Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Postby Graybeard » February 17th, 2019, 4:38 pm

Chapter Thirty-eight: Getsemiel

As Sister Rose and Argus were sailing away from Shield Island with Dess Marson and his castaways (hmmm… sounds like the name for a popular band, Rose thought whimsically, but did not say), and as the Outlanders were arriving at the island to find it jarringly inhabited, another ship was approaching landfall at the small west Veracian port of Getsemiel. This ship too carried a passenger who had an interest in Shield Island. However, the resemblances ended there.

Elgin Bindiel had gone to some lengths to disguise himself as the tramp steamer crossed the ocean from Farrel to Veracia. Part of the disguise was magical; part was cosmetic. He knew from his agent in Getsemiel that the town had odd limits on the availability of magic based on the magical energy of Luminosita, for reasons that nobody seemed to understand completely. He didn’t worry much about them; for one thing, he was, and knew himself to be, a proficient enough spellcaster that he had no need to tap into Luminosita’s Power. For another, the spellcasting of the immediate moment, minor Polymorphing and a few other things, would remain in effect after the ship docked. (Wouldn’t it? Probably. Maybe.)

The spellcasting, of course, had tired him out badly, but that wasn’t a problem; he was planning to keep out of sight of the crew anyway. By the time they made landfall, he was recovered, and he stealthily slipped ashore while some kind of commercial deal was transacted that did not particularly interest him; something involving the herbs that the Calfornican heretics used in their services, and that consumers in other lands might have found ... entertaining. Even though he had never been to Getsemiel before, he knew exactly where to find his man. Without any hesitation, he headed not for the small Millenarian temple in town, which he suspected (correctly) would have been razed and its few priests arrested, but for … a bar.

Will Parsiel was waiting there, as Bindiel knew he would be. He was a tall man, tall enough not to meet the exacting standards of the Redemption Army. In other regards, he fit the standards just fine; muscular but not excessively so, blond-haired, blue-eyed, not an obvious physical deformity on him. Well, not a real one, anyway; as part of his cover, he had pierced one ear to hold an earring, a common affectation among the seamen who came to town but taboo in the Millenarian Church, and the other had a notch as though he’d attempted a piercing that had not worked right. Both men knew that these blemishes would have to be restored if and when Parsiel ever went back to Provatiel where he had grown up.

He was nonchalantly tidying up the porch in front of the bar’s door when Bindiel approached him, wearing an outfit obviously of local creation that suggested that he worked as the bar’s bouncer, as indeed he did. Bindiel noted with approval that the big man emitted a faint but discernible odor of one of the sacramental herbs used in the Calfornican Church. Good; that little touch would provide some olfactory cover to match the visuals. He was pretty sure that Parsiel did not indulge in the stuff, other than by second-hand smoke.

“Bar’s closed,” Parsiel growled as Bindiel approached. The second man smiled. “Even to someone from your home town?” he said with a smirk.

That put Parsiel on his guard; he’d been careful never to mention to anyone in Getsemiel where he came from. He took Bindiel in with a long, appraising stare, measuring him against the Redemption Army standard and finding him wanting. “You don’t look like you’re from – the same place as I am,” he muttered. “Now get lost, I’m working.” But no sooner had he said these words than Bindiel began to hum a tune, one that was never, ever used outside the home city of the Millenarians.

He stopped short, and Bindiel noticed that his hand was moving toward a pocket that must have contained some kind of weapon. “Where did you pick that up?” Parsiel growled again.

“Same place as you did.”

A snort. “Unlikely. Now get out of here before –“

Bindiel spoke just one word. It was the name of the nominal commander of the Redemption Army, a secret name that was never spoken outside Provatiel. Both Bindiel and Parsiel knew that the real power in the Army lay with an obscure lieutenant named Bindiel, but the commander’s name was also cover. Of course, only one of the two knew where that obscure lieutenant was now – for another thirty seconds or so.

Parsiel’s demeanor shifted. “How did you know that?

“Mutual friends.” He named another very secret name from the Elders, this time of the man who he knew to be Parsiel’s nominal handler. (Of course he’d know that; he had made the arrangements.) “There’s another name I could give you too, but then I’d have to kill you.” My own.

Parsiel was satisfied, and intimidated. “Let’s go inside and talk.” He turned and opened a large, ostentatious, and non-magical lock on the door. Nobody but Bindiel noticed that he also dismissed what appeared to be a Ward.

Once they were seated inside, the larger man said, “Okay, talk.” But Bindiel countered, “Not quite yet.” He paused to cast a Damping spell that would not only prevent anyone outside the building from overhearing their conversation, but also establish himself as Veracian clergy. (Or a Tsuirakuan or an elf.) Both men knew, though, that the geographical oddity that prevented Luminosita’s Power from reaching Getsemiel would have made it impossible for ordinary priests to cast either the ward or the Damping. Each knew, therefore, that the other was no ordinary priest.

“Now, then,” Parsiel said once the spell was in effect. “Who are you, why are you here, and what do you want?”

“In reverse order: I need your help, you don’t need to know why, and I repeat: if I tell you who I am, I have to kill you.” Bindiel’s facial expression suggested he was dead serious (so to speak) about the last part.

Parsiel considered. This was obviously Church business, and it was probably bad. The Millenarian temple had been blown up several weeks earlier by what appeared to be an airship. In the aftermath, he noticed a band of out-of-towners who were neither members of the heretical Calfornican sect that he was here to keep an eye on, the Faithful, nor the Orthodox apostates, from the looks of them. Then, not even a week ago, the few priests and nuns of his Millenarian church had been rounded up by a grim-faced security party and marched off … with one exception. (Well, two, counting himself.) This man hadn’t been here then, apparently; he looked like he’d just been on a long, uncomfortable sea voyage, as indeed he had.

He took a guess. “You want me to arrange transportation out of town.”

“That is correct.”

“To where?”

“You don’t need to know that, either.” Parsiel could feel magic being gathered, as though his interlocutor was getting prepared for a sudden, lethal Force Bolt; he had seen it happen.

He made a decision. “Very well, then. I know of a man with a horse and wagon who has business – elsewhere.” The man was the surviving Millenarian priest, who was going to be traveling under cover to Saus to try to find out what had happened to his church. “He will be heading northeast –“ Parsiel decided he shouldn’t be too forthcoming with the details – “rather than southeast.” In other words, not toward Provatiel, but if you wanted to go there, we wouldn’t be dancing around the subject like this. And I’m beginning to suspect you’re going to the same place as he is. This was correct. “Is that satisfactory?”

