The Necromancer and the Reaping Spear: Chapter Five

Hello, readers mine. I’m planning on wrapping line-edits on The Necromancer and the Reaping Spear today. If that sounds a little abrupt, well, rest assured I didn’t manage to line-edit a 485K-word novel in five days. I’ve just been dealing with an especially bad bout of depression. I’ve decided to accept for now that there will be scattered typos and clunky lines deeper in the book. For today, I just want to make sure that a few key scenes are polished enough to content myself with, then prep the book for conversion at Smashwords and set to work on some cover art.

As always, I encourage you to read Making Points, Mental Health, and the Necromancer’s Vengeance Series (northbornsword.blog) before giving me your time or money.

If you like what you see here enough that you want to support me as a storyteller, please pick up the first book in the series here: Smashwords – The Necromancer and the Revenant: Resurrected Edition – a book by Caerllyn McCurdy. Any reviews or shares you want to give it are greatly appreciated. I’m an indie author with none of the marketing resources and connections of traditional publishing.

Now then, our story continues with a visit by Syla and various other members of the main cast to the venerable Lashing Rain school, where they encounter certain problems with elitism…

Chapter Five

As On the First Day

(14th of Makye, 1295 V.R.)

“The human mind treasures cycles. It seeks their continuity. This is foolishness; all change begins with small differences. If you scorn them, you will never create large ones.” -Lei Tze, Philosopher, in his Paradigms and Virtues

Winter rains streamed down black bows and dribbled along emerald creepers. Somewhere downhill, through the storm-misted labyrinth of the bogs, a creature chirped deep from its gullet. Syla wore a snug shirt in mauve linen and black pants. Her stiletto nestled against her hip, sheathed but ever-ready. Its venomous edge availed nothing against the rain. She’d taken great pride in arranging her obsidian-sheen hair this morning, with braided coils over each ear and one at her left temple. Divari had even smiled when she told Syla how pretty it looked.

Somehow, she doubted the artful coifing would make the same impression while rainwater rivulets streamed down her brow and soaked her clothes through.

“It was sunny yesterday,” Uncle Len griped. He scratched the burns across his deep brown face, sculpted now rather than gaunt with weight gained from rest and ample food. His long black mustache dripped directly into his open coat-collar. He waved a hand through exasperated circles. “But oh, no, they had to camp at the waystation. The chaelins were tired. And here we are, walking in the rain again.”

“‘The willing embrace of hardship is an ornament to the warrior’s pride,'” Zhen-mi quoted. Syla snickered. Zhen-mi, rich brown in complexion, wore a traditional mauve robe hemmed in white and stitched with golden vipers. Though a warrior born and blooded, the handmaiden looked more girlish than Syla had come to expect from the northern Ton. She acted it too. Easy to forget she was a little older than Syla herself. It was refreshing.

“I’ll take my hardship on the battlefield, and much appreciated,” Len said. He raised a bushy black eyebrow at Syla. “Didn’t want to bring Divari along?”

At his left hip hung his venerable wedgepoint sword in a new scabbard: mauve inlaid with golden maze-patterns and secured by iron bands. A black-and-gold sash secured it to his waist and held his coat closed. “She could hold the rain off easily enough,” Len added suddenly, with the tone one used to explain something awkward.

Syla drew to a halt and pivoted to face him as she scrunched her brows with bemusement. “I’ll just cut under you before you grow too fond of a silly idea. There’s no blossoming romance here. Divari is pretty, and it would be politically useful if I seduced the future queen of Tresamer, but that’s not what it’s about.”

Zhen-mi squeaked. “Spoken so directly, my Lady Heir,” she said, with a telling dark cherry tint raising in her cheeks. Syla was equally as interested, but there were so many questions of power and hierarchy underlying that idea that she had no idea where to start.

“I didn’t mean to suggest…” Len began. Syla arched one brow higher and higher until he trailed off. “Can I be blamed for thinking it?” he amended.

“Yes!” Syla laughed, shaking her soggy head. “You can!” She sobered. “We both notice the whispers. No one in the Bastion is quite as subtle as they think. Divari would not be helped, I think, if I took an interest. She’s fighting herself often enough as it is.”  This was their code phrase for Divari’s periodic terrors. A measure to conceal them from less compassionate folk. A Tresar whelp scared of her own shadow, such would surely say. “You know how much of her it takes. And…” Syla continued, then went silent; Len understood her meaning well enough anyway.

