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The Pen is Mightier than the Sword
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Tzimfemme crouched in the lab, feet tucked up atop the barstool, the soil and broken equipment of neglect glazing every surface. Words had been hard to find, so hard. There had been a time some time ago. A portal between Norraths: she had passed through it, and the names which had been so hard to find unloosed themselves. It had helped. Tzimfemme patted a bit of artwork on the lab bench beside her, the carvings from outside Rydia and Starlight's home captured by rubbing charcoal, a prophecy now fully translated. It was their fate, the fates of the remaining quincunx. Symbols had been translated back into names, long branching curves into sentences.


Tzimfemme. Fool. You called yourself conscience? You will raise a beast of light and call it god.

Rydia. Lover. You called yourself life? You will die under the star to fuel our greater power.

Minta. Death. You called yourself innocence? You will die and be reborn to grief for what you have done.


Around them all in a circle, names. Male names all, from the time of Terra Lost. Pashapook; Kendricke; Iceshadow; Peredhil; Nim; Boaz; Joat; BelZpock. And all it had cost her was years. But then the great pains in her head, and words became so hard to find. Not just names of power, but simple words. And a great light had shone and Tzimfemme had looked into it. She always had looked past people except that she did concentrate. But after the pain, she was looking past them and into the light. It meant more.


The memory of pain sent her hand up and rubbing against the bottom of the right side of her head, behind her ear. Her fingers sank through that surface, and reached up and in, closing on something hard which stabbed at her brain. She pulled it out. A shard of mirror.




As it had slid out of her brain, a look of terrible tension, which had marred Tzimfemme's expression in all the years since she found the shard which drove the quincunx to the Pen, drained away.


She looked at it, and her eyes moistened. She did not cry, not quite. But still.


"So. It can crack both ways. Fantasy turns into truth...." Tzimfemme twisted her eyes shut. Not all the pain was gone. "What defense is there against that? If the Pen was not enough. Enough." A word had gone missing but she had learned not to grope after it for too long. Down that path lay Rosemary, with a darkwood dagger thrust through her heart and a splintered psyche threaded through her tongue. Fantasy turns into truth.


"But I am on the path traveling the other way," she kept on, aloud. "Away from madness....No wonder it was so hard to talk to people. Who knew?


"Probably everyone," she concluded, with a bit of a snort and a bit more of a smile.


Which smile winked out as Tzimfemme looked at the parchment without madness.


At long last she said, "Well then. So. We are all damned. Show yourself, my god."


The light shone, now visible to all, a globe hanging in the air slightly above and rather ahead of her. Gray. Light unclaimed gray. Unclaimed? Another word missing.


A claim. Something to reach out and take. To possess. A possession.


"...A dominion. MY dominion."


Tzimfemme managed to raise and lower her eyebrows in the same gesture.


"And so am I damned. And yet." She spoke to the light as though it were a house well-kept and she its housekeeper. "You are all gray. Unmixed. I think I like it. It was the streakiness of his blackness against the white that I hated most. Hypocrisy." Tzimfemme spread her fingers and swiped them through the air to demonstrate, with the shard of mirror pinched lightly between two. "Oh, no need to explain it I know, because you understand me, because you are me. But I am not inside you any more, my prison, am I?


"Rydia, Rydia, you tried to name other people demigods of madness and insanity? Trying to hand away my power when all your damnation was to empower me.


"Where are you now, I wonder? As far away as Minta? Because if you are...you had better keep running."


...to be continued...

Edited by Quincunx

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The house under the hill was clean. Dinner simmered on the stove. Rydia sat in a comfortable chair, facing the door, waiting for Starlight. Her hands were empty and still.


...to be continued...

Edited by Quincunx

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They meet in the wasteland of white sand at the borders of the Pen, slipping in through the various cracks in reality, enough for a quincunx of their own, although they do not arrange themselves in that pattern. Instead the Mintas sit in a circle, cross-legged, five little girls both human and gnomish. Let us look at them, going clockwise around the circle.


Start with the Minta with the palest purple hair pulled back into one poofy ponytail low at the base of her neck, wearing spellcaster's robes with a series of themed patches. She looks to be about eight, in human years, and has a face of human proportions. She's plopped a jetpack in the sand of front of her, with a hot-air balloon trailing out of the top of the pack, and so has the fascinated attention of most of the circle. A clockwork dolly with a wind-up key on its back--call it a tinytop, that's its brand name--stands next to the jetpack and dances in place. Look at her, and at the girls to her left and right, and you get an impression of magical power. These three know how to wield mana against others.


Next look at the Minta with pinkish purple hair done up in two charming buns atop either side of her part, wearing denim overalls. She looks to be about six in human years, if you can look past her overlarge yet human eyes that every so often glow electric blue and then fade back to normal. She's added a gnomish army knife with several of its amazing and questionably useful tools unfolded into the middle of the circle, and reaches for the dolly, and winds it up again for another hopskipping dance. Look at her, and at the girls to her left and right, and you get an impression of childishness. These three have abdicated the power of adulthood in favor of childish charm.


Next look at the Minta with hair dyed purple like a lab accident, all shorn close at the back where a ponytail should be, in canvas overalls. She looks to be about eleven in human years, and her eyes are far too large to be human, although sometimes the color drains out of them and you could almost see another set of human eyes behind them, but not looking out, not really. She adds to the collection of treasures a little metal back-of-the-hand gauntlet with three stones set into it in an arrowhead--two yellow, one red--after setting off a little jet of welding flame from the arrowhead, to demonstrate; when she picks up the dolly, it's not to make it dance, but to tuck it into the crook of her arm and sit there quietly while rocking it every once in awhile. Look at her, and at the girls to her left and right, and you get an impression of possession. Not hostile. But when one of these three girls' eyes go strange, she's consulting with a foreign mind.


