2 -13

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“How many, approximately?” Trissiny asked very quietly.

“Approximately fifty-one,” Fross replied. “They’re…I’m not sure what they’re doing. Milling around, listening to a big female who’s giving orders.”

On cue, the whole group paused and looked up at the rim of the canyon. Amid all the stamping and shouting, there was indeed one recurring voice which, while deep, might have been feminine. It certainly sounded authoritative.

Trissiny glanced around at her companions; they were a knot of tight, nervous faces. Only Shaeine looked truly calm, but apparently Narisians were trained for that from the cradle. Rising onto her tiptoes to look over their heads—and giving thanks for her height, for once—Trissiny scanned their environs. Nothing ideal jumped out at her, but she did spot something serviceable.

“This way, everyone,” she said, gently pushing between Toby and Ruda to lead the way up the canyon. “Quiet as you can.”

A few yards ahead was a deep alcove in the base of the canyon, protected by an overhang of rock. It was barely out of the midday sun, not deep enough to qualify as a proper cave, but it’d shield them from view if any of those above happened to glance over the edge. Following Trissiny, they filed and and huddled together; Fross descended to Juniper’s shoulder, dimming her glow almost completely.

“What do we do?” Gabriel hissed, his voice verging on panic. “Can we run? Hide in here?”

“We’re sitting ducks down here,” Ruda replied in a similar tone.

“What do you think, Trissiny?” Toby’s tone was deliberately calm. It seemed to ground the others; again, everyone looked expectantly at Trissiny.

“Whatever they’re doing up there, they don’t seem to be leaving.” She kept her tone calm and her voice low; a level-headed commander could do a lot to maintain order among frightened troops, and much as some of them might have resented her taking charge, it seemed to work. “Whether they’re settling in to camp or planning to move along the rim of the canyon to a place to cross, they’re likely to send scouts down here.”

“I think horse legs would have trouble with those cliffs,” Juniper said.

“The way we came in isn’t that far behind, and we don’t know how many other paths up or down there may be. Best to plan on having to engage them. Listen, I think we can take them.”

“Are you off your nut?” Ruda hissed furiously. “I love a good fight as much as the next girl, but we’re talking six to one odds against us!”

“As Professor Tellwyrn pointed out, we heavily outclass most threats, Ruda. That’s why all of us are at her crazy school instead of somewhere else. There was a narrow spot a bit behind us where we can make a stand—”

“You can’t seriously think—”

“Listen to me,” she said urgently, struggling to keep her voice low. Goddess, give her patience; this lack of order and discipline would be the thing that got them killed, if anything did. For a wonder, Ruda shut her mouth, glaring. “Centaurs are more of a raider than a warrior culture. Like all bullies, they’re cowards at heart; once they lose a few fighters without inflicting any losses on us, they’ll back off and avoid us thereafter. If we run, though, they will pursue. This isn’t going to end until we fight them off.”

“What the hell makes you think we can inflict losses without taking any?” Gabriel snapped, barely remembering to keep his voice low. “Or that even if we somehow do it’ll scare them off?”

“I’ve had to study every known culture that practices diabolism in an organized fashion, the tactics of every enemy the Sisters of Avei have fought over millennia, and every group considered a systemic threat to the safety of women. Believe me, my education has covered centaurs.

“Look around at us,” she continued. “Vadrieny, Juniper and Gabriel are incredibly resistant to damage, and two of the three can hit very hard, regardless of their level of martial skill. We can add me to that list as long as I’m calling on Avei’s power. That’s our front line. Ruda’s nimble and has a long reach with that rapier; she makes an ideal backup to cut down any enemies who manage to get through the first four, which is possible, as we’ll have to spread ourselves a bit to cover the canyon even at the narrow spot. Fross provides ranged magic attacks, and she’ll be virtually impossible to hit with any returned fire. Toby can heal injuries on the fly, with Omnu’s blessings, and Shaeine’s magic shield will be perfect to protect us from arrow fire from the rim of the canyon. And Rafe…” she looked over at him for a moment. “…is a Professor of the Unseen University; he’s bound to be good for something.”

“Finally, some proper respect,” he said smugly.

“We can do this,” Trissiny insisted, ignoring him. “Just hold them for a few minutes, inflict a few losses, and make it plain that we are not easy prey.”

