Chapter 5

“All right. You’re ready to do this?” Lorque looked Nilien over, as if somehow the state of her school uniform could indicate her emotional state.

“I do think I have to do it,” Nilien answered. She wasn’t sure she was ready, but she was sure she was doing it.

The rest of her first week week of classes had gone by without any incident of note. The tracking spell had stayed firmly attached to her back and she’d done her best to ignore it, although she did try not to wander off anywhere alone.

Classes remained difficult but, for the most part, enjoyable. She was getting better every day with her tiny magical tasks, and she was getting closer and closer to caught up in her non-magical classes, but it had been steady and exhausting work and she had spent hours each night reading up on homework and practicing her magic.

Setting herself out as bait was looking to be almost a reprieve from all of the school-work, something Nilien was not used to looking forward to. They’d decided that it was best to set up their prank on the weekend: both because Nilien’s workload made doing it on a weekday almost impossible, and because on the weekends, it would be more believable that Nilien was wandering around and less likely that there’d be people around Heldira’s room.

“All right, so you have an idea where you’re going to get ‘lost?’” Riva was nearly bouncing. “And you know how to get back from there if you have to?”

“I’ve got a pretty good idea,” Nilien allowed. “And if I do actually get lost, well, I have all day to find my way back.”

Let’s remember that this is not my fault this time, Ember added snidely. Or any other time that you get lost, real or make-believe, in this place.

“Yes, yes. It’s not your fault.” She patted Ember’s head. “It’s not going to be your fault, of course, and I’m not going to blame it on you. You have my word.”

Lorque and Riva, who had been hearing her side of this conversation all week, snickered in amusement. Ember glared between the two of them before butting its head into Nilien’s hand for petting.

I will go with you, to make certain that you are safe. As long as there will be none of that ridiculous blame.

“Thank you.” She didn’t think it was necessary to say, yet again, that she wasn’t going to blame the fox, but the look she got suggested otherwise. “As I said, you definitely have my word. If I am found, ‘lost’ or actually lost, I’ll say that I wasn’t paying attention, despite your advice, and got turned around, all right? Now can we go get faux-lost?”

Now we can go get faux-lost, yes. Thank you. Ember hopped down from the bed and scampered to the door. Well? Come on. We haven’t got all day.

Nilien waved good-bye to Lorque and Riva and headed down the hall. She’d considered going back upstairs by the teachers’ offices, but she’d been there enough times that she wasn’t sure anyone would believe she was lost. And since she had the stupid tracking spell, at the very least Heldira knew where she’d been.

Ember was still grumbling in her mind, but it had settled down to a few complaints now and then. Nilien did her best to ignore it – how did people with truly difficult familiars manage, she wondered. Did they end up feeling like they were constantly distracted?

Once outside, she started ambling in the opposite direction from the route Benoir had shown her. There was a stone path nearly lost under grass, one that clearly didn’t get much traffic at all, heading off at a sharp angle from the castle towards an open rotunda. She headed that way. The further she was from Heldira’s room, the better chance Lorque and Riva had of getting away with the prank without being caught.

Ember walked in front of her, paused to sniff a flower, wandered off at a right angle to the path for a few minutes, and came back towards her, angling so that somehow it was still in front of her. It repeated this a couple more times as they approached the rotunda, but its commentary on the grass, the state of the path, and the interesting flowers was far more pleasant than its complaining, so Nilien said nothing. They were supposed to be out on a weekend stroll, after all; it made sense that Ember was strolling.

The rotunda looked far less impressive up close than it had from a distance. Nilien noticed that it was still in decent shape, but it was barely big enough to hold two people, or a person and a medium-sized familiar, and vines had started creeping up over the foundation. Three more paths radiated from it, one towards the gate of the school, one off away from the gate, and one more heading even further away from the dormitory wing.

“Opinions?” she asked Ember.

This pavilion smells of… well, it smells interesting. But nobody’s been here in a while. Ember sat on the bench and looked haughty, as if imitating the small stone lions at front and back. I think we should wander further forward. You cannot be “lost” if you’re at the gate to the school, after all, and I do not like the way the other route smells.

