Sunday, June 30, 2013

Insert Jaw-Dropping Reveal Here (part 1 of 5)

"Drink up, baby doll.
Are you in or are you out?
Leave your things behind,
'Cause it's all going on without you.

"Excuse me. Too busy. 
You're writing your tragedy. 
These mishaps, you've bubble-wrapped when 
You've no idea what you're like..."
—Frou Frou, "Let Go"


"Huh. So you're Valerie."

The healer's voice shook, her expression halfway between a scowl and that of fearful hope. "Who are you?" she demanded.

The man before her chuckled. "I know. I look just like him, don't I?"

Not really, she thought. "That's not an answer."

"...I don't really have a name, to be perfectly honest. I could tell you what the others called me, but"

"That's not an answer either," she said again. Loudly.


"You could start," she added in a tone that left no room for argument, "by telling me why your signal on our computers is identical to Adrian's."


Valerie's new search was both easier and harder than her last. Though she no longer sat in the monitor room 24/7, just because she didn't give off the appearance of working didn't mean she wasn't. Every moment of every day (even during what little sleep she could catch) saw her extending her empathic senses as far as they could reach, searching for the specific mental pattern that was pure Adrian. Until she or Kuroneko got any more solid leads, that was all she could do. And that fact made Valerie alternately feel helpless and furious. At least before, with her systematic search, she could blame bad luck if nothing positive came up. When everything was intuitive, she could only blame herself and her own inadequacy.

"So it was the Reality Marble?"

A mental nod from Ari. The little dragon had recovered enough that she was no longer confined to Valerie's head, but she still couldn't take on a physical presence. The Eiran seers confirmed it. Adrian died while inside it.

"And what can they tell us about our new 'friend'?" Valerie asked.

A pause. He was telling the truth about his backstory, they could tell that much.

The healer nodded. She hadn't told anyone about the anomolous signal that had shown up that day, not even Kuroneko. Particularly not after she found the source of the signal. Valerie had been right about one thing, however: the fact that their signals were identical wasn't a coincidence. But there was also something there that shouldn't have been, and for the life of her, she couldn't figure out what it was.

"But...?" she prompted.

...But you're right. There's something funny about his resonance pattern.


She spoke the name he gave her aloud, trying out the sound in her mouth. "You're right," she said finally. "That's not a name."

He chuckled again, and Valerie had to wonder exactly what was so funny. "Fitting though, given my status, don't you think?"

No, she didn't think, but she wasn't about to go into that. They looked similar, they acted similar, but the resemblance was only vague at best - instantly identifiable, but quickly forgotten in leiu of their vastly different minds and experiences. And yet, for some reason, they felt exactly the same. Their identical biological signatures (what the computers picked up) could be explained, given his history, but the feel of his mind and emotions baffled the healer.

He looked at her suddenly. "I've seen you before, in my dreams. No, not like that!" he added at her furious glance his way, "Just memories and things. You and he talked a lot, didn't you?"

She frowned and didn't answer. Despite his openness and general friendly attitude, she hadn't quite decided to trust him just yet.

Another sidelong glance. "Though, now that I actually meet you in person, I kind of wish it was those kinds of dreams..." Valerie's astonished expression only drew another laugh out of him... at least until she stomped on his foot. Hard. "Yep," he muttered through his clenched teeth. "Definitely Valerie..."

By the time he shook it off, said empath was already walking away. "Feel free to visit sometime!" he called after her.

Without looking back, she lifted her hand in what could have been a wave or a bird. At that distance, he couldn't be entirely sure.


Valerie sat with her knees drawn up, head bowed, and hands touching her temples. There was nothing particularly symbolic about the position; she was simply trying to shut out the world and focus on that strange, inner calling—the only lead she had left.

What am I missing?

The obvious, of course. The mental voice didn't belong to Ari, but hearing extra voices when meditating was nothing new. Besides, when Valerie was concentrating this hard, any and all disbelief was suspended. Besides, the voice was right: only something hidden in plain sight could cause such a mental roadblock.

Start with the basics then. What is a soul?

The Soul is.

Exactly. So how could it get lost?

The Soul drops the body during sleep/coma/prolonged meditation, but remains tied to it. In death, that tie is severed, and the Soul snaps back to the All.

So could a Soul become disconnected from the All?

Can't be. That's the definition of hell.

Adrian always maintained that he would probably wind up in hell someday, Ari interjected.

If he was in that sort of "hell", Kuroneko would've found him, Valerie replied, her distaste for such a ludicrous notion as divinely assigned eternal torment clearly evident in her mental voice. But maybe there's some sort of middle ground we haven't thought of yet...

Let's look at exceptionalities then. Aster doesn't have a soul.

Debatable. Aster's soul does not currently inhabit/control her body, but she did have one at some point. Presumabely, it's still out there somewhere.

Just like Adrian's?

Adrian's body is dead. Aster's still has volition, emotion, even a personality. Her body clearly still draws on her soul, though that might be because of the numerous other Asters out there. Similar cases, but not similar enough.

Let's not dismiss it though, Ari said thoughtfully. What else do we have?

The idea of a Reality Marble itself. Supposedly it was "soul made manifest," or so Adrian had said to her, once.

A form of trancendence, then. The Soul's true nature and power revealed and put to concious use.

Not all of it though, said Ari. But only a handful of individuals in the entire history of the multiverse have managed that. Adrian got pretty far though, according to Eadoin.

Valerie's mouth twitched into a smirk. I thought Eadoin was a Bard, not a Seer.

Had Ari been in human shape, she would have been the picture of slightly rumpled dignity. He's a man of many talents. Don't change the subject or you'll lose your train of thought.

Train. Yes. Did it jump the tracks? Had Adrian's plans jumped the tracks?

Clearly, unless he planned to die.

Highly unlikely, though that last letter suggested that he knew he was going to die, even if he didn't want to.



Right. The Reality Marble. What happened in there?

He fought past his limit. The Marble broke.



An incomplete trancendence. Using the power of the Soul as a weapon. Dying with that power still coursing through him, connected to him. At that moment, the power was him, and there was no dividing line between body and Soul.

Was it possible that the Soul could be broken?

"Val! Valerie!"

A panicked voice and a panicked mind startled the healer out of her reverie, and her eyes snapped open to see Chrys stumbling through the Med Ward's main door. She was stumbling because she was carrying an unconcious Aster on her back. "Please, there's something wrong with Aster. She's not waking up!"

Valerie immediately sprung up and helped the hanyou with her burden, easing the unconcious fae onto one of the beds and checking her vitals. Aster was barely breathing and her heartbeat had slown down dangerously. Her eyes were half-open, and the pupils were heavily dialated and only gave the merest of half-hearted twitches when Valerie flashed a penlight over them.

The healer was only half-listening to Chrys as the frightened girl babbled about how she'd been sleeping for longer and longer periods before finally slipping into this death-like state. Carefully, she sent a small probe into Aster's mind, trying to get a general idea of the problem. Almost immediately she hit a wall of some sort, and a quick scan told her that the wall encompassed almost her entire mind. It was shoddily constructed, and Valerie knew she could break into it with ease. But she could also see the roiling maelstrom on the other side of the wall, and knew that this would have to be done carefully.

"This is a serious case," she muttered, almost to herself. She shook her head and turned toward Chrys. "You'd better leave her in the medical ward. There's only one thing I can do, and it may take hours."

The hanyou gave a fearful squeak, but was obedient. She gave her friend one more reassuring squeeze on the hand, and left the two of them alone in the ward. Valerie, meanwhile, selected a book off one of the shelves above the cabinets. There was only one way she would've missed the warning signs of something this severe, and that was if there were no warning signs at all. No emotional ones anyway.

Valerie had read about this condition several times over the course of her career as an empath/healer, and knew exactly what caused it. "Inversed emotion," they called it. It was basically the result of intense emotional upheaval having no outlet, and thus being forced to turn back on itself—no emotional output, nothing for an empath to sense until it was already too late.

'Emotion made to turn back on itself, and not leading to any thought or action, is the prelude to insanity,' Valerie recited to herself. We've all been dealing with our grief in different ways, but how the hell did I miss this? If I hadn't been so caught up in my own issues I could've cut this cycle off before it had gone this far!

But there was no point in beating herself up now; she had a job to do. With a small flutter of paper, she finally located the page she needed. The first thing to do was to get Aster stabilized. Following the instructions in the text, Valerie manipulated the fae's body into something resembling a fetal position, but with the legs bent a a slightly wider angle. Next, she drew up a chair and situated herself facing Aster's back. The healer held up her hands in front of her, thumbs spread but not touching, and fell into a trance.


"You really must admit, she's got a lot of skill."

Valerie looked to her right. "A-Adrian?"

He looked back at her. "Don't you agree?"

The empath looked foward again, and found herself watching Aster spar with Danielle using staves. "I don't know if 'skill' is the right word to use," she found herself saying. "She never works at anything because she sees it all as a game." Except it wasn't a game, not anymore. It had already gone much too far, and they were left fighting for their lives.

Wait... she was fighting for Aster's life, right?

Adrian glanced back at the sparring match. "All the more reason she'll make the perfect weapon when the time comes."

She looked at the Librarian, shocked. "You'd use a little girl as a weapon?"

"Why not?" he asked, continuing to watch the fight. "She has little or no fear of death, nor any qualms about killing. She'd find nothing I told her to do to be morally reprehensible. Certainly it would work for what I'm trying to do. Why shouldn't I do it?"

Valerie felt dizzy. There was something very wrong with this picture. In fact, a picture was all it was anymore; Aster and Danielle were frozen in time around them, fading off into the distance as Valerie's eyes grew wide.

Adrian took her by the shoulders. "Valerie, answer the question," he said. His voice was suddenly very loud, and the look in his eyes was almost fearful. "Why shouldn't I do it?"



Valerie opened her eyes a crack. Aster's breathing rate had gone up considerably, but still on the lower edge of the safe zone. She also noticed that Chrys was back, and sitting with her was a girl Valerie didn't recognize.

"I have her stabilized for now, but it's only a temporary fix. What she needs is an invasive bypass to break her out of this loop she's under." Valerie took a deep breath as she attempted to explain. "Conditions like hers don't need a lot of time to escelate to near-uncontrollable measures. Right now there's a wall surrounding most of her mind, and everything inside that wall is in absolute shambles. Thing is, the wall used to encompass a much smaller area, but it's been growing as her condition worsened. It's even growing now."

The new girl, whom Valerie assumed was Akai, Aster's other friend, tilted her head slightly. "What happens if the wall thing grows to surround her whole mind?"

Valerie bit her lip. "One of two things can—well, are happening. One is that, since everything inside the wall gets torn to shreds in that emotional storm, eventually all the normal body functions in her brain would get overrun, resulting in a permanent vegetative state or... or death. The other option is that she manages to survive the first option, in which case the wall would continue to expand until her mind can't hold it any longer and the storm bursts out onto the rest of us—sort of like popping an overinflated balloon," she finished lamely. Likely the girls had no idea what she was talking about, but it looked like they were beyond caring. Valerie swallowed. "The best thing you two can do for her is to stay here with her. Try not to move her much, but let her know you're here. I'm going to have to do it soon."

Chrys gulped. "And you have to dive into that?"


"...How long will it take?"

"I don't know."

The healer looked over the unconcious fae. Aster was breathing properly now that the wall was more or less stablized, but some of the color was starting to leave her lips, which meant her body wasn't processing the oxygen properly. Her brain function was starting to deteriorate.

She ran mental fingers over the barrier once again. It wasn't in danger of collapse just yet, but if she were to break into it, she'd better fix the root of this problem in a hurry. Therefore, the best course of action was to analyze as much of the problem as she could see from outside the construct, so as to take immediate action once inside it. It was translucent enough that she could almost see what was going on inside...


Aster shifted. Chrys yelped and jumped up. "Aster!"

And suddenly the wall was gone.

"Ah—" Valerie's mouth opened and closed with no noise coming out of it, but immediately took the fae's pulse. The storm had vanished with the wall, and all her vitals were rapidly returning to normal. "Sh-she's back..."

With a loud squeal, Chrys made to glomp her friend, and Valerie grabbed her by the collar of her shirt. "Waitwaitwait! She might not be ready for that just yet."

Aster gave a loud cough and blinked sleepily at them. "What'd I miss?"

And there was no restraining the gleeful hanyou after that.


It wasn't until almost an hour later that Valerie finally pursuaded Chrys and Akai to leave the med ward so she could finish her examination. In the meantime, news of Aster's miraculous recovery had spread like wildfire, but the ward was temporarily off-limits to everyone but Valerie and her patient.

"What happened in there, Aster?" the healer asked. "You were on the brink of death back there. People don't just recover from that."

"Umm..." the fae appeared to think about that. "Well, I'm here, so I must be alright, right?"

Valerie heaved a sigh. This was about the fortieth time they'd gone through a variation of the exact same exchange, and she still hadn't gotten any information out of the girl. I suppose the only way to find out is from the inside then... "I'm still going to have to check you over. Is that okay with you?"


"Good. At least I don't have to enter forcibly this time," she added under her breath.

