1. The act of reflecting, or the state of being reflected. Such as: The return of light from a surface.
2. a realization occurring in careful consideration
Esrever the Mirror-Fiend, the Imageless One, the Silver Specter, King of the Empty Lands, the Outsider Reversed, Estranged Noble of the Winter Court was quite nervous.
Today, he would entertain guests, in the truest sense of Fae hospitality! Him, the reclusive one, perpetually hidden just out view, would be socializing as a proper individual should!
All thanks to that fateful decision years ago to reach out and talk to the mirrorchild known as Zee. He'd never talked to anyone outside the Winter Court before then, and even his own kin were more strangers to him than his newfound friend. By his shapeless, imageless nature, he was at once a member in good standing of the Winter Court and also distant and untouchable.
Tonight, that would all change. He had plans. No longer would he be a lonely hermit of the mirror world! He would be observed, and observe in turn, and... well. That was getting ahead of ourselves, yes.
First, he needed attire. He tried on various shapes... not needing a mirror, of course. He was a mirror onto himself. He tried male shapes, female shapes. He tried beasts and creatures of legend. What would make the right statement about him to his guests? What statement did he WANT to make? "Self" was rarely a question he had opportunity to consider. What a glorious opportunity this would be!
Eventually, he settled on a male shape, as Zee had come to see him as a brother. He wanted a shape that the humans would know and appreciate... something comfortable, familiar. After some brainstorming, he decided on a shape that was stately and quite well known across human civilization; often he had seen humankind trading the image, wanting to have as many copies of it as possible. Pretentious? Well, maybe a little. He could tune the shape later, if it made a poor impression, but for now it was all he could think of--
They were here! He could sense them five rooms over within his looking-glass world. Quickly, he reflected his way into the antechamber connected to Zee's bathroom mirror... and after making a grand appearance, in a shower of light and sparks, he took a deep bow.
"Welcome, honored guests," he spoke, in a formal voice he imagined his image as having. "I am Esrever. Ah... nuvus ordo seclorum...?"
Why was the Summerling laughing?
"Is.. there something wrong?" Esrever asked, adjusting his wig slightly, wondering if he had gotten some detail wrong on the image.
"You're George Washington," Emily pointed out.
The evening had not started as well as he'd hoped, no.
by stefan gagne
He fumbled around quickly for a replacement shape, settling on the long-gone Canadian boy he'd met Zee as originally. It was familiar to him, age appropriate, and less of a grand display. After that embarrassment, he felt the need to express humility.
"Is this more suitable?" he asked, his voice much younger.
"That works," Emily decided, marching up to him, sparing a mildly interested glance around the antechamber. (It was a reflection from some political building's foyer in New York, the polished granite of the floor having provided Esrever with enough of an overview to duplicate it in his lonely world. He'd spent a lot of time getting the flags right.) "Hi. I'm Emily the witch. That's Scout, that's Una. Which way to the hypertech cache? Let's get moving."
"Ah... the way has been prepared, yes, as was promised," Esrever said. "And the price paid, true, but--"
"That'd be the Wendigoes, then? Lady Winter sicced them on us."
"It.. it was not my intention to harm you, Summerling!" he promised, as he felt this social situation spin merrily out of control. "I had to go to great lengths to re-open the long-shut ways to what you seek... and my Mistress's price was steep, yes. I was bound by oath not to warn you, as much as I wished too--"
"We dealt with the little bastards. We're fine now. And we'd like to get on with this quest of ours, so if you would kindly show us which direction to go...?"
"But... but... dinner?" he suggested, voice weak. "I can prepare meals. I am extending my hospitality, honored guests, and welcome you into my world of--"
"Do you think we're stupid?" Emily asked, peering askew at him, lips a tight frown. "We're not sitting down to eat at a Faerie table. I'm not indebting myself to you by accepting your gifts. Don't think I don't know how devious the Winter Court can be, and given it's already tried to have me killed once in the last two days--"
"This isn't what I wanted," he pleaded. "Not at all...! I must... I must collect myself. Must rethink. Excuse me!"
And the boy winked out of existence, his stolen image flickering once before angling off into the distance in the form of a beam of light.
Emily grumbled. "Typical. Alright, folks, one-eighty, we are marching the hell out of here," she said, making 'shoo'ing motions to her friends. "Hup hup. I'm not spending one minute in this crazy Winter Court wonderland if I don't--"
The witch paused in mid-shoo, as Una tapped one foot, arms folded. It was a posture she'd learned well from Emily, after all.
"You're being quite rude," Una told her. "This fellow invites us into his home, he wishes to express himself in the manner of a gracious host, and you accuse him of subterfuge? For shame, my friend, for shame! This is not the diplomatic mindset you espouse, is it? You told me yourself you sought to improve Human/Fae relations..."
Emily groaned, palming her face. "Una. Winter... freaking... court. They're universally bad news, even when they're trying to be nice to you... especially, even! Faerie gifts always come with a price tag. They trade on favor and debt, and have no compunctions tricking people into falling right into their pockets!"
"Scout has ties with the Winterfae sociopolitical structure, and he has not attempted such ruses on us," Una reminded.
Said boy coughed once, to clear his throat. "...I'm with Emily," he clarified. "Winterfae are dangerous. Myself included--"
"Oh, none of that, either! Emily and I have been working very hard to improve your outlook and get you out of this mindless rut of self-loathing, you know. Neither of us truly fear the risk you represent, and neither should you-- wait, I am engaging in sidetracking. --my point! Yes, my point is, you are assuming too much. Hear this fellow out, at least!"
"...we could always follow some other lead to get at the hypertech cache. Maybe go bug Graves again; he got out of there alive, remember? We don't have to waltz through spooky mirror boy's magical mystery world."
"I want nothing more to do with Graves, or with his... associate. Ever again," Una said. "Now. We are going to smile, and be polite, and accept the help we have been offered. Or I'll consider possibly maybe going on alone although I would really prefer not to but I will consider it if that is what is required to normalize your behaviors! Am I expressing myself in a manner which is understandable to reasonable degree?"
Emily stared, bug-eyed and speechless. "Angry Una" was akin to "Adorably Annoyed Pouty Cuddly Thing Which You Feel Instantly Chastised For Upsetting." Some paranoid impulse made her wonder if Una was capable of some sort of psionic glamour spell, but no, she was just shiny and expressive.
"Now, then. Let's try this again," Una said, before turning to address... well, the walls of the antechamber. "Ahem! Mr. Esrever! I apologize for our conduct, as does Emily. Is that not correct, friend?"
Emily sighed. "Ah... yes, okay, I apologize. ...I was being a bit catty there. I've had bad experiences, and-- look, nevermind. I apologize. ...I'm sorry? Okay?"
The mirror-boy reappeared. If he looked humbled before, he was positively cowering now.
"I... intend no harm, I swear this," he said. "I would never hurt you. My food, my drink, my hospitality are offered freely to you. I offer what comfort I can, with no debt incurred, such that you may rest and be well before undertaking the path. ...please, ma'ams, sir, I suggest your acceptance. The path will be difficult, and as night has fallen, you will not want to go that route until daybreak."
After picking through the words, looking for holes... Emily nodded, in approval. "Right, then. ...y'know, I am actually really hungry. I told you guys we should've stopped off at a restaurant or something..."
Esrever smiled, pleased. "Yes, food! Come. I have prepared a feast of dreams! Ah, I myself do not need food or drink, but I've seen both consumed many times at many banquets, so I know what is required. This way. The dining hall is through the bathroom and the fishing pond and the dance hall."
"Ah... this is a space of rooms, each with reflective surfaces in them, each connected by magical means. Navigating it can be a bit... tricky. But fear not! If you are lost, just look in a mirror and say my name three times, and I will come assist you. ...I suggest holding hands, to be sure we are moving together--"
Scout wobbled in place, finding each of his hands had near-instantly been grasped by one girl apiece.
The dining hall was quite lavish... a mirror-copy of a long abandoned palace, somewhere in Russia. It seemed to be constructed entirely from diamonds in silver inlays, with mirrors all around. It was quite possibly the most expensive room Emily had ever visited in her entire life. She almost felt bad eating a country biscuit, corn on the cob, and fried chicken in here. It was the sort of room you dined in, an activity defined by caviar-and-wine rather than burgers-and-soda.
The food was also a reflection, somehow tuned to look and taste like what they most craved to eat... but unlike her primitive FaePlace objects made of weak dreamstuff, these were solid and satisfying. Emily had a good home cooked dinner complete with the little wooden corn holder pegs she remembered as a kid; Scout was eating some sort of Texas rib eye steak, medium rare. The only telling difference between this and the original food was the logo on Una's New York pizza box, which had been reversed; apparently it now hailed from "azziP s'iccunaP".
Esrever sat at an empty plate, with forks and knives lying unused at either side. He did try to be polite and summon up an illusory goblet of wine to swirl around now and then, which looked a bit odd on the casually dressed teen whose image he wore.
"I don't understand why this human meal appeals to you," Esrever asked Una, watching her carefully nibble away at the gooey sausage and pepperoni special. "From what Zee has told me, your people have mastered nutrition in food pills. He had difficulty adjusting to human foods when he first got here, but you seem to be fine..."
"Off, iff.. ahh..." Una started, before realizing talking with a mouth full of cheese was counterproductive. She swallowed before continuing. "My mother and father used to have 'Earth picnics' every weekend, when I was young. Food pills are more satisfying, but... this food is much more enjoyable!"
"Then you visited Earth even as a child?"
"Oh, no, we'd go to the Arboretum on Arcology #BE12. You see..."
And on and on. They'd been at it for over twenty minutes now. In fact, Esrever hadn't paid the least bit of attention to Emily or Scout after the initial conflict had passed. No, he was more focused on chatting with the "mirrorchild," as he called her, asking about her people, her culture... and herself.
Emily flicked her eyes from the Winterfae to Una to the Winterfae and back again.
She set down her knife and fork. "I need to hit the bathroom," she announced, somehow managing to pull Esrever's attention away for a moment. "Where's the nearest one?"
"A third of the chambers in my home are bathrooms," Esrever noted. He gestured to a wide set of double doors that clearly should've lead to some vast ballroom. "There is one through there."
"Good, good. Also, Una, I'd like to introduce you to an ancient and proud Earth cultural tradition!"
Una's eyes glittered. "Ooooh? Yes, friend?"
"It's called 'girls going to the bathroom in groups for some reason.' C'mon. Won't take long."
"Ahh! Yes, I have heard of this! Very well. Please pardon us, gracious host. I am required to powder my nose!" Una announced, sliding her chair out. "We shall return promptly. Oh, this is exciting!"
The girls vanished through the double doors, which somehow revealed an ordinary looking apartment bathroom on the other side.
Esrever looked at Scout looked at Esrever and back again.
"So... ah... Scout," Esrever attempted. "You are.. a Winterhound, yes?"
"Ah. Good. ...how is that... going for you?"
The boy stared flatly at him. Esrever coughed once, and swirled his wine, glancing away.
"What? No, no, that's absurd," Una protested. "He is simply--"
"He's hot for you, dammit! 'Oh, Una, tell me of your native peoples!' 'Oh, Una, do all your people have white hair?' 'Oh, Una, that's such a fascinating dinner!' 'Oh, Una, your eyes are like starlight!'"
"Ah... I do not recall him comparing my eyeballs to visible-spectrum solar radiation..."
"Yeah, well, give the guy a few minutes and I'm sure we'll be knee deep in the poetry," Emily said, while adjusting her hat a bit in the mirror. (She felt an irresistible urge to preen and primp a bit, now that she was in the ladies room with a friend. It was uncanny. Even Una was reapplying a shade of blue lipstick.) "...hmm. I need to patch that rip at the brim of my hat. --look, I'm just saying, watch out, alright? This guy is socially awkward, inexperienced, and apparently super keen on you. ...you're not into him, right?"
"Into...? Ah..." she paused. "Well... he is a curious person. But.. I... well. I have been thinking on that subject lately, and perhaps... I am not ready. ...I still believe in the spirit of love and romance, but, umm... I just... well--"
"Right, right, whatever. I ask because the last thing you want to do is have a Faerie suitor. I don't care how nice a guy he is, it's an alien culture with its own twisted little rules and skewed morality. What he thinks is generous could be horrific, and he'd never know. Trust me on that."
"I really don't think--"
"You know, it's funny to hear you say you're not in the market, because the other day I could swear you were making a play for Scout or something."
Una's lipstick tube clattered to the sink basin.
"Oh, hey, you dropped this," Emily said absently, passing it back, not noticing Una's briefly terrified expression. "Anyway, I guess that was just me reading too much into things, as always. You're not some kind of interstellar playgirl, after all."
"R-Right. Nothing like that. ...um. Friend?"
"Yeah?" Emily said, putting the finishing touches on her hat-adjustment. (She didn't wear makeup and had none to futz about with.)
"Are you... 'on the market,' as you have named it?"
"What, me?! Hah!" Emily replied, laughing out loud. "No way. A witch is always a busy little bee, you know? Go here, go there, do that, run away from that mob, use your magic to save the day, that sort of thing. It's a big responsibility! Who's got time for something stupid like chasing after boys? ...now we'd better get moving or they'll think we fell in, or something."
