9.2

“This is all so…” Chason frowned. “I don’t know, cloak-and-dagger? I mean, assassination attempts, people sneaking around tracking down other people, suspecting other students… what next? Are we going to have some sort of conspiracy? Teachers whispering in the hallways? Secret cabals?”

“Technically,” Augustin pointed out helpfully, “aren’t we a secret cabal?”

“Well, we’re a book club,” Riva offered, “but… we’re a secret book club. And it sounds like we’re not the only secret club in the school. I wonder if everyone has their own secret club? Maybe Thesri does too, a secret club full of gossip.”

“I wouldn’t mind getting in on that club,” Lorque admitted. “Maybe then I’d have a bit better idea what was going on around here.”

“No,” Riva countered, “you’d just know who was wandering off into the trees with whom and who, perhaps, had come wandering out of the trees all banged up. And that last bit is only because Thesri’s already taken an interest in Nilien, so you’d already know all of it anyway.”

Chason was watching all of this like a tennis match. At the last, he snorted a bit. “Thesri imagines more information than Thesri actually knows. You wouldn’t get all that much new information from quizzing Thesri, at least not accurate information.”

Ember studied Chason from its perch. Funny he thinks about secret cabals but doesn’t think about the other one he’s admitted to, the fox pointed out.

Nilien gave the fox a thoughtful look. “Thesri’s imaginary secret cabal aside — and ours — there is Heldira’s secret meetings. She might not be any danger herself, but what about her friends? I hate to harp on this, I really do, but—”

“Someone tried to kill you.” Chason frowned. “It’s so much easier to think of this as some sort of ridiculous joke than to consider it actually happening, here, in Reinmont. I mean — we’re safe here. We’re supposed to be safe here. All of these magic-using teachers, and all of us, the students, our familiars — it should be safe.”

“It should be safe,” Lorque agreed. “So, maybe your friend isn’t actually doing anything, I can believe that. She might be completely on the up-and-up. But if she has secret friends, don’t you think that maybe, possibly, people like that could be doing something a little questionable?”

“Or they could just be meeting to have a secret society and talk about books,” Augustin interjected plaintively. “Like us.”

“We’ll talk about books soon,” Riva soothed. “Here, come over here and tell me about that book you were reading.” She gestured to the rest of them to continue as she led her friend to a corner of their hide-away.

“They could be,” Lorque agreed unwillingly. She shifted her frown suddenly to a smile. “If they are, maybe they know about where to find other secret groups, and maybe one of those are the people we’re looking for. You could find that out, couldn’t you, Chason? Just if they’re, ah. If they’re dangerous or if they know dangerous people?”

“I could do that,” Chason agreed slowly. “They might know someone helpful.”

I knew he was going to be good, Ember declared smugly.

poll pending

9.1

Chason was shaking his head, and he had gotten half to his feet. “You guys don’t know her at all. I don’t know how you can think that she’d be in any way involved with something like hurting another student! I mean, really.”

“Chason-” Nilien began.

Lorque talked right over her. “Just listen for a minute, okay? When Nilien went out to the woods, she had a tracking spell on her that she knew was there. She thought maybe she could – find out more about who was tracking her. But then Ember saw someone, and the tree fell almost on top of her!”

“Wait, what?” Augustin frowned. “She what?”

“She what?” Chason repeated. “Even if it was just someone setting you up for some sort of silly prank – okay, those sorts of things happen. They’re ridiculous and sometimes people get a little hurt, but they do happen – but if something like that was going on, it was really, really silly to go out into the woods on your own with a known tracking spell on you!”

Nilien wasn’t sure which she preferred, people not believing she’d been in danger, or people scolding her for getting herself into a dangerous spot. She thought, if she were being honest, she preferred to hear neither of them.

She cleared her throat. “I know it was a bit extreme,” she allowed, “but I didn’t want to be the sort of pushover that just waits for things to happen to me.”

“Well, I suppose you didn’t wait for a tree to almost fall on you, then! And you think Heldira was behind this somehow?”

