,” Fross agreed, bobbing excitedly in the air.
“Okay,” Ruda said, nonplussed. She bent to pick up her sword, giving the hovering mask as wide a berth as she could in the process. “So…what are we supposed to do about it?”
“Well, after all, there’s only one thing you’re supposed to do with a mask,” said Teal. Having helped Shaeine to her feet, she released the drow and took three steps forward, reaching out toward the mask.
“My love, please,” Shaeine said, wearing open worry on her face. “Don’t be reckless.”
“I don’t…think…I am,” Teal said pensively, hesitating with her hand outstretched by not quite touching the artifact yet. “I’m open to correction if anyone disagrees, but I don’t believe this is about risk. It’s about…trust. Gabe? Any Vidian insight?”
“Well, masks are obviously sacred in Vidianism,” Gabriel said slowly. “And that is obviously something incredibly powerful. I think that’s two different things, though. This isn’t about Vidius, all things considered. It’s about us, and possibly the nature of magic itself. I think…you’re right, Teal. No, let me be more accurate: I feel you’re right. Trust is a good way to describe it.”
“Be careful, Teal,” Trissiny urged.
“This did start with Teal, after all,” Toby said quietly. “It became about all of us, but it began with us trying to offer her our support. It’s fitting if that’s where it leads, as well.”
“Yeah, be careful,” Juniper agreed, “but do what you need to. We’re all right here for you.”
Shaeine glided forward and embraced Teal openly from behind. She pressed a small kiss against her wife’s ear, then rested her chin on her shoulder. “Do what you must, beloved. You face nothing alone.”
“Thank you.” Teal closed her eyes momentarily, leaning her head to rest against Shaeine’s for a few seconds, then straightened up. “All of you.”
The mask did not react to her touch; she was able to pull it from its place suspended in the air without resistance. Teal slowly turned it over in her hands, studying it from all sides, while the rest of the group edged forward, watching in silence.
Then Teal Falconer raised the Mask of the Adventurer to her face, and plunged into another Age.