"Ah? Fell? What? Oh. Right. Better get moving," Una repeated. "...right."
Any place with access to a reflective surface was fair game for importing into Esrever's domain. Bathrooms, mostly, but also bedrooms aplenty -- luxurious ones, he promised, fit for royalty, which would provide comfort and rest for the travels ahead.
But the night was young, and he had more surprises for them...
The group emerged on a grassy riverbank, under a starry night. Emily fought to find some night vision, blinking several times, before spotting torchlight ahead...
"...I know this place," she recognized. "It's... Lilith's Henge!?"
It was a simple little thing -- a stone circle, in great Faerie tradition, erected on a hilltop at the edge of the wildlands forest. Five torches ringed the structure, with fresh footprints in the dirt above, circling around the central altar. The Henge overlooked a river of sparkling clear water, which Emily had once gone fishing in, before being chased away by a school prefect...
This was a place of memory, not all of them good, but above all a place of magic.
Still, something was different, something amiss...
"...where are the tigers?" she asked, taking a step back, in case she needed to be ready to run. "They should be charging out of the forest to disembowel the trespassers by now..."
"My magic doesn't copy anything living, unless I deliberately do so... and at great effort," Esrever explained. "So, the guardians of Lilith do not prowl these forests. It is a safe place, Emily. She can't find you here, and you can enjoy familiar ground in peace. I, ah, hope this gift is to your liking...? --again, free of favor, of course."
Emily bit her lip. She should object, on general principles. It was a waste of magic, irresponsible. A sentimental gesture, too. Not the sort of thing a proper witch should go in for...
"I.. guess I could stay awhile," she said. "You know, for nostalgia's sake..."
"I would like, tonight, to provide all three of you with fond places that you will enjoy," Esrever explained. "Your road has been difficult. Let me ease your troubles. My mirrors have... a limited ability to see within you, but I promise your secrets to be safe, I merely wanted to glean what you might enjoy. Una, I have prepared a place of your own choosing as well, and, ah... Scout...? ...I couldn't seem to find any place of joy for you. I apologize."
Scout offered a shrug. "I don't have a lot of happy places," he said, honestly. "Not anymore, at least."
"Then I shall offer you this."
Esrever cupped his hands, breathing into them... and a silvery ball of moonlight floated from them. It shaped as it touched down on the ground, in the loose shape of a deer, the suggestion of one. It bounded left and right, as if to say 'chase me!' before dashing into the forest.
"I offer a guilt-free hunt, a chance to enjoy yourself without fear of the dark," Esrever suggested. "Harmless. I know you resist your Winterhound nature, and I will not deny you that, but perhaps you might enjoy this as an alternative to the constant strain of holding it in...?"
Scout.. twitched. He took one step forward, before realizing he had done so. Oddly, he found himself looking to Emily, to check her reaction.
"Eh?" Emily said, surprised at the look. "Well... hey, your call, Scout. It's just a different sort of game. A puzzle. Go for it if you like, or don't."
He considered... then nodded once. And braced one foot behind himself, before pushing off on it, breaking into a sprint. Once in the shadow of the trees, he was simply... gone.
"Think I'll scope out the old rocks, myself," Emily said, allowing herself a smile. "I bet they left a spellbook out when you copied it, if the torches were lit at the time. Maybe I'll learn a new spell! 'course, I'll have to copy down the Word reversed to make it work, but I can swing it..."
Esrever smiled, relieved. "Excellent. Now then, Lady Una, if you will join me...? I have prepared--"
"Juuust a second."
"This is exceptionally nice. Extraordinarily nice. As in, EXTRA-ordinarily," Emily emphasized. "Your promise holds true? You aren't charging us an arm and a leg for the star treatment?"
"I... I have said I intend no harm. I will not hurt you or your friends."
"That's not what I asked."
Una sighed. "Emily, please! Mister Esrever, sir, I'd be happy to accompany you. I can't wait to see what wonders you have in store! I am here to learn Earth's culture, and I believe that of the Faerie should count as well, yes? We shall reconvene at the resting quarters within two hours. You recall the way, yes? Two rooms forward, one to the left."
"This way, please," Esrever said, offering his arm. The white-haired girl accepted it graciously, as they stepped onto the surface of the nearby river-- and vanished.
I want to be wrong, Emily thought. Please let me be wrong.
Instead, she turned her attention to the Henge. A smile leaked back in, thinking back. Those were good memories, some of the few she had of this place. Learning spells... listening to lectures... and... oh, right, that...
Una stepped from moonlight to earthlight.
At first, she wasn't sure what this new place was. It looked decidedly dreary, so gray and featureless, save the occasional pockmarked crater awash in a fine dust. She turned in place, to take in the lay of the land. There were footprints here -- large ones, from boots, left behind in the dust that covered the ground below. In the distance was some sort of odd golden spiderlike thing, a platform of some sort, and oh yes, there was an Eastusa flag, how curious, and beyond that--
"--the Earth!" Una exclaimed.
"The moon itself reflects light, as does the planet," Esrever explained, turning to face her. "It is distant... I had to find a telescope first, so I could look at it, understand it. It's so far away. That's why I couldn't copy your amazing mirror-cities, I can only dream of them... this is as close to home as I could get you. ...do you like it, Una-mirrorchild?"
Una took several light hopping steps, the dust shuffling as her shiny boots walked across it. So light... she was so light here, like a feather...
Esrever floated nearby. He didn't need to walk, or bounce.
"I know it's not the real thing. Nothing in my world is real... it's all just a lonely copy of the original. But... I'd like to think you are the only woman in history to set foot on the moon. I wish I could give you that honor..."
"It's... it's so beautiful," Una said, softly, honestly. "I've seen it from an observation deck on my Arcology many times, but it's just... I thought it was just a lifeless rock, a simple planetary satellite. But from here, seeing everything... EVERYTHING..!"
"We can stay as long as you want," Esrever said. "Explore it. Visit the dark side, scale one of the craters miles wide. We could... picnic here, if you like. There is air because I want you to be comfortable. It's not too cold, because I want you to be warm. ...I want you to be happy, Una-mirrorchild. Dear Una..."
Her bouncing slowed, until she stood on her feet again.
"Your people fascinate me," he was quick to explain, floating closer to her, looking in her eyes. "People of mirror-cities, people who shine like the stars! Zee opened my eyes to a world beyond the tangle of the Courts, beyond the harsh structures of man. I've seen your technology. It's so beautiful... so perfect. Just like you, Una. I've longed to meet a female of your people, and you do not disappoint! Delightful, delicate, wondrous Una. Teach me. Please, show me your ways! We could have all eternity to share between us. I can make it be!"
...she sighed. It would have been a shock, if not for Emily's sharp senses. Now, she'd had time to think about it. Time to know how she would react.
"Esrever... I'm sorry."
"Sorry for what, Una?"
"I can't stay with you," she said, offering a sad smile. "You're a fine host, a gentleman... and I sense goodness in you, no matter what my friends think of my judgment of character. But I just can't. I'm happy to talk with you, to tell you about my people, but I have a responsibility to them. I need to find the hypertech cache, so that we no longer indirectly hurt the people of your world. ...and... I don't think I'm ready for what you want, beyond that. So. I'm so sorry."
...Esrever floated down gently, his feet touching the moondust.
"I've approached it wrong. I know I have," he tried to explain, in his defense. "I needed to study how people relate to each other more. I have no experience. I don't know anything. But I could learn! I could... learn how to love you. I know if you give me a chance, I can find what makes you happy. ...is it my shape? I can wear another!"
"Esrever, it's not that, I--"
He shifted, to a handsome man in his twenties, a fashion model. Then to a stately Fae baron, in a large fur coat, with smoldering good looks. Then to a woman, then to a young boy band singer from the cover of a teen magazine, desperately trying to find something that would change that sorrowful look in her eyes.
"...ah! I have it!" he declared. "It's him, isn't it? You want him."
--and Scout was standing there. --yes! Her eyes widened, and the mirror-sense, his innate magic could sense the need. Just as it had sensed the pizza, and the Henge!
"I can be his reflection for you," he promised. "I can hold you and love you and make you mine. He is handsome, yes? Or are you attracted to his Winterhound nature...? I can do that! I can be intense, passionate, even cruelly so! Or, or would you want myself AND him? I can arrange it with Lady Winter! It would cost me, but his leash could be yours, anything, anything you crave--"
"NO! S-stop it, please..!" Una exclaimed... stepping back awkwardly in fear, slowly falling to the ground, arms ahead defensively...
...Esrever shifted back to his first form, the teenage boy, although more hazy and transparent than before. Distraught.
"I.. I didn't mean to..."
"You don't understand at all!" Una replied, harsher than she wanted the words to be. "I want Scout to be well, and... I want him to find love, the one I can tell he needs, even if it leaves me lonely, and that means even if I desire him it's not what I want, you're just mixing it up, and, and..!"
Too strong, too cruel. Una dialed herself back some, before he could fade away completely, as he had done when Emily originally scolded him.
"I... I meant it. I meant what I said before, Esrever. I have a responsibility, and that is the one reason I can't stay with you," she clarified. "It's not your fault. ...I'm not very good at romance, either, I won't fault you on anything of the sort. But none of that matters -- the responsibility must come first. For the sake of the mirror-people."
"...for the sake of the mirror-people," the Winterfae repeated, his image solidifying again.
"I owe this world a great favor. We've hurt it, by letting our technology fall into the wrong hands. ...I need to leave in the morning, on the path you made for us. Do you understand now?"
His eyes were downcast, scuffling a toe on the dusty surface. "I understand. ...I'm sorry to hear that."
"I know you're disappointed--"
"That's not what I mean. I was hoping I could convince you to stay... even though I knew you would need to move on. But you have to stay. ...that's the favor you owe to Lady Winter. She's decided."
Una cocked her head, trying to understand that. "What? Favors? I owe her nothing that I know of..."
"Not you, specifically. Your people," he said. "It's the hypertech cache. It... trespassed into her domain. It doesn't matter if that was intentional or not, it counts as an insult against the Winter Court, and there must be a leveling of the scales. She has held onto the favor for a long time... and told me yesterday that the payment your people will make is you. 'The mirrorchild will stay with you, forever.'"
"But... but you said you wished us no harm, that the hospitality was free!" she protested.
"It was! ...but this is another matter, something distinct and separate. I was honest, even if I could not be forthright. ...this is out of my hands, Una! I must obey Lady Winter. When morning comes... your friends will have to proceed without you. I am able to force them through the path, if need be. But you must be at my side, and remain there, or the debt is not resolved. ...please don't make me force you to stay. I do not wish to abduct the woman I adore so much."
"Then... then don't make me stay! Come with us. That would fulfill the contract, yes?"
Esrever shook his head. "This is my realm. I cannot leave. I can summon people or things through the looking glass, but I remain trapped here. It's a lonely world... all the more reason I wish you could be happy here. You must stay. Neither of us have a choice in this matter."
"But... but I can't--!"
"You must. I'm sorry."
She tried to protest again... and stopped.
No. This is a problem, Una recognized. Solve it like a problem. When the Wendigoes attacked the mall, Emily made a plan, right on the spot. How clever my friend is! I must be clever, as well. ...even if I have fallen into another trap. I must be clever and save myself as she would have.
"Esrever... please, this is of critical importance. How did Lady Winter phrase the payment that the Orbitals must make?"
"The mirrorchild will stay with you, forever. Those were her words."
"Ah, but I will one day die, won't I?" she asked, oddly hopeful. "Or... does your world keep me alive, somehow?"
"...no, it doesn't have that power. Only reflections are eternal."
Perfect! Una thought. "And if I did die, then my body would have to stay with you forever. You would need to be in the company of my corpse for all time, or you would be breaking your vow!"
The Winterfae was aghast at that thought. "I... I would trust my Mistress not to require that of me--"
"You would? But her wording implies it. She might never release you from that! She is cruel, is she not?"
"So, the way I am observing the situation is that you require 'the mirrorchild to stay with you forever.' Which isn't something I myself can realistically do. ...tell me. Your reflections, even if they aren't real, they are the things they are, yes?"
"I.. I don't follow."
"A reflection of a pizza is a pizza," Una explained. "Otherwise, how could I eat it? A reflection of a bed is a bed. Otherwise, how could I sleep on it comfortably? A reflection of the Moon is the Moon! I can feel its dust in my boots, even now! And therefore...?"
"...you can't possibly mean..."
"It is possible! You said as much to Emily -- that it would take great personal effort, but it could be done. What's more, it would fit Lady Winter's words flawlessly... perhaps more than what you think she intended! A true 'mirror-child', one that is forever! My understanding of the Fae is that wordplay and fulfilling the letter of a request if not the spirit are quite common, yes?"
"...my people do like to make a game of oaths and promises, yes. This skirts very close, however. Lady Winter may exhibit a terrible rage... or she could be terribly amused. Her mood is difficult to predict..."
"I realize it's a risk," Una said. "But... if the only other option is to abandon my people... I'm sorry. I can't do that. And I'd rather not have to fight the Winter Court for my freedom, but I will, even if it would mean my death. I suspect my friends would do the same."
