What was Nan stepping in?
She lost faith in the Disney princesses at ten. Delusions of how wonderful it would be to join the ranks of actual nobility faded soon after. Assassinations, enforced peasant poverty, and the French Revolution did not a fun time make.
Nan set a groan echoing against the hallway, glad that the door had long clicked shut before doing so. There was a warbling mass of discomfort that she couldn’t hold back. Not without Greg’s dopey smile encouraging her to at least try.
It was best not to hope for too much; being named or a successful mercenary were paths to a title, “can melt a face from twenty meters” had no place in the definition of effective leadership. Still, she crossed her fingers against common sense. A predisposition against bluebloods was still a predisposition: unfair by nature.
Slowsilver seemed to hum in agreement. It was probably just sucking up. The only thing between itself and abandonment was a quick proof of her recovered mobility.
Perhaps the reclamation process did something to her head. She was personifying a chair.
An infant laugh rising from her chest crashed into her throat as a dry coughing fit. Every source of whym decided to perform the universe’s greatest synchronized dying act. Or so her senses would have her believe. She was alone with her stormy reserves and the dot of pressure her chair sputtered out. Nan backed up, the nearly silent click of the door seal coming undone heralded the return of normalcy.
Life itself didn’t decide to cancel mid-season. A relief. She would understand if she did something worthy of Darwin’s facepalm, but incidentally killing a person twice in the same year was far from sporting.
It wasn’t the first time Nan came by a block of space she couldn’t sense through. Some rooms in the white fortress that was the Vespa’s sick bay drew dark spots inside her bubble of awareness. Being inside one was a unique, rather unpleasant, experience. For the slightest moment, she felt as though she was choking on herself. Much worse than dragging her nails on a chalkboard, but just as overrated after realizing the source of her distress.
A mass of blurs poked through the glass door on the far side. Whatever the insufferable material that blotted out her more than mundane senses was left the roar of voices and thuds of metal alone. The room called to her, dangling her leg license in front of her eyes just behind a wall of discomfort.
This eerie empty space could do its worst. Nan Jane Beauchamp would not be denied.
The stretch felt much longer than it should have. She was crowded by nothing, surrounded by a wide expanse of claustrophobic emptiness. The wave of whym that greeted her at the end felt like a cool, relaxing breath by comparison.
Nan didn’t expect step ladders and jump ropes. A track with the bar things that seemed to exist for the sole purpose of tripping people up in public, perhaps. Or a normal obstacle course; a standard high wall and balance log affair. More than enough to prove her restored motor skills while being relatively simple to navigate.
A replica of the platform games of yore was the last thing she had in mind. She was on a safe area of sorts, tendered by water stations, towels, and benches occupied by a collection of lian and the odd murgumo or human stretching on the padded floor. She peered meters ahead, into at least three football field’s worth of chasm.
Platforms held aloft by gravity lamps dotted it like lily pads floating on a pond. Those closest drifted evenly, leaving gaps she could walk across if she stretched out her steps. The spaces yawned out wider the further away they went until they dropped any semblance of rhyme. The section closest to the far side held moving, malformed things that may as well have been small asteroids. They weaved over and under each other erratically. Nothing but a net stood between the clumsy or inept and a pool situated oh-so-conveniently a floor below.
Nan reigned in her desire to sift through the crowd’s reserves for Izusa. There were too many whym signatures crammed together to make it easy, and she wasn’t confident in her ability to not commit another faux pas.
“If you’ll be so kind as to pardon me, miss.”
A hand rested above her shoulder, not quite touching. A blue haired lian with a pair of stalky rabbit ears and a star tattooed to his cheek smiled down at her.
“Oh, sorry.” Nan scuttled to the side, leaving him room to dive backwards into the abyss, clearing two heads and a bottle of water on the way. A second passed. The scent of brown sugar heralded his grand resurfacing amid a burst of gold flecked turquoise.
Did he just wink at her?
He traipsed clear into the more ridiculous end of the trial amid a series of unnecessary flips, tucks and midair spins until he came to a rest on the highest platform in the very rear of the room, a crumpled looking crescent. He bowed at a human girl in a lab coat and glasses on the far side’s safe area.
She waved sheepishly, only to turn her expression into a wordless gasp. She pointed at the platform, its blue projector light blinking angrily.
