Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Insert Actually Scary Vampires Here

Alice plugged her laptop into the projector and tested its view, adjusting it to get a clearer picture. She had spent a few hours digging around the Library's annals to find the information she needed, and now she was ready.

Louise looked bored already, and Alice hadn't even begun. After having been told she and Alice were once again pairing up for the mission, she was not looking forwards to yet another lecture on a fandom she cared little about – she hadn't even heard of it, for heaven's sake. She sat on a padded stool and examined the pattern on the carpet while Alice ran with the controls from a comfy armchair in the centre of the room.

The only other people in attendance of Alice's lecture were Tash and Phoenixia. Alice's extra-preparedness was funny when you saw her stumbling down the corridor barely able to see because of the piles of books she was holding, but they had come to realise her in-depth exploring of the subject matter was actually a very useful thing. Rome had proved that. They were watching the lecture to take notes on how Alice proceeded, with the intention of drilling their rookies into copying her example.

"Okay," Alice began, taking up a remote control and a blue laser pointer. "Someone turn off the lights, please?"

The room grew dim, lit from the corridor outside. Louise heaved a sigh.

Alice pressed button (1) on the remote control, and on the silk screen a light glowed, bringing with it a detailed and labelled outline map.

"Ladies! This is the world of Myrial. Well, part of it anyway. The whole concept of this world is that it had been made partially artificial. You see these lines, here?" The blue dot raced down the thin web of double-lines that appeared to section off the map into ten political entities. "These are the Curtain Walls. They are in fact physical barriers stretching up into the sky that separate the countries here. The vast majority of the folk in each have no idea that there is stuff beyond their borders. Now, you're probably wondering why it's like this…"

Louise rolled her eyes, indicating she was thinking anything but. Alice continued regardless.

"…different species live in each area. I'll go through the ten countries in a moment, but the whole concept of this setting is that the in-Universe Powers That Be – no relation – got annoyed at all the human and dragon magic-users in this world's past and put their foot down. Magic was practically running rife, causing Cataclysms – literally, that's what occurs in the fandom set in this world's distant past. So they have forcibly removed all magic, active or passive or even possibility of, from the entire world."

"Interesting…" murmured Phoenixia to Tash. "I'd wonder on the repercussions of such an act…I'm kinda glad neither of those two are magic-users themselves."

Tash nodded in reply.

"…this large country here, Callisiora, is where humans live. They have a somewhat post-Medieval culture, heavily religious but comparatively rather liberal when it comes to gender roles and technology. Their major city is here in the mountains, called Tiarond." The blue laser pointer was making swirls in the curved trapezoid before centring on the city's location. "To its left is Kak – Kahi – Kahikatea, god that's a mouthful. This country is the home of the Angels, who I don't have a picture of but are rather like boring little flying manta rays, and the Gaeorn."

There were a few chuckles at Alice's pronunciation attempt. Alice scowled, but pressed button (2) to swap the map for a detailed schematic of a creature, the scale of which made a few eyes widen.

"The Gaeorn! A cross between Onix, an emerald and the Sandworms from Dune. Rather belligerent buggers, they can tunnel through solid rock 'cause they have mandibles made from diamond."

"Probably a good thing they're separated from humans," ventured Louise, beginning to pay a little attention – though she still looked fed up.

"It's probably a good thing that everything is separated from everything else here. There is an exception, but that's later." There was a small groan heard as Alice clicked back to the map and drifted to another country. "Okay, the land south of that is here, Fel Karivit, Land of the Alvai. They are slightly less gnarly than the Gaeorn…have a look." Button (3) revealed a large, human-sized praying mantis-esque creature, with jaws to match its size. "To follow our Pokémon comparisons, this is pretty much a Scyther you do not wanna deal with."

There were a few gulps.

"Onto the next one – to the right of Fel Karivit is Nemeris, home of the Otterfolk and the Selkie." After two rather fearsome creatures, the mention of 'otter' had some – and yes, there were more than three in Alice's audience by this point – hoping for something cuter.

They weren't disappointed. Button (4) revealed a picture of a child-sized furry creature on its hind legs, looking like a strange mixture of an actual otter, a Buizel and a Furret. There were many coos and 'awww's.

"Hee hee. I wouldn't call them cute to their faces. Now, down below is Zaltaigla, home to the dragons. Now as you can expect, Our Dragons Are Different applies, as they are the only race who know that the Top Bananas did something to the world, they just don't know what. Also, they have a really advanced culture and they feed via photosynthesis." The picture on (5) simply showed a golden dragon that wouldn't have looked much out of place in several other fandoms. "In the same country, as you can see, on the island in this large inland sea-type thing…this is Isshera, and is home to Centaurs," again an expected fantasy creature appeared on the schematic to button (6), " – and Wind-Sprites, but I don't have a picture of those because they are invisible. Finally, these three countries on the edge…" Alice's blue dot swept up and down the silk, indicating three areas that seemed to go off the edge of the map. "Liatris, the Land of Winterthorne and the Firelands aren't really explained much in the books, only except that salamanders and Phoenixes live in the last one."

Those who had been paying attention counted up Alice's explanations silently and realised that she had missed out two countries. Louise just looked bored again. Alice's pointer laid onto one of the two not mentioned, located directly east of the human land Callisiora.

"Okay. The whole point of the plot is that the Curtain Walls are failing, and as has been suggested, this is not a good thing. This last country here, called Gendival, is not home to a single species but more to a mix of everyone. This is the headquarters of an organisation called the Shadowleague, whose task it is to make sure the Curtain Walls stay up. The Shadowleague are the ambassadors to every country and every race, so because they have all the freedom and the power to go around the whole world of Myrial, I have proposed to our illustrious Librarian that we should find the Sue here."

"Finally, we get to the damn point," muttered Louise. It was too dark to see the carpet patterns clearly any more.

"This proposal also considers the fact that we too would find it much easier to go around posing as Shadowleague Loremasters, and that one of the job descriptions – indeed, practically the most important criteria for joining – is the ability to talk to all of these strange gribblies via telepathy, both sending and receiving."

"Telepathy?" Louise sat up.

"Finally, she wakes up," giggled Tash. "Yes, you; telepathy! Alice has already waffled off her brief plan to me. I'm giving you two Oneshots to use in this fandom."


"I thought magic didn't work in this world?" came a voice from the back.

Alice shrugged. "It doesn't. Which is actually the point of the book, in the end. Aside from a few pre-made and ancient little gadgets that are the Shadowleague's version of torches, nothing exists. Telepathy in this world is classed as a skill or a talent rather than magic."

Alice was about to shut her laptop off, when Emily's voice piped up from the folk sitting in the carpet. "Allie, what about the last country? Gary – Ghariad?"

"Um…yes. Sorry." Alice retrieved her pointer, but this time it was still instead of making crazy circles. "Kinda dumb to put the creatures who live here right next to the soft fleshy humans. This land is home to the Ak'Zahar… this world's version of vampires."

"Oysh!" came the exasperated, humoured sigh.

Alice pressed button (7), and the humour immediately wiped from the room. Emily herself gave a small "eek!" of fright.

The Ak'Zahar, as the schematic showed, were small, waist-height creatures with dark mottled skin and eyes that burned red with a feral intelligence. Their jaws were enormous, like a crocodile's but in proportion to their size, filled with sharp, venom-dripping fangs; the rest of their head was hairless and tight-skinned, almost like a skull. They crouched like bats, and indeed had large clawed bat wings, but they wore scraps of fur in a vague semblance of clothing.

"The only thing these vampires will be turning you into will be 'lunch'," said Alice softly. "But they shouldn't be a problem. I'd've thought the Sue, or anyone, really, would want to give these things a wide berth."

"Do they sparkle?" came the oh-so-expected question; so expected that Alice could count down the seconds until it came. Laughter rippled through the room at last, followed by amused comments comparing the goblin-like creatures to those of the fandom which had thoroughly annihilated any threat vampires once posed by inadvertently making them the butt of many jokes. Those who actually enjoyed Twilight sighed.

The slideshow ceased, and the light came back on. Alice took a deep breath; she had rehearsed her speech a couple of times before actually delivering it, and she had got through the last schematic without too much trouble.

"Well, I'd say that is a proposal and a half for a mission," said Tash, eying a couple of the now-standing audience who were notorious for simply 'jumping into it'. "I'll give you your gear and the Oneshots, and you two can head off when you're ready."


