Chapter One: Arrival
Rhysel dragged herself the mile's walk back to her tower on foot. She was too weary to fly. Even in a crisis, most of her neighbors were too skittish about magic to let her tap them for energy. After a crisis, there was no chance of it, especially when she hadn't gotten there in time to save everyone and they were feeling more grief than gratitude. She pulled energy out of the earth where she set her feet. Sleep - and then an enormous breakfast - would be the only complete solution to her fatigue.
Past her threshold, she let her satchel slide off her shoulder and fall half-open onto the floor. She took a look at the steep staircase that spiraled up the inner wall of her tower, which had no banister. Then she collapsed on her couch, instead.
She was almost certain that the sole casualty had been dead before the messenger had even arrived at her door to tell her about the collapse. She couldn't have saved him. Almost certain.
Eventually exhaustion won over the sliver of remaining uncertainty, and Rhysel slept.
When Rhysel woke up, her first thought was that she had to have fallen off the sofa and onto the floor, which would explain why she was no longer on a cushioned surface. She didn't feel like she'd gotten a full night's sleep, though bright sun was plain even through her closed eyelids. With a yawn, she sat up and looked around.
She was on the floor.
She was not in her tower.
Standing over her were two girls (she judged them fourteen and twelve), one a blonde elf and one a darker human. They looked at her like she was somehow fascinating - what could be fascinating about a sleepy halfblood in yesterday's clothes, Rhysel didn't know, except possibly whatever had brought her to this place to begin with. After a moment, they turned towards each other and started jabbering rapidly over one another in a language Rhysel didn't recognize.
The room had an institutional character - beige walls, wood floor, a window in one wall and a door in the other, matching pairs of beds and desks and shelves. "Excuse me," said Rhysel, rubbing at her eye with one fist, "where am I and how did I get here?"
The girls looked at her again, and then chattered a few more sentences back at each other. The elf started running her finger along the spines of books on the nearest shelf, humming to herself. "No Martisen?" Rhysel inquired. "Do you speak Eashiri? Trollspeak?" she added when that didn't elicit a different reaction, though her Trollspeak was barely passable.
The human girl held up a hand in an unfamiliar gesture and said another word. Rhysel thought for a moment that she'd have done better to learn mind magic than elemental; then she'd have a hope of figuring out what the girls were trying communicate.
Rhysel hauled herself to her feet, glad that she hadn't mustered the impetus to change into nightclothes the prior night. She tried to take a step towards the bookshelf the blonde was scanning, to check if she recognized any of the letters in the titles, but found her progress blocked by an invisible wall that left a stinging spot on her forehead.
"Wha-" Cautiously, she felt the barrier with her hand. It had no texture and no temperature: it just stopped her palm from pressing beyond it. She was starting to suspect that the girls were responsible for having brought her in - which was surprising, since at their ages they couldn't have been studying magic for more than three years between them. They didn't look threatening. The wall was the first thing to make her feel afraid: if she couldn't get out of the room and onto open ground, she couldn't find a transfer point, or even make one of her own, in which case she'd have a much harder time getting home.
On the floor, running along the curve of the wall, was a pair of concentric circles in red chalk. Between them was a ring of bewildering symbols, a couple of which resembled Martisen letters but most likely out of sheer coincidence. "Look, this isn't funny. Let me out of here." She knocked, carefully, on the barrier, which didn't make any sound. "...Eryn, if this is one of your pranks..." Waking her up in an imaginary dormitory with illusory children who didn't speak any of the major languages wasn't her blood sister's style, exactly, but Eryn was the most likely culprit for any such thing. Then again, maybe it wasn't anything so innocuous as a prank.
The blonde found the book she was looking for and plucked it from the shelf, then flipped through it. It was square, not the long rectangle book shape Rhysel was used to. The elf muttered something to the human, who nodded and repeated the gesture to Rhysel she'd made before.
Rhysel folded her arms and waited, frowning at the girls. After a few moments, the blonde found the page she'd been looking for, studied it, and then set down the volume to trace a shape in the air with one hand and utter more nonsense.
"Can you understand us now?" the brown-skinned girl inquired eagerly, leaning towards Rhysel but not getting too close to the transparent wall.
"Yes," said Rhysel. "Now: tell me what's going on. How did I get here? Where is here?"
"Me and Korulen summoned you!" exclaimed the human gleefully, clapping her hands together.
"You're in our room," added the elf, "in our school. We only need you for a little while and then we can unsummon you." Then she bit her lip. "Uh, Saasnil, better go get Nemaar soon. My mom just pinged me again and she's going to start getting curious about why I'm not answering in a degree."
