1. a call to partake in any contest, be it of skill, strength, etc.
2. something that by its nature serves as a call to special effort: Space exploration offers a challenge to humankind.
Space. The final frontier.
In space, no one can hear you scream.
You ain't from 'round here, are yah, boy.
One of these three quotes from the ancient salvaged media empire of Westusa was applicable to the situation Emily found herself in. In a way, she was lucky it wasn't the first two -- being whisked away to a spot exactly ten feet away from Arcology #A076 would be nicely ironic and extremely fatal. It was hard to focus on the luck, however, when you were trudging knee-deep through the muck of some earthbound swampland.
"The mysterious expanses of outer space smell a lot worse than I thought they would," she complained, her muddy dress billowing around her in the brackish water, while she kept her spellbook and Light-spell charmed hand high and dry. "The Milky Way is also a lot damper than I was counting on. And possibly full of leeches and snakes and who knows what else. --oh, and mosquitoes! How could I forget those? No doubt deadly Martian mosquitoes, patrolling the canals--"
"Are you out of material yet?" Scout asked, his infinite monastic patience actually starting to wear thin.
"Oh, heck no! I've got plenty more where that came from! Have I brought out the Deliverance jokes yet?"
Una, who was almost fortunate to be wearing a short-cut tunic, remained puzzled. "I am not understanding how this location we have been brought to resolves the debt-condition that Archmagus Lilith owed you. There is no safe passage to my home Arcology that I know of here..."
"Yes, well, I suspect we're actually two or three miles outside of the House of the Rising Sun, dumped here on some legal technicality I haven't detangled yet," Emily explained. "So, to recap: We're starving after a full day without any food, we're wearing very fancy clothing, and we're in the middle of nowhere surrounded by hostile wildlife in both floral and faunal form. Did I miss anyth--"
"Emily, please. It's not helping," Scout said.
"Well, EXCUSE me for--"
"Not helping me keep my senses sharp. We're not alone here. Shhh."
The group froze in its swampy tracks. Nel instinctively vanished, along with Una; she hadn't quite gotten used to the idea of hiding anybody else yet beyond her current "Lady". Scout was actually thankful for that; a few less sounds, a few less heartbeats. There was Emily's. There wasn't his own, of course. And--
His hands reached out to intercept, as the alligator's jaws sprang from the depths just in front of him. He levered his arms firmly, snapping the jaws shut without getting his hands trapped in there; the animal had less jaw-opening power than jaw-closing power. It thrashed about in a panic, until--
The stereo roar of a metal monster sang high over the canopy of leaves. The alligator wrenched itself free from Scout's grasp, and quickly swam away, to escape the sound...
A figure wearing a fishing hat, overalls, and waders emerged from the trees. In its hands was a still-smoking double barreled shotgun.
Shocked, Nel's inverted glamour dropped, turning the party of two back into a visible party of four. And before Scout could size up the man to see if he was going to be a threat, the fellow slung his shotgun into a holster on his back and snatched off his wide-brimmed hat, to get a better look...
Without the hat, two pointed ears were visible.
"Emily?" the elf asked. "Emily Moonthistle...? Holy crap! What're you doing in this neck of the woods?"
For her part, Emily was equally shocked. "You're kidding me. Yavain? Weren't you hanging around Atlanta...? --oh, uh. This is Scout, Una, and that's--"
"...wha? Wait, what? Cousins? You two...?"
"Excuse me, what's going on, thank you?" Una asked, quite bewildered.
Emily groaned. "Okay. Long story short. Friends? This is Yavain Minturn, my webmaster for the Witchipedia project, also known in online circles as SexyElf86."
"That's me, one damn sexy elf," the one who called himself SexyElf86 said, with a traditional double-finger-pointy gesture of dude awesomeness. "So! Who's up for some fried alligator burgers and brewskis?"
by stefan gagne
There was actually someone picking at a banjo.
The music was nicely accompanied by the noise of the occasional mosquito meeting a horrible and tragic end within the bug zapper. Of course, with electricity at a premium this deep into the Florida Everglades, they couldn't spend it on an electrical coil -- instead, specially trained Pixies armed with lightning spells hovered in formation, drawing insects in with the pretty lights, so they could pounce en masse and annihilate the offending bug. In return, when the day was done, they'd be treated to a saucer of the finest microbrew the elves could make.
The last piece of the audio puzzle was the crackling fire, where Yavain was cooking up some alligator meat taken from traps earlier in the day. It was not exactly the tastiest thing Emily had ever eaten, but when you go a full day with nothing to nosh on other than a piece of bread, a gator grill was damned appealing.
The five of them gathered at fireside, while other elves sat around their trailers, working on various handcrafts, or playing cards. Each trailer was unique; some had heavy magical modification, being lashed to multiple broomsticks to make it a hovering home, while others were cobbled together from all manners of rusty industrial bits.
Yavain's home-sweet-home was in the form of a "Winnebago," whatever that was. It was certainly the most impressive mobile camper in the group. He'd promised them an extensive tour of his place, including his waterbed and disco ball, which he claimed was "chick catnip" -- and more importantly, promised them a ride the hell out of this swampy campsite at dawn.
"I'm only passing through, myself," he explained, taking a pull now and then on a sweet-smelling elvish beer from a recycled glass soda bottle. "Lake Okeechobee's okay, but I'm way too urban to hang in the sticks for very long. I'm on my way out to Palm Beach, maybe then down to Orlando. The recovery project on the Temples of the Mouse is going pretty well. I traded up north in Baltimore at a MediaCon for vacation videos of the various rides, which came in handy when the decorations were restored..."
"How fascinating! Clearly we should have paid more attention to this part of the country in our surveys. And does that mean all of Florida is elf territory?" Una asked, all questions and curiosity, to the point of neglecting her food. Some hungers took priority over others, it seemed.
"Well... the panhandle's more tightly aligned with the Summer Court. The east side and the Everglades, they're more modernist elves," Yavain explained. "Young folks like me who obsess over human artifacts, who try to dig into ancient culture to find a way forward, we're all over the place in this part of Florida, yeah. Eastusa maintains a heavy border patrol to the north, keeping us contained, but there are ways through if you know who to bribe and what to offer 'em. All you need then is a good glamour and you're free to go trading or salvaging for gear."
Emily managed to swallow the last of her food, actually thankful there was no more to eat. "Hrgh. That.. was nasty, Yavain. But you've got my thanks. ...oh, dammit, I forgot to ask what favor you wanted in exchange. Got anything that needs Mending? Or I could do breakfast, although all I know how to make is hotcakes and the like..."
"Nah, don't worry about it, my witchy hottie," Yavain said, with a playful leer. (Scout sat a bit more upright on seeing it, playful or not.) "All of you guys are in my cool book. Mi casa su casa, no favor implied, you dig? Yeah. That includes the road trip, and any clothes I can scrounge up to replace your slimed stuff."
"I have some clothes in my jetpack's storage compartment," Una said. "And Nel's about my size, she can borrow anything she needs."
"I like my uniform," Scout noted. "I don't want anything else. I'll just wash it."
"Weeelll... I've got a Laundry Basket you could use," the elf said, emphasizing each word, as if that explained enough. "But the fancy duds, those just are NOT road gear, you know? Sooo, that leaves just you, Emily. Don't worry, I can find you something."
"Uh-huh. Any chance you can find us a spaceship?" Emily said, dryly. "We were supposedly sent here to find one, but obviously--"
"Spaceship? Sure, if you want. I know a guy."
Bumping into a shotgun-toting elf driving a Winnebago in the middle of nowhere had already raised the weird-o-meter several notches. Being told casually that they also could have a spaceship pushed things over the top and down the other side.
"...I'm sorry, maybe I had swamp muck in my ears, but did you just say you 'know a guy' with a spaceship?" Emily asked, to make sure she hadn't suffered a stroke or something. "Spaceship. Space. Ship. As in, a ship that sails through space, by which I mean the airless void that comprises 99.9% of the universe. You know a guy with a spaceship."
"Yeah, he's pretty cool, I think he'd let you borrow it if you had good reason," Yavain said, using a pointed stick to stoke the campfire coals, before rising and dusting off his overalls. "...oh, hey, I get it. That's a surprise, right? It's only been flying for the last few years. We're actually keeping it a bit on the hush. I don't think Eastusa would like us having it."
"Ahh! I see, this must be another wayward Orbital!" Una recognized. "Tell me, sir, does your friend have white hair, as I do, and wear various devices comprised of a silver metal...?"
"Uh... no, he's got dark brown hair, glasses, and pointy ears," Yavain said, not getting it. "Y'know, an elf, like me?"
"An elf. With a spaceship," Emily repeated, still unsure of her sanity. "So. Lilith actually DID send us somewhere we could get safe passage into space... albeit very, very indirectly..."
"We can hook up with him out at Palm Beach," their host suggested. "Make your case, then we'll head north to the launch site. Everybody get some rest; the road outta the 'glades is a little rough. You don't want to tackle it without some shuteye, you dig? Humm... I can shack up someone on the couch in my camper, and hey, Emily, you know my bed's always--"
Emily got to her feet. "Just point the way to a tool shed or an empty camper or something, and we'll FaePlace up our own beds, thank you, 'SexyElf86'. I definitely want to crash for many, many hours..."
A polite little sound halfway between a cough and a clearing of the throat sounded from the easily overlooked elf girl, successfully hiding behind a small tin mug of beer.
"Ah, cousin..." she asked. "I wanted to ask..."
Yavain's expression swerved into seriousness, as he sat back down. "Your folks, huh."
"If you know where they are, yes," Nelliwyn asked. "I haven't seen them since I was traded to Lady Morgana... now that I'm finally free from that place and with the kind Lady Una, I'd very much like to see my family again. "
The elf boy leaned back in his ratty old lawn chair, unsure of how best to phrase it. "Nel and I go way back," he explained, first, for the benefit of his old friend and her new friends. "Her dad and my dad were bros, of course. Back when the family was a bit more together-like, out in the panhandle, and the Mississippi delta. But her uncle was a bit TOO into human flavors of booze... stopped being a connoisseur and started being a drunk, eventually... no offense, Nelliwyn. You know how I feel about the guy."
"...I take no offense, cousin. I suppose they need to know... continue."
"Right. Well, he also had a thing for gambling. I think you can guess how the rest of it went," he said, bitter at the memory. "We were just kids when he decided the best way to pay off his debts was to sell his own daughter to the House of the Rising Sun--"
"He had no choice, cousin! Lady Morgana--"
"Would have taken any variety of cleverly turned debt. Sure, she asked for you, but Morgana's not choosy. As long as she's amused with the offering, she'll take just about anything. Hell, he could have worked there himself, the selfish bastard! No, the old man didn't hesitate to cough you up, and for that I'm never gonna forgive him. Fortunately that won't be a problem, what with him drinking his ass to death a few years back, and good riddance!"
A tin mug clattered to the ground, spilled beer pooling near the fire.
Too late, Yavain realized his mistake. "Oh... oh, dammit. Nelly, Nelly, I'm sorry, look... your mother, she's fine, okay? I mean, she left after that, I don't know where she is now, but... it's not all bad! ...right? Right?"
Emily tried to find some sympathetic words... and found herself about to address empty air. Nel had vanished.
At first Emily assumed she'd run off... until she realized Una, who had put her arms in some odd position around thin air, was cradling her. Whispering far more sympathetic words than Emily could've managed.
"...y'know, here's you, and here's tact," Emily whispered to her elven friend, holding her hands very far apart. "Even if I'm with you on this one. ...point the way to somewhere I can FaePlace up, I'll go prep for bedding down while they talk."
It had only been... wait. How long had it been since Emily last stepped into her FaePlace?
They'd used it the night before leaving the Twin Cities. The following evening was spent in Esrever's place. The next day, Canada, working on the airlock door. Scout cooking dinner, then sleep under the stars. Finally, today... morning in the wreckage of #BE12, evening in New Orleans, and late night in Florida...
Two days. It felt like weeks, but it had only been two days since Emily was last totally at ease in her magical little home away from home. Amazing. Amazingly horrifying to think of how eventful and dangerous and VERY dangerous the last two days had been.
Just this afternoon, she'd told Una that if there was a just and righteous God out there, they'd be able to retire somewhere sunny and pleasant to rest for awhile after this mess. One sleep from now they'd be on the road to a place called "Palm Beach" which seemed to fit the bill. Maybe someone up there (not an Orbital) indeed liked her...
Or maybe not.
Despite all four of them being present during the casting, the FaePlace had changed. Change was expected, since the place had to accommodate Nelliwyn now -- but the three bedrooms, which should have now been four, were only two. One, a wooden door leading off to her favored rustic old bedroom. Two, a shiny metal door leading off to Una's high-tech rest chamber.
It was worth noting that the beds in both rooms appeared to have grown from twin size to queen size.
"Dammit. And now the spell's tied to this doorframe for at least a day! Maybe I should recast the spell somewhere else," Emily suggested. "It's late. I'm dead tired. My Will might not have been strong enough to get the thing working properly... although... it's never misfired like this before, even once months ago when I was near collapsing after a long day of witching. I don't get it..."
Una peered through her door. "What's wrong?" she asked. "Everything seems in order -- oh, you mean Scout's room being missing? Hmm. That is odd, indeed--"
"We're in the heavens?!"
