(Note for Tim: I added a few more lines to Ch8, to make this transition work.)
I blame the weather, to be honest.
We’d arrived on Salazie in late summer. At the time, the grass was green and lush, the forest rich with the sounds of birds and the rustlings of busy small animal lives. The children played outside every day, both organized sports in the courtyards, supervised by the instructors, and the random games of childhood on the open grounds beyond the walls of the school building.
But the seasons were changing as seasons were wont to do, the days growing shorter, the leaves dropping from the trees, and the weather turning colder. On my last morning at Domas, the ground was crisp with frost.
I’d woken up at my usual time, taken care of the necessities, and hurried to the rotecionata halls, as was my daily routine. Za Reija and Za Kestrel were already there, helping the littles with their own necessities.
“Ah, good, Lila, good to see you.” The circles under Za Reija’s eyes looked deeper than usual. He held a little on each arm. In the pack on his back, a third was sobbing, tiny fists clenched on Za Reija’s shoulders.
The rotecionata had smaller sleeping pods, not built into the walls the way the roteciona pods were, but lined against them. Usually when I arrived in the morning, all the tops were open and most of the littles had already been moved into either the addie carriers used to transport them to the breakfast room, or to a circular enclosure on the floor which held soft toys and a central small play structure.
On this morning, however, a solid quarter of the pods were still closed. In one of the nearest, I could see Shoshi, soundlessly crying, her face screwed up in fury, tears running down her face.
“Bad night?” I asked, immediately crossing to her pod, and tapping the latch to open it.
As the top slid open, the sound of her cries burst forth, a high-pitched shriek that filled the room. I saw Za Reija wince, as Za Kestrel immediately turned to check on the noise.
Za Reija shook his head. A yellow light blinked in the corner of my vision and I acknowledged it, letting Za Reija open a line to my System.
Terrible, his voice sounded in my head. I’m not sure what’s going on. I’ve checked and double-checked the medic alerts. Shoshi’s temp’s a little high, but nothing that should cause her serious discomfort. But she’s miserable, and it’s been contagious. They’re all upset. I’ve called for more assistance, but if you could take her, it might help.
Just her? I asked as I lifted Shoshi out of her pod. Usually, I loaded up an addie carrier with four littles, the number it could comfortably carry, then escorted it to the breakfast room while carrying two or three more littles. While the first set of littles were being fed and supervised by one of the other instructors, I’d return for another load.
Just her, Za Reija confirmed.
“Shh, shhhh.” I tried to comfort Shoshi, rocking her in my arms, but she arched her back, screaming hard.
Maybe outside? He suggested. Even his mental voice sounded tired.
I nodded, and closed the open line. At night, the rotecionata wore soft sleepers with built-in diapers. In the morning, an adult or one of the older students would help divest them of their sleepers, then place them on a wardrobe pad in the corner of the room. Uniforms — exactly like all of the other student uniforms, except for their small size — would flow into shape around their bodies.
But Za Kestrel was busy at the wardrobe pad with a line of littles and Shoshi was screaming so hard that joining the line seemed inadvisable. Instead, I headed straight for the door. It was not yet so cold that a few minutes in the fresh air in her sleeper would do her any harm.
At the doorway, I almost bumped into Ella. She was yawning, her eyes only half open, her curls still tangled and sleep mussed.
“G’morning,” she mumbled at me. “Here to help.”
“Za Reija will be happy to see you,” I said through Shoshi’s wails.
“Mmm.” Ella leaned into me, as if she’d fall asleep against me if I gave her the chance.
I chuckled, adjusting Shoshi on my hip, and curving my arm around my sister. She’d never been a morning person.
“No, no, no.” Shoshi sobbed, pushing Ella’s head away from me.
“What’s wrong with her?” Ella straightened, opening her eyes wider.
“I don’t know.” I patted Shoshi’s back. “Nightmare, maybe? We’re going to go for a little walk and see if some outside time helps.”
“M’kay.” Ella moved aside to let us pass, but she frowned as she watched us go.
When I accompanied an addie laden with littles, I used the giant dumbwaiters to reach the ground floor, but since I only had Shoshi, I took the stairs. They were hidden behind a door at the end of the hallway, but were nicely wide, suitable for the crowds of students climbing them daily. At the moment, a steady flow of roteciona was headed down them toward the breakfast room, with an occasional student moving against the flow of traffic to return to their sleeping hall for one reason or another.
Shoshi sobbed in my ear, still inconsolable, but her cries barely penetrated the chaos of chattering voices and thudding footsteps. I returned the greetings directed my way absently, more focused on Shoshi than on my surroundings, but steered my steps toward the front of the building instead of the courtyard next to the breakfast room. It would be crowded this time of day, with students coming and going, and Shoshi needed peace. What could be distressing her so?
“What’s wrong, sweet girl?” I murmured. “What do you need? I’m here, I’ll help you.”
She turned her head and her eyes met mine.
Shoshi was not the world’s prettiest child. Objectively, Tycho was far more charming, with darling round cheeks and the sweetest brown curls. Shoshi had wisps of straight black hair on a mostly bald head and pale skin that made her look sickly at the best of times. Her tears had left her eyes red and her skin blotchy, with yellow snot clogging her nose.
None of that mattered. I loved her anyway. I’d been helping out with the littles for a solid two weeks before she smiled at me, but when she did, it was like finding the first snowdrop of spring, a tiny little miracle of Midwinter.
“Bad,” she said to me woefully.
“What’s bad?” I asked her as we neared the door.
She let her head drop to the curve of my shoulder and neck. “Mama.” She whimpered, her voice so soft I could barely hear her. “Mama.”