Flashy Feet McGee looked down, the showman’s smile etched on his face made it all the way until he got dumped by the side. To his credit, he managed to hold himself up on another jet of whym– this time without a semblance of finesse. His fingers brushed the edge of the platform before gravity reclaimed its hold.
A flare of green wormed its way to the edge of Nan’s senses, carrying the scent of daisies and grass.
Empty space. A young man edging between the floor and the platforms met her eyes for an awkward moment before stepping off.
Again, Yara’s signature made itself known. A half formed scroll, rolled up and muted, emitting just enough whym to catch her attention before fading and showing up a bit further away. Breadcrumbs.
She weaved her way through, muttering gain ways and apologies. Yara rested straight backed and cross-legged on a bench, shutting her book in one hand as she paid her a glance. There was a lian in a dress similar to the one Izusa wore. No. Robe was likely the preferred term. The antlered person was a male.
“Morning. You could have just shouted me over, you know?”
Yara crinkled her nose, “Not a chance. That would be terribly uncouth.” She paused as if forgetting herself for a moment. “I mean, good morning to you as well.”
Baiting her around like a fish wasn’t? It was subtle, Nan supposed, no one seemed to pay it much mind. But what was so rude about raising her voice? They weren’t in the most quiet of places. Nan chalked it up to alien social mores and let her frustration fizzle out. Too many things made sense for her to complain about the things that didn’t.
“I was supposed to see Izusa today, finally getting rid of this thing.” Nan flicked Slowsilver’s control stick with a finger. “Have you seen her?”
The robed lian coughed politely, his voice was on the gravely side despite all the features of youth gracing his form. “She’s tending to a complete torso regeneration. I’m Soother Brass.” Whym flowed, presenting a tilted chalice of purple. “I’ll be taking care of you in her stead.”
Nan returned the gesture. Again, just the diminished candlelight she showed Chianti. Channeling enough to display anything more grandiose ended in embarrassment. Torso regeneration. She had no idea how to feel about that. Assured that magic could bring her back after being blown to bits, or appalled that there were things blowing people to bits in the safety of the ship. “Would it be rude to ask what happened?”
“Not terribly. The patient will be fine, given a good cycle’s rest. He had a run in with an undocumented parasite.”
“It burst out of the guy’s stomach?”
“It’d be less troublesome if it had. Nasty thing supplanted most of his organs over a week. It concealed itself using an interesting suite of spells considering its lack of intelligence. We only found something amiss after it started replacing his skin.” He hooked a messenger bag away from the bench with his foot “I have the first part of the removal procedure on video if you’re interested.”
Yara’s whym flared, curling around herself in a much less coordinated manner than her previous displays. “Not in my presence, please. I don’t want to suffer those sounds again.”
“Right, some other time then.” Soother Brass sighed, his disappointment palatable. “May I see your mediband?”
A chalice, much smaller than the first, loomed over Nan’s wrist. Dark syrup oozed into the bracelet, bidding it open with a satisfying click and the scent of oranges. How much of the process was just showmanship? The liquid was made of an ordered strand, much like the translation spell she wasn’t supposed to be paying attention to.
“A fifth of the way and back should suffice. We just need to see if you can hold up to something a little more intense than simple jogging. You can come back tomorrow if you flub it”
Nan stood. Relishing in the sensation of solid ground returning to her feet. “I won’t flub it.”
A running start. Reckless, but Nan didn’t care. The drifting sensation still held on to Nan’s legs, though it provided little hindrance. After a week of nothing but stretching, walking in a straight line, and sleeping, her pulse ached for a good hastening. The first platform yielded under her weight slightly before it swayed back to its original position. Whym and warmth sank into her bones as she dashed to the next, and then the next.
She took them three at a time, the start of the irregular section didn’t phase her progress.
Yara’s signature winked into existence. She held her arms behind her back, teleporting in pace with each of Nan’s steps.
“Cheering me on?”
She peered over her glasses. “Catching you if you fall.”
The plate ahead of her drifted upwards at an angle, she latched and vaulted onto it from the edge.
“Before I forget, there was a cute lian with a star tattoo, do know him?”
Yara blinked. “Blue hair, tall ears?”
“Jarohan Vo Astra. A fine sparring partner, but don’t flatter him, his ego is quite large enough.”
