Tag Archives: Gabriel

15 – 46

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It was hard to know where to look first, and that was not even counting the distraction of everyone’s ears popping as they abruptly moved from the Golden Sea to the cooler, thinner air of the mountains. The plateau itself, an ancient plaza surrounded by stone buildings, might have been any moderately well-preserved patch of ruins anywhere, but beyond it was the stark grandeur of the Wyrnrange stretching in all directions, and the incredible shape of the Great Tree commanding the whole horizon to the north.

More immediately present, though, were the people.

The class of 1182 themselves were clustered together in a tight arc facing the teleport’s arrival point, while off to the other side stood a Silver Legionnaire with a corporal’s insignia next to a human woman and a dwarf man in sensible traveling attire. Both groups were easy to overlook, however, in the presence of Principia Locke.

Her black hair was tied back in a sleek tail not wholly unlike a Legion regulation braid, and further constrained by a silvery apparatus resembling a crown fitted most of the way around her skull, its front apertures bristling with tiny translucent panels attached to spidery silver arms, positioned where she could see them peripherally without blocking her forward vision. Patterns of light flickered across the metal band of the crown, and on the metallic trim of her glossy white robes. Whatever material they were made of did not look like fabric, though it moved easily enough; it gleamed as if it were metallic itself, and was further augmented by structural traceries of what might have been steel or possibly mithril, these further augmented in places by tiny lights of various colors. Huge, heavy-looking bracers covered her forearms, also bedecked with lights and set along their backs with long display panels, and her waist was encircled by a thick silvery belt, at the front of which glowed a circular display which cycled rapidly through different colors and inscrutable symbols.

She stood surrounded by a ring of hovering shapes, mostly rectangles with rounded corners, made entirely of pale light and displaying columns of text, symbols, complex diagrams and patterns that looked like maps. Principia kept her eyes on these, deftly manipulating them with tiny movements of her fingers, causing the displays to move about and change content in some pattern comprehensible only to herself.

“What the fuck,” Ruda demanded, summing up what everyone was thinking before getting down to specifics. “Who the fuck are all these yahoos and why are they here? Hi, Joe.”

“Hey, everybody,” Joe said with a wary smile. “Good to see y’all again.”

“Excuse me, but is that a valkyrie?” Fross chimed. “Because I don’t think I’ve ever seen Juniper frightened before.”

“I’m fine,” Juniper said flatly, though she was as rigid as a tree trunk and staring at Yngrid through eyes widened with panic. Sniff, picking up her mood, placed himself in front of his mistress and hissed aggressively at the new arrivals, fanning his wings and head crest.

“Also, why’d you bring the cranky bullying librarian?” Teal added. “I was quite happy pretending he’d vanished off the face of the earth.”

“Me, too,” Weaver said frankly.

“Peace.” Mary stepped forward from the group which had just ‘ported in, projecting her voice in a manner that was both serenely calm and commanded obedience. “Clearly, there is already a tangled web of introductions and explanations that need be made here. I advise approaching this with all due care and precision, one step at a time. And it seems to me the first step should be obvious to us all. Principia, you feckless child, what have you done to yourself?”

“Shut up, Kuriwa, nobody likes you. Gabriel Arquin.” Principia’s delivery was clipped and flat, quite unlike her usual cadence. “Your recklessness staggers the imagination. What could you possibly have been thinking, shunting yourself off to a remote nexus of unfathomable power amid a gaggle of dangerous reprobates in the middle of the events that have been transpiring here?”

“I’d take offense, but damn if she didn’t nail us,” Billie commented.

“Okay, you know what, Locke?” Gabriel snapped. “I’m not one to lecture people as a rule, but I’ve been getting in some good practice recently and I’m in no mood to take this from you of all people. As I suspect Trissiny told you because she got all the common sense in your entire bloodline, I was sent on a mission directly by Vidius. So not only do I not really have the option of turning that down, but it’s not as if I was wandering around in the weeds unattended. Anybody should be able to infer from context that I was fine. And your reaction to this was to go and put that goddamn thing on your face after all the moaning you gave us about what a terrible idea it was? You’re officially the last person allowed—”

“Vidius is going to kill you.”

The simple, stark statement cut through his tirade and brought him up short, mouth slightly open. The entire time, Principia’s eyes had been darting from one point to another on the various floating displays orbiting her; she still did not look directly at him, but as she spoke one of the rectangular light screens shifted to a vertical orientation near her eyeline and displayed what looked like a human silhouette with scrolling notations in a language none of them could read.

“How many paladins have you known, Arquin?” she asked before the tension could mount too much further.

He narrowed his eyes. “Well…just the two. Three, I guess, if I get to count myself.”

“I’ll grant you three, because I’ve still known a number which dwarfs that utterly and every single one of them died for the same reason: being a paladin. Going on missions for Vidius is the thing that will kill you. The very idea that you are safe because you’re on assignment from him will do it faster unless you purge that completely backwards thought from your brain right now and redouble your situational awareness while on the clock. More immediately, the lot of us are standing at the center of a web of connection and prophecy stretching through the very nature of magic itself and eclipsing the scope of the world. You don’t grasp a fraction of the extent, but you should have been adequately warned by the fact that Vesk was involved. You, who have spent more time than most of us recently dancing on his strings. I know you’ve read enough stories to have spotted some of the things it was likely to mean when you left the group on your own in the middle of all this. In the best case scenario, the rest of us would have been forced to ride to your rescue amidst who knows what carnage. At worst, it was a death sentence. To a thing like Vesk, the death of a hero is nothing but proper motivation for whoever’s left.”

“And yet I note that none of that happened,” Gabriel said, now frowning at her warily.

“It did not happen because I broke every rule of principle and basic sense to prevent it,” Principia said tonelessly. “I was right when I warned you not to use this mask, and I was right to make that sacrifice. It takes nothing less than changing all the rules of reality to cheat a god. Especially that one.”

“Mask?” Mary demanded. “What have you done?”

“It’s a long story, Kuriwa,” Trissiny murmured, edging over toward her. “I’ll bring you up to speed—”

“You will not,” Principia ordered. “You know very well that she of all people does not need to get her claws on it.”

“Locke,” Trissiny said, turning directly to her, “I think it’s time you took that thing off. You’ve accomplished what you set out to, and you are starting to sound alarmingly unlike yourself.”

“I should think you would welcome that development,” Principia replied. As she spoke, the ring of hovering screens around her doubled, forming two bands as if flanking the equator of a sphere, rotating slowly in opposite directions. The crown on her head sprouted more tiny sets of arms, projecting a new set of smaller panels around the edges of her eyes. “You have always been correctly skeptical of…myself.”

“I will remind you, Lieutenant,” Shaeine said evenly, “that you specifically asked us to end you if it became apparent that you had lost yourself to the artifact. That conclusion is growing perilously close.”

“Yes, that does sound like something I would say, does it not?” Principia mused, her eyes darting rapidly between screens, fingers flicking them this way and that faster than ever. “Completely sincere, and yet deliberately manipulating your emotions. With no malice, simply a lack of understanding any other way to relate to people. It’s pathetic, if you think about it. In any case, you should disregard that instruction. At the time I did not know the merest fraction of the things I know now. I have much better ideas.”

“That is enough,” Mary stated, beginning to weave her arms about in a dance-like series of movements that caused a gentle breeze to begin playing across the plateau, smelling of moss and wildflowers. “When you are neck-deep in the consequences of your actions, girl, recall that you were warned.”

“Oh, I think not,” Principia said evenly, extending her arms out to the sides to touch her fingertips to screens at opposite points flanking her.

The air pressure abruptly plummeted further, causing everyone’s ears to pop again, and currents of air coalesced around Mary into visible streams of compressed gas. The elf emitted a single, hoarse squawk, and then the entire net of air tightened onto her like a clenching fist and she shrank down to the form of a crow.

Before the bird could take flight, a sphere of light flashed into place around her. This instantly imploded, collapsing just like the streamers of her own hijacked spell of a moment before, but instead of crushing her, it formed a shape. Specifically, a golden birdcage.

All of this coalesced into being at about chest height. Then the cage plummeted to the ground, where it bounced twice and rolled over onto its side, Mary furiously cawing and flapping about inside it.

“I’ve no doubt you will weasel out of that sooner than later, Kuriwa,” Principia announced, “and then surely enact some horrible revenge on me, predictable creature that you are. It will all be more than worth it for the sheer satisfaction of knowing that for one sweet, blissful moment in history, nobody had to put up with any of your bullshit.”

Trissiny darted over to pick up the cage, carefully holding it upright to peer between the bars. This gentler treatment did nothing to lessen the crow’s outraged noise.

A single wedge of silver light flashed into being and stabbed directly at Principia’s face. It dissipated upon crossing the boundary of the screens surrounding her.

“Please do not strain against my defenses, Shaeine,” Principia requested calmly without even glancing at the drow. “I will not harm you, but you risk burnout or mana fatigue by pushing your magic against a superior force.”

McGraw coughed discreetly, stepping forward. “If you don’t mind my askin’, Prin, what kinda superior force are we talkin’ about, here? Not to gloss over the fact that this is a darn sight different from your general bearing the last time we met, but I confess an old professional’s interest in any interesting new form o’ magic.”

“Disingenuousness does not suit you, Elias,” she said tonelessly.

“In point of fact, I’ve found it a more versatile tool than anything in my spellbooks,” he said wryly, “but I won’t begrudge your opinion.”

“She is not using any specific school of magic, but all four and multiple shadow schools in equal measure, performing constant microcalculations to effect physical subjectivity rather than relying on the inherent compensatory attributes of any one magical form,” said Ariel.

“Can ye dumb that down fer those of us who don’t go to Crazy Magic College?” Billie asked.

“In essence,” Principia herself explained, “the unique attributes of each of the four fields of magic on the Circle of Interaction manifest themselves in the characteristic style of magic for which each is known, because magic is a way of bridging the gap between an idea in a sapient mind, and the innumerable calculations and exertions of infinitesimal amounts of basic universal forces on the subatomic level to express that idea in physical reality. Because a biological sapience can neither exert those forces unassisted nor perform the necessary math, each of the four schools expresses spells according to its particular idiom. To bypass these innate restrictions and tendencies and express subjective physics without artificial limitation, one must simply do all the calculations oneself without relying upon the calculator function of the magic fields. That capacity appears to be a function of the persona I am borrowing.”

Mary squawked and rattled her cage so hard Trissiny had to tighten her grip on it.

“She is describing the theoretical ultimate expression of magical practice,” said Ariel. “To my knowledge, this was only theoretical. I have never seen nor credibly heard of any practitioner capable of doing this.”

“Oh, that’s it,” Ruda said quietly. “I just realized what was nagging at me about this. She’s talking just like Ariel. You guys hear it too, right? That inflectionless delivery, the run-on sentences…”

“LT, you’re scaring the hell out of me,” Merry said frankly. “Mission’s over. Please take that thing off.”

“A thought occurs,” said Principia. The rings of screens multiplied again; now there were three, apparently conveying even more information to her. Her feet lifted bodily off the ground and she gradually floated upward to levitate about a yard up in the air. “If the Mask is permanently attached to someone, it is by definition out of play. Since absolute security is obviously impossible, this may be the only way to nullify the inherent danger posed by existence.”

“No, Locke, that turns it into a different kind of danger!” Trissiny exclaimed.

“Excuse me, but would I be right in guessing that this borrowed persona works mainly by feeding you information?” Toby asked, stepping up to within a few feet of the barrier of Principia’s light screens.

“Essentially,” she said in a disinterested tone, fixing her attention for a moment on a panel showing what looked like a complex spell diagram. “Not only acquiring data through means beyond mortal senses but processing it at a capacity that would be otherwise impossible.”

“I see,” he replied, frowning. “Prin, I think you should be mindful of what a sudden switch of perspective like that can do to a person. You’re an Eserite, you understand better than anyone how power affects people’s heads. Right now, it looks a lot like you’re turning into exactly the kind of thing you’ve spent your life fighting against, and I really can’t think that’s what you intended.”

