Principia never did get that nap, and it was starting to look like she wasn’t going to.
The kids reappeared barely an hour past sunrise, trooping in a loose cluster through the pass leading to the ramp up to the Order’s plateau base. Unable to settle down despite Merry’s harrumphing, Principia had maintained a watch toward the old fortress, and given her eyesight was the first to see them as they came around the rocky outcrop which blocked view of the path beyond. She narrowed her eyes in concentration; a swift headcount revealed no one missing, even the pixie. To judge by their pace and general demeanor, they didn’t appear to have suffered any catastrophe or even disappointment, despite Vesk’s dire maunderings.
On the other hand, they were carrying something which put off a magical aura nearly as blinding as the god’s had been. And it was definitely something, not one of them. Artifacts housing that colossal degree of power were incredibly rare, with good reason. Given the nature of her own career, though, Principia Locke had had her hands on several of them over the years.
Nothing good had ever come of it.
“See ’em?” Merry asked, trailing off in a yawn as she came to stand by Principia’s shoulder. Even the human should have been able to spot the seven figures rounding the pass if she focused, though she probably couldn’t distinguish individuals at that distance. Principia considered calling her down for over-relying on elven gifts which she might not always have access to, then decided to postpone that decision until she determined whether this was going to become a habit.
“Everybody seems fine,” she said quietly, nodding. No need to relay any more detail just yet…
She focused, mentally sifting through the vast wealth of sounds available to her sensitive ears. It was easier up here in the mountains, as there simply wasn’t a whole lot going on relative to an urban environment or one with denser wildlife. At that range she had to concentrate, and the echoes off the stone walls were more an impediment than the faintness of distance, but the voices of the students weren’t excessively hard to pick out.
“I bet it would work,” Teal was saying animatedly. “I mean, as long as you don’t go overboard on the magic, there has to have been someone who could handle that kind of attack!”
“When it comes to the martial arts, there’s always a greater master,” Toby agreed.
“Let’s try it, then!” Teal said, coming to a stop and turning to face him. Narrowing her eyes, Principia could make out the shape of the thing she was holding. A mask? It was clearly the focus of all the barely-contained power that blazed against her senses.
“What’re they saying?” Merry demanded practically right in her ear.
“Shh,” Principia urged, marshaling her irritation. “Let me listen.”
“…not the best idea,” Trissiny was saying in response. “We left the Tree for a reason, remember? No reason to try this right here in the middle of nowhere when there’s a nice flat plateau with our camp up ahead.”
“Yeah, I’m eager to experiment, too,” Fross’s squeaky voice agreed, “but there’s a time and a place. But aw, man, the possibilities! There’s gotta be some limit, surely you can’t just reproduce a paladin or something, that requires a god. But can it do a dragon? Or, say, a dryad?”
“Yeah, well, if we’re gonna wait on the scientific method to reach a better location, let’s go on and reach it,” Gabriel urged. Principia could just see him making shooing motions at the stalled group from the rear. “Hup hup, resume march, go on.”
Juniper muttered something that even Prin couldn’t make out at that distance, prompting a gale of laughter from Ruda.
She sighed, blinked, and rolled her shoulders, discovering that she’d been unconsciously leaning forward to squint at the distant group. Not exactly subtle, but then there was no call to be surreptitious up here.
“Problems?” Merry inquired when Principia’s eye fell on her.
“That remains to be seen,” she mused. “I’m guessing probably. Doesn’t appear urgent, though. Still, I have the strangest feeling nobody up here’s gonna be getting much rest once they get back. How’re the two from the Order?”
“Still asleep, last I checked, but that was a bit ago. I wouldn’t expect them to be for much longer, people from monastic traditions get in the habit of being up as early as soldiers.”
“Yeah, or more so. And the fire?”
“Burning low, but I didn’t let it go out. Figured the kids would be wanting some breakfast. I definitely do, and I note they let theirs die hours ago.”
“Attagirl. I’ll fetch a bucket from the well if you’ll break out the tea. Best make it good and strong. Something tells me everybody here’s gonna need some picking up before too long.”
“Wow,” Merry said, unimpressed. “Cryptic, ominous, and pushy. Do you have to be such a goddamn elf all the time?”