It took the agents two attempts to commence their mission. They emerged from the Library at Alice's chosen co-ordinates – just north of the lower lake in the aptly-named Valley of the Two Lakes, which served as Gendival's capital – only to find that the Oneshots completely failed to work. Hiding in the wood after the first rather disastrous meeting, they headed back to the Library rather nonplussed; a short, rather concerned debate followed. The magic-based pills were having to struggle against Myrial's severe anti-magic nature, which was even affecting something as self-contained as them, and their effect had burned out after less than half an hour. Eventually they decided, seeing that the two were relatively sensible about such things, to give them both a full dispenser of Oneshots so they always had a supply – and the telepathic ability – when they needed it, and at last the pair were sent on their way.

Gendival was a beautiful place, with clear waters and lush temperate foliage, only just turning to autumn. They emerged from the heavily forested area onto an open ride, a small twisted creek running alongside a manmade path. Alice pulled her silver-rimmed goggles down over her eyes; everything leapt into a sharp, artificially-coloured contrast, but Alice pulled a small lever on the right eye and thin red lines appeared in her vision, measuring distance and revealing a compass. Satisfied, Alice replaced the goggles on top of her head.

"And south is…?" prompted Louise.

"That way," said Alice, her left arm lifting. She patted her goggles – the extremely useful instrument had become her favourite tool to bring on missions, ever since she had discovered them from her 40k outfit. The pair, now well-versed in using the Automatic Tailorisation Machine, had used it once again to produce medieval-fantasy-style tunics and leggings, and a fake sword scabbard for Louise that disguised her pistol. It had also given her a cloak of a similar calibre to Alice's, a red-lined black garment which she found useful to wrap up in when the cold wind blew down the forest ride.

The two agents walked on until, abruptly, the low hilly ground swept down and away, revealing the lower of the titular Two Lakes and the town that was build around it.

"So, what do we do?" asked Louise as they gulped down their first Oneshots of the mission proper and walked on.

"We go down, we look around. We've had enough training to recognise a blimmin' Sue by now. She-He-It'll be around here somewhere."

"Well, don't you sound sure of yourself?" Louise draped a sarcastic arm round her friend's shoulder.

Alice grinned. "Haven't you and everyone else told me to have more confidence? Even me mam's commented on it. And besides, I like having at least a vague plan…"

"I haven't been able to catch a Sue yet!" countered Louise.

"Yes you have; what about that annoying tit McLaren?"

"Well yeah, but he wasn't – "

The two were interrupted by an enormous plesiosaur head lifting majestically out of the lake's waters with a low trumpeting call; the wave that the emergence had caused spilled out of the banks, causing the two to back up several yards and soaking a line of laundry on the other side. An angry woman wielding a ladle came out of the nearby house and started shouting abuse at the huge creature, who bowed its head in meek apology and paddled off as gently as it could. The sight had sent the two agents into utter hysterics, neither able to stay standing.

"Did – did you see – "

"The – the washing – and then – 'can't you stick your neck where the sun don't – awesome!"


The pair silenced immediately, turning round to see the legs of a tall bay horse. They looked up to see the bare-chested man astride the mount; no, wait, he was the horse, man seamlessly melding into animal –

"Archimandrite?" said Alice tentatively, both agents getting back to their feet. There was only one bay plot-relevant centaur round here.

"If this is your first time witnessing the Afanc's mess, you must be new to Gendival."

"Um, yes sir. We are…"

"I know, I know who you must be. Need to keep track of you Junior Loremasters a little better. Come this way…" The centaur sighed, wheeling around and gesturing rather sharply for the two to follow. "Although you at least knew my title, girl, my name is Cergorn and I head the Shadowleague. You are only recently arrived from Callisiora?"

Louise stared at Alice with an 'I-don't-bloody-know-you-do-the-talking' expression.

"Yes, we have."

"Isn't someone watching you?"

"Uh… not that we know of."

Cergorn gave an annoyed grunt. "Fair enough… well, let's see how much training you need yet. What's that?" he asked, pointing to one of the otter-creatures, walking on its hind legs and occasionally breaking into a four-legged run.

Alice paused, elbowing Louise who was about to exclaim on its cuteness.

~ What's this? The so-called Master Researcher doesn't know? Hee hee hee! ~

Now it was Louise's turn to elbow back; she recognised the look on Alice's face that only appeared when her 'anti-muse' ghost-Sue Misty was taunting her. And they had so hoped that she had given up her haunting… they hadn't seen her since before the big trip to Rome.

"It's… a Selkie. One of the sea ones?"

"Hmm, correct. All right, name the land that Senior Loremaster Maskulu comes from…"

The two got their first sight of a Gaeorn, more the tail tip of a massive serpentine being as they turned a corner towards a grassy hollow; beside a rocky area, the creature in question was bigger, much bigger than any schematic could have shown. He was talking to a man with dark hair.

"That's, um, that mouthful of a word…" began Louise.

"Kah… Kahi…katea?" said Alice.

"Good. Next…"

Cergorn stopped as they almost walked into a bug-hater's nightmare: a giant walking praying-mantis-esque creature, with a glistening bright green carapace, compound eyes that seemed bigger than they should be and fearsome bladed forearms. "Ah, Skreeva."

"Archimandrite," came the telepathic voice, somewhat lilting and vaguely feminine though punctuated by clicks of her jaws. "If you'll excuse me, I must check the preparations for the arrival of the Dragon Seer."

"Yes, of course."

It was hard for the two agents to avoid staring at the Alva as she scuttled off. This land was certainly not inhabited by your run-of-the-mill fantasy creatures.

"Right, now then you two. I think…"

*Cergorn, are you harassing the Juniors again? Tut tut.*

The new voice was high-pitched, clear like a bell. A ripple in the air before them sent eddies of autumn leaves flying up and around the three.

"Ah, Shree… I was just testing their knowledge."

*You need to stop scaring the new ones! I'm sure they will make fine Loremasters. Give them something to do! Give them to your wife for her little project or something.*

The invisible talking gust of wind then zipped around both girls, billowing their cloaks out as a means of greeting.

"Wind-Sprite?" whispered Louise.

"You're… Thirishri?" said Alice, trying to watch where the figure was going.

*Over here!* the Wind-Sprite chuckled playfully and threw a handful of leaves at the side of Alice's head. *Hello! Welcome to Gendival.*

She then flew back around Cergorn. *Got to be off, Cergorn. I've got to pick up Elion and Peony before we leave for Callisiora…*

"Let's hope he's in better spirits today… and bring back the Seer, and Veldan. Syvilda's getting worried."
Thirishri took off, leaving more leaves in her invisible wake. Louise was grinning from ear to ear, but Alice's lips were pursed in a scowl.

"Speaking of my wife, Shree has a valid point. There, something for you to do, Juniors!" said Cergorn, shepherding the pair towards a centaur-proportioned house. He called to his wife through the door, then gave his leave and galloped off across the plain.

"Alice?" said Louise, noticing the look on her face at last.

"As they say, 'Sue detected, deploying countermeasures'…" muttered Alice. "God honestly, 'Peony'? Bleh."

"What should we do? Do you know who we're looking for?"

"Yeah…" said Alice, eyes fixed on the other side of a grassy square from the house. "Her, apparently…"

The dark-haired man whom the massive Gaeorn had been addressing was now following the shimmer in the air that was the Wind-Sprite, accompanied by a young woman with lustrous golden hair. Where he wore muted practical clothing, her tunic and slacks were brightly coloured and richly embroidered – far too fancy for the rough and waterlogged path Alice knew Elion was going to be sent on. Cergorn emerged from between the houses and spoke to the three before the team went out of sight.

The two agents looked at each other. "Let's go."

"Go? Go where?" came a voice from behind them.

They turned to see another centaur, her lower parts a deep and unusual almost violety-black sprinkled with white, the woman part wearing a light midriff-bearing shirt and long silver hair tied into a braid.

"Sorry, girls. It's a little hectic round here at the moment. It'd be lovely to have your help on the tunnels, I know Cergorn has been trying to balance things…"

Syvilda steered the two into the house. The word 'tunnels' had piqued Alice's interest somewhat, but Louise kept looking behind her as the Sue went further from their grasp.



"How should I have known? The books are our only window into this world, and I know you can't shove everything you like into a text. Unlike other fandoms we have no errata. Syvilda may well have been organising this project behind the scenes, and we knew nothing of it from the novels."