“The tracking spells were hers. I don’t know where she was at that time – I can’t do spells well enough to do a tracking spell, even if I wanted to-” She was going to be depressed about that for a while, she though. It would be nice to be at a magic school and able to actually do magic.

That wasn’t the point right now. She mentally shook herself. “I don’t know where Heldira was,” she repeated herself, “but I do know that she set the tracking spells. They all smell like the same person’s magic to Ember, and they do keep coming back.”

“I don’t know,” Chason frowned. “This is all really excessive. We’re students.”

“And I’m a student because someone tried to kill me!”

“And,” Lorque added, “you said yourself, Heldira is part of some secret thing outside of school.”

8.14

“I like her, too,” Chason agreed easily, and with none of the undertone some of the boys back home might have managed. “You seem like nice kids – I mean, nice… Uh.” Augustin was glaring at Chason, oh, no. “Come on, I am older than you. I mean…” He shook his head. “I like you guys. This club, the way you take care of each other. It’s all very nice. I can imagine you guys – and me, really – sneaking around, looking into interesting – oh.” His nervous smile suddenly turned into a frown. “Oh, no, Nilien.”

What? She looked at Ember; Ember looked away. She looked around. Nobody else seemed to know what he was saying. She didn’t have anything on the front of her blouse her skirt wasn’t tucked into the waistband inappropriately. “What?”

“The tracking spells.” His frown deepened. “That thing with Heldira and the tracking spells!”

“You told him about that?” Riva hissed.

“Of course she did!” Lorque whispered back.

“I know you think that Heldira put the tracking spell on you, but you can’t think that has anything to do with someone trying to kill you! Heldira’s sometimes a little prickly, sure, but she’s not the sort of person to actually want to kill someone, especially not a fellow student!”

“I… believe you?” Nilien tried, although she was pretty sure she didn’t sound much like she believed anyone.

“You ought to! She’s been my friend for years! And you wanted me to, what, to find out if she was really trying to kill you? Of course she isn’t! Nobody here is going to try to kill you!”

“A couple months ago, the idea of anyone at all trying to kill me was ridiculous,” Nilien countered. “And then someone tried! And here I am, in a new school with a whole bunch of strangers, and a lot of people hate the idea of Wild Runes. Weeds,” she added, with a sneer. She was feeling embarrassed and that made her feel a little put-upon. Chason was never meant to know any of this!

“Still! There’s one thing to think someone’s trying to kill you, and another for it to be Heldira! I mean, she’s my friend! She’s not even the sort to go around saying ‘Weed’, much less trying to kill someone for being a Wild Rune. You’re -” Chason shook his head. “I understand that you’re worried. I understand that it’s probably really scary, and probably really strange, being here and not knowing many people, and you had that problem with the tree – I know I’d be looking for danger around every corner if that happened to me. But not Heldira.”

“Wait.” Augustin frowned. “Tracking spells? People trying to kill you? What is all of this? I didn’t know any of this!”

“Well,” Riva countered practically, “she wasn’t very well going to tell you in front of Istore, was she? Not when he was all like ‘oooh, Wild Runes are dangerous’ when she first came in! Obviously, you need to spend more time in Lorque and Nilien’s room with me.”

“Or down here,” Augistin countered. “Where we can talk about these things.”

“You know, Chason,” Lorque cut in, before Riva and Augustin could really get going, “you’re the one that told us Heldira has her own secret meetings. Things she won’t even tell you. Maybe she’s not trying to kill Nilien, but she did put those tracking spells on – what else is she up to?”

END CHAPTER 8

8.13

Oh, no.

Nilien swallowed. “Person, a person tried to kill me. I mean – I wasn’t really…” She didn’t like talking about that but otherwise she was going to get into deep water. She looked at Ember for help.

Ember, of course, was absolutely no help at all.

People are trying to kill you. Doesn’t everyone know that?

Familiars were no help at all. She leaned against a wall and looked down at the floor. She wasn’t sure she wanted to look at Chason. “Sometimes when I say this, people think I made the whole thing up. But since I have Ember, it’s pretty hard for me to have made up being a Wild Rune, and, as unpleasant as some people can get about the whole thing, I don’t think it would even be smart to make it up.”

