EPISODE 26: THE CHIROTHECAM

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Hace Matthews. Lunday, Aries 11th, 2348 AA. 8:07 AM.  Arroyo Athenaeum (Central Assembly Hall).

The entire cohort of 2355 had gathered in the central assembly hall, the campus’ largest forum. Faulkner had bored everybody to death and back, and now Fitz was racing through the rules of the exam at a breathless pace.

It took all of Hace’s willpower to keep from bouncing his leg, and he only bothered because he didn’t want to appear nervous; especially in front of Cyphira, who sat to his left, or Glem who sat to his right. And he wasn’t nervous. He was eager. Or the distinction between them has grown so narrow I can’t tell the difference anymore. Come on. I’m ready. Let’s go.

“…And I think that covers it,” Fitz concluded amiably. “After the practical, you will receive an hour break for lunch, and then report to your written exams, which will last three hours each. In the unlikely event of your finishing early, the rest of the day is yours to do with as you please. And we start… Now.”


She snapped her fingers with a cheeky smile. There was a sound like a gale caught deep under water. Hace felt a sensation that was similar to one of his seizures, though it was somehow simultaneously more intense, and less weighty. He shot through the Veil like a torpedo, but it didn’t have same sense of physicality to it. Only my mind is crossing over.

—8:07 AM. Arroyo Athenaeum (Chirothecam Pocket Dimension #3 Instance C)—

Hace stood on a long stretch of tiered concrete floating in a starlit void. At every diagonal, horrific chimeras—bear-wolverine hybrids—lurched forward, only to be narrowly held at bay by collars connected to heavy lengths of chain.

For Hace, this was a fairly normal Tuesday. He actually grinned in admiration of the deft spellwork. He assumed they would have to send the students into the dimensions one by one, just as students had entered the physical maze in the past. The masters probably used our signatures on the risk consent forms as a binding contract to bypass our natural urdic resistances. Clever.

Unfortunately, Hace was with four other students. One of them, Mossard, flipped the fuck out. He darted away from one chimera and toward another, unable to appreciate that he would be safe if he just stayed put. Oh goddammit, he’s too panicked!


Sure enough, in his third blind flight, one of the hulking chimeras batted him to the ground. Hace immediately fired a powerful kinetic bolt at the chimera’s head, and shouted “Grab him!” Zaire, another aspiring Keeper, yanked Mossard away from the chimera with telekinetic sorcery. Well. Most of Mossard.

The chimera had bitten Mossard at the elbow, and when Zaire pulled him free from its grasp, it came at the expense of his right forearm. The aspirant screamed until he passed out, at which point he blinked out of existence.

“And then there were four,” a girl sighed.

“Yeah, not our best start,” Hace agreed, and turned to see Etricé, a girl hoping to become an artificer. She was quite a beauty—long dark hair, nice figure, wore a pair of glasses that just worked for her—and Hace’s mind was a steel trap when it came to pretty faces. Pretty anything really. That said, he didn’t want to seem like a stalker, so he ventured:

“You’re Etricé, right?”

The girl nodded. She was always kind of quiet. A little terse.

“I’m…”

“Everybody knows who the fuck you are Hace,” Zaire said, annoyed. “Zaire Aoyama. Aspiring Keeper.”

The final member of their group didn’t bother introducing herself. She was busy casting a contract that put both of the chimeras in front of them to sleep. There was a low, hollowed monolith at the very center of the platform, filled with anima, and the girl had wisely helped herself.

Hace didn’t recognize her as Valmont’s friend, Pensey, until she turned around, almost sheepishly, and gestured for the group to move past the sleeping beasts. I always figured she was the type to get her arm chewed off. Hace grabbed two anima from the monolith—they were purpose made for sleep magic—and fell into step behind the others.

The concrete slab led upwards from the Chimera-pen to a circular platform that oversaw a network of corridors, with a raised dais at the center, roughly one hundred yards away. Pensey stopped there to introduce herself.

“Sorry. It was just so hard to hear people with them snarling like that! I’m Pensey Hayes. Leximancer. Hopefully. Someday.”

“Nice work with that lullaby spell. Pretty sure that was our first obstacle,” Hace said.