Louise and Alice walked down the massive semicircular tunnel, dug smoothly into the rock. The female centaur, entirely pleasant compared to her rather intimidating husband, had waxed lyrical on her big tunnel project: a network of large, Gaeorn-dug underground passageways that connected the Shadowleague's headquarters to all the important points of its neighbouring lands. It meant that teams of Loremasters could venture forth to anywhere in Myrial without being seen by the locals, or being accosted by severe weather. She went on for so long about it that the two had to sneak to the bathroom and take the second Oneshot batch before their means to speak with most of the others around them vanished. Syvilda had been happy for their rather hesitant acceptance, and now they were stuck – until they realised that what little the tunnel project had accomplished was leading them straight to Tiarond, Callisiora's capital. In other words, exactly where they needed to be to catch up with the Sue.

As soon as they were far enough into the tunnel to not be overheard, Louise had called Tash in the Library to update her.

"Yeah, Alice might have something there," she said.

"What should we do? Re-insert?" said Alice.

"Re-insert…" Tash giggled over the communicator. "Nah, not after the fiasco we're having with the Oneshots. If you think you can get to Tiarond in time then I'd go through the nice warm dry tunnels. Go for it."

So the two agents were off. Again. It didn't take long for the laughter to start flying between the two. Louise was in one of her elements as she gushed about the beautiful strata, the diagonal coloured layers of different rock.

But the two weren't built for walking very far very fast, and they had to stop for a rest. Syvilda had given them supplies for the journey to the tunnel team, which according to her would take a day at most…

"A day? Pfft," grumbled Alice, lying in a warm hollow on the smooth floor. They'd sunk to the floor not two hours in, desperate for a rest. She had noticed with interest that the tunnels were lit by glims – practically the only magic Myrial had left and they were more technology than anything else. They were little glowing green orbs that were set into the wall every few yards. They did an excellent job of filling the tunnels with a soft light.

"You know, I swear she said something about a…" Louise stood and walked a few more steps into the tunnel. "A… railway track."

"What? Don't be ridiculous. What would they power it on?"

But Louise had found a hidden alcove in the main tunnel, and gestured to her find: a small handcart nestled at the beginning of a short-gauge track that she could see stretching out into the tunnel's distance.

"You're joking."

"I hope I'm joking, this will screw up my asthma something chronic…"

Alice pushed one of the seesaw-like handles, and the well-oiled efficient mechanism shot the handcart forwards further than they thought. The two looked at each other; Alice grinned, and Louise heaved a sigh.



"Holy crap, holy crap!"

What had started as a flat, sedate pace, pumping the twin handles of the handcart to move them along, had now become practically a rollercoaster. The slope had begun gradually adding to their speed; now it was too fast to pump and Alice dislodged the handles from the wheels in time to avoid being smacked in the face. Both agents were now clinging to the central mechanism of the handcart as it zoomed through the tunnels.

Alice was laughing and cheering as they sped down and over the wide rises in the tunnel. Louise however was screaming, and holding on for dear life.

Then both girls were thrown forwards unceremoniously – Alice grabbing Louise's hand as she nearly lost her grip – as the runaway handcart was halted down a long straight stretch of brakes, or what appeared to be unpowered wood and rubber attached to the track to provide friction enough to slow the cart to a stop. A slight smell of singed material filled the air, making Louise cough.

Alice hopped off, peering underneath at the wheels. They were too hot to touch. She glanced at the primitive braking system and then looked at how close the cart had come to a back wall of the tunnel; she could see accidents happening with this project of the Shadowleague's.

"Why have we stopped? I don't see anyone else here," queried Louise, standing up and dusting off.

"No… I think we're at…" Alice had found a set of large, shallow, wide steps leading up a winding path to the surface. She gestured to Louise, who followed with identical curiosity.

The steps surfaced into a wooden thicket, well-disguised by rocks and shrubs. The agents picked their way over the brush, wondering what the noise was…a low humming, punctuated by loud hisses and crackles. The light seemed oddly bright here, but they saw what it was when they emerged onto the open hill.

"The Curtain Wall!" the pair exclaimed in unison.

The massive border was there at the base of the hill on which they stood, plunging high up into the blue sky, glowing like a fluorescent bulb. Generally it was a brilliant white streaked with ever-changing rainbow streaks, roiling like clear oil on water, but every so often the white turned like gone-off milk and the colours dimmed almost to a dirty grey.

"Doesn't look well, does it?"

Louise had clamped her hands over her ears. The hum was bearable, but the intermittent noise that linked to the curdling colours sounded like the very earth was rending asunder. She shook her head to Alice's comment.

Alice took a step forwards, pulling out a scrap of paper with Syvilda's handwriting on it, ready to speak the password to allow them into Callisiora, but then she paused. Holding the paper by the edge of her lips, she reached up and pulled her goggles over her eyes.

The land and sky faded in her view, focusing on the opaque light border. The white was rendered as a light blue, protecting her eyes from the brightness; the rainbow just swirled the same. However upon every hiss the wall turned black, cracking in lightning-shaped slashes. She turned her head left and right, adjusting the levers to reveal white statistics in her vision. No section of the Curtain Wall within sight was at more than 50% strength; the section in front was only 21%.

But interestingly, Alice discovered that the rainbow areas revealed outlines of the land beyond to her goggles' advanced view. Zooming in on a large patch, she could make out the trees, the mountains in the distance, the rain…


She pulled off her goggles and handed them to her friend. "Have a look. The walls are pretty weak, and it seems to be tipping it down in Callisiora."

Louise took a look through, with difficulty as she couldn't quite get them to fit over her different face shape. "What the… do the Shadowleague know these things are about to fall down?"

Alice shrugged.

"And it is raining. Bloody… drift over there, rainbow, lemme get a better look…"

"Well we have cloaks, and as soon as we find the tunnel again we'll be dry."

Louise grumbled a little, handing the goggles over. Alice replaced them on her head, covering the lenses, and unfolded the paper.

"Okay, here goes… onwards to Callisiora!"

The other side of the Curtain Wall was abruptly different to the balmy Gendival. It appeared to be winter in Callisiora, and a pretty bad one too. The pair immediately drew their cloaks closer as the sheets of rain and sleet battered them, and the fierce wind made it hard to walk. In front of them, through the dark fog at least, lay several forested hills before the looming mountains of the city of Tiarond rose on the horizon.

"Let's just find that blasted tunnel..." grumbled Louise, her dark hair already dripping water down her face.

"I keep thinking, should we 'path off to Syvilda that we're through the Wall?" queried Alice, turning back to the border. It looked even worse in the dank light and weather.

"Why waste a Oneshot?" Louise pushed past Alice and headed towards the closest copse. "They have enough problems on their hands, don't they? Come on."

It took half an hour to find the hidden tunnel entrance, disguised with boulders and fake bushes painted green. The maw was wide, large enough for a Gaeorn to pass through, but cleverly dug with lighter earth so it looked as if it was simply a pit, if anyone else were to find it. However, after helping each other climb in, they turned and the low stairs led them down into the green-lit semi-darkness.

"Oi, Girl Guide," began Alice after making their time in Callisiora a full hour by plodding down the tunnel. "How far away would you have reckoned the mountains were?"

"The hell should I know?" snapped Louise. She was steaming as the warmth of the tunnel dried her. Alice groaned.

The tunnel here was identical to the one in Gendival: sloping up and down gently and carved smoothly through a multitude of rock strata. There were traces of emergency reinforcement, however, as the bad winter above them had flooded much of the path and leaked water down through rocks like clay. Puddles littered the sides of the tunnel, some with signs of having been dealt with.

The pair were hoping for another manic handcart ride – even Louise, after a time – but as they came across the alcove they discovered that the rails hadn't been built yet. All that existed were the sleepers, the handcart lying useless and without its mechanism in the corner.

The pair groaned. Alice looked anxious, glancing at some notes she'd jotted down; if she knew the timeline of this fandom, the Sue's party would be reaching Tiarond tomorrow, and she didn't particularly want to have to chase Elion – two of the multitude of storylines of this fandom would be brought together by him, and she dreaded having to interfere that far.

"Ahoy there!" came an unexpected voice, echoing down the tunnels and making the girls jump.

"Erm... hello?"

A young shirtless man appeared over the rise of the slope. He wore a hat set with one of those green lights, and he was muddy up to his elbows.

"What are you two doing here?" he asked, hands on his hips then taking off his hat as an afterthought.

"Uhh, Syvilda sent us?"

Immediately the man's face broke into a smile. "Great! It's been a while. Come on, ladies, we're just a mile ahead." He gestured enthusiastically; the two glanced at each other. "My name's Javor, I'm pretty much 'Vilda's frontman for this thing. You new round here? Didn't think ol' horse-arse was bothering with you until the Dragon Seer arrived."

