“Upset? My dear compatriot, why would you imagine I would be in any manner discommoded by our recent dealings? The corpses? Well, yes, I agree they make a daring and perhaps questionable choice for decor, but really what am I known for if not my questionable decisions. But you aren’t here to discuss my aesthetic sense. We have negotiations to attend to, perhaps over a nice cup of tea?”– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame speaking to Malbrin Grayfall, Middlerun Commerce Chief for House Grayfall
I grew up in a forest. Despite Grammy’s best efforts, there’s a lot I don’t know. Who, what, or even why someone might be the ‘Empresses Last Guard’ was firmly on that list and, from glancing around at the rest of the housemate’s I could see I was far from alone.
“The who?” Ilyan asked, having apparently the smallest barrier of social anxiety of any of us to overcome.
“The Empresses Last Guard?” the slim boy said, questioning not who they were but how we might have misheard Perfect Statue Girl, since clearly everyone must know exactly what they were talking about.
Five faces full of blank stares argued otherwise.
“We took down the Madness Stag at Fort Bertrand,” Perfect Statue Girl said.
I was familiar with neither a Madness Stag (though from context it was probably a Reaving Beast) nor Fort Bertrand (though again context suggested it was one of the border forts at the edge of the Empire). That looked to be about all that any of the others knew too.
“We saved Yellow Basin from being bought out by House Lightstone?” the slim boy said.
I was going to guess that Yellow Basin was a town, since it seemed like a weird name for a person, but it was possible that it was one of the mercantile companies instead. Fortunately Narla was familiar with that one.
“Oh yeah, I heard there was some deal that fell through there,” she said. “Wasn’t that because the mines got flooded though?”
“Yeah! That’s how we saved the town!” one of the other Last Guards said. I hadn’t been paying too much attention to him because Perfect Statue Girl and Slim Boy were sort of hard to ignore but once he got my attention I was left wondering how I hadn’t registered him as more of a threat.
Narla is large. Tall. Heavy. Wide. She had ‘big’ covered all the observable dimensions. Muscle Boy didn’t quite measure up to her, but he made a good enough try at it that in another other company I might have tagged him as Mountain Lad or something similar.
He smelled too friendly though.
And his expression was so open and cheerful that I felt a physical revulsion to it. Like just looking at him was going to give me a candy induced stomachache.
“Wasn’t mining what they did there though?” Narla asked.
“Not anymore!” Muscle Boy said. “Now they can do other things.”
I glanced up at Mellina who met my gaze with a look which said we were in perfect agreement on exactly the sort of idiots we’d stumbled across.
Perfect Statue Girl seemed to be aware of that too however.
“Yellow Basin was trying to transition away from mining because they’d dug out all the good ore and only had shadow ores left to mine, which is incredibly dangerous and tends to invite around four times as many Reaving Storm as normal to an area,” she explained. “Thanks to the flooding, they have acres of land where Marsh Feylings are growing naturally.”
“House Grayfall used to have fairly solid control over that market,” Yarrin said and gave them a small nod, “Nicely done.”
“So now that you know who we are, will you let us help you?” Slim Boy said.
“We don’t,” Mellina said. When Slim Boy showed he wasn’t following her simple point, she elaborated. “We don’t know who you are. What are your names? Who are you sponsored by?”
“Ah, yes, I suppose that would allay some of your concerns,” Slim Boy said, and glanced to the others. “I am Xandir Greendell, sponsored by House Greendell.”
“Ula Zarn, sponsored by House Farsail,” Perfect Statue Girl said. I tried to remember if Farsail had spoken for anyone this year, but I was fairly sure they hadn’t.
“Ernek Bloombomb,” Muscle Boy said. “Sponsored by House Greendell too.”
“Vena and Hemaphora Nightshade,” the last two, twin girls about my size and maybe a couple of years younger, introduced themselves speaking in the sort of perfect unison that wasn’t existentially creepy at all. “Not sponsored.”
“Uh, what?” I was glad Narla had asked that since as a wolf pup I currently lacked the vocal cords to do so (I could have made some but, meh, I was tired).
“We’re not cadets,” Vena (I think) said.
“We just like to help out.” Hemaphora said.
I’m a terrifying scary monster. There were several students who were going to be spending the night in the infirmary and a couple squads of guards who were probably going to be fine only because they had easy access to significant magical healing. I’m not supposed to feel shivers of fear dance down my spine but the idea of Vena and Hemaphora ‘helping’ left me wanting to bolt out of Mellina’s arms and find nearest den I could collapse onto myself.
Fortunately I was much too tired to follow any of my nonsense instincts like that and so I settled for snuggling closer to her. This was not my problem. I was just a tiny little wolf pup.
I tried repeating that a dozen times but I was too tired to even convince myself.
“And how can you help us?” Mellina asked.
“Thanks to the spells you wove, and her transformations,” Ula pointed at me, “no one knows who you are, but they will be able to follow you to where you go next. Come with us and we can take you to a cleansing circle where Vena and Hem can ground out your trail.”