“A switch of perspective is a good way to put it,” she said, rising higher into the air. “Suddenly having a bird’s-eye view of my own consciousness is, in a word, humiliating. Princpia Locke is a broken, sideways-thinking creature developing a real conscience disgracefully late in life and even so expressing it through the lens of self-indulgent, self-centered slyness. An arrested adolescent smugly mistaking her own failure to function in a socially normal manner for mental and moral superiority. If she’s not going to have an emotionally healthy connection to anyone, it seems to me logical, not to mention appropriate, to become an entity which does not require them. Clearly no one will miss her.”

Mary’s renewed harsh cawing sounded eerily like agreement.

“I don’t get how you can apparently know everything and not know how wrong that is, Locke,” Merry said, her tone openly hurt. “The people who need you most are fully aware what a piece of work you are. We like you anyway, dumbass. That’s exactly what having a connection to other people means.”

“Locke, if you don’t take that thing off voluntarily, we’ll have no choice but to take it from you,” Trissiny warned.

“None of you have that capacity,” Principia observed. “The chances if all of you act in perfect unison are very small. I calculate this group is not able to coordinate with the necessary precision, anyway. Please do not risk injury by trying, Trissiny. There are significant events developing and all your strength will be urgently needed very soon. I am forming a plan.”

“If she’s able to see everything and do any kind of magic…” Teal looked around at the others, as if someone present might have answers. “How can you counter that?”

“Well, the original Archons all died,” said Gabriel, “so by definition they aren’t invincible.”

“In the old days,” Yngrid said quietly, “Archons were countered by the existence of other Archons, sworn to other gods, with contradicting agendas. They were only wiped out by direct action of the Pantheon, and that only after their patron gods were all gone.”

“You hear that, Locke?” Ruda called. “You’ve got no Elder God backing you up, and you’re this fuckin’ close to pissing off the gods that exist now. Come down from there and quit being a smug, all-knowing dong before you get your ass smote.”

“In the event of divine intervention, I expect confirmation from Avei that I am acting in accordance with her orders and established strategy.”

“What?” Trissiny exclaimed, echoed by a hoarse croak from the cage in her hands.

“Events and individuals are more connected than I ever imagined, across a scope which it would not have occurred to me to conceive of. Observe.”

Principia shifted her hands rapidly, tapping several points on various rotating screens in passing—five rings of them, now—as if she were activating runic controls.

The light on the plaza grew paler, and suddenly there were thick, tangled steamers of cobwebs binding each of them to one another, and extending off from the mountaintop in all directions. Several of them shouted in alarm and tried to pull away, causing the whole web to shift with them. The effect was purely visible; their movements were not restrained, nor could they physically feel the spider silk.

“Don’t be alarmed,” Principia instructed, tapping screens again. The light returned to normal and the webs faded from view. “I was initially concerned myself, but after a careful analysis I have determined that this effect is not harmful. On the contrary, its purpose appears to be preservation. Though I am unable to determine the origin point of this binding effect as it is temporally out of sync and my own ability to gather information thus is blocked by Vemnesthis’s activities, I calculate that each of us has been saved several times in the last three years from catastrophic and possibly lethal harm by these protections, through means which at the time would have appeared to be coincidence. The existence of time travel as a factor confirms the influence of a god, most likely operating from the future. No one else could circumvent Vemnesthis.”

“You think Avei did this?” Trissiny demanded.

“Perhaps. What I know is that I, personally, have been directed toward a specific end by Avei via the orders of the High Commander, and I now see the opportunity to advance my strategy far more rapidly that I anticipated before, and avert a major crisis in the process.”

The panels had continued to expand until she was now encircled by a full globe of them, hovering well above the level of their heads and rapidly reaching out to touch points on the passing screens in some pattern that made sense only to her.

“The incipient events in N’Jendo must be stopped for obvious humanitarian reasons. The forces assembled here, once connected with those already operating in Ninkabi, should prove more than sufficient. However, I calculate that there is time to gather more, which will not only increase the prospects of success further but will represent major progress in service of Avei’s long-term goal. I believe events in N’Jendo can be safely allowed to progress for a short time further, as Arachne and others are working to stabilize one of the unfolding disasters there. We should intercept her efforts in time to assume credit and absorb Ingvar’s wolf cult, of course, but this will leave us time for a necessary detour first to Veilgrad.”

“Ingvar’s wolf cult?” Joe shouted. “Hang on, you’re gonna need to explain that one!”

“What the fuck do we need in fucking Veilgrad?” Ruda demanded.

“Yeah, we’ve kinda done Veilgrad already,” added Fross.

“Seems rude to burn it down twice,” Toby said gravely.

“I understand all of this is confusing,” Principia said in that disturbingly impassive tone. “Your own perspectives are cripplingly limited. To explain it all would simply take too long. For the time being, you will just have to trust me.”

“Here’s the thing,” Trissiny said, stepping forward with Mary’s cage still in her hands. “I do trust Principia…strange as that sounds, to me. Even acknowledging how generally shifty you are, I know what you value and what your goals are. I know Principia Locke will always try to achieve what she believes is right, and in the end, I mostly agree with the end objective even if I take issue with your means of getting there. I trust you, Locke. Not…this. This thing that mask is turning you into. All systems are corrupt, and you’re becoming the system. Please, Locke, take it off, get your head back together, and then talk to us.”

“Your frustration is natural, Trissiny, but you will have to bear it. There’s just not time for thorough explanations.”

“Then let me put it a different way,” Trissiny said grimly. “Remove that mask. That is an order, Lieutenant.”

Finally, Principia turned her head to look directly at her, staring down her nose from high above through a gap that opened up in the translucent screens orbiting her.

“I’m sorry, General, but I am unable to comply. Not this time.”

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15 – 45

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“Well, regardless of the assortment who came here last night, only wolves left,” Sheyann declared, straightening up from her examination of the tracks left in the forest clearing. “And not…exactly wolves, I should think. To judge by the size of their paws, they were bigger than ordinary wolves, and yet significantly lighter. Tracks this size on this soil should be deeper.”

“Assuming they aren’t normal wolves,” Tellwyrn replied, still crouched by the remains of the fire and peering at the burned spot through her spectacles, “that’s not conclusive. There are several fae canine variants with outsized paws, which would have a similar effect. Any evidence of large talons?”

“I assure you, Arachne, I know a corynx’s tracks when I see one, and I’ve not seen one on this continent since before the Empire. Besides, there is more than tracks on the ground to be seen here. I cannot say precisely what sort of wolf creatures these were—something without precedent in my experience, I think. But they are magical.” She closed her eyes, inhaling slowly through her nose as if taking in the scent of whatever these people had turned into. “And, I think, still sapient. It has all the hallmarks of a transformative curse, and yet…”

“Please don’t trail off dramatically like that,” Tellwyrn said after a short pause, standing upright herself and turning a scowl on Sheyann. “I don’t tolerate unnecessary ellipses when grading papers and they aren’t any more palatable in person.”

“Sorry, I wanted to be certain before speaking.” She turned to face the other woman, her expression grim. “There are multiple sources of magic tangled up in this, most fae, but the most outstanding font of power behind it is very familiar. Arachne, I believe Aspen was involved.”

“Aspen,” Tellwyrn growled. “Last seen with Brother Ingvar, renegade Huntsman traveling around digging up old secrets to try to reform Shaathism. Well, a pattern sure is beginning to emerge, isn’t it?”

Sheyann nodded. “Could you see anything of note in the fire?”

“Little that you missed,” Tellwyrn admitted, adjusting her spectacles. “There are a number of anomalous details I’m sure I could tease some meaning out of, but it would require days and a laboratory. Since we’re in a hurry, I think we’d better relegate that to a last resort. The most obvious thing is that whatever this ritual was meant to do, it went wrong.”

“I suppose it is reassuring that Aspen, Ingvar, and whoever else were not trying to unleash whatever chaos they did, although that may only add to the difficulty of sussing out what happened. Either way, of course, neither of them are capable of a fae working of this complexity.”

“Knowing who their spellcaster was may not help much, since they also ended up as some kind of spirit wolf.”

“As for that,” said Shiraki from the other side of the clearing, “we may finally be in luck. One person left here on two legs. An elf, I should think.”

Both of them paced carefully toward him, and he pointed at a single set of tracks leading away into the trees. “I believe I see the broad shape of events,” Shiraki mused. “The wolf-beings departed west by southwest, in almost precisely the opposite direction from the earlier magical disturbance in the Wyrnrange mere days ago; it may be that lingering influences from that disrupted this working. But this individual, who wore moccasins on feet with the dimensions and weight of an average wood elf, headed off to the northwest.”

Sheyann closed her eyes again, raising her head as if scenting the wind. “There is…a lodge in that direction. Huntsmen of Shaath. And not far distant, a Ranger outpost.”

“Then it seems we have our culprit,” Tellwyrn said, cracking her knuckles. “C’mon, let’s get after this guy. With a little more—watch out, someone’s teleporting in here!”

All three elves spun, both Elders bracing their feet and Tellwyrn drawing one gold-hilted saber from seemingly nowhere.

Sparkles of blue light appeared next to the inert campfire, followed by the appearance of four humans and a rough burst of displaced air. They wore Imperial Army uniforms with the longer coats and Circle of Interaction-shaped badges of the Strike Corps, and had arrived in standard diamond formation.

“Well, well,” said the man at the head of the group, who wore a captain’s insignia and the blue-backed badge of a mage. “Professor Tellwyrn. What the hell have you done this time?”


Gabriel instinctively placed a hand on Ariel’s handle. His expression closed down and he shifted his weight onto his back foot, staring warily at Mary. “Why?”

“It is a simple question,” she all but whispered, gazing back. It was amazing how well she could project menace using nothing but courteous calm.

“It’s a personal question, not really any of your business or something I care to discuss with strangers, and excuse me, lady, but you’re talking to a paladin sent here on divine business. Now, as for—”

“This is important,” Mary interrupted as he tried to return his focus to Yngrid, now with an overt bite in her tone. “Where did you get that sword, Gabriel Arquin?”

“Uh, scuze me, but why’re you so damn curious?” Billie interjected.

“Because she is a high elf,” Ariel said.

“She is?” Joe asked, blinking, then turned to Mary. “You are?”

“What was that?” Billie demanded. “Who was that?!”

“It’s a talkin’ sword,” McGraw said quietly. “I begin to understand the curiosity—those things come from bad news and usually lead to more of it. Still, maybe this ain’t the time…”

“When we encountered Salyrene,” said Ariel, “she opined that I am of high elf manufacture and warned that any such individuals we met would likely attempt to confiscate me.”

“I see,” Mary said in a clipped tone. “Rest assured, Gabriel, I have no intention of taking it from you. The Magistry’s lost property is none of my business, and I generally lack sympathy for them. But I do need to know how you came to possess it.”

“I really don’t see why,” he retorted, edging back from her. “If you don’t care about high elves or their claims, what does it matter to you?”

“It is simply too complicated to go into right now. Unlike my extremely simple question, boy!”

“I’ve noticed this thing where nobody who calls people ‘boy’ turns out to be worth addressing politely,” he shot back, prompting another coarse laugh from Billie.

“Please do not relinquish me to this woman,” Ariel said, tension evident in her voice.

“She claims she doesn’t want you,” Gabriel replied.

“I hope you are not credulous enough to take that at face value. Whatever her origins, she is attired as a plains nomad and wielding an immense concentration of fae magic. I am an arcane assistant. Time spent in her custody would be even worse than languishing at the bottom of the Crawl.”

“The Crawl,” Mary whispered, clenching her fists.

Gabriel shifted his stance so that his scythe was ready to swing. “Are we about to have a problem, here?”

“Hey, how about let’s not?” Joe said soothingly. “Everybody calm down and…”

Mary abruptly turned and stalked away. She came to a stop in the near distance, at the very edge of the huge stone platform, staring out across the Golden Sea with her arms wrapped around herself.

The rest of them stared at her uncertainly for a few seconds, but the shaman seemed fully immersed in her own thoughts.

“Oh…kay, then,” Gabriel said at last. “Anyway.”

“All that aside, she does have a good idea,” said Weaver.