Next look at the Minta with her blonde and lavender hair undercut and teased high and spilling down again, wearing a zipped up gray windbreaker with "Minta" and a red rose embroidered on one side and a short frilly skirt. She is much older than the others, at least sixteen, and very nearly completely human! All her eyes do is flash from the very darkest blue to the very lightest. She does not bother fighting the next Minta for the dolly, that child's toy; her contribution to the circle is a detailed scale model of a racing car. Look at her, and at the girls to her left and right, and you get an impression of leadership. These three are used to wielding social authority over a group.


Next and last, look at the Minta whose indigo hair hangs loose to just below her shoulders, wearing spellcaster's robes with a single patch with a Chinese ideogram of darkness. She is somewhere around thirteen in human years, definitely not as old as the oldest girl but more sprouted than the next oldest. She looks at the technological marvels with interest but instead of anything to compare to those, puts into the middle of the circle a pile of crystallized mana and fragments of bone. Look at her, and at the girls to her left and right, and you get an impression of independence. These girls have never bowed their head to anyone in a meaningful way.


So now you know them all. But they all are named Minta--Minta Rose, to be precise. How, then, will we tell them apart in the tale that is to come?


They had the same problem. And so, after a short sharp quarrel over whether counting starts at one or at zero, they have chosen numbers. Go around the circle again. Minta-One has one ponytail. Minta-Two has two buns. Minta-Null has no ponytail at all. Minta-Seven has just asked for seven, and said nothing more. Minta-of-Terra-Lost is being a stickler since she cannot remember her lowest mage number, but the other girls are calling her Minta-Five already, so Minta-Five she will be, like it or not.


...to be continued...

Edited by Quincunx

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Among the chatter of that neato necro gnomish group, allegiances knotted and broke on the spot. When One stood up to talk, Two watched her with adoring eyes, Five yawned behind her hand, and Null and Seven (so sunk into an advanced discussion on aerodynamics that the very cadence of their speech had altered to echo their foreign minds) didn't even look up from the balloon jetpack. One twisted her hand in mid-air, and the balloon collapsed and folded itself and its lines back into the pack. Those two's eyes darkened back to their normal Minta-ness as they turned their eyes up to One.


"C'mon," she said. "I wanna know--whatcha _see_, out there?"


They all looked away from one another.


One sniffed. "Fine. Me first."


"No," interrupted Five. "I was first.


"I saw a house below me on a hill. It was foggy. I couldn't see the lower floor."


"An' it was nighttime," added One.


"It was foggy AND nighttime," Five resumed. "And I had to stare very hard. And I called her out somehow. She wasn't us. She got called out to the window. I called her out."


"Wasn't us," interrupted Two. "It was Rosemary doing the calling."


"We got her now." One interrupted her right back. "Dunno if they know," she added, and pointed across the circle at Null and Seven. Seven paid as little attention to that as she had to the rest of the talk. Null looked down at her gauntlet and the faint light inside one of the yellow orbs, then up at Two.


"We know. You tell her."


Two nodnodnodded, bobbing her head. "Rosemary figured it out, but we figured out how to do it safe. That's how we learned to touch minds."


Five scowled. "You learned how to be puppets?"


"No," said Seven, very flat and very firm.


"No," said Null. Her lip trembled and she hugged the dolly.


Seven looked aside at Five. Allegiances shifted. Now Seven and Five and One were united, against Null, and Two was left puzzled.


"The girl in the house was MY puppet," Five went on. One nodnodnodded. "I made her sad, I made her cry, I made her want to jump! And. She. DID." Minta of Terra Lost stabbed the air fiercely with a pointing index finger. "She died. I lived. She is mine! I am the black mage!"


"I am the necromancer!"


"I am the warlock!"


Seven shrugged. "I'm alive."


"NO!" Null scrambled to her feet and glared across the circle at Five and One. "No undeads."


That was the first time the entire circle had fallen silent at once. Mostly out of puzzlement. No undeads? No Minta ever said that.


"No. Now you get to hear what _I_ saw. Gimme my stuff." Null dug the fronts of both her feet down to grab into the sand, then pointed left-handed at one of the cracks hanging in the air; her right arm still held the clockwork dolly. Seven strapped the gauntlet onto the back of her pointing hand. "Like that, but bigger. An'...and inside I got told. Your undeads, your clockworks, or your dignity--pick two.


"It didn't say about goin' it alone. I wasn't gonna get to be alone. Ever.


"I don't _want_ to be alone."


Allegiances shifted again. One gulped a bit, but nodded. Two bowed her head as well. Now Five and Seven looked askance at the children.


"It's a really bad world out there. REALLY bad. Tzimmy-and-roses bad." All the Mintas flinched more or less as the two yellow orbs on the back of Null's hand glowed. "I wanted out. So I picked dignity first." The third orb lit up, changing colors slowly. "Maybe undeads...maybe clockworks..."


One put her hand up in the air and started to ask the question at the same time. "'Scuse me. Is this gonna be about the Six-Ton Stomp?"


"We had a clockwork fight," Two explained to Seven and Five.


Null squirmed different than the others. They all squirmed one-footed but she definitely squirmed on both planted firmly into the sand. "Sorta...Sort of...Cousins..." She struggled to explain it. "Who's the king of the necros?"


"I dunno. Whoever halled most?" said Five.


"Definitely NOT Meldrath," said One.


"Definitely NOT Thermaplugg," said Two.


Seven curled her lip just a bit. It was as good as derision.


Null gave up. "Anyway. I picked clockworks!" The last orb flicked blue then settled into a steady red glow.


"Why's your essence emerald not green?" said One, at the same time as Two said "Why's your soulshard not purple?"


"Soulstone," corrected Null.


"Doesn't rez. I can tell," Two and One snapped back.


Seven yawned and turned her attention back to the trinkets in the center of the circle.