"Okay," Saasnil agreed, and she started for the door before Rhysel could ask if she might be let out of her cylindrical prison. When she pulled it open, there was an elven man standing in her way, hand poised to knock; lines on his face made Rhysel place him at nine centuries, if not older. "Uh," said Saasnil, turning her head to look at Rhysel as though contemplating hiding her under a comforter. "...Hi, Aar Inular."
"Daddy," said Korulen with a sheepish expression, folding her hands behind her back. On inspection, she and the man did look very similar.
"Korulen," said Aar Inular, "what have you done?"
"It was only going to be for a few degrees," Korulen said defensively. "Nemaar was being a brat and we were going to prove that we could -"
"Excuse me, sir," Rhysel interrupted, raising her voice. "If you need to discipline them, that's fine, but can you do it after I am let free and shown to a transfer point?"
Aar Inular met Rhysel's eyes. "Just one moment, please. I'm sorry about this," he said, and then, after looking over the symbols in the circle at her feet, he faced his daughter again. "Korulen, that circle looks to me like a five-hundred-fifty-unit spell. You didn't cast that alone."
"No, we did it together," Korulen replied. "Saasnil learned to co-cast last term, it was perfectly safe -"
"Saasnil's casting abilities are not the problem," said Aar Inular gravely. "Nor is the primary problem that you have summoned an outworlder without any regard to the protocols on how to do that ethically. The problem is that you can't co-cast a reversal."
"Oh," squeaked Korulen, paling. "Then - then -"
"I don't understand," said Saasnil.
"Nor do I," said Rhysel. "And frankly I'd be willing to skip figuring it out if it let me get home sooner. I'm starving, I have a funeral to attend, I never put in for leave and someone could drop by my tower any moment needing help..."
Aar Inular inhaled deeply, and turned back to Rhysel. "They can't reverse your summoning spell," he said. "The upshot of which is..."
"You can't go home," whispered Korulen, wide-eyed with guilt.
Everyone talked over each other, Saasnil shrieking that she didn't want to be expelled and Korulen babbling something about a familiar and Aar Inular attempting to calm both girls down while Rhysel got halfway through another demand that she be let free. She clamped her mouth down after the fourth word, though, sure no one could hear her.
"Stop, both of you," snapped Aar Inular, finally quieting both children. "Shouting at me won't help anything." He looked up at Rhysel, who was a couple of inches taller than him. "What is your name?" he inquired.
"Rhysel Camlenn," she replied. "And you're... Ahr Inular?" She couldn't quite produce the throaty, drawn-out ah that the girls had used when addressing him.
"The 'Aar' is a title; you can call me Kanaat," he invited. "My wife will be here in just a short time; she has some other things to take care of before she can get away, but once she's arrived, she'll be able to confirm that you're not hazardous and then we can at least let you out of the circle."
"That would be appreciated, yes," Rhysel sighed, aiming for dry wit but missing the mark. She touched the wall again; it was a novel sensation, if nothing else, to watch her fingers slide over nothing, without resistance in any direction but outward. "I'm not going to hurt anyone - well, barring self-defense - but I don't understand why you're saying I can't go home. Can't you just show me to a transfer point? I can travel the rest of the way myself; I'm a kama." If she wasn't home in time for the funeral for the one she hadn't saved, she'd just be failing the lost man over again.
"What's a transfer point?" asked Saasnil.
"You're not in your world," Korulen murmured. "Some of your magic might work, but I don't think you have the power to unsummon yourself."
"I'm... are you saying you got me from my tower to another world?" exclaimed Rhysel, starting to feel a little faint. No kama had the power to pull objects or people from planet to planet. None she'd ever heard of, anyway. If distant worlds also harbored kyma who had learned more than her colleagues had... "Then... then you're right, even if I made a transfer point, it wouldn't work." Contiguous solid ground was required (even if some of it was underwater). One could transfer from any land-based point on Barashi to any other, with a couple of exceptions on floating islands too small to bother with anyway, but if this wasn't Barashi she was stuck unless the locals could send her home.
"I'm sorry," said Korulen desperately. "Daddy, could someone break the summon...?"
"It's worth a try, I suppose," said Kanaat, but he didn't sound hopeful. "Aar Kithen is skilled with breaks and we could try your uncle - but co-castings are vastly more difficult to break than ordinary spells. Korulen, we'll put you in a breakings class early, next term, and you can try it yourself, possibly to better effect than someone else, but some people simply aren't any good at it. If you can't pull it off we'll have to accelerate Saasnil too."