Oh, right. Nel hadn't been here before, Emily thought, as she rushed past, to enter Una's room and stare at the wall-sized window. It was an illusion, of course, presenting Una with a view that would comfort her the most... no more than a glamour within the pocket space...
What would comfort them most. That's how FaePlace worked; it sensed what would help you rest, what would put you at ease. Scout had no room anymore. And Emily's bed was... wider.
"Um," Emily spoke.
"I think we should bed down for the night, rather than drain your energy further, Emily," Una suggested. "Nel and I will be fine as-is, and Scout can use Yavain's couch, yes? Maybe you can figure out what's wrong with the spell tomorrow night. Ah, Nel, that's not really a view from space... see, what happens is--"
The door closed behind her, one of those wacky science doors that slide shut with a hissy noise.
"Um," Emily repeated.
"Don't mind using your friend's couch," Scout said, with a shrug. "It's fine. I understand."
"Don't want to make you uncomfortable. Goodnight, Emily. Sleep well."
And Scout left.
Exhaustion tapped Emily on the shoulder, reminding her with some irritation that it really, really wanted to go to sleep now. Wordlessly (since there was no one to talk to anymore) Emily entered her room, closing the door behind her. She removed her muddy dress, put on some sensible FaePlace pajamas, and climbed into the oversized bed.
The bed felt very empty, now.
He's changed over the last two days, she thought, because even if she desperately wanted to stop pondering and fall asleep, Insight was having none of that. Enough that he didn't want to be alone in the dark anymore, enough to subconsciously change the FaePlace to become what he needed now. Either that, or I didn't want to be alone anymore, or I didn't want to abandoned him to the darkness. Or both. All three.
And now he's on Yavain's crappy old Winnebago couch with a loose spring digging into his lower back, because it's hardly proper and witchy to let a boy into your room, even if you wouldn't really have done anything improper. Even if all you wanted was to be held so you could sleep easier after being put through the wringer over and over again.
Wow. You suck, Emily.
Not a fun thought to have as you drift off, but that's how it was.
The young witch awoke with a sore neck and cranky disposition. This was a proper state of being for a witch, putting you right in the mood for a little turning of princes into frogs and luring of children into gingerbread houses, but all Emily wanted was some breakfast.
Yavain had woken up earlier and left a bundle of clothes outside her door, apparently -- he was always an early riser, a common trait in elves, as they're creatures of the dawn. Unfortunately, the clothes in question consisted of a pair of denim overalls, some sandals, men's boxer shorts, and a delicately spider-woven silken t-shirt reading "I'm With Stupid". Another fine product misfire from elves with a fetish for human culture.
At least she still had her hat. No self-respecting witch would be caught dead in that outfit without at least some token nod to her magical heritage.
Emily turned out to be the last one to join the impromptu going-away brunch. The other elves in the trailer park had pitched in, resulting in a buffet ranging from some nasty looking hamburgers and hot dogs up to intricately decorated elvish pastries, crafted from fine bread that could crumble away at anything but the most delicate of touches.
Scout was already up, and wearing a black t-shirt and jeans combo. He'd opted to skip the Laundry Basket, instead tearing the Frontliners patch off his muddy-yet-fancy dress military uniform, getting a weaver spider to secure it in place on the shoulder of his new clothes. Una was wearing one of her spare Orbital minidresses -- Nel, always at her side, was wearing a simple tank top and skirt also of Orbital fabric, judging from the way it shimmered as the cloth moved.
As for Yavain... he'd gotten dressed up for whatever was to come down the road. He was wearing baggy cargo pants with a wallet on a chain (not that he carried any money or credit cards of any sort), a shirt with what looked like a disembodied pair of red lips with a tongue rolling out and a caption of STEEL WHEELS '89, and a black leather jacket. It had to be a horrible combination for the heat and humidity of the swamp, but true to his elven nature, he looked impeccably sweat-free and well groomed all the same.
"Emily! Hey witchy woman, hey!" the elf greeted, waving her over. "C'mon, sit, eat up. We got grease, we got sugar, we got whatever you want. We've also got long hours on the road ahead, so also make sure you go take a crap after, you dig?"
With that appealing image assaulting her, Emily took her place at the end of the hastily assembled picnic table, next to Scout. "...hey," she greeted, taking a plate, loading it with some fried eggs. "You sleep alright...? I've crashed on that couch before, I know it's kinda lousy..."
"I've slept on floor mats in a high school gymnasium. An old couch is no challenge," Scout replied. "How about you...? Sleep alright?"
"Oh, yeah, totally okay," Emily lied. She glanced around, uncomfortable. More smalltalk, more would be good. "Una, how'd you two do in your... er, bed?"
Nel spoke up first. "I've never slept on a metal bed before, but it was the best night's sleep I've ever had!" she said, still with stars in her eyes from the amazing experience. "It was actually quite soft and malleable! I hope to one day visit one of Una's sky-cities. If they're anything like that small sampling of her people's works, they must truly be places of wonder and majesty...!"
"Honestly, I fell asleep straight away after getting undressed," Una said. "I was considerably lacking in stamina reserves and the rest did me well. And Nel, really, it's not all that amazing! I mean... it seems quite ordinary to me, at least..."
Something tickled at the back of Emily's mind. "Uh. Una...? So you two did share the bed, then? Don't you normally sleep... y'know... undressed?"
"Hm? Well, of course," Una said, reaching over to have another helping of bacon. "Orbital resting surfaces don't work very well without bioelectric feedback from skin contact, as I explained to Nel last night. Otherwise, your recuperation would be suboptimal! That'd just be silly!"
The FaePlace modifies itself to whatever the occupants would be at ease with, Emily thought. Una had one big bed, too. Which means...
There may have been more to tiny red tint on Nel's cheeks as she politely excused herself than just the spicy elvish pastry she was eating. Una remained oblivious, of course, too busy enjoying the various fried pig parts.
For her part, Emily immediately busied herself with her fried eggs. She had enough on her mind lately without taking Una's slightly screwy spacegirl social standards into consideration.
The last Winnebago plant had shut down in 2008, over two hundred years prior to their road trip. Not that Yavain cared; any parts that broke down or wore out simply got replaced with the nearest magical equivalent. For instance, before they left, he had to pop the hood and replace the glowing radish that was operating as his carburetor with a fresh one, from a UV lit grow-tank in the back that also housed some questionable green leafy plants.
The back roads of the Everglades also were barely roads anymore, after long term neglect; they were only rough corridors through the overgrowth of nature, where asphalt once might have held things at bay. Fortunately, his wheels were enchanted to cause plants to move out of the way, with a series of glowing runes instead of whitewalls doing their business with every turn of the axles. Still, even if they had a clear path, it was hardly smooth sailing -- the motor home bumped and lumped its way along, over rocks and deadwood and uneven terrain.
"I've got a guy who knows a guy who's working on a better kind of shock absorber!" he called back to the living area, where the girls were trying to learn how to play gin rummy to pass the time (and constantly dropping their cards when the Winnebago smashed over a dead log or fallen tree). "Sorry 'bout this! It'll smooth out once we high the highway. ETA at Palm Beach, two hours!"
The only one unaffected by the rough ride was Scout, perched in the navigator's seat next to Yavain. He instinctively leaned and moved with each lump the vehicle drove over, remaining upright and stable despite the unstable transport. He was half reading a cheap paperback copy of Lord of the Rings ("That Tolkein guy, he GOT us, you dig? We are totally sexy superhuman ninjas, all the way!"), half keeping an eye on the treelines left and right for any enemy ambushes. Not that he was expecting one, but if you were expecting an ambush, it wasn't much of an ambush.
"Dude, will you chill?" Yavain asked. "You've got that creepy Winterhound stalking thing going on. It's freaking me out. We are not gonna get jumped by some big evil woogums, okay? I mean, a big evil woogums other than you. This is elf turf."
All in all, Yavain took it well when Emily (in the interests of full disclosure) pointed out Scout's true nature. Instead of running in terror or attacking, he took it in stride. Even if he was keeping an eye on the boy as much as the boy was keeping an eye on everything else.
"You said not all of Florida believed as you did," Scout reminded him.
"What, the Braid of Dawn? They're harmless. I mean, almost always," Yavain said, veering left to avoid a turtle crossing the road. "They complain, they try to tell us off about how we're shirking years of tradition, blah blah blah. But they don't do much else. Be cool, alright? This isn't an APC and we aren't storming LV-426."
"I'm just saying you're too uptight. I mean, you were all uptight last night, too! Barely got any sleep."
"Don't sleep much, anyway."
"Why ARE you hanging with Emily, anyway?" Yavain asked. "You're not her type."
"Frankly, I don't think Emily HAS a type," the elf said, watching the road. "I mean, I've known her for years and she's a total hottie, and there was that night we got piss-drunk in Baltimore and she kissed me, but I know better now. She's all business, all witchy business. No time for hip and happening dudes like you and me! Shame, really. I mean, I'm cool with the whole let's-be-friends thing, we talked it over a bunch, but... honestly, I think maybe she's content to just ride her broomstick, y'know what I--"
"I love her."
The RV nearly swerved directly into the trees. Yavain swore in elvish, swinging the wheel around right, then left, straightening out. Playing cards went flying in the background, as he called back apologies to the girls... and then settled in, ten-and-two on the steering wheel... even as he cast side glances to Scout.
After three minutes of silence, he said, "Seriously, dude?"
"Seriously," Scout responded.
"Holy crap, man. That's... wow. Uh. You told her that, right? And she didn't, I dunno, kick you in the junk? --Winterhounds HAVE junk, right? No, that's stupid, of course they do. They're well known for..."
The next pause was a dangerous one.
"Dude, tell me right now you're not just adding her to your harem," Yavain warned, playfulness gone. "I know what Winterhounds are like. How they feed on the pretty little flies they catch. You be straight with me or I swear I'll use my sexy elf ninja powers to boot your ass out of my car right now--"
"It's not like that. I swear it on my life."
"You're dead, though."
"I don't care. I still swear it. ...I haven't done anything with her like that. I don't want to risk it, even accidentally. One of the reasons I was on your couch last night. I'll never hurt her. I fought Archmagus Lilith at her side to keep her from harm, and if need be, I'd fight Lady Summer herself or Lady Winter. You have my word, Yavain."
"...you two fought Lilith? Like, the Lilith who killed her--"
Yavain leaned back in his seat, digesting that. He let out a whistle, impressed. "Freeeow. What the hell has my little witchy woman been up to in the years since we last talked...? Man. This is just... man. ...alright. I'm cool, I'm cool. ...look, for the record, even if I still flirt, I know she's not mine and never will be. I won't cock block you, man, bros before h-- err. Y'know. ...I am glad to hear she's got someone. So. How long you two been at it?"
And now, Scout was the one to be taken aback. "...um," he said, trying to figure out a number. "Two days...? Been together longer, but not... been together. ...still not together, really. She kissed me, once. But... we've been busy. Fighting things. And stuff. ...there was a dinosaur."
"She kissed you once? And that's it? Seriously?"
"There was fighting. And stuff. ...we're on an assignment. The mission takes priority."
"Oh, bullcrap," Yavain said, shaking his head. "Alright, fine, you're busy beavers, but you gotta take some time to woo your witch, man! C'mon! --look, the concert we're going to tonight, you stick by her and show her a good time, dig? Let me do the heavy lifting on your quest, while you just roll with it. I'm holdin' you down, man, you go do your thang."
"...I don't know how to show her a good time," Scout admitted. "I don't really have fun. Although I'm trying to figure out how."
"You ARE hopeless, aren't you? Okay. I'm officially your new wingman, Scout," Yavain pledged. "I swear I will get you some of that witchy booty or my name isn't SexyElf86! We've got time to kill before we get there, and there's nobody better at romance than an elf. All the human chicks say so, after all. Let the education begin!"
They hadn't planned on stopping at a rest station.
"Does this thing have a privy?" Emily had asked.
"Well... yes and no," Yavain had explained. "The plumbing broke down a few months back, so I had a replacement unit installed. It's a little weird, but honestly, it works great! But I was figuring you wouldn't want to use it, 'cause, uh..."
"I think I can cope with some wacky magic toilet," Emily had assumed.
When she raised the lid, a long purple tongue slathered over the porcelain rim, and it emitted a deep and rolling guttural belch that smelled faintly of lilac.
So, they stopped at a rest station. The girls moved en masse for the restrooms, which fortunately were more mechanical and less monstrous. This left the boys behind, to munch on little gas station baggies of Cool Ranch Extreme Enchanted Sunlight Crunchies (one of the first mass-produced elven snackfoods) and to continue the Education.
"And that's when I put my arm around her?" Scout asked.
"Yeah, but you gotta do it real casual-like," Yavain continued. "Y'know, like your arm wasn't really going there originally, it just sort of settled there. It helps if you yawn and stretch, then just HAPPEN to drape your arm around her shoulders. It's like you're saying you're too cool for intimacy but hey, here's some intimacy all up in your grill, girl. 'cause you deserve it for being so hot. Then, when the time is right, you cop a feel."
"Shouldn't I ask her permission first?"