Five yawned with more aggression. "Whatcha want to rez people for? Dora's long gone dead."


Null gasped.


"I'd _forgotten_--"


Every muscle of her body tensed in ill-controlled temper. And the color and the focus went out of her eyes altogether as the channeling child slewed around to face Minta of Terra Lost.


"You _chose_ that--" she struggled on, her voice cracking and fraying. The protective sand of the Pen borders kicked up by her spin did not return to rest but kept on circling, amplifying, climbing up around her ankles. Those grains which had smothered and buried Tzimfemme only lightly dusted Minta, blurring her to view so there was little difference between the sparkling skin of the girl and the doll and the girl was the doll was the girl--


The amplifying sand made everything go fractal. For a moment there were more than two in the nesting pattern of smaller and larger carbon copy, looming up and over the rest of the circle.


...to be continued...

Edited by Quincunx

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Asmadeus stood closer to the dueling monsters than many other 'chanters dared. She was the best of 'chanters though. Her monster was about to shake off the charm spell, and there was exactly enough distance between them that the monsters would charge the bright-haired gnomie and step right into the blast of color as she finished casting it. That'd give them maximum time in the stun bubble, time enough to reapply the other hostile spells AND re-charm. The other hostile spell, scheduled to slip away right before the charm spell did, ticked down like a bomb timer...


And a touch of greatness brushed the soul of the tinker gnomie, and all the spells reset themselves to maximum duration. The monsters kept on fighting.


"...Cousin? Cousins?...All hail..."




Astralis felt the touch and it brought with it a Great Idea.


"I should install an emergency release handle on the inside of these pods! Just in case."


He made a mental note to add one the second he got out of the Idletron™. "Good idea, cousin. All hail," he added, and drifted back into stasis.




And so it went all over the Pen. Tinker gnomies were momentarily gifted with perfect success, and perfect reverence.




The tallest of tinytops lit its eye-lamps, and for an eyeblink Minta looked out of them, looked down at the circle of Mintas. Then the sand released itself from that shape, and her body fell back to the ground in slow motion as the clockwork arm around it crumbled.


Seven gasped, and ran in while the tallest of the sand was still falling, just as slow. "Minta!" she shouted, skidding to a kneeling halt by Null. "Talk. Say something." Seven patted her cheek with one hand, and with the other shielded Null's open and streaming eyes from the debris.


Five lifted her foot to step closer, until two spells slammed down upon her. One spell choked off her words, and the other locked her body and slapped it backwards.


One and Two stood together, their hands uplifted in spellcasting gestures, their eyes locked on Five. Two's eyes were brilliant with blue light. One only looked incandescent with outrage. They spoke together.


"You made the king angry. You should be punished. All hail."




Who is the king of the clockworks, and so of the tinker gnomes?


Whosoever can move his (or her--clockworks aren't he, or she, but only it) soul into a clockwork, and keep it there, and remain himself (or herself). Some gnomes call it the mechanical wedding. Some whirr and click, trying to express it in the language of machines. Some just gaze evenly at you until you feel foolish for asking about the coronation.


Tinker gnomes, those chaotic creatures, have no lower or higher authority than that of their king. They are its clockworks and it is their creator. It has only to wish, and they long to obey. And those who can demonstrate that they are on the business of the king, they must be aided.


No, Minta was no king; she was unable to hold the shape. But she had been able to copy it. The tethers to the foreign minds of Two and of Seven were silver cords reaching out to gnomish souls. But Null, she was bound with a steel chain, from the heart of a gnome to the soul of a king.


All hail.




Rydia watched the empty air. It was not in her power to force the lines of the quincunx visible, but now, for once, they displayed themselves to her.


She stepped up the stairs to the front door in the rock, and went outside to look at the carvings now mostly grown over by fresh lichens. Those silver lines hung in the air in front of them. "I think they're different, now," she mused aloud, and blinked, and yawned in the late sun, and watched incurious as the new pattern wrote itself over the old.




When the quincunx power touched her, Tzimfemme retched. She pushed herself up and off of the counter in a hurry, but she laid her palms down on the new analysis of the prophecy, with added data on what had come to pass. The sheet shot sideways on a path made slick by dust, and she went flying off-balance. She could not regain her footing and crawled toward the bathroom. Blinded by nausea, she did not choose the proper doorway. Instead Tzimfemme brought up bile and vomit and traces of blood all over her sleeping nest.


After her stomach was empty, it eased enough to let her think. Still on her knees, panting, waiting for another surge from her body although the touch on her soul had not recurred, she sorted through the lines of the quincunx--they needed untangling, anyw--




Another heave, this one more bloody than not.


"You broke the _entirety_ of the first law?!"


The First Law. The idea which bound together the teenage all-fem street gang that Sophya Tzimisce-Kozyol had bullied together, in her first life. Femaleness and independence above all. And Minta, forever too young to be called fem, had broken the first half--


Tzimfemme reached out in her own turn and felt the touch of the sand, the final resting place of Sossity of the quincunx, the protector spirit. And there was part of the second half of the law, but not all. Beyond that--


Beyond that, the touch of the male mind to whom Minta had bowed down, moreso than her four little crushes throughout the worlds, moreso than Rosemary to the three failures of possession, moreso than Tzimfemme and her twin unconsummated partnerships, moreso even than Rydia to Starlight--Tzimfemme looked into his soul and saw the second half of the law shattered into broken links.


...to be continued...

Edited by Quincunx

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Null stretched from head to toe, and sighed, and life came back to her eyes. Seven slipped a hand under Null's shoulders and sat her up.


"You see?" she whispered, and the others whispered back, "We see." Five sounded annoyed still, and Seven uncaring, but from One and Two there was only respect.


"No undeads," Null went on. "It's not what we wanted really.


"It's not--but Dora--" Tears started to spill from her eyes again.


