The Necromancer and the Reaping Spear: Chapter Six

Hello, readers mine! Bit of a discrepancy between this post’s title and reality. I decided that Chapter Two would work better if it was Chapters Two and Three, so the remaining four preview chapters all ought to have their numbers bumped up by one. This is technically Chapter Seven in my working document.

Reflecting this on the blog would play merry hell with the order in which I’ve posted the prior chapters, so I won’t be doing that. Instead, we’ll leave it as it lies. This will be the last of the preview chapters I post here for The Necromancer and the Reaping Spear–you’ll not see another word of it until it’s published and ready to go.

Incidentally: if you’ve been following these chapters and you want to make sure that actually happens, this is the time where I need you to buy the first book, read it, review it, and then bother your friends about it. I am not immune to the pandemic’s financial aftershocks, leaving me in a race against time to finish this thing before my resources run out.

My mental health is not helping matters. I could absolutely finish V2 this coming month if not for that. Anyway, time to stop writing about my mental difficulties. I promised you a preview chapter–

–which you will find is in no small part invested in Divari’s mental difficulties. Also featured: a look into the deeper history of Cannoan demons, early hints as to the reasons why arcanatech has been so sparse on Canno for such a long time, the first visit to a proper mage’s academy in the core books, and the return of a few more familiar faces.

Chapter Six

Many Souls, Together Changing

“Carbon strengthens steel and forms diamond. Heat and pressure define both in their shapes. And though the diamond may more readily scrape the steel, it cannot do so forever before the steel begins to shape it in turn. ” Rushiti Samar, Naiboran Philosopher

Divari held back a whimper.

It was not for want of heartening beauty nor factual security that she hugged herself, sometimes, when she thought no one was looking. Her spirit did not abide here. It was caught elsewhere still. Somewhere before these sights of ready warriors, sounds of laughing workers, scents of sporous grains, sweet blossoms, and indomitable time-tossed soil. Somewhere that she must not acknowledge. Its inadmission became its own reality, and around that clustering dread naught else could truly exist. So she stared with wide eyes, looking much but seeing nothing.

Golden sunlight poured through the Lin Bastion’s dour black gates as they swung outward and unveiled the rampway’s striated stone. Intermarried greys, whites, and black streaks with gemstone inclusions that sparkled in the light, they included swirling engravings set into inlays that needed no meaning besides elegance. Around them huddled farms and gardens that sprawled from the Bastion’s skyscraping grandeur right out to the packed silt and gravel nestling in the archean crags of the bowl-bellied mountain. Mingled with them and climbing up cracks in the caldera’s walls sprouted grasses tall and slender as an aspen forest in glorious shades of scarlet, gold and orange. A cool soothing breeze mussed her hair and sank in just deep enough that it should have doubled the comfort of her plush gown. This was as deep as winter ever became in the Ton-ga’s equatorial heart.

The caldera’s high dark stone jutted up into incisive angular runs and jagged jaw-like insets on all sides. Deep-mauve banners fluttered from the stark-etched battlements carved out of its igneous bulwark. All bore the defiant terase of House Lin, white-eyed, in black outlined by gold upon a deep-mauve field: its hook-nosed maw akin to some antediluvian forebear of a northern Ceslonian snapping turtle, flowing back into a broad fan-like crest atop its exoskeletal head.

No awe bloomed at these sights that would have stolen her breath with wonder half a year before. She spared no glance for the warriors tall and muscular who stood their posts with war-spears ranked and strung war-bows as tall and gallant as any crafted by Ulmish hand. She had barely departed past the inmost sanctum of a fortress spoken of in the same awe as Helenenburg Tor, death of a thousand dreadnoughts, and the Topaz Reach of Naibora that twice broke the massed armies of Ceslon in ages that were already ancient when the Age of Splendors began—yet for all this, Divari Sidra fought the urge to scream in terror and flee at a sprint back to her rooms in the torchlit halls.

“Your highness, may I touch your shoulder?” Azukai asked.

The zhumozhe’s voice yanked her from the miserable chasm of her own mind. It took another few steps down the rampway for Divari to perceive that her mouth hung open, and that she stared in blank astonishment at Azukai. She fastened her lips and blinked.

“Er, yes,” she said, “you may.”