At his right hung Corpsefire Clarion. The sword carried too many details to tally at a glance. A mauve silk grip, a black disc-guard, aged brass scabbard. Syla preferred seeing it only as blurred impressions, for it was a hateful masterpiece. Sheathing it concealed the beauty of sapphire-steel and the ugliness of the soul locked amid the marbled patterns. No idle ornament, the arterial blossoms coloring its pommel’s inner disc: Mei-la Sairo was imprisoned within. Who could rest easy with the tormented ex-Revenant so close, closed in a longsword that bobbed with each splashing step?

“The nature of the news would not likely help,” Zhen-mi added, folding her hands.

“We won’t discuss that here, Zhen-mi,” Syla said. Of course, in her own mind, she’d done nothing but think about it since hearing it. A hearthwoman had smuggled the message: amidst Tresamer’s worsening civil war, Chelar Sidra’s “Loar weapon” had resurfaced.

Now the Inferno Matriarch must decide whether to seek it.

Ancient stonework squeaked beneath booted feet and echoed as they took a turn. They entered a tunnel once full-enclosed, laid open by time and an unremembered calamity or two. Scaffolds and mason’s tools littered the way forward, abandoned in grudging deference to the Ton-Ga’s deluge. The floor’s oranges and reds were stronger, once, to stand out against the grim black columns. Each framed the path and upheld the time-punctured remnant roofing.  The way had faded under many storms like this. Pale here, grimy there. Some of the stones were so worn through that they appeared like raw silicate upthrust from the bowels of Canno rather than proper masonry.

“‘Age brings nuance to the gaudiest smear,'” Syla quoted, nudging Zhen-mi. Her handmaiden giggled. They made an odd pair indeed: Syla with her smooth russet skin and wild obsidian hair, a triangle nose and amber eyes the main nods to her Firascan heritage.

Zhen-mi was short for north Ton warstock—”only” thirteen centimeters above Syla’s own one-hundred sixty. Intense training had long since filled out Zhen-mi’s shoulders and torso. Bearing four children, three sons and a daughter, had done the same for her hips. As a handmaiden she’d taken to arranging her hair more artfully. A stray lock, strands pinned over an ear. She wore it in a loose cascade at the back, rare among warriors.

And as to the blooding? Zhen-mi had served under General Shung during last year’s offensive. Five Sairo warriors slain, a banner taken, and appointment to Syla’s retinue as a reward for catching the Matriarch’s eye. It was an unspoken oddity between them that Syla had more and grizzlier combat experience—in exterminating slavers, and in confronting the Revenant Mei-la three times. Yet by training and a well-fed if stoic upbringing, Zhen-mi was far and away the superior fighter.

I don’t begrudge her that, Syla thought. Zhen-mi doesn’t take that to mean she’s a superior person in anything else. If only she was the rule rather than the exception.

“Ah, finally,” Len said. They entered a properly enclosed hallway padded by soft dark green moss. Purple blossoms poked up as decreed by nature’s whims. Wooden ramparts finished in dark red with iron bolts and braces buffered new stone, pale grey-blues with an occasional block in a marbled cerulean and silver pattern: dyestone salvaged from Moriah’s quarries at Birmel. Fronds hung from the ceilings and must be brushed aside.

When they came to a new, reinforced door with three violet runes glowing on its surface, Len delivered a heavy knock. Orange sparks flew and a horrible scraping sound echoed through the tunnels when the wards on Len’s amulet clashed with those on the door. He turned with a mortified grimace.

“Well, I’m sure they heard us, anyway,” he said.

“I think the whole world heard us,” Zhen-mi said. Len gave her a flat look.

“That’s something like Mejakind’s war-cry,” Syla said. ” ‘When we march, the world shakes.'” Len looked back and forth between them, increasingly adrift.

“Was it? Nothing about the world burning?” Zhen-mi asked.

