The Lion Knights


A different city in a different zone, Rhacotis in the Netzach zone. Gus and Doug strolled down a street with Charliehorse. The buildings were adobe, suited to the brilliant sunlight. The people—the human ones, at least—wore broad-brimmed hats and loose, Greek-like robes of linen. They gazed at the threesome with curiosity but without alarm. The travelers gazed back.

“This is the kind of thing I was hoping for,” said Gus, “back when I first knew I was going to the Mideast. Only not so weird.”

“♪ Far away places with strange-sounding names ♪,” Doug sang. Gus hummed along. A passing leopard, metallically green, prolonged its stare at them. “That’s an old show-tune. My grandfather would tell us about being in Korea or Hawaii, then sing it and laugh, and say that, for our family, Chicago was a far-away place with a strange-sounding name.”

“But he was born there,” Gus objected.

“Never let facts get in the way of the punchline,” Charliehorse pronounced.

“Yeah, that’s his attitude,” Doug agreed. “God, I hope he’s still alive.”

“Yeah,” Gus echoed. He noticed a kid staring uneasily at him from a doorway and considered that a cat-ogre with a dour expression might unnerve a child of Rhacotis, even if they were used to obsidian-black folk wrapped in crimson flame, like the fellow walking ahead of them. So he forced a smile (lips shut, hiding fangs) and tipped his hat to the lad.

“I’m sure I hope so too,” said Charliehorse politely. Then, changing the subject, “Well. Spot any bits of magic?” Captain Fletcher and Randirel had jointly decided that the best way to start training the lungmao in withstanding magic was to train them in perceiving it. After some exercises aboard the Bythos and at Netzach-Isis, the cat-men had been had been invited to try their new skills in the city. Doug and Gus had combined this with sightseeing with Charlie.

“Those signs over their doors,” said Doug, pointing to the nearest lintel. “I can tell they’re not just carving. And there are, like, five different symbols. Why’s that?”

“One for each religion,” Charliehorse answered. “In reverse historical order, they are Muslim, Christian, Zoroastrian, pagan, and Melchizedekan.”

“Don’t know that last one,” said Gus.

“It’s a jinnish religion. Some humans here also practice it, or blend it with one of the others. Whatever the religion, the lintel charm inhibits hostile magic entering the house or scrying into it. A bit. So, well-spotted. Anything else?”

“Don’t want to point,” said Gus, “but a lot of people seem to have something going on right under their necks. Protective amulets?”


Gus eyed a passing woman, obsidian black but wreathed in blue flame. She eyed back. “Jinn, right?” he asked Charliehorse.

“The feminine singular is ‘jinnia,’ but yes.”

“And the metallic ones are jinn too?” He nodded toward a violet man with a bull’s head examining wares at a booth.

“That’s right. Different tribes.”

“Why do the flaming ones register as magic but the metallic ones don’t?”

“The metallic ones aren’t doing anything magical at the moment. The flaming ones are running a bit of magic to keep the flames going.”

“Is that magic?” Gus asked, pointing into the sky. “It’s too far away to tell. Is it like a blimp? It doesn't move.”

Charlie followed the gesture to a bright point of light. “That’s Venus,” he answered.

“In broad daylight?” asked Doug.

Charlie nodded. “It’s either the Netzach Venus or the one-and-only Venus as seen from Netzach. No one knows which. I think it’s Venus seen from Netzach, because a star-mage friend of mine–”

His phone chirped. He plucked it from his belt, glanced at the ID, and answered, “Yessir? ... I see. Thank you, sir. Out.”

“That wasn’t your walkie-talkie. You’ve got cell phone coverage,” Doug observed in a tone that invited Charlie to explain things.

“Right.” Charlie picked up his gait from an amble to a brisk walk. “Netzach-Isis is an old, well-established base. We set up a service for ourselves, and now we’re starting to sell phones to the locals. Insidious, that’s us. That was Lieutenant Sanders just now. The mail packet is in.”

Mail?” Doug wondered. “You get mail here? From where?”

Charlie smiled at them proudly. “Earth. Home.”

They clipped through the streets, sight-seeing at high speed. “Was that an elf, back there?” asked Gus. “He looked like Randirel, down to the ears, only tan.”

“There are fays here,” Charlie said, “but more jinn, and more of either than humans. This city is the biggest human settlement we know of.”

“Answer-man!” said Gus, smiling.

“Sorry,” Charlie muttered. “I know I tend to lecture.”