Seven watched Null cry for a bit, and then leaned in and gently slapped Null across the face. Null gathered herself again.


"...thanks," they said to each other.


Two and One spoke up together. "So we get to keep the clockworks? I guess that's OK."


Allegiances shifted. The four now turned and stared at Minta of Terra Lost. She stared back for a long defiant while, but in the end, she nodnodnodded as well.


As easily as that, the Mintas collapsed back into one. She chose to be eleven, and to be a tween and not a child. She kept the overalls, and the gauntlet, and the unbound hair. She picked up the dolly and race car and mana crystals and stowed them in the jetpack, stuck the magnetic side of the gnomish army knife to its outside, then slipped that on and with a sad little smile unfurled the balloon and took flight towards the Pen.


...to be continued...

Edited by Quincunx

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Rydia saw a splash of color rise over the ridge of rock. It was not sunset yet but the brightness of Minta's balloon jetpack. The gnome coasted in to a running landing and skipped down the granite, arms flying out wide, the balloon packing itself as it fell and never touching the ground. Rydia noticed late where she was likely to land and stepped aside; Minta over-corrected for that and left a little crater where she finally hit the boggy dirt and bled off enough speed to merely run. She made it partway into the forest before slowing down enough to turn back to the elf.


The older one looked at the younger for a long time. She reached out and fingered the smooth pink edge of the sleeve, far up on Minta's arm. Tapped a shaped fingernail on a shoulder buckle of the overalls. Curled her fingers under Minta's chin and tipped her face to and fro while inspecting it. Stepped back and took in the entirety of Minta's patient, still stance, and the silver cords which twisted in and out between them and feathered out into the worlds.


At last she swallowed, and said, but not with confidence, "...Minta?"


"Minta Rose," said the gnome.


Rydia nodded, slowly, still not quite believing.


"I've been gone awhile, huh."


"You've...changed," Rydia answered. She hitched her gauzy shawl higher up to be less of a shawl and more of a scarf. This bared her shoulder blades, which already tingled with traces of holy power.


Minta reacted. "Stop that please?"


"Oh, it is you," Rydia sighed, and the pale traceries stopped. "But you changed so much..."


"It's more like I remembered things," sighed Minta. She waved her hands next to her neck, catching and flipping strands of hair. Rydia watched it wave, and tried to remember also. There had been a time when hair had floated wrongly in the flow of wind? No, time. Double time. Minta the mage-guild refugee had marched into the court of Rydia's kingdom as it received Tzimfemme in a bubble of Archmage time, there to argue for the safety of Rosemary.


Minta as protector? That -had- been awhile.


And as Rydia dredged up shadow memories from before the time of the shadow realm, she realized that this Minta was also, as she had been once before, no black mage, but a magically charged youngster only.


The elf became the archangel Rydia, summoned by a scroll by Minta Rose the black mage.


Minta did not flinch or back away. She raised her hand in the gestures of command, yet Rydia did not feel herself wrenched back to earth. The gnome looked up, quite calm. "You remember? You see?"


Rydia nodded.


"I think you better stay an angel though. You remember this means Tzimmy's coming, and she has to now. But this time she's coming with roses. Did you bring a dagger? I don't think we'd better use mine. You didn't like that, before."


...to be continued...

Edited by Quincunx

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The naked mage had tried to show the signs of the wild hunt. She clutched white flowers in her left hand and she had stained her lips with saffron. But she did not, could not canter without turning aside to be ill. It spoiled the effect. Rydia called across the clearing, with the holy power amplifying her voice, "I thought this didn't happen to clerics of disease?"


She didn't answer until she'd gotten within normal speaking range. "This is a soul-sickness," Tzimfemme muttered. "And put those wings away. They don't suit you. They never did." Rydia let them fade and touched her boots to earth again. "Is Starlight here?"


"No. He's not home yet."


"...I suppose that will make this easier. Whatever it is." Tzimfemme looked at Rydia, and at the carvings, and very much did not look at Minta. She pulled the loop of various braided flower stems further up onto her wrist, and with both hands free called the gray light.


"Excuse me?" asked Rydia.


Tzimfemme lit the lines of the quincunx. They all shivered; the extra power poured into it touched all their souls. Rydia's ears curled into question-mark shapes on both sides of her head, and she glanced at Minta, and back over at Tzimfemme. "Alright," she sighed, "I admit it. I don't understand anything and I haven't for awhile and I've gotten used to that. But what's going on?"


The naked mage pointed at the rocks. "See the shadows we're throwing right now?" The quincunx was so backlit that it was not just visible, but yes, casting curves of darkness over the carvings. "This was a prophecy. This was what we were damned to do and to be. You remember what we discussed, up here. Another argument about memory, even." Rydia looked down at Minta again; Tzimfemme had turned such that she could not look at Minta at all. "Well. It's changed...


"We _won_, Rydia." Tzimfemme's voice quavered. "Look at her. We won. It's all I wanted--" She broke off speaking, gurgled, and crumpled to squat on the rocks. "--The end of Minta's damnation. Didn't think I could duck mine. Tried, mind you. But I think I may have won that one too.


"But I don't know _why_. _I_ didn't do it. And whatever did it is tearing at me. At my flesh. Or whatever all this is." She plucked at herself. "Damn it all, damn the flesh!"




Tzimfemme rocked a bit on unsteady ankles and swiveled around, not getting out of the crouch. "No, Minta? You don't like what has happened to you?"


"No! That's Ok!!!" Minta shook her head violently although Tzimfemme would not look. "No about the damn-it-all part. Please."


Rydia's ears straightened in shock. It was one thing to know Minta was not a black mage any more. It was quite another to hear her not want to curse something that had only just annoyed her a little.