“You’re a Wild Rune,” Chason answered gently. “Obviously you didn’t make that up. We can all see Ember, and you’re here, taking classes.”

“Someone – or someones, that’s the thing – tried to kill me, but I don’t remember any of it. Well, that’s not true. I remember being asked if I wanted to live. All Ember will tell me is You wanted to live, and here I am. Which, while true, lacks something in details.”

Those are all the details that matter, Ember protested from its perch on the shelves. You did not wash this top shelf enough.

“Wash it yourself then. I mean…” She looked back at her friends. “So that’s what Riva means. People – or person – tried to kill me, and nobody knows who they are. As far as my friends from my old school can tell, they’re still out there, the police haven’t caught them, and nobody knows why someone was trying to kill me. I’m not that important! I’m really not. And now I’m a Rune, and I’m here, and -”

“And someone might still be trying to kill her,” Lorque filled in. “So we keep an eye out for her, and we try to notice if things change – like jewelry going missing or things moved when we enter a room – and anyone acting suspicious around her.”’

“Like someone giving her a map of the school?” Chason sounded wry, but something in his face looked like he really thought that’s what they’d been doing.

“Oh!” Lorque sounded as mortified as Nilien felt. “No! No, no. No, nothing like that. You were nice to Nilien, so she wanted to invite you along. I mean more like, following her around, taking things out of her room, actual creep stuff.”

“Oh.” He looked at least a little mollified. “Okay. I thought maybe you wanted to, I don’t know, check me out. Since Nilien is new to the school.”

“Well, if you’d been giving her maps full of things that weren’t there or trying to get her lost, yeah. But generally, you seem nice.” Lorque was still talking quickly, like she was hiding something. “We just don’t want someone trying to kill her more, you know? We like her.”

8.12

Riva looked suddenly excited. “I do! I have three, actually. So we could put everything we know into the book, and nobody but us will be able to read it! Oh, that would be fun! Think about it! She was nearly bouncing. “So, we could put in the story of Nilien, and being a Wild Rune, and then we could talk about what Ember told her, and compare it to what our familiars first said to us, and then-”

“We could talk about gossip,” Lorque cut in. “You know, who we know who’s doing what that they shouldn’t. I’m sure if we all put our heads together, we could come up with quite a bit of dirty laundry. I mean, Nilien, how does Benoir find all these secret passages?”

“Mostly by being hungry, I think?” Nilien offered. “But maybe some of them the upperclassmen showed him. And you four must have a lot more interesting gossip than I do. I mean, you’ve been here so much longer. You have to know all the stories about who’s gotten into what trouble.”

“There was that mess with Brien last year,” Riva offered slowly, “but if we wanted gossip, we should have invited Thesri, and I was pretty sure that was off the list. I mean, unless we want someone second-guessing Nilien at every turn and telling her nobody really tried to kill her.”

“Someone tried to kill you!” Chason jumped. “I mean – oh, you mean the way you became a Wild Rune?”

“The police are pretty sure it was an assassin,” Nilien agreed, because she was sick of people not believing her.

“That was in the letter, right? You got the letter after the thing with the tree? And your necklace-” Riva put a hand over her mouth.

“Necklace?” Chason raised his eyebrows. “There’s a necklace missing?”

“What sort of necklace?” Augustin leaned forward. “Is it some sort of secret Wild Rune necklace?”

“If it is, it’s a very big secret. Since almost all I know about Wild Runes is what I know by being one – so, mostly what Ember has told me – nobody has initiated me into any big secrets of the wild, or anything.” Nilien tried to soften it with a smile, but Augustin did seem to think that she knew some deep mysteries that she just didn’t.

And now everyone was comparing notes! And she couldn’t remember what she had told whom and what she hadn’t.

“There was a necklace. It had runes on it, and it appeared in my room back at my old school, and vanished from my room here. But the adults here don’t seem to think it matters.”

“People are trying to kill you,” Riva pointed out indignantly. “To kill you! It ought to be very important!”

“Wait.” Chason frowned. “People, plural?”

8.11

“It’s all ours,” Nilien agreed.