“Yes.” Flat statement, flat voice, flat facial expression, as though Bindiel was deciding whether to step on a bug.

Parsiel sighed. “It will be done, then. It’ll take a day to arrange. I recommend you stay here and out of sight until then. There’s an upstairs room.” Mine, but I’m not going near it until you’re out of town.

“Thank you.” Still flat and lifeless, but was there at least a glimmer of hope that this strange newcomer wasn’t going to kill him?

Parsiel motioned up the stairs. “I need to go make arrangements. I work here this evening, so you’ll see –“

Bindiel cut him off. “No, I will not. Effective immediately, your cover here is blown, on my authority. You will return at once to –“ he checked the Damping spell – “Provatiel, where you will help comfort the bereaved there. There are one hell of a lot of them. Pick yourself a nice widow or three, settle down, raise your family, and remember.” He didn’t say you will not be traveling with me; he didn’t need to.

Parsiel’s mouth worked silently as he started to put the pieces together. He said nothing more until he was turning to leave this frightening man, but then he had one more thought. “I – you’re obviously senior enough to be giving me this order, sir. But Fath—the man who will be driving you to – your destination will not know that. He is one of the Faithful, and he will want to know on whose authority I am giving him this instruction. Now, after we’ve established each other’s bona fides, can you finally at least tell me who you are without killing me?”

Bindiel thought for a long minute. And then he told him, and didn't even kill him afterward.
----
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Postby Graybeard » March 16th, 2019, 8:09 pm

[Short one this time, but I've been fighting writer's block and need to keep some momentum, so we'll come back to this merry crew soon enough ...]

Chapter Thirty-nine: Anoxia

Anoxia, the biological state of being without oxygen for a while, does strange and horrible things to the brain. It is an extremely oxygen-greedy organ. Deprive it of its need for even a very short time, and parts of it start to work not quite right. Deprive it for only a little longer, and first in small bits at a time, soon enough all over the organ, the dysfunction becomes permanent – even in an elf brain.

Peregin Paukii had stopped breathing for long enough, before Harker plummeted onto her chest, to be in that cerebral territory from which return is no automatic, certain thing. As Argus and Sister Rose had hoped (sort of), the magical iron lung that Argus improvised got her back breathing again, restoring the flow of precious oxygen to her blood and then to her body. Over the next few hours, the tough elven immune system would neutralize the toxins the huge venomous snake had filled her with, and she would begin to breathe again under her own power. In general, she would be functional again by the next day. However, certain parts of her brain … would not.

=^=^=

The Outlanders had hove-to a few miles off the coast of Shield Island when they spotted Dess Marson’s odd ship(s), and kept a low profile in the hope that Marson would not see them in return. (This hope would not be fulfilled; Marson knew they were there. However, they had nothing to do with the money-making deal that brought him here, he wasn’t going to bother them if they didn’t bother him, and after collecting Rose and Argus and Harker, he simply sped off.) As soon as the coast was clear, they began their own careful, stealthy approach to the island – at just about the time when Paukii was starting to breathe again without assistance.

The Outlanders were wiser in the ways of the wilds, or at least that part of the wilds composed of stinking swamps and disagreeable highlands, than Rose and Argus were. People-Leader’s-Son frowned while they were still a quarter of a mile or so from the shore. “That looks like a settlement,” he said, pointing with his long arm toward the ruins where the humans had spent the night. “We must approach carefully. Learning-Spirits, can you divine anything about them?”

The main spellcaster in the Outlander party frowned in her turn. “Let me consult.” She thought she was praying to one of the tribe’s divinities, although elves and Tsuirakuans would have dismissed what she was doing as simply a Farsight spell. After a minute or two of concentration, she nodded, a gesture that meant the same in her culture as in the other intelligent races. “It is in ruins, but I think it was a village of our people. It has that look about it, or so the Spirits tell me.”

It was People-Leader’s-Son’s turn to nod. “Good. We may find things there to help us in our search. Let us land.” And a few minutes later, the explorers were moving cautiously inland, toward the trailhead … and the now-awake elf, still in her thaumatic iron lung, a few hundred yards along it.

They happened to reach Paukii at just about the time when she was able to extricate herself from the device. The omnipresent light mist had brought a few leaves and a bit of dirt down from the treetops, and in addition, the light beneath the forest canopy was dim. Between this and the fact that Argus’ handiwork had been functional and not decorative, the life-sustaining gadget looked more like a moss-covered tube lying on the ground than like a magical artifact. In turn, the elf who now emerged from it looked more like she was crawling out of the underworld than like a representative of the planet’s oldest -- and most imperious -- race.

“GAAAA! A QUTSMOVI!” one of the Outlanders screamed, using a word that had no exact equivalent in any other known language; “earth-demon” came as close as anything without precisely capturing the fear of it. (Or “night wyrm”; a xenobiologist might have had some fun with that. But there were no xenobiologists on the island. As for whether there were actual night wyrms, that question is probably best left unexplored, like most of the island.) The screamer turned to run, as did two or three other of the explorers, but People-Leader’s-Son raised a hand and stood his ground. “Wait,” he commanded, and such was his stature already with his people that that gesture stopped the flight. “This looks like one of the –“ he tried to remember the word the demons used for themselves, no point in alarming his crew – “humans who come to the Demon Isles sometimes.” (The human/elf nuance was lost on him, of course, but that was understandable; no elf had set foot in the Eastern Wastes in centuries.) “They aren’t creatures of evil, just different from us. Treat it carefully and it will do no harm.”

Of course, nobody had bothered to check that last contention with Paukii, now gathering what remained of her wits as her breathing became regular and unassisted.
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Postby Graybeard » April 12th, 2019, 12:50 pm

[Another short one to de-block some writer's block...]


Chapter Forty: Phidelphiel (I)

“So that’s Phidelphiel,” Sister Rose observed to Argus, squinting at the distant city lights through the coastal mists.