Nilien wasn’t sure what Ember was smelling, but so far — grumpy or not — her familiar hadn’t led her astray. She walked forward, following the path, until it seemed to vanish under a thin layer of moss bracketed by broad, ancient trees.

“Are we even still on the school grounds?” She turned in a slow circle. That could be the path off to the left — or it could be over here, where a clearing was brushed in dappled sunlight.

Nilien turned around one more time. The path behind her was clear. It wouldn’t be all that hard to find her way back, not from this point.

“I haven’t seen a wall,” she murmured, mostly to Ember. “And we came in through a gate, right? So we’re probably still on the school property.”

There hasn’t been a wall, Ember agreed. So…?

“So onward, at least for a little while longer. The path was here at some point, right? And it’s been all straight lines up until now…”

Except this giant tree. I do not see a tree being part of a path.

“There’s a whole garden of magical plants. I can’t imagine a tree couldn’t grow up faster than we’d normally think possible – can you?”

Well, when you put it that way… Ember huffed a little and began walking around the tree. Well? Are you coming?

Nilien sighed at her familiar’s back and followed Ember around the tree.

There wasn’t so much a path there as there was the place where perhaps a path might have been at one point, but now Ember was in the lead, and Nilien let it pick a route. The trees were growing up thicker and taller to either side of their thin patch of smooth forest floor and as they moved further into the woods, the canopy blocked out more and more light.

This is a lovely place, Ember commented. Watch your step, there’s some roots in the way ahead.

The roots, which Ember picked its way over, were thick and gnarled and seemed to give lie to the thought that there had ever been a path here. Nilien stepped over them carefully and looked around.

She could still see their route behind them, although it looked darker than she remembered it being. To either side, the woods opened up a little bit; on the left, because a tree had fallen down some time ago, clearing a path in its wake; on the right, because there was a low round foundation of stones that had not yet entirely been swallowed by the forest. It looked like it might have been another rotunda, a very long time ago.

“Somebody had a fondness for decorative architecture,” she murmured. “Little garden buildings… this must’ve been quite a castle.”

And now this is a very nice forest. Ember hopped up onto the stonework and sniffed. This one only smells of the woods and of animals.

“There are definitely worse things to smell of.” She walked slowly around the clearing, looking for another path. “If the path led here…”

Hsst. Ember hushed her at exactly the moment Nilien heard the noise. A stick breaking, some leaves rustling. She looked at her familiar.

Ember was looking just past Nilien, sniffing. It’s not the one you were hoping to trap.

Nilien looked back at Ember. Who? she mouthed, uncertain if Ember would be able to understand her.

What do I look like? It smells like… well, nothing helpful. Like a human. Ember flicked its tail at Nilien in irritation. It is not the one who put the tracking spell on you. But it might have been following you.

Nilien bit her lip. She could try the “lost” line on someone else, but she was already likely to be getting a reputation as someone who had no sense of direction, in addition to being that oddity, a Wild Rune.

Whatever you do, do not blame it on me this time. Ember glared indignantly at her.

There was that problem, too. Ember could ruin a good act if it decided she was blaming it again.

Nilien scooped up Ember and hurried as quietly as she could away from the direction of the sound. If she hid, she wouldn’t have to explain anything at all, and she might learn something.

She found the biggest tree in the area and ducked behind it, holding Ember tight in her arms. The fox glared at her, but kept itself tucked in so its tail wouldn’t show from the other side of the tree.

Nilien held as still as she could and held her breath. She didn’t want to have hidden just to give herself away. Was the mystery person coming closer? Were they sneaking up on her; had they seen her despite her attempts to be sneaky? She couldn’t hear anything at all, no more sticks breaking, not even leaves rustling. Somewhere a long way away a bird was singing.

Was it Riva, who knew where she was going, just pulling a prank on her instead of on Heldira? She had to breathe. Nilien let her breath out as quietly as she could and took it back in just as quietly. Where was her unknown guest? Had she imagined the whole thing?

