Lending a Helping (Griffin) Hand [Ep 4]

Detective Bronze sighed and rolled his eyes as he saw the Albrook Sun had decided to run a story about his encounter with the Shield on the front page of its evening edition.


Begrudgingly, he dropped a few coins on the counter and took his paper, along with a pack of gum (which he shoved deep in his pants pocket). He got back to his car the same time his partner did: Detective Flax was a hulking goron with blonde hair, chestnut skin and sparkling emerald eyes. In his massive fists, Flax was carrying a pair of paper coffee cups, one of which he handed to Bronze.

As they climbed into their squad car, Flax noticed the headline of the paper. He also noted Bronze’s salty expression. As a Detective with the Albrook Police Department, Flax was clever enough to connect these two facts together.

“I tell ya, Rod, I ain’t never seen nobody so unhappy to have made the front page of the Sun,” Flax said with a bellowing laugh.

“You know I’ve been on the force for over twenty years now?” Bronze said. “I’ve seen this city in some of its worst times. I was still a rookie back when the OmniSent was a fair shake worse than just the Web’s provider of OmniNet access. I deployed as part of a riot-control unit when there was an army of leashed Tanes parked out on Kefka’s back forty. I had Celiose himself shake my hand once, back in 33, at a dinner for the GA brass and city leaders. Got my invite to that dog and chocobo show on account of the bullet I took bringing in Maddog Murray and the rest of his crew the night my kid was born. For everything I’ve done for this burg, the collars I’ve made and the scars I’ve earned… not once before all this nonsense did the local rag even hint that it knew my name.”

Flax took a look at the paper. “Maybe they still don’t, Rod,” he said, indicating the words on the page, “Looks like they spelled your name wrong.”

Bronze fumed. “Bronz” instead of “Bronze.”

“Godsdammit.” The detective shook his head. “Flax, sometimes I don’t know anymore. What’s happening to this city? I’ve got flying armored superheroes blowing up buildings full of robot drug dealers that look like people, a girl with a magic sword who stops bank robbing wizards, and a mystery man who gets his jollies beating up Triad goons down by the AH. What happened to things being normal around here?”

As Detective Bronze was talking, a creature made its way past the squad car on the sidewalk. It moved with an awkward, hopping gait, which was to be expected since this creature’s entire body consisted of a single, bird-like talon, topped just above the ankle by a fleshy, feathered nub of a body. The creature hopped, hopped, hopped past the squad car, making its way down toward the corner, where it stopped and shifted its body as if looking both ways. Then, confident it was safe, the talon-thing kept hopping, over and through the crosswalk, toward the other side of the street.

“I dunno,” Flax said. “Things still seem pretty normal to me, Rod.”

“That’s because you barely notice what’s going on around you, Flax,” Bronze said, as he opened up the paper to the sports section.

::Roxanne’s Apartment::

It was movie night!!!

Finally, everyone was going to be free and clear to hang out at Roxanne’s place on a Friday night. No classes, no parties, no patrols of Albrook’s skies… no job interviews… No last-minute excursions to the Crystal Dimension to rescue a priceless cultural heirloom, or nighttime raids on the Corporate Enclave to destroy the hideout of a gang of drug dealing robots…

For what seemed like the first time in ages, the whole gang was going to be able to put in some decent quality time together. Roxanne had even ordered pizza from what she claimed was one of the Web’s best pizzerias (“You haven’t really had pizza till you’ve had it ‘Albrooker style’!” she insisted), though only after some brief but contentious negotiation over the toppings (“No, Osprey, we aren’t going to order half anchovies for you. Gross.”).

Everyone was here: Fara was dressed down, looking more comfortable and relaxed than she’d been in a while, wearing a loose U of A sweatshirt and baggy sweatpants. Terry was likewise dressed more for comfort than anything else: a plain white tee shirt, plaid flannel pajama bottoms and a pair of well-worn tube socks (fun fact about Terry: he hated being barefoot, and even when he was just hanging around the house always had to have at least socks on). Osprey wore loose-fitting, dark grey garments that could very well have been pajamas, but it was sort of hard to tell because he always wore loose-fitting, dark grey garments – but, that said, he looked happy and relaxed, and not quite as exasperated by his fruitless job search as he normally was (although deep down he still seethed at having been overruled on the selection of pizza toppings).

And then there was Roxanne. She looked on from a distance: as the others crowded together on the couch, she sat apart in a hand-made rocking chair that, out of every piece of furniture in Roxanne’s living room, was expressly reserved for her use. A look of pride was evident on her face; the beaming smile of a proud mentor. She was the elder in this cadre by a couple of millennia, and so it was easy enough for her to regard these mortals as children. Her own children, even; near enough, anyway, as she would never be able to have any of her own actual children.

“Since I suffered egregious disenfranchisement on the matter of pizza toppings,” Osprey said, “Could I, perhaps, have my choice of movie taken seriously?”

Fara stifled laughter, and ventured to ask: “Okay, Os. What do you have on offer tonight?”

Osprey cleared his throat. “Why, Blades of Fury, of course. One of Ramesh Akesawa’s classics, for which he was only recognized posthumously, many many years after his death.”

“Aren’t you sick of samurai movies!?” Fara asked.

“No,” Osprey said. “Because I will never be sick of things that are awesome.”

“If I didn’t know you better, Os,” Terry said, “I’d say you had a severe case of Eblan fever.”

“Oh!” Fara chimed in, “That’s actually perfect! One of my suitemates is an Eblanese girl! I should totally introduce you two!”

Both Fara and Terry laughed, but Osprey held firm. He was used to being playfully teased, but he had a serious case to make here.

“This film has great cultural and artistic significance,” Osprey said. “Akesawa is one of the most prominent non-human Eblanese film directors. As a mul, he had to fight adversity just to get a chance to make his films, much less to see them screened. He is now a great source of Eblanese pride, and is recognized as one of the greatest choreographers of swordplay in film in the entire Web of Worlds – you, Fara, would likely benefit from a close study of his work, given your difficulties mastering kenjutsu.”

Fara’s laughter faded.

“He has a point, Fara,” Roxanne chimed in, offering Osprey a supportive nod. “Maybe if you stayed home all day, sitting on my couch watching old Eblanese movies, you’d be as good a katana-wielder as Osprey is.”

Osprey wasn’t sure what to make of the backhandedness of Roxanne’s support. After a moment’s pause, he decided to ignore the jab entirely. “You see? Even your mentor agrees with me,” he said, victoriously.

“All right, all right,” Terry said. “Let’s cut the ol’ bird some slack. We did unanimously vote down anchovies forever…”

“Unanimously and enthusiastically,” Fara said.

