The Shrine Maiden meditated on the love she felt for her earnest initiates and channeled that Compassion into her lamp. It bathed her small writing desk in soft, yellow light. As far as empathokinetic foci went, the lamp was simple. Most foci these days were complicated; however, her lamp only did one thing. The Maiden preferred simple. Simple foci never failed in the field.
The brightly lit desk stood as an island in the sea of darkness that was the rest of the safe house. Being this far out was a risk nowadays. She didn’t like that she and her shrine were this close to the encroaching Other Power. However, intelligence had to be gathered on Platicore’s forces even if there wasn’t that much activity this far out. She wondered why the High Archon had sent her and her shrine out here. Still, regardless of the conditions, initiates of Tranquility had to be trained, and the field was the best place to do it.
She hadn’t planned to get trapped this far out. She should have returned to the cloister by now. Her initiates were young, and they could be rash as youths often were. Though perhaps the Maiden shouldn’t have thought of them as young since she was only a few years removed from being in an initiate herself. However, the things she had seen in the the war against the Ardent Empire… these had mentally matured the Maiden well beyond her youthful appearance.
The Shrine Maiden offered a prayer, asking the High Spirits to protect her initiates at the cloister. She prayed her deacons would continue to intone Tranquility and have faith that she would return. She would return, after all; she just needed to wait for the safety of the shadows of the night before leaving.
Perhaps she was being overly cautious; Platicore’s abominations had never seemed particularly skilled at detecting Intonations of Tranquility, but the Shrine Maiden didn’t get this far by taking unnecessary risks. Regardless, she had gone over all the intel she could, and all she had to do was write up her report to send to the capital.
The Shrine Maiden fished a silencer focus from the folds of her large sash. She gently laid the stick-like object on the desk, careful to not let the focus get damaged. Hers was old and in need of repairs. It was hard to find Focus Shapers who made Tranquility-powered silencers now; Most made silencers powered by Detachment. That thought chilled the Maiden to the bone. How far had her people fallen?
She pushed her disappointment from her mind. This wasn’t the time to worry about that. She channeled Tranquility into the silencer, and the sounds of the forest outside her safe house hushed. If anyone had been listening in on her, they wouldn’t hear anything now without stepping into the “bubble” of sound around the focus. The Maiden was confident she’d make anyone who dared try doing so regret that decision.
She pulled her quill from the sleeves of of her robe with her right hand. She channeled Boldness into the quill and started to write an intelligence report onto the desk itself. She scribed her report in glowing, emerald green letters. The Maiden couldn’t help but feel disappointed that there wasn’t much of consequence to say. Platicore’s troops had been slowly moving out of this area for almost a full year now. Only a few platoons remained, gathering what resources they could to bring to his main army. They’d be on the move soon. The Other Power was coming after all.
The Maiden bit her thumbnail as she wondered why her shrine hadn’t been asked to retreat either. Only fools would remain here. Platicore was many things: insane, a deceiver, a inciter of dark emotions, but not a fool. Who knew when the Other Power would come? Why was the High Archon keeping her shrine here? She had half a mind to take her and her shrine back to the capital; however, if she did so, she’d be acting against orders. The Empress had been very strict against those who acted against orders… not that that witch had any moral high ground to stand on.
The Maiden continued to scrawl into the desk with her quill. She did her best to make the report sound dignified, as a report from the Tranquil Discipline should be. Yet she also did her best to make her shrine’s given mission sound as pointless as possible. She needed to make the Vice-Archon of Tranquility and especially the High Archon see that she and her shrine would be best deployed elsewhere, closer to the action and further from the Other Power.
She signed the report and stopped channeling Boldness into the quill. She touched a hand to the desk and channeled Urgency. The glowing green letters pooled into the intricately etched runes of the desk. With a flash, the emerald glow disappeared and her message had been sent to the Vice-Archon of Tranquility who would use it to further coordinate the Empire’s covert efforts.
The Maiden wanted to write further and send a message to her shrine at the cloister. But what if Platicore’s goons had noticed someone sending messages across the Empathic Plane? Another message could reveal her position. That would be sloppy. She’d have to fight her way back to the cloister. No, it was best to exercise discipline. Her shrine was trained well. They’d wait for her.
The Maiden reached under her cot and pulled out a small wooden case. She needed to relax; she opened her case she did her best to keep intoning Tranquility, though she could feel Excitement beginning to undertone. Though it was unlikely any empathically sensitive abomination might be searching this area, it was never good for a Shrine Maiden of Tranquility to let her emotions effervesce.
She paused as she quieted her undertone. Once tamed, she reached into the case and pulled out her barauta by its short neck. She tuned the instrument’s strings carefully. If they snapped here in the field it would be months before she could get it repaired. Then what would she do to destress? Some days it felt like the music of her barauta was the only thing keeping her sane in this increasingly mad world.
Fully tuned, the Maiden gripped the neck of the barauta firmly with her right hand. With her left hand she grabbed the bow from the case and drew the bow across the strings. The notes played pure and the Maiden let the music bounce off the bubble of her silencer focus. It didn’t sound perfect; it never did sound “right” bouncing off of the empathokinetic bubble. Regardless of the sound quality, while she played she didn’t have any worries or concerns. She didn’t even have to concentrate to intone Tranquility; she simply existed as one with the music.