Nobody on board had expected the Veracian city to be their next port of call. Argus, Rose, Dess Marson, and Lucy Kankaniel had all planned to go back to the miasmas of Anuba City when they were done with Shield Island, after which they would go their separate ways. However, it didn’t take long for them all to decide, after hearing Lucy’s account of the sinking of her ship, that there was someone there whom they would much prefer to avoid. (In fact, Nikolai was just about to set sail back to Nautkia, believing that he’d accomplished his mission and having no further interest in the place or the ships that came and went there. Needless to say, none aboard Marson’s ship could know that – yet.)

Argus grimaced. “Don’t remind me.”

Rose knew he’d been there before they’d met, but he had never explained why, when or how; no big secret, she guessed, just no occasion to talk about it. Until now. “Not a fun, memorable trip, huh?”

Another grimace, and not just from the noise of the air horn behind them. “It was supposed to be. When I was young, my parents were big on us seeing the world.” He blushed. “Which is how – there is a Lillith.” The blush deepened.

Rose smiled and patted his hand. “For which all involved can be grateful.” (Argus’ scowl did brighten for that.) “But not so much here?”

The grimace was back. “No. I was about ten at the time. I’m still not sure why we came here. My father said it was a business trip, for whatever business he was in – I never knew much about that -- so why not bring the family along? But he got in trouble when he got back, for what happened.”

Rose waited him out, knowing he’d elaborate if he’d got this far, but she was thinking, and wondering. Two possibilities. The unflattering one is that Argus’ dad was involved in some smuggling activities like they do in Nautkia … and the scary one is that he was an agent of the Tsuirakuan government, in deep cover to do some snooping around, maybe break up those same smugglers. I know he’s talked about his father having had some government job, without ever saying wat it was. Dare I –

She didn’t need to. As expected, Argus sighed and continued. “My mother got mugged, practically kidnapped in fact. It’s a rough city. We were all in the harbor district. Dad and I were looking at a funny-looking ship, he wondered later if it had some dwarven features. Mom – some asshole got an arm around her, with a knife in his hand.”

What a horrible thing for a small child to have to see. But I know his parents were still alive when he went up to the Northern Confederacy to … “The guy tried to kidnap the wife of an arch-mage?” she pressed on. “Sounds … unwise.”

Argus’ mood brightened slightly. “That it was. I was about ready to try something stupid, the kind of thing ten-year-olds read about in comics, when there was this magical KRAAK and a black, smoking hole about half an inch in diameter appeared between the bastard’s eyes. My father had cast that precise a Force Bolt. Didn’t even singe Mom’s hair.” His smile widened a little more and he rolled his eyes. “They didn’t have any disciplinary trouble with me for a long time after that.”

“I bet,” said Rose, impressed, and she changed the subject.
----
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Postby Graybeard » May 2nd, 2019, 11:17 pm

Chapter Forty-one: Phidelphiel (II)

“What now?” Argus asked Sister Rose once they had landed. Lucy Kankaniel, her surviving crew, and Dess Marson and Tomas had all vanished on arrival like dew before the sun, so they were on their own in an unfamiliar place.

“I’m not sure,” Rose answered. “This wasn’t planned.” She grimaced. “It should have been. Anuba City is unpleasant enough that people try to get away from it as fast as they can, even under normal conditions. This is about the closest mainland port to the Archipelago, and somebody should have had the foresight to set something up here as Plan B.” Another grimace. “I guess I should have been that somebody.” If I wasn’t so busy thinking about … family things.

“The military can’t help us here?” Argus wondered.

“Probably not. This trip was pretty close-hold. I doubt if anyone here was briefed on it. Just wading into a naval facility uninvited … isn’t a good idea.”

Argus chuckled. “It wouldn’t be in Tsuiraku either. Navies are like that. How about your church? Do they have anything useful in town?”

Rose brightened. “Now there’s an idea. There’s a small temple of my denomination here, the head priest and I were in school together before I got moved onto the military track. Nice enough guy, goes by Father Burton now. I think he’d help, if we can just find the temple.” A few minutes later, they had flagged down a hack, finding that the driver knew where the temple was, and were on their way.

It was only a few minutes after that, however, that Rose began to feel uncomfortable, and it wasn’t morning sickness that was the cause. <”Something doesn’t feel right here,”> she mind-spoke to Argus. <”I just checked this guy’s emotional state –“> she didn’t need to say she’d used her Empathy magic -- <”and he’s hiding something from us. No idea what, but there’s an unpleasant tinge to it.”>

<”Think he’s planning to try something?”> Argus thought back, his body language suggesting he was thinking the same thing; he’d grown astute at reading people’s own body language, being now more or less married to a master of the art.

<”Could be. We’d better stay on our toes.”> They rode in silence for a few minutes more, until the hack turned down a beat-up-looking lane that raised their sensitivities another notch. In fairness, what looked like a Reformed temple was visible a few blocks down the road.

Are we walking, or riding, into an ambush? Rose wondered. She decided to pre-empt. “Thanks. We’ll take it from here, we need to stretch our legs.” They’d been on a sea voyage, after all, so that was more true than not.

Then, as she and Argus were debarking, she made a terrible blunder: she let the hack driver get between her and Argus.

He was a big man, but startlingly quick … and he had a knife. Before she had a chance to react, he twisted around and enveloped her with a meaty arm, with the knife in his hand, and at her neck. She emitted a strangled “ArrrGLUH” before he pulled her off her feet and snarled at Argus, “Drop the money purse or your bitch gets it.”

=*=*=

Years earlier, this would have been a disastrous error for the mugger, not the intended victim.

Cadet Rose Nuria had not been very good, in general, at the hand-to-hand combat training she’d been forced to take as part of her preparations for the military. She was fairly strong for a 17-year-old girl, but she was a girl, as the obnoxious instructor never ceased to point out loudly. Her excellent balance didn’t make up for her limited strength, nor did quick reflexes completely overcome an unwillingness to shed blood or inflict a debilitating blow to … certain male anatomy. She would eventually pass the course – a corrupt priest would discover that, many years later, to his disadvantage – but in the lower half of the class, and only after many a punitive “remedial” session.

However, there was one part of the class where she wasn’t just skilled, she was better at it than any student in years had been: evasion.

Nobody ever, ever was able to keep Cadet Nuria in a headlock or other physical restraint for long, because of the shapeshifting magic that she already wielded with a proficiency never seen before in the Veracian military. In a flash of her green eyes, she could grow or shrink several inches and get wider-bodied or the opposite, whatever worked in the particular situation. Usually that would suffice to get out of the grip by itself, and it would certainly surprise her adversary … and if one polymorph only created surprise, another, cast barely a second or so later, would finish the job. She’d be out of the grip, and ready to cast a Force Bolt or some other counterattack, before the instructor could call off the fight.