“Ow. My feelings.” Principia lightly shoved her. “That is the single rudest thing anyone has ever said to me.”
“Yeah, that’s a lie,” Merry retorted, grinning.
A few feet to their right, F’thaan suddenly stirred, lifting his head to sniff the air. His little tail began wagging furiously and he let out an excited yap, then bounded off toward the ramp, yapping all the way.
Principia considered collecting him, then decided he’d be fine. There was no one else up here in the mountains, and she detected no nearby animals any bigger than he. Plus, letting him run to meet his keepers might give them leverage to complain about her neglecting him, which they would enjoy and she could use as a conversational hook.
Juniper’s pet also stirred, watching F’thaan go. He straightened up his neck, crest rising in alertness, and turned his head toward the distant path, but did not move to follow the hellhound. After all, his mistress had told him to stay with Principia.
“Good boy, Sniff,” Prin said, stroking his feathers. “You’re a good whatever the hell you are. All right, Lang, let’s heave to. There’s probably time to get a pot of tea and some porridge ready by the time we get to learn what kind of apocalypse we’re in the middle of this time.”
They were still in a good mood when they reached the ruins in which the party was encamped. The more meditatively inclined among them—Toby, Trissiny, and Shaeine—were quiet, as usual; somewhat more surprisingly, so was Juniper, who had generally struck Principia during the trip so far as working hard to think before acting. Pensive or not, though, they were in good spirits, as evidenced by Shaeine giving her a single disinterested glance without any of the put-on hostility she’d been projecting since Last Rock. Both arcane sciences majors were practically abuzz with curious energy, and Teal was more excited than Principia had ever seen her, even with an exhausted little hellhound tucked in the crook of her arm. Most interestingly of all, Ruda was quiet and openly pondering, her eyes narrowed and expression far away. Principia took that as the most significant sign by far; the Punaji princess was thrice as sharp as she usually let people notice, and it said a lot both that something was occupying her mind and that she was too occupied by it to bother pretending otherwise.
“Is that tea I smell?” Toby asked, smiling at her as the group filed onto the plateau, where Principia was awaiting them at parade rest. Sniff finally broke discipline, rushing past her to rejoin Juniper, who knelt to ruffle his feathers affectionately and murmur to him.
“Yep,” she replied. “Lang should just about have some breakfast ready, too. Whatcha got there, Falconer?”
Teal’s ebullience cooled noticeably, though not to the extent of resuming her offended act. She did glance at Shaeine, receiving a small but warm smile in reply. Very interesting; nothing had changed relative to their situation, so if the pair had decided to drop it, that suggested some manner of profound emotional experience causing them to reconsider things in general.
“No offense, Lieutenant, but I’m not sure it’s any of your concern,” Teal replied, cool but not hostile.
“You can’t offend me,” Principia said gently, planting a seed of thought which she looked forward to harvesting. Let them chew on that for a while. “And I’m not looking to butt into your business. But I just had a surprise visit from a god of the Pantheon uttering dire warnings about whatever you’ve been up to, so I think I’m within my rights to be a little concerned.”
That got their attention, all right.
“Which god?” Gabriel demanded.
“Oh,” Trissiny said sourly, “great.”
“What did he have to say?” Toby asked in a more even tone.
“Being Vesk, very little that seemed worth the effort of saying, let alone showing up in person. Cryptic chunnering about great change about to happen in the world and you lot doing something over there that was to play a role in kicking it all off.”
“So in other words,” said Trissiny, “as usual he was just being annoying.”
“Now, be fair,” said Toby, “I don’t think Vesk does anything just to be annoying. He sure does manage to work it in every single time, though.”
“We aren’t all paladins, you know,” Principia said. “I’m not accustomed to having personal conversations with gods. Interestingly, it’s the second time in as many years that one felt a need to pay me a visit. The nature of narrative being what it is, if there’s a third I’m gonna be genuinely alarmed. Anywho, he also mentioned that he was present in part to exert some influence on your mysterious project to ensure it went well. With the implication that it could have gone very badly.”
“Oh.” Teal looked down at the wooden mask she was still holding with the hand not occupied by her dog. “I’m…not sure how I feel about that. Vesk had a hand in this?”