Aster sat up straight on her bed and Valerie laid her hands gently on the fae's back. "Try and relax," said the empath. "You're a little bit tense."

"Oh, sorry." The blue-haired girl slouched a little bit.

Valerie closed her eyes and sent in a gentle probe. She wasn't sure what she was looking for, exactly, but there had been a subtle sort of shift in Aster's energy pattern the moment she woke up—almost like a couple of jammed gears clicking back into synch. That alone wouldn't have removed the storm or the wall, but it might have broken her out of the loop she was stuck in. And, if she was lucky, it might also have given the emotional backlash that caused the storm in the first place somewhere to drain off to, which would allow her to remove the wall on her own. If that was the case, though, then it was in everyone's best interest for Valerie to try and find what caused the original problem, so that it wouldn't ever happen again.

Aster's mind was messy, but not uncommonly so. Valerie explored rather easily, brushing past memories that were none of her business and heading straight for recent emotions—"recent" being no older than a month or so. As expected, it was much more cluttered than the rest, everything being simply piled on top of itself.

In the real world, Valerie frowned. It was a pile alright, but not nearly as haphazard as one might expect from memories of insanity. In fact, they seemed very deliberately packed together, almost as though to hide something. And the closer the healer looked, the more she swore there was a glimmering violet light peeking out from between the cracks...


"What's the answer, Valerie?" Adrian's grip on her shoulders was almost painfully tight, and his desperation for her answer—any answer—was evident in the increasing panic in his eyes. "Why shouldn't I do it? Tell me!" It was almost overwhelming, but Valerie swallowed and stood tall.

"Because... Because you don't want to."

Adrian stared at her for a long moment, then closed his eyes with a shuddering sigh. "At last," he said quietly. "Now we can begin..."


Valerie stumbled backward as though struck, breathing hard.

Aster turned around and blinked at her. "Valerie-chan? Is something wrong?"

For a long moment, she couldn't think of a single thing to say to that. "Aster..." she said slowly, "you... you just wait here a sec. I'll be right back."

"Okay," the girl replied, and started humming the theme of Lucky Star to herself, swinging her legs a little.

The healer watched her for a moment as she slowly walked out, reinforcing the idea with as much of what little projective empathy she had as she could manage. And the moment she was outside... Valerie immediately bolted down the hallway.

It took less than five minutes to find Kuroneko (though Valerie suspected the Library was helping her somehow), and even less time to explain her suspicious to her. "I can't be certain until I get Danielle to look at her though," she finished, breathless. "She's the only one here who can confirm it."

Kuroneko paused to consider all this. "How much to you trust her discretion?" she asked finally.

Valerie didn't hesitate. "She's flighty, but she knows how to keep her mouth shut. Particularly when it's something important." To herself, she added, Particularly after all the time she, Stacey, and I have spent together. If Danielle can keep that secret, she can certainly keep this one.

After another long pause, the cat-girl finally nodded. "I'll go find her then. You stay with Aster and make sure she doesn't destabilize again."

"Got it."


Valerie blinked and shook her head, confused. She was back in the medical ward with Aster, who was chattering away about her favorite Haruhi Suzumiya shipppings to fill the time. Before she had to endure much more of this conversation topic, however, Kuroneko burst in with Danielle in tow.

"Val!" said the redhead as soon as she caught sight of her friend. "Mind telling me what the hell's going on?" She caught sight of Aster on the bed, still obliviously daydreaming. "Did you need my help with something?"

Kuroneko must not have told her anything yet, thought the empath. "Well..." she began hesitantly, "for starters, do you remember what color Adrian's aura was?"

Danielle tilted her head quizically. "Adrian's...?"

"Yeah. Did you ever catch sight of it?"

"Plenty of times. It's not like he ever hides it. But why...?"

"Just answer the question," Kuroneko interrupted, staring at Aster as though trying to see into her soul.

"Uh..." Danielle thought for a moment. "Violet. Lots of violet. Some tan underpinnings too; I don't recall the exact combination, but I remember it was a really unique one. But the violet was the main thing, a really bright shade."

Valerie nodded thoughtfully. I thought so... "Okay. Now have a look at Aster and tell me what you see."

Danielle frowned. She was far from an idiot, and knew exactly what her team leader was implying with that question, but looked anyway. When she was finished looking, she closed her eyes for a moment in thought, then opened them again and looked the healer straight in the eye.

"Aster's aura is normally barely visible unless she's in fae form," the redhead began, "probably because of her lack of a soul. When she's a fae, it's blue with white undertones because that's the color of her power manifestation. But as a regular girl, her actual aura is mostly yellow. A decent amount of lavender underneath it, but yellow is definitely the primary."

Kuroneko looked at Danielle impatiently. "But what about—"

"Aster, would you excuse us, please?" Valerie interrupted. Aster, who was tilting her head curiously at them, nodded, and the three of them left the medical ward.

Valerie shut the door behind her. "She's not as dumb as she seems sometimes," she explained. "Okay, Danielle, go ahead."

"Aster is..." the redhead began hesitantly, apparently unsure how to word her observation. "She has—well... a different aura now. Adrian's aura."

Kuroneko bit her lip in thought while Valerie muttered softly, "I knew it..."

"But," she hastily added, "it's not really an aura, per se, because an aura surrounds the body and marks off where individuations split off from the whole. This thing was completely contained within her, and..." she struggled to find the words for this, "not an individual at all. A fragment."

"'Fragment?'" Kuroneko repeated with a deeper frown.

"Does someone want to explain what's going on?" Danielle's eyes were very wide.

The healer bit her lip. "I'll tell you when I'm certain what it is." At the redhead's look of annoyance, she added hastily, "I will! I promise! It's just that I don't know what the deal is either. Thanks to you I now have a vague idea, but it absolutely cannot get out until I'm one hundred percent sure, or it'll cause all kinds of unnecessary trouble."

Danielle considered this for a moment. "Well... what's the idea? Maybe I can help."

"I'm certain you could but... Please, just trust me on this one." Valerie put a hand on her friend's shoulder. "It's not that I don't trust you, I do. And as soon as I have confirmation either way, you will know. But for now, anyone could be listening, and the fewer people who know about this, the better."

"In other words," Kuroneko interjected, growing impatient, "mind your business and keep your mouth shut."

"Kuroneko," Valerie warned.

Danielle glared at her. "I'm not an idiot, Val. I know who you've been searching for on the monitors these past few months. You can have a dangerously one-track mind sometimes."

Valerie didn't break her gaze. "Please."

It didn't take long. When the empath was this serious about something, there was no stopping her. Danielle rolled her eyes and sighed. "Fine. But you are going to tell me sooner or later."

The healer let out the breath she'd been holding. "Promise," she nodded. With a wink and a half-hearted salute, Danielle jogged down the hallway back to her room.

"Well," said Kuroneko after a moment, "That was amusing. So now what?"

"One sec." Valerie stuck her head back in the door of the med ward. "Aster," she called inside it, "you can go now. Just make sure to stay where I can reach you easily, got it?"

"Hai, Valerie-chan," the fae called back, though the healer wasn't entirely certain she had heard.

Together, Valerie and Kuroneko began walking in the other direction towards the theology section. Valerie pinched the bridge of her nose. "A fragment of Adrian's aura," she muttered. "A soul shouldn't be able to shatter like that, but his circumstances were admittedly different from most cases." She chuckled suddenly, recalling a line from The Princess Bride. "Maybe we should just take him to see Miracle Max..."

The cat-girl shook her head with an amused smirk. "Oh, he's been all dead for a while; the mostly-dead excuse isn't gonna work here. In fact," she paused and looked up thoughtfully, "from what we just learned, one could argue that he's even deader than most wind up to be, because there's no chance of reincarnation with a shattered soul."

"Some kind of limbo then?"

"Already looked in all the limbos I know of."

"Yeah, but if he doesn't have his soul with him, there'd be nothing for you to find, would there?" Valerie paused for a moment. "But it is different than we originally expected. We've been operating under the assumption that it was a single soul we needed to find. Instead, we're left with—"

"Fragments," Kuroneko finished grimly. "And we have no idea how many we're talking about here."

"Or where they could possibly be."

There was a long silence as each of the two women contemplated their options. Finally, as they reached the gilded doors of the theology section, Kuroneko spoke. "Let's split up for the evening and research anything we can about the behavior of fragmented souls. Where do you want to meet?"

"How about the teen vampire romance novel section? No one from the Society ever goes there unless they're forced to, and if they are forced to, we'll hear them complaining about from a long way off."


They parted ways.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Insert Peaceful Change of Mind Here

Ever since Chrys had entered the Society, Aster's room had undergone a massive decorational upheaval.

Well, it was actually now Chrys and Aster's room. The two were sharing and the two had entered the room one day to find that it had expanded twice in size to accommodate the two. But Chrys had scolded Aster for having a messy, disorganized room, so Aster had cleaned it.

The room now had two very distinct sides. The left side, Aster's, had a bookcase with manga books, anime DVDs, and video games, along with a desk complete with television and computer. The wall had several posters of anime/manga figures along with some J-pop singers. The bed was white, next to the bookcase.

The right side, Chrys's, had pale pink walls (Aster wouldn't let Chrys paint it a pink that would scar her eyes) that sparkled occasionally. Chrys kept some more stuff of magical importance, but the most remarkable thing was her bed: not only was it filled with plushies of various anime figures, she had also maximized it to ensure maximum sleeping comfort (even though she could sleep virtually anywhere) with a down pillow and a memory foam mattress. She also had a television and computer on a small table.

The two sub-rooms were separated by a small strip of carpet in which they probably played out card or board games. Both of them knew if Akai joined the Society she would demand the room next door instead of moving in, so they got used to their privacy; they did, however, often spend nights talking to each other or even having friendly bickers.

This also meant that now Chrys had to deal with an insane roommate.

Chrys was remarkably resilient, and sometimes she noticed her desu-sparkles would have some effect, temporarily stopping Aster's rambling or such. Chrys was afraid to overload Aster with it, because it might make her condition worse, but it seemed to do something.

In the end it turned out to be like an ineffective cold medicine.

Chrys knew something was very, very wrong the moment she woke up that day. Aster was sleeping. Chrys had never caught Aster sleeping for more than short periods of time during her bout of insanity.

Now Aster wouldn't even wake up.

Chrys tried shaking her but it had no effect; she knew it too. Using all of her strength she piled Aster onto her back and headed for the medical ward.


Oh, she'd tried, oh so hard!

She'd wanted to reject everything about reality; it just wasn't working for her, and she didn't feel capable of facing it. So she tried to block it all off. For weeks it had been an internal battle between herself and whatever was trying to make her feel. It was disorienting. She had never known that there could be such internal forces driving her mad. She was definitely feeling something uneasy, something she wasn't used to feelings.

Of course they weren't real emotions – she couldn't feel. But something was strange.

She had focused so much time struggling with what was inside her that she'd left no time to concentrate on what she was doing in real life. But it was struggling harder and harder and eventually her only choice was to close all connections.

It still fought more.

And she decided she'd have to shut herself from the world entirely and get rid of this thing forever.

The fact she could see anything at all in her head clearly was proof she had something in her head. She did dream, but they were only repetitions of what she'd gone through in real life. Just memories repeating over and over again. What she saw now – she'd never seen before.

But she knew what it was.

A place with sun where all different types of places existed from grass to an oasis in the desert to a mountain where it wasn't cold or hot; there she could feel the earth and the sun and everything and feel with what she had. And anyone could be innovative and create what they wanted and they'd have all the resources, anything they wanted, with no greed or sadness.

An ideal world she'd thought of for years.

Aster was more suspicious than accepting; even though this was such a nice place and she had this strange feeling that somehow compelled her that she liked this place; that it was a good place to be; she'd never felt it before, but it felt like it calmed her –

"Who are you?" she yelled. She pulled out a fighting stance and a few turned to look but went back to their business. "Is this some kind of lotus-eater-island? I know of Odysseus!"

She turned around and went back, startled.


"This is a serious case."

Valerie sighed and turned to Chrys, shaking her head.

"You'd better leave her in the medical ward. There's only one thing I can do. It may take hours."

Chrys left after saying goodbye and hoping the best for Aster. Valerie turned around and pulled out some magical books. She hoped she was wrong. She might need to even consult some Counter Guardians.

Because otherwise she'd be left to only one choice. And if that one choice didn't work the way she wanted it to, Aster could be left brain-dead for eternity.


"So this is an illusory world…"

Aster could only just stand and stare as she saw Adrian training with a sword, dancing gracefully around with the blade. It was a little entrancing.

Shaking her head, Aster gritted her teeth, knowing this was a trap – something was encasing her in this world. She lunged at Adrian.

He deflected her off with his sword easily, perhaps on instinct. It did not hurt Aster but threw her back. Adrian looked at her, startled.

"Whoa, whoa," he said. "What was that for? You know it's me."

Aster shook her head. "I'm smarter than that. Why would you be here? Where the hell are we? And how can you prove you're Adrian?"

Adrian said smartly, "You knocked down part of your wall to used the next room as manga storage. That wall is nothing but manga volumes. You also stuffed some in my office, too."