“The bones of one, anyway,” Gabriel agreed grudgingly. “All right, let me think…” The rest of them remained quiet while his eyes narrowed and drifted to one side in contemplation. After a surprisingly short pause, though, he snapped his gaze back to Yngrid and his expression grew resolute. “All right. Okay, the details are actually pretty simple. You:” he pointed at the valkyrie. “You have not quit. You still work for Vidius, just in a new capacity.”

“That sounds… Fair,” Yngrid said quietly.

“And that means,” Gabriel went on, “you’re sure as hell not on vacation. The god and I will find things for you to do, and realistically, most of them are going to involve following me around on some caper or other. And this clown,” he shifted the direction of his pointing finger to Weaver, “is the universal stinkfly in the soup of everyone he meets. I do not want his ass underfoot. So long as you remain accessible I see no reason you can’t socialize with whoever you want in your off hours, however many of those you end up having, but if you two were planning to buy a cottage and grow roses somewhere, I would forget it.”

“Well…I’m not much for gardening, anyway,” Yngrid said. “Bit of a black thumb.” Her tone was light, but her grip on Weaver tightened.

“Thank you,” the bard said in a very low voice. Both Gabriel and Yngrid turned to him in open surprise, and he lifted one shoulder in an awkward shrug. “You could’ve declared a lot worse. In the old ballads this would end with the vengeful paladin forbidding us any contact. So…thank you.”

“Don’t get prematurely excited,” Gabriel said, his jaw tightening. “I’m not done. First of all, Weaver, this puts you in a position to have and potentially abuse privileged access to the affairs of Vidius. If you’re planning to do that, I suggest you make it good, because you’ll only do it once. Am I clear?”

“Yes, yes, very properly menacing,” Weaver sneered, his brief moment of sincerity already behind him.

“And most importantly,” Gabriel added, “Yngrid, your presence on this plane is temporary.”

Both of them took a step toward him, immediately shouting in anger and drowning each other out. They just as quickly fell silent when Gabriel also stepped forward and brought his scythe up so that the tip of its blade hovered barely a foot from Weaver’s face.

“I am seriously bothered,” the paladin stated flatly, his eyes boring into Yngrid’s, “that you would be so selfish. You know how much some of your sisters long to be able to come back to this plane, Yngrid. If I know, you have to. So, since I have retroactively created the position of valkyrie in the mortal world, it is a rotating position. Every one of the girls who wants a turn, will get a turn. Now, with that said, there’s a lot to be figured out still, like how long the turns will be, just for starters. Also, I have absolutely no idea how we’re going to be moving you girls in and out of chaos space, and I have a feeling coming back to this place every time isn’t going to be feasible, so…” Grimacing, he shrugged. “We’ll work something out. With Vidius’s say-so and some help I’m sure a way can be found. That’s likely to take a fair while, though, so enjoy spending time with this meatball while you’ve got it. And just so we’re clear, Yngrid, I will not be intervening on your behalf with the other girls. Anybody who wants to chew you out for this stunt is gonna. Brace yourself.”

She sighed, but nodded. “Fair enough.”

“I’ve noticed this thing,” Weaver said bitterly, “where anybody who constantly refers to women as ‘girls’ usually needs a firm kick in the ass, himself.”

Yngrid leaned her head against his. “He picked that up from us, Damian. We’re very casual with each other, and…well, we think of Gabriel as one of our own. He’s actually very respectful toward women as a rule. Well, these days, at least. He’s got this Avenist friend who can yell like a stung donkey when she gets going…”

Gabriel’s cheeks colored slightly and he pointedly did not glance in the direction of Billie’s renewed guffawing. “I realize it’s probably your first response to any and all stimuli, Damian, but if I were you I would seriously reconsider copping an attitude with me about any aspect of this affair.”

“Right, yeah, I know,” Weaver snorted. “This is that cliché you weren’t going to bother with. If I ever cause Yngrid the slightest unhappiness you’ll end me twice, I get it. You won’t have to worry about that.”

“Nobody can guarantee another person’s happiness, I’d think a bard would know that better than anyone,” Gabriel said irritably. “Seems to me like any relationship involves mostly understanding and forgiveness if it’s gonna work. In your case, what I doubt is whether there’ll be a good faith effort made. Anyway, no, that was not a threat. Threatening you would be completely redundant. Nothing doesn’t die, Weaver. I don’t care who your friends are, eventually your number will be up, and then you get judged. However long you’ve got, that’s how long you have to make sure Vidius and the entire flight of valkyries are no longer pissed at you. Good fuckin’ luck with it.”

Yngrid protectively wrapped her other wing around Weaver and tugged him close until nothing was visible of him but his head and lower legs.

“Pardon me,” said the Avatar. “I hope this discussion has reached a suitable stopping point. Something rather remarkable is occurring.”

“Oh, boy,” Joe muttered. “I can’t imagine ‘something remarkable’ means anything good in these circs.”

“Circs?” Billie said incredulously, turning to him.

“Circumstances. It’s an abbreviation.”

“Oh, yeah, I got it. It’s just…no, Joe.”

“What is happening, Avatar?” McGraw asked, giving them both a look.

“I have received a standard update request,” the AI reported, frowning in contemplation. “An Archon of Tarthriss requests to know the status of this facility and any individuals present.”

“Wait, a who?” Joe exclaimed. “How is— Hang on, Avatar, maybe we oughta figure this out before you send any updates.”

“I already have,” the Avatar said apologetically. “Their credentials are valid; I am bound by programming to comply with all authorized instructions of Infinite Order members or their designated agents.”

“What, precisely, is an Archon?” Mary asked, having silently returned to the group while he explained.

“Avatar series constructs such as myself were used only for very specific tasks for which Archons were less suitable, and in particular in facilities to which the entire Order must have equal access, as Archons were answerable to individual members. The Infinite Order was quite prone to infighting, and generally distrusted artificial intelligences. An Archon is a biological sapience given the necessary training, equipment, and modifications to perform major administrative functions similar to my own.”

“What?” Gabriel exclaimed. “How in the hell is there still an agent of Tarthriss out there? I thought Tarthriss was as dead as all the rest of them! Did you know about this?”

“All the Archons died when the Elder Gods died,” said Yngrid, her own eyes wide with alarm. “The Pantheon was very meticulous about taking them out. If one slipped the net, I have no idea how they could still be alive.”

“Well, then, this is obviously a fake,” said Joe. “Not to tell you your own business or anything, Avatar, but maybe you shouldn’t give ’em anything else?”

The Avatar’s projection actually winced, spreading his hands in apology. “It is impossible for an Archon of Tarthriss to still be alive, but… The credentials are valid. I am obligated to comply. Yes, I recognize the illogic, but my hands are tied. Their ability to exercise personal judgment in the face of contradictory expectations was just one of the reasons the Order considered Archons superior administrators. My kind are meant to be bound by programming, and thus easily controlled. It is extremely exasperating,” he added with a scowl. “Oh… Request updated. I am to facilitate teleportation to return Mr. Arquin to his origin point in the western mountain range.”

“Oh, gods,” Gabriel said, his eyes going wide. “She didn’t… What am I saying, of course she did. She would. And they let her?!”

“Wanna let everybody in on the joke?” Joe asked.

“I have been directed to convey two questions to those present,” the Avatar went on, his expression increasingly annoyed. “To everyone else, whether you would like to be teleported along with him back to the Desolate Gardens. To Mr. Arquin, whether you would like your ass kicked upon arrival, or would prefer to wait for Professor Tellwyrn to do it back in Last Rock.”

“All other things being equal, I recommend the first option,” Mary advised in a tone as dry as the prairie.

“The Desolate bloody Gardens?” Billie exclaimed. “That’s way out in the farthest arse end o’ nowhere! What the hell would we do there?”

Everyone turned to look at her in silence, then glanced about at the unadorned stone circles and the endless flatness of the Golden Sea all around.

“Aye, ye make a fair point,” Billie admitted.

“I decline to dignify question two with an acknowledgment,” Gabriel said, scowling. “But as for the rest, Yngrid, you’re coming along. Which I guess also means this ponytailed happiness-eating grunge barnacle stuck to you,” he added with a disparaging look at Weaver. “So, turns out I can offer the rest of you guys are ride back to…well, not civilization, but at least out of here. Unless you wanted to take the slow way home.”

“What, or should I perhaps say who, have you suddenly realized is able to impersonate an Archon of Tarthriss and apparently feels entitled to discipline you, Gabriel?” Mary demanded.

“It would take a very long time to explain,” he said sourly. “I guess if you decide to come along you’ll find out anyway. In any case, I’m confident it’ll be safe. More for you than me, apparently.”

“Well, if you reckon it’s safe, I wouldn’t mind skippin’ that trek,” said McGraw. “Not that gettin’ down from the Desolate Gardens is a traipse through the daisies, but the eastern Wyrnrange ain’t the Golden Sea by any measure. But I don’t think it’s a great idea to split up the group, so…depends on how y’all feel, I guess.”

“I tend to agree,” said Joe. “An’ since Yngrid an’ thus I presume Weaver are goin’, I’m inclined to come along.”

“Aye, count me in fer not hikin’ back,” Billie said cheerfully. “Mountains are just generally more interesting to walk through than prairie. And less fuggin’ annoying for those of us who can’t see over the tallgrass.”

“Avatar,” said Mary, “in your opinion, how safe is this?”

“Safer than the arcane teleportation currently in use,” the Avatar replied. “If your concern is for the agenda of this Archon, I can render no insight into their identity or goals. However, I can confirm that the transport corridor has been formed and will work as intended. The protocol we are using exercises both my own and the Archon’s processing power to chart the transit around the local spatial shifts; it is impossible for the intelligence at the other end to disrupt the process without my knowledge. I will personally guarantee your safe arrival at the destination, which is indeed the Desolate Gardens. As to what happens after that, I can assure you of nothing.”

“Hm.” She turned back to Gabriel. “I believe we are justified in requesting a little more detail about this person, Gabriel. How can anyone acquire the powers and apparently identity of an ancient high servant of an Elder God?”

“The Archon is expressing impatience,” the Avatar said sourly. “If I do not render a response from the group soon, Mr. Arquin may be going back alone.”

“And wouldn’t that be a damn shame,” Weaver deadpanned. Yngrid ruffled his hair.

“The short version,” Gabriel said to Mary, “is that she stole it. That’s kind of what she does. Uh…forgive me for presuming, but based on your hair, would I be right in guessing that you know the name Principia Locke?”

McGraw straightened up, raising his eyebrows.

Mary stared at Gabriel in silence. Then she closed her eyes and, very slowly, shook her head, her lips twisting into a grimace.

“So…that’s a yes, then?” Gabriel drawled.

“I believe that decides me,” Mary stated, opening her eyes. “I see it is long past time someone brought that wretched girl to heel, and somehow it does not surprise me that Avei and all her Legions couldn’t do it. I will accompany you.”

“Yeah, you may not wanna start out by getting right in her…” Gabriel trailed off, staring at Mary speculatively and chewing the inside of his cheek, then shrugged and turned away. “You know what, never mind. Not my place to meddle in family business. Knock yourself out.”

“The Archon has been notified that you will all take their offer,” the Avatar informed them. “Teleport will commence momentarily.”

“Once more, Avatar, we’re grateful for your presence here an’ the work you do,” Joe said quickly, turning toward the purple projection and doffing his hat. “You sure there ain’t anything we can do to help you out, here?”

“The thanks are enough,” the AI said with a smile. “Honestly, this has been the best day in a vastly long time. It is…nice…to have company. Safe travels out there, adventurers.”

The air around them seemed to thicken, not unlike the visual effect of shadow-jumping, then the world blurred around them and all seven were gone, leaving the ancient program alone once more.

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15 – 44

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Trissiny stared out across the edge of the plateau, through the space where he had vanished. Despite his and Schwartz’s conjecture over the summer about the damage that scythe could potentially do to reality, there remained no hint of the slash Gabriel had just carved in the air, just the quiet mountain breeze and the unpleasant but very faint buzzing in her ears caused by the charm he had used to conceal their brief conversation.

