Troll Sword sample

Part Five: The Arkenome

Chapter Twenty One: The Magic Circle

She finished her step into a large room. 

There were people around her, but her exhaustion, and the pain of her wounded cheek, came back to her like a blow. Her vision blurred and darkened, her feet stumbled, and she fell to her hands and knees. It had been stupid to come here before she had taken the time to heal. Her head, much too heavy, dropped forward, and she caught herself just inches from a smooth but unpolished stone floor. Didn’t anyone use wood or vinyl? Maybe it was concrete. She wasn’t ready for this. Stupid.

People were talking. She couldn’t understand them, but they sounded disappointed and frustrated, not surprised or frightened. She was intensely aware of a complexity of smells, and was distracted by the way her body felt, which was very strange, and sort of numb except for her left cheek, which hurt so badly that it made her gasp, raggedly, over and over again.

The voices went on, confused and concerned. The smells, dozens of them, were not strong, but they were clear and each was distinct. If she could clear her head, if she could think about it for a minute, she would know what they all were. But before she could follow that thought, she became aware that, in front of her eyes, where the tip of her nose should have been just barely visible and never noticed, there was what looked like a dog’s muzzle projecting from her face. It was hairless, a golden brown. Not her color at all.

Her fascination with this was interrupted when hands, strong but not rough, took hold of her upper arms and pulled her to her feet. Her legs felt very strange, as if they wanted to bend in the wrong directions and places. She made an effort to straighten up, so that she could see the people around her. There were four in front, the two holding her arms, and two more behind her, whom she could not see, though she knew they were there. And now she knew what she looked like.

She was not ready for this. The word that came to mind was Anubis, though these people didn’t really look like the Egyptian god. Their muzzles were wider, and shorter, and deeper, and their noses were smooth and the same color as their skin. They had a more human upper face, with a high forehead and large eyes. Their ears were large and pointed, set low and rather flat on the sides of their heads. And they had Mohawk crests, four or five inches tall, from the top of the forehead to the back of the neck.

They were long in the body, short in the leg, and only two or three inches taller than Jeanette. They wore open-collar shirts, red, or maroon, or dark orange, or shades of blue, and trousers that were black, or dark brown, or dark gray. The women were slightly broader hipped, and had four breasts. Their legs were dog-legged, but quite straight nonetheless. The shape of their shoes showed that their toes — from the balls of their feet where their shoe-heels were — were plenty long enough to give them support while walking. Their fingers were very long.

Their skin, on heads, faces, and hands, was hairless, light tan or light brown or darker brown. Some were all one color. Some were shaded darker on the tops of their muzzles and heads and the backs of their hands. Some had lighter or darker bands across their muzzles and along the sides of their crests, which were black or russet or deep yellow or other colors. But what distinguished them from one another was not their highly individualistic appearance, but was their scent. Each was unique, and she would recognize their scents again, though she didn’t yet know which belonged to who. It was by their scent that she knew that there were two people behind her, and that there were no others elsewhere out of sight.

She began to relate her sense of her body to these people, and almost literally found her legs. She looked down at her feet. Her boots had conformed, coming up to the lower joint of her legs — which would have been her ankles — instead of all the way to her knees. They fit perfectly. Of course they did.

Her vision darkened again, and she became dizzy. She really should have taken a couple days off.

She began to understand what they were saying. At first she caught just a few words, or phrases, which meant, but didn’t sound like, “demon,” and “poor thing,” and “now what are we —” and “…all over again,” and “are you stupid?” which last was not directed at her. Their voices were rich and complex contraltos, each as unique as their scents. There could be no disguise here.

One of the men in front of her said, “All right, all right, whoever this person is, she’s been hurt. Let’s get her upstairs.”

“We can put her in my room,” the woman holding her right arm said.

“Good,” another man said, “do that. We can’t do anything more right now anyway.”

The people holding her up — the one on her left was a man — turned her toward a door behind her, the only door in the otherwise empty room. Someone went to open it for them. Jeanette tried to walk with the people supporting her, but they had to half carry her. She wasn’t too proud to let them. 

They went into a corridor. There was polished wood wainscoting. The walls above it, and the concrete floor, were painted cream. They turned to the right, and things got all dark and blurry, and she felt herself sagging as she faded out.

#

She awoke in what looked like an almost normal bedroom. It had all the right furniture, though the proportions were a bit odd. There was an unlit frosted glass ceiling fixture. Maybe this place had electricity. The light coming from windows behind her, on either side of the bed, felt like late afternoon. There was a door beyond the foot of the bed, and another on the left, next to a dresser which had a mirror above it. Her face still hurt a lot, but her head was clear enough that she thought about getting up to see if she really did look like these people. The visible muzzle in front of her face suggested that she did.

She heard a page turning and rolled her head to the right. The woman who had held her right arm was sitting in a chair just beyond the window, reading a book in its light. She looked up at Jeanette and closed the book in her lap, with a finger to keep her place. “How are you feeling?” 

