I have a message from another time...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
First Movement: Ash Knight
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
and Anne Cross
© 2005, 2009, 2014 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Anne Cross awoke on the first Monday of February vacation - the Avalon County public school system's winter break - and lay under the covers, spending several long, blissful minutes savoring the fact that she still had a whole seven days without homework. Seven more days without classes. Not that school was a bad thing - this semester was the first time since she'd been twelve that she'd been able to go to a 'normal' school. And since Harkness Street High School wasn't anything at all like the cram school she'd gone to on Orron IV, and the Psi Corps hadn't spoiled anything yet, she loved every minute of it.
Well, except for the pop quiz in math that Professor Reinthaler had sprung on them Friday morning, when Anne hadn't done her homework. That hadn't been so much fun. And she was pretty sure she hadn't got more than six of the ten questions right, so she was probably going to have to explain it to Miki...
Oh well, I'll burn that test paper when I get it back, she thought cheerfully, and went in search of breakfast and to find out what Kaitlyn's plans for the afternoon were, when she got back from her morning class.
Since Saionji had vanished off on whatever he was doing shortly after New Year's, and Kaitlyn's Dad's students had gone back to learning from him, Anne presently had the unique and somewhat painful distinction of being her sensei's only student, and Kaitlyn had couched her decision to allow Anne to attend Harkness in the requirement that she earn the right to stay there by continuing to improve in the dojo.
However, Kaitlyn had a morning class and another one right after lunch at New Avalon University, over in Salutown, and it was her habit on such days to stay on campus. With Juri working and Miki still on Tomodachi, that left Anne alone in the house. Well, alone except for the majordomo, anyway.
Six months ago, Anne doubted she'd have been able to handle this particular facet of the new housekeeping she and Kate had set up in New Avalon. She could handle moving back into a city - compared to the planetary sprawl on Orron IV, the City in the Sphere was practically a little town with a well, and it had so much more spirit and character than anyplace in the Corporate Sector could dream of that living there dredged up no bad memories.
The three-story townhouse Kaitlyn had found in the city's extra-quirky Claremont district suited the two quite well, both in its own right and in terms of access to the rest of the city. It had plenty of room for guests, the flat roof made an excellent practice space, and the inside was every bit as homey and comfortable as the house on Wildwood Road, albeit in a completely different style. It even had a decent little back yard, with a cherry tree (albeit not one as impressive as the one out back of 1140 Wildwood), room to host a modest-sized barbecue party, a place for a hammock, and a surprising amount of sun for a city yard.
The house came with a droid majordomo, though, and that had been one of the defining factors of life in the privileged classes on Orron IV. Household majordomo droids in the Corporate Sector were ubiquitous appliances and treated as such; they never had names, only coded manufacturer's designations, and they were programmed to do their duties with as little interaction as possible with the home's human inmates. They had no personalities, no interests, and no compassion. They were, in short, not very much fun for a child to be stuck at home alone with for long periods of time, which had happened quite a lot to Anne in her younger days. When she learned that the townhouse in New Avalon had one, she'd wondered with some nervousness how she would take to having one around again.
She needn't have worried. The majordomo that came with 771 East Christie was as unlike the cold, uncaring mechanical boss of her childhood home on Orron IV as the house itself was unlike the bland plastic company flat that childhood home had been. For one thing, he had a name.
"Morning, Fritz," she said cheerfully as she reached the bottom of the stairs.
Fritz - more correctly F-3PZ, a Cybot Galactica 3P-series protocol droid - paused in vacuuming the hall carpet and turned.
"Ah! Good morning, Miss Anne," the droid said in a pleasant voice with a slight German accent. "Miss Kaitlyn left a note for you on the refrigerator. She expects to be home about three."
"OK, thanks," Anne said, and went on to the kitchen to collect the note. She found it was a list of three kata with a detailed list of where in them she was getting unacceptably sloppy, as well as a less formal request to see if she could figure out what was the matter with the stuck window in the south bedroom.
Anne chatted with Fritz about the year's prospects for the Knights - spring training in two weeks! - while the droid made her a breakfast of johnnycakes and bacon. After breakfast, she went back upstairs and dressed in clothes that would handle either a workout or some minor home repairs, leaving Fritz to finish the vacuuming.
Several hours later, Anne lowered her bokuto, Tonerikoken - she had named it over Christmas after a discussion with Liza Shustal about the importance of Named weaponry - and considered that her morning had been well spent. With a combination of telekinesis and the heat of her swearing, she had successfully dislodged the stuck window, which had been painted shut by some misguided previous owner, without breaking the glass, after which she'd scraped off the misapplied paint and touched it up with some fresh semi-gloss. Then she had virtuously gone to the roof and worked through the first of the kata she was having difficulty with, and if she hadn't gotten it perfect yet, well, at least she was pretty sure she was better at it than she'd been.
She was contemplating going in to see if Fritz and had started lunch yet when the faint scent of grilled cheese sandwiches reached her from the kitchen vent. Anne grinned and slipped Tonerikoken back into the cord she used to carry it.
"My timing's good," she said cheerfully, and turned to leave the roof.
She had just reached the first landing when there was a screaming distortion of light and the walls of the stairwell fisheyed around her, bending in to grab at her head, then bulging outwards as if some giant blast of air had exploded where she was standing and was pushing them out.
The next instant, everything was normal, and she was staring out over a white stone balustrade, surrounded by nothing but the gentle whisper of wind.
Understandably, she was a little disoriented.
She stepped back from the railing, turned, and looked around her. She seemed to be on a large balcony, jutting out from about three-quarters of the way up a high, narrow stone tower with a clock at the top. Below, spread out like a postcard, was a cluster of buildings with terra-cotta roofs and lots of archways. Beyond that was a white stone plaza with a long, shallow stairway leading to what looked like a walled forest.
Something about it looked familiar, but Anne couldn't place it. She had the feeling she'd seen it before, but -when- was eluding her. It was a strange feeling to have. She raised a hand to shade her eyes and peered toward the forest.
Did I dream I was here? she wondered. Or have I been here and just don't quite remember it...
"Hey!" a voice cried behind her, breaking her concentration. "Hey, you!"
She turned, blinking into the shadow of the tower which fell across her at the sun's current height, and saw only a shadowy figure of a woman approaching at a brisk trot.
"Oh, it's you!" said the woman with definite relief in her voice. "Thank God, I thought - hey! Wait! You aren't you, you're somebody else!"
Anne stepped further into the shade, her eyes adjusting, and said, "That's kind of existential, don't you think?"
Now she could more clearly see the woman who'd emerged from the tower to accost her: she was about ten years older than Anne, a pointy-chinned young woman with thick wavy ash-blond hair that flowed around her shoulders, picking up green highlights from her double-breasted jacket. Her indignant green eyes were a few shades darker than the highlights in her hair, which made for an interesting effect.
She put her hands on her hips and demanded, "Who are you, how did you get up here, and why are you wearing that uniform?"
Anne blinked at her. "Uniform, what uni - " Then she glanced down at herself and realized the woman meant Utena's unbuttoned jacket and the red cargo pants. "Oh."
"I asked you a question," the woman reminded her.
"Actually, you asked me three," Anne replied blandly. She went back to the railing and looked down at the buildings. "My name's Anne, but I can't answer your second question until you tell me where 'here' is. I'm not even sure what planet I'm on."
"You're not on any planet," the woman replied. "You're in Cephiro. This is the campus of Tenjou Academy."
Anne blinked, turned around, and felt the pieces of familiarity click into place. She hadn't climbed the belltower the previous summer when they'd stopped here on the tour, but now the perspective made sense. Then she turned back to the woman. "You must be Kanae Ohtori, then. Must be a bit weird running a school for somebody else that used to be named after your family."
"Well, we didn't do a - " Kanae skidded to a verbal halt. Comprehension dawned on her face. "You're a friend of Prince Tenjou's from Midgard, aren't you."
Smiling, Anne squared herself and bowed. "My name is Anne Cross. I'm a novice samurai of the Asagiri Katsujinkenryuu, second student of Master Kaitlyn Hutchins - Utena's best friend. I've known her - both of them, actually - for a little over a year now, and I visited with the Art of Noise's tour last summer, but... Do you have any idea how I got here? A minute ago I was on my way to lunch."
"No, but this can't be good," Kanae answered her, a frown creasing her smooth forehead. "Where's the Pillar? Or Utena and Anthy? Or the Rune Knights?"
"Utena and Anthy are still on Tomodachi - probably at lunch too, at this hour. I'm not sure where Corwin is at the moment - he's been busy lately with something. I think the Rune Knights are all still in New Avalon, but I could be wrong. Why?"
Kanae looked around, went to the edge of the balcony and looked up and down, as though checking the area for something; then she drew a deep breath and shrilled,
There was no appreciable response.
"Now I'm really worried," Kanae said, turning to glare accusingly at Anne. "Master Clef has never been missing when I needed to find him."
"I was in the Forest," came a voice from the doorway. "Even I can't cover that distance instantly."
Anne and Kanae turned to see the diminuitive form of Clef, the Master Mage of Cephiro, standing in the doorway to the tower. He'd looked better; his robes were rumpled, soiled and torn, and there was a bloody mark on the left side of his face. He leaned heavily on his beaked staff, his calm face drawn.
Kanae looked stricken. "Master Clef, what in the world's happened to you?" she asked as she and Anne both rushed to the mage's aid.
"There are... demons... in the Forest," Clef replied, drawing himself up to indicate he needed no help. "I was trying, and failing, to get rid of them. They are too strong, and with something striving to cut the Tenth World away from the rest of Creation, my strength wanes." He looked Anne up and down. "You must be the one the Summoning brought. I had hoped for at least one of the established Knights, if not one or more of the Trinity... but you are all I have."
"Well," Anne replied with a confidence she didn't entirely feel, "maybe I'll be enough. Give me the short version - it sounds like time is running out."
Clef blinked. "Aren't you going to get angry and demand to be sent home?"
"Um, no, not especially... but what would happen if I did?"
"Nothing. I cannot spare the energy. And if you take no action, Cephiro will fall into the abyss, the Trinity will most likely die, and whoever is causing this will have won a victory against us all."
"Forget that, the Trinity have all saved my life at least once each, and they're all good friends of mine. Give me the short version and let's get busy."
"Very well," Clef replied, delight touching his face despite his obvious pain, dread, and fatigue. "Someone has poisoned the guardian trees, weakening the defenses that lead to the dueling platform and the castle in the roots of the World-Tree. If they gain access to the platform, they can wreak all manner of havoc and cast Cephiro into the void.
"If the Pillar were here, or the Prince, they could stop this... erosion in a moment, but... " He shrugged. "I failed to summon them. You will have to do. Go to the Forest of Secrets, climb the steps to the dueling platform, and from there, you should be able to see what they are doing and stop them. Miss Ohtori - you and I must remain here to help guard the World-Engine from attack in case... " He paused, looking at Anne, and Anne filled the rest of the sentence in.
"In case I fail. Yeah."
Clef nodded wearily. "My strength is nearly spent."
Anne checked the cord across her back that she used to keep Tonerikoken with her; the bokuto was (comfortingly) still there. Then she remembered something Fuu had mentioned once when she'd told the story of how they had become Rune Knights. "Do I get anything else to work with, or...?"
Clef shook his head. "If you have any sorcerous potential, I haven't the strength to awaken it now." He gave a wan smile. "I'm afraid you'll have to take what you brought with you, except for this." He handed her a small object taken from an inside pocket of his robes. "You'll need it to enter the Forest."
Anne looked at the item he'd given her; it was a silver ring, a wide band with a pink rose signet - very familiar-looking. She'd seen the same symbol a thousand times in the bottoms of Utena Tenjou's teacups, and on the identical ring she and many of her friends wore. It hadn't been long ago at all, in fact, that Kaitlyn had told her she would soon be ready for her own.
"A Duelist's ring," she mused. She felt a completely inappropriate grin (given the situation) spreading across her face as she slipped the ring onto her left ring finger. The signet flickered, then changed color, deepening to a rich amber.
Clef raised an eyebrow. "Hmm." Then he seemed to reach some conclusion, as he shook his head, straightened and looked her in the eyes.
"Now go - time is short, and you seem to understand, unlike some others I've had to brief over the years, the need for urgency."
"Right, I'm gone," said Anne, and with a "nice to meet you, Kanae" tossed back over her shoulder, she dashed into the tower, found the elevator, and started down.
Clef sat heavily down at the little table out on the balcony, sighed, and looked up at Kanae.
"I hope she's enough," he said. "Could I trouble you for an iced tea or something, Miss Ohtori, while we wait for the elevator to return? I'm parched."
Kanae stood at the railing for a few moments, watching the black speck of Anne's uniform jacket moving swiftly across the plaza toward the stairs to the Forest, then turned around.
"Oh, uh... sure," she said.
Anne stood in front of the great door to the Forest of Secrets, panting slightly from her headlong dash across the campus and up the shorter flight of stairs, and eyed the door.
"Now, how did sempai do this?" she muttered, looking over the elaborately carved door for any sign of a socket or such-like that the ring might fit into as a key, but found nothing.
"Well," she muttered to herself, glancing down at the ring and then setting her right hand to the door, "Master Clef said this would let me in..." She gave the handle a tug. It yielded not at all. She tugged again, with both hands this time, and something cold and wet splashed her fingers. With a wordless exclamation, she yanked her hand back and shook the water from it.
Underneath her, something ancient and heavy moved with a tremendous grating CLUNK, and water began gushing from ducts set high in the walls along the walkway, pouring into the gutters to either side and curtaining the doorway. Stone scraped on stone; she had the impression of more ancient mechanisms moving, changing the shape of things, hidden behind the water.
Then it was gone, churgling away into the drainage system under the walkway, and the wall and door had become the open archway topped with an intricately carved stone rose that she remembered from last summer.
She paused and offered a silent prayer to the gods and to her teacher: Please don't let me screw this up! Then she loosened Tonerikoken from its bindings and slipped through the door as quietly as she knew how, looking for the tremendous flight of stairs up that she had climbed with Saionji during her previous visit.
It wasn't there, at least not that she could see. It was dark in the Forest, much darker than it should have been given the brightness of the sunlight outside, and she had a hard time seeing at first. As her eyes adjusted to the lower light, she started to make out the shapes of individual trees... but there was something... -wrong- about them. She stepped closer to one of the nearby ones, peering more closely at it through the gloom, and then stepped back with a gasp of shock and disgust.
The tree looked like it had once been a fir, but that was before some horrible thing had taken hold of it and twisted it. It was hideously misshapen now, drooping and gnarled, almost denuded of needles. It looked almost more animal than vegetable, like a knotted, cramped muscle jutting up from the ground. Anne fought down the urge to be violently sick and turned away, resolving not to look more closely at any of the other trees she encountered in here.
She walked slowly, softly, deeper into the diseased forest, feeling her guts churn in sympathy with the tortured trees. She wasn't sure what she was looking for, only following some silent instinct as she delved deeper into the woods. Suddenly, she heard a voice - not words, just a voice, indistinct in the distance. She pressed on, following the sound, one hand on the grip of her bokuto.
There were two voices, she realized as she got closer, both men's. One was a little deeper than the other, which was... familiar? She felt a sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach.
"... this supposed to help us find the stairs?" the familiar one observed sardonically.
Anne paused, ducking behind a large rock. She thought they were nearby, perhaps less than ten feet now, though noises in the forest carried strangely. Still, it didn't seem that they'd heard her coming.
"The trees hide the stairway from us," the unfamiliar voice replied calmly. "This is the Forest of Secrets, after all. The trees only show the way to those who are supposed to be here." A pause, then the voice went on with an ironic tone that put Anne in mind of a wry grin,
"That wouldn't be us anymore, Saionji."
"It's interesting that trees can divine intent," said her sempai's voice, and she heard the crunching of leaves underfoot as they continued to walk along. "But even as sick as our little present has made them, it'll take these trees forever to actually die. And the Mage escaped us - he's going to call for help."
"With luck," said the other voice, "they'll lose their power some time before actually dying, and well before that little runt can bring in anyone who can handle us."
That's as good an opening line as any, Anne thought.
She stepped around the rock, hand on bokuto, and said with an authority she didn't quite feel, "Hold it!"
Two figures turned to look at her. Her eyes were now quite well-adjusted to the gloom of the Forest, and she could see them well. One of them was Saionji, and she saw an expression of shock and dismay flicker across his face before his expression closed down into what she'd dubbed inscrutable-psycho mode. The other was another young man, perhaps five years older than Anne's own age of fifteen, tall and redheaded, with very long, straight hair. He was carrying something large and blocky in his hands; Saionji's hands were empty.
Both of them were wearing a kind of black uniform that made Anne think of Jedi Knights for a moment, and both of them wore lightsabers at their belts. She realized with a shock that Saionji had cut his hair - what was left was slicked back in a sleek, military sort of cut. The redhead's long hair was loose, maybe in an attempt to cover the garish red marks on his face.
Anne knew other people with facial markings - Corwin Ravenhair, who had his because he was a god, and Anthy Tenjou, who was a sort of cousin to the gods, came to mind. These were different from Corwin's clean, regular, deep blue brands or Anthy's small forehead pip - they were bright, livid slashes of red, slanting together in the middle of his forehead like the exaggerated false eyebrows of painted-face players, and double scarlet triangles on each cheekbone.
According to Corwin, those were the marks of demons, or of the damned. Anne drew her bokuto.
"I don't suppose," she said, keeping her voice even, "I could convince you to just give up and go back wherever you came from."
She carefully avoided looking at Saionji; whoever this other guy was, Saionji had to have a reason for what he was doing.
The redhead smiled. He must have been handsome once, and probably still could be, even with those marks on his face. Clearly he thought he still was, as he replied in a silky voice,
"Well, well, what have we here? Did Clef actually manage to summon one of his Rune Knights? I don't recognize you from last time, baby. But then, you would have been too young to be in on that, wouldn't you? I keep forgetting how long ago it was."
Anne gave him a cool look as his words connected the last links of memory for her. "Hmm. Tall, broad-shouldered, redheaded, handsome in a slimy sort of way. Calls girls 'baby.' You must be Touga."
His smile widened a little, and his eyes smoldered. The effect was utterly wasted on Anne.
"I'm afraid," he replied smoothly, "I haven't had the pleasure."
Anne looked him up and down and replied, "Mm. You don't look it. You aren't going to, either, at least not from me." She smiled coldly and went on, "Live guys who think they're pretty don't appeal to me, let alone dead ones."
Touga frowned. "Hm," he said. "I see. So it's to be that way? Very well." His eyes focused on something behind Anne. She resisted the urge to turn and look as he smiled, slyly rather than seductively this time.
"Saionji, kill her," said Touga. "I'm off to destroy the World-Tree."
With that, he sprinted past Anne and disappeared behind a tree. Anne whirled and saw, through the twisted trunks of a group behind her, his target - the gleaming white column of the stairway to the sky, just shivering into view. It had been back near the entrance after all - but the trees, confused by their death agonies, had hidden it from she who was supposed to be there as they now revealed it to all.
She spun back to stare at Saionji. "Are you going to let him -do- that?" she demanded, aghast. "Sempai - "
He drew his lightsaber, ignited it with flick of a finger, and leveled it at her.
"Defend yourself, Juniper," he ordered, and launched himself into an attack.
Anne stared at him in shock, only realizing at the last instant that he wasn't pulling his blow. She dove out of the way, felt the lightsaber whip past her head and sever an errant strand of hair that had escaped her braid. She came to her feet, and he turned and swatted her bokuto out of her startled hands with an almost contemptuous blow.
Saionji tsked softly as she scrambled to her feet and pulled the bokuto back to her hands with her TK.
"You're not using anything like your full ability against me, Juniper. I know you're better than that."
She stared at him with an expression of horror. "Sempai... " she whispered. "You can't really mean to just let that... that demon go kill Anthy, Utena, and Corwin?"
He smiled sardonically. "I suppose that depends on whether or not you stop waiting for me to get out of your way and actually put some thought into what you're doing instead." He raised his lightsaber to a very deliberate-looking block position, the sleeve slid back on his arm, and Anne noted his left wrist was bare.
His left wrist was bare?
"Juniper, I have to go away for a little while. I need you to keep this for me. Don't open it, just keep it safe until I come back to claim it from you."
"Um... sure. What's in it?"
"Nothing bad, but something I need someone -else- to keep safe for a little while."
"I'll keep it safe for you, sempai."
His Lens is in there! she realized with shock, dodging out of the way of another sizzling lightsaber blow that was close enough to leave a smoking slash in the front of Utena's jacket. That means his mind isn't shielded - I can scan him!
Anne dropped her shields and, summoning every ounce of training Carmela Sunderland, Devlin Carter, and Jean Grey had helped her with, reached for his mind.