"How do I not know there's a Stu using your memories? Like – like Death?"

Aster had an idea just then.

"How many main paths are there in Fate/stay night?"


"How many volumes are there in Ruruoni Kenshin?"


"Name of the opening song of Elfen Lied?"

He visibly struggled with this one. "Lilium."

"Number of characters in Lucky Star?"

"…oh, crap."

"Well, that proves you're Adrian. A bad guy would expect me to expect you to know that."


"Never mind." Aster went ahead and tackled Adrian in a deep hug.


"I have a large heaping pile of homework, you know…"

"I don't care about that!" Chrys pulled Akai through the Library. "We'll get that done later! Aster's at risk of permanently being a vegetable!"

"I know you're telling the truth, but it's a little hard for me to believe, given that I was talking to her ten minutes ago…"

"It's not the same Aster!" yelled Chrys…until suddenly she stopped in her tracks. "That's it," she said. "That's it. The Aster we know…gets a constant feed of memories from Society!Aster. She knows what's going on with the Aster here and maybe she'll know what's wrong with her and how to cure her…"


"I missed you! I… I… Why did you not talk to me earlier?"

"I tried. You wouldn't let me."

"Well, I wasn't quite aware it was you!"

"Never mind the countless hints?"

"Oh, just… just stop it."

Aster laid back and put her head back in the grass. "Where are we, anyway? I like this place. I'd like to stay here…"

"I think you know where you are."

Aster looked up.

"It's my world, isn't it?"

"It's the one you always wanted, yes."

"How nice." Aster blinked and smiled. "It's really pretty…"

"You want to stay here?"

"Oh, of course."

Adrian looked at her sadly. "You can't do that, you know."


"They need you out there. They need all the help they can get. I know it's hard for you to leave someplace you've always wanted to stay in, but you can't be selfish. None of us can be selfish."

He gazed outward. "I was selfish… to leave you all alone with no warning. But I know I needed it and everyone needed it and I hope you understand."

"I don't want to leave," said Aster, shaking her head. "I don't want to leave this wonderful place… I don't want to leave…"

Her eyes were wet.

"…I don't want to leave you."

Tears streamed down her cheeks.



"You never visit me, kyaa," fretted Aster. It was the original Aster, the one from the light novel series yet to be published sometime around July, the one all other Asters were based on. "It gets really lonely around here without you guys…"

"Oh shut up. You have me," said Akai.

"Yeah, well, if you ever happen to pass that test," said Aster, "you're going to end up a member of the Society and you'll have to visit there regularly and I won't see anyone anymore. I'd love to go myself, but nooooo, my Author has to give excuses like 'it's too dangerous' and 'you're not meant for that branch of work' and 'there are continuity issues'."

"But maybe it's a good thing," said Chrys. "At least you're – you're nice and safe here while the other Aster is – is – "

"A vegetable, I know."

Aster sighed.

"Yes, I have access to her memories, but how would you feel if you probed into someone else's head kyaa? If she wants to keep it a secret, why shouldn't I? Technically, I am her."

"But – " Chrys protested.

"Honestly, don't worry about it too much," said Aster. "She'll come along. She'll be fine."

"Are you sure?" said Akai.

"Really. Do you think the Author would permanently smack her in a coma? That's equivalent to killing off her own character. And how many Authors do you know who will do that?"

"Oh, I know one," said Chrys sadly.

"I know you're talking about Adrian," said Aster, "but let me put it bluntly. She's not Adrian."


"It's hard for you," said Adrian, "to go through it again."

"I…" Aster sobbed.

Adrian got it.

For this girl who had grown up without a family, she'd been rather lonely. Eventually she'd made two friends, but even then that had to drag her down at times. With the Society she had been able to interact with everyone and understand people deeply – it was the only familial connection she ever had.

So Adrian was what? Father? Brother? Distant uncle?

Whatever it was…

"I'm sorry," said Aster. "But you and Tash-san…"

She sniffled. "It's like you two took care of all of us. Or maybe not all of us. But it felt like all of us to me."

There was a long silence.

"You know," said Adrian, "you know it's not me. I'm not really… well, here."

"I know," said Aster, "but I can pretend a little longer, can't I?"


"I'm going to have to do it soon," said Valerie.

Chrys gulped. Possibly one of the most risky things for Valerie to do…and it could have dire consequences. "How long will it take?"

"I don't know."

Valerie looked at the unconscious form of Aster. Forcibly breaking into Aster's head and trying to fix whatever was wrong with her – it could permanently damage her head. Even worse, Valerie could potentially break her open and find whatever it was and have no idea how to fix it – and she'd be forced to leave Aster open and exposed while she tried to find the solution.

Chrys was clutching Aster's hand tightly.


"You can accept it, right?" said Adrian. "You won't have a hard time letting go?"

"I can accept it," replied Aster.

"Good. Face the world. Act normal. Be a normal person. Help the Society, and who knows, you may be more helpful to the multiverse than you think."

Aster nodded and wiped her tears, smiling. "Goodbye. I guess this is the last time I get to say this."

Adrian let go of Aster's hands. "You know how to go back."

Aster nodded.

And she started to dissolve and disappear, and said, "This is all in my head, isn't it, Adrian-kun?"

Adrian sighed. "Do I have to quote Harry Potter? Or have you not read Harry Potter?"

"Oh, I read it. And it's okay, I know what you want to quote."

"Was there a manga made out of it?"

"No." Aster giggled. "Everyone reads Harry Potter."

The last part of her vanished.

Adrian blinked. "Well, that ought to give credit to J.K. Rowling."

And he dissolved and vanished, too.



Aster shifted. Chrys yelped and jumped up.

"…eh…" Aster opened her eyes and rubbed them. Shakily, she sat up.

"Ah – " Valerie gasped. "She's back."

Chrys started to glomp Aster but Valerie pulled her off. "Be careful. She may not be ready for that yet."

Aster coughed once from the hug and put in, "What'd I miss?"

"She's back," said Chrys, and she proceeded to finish the glomp.


"I'm still going to have to check over you. Is that okay with you?"


Aster wasn't quite back to using her catchphrase yet, but she was in definitely high spirits. Whatever had gone on inside her was a secret, but news of her miraculous return had spread through the Society. The medical ward was now closed off to only Valerie and Aster, however, for the moment.

"Good. At least I don't have to enter forcibly anymore."

Aster sat up straight and Valerie put her hands on Aster's back. Steadily…she had to find out what was in there, or what had been in there (if Aster had gotten it out). They couldn't risk a relapse.

"Aster, relax," said Valerie. "I think you're still a little tense."

"Oh, sorry," said Aster, and she tried to relax her head, whatever that felt like.

Valerie pushed a little more and reached in, looking for something that might –

Suddenly Valerie's eyes widened and she let go, Aster turning around to see what was wrong.

"Valerie-chan?" Aster blinked. "Is something going on? Something wrong?"

Valerie backed slowly against the wall, panting a little.

"Aster," she said finally, "you – "

Monday, June 24, 2013

TAOM: WARGS - The Bloody History of Gamers

"Okay... this is it," Louise's expression was deadly serious , as she leaned over the table, and into the faces of her three companions. The room was quiet with anticipation, and even the clocks seemed to have fallen silent.

"The ultimate showdown," Tash declared in a dark voice. Alice was bouncing so fast in her seat that she appeared to be vibrating on the spot, and Dave just looked amused by their antics.

Louise slammed a deck of cards into the middle of the table. "One round of Bloody Legacy! Sudden death!"

Over their shoulders, a small group of Society members watched in amusement. Several were skiving off from their assigned duties, but most of them just wanted to see the kind of games that the WARGs played on a regular basis.

"...they take this waaaay too seriously," concluded Jared. He smelt faintly of hot motor oil, having been called up from his lab by a curious Chloe to watch the spectacle.

"They're WARGs," Michael shrugged. "What do you expect?"

"So, what does the winner get?" Rhia asked curiously. The four opponents, seated at the four sides of the small square card table, went back to their glaring faceoff.

"Dignity," Alice giggled.

"Pride!" the deck was shuffled fast in Louise's hands as she spoke.

"Respect!" Tash thrust a finger straight up into the air, trying to appear dramatic.

"...okay, whatever you say," Rhia rolled her eyes. Dave sighed.

"And a free meal at the Royal Oak, when we head there in an hour," he explained. "Well...when I say free, I mean the losers are paying for the winner's lunch."

"No more talking!" Tash ordered. "Deal them Louise!"

The command was followed, Louise's hand moving so fast that it appeared as nothing more than a flesh coloured blur. Three cards were deposited before each player, and Louise returned the remainder of the deck to the centre of the table. Lightning fast, Alice slammed her hand down on it.

"Alice calls it," acknowledged the only male player. "She goes first."

"Heeheehee!" Alice chuckled, and Dave shrunk back in his seat, as the disturbing grin was turned onto him.

"Dave, Oddly Placed Lamppost!"

As she spoke, Alice plucked a card from her hand, and deposited it in front of Dave. The card image depicted a badly drawn cartoon man, slamming face first into a lamppost, stars exploding around his head. Alice immediately drew from the deck to replace it.

"I'll take it," Dave nodded, pulling the card towards him.

"My turn," Louise announced, selecting one of her own cards. "Alice, Extra Sharp Ice Skates."

Examining her hand, Alice scowled and discarded a card, bringing her hand down to two, as Louise drew up to three once more.

"Right, Alice," Dave grinned from behind his beard. "Just for earlier, Pool Of Semi Digested Carrots."

Alice pulled a face and discarded another card. "Damn you all!" she whined. "You're killing me with Banana cards!"

"Serves you right for hitting me with the lamppost!" Dave declared.

"Louise," Tash interrupted before Alice could inflict some kind of retribution. "Cupboard Full of Cats."

"Its All Done With Mirrors," Louise placed a yellow card on top of Tash's, which depicted a man, holding a mirror in front of him like a shield, obviously intending to reflect the attack. She then slid the cards over to Dave.

"...isn't this a tad barbaric?" Cristoph inquired. "The whole point of this game is to kill your friends...and using highly unorthodox methods too..."

"Its Just a Hologram," Dave placed another card on top of the two, before moving them to the discard pile, and drawing up again.

"A hologram of a Cupboard Full of Cats?" Jared tilted his head to one side, clearly entertaining some very amusing images.

"Can I eat it?" Tyler asked hopefully.

"Not if its a hologram you can't," Michael reminded him.

"Tashy," Alice placed a card before the leader. "Oops, That Blunderbuss Was Loaded."

The leader twitched. She had no trick cards in her hand, so she took it reluctantly.

"This game looks fun!" Jared grinned. To his left, Michael was smirking.

"I'm sure we've got a blunderbuss somewhere in the armoury..."

"Dave," Louise turned to her friend. "Over Aggressive Goose."

"Honk, honk," Dave quipped, accepting the card, and placing it next to the Lamppost.

"Can I eat that?" Tyler asked. Rhia rolled her eyes.

"Better stock up on goose..." she muttered to herself, already mentally preparing a shopping list to satisfy Tyler's extreme appetite later.

"Alice," Dave smirked. "Alien Slug Beast."

"Awww!" Alice wailed, throwing the last card in her hand to the discard pile. "Killed by Banana Skins!"

"Dave," Tash immediately moved into her turn. "A Complex System of Levers, Pullys, Cogs and a Baseball Bat."

"After You My Lady," Dave placed a yellow card on top of the trap, and pushed them both over to Louise, who shrugged and accepted the card, while Dave drew up again.

"Alice is out," Louise felt the need to remind everyone. "So its my turn. Dave, have a Falling Bookcase."

There was the sound of knuckles on wood, as the Librarian felt the need to knock on the table for safety. Dave however, was quick on the uptake.

"Duck," he passed it back to Louise, before adding, "quack!" as an afterthought. Tyler gave a moan, and clutched his rumbling stomach.

"You're mean!" he whined. Louise checked her hand and headdesked.

"Bugger!" she complained. "Killed by my own bookcase!"

"The end is near!" Tash chanted excitedly.

"Not for long," Dave retorted, slapping a card to the table. "Falling Grand Piano!"

Tash checked her hand, and the excitement slid off her face like custard from a spoon.

"Bollocks!" she cried, and Dave let out a cheer. The watching agents, realising that the beyond strange game had come to an end, began applauding.

"That was fun," Louise admitted, as Alice got up from her seat, bent over, and squeezed Dave tight around the ribs.

"Well done, Dumpling!" she began to vibrate on the spot again. "You are made of win, with a side of awesome." Dave took his reward, though from the odd gasping sounds coming from his mouth, it sounded more like a punishment.

"Thanks... Alice..." he finally managed to choke out, before she released him. "But you're still buying me lunch!"

"Cock..." Alice cursed, before taking his arm and attempting to nom it.

"Alice, don't break him," Tash warned, as Louise packed up the deck. "We need him for the Nationals next year."

"Heeey!" Louise paused suddenly in shuffling the deck through her hands. "There's a card missing!"

There was a confused silence, broken by the sounds of wet chewing. Slowly, everyone's eyes turned to Tyler, who had a piece of soggy card hanging from the corner of his mouth.