“Sobering,” Gabriel agreed. “But…it does sort of make sense, if you think about it.”
“Yeah, he’s kinda laid a claim to…wow, half this group, right?” Fross agreed. “In one way or another. And there was kind of a narrative component to that whole ritual.”
“You don’t trust me,” Principia said matter-of-factly.
They all turned impressively blank stares on her.
“Surely you cannot find that a surprise,” Shaeine said quietly. Certainly not friendly, but she continued not to be aggressive.
Principia grinned in response. “I confess I’d be more than a little concerned if you did. This one, at the very least, I would expect to know better.” She pointed at Trissiny, who pursed her lips in discontent at the gesture. “Well, the question needn’t be resolved this very instant. Let’s go settle in for some nourishment while you lot ponder how involved I already am and to what extent you feel I can be useful to you.”
She gave them a final vague smile as she turned to lead the way back to the campfire.
Principia could still hear their discussion, of course; separating herself and Merry from the group by ten yards to eat their breakfast separately made no significant difference to an elf’s hearing. But they knew that, and more importantly, they knew she knew they knew it, so there was no hint that she was trying to put one over on them. Besides, the hurried debate revealed nothing of interest, being entirely about whether she could and ought to be consulted on any of these matters.
Despite her efforts at detachment, Principia could not help being somewhat warmed by the fact that it was Trissiny who spoke most firmly in favor of asking her input. Sure, the girl made certain to clarify that she wasn’t moved by any personal attachment, and Prin altogether could have done without the reminder that she had none. But Trissiny had a proper Eserite’s understanding of the facts, how even an untrusted individual could be relied upon to behave consistently with their goals and personality, and therefore predicted so long as you knew what those were. She also did a good job of succinctly relating that to the group, aided by Ruda and Shaeine, who as nobles had been similarly trained practically from the cradle.
This tension was, of course, not the relationship she desired with Trissiny. It would have been a fatal blunder to push for more, though, and so as fiercely as she loved her daughter, and more so with every new thing she learned about her, Principia kept herself to the distance Trissiny mandated, letting her take the lead. And if that hurt, well, it wasn’t as if she didn’t royally deserve to be hurt after what she’d done. It all worked out, one way or another.
In the end, it was Fross who came buzzing over to them.
“Hi!” the pixie chimed. “So, I guess you heard all of that.”
“I assume that was directed at you, LT,” Merry said wryly.
“I’m not much of a proper elf, but we get good at minding our own business,” Principia said offhandedly. “So what’s the word?”
“If you’re up for it, Lieutenant Locke, we’d like to consult you on a matter pertaining to the Age of Adventures. Since you’re the only person here who lived through it.”
Interesting. Keeping her expression even, Principia set aside her teacup and rose from her seat. “My time is yours.”
Her expression remained even while Gabriel quickly recounted what they’d done and where the mask had come from, though it required the full two centuries of her experience at projecting a false calm under pressure. Honestly, after all the chaos these kids had been dumped into already, all the responsibility they’d been taught pertaining to their power and place in the world, they’d still done this? Gone to one of the most magically significant sites on this blighted earth, deliberately invoked every considerable metaphysical power to which they were connected, and then not only performed a sacred ritual they barely understood, but improvised it.
Well, to be fair, she’d had nearly as interesting a youth and still had been years older than they were now before she’d learned to think more than two paces beyond the tip of her nose. She also remembered enough about being that age to understand that they’d just get their backs up if bawled out the way they deserved to be. If only Arachne had managed to figure that out after fifty years of shepherding teenagers, maybe this whole situation wouldn’t have transpired in the first place.
“I see,” Principia said when Gabriel finished, looking at the Mask of the Adventurer, which had been set on the ground in the middle of the group. She thought she’d said it quite neutrally, but must have slipped, to judge by the way Trissiny and Toby looked abashed, and Ruda’s nostrils flared in annoyance. “So, I gather you’ve done some basic investigation into what, exactly, that thing does?”
“Well,” Trissiny said, frowning, “long story short, it makes you an adventurer.”
“Uh huh. And…that means…?”
“Well, if you don’t know, who the hell does?” Ruda cackled.