They all stared at her for a moment, faces creased in near identical expressions of worry, silently listening to the sounds from up above. Whatever the centaurs were doing, they hadn’t left; the way sound echoed in the canyon, it was impossible to tell what direction they were moving in, but they clearly were staying in the same general vicinity. One by one, the students tore their eyes from Trissiny’s resolute face to glance around at each other.

“We’ll decide as a group,” she said quietly, “but remember, we don’t have time. They’ll start scouting any minute, if scouts aren’t already on the way. There’s no luxury of debate or long thought, here.”

“Fuck it, Shiny Boots here knows her tactics,” said Ruda, nodding to her. “I say we stand and fight.” Trissiny felt a rush of unexpected warmth toward her roommate at the endorsement.

“I’m sorry, but… I don’t want anything to do with any battle,” Teal said softly. “Not if there’s any other way.” Beside her, Shaeine nodded.

“The only unequivocal victory in battle is a battle that is avoided completely,” said the drow. “I doubt we can negotiate with these creatures, but I also cannot believe escape is impossible, given the terrain.”

“Professor Tellwyrn specifically told us to listen to Trissiny in a combat situation!” Fross said, her wings buzzing in agitation, though she was still perched on Juniper’s shoulder. “She knows the most about it, and she has a good plan. We should do that!”

Juniper nodded. “That one guy wasn’t so tough, and we weren’t really using all our resources against him. I’ve never seen organized fighting the way humans do it; we should try that, since Triss has a strategy and everything. Also, I’ve decided I really don’t like centaurs. We should definitely kill some.”

“I can’t support violent action, not when there’s a possibility of avoiding it,” Toby said gravely. “Sorry, Triss.” She nodded to him, keeping her expression even with some effort. His rejection stung especially hard. Even though she knew the reason—Omnu was a god of peace. Even though she also knew why his opinion mattered so much, which made her feel foolish to boot. This was no time to be nursing a crush.

“I hope nobody thinks I’m selfish about this,” said Gabriel, “but I really don’t like that this idea puts me on the front lines. I mean, if centaurs are big diabolists or whatever, I’m guessing they don’t have many clerics, so nothing they’ve got is actually going to hurt me. But let’s face it, I kinda suck at fighting. I feel like this is gonna lead to me being the reason one of you gets hurt. That’s…” He swallowed. “I say we run.”

Everyone turned to look at Professor Rafe. For all that Tellwyrn had insisted he wasn’t in charge or responsible for their safety, he was part of the group, and now was in a position to cast a tie-breaking vote.

“Let it never be said that Professor Rafe retreated from a fight,” he said solemnly. “All things considered, though, I think this is a good time to charge slowly and as quietly as possible in the opposite direction from the enemy. Avelea has a good strategy; we’ll do that if it comes to a scrap. But we’re better off making that plan B and trying to get away from all this horseshit. Fair?”

Trissiny drew in a deep breath slowly, nodding her acknowledgment along with the others. She shoved aside frustration—and a certain amount of hurt—to be dealt with properly in prayer, later. When there was time. For now, she still had to get these people out of danger. And no matter that they were apparently turning down her advice, she still deemed it her responsibility. The Hands of Avei existed to protect those who needed it.

“Right,” she said, briskly but quietly. “Keep the noise to a minimum. Try to hug the canyon wall to make us less visible, and absolutely no divine or infernal magic; diabolists will sense either immediately. That means no transforming, Teal.”

“It’s not actually a transformation so much as…ah.” Teal trailed off under Trissiny’s exasperated stare. “No transforming, got it.”

“I’ll take point. Juniper, bring up the rear, please. Quick and quiet, people. Let’s move.”

She slipped out of their little alcove, having to brush past Gabriel to make the exit, and set off down the edge of the canyon. Walking as close as she could to the wall but not actually sidling against it, and placing each foot as carefully as possible without sacrificing efficiency of movement or literally tiptoeing, she tried to set an example for the others to move by. It was frustrating, though unsurprising, how much noise they made, even though she was the only one in armor. Trissiny reminded herself that nobody else likely had training in operations like this, and the centaurs probably couldn’t hear them anyway over the noise they were making up above.

