Relador, in the southern Dragonsback range, is a long flight from Copen in the province of Atianus. I was embarking on that journey without so much as underwear. My present worldly possessions consisted of one wet tea gown and a pair of shoes.
I didn’t even have my amulet. The guards tried to confiscate it when they put me in the cell, but Ged took custody of it along with my jewelry. It was probably a wise move; the diamonds in the earrings Ferna and Esrene had insisted I wear that morning weighed at least two carats each. The way the guards in the prison acted, who knows what would have happened to expensive stuff like that.
So, I was officially headed to Relador, and I let them see me flying that direction, but I turned on Vampire Cloak before I reached the town walls and changed my destination to Bray, practically the opposite direction. I felt a little ashamed to rely on them, but I had two allies in that city that I could absolutely count on. The blood bond would be stronger than any ‘Fate magic’.
As the adrenaline faded, the low spirits took hold. My school life had lasted two days, not including a day in jail. I hadn’t known what I could expect from school, but I had actually been looking forward to finding out.
It wasn’t just the provincials I needed to fool. As quickly as Jurmat had appeared, he had to have followed me. I would bet that there had been a spike in illegal feedings in Atius during the couple days I stayed there as well. When I saw him, he had cloaked well enough to prevent me from following him, so I was hoping my cloak would be equally effective.
With luck, he and whatever confederates he had with him would be unable to track me and would stay in Copen to await my return. I felt guilty about leaving him at a school full of young women, but if I were gone and their reign of terror continued, it would surely exonerate me, right? Maybe I would even be seen as a victim and they would welcome me back.
I still felt guilty about it.
Did I want to go back? Part of me actually did, and was frustrated that they had stolen the promise of a school life from me. The rest of me was just pissed that I couldn’t carry out the mission Uncle Owen gave me.
I hadn’t been confident enough in my cloak to stay up close around all the combat mages working for Parna and the gifted magic users of the school faculty. Especially since they had been loaded for proverbial bear– or more to the point, actual vampire– and might have been prepared for the possibility of my escape. I didn’t try anything fancy right in front of them. I just cloaked and ran, hoping that my quick reversal and flight the other direction would help lose them.
But I didn’t lie to Ged. I couldn’t repeat Parna’s words to him, because Parna could then just tailor the evidence to disprove them. I could only hope Ged overheard me declaring Parna a traitor and would investigate on his own. But I really was headed to Tëan Tír, as soon as I could.
It’s just, at the moment, I didn’t have the resources to make it that far. The only place I could afford to show up starved for mortal mana was the city where I would find my two Servants.
# # #
The Hart is the biggest river in Orestania, and Atius and Copen are both built on its banks. It isn’t Mississipi big, but it’s probably at least as big as the Rhine. It runs from Relador northeast through Atius to the Tasham Fenlands and the Great Eastern Sea. It wasn’t precisely on the way to Bray, but I needed Water mana, so I was following it.
I needed to land and take care of my body soon, but I also needed more distance before I did so. The mana might be sensed through the cloak if I tried to dry my dress too close to Copen, so I continued to fly, sopping wet. I was unsure how far out would be safe. Evening would be on me eventually and I needed a safe place to recover and hide for the night, away from prying eyes.
Ten miles from Copen, I began to realize my mana situation was critical. Although that massive burst of Healing in front of the tower had returned my condition to an illusion of normal– my skin had regained its healthy, glowing, teenager perfection and the symptoms deeper down, the aches and twinges, had gone away– I was already feeling the symptoms coming back. I had no idea how far the high level magicians in the Royal Academy’s faculty could sense or how sensitive they were. On top of that, they would surely have aerial searches organized soon, and had a campus full of magic students to enlist help from. They might conduct magic searches from the air. I didn’t dare heal again.
I picked a spot where a much smaller river entered the Hart. There was a sort of almost-island peninsula with trees that screened it from the main channel. I landed there and removed my shoes, then wading in. My dress was still soaked anyway.
As I settled into the water, a burst of activity surprised me, as a flock of some sort of waterfowl took off from a wide eddy near my location. That was disconcerting. Shortly after that, while I was still trying to settle from the surprise, I saw a peculiar small creature skimming along the water, a scaled down version of a human girl with dragonfly wings.
She was talking to herself quite loudly. “Huh? What scare the birdies? Is it there? Is it here? Mean thing, where are you~?”
