She wasn’t afraid of them. That was what was different.
It didn’t mean she wasn’t afraid.
“Still the same old Teal,” Massi said in her too-sweet voice, a heavy layer of syrup covering the taste of poison. “And here I’d almost thought a few months in Tiraas would teach you some basic social skills. Alas,” she said with a sigh, half-turning to her cronies and making a languid gesture with one hand that encompassed Teal from her thick (comfortable) shoes to her wind-ruffled hair, starting to come loose from its ponytail in drifting strands.
Massi was tiny, dark and pretty. She had always made Teal feel inadequate just by existing, even before she learned to make an art form of it.
Teal crossed her arms over her chest, well aware it was a defensive motion, fully conscious that the girls would react to the apparent sign of weakness like sharks scenting blood, but not able to stop herself. Some girls were smooth, self-contained, poised. Others were like her.
“Massi,” she began.
“That’s Lady Massi to you, commoner,” the teenager said coldly, lofting one elegantly sculpted (and plucked) eyebrow. Teal, despite her growing fear, sighed.
It was all so predictable. Massi Taluvathi hailed from an ancient noble line—ancient, but these days not wealthy or influential. In fact, her father worked for Teal’s family, as did the parents of both of Lady Massi’s sycophants, girls of less excellent breeding but similar dispositions who now stood flanking her and smirking maliciously at Teal. One complaint from Teal could have rendered all their families unemployed; a serious effort on her part could quite possibly have left the homeless. It galled a girl like Massi to be in a subordinate position to the nouveau riche Falconers, and having discovered that Teal wasn’t going to do anything to her, she had taken to sharpening her emotional claws on Teal as if it was her only joy in the world.
Teal shifted, her heavy shoes clunking on the planks of the old footbridge. She had so been looking forward to this, to walking in the familiar forest behind her home, the place where she had spent so many of her happiest hours growing up. Massi and her coterie had discovered this habit, of course, but even so, it was a large forest with numerous paths; she could usually manage to escape them in it—unless, as today, they headed her off on a narrow trail.
“So,” Massi purred, slinking forward one swaying step at a time—Teal gulped, averting her eyes—“you clearly were not at finishing school. Whatever could have induced your family to rush you off to the city in such a hurry? A medical emergency, perhaps? Or something less…wholesome?”
“I heard she got caught with her hand up the maid’s skirt,” Lorette said, grinning with sadistic delight at Teal.
“Oh, please, my brother goes through maids like pastries,” Damania said dismissively.
“But he’s your brother,” Lorette replied gleefully. “That’s natural. Unlike some things I could name.”
“Anyhow,” Damania went on, smirking so hard she seemed to risk facial injury, “I heard it was someone more…important. Whose skirts did you try to climb, Teal, darling?”
“You know,” Lorette tittered, “Duke Madouri’s daughter is very nearly of age.”
“Now, ladies,” Massi reproved with malicious complacency, “you’re not giving dear Teal the chance to explain yourself. What about it, Teal, dear? Have you moved on from ogling women to, say, farm animals? They do say perversion is a slippery slope.”
Lorette and Damania rewarded this with obligatory gasps and giggles.
“Don’t,” Teal said tersely.
“I’m sorry, dear, what was that?” Massi asked sweetly. “Do try speaking in complete sentences. Pretend, for a moment, that you are a civilized human being, if only for our sakes.”
Teal didn’t bother explaining that she hadn’t been talking to them. She didn’t have the extra attention to spare. Explaining things to them was wasted energy anyway; they’d never understood why she allowed this treatment. Yes, she could have had their fathers sacked, but that would have been an exercise of force. Violence was violence, however indirect. The girls weren’t the only ones present having trouble with this concept.
Teal hated herself a little bit for what she said next. “I don’t have time for this today,” she said, tension thrumming in every line of her body. “Go away, or…or I’ll—I’ll tell my father.” Gods, how she hated it, hated failing herself like that. A threat was a threat. It was all she could think of, though, her best plan for warding off something far worse.
Maybe a peaceful walk in the woods hadn’t been such a great idea.
Lorette and Damania paled in unison, glancing nervously at each other. Teal had never shown them even this much spine before, and the threat was a significant one. To live in Tiraan Province and be at odds with the Falconers was a recipe for serious trouble.
