7.5

Nilien hesitated, looking at the letter. “Could I come with you? It’s just, it’s my first letter from my old school…”

“Well, I certainly would return it to you, but yes, if it will make you feel better, come along.” Vaudelle held the door for Nilien and Ember, and they strolled down the hallway, down another hallway Nilien had never been down, to Headmistress Draufer’s office.

The Headmistress read the letter and listened to Professor Vaudelle explain Nilien’s concerns, and then let Nilien add her own details.

“I don’t know exactly what was going on with the tree, but I know that someone was there, and then the tree fell down almost on top of me.” It was as close as Nilien wanted to get to admitting there was any chance that she might not have actually been attacked. “If Ember hadn’t warned me, the tree would have hit me.” She rubbed her arms, because it still frightened her more than a little bit.

“Indeed. And that is why the woods is not that safe a place for younger students. There are natural occurrences which can cause quite a bit of damage if you are not careful, not the least of which is trees falling in the woods. Now, I understand that you had quite a traumatic experience before coming here, and indeed, the person who attempted to kill you should be caught and dealt with. Those sorts of people should not be allowed out in the streets, and I do wish the police every luck in catching them. It was a horrible thing, Nilien, and even if you gained a familiar from it, it is not the way we wish these things to happen. But now you are here at Reinmonte, and this is one of the safest places in the empire.” She patted Nilien on the shoulder. “As long as you avoid any adventures in the forest, I’m sure you’ll be perfectly fine.”

“Yes, Headmistress.” Nilien looked down at her toes in disappointment. Was nobody going to believe her? Did everyone here think she was overreacting?

Everyone but Lorque and Ember, at least, she corrected. They were sticking with her.

Ember nuzzled her ankles. I will keep you safe. I will not let their stubbornness cause you harm.

She scooped Ember up and cuddled the fox close.

“In the meantime, why don’t you go back to your friends?” The headmistress handed Nilien the letter back. “Professor Vaudelle and I have some things to discuss, and I’m sure you still have plenty of homework.”

7.4

Ember walked around the bed in a circle a few times. We are talking to Professor Vaudelle because…?

“Because Lorque wants me to talk to someone, and I don’t want to talk to Heldira, especially considering your report on her familiar.” Nilien made a face. She didn’t think it followed that a familiar was all that like their person – she wasn’t that much like Ember! – but it did seem like a bad sign all around if Heldira’s badger had chased off Ember.

Including the fact that Heldira most likely now knew that Nilien was looking into her, assuming she remembered that Nilien’s familiar was a red fox. The color-coded outfits didn’t exactly make that a secret, after all.

Nilien sighed. “And because someone is trying to kill me. With that in mind, maybe I ought to talk to someone on the staff until they listen to me.”

What of the letter from your friend…? Ember prompted.

“That’s a good idea. Larisse’s letter ought to provide a little back-up to my claims, if they can get past her style of writing. Are you up to it?”

Ember stretched. I am feeling well enough.

They took the most direct route they knew to Professor Vaudelle’s office, and found the professor in. Nilien hemmed and hawed for a moment, trying to figure out how to begin, until Ember bit at the hem of her skirt. Say: “I’m worried Heldira is helping someone try to kill me.”

“I’m worried Heldira is in on a plot to kill me,” Nilien temporized. “And someone has been in my room, taking a pendant that – well, that appeared in my old dorm room just after the first attempt on my life. I believe that the police were looking for it in my old dorm.”

“Oh, dear, I’m sure other students are not trying to kill you,” Vaudelle tutted. She took the letter when Nilien offered it, however, her eyebrows slowly rising. “This is from a friend of yours at your old school? And she says the police were involved?”

“Well,” Nilien offered, as politely as possible, “someone already has tried to kill me once, when I became a Wild Rune. And I’m sure they’re interested in catching that person. But I am worried, especially with the pendant going missing from my room, and the way that the tracking spells have re-appeared, that someone here is involved – or that someone is hiding here in one of the-” she was going to say secret passages and changed her mind at the last moment “-labyrinthine twists of this school.”

“There are definitely places someone could hide,” Vaudelle agreed, as if she was considering the option. “Could I take this letter to show Headmistress Draufer, Nilien?”