If Heldira wasn’t here, were Lorque and Riva getting in trouble?

A loud creak interrupted her worried. She looked around; nothing. Nobody was coming up on her. A crack like a gunshot followed the creak, making Nilien’s ears ring as she looked around in panic. What was going on?

Move! Ember barked. Nilien turned around. There was a tree falling right towards them and their hiding spot.

Nilien took off running. She clutched Ember to her chest and sprinted away, as fast as she could go through the woods.

She bounced off a bush and kept going, feeling the thorns tear into her shirt. Someone had – no, it had to be an accident, right?

She didn’t care, she kept running. She couldn’t see the clearing when she looked behind her; couldn’t see anyone coming after her. She had to keep running.

The tree landed with a loud thud and she kept running. Low-hanging branches were whipping against her face and the footing was uncertain, making her feet slip out from under her, but someone had just tried to drop a tree on her.

“I thought you said it wasn’t Heldira,” she gasped. There were three giant trees in front of her; she turned left and kept going.

I did. It wasn’t. That doesn’t mean that Heldira didn’t send someone. Slow down.

“Are you-” her lungs were burning. She gasped for air and kept going. “-crazy? Someone just dropped a tree on me! Or tried to!”

And now you’re shouting, crashing, telling them where we are. Slow down.

“They-” she whispered it this time “-there’s a tracking mark.” She stumbled, nearly dropped Ember, scooped it back up, and kept going.

You don’t know that they followed that. They could simply have followed you out from the school. Or been told where to go. So stay quiet.

“Okay, okay,” she hissed. She fell silent again, needing her breath for running. She was moving through the trees and bushes as quickly as she could, weighed down by a fox. There was someone after her! And they might know where she was, but if she was far enough away, they couldn’t drop another tree on her.

The crack of the tree falling and the thud of it landing were still echoing in her ears, louder than her heartbeat, which was pounding heavily. She was an active girl, but not in the habit of running from assassins, and Ember seemed to be trying to slip out of her arms, making every step harder.

She caught her toes on a root and went sprawling, Ember flying out of her arms. She landed hard, cracking her chin on another root and biting her tongue, her air all knocked out of her, and for a moment, she was seeing spots in front of her eyes and gasping for air.

Ember picked itself up from a berry bush and gave itself a shake. Get up, it suggested, and move quickly but walking away from here. That made quite a noise. Get up. Get up, are you all right? Its cold red nose nuzzled against her cheek. Get up?

Nilien caught her breath and pulled herself slowly to her feet. Her knees were scraped, and her left ankle felt as if there were knives poking into it.

She checked herself over quickly; other than the blood on her knees and the general disheveled state of her clothes, she seemed okay. There were a couple rips in her bloud and one in her skirt, her palms were chafed, and her ankle looked swollen already. But she was still alive.

“All right.” She whispered it, even though she couldn’t hear anyone around her. “I think… that we need to get back to school and find someone to tell about this.” She smoothed her hair, although she knew that was probably futile, and began walking. “Do you, ah, have any idea where we are?”

We are in the woods, Ember offered helpfully. We have still not found a wall. I did not see much of what we ran through, but at this point, away from where we were running seems still the best option.

Nilien appreciated that Ember said “we were running”, and that it wasn’t rubbing her nose in the fact that it had told her to slow down. “Are you okay?”

Nothing injured but my dignity. You, on the other hand, appear to need to learn healing spells and something to do with clothing repair.

Well, she hadn’t expected it to be entirely without sass.

“I noticed that, thank you.” She moved slowly, trying to put as little weight as possible on her injured ankle, picking her way through a forest that seemed much thicker than it had when she’d been running. “But I think I need to learn how to remove spells first, all things considered.”

That may be the first sensible thing you’ve said all day.

“Hey, the trap was your idea!” She was pretty sure she could see a break in the trees ahead of her.

Yes, and thus was not a sensible thing that you said, now was it?

“…No.” She glared down at the fox. Ember smirked back up at her.