Javor was sandy-haired and his accent strangely sounded almost Kiwi. Louise grinned at the not-so-flattering nickname for the Archimandrite, but Alice only smiled as she knew that there was going to be trouble spanning the entire trilogy with the Dragon Seer.

He was a fast walker, and soon the girls were stumbling to keep up. Alice had managed to communicate to Louise via sign language that they really should down their third Oneshots soon too. She managed to draw up her strength and poked Javor on the back.

"Sorry..." she panted, "...but can we rest for a bit?"

"Huh? Oh, sure. Go ahead." He leant against the wall as the two flopped. "Hey I know!"

He turned to the stretch of tunnel before them and made a low whistle – the girls knew immediately that there was telepathy at work, and pulled their water bottles out of their pack to take their third batch quickly. And they were just in time: a circle of floor was suddenly eaten away as a huge emerald form burst out and landed on the tunnel floor, filling it almost to the roof.

They were dumbstruck by such close proximity to the Gaeorn, seeing the size of its shiny dark mandibles and the whiteless gleam of its eyes. Javor walked forwards, slapping a hand on the emerald hide.

"Shuakala! Just in time. We've got some new ones! How's the digging coming?" With the Oneshots' power working for now, they could pick up the telepathic banter as easily as if he were speaking normally.

Surprisingly, the mental speech from the enormous creature was very high-pitched. "We're very close to making the Tiarond exit. I've made a temporary pothole so Cressil could go and scout a place where these silly people aren't going to find it."

"Brilliant. Say, you don't mind giving us a lift, do you?"

Shuakala sighed, an odd noise coming from the breathing holes along her sides. "My uncle will probably be mad, you know. He is a Senior Loremaster after all..." And strangely, she gently nuzzled the man with her huge head. "But just for you." She looked at the two agents, chuckling as she saw them struggle to wipe the looks of shock off their faces. "Climb aboard!"

Riding a Gaeorn was not an experience that was top of many people's list of '101 Things To Do Before I Die', but both Alice and Louise agreed that it damn well should be. Safer than the handcart but still carrying the appearance of danger as they clung to the smooth spines on Shuakala's back, her speed down the tunnels was utterly thrilling. They passed a thin shaft of light that was the temporary exit, and she steamrollered to a halt just before the end of the current stretch.

Javor leapt off the Gaeorn's back, planted a kiss on the smooth green side, and went to help Alice and Louise down. They were both dizzy, not trusting themselves to slide off safely, and they just sunk to the floor in delight. Shuakala shook her head and ventured to the back of the tunnel, leaving them to recover.

Then the third member of the current tunnel-builders appeared. Javor had explained a little about what they did in this project; Shuakala was the earthmover, her race making tunnels naturally and easily able to compress some of the softer rock into hard to leave the tunnel up, or at least ferry the spoil away. Javor was strong enough to help her in the finer areas, and the girls' intended job was navigation and planning. The last member was Crissil, one of the Otterfolk, who followed their path on the surface above and was in charge of hiding the entrances.

It was all the girls could do to not leap forward and hug him.

"I've found us a probable exit. It'll be a little unorthodox, as it's right in the Tiarondian cliffs, but if we do the light earth trick again I'm sure they'll think nothing of it," said the adorable little furry creature.

"Fantastic," said Javor.

"Syvilda bothered to send us some navigators again?"

"I knew she'd come through for us!"

"Mmmm." The pair swore they saw Crissil roll his eyes.

"Are we going to go through today?" asked Alice hopefully. All they had to do then was get round Tiarond and simply meet the Sue on the mountain pass.

There was a moment of thought from the two real Loremasters. "Not today, probably. Got a good way in... best to plan and do it tomorrow!"

The two agents deflated, though Alice perked up at mention of the planning and went over to have a look at their maps. Louise could only think about how many Oneshots they would have to waste tonight...


They spent two hours – and four more batches of Oneshots – gossiping with the three real Shadowleague members and talking over what they thought of the plans for the tunnel system. The first problem Alice had seen, and the three had already worked out, was the difficulty of the inland sea, making any tunnel system get to the land of the Dragonfolk to make any future journey of the Dragon Seer easier would have to go a long way, through Callisiora, the mountains of Kahikatea and the deserts and rainforests of Fel Karivit. It may be safer but it certainly wouldn't be faster, and all in all the efficiency of this project was debatable. The three told some vagueries about their life stories, all being relatively new to the Shadowleague. Shuakala, in Gaeorn terms, was barely a teenager.

Alice and Louise woke the next morning, having bedded down a while away from the three in case they were discovered without the telepathy skill. Louise had moaned about Tash giving them an earful when they got back for wasting so many of them, but Alice wasn't as perturbed; the damn things kept burning out, which wasn't their fault, and she thought they had been very careful.

They had awoken because Louise's communicator had gone off. It took them a moment or two to work out what the beeping noise was; thankfully the others hadn't heard.

"What the…"

"Prank call…" Alice rolled over.

Louise sighed and pulled the device from her tunic pocket, getting up and wandering further into the tunnel over the rise, approaching the temporary exit. "Whaaaat…"

"Lou?"came Tash's voice. "You had a call on your mobile – you left it in Rhia's kitchen. We answered it, 'cause it was Hampshire Council…they want to know if you can make an interview?"

Immediately Louise perked up, and so did Alice who had followed, half-hearing the other side of the conversation. "When? Where? Is it the Culture and Heritage job?"

"Uhhh…" There was a sound of rustling. "Yeah. Yes it is. Now the thing is – "

Alice hugged her friend, trying to curb her bouncy excitement.

"Lou, they said it's short notice. They want you in today. It's ten a.m. now, and it's at one…"

Louise sucked in her breath. Very short notice. Even without asking Alice, she knew they wouldn't get to Tiarond to catch this Peony in time.

"I don't know, Tash…"

"Oh come on, Lou!" said Alice. "It's the blinkin' Heritage job. I had to watch you bouncing around when they phoned you after you applied. Sod the Sue, think of the rent!"

Tash gave one of her faux-indignant gasps along with a giggle. Louise however looked torn.

"Yeah, but Allie, I can't just leave you…"

"Don't be silly. Go to interview. Go. Go and blow the morons away with your awesome," Alice grinned, taking on the ridiculously cheery tone aimed to bolster her housemate's self-esteem. "I'll go and nobble the stupid Sue."


"Go on!" Alice tickled her friend's sides, shoving her towards the temporary exit. Louise held her breath to contain the loud squeak.

"Are you sure, Allie?"

"'Course I'm sure. You can tell me all about it later when I drag Dipstick Blondie to the basement."

Her mind made up, Louise gave her friend a big hug. Alice squeezed her in return, assuring her she could easily bullshit her disappearance and get into Tiarond with ease. Louise climbed up the stairs of the exit, and Alice saw the flash of the plothole generator. Doing a crazy little dance, she turned and made her way back down the tunnel.


Alice crept up the tunnel to the new exit, her goggles over her face set to night-vision. The new stretch of wide passageway was still rough-cut, almost knee-deep in fine rock dust and did not yet have its glims embedded into the wall. She hadn't timed her leaving of the tunnel team well; by her reckoning she had minutes left on her current Oneshot.

But now she was in Tiarond, and she had to escape to track down the Sue.

Wading through the tunnel debris deep into the darkness, she found the alcove that would eventually contain the local handcart and ventured down the side tunnel that led to the hidden exit into the mountain city. It sloped upwards slightly, and the bluish tinge of her goggles' night vision lightened as she approached the way out.

"Alice?" came the mental voice from behind her.

She whirled, her dusty blue cloak sending flurries over the floor. Crissil stood there, the look on the Otterfolk's surprisingly expressive face reproachful.

"You're leaving." It was not a question.

"Crissil…" Alice had hoped that she had escaped on good terms, without hints that she had to abandon them when they – or at least the rather hot Javor – had such high hopes. "I'm sorry…"

"You weren't sent to us for the tunnel project, were you?"

Alice sat down in the dust, sinking to Crissil's level. "I would love to stay here and help you. It's so ambitious and I want to get my hands on the cartography. But I have something really important to do, and I can't ignore it any longer."

"Tiarond is dangerous, you know. We've had word that the Walls are weak to the north."

"I know, I know, look, I will be all right. I won't be in the city for long."

Crissil sighed. Alice noted with increasing concern that the telepathy was fading again, sounding more and more like a badly-tuned radio.

"Go, then," he said eventually.