Massi, however, narrowed her eyes, her false smile dissolving into a far more honest sneer. “Oh, no, Teal, we just can’t have that. I think you’ve gone and picked up some bad ideas while you were off in the big city, apparently not being cured of your freakishness.” She stepped closer; Teal tensed further. “You will respect your betters. You don’t talk to me that way.”
“Don’t!” Teal repeated urgently, barely conscious of Massi and the others now.
“Don’t what, sniveling little pup?” Massi snapped, stalking forward. “Really, speak up, I am dying to hear this. Don’t. What?”
On the last word, she shoved Teal hard in the shoulders with both hands.
Teal stumbled backward, flailing for balance. It cost her the last bit of her control.
Her body twisted painfully, warping; her arm, when it lashed out at Massi, was half again as long as it should be, warped and distorted so severely the sleeve of her dress burst around the bulging, malformed muscle of her forearm. Her fingers locked themselves around Massi’s throat, long enough to encircle her neck and overlap again, tipped now in murderous claws.
The other two were screaming, now. Massi looked like she wanted to, if she could breathe.
Oddly enough, with the thing she had so feared coming to pass, Teal felt only resignation. She sighed mentally, not currently able to do so physically, and settled back to watch.
Vadrieny hiked Massi bodily off the ground by the neck, grinning up at her. Teal’s jaw distorted, her lips stretching abnormally wide, almost to her ears, mouth suddenly bristling with jagged teeth. She couldn’t see her face, of course, but knew well enough what it would look like. The eyes Massi was now staring into, panicked, were fathomless black pits, a dancing spark of flame deep within.
“Do you know what a teenage girl’s liver tastes like?” Vadrieny asked pleasantly. Despite the grotesque twisting she inflicted on Teal’s body, her voice was beautiful, hauntingly so. She pulled Massi down closer, till their noses were nearly touching; the girl twitched and flailed helplessly, eyes rolling in panic. “I do,” the demon whispered.
Damania had fled already. Lorette huddled on the dirt path, rocking back and forth, apparently paralyzed by terror.
“You know what your problem is?” Vadrieny went on, grinning insanely and displaying six cats worth of fangs in the process. “You’re just…so…pretty. You are a lovely little doll, and everyone has spent your whole life teaching you that this means you can get away with anything. You’ve never had to develop any character, never had to make an effort on your own behalf. Never had to treat others with the merest hint of compassion or respect. Really, being so pretty is the source of all your problems.”
She lifted Teal’s other arm, the limb bulging, twisting, bending in places it wasn’t supposed to. Her fingers stiffened like a bird’s talons, not growing as long as those on the other hand, but sprouting black claws from the tips. Vadrieny gently traced those wicked claws down Massi’s cheek.
“Pretty,” she cooed, “is fixable.”
Massi emitted a shrill noise like steam escaping a teapot. It was more than Teal could bear.
She lashed out with all her will, slamming the sheer force of her personality against Vadrieny. Their shared body twitched and heaved with the struggle; Teal managed to seize enough control to loosen her fingers.
Massi wasn’t so much dropped as thrown, but at least she was away. She struck the ground hard and rolled.
“Run,” Teal rasped, forcing her voice out in the process of writhing physically with inner conflict. Vadrieny, her cruel suggestions of a moment ago already forgotten, was flailing against her in the throes of a berserker fit. “Run. RUN! GO!”
Mercifully, they did. She actually took two involuntary steps after them, and didn’t manage to stop her legs from moving. They buckled, however, the right leg suddenly longer and ending in malformed talons that had shredded her shoe, the left twisting so that its knee didn’t work quite right. For once, Teal felt pure gratitude for the chaotic effect Vadrieny had on her body.
Why did you do that?!
You know why! Why do you allow them to treat you that way?!
It’s better than the alternative!
Better? BETTER?! An inhuman screech tore itself from her throat, Vadrieny’s expression of pure frustration. I can see your memories! They abused you for years, and you could have stopped it at any time! Destroyed them, driven their whole families out of the province! How can you tolerate that? How can you be so weak?