She got a wash of concern from his entirely unfamiliar consciousness - she'd never actually touched it before - overlaid with a feeling of frantic haste and a mostly-suppressed note of panic, well mixed through with frustration.
Does he want me to beat him? Anne frowned, then clenched her teeth together and brought her bokuto up to parry the lightsaber. She'd seen Corwin parry Saionji's lightsaber with Stick the couple of times they had sparred in the dojo, and Tonerikoken was made of the same wood. Belatedly, she hoped that was all there was to it. She'd feel awfully silly if there were some other enchantment involved - but only for about a second...
His lightsaber fetched up against the blade with a harsh fizzle of sparks, and his eyes lit for a moment. She got a warm flash of approval through her touch on his mind. The nasty suspicious knot she'd had in the pit of her stomach released a bit.
I did read him right. Anne caught her lower lip between her teeth and followed up on her block by disengaging and then swinging for his legs, aiming to knock him down.
He dodged away. "Ah-ah, Juniper, it's not going to be that easy."
Anne met his eyes, felt the desperation behind his bantering tone. She bit down on her lip, drawing blood, and did the one thing that she wanted least in the world at that moment: she let out a wordless yell of frustration, and lunged forward to engage Saionji in a real, potentially deadly duel.
His saber stung the air, clashed with her bokuto, and made an awful screeching noise. She jumped back, disengaging as he tried to overpower her with his superior strength; on the way out, he tried a strike that he'd disarmed her with in the dojo more than once.
She'd learned the counter to it since he'd left on whatever this mission was. "Nng!" she gasped, shifted her grip on the bokuto, rolled the wooden sword over his plasma beam (extracting another shriek from the saber as she did so) and dodged out of the way. She felt the saber catch for the briefest of instants on something, and then felt a cool draft on her left side.
He must've caught Utena's jacket again, she thought distractedly, never taking her eyes off him.
"You've improved," he observed dispassionatly, fencing with her with a flurry of small strikes that she dodged rather than parrying.
"Sensei... only has one... person to beat on," Anne gasped, then came up around the last of the small strikes and swung at his shoulder, aiming for the joint in hopes of getting him to drop the sword.
He whipped his saber round and parried, and Anne silently cursed the speed at which those things could be manipulated. He gave her an evil little smile (behind it she could feel his frustration) as he added, "But you're still too worried about actually hurting me."
"'Cause I don't want to!" she gasped, just barely jumping away in time as the saber neatly carved the air around her midsection and left another torn gash in the jacket; this time, there was a moment of freezing cold and then the bloom of a burn on her skin.
"Then you will lose." Saionji's voice was glacial. "Just like a samurai against the ocean waves. And so will everyone else."
Anne dodged back from another another sizzling blow, and watched as Saionji shifted his stance slightly and brought his lightsaber up into an almost classic pose to being a duel with. His mind radiated anticipation and hope (and fear and frustration), and hers kicked into high gear.
Rakagato and the Seven Waves, she thought. That's the third kata I ever - AH!
"Point taken," she gasped, and lunged forward into the opening move of the kata. His aura blasted approval at her even as he caught her blade on his and counter-attacked back with the 'overpowering' force of an incoming wave. Anne ducked under much of it, crouching down and blocking over her head, until his saber shifted to the position she knew was coming; she surged upright, knocking it away, and dodged behind him.
Kaitlyn had taught her this kata early on in her training, because it was good practice for a novice trying to stay alive and not caring whether it looked pretty. But she hadn't really gotten it until she'd practiced it in the surf on the beach at the Jezebel resort with Saionji. The point was to learn how to dodge under the attacks your opponent was throwing at you, and then to come up after the worst of them have gone by, letting them flow past you rather than parrying. It was a good kata for someone who didn't necessarily have a whole lot of upper arm strength - and compared to Saionji, Anne still didn't.
She flowed around his attacks as she could, remembering the feel of the water buoying her up on the beach, blocking when she couldn't dodge according to the pattern of the kata, and she let her body take over. This, she didn't have to think about - this she knew. She knew how it was going to end, too, and that was where she was going to have to alter the pattern.
Then, she was there and his final strike slammed down above her, and she surged upward, bashing it off to her left side and leaving him open (she felt his mind clench in anticipation of pain) and her bokuto flashed toward his neck to behead the last wave -
She adjusted the whipping path of her sword upward eight inches. The blow caught her sempai on the hardest part of his skull with nowhere near the full force of her arms behind it. With just enough force, she hoped, that she would only knock him unconscious, and not shatter his skull.
As the wooden blade hit, she was nearly knocked over by the blast of pain emanating from him; she was as wide open, empathically, as she'd been when she first discovered her peculiar gift, and she wondered if she was going to black out too.
Then Saionji toppled; Anne felt a thin trickle of approval from him, overlaying the pain, before his consciousness faded to the soft humming of life without awareness. She stood there, panting, for a few moments as all the excess panic that had been pounding at her slowly drained away.
Then she knelt, put two fingers to his throat, and found his pulse. It was fast, but steady and strong. "Oh thank you Gods," Anne murmured, and with careful fingers she touched the goose egg she'd just given him. She couldn't feel any cracks in his skull.
"I'm glad you've got a hard head, sempai," she informed her unconscious friend. Concern for him warred with her sense of responsibility. "And I hope it's just a concussion, because you'd beat the shit out of me if I stayed here to take care of you instead of dealing with Touga," she muttered, snatched up her bokuto and ran to the foot of the staircase, looked up at the huge number of stairs.
He's got to be almost to the top by now. She tilted her head and shoulders back and looked up at the staircase. No way to climb fast enough to overtake him... no time to wait for the elevator...
She gathered herself, focused her will, and leaped. Telekinesis and a lifelong habit of escape-acrobatics combined to throw her up three levels, to land at the edge of the spiral. She remained there only long enough to gather for another jump. In twenty seconds of furious exertion, she had reached the last curve, at which point she took to the steps, ran the last 270 degrees at a dead sprint, and barrelled through the archway onto the dueling platform yelling Touga's name at the top of her lungs.
He was kneeling in the center of the platform, having set down the thing he was carrying directly on the huge rose seal inset in the floor.
"Touga, you are so dead," she snarled, all her pent up rage at having had to knock Saionji unconscious fueling her charge across the floor towards him. He froze, then his head snapped up, eyes wide with surprise.
"You!" he blurted. "Saionji - ?"
"He's done," said Anne, "and you're next." She pointed the bokuto straight at his nose, the tip bare inches from his face.
Touga looked her up and down, noting the burned scrapes, the tears in her uniform, and the wooden bokuto in her hands, and smirked.
"Release your foolish quest," Touga said, trying his charm one last time. "You can't save this world. Leave Cephiro to its fate, don't be consumed by it."
"And let my friends die? I don't think so. I've got some karma backlogged here, and I'm about to pay some of it off."
"You're unarmed," he said, putting a hand to the grip of his lightsaber. "Saionji still has his flaws with a lightsaber; I have no such weaknesses."
Anne shifted her grip on Tonerikoken. "I don't think so," she repeated, and swung the bokuto back in preparation to strike.
"You stupid girl!" he exclaimed. "You are courting your own death! What is a wooden practice sword to a Knight of the Black Rose?"
"What the hell do you care anyway?" Anne snarled through her angry grin. She snapped the bokuto forward in a hissing slice, only to have him gesture at her negligently. What felt like a fist of solid air crashed into her solar plexus, driving her backwards several feet before she toppled and fell.
As she got to her feet, swearing in all the various languages she'd learned during her impromptu underworld tour of the Outer Rim, Touga scowled at her. Then, he smiled.
"You're too late regardless," Touga said. With the snap-HISS that was characteristic of a lightsaber, he ignited his weapon, swung the plasma beam disdainfully, and sliced the pyramid in half.
The two halves fell apart with a clatter on the floor of the dueling platform and angry red lightning burst out of the top, arcing up to blast across the minarets of the castle hanging above the platform. For a moment, there was silence, and then with a crack of thunder, the inverted towers began to fall, shedding bits down onto the heads of the two people below.
Anne backpedaled away from the explosion and hastily erected a TK shield over her head, just in time, as a particularly large... branch? clunked off it and clattered to the ground. As she looked up, she saw the ghostly form of a huge, wingless dragon, outlined in red lightning, churning amidst the spires of the Castle in the Sky. She tore her gaze away to stare at Touga in horror.
"Now," he said, smiling smugly, "it's time for you to die."
Anne gathered her wits and her wrath, pulled herself together. Narrowing her eyes, she brought her bokuto back into ready position, and as she did, she heard Kaitlyn-sensei's words on her lips:
Touga darted forward, his lightsaber flashing forward in a lunge reminiscent of a fencer's thrust. Anne silently thanked Miki and flowed out of the way of the plasma blade, whipping her bokuto around in a slice for Touga's unproteced side.
He snapped his saber back in a backhanded cut, faster than she was expecting, and caught the wooden blade on his own. The plasma blade let out an electric scream as the force of her blow drove it into Touga's side and he gasped in pain and shock.
Anne smiled nastily and took the opportunity to smash her left fist into his bewildered expression, and she felt bone grind under her hand before he disengaged and pulled back a few steps. She had the satisfaction of seeing a blood-dark bruise begin to spread around his left eye.
"So your wooden sword can't be cut," he said thickly, leveling the lightsaber at her.
"Point for you," Anne growled softly, "two points for me."
A root from the castle - wait, that's right, the Castle's the roots of the World-Tree! - smacked into her shoulder, and Touga smirked as she yelped.
"Two points for me. You cannot block the branches and fight at the same time." He charged again, and Anne parried frantically as she saw another tree branch swoop from behind him and head straight for her face.
Dodging and weaving, she felt the lightsaber nip her on the shoulder and leave a burning track of pain behind it before she dropped to her knees and rolled sideways, beyond its reach. As she did so, she dropped her shields again; empathy was a poor substitute for precognition in a fight, but it was better than nothing and it had helped her against Saionji. She felt a wave of hatred, laced faintly with madness, reaching out from his mind toward her.
Rather than wait for him to grab more branches to throw at her, she surged back to her feet with a yell, took one lunging step toward him, and their weapons clashed together before he jerked back, tried a cut for her side which she parried; she counterthrust, sliding the bokuto along the lightsaber - it made a TERRIBLE noise - and lunged for his liver. He blocked, and came down in an overhand cut for her head, and then both of them jerked apart and another root, a good nine feet long, crashed down between them like a falling tree.
She felt another wave of hatred wash over her, for her, for the uniform she wore, for the fact that she wouldn't just lie down and let him win, for the fact that she was (barely) holding her own.
"You can't win," he growled as he deflected another branch to the ground just beyond her.
"Bite me!" she snarled back.
"If you give up now, I might make things easier for you," he said as he leapt over the root and brought his saber down in an overhand cut that she caught on her own weapon, perilously close to her hands. She struggled against his weight for a moment, then surged upward and brought her knee into his chest, driving the wind out of his lungs.
He recovered almost instantly, but it bought her enough time to make her own attack, trying to hit the hilt of the lightsaber in hopes of breaking it. "Not interested," she growled as he parried, gasping and glaring.
Another blow from that unseen force that he commanded knocked her backward, skidding across the pavement, giving him enough time to catch his breath.
Then he smirked. "What a pity," he mused, and his gaze flicking to something behind her gave her -just- enough warning to roll with the knotted, stringy root that smashed into her back. She barely avoided impaling herself on his readied lightsaber, but she took the fall hard and Tonerikoken skittered out of her hands and across the stones of the dueling floor.
He walked over and leveled the lightsaber at her throat as she tried to get up.
"You're beaten, baby. There's no way you can compete with me."
"Sure there is," she gasped. Narrowing her eyes, she telekinetically yanked Tonerikoken back into her hands, rolled over and swatted the lightsaber away, earning another burn on the collarbone as his eyes widened in amazement and he reacted picoseconds too late. He tried to lunge forward fast enough to impale her and failed.
"Sheer cussedness has outlasted you before!" she taunted.
That brought another surge of rage out of him, and his eyes went manic with hatred for a moment as he roared wordlessly, and slashed his lightsaber at where she'd been instants before, leaving gouges and scars in the dueling floor. She jumped backward, covering about ten feet, landed, and set herself against the charge she could almost see in his mind.
He dashed forward, locked blades with her, and -pushed-. Anne felt every muscle in her arms scream as she did her best to hold against him. His height gave him the high ground as he bore down on her, and her heels skidded backwards over the stones.
"This is over now," Touga sneered through the locked blades, his eyes lit from within by an insane glee. "You can't match me strength for strength. I'll take your blade, your body, your will, and then, when you finally beg me for it, I'll take your life, baby."
"Never call me 'baby'," Anne snarled, her eyes flashing with their own scarlet fire.
Suddenly Touga's face was in flames. Howling with unexpected anguish, he reeled, unlinking their weapons and staggering back.
Anne regained her balance, set her feet, and thrust her left hand out, palm open. TK slammed into him like a speeding brick wall, catapulting him back. His lightsaber spiraled away, clattering across the platform before fetching up hilt-first in one of the crenelations. He stumbled back against another one, barely caught himself before he began to fall. The fire had already gone out, and it hadn't really done him all that much harm; it just gave her the distraction and the instant she'd need. He stared at her with wide, furious eyes, shockingly white against the blackness of his scorched face.
Anne gave him no more time to recover; with a full-throated cry of "HYAKKEN - NO - ARASHI!" she launched herself at him like a sprinter from starting blocks.
The Storm of a Hundred Blades broke whatever concentration he might have mustered for himself. A dull wooden bokuto ordinarily does not cut anything, but the power of Anne's concentration wreathed Tonerikoken in flames and gave it an edge, and Touga found himself cut to scorched ribbons in a little less than the time it took him to inhale to scream.
And then it was over, and Anne was standing in front of him with her bokuto swung back in the preparatory position for an iaijitsu dueling cut.
"Sayonara, jackass," she snarled, then slammed the wooden blade across his torso. The blow bit deeply into his side before she jerked the bokuto out and slammed him backwards over the crenelation, nearly cut in twain.
He screamed his rage and hatred as he fell, and she watched impassively as the mists swallowed him and snuffed out his voice. Only then did she turn away to look up at the red-lightning wyrm ravaging the Castle.
There is an eagle on the topmost branch of the World-Tree, and a dragon that gnaws at its roots, she thought. A squirrel runs between them carrying rumors and abuse, for the eagle is a guardian and the dragon is a destroyer. The dragon cannot be slain, but with it there are a host of wyrms that are its spawn, so what's the dragon's name... ? Ah.
Nobody ever tells you you have to deal with a dragon that's legendary in its destructive powers -after- you beat the bad guy, she thought grimly. Gunnr, please help me remember the right words for this challenge!
<Spawn of Nidhoggr, stand forth and do battle!> she yelled as loud as she could, issuing the formal challenge that she had learned from Gunnr, that were the opening words in a ritual duel between two immortal beings. Anne wasn't an immortal being, but the wyrm ravaging the Castle certainly was, and it didn't seem terribly interested in leaving its current employment...
The wyrm turned away from the Castle, peering down at her. There was a long moment, and then it confirmed that Anne had, in fact, gotten the words right as it loosed its grip on the spires and dove at her, trailing sparks and the roaring sound of thunder.
Anne swallowed. Gods give me strength, she prayed, gripping her bokuto with suddenly sweaty hands.
The dragon belched lightning at her as dove, and she dodged a blast that singed the area she'd been standing in. Then it was swooping by and coiling up for another dive.
I never have a shotgun when I need one! Anne raged silently as she waited for it to come back down. Crap, I'm going to have to hit it as it goes by. The timing on this is going to be -
Her train of thought rapidly shifted tracks as the wyrm finished banking and dove at her again, spewing another gout of lightning at her as it came. She waited, then launched herself upwards, powering her leap kinetically, brought her bokuto slicing down through its neck with all her weight as it flowed beneath her like a snake of smoke and lightning. The ghostly wyrm shrieked in pain; the noise was like feedback in a guitar amp, and Anne misjudged her landing distance as the awful noise brought tears to her eyes.
Her right ankle let out a cracking noise, the sort that joints really shouldn't make, and shooting pain surged up her leg, making her gasp and struggle not to drop her weapon to clutch at the point of pain. When she was done concentrating on that, she tried to stand again, to get into stance, but her ankle collapsed beneath her. Kneeling, she looked up through teary eyes as the roaring wyrm finished banking midair and turned, coming at her like an oncoming train.
Anne shut her eyes and took a deep breath. There is no future. There is no past. There is only this moment, my opponent, the blade in my hands, and the fire in my heart.
She opened her eyes and waited, bokuto poised.
The wyrm belched smoke and fury at her, and lightning exploded around her. Her heart spasmed, her arms jerked as the electrical onslaught grounded itself out through her flesh and bone to the floor of the dueling arena. The acrid smell of singed hair inflicted itself upon her nostrils.
Then the smell of ozone hit her, overwhelmed the smell of burning flesh. She blinked once, her eyes going to burning, furious red as she ducked her shoulder, rolled, snapped the blazing Tonerikoken out to the left and caught the wyrm at the corner of its gaping maw.
The burning bokuto tore a gash along the entire length of its body as the serpent flowed by, shrieking in pain, and lightning poured out of the cut and electrified the whole area.
Anne held her pose as it finished its pass, surged skyward, gave a final scream, and then exploded altogether, raining a few more bits of the Castle down upon her head.
She stared out at the edge of the dueling arena, feeling sweat dripping down her nose and her heart quivering slightly in her chest as the aftereffects of being struck by lightning made her muscles twitch.
I think I would like to lie down now, she thought weakly, then lowered her quenched bokuto and crumpled slowly to the cool flagstones of the arena floor. Her burns ached for a second, but the world was starting to go grey and distant, so she didn't really notice.
Wow, she thought weakly, as the feeling of distance began to swallow her. I guess I won.
Then she heard a startled voice say something she couldn't quite make out, and the world went away entirely.
Saionji awoke to cool hands on his forehead, a throbbing headache centered just above his left ear, and a distinct ringing in his ears. He groaned, and the hands shifted to his shoulders and held him down.
"Don't move, Saionji," said a soft voice, and he opened his eyes. Mia Ausa's face swam into view in a double refraction of unconnected vision. "You have a concussion and a cracked skull. Who hit you? The Rose Knight?"
"Juniper," he groaned. Muzzily, he realized that if Mia was with him, he was probably back in Oriphos. That meant he had to guard his words... he wished he could think clearly.
Mia blinked, and then said in a sardonic, unsympathetic tone of voice, "You got hit by a shrub?" Her face - what he could make out of it around the rainbows haloing her - looked disgusted. The noise in his ears altered slightly. Was somebody else in the room? He couldn't pick out anything clearly. It was hard to think.
"No," he mumbled, "Kaitlyn's student. Did Touga - "
"Oh, her," Mia said. Then she snorted derisively and shook her head. "Touga didn't do any better against her than you did. Worse, in fact - I think Nanami got sent to scrape him off the ground and put the burned bits someplace he could regenerate. You just have a bruised brain." He heard her smirk. "What's it feel like to encounter something that your fancy sword can't cut?"
"If you fix my head," he rasped, "I'll tell you."
Mia eyed him with an expression he was pretty sure was disgust, and then she sighed.
"I suppose I'd better. Lord Akio's going to want to talk to you. Just remember you owe me, Saionji. And I will collect."
I'll remember, Mia, he thought silently as he heard her move around the room, and then the ringing in his ears got louder. When he could hear again, she was standing over him.
"Open your mouth," she said, sliding one arm under his shoulders to help him sit up a little. His stomach roiled, and he had to concentrate on not giving in to the nausea for a moment. Finally, he let her pour whatever it was down his throat.
It tasted like a potion he'd had several times. Though she was a talented sorceress and alchemist, Mia couldn't make this type herself - so now he owed her a healing too, along with everything else. His memory didn't feel particularly whole either, but he remembered what he owed her.
When Juniper woke up, the first thought that crossed her mind was, I should feel like a truck hit me... and I don't.
Cautiously, she opened her eyes, sat up, and looked around.
She was in an unfamiliar bed, with what looked like a bearskin for a comforter, in a completely unfamiliar room. The curtains were drawn across the room's single window - she could just make out daylight through them - and two doors. One stood open, and she could see a bathroom beyond it. The other was closed.
Pulling the covers back, she carefully ran her fingers over her right ankle; it was slightly stiff, with a few faded bruises over the bones. Cautiously, she put the foot she was sure she'd broken down on the ground, and tested putting weight on it.
When it didn't send shrieking orders to her brain that what she was doing was a bad idea, she made a bee-line for the bathroom.
As she attended to her morning ablutions, she began to wonder exactly where she was, who had tended her, and what was going to happen next. Half an hour later, with clean hair and clean teeth and feeling considerably more optimistic if no less bemused, she emerged from the bathroom swathed in a couple of towels.