“That would be more poetic. Had history treated them more kindly, perhaps they’d have evolved it to that,” Syla said. “Perhaps on some other world it is so.” She imagined Zhen-mi’s accidental revision echoing from the thousand throats of a bronze-clad legion. “That’s a war-cry you could build an empire with,” she concluded, smiling to herself.

“There’s a bit more to building an empire than that,” Len said.

“It’s banter, uncle,” Syla said. “Have I ever given you the impression I’m in favor of building empires at all? Either way, no need to take it seriously. The only person with less to prove than you is, well, mother. Rest easy.” She smiled at him. “You’re warstock as it comes. You’ve earned a little satisfaction in it.”

Len’s lips and brow drew inward towards his nose in sudden, deep concentration. Syla just had time to wonder why he wasn’t pleased. Then, scuffling on the door’s other side. A wiry Tonnish woman soon hauled it open. “Lord Lin,” she greeted him, and then added, “My Lady Heir. Be welcome in the Lashing Rain school.”

Syla elected to hold her peace. Azukai’s speech upon the day her mother ascended the Terase throne had settled most of the house in Syla’s favor. Yet it soon became clear that the warstock had layers within itself. Its elite held themselves as far above their peers as the wider warstock did above the peacestock. If Azukai’s elaborate storytelling had failed, then Syla hadn’t the first idea how else to make a bunch of two-meter tall killers born take her seriously. So silence it was, and meeting the martial artist’s cold gaze in kind.

The woman stepped aside and held the door ajar. Her brisk pivot raised a flag-staff flutter from the knee-length robe she wore above white pants bloused into steel-toed boots. Past her stretched a hallway more overgrown even than the entry. Merest traces of black stonework and ancient copper alcoves peeked through the green moss and roots.

“You made no effort to identify us before opening the door, warrior, as far as I could see,” Syla said.

“The Matriarch, generous and wise, undertook to enchant the inner side so that we can press a rune and see what lies without,” the Lashing Rain student said. “In this way we ensure that if we look upon an enemy, there is no slot in the door through which they might strike.” Her tone made it clear what kinds of enemies she might be referring to.

Len growled low in his throat. “It has been observed, warrior, that it is easier to call oneself subtle than actually be subtle. Careful you don’t become too prideful.”

The student bowed, shamefaced. “Of course, my lord. I will meditate on this.” She waited for them to enter the hall, sealed the door, and hurried ahead. A wash of smells wrapped around them: earthy stone and faintest mold, but so too oil, leather, and sweat.

“You could’ve done the same, Syla,” Len whispered.

“Could I?” Syla asked. “Both of us could’ve killed her, Len—I more easily in space this tight. It’s not what either of us can do that’s the difference. It’s how she sees us.”

“Then she is stupid and should be punished!” Zhen-mi hissed.

“I would just be seen as—” Syla started.

“That’ll only make them think—” Len said. They both halted.

At length, Syla cleared her throat and continued, “The people at the top of any power hierarchy respect only power. If she exploits the rules to insult me, well, that’s fine. After all, she could beat me an honest fight. Why prove it with an honest fight?”

“Because that would be respectful,” Zhen-mi said. “Why confront you at all, otherwise? Does not the etiquette of the warstock exist to enforce that?”

“It exists so we can say we’re enforcing that,” Len said. “That’s a little bit like suggesting armor exists so that we can let people stab us in the gut.”

“Ah,” Zhen-mi said, knuckling her lips.

“They would see me as a weakling using the rules to assert herself because she has no worthier way to do so,” Syla elaborated. “If I challenged her to fight over the insult she would refuse, with or without an excuse, or else choose dueling conditions under which she knew I’d have no chance of winning.” Syla was bitterly aware that these would be nearly any dueling conditions. Aloud, she concluded, “That leaves killing her without warning, which is illegal, would see me branded a psychopath, and is certainly evil, or having her assassinated, which either creates the same problem or looks like an accident and thus proves nothing. And also, is certainly evil.”

“Oh,” Zhen-mi said. It was true enough she was blooded. Yet she was used to honorable striving against worthy foes. Gory and frightful, more perilous in the moment, but clearly defined. And it had an end. Petty intrigue was an infinite nest of fangs.