"What?" he asked innocently. "You didn't say I couldn't eat the duck!"

Friday, June 21, 2013

There's An Ak'Zahar In The Library!

Cristoph left Rhia tucked up in bed in her darkened room and made his way to the hospital wing. The Library was nearly silent today, with nobody in sight; unusually so following the chaotic battle of yesterday. Or at least, it may once have been thought of as unusual.

However, less than ten yards from the door to the hospital, the tranquillity was shattered by a scream ripping through the air. Cristoph instinctively pressed himself to the shadowed wall, holding his left arm in front of him to protect it from further injury. The pain shot down his wrist and he bit his lip until he could stand to move it again.

He glanced towards the double doors to the hospital; that cry had been one of sheer agony, and the low keening sound coming from the same voice had not stopped. He edged to the door and slipped inside, in time to hear a second scream, lower and much more teary than the first.

"Cristoph? I was wondering when you would show up," came a voice to his left.

"Lady Valerie…" He smiled weakly at the healer. The curtains were drawn around a bed in the far end of the room, and there was desperate movement coming from within – and yet more cries of pain. The sight stole the words from his mouth.

"Let's have a look at your wrist." She took his elbow and guided his arm forwards, gently pulling back his sleeve to reveal the splinted support bandage. She judged her actions by his facial expression, cupping the injured joint in her hands. Instantly it felt a little better. "The swelling's going down. Bruise is quite a pleasing array of shades…"


"…there's definitely a break. Feels quite clean. I'll take another X-ray tomorrow, perhaps. I think with the splint and myself you should be fine within three weeks."

"Thank you."

Valerie replaced the bandage, then picked up a square of fabric from the table behind her. "Could I persuade you to wear a sling at least for the first week?"

Cristoph was about to refuse, but when Valerie folded the cloth into a triangle he saw that it was black on the outside. The care shown at customising the bandage made him smile, and he allowed her to tie the sling around his arm and neck. The extra support was a relief, but he still felt ridiculous.

"It's been rather quiet otherwise…" Valerie cringed as the shriek of distress coursed through the hospital again, and she sighed.

"Most of those who were scratched or cut by the Ak'Zahar are rather ill today, and they've taken to their beds," said Cristoph, wariness permeating every word.

"I know. We've been getting reports all day. That venom is…" She swallowed hard. "How many at the last count?"

"How many? Eleven, I think…Tash, Michael, Ben, Dave, Harriet, Ingrid, Drake, Tom, Chrys, Miriku…and Rhia."

Over the last night things had gone from bad to worse. Everyone had patched up their wounds as normal – some had been so lightly cut during the skirmish that they had thought little of it. However nobody expected the effects that the Ak'Zahar's venom would have. The first thing Valerie had known was that Lily and Claire had come to her at around two a.m. both reporting that their boys were sick: a very pale Ben had fled to the bathroom after tossing and turning for a few hours, and Michael had collapsed in his attempt to get a glass of water. Their temperature had skyrocketed; Michael had a fever of 102.8. Valerie ordered the two straight back to bed, which neither complained about – but by then more concerned reports of heavy flu-like symptoms had come in, even from people she had no idea were actually there during the mêlée; she had identified that all the wounds inflicted by the Ak'Zahar appeared darkly bruised, their immune systems struggling against the unknown poison in their bodies.

Cristoph was actually the better off out of all who were injured; with his skin not broken the Ak'Zahar venom had not affected him. It was the closest thing the Society had ever had to an epidemic; thankfully the work was quiet, and there was no infection involved.

"Are you not able to do anything?"

Valerie shook her head, biting back several things she wanted to say. "No… they should… they should be fine in a few days. I've seen improvement already. The venom appears weak against otherwise healthy people. One of us will go around and check on them all later."

The same could not be said for the one who was even further beyond Valerie's help; who had nearly died from her encounter with the vicious, inhuman vampires. Yet more cries punctuated the stillness of the hospital; only this time they were weaker, and carried words.

"Ah – it – Louise – ahhhh!"

The curtain was shoved aside and Aimee hurried to the open collection of bottled medicines and drugs, filling a needleless syringe with a white liquid. Louise knelt on the chair next to the bedside, her hands clutching her friend's and whispering to her incessantly. Phoenixia, her scrubs revealing the least amount of skin many had ever seen, worked frantically on the other side of the bed. Her clothes and even her hair were spattered with blood and streaks of dark sludge, and above her surgical mask her eyes were fixed in a scowl. Alice screamed again – long and loud – her legs thrashing and twitching beneath the blanket and being held down by Louise. Aimee returned with her syringe; Phoenixia barely looked up from her work, only to nod towards the IV line. The curtain was closed behind her.

"Sweet Kami…" Cristoph whispered. "What's happened to her?"

Valerie seemed to deflate as the scene played out. "Alice has been affected by the venom worst of all. We didn't think… we got to the trauma long within the hour, we flushed the wounds; they should have been clean so we stitched them up…which we shouldn't have done, because they were hell to take out this morning. I wish we had known about the venom's delay beforehand. It keeps coming back, keeps swelling up and making it hurt badly. It's too much for her… this looks like the third time we've had to sedate her today. We can't keep doing this."

"Is there not a – a cure? An antidote?"

"It's… a little more complicated than that. The Ak'Zahar aren't poisonous like snakes or scorpions; they are in the same way as putting curare on an arrow. And the way it just builds up over time – Phoenixia said something a few hours ago about taking a culture to see what it really is, because antibiotics are working against it."

"So she will be all right, yes?"

Valerie sighed. "She is no longer in danger of death… we have no idea how this is going to proceed. I haven't talked to Phoenixia yet. And remember, Rhia was one of the blood donors… and today she's sick."

"More venom in the system." Cristoph grimaced, then noticed a few books and a TV feed from the Monitor Room spread across the corner table. "Research?"

"I took a leaf out of Alice's book. The fandom itself isn't promising; people are dying in droves, though I keep telling myself that is because they don't have the facilities we do… also the Ak'Zahar have been referenced in other texts, always with fear, and there's little to do with treating any injuries inflicted. Oh, and according to Akai, the Sues in the basement were clamouring to know what the din was yesterday – it was rather loud down there apparently – she eventually told them, and only one of them knew what the Ak'Zahar were and she hid under her blanket in terror."

He noticed then that the hospital was now quiet again. The curtains were once again drawn back, and Phoenixia, head bowed, walked to a chair on the other side of the room and slumped, pulling off her surgical mask and sighing. She shook her head when Valerie went to speak.

Louise still sat by Alice's side. She had refused to leave that seat for any period longer than ten minutes. Cristoph ventured towards her, placing a gentle uninjured hand on her back; she looked up at him briefly, but said nothing. Alice was unconscious, the blanket twisted around her and the loose gauze covering her arm already spotting red…

"I…forgive me, but I think I should return," he mumbled.

Cristoph shared the small and rather depressing update with the others who, like him, were still well and were acting almost as nursemaids to those that were ill. There were a few grumbles about having to do this, but they were friends and in many cases significant others – they all mucked in. They received the news in thoughtful silence.

After checking on a few other poorly agents he finally slipped back into Rhia's room. The light was dim, but he was unhindered; he checked the bucket by her bed and was relieved to still find it clean. She was tucked up in a brightly-striped duvet, dead to the world.

"Lady Rhia?" he whispered softly, crouching by the bed and placing the back of his hand on her burning forehead.


He smiled, and settled down to watch her.


"It hurts… it's burning!"

"I know it hurts. Allie, look at me – "

"I can't – stand – "

"Shh. You'll be fine, okay?"

"Make it stop – it – uhhh – "

"Allie – "


For the fifth time today the same frantic tableau was being played out. The Ak'Zahar venom had broken through the potent painkillers once more, swelling the weeping wounds and bringing Alice round from her drugged stupor into a world of living nightmares and agony. The medical team worked once more in the continuing siege on Alice's right arm, Aimee as assistant and Valerie stopping Alice from flailing around. Louise held Alice almost on her left side, hands holding her head so all Alice could see was her best friend, preventing her from seeing the bloody work on her arm – but she couldn't prevent her from feeling it.

Phoenixia had scrubbed up hurriedly and was hastening to flush the long gashes, cursing inwardly all the while; she damn well should have known about the venom and what it would do. She had made this mistake, this oversight, and Alice was suffering for it. Now she had this struggle on her hands, this and now with nigh-on a quarter of the Society incapacitated…

Alice was losing strength each time this happened. She was at constant risk of going back into shock. Rhia, Claire and Ossa's blood donations had saved her life yesterday; but they still had to keep her pumped full of fluids just to keep going, and that was before the venom swung into play. She suffered the flu-like symptoms too, her hospital gown soaked with sweat, but this was barely noticed past the injury to her arm.

It was hurting Valerie too, being unable to help, unable to do anything but hold Alice's ankles to stop her from thrashing around and injuring herself more. She kept an eye on Phoenixia, growing increasingly worried about how far the ex-hologram was pushing herself and neglecting food and rest.

She was at her wit's end. Morphine was about as effective as water at the moment, forcing them to use much more potent and complex analgesics; but giving her any more was likely to kill her. Aimee scurried back over to the medicine cabinet to collect yet another dose of the only other thing that could prevent the pain – a heavy sedative to knock Alice out instead. They were approaching overdose with that too…

Louise sensed Phoenixia falter in her work; Alice's arm was a complete mess and no-one risked bandaging it up again.


"There's got to be something else… instead of drugging her again…"

"Nixie?" came Aimee's voice from the cabinet. "Problem, we've only got a fifth of a Propofol dose left…"

Phoenixia sighed. "That's practically useless… look for another!"

"I don't know what I'm looking for!"

"Give her what we have – I'll be over in a tick…"

Louise remained at Alice's side, watching; the sedative wasn't kicking in, and Alice remained staring at her.

Phoenixia leaned on the cabinet shelf in despair, speaking softly. "This can only go on for so long, before we start risking brain damage from all the drugs…but we can't stop because the venom isn't letting up. And I'm worried…"

Valerie placed a hand on her back. "What about?"

"No. Not until it gets to that stage…"

"Phoenixia – what?"

She sighed. "I'm fearing for the limb's viability. If the venom doesn't abate it could poison her blood. I'm trying everything I can to prevent it and get her arm back to use, but there may be a point where our only course of action is to… amputate."

"What?" Louise's head whipped round, her face aghast. She slipped from her chair and shot over. "You can't be serious!"

"Look, we may have no choice! Would you rather she – I've fought enough on her to not let her die – "

"But that's her right arm, and she's right-handed – she draws, writes, uses her sword with that hand – "

"I know!" Phoenixia shouted. Louise only barely held herself back from storming from the room – she had to be here for Alice. But the ex-hologram sighed and sank into a chair. "I know what she'd be losing. But if the other choice is potentially her life… I promise I will fight to keep her in one piece."

Louise, as well as Valerie and Aimee, was silent. But over on the bed, the news filtered in through Alice's hazy senses, and she screamed again, thrashing weakly against the bedsheets. The team returned to their old positions, a slight feeling of bleakness among them, trying to stop Alice's panic.

"What would you do?" Phoenixia sounded exhausted. "You've sat at her side for long enough."

Louise's head dropped from the old guilt of leaving her in the tunnels to Tiarond. "I'd want Alice to get better, and stop suffering."

Valerie nodded in silent response, and Aimee said, "If only we could get Alice to sleep more. Sleep where the pain doesn't keep breaking through."

"There is… I think there is something else we could do," said Phoenixia softly. "Something that will give us a better chance of saving her arm without Alice coming in and out of distress. We could drug her deeper, get her through these next few days without this…"

"Isn't that what they do on TV?" said Louise.

Phoenixia looked uncomfortable.


"If we do this, it could be very dangerous. It'll be almost to the level of anaesthetic. We'll have to watch her at all times. She won't be asleep; she won't just be unconscious either, she won't be able to breathe by herself."

Louise had a moment to take in what she was saying, and what it meant. "You mean…she'll be in a coma – "

"No," said Phoenixia hurriedly. "No. Not really. I can bring her out of it at any time."

"But will it help her?"


"And will it help you?"

Phoenixia couldn't answer.

"Do it, Phoenixia."

Then Valerie intervened. "Louise, she can't just drug her into unconsciousness – we need her permission – "

"She's in no state to give it! Look at her!" snapped Louise.

"You're not – "

"Please…" Alice cried, almost in response. " – oh God make it stop!"

"That's consent enough for me," whispered Phoenixia. Valerie was approaching tears at Alice's sudden lucidity.

"Allie, are you sure?" asked Louise, feeling the squeeze on her hand.

Phoenixia vanished off back to the medicine cabinet, and Valerie hustled Louise from Alice's bedside. "Putting her under is going to take us some time, and until then we need to work cleanly. I'll let you back in the moment she's stable, okay?"

"Val – "

The empath fixed her with a stern look. "Come on. I know you want to stay. But not now. Not through this."

Louise left under somewhat teary protest. The medical staff started the risky procedure, and Valerie went to make an announcement to the small group of sound agents who had gathered in a TV room.