"What? Gods, no. No, man. C'mon! You're the man here. You're taking valuable time out of your long hard work doing manly things like hunting wild animals and contributing to the gross national product in order to show your woman a good time, so hey, you just GO for it. I mean, like, obviously you don't wanna be a prick about it, but you don't have to beg for every little thing... besides, once you butter her up with the phrases I taught you, she'll be all for it."
"I'm suspecting Emily may not react well if I praise her 'bountiful, bodacious booty' or her 'awesome rack', Yavain."
"And THAT is what the beer is for. Look, we discussed this -- you go in the order of booze, schmooze, then cooze. You get that out of order and we've got a tragedy. You do it the way we say, and you'll be all up in them witchy drawers and you'll be her Prince Charming, verily."
Scout chewed thoughtfully on a Cool Ranch Extreme Enchanted Sunlight Crunchie.
"Where'd you learn how humans relate to each other, exactly...?" he asked.
"From the Internet," Yavain explained, tossing his now empty paper bag behind the driver's seat, onto an increasingly large pile of empty cans and bottles and wrappers. "It's the human methodology of courtship. I love courtship! I mean, Fae are also really into the whole casual sex thing, moreso than humans -- like, wink wink, you're cute, off we go. But when you wrap that up in a dance, a ritual, that's a lot more intense... it gives it some structure. Elves dig games. Now, the nobles, their courtship is kinda stiff and plodding and polite and slightly dangerous if you screw up and start owing favors... that's not our scene. All the happening elvish girls and boys learn how the humans get their freak on, and now that is how we roll, dawg!"
"I see," Scout said, processing that. "Your education will be... useful. Thank you."
Specifically, useful in doing the exact opposite of what you're saying, Scout didn't add.
Yavain snapped his fingers. "Damn! I almost forgot-- wait here. Hope they have some in stock... wait here!" And the elf was out the door of the RV in a flash.
When he returned, he pressed a small wax paper packet into Scout's hands.
"You're gonna need these," Yavain said, in seriousness. "Pack one into your wallet, keep the rest handy. Elves don't actually NEED them, they're just a prop in the human-style courtship game we play. Our women can control their conception... but from what I've learned, little humans spring up like weeds if you aren't packing protection. I had to guess at your size, but I'm guessing you're hung like--"
"Yes, thank you, I appreciate it," Scout said, jamming the small packet into a jeans pocket quickly.
Hm. Maybe not the opposite of EVERYTHING he's saying, he decided.
It's an axiom of the universe that rest area bathrooms will be horrible. It doesn't matter if they're a waystation between major Eastusa cities, or some backroad truck stop, or some sort of high science Orbital waste control chamber, or a restored gas station run by innately well groomed and stylish elves. It will always be horrible.
If anything, a bathroom originally constructed by men and then augmented by elves will be twice as horrible. Fortunately the toilets were purely mechanical rather than grotesque abominations, but the graffiti consisted largely of scrawled elvish runes about the easy nature of various elf girls, the mold growing in the corner had already sprouted smelly mushrooms that were currently occupied by a small colony of very rude pixies, and Emily's stall was out of toilet paper. Una had to pass her some underneath the wall.
The less time spent in here, the better -- but unfortunately, while Emily loitered around in her backwoods overalls looking cross, Una and Nel were busy trying to look pretty. Una was touching up her makeup a bit, using a strange chromed lipstick-like tool which adjusted the hue and shade of her various subtle cosmetic touches; Nel was working a glamour, trying to adjust her hair color a bit to be lighter toned and straighter, to better match Una's.
"What's the point?" Emily asked. "It's not like you two are going out clubbing tonight cruising for guys."
"I like looking my best, is all," Una said, capping her 'lipstick' and tucking it back in her jetpack's storage compartment. "The humidity down here alters the biochemical gels, makes them lose color..."
"And I'm just glad I'm allowed to be noticeable, for a change!" Nel said, with a bright smile. "I've never tried using my magic on myself before. I mean, except to tone down myself and look plainer and less important. This is really fun! Ah, Una, do you like my hair...? I can't seem to get it quite as white as yours..."
"Oh, it's so cute!" Una said, clasping her hands in front of her chest. "You know, you should consider pulling it back in a ponytail, maybe. It's nice and long, it could work that way, really highlight your cheekbones. Mine's too short to do much with, not as pretty as yours...! ...ah, Emily, if you want to borrow my Cosmetic Alterator or ask Nel to work some magic, you can. We're not trying to leave you out of the fun, honest!"
"Fun? This is fun?"
"Well, of course! I mean, it'd be moreso for you, since you actually have a boy you're trying to romance," Una said, with a knowing little grin.
Emily palmed her face and faced her palm. "I should never have told you two about that kiss..." she grumbled.
"I think it's sweet, Miss Emily," Nel assured her. "A Summerling witch and a tall, dark, handsome Winterling rogue, finding each other through struggle and strife, yearning for each other during a long and dangerous quest...! Oh, it's so romantic!"
"Oh yes, right up until the point where we all die horribly. Very romantic."
"I still say we should be calling for reinforcements," Una said, folding her arms, as she leaned against the counter lined with sinks. "I haven't contacted my father since we visited Edmonton. He should be told of our findings! An entire city, doomed through Faerie magic, with the Summer Queen likely having her eye on another city... we should be warning him, perhaps getting a team of specialists here. We've done well in our investigation by ourselves, I'm proud of our successes, but there's no shame in asking for help... and why GO up into space, for that matter? What purpose would it serve?"
Emily paused a moment, trying to gather her thoughts. It wasn't easy; there were a dozen workable theories that'd fit the sketchy evidence to date, none of them very convincing... so, she went with that.
"We have no idea what's really going on," she said. "I can't say 'all signs point to' this or that. All signs point to some weird ball of craziness going on with the Faeries and maybe even the Orbitals. Fae spies in your Arcologies, scheming and causing these events? Faeries colluding with Orbital Councils? Or just a wild string of coincidences and accidents? Honestly, by this point, it doesn't matter who or why or how. All we know is that something very bad is probably going down on the solstice, and all fingers point towards the Orbitals."
"Emily, I don't believe for a minute my people are behind any of this madness!"
"And the Pandora Event...?"
"...it could have been accidental," Una said. "Some unforeseen side effect of the shift drives. I do not doubt that Orbitals are responsible for the troubles your world has been through, but as you said... we don't know who or why or precisely how. I can't imagine malice behind such actions, even if I can't explain what happened..."
"Exactly! We don't know. We can't know, not from here. And in that kind of fog of war, we can't trust that your father isn't compromised."
"Hear me out," Emily pleaded, raising her hands. "I'm not saying he's the enemy. You know him, hell, I know him from those mirror memories of yours. I'm saying that he could act against us without realizing it. He could be under an enchantment, or simply lied to and tricked into doing things that the Faerie Court desires... and we've already seen examples of Faerie mind control using Orbital technology. If you call upstairs and he finds out what we know... then the enemy could find out through him, one way or another."
"So... you want to go into space... so you can find out what's going on firsthand?"
"Yep. We go up there and confront this head on, whatever it is. I know it's crazy, but it's the only thing we can do; there's no more we can do down here without getting dangerously involved with the Queens of Faerie. It's bad enough that Lady Summer now knows we know that she knows. You know? ...anyway, I'd rather take my chances with a bunch of scrawny juxtaterrestrial intellectuals. At least those guys I think I could take down with a well placed kick in the nuts. ...Orbitals have testicles, right?"
"Errr... yes. At last check. Not that I have checked. Or would have had any opportunity to check. ...erm."
"I don't care how fancy and shiny their energy guns are, a kick in the junk is a kick in the junk. And Scout's good at kicking, and I can Animate a boot, and so on. So, we go upstairs, and we figure out once and for all what's going on. Assuming we ever get out of this bathroom. The boys probably think we fell in by now. C'mon. We've got an RV to ride, before we start thinking about rocket ships."
Most of Palm Beach was in ruins. Over a hundred years of abandonment will do that to any urban metropolis; throw in the occasional Floridian hurricane and the sweltering heat and humidity, and things accelerate.
However, as the RV rolled through the empty streets, signs of repair started to show. Buildings gradually went from shaky looking skeletons and crumbling facades to restored shopfronts and homesteads. More cars were on the streets, including classic Detroit iron, and magically crafted replicas of classic Detroit iron done with such style and flair that it'd have made the original manufacturers break down weeping to gaze upon them.
In fact, that was one of the earmarks of elvish restoration: elegance and beauty in things that had no business being elegant or beautiful. Rough road hawg motorcycles with exhaust pipes that glittered like moonlight across a still pond. T-shirts being sold at roadside vendors with obscene slogans and flawless spider-silk weaves, the kind of garments which would be suitable for nobility. Street toughs with pointy ears and leather jackets that were so flawlessly crafted it wouldn't be surprising if they started mooing.
"Posers," Yavain complained. "You gotta rough your gear up some, make it look more authentic. Don't use so many magical band-aids, either, unless you can't avoid it. The newbies just don't understand how to grasp the essence of human urban living."
"Which is...?" Scout had asked.
"Everything is a pile of crap -- but it's loved all the same, because it's YOUR crap. Like the Rock Show."
The Rock Show was going to be their destination that evening, as dusk started to fall across the half-restored city. (The trip had taken longer than planned, thanks to several road blockages, the rest area, and traffic delays due to a rampaging swamp dragon.) As Yavain had explained it, the Rock Show was a yearly event, a gathering of Faerie musicians from all over the lands of the Faerie Court... but all under the universal banner of rock music, the human style of backbeat and rough and ready beautiful noise.
He was re-explaining the concept to the girls, as the group piled out of the RV, joining other elves gathered in the parking lot outside the stadium. Some were having impromptu tailgate parties, with grilled meats and spectacular demonstrations of expressive glamours. All of them were wearing human fashion styles, and usually with more rips and inconsistencies than the smoother looks of the elves they'd passed on the way here.
"You remember me complaining about how I couldn't figure the connection needed to link an electric guitar to a sound-carry gourd, right?" Yavain asked.
"I remember you dragging me to every music shop we could find in Baltimore," Emily recalled, as the group started to move through the crowd, towards the entrance. "But I was more worried the glamour you had cast before we breached the Freedom Wall was going to drop at any time than about why you were on a shopping spree..."
"Right. Well, eventually we cracked the problem -- use the real gear. Real human amps, real human instruments. Once you start tossing magic stop-gaps into the mix, you just lose the whole thing. It could work, but it'd feel wrong," Yavain continued. "Rock music, the sound we'd heard from the media we'd scrounged up, that's what we wanted. Faerie music is too ethereal, too delicate and beautiful. We wanted it to sound like the kind of wildfire we heard in human music, so, we had to go with totally human instruments. And we had to un-train all our musical skills."
"Faerie methods didn't work with human instruments? Strings were all wrong?"
"Oh, it worked. But it sounded too good. Like if you gave Mozart a modern guitar, he'd write something wonderful, but it wouldn't sound a thing like Joe Strummer, yeah? You'll get it once we're in there and experiencing the real thing; no posers to be found here, no ma'am! We--"
"Reject the ways of the outsiders! Embrace the ways of Faerie!"
Their progress was promptly blocked by a small group of elves, wearing robes of forest green and with long braids down their backs. Their expressions were stern; that alone would've set them apart from the freewheeling young elves, who were all smiles and laughter and chatter around them. The young ones seemingly paid no attention to the contingent in green, completely ignoring them in favor of their own social circles.
One pressed a pamphlet into Emily's hands. Too surprised to do anything else, she glanced at the rough woodcut printed paper; "The Braid of Dawn: A Return To Glorious World of Faerie," it proclaimed, with a watercolor illustration of a stereotypically beautiful and mystical Faerie woman casting spell-lights from her fingertips.
Before she could say anything in response, the group had already moved on, to assault other newcomers to the parking lot with colorful brochures. One cast a reproachful look back at her... specifically, at the non-pointiness of Emily's ears.
"Uh... who were they?" Emily asked, flipping the brochure over and over. It was printed in an ancient Elvish rune-language, something too complex for her limited understanding to broach. Probably too complex for many of the young elves to read, for that matter, having been raised on English and more modern forms of Faerie language.
"Panhandlers," Yavain grumbled. "Conservatives. Traditionalists. Just a bunch of self-important busybodies. Didn't think they were this far east, though..."
"If they're a threat to your ways, why do you allow them in here?" Scout asked.
Yavain shrugged -- but offered a smile, too.
"This is America, man," he said. "Everybody's got a right to free speech. So sayeth Kennedy."
The gathering made a cult movie night at the Mall of America look like a church tea social.
The arena was packed with music fans. Most of them were elves, but some human teenagers and twentysomethings had managed to slip away from their communities in the fringe to make the journey down south -- even a few from Eastusa, from the sounds of it. The only difference between them and the elves was in ear shape; everybody was dressed for the event, wearing shirts proclaiming blood allegiance to one band or another, with plenty of leather and denim and piercings to go around. Emily, in her elf-redneck overalls, felt terribly out of place.
They'd been abandoned by their Cultural Instructor for the day; Yavain said he had to go "make some arrangements" and set them up with some seats on the edge of the arena floor, as they waited for the concerts to begin.