She swayed slightly as she played, enjoying the calm of her lilting music. It was so nice to have something constant that she could rely upon. Sometimes, when she completely melted into the melodies she weaved, she felt so Tranquil that not even the storm of battle could rouse her. The peace music could inspire was…
Someone was in the safe house.
The Maiden paused on a note but kept playing and kept her eyes closed. She had felt it. She no longer concentrated on the music but on what she felt. The emotions were fainter than usual; normally that would mean the person was intoning Tranquility but Platicore’s abominations couldn’t channel Tranquility. More likely they were intoning Detachment to hide their emotions.
That wouldn’t work against her. The Maiden could feel this intruder.
Whoever or whatever the intruder was, he had gotten past the locks and passwords on the hidden door. This would indicate someone with great skill at infiltration. But if they were so good at infiltration why could the Maiden also feel an overtone of Jubilation and an undertone of Whimsy? Surely someone skilled enough to both detect and bypass the safe house’s defenses would also be disciplined enough to not undertone and especially not overtone.
Then again, Platicore’s abominations were focus-human hybrids. Their powers did not come from years of study and practice. Perhaps this was a newly created abomination thinking to advance by killing some obscure deacon of Tranquility in their own domain. If so, they were in for a rude surprise.
The Maiden continued to sway to the music. She twisted so that the intruder would be standing in the supposed “blind spot” her ruby red bangs created. The intruder would think they couldn’t be seen. But the Maiden had always seen the world much clearly through her emotions than she had with her eyes.
The intruder was on the edges of the silence bubble. The overtones and undertones of Jubilation and Whimsy heightened. Why Jubilance and Whimsy? The Maiden would have expected an assassin to be feeling Anticipation, Unease, Smugness, or maybe Determination. These emotions didn’t make sense. Something was amiss.
The Maiden decided she wouldn’t kill the intruder with a single strike. It was risky but she felt uneasy about killing so quickly; she had learned that when she hesitated on a kill it was often the High Spirits quietly guiding her.
She reached into the Empathic Plane with her mind and mentally gripped of one of her daggers. She continued to play, and waited for the intruder to make the first move.
The intruder showed no patience and stepped right into the bubble. The Maiden dropped her bow and barauta. She pulled her dagger from the Empathic Plane and willed it into her left hand. She darted forward. With her her free hand, she struck the intruder in the stomach with an open palm. A woman grunted. Instead of light bending, the Maiden felt a spray of mist coalesce around the intruder’s body.
The intruder didn’t respond quickly- a novice in close-quarters. The Maiden planted her right foot behind the intruder’s ankle. She struck again with her open right palm and knocked her foe to the floor. She pressed her dagger to the intruder’s throat before the intruder’s head even hit the ground.
The intruder’s head hit the ground. She groaned with pain. The mist rippled off the intruder’s body, exposing a tiny woman with a round face that somehow looked happy despite wincing in pain. Hair as pink as a Taris sunset splashed out of the mist and splayed over the floor like spilled taikoberry wine. The Maiden gasped in shock and pulled the dagger from the woman’s neck. “Sister ƺ⊈Ϧ≭Ȝ?”
The pink haired woman groaned and rubbed the back of her head. Despite the pain the woman kept on grinning. “I left the Tranquil Discipline a long time ago, ⌬⎅Ϣ₪⍝. It’s merely Scholar ƺ⊈Ϧ≭Ȝ now.”
“Scholar?” the Maiden asked with shock. “How can you have the title of Scholar? You only forsook our order five years ago.”
The Scholar frowned and shoved the Maiden off of her chest. “Hello to you too.” Her frown only lasted a second before a triumphant grin returned. “And, yes, I reached Scholar last year. Just because I sucked at hiding my overtones while in the Tranquil Discipline doesn’t mean I was lying about being a genius.”
“Besides,” the Scholar continued as she stood back up, her pink hair hanging all the way down to her ankles, “I didn’t forsake the order. I recanted my vows. I’m not some heretic, ⌬⎅Ϣ₪⍝.”
The Maiden shook her head. “I… ƺ⊈Ϧ≭Ȝ, what are you doing here? How are you even here? How did you know about his place. The only people who should know about this place are my deacons!”
The Scholar smirked and fished a piece of parchment from the sleeves of her dress. “It helps that I had this.”
The Maiden took the paper and examined it. Her finger hesitated at the familiar crest on the parchment’s wax seal. “The seal of the Princess? How did…”
“Yup. As soon as I flashed that, displayed my exceptional charm, and asked where you were, your precious little deacons were all too happy to send me to your little safe house. Young deacons you got. Your shrine is practically a nursery.”
The Maiden stared at the Princess’s seal in amazement. “I… wait, how did you get here without being seen? You were practically radiating Jubilance! How did you not get spotted by Platicore’s men?”
The Scholar scoffed, “You make it sound like this place is crawling with abominations. I read the intel you sent. They spend most of their days in the mines. No one is worried about this stupid speck in the middle of the war.” With a flourish the Scholar produced a light blue stick from her other sleeve, “But I did have the help of this. A little something I cooked up for my scholarship project. Took a year and a half to work out the kinks. You channel a little Tranquility in and, tadaa, bends light around you using empathokinetically charged water. Lets someone even as charismatic as myself do a bit of what a Priestess like you can do.”