"Okay guys, news might have spread already, but we have had to put Alice under." Frantic shocked whispers began. "Everyone else looks to be recovering in a few days. We're setting up a low-level isolation protocol in the hospital. From now until the threat to Alice's arm has passed, if you are entering the wing – sleeves up, tie back long hair, and use the alcohol gel up to your wrists. We're moving Alice to a corner, and there will be tape on the floor to section off her right half – nobody crosses that line except the medical staff. I'm restricting visitors to two at a time; and I'm sorry, but paraphernalia will have to wait – I know someone's sending round a little Get Well card, and you're going to have to hang onto it at least until Alice wakes up."

The murmurs quietened, some faces of dismay amongst the crowd. Someone asked, "Will she be okay?" to which came the reply, "I think this will significantly increase her chances." She neglected to say anything about the looming risk of amputation.

Back inside the wing, Louise paced around the entrance area, waiting and hoping that someone would come and collect her. A small part of her wanted to flee back to the sanctity of her room, or to someone she knew; but there were very few people that were as close to her as Alice, and she couldn't bring herself to tell her family anything. With Alice being an only child, and Louise only having brothers, the two were as sisters to each other.

Eventually Aimee came and fetched her, and she took her seat at Alice's bedside again.

Alice, at the mercy of the medical staff, had been plunged so deep she was completely unresponsive. This dangerously preserved state saw almost her entire body's systems hooked up and monitored by the machines. But most obviously, her face; eyelids taped shut to protect her eyes, and her breathing sustained only by the tubes in her mouth and nose.

It took all Louise's strength to stay from bursting into floods of tears; the guilt threatened to swamp her. But for now, this was the right choice…


Phoenixia lay on top of a hospital bed, her much-needed sleep evading her. She had got up twice already to check on Alice's monitor, which hadn't changed in the last several hours, and this was the second day. Pacing up and down and prowling the gloomy and silent hospital wing were only sending her mind into more of a wide-awake flurry. So she lay there, trying not to stare at the ceiling, the dim light sending faint patterns across the backs of her eyelids.

You tended to think a lot about the person you operated on, wonder about them, imagine what they'd say if they knew what you were doing to them. Their life was in your hands. It was one of the many reasons doctors and surgeons were often not permitted to treat their own family or friends.

But she hadn't had a choice. It had been operate or die. The blasted vampires just made everything worse.

Phoenixia had found herself thinking about Alice a lot over the past days. She had grown fond of her, as one would for a young relative. She was bubbly, optimistic and friendly overall; when it came to romance she was all 'cute and innocent', missing innuendo and pulling faces at obvious making out. It was not a façade either, as evidenced by her overwhelmingly happy cluelessness after she had lost her virginity on the Rome mission, at least until they got back to the Library. Phoenixia found her sweetness adorable, and had briefly wondered what it would be like to sleep with her…but had discarded the thought just as quickly as a mere flight of fancy. Besides, Alice had said as much to her once; breasts 'just didn't do it'.

The first four words that had come from Alice's mouth when they had been first properly introduced was 'Can I glomp you?'. Phoenixia, suspecting nothing, had agreed with a shrug – then regretted it as she was enveloped in the most rib-squishingly hug she had ever experienced. Alice was strong enough to even lift her off her feet and twirl her around! It was only the beginning of her legendary glomps as she sought out everyone in turn, and openly telling the stories the other people in Real Life who had arm-shaped bruises after they had chanced across the girl at conventions or shows. However she always asked first, would give gentle hugs if asked, and would even refrain without question or protest if she was told no.

But Phoenixia now knew all this was a veneer, merely what she presented on the outside. A thick, hard-to-break, reinforced by a somewhat pragmatic optimism veneer, but one nonetheless. At the core was a very different Alice: desperately clingy and deeply insecure, completely unsure of herself, and utterly terrified that she would be left alone and friendless. It explained her desire to please, to assist wherever she could, and her fierce defence of her friends and her generally easy making of them. It also explained why Louise wasn't leaving her side right now.

She opened her eyes, and that was a mistake. The soft glow of the hospital stung her eyes, and initiated a headache to pound behind her forehead. She groaned softly and levered herself up to sit on the bed. The brightest glow came from the corner, drawing her inexorably towards it.

Louise seemed constantly glued to her seat, having borrowed a pillow from a nearby empty bed and draped it against the bed rail. She had the slow breathing of the deeply asleep. She was having trouble sleeping too, but at least when she got to sleep she was out till morning; unlike Phoenixia whose insomnia made whatever doze she managed as light as a feather.

The ex-hologram pulled her rather lank hair over her shoulder, retying it into a simple ponytail. It had been a bright snow-white ever since this ordeal began, maybe because it was easier to clean any muck off, or perhaps because she recalled Alice saying once how much she was enthralled by the silvery tresses…

She went around to the right side of Alice's bed, over the tape line. The life-sign monitor was built into the wall, black with coloured lines and figures reading out everything they needed to know and then some. She gazed at it sleepily, rereading everything twice over…and then she noticed the problem.

A row of silver hearts was scrolling across the top and bottom of the monitor, waving to and fro the moment Phoenixia noticed.

"@…" she sighed. "Get out."

The hearts stopped, but more were beginning to emerge on the sides. Phoenixia glared at the screen closely.

"Don't you understand? No, I guess you don't. Get the hell out of that monitor! You screw it up, and I'll…"

@'s hearts vanished, all but one, sneaking to the middle. A burst of silent computer code gave her reply.

"You're concerned too? Why? Just because Alice released you? It wasn't just her, you know – "

The heart slowly began to fade.

"I'll find who wrote your code, and who sent you out… when I have a moment…" Phoenixia yawned. She took in the monitor again, trying to actually register all the figures.

Hey, you slut!

Phoenixia nearly jumped out of her skin. That voice – her own voice, threaded through with bitter cynicism and an evil delight in tormenting her – was only in her head, but sounded like another her standing right behind her…

The fuck're you doing acting as a doctor? Aren't we delusional all of a sudden! The closest thing to a doctor you are is a nurse stripper.

"I am not… all like that…" She had to lean on the wall just to keep standing up.

Bullshit you aren't. Look at what you've done. LOOK!

Her head snapped round of its own accord, staring at Alice and the situation she had been forced to put her in.

This is all your fault. You aren't a doctor; you're closer to a murderer. All these mistakes you've made. And not just her either, is it?

"No… no… I saved her, we saved her… no…"

Dumb luck. You already missed the venom. Now you're running out of all those nice drugs. And tomorrow it'll be – whoops! There goes an artery!

She was beginning to hyperventilate, tears streaming down her face. She was repeating 'GO AWAY!' in her head over and over, but that voice simply got louder…

You barely know what you're doing… don't you? You're riding on hope and a prayer. But that's pretty much how you choke your way through life, ain't it?

"I do know… I am not like that…" She had to sink into a chair, now leaning over her patient.

Suddenly the voice grew softer, almost insidious.

You've fought a good fight, but it's an uphill struggle… isn't it? Wouldn't it just be kinder to… put her out of her misery?

Phoenixia stifled her gasp.

She's not going to live, you know it. You're just too self-absorbed to admit it, and too much of a bitch to tell the others there's no hope…

"NO! You're lying. You're LYING! I know she's– "

Even though the life-sign monitor had the heart rate lines crossing it, she could not trust it in this moment; she scrabbled for a stethoscope from the side, pulled on the earpieces and near-blindly pressed the bell to Alice's chest, shifting until she could hear it loud and clear.

There it was…

Phoenixia had never been truly 'born'; she had never spent nine months of her life in the womb surrounded by warmth and the comforting sounds of the mother's body around her. But even so, even to her, the low rhythmic throb of Alice's heartbeat was very soothing. The sound drowned out that damned voice in her head at last, proving that she was in the end doing the right thing; and finally, it lulled her to sleep.



She stirred from her half-doze, sat as she always was at Alice's bedside. She had barely eaten, spoken or slept for the preceding four days, and except for only a few occasions about once a day, she could not be persuaded to do either.

"You look like death microwaved," said Phoenixia, although she didn't look much better herself.

"Uhhhh," 'said' Louise. She didn't move much, except to get up and stretch her legs and click her elbows when she had been still for too long. Alice was, as she had for the past several days, still and completely oblivious to all around her, and it made Louise somewhat depressed.

Phoenixia's hand pressed itself gently against Louise's chin and turned her head. "Look, I'll tell you what. You've probably heard from one or other of us to look after yourself, and it's not worked, so I'm going to try bargaining… I have a little tidbit of news for you, but I'm not going to tell you anything until and unless you promise to go to bed!"

"Phoenixia…" Louise groaned. "I can't…"

"Alice isn't going anywhere! There's plenty of folk around to look after her, isn't there? Now you look awful and I want you to go and have a decent night's sleep, and I'm bribing you to do it."

"Why can't you just tell me now…?"

Phoenixia poked her. Her good mood – which Louise had only just noticed – was almost infectious, and it made her curious. She accepted Phoenixia's hands in pulling her up out of her chair.


"Come over here." She guided Louise away from Alice's bed, towards the hospital wing doors. "Now, will you go to bed if I tell you?"

"Mmmm…" Louise nodded sleepily.

"Okay." Phoenixia put an arm round Louise's shoulders, shepherded her out of the doors and into the low-lit corridors. "Well, I think that the Ak'Zahar venom has been all but eradicated from Alice's systems."

The hope filtered into Louise's eyes. "Does this mean…!"

"Yes, it does. I'll be waking her tomorrow, if all is well. She's going to need you, so you need to be as fresh as a daisy."

"I'll set my alarm, I'll go and wash my hair, I'll…"

"Lou, just go and sleep, that's all I ask."


However, Louise overslept the next morning. She woke at her early alarm, but even though it was the third different clock she had used since she came to the Library she reached over and turned it off, rolled over and went back to sleep. She woke again and glanced at the time – then shot out of bed as she realised she had slept another three hours.

She hurried into the hospital wing still in her pyjamas, rushing to the corner where she had spent the last several days. Phoenixia, who had been working to bring Alice out of the sedation for several hours, shook her head and smiled as Louise approached, her hair sticking up everywhere.

"Morning, Medusa," she quipped.

"Damn you, Phoenixia, you said you'd come and get me!" Louise grumbled.

"Did I?" Phoenixia shrugged. "Oh well. You're up now, aren't you? Means you won't have to wait long for Alice to wake up."

Louise took her usual seat on Alice's left, while Phoenixia worked on the right. Louise looked over at her best friend, and her sorrowful situation, as she had done hundreds of times over the past four days. "How's her arm?" Louise asked.

It was good to see the ex-hologram smile again. "Much better. Swelling's gone, everything's clean, and it's knitting already. I've stitched up some of the smaller wounds. It looks very promising now."

"Will her hand – "

"Lou," Phoenixia interrupted. "One step at a time."

"But it's her right hand, what if she can't use – "

Phoenixia sighed; she knew this was a worry of Louise's on Alice's behalf. "It will be weak for a time. But judging by the fact she had quite a tight grip on my finger earlier on…" She trailed off, tilting her head at Louise.

Louise nodded, taking Alice's left hand as she usually did and watching her friend's face. Her eyes were moving beneath the lids and she was beginning to stir.

"Allie?" said Louise anxiously.

"Give her a moment," said Phoenixia, watching the monitor.

Louise rubbed Alice's hand, whispering softly to her. She felt a gentle pressure on her fingers, increasing gradually…


Her head moved slowly towards Louise.


Her soft sing-song voice reached through the last dregs of Alice's unconsciousness, and she opened her eyes. Louise smiled widely.

"There you are."

Alice stared at Louise, but her panic was growing immediately. She slipped her hand out from her grip and reached up the tube taped into her mouth – clutching it and trying to pull it out.

"Alice, don't – " An alarm rang out from the otherwise silent monitor. Phoenixia and Louise tugged Alice's good hand away to prevent her from hurting herself further. They tried to calm her down, and Phoenixia leaned over to fill Alice's blurred view.

"Alice, look at me, hon," she said clearly. "Do you know who I am?"

Alice blinked, recognised her and her white hair and nodded, then winced silently as her lips moved around the slender tube.

"Good, that's good. Don't try to speak, it probably hurts."

Alice nodded again.

"Okay, now listen, Alice. You're all right, but we've had to help you. I'm going to put you on a spontaneous breathing trial. This means that, for the next two hours, I'm going to let you breathe under your own power but still hooked up to the machine so I can keep an eye on you. If all goes well, at the end of the two hours I'll take the tube out. Okay?"

It took her a moment to understand what she was saying, but nodded for a third time, and relaxed at last. Phoenixia gently ruffled her hair, making sure the tape holding the tube secure would not be dislodged by Alice's nodding, and lifting the bed so she was sitting up a little more.

"It's good to have you back with us, girl. Lou, I'll find you a notebook…can Allie write with her left hand?"

"We'll see," said Louise, slipping a pen into Alice's hand and putting her glasses carefully on her face.