“No, no, keep it up, Chiron,” Doug told him. “Why do you think we picked you to go wandering with? We spent five years starved for knowledge. We didn’t even know it had been five years.”

They gathered more stares and murmurs. Doug cocked an ear and exclaimed, “Ha! I caught a bit of Sindarin. Someone said ‘a new kind of Grand Norman.’ That’ll be us.”

They looked the part. All three were wearing rusty red T-shirts that were Grand Norman fatigues, though the insignia printed on Gus and Doug’s identified them as “civilian consultants.” The cat-men wore cavalry cowboy hats and had upgraded from their homespun pants to blue Standard Cavalry jeans. Even the boots were new.

Their boots and their swords were the last remaining gear given by their captor, tainted by association but too valuable to jettison. On arrival in Netzach-Isis, however, Captain Coudray had half-offered, half-commanded a re-fit for the Raurhoth, including new boots.

Some felt uncomfortable about accepting. “It feels like they’re claiming us,” Neil had grumbled, examining a pair of pants. The quartermaster seemed to have no trouble with sizes for the lungmao.

“Don’t be an idiot,” Rob had countered. “We know what being claimed feels like, and it doesn’t feel like new clothes.” And he had jammed a cowboy hat on his head.

In a few blocks, a long wall of adobe came in sight, sea birds and the tops of masts visible above it. This was the perimeter of Netzach-Isis, bought some decades back from the city of Rhacotis, built on a commercially unpromising bit of the river delta.

The gateway stood open, and other folk in Grand Norman uniforms—humans in this case—were entering briskly. Every Grand Norman in the city had received a mail call. Charliehorse, Doug, and Gus flipped cheerful salutes to the guards, who would have to wait to see if they had any mail.

The centaurs, generally outdoor folk for preference, gathered under a great awning outside the main office building, Gus and Doug among them. “Expectin’ news from Chicago?” asked a paint with a sideways smile. He did not see the glare Charlie shot him, but he did see Doug’s stony face, Gus’s pensive look. “Futtle. Sorry.”

“ ’S okay, Carlin,” Gus said. “We’re just hanging out with you guys.”

“Yeah, same here. Herd animal and all.” So Carlin apparently expected no mail either.

At this point, Lieutenant Sanders came out, bearing a thick stack of letters. Fletcher’s students drew closer, but Sanders turned first to his captain. “Here you go, sir,” he said, handing him a thick manila envelope with heraldic stamps, which Fletcher received without enthusiasm. Paperwork, apparently. “And these.” Sanders added five small white envelopes at which Fletcher smiled.

“At a guess,” murmured Charlie, “letters from his brother, his sister, and assorted nieces and nephews. All expressing relief that he—we—survived the rough passage to Hod.”

Sanders drifted through the group, distributing. He handed four letters to Charliehorse, who seemed surprised at the number, and one to Carlin, who seemed astonished. “Morley!” he exclaimed on opening it. “It’s from Morley!”

“Who’s–?” Doug began, but someone called “Doug! Gus! Captains!” He and Gus turned and stared.

Five men were pushing their way in among the centaurs—ordinary, mainstream men, all wearing Grand Norman uniforms several sizes too big. Charliehorse regarded them with narrowed eyes. “Are those–?”

“Our guys!” Gus exclaimed.

They were Derek, Lloyd, Jose, Miles, and Firaz. Behind them loitered Rahul and Dan, still in “normal” lungmao form. The humans quickly found themselves center stage in a ring of staring semi-humans. They faced their captains and spread their arms, beaming. “Ta-da!” Derek proclaimed.

Doug and Gus went on staring, their expressions as hungry as starving sabretooths. “Tell us,” Gus husked.

Derek obeyed:

“Well, the seven of us decided to poke around the town on our own this time, instead of hunting up a guide again. Enough people here speak Sindarin. We figured we could get by. So there’s a part of town devoted to crafts and such.”

“Othrad Curu,” Fletcher rumbled from behind Doug. “Cunning Street.”

“Right, sir. So that sounded interesting, so we hunted it up. And a lot of the people work out front, under awnings. So there was a really big shop with lots of people. Well, ‘people.’ Some of the things working behind the counter looked like fog statues. I’ve seen ’em around town before.”

“Sendings,” put in Charliehorse. “The locals call them ‘shwebs.’ A kind of astral projection. Working spells, not people. They’re easy to do in Netzach.”

“Thanks. Well, these were a little different because they all looked like the owner. He was a dwarf. You know, like the ones in that world before Varsis? No more than five feet tall, but looked like he weighed about as much as me—me before, not me now, I mean—and all muscle, and a beard you could park a car in. Not local. Sandy brown hair, not as sun-tanned.”