You are not badly injured. I am glad. This could have gone much worse. The smug expression was gone, and Ember’s ears raked backwards. You could have been severely hurt. I think you should not be alone anymore.

Nilien scooped Ember up and hugged it close to her chest. “I wasn’t alone. I had you.” She took two more cautious steps and found herself out of the woods. The wall was to her right, and she could see the castle to her left. “Let’s go explain the situation to a teacher before someone comes up with a story about Wild Runes dancing in the thorn bushes in the forest.”

Even now that she knew where she was going and was on relatively smooth ground, Nilien found the walk very slow. Ember had wriggled down to the ground once they were in the sunlight, and now paced back and forth around Nilien in wide loops.

There is no scent of that person anywhere around here. Ember made “person” sound like the worst epithet it could hurl. There are many scents around here, of course, but they have not been here recently. It circled her again. Your ankle is swelling very unpleasantly.

“I noticed, thank you.” She gritted her teeth and kept walking. “It’s quite painful, too.”

It is far better than having been hit on the head with a tree. I wonder if there is a spell for stopping such things?

“I think I still need to get rid of tracking spells first.” She felt as if she were walking in thick treacle full of knives. At least Ember was still there, as obnoxious as the fox could be. “Although nobody needs a tracking spell to find me here.”

“Oh! It’s the Wild Rune!” The shout came from across the lawn; Nilien’s head whipped up and towards the noise, even as she scooped up Ember and got ready to run. “Hey!”

The peach-clad Thesri was heading towards her. “Oh hey, I would recognize you and that red fox anywhere. You really do stick out… what happened to you?” Thesri skidded to a halt an arm’s-length away. “You look an awful mess! You’re all scraped up, and your blouse is ripped – what happened?”

“I ran into a bit of trouble in the woods.” Nilien kept limping slowly towards the school; Thesri could keep up easily enough. “Ember and I were wandering, and someone dropped a tree on me.” She probably shouldn’t have said that, but it was out now. “Well, tried to. The tree dropped, but Ember and I got away.”

“Dropped a tree on you? What do you mean?” Thesri had no trouble at all pacing Nilien, and was wearing that faint frown again. “And what were you doing in the woods?”

“Well, I’d heard a lot about the gardens, and I saw a little rotunda out that way, so I went out there. And then there was a path…” Nilien shrugged. “There’s a lot of this place I haven’t seen before. But we heard someone in the woods, and then the tree was falling towards me.” She twitched a little. “So we ran.”

“But you didn’t see someone pushing the tree towards you? So it could have just fallen while you were there.” Thesri looked over Nilien again. “ If someone was actually trying to kill you, don’t you think they’d be more successful?”

“I’m glad they weren’t,” Nilien pointed out. “But it was only because Ember noticed the tree falling.”

“I’m glad they weren’t, too! Look, no matter what actually happened, you should see the teachers and get that ankle looked at. Do you need help getting into the school?”

Nilien tested her weight on her ankle and barely managed to stifle a gasp. “…Yes, please. If it’s not out of your way?”

“Oh, come on, I can help you. See, this is where the bigger familiars really come in handy.” Thesri whistled, a high-pitched series of notes that seemed to carry over the field. A moment later, a peach-hued mountain goat came trotting towards them. “It’s not big enough to carry you, but if you lean on Liltivere here and then I’ll support you on the other side.”

Liltivere sounded familiar, but it took Nilien a moment to place where: Mt. Liltivere, the tallest peak in the Empire. “You named your goat after a mountain?” Nilien smiled. “That’s beautiful.”

“Thank you. Yours is…?”

“Ember. It looks a bit like a coal, and I didn’t quite like ‘coal’ as a name.”

“I like it. Hello, Ember.”

Hello. Ember lowered its front half in a good approximation of a bow.

“Hello, Liltivere.” Nilien wasn’t sure she could manage a bow, but she nodded her head politely at the goat. It moved up next to her until she could lean her weight on its back.

Thesri moved around to the other side of her and wrapped an arm around her waist. “You got really messed up. All that from a tree?”