"Good morning, Juni-chan," Kaitlyn said, turning away from the window where the curtains had been pulled back. "Feel better?"
Juniper blinked several times as she tried to pull her scattered thoughts together. Kaitlyn's here. That means, wherever I am, somebody knew who I was.
Hastily, she bowed. "Um, good morning, sensei... yes. Um."
Kaitlyn nodded at the room's sole chair. "Clothes. Then, report."
"Ah... " Anne finished pulling herself out of her mental fog. I guess questions wait until after I answer sensei's, she thought firmly, discarded her towel, and sorted through the unfamiliar black clothing. It was definitely tailored for someone with hips, but it certainly wasn't hers, and something about it seemed familiar. She couldn't quite place it.
When she'd finished belting the tunic on, she sat down on the bed and began teasing tangles out of her wet hair. While carefully unpicking the knots with her fingers, she gave Kaitlyn as thorough a synopsis of the previous day's events as she could, starting with being summoned from the brownstone.
For the first part of it, her sensei remained largely impassive, but when Juniper recounted Touga and Saionji's conversation before she had stepped in to break it up, Kaitlyn's eyes narrowed. Anne described the duel with Saionji, mentioned that he hadn't been wearing his Lens but left out that she knew where it was, and did her best to remain true to the rather surreal conversation she'd had with him throughout.
When she finished, Kaitlyn nodded and said, "Good," but didn't elucidate further.
Anne went on to recount the confrontation with Touga, the unleashing of the spectral dragon upon the Castle, and the subsequent duel and defeat of the erstwhile President of the Student Council. Then she waited while Kaitlyn digested the fact that her younger apprentice was claiming to have used the Hyakken no Arashi in combat.
"What is it about Cephiro and my apprentices?" Kaitlyn mused. "That's where Kyouichi-kun first used it too." She shook her head. "Well done. What did you do about the dragon?"
"Well, Gunnr told me how to initiate a formal duel in Asgard, so I tried that. It worked - " (here Anne rubbed at her scalp gently; she'd lost a lot of frizzy hair in the shower) " - and that's where I got most of my beating - it kept spitting lightning at me, and since I didn't have my pistol, I couldn't just shoot it. You didn't bring that with you, did you?" she asked hopefully.
Kaitlyn smiled and shook her head. "I'll send someone to get it. Go on."
"Um..." Anne digested this, then mentally shrugged. "I did a jump-attack against it as it came down for another pass, landed badly, and broke my ankle. Or thought I did. I couldn't stand up, anyway. So I set and waited for it to come down - it blasted me again - and I caught it in the corner of the mouth and tore its side open.
"Then it exploded, and about then I decided it was probably about the right time to take a nap. I guess that's when Master Clef found me - or was it Kanae?"
Her sensei smiled again, a little enigmatically, and said, "No. Balder Goldenlight and Frey Lightwalker found you. They are probably going to ask you the same questions I am. Frey wasn't sure what to make of you, but Balder recognized your bokuto, so he sent someone to get Anthy. I came instead."
Anne stared at her teacher, utterly without words.
Kaitlyn chuckled softly and said, "Pull yourself together, Juni-chan. You didn't think anything could make that much noise in the roots of the World-Tree and not get noticed, did you?"
Mutely, Anne shook her head, then nodded, then put her face in her hands and took a couple of deep, slow breaths. When she finally got the charging train wreck of her thoughts under control, she said,
"I... hadn't really thought about it."
"That's all right, you didn't have much time to. I expect the Valkyrie have told Balder you're awake, though, so we should get some breakfast before Frey comes and demands to know what happened."
Anne was still trying to work through the muddle of having been found by a couple of gods on the dueling platform, but she recognized the general good sense that was being proposed to her.
"Talking to the gods on an empty stomach...is probably a bad idea, yeah." Then she frowned, realizing Frey had been named; Frey, who had arranged for the emergency last summer that recalled Gunnr - she looked around. "Where did they put my bokuto?"
That made Kaitlyn nod approvingly. "Good instincts, Juni-chan. I don't know. But I suspect they'll be quick to give it back after you tell them what happened. You've done them a service."
Juniper narrowed her eyes at that, and was about to reply when Corwin poked his head around the door. "Aeryn said you were awake - want breakfast?"
Kaitlyn nodded. "I'd just suggested it," she said. She dug around in the closet for a few seconds and came up with a couple of fur-lined jackets, one of which she handed to Anne; then, gesturing for the girl to precede her, she shepherded her student out of the building and out into the city beyond the window.
The weather was chilly but not bone-achingly cold, and though there was snow along the edges of some of the roofs, it had been cleared from the streets. These were paved in blue-black brick and had curbs of gold-shot marble. They held relatively few cars; most of the traffic was on foot, on the wide sidewalks flanking the broad boulevards. And in that traffic were represented a number of different races, many of them human-looking to Anne's eyes, and some of them not.
During her two years on the run, Anne had been exposed to huge numbers of non-human races, many of them with an axe to grind and a chip on their shoulder about humans. She'd seen people dressed in all different kinds of clothing, buildings of the prefab variety or the ones that were constructed over the course of generations and that evolved into something completely different from what they'd originally been.
She'd never been anyplace that -felt- like this, however. Most of the people on the street radiated a sense of good cheer that she could almost taste. They seemed to come from all walks of life, from any point in history that she could think of, and yet they passed each other without a second glance, aside from the occasional nod of greeting. The courtesy even extended beyond racial boundaries, and nobody seemed to give it a second thought.
It was astonishing enough that she almost forgot that Kaitlyn had said she'd been found unconscious by two deities. Almost.
But between that revelation, the weirdly courteous way people were behaving, and the ongoing deja vu that kept assaulting her, Corwin had to steer her through the crowds on what amounted to autopilot. Kaitlyn said nothing, just took in the sights with a private smile that grew a little wider every time she looked at her bemused apprentice.
They arrived at the base of a rather tall tower, with an amusing wooden placard of a round plate with a stack of pancakes on it hanging over the entrance, and Corwin shepherded his sister and her apprentice inside.
The hostess waiting just inside gave Corwin a cheery smile. (She was wearing what looked like a French peasant's outfit from a storybook, Anne noted distractedly.)
"Good morning, Lord Corwin," she said. "We haven't seen you in a while. Been enjoying your breakfasts elsewhere?"
"What can I say, Elise," he answered cheerfully. "I'll be a married man soon - I don't get out as much as I used to. Hey, is there a table on the balcony free? This is Anne's first trip to the Golden City."
The girl dimpled at Corwin and said, "For you? Of course."
She led them up several flights of stairs to an open-air balcony with several tables on it. Despite being open to the sky, the balcony wasn't cold, something Anne wasn't in a frame of mind to give really deep consideration just now. The table closest to the golden railing at the balcony's edge didn't have anybody sitting at it, just a selection of syrupy plates and dirty silverware that their hostess cleared off quickly.
She put the menus down on the table, dimpled at Corwin again, and said, "Katriana will be up to take your order in a moment, my lord."
As she was saying this, Anne walked, half-aware that she was doing so, to the railing and stared out at a view of a spectacularly beautiful city.
The feeling of deja vu got stronger as she stared out; it was not New Avalon, though the buildings reached for the cerulean sky in a similar vaulting, soaring manner. They were mostly of a different style, and the city before her was older - IMMENSELY older - than New Avalon. She could feel that looking at it, with its golden and silver spires and its sea of lower, blue-tile-roofed buildings surrounding the bases of the towers. It almost felt as if New Avalon was an echo of this city - an imperfect copy.
The building in the center of all this was a vast and gleaming edifice that seemed to have been cast in a single gigantic piece out of gold, part fairy-tale castle, part Art Deco skyscraper, with a brilliant beam of pure white light arrowing up into the sky from its tallest spire.
Anne leaned against the rail, so overwhelmed by the view that she didn't even notice it appeared to be made of wrought gold, her eyes wide. Suddenly, a movement caught her eye; a shape, dark green against the brilliant blue of the sky, arced past that beam of light, circling around it with an almost whimsical air before winging over and going on its way uptown. Now that she noticed it, Anne realized that there were several flying objects going this way and that above the city. A couple were dirigibles, but the others... Anne drew in a breath as she realized what they were.
It was a city out of time, with echoes of a million storybook places, and it had dragons plying the skies above it.
The shadow of a fluffy white cloud crawled across the rooftops below, and as it passed away from one long, low building, a blaze of yellow-white light dazzled her. The hall, whatever it was, had a roof made of gold.
That was the last piece, and as it clicked into place, Anne realized with a flash of insight why she knew this city.
After looking at the city until she thought her brain would burst if she tried to dredge one more detail out of her long-dusty memories and compare it with what lay before her, Anne turned to Corwin and Kaitlyn with the wonder still written large on her face. They were sitting back in the wrought iron chairs of the little cafe table, with several plates of pancakes set out in front of them. Both of them were smiling.
"Like it?" Corwin asked.
"It's incredible," she breathed. "I never thought... " She paused, collecting her thoughts, then stepped nearer so that what she had to say next would only be for his ears. "As a little girl I -dreamed- of this city, but I never thought it was real."
Corwin's smile deepened, taking on an air of satisfaction, as if she'd just told him something that confirmed a suspicion he'd had.
"That's a phenomenon that's gotten rarer and rarer over the last few centuries," he told her. "As Midgard gets more and more technological, and in many ways less and less spiritual, the number of children who dream of this place dwindles... but they never quite stop coming. All the true children of magic dream of this city, Anne."
"But I'm not dreaming this time," she said, and Corwin shook his head, grinning. "Where are we?" Anne asked, but in her heart, she already knew the answer - had known it since Corwin had smiled knowingly at her wonder.
"Heaven," Corwin replied, gesturing grandly to the vista before them. "Welcome to Asgard!"
"The pancakes are going cold," Kaitlyn observed cheerfully.
That broke the mood, and Anne laughed for the first time that morning and sat down to have breakfast. They weren't quite as good as Utena's blueberry pancakes, but as she finished off her plate of them, she decided that they would definitely do.
Touga Kiryuu, late Student Council President of Ohtori Academy and an exceedingly minor figure in the infernal circles of Muspelheim, was having a very bad day. Since his translation from damned soul to minor demon, having his fleshly form killed outside the Pit wasn't exactly a season-ending injury, but it was painful all the same, and the manner in which it had happened this time had been humiliating. Especially when he came to to see Nanami sitting watch over him with a book and that infuriating little sardonic smile of hers. She'd asked him if he'd enjoyed being street pizza, and had he found any cute girls to seduce while he'd been back in Cephiro?
He'd been annoyed when he woke up. That simple little phrase had sent him straight into the "boiling with rage" category; the only satisfaction he'd had yet today was the frantic way the younger students were getting out of his way as he strode down a black marble corridor, turned a corner, and slammed a tall pair of double doors open on his way into the room beyond.
That room proved to be an office, its high, vaulted ceiling invisible in the gloom above, with peaked stained glass windows providing a pleasant view of the courtyard of the new Ohtori Institute. Bookshelves lined the walls, except for the place along one side where a giant map of Cephiro hung in a heavy carved-wood frame. In front of the windows bulked the squat shape of a wide, heavy black desk, behind which was the high back of a leather chair, its occupant having turned to look out the windows.
"You failed," said a matter-of-fact voice from that chair.
"No thanks to you," Touga snarled. "You told me the Trinity was otherwise occupied. You told me that they wouldn't be able to thwart me."
The chair swiveled slowly around, and Akio Ohtori regarded Touga with a calmly disdainful look.
"And they didn't," he said dismissively.
"You told me the Platform would be undefended if I could penetrate the Forest," Touga went on angrily. Behind him, Nanami trotted into the room, having had to run to catch up to her brother's furious strides.
"Indeed?" asked Akio with a tone of very mild interest.
Touga slammed his hand down on the desk and roared, "Again you lied to me!"
Akio looked up at his angry underling, hooded his eyes, and murmured, "Again you believed me. Which of us does that make the fool?"
Touga stared down at him, face almost flushed enough to blend away his scarlet marks, and could not reply. After a moment, Akio sighed as if bored.
"I can see there I will get nothing useful out of you today either - not even information. Nanami," he added to the blonde. "Your brother is in a temper. Find someone for him to work it off with."
Nanami looked equally bored. "With pleasure, Lord Akio," she said in a truly perfunctory tone of voice, and, taking Touga's arm, pulled him insistently from the room.
Akio watched them go, then smiled softly to himself, and turned back to regard the courtyard again. He hadn't truly expected the attack on the Castle to work; it was another feint, to see what resources the Rose Knight and her followers could bring to bear, and to set them off balance again. This time it had brought a new player to light.
Good. He would have to learn about this girl. He got up from his desk and went in search of Kyouichi Saionji.
After breakfast, Kaitlyn headed back to Midgard to tell Utena and Anthy what had happened, and Corwin left Anne in a conference room while he went to make some calls. While he was out, Anne's subconscious managed to get herself worked into a state of nervous anticipation. Thoughts of who she was going to meet combined with the knowledge of where she was combined to play havoc on her muddled teenaged self-consciousness and the general feelings of inadequacy that occasionally cropped up when she found herself compared to Utena, Kaitlyn or any number of other female heroes she'd met from time to time.
Corwin returned briefly to ask if she wanted a cup of coffee; he gave her a sympathetic smile when she declined, knowing the caffeine would just make her jumpier than ever. As he left, she folded herself up cross-legged on one of the conference room chairs and started concentrating on her breathing.
The meditation exercises that had been her first introduction to the Katsujinkenryuu were old friends by now, and helped her put in perspective the weirdnesses of the past 24 hours. When a hand touched her arm and she opened her eyes, she didn't feel like she was about to vibrate to pieces anymore.
"You OK?" Corwin asked.
Anne nodded mutely and looked across the table to see two men, one with pointy ears and a serious mien to his expression, and the other with burnished blond hair and an air about him that made the part of her that had fallen in love with the forest behind 1140 Wildwood Road purr contentedly. Slung across the back of the blond man's chair was Tonerikoken.
"Well, Miss Cross," said the man with pointy ears. "I'm Frey Lightwalker. One of my duties is the defense of Asgard against the forces of the Pit. Given where we found you and who you associate with," he glanced at Corwin and gave him a little half-nod, "it seems unlikely that you were responsible for the destruction we discovered yesterday in the roots of the World-Tree. In fact, Corwin suspects that you're part of the reason the damage was as localized as it was."
"I'm here because my duties include the defense of the World-Tree," the other said. He paused, then smiled at her, and Anne felt a little knot of tension unclench between her shoulders. "We haven't been introduced - I'm Balder Goldenlight, Anne. Please tell us what happened to you yesterday," he asked. Then he added with a smile, "And for the sake of Frey's duties, don't leave anything out."
Anne nodded soberly, nibbled on her lip, and began with her arrival on the Tenjou Academy belltower.
"... and it exploded. And my adrenaline crashed," she finished, "and I decided that it was probably about the right time to lie down." She fidgeted with the end of her braid. "I remember hearing somebody say something just before I fell over, though."
Balder smiled cheerfully. "Arriving on the scene just as you fell over was rather startling," he agreed. "We were expecting to arrive in the middle of a fight, not after it, given the amount of noise that was coming up through the roots."
"The svartelves didn't even object to us coming through," Frey added, sounding darkly amused. "They're one of the few groups in Creation who don't like you, Balder, and all they said was 'Be our guest' when we told them we were coming through."
"Dark elves don't much care for the light of the Sun," Balder agreed. "Well, now we know what happened. The question is, how did that demon manage to empower one of the spawn of Nidhoggr sufficiently to allow it to do so much damage to the roots of the World-Tree in so short a time?"
"So, it normally wouldn't be able to cause that much havoc?" Anne asked, certain enough now that nobody was angry at her to actually ask questions.
Balder shook his head. "One of the signs of the Ragnarok - in addition to my death," (here he looked rueful) " - is Nidhoggr finally chewing through the roots of the Tree and killing it. But while its spawn do some small amount of damage to the Tree, their destruction manifests as a more dispersed form of entropy. Mold and rot, or smaller parasites that chew on the roots."
"All the stuff that any normal gardener would spray for," Anne said, then blinked. "Is that what the myths mean when they say the Norns sprinkle the water from the Well on the tree? They're spraying for bugs?"
Balder looked amused. "That's an interpretation that I hadn't heard before," he said, grinning. "I will have to tell Belldandy that one, I suspect it will amuse her."
"But somehow, that demon found a way to make that particular Spawn nearly as powerful as Nidhoggr itself," Frey said grimly. "That is not good."
Corwin shook his head. "Touga's not smart enough to pull something like that off on his own," he said. "One will get you ten that Akio Ohtori is really behind this. You know he was raised by Surtur as a demon, and he was a fairly potent mage before his death. Between his connection with Cephiro and the fact that he's now highly ranked in Muspelheim, he's probably got the access he needs to the records of all the demons' encounters with Nidhoggr and the magical knowledge he needs to make its spawn just as deadly as the primal wyrm."
"Unfortunately, my agents in the Pit haven't been able to tell me much about what Ohtori's doing." Frey's expression was sour with disgust. "He's vanished from the demonic social scene, so to speak, since he took the worst of his clash with the Midgard-Knight. We assume he's secluded himself in one of the farther reaches; I haven't been able to get anyone into his demesne. The only real information I have comes from you and your father, Corwin, and that's weeks old at this point. It's not enough to plan a defense with."
Anne nibbled on her lip. "Corwin? Have you asked Master Clef if he found Saionji in the Forest?"
"No such luck," Corwin said, shaking his head. "While you were sleeping, I asked Clef to tell me what he did know, and there wasn't anything foreign left in the Forest of Secrets once you'd dealt with the wyrm. There wasn't even a trace of the spell that made the trees sick. So either he got up and left under his own power, or something from the Pit came and retrieved him."
"Then, if Saionji... is down there with Touga," she said slowly, "when he gets out, he may know what they're doing."
There was a pause, and then Frey said dubiously, "Do you think we can trust him?"
Anne nodded without hesitation, feeling heartened by the 'we' in Frey's statement. "He left me that opening deliberately. He didn't want to win - he wanted me to stop Touga. But he couldn't just let me by. I could feel his frustration every time I missed an opening. Whatever he's doing down there, it's not actually helping Akio."
Corwin sighed. "I wish he'd told someone what the hell he was trying to do."
"Ah, that answers that question, then," Frey sighed. "So nobody knows when - or really if - he's planning on coming out."
"Not unless he told Kaitlyn," Corwin said. "Wakaba's been grousing about him not being around since just after New Year's."
Anne shook her head. "Sensei wasn't too pleased to hear where he'd gone when I told her this morning."
"We can't afford to wait for him, then." Frey sat back, apparently thinking. "Corwin, if you can think of anyone you want to help analyze the container Touga opened on the platform, let me know. I'm going to put together a team to go over that and look through the records in the Library to see if there are any clues there. And I'll step up my efforts to get someone into Ohtori's organization."
Corwin nodded. "I'll think about it and get back to you."
"In the meantime, it sounds like I'm going to have to revive the Order of the Ash Knight," Balder said, sounding more bemused than anything else.
"I haven't heard of that one," Corwin said.
Balder chuckled. "Not surprising, given that the World-Engine has superseded much of what the World-Tree once stood for. The Ash Knights are defenders of the World-Tree, rather than of the Engine itself. Rather more mystical than is common in Asgard today. Your mother's a member."
"Mom's a member of everything." Corwin rolled his eyes.
"No doubt," Frey said, sounding like a man who wanted badly to get out of a meeting and on with his life. "Corwin, you'll secure the access to your dueling platform? I'd like to avoid a repeat performance - next time, your mage may not be able to get competent help so quickly."
"I'll see to it," Corwin agreed. "I'm not sure -how-, but I'll figure something out."
Frey looked back at Anne. "Thank you for your prompt action, Miss Cross." He pushed the notes he'd taken together in front of him, flipped the folder closed. "You stopped cold what could have otherwise been a very demoralizing situation for Asgard, and have thwarted the agents of Muspelheim." He paused, looked at Balder and Corwin, and an odd sort of half-smile played across his face. "I'm sure Corwin can think of a more appropriate reward than I can - so I will leave you with my thanks and will make the best use I can of what you've told me."
With that rather odd statement, he left the room, and left Anne looking puzzled. Corwin took one look at her face and smothered a laugh.
"... that is the guy who yanked you and Gunnr back here last summer, isn't it?" she asked finally.
"He's gotten better since then," Corwin said, still sounding amused.
Balder smiled. "He's not used to having to say 'Thank you' to mortals, Anne," he said, shifting his weight and taking Tonerikoken off the back of the chair he was in. "I suspect he thinks that his needing to say thank you is an indication that he's done his job poorly."
"I... guess I can see that," Anne said pensively.