The devil-matron took this as sufficient encouragement to slip an around Divari’s shoulders. It looked as awkward as it felt. But it was a distraction and an anchor to reality. It pulled her away from fevered-fractured hallucinations of white fire illuminating intermixed blood and offal. Azukai squeezed gently. Warmth and drowsiness flooded Divari. She tottered a little, but that was all to the good.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“As you need,” Azukai whispered back. “We have not had many chances to speak before. This said, I have only heard good things.”

“That is assuredly a lie,” Divari said. Their course took them out onto the pathway. She told herself that there was no pathway. There was herself, and her surroundings, and the act of movement. Continuity could not exist. If she acknowledged that there was forward, there would also be back, and back sooner or later meant admitting—”I was most unpleasant when Gr—when Matriarch Lin and her…” Divari trailed off, fighting to steady herself. “When Matriarch Lin and her Heir first met me,” she finally managed.

“Perhaps,” Azukai said. “They never saw fit to unwind unpleasantries about you. So as I said, I have only heard good things. And I fully expect that I will continue only to hear good things.” Uncanny as she was with her segmented face and warped-triangle eyes, there was sincerity to her. “But you will tell me whatever you wish. I will hear whatever you need.”

Divari could not muster thanks this time. If she spoke, she would cry. That might help her right now. Only, others would see it. This strange, kindly creature with a demon’s face and a demigod’s stature would not always be next to her. Later she would think about those who saw her in her weakness, and would know they hated her for it.

She resolved to let them see nothing. And so, she said nothing.

Len cleared his throat. “Azukai, your highness,” he said, “perhaps it’d be well if I moved ahead to the Igneous Founding Academy and told them the simpler points?”

It was as graceful a pretense as any courtier could manage. Divari would have kissed him for it if only—well, if only. “A fine idea, Len,” she said. “Thank you.”

Len nodded, smiled warmly, and was gone.

Divari traced his steps not from lust nor romantic intent, but from simple appreciation for his springing swordfighter’s grace. Thus other movement more easily caught her eyes, and unexpected mirror vibrance from angular bronze. She let idle sight roam as it willed until it alighted upon a gaggle of oddities. Entities, many humanoid but just as many not, paced, soared, and skittered. They shifted frameworks into place using glowing mist, coiling lightning, and reverberating force that rippled the air and cast multihued sparkling zephyrs from those ripples edges. One figure broke off from the nearest such group and soared towards them. It was—they were?—an entity wearing many layers of black robes interspersed by gradating bands of purple, gold and orange.

From a circular gap atop those robes sprouted a long hooked beak connected to the flesh-masses beneath the robe by what looked like dried-out skinless muscle streaked with oil-paints.  It stunned Divari for some reason when this being called out not to herself, but to Azukai. “Lady Azukai!” it greeted, in a booming ultra-masculine voice. “It is a magnificent thing, is it not, that this day has come at last?”

“I can but agree,” Azukai said. She loosed a girlish “oh!” wholly at odds with her presence and spun mid-air. “Your highness, this is Gansho of the Sixth. Their spheres include law and fealty.”

“To House Lin, specifically,” Gansho said, bobbing their form.

“It is a pleasure to meet you,” Divari said.

“You lie,” Gansho said, “but without malice. Perhaps you mean it is an interesting experience?”

“Well… that much is true,” Divari said. “I’m sorry, I—”

“There is no need to apologize,” Gansho said. “I would rather be myself than be pleasant.” They bobbed again. “I do not lie in saying it is a pleasure to meet you. Perhaps we will meet again. If not, then know that this encounter has meant something to me.” And, just like that, the peculiar demon soared back to join their many-shapen kindred.

“What kind of demon are they?” Divari asked.

“A Gansho,” Azukai said, raising an eyebrow.

“Really? And they’ve named themselves so literally as to…” Divari quieted. “Oh.”

“I suppose I might file away their distinguishing traits and dub them Kabr-Hekam, but Gansho has never used that term and I will not do so either,” Azukai said. She sighed. The zhumozhe stared out over the laboring demons for a while. “Kiresa had few flaws. But if I had to lance one that truly bothered me, that was it. Choosing a place for others based on how they can fit into the world you know, even if it’s done with loving intent—that steals something from them.”

“What does that term mean?” Divari asked. She stepped in beside Azukai. “I’ve heard it before. Kiresa applied it to Wozhao, once.” She drew a deep breath. “Wozhao was not enthused.”

