"That's...no, I've no concern there, Dresden." Rezo felt as if the room's dozen so eyes had turned to him. "A-Anyway, yes. Don't read the letter if it causes undue stress. I'll save you the effort--high praise has earned you a place by my side as we ship out tomorrow. In fact, most of our squad will return."
"Good luck on the mission, Capt--Mr. Rezo," Sienna said.
"May they not eat you humans and human-sympathizers alive," Akadiana hissed. "...And make sure to brush up on your honorifics as if your life depends on it!"
"'...Okay. Well, I must be off to attend a meeting. Sienna, I thank you again for your books. Dresden, I will see you tomorrow evening in the briefing quarters. Akadiana...a pleasure."
Though he had quickly reached his fill on strange encounters for one night, summons called him to ascend one of the tallest spires in the Citadel to meet with a member of the Council. High rank of the organization exchanged words with base-level members in only the most dire of situations, or so Rezo had inferred. Difficult to separate fact from fiction; not even the number of people present in the senior council could be known. Rezo had only been summoned twice: once before his induction into the organization, the other when promoted to Captain almost a year ago.
He scaled the final step of the ornate stone staircase. Good knuckle rose to rap upon the great sky-mythril* door.
It swung open before he could even make contact.
"Welcome, Rezo Sifer. I foresaw your arrival."
The spacious office sat atop the clouds of Tetraldabaoth. Not literally, of course, as the maintenance by SSS Enchanters would likely hike up senior management's already prodigious budget. Thin strips of wall running between the vast windows bore arcane scrolls and msterious totems. A vast stone basin carved into the floor gave view to an assortment of exotically-colored fish lazily swimming around its glittering waters. In the center of the room, next to the basin, stood an Aarakocra* in billowing purple robes.
"I'm honored to finally meet you, Madam Horyss." Rezo offered a stately bow.
"Yes, we meet under--Julie, please, the door. Can you--okay, thanks."
Rezo turned to the occupant he hadn't even sensed. A petite human woman in SSS colors struggled to pull the door closed as she exited the room, quiet as a mouse. Rezo awkwardly took a few steps forward to stay clear of her path.
"Forgive me. My previous doorman--sorry, doorperson, met with a very sad and untimely fate."
Rezo nodded. Kenwell, the human SSS officer that had been turned into a vessel to house the black miasma on their last mission. Madame Horyss's former assistant, a fact their post-mission briefing had nearly glanced over. Members of Rezo's team had witnessed the husk of his body unfold and spill forth the monstrous slime that had thrust their mission off the rails.
"As I began. We meet under unfortunate circumstance." Her head swiveled atop neck and she gazed at Rezo through owl-like eyes big and black as the cosmos an arm's reach from her office. Back still facing Rezo, she clicked her beak in a small tsk and sighed. "I've seen this conversation play out countless times, Captain Sifer, so I will cut to the chase and shorten unpleasant minutes spent in my midst."
Well, at least she still dignified him as Captain, so that seemed a good sign.
She pivoted, body turning in time with her step and now fully-facing Rezo. "To quash your anxiety: no, you have not been demoted. You retain the rank of Captain; though, I will offer you advice you perhaps did not realize you needed."
He stared, transfixed on the swirling waters of the stone pond, and then finally exhaled for the first time since stepping into her spiretop office. "I--yes, please."
"Protocol," she stated simply. "When assigned to a mission, follow that mission's statement to its exact word. In IGERS-7, you were to facilitate a trade negotiation. Is that correct?"
Horyss's two talon-like hands folded in front of her, the eight razor-sharp fingers drawing into a delicate knot. "Instead, you chose to divide the party--accomplish two goals when one ought to have been your sole focus as Captain. You risked lives new and old to our organization, all for...."
"...To save Marko Ytalli's apprentice." Rezo finished her thought. Though, considering the scrutiny with which she now viewed him, perhaps her pause had not been permission to speak.
"Yes. Valiant, do not get me wrong. You owe your divided party great thanks for their recovery of the girl, though she--pardon, they, as I've been informed--pose a risk to the integrity of our organization. An innocent girl and a dangerous spy all wrapped into one neat package. As easy to laugh with as to welcome a calcified dagger in the back."