“You never could just do things the way you were supposed to, Sister.”
The Scholar shrugged and twirled the focus in her hand. “Don’t call me Sister. I ‘forsook’ that title long ago. Never could get the hang of how things are ‘supposed to’ be done. It’s why I recanted, Priestess.”
The Maiden winced. “I haven’t been a Priestess for three years. I’m…”
“I’ve heard,” the Scholar chirped. “Youngest Shrine Maiden in seven centuries.” She then sighed, “My grandpa was always so proud of you.” Her Jubilation waned.
The Maiden raised an eyebrow. “I know he’s your grandfather and that you recanted, but you should still refer to him as Vice-Archon of Tranquility.”
The Scholar’s Jubilation was snuffed out by Sorrow. “He’s dead, ⌬⎅Ϣ₪⍝.”
The Maiden froze. “D…dead?”
“I’m sorry to be the one to give the news to you. I know he was your idol. But he died two months ago.”
The Maiden staggered back onto her cot. Anger and Denial began to overtone. She struggled to intone Tranquility. “But, no, that can’t be true. I’m… I’m a Maiden. If the Vice-Archon died they would have told me.”
The Scholar glared and she began to intone Malice. “If they told you then you’d have been required to return to the capital and help choose the next Vice-Archon of Tranquility. They definitely didn’t want that. You may be younger, but traditionalists within the church would have voted for you.”
The Maiden intoned Tranquility as hard as she could. “Please, don’t intone Malice. It’s a sin.” The Scholar said nothing but she gave a nod and stopped intoning Anger. The Maiden recomposed herself and sighed, “Who is they?”
The Scholar rolled her eyes. “Come now. The Princess allowed me to read your reports. Isn’t it a little suspicious to you that they sent their best Maiden to a location that is, by all accounts, pointless? Away from the warzone where you’d be’d connected to goings on in the capital?”
“I… the High Archon himself sent me here. There must be some reason he…”
“The High Archon?” the Scholar laughed. She intoned Tranquility but the Maiden could feel her old friend letting Disdain undertone. “The High Archon is sleeping with the Empress!”
The Maiden froze. “What?”
“If the rumors I’m finding are true, he’s been doing so for years. Maybe even a decade.”
The Maiden gripped the Scholar’s forearm. “You’re sure about this?”
The Scholar nodded. “I am not sure how long but they’ve been sleeping together. I found it in my grandpa’s journals. His secret ones he hid away and told my mother to find in case of his sudden death.” The Scholar bowed her head. “Sadly I think I knew before he did. I’ve been moving up in the royal social circles. The Empress’s dalliances with the High Archon is somewhat of an open secret amongst them.”
The Maiden shook her head. “We’ll alert the six Vice-Archons, call an Inquisition, and…”
The Scholar winced. “And get nowhere.”
“Sister, if we don’t call an Inquisition we can’t depose the High Archon! The Church of the High Spirits is supposed to be the check against corruption in the Royal Courts. The Church is literally in bed with the Empress. We cannot perform our duty as a check against her power if…”
The Scholar put consoling hands on her friend’s shoulders. “⌬⎅Ϣ₪⍝, we can’t depose the High Archon. They purposefully withheld the knowledge of my grandpa’s death from you because you were the only person who would have stood a chance at replacing him. The other Shrine Stewards and Maidens were all either corrupt enough or intimidated into voting for Steward Liff.”
The Maiden gasped. She held her hands over her mouth. “Steward Liff is being put forth for Vice-Archon of Tranquility? It is known he Intones Detachment and lays with whores. If it weren’t for the evidence I know the Empress’s stooges helped falsify he…”
“He’s not being put forth for Vice-Archon of Tranquility, my friend. He is the Archon of Tranquility. That’s who had been getting your most recent reports. They held the vote as quickly as possible. They made sure you couldn’t be there. You would have been the only candidate the Stewards and Maidens who still obey the edicts of the High Spirits would have had the courage to stand behind.”
The Maiden buried her face in her hands and began to weep. She intoned Tranquility to no avail. Despair overtoned. “If that is true, then of the six Vice-Archons, three are corrupt. Even if we called an Inquisition on the High Archon it would end in a tie and he’d remain in power. The Church was the only chance we had turning the people back to the High Spirits. The High Spirits were our only chance at escaping the Other Power. We have damned ourselves.”
The Scholar sat down with the Maiden on her cot and embraced her. “The Princess agrees.”
“What is the point then?” the Maiden asked between sobs. “What is the point of fighting? The servants of the Lower Spirits have already won and our people will die.”
“Yeah,” The Scholar agreed. “The Ardent Empire is doomed. Platicore is doomed. The Other Power will consume us all and the Lower Spirits have won the souls of most of our people. But perhaps it doesn’t have to be in vain.”
The Maiden dried her eyes. “What do you mean?”