"Okay..." Rhysel's brain caught up with the statement that some of her magic might work, and she quickly conjured a globe of red handfire to float in front of her. The energy she'd recovered with sleep was more than enough for the task, though she was still hungry. The magic responded normally to her will.
"What's that?" Saasnil asked, staring at the heatlessly burning ball of light.
"Handfire," Rhysel said shortly. "So that works... there's a limit to what I can try, in this circle."
"Keo will be here..." began Kanaat, and then beside him appeared (instantly, as though by transfer, though that was impossible on a wood floor) a young human woman with sea-green hair. Rhysel blinked to see that the newcomer's eyebrows, too, were green - it was either the work of magic or a very thorough dye job. "Now," he finished.
"Hello, Rhysel," said the green-haired woman, presumably Kanaat's wife Keo. Rhysel wasn't clear on how Keo knew her name, but supposed some magic was going on invisibly and filed the question away to ask later. "I apologize on our daughter's and student's behalves. She never should have summoned you without your permission. But as long as you're an unknown quantity, we can't take you out of the ward without making sure it's safe. Do you object if I do a quick, minimally-invasive scan of your mind? You won't feel it and I won't alter a thing, I'll just look," Keo promised.
Rhysel shifted uncomfortably, but after thinking about it for a moment she didn't have much choice and it didn't sound that different from what mind kyma did all the time, to speed up conversations or detect hostility. She'd had kamai-augmented conversations herself, albeit usually with her Master or other people she knew and trusted. "Fine," she said.
Keo closed her eyes, but only for the duration of a slow blink. Then she stepped forward and, with the toe of her sandal, smudged a gap in the outer ring of red chalk.
Rhysel put her arm in front of her to confirm that the barrier was gone, and then walked out of the circle. "You're a mind kama?" she asked the green-haired woman.
"Mmm... no, but close," Keo said. "Why don't you and I and Kanaat go to his office to talk? It will be more comfortable than a dorm room. We will deal with the girls later. After they have turned over their summoning chalk, of course." Keo held out her hand in Korulen's direction without looking at the young elf, who hunched her shoulders guiltily and pulled out a stick of red chalk from under the corner of her bedspread. She put it in her mother's hand, and Keo tucked the chalk into a pocket of her dress, still looking pleasantly at Rhysel.
"All right," said Rhysel. Her stomach growled, and she added, "I could really use breakfast. I had a very draining evening, yesterday."
"I-I can get you something," volunteered Korulen shakily, "and bring it to you in Daddy's office. What do you eat?"
"Just about anything," Rhysel said. Then, thinking of some of the weirder restaurants she'd encountered, she amended that to, "Well, I don't know what passes for normal here, but..."
"I'll just get a bunch of different things," Korulen said, and then she ducked around her parents and fled the room. Saasnil appeared to cast about for something helpful to do. Coming up with nothing, she sat on her bed and tucked her feet under her, looking apologetically at Rhysel.
"This way," said Keo, and Rhysel followed the couple out of the office.
The hallway on which Korulen and Saasnil's room was located had twenty idiosyncratically-decorated similar rooms on either side of the corridor, a window at one end, and an unadorned door at the other. Keo and Kanaat ushered Rhysel towards that door, which opened to a cramped little room lacking other exits. "This is called a lift," Keo explained. "It'll take us anywhere in the school. In this case..." She closed the door behind her, and then said, "Headmaster's office!" in a clear voice.
The little room fell - well, it didn't fall, but it descended, a little more rapidly than Rhysel would have expected even if Keo had warned her that it was going to do that. A moment later, it lurched to the right, then traveled backwards, then rose farther than it had fallen. "They take a little getting used to," Keo said, seeing the unsettled expression on Rhysel's face.
"I can imagine," Rhysel said. "I used to cliff-dive, I still fly regularly, but..."
"It's better than the stairs," said Keo. The lift shuddered to a stop, and the door swung open of its own accord to reveal Kanaat's office. The desk, arrayed with overlapping square papers, was shaped like a half-ring, and the walls were completely occupied by bookshelves, except for the one that was a single pane of glass open to a green prairie beyond. The three of them stepped out of the lift, which shut itself once Rhysel's foot was clear.
Keo pulled up two chairs from the corner of the room and Kanaat went to sit behind his desk. After Rhysel had sat down, Keo opposite her, Keo said, "So. I can summarize everything from the top, or you could ask questions and get info in whatever order you prefer - I'm sure this is really confusing."