"You, however, have earned the right to carry a weapon of Yggdrasil," Balder said, offering the bokuto out to her with both hands. "Though it may have been a gift, you've more than repaid the trust in your potential. I'm glad that Lady Anthy asked me for this last summer."
Anne blushed, feeling both pleased and slightly embarrassed at the same time, but she reclaimed her bokuto and slung it back in its accustomed place over her shoulder.
Corwin saw her shoulders relax after a moment and grinned. "Feel better?"
She gave him a crooked smile. "I...yeah. I don't much like being unarmed anymore."
"Mm," he agreed. "I can see that. If you'll excuse us, Balder, Kaitlyn did ask me to see that something got done about that particular problem."
The sun god smiled and gestured to the door, as Anne blinked at Corwin.
"Um, what... ?"
"C'mon," Corwin said with a conspiratorial grin.
"So what is with him anyway?" Anne asked once they were outside. "First thing he's a total freak and hauls you home, and now he's thanking me for fighting off demons and isn't even looking down his nose at me. Is it just 'cause I'm not dating you or something?"
Corwin gave a slightly dark chuckle. "It's a little more complicated than that, but you're closer than you probably think."
Anne looked mildly confused. "I was dating Gunnr, though. Should I be offended for her or not?"
"Hnh? Oh. No, I doubt that even crossed his mind," Corwin said. "You guys were just caught in the middle. That whole thing with the recall was aimed at a very specific target by someone with an axe to grind; what I didn't realize at the time was that that someone wasn't actually Frey."
That just made Anne more confused.
"Ooo... kay," she said after a few moments. "I take it you were the target, at least - have I mentioned I really, really hate politics? Politics are evil."
"This was only political in the loosest sense, and no, actually, I wasn't the target. At least not the main one." Corwin ran a hand over his disordered black hair, then sighed. "Maybe I should start over. See, Frey did call for the alert - that's his prerogative, as god of security - but it wasn't his idea. It was his sister's."
"OK, that would be... Freyja, right? I don't know much about her, except she's supposed to be in charge of the Warriors' Hall with Odin."
"She is, yeah. Her ceremonial title is Queen of the Vanir, though that doesn't mean a lot nowadays. She's also goddess of medicine, in charge of medical affairs in the capital. It's her power that raises the dead and heals the wounded of Valhalla after each day's fighting." He paused, thinking over how to say what came next. "I've known her all my life, and she's generally a decent, compassionate person, but she's got... problems."
"Dare I ask what kind of problems?"
"How familiar are you with Norse mythology? They didn't get everything right, but it's as good a starting point as any."
Anne considered this. "Um... I've been studying some of it, but I've been taking it with a really healthy grain of salt. If nothing else, your Mom and Aunt Bell kind of, well... don't exactly match the stories. At least not that I've seen."
"They have... dimensions you haven't seen. But you're right, there's a lot of stuff that's wrong." Corwin chuckled. "I mean, it'd take a pretty warped imagination to take Aunt Urd for a crone. But anyway... one of the places Freyja turns up is the story of an, um... unpleasant incident involving a necklace."
"I think I remember a little bit of that - she saw it and wanted it and then traded it for... something? Or it got stolen? I couldn't find any really good sources on Norse Mythology on a quick search of the library - just kids stuff that had the details taken out of it so I didn't study it too hard."
"Mm. Suppose it's not surprising that it got edited. The usual version is that she came upon four Nidavellim - underdwarves - working on a necklace one day, was overcome by wanton greed, and bought it from them for the price of a night with each of them."
Anne blinked. "... oh. Yeah, that would definitely, um... that's a pretty astonishing load of greed there. Didn't she realize how painful that was likely to be?"
Corwin shook his head, looking grim. "I said that's the usual version. What the usual version leaves out is that those four dwarves didn't just happen to be there, they were waiting for her, and the necklace was bewitched by a svartelven wizard. The whole thing was a setup."
Anne's face darkened. "Oh, that's not good. She must have some awful post-traumatic stress problems. Was there anybody in Asgard to help her get over it, or has she been walking wounded ever since?"
"She tried to keep it a secret, but Loki found out about it and told her husband, Odur - only he left out the same part the sagas leave out. Odur couldn't take it. He resigned his post as god of the sun and left town the very next day. Nobody's seen him since. Freyja spent a long time looking for him, but eventually she gave up and came home. Most people don't know why Odur left her, only that it has something to do with the necklace she always wears."
"Gah," Anne said. "She should've told him - keeping stuff secret like that always comes back to bite you on the ass later. Better to get it out in the open and done with. But what has this got to do with her asking Frey to haul you back to Asgard?"
"Well... see, when Odur left her, Freyja was still convinced that she had, incomprehensible as it was, agreed to pay the dwarves' price for their necklace. She didn't find out about what had really happened until some time later, when Odin learned it and told her." He shrugged. "Grand-dad was probably trying to help, but all it really did by that point, with all the damage done, was convert some of her self-loathing into a complete and irrational hatred of svartelves. All svartelves."
Anne gave him a look of dawning horror. "Anthy. She was trying to hurt Anthy? Gods... I hope nobody ever tells Utena that one."
"Well, not -just- that," Corwin said. "See, it started when she learned about... you know, Anthy and me, last June. She thought that by calling me back to Asgard and sealing the borders, she would hurt Anthy and everyone who associates with her - everyone who doesn't hate her as much as Freyja does - but... in a weird way, Freyja also thought she was helping me."
"Because you were falling under some evil svartelven witch's spell? I suppose, if I put myself in an awful racist mindset, I could see the logic in it. I guess." Anne shook herself. "Damn."
Corwin rubbed at the back of his neck. "Something like that. She thought she could save me from making her 'mistakes'. Mind you, I didn't know any of that until November."
"How did you find out?" Anne asked.
"She told me," Corwin replied with a shrug. "When Utena and Anthy got into that jam on the Klingon homeworld, I pressed Frey to reduce the alert and let me go help them. He refused. We had... words."
Anne chuckled darkly. "I'll bet."
"Afterward, I went home to figure out some way of sneaking out, since he wasn't going to let me go, and Freyja stopped by. It was... weird."
Anne gave him a curious look. "How weird?"
Corwin considered not answering the door - how could a person be expected to do any decent scheming with company calling? - but manners and curiosity won out. It might be Frey coming to announce that he'd reconsidered, though Corwin tended to doubt it.
That was, indeed, not the case, though he hadn't been too far wrong in guessing who it might be, anyway. The caller revealed when he opened his apartment door was Freyja Lightwalker. As always, she looked calm and restrained, her long platinum-blonde hair drawn back just so, the intricate golden filigree of her famous necklace, Brisingamen, nestled just below the hollow of her throat.
Corwin, slightly surprised to see her there, mustered a cordial nod. "Lady Freyja."
Freyja stepped inside, forcing him to step back to avoid being collided with, and shut the door behind her. Her eyes were as cool as the rest of her, but there was a hint of a spark behind them as she said,
"You were quite harsh with my brother today. I don't appreciate people treating him that way."
Corwin gave her an irritated look. "Well, I don't appreciate him interfering with my life just to advance whatever paranoid agenda he has. There's no need for a damn Class A alert in Asgard. It's ridiculous. He's doing it to pin me here - just to spite me for opening Cephiro."
Freyja smiled slightly. "You really believe that, don't you?" she said.
"Do you have a more plausible explanation?" Corwin shot back. "That song-and-dance routine he keeps giving the rest of the Æsir Council about securing Asgard's borders during the crisis in Midgard is bull, and everybody knows it. They just don't want to embarrass him publicly by calling him on it. You're his sister - what the hell's his problem? I never would have believed that he could be so petty."
She shook her head. "He's not," she said. "Truth be known, he doesn't believe in the reasons he puts forward for the alert either." She took a step closer. "He never has."
"Well then what the hell - " Corwin began, and Freyja leaned close to him, surprising him enough that he didn't finish the question.
"He did it as a favor to me," Freyja said quietly, and then, to Corwin's considerable shock, she kissed him.
So startled was he, in fact, that he made no appreciable response for several busy seconds. Not until he felt a draft and realized she had unbuttoned his shirt while working on him did he snap out of his shocked reverie, put up a hand -
- and shove her away, a little more roughly than he really needed to.
"Hold it, HOLD it," he said. He wiped his mouth on the back of a sleeve, shook his head, and then demanded, "What the hell, Freyja."
"I would have thought that was obvious," Freyja replied. Her eyes were smoldering now, but there was something in their light that made Corwin uneasy. This whole situation made him uneasy. He regarded her skeptically.
"You've never given Indication One that you've been interested in me my entire life - and Grand-dad knows, some of the other ladies around here have never been bashful about it - and all of a sudden you're stopping by for a snog?"
She took another step toward him. "Is that so hard to believe? Half the women in Asgard and Vanaheim would trade much for the opportunity."
Corwin snorted. "Half the women in Asgard and Vanaheim aren't members of the Æsir Council," he said sardonically. Then, sobering a bit, he added, "Besides, I'm... not interested."
"Why not?" Freyja asked. "Why are you so determined to return to Midgard, Corwin? You've nothing to go back to, not really."
Corwin scowled. Freyja gave a mirthless chuckle. "You think I don't know? Everyone knows. Many of us would help you mend your broken heart if you only gave us a chance - but instead you insist on always returning to she who broke it."
Corwin folded his arms. "That's my business," he said.
Freyja's eyes flashed more openly now. "Damn you, boy - why does it have to be them? You could have any of the Valkyrie. Hells, you could have all the Valkyrie. Two for each day of the week and three on Saturday and Sunday."
Corwin wanted to laugh at her phrasing, but he couldn't. The whole situation was too... weird.
It didn't get any less so when Freyja started unfastening her tunic and added in a lower, softer voice, "You could even have me."
He took a step toward her then, reached for her - and, to her obvious dismay, refastened the shoulder tab she'd opened.
"I think you should leave," he said.
Freyja glared at him for a second, then stepped back and shook her head.
"Fine," she said. "I tried the carrot, now the stick. Corwin, I will not permit you to carry on your... dalliance... with the witch. Bad enough you've gotten a child on her."
Corwin's face went still, his eyes very cold.
"... That's what this is about?" he said when he could trust himself to speak. "You disrupted the lives of thousands over that? It's not even your concern."
"It is my concern!" Freyja snapped. "I won't have one of the Æsir lowering himself in such a manner. Better for you to consort with mortals than carry on with a black-elf witch and her thrall."
"Speak... carefully, Freyja," said Corwin slowly, his voice low. "My patience is not infinite."
(Wow, some part of him thought. When I get pissed off in Asgard, I talk like Amanda Dessler.)
Freyja smiled, the venomous fury erased from her visage in an instant and replaced with the sunny friendliness of a gentle goddess.
"It's very simple, young Ravenhair," she said. "Forsake the witch - swear you'll never speak to her again - or I'll see to it that you never leave the Golden City. Agree to these terms and you'll at least see your mortal family again... " Her smile became warmer, more intimate. "... and we've already spoken briefly of the other rewards that might be yours. What say you, Enginewatcher?"
Corwin's brand flickered, glowing from within with the force of his restrained anger.
"Get out," he said, his voice hoarse.
Freyja's smile vanished. "Why must you be so stubborn?" she said. "Just like your mother. It's a simple thing I ask of you. She's not even really your lover, and her consort never can be. One would think you might have learned to live with that by now."
Corwin didn't rise to the bait a second time. He almost did, but then something in her eyes caught his attention and distracted him from his own fury.
"Why?" he asked.
Freyja blinked. "What?"
"Why are you doing this?" Corwin asked. "What did Anthy ever do to you?"
Freyja's expression was pure scorn. "She's a night-elf. They don't belong here. They can't be trusted." Leaning toward him, her eyes intense, she hissed, "Decent people do not consort with them."
Corwin looked back at her, his anger mostly replaced by an uncomprehending compassion.
"... what happened to you?" he asked softly.
Freyja looked rattled. "Nothing," she said, too hastily.
Corwin's expression made it clear he didn't believe her.
"'Nothing' doesn't leave attitudes like that behind."
"Don't presume to look into me, machine lord," Freyja said coldly. "I'm not one of your clockwork contraptions, to be mulled over and adjusted. Swear what I require and you may go."
Corwin shook his head. "Never."
"Then you will never leave the city," Freyja said flatly.
The young Æs cracked a tiny, dark smile.
"Try and stop me."
Freyja narrowed her eyes.
"If you insist."
Frey walked purposefully down the corridor of Corwin's apartment building, intent on discussing the afternoon's events further with the younger god. Perhaps now that they'd both had time to cool off a little bit, they could talk the matter over reasonably.
He meant to knock, but the door was ajar, and his blow swung it open to reveal Corwin and, of all people, Freyja in his kitchen, looking for all the world like they were squaring off for battle.
"Freyja! What are you doing?!" Frey demanded.
Freyja turned, saw him, and said in an entreating tone, "Tell him, my brother! Tell him he'll never leave Asgard if he doesn't do as I say."
The God of Security blinked, entirely baffled. "... What?!"
Without taking his eyes off Freyja, Corwin said, "Frey, you'd better get your sister home before someone gets hurt. I don't know what's the matter with her, but she shouldn't be roaming around loose."
Frey scowled. "Mind your tongue, youngster. I'll be back to discuss this with you." Then, approaching his sister, he put a hand on her shoulder and said in a gentler voice, "Come, Freyja. You need rest."
"No!" Freyja protested, her voice becoming shrill. "He has to promise! He has to swear - "
A moment later the two were gone, vanishing in a ripple of silvery light.
Corwin stood where he was for a moment, then let Stick disappear and slumped with the release of tension.
"... beer," he said after a few moments, then turned to his fridge and rummaged within it.
Frey returned a few minutes later, looking subdued and embarrassed, and found Corwin on his living room sofa.
"I'm... sorry you had to see that," he said. "May I sit?"
Corwin waved him to the corner armchair, then surprised him by sliding a bottle of Newcastle Brown across the coffee table to him once he was seated.
"What's her problem?" he asked.
Frey hesitated. "It's... personal," he said.
"Frey," Corwin said, fixing him with a level gaze, "I just learned that she had you recall everyone and seal the borders of Asgard specifically to mess with my life." With quiet vehemence, he added, "I think I deserve to know what the fucking motivation was."
Frey regarded the young Æs for a few moments, then took a pull of his beer, sighed heavily, and sat back in the chair.
"All right," he said. "I'll tell you."
So he did.
Corwin absorbed the information silently, thoughtfully. He knew parts of it already - they were common lore - but the details he hadn't known changed the entire picture.
"That's terrible," he said. "I'm sorry for her - but it doesn't excuse her behavior. Or yours. You've blatantly misused your authority, Frey. Surely you see that."
Frey released another heavy sigh.
"I do," he admitted. "But... for my sister's peace of mind... I thought it would be a passing fancy. I misjudged the depth of her hatred."
Corwin regarded him, not unsympathetically, for a few moments.
Then he said, "Now what?"
Frey regarded the edge of the coffee table glumly for a moment, took another drink, and then met Corwin's eyes.
"Now I must ask of you a favor."
Corwin's expression replied, "I'm listening."
"I can reverse the alert; at this point there seems little reason not to... but I ask you to give me time. If what I've done is exposed, I'll be relieved of my place on the Council. I don't ask for myself," he added, holding up a hand, "but because my responsibilities would fall on Heimdall's shoulders, and he already carries burden enough."
"That still might be better than leaving you in charge, if you're so easily convinced to abuse your power," Corwin observed.
Frey looked mildly, but only mildly, offended. "I am a faithful steward, Corwin. You know that's true. What I've done was wrong, yes, but - I made an error of judgment for love of my sister. Surely that's something a man like you can relate to."
Corwin disliked his presumption, but had to acknowledge that he was right.
"How much time?" he asked.
"First I'll need to calm Freyja down, make her see that it's for the best, that the charade can't be continued indefinitely," Frey said. "I think your own remarks made her see that what she did, what she had me do for her, was wrong - that's why she became so angry. It'll take me some time, but I think I can make her peaceful again. After that, I'll need to coordinate the lifting of the alert so that it doesn't appear as if I'm simply dropping the matter without cause. After all the defense of the measure I've done to the rest of the Council, that would seem... strange."
Corwin nodded pensively. "How much time?" he repeated.
"I think I can have everything arranged so that you can return home in time for the New Year," Frey said.
Corwin came out of his seat. "The New Year?! Frey, people I love are in danger right now."
"I know," Frey said, "but the law is the law. Even if I were to drop the whole matter right now, it would take several days for all the mechanisms of a Class A alert to unwind themselves. Such is the way the Æsir Council has structured the law."
"Then I'll - " Corwin began, but Frey cut him off.
"As an Æs," he said in a slow, thoughtful voice, "your first duty is to the Council... but as a man, your first duty is to your family." Frey shook his head. "I won't be the one to force any man to make such a choice. I'll let you go. I'll even compound my crimes and help you go... but it will have to be discreet."
Anne looked completely dumbfounded.
"... Frey let you... he helped you... " Then she put everything together and her eyes lit up. "You were the guy Sgt. Barlow saw?! The one who took apart the engine thingy and winked at her??"
Corwin smiled. "A little judicious scrying showed that Utena and Anthy had everything pretty well under control planetside, and there was too much chance I'd be recognized there, so Frey dropped me into the Hammer's engine room. Wouldn't have been my first choice, but it kept me out of the spotlight, and we figured Janice wouldn't mind some help with the technical part." He laughed. "And not having to haul the big Klingon guy."
While Anne was trying to digest that, the two of them came to a low building that looked rather like a warehouse, if warehouses had been made of stone and black iron. A brass sign above the door read, in nice bold copperplate letters, "RAVENHAIR LABS". Anne blinked and looked around; while she'd been absorbed in Corwin's narrative, they'd walked to a completely different section of the city, and she no longer had any idea where in Asgard she was.
Corwin produced a key, opened the door, and waved Anne inside.
There, she found a lot of unidentifiable technical clutter scattered around on a dozen benches, a car under a tarp, and Skuld in a lab coat.
"Welcome," said Skuld, smiling. "Kaitlyn tells me you're ready for your journeyman's blade."
Anne blinked in surprise; Corwin grinned at her. She'd been so busy being blown away by Asgard and everything in it that she'd forgotten entirely that the Hyakken no Arashi had qualified her for that honor.
"That... that's right," she said.
Skuld nodded, looking more serious than Anne was accustomed to seeing her - almost like she had when she'd given Juri Arisugawa and Shiori Takatsuki their Tests of Light the previous summer. Anne couldn't help but feel faint trepidation as the Goddess of Technology walked in a slow circle around her, giving her a deep, searching look as she did so.
When she finished her circuit, Skuld thought for a moment, then smiled and said to Corwin, "Ironbridge."
Corwin returned the smile. "I thought you might say that."
Skuld turned the smile to Anne as well, which made her feel a bit better, and then went to a small refrigerator on one of the workbenches and rummaged inside it for a moment. Corwin crossed to stand next to her, and they had a murmured conversation before Corwin slipped something into his pocket and came back to Anne.
"All right, we'll see you back here this evening, then." Skuld smiled and showed them out.
Anne, now feeling puzzled enough to be able to concentrate, had no trouble following Corwin to their next destination. She had enough mental bandwidth to be fascinated by the Asgard subway system, which featured the prettiest, cleanest stations she'd ever seen and trains which glided almost silently, their wheels not quite touching the rails. This carried them for several minutes; when they emerged, Anne checked the station map and saw that they were on the outskirts of the city now.
They came out of the station - and into another tunnel. For a second, Anne thought this was more of the station; then she realized that it was their destination - it was a neighborhood, an underground section of the city! People went here and there in the tunnels the way people on the surface would walk along the streets, except most of the people down here were kind of short and broad.
Noticing the look on Anne's face, Corwin grinned. "This is Dwarventown," he confirmed. "Mostly immigrants from the mountains of Alfheim - craftsmen, mainly. Some mountain elves, too, like Gunnr. They're the only breed of elves who really like dwarves."
Corwin led the way down the broad central tunnel and into a side tunnel, exchanging greetings with dwarves and broad-shouldered mountain elves as he went - he was fairly well-known in town, even down here - until finally they arrived at a shopfront hewn right out of the living rock of the mountain they were under. In they went, Corwin in the lead, and Anne had her first look at a dwarven weaponsmith's shop.
It was a stone room about the size of the dojo back home, with a vault ceiling about the same height. It had a number of benches and tables in it, mostly along the walls, but its dominant feature was the forge in the center. Anne wondered, as she looked at it, where the chimney vented to.
All around the room, hanging on pegs driven into the walls and arranged on a few of the tables, were weapons. Most of them were medieval - swords of all shapes and sizes, knives and daggers, great broad-bitted axes, ornately decorated warhammers, pole arms whose names Anne couldn't remember, or at least couldn't attach to any individual configuration. There were some more modern weapons scattered among them, too. Most were sporting shotguns, ranging from plain and simple to exquisitely engraved, and there was one that looked for all the world like a modern sniper's rifle.