“It’s hard to change others’ minds about me when they’re determined to see everything I do as wrong,” Syla said. She couldn’t help but chuckle, though with little humor. “Mother posed me just the same problem when first we met.”

“Then surely you will know best how to mend it!” Zhen-mi said, brimming enthusiasm.

“I should,” Syla agreed. “We’ll see if I actually do.”

Onward through the halls of the Lashing Rain school. They entered a series of rooms where the walls curved to meet each other in odd convex corners and the ceilings all had a twisting, vaulted look. Rainwater dripped through occasional cracks, though many had been sealed with glossy metals. Copper and brass, from the looks of it. The metals merged with the stonework somehow, their colors spread out and diluted until the dark stone consumed all hues. Benches and racks of practice weapons occupied alcoves beneath merry torches. New sounds joined the rain’s faint murmur: distant clattering, occasional shouts.

The door guard spoke with another student directly ahead. This one nodded twice. The first woman whispered something and hurried back towards the main door. She brushed past without meeting Syla’s gaze.

“I must apologize for Lei-zhu,” the new student said. Her face was brightened along the temples, cheeks and jaws by many odd bright patterns. With another few steps, it became apparent they were scars. Syla recognized them from her childhood in Firasca.

Mensur scars, yes?” Syla asked. “You’ve been to Stoßdär?”

“On the Grandmaster’s most recent return visit,” the student agreed. She was more heavily built than her fellow student, with beefy arms and a respectable gut. She had a pleasant face and lively umber eyes. “She’s too stupid to realize that thinking ill of you is the same as thinking ill of your mother, My Lady Heir.”
            Syla raised an eyebrow. “And you wouldn’t think well of me if you hadn’t realized that, warrior…?”

“Shai of the Yixiao family,” Shai said, and bowed. “Specifically, we are a cadet branch—”

“—originally descended from Ten-zai’s third daughter, Min-wei, since having briefly joined House Huan somewhere between 73 and 122 V.R. in a failed attempt to seize the throne. You were nevertheless recognized by each Lin Matriarch since reintegration in 138 V.R. as family, and are favored with a marriage when it’s deemed the bloodlines have grown too far apart,” Syla recited. “Mother says you are progressing very well, Shai.”

“I…” Shai stuttered to a halt.

“Please don’t assume I can do that with everyone,” Syla said. “It behooves us to keep your family close, and remember you well.”

“Of course, My Lady Heir,” Shai said. “I, er… thank you. Shall I bring you to the Matriarch, then, and the Grandmaster?”

“That would be appropriate,” Syla said. She waited a moment, allowing Shai to move further ahead so Len could whisper the quip she saw him fighting back.

“That was terrifying,” Len said. “Like a tiny Uru.”

“Only I’m not a tiny Uru,” Syla said. “I’m a statuesque Syla.” At Len’s raised eyebrow she grinned. “I swear to you, all the other Sylas in Firasca are much shorter than I.” She soured. “It was just some dusty lore. It’s not as though I know who she is, really.”

“But you seemed like you did,” Len said. “If you can teach yourself to do that with the others, they’ll crumble just as quickly as young Shai did.”

“Hm,” Syla acknowledged. Then she frowned. “You’re what, twenty-five semesters old? She’s at least as old as you are.” And older than I, she thought.

“In semesters, yes,” Len said. “In experience, no.”

Zhen-mi nodded. “There are many millions of women in the Ton-Ga, but only two who rushed Revenant Mei-la with a sword. Do not let the rest forget it.”

Syla took the time to contemplate this. Meanwhile they reached the school’s inner sanctum. Shai led them through a pair of all-steel doors which rippled occasionally with violet gleams. Mother’s certainly come to enjoy leaving her maker’s mark, Syla thought. Then, she smiled a little to herself. Of course she has. It’s both a calculated display of power and a way to keep the Lashing Rain school in her debt for decades to come.

“Do mind your step, My Lady Heir, Lord Lin,” Shai said, pulling Syla back to the present. “We are repairing the damaged areas as quickly as we can. But there’s so much work to do, and only so much we can address without losing some of our school’s training value.”