“There’s not much point in asking for her opinion if we’re gonna be difficult about explaining the situation,” Juniper said. Ruda stilled immediately, giving the dryad a slightly incredulous frown.
“I’m the only one who’s tried it on so far,” Teal said, picking up the mask and turning toward Principia. “When you put it on, you change. You get the full…attributes, I guess, of an adventurer. Their complete skills, whatever magic they could do, and the physical weapons and armor they used most effectively. I think these are actually taken from adventurers who once lived, not just made up by the Mask, because of the way it…decides. From the eight of us who contributed a mask to it, it seems to pick one as a kind of basic archetype and then tunnel backward through this haze of experiences until it settles on one. That feels like it takes a while when you’re going through it, but they tell me it’s almost instantaneous when watched from outside.”
“It’s using us as a kind of sorting algorithm!” Fross said excitedly. “Isn’t that fascinating?”
“Hm,” Principia grunted noncommittally, because it was that or fall over. If that thing did what Teal claimed, it was in the running for the most powerful magical artifact in existence. Whoever possessed the Mask of the Adventurer could do… Hell, there was nothing they couldn’t do. There was no one who could stop them. That fact alone made her skeptical; the idea that they had created such a thing by accident was just too ridiculous to bear. “And what adventurer did it turn you into, precisely? Might’ve been someone I know.”
“It didn’t give me any names or identifying details,” Teal said almost apologetically, “just the package of skills and relevant equipment. Oh, but it’s a different one each time! It depends on the situation, and what kind of… Well, actually, it might be easier to demonstrate than explain. Hey, Fross, let’s try you as a combatant again, that one was pretty dramatic.”
“You got it!” the pixie chimed, swirling up into the air. The rest of the group backed away as Teal and Fross squared off, Principia and Merry judiciously removing themselves a dozen paces or so.
“We found it works better to let the other person make an aggressive move first,” Teal explained to them, “that way the Mask knows what’s up and what to do about it. Okay, Fross, you’re up!”
“Sorry in advance if this hurts!” Fross replied, then conjured five points of burning arcane light in the air around herself.
Teal raised the Mask of the Adventurer to her face, and there ensued a split-second whirl of light and energy as if she were buffeted by a magical whirlwind. It resolved nearly instantly, though, leaving her with her hands free, no visible sign of a mask on her face, and attired very differently. She now wore a black robe with elaborate silvery trim and embroidery and holding a staff longer than she was tall, carved of gleamingly polished bone and tipped by fist-sized chunk of faceted obsidian.
Fross unleashed the five nascent arcane bolts, and Teal made a single, almost contemptuous gesture with her staff. All five, each representing enough firepower to punch through a castle door, veered off-course, sliding straight into the head of that staff, whereupon they vanished.
The pixie then fired a blast of pure elemental ice, which splattered fruitlessly against a shield of white light that enveloped Teal.
“Okay, better leave it there,” Teal suggested. “It’s not that I don’t have control, but this isn’t just magic—it’s skills and patterns of thought, including reflexes. I’m concerned if I’m put in real danger I might accidentally hurt you.”
“Good thinking,” Fross agreed, fluttering back down from the altitude she’d assumed to her usual head height. “I would prefer not to get hexed, even in the name of science!”
Teal reached up to her face and grasped the sides, as if taking hold of an invisible mask, then pulled her hands forward. Another brief whirl later, she was again holding the Mask of the Adventurer and wearing her customary suit. Turning to Principia with a grin, she raised her eyebrows. “Well? What do you think?”
“Holy shit,” Merry whispered.
“Corporal,” Principia said sternly.
“Sorry, ma’am. But in my defense…” She gestured at Teal. “Holy shit.”
“Back when I was living in Last Rock,” Principia said noncommittally, hoping Shaeine wasn’t able to hear the pounding of her pulse in her throat, “the Black Wreath tried to recruit me to smuggle you some books on diabolism and get you interested in the topic. I gave them to Trissiny, but they obviously thought you’d have an aptitude in that direction, which just makes sense. Are you sure you haven’t been studying anti-arcane craft on your own?”