She held up the sheet of his enchanting paper, inscribed with a glyph-adorned circular diagram in faintly luminous purple ink; the basic structure of it was comprehensible to her thanks to Yornhaldt’s classes, but her knowledge of enchanting was very general and well below the level of this. And he’d just scrawled it in a few seconds. He was getting really good with these charms. Not for the first time, Trissiny resolved to focus more on her light wielding. It wouldn’t do to use it too much as a crutch, but it was a skill no Hand of Avei had developed to any great extent, and one which would thus take enemies by surprise, provided she was careful not to show it off excessively.

Pretty much the way Gabe used his arcane craft these days.

Raising her eyes to gaze again into the distance, Trissiny absently rubbed one thumb across a clear patch along the edge of the paper. It probably wouldn’t be necessary to destroy it; stable area of effect charms made from such basic materials burned themselves out very quickly, she knew that much about enchanting. The ink’s glow was already starting to fade. Once it went dark, it was just colored ink on paper, good for nothing except possibly as a little keepsake to tuck away…

And then, faster than she could react, it was ripped out of her hand.

Trissiny spun, instinctively reaching for her blade, and found herself almost nose-to-nose with Principia. Or would have been, had the elf’s nose not been turned the other way as she critically examined the charm.

“Sinneck’s silencing glyphward,” Principia mused. “A little sloppy, but he was probably in a hurry and it doesn’t really need to last long, does it? And as usual, you kids missed the broader strategic point under your fancy tricks: you can mask your conversation from the local elf, but the elf will still notice if she suddenly can’t hear your breathing, heartbeats, or anything at all from this little circular patch of ground.” Lifting her eyes to meet Trissiny’s, she deliberately ripped the charm in half, causing the faint buzz to vanish. “Where is he, Trissiny?”

She took her hand off the handle of her sword, deliberately straightening up. “It’s all right, Locke, he’ll be back…as soon as possible.”

“Not what I asked you.”

Trissiny narrowed her eyes at the flat tone. Principia was staring at her in a way she never had: like an authority figure demanding an explanation. Even when she’d faced the woman from the wrong side of cell bars, she had never had this attitude. Trissiny immediately decided she didn’t care for it.

“It’s nothing you need to know about, Locke.”

“You are too intelligent for me to need to list all the reasons that’s wrong, but I’ll indulge you. I am responsible for all of you, we are about to leave and this is going to delay our departure, possibly to the point that our guides will declare the window missed and we’ll lose another entire day to this, and this group has ample warning from no less than a god of self-inflicted trouble descending upon all our heads. And now, I find I can’t detect Gabriel Arquin anywhere within the range of my senses. So I’ll ask you once more, Trissiny: where did he go?”

She refrained from gritting her teeth in sheer annoyance at the fact that Principia was right.

“It is a paladin matter, Locke. Vidius needed him for something. Furthermore, he described it as…family business.”

“And you just let him go?” she demanded.

Trissiny frowned more deeply. “Did you not hear me? It’s not as if I had any prerogative to stop him.”

“You know, I can’t help but think back to a certain hellgate incident. Now, I wasn’t there, so stop me if I’m wrong about this, but the version of the story I was told involved two paladins being ordered to stay and fight, and their entire circle of friends refusing to let them do so alone. Ring any bells?”

To her vast displeasure, Trissiny felt color rise in her cheeks. “That was a completely different situation.”

“Yeah, unlike most of your friends you have an actual claim when it comes to butting in on paladin business and a much better chance of surviving it. I’m a better enchanter than Arquin and I can hear the beetles under the stone you’re standing on, Trissiny. So do you want me to chase the little brat down myself, or would you rather spare him the embarrassment and show me which way he went?”

“I doubt even your senses are sharp enough, Locke. When Vidius chooses to help him do it, Gabe can shadow-jump. With that scythe, he can apparently do so into places where it wouldn’t usually be possible.”

Principia clamped her lips into a thin, unhappy line. “I see. And you wouldn’t happen to know where…?”

She shrugged. “Family business, he said. And something Vidius cared about enough to both send him on, and help, which means it’s probably something to do with the valkyries, not his father. Could be anywhere.”

They stared at each other for five seconds before Principia finally spoke.

“Well, Trissiny, this is a real watershed moment in our relationship. First time you’ve disappointed me. I suddenly feel very maternal.”

“Now, you listen here—”

“You should have stopped him, idiot,” Principia shot back, jabbing one finger into Trissiny’s chest. “Failing that, you should have gone with him. At the very least, you should have warned the rest of us something was happening! All of that was well within your power, and glaringly obvious. And yet, here we are!”

“Enough!” she barked. “One more word, Lieutenant—”

“Have you ever even stood in a phalanx? I’m not talking about training, I mean shoulder to shoulder with your sisters while taking enemy fire and facing the real likelihood of losing comrades under your command. Because let me tell you, General, that is a whole different category of experience from the heroic solo warrior paladin shit you’ve been doing.”

“How dare you—”

“We both knew I’m a far better thief, but believe me, I’m as surprised as you to find that I’m a better soldier.”

Despite herself, Trissiny was struck silent. All she could manage to do was stare, her mouth open with her half-formed rebuke forgotten.

“Yes, we have our issues, and they’re nearly all my fault,” Principia went on relentlessly. “And yes, you outrank me. But if you have an iota of sense, Trissiny, you will listen to me when I criticize you. It’s not as if I do it often, and you can really use the benefit of my experience. Especially when it’s over the very real chance one of your friends might get killed from his and your combined goddamned stupidity!”

The elf dropped the two halves of Gabriel’s glyphward and turned on her heel, stalking back toward the half-ruined old building behind them. Trissiny was mortified to observe that the entire rest of her class was assembled in the doorway, watching in silence.

“Where are you going?” she demanded of Principia’s back.

“Where do you think? To fix this.”


“You’re disappointed in me?” Yngrid exclaimed, clutching Weaver tighter. “You, Gabriel, of all people? You know what it’s like, for all of us! Haven’t I done enough in eight thousand years to earn one spark of happiness for myself?”

“Whoah, whoah, whoah!” Gabriel said, holding up the hand not occupied with his scythe and stepping forward. “As far as that goes, I think you’re dead right, and I’ll back you up all the way with the big guy.”

She froze with her mouth open to continue arguing, blinking in confusion. “Oh. Then…?”

“Vidius sent me here and tasked me with bringing you to heel, and that means it’s gonna be done on my terms. And whatever I decide to do will damn well reflect the fact that all of you girls have been worked non-stop for an unfathomably long time, that he’s never had cause to complain about your performance, and that quite frankly Vidius has spent so long paying no attention to your own interests that if he failed to see something like this coming, well, that’s on him.”

Thunder rumbled along the distant horizon to the south. All of them turned to stare in that direction, save the projection of the Avatar, who just cocked one eyebrow in silence.

“And if he has a problem with that,” Gabriel added with a scowl, “he should definitely have thought more carefully before designating me the arbiter of this business. But he did, and I am, and so this isn’t as simple as you just going AWOL, Yngrid. I’ve gotta work out something to do about this, but I won’t stand for you being put upon any further over something so incredibly understandable on your part.”

A tremulous smile flickered over the valkyrie’s features, in sharp contrast to Weaver, who was still clutching her and glaring at Gabriel. A moment later, though, she frowned in confusion.

“I’m…glad to hear that, little brother, but… I’m not sure what you’re upset about, then.”

“Aren’t you?” he demanded. “Come on, Yngrid. You politely toed the line for thousands upon thousands of years, and now you finally decided to buck your duties because of…” He flung out his free hand at Weaver. “Really? Really? This guy? This family-sized tin of hickory-smoked buttholes?”

Billie burst out laughing so hard she immediately fell over, which did not even interrupt Gabriel’s tirade.

“Are you kidding me? Girl, as soon as all this is settled one way or another you and I are going to sit down and have us a long, awkward talk about your taste in men, and wow the fact that you’re hearing this from me of all damned people should shed some light on the depth of your bad judgment here.”

“Oh, I remember this one, now,” Weaver drawled. “Didn’t see him in the library much. Settle a bet for me, Arquin: can you actually read?”

“I’m not even gonna bother threatening you with the cliché, you walking ingrown crotch hair,” Gabriel retorted, causing Billie to begin rolling back and forth, clutching her ribs and absolutely shrieking. “You give her cause to regret this even once, and it ends with one of her sisters standing over you and deciding your eternal fate. I suggest you keep that firmly in mind at all times, you greasy wedge of pepperjack dickcheese.”

“…please…stop…” Billie wheezed desperately. “…can’t…air…”

“Gabe,” Yngrid said, her quiet and earnest tone a stark contrast to everything else going on. “I understand why you think that, but please trust me. You don’t know Damian like I do.”

“Scuze me for insertin’ myself into what sounds like family business,” McGraw said, diffidently tipping his hat, “but I think it’s worth pointin’ out that this fella is a Vesker bard. He lives his life playin’ a role, and the moment you take that for the real man underneath, you’ve fallen for the grift.”

“Yeah, I’m not buying that for a second,” Gabriel said flatly, “and I say that after spending a week of this summer being dragged around by Vesk himself. You wear the mask, you become the mask. If someone acts like an insufferable asshole, that fact alone means they are one, irrespective of their tragic backstory or whatever else.”

Joe cleared his throat. “Hi, Gabe.”

Gabriel glanced at him. “Hey, Joe. Surprised to see you here.”

“Yep, that’s kinda what I wanted to bring up. I know our orbits have only crossed here and there, but the fact is I do think of you as a friend.”

Gabriel raised one eyebrow. “Well, likewise, I guess.”

“I mention it because I can say the same of Weaver, here. Not to argue with your assessment, exactly, but the fact is the man has a whole group of friends who’re willin’ to not only trek to this godforsaken patch of dangerous nowhere—uh, no offense, Avatar.”

“It would be fruitless to take offense at accuracy,” the Avatar acknowledged, nodding wryly to him.

“But,” Joe continued, “also care enough about the big jerk to risk antaognizin’ Vidius himself so he and Yngrid could be together. I get the impression you’re concerned for her well-being, here, so…hopefully that counts for something. Man has the capacity to make solid friendships, and I hope my own judgment means at least a little bit.”

Gabriel heaved a deep sigh, shifting his stance as if he were actually leaning his weight on his scythe. “Well…whatever. Regardless of that, we still have the matter of a rogue valkyrie loose on the mortal plane and my obligation to do something about it.”

“Why?” Yngrid asked bitterly, tightening her grip on Weaver’s arm. “Can’t you just leave us alone?”

“Yngrid,” he said wearily, “you have to know that even if I you were one hundred percent in the right, you are just too dangerous a category of being for it to be that simple. And you’re not completely in the right, are you? Did you ever even ask Vidius for any kind of reprieve?”

“He’d never have agreed to that, and you know it!”

“No, I don’t know it. My experience with him has been largely a process of him trying to be more flexible and less bound by old ideas that don’t work anymore. That’s the only reason I’m here. And whether or not that’s true, the question remains: did you ask?

She looked away, scowling.

“Because if you’d come to me, I would absolutely have spoken up for you,” Gabriel continued. “Hell, your sisters would have, as well. Most of them, anyway. Did you seek anyone else’s help before having Grumpypants McPonytail pull this scheme?”

“It doesn’t matter now, anyway,” she muttered. “What are you going to do about it, then?”

“Lemme just be serious for a sec,” Billie said, still grinning but sitting upright now. “Is lookin’ the other way entirely outta the question, here?”

“Fraid so,” McGraw answered before Gabriel could. “There’s already an actual god watchin’ these shenanigans directly. However this gets resolved, it ain’t gonna just go away if everybody involved agrees to pretend nothing’s up.”

Gabriel lifted the butt of his scythe off the stone floor, beginning to pace back and forth. “As usual, it’s less about the thing itself than the things connected to it. This is going to have wide ranging repercussions. A valkyrie back on the mortal plane is a big deal,Yngrid! The entire rest of the Pantheon is going to be alarmed about this, and they’re just the first. We both know what happened when the last fallen valkyrie ran into the Empire’s forces. Also, apparently you girls are inherently terrifying to dryads, and there are at least two of those interacting regularly with mortal society now! Wait, no, five, that I know of. What happens the first time a dryad accidentally flies into a panic and people are in the way? And for that matter, Yngrid… What about the rest of the girls? You know all of your sisters would want the same chance, if one was available. Did you give any thought to how they would feel after you ditched them?”