7.3

“I still don’t know,” Nilien admitted. “I agree, there’s worse things than making a fuss, but I still don’t think that walking up to someone who may or may not be trying to kill me and confronting them with that fact is a good idea.”

“Well, talk to someone. Maybe another teacher? Before they end up trying again. Especially if you’re going to be sending off Ember places – it can’t watch your back if you’re not there and you can’t be looking for tracking symbols when your familiar’s on the other side of the school.”

Nilien sighed. “They don’t believe me, the teachers, but all right. Professor Vaudelle at least knows about the tracking spell. Maybe she can help somehow.”

“See? At least this way you’re not ignoring the problem because Chason is nice.”

“It’s not like… all right.” She wasn’t going to win that argument, she could already tell. “All right, all right. I’ll talk to Professor Vaudelle.”

She might as well take care of that now; she was fairly sure Lorque wasn’t going to give her any peace until she did something. She got to her feet, still happy that her ankle didn’t feel horrible anymore, and opened the door.

Ember was on the other side, looking disgruntled and a little disheveled. The familiar matches the owner, it complained, and limped into the room, favoring its front left paw. The thing chased me off and tried to bite me. A nasty, awful piece of work. It hopped onto the bed and walked back and forth – favoring, Nilien couldn’t help but notice, its front right paw. I learned nothing of interest – because it is a nasty horrible thing and has nothing interesting to say – except that it is a cranky and unfriendly badger who should be ignored at all costs. I imagine its person is much the same. Ember plopped down and began checking itself over for injuries.

“Ember went looking for Heldira’s familiar,” Nilien relayed. She checked herself over for tracking spells again, since Ember was there, but found none. “It says that the badger is unpleasant and ought to be ignored as much as possible but, being unpleasant and definitely ignore-able, it was able to tell Ember nothing at all interesting.” She hid her smile from her familiar. who was now studying its left rear paw.

I think it bit me. That thing bit me. People ought not to be allowed to keep familiars that bite. Well, it allowed, looking away, that bite other familiars.

“So, I suppose talking to Heldira might end in me getting bitten,” Nilien offered, mostly managing not to laugh. “So once Ember is feeling up to it, we’ll go talk to Professor Vaudelle.”

7.2

Lorque shook her head. “I have no idea why you’re willing to pretend that something isn’t up. I mean, you’re the one that came back from the woods all bashed up-”

“But we know that wasn’t Heldira. Or, at least, we know it wasn’t her magic,” Nilien protested.

“Still! That just means she’s working with someone else. So she put a tracking spell on you – at least twice now – someone’s trying to kill you, someone has nearly succeeded in killing you at least twice, and you’re still acting like Heldira might not be bad? Is Chason that good-looking? Because his maps are nice, but they’re not all that impressive, not enough to risk dying for.”

“Chason…” Nilien shook her head. “He’s nice. He reminds me of home a little bit.”

“I’m nice. Benoir seems nice, and you probably don’t end up with tracking spells after spending time with him. Plus, he comes with secret passages.”

Nilien giggled. “You make it sound like the passages go through him.”

“Well, now that would be a little creepy, but it might be entertaining, too. But what I’m saying is, Chason might be nice, but you’re risking your life, and I don’t think he’s that nice. If you confront Heldira, maybe you can get this all worked out – and if he’s really nice, maybe he’ll intervene for you, get in the way and tell her she has to come clean.”

“What happens if someone tries to kill another student here?”

“You know, I don’t know. I don’t think anything like that, anything more than a little bullying, has ever come up. It’s not like we’re thugs here.” Lorque frowned. “But you’ve got to do something, and you’ve got to talk to Heldira. You’re being way too nice, pretending that it might not be her, and that’s going to come back and bite you, you know that it is. Some people aren’t really all that sure about Wild Runes here-”

“Weeds, you mean.” The word tasted unpleasant in her mouth.

“Well,some people are really not sure about Wild Runes, I suppose. And those people, if they see that trouble keeps following you around…”

“But it’s not like it’s my fault!”

“But Nilien. If you don’t put the blame anywhere else, it’s going to fall the same place the trouble does. Stop being nice about Heldira. Best-case scenario, she put tracking spells on you without asking your consent. Worst-case, she’s trying to get you killed. Either way, don’t let her get you in trouble just because you think Chason’s nice.”