"Thank you," said Alice, smiling with relief and hating herself briefly for her deception. Despite herself she shuffled forwards and wrapped her arms gently around the large otter, Crissil making a squawk in surprise. He patted her on her side, and watched Alice leave the tunnel system for Tiarond.


Tiarond was, mused Alice, a daft place to slap one's holy city. Callisiora was beautifully warm on the coastline, flat and with good land for agriculture, the southern settlements providing exports that made them rich. Tiarond's mountains destroyed much chance for decent farming, and with the wet winter they were suffering, there were landslides cutting off many of the passes to get into the city and flooding in most of the lower city streets.

The exit of the tunnel brought Alice out in the backstreets of the upper city. Tiarond was a city in two halves, or specifically two elevations; the upper city, designed in wide triangles centred around a huge square and basilica set into the rock walls, was reserved for the artisans, doctors and priests, but today most of the folk from the dirty slums of the lower city had poured into the higher level.

Alice replaced her silver goggles on top of her head, and pulled her cloak around her. She moved purposefully but intentionally keeping to the walls. There were soldiers keeping the peace – a cloaked and mailed force known as the Godswords – stationed at many of the junctions and patrolling the upper city. Alice tried to think of what she knew of them in case she warranted their attention; in a pinch, she was rather good at bullshitting if she knew the facts. Glad she no longer needed to waste Oneshots, she reached the edge of the square, seeing the huge crowd gathering around a platform in front of a pyre…

She did not dwell on what the plot entailed at this point, knowing the extremely narrow escape that was needed here and hoping the Sue did not have plans for it. She continued skirting the square slowly, waiting for several groups to cross her path before she went on.

Then she spied a flash of bright blonde hair several streets ahead of her. She was alone – at least she had left Elion and Thirishri – and she was studying the crowd. Alice fixed her in her gaze and strode on resolutely. The Sue then glanced in Alice's direction, and vanished as more people passed.

Alice growled in annoyance, hurrying towards the far end. Every so often she caught a flash of blonde amid the dull colours. Then a flash of silver blocked her path; a squad of Godswords had finally thought the strange determined girl unusual enough to detain.

But Alice was ready. She stopped as ordered, turning to the soldiers.

"Now then young lady, there's no use running round the edge of the square," said the captain of the squad. "The platform is thataway. It's only a few minutes until they begin."

"I'm sorry sir, I'm a servant of the Suffra – Hierarch Gilarra and I'm on an urgent assignment for her." Alice cursed silently; making a mistake on the title of the person conducting the burning at this stage of the plot was far from a good move.

The captain frowned. "Your proof?"

"Do you really want to risk the Great Sacrifice by holding me back, huh? She's rushed off her feet as it is!"

The soldiers said nothing, but neither did they move, so Alice simply nodded and took off again. It was a close call.

She had lost the Sue – or at least her hair – in the crowd, and Alice swore out loud. She slowed, staring around, her gaze shooting from patch of crowd to patch of crowd – until in her annoyance her eyes lifted to the low part of the cliffs surrounding the upper city, and spotted her quarry halfway up the face.


Alice ran, cloak billowing behind her, heading up the rock-hewn stairs. After four flights she put a hand on the wall to catch her breath; she was far from the fittest agent, and for the millionth time she told herself she had to work on that as she headed up the next flight up the cliff. Down below the ceremony was starting; she didn't have much time, though she had forgotten the true reason why.

She reached the top of the staircase, spilling out onto the wide plateau that spread round to the east of the city. She gasped for air, taking a few steps over the semi-rough but flat ground, buffeted by high winds.

There was only one other person around.


The Sue turned from the edge of the highland, her sun-bright hair seemingly glowing in the overcast light, not a lock out of place from the wind, and her embroidered peach and pink clothes were perfect and unsoiled.

"You… have led me on a merry song-and-dance across this stupid magic-screwing country… and now you deign to screw with the Shadowleague?"

Her head rolled on her neck, staring sardonically at the agent. "I'm doing them a favour."

"Like hell you are! I'm from the Anti-Cliché and Mary-Sue Elimination Society and I'm bringing you in!"

Peony gaped, a sceptical expression on her face. "What? Ridiculous. Don't you understand? All these people are suffering, the Shadowleague is falling apart – by doing what I'm doing I'm helping them. I've already let the Loremasters avoid their fate; I can't let them burn an innocent man!"

"Gaaah." Alice was nearly tearing out her hair. She advanced several steps but Peony stayed far out of arm's reach. "So much relies on that – "

"There's always a better way to do things, without having people get hurt."

"You can't just go around making everyone's life better! Have you any idea how damn boring you're making this story? The best part of being an author is torturing your characters mercilessly!"

"It doesn't have to be like that." Peony had barely raised her voice.

"I know where this kind of road can lead you, Peony, and it's not nice."

She shook her head, turning to face the agent. Alice's right hand shot to the hilt of her power sword.

"You don't understand! I have to help them! I can't stop now, I've almost finished! I'm not letting you – "

Peony cut off mid-sentence as the sounds of screams from far below suddenly caught their attention. They both looked towards the edge of the cliff and the city below. The clouds boiling from the north were a dirty black… no, they weren't clouds… it was a swarm of swift dark shapes, spiralling down from the shattered Curtain Wall far to the north and assailing the people…

The mutual confusion silenced both agent and Sue, before both turned to fear; one much slower than the other. The real deadline to get out of Tiarond had just passed.

Peony turned back to Alice, her face now a picture of complete and utter terror.



It was rather quiet in the Monitor Room. Only two missions were currently extant and both seemed to be in no trouble. Tash doodled in the margins of her notebook, jotting down ideas for the fast-approaching Novel Writing Month, absent-mindedly gazing at the screens. Michael wasn't even paying attention to the screens, instead focused on his DS and his experimental bash at the new Professor Layton. They were the only two on Monitor duty.

The rainbow flash of a plothole caught Tash's attention, and she yawned as she studied the monitor. She watched the blonde-haired Sue flee through it, and pull it closed behind her. Tash groaned; yet another they would have to hunt down and catch somewhere else. Their success rate was dropping these days.

"Mmm?" inquired Michael, scowling at his DS. The blasted Layton puzzle music had been plaguing their ears for the past twenty minutes.

"Oh, yet another has buggered off. Cowards. Let's see; that's the Shadowleague fandom. Alice should be back soon."


Tash kept watching the screen. It was juddering somewhat, swinging this way and that; was Alice running? The sky around her was blackened, and as she touched the volume control on the screen, she could hear faint sounds of screaming – and then the whisper of steel as Alice drew her sword.

"Alice?" she sent through to the communicator.

Alice gave a kind of strangled noise; with her sword in one hand she was scrabbling at her belt for her plothole generator, but at Tash's call she tried to reach for her communicator. She juggled the three items for a second, before one fell to the ground and bounced several yards away – it was the generator.

Then something dark and fast swept past Tash's view. And then another. She heard an ear-piercing, inhuman shriek – and Alice's yell as she charged her power sword. The screams in the background increased.

"Michael…" said the alarmed Tash.

"What?" He was still poring at his DS but his stylus was still, ill at ease.

"I think Alice is in trouble – "

She was cut off by Alice's scream – the creatures had doubled in seconds and she was fighting for her life, but one had broken through and now she doubled over, holding the glowing sword in front of her for defence.

"Alice!" shouted Tash.

"It's – it's the Ak'Zahar – " was all she managed.

"Vampires?" said Michael, snapping his DS shut. He looked at Tash and nodded; he was ready to go in.

But then that face filled the screen – the taut skull with the nightmarish face, shrieking loud enough to blow out one of the speakers in the system. Then the screen went to half-static as the creature bit down on the device and crushed many of its workings – just as Alice screamed for help, panic overflowing from her voice. What was left of their view showed the whirlpool of Ak'Zahar descending down onto the people of Tiarond and slaughtering all in reach…

"The plothole generator, Alice, get to it if you can!" shouted Tash, hoping it still worked. Michael's hand had frozen over the emergency plothole generator, aghast by the carnage.

"They're clinging – I can't – "

The sound of Alice's sword increased, punctuated by shrieks from the Ak'Zahar as she tried to fight them off. But she was barely keeping her feet – there was red staining the screen – and at last she reached the silver plothole gun…

The two turned as the rainbow portal formed to the side of the room; Alice blundered through but fell almost immediately, crashing heavily to the floor and trying to curl up defensively. Several dark shapes were clinging to her, caught in her hair or on her clothes, their sibilant screeches overpowering Alice's weak cries – and getting weaker. They were crouched, barely three feet in height, their eyes burning red and their crocodile-like jaws snapping.