Azukai nodded. “I admit I feel no surprise. These categories predate the Age of Splendors.” She nodded towards a luminous demon with full lips, chiseled cheeks, and a gauzy impression of Tonnish robes about their sculpted pink-skinned physique. “Min-sung calls himself Coyeshra, as Kiresa did, and therefore he is. A demon who cherishes mortals as much or more so than other demons, and delights in taking a form that appeals to them. He prefers humans, and so assumes a human-like form. The name comes from that of the long-fallen Coyetta Republic.”

Azukai saddened. “Rays knew so many beautiful tales about the Coyetta. She lived her first eight hundred years during the Age of Splendors. Can you even imagine?”

Divari could not. The zhumozhe continued, “We were at home among that race. I have only her word for it, but I feel it my depths for truth. No other mortals have treated us so well since the Loar stole the Coyetta from us.” She shifted, looking towards a shifting mass of colorful eyes emerging from and submerging into a radiant seethe of molten metal. “Kanakimi dubs herself Kabr-Hekam, and therefore she is. This means that she dapples and dabbles in whatever identity she will without spiting nor succoring mortals. Her form, too, reflects this. The name comes from an ancient Hanirid name for desert spirits who were as unpredictable in their behavior towards mortals as other mortals were.”

Azukai considered her subordinates.

“The third of the old branches are the Vajra, but you’ll find none among our ranks,” she said. “Most Vajra demons keep to Ceslon or Anseth. There are many reasons for that.”

“May I ask about them anyway?” Divari asked.

“Of course,” Azukai said. “Vajra are demons who define themselves by their relationships with one or more gods of Canno’s Pantheon.” Her look soured. “Or, to add a distinction without a difference, their submission to the same. It comes from an ancient Cumasad word for the ritual weapon of a god. In Cumas, such weapons are said to symbolize the traits of a diamond.”

“With their godly wielders supplying the heat and pressure?” Divari asked.

“Just so,” Azukai said. She drifted, and her sight drifted, and she said, “I suppose at the time it would have been just Cumas. In those days northern Cumas was another kingdom altogether… I cannot even remember what it was named. And Cumas of old is only southern Cumas, now. Elders and twilight, was it really that long ago everyone tried to unify? And still, the world is as it is…”

What would it be like, Divari wondered, to live so long as to forget the defining events of eras you lived in person? Did Azukai have any say in what she remembered, or forgot?

The zhumozhe sighed and hugged herself. “I do not fault those fortunate spawn whose identities mesh well with such servitude. But I do envy them. The stained-glass hierarchy accepts them—if not as people, then as tools useful enough not to damage. Most demons do not hold identities that allow such escape.” She snapped her arm out and summoned forth her spectral reaping spear.

Divari had heard the weapon mentioned and seen it from afar. Formed by spectral whorls ranging from off-white through pinks and mauves into purple and night-like violet, it thrummed the air around it.

“Grave temptation lies there. To claim that I am but the infallible channel of a higher power, and let that power take the strain of deciding as well as the praise for decision’s outcome,” Azukai continued. “I would be a caustic fraud if I claimed that I never felt the urge to shout, ‘I am Azukai, devil-matron of House Lin—I am the vessel of Ten-zai’s will! I am the emissary of the Inferno Matriarch!” As the demoness roared with pretended conviction, the spear’s thrum amplified against ears and mind alike.

It lulled Divari into leaning towards it for a trice before she recovered her senses. Azukai smiled in apology and shifted it further away while her distant kindred cheered and whooped for the display. “We created these terms for ourselves,” Azukai continued. “And in truth we intended far wider flexibility for them. But the Pantheon enshrines mortal will, and mortals decided that our expressions must obey a narrower range,” Azukai said. “They adopted the names we devised for ourselves and misused them until the gods declared their interpretations sacrosanct.”

Divari folded in upon herself. A surge in the cooling breeze stirred her hair. “I am sorry,” she said at last.”

“You are Tresar,” Azukai said. “Whatever else your people’s faults, you had no say in this.” She dissipated her spear with another flick.

“I know,” Divari said. “But you deserved better. And if the people who should be giving it to you will not do so, then I shall give what I can. So, I am sorry—as they should be.”

Azukai smiled sadly. “Thank you, your highness. I do cherish your intention.”

“If I may ask, Lady Azukai,” Divari said, “do you identify with one of those branches?”

