A voice spoke in the darkness. "You have braved the Cascade of Rhodes and not been dismayed."
A second voice. "You have wielded the One Toe Ring against the Mispeling Vyrus and not been corrupted."
A third. "You have performed the ritual sacrifice at the Tomb of Bast and not been squicked."
The first voice again. "Now you must face the trial of your knowledge. Answer me this: What are the Five Keys of the Mary-Sue?"
The supplicant recited what her teachers had told her. "Mary-Sue is a character created for a fan-fiction. She is a character who alters the personalities of the canon characters. She is a character who distorts the fabric of the world around her. She is a character who creates plotholes. She is a character who corrupts the language which describes her. These are the Five Keys of the Mary-Sue, and these are why we hunt her."
"She speaks truth," the second voice said. "Answer me this: What are the Three Rules of Disguise?"
"A disguise must be appropriate to the canon," the kneeling supplicant answered easily. "A disguise must be a suitable killer of the Mary-Sue. A disguise must be capable of completing the Duty. These are the Three Rules of Disguise, and they are always obeyed."
"She speaks truth," the third voice confirmed, and, "Answer me this: Under the protection of Bast, what are the Four Forbidden Phrases?"
The supplicant took a deep breath and made the sign of Bast with her left hand. "We do not say, What could possibly go wrong? We do not say, It's a piece of cake. We do not say, How could this get any worse? We do not say, I have a bad feeling about this. These are the Four Forbidden Phrases, and may Bast preserve me from them."
"She speaks truth," the first voice reported. "Supplicant, you have faced the trial of your knowledge and not been confounded. Supplicant, recite the Oath."
The kneeling woman didn't hesitate. "I comma square bracket recruit's name square bracket comma do solemnly swear to guard the Word Worlds comma protect the canon characters comma and fight the scourge of the Mary-Sue, semicolon. I will serve the Canon Protection Initiative comma obey square bracket school leader square bracket comma and defend the Protectors of the Plot Continuum full stop, may Bast bear witness to my words full stop."
There were a few moments of dreadful silence, and then the first voice spoke again. "Supplicant, you have recited the Oath. By what name will you be known?"
The supplicant swallowed hard. "Deborah."
"Then arise, Deborah," the voice said, and she felt hands on her arms, lifting her up. "Cast off the darkness," the voice added, and her blindfold was removed, leaving her blinking in the light. "Take up your sword," the voice commanded, and she felt a hilt being pressed into her right hand, saw the blurred outline of the blade through her suddenly moist eyes. The man standing in front of her spoke one last time. "Welcome, Deborah, to the Demas School. You are now a Paladin!"
"... to be honest, I think they just make it up." The loud voice made Deborah look up from her meal. Across the table from her, Lucy rolled her eyes.
"Just ignore them," the older Paladin advised. "They don't know what they're talking about."
"Nor do I," Deborah replied. "Is it interesting?"
"They're talking about us," Mike put in. "They do this every so often - apparently it makes them feel big."
Deborah raised an eyebrow. "What, them?" she said, raising her voice so that the other table could hear her. "But they're just a bunch of Rangers - what do they know?"
The rest of the Paladins groaned, and Lucy let her head fall onto the table. "Now you've done it," she said. Several of the brown-clad Rangers had looked across when Deborah spoke, and now a couple of them were standing up. "It's best just to let them talk, really it is."
"I don't see why," Deborah said. "We're better than them - it's just a fact."
"Debs, you've only been a full Paladin for a day and a half," Lucy pointed out. "They still learn to fight, you know. Don't let yourself get caught up in a brawl."
Deborah shook her head slightly, letting her blonde hair flick outwards. "I can take them," she said. "I've got a few advantages."
"Your religion won't help you here," Lucy warned her. Deborah smiled widely as the Rangers reached her chair.
"Who said anything about religion?" she asked, and turned her head. "Hello, boys," she added. "Is there a problem?"
"I don't know," one of the Rangers replied, leaning down towards her. Deborah smelt the garlic on his breath. "Is there?"
"Not from where I'm sitting," Deborah replied with a smile. "It was good of you to check, though." Across the table, Lucy groaned. Garlic-breath frowned.
"Seems to us there might be," his companion said, rubbing his nose idly. "Seems to us we might have heard you claiming to be better than us."