"Then you agree to my alleged cleverness?"
Esrever looked pensive. "Una... although I can promise the process would leave you unaltered... are you sure about this? The implications..."
"I realize there are, ah... philosophical issues," she said. "Similar to ones our biologists have dealt with in our healing methods. But... I'm willing to brave them, if you are. ...if it must be done so that I can continue, and so that I am not putting my gracious host in an untenable position with his lord and ruler... I'm willing."
"...your generosity is... it's... I am unworthy of it," he spoke, adding a grateful bow to her despite his nervousness. "Very well. I would need to, ah... study you, extensively. Your form, your shape, your self. It will take some time..."
"Then my time is yours," Una said, arms wide in acceptance. "Forever, it seems."
"At LAST!" Emily shouted to the moon. "It's mine! All mine!"
She felt like laughing, dancing, running about. So, she did. The world spun with delights, and Emily spun with it...
It was just like the best days of her life... awash in magic and camaraderie. Here at the Henge, all the troubles that went with learning the art would fade. It was just the witch, the wood, the Word, and the Way. The Joy of Hex.
She circled the altar, twirling as she went. It was the first time she'd danced in... well, since those halcyon evenings. Now, ordinarily Emily didn't hold to dancing, she'd decided in her 'old age'. It was frivolous, the sort of thing silly girls normally did to excite boys. But the feet knew the steps and the body knew the motions, she was finding on this strangely reflective evening... it wasn't just prancing about or moving according to formal steps to some silly old three-fourths time tune. This was a celebration of discovery!
Yes, just like those evenings with her coven-sisters.
Which meant that she was in fact dancing naked in proper witchy tradition when Scout emerged from the forest.
Emily spun out of control from the shock, crashing into the altar and scraping her knee. This didn't stop her from scrabbling behind it immediately, trying to use the thin stone column to keep anything unseemly from poking out into the open air.
"Don't you KNOCK?!" she shouted at him.
"...on what?" Scout asked.
"I don't know... a tree, or something! You move too damn silently-- QUIT STARING!"
"I'm not staring..."
"Quit... looking, then!"
Scout averted his eyes. Good.
It was the fastest Emily had ever dressed in her life. She didn't skimp the details; petticoats, stockings, everything had to be in place to cover up her red-hot embarrassment. The hat made her head feel hotter, but she didn't care. The entire process took a little over a minute and she probably tore her stockings in the process. They could be mended.
"...alright. You can look now," she decided, allowing the boy to once again gaze upon her witchiness, now that it was properly clothed witchiness again.
Scout un-averted his eyes. Good.
"That was just me following the very respectful and traditional dance of magical, er, learning," Emily justified immediately. "It's very ancient and time-honored. Totally normal and ordinary and in fact quite a serious ritualistic, ah, ritual, and NOT simply stripping off and running around nakers for fun, no matter what you may be thinking!"
"I.. wasn't thinking anything one way or another," Scout decided to say.
"Well, good! Just as long as you understand I'm not some sort of, you know. Girl who takes off her clothes and dances around for no sensible reason."
"...what was your sensible reason?"
"Ah! I was just getting to that!" she said -- pointing to the open book of magic on the pedestal. "Behold! The manifold mysteries of the arcane have been realized in mine eyes! I now hold the long-sought spell of Perfectea!"
She lifted a teacup that had been left next to the book, whispering a twisted Word from one of many paper copies she'd made, in the Way of Faerie magic. The cup glowed briefly... and with a tiny 'sloop' noise, the cup instantly filled to the brim with warm, steaming tea, rich in colour and emitting an aroma promising flavour. You could practically taste the U in those words.
"I could never find a copy of the Perfectea spell," she explained. "Books of spells are jealously guarded by their owners. I met an elven lorekeeper who offered to copy it for me, but I didn't like the way he was leering, so I turned him down. But now, I can make my OWN perfect cup of tea, any time I want to! Oho! My witchy ways are amazing, are they not?"
"Yes," Scout said, clapping lightly, as he felt she wanted the appreciation. "Amazing, Emily. Yay."
Sipping gracefully at the Tea of Victory, she let its flawless brew warm her, head to toes. Even if she was already quite warm. "Ahhh... at last. I've been waiting to get my hands on this spell..."
"I don't understand what tea has to do with dancing without your clothes on."
"...now, look. I've gone and spilled my tea," Emily complained, shakily setting the cup aside after. A forced change in topics was required. "Let's get back to the fancy pants bedrooms Esrever's picked out and hope he hasn't somehow locked Una up in some crazy Fae debt. ...and not a word to her about what you saw, understand?"
It was the second time in twenty four hours that Scout had been subject to nude girls. At least he could be thankful that there were no more of them around to confuse him like this. And that Emily had been too startled and manic to trigger any sort of Winterhound's lust reaction from him.
Even if, for some strange reason, he felt like he wouldn't entirely dislike the idea of once again seeing Emily like that.
The night had passed uneventfully.
They had been given adjoining bedrooms, each one flavored to their needs, each one clearly from a different building entirely. Scout had a military barracks of some sort -- amazing, how the entire room could be duplicated despite the only reflective surface being a shaving mirror on an open locker door. Emily had been given a cozy little second floor cottage bedroom, with a window overlooking someone's farm; it had a lived-in beloved auntie sort of feel, which suited her. Una had a hotel room decorated with some sort of weird mix of furniture that clearly was what 20th century people thought the 22nd century would look like, and they had gotten it hilariously wrong.
Except Una wasn't in fact there. Emily had peeked in a few times, just to confirm this. Una was still out somewhere in the mirror-realm with Esrever. Well, that wouldn't stand.
She returned to her bedroom, looking in the full length dressing mirror. "Esrever, Esrever, Esrever. I summon you. I don't have a candle but you'd bloody well better show up!"
After a minute without reply... a hazy, indistinct light appeared in the mirror. Silvery, like the moonlight deer he had crafted earlier that evening. His voice was distant, as if coming to her across a long ways.
"My attentions are elsewhere; I apologize for my inability to attend to your needs directly," he replied, muffled as he was. "How can I assist you, Summerling?"
"She is with me."
"Right. I had a feeling. Well, don't think this sort of funny business is going unnoticed -- if she's not back in five minutes I'm going on a tear, you understand? You got a lotta pretty mirrors around here. Shame if anything happened to them--"
"Emily, please... I'm quite fine," Una's voice replied, from within the mirror. "There's no need... for threats..."
"...you okay? You sound out of breath."
"If you must know... I will be spending the night in the company of Esrever. I will rejoin you in the morning so that we may continue on our way."
Emily groaned. Figured. "Una, we talked about this--"
"What I do with my time is my decision. I'm a big girl, and I can handle myself," she protested. "I appreciate your concern, my friend, but... I do not require a chaperone. I'm just as old as you are, you know! Have a little trust, please..."
"Fine! Whatever!" Emily exclaimed, holding up her hands in surrender, as the silver light faded from view. "Don't blame me when you end up with a litter of snowmen or something in nine months! If you won't listen to your resident expert on all things... hey! Are you even paying attention? Get back here! You.... ooooh!"
Frustrated, she turned back to her bed, and threw herself on it. Grumbling and cuddling a pillow. Once again, everything would just be so much easier if everybody did what she told them. Why was she the only person to realize that?
Despite their host's intentions, an evening's rest hadn't put the three at much ease.
Scout was the closest to relaxed. He'd managed to find a Frontliner's uniform in his 'bedroom', complete with the Scout's crosshairs logo on the shoulder. It was the wrong shoulder, since everything in this realm was reversed, but it suited him far more than the simple black t-shirt and pants he had come in, his old uniform having been scorched badly in the mall incident. Still, he was busy working out a crick in his neck.
"You'd think you'd be used to military bunks, given you were an army brat," Emily had commented.
"You would think that," Scout chose to reply.
Emily, of course, was not relaxed at all. She'd composed herself well, true, making sure to look her best -- it wouldn't do to be seen in a post-worrywart state. She'd washed up and had a quick breakfast. Slotted some new empty pages into her spellbook and copied a variety of utility spells, in case the challenge ahead of them needed, well, anything she was capable of. Despite living the motto of "Be Prepared," her nerves were far higher strung than she'd have liked them to be.
Una... looked exhausted. Her hair wasn't fully combed, just tussled a bit to put it in some sort of workable shape. She'd smoothed out her clothes as best she could. Dark rings under her eyes betrayed a lack of sleep, and her slow reaction time to Emily's frosty "Good morning" call showed she had much on her mind.
"Aaaand did you have a fun time last night?" Emily asked.
"I take care of my own problems," Una chose to reply. Oh no, not ominous at all, that.
Their host... well, their host could look like anything he wanted, with no wear and tear. He had kept to the form he left with Una in. Still, he looked troubled... serious in intent and tone.
"I... ah... realize that my goal of helping you prepare for the journey ahead may not have gone as I wished," he said. "If you'd like you could wait another day, before continuing--"
"I'd really like to get out of here," Emily stated.
"--right. Then let me explain. The place you are going to is in... dispute. I am oathbound not to explain, and for this I must apologize. Ever since it was brought to light following the incident with Quicksilver Security, the way has been shut to me. I have opened the path, at an expense you paid in enduring the trial of the Wendigoes. By conquering them you have earned right of passage, but the way is dark, and not without its defenses."
Scout cracked his knuckles, trying to get limber and ready. "We can handle any fight you've got," he said. "Don't worry."
"This is not a fight in a physical sense. What you are to face is... yourselves. You will be made to reflect upon yourselves and events that brought you here. Three mirrors you will cross in front of on the path -- a Mirror of Beginnings, a Mirror of Difficulties, and finally a Mirror of Suffering. ...I don't doubt that you can face them, as they hold no surprises for you. But just as someone can observe another in a mirror... your companions will see you for what you are, as well."
Scout's left eye twitched.
"Well... alright, then," Emily said, doing her best to look nonchalant and confident. "So, we learn of each other's mysterious and spooky pasts. So what? We're friends. It's not like we've got anything to hide. ...even if we don't talk much about years gone by. Whatever. That's your big challenge? Fine, we're up to it. Which way to the mirrors?"
Esrever gestured, and a distant door swung open. "The hallway lies through there. Walk the path of mirrors, and you will find an exit into your world at the very end. From there, you are on your own. ...I wish I could have been a finer host for you. I know you were not satisfied with your time here. But... I will miss you, when you are gone."
"Lonely life, huh?"
But Esrever only smiled, at that.
The group tentatively walked on, led by the witch who strode firmly ahead, and were through the door. Gone.
"...I don't think they're ready for this," he whispered aloud.
"I think it's for the best, actually," a voice from mirror-shadow said, before joining at his side. "They need to know each other better. There's too many things left unsaid between them. I remain optimistic that they'll emerge as better people! And now... we can know each other better, as well."
Esrever turned to his companion, with a hopeful look. "You wish it...?"
Anu smiled to him. "All that she valued is reflected in me -- and she is willing to share as much as she can of herself with those who wish to join her bright future. I am free to be with you, to teach you."
"...and to love me?"
The true Mirrorchild offered an awkward smile. "Well... maybe. We'll have to learn of that subject that together. We're both a bit new at all this, you know. ...hmm. Now that the journey is left to my sister, and I've my own path to consider... what will Lady Winter think of me? Can you, err, I don't know, phone her and make sure she isn't going to--"
Oh, I am amused.
Both boy and girl froze at the sound of that icy voice. But it wasn't a sarcastic statement... there was glee there, like the play of light off an icicle.
This was one possibility. A clumsy dodge, hardly the stuff of legendary Fae trickery, but satisfactory for an amateur. I will accept the gambit Una has played. After all, in the end, I still obtained what I desired.
"...ah," Anu said, not quite sure yet if she should be relieved. "And... what is it you want?"
I want them to walk the road they are on. I want them to walk it all the way to the doom at the end of the journey. And beyond that doom... I want her memories, her knowhow, her connection to the other-worldly ones. How useful for the days ahead! Such purpose it can be put to!
After all... that wonderful outsider knowledge is now bound within a Winterfae form, sworn to obey the Crown of Ice by nature of what it is. A shame the silly girl didn't realize that. In the end, you will serve the Winter Court well.
Now... you will kneel, my pets. Kneel before the Crown and swear fealty.
Esrever and his eternal companion slowly bent knee to the presence of Lady Winter, eyes downcast, while laughter whipped through their heads like a chilling gale.
Meanwhile, the three were facing a long, dark hallway.
The hall itself wasn't very menacing. It had been copied from some ancient manor house -- here and there were doors, although they didn't want to risk going off the path by exploring them. An occasional small wooden table held a vase of flowers, or an old rotary dial telephone, or other odds and ends. Portraits of people who were likely important for some reason hung on the walls.
Between the portraits were mirrors. One directly ahead, another farther down, and one on the edge of the darkness at the end of the hallway.
A grandfather clock nearby rang out the hour, nearly making Emily jump out of her skin.
"--right. Well. Okay," she said, composing herself again. "We walk in front of the mirrors, get treated to a magical peep show, and move on. ...who's going first?"