Alice blinked as the world came back into focus and slowly gripped the biro, but turned her head to watch what Phoenixia was doing with the scary-looking machine to her right. Then she felt the artificial support drop, forcing her to suddenly regain control of her own body; she struggled for a moment, but at last she drew in breath by herself. It was still a very awkward and unnatural feeling, even with a little sedative remaining to allow her to tolerate it; she placed the pen on her bed and once more reached up to where her airway was connected to the machine – and once more Louise and Phoenixia stopped her.

"You're doing well. Don't worry," smiled Phoenixia. "Louise will stay with you."

Alice looked back to her left, at her best friend. Louise gave her the pen again, and slowly she scribbled it on the proffered note pad. The ink started flowing, and Alice wrote a large and scratchy 'Where?' on the paper.

"You're still in the hospital wing."

Alice's right arm twitched; the hand gripping the cushion. 'What?' she wrote.

"What? What do you mean?"

She underlined the word with a thin wavy line, then drew an arrow pointing to herself.

"What happened to you?"

Alice nodded.

Louise was glad there were only a few people in the wing at the time, for this one-sided conversation would otherwise make her very self-conscious. The ever-bouncy and hug-loving Alice being reduced to utter silence was unnerving…almost frightening. She started her explanation from what she knew of the Ak'Zahar attack; Alice stared around the hospital in immediate fear, but calmed as Louise assured her that her friends had managed to deal with them. Louise jumped from point to point but lost Alice quite soon. She could not remember anything past the Monitor Room. Louise brought her up to date, having reached the detail of having to drug her to save her from the pain of the venom.

Alice's eyes widened as Louise's tale sunk in. She put the pen down again and her hand reached for her friend's, slipping over the low bed rails. Louise smiled earnestly at her.

The pen was lifted again, and Alice wrote 'What is th…' before the dark blue faded swiftly to white. Alice shook the pen, winced as the effort hurt, and Louise tried to rekindle the ink flow but to no avail. Clearly annoyed at the blockade of communication, Alice threw the pen over the end of her bed – much to Phoenixia and Valerie's surprise – pulled Louise's arm over the bed rail, and tapped her wrist twice.

"What is it, Allie?"

She tapped her wrist again, and in a flash Louise realised what she was doing. She only had one hand to do it with, but she still had a way of talking to her.

The two, mostly goaded on by Alice's obsession of researching all kinds of random stuff but encouraged by Louise's highly indulged-in hobbies, had once pooled their varying resources and learnt a few words and phrases in British Sign Language. Neither had a reason for it aside from interest, and neither were anywhere near fluent, but once again Alice's relentless studies had proved valuable.


"It's… uh… it's just gone eleven in the morning."

Alice shook her head, frowning at her lack of sentences. She tapped Louise's wrist again, thought, then turned her palm face-up and moved it up and down. Time… today?

"Oh. It's, uh, the seventeenth. You've been out for four days…"

That was what Alice wanted, and she sank back into her pillows, trying to take it in. It was more than just four days; she had lost an entire week, as she had returned from The Shadowleague fandom on the eleventh. She was still not used to breathing like this, and a tiredness nagged the back of her mind.

"Allie? You're going to be all right… your arm is healing now."

Alice looked at the loose bandages swathing the limb. She reached over and carefully touched her upper arm.

"Does it hurt?" asked Louise, concerned at Alice's wince.

Alice nodded once, then her hand with little finger and thumb extended waved like a see-saw. Good/Bad, not sure.

"Well, that's better than you were…" Louise stopped before she said anything more.

Alice didn't pick up on it, and made another sign: a hand flat on her chest sliding off to make the thumbs-up.  How are you?

Louise sighed. "I'm just happy you're back."

Alice pointed to her, then held her cupped hand to the side of her head. You slept?

Louise mumbled softly and nodded. "They kind of made me go back to my own room last night. I've been here otherwise."

Alice reached down and pulled Louise's hand closer, unfolded the fingers flat and tapped her own hand on the edge. Work?

It was the best she could do in asking how the interview went, knowing only some words. Louise's shoulders sank; being reminded of the interview invited in a twinge of guilt, but to Alice she only shook her head. "Nope. Didn't get it."

Alice scowled. Usually she would have launched into a tirade of 'what bastards these people were to dare reject her housemate'. Louise found them amusing, if a little silly, knowing she was only talking hot air to cheer her up. Alice did the next best thing and bumped her fist repeatedly against the side of her head, the little finger extended: Stupid, stupid!

Louise snorted with laughter. "Yeah, aren't they just."

Alice sighed silently, resting in her pillows. Louise told her a little more about the interview, some things she had picked up from it, after which she went onto the escapades of the freshers who had joined their gaming society and her plans for a LARP set on the 1930's Queen Mary. Alice merely nodded at the right points, Louise at times forgetting her friend couldn't speak and asking for ideas that she couldn't give. The two lapsed into companionable silence for a time.

"Louise?" came Michael's voice after some time, breaking through her guilt-tinged reverie.

"Alice is awake!" cheered Claire from the same direction.

The two looked to their visitors, Alice waving a gentle hello to them both.

"Hi, guys," said Louise.

"We just stopped by – we'd heard some rumours of good news filtering through folk today," said Michael.

Louise nodded, informing them of Phoenixia's test for Alice's breathing.

"You'll be back to glomping people in no time!" smiled Claire, coming round to beside Louise. Alice smiled and nodded, then laughed silently and poked her gently as she quipped "Never known her this quiet!"

Claire wore a Grecian-esque lavender top with a black and white Greek key design around the neck; ever since going to Rome, she had loved tops that reminded her of the clothes they had worn for that mission, even going as far as raiding the Library's wardrobe and getting Alice's help in custom-making something pretty with the ever-strange Automatic Tailorisation Machine. Michael, however, looked ready for bed; he wore a loose T-shirt and red and blue pyjama bottoms, both festooned with dragons both large and artistic (on the shirt) and small and cartoony.

"It's good to see you on your feet again, Michael," said Louise. "Everyone else the same?"

"Thanks. Yeah, no longer feel like I want to curl up and die. Most people are better now, too, but still feel a little 'urgh' so there's kinda been mass sick days issued until folk feel like doing anything other than watching movies."

"What did you peak at, in the end?" asked Louise.

"Uhh, what, it was about 104? Damn thing was I was freezing, kept fighting Claire for my quilt."

Alice knew nothing of the large-scale sickness, of course, and stared at the three in quick succession. She looked at Louise and waved her index finger side to side: What?

Claire giggled as it looked like she was telling her off, but Louise explained quickly. "Oh…don't worry, Allie, some people got scratched by the Ak'Zahar and the venom made them ill for a few days." She made the 'OK' sign, which was the same both in general use and in formal sign language.

"So, anyway…"

Alice then waved her hand to catch Michael's attention, glanced at Louise, looked back to him and tapped a bent finger against the bridge of her nose a couple of times.

"Huh?" he voiced.

"So that's how you're communicating…" said Claire.

Louise worked out what she was trying to say. "Allie, which one?" she said, holding her hand out flat. Alice used her hand to make a T-shape. "Ah, okay. Michael, Alice wants to know how Tash is?"

"How'd you figure?" he said, with a note of fascination.

Louise mimicked the finger-to-nose sign. "Sister," she said, " – and she could have signed M, for Miriku," she placed three fingers on the palm of her hand, " – or T."

"Clever," he said, a grin coming to his face. "Yeah, Tash is on her feet too. I think she's plotting something to do with you, Alice, so I'll tell her you're awake."

With the promise of a second visit, soon the pair left the wing, leaving the housemates alone again. Alice looked to Louise, took her arm and signed time again, pointing towards her tube afterwards.

"I think you have about an hour left."

Alice sighed and her head flopped backwards into her pillows.

"I'm sorry… you're beginning to feel it, aren't you?"

Alice nodded, her hand tightening around Louise's before slipping off and resting on the blanket. She then had a thought and pulled Louise's hand up for a third time, making the 'M' symbol demonstrated earlier.


Alice made the 'M' again, pointed to herself, then to her arm, and then to her head. Many signs meant different things depending on the context, and this one was a particular worry of Alice's.

Does my mother know?

"Oh. No, I don't think anyone here's brave enough to have told your mum…and I certainly ain't, you know what she thinks of me!"

"Oh come now Louise, surely Alice's mother isn't that bad?" said Valerie, bustling past.

"You don't know her, Val…when we moved into our flat she pronounced it untidy already, scrubbed the kitchen worktop to within an inch of its life and then nagged us as to how we 'MUST' arrange the damn living room!"

"That's a little invasive, isn't it?" said Valerie, with a hint of shock.

"Alice is an only child, and still her mother goes nag-nag-nag – mostly to lose weight but sometimes to drop everything and go up to see her and never listens to what she says! And you know something, Val…you and her share first names…"

"Is she the person who has all the rumours flying around? The agent's mother who can beat any Sue by nagging them to death but will then turn around and do the same to us?" asked Phoenixia, a smirk coming to her face.

"Oh God yes!"

Alice facepalmed – not technically sign language but effective enough. The three laughed rather guiltily.

"Oh noes, seal the doors and run for the hills, for Mrs. Wood is coming!" giggled Phoenixia. "And she has her feather duster of dooooooom!"

The chortling died down, and Louise turned back to Alice. "Sorry about that, hon."

Alice shrugged, still smiling. Her hand rubbed her stomach.


Alice nodded.

"Mmm, we'll see if we can hunt down the nearest cow for you, and chase it through Rhia's hot kitchen. Though you may have to lay off the salt…"

Mentioning Alice's love of steak only made her stomach growl. Both of them knew Alice wouldn't be eating her slab of cow for some time, but seeing the signs of her appetite returning could only be good.

And speaking of food, in came their awaited visitor, bearing the ever-traditional invalid gift of a bag of grapes. Tash bounced in with her arms full, nodding at the medical team and pausing just before Alice's bed.

"Aww, Allie…" she said, smiling forlornly.

Alice rubbed her cheek and held her hand out to the gold-haired leader.

"It's a Tashy!" cheered Louise, on Alice's behalf. Tash approached the bed, about to go around to the right side but stopped as she was about to cross the tape on the floor (Phoenixia clearing her throat also helped) and instead came to hug Louise.

"Hello! I have brought you grapes," she said, proffering the net bag. "But – well, they're green – "

Alice's half-cupped hand circled a few times in front of her mouth, pointing to the bag, and then almost as an afterthought she pointed to Tash and waved her bent index finger in front of her face. Tash looked bamboozled.

"Alice will actually eat fruit, Tash," said Louise. "Oh, and she called you silly."

"Heeey," Tash grinned. "You like fruit? I think I'll get Rhia to test that. Anyway, welcome back to the land of the conscious, hon; we have a small something for you." And she handed Alice a large A3-sized purple envelope with sparkly stickers all over it.

Louise gave her a hand in opening it, revealing an equally-sparkly handmade blue and swirly card with a large 'Get Well Soon Alice' written in bubble writing. Inside were tens of little messages in all kinds of inks and handwriting – practically every member of the Society had signed the card. The sentiment brought tears to Alice's eyes, and she looked at Tash and placed her hand over her heart, then brought it to her lips and moved it away in a single paused movement. You're so kind… thank you.

Louise didn't bother to translate; the gratitude was obvious.

The two talked for a bit, Tash becoming a little more comfortable. Alice only listened, making no signs; she was beginning to blink back sleep and she longed for the two hours to be up.

"…hung over the washing line, you serious?"

"I don't know, something like that."

"Ha! She wouldn't like this place, she'd probably give cleaning all the shelves an actual go…I shouldn't speak ill of anyone's parents, I'm sure she's lovely to live with. Alice?"

Alice twitched as she was addressed, jarring her arm and making her wince softly. There was a note of fear in her eyes before she realised what was going on. Tash said nothing of it, but patted her hand anyway.

"I should probably go. I'll come and say hi again soon, 'kay?"

Louise watched Tash leave the hospital wing, wondering whether Alice was all right, but saw that she seemed to be dozing off. Then her hand crept up towards her chest and she stirred awkwardly.


Alice opened her eyes, staring at her friend; she relaxed slightly. She gestured to her arm.

"Does it hurt?"

Alice shook her head, but gestured further into the white room; Louise followed the motion, and saw Valerie turn on a lamp, further brightening the room. Alice sank back into her pillows.


Alice glanced back to Louise, and rubbed her fist on her chest. Sorry…

Talk had dried up, Louise prompting Alice to sleep and nodding at her refusal. Soon the two-hour mark came closer, and as the remainder of the sedative began to wear off, Alice was visibly struggling. Her friend turned to call for Phoenixia, but the tired ex-hologram was already at her side.

"Alice?" A gentle experimental touch on the right arm saw another twitch, but it was healing pain rather than destructive pain. Alice's hearing was getting fuzzy, but she saw Phoenixia check the medical paraphernalia before leaning over her.

"Everything looks good. We've always said you're stronger than you look. Okay, I will take it out now… brace yourself, this will be uncomfortable…"

Louise cringed away, unable to watch the extubation. She heard Alice cough harshly, cry out and gasp for air, Phoenixia talking softly to her all the time. There was a slight creak as she lowered the bed halfway, and Louise turned back.

Phoenixia made the 'Okay' sign to Louise.