“Finnr Côlcam,” said Fletcher.

“Gold-hand. Right. His right arm looks like this smooth sculpture in gold, but moves naturally. And he’s there working at a bench on some piece of jewelry, working away but chatting with customers and giving orders to the help and the, uh, sendings.

“And he looks at us and says, ‘You shopping? Browsing? Or maybe you want jobs?’

“And we say, ‘Jobs?’ So he tells us he’s tired of doing so much himself. And now I remember he waved at one of the fog statues. And he wanted labor. More, he wanted his own guards, because he runs caravans, and we look like we’d be good guards.”

“You, ah, you don’t look the same now,” Carlin ventured.

Derek laughed and slipped a gold ring off his hand. He tossed it in the air and, by the time he caught it, he had inflated into his lungmao form. He put it back on his finger and became human again.

“We told him about our situation. So he gave us these rings. They’re part of the deal.”

“What is the deal?” Doug asked.

“We get the rings, and room and board, and pocket money, and in return we work on his caravans and around his shop, as guards and whatever else we can pick up.”

“For how long?” Fletcher asked.

“How long what?”

“How long do you serve?”

Derek, who had looked gleeful as he recited the terms, sobered. “Fourteen. Fourteen years.”

Suddenly, Fletcher was between the cat-captains and their now-human men. Doug and Gus had known Fletcher for some weeks. They had seen him cheerful, calm, detached, and stern. For the first time, they saw him scowling. “Take me to this Finnr Côlcam, your new master.”

Derek was used to being as tall as Fletcher. Now, Derek human, Fletcher was more than a foot taller. He glanced nervously from the centaur captain to his own familiar captain-monsters. Gus just glared. “Do it!” Doug snapped.

Soon, Fletcher and the lungmao poured out of the gates, Charliehorse drawn along by sheer curiosity. Fletcher had demanded to be taken, but he seemed to know exactly where Cunning Street was, without guidance. This left the others time for ... discussion.

Fourteen years!?” Gus expostulated. “Holy crow! What the actual–”

Before Gus could break his personal vow against swearing, Derek interrupted: “But we get to be us!

“And we’re immortal,” protested Firaz. “What’s fourteen years?”

“It’s still a hundred and sixty-eight months,” Charlie answered. “Almost three times as long as you’ve been transformed. Lived through an hour at a time. What about getting home?”

“That’s what I said,” Rahul put in. “Dan and me, we want to see our families. These five, not so much, I guess.”

Fletcher was moving at a fast, angry walk, on horse legs. The lungmao, human-shaped or not, jogged to keep up. Jose moved up to trot next to Doug. He took off his ring and deflated. Doug noticed that he never broke stride. “Here,” he said, holding out the ring on his palm to Doug. “Try it.”

Doug stared at it. It was a thick bronze ring, and it seemed to glitter when, on second glance, it did not. His newly trained magic recognition said it was very magical. His breath accelerated beyond the need of the jogging. “Why?”

“Because you’ve been good to us for five years. Looked out for us, even when we were slaves together. I want you to– to enjoy this. You and Gus.”

Doug took the ring and slipped it on. Nothing happened. A confusion of horror and disappointment started to build up in him, but then came Charlie’s voice from behind them:

“It will only work for Jose, sir. Jose, may I see the ring?”

When Jose nodded, Doug passed it to Charlie. “Ah. See the symbol on the bezel?” Charlie held it out. A mark like a Greek lambda was on it: λ. “That could be the tengwar letter hyarnen, the H sound. Your initial, Jose. Your rings are personalized.

“A seeming like this, but general-purpose—that would be much harder, take much longer. The dwarf couldn’t knock off five in one morning. I’m surprised he could do what he did.”

“He’s very good,” Fletcher growled from the front of the pack. “But also, he had them ready. He wanted you lot, before you ever set foot on his street. Otherwise, why not hire locally? He must have heard about you, then got to work with some foretelling or pixie-leading.”

“What’s special about us?” asked Jose, taking back his ring. “I mean, I know we look different, but he’s got jinn and stuff he could hire. They must be just as tough, or tougher.”

“The locals,” Fletcher answered coldly, “are protected by local contract laws.” He paused, wheeled to face his followers, and asked, “What have you signed?”

“Uh, we haven’t signed anything yet, sir,” Derek answered. “He just made us swear. He said it was part of the magic for the rings.”

Swear? By what?”