Her performance gained her a nickname among her fellow cadets: The Eel. Her attitude toward this recognition was … ambivalent. Truthfully, though, she didn’t really care; the skill got her through the class, and on to a commission, and that was all she cared about.

=*=*=

This situation, though, was different.

She’d quickly sized up the man’s powerful, but clumsy and amateurish, grip, decided she could escape it with a shape-shift to a slender, smaller physique … but just as she was starting to rally magic to do it, she remembered what the Tsuirakuan lifemage in Kiyoka had said. “Studies of effects of polymorph magic on the unborn have been inconclusive.” She also remembered Argus’ reaction. And she made a decision: I don’t know how I’m getting out of this, but I know I’m not going to jeopardize this unborn –

She’d never been so glad to hear mind-speech as she was at this point. <”Not to worry,”> Argus said in her mind. <”I’m on it. Just hold absolutely still for about five seconds.”> And she knew what he had in mind.

Her assailant may, or may not, have had a little magic sensitivity. Either way, he turned to Argus and sneered, even as Rose could sense the magic rising. “Shaddup, Gramps,” he snarled. “Drop the money by the count of three, or say bye-bye to wifey. One … tARGHH!”

Rose felt a hint of pressure along her back, and that was all she needed. She threw herself sideways and spun around, breaking free just in time to see the hood transfixed by Argus’ favorite weapon, a spike raised out of the ground. This one hadn’t passed through the man’s flesh, just his clothes, but that was enough; it had grazed the skin of his arm, so that he dropped the weapon, and then the skin of his nose, so that he dropped something else that his torn pants were showing the signs of passing (so to speak).

“The next one comes out of your mouth,” Argus said in an unnaturally calm voice. “Guess which orifice it goes in by.”

The thug didn’t wait for the “next one.” Without a word, he pulled out of his shredded shirt and pants, and took off running. Argus produced a deep sigh, and Rose sagged into his arms as the adrenaline rush subsided.

Four hours and one meeting with a deeply apologetic Father Burton later, the pair were on an airship bound for Emerylon.
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Postby Graybeard » June 9th, 2019, 10:39 pm

[Not real proud of this one, but it's been too long since the last one, so ... /EDIT: Oop, major continuity error, fixed. That's what happens when you try to write a callback to something written ten years ago ...]

Chapter Forty-two: Plotting

The wagon carrying Elgin Bindiel had not yet reached Saus by the time Sister Rose and Argus landed in Emerylon, but it was getting close, which meant that it was getting time for Bindiel to start working on killing Patriarch Jeramel.

He’d had plenty of time on the road to plot and plan. Most of that time, unfortunately, had been spent stewing over just how difficult his task was going to be. For a man who went to great lengths during public appearances to loudly proclaim his love for his flock, Jeramel was almost pathologically unwilling to actually expose himself to that flock. (As well he might be, Bindiel reflected. Nobody anywhere, whether in the Pleasure Dome nor in the countryside nor even in Emerylon, had any illusions as to whether that love was genuine, or reciprocated.) Getting close enough to the Patriarch, during one of those appearances, to do something lethal to him was too risky – not that Bindiel particularly cared whether he lived or died anymore, but he couldn’t complete his mission if he was dead.

Part of his problem was that it was hard for him to judge just how severe his problem was. His clandestine communications system had gone silent since that last horrifying conversation with his wife. On balance, that was probably good; it meant that the apostates hadn’t found out about the system, or at least, weren’t trying to penetrate it. (He shuddered at what might happen if they succeeded.) On the other hand, it also meant that he dared not use it to do any fact finding – not even with Sister Ardith, who he fervently hoped had gone to ground with her cover intact.

Time, and a small-world encounter so improbable that Bindiel would have considered it to be Luminosita’s Work if he’d known about it, would validate that hope in a way that neither of them was yet imagining.

Neither Will Parsiel nor his wagon driver could be much help with that loss of communications. Parsiel had picked up a few rumors from the townsfolk of Getsemiel who came to the bar, but nothing very useful – the Millenarians had been in cahoots with the dragon that destroyed the center of town, a gang of bandits had taken away the Millenarian priests (neither Parsiel nor Bindiel put much stock in that one, if for different reasons), that kind of thing. As for the strange, anonymous man at the reins, Bindiel was starting to wonder whether he was really a “Father” in the True Church as Parsiel had almost blurted out that he was. The man had cast him a sour look as they’d loaded up to hit the road, and had been entirely silent after that – not that Bindiel had been in a mood for small talk. However, there had been one curious incident on the road, the first night. They’d gone to ground in a small town that happened(?) to have a Millenarian temple. Its front doors stood ajar, it appeared deserted, and no townsfolk were getting anywhere close to it. The wagon driver inspected this sight, grunted, shook his head … and as soon as the horses were secured, simply walked through the front door of the temple, closing it behind him. Bindiel spent a not-very-comfortable, but entirely unmolested, night in the wagon, alone with his thoughts. The next morning, the wagoneer emerged with a cup of tea that he offered wordlessly to his passenger (where had he got that?), and they were off.

Most of the few words that the wagoneer spoke on the trip followed soon after this departure – well, relatively soon, if “an hour later” counts. Bindiel made one more try at conversation, after the earlier ones had gone nowhere. “How did you know the townspeople would leave you alone when you went into – our temple?”

The man grunted. “They think it’s cursed.”

“Is it?” said Bindiel, mildly intrigued, and wondering how he could turn this intelligence to his advantage.

Another grunt. “They think so, and that’s all that matters.” And that was that for conversation.

By the time they reached Saus, Bindiel was anxious to talk to someone – anyone. But the wagon driver still was in no mood for conversation. He deposited his passenger and his light travel bag unceremoniously in the middle of town and left, for Luminosita alone knew where. Bindiel, miffed, started to object, but then his gaze fell on what passed for a newspaper in town … and he realized the man had done him a favor after all.