Heldira had her own secret club? And Chason didn’t know about it? She met Lorque’s eyes; her roommate smiled a little as if to say see, I told you so.

Since Nilien had been the one saying that Chason was trustworthy and Lorque had been arguing the opposite, she didn’t think that one deserved a response. Instead, she spun around slowly, looking at the room with new eyes now that they’d cleaned it up and showed it to other people.

“It’s all ours.” What did Heldira’s secret space look like? “I mean, Benoir knows about it, but it’s our secret space.”

Benoir may want to snack here still. Ember hopped up onto a tall shelf to observe them all. Maybe you should invite him, too. He has a pleasant disregard for rules.

She would worry about that later. “So, what should we do with our Book Club?”

“Well, obviously we need a secret book. And secret minutes.” Riva pulled out a leather-bound tome. “I had this for taking notes, but I never could bring myself to actually write in it. This seems like a good opportunity.”

“So what do we put in the secret book?” Augustin leaned forward. “Secret spells?”

“Do you know any secret spells?” Nilien hadn’t heard of such a thing, but she imagined they must exist.

He looked deflated. “No. I was hoping you did, being a Wild Rune.”

“Unfortunately, no.” She couldn’t even take offense. Augustin was too enthusiastic about everything! “It doesn’t come with any sort of explanative guide – except Ember, who explains things, but only when asked exactly the right question, and rarely things such as spells.”

I’m sorry, I thought things like ‘there’s a tree falling on you!’ might be more useful than spells that don’t exist. Ember sniffed in disdain.

“… I know, I’m sorry. Ember saves me from important things, like threats on my life. The falling tree,” she added, so it didn’t sound like she was saying people were actually threatening her life.

Even though they were. She was going to need a book just to keep this all straight!

If Heldira had a secret club, were they trying to kill Nilien? Maybe Ember might be willing to follow her and find out.

“We should put coded minutes in the book,” she decided. “Riva, do you have a book on codes?”

8.10

Nilien turned around to stare at Chason.

Somewhere behind her and off to her left, she could see Lorque, already taking the role of hostess for Riva, doing the same thing.

“Who?” Augustin was still a little behind on things.

Perhaps you should fill him in. Perhaps… he should fill you in.

That was not one of Ember’s more helpful comments.

“Secret meetings?” Lorque managed before Nilien had really quite sorted out the pronouns in Ember’s suggestion.

“What sort of secret meetings?” Riva put in, before correcting herself. “No, of course, if they were secret, you wouldn’t know much about them, and if you knew much about them, they wouldn’t be secret.”

Riva had clearly been taking lessons from Ember in direct and non-cryptic speech.

“Shhh,” Augustin hissed. “Forget about them, we’re supposed to be secret. Come on, we need to get the door closed.” He pushed passed Chason and pulled the door closed with a click. “Now. There’s more secret meetings around here?”

“Well, you can’t be the only one who found hidden rooms,” Chason pointed out. “This place looks clean – does anyone else use it?”

“Benoir found it for me,” Nilien admitted, “but it was filthy. We’re the only ones who’ve been in here since.” She wasn’t certain nobody else had, but nothing had been moved. “But it’s not the only secret room or secret passage or anything like that. Is that where Heldira’s secret group meets?”

“I don’t know,” Chason admitted. “I don’t know much about it, but I do know she wanders off, cryptic and strange, every so often. She’s going to meet some ‘friends’, as if we didn’t know all her friends in the school.”

“That sounds a little suspicious.” Lorque sounded more than a little suspicious. Was she going to upset Chason, after all this?

“Oh, it’s a little strange. I think she does it just to get to me, sometimes. Nobody else we know has any idea what she’s doing, either, and it isn’t any sort of Academy-associated club or anything.” He sat down on the stairs. “This clubhouse needs some chairs. I know a place I can grab a few; I’ll bring some next time.”

“We haven’t had much chance to furnish it surreptitiously yet,” Nilien admitted. She didn’t want to talk about chairs; she wanted to know about Heldira. “She doesn’t just say ‘off to the secret club now,’ does she?”