It was hard to figure exactly what the centaurs were up to, from a tactical standpoint. She considered sending Fross up to look again, but given the group’s decision to choose stealth over combat, decided that using a luminous scout should be kept as a backup plan, something she’d do if the pattern of noise from above changed. It didn’t, which was all the more frustrating because she couldn’t place a meaning on the pattern. They kept galloping past in both directions, as if the centaurs were running willy-nilly back and forth along the ravine’s edge. Were they scouting? The apparently aimless whooping and shouting—she didn’t understand their language but a lot of the noise was clearly just non-verbal yelling—made little sense in that context. There was no military method to it that she could grasp. Just general high-spirited antics? Or perhaps some cultural affair that would only make sense to a centaur? She could sense glimmers of infernal magic here and there, the sort consistent with the presence of warlocks, but none that seemed to be actively in use, so whatever they were up to wasn’t diabolic in nature.

Whatever it was, it seemed to range widely. No matter how quickly the students moved, they didn’t get out of range of the noise. Given their focus on quiet, they were not making great time and hadn’t been moving long, but even so, the fact that they weren’t leaving the centaurs behind grew increasingly alarming. Either they were galloping up and down the whole length of the canyon, or at least a very large stretch of it—again, why?—or the group was moving more or less along with the University group. That this might be coincidence strained credulity, to say the least. Yet, there was nothing to indicate they’d been spotted, just more galloping and whooping.

She looked back, smiling encouragingly at the others, who were looking as tense and drawn as she felt, and apparently not coping with it as well. Not for the first time, Trissiny felt homesick for the Abbey and her sisters-in-training, women who she could trust to know how to behave in a hostile situation. Much as she wanted to trust in her fellow students, she wasn’t at all sure how several of them would react to the pressure. She generally couldn’t predict how the two fae would react to anything at all… Shaeine would keep cool, and probably Toby, but Teal was way out of her comfort zone, and Gabriel…was generally hopeless. To say nothing of Rafe, who didn’t run on any kind of coherent logic.

Her right hand, which she was using to pad along the wall as she went, waved emptily at her next step and she paused, turning back around. She had come to a gap in the wall, which she’d failed to see coming up due to its narrowness; it had looked like nothing more than a crack when approached from the side. She held up a hand to signal the others to stop, studying this. It was very roughly the size and shape of a door in an average human house, though the upper edge was angled crazily and the left side bowed inward. Its edges were as rounded as every other stone in the canyon by exposure to the elements, but something about the regularity of it tugged at her mind.

“It’s out of place,” Rafe whispered, having broken formation to come up beside her. “See? Any time something happens to the rock due to natural geological forces, there are signs of it all around. Fallen rocks, cracks leading into each other. There’s no debris under this, and there are no cracks at all around it. It’s old now, but this was cut. By someone intelligent.”

“Could it be centaurs?” Gabriel asked in a hushed voice from just behind them.

Trissiny shook her head. “Look at the size of it, they couldn’t get through. It’s too short…and possibly too narrow.”

“There’s no animal life anywhere around here,” said Juniper, joining them. “Seems pretty deep, though. Fross?”

The pixie zipped forward and into the opening before Trissiny could warn her not to. Her icy glow illuminated a corridor that, though rough, was unquestionably too squared to have occurred naturally. “There’s…something,” she said, coming back to the entrance. “It’s not arcane or nature magic, and it’s not strong. Hard to identify… It’s like a faded old echo of a spell.”

“Infernal?” asked Teal from behind them.

“I don’t sense anything like that,” Trissiny said, “though it’s a little hard to tell; there are definitely warlocks up above, and that might be throwing me off. Toby?”

“I don’t think so.” He joined the growing cluster around the opening. “No, I’m pretty sure there’s nothing like that in there, at least not within the range of my senses.”

“Okay, so…empty cave, made by people, too small for centaurs to follow us in, no animals or bad juju. Why the fuck are we just standing around instead of getting in there, then?” Ruda demanded.

“Because this is too convenient,” said Gabriel, getting several nods of agreement.

“Convenient or no, I say we take it,” said Trissiny. “We’re not getting any farther away from them. If they’re not following us deliberately, the chances of them noticing us get higher the longer this goes on. We can wait in there till they pass us by, and if they do find where we’ve gone…this gap is very defensible. I think I could hold it by myself, even.”

So saying, she ducked inside, having decided after the last episode that the surest way to get this group to comply with sense was not to offer them an alternative. What she wouldn’t give for a functioning chain of command…

Fross bobbed alongside her, providing ample light that didn’t require Trissiny to call on divine energy. Aside from the fact that it seemed somehow sacrilegious to use the power of the gods given to her to heal the innocent and strike down the wicked as a lamp, Gabriel’s presence in the group complicated the matter further.