Terry nodded. “There was great enthusiasm, yes. So it’s only fair that we let Osprey have first pick on what I hope will be the first of many movie nights together in this apartment.”

“Agreed,” Roxanne said. “But I pick next time, and I’ve already got my selection in mind.”

Fara groaned and cast Roxanne a glance. She sensed that there was a three-hour historical documentary on Taznikanze something-or-others somewhere in her future.

Just then there was a knock at the door. Everyone thought the same thing, at the same time: Pizza’s here.

The next handful of seconds seemed to pass in slow motion, as fingers flew through the air. Poor Osprey, who had stood from the couch to set up the movie, turned to look at his other companions, only to find that all three of them were sitting there with their fingers pressed to their noses.

“Dammit,” Osprey said.

“Sorry, Os,” Fara said. “Go get the door, those are the rules!”

The highly-trained former infiltration expert heaved a sigh and trudged toward the door. Out of habit, he checked the peephole, but saw no one there. “Odd,” he thought, but then assumed the delivery boy must have just been standing off to the side with the order (Roxanne did say she’d ordered several pies). With a shrug, he opened the door.

There was no delivery guy. Not in front of the door, and not either way up or down the corridor. But as Osprey looked around, he heard the faint sound of someone clearing their throat, coming from just below him.

“Down here, buddy,” came a voice, and Osprey looked down. Standing there, on Roxanne’s welcome mat, was a creature unlike any that Osprey had ever seen before. It stood about two feet tall, with a flattish, circular body – like the cushioned seat of a barstool – covered in soft feathery down. Supporting the body was a single, bird like leg ending in three sharp talons. Altogether, the creature looked sort of like a very weird, bird-themed footrest. It was, however, quite alive, as it hopped up and down excitedly to get Osprey’s attention.

“I need to find the Mana Knight,” said the voice again, “And I was told she lives here. Is that correct? Is the Mana Knight here!?”

::Roxanne’s Apartment, Front Door::

Osprey blinked.

“Um,” he said. “Hello?”

“Yes, hello! Please! I’m in terrible danger!” The little creature’s featureless feathered body shifted, pantomiming as if it were looking up and down the hallway (even though Osprey could not see any discernable eyes anywhere on the creature). “Is the Mana Knight here or not?”

“How are you talking… without a mouth?” Osprey asked, though it was more like he was wondering to himself than directly asking the creature.

Impatient, the creature hopped in past Osprey’s legs. Osprey watched it, in fascination, following as it made its way toward the living room.

When she saw the creature emerge from her doorway, Roxanne leapt from her rocking chair and raised a single hand, calling the spear Daedalus to her from where it was hanging on the far wall. Alarmed by Roxanne’s movements (and Daedalus’ abrupt magical flight across the room),Fara leapt up from her seat and quickly manifested the Mana Sword. Terry likewise moved into action, assuming a defensive position and deploying his wristwatch-mounted Vanguard shield.

The talon-creature screamed and backed up, nearly tripping Osprey as he followed close behind it.

“Hang on a second,” Osprey said, holding out his hands, as he saw his friends all rapidly arm themselves and take up a ready stance. The creature instinctively slid behind Osprey’s legs for protection. “I know it looks kinda weird, and freakish, and it doesn’t have eyes or a mouth even though it is somehow able to see and speak… but when I opened the door it said it was looking for the Mana Knight because it was in trouble.”

“That’s right!” the creature said, “I’m in terrible, terrible danger! And only the Mana Knight can help me!..” the creature spotted Roxanne, wielding a spear, and cringed. “… but, if she’s here… then maybe it’s already too late. I’m done for.”

“What the hell is that thing?” Terry asked.

Roxanne sighed. She replaced her spear in on the wall. “It’s called a griffin hand,” she said. “The Pure Land is lousy with them; they’re barely a step up from vermin.”

“Hey!” the griffin hand protested.

Almost simultaneously, Fara de-manifested the Mana Sword, and Terry’s Vanguard shield winked back inside his watch.

“I dunno,” Osprey said. “Looks kinda cute to me… if you can get past the whole ‘talking-without-a-mouth’ thing.”

“Hey, thanks!” the griffin hand said. “You ain’t so bad yourself. You’ve definitely got the first set of friendly-looking appendages I’ve seen since I arrived in town.”

Osprey looked down at his bird-like legs. It was the first time he’d ever remembered being complemented on them, and since much of the evening had been devoted to his friends making fun of him, he found himself instantly well-disposed toward the griffin hand. A smile inadvertantly came to his face and he swelled with pride.

Fara stepped away from the couch. As she approached, the griffin hand scuttled out from behind Osprey’s legs and met her halfway.

“I’m Fara Somers,” she said, “the Mana Knight.”

“Oh, at last!” the griffin hand said. “My name is Biminberrick. My friends call be Bim. And I, as your Valkyrie alluded to, am a Griffin Hand. Mine is a noble, but widely misunderstood race… and I am in great trouble. I could certainly use a hand.”

Osprey chuckled. Everyone else sort of rolled their eyes.

“You mentioned that already,” Fara said. “What kind of trouble are you in?”

“Seriously,” Osprey said. “I mean, the sound seems like it’s coming from him… but I don’t see any orifices at all! No sensory organs either!!”

“I’m being hunted,” Bim said. His stool-seat-like body angled, as if he were looking up at Roxanne. “By Valkyries.”

“Valyries?” Fara asked. She also turned and looked at Roxanne.

“Well, occasionally, hunting a griffin hand does make for decent sport,” Roxanne admitted. “But… I’ve never known a hunt to stretch across dimensions. You should be more than safe here in Albrook, Bim.”

“That’s where you’re wrong!” Bim said. “They are hunting me, even here! I saw one of them earlier today! Which is just awful because I was sure I gave them the slip when I crossed over into Esper.”

“Why are they hunting you?” Terry asked.

“It’s all a horrible mistake,” Bim said. “One of them says I was in a part of the Pure Land where I oughtn’t have been… but it wasn’t me!! I swear!! They can’t even tell us griffin hands apart, anyway. The one they’re after is probably safely back at home, tucked away in a comfy hollow log or something, while a Valkyrie death squad is chasing me because I had the rotten luck of being the first griffin hand they caught sight of.”

Fara looked at Roxanne. “Does any of this make any sense to you?”

Roxanne nodded. “Several of my sisters are charged with protecting certain areas of the Pure Land, it’s true. Many of these areas are off limits to mortals, even mortals born to the Pure Land. The penalty for such trespass is always death, without fail or exception.”

The Valkyrie levelled an intense stare in the direction of the griffin hand. Bim ducked behind the Mana Knight, half-expecting Roxanne to come after him.