They emerged onto an unusual pronged terrace; a protrusion from each prong’s end flowed into walkways crafted entirely from a gleaming, reflective metal. It showed not a speck of rust even though the encompassing stonework had crumbled in many places. A crevice broke through one of the school’s original walls. Though filled by new stonework, it had long since allowed the bogs and their dour plantlife to claim a tiny valley. The wilderness siege-party came complete with vines, creepers, and algae-skinned water.

Muggy gusts laden with pollen and the musk of bog-blooms mingled with the scent of rain. Together with the downpour’s ambient patter, they wove the senses into a cocoon against time and the violent world. Though aware of her companions beside her, Syla sank into that cocoon. Breaths seemed at times to match the wind’s surges and sighs. The rain’s comings and goings echoed, almost, the beating heart’s cadence. Blanket tranquility. A thing outside explaining. Or perhaps it was simple: there was no fear of the future when cradled amid the magnetic unknown of the past.

Linking highest of all against the sky, the walkways formed spiraling arcs connecting seven cylindrical towers with empty channels and holes in their sides. Devices of some kind had clearly filled the crevices once. Time or scavengers stole them away. The towers were arranged around a heavy black-stone pentagon, a sprawling thing rising five levels above Syla and the others which jutted from the depths of a pit easily three times that in depth.

Once straight-sided, wind, rain, and human hands had etched every side of the pit into a different shape. Pathways north. Collapsed material formed a jagged ramp to the south. Caves east and west with a few ancient hovels rotting in their depths. The stone pentagon’s fifth point held the grandest tower of all. Five green copper beams connected some of the smaller towers to it. It looked to have been some sort of framework.

“What can all this be for, anyway?” Len wondered aloud. The clattering and shouts first heard earlier were now louder, but their volume changed rapidly. Rather, Syla realized, the sources moved quickly.

“Something to do with the Age of Splendors,” Syla said. “I recognize that stuff the walkways are made from. Some alloy once possible to make in huge amounts. Last I heard, some metallurgist had recovered the recipe and meant to start forging it again. Still, any batch larger than his hand turns out wrong. He had no idea how they got so much.”

“Magic?” Zhen-mi suggested.

“Industry, more likely,” Len said. “A mage is a mage. Always expensive, always risky.”

After a few seconds, Shai cleared her throat. “It seems they might be a little while. I would invite you along, but the Grandmaster is a great admirer of Helenenburg’s Scarlet Avenue and the grounds are therefore reserved for open, spontaneous sparring.”

“Well, I’d certainly rather not take any blows to the head,” Syla said. “Best of luck, Shai.”

Shai nodded and hurried back into the hallway they’d come from. She emerged again carrying a practice spear and threw it with practiced ease into a thick mossy mound below. A crude ladder cut into one of the unusual towers served for her descent. Syla watched Shai for a moment before speaking to Len without turning.

“It’s happening more often,” she said.

Len waited a moment before answering. “Syla, you don’t know that. It would make sense that Mou-chi…” he stopped himself and emphasized, “my mother helped a member of the Yixiao family attend the same school as Gratai. It’s a good way to keep them close, yes?”

“Well of course! If it were too absurd, it wouldn’t have happened. We want it to stop raining, but a storm doesn’t just cease to exist at a breath. But Shai? She was right here waiting,” Syla said. “Like she’d been summoned. When we needed her, we met Chendreth.” She continued and ticked off points on her fingers. Zhen-mi watched them argue, baffled. “But I think it goes back much earlier. Mother needed someone she could trust. She met Scutes. We needed not just allies, but allies who knew how to deal with evil spirits. I walked by Ilo at the exact moment he was speaking about how he and Kiresa needed more help anyway.”

“I don’t know that that turned out so well for them, Syla,” Len murmured.

“It didn’t,” Syla said. “But it turned out well for us. For mother. Or… better than it would have, otherwise.”

“Look, Syla, I’ve heard this kind of talk before,” Len said. “Soldiers look at coincidences over the weeks or months of a campaign, especially between battles. They see all these times they cheated death and others didn’t. They say, ‘someone has to be looking out for me. There’s no way I could’ve survived that otherwise.’ But it’s just in their minds.”

“That’s not the same!” Syla persisted. “Those are times when something could happen, but doesn’t. I’m talking about times when the sort of things that effectively never happen, happen! I learned not to trust luck as a thief, Len—and don’t get me ranting about the ridiculous stories that say otherwise, insults and playwright’s self-pleasuring, the lot of them—and they keep happening more and more often around us.”