‘He that winketh with the eye causeth sorrow’. She was almost certain that Solomon had something else in mind, but the quote seemed fitting. Apparently, the rabbit eared lian was a noble by birth who failed to acquire a name. A circumstance the Auxiliary could redress.
After thoroughly demonstrating that her legs were working better than fine, Yara signaled for the return trip, leaving Nan more than a little washed out. Anything but the first few meters of the trial would be impossible in her old body, but with so much whym flowing through her, she didn’t even break a sweat.
“How does all of this work?” Nan asked. “Names, and magic, and stuff.”
“Izusa didn’t tell you?”
“I didn’t ask.” They detoured around a girl hanging from a platform by her fingertips. Nan looked back as they passed, feeling a bit guilty when she lost her grip with a squeal. If she called for help, Nan would be happy to oblige. Hopefully. Probably. Definitely.
Yara had a way of glancing just so that could convey more emotion than a mouthful of words. She blamed magic, despite the absence of whym. Only her mother could achieve that effect without it. “Ask every question that comes to mind. Ignorance can end your life.”
‘So could speeding vehicles,’ she thought with a drip of bitterness.
“Names are bestowed upon those who bond with a herald, spirits provided by providence itself. A lifetime partnership, not so different from one forged with a familiar. We offer an anchor to the physical world and a portion of our whym to sustain them. In return, we become something more than ourselves.”
“That gave me more questions than answers.”
“As it should.” Yara held up a hand, not caring to look at a human boy that almost crashed into her from the side. He sputtered an apology as he spun listlessly in the air for a few moments, cradled by green whym.
“It’s quite alright. Do be more careful, though.”
Nan’ feet thudded against the matted ground. Yara promised a long talk about heralds, providence, and the nature of magic if she would suffer an afternoon of tea with her later while Soother Brass got to tinkering with Slowsilver. There was a faint connection between it and her sigil that she didn’t notice until it faded away. It wasn’t invasive, but it turned her thoughts to what else could be done with a strand attached to the intermediary between her soul. She shook her head, deciding to focus on her freedom instead.
Sweet, delicious freedom. Were she of weaker will, Nan would leap for joy. She was already losing the battle to retain her reputation as a less excitable person, one more step would undo her. She settled with channeling her euphoria into a single wave for her steed’s final departure into the sunset.
“So long Slowsilver, don’t come back.” Nan allowed herself a wry grin.
“You named the wheelchair?” Yara asked.
“I grew kind of attached to him during our week together, despite the circumstances.”
Brass stuffed a tablet back into his messenger bag. “An apt name. We cap their speed to keep patients from falling off. When we were understaffed, wheelchair drag racing used to be a thing.”
Nan fell into a petty grouch. “Do you have any idea how miserable that made me?”
Unfettered, he said, “Talk to me about misery after you deal with the alternative. If it makes you feel any better, your lost convenience means less children getting scrapped off the walls.”
Nan sincerely hoped he wasn’t speaking in a literal sense.
“Ah ha, Jaro! what’s happening?!”
The noisy one was a tall, fair haired human. He traded a series of fist bumps that the lian in question returned with pleased gusto. Another man, short haired with dark skin, conceded Jarohan a less enthusiastic, single bump after some prodding.
And wasn’t that the textbook definition of surreal? A puffy pants bearing Horatio stepping in sync with the cool kids. While she couldn’t comfortably pin down Jarohan’s color now that he wasn’t doing much, the vague impression of red and deep blue clung to the blonde and his friend respectively. Nan clamped down on her senses before nosey probes could sprout.
“What are you looking at?” Brass traced Nan’s line of sight, his inquisitive expression melted into a frown. Slinging on his messenger bag, he said, “Hold on, that’s one of mine.”
The Soother beckoned for Nan and Izusa to follow, approaching the group from behind.
“Got your rehab for that new arm done early, Felix?”
The noisy blonde’s jaw dropped. “Oh, hey doc! I thought you had today off.”
“I’m filling in.”
Yara didn’t seem content with beating around the bush, turning the full force of her disappointed expression on Felix. “The question was far from difficult.”
“Lady Yaranessli Vo Vannon, I swear on my mother, Maker rest her beautiful soul, that I did the rehab thing.”
Yara didn’t look pleased. “You hold your mother in contempt. Does he speak truly, Newt?”
All eyes turned to the other man, who, for the world, seemed to be both bored and fed up in the same instance. “This is what you made me take an oath for?.”