“Yeah, then no one will know who did it!” Ernek said.
“You will,” Mellina said.
I didn’t know if anyone else heard the undercurrent of ‘and that’s something I may have to fix’.
“No one who means you harm,” Ula said, apparently being bright enough to pick up on Mellina’s unvoiced threat.
“Why?” Mellina asked, and then, added, “Why help us? What you’re doing isn’t safe and the Houses will not be gentle if they discover you through us.”
“We each have our reasons,” Xandir said. “Your friend there beat us to something we’ve been working up plans to do for months now though and could save us a trip we’d really rather not make into the Research Quarter if she’s willing to share what she found in there.”
Mellina glanced down to check in with me, and I gave her a small nod. I had no problem with sharing info in exchange for the safety of my housemates. I hadn’t found what I wanted but I’d seen a bunch of things that were probably as unsavory as they appeared, any one of which might be what the Last Guards were looking for.
They were offering a good deal but part of me wanted to send the others away and wait to see who would be stupid enough to try coming after me. I didn’t do that though because I knew I’d been lucky, well supported, and that striking from ambush had played to my strengths. Anyone who came hunting for me would be the ones doing ambushing while I tried to maintain the illusion that I was Katrina Riverbond, actual human girl, with no Mellina for cloaking spells or other support. That was a tall enough stack of disadvantages that I knew the inevitable fight would either end with me a discorporated pile of ashes or locked in a dungeon with magical suppression cuffs around my arms, legs, and throat again.
“Lead on,” Mellina said after a quick glance towards the others.
Shadows wrapped us up and I’d sufficiently exhausted my ability to care that their grip felt almost comforting.
Except Vena and Hemaphora were wrapped in the same shadows and could still see me.
I shivered and forced myself to look over at them.
They weren’t doing anything out of the ordinary at all. They were just normal girls.
Hemaphora turned her head to glance at me and smiled with her eyes widening just a bit.
I looked away.
They were not normal.
That’s what was throwing me off.
They didn’t have a scent.
Not like Doxle’s ability to hide or alter his scent.
They just didn’t have one.
Vena giggled. If she’d meant it to be menacing I probably would have taken off right then and there, even if it meant being reduced to ash by somebody else. Instead she just sounded amused, which wasn’t exactly a relief but at least didn’t escalate things.
Ula led the group of us through the Cadet’s quarters, weaving through abandoned buildings and empty garden areas until we reached a courtyard with stairs which wound down into the ground. Following people into dark holes didn’t rank high on the list of ‘Sensible Actions to Ensure One’s Long Term Survival’, but I’d left sensible behind the day I hadn’t fought to stay with Grammy.
That the rest of my housemates followed us down into the dark sent a fresh pang of worry through my heart, which apparently wasn’t so tired that it couldn’t still torture me with anxiety.
Why had I fixed the stupid thing again? What the reason was I was sure it wasn’t a good one.
Self-recriminations aside though, we reach the bottom of the stairs and Xandir called forth a half dozen tongues of flame to light the room which waited for us.
It was large than I’d expected, with a ring of columns outside a simple band of gold which had been inlaid into the floor. The golden ring was wide enough that the ten of us could have stood inside it without touching each other unless we stretched out our arms to do so.
“Your friend may want to change back,” Xandir said. “The cleansing magics tend to disrupt active spells, and I gather that being forced through a transformation isn’t particularly pleasant.”
For a regular form shifter I was sure that was true. What he, nor any of the others (except maybe Yarrin?), knew was that I wasn’t under the effects of a transformation spell. I’d changed into a wolf pup with my magic, but I didn’t need magic to maintain the shape. I was a wolf pup as much as I’d been a human girl.
Well, maybe not quite as much. I’d spent so long in my human form that it felt different, more natural, than any other form I took. It was probably just a psychological thing, but it made me hate the idea of transforming back a little less than I would have.
I grumbled anyways, which some of them apparently thought was cute, and wiggled a bit to show Mellina she could put me down.
“You’ll need this,” she said and handed me the bathrobe she’d been carrying for me this whole time.
With bathrobe in mouth (how else was I supposed to carry it), I trotted behind one of the pillars, and switched back to being the daughter of House Riverbond who everyone expected me to be, morphing into the robe so I could skip putting it on separately and being cold for even a moment.
“Oh wow, she’s tiny,” Ernek said when I walked back around to their side of the pillar, which won him a scowl from me.
I was not tiny. I was somewhat smaller than other girls my age because I chose to be.
“Might want to remember that she can turn into a dire wolf pretty much in the blink of an eye,” Xandir said.
“Oh, yeah, right,” Ernek said with a sheepish laugh.
“We should do this sooner than later, right?” I said, ignoring them both and focusing on Ula.
“Yes. This next part isn’t terribly pleasant though, so if you need time to prepare, we can make sure you have it,” Ula said.
Because tonight hadn’t been unpleasant enough.
I sighed and looked to my housemates.
“We’re ready,” Yarrin said. “What do you need us to do?”
Ula drew a sword of glass from thin air.
“Bleed,” she said.