The floor ascended gently as they went. Trissiny had to wonder if this was leading toward an exit onto the prairie, in which case they were heading straight for a centaur encounter unless the tunnel was extremely long. It didn’t get quite that far, however. About the time the floor of the tunnel reached the height of the upper edge of its outer door, it abruptly evened off and turned sharply to the right, leading back in the direction from which they’d originally come along the canyon floor. She paused at this point to give the others a chance to regather, noting that Shaeine had lit herself with a silver glow which seemed to be causing Gabriel, who was right in front of her, no distress.

Now, the magical light put off by Fross and Shaeine was their only illumination. Fortunately, this next leg of the corridor wasn’t quite as long. After only a few dozen steps it terminated in an arched doorway, much more evenly cut than the exterior opening, which opened into a much broader chamber. Three steps led down from the door to the ground in here. Trissiny descended carefully, scanning the space for any signs of trouble.

There was none; she had the strong impression that no one and nothing had been here for a very long time, and not just because her boots made significant prints in the otherwise undisturbed layer of dust on the floor. There was a heaviness, a gravitas to the chamber that was something more than just her emotional response to entering a dark, empty space.

“Fross?”

“Yeah?”

“That feeling you mentioned outside, about something vague in here… Is it stronger here?”

“Ohhhh, yeah. You feel it too, now?”

“I think so. Do you think it’s dangerous?”

Fross didn’t answer for a moment, zipping back and forth in the air just above Trissiny’s head. “I don’t…think so. But I’ve got the impression it’s sort of…barely…maybe… Conscious.”

Trissiny nodded slowly. But she neither felt nor saw anything she could interpret as a threat, and stepped aside to let the others gather in the chamber.

The impressiveness of its size was partly an illusion due to the cramped tunnel through which they’d reached it. All in all, the space was smaller than the chapel back at the University; high by the standards of an average house, but she could have reached the ceiling by extending one arm overhead and hopping unenthusiastically. It was maybe fifteen feet wide and a little more than twice that in length, with the doorway standing on one of the short sides. Small enough that their relatively modest light sources touched the far wall and their group made the near end seem rather crowded once they’d all pushed inside.

Along every visible inch of the walls were crude paintings of the sort that supposedly adorned lizardfolk caves, though these walls were perfectly square-cut. Done in dull colors, mostly reds and blues, with brown and black lines, they seemed to depict scenes of battle, with figures mostly on horseback but sometimes afoot brandishing a variety of weapons. The lower parts of them weren’t completely visible, due to an assortment of actual weapons lining the walls along the floor. Axes and swords were present, but the most commonly represented were spears, some decorated near the head with brightly colored feathers, now faded and scraggly with age. Bows and bundles of arrows were also present in abundance. Most of these were stored in large clay jars decorated with more paintings similar to those on the walls, but quite a few were also stacked in baskets, or on wooden racks. The jars and racks were mostly intact and the weapons generally in decent (if long-neglected) shape, but some of the baskets had broken apart to dump their contents onto the floor, and in several places arrows were scattered in heaps where the thongs holding together them had broken.

Occupying pride of place in the chamber, however, was a huge oblong slab of stone, apparently of a piece with the floor, having been carved out of the living rock. A precise line ran all the way around it where the upper piece, about a foot thick, was apparently detachable, resting on top. It was set far back enough that they had room to gather near the steps, and of roughly the same proportions as the long chamber itself. Though devoid of any decoration, either carved or painted, it was unquestionably a sarcophagus.

“Whoah,” Teal said softly.

“This place should be treated with respect,” said Shaeine, echoing what they all felt.

“It couldn’t be…” Professor Rafe shouldered past the group, frowning with uncharacteristic intensity at the wall paintings. “Could it? I think… Surely not, it’s not possible. But…” Picking his way carefully around jars and over piles of arrows, he followed along one side of the room, scanning the wall paintings as if reading a story, though there were no words in any language. “It might be… I don’t believe it. It really… I think…” He came back toward them, still carefully watching the paintings as though they might have changed in the last few seconds, his expression one of growing awe. “My gods, I do believe it is!”

“I think he’s trying to communicate,” said Gabriel

“Guys!” Rafe turned to face them directly, his face practically shining with joy. “I think this is the tomb of Horsebutt the Enemy!”