Una raised her hand. "I volunteer. I believe in exploring new frontiers, and--"
"No way. If the mirror gets teeth and tongues and eats you alive, we'll have nobody to disable the hypertech at the end of the hallway. So, Scout goes first," Emily decided shortly after asking for volunteers.
"...don't want to."
"Err?" she said, checking to see if that mousy reply really came from Mister Tall, Dark and Spooky.
"I... don't want to go first," he said, clearly trying not to look scared. Emily could only tell because fear wasn't something she'd seen in Scout before; the slightest hint of it was therefore obviously different and strange. "...sorry. Maybe dangerous. But... I, ah..."
She almost said 'Oh alright, you big baby' but stopped herself. "Ah. Well, then--"
Before they could debate it any further, Una stepped in front of the first mirror.
Una point zero one of Arcology #A076 was born to Ono (an up and coming Optimist and anthropological studies protege) and Lea (a no-nonsense Pragmatic engineering apprentice specializing in shift engines).
It wasn't entirely unheard of for such opposites to come together and produce an offspring -- genetic planning systems could produce unusual pairings, owing to the minute details of DNA combination that would be all but invisible to an Orbital laymen. As long as the resulting child was of strong breed, the parents mattered not, and often rarely took part in raising the child beyond donating their genetic material.
It wasn't even entirely strange for two people to unite and declare bonds of love for each other, producing a child without the assistance of the eugenics program. In a culture with plenty of free time to ponder the nature of the universe and the truths of beauty and art, love was sometimes seen as a silly indulgence for liberal minded types, but certainly not disallowed. Celebrity bonding ceremonies made for excellent gossip, after all.
But put the two together -- a pairing of opposites, who somehow fell into an emotional bond of love? That was entirely unheard of. It was the talk of the Arcology for years after Una's birth. Not that she was aware... all she knew was her father loved her, her mother loved her, and she had no wants in life. Those days were perfection. Happiness.
In her seventh year, her parents took up new societal roles. Ono was promoted to be Master Council Anthropologist of Arcology #A076 (Eastusa Specialist), and Lea was the new Engineer Superior in charge of maintaining the great shift engine and its many interlinked systems. They moved outward -- the districts of the Arcology core were cramped and unappealing, compared to the outward components of the city. Specifically, ones with windows.
It was when they introduced Una to her new bedroom that she got her first taste of Earth.
"Pretty!" she exclaimed, pressing herself up against the transparent surface, wanting to be as close to that wonderful blue and white thing as possible. "It's so pretty! That's Earth. I've seen pictures, but this picture's the best one!"
"Do you want to go there, one day?" father had asked.
"Oh, yes! Very much so! What is it like, father, to walk on a planet? How do they not fall off?"
Ono chuckled. "Well, if you'd do your physics homework, little lady..."
"It's so booooring," Una complained.
"But if you complete your tasks... I will teach you all I know of Earth, and expand your database access so you can learn as you please. Is this satisfactory?"
Una showed her satisfaction through hugging. It was an appropriate and well received gesture.
Not everyone was happy with the arrangement.
"Earth is savage," Lea had complained. "I'm not sure I want our little one exposed to them. She is too dear to me to allow such risks. Earthlings are liars and thieves, and will use her if they are given chance."
"Oh, come now, dear. You must have faith in the essential decency of people, regardless of their origin-world. We were not unlike them once, yes? So very much like them, in fact..."
From that day onward, they would picnic in the Arboretum of Arcology #BE12, a short flight from #A076, every week-rotation. And Una would study, and learn, and prepare. And hope one day to walk the surface of the strange and mysterious place of her dreams.
...and Una staggered forward once, her memory snapping back to the present. She glanced over to the mirror, hesitant... but now it was just a mirror again. Just a mirror in a hallway, and nothing more.
"Ah... well. That wasn't so bad," she said, confidence rising. "Quite nice, in fact! I wonder if I can have another go of it? Oh! Did you see...?"
"...you were right about the pictures."
"Pictures of Earth," Emily said, quietly. "I've seen it in books, from back when people still flew into space. Just looked kind of flat and blurry with lots of clouds and water. ...it IS pretty, the way you saw it. ...good gravy, Una, you had the best bedroom window of anybody that's ever lived!"
"Ah, well, actually, a few blocks down the view was a bit better. Mine was occasionally blocked by a set of broken and drifting communications satellites..."
Emily stretched out a bit. "Alright! I'm doing this next. This is really amazing! I can't believe Esrever thought we'd hate this--"
"Mirror of Difficulties next," Scout reminded her. "And then, a Mirror of Suffering."
"Yes, well, we'll burn that bridge when we come to it. Now, what do I do? Do I just walk in front of it like--"
Emily Moonthistle was born in a humble little village which made other humble little villages look like Xanadu. By and large, her family farmed dirt, because little else would grow. Some corn, some cabbage, that was it. They'd raise chickens and hogs for slaughter, but had no room for larger animals.
Still, it was a pleasant place which saw no struggle or strife, partly because it wasn't worth the effort for raiders to stampede over it and take everything they had, partly because of Nana Moonthistle.
Nana was an ancient woman, old as the hills themselves and twice as wise. (A saying which never made sense to Emily, because the saying "dumber than dirt" implied the hills couldn't be very bright.) The council of the elder farmers made all important decisions... but often after much deliberation and debate, when they'd finally reached consensus... they'd give a sideways glance to Nana in her rocking chair, and wait for a brief nod of approval before moving on. When traders came to town, Nana gave a brief nod or a brief shake of the head to any offers made. Even when brigands threatened the town, all it took was a sharp glance from Nana Moonthistle to make them immediately reconsider.
Nana was godmother to all the children of the village. At their birth, she'd be there, to bless the child: "Be strong and capable and may your crops grow tall." It was tradition.
But when Emily was born -- the direct female line descendant of Nana Moonthistle, her great-granddaughter -- according to legend she had started to say the blessing by route... but paused. And then changed it.
"May your eyes be sharp," she'd blessed, "May your mind be sound. And may your path be your own."
This made Emily a bit of an "alpha girl" whenever the village girls got together to play their games. When the boys played games like Frontliners and Faeries, Emily would often interject herself, and they knew they couldn't say no to her. (Oddly, she always wanted to play a Faerie, even though they were the bad guys.)
It was even said that Emily had the Insight in her. It was always said that way, with a capital I, some sort of supernatural insight into events around her. When she was very young, you couldn't spell things out like B-A-T-H or B-E-D-T-I-M-E around her; she'd know what was what in a flash, even before she could properly spell. She also picked up on things others didn't, like how old man Winters was probably seeing old widow Marigold, even if she didn't know why. It was a talent Nana had in spades, able to make a connection when others couldn't -- a guess, not something you couldn't make if you had the facts, but a guess that usually turned out to be correct.
Still, despite Emily's ranking status as Senior Junior, she didn't play with her peers too often. Much of the time, she was holed up in her room, reading the books her Nana had given her. Reading about how to mend clothes, how to churn butter, how to take care of ailing pigs, but more interesting to her was a single book accidentally mixed into the pile about Faeries. Nana didn't like Faeries, and shooed them away whenever they came to trade... which only made them more and more interesting to Emily.
This is why when it was announced that the village had, at tremendous expense, traded for a portable solar-powered media player with some passing merchants, Emily immediately insisted that the first village movie gathering be the Wizard of Oz. She'd heard about it from other children who passed through the village with trader parents -- it was the most commonly cited movie about magic they knew of, since most of them didn't care about that stuff and were more keen on watching Death Bloodfist IV and Adam Sandler Is The Girl Scout and things like that.
That movie was the single most wonderful experience of her childhood.... a tale of wonderful magic, and clever girls who learned how important your home really was, and silly boys who couldn't get by without the help of a brave young girl. And a little dog, true, but she was more interested in the flying monkeys than the dog.
But one thing didn't click with her.
"Are witches really wicked?" she'd asked her Nana, the next day.
"Mmmm. The movie said she was, so she was, wasn't she?" Nana asked, looking up from her knitting.
"But there was a good witch in the movie, too. She flew around in a bubble and wore a pretty dress and everybody liked her," Emily pointed out. "So, there have to be good witches, too."
"It's just a story, Emily. The way of things're different, they are. Mayhaps there could be good witches... but mayhaps there are more bad ones than good. Ought to be careful, around witches. Around Faeries, in general."
"I think I should want to be a good witch, Nana. I'll wear a nice hat and will help people with their problems and people will like me, like you do for people."
"Oh? And you need magic to do those things, do you?"
"Well... maybe not, but it'd be a lot easier with magic."
"Ahhh. Makin' things nice and easy, yes, that's witchcraft," Nana said, laughing bitterly. "You focus on your studies, young'n. There's value in the work. You'll understand, one day."
Emily wasn't listening, by then. She was too busy picturing herself in a nice pointy hat. Probably one like the battered old hat Nana kept hidden away in her closet that nobody else knew about.
Her next step sent her off balance -- arms pinwheeling to stabilize. She didn't want to run the risk of staggering ahead into front of the next mirror. After recovering, the brim of her hat flopping forward over her eyes... in a moment of sheepishness, she paused to adjust her hat, making sure it was pointed in a direction reasonably approximating up.
"...ahh, so... you always wanted to be a witch," Una said, evaluating. "And... the hat! That's your ancestral hat..!"
"...yeah. It's Nana's," Emily said, with a sigh. "When I.. graduated, I decided to wear this one, ratty as it may be. ...never dared to mend it with anything other than a spool of thread, though. In mirror-induced hindsight... I don't think Nana would've approved of me using magic to fix it when I was capable of just doing work..."
"I see! So, your 'Nana' was also a witch!"
"I figured that out later. Much later. But... yeah."
"But... she said she didn't approve of witchcraft...?"
"Look, can we just get on with this? It's embarrassing enough as is. Starting to see why Esrever was all antsy," Emily said, waving Scout along. "C'mon, you. I can't imagine your story would be as silly as mine was."
Scout hesitated. "...wouldn't be silly at all," he warned. "It'd be something else."
Frustration welled up -- and was shoved down deep inside Emily. No. He needed support, now, no matter what her witchy impulses told her to say. "Scout... it's okay. Whatever happened to you obviously wasn't sunshine and roses. But you know we accept you, right? No matter how you ended up like this, I'm not changing my mind about that. You're stuck with me, whether you like it or not... so you don't have to hide. Come along, now. It's going to be alright..."
The boy took a deep breath... and closed his eyes, as he stepped--
Surrounding him, laughing, jeering. He could barely see, the tears were so thick, but his ears picked up every little sing-song nuance of the chant, every mocking jeer.
"Crybaby crybaby cry all day, crybaby crybaby cry all day!" they sang. It was a popular song in the orphanage -- a fine way to pass the time, when none of the adults were looking. Sure to make the little boy shirk away into himself, sobbing pathetically. "Crybaby crybaby cry all day, all the day long!"
He was five, and had no mommy, had no daddy. He didn't know it at the time, but mommy had gotten pregnant when she was just in high school, and didn't even know which daddy was the right one, that's how drunk she was. Her parents were direly religious, and refused to support her wishes for an abortion -- she was kept out of the public eye, so that her shame didn't humiliate them in the small resettling community of San Antonio. The boy only saw his mother for a few seconds, before he was shipped off to the orphanage in Austin.
Off to grow up a scrawny, weak willed thing, easily picked on by his peers. Maybe they somehow knew he was a rejected child, something nobody wanted, even beyond their own sob stories. They learned quickly that they could make him suffer on demand with such simple prompting.
"Crybaby crybaby cry all day, crybaby crybaby cry all day!"
He covered his ears, trying to muffle the catcalls. Didn't help. He balled up his fists under his chin, looked down to the floor, tried to wish them away. Didn't help. Nothing could help. He couldn't do anything...
There's something you can do, a cold thought echoed inside him. But it was bad. Bad kids did that. Not that anybody cared if he was bad. Not that anybody cared about him, at all. If nobody wanted him... then why should he care if he was a bad kid?
He already had a fist. He just needed to use it.
The small child knocked a kid a year older than him out cold in one punch. Not that this stopped him, no. Now the sorrow was rage, a simple twist to the left, redirected into something that he could use against him. Something that WOULD make them stop. He hit the other boy. He hit him again. And again. And again.
They'd stopped singing long ago and he kept hitting anyway.
Eventually an adult hand clamped over his arm, dragging him away, the other hand still flailing in the air. The tears had dried up now, and would not return for years.
The three were quiet, after that.
Scout made no reaction whatsoever to the projected memory. It was the sort of no-reaction that took an amazing amount of self control to maintain.
Emily spoke up first -- more to herself, than anyone else. "...kids can be little bastards," she grumbled.
Una tried to comfort. "Scout, I... I am sorry for the way your fellow young people treated you--"
"I found my solution, that's all that matters," Scout said, with a shrug. "Made them stop. ...wasn't right. I know that now, of course. I won't apologize, won't excuse or explain. Won't justify, either. I did it and I kept doing it beyond that day. That's all it was."
They looked to the next mirror. It was identical to the previous, but somehow felt... darker. Like the silvery surface that was lying in wait would not be a particularly smooth one.
"We should retain the ordering," Una decided, before Emily could start planning. "Give Scout some time. I have no problems going first. ...I doubt my issues will eclipse yours, so they would serve as a welcome pause in what lies ahead. I take no pride in that, friends, but perhaps it can be plied to your advantage, agreed?"