"Very. I'm somewhat expecting to go into shock," Rhysel said, shaking her head. "I don't know why I'm still so calm at this point. Before I realized... how far away this is, I thought it was just an inconvenience. A couple of irresponsible young kyma playing with magic too advanced for them... speaking of which, everything that you all have said about magic since I arrived has gone completely over my head. It must be very different here."
Keo's mouth quirked up on one side. "More so than you're thinking. Korulen and Saasnil aren't kyma. We don't technically have kyma - we have a lot of different kinds of magic. The kind that brought you here is called 'wizardry'."
Whatever magic Korulen had done to make Rhysel able to communicate with the others failed to capture this last word, which came through with more of the unfamiliar long aas that were characteristic of the local language.
Keo went on: "The kind that's keeping you calm right now - which I will stop if you ask me to, but I don't recommend that - is called 'empathy'. There are more, but those are the relevant ones for right now."
"And this is... not kamai?" asked Rhysel.
"Uh, what do you speak besides what you've been speaking? Maybe there's another language that has the needed vocabulary," said Keo.
"Eashiri and a little Trollspeak," said Rhysel.
Keo paused, then said, "Hang on, I'm getting Korulen to undo your current translation spell. We'll put another one on after having this conversation, but I can speak all the languages you can and it'll be easier without the spell in my way."
"She can do that from however far away?" asked Rhysel.
Keo nodded. "You heard Kanaat talking about reversals earlier - that's basically doing a spell backwards, to undo its effects. Normally, someone who'd been summoned would be sent back that way. The problem is that Korulen and Saasnil cast the spell together. Neither one has the capacity to cast that specific one on her own. But you can't undo a spell cooperatively, and it takes as much capacity to undo one as it does to cast it in the first place."
"And there's no other way to send me home?" Rhysel asked.
"There are ways," Keo said. "You aren't stuck here forever. But the ways to unsummon you are all long shots, take a long time, or both. One possibility is that someone breaks the spell. This is hard under the best of circumstances, harder when breaking a spell someone else cast, and absurdly difficult when it's a co-cast spell, but when Aar Kithen's done with his class I'll call him in here and ask him to try - breaks are a talent of his - and if that doesn't do it, I'll call in my brother, who's an excellent wizard and might have a shot at it. If that doesn't work, we'll teach the girls breaks earlier than the curriculum recommends and they can try, but the odds are against them being able to do it either. If that fails, we have to wait until at least one of the girls graduates from school and can legally get a familiar, which increases capacity and might do so enough that one of them could reverse the spell by herself."
Rhysel nodded slowly, accepting for the time being that half of everything Keo said was going to sound like nonsense, then said, "You were saying something about kamai?"
Keo tilted her head and did another slow blink, like the one that had accompanied her mental scan, and then said in fluent Eashiri, "Kamai is one kind of magic. We only have other kinds of magic." The term she used for "magic" was obscure and Rhysel took a moment to recall what it meant - it was used to refer to a catch-all category of kamai, divine intervention, certain properties of animals, and fictional powers from unpopular genres of stories. And, apparently, the things the people of this world could do.
"Okay..." said Rhysel. "How is that you speak Eashiri? I've never heard of your world before and don't see how you could have learned it."
"I didn't exactly learn it," said Keo, switching to Martisen with the topic of magic out of the way. "I'm not a human, in case the hair didn't give it away. My species can just speak every language there is. It's pretty handy sometimes."
"Are you a god?" Rhysel asked, blinking rapidly. Keo's name didn't belong to any of the twenty-four. And Rhysel half-expected the messenger goddess to appear in the room (wielding a spiked club with which to punctuate a lesson about heresy) for even making the suggestion. But gods were the only creatures with such powers Rhysel had ever heard of. Then again, Keo had no divine presence bowling mortals over with sheer charisma from across the room, and her ears looked round to Rhysel where any god's would have looked like her own halfblood points.
"No," said Keo. "I'm a... I don't think I'm the same kind of dragon you have at home, but I'm a dragon, not a god."
Korulen chose that moment to emerge from the lift, carrying two square, sectioned plates full of miscellaneous food. She handed both to Rhysel, avoiding eye contact, and then pointed to an item. "Denevar kath imsaal -" She stopped, smacked herself in the forehead, and looked at her father, who twisted his hand in the air and spoke a syllable. "There. Sorry. Um, this is bananas and sweet potatoes, I guess the name of the specific dish won't translate. Chocolate rice puffs. Toasted beetle. Meatballs. Bread with almond butter. Avocado egg thing. Leeks and potatoes. Apple. It's lunch food, not breakfast, but hopefully that's okay? Do you recognize at least some of the ingredients? If you do it ought to be safe."
