by Max Barry

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by The Wandering City of Eisenstern. . 29 reads.


By order of the Guild Council

The following document is restricted to Guild Personnel with Spectrum-level clearance

Viewing by an unauthorized party will result in immediate sanction enforcement, by means of an Aetheric geas.
Sanction enforcement extends up to, and encompasses, immediate imprisonment and/or termination.
Do not proceed past this point without the required soulbound counter-geas.


The clang of steel on steel, echoing through the arched chamber. Mura Martinez, bronze-ranked Operative of the Guild of Eisenstern, sprang back to catch her breath. Her opponent didn’t even seem winded - a carefree, stubble-hemmed grin served to complement a general expression of mocking amusement. He tapped the tip of his curved sword against the floor.

“At this rate, we’ll wear out the floorboards before you even come close to tagging me.”

“Would help if I was also jacked up on elemental mumbo-jumbo.”

Yahiro chuckled, evoking a gentle breeze.

“This is what we call a test. Besides, you were the one who asked for a sparring match. So - again!”

She rushed forward once more, bringing the spear around in a… no, not a swipe. Stopping short mere inches from the would-be defender’s blade, she circled around, transitioning from her feint into a direct stab. But Yahiro was prepared - already, he was ducking out of the way. As the spearhead whistled harmlessly past him, he brought his blade around for a horizontal slash - Mura barely managed to jerk herself back in time to avoid it.

She stood, panting, as a few strands of severed hair drifted to the floor. Yahiro tossed his sword up into the air, catching it by the handle as it came back down - his grin remained.

“Not even close. Really, you should-”

He was interrupted by a vaguely electrical, thrumming blast from the other side of the room. Turning around irritably, he called out.

“The hell are you up to now? I’m trying my best to lecture the newbie here.”

The reply came from a vaguely dazed-looking man, picking himself up from a scorched section of floor. In his hands, he clutched a burned-out casing - several more, in varying degrees of intact-ness, littered the workbench behind him.

“Sorry. That one had the timer set up wrong, apparently - artificer’s defect.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“Ah, I’m just tinkering with these shock-bomb samples. Managed to snag a few from the labs - they seem useful enough for non-lethal crowd control. You know, for when we don’t want you sticking your glorified steak knife into people.”

“And why do you have to be doing this in this particular training room?”

“All the other ones I have access to are occupied. ‘Sides, I like watching you two clobber each other while I work. Puts a little amusement in my life.”

Yahiro snorted, before turning back to Mura.

“I guess we’re going to have to deal with the interruptions. Enough talk - again!”

Over and over they lashed out at one another - strike after strike, with not a single one hitting home. Yahiro ducked and wove around her blade with laughable ease, and it was only with great difficulty that she could even approximate the same. Worse, he was clearly toying with her - had he sought to end the session then and there, she could see many an opportunity where he very well could. But no - ever on with that mocking grin, he merely play-fought.

That made it all the more frustrating when her spear found only thin air - soon, her strikes grew wilder, more desperate. On and on, steel against steel, until- there! An opening - Yahiro’s eyes, momentarily flashing to something behind her. Her feline ears twitched - heavy footsteps, perhaps? No matter - focus banished thought. The tip of the spear was already weaving into position, ready to lash out for a decisive stab…

An almighty gust of wind tore her weapon from her hands, sending it skittering across the marbled floor. Yahiro snapped his attention back to her - only now could she see the fingers of his free hand, locked in an arcane command gesture. His tone, when he spoke, carried a vague sneer.

“A truly commendable attempt to catch me off-guard. Maybe try again when we don’t have visitors.”

His attention focused once more on whatever was behind her, he gave a surprisingly crisp salute. Mura turned, and followed suit almost immediately - only a short distance away stood the towering, greatcoat-clad form of the Guildmaster.

Her breath caught in her throat. She’d never actually seen him in person, yet there he was. Guildmaster of Eisenstern, builder of the Tower. Here stood the man who had not only bested gods in combat, but had driven them to bankruptcy, and then doled out high-interest loans in recompense. Whose exploits of monster-slayin’, maiden-savin’ adventurin’ had inspired the legend-rosters of civilizations. How many of the rumors and myths surrounding the man actually held any credence, she couldn’t say, but there was no denying that the single most powerful individual within the confines of the Tower now stood merely a few meters from her. And had just watched her fail miserably at the most basic combat exercise imaginable.


“At ease.”