“Well, I ran away,” Nilien defended herself. “And I don’t know the woods very well.”

“Aah. Yeah, I blundered into a thorny berry bush that way once, ended up bleeding in stripes all over what was left of my uniform top. Well, you made it out, whatever happened.” Thesri smiled sympathetically. “Maybe bring friends next time you go wandering. Then, if you hurt yourself, they could help you. Not that I mind! But you made it all the way from the woods without anyone to help you – oh, come now.” The last was to Ember, who was glaring pointedly. “I’m sure you’re great for moral support, but that’s not really what she needs right now, now is it?”

And excuses, Ember muttered. Don’t forget excuses.

“Ember forgives you,” Nilien translated broadly. “And I really do appreciate the help.” Leaning on Liltivere made the moving easier, if no faster; she could put next to no weight on her sore ankle, which made everything feel less horrible.

“I’m glad. It’s no fun to have someone’s familiar mad at you. My roommate’s familiar kept trying to take chunks out of my clothes for my first year here. That was a mess until I got it worked out – and Ember probably has far sharper teeth than my roommate’s familiar.”

This one is clever, Ember agreed.

“Ember’s appeased.” This was a weird little dance, but Nilien was enjoying it. If only it wasn’t for the ankle, and the bruises, and the tree almost falling on her…

“So, who are you going to go see? Prospin is the head of the predator wing; if you really think someone is trying to hurt you, he’s probably a good place to start. Or one of the teachers you know from class?”

“I think…” Nilien considered for a minute. “Professor Vaudelle, please? She’s been very helpful.”

“Professor Vaudelle it is. It’s a longer walk,” Thesri warned. “Are you up to it? If I had to, I could go get her, but that leaves you sitting in a public place looking like you had an argument with a garden rake and lost.”

“Thank you,” Nilien responded as dryly as she could. “No, I think we should go all the way to her office. Like you said – anyplace else is just ripe for gossip.”

“Whereas I, at least, will wait until you are at the professor’s office before I begin to gossip. And, what’s more, I’m going to ask you what I should tell people – as long as you don’t go all stuffy on me again and say nothing.”

You might as well decide what’s going to be said, Ember advised. It may even aid in catching your attacker. Although I would suggest you stick to things that are at least mostly true.

Nilien sighed. “Ember says tell you,” she admitted. “So I suppose tell people I was out looking at the rotundas in the woods – did you know there’s a foundation of an old one out there? – and my familiar saved me from a falling tree. Then I got a little turned around and twisted my ankle, and you and Liltivere helped me back into the building.” She smiled crookedly. “And – when I find out anything else, I’ll tell you first, how’s that? After Lorque and Ember, of course.”

“Room-mates have to come first,” Thesri agreed solemnly. “So I get all the gossip?”

“You and Liltivere are really helping me out here,” Nilien pointed out. “This would take forever without you.” It was still taking a long time, but it wasn’t as tedious and horrible as she’d feared it might be. They were almost to Professor Vaudelle’s office.

“I’ll leave you here, then.” Thesri bowed politely. “And I look forward to hearing all about it.”

“As soon as I know something.”

* * * * *

“Nilien!” The professor hurried out of her office and held out her hand. “What happened?”

Nilien took the hand the professor offered and limped carefully into her office. “I had a bit of a run-in with a tree, professor. Ember and I were out in the forest; we wanted to coax out the person who put the tracking spells on me so Lorque and Riva could pull a counter-prank on her. I hope they’re fine, because it wasn’t her out in the forest.” She bit her lip. “Well, we were out there, and someone tried to knock a tree on top of me. I don’t know who it was, but it wasn’t Heldira. She’s the one we found,” she explained, “who put the tracking spells on me.”

“Spells?” The professor looked sharply at her. “Ah, I see. We really should get you healed and your clothing fixed, but I can get you started at least and get that tracking spell off of you. Now, you say someone knocked a tree on you?” She clucked as she walked around Nilien. “It didn’t actually fall on you, did it?”