“You have to protect me,” Bim said. “I’ve come all this way… You’re the Mana Knight, and I know you help the helpless. You can’t get much more helpless than me: I’m almost completely unarmed.”

Osprey burst out laughing, and actually literally slapped his knee.

Fara sighed. “They’ll kill him if they find him, right?”

Roxanne nodded. “Definitely.”

Fara nodded. “All right, Bim. You can consider yourself under my protection. The Mana Knight will not let any harm befall you.”

Bim hopped up and down excitedly. But Roxanne inhaled sharply. She strode across the room to Fara, and pulled her aside.

“I can’t let you do this,” Roxanne said. “You can’t fight Valkyries, Fara. Maybe someday, after we’ve had a lot longer to train you properly. But right now, you just can’t do this.”

“Why not?” Fara said. “I faced the Reklar, and I won.”

“Barely,” Roxanne said. “That battle took everything you had… and you had backup then!”

“I’ll still have backup,” Fara said. “Terry, Osprey… you.” Fara looked Roxanne in the eyes.

Roxanne tightened her lips.

“You… won’t help me?” Fara asked.

“It’s… complicated,” Roxanne said. “If Valkyries show up here, in the course of their duties protecting the Pure Lands… I can’t oppose them. They act with our father’s sanction and enforce Zahd’s law.”

Fara was genuinely hurt by this revelation. Roxanne and Fara had grown very close, very quickly, and Fara assumed that, no matter what, because of her role as Fara’s mentor, the Valkyrie would always have her back.

Roxanne, also, was vexed. She was duty-bound to protect and train Fara, but in the short time they’d been paired up their bond had grown quite strong. Now, it seemed, came the test: were there limits to that bond? If Fara chose to stand as a hero against Valkyries come to hunt this horrible, pun-happy vermin, an exemplar of all the heroic virtues that Roxanne had tried to instill in her… could she truly be expected to do nothing but look on? Choose her sisters over her apprentice?

“I am glad to hear you say that, Roxanne.”

From the still-open door, three more figures entered the room. All of them six-foot even, blonder than any blonde who ever blonded, with piercing blue eyes and dressed in medieval-style doublets – which was as close to “inconspicuous” as a Valkyrie from the Pure Land could be expected to get.

Bim shrieked, and hopped away furiously, hiding behind the kitchen island and sobbing in abject horror.

::Roxanne’s Apartment::

“North Star,” the leader of the three Valkyries said. She cast her eyes about the room. “I see you have… enjoyed your time spent living in Man’s World.”

“Astrid,” Roxanne said. “It has been many ages. I trust you have not allowed yourself to go soft since our last meeting.”

“Astrid Sky-Eyes?” Osprey asked.

The lead Valkyrie turned, and regarded the bird-man who had invoked her name. “Yes, that is the appelation my father gave me. It is good to see that mortal man has not forgotten me, in the centuries since I’ve been away.”

“… from Manacalibur?” Osprey asked.

Astrid took a beat. “No,” she said, “From the Pure Land, where my father, Zahd, Lord of War and the Seas, has charged me with an eternal vigil --”

“Ugh, really Osprey?” Fara said, rolling her eyes.

“I mean, I know we pal around with a real live Valkyrie all the time,” Osprey said, “But this is Astrid Sky-Eyes. From Manacalibur.”

Terry snapped his fingers. “Oh! You’re right! I remember that character now, the… the blonde with the two swords, right?”

“That game is so dumb,” Fara said. “Fighting games are just so overplayed, and that one is certainly the worst of the lot.”

Terry and Osprey looked at each other.

“It’s okay, Fara,” Terry said. “I consider a lot of the things I’m bad at ‘overplayed,’ too.”

“You still have that Manaseed in with your stuff in your room?” Osprey asked. One of the Valkyries’ interests seemed immediately piqued by this, and she watched and listened a fair deal more closely.

“Yeah, it’s in the cardboard box next to the trunk with my gear in it.”

Happily, Osprey bounded off toward Terry’s room.

“What… is happening here?” Astrid asked.

Roxanne sighed. “There is a game that the mortals play… it’s like an illusory simulation, controlled with magic wands connected to a–”

Astrid held up a hand. “I am not a fool, Roxanne, I know what video games are. Are you telling me that I feature in one?”

“You certainly do, Ms. Sky-Eyes,” Terry said. “It looks nothing like you, except for the hair, I suppose. You were initially one of the best characters to play, because of your combination of reach and speed with your dual-sword fighting style. Until they released that balance patch…”

“That’s nonsense,” Roxanne said. She was suddenly filled with genuine fury, like Terry hadn’t seen since the attack on Carnelian Realty. “I totally kicked her butt in a real fight a bunch of times!.. Am I in this video game, Terry?”

Terry pursed his lips. “Well, no. You see, Astrid is sort of the representative Valkyrie in the game…”

Roxanne’s face went red. She crossed her arms angrily.

“Enough of this,” Astrid said. She drew one of her swords; its silvery blade shimmered, in spite of the relatively dim indoor lighting. “I have come to fulfill my sacred charge, and I will not be deterred, nor delayed any longer. Bring the griffin hand before me so that it can meet its fate!”

From the kitchen, there came a pathetic, wailing cry. Bim pried open the refrigerator and tried to hide himself in the crisper.

“You can’t.” Fara stood up, and stepped between Astrid and the path into Roxanne’s kitchen. “The griffin hand is innocent.”

“So certain are you?” Astrid narrowed her eyes. “You insult my father with your presumption. Come, bring the vermin before me. We shall let Zahd decide his guilt or innocence!”

“Isn’t Zahd sort of… known more for wanton violence than even-handed justice?..” Terry said.

Immediately, both Roxanne and Astrid turned and glared at him. Terry began to wonder how quickly he could rush into his room and put on his armor, but he was immediately put at ease when both women’s faces softened.

“Yes, that is an apt description of our mighty father,” Astrid said.

“Yeah, that’s fair,” Roxanne agreed with a shrug.

“Maybe we should let Zahd decide,” Fara said. “I will stand in for the accused as his champion.”

Roxanne’s eyes went wide.

“Truly, child?” Astrid said, arching a brow. She was momentarily impressed by the small mortal’s courage.

Roxanne’s mind raced. This was exactly the scenario she feared when they’d all heard Bim’s story. Was Roxanne now fated to choose… between the daughters of Zahd, and the girl whom she’d come to think of as a daughter?..

“That… wouldn’t be appropriate,” said Roxanne.

Astrid turned and looked at Roxanne. “Of course it would,” she said. “The accused is permitted to select a champion… if he finds his own courage wanting. This is perfectly acceptable and sanctioned by Zahd’s law.”