One, two… four… six Ak'Zahar.

Time seemed to slow to a crawl as the two senior agents realised the situation. Tash took a step backwards, and then another, her left hand reaching up for the red crystal pendant at her throat…Michael drew his sword, taking in the invaders, before turning towards the wall and swinging his hand round…

Then, as the Ak'Zahar came to their senses, the largest and one covered in grey scars leapt into the air and powered themselves up to the ceiling; fiery Nephthys whooshed into view in front of Tash, and Michael's hand slammed the large red alarm button, sending a loud klaxon blaring throughout the Library.

Two of the Ak'Zahar hurled themselves screeching towards the Librarian, who tightened her grip and caused her sword to flare like a bar of magnesium – she brought it up, cutting down the first creature, but the fire around her blade vanished as the Ak'Zahar got close and it triggered a moment of surprise – causing her to miss the second, much smaller Ak'Zahar who scored a large gash on her cheek before wheeling away.

A third Ak'Zahar had likewise leapt for Michael, taking advantage of its flight to slash claws at his upper arm, but it was slower and he impaled it on his blade. Several agents had arrived by this point, chasing the alarm to its source, but most had to duck as the Ak'Zahar that Tash had missed screamed over their heads. Michael glanced to Alice, and then to the multiple deep gashes nigh-on shredding her right arm, and the pool of blood spreading from under the limb –

"MEDIC!" Michael roared.

But then he had to block the path of the medical team, straight in from the hospital wing, as he spotted the danger. Alice's blue cloak was ripped through by the last Ak'Zahar, still at what it considered its kill and inching closer to Alice's exposed throat. Tash whirled around, drew up her sword and charged her attack.

"Jurai-Ken – Doryuto!"

However to her horror, while the kick connected, the fireball that should have burned the thing to a crisp dissipated to nothingness even as it came within two feet of the Ak'Zahar. It shot into the air, screeching loudly in fury, permitting the med team through – Phoenixia stared at the creature in near-disbelief, but slowly the words of Alice's lecture filtered through her memory.

"…forcibly removed all magic, active or passive or even possibility of…"

The remaining Ak'Zahar were either furious at their attackers, lashing back and dodging any counter, or wanting to get back to their victim. Several agents formed a barrier around the med team, wielding whatever physical weapon was at their disposal. Miriku pulled the green-and-white medical supply box from a cupboard, Phoenixia grasped Alice's uninjured hand and Aimee clamped hers over the largest wound; all three then looked to Valerie.

– Who was promptly knocked backwards after her attempt at healing Alice resulted in a strong negative feedback. Valerie looked shocked; Alice's vision was greying out and she could not voice her scream; Phoenixia and Tash looked up at each other.

"They're magic-resistant!" they both said, almost in unison.

"It doesn't matter! We have arms enough!" said Tash, setting her gaze on the scarred Ak'Zahar and swiping at it, catching it on a wing and cursing as it flipped over and scraped her scalp.

Valerie scrabbled back, her knees stained with spilt blood. "How – but – I – "

"This is not the time to think about what should or shouldn't happen. This is what's happening, right here and right now, and we have to deal with it!" Phoenixia stuffed her long hair down the collar of her top to get it out of her way. "She's going into deep shock. We need to turn her onto her back. Careful – keep her neck straight – hold her arm out. Miri, Val, put pressure on the arteries there and there. Aimee, you have a free hand? Good – use some of the absorbent pads. Alice? Alice!" Gently she shook Alice's hand, pushing on her chin to tilt her head back to make sure she could breathe. Her blue-green eyes locked onto Phoenixia's violet ones. "Alice, squeeze my hand. Harder. As hard as you can. Come on girl, hold on."

By this point – less than three minutes after Alice had returned – the Ak'Zahar were almost in a frenzy, attacking all what seemed exposed. The agents were quick and armed enough to prevent any ripped throats – but it did not stop injury, and the mêlée proscribed any attempt at strategy. Several pressed themselves to the walls, calling out where the Ak'Zahar were going – with their speed and dexterity it seemed as if there were many more than was real. Rhia and Harriet, both scratched across the face and arms, worked back to back with their respective percussive instruments, successful in dazing the scarred Ak'Zahar with a frying-pan-cricket-bat tag-team.

One Ak'Zahar had been snapping at anything and everything that came its way, but after hissing at Tash's failed fireball, it had taken to a high perch – chased from the highest by the largest Ak'Zahar – to watch the mêlée. It kept an interested eye on the fallen figure, more so than the enraged three that were simply attacking all in sight. It was hungry, and annoyed.

A gap formed around Alice and the med team, the agents attempting to chase the vampires away from the centre; a hard thing to do when the blasted things were on wings. The hungry Ak'Zahar saw its chance, leapt from its perch and swooped downwards – only to be whacked away by a big silver thing. Ben was wielding Bahamut in a similar way to Harriet and her cricket bat, knowing that collateral damage was the last thing needed here. He swung the weaponised guitar again, catching the creature enough to send it off balance; however it landed on his back, claws digging through fabric and into skin. Ben bit back a cry, then Bahamut went backwards over his head in his attempt to dislodge it.

Cristoph was the one who ripped it off, whirling Ben around and causing him to use his guitar for balance. The Ak'Zahar had its sights on Alice again, hissing loudly at the ninja who was managing to keep it in his grip without being wounded. Ben could feel thin trickles of blood down his back amid his shredded T-shirt. The Ak'Zahar, enraged now by being thwarted, turned once more in Cristoph's grip and swiftly bit down hard onto his left wrist; the force from those jaws was considerable, and Cristoph felt the bones crack.


The thing was caught on his bracer, struggling to get loose. He had let go in reaction, the white-hot pain shooting up his arm; near-blinded by it, he tore ninjato from its sheath and scraped the tip across the creature's skull, finally finding one soft part and plunging the short sword as deep as it would go. The Ak'Zahar was killed almost instantly, wings and claws flailing and catching both Ben and Rhia who were struggling to get it off him. The sword clattered to the floor, and Cristoph clutched his wrist, almost losing his footing as Rhia pulled him to the side and wrestled with the crushed bracer.

Most of the med team had paused as the Ak'Zahar had come so close, leaning over Alice to shield her from the creature even as they fought to contain the bleeding. Phoenixia had stopped Alice from looking, but she was too far gone for that; clutching her hand, her eyes fixed on hers, her vision had tunnelled so much there was only one person in her world.

"Alice, listen to my voice. I'm here, and you're going to be all right. There's nothing to worry about. Stay with me, Alice… stay with me!"

But Alice's strength had finished. She drew the last vestiges together – her grip on Phoenixia's hand loosened and the tears streamed down her face.

"Sorry…" she whispered softly…

Phoenixia watched those blue-green eyes cloud over and close up; her hand went limp, slipping out of the blood-slick grasp and falling to the side. Phoenixia, mouth open, disbelief roiling round her head, found the pulse in her wrist non-existent and the one at her neck fading; her breathing was weak and stuttering…

Phoenixia cursed under her breath. She was not about to let her die! She scrabbled for the green and white box that lay open on the floor, seizing a silver instrument and tearing a clear twelve-inch-long tube from a plastic packet. She worked with the frantic, desperate but assured determination of a trained paramedic.

Valerie placed her hands on Alice's chest to begin the compressions, but the scarred Ak'Zahar landed close to them, angry by its companion's demise; the four once again crouched low over their patient, Phoenixia stuck halfway through securing Alice's airway. The Ak'Zahar screeched and bolted towards them, scraping claws across Miriku's shoulder as it did; several went to the defence of the medics and the injured and chased the thing off. As it wheeled around, an incensed Miriku seized Alice's dropped power sword and hefted it up in a vertical arc, tearing into the Ak'Zahar; she then depressed the sword's switch and the blue electricity set the dying vampire alight.

At the same time, Dave, with blood mingling into his beard from a cut on his scalp, ended the small and nippy vampire by the luckiest shot that day; as it was coming for him, or for someone behind him, he stepped to the side and swung his battleaxe – embedding it into the wall covered in dark ichor and neatly bisecting the penultimate Ak'Zahar.

It took several moments for everyone to realise there weren't Ak'Zahar above their heads any more.

"Where's the last one?" came someone's voice.

"How many came through?"

"I don't know!"




"Mother of fuck!"

"They could have got out – "

" – what happened to that other one?"

"Which one?"