“WEAK?” Teal roared, vocally as well as in her head. Her jaws gnashed, not fully under her control; murderous fangs ground into her tongue, and the pain was sharp, but no real damage was done. Her body, deformed and tortured as the demon made it, was also all but invulnerable, even to itself.
You dare call me weak? she raged on inwardly. Of course I could have made them stop! I didn’t, because I have principles! I don’t make people do things, that is not who I am. Do you know what that’s like? Can you even fathom it? Day after day of this, refusing to bend or compromise what matters to me no matter what they poured on? Could you have done it? You don’t know what strength IS!
There was a moment of silence. Not a bird or insect made a sound in the nearby woods. Vadrieny had that effect on wildlife.
Then, silently, the demon sent her a rush of affection. It was uncertain, hesitant, stuttering… She had difficulty with simple love, almost as if she feared it, but she was getting better about that, and the emotion was sincere. They didn’t have the capacity to hide feelings from each other.
Teal panted heavily, grimacing with discomfort as her body began to un-twist, restoring itself to its proper form. Not all the way, though. Enough that she could walk, that her arms evened up, the lopsided warping of her spine and ribcage subsiding, allowing her to stand fully upright again.
You are weak, Vadrieny said, but…also strong. You’re right, Teal, that took strength. But…you could have acted. You could have done something. You didn’t, because you were afraid.
I was not—!
You can lie to yourself; obviously you have been. You can’t lie to me. You were afraid.
She closed her eyes, sinking slowly to her knees on the footbridge. Resting one hand against it, she felt fresh gouges in the wood, raked there by Vadrieny’s claws.
I don’t know what else I could have done.
The demon sent another rush of love, a mental embrace, more confidently this time. I don’t either.
“Oh, gods,” Teal whispered aloud. “Oh, gods, we are in so much trouble.”
Oh…yeah. The Church sort of warned us not to do things like that, didn’t they?
“Sort of,” she mumbled. “…what are we going to do?”
“We’re not going to fight off the Church,” Teal said firmly.
I wasn’t going to suggest that!
“You were thinking it.”
I can’t help thinking it. We have the strength.
“Not to take on the Universal Church and the Empire, and even if we could, that would be it for any chance of having a normal life.” She slumped lower. “Not that I did anyway…”
I’m… I’m sorry, Teal.
“No,” she said firmly, wrapping her arms around herself and responding to Vadrieny with a wave of pure affection. “No, I’m sorry. This situation isn’t your fault. I didn’t want to make you feel unwanted.”
A tentative mental hug in reply.
“Us being bonded, I meant. That’s not your fault,” Teal said after a moment, the ghost of a smile creeping onto her face. “This situation, revealing yourself and assaulting a noblewoman, that’s all on you.”
I am not going to sit quietly while you let yourself be savagely abused! Get used to the idea.
Teal sighed heavily. “…I guess we’d better go home and deal with this.”
I guess so…
They sat there in silence.
…yeah, me either.
Are we being cowardly?
“No.” Teal shook her head. “No, we’re going back. Just…” She swallowed. “Gods. Just not yet. I need some…I need to…”
She stood abruptly and bolted into the woods, in the opposite direction from home. Vadrieny gave her no argument.
They’d been walking for nearly an hour, pushing through underbrush and around trees, before Teal asked.
“Why…why do you think it’s so messed up and twisted, when you come out?”
It took Vadrieny a little while to answer; Teal could feel her mulling silently, comparing dimly-perceived sensations.
It’s…wrong. It doesn’t feel right. Being in your body that way.
“Like…you’re not supposed to have a body?”
No, not that… I think I am supposed to have one. Something about the way I’m in yours. It…doesn’t fit right.
She nodded thoughtfully, momentarily distracted by extricating herself from a blackberry bramble. Her dress was well and truly ruined… Ah, well, that was the least of her problems today.
“None of the priests or wizards ever asked about this. I don’t think they cared much about the why.”
I think it was more that it seemed appropriate to them. Me being a twisted thing. It suits their image of demons.
“Is that image…right?”
Talking about demons is like talking about animals. That’s not just one type of thing. A dog would feel wrong if you put it in a fish’s body.
Teal stopped suddenly in the middle of a stream.