"Ah, well," Deborah said, leaning back in her chair and grinning up at them, "that'd be because that's what I said."
Nose-rubber rolled his eyes. "At least we don't pretend to have big initiation ceremonies just to impress the rest of the PPC."
Deborah's smile vanished. "You're calling me a liar?" she snapped. Nose-rubber looked startled and took a step back, but Garlic-breath leant closer.
"Yes," he said, "we are. What're you going to do about it, little girl in grey?"
"Oh, I don't know," Deborah said, folding her right hand into the proper position and subvocalising the necessary spell. "Possibly this."
The miniature fireball launched from her fingers and detonated soundlessly against Garlic-breath's nose. As he scrambled backwards Deborah pushed her chair hard away from the table, catching Nose-rubber's knees in the process. A second fireball slipped into launch position as she adopted the classic magician's stance. "Any more?" she demanded, scowling at her would-be assailants. They were already on the move, scuttling back towards their friends. Grinning, Deborah dismissed the fireball and pulled her seat back into place. After a few bites of her suddenly far tastier meal, she looked up at the sea of silent faces at her own table. "What?"
Lucy was the first to speak. "Well, that definitely wasn't religion," she managed. "If Christians could shoot fireballs, cousin Sara would've burnt most of the family years ago. So... what was that?"
Deborah smirked. "Just something I picked up somewhere," she said. Lucy snorted.
"Newbies," she said in a despairing voice. "Always showing off."
Deborah wandered through the House of Rhodes. Granny Lou had told her what it had once been like - its former glory and scale - but even in this reduced form it was still impressively confusing. Standing in one empty grey corridor, she checked both directions carefully. Once she was certain she was alone, she glanced up at the ceiling. "Was that okay?" she asked. Yes, of course. They're hardly going to report being spooked by a newbie Paladin, are they?
Deborah smirked. "Oh, but the looks on their faces... but that's not what I want to talk about," she noted. No, I guessed that much. "Why are you here?" she added. "Now, I mean?" Where else would I be?
The woman scowled upwards. "But why are you active?" she asked. "You never talk unless something's going on." You did become a full Paladin today. Deborah sighed. "I don't suppose threats would work?" You can't touch me on any level of the Twilight, so no. "Fine, then," she added. "I'll figure it out myself."
There was a soft chime from Deborah's belt, and she unclipped her still-unfamiliar communicator. "Demas Paladin Deborah," she said crisply.
Paladins Lucy and Deborah, the voice from the far end said, your break is over. You have half an hour to return to your Response Centre and prepare for work. Demas Coordinator out. There was a click, and Deborah was about to return the comm to its hook when Lucy's voice came from the speaker.
All right, newbie, she said, do you need help getting back?
"I'll be there before you," Deborah promised. This time the click was final. You're going to cheat, aren't you? She flashed the ceiling a grin. "Of course," she announced. Then she raised her shadow and stepped into it, vanishing into another level of reality altogether - the Twilight.
The world faded to sepia; had there been any people around, they would seem to move three times slower than normal. Deborah looked around carefully before setting off at a trot. The corridors of the House of Rhodes were much less tangled than they had once been, but there were still occasional plotholes to traverse. In the Twilight, they manifested themselves as shadowy mists with a malevolent feel to them. "You make it sound so cheerful," Deborah commented, her voice curiously deadened in this dark world. Well, it's hardly Disneyland.
Deborah rolled her eyes. "I don't know why I put up with you," she said. Mostly because you can't escape from me, I suspect. "I bet I could if I tried," she added. "If I entered the Twilight and ran for it..." You're already here. You're only a fourth level magician, Deborah – you can't go down to the second level of the Twilight, so there's nowhere to run.
Deborah raised her eyebrows. "Want to bet?" she said. With a sudden movement, she yanked her shadow up from the ground and dove through it.
On the second level of the Twilight the House of Rhodes became a twisted nightmare of dark grey stone which almost seemed alive. The air was nearly as thick as clouds, but Deborah was already out of sight. Hmm.
Finally, a pair of circular discontinuities appeared in the air of the Response Centre, allowing two grey-clad women to drop through. They landed in near-identical crouches, although Lucy's was rather more elegant than Deborah's.
"You did well, Deborah," the older woman complemented her partner. "A few more kills like that and you won't need me there any more."