Standing behind the table that faced the door, honing the blade of a long spike-handled axe on a jarringly incongruous electric grinding wheel, was a dwarf in the classical sense - a man a bit less than four feet tall but fully as wide as a normal adult, and a burly normal adult at that. Corwin was a reasonably husky man, with considerable breadth of shoulder, but he seemed as slim as Miki Kaoru next to the barrel-shaped solidity of the shop's dwarven proprietor.
"Well," said the dwarf in a gruff voice. "Young Master Ravenhair. What brings ye to Dannen Ironbridge's this fine day?" He turned his keen black eyes on Anne and smiled slightly behind his intricately plaited, belt-length grey beard. "A new recruit o' yer mother's?"
"Not quite," Corwin replied with a smile. "Though after yesterday I wouldn't be surprised. This is Anne Cross; she's a student of my sister's, and she needs her journeyman's blade."
"Ahhh," said Ironbridge with a knowing nod. "Well, bring her in then, and let's have a look at her."
Corwin ushered Anne around the table and into the middle of the open space behind it. Ironbridge put the axe down next to the grinder, switched the grinder off, and then stumped around the girl in a slow circle, looking her over much the same way that Skuld had. Then he lifted one of her hands so that she was holding her arm straight out, horizontally, from her shoulder; turned the hand over and measured the length of her fingers; took a long, careful look into her right eye; and then, most puzzlingly, lifted one of her feet, pulled off her shoe, and measured her instep and toes. He did all this in a thoughtful silence, his lined and hairy face screwed up in a look of dour concentration.
When he straightened after putting her shoe back on her, though, he cracked a smile almost undetectable behind his beard and winked one eye at her, then turned to the bench behind him, which was littered with tools.
"Right, then," he said. "If you'll be so kind as t'work the bellows, lass, we'll get started."
Saionji snarled and launched himself at Shuten, clashing with the younger man's kusari-gama. The young warlord staggered backwards, his armored boots scraping against the stone floor and his red hair flaring like fire under his antique Japanese warlord's helmet as Saionji pressed his attack. The crowd around them roared approval or shouted suggestions.
"Shuten, are you a man or a boy?" Naaza taunted, watching with his unblinking snake's eyes as the red-headed youth struggled to hold off Saionji's lightsaber.
"C'mon, Master, show him that weapon of his is an antique!" Anakin Skywalker screamed, still smarting from his last drubbing at Shuten's hands. "Show him up!"
"You're a disgrace to the Masho!" Anubishu roared, and Shuten flicked a nervous glance sideways - Anubishu had a habit of charging into practice duels he thought were being done badly and thumping on both duelists. But the oldest Masho still had his jackal-crested helmet tucked under his arm and his no-dachi slung across his back; he was only using his scowling expression to goad his young comrade - so far.
Saionji took advantage of Shuten's distraction to clip him under the chin, where the warlord's helmet offered no protection, with the hilt of his lightsaber. Shuten's mystic armor was fully capable of stopping a lightsaber's blade, a fact that he relied on to keep his skin intact more than he really should. And anyway, Saionji wanted him to lose his temper.
Shuten's teeth clapped together with a sound like two hands slapping, and he yelped, spat blood, and then glared and parried Saionji's cut at his heart. "You'll pay for that," he snarled, and leapt backwards, landing with another scrape of armor against stone. Saionji felt the trembling in the Force that meant that Shuten was about to lose what was left of his control, and the Masho let fly with the weighted chain anchored at the hilt of his kusari.
Saionji dodged out of the way easily, the Force showing him where the chain was going to be before it got there, and waited, feeling the invisible fury building itself into a very familiar manifestation around the boy. When Shuten lost his temper, he became utterly predictable, and Saionji had picked a fight with him both to work off his nerves and to regain some of the teaching-honor he felt he'd betrayed attacking Juniper at all. As soon as Shuten let go...
The power crested. Shuten opened his mouth and had time enough to get out, "Red Li - " before Saionji covered the distance between them in a single leap and silenced him with a fist to the mouth. Almost as an afterthought, he disarmed Shuten with a single sweep of his lightsaber perilously near the young man's fingers, then kicked the already-unbalanced warlord high in the chest.
Shuten fell back on his ass, and Saionji stood over him, shaking a fist that was bleeding slightly where he'd cut it on the boy's helmet as his other hand returned his lightsaber to his belt.
"You're dangerously predictable, Shuten Douji," he informed the glaring redhead in a bored tone. "If you always fight the same way, you're going to get yourself killed."
The boy tore off his helmet and threw it at Saionji, prompting a burst of laughter from Anakin.
"So, is that why you got pasted by that girl?" Rajura called mockingly from where he was leaning against the wall next to the water cooler.
Saionji turned slowly to look at the white-headed Masho, who was said to have deliberately blinded one eye so that he could always see through his own illusions, and frowned thoughtfully. Rajura, of all the warlords of Kaneko, was the most subtle - and where the truth was concerned, the most dangerous.
"No," he said slowly, and accepted a towel from Anakin, who smirkingly kicked Shuten's helmet back at him. "I lost to her because she fought better than I'd expected."
"And how did you expect her to fight?" drawled a quiet, persuasive voice, and Saionji felt his gut clench. He'd known this was coming, and the fight with Shuten hadn't been engaging enough to really work off the nervousness. If Rajura and the illusions he spun were dangerously subtle, then this man...
The warlords of the Black Rose Order all came to something like attention as the slim, dark form of their master, Akio Ohtori, sauntered into the dojo. Even Shuten got up and tucked his helmet under his arm, holding his quarrel with Anakin for later. Lord Akio commanded the respect and deference of all.
All, that is, but Saionji, who went on scrubbing at his short-cropped hair with the towel before he answered, "Rough around the edges - and weak."
Akio smiled, apparently not caring about his long-time acquaintance's lack of superficial respect. "Care to explain, Saionji?" he asked mildly. "Touga is currently fuming that his legendary charm failed to move her - " (this brought a round of chuckles from the men gathered around, who all generally had fairly low esteem for Touga's 'charm') " - and hasn't told me anything useful. But you - you know her."
Saionji shrugged, and went to the cooler to get a drink and try to buy some time to think. "Knew her, maybe - but not any more. She was a talented novice - but just a novice - when I left." He took a drink, swallowed, then decided to extrapolate from some of the things he'd seen in Juniper's early career. "Using some of her abilities left her weak and vulnerable, and she got physically sick from one of them more than once that I saw. She seems to have gotten over that problem."
"And you were expecting... what?" Akio asked. "What you saw?"
"I expected her not to want to kill me," Saionji said. He rubbed the side of his head. "Obviously, she didn't kill me - but I don't know if that was a mistake on her part, or just physical weakness. She was undernourished for a long time. I didn't expect she'd show any mercy to Touga, though." Saionji's already grim face darkened a bit more as he added, "She has a low tolerance for rapists."
"Would she be... amenable to an offer to join the Black Rose?" Akio asked. "Either from you or from me?"
"No," Saionji said instantly, shaking his head. "She idolizes Tenjou, and... " he trailed off.
"And?" Akio prompted.
"And she's just like her, really." Saionji imagined Akio trying to recruit Juni and smiled his small, private smile. "But she's still only a journeywoman, and she'll go where - where her master tells her to, so she probably won't be a further threat until you're ready to move, my Lord."
"Do you think you could get her out of the way, Saionji?"
Saionji shook his head, concealing his inner sadness as best he could. "She knows I'm not her friend or ally anymore. The next time I face her, I doubt she'll pull any blows she aims at me."
You should have realized, Anne chided herself, that this process would involve hard labor at some stage along the way. That's the way things work in Katsujinkenryuu.
Still, it wasn't horribly hard work, pumping the forge's bellows; just repetitive. Months of hard training with Kaitlyn and Saionji, home improvement projects with Utena, and gardening with Anthy, coupled with the Rose Knight's home cooking, had changed the wiry but underfed runaway kid to a sturdy, powerful young woman, and once she found the best rhythm for it, she could've worked the bellows all day.
She watched, fascinated, from her station next to the forge as Ironbridge worked. First the dwarf selected bits of metal bar-stock from a rack of dozens of little cubbyholes along the far wall, weighing them judiciously in his hands before piling them on his bench. Then he added the bars, one by one, carefully watching an hourglass, to a crucible. Within two hours, the clay pot contained a burbling stew of molten metal.
At this point, Ironbridge turned to Corwin and said, "D'ye have it, lad?"
Corwin smiled, reached into his pocket, and handed the dwarf a small object. He held it up to the light between thumb and forefinger, and Anne saw that it was a small glass capsule, a vial, full of some dark-red liquid that caught the light and gleamed.
Ironbridge grunted with satisfaction, snapped the lid off the vial with his thick thumbnail, and poured its contents into the crucible. Instead of simply whiffing to vapor on contact with the bubbling surface, as Anne would have expected, the scarlet liquid plunged into the molten metal with a searing sound, tracing black, swirling lines in the orange glow as it mixed into the alloy.
Nodding, Ironbridge let it swirl for a few minutes, then took up the crucible with tongs and poured its contents into a bar mold.
"Right," he said. "Time for lunch."
Lunch was a simple but hearty meal of cold roast meat, cheese, small beer, and savory black bread, eaten there in the workshop. Anne was a bit dubious about the beer, but it appeared to be the only thing Ironbridge had to drink, and neither he nor Corwin seemed to pay any mind, so she drank it and found, somewhat to her surprise, that it wasn't bad. Not the kind of thing she'd go seeking out, but not bad, all the same.
By the time they were finished, the alloy bar had cooled enough to be workable, so Juniper returned to her station at the bellows, Ironbridge took the bar up in one heavy-gloved hand, and the actual forging process began.
Once again Anne watched in fascination, her body working pretty much on autopilot, while Ironbridge heated, hammered, folded, heated, hammered, folded the bar of alloy. He did this seven times, then started working the metal into its proper shape. The dark streaks remained in the metal when it cooled, and the folding process had compounded them back on themselves; as the blade began to take shape, they rippled lengthwise along it, almost like a moire pattern, black against the base grey.
As the dwarf worked, Anne noticed that he wasn't shaping the other end of the blade into a tang, as she would have expected; instead, he seemed to be working it into an actual grip shape. A one-piece metal sword? That struck Anne as rather odd, but she kept silent. After all, she wasn't the master weaponsmith here, was she?
Almost before she knew it (though it had really been several hours), what had started as a flat bar of metal had become a recognizable katana. His look of concentration unchanging, Ironbridge put the finishing touches on the tip, then covered the blade in clay and returned it to the fire.
Noting Anne's puzzled look, the dwarf smiled and spoke for the first time since lunch, saying, "Tempering. The clay's thinner at the edge; that makes the edge harder than the rest of the blade."
Anne nodded, understanding. Kaitlyn-sensei had told her of the combination before, explaining the distinct line to be found on good swords like her zatoichi; the edge of the blade was hardened to take the keenest honing possible, while the rest remained softer, like a spring. This gave the blade the best balance of strength and sharpness - but she'd never said how they were made that way, and Anne had never asked.
Ironbridge watched the baking clay until some cue - its color, perhaps, or brightness - told him the time was right; then he removed it from the fire, turned, and plunged it into a trough of an oily-looking liquid which stood next to the anvil.
Instantly there came the sound of shattering crockery, underlaid by a great sizzling whoosh, and a cloud of purple steam obscured the dwarf for a moment. A smell like burning fish filled the air for a few moments, and Anne coughed until the fumes were drawn up the furnace chimney and out of the shop.
"What was that?" she asked.
"Wyvern's blood," Ironbridge replied. "Just the thing for quenching this special alloy o' mine." He smiled, his big square teeth flashing through his beard. "It do stink a bit," he allowed; then he held up the completed blade, free of its clay covering, and Anne gasped. It gleamed in the light of the forge, the grey of its base metal catching the orange firelight more than the black streaks.
"It's beautiful," she murmured.
Ironbridge nodded in satisfaction. "I'm glad ye like it, lass." He paused for a moment, then added, "Ye can stop pumping now."
Anne stopped, feeling a bit silly as the muscles in her arms twitched slightly at the cessation of motion, but the dwarf merely went to another of his tables, placed the sword on it, and bundled it in heavy grey fabric, then strapped it before turning and handing it to Corwin.
"There y'are, young master, wi' my compliments to yer august mother," said he. Then he turned to Anne and smiled. "I hope it serves ye well, lass."
Anne didn't quite know what to say, so she fell back on dojo habits and bowed. "Thank you, Master Smith."
"'Twas my pleasure," the dwarf assured her as he showed them out. "'Tis what I do. Come again, now."
"There," said Anne to Corwin as they walked back toward the subway station, "is a man who enjoys his calling."
Corwin smiled. "Dannen's one of the best," he said. "He's made several blades for us - one of Vigdis Brightblade's favorites, her hand-and-a-half, is an Ironbridge, and he made all the Valkyrie dress sabers."
"Now we take it back to Mom for the finishing touches."
"Oh." They walked in silence for a few minutes; then, while they waited on the subway platform for the train to arrive, Anne asked, "So - when are you moving to Tomodachi, anyway?"
Corwin grinned. "Soon as you and Kate get the rest of your books out of my room," he said.
Anne laughed. "I'll hold you to that, you know."
"Fine by me," Corwin said. His grin softened into a warmer sort of smile, and he added in a slightly wry voice, "If I'd known this would happen, though, I wouldn't have signed a two-year lease on an apartment in Nekomikoka." Then he laughed. "What the hell, it's only gold."
"OK," said Anne, smiling. "When I get back, we'll get it done for you."
Corwin chuckled; the train arrived; they headed back downtown, leaving Dwarventown behind them.
"Can we go back down there sometime, when I have more time to look around?" she asked Corwin. "Or... " She looked faintly troubled as a thought occurred to her. "Or is this visit a one-time thing?"
Corwin gave her a mildly confused look, then realized what she was getting at and smiled. "Oh, no, heck, no. We can come back any time you want, as long as we can both line up the free time for it. Don't worry about that. You've proven yourself to Asgard, even Frey won't give you a hard time unless there's something -serious- going on."
Relieved, Anne returned the smile, then went back to her own thoughts until they got to Skuld's workshop.
Skuld received the blade with a smile, made appreciative sounds about Ironbridge's workmanship, and then informed the two that she wouldn't be requiring their services and they might as well run along until tomorrow afternoon.
Presented with the unexpected free time, Anne did the only sensible thing, which was try to see everything there was to see in the Golden City in a single evening.
This, of course, was impossible, but the effort, combined with the work she'd put in at Ironbridge's, did mean that she slept very well indeed when she and Corwin finally made their way back to his little apartment on the Street of the Eternal Heroes to crash.
Mia Ausa squinted at the small crucible atop her lab bench, then checked the open tome off to her right. Protected by viriglass, the book was still spotted with age and difficult to read in places - her lab bench showed the marks of previous, failed experiments with this particular passage.
Satisfied that she had done everything as correctly as she could, given the illegibility of the book, she began murmuring softly under her breath. Silver light gathered around her fingers, then slowly sank into the gently bubbling liquid as she extended her hand over the container. Finishing her incantation, she held her breath and waited to see if it was going to work this time - or whether she was going to have to snatch her hand back out of the way of exploding, ensorcelled mercury again.
The difficulty with this particular formula was that it would only work for the creator - and it required a physical proximity that was quite dangerous, given the tendency of the alchemical mixture to explode.
"Still trying to recreate a fantasy," a snide voice observed behind her, and Mia spun, her hand going to the side of her Anla'shok robes for her pike. Not that it would do her much good, given that she knew perfectly well who was standing behind her, but...
Roger Tremayne, lately going by the Sith name Darth Venger, smiled pleasantly and stepped into the lab. "Good evening, Mia," he said.
She forced herself to smile, though she knew it was more of a grimace. Thus far, he hadn't pushed her to the point of snapping, but she knew he was trying to. "Good evening, Lord Venger. I'm afraid you're a little late to learn anything today - the interesting part just finished. I was about to conclude my studies for the night."
His pleasant smile altered to one of pleased malevolence. "Then you won't mind if we talk for a few minutes - I'd like to discuss your methods in depth, and of course, I wouldn't dream of interrupting you while you're actually doing something."
Mia felt cold inside. In an out-and-out fight with Venger, she'd lose and she knew it. And she had no idea where Saionji was - he was the one person in the Order she knew the Sith Lord wouldn't dare pick a fight with. Still, she kept her fear from her face as best she could.
If Venger picked up on it - and he probably did, fear being one of the specialties, so to speak, of the Sith - he didn't let it be known. Instead he just smiled silently for a few seconds, until she closed the book and nodded for him to go on. When he spoke again, his voice was lower and less mocking.
"You're wasting your time, you know," he said. "Savants for ten thousand years have tried to develop means of making ordinary weapons stand up to lightsabers. The only ones to succeed were the weaponmasters of Mandalor. One still finds examples of their art from time to time, but their methods died with their civilization, millennia ago."
Mia cast him a sidelong look. "What examples?"
"Ah, I thought that might pique your interest," Venger said. "I've learned much about you since our last encounter, you know. Your hunger for knowledge is quite legendary in some circles. It doesn't surprise me to find that you know of Mandalor already."
"Get to the point, Lord Venger," she said, keeping her voice as cold as possible.
"The point is this, my dear," Venger replied. "It so happens that I have such a weapon in my collection."
Mia looked interested, but not eager. "And?"
"And I might be willing to let you have it... although," he added with a dark little smile, "if you accept my offer you won't long need it."
"I beg your pardon?" Mia asked.
"Don't be dense," Venger said, "it doesn't suit you. I'm asking you to join forces with me, Mia Ausa. Become my apprentice. Follow the way of the Sith in full, not just the watered-down sampling Ohtori teaches as part of all this Black Rose foolishness."
"This Black Rose foolishness will remake the universe," Mia said archly, but Venger only snorted.
"A universe, perhaps, but not one you and I care about," he said. "Ohtori's lust for revenge is all well and good, but what does it serve either of us to aid him in the long term? Certainly it advances us now to work with him, adapt his techniques to our own, and incidentally help him further his cause of vengeance against Cephiro's Trinity, but after that, why hang around and serve as part of his petty praetorian guard? We have our own worlds to 'revolutionize'."
"If Lord Akio knew you were so tenuously committed to his cause, he might not be charitable," Mia observed.
Venger laughed. "If he doesn't already know I intend to leave his retinue when remaining no longer suits my purposes, he's a fool. Ours is a marriage of convenience, my dear. I provide intelligence on possible converts to his cause - people my own order has watched over the years, but who have proven unsuitable for the true rigors of the Sith for one reason or another - and insight into the Dark Side of the Force; he provides a stable base from which to build my own strength. Once both of us have achieved our short-term aims, we'll part ways, and do so amicably enough, in all probability."
"And what do I stand to gain by switching my flag from him to you?" Mia wanted to know.
"Everything you truly want," Venger replied.
Mia hesitated, momentarily alarmed by the idea that he might know what she truly wanted. He took the hesitation for temptation and smiled.
"I see I've touched a nerve at last," he said. "You begin to understand now, yes? The true Sith is always looking to the next conquest, Mia. Once Ohtori has achieved his goals, then what? The next logical step for you is to take the vengeance for which you burn. I can make that possible. Ohtori cannot."
Mia narrowed her eyes. "You mean... "
"You know very well what I mean," Venger told her. Leaning slightly toward her, a faint spark of life shining in his flat, cold eyes, he said, "As a Lord of the Sith, you would find it almost trivially easy to return to Minbar and show the Grey Council the price of their arrogance. You could crush them and their petty bickering, seize control of your people's destiny, and lead them into a new golden age." His eyes bored into hers as he added in a low, almost inaudible voice,
"You could be greater than Valen himself."
Mia's pulse quickened. She forced herself to look calm, pulled her gaze from Venger's with a semblance of cool detachment, and said, "I will... consider what you've said."
She was mildly surprised when Venger seized her shoulder, making her look at him again, and said, "Why delay the inevitable? The sooner you begin, the sooner your revenge can be at hand. The true Sith seizes opportunity when it presents itself. Consideration is for the weak-hearted."
"And haste is for the foolhardy," Mia replied sharply. "You will have your answer soon enough. Now take your hand off me."
Venger smiled coldly. "Perhaps I misjudged you," he said, not removing his hand. "Perhaps you lack conviction after all. Or is there another reason for your hesitation?" His eyes narrowed. "If there is, you may rest assured I'll find it. I was a Psi Cop, you know. Your tricks and wards won't keep me out forever."
Mia's face went white, though from the set of her jaw and the look in her eyes, it might have been from fury rather than fear. She smacked away his hand, took a step back, and was on the brink of snapping a reply when a third voice intruded on their tête-à-tête:
"Leave. Her. Alone."
