Later, Ardent returned with a bowl of summer squash and chicken curry, a pear, and a couple of rounds of flat onion bread. She stood over her sleeping guest, watching him. He looked younger, the lines of strain erased from his features. Channeling from Mirohirokon had been a far more sensual experience than she’d expected, and she found she now had more than a merely aesthetic appreciation of his appearance. He was still clothed; part of her mind whispered, he’d sleep better undressed. That was true, just as it was true that carrying him to her bed had been the practical way to transport him while he was too exhausted to stand without swaying. But Ardent was pretty sure she was also making excuses to take liberties with him, and that made her uneasy. Instead of disturbing him, she set the food on the bedside table and wasted some aether on a cantrip to keep the curry and bread warm and fresh until morning.
She returned to the workroom to root through her trunks until she found her old crystal ball. After shoving some of her tools and projects to one side on the table, she plunked its stand on the cleared space and set it down. Ardent channeled some aether into the crystal ball, then spent a few minutes trying and failing to recall the rune for “mortal”. Finally, she rolled her eyes and spelled it out instead. It showed her the mortal traders eating dinner with Relentless, and no one else when she drew the rune for “next”.
“So either there’s no one else in the area, or I’ve forgotten that rune too,” Ardent grumbled. She tried a few variants with no success, fed the scrying device some more aether, and tried again. After the third pass – “C’mon, how far can one mortal child get?” – it showed her a scared little mortal child hunched and crying in a vast twilit prairie. “There you are. Hang on, baby, I’ll come getcha.” The next image showed her a young mortal in an orchard. Pears bulged in the pocket of the child’s apron. The kid was crouched behind a tree to hide from a fey with a head crowned by horns and a plump humanoid body covered in glittering iridescent scales. Ardent recognized the fey as Beauty of Autumn, in her orchard on the outskirts of Try Again. “You first, then.” Like Relentless, she was certain the infant would not be in the fey shard, but she drew “next” again anyway. The crystal showed the first child again.
Ardent emptied her rucksack and put the crystal ball in it, then dug out her old traveling boots and fed them some aether. She took a moment to write a note for Mirohirokon in case he woke before morning, and set out.
A minute later, and Ardent walked into the orchard. With the crystal ball in one hand, she stepped here and there as she tried to orient herself on the kid’s exact location. After a few false starts, she realized where the child was. Ardent crossed a hundred yards of orchard in a handful of strides and overshot by several yards. She heard a soft scrabbling behind her and turned to see the child rabbiting off, frayed pigtails bouncing. “Hoy! Wait up!” Ardent took care in her next stride, and placed herself right before the mortal. The child stumbled into her furred legs and squeaked as Ardent turned around.
“Grandmother Arventia!” the child exclaimed. The kid staggered backwards, hands fumbling into apron pocket. Pears spilled from small hands as the child dropped to its knees and held them up like an offering. “I’m sorry I stole the pears, Grandmother! Please don’t eat me!”
Ardent put a hand over her face. Right. This is what glamour is for. She knelt herself, and patted the kid’s trembling shoulder. “It’s all right.” She didn’t dispute the appellation of ‘grandmother’: among the locals, it was a respectful title for any older woman, and at two hundred and fifty-one, Ardent expected she’d earned it. “I’m not going to eat you. I’m here to take you back to your people. There, now. Up you go. Don’t cry, little mouse.”
Tears still ran down the child’s fawn cheeks, small hands reaching past Ardent to frantically stuff the stolen pears into Ardent’s rucksack. “No, no, I’ll give them back, I didn’t mean to, please don’t turn me into a mouse, Grandmother, I’m sorry!”
“It’s a figure of speech, su—” right let’s not get back to the ‘don’t eat me’ stage “—um. Intia, is it? Or Awni?”
The child blinked at her, expression finally changing from one of terror to confusion. “I’m Intia. Awni is a boy’s name,” the child said, offended.