“Except that this child is the Mana Knight,” Roxanne said, “And I have been given over to serve as her mentor. It is not Zahd’s will that she fall in battle against one of Zahd’s daughters… especially given the possibility that the Sword might pass on from her to another wielder who is less acceptable to our father.”

Fara narrowed her eyes. As if the earlier suggestion that Roxanne wouldn’t fight the Valkyries alongside her weren’t bad enough; now she was outright telling Astrid that Fara wasn’t good enough to fight her. And to think the evening had started off so well…

“You raise a compelling issue,” Astrid said. “Perhaps it is not Zahd’s will that we fight, little one.”

“Well, then we’ve got a problem,” Fara said. “Because Bim is under my protection. And I won’t let you near him.”

Astrid fingered her sword’s hilt. “Fool girl. I am Astrid Sky-Eyes, Daughter of Zahd! And if you think Roxanne’s protest will keep me from running you through if you insist on standing between me and my duty…”

“Well I am Fara Sommers, Daughter of Margaret!” Fara said, puffing herself up and immitating Astrid’s haughty tone, “And I would love to see you try!”

“There is another way,” Roxanne said. She looked to one of the other Valkyries in the group. “Gabriela, the Grave. I wish to forestall any further violence by invoking a Tribunal, here, to mete out innocence or guilt and to determine appropriate dispensation of justice.”

Astrid turned and looked to her companion, whom Roxanne had called Gabriela. Gabriela considered. “It would seem an equitable compromise, since the Mana Knight has involved herself in this, and it is our father’s wish that the Mana Knight shall not come to harm. I believe it is a just course of action, Sky-Eyes.”

Astrid sighed, and sheathed her sword. “Very well. You may proceed.”

Gabriela nodded, and turned to Roxanne. “Roxanne North-Star, if you would join Ariela and myself, we shall gather under the protection of Zahd and hear out the grievances between Astrid Sky-Eyes and our Mana Knight, champion of the accused.”

“Um, hello?” Came a voice from the door. “Someone order a pizza?” The short, lanky Hylian boy couldn’t have been older than seventeen; he stood there, just inside the apartment, holding what had to have been at least five large pizzas in his arms.

“Could you get that, Fara?” asked Terry. While everyone else was consumed with the prospect of a life-or-death combat between Fara and Astrid, Osprey had emerged with Terry’s old Manaseed, they’d hooked it up and had started a head-to-head game of Manacalibur.

“Yeah,” Osprey said, “Terry’s busy having his ass handed to him.”

“Ah shit!” Terry muttered, as Osprey’s character, Isokaru Eblana, landed a devastating staff combination on Terry’s character, the Mana Knight (who, incidentally, was male and didn’t resemble Fara at all).

::sometime later::

Conducting a Tribunal in her living room was not foremost in Roxanne’s thoughts when she made out her interior design plan. But when it became apparent that this was the only way forward that would avoid forcing Fara to engage in battle with one of the greatest immortal swordmasters in the known Web of Worlds, she allowed some flexibility with her furniture placement.

Initially, she’d suggested that the Tribunal judges (Roxanne, Ariela and Gabriela) seat themselves on the couch, thinking that her antique coffee table (which she claimed was made from the preserved timbers of a ship once sailed by Belgememnon himself) would suffice as a “Long Table of Justice.” Gabriela objected to this, stating that the couch offered seating that was far too low to the ground for Tribunal judges, and would put the judges at a position inferior to both champions and accused.

Roxanne knew this herself, of course, but had made the effort to be convincing only because she knew the alternative was moving her dining room table (a priceless import, of Elven craftsmanship, made from Toroian redwood and faintly magical from its tree’s connection to Toroia’s Crystal of Earth). Which, of course, she ended up having to do anyway.

“Ahh, yes,” Gabriela said, as Terry and Osprey hefted the table into place. She held her hand over the table’s surface, and seemed to feel the ambient mana lingering in the finished wood. “This will make for a fine Long Table of Justice.”

The chairs that went with the table weren’t part of the same set; and, thankfully, no manpower needed to be used to move them. For they were living Polterchairs that Roxanne had acquired some time ago, and had left in storage until the big move to Albrook. The Polterchairs, originating from the Mana Dimension as they did, recognized the importance of a Valkyrie Tribunal, and felt more honored than they had ever been to take part in such an august ceremony. There actually was a small scuffle over which three chairs would actually get to serve the Tribunal, and then which of those three would serve as the central seat (on which Gabriela the Grave would sit). Other Polterchairs were employed further down the living room as seats for the Champions and the Accused.

According to the traditions of the Tribunal, all participants must be unarmed. So, one by one, the Valkyries deposited their weapons on the antique coffee table: Roxanne’s spear Daedalus, Astrid’s twin blades Tyrfing and Levateinn, Gabriela’s greataxe Reklarsbane, and Ariela’s double-bladed spear Maidenleaf (the weapon’s name given ironically, in long forgotten antiquity, by one of Ariela’s cruel sisters in commemoration of Ariela’s epithet “Open-Legs”). Not wanting to feel left out, Osprey reached under the couch, produced Shiva’s Edge and placed it on the table next to the Valkyrie weapons. The Valkyries seemed to not especially care.

As Astrid looked down on the table piled with weapons, she glanced at Fara.

“Well?” the Valkyrie said, her tone expectant.

“Well what?” Fara honestly had no clue what problem Astrid could have had with her now.

“Your weapon,” Astrid said. “Lay it on the table.”

Fara pursed her lips, and padded herself down. “Sorry. Must’ve left it my other sweatpants.”

Roxanne sighed. “Fara…”

“Well, I don’t know what you’re expecting,” Fara said. “The sword’s a part of me. I literally can never be separated from it, ever.”

“Not even figuratively,” Osprey called out from the couch, where he was happily playing single-player Manacalibur.

“It’s more for gesture and ceremony than anything else,” Roxanne explained, laying a consoling hand on Fara’s shoulder.

Fara rolled her eyes. “All right.” She manifested the sword and placed it on the pile of other weapons. Astrid smirked, victoriously, and Fara shot her a dirty look as she walked by.

Roxanne appointed Terry as Master of Arms, and had him put on his Shield armor to fill the role (because the Master of Arms of the Tribunal must be armed, and the armor was, in effect, Terry’s main weapon now). This actually made Terry a little upset, because it meant he wouldn’t be able to reclaim his dignity from Osprey during the Tribunal (the Shield’s gauntlets were a little too bulky to work a Manaseed controller).

“Some of this decor should be changed,” Astrid objected. She looked over the Long Table of Justice and regarded the mantle behind it, dominated at its center by a masterfully-carved Damcyanese harp. “We are not in a music hall, or a place where the cowardly village artists seek refuge from battle. I was lead to believe that you train warriors in this house, Roxanne.”