Pensey beamed, and Hace continued:

“This is a fairly basic maze. No keys required or grand puzzles to deal with. We just navigate the obstacles and make it to the exit.”

“How can you tell?” Etricé asked.

“I’m an akrasiac,” Hace said, not actually trying to brag but managing it anyway. “I’m very used to dealing with pocket dimensions. If you probe the area with your wyrd, you’ll notice there’s a faint… ‘etheric thinness’ over there. It’s called a soft-spot. See that dais in the middle of the maze? That’s the exit.”

Pensey pulsed her wyrd, reaching for the far corners of the area. She looked at Hace and chuckled nervously.

“Heh, I don’t sense anything at all. I don’t think my wyrd can even reach that far.”

“He sounds full of shit—he is full of shit—but he’s probably not wrong,” Zaire said. “So is Moss down an arm now?”

“No. These pocket dimensions are all in our head, really. Like a shared dream.” Pensey said.

Zaire scratched his head.

“But Hace is always going on about his akrasia, and how if you die in a pocket dimension, you die in real life.”

Etricé giggled.

“You really weren’t paying attention while Fitzgerald explained the rules, were you?” she asked.

Zaire shrugged flippantly. Pensey cut in gently:

“When an akrasiac has a seizure, their entire body enters the pocket dimension. The metaphysical and physical have a one-to-one feedback ratio. But these pocket dimensions are purpose-built mental constructs. I’m willing to bet our bodies are still in the central assembly hall, sitting there in a trance like vegetables.”

Hace was impressed that Pensey knew so much about his condition, but before he could express his admiration, he saw movement at the farthest end of the pocket dimension, on the other side of the expanse of corridors.

“We need to move!” Hace snapped. “We aren’t the only ones in here!”

Hace’s group was on one of four platforms surrounding the expanse of corridors. The dimension was set up like a symmetrical cross. The group opposite them had five members, and the group to the right of them had four members as well. The last group had yet to emerge. Hace took off toward the field corridors at a sorcery assisted sprint. He could hear the others’ footsteps and feel their wyrd’s rippling faintly behind him.

“I bet it’s a race! We’ll be scored based on how quickly we get to the exit,” he called to his party.

Hace paused at the mouth of the labyrinth proper and noted that the walls were too high and sheer to conveniently climb. The rest of the group caught up about a second later. They seemed to look to him for a plan, and fortunately he had one.

“Let’s move through the maze in a group. Back-to-back, steady but slow enough to check for traps. If they opened with chimeras there’s sure to be…”

A startled shout interrupted Hace. A second later, a pillar of lightning descended from the starry sky and disappeared into the labyrinth behind him. A titanic crash rocked the floating concrete landscape, followed by more screaming.

The group gathered into an orthogonal cross, with Hace at the lead, Zaire facing backwards, and the girls at either end. They made steady progress through the maze, sniffing out garden variety traps with their wyrds—pressure plates, tripwires, and the like.

Then they rounded a corner, and a tiger-falcon chimera lurched at Hace, again narrowly restrained by a metal chain.

“Well, that’s a dead end,” Pensey said.

And she was right. The area behind the chimera was walled off. But near the chimera’s chain post, a gleaming treasure chest waited. Hace grinned.

“Dude. Trap!” Zaire warned.

Hace ignored him and cast the same sleeping contract that Pensey had used. Sleep stuff wasn’t a specialty or anything, but Hace had learned how to apply his skills with glamour magic to augment the way his spell was received. Magic-assisted hypnosis to assist more magic. When the Tiger-Falcon rose to the apex of its chain, Hace used sorcery to emanate powerful drowsiness at the chimera, then unleashed his contract. The creature’s wings stuttered as the spell hit it, then its rhythm slowed, and then it plummeted to the ground in a heap. Hace was worried the impact might wake it back up, but the thing might as well have been dead.

When he was sure he wouldn’t be mauled, he dashed to the chimera’s post and opened the chest. Five gold coins waited inside. Hace grabbed them and sprinted away from the sleeping threat. He flipped everybody in his group a coin, and slipped the extra to Pensey.

“That was seriously good work with the lullaby,” Hace said. Pensey tried to object, but Hace waved her off and tilted his head toward the soft-spot. “You got two at once; no time to argue. We’ve got to keep moving!”