“I certainly have not,” Teal retorted, now with an offended frown. “Anyway, you saw that shield—that’s no infernal craft. Actually I’m not sure what sort of magic all that was. It wasn’t the same thing the Mask gave me last time I sparred with Fross. None of it felt familiar.”
Principia’s question had been irrelevant cover for her own mounting unease; she knew exactly what that had been. A few of her least favorite adventures had left her able to immediately recognize the uniform and combat technique of a Scyllithene shadow priestess, something there was no possible way Teal Falconer could have learned.
“Of course,” she said mildly. “No insult meant, I’m just in the habit of reaching for logical explanations before outlandish ones.”
“That is an admirable mindset!” Fross chimed. “But there’s no reason we can’t demonstrate further, if that’d help.”
“Yeah, this one was pretty good,” Ruda chortled, drawing her sword and stepping forward. She adopted a ready stance, the tip of the rapier pointed at Teal’s heart. “En garde, bard!”
Teal raised the mask even as she danced forward, and the swirl of its magic instantly resolved into a swirl of Teal’s body as she spun into the reach of Ruda’s blade, batting it nimbly aside and seeming to flow around the pirate until she ended up, less than a second later, holding her immobilized in a headlock.
She was unarmed, now, but wearing what Principia recognized as the traditional garb of the Radiant Dawn, the Omnist sect from Shengdu which had originally devised and disseminated the Sun Style. They had been extinct since the Sheng civil war thirty years ago.
“Oh, bullshit!” Ruda squalled, struggling ineffectually. “Last time it made her this awesome assassin thing with these wicked daggers, all done up in black leather. Get the fuck off me, Falconer!”
“Obviously, there’s a lot we don’t know,” Trissiny said while Teal released Ruda and then removed the Mask again. “The question I keep coming back to is whether this is drawing from everyone who ever lived and fought during the Age of Adventures, or just the ones who were at that mountain top at the last battle of the Third Hellwar. I know there were a lot of them present, but history doesn’t record most of their identities.”
“Yeah, from a wider perspective adventurers stop being specifically interesting when you gather more than a handful of them in one place,” Principia said lightly. “Then they’re just a hilariously undisciplined army. Okay, so, first question I have is whether that would even work for anyone else. You said only Teal has tried it—given how it was created, there’s a chance it only works for the eight of you. Or nine, however Teal and Vadrieny count for this exercise. The only way to test that is for someone else to try it on.”
A stillness fell over the group and their expressions all became very flat as they turned a united stare on her.
“And I suppose,” Shaeine said softly, “you would like to try it yourself.”
“Well, there wouldn’t be much point in that, now would there?” Principia replied in her mildest tone. “I’m already an adventurer from the Age thereof. Actually, I think there’s an open question whether it would work for me even if it does for others outside your group, but that seems like one of the least important things for us to be settling, here. Say, Lang?”
“Whoah, now,” Merry said, backing up a step and raising her hands even as she turned an alarmed look on the Mask Teal was holding.
“Easy there,” Principia soothed. “I am not going to order you to put that damn thing on your face. Actually, I’m not sure I even can order you to subject yourself to risky magical experimentation—”
“You can’t,” Trissiny clarified.
“—but I wouldn’t anyway. In this case… It would help us all out if you tried, at least once. I don’t see any reason to think that Mask is dangerous to the person wearing it.”
Merry drew in a deep breath, absently scrubbed her palms against the divided leather skirt of her armor, and finally sighed. “I…hell, okay. Sure, if you think it’s safe, I’ll give it a shot.”
“It is specifically extremely unsafe,” Principia cautioned as Teal stepped forward, holding out the Mask. “Just not to you, we think. Remember what Teal said; a package of skills comes with a package of instincts. You can reflexively hurt someone if you let them take over, so keep a cool head.”
“Right. Got it.” Merry actually grimaced as she accepted the Mask from Teal, holding it gingerly by the edges.
“Uh, are we sure this is a good idea?” Gabriel asked.
“As someone who has witnessed Corporal Meredith Lang at her very stupidest moments,” Principia said solemnly, “I still trust her with my life.”
“That’s good enough for me,” said Trissiny.
“All right, then,” Gabe agreed, nodding. “Triss’s say-so is all I need.”