"Hurry!" That last one was Phoenixia. She was now Alice's lungs, using a bag-and-valve combination attached to the secure tube down Alice's throat to breathe for her. "We can't move her until it's safe!"

There was a loud hiss from above their heads, and the largest Ak'Zahar jumped down on top of the major computer – just out of their reach. Its wings stretched threateningly, baring its teeth and dripping venom down onto the keyboards, which fizzed and spat. Tash pushed to the front, cuts over her face and hair dishevelled, Nephthys' blade scored with Ak'Zahar blood.

The creature glared at her, and she glared at it. Then it made a kind of peculiar noise, like a low metrical hiss…

"Heh heh heh…"

Tash twitched violently, her hands tightening on Nephthys' hilt. Her face was twisted with rage. This bastard thing was daring to laugh at her?

She slashed, missing by inches. She climbed up on chairs, then desks, in her ferocious attempt to smash the thing's face in. It continued to laugh as it jumped higher – but then a sparkly pinecone whizzed over her head and smacked the Ak'Zahar, knocking him off his perch with little time to take wing. Tash scrambled towards it, across the desks and over monitors, stabbing Nephthys further and further until at last she caught it – it divebombed her, wounded enough, but Tash whirled and beheaded it, swinging the carcass across the room as she lost her balance and tumbled to the floor.

The loud klaxon was at last turned off. Claire pushed through to Tash's side, but she sat up, panting from sudden fatigue and scrabbling for her dropped sword. "Tash! It's okay. There are no more!" She turned to the other side of the room, nodding to the med team. "Phoenixia!"

"Is anyone else injured?" Phoenixia yelled. Just by glancing up for a brief moment she could see blood against skin everywhere…

"We'll live!" Cristoph gasped. His wrist was already bruising a heavy purple and he could not bear to let go of it.

"Get Alice out of here!" said Michael, touching the cut on his shoulder gingerly.

"Then someone give us a hand – she needs to go now!"

As one, nearly every able pair of hands came down to lend their support. There was no shoving or jostling; there was only a singular determined resolve. Someone – nobody could recall who – spoke a short countdown, and together they lifted the stricken agent a few inches from the floor. The stretcher was guided underneath by knees, and they laid her back down. At little more than a simple glance from Phoenixia, still working tirelessly to breathe for Alice, half of the present Society stood up and stepped back; the other half took hold of the stretcher, and with a moment to ensure she was secure, lifted her and proceeded to convey her to the hospital wing. Many of the others rushed ahead to hold the doors open for them.

All that was done in less than twenty seconds, and with barely a word being spoken. These people were different in many ways, and the same in others; there were some times when their minds and fears ran in unison, and this was one of them.

Phoenixia looked at Tash, who was somewhat shaky now after the brief adrenaline-pumped battle. "Tash, go into Alice's file and get me her blood type – then get me some donors."

Resolved, she nodded and left the stretcher side, hurrying back to one of the still-functioning screens. She ran through the database to find the information; like the armed forces, they had found it wise to type everybody when they joined, though few knew theirs off-hand. Tash knew what Phoenixia was asking and why – she had given her type AB+ blood many times in Real Life, and she was determined to again, right here and right now to help save her friend's life; if it had to go to giving more than was really safe, she would.

She went into Alice's file, and whizzed down to the medical section. Past the details of her epilepsy lay the entry in question.

ABO/D Blood Type: O+

Tash was useless.



Louise returned to the Library in a somewhat good mood. Her interview had gone all right – well, as well as interviews could ever get; nerve-wracking nosy demeaning things they were. The job it was for was a pretty good one with a chance of progressing, better pay than she'd had for a long while, and the work was actually interesting. Better yet, they'd mentioned they had another similar role being posted next week, and she was bursting to bug Alice to apply for it. Such good feelings about potential employment had been rare since graduating university.

Upon visiting their flat and finding it empty, Louise locked it up and left Real Life. She fully expected to be glomped sharpish by her housemate when she appeared; surely Alice was back from the mission by now.

But the Library was quiet. The few people she saw hurried along with little more than a brief greeting, deliberately avoiding her gave. Forgoing heading to her room to change out of her interview gear, she proceeded straight towards the Monitor Room, looking somewhat intimidating (for her, at least) in black trousers and suit jacket and turquoise blouse.

The first thing she perceived was the smell. It started a corner away; a few metres from the doorway she had to stop and hold her hand over her face. That stench! What was it, bleach? It was strongly alkali and carried undertones of iron and burning.

Her asthma was beginning to be threatening, but she took a few more steps – and finally she saw someone with answers.

"Tash!" Louise shouted, before coughing and backing up several steps.

The dismay on Tash's face at seeing Louise was painfully obvious; her attempt to hide it even more so.

"Louise! How… lovely to see you back! How'd the interview go?"

"Went well, better than I expected. They should give me a call by the end of the week… who spilt something?"

Being able to brave the smell a little more, Louise's eyes fell pointedly on the large dark stains on the Monitor Room carpet.

"Nothing. No-one."

Louise's eyes narrowed slightly; she drew in breath to voice her increasing suspicions but decided not to. "Has Alice come back yet?"

"Yeah…" Tash looked extremely uncomfortable.

That was it. "Tash…" Louise folded her arms.

"Um… it's all right." She quailed under her friend's relentless glare. She hated being the bearer of bad news and had tried her hardest to not be this time; but Louise had found her anyway.

"Tash, I'm not stupid. What happened?"

"No, I know you're not…" She spoke over Louise and faltered as she heard the dreaded question. She sighed. "There was… an incident."

Louise's face solidified. "With who?"


Damn. The two syllables she did not want to hear. Tash had dropped her gaze, but now she heard the trepidation in Louise's voice.

"Tash, tell me."

"She… she got caught in the Ak'Zahar's attack on the city."

"Please… tell me she's not – "

"No, no, she's all right, she came back…" Tash could not help but stare at the stain in the carpet. Blood and fiery vampire death that no amount of cleaners would shift fully. The carpet was going to have to be replaced.

Louise nigh-on staggered to the wall, leaning against it for support. "Where. Where is she now?"

"Louise, listen. Alice is in a pretty bad way – "


Tash's lip trembled slightly, her voice choked. For a moment she could not answer. "Hospital wing."

Louise turned and headed back for the corridor.

"Louise – wait!" Tash, desperate now, hurried after her. She caught her just before the doors to the hospital. "You can't go in right now – "


"There's… she's…" She gestured weakly to a red lit sign on the wall, the white print bearing 'SURGERY'.

Louise glared at her for a moment, then her gaze shifted to the sign. She sighed, almost deflating. Slowly she turned and went to the row of plastic seats stood along the wall next to the doors. She sat, then leaned forwards and placed her head in her hands.

"Lou… I'm sorry…" Tash was shaking like a leaf.

"Don't apologise, Tash."


"It's not your fault."

Tash sank into the chair next to her, tentatively placing a hand on her shoulder. Louise, sensing the delicate touch, reached up and took Tash's hand in hers, holding it close.

"Tell me what happened…"

Tash gently rubbed the cut on her cheek, and began slowly.


Louise and Tash sat in companionable silence on the seats outside the hospital wing door. The surgery light still glowed its sombre red, one of the bulbs inside blinking intermittently.

Tash now had her head on Louise's shoulder. She was close to the two girls in a different way to many of her other circles of friends; the pair were generous, thinking nothing of offering their assistance or a couch to sleep on, they were devoted to their gaming society and, quite frankly, to each other. Tash loved Alice's often clueless innocence, crazy imagination and boundless enthusiasm for fun, and Louise's more mature and realistic attitude, constant comforting banter and ever-willingness to muck in with whatever that was on the cards.

It was silly. She had faced tragedy in the Society before, lots of times; even actual death, for heaven's sake! She should have been able to take this in her stride, even through the discovered uselessness here of magic-based healing. Phoenixia had been urgent but had confidence beneath that. They had dealt with their six impromptu invaders before they had the chance to do too much damage. So why the hell was she so upset?

Easy. It had been a shockingly obvious and brutal attack on someone she held dear. No-one had expected it, and nobody could have prevented it; the attack had been over almost as soon as it had begun. Seeing the overwhelming pain and fear in Alice's eyes had been bad, witnessing the call around the Library to donate blood knowing she was useless had been worse; but having to tell Alice's best friend and housemate had near enough torn her to shreds. It was a vicious reminder that there could be worse creatures around than Sues, barely sentient ones at that, and it was so easy to be caught up in a situation that could kill them ignobly. Vampires, in her mind, had been reduced to laughing stocks thanks to Twilight; but the Ak'Zahar had proved her wrong, and it was a lesson she would never forget. It had been a heavy, emotional blow, and she had been in tears several times.