“By... by our good names and our honor as soldiers. Maethyr, he said. ‘Warriors.’ He was speaking Sindarin.”

Fletcher advanced on Derek and held out his hand. After a moment of confusion, Derek took it. Fletcher stared into his eyes. “Yes, oathbound.” Then it was Fletcher’s turn to look confused. He scanned the humanized cat-men. “Why are you not catatonic or berserk? The slightest whiff of mental influence from Randirel, when he just suggested ‘peace,’ all but sent Gus and Doug and Rob into battle frenzy. A solid binding oath should...” He fell silent.

Derek puzzled a moment, too, then said, “Well, it’s okay, sir. It worked out. It didn’t hurt, and it’s what we wanted.”

“Ah! That’s it. I think. It didn’t hurt because it was what you wanted. Magic is all about will. Will to do, will to know. It looks like the psychic wounds you bear from your war-lady don’t bite when mental magic moves according to your will, not against it. Hm. And...”

He looked about. The street was reasonably wide by local standards, but two centaurs, four lungmao, and five regular guys, all in discussion, caused congestion and curiosity. He moved the group over to the side, where the congestion, at least, was abated.

Once he had his impromptu class about him, he resumed. “I’m still wroth with Finnr Goldhand, and for the same reason. You have been grossly overcharged for those seeming rings. You do realize you’re wearing seemings, don’t you? Not real transformations?”

“What’s the difference?” Derek asked.

“How does your tail feel?” Fletcher returned.

“Uh, like nothing.”

“Like nothing is touching it, or like you don’t have a tail? Never mind, too delicate a distinction. Well. The difference:

“First, I saw you shift from one form to the other, back at base, very casually. True transformation– When you were transformed, you were given new muscles for your ears and tail, and they were wired into your brain with new nerves, and new motor centers grew. That was confusing, wasn’t it? I know.” Fletcher swept his hand back along his flank. “You don’t flip back and forth between shapes like that casually, not until you’re an experienced shapeshifter.

“Second, a seeming basically tells the subject, you, to ‘appear otherwise,’ and you do, including size and palpability, but it’s still just appearing. When the seeming stops—when you take off the ring—you go back.

“Which brings me to the third point. When you’re more practiced at feeling magic, you’ll be able to feel the seeming running, keeping you in that form. No spell keeps me this way, or kept you—keeps you—in lungmao form. The magic shaped you and was done. I can feel the seemings running here. Running off your energy, by the way. It’ll make you tire a little quicker to wear those rings.

“Finally, a true shapeshift is orders of magnitude more involved than a seeming. Finnr is good, but I don’t believe he’s that good.

“So rest assured, you have been given seemings. Very good ones, but seemings. He didn’t say they were shapeshifts, did he?”

“He just sorta said, ‘Try this, you’ll like it.’ And I do. We do.”

Fletcher nodded. “But not at the price of fourteen years. Oh, and here’s a good thing about your oaths: you swore by your good name and your honor. That’s a very standard oath for armsmen in these parts, especially when there’s no common religion. But it means that the oath doesn’t bind you to do anything sinful, or shameful, or criminal. We’ll see what else we can do. Come along.”

Cunning Street was twice as broad as most streets, and busy. Finnr’s storefront was one of the largest on it, a wide counter under a canvas awning. Above, on the frame of the awning, curling tengwar letters of wrought iron read Finnr Pânmírdan, “Finnr Allsmith.”

At the center of the counter, behind a bench thick with tools, worked Finnr himself, just as bulky, brawny, and beardy as Derek had described him. He labored away at some tiny thing, crouching over it in a nest of instruments, but still kept up continual conversation with the onlookers, like a rumble of surf, joking, bargaining, gossiping, arguing. Like everyone else, he looked up when Fletcher and his followers arrived.

His gaze swept over the group, then settled on Fletcher. “Well, adanroch [man-horse], are you here for a shoeing?” he asked in loud Sindarin. A little chuckle ran through the crowd.

“They would be the finest shoes ever I wore,” Fletcher answered with unsmiling courtesy. “But no. I am not here to talk about how you make objects, but how you make bargains.”

“With these?” Finnr asked, waving at the five human-looking lungmao. “The bargains are made. The oaths are spoken. They wear the rings I gave them.”

“Bargains can be unmade. Oaths can be absolved. Rings can be returned.” The five now looked uneasy. “These are young men, in desperate case, and strangers. Does not Heaven teach, through every religion in the city, to be kind to strangers? And they are under our hospitality. Grand Normandy’s and especially mine.”