Emily had no interest in mingling with the hundreds of folks in what was apparently being called the Mosh Pit, and Scout from his limited knowledge of concerts (mostly overheard in various high schools during his wild years) agreed it would be wise to stay out of there. For their part, Una and Nel didn't really care where they sat; they were busy being wide-eyed and curious about everything.
"I had no idea there was such a modern elvish enclave in eastern Florida!" Nel spoke. "Yavain and I grew up out west, where nothing like this was going on. Faeries in human garb...? It's positively scandalous! ...er, do we stand out? Should I try to glamour up a band logo onto our clothes, Lady Una?"
"Hmm? Oh, no need -- someone back there said we had 'sweet raver clothes,' which I take to be at least tangentially theme-appropriate," Una said. "I can't wait to hear this music! I only heard a few 'rocking roll' recordings in the anthropology database, but I predict they will hardly compare to a live performance! Orbital musical culture is so... restrained, so simple and graceful, in comparison. I once attended a recital of various sound-shapes, but honestly, I fell asleep halfway through. This outpouring of affection for acoustic creativity and fashionable style is delightfully energetic!"
"It's all just noise to me," Emily complained. "Aren't we here to get ourselves a ticket on a spaceship? We've only got a few days before Lady Summer makes her move, remember... it's the 17th, and everything goes down on the 21st. Four days. No time to futz around."
"I think we should try to enjoy this."
...Emily stared at Scout, looking for some sort of ironic smirk or outward sign of sarcasm. Instead, he was serious. As always.
"You're kidding me. I thought you said you didn't have fun," she reminded him.
"I didn't. Need to learn how, though," he said. "Lots I need to learn. This is human experience, so, I should experience it. Probably not dangerous. Maybe it'll give us a headache, at worst, so why not? There's no risk. We should try to enjoy it. Besides, if Yavain's space travel contact is here, odds are he or she will be busy enjoying it as well, and not ready to deal with our request yet. ...hmm. I appear to be fatigued."
Scout stretched out his arms, with a big, showy yawn. Emily ignored it, trying to scan the crowd idly for someone who might own a spaceship... and then noticed an arm had been draped around her shoulders. And now Scout was apparently closer to her than before. When did that happen...?
Despite having no heartbeat and being a creature of the Wild Hunt across the frozen planes of Lady Winter's deathscape, he was actually quite warm to lean against. Cozy, even.
Okay, obviously Yavain taught him that one, Emily thought. It's one of his classics. I should call him to carpet on that, chide him for making such a blatant play. I should. I don't think I'm going to, though.
The lights around the arena began to dim. Emily took this momentary respite in darkness to lean in against Scout, when nobody was looking -- they were all focused on the stage, now, a rising yell of anticipation coming from thousands of throats. Flashbulbs went off on pocket cameras, memory-fixing spells were spoken, everybody recorded the moment... when the first star of the evening took the stage.
Emily was assuming the first act would be dressed like Yavain, a 'band' that looked more like a street gang, all leather and chains and rock attitude. Instead, a solitary figure walked on stage, wearing a simple brown leather duster and elvish tunic, a young elf with human spectacles and a serious expression. Only a tie-dye bandanna around his forehead signified any allegiance to rock and roll... that, and a simple black and white electric guitar.
The few in the crowd who were still seated rose to their feet, when he took the stage... and en masse, the concert attendees placed their right hands over their hearts, the cheers going silent as the musician plugged into the amps, tuning up the guitar. Emily glanced around, surprised at the gesture... it didn't feel like the crazy crowd reaction a rock musician should get.
"What's going on?" she asked... before realizing Scout was doing the same gesture.
"National anthem," he replied, quietly.
"What? Eastusa's jingle? But... they're elves."
"They're American elves. Shh."
It was a song Emily had heard a few times before. Once, used as background music as a salesman claimed he had ordered too many cars from a Twin Cities manufacturing plant, and now Everything Must Go. She'd also heard it through a tinny speaker on television as a station signed off for the night. The third time, a wandering musician passing through her village had played it, albeit a bouncy, cheerful version on a flute.
This performance made the other three look like the sad little national embarrassments they were.
The elf on stage didn't perform beautifully, flawlessly, ethereally as elves often do. His instrument was coarse, his notes often skittering out of the way and back again across the melody. It wasn't a precision playback. It was instead a song directly from his heart... one which took the core of the Star Spangled Banner, the emotional punch it held for those who truly believed in the dream instead of giving it lip service, and pumped it out across dozens of amplified speakers for all in attendance to feel along with him.
All the while, his eyes remained closed... the musician was pouring himself down his fingers and into his strings, but it was a meditative act, an expression that would've remained just as powerful even if no ears were present to take it in. The old koan pondering if a tree falls in the forest makes a sound would've been annihilated in this case. His sound existed outside of the Rock Show, only touching down in this place by coincidence. It simply was, a statement of pure patriotism and faith...
His final notes, echoing the home of the brave, washed out over the crowd... which slowly burst into applause.
The performer finally opened his eyes, nodding once to the crowd, in thanks for listening. He reached over to a nearby mike stand, grasping it.
"Keep on rocking in the free world, Florida," he stated... before turning around, and walking away, as the thunder of an appreciative crowd pushed him along.
The next band started to set up their instruments, but waited until he'd left completely, out of respect. They were more of the leather and chains look Emily was expecting to see tonight.
Emily clapped along, even if her applause was a bit more unsure. She didn't want to say an ill word, not wanting to break the "spell" that the music had clearly cast over its listeners... so she kept her voice quiet, for Scout's ears only.
"I don't understand. I've never seen anybody in Eastusa play it like that, or even listen to it like that," she spoke. "Why here? Why with the elves?"
"It's the American dream," Scout explained, with no small amount of reverence. "Once this country was a gathering place for immigrants from a thousand nations, a place for those from other lands yearning to be free. Here, they could find a place where they'd belong. With the borders closed these days, many people living in Eastusa don't understand, so they won't hear the song the same way. They refuse to hear it as anything other than a war song or an empty comfort of tradition. The Faeries are outsiders, so it means something else to them. Odds are none of the elves here will ever live in America... but that doesn't mean they can't dream."
"...I didn't mark you for a patriot, Scout."
"Saul taught me," he said, with pride. "Before him, I didn't care where I was or why. But it's just a dream, Emily. 'Patriot' these days usually means mindless loyalty to Eastusa's government. Saul says you can take pride in the dream even if you have a hard time taking any pride in the place."
A squeal of feedback interrupted them, as the next act warmed up, ready to rock. The lead singer grasped the mike stand, pointing out into the crowd.
"Elves! Humans! Assorted Fae! We are The Ear Sharpeners, and we are here to rock your socks off!" he declared. "Our first number tonight is a dedication, going out to Emily, from Scout -- he loves ya, girl!"
Shock smacked Emily between the eyes, as the guitars started to warm up. Scout? Getting them to dedicate a song to her? SCOUT...? 'He loves ya, girl'?! Oh. Oh my...
"...I.. ah... Scout...?" Emily spoke, trying to find the words. "Did you seriously ask that band to... I mean... really? ...heh. Actually, that's kind of swee--"
Then they started playing.
It was like someone smashed Emily's brains in with a baseball bat covered in porcupines. The elves, quite at home delicately picking at the strings on a golden enchanted lyre, were banging away on the electric guitars like they were trying to stab a man to death with a rusty hammer. The resulting noise would probably have been similar.
"What unusual lyrics!" Una spoke up, trying to be heard over the wave of acoustic assault and battery. "I'm not entirely certain the bodily insertion he's suggestion is physically possible, however..."
"ROCK ON, my friends, rock on!"
Yavain popped up behind Scout and Emily, the surprise of it causing Emily to pull away from him.
"Aren't these guys great? They've really nailed that human sound!" Yavain said, waving a handheld cigarette lighter in the air.
"Great?! It sounds like a dozen cats spot-welded to a kitchen stove rolling down a hill covered in broken glass!" she declared.
"I know! It's perfect! Oh, hey, I hate to interrupt your song dedication, but Kennedy wants to see you about that spaceship now," Yavain said. "I got you all backstage passes. C'mon."
He ushered them along towards the exits, distributing wooden charms on red lanyards as each passed by.
Scout went last, giving Yavain a questioning look...
"Did you tell that band to...?"
...which the elf returned with a wink, and a double thumbs up.
"We're bros, dude. Bros help bros out with their h-- with their girls," Yavain said, with a grin. "Did it work? Wasn't it totally awesome? Stick with me, bud, and you are TOTALLY gonna score yourself a witch!"
The sacred Backstage Pass is a thing of mystical power. It grants the bearer access to the hallowed service tunnels and back hallways of the arena, where the Lords of Rock prepare for their sermons to the people, usually delivered through amplifiers cranked to eleven.
(The elves were sure to modify all the speakers to go to eleven. It was said that this was the only true way to express oneself through human-style music, and that the legends of old frequently "went to eleven". They could have just made ten louder, but that may have been blasphemy against their ancestors of rock, and you don't mess around when you deal with ancestral spirits.)
Back here, the roadies ferried broken equipment around, casting Mending spells to get it back into the action. Burly looking elves wearing tunics reading SECURITY kept an eye on everything, ready to use various amulets and charms and bracelets to strike out against anyone who dared to disrupt the Rock Show. But the most noteworthy of the factions were the Groupies and the Bands, who were rarely seen apart.
Each band had their own set of groupies, usually dressed similarly to the band: the same colors, the same clothes. They were near universally divided across gender lines, with greasy looking male elves strumming away on non-amplified guitars in an effort to impress swooning elf girls. The whole scene of sexual pandering to someone just because they could bang away on an instrument left a sick taste in Emily's mouth... although she did note with some satisfaction a band of female punk elves who were teasing away at the male groupies that fawned all over them.
No group of groupies was larger, however, than the one they were approaching. It crowded around a dressing room door with a simple gold star on it, locked shut, flanked by the burliest and meanest looking security elves in the building. Nobody got in, nobody was going out... but when Yavain waved for attention, pointing to Emily's pointy hat (the only part of their group visible over the gathered girls), the guards moved to part the crowd. Apparently, Emily and company were going to be allowed in, much to the jealous glares of the gathered fans.
"You realize we're going to be lynched by this guy's fans once we leave the stadium, right?" Emily mumbled.
"Nah, it's cool, it's cool," Yavain insisted. "Look, I've got arrangements to make and people to see and autographs to snag, so I'm gonna take off now. The guards'll show you back to your seats when you're done, dig?"
"We don't even know this guy, though! You're our middleman."
"I explained your sitch to him. He gets the basics, just tell him what's up and it'll go okay, yeah? Yeah. Be cool and everything'll go fine. Later, witchy woman."
It was a bit like shoving a cork completely through the neck of a bottle, but somehow, the security elves managed to hustle their group of four through the door. It slammed shut behind them, latching and cutting off the plaintive whines of the fans, protesting their admittance to see the star...
...who was an unassuming looking fellow in a brown duster, reading from a book. He idly glanced up from his page, peering over the top of his spectacles.
"You're the one who played the national anthem," Emily realized.
"Kanthi F. Kennedy," the elf greeted, after closing his book and setting it aside. "I'm an Astromagus, and the organizer of this concert. And you're Emily Moonthistle, the Summerwitch in exile who defeated the Archmagus. Which makes you the rebel Winterhound known as Scout, and your companions would be Una the Orbital who gamed with Lady Morgana and won a house elf's debt... although her name, I'm afraid I don't know. The rumors didn't seem to care much about that."
"Ah... I'm Nelliwyn," Nel greeted, with a proper curtsey. "Yavain's cousin. I'm pleased to meet you. ...ah, your music tonight was very beautiful. Thank you for playing for us. It did seem quite... er, different, from the band that came on afterwards..."
To this, Kanthi F. Kennedy offered a wry grin. Emily got the feeling normally he was quite a serious-minded individual... except when it came to music.
"I play to express my feelings, miss -- not simply to try and recreate music from years gone by. My days are filled with mathematics and spellcraft, organizing and executing space missions. Music gives me an escape... and lets me show my feelings about the nation I admire so. I've taken on the name of my idol, the Martyr of Democracy, to further express my idealism. Speaking of which, thank you for telling me your name. That nicely completes the mental picture I've had of the events at the House of the Rising Sun... and it feels quite appropriate that a child of Florida has been rescued and returned, at last."
"Word moves fast, huh," Emily said, disheartened. If the rumor mill was spinning this fast, then they had no chance of outrunning it before the Solstice...
"We have the Internet, thanks to my work, Miss Emily. Your exploits were posted to various Fae-only social networking sites within minutes. Apparently some attendees of the Solstice Ball were from our camp. Now, then. Yavain tells me you need a ride into space, to visit an Orbital city?"
"Err... excuse me, but... how do you know about our cities?" Una asked, slowly raising her hand, as if meekly asking a question of the teacher. "For that matter, how do you know of the Orbitals...?"
"The official line is that you do not exist, of course," Kanthi said. "But it's been harder and harder to conceal the fact that the Summer Court and Winter Court have a bit of a spat going on over ownership of technology that fell from the skies. That, and I have some firsthand observational data... I saw one of your cities. It's in geosynchronous orbit over Miami. I believe the markings identified it as #A076, if that code means anything to you."