Nilien sighed. “It’s going to be a lot of fuss, no matter what I say.”

“Then let it be a fuss! There are certainly worse options. Dying, for instance.”

7.1

“Then we went down into these stairs hidden behind a storage shelf, and there was a hidden room back there.” Nilien took out her map and marked the location, then pulled out another piece of paper and began making more notes. “So there’s the hidden garden up in the Aviary-”

“What?” Lorque leaned forward. “Hidden room?”

“Oh! Benoir almost got me in a lot of trouble; there’s a passage, here,” she noted, “a ladder down that leads to a secret magical garden. It’s really nice, but I guess it’s forbidden. Doctor Alaroq was there.”

“You saw the doctor? You got seen by the doctor?” Lorque’s eyes were huge.

“No, no, it’s just that we heard people talking, and when the doctor was taking care of my ankle,” she stuck out her ankle and rotated it, “I recognized the voice.”

“Oh! Oh, well, that’s okay, then. So there’s that passage, and then there’s this one Benoir showed you today. Anything good there?”

“Just this,” she showed Lorque the journal. “It doesn’t look all that exciting, but it’s old, which is kind of neat. Like reading your great-grandmother’s letters. But it could be a great hiding place with a little bit of work.”

“You’ve only been here a few weeks and you’re having all the fun.” Lorque smiled sidelong at Nilien. “Maybe I ought to start following you around, so that I can… protect you, that’s it, protect you.”

“Well, I do seem to get into a number of scrapes. Oh! Heldira’s familiar is a badger. Ember went looking for it, just as Benoir showed up.”

“Again, you have all the interesting things, although ‘a number of scrapes’ isn’t quite how I’d describe someone trying to drop a tree on you. Did you make it out of your secret-passage exploration without another tracking spell?”

Nilien stilled and pulled on her magic, before she remembered that Ember was quite a ways away. “I’ll have to wait until Ember gets back. I hope so, though. I’d hate to have given away Benoir’s best hiding spot just because I happen to be being tracked by a creep.”

“Maybe you ought to ask her why she’s tracking you.”

Nilien frowned. “For one, I’d have to admit that I knew she was tracking me, so we’d lose any aspect of surprise.”

“The last time we tried to surprise them, someone dropped a tree on you.”

“I know. But, well. If she’s not doing it and Ember was wrong-” she whispered the last part as if Ember could hear her “-or if she is but for some benign reason, well.” She looked away. “Chason’s nice. And I don’t want to alienate him if turns out that Heldira isn’t part of anything malicious.”

“Someone dropped a tree on you! I’d say there’s some malice involved!”

“Well, it wan’t Heldira. We know that much. And I suppose there’s still a chance it was an accident…”

Planned Hiatus I Totally Forgot About

I asked Lyn to give me advance notice if she’d need a hiatus for something and I guess she gave me TOO much advance notice because I completely bloody forgot. At least the chapter conveniently just ended?

Anyway, Marked will resume on Tuesday. In the meantime, I’ll be doing a Q&A! Have a brief question about the characters, setting, you want answered? Leave a comment!

6.12

​​Benoir shifted from foot to foot. “Well, when all you really want is a place to hide, it’s not bad.” He shone his torch around the area, lighting up the shelves. “It was a lot more useful my first couple years, before I found some of the other passages.”

Nilien gave the space another look. “Maybe there’s something interesting in a corner,” she offered. “Have you ever searched around down here?”

“Not more than enough to look for more doors,” he admitted. “I couldn’t find any, or any switches.”

“Well, let’s see.” She picked a corner and started looking around, only to be faced with even more spiderwebs. “It looks like they might have used this for more food storage? Or something. But who needs a secret room for food storage?”

“Well, maybe it was really expensive food? Or secret food? Magical food.” Benoir licked his lips. “I could stand a magical crumpet.”

“What, one that made you belch magic?”

“Or get really big or really small. You know, something out of the storybooks that doesn’t happen in real life.”

“That might be nice when trees are dropping on me,” Nilien admitted. She found a rag on one of the shelves and began pushing away the dust, more corralling it than removing it. After a moment, she pulled her hankie from her pocket and tied it over her nose and mouth. “There ought to be a spell for this.”