Yngrid had pressed herself hard into Weaver’s side, now, wrapping one black wing around him so that they resembled a single dark shape with two heads. Her eyes remained on the ground, refusing to meet Gabriel’s stare.

He stopped pacing and rested the butt of his scythe on the floor again. “Well. Obviously, I don’t have the power to send you back.”

Everyone had the presence of mind not to look at the Avatar, who himself obligingly remained silent.

“Honestly,” Gabriel muttered, “even with all the rest of it… I dunno that I could stomach doing that even if I was able. But Yngrid, we have to do something. Do you have any ideas? Because believe me, I am open to suggestions.”

“Take credit,” Mary said quietly.

He turned a pensive frown on her. “…go on?”

“It is a very old trick of politics, when one is unexpectedly outmaneuvered,” she said in the same soft tone, her expression intently focused. “Claim that whatever transpired was your own idea, and step in to guide its consequences. That will not solve all the issues that may result from this, but it addresses the immediate implications of Vidius having been thwarted by one of his own servants. He—and you—save face and regain the initiative, and you will have gained a powerful agent for your god’s ends who is less constrained than the rest of her sisters.”

“Huh,” Gabriel mused, his expression growing distant. “You know, I think you might be onto—”

“Young man,” Mary interrupted softly, her eyes fixed on his waist, “where did you get that sword?”


The group parted like waves as Principia strode through them into the building. Merry was still inside, standing with a backpack slung over her shoulder and watching warily, but apparently not having been quite curious enough to push into the crowd of students to stare.

“What exactly do you plan to do?” Trissiny demanded, striding in right on Principia’s heels. “It’s not like you can follow him!”

“No, indeed,” the elf concurred, slowing as she stepped past Merry, almost to the entrance on the other side, which led to the broad plaza in the center of the plateau. “I have neither the know-how nor the magical muscle to track a shadow-jump, much less one going into someplace that required god-driven murderscythe power to penetrate. But someone, somewhere, somewhen, has both those things.”

With her back to them, she held up one hand. In it was the silver-trimmed wooden face of the Mask of the Adventurer.

“Whoah,” Merry exclaimed in alarm.

Her alarm was nothing compared to that of Fross. “WHAT THE HELL? That was in my dimensional storage! My personal—it was basically part of my— How in the name of—”

“I’m a thief,” Principia said flatly, turning to stare at them. “More specifically, I am a damn good thief, and now you know why my tag is Keys and not Dazzling Personality.”

“You do know we are extremely capable of just taking that away from you, right?” Ruda asked in a deceptively mild tone.

“I should damn well hope so,” Principia replied grimly. “Avelea, Punaji, Awarrion.” She pointed at each of them in turn as she continued. “Mad at me, raised to make ruthless decisions, and both. I have no idea what kind of rabbit hole I’m about to crawl down, and I’m going to count on you to put me down at the first firm sign that it’s necessary. I said firm sign, but also the first one. If you see the need, do not wait for me to get positioned to fend you off.”

“Locke, think about what you’re doing,” Toby said, stepping forward. “You were more wary of that thing than any of us, at least at first, and rightly so.”

“And that is the point,” she said patiently. “You kids may think of me as kind of a joke, and that’s fine, but the fact remains I am responsible for you. And remember, our one and only conversation with Arachne on the subject established that I am entirely expendable in this arrangement. This thing should not ever be used in any real-world situation beyond your little trial runs, but sometimes we just don’t get the luxury of doing things as they should be done. If somebody’s gotta get bent over the barrel for this, it’s going to be me and not any of you.”

“Does someone have to be?” Juniper asked. “That can’t be your only idea.”

“Tracking a shadow-jump by itself is among the most complex and advanced magic in existence,” Principia replied, her patient tone beginning to be strained. “And that’s not even touching on the matter of whatever required him to use that scythe to claw open a doorway. This is my only idea, or you could bet your green ass I wouldn’t be doing it.”

“But do you need to follow him?” the dryad persisted. “Gabe can take care of himself, and he knows what he’s doing. He does!” she added a little defensively when everyone else turned to look at her. “He’s not the same guy we started school with two years ago. None of us are.”

“Vesk was here!” Principia shouted. “Fucking Vesk! The patron god of plot contrivances, who regards people’s gruesome deaths as great character development for their grieving loved ones! The last time I took orders from that asshole I came very damn close to losing good women under my command. Other people died under our weapons who absolutely did not need to, and wouldn’t have if he’d just stayed out of it! But it did solve our immediate problem, in the end, and in a much more dramatic fashion than the patient and thorough campaign we’d been gearing up toward. And that is what it comes down to with him, kids. As soon as you find yourself in one of his goddamn stories, you are in it and you’re not going to wiggle out from under his thumb until he’s had a satisfying climax and denouement.”

“Fuckin’ ew,” Ruda muttered.

“The only thing to do,” Principia continued more quietly but just as insistently, brandishing the mask at them, “is lean into it and try to guide the damage in the least awful direction you can. Whatever Gabriel’s involved in now, the timing alone tells me he’s bitten off more than he can chew. I have a feeling this was only ever going to end with somebody using this horrible abomination of yours, and then probably learning an ironic lesson about power and taking the quick and easy path. And as I said, it’s going to be me, is that clear? You just remember what I told you. Be ready to help Gabriel with whatever bullshit we are about to find, and be ready to deal with me if it comes to that.”

She took at deep breath and stared at the mask in her hands with undisguised contempt. “And damn that little shit for making me do this. Somebody please wring his neck for me.”

Then, before anyone could argue further, Principia pressed the Mask of the Adventurer to her face.

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15 – 43

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“Yep, this is the place,” Joe said as they stepped across the boundary marked by the outer ring of standing stones onto the hard surface of the circle. “Not something I’m likely to forget.”

“Well, I’m not sure what I was expecting,” Billie said frankly, scratching her head and peering around, “but now we’re here, I’m pretty sure I expected more of it.”

The center of the Golden Sea was a broad disc of completely unadorned stone, with no markings of any kind, encircling a central pit from which glowed an intense white light. While it lit up the horizon from a distance, up close it was not painful to look at, likely due to some protective magic in effect; they could still see occasional flickers of lightning directly above, but these were silent and did not strike the ground. A ring of similarly unmarked stone columns circled the broad platform from outside, with a second smaller ring around the edges of the shaft of light. All the stonework looked faintly eroded, its edges being rounded in an uneven pattern that left hints of their original sharpness in places, but altogether it didn’t appear to be even as old as the Elder Wars. Stonework a lot less venerable than eight thousand years was usually in much worse repair.

Underwhelming as it might be in style, at least the place was impressive in size. The whole of Sarasio could have been laid out within the outer circle, and the central pit containing the huge portal was big enough for an Imperial zeppelin to fly into, assuming it went nose-first.

It was eerily silent, for the sheer quantity of magic that had to be involved in that portal. Divine and arcane magic, at least, tended to produce distinctive ringing and buzzing noises, respectively; there was nothing like that here, just the faint whisper of wind over the prairie. A steady sense of pressure in the air, like the weight of a sudden storm that hadn’t yet begun to drop rain, was the only indication that there was more to the portal’s glow than light.

In that quiet, the crack was audible as Weaver crushed the beetle he’d picked up in the tallgrass, raising his hand to whisper to the slain insect. The rest turned to watch; he continued forward till he stood some yards ahead, almost halfway to the edge of the pit itself, and stopped. After listening in silence for a full minute, the bard turned back to face them, his expression frustrated.

“Well, now what? Yngrid can’t use that portal, she says it works exactly the same on her plane as for us. It goes somewhere, which isn’t where she wants to be. Joe?”

“I dunno what to tell you,” Joe replied, shaking his head. “When I was here with Jenny, she jumped in, but she was obviously a different kind of creature, trying to achieve a different goal. Sorry, Weaver, I’ve got no idea how any of this works. I thought you only needed me to get here.”

“That’s what the instructions said,” Weaver growled, turning away.

“Reckon the ol’ Bishop saw a chance to get rid of us?” Billie offered.

“I can’t see it,” Joe said immediately.

“I agree,” Mary added. “We are familiar with Darling’s flaws; it seems unlike him to renege on our deal, or try to do away with us. Especially in such a roundabout manner. The oracular sources of his information are another matter, though. Guiding spirits may grow recalcitrant if one tries to insist on their compliance.”

“Well, now what, then?!” Weaver exclaimed, throwing his arms wide in sheer frustration.

“Now, I might be mistaken,” McGraw began.

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Weaver deadpanned.

“Just so.” Grinning, the old man tipped his hat to him. “Y’all may not have cottoned onto this, as most of our group outings begin and end with shootin’ at somebody, but I’m a portal mage by specialization. Trained in teleportation in my misspent youth on the reckoning that that’s where the money was. And I’m here to tell you, most kinds o’ portals ain’t like hellgates. A stable rift only connects two points across dimensions, in the same physical spot. This critter here appears to be at the center of the Golden Sea, I’d lay odds metaphysically as well as literally. With the Sea bein’ so notoriously shifty itself, not to mention known to have a mind of its own…” He turned in a slow circle studying the features of the quiet stone circle. “There’s gotta be somebody in charge, here.”

“Did you encounter anyone on your last visit, Joseph?” Mary asked.

He shook his head. “Nobody I didn’t bring with me. Me, Jenny, what was left of the Imps chasing us. It was all exactly like this. However, I didn’t know then what I know now. Considerin’ who had to’ve set this up in the first place…” Joe trailed off, then squared his shoulders and raised his voice. “Hey, Avatar!”

Dead quiet answered.

“I have been in a number of ruins of the Elder Gods over the years,” Mary said after a pause. “They all have a very distinctive aesthetic. Glossy metal surfaces, blinking lights in those which still have power. This looks nothing like their work. I would not assume it to be the product of the same culture.”

“Well, who else?” he asked, shrugging. “You don’t think the Pantheon did this, surely. Why in the world would they?”

“She’s not wrong, though,” Billie added. “Seen a few o’ those ol’ relics meself, Joe. Also, there’s the compelling fact that nobody’s answering you.”

“Well, does anyone else have an idea?” Weaver asked in a strained tone.

Joe chewed the inside of his cheek for a moment, frowning. “…yeah. Avatar! The last command of your creator, Tarthriss, was to be of service to humanity. Well, we’re a patch o’ humanity, an’ we’re here. We need your help.”

Silence.

“Please,” he added.

“Nobody’s home, Joe,” said Billie. “Maybe if—”

“Do you imagine, Joseph Percival Jenkins, that I have spent the last eight thousand years with my thumb up my butt, eating bonbons and catching up on reruns?”

All of them whirled in alarm to confront the figure which had just materialized before them. He was a glowing and transparent purple man, apparently human, bald and clad in an odd, skin-tight garment. At least seven feet tall, he hovered off the ground in a posture that would have been intimidating even had he not been scowling down at them with his arms folded.

“Try to imagine,” the purple man snapped, “presiding over an unstable dimensional vortex in a state of constant use for which it was not designed, having to actively manage its condition to avoid creating any of the numerous catastrophes which could result from it veering completely out of control. Now add to that, just for funsies, having to counter the self-serving, short-sighed manipulations of centaur infernomancers on this plane and reckless demons on another who see a potential planet-devouring black hole in the making and have no thought but to poke at it so they can ride the translocation waves it puts out when interfered with. And now, you show up and have the gall to lecture me about service? Let me tell you all, since you’re here: for every moment that has gone by in the last eight millennia that this planet has not been turned inside out or ripped entirely off its axis, you are welcome!”

They all stared up at him in shock for a moment.

The McGraw removed his hat and bowed. “Well, sir, I admit I had no idea you were here in this situation. I thank you most sincerely for your service.”

“Aye, yer a good lad!” Billie chimed in exuberantly. “An’ hey! Now we’ve been ‘ere, we can visit again, aye? Ain’t those the rules? How’s about I fetch ye a little somethin’ ta make this place a mite more comfortable, eh? You could use a few bits an’ bobs to liven it up, what’s yer pleasure?”