Azukai regarded her without malice or fear. Yet Divari could not help feeling that her question broached upon something unspeakable. “I would rather not tell you, ‘I belong to this breed! Know me by its traits!’ I would rather remain Azukai with you, and the other mortals dearest to me,” she said. “But I thank you for caring enough to ask.”

“Then Azukai is what I shall call you, and gratefully,” Divari said, bowing. When she straightened she asked, “It is most foolish that I did not ask this question first, but—what is that framework’s purpose, and why has it sprung up so suddenly?”

“I would not call it foolish,” Azukai said, smiling. “It’s the simpler question to answer. These bronzework marvels are the product of the last few months. Engraving, preliminary enchantments, and now,” she clapped her hands together, looking towards them, “assembly.” She swept her hands, fingers splayed, towards the work.

“So sudden,” Divari said. “Was the Age of Splendors as easily begun?”

Azukai laughed. “I suppose it must appear sudden, but it is precisely the opposite. Do you suppose my soul-sister lounged idly upon her throne for these past two months?”

“Oh,” Divari said. She thought of what she’d experienced of Gratai in that time. Gentle knocks at just the right time, a soothing voice, a beckons back to vibrance and hope. Of course it wasn’t just for her.

Divari cringed upon herself. “I’m sorry, I did not mean to suggest—”

The zhumozhe cut these words off with a sudden lavender-scented embrace. “Sshh. You are worthy. You are enough. You are loved.”

This was too much. Uncaring whether anyone heard or saw or remembered it, Divari burst into tears. She mumbled incoherent blatherings into Azukai’s surrounding softness.

“I know,” Azukai murmured. “I know, little one. It’s alright to hurt. It’s alright.”

So Divari wept. She sobbed and sniffled and splattered the zhumozhe’s fine robes with her snot. She felt Azukai ease backwards, and down, until Divari nestled on her lap. The crown princess wept unceasing until her throat ached and her eyes burned. Finally, she calmed. She came to recognize an on-and-off-pressure against her hair and head. It took her another few breaths to understand that it was Azukai’s gentle hand soothing her.

Divari started and gasped, pulling away and staring around. She sat on the zhumozhe’s lap within a realm of shifting lilac veils and gentle wind chimes that rang clear into silence.

“Shh,” Azukai said. “No one saw. No one will see.”

“But what if they did?” Divari sobbed. “What if they—”

“I will scythe their wretched heads from their shoulders,” Azukai said. She pulled Divari against her. “But they did not. They will not. You are safe. I will not let them see, and you are safe. Shh.”

“But I’m not—” Divari began.

“But you can be,” Azukai said. “And you will be. You will make mistakes. You will falter. You will fear, and hurt, and weep. But you will be.” The zhumozhe never held her motionless, nor ever brushed her too fiercely. “I ask nothing but this. Keep trying, Divari Sidra. You still have a future. You will always have one while you, or I, breathe.”

“You shall continue. And I shall be with you.” Her mother’s deathbed words, not the last spoken, but the most poignant, echoed through her. Their reprise wiped away whatever shame or reserve might otherwise have tainted Divari’s tears. She wept until her eyes ached and her sobs became hoarse sputtering. And Azukai held her, scented by lavender and the faint, clean wholeness enveloping silks. In time her grief sank to the level of her awareness. Veils rustled. Chimes clacked, whistled, and rang in the otherworldly wind.

“We should return,” Divari said. “I must still be tested.” She edged away. “Thank you.”

“This is my sphere, and I am thankful for the chance to fulfill it,” Azukai said. “A mother’s heart can be a needy thing, too, in its way.” She dipped her head. “Thank you.”

The zhumozhe took Divari’s hand with a gentle tug. Sparkling energy ran in streamers down her arm and settled upon Divari. When its warmth faded, they again stood on Canno. Now, for this brief period, the caldera’s grandeur seemed real again. Azukai hovered in pleasant proximity. They watched her kindred at their work just a little longer. Just a few breaths more.

“Once it’s assembled and the house invokers give its enchantments their first life, this shall be the nexus of a great undertaking,” Azukai said. “A city-wide thermal interchange. It shall draw off the overbearing heat from the Ton-Ga and the belligerent sun.”

“To keep the entire city temperate,” Divari said. “And you activate it now to ensure it enchantments have time to build to full charge before they must bear a Ton-Ga summer.”