"Your cousin's a good Ranger," Deborah allowed, somewhat grudgingly."If we have to follow these routines, he's a good man to have around."
"Durran's had a lot of practice," Lucy agreed. "I think he's one of three Rangers still assigned to Middle-earth, even though they live there. Speaking of which," she added, "have you given any more thought to where you'll work once your training's over?"
"I've got a few ideas," Deborah said. "I'm definitely leaning towards the worlds with magic in them."
"Oh, yes, your little display in the cafeteria." Lucy shook her head. "If you start using fireballs in a big way, the Pyron school are likely to challenge you."
"Oh, I think I'd be okay," Deborah said idly, flexing her fingers. Lucy gave her a disapproving look.
"You might be," she pointed out, "but we'd be obliged to defend you. Have you ever seen the Pyron city?"
Deborah frowned. "Even if they threatened us," she said, "the Camp has evac portals standing by and ready to go. We'd be out of here before they came within sight of our walls."
Lucy stared at her. "Deborah," she said, "they have a flying city and a fleet of mass destruction. Do not mess with the Pyrons. That's an order." To Deborah's dubious look, she added, "I can get the chief to write it up for you if that's what I need to do."
"… I wasn't actually going to set anything on fire," Deborah said, relenting. "I know a few other spells, too. Freezing a Sue has a certain appeal to it..."
"That, I can agree on," Lucy said. "Now... are you up for some training? Archery, I think."
"Whatever you say, Lucy," Deborah agreed. "Lead on."
About seventy percent of Deborah's arrows ended up in the right dummy, which was a fairly good average. She could, of course, have made it one hundred percent, but there was little challenge in using magic. It wasn't like she was competing or anything. Of course, things would have gone a little faster if she had cheated, and that, it turned out, would have been a good thing. As it was, she was just finishing up when a voice behind her said, "How do you do it?"
Deborah stiffened and turned to face the speaker. "Caleb," she said in a neutral tone.
"Deborah," her brother replied, equally flatly. "It's been a while."
"I've been busy," Deborah replied. "Some of us had to be tested before becoming Paladins."
"Tested in your skill at murder, no doubt," Caleb retorted. "How do you do it, Deborah?"
"Light Ones kill too," Deborah pointed out, taking a certain pleasure from goading him. "You should be pleased with me, Caleb – I'm doing it for noble reasons, a greater good."
"Light and Dark, Deborah!" Caleb exclaimed. Across the archery range, Lucy looked up, but Deborah shook her head slightly; her partner didn't need to get involved. "This isn't about magic," Caleb went on, oblivious to the exchange. "It's about your salvation!"
Deborah smirked. "Oh, that," she said.
"Yes, 'that'! It may not seem important to you, but you're killing people, Deborah! You might already have put yourself beyond redemption!"
"So judgemental – just what I'd expect from a Light One," Deborah said. "How do you do it, brother? How do you go out in that neat black suit of yours and exorcise slash wraiths? You're crushing some poor author's dreams every time you do that."
"The Saviour cast out demons in His Father's name," Caleb said bluntly. "In each universe I call on the power of the creator of that world and the Creator of all. What I do is a sacred calling. What you do is sin."
"In whose eyes?" Deborah asked, starting to get a little angry herself. "The Word Worlds aren't real." The PPC isn't real, she said silently to herself, glancing up at the sky for an instant. "It's no more a sin than killing the smiley face in Minesweeper is."
"God created everything," Caleb retorted. "Who are you to say what's real and what isn't?"
Deborah studied her brother's face for a long moment. "I don't think we have any more to say to each other," she said. Behind her back, her right hand formed the spell-casting position. If he chose to be difficult...
Caleb shook his head sharply. "I don't know why I bothered," he muttered. "No Dark One ever could be saved."
"And no Light One ever could see sense," Deborah responded. "Goodbye, Light One."
"Dark One." Caleb nodded stiffly and stalked off. Deborah watched him go with a smile on her face, a warm feeling suffusing her whole form. It was power – pure, unadulterated Dark power. Caleb's anger, hate and fear had fed her, making her feel stronger than she had for a long time. Lucy came up behind her.
"That looked interesting," she commented. "Who was he? An ex-lover?"
"Not nearly so important," Deborah said, dismissing him. Turning, she picked up her bow. "Better check the weekly record, Lucy – it's about to be broken."
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