"My home? But... but that's impossible! Arcologies operate using cloaking technologies," Una protested. "Impossible to observe through a telescope, or even up close with the naked eye... impossible to detect using radar or any other scanning methodology--"
Kanthi mumbled a power word, gesturing with two fingers -- and in a flash, Nel's hair became more colorful, the glamour of paleness she had cast on herself wiped away as if a beam of light was aimed at a shadow. When he lowered his fingers, her spell reasserted itself.
"Orbital technology isn't very good at defending against magic," he explained. "I could spot the city through my enchanted glasses, even if my instruments hadn't detected it. I very nearly crashed into it, in fact... fortunately I realized they couldn't sense that I could sense them. I played it safe and carried out my mission to launch a comm satellite, pretending nothing was out of the ordinary, and they let me go about my business. I didn't want to stir up a hornet's nest... but I became curious about what I saw afterwards, and started checking the Faerie rumor mills about them. I've learned much since."
"Then you know Lady Summer wants more Orbital technology," Emily said. "We're hoping to prevent that. We need to get up there to learn more about what's going on, and put a stop to it. Can you give us a lift?"
Kanthi nudged his glasses up, sliding them along the bridge of his nose. "It's not a matter of 'giving you a lift.' Space travel is a complicated business, utilizing interlocked layers of science and magic. The earliest I could possibly launch our craft is the early morning hours of the Solstice day itself, and that's assuming the weather mages back at NASA are able to clear us a safe atmospheric window in time. On top of that... how exactly do you plan to enter the Arcology? Especially if you suspect a potential enemy lying in wait for your arrival."
Emily did not start to explain her brilliant plan, because she did not in fact have one.
"Okay, I've no clue. I admit it," she agreed. "But we have to act. I know that much. You say we're not going to be able to leave until Solstice morning...? It's cutting things close, but maybe that's for the best. It'll give us time to make a plan of action. ...assuming you agree to get us up there."
"Technically speaking, acting against Lady Summer's wishes -- even covetous ones for strange off-world power that could unbalance the seasons -- is high treason," Kanthi noted. He considered the point, scratching his chin in thought. "...but by helping you, I also help maintain the stability of the world, and ensure the safety of my fellow Faeries. ...very well. Assuming that you can figure out a plan of attack, I can get you up there. I need to launch the next ElfStar communications satellite, anyway; I was going to wait another week, but I can move the mission up a few days."
Kanthi offered his hand, a very human gesture of agreement and respect. Relieved, Emily reached out and accepted it, shaking on the deal.
"Give me two days to prepare the facility -- and my team, who will not be happy about this -- for your arrival," he requested. "No sense going there sooner, you'd only be underfoot as we scramble to prepare. Yavain will drive you up to the Cape the day before the Solstice. We can plan your mission that evening, and launch afterwards. It'll be cutting it close, but as you say... we have to act. My Insight tells me that this situation left unattended can only end in doom."
"Right. --wait, your what?" Emily asked.
"Insight," Kanthi spoke, making sure to emphasize the word, as a stand-alone concept rather than just a noun. "Have you heard of it? It's a magical trait, often misunderstood as telepathy or prophecy. Insight is the ability to feel the present, extending one's senses deep within a single moment in time, and jump to the right conclusion about the nature of a situation. It's how I'm able to fly my missions in space without a full crew, I can extend my Insight throughout the ship itself. It's a rare Faerie gift, I'm told. Only one in a million Fae are born with it, and only in certain family lines."
"...or have it enchanted on them, right?" she asked. Despite feeling absolutely no Insightful confidence about that.
"No, it's a birthright only. ...and now my Insight is making me wonder why you're so curious about this," Kanthi said, studying Emily head to toe, in a slightly disquieting way. "Are you saying that--"
"We won't take up any more of your time... we've all got work to do if we're going to carry off this plan," Emily interrupted. "Thanks for helping us, Mr. Kennedy. ...as much as my ears are protesting the idea of it, we should get back to the concert... then get a hotel room, since we'll be here for a little while. The rest should do us good, I think."
For a second night, the FaePlace hadn't responded the way Emily wanted. Instead of four rooms, there were two.
Nel and Una were totally at ease with the concept, by that point. (Correction: Una was at ease, and blissfully unaware of Nel's increasing discomfort with the situation.) Scout and Emily weren't quite there yet... Scout offered to sleep out in the main room, by the fireplace. Emily accepted his offer without a lot of protest, because she felt awkward at protesting the idea that the boy not sleep with her.
("Sleep with her." That was such a loaded phrase, one which Una's people had no problems with, because they assumed it meant "sleep with someone" and not "make tawdry nasty freaky fun with someone." The Orbitals, Emily decided, had a far simpler life in the stars than people on the ground did.)
Fortunately, all awkwardness surrounding their situation faded with a big, hearty breakfast at an elvish food co-op, followed by a day spent trading magical services along the boardwalk in exchange for supplies, clothes, and other goodies... and then, an afternoon on the beach.
Yes, technically they were supposed to be planning for a daring raid on an alien city facing an unknown opponent which would decide the fate of the entire Earth, but that wasn't until a few days from now. Until then, it was impromptu summer break, a vacation amidst the surf and the sand. Not a bad idea when you consider you don't have long to enjoy life before impending potential doom hammers you like the fist of God.
Una and Nel had, of course, chosen matching bikinis. Rather, Una had selected a bikini, and Nel immediately selected an identical copy of it. Both were a snazzy white that looked entirely too shiny when wet, and both were entirely too indecent for Emily's liking, particularly from behind. To lodge a silent vote of protest against their perfect little bodies bouncing all over the beach like that, Emily picked a wholly unremarkable black one piece swimsuit. And kept her hat on, of course. And hid under a sun umbrella. And wore gigantic sunglasses.
So, while Nel was trying to teach Una how to swim (since Una had never been fully submerged in water until today for any reason whatsoever), Emily contented herself with building a sandcastle, playing volleyball, flying a kite, and reading a book. All at the same time.
Scout (wearing camouflage-patterned swim trunks) returned to her side, carrying a pair of freshly refilled water bottles -- and did a double take at the various invisible persons enjoying traditional beach activities. A bucket and shovel were gleefully scooping up sand and slapping together a rough approximation of a castle-esque structure, a ball was mysteriously bouncing back and forth across a nearby net (although it came dangerously close to the sand several times), and a kite was in constant danger of just soaring off into the sky as the spool wobbled and bounded about in midair.
"Animate spells," Emily explained, flipping to the next page in Yavain's well-thumbed copy of Lord of the Rings. "I'm practicing my magical multitasking, trying to see how much I can keep going at once. I'm up to four different things. It's harder than wild swarm of kitchenware, or a herd of identical chainsaws..."
"Day's far from over. You shouldn't exhaust yourself too fast," Scout suggested, setting her water bottle next to her ratty folding metal beach chair.
"Whatever big woogums is waiting for us in space isn't going to let me sit around getting a second wind. This is my training," she said... pausing a moment to wipe sweat from her forehead. The concentration of her Will was a bit draining, admittedly. "As nice as the weather is, I don't have time to sit around having fun in the sun."
"I'd say you're having plenty of fun."
"Eh?" Emily said, looking up from her book -- just as her kite gave up and went rocketing away. She pouted a bit at that, but figured she could collect it after it crashed down to the beach.
"You enjoy magic. You love casting spells, learning spells, even copying spells," Scout said, while unscrewing the cap from his plastic water bottle. "You could just juggle objects, or move the sand around. Instead you're doing fun beach things. Nothing wrong with mixing fun with your training, y'know."
"Ah, right. This from the guy who's trying to learn how to have fun," Emily recalled. "And... well, okay. You got me there. This seemed like it'd be less boring than the usual drills we went through back at school. ...maybe you can lend a hand. See the volleyball net? Go be player two. We'll play to ten points. Give me a challenge; playing chess against yourself's no fun at all."
Scout flashed her a brief grin, before getting to his feet and stretching out.
Those are two simple actions, but deserve more detail.
For starters... he smiled at her. Scout wasn't a smiley type guy. That alone was enough to make Emily's jaw sag downward; the way he casually tossed it off, like... well, like a normal person might do, not even making a big deal out of the fact that he'd smiled...
Also, he was stretching out. Flexing. And it wasn't even some Yavain-suggested overexaggerated action; he was just warming up before strenuous physical activity, in that uniquely efficient Scout-like way. Elegance in motion, simplicity in action. And coincidentally also a very... interesting sight, as he was only wearing a pair of trunks and the sunlight was doing wonders with the suntan lotion he'd applied to himself.
Emily had several very un-witchy thoughts, interrupted only by Scout coughing politely to get her attention. He was at the net, and ready to play.
Remaining where she sat, Emily focused her Will... and served the ball.
Right away she was thrown for a loop, as Scout immediately leapt into the air and spiked the ball down hard, pegging it directly into the sand on the empty side of the net. One point. Emily gritted her teeth, refocusing, determined not to lose... the sandcastle building got far sloppier, as she kept her eyes on the game. And on her opponent.
This wasn't some silly back and forth follow-the-bouncy-ball trick anymore. This was a real counter force working against her, one which took her best efforts to counter. She adjusted the ball, pounding against it with an impact of Will, working through the mental link the Animate spell provided her.
This wasn't just a matter of physics -- she had to work with the shape of the ball, with the purpose of it. Objects want to be Animated in a way that suits their design... the object had a "memory," if you will, of games such as these. If she didn't play by the rules, if she tried to spike or serve in ways a human could not, it'd fight against her. If she tried to cheat and adjust its speed, slow it down or speed it up in any way other than applying a single falsified impact, it'd wobble and the spell could break down...
Scout returned volley after volley. He was scoring too many points, slipping past her concentration, as his muscles shifted and his body slid around the space, shuffling along the sands to reposition well before the ball ever reached him. It was too easy for him.
Fine, Emily thought. Let's see how he handles everything I've got...
The shovel dropped, neatly sticking out of a sandy battlement. The book fell to her side. And every ounce of her Will slammed into the ball in one sharp jolt...
Which spiked it directly past Scout. He actually stumbled a bit, realizing his motions were already too late. Perhaps his instinctive urge to teleport through a shadow worked against him... it was late afternoon on an open beach. No shadows, no "home court advantage." So, one point for Emily.
Both players brought their "A" game, after that. Scout got the look about him of a hunter -- sharp, alert, focused. Oddly, he still had a playful sense to him, in the way a cat plays with a mouse, but also realizing this "training" was truly a friendly game as well. Emily for her part hadn't stopped smiling once she got that first shot past him, and was determined she'd beat the boy at his own game, using only her wit and her magic...
One point for Scout, catching Emily by surprise. Another for Emily, a trick shot which angled too far for Scout to reach in time. Back, and forth. Again and again, Scout applying his physical talents, Emily applying her arcane abilities, clashing and testing and feeling each other out...
Score, nine versus nine. Match point. Scout serving.
Emily tried very hard to both read his body language, watching the motions of his arms and the arc of the ball, without paying any attention to the way his flawlessly toned body shifted into action with a ripple of his muscular form. Just the ball. Only the ball. Look for an angle. Look where he isn't looking, and--
The ball slammed down just inside the legal boundary, and past his ability to reach it. Game over.
"YEAH! I did it!" Emily proclaimed, pumping a fist in the air. "Summer rules, Winter drools!"
Scout staggered back to the sun umbrella, nearly collapsing underneath it, out of breath. He'd hunted through darkened forests, stalking targets and charging and landing his attacks, and even that hadn't matched this. "...well played," he summarized, unable to find better words than that, as he wrenched his water bottle from the sand, intent on taking a hearty swig.
Except that Emily had already reached for it -- it was her bottle. He accidentally grasped it around her own hand.
There was a pause, as the two very exhausted, very sweaty, very feeling things they rarely admitted to feeling couple glanced up at each other.
The bottle was left in the sand, as Scout made his move. It was only fair; Emily got the jump on him last time they did this.
It was hardly a delicate and gentle loving kiss. This was something borne of intense solar-powered passion. And after only a moment of shock, Emily was surprised to find herself returning that kiss with the same amount of primal lust that she was feeling in return.
The metal beach chair creaked in protest, as the weight of two people pushed its joints to the near breaking point. Emily found herself running her hands along Scout's sides, across his broad shoulders, tracing fingertips along--
Along the ragged whip-scars across his back, one for every time Lady Winter brought her favored hunting dog back to life.
Both of them stopped immediately. Emily out of the horrific reminder of that pain Scout had gone through... and Scout, realizing that he was very much feeling the same kind of crazed lust that his hound-self would relish.
After one protracted pause of absolute discomfort... the pair untangled from each other. Scout took a seat at the side of Emily's chair. Said nothing. Eventually, fetched the water he was originally going for, and drank down a full half of it to help him cool off.
"Sorry," he said, at last. "I... really shouldn't... you know. It's dangerous. If I lose control..."
"You shouldn't have to be sorry," Emily said, with some bitterness. "You should be allowed to... I mean... dammit! I'm tired of... of HER coming between us. Of her taking away the things you want from life."
"It is what it is, Emily. No changing it."
"Witches don't believe in destiny," she said. "We break the world, if need be, to protect who we care for. ...she won't have you. Dead serious about this, Scout. I'm not going to let her, that sick prophecy of wedding the Crown of Ice be damned. You're mine and no one else's!"