Hace noticed Pensey’s face was bright red, but he chalked it up to exertion, and they resumed walking in their cross formation.

“I should’ve picked up one of those,” Zaire grumbled.

“Well, I only grabbed two myself, so I can pull that trick one more time. After that, we’ll need to get creative.”

“I have a second as well,” Pensey said.

She’s more capable than I thought. Hace smiled at her approvingly. She’s cute too. I swear to God, all the girls in this cohort are… He shook it off. You love Cyphira. Act like it. Think like it.

They set down the opposite path of the sleeping chimera in their back-to-back formation, navigating traps, as periodic screams and explosive magic rocked the distant corners of the maze. The next fork they came to had a four-armed gorilla chimera blocking their path. Once again, Hace put the beast to sleep. It seemed to be worth spending the anima too, as the path beyond it led them several yards directly toward the dais.

After another winding corridor of traps, they emerged in the coliseum-like center of the maze, which had another assortment of smaller chimeras—coyote-crow hybrids—chained to staves throughout. In the middle of the arena, there was a small, rectangular pyramid with steps leading to the exit dais. But as Hace’s group started to approach the pyramid, the remnants of two other groups reached the arena.

Then the ground started to move.

Hace realized that the arena was divided into three concentric rings of chained chimeras. They would need to thread their way past the monsters to reach the dais. And we only have one sleep anima to do it. Maybe we can collaborate with the other groups—

Then Hace saw Jrett was in the adjacent group. Oh. Maybe not. He never really got over that first beatdown I gave him. Jrett sneered and fired a kinetic bolt at the chain of the chimera closest to Hace’s group. And to Hace’s horror, the metal was extremely brittle against sorcery. The chain shattered, and the chimera lunged toward his group.

“Fuck you, Jrett!” Hace snarled as he raised a barrier in front of himself.

It was enough to repel the winged dog’s first attack without injury, but the impact threw Hace off balance. Just before the chimera could spring back, Zaire hit it with a monstrous force punch.

Like Cyphira, Drav, Vetha, Lin, and Hace, Zaire had become a major contender in the Keeper Aspirant’s “Heavy Hitters Club.” He was a tall guy; six-foot-six and counting—made taller by his ridiculously spiked hair—and very solidly built. His wyrd had an incandescent glow-up about two years ago. He smashed the charging chimera’s skull in with a single, well-aimed shot.

There was another ping of shattering brittle metal, and another chain broke free. Now Jrett’s entire group was freeing chimeras at the far reaches of the arena. The third group lost two aspirants almost instantly, and the only one who remained made a mad dash for the pyramid, only to have her throat torn out by one of the chimeras in the final rotating ring.

This is a fucking abattoir!

“Back-to-back!” Hace shouted.

He practically body-checked Zaire with his back, and the two covered each other and the rest of the group, from the coyote-crow onslaught.

As Hace fired bolt after bolt into the dogs, he saw Jrett’s group making a beeline for the pyramid. Son of a bitch!

Then he sensed an enormous swell of urdic energy behind him. After blasting the last errant chimera, he turned just in time to see Pensey unleash an absolutely monstrous sleep contract. All five members of Jrett’s group slowed, staggered, and eventually fell to their knees. Hace was especially satisfied to see Jrett, who had made it near the top, stumble and then painfully roll back down the entire flight of steps.

Hace’s group waited for the rotating rings to sync up so they could avoid the remaining chimeras, who were not distracted by freshly dozing targets. Apparently, Jrett never completely lost consciousness. He gasped and groaned at the base of the pyramid, still injured by his fall.

“Bye, Jrett,” Hace said, running past him.

Pensey followed and stuck her tongue out.

“Asshole,” Etricé added.

Zaire started to run past him as well, but then he abruptly paused, rubbed his chin in silent debate with himself, and finally shrugged. He turned around, took a soccer player’s two-step lead-up, and kicked Jrett under the chin as hard as he possibly could. Jrett either died or lost consciousness on contact, as his body disappeared instantly. It was like Zaire had deleted him with his foot.

At the top of the pyramid, Hace waited, wheezing. Pensey was just a second behind him.

“Are you okay?” She asked.

“Ladies first,” Hace insisted breathlessly, gesturing toward the dais.