Oh, yeah, mortals assign genders to their children. And tell which is which somehow. Kids didn’t have enough sex-specific hormones to register as gendered to Ardent’s senses, and no visible sexual characteristics, at least not while clothed. The fey shard had synchronized with dozens of different mortal worlds in just the fourteen years Ardent had most recently lived in Try Again. She had no idea what cues mortals here used to show what gender they’d assigned a child in the Old World. Clothing? Hair length? Style? Colors worn? Well, it hardly matters now. “Great, Intia, nice to meet you. I’m not gonna turn you into anything. You’re all right now. How long have you been lost out here? You must be half-starved.” She picked the child up and sat it – her – on one broad shoulder, keeping her balanced with one hand. “We’ll get you a proper meal soon.”
By now, Beauty of Autumn was walking over to see what was going on. The other fey laughed as she saw the child. “Hey-o, Ardent! I was wondering where those pear cores were coming from,” she said in fey. “Aww, poor wee thing,” she added, as Intia clutched at Ardent’s head and stared fearfully at Beauty. “We not hurt little one,” she told the child in an inexpert version of the local language, then resumed in fey, “Do you know where its parents are?”
“No, but some merchants were in town asking after her, so I figure they do.” Ardent switched back to the mortal girl’s tongue and said, “All right, Intia, do you want to go meet some nice adult mortals? Er, humans, I mean. Or do you want to help me find the other lost child?”
Intia sniffled again. “Lost child?”
“Uh huh.” Ardent fussed one-handed with the crystal ball, until it showed the other child. “You know it? Him? I don’t think he’s from your village.”
“Awni!” she exclaimed, startled. “That’s Awni! No, Grandmother, please don’t hurt him! I’ll do whatever you want!”
“Intia, little girl, I’m not gonna hurt anyone. No matter what you do. You wanna help me find Awni? I don’t recognize where he is.”
“He’s in the Cursed Lands,” she said, promptly.
That part I knew, Ardent thought, and then realized what the child meant. “Oh, he’s in the mortal layer. Of course! Have you been there? It’s all right if you have, Intia. No one’s gonna be mad.”
She hesitated, then nodded. “The vang qui grows there. My da an’ I go every year to pick it.”
“Great! You know how to get there? Of course you don’t, you don’t recognize anything here. Let’s shift so we’re only in the mortal world.” Ardent moved herself from the fey world to the mortal one, then had to move into a partial straddle to grab for the girl as the child fell through her. “Aaaand you have no idea how to shift on purpose, do you. Right.” The girl stared at her. “All right. Intia, did you know that the Cursed Lands and the Fey World are in the same place?” The child nodded. “Great. At the same time?” The child crinkled her nose, then shook her head. Ardent put the girl down on the ground and knelt herself, then shifted to straddle the mortal and fey lands. The mortal world was a wilderness here, scrub brush and sparse trees that overlaid Beauty’s well-ordered orchard. It was uncomfortable to be in both worlds at once, like balancing on a beam; the body was naturally inclined to tilt to one side or the other instead. Ardent kept her balance as she put her crystal ball down. She plucked a mortal-world leaf off a nearby bush, and held it up to Intia. “Do you see this leaf?”
The girl shook her head in blank incomprehension.
“All right. That’s because it’s a mortal leaf and you’re only in the fey world right now. But you can shift back to the Old World, if you want to. Or you can shift to see both, and pick and choose which things in which world you want to interact with,” Ardent said. The girl stared at her, mouth agape. “So there’s a leaf in my hand. I need you to focus on seeing it.” The child gave an uncertain nod, and screwed up her face as she stared at Ardent’s hand. The great satyr ran a blunt-tipped finger along the edge of the leaf. “This is its outline.” She traced the veins. “These are its veins. Do you—”
Intia gave a startled squeak. “Leaf!” She reached for it, then paused. At Ardent’s encouraging nod, Intia pinched the leaf’s tip between her little fingers. “Eee!”
Ardent released the leaf, leaving the child holding it. “Great job! Now, you see the wilderness around us?”