His voice was surprisingly smooth - one would expect the man to gargle nails and spit greek fire. Or at the very least, that’s how he’d been portrayed to her up until now. She certainly hadn’t anticipated a calm baritone.

“No need for formality - I was just passing through. Operative…”

“Mura Martinez, Bronze rank! Sir.”

“Ah yes, I’m sure I’ve gone over the relevant ledgers. Team Rondel, was it?”

“Currently provisional, sir.”

“You can dispense with all the sirs. I get as much of a kick out of self-importance as the next man, but I’m not even on-duty at the moment. And neither are you two - unless this is a formal sparring match?”

This time it was Yahiro who spoke up.

“Just showing the newbie the ropes. Basic combat training and whatnot.”

“Of course. Invaluable for field ops. Well then, carry on - don’t let my presence deter you. A good fight is always entertaining - maybe I’ll learn a thing or two.”

Two more salutes, and the combatants turned to each other once more. She could sense the eagerness in Yahiro’s eyes - clearly, he was jumping at the opportunity to show off his capabilities in front of the boss. His movements seemed smoother, more fluid somehow - a touch of magic, no doubt.

Still, it’s not like she could back out now. What would she say - that it isn’t fair? That she, a mere spearwoman, was up against someone with Void-knows how many years of experience over her, a higher grade of equipment and inherent magic? Not exactly the best impression to leave.

And so she focused on the task at hand. Another lunge with the spear - another sidestep, and an answering swipe she barely dodged. A slash, deflected with barely any effort at all. Strike into parry into dodge into strike - on and on, back and forth. Until finally, it seemed as though Yahiro had had enough - ducking under yet another unsuccessful stab, he brought the pommel of his sword forwards, striking Mura squarely in the abdomen.

The impact drove the air from her lungs, launching her across the room - she came to a rest, wheezing, and trying desperately to blink the tears from her eyes. When at last she could see something that wasn’t a blur, it was… a hand. Clad in dull, grey-black metal, extended to help her up. Behind it sat the face of Kresge, its expression immutable. She stared first at the hand, then the face, then back at the hand. This was the hand that had sundered mountains. Torn dragons from the sky, caught ballista bolts and thrown them back. She took it with her own - metal, clicking against metal. Gently, she was pulled to her feet.

“Near-perfect form. You handle your weapon well - and yet, your opponent is always merely that tiny bit faster than you. He eludes you with apparent ease, while you yourself have to stay constantly attentive to avoid being struck. Such is the divide created by years of additional training and combat… and by magically supplementing one’s own physical form.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Oh, you have nothing to apologize for. If anything, it’s your sparring partner who might have to come up with a justification for using magic against a trainee - a sign of lacking confidence, wouldn’t you say?”

He winked, and Mura couldn’t help but crack a smile as she peered over at Yahiro. The Easterner, in turn, avoided her gaze. But Kresge continued.

“No, there’s no shame in losing to a stronger, faster adversary. But there is shame in not trying to equalize the gap.”

She seemed somewhat taken aback. It took a moment for her to formulate a reply.

“You mean cheating, sir?”

“Oh come now. Call it underhanded tactics, or an alternative approach if you’re feeling facetious. But “cheating” is best reserved for a grade school exam. You are being trained in combat, prepared for the battlefields where you will have to ply your trade. And battlefields are no place for fair fighting, unless you’re either very skilled, or very cocky. Oftentimes both, but usually the latter.”

“So, what, you mean-”

“Tripping them up. Throwing sand in their face. Dipping your weapons in poison, or setting up traps beforehand to lure your opponent into. Headbutts, biting, knee-to-groin. Anything goes, really.”

“And I’m meant to do all this while sparring?”

“Goodness, no. I doubt you could find sand anywhere in the Hall, unless you ran over to the outer gardens. And poisons tend to be too valuable to waste on a sparring prank. But it is always wise to garner an advantage in any way possible - after all, this is field prep. At least, according to your partner here. So there’s no point in not using field tactics. Isn’t that right?”

The last question was directed at Yahiro, and evoked another hurried salute.

“Yessir. Whatever you say.”

“How formal of you. Of everyone, really - could it be my birthday?”

He gave a soft chuckle.

“In any case, I’ve got to move along now. Hopefully you’ll have taken something useful out of my droning - and try not to rough him up too badly, will you? Our medical facilities are stellar, but they have their limits.”

“I’ll do my best, sir.”