Gabriel sighed. “Nevermind.”

“Wait…are you serious?” Teal stepped down from the doorway, frowning at the walls. “How can you possibly tell that?”

“Look at the pictograms! See, there’s no actual writing, but these look exactly like Stalweiss tomb decorations, which, come on, how many Eastern barbarians would be buried in the Golden Sea?”

“But…really?” Teal began slowly retracing Rafe’s steps, frowing intently at the paintings. “It’s obviously a battle… But the Horsebutt? What are the odds?”

“Wait, what?” Gabriel said sharply.

“Like I said, who else?”

“It does seem to strain the bounds of coincidence,” Trissiny said frowning. “At the same time, the Sea moves unpredictably, but not necessarily randomly. If our steps are being guided toward some purpose… Perhaps. And Rafe is right, they do look like early Shaathist battle paintings. No one touch the walls; if they’re done in the traditional ash pigments they could be very fragile.”

“I almost can’t believe it!” Rafe spun dizzily in a circle, grinning madly at every inch of the tomb. “Arachne would chew her foot off with envy! Horsebutt’s tomb!”

“Are you guys pranking me?” Gabriel demanded shrilly. “Because this is not the time!”

Trissiny frowned at him. “Have you seriously never heard of Horsebutt the Enemy?”

“Stop saying that! It can’t possibly be a name!”

“I haven’t either,” Toby said more quietly.

“Um, you guys went to an Imperial public school, right?” Teal said hesitantly.

Gabriel scowled at her. “What of it?”

“It’s just that… Horsebutt’s campaign against the Empire was basically the last act of the Enchanter Wars. That whole business has been covered up and changed in retrospect by so many different factions that even the historians aren’t exactly sure what happened…”

“I guess you haven’t gotten to that in Arachne’s class yet,” Rafe said absently, still ogling the tomb paintings avidly. “She was ass-deep in the whole thing.”

“…yeah, well, anyway, nobody came out of it looking good, and the Tiraan Empire ended up looking worse than most. In fact, by most accounts the Empire itself was nearly broken. I’ve heard some versions where it was overthrown, and then got pieced back together after the fact. Point being, most official Imperial sources hush it all up pretty hard.”

“I’d hush it up too if I got my ass kicked by somebody named Horsebutt,” Gabriel scoffed.

“If it helps you,” Teal said, grinning, “his name in the original language was Heshenaad.”

“Yes. That helps. Let’s please say that from now on.”

“Yeah, especially considering we’re maybe standing in the guy’s fucking tomb, and our resident pixie wizard thinks there’s some kind of mojo still working here,” Ruda said sharply. “Might not hurt if everybody showed a little goddamn respect.”

There was a momentary silence while they considered that.

Teal cleared her throat. “Anyhow… Heshenaad was actually an honor name given to him when he distinguished himself in battle. The Stalweiss, uh, have different ideas about respect than we do.”

“Boy, that’s for damn sure,” said Rafe, turning back toward them and grinning. “Just because the Easterners decide you’re hot shit doesn’t mean you can go around calling yourself by whatever honor name they give you. Arachne’s practically a demigod over there and you should hear what they call her. Teal, don’t wander off!”

“There’s no off to wander to!” Teal protested, picking her way carefully toward the shadowed back of the tomb. “I just wanna look at the paintings…” Her voice trailed off as she rounded the end of the sarcophagus, gazing up raptly at the walls. Shaeine went after her, carefully holding up the hem of her robe out of the arrow piles and taking her silver glow along, leaving Fross’s light the only illumination for the rest of them.

“Wait, what do they call Professor Tellwyrn?” Ruda asked, grinning.

Rafe winced. “Um… I don’t remember. Ask Chase when we get home, he loves to share embarrassing stories.”

“Anyway,” Trissiny said firmly, “Horsebutt—”

“Heshenaad!”

“—the Enemy was a barbarian cavalry leader who pillaged his way across Imperial territory from the Stalrange to the Golden Sea, where he effectively trapped himself. Indirectly he’s responsible for reuniting the fragments of the Empire, giving the factions a common enemy and a reason to rally together again under the restored Emperor. Some historians think he might have been manipulated into his campaign for exactly that reason. He actually survived within the Sea itself for almost ten years, which made him a severe threat, as no one knew where he’d strike. Even he didn’t; his raiders would just come out of the Sea at whatever random point it spat them out, then vanish back into it. He’s the reason the Empire has such a solid military infrastructure around the frontier, even now.”