“How have I been unkind? I have restored their forms to them and given them jobs. Do you say you have a prior claim on them? Are you here to contest me for their oaths?” He smiled, put down the gold-tipped tweezers he was holding, and reached under his bench, presumably for a cudgel. “Do you threaten? I warn you, old plug-soldier, I can break every one of your legs from here. They may not shoot you for being lame, but I can see to it you never walk straight again.”

Finnr’s human assistants came and stood behind their master. Two of the cloud-statue sendings started toward him. A chatter ran through the onlookers—humans and a couple of djinn—who backed away but did not flee the promise of a spectacle. Doug and Gus were nearly knocked down as Charliehorse brushed past them to stand by his captain. They recovered their balances and followed him.

“Foolishness!” said Fletcher, and sat his hindquarters down, folding his arms and looking immovable. A moment later, Charlie copied him. Doug and Gus flanked them and stood at parade rest. “These young men are my friends and in my charge," Fletcher said. “I merely want to see them fairly done by. You sold them their seemings. But the price...” He shook his head. “Let us discuss it.”

The crowd drew in a little. A chaffering was not as spectacular as a brawl, but you could stand closer. Finnr, though, dropped his smile along with any cudgel that might have lurked below his bench, and growled, “Not here.” He waved back his assistants with one hand. With the other, which flared golden in the sun as he swung it, he waved Fletcher toward the entrance.

Fletcher beckoned for the others to follow. “Well!” Charlie murmured to Doug and Gus. “Score one for our side. Maybe two. Fletcher defused his fight and dared him to talk about his bargaining in front of everyone. And he backed down.”

They skirted the counter and followed Finnr through a shadowy doorway. This led, by a short corridor, to a courtyard, largely shaded by white linen awnings. It was clearly Finnr’s display floor.

Flanking the door were long, low tables covered in white linen. On the cloth were arrayed pieces of jewelry, mostly gold and electrum. At the far ends of the tables rose steel chains, tipped with swords. They held themselves up, swaying slightly as the visitors entered, like serpents.

More tables occupied the edges of the courtyard, interspersed with the guardian sword-chains. One bore a variety of elegant candlesticks and candelabras, wrought in silver, copper, and bronze, already furnished with metal candles alight with flames of blue, green, red, yellow, or violet. Another table bore lockets and rings, but not decorative like the ones at the entrance; rather, they were sturdy, made of bronze or steel, clearly tools of some kind. A third table was full of swords and daggers, mostly steel but sometimes of copper, or black or blue metals. Another table bore goblets and chalices of silver, gold, and electrum, beautifully gemmed and enameled. And so on.

And everywhere, for those who could catch it, was the trace of magic, strong and bold. Fletcher immediately recognized its tang as Finnr’s own. He made no remark, but followed Finnr to the sunny center of the courtyard, where cushions and rugs were arranged around a raised bed of yellow-flowering cacti.

Finnr sat on a cushion and Fletcher settled on a nearby rug. The young men, in their various forms, stayed in the shadow of the awnings, a tense audience. Charlie attended his captain; Gus and Doug stood between Finnr and their men.

Fletcher began: “So, Finnr Côlcam, son of Siarr, son of Sindri of the Seven Kingdoms, have you not heard that generosity breeds generosity?”

“Yes, have you not heard that the laborer is worth his wages?”

“You should certainly be paid for the seeming-rings, and they are excellent, but they are not worth fourteen years’ service. Do you wonder how I know?

“This fellow–” Fletcher put a hand on Charliehorse’s human shoulder. Charlie tried not to look surprised. “–was given his form by the Cavalry’s chief mage. I was given my form by that mage’s uncle. True transformations, as you no doubt perceive. These are now our real shapes. We are shot with an enchanted arrow. Our mage can turn out twenty such arrows every year and yet spend most of his time acting as our physician, doctoring horses, analyzing magical objects we bring back from our explorations, and in his studies. True shapeshift, not seeming. Yet he is a mortal.

“You are I know not how many centuries old and known to be a master of many crafts, especially of many magics. How hard can it have been for you to create the rings that give these five lads their old appearance back?”

“The proper question,” Finnr answered, “is how much it is worth to these men to get their proper forms back.”

“It is not worth fourteen years’ service when, with proper teaching, they could learn to shapeshift themselves in a few weeks or months.”

“And how do you know that?”

“I am not as old as you, but I have seen much. And I have discussed the matter with the ship’s magic officer, who is an elda. I tell you, it is best for you as well as for them to reduce their time in your service.”