A slender blade point insinuated itself under Venger's jawline, and the Sith Lord froze. A young Japanese woman holding a jitte sidled around his side to stand between him and Mia. The tip of the blade traced a line across Venger's jugular and settled against his trachea.
Venger stared at her, his eyes narrow in fury, and the woman didn't even flinch. After a moment, his eyes widened. "How... ?" he whispered.
"I should've been a Masho," the girl said bitterly, wildly, "but the Yoroi have never chosen anyone but men. I could've been one of the Hanagumi - if I'd been born in the right place and the right time. But since I'm neither, I'll just settle for cutting your throat."
"I'll kill you for this," Venger whispered, his hands twitching at his sides.
"I don't think you will," the girl said, and her shoulders tensed, "unless you want my starswords in your throat. I can handle anything you can throw at me, old man. I've got big plans - and you've got not part in them. So why don't you run away now, like the coward you are, before I count to five and follow through."
Venger's eyes flicked to Mia, and the Minbari woman smiled utterly without warmth. She didn't say anything, though.
"One." The girl raised her other hand; a second jitte appeared in it.
"Two." She lowered the second blade to point at Venger's groin.
That was enough. He took a step back, then another, and then he was out of Mia's lab and storming down the hallway.
The Sith Lord was so furious that he completely failed to notice that Nanami Kiryuu was standing in the hallway, a pensive expression on her face.
The girl turned and looked at Mia. In disgusted tones, she said, "You owe me one, sorceress. Why don't you figure out how to fix it so he leaves you alone, before you end up owing me more? Because you better believe I'll collect."
"Ah - " Another slashing glance cut off what Mia had been about to say, and the girl slipped out of the room with all of the grace and silence of a ninja stalking her prey. Nanami walked past her, meriting only a suspicious glance, and paused at the door to Mia's lab.
The Minbari was looking wearily at the cooled remains of her experiment, and didn't notice.
The following afternoon, Anne stood in a small courtyard behind Skuld's workshop and tried not to be nervous. Corwin stood off to one side, leaning against the building with his arms folded across his chest, smiling, as his mother emerged with a sword-shaped bundle of grey cloth and stood before the newly-fledged journeywoman samurai.
Without a word, Skuld unwrapped the bundle and tossed the cloth away over her shoulder, the gesture so deliberate and purposeful that Anne wondered if it were part of some traditional ritual. She didn't ponder that for long, though, because her attention was immediately seized by what had been beneath the cloth.
The blade was hidden from view in a saya made of some sleek blue-grey metal, wrapped for its top third in black and silver cord. That was impressive, and unusual - saya were usually made of wood - but what caught Anne's attention and held it was the grip.
Skuld had taken the rudimentary metal grip Ironbridge had forged into the sword and worked it into art. It was a dragon - a curiously Western-looking dragon for a katana's grip, but a dragon, all the same, its sinuous scales intricately worked into the metal. This, Anne's pragmatic side noted, was probably both for decorative purposes and to improve grip.
At the end of the grip, where a Western sword's pommel would be, was the dragon's head, its lip curled in a permanent, slightly sardonic-looking snarl that bared one of its saber-shaped canine teeth. Its brows arched over glittering white gems for eyes, which gave its expression a slightly blank quality, but the workmanship was amazing.
"Your sword is nearly complete, Juniper," said Skuld, in that same slightly chilling serious tone that had marked her demeanor in the Tests of Light Anne had witnessed. "It requires but one thing to bring its enchantments to life and unlock its full potential in your hands."
Having read about magic since she was a little girl, Anne was pretty sure what that one thing was, but she kept silent anyway as Skuld looked her in the eye and said, "Are you prepared?"
Anne nodded, steadied her voice, and replied quietly, "I am, Lady Skuld."
Skuld looked into her eyes for a moment more, then nodded, took a step back, and drew the sword. Its damascus blade glinted in the light of the Asgardian sun; the black streaks seemed to swallow the sun's rays while the rest glowed, just as it had in the forgelight. The Goddess of Technology had polished and sharpened the blade as part of her full night of work on it. Now she leveled its carefully sculpted point at its owner, her face intent, and Anne knew what to do.
Without hesitation, the girl raised her hand, placed her fingertip against the point of the sword, and drew it gently down, hissing a little through her teeth as her skin parted and a single drop of blood oozed forth.
The black streaks in the damascus blade turned brilliant red with a sound like a heavy brass bell. The fiery light streamed down the blade, burning a runic inscription in its sides as it passed, then limned the dragon's scales from coiled tail to sneering snout before blazing from both the carved creature's gemstone eyes.
Skuld, the businesslike look on her face creased now by a slight smile that made her dark eyes twinkle merrily, stepped out of the ready stance, reversed the blade smartly, and presented its grip to its owner.
Just before she took it, Anne saw that the eyes of the dragon were now a deep (and, she was to realize later, permanent) red. The change in the color and depth of the gems completed the expression on the dragon's face, changing it from a slightly blank sneer into a vaguely smug, conspiratorial little smile.
The image made her laugh a little bit, and then her hands closed around the grip, a warm shock raced up her arms, and she had no more time for amusement right now. There were kata to do!
And do them she did, ranging around the courtyard as though it were a dojo, striking, sweeping, and shouting as if Kaitlyn-sensei were monitoring her every move. She started with the basic ones, moved on to the intermediate ones, and then essayed those of the advanced set she'd learned so far.
Single-opponent drills, double-team counters, archery counters, crowd battle techniques, she ran through them all, as the sweat ran down her face and time seemed to stop. She'd done all of them before, many a time, usually with her custom-made bokuto, sometimes with a live blade, a katana which Kaitlyn owned but hardly ever used. The katana she'd used before had never quite felt right; she could do the job with it, but it was a tool, not a true weapon, in her hands. She'd always silently wondered if that was just her.
Now she knew it wasn't.
She finished the most complex solo kata she knew, the Seven Sons of Akiji Tashiko, whirled out of its spinning finish -
- and another blade crossed hers with a clash and a spark. Anne recoiled in mild surprise and focused past the intersection of the blades... and there was Kaitlyn-sensei.
Master and pupil locked gazes for a moment through the gleaming cross of steel between them. Then, as if heeding some invisible signal, both simultaneously cracked private little smiles, half-turned as one, and whirled into the first of the duo kata - the first time they'd ever done those with live steel.
The duo kata Anne had learned so far took fifteen minutes, and at the end, the two flowed into free-form sparring - not a full-on duel, Anne wasn't interested in another one of those anytime soon - but unstructured and spontaneous, all the same. They ran with that for ten minutes or so, until Kaitlyn disengaged and sheathed her blade, her silent signal for the exercise to halt. Anne obeyed without thought, her hands finishing the exercise for her without the need for her brain to get involved.
It only occurred to her after she'd sheathed her blade home, bowed, and risen, that she hadn't had the saya when she started.
"Well, what do you think?" she asked.
Anne put a hand on the sword's grip and smiled, trying to find the words to describe the experience.
"Incredible," she finally murmured.
"Its name is Kurenaikaze - Crimson Wind," Skuld said with a grin as she came up behind Anne and put a hand on her shoulder. "May it serve you well."
"Thank you, Lady Skuld," said the slightly breathless journeywoman, the width of her smile threatening to damage her face.
Another voice replied, and Anne looked over her shoulder to see Balder Goldenlight, flanked by a couple of other people she didn't recognize.
"And now that you are well-armed, there is another honor you've earned," Balder said. "If I may, Master Kaitlyn?" He gave her sensei a slight bow.
Kaitlyn bowed in return, and stepped aside.
"Anne Cross, Journeyman of the Asagiri Katsujenkinryuu, two days ago - while still an apprentice - you stood in defense of Yggdrasil, the World-Tree that is cherished by the All-Father. You chose to do this with no thought of recompense or with any reason other than you knew it was the right thing to do. You drove the Wyrm that Gnaws at the Root back by the strength of your will and the force of your arms."
Anne nodded slowly as he paused. "I did... " she murmured.
Balder smiled. "Such a defense should not go unacknowledged. Thus do we, here gathered of the Order of Ash Knights, recognize you as one of our number and a Knight of Yggdrasil." He stepped forward and slipped a fine golden chain over her head, then gently kissed her forehead. "Be welcome to our order."
She looked down, saw that the pendant on the chain was an ash leaf, dipped in gold, with a loop at the stem. Touching it with one hand, she felt a gentle shiver in the back of her mind, much like the memory of a pleasant dream that fades on waking but doesn't leave entirely. Then she looked up at Balder, over at Skuld, and then at Kaitlyn.
Then she said the only thing she could think of to say at that moment. "Wow." Then she felt her ears get hot, and added with an abashed expression, "Um... thank you!"
"There is a feast this evening in your honor, Lady Anne," Balder said, bestowing the title on her. "Where we will celebrate the continued life of the Tree and confusion to our enemies."
Anne blinked, then looked over at Kaitlyn. "Um... may I? I... " She grinned abruptly. "I think I can find somebody to spar with here, sensei."
Kaitlyn smiled. "Have fun, Juni-chan. Just be back before school starts again."
Juniper looked over at Corwin and grinned. "I will, sensei," she said. "I promised Corwin we'd get the rest of our books out of his room."
At that, Kaitlyn laughed, and picked up a backpack sitting at her feet. "Anthy was right," she said, and handed the backpack to her student. "I'll see you Sunday night." Then she glanced over at Skuld and nodded, and they walked off together.
Anne looked in the backpack and grinned; it held a couple of changes of clothes, some shampoo and other toiletries, her .32 Colt pistol and its holster rig - and a package of her favorite oatmeal- chocolate-chip cookies, the last certainly courtesy of Anthy. What it didn't hold, she realized slowly, was anything like formalwear.
"Uh... Corwin?" she said a bit nervously, looking over at where he stood watching her with a big grin on his face. "How fancy are feasts in honor of people supposed to be?"
Corwin's expression became slightly thoughtful, and then a soft voice said, "Lord Corwin, if I may?" Corwin and Anne looked toward its source.
Standing next to Balder was a woman with silvery blond hair, wreathed with flowers, wearing a dress of pale blue; her eyes were the color of the sky just after sunset, and she was smiling a gentle smile as she regarded them. Like Balder, she seemed to glow with an inner radiance all her own, though her light was softer than his. She had blue markings on her face like all the gods Anne had met; the one on her forehead was a slim crescent moon. Anne had an abrupt and wrenching sense of deja vu.
"Lady Nanna," Corwin said, and he bowed to her. Then he glanced at Anne and his expression shifted to one of amusement. "I've been reliably informed by experts that I'm useless for this kind of shopping, Anne - if Lady Nanna wants to help you find something suitable, you're probably better off without me."
Anne gave him a relieved smile, and then followed his lead and bowed to the lady with the silver hair.
"Milady?" she said.
The woman laughed. "Just Nanna is fine, Anne," she said, and she took Anne's arm and led her away.
Nanna's aura was very similar in some ways to Belldandy's, Anne decided as she followed the goddess through the streets of Asgard, except that Nanna didn't bustle - she seemed to sort of flow. There was also an underlying sadness to her mien; Anne wasn't sure whether she was imagining that, or just picking it up from her empathy or what. She also kept trying to figure out who she had met who reminded her of this beautiful woman before, and failing miserably.
After a few minutes of walking in silence, the silver lady observed, "You're very quiet for someone with as many questions as I'm sure you have."
Anne blushed and looked away. "I'm... I don't want to seem rude. I mean, you're not like... I know Corwin, and I kind of know his mom, but I don't know you, and you're doing me a favor by helping me, so... "
Nanna chuckled. "Well, we are not such strangers as you might think, but so few remember their dreams, especially when they are younger."
"I've met you before? When?" Anne felt a little less nervous. "In one of the dreams I had of this city?"
"In many of them, many times," Nanna said sadly. "The first time I met you was shortly after your mother died; you were so obviously a changeling for your world, you caught my attention, even among all the lost children I see. I wondered if you would survive it." Her expression grew distant for a moment, and she sighed. "When you stopped dreaming, I wondered if you were dead, but you were never where I could see you."
Anne looked at her, and then several pieces of disparate lore she'd read in the school library clicked together in her head. "Because I wasn't ever out where the moonlight could reach. Because I was always hiding at night. Some of the places I went didn't even have moons."
The goddess looked back at her and smiled. "And then, a little less than a year ago, you found me again. You weren't quite a child anymore, not quite one of my charges - but you were out in the woods under moonlight, and you were very clearly not dead. I almost couldn't believe it." Her eyes shone softly as they stopped in front of a tailor's shop, its purpose clearly marked by the painted wooden cutout sign of a spool of thread.
"And now you are here - and not asking me questions," Nanna went on with a soft smile.
Anne laughed, and then said, slightly self-consciously as they went into the tailor's shop, "Well... OK. I'll try to think of something. I have such an embarrassment of riches, you see."
Anakin Skywalker and Kyouichi Saionji were only sparring, but the casual observer wouldn't have known it. To anyone unfamiliar with the two, they would have seemed to be dueling, full force, head to head. That was the way Anakin did everything - straight ahead at maximum power. He lacked the subtlety to be a truly "successful" Sith, or so Venger's notes on him had said. Exactly what that misguided missile of a man knew about subtlety, Saionji wasn't entirely sure, but there it was. It was just as well, anyway. Skywalker's potential would have been squandered by the Sith. In their hands he'd have become a human attack dog, nothing more. With Saionji's guidance, he could be so much more...
... if either of them got out of their present situation alive, anyway.
Early on, Mia had compared Skywalker's furious bull-rush approach to Utena Tenjou's, but that wasn't right, not really. Utena did tend to take a direct path to her objectives, but her driving force was entirely different. She was fueled by her love - of her friends and family, of fair play, of justice. Anakin Skywalker's fuel was his wrath.
And that was fine; drawing on his inner anger for strength was certainly healthier than just sealing it away inside him and letting it fester. It made him powerful, but also unstable. During his time with the Jedi Master, it had cost him his right arm. Saionji's main task, as he saw it, was not to suppress that beast, but to teach the boy how to control it. There were things in the universe that were worth getting angry about, and things that weren't.
The trick was sorting them out. It wasn't a trick that Saionji himself had always been too adept at - witness all the times he'd lashed out at Utena, or at kind, harmless Anthy, when what he was angry about was his own uselessness - but he'd acquired the knack over time. Kaitlyn had been very patient with him in that regard.
Unfortunately, he didn't have that kind of time, so Anakin was getting something of a crash course. The funny thing about Skywalker, though, was that the crash-course approach worked for him. He liked that out-on-the-edge feeling, the knowledge that everything he did would count against his final score. It gave him a thrill, the same way piloting out at the edge of his abilities and those of his craft gave him a thrill. Knowing that his very survival depended on his ability to be the absolute master of his situation brought out the best in him.
The two clashed, separated, and Saionji said, "Enough."
Anakin deactivated his lightsaber, hung it on his belt, and bowed.
"You're improving," Saionji told him, stowing his own weapon. "You've retained more of what Sifu-Dyas taught you than I expected - and you're picking up what I have to offer with commendable speed."
Anakin grinned. "And he always said I was a slow learner."
Saionji offered no comment to that; he went to the cooler for a drink instead.
"Master?" Anakin asked as they left the room.
"Why are we here?"
Saionji gave his student a sidelong look. "Philosophy isn't one of your usual hobbies," he said.
"No, not in an abstract sense. I mean, what are we doing here? These people... " He hesitated, fidgeting.
"Go ahead," Saionji said. "Never hesitate to speak your mind to me, Ani."
"... Well... it's just that most of them are losers," Anakin said. To his surprise, the remark drew a snort of laughter from his teacher.
"That's true - more true than you know," Saionji said. "But I have my reasons. For now, the less you know the better it'll be for both of us."
"I've heard that before," Anakin grumbled.
"I know you have," Saionji replied. "In this case, though, it's true." He stopped walking and turned to the younger man, putting a hand on his shoulder. "You have to trust me, Ani. We're both in danger here - you know that, you can feel it, just as I can. Tend to your studies, be wary of the others, and soon enough it'll all make sense. I promise."
Anakin considered that, then nodded.
"All right, Master," he said. The two resumed their course. Saionji could feel his student brimming with follow-up questions and was pleased that he was able to master them.
On the Quad, while black-clad Institute students came and went, they ran into Touga Kiryuu, who happened to be one of the prime examples of Anakin's "these people are losers" philosophy. His sister was cute (albeit creepy), but Touga was just repellent as far as Anakin was concerned. He made no great effort to conceal his disdain as he and Saionji paused to exchange greetings with the tall redhead.
"Oh, Saionji, I'm glad I ran into you," Touga said with an oily little smile. "I'm having a little party at my villa tonight. A number of the students from the ninth and tenth forms will be there. I can count on you to put in an appearance, I trust?"
"Ninth and tenth forms?" Saionji asked, arching an eyebrow. "A little old for you, aren't they, Touga?"
Touga laughed lightly, though the mirth didn't reach his eyes.
"You've always been a kidder," he said. "Do stop by, won't you? I'll save a place by the bar for you. There's a girl named Leyna in the ninth that I think will just adore you. Ask her about the time she crossed paths with Tenjou's adoptive father." His face darkened slightly. "It's a much funnier story than mine."
Saionji's expression was neutral as he replied dryly, "Oh? I thought yours was most amusing."
"Yes, well, stop by if you get a chance," Touga said, then went on across the courtyard, waving cheerily to a group of eighth-form girls who were clustered by the fountain.
Saionji watched him go, his expression grim, then shook his head and sighed.
"He had such potential once," he said, then turned and walked off toward the admin building. Anakin stood where he was for a few seconds, pondering, then trotted after him.
Corwin arrived at the Great Hall of Asgard to find that Anne wasn't there yet. Neither was Nanna, he determined after a quick glance around the Hall, and Balder waved to him with a cheerful smile and came over to greet him.
"Nanna said they would be a bit late - she wanted to show Anne the library and they lost track of time," said the Shining One.
Corwin laughed. "Anne in a library losing track of time - no, that never happens. Your lady may never get her out of there, you know."
Balder smiled and nodded over Corwin's shoulder. "It would seem she's managed it."
Anne was pausing at the door, flanked by the Goddess of the Moon and obviously feeling more than a little embarrassed to be seen in public. She stayed there for a moment as some of the noise died down and everybody looked over at the door.
Corwin grinned at her in aesthetic appreciation. Her dark brown hair was braided back from her face in a pair of French braids, embellished with gold combs patterned with ferns and clasped together with a gold band just at the nape of her neck. The gold-encased leaf of Yggdrasil hung on its chain around her neck.
Her dress was of a dark forest green fabric, patterned with woven leaves; its skirts were very full, cut to just above her ankles, and the long sleeves came to a gentle point across the backs of her hands. Her only ring was the duellist's signet, and her earrings were simple gold studs. She had a simple gold belt of linked leaves around her waist.
Over the dress, she had a sort of sleeveless vest-coat, gathered up in two golden bands at the shoulder and made of a grey fabric that looked rather like opaque mist confined to a woven shape. Across her back, held by a band of tooled grey leather, she wore Kurenaikaze and Tonerikoken next to each other.
Compared to some of the other worthies in the hall, she looked very unadorned, but Corwin knew very well that aside from one trip to the New Avalon Symphony with Kate, she hadn't ever dressed up since he'd known her - and given the blush rising in her cheeks and her clenched jaw as she struggled not to stare at the floor, she was obviously feeling horrendously uncomfortable.
He started to go up to her, to try to offer some sort of moral support, but another figure in black and silver dress armor beat him to it.
"Wow, look at you - all grown up and slaying dragons and getting feasts in your honor!" said Gunnr Brynelfr as she stepped up to her lover, looked her up and down, and then grabbed her in a bear hug. "Guess they finally decided to let you out in public, right?"
Anne was too busy burying her face in the mountain elf's hair and holding her for a moment to answer. When she finally pulled back, the two women stared into each other's eyes for a long, long moment, and then Gunnr smiled, a bit sadly, and Anne, a bit wistfully.
After a moment, Anne forced a smile onto her face and said, "You have no idea how much I was kicking myself about not having your gun with me when I took on that wyrm - it kept being out of reach."
Gunnr laughed, and hauled her over to the table. "Food first - then war stories. That's how it works."
"Indeed," boomed a big, red-haired man, who was already seated and looked somewhat impatient for the food part to begin. "You'll have to tell the story of how you defeated that wyrm, you know."
"I... what?!" Anne gasped, and then turned to stare at whoever was convenient - it happened to be Corwin - with a betrayed expression.
Corwin had to supress a laugh. "This is Asgard, Juni," he said, moving over to help Gunnr get the reluctant girl to the table. "Boasting of our great deeds is part of our culture. Sit down, eat, so we can all eat. You'll feel better on a full stomach."
"It helps if you chug back a couple of quarts of mead," the red-haired man added helpfully.