“No.” Nilien shook her head. She didn’t think she could have survived, considering the size of the tree. “I would have had trouble getting out, from the looks of it and the sound it made when it fell. Ember saw it in time and warned me.” She petted Ember between the ears. Her familiar really had saved her life. Again. “We’d heard someone coming, but never saw them. Then I started running – because of the tree falling on me – and…” She swallowed, surprised to find she was nearly crying. “I was running too fast. Ember told me to slow down, but I was so scared.“ She took a couple ragged breaths. “I didn’t know who I should go to, but you know about the tracking spells…”

“Well, I am good at those,” Vaudelle admitted. “At getting rid of them and finding them, at least. I did warn you to be careful, though.” She shook her head, though she was still smiling. “Ah, well, I’ve gotten into worse messes than yours.”

“It was just another student,” Nilien pointed out. “So I thought that they probably were just trying to get me distressed, maybe get me lost again. And I thought that if we pulled a prank back on Heldira, then she might be more likely to leave me alone in the future.”

“Aah. But she sent someone else, instead.” Professor Vaudelle shook her head. “You probably shouldn’t be wandering off of the castle grounds. Out there, it’s not as well-maintained, as you noticed. Now, let me see.” She stared at Nilien’s ankle for a moment. “That’s not a lot – I’m not all that good at healing spells – but it will help you walk enough to get to someone who can help you a little bit more. Be careful with yourself,” she tutted. “Especially if you’re going to be pulling your own pranks!”

“Thank you, Professor.” Nilien bowed her head. “I’ll try to be more careful in the future.”

“Let me take you down to the school doctor. You shouldn’t be walking too much on that ankle, even with a little repair work, and your familiar isn’t big enough to be much help, any more than mine is.” She flapped her hand at Ember. “Don’t glare at me like that, you. You’re a perfectly good familiar, I’m sure, and if you got her away from that tree, well, good for you. That’s being a very good familiar. Still doesn’t mean you can carry her.”

Ember looked away, muttering incoherently in Nilien’s mind. Nilien, in turn, stifled a giggle.

“I appreciate it, Professor. Thesri helped me get over here, but it was slow going.”

“I can imagine. Your ankle looks pretty banged up.” The professor offered Nilien an arm, and Nilien took it, trying not to lean too heavily on her. “We don’t have too far to go, though. Just down the hall and around the corner.” The professor smiled playfully down at Nilien. “We like our students to be able to find the doctor, and to be able to find their way back from the doctor when they’re done.”

Nilien smiled cautiously back at the professor. “That seems like a good thing, especially considering how easy it is to get lost around – oh, dear. Lorque and Riva.” She put her free hand over her face. “Ember? Could you go stop them, please?”

Now I’m your errand fox?

“Please? I don’t want them to get into any trouble because of me, although it’s been a long time…”

All right, all right. Ember shook its head. There’s no need for the sad face and the whimpering voice. I’ll go. It nodded at the professor and darted off through the halls.

“They’re good friends, to help you with this, even it if might not have been the best plan.” Professor Vaudelle watched Ember dart off. “I hope your familiar can warn them.”

“Me, too.” Nilien limped slowly along. Her ankle was feeling less horrible, but it still hurt to put weight on it. “We really thought Heldira would come after me. I mean, why put on a tracking spell…”

“Perhaps she had some reason to believe she should send someone else, instead. Or perhaps she simply had other things to do today. That does happen, you know.” Professor Vaudelle chuckled. “Once, when I was in school, I set up this very elaborate trap for another classmate – and then when the time came to pull it, I found I had forgotten all about it, engrossed in,” she cleared her throat, “a quite interesting book. The trap went off but it didn’t go quite right, and it was quite a mess, but nobody ever tied it back to me.”

“You got away with it?”

“That and quite a few other things, back in my day. But that was a long time ago, and very few of the teachers are still here, thankfully. And here’s Dr. Alaroq‘s office.” Professor Vaudelle patted her arm. “You’ll be quite good at the sight, you know, once you have time to have some practice. I’d hate to see you get into too much trouble.”