“Training as we speak,” Osprey called out, his eyes never leaving the TV screen, where he was losing badly against secret boss Thanatos on “omnicidal” difficulty. (that move where he disappeared from the screen and manifested two giant skeletal attack-hands was absolutely destroying Osprey, and mutilating the pads of his thumbs in the process)

Roxanne crossed her arms and levelled an icy stare at Astrid. “My home is decorated with trophies from my many, many victorious battles. Many of the more recent acquisitions, including that harp, were trophies won by my student, Fara.”

Astrid turned to Fara. “Truly? And tell me, Daughter of Margaret, what terrible music-loving beast did you have to slay in order to win such a pretty trophy?”

“A KN Series,” Fara said. “For those of you who don’t get out much: that’s basically a robot giant. That shoots missiles… and, lasers, I’m pretty sure.”

“Astrid, please,” Ariela intoned, “We’ve already imposed upon Roxanne a great deal, and she has been most accomodating, given her conflicting duties. Must you further inconvenience her before we’re allowed to proceed?”

Astrid scoffed. “Very well. The harp may stay.”

Ariela smiled pleasantly, and looked to Roxanne. She reached across Gabriela’s setting at the Table of Justice, and gently touched Roxanne’s hand. “Thank you for being such a gracious host, and receiving your sisters so well.”

Fara and Bim were seated together off to one side of the table, and Astrid to the other. Behind them, Osprey was on the couch playing his game (after being asked repeatedly to mute the sound, a compromise was reached and he plugged in his headset), and Terry was girded in his armor standing watch at the entrance to the hallway.

“Can we begin?” Fara asked.

“We await the arrival of one more important person,” Gabriela said.

Just then, there was a knock at the door. The Shield wasn’t sure what to do… answer the door in his armor? He panicked.

Looking back at him, Fara sighed. “I’ll get it.”

“This is most irregular,” Astrid said. “The Master of Arms should be guarding the door!”

“Clearly you gals wrote up all these rules before anybody’d ever had the concept of a secret identity,” Fara said.

Terry stood aside, and Fara opened the door to see who was there.

“Why hello there, dearie!” said Grilka. “I’ve brought sweetrolls for everyone!”

Eleod sighed. He rolled his eyes, and they came to rest on Fara. “I ought to have known… living nextdoor to a Valkyrie, sooner or later, our paths would tangle up in a mess like this.”

Fara closed the door and lead Eleod and Grilka inside.

“At last,” Gabriela said, “Our Master of the Doors is here.”

Fara blinked. “Wait, he’s here for the Tribunal?”

“They need a Mana Summoner,” Roxanne explained, “To call in witnesses from the Pure Land.”

“Eleod Vrinnicus was the nearest, it made sense to call out to him,” Gabriela explained.

“You’re sacrificing a lot of skill for convenience, madam Valkyrie,” Eleod said. “I’m a Shade priest; Grilka’s a priestess of Althenar. We’ve each got plenty of magical gifts from the elements of Shadow and Life, and in the past I have been known to conjure terrifying beasts of shadow and terror… but summoning specific individual beings from the Pure Land doesn’t exactly fall into either of our wheelhouses. As is, the only way we can effect a proper summoning like what the Tribunal needs is if we pool our powers together.”

“Two Masters of the Doors!?” Astrid stammered. “I think you stretch tradition too far.”

“Expedience is important to us here,” Ariela said. “As long as the two of them can summon, they will suffice.”

“If expedience is so important, better to let me slay the Mana Knight and be done with it,” Astrid said.

Roxanne slammed her fist on the table and rose from her seat. Gabriela calmed the North Star with a gesture.

“Astrid,” Gabriela said, her voice level like the sea on a fair day, “You may not think much of the physical space in which they are housed, but I will have you respect the sanctity of these proceedings. There will be no further outbursts.”

There was a finality in Gabriela’s tone that sent a chill through everyone present. Astrid faltered, but finally stiffened her lower lip and nodded.

“And you, Roxanne,” Gabriela turned her attention to the North Star again, “I am beginning to suspect that, perhaps, your sentiment for your apprentice may affect your ability to mete out Zahd’s justice. Am I right to fear so?”

Roxanne shook her head. “No, Gabriela,” Roxanne said. “My apprentice is no longer in danger, and I bear no sentiment for the griffin hand.”

Bim squealed slightly at this, but Fara calmed him by resting a hand on top of his body.

Gabriela smiled. “Good. Then, at last, we may begin.”

Roxanne would not allow proper gavels (traditionally, iron or bronze warhammers) to be banged on her Toroian redwood dining table. So, instead, Gabriela raised up a thick-bottomed glass whiskey tumbler, and brought it down onto a cork coaster to gavel in the Tribunal of the Griffin Hand.

::sometime later::

Since Osprey had been assigned no official role in the Tribunal, Roxanne asked if he would take charge of making sure that everyone present got a slice of pizza, one of Grilka’s sweet rolls and a cup of soda.

Everyone including the griffin hand, Bim.

Osprey had seen the griffin hand talk without a visible mouth, but how would it eat? Part of what made Osprey such a good spy was his innate curiosity: he liked to know things, understand things. If he didn’t exactly know how something worked, he tried to figure it out. When confronted with a puzzle, he strived to solve it. If there was a secret, he wished to learn it.

And here it was, the latest conondrum: Bim, and his lack of mouth, doing things that typically required the having of a mouth. The secret would be his: now, in his capacity as official Tribunal Pizza Guy, he would have all of his questions answered.

Methodically, he moved throughout the room, placing one paper plate and one plastic cup in front of each person.

Bim, of course, he saved for last. It was all part of his plan.

“Here you are, little buddy!” Osprey said. He knelt down and, on the chair where Bim was sitting (as there was ample room), he set down the plate and the cup. “Bon appetit!”

“Thank you, Osprey!” The rim of Bim’s stool-like body edged forward, making a motion that almost suggested it was sniffing the food. “What’s this?”

“This, my small dismembered friend,” Osprey said, “Is one of the most perfect foods ever devised by sapient beings in the known universe. On any world, in any reality, it simply has no equal. This, my friend, is pizza. And I insist you take your first bite of it right --”

“Master Osprey,” called Gabriela the Grave. Before Osprey could acknowledge her, Gabriela continued: “This beverage does not have the same ‘kick’ of a fine honey-mead… but its sweet taste and… odd texture appeal to me. Pray ye tell, what is it called?”

“Kuat Cola,” Osprey said. “The King of Colas.™”

“I desire that you should fill again my cup,” Gabriela said, hoisting high her plastic cup and shaking it in Osprey’s direction. “Easy on the ice this time.”