"I have to settle with you, Minta," growled Tzimfemme, "but later. Rydia. What about you? I stopped trying to think about it. I only feel. I feel--I feel that Vocatrix has risen over us again. That star of power." She flicked her hand up at the orb of unmixed gray light. "Are you still damned to die under the star, Rydia? Because that is what the prophecy said. But our lines have changed. Tell me, girl under the star. Look into the light, and tell me..."


...to be continued...

Edited by Quincunx

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Rydia looked into the light. Her eyes emptied, like those of Tzimfemme leaping in the wild hunt, like those of Minta touching a foreign mind.


"I watched the stars. There was a shooting star in Orion.


"I knew it meant a child. A boy-child.


"I dreamed of the rage of the sea.


"I dreamed of pride, and thought, pride is not enough.


"It was not enough.


"And I dreamed that someone else was dreaming me.


"I dreamed that I was alive...


"And that the pact which brought me to life had been completed...


"And I dreamed that I now must die.


"But I will not die. My heart is in his heart, the immortal heart.


"I will not wholly die."


She reached down to her boot, and drew a dagger, and placed it into her breast, without blood, without pain, without fear.


...to be continued...

Edited by Quincunx

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And Rydia Nightflame became light. Pure, proper, white light, absorbing all the power of that gray orb, and mingling it with her own.


She split and slid down lines of the quincunx, that sacrifice under the star. Not very much was absorbed by Tzimfemme, in the end. More poured into Minta. Most of it rocketed away from the quincunx, through the front door of the mountain hall setting its ward aglow, towards the ever-living phylactery which was Starlight.


The lines of light among them broke loose from the moorings which had been Rydia and Rosemary and Sossity. The quincunx power, strung now between two points of power only, was no proper quincunx at all. It tried to make a bar between them; it tried to form a circle around them. It snatched bits of personality and moorings to other souls and moved their anchor points from Minta to Tzimfemme and back again, quicker by far than the assignments of the other hollowed-out husks of souls.


The node which was Tzimfemme sent thought at the node which was Minta.


There's a chain on your soul.


The node which was Minta agreed.


I'm Ok with it. And besides, you have one too, now. See?




Tzimfemme's bond followed Rydia's flight of the soul, through the ward which had been raised to keep her out.


I see. It tears at me, to be chained. I think that used to be your feeling, too...


Yes. Minta's voice, copying tone and word choice from a foreign mind. Then it rippled a bit, and Minta spoke for herself. No chains to an equal. But this is a king. It's Ok.


You are peculiar. I say I will only be chained to an equal. Tzimfemme felt disbelief begin to wash back onto her, from the bond.


You're going to be chained at all? That's kind of peculiar, too.


It was getting difficult to think. More emotions flowed down the line. It's better than the damnation which was. I can live with that. Can't you? Daughter of the unknown, now?


Yeah. I can live with that. No more killing half-sisters. I haven't got any half-sisters. I don't know if I can have half-sisters now...


Sadness from the foreign, male minds. No. Grief.


"Excuse me," said Tzimfemme and Minta, together, and drew the bond between them--that circling letter theta, no longer a chi--back into nothingness. "We'll talk more later."


Minta planted her feet and let her eyes go blank. Tzimfemme drew a deep breath through her nose, and rose to her feet, and stepped down into the mountain hall, her hall. How to explain to the boss that she would have to also be his wife for the foreseeable? That was the first of her problems, but maybe not the worst...


...to be continued...

Edited by Quincunx

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Minta came back to herself and started to weep slow tears again. It was her duty to cross portals. He would not. And she would not disobey and would never raise the issue again. But it would have been good all around, to come to the Pen.


She shrugged the backpack off and took out the clockwork dolly and polished it until dusk fell. Then she switched to sharpening the tools of the gnomish army knife. That could be done by touch, in the dark. The night was half gone before the door opened again and Tzimfemme came out with an uncertain step. Her head bobbed back and forth, stiff-necked. Her eyes were dark all around with soot and worse. She walked like she was hurt deep. And her legs were tangling in one of Rydia's long nightgowns, open at the front.


Tzimfemme shut the door behind her with a foot but she had to hold onto the doorframe to balance on one foot. Without putting that foot down she announced to the night, "I make every allowance for grief and for the power of a Man of Terra--but really--"


Minta snapped the gnomish army knife with a click.


The older one--not a naked mage, right now--curled around the hand that supported her, and looked to her right, into the darkness between rocks. "Minta. You stayed to be settled with. What is _wrong_ with you???"


The gnome looked up but did not get up. She willed light into the orbs on her hand, and suddenly she was lit from underneath her chin. With her hand curled to support her head, Minta was underlit mainly in red as though the light were shining through her skin, and Tzimfemme's gown was lit by saffron yellow.


"Are you just gonna talk at me? No crazy yelling dancing monk-jumping killing stuff?"


Tzimfemme placed her foot back on the ground and sucked at her lips, where no saffron remained.


"...You have a point. No. No wild hunt. What is wrong with me, I should say. But I do not feel anything is wrong now. Minta. Except why in the name of dominion do I want to call you child, or gnome, and not Minta? I know the names. I am unafraid of the names." Tzimfemme shivered. "I told Starlight who was BelZpock. I had to, to partly make amends. I'll tell you.


"I was Athena Sophya Tzimisce-Kozyol. Two votes for Athena, one for Diana. What does it matter, now? I don't know if my parents in the flesh are dead, although he probably is. But I. I certainly am. I. Necromancer! What am I now?!" She shrieked the last bit into the night.


It was not Minta who answered, not in word choice, not in tone, and not to Tzimfemme. "That is the question I keep asking myself of you..."


And then it was. "Because you were never any undead of any type I knew..."


Minta stared long and very hard at Tzimfemme. After awhile she said, "That doesn't prove anything. It doesn't always work for me."


"_What_ doesn't prove anything."