The birds had been sensitive to the presence of a monster, it seemed.
The creature was too small to be a true fairy, but she was a tiny magical creature with blue hair and a fairy-like green raiment made of a mini-tube-top and a mini-sarong. She flew like a dragonfly, zipping forward, then hovering or backing up with ease.
“Maybe Kiki call big brother? Big brother can see?”
I had maintained my cloak since leaving Copen, but as the pixie came into my vicinity she looked my direction, then turned and flew toward me.
Greater fairies are at the center of a large family of magical species. They share the top with the true fairy races, like naiads and dryads. Below them are the lesser fairies, nonmortal creatures with less power and greater vulnerability, but with a shot at evolving into true fairies through hard work and some luck.
But below those, and above the magical beasts, are a wildly varied assortment of more-or-less-intelligent creatures, usually combining the intelligence of young children with the survival instincts of advanced animals.
Actually, I suspect they’re actually just as smart as humans, but they have so little use for civilization or ambition that they don’t bother growing up. They don’t like cities and farmland, so they are only found out in nature.
We call them pixies.
They aren’t classified into types because they interbreed too much to identify lines between ‘species’, but the individuals come in all kinds and shapes, with adaptations for water, mountains, grasslands, forests. The closest thing to a constant is that most are barely more than a third the height of human newborns, but shaped and proportioned like human adults.
I wasn’t scared of the one approaching me, of course. She was far too small to fear. But I wanted to recharge without anything bothering me, so I maintained my Vampire Cloak.
She should have been seeing just empty water, with the illusion of river surface replacing the hole in the water caused by my presence. But she looked back and forth around my vicinity, frowning an adorable little frown.
“Something darkly here? Smell something secret, hidey hidey stuff? Sniff, sniff!”
Let me be absolutely clear about this. The creature said the words ‘sniff, sniff’.
Then she stared me straight in the face, craning her neck closer, then squinted with extreme effort, making a strained humming noise through her clenched lips as she did it.
She suddenly blinked and grew wide-eyed.
“Wow! Pretty lady!” she said, dashing up close and clapping my cheeks between her tiny palms as she stared practically nose to nose at me.
“Hey, stop!” I yelped, nearly dropping my cloak in surprise. How was she seeing me? But she stayed right there in my face, and then came right up to my cheek with her little face.
“Sniff, sniff!” she said again.
Then her eyes grew wide. She backed away, clasping her hands in front of her chest. “Oh no! A monster! You gonna eat Kiki?”
She was not actually scared. She only backed up a half a pace and hovered. I could easily grab her at that range.
“I am not interested in eating a pixie,” I answered. “Thanks, anyway.”
“Okay!” she answered brightly. Then she tipped her head. “That’s right! Big Sis come here to get baby?”
“Big Sis want baby! Pretty ladies get baby here!”
“I just need to soak in the water…”
“Kiki be back~!” she said, blazing off at a speed I would never have guessed she could fly, heading over the treetops on that peninsula. Well, dragonflies are pretty fast in comparison to their size, I guess.
I settled back into the water, unsure whether I should expect the little creature to return.
I was able to get a solid twenty minutes in the water. I needed a lot more, but I had delayed my mana crisis with this much. I was considering picking up and traveling farther downriver to put more distance between myself and Copen.
Before I actually had time to act on that thought, a large bulge in the river surface plowed upstream from the direction of the main river. The surface water all around me lit with blue fire, although I could tell in fairy sight that it was an illusion, made of light mana emitting from the water.
As the bulge turned and headed straight at me, I nearly took off, but as I moved from sitting to crouching, looking upward in preparation for flight, I froze at the sight of a passing hippogryph patrol.
It might have been the coincidental passing of an ordinary patrol. But if Parna’s men had organized a search already, and if they understood my mana issues, then they would search bodies of water like this river first.
Unlike the high-powered experts of the academy, the patrol would be unlikely to have the means to detect passive mana, and I judged the approaching threat as important enough to risk it. I began circulating several elements. I had no focus for fancy stuff, so I concentrated on the things that would work best with brute force. Water because I was in it, Wind because I could block with it, Earth to fortify my body and Fire to overwhelm any water attacks. And finally, Healing to counter the erosion of the mana component of my body by the Fire.
The bulge reached and rolled past me like the wake from a speed boat as three trident-wielding women burst upward out of the water before me.