Alice, tears streaming from her eyes, tried to speak but failed to make much more than a sore croak. Forming her fingers into a circle, she tapped her cheek – water…

Phoenixia watched carefully in the critical first moments; Louise filled a glass from the water jug and let Alice sip, holding her back from taking too much. "Slowly, Allie…we don't want your pillow getting damp."

"Lou…" Alice whispered.

"I'm here."

"Thank you…" Alice's hand went to make the sign for it, so quiet were her words.

"No problem, kid," Louise said softly. Nearly everyone in the Library was 'kid' to Louise at times, due to her years.

"Thank you… for staying…"

"Allie, I left you in the fandom. I left you to the Ak'Zahar. It's all my fault… I should have stayed, sod the Council and their shitty temp jobs."

Alice weakly reached for her friend's hand. "No… Lou, no… you stayed here, next to me." She closed her eyes and breathed out heavily, fighting sleep. "'Sides… Nixie wouldn't have coped… with both of us in here…"

Phoenixia's face fell, unseen by all.

Louise smiled. "Alice… when I became your friend I promised I would never abandon you. I did in the Shadowleague, and I feel awful about it. But I'm not leaving you now."

"Lou, you shouldn't… feel… bad…"

"Allie, you should sleep. You've been through a lot. Go on. You won't be alone."

Alice nodded, mumbling incoherently, slipping into sleep easily – pain-free and healing at last – and her grip on her friend's hand remained.

OoOoO Part 2 OoOoO

It was the twelfth day after Alice's fateful return, and for the last five days she had been on the mend. Her right arm, while lacerated from shoulder to hand, was now all stitched up and beginning to heal cleanly, thanks to the tireless efforts of the medical team. And finally, she was out of bed and back on her feet.

Phoenixia had started physio on the arm as soon as she was able, testing the limb's strength in short but frequent exams. Valerie, now that every trace of the Ak'Zahar was gone, was also lending a hand to make sure it healed well. Alice, who had never really been seriously injured in her life up till now, was finding it tough going.

"Yup, I think you'll be back to crushing ribs in no time," said Phoenixia on the afternoon of the twelfth day. She took the stick from Alice's hand, testing her writing grip, and let her rest in the armchair now next to her bed. She rubbed her securely-bandaged arm, and now able to bend her elbow without pain placed it in a support sling around her neck.

"So, could I go for a walk now?" she asked. The hospital wing had become dull and unstimulating, even with her best friend's almost constant presence. She had walked around the rooms on unsteady legs in the past few days, and any concern she had about her health or sanity about going outside had been overtaken by boredom.

Phoenixia and Valerie sized her up, and glanced at each other. Alice was certainly compos mentis and they no longer worried about her arm, although she was still on an IV drip and supplemental oxygen from the strong drug Phoenixia was using as a combination sedative – to save the difficulty of getting Alice to sleep – and painkiller.

"Mmm, I think she's good for a walk," said Valerie.

"Agreed. There's plenty of folk around if anything goes wrong, and it will stop you whingeing, won't it?" said Phoenixia, ruffling Alice's hair. "You should be okay without this for a few hours," she continued, slipping the nasal cannula from Alice's face, " – so just remember your drip, and you'll be fine."

Alice smiled and gave both of them a one-armed hug. She now wore a pair of pale blue pyjamas dusted with tiny hibiscus print; much better than a hospital gown. The right sleeve had been unpicked to ease her bandaged arm. The IV line was taped several times around her wrist to keep it secure. She took hold of the steel pole, tested the wheels' run, nodded to the pair and stepped out of the door.

The transition from a clean white and blue to the cosy wooden tones of the Library proper was very warm; it was like stepping from an air-conditioned airport out into the heat of the day. It made her vision swim and sweat to bead on her forehead. Alice reached up to dab it off, walking until she felt a tug on the tape on her arm, reminding her of the drip stand.

Holding the pole close to her, she realised how unsettlingly quiet the Library was. The shadows lining the corridors held deep portents. She looked back to the double doors of the hospital, the safe, cool, nightmare-free hospital, seriously considering admitting defeat from her own fear and returning. But Alice took a deep breath, and drawing from her well of stubborn bravery, ventured into the passageway.

Dave and Harriet were manning the Monitor Room, both of them just getting over their bouts of flu-like illness. They sat in the comfy swivel chairs, Harriet with her feet on the desks, watching the screens of varying fandoms and the radar-esque detection systems. Thankfully, for once all was pretty quiet, almost as if the onslaught of the Ak'Zahar in the Shadowleague had caused many others to lie low. The smell of the result of the battle in this room, and their repeated cleaning attempts, was beginning to dissipate at last after just under two weeks, but the huge dark stain remained; it took the pair several moments to realise there was a third presence in the room.

"Alice?" enquired Dave, turning and seeing her there. She stood at the edge of the stain, looking down at the expansive mark and clutching her IV pole.

Harriet stood and immediately wrapped an arm around Alice's shoulders, deftly avoiding the bandages. "You all right, pumpkin?"

"I'm, er… just…" Alice looked up into her smiling face, shuffling her slippered feet at the edge of the stain. She could not help but stare down at it in a mixture of wonder and horror. "Just looking…"

"Mmm, pretty isn't it?" Harriet quipped, rubbing Alice's back as she stared at the taller woman in near-shock, missing the humour completely. "Don't worry, we've given up on trying to clean the damn thing so we're getting a new shagpile instead!"

"Sorry…" mumbled Alice, her voice choked. "I didn't… mean…"

"Aaaaa-llie…" came a familiar comforting voice from the corridor. Alice whirled around; Harriet and Dave exchanged glances. "Where aaaaaare yooou?"

Alice didn't reply, but Louise came into the Monitor Room with a cheerful "There you are!". She took in the concerned looks of Harriet and Dave, and started to steer Alice towards the door. "Why didn't you wait for me at the doors, silly? Come on, Rhia's promised to cook you whatever you want." Harriet quietly informed Louise that Alice didn't seem quite herself; Louise replied that she wasn't surprised Alice had tried to apologise for something far out of her control. With the pair on duty reassured, Louise claimed Alice's arm and gently guided her friend away towards the kitchen.

They walked across the Library, Louise's banter distracting Alice from the shadows of the corridors. Eventually they turned the corner to the door to Rhia's kitchen; it was flung open and the merry-faced chef stood at the threshold. A few others gathered around the large table within.

"Alice!" Rhia cheered, glomping her gently, but Alice had to pull both arms out of her way. "Fantastic, you're up! Now," she said, grinning at Louise and steering Alice towards a seat on the table. "What's for breakfast? Anything you want. Not sure if we can rustle up anything as weird as a peacock or something like that but we'll see what we have in the cupboards…"

Alice smiled for the first time. "Uhm… pancakes?"

"Pancakes? Comin' right up."

"No, no, er, Rhia… I mean British pancakes…?"

Rhia screeched to a halt on the kitchen tiles, amid some chuckles. "There's a difference?"

"Oh yes!" giggled Tash from the other side of the room. "Our pancakes are thin and flat and are flipped in a pan! American ones are almost like floppy cakes."

"They're like French crepes, only they don't taste like cardboard," said Louise.

"Heeeyyy…" said Tash.

Rhia smiled. "Okay, but do you have a recipe?"

Alice nodded, gesturing to the computer terminal set into the wall. "I put a few recipes in the shared folder…"

A quick dive through the Library's shared folder, which was full of fanfiction, original stories, failed poetry, smut, @'s immature and flowery mockings, rants, embarrassing but unnamed diary entries and half the source code to the next Legacy of Kain game, and the recipe was found. Rhia quickly mixed up a jugful of thin cream-coloured batter with eggs, milk, water, vanilla flavouring and icing sugar, and experimentally slid a ladleful into a hot pan.

All the British agents in the room talked at once, firing hints and tips at Rhia to keep the first one from being the usual disaster. She attempted to flip it with a spatula, but an excitable Tash took the pan from her, took a step back – and threw the half-cooked pancake into the air and caught it on the other side. The kitchen cheered.

"That is insane. Is it done? Awesome! Gimme the jug, I wanna go at flipping it! Allie! Pancake!"

Alice, still smiling, took the first pancake hot from the pan and drizzled it with maple syrup. She watched as Rhia made the second, then tried to emulate Tash's amazing flip – but the half-soggy circle landed on the rim of the frying pan, fell off and landed with a satisfying splat on the floor. The kitchen laughed.

"Oh noes!" giggled Rhia.

By the time Rhia was on her sixth pint of batter, everyone was stuffing themselves with the surprisingly good and somewhat chewy pancakes, smothering them with maple syrup, golden syrup, lemon and sugar, honey, jam and Nutella (though not all at the same time).

The current playlist ended, and folk hustled Alice to go and choose the next song. She returned to her seat smiling as the song started with Beethoven's 5th. Several groaned softly, being not too keen on classical, but Rhia turned from her pan. "Hang on a moment, this is – "

The classical shot into rock 'n' roll; several recognised the song, but few could place the electric violins that made it different.

"I know this song, but – the hell is this?" asked an incredulous Ben. "Elvis on crack?"

"Close," said Alice, struggling on only her second pancake. "It's Electric Light Orchestra."

"Oh dear."

Eventually several were doing a kind of warped caramelldansen, singing "Roll over Beethoven, roll over Beethoven, roll over Beet-hoooo-ven!" and doing a funny little twirl on the last bar. Tash had shoved a camera into Louise's hands and led the impromptu dance.

"And to think, most of us are classed as adults now…" chuckled Louise, filming the insanity.

"It's trippy…" murmured Alice, smiling a little. She slid from her chair and took up her pole, wandering to the kitchen door and slipping through the door. She was feeling a little nauseous, unable to look at another pancake even though she'd barely had any.

The laughter of the kitchen was drowned swiftly by the solitude of the Library. However as she turned a corner, she all but collided with the Cliché Stick.


"Ah, yes, you. I've been looking for you…"

Normally this kind of address by the rather fearsome walking polished dowel would have sent anyone running for cover, but Alice remained, looking more confused than anything else.

"I was thinking about what you told me about that mantelpiece of yours… French polished mahogany, did you say?"

Alice blinked a few times; the shrieks died in her ears and she even gave a half-smile. "Uh… yes, yes it was. Looked like it had a sheen of glass over it…"

Shirley made an odd crooning noise and hopped closer. "Do you have any… photos?"

"I do, yes…"

"Well… you know where to send them…"

Shirley chuckled and left, just as Ben and Lily came tearing round the corner with a cry of "Don't maul her she's injured!" Alice jumped in sudden terror, but the familiar green-haired woman said, "Oh, you're unmolested…"

"I think so… hi, little chesspiece," said Alice, greeting Deebs who sat on Ben's shoulder. The 'cliché pencil' giggled, hopped down his arm and bounced off after her mother. "Ben, uh, I think Shirley wants some of my old family photos…"

"What… ever for?" he exclaimed.

"We had a mantelpiece made of solid mahogany with a really nice finish…she's never mauled me, yet, because I keep telling her of all the woodworking stuff that my family used to do…but now I think she want my snaps for, uh, 'fun reasons'…?"

The pair both face-faulted, scrabbling mentally for some extra-strength Brain Bleach.

"Gaaah," was all Lily could get out.

"I'll… be sure to keep them away from Deebs…" said Ben. "Allie, you're not seriously… no, you'd probably better… you all right? You look a bit distracted…"

"I'm okay…" mumbled Alice.

"Maybe you should go sit down or something."

"Okay… be, uh, be careful…"

Alice left the pair a little nonplussed, and went into the network of corridors that wove the Library's thoroughfares. It was good to walk around again, but a sense of deep nausea was uncoiling gradually. The corridors seemed much darker than usual. They seemed to stretch far away into the distance, curtained with shadows on both sides.

She felt the scream from behind her, and whirled around. Only the silence remained, with her rising heartbeat sounding in her ears.

What was wrong with her? She'd walked these passageways hundreds of times before… she knew little could hide here.

And yet she continued to see them.

She could hear the shrieks – she would never forget the cries those creatures made. She could feel the whoosh of their wings as they swept around her. The feral red glow of their eyes loomed out of those shadows.

Alice's bravery failed her; she clutched hold of her IV pole and ran. She found a corner and stood under the lightbulb, staring around in growing horror…the lightbulb began to fail and flicker…

"Who's there?" came the strong, oddly-accented voice from out of the blue, making Alice nearly jump out of her skin with a cry.

The light was normal, steady. Cristoph, recognising that Alice was extremely rattled about something, slid into the lit part of the corridor and approached her slowly.

"Lady Alice?" he queried warily. "It's all right. Don't be afraid."


"It is I."

She hugged him suddenly with her good arm, burying her face in his chest and almost yanking the stand over; he caught it, patting her back gently. He still wore a splinted bandage on his left wrist.

"Perhaps you should be in bed, milady?" Alice shook her head, her hair sticking to the black fabric; he was nine inches taller than her and she barely reached the midpoint of his chest. He upgraded his mental estimation of the situation when she did not resist detaching from her hug. "What's wrong? Tell me."

