by H. M. Snow
Sheltered from the crackling gunfire by a bank of file cabinets, two figures sat side-by-side on the floor. The elder, a woman in her mid-forties, said with a sudden hushed laugh, “What do you get when you cross a pitched battle with a pair of adolescent saurian mages?”
The younger, a man just into his thirties, replied dryly, “A bad joke?”
The woman laughed again. “The point goes to you this time, Andrin. Can we pull this off without them, in your opinion?”
“We have no other choice,” was his simple answer. “With their firepower, we could certainly pull it off. He’s a good kid.”
“What about her?”
Andrin shrugged. “I would have thought a woman better equipped to gauge the character of another woman, Talaitha. I know Ariela has reservations about including her in these outings.”
“Ariela has reservations,” said his comrade, “because of just such a situation as we find ourselves in now. Jaella is ruled very much by impulse. Inseparable as they are, it was only natural that her impulse should take her in pursuit of Maurus. It only remains to be seen whether he can and will pull himself together in time to return to us. That is where your judgment comes into play. He is a good kid, as you put it. He has the potential to become as good a man, if not a better one, than his father.”
“I never had the privilege,” said Andrin.
“I knew him only briefly myself. I hope Maurus does pull himself together. Meanwhile…” Talaitha lifted herself enough to peer over the shortest file cabinet. “We might chance it now.”
Crouching low, they ran beneath the sight line of the half-wall that made up the reception desk, halfway deafened by the artillery just above them. Distantly to their left, others of their comrades drew the defenders’ attention away from them until Andrin and Talaitha reached the alcove sheltering three water fountains. Talaitha left Andrin in that scant refuge while she crept toward the swinging doors farther into the corridor. Ignoring the two narrow panes of reinforced glass above her, Talaitha laid the palms of her hands lightly against the doors and murmured half a dozen words. Then she retreated to Andrin’s side. “She’s here, but so are two dozen others at least. We’ll never make it head-on.”
“If that were true, the first line of defense would not be so fierce,” Andrin noted.
“They may be anticipating Maurus and Jaella,” Talaitha countered, still smiling.
“So am I. This way.” He slipped across the corridor to a waiting room that sat vacant. At his entrance, the security camera in the upper east corner fizzed and sparked, and then went dead. “As long as you’ve got a lock on her, we can still do this even if they come too late, but I have a feeling…”
“Save us,” said Talaitha, only half-joking, “if you’ve got a feeling…”
Andrin went to the window that overlooked a drab parking lot. “It feels like Maurus, only–” After one glance out the window, he ran out into the corridor, heedless of the fighting. “Mages in the parking lot!” he bellowed. “Take cover deeper inside!”
Talaitha needed no more than the same single glance: outside in the parking lot stood the two missing saurian mages, Maurus and Jaella, holding hands. The pavement under their feet was cracked in a spiderweb pattern, and Maurus’ translucent atavist body was bigger than ever before, taking completed form as a lizard fully twenty feet tall with a blade-thin tail six feet wide and as long as its body. Such a huge spiritual form obscured both mages. Talaitha pivoted and ran.
She caught up to Andrin a moment before one of the defenders’ ricochets struck him in the shoulder with an angry whine. With unbelievable speed Talaitha’s hand darted forward to grasp the projectile just before the end of it disappeared into the anterior deltoid. “No… you… don’t,” she grunted, pulling back with white-knuckle force.
Andrin’s bronzed face went ashen with the pain. The muscles in his jaw jumped. Maurus’ atavist tail appeared like a barrier of light behind them. It swept the corridor with its heat, slamming into them both before passing swiftly onward. Andrin grunted as Talaitha pulled the projectile free.
On the palm of her hand a burrowing gray worm, about four inches long, lolled as though disoriented by Maurus’ magic. “I consign this to the fires,” said Talaitha. Black fire leaped up from her palm for the space of two seconds before vanishing and taking the worm with it. Then she pressed the same hand over the wound. Before the fire reappeared, she said, “This will hurt, I’m afraid.”
Between clenched teeth, Andrin replied, “Compared to the worm, this feels good.”
The corridor fairly rang with the sudden hush. As soon as his wound was disinfected, Andrin led the way down the hallway, asking directions from his comrade from time to time. For her part, Talaitha steered him verbally, keeping wary watch meanwhile over the prone and disoriented facility staff scattered along their path. They pushed their way deeper into the facility until Talaitha halted them before a set of security doors. “Here.”
“Yes,” said Andrin, “I recognize the face.” He bent over the young woman crawling like a baby on the floor in their way. “Ms Magda Finch, the alleged pacifist and social worker. Yes, we’ve met before.”
“I’ll take care of her. Don’t waste your time.” Talaitha pulled out a stopwatch. She held it up in front of the security camera. “Ready?”
Andrin set his hand on the door handle. “Ready.”
“Time starts… now.”
He pushed open the door.
The room’s sole occupant flinched before raising her pretty head. Her expression transformed to radiance. “Daddy!” She ran to Andrin.
His hug lifted her off her feet. “My dearest girl,” he replied. “Mirela, are you well?”
