Chapter Twenty-Two: Lightness

"I flew," wheezed Theedy over a grotesque chorus of cracks, awkwardly landing. "Did you see, were you watching? I flew -" And another rib broke and she coughed and Rhysel hastily restored the statuette. Theedy caught her breath. "Did you see," she exhaled.

"I saw," panted Rhysel. "Now, I'm going to break your connection to the statuette - might need to tap you for energy immediately - that was a lot of work. Let me touch your wing again?"

Theedy extended a wing in the kama's direction. Rhysel lifted the shed scale out of the proxy, and the drain hit, and she pulled lifeforce out of Theedy through her wing, enough to keep her sitting up straight and able to scrabble through her satchel for wakeflower.

With a dose of the blue potion in her system, Rhysel felt much perkier. "You're feeling okay?" Rhysel asked.

Theedy nodded. "You didn't put me back together wrong," she said softly. "I'm fine. I flew." She shifted back into human form and sat on the featureless ground, wrapping her arms around her knees and closing her eyes with a sigh.

"I can't break a baby shren that many times before getting him or her into the air," Rhysel said. "Or spend that much energy and still be able to treat them all. I need to get a better handle on the technique. Not today, but maybe tomorrow, do you want to try again?"

"I should let Eret have a turn," Theedy said.

"Let him have a turn," said Rhysel, blinking, still slightly mystified. Theedy and Eret both could fly as much as they wanted, in duck form. "I think we'd better go back over the side," - she shuddered - "rather than wait for me to accumulate enough energy to make a transfer point. Next time I'll bring Tekaal and then he'll be able to teleport."

They traveled home, Theedy in serene silence, Rhysel gagging and clutching at her middle after each turn of the corner.

Theedy hurtled down the stairs to the basement as soon as they were in sight of the tower, presumably to tell her husband all about her day.

Rhysel went in through her bedroom window, instead, and collapsed.

"Rhysel," Eret said, already in the kitchen when Rhysel came down for breakfast the next morning. Talyn was at the table, and looked put out when Eret turned away from him; he'd been using Eret and Theedy as practice conversation partners for his mind-kamai-accelerated learning of Elcenian languages.

"Good morning," Rhysel said to the red opal shren. She went to the cupboards and rummaged around for eggs.

"Morning. Regarding your testing - do you need me or Theedy to avoid flying for a few weeks so we can tell you if what you let her do 'counted'? She doesn't know if it would've undone esu."

"I think I can refine the process enough to safely try it on a baby shren in less than a few weeks," Rhysel said. "You can, if it's convenient, but the real test will be if it can stop one of the babies' pain."

Eret nodded once, and then let Talyn capture his attention again with a half-illusory cascade of vampiric shrieks and replied in kind, rolling his eyes. Rhysel cracked her eggs, poached them in midair, and made a plate for them, which she carried up to her room rather than listen to her apprentice practice the shrill language.

Class buzzed with gossip when the students came in. Korulen was the first to arrive, and she burst into helpless laughter when she saw the paired teachers.

"What?" asked Rhysel. The thudia proved unable to catch her breath long enough to answer. <What?> Rhysel tried.

<It's just... Aar Kithen! I wouldn't have ever thought of him as dating anybody! And... and... it's Aar Kithen!> Korulen managed in reply, still doubled over. Her friends and new boyfriend came in and took seats around her; Lutan, who had a copy of the paper poking out of her school bag, looked frustrated, but Kaarilel and Kaylo didn't seem to be having any special reaction to the newspaper article. Kolaan, flanked by Soraak and Kutran, arrived next. The first looked disgruntled, whereas his companions trotted up to Tekaal and politely solicited autographs. With a mild sigh, Tekaal wrote his name on the profferred slips of paper.

In total, the reaction was less profound than the teachers had feared, but Tekaal did have to look somewhat severely at Korulen before she was capable of restraining her laughter, and issue a mindspeech apology to Kolaan before the boy would stop glaring. That settled, Tekaal began conducting the lesson on introductory illusion magic.

Tekaal did most of the work, as he was the one who'd been studying image kamai. He coaxed a basic illusion from everyone, including Rhysel, though he diligently avoided the appearance of teaching her where the other students could see; she listened while he explained the procedure to everyone else.