“Oh, I think there is, but- darn it, no. We learned it last year but I didn’t pay enough attention.”

“That’s all right. I can do a little dusting.” She moved things around as she encountered them: the dusty jar full of what looked like moving flowers, the old marbles, the textbooks from a bygone era. She arranged everything neatly on one shelf and vowed to herself to come back with some proper cleaning equipment – or someone who knew that cleaning spell – sometime when she had fewer pressing matters on her mind.

“Hey, look at this.” Benoir had been moving from shelf to shelf on the lower shelves, running his hands over them, presumably looking for another latch or lever. He held up a thin leather-bound book, tied up with a faded ribbon that might, at one point, have been red. “Wonder what it is?”

“Careful, it looks old.” Nilien untied the ribbon, only to have it break into three pieces in her hands.

“Careful,” Benoir teased, “it looks old.”

“Hush.” She was blushing, but the dim light of Benoir’s torch probably hid that fact. She opened the book much more carefully. “Oh, it’s a diary.” She peered at a date entry. “Well, I doubt they’re coming back for it. This was started over fifty years ago.“

“Well, maybe someone else came down here in search of snacks,” Benoir joked. “Do they say anything about any other passages?”

She closed the book carefully. “I’m going to have to look at it in proper light. But this place is definitely worth coming back to.”

END CHAPTER SIX

6.11

“There are more passages? Oh, that’s so neat!” Nilien bounced a little. “I’d like to see-” she really did have to get back to Lorque and tell her about Heldira’s familiar “-at least one, now? Maybe the rest when I have some more free time? I spend so much time just trying to get caught up,” she explained apologetically. “And that’s before the whole mess with magic!”

“You seem like you’re pretty bright. I’m sure you’ll pick it up quickly enough,” he assured her. “All right, let’s see. From here… we want to make a right at the next intersection.”

That would take her away from her dorm room, but there was a secret passage. Lorque could wait a little bit, right? “Here?” She turned right down a smaller hallway, one with plainer-looking doors spaced further apart than the hall they’d just been in.

“I don’t know what it used to be, but they use this one mostly for storage. The trick to this passageway is mostly not getting caught looking like you’re trying to sneak snacks.” He swung open a door, looked both ways, and gestured Nilien inside. They were in a dimly-lit room full of shelves, the shelves smelling faintly of cheese and herbs.

“I don’t know if they even know about it, but if we go down this row here and then, see this shelf? Run your hand along the middle of it until you feel a catch.”

The shelf seemed thicker than the others, and when Nilien ran her hand along the bottom of it, she found a small lever. “How did you even find this place?”

“Trying to sneak snacks and someone came in. I put my hand on the shelf when I was trying to duck down,” he admitted.

“Are all the passages you know in food-related places?” she teased. She pushed the little lever, and a panel behind Benoir clicked and swung a finger’s-width outward.

“Only most of them. Sometimes it’s like the aviary, a rather open secret. This one I haven’t even shown to anyone else.”

“I hope it doesn’t lead to another forbidden garden,” she teased.

“Not this one. You’re safe this time.” He pushed the door the rest of the way open to reveal a narrow staircases downward. “This one even has stairs.” He stepped in and down to demonstrate.

Nilien followed Benoir into the staircase and shut the door behind her – on this side, she noticed, it had a handle.

The stairwell didn’t have any lighting of its own, but Benoir pulled out a pocket torchh and switched it on with a flourish. It made for a spooky climb downwards, full of shifting shadows in the dim lighting.

Eventually, they reached the bottom of the stairs, and the passage they had been walking in opened up into a wider room. There were a couple shelves to one side, but the jars on them had a thick layer of dust, and spiderwebs joined the shelves to each other and to the wall.

6.10

Nilien kept ambling towards her dorm room, and Benoir kept walking along with her. The company was nice, and she did feel a little strange about being out alone after having Ember at her side almost constantly.

But she couldn’t help fishing for more information, too. There was too much she didn’t know, and in this case, what she didn’t know might actually kill her. “Do you know anything about people — students — using tracking spells for pranks?” She glanced over at him, wondering if she’d be able to read anything in his expression.