“Alright, so what if they do?” Len asked. “Why is it a problem?”

“I…” Syla pursed her lips and scrubbed her damp hair. “I don’t know, Len,” she said. “It’s not the way of things. I suppose maybe I am overreacting, a little, but mortals don’t have powers like that. Shouldn’t I be worried? Something happened at the Redoubt. While Divari and I were hidden by Usvana’s remnants. While you and all the others were unconscious or too delirious from blood loss to see. Whatever mother did, she frightened Morkui Bano.” Syla looked meaningfully at Corpsefire Clarion, and the arterial red on its bright-polished fittings.

“The only other time we saw him close to thatterrified, it was after Azukai finished telling him he would rot alive without our help. And I don’t think Mei-la looks as wretched as she does when you draw that sword just because she’s trapped. Speaking of Azu, do I really need to mention how cocky she’s grown? She’s drunk on some monstrous secret. Has it not occurred to you to be concerned simply because Azukai, of all people, won’t tell us?”

“Hm,” Len said. He made no further arguments. The distant clatters and shouts grew closer, then more distant again. Wood retorts echoed through the school-depths without their source ever quite entering sight. Finally Len looked skyward. “That’s it, I’m going to look for them,” he said. No sooner did the last word pass than there came a tumult from an old cellar-tunnel now exposed by the boggy crevice cutting into the school’s grounds.

 A fighter whirled out from the tunnel. He looked rather the worse for wear as he heaved for breath in padded practice armor. He leveled his wooden spear at the tunnel entrance. He thrust back into the darkened tunnel, or tried to rather, for a downward flicker hammered his spear from his grasp. For but an eyeblink the opposing spear halted at that hammer-stroke’s end. It was just under three meters long with a wooden guard surmounted by a heavy “blade”: a practice reaping spear.

Before the student could grapple it in its pause, the other spear darted past him and then retracted. Its guard caught him behind the head and yanked him forward. He stumbled. A mauve blur swept past him and planted the reaping spear’s counterweight in his back. Wards sparked and he launched into the tunnel, causing shouts of startlement.

“Don’t you dare say ‘I warned you,'” Len muttered to Syla.

Gratai Lin, Matriarch of Her House, was unmistakable. Her ornate deep-mauve robe, this one broken up by broad white bands stitched with black eels, trimmed gold at the hems, swirled above blackened steel boots and imported Ceslonian sabatons. At two-hundred thirteen centimeters tall, Gratai was towering even by the Ton-Ga’s measure. She was heavily muscled from her shoulders to her calves, though less sharply defined than that muscle than many of her people. Of her face naught could be seen from this angle. Her infamous shock-white skin and silken black hair created as stark a contrast as ever.

These were familiar features to Syla. Yet she could no longer ignore the signs: the way the long bang-tresses her mother so treasured arced out as Gratai spun to a halt. The way hair, robes, baggy black pants—untucked today—formed the most graceful lines possible. No single detail was impossible, even the bog-water cast backward as a broad reverse-wake. The impossibility emerged as combined aesthetic perfection. The best of Canno’s painters might, barely, grasp lines of motion well enough to produce one such masterwork image of a warrior born.

Syla glanced sideways at Len; he pointedly avoided her gaze. For one might blink a hundred times whenever Gratai the Inferno Matriarch moved, and with each blink capture portraits just as immaculate.

Then there was stillness. Gratai waited. Syla’s eye was drawn to a pair of students moving above the boggy-crevice, quickly and quietly. They shifted their spears with continuous easy slips at the fingers and elbows to keep them from tangling in vines or upsetting branches. This must be what Shai meant about the school’s condition making it a better training ground. Here they could practice handling a spear despite the bogs’ impediments, but with safe haven and aid to hand if some poisonous threat caught them unawares. When the students reached the crevice-lip, they vaulted downslope suddenly and loosed guttural war-cries.

“Is not ‘Je-rah’ our traditional war-cry?” Zhen-mi asked.

“It would be a little odd to shout the house’s war-cry when attacking the Matriarch, training or no,” Syla said.