“You just broke the spirit! How am I supposed to trust your word, man?!”
Half of an infuriated bleat was all the warning spared. Yara blinked out of existence. She reappeared to snatch him by the legs, releasing the other half of her lungs before warping again, Felix in tow. Meters above, Red whym struggled to push them groundward in vain, all but choked off by green threads. “I should ask you the same! I shall not suffer the loss of another companion! Can you not see the distress you levy against me?! How can someone blessed by providence be so daft?!”
“I get it, I’m sorry! Show a little mercy! This feels weird!”
“This is mercy! If some terrible fate were to befall you, I’d cry! Do you wish for me to cry?!” For her part, Yara already looked prepared to cry. Her face was a reddened mask of worry and she wasn’t even the one being dangled by the legs.
Nan looked at the others in turn. They were all too content with watching Yara beat Felix with the figurative bush. “None of you are going to lend a hand?” Nan asked.
“If he went to rehab, he’d have the full use of two.”
Newt clicked his tongue. “Already told him off for poking bangstone, that” He pointed at the screaming form of Felix. “Is the sound of the other boot.”
“A Vo Astra would be remiss to deny a display of trust and affection between comrades.”
Introductions were made without the need for Nan to expose her pitiful level of whym control. Thankfully, Newt and Felix (after Yara finally let him down), knew how to execute a proper handshake, Jaro was obsessed with the exotic “art of dap” Felix taught him, and insisted upon making a personal greeting to be used between just the two them.
“You said you were both reclaimed from Earth?” Hope edged through Nan’s tone. If other people were getting thrown in from her planet, the location may prove to be more than a one-off factor. Repetition lent itself to study, and study lent itself to understanding. A road back may have been less of a pipe dream than everyone thought.
Newt grit his teeth, bearing the face of a man used to delivering bad news. “Don’t get too elated. We come from an Earth. We don’t have any complete maps after The Calamity, but Siegard, that’s where he’s from.” He pointed at Felix with a thumb. “Doesn’t even sound like any unfractured landmass I know of.”
Felix nodded. “The only ‘Calamity’ back home is a band, we don’t even have magic. It was pretty boring, actually.”
“Ninety-two percent surface water isn’t boring.”
“Says you.” Felix blanched as he held out an arm. Soother Brass had it subjected to oily tendrils rising from a chalice half Nan’s size, his shoulder, arm, and wrist twitched and stretched, followed by each finger. Yara flitted between his arm and Brass constantly, asking if it was supposed to move like that with every shift in angle.
Even if the no refund policy reclamation had was a lie, there was still the matter of pinpointing her world among what could be hundreds across some dimension of space she would likely never understand. The revelation felt surprisingly numb.
“Right.” Nan’s smile slackened. “So, what are you here for?”
“A bit of sport with the Margrave.” Newt turned to the door, glancing at something Nan was too short to see. “Speak of land shakes and they arrive.” Whym flowed. The scent of lavender rode an oddly proportioned instrument. An octagon with strings. Seconds saw him perform the same series of baiting whym flares Yara used on her.
“Ah, good to see you standing, Nan.”
“Rixal? You look…” Intimidating, Nan’s mind screamed. Though she somehow forced her tongue to say “Cool.” His armor was a pale tan with a less intricate design than Chitani’s, who trailed behind. It still added a few good inches to his already too-large-for-ease profile.
“Shucks, I’d blush if I could.” Rixal shifted to the side. “Is blush the right term, Cap?”
“It is,” Chitani said. The Margrave looked Nan in the eyes for a few dreadfully long heartbeats. “A game of tag, Mrs. Beauchamp. Myself on everyone. One life. No offensive spells. I’ll throw in sixty silvers for anyone who makes it past five minutes.”
‘No. No. Non. Nien. Ie. `A`ole. Nnyaa. Cha. Ni.’
“Sure.” Nan didn’t want to be rude. She had the impression that it was bad for her health.
“Is Mr. Tayls okay to participate?”
Soother Brass shrugged, letting his sigil collapse. “It’ll only do him good.” Felix stuck his tongue at Yara, only to feign a yawn when she looked back.
“Brrrrrph. Excellent, a fair hunt.”
Newt crossed his arms “Can’t say so myself.”
Chianti thrummed her limbs in place, one at a time. “Shall I offer a three second lead?”