“What if…what if it felt right?”
I don’t think I understand.
A prickle of excitement was growing in her; she wasn’t sure if it was hers or Vadrieny’s. Maybe both. An idea was slowly taking shape in her mind, and it enthused her even as it formed.
“You’re always fighting it. We’re always fighting it. I can feel it in both of us… Trying to repress it.”
Shouldn’t we? I don’t belong…
“Don’t say that,” Teal said fiercely. “There are no priests here. You’re a person, you matter, you have the right to exist, and I love you! Damn it, Vadrieny, be!”
The excitement was rising, the demon’s mirroring her own.
Teal stretched her arms to both sides, as if to embrace the forest around them. “Forget keeping quiet or fighting yourself back. What does it feel like to be you?”
You know I can’t remember!
“Don’t remember, then. Don’t think it, feel it. If you can feel wrong about the way you come out, that means something in you remembers the right way.”
But…it’s your body.
“We’re both here. We have to share this life. There is room for you. Feel yourself!”
Vadrieny didn’t reply, but Teal could feel her pondering. She spun in an exuberant circle, silently willing her invisible partner to share the sheer experience of being, of physically existing in a body. Then, tentatively, the sensations rose, the now-familiar presence of another intelligence moving her limbs. It was much more hesitant this time, though. Usually it was anger or protectiveness that caused Vadrieny to show herself; this slower, thoughtful approach was new.
Teal had lowered her arms; her right one lifted itself again, and she watched it with interest, waiting for the shift. It never came out quite the same way, but the end result always reminded her of a gorilla’s arm crossed with a tree root: powerful, twisted, irregular and too long for her frame. Nothing like that happened, though. She felt Vadrieny’s consciousness slowly explore down her arm, not changing anything… And then her fingers shifted.
Only the fingers. Where before the black claws were stubby things that burst through the skin at her fingertips, this time the fingers themselves elongated, shifting. Then, she raised her left arm and watched as it followed suit. Teal, feeling some control return to her, flexed her hand experimentally, studying them. The claws were huge, black, and bladed, more like sickles than any weapon an animal had. Yet, they were graceful. Elegant, even. And they were the merest touch, an addendum to an arm that was still recognizably hers.
It’s a much smaller change, isn’t it? When I’m not trying to stop it from changing.
Teal laughed, swinging her arms. She sidestepped to a rock outcropping and slashed her left hand at it; the boulder crumbled under the blow, gravel spraying from beneath her claws. Dancing back the other way, she planted her right palm against a tree and shoved. The crash it made as it toppled was astoundingly satisfying.
“More!” she ordered.
Hmm… Move your legs.
Teal danced lightly from side to side.
Not like that, you loon, Vadrieny chided in amusement. Just walk! Like you normally would.
Teal set off through the trees again at a brisk pace, all but bouncing. The exuberance she had begun to feel was growing, resonating with Vadrieny as if they amplified each other. She could feel the demon silently, carefully exploring her body, running her consciousness through her limbs, gently testing how everything felt. It was like being caressed, all over, from the inside. It was weird and wild and oddly sweet.
She almost didn’t notice, so smooth was the transition. From one step to the next she rose slightly off the ground, her feet reshaping themselves according to the demon’s half-understood self-image. The partially destroyed shoe was the first to go, followed immediately by the other, ripped apart by enormous talons. Teal didn’t slow, but studied them as she walked (narrowly avoiding running into a tree). They looked much like birds’ feet, though more muscular, the three splayed toes tipped in thick, wickedly hooked claws. And…they were symmetrical. Frightening, menacing, but in comparison to the previous mutilation that had accompanied Vadrieny’s appearances, not monstrous.
A laugh bubbled up in her, and she increased her pace to a run. The talons impeded her not at all; she balanced on them as naturally as if she’d been doing so her whole life. Then, emerging from the trees into more open space, she burst into a series of jubilant bounds. Her legs were like pistons; she could leap for yards, hopping nimbly over the tumbled boulders that marked this edge of the forest. Vadrieny’s own exultant laughter echoed in her mind.
Then, suddenly, she skidded to a stop, pinwheeling her arms, just a few feet short of plummeting over a precipice.
Wow. Where are we?