Fitz had mentioned that aspirants would be scored based on speed of completion, total number of pocket dimensions completed, and unique contributions to progress in group dimensions. And she kicked ass. Pensey rolled her eyes, emanated something to the effect of “fuck you, smart-ass,” and shoved him onto the dais. He fell into the next pocket dimension laughing.

—Lin. 8:43 AM. Arroyo Athenaeum (Chirothecam Pocket Dimension #7)

Lin had cleared four pockets so far; two groups and two solos. The solos were generally easier to clear quickly. The group trials were both more perilous and more complex, requiring teamwork to overcome. Imagine my delight when I appear in the next dimension face-to-face with Cyphira Fucking Quinn.

“Oh hey, it’s Ali!” Cyphira said, full of faux enthusiasm.

Lin forced a terse smile then took stock of their surroundings. Instead of floating concrete slabs, or featureless geometry, they stood in a walled-in glass structure surrounded by pipes and aqueducts, as rain pelted the roof from an obscured sky. Lin smiled. Headmaster Faulkner designed this one, no question.

As for compatriots, Cyphira was the only person Lin recognized. She’s competent at least, if insufferable. There were two guys and one other girl.

“Hi, I’m Lin. Cyphira and I are Keeper aspirants,” Lin explained brightly, trying to imitate Pensey’s greetings. Cyphira sighed and rolled her eyes. Lin swallowed her anger and continued: “Err, what are your disciplines?”

“Artificing,” one of the boys said, eager. He had a low voice with a sort of hollow quality Lin found unappealing, and the sort of acne that made people wince with pity on reflex. “Hoskins, Miss Valmont.”

Lin yelped as Cyphira draped an arm over her shoulder and addressed the boy:

“Aww, Ali’s head is swollen enough already, Hoskins. You can call her whatever you want.”

The fucking nerve! And it has nothing to do with his looks… well, not nothing…but now I have to play along or else I’ll probably seem like a stuck-up, superficial bitch or something. Lin held her smile, but abruptly shrugged off Cyphira, leaving the taller girl to stumble, laughing. The other girl smirked.

“Um, I’m Svetia Azariah. I guess I want to be an animathurge.”

‘I guess?’ God help us, I guess. Lin had no idea how somebody without a specific, concrete goal could make it this far into matriculation. How do you motivate yourself?

“Tolve Fassmann. Archivism,” A tall, spectacled boy said, seemingly unamused and unimpressed with the rest of his cohort.

Lin nodded politely and repeated each of the names she had learned a few times in her head; another one of Pensey’s tips. When she was confident in her ability to could keep Hoskins, Tolve, and Svetia straight, she started to inspect the pocket dimension in greater detail. Cyphira raised her head upward, as if she was listening for something, or trying to catch a scent.

“This one is a puzzle, not a maze,” she said, voice suddenly serious and neutral.

“Well, the boulder looks fairly conspicuous,” Lin said, tilting her chin at a large, smooth stone ball, sitting in a recessed section of the floor in the corner of the first glassed in room. At the opposite end of the room, near a pair of thick glass doors, there was a sloped platform with a similar, but smaller impression to house the orb on top. The boulder had to weigh at least 500 pounds. Impossible to move with muscle alone, even when working in a group. And worse yet, the damn thing was coated in a thick layer of water, and steadily rotating in its housing.

Shit. Apart from water contracts, running water corroded or nullified most magic. Which means moving this thing is going to be a bastard and a half.

“There are ten water anima in this repository,” Tolve said, inspecting one of the standardized anima baskets.

“I bet we will need more for the rest of this course. I don’t suppose anyone has a sorcerous talent for water?” Lin said with a weak smile.

Everybody shook their head, except Cyphira, who started casting. Lin could feel her wyrd coursing with frigid energies, but at first it seemed like they had no effect. Cyphira’s face strained, then quickly transformed into a look of satisfaction. The water beneath the boulder finally froze, expanding and lifting the stone out of its recess.

Well. That’s a handy talent.

Unfortunately, the running water was not coming from the recess as Lin had initially observed. Rather, the stone was sweating water endlessly. But Cyphira continued to work her magic on the boulder. Specifically, the base of the boulder where brittle, crunchy snow began to appear.