“Mm.” Tears streaked her radiant face as she lifted it in earnest entreaty. “You’re hurt! What about Mom? Is Mom…?”
“Healing nicely, thanks to friends.”
Mirela clung to him fiercely again. “They kept telling me she died. I didn’t know what to think.”
“No,” her father assured her. “It takes more than heavy artillery to stop your mother.”
Mirela giggled against his chest.
“She went to help Meg’s parents reach their visitation appointment. She sends her love.”
A sharp thump against the reinforced glass of the observation window made Mirela flinch again. The social worker was pressed face-first into the glass with her arms restrained behind her and Talaitha close at her back. Andrin said, “Don’t look at her. Tell me how you are. What do you need?”
So the young teen girl began to talk about her everyday life, about the clothes she was required to wear and the lessons she had to take (“…they said our dancing wasn’t really dancing, and I ought to learn their dancing, so I fit in with the other kids… I just couldn’t do it…”). This led to the overflow of deeper complaints, words of loneliness and frustration and boredom with her lot.
All the while, her father held her close and listened. When she tapered off after about ten minutes, her father gave her a gentle squeeze. “I wish I could make everything better, my dearest girl,” he said at last. “It hurts, doesn’t it?”
“I want to go home with you,” Mirela sobbed.
“And I want to take you home with me, but you know what would happen then.”
She nodded against his chest, ruffling her hair and smearing her tears in the process.
“But you are almost fifteen,” her father continued. “More than that, you are strong for your age. You are your mother’s daughter, so I can’t see how you could escape it,” he added with a touch of forced levity. “It often happens that those who see hard days turn out to be most likely to be granted a glimpse of the Hidden Realms. I believe you will be one of those. So keep your eyes open, Mirela, and remain watchful. You are of the fey, along with your parents and your brothers, and your grandparents and their parents before them. Remain true to that heritage.”
“They said,” she sniffled, “that ‘fey’ means crazy, and we’re crazy.”
Andrin turned so that they could observe the social worker’s face, twisted with rage, through the glass. “If that is what it means to be sane, who wouldn’t rather be crazy?”
Mirela giggled again.
“And one day, we will all be together again– here, or in the Hidden Realm when it is revealed.”
“Ah! Lulu!” Mirela gasped. She waved frantically at the face of her brother in the window.
“Louis came. Danny is traveling and couldn’t make it back in time. He and his Rilla met a family that wanted to be transformed. They can’t be left vulnerable at this point, or he would have come with me as well.”
“Jaella came too– who is that with her?” Mirela grinned at her childhood friend.
“That’s her fiance Maurus,” said Andrin. “Her mother found her another mage to strengthen her. He’s a good kid, of a strong family. You’d like him. If they’ve all come here, that means my time must be up. I knew it,” he added as Talaitha’s hand appeared next to the social worker’s face, gesturing. “Twenty seconds. The time goes too fast,” he complained sadly as he squeezed his daughter in his arms again. “Your mother will come next month. Stay strong until then.”
“Why can’t you stay longer? They don’t keep their own rules– why should you?”
Her father held her at arm’s length. “We will maintain our honor, even if they abandon theirs. We are the fey. Understand?”
Mirela lowered her gaze. “Yes, Dad.”
“Stay watchful.” As Talaitha knocked the remaining count of seconds against the glass, Andrin backed away from his daughter, keeping her in his gaze until the very last.
From the moment he opened the security door to the moment he closed it, the clamor of his comrades brought a smile to Mirela’s face. The rest of the party served as a human wall, gesturing to the lone girl through the window to cheer and distract her as Talaitha and Andrin stepped aside with the social worker. “We kept our appointment,” said Andrin. “My wife will take her turn next month. She will want to have words with you about your behavior last month,” he warned the social worker. “And we have reported your use of heavy artillery, Ms Alleged Noncombatant. According to the laws of your own government, that can cost you your license and put you on the front lines with the rest of your precious Self-Determination Syndicate. Someone like you is not fit to be near children.” He jerked his head at his lieutenant.
Talaitha released the magic that restrained the woman’s hands.
Andrin bowed shortly. “May you become one who finds the way to the Hidden Realms. Goodbye, Ms Finch. Everyone? It’s time.”
As they walked away, the social worker found her voice. “If I ever found your Hidden Realms, I would destroy them! People are meant to rule themselves! We will not rest until we blot out every memory of your imaginary tyrant! Do you hear me?”
Maurus leaned toward Andrin. “Want me to purify her again?”
“It wouldn’t make much difference.” Turning so that he walked backward, Andrin replied to Ms Finch, “To find the way, you would need to be transformed into a person completely different from what you now are… hence my words to you. I hope you do meet the king of the fey. I have a feeling that such an experience would affect more than just you yourself.” He turned to face forward.
“You have a feeling, do you?” said Talaitha.
“I do,” Andrin answered her.
“Save us,” Talaitha sighed. “‘Help him to his supervised visitation,’ they said. ‘Just a simple raid.’ Nothing is ever simple where a heart mage is concerned, is it?”