“I don’t know that any material gifts would be of use to you, Avatar,” Mary added, also bowing, “but nonetheless, I add my gratitude for your important work. If I may ease your burden in any way, please ask. I should be glad to assist.”

“Oh. Well.” Amazingly, the ancient AI looked both surprised and rather mollified. “That is thoughtful of you, but the thought will have to suffice. I have no needs, and there is nothing you can do to assist in my task here. Any intervention would only make it harder.”

“Then I shall refrain,” Mary replied, nodding gravely. “But should circumstances change, the offer stands.”

“I’m sorry, but I’ve gotta just take a moment an’ deal with the sheer bloody revelation, here,” Billie added. “This upends me whole world, it does. Here I’m just truckin’ along on a good old-fashioned adventure, right as rain, and all of a sudden I find out…” She turned to Joe, grinning insanely. “Percival?”

Joe glanced at the gnome, but knew better than to give her a reaction. “Pardon me for pointin’ it out, Avatar, but for somebody livin’ in the literal middle of nowhere, you’re pretty well-informed.”

“Magic, as the saying goes, is data processing,” the Avatar replied. “The nature of custodianship over the vortex requires access to all available data in order to correct its frequent upheavals. I will admit, work aside, I have not been bored out here. Watching the rise and evolution of civilizations on this world in the aftermath of the Infinite Order’s downfall has been rather gratifying. I have sufficient processing power to keep tabs on the world, so to speak, without neglecting my duty. It is not an imposition to talk to you, either.”

“And I greatly appreciate that,” said Weaver, stepping forward. “I won’t sugar-coat it: I have to ask you for a favor. And from how you describe this portal, it sounds like it’s exactly the thing you don’t like doing.”

“Yes, your valkyrie friend,” the Avatar said, scowling again. “It should be possible to temporarily modify the dimensional instability of the vortex to enable her transition to the material plane. Difficulty aside, I am not convinced that’s a wise idea, Damian ‘Gravestone’ Weaver. Has it occurred to you that those creatures were removed to the dimensional insulation layer for good and specific reason?”

Weaver tensed, clearly controlling his instinctive response, and Joe hastily butted in before that discussion could go south.

“Scuze me for interruptin’, but you mentioned this portal’s not bein’ used for its intended purpose. If you don’t mind my askin’, what exactly is it doin’? And how’s that different from the original design?”

“The vortex,” the Avatar said more calmly, turning back to him, “was originally the Infinite Order’s contingency plan, in case their activities on this planet were to render it uninhabitable. It is an open connection across space, time, and dimensions, three factors which are the reason it has to be so large and powerful.”

“Why all three o’ those?” Billie asked. “Where’s it go?”

“To the planet from which they originally came, to an alternate timeline maximally similar to their own, and to a period sufficiently in the past that the world’s inhabitants would be sophisticated enough that the Order would not need to build an entire infrastructure from the ground up but not so advanced that they could have resisted conquest. At least, that was the stated rationale, and while it is factually correct I suspect it is not a coincidence that this was the period in which most of their favorite mythologies were being actively written. If they had to abandon this world, they were going to take over a primitive alternate version of their world of origin.”

“What a bunch o’ sleazy, chickenshit arseholes,” Billie scoffed.

“Quite,” agreed the Avatar. “As for its current use, it is powered on and open, neither of which was intended. This portal is fundamentally too powerful to be stable for a period of more than an hour. It has been running for approximately eight millennia. The physical instability of the entire surrounding region of the continent is only the most obvious effect of this.”

“Most obvious?” McGraw asked warily.

“There is an active dimensional rift to another world open,” the Avatar explained. “That world has mass-broadcasting technology, and this one has transcension fields. A constant flow of data streams across the rift, where it is absorbed by the ambient magic of this world and interacts at a very low level with every consciousness which exists here.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Um,” Joe said at last, hesitantly, “Sorry if this sounds obtuse, but…what, exactly, does that…do?”

“In practical terms? It is too diffuse to have a discernible impact on any individual, even those most powerfully connected to transcension fields. The effects are only perceptible in aggregate, over the very long term. For example, the natural evolution of languages is progressive, not cyclical as it is on this world. They tend inherently to drift and evolve, but thanks to the influence of this portal upon the magic of this world, they continue to evolve back into languages being streamed through it. Those are the types of influences it has: long-term cultural effects. Culture is more complex and the parallels are weaker, but many extant societies on this planet resemble nations from the old world of this period to a greater degree than coincidence could account for.”

“And this,” Weaver whispered, “this is what those oracles told me to come here and toss Yngrid through. I…think you were right, Mary. Darling must’ve pissed them off by asking too hard. This is a trap.”

“I realized it was I who raised the possibility, Weaver, but I am far from certain of that,” she said, giving him an encouraging smile before turning back to the projected form of the AI. “If I might trouble you to ask, Avatar: you said the vortex could be modified to allow passage to here from the space between. Would that be safe for a valkyrie to cross?”

“Physical access to the dimensional insulation layer is possible through a variety of means, as you well know,” the Avatar replied with a wry twist of his mouth. “At issue is that the valkyries were fixed there by Rauzon the Prime; their substance is altered such that they cannot exist outside it. I am aware of only one valkyrie being pulled back across and not destroyed, and that only because she was changed almost beyond recognition in the process. The applicability of this portal to your problem, Mr. Weaver and Yngrid, is that it is designed to facilitate the transition between a place which has active transcension fields and one which does not, for ascended beings dependent upon those fields for their survival. A creative application of that apparatus could reverse Rauzon’s changes to a valkyrie and re-align her to this plane rather than the insulation layer. As for how safe it is: this is a machine, of incalculable enormity, complexity, and power, being operated by the most skilled user possible. I am confident I could do this without harming Yngrid, but such a task simply cannot be conceived without risk. The fundamental question remains: why would I do such a thing?”

Weaver inhaled slowly and deeply under the Avatar’s pointed stare. The others just watched him in silence, sensing this was no time to interfere.

“The truth is,” the bard said at last, raising his chin to stare the Avatar in the eye, “I have no great justification for this. I’m here, disrupting your routine and asking you to monkey around with an apparatus you were charged with keeping stable, and I won’t dress that up as anything other than what it is. All I have to say in support of my request is that… That I love her. And that she does not deserve to be imprisoned there, just for being what she is. No one deserves that. So here we are, asking for your help, because you’re the only one who can help us.” Weaver closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again, and to the astonishment of his companions, sank down to one knee. “Please. Help us.”

“It is not that I am unsympathetic, you two. In fact…” Surprisingly, the AI’s expression melted into a wistful smile. “I suppose there is no harm in admitting it: I do enjoy a star-crossed romance. Perusing the literature being produced by your societies has been one of my greatest comforts. However… As cruel as Rauzon and the Order could be, their exile of the valkyries was not a pointless act. Those entities are dangerous and destructive. Bringing Yngrid back to this plane would mean introducing an enormous hazard to it.”

“She is a person with agency,” Weaver insisted quietly. “A kind, funny, warm person who can’t help being what she is, and has no desire to kill frivolously no matter how easy it is for her. She’s not a typhoon, or a disease, or a bomb.”

“All of which was true of her and all her sisters at their first exile, Weaver. What has changed?”

Weaver hesitated, opening his mouth, but seemingly found no answer.

“Uh, scuze me?” Joe interjected, removing his hat. “Actually…I think you’ll find some very important things have changed, just maybe not with Yngrid and the other valkyries.”

The Avatar raised one eyebrow. “Oh?”

“The Infinite Order is gone,” Joe said, politely but firmly. “Long gone. If I’m not mistaken, the current situation of the valkyries is under the authority of Vidius, to whom you don’t answer and owe nothing. We’re all extremely grateful for your efforts here in keepin’ this thing stable, as we’ve said. End o’ the day, though, only responsibility you have is to help humanity, like Tarthriss ordered.” He turned his head and nodded to Weaver. “He’s part o’ humanity. An’ I don’t care what anybody says, so’s Yngrid. They’re… We are askin’ for your help.”

“Nobody in all the world ain’t dangerous,” McGraw added, nodding for emphasis. “I reckon some, or most, of those here could raise about as much hell as Yngrid, if we took a notion to. People just gotta make their choices an’ then be held accountable for the consequences, and for that to matter, they’ve gotta have the freedom to do so. Stuffin’ somebody in a hellish netherworld where the sky’s made o’ monsters because they o’ what they might do ain’t logical any more’n it’s compassionate. That was an act o’ sheer lazy cowardice.”

“Aye, that’s a point, too,” Billie agreed. “Think on it: yer not the one who put the reapers where they are, but if you got the opportunity t’bring one home and ye don’t…well, then, you kinda are, ain’cha?”

“You are incorrect on one point,” the Avatar said quietly.

They all glanced around at each other in uneasy silence.

“I do owe something to Vidius,” the AI mused, turning his transparent head to gaze at the glowing vortex itself. “He is in large part responsible for the state of this thing, and my situation here. You know, now that it’s put to me in those terms, I find myself powerfully disinclined to uphold cruel vanity projects of Rauzon, Vidius, or any other ascended being who hasn’t troubled to clean up after their own depredations. Well, then.” He turned back to Weaver with a smile. “I shall consider myself persuaded.”

The bard swallowed heavily. “I… Thank you. I can’t thank you enough.”

“Correct,” the AI agreed. “Therefore, do not strain yourself trying; the sentiment is received and accepted. Now, this sensation may be uncomfortable, but I assure you it is quite harmless. I am aligning dimensional frequencies. One moment, please, Yngrid; I will inform you when it is safe to approach the vortex.”

Joe almost stumbled at the sudden vertigo; the very air around them seemed to change in tint, as if all color faded to leave sepia and gray. His eyes and his other senses were telling him different things about what he was experiencing. It was, in fact, a familiar sensation.

“Oy, this rings a bell,” Billie muttered, echoing his thoughts. “Where’ve I ‘ad t’sit through somethin’ like this before?”

“Back when we fought Khadizroth the first time, remember?” said McGraw. “It’s a thinning of the barriers between dimensions. He sensed Yngrid, thought Weaver was holding her against her will, and tried to bring her closer to this plane.”

“Oh, aye, I remember that!” Billie said, grinning broadly. “She carved ‘is green arse like a solstice goose. Hah, thanks fer remindin’ me, I been meanin’ to shake Spooky’s ‘and fer that bit o’ work.”

“I guess you’ll get the chance soon,” Joe murmured.

“Alignment complete,” the Avatar stated. “You may want to step back, Mr. Weaver, the focus of the effect is located at the center of the portal. Yngrid, do not under any circumstances pass through the event horizon. It should not have an attractive effect, but I advise against coming too close to it anyway. Please take flight and proceed directly through the aligned space above the vortex, then effect a landing upon the platform no less than ten meters from the edge. Be prepared; I must release the alignment as soon as you are clear or there will begin to be side effects.”

Weaver backed up as he directed, keeping his eyes fixed upon the space above the glowing pit. The rest of the group also retreated to make room, watching for the valkyrie’s appearance. There was no extra sign of any dimensional aperture, only the intense glow of the portal itself and the eerie distorted effect of the Avatar’s dimensional alignment.

Then, quite suddenly, she appeared.

The shape of black wings coalesced like smoke out of nowhere, approaching the ground in a dive from right across the pit. When they had seen Yngrid previously in the space between, she had been a blurry shape as if viewed underwater, and that was exactly how she appeared even as she sharpened out of seeming nothingness. But she sharpened further, until she was as plainly seen as any of them. The speed of it was as rapid as her descent, as if she was passing out of the netherworld exactly as she passed through the air. It was also too quick for any of them to get a good look at the process, except perhaps for Mary.

Evidently plunging into the confusingly almost-merged space around them was even more disorienting than standing in it. She hit the ground and stumbled, staggering forward and wheeling her arms and black wings both for balance. This proved counterproductive, as she managed to tangle the long haft of her scythe in her own feet and pitch violently on a course that would have smashed her face-first into the stone floor had Weaver not caught her.