“Oh. That is true, My Lady Heir,” Zhen-mi said, and laughed.

Gratai kept her attention on the tunnels, or seemed to. One of the flanking pair shifted his spear to throw it. It was a fine throw complete with a shift of his footing so his right foot stomped down even as the spear leapt from his hand. The long wooden shaft hurtled through the rain-misted air. Gratai leaned backward to avoid it. In tandem, the other Lashing Rain students attacked.

To see clearly what transpired in that instant would have required eyes and mind as swift, in fact, as those of Gratai herself: the whole mess covered about three seconds. Five more students in practice armor charged from the tunnel en masse. Gratai flashed into a blur of limbs and a uniform arc, brief as a lightning stroke, that ended with a twisting downward slice and crashing snarl of wood on wood. The thrown practice spear exploded sidelong at the charging students. It caused none to fall. Two did break ranks to dodge it. The others either leapt over it or tried to swat it away with their own spears.

At this point the flanking pair reached Gratai. The one who’d thrown his spear tried to grab hers as she turned to face him. His partner made a thrust with her own spear.

Then Gratai was past the thrust. She must have made another move because the would-be grappler was on the other side of her with his helm rung by an uppercut from another student. A lateral band of glowing cracks opened on his wards, and a crater of the same on those of a third whose origin was shown only by a bloom of sparks on the already-rebounding counterweight of Gratai’s practice spear. She twisted around another thrust to retaliate with one of her own, and dealt “death” blows to the last three students with vast lunging steps that let her cut right around their guards and strike each in the head.

Len blew out a puff of air. “Brazen gods, sister, there’s no need to humiliate them like that.”

“Isn’t there?” Syla asked. “I’d hope Grandmaster Cho teaches his students well enough that they’d know if she took it easy on them.”

“There’s only so much you can learn from someone crushing you,” Len said.

“Oh?” Syla countered. “Perhaps that’s the very lesson they’re meant to take today.”

Below, the Lashing Rain students hauled themselves upright. “That’ll do!” a burly man bellowed, stepping out from the tunnel. “Well done, all of you. Do not forget that our Matriarch has confronted the Vigil. She destroyed Mei-la Sairo. And, she has always been among my best students.”

“And though I cannot foresee all time’s wavers, my young warriors, I deem with another year’s training you’ll seize fiercer skill than I possessed at your age,” Gratai said, and bowed.

It was her voice that truly commanded, of course: sonorous, deep, and feminine, with a ringing quality that made one hear her and yearn to obey. Gratai Lin’s words held something more than sound. Even Syla found it hard to hear her mother speak without wanting to believe in the spoken reality. It was entrancing. And deeply, deeply frightening. Hei Cho’s students didn’t know to be frightened. If they were bruised they showed it little, swaggering and jostling each other on the way back to their quarters.

Even while Syla watched, Gratai chanced to turn and look up. “Syla dear!” she called immediately. With a quick swipe of her hand she opened a portal—a slash on the air streaming violet fire. She hurried through. Syla couldn’t have avoided the coming embrace if she’d wanted to. Not that she did; Gratai was, after all, the mother she chose.

So she was enveloped in plush silks. Sweet aromas of incense, and clove oil. The brief embrace conferred as much warmth and muzzying comfort as might be felt at the utmost end of a long evening spent curled up in bed with a good book and a well-spiced wine—so lulled and safe that it was a shock to wake with the dawn and realize sleep had come.

Small murmurs within a stubborn fastness of Syla’s mind called this dangerous. There were meant to be limits on the emotional power of a hug, no matter who gave it. 

Those murmurs were long silent by the time they stepped apart. The Matriarch’s diamond visage was beautiful, of course, in its uncanny way: skin clear and gossamer-smooth. Cheeks full and graceful. An elegant curving nose. Full lips, radiant violet eyes beneath sharp brows with a proud arch at the outside, all set above a crisp jawline. Gratai relished her black pigments; she said they suited her “vaunted facade”.

Syla was not normally one to obsess over a face’s details. With her mother she could no longer do otherwise. There was no ignoring the way a single lock of hair had escaped the neat-combed ranks to dangle over one amethyst eye. Gratai looked so tender, so motherly, with that stray lock as if she’d hurried from her own bed to soothe Syla after a nightmare, that again the only fitting comparison was a painting or perhaps a fable’s prime character. No amount of effort would let a real human attain this.