"--whaflarglplah?" Emily replied, nearly getting whiplash from twisting her neck to stare at him.
"Cut her off at the pass. We'll get married," Scout said. "I love you, and you love me. I want to be with you forever; that's the only future I'll stand for. Break out of the cycle of mindlessly hunting evil down, again and again, as a lone wolf. I think I'd rather be dead than alone again. Marry me. And to hell with Lady Winter."
You may not get another chance, given all of you could die in the vacuum of space on the eve of the Winter Solstice, Insight was reminding her.
"I," Emily said.
"We, uh," she continued.
"This isn't. It's. I mean. That's. I... we... we were just playing volleyball," she protested. "We can't jump from that to this. It's absurd. Irrational. --that's not to say that... it's... the thing is, Scout, that... I--"
He pressed one finger to her lips, to cut off the stream of babbling.
"Not expecting a yes," Scout said, softly. "Not assuming a rejection, either. The timing's bad. I know. I'm sorry. But that's what my heart's telling me to say, despite how crazy everything is right now. Just... think about it. If we get out of this alive, you can give me an answer. ...focus on staying alive, on winning the day, and then there'll be time for anything we want. I'll go get us some food. You want a hot dog?"
The witch nodded mutely.
Her Scout leaned in, and kissed her cheek lightly. "Be right back," he promised, before getting to his feet, and wandering off in search of an early dinner.
Emily sank into her chair, tugging the brim of her hat down, as if to hide under it. Life was a complicated, tangled affair. And it just got loads more complicated. Scout was right... keep focus. Get out of the mess alive.
And then she'd answer him. She already knew the answer, after all.
Oblivious to all this were an elf and an alien, who were too busy enjoying their summer vacation to even notice madcap snogging action going down beachside.
Swimming was a bust. Una claimed to have experience maneuvering in zero-G conditions, thanks to a few jetpack powered spacewalks outside her home Arcology, but that wasn't enough to get her ready for the idea of being immersed in deadly salty watery fluid lapping up and down in waves. Nel, who was an experienced swimmer (largely because the only way to repair the water pump back at the slave quarters in New Orleans was to dive into a lake) did her best, but in the end, they decided to try something else for the rest of the afternoon. Namely, the carnival games.
After finding a picture book of Coney Island, an enterprising elf had decided that all beaches must in some way reflect Coney Island, and therefore boardwalk-side games of chance were a mandatory element of the experience. The end result was a series of ring tosses, milk bottle knockdowns, and watergun-and-clown-mouth affairs. Owing to an incomplete view of history, none of the games ended up being fixed, and the prizes were inevitably high quality hand crafted elven toys.
They also cost favors to play -- but Emily had planned ahead, spending most of the morning doing Mending and supplying vendors with thermoses of Perfectea, so the witch and her friends had free run of the facilities along Palm Beach. This included the games.
At the moment, Una was determined to win a prize for Nel, who had gotten all wisty-eyed at the look of the adorable little bunny rabbit doll that was on display in front of this game. The mechanics of the amusement were quite puzzling, however.
"By what cultural basis is it considered a good thing to turn a fire suppression mechanism onto a living person and attempt to drown them with a constant stream of water?" she asked.
"Can't say I know for certain, Lady Una," Nel insisted. "Maybe it's not really water. It could be-- er. Well. I heard some things from guests at the House, is all. Or maybe he's just really thirsty...? Are there clowns in the deserts of this world? Perhaps wandering tribes of them...?"
Una shrugged, and lined up the watergun, taking aim at the clown's mouth. Owing to the hybrid nature of all the games, it was a cheap plastic squirt gun, which happened to have a tank that could never empty due to the enchantment placed on it. She nodded to the attendant, ready, and when the bell rang... she opened fire with water.
The combined pressure from the nozzle as it cut loose nearly knocked her backwards. The stream was like a beam of pure H2O unleashed from the trident of Poseidon -- after all, the game would hardly be fair if the stream wasn't consistent or strong, and the elves were assuming these games had to be completely fair. Unfortunately, it also meant far more kickback than Una was expecting, causing the beam to run wild... ending up with more water in the neighboring clowns than in hers, before the game was over.
"I seem to be having a great deal of difficulty with water today," Una complained.
Nel gave her friend a comforting squeeze around the shoulders. "It's alright, Lady Una," she insisted. "It's just a game, yes?"
"I suppose, but... well. I came to this world with a self defense blaster, and I've only fired it once," Una explained. "I barely hit my target at that time. Clearly, I require more practice... especially if, and I truly hope this not to be the case, we end up in a combat scenario once we reach the Arcology. We don't have long before Mr. Kennedy's ship takes us there, after all. I should train wherever and however I can, so I can help Scout and Emily, as they have helped me! ...ma'am? I'd like to try again, if you don't mind..."
The woman behind the counter emptied the clown tanks, dropping the fill meters to the bottom, and stepped aside. Very aside, as Una geared up for round two...
"Um, again, if you'd be so kind."
"I think I almost have this," Una said, bracing the plastic rifle against her shoulder. "One last try...!"
Round four, and the tiny lightbulb atop the meter finally lit up. Nel applauded for her friend's success -- and then lit up brighter than the bulb, when the attendant passed her an armful of fluffy bunny rabbit doll as the grand reward for Una's efforts.
"I shall name him Hop," Nel decided, keeping her arms around the adorable floppy eared moppet. "Orbital names are all three letters long, right? It's appropriate. I can't wait to show him to your friends up in space!"
Una's smile froze a split second. "Ah... Nel, I don't think... um. Let's go over there and talk, okay?" she said, noticing for the first time the curiosity the carnie game attendant was showing. She offered a nod and a smile to the woman with the braided hair, then led Nelliwyn behind a Palm Beach community bulletin board, for a spot of privacy.
"Is something wrong, Lady Una?" Nel asked, equally curious, now.
Una sighed. "Nel... please, you don't have to call me Lady Una. We've been over this. I don't own you, not like that horrible Morgana woman did."
"But I am indebted, ma'am!"
"I released you from that debt, yes? Err, or is there some sort of form I need to sign first...?"
Nel shook her head... realizing that again, Una didn't have a complete grasp of Faerie custom. Her Lady would need it spelled out, which was fine. Nel was nothing if not patient.
"Lady Una... you misunderstand. The debt I speak of isn't the one my father incurred, the debt for which I was a token," Nel clarified, shifting Hop to rest in the crook of one arm. "You absolved that debt, as you say. But I owe you a debt FOR absolving that debt, one I give freely. I may be a slave no longer... but I owe you more than you can imagine, in thanks for my freedom."
"Ah... so... what does that have to do with referring to me as Lady Una?"
"Owner or not... you are my Lady," Nel said, with a bright smile. "I like calling you that. It gradually removes the stain from the word. No longer does it apply to Lady Morgana, a woman who hated me and made sure I knew it every day... now, it's a beautiful word again, applied to Lady Una, a woman who likes me and makes sure I know it every day. ...ah, not that I've known you very long, admittedly, but... I can only speak to how I feel things are. Still, if that word truly makes you uncomfortable, I can cease using it... but I mean it in all respect. For my savior... and my wonderful new friend."
Una considered fighting it further, or simply ordering Nel to stop addressing her so, but... it would be a losing fight. And she had a different reason for pulling Nelliwyn aside, one of more importance. She put on her best serious expression, before continuing.
"Nelliwyn... Nel. While I'm not aware of the particulars of Emily's plan yet... I'd prefer if you didn't come with us into orbit," she stated.
Nel's smile fell, eyes widening. "My Lady...? But... why? I mean... I could be useful to you. My spells, for instance--"
"Please, don't misunderstand," Una insisted. "I speak not against your... usefulness, or against our friendship. Although I suppose friendship is involved... ah. My point. Yes, my point is... the mission may be dangerous. If Emily's worst fears are true, if the Orbitals have been co-opted by the Faeries, or if... they've somehow gone rogue, then the situation will be dangerous. Perhaps even deadly. I won't put you at risk, Nel."
"But... my place is at your side, Lady Una. I want to stay with you..."
"I understand, but this goes beyond just helping a friend. The sheer scope of it...! Nel, this isn't your problem to solve. It's mine. These are my people, this is my legacy," Una explained. "The troubles of this world... for that matter, the troubles of the Faeries as well as the humans, all stem from the Pandora Event, something I believe the Orbitals accidentally caused. And now, more of their faults have put your people at further risk. ...this is my fault, indirectly. Therefore, I have to see this through to the end, no matter how much it scares me... and Emily and Scout have made the same pledge, for their own reasons. ...that doesn't mean you need to be caught in this mess as well. I won't see you harmed as well by my people's foolishness!"
The grip on the stuffed rabbit tightened, as Nel prepared to speak fiercely... a strange and alien concept for her, given years and years of submission to a fierce person's horrible words. That gave her pause. And fortunately so, as the moment to reflect allowed her to see between the lines.
Una didn't want her to die. Plain and simple. A warm feeling washed over Nel, realizing someone actually cared enough about her well being to keep her away from danger, rather than put her into danger as her former mistress often had...
"...if you wish me to stay behind, I'll stay," Nel decided. "I'll do anything you require of me, my Lady. ...but if I may make a suggestion?"
"Of course, Nel! You should always feel free to speak your mind."
"I think Emily should make the decision," Nel said, pleased internally at being allowed to voice her opinion... even if she felt it wouldn't be one Una wanted to hear. "She's the one who's planning your incursion, yes? If she thinks I could be a difference maker, that I could help you succeed... and survive... then I should come. I understand your heart, Una, but... I suppose our feelings are secondary to the mission. I don't mind being conscripted into service again, if it's for you."
It was a logic Una couldn't fight. As much as the idea of Nel being sucked into their problems was abhorrent... the reasoning was solid. A lesson that all of them had to learn, over the course of this journey. You did what had to be done, no matter what.
She felt oddly relieved at being so completely defeated. The responsibility for putting Nel on the firing line wasn't hers, now; it wasn't even Emily's, really. It was just the craziness of the times. Beyond control.
Impulsively, Una reached out, and gave Nel a quick hug.
"I'm really glad I met you, Nel," Una said, after releasing her. "And I'm glad I was able to rescue you. You deserve better than that terrible place. You'd make a fine Optimist!"
Nel went a bit stiff with surprise, when Lady Una embraced her. Despite being from the cold depths of space, the Orbital woman was very warm...
"Plus, I've got someone to talk to, now that, well, Emily and Scout are kind of busy trying to learn how to be a couple," Una admitted, after releasing the hug. "After all, a good friend wouldn't interrupt them! We should keep to ourselves for awhile, give them room. Tell you what -- we have some time before we have to deal with the trouble ahead. Let's make the most of it, together! Tonight, we'll find an interesting looking restaurant and consume its proffered foodstuffs! --oh, but we'll need proper clothes for a night on the town, swimsuits won't do. Shopping time! Let's go!"
That evening, the three groups went their separate ways -- Emily and Scout enjoying a relaxing evening together watching the moon rise over the waves, Una and Nel taking in some unique elvish cooking at Nel's suggestion followed by dancing at a hot and happening club, and Yavain totally failing to pick up one of the carnie game operators.
As a result, Emily and Scout came home well rested and calm, even if they parted ways soon after. Una and Nel were completely exhausted but giggly and happy, heading to bed right away to get a good night's sleep. And Yavain crashed out on his velour love bed with the mirrored ceiling alone (again).
The next day, the groups stayed apart. Emily and Scout practiced self defense techniques, Emily determined to be able to rescue herself if she got into trouble, with Scout acting as a willing and resourceful teacher by following Saul's many examples. Una and Nel visited an aquarium made out of a run-down deep discount department store, where magically encapsulated spheres of seawater held endangered species of both Earth and Fae aquatic life. The proprietor, a were-mermaid, offered hair care tips when dealing with sea water swimming. And Yavain totally failed to pick up a girl who was in town for the Rock Show.
And then... summer vacation was over. They'd be leaving the following morning for Kennedy's base of operations, and the day after it would be space or bust. Two days to just enjoy life and the company of each other, before it was time to turn back to the business at hand...
Nel wished it had lasted longer.
She couldn't sleep, not yet. She was resting on the oddly comfortable metal Orbital bed of the FaePlace room... feeling overwhelmingly lucky to be sharing a bed with her Lady. Even if her Lady didn't seem to understand the implications of, well, sleeping nude next to her... Una simply fell asleep, each of the two nights, straight away. Nothing unusual about it, in Orbital culture; and besides, Una was terribly tired after dancing the evening away, an activity she'd never engaged in before but found quite addictive.
...and perhaps Nel had encouraged that, so she would be so tired on returning home that they could simply bed down and have nothing more be said. No need to bother her Lady with what was on her mind, not when they had such a serious matter to tend to soon, not when Una was trying to live life to the fullest in the meanwhile. No distractions. There would be time to discuss such things, later... assuming there would be time.
But if there was to be anything of this, Nel thought as she smiled and rested next to Lady Una, there MUST be time later. Without that, there's no point talking about it. It make logical sense, and Nel was taking some pride in adopting the logic of the Orbitals to her decision making, lately.
One room over, and Emily and Scout were parting ways, as they had done for two nights running.
Except when Scout moved to have a seat in the rocking chair next to the fireplace, Emily didn't let go of his hand.