“The Princess agrees. There is nothing we can do to save the Ardent Empire. But there might be something we can do to protect others from the Other Power. The Princess has a plan but she’ll need you for it to work. You have the biggest part to play.” The Scholar tried to cheer her up with a smirk. “I would have never guessed you and the Princess had been best friends as children. Or that you are the daughter of a Duke. Tell me, why did someone of your high birth join the Tranquil Discipline?”
Oh dear. The Scholar knew this? No doubt she knew a lot more than she was letting on. The teasing would be ceaseless. The Maiden tried to steer the topic back to important matters that didn’t concern her history. “If the Princess needs me then then we have a problem. I’m stuck out here. I’d gladly come back to the capital but if what you say is true they intend for me to stay here until the Other Power consumes this entire location. If I leave my posting Steward Liff, the High Archon, and the Empress will all have me executed for abandoning my post. They’ve backed me into a corner.”
The Scholar nodded though the Maiden thought she could feel an undertone of Mischief and Triumph in her friend. “That they have. So if you were to show up at the capital, you’d have to have one amazing reason to be there. I mean, you know, if we want to avoid having you executed for desertion.”
The Maiden sighed, “I don’t suppose you have one. I know I don’t. Being stationed out here gives me nothing of worth I can report on.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” the Scholar teased. “After all, you’re going to tell everyone in the capital you have intel on the Other Power.”
The Maiden raised an eyebrow. “The Other Power. You want me to make something up? To lie?”
“Before this is over, my friend, we will be telling a great many falsehoods and you’re going to have to be comfortable with that,” said the Scholar with uncharacteristic seriousness. “But you will not be lying about having intel on the Other Power. I’m going to give it to you.”
The Maiden shot up to her feet. “You have intel on the Other Power?” She gripped the Scholar by the shoulders. “How?”
“Come now,” the Scholar chided her old friend. “Don’t tell me you didn’t believe all my claims of being a brilliant genius. I made them an awful lot. I had hoped my repetition would convince you of it.”
“How, ƺ⊈Ϧ≭Ȝ? No soldier has ever returned from the Other Power’s veil. All of the academic’s tools have failed to pierce it. Not even the High Spirits, though their influence seems to slow it down, have given any revelation on its nature. How do you have intel?”
The Scholar shrugged, “It’s a bit technical, but in layman’s terms, the Other Power’s veil will fall into specific noise patterns. Give me enough time to scan it I’m able to find an empathic pattern with a device of my own creation. I then subtract out the pattern from the rest of my scan and I can get, very brief glimpses past the veil. This has allowed me to create a new kind of focus, a weapon that, if used properly, could allow someone to fight the horrors from the veil.”
“Th… this could change everything,” the Maiden said, intoning Hope. “We could strike back and…”
The Scholar intoned Caution. “It could have changed everything. Had I discovered this years ago. The foci I’m making, they take so very, very long to make. If I had a team making them it could go faster but I dare not let these foci fall into the Empress’s hands.”
The Maiden squared her jaw. “No one knows what you’ve learned of the Other Power?”
“Only the Princess.”
“So then, the plan is for you to tell me and I will reveal this knowledge when I arrive back in the capital?”
The Scholar nodded. “They can’t very well execute you if you are the only person with Other Power intel. Returning to the center of our people’s power would have been the only responsible thing to do in that situation.”
The Maiden nodded and began to pace the small room. “And how will I claim to have obtained this knowledge?”
The Scholar waved her hand. “Oh we’ll give them some holy tripe about prayers and the High Spirits giving you a vision. Everyone else in the central courts is so corrupt that they won’t be able to say you’re lying. From their perspective, you may very well be the only person in the higher seats of the clergy that still clings to quote-unquote old ways. And on the off-chance you might receive another vision, they won’t dare kill you like they did my grandpa.”
The Maiden scowled, fighting the urge to intone Disdain. “Do they realize there is no hope for the Empire?”
The Scholar shook her head. “They have a plan of survival. They plan to seek asylum on newly developing worlds far away from this doomed sector of the universe. They plan to do this through some newly designed Circles.”
The Maiden raised an eyebrow. “Through Circles? But I thought the Other Power had long since destroyed the waystones that connected the Circles to the Empire’s other worlds?”
“It has,” the Scholar confirmed, “but these new Circles don’t require waystones. If built properly they simply connect our world to the world on the other end via the Empathic Plane. The difficult part is the device requires someone to be building it on the other side.”
The Maiden tossed her hands up, “And how are they doing that? If the world is so far away that the Other Power has no influence there, there is no way we…”
“The Empress is having her best academics connect to the people of these worlds. The world she seeks is called Terra. It’s people are young, just barely learning to use tools. We are using empathic slumber projections to impersonate their gods and showing them how to build the connecting Circle. She wants these Terrans as slaves and worshipers.”
The Maiden briefly intoned Rage before catching herself. She instead intoned Indignation. “The Empress is having us impersonate deity? Does her blasphemy know no bounds?”
“It really doesn’t. Luckily for us, as I have said, I’ve been moving my way up in the social circles of the royal courts.” The Scholar smirked and intoned Confidence, though the Maiden could feel it bordering on intoning Pride. “I have convinced her to let me head up the project. It’s part of the Princess’s plan. We aren’t going to let the Empress bring her tyranny and blasphemy to another world and enslave the Terran people like she were some goddess. Our people are rotten to the core and our Empire deserves its fate. But if we play our cards right, we may be able to use this new Circle to give the people of Terra a chance to defend themselves when the Other Power finally makes its way there.”