Gratai’s reality could not be denied. It was the ‘human’ part of the quandary that posed silent strife. There are things in that woman’s mind you can’t know, Usvana had told Syla. It wasn’t that Syla didn’t trust her mother. It was that Syla couldn’t trust herself when her mother was present.

Hei Cho stepped through the portal a moment later. Indeed, his footfall’s splash of rain broke Syla’s meditation and forced her to realize that only a moment had passed. He was a massive man despite looking short next to Gratai at around a hundred ninety centimeters. His bellows of a gut, broad chest and thick muscular arms made him fatherly and intimidating in equal measure. Bald, but with a magnificent black goatee and gleaming amber eyes, he looked poised to move mountains if they were stupid enough not to move on their own.

“If you had told me you were going to try half of the things you tried today, young one, I would have told you that you’d forgotten everything I taught you,” he said to Gratai. “Now, I’m beginning to think you always knew something I did not.” He spoke Shieldtongue, an obvious courtesy to Syla. Or is it a veiled reminder that I’m not my mother, again? Syla thought. Hei Cho must be better than that… mustn’t he?

“Your wisdom gleams the brighter for my tarnished years,” Gratai said, but Hei Cho was already shaking his head.

“I’ve been too long at rest in the Ton-Ga,” Hei Cho said. “When we went to Helenenburg I found there’s a new grandmaster of the halberd sweeping the Fechtschulen. Teisse Ringenmach. He is a reedy one—a reed with spring, yes, and sting in him too! I bested him, but not because I was better. I promise you he’d take the day if we sparred again. I’m just a bit too far behind now, Thinvine.”

“Thinvine?” Syla asked, unable to help herself.

Gratai chuckled. “Master weaved this title for me because I insisted on seizing new techniques and ideas every dawn, long before I mastered those I’d latched upon already. He said I invoked a greedy vine seeking to tangle a forest without setting roots in water—doomed to wither if I wandered much farther.”

“If she had waited to master the basics first, she’d have been my single best student without a doubt,” Hei Cho said. “Instead she kept having to relearn techniques because she’d ignored the concepts which drove them.” He shook his head and smiled fondly. “As I said, perhaps the Matriarch understood something I did not.”

“You always have something to teach me,” Gratai said, and preempted any response by turning back to Syla. “Now, heart, what brings you to our storm-wracked sanctum?”

Syla measured her answer. “Something has been found,” she said at last, “of which you once said it was a quintessential farce that any would expect it to benefit them.”

Gratai’s good humor ebbed. “Such dire affairs beckon us unto the Bastion.”

Syla nodded. “I agree. However,” she took several deepening breaths to combat her heart’s increasing gallop as she turned to Hei Cho. “I’d like to settle something here, first. Honored Grandmaster, I have a request to make of your students if they are willing.”

Hei Cho eyed her with a special kind of clarity she’d come to recognize as the mark of a teacher letting a student make a mistake for their own good. “Oh?” he asked.

“Can they spare the energy to meet a challenge?” Syla asked.

“My Lady Heir,” Zhen-mi interjected, “I must argue against this.”

“Proper retainers do not speak out turn,” Len said. Syla reached up to grasp his shoulder. She’d come to think of Len as immovable. It surprised her to feel him shift with the gesture, though only slightly.

“But good retainers do,” she said. She held his gaze until he twitched his lips into a brief, sullen scrunch and nodded assent. She turned to Zhen-mi. “Say what you would.”

“I understand what you intend to do, my Lady Heir, and I want to say that it is the right path, but through the lens of what his Lordship your uncle has said, and what I have observed of Hei Cho’s students, I think it is pointless. Those who would respect you for this challenge will show you respect already. Those who rebel will only take it as proof.”

Syla closed her eyes, pursed her lips, and nodded along with Zhen-mi’s words. Then she asked, “Grandmaster, if they hear the challenge, how many will accept?”

“How many will you challenge? That is the number who will meet it,” he answered. Syla nodded firmly. “Then it will be all of them,” she said.

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