And so, unhurriedly, he left the training room. As the brass doors slid shut in his wake, Yahiro turned back to Mura.

“And what did you do to suck up to him like that?”

“Oh, I didn’t do anything. Besides not being an insufferable prick - maybe try that out sometime. People might like you, then. I’ll get a drink before we continue.”

Making her way over to the water fountain in the chamber’s far corner, she walked as if lost in thought - Kresge seemed to have left something of an impression. On her way, she carefully picked up an errant shock-bomb off the floor, placing it back on the workbench where it had originally lain, and eliciting a gesture of thanks from the man behind it. She drank, unhurriedly, before strolling back to Yahiro. Scooping her spear up off the floor, she entered a combat stance. Her opponent grunted dismissively.


A silent nod in answer.

“Alright. In that case - again!”

She rushed him, same as before. And, just as before, her blade found only thin air - that’s where the copycat routine seemed to end. She didn’t even bother with bracing for a return strike - unceremoniously, she spat water into his grinning face.

This didn’t seem to have the intended effect - he merely went on grinning, the droplets swept away by an errant gust of wind before they even reached him. Nor did he cease to grin when she tried ramming his solar plexus with her elbow - for that, he merely wove out of the way as he had done so many times before. He finished up by grabbing her spear with his free hand, and yanking it from her grasp - it clattered to the floor behind him. She sprang back to avoid yet another lazy swipe of the sword - it was harder to dodge the ridicule that came with it.

“Really, now. That was the best you could come up with? My grandmother is more duplicitous.”

“Why don’t you come over here and find out?”

He wagged his index finger in response.

“Don’t think I don’t see that backup dagger you’ve got tucked away in your belt. I’m sure you’ll try and pull all sorts of fancy gimmicks with that, master tactician that you are.”

Once again, a somewhat bemused voice called out from the very back of the room.

“Sorry to interrupt your fun, but has anyone seen a spare shock-bomb somewhere? I think it might have rolled under something…”

“Sorry, wasn’t really paying attention to your bombs. Too busy getting bamboozled by Sun Tzu over here. Maybe-”

“I know where it is.”

He took in her wry grin, and the look of determination she’d transfixed him with. Already, he was beginning to turn, the air starting its swirling, protective dance around him - it wasn’t enough. The crackling shockwave lifted him off his feet, and tossed him as one would a rag doll. His sword went flying, wreathed in lightning-arcs that singed the floor as they passed. He finally came to a tumbling stop at the very far end of the hall - with a dazed look, he took note of the spearhead hovering mere inches from his throat. Just above it, affixed inexpertly to the weapon's shaft, the burned-out casing of a shock-bomb still fizzled. Mura stood over him, and this time it was her turn to sneer.

“How’s this for training?”

“Okay I’ll admit I fell for that one. Cheap trick, but it works. Once.”

“I think once is enough for this session. I’d say I’ve learned something important - wouldn’t you?”

She lowered the spear, and allowed him to stand.

“How to cheese your way past training?”

“If the “training” is designed and conducted by an utter jackass, sure. I see nothing wrong with that. Maybe if you had the balls to fight on even footing in the first place, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“Oh I’ll show you even footing.”

“Same time tomorrow, then?”

“You’re on.”

She took some measure of satisfaction from the pained grimace on Yahiro’s face as he stooped down to pick up his sword. And then it was gone - hidden from view by the closing of the brass doors. She set off down the hallways - a long shower was in order.

Some time later, she emerged into her quarters. Droplets of water left an uneven trail back to the shower cubicle - a steamy haze wreathed the doorway. Heading over to the wardrobe, her eye was caught by a blinking light on the far wall - the brassbound slot below it held an envelope. Making sure to dry her hands on her wraparound towel, she carefully pulled the rectangle of paper from its resting place.

Her thoughts raced - had she been fined for equipment misuse? Had Yahiro actually gone so far as to lodge a complaint? He was somewhat petty, sure, but to such an extent? Surely not? She turned the envelope over, and all considerations were blown away near-instantly by the sight of the sigil it bore.

She’d not been at the Tower for long, but it was certainly enough time to pick up on some of the symbology. And she knew well enough that this wasn’t the usual Internal Affairs marking - an ironclad fist, at the center of a thorned circle. Kresge’s personal seal.