“That’s…that must be the River Tira,” Teal said, craning her neck to peer down the canyon at the water frothing below. It was a massive gorge, though not nearly so wide or deep as it would be miles to the south, where it terminated in towering falls to either side of the island on which Tiraas was perched. “Wow. How long have we been walking?”
Vadrieny didn’t respond in words, but with a gleeful, silent urging. Teal found herself sorely tempted to follow the impulse, but argued nonetheless.
“That has to be two hundred feet down!”
We could fall from the very roof of the sky, and only the ground would suffer!
Bravado it was, but she knew it was also truth. A wild grin stretched over Teal’s features. It was crazy… But in the opposite direction from that plunge down to rushing water and jagged rocks was her own life, what was left of it. The Church was probably looking for her by now.
She laughed aloud, not even truly deciding to do it. It was just, quite suddenly, being done, and with a powerful spring of her taloned feet, Teal was hurtling into empty space over the drop.
Her stomach plummeted out from under her as she arced out and began to descend, screaming and laughing all at once. She had never in her life felt so alive, never imagined that she could. Inside her, Vadrieny whooped and gloried in the fall. Wind rushed past, buffeting them, and the distant bottom rose furiously to meet them.
Then something exploded from Teal’s back.
Her dress was savagely ripped; sprays of blood were hurled into the air from between her shoulder blades. In and around her own pained shock she felt Vadrieny’s incongruous sense of rightness. It was like the sensation of a scab being torn off, magnified by a thousand. It was agony. It was wonderful.
And until her wings began to beat, she didn’t truly understand what had happened.
Then she was screaming, laughing and crowing in delight all at once. Her descent evened out, becoming entirely horizontal just before she would have reached the bottom; Teal extended a hand, dragging her claws through the river, before beginning actually to rise again.
The wings continued to form even as they worked, spindly and ragged feathers filling in and multiplying; pinions no more substantial than cobwebs fleshed themselves out until she possessed a full spread of gleaming white eagle wings. Even at their final, massive spread, they wouldn’t have been enough to support her weight in the air; birds flew in part because of their hollow bones and other adaptations. Anyhow, she had begun to ascend before the wings were substantial enough to support even themselves. Clearly, their flight owed more to more magic than physics.
It didn’t matter. Teal’s newfound delight was echoed even more deeply by Vadrieny’s. They were right.
They soared up over the rim of the canyon, then continued to angle upward, till they were rising nearly vertically. The wings carried on beating, but they were ascending at a rate well beyond anything for which wings could be credited. Teal realized she wasn’t controlling their flight, exactly… She could feel Vadrieny’s command over it, and felt she could influence that with a thought… It was surreal and confusing, even as it was gloriously liberating.
How high can we go? The wind was rushing past her with such intensity she didn’t even try to speak.
How high? We can go until “high” doesn’t mean anything anymore!
Faster and faster, higher and higher, till the wind passing them burned with the intensity of their rush through it. Teal grinned into the thinning sky, knowing she should be suffering some ill effect from this, and feeling nothing of the kind. Vadrieny was feeling like herself, feeling truly free for the first time since they had been joined. It was a deeply satisfying thing to experience, enough to distract her from the gradual vanishing of the air itself.
The sky darkened and brightened at once. Wispy atmosphere faded away behind her, and Teal gaped in awe at the stars. There was nothing to breathe up here, but she found she had no need to. The cold was so intense it burned; that didn’t bother her overmuch either. She’d had no idea there were so many stars, or that they had colors. It was as if the sky were a solid carpet of them. Gazing around at their sparkling glory, she had the sense that even in the black spaces between them lurked more stars, invisible only due to great distance.
Almost lazily, Vadrieny pivoted. The world floated below them, an enormous plate of green, blue and brown, partly obscured by cloud banks that looked completely flat from up here, limned by a faint fuzz of atmosphere around the edges.
If only there had been air, she would have laughed for sheer joy. They shared it between them, needing no words.
Then, at a sudden, unspoken consensus, they dived back down.
The planet had turned somewhat out from under them; Vadrieny brought them in at an angle, heading back in the general direction of their starting point. Well, at least they were aiming at the right continent; the finer details they could work out later.
