“I applaud your foresight. The magic dampening nets are an excellent addition to the spiked pit trap. Oh and the spikes are poisoned too? Brilliant, simply brilliant. If I could offer a note for future improvements though, perhaps it would have been useful to spring for sanctified silver barbs on the spikes? Oh, I know sanctity enchantments and poisons don’t tend to play nicely with each other, but a good craftsman can make it work if you’re willing to pay the surcharge on their efforts.
How am I still talking? Well, yes, that was going to be my other note. It’s more of a procedural improvement though. Very simple really. No cost involved. All it requires is that you determine whether your trap is, in fact, capable of doing harm to the person you trigger it against before committing yourself to an aggressive stance and actually triggering it. Failing to do that, well, let’s just say ill considered choices often come with disagreeable consequences.”– Xindir Harshek Doxle, impaled in twelve places, poisoned, and on fire, at the bottom of an exquisitely engineered pit trap.
Bleeding sucks. It’s marginally better when it’s planned and done in a controlled manner, but it is never a good time when someone approaches you with a glass sword and the expectation that some of the fluids you generally keep inside yourself will instead be used to decorate the floor.
“How many of us need to bleed?” I asked, stepping forward before any of the rest could take another poorly considered action on my part.
“All of us,” Ula said.
“The circle needs to know who it’s cleansing,” Xandir said. That surprised me. I’d expected Vena or Hemaphora to be the ones who knew how the blood-magic circle worked.
To his credit though, Xandir not only was familiar with the ritual but also had his sleeve rolled up already and was clearly not hesitating to take him turn getting sliced open.
“Don’t worry, I’ve seen this kind of thing before,” Ilyan said. “It’s no worse than a typical training bout with my sister.”
His sister who had hit me with a fatal heart strike about ten seconds into our first encounter.
I don’t like bleeding.
I don’t like people bleeding for me even more though.
“No. Just me,” I said. “I’ll cover the others.”
Ula looked like she wanted to argue, or explain why that was impossible, so I did something I really hadn’t wanted to.
I turned into her.
“We’ll do you first,” I said and offered a perfectly sculpted arm for her to slice open.
Changing your body wasn’t hard for a form shifter, or not for some of them anyways. The weaker ones tended to go slower with it and experienced a lot more pain as bits and pieces shifted around into their configuration. That was one of the reasons most form shifters couldn’t take on completely inhuman shapes. Even if the eventual shape was a viable one, transforming from a human to a fish involved moving through several intermediary stages which couldn’t breathe, or move, or think, and that tended to break their concentration which in turn would leave them rather mangled.
The other major limit on form shifting was the level of fine control the shifter could manage. Turning a finger into a talon was pretty easy. Turning it into the same exact talon each time was considerably more difficult. Even a really talented form shifter would have been hard pressed to match Ula’s appearance merely by virtue of all of the proportions they would have needed to get exactly right. Revealing that I didn’t have a problem with that was tipping my hand to something I’d rather people not be too aware of but under the circumstances I couldn’t see any other method for getting them to believe I could do what was needed.
So I showed Ula and the rest was a mirror image of the Perfect Statue Girl. What they couldn’t see, and what the cleansing ritual would give away, was that the transformation was far more than skin deep.
“I…How…Wait, will this work?” Ula asked, turning to where Vena and Hemaphora had already started tracing patterns on the gold ring which defined the edge of the casting circle.
“That’s odd,” Vena said.
“We don’t know,” Hemaphora said.
“But we would certainly like to find out,” they said together.
“Are you sure about this?” Ula asked, holding her glass sword well away from my arm.
“Yeah, are you sure?” Narla asked, stepping up behind me with a bare arm held forward.
I pushed her offered limb gently back.
“Yes. No one else pays for what I did tonight,” I said. Trina would kill me if I let that happen again. Or I’d want her too. Given that she was already dead and was likely just a figment of my imagination, it was probably the same thing.
Except for the part where I knew that she wasn’t.
I really wished I was just going mad. It would have been so much easier to deal with that. Instead, I got to bleed.
To her credit, Ula was neither squeamish nor cruel. She grasped my hand, pulled me forward to stand within the circle, looked me in the eyes to make sure I wasn’t resisting and then sliced a two inch cut along the outside of my arm.
Three drops of blood fell to the ground and from them an image in red light rose to take the shape of Ula which moved to stand at the edge of the circle.
“That’s you Ula,” Vena said without looking at the blood-ghost.
“But can she do the rest?” Hemaphora asked.
I changed to Mellina next.
And then Narla.
And then Ilyan.
I didn’t take the transformations as far as I could have. I keep the whole of my mind my own. I had no interest in copying any secrets they held. All the circle needed was their blood, which I could have provided without copying their entire bodies, but explaining that would have been even harder than explaining how I could copy them to the point where our blood was the same.
“You don’t have to do me,” Ernek said.
I frowned and shifted to his form next.