"When I prove it, you'll know." She spoke gently, now. It was no threat. "And please stop calling me," the faintest click of the tongue as Minta reshaped the word on its way out of her mouth, "necromancer. I'm not. Not any more."


Tzimfemme clicked her tongue in turn, deliberate, heavy with sarcasm and the kappa-sound, as it always was to lead into that remark so often snapped off before, but not before at Minta. "Minta. Who died and made you judge-jury-and-executioner?"


"You did. You just said. Now sit down, Sophya."


She knelt, winced, and brought her hands down for support before going any further. Minta stood, and looked slightly down at the older mage on all fours. And watched her struggle to sit and not to sit. "Maybe," Minta breathed, "Maybe..."


...to be continued...

Edited by Quincunx

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Tzimfemme gave up, and stood back up. "Not now. And don't call me Sophya, if I can't show the signs, if I can't craft flesh for the hunt. It doesn't tug at me." She tugged, in turn, at the circlet of stems which was all that was left of the flowers, until it loosened and fell.


"...If you want to do that," Minta reflected, "you need to go out to the borders of the Pen now. It's got a pretty high additive bonus on it. I'm thinkin' at least ten."


"What?" said Tzimfemme, part disbelief and part misunderstanding.


Minta sighed. "I still think like a raiding necro. I keep track of the numbers, the types of bonuses, all that kind of stuff. I like it. I _was_ Cftm! too. It just makes more sense now." The older mage made a wordless noise of understanding. "But if you go out there and become the, what did you call it?"


"I didn't. But it's the pooka."


"The pooka and the rider. Do that and I will bury you." Minta laid the threat between them like a greatsword. "Try to be Sophya again, with the murder in her heart? I'll bury you again." Minta's newest voice snapping as the spine snaps on the shut book, the sounds so distinct that she could have spoken the bastard Latin of the Parthenes. Tzimfemme could hear the hissing S which could not be mistaken for a clipped C, the drawn-out Y which was not a single or double I. "I am judge-jury-and-executioner. You said so. And if you try to follow me through that one crack in the world, I will _name_ you."


Tzimfemme tipped her head back and laughed. "Oh so you are the truenamer now? Gods preserve us all from the gift of the quincunx. I call your bluff. Try it."


Minta lifted her chin to look at Tzimfemme, shifting the light away from her own face. "You scamper over the ground and fight with kicks like a monk, so you have a monk's name. You click your tongue for your Ks so it is a K name. I will call you Kariina." Again she used that precise voice for the precise double vowel.


The older mage snickered, then stopped. "Karina. Kariina. Kariiiiiiiiiiiina. It holds me as little as does Sophya, but I feel it a bit."


"The name itself will bury you, if you follow me. Bad. REALLY bad. But better than going across any other way. Any other way I'll just kill you, Tzimmy-with-the-roses." Minta slipped back into her usual tone of voice. No, not quite. It had less of the childish lisp, and it was the same voice she had used since Tzimfemme had arrived. "So what's your name then? Since you're so good at names now."


A silence stretched out. Minta nestled her head back down on her hand, back into the scarlet light. Tzimfemme, now alerted, saw not just the beginning of puberty in it, but the rounded features, traces of Minta's previous bloodline, wiped out altogether. "...The light told me I was to be Krystyn now, as I always wanted.


"I get what I want. No matter how impossible it is, in the reality. Fantasy turns into truth.


"So for awhile I was Krystyn. I didn't realize she was so _stupid_! There are no goddesses. None at all." Tzimfemme threw her hands into the air. "And now Rydia's burnt out the light. So. Is that over, now? Do I have to go back to being...whoever, whatever I was? Do I go back to cowering at the cracks in the world, and the drab things which come through the cracks? I don't want that.


"I don't like having to take over Rydia's," she gulped, "marriage. It is an insult to both of them, to send in a substitute. But I can live with that. Won't be my first or last insult, I am sorry to say. Damned to keep repeating them--"


"Your _name_?" Minta interrupted the monologue, out of patience.


She didn't halt it for more than a moment. "I don't bloody _know_ and I never did! And I can live with _that_! It's the madness I can't live with! Not that I've been made aware of it!!!"


...to be continued...

Edited by Quincunx

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Tzimfemme reached up out of reflex, entwined the thinnest of the many braids around her fingers. But did not pull on that rein. And the oddness of that stopped her better than Minta's interruption. With deliberation she unwound herself, and put her hand back down by her side.


Minta stopped willing light to the hand beneath her head and turned toward at the older mage, now that she was no longer lit in saffron. "...Did you mean it?" she asked. "When you said that saving me was all you wanted? I...I didn't feel it then. I didn't know. Mostly." The younger mage trailed off.


"Yes. I did. Why do you ask?"


"'Cause. Because you said, you get what you want." Tzimfemme heard Minta's foot start to tap on the rocks, as she thought, and then thump and stop as though she clamped it down to the earth. After awhile, in the dark, Minta went on. "You need something else to want now."


Silk rustled as Tzimfemme sat. "My thoughts run in circles," she complained. "I can't lock onto something to want."


Minta giggled a little. Even her laughs were softer, older, a bit arch. "You mean they aren't spiraling. That is a Rosemary word."


"They aren't!" Shock in the older mage's voice, again, and then bitterness. "Truenamer. You took everything."


"We ruled together," Minta answered. "Of course whatever was hers was mine. You never shared."


That galvanized Tzimfemme and the anger flowed back. "And you are sharing now! Misdirecting me still, but you failed this time. You are sharing now. You broke the entirety of the First Law. Why, Minta, why? Why a male? Why bow down at all?--"


"Why are _you_ asking _me_, Tzimmy?"


Again Tzimfemme wound down without spiraling further into madness, bound in the circle which was the quincunx-that-was. Minta pressed on, and said the unspeakable. "You're not in charge any more, Tzimfemme. I don't know why but _I am_. You set me free but you also made me first among us. Between us. You're not making the laws any more.