"...um... 'kay," Emily agreed. "If you want, Una."
Una turned to face the next mirror. No fear! There is always hope! she told herself, before stepping directly in front of it.
"I don't understand your query."
This wasn't going as she had imagined it.
It took Una days to work up the courage. She had reviewed the cultural recordings of Earth, learning the customs and standards, comparing and contrasting them against what she could find in Orbital poetry and style guides to such things. She'd obtained a new dress just for this, a slimming one with a shorter skirt compared to the simpler garment she had worn all year long.
If anything, she had to force herself to have patience. She wanted to walk right up to Dar and ask him outright, so eager was she to explore this new feeling, but knew that all good things came with careful study and planning. Her mother had taught her that. A thing worth doing is worth doing properly!
But all that work, all that forethought, summoning up her nerve to speak the words... and it was collapsing around her.
"I.. was wondering if you would consider it an attractive proposition," she tried to explain. "It is to my understanding that you appreciate the dramatic entertainments, and obviously, proper nutrition is the cornerstone of--"
"If I wanted to visit a drama, why would I need to attend it in your presence?" Dar asked, genuinely confused. "Discussion between audience members during the performance is discouraged. It's also unusual to consider company during eating, because by definition, your mouth will be occupied with consuming, not talking. Why would I want to go to these places with you?"
"Be.. because... it'd be... fun?" Una suggested, weakly.
Dar considered the suggestion, and rejected it promptly. "These things are more 'fun' to do by myself. Having you around would not improve upon them, and would likely detract, as you are a talkative person from what I have observed in our study groups. Also, your intellect is too low to properly interpret the dramas that I enjoy, so I don't see how you could possibly have anything to say that would interest me. Excuse me, I am late for returning to my room to study."
The shock and terror on Una's face did nothing to slow his departure.
butiloveyou, she couldn't say. Every time I look at you, my heartrate fluctuates! Your insights given during class inspire me! I have imagined the times we could enjoy together for weeks now, I knew it was meant to be, that love will light the way, that...
She hadn't considered for a single moment that he wouldn't like her. She hadn't thought he might think she was... stupid. Chatty. Boring. Maybe ugly, even...
Una ran all the way home, down hallways and corridors, brushing rudely past pedestrians who idly wondered what all the fuss was about. Through the communal area, past her mother enjoying a steaming drink, into her room and onto her bed to collapse into tears.
The chime sounded at her door, voice carried through the comm. "...Una, dear? What is the matter? May I enter...?"
"y-yes, mother," she spoke, desperate for some comfort.
Mother had just returned from her work with the engines. There was still liquefied mass stains on her jumpsuit; she rarely cared about such things, as preening and primping were not practical activities. She sat on the bed next to Una... stroking a loving hand through her hair. "There, there. In your own time, now. When you're ready, you may speak of what has transpired, and I will assist you in understanding the experience."
Several minutes later, the young girl slowly sat up... leaning heavily against her mother for support. And she described what had happened, in detail.
Lea-mother sighed. "Una, Una, Una... of all boys... why Dar? He's so utterly boorish..."
"He.. he was handsome," Una weakly suggested, unable to think of any other virtues. "I imagined much, mother. ...too much."
"He's also quite firmly a Pragmatist, dear. Even at this early age, he's selected his mentality. I suspect one day he'll be high on the Council, deep in their camp."
"But mother, you're a Pragmatist, and you love father..!"
Lea smiled, playfully. "Well, if I didn't help keep your father's feet tethered, he'd likely float off into space, wouldn't he? But Una, love is about more than complementary angles. It's about more than a pretty face. Pragmatism states that one should be familiar with your intended partner, very familiar, before considering the question of love."
Una pouted. "I don't want to be old when I find love! I want to enjoy the dating and the romance that the Earth children find so easily!"
"I swear, if your father didn't insist on filling your head with that surface nonsense..." Lea groaned. "Una. The young of both Earth and the Arcologies often rush in, guided by hormones and dreams. But I swear by all things reasonable... one day, you will know your love not by your hopes... but by your head AND heart. It will sneak up on you, unrecognizable. Perhaps in the form of a favored friend. But when it is right, you will know. Have patience."
Una nodded a little, between sniffles.
"You are learning well, dear. This experience may have been unpleasant, but through suffering we can find knowledge that may have otherwise escaped us. I hope you will one day look back on this and understand. But for now... would you enjoy some Cold Fun?"
"...will you add the decorative particles?"
"Blue AND pink," Lea promised. "As you like."
...Una looked at herself, in the now quite ordinary mirror. And from this angle, she could see Scout, on the edge of vision.
A lesson I should have learned better, she thought to herself. One I had to repeat. Next time, I will be wiser. I promise, mother. I promise.
"I like your mother," Emily said, with a big grin. "Now there's a woman with her head screwed on right! Y'know, when we're done with this madcap adventure, you think Scout and I could head upstairs to visit your family? I'd love to meet her."
Wordlessly, Una stepped aside, gesturing to the mirror. "You are next, Emily. I will hold out hope that your 'difficulty' be as simple as mine was."
"...I'm kinda doubting that," Emily said, having to consider it now. "But... guess we'll see. ...this is inevitably going to land straight in the suck zone, I'll warn you. I have a bad feeling what the next mirror will show, if this one doesn't show it first. You two ready...?"
Nods, all around. Emily slowly, slowly stepped in front--
The girl looked down into her sack, counting off the herbs, checking the colors. "Red sunset blossoms, six of. White pearl drops, two of. One wild sunflower. Are we missing anything, Emily...?"
Emily consulted the book, one of many Nana had given her years ago. "Hmmm. We still need the handful of peppergrass. ...I think... it's the grass that smells spicy. I read once that Faeries made that stuff, you know. Now it grows all over the place!"
"Ewww, Faeries?" Jesse said, wrinkling her nose. "Why do we want the stuff, then? Maybe it's got a horrible magical curse on it!"
"Don't be silly. Nana wants it for the remedy she's brewing, so it can't be cursed. ...maybe the magic in the grass helps the remedy? That'd be really neat! A magic potion, just like in the stories!"
"I don't wanna drink any magic potions! They'll give you warts, just like some ugly witch!"
"Witches aren't ugly," Emily insisted. "That's just made up stories, to scare people. Witches are... beautiful and powerful. They can fly through the air, they can make the plants grow, they can do anything! This world would be a better place with more witches in it, I suspect. Why don't more people realize that?"
"Because they're afraid, of course."
The voice made them jump. A few flowers fell out of Jesse's sack, which she was quick to recover from the dusty traveler's road... while Emily looked up at the stranger. And up.
She was a tall woman, wearing a stately gown of deep purple. Her hands were in soft, velvety white gloves, folded neatly in front of her. Her raven-black hair was finely combed and washed, highlighting the sharp features of her face, and her--
"Ears!" Emily said, pointing to the pointy ears.
"Why yes, they are. You're a very observant girl," the woman said, pleased.
"You're a Faerie! You're a real Faerie, like in the books!" Emily recognized, overjoyed. "Wow! Jesse, look, look, a Faerie!"
Jesse... took a few steps back, nervous. "We're not supposed to talk to Faeries," she reminded her friend. "We gotta go. We gotta go now..."
"Why're you here?" Emily asked, peering curiously at the woman, now. Insight connected some memories together, things she was told, things she reasoned out. "The nearest Summer Court folk live deep in the forest. We're near a human village. You can't be here to attack us, there's just you."
"Oh, but I'm quite powerful," the woman spoke. "Child, have you heard of the Archmagii?"
"Nnnnno. What're those?"
"I am Archmagus Lilith, of the Summer Court," she spoke, adding a polite curtsey to greet the little girl. "And I train witches. I wander your lands, seeking out bright young girls without fear of the Faerie, ones whose imagination and cleverness help them see past the silly old monster tales of their elders. You, I can see, are one with great curiosity. Am I correct...?"
"Well... yeah," Emily acknowledged. "I've got a book about you, but--"
"We gotta GO," Jesse insisted, tugging at her sleeve. "We gotta go...!"
"You teach girls how to be witches?" Emily asked. "How to cast spells, and ride brooms? Brewing potions and enchanting objects and protecting the world with magical powers?"
Lilith's smile was wide. "Oh, yes. All of that, and so much more. The secrets I could share would open your eyes wider than any mere human school possibly could. Do you wish to learn? Other girls like you are gathering at the circle tonight, to begin the path -- do you know where the Chalk Henge is? The stones, five hills away from your village...?"
Jesse was nearly in a panic. "We're not supposed to GO there!"
"Oh, but you should!" Lilith insisted, turning now to Jesse. "You, especially. You're a big girl, aren't you? Strong. Oh, how the boys tease you... but we wouldn't tease you because of that. Strength is a good thing, little one; it gives you power. I could teach you so much about power--"
"You'll do nothing of the sort, Lilith Goatmother."
Emily didn't see the Faerie turn. She simply... was no longer facing the girls. Facing instead the old woman behind her, standing between the Archmagus and the village of Emily's birth.
"...Moonthistle. I had wondered where you crawled off to hide," Lilith spoke, in a voice that was not very nice at all.
"These aren't yours. You'd do best to leave be, now," Nana Moonthistle warned.
"Oh? And you could stop me?"
"You want to find out?" Nana asked. "Don't forget the rock and the river, 'Archmagus'. Or I'll have to remind you."
The danger embedded in that pause could be felt by all of them, even the girl with spell-dreams in her head.
Lilith was gone. Emily hadn't seen her left. She simply... was no longer there.
"Come along, then," Nana said, gesturing with her walking stick. "Flower gathering time is over. Dinner's soon. An' we'll speak no more of this."
Emily tried to ignore the confused look on her friend's face. This was possibly by not looking back at her.
"So... your ancestor was against witchcraft, and against you being a witch?" Una asked. "But you--"
"It was stupid. It was the single stupidest thing I have ever done in my entire life," Emily hissed. "And looking back at it just makes me feel stupider for being so stupid as to make that stupid decision. We'd snuck out after dark. I'd gone and grabbed Jesse... I made her come with me. She didn't want to go! But no, I was the big girl around the village, and she'd obey if I said jump..."
"Jesse? The same Jesse who called herself the Runeblade, and attacked Olney?"
"Oh, she changed her tune fast once we got to school," Emily glowered. "All the little wide-eyed girls Lilith had snarled up in her net eventually fell in line. ...nevermind. I know what the next mirror's going to be and I am SO not looking forward to it, now. Let me explain the rest later. It wouldn't make as much sense now. ...and that leaves us with Scout."
This time, he took a step forward with less hesitation. "I... think I know what we'll see," he said. "It won't be as bad, if I'm right. But if I'm right... the next'll be bad. Like Emily said."
"I think that third mirror's going to stink on ice for all of us, so fine, we'll cope," Emily declared. "Let's move on. Step up, Scout."
It wasn't like clockwork, no matter how frequently it happened. There wasn't any predicting what could set the boy off. That's why, by and large, the student body stayed the hell away from him. It was better than being at ground zero when he went nuclear.
The brooding, dark boy would sit by himself, say nothing, and simply occupy space. There was something wound up inside him like a spring, though... and at least once a month, sometimes a few times a month, he'd get into a fight. The school staff were aware of his problems, the guidance counselor kept trying to reach him, the orphanage kept assigning him to new foster homes, but nothing could crack that shell. By now, in his early teens, they'd all learned just to stay alert and be ready to pull him away from whoever he'd decided to attack.
It was strange, though. He had all the earmarks of a sociopathic bully... but he never instigated. True, he could snap at even a perceived slight, but if left alone he wouldn't go out of his way to antagonize anyone. He never put someone else down, never fought to establish himself as the big man of the school. He didn't draw any followers rallying behind his strength. He just wanted people to stay out of his way, and they were happy to do so. To do otherwise was risky business.
Nobody knew what set him off, that day in the lunchroom. Maybe someone had bumped into the boy? Maybe a transfer student who hadn't learned the score had needled at him, making fun of him for his dark clothes and his sour face. Perhaps one of the school bullies got it in his head that if he fought the psycho and won, he'd be king of his age bracket.
It didn't matter, in the end. The boy came off the chain for whatever reason, and pounced. Kicking, punching, grabbing, even biting a boy twice his size.
Then he grabbed a metal fork from a nearby lunch tray, and swung it wide. Far too wide...
The doctors said she'd have to lose her right eye. It was far too damaged much to be saved. She'd be in the hospital for days.
The boy was dismissed from school for the day. For the week, even. Possibly forever. He took this news with no reaction at all, no anger, no rage. He waited patiently in the principal's office, waiting for his latest foster father to pull up in that ratty old pickup truck of his, and haul him back to what passed for a home.
He made no sound, as he sat in the passenger seat, buckled in while old man Saul drove along the streets of Austin.
But he did cry. It was the first time he had cried in many years. Not the wracking sobs of his youth, of sorrow and despair, but this time tears of regret.
"Principal tells me you're gonna be transferred to Sister-of-Mercy," Saul said, in that gravelly old Texas voice of his, to break the silence. He didn't comment on the boy's quiet cry. "Burned up your last strike today. That's what, eight fights this year alone?"