“TEMPLE TO BE RE-CONSECRATED,” the headline read. Not just any temple, as Bindiel noted; the former Millenarian one (the paper’s language just talked about “heretics” and left the sect unnamed, but he could figure it out) that had burned a few months earlier and housed the church’s extensive genealogical records. That was interesting enough; Bindiel had been there years earlier, had a quiet conversation with the high priest (no mention of him in the article, of course; presumably something bad had happened to him by now), and gotten a tour … which, with his superb memory, he could still walk through as though he’d been there yesterday.

Better yet, the re-consecration of this temple, now an Orthodox one, was to occur in a week’s time.

And best of all, His Holiness the Patriarch (Bindiel produced an involuntary snort at the name, looked around quickly to see if it had been noticed, was relieved that it hadn’t) would be presiding.

An idea began to grow in Bindiel’s mind.
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Postby Graybeard » July 8th, 2019, 10:07 pm

[Note that, contrary to what's written here, Poe commented, in the lamentably aborted re-telling of Errant Story with commentary, that Sarine didn't actually use mind magic in the bar scene; elf awesomeness was enough to get her point across. However, it seemed like too good a comparison not to make, and this is fanfic rather than canon, so ... Sorry this has taken a while.]

Chapter Forty-Three: A new goddess

Elves didn’t need fully functional brains to cast magic; it was wired into every fiber of their being, and required only enough working gray matter to summon it and launch it outward. A magically-imbued dog could do as much; quite possibly, a magic-charged fish could. But they could not do it wisely, and neither, as events on Shield Island would soon prove, could a brain-damaged elf.

Peregin Paukii’s brain damage was enough that she’d never be able to walk without a limp (or without magical assistance) again, and there were certainly significant holes in her memory. If there was damage to the parts of the organ that covered morality and empathy, it was less obvious; those had never been among her areas of strength anyway. However, the damage probably existed. Most of her personality had survived intact, although her contempt for Praenubilus Astu was largely gone; but that was mainly because the memory damage had all but removed any recollections of the place that she had, except for a vague sense that there was a place she called “home” and that that place wasn’t where she was now.

One important thing remained: she still felt pain in a basically immortal body.

There was plenty of pain to feel as she extracted herself from Argus’ improvised iron lung, to the bewilderment of the Outlanders who were watching her do it. She swore explosively in the Rinkai’s language, which of course the Outlanders did not speak, then casually cast a blur of Healing magic that resolved everything that was instinctively repairable. The brain injuries, alas, did not fall into this category.

An awed susurrus rippled through the Outlanders. “Qutsmovi … Qutsmovi …” Paukii did not speak the Outlander language, and she had no idea what a Qutsmovi was, but she was pretty sure she didn’t like it. “Silence!” she commanded, using the same kind of mind magic that Sarine would put to good use in a small-town bar a year or two later, or maybe earlier. The Outlanders did not speak the elven language either, but that didn’t matter for the spell’s effect.

With the time she’d gained with this action, Paukii paused to inspect her surroundings. The anoxia had affected her memory severely; she had no idea, on a conscious level, where she was, nor why she was there. Enough remained in her subconscious, though, that she had a vague sense that this uncomfortable place was not “home” to her, and that she didn’t want to be here.

These servants – for what else could they be? – would remedy that, if she could just communicate with them. More effortless, if entirely instinctive, spellcasting (and more awed, if now silent, reaction from the Outlanders) got Translation Effects up and running, and she asked a single question in the Outlander language. “Well?”

People-Leader’s-Son gulped (another of those gestures that meant the same among the Outlanders as among other humans; not all did), hoping this frightening apparition didn’t notice. Human, Qutsmovi or something else, whatever she was, he was pretty sure he was ill-prepared to deal with her … but he had his people to take care of. For the moment, that would require a bit of swallowing of pride. He stepped forward and spoke in the Outlander language. “My lady, how can we – serve you?” His word "lady" had some nuances to it; it implied not temporal nobility, but a near-divine status that, he reckoned, would play to the woman's(?) ego, whether accurate or not.

His judgment was correct, and Paukii did have an answer ready for this. “Take me home.”

People-Leader’s-Son considered. He had no idea where this -- goddess (at least in her own mind) called “home,” and the only “home” he knew, among his tribe, might not be … welcoming for a possibly-divine being of such magical power and doubtful motivations. “But my lady, where is your home? Is it not this place? Where should we take you?” he temporized, hoping for an answer that would get him off the hook.

Paukii glared at him. “Take. Me. Home,” she said, every word pronounced slowly and carefully, with the condescension that came so naturally to an elf; condescension, and a hint of magic that one much less magic-sensitive than the young Outlander would notice.

People-Leader’s-Son gulped again. “You mean our home?”

HOME.” Something lethal was obviously about to emerge next.

Another gulp, then a nod. “Very well, my lady. If you would be so kind as to come with us to … home …”

Now we’re getting somewhere, thought Paukii, more or less. “Lead on.” A very odd procession formed and headed for the boats.
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Postby Graybeard » July 31st, 2019, 5:51 pm

Chapter Forty-four: Going home

Peregin Paukii was not the only magically powerful figure heading home, more or less, although the others were not nearly as malevolent in their desires.

The debriefing in Emerylon had gone surprisingly smoothly, Sister Rose thought. “Smoothly,” of course, did not mean “completely honestly.” She and Argus had worked out the talking points on the airship, following Rose’s usual (and, she admitted to herself, sometimes deceitful) practice for such things: tell the truth, nothing but the truth, but not necessarily the whole truth. The sensitive point was what to say about Paukii. They decided to be up front that an elf was present; that she had sustained a life-threatening snakebite; that they had rendered first aid (the “iron lung” was one of the things omitted in the debrief, and the listeners hadn’t pushed the question of just what the first aid entailed); and that she appeared to be recovering when they left the island.

The team of debriefers, Rose had been surprised to note, was led not by a senior official of the church, but by a military man who wore the same shoulder insignia that she herself would have been entitled to, as a Colonel in Luminosita’s Army, although only a breveted one in her case. That was odd. The initial “request” to do the mission had come through nominally civilian channels. Odder still was the colonel’s reaction when questioning revealed that she and Argus were sure the crater had once housed a travel platform, now demolished. He nodded and muttered under his breath, “Good. They can’t get to us that way, then,” and the session went on in some direction that Rose didn’t remember. That line, however, lodged in her memory. Who couldn’t get to “us” (whether Veracia as a whole, or Emerylon, or the Church or the army, was unclear)? Rose was well aware that the elven use of travel platforms was not widely known, and that the area around Emerylon was thought by the few who did know about it, to have been “sanitized” of them. Indeed, high levels of the church had forgotten that the elves could use them to reach Emerylon at all – a fact that would have some significance a year or two later. So why be concerned about …

Then she figured it out. It’s not the elves he’s worried about. It’s the Millenarians.