Dave then walked round the corner into the small space and stopped, taking in the gloomy scene. "Hullo," he ventured gently. "Is there any news yet?"

Both women shook their heads.

He gave a sigh and walked up to them, giving the wry smile he was much loved for. There had been four agents found with the right blood type to help Alice, and Dave was among them; however his chronic low blood pressure had barred him from donating safely. "Spare seat?"

He joined the pair, sitting next to Tash and adding his arm around them. The three, who were the closest to the unfortunate agent undergoing surgery in the infirmary beyond, remained as silent bulwarks to each other, all waiting and hoping for a good resolution.


The clock ticked ever onwards, and five hours after Alice was rushed into surgery, the red light went off. It took the three agents some minutes to realise this, until Tash sat up with a gasp.

As Louise darted towards the hospital door, it opened and an exhausted-looking Miriku walked out. Her long flame-red hair was still stuffed under a white surgeon's cap and she looked almost ready to drop.

Louise blinked in surprise; her mouth open but with no words escaping. Dave leaned forwards and spoke. "Miri, how is she?"

"Huh?" Miriku glanced at the three, one face at a time. "Alice… Alice is all right. Phoe…nixi…" she yawned halfway through the word, "…ia had Aimee and me helping her… not exactly the crash-course on emergency medicine I ever wanted…"

Louise tried to sidle past her and through the door, but Tash caught her before she could. "Can we see her yet?" she asked.

Miriku shook her head slowly. "Mm-nmm. Not yet. Phoenixia is still working… you'll have to wait for her…" She stumbled a few more steps into the corridor, rubbing her forehead from the pounding headache.

"But – !" Louise began.

The redhead sighed, pulling off her cap and turning. "Please… can I go to bed now?"

"Yes, go on. Thank you, Miri," said Dave.

She tottered off, the door to the hospital swung shut, and the two women despaired.

"Ladies…" Dave started softly. "I'm sure we won't have long to wait now."

The last fifteen minutes were the longest of all. Louise was restless, unable to sit down for more than ten seconds and constantly getting up and pacing around. Tash, bereft of her warm and comforting friend, pulled her knees up to her chest and seemed to shrink into her chair. Dave remained in his seat and held his chin in his hands, watching the other two. None spoke, or could pull their thoughts from their inner turmoil, until finally Phoenixia saw fit to come to the doorway.

She held the door open for Aimee to stagger off to her own bed, and surveyed the three, all expressions with different levels of worry. Louise stood in front of her, but no words came out.

"I thought you'd be out here," Phoenixia said, breaking the silence. The weariness was only just perceptible in her eyes.

"How is she?" Louise asked, trying to peer into the room behind her.

"She's stable, and breathing on her own. I've cleaned up the wounds, stitched everything back together. Alice has pulled through it well; I think she's now over the worst."

"Is she awake? Is she fit enough for visitors?"

Phoenixia gave a half-smirk, as if expecting the question. "She has only just come round. She's had a tough time of it and is still doped up on some pretty heavy painkillers. I doubt you'll get much out of her."

"Please?" Tash and Dave now stood at Louise's sides.

Phoenixia sighed. "Fine, yes, but not for long." She turned and led the three into the hospital, still being attended by a similarly-exhausted Valerie. The offer for her to go and rest like Miriku and Aimee was there, but she was adamant that she would be the second person on call – at least until the hospital was quiet again.

Alice lay on a bed in the far end of the room. Several drips attached into the veins of her left arm, one of the IV bags still being a dark red rather than clear. The injured arm was elevated on a firm cushion, wrapped securely in bandages from collarbone to hand. Her eyes were closed, and she looked very pale. They came up to the bed, the three gathering at Alice's head while Phoenixia stood at the end.

Louise slipped her hand under her friend's, avoiding the drip lines. It took her several moments to bring herself to speak; several moments to take in the visual proof of what had happened. The white hospital blanket pulled up to her chest but she wore nothing beneath; several wires linked her to the life-sign monitor built into the wall above her head, and a thin cannula snaked under her nose to help her breathe.

Finally, she whispered softly. "Allie…?"

Alice's hand tightened ever-so-slightly around Louise's. She released a quiet sigh, stirring from her doze…

"Allie?" Louise's voice was uplifted, hope creeping into her thoughts at last.

Slowly Alice blinked awake, taking a long time to focus her already-blurred vision. She moved her head in its pillowed hollow to look at the owner of that comforting voice…

"Hi," said Louise, smiling at last, squeezing her friend's hand.

It took several long seconds for recognition to set in.

"Lou…" Alice's voice was rough and slightly wavering, barely above a whisper.

Tash's hand went onto Louise's back. She was weeping at seeing Alice like this, and Tash wasn't much better herself. "How're you feeling?"

"Uh…" Alice blinked in incomprehension.

"It's okay, Allie. It's just the anaesthetic. You'll feel better soon," said Louise.

Alice nodded. "Yeah…arm hurts…"

"I know, I know."

Tash then shuffled her chair closer to Louise, and they met eyes for a moment. She put a hand on the rail of the bed. "Heya hun…"

Alice squinted, trying to focus her short-sighted eyes on her. Without her glasses sharp outlines were non-existent and colours meshed into each other. She could make out the fall of gold around the face, and the purple of the clothing…


"We're all here for you."

Alice looked around her bed, from Louise and Tash, to Dave on her other side, recognisable because to her natural vision it looked like his dark brown hair simply spread all over his face. The three glanced at each other: Dave smiled warmly, reassuringly; Tash looked relieved and almost overjoyed. Louise felt a great weight lift off her shoulders. Finally Alice looked at the fourth person, standing at the end of the swathe of white warmth, rails and tubes; Phoenixia's white hair was tied back and she still wore her practical lilac medical scrubs. Alice tried to lift her head from the pillow to get a better look, but Louise and Dave stopped her. She twitched as her injured shoulder was touched, however briefly.


Phoenixia rolled her eyes in amusement – and relief, she admitted inwardly – and nodded to her. "Hello, Alice."

"Do you have her glasses?" asked Louise, and Phoenixia proffered a canvas bag containing whatever Alice had had on her at the attack that hadn't been shredded. Louise took the bag and rifled through to find the spectacles. Alice watched this exchange, moving her left hand to meet Louise's as she slid her glasses onto her face – Louise placed the hand back down on the bed.

Alice shied from the light as everything suddenly came back into focus. Her glasses were caught in her hair. It took a moment, but she looked to Louise again, and smiled for the first time.

"Where…where am I?"

"Hospital wing," said Dave from over the other side. Alice looked at him, smiled again, but then caught sight of her right arm. A soft padded bracelet was wrapped around her wrist as lightly as possible, tying to the bed rail and keeping the limb secure.

"What…what?" Her left hand lifted again, trying to pull to her right side – taking the drip tubes alarmingly with it. Louise and Tash took her arm, and tried to return it to the bed; for once Alice had no strength to stop them.

"You were hurt, Allie. But it's nothing to worry about."

Alice's face was blank. She could not remember. Her glasses were annoying her. She tried to move her right arm, but could not – and she winced loudly.



"That's because you're moving it, silly."

Phoenixia, however, frowned. Alice should not have been in enough pain to wince. She was on enough painkillers that all she should be feeling from her arm was dull twinges, if even that…

"You okay?" asked Dave, not noticing the frown behind him but recognising an issue for himself.

"Think so…" Alice mumbled.

"Maybe you should get some rest, Alice," suggested Phoenixia gently.

"Yeah…" Alice's eyelids were drooping and her voice had taken on that soft dithering of the nearly-asleep.

"We'll let you sleep, Allie," said Tash, a comforting hand on her knee. Alice smiled down the bed at her.

"I'll be back here when you wake up," said Louise. "I'm not leaving you."

Alice nodded, sinking back into her pillow. Her eyes closed, and she gave a last squeeze to Louise's hand before her grip loosened.

After a moment, all three stood and left the bedside. Seeing Alice's recovery had significantly lifted their spirits. Tash and Louise hugged in utter delight. Dave, hit by sudden tiredness as he stood up, watched Phoenixia slip Alice's glasses off and place them on the bedside table. She then tested her vitals, glancing up to the monitor every time she moved her hands. But she pulled the blanket further up for warmth, and turned away.

They left the hospital wing for their own beds, at last at ease with themselves.

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