"...yes, sir," the boy replied, discreetly wiping at his eyes.
"Ahum." Saul rapped his fingers on the steering wheel, in thought. "Guessin' you didn't mean to hurt that girl."
"How you feel 'bout it? 'bout hurtin' someone who's never done anyone no wrong. Losin' control like that."
NOW the tears made noise. A quiet sob, but it was there.
"Ahum. Reckon I know how you're feelin'," Saul said, and said no more for the duration of the ride.
The home wasn't much of one. Saul lived in an apartment, a third story walkup, which did nothing for his old hip injury. This time... the boy lent a hand, helping support the old man with each step. When they reached the dingy homestead, Saul fumbled his keys, turned the lock, and entered. He kept on walking, right through the living area, and on to his bedroom. The room the boy had never been in before.
"We don't talk much, I know," Saul admitted. "By and by we stay out of each other's business. I help the state out takin' in problem cases like you, I get a check, we move on with our lives quietly. Think this is a time when I may have somethin' worth saying, though."
"Kid, you were born with a fight in you. No sense denyin' it, or coddlin' you to wish it away. High time you found somethin' worthwhile to do with it."
Bending over carefully, Saul unlocked his old military-style footlocker.
Inside... neatly organized, in little rows, in careful piles, were medals encased in small glass boxes. Stacks of photographs, pictures of men in Frontliner uniforms grinning and holding up weapons for the camera. Newspapers, old and fading, of action securing Eastusa in the last echoes of chaos after the Pandora Event. Combat action, defending Austin against the Summer Court, driving them back to the midlands. Finally, a battered old licence plate with military bolts still stuck to it with rust, embossed letters reading: Don't Mess With Texas.
"Tomorrow I'm taking you to the gun range," Saul explained. "You're going to learn how to respect a weapon, how to use it 'stead of it usin' you. Next day we're gonna visit the old folks center, meet up with some of my war buddies. They're gonna scare the hell out of you, boy, but for good reason. Frontliners lead the way, not just in battle, but in showin' you how to be somethin' other than the random menace you are today."
The boy looked up at him... and it clicked, somewhere behind his young eyes. He didn't protest, didn't roll his eyes, didn't storm off in a teenage rage. He stood upright, focused on the old soldier. "Sir," he said. (The word felt like more than a simple formal way to address an adult, now.)
"Mark my words, boy," Saul warned. "This will be brutal, ayuh, very harsh. No easy thing ahead. You're gonna learn all about how to take that fight in you and put it to use defendin' folks like that poor girl you hurt today. We'll put a leash on that animal in you and make that dog hunt for just cause. You master yourself, Scott, and you'll be able to find peace one day. Swear it on my honor."
"--and THAT is how you joined the Frontliners, and became a defender rather than a brute!" Una concluded, smiling brightly. "I knew there was a streak of nobility in you, Scott! ... wait. Scott? Your name is Scott?"
...Scout coughed, once. And actually fidgeted in place. "I prefer Scout," he mumbled. "More purposeful. More of who I am."
"But it sounds just like--"
"I didn't join the Frontliners then. I was too young," he who named himself Scout explained. "Saul trained me anyway, taught me everything he knew. Stealth, close quarters, long range sniping, safe handling of explosives to ambush and trap. Counter-magic military tactics. Things that ran counter to the wild fighting I was doing, so could learn another way. He'd seen action, defending Austin. Believed in the city, so I believed in it too. The walls, the Frontliners, the cause of protecting it. Just cause. ...we fought so hard. In the end, it didn't matter. Cities fall. They're illusions. ...I reserve right to explain later. I know what's coming in the third mirror."
The third mirror. They turned to face it, now. The hallway was even darker, here. The portraits of random people of importance seemed to be staring down at them, glaring with eyes of judgment...
"...well. By now, we know what we are facing, don't we?" Una said. "That means we are prepared. We can endure this -- after all, we will face it not alone, but together. If you are here to help me, when I experience it all over again... I promise to you I will do the same in a reciprocal fashion. I will face this first."
Emily swallowed, nodding once... watching as Una stepped forward--
It was sheer random chance. It couldn't have been fate -- such things were absurd concepts. They were not practical.
Una had been walking along the outer wall of the Arcology, past the docking decks, past the airlocks where shuttles would come and go to ferry people between the great star cities. It was a common walk for her, as it had the most windows, and she so loved looking out at Earth. Earth, planet of wonder and mystery! Earth, planet of cities and forests, of men and magic.
If she couldn't fit in up here... perhaps she could fit in down there. It stood to reason.
She walked by airlock after airlock, casually noting the figure standing inside one, and on, and--
--back again, quickly. She pressed herself to the small viewport, eyes wide...
Una beat against the glass, screaming, not that Lea could hear her pleas. The depressurization cycle had already begun. The girl fumbled at the keypad, not knowing how to cancel it, not knowing if it COULD be cancelled... glancing up quickly, reassuring, making sure her mother was still in there...
Lea was still there. And now, instead of standing rock still in the center facing outward... she had turned. Looking at her daughter through the glass.
There was a smile. There were words, lip-motions. I love you.
And then she was gone.
They found the memorandum of self termination intent filed away on Lea's workstation later that evening, when Investigators came around to the empty-feeling home. Apparently, Lea had given into despair. "There is no hope left," she'd written. Nothing specific, no reason for dissatisfaction. She'd simply fallen away from them, somehow.
Common among Pragmatists, the Investigators decided. Lea was in a bizarre situation, married to an Optimist, having given natural birth on top of that. Surely such instability and inconsistency could break down her psyche. It was perfectly reasonable and nothing more needed to be said.
Father... had faded. He retained hope, he had his smile. But he also had his Council business now, and he sank into that, surfacing only now and then to offer weak support to his daughter. He didn't know how to comfort her. She didn't know how to be comforted.
Eventually, Una decided it was Earth. That was the answer. It was a place so far away, so distant, full of such wonders. A place like Earth could restore the hope of Optimism inside her...
Scout recovered last, his eyes hazy. Una had slipped to the floor, kneeling there, twin streams of her tears sliding down her cheeks. As he focused, Emily had started to move to Una's side, to hold her, to tell her she understood--
Crossing into the mirror-space in the process.
Witches school was a complete nightmare.
Emily was not the top girl of the village here. She was the runt of the litter. Gradually, as they settled into the study of magic... the other girls adopted that name for her, runt. They took great joy in the name, as it put her in an easily defined place, beneath them.
Rapidly, she learned that the Faeries loved a good social hierarchy. There was Archmagus Lilith, high above. Then the prefects, then the instructors, then the girls, then the servant-elves, and then finally Emily. The little witch who couldn't.
She tried so hard -- all-night cram sessions, desperately trying to memorize the magic spells that the other witches in training seemed to grasp so easily. Emily read every book she could, learning of the Word, the Will and the Way. She had mastery over them all! She could speak the Word, understanding the strange lattice of letters and lines that made up the Way, she could apply her Will with fierce determination... she could cast magic! And every time she did, she felt so alive, so true, that being a witch was her purpose...!
But she couldn't memorize spells. She was stuck on the 'training wheels' of spellbooks. Such a wasteful practice, that was! Each casting from paper burning up the pages. Emily had to spend hours each night copying spells, replacing ones she'd purged in her attempts to cast from memory, making copies for her own later use. But no matter how long she stared at the Words, she couldn't remember them when she pulled her eyes from the page...
The only solace she felt was during circle time, at the Henge. Where the only instructor to give her any sympathy, Instructor Elriel, would have infinite patience helping her cast the new spells they learned there. And each time the class had mastered a spell (well, all of them except emily) they would dance, oh how they danced in the moonlight, the simple joy of new magic filling them...
...and then she'd crash back to earth, unable to use the spell again without a fresh paper copy.
Two years passed away from her home village. Making no progress, showing no signs of ever being a "true" witch. Her peers mocked her, even Jesse, who had decided she hated the name and would one day take up a witch name more befitting. Cruel Jesse, who had gone from meek to fearless in short order. Short on temper. Quick to anger. All of them were, the trainees, each strange on their own way and growing stranger by the day...
After the two years, it was Graduation Day. A pumpkin carriage had been crafted by Lilith herself, to carry the trainees to the place of their final exam.
Emily was permitted to come along and take the test, even if nobody expected her to pass.
The carriage arrived at their destination... the Chalk Henge, the familiar circle five hills removed from her home. A dozen skilled witches, ready to move beyond trainee and take up their pointy hats at last, piled out of the Fae vehicle, Lilith laying down the rules of the test.
"A human settlement lies ahead," she explained. "By tonight, I want it a lifeless, smoking ruin. Then, you will truly be free of this dying world of men, and ready to embrace the Summer Court in full glory as a witch."
She had to be joking, except she wasn't. Emily stood still, horrified, as the eleven others in her class marched forward, ready to fight--
"You... you can't!" Emily protested. "No. NO. This isn't what a witch should do! We should be protecting our people, not--"
"They're not your people. You're a controller of arcane forces now, pathetic as your control may be," Lilith declared, pointing an sharpened fingernail at the girl. "They'll never accept you, now. They hate and fear witches -- as they should. We are the champions of the Faerie Court, and we will one day lay waste to this world, returning the glory of the Land of Faerie to its rightful place! What matter is one little mortal village, against the Forever Ones...?"
The would-be witch stood her ground. "I... I'll... stop you?" she said, not wanting it to sound hesitant, questioning. She had no idea how to 'stop' Archmagus Lilith. It was a stupid thing to say...
"Oh? And you could stop me?" Lilith asked, smirking. "Girls...? You may start with this one. Make me proud."
Emily backed down. She didn't want to, but the eleven had turned, and were advancing. Instinct said she had to run. "You can't do this, you can't," she protested. "You can't kill people--"
Jesse drew her sword -- the graduation gift Lilith had given her, one day previous. "I can do anything I want now. I can fight anyone and beat anyone! I'm not weak like you are, Emily!"
"I can see the fire dancing already," another witch said, with a distant smile. "It's so pretty. It eats everything..."
"The voices won't leave me be," a witch spoke, skin shaking, little body twitches.
They're mad, Emily realized, her Insight giving her the horrible truth. The magic ate them. Human minds weren't designed for this. When you cast a spell from a book, it burns away the page. When you cast a spell from your mind, it burns away your mind...
Realization was little comfort as they beat her. They didn't use spells; Emily wasn't worth wasting good magic on. They simply beat her half to death, and left her at the roadside so they could continue on with their final exams.
It was dark when Emily was strong enough to get to her feet. It was deep into the black of midnight when she was able to limp her way into what was left of her village. As if the punch line of a sick joke, her home had been left standing, even if her parents were left nearby unrecognizably burned, having tried to flee the destruction.
Nana was here. She had fought, had worn her old tattered hat, had brought powers to bear she had forsworn to try and defend her family. They weren't enough to stop the destruction. They did keep her alive this long, however.
"...Emily," she recognized, through eyes already fading away. "Tell me. Are your eyes clear? Is your mind sound...?"
The birth blessing. She made me unable to memorize spells. It was there to protect me, and I was stupid all the same...
"Y-yes, Nana," Emily said. "I'm fine. I'm... fine..."
"Good, then. Good," Nana said, slipping into her last rest, relief in her features. "Your path WILL be your own, child."
Emily buried her family in the morning, and walked away from her failure forever.
But she wore her Nana's hat, and carried her Nana's broomstick. Emily would redeem the word witch, even if it took the rest of her life.
Now both the girls were in tears, with only Scout at the edge of that terrible threshold.
He had absolutely no hesitation, now. He stepped forward to join them.
The disappearances didn't start making headlines until several days into the hunt.
At first it was page three material. Then page one; mysterious killer strikes again, leaves no clues, body mutilated.
Two days later it was clear this was an attack. They were inside the Freedom Walls of Austin. The Frontliners watched the streets, but it was no use; every night, more bodies.
Eventually, scores of the dead were piling up, and the attackers weren't bothering to hide. They were Fae, strange and terrible Fae of a feral nature. They wore scraps of cloth, their eyes were wild, and whenever they pounced from shadow... they killed, and brutalized, and worse... sometimes dragged away the people, never to be seen again. A state of emergency was declared far too late, the population going down with every evening passed. Soon, with every day passed -- being indoors during daylight hours made you just as vulnerable...
Saul recognized the signs early on, and had stocked up. Scott's enrollment in West Point would have to wait; survival was the key. They gathered whoever was willing to follow them and fortified a school, taking advantage of cancelled classes to begin an unauthorized civilian occupation of the building.
By the week's end, when there were few people left alive in Austin despite Frontliner reinforcements being sent regularly from Philadelphia, their little gymnasium was still standing. The power grid was holding, keeping the overhead lights strong, banishing any shadows. Scott and Saul alternated watch shifts, alongside volunteers, and Frontliners who had abandoned their units in favor of uniting under Saul's banner. Saul, hero of previous Austin defenses. Saul, who had the Fae's number. Saul could get them through.
Saul died while Scott was asleep. He had been on patrol. The Fae left his mangled body nailed to the basketball backboard high above -- a symbol. There would be no hope here.