The Maiden sighed. “So, this is it then? The Princess’s plan… it will make our end mean something?”
“That it will,” the Scholar said whilst intoning Confidence and Reservation.
The Maiden nodded. She hadn’t seen the Princess since they were little girls in the royal courts. She was glad to hear her mother’s rotten influence hadn’t worn her righteousness down. She was ready to watch her people’s extinction if it meant giving someone else a chance to survive. It was a noble goal. A righteous goal.
The Maiden offered a silent prayer to the High Spirits for guidance. A warm feeling grew in her heart. The High Spirits weren’t normally so quick to respond. Or so clear. This was the path the Maiden was meant to walk.
The Shrine Maiden smiled. “Very well. We need to get a move on then. We have a lot of work to do on our way to the end of the world.”
“A lot of work to do on our way to the end of the world?” Vivian laughed. “I’m a total movie buff and even I think that sounds corny.”
Angela smiled and continued to type on her aging laptop. She looked so out of place dressed for school when everyone else was in their sleepwear. “I like it. Sounds dramatic. Shows like the Shrine Maiden understood the gravity of the full situation.”
Robynne shook her head. She hadn’t expected that telling Vivian she had seen a vision would spawn an impromptu breakfast meeting. Then again, she wouldn’t have been stuffing her face with Kara’s pancakes if this meeting hadn’t occurred. She supposed it was a push in the end. “Dramatic or not, I just am still confused on a couple of issues.”
Mallory shoved another pancake into her face. The way she was practically inhaling the things let Robynne know Eli’s sister still had some healing to do. Unless she always ate like this. She was an athlete after all. “What issues you confused on, Ace?”
Robynne started numbering things on her finger. “Well, first, the fact that they decided to just let their society die? Why not come up with a different plan? One where they get the few people who obey their arbitrary emotion rules and abscond with them to Earth?”
Angela spoke up first, “If you did that how would you stop the Empress from doing the same?”
“You leave a bomb or something at the circle when you port through,” Robynne explained with a little annoyance, “You know, burn the bridge after crossing over.”
“If it were that simple,” Mallory countered, “I’m certain the Scholar would have thought of something.”
Vivian nodded. “Darn tootin’!” The impish girl then nearly swallowed a pancake whole.
“I don’t know,” Robynne sighed. “I just get the feeling they left options off the table. When it’s the end of the world it feels like they shouldn’t be leaving any option off the table.”
Noriko spoke up while stirring some berries into a bowl of Greek yogurt. “Obviously I haven’t had any of these visions, but it seems to me the plan you’re suggesting Robynne has a problem. If you wanted to get just the followers of the High Spirits through the Circle, you’re proposing is a covert human smuggling and escape mission. Also, ideally you’d want enough people to repopulate your society and maintain a viable gene pool so you’d need to smuggle out somewhere around one-hundred fifty people. It’d be very hard to perform that mission without the Empress finding out and either sabotaging or even co-opting the attempt.”
Robynne leaned back in her chair and tapped her fork to her plate. “I suppose that would have a lot more moving parts than a suicide pact.”
Noriko shook her head. “A suicide pact is a rather crude way to describe the mission. Your past lives had a mission to prevent an objective, Earth, from being invaded by three different enemies and to send weapons to Earth in case those enemies arrived anyway.”
“Yeah!” Vivian chirped. “So think of it less like a suicide pact and more like an extremely delayed supply drop involving emotion-weapons and our souls.”
Mallory stopped mid-chew and sighed. “You know, I was far more comfortable with this idea of what our past lives did when I didn’t think of it as a supply drop involving my soul.”
Vivian shrugged, “Does it help if I point out it was Robynne’s past life who was responsible for that part of the job?”
Mallory shook her head, “Not really. Because I don’t like the idea of dropping my soul off in the lost and found. Plus you were in charge of the weapons. That’s just irresponsible of Past Lives Us. You’re the last person who should be in charge of weapons. I’m now in Robynne’s camp; this was a bad plan.”
Angela sighed. “I think Robynne’s observation has merit in as far as our past selves seemed to never consider another option. However, I just assume they had a good reason for it. From all our visions it seems like this plan took at least a year or two to put into motion. I mean, working that long, I’m sure the considered a lot of options and just came to the conclusion that this was the best one.”
“I don’t know,” Robynne countered. “I’ve gone through my whole life questioning the logic behind people’s decisions when something doesn’t feel right. Feels to me like they didn’t exhaust all their options.”
Kara flipped another pancake. “Seems kind of cynical.” She pulled the pan off the stove and offered it in Robynne’s direction. “Another?”
Robynne waved off the offer. “I’m not questioning their motives. Well, I guess I’m questioning them a little. I’m not sure what’s so bad about these ‘dark’ emotions that makes it worth making sure people using them don’t get through but I’m just questioning their strategy. It’s not cynical; it’s skeptical.”