“Push it while we have some traction,” Cyphira grunted. “I can’t keep this up forever!”

“I’ll push! Tolve, Hoskins, stabilize me!” Lin said.


The boys rushed to either side of the boulder guiding it according to Lin’s direction. The constantly generating snow provided just enough traction for them to push the boulder toward the raised switch… but as it crested the hill, Tolve’s focus broke, and the boulder ended up rolling away from the indentation, and settling into the corner of the wall behind the switch. The worst possible place it could end up. Caught in a corner with no room to gain momentum.

“Fuck!” Lin shouted.

Tolve apologized profusely, immediately humbled.

“No, it’s okay,” Lin said.

Cyphira stopped generating snow. Her strained wyrd gasped for ether.

“I can give us maybe two more shots,” she said between breaths.

Lin nodded. As a group, enhancing their muscles with sorcery, they managed to pry the boulder free from the wall. As it rolled around the curve of the switch, it started to accelerate, rolling down the middle of the room. Shit. The further it gets from the switch, the more it will tax Cyphira.

“We’ve got to stop it—” Lin started.

“No!” Cyphira shouted. “Push!”

Cyphira flung herself behind the boulder, pushing with as much wyrd enhanced strength as she could muster. Tolve, Hoskins, and Setvia followed suit. By the time Lin figured out Cyphira’s plan, she was too far behind to meaningfully contribute.

The boulder rolled forward, directly toward the thick glass double doors. It slammed into them with a titanic crash. Cracks spiderwebbed through the thick panes, which eventually shattered. Cyphira raised her arms in triumph.

But the boulder continued down the sloping path, gaining momentum, and eventually came to a ledge. Cyphira’s face fell with the boulder. It crashed through the glass floor of the next chamber, hitting one of the colossal pipes that encased the complex. Water gushed forth from the pipe, rapidly flooding the chamber.

“We need to move!” Lin commanded the group with her wyrd and broke into a run to the next chamber.

“No shit!” Cyphira shouted.

“This is your fault!” Lin snapped back, then turned to Tolve. “Give me two water anima!”

He nearly tripped as he tried to comply while running. Lin slotted them into her licenses.

“Save ‘em,” Cyphira said, and immediately started freezing the cracked base.

After twenty seconds of concentrated sorcery, the spewing water grew into a colossal slab of ice. Cyphira continued to frost it for another ten seconds, until the ice coated the crack and surrounding area completely. When she finished, she dropped to one knee, out of breath.

“That won’t hold it forever, but I think I bought us a couple minutes to figure this out.”

Lin had already taken stock of the room. There was another repository, this time with only 5 water anima and at the far end of the room, there were five glass vases resting on what appeared to be uneven pressure plates. Oh no. It’s one of those fucking algebraic bucket puzzles. I wish I had a metaphysic or mathematical anima. I could solve this thing much faster.

“I bet we need to equalize them,” Tolve said.

“That’s easy. We just put an equal amount of water in each bucket,” Svetia said, and started to activate a water animus.

Lin used sorcery to slap her hand and disrupt the cast.

“No. Look at the vases. The pressure plates are all set to different sensitivities. That one is half full, but it’s raised up the highest. That vase barely has any water in it but it’s the lowest. Give me a minute to do the math first….”

The mass of ice that was plugging the broken floor cracked perilously.

“We may not have a minute, Princess,” Cyphira warned.

Lin ignored her, taking stock of the vases, and quickly determining the rough amounts of water that should be in each vase. She used her water animus to gain hydromancy; a tricky, imprecise art that was less like remotely handling or shaping something with your hands, and more like steering a tiny ship by reshaping currents.

Let’s try two ounces from column one to column three. Five from column four to column five… Christ, this is confusing without paper to write down an order of operations! Despite her frustrations, Lin managed to stabilize the columns in about forty seconds. Yes! Hopefully that satisfies this damn dimension… But when the vases aligned with each other, part of the glass floor receded, revealing the mouth of a pipe. It was bent at an angle, and disappeared into the nest of other pipes, leading to some unknown destination, as water flowed into it from an adjacent pipe.

“Nice work, Ali,” Cyphira said and hopped into the pipe. A shriek of joy trailed behind her.