“Hm,” said Toby thoughtfully. “Sounds like he did the Empire quite a few favors, then, however unintentionally.”

Trissiny nodded. “That’s why he’s remembered as the Enemy. At the time he lived, an enemy was exactly what the Empire needed, something to band together against. If not for him… The continent might be a patchwork of kingdoms again, like in the Age of Adventures. No Empire, no Church, likely no Rail or telescroll networks even if humanity still had the chance to develop those enchantments…”

“How’d he die?” Gabriel asked, looking interested in spite of himself.

“Nobody knows.” She shook her head. “He was always guaranteed to lose what had become a war of attrition. His forces took losses with every raid, with no way to get reinforcements from the Stalrange, and their successful attacks grew fewer and farther between as the Empire moved more resources to the frontier, at the same time it was developing better weapons. That was about the time the earliest battlestaves and wands were used by the Imperial Army. He was also doubtless losing forces to centaurs and whatever else lives in the Sea… Some thought he must have a fortress out here, but since his tomb is in a ravine in the middle of nowhere, it seems more likely they were just living nomadically, like the centaurs and plains elves. A decade after his horde made it to the Sea, their attacks just…trailed off. Eventually it was assumed that he’d died, but no one ever learned how.” She turned slowly in place, looking around at the tomb. “People have been hunting for his tomb for all the usual reasons. Everyone figured a great raider would be buried with fabulous riches or something. All I see are weapons, though…”

“Yeah, riches,” said Ruda firmly. “He was laid to rest with what his culture considered important. The things that matter to a warrior. All this stuff would have been sacred to the Stalweiss, therefore nobody is fucking touching a thing. You don’t fuck around with a great man’s resting place.”

Though there was enough airflow from the open door that the air in the tomb didn’t seem poisonous or even very stale, it had been dead still the whole time they were present, only the tiny breeze of their passing stirring the dust on the floor. As she spoke, however, there came a short, faint gust of wind, ruffling Ruda’s coat and blowing back the few strands of her hair that had come loose from her braid. Her eyes widened slightly; the others shifted away from her.

“I think he likes you,” Fross noted.

Rafe cleared his throat. “Ah, yeah, anyway, everybody get a good look; who knows when anyone will see this place again, if ever. But yes, let’s be respectful. The last thing we need on top of our other problems is to incur the Curse of Horsebutt.”

“Why is this my life?” Gabriel asked of the ceiling.

“What Ruda and Trissiny said goes. Don’t touch the paintings, don’t take any souvenirs. In fact, just don’t mess with the weaponry at all. Meanwhile, we’ve got more immediate problems.” Rafe cut his eyes toward the now-dark opening to the passage beyond. “With apologies to our host, we’re gonna have to park it here for a little while. Somebody can scout down near the door and keep an ear out; we better not try to leave until our friends up there have moved on, and there’s no telling how long that’ll take.”

“It better not be too long,” Gabriel muttered. “That whole ‘respect’ thing is gonna get a hell of a lot harder as soon as somebody needs to take a piss.”

“Good gods, don’t even joke,” Rafe groaned. “We’ll…figure something out. Somebody can check the canyon, see if there’s a convenient…uh, spot…near the entrance. Whatever happens, we’re staying the hell put until it’s safe. If it comes down to it, I’d rather stay out here with Heshenaad than go back and explain to Taath K’varr how I got you lot killed.”

“Wait, what?” Coming back around the sarcophagus the other way, Teal stopped suddenly and frowned at him, apparently having caught only the last part of that. “Who’s a golden bitch?”

There was one beat of silence, and then Ruda collapsed onto the steps, howling with laughter.

“Great,” Rafe said dourly. “You wanna put a cork in it, Punaji? That’s probably echoing all the way to the—”

He cut off, and so did she, as a heavy thudding began all around them. They all jerked to attention, staring wide-eyed at each other. The noise was relatively faint, as though heard from a distance or through a thick barrier, but seemed to resonate unnaturally in the very air around them. It seemed to be coming mostly from the ceiling, to judge by the tiny streams of dust that fell with each pound, but echoed sharply from the tunnel.

“Is that who I think it is?” Teal asked wanly.