The pieces were starting to fall into place.

That was someone else’s problem now, she (and Argus) thought. That had been made very clear by what happened after the debriefing wrapped up. Recent developments of a classified nature, they were told, had called on all available small airships to be sent on special missions for Our Lord Luminosita. The military and the Church regretted that there would be none available to take the two of them to Saus so that they could catch the warp gate back to Kiyoka. Rose’s protestations that she wasn’t going back to Kiyoka directly, but had another mission that was assigned her by the Abbot there, were met with an icy glare and a hurried conversation among the debriefers. Well, she was informed, she could board the next diplomatic airship bound for the island where Sister Agnes and the fallen nuns – the Colonel was Orthodox enough to show obvious distaste when he used this phrase – were serving. There should be such an airship two or three days later, leaving from Saus; wasn’t that a happy coincidence? So the church could spare a horse-drawn coach to transport her and Argus there…

And so it was that they found themselves on the road again, just minutes after the debriefing ended. A great deal of mind-speech had been exchanged before they boarded, the gist of which was just a matter of complaining to each other about how they’d suddenly been found extraneous now that their mission was done. This served mainly to cement Rose’s determination to abandon the church, and Argus’ growing belief that that was a good idea.

Once in the coach, they switched back to normal speech-out-loud; someone might be listening, after all, and their words should sound like those of a couple about to travel to separate destinations and no more. “You’ll be okay tending – your vineyard while I’m gone?” Rose asked; she’d almost said “our” vineyard, but it wasn’t general knowledge yet that she’d be working there, not at the mission.

Argus grinned. “Looking forward to it, nice and quiet after the last few weeks. But how are you going to get back there, from wherever you’re going?” She hadn’t been completely forthcoming about her destination, although he could make a pretty good general guess.

“Another airship has been arranged, or so I’m told,” she answered, and that answer gave her pause: maybe we’re not being treated as being as inconsequential as I’d thought. That second airship would be Tsuirakuan, another diplomatic thing, they’d said. It would be headed for Tsuirakushita rather than Kiyoka, but catching a warp gate to the southern city from there wouldn’t be hard at all; in fact, she’d already been given the travel rune for it. Somebody has actually been trying to take care of me – maybe a joint effort of Bernie and Red? she guessed; that guess, improbable as it might seem, was correct.

It wasn’t much later, perhaps a quarter of the way from city to city, that there was a small encounter on the road.

A small, forlorn, female form was trudging disconsolately toward Saus, looking like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders. Rose would never be quite sure why she noticed this person; there’d been other road travelers on the way that they’d passed without even slowing down. But there was something about this one … Of course, anyone who knew Rose Nuria-Lucas knew well her affinity for taking in strays; that was how she and Argus had got together, after all. She motioned to the driver to stop so she could cast her Empathy magic.

Oh, my. Yes, that was a stray to be taken in, all right.

It took a brief “negotiation” with the coachman to let this downtrodden pedestrian be taken aboard, but Rose was a master of persuasion. “Th—thank you,” the woman stammered as she boarded the coach. “May I know who is responsible for this generous aid to a single traveler?”

“A nun of Our Lord Luminosita, and her Tsuirakuan – opposite number,” Rose smiled, but she didn’t give their names. “We’re off to do some good for both of our countries.” The Empathy magic got just the tiniest flare of distress about that; Rose had wondered how the mention of a Tsuirakuan would be received, and had already prepared in her mind a bit of a sermon about “the good Farrelite” that was mentioned in one of the holy books. In the event, none was needed; the pulse of distress faded quickly into the mass of grief and sorrow that had been why this offer had been made. “And who are you?”

A pause … “Call me Ashley,” Sister Ardith said.
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Postby Graybeard » August 21st, 2019, 9:51 am

Chapter Forty-five: Annies, plural

The terms of the transparency agreement between Tsuiraku and Veracia permitted one airship every four days to land at the listening post staffed by Sister Agnes and her Tsuirakuan husband. Normally, that was more than enough; neither side had much reason to land there, and one visit a week was usual in practice. However, this week was shaping up to be unusual, in any number of regards.

Life at the compound was well established in its low-key, comfortable – safe (if boring) way, by the time the first airship of the week came in to moor. It was like no other ship in either navy, or with one exception, either civilian fleet. That was by design, literally; in fact, it had been jointly designed by representatives of both countries from scratch, practically down to the last molecule of lifting gas and erg of magical energy. It was a conservative design; neither country would have to worry about any of its military or thaumatic secrets being compromised. That was not to say the ship wasn’t capable, though. After all, it had just made the long trip from the Veracian mainland, via a carefully negotiated sea route passing between Farrel and the Northern Confederacy, nonstop. After the treaty-prescribed two hours, not a minute less or a minute more, on the ground, it would lift off again, and proceed back to Saus, again nonstop. The Tsuirakuans had an identical ship, and the same rights to use it every four days; in reality, they'd only made a few such trips in the entire year to date, although another would be coming only a few days later to pick up a very unusual Veracian passenger.

Agnes and Seiji, with their baby, were waiting on the ground when the ship’s passenger hatch opened. “Welcome to Audiel,” Seiji said, politely using the Veracian name for the island. (Politely, and political; using that name rather than its Tsuirakuan one was a very minor concession Tsuiraku had made to get the deal done. It was not so minor as to go unnoticed by the more hawkish circles in the Tsuirakuan government, but they were currently the opposition party.) “We are pleased to meet you, Sister Ann—huh?” Interrupting in the middle of the newcomer’s name was a social gaffe, but to be sure, he had a good reason for it.

Agnes blinked as well. She’d been expecting a slender, blonde woman in her second trimester to be coming down the ramp. Instead, there were two such women, so similar in their appearance that they could have been sisters, and possibly outright twins. That wasn’t part of the ship’s manifest that had been transmitted to the island. One of the pair was walking briskly toward her and her family. The other was still near the top of the ramp, blinking as though in bright sunlight even though the sky was cloudy, every bit of her body language expressing apprehension at the thought of coming to this strange, foreign place.