I stopped moving.
No one ever spoke of the children’s parents. I still thought of my own sometimes, of course. And not always in fear of what they might do when they found us. Granted, my father was Tizai’s most fearsome sorcerer, and my mother could be both brusque and unkind to her daughters, but they were still my parents.
Shoshi was so young, though. Could she really remember the people she’d lost?
I started walking again. The door slid open at my approach and we stepped outside. The day was bright and clear, the air crisp on my cheeks. I thought it felt refreshing, but Shoshi disagreed. Vehemently.
Her head lifted again, her eyes went wide, and she shrieked. “Bad! Bad!”
I was so startled, I jumped. My hold on her loosened, but I tightened my arms again before she could slip more than a bit. Then I froze and my grip turned into the vise-like bind of a drowning woman catching a far-flung rope.
Monsters were emerging from the forest, hovering in the air across the expanse of land before us. If Ella hadn’t shown me the scene from the Swords on Lucerne, I might have thought them some strange version of a flying maintenance addie, but I recognized their bulbous eyes and protuberant spikiness.
A rift must have opened beyond the trees.
Domas had to have emergency procedures for such events, but no one had shared them with me. I had no idea what to do. My first instinct was the obvious: I wanted to run into the building, slamming the door behind me. But there would be children in the courtyard, lots of them, and the walls would do nothing to stop attacks from the sky.
A great calm swept over me. Shoshi was still screaming, but the sound of my own heartbeat was so loud in my ears I could barely hear her. Without taking my eyes off the swarm of monsters, I pressed my lips against her forehead, then ordered my uniform to reshape itself into a harness. The material slid up and around her and I released my grip on her as my uniform shifted her to my back.
Electricity or fire? Fire was my strongest talent, but always dangerous. The forest had only gotten dryer over the weeks we’d been on Domas and I’d hate to start a forest fire that could burn uncontrolled through the dry brush.
Of course, electricity could also start a fire. But a lightning bolt might travel between the creatures, killing more than one with a single strike. I’d never had to worry about how much energy I had before — my issue was always control of my abilities, not power — but more of the monster bugs were appearing with every passing second. It was not the time for halfway measures. Lightning would be deadlier, I decided, so lightning it was.
I suppose you’re wondering why I didn’t simply use the System to call for help.
An excellent question.
In retrospect, it’s certainly one I ask myself.
But I was the product of an upbringing where “trouble” and “in trouble” were usually one and the same. When I stopped Ella from testing her flying machine, we were both confined to the schoolroom for two solid weeks. When I prevented her from swimming to the underwater caves, we weren’t allowed to go near the water for the rest of the summer. Summoning an adult was a strategy of last resort for me.
Also, and perhaps more to the point, it simply didn’t occur to me. I spent most of my time with the rotecionata and they didn’t have the System installed, so I rarely used it for communication.
Am I making excuses for my own stupidity? Yes, of course I am. If I’d spent a fraction of the time experimenting with the System that Ella had, I would have sent out a System-wide alert, the school would have gone into lockdown, the Shields and Swords would have appeared in mere moments to defend us, and my story… well, in point of fact, it probably would have ended exactly the same way.
Because I shot lightning bolt after lightning bolt at the monsters and not a bloody thing happened. They continued to approach, flying over the grass in a slow glide that seemed endless. My electricity went straight through them, then fizzled out in the air with a sharp crackle and the crisp smell of stormy weather.
It was the crackle that made me realize the monster bugs were remarkably silent. Not that I knew what a monster bug should sound like, but I was well used to the quiet hum of bees and the annoying burr of flies in the forest and gardens at home. Insects like these, huge and winged, growing ever nearer, ought to be making more noise. I ought to be able to hear them over the sound of Shoshi’s sobs.
The fog horn alarm I’d last heard weeks ago began bellowing, ruining all possibility of hearing the monsters. But I stopped shooting electric bolts at them and focused. I would try fire, just once, on the closest bug. I stared at its iridescent eye, a bulb the size of one of the balls the older roteciona played with, and pushed with all my mental might, forcing fire energy at it.
It should have exploded into flames.
On my shoulder, Shoshi’s cries were softening with exhaustion. “Bad, bad, bad.” She choked out the words through her sobs.
“Bad, yes.” I agreed with her.
The yellow light was blinking in the corner of my vision. I accepted the communication request absently, still staring at the monsters. They’d stopped moving.
Ella’s desperate voice sounded in my head. It’s an illusion. Don’t do anything stupid.
It was far too late for that.
The monsters attacked Lucerne a year ago, at the turning of the seasons. Shoshi must have seen at least the beginning of their invasion. Somehow she was rescued, but this memory had lingered in the recesses of her mind. Had she dreamed of it in the night?
She was young for her talent to manifest, but obviously not too young.
I told my uniform to reshape the harness holding her in place again, pulling her back to the enclosure of my arms.
Illusion was simply a reshaping of light. Most illusion casters found it vastly easier to create an image that replicated a memory, and I was no exception to that rule. But I’d seen the bugs now and I’d certainly seen enough flame in my lifetime. It was no struggle to merge the two. Taking control of the illusion was as easy as overlaying my image on top on hers.
“Look, Shoshi.” Perhaps it was a little bloodthirsty of me to set the monsters burning. Perhaps it would have been better for her emotional well-being if I’d transformed them into flowers or butterflies or something peaceful and beautiful. But if Shoshi remembered this trauma when she was older, I hoped the utter destruction of the creatures would offer her some satisfaction.
It was certainly satisfying for me.
I stood there, holding Shoshi while we watched the creatures burn, until the Swords began floating down out of the sky.