All she got was confusion. “Tracking spells? Like ‘this is where Professor Chevlin is’ sort of spells? I haven’t heard of anyone using them for pranks — although that’s not a bad idea. Maybe the next time Heline is being far too full of herself, I can do something with that. Thanks!”

“You’re — well, you’re welcome, I suppose. So that’s not something people do normally?” Maybe they’d done so when Professor Vaudelle was a student here?

Benoir shook his head. “No, or, at least, I’ve never heard of it. The aviary people don’t tend to be so big on that sort of thing — pranks and everything — that’s more your people. No offense.”

“None taken. I haven’t pulled any pranks yet, at least not here.” Not for lack of trying, though.

“Yes.” He smirked at her. “I’ll keep that in mind, if I get a tracking spell on me mysteriously.”

“Oh, I can’t do anything like that yet.” She sighed. “I’m still at the learning-my-letters stage of study when it comes to magic. It’s going so slowly, too.”

“It goes slowly for everyone at first. Don’t worry, it’ll click eventually. And then there you are, seeing through walls accidentally and putting tracking spells on everyone.”

She did not want to know about seeing through walls accidentally — wait. Did she? Yes. “Oh! I should ask you — do you know any more,” she lowered her voice to a whisper, “secret passages? There have to be other ways to get around this place, don’t there? Some of the public hallways are entirely counter-intuitive.”

“Do I?” He grinned at her. “Of course I do. Is that a map?” He looked at Chason’s map clutched in her hand. “I bet — here, yes. I can show you three passages just on this map, and there’s a lot missing here. Do you want to see them now?”

6.9

Nilien wrapped up her conversation with Chason with a few more comments on the map and a couple additions from him, one “oh, have you found-” which led to her mentioning the garden – the outdoor one, not the secret one – Benoir had shown her, and both Chason’s addition, a small rare-books library addition, and Benoir’s courtyard made it onto the map.

She almost gave Chason a hug, but she didn’t know him all that well yet, and when she and Ember left him behind, she did check herself for tracking spells.

None. If Professor Vaudelle hadn’t confirmed both of the ones she’d found, Nilien might have begun to think she’d made them up.

Well, maybe it just meant that Chason wasn’t part of whatever Heldira was. She looked down at Ember. “So, I’m going to go tell Lorque what’s going on. Could you-”

-go get myself “lost” and see if I can find this green badger? If I get my nose clawed, I am going to be very annoyed with you.

“If you get your nose clawed, I will do my best to make it up to you. Would someone else’s familiar do that?”

They might. Would some other familiar’s human drop a tree on you?

“You have a point. A rather unpleasant point, but still a point.” Nilien hugged herself, suddenly chilly. “Thank you, Ember.”

I am your familiar. Ember looked haughty again. It is my job to make sure you don’t do anything too particularly stupid. In this case, that means exposing myself to the chance of a clawed snout.

“And I really appreciate it, Ember, I do.” She bent down to give Ember a warm hug. “Thank you.”

“Appreciate what?” She hadn’t heard Benoir coming up on them, but there he was, looking very curious to find her hugging her familiar in the middle of the hallway.

“Oh!” Nilien straightened up. “Saving my life. Twice, not, at the very least; Ember’s been amazing. Go on,” she told Ember, hoping she sounded casual enough. “I’ll catch up.”

“Twice? Oh, you’re not lost again, are you?” Benoir smiled crookedly, clearly teasing her. “Because if you are…”

“Oh, not this time.” Nilien started wandering towards the dorms while Ember trotted off ahead of them. “No, I was out in the woods this past weekend, that’s all, and I almost missed a tree falling on me. Ember warned me just in time.”

“That’s once.” His forehead furrowed. “That sounds horrible, though. A tree dropping on you?”

“It was pretty terrifying.” She kept up her casual stroll towards her dorm. By now, she could manage this much without the map – or a guide. “And Ember appearing, well, Ember always says it showed up because I wanted to live.”

“Oh! Right.” He slapped his hand to his forehead. “A Wild Rune! Right! Well, looks like you’ve got a very handy familiar there.”

“Yeah.” She kind of wished Ember could hear him, but Ember was out of sight, presumably going to find Heldira’s familiar. “I got really lucky, getting Ember.”