It was a good one for power, but I liked my own body a lot better. It wasn’t as strong day-to-day as Ernek’s or Narla’s, or even Ilyan’s, had been but it was mine and it was comfortable.
“The same is true for…” Xandir started to say but stopped and back away when he found himself looking at himself.
His form was weird though.
I copied his outward appearance as easily as the rest but his blood? It thrashed and bucked and cast the smell of lightning out of all of my pores.
I shook my head, closed my eyes and hammered the burning surge in my veins down long enough for Ula to cut the required three drops from me and then happily shifted back to my own form with shiver.
My mouth was left tasting like ash after the flame torrent as my blood shifted back to the far more comfortable temperature my body was supposed to be at.
“Our blood is not necessary,” Hemaphora said.
“The ritual is ours,” Vena said.
“It already knows us.”
I was glad to hear that. Shifting into other people wasn’t entirely pleasant, and I had to wonder if it was even possible given the twin’s lack of any scent.
Xandir wasn’t human, or at least wasn’t fully human, a fact he probably wasn’t thrilled that I knew about. What the twins were though was something I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be thrilled to know about.
“What’s next?” Mellina asked.
“Step into the circle,” Vena said.
This was the moment when the inevitable betrayal would occur. A magical shackle disempowering us via the blood link, the circle turning into a prison cell to hold us while they ran off and alerted House Whoever to our presence, or maybe just a simple death spell, any of those seemed possible.
But none of them were twitchy enough to be planning to do us harm. Even the twins, who I couldn’t get much of a read on at all, gave me the sense that if they wanted to hurt me, they’d make sure to do it personally and I would see it coming from a long distance off (and be unable to escape it anyways).
It was possible that my intuition was off of course. I’d sort of lost it there for a little while and was demonstrably not in the best frame of mind, but I had two assets to fall back on.
Mellina and Yarrin.
Ilyan and Narla were good people too, but Mellina was used to out scheming seers and Yarrin’s magics were strong enough that he was able to work out what I was. If the Last Guards had malevolent plans for us, I felt like one of us would have seen them coming.
For a change, a welcome, startling, and relief filled change, I turned out to be right about that.
It was terrible.
I kept waiting and waiting and there was no betrayal.
Vena and Hemaphora joined us in the circle and began chanting in unison. After a few repetitions, Ula joined them, then Xandir and Ernek, and then they gestured for us to join as well.
It was a simple pattern of “Cleansed today, Gone far astray, No one has passed this way” repeated three times for each of us.
By the time we finished our blood-ghost images had been drawn into the gold ring at the edge of the casting circle and we were in a different room.
“There was a Tier 4 Quiet Teleportation effect in the ritual too?” Yarrin asked.
“Only a Tier 3,” Hemaphora said. “We can’t handle a Tier 4 yet.”
“You are very close to it then,” Yarrin said. “I’ve seen a bunch of hidden teleportation spells in use and that was easily as hard to notice as a Tier 4 would have been.”
The twins smiled at that and for a moment they looked everyday young girls. Then they turned to stare at each other wordlessly with wide eyes and, well, no, that still looked normal somehow?
I still couldn’t smell a thing off them, but prolonged contact was diminishing the creepiness of that.
“Where are we?” Mellina asked.
On the surface the room we’d traveled too looked similar to the one we left. There was the same gold ring on the floor, the same pillars in a circle outside the ring and the same disused air to the place. Where the first room had lit torches though and the scent of eight very different bits of blood, the new room smelled of sea salt and hemp ropes and was dark except for a fading glow coming from the gold ring as the last vestiges of the cleansing ritual wound down.
“We’re beneath House Farsail’s old dorm,” Ula said.
“Will it be a problem getting us out without people seeing us?” Narla asked.
“It shouldn’t be,” Mellina said.
“It won’t. The dorm’s been empty since last year,” Ula said. “The Farsail cadets are dorming with Greendell now.”
That sounded like a whole heap of drama that I did not need to be a part of, so I asked no questions about it.
“If you would stay for a bit, we would like to hear about what you saw in the Research Quarter sooner than later,” Xandir said.
“Why?” I asked. Going back to Doxle’s house and dropping into my bed was unbearably tempting, but if I could discharge the debt I owed the Last Guards tonight I was willing to fight off the temptation for a bit.
“There’s a project that’s been going on for over a decade now,” Ula said. “It’s received a lot of funding from House Lightstone and several people who have tried to look into it have gone missing.”
“Today they were supposed to be demoing the results on their research, but nothing we saw at the Trials would account for the expenditures they’ve made,” Xandir said.
“They had weapons that destroyed Tantarian Mail,” Yarrin said.
“We saw,” Vena said.
“Except we didn’t,” Hemaphora added.
“Didn’t see what?” I asked.
“The weapons,” they said together and Hemaphora added. “They weren’t blades. There was something twisted in them.”
“Even if the weapons were able to slay their targets in a single hit, that wouldn’t recoup the money that Lightstone has dumped into this project,” Ula said. “Lightstone wants something more than that. Something that will give them the final edge over the other houses.”