Noriko finished off her Greek yogurt and started washing the bowl. “Looking at it from all of your past lives’ point of view, their number one concern seemed to be centered around the Other Power. It was unstoppable and the Scholar had found a way to defeat it but didn’t have enough time. Their secondary goal was to protect Earth from the Empress, Platicore, or any other would be overlord from invading and ruling over it like some kind of tyrant. Trying to sneak any large group through could have jeopardized both goals. As is, despite all their efforts, Platicore did make it through, though as a shadow of himself. Imagine if they had tried a more risky plan? How many more would have snuck their way in?”
Robynne pouted and leaned back. “You have a point there. It’s not the only thing that bugged me about the vision though.”
Mallory leaned forward. “What else is getting your brain in a twist?”
“They said their names,” Robynne explained. “I mean, while I would think ‘the Maiden’, ‘the Scholar’, ‘the Princess’ or whatever, they would say one another’s’ names. But whenever they would it was like, I don’t know, garbled. Like, it was consistent, they repeated the same sounds for the same names, but those sounds were just a jumbled mess of nonsensical, non-vocal noises.”
Vivian bounced in her chair, “I have a theory on this!”
Kara rolled her eyes and plopped another pancake on Vivian’s plate. “Of course you do.”
Vivian held two fingers up. “First, I think there is an empathic component to our old names. Like you wouldn’t just say, ‘Mallory.’ You’d say, ‘Mallory’ while also intoning Stubbornness or something.”
Mallory glared. “When I am fully better I’m going to sit on you and there will be nothing you and your scrawny butt can do to stop me.”
Vivian grinned like a fox in a henhouse. “So that’s part of what I’m thinking. The mumbling is partially because our brains just can’t properly understand what’s going on.”
Robynne shook her head. “But that’s sort of the same thing we say about feeling auras here in the real world and they don’t come out as garbled messes. We just feel them as other senses.”
Angela nodded. “A good point.”
Vivian furrowed her brow and continued onto her next point. “My other theory is that our visions are being censored by someone like Fate or something.”
Robynne rolled her eyes. “Why not? She’s censoring fudging everything else.”
Angela scowled. “Those are the Spirit Sticks that are doing that. Not Fate.”
“So we’re told,” Robynne muttered.
Vivian coughed. “But yeah, my theory is the visions censor out the names to unintelligible grab bags of sound effects put into a blender because something about the names allow the Other Power to track them. I mean, this is sort of operating under the classical magical concept that there is a power that goes with a name, but it’d make some level of sense as to why the Sticks are hiding our old names from us.”
Robynne folded her arms. “So you all have experienced this in your visions too?” All the other girls nodded in the affirmative and Robynne sighed. “Well then, the only other thing that bugged me was her hands.”
The girls all glanced at one another. Finally it was Kara who broached the subject. “What about her hands?”
Vivian held up her hands and pouted. “My past life’s hands? Her hands are amazing! Don’t you diss on my old hands!”
Robynne rolled her eyes. “The Shrine Maiden. She started writing with her right hand but played her…” Robynne trailed off trying to remember what she had called the alien, square, violin-like instrument the Maiden had been playing.
Angela tapped her finger to her cheek. “I think you called her instrument a barauta.”
“That’s it. Barauta. Yeah, but, she played that thing and swung her dagger with her left hand.”
Vivian giggled. “Finding the continuity errors in your vision? I’ll make a film snob out of you yet!”
Mallory dusted the pancake crumbs off her lap. “Why’s that bugging you so much? I mean, you don’t really know how they play that instrument. Maybe they go opposite handed what we do for violin. Or maybe the Shrine Maiden was just ambidextrous. I mean, she used twin daggers as her weapons of choice. It wouldn’t be that shocking.”
Robynne shrugged. “Yeah, but I’m not ambidextrous.”
Robynne immediately regretted her counterpoint. She could feel Vivian grinning and opening her mouth before Robynne could even correct herself. “Yeah, but you also weren’t born with ladyparts either.”
Robynne groaned. “Point made.”
Kara made herself a plate of pancakes and put all her dishes in the sink. “I wouldn’t worry too much about things like that, Robynne. I mean, in the long run, is what hand she used important or what we learned about our past lives more important?”
“It actually has been a very informative vision,” Angela chimed in. “We didn’t know anything about how the intrigue with the High Archon of the Church of the High Spirits and the Empress before this vision.”
Vivian rolled her eyes. “Seriously, it’s so much quicker to say Emotion Pope.” She then glanced at Robynne with a grin to make sure her intended audience had enjoyed the joke.
Robynne, despite herself, laughed. “Emotion Pope?”
“That’s kind of what he is,” Vivian said with her chest puffed out.
Angela’s shoulders slumped, “Let’s try not to diminish two religions with one joke.”
Vivian continued to bounce in her seat. The early morning was doing very little to slow her down “But one of those religions is dead. And it was our religion. I think there is comedic precedent stating it’s okay for us to make fun of our own religion. If Noriko did it, not cool. But us, it’s okay.”
Angela opened her mouth but no words came out. Kara chuckled slightly. Mallory spit food across the table she laughed so hard at Angela’s stupor. Robynne was just glad she didn’t have any food in her mouth or she was certain she’d have joined Mallory in sending food across the table.