As they plunged back into the atmosphere, air began to actually burn against them with the speed of their passing. Soon, Teal could scarcely see through the haze of flames. She paid that little mind. Something about this was resonating within Vadrieny, and she lent the demon her mental support, emoting encouragement, acceptance. She sensed another transition in the offing, and sensed that it would be a final one. Vadrieny’s form far more closely matched the half-seen conception in her mind. There couldn’t be much more to change.
Teal’s dress, though reduced to rags by one thing and another now, didn’t burn. Somehow it was protected by her presence. That was new; Vadrieny’s changing form clearly brought gifts aside from the physical.
They descended in a column of flames. Almost as an afterthought, the demon shifted something in Teal’s eyes, enabling them to see through the fire. The flames rose up from within, matching those without and achieving equilibrium between them.
That was it.
As though sparked by the revelation, fire erupted from them, from hair and feathers, blazing from within their eyes.
Teal couldn’t see her form, but she felt it intimately. She knew what she looked like. Herself, a young woman, but augmented with burning wings, with a mane of fire, with wicked talons and claws, a mouthful of even, glossy fangs, eyes that were like gateways into the inferno of her spirit.
We are beautiful, Vadrieny corrected her.
They pulled sharply out of their dive, plunging into a valley between mountain peaks and rising again. Teal peered about, trying to orient herself. She didn’t know the landmarks very well, but she guessed they were in the Stalrange, far to the east of her home in Tiraas. And likely somewhat north; this range extended all the way up to Puna Dara.
There was air, now, though, and they had slowed and leveled enough that it wasn’t burning around them. She let out a whoop of sheer exultation, and then on impulse, turned it into a note.
Vadrieny lent her voice, and without any planned melody in mind, she sang. They sang.
Swooping in and around jagged peaks, diving through valleys, they sang for pure joy, for freedom, for power and victory, and finally being themselves. There was no tune, but there was harmony. It was all they needed.
They banked, beat their wings to slow, then plummeted forward once more, executing a completely unnecessary midair somersault before slamming talons-first onto a mountain ledge hard enough to crack the stone. Grinning with mad delight, they drew in a deep breath of the sweet, icy mountain air, preparing to unleash the full force of Vadrieny’s voice in an expression of untouchable joy.
They whirled, startled, as another figure careened out of the sky, skidding to an ungainly halt on the snow-dusted ledge. Even as she somewhat clumsily caught her balance, the woman was frantically waving her arms. “Stop! Don’t do it!”
“Uh…what?” Vadrieny tilted her head.
The new arrival was an elf in green woodfolk attire, and, unlike any elf Teal had ever seen, gold-rimmed spectacles. She irritably straightened her shirt, brushing snow from the sleeves as she landed, but didn’t seem bothered by the cold, which was intense. Elves, having relatively little muscle and almost no body fat, tended to avoid colder climates.
“Does the word avalanche mean anything to you?” the elf demanded, glaring at them. “You’ve got possibly the most powerful set of pipes of anybody alive. For the love of Omnu, don’t unleash them! People live in this mountain range!”
Teal froze, looking guiltily around at the snowy peaks.
“Yeah, didn’t think of that, did you?” The elf planted her fists on her hips. “I think you’ve already caused me enough trouble for one day, thanks. Tracking a person-sized target moving at speeds like that is damn near impossible; luckily I’m me, and you two are making a rather cosmic spectacle of yourselves.”
“Who, exactly, are you?” Vadrieny asked.
“My name is Arachne Tellwyrn.” One corner of her mouth rose in grim amusement at their expression. “Ah, got your attention now, have I? Splendid. Well, Vadrieny, Miss Falconer, I hope you realize you’ve gone and scared the Church officials who are keeping tabs on you good and proper. There’ll be consequences for that.”
“We… I didn’t hurt her, not really,” the demon said defensively.
“Her?” Tellwyrn’s eyebrows rose. “…what did you do?”
“You mean you’re not here about—”
“What did you do!”
“Just scared a smug bitch who was picking on Teal,” Vadrieny growled.