Hoskins, Svetia, and Tolve jumped in after her, with Lin bringing up the rear. The pipe was opaque, and pitch black after the first three seconds. Water whisked Lin this direction and that. It was probably Faulkner’s idea of fun, but Lin was incensed that the challenge blatantly wasted her time.


When she explained the gauntlet, Fitzgerald had said that aspirants would be scored based on the total number of pocket dimensions that were cleared, as well as the clear-times of individual dimensions. So, Faulkner is padding essentially. How very like him.

Light emerged from behind the next bend, and then the pipe abruptly stopped. Lin found herself falling from twenty feet in the air toward a choppy sea. Thinking quickly, Lin cast Androssi’s Swimming Prowess with the second orb she’d received from Tolve.

When she hit the water, she found it easier to swim, her lung capacity had expanded from forty seconds to some indistinct-but-generous period of time, and she could see through the salt water clearly. About twenty yards away, a wooden pirate ship bobbed up and down on the choppy waters.

Lin swam toward it, arriving ahead of her compatriots and climbing a rope ladder that hung from the deck. Frigid rain pelted her as she climbed. Fortunately, the swimming spell also offered some meager insulation.

Atop the deck, she saw five tables. No. Not tables. Mazes. Each table housed a three-layered maze; tiny walls and floors fitted with holes. There were dials that could help the user tilt the walls and floor, but it was clear that one would need to use delicate hydromancy to coax water through the network of tubes to a final destination; a cluster of five cylinders in the middle of the mazes.

Shit. We each need to complete one. We’re soaking wet, which will ruin our wyrd’s ability to respirate normally, and it’s fucking raining. Rain affected most people’s spellcasting like dysviria. The rain drops poked tiny holes into sorceries, steadily degrading them, and as they pelted you, they broke your concentration and ability to connect with anima. The net results were shaky, unreliable contracts.

Lin jogged back to the ledge of the ship and started to help her fellow aspirants onto the ship. Cyphira took her hand without complaint, and turned to help Tolve behind her. When everybody was aboard the ship, Lin explained her findings.

“They’re labyrinths, but for water. Each one is different, but they all have a container that you have to fill with a certain amount of water to trigger an internal switch.”

“I hate puzzle dimensions,” Cyphira groaned. “Have you tried smashing the thing open to trigger the switch manually?”

Lin wanted to object on principle, but she shrugged and attacked the cylinder cluster with a focused, downward shaft of waterlogged sorcery. The thing was incredibly firm, however. Probably indestructible for the sake of the test.

“Hey, have you guys been below deck?” Hoskins asked. “There’s some more anima and stuff down here.”

Everybody made a beeline for the hold. Inside, there was a seemingly endless repository of heat and water anima. Lin immediately cast Veren’s Enkindling. An intense, reassuring surge of warmth whisked the water from her clothes and skin, offering some respite from the cold. Lin’s wyrd felt adroit and powerful again.

“I recommend everybody dry off and cast hydrokinesis contracts down here. That should make steering the water through the tables much easier—”

The ship groaned perilously.

“That sounds bad,” Svetia said.

Sure enough, trickles of water began to shoot through the boards of the ship, and the hull boards started to crack.

“Oh, come on!” Lin complained.

“We’re on the clock! Cast up and get going!” Cyphira said.

Lin was already casting Ivanovic’s Hydrophobia. But no sooner than she had completed the spell, she realized that it would interfere with a hydrokinesis contract. If my wyrd is hardwired to repel water, controlling the currents with any degree of control will be nearly impossible. Lin grinned at the genius of the test. Damn you, Faulkner!

“I’m an idiot,” Lin said, prematurely releasing her spirit to safely end the contract. “We won’t be able to control the water in the maze if we cast drying spells.”

“This has Faulkner’s fingerprints all over it,” Cyphira muttered.

“We’ll have to cast in the rain.” Lin said, shrugging.

“How is that possible?” Svetia asked.

“Intense concentration,” Lin said.

Unlike dysviria, a person could brute force their way past external interference. And if there is one thing I am practiced at, it is forcing my wyrd to work when it does not want to. Lin chased the thought with a silent prayer of thanks to Pensey. Thanks to you, I can keep chasing my dream. I can compete. And as long as you can stay calm and keep confident, you will kick ass too.