Dr. Alaroq took one look at Nilian and responded with a head-shake and a long-suffering sigh. “Don’t tell me. The woods?”

“Yes?” Nilien ducked her head, suddenly feeling guilty.

“I would say we should put up a wall, but then nobody would ever learn anything from falling over. Thank you, Vaudelle.” The doctor nodded politely at Professor Vaudelle. “I won’t let her go running over any more wild terrain for the next few minutes, at least.”

“Good of you, Alaroq.” Vaudelle bowed to the doctor, somehow making it seem a little sarcastic, and then nodded at Nilien. “Come on back if you need any more help. Don’t forget that.”

“I won’t. Thank you. Thank you for all of it, professor.”

“Think nothing of it. I enjoy my job, dear.” She patted Nilien on the shoulder and breezed off, leaving her with the doctor.

“Hop up here on this table and let me see. Well, hrmm. I see Vaudelle did a little on that ankle. That’s a good start, and we’ll want to clean all those scrapes. If you are going to go running through the woods, you should do so in something a little more appropriate for it, and, oh, look at your hands. Gloves.” Dr. Alaroq winked at Nilien. “Everyone gets a little beat up in that woods at least once, you know, at least the adventurous ones, and you strike me as adventurous.”

“Because I’m a Wild Rune?” She didn’t mean to sound sour about it, but Nilien knew she didn’t exactly sound cheerful, either. Something about the doctor’s voice sounded familiar. Where had she heard it before?

“Getting a lot of that, are you? I’m not surprised. No, not because of your Wild status, and not because you’re already in here with a twisted ankle and scraped-up knees. Hold on, I’ve got something for you.” The doctor turned to a row of jars and pulled out two purple leaves the size of her palm and three long greenish leaves. “Magic can’t fix everything, but what it can’t, magic plants can sometimes supplement – what?”

Nilien coughed. “Magic plants, Doctor?” That was where she’d heard the doctor’s voice before! In the garden, with Benoir!

“Oh, there’s quite a few. Here.” The two purple leaves went on to Nilien’s knees, where they slowly seemed to sink into the skin, leaving behind a tingly feeling. “Those will heal over the course of about a day. If you have anything left that’s worrisome – trouble moving the knees, bleeding, anything like that – come on back. Do try not to scrape yourself up again before they’re healed, though. And these-” The doctor wrapped the long leaves around Nilien’s ankle. Immediately, the throbbing pain subsided. “Be careful – no running any sprints or anything like that for the next week. Ah, here’s your familiar.”

Ember was licking its lips. Crickets, it informed her, are crunchy. Not bad, for a snack.

“You found them?”

I found many crickets. They escaped before they could be placed anywhere. For the best, all things considered. Except that there were crickets to be gathered.

Nilien slipped carefully off the table, testing her weight on her feet. The pain had settled in to a very dull ache that could be ignored with impunity.

“Be careful on that ankle,” Dr. Alaroq reiterated, “and come back if you feel any new symptoms. In the meantime, do try to stick to a walk when wandering places you’re not supposed to be.”

“Yes, Doctor.” Nilien smiled at the doctor and then looked down at Ember. “Where’s Lorque?”

Back in the room, being irritated about crickets. She does not like crickets. Ember licked its lips again.

“Well, I suppose we should’ve come up with something else then. Thank you, Doctor.” She scooped Ember up and began walking carefully back towards her room.

“They didn’t get caught?” she whispered to Ember, when they were out of earshot of the doctor’s office.

No. They did not get to a situation where they would get caught. They are irked and want to know what happened.

“I don’t blame them! Thank you for warning them.” She shifted her hands enough to pet the top of Ember’s head.

There were crickets. Ember seemed to think that was thanks enough.

“So you’ve said.” The halls back were getting easier and easier to navigate, and her ankle seemed to be doing decently at holding her weight. It still throbbed occasionally, but the pain seemed to be subsiding.

There should be crickets more often? Ember twisted to look up at her with the most ridiculously adorable look.