“Oh,” Chason chuckled, “no, not at all. She’s never said it’s a club. I’m not even sure it is, and certainly I don’t know if it’s organized, like this. It’s more like, ‘oh, it’s time for me to go meet with those friends of mine. I’ll see you later, off with me’.” He shifted his voice into what she imagined was a parody of Heldira, minced and nasal, with a waving hand like a duchess. “And then she smiles like she knows something I don’t – which I suppose she must – and off she goes. I’ve never managed to follow her, so she might have her own secret room. But that’s less exciting that this.” He looked around the small space. “Because this is all ours!”

8.9

“Do you think they’ll all come?”

Nilien didn’t mean to be nervous, but people had been so strange here. She was pacing back and forth in the small space between her bed and Lorque’s. “Do you think they’ll like it?”

“We wouldn’t have asked if we didn’t think they’d like it,” Lorque pointed out, “and if they don’t come, it’s their loss.”

Unless Chason was telling Heldira all about it. For the fourth time that evening, Nilien looked herself over for tracking spells. Nothing.

“You know, you can wear yourself out doing too much of that,” Lorque pointed out. “Besides, you look like you’re trying to see if your skirt is tucked up into your waistband. Which it’s not.”

“Oh, hush, you, I’m just worried. There’s no point having a secret hide-out-”

“-If the person trying to kill you follows you in. But- Oh!” A knock at the door interrupted Lorque. “Someone…” She swung open the door to reveal their guests, all three of them. “Well, that’s convenient.”

“We ran into each other coming here.” Riva was nearly bouncing with excitement. Next to her, Augustin looked even less contained. They were never going to be able to keep this a secret.

“I was trying something with a draft of my map,” Chason admitted. “Nilien got me excited about playing with making it usable for any new students, and I wanted to see the best route from dorm-area to dorm-area. I skipped the birds for now, but that found me Augustin and Riva.”

“This map is turning into quite the project.” Lorque shot him a contemplative look.

Chason didn’t seem to notice. “I like projects. Maybe I’ll make it magical for my final thesis.”

“And you can put the-” Augustin lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper “secret rooms on it. Hey!” He looked down at Ember very deliberately bit his trouser leg. “Your fox…!”

Bit his trousers, Ember pointed out primly. To remind him not to give away secrets.

“Ember says ‘shh’,” Nilien translated. “Besides, your pants are fine. Shall we go look at the Book Room?”

Despite rolling her eyes at Augistin’s excitement, Nilien found herself very excited as they neared the room. This really was just like a spy novel!

She snuck them into the supply room and, from there, waited until they were all quiet to open the door. Down they went, Lorque’s pocket torches lighting the way.

“Wow,” Riva murmured. “This place really needs a bookshelf and some lanterns and some chairs and maybe a carpet. I think I have a lantern and a carpet to spare.”

“It’s a real secret room!” Augustin wandered around touching things. “It’s a real secret room.

“This is wonderful,” Chason whispered, still on the stairs. “Now I’ll have something to be cryptic about, when Heldira starts talking about her secret meetings.”

8.8

“I think we should just call it the study group,” Lorque opined. “Nobody gets nosy or interested in a study group.”

Nilien looked around. They’d been talking about Ember, but where was her familiar?

“It should have some sort of dramatic name,” Augustin countered. “Like ‘Augustin’s Army.’”

“I don’t think we’re much of an army,” Chason countered. “Nor are we yours, are we?”

Ember had been gone a long time. Nilien hoped something hadn’t happened to the fox – another badger attack or something worse. Wasn’t it supposed to be watching Chason?

Riva laughed. “We’re not Augustin’s anything. We’re the Riva Weavers!”

“Hey.” Nilien glared at them. “Let’s not be ridiculous. I mean, we could be the… The Book Club? That’s almost as boring as a study club.”

“But we don’t…” Augustin looked defeated. “I mean-”

I like the “Book Club.” Tell him you’ll have a secret book that keeps your minutes.

Nilien jumped. There was Ember, right at her feet. “Hello! Where’d you come from?”

That is a ridiculous question. Tell him. It’s time for lunch and my feet are tired.