"No," Emily said, quietly.
"No...?" Scout asked, not understanding.
"Not this time. The FaePlace made a place for you, remember?" Emily said. "It's where you want to be. And if I didn't want it, it wouldn't be there. This is my spell and it won't do anything I don't want it to do, I say. So, no. Not this time. Come on. My room, both of us. We're getting some rest -- big day ahead of us, remember?"
Scout hesitated, despite the tugging at his wrist. "Emily... I can't. Told you. We can't... do that. I don't want to risk--"
"Excuse me, when did I say I wanted to do the horizontal bebop with you?" Emily chided, waggling a finger. "This isn't about sex. All I'm saying is I'm tired of you sleeping in a damn rocking chair. You deserve a comfortable bed... and frankly? I'm sick and tired of waking up alone. That's all there is to it. We are going to go to sleep, together, and feel the better for it. Now are you coming along, or do I have to chase you in there with my broomstick?"
For the second time in as many days, Scout allowed himself a smile. Instead of trying to pull his hand away, he clasped hers, and they walked in together, to enjoy one last peaceful evening together before the road ahead.
"Alright, I have had a crap couple of days in which I successfully hit on absolutely no hotties, my waterbed sprang a leak and I had to sleep with a couch spring dug in my back all last night, and I have a three hour drive ahead of me if I'm lucky," Yavain announced, as the Solstice Resistance Army gathered the next morning. "I've got takeout breakfast waiting for you in the camper and I hope at least one of you had a lousier night than I did, or I'm going to feel even more bitter."
"I slept great!" Una exclaimed.
"It was very comforting, yes," Nel agreed, shuffling in place.
"Don't think I've ever had a better night's sleep," Scout commented quietly.
"I couldn't fall asleep for an hour because Scout snores like a rusty chainsaw, tosses about a lot in his sleep, and lying next to him is like sleeping with a bag of sticks," Emily noted.
All paused to stare at her. Especially Scout, who looked vaguely sheepish.
"Hey, I'm not complaining," Emily said, trying to deflect the funny looks. "If anything it was kind of nice and humbling to know that he's a pretty ordinary dude with ordinary problems. Scout, I'm buying you some breathe-right strips next time we pass a convenience store. Meanwhile, let's get this wagon train rolling, m'kay?"
Yavain coughed, politely. "Right, then. All aboard, kids. Next stop, Cape Canaveral."
The Kennedy Space Center, so named both for legacy purposes and because Kanthi F. Kennedy used it as his base of operations, had been far more accurately restored than the rest of Florida.
He'd been very specific about this, as he directed the team of like-minded Astromages. No visible magic was allowed in the public areas. All displays and museums were to be restored to resemble their former glory as much as possible. The ancient spacefaring vehicles on display outdoors, rotted and discolored from neglect, were patched up using period materials where possible, flawless glamour where impossible. Kennedy was in personal possession of extensive photographs of the center, of the artifacts within, and of the byproducts of America's two-hundred-plus year old space program -- until the modern day view of the space center matched the yellowing photographs (sans yellow), he could never be totally satisfied.
The displays were on display, with no one to be displayed to. Tourists never visited. Even the few humans who snuck over the border from Eastusa didn't care much about these historical relics -- not when hot and happening locales like Palm Beach, Miami, and the Temples of the Mouse were around. The old of humankind didn't dare leave the safety and comfort of their settlements, and the young were too focused on the present day (and things from the past which the present day idolized, oddly enough) to care about outer space.
In truth, Emily and her friends were the first non-elves to set foot in the facility, browsing samples of moon rocks, walking past photographs of the first steps mankind took into space. They'd sort-of heard of these things, in dusty old history books and as footnotes in media culture, but seeing them up close... it was breathtaking.
"How did they not die horribly?" Emily asked, studying an Apollo moon suit. (It was only 14% of the original, owing to wear and tear and decay, but the elves painstakingly restored it to LOOK as original as possible.) "These materials are so... flimsy. Clumsy. And there's no air, right?"
"No air, yes. Just an immensely cold vacuum -- and of course micrometeorites capable of puncturing poorly designed suits, as well as intense cosmic radiation," Kennedy explained, as they slowly walked the facility. "The materials were primitive. Computers were barely as powerful as the weakest... well, I suppose people don't even use pocket calculators anymore, so it's hard to make a parallel..."
"But... it's so easy," Una said, not quite grasping the idea. "Space travel. I went on a space walk when I was five! We had a special force bubbler device which contained breathable air and a small gravity field, of course, but..."
Kennedy paused. "How do your cities break gravity and enter orbit?" he asked. "Ever since I learned of the Orbitals, I've wondered..."
"Er... they don't. Ships are assembled either on the ground or in orbit, then shift between parallel worlds right into place in high orbit. Why do you ask?"
"Another piece of the puzzle of your people. Achieving actual LIFT for a city the size of an Arcology... it's unthinkable. I suppose you would need to cheat to get them up there," Kanthi F. Kennedy said. "I don't mean that in an insulting way; an elegant hack, a cheat, is the ideal solution. Mankind had to make do with raw rocket propulsion, to fight gravity every inch of the way, and minimize the payload to what the rockets could handle. We use similar propulsion, but with strong Levitation spellwork and other tricks to make it slightly more feasible... difficult, no matter how you cut it. But we choose challenges not because they are easy, but because they are hard."
He paused, in front of a display of the Space Shuttle -- a large white airplane-like ship, mounted on a giant orange fuel tank -- in mid-ignition, lighting up prior to clearing the launch pad. Despite the inspirational nature of the shot... some sadness came to his eyes, as he looked upon plaque at the base. In Memory of The Challenger.
"One day... I want humans to come back here," he said. "To share in what we found. America deserves to recapture its legacy. We're going to outgrow this planet... soon, most likely. Faerie and human alike are having difficulty finding elbow room. My dream is to one day, through science and magic working together, establish the first off-world colonies. Orbiting stations, moon bases, even going to Mars if we can find a way to make the distance and inhospitable surface conditions more feasible. If both our peoples could lay down arms and join in such an endeavor in the name of peace, there's no end to what could be accomplished..."
"Mr. Kennedy... this is fascinating, I know, but... we've got a mission to plan," Emily pointed out, with a hint of regret. "I'm so sorry. I wish we had time for a proper tour, honestly. All I know about space travel I learned from horrible sci-fi movies. But we've got the real thing to accomplish, and my ideas for how to pull it off hinge on... well, on whether my Insi-- whether my guesses are right or not..."
Kennedy turned from the picture, raising an eyebrow. "And your 'guess' is...?"
The witch pointed to the photograph he stood beside.
"That's our spaceship, isn't it?" she asked. "Not some recovered Orbital ship, not some crazy Faerie thing like a flying magical soap bubble, but the actual Space Shuttle. I've seen it in movies. You've managed to salvage one, repairing and refitting it for space flight."
Kennedy nudged his glasses up. "It's officially designated the STS, the Space Transportation System, actually," he noted. "But... yes. We've restored the STS Discovery, using what was left of the Atlantis and the Endeavour... and a whole lot of Faerie magic, to replace systems that we couldn't repair. We ferry our ElfStar communication satellites into orbit, deploying them from the cargo hold, before returning to Earth. You have no idea how hard it was to make tiles for the thermal protection system; we ended up using an alchemical mixture of carbon and wyvern blood..."
"Right, then," Emily said, warming up the brain farm. "Here's how we're going to get into Arcology #A076..."
It took some brainstorming to spackle up the gaps in Emily's plan, as well as some verification that things would work the way she was assuming they would. Notably, Emily had no idea how Una's "jetpack" worked, which would be critical. The Manned Maneuvering Units aboard the shuttle weren't going to be up to the job.
They hammered out the last details after hours of planning, broken up only by an early supper of Faerie-spiced meats, Tang, and freeze dried ice cream. After that, a large praying mantis pulling a series of wheeled people-mover carts brought the two teams to the facilities at the launch site, for the final mission briefing.
On one side of the room, the most powerful (see also, the only) Astromaguses in the Faerie Court, wearing spider-silk replicas of NASA jumpsuits. On the other side, a motley crew of elves, witches, aliens, and winterhounds. In the middle, their mission commander, Kanthi F. Kennedy, detailing the plan using a glamour-based display board.
"We have a launch window on the morning of the Solstice," he explained. "The weather control team can keep the atmospheric conditions stable enough for a go. It's earlier than we'd planned, but ElfStar Three is ready to go, so there's no reason we can't take advantage of it. Our crew will be myself on navigation, Eledar Aldrin on communications, and Kiyleh McAuliffe on deployment. But the purpose of this mission is twofold -- one, the next link in our network chain. Two, ferrying our guests to the Orbital Arcology.
"I know I said that one of our mission parameters would always be not to attract the attention of the strange alien visitors, and that stands. As far as they'll be concerned, we're just doing our usual thing, and we pretend we have no way of seeing through their cloaking technology. They're not privy to our launch schedules and shouldn't think anything's out of the ordinary.
"After the cargo bay doors open and Elfstar Three is on the move, however, our guests will swing into action. We can't allow stray transmissions to reveal their identities, so Emily, Scout, Una and Nel's code names for this mission will be Brown, Black, Silver, and Green respectively. First, Green will place a cloaking glamour on the rest of her team. Then, all but Green will make their way via Silver's gravity manipulating backpack towards the Arcology, using tethers we'll provide to keep Brown and Black moving with Silver. There, using her previous experience trying to break through their airlock security systems, Silver will get her team into the Arcology without its occupants being aware they have uninvited guests. Meanwhile, our team does their work as usual, and we re-enter the atmosphere with Green."
...Nel looked down at her toes. That was the part she wasn't happy with, that she pushed back on... but not very hard. She wasn't used to insisting on getting her way, after all, and she had agreed to go along with whatever Emily felt best. At least she had a role...
"Timing is critical. We've tested Green's glamour spellwork, and she's definitely a far stronger stealth expert than anybody we have on base," Kennedy continued. "But her spell, without her along to keep it running, will fade after ten minutes. That should be enough time for Silver to get her team to the airlock and break through, given the positioning of ElfStar Three beneath the Arcology. We're running enough risk having Silver pull two extras along using a gravity pump designed for one person; we can't risk three extras. Our job is to get them as close as possible without arousing Orbital suspicion.
"Countdown begins at 4 A.M. tonight, team boards the shuttle at 7 A.M, we launch thirty minutes later. It's a rush job but we've gotten the process down pat, and the augmental spellwork will keep things going smoothly. Now. Any questions?"
The team deployment specialist raised her hand.
"Sir, how exactly are our 'guests' getting home?" she asked.
"We'll figure that out when the time comes," Emily spoke up, for Kanthi. "Honestly? No idea. But the thinking is that given the two outcomes here are we save the day and Una's dad gives us a lift -- or the Summer Court takes control of an Orbital city to use as a token in a seasonal apocalypse -- we figure we'll either end up back here or it won't matter."
"Our future is at stake here," Kennedy agreed. "If we could get more people into the city to help them, we would, but we can't. We're making a lot of assumptions about how bad things could be if they fail, or if the situation 'on the ground' is completely unexpected... but given the weight the implied worst case scenario holds, we can't afford not to undertake this mission. So. NASA holds up its end, Emily's team holds up theirs, and we may very well avert a premature end to the future of the American Dream we've all been working towards. The mission clock is now running. I'll see you all back here bright and early. Dismissed."
Emily's "strike team" had chosen to bunk down in an out-of-the-way room, its doorframe leashed to a FaePlace. The other members of the postmodern NASA had fairly spartan quarters this close to the launch center, and Emily felt a little guilty about sitting in the lap of magically crafted luxury while they were resting in makeshift luxury.
Nel and Una went to their room right away. Emily could vaguely hear whispering behind the sealed sci-fi door, but she had her own issues to worry about -- namely, preparing for battle, in the only way a utility witch could.
On entering her and Scout's room (what a strange concept that still was, sharing her room... strange but welcome, of course) she cracked open her spellbook, popping the hidden three ring binder spine so she could load in fresh pages provided by Kennedy from an office supply room.
"Copying spells?" Scout asked, curious.
"And trying to decide my loadout," Emily confirmed, as she pulled out her master spell pages, to copy from. "I'm going to fill this thing as much as I can before we go, but WHAT I fill it with is another matter... Animate, of course. I get plenty of mileage out of that. Also Shock, closest thing I have to an attack spell... perhaps some Escapes, but those are unreliable, and I don't like the idea of casting them in the middle of a spaceship. I could end up teleported outside of the hull. I'm also pondering several copies of Perfectea, given I beat down an Archmagus with it..."
"Spell copying takes time. I've seen you doing it for hours, some nights."
"Yeah, well, if a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing right."
"But we both need sleep," Scout noted, as he pulled up a second chair to Emily's work desk. The FaePlace had provided it before they even walked in. "You can't spend hours copying spells. So, I'll help you."
Emily raised a very witchy eyebrow. "Excuse me? Which one of us is the all-powerful mistress of magic here?"
"It's just artwork to me. I've got an eye for details. Let me try, at least..."