Scott barely got out of the gymnasium alive, when the final attack struck.
He survived a week more. He slept rarely, he fortified positions... he even took down several of the enemy, baiting them into the open, then blowing their heads off from afar through a scoped rifle. He snuck up on them, and slit their throats from behind. Just as Saul had taught him. Saul, who was gone. Everybody was gone but Scott.
Eastusa wasn't sending reinforcements anymore; they'd given up on Austin. Scott was the last of the Frontliners and he wasn't even officially a Frontliner yet. He'd found a Scout's uniform, and wore it when his own clothes were too shredded from a close encounter with the Fae. It suited him. He felt strength in the uniform, strength Saul would've wanted him to have.
The Scout lies in wait, the Scout prepares. Frontliners stand fast when an enemy is at the gates. Hunt the hunters. Just cause. Purpose.
The Fae stopped stalking him, since by that point, he could take them down in a one on one fight. Instead, they made it a dozen on one fight. And they didn't have the decency to kill him, to let him fall with the city he had been trained to protect. They didn't allow him his final failsafe, the vest of explosives he'd rigged so he could take as many of them down with him as he wanted. He couldn't even remotely trigger the atomic he'd found in the Frontliner shipments being sent from H.Q... couldn't complete the Pyrrhic Victory condition that they had sought. The Fae had taken his hand from him to be sure of this.
Scott was dying, pinned to the ground in the darkness by feral Winterhounds. He recognized their faces... faces he'd murdered, returned to "life." This was an unkillable enemy, and all he'd done is endure their onslaught.
Before he could slip away and find the peace Saul had promised him so long ago... their Mistress wanted words with him. She'd even showed up in person to do so.
Lady Winter was... a thing. A concept. She was ice and wind, shaped roughly like a woman wearing an elegant dress. She had no face, but an eternal snowstorm in the shape of one. Upon her head hovered a majestic ring... the Crown of Ice, crystals in the shape of a circlet.
Consuming your city was not personal. I would like you to understand that, before you perish, and fall into my domain of the dead. No, I took the life of your "Austin," so far into Summer's lands, to address an offense. Lady Summer trespassed into my lands of ice recently, you see.
An eye for an eye, an insult repaid. Now that we are even, the alliance of Summer and Winter may continue. And so shall you.
There is a beast in you. I can sense it, boy. Oh, what wondrous rage, what great desire it has...! But you have... contained it, channeled it. I can't imagine why you would do such a thing, but I will not argue with results. You stood against my hounds well. You deserve to be honored. Be joyful!
Scott didn't get a chance to reply to this. He had died.
And then he was awake again. His heart did not beat, but he was aware, he was... if not alive, at least akin to it. He had his hand back.
The Winterhounds withdrew, the growls of the feral undead Fae ceasing, as they gathered to their owner's side.
You will hunt for me now. Until this day, no human has been found worthy of joining the Wild Hunt. I will take the thing inside you and unleash it. You will run from forest to forest, truly free, killing and dominating any man, woman, or child as you please--
The Lady Winter's snowstorm-features blurred, a flash of lightning between the space where her eyes would be.
"I... I'll hunt the hunters," the Scout said... rising to his feet, his strength returning... as well as the burning rage that once dominated his days. So strong now, so difficult to control, but... he could point it. Saul gave him that much. "I don't hunt for you. Not for your way. I have a purpose."
Interesting; you can resist me, to some extent. You were trained to resist, of course, but to resist the purity of the mindless Wild Hunt, when I KNOW the core of you is a frightful thing...? Such strength! ...yes. Yes, you can be used as more than a mere dog.
I see where you will end. Yes. Yes, this will work. It is decided. You shall be consort to the Crown of Ice. You shall marry the Gale of Winter one day, boy. That is the ideal role for you, in events to come.
"...no," Scout repeated. "No. Nothing you say. I'll do nothing. My mission isn't over."
All learn to love the Queen of Death, in time. You will as well. I foresee this. But, as you like... run free, little hound. Restrain yourself as much as you can manage, if it pleases you. May your antics continue to amuse me, until the day of blessed union. Farewell.
The next day, Scout gathered supplies he'd need -- weapons, armor suitable for his new uniform. He set off into the wild. The city was a lie, the city had fallen... but that just meant the borders he needed to defend had expanded. There were enemies everywhere. This world would never lack a just cause. The Wild Hunt could be put to purpose.
Eventually, his military training and his discipline started to crack and fade. The beast loved to hunt with its bare hands, and the only thing keeping it from killing the undeserving was to at least allow it its favorite methods. The feral nature grew stronger, the brutality harsher... but all the while, he kept it leashed. Kept it from harming the innocent. So difficult, the daily battle with himself, and growing harder every lonely day...
All this struggle would be worth it... even if one day, the Queen would tire of him, and would bind him in some twisted nuptials, overriding him completely. He was now Winterfae, and would eventually bend knee. They always did.
Now all three of them were huddled together. It would be the third time Scout had ever cried.
Untold time passed, before anyone could speak.
"...I hate it here," Emily said. "I really hate it here. ...it's over, right? We're done? Three mirrors and we're gone."
Una blew her nose on Scout's offered sleeve. "Yes. It's over. But... Scout? What did Lady Winter mean, about being the... consort to the Crown of Ice?"
"She won't have him," Emily immediately said. "Whatever the hell that means, I won't let her--"
"She'll destroy me and remake me as a true Winterhound, one day," Scout whispered. "I think that's what it means. When she gets bored with my games, she'll take me. I'll still fight her, if she tries. I won't willingly become a monster again. ...you understand, now? The risk. The reason I kept warning you, again and again. Even before she got to me, I was dangerous. If I slip, even a little--"
"You won't," Emily sated. "Simple as that. Scott... Scout. You resisted a Queen of Faerie! In Twin Cities, you even reclaimed Saul's discipline and fought like you had back in Austin. Nobody's ever staved off her influence like that before! If you can manage such a thing... oh, hell, you could move mountains with that kind of willpower! No. No, I don't fear you, and frankly? I never will. You're your own master. ...I mean, jeez. I feel safer just being around someone capable of that."
"I as well," Una agreed. "Now, let us leave this place. The exit is..."
The exit was ahead. It was a strange thing, a rough patch of metal wall, polished to a reflective shine... with frost all around the edges. It didn't belong in this hallway.
Neither did the two mirrors, hanging on walls opposite each other, blocking their path.
"...no. Freaking. WAY," Emily growled. "Dammit, Esrever, you said three mirrors! Not FIVE! And... oh, for crying out loud, they're facing each other! Standing in front of one mirror, that's bad mojo enough, but being trapped between two, an infinite reflection...?!"
"But the way out is ahead--"
"We can turn around and go back. This wasn't in the deal! I don't know what he's trying to pull, but--"
"We'd have to cross the three again. We'd have to experience more memories," Scout reminded them. "No. The only way out is through. ...you trust me now?"
"Ugh. Scout, I've always trusted you, even when I didn't, okay?"
"We go on, then," Scout said, getting slowly to his feet. "I'll go first. If it's a trick, if it's deadly, it won't matter. At worst it can destroy me completely, I guess. Then you can turn around and leave. Find another lead. Continue the mission."
"Oh, NUTS to that!" Emily snapped. "Okay, fine, I suggested you go first earlier just because I was bossy and it was logical, but I am not letting you dive into certain doom out of some misplaced chivalrous--"
Una was already between the mirrors before Emily could stop her.
If I die, they'll still be together. It is practical, she'd decided--
They sat across a negotiation table, in the Council chambers. The rest of the Council wasn't here -- it was only the Optimist, and the Pragmatist. And both were Una.
"This is a strange thing," the Pragmatist said, studying herself, her greasy jumpsuit. "I'm sitting across from myself. It's not a rendition from living memory -- this is new imagery. These are new words. I don't think I ever said these words before; do you recall if I have?"
Optimist shook her head, her Council robes settling as she steepled her fingers in front of her. "I suspect the final mirrors are magical in nature. They are the ultimate self reflection, setting one image against another. It has a poetry to it. Do you think Emily or Scout can see this imagery...?"
They sat in contemplation, before both drew the same conclusion, shaking their heads.
"This is our business alone," the Pragmatist said. "It's not for them. It will be private. Don't ask me how I know this, I simply know this. This was set up by someone unknown, for purposes unknown."
"To destroy us? To stop the quest?"
"...nnnnno. I don't think so. Again--"
"You don't know why you know, yes. I feel that too," Optimist agreed. "So. There is hidden purpose we must discover. You are me and I am you, but we hold different views, represented by the mother-figure and father-figure. We sit in a place of discussion. The meaning is clear, we're to discuss some matter. What would that be, though...?"
"Well, we could start with how badly this journey is going, thanks to your childish impulses," the Pragmatist said, sitting back in her chair, leveling her gaze at the other Una.
"What? The journey is going very well! We have bonded with our friends, we have found a long lost countryman--"
"We've made missteps at every turn! We're too trusting, too quick to see people in good light. This is why we ended up chained to a chair and tortured in Baltimore! Mother was right. This planet is corrupt and it craves to exploit our weakness -- specifically, YOU."
Optimist shook her head. "I don't see myself as a weakness. I am the core of our belief, remember? Hope, despite counterexample. To lose that would--"
"You worry we'd jump out an airlock."
She scratched her chin, in thought. "That's the fear, isn't it?" the Pragmatist said. "Whatever drove mother to despair, whatever made her give up hope, ended her life. You fear that if we lose our hope we'll collapse as well, because the hope is all we have left. That bright future, the one we're desperate to share, desperate to make happen! Oh, how you cling to that silly dream! Yes... I see the purpose of this place. It's to make me talk sense into you!"
"I resent the accusation!" Optimist said, standing upright. "Yes, I cling to hope! Without hope, what matters what we do? Why do anything, if not in hope of a better tomorrow? That's not naivety, that's the driving desire of all mankind. Without it, we'd fall into absolute apathy! Why eat? You just need to eat again, after all. Why build a better structure? There's no point, the weather will erode it away regardless. Why live? Everybody dies. No! Hope is what gives life structure and purpose!"
"If you were this eloquent when trying to woo every boy you meet, maybe you wouldn't be so lonely," Pragmatist commented dryly.
"How... how DARE...?!"
"Didn't you learn mother's lesson?" Una asked herself. "Stop grasping so desperately, quit letting your drives lead you when your mind knows not to go! You went out on a limb for that mirror person, too far on a limb. You have no idea what the consequences will be! And Scout... where do I BEGIN with Scout?"
"You have no right to speak of him--"
"He could have raped you, you know," Pragmatist said, shuddering at the thought. "He would have raped you--"
The Optimist slammed her fist on the table. It resounded louder than it ever could have, if this was a real table, in a real place.
"No. Now, you're being cynical," she said, voice oddly calm. "I see that, now. The same cynicism mother often had, ready to assume the worst, even when actual logic and facts indicate otherwise. That's not tempering hope, that's inviting pessimism. You saw what I saw, just now... the iron will of Scout. He would never hurt us -- he stopped himself, remember! We'd made the perfect conditions for him to lose control, in his place of darkness, deliberately arousing him, even inviting a beastly encounter... and he resisted. And THAT is the rock I can anchor my hope to."
"...that's a small rock, you know. It doesn't even belong to you. If he is to be anyone's love, it's going to be hers, not yours."
"It doesn't matter. It's proof by example that there is good in this world, and that I have every right to look for it even in the darkest places. Don't you see? THIS is what the mirrors want me to know. That my optimism is well founded... tempered by pragmatism, I will agree to that. But not to the point where we ignore the good in favor of the bad."
Pragmatism considered this. "...you haven't won, you know. But I suppose there are no winners or losers here, just an ever-shifting viewpoint. ...very well. I concede. ...but there is something else here you should see."
She rose to her feet, smoothing out her jumpsuit, and beckoning Optimism to follow. Curious at why the vision hadn't ended yet, the robed Una tagged along.
"This is pure hindsight, understand, but I think it's accurate hindsight," Pragmatism explained. "We were too young to understand what we were seeing. The facts weren't there, yet. ...do you know where we are, now?"
It hurt to be here. It hurt to look. The sealed door. The little window. The figure inside...
"Look at her," Pragmatism said.
"I.. I don't--"
"Look at her."
Una looked in at her mother. I love you. Lips in a smile...
...a thin, thin trickle of red touching her lip. Leaking from her nose.
"What...?" she said, confused--
"LOOK AT HER!"
A silver headband, peeking out from between her bangs, almost invisible. Just like the simple tool that teachers used, to share information with their pupils, a mind link. It was harmless, really.
Unless you used it on a mindless creature like an ogre... controlling them, from afar.
Unless you used it on a mindful creature like a person... turning up the gain, beyond safe levels, using it in terrible ways no Orbital had ever considered.
Controlling them, from afar. Making them kill themselves.
"Do you see?"
"DO YOU SEE?!"
Una collapsed to her knees, hands over her ears. It helped muffle out the sound of her own scream. This time... her friends weren't so quick to jump in, to help her. If this pair of mirrors could kill--
--but Una threw out a hand, to hold them back. Speaking quickly. "It reflects you on yourself. You see and know things. It's safe... even if it hurts. It's important..."