Osprey grumbled. “Be right back,” he said to the griffin hand, as he bounded over to Gabriela, took her cup and then disappeared into the kitchen.

“Astrid, you may make your case against the accused,” Gabriela said, as she watched the curious bird-man move with uncanny speed toward the kitchen with her empty cup.

Astrid stood. “I am caled Astrid Sky-Eyes, Daughter of Zahd. Nothing can escape my sight, always keen as if looking into the sky on a clear day. And so it was that I saw that creature,” Astrid pointed at Bim, “trespassing near the foot of the Mana Tree, a place my sisters and I have been charged with protecting from all interlopers. Under Zahd’s law, the penalty for violating our vigil is death. The law is unambiguous on this point: for his trespass, the creature must die.”

The valkyrie sat down.

Gabriela nodded. “Child, you may now speak on behalf of the accused.”

Fara stood. She had her brand new touch-screen phone in her hand. “So, I’ve been doing some research,” Fara said. “Because…” Fara struggled to recall Bim’s full name, but gave up and went with the shorter variant: “Bim is honestly the first Griffin Hand I’ve encountered. Even though I went to the Pure Land to slay Grendel, King of the Reklar.” Fara turned to Astrid and, victoriously, said: “Yeah, that’s right. That was me.” Fara composed herself. “At first I thought, no way is there going to be a resource out there on the OmniNet that’ll tell me anything about this race of strange little footstools. But that’s where I was wrong! There are a number of ON sites that talk about some of the Web’s more exotic, magical creatures, even rare species found only in hard-to-reach places like the Pure Land. There’s one site that’s run by an esper living in Albrook that claims to catalogue most of the Web’s more magical creatures, and it has a full picture gallery showing several specimens of each.”

Fara held up her phone and approached the Long Table of Justice. She swiped, and a picture of a Griffin Hand appeared. “Do you recognize this creature? He looks familiar, doesn’t he? That probably looks like the defendant here, doesn’t it?” Fara swiped again, and another picture of a Griffin Hand. “How about this one?” She swiped again. And again. Each swipe produced a new picture. When she had exhausted the gallery of about 13 images, she set her phone down on her chair.

“Not only were none of those images pictures of my new friend Bim… each picture showed a different Griffin Hand! They all look EXACTLY the same!”

“… racist,” Bim muttered under his breath.

“How can Astrid even be sure Bim was the Griffin Hand she saw? Does Bim have to die just because Astrid says this is the same Griffin Hand she saw near the Mana Tree? Is it really justice if Bim is killed when there’s a real possibility he’s innocent?”

Osprey emerged from the kitchen and placed Gabriela’s cup in front of her. He glanced over at Bim’s chair, only to see that the Griffin Hand’s plate was empty, save for a few crumbs. HOW DID HE EAT WITH NO MOUTH!?!?

Ariela smiled and clasped her hands. “Oh, child,” Ariela said, sweetly. “That’s… actually a brilliant defense. Very, very good point… Roxanne is so proud of you right now, I can tell… but, the only thing is… Astrid’s sight is never wrong.”

Astrid smirked. “Never. Not even once. In fact, not only am I completely sure that Bim is the Griffin Hand I saw, but I could tell each of the creatures pictured on your device apart from one another.” Astrid walked over to Fara’s chair and picked up her phone. “Observe.” She swiped back to the first image. “This one’s joint slightly favors the left, a very rare trait for the species, making it easily distinguishable.” She swiped again. “This one has a small, easy-to-miss imperfection in its heel-spur.” She swiped again. “This one is actually kind of fat for a Griffin Hand.” She swiped again, then scoffed. “Well. Need I go on?”

Fara snatched her phone away from the valkyrie. “So we’re just supposed to take Astrid at her word that she alone can recognize the one Griffin Hand she saw!?”

The three valkyries at the table glanced at each other, then each nodded in turn. “Astrid’s keen vision is among her most well-known traits,” Gabriela said. “We’ve no reason to doubt her.”

“I have reason to,” Fara said. “Astrid has made it clear from the second she showed up here that she’s more interested in killing Bim than she is in any kind of ‘justice.’ I believe that she will say anything she has to in order to secure the right to kill my friend.”

“Impudent mortal,” Astrid muttered, standing to her full height. “This child openly mocks these proceedings, she questions my honor and integrity… why should I bother to continue sitting through this?”

Gabriela slammed down her “gavel,” sending a crack lacing up through the tumbler. (Roxanne frowned at this, but said nothing) “You may be accustomed, Astrid, to working with an especially long and lenient leash back home. But in this sacred space, I will have your cooperation and I will have order.”

Astrid fumed, and sat back down. As Fara observed the interaction between the two valkyries, she suspected that their kind was not always 100% about sisterly love. In fact, the tone of the exchange she just witnessed (with the accompanying dirty looks) seemed to suggest to her that there may have been a bit of jealousy coursing both ways between the two valkyries, even though both seemed to command a great deal of respect each in her own right.

“Very well,” Gabriela said. “We have a Master of Doors… two of them, in fact. And we have a dispute between the accuser and the champion of the accused. We will have a short recess while the champion arranges to have some witnesses summoned to support her case.” She gavelled again, and then looked up and clapped her hands to get Osprey’s attention. “Bring me more Kuat Cola, bird-man!.. And leave me the bottle, if you please.”

Fara approached Eleod. As usual, the dwarf seemed especially dour.

“Hi there,” Fara said. Behind her, Roxanne and the Valkyries plundered what was left of the pizza, and Osprey stood dutifully beside Gabriela’s chair, holding a bottle of Kuat Cola at the ready.

Eleod looked up, acknowledging her with a gruff nod, even though he had plainly seen her approach.

“So… I guess I’m supposed to ask you and your wife to summon some… things for me,” Fara said.

Eleod grunted. “Grilka had to excuse herself. She had some cookies in the oven over in our apartment.”

“… Didn’t she just bring over a batch of fresh sweet rolls?” Fara asked.

“Aye, she did. And now ye know why I’m in such a good mood all the time.” Eleod did not crack a smile as he said this.

Fara stifled a laugh. “So… while we wait for her to get back, maybe you can… help me figure out who or what I should summon?..”

Eleod sighed. “Look, girl. I don’t mean to be the bearer of bad news… but I don’t think you’ve got much of a case, here. The only thing that’s keeping you afloat right now is the fact that Astrid’s really rubbed Gabriela the wrong way, but that’ll only get you so far.”

Fara looked back at the table, where the valkyrie judges were eating and talking.

“Well, how many of the three judges do I have to convince?”