The boy fetched a spare sheet of paper and a pen, and took a glance at Emily's master pages. It only took one glance; he was off and sketching shortly after. All the while, Emily watched him go, freehanding perfectly straight lines, getting the curves of the vowels down, filling in the heavily inked sections and sketching out the thin lines...
Within a minute, he'd inked out a near flawless copy of Animate, a tangled web of twisted and rotated letters laid out in strange patterns within the square of power.
"Done," Scout announced, sliding the page over to her for approval. "And I didn't memorize it. Shape recognition is critical when you hunt in the dark. Commit it to memory quickly, recall it on demand, but don't focus too hard."
"...the M needs a little more skew," Emily said, desperate to find something wrong with it, no matter how tiny. "But... not bad. Not bad at all. Okay... you copy me out thirty Animates. I'll get to work on the Mendings. Maybe we can get to bed early, after all."
The Scout nodded, accepting his mission. He fetched a fresh page, and began another sketch, with only one glance back to the Animate master page. Emily watched him for awhile, before resuming her own copying... falling into the familiar pattern, the daily routine of spell loading, to replace any pages burned up during the day. This was something she'd done for years now, always trying to be prepared, to be ready for anything. A witch caught with her spellbook empty, or only loaded with useless things that couldn't get her out of a situation, was a dead witch.
In time, she paused her pen, hovering over the spinning S curves of a Shock spell. A worry pried at her, finding an avenue in the moment she let her guard down.
"Scout?" Emily asked. "What if I'm wrong?"
"About?" Scout asked, not pausing in his own work.
"About what's going on. The Orbitals. The Fae. I've been making a lot of assumptions... running off Insight. What little of it I can scrape up, I mean. Maybe it's not as bad as I think it is. Maybe we're not on the cusp of doomsday. What if we go up there, and we don't find anything to be out of the ordinary...? I mean, yeah, that's not so bad, but it also means that the real problem could be down on Earth. Out of reach because I stampeded us up into space..."
"I trust you. Got a tactical mindset," Scout said, setting aside a finished page. "A survivor, a thinker who works on her feet. A lot like Saul. Your plan's as good as we can make, given how little we know. We gamble with it, but it's not a blind gamble. ...Lady Winter has an approach to gambling, y'know. One it's a shame we can't copy."
"Imagine a slot machine," Scout explained. "You want a jackpot. Put a coin in, pull the handle, you may or may not get it. Most likely, not. So, Lady Winter cheats. She runs fifty slot machines side by side, secretly putting in fifty coins. One of them turns up a jackpot, and she ends up looking like a tactical genius, who somehow ran a long con that required dozens of random factors to turn out just as she wanted... when really, she had multiple plans in place, and only one panned out. Many side bets down, one wins, nobody hears about the failures. A lot of wasted effort, but in the end, she wins."
"And we don't have that luxury, because we've only got one coin. Ourselves."
The boy nodded, silently, working on his next page.
"...one coin. We're a coin," Emily repeated, turning it around, trying to find something within the words. "Scout... we're Lady Winter's coin."
The scratching of pen on paper ceased.
"She made you a Winterhound. She nudged you the way she wanted you to go. We survived several Winter Court horrors -- including one seemingly designed to toughen us up, and one to make us reflect on ourselves. And here we are... plotting to stop Lady Summer from completing some scheme. Crap on a stick, Scout, we're one of the many ploys against her sister..."
Scout considered this, tapping a finger on the desk. "Possible," he admitted. "She never told me why she wanted me to go with you..."
"The Arcology's another coin. #BE12 goes splat in Canada, and... Winter does nothing with it," Emily continued, trying to find the thread, her focus tight on the facts. "What's more, when Summer finds out she has it, Summer risks insult so she can steal the technology and actually DO something with it..."
"Winter did murder Austin over that."
"Yes, and while that was horrible... in the end, she basically let the insult slide. She didn't lash out directly at the Summer Court, she struck at some settlement Summer wanted to have at one point. Winter practically GAVE Summer the alien toys, dangling them on a string and waiting for her sister to pounce. And now, we're here to stop Summer, possibly at Winter's behest. ...wait, no, that seems contradictory... Winter wants Summer to win, AND wants Summer to lose...? I think I'm starting to see why my instructor called this the 'madness of the seasons'..."
"If this is a game, we're too far outside it to know what the rules are. All we see are the players. Assuming there is a game. Emily... would it really change anything, if we are part of a Winter gambit?"
She considered the point, leaning back in her wooden chair, which creaked from the effort. "...I guess not. We can't sit idly by, or wait around and try to react. Not with the Solstice in one day," Emily admitted. "We won't have time to stop already anything set in motion. We've got to anticipate, and if we anticipate wrong... at least we tried. And hopefully didn't get horribly killed in the process."
Dawn broke across the peninsula, the light pouring across the Kennedy Space Center first, on the eastern side of Florida. It was a peaceful morning, not a cloud in the sky... perfect for such a grand endeavor as a space flight. Picturesque, even.
A member of Kennedy's staff guided Emily and company through the routine. After washing up and getting some food, they were off to get their uniforms; the spacewalk suits, already tailored to their measurements, were loaded up in the shuttle and would be worn once they reached orbit. Kennedy went over the mission again, this time in exacting technical detail to satisfy the needs of his team, using all sorts of astromagic terms that Emily couldn't parse. Her friends stayed quiet... each of them anxious for various reasons, wanting to get on with it, not wanting to stop and chat much.
At last, it was time to board the shuttle... the people-mover taking them from the main compound out to the launch platform. The ship itself, a majestic white man-made bird mounted upright on its fuel tanks and rocket boosters, was impossibly large from afar and only grew larger still as they approached. Emily had seen pictures, both in old media and in the compound's museum... but finally seeing it in person was breathtaking. In the sense that when she considered that thing was sitting on thousands and thousands of pounds of high explosives which would be lit like a firecracker in order to get them into orbit, she stopped breathing for awhile.
"Chemical propulsion... it seems so... so strange a concept," Una said, breaking the silence. "Is it safe? Strapping ourselves to a multi-story tank of explosive fuel and lighting it on fire? "
"Kennedy's done it several times," Emily said, without actually answering the question.
"Gravity pumps would be cleaner. It's a shame we can't give him that technology... Orbital laws of non-interference, and all. I imagine everybody will be quite far away when the rockets go off, correct? Including those people underneath the structure?"
"Well, obviously-- wait. What people...?"
Emily cupped her hands around her eyes, to see through the dawn glare. Gathered at the base of the launch platform were two dozen elves... and they weren't wearing jumpsuits. They were wearing forest green colored robes...
The same kind the Braid of Dawn wore. The traditionalist activists from the panhandle.
Scout was the first to act, rising from his seat. He moved to the front of the people mover, tapping Kanthi F. Kennedy on the shoulder, pointing ahead. "Alert your security forces," he said. "Intruders at the launch site. I'm going to go get a look, and try to disarm the leaders--"
"We... don't have security forces," Kennedy noted. "We've never had a need..."
"Explains how they got onto the base undetected. Are any of your team combat mages?"
Kennedy shook his head. "We build, not destroy. We're astromages. If it's not related to weather manipulation, cosmic-scale navigation, and sensory extensions, we can't do it. We don't even have weapons. But if they damage the shuttle in any way, we can't safely launch. All it took was a single failed O-ring to destroy the STS Challenger..."
Emily groaned. "Right. So. No fighting, Scout. Let's not instigate a scene. ...maybe we can talk them out of whatever they have planned? Diplomatically, like? Sure, that hasn't always worked well for us in the past, but..."
"Do you have any idea what to say to a radical elven traditionalist who's keen on stopping the launch of what to them is a horrible abomination of magic and science?" Scout asked, only half-sarcastically.
"How about 'Please don't?'" Emily suggested. "I'm open to suggestions. Suggest fast, though, we'll be there in a minute."
The vehicle pulled up alongside the launch platform, nice and slow. The Braid of Dawn saw them coming, and vice versa; there was plenty of time to react, but neither side did. No sudden moves, no bold actions.
The platform was square in shape, supporting the shuttle above it, alongside the launch tower. But underneath was plenty of open space, for the rocket exhaust to vent through. A shimmering barrier was visible now, surrounding the base like a canopy... a spell to prevent anyone from walking underneath, where the Braid were waiting.
Emily disembarked from the people mover, clearing her throat. She'd decided exactly what to say to disarm the situation.
"We will not allow you to deepen the madness of the seasons!" a woman at the forefront warned, shaking an angry fist. "If we must stand against Lady Summer's cronies and her alien ally to prevent the doom of this world, we will. Your mission to capture the silver city must be stopped!"
"--whaa?" the witch mumbled, thrown off her game.
"One of our agents stationed at the Palm Beach carnival overheard it all from the alien," the leader said, pointing to Una. "How you were using this one, this 'Kennedy,' to go into space and engage in combat within a silver city! We have seen the vast clearing being made outside the House of the Rising Sun. We will not allow this foreign science to taint the legacy of the Fae any longer! If you attempt launch, we will stop you -- or be incinerated by your heathen rocket, martyrs for the cause of a pure Faerie Court! You will be killed or you will be killers. Ask yourself if you are willing to take that risk, human witch!"
Emily started to speak. And stopped. She considered. ...then she glared at Una.
"Errr... I might have... accidentally talked about the mission in public, yes," Una admitted... only now recalling the woman running the clown-drowning game, and her lovely braided hair. "But what I meant was that I wanted to be able to help you IF there was a fight! I didn't say anything about attacking the city, or--"
"Alright, look... okay. This is a huge misunderstanding," Emily explained, trying to dampen the situation. "Lady, we aren't going up there to help Summer take over an alien city. We're going up there to try and STOP her from taking over an alien city. I'm getting the feeling we both want the same thing here. Er, sort of. We're not Summer's agents -- and if you've heard the rumors, you'd know we pretty much kicked both Lady Morgana and Archmagus Lilith's butts awhile ago. Does that make us some kind of Summer cronies?"
The leader peered through the translucent Barrier spell. "That was you, was it...? How do we know you're not using those rumors to pretend you're rebels?"
Emily stepped back -- and tugged Nel, who was staying concealed behind Una, around and to the forefront. "Ask her," Emily suggested. "She's the slave that was rescued from Lady Morgana, if you know the rumors. You probably haven't heard her name, it's... uh, what's your full name again, Nel?"
"N-Nelliwyn," Nel stammered. She managed a traditional curtsey, to the Braid leader. "Nelliwyn Myfanwy."
"Right, then. So, as you can see--"
"Nelliwyn!?" the leader exclaimed, her eyes widening... "You... it's... it can't be..!"
For her part, Nelliwyn's recognition was leading towards shock and awe as well. "...mother?" she guessed.
The leader waved frantically to her companions. "Barrier! Lower the barrier, now!" she commanded -- and the soap bubble of magic around the launch platform popped in an instant. The two ran towards each other... and years after one's father and the other's husband had sold Nel into slavery, at last, they were able to embrace again.
The facts poured out, after the two were given some time to enjoy the moment.
The Braid of Dawn was started by Kai Myfanwy, in her anger over the loss of her daughter and the way human culture had corrupted and eventually killed her husband. If the Fae were pure, after all, none of the tragedies in her life would have occurred. It stood to reason.
They had spies within the upper echelons of the Faerie Court as well as in the tainted lands of Florida, reporting on human corruption within the ranks. When they heard of Lady Summer's increasing obsession with strange sciences that fell from cities in the sky, they knew they had to act. Alien corruption was just as bad as human corruption. This culminated in the unfortunately misunderstood report that an alien was at large, working with elves and witches and Winterfae, to bring down a silver city.
"They're making a landing zone, just outside the House of the Rising Sun," Kai had warned. "One the size of a small city. Acres are being clear-cut for the purpose. Lady Summer's direct orders, with Lady Morgana's slaves doing the work. We believe they intend to land another alien township on the surface of this world, this time directly within Summer's lands."
"And we're going to stop that from happening," Emily had promised, with Nel's backing of her words being enough to convince the Braid of Dawn to let the mission continue.
(While internally, Emily did jumping jacks at being right in her assumptions. Now, they knew they were on the right track... even if there were still blanks to fill. And plenty of doom to go around.)
Being on something of a schedule, they couldn't talk for long, and mother and daughter had to make promises to see each other again as soon as possible. Fortunately, Nel would be returning with Kennedy's crew, so the Braid could wait here at the space center, despite their discomfort surrounded by human buildings and human technology.
The chain of events, moving rapidly along, turned a potentially disastrous encounter into yet another defused situation. All that was left now was the actual mission...
Emily sat uncomfortably, strapped into her seat within the STS Discovery. The ship was still upright, the countdown echoing across the cabin, as the astromages prepared for launch.
Not long now, and I'll be in outer space, she thought. Up a cosmic creek without a rocket paddle, too. My friends are counting on my brain to keep them alive, but I don't actually have a plan once we're inside the Arcology. This is do or die time. I want my friends to do, not die. We have to get this right...
A warm squeeze enveloped her hand. She glanced over to Scout, who offered her another of his rare smiles. She was starting to learn to enjoy those smiles.
"Let's finish this," he whispered to her, barely audible under the countdown. "And then, we'll have the rest of our lives."
A deep rumble shook the shuttle, as Emily returned the smile... and then looked forward, towards the heavens above.
to be continued
copyright 2009 stefan gagne