"You haven't got a king and I don't think you want one. But I do. Tinker gnomies _do_. I wish I could show you, too...."


Tzimfemme retched again. "Stop!"


"Stop what?"


The natural noises of the nighttime forest halted for a bit as Tzimfemme vomited. She panted, and got her breath back. "Stop being such a damned necromancer and plaguing me--"


"I'm _not_ a necromancer now. I picked clockworks!"


"Warlock of disease! Child of Bertoxxulous!"


"Nobody's child!" Minta shouted right back. "You said! I'm only me!"


Tzimfemme tipped her head back and wailed. It was a thin sound, and born entirely of a new wave of nausea. Minta drew in a quick breath, and quieted herself, and listened. "Not pain," muttered the younger mage, "not in the body..." She crept closer and, under cover of the night, slipped past Tzimfemme's sometimes thrashing limbs and knelt and hugged her tight around the middle.


The older mage's eyes turned up and she fainted dead away.


...to be continued...

Edited by Quincunx

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Tzimfemme dragged her eyelids open. She saw the underside of Minta's chin, underlit again. She could make no sense of it. What had she been doing? Being a truenamer, bestowing phrases. Her wet lips parted again and more names drooled out. "Maralinda...Theodora..."


Minta twitched, and it jolted Tzimfemme too. The mental fog slipped partly away. The older one lay on her back with her head in Minta's lap. The lump under her neck was probably one of Minta's legs. The lump over her neck was one of Minta's arms, and that heavy feeling by the other side of her face may have been the younger mage's hand holding her own head steady.


The entire picture snapped into mental focus then, and Tzimfemme rolled away as fast as she could, faster than she could get up. The slope of the rocks aided her a bit too much, and the older one ended up on her back again, the robe mostly still further uphill yet bunched around her armpits. She gulped down her body's next protest against the swift movement, then tried to sit up, lay back down and tugged at the silk without improving matters much, and grumbled about clothing. Minta still sat quietly uphill, but shook every once in awhile, head held in her hands. Tzimfemme looked uphill, although she still hadn't sat up, and repeated the last, effective name. "Theodora."


Minta burst into tears.


The older mage smiled as the illness left her instantly. Then she let the smile go. "You know how to weep?" she asked under her breath, and with further struggles against the tangled robe, got herself into a crouch, then to her feet and uphill to Minta. There, she did not hug the younger mage, but looked into her face from several angles, and only then reached down to grasp the hand which was not aglow.


...to be continued...

Edited by Quincunx

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After awhile Minta's tears slowed, and Tzimfemme said, "I think you'd better tell me everything. Maralinda....It wasn't Araminta? I always thought."


The younger one shook her head, no. "That's too snooty," she replied, and her voice was still shaky. "They weren't rich people."


Tzimfemme sat side by side with Minta, still holding her hand, and listened. Minta talked about running away when the little sister--Theodora, called Dora--had been born. She spoke about being lured in by the magicians' guilds, and forced to scribe for years on end; Tzimfemme thought back to Terra Lost, and the guilds from whom she had bought her spells, and frowned. She spoke of how she'd escaped, and seen Dora married off but run after her as she left, and met that terrible fleshcrafted creature in the road, and Rosemary who rode upon it.


She interrupted, "I had made that creature. I had to. I think we all came together, then. Rydia's kingdom, yes?"


Minta nodded.


"Then I know it all until...the time I went mad. Damnable Ager. Why."


The younger mage gulped. "You forgot the Armageddons."


"I didn't forget." The older mage shuddered. "That was madness, to claw my way back out of hell every time. But it passed. Not like Ager where the only way to clarity was to dig back down into the mud--"


"Not you," Minta snapped back. "Dora! And all the rest. I forgot them too...and they died..."


"Well, yes, honey. They weren't archmages. Hell, even archmages died! Starlight's an exception. It's unpleasant but it's natural."


Minta just stared at her out of angry, almost empty eyes. "Archmages. Come. Back."


"Oh. Right. There is that." Tzimfemme took another deep breath through her nose. "Minta. I know how people who aren't archmages are brought back after they--die. It was done to me. It wasn't worth it."


"It is too!"


"_Not_ so. You listen to _my_ story, now."


And Tzimfemme spoke. She talked about slowly learning how to be human, in a body already fully grown, in a world of technology beyond Terra Lost, beyond the Pen, beyond Seattle 2070--


"Where's that?"


"I had an ancestress there. Maddalena, called Emmy. My family absolutely went in for, what did you call them? Snooty names. And at the time, Italian was in. Lucrezia, Maddalena, Lorenzo, and Amadeo. I'm thinking someone listened to a few operas too many." Tzimfemme chuckled.


She spoke of growing up in the mind in a body held unaging by technology, of not getting all the way to adulthood before going feral and bullying together a pack of like-minded girls, bored city dwellers, of chasing after one who rejected them and trying to kill her, but getting murdered in her turn.


"Point-blank shot to the right side of my head...And then I came to, on Terra Lost, half-buried in the mud and the maggots. I had to dig my way out." She flexed her fingers. "It wiped out everything I knew, for awhile. But it kept biting at me. I didn't know. Minta..." Tzimfemme gestured, and the shard of fractured reality appeared between her fingers, just about visible in the lightening of the sky. "Careful what you ask for. What I want, I get--"


"I don't wanna be alone," Minta interrupted.


"You want...to not be alone. Well. Good for you then. I like being independent."


"I think you better start wanting it too. Because you don't, and I do, and that's why I'm in charge. Because you got Starlight now and you saw what he did with Rydia." Minta's voice rang out, unchildlike, but the tone was wholly hers. "Because I think you're gonna die too, if you don't stop being alone here where it's empty."


...to be continued...