Nilien picked Ember up. “Ember suggests a secret book, that way the Book Club has a double meaning.”

Chason chuckled. “You have one interesting familiar. Some day, we’re going to find out that Ember really doesn’t say anything at all to you and you’re just making it up.”

Nilien blushed and ducked her head. Ember fixed Chason with a steely glare for a moment, before turning its attention to its tail, which apparently needed to be tucked in a specific and exact manner into Nilien’s arms.

“So…” If she changed the subject, she wouldn’t think about blaming getting lost on Ember when she’d been spying on Heldira. “When do we want to spy – that is – when do we want to all see the secret hideout? I can show you after classes?”

“After dinner would be better.” Chason patted Ember’s head as if the fox hadn’t just been glaring at him. “I study with my other friends right after classes.”

“I can’t do right after dinner,” Augustin complained. “I’ve got to write a paper.”

“Well, what about tomorrow?” Riva offered. “After dinner? Or before breakfast?”

“I can’t do before breakfast.” Lorque frowned. “I can’t get dressed that early.”

Round and round they went, until they finally settled on the next day after dinner. Then they had to sort out a meeting place.

“What about up in the leftmost tower? The one that isn’t used for classes right now?” Augustin offered.

“I’m not even going to be able to find it,” Nilien countered. “How about-” There weren’t that many places she didn’t know that weren’t very obvious. “Our room, Lorque’s and mine. I can find everything I need to from there.” She petted Ember between the ears.

Is this a good idea? Ember asked. His badger-loving friend is in the cafeteria, by the way. I am taking a break from stalking.

She kept petting Ember, unable to answer that question in front of everyone. Besides, what could she say when the answer was I hope so?

8.7

Nilien took in her friends’ reactions one more time. “It’s a pretty fun list,” she agrees, “even if it’s still pretty short. But – if I tell you something, swear not to tell anyone else?”

She hadn’t made Riva or Augustin do that, but then again, she knew Riva and Augustin better, and their only questionable friend was Istore. She was pretty sure Istore wasn’t trying to kill her.

Chason looked amused. He looked very much, she thought, like her older brother when he thought she was being silly. But that was okay; he was older than her, and in some sense, she was definitely being a little bit silly. “I promise,” he said solemnly, “not to relay to anyone else what you’re about to tell me.”

She chuckled nervously. “It’s not that… well, no, it is. It’s ours and I don’t want to share it more than I have to.” She lifted her chin defiantly. “We’re thinking,” she said, the words she’d used earlier coming simply enough, “of forming a very small, exclusive club. We have a secret hide-out and we’d like some secret friends to come share it.”

“Maybe to solve mysteries!” Riva offered. “Mysteries seem to follow Nilien around. I thought it was because she was a Wild Rune, but now I think she just – or maybe her familiar – has a nose for the strange. Like Parsho, remember him? Always finding the weirdest things and the strangest uses for magic?”

“Oh, yeah.” Chason chuckled. “He was something. I remember this one time, he found a way up onto the roof but then the trap-door shut behind him, and the teachers had to get him down, because he didn’t want to explain how he’d gotten up there.”
Nilien was a little put out. “I’m not going to get trapped on a roof. I know better to let doors I don’t know the provenance of shut behind me!” Although letting trees fall on her in the forest…

“Or at least Ember does,” Lorque teased.

“Or at least Ember does,” Niliena agreed dourly.

“Well, anyway,” Lorque pulled the topic back. “Chason, do you want to join our secret club? It’s just us, Augustin, Riva, Nilien, me, and you, if you’re interested.”

“And this club is for… finding out secrets?”

“What sort of better secret club is there?” Riva asked cheerfully. “We have a secret hide-out. We can have secret finding. And we can share secrets. It’s all going to be a lot of secret fun.”

“Which means-” Augustin was nearly bouncing “-we’re going to need a secret name. We can’t very well say ‘let’s have the secret club meet on Tuesdays,’ or someone’s just going to follow us or put a tracking spell on us or-”

He had a very good point, but Nilien felt like this whole thing was getting away from her. “We need a name,” she agreed, with as good of grace as she could muster.