“Just so,” Azukai said. They started to move once more, approaching the sloping promenade at whose upper end waited the vast gateway through the caldera walls.

“Only, where will the heat go?” Divari asked. “I have only begun to study thermodynamics as a proper science and would scarcely trust myself to cast a fire-spell by invocation. But, heat is energy. To draw it away and create cold, or rather, leave cold behind it, this is easy. Yet energy cannot be destroyed.”

“Why would we wish to destroy it?” Azukai asked. “Tuha-Lin’s industry grows by the year. Ovens, baths, and forges alike need heat. The interchange provides the framework, but as to its final use? We shall make it publicly accessible. In a few decades, all the city will be able to cook, clean, and bathe with the heat stored.”

Divari considered. “How long has this been planned under one Matriarch or another?”

“It is centuries in the making,” Azukai said. “The primary limiting factors have always been worries of sabotage and subversion by our enemies. We also experienced poor luck with Matriarchs. I remember saying to myself a hundred times that if I had to see one more regressive, barren-hearted gouge of a woman ascend the Terase Throne, I would lead a revolt.”

“But now it comes to fruition,” Divari said. “Perhaps not everything that happened has been without good purpose.” As tiny as it was, the knowledge was a salve. She clutched it greedily. She also frowned as she thought further on the arcanatech constructs. “Azukai, I understand that you as zhumozhe are privy to many secrets I may not know. So, if you cannot answer this, please simply tell me.”

Azukai nodded and smiled, awaiting her question.

Divari’s feet found the basalt promenade’s first steps. Wind and a distant horn’s signal echoed inside the gate’s monumental archways. “House Lin still has rivals who may again become its enemies. I have heard much said about House Huan, and a fair amount about others too.”

“They remain a risk,” Azukai agreed, “but we judged this the best opportunity. It’s not that our agents are free from worry, only that they have room to breathe. House Sairo’s destruction has freed up enough of our resources that we believe we may undertake this construction without making ourselves vulnerable.” She paused, looking back out over the caldera and tracing the Bastion’s ranked towers. “A demon learns to be wary of letting enemies control her growth. It is right to ask for a world where no one seeks your ruin. But sometimes, it must be enough to minimize the number of your foes.”

“Has Tuha-Lin always had such enchantments prepared?” Divari asked.

“Not as such, but most major powers use more arcanatech than you would realize simply from a glance at their walls,” Azukai said. “You will see when we reach the Igneous Founding.”

This tempered Divari’s enthusiasm. “Yes,” she said, “I suppose I shall.”

It took them the better part of half an hour to walk down the many fortified switchbacks as far as the citadel-plateau halfway down the mountain’s side. Divari at first expected that they would turn left when they reached the middle ramp’s end. Instead, Azukai turned right. She glided around the ramp’s other side.

“Are you ever temped to transfer yourself from place to place?” Divari asked.

“Constantly,” Azukai said. “Tuha-Lin is a very large city. Not so large as it was before the Loar War, but large.”

They moved into the shadow along the ramp’s western side. Though less mighty than the Lins’ own fortifications, the homes here nonetheless sprawled. Most featured some form of tiered architecture, with stairways from lower rooms or courtyards running up to higher levels. Some organized themselves round a central tower while others used polyhedron-domes set at corners and other center points with painted buttresses to reinforce them further.

“These are the house retainers’ homes, are they not, and those of the highest vassals?” Divari asked.

“The most prestigious families are allowed homes higher up the slopes,” Azukai said, “but this route has special significances.” She broke into a wry grin. “Unless the outer walls and this level’s gate are both breached by direct assault, however, this place is more secure. Much harder to see and target with siege weapons.”

Divari laughed. “A clever ploy indeed, to let potential rivals think they are given pride of place and have them serve for range-markers instead.”

“Not likely ever to happen, but amusing,” Azukai agreed.

The structures drew close enough together—or rather, were built so far and high out from each compound’s center—that the gap between them narrowed until the road was almost an architectural tunnel. The zhumozhe led them through these tunnels with unfailing shifts. She moved so confidently that it was many minutes before Divari understood that this was a sort of maze.

“There are many intersections, but only one correct way to reach the Founding,” Azukai said. “Most of the other paths lead sooner or later to a family compound’s entrance, or a bridge doubling back through the area.”