Anne sat down, eyeing the red-haired man dubiously. At his belt hung a short-handled hammer, and between that and his enormous frame she was pretty sure he had to be Thor.
"I think I'll start with a cup," she told him, looking a bit less like she was going to bolt. "I don't have quite your mass."
Thor seemed to think this was very funny, but he obligingly poured her a small cup of mead.
About an hour later, between Thor and Gunnr, Anne had consumed two small cups of mead, a copious amount of food, and had determinedly switched to juice in spite of Thor's amused attempts to get her smashed.
"OK," she said, resting her chin on her hand and contemplating with some dubiousness the idea of standing up in front of any number of gods and demigods to boast of what she'd be doing. "So how does this work? This thing that I've been tricked into doing?"
Gunnr grinned. "Hey, take it as a compliment - they didn't even try to get Corwin to get up and boast after his Ascension Trial, and it's the first time that's ever happened. They must think you're more worth the effort than he is."
"May I remind you I was performing a wedding," Corwin objected. "I didn't really have time for boasting."
"Anyway," Gunnr said, winking at Anne and ignoring Corwin, "what you do is you get up and tell the story of how you went and trashed that spawn - and you make it as exciting as you possibly can. It's supposed to be entertainment and factual - usually in that order."
"So... the way Liza Shustal tells stories, then?" Anne asked.
"Yeah, about like that," Corwin agreed.
"In front of all of everybody here?" Anne quailed slightly. "Sensei's the one who gets up on stage - I'm just the sound technician."
Gunnr leaned over and nudged Thor in the ribs. "Thor - do us a favor, would you? Tell the story of the time you and Loki dressed up as Freyja and went down to Jotunheim to get your hammer back. Just so Anne can see how it's done."
Thor - astonishingly - looked slightly abashed.
"Does it have to be that one?" Anne heard Corwin snort as she watched the God of Thunder become embarrassed. "Bragi could tell the one about the Ragnarok and - "
"No, no, the point is not to hear somebody who's practiced at these go at it," Gunnr said, snickering. "After all, Anne's never had any practice at all."
"Give me a couple of years and I'll be telling bedtime stories," Anne muttered under her breath, "but that doesn't help me now."
Corwin nearly snorted his ale.
"Oh," Thor said, looking over at Anne, and then he took a deep swig of his ale, got to his feet, and launched into a story of how he and his companions had once been tricked by the king of the Utgard giants when he went out into the world.
He described all the ways he had been tricked with great relish - the way he had failed to kill the giant he'd been traveling with, for instance. He seemed to take the most pleasure in the fact that though he'd been tricked, Loki, who had been his companion at the time, had been tricked too, never suspecting that the giant he was trying to out-eat at one point had been the incarnation of fire itself.
Thor finished the story off by boasting that though he'd never been able to quaff the entirety of the dram that the giant had set before him, never had the sea level dropped when a giant picked up that goblet.
When he sat down, there was a smattering of applause and a thumping of various goblets against the table in approval, and then various eyes started turning toward Anne.
Anne bit her lip, then looked over at Gunnr.
"Kiss me for luck?" she asked hopefully, and the Valkyrie grinned and planted one on her. Then she got up, pushed a wisp of hair out of her face, and launched into a description of her excessively strange day. She glossed over her fight with Saionji as a warm-up, easy because she'd fought him before - since she wasn't sure if Akio Ohtori had spies in Asgard, she didn't want her sempai to get killed by saying he'd let her win - and then she hit her stride with the fight against Touga.
By the time she sat down, she was feeling more than a bit elated and slightly high, a number of wisps had worked their way out of her braids and were curling in elflocks around her face, and she was pretty sure that whatever Gunnr had put in her goblet when she paused for a drink had been something alcoholic because she felt distinctly tipsy - and still rather thirsty.
The applause was much louder for her - she guessed because they hadn't heard this story before - and there was a great deal of banging of cups. Then Thor gave her another cup of mead to drink and a big kiss on the cheek.
"Skoal!" he said, raising a mug to her.
Gunnr followed suit. "Skoal!"
Anne paused, and then grinned back at him a bit recklessly - ah, the hell with it, she thought, somebody once said that you should try everything once, and I've never been drunk in a hall full of gods before. She raised her own in response, and drank it down in a single gulp.
Some hours later, she found herself sitting on Corwin's front doorstep next to Gunnr - Corwin was already inside, and presumably asleep like the sane god he was. He'd given her a key when she and Gunnr had wandered off to count stars from the rooftop of the Valkyries' Hall.
"Thank you, Gunnr," Anne said. Then she giggled. "I had a really good time - even if my hangover won't think so in the morning."
Gunnr grinned. "It won't last too long - part of the magic of Asgard."
Anne leaned against her erstwhile lover and sighed. "This is the part where we're supposed to go to bed, isn't it," she said softly.
"Yes," Gunnr said, and turned and gave her a gentle kiss. "This is the part where we go to bed."
"I can't promise anything's going to be different, Gunnr," Anne said, sounding a little distant and somewhat blurred. "Or the same. I still love you... it's just... it's not the same."
"Of course it isn't. You're out there doing things and I'm here doing things and people change," Gunnr said, and wrapped an arm around Anne's waist. "Nobody ever said anything had to be forever. We just try to do the best we can and grab the chances when they come."
Anne let her head rest against Gunnr's shoulder. She made a happy, contented sound. And then she unexpectedly fell asleep right where she was.
It took Gunnr several minutes to realize what had happened - given how much mead she and Thor had poured into the girl, she wasn't surprised her thought processes weren't quite up to speed. Then she grinned.
"I guess," she said to her sleeping friend, "that this is the part where I put you to bed, and go alone back to mine as payback for getting you sloshed when you didn't intend to be. Oh well. Serves me right." She shifted her weight around until she could pick up the sleeping girl, swords and all, and carried her off to bed.
"Begin!" Anubishu snarled, and waited, tense, while Shuten stared at him across the taut length of chain in his hands. The tableau held for a few moments before the big man added, "Or did the Yoroi choose the wrong boy?"
That was enough of a goad to send Shuten surging across the mat, the weighted end of chain whirling in his hands as he launched himself at the older man. "I - "
The resounding SMACK! of the flat of Anubishu's huge no-dachi slamming into his side cut off whatever Shuten had been about to say, and sent him skidding back across the room on his ass. He struggled to his feet, gasping, with his hand pressed against his side, and glared at the other Warlord.
"Don't. Say. It," he snarled between gasping breaths.
"Saionji was right," Anubishu muttered. "You should be better. I am ashamed."
"I am better!" the red-headed boy protested.
"You are not good enough!"
There was a pause as light blue eyes bored into dark blue. Then Shuten looked away.
"Yamaou was my teacher, boy," Anubishu growled. Shuten opened his mouth, then closed it at his master's furious glare. "I will not have you dishonor his armor. You have raw talent - it is not enough. You will come at me again. And you will keep coming at me for the rest of the night until you cannot stand or you score a touch. And if it is not the latter, we will resume tomorrow, immediately after breakfast."
"And when you can come at me and score a touch three times," Anubushi went on, "you will thrash that pretty boy of Saionji's until he cannot stand."
"But - "
"I will deal with Saionji myself. We will have our honor avenged."
After a moment, Shuten straightened and took his hand away from his side, and his eyes burned with an inner fire all their own.
Corwin and Anne were eating breakfast and trying to figure out which of Asgard's sights to hit that day when there came a knock at the door.
Anne glanced at Corwin, who swallowed his Rice Krispies and shrugged.
"I'm not expecting anybody," he said.
"Maybe it's Gunnr," Anne speculated.
"At this hour?"
Anne laughed. "True."
Corwin got up, went to the door, and opened it to reveal the most ornately-dressed person Anne had ever seen. He was a tall, slim fellow with blond hair and markedly pointed ears - some type of elf, Anne supposed - and he was dressed in an elaborate uniform with a lot of gold braid. The coat of his uniform was double-breasted, with two columns of gilded buttons, each horizontal pair linked together with a length of golden chain. He had a floppy cap edged with the same braid, his hair was done up in elaborate plaits festooned with colorful feathers, and his tall, brass-buckled boots had spurs.
This figure, eyecatching even in Asgard, bowed low, appearing not at all put out that the man he was bowing to was unshaven and dressed in rumpled sweatpants and a faded, slightly holey Art of Noise Live in Toronto t-shirt. Then he said something in a song-like language Anne couldn't even slightly understand - certainly it wasn't Alvish - handed over a gilt-edged envelope, pivoted on his heel, and left.
Corwin watched him go down the hall, then shut the door and returned to the table, looking bemused. Anne wanted to ask him what that had been about, but she sat quietly, exercising her samurai self-control and feeling vaguely smug about it while Corwin opened the envelope and read the card inside.
"Hum," Corwin said, tossing the card onto the middle of the table. Anne looked at it, but got nothing more from that than she had from the oddly-dressed elf's remarks. It was covered in angular squiggles that she assumed were writing, but which meant nothing to her.
"What language is that?" she asked, tilting her head. "Looks a bit like Klingon."
Corwin smiled wryly. "Old High Draconic, barely legible. It's an invitation. Well, really it's a summons, but it's phrased like an invitation." He picked up the card again, then read from it in a pompous voice:
"'His August and Terrible Majesty Bahamut VII, King of the Dragons of Alfheim, requests the pleasure of your company... '"
He tossed the card on the table again and grinned at Anne.
"Want to meet the king of the dragons?"
Valhalla wasn't what Anne had expected. It was a big, imposing building from outside, which was true to her expectations, but inside it was... strange. After a vestibule guarded by a uniformed porter, there seemed to be an infinitely long corridor, stretching away beyond the vanishing point. The corridor was lined with doors, and occasionally smaller hallways would branch off to the sides. As Corwin led her past one of them, Anne glanced down it and saw that it, too, appeared to be infinite.
That was a little mind-bending, so she chose to concentrate instead on following Corwin, who seemed to know where he was going. They negotiated several corners, went through a few doors (into still more endless marble hallways), and generally worked their way deeper and deeper into the labyrinth. In the distance, Anne could hear the faint sounds of swordplay, gunfire, shouting, and something that sounded a bit like a jazz combo.
The sharp tang of petroleum hit Anne's nostrils as she followed Corwin through another door. This one had looked like all the others from outside, but once they were through it, they were in a place that looked entirely different from the cool marble corridors of Valhalla. This was a big, wide-open, concrete-floored room with metal walls, utilitarian and clean, with huge, bright lights hanging from the high steel ceiling.
It reminded her quite a bit of Corwin's underground domain in New Avalon. This room wasn't as large as most of Corwin's subterranean chambers, but it had a similar sort of ambience, and the contents also put her in mind of his lair. It was full of small aerospacecraft, arranged in neat rows and surrounded by various technical-looking bits of machinery - maintenance equipment, most likely. Anne, not being really into military hardware, didn't recognize most of them, but she knew a fighter from a commercial craft, and these were all fighters of one type or another.
The room hummed with activity. Jumpsuited technicians of a dozen races moved here and there, carrying parts and tools, inspecting things, connecting hoses from the various machines to different craft. As Corwin and Anne entered the room, a slim woman with pale blonde hair detached herself from a group of techs and crossed to them with a welcoming look.
Corwin bent down and gave her a kiss as she approached.
"Lenneth," he said, smiling.
"My lord," she replied with an impish smile.
"Anne Cross, Lenneth Winternight," Corwin said, gesturing. "Lenneth is the Valkyrie mechanic."
"Good day to you, Lady Anne," Lenneth said with a bow. "I've heard so much about you."
Anne laughed - after the feast, she'd lost a good bit of the intimidation she'd felt about Asgard and its peoples - and said she hoped it was nothing too bad.
"Not at all," Lenneth replied, grinning. Then, turning the grin to Corwin, she went on, "I bet I know what you're here for."
"Is my Lightning ready?" Corwin asked as he started following her down one of the rows of smallcraft.
"You're going to Draconia, aren't you?" Lenneth asked. "I thought this would come, so I prepped her specially for you last night. Not that she wasn't ready anyway, of course, but she could always do with a touch-up. You know how these old British jets are."
They stopped at one of the revetments near the far end of the hangar, where three technicians were just completing the fueling of a sleek aircraft. It looked old to Anne's eyes - how old, she couldn't guess - and was obviously an atmospheric craft. Its swept-back wings, aerodynamic lines, and the massive air intake surrounding its nose cone spoke clearly to that. At the tail, the twin exhausts of its jet engines were arranged in an unusual shape like an over-under shotgun. It was painted a deep, glossy black with silver trim; its vertical tail fin was emblazoned with the skull-and-lightning sigil of the Valkyrie, and on the sides of the nose was the red and white roundel of the Asgardian defense forces.
"Beautiful," Corwin said. "Absolutely beautiful." He turned to Anne with a grin. "Let's go flying, shall we?"
As they hurtled toward Alfheim at nearly the speed of sound, Anne mused on the interesting contradiction that was Corwin's fondness for antique machinery. Here was a man whose province - quite literally - encompassed the cutting edge of vehicle technology, whose mother was the embodiment of the future itself, and yet so many of his things were old. His Griffon limousine. The HB-88 Jet Car. The One-Hit Wonder. And, well, this, an English Electric Lightning T.5 jet fighter, circa 1965.
So much of Corwin's favorite technology felt like this, too. The Lightning was a bit cramped, like all fighter craft tended to be, but it had a sort of welcoming solidity to it. The technology it contained was old but not creaky. Inside, it was quite like the HB-88 (if a bit more organized), and since that was the first example of Corwin's taste in old gear that Anne had ever encountered, it had become something of a benchmark to her.
And, like the HB-88, it could go like hell. Corwin was deliberately keeping below the overcast - and with today's weather, that was very low indeed - so that she could see things on the ground rushing past. This was deserted country, mountains too steep to farm and too barren for towns, so they weren't disturbing anyone but some goats by blasting through the valleys at 700 miles an hour. In the little rearview mirror on her side of the instrument panel, Anne could see nothing but a huge cloud of snow kicked up by their passage.
"Probably going to be some crappy weather at the border," Corwin's voice mused tinnily in the earphones built into her flight helmet. "There usually is. Let's see if we can get above this mess."
"OK," Anne agreed, or at least started to. Before she could get both syllables out, Corwin had twitched back on the control stick a bit and firewalled the throttles. The Lightning stood on its tail and headed for the sky at the top of what Anne's imagination fancifully depicted as a solid, visible column of noise.
They popped out of the cloud layer at 25,000 feet into the most brilliant blue sky Anne had ever seen - a markedly darker blue than it was when it could be seen from the ground - and sunlight flooded the cockpit, prompting both of them to snap down their helmets' tinted visors. Corwin leveled the jet off and kept the throttles wide open. The ride got eerily quiet.
Corwin glanced sideways at Anne. Because of the tinted visor she couldn't see his eyes, but the grin on the lower half of his face said enough. She laughed.
"You and your toys," she said fondly.
Corwin snapped the Lightning through a roll, drawing a delighted shriek from his passenger, then checked his heading and aimed the missile they were riding at Alfheim again.
An hour later they were on the ground. The Lightning looked a bit incongruous parked on the apron at Draconia International between the sleek Asgardian Air Service Longship-class airliners with their dragon's-head paint jobs, Anne thought, but she didn't give it too much consideration before her attention was grabbed by other matters.
They changed their clothes in the airport's restrooms, trading their flightsuits for clothes more suitable to a royal audience. Those clothes had somehow managed to remain presentable despite having been stuffed into the Lightning's miniscule baggage compartment in an equally miniscule bag, a feat that had more to do with the bag than the clothes. When they regrouped on the concourse, they were a much more impressive pair, she decked out in her Ash Knight's finery, he in a razor-creased Valkyrie dress uniform.
The architecture of Draconia was much like that of the rest of the celestial realm, as far as Anne's limited experience could tell her, but there were some interesting differences. The buildings were a little bigger and a little further apart than they were in Asgard, for example, and most of the shops were on the top rather than the bottom floors. The streets were cobbled and not very wide, without much vehicle traffic. They didn't have much foot traffic either, really, since most of the city's population preferred to fly.
Corwin had to guide Anne along, since so much of her attention was focused on the aerial traffic above them. He had expected that. He stole his own glances whenever he could get them, for that matter, because the skies over Draconia were always a fascinating sight.
There were two layers to the traffic pattern above the city. At rooftop level, most of the winged shapes passing from one building to another or cruising along the streets were humanoid but for their wings. Higher up, they were mostly dragons in their full glory, the sunlight (for it was not overcast here) glinting from scales of all the colors in the rainbow.
"Are all these people dragons?" Anne asked.
Corwin grinned. "Most of them," he said. "Pretty much all the flying ones. There are other races living in Draconia, like anywhere else - mountain elves and dwarves mostly - but you can see that the city's geared toward flyers."
"Why are so many of them in human form?"
"Efficiency," Corwin said. "The shops and common buildings would have to be huge to accommodate full-size dragons. That's why dragons never built cities until after they started trading with the other peoples of the Upper Worlds. Draconia started out as the crossroads of two trade routes, one from western Alfheim and one from Vanaheim. The elven, dwarven, and human traders started building shops and taverns in which to meet, and the dragons found it more convenient to go among them in their smaller shapes. Eventually they started building their own shops and whatnot."
"Where do they live?" Anne wondered.
Corwin gestured to the row of high, jagged mountains looming on the horizon beyond the city to the north. "In caves, like they always have," he said.
They were walking up a street that ran directly toward those mountains, sloping up at a significant angle - Anne could feel her calf muscles starting to ache from the climb - until the edge of the city, which lapped at the bases of those mountains like surf on a beach. At the top of the street, towering over all the other buildings of Draconia, was a tall white structure that was plainly a government building of some kind.
"That's the Dragon King's palace," Corwin confirmed. "That's where we're headed. It's built where it is because it basically covers the mouth of the king's ancient cave. He still lives there."
"How old is he?"
Corwin chuckled. "Put it this way. He's thought of as a well-established king by the dragons today - in his prime, you might say. When my grandfather was my age and Asgard was a little town with a well, Bahamut VII was considered a youthful and dynamic ruler."
Anne looked impressed. "... And he's the seventh?"
"The seventh to take the name Bahamut. There have been at least twenty Dragon Kings. They're an incredibly old people, even by Asgard's standards."
"What does he want to see you for?"
Corwin shrugged. "Not sure. I have a suspicion, but I'd rather not say anything until we see him."
That did little to quell the rising nervousness within Anne. She frowned at herself and pushed it down. She'd almost gotten over being intimidated (but not awed - she hoped she never got over being awed) by Asgard after a week there, and now this. She was beginning to wonder if she would ever feel entirely comfortable anywhere. The week had been a grand adventure indeed, but truth be told, she was starting to look forward to going home again.
"Home" itself was still kind of an odd concept to her, but that was a battle scar to be contemplated at another time.
They entered the great hall of the Dragon King's palace, which was opulent and beautiful, as Anne had expected. In addition to serving as the king's official residence, the palace was the center of Draconia's government, so there were a lot of elaborately-costumed people around, some with wings, some without, going here and there on inscrutably official errands.
As Corwin and Anne entered, a coppery-winged woman in a snappy blue uniform crossed to them with a smile.
"Lord Corwin," she said. "Welcome back. And you must be Lady Anne. Welcome to Draconia. Will you come with me, please?"
Their course took them deep into the building, into corridors of progressively older appearance. As they delved, Corwin shook his head and chuckled quietly.
"(What?)" Anne asked.
"(He's not making it easy for you,)" Corwin replied, sounding amused.
Before Anne could ask what he meant by that, they came to the end of the darkest, oldest-looking corridor yet - really more a tunnel than a hall. It ended in a roughly circular wall of age-darkened timbers pierced by an iron-banded double door.
"Go right in," said the uniformed woman, and then she left them there and went briskly back the way they'd come, her bootheels clacking sharply on the stone floor.
Corwin made sure his uniform tunic was straight, took a quick look at Anne's finery, then said, "Here we go. Just be cool. Dragons like manners, but you don't have to be stiff. Ready?"
"No," Anne replied.
Corwin grinned as if he hadn't heard her. "Great," he said, then opened the door and waved her through.
Half-expecting to find herself in an opulent audience chamber, Anne stepped through the door.
The room beyond wasn't a room at all; it was a cave. Cavern, really, in the biggest sense of the word. Anne couldn't see the back or sides of it, and the ceiling was only vaguely visible. She could sense its presence more than actually see it. The walls were smooth grey stone that looked almost as though it had been polished, but they weren't flat. Torches were affixed to it here and there, casting pools of yellowish light. Most of the illumination came from chandeliers hanging on chains from the indistinctly distant ceiling.
