7.8

“Maybe they used a lamp, although playing marbles by gas-lamp seems like it would be stranger than this room is to start with.” Lorque delved back into the corners, but she could only explore the dusty room for so long before she circled back to Nilien once again. “So what are we going to do?”

“I’m doing my homework and wondering what this room was used for. I mean, who makes a supply closet secret?”

“Well, you said the magic garden was a secret passage, right? Maybe this is where they stored everything from the magic garden, once upon a time. Besides, that’s not what I meant, and you know it. What are we going to do about Heldira?”

Bite her, Ember suggested. And get someone who is big and tough-skinned to bite that awful familiar.

“Ember suggests violence. I don’t think it likes her familiar much, and I don’t say I blame it. But, well…” Nilien frowned. “Literal biting probably won’t solve anything; it’ll probably just start a rumor that Wild Runes have rabies. And then on top of Heldira trying to kill me – or whoever it is, if it isn’t her – then someone would be trying to put me down before I gave the school rabies. All in all, not a good idea.” She gave Ember a stern look.

Ember looked unrepentant. I do not have rabies. Nobody would say that I have rabies. I am far too well-behaved for that, even if I do bite someone.

“No biting anyone,” Lorque interjected, guessing or correctly interpreting Ember’s expression. “Especially not without proof. So, well, what about Chason? If he’s not in on it, then we ought to ask him to see if he can help us with Heldira. And if he is and he gets offended when you ask about it, well, you’re probably better off without someone who’s trying to kill you hanging around. His map hasn’t mysteriously led you somewhere deadly yet, has it? Or skipped a passage that could be useful?”

“No.” Nilien wasn’t sure if she was amused or irritated, but she smiled anyway. “No, the map’s been great. I think he’s probably in the clear.”

“Then if he is, maybe he can help us handle Heldira. I think you should go ask him. And I think I should see about learning some sort of dust-removal spell, or just bring a very big bucket of water down here. This will make a much-better hideout if we’re not smeared with dirt every time we leave.”

“I’ll ask him,” Nilien agreed. She hadn’t been aware it was their hideout until Lorque mentioned it, but she found that she liked the idea.

7.7

Lorque brought her copy of Chason’s map, which was quickly growing full of notes and annotations. Nilien felt like she was in some sort of mystery story, sneaking through the halls trying to look ordinary.

Because of that, and because of the notes they were making on the map, they took longer than they might have, stopping to chat about trivial things whenever someone passed them and making hurried notes on anything Chason’s map didn’t already have on it.

They got to the passageway in due time. “Benoir says,” Nilien whispered, “the trick is to not look like you’re sneaking snacks.” They slipped into the room, which still smelled very much like a food storage room.

“I can’t imagine why he’d be suspected of that here,” Lorque muttered sarcastically. “There’s so many other reasons for a student to be in a supply room.”

“Well, I suppose they could be making murderous plans or coming up with some sort of prank,” Nilien pointed out cheerfully.

Are there things to eat here? Ember nuzzled her leg. Or a passage? Or shall we stand and talk until we’re found and haven’t even snuck a snack for our trouble?

“Ember says we should get on with it.” Nilien slipped over to the door and reached for the switch. “It’s right under… here. Pocket torch?”

“Here we go.” Lorque shone the light down the stairs. “Oh, this is creepy.” She sounded delighted. “What’s down there?”

“Well, go on down. I’m right behind you.” Nilien pulled the door shut behind them and made her way slowly down the stairs, Ember bumping against her ankles and knees at inappropriate moments.

“This could be so neat!” Lorque started poking around immediately. “I mean, it needs some proper light, of course, and a very thorough cleaning, but it could be a great place to hide out.”

Nilien sat down on the stairs with her homework and Lorque’s second pocket torch. There was something delightful, she had to admit, about even just doing one’s homework in a secret room. They could be caught! They could get in trouble!

Getting in trouble seemed far more thrilling than worrisome when there were people trying to kill her. She wrote her notes, pretending she was hiding out from some angry creature that was right at the door, while Lorque poked around in the corners of the room.

“Oh, these jars are pretty vile,” Lorque called out, and, a few minutes later, “does anyone still use pens like this? I think my grandfather had one.” Several minutes after that, she said, with some surprise, “marbles! I can’t imagine some child down here playing marbles, can you? It’s so dark…”

Marbles, Nilien almost wrote in her homework, and laughed. “Maybe they had a lamp?”

7.6

“I don’t know what I was expecting,” Nilien muttered at Ember. “Nobody believes me. None of the adults,” she clarified. “You have been wonderful.” Ember seemed to be easier to handle the more praise Nilien heaped on, so she figured she’d keep piling it on until it got her bitten.

They​ will believe you when they need to believe you. Ember brushed against her legs. You have done what you needed to. Now, they need to make their decisions and you need to focus on yourself. Do boring homework. Brush me. Important matters.

Nilien giggled and opened the door to her room. “I can do that.”

“Do what? How did it go?”. Lorque looked up from her textbook, eagerly pushing it aside. “Did Professor Vaudelle have any good advice?”

“’Don’t worry,’” Nilien recited. “’Go back to your room and work on homework.’” She made a face. “And I really do have a lot to of homework to do. So I guess that’s​ what I’m doing.” She flopped down on her bed and pulled out her mathematics textbook and notes. “They looked at the letter. They’ve seen the tracking spells. As Ember says, there’s nothing more I can do.”

“So you’re going to do homework? Oh, come on, Nilien, you still haven’t shown me the secret room. And you’re just going to sit here and work on your homework?”

“I really do have a lot of it to do,” Nilien protested. “I’m finally caught up; I don’t want to fall behind in anything again.”

“You can take your homework with you, can’t you? I mean, there’s no rule that you have to do your homework in the most boring manner possible.”

I have not yet seen this secret room, Ember put in.

“Fine,” Nilien sighed. “I am out-voted, unless River has a vote for staying here and being boring and safe?”

River looked up and gave Nilien a disgruntled look.

“I take it that’s a no?”

“River says that there is absolutely no reason to disagree with me, especially when you are being boring.” Lorque nodded as if that settled everything. “So will you?”

“I suppose I will. Let me pack up some books. Do you have a pocket torch?”

“Of course I do! Three of them.” Lorque pulled one out of her dresser. “My younger brother gives them to me as gifts. One every year. And since I don’t use them all that much…”

“Handy.” Nilien shouldered her book-bag. “If you bring your copy of the map, we can make notes on the way.”

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…”

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.