Most of the children chose simple shapes - spheres or cubes or pyramids - and then spent the rest of the lesson squinting at them and trying to make them catch the light from the ceiling's glow realistically. Lutan got more creative with hers, setting images with several parts in motion and sustaining three at once by the time class ended. Mata and Tama could coordinate to similarly impressive effect.

Leekath, who had definitely been picking up hints from Talyn, was ahead of the rest of the students. Instead of showing off in some way that would have been obvious to her peers, she simply made her illusions solid and held them in her hands, turning them over and frowning at them as though finding them dissatisfactory. Whether that part was an act or not, Rhysel couldn't tell.

Kaylo - apparently by complete accident - also wound up with a solid illusion. Tekaal's inquiries yielded the hypothesis that the garnet boy was taking the use of texture metaphors for his magic's tones very seriously. The dragon had the spare lifeforce to accidentally expend it on such details, without the aversive weariness that trained most beginning kyma out of stray, unintentional magic use.

Finally, the class was over. (Rhysel had to tell Kaylo to put his questions about how solid objects could possibly be "illusions" as opposed to "temporary conjurations" in a letter, and Korulen had to physically take him by the hand and haul him away).

"Time for 'Eret's turn'," Rhysel said wryly to Tekaal. "Will you come with us down to the bottom of the world, so you'll be able to teleport us there and back in the future? I don't like going over the edges."

"I could escort your gardener myself and teleport back to fetch you," suggested Tekaal.

"That would be wonderful," said Rhysel gratefully.

Half an angle later, Rhysel was back on the bottom of the world, a different shren before her. While Theedy had breathed fire given the chance, she hadn't been so enthusiastic about it; the red opal roared flames into the sky like they were consuming his belly and had to be expelled or he'd burn to a crisp. The air around him shimmered with spillover warmth.

Tekaal, beside her, murmured, "Do you need any help?"

"Maybe an energy source."

"I know you were worried about the procedure being dangerous to your subject - I'm not certain why you did not ask me to lifelink his wife, yesterday. I have read the instructions on the working, even if I have yet to find occasion to test it."

"That's why I didn't ask you," Rhysel said. "You've never practiced it, not even on something that you could let go if you needed to. Talyn has tried it with spiders and things like that, he told me when I assessed how much he'd learned before he started apprenticing with me, and he knows he can't reliably hold onto a strained lifelink. I managed, my first try with Mirra, but it's incredibly hard. It's like forcing your hand down on a hot iron, and if you so much as flinch, you'll lose who you're linking. And neither of us knows how to transfer the pain, yet. All it'd accomplish to have you lifelink Eret would be for you to feel guilty if he turned out to need it. And he won't - Theedy was fine, and I won't make as many mistakes this time."

Tekaal seemed about to respond, but Eret snapped his jaws closed around a plume of sparkling fire, and smoke hissed out from between his teeth. "Can we get to the part where I fly, now?" he asked.

"Er, yes," said Rhysel, picking up one of the scales he'd lost. They were interspersed with Theedy's, left on the ground for lack of any clever ideas about what to do with them. She made a model of Eret and held out her hand to touch him. He profferred his foreclaw, which sufficed, and she pressed his scale into his proxy and forged the connection.

"Do not crash," Rhysel instructed sternly. "Don't make unnecessary moves. I'll leave you able to breathe, but do it slowly and evenly, and avoid trying to talk if you can. Certainly don't breathe fire - you can do that down here all you want as long as you don't try it while fragile."

"I understand," said Eret, rolling his eyes, and Rhysel took a deep breath and lightened him.

Eret jumped, cracking legbones when he pushed off, and snapped his wings open. He flapped them twice, and then glided, and then skidded to an awkward landing.

Rhysel healed the breaks and restored his density. "Have fun?" she asked.

Eret nodded, then spat another column of fire at the dark sky.

Rhysel lifted the scale out of the statuette. "I'll write Jensal," she said. "I don't know if she'll tolerate the babies breaking their legs every time they try to fly, but she might. If she won't we can keep testing, I suppose."

The red opal shren interrupted his conflagration to say, "We want to be anonymous."

"Even to Jensal? Didn't she practically raise you?" Rhysel asked.

"She runs the house," Eret said. "She doesn't look after the kids in it personally. Don't tell her we're your test subjects."