“Let’s not do magic at her, though,” Ruda said, raising her sword again. “That seems like it’s asking for trouble.”
“Actually, Ruda,” Toby interjected, stepping forward. “Would you mind if I cut in? She’s a Silver Legionnaire, after all. A sword duel is already well within her existing skill set.”
“What, you don’t think I can take a Legionnaire in a fight?” Ruda demanded.
“I think you know very well I respect your skills and are now trying to get a rise out of me,” he said with a beatific smile.
Ruda grinned, stepping back and sheathing her rapier. “Yeah, yeah, lemme have my fun.”
“This will not put you in any physical danger, Corporal,” Toby said politely to Merry. “I will come at you with both my magic and martial arts, but neither has an offensive application. My intent will be only to subdue you. Fair?”
“Yeah, that helps a little, I guess,” she muttered, fingers working nervously at the edges of the Mask as she raised it toward her face. “Okay, bring it on.”
He flared to light, projecting a bright aura, and conjured a staff of pure golden energy. Toby flowed toward Merry as she pressed her face into the Mask of the Adventurer.
In the next moment, following the distinctive swirl of energy, she was surging backward with an equally fluid motion. Gone was her Legion armor; instead she wore an incongruous formal suit, with a black tailcoat and gray trousers.
A Butler uniform.
Toby swept the staff at her knees and Merry, moving as fast as an elf, hopped onto it, using the barely momentary foothold upon the improvised weapon as a launching point to land a flying kick right on his face.
Even his reflexes were barely fast enough, even with his response requiring only thought and not a movement of the body. Toby’s staff vanished as he snapped a golden shield of light into place around himself, scarcely in time to avoid being stomped unconscious.
Merry didn’t miss a beat, turning the aborted kick into another launching motion, this time bounding straight upward. She landed right on top of his shield, the contact with her shoes causing it to fizz and sparkle at that point and making the entire sphere visible with the strain.
Toby whirled this way and that, tried to knock her or throw her off, to no avail. She deftly sidestepped his jabs at her feet, moving in tiny and precise steps no matter which way he tried to sling her, riding the bubble like a trained circus animal balancing on a ball. Every second she was physically in contact with the shield put more strain upon it, hastening its demise.
The paladin deliberately dropped the shield rather than waiting for her to wear it out, hurling himself to the side as he did so. Merry plunged straight down and flexed her knees slightly on landing, arriving back on the ground in a perfect parade rest pose.
She paused, straightened her bowtie, and then folded her hands behind her back, waiting impassively for him to attack again.
Toby stared at her, then raised his hands. “Okay, enough.”
“Holy fuck,” Ruda muttered.
Merry probed experimentally at her face with both hands, finding purchase and then pulling the Mask off herself. In the next moment, holding it, her expression morphed into sheer awe. “Whoah.”
“It would be bad enough if that thing only reproduced the skills of one of the eight of you,” Principia said. “But apparently it can give any package of known skills and powers to any person who puts it on. Okay, I am really not in the habit of taking a lecturing tone with any living person, even the ones I really should—ask Lang if you doubt me—so take that as a sign of how serious this is. Do you kids have any idea what you’ve done?”
They all stared at the mask now dangling from Merry’s hands, their expressions at least revealing that they were finally beginning to ponder the implications as well as the possibilities.
Principia blew out a breath of sheer incredulity. “Well. I’ll say this: Arachne is going to secretly be very proud while she’s murdering you all to death.”
“Hey, look on the bright side,” Merry offered with a sudden grin, and raised the mask to her face again.
After the whirl of energy, she was wearing brown trousers and a matching vest over a green shirt, and very distinctive golden-rimmed spectacles. Smirking, she snapped her fingers and teleported to the other side of the group. “After this? Maybe you don’t need to worry about what Tellwyrn will think.”
“Lang,” Principia said in her very calmest tone, “take that thing off.”
Merry’s expression stilled, then suddenly grew alarmed. She grasped at her face and practically clawed the Mask off, drawing a breath of relief when it was away. With no further prompting she strode to Teal and practically shoved the Mask back into her hands.
“Oh, boy,” Gabriel said softly. “This…is gonna have some consequences, isn’t it.”