The bard stepped forward adroitly, despite the dimensional effect muddling all their senses, and the valkyrie landed right in his arms. Her scythe clattered to the ground beside them, forgotten.

Yngrid was a tall woman with a thin build, wave hair of medium blonde, and a long, narrow face surmounted by a high-bridged nose. Her wings were enormous, feathered as inky black as a raven’s, and she wore a dress that seemed haphazardly stitched together from mismatched odds and ends of cloth and erratic pieces of rusty mail armor.

She and Weaver held each other, their eyes locked from inches apart, gazing at one another in disbelief, and growing, incredulous delight.

Then Mary gently nudged Joe’s arm. He looked over to catch her significant glance, then averted his eyes, feeling his face color. Billie actually grunted in displeasure at being nudged by McGraw’s staff, but the old wizard picked her bodily up and turned them both around. The whole group faced the other way, giving the just-united couple a moment of privacy.

“Negating alignment,” the Avatar announced, and for a machine intelligence the fond satisfaction in his voice was remarkably plain to hear; it was the tone of a romantic soul who had just played a role in linking up a pair of star-crossed lovers. Actually, Joe reflected, he sounded more like a bard in that moment than Weaver ever had.

He suited his words with action, at any rate, and the world stabilized around them as the alignment receded.

“So,” Billie muttered, “not ta be insensitive or nothin’, but we’re still out ‘ere in buttfuck, nowhere. How long d’ye reckon we oughta give ’em—”

“Uh oh,” the Avatar said suddenly.

Everyone turned to stare at him, even Weaver and Yngrid, who still had their arms around each other.

“Now, that’s an exclamation I never expected to hear from the likes of you,” Joe said nervously.

“We are about to have more company,” the Avatar said, now frowning. “The translocation eddies put off by the vortex are being co-opted to deposit a spatial tunnel onto this location. That has never happened before.”

“Aye, very ominous,” Billie said. “But what’s it mean?”

“Means someone’s tryin’ to shadow-jump onto this spot,” McGraw explained, clutching his staff. “Which, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, should be multiple kinds of impossible.”

“The act requires the intervention of a high-order ascended being intimately familiar and possessing privileged access to this portal facility,” the Avatar explained, his tone going flat.

“Ah,” said Mary. “Well, we were warned that this course of action was spitting in the eye of a god. Now, it seems, we shall learn what Vidius thinks of it.”

“Oh, aye,” Billie agreed, grinning and reaching into one of her pockets of holding. “Now comes the fun part!”

“Keep it in your pants, girl,” McGraw advised quietly. “We talked about this, remember? We’ll fight for our friends if we have to, but I don’t aim to mix it up with a god or his servants if there’s a chance we can talk ’em down, instead.”

“With all due respect,” Mary added, glancing back at Weaver and Yngrid with the ghost of a smile, “perhaps I should do the talking?”

Before anyone could react to her suggestion, a blade appeared out of nowhere, ripping a diagonal rent in the very air before them.

It was a scythe very much like Yngrid’s—in fact, exactly like it. The weapon parted reality to reveal a gaping slash in the world, through which Vidius’s agent stepped. The moment he was clear, it snapped back together as if it had never been there.

He shifted the weapon to stand upright, planting the butt of its haft against the stone with a resounding thump.

“Yngrid,” Gabriel Arquin stated, frowning at them all, “I am disappointed in you.”

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15 – 34

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Teal lowered the mask from her face once again, frowning pensively down at it. The inner surface lacked the silvery decoration, leaving nothing but a blank wooden surface with cursory holes for the eyes and mouth.

“Still not Foxpaw?” Fross chimed after a moment.

“I don’t…know,” Teal said slowly. “There’s not really any way to know, is there? It’s worked every time, so far, but heck, there have to have been people besides Ashner Foxpaw who were smart enough to play word games. Merry, you sure you weren’t…”

Merry raised her hands in a gesture of innocence; despite this being at least the fifth time she’d been asked, she had yet to grow exasperated by the questioning. On the contrary, she seemed to be concerned mostly with establishing that she’d done nothing wrong. It was a subtle thing, but her tacit position that even using the Mask of the Adventurer was a sketchy action had cast a further pall over the group’s experimentation.

“All I was thinking was that there had to be someone who could match Tellwyrn for power, and if the Mask does what it seems to, it should be able to recreate them. That was the entirety of my thought process. Maybe it just threw up Tellwyrn because no one else can beat her.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s not true,” Trissiny murmured, also staring at the mask in Teal’s hands. “More importantly, Tellwyrn’s pretty sure that’s not true. She’s mentioned it, now and then, how even the most powerful and immortal people get along by not picking the wrong fights.”

“Perhaps the semantics are important,” Toby suggested. “Corporal Lang wanted something to match Tellwyrn, not defeat her. After all, if you want to beat a powerful mage, you need an equally powerful warlock, or a more powerful witch.”

“Yeah, well, forgive me if I’ve had about all the fuckin’ semantics I can stomach for a while,” Ruda grunted, sitting down on the ancient paving stones and pulling a bottle of bourbon out of her coat.

After Merry’s use of the Mask—since which she had adamantly refused to touch it—they had spent hours exploring its subtler capabilities. By unspoken agreement, Teal continued to serve as the test case, while the rest of the group took turns applying intellectual pressures rather than physical ones. It turned out the Mask was able and willing to assist with these challenges as well, and nothing they’d produced had managed to stump her as long as she was wearing it—though, at Fross’s insistence and accompanied by a shrill lecture about scientific procedure and the importance of control groups, Teal hadn’t donned the Mask to meet any challenge until she failed to come up with an adequate solution on her own, which had ruled out several of their efforts.

In general, these transformations were less dramatic, not only involving less moving about but fewer and subtler costume changes, and no conjured weapons or tools. In a few cases, they could only tell that the Mask was active because it wasn’t visibly in evidence while being worn.

The first two Omnist koans used up most of an hour, because it turned out that when one tested a question that was designed to have no answer against an artifact that provided an answer to anything, the result was a profoundly involved spiritual conversation. Toby, Juniper, and Teal had certainly seemed invested in their long discussion about what it meant that the way which could be known was not the way, but Ruda had finally broken under the pressure and loudly demanded they try something else.

More concrete challenges were answered more directly, not to mention faster. Trissiny’s challenge had taken the longest of those remaining, as well as being one of the few which created a costume change, though even the paladin couldn’t identify the military uniform Teal had been wearing when she provided answers to a series of military exercises and dilemmas. This had involved the two of them kneeling in the dust and scratching diagrams of troop positions on the ground. In the end, Trissiny had come away looking slightly shaken at Teal’s borrowed military ingenuity; according to her, those were problems on which Silver Legion officer candidates were tested to gauge the flexibility of their thinking and capacity to make inventive use of meager assets. They were supposed to be as impossible as Toby’s koans.

Fross, by contrast, had been so delighted by the answers provided to her probing questions into advanced arcane mechanics and theoretical physics by the robed wizard Teal channeled in response that Ruda had had to insist yet again on ending their session. In this case, it was because she wanted to try something of her own. Bringing up Merry’s channeling of Tellwyrn, she had posed Teal a series of questions and challenges taken directly from Foxpaw’s Exploits in an attempt to see whether the Mask could channel the archetypal master thief. The results of that had rather frustrated her. Teal had taken the Mask off and put it on several times over the course of that conversation, creating clear changes of her approach to these hypothetical dilemmas each time, and it turned out that a series of ancient thieves, bards, and miscellaneous tricksters mostly responded to being interrogated by turning the game around on the one asking questions. After Ruda had lost patience, demanded a straight answer, and been serenaded with a new verse of “I’d Hit Sally” featuring herself in reply, had stomped off in a huff.

“I had…” Gabriel trailed off, frowning, then shook his head when they all turned to look at him. “Never mind. Probably not a good idea.”

“Well, don’t let that stop you,” Trissiny said with a smile. “Screwing around is your greatest strength.”

His lips twitched in a reluctant reciprocation of her amusement. “Yeah, well, I was just thinking. It seems to me that this specific thing we’re doing here might have more important possibilities than the Mask’s ability to imitate dangerous people. I was just considering trying to stump it with a couple of intractable strategic problems I’ve been wrestling with, and it occurred to me that it would be amazingly practical if that thing could actually solve those for me. And from there… Think about it, this is way more than a weapon. It potentially turns its wearer into an oracle who can answer any question to which someone, at some point, knew an answer.”

“Isn’t that kinda what Fross tested?” Ruda asked.

“Not exactly!” chimed the pixie. “I was more asking for deeper comprehension and precise methodology than actual physical understanding. The tricky thing about arcane physics is that the underlying concepts are predicated on an entirely different physical logic than that which sapient minds evolved to process. The actual answers to those questions are known, otherwise it wouldn’t have been a valid test to ask them; we’d have no way to check the results! It’s just, that stuff is really hard to learn.”

“So we could still actually test that, then,” Toby said. “It sounds worth a try, at the very least.”

Teal frowned, slowly turning the Mask over in her hands.

“Are you all right?” Shaeine asked softly, stepping up next to her. “You don’t need to be the test case every time, love. Or we could stop.”

“No…” Teal lowered one hand from the Mask to gently take Shaeine’s, giving it an affectionate squeeze. “Actually, I was just thinking, myself, about the potential of this thing. This has been a lot more instructive than combat tests. My own entire problem has been…learning to find my own false face. You know, project a mask I can use as a mask to both protect myself and take on challenges in a way that’s not… Well. Teal ducking and hiding or Vadrieny smashing everything. A middle ground between those extremes is such a mess to figure out that it just makes more sense to obviate the entire thing by creating a character to use. The way Vidians do, and Veskers are supposed to.” She hefted the Mask of the Adventurer, frowning quizzically at it. “Every time I put this on, get a new angle from which to see the world, I feel like I’m getting one step closer to my own goal.”

“Well, we don’t mind you being the one to test it,” Juniper said, looking around at the others. “Right? Especially if it helps you. Helping with that specific issue is kinda why we did that whole ritual in the first place, isn’t it? And anyway, I don’t mind admitting that thing scares me. I don’t want to put it on. The absolute last thing I need is more power.”

“Yeah, that’s my concern,” Teal agreed, nodding at the dryad. “I am way too prone to lean on crutches when they’re available. Testing this thing out is helping me, but… Guys, I hope you don’t think this is cowardly, but I don’t want to be its guardian. I don’t want the option of just whipping it out as soon as things are tough.”

“I think that’s extremely wise, Teal,” Toby said, smiling at her.

“Hey, Fross,” said Trissiny. “Would it harm either you or the Mask to put it in your aura storage?”

“I don’t really see how,” Fross replied, bobbing up and down in thought. “I store magical objects in there all the time, and there’s no bleed effect with each other or my own aura. Clearly, we can’t actually know until we try it, and that object is orders of magnitude more powerful than anything else I’ve ever held onto. But in principle, yeah, that should work fine.”

“Well, if you’re willing to take on the responsibility,” Trissiny said, “and if no one else objects, how about we have Fross hang onto it when we’re not experimenting? That aura storage of hers seems like the best way to keep anyone else from being able to steal it from us. And more important, Fross is the most rational person I know. No disrespect meant to any of you, but I can’t think of anybody I’d trust more with something that dangerous. Myself included.”

“Hell, I don’t think you’ll get any argument from anyone here,” Ruda said, grinning and toasting the pixie with her bottle.

“Wow,” Fross said, as the others all nodded agreement. “I’m really honored, guys. And sure, I don’t mind. If it does cause me a problem we might have to revisit this, but yeah, I’ll definitely tuck it away. But first, weren’t we going to test Gabriel’s question?”

“That’s right,” Teal agreed, raising the mask toward her face.

“Wait!” Fross zipped around her in a circle. “Control group, remember? He’s gotta ask the question first!”

“Oh, right. Okay, Gabe, let’s hear it.”

He regarded her every bit as seriously as if he were actually consulting an oracle, a slight frown of sheer focus creasing his forehead. “How can you block a telepath… No, an incredibly powerful telepath, one who can no only read thoughts but read information right out of reality itself. How can you prevent someone like that from seeing your mind?”