Most of the direct illumination, anyway. Below the torches and chandeliers, the room blazed with reflected light, light that bounced and shone and glittered from the biggest heap of treasure Anne had ever seen. It rolled from one side of the cavern to the other like sand dunes in a desert - gold coins, silver coins, jeweled swords, cups, dinnerware, pieces of armor, engraved firearms, loose gems, trophies, statuary...
... then she saw what rested atop all that treasure, and the treasure itself became somewhat insignificant.
Bahamut VII, King of the Dragons, had chosen not to assume his humanoid form for this audience. He lay upon his treasure hoard in his full glory, the biggest and mightiest of all the dragons of Alfheim on full display.
He was huge - at least two hundred feet long, though it was hard to tell for sure because he was coiled up slightly - and that didn't include the enormous ribbed wings that were folded loosely at his sides. A single claw would have no problem picking up a full grown horse, Anne guessed, or perhaps even more. His scales rippled like water over steel in the light of the cavern, but there was an iridescent sheen to them that made her wonder if she had the right metal. The spines that ran from the crest of his head all the way to the tip of his tail looked like they could cut solid pieces out of the wind.
As they walked in, he raised his head and turned to look at them, and Anne was mentally staggered, if not physically. His eyes were a deep, shining blue - the color of the sky they had just come through - and the presence in them as he focused on the two humans was enough to impact Anne's psychic shielding and nearly knock her over.
It wasn't an inimical presence, though - just incredibly strong, hard and brilliant. It was like standing under the noonday sun in the middle of a desert, except there was no sensation of heat.
Then he spoke, and his voice boomed around the room before deigning to be comprehensible to mere humans.
"Well. Young Lord Ravenhair. Welcome again to my kingdom. What news have you of my nephew?"
"He's well, Your Majesty," Corwin replied.
"Hnnh," the dragon grunted noncommittally. "Too busy courting his elf-maid to visit his uncle, apparently."
Corwin hesitated for a moment, looking for a delicate phrasing, then said, "He's had... difficulties... with her family."
The Dragon King drew back his head to regard the young god with a half-quizzical, half-annoyed look. "Her family? Fah! What business is it of theirs? In his place, I'd have burnt their freehold and eaten their cattle by now, to teach them their place." Lowering his head again, Bahamut fixed Corwin with a faintly reproachful look and added, "You've made him soft, boy."
Anne unsuccessfully suppressed a snort of laughter - given his awe-inspiring presence, there was something ineffably funny about the King of the Dragons grumping at Corwin this way. The sound died away into a squeak as Bahamut turned his scrutiny to her.
"And who might you be?" he asked. "No Æs, I should think... certainly neither of young Ravenhair's women, though you hold yourself a bit like the brash one. Ahhhh! You bear a splinter of the World-Tree and an Ironbridge blade. You must be Balder's golden girl. Well? Speak up!"
Corwin made to intervene. "Your Majesty, may I int - "
"No, you may not, boy," Bahamut interrupted him. "I asked her, didn't I?"
Anne glanced at Corwin with a nervous grin, then swept her skirts out to either side of her and dropped a full and proper curtsey.
"Your Majesty, my name is Anne Cross, Knight of the Ash Tree and Journeywoman of the Asagiri Katsujinkenryuu," she said, then paused and added, "Ah... you do me great honor by letting me see you in your true form."
As she said the last part, Anne winced a little internally. It struck her as kind of a dumb thing to say, but then again, it wasn't as though she had expected the Dragon King to speak to her. If she had, she'd have prepared remarks.
As it was, Bahamut's lip curled back slightly from his gleaming teeth in an expression that looked like a smile.
"Hnh. You flatter me," he said, sounding pleased. "There are much fairer beasts in my kingdom than I, but playing to an old dragon's vanity is never a bad move. You're welcome in Draconia, child. You did all Creation a service by bloodying my cousin's nose." He angled his head indicatively toward Corwin, then added, "Pray wait a few moments while I deal with this whelp, and I'll try to think of some suitable way of rewarding you."
Leaving her pondering this notion, Bahamut turned to Corwin. When he spoke again, his voice had lost most of its mocking gruffness and become a touch more formal.
"Nearly a score of years ago, your grandfather and I sealed a pact of amity between our peoples - the first such agreement ever made. You were the symbol of that accord... an honor that I know hasn't always rested easily on your shoulders," the Dragon King added with a wry little chuckle.
"Now you are a man," Bahamut went on, "and you stand ready to welcome your own firstborn into the world. As I honored you, so I wish to honor her, as an affirmation of my people's alliance with yours... and of my own affection for you."
Corwin blinked. He'd had his suspicions about this summons, but they hadn't included the direction he now saw this taking.
Behind the two humans, the door to Bahamut's cavern opened. Two winged and uniformed officers entered, carrying between them a smallish wooden chest banded in black iron and secured with an elaborate lock. They bore the chest to Corwin, then placed it on a small folding table one had carried in his free hand. The taller of the two produced an ornate iron key, plied the lock with it, and then swung the lid open to display the chest's contents. Dull orange light shone from within the box onto Corwin's face.
Anne edged across to stand next to him for a look, then made a low sound of surprise. The light - along with a good bit of heat - came from a bed of banked and glowing coals that filled the chest, and nestled in that bed was an egg the size of a bowling ball. Its shell was a dull red color, like iron in a fire.
"You know I have no children of my own," Bahamut told Corwin. "This egg comes from my dear sister Matalde the Red, who makes her lair in the Tindalos. I desire the child within to be the boon companion of your soon-to-be-born daughter, just as young Nall has been yours."
Corwin looked from the Dragon King's face to the egg and back.
"Your Majesty, I... I don't know what to say," he admitted. "It will be as you command."
Bahamut smiled. The two uniformed men locked up the case again and departed, leaving it on its stand before Corwin. Anne noticed that the lid bore an ornate Draconic inscription in what looked like gold.
"Send word to me when you return to Midgard," the Dragon King said, "and I will have the egg delivered to your home."
Corwin nodded. "I will. And... thank you, Your Majesty."
"Perhaps we shall establish a tradition, you and I," Bahamut said. "Your family line and mine may continue to walk together for generations to come."
Corwin smiled. "Generations come far apart in your family," he said.
The Dragon King chuckled. "True enough." Then he turned his attention back to Anne. "As for you, young knight, I believe I have just the thing."
So saying, he rummaged amid the coins at his feet for a moment - his movements impossibly delicate with such giant talons - before plucking out a single shining disc of metal and tossing it her way. She caught it, turned it over, and looked at it.
It was a big coin as coins went, covering nearly her entire palm, and it was thick and heavy for its size. It was cool to the touch and gleamed with the sheen of fine silver. The face Anne could see bore the bas-relief profile of an honest-looking, unpretentious elven woman, ringed around with Alvish script. On the reverse she found the image of a craggy mountain valley with a waterfall to one side, and more Alvish writing.
"It's an alventhaler," Bahamut said when she looked from the coin back to his face. "So called because they were minted in the town of Bergalventhal, ancestral seat of our old friends the mountain elves. The oldest money in Alfheim." In a confidential tone, the old dragon added, "The dwarves don't like to admit it, but they got the idea for coinage from Queen Gunnhildr, whose face you see there." Settling back on his hoard a bit, he added casually, "I believe you may know her great-great-grandniece."
Anne looked back at the coin, blinked, then turned her eyes back to the dragon and said in a slightly stunned voice, "... I can... see the resemblance. Thank you."
The Dragon King smiled slightly. "You're welcome. Now please take young Ravenhair somewhere, will you? I'm an old dragon and I need my rest."
Corwin grinned and bowed. "Good day, Your Majesty," he said, and the two of them left.
As they walked back up the tunnel toward the outer palace, Corwin said offhandedly,
"I do hope you're not too disappointed with your vacation, Juni-chan. I mean, Kate told me about all the reading you were planning to do, and you haven't gotten to any of it."
Anne gaped at him for a second, then laughed and smacked him on the back of the head.
"Nanna gave me a copy of one of the books I found in the library, and I've been reading it when you weren't looking," she said. Then she tilted her head and said, "Speaking of reading, what did the inscription on that chest say?"
Corwin laughed. "'Caution: Contents Extremely Hot'," he said.
Anne spent two more whirlwind days in Asgard, departing for Tomodachi with Corwin only at the last possible minute on Sunday night. Parting from Gunnr again was hard, but not as painful as the first time. With the alert in Asgard lifted, the elven Valkyrie had more freedom of movement than she had before, and though she did still have a job to do in Asgard, that meant at least that she could visit.
And, of course, Anne would be back to Asgard in her turn. She had no doubt whatsoever of that.
The only hint that someone had come into Akio Ohtori's office was the slight click of the latch as the door closed. From that pregnant, menacing silence, he knew exactly who had come in.
"Lady Kayura," he said, turning his chair away from the window.
Kayura stood at slender attention on the other side of his desk, her breathing slightly accelerated, her eyes narrowed. She had the usual reaction to him that most women did - and he knew how much she hated that in herself. There was always the chance that her vengeful fury would get the better of her, and she would attack him - another source of amusing uncertainty, as he knew perfectly well that she couldn't beat him.
He also had four things that she wanted very badly, and the ability to give her a fifth - if she did well and he succeeded. Moreover, he treated her with the appearance of respect, as no one in her life ever had before - and that alone combined with his skill at handling women would probably have been enough.
"You sent for me, Akio-sama," she said in her husky alto.
"I did," he agreed. "I need you to go back to Midgard, Lady Kayura. There are messages I need delivered; there is information I need gathered. And there is no one else who I trust to go."
Kayura considered his request. "What messages? What information?"
"Based on what you told me about Lord Venger attempting to subvert some of my underlings, I have decided it's time to rid ourselves of his posturing. I wish you to take a message to the man who he once called Master."
Kayura bristled. "Another Sith. They're all useless, Akio-sama. Their perverted reliance upon powers beyond themselves leaves them all weak and vulnerable to outside influence."
"Ah, but it is my influence they're vulnerable to, Kayura." He smiled, then watched her try to contain her twin, opposed desires to kill him and to melt at the sound of his voice. When she held herself to trembling attention, he continued, "However, I wish to make it clear to them that we are not looking to deal in trifles here. You will find one of this man's current apprentices at Sarji Station, in the company of a number of underlings. He's dispatched them there on some errand. Discover their mission, destroy the underlings and incapacitate the Sith. Leave this message behind - " (he slid an envelope marked with the seal of the Black Rose Order across his desk) " - and then complete the mission for them."
She frowned. "You would have me do their work for them?"
"I wish to point out our goodwill towards him." He favored her with an ironic smile and went on, "And also how sloppy are his minions. I don't care how you do this, Kayura - you may feel free to indulge your imagination in humiliating the Sith. I simply wish to make it clear to his master that he is dealing with someone worthy of respect."
"Roger Tremayne will not be a problem much longer." Akio smiled and laced his fingers together. "He has tangled with Saionji before, and come away near-dead. The next time he interferes with our resident psychotic's pet apprentice, I suspect he will re-learn that lesson to his detriment."
Kayura shook her head. "He'll betray you, Akio-sama. You should just let me cut his throat while he sleeps."
"Not yet, my dear," he said quietly. "I still have use for him for a little while longer." He slid her another envelope, this one entirely black. "Everything you require that you do not already have is in here. Go and show these fools exactly who they are dealing with, if you would."
She took up both envelopes, studied the outside of the black one, then slid both inside her armor. "Yes, Akio-sama," she said, smiled viciously, and disappeared.
Akio leaned back in his chair and smiled thoughtfully. She really was lovely, but there was no point in playing with her. And she was very, very effective. A pity the Kaneko had massacred her cousins 70 years ago. He could have made good use of them, though of course they would not have been as easy to manipulate as she was.
He chuckled darkly to himself, then picked up the phone on his desk and said, "Nanami. I want to see your report on the woman you and Touga encountered in New Avalon again."
Courtney Whitmore slumped back in her chair, listening to the February wind gently rattle the windows and waiting for the first bell of classes to announce the end of winter break and the return to the school year. Various students were filtering in to claim their chairs for the first period of AP History, some of them talking about their breaks, others wondering what the homework load was going to be like that evening.
Katherine Thorington drifted in, looking freckly and cheerful and sun-warmed, followed by Miaka Yuuki and Yui Hongo, who both looked thoroughly sleep-deprived.
"What happened to you?" Courtney asked them.
Yui shook her head. "Stayed up too late focusing lights last night - it's tech week. We open Friday night."
"Oh, right." Courtney grinned. "Should I get tickets?"
"Do not," Yui groaned, "ask me that question right now. Ask Miaka."
"Of course you should get tickets," Miaka said firmly. "Where's Anne?"
"I dunno," Katherine said. "I thought she said she was staying home for winter break, but - "
As if summoned by her name, Anne hurried into the room just as the bell rang, flopped down in the chair next to Courtney, then yelped and shifted her position slightly. Riding on her right shoulder was a brand new sword, new enough that she apparently wasn't used to it being there. She looked both exhausted and pleased with herself.
Her four friends' eyes flashed from the sword to her face.
"Wow!" Courtney whispered as they waited for Professor Jewell to come into the classroom. "When did you get that?"
Anne's grin nearly split her face. "Monday," she said. "If you want to come help me shelve a lot of books tonight, I'll even tell you how."
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
First Movement: Ash Knight
in order of appearance
Benjamin D. Hutchins
and Anne Cross
With the gracious aid of
The Usual Suspects
And the usual debts to
A middling horde of source creators
The weather was surprisingly mild for Jotunheim in late February, which is to say it was only snowing about a quarter-inch per hour and the wind was gusting to no more than 40 miles per hour out of the northeast. The ranger on duty at Tindalos National Park Gate 17, one of the smallest and least-used entrances to the park at the best of times, was surprised to see anyone out this far in any sort of weather, much less one of the Small Folk - and on horseback, no less.
"Well, how about that," he said, emerging from his guard shack and crouching next to the road. "You're a long way from home, shortpockets. You get lost looking for the highway to Utgard?"
"No," said the black-cloaked, hooded figure who sat astride a matching horse. The guard had never seen a horse that was entirely black before; usually they had a bit of white on them somewhere, on the face or the legs, but this one appeared to have no other color anywhere.
"I'm exactly where I mean to be," the man continued. He brushed back his hood, revealing hair as jet-black as his cloak and his horse - except for a silver shock in front that drooped over the Æsir brand on his forehead.
The Jotun park ranger blinked, wondering when the surprises would stop with this strange visitor. "You mean to be riding into the Tindalos at this time of year? Here? Do you know where you are?" He gestured up the road, to the hulking mass of stone and ice that lay mostly obscured by the snow and cloud a few miles further on. "That's not just any Jotun mountain, friend. That there's Ortrûlcánd. Matalde the Red makes her lair there."
The visitor nodded. "I know."
"You mean to visit her?" The ranger scratched his head, dumbfounded, then shrugged. "Well, it's your funeral, Asgardian. Frankly, I'm amazed you made it this far. No one ever reaches this post on horseback. Horses won't come anywhere near Ortrûlcánd. The very smell of the place drives them mad with fear miles away."
Corwin smiled very slightly.
"Svartlyn fears nothing," he said, and then he put up his hood and rode on into the Tindalos.
The ranger stood looking after him until he and his black horse disappeared into the snow. Then, shaking his head, he turned and went back into his hut.
Corwin was passenger more than pilot for the last league or so of the journey, letting Svartlyn find her way along a trail that was more impression than reality. If the surroundings of Mount Firebrand really did have some power to induce fear in horses, she ignored it. Indeed, when they reached the mouth of a cave halfway up the mountain's flank, she seemed annoyed that Corwin was leaving her there; she pawed at the ground, whickering and nudging him with her nose, as he dismounted and dropped the reins to the cavern floor.
<Easy, girl,> he said to her in Norse. <It's not because I think you'd fear Matalde.> Then, with a wry smile, he gave her a sugar cube and added, <If anything, I'm afraid you'd start a fight.>
Svartlyn snorted and tossed her head, as if to ridicule the very thought.
<I'll be back shortly,> said Corwin. <I have to do this alone.>
He made his way into the mountain's interior by the light of an International Police Space Force handlamp, which was less romantic than a torch or bullseye lantern but a good deal more practical, and eventually he emerged from the ever-descending tunnel into the hollow heart of Ortrûlcánd. The heat, which had been growing steadily as he descended, hit him in the face like the blast from an opened oven as he stepped out into the main chamber. There was no open pool of magma here, as the popular conceptions of volcanoes so often pictured it, but from the great heat radiating from the stone platform in the center of the room, a person could be forgiven for expecting it.
That platform stood perhaps twenty feet high and was fifty yards or more in diameter. Basking atop its flat surface lay the simultaneously sinuous and robust shape of a great dragon.
Unlike Corwin's childhood companion Nall, who was by lineage a prince of the panther dragons of northeastern Alfheim and was thus covered in dense white fur, Matalde the Red was a western wyrm - one of the classic dragons of European myth - and her hide was armored with a million shining scales. Westerns, Corwin knew, came in all the colors of the rainbow and more besides, including a good many whose scales had the crystalline glint of polished gemstones. Matalde's, on the other hand, had a metallic cast in the dim light filtering into her lair from the opening at Mount Firebrand's pinnacle high above. They were a dull cherry red, the color of hot iron, and seemed almost to glow from within like an overstoked stove.
Sensing his presence, Matalde stirred, then turned her great head and opened eyes the color of molten steel.
Juniper thought I was throwing her in at the deep end when we visited King Bahamut, thought Corwin wryly. I wonder what she'd have made of Matalde...
<Ah. Bahamut's godling protégé,> Matalde said, speaking Norse in a voice like a bubbling crucible. <I trust you are taking proper care of my egg.>
<Hail, Matalde Ironwingéd, Terror of the Tindalos. Corwin Ravenhair of the Æsir greets you,> Corwin replied, bowing. <Your egg is well-looked-after; indeed, I came to thank you personally for placing the child within in my care. It means much to me that the Draconic Alliance wishes to continue the tradition that Nallénskuldgändr and I began - and that you yourself would entrust my family with such a boon.>
Matalde regarded him for a few seconds.
<I did not do it for you, Æs,> she said, <nor for your posterity. I did it because King Bahamut asked of me the one favor he has ever sought from me in my life. Because he is my liege lord, because he is my brother, and because he made it a request and not a command, I agreed. Had he demanded it as king, there would have been blood, I think... but he is wise.>
<That he is,> Corwin agreed. <At any rate, regardless of your reasons, I am grateful for your trust, and for the chance to welcome one of your august bloodline to my family.>
This elicited another few seconds' silent contemplation; then Matalde inclined her head slightly and said, <I accept your thanks. Know that it was not a decision made lightly, to entrust my only offspring to a barely-bearded Æs and a svartelven witch. And know one thing more before you leave my lair.>
Matalde rose to her feet then, standing at the edge of the platform looking down at Corwin, and stretched out her wings to their full span, the spikes along her spinal ridge bristling, her foretalons crumbling the stone at the edge of her bed. Gazing at him with a terrible solemnity in her molten-steel eyes, she told him,
<If any harm comes to my little one, Corwin Skuldsson, I will hold you personally responsible... and there will be nowhere in the Ten Worlds you can hide from me.>
Corwin didn't quail before the promise of the ancient wyrm's wrath. Instead, he looked straight back into her eyes and replied with cold precision in an older, more formal form of the Asgardian language,
<Thy child and mine will be companions, Red One. If aught harm comes to them, thy anger will be as nothing compared to mine, and thy vengeance will wait until mine is complete. Are we in accord?>
Matalde stared at him for a few seconds longer, and then one corner of her colossal mouth quirked into a faint smile, baring a single gleaming steel-colored fang.
<Well-bargained and done, Swordforger,> she said with a tone of faint respect, furling her wings and relaxing her spines. <Now be on your way. I tire of bandying words with you in your clumsy tongue.>
I would happily have conversed in Draconic, Corwin replied with a bow, had you first addressed me thus.
Matalde's tiny smile broadened imperceptibly, becoming a little bit of a smirk as she narrowed her eyes. I shall remember that, she replied, but be off anyway. And see that you give my child a suitable name. "Nallénskuldgändr" cannot even be rendered properly in dragonscript.
That was Nall's choice, not ours, Corwin told her, but I will bear it in mind. Good day to you, Dread Matalde, he added, bowing, and then he left.
If the Jotun park ranger had been surprised to see Corwin arrive on horseback, and more surprised to see them head off up the Ortrûlcánd trail, he was most surprised to see them return just before nightfall, apparently unharmed.
"Didn't think I'd ever see your lordship again," he admitted as he put his head out the window of his hut to observe the young Æs pass by. "Turn back before reaching the mountain, did you?"
"No," Corwin replied; then, with a faint smile, he added, "Matalde and I have an understanding."
Then he rode away into the gathering dusk, leaving the ranger once again scratching his head.
Ranger Gjalaf Haraldsson
Matalde the Red
E P U (colour) 2014