"Rhysel," said Tekaal, "could it perhaps suffice to levitate the subject in place of manual takeoff? They could fly unassisted without having to leave the ground, or return to it, in the same way - if I understand the issue."

"Maybe," she said. "I don't think I could do that at the same time as working with the proxy. Do you want to try it?"

Eret quit breathing fire, Tekaal worked air magic to lift him well off the ground, and Rhysel adjusted his composition again. "On my mark," Tekaal said. "One, two, three, now."

The shren beat his wings, and swooped, falling but catching himself without touching the ground. "I'm going to catch you again," Tekaal said. "One, two, three, now." Eret's movement was arrested in midair; Rhysel fixed his solidity again, but there was no breakage to repair.

"Jensal will like this idea much better," Rhysel said. "It just requires that I bring you or Talyn with me whenever I go to treat the children."

"I was under the impression that Aaran Casten was not welcome."

"Well, not at Jensal's house, but he hasn't been barred from the other three. For the local one, I need you in particular," Rhysel agreed.

"Of course I will accompany you," Tekaal said. He let Eret down, and Rhysel pulled the scale out of the statuette. She yawned, but had made fewer adjustments than the previous day, and accepted only a little of Tekaal's lifeforce when he touched the back of her neck to offer.

"Shall we?" Rhysel asked, pulling herself to her feet.

Eret enflamed the sky once again, but finally shifted back to his human form and held out his hand toward Tekaal. Rhysel touched her boyfriend's hand too, and he used his other to cast the teleportation spell.

The next morning, Rhysel and Talyn were sitting at the kitchen table eating biscuits and jam when Leekath let herself in and handed Rhysel a letter that had been sitting on the front stoop. (Rhysel couldn't work out how the postal system was supposed to function - Tekaal had gotten as far as saying that it was built into the Standard House Wards before descending into opaque jargon.) "She says you should come to her house," Leekath told Rhysel perfunctorily. Then she turned and tugged on Talyn's elbow, persuading him to abandon his inclination for seconds. The teenagers disappeared up the stairs and Rhysel unsealed the envelope, which she presumed was from Jensal.

Vampiric Inanimate Audition is a disease, Rhysel, not a security risk, but fine, vagueness: come to my house. Bring your boyfriend, it said.

Rhysel grinned, called Tekaal with the communication crystal that matched his, and arranged to meet him there.

Tekaal was at the gates of the shren house when Rhysel landed there. "I need to make transfer points around town," she remarked, linking elbows with him and walking in. "I don't mind flying, usually, but it's getting kind of chilly."

"Perhaps on the day we have planned to teach students how to use transfer points, they could also witness the creation of several," Tekaal suggested. "There are enough of them to make a number."

"And then they'll have more to go between than just the ones at the school and the tower," Rhysel said. "Good idea." They reached the building in the center of the desolate grounds and she knocked.

Jensal answered the door, a grudgingly anxious look on her face. "Since you can't tell me who your test subjects are," she said abruptly, not greeting the kyma or even acknowledging Tekaal, "I want to see for myself before I let you touch any of the babies. Will it work on a shren my size, or should I ask for a volunteer closer to some other age?"

"I think it would work on you," Rhysel said. "No matter how old you are."

"One thousand, eight hundred, and seventy-seven." she said softly. "All right then." She stepped out and shut the door behind her. "Bottom of the world."

Tekaal held out his hand and brought both women to the bottom of the world. Rhysel felt a moment of panic - the scales on the ground might be suggestive of her unidentified test subjects, and she hadn't thought to collect them - but he had apparently had the foresight to visit the underside and travel a ways from the prior site so he could teleport them to a more anonymous location.

Jensal didn't seem to notice Rhysel's tension. She only turned into a peregrine falcon, her blue coloring replacing the dark hood common to the real birds, and made a circuit around the area to check for any misplaced dragons she might harm.

Finding none, the turquoise shren landed, and again she shifted.

Jensal was almost two hundred feet long, and only half of that was neck and tail. She stretched out her wings, and blotted out most of the stars Rhysel had been able to see a moment before. Scales rained down her sides, and Jensal tilted her wings to shake free more, and Rhysel stared.