“Sometimes, a simple majority is enough,” Eleod said. “Other times, uanimity is required in one direction or the other, depending on the accuser and the accused. Now Gabriela… She’s very strict, very hard-line. That last outburst aside, she has enormous respect for Astrid and knows better than to doubt the woman’s sight. In her eye that’s rock-solid evidence. Because of the strength of that evidence, Gabriela may insist that your case convince all three of the judges.”

“… What about the other judge? Ariela?”

Eleod arched one of his bushy eyebrows. “Ariela?.. A wild card. She seems sweet and caring, but she’s full of bitterness, that one. She hates her sisters for their mockery, and even if her words to you seem laced with honey, she resents mortals even more because they continue to tell the tales about ‘Ariela Open-Legs’ and her weakness and debauchery. Who can say for sure? She may side with you to spite Astrid, or she may side with Astrid to spite mortals in general.”

Eleod took a moment, watched Fara as she considered. “You didn’t ask about Roxanne,” he said, after a time. “You don’t think she’ll side with you, do you?”

Fara turned to the dwarf. The question seemed to surprise her. “I… I hadn’t thought about it. … Do you think she won’t?”

“Roxanne is the North Star,” Eleod said. “Honesty is central to who she is. Her reputation commands and is built on trust from those who seek her guidance. The only reason Gabriela let her serve as a judge on that tribunal is because she knows Roxanne won’t be biased. She’ll be just as hard to sway your way as Gabriela, if not harder.”

This actually hit Fara kind of hard. Fara had come to trust Roxanne, brief though their time together had been. She’d taken it for granted that the woman who protected her in Egmont, who carried her wounded off the field when the Reklar attacked, and who had come with her to Albrook to oversee her training as the Mana Knight as she attended college… of course Roxanne was going to side with her. Wasn’t she?..

Eleod’s words, and his assessment of the three judges, began to sink in. He was right: Roxanne wouldn’t choose Fara’s cause over her own integrity as a valkyrie. Was she going to lose this?..

“Maybe you should consider this from another angle.” Eleod placed a hand on Fara’s arm as he said this. It was unusual, given how gruff and standoffish Eleod had been with her since they’d met, but it seemed to be his own strange way of displaying empathy. “If you don’t win this case, what then?”

“… I throw one of Osprey’s smoke-bombs on the ground, grab Bim and book it?” Fara said.

“You show a lot of promise sometimes,” Eleod said. “And other times… you act like the child you so obviously still are. You did some research on Griffin Hands in the minutes before this tribunal started… but maybe you should have been reading up on Valkyries instead.”

Fara blinked. She was caught off-guard by Eleod’s one-two punch of slam-followed-by-advice. He didn’t stick around long enough for the seed he’d planted to bear fruit. “I’ll be right back,” Eleod said, “Going to go make sure my wife hasn’t burned down our home while getting cookies out of the damn oven.”

As Eleod walked away, Fara moved toward the couch and sat down. Osprey sat down next to her, cradling an empty cola bottle in his lap. They both let out a sigh. Fara picked up her phone and started tapping and swiping her way through a quick OmniNet search.

“Can I ask you something, Fara?” Osprey asked.

“Mm hmm,” Fara said, never taking her eyes off her screen.

“You’ve talked to the Griffin Hand, right?”

Fara nodded.

“… Did you ever see him eat?”

“Not now, Osprey, I’m busy.”


Gabriela had been furnished with a new gavel – this one a large, heavy “king” piece from a marvelously hand-carved walnut chess set, given to Roxanne by King Margayya Pandora when she was a guest at the surprise royal birthday party known as “The Pandora Project.” The piece was huge (like the rest of the set it came from), and when she banged it down on the cork coaster, its heft was sufficient to deliver a loud and sufficiently satisfying knock.

“Let us return to the matter at hand,” Gabriela said. “Champion, have you and the Masters of Doors summoned your witnesses?”

Fara stood up. “No, your… judge-liness. But one of the Masters of Doors has summoned a batch of cookies, fresh out of the oven!”

“… Chocolate chip?” Gabriela asked.

“Why, yes indeed!” Grilka replied.

Gabriela’s newfound fondness for Kuat Cola (the King of Colas™) was matched only by her love of chocolate chip cookies. “Bring them forward.”

“… Must we get sidetracked again?” Astrid said, stading to her full height and leering down on Fara.

“I SAID BRING THEM FORWARD!” Gabriela demanded, with uncharacteristic passion in her voice, as she banged down her chess-piece gavel again. Grilka hurried with the cookies, placing a stack of three in front of Gabriela.

Astrid cleared her throat. In a far less confrontational tone, she repeated her concern: “Gabriela… I believe that what I heard just now was that the champion of the accused has not summoned any witnesses.”

Gabriela cleaved a cookie in twain with a single bite, smearing the corners of her mouth with melted chocolate. Between chews, she spoke: “Is this… true, champion?” She held out her cup, and Osprey (who had run out to buy a new bottle of Kuat Cola) obligingly stepped forward to fill it.

“It is, Ms. The Grave. In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion that, even if I’m still certain that the accused is innocent, I lack sufficient evidence to convince the tribunal that this is so. You are all so swayed by Astrid’s testimony, there is nothing I can do or say that will make you believe otherwise. And because you believe that evidence is so strong, if I haven’t missed my guess, you’re probably going to insist on unanimous consent among the judges in order for the accused to prevail.”

Gabriela considered, as she stuffed a second cookie into her mouth. After washing it down with the cool, refreshing taste of Kuat Cola, Gabriela said: “Then you are resting your case, champion? Is it now to us to consider the accused’s fate?”

Astrid smiled, but only for a moment.

Fara replied: “No. On behalf of the accused, I move that we abandon the tribunal and settle this in the Old Way: trial by combat.”

Astrid’s face twisted in rage… but then, the smile returned. “So you have wasted all of our time here on this foolish charade, and now you will be wasting your life as well.”

Roxanne stood up. “Fara, no!”

Fara glanced at Roxanne, but Gabriela placed a hand on her arm and settled her back into her seat.

“Daughter of Margaret,” Gabriela said, “We’ve been through this. Your guardian is correct: Zahd would not approve of your life being thrown away in a duel with Astrid, one of the greatest swordswomen known to history. We cannot risk the Mana Sword falling outside our father’s influence upon your demise.”

“And yet, by your law, it’s my right as champion to insist on a trial by combat. By the law.” Fara said, pointedly, her eyes locked with Gabriela’s.

Gabriela faltered. She took a tenuous bite of her last cookie. “You are correct,” she said.

“So, even though you would prefer this trial by combat not happen… you can’t stop me. By the law,” Fara said, her words directed right at Gabriela’s own sense of honor and duty.

Gabriela nodded, appearing no less regal for the streaks of melted chocolate that lined her lips. She took another bite.