The child looked up, eyes going wide again. “Oh! Oh oh oh!” She spun around. “It’s glamour! I can see through it!”
“Uh. No, not really, but sure, let’s go with that. Now, I want you to see all-the-way through the Fey World. Pretend it’s not there at all, and that all that’s around you is the usual wilderness.”
Intia screwed up her face hard, and tugged at one black pigtail. “…yes, Grandmother.” She closed her eyes and opened them three times. “It’s gone! I’m in the Cursed Lands again!”
“Clever girl!” Ardent smiled, impressed by the child’s use of ritual in making the transition. There was nothing magical about shifting between the layers – or at least nothing that required aether, or fey ability. Any mortal could do it. Sometimes animals and even inanimate objects would make the shift, but most mortals didn’t understand how it worked. They’d often enter while straddling both, and then shift by accident to one or the other. It was confusing if you didn’t grow up doing it, and mortals of the Old World only had a chance to experience it for a few months every hundred and twelve years or so.
Intia blinked at Ardent. “But you’re still here, Grandmother Arventia?”
“Yup, I’m still here. I’m straddling both worlds, so you can see me from either. Do you recognize where you are in the Cursed Lands?”
The girl turned around in a circle three times, nose scrunched up. “Um. A little? No?”
Ardent suppressed a sigh. “Ah well. Not to worry, kid.” She moved to sit cross-legged on the ground, and fussed at the crystal ball until she got it to produce a bird’s eye view of their surroundings. “Is that far enough out that you can find your…waitasec.” She drew the view further back, so it showed a kind of map of the fey shard for a few dozen miles in every direction. Then she traced the rune for “mark” above the surface of the crystal, then wrote out “mortal”. The scrying crystal put the rune for mortal (aha THAT’S what it is!) on the map in Beauty’s orchard, three runes for it in Relentless’s house, and one rune for mortal some thirty miles to the northeast. How, for the love of aether, did the boy manage to get so far into the Cursed Lands? “That’s gotta be him. Let’s go get Awni.” She offered her hand to Intia, and when the kid took it, Ardent boosted her up to her shoulders again and walked northeast, crystal ball out to navigate.
Twenty or thirty minutes later, they found Awni, still huddled with his arms around his legs in the dubious shelter of a scraggly bush. Intia leaped like a rabbit from Ardent’s shoulder and ran to him, scolding like a sister. “Why did you come here all alone, Awni? Do you know how worried your parents must be? Don’t you know it’s not safe in the Cursed Lands?” Awni, for his part, wrapped his arms around the girl’s waist and bawled against her chest. Ardent wasn’t good with the ages of mortal children, but guessed the boy was several years younger than Intia. She glanced down at the crystal to get her bearings for the return trip, and movement in the far northeast section caught her eye. It was a new “mortal” rune; she must have just gotten within range to see it in the last mile or two. That can’t be the baby. There is no way a baby traveled over, what, a hundred miles into the Cursed Lands? A mortal traveler, then? But they don’t usually go so far into the Broken Lands. The rune was almost on top of the Sun Etherium – could have even been inside it. As she watched, it disappeared from the map.
Ardent caught her breath. All right. Stay calm. There’s three possible explanations here. One: that was a mortal trader, and they went into some private space in the Sun Etherium, so my little scrying ball couldn’t track them any more. Two: The Sun Host, or someone in Sun Host, is stealing mortals and didn’t have the aether to cloak that one until getting them back to the Etherium. Three: someone or something just killed them.
Ardent clenched her free hand into a fist, then relaxed it to trace the runes for “mark”, “mortal”, and “death” over the crystal. Nothing appeared. She tried the spell a few other ways, just to be sure, but the crystal didn’t show her any changes. Not dead, at least.
The giant satyress looked at the embracing, tearful mortal children before her, and set her mouth. She knelt and gave them a smile, offering her hands. “All right, kids. Come along now, and let’s get you two back to your people.”
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