"You need one of these?" Jensal asked, sweeping a forefoot through the scales on the ground towards Rhysel. Several bounced toward her; numbly, Rhysel picked one up and made a ludicrously tiny model of the shren before her.

"I don't think I'd quite realized how large older dragons - shrens - are," Rhysel said. "But when dragons fly, it is physical, right, not magical? And you're shaped the same way?"

Jensal dipped her head with its corkscrew horns. She didn't breathe fire like the others had and Rhysel felt embarrassed to ask why. "That's the understanding."

"Right. I still think this will work - your wings are bigger too - but even if it doesn't, it did work on my test subjects and should work even better on a baby. If I can't make you fly, will you let me try with one of the children anyway?"

"As long as you manage not to get me killed or do anything unspeakably horrific to me," Jensal said, tilting her head back on that preposterously long neck to look at the stars.

"I - right." Rhysel pressed the scale into the model. "I need to touch you, to make the connection."

Jensal swung the tip of her tail close to Rhysel, who brought a finger to the large spiked plate that capped off the extremity. The sculpture abruptly moved under Rhysel's hand when the shren moved her tail away and half-folded her wings.

"I explained in the letter," Rhysel said, "how you need to be careful. Do you want me to repeat it, or...?"

Jensal shook her head. "Your boyfriend can levitate me?"

"Yes," said Tekaal, speaking for the first time since he'd teleported them down.

"Do it," Jensal said.

Tekaal persuaded the air to bear up the turquoise-shingled shren. Jensal's feet dangled, and she had to be lofted higher than Eret or Theedy to keep her tail off the ground where it hung, but finally he deemed her high enough and paused her there. "Ready?" shouted Rhysel.

"Ready," Jensal replied.

Rhysel bent over the model, and changed it. "One, two, three, now," she announced.

Tekaal let Jensal go, and Jensal nearly knocked over the kyma with the downdraft of her first wingbeat, and she ascended.

"Children," said Jensal, "this is Rhysel. Artha might have told you about her."

The room in which the baby shrens lived was spacious and low-ceilinged, devoid of sharp objects - the older ones even had their claws and teeth filed down, and Rhysel didn't know whether that was to stop them from fighting with each other, injuring themselves in their contortions of pain, or taking their own lives. There was a plush armchair, which held a shren woman with hair as green as Artha's scales; shelves protruded from this chair in several directions and some were occupied with little shrens who'd been listening to a story read aloud complete with voices before Jensal and Rhysel had barged in.

"Hi," said Rhysel in response to the resounding silence. Even the mewling and wailing she'd been able to hear from the hall paused. She spotted Artha on a beanbag in the back corner, which she shared with one obsidian and one moonstone, but the little green dragonet was resolutely not looking at the kama.

"Rhysel and her boyfriend Aar Kithen are here to -"

"Do miracles!" exclaimed a blue child, stotting up and down on all four feet.

"Not today," Jensal said. "She can't make you stop being shrens. But she can make you fly -"

"That's sort of a miracle," objected the blue.

"We aren't even sure if it will help the esu, but it's something to try. Kytheen," Jensal called. "You can go first. You're oldest. Will you come here, please?"

The largest of the children in the room, almost four feet long, was a gold who didn't seem to want to open her eyes. At Jensal's request, she peeled herself up from the cushion she'd been writhing on and hauled herself step by step towards the kyma. Her wings were clenched tightly to her body and her ears were plastered flat against her head.

"When did they last get sootheweed?" Rhysel asked under her breath, although all of the black-group dragonets in the room turned to look at her anyway.

"A couple of angles ago," Jensal said. "It doesn't help that much at her age. I'm reluctant to rush you, but..."

"Right," said Rhysel, and she pulled her prepared rock out of her satchel and turned it into a quarter-size duplicate of Kytheen. The little gold didn't have any shed scales, so she took the dragonet's forepaw and worked wild kamai to pull a single drop of blood out to the surface. She used that to connect statue and child. "Tekaal -"

He didn't correct her on his form of public address, just picked up Kytheen with air magic and left her floating. She looked like a marionette.

"Oooh," said the blue who'd remarked earlier.

Rhysel lightened the baby shren in the air. "Kytheen, you need to try to fly," she said. "Don't move anything else but your wings, but you need to try to fly."