“Oh.” Tellwyrn visibly relaxed. “Pfft, is that all you were worried about? Please, your handlers knew something like that was bound to happen when they let you off the leash. I’m sure it’s already being taken care of. No, I’m referring to you having reassembled your true form, Vadrieny. Impressive as this is, you need to think about how it looks. You’ve gone from a warped, erratic thing to…” She waved expressively at them. “This. A picture of demonic power and glory. This is not going to make anyone happy.”
“Out of the frying pan, into the fire,” Teal said glumly. Somewhat to her surprise, Vadrieny spoke the words aloud, even using her precise inflection. This bond was eerie at times.
“For starters,” said Tellwyrn, “I’m going to recommend that you keep quiet and keep inside as much as possible. No one is likely to forget you’re in there, but Teal is a lot less threatening, and appearances count for more than most people in power like to admit. Aside from that, however, I think it’s time you started considering your future.”
“To begin with, the hope that you can have one, which at this point is far from certain.” She folded her arms, studying them thoughtfully. “I’m sure you’ve heard that I run a school. You’ll be old enough in a few years; I’d like you to attend.”
For a moment, demon and teenager were silent, studying the elf suspiciously while the wind howled around them. “What do you get out of that?” Vadrieny asked finally.
“Ah,” Tellwyrn said in a satisfied tone, smiling, “good. Very good. That is a question you need to think about carefully, every time it crosses your mind—and begin training yourself to think about it even when the matter is not immediately before you. The fact is, you two represent a massive, living challenge to the plans of just about everyone who has any. Quite apart from the incomparable destructive potential you represent, you’re a walking—and now, flying—challenge to huge swaths of established theology. People are going to try to use you, because people just can’t leave well enough alone. Everyone has an agenda. Don’t forget that for a moment.”
“Uh huh,” Vadrieny said, echoing Teal’s skepticism. “And what’s yours?”
Tellwyrn tilted her head to one side, studying them thoughtfully. “I am one of the most powerful beings in the world, and I’ve been in it for three thousand years. If I had any intention of running anything, I would be doing so. The fact is, I’ve got exactly what I want: my University. Trust is something laboriously earned, but with regard to my intentions, you can be assured based on simple logic that I’m not out to use you in some scheme of my own.
“I have a pet theory,” she continued. “Values vary by time and place; virtue is a matter of perspective; morality is almost entirely made up. Where people come to grief is when they don’t damn well think about the consequences of their actions. That is why I took up the mantle of educator: I look around at the world, and rather than any kind of evil, at the heart of every problem I can identify is some manner of stupidity. Someone, somewhere, has failed to think something through carefully and caused a ruckus. You two are a cataclysmic ruckus just waiting for an excuse. On the other hand… You have potential. Both of you. Learn to exercise some restraint and use those brains.”
“Like…for example… Getting rid of bullies without disemboweling them?”
“That’s an art unto itself, yes,” said Tellwyrn dryly, raising an eyebrow. “As is phrasing requests in a manner that doesn’t reveal too much about your intentions. We’ll work on that… Or can, anyway, if you choose.”
“You have a whole school to teach that?” the demon asked incredulously. “What even is that? Wisdom? Restraint?”
“Good qualities both,” Tellwyrn replied. “The University has a rigorous academic program in its own right, but yes, I would say our specific focus is on the fine art of not being a dumbass.” She smiled faintly. “And I invite students who most need to learn that art, both for their sakes and that of the world around them. There’s nobody else quite like you two, but you’re much less alone in the world than you may think. If nothing else, you’d be surrounded by people who have a lot in common with your perspective. That, alone, would do you a world of good.”
She sighed, shaking her head. “Look, it’s quite early yet. This is a couple of years sooner than I usually approach prospective students—those I don’t just wait to come to me. But as much of a show as you were putting on just now… Well, it seemed like a good time. My point is, you needn’t make a decision right this moment. Right now, in fact,” she added, “I think it would be wise for you to head straight home. Your parents are worried nearly out of their minds.”
Tellwyrn turned, strode to the edge of the rock outcropping, then paused, looking over her shoulder at them. “Think it over. Carefully…but not for too long. The world waits for no one.”
Then, with no flash or fanfare, she was simply gone.
Teal and Vadrieny stood there in silence for long minutes, staring at the spot where she had been, contemplating together and burning against the cold.