Robynne sighed as she felt her backpack dig into her again. She had forgotten to go get a new one yesterday. Well, it was too late to complain about it now. “Kara, remind me to get a new backpack tonight.”
Robynne watched a smirk curl up at the edges of the bluenette’s lips. “Is it digging in like I said it would?”
Robynne frowned. “No one likes a know-it-all.”
Kara chuckled and bumped her shoulder into Robynne. “Don’t be ridiculous. You love it when I’m a know-it-all. It’s when I’m at my most useful.”
Robynne grunted but said nothing. Kara sighed, obviously not comfortable with silence while walking besides someone. “If you’re getting a new backpack tonight, you should take Mallory with you.
Robynne raised an eyebrow. “Why Mallory?”
“She uses a backpack. The rest of us use bookbags. Plus she won’t be going to volleyball practice and has no idea how to entertain herself.” Kara grinned. “Really you’d be doing us all a favor by keeping her from trying something stressful. Plus she has a car she can drive so you don’t have to bug Angela.”
Robynne nodded her head. These were all good points. “Noted.”
Kara glanced around campus and took in a deep breath of the morning air. Robynne had to admit it was a rather beautiful morning. “So you coming to that opening social thing SFEERS is holding Friday?”
That was right. Kara had joined SFEERS. So had Vivian. That was not something Robynne would have ever predicted. “Planning on it. Are you?”
Kara shrugged. “I already paid my dues. Not going to skip out on the party that goes along with it. Besides, Eli and Cory said it’d be cool for us to bring along the GameStation and the HDM Game Pads. I’d love to see who else stomps.”
Robynne shook her head, “Still can’t believe you joined. I mean, Vivian I can see. She’s into movies and such so she might be into the whole sci-fi and fantasy angle. But all you do is play Hop Dance Mania.”
Kara shrugged, “It’s enough. Plus it gives me an excuse to hang out with Eli a bit more and get to know him better.”
Robynne smiled. “So you like him?”
Kara blushed and looked down. “He seems nice. Mallory has always spoken highly of him even if she calls him a dork. Plus he stood by you both times there were,” Kara glanced around, “those incidents.” Kara shrugged. “I think that’s the kind of guy you find an excuse to get to know better.”
Robynne nodded and smiled. “He is awesome.” If nothing else went right the rest of the way, Robynne was at least glad her sacrifice hadn’t sunk Eli’s chances with Kara. “So, since you joined SFEERS, what did you choose as your handle?”
Kara grinned, ‘Kara.”
Robynne stopped walking, “You just chose your name?”
Kara kept on walking. “Yeah.”
Robynne rushed forward, having to take longer strides to even her pace with Kara’s longer legs. Gummi she hated being short. “You can’t do that.”
“It’s just… well, you have to have a gamer name.”
Kara smirked, “And mine is Kara.”
Robynne bit her bottom lip. “But that’s boring. And dangerous. You can’t use your real name online.”
Kara rolled her eyes. “I don’t game online. It’d just be for SFEERS itself and I plan for those people to get to know my real name anyway so no risk.”
“You’re bypassing the entire system,” Robynne huffed. “Feels wrong.”
Kara snorted, “What do you want me to do? Have some overdramatic name like Vivian’s?”
Robynne straightened up. “What handle did Vivian choose?”
Kara shook her head but smiled, “OverdoomNumber3-BreakerOfWills.”
Robynne lifted her head to the heavens and just shook her head. “Dear Gummi! That girl finds a way to be abnormal in a nerd club for heaven’s sake.”
Kara chuckled, “Oh, she had names for all of us. She wanted me to be OverdoomNumber4-RotterOfTeeth.”
Robynne shrunk, “Dare I ask what the name she imagined for me?”
Kara grinned with a face ominously reminiscent of Vivian. “I don’t know. Do you?”
Robynne sighed, “Let’s hear it.”
Robynne shook her head and smiled, “That little punk.”
Jody marched into the SAUSA’s offices like a woman condemned. Cammy was not going to like this.
She found Cammy lounging in a comfy chair in the corner with one of the SAUSA officers asking her questions. As soon as Cammy saw Jody she shooed away the officer and greeted her best friend with a hug. “There you are!”
Jody was eager to discuss any subject but the one she needed to. “What was that about?”
“Oh him? Just one of the officers needing the Promoters to pass out fliers for some football watching party event they will be hosting in… you know I really didn’t pay attention to all the details. Just put Stacy in charge of it. She’ll get it done.”
Jody nodded, “You sure she can handle it? I mean, she’s a freshman after all. She hasn’t even gotten through two weeks of classes yet.”
Cammy smirked confidently. “I have a very good feeling about Stacy.”
“She has proven to be really good.”
“Enough about that though,” Cammy said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Let’s talk about Robynne Darling, our short, stunning, stacked scarlette. What did Tanya find?” Cammy reclined back into a chair and gestured for Jody to do the same.
Jody couldn’t sit though. She felt too nervous. “Well, um, that’s the interesting thing…”
Jody bit her bottom lip and tugged on her blonde tresses nervously. “Well… Tanya couldn’t find anything.”
Cammy sat up straight. “What?”