Kytheen opened one eye a crack. "Nnn," she whined.

"Please," Rhysel whispered. "Flap your wings."

"Do it, Kytheen," said Jensal, an edge of severity in her voice.

The small gold form unfurled her wings, and brought them down once, twice - Tekaal let her go - the baby shot towards the ceiling and he had to catch her again before she crashed, but suddenly her eyes were wide and she'd opened her mouth to laugh and Rhysel hastily undid the changes before she snapped her ribs.

Kytheen shrieked with laughter. She looked like she was doing her best to dance in midair. Tekaal lowered her to the ground and she capered across the room to tackle a listless ruby, bite him on the horn with blunted teeth, and drag him towards the kyma. "Come on, come on, him too," she exclaimed. "He's next! Him too!"

Rhysel laughed too, relieved and suddenly, belatedly shaking with nerves, but she pulled Kytheen's blood out of the statuette, shaped it to look like her ruby friend, and took a droplet from him to begin the process again.

Artha was finally coaxed into the air by seeing everyone else's success. Kytheen, her ruby friend, and the next five baby shrens down the line, were curled up sleeping; Rhysel had needed to tap them to get through the entire population of the room.

The green littlest shren butted her head against Rhysel's leg when she touched the carpet again. "I forgive you," she announced in tones of great solemnity.

"Thank you, Artha," said Rhysel. She crouched down to pet Artha, who purred at her before streaking off to chase a ball another shren had lobbed her way.

Rhysel turned to Jensal. "Well," she began, but she was cut off when Jensal abruptly hugged her.

"Thank you," Jensal whispered fiercely in Rhysel's ear.

"You're welcome. I'll be back in a few weeks, reset them again," Rhysel assured her. "And I'll keep working on - on a proper 'miracle' for you."

"You need to - if you're willing - to the other houses - I'll call Ehail -" Jensal half-fled the roomful of babies, and Rhysel and Tekaal followed her towards her office. "Ehail can teleport here, and take you there - I mean - it doesn't have to be today, you must be exhausted - but -"

"As long as I can tap the shrens there while I work, I can do another houseful today," Rhysel said. She looked at Tekaal for confirmation, and he nodded. "Maybe all four, if they have people who can teleport us too. Go ahead and call Ehail."

Jensal pulled a communication crystal out of a drawer in her desk and struck it against the corner. Impatiently, she paced, waiting for an answer with the green prism pressed to her ear. Finally, it stopped chiming. "Ehail! It's Jensal -" And from there she burst into a cascade of incomprehensible Draconic, perhaps finding it more efficient than sticking to a language her witnesses spoke.

The call ended abruptly, and there was a knock on the house's front door. Jensal bolted to answer it, Rhysel and Tekaal following again, and flung the door wide to reveal a short, silver-haired woman with round brown eyes. "Ehail, Rhysel and Aar Kithen," Jensal said, gesturing at both kyma. "Rhysel, Aar Kithen, Ehail. She's a wizard from Keppine House, down in Petar."

"It's nice to meet you," said Ehail politely, though she was unsmiling. "I can teleport you to my house." She held a hand out. Tekaal and Rhysel both moved to touch her hand, but Ehail shook her head. "I can't take two passengers, only one."

"But you're a wizard?" Tekaal asked, furrowing his brow.

"I am," she assured him. "It's not just a teleportation license. But I don't have a high channeling capacity. I'll make two trips."

Tekaal withdrew his hand, and Rhysel, confused by most of the content of that exchange, left hers where it was. Ehail cast the teleportation spell with her other hand.

The Petaran house was in the tropics, and the early afternoon air was heavy and damp and far warmer than Esmaar. It reminded Rhysel a little of growing up in Aristan. The building itself was only two floors high, unlike the three-story Paraasilan house, and Ehail opened the iron door for Rhysel.

"I'll go get Aar Kithen, and then talk to Ludei for you," Ehail said. "The babies are just there, behind that door on the right. You'll want to explain to their caretaker."

"Thanks, Ehail," Rhysel said. The silver shren teleported away, and Rhysel started down the hall.

She knocked on the door to the babies' room. It opened.

"Narax?" she asked, bewildered.

"Beg pardon?" asked the jade-eyed, crookedly-smiling, black-haired, pale man before her.