The bewildering journey brought them, finally, to a hulking broad edifice carved from the mountain’s naked stone. The gate leading into it was neither wood nor bronze nor even stone, but solid steel. No, more even than that, for it bore a faint blue sheen with marbled swirls polished just short of mirror-brightness. The blue light cast by its active runes glimmered all across its seamless surface.

“Azukai,” Divari murmured, “is this…?”

“Pure sapphire steel direct from House Lin’s own foundries,” Azukai said. “To form a coherent slab so large required the aid of our five strongest craft-demons. You will find the door does not open so much as it simply gets out of the way for those with the right key.”

She reached forth her spear and tapped the door upon its centermost rune. It thrummed, reverberated, and then collapsed into vapor.

“It’s gone to the spiritual dimension, hasn’t it?” Divari asked.

“That it has,” Azukai said. “Come, now. The door’s enchantment leaves it absent for only a few seconds.” They passed into a hallway whose ceiling formed shapes much like the inside of a throat. Lanterns hung on iron chains and cast multicolored light. An instant later the plane-shifting gate returned to its proper place. “Its enchantment works such that as long as the gate exists in the mortal realm, any being entering the spiritual dimension in its proximity, or arriving here from another plane, will appear outside it.”

“I had no idea such a thing was possible,” Divari said.

“It required years of specialized study,” Azukai said. “The Head Invoker at the time—this was during the year 915 V.R.—undertook a whole array of planar measurements and visited the demonic planes many times to gain enough data. They had already mastered metallurgy, thermodynamics, and electrodynamics. In truth it’s unlikely it would’ve been undertaken at all if not for sanguine utterances about runic storage containers.”

“But the spiritual dimension changes from place to place,” Divari said.

“Which is why no such containers were ever made,” Azukai agreed. “It would require the recovery or reconstruction of portal theory.”

“At which point one would just use a miniaturized portal,” Divari said. “I see.” She cast one more glance over her shoulder. The halls they walked through often held runework bands and grooves. Some cascaded towards the floors or along the ceiling while others ran into rooms and doorways.

“All rooms in the Founding are internally warded and climate-controlled,” Azukai said. “As it should be with any proper arcane academy.”

“I had no idea enchantment was so common,” Divari said.

The zhumozhe sighed and looked at her with a complicated expression. Half a frown, half sorrowing, with traces of a squint in the set of her eyes. “Tresamer,” she said at last, “is very far behind the other large powers of Canno. Sarn is a backwater nation that most mages depart as soon as they are able. Neither land has shown you the degrees of magic common elsewhere on Canno—or even in our own lands.”

They were now approaching a stark narrow doorway marked with Tonnish characters. Divari recognized one with two strokes forming a conical shape over parallel lines and a trio of dots which meant “secure”. She could not read the rest. Pins-and-needles sensations pricked out from the current. They started as a single emanation. Soon they multiplied and shifted direction, like tiny piercing rays streaking towards her from a source that fanned out around Divari as she approached it.

Other mages—more in one place than she’d met since the Hearthwomen gave her special leave to attend a Grand Weaving at Glyren as a little girl.

Azukai continued, “If you enter the Bastion’s kitchens, you will find all manner of enchanted devices for mixing, adding or reducing moisture, for drawing fumes from the room and replacing them with clean air. Even Hu Lin’s Gate is, in truth, an arcane construct. There are runework bands enclosed in its spars. It serves as a conduit to amplify the strength of the outer walls’ wards in a siege. It’s magic that keeps our feedskims aloft on their rafts and empowers those rafts to detect life signs in the bogs nearby, and magic that powers that machinery in our steelworks which sifts, heats, and dispenses the components of our best metals.”

“I see,” Divari murmured, though in truth it was that she saw how much she did not.

“And that’s why the Igneous Founding Academy has a door of sapphire steel,” Azukai concluded. They passed through the archway into a vast chamber whose walls, ceiling, and floors all glowed with runes. So dazzling was their light that Divari didn’t understand they trod upon a layer of glass until they’d moved onto a railed platform that ran out to a central islet. On tables throughout the room lay many devices crafted from pure copper. Pinnacles and grasping prongs and segmented many-armed machinery lay dormant or hung from the ceiling. Through it all, the sanctioned invokers of House Lin busied themselves by myriad experiments and lessons.