“She tried all variants of her name. She looked for possible aliases and everything. But she couldn’t find a thing?”
Cammy squinted her eyes. “What? You mean like the girl never updates her SpaceLook page?”
Jody shook her head. “No. I mean she doesn’t have one. Or Flutter. Or bloggr or shuttr or PicNow or anything. The girl is a ghost.”
Cammy’s face scrunched together like shrinkwrap. “She has to have something, Jody.”
“That’s what I said!” Jody exclaimed throwing her hands into the air. “So I called over to one of our contacts in the admissions office. They got me her student ID photo and I had Tanya run that through SpaceLook’s face-recognizer-thingy-feature. Nothing came up. No one has tagged her in any photos. Ever.”
Cammy stood up and started pacing around the coffee table in front of the chair she had been lounging in. “But she’s gorgeous. People would love to tag her in their photos. Having her in a photo with you would be an instant status symbol boost.” Cammy shook her head. “This makes no sense. You sure Tanya looked and didn’t just flake out or something?”
Jody nodded. She had expected this question. It was easier to assume laziness than this insanity. “Sure am. Tanya called me in a panic last night trying to sort this out.”
Cammy rubbed her temples. “Well, I mean, but you had the contact in the admissions office. You had to find out something there, right?”
Jody winced, “Not as much as I hoped.”
Cammy huffed and plopped back down into her chair. “Well what do we have?”
“She’s from some small town back east called Deepwater. Small city. Her graduating class only had a little under 200 people in it. Their school website is ancient. Doesn’t look like anyone updates anything and there are no club websites with any pictures so I have no clue if she was in any clubs or sports teams.”
Cammy pushed herself deeper in her chair. “Well, what about her application? Did they at least give you that?”
Jody’s shoulders sagged, “That’s another problem. Apparently someone lost her physical application. They have all the actual stuff saying she was admitted but they couldn’t find her application with her essays on why she should get to attend and such. All we have is the transcript.”
Cammy’s entire body shook in frustration. “You have to be kidding me! How do you just lose paperwork?”
Jody shrugged, “On the plus side I got a look at her transcript. She’s a smartie-pants. Number four in her class. Near straight A’s. Took a lot of upper level math and science courses.”
Cammy shrugged, “I guess her interest in nerd club makes a little more sense now.”
“Her rooming situation,” Jody continued, “is where things get a little… interesting.”
Cammy sat up, “Interesting how?”
Jody sat down in a chair across from Cammy and leaned forward. “You know how Monday there were two potential girls who reported to the nerd club booth?”
Cammy nodded and glared, “The ones we didn’t get the names of because someone wasn’t on her game?”
Jody shrunk back into the chair, “I got a picture.”
Cammy said nothing for a moment. Jody hated that icy look in her eyes. It was like Cammy was a judge figuring out Jody’s sentence. “The picture didn’t come with names.”
Jody gave a hopeful smile. “They do now. They are Kara Balmer and Vivian Joy… and they are our mystery scarlette’s roommates.”
Cammy crossed her legs one over another and leaned forward. “Okay, that is interesting.”
“She also has another roommate named Nori-something or other. I forgot to memorize that one. She’s a foreign student who doesn’t seem to be involved in anything.”
“Well this is all very interesting…”
“My thinking,” Jody explained, “is that this Robynne girl must be super shy. A complete shut in or something like that. So the other two, with similar interests, find the club and tell her about it.”
Cammy stood back up and paced again. “A shrinking violet? But Stacy said she was, and I’m quoting here, a pistol.” Cammy chuckled and rolled her eyes. “Stacy’s adorable.”
Jody shrugged. “I’m going with what we’ve got. I just think if she were truly a,” Jody made quotes in the air, “‘pistol’ she’d have a digital footprint somewhere in the world.”
Cammy waved Jody off. “Maybe Stacy just brings out the pistol in this girl. I mean, it’s why we love Stacy as a recruiter right?”
“I guess,” Jody sighed. “I dont’ know. I just feel awful sending you in blind.”
Cammy stalked across the office playing with her curls. “I’m sure I’ll figure something out. I’m a good read of people. She’ll be in a cheer outfit before the weekend is up. I’m sure of it.”
And Robynne has her first vision. I’ll leave my commentary on it at a minimum.
I love the idea of the girls having a powwow every time they have a vision. I figure one vision informs the other visions a bit so it makes sense. Plus it gives Kara an excuse to make breakfast for everyone and she loves cooking. As it so happens, everyone likes to eat pancakes so it’s a win/win!
I worked with my editor to come up with the name Vivian uses in SFEERS. I love the idea that she’d come up with names for everyone. In my head she picked out ones for Angela and Mallory as well though I can’t think of when she’d actually use them in story so I’ll just let you all know that it’d be OverdoomNumber1-WreckerOfFun and OverdoomNumber2-BringerOfPain.
And it’s not really necessary to point it out because it’s obvious but I love writing Cammy and Jody having no clue what’s up with Robynne. Our society is so socially active online that when someone is “unplugged” so to speak, it really can cause people who use those tools to be flummoxed. Yeah. Flummoxed. Love that word. Use it in Hangman and you’ll usually win.
Hope you have an awesome week,