"I… I…" her eyes darted shakily to the shadows surrounding her. He followed her gaze, ascertaining the safety of the corridor. "I think there's an Ak'Zahar in the Library…"

Cristoph stiffened immediately, his good hand reaching for a weapon. "Where?"

"I – I don't know – I keep seeing them – "

"Them?" he thought, re-evaluating his memory of the mêlée and its aftermath. From what he could gather, stealth was not one of the Ak'Zahar's strong points, and he had been certain that none had escaped the Monitor Room.

And yet Alice looked genuinely terrified…

"Fear not. Find someplace safe, with a door – I shall find whatever you are seeing."

"But – "

He found a light control and turned them up, brightening the silent corridor in front of her. "Go. Hurry."

Alice fled, the pole wheels rattling as she went. She tried to stay in the light.

She ventured only down the lit corridors, taking a roundabout route to reach the Library's wardrobe, and the wonderful contraption that sat in the corner of the Unisex floor. The Automatic Tailorisation Machine responded immediately to her touch, showing a list of precise measurements on its small sepia screen; she found to her delight that it had built a setting for her to remake her floor-length light blue cloak in but seconds, emerging pressed and folded from a drawer built into the side of the booth. The gold embroidery was ever-so-slightly different, and shimmered wildly in the dim light of the wardrobe…

She whirled around, clutching her new cloak in her arms. Its warmth died in the face of the sudden darkness, and the creatures that dwelt there. She was sure she had closed the door, sure that this room was secure… but there they were, their red eyes burning brightly in the gloom…

She didn't know how she escaped, but her breath failed her and she sank down against the bookcase-lined corridor wall and curled up. Her right arm ached terribly; her left was being rubbed raw from the constant tug-tug-tug of the IV, and her head was spinning.

"Allie?" came the clear voice, piercing the miasma almost instantly.

Alice gasped and looked up, meeting the gaze of the slightly nonplussed dog-eared young woman.

For want of something better to say at Alice's terrified expression, Chrys simply said, "You have a new cloak."

Alice blinked; she looked down at the soft baby blue fabric, stroking it gently and wrapping it, still vaguely warm from its making, around her injured arm. She tried to get to her feet, setting the drip line swinging, but only succeeded in tumbling onto her knees. Chrys, conscientious enough to know she was in severe distress, crouched down to help her, unknowingly tugging on the bandaged arm; but Alice jolted forwards and seized Chrys's elbow with her good arm. Her eyes were wide and she was blinking a lot.

"Chrys – listen to me – I think there's an Ak'Zahar in the Library!"

"W-what? How?"

"I-I don't know…but I keep – seeing – " Alice was weeping now. "Please… warn… warn people… they're in the shadows!"

Chrys stared down the corridor at the faint gloom, then back to the desperate woman in front of her. She had never seen Alice like this, and though even Chrys could discern little sense from her, the panic was genuine enough for her to be concerned.

She patted Alice's back gingerly. "Don't worry, I'll go and ask Tash, or someone…" Chrys hurried away, making Alice cringe behind her as she walked straight into the corridor shadows without hesitation.

Clutching her cloak, Alice used the bookshelves as an impromptu ladder to pull herself to her feet, and continued to keep her left hand firmly on the polished wood as she shuffled to a corner in the passageway. The shadows screamed back at her, the glowing red eyes shifting like baleful stars. She was anxious to find her safety again, anything to get away from more danger…

"Alice?" came a higher-pitched voice behind her, and she felt a pair of small arms wrap round her waist. "Glomp!" cheered the young Emily, grinning as she was able to hug the resident glomper before being glomped herself. She peered round, being about a foot shorter than Alice, and gave a beaming sunny smile. "How are you? How's your arm? It's really good to see you up again. Hey, did you hear about the…"

Alice didn't even have the strength to jump, but her horror at the unknown risk to the child was immense. She couldn't bring herself to speak, merely watching the shadows and trying to edge herself in between her and them.

"…and I'm really hoping I get something like that for Christmas. Oh, and I almost forgot, Allie, could I have a look at your goggles at some point? I want to have a play with all the view settings on it, 'cause I wanna see what the rainbow thingy was through the Curtain Walls…"

Alice's arm snaked around Emily's shoulders, pulling her close. Emily looked up in dismay when she realised that Alice had tears pouring down her face. "Little one… listen, please, you've got to run… please!"

"But what's wrong? Should I go and get Hati or someone?"

Alice pulled Emily to her front, crouching and using her pole for support. "There's an Ak'Zahar around, in the shadows – I think there's more – run, now, not you!"

Emily saw the expression on Alice's face and took off, genuinely frightened by her terror. She ran down the corridor, heading back to the main rooms and dodging the shadows.

But then she stopped, skidding to an abrupt halt. She had seen or heard nothing that had raised the alarm. Something in Alice's eyes was not right.

Slowly, after a long moment of thought, she turned and headed towards the doors of the hospital wing. She could hear Louise's voice asking whether anyone had seen Alice. As she approached she saw Chrys, Cristoph and Ben along with Tash at the doors.

"I saw her in the corridors, just now," said Chrys, her voice full of confusion.

"Likewise. She reported that she could see Ak'Zahar…" Cristoph.

"What?" said Louise, Tash echoing the exclamation. "I've got to find her – "

"Guys," said Emily, stepping forwards. "She was just near the history rooms. She told me to run. I don't know what she's seeing, I thought to ask Nixie…"

"Ask me what?" said the resident ex-hologram, pausing in her errand at the now-open door. The six all spoke at once, clamouring around her until she stepped backwards and some of them almost lost their balance. "One at a time, one at a time!"

There was a pause, then everyone tried to speak at once again. There was a sigh, and Aster blurted, "There's an Ak'Zahar in the Library. In the corridors!"

"What?" They could almost see Phoenixia's mind bring up the 'ERROR' message. She glanced up to the ceiling briefly, tapping into the computer systems.

Valerie, over on the other side, started with alarm. "There can't be. We've had no reports of injuries, and it's been nearly a fortnight – "

"Alice kept seeing them. She seemed genuinely terrified," reported Cristoph.

Phoenixia shook her head. "Six came through, and we cleaned up six…" She paced back and forth.

Louise looked worried. "I'm going to go and find her…history rooms, right?" Emily nodded, and Louise was off.

"Then what is Alice seeing?" mused Ben.

Phoenixia paused, turning towards Valerie, a somewhat ugly thought building in her mind. "Val, would you check the side-effects of the bottle on the counter there? Just in case…"

Valerie went over towards the medicine cabinet and the worktop that went with it. She picked up the large glass bottle, the clear liquid inside swirling like water. "Isn't this the combination you've put Alice on?"

"Part of it, yes…"

Valerie's calm demeanour almost broke as she looked at the title label. "Wait – this is Ketamine, it's like PCP, it's a Schedule – "

"It doesn't matter!"

"But it's illegal for a reason, surely!"

Phoenixia sighed in exasperation. "There's a cold medicine that's sold over-the-counter in formulations aimed at children in the United Kingdom, yet is completely illegal in the United States. I even have some of Bayer's famous cough syrup and it can be as useful as morphine in certain pain cases. If a drug has a documented medical use then it is useful; I can't afford to abide by anyone's declaration of what's legal or not."

While Valerie had the 'gonk' expression on her face as she worked out what Phoenixia was saying, Aimee turned into the cupboard and briefly checked the first few shelves out of curiosity – then pulled out a different kind of bottle all together.

"Phoenixia, why is there a bottle of vodka in the medicine safe?"

She had to smirk. "Emergencies."

Now everyone gonked at that.

"Somehow I don't think Smirnoff is on the Essential Core Medicines list…" came the comment from Valerie.

Phoenixia smiled. "A long while ago I had to treat someone with acute antifreeze poisoning. I ran out of medical-grade ethanol, the antidote, so I had to substitute. Still worked, and they were rather merry when I'd finished. Now can I have those side-effects, Val?"

Valerie rotated the bottle and read them out. "'Potential side effects include: Nausea, sedation, hypertension, tachycardia, respiratory depression, hallucinations…'" She trailed off as they both realised it at the same time.

"Damn it…" came the sigh. "She's hallucinating… in the Library Arcanium… yeah, that's not a good thing." Phoenixia took a medical bag from the side of Alice's bed, and took Aster, Cristoph and Emily to hunt down her patient.

Tash and Ben remained, fairly thrown by the happenings. Valerie sighed and closed the medicine cabinet.

"I don't think I'll think the same thing about vampires again for a while…" mumbled Ben. "The last time I said that, it was just after Twilight."

"They're not simply animalistic. There is definitely something evil there. They post sentries, they stage organised attacks, they stalk people planning to pounce and steal their shiny things!" said Tash, her mind heated by what the Ak'Zahar were putting her friends through, even after the fight was over. "Those bastards ought to be sent the way of the smallpox virus… exterminate every single one of them."

"You're talking genocide, Tash," said Valerie gently.

"Well maybe some things deserve to be wiped out!" Tash screeched, her temper momentarily getting the better of her. She took some deep breaths and turned towards the wall, leaning her forehead against the cool tiles.

"Mmm, if they're this much of a nuisance, maybe we can round some of 'em up and use 'em as a weapon against Sovereigns or something…" mused Ben.

"You volunteering?" said Tash incredulously.

"Well… no."

Valerie smiled and shook her head.

Back in the Library corridors, the four hurried to Alice's last known whereabouts, some surreptitiously glancing to their lefts and rights just in case the Ak'Zahar weren't hallucinations. They could hear Louise's urgent pleas and Alice's soft whimpering.

"Louise," said Phoenixia, as soon as she came within sight. "How is she?"

Louise glanced up from being crouched at Alice's side, who was huddled against the wall. "She won't talk – she can't see me…"

Phoenixia worked quickly, disconnecting the offending drip bag and replacing it with saline in an attempt to flush the drug from Alice's system. Louise, Emily and soon Chrys tried to get her to respond; Cristoph kept an eye out for danger – or more likely, others unaware of the situation running down the corridors.

He and Phoenixia exchanged a nod; the three girls tried to rouse Alice from her stupor.


"Alice, please…"


Slowly they tried to edge Alice back to her feet, the girls supporting her sides and her good arm. She could not focus on any of them; instead she stared to the wall on the other side of the corridor, a good four metres away. Then she said a word no-one expected.


Everyone's head shot to the opposite wall, and then back, wondering what had changed. Then Alice gave a shriek and tried to shield herself against the bookcases, the four women stopping her from sinking back to the floor and keeping comforting hands on her.

Gradually they guided her back into the cool, sterile, calm hospital, easing her into the armchair by her bed. Phoenixia slipped the oxygen supply tubes back onto her face, talking softly all the while.

Another of the side-effects soon hit, almost as a backlash against being purged from the system, prompting a bucket to be found before a mess was made. Phoenixia noticed that her eyes seemed much clearer, and she smiled when the plaintive voice came from the corner.


"I'm here, hun."

"I… er… I'm sorry…"

"Oh, you!" Phoenixia leaned over and hugged her. "Come to bosom."

Muffled, Alice laughed quietly. "Niiiixiiiie, that's my line!" she whined.

"I know. I've nobbled it."

"Alice, were you really seeing Ak'Zahar everywhere?" asked Louise, sat as she always was at her friend's side.

Alice nodded, tensing a little, her gaze sweeping the hospital. The drug may have been lessened but the effects of what she saw was going to make her shaky for a while, along with the healing of her arm. "Everywhere, eventually," she said softly. "Swarming. I should have thought – I should have realised…"

"Alice, you are not infallible. None of us are," said Phoenixia gently.

Alice relaxed against the soft armchair. "There was one stage… when all the Ak'Zahar kind of… coalesced into people. Different people, all switching really fast. There were lots of voices around, but I couldn't make them out…"

"You mentioned 'Mum' at one point."

Alice nodded. "First you," she gestured at Louise. "Then Tash. Then Mum and Dad. Then you," she pointed to Phoenixia, " – and several other Society folk…then it got a bit funny. Two men with black hair in red togas – only one was smiling, the other was scowling. Peony. Then Merle. Then, um… others… white hair, purple eyes," Alice missed the silent exchange between Phoenixia and Louise, " – and black hair, green eyes. Can't put a name to them…"

Phoenixia swept around; after the first one, the second one had almost been expected. "But where on earth have you seen Runoa?"

Alice looked blank for a moment, associating name with reputation, then thought. "I read her file…all fifty pages of it. Was that who it was?"

"What did she do?"

"Nothing. None of them did anything. They just were there, and their eyes were glowing. Then they changed back into Ak'Zahar… and I panicked then."

Phoenixia patted her on her good shoulder. "They were hallucinations. They're not meant to make sense. We polished off those vampires and they're not threatening us any more… if you can, Alice, try not to worry about it."

Alice was left with Louise. "So much for a walk, eh?"

Louise shrugged. "We weren't to know. At least you weren't hurt further."

She looked sad, gingerly touching her bandages, and sighed lightly.

"You'll get better, Allie. You're already back on your feet."


"Still. You've come a long way from being on death's door. You'll have all the time to recover, you'll get back to drawing and using your sword again, and everything will be just as it was. Won't it?"

Alice smiled.