Agnes recovered quickly. “We’re glad to meet – both of you,” she said, making as much as a welcoming gesture (and aiming it particularly at the nervous woman on the ramp) as the baby she was carrying would allow. “I’m Sister Agnes. But you have the advantage of me, I fear. I was expecting –“ she looked at the two newcomers, feeling mild embarrassment at the pun she’d just made – “Sister Annmarie of the Church of Our Lord Luminosita. But I don’t know your name, my lady.” She wasn’t sure which of the two she was addressing with that last part.

“My name is Annie,” the two women chorused practically in unison.

If Agnes had been carrying anything other than her child, she’d probably have dropped her burden in surprise. She’d been told to expect one anxious mother-to-be. A doppelganger, to give this apparition a name, hadn’t been in the picture … although something she couldn’t place was in the back of her mind trying to get out. “H-how can I help – both of you?” she managed.

The more confident Annie stepped forward. “Find us a quiet place to talk. Just the two of us.” It came out as an order, not a request. “You know the one I’m thinking of. And get someone to help my sister in Luminosita. She needs it. I don’t.” Matter-of-fact, that.

Agnes nodded, turned to her husband. “Seiji, dear? Could you please – show Annie to her new home? I … think I’m going to be busy for a while.” A subtle nod from the newcomer confirmed this. The Tsuirakuan looked as puzzled as his wife, but took the baby and beckoned the more nervous Annie to follow him to a cottage.

Once ensconced in the outer secure room in the “tool shed” that housed the communications system (but not with the system itself; Agnes wasn’t taking this peculiar person all the way to the most sensitive place on the island, not yet), Agnes and her new visitor – there was barely room for both in the anteroom – eyed each other suspiciously. “Annie” said, “Damping magic, both of us.” More suspicion on Agnes’ part, but that was one of those bits of magic that any nun knew (it was obligatory for smiting sessions), and it was done.

The aloof, almost arrogant façade of unexpected-Annie lifted just a bit once the spells were cast. “Okay, what I’m about to say here stays here.” That formulaic statement did clarify things a bit, didn’t it? Then she broke from character and almost mumbled to herself, “Damn thing gets uncomfortable … don’t know how you do it for nine months …” Then she pressed an inconspicuous stud on her maternity robe.

Agnes goggled as “Annie”’s baby bump simply vanished. She fancied she could her a wsssh of air escaping from the no-longer-pregnant woman’s belly.

“Whew,” “Annie” said as she sat down, looking more comfortable than she had up until now. She threw back her cowl, revealing that her blonde hair had darker-colored -- which was to say, undyed -- roots. “Now we can talk.” And she proceeded to explain the duplicity, and duplication:

The real Sister Annmarie, she said (she never gave her own real name), had a price on her head – a very high price, from the sound of it. She, the extra Annie, didn’t know why; she’d never been told, and of course, didn’t ask. The Patriarch, in his wisdom (this line was delivered with a straight face; Agnes would wonder about that later), had decided that Sister Annmarie needed not only a safe house – Agnes knew that – but also a body double, to confuse whoever it was that wanted to kill her. It seemed to have worked so far.

(None of those involved knew that the main person coming to kill Annie was her former husband, and that he simply hadn’t been back in Veracia long enough yet to get around to it. Besides, there were other things on his mind …)

“So you’re stuck with me,” faux-Annie concluded. “But not for long.” She pressed the stud again and re-inflated her baby bump.

Agnes had never seen anything quite like this before – some of the visitors here clearly wanted to look like they were not pregnant when they in fact were, not the other way around. But she was getting ideas. “Not for long?” she repeated.

“As soon as I’m satisfied that she’s safe and secure here,” faux-Annie said, with an unsettling smirk on her face, “I’m going to have a sudden, unexpected miscarriage. Terrible thing, you know, to lose a child, whether unborn or newly emerged.” Was there a subtle threat there? “After an appropriate period of mourning, I’ll make a sad return to Veracia and put my shattered life back together. I’ll manage; faithful servant of Luminosita, you know. Now help me to my cottage and we can have a girl talk about motherhood.” For just a moment, the mask came down and a wistful, sad expression crossed the body double’s face. “Not that I’ll ever get to have the experience…”

Agnes swallowed hard, said a brief, silent prayer – she would never tell anyone for whom, or for what – and did as she was told, noting in passing that the real Annmarie was standing at the door of her own cottage, looking lost and scared, as she was – and irrelevant, which she was not.
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Postby Graybeard » August 24th, 2019, 4:27 pm

Chapter Forty-six: Kraken

The canoes bearing the Outlanders, and their new-found goddess (or whatever she was), labored across the ocean. It was a slower and harder voyage than the westbound leg had been, for several reasons. One was that the wind was no longer in their favor, coming off their homeland. Another was that the seas were a bit rougher than they’d been. A third, of course, was that there was now an extra occupant of one of the canoes, one who added weight but could not be bothered to wield a paddle. Nor did the Outlanders expect Paukii to; she’d already made that clear, and besides, weren’t the mortals there to serve the gods, rather than vice versa? At least the sailing was uneventful, no sea monsters or demons from the deep or any other threat to their progress.

Of course, a conversation with Lucy Kankaniel, now getting on with her smuggler’s life but shaken by what had happened to her crew, would have disabused them of that last part. Also of course, she was unavailable for consultation.

The voyage was not only slower than westbound; it was also quieter and more somber. It hadn’t been lost on the Outlanders that while they’d picked up a goddess, they had also failed in their main mission, to find out what had happened to Haddak-Carer and Speaker-to-Demons. All they could do was fear the worst.

At least the skies were cooperating. People-Leader’s-Son had tried to reason with the strange being, to get her to delay their trip until morning, only to be told in no uncertain terms (his head still throbbed from the voice that had spoken telepathically in it; Paukii’s brain was not too addled to cast that bit of magic) that they were leaving the island now. He actually couldn’t blame her for that command. She was probably concerned that if they’d made camp overnight, her unwilling servants might have tried to kill her in her sleep. She would have had reason for that concern, too; he was aware that there had been grumbling among his people … But the mists shrouding Shield Island did not extend across the water. The skies had been clear ever since they cast off, first with sun at their backs, then with what would have been a spectacular sunset if they’d been able to see it, and now with a bright moon, just a few days past full, and stars clear enough to navigate by. As for fatigue, every Outlander was used to staying up for long hours when the situation called for it, and this was one of those situations. They were tired, but they’d deal with it. Paukii, of course, didn’t need as much sleep as humans or Outlanders, and there’d been the coma-induced “rest” while she was in the iron lung … so the canoes sailed into the night.