Astrid chuckled. “For the respect I owe to Roxanne, I will kill you quickly,” she said, filled with bravado. “And, to make it a fair fight, I will use only one of my swords.”

“Actually, you will use neither of your swords,” Fara said. “As champion of the accused, I am the one who chooses the weapons we fight with. By the law.”

Astrid’s nostrils flared, and she looked over to Gabriela.

“By the law, she is correct,” Gabriela said.

“Yes,” Roxanne said, relaxing somewhat, and regarding Fara. “By the law…” She wondered what her pupil was up to… but seemed far less worried now than she had been.

“You must, however, take note,” Gabriela said, “Our law is very clear that you must be evenly matched. You can’t give Astrid a feather while you wield the Mana Sword. If it’s to be enchanted swords, so be it. If something else, both combatants must be armed equivalently.”

“How little you must think of me that you feel I need to be told this,” Fara said. “I am Roxanne’s student, after all.”

Roxanne suddenly beamed with pride.

“Yes,” Gabriela said. “Indeed. Apologies, champion. What weapons do you choose, then?”

Fara smiled. “I choose… Foolish Seltzer Rays.”

Astrid balked. “You choose what?”

“Foolish Seltzer Rays,” Fara repeated. “From Foo.”

“I’m sorry, I’m not familiar,” Gabriela said. “What is this… Foo you speak of?”

“It’s a real place,” Fara said. “Really. They used to be in the International Justice Force.”

“The what?” asked Gabriela.

“By the law, now that I have decided on the weapons, the accuser must retrieve them.” Fara folded her arms victoriously. “Once the weapons are acquired, Gabriela must inspect them. Then we determine where the trial will be held.”

Gabriela looked at Roxanne. “What is your pupil talking about?”

Roxanne smiled. “Well. The gist of it is, Astrid’s got a lot of work to do. Foo’s a hard place to reach these days. And I don’t imagine the dennizens of that dark and broken dimension will readily part with their traditional weaponry.”

“This is insane,” Ariela said, standing up from her seat. She glared at Fara. “You made us sit here in this garrish apartment and eat your filthy food, endure the company of these wretched men… and in the end you mock our traditions and our laws by twisting them to your own purpose? All for the sake of that disease-carrying vermin!?”

“Whoa! Whoa whoa, there, lady!” Bim said, piping up. “Who are you calling ‘disease-carrying’? I’ll have you know I’ve been tested, and the sores have mostly cleared up.”

“It’s guilty,” Ariela said, “That thing is guilty! Let Astrid run it through and be done with it!!”

“Hold your tongue,” Gabriela said, her voice final and flat. She stared down Ariela, freezing her in place. Meekly, shakily, Ariela sat back down.

“The challenge has been issued, and the weapons decided. Astrid, you will seek out a pair of these… Foolish Seltzer Rays… and you will bring them to me for inspection. We shall return when this has been done, and the trial by combat will commence.” She banged the gavel and rose from her seat.

Astrid turned to Fara. Her fists clenched, her steely gaze defiant.

“You may think yourself clever, girl,” Astrid said. “But you have not won anything here. I will travel to this place called ‘Foo,’ I will retrieve these so-called ‘Seltzer Bottles’… and then I will return to slay you and bring justice upon this verminous creature you insist on protecting.”

Roxanne caught Fara’s eyes, and the two couldn’t help but exchange a smile. Roxanne’s smile seemed to say: “I am so proud of you, Fara”, while Fara’s seemed to say: “Oh hell yes, I rocked that so hard!”

As the valkyries were preparing to leave, Gabriela found herself stopped at the front door.

“Hey there, Ms. Valkyrie,” Osprey said.

“You may call me Gabriela,” she said, with a half-smile. “I thank you for your service today. You were an adequate cup-servant.”

“I have to say, I enjoyed my experience today, as well. Even though it was my first forray into the exciting field of cup-servantry, I feel it’s a natural fit. … So, listen, is there any chance you’re hiring? I’d be willing to relocate for an exciting opportunity to get in on the ground floor as your new cup-servant full-time.”

Gabriela frowned. “Um. Well, no, I’m actually… not hiring at the moment. You see back home I already have a loyal cup-servant.”

“Oh, I see. Well, maybe you have some other openings in your… organization? I type at a respectable 95 words per minute, and am fluent in all major word processing and spreadsheeting software on the market today.”

Gabriela was trying to inch toward the door, awkwardly. “Well, that’s tempting, but I’m really not looking for anyone new right now, sorry.”

“Could I leave you with a copy of my resume?” In a flash, Osprey produced one from somewhere on his person. The paper was peerless, with nary a fold, wrinkle or blemish.

“Certainly, I suppose…”

“You can just call me if something opens up, okay?”

“I mean, I do not have the means to ‘call’ you, by way of your technology…”

“Well, maybe carrier pigeon then. Hey, I could work as your carrier pigeon?” Osprey laughed nervously.

“Thank you, I will treasure our time together always,” Gabriela said as she stepped out the door, hurriedly.

The Master chuckled.

“The little girl is amusing and resourceful, no?” he smiled.

“Why did the valkyries agree to her ridiculous terms, Master?” the red-clad fencer asked.

“It is a weakness in the opposition, my boy.” As he spoke, he waved his fingers, playing with the motes of elements that circled around him constantly. As he did this, the rings on his fingers seemed to glow, each in turn. “Even the daughters of Zahd cling to their traditions and their laws, their sacred ways. The little girl had in her enough insight to spot this weakness, and then exploit it.”

“You give her too much credit,” the fencer said, idly fingering the hilt of his sword. “She didn’t do it without help. The dwarf practically gave her the answer.”

“Ah yes!” the Master said. “The dwarf. We remember him, don’t we?.. Hmm hmm. Yes, we do. He is possibly among her small coterie of friends now. And remember what we decided earlier: the Mana Knight’s friends are something she believes to be one of her strengths. She proved today that she can flex that strength to achieve her goals.”

“And what was her goal here?” the fencer asked. “Saving a strange creature from the Pure Land from being executed by the Valkyries? I never knew heroism could be bought so cheaply. What a waste.”

“Indeed,” the Master said. “Mind you, Initiate, I bear no love for this Mana Knight. She is young. She is weak. She is undeserving of what she’s been given. But even with all of that, I do respect her. Remember that, Initiate. Respect your foes, even when they do not deserve it.”

The fencer shrugged. “Why, Master? If she is so weak, so undeserving… Why must I respect her?”

“Because I am the Master, and that is the lesson I am teaching today,” the Master said. The fire orbiting around him glowed a little brighter, burned a little hotter just then. He smiled paternally. “Now. Go and review today’s events. You will know you are ready to face the Mana Knight again when you can fool her the way that she fooled the valkyries.”