“Centaur war drums,” said Trissiny, unconsciously gripping her sword.

Gabriel gulped. “Please tell me they’re having a square dance.”

“War drums, Gabe,” she said tersely. “Those are magical. They’re a weapon; they only use them in the presence of enemies.”

“Then…” Toby trailed off, staring at her.

She nodded. “Either they’ve found somebody to fight up there… Or they know we’re here.”

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14 thoughts on “2 -13

  1. If you support embarrassingly named barbarian lords, vote for The Gods are Bastards at TopWebFiction! Or you can review it at WebFiction Guide, or just leave a rating!

    My thanks to those who chimed in on the question of bonus materials. The sentiments expressed helped me gather my own thoughts as well as get a handle on what readers would like to see. Upon consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best thing to do is proceed with character background short stories, for three primary reasons:

    First, TGaB is an intricately-plotted piece of work already, and introducing the side storyline I had planned would just add another handful of spaghetti to the plate. It’s only gonna get more complex from here anyway, and I don’t think the interests of the story are best served by adding more concurrent plots that aren’t immediately relevant to our existing groups of protagonists. The threads connecting them are already on the thin side in some cases.

    Second, that side story was pretty much in its very early stages, while I already have a good number of character shorts fully plotted in my head, just waiting for me to take an hour to write them out. Or two hours, or half an hour… Someday I need to actually time myself writing a chapter, because I honestly have no idea how long it takes.

    Third, and most relevant, I’ve realized that the character shorts actually better accomplish my main goal with the side story, which is introducing and expanding on the role of the gods in the Bastardverse. Each of those to be written is about a different individual, most of whom are followers of different gods, and will provide a lot of that detail. Two birds, etc.

    So! The race is now officially on, gentle readers! I’m going to set individual milestones for voting on TopWebFiction, beginning with a fairly modest one. The Gods are Bastards has yet to break 40 votes on the site, so that’s the first goal. I will get working on the first character short to have it ready, and I watch TWF regularly, so the first time I catch TGaB with 40 or more votes listed, you guys get a free bonus chapter, whenever it occurs, without having to wait on the usual M-W-F update schedule!

    Just to tantalize you, here’s a list of the current planned character/worldbuilding short stories, in (roughly, I may change this) the order I intend to deliver them.

    All Those Who Serve – Trissiny, Sisters of Avei

    Not Fucking Fair – Ruda, Punaji Pirates

    Heart of the Wild – Juniper, Naiya

    Hero – Shaeine, Tar’naris

    Brotherhood – Toby, Gabriel, Omnu

    A Twisted Thing – Gabriel, Black Wreath

    When Other Lights Go Out – Fross, pixies

    Deeper, Darker – Natchua, Tar’naris

    Are you not tantalized? Cast your votes and earn your bonus!

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  2. Voted, will continue to vote, but extra votes from the same machine don’t count.

    Nice – more world-building. Nothing solidifies a country like a decent enemy. And I am betting that we get to see the students fight side-by-side with the ghost of Horsebutt. Which is sort of interesting because he seems to represent another class of power. The ones known are divine, infernal, fae, and arcane. Ghosts are not obviously part of any of that, although Trissany mentioned her aura would harm some undead.

    “Shaeine had lit herself with a silver glow which seemed to be causing Gabriel, who was right in front of her, no distress”
    I suspected that all along, primarily because if I built a world, divine auras could be tuned. Trissany conflates “deific aura” with a bunch of other ideas, missing the fact (guess) that the gods decided what abilities they wanted for the aura. If the gods had decided that the auras killed silverfish and turned water into vinegar then Trissany would think silverfish were the enemy and water was an impure drink. It is about time that she woke up and noticed the two obvious counterexamples to her thinking about her aura that are right in front of her. /rant

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    1. You’ve got the magical system down, which impresses me because I’ve never explicitly listed them anywhere so far. As a matter of trivia, the four types of magic–divine, infernal, arcane and fae–correspond to the four classic D&D alignments. Good, evil, orderly, chaotic, respectively.

      And yes, Trissiny’s pigheadedness is something of a recurring theme thus far.

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      1. From what we’ve seen, Avei herself seems like a strongly opinionated deity. Trissiny looks like the kind of person she’d choose as a champion.

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    1. You win the internet. This is my favorite comment I’ve seen so far on my quest to get caught up with this delightful story.

      Like

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