With uncertain fingers, she tore open the envelope. And subsequently yelped when the paper flipped inside out, practically leaping out of her fingers as it folded outward. Paper no more - what tumbled to the carpeted floor in its stead was a sturdy-looking box of engraved ebonwood. After a moment, she picked it up - no larger than a jewelry case, and still bearing the Guildmaster’s seal on its lid. Silver fittings pivoted as she flipped it open - within sat a small velvet bag, and a note. The handwriting on the latter was neat, orderly - it too was stamped with that selfsame mailed fist.

A lesson in three parts is a poetically structured one. The stuff of sagas.

The first - no fight is truly fair. Thus, striving for a fair fight is inherently pointless.

The second - an unfair solution is the fastest way out of an unfair fight. This much you seem to already know.

The third - to keep to a single tactic is among the quickest paths to defeat. The natural solution, of course, is to have so many tricks at hand that every possible situation is accounted for. A lofty goal. Impossible, even. But it is the goal that every victor should strive for nonetheless.

Enclosed is an old, old trick. Or rather, the basis for many. It has served me well - may it be of use to you likewise. Additionally, you are hereby granted full entry into the Operations roster as a full-time member of Team Rondel. Your colleagues will be notified shortly, through separate channels. Welcome aboard.

I will be watching your career with interest. And I doubt myself to be the only one.

A final reminder. Walk always in the grey, between the light and the darkness, so that neither may catch you off-guard. A tad pretentious, but that is our way. May you come to value it, given time.

Now this was intriguing. She turned the note over, only to find a notably more scruffily-written passage.

To effect change, one must first will it.

And… that was all. Except for the pouch. The string tying it shut came smoothly undone, disgorging its contents into the box.

A brooch? No, an amulet. The Guild’s signature thorned circle, in what looked to be wrought-iron. At its center, a reflective, jagged shard, suspended in a smoothed chunk of colourless crystal. All this hung on a thin, silvered chain - inspecting it for a moment, she placed it around her neck. Now, what was she supposed to do with this?

It was almost certainly magical. No two ways about that - but magic came in many, many forms. How did one actually make it do… whatever it was meant to do? Was it a keyphrase? An incantation?

“The grey between the light and the darkness” - her first attempt. Nothing. “Griseo inter lucem ac tenebras” - the more official rendering of Eisenstern’s motto. Still no visible change. Maybe not verbal, then - she’d read of relics that reacted to the bearer’s thoughts. Was it some image she had to visualise?

Surely he hadn’t given her whatever this was without even a semblance of a manual, or set of instructions. There had to be something in the note, somewhere. Poring over the handwritten lines, she came back to that final, hasty scribble. "To effect, will..." Will what? How would she know what to will?

She tried visualizing a bolt of energy, or a shield. Nothing but silence in answer, and a conspicuous absence of anything magical. Maybe something more general, then? Her enemies cast down before her - textbook prophecy, but what enemies did she have? Yahiro? He was more of an ally-with-detriments.

No leads in either direction. What if-

She froze, as a new sort of feeling overtook her. A sense of familiarity, of understanding - and yet more than that. Tangible proto-knowledge, seeping into her mind…

To even the odds, whatever they may be. Ultimately, that was her aim. She called for it, willed it.

Someone was behind her.

She spun around at the subtle change in the air currents - and came face to face with herself. A second Mura, a splitting mirror image - tousled, still-wet hair, wraparound towel and all. The doppelganger regarded her with a neutral expression.

She stretched out her hand inquisitively - the mirror-image continued standing motionless. It didn’t move as her fingers passed through its skin - entirely intangible. Thin air, given shape. Her shape. Directed by will.

Step back. A thought, an internal expression of intent - and taking a step back is precisely what the apparition did.

Sit. Stand. Smile. Turn around. It followed those guiding thoughts in silence, and yet the swish of its towel against the carpet seemed wholly real. Audible.


She had expected merely the visuals of a punch, and possibly the sound. The impact sent her staggering backwards - she caught herself on the edge of the wardrobe. The ache in her shoulder, where the fist had connected, seemed entirely real. Either a very convincing illusion… or there was more to this than merely visibility.


And once again, Mura found herself alone. She sat down heavily on the carpet. An old trick indeed - she'd never even heard of illusions like this. That said, she could think of quite a few uses for this already - especially if it replicated her spear. Ghostly blades, only tangible when needed... Idly, she fiddled with the amulet - the shard at its core caught the light in odd ways, seeming to bend it as it ricocheted around within the crystal.

Tomorrow, there would be another sparring match. In the privacy of her quarters, Mura smiled - Yahiro would be in for quite the surprise.