Lin cast Ivanovic’s Hydrokinesis on herself, allowing her to control water

The five of them dashed back onto the deck of the sinking ship. Cyphira led the charge and took the table that was furthest away. Lin took the adjacent maze, immediately working the dials to get a sense of their acuity. By the time she had a grasp on them, she was already soaking again. And the water was tearing her concentration apart.

I have to do this. But it was like her dysviria had returned in full force. No. It was worse than it had ever been before. In the space of three seconds, Lin was disarmed again. Stripped of her foothold. 

No. It’s not an advantage. It’s a level playing field. I’ve worked too long with an unreliable wyrd. My casting principles are second to none. She glanced at Cyphira, who was already navigating water through her table, cursing with exertion and frustration as some of the water bled through the holes throughout the labyrinth. And if she can do it, so can I.

Lin steeled herself and charted a path through the maze, then used her wyrd to string a steady trickle of water past the holes, around corners, up inclines, and finally, all the way to the container. Once the path was established, she simply had to hold the control for long enough to fill the cannister.

The fucking rain slashed at her wyrd. But Lin withdrew her field of power and held it to her body as tightly as she could. She channeled her energy directly into the housing of the maze itself, which was protected by glass and her hands. And after about a minute the cannister glowed, hissed steam, and withdrew into the deck of the ship. Less than a second later, Cyphira’s cannister did the same.

Lin looked at the other cannisters. Tolve had already managed about a third of his container. Hoskins’ had a couple drops. Svetia’s was completely dry. Lin rushed to Svetia, and Cyphira to Hoskins.

“Go help Tolve. I’ve got this.”

Svetia looked at her in a panic, and relief flooded her face. She nodded and walked over to Tolve, who was groaning with exertion.

Lin used the same techniques she had last time, and found it even easier, even though the maze was different, and no less challenging than the one she had completed.

Tolve’s cannister—which ended up a joint effort between Tolve, Hoskins, and Svetia—hissed just before Lin finished Svetia’s maze.

Then there was a horrible crack from below deck, and the ship abruptly started to pitch backwards. Lin saw that the hold was nearly flooded. The water was waist-deep, and the prow was steadily rising. To hell with the mazes, we won’t even be able to keep our damn footing! Cyphira was breathing hard, shivering in the rain, emerald hair pasted black against her head.

Lin bounded toward the maze, and saw that Cyphira was taking an alternative approach; she would shoot about an ounce of water through the maze at a time, tightly controlling the pulse of water, rather than establishing a continuous stream. That requires some absurd reflexes and a whole lot of effort. Unfortunately, it’s inefficient.

Lin edged past Cyphira and finished guiding her last ounce of water before Cyphira’s concentration broke. The container was about eighty percent full, but her contract was almost completely spent. Even water-related contracts could be eroded by a surplus of water. Lin raced her thread of water through the maze. It’s just like cross-stitching. The thought helped her somehow, even though it didn’t remotely resemble cross-stitching.  

A green glow emerged from the final canister, just as people were starting to lose their footing. When it withdrew into the hull, it fired a beam of light into the air, immediately clearing the weather. It seemed to have stabilized the ship too. Goddammit, Faulkner. Lin thought. I really hope this is the end of it.

Cyphira sighed and offered Lin a high-five. Lin hazarded a smile and slapped her hand. Finally, we can bury this fucking hatch—

Pain stole Lin’s breath. Cyphira had slipped her free hand forward, sliding a serrated, dagger-length icicle into Lin’s stomach. A little smile flashed across Cyphira’s lips, and she twisted the conjured weapon, yanking at Lin’s guts. Lin was too stunned and in too much pain to speak. But then the pocket dimension vanished in a blink.

She was on her own again, in some sort of jungle configuration. Her stomach was fine. All her innards were back in their proper place. It was as-if the stab never happened. Save for the god-awful pain. Lin tried to knead the sensation from her flank, snarling.

“That bitch.”

Did the masters see that? Did anyone see that? Lin shook her head, scoffing. Of course not. They can’t be everywhere at once. The worst she’d get is a talking to, unless I made a stink. And I am not about to give her the satisfaction.

Lin clenched her teeth, straightened her back, and set about the next challenge.

Lesson learned.

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