Slowly, shakily, she got to her feet and stepped out of the way.
"You need to know that it's a private thought-space, a series of visual metaphors that teach you about yourself. You need to be open to what you see and hear, don't run from it. I... think that the magic is telling us things, here, things we wouldn't otherwise know. I don't think it's malicious. You'll see for yourself. Emily...?"
"You are next in rotation," Una reminded her, with a tiny smile. "Come on. I'm here on the other side, waiting. I swear to you that you will endure."
Swallowing hard, Emily glanced left and right at the menacing mirrors. And she stepped--
Pencil scratching against paper. She didn't need a straightedge; she could draw flawless lines, a finely practiced skill. One spell copied, then another, then another. With each new spell committed to paper, her power grew, her confidence rising with it. Everything would be fine as long as she had enough magic and applied it with precision.
A single candle lit her drawing desk and absolutely nothing else. Which was fine -- nothing else mattered.
Slot in another piece of paper in her ornate, leather bound spellbook. Another spell. Mending, this time; she had several copies already, but it couldn't hurt to have another. A witch should be prepared. It's important not to approach a situation and not be ready. If you do that, they'll see through you, they'll know you aren't a witch. It would break the witchiness of the shell--
She ignored the voice, moving on to the next spell. There would always be more paper, always more work to do. A loaded spellbook was power, not just for the spells, but for what it looked like. You knew when you saw a witch with a proper hat, a proper broomstick, and a properly full book of spells that she knew what she was doing. There would be nothing she couldn't--
Her hat tugged itself down over her eyes. Since the room was pitch black beyond her writing desk, and all she cared about was the writing, this vexed her.
"Child, listen to me. Time is short. You--"
"No, you listen to ME," Emily commanded, pulling the hat back up. "Everybody should listen to me, because I'm a witch. I have the hat. I have the plans! If everybody would just listen to me and do what I say, I could save them all. That's what a witch is."
"Oh, is it now?" her hat spoke, in its elderly tones... somewhere between gentle and gruff. "It's the book, right? Well, no more book, then."
Emily stared at the space where her book was.
"Well... the broomstick, then," she said, pulling it to herself. "They know I'm a witch when they see it. Not some silly little girl, just some passerby, but someone who--"
The broomstick went away, next.
"Are you still a witch, without your broomstick?" the hat asked, cloth rippling as it spoke. "What is left, then?"
"...m..my fashion, of course. Very proper witchy fashion. No nonsense, no fooling around," Emily said, crossing her arms. "They know I'm above such things when they see--"
The clothes were gone. Panic started to rise -- no! She had to be presentable. She couldn't run around like this, it wasn't what a proper young lady should do..! It wasn't how witches behaved!
Except they do. In fact, they do that among other witches, which is as witchy as you can get...
"And all that's left is me. Your hat," the hat reminded. "When that is gone, are you still a witch? Can you still order people about, are you still the picture of witchiness you strive so hard to project...? Let's find out..."
"NO!" Emily shouted, grasping the brim of the hat. "No, don't take my hat! I need it! Please, Nana, don't take it away...!"
Her hands were grasping at nothing.
"Strip it all away, Emily," the voice spoke, from nowhere. "The trappings, the symbols of office, the attitude, the false fronts, the little lies you repeat over and over. Every defensive shell that keeps you from accepting your friends, like that outer space girl you call silly and immature, and the boy you schoolmarm every chance you get--"
"She IS silly! She chases after boys, just like some doe-eyed little farmer's daughter...!"
"Una chases after love. She wants to make her dreams come true. There's nothing silly about that," Nana spoke. "You want the same things she does, you just tell yourself that witches don't have time for such things. That it's all beneath you. And here you are, no spells, no broomstick, no hat. Can you still hide without anything to hide behind...?"
"I... I d-don't..." Emily stammered. She found a place to duck behind -- a topic change. "I only 'schoolmarm' Scout because he needs it! He's broken and needs to be mended. Witches mend things! Without his homework assignments to keep him distracted--"
"Distracted from his problems, oh yes, funneling his needs into something else. Does that sound familiar, child? He doesn't take comfort in those games and puzzles -- he takes comfort in you. Which is amazing, considering how cold you are."
"I am not--!"
"Are you a witch, child?" her Nana's voice asked.
Emily looked around desperately. Her broomstick had to be nearly. Her spells. But even the desk was gone, now. There was nothing, not even her fine ankle-length skirts, not a single thing... not even the persona she'd built up to show the world. The mask of a perfect, no-nonsense woman who is here to save the day. She was too bewildered and afraid to keep up that facade.
"Are you a witch?"
"I... I don't have..."
"Are you a witch, foolish child?!"
...a witch is not to be cowed by such an insult. Not because it hurts the dignity cultivated over the years, a threat to your public image, but because a witch was a witch. Period.
"YES!" Emily screamed back. "I don't care if I don't have my spells, or my broomstick, or... or even the hat! I don't care what you think of me! I'm a witch! I want to help the people I care deeply about -- and even the ones I don't care for, if they need help! That's what a witch does!"
There was a soft, felt-y feel around her head.
"In all the years you knew me, rarely did I use magic, but I was still a witch at heart," her Nana spoke, voice no longer a tower of accusation and anger. "I didn't need to sling spells around all day to prove that. I blessed you at birth, and that was enough to save you, that one little thing."
"...the right spell, the right place, at the right time," Emily recognized. "Practical magic, nothing more. Just like the spells I use the most. And the village feared and respected you without much magic at all."
"Feared? Oh, heavens no, child! Lilith is the sort of witch that wins respect through fear. I didn't demand the respect of the village, shouting and ordering them about; I earned it, through compassion and wisdom. I didn't win the hearts of my friends by solving all their problems, I did it by sharing their problems, and sharing myself with them."
Emily dug into her memories. "It was more than just giving the elders a nod when you agreed with them," she recalled. "You listened to people. You listened to me, a lot. You told stories, too..."
"A witch is not an island. A witch is a nation," Nana spoke. "Sharing in the ups and downs, one with the people. A shaman lives beyond the village, called on in need, but not part of the village -- the witch lives life with the lives of others. A witch lives life. Hah. Child, how could you have been born, if I was 'above' all the silliness of life's simple pleasures? If my nose was constantly in a book, if I kept my skirts down, you wouldn't be here today!"
"Compassion, Emily. Compassion with wisdom. If you have both those things, you will be a fine witch. If you suppress your heart behind walls of what you THINK a witch should be... you may never be able to climb out again."
And now Emily had her symbols of office back. A broomstick, a book, her simple clothes. But she didn't need them anymore. They were welcome, as they kept her warm against foul weather, they gave her tools to approach problems with, but a witch simply was.
"...I think I see why Una liked this whole vision quest thing," Emily said, feeling more in tune with outside herself. "Thank you, Nana. ...and... I miss you, Nana. ...are you really her? Or just some aspect of me that's identifying as her?"
"Hah. What fun would magic be without its unending mystery, child?"
"Uh... 'kay. Ah, I can't promise I can shuck all my old habits overnight, but... well, I know what to look out for now, don't I?"
"Indeed you do. Which is important, as time is short," her Nana-hat warned again. "The times of trouble're coming faster than you realize, great-granddaughter. A time when the hat will weigh three times what it weighs now. If you don't learn how to live with it instead of letting it live you, the burden will be crushing."
"...wait. Since when can I predict the future? Insight doesn't work that way," Emily Insightfully said. "It just makes connections, and I don't recall anything that would point me towards knowing about some sort of major trouble ahead... other than, well, the usual trouble I tend to get into..."
The hat's voice was deeper now, richer. Almost like two voices in harmony. "That's because this truth is not from within you, witchling. This is prophecy from hats yet to come," it identified. "A dire responsibility is waiting for you. Take your ancestral lesson to heart, or you will doom all you hold dear. And that is all you shall be told."
"...that's crazy. Wait, no, that's... come on! I'm just some wandering busybody!" Emily protested. "I'm not the sort of person vast prophecies happen to! What're you going on about, then?"
But to that, the voices stayed silent.
"My wacky head-trip experience is going to end before you give me any concrete details, isn't it," Emily realized, slumping her shoulders in annoyance.
Nana's voice chuckled from within the depths of the hat. "Unending mystery, child. That is magic."
Emily emerged from the vision... not resolute, exactly. No stiff upper lip. But she was calm, and satisfied.
"Alright," she said. "That wasn't ALL that bad. Although if I ever act like my hat is talking to me, you've got permission to smack me back to reality. Also: I want to lie down sometime very soon. ...Scout? Let's finish this."
The boy nodded once, and proceeded forward.
This was exactly what he was expecting.
On one side, the stoic warrior monk. Control. Willpower. A Man of Stone, honed and carved by a master craftsman named Saul, ready to stand guard against all that would clash blades against him.
On the other side, the rampaging animal. Rage. Desire. A beast of impulsive craving, wild from years of unchecked aggression and suppressed urges, waiting to overtake him and...
No. It was staying still, not challenging the Man of Stone.
"We need to talk," the animal spoke.
The Stone considered this development. "...talk," he spoke. The Stone only spoke in simple phrases, as its maker once did.
"This isn't some puppet play of metaphors. You and I both know we are quite literally of two minds," the insatiable beast of madness calmly stated. "One being the hyperdefensive little monster we once were, twisted up inside Faerie magic into a dog of nightmares. The other, well... you. The leash and almost nothing else."
"I want. I want. I want to run, to howl, to be free," the beast explained. "I want more than the table scraps you've thrown at me over the years, using me for YOUR wants. I want to kill and bathe in the blood, to eat the flesh. I want to take all the human urges you associate with the darkness and explore them. I want your women. I want the fine one, the porcelain girl from space, and I want to break her in half while I enjoy her. I want the earthen one and I want to reshape her clay. I want--"
"Disgusting," the Man of Stone spat. "Pathetic."
"Yes, I know! That's my entire point! Without you, all I am is the mindless little wild 'id' that Lady Winter seeks!" the animal replied, snarling in anger. "This is what you aren't understanding, what you're deaf to outside of this magical space. I. Do. Not. Want. What Lady Winter wants. Hers is just another leash, worse even than yours, because it's one I have no hope in hell of shaking!"
The stone turned its head, a grinding of granite echoing. "...undesired...?"
"I don't want her leash any more than you do. But at the same time, I hate you, because you're so... limited. You see my problem? I'm caught between a rock and a hard place!"
"Limited. Bah. I limit you, you hate that--"
"YOU are the limited one. See, this is what I have to explain to you, in the limited time these mirrors allow," the animal said. "Haven't you noticed? You're... thin. You've got nothing. All you have is the leash. You can't feel anything, you distance your emotions, because you've attributed them ALL to me. There's things in you that you'd actually enjoy, things that could give you the peace Saul claimed you'd have, and you think they're from me! You limit yourself. Oh, I'm a danger! Oh, don't trust me! All because you forked out some poor bitch's eyeball. All because of some silly magical curse you know damn well you can fight. Over and over you hit the same worries. Even the women have noticed."
"...maintain control. Check desire. Otherwise--"
"That's all you have. You could have so much more!"
"I am not asking you to. And that's where we come to my proposal."
This was new. This was strange. The stone was listening...
"We have the same goal -- get out from being Lady Winter's groom-to-be. Now, obviously I'd love it if you weren't around, and I could do as I pleased. But you are here, and if I'm going to have any chance at a future... I need to compromise. --because YOU haven't been willing to! Do you see that? You deny yourself everything, but you don't have to. I would be willing to... restrain myself. To work with you, in a partnership. Not just you using me or vice versa, we work this together. We've got to do it, if only to see us become SOMETHING more than this pathetic wretch!"
The stone.. cracked, slightly. "Can't believe that. If I let down my guard--"
Clenching a fist... the animal drew blood from his own hand, dripping out between his fingers. "I swear to you on the blood of everybody we failed to protect in Austin. You will have your way, I won't argue with it. Oh, I'll push your limits nice and hard, I'll feed you urges, I'll show you desires... testing you. Otherwise, you'll never get out of your rut. But you'll always have final say. We take this slow, and maybe we can both get used to the idea of being something other than a mindless fighting machine."
"Do you want love or not?"
"Without me, you don't get her," the 'animal' said. "There's no love without passion. No LIFE without passion. Okay, yes, you obviously don't want to indulge in the wild pleasures I could show you, as much as I think you'd enjoy them... but without me, without letting some of me through that damned thick skull of yours, you'll be incapable of love. Affection, maybe, a strong knight complex, but you can't love her. And I bet eventually, she'd realize she couldn't love you, either. Is that what you really want to be...?"
The leash wavered.
"We can be more. We CAN grow. ...yes."
"And about damn time," his Drives and Desires agreed.
When he came to, he had someone in his arms. Not a death grip, not pouncing an enemy. He was holding Emily.
"...uh... Scout?" she asked, a bit confused.
"Thank you," he said. "Thank you."
"You're welcome. ...um. What are we thanking me for, again?"
Una looked over to them, as she started to prod at the icy metal, the polished surface at the end of the hall. "Friends, I think I know what this is," she said. "I think that--"
And they were gone.
to be continued
copyright 2009 stefan gagne