Edited by Quincunx

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"Die? Me? I am a dead thing." Tzimfemme turned and spat into the mist that the sun was beginning to bake out of the forest.


Minta looked up, too, at the eastern sky. Her tone changed altogether. "I'm going to have to go soon. It'll be time for maintenance, and I've got to help with that. Clockworks don't clean themselves. Neither does the workshop. Maybe I'll get to talk to gnomie cousins. Maybe I'll get to go out and fight. I got things to do. People to talk to." The younger mage stopped, out of politeness, but the lurch in Tzimfemme's stomach added the information regardless. Minta longed to take his orders, as much as Tzimfemme had ever thirsted after--


"Minta." Tzimfemme shuddered at the idea, but... "What _exactly_ are your duties?"


Minta expanded on the general theory of machine maintenance, and went into such detail on the specifics of oils and greases and polishes, calibration and tolerances, that Tzimfemme who was once a lady of mad science nearly nodded off more than once--although that also may have been due to staying awake overnight. On the whole, it was clean. She interrupted only on one topic. "I thought you said you gave up the necromancy. What's that one, then?"


Minta twisted on the spot, but then--Tzimfemme could see the gesture, now--planted both feet on the rock and held herself still. "That one's called the horrible example. So people know what we're there for. To disassemble anyone that gets any more machinelike than that one. To disassemble anything that gets any more animal-like than that one." And the look she gave Tzimfemme, then, was searching enough to quell further questions.


All the same, the older mage reached out, through quincunx, or whatever it was now, and chains. She could not show the signs of the wild hunt, but gathered up the will to show them, and hurled them into the worlds. _Thus to the unclean. Do not be unclean to her._


The source of what returned to Tzimfemme was unclear but the disgust was not. He would not. He was more clean than she.


"Good enough," she muttered.


"It's good enough for me," Minta said with pride. That was the first smile Tzimfemme had seen on her in all that time, on the tinker gnome who used to beam at the least provocation. "I know what I'm going to do today. What are you going to do today? Do you even know?...I didn't used to say that to my dead things. Weird."


Tzimfemme cast her thoughts forward over that day, and all the days to come. She shook her head, not very much, just enough to show that she had no idea. "Go back inside, I suppose. What else is there to wait for?"


The sunrise shimmered, and a man stepped out of the shimmer.


Tzimfemme looked at him, started to open her mouth to say "You're late," realized the idiocy of saying that to a time traveler, and shut her mouth again.


"I know. I'm just in time," Xaious said, with a flourish of his hands.


"Oh no. Now that you've said that, you are _decidedly_ late," she snapped back, rising to her feet. Minta also stood up, and dusted off the seat of her overalls. "It's been _twelve years_ since I arranged that! I don't need it any more! I know that, now."


"Arranged what?" Minta asked.


"You're too young to...wait, no, you aren't any more, are you. Very well. Now what were the rules? You cannot go back into your own timeline, yes?"


Xaious nodded.


"But someone else's, preferably before you met them, that is fine?"


"It's easier than trying to aim for after you met them. So hard to find the final farewell, in most cases," he agreed.


Tzimfemme swallowed, and inspected the spot in her soul where the longing used to be. Empty. Well, so be it. "I do not want it any more. Understand that. But I had wanted to be his avenging angel, since he'd thrown his damned conscience aside. I wanted you to take me to the battlefield of Kendricke the Black, before Terra Lost, before I was an archmage. I wanted to confront him before all that. But never mind. That's over. That's dead.


"I have had another idea to fulfill the contract. But we cannot go with you, since this one goes into Terra Lost.


"Minta. Tell Xaious everything you can about your Dora. Maybe he can find her, and bring her back here, to the Pen where Armageddon never reaches...."


And Minta's eyes widened, and she reached out to hug Xaious, and spill out her sister's story.


...to be continued...

Edited by Quincunx

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"How long have I got to wait?" she whispered, after he had disappeared back into time.


"Minta, it took twelve years for me, for him to hold up his end of the bargain. And for all we know, he could have already come back, in the past, with or without her. But you have done what you could, to undo the wrongs you have done." Tzimfemme shrugged, shoulders loose inside the robe. "I'm beginning to learn the limitations of this place...."


They stood side by side, and without moving more than their eyes, regarded each other. Tzimfemme knelt, to better bring her eyes level with Minta's, and they watched the sun rise in silence.


Tzimfemme made a wordless noise before she spoke, to alert the younger mage. "You don't have your undead pets any more. And you don't confide in _him_. Do you keep everything to yourself, now, while you're in that place where I can't follow?"


"Where nobody can follow." Minta's voice was firm on that point. Then she softened, and tipped her head a little to one side. "I tell everything to the horrible example. If he's alive, he's got to be lonely too. And if it's dead, I don't care. I was a neato necro. Dead things don't bother me." She paused, then decided it wasn't enough. "I think it would please him, either way."


Tzimfemme swallowed hard. "Good enough," she muttered again, and in her turn decided it wasn't enough, "as long as it stays only talk. If it doesn't--get back here _immediately_. Too many males there. Not enough females. Come back here, and find a female to talk to. It doesn't even need to be me, do you understand?"




"Good enough," she said yet again, and let their talk die away.


As the land warmed, a breeze arose and shook sweet notes out of the leaves of the birches.


Minta made another wordless noise, at the same time as Tzimfemme put her hands on her knees and rose to her feet once more.


"...How old were you when you died?"


Tzimfemme paused in her slow climb down the rocks to shrug again. "Age is a strange thing when you are created, not born. Call it fifteen? It was before lust, that's all I know for sure."


"Maybe by the time I turn fifteen, I'll know whether he got Dora out safe."




Minta touched the controls of her jetpack and rose under the expanding balloon as Tzimfemme passed through the door of her house.


--the end--

Edited by Quincunx

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