The moon was still high in the sky when there came a sudden and drastic change in the situation.

The lookouts’ acuity might have been dulled by fatigue; at least that was what People-Leader’s-Son told himself later, he wouldn’t fault his people without good reason. Whatever the reason, a patch of curiously calm water had formed around the front canoe, the one with him (and Paukii) in it, without being noticed …

… Until suddenly, a long, sucker-studded tentacle broke through the surface, snaked onto the boat, plucked Blooded-Fighter out of it, as deftly as a man picking an apple, and waved in the air, gaining purchase on his body.

The man’s reflexes were surprisingly good; it took him only a fraction of a second to drop his paddle, draw his knife, and slash at the suckers now enfolding him, with a bellow that might have been audible on Shield Island. The two or three seconds that this counterattack gained him would save his life. For just the barest moment, the tentacle paused its motion back to the depths, and oblivion.

The part of Paukii’s brain that controlled her own reflexive actions had survived her near-death relatively intact; the reasoning part, less so, but no reasoning was required to figure out what she had to do next. It wasn’t a matter of saving the life of one of her servants; they were expendable. But who was to say that the gigantic tentacle monster (a dim corner of her mind recalled the word “Kraken” for such a creature) wouldn’t go after her once it had popped this first tidbit into its maw?

The night air was rent by thunder as a Force Bolt roared across the surface of the water, severing the lethal arm and dropping the Outlander into the ocean. The patch of water, which had been roiled by the tentacle’s emergence, became calm again (other than Blooded-Fighter’s frantic swim back to the canoe; the long Outlander arms were good for that), then resumed its normal, slightly choppy consistency as the kraken retreated to the depths.

The canoes sailed on, but nobody on board was feeling any fatigue any more.
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Postby Graybeard » September 10th, 2019, 8:37 am

Chapter Forty-seven: Safe house

Elgin Bindiel was getting tired of limping. His muscles and joints simply weren’t used to that kind of asymmetry, that sort of defect. He had been in superb condition for his whole life; that was part of how he got to his current stature in his church, after all. (Well, “recent” stature, at least.) On the few occasions when he’d sustained injuries sufficient to cause a limp, his Healing skills were more than adequate to banish it.

He had to keep it up for the time being, though, just to make sure that nobody in Saus was able to make the connection between who he was and who he had been. Saus was a big city, far larger than Provatiel, but he’d only been off the silent man’s wagon for five minutes or so when he thought he recognized someone, an old woman in a shawl, her hair faded to silver but her eyes still blue. Had that been Corporal Sendric’s grandmother? He wasn’t sure, but he thought it might. (He would never be certain.) If so, she’d certainly be able to recognize one of the Faithful in a normal physical state, and might even be able to identify him personally. That couldn’t be permitted.

He had already come up with a solution to this problem long before seeing the old woman, while the wagon was still far from the city. There was a safe house, he knew, for visitors to the Millenarian temple who didn’t want to be identified, just a block away and easily visible from the temple’s now-reconstructed front door. Once inside that, he could take cover for a day or two, undo the Polymorph magic, and create some new, different infirmities. One man would walk into the safe house; a different man, after resting up from the stresses that Polymorphing inflicted on a body, would walk out.

The big question was whether this house had been compromised in the atrocities (or at least so they looked from a viewpoint within the Millenarian Church) of the last few days. Well, no way to be sure of that but to look. He spent much of the first afternoon doing some innocuous-looking shopping in the merchant’s stalls of Saus; a shirt here, a cane there (might as well embellish the limp a bit, he thought, and it did help with the imbalance), some food, some drink. His route among the shops just happened to take him near the restored temple. Yes, the house was still standing, he saw; that was good, but it also wasn’t the hard part.

After a detour to avoid suspicion – one couldn’t be too careful – he hobbled up to the house, to more good news. There was a very basic Ward on the front door, one that any of the Faithful should know how to disarm; any that had any business going inside, anyway. He verified that this was still intact, disarmed it, slipped inside, restored the Ward. The interior was neat and tidy, apart from a distinct dust layer, all just as one would expect for a well-cared-for house that hadn’t been occupied lately. Then came the hard part. He knew that within this safe house, there would be a particularly private, well-guarded inner sanctum for situations just like his own. The problem would be to find it.

Ah, there it was; there was another Ward, considerably more powerful, incongruously framing what he considered a rather tacky and overblown portrait of Luminosita. A much smaller fraction of the Faithful would know how to disarm this Ward, but he was one of that fraction. A burst of magic, and the concealed doorway behind Luminosita opened. He stepped inside, again re-arming the Ward, and found the expected bedroom. A quick prayer, an exhausting Polymorph to restore his true body (he’d have to change it again in the morning, but he wanted to sleep in his own form), and he collapsed into bed, falling asleep within seconds.

+*+*+

Meanwhile, the house was about to get another visitor.

Sister Ardith – “Ashley” – and her benefactors had arrived in town. Ardith found that her spirits had been lifted somewhat by the nice couple who’d picked her up. (Sister Rose, for her part, found an odd tension between what her Empathy had told her, what the young woman was saying, and certain things that she knew, but none of that would interfere with her innate tendency to take in a stray.) She bid them farewell so that they could get to the warp gate, then headed for the safe house via a circuitous route resembling Elgin Bindiel’s. She still wasn’t sure what she was going to do once she got there, but one step at a time.

She checked and disarmed the Ward on the front door; all seemed in order there. Finding the inner safe room and its protective Ward took a little longer, but she eventually figured out the framed portrait. (Unlike Bindiel, she didn’t see it as particularly tacky; she’d gone native in Emerylon more than she realized.) She dismissed the Ward, carefully opened the concealed door, turned on the light globe and

“OH!”

Elgin Bindiel was instantly awake, post-magic fatigue or not. He sat up, already thinking about how to cast something lethal in his diminished state, preferably without damage to the safe house. But Ardith had a few seconds’ lead on him, as she saw who was getting out of the bed …

”Elgie?”

“Ardie?”


The two cousins (for so they were) embraced like long-lost lovers (which they were not).
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