“You do not ask me to absolve their oaths?”

“No. They wanted to take service with you. But they had no way to know a just price for their seemings.” Fletcher turned and gazed at the five lungmao. Jose looked sour. Derek glared at Finnr. The others looked worried. “Now they know. If you leave their term of service at fourteen years, they will know they were overcharged, and what kind of servants will you have? And Grand Normandy will know you overcharge. And through us, the city will know.”

Finnr reddened and teeth appeared in his beard. It was no smile.

Fletcher carefully did not smile. He continued calmly, “But if you reduce their term, no such gossip will fly. At most, some people will see that you valued these lads so much, you were over-eager, at first, to contract as much of their service as you imagined possible. But these people will also hear you relented. Generosity breeds generosity.”

Finnr stewed for a few seconds, then rumbled, “How long do you think just?”

“Three years.”

“Three!? Nine.”

“Four,” Fletcher countered.


“Five, then,” Fletcher agreed. “But they get sabbaths off, and holy days, when at all practical.”

“Which holy days?”

“Fourteen a year that you reach by mutual agreement. And they have the same rights in court as any citizen armsman. And you teach them shapeshifting or get a teacher for them. (Think of it as an investment.) And they have the right to use the Grand Norman mails, to keep in touch with their brothers in arms, and their families, and us, or anyone else. Deal?”

“Deal. I swear it by my good name and my skill and my power.”

“Good.” Fletcher turned back to the lungmao and addressed them in Sindarin: “Gentlemen, I give you ten minutes to consider the new terms. If you are not satisfied, we start over. I am in no hurry.”

Doug let them mutter among themselves for half a minute, then waded in among them. “Are you guys okay with this?” he asked in English. “Because I bet Fletcher could get this dwarf mage to drop the whole thing, if you want. Look how fast he got him down to five years from fourteen.”

“No, it’s okay,” said Derek. “We wanted this. We even wanted it back when it was fourteen years. Don’t you see? We get to be us again, drop the monster thing, even if it’s kind of fake.”

“But you’re N-zillion miles from home.”

“Doesn’t matter. We five, none of us have strong family ties. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have been in Baghdad looking for work as military contractors.”

Doug knew that to be true. “But you can learn to change for real,” he pointed out.

“Someday. Neither Randirel nor Fletcher can say when. This–” Derek held up his hand, showing the ring. “–is now. Bird in the hand. It’s a lot sweeter deal than Huspaan, ’specially now that Fletcher’s polished it up.” He held out his hand. “Don’t worry, Captain. We’ll be fine.”

They shook and Jose pushed up to offer his hand next. “Goodbye, Captain. You did good. You got us through. I’m real grateful. We all are.” The others gave a ragged chorus of agreement.

As they turned to Gus for his round of handshaking, he told them, “Write! Fletcher got you that. Use it!” Then, sotto voce, though this was needless since he spoke to them in English, “If you get in trouble with this Finnr dude, or with anyone, go to the Grand Normans. He can’t stop you: oathbound. Write us, sure, but the Grand Normans are already here, and they’ll back Fletcher. But trouble or not, write so I know you’re okay!” Gus gave a long stare to each of them, fixing their restored faces in his memory, then turned away.

Doug and Gus walked slowly back to the Netzach-Isis base, Fletcher beside them. Behind trailed Charliehorse, Rahul, and Dan.

Doug scuffed at the road with his boots as he walked, eyes downcast. “I feel like I’ve failed.”

“You haven’t failed,” Fletcher asserted. “You are only done.”

“I think I know why we feel that way, though,” said Gus. “All that time on the road, we were always counting noses. ‘Have we got ’em all? Have we got ’em all?’ We’d get lost in a forest, or chased by bandits or farmers, or a job would turn into a brawl in a city, and as soon as we could, it was ‘Have we got ’em all?’ and the nose count again. And now, well, we don’t.”

Doug looked up and sighed. “I wonder if we’ll ever see them again.”

“Certainly you will,” Charlie assured him. “‘Ever’ is a long time, and you will see all of it. But yes, your time on the road together is done. That’s not a bad thing, surely? Not entirely? To be done with homeless wandering and, well, more uncertainty than I can really imagine?”

“You’ve done well,” Fletcher assured them. “More than well. No casualties! Think if you had lost one of them, had to bury him, for him to wake up in however many years, even more confused, and now alone. You prevented that.”

“Okay. Thank you, sir. But I miss ’em.”

Fletcher thought of all the friends and students he missed and said nothing.

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