“I’ll see what I can – oh!” She stopped as she turned a corner and nearly ran into Chason. “Oh, hello!”

“Hello.” He smiled brightly at her, but the smile faded quickly as he got a good look at her. “What happened?”

“I was out in the woods,” she admitted, “and I got spooked by a falling tree.” It was the truth… wasn’t it? “And then I fell down and, well, I’m a mess.”

“I see you’ve been to see the doctor, though. Your roommate said you were probably on your way back from something like that. The leaves are really good – just let them stay on until they vanish or fall off, and they help a lot.”

“Magical plant medicine.” Nilien shook her head. “It’s pretty amazing.” She looked down at her ankle. “It’s actually stopped most of the pain, too.”

“Dr. Alaroq is really good with that sort of thing. Oh, this is why I was looking for you. It’s rough, but it ought to get you started, at least.” He thrust out a folded piece of paper.

“What-?” Nilien put down Ember so she could take it from him. Unfolded, it proved to be a rough map of the school. “Oh! Oh, this is wonderful, thank you!” She glanced around and then looked at the map. “And here, I can find myself…. here, right?”

“That’s right! Do you want me to walk you back to your dorm, just in case?”

Nilien wanted to think that the walk to the dorm would be safe, but even though nobody else seemed to believe her, her life seemed increasingly dangerous. “I – yes. I’d like that, please, if it’s not any trouble.”

“Not any trouble at all!” He grinned brightly at her. “And besides, you can navigate by my map, and I can see if it make any sense.”

“Oh.” Nilien found herself smiling. “I see. It’s a test. Well, Professor Chason, let’s see how I do on this quiz, shall we?”

She looked down at the map again, her smile growing into a grin. “Let’s see. So… here, we turn left.”

“Very good, Nilien.” Chason put on a very fake-deep voice. “And then?”

“Well, Professor Chason, we have to get there first. Which will take a bit, as, you see, I’ve got a note from my doctor…”

“Ha. Well then, let’s get to the next intersection.”

They managed to get back to her room that way, moving far more quickly and with less pain than she’d gotten to Professor Vaudelle’s office, making classroom jokes the entire time. “Very good,” Chason said, as they reached her hallway. “Show your work, Nilien?”

“Well, here’s the hallway with those carvings, and here’s my door.” She grinned up at him. “Thank you. I really appreciate it.”

“Not a problem. Come find me any time you need help getting somewhere – that’s my dorm there, marked on the map.” He pointed it out. “You’ll be fine, though. And I’m glad my scribbles can be helpful.”

“Me, too. Well, I should go tell my roommate what happened – Ember said she was worried…”

“Of course.” He bowed playfully. “I’ll see you later, then.”

Lorque and Riva were waiting for her in the room, both of them looking worried. “Nilien! Nilien, what happened? Ember – well, mimed that you’d fallen over.”

“Well, a tree almost fell on me, and someone was in the woods. Not Heldira, though. Someone Ember didn’t recognize the smell of.” Everything she was wearing was ripped or bloody or both. Since she didn’t think she’d want to stand up again if she sat down, she made her way to the dresser while she talked. “We were in the woods, wandering around waiting to see if Heldira found me, and someone broke a tree so that it nearly landed on me. Ember noticed in time for me to get out—” She would keep telling people that until the fox forgave her for saying that it had gotten her lost “—and then I went running. I fell and got all scraped up, though. Then Thesri and Liltivere helped me back to Professor Vaudelle’s office. What about you guys?”

“Well, we had everything ready to go, and then something happened.” Riva glared at her otter. “And the box opened. There were a couple crickets out, and while we were trying to catch them, well, the whole thing fell over and there were crickets everywhere, all the way down the hall and up the stairs…” Her familiar at least had the grace to look abashed. “So we were still picking up crickets when Ember came to us… What is it?”

Nilien was staring at her drawer of underclothes. She’d put the mysterious pendant there when she unpacked, figuring it was the place where it was least likely to cause questions. But now…

“It’s gone,” she muttered. “The pendant. It’s gone.”

END CHAPTER FIVE

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