"That's fine," said Rhysel gratefully, setting one plate on her lap and using the tongs laid across the other to start with a potato. "I can't say I'd normally eat beetle, and I haven't heard of chocolate, but everything else is familiar."
"You haven't heard of chocolate?" cried Korulen, sounding pitying. "If it turns out Aar Kithen or Uncle Narax can send you home today after all, I think maybe I did you a favor on net..."
"Korulen," said Keo warningly, and the young elf ducked her head and backed towards the lift.
Rhysel looked at the items Korulen had identified as being chocolate, and thought they looked a little muddy, but didn't comment. She ate quickly, skipping the beetle but otherwise working her way through the full array of provided foods one at a time. "A dragon?" she asked Keo. Then she reached the chocolate puffs, stopped chewing halfway through her first one to stare at them, and bolted them down like she'd gone without food twice as long as she really had.
Keo nodded. "I'd show you, but I'd mess up the architecture. Koru-" Korulen had already closed the lift door behind her. "Oh well. Our other daughter is napping; otherwise you could look at her. Anyway. Rhysel, we're extremely sorry for the inconvenience that led you to be brought here in the first place, and if you want, I can and will sit here with you all day answering questions. However, if you'd rather, Aar Kithen just finished his class and I can have him here in no time if you'd like him to try to send you home. He's the best on the faculty at breaks."
"I don't suppose I can come back and visit under less constrained circumstances?" asked Rhysel weakly. "Really, this is fascinating, or at least it would be if I'd come to visit of my own accord, and I'd love to learn more about you and your world or at least refer some colleagues to you. But the Councilor will want to know where I am, I didn't put in for leave..."
"Nothing rules that out at all," Keo said. "Now that we've met you, finding your world again would be easy, and someone who can independently cast and reverse a less outdated spell will be able to bring you back here, or visit you, or whatever you like. But there will be plenty of opportunity to make plans for that after determining whether you're going to be forcibly stuck here."
Rhysel nodded. "If you could ask him to come try, then... that would be good."
Keo closed her eyes. "On his way," she reported after a moment.
The lift door opened, and from it emerged a tall, reedy elf man with untidy brown hair. "Aar Inular, Aaral Pyga," he said respectfully to the headmaster and his wife. "Aaral...?" He looked at Rhysel, politely inquisitive.
"Her surname's Camlenn," offered Keo. "Korulen and her roommate summoned her - old, costly spell, neither one can undo it without a familiar. Can you break it?"
"I'll do my best," said Aar Kithen. Squinting with focus in Rhysel's direction, he began a more complex gesture than the ones that had accompanied either translation spell.
Rhysel held her tongue until he was finished, not knowing if it would be dangerous to break his concentration, but then said, "You can call me Rhysel."
"That's kind of you," he said, frowning at the air in front of her with his hand poised as though to cast something else. "I will try to break this, Aaral Camlenn, but I should warn you that it is unlikely to work. If my first four tries are unsuccessful it will not be worthwhile to continue."
"I understand," she sighed. "You can really call me Rhysel."
Aar Kithen nodded, silent, and then muttered a long word and traced undulations in the air. Nothing happened. He closed his eyes, inhaled deeply, and repeated the process, scrunching his eyebrows together. That, and two more attempts, accomplished nothing.
"I'm sorry," he said solemnly, dropping his hand and meeting her eyes.
"We'll try Narax, he might be able to," said Keo soothingly before Rhysel could speak. Aar Kithen nodded to Keo, Kanaat, and Rhysel in turn before turning to go. The door clicked shut behind him. "Narax'll be here in a tick," Keo continued after a pause.
"How are you doing that?" Rhysel asked her, finally. "Is this like what you were talking about when you said you weren't a mind kama, but close?"
"Exactly," said Keo. "It has to do with the kind of dragon I am. Just me - my brother and sister have the empathy I mentioned, but not the other stuff."
There appeared, in the middle of the office, a human-shaped man with artfully shaggy black hair and jade green eyes. "One summons break, coming up," he said, patting Keo affectionately on the head once before turning to Rhysel and poising his hand to cast a spell. Rhysel couldn't tell one of their workings from any other, but he followed a pattern similar to Aar Kithen's, casting one and then scrutinizing the space around her before trying something else. "This is quite a knot your kid managed to tie, Keo," he muttered without turning to look at his sister, when the first try failed. He repeated it twice more, looking more frustrated each time. "Yeah, this isn't going to happen. Co-casting is a terrible idea and no one should ever do it."
"Drat," said Keo under her breath.
Narax shrugged helplessly, looked at Rhysel, and said, "Welcome to Elcenia."