"I apologize, Madam. An error in judgment. I thought--"
She clicked her stubby beak again. "Pardon the interruption. As I've stated, I've seen our exchange play out. Such is the territory of a Seer. Captain Sifer, I do not consider this an error. It was an inevitability. I know your type, and I quite respect it. Saving as many people as possible--civilian, enemy, and ally alike--is cause our organization was founded upon. Such an act does not warrant demotion, but it does bring forth the dilemma of balance."
"I think I understand."
"Do you?" Horyss blinked. She then gestured to the rippling pool beside her feet. "Wonderful. Not as I've seen our conversation reflected in my waters. I always welcome a surprise!"
"I'm receiving...additional supervision." A bead of sweat rolled underneath the armor on Rezo's neck.
Before he could utter another word, Horyss lunged. One of her talons broke the waters of her pond so fluidly that Rezo would have nearly missed it if not for the half-red, half-white koi now wriggling in her zygodactylic talons.
"Another Captain has been assigned to your group, yes." Horyss examined the fish, turning it over in her hand with far more interest than she paid Rezo. "Someone to balance you. Cool where you err hot, logic-driven at moments where I fear you may be swayed by emotional appeal. Likewise, you provide the red to her blue. Yang to the Yin. Don't consider it a punishment nor a reprimand. An opportunity."
A mental plate finally slid into place. "I understand," Rezo said. "Thank you for your wisdom, and your advice, Madam Horyss."
"Your flattery does not go unappreciated, Captain Sifer." Horyss chittered. She relaxed her grip and the koi splashed back into its pond, no longer gasping for breath.
"And as for our new recruit, the Shaper girl. Misty Holmes. I understand that--"
"Well," Horyss sighed. "Perhaps that you should consider punishment."
He arrived. Not with a flourish, but through a simple blink between dimensions. Harrell bent the fabric of reality, oriented himself above but not overlapping the great star-birch* chair in his office, and manifested. The universe exhaled as he appeared in the lacquered chair before his ward, one gaudily-dressed Misty Holmes. Enigmatic, volatile, eccentric--all qualities he could respect on their own, though perhaps not so tightly wound into a single package.
"Sea salt taffy?"
Harrell flicked a long, gnarled brown finger. The aquamarine taffy jar sitting on the corner of his desk unscrewed itself. Not exceptional, nor ordinary, the artifact bartered from Merfolk decades ago bore enchantment mirroring the baubles strewn around his office. He rolled up his glimmering blue sleeves and guided a pair of taffies through the air. One set itself on the lip of the desk directly in front of his ward, the other rested in his open palm.
As one observed a particularly eye-catching artifact pinned to the stone walls of his office, the spell woven into the fabric of his study balanced. Marble bearings on his desk might offer a curious glimmer. Then, if the mind drifted, the dragonbone metronome clicking on a shelf behind his desk grew ever more intriguing. Prying eyes would endlessly feast, distracted and enthralled so long as Harrell's seasoned mind willed it so. Only the truly balanced, those who looked not with envy or agenda, but sat back with pleasant curiosity, would settle themselves in his midst.
"Misty." He spoke gently. "I hope you might indulge me for a spell. Your years in our organization have been a certain flavor of kind to you. I only hope kinder than myself, whose absence, though necessary, has surely weathered your trust. Ever since you stepped into the walls of Tetraldabaoth, I have intended you to remain safe and cared for."
"You've found work. You've found food and board; however, you have not found purpose. I intend to change that. You must play a role in an upcoming mission; one, I believe, you have been briefed on. You will join a party of our personnel, subordinate to two captains, and you will venture into the monster metropolis of Neoyomi. It is here I believe your skills as a Shaper will prove invaluable."
"Maniacs and charlatans will be drawn to your powers--and may take them, willingly given or not. Certain members of the council may see you as enticing bait. However, I do not like this term, for it promotes passivity. I need you to reign your abilities and draw in those who would convince you to use them for imbalance. Only then can we neutralize the threat. I must know: can you work with Captains, with members of a party, to achieve ends not wholly self-serving?"
* Sky-mythril: Common name for the shiny black metal procured from fallen meteorites.
* Aarakocra: The cool bird people from D&D. In this world, there's a huge variety of body types and they can resemble any variety of birds. Horyss, for instance, is an owl. Some Aarakocra have wings and some do not.
* Star-birch: A type of tree that grows in the Monster part of the world. It sports papery bark concealing dark, gem-like wood.