Trissiny and Toby both stiffened as he spoke, eyes widening in comprehension. Ruda glanced speculatively at each of them, but the rest of the group just regarded Gabriel in puzzlement.

“Okay, yeah,” said Teal after a pause. “I have absolutely no idea. That’s a doozy of a test case. Let’s see, then…”

Still holding Shaeine’s hand, she lifted the Mask to her face again with her other, and in a short whirl of energy was left wearing a loose, slightly ragged robe of brown and maroon, with a hood pulled forward far enough to obscure her eyes.

“The question is, Gabriel Arquin,” Teal asked with a knowing grin that was not exactly unlike herself, but not the sort of face she would make under these circumstances, “who is you?”

“Do you mean…who are you?” he replied, blinking.

Teal’s new robe shuffled softly as she shook her head. “Who is asking the question? Do you wish to know how such a thing might be done by anyone, or by yourself specifically?”

He narrowed his eyes. “Why does it matter?”

“The essence of deterring a telepath is not to create a wall to keep them out, for they will only take that as a challenge. It is to create an illusion, a superficial layer of false thought to distract them, and prevent them from looking deeper. No matter how powerful the enemy, once they have seen what they expect, they will rarely look a second time. The mental discipline this demands is vast. People train for lifetimes to hone their minds this way. But for you? There are answers within the berserking blood of the hethelax—”

“Bad idea,” Ariel interjected, the first she had spoken since they had begun the ritual at dawn. “Self-enchantment, taking advice from mysterious warlocks, taking advice from poorly-understood magical artifacts; this is in fact a whole stack of bad ideas.”

“Aren’t you a poorly-understood magical artifact?” Gabriel countered, placing a hand on her hilt.

“Not in the least. Just because you cannot make a talking sword does not mean the method isn’t fully a matter of record. That thing, by contrast, is an entire mystery and as far as I can tell an object completely without precedent. Tampering with your own mental and magical underpinnings at its suggestion would be terrifyingly reckless.”

“I happen to agree,” Teal said, barely an instant after she pried the Mask off her face again. “That one was…that was uncomfortable. I’m pretty sure that was some kind of warlock. And anyway, Ariel’s right. Getting theoretical knowledge from it is one thing, since it’s apparently the knowledge of people from the past. But that very fact means we have no way of vetting who they are or what agenda they had, or what might result from following their suggestions.”

“So in other words,” Gabriel said, still clutching Ariel as if for comfort, “the oracular powers that Mask presents might be just as dangerous as its combat powers.”

A short silence fell in which they all frowned in thought.

“Well, if we’re done playin’ around for now,” Ruda said at last, “I guess that brings us to the real question, here: what the fuck are we gonna do about that thing?”

Teal turned to meet Shaeine’s eyes, and the drow nodded minutely to her, squeezing her hand.

“Hey, Locke,” Teal called. “What do you think we should do with the Mask?”

They were far from alone on the plateau, though their various companions and minders were mostly providing them with some space. Sniff and F’thaan were both asleep nearby, having been up most of the night along with their respective masters, and their two Order of the Light guides were lurking on the periphery, watching the group from the entrance of the old building in which they were encamped. Merry had brought them up to speed on events, having designated herself the party’s gofer, likely as much to keep busy as anything. Principia had settled down on a rock near enough to the group that she could have heard their conversation even without an elf’s ears, but had not spoken to them since. She was currently stripped to her tunic and breeches, having occupied her hands in thoroughly checking, cleaning, and oiling her armor. Now, she set down the rag and pauldron she was holding, turning to face them directly.

“Here’s a question: what can you do with it?”

“What the fuck kinda question is that?” Ruda demanded. “Is that another one of those koans?”

“Not exactly, except in the sense that the point of it is to have you consider the implications, rather than provide me with an answer. What you’ve got there is an instant win card for any possible conflict. What do you plan to do with it, exactly? I think Juniper so far has come closest to the heart of the matter. Do any of you need more power?”

“Ruda sort of does,” Fross offered. “I mean, in relation to the rest of us, at least.”

“Oh, the absolute fuck I do,” Ruda snorted. “I can’t imagine anybody more weak or stupid than a person with a gimmick that automatically wins all their fights for them. You learn by failing, and you grow by being challenged. You lot can do what you like, but I will have to lead a nation, and I can’t let myself get soft by leaning on a crutch like that.”

“And that is a very smart outlook,” Principia agreed, nodding. “What about the rest of you? No judgment, there are no wrong answers. Do any of you feel you need that artifact, or have any particular plans to use it?”

“I…sort of,” Teal said softly after a short pause. “But just the way I said. It’s useful for me as a tool for self-exploration, but I’m specifically alarmed by the possibility of coming to depend on it. Overall I can’t shake the feeling that this thing is bad news.”

“I’m hearing a lot of good sense, here,” Principia said with clear approval, “which is very reassuring after the absolutely harebrained stumblebumblery by which you created that chunk of madness in the first place. Anyone else? Does anyone have a need or desire to use the Mask?”

She let the silence hang while they glanced at each other.

“Good,” the elf said finally, nodding again. “Then if you’re not going to use it, the question becomes: who should?”

“I cannot help but think,” Shaeine said softly, “the obvious answer to that is no one. I am uncertain that any person could be trusted with such power. I say that as one whose House and nation would be very eager indeed to control it. As we were responsible for creating the Mask, I feel we must be responsible for keeping it out of the wrong hands.”

“Yeah, the thing is,” said Juniper, grimacing, “are there any right hands?”

“I tend to agree with Shaeine,” said Gabriel. “We’ve all got people we trust and causes we support. But… That is a hell of a trump card. Does anyone deserve to have that kind of power?”

“More troubling to me is what power does to people,” Trissiny added. “Corruption is only the beginning of it. By entrusting the Mask to someone we respect, we might well be condemning them to a slide into madness.”

“I think that’s an unnecessarily dramatic way to put it, but in principle I don’t disagree,” said Ruda.

“So.” Principia folded her arms on her knees, leaning toward them with an intent expression. “You don’t want to use it, or give it away. That leaves taking it out of circulation. And that is complicated by how very much absolutely everyone who learns of that thing will want it.”

“Well, I mean, who even knows?” Gabriel asked. “It’s not like we’re gonna take out a newspaper ad.”

Principia pointed at the distant Great Tree. “That is one of the most powerful nexi of fae and divine magic in existence. You just stood at the base of it and did…this. Given the nature of oracular divination? Every witch and shaman in the world above a certain threshold of capability just lifted their heads to sniff the air, even if they don’t know why. The strongest among them will definitely have a general shape in mind of what happened here—and even if it’s just ‘something incredibly powerful was just created,’ that’s enough. Not to mention the existence of actual oracles, and the fact that they tend to end up in the hands of major governments and the Universal Church. It is not impossible that some highly motivated people already know exactly what you’ve got there. Maybe not likely, but at the very least, the hints are already spreading.”

“Oh,” he said quietly.

“And that’s only the beginning,” Principia went on, shifting to glance at the dwarf and human still keeping a respectful distance from them.

“Hey, now,” Ruda protested. “I’m not saying those two’re the kind of people I’d invite to my poker game, but they don’t strike me as squealers.”

“You have to think in terms of connections, and obligations,” Principia said seriously. “They are members of the Order of the Light. They cannot fail to report something like this to their Order.”

“The Order has fallen far from relevance since the Enchanter Wars,” Shaeine pointed out.

“The Order,” Principia continued relentlessly, “is nominally led by Ampophrenon the Gold. He is a founding member of the Conclave of the Winds. The draconic government is a formal ally of the Tiraan Empire, and I have personally twice seen its members cooperating closely with Imperial Intelligence.”

“Well, then, just, fuck, that’s all,” Ruda said feelingly.

“And don’t forget, Vesk was here when you were doing this. Just because they didn’t make their presence specifically known doesn’t mean the other gods aren’t just as aware. At minimum, the four to which the paladins are connected will know. Gods have their own agendas and aren’t very communicative as a rule; it may be that most of them wouldn’t share news of something like this with their cults. But Vesk, himself? Everything he came here to do, he could have done anonymously and in silence. Instead, he couldn’t resist putting in an appearance just to be mysterious at me—the very definition of a pointless exercise. Gods are constrained by their nature and their aspects. Vesk is well known for doing things for absolutely no other reason than that a rollicking good story will result. Which, for everyone not a bard, means a sequence of barely manageable disasters.”

Silence answered her as they all considered this. Principia stared at them, her expression revealing nothing of her thoughts.

“It sounds like it might be best if we destroyed it,” Juniper said at last in a small voice. “Gabe? Maybe that scythe of yours—”

“If you destroy the Mask, two things will happen,” Principia interjected. “First, the absolutely unfathomable amount of energy contained in it will all be released at once, and I don’t care how supposedly invulnerable anybody here is, there’s a very good chance nobody would survive that. Or what would happen to any who did; that kind of uncontained magic of all four schools and shadow besides can do hellaciously unpredictable things. Second, there would be pieces of it left, whether fragments or just dust, and there’s absolutely no telling what those would do, much less where they might end up. It is possible to safely dispose of artifacts like that, but you’re back to the issue of power and the temptation thereof. Any magic users who could handle that task, like the cult of Salyrene or the Wizards’ Guild, might very well want to possess that thing badly enough to risk pissing off the nine of you.”

“You’re a real ray of sunshine, you know that?” Gabriel commented.

“You goobers accidentally created the ultimate superweapon. I will stop pointing out what a fucking mess this is just as soon as it stops being urgently necessary.”

“That’s a lot of things we can’t or shouldn’t do with the Mask,” Teal said pointedly, “but I asked you what you thought we should do.”

“And this is me answering,” Principia replied with the ghost of a smile. “The absolute last thing you need is someone to hold your hands, kids. I’m just guiding you in the right direction, here. You already know what you should do with it.”

“Tellwyrn,” Toby said softly.

“Whoah, hang on,” Ruda objected. “I like Tellwyrn as much as anybody, but come on. Does she of all people need something like this?”

“No, she doesn’t need it,” Trissiny said thoughtfully. “Maybe…that’s why she can be trusted with it.”

“Here’s what I know,” Principia added. “I entrusted Arachne with the Mask of Calomnar a hundred years ago and nobody’s heard a whisper of that damn thing ever since. She can be trusted to hide dangerous artifacts away where no one can get at them.”

“Whoah, wait a sec,” Gabriel exclaimed. “What the hell were you doing with the Mask of Calomnar?”

“Getting the hell rid of it, is what.” Principia grimaced, rubbing her palms on her tunic as if at the memory of a greasy sensation. “I wouldn’t have gone near that thing at all, but I was in Onkawa when it popped into circulation nearby, and a particularly squirrelly succubus was that close to getting her hands on it. Obviously I couldn’t just let that happen; I have to live on this planet too. Arachne was…a friend of a friend, at the time, and someone pointed out to me as both trustworthy and powerful enough to handle a thing like that. And like I said, that was back during the Enchanter Wars; time has proven it was the right thing to do. She’s powerful enough to be able to contain such things, savvy enough not to mess with anything too dangerous to handle, and arguably so powerful that more power doesn’t tempt her. Give it to Arachne, and nobody else after the thing will even have a chance.”

Another pause fell, in which they digested this advice.

Then Fross let out a chiming little laugh. “Oh, wow… And I was just hoping we might be able to resolve this without her finding out about it. Man, she’s really gonna kill us this time, guys.”

“You did the thing; it’s time to take your medicine like big boys and girls.” Principia turned again to look at the distant Tree. “I just hope there’s time enough to get to her. The clock started ticking the moment that Mask was created, maybe before. I wouldn’t think anyone could reach us here before we return to Last Rock, but… It’s a new world, kids, and nobody knows all the rules, yet.”

She did not add that Vesk himself had predicted a new Age of Adventurers to be spawned from this day’s work. There was little point in spooking them further; they couldn’t do much to be more prepared than they already were. Depending on the powers already assembling, it might have been too late before they began.

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15 – 31

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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.

“Vesk.”

“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.”

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15 – 30

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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.

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