A larger group surrounded two familiar faces. One was a human man of average height with soft brown skin and a shock of white hair cropped short on the sides but falling over his spectacles in a neatly-parted fringe. He wore a deep-mauve robe closed by a sash of emerald green trimmed in gold. He listened with keen emerald eyes and an intrigued smile as a willowy woman held forth on some subject of arcane theory. Younger mages clustered around them and the table they stood before. They appeared nervous.

On it was the other familiar face and the cause of those anxious nerves: a serpent with a grey-black body and the broad angular head of a viper. His fanged maw was speckled with rust-colored spots and streaks that tapered off a few inches down his neck. Bands of white and yellow stripes dappled with black spots ran down the viper’s upper body. His curious shifts showed off the sheen of his blood-red belly. He stretched closer to nine feet than eight, and at his body’s other end emerged dozens of gleaming spines that narrowed into needle sharpness.

“Deshra! Azukai!” the white-haired man greeted. He waved them over.

“You might’ve warned me about the crowding,” the viper said as they approached. “I knew about cities in theory. But there’s the word, and then there’s having a hundred people gathered around you. It’s like a forest that moves and tries to pet me without permission.”

“Don’t be impressed,” Enner said. “He likes the petting.”

“I am right here,” Scutes said, swiveling to look at the mage. “And I like it when it’s done well.”

“Lord Lin has passed on the Matriarch’s message and the trial has been prepared,” the tall invoker said. She spoke Shieldtongue with a slight accent that added to her impression of precision rather than detracting from it. “Lady Azukai, it is good to see you again. Lady Deshra, it is an honor to meet you in person.” She bowed to them both.

Divari bowed in return after a slight pause, still unused to her assumed name. “You are the Head Invoker, then? It is an honor to meet you as well, my lady,” she said.

The head invoker laughed. “I am not a noblewoman, your highness. You may call me Jinhua, or Mistress Jinhua if speaking my first name alone feels too informal. I ask the gift of your patience. You are welcome to remain for the lesson, we are reaching closing remarks,” Jinhua said. She smiled to one of her students. “Kimtai, please translate for your fellow students.”

Man, Guante,” she answered. She did not bow, nor did Jinhua seem to expect it.

Jinhua approached Scutes. “So, in sum—the enchantment placed upon Scutes does not actually violate the known laws of the arcane. Its application appears to be integrated into the lining of his throat. The electrical impulses generated in his brain, here,” and she laid a finger on the knifestail’s head, “travel down a new set of nerves which were either added by the spell itself, or created as a neuro-arcanical side effect of it.”

The current spiked from pins and needles into serrated spikes as the Head Invoker siphoned from it. Fine glowing branches appeared inside Scutes’ scaly head. Jinhua traced them downward. “They terminate at the roof of his mouth, where a second phase of the enchantment receives the impulses and converts them into the sound of the intended language. His tendency to open his mouth in imitation of the words’ rhythm is psychosomatic. It serves no purpose. It’s likely triggered by a form of subconscious response to the neuromancy.”

She turned towards her students. “To do this thing, which several among you have called frivolous, required an understanding of knifestail anatomy, electrodynamics, and acoustics which is nothing short of staggering. I hope I should not have to explain that this is paltry compared to the amount of skill in neuromancy needed to place a working knowledge of the entire Shieldtongue language into a resistant mind.”

She waited a few seconds while Kimtai finished translating.

“Questions?” she prompted.

Divari approached Enner while the Head Invoker spoke with her students. “Where is Len?” she asked under her breath. “He said he was going to meet us here.”

“He mentioned as much. I’m actually not certain,” Enner said, looking around.

“Hm. This is unusual,” Divari said. “Len has never just disappeared like this that I can remember. Azukai, do you know of any possible reason?”

The zhumozhe pursed her lips. “I have a guess’s ember. However, if I’m correct, then it’s harmless and also private. I shall say nothing.”

Divari’s brow furrowed. What in the name of her ancestors could that mean?

They passed a few minutes in idle conversation. One by one, Jinhua’s students filtered away until only the Head Invoker remained. “I thank you all for your patience,” she said. “Lady Deshra, if you will please come with me, we will proceed to the trial room.”

“You’ll do brilliantly,” Enner said, with that soft, easy smile of his.

“Tests are always worst before we begin taking them,” Azukai agreed.

“If you have the opportunity to strike the Head Invoker with a spell, please take it,” Scutes said, cocking his head. “She needs to be reminded about personal space.”

Divari giggled a little at that. But the giggles soon ran out. The trial awaited.

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