Jeanette guessed her to be the equivalent of about thirty. Her skin was an amber brown, darker on the upper surfaces, and her crest was almost black. “I don’t know.” Her voice, unexpectedly, was several tones lower than the woman’s. She stared up at the ceiling, at the frosted glass fixture in the middle. How was she feeling? Aside from wishing she could have another couple hours more sleep.

She was glad to be in bed, but she was no longer exhausted. The ache in her cheek went all the way to her teeth. She was naked under the covers. The dagger’s cord was not around her neck. Her legs felt just like normal legs, even though she knew that they were not the legs that she had grown up with. Her arms were on top of the covers, cool but not chilly. Her body was different, she didn’t have to touch herself to know that. 

Her mouth was full of teeth, more carnivorous than her own, with canines that were definitely longer than the others. Her golden brown muzzle was something she could clearly see, but would normally not even notice. It felt like there was a bandage on her cheek. She touched it, there was. She looked at her hand. Her fingers were half again as long as the ones she was used to, with an extra joint. They had nails, not claws. She still had the ring. She put her hand up to feel her crest, the hairs heavy but not coarse, and wondered what color it was.

She was hungry.

She looked at the woman, who had put her book down on the small table under the window. Her eyes were a golden green, like a cat’s eyes, but with round pupils. “I feel a lot better than when I got here. When was that?”

“Early this morning. It’s nearly time for dinner. Are you hungry?”

“Very.” She sat up and let the sheet and pale green blanket slide down off her chest. Her lower breasts were slightly smaller than the upper ones. She almost couldn’t see the claw scars on her left side. Then she swung her legs around off the side of the bed, but kept a corner of the blanket over her lap. The scars on her left hip and right thigh were also almost invisible. “Where are my clothes?”

“Everything’s in the closet. There’s a lot of blood on your shirt and trousers. You can wear something of mine if you like, we’re about the same size.”

“Yes, thank you, that’s very kind.”

The woman smiled. It would have been frightening if Jeanette had been at home, but it was really a very friendly smile. “Would you like to get dressed?”

“Yes, I would.”

The woman went to the door on the left, reached in, came back with a red shirt and gray trousers, and put them on the bed. Then she got socks and underwear from the dresser. “You can use one of my brassieres if you like, but I don’t think it would fit you.” Her figure was rather fuller than Jeanette’s.

“I seldom wear one anyway,” Jeanette said.

She pulled on the underwear, and found that she had a short tail that curved forward between her legs. Interesting. The trousers were just a bit large, and just a bit short, but they fit well enough. They closed with a hook and a zipper, and had belt loops.

The woman came back from the closet again, with Jeanette’s belt, pouch, dagger, and boots.

“Thank you,” Jeanette said. She put on the shirt. It fastened with buttons, and fit about as well as the trousers did. She tucked it in, then threaded the belt through the loops and buckled it. She pulled on the socks, over feet that were almost all toe, then the boots, then hung the dagger from its cord around her neck and put it under her shirt.

“How can you wear that without cutting yourself?” the woman asked.

“I don’t know how that works. Do you know how sharp it is?”

“Yes. It’s scary.”

Her trousers had pockets on the sides, rather than on the front or back. She looked into her pouch, saw that everything was there. Nobody wore pouches here, but she put it on anyway, so that it hung on her right hip. “Did you look inside?”

“We did. But after Hikram cut himself on your dagger, we decided not to touch anything.”

Jeanette smiled. “Probably a good idea. Thank you. What’s your name?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Lirikatli Vinados.”

“Thanks for sitting with me, and for letting me use your room. I’m Jeanette Delgado.”

“You’re welcome. It’s just about time for dinner. Do you feel up to it?”

“Yes, I do.” Not really, but … “I heal quickly.” Far too quickly these days.

They went out into a short corridor. There was another door on this side, and two on the other. The corridor ended on the left, where a balcony overlooked a two-story entrance hall. Jeanette paused. “Ah-hm, is there a bathroom?”

“Oh, yes, of course. It’s back that way.”

Jeanette went to the other end of the hall, and into the bathroom at the end. There was a switch just inside the door. The light in the ceiling came on, obviously electric, though the light was a lot yellower than what she was used to.

She used the toilet, dealt with her tail as if she had grown up with it, and found out more about her physiology. She looked at herself in the mirror while she washed her hands at the sink. Her crest was deep yellow, her eyes were dark brown. And yet, despite the different face, she was still herself.

The bandage on her face, held in place by adhesive, extended from just in front of her left ear to the curve of her cheek. It was the source of an antiseptic smell, which she almost hadn’t been aware of. She carefully pulled away a corner at the front. The bullet wound had scabbed over, but the flesh around it was still red and swollen. She touched it gently. It hurt, but she didn’t think it was infected. She pressed the bandage back into place, and returned to the hall, where Lirikatli was waiting.

They went to the balcony, wide and deep. There was a broad staircase descending from the middle, and doors at either end. There was a set of high, double doors, three or four paces beyond the foot of the staircase, flanked by high windows. Jeanette could not see much of what was outside from where she was, other than a bit of rather thick lawn. “Where is this place?”

“Don’t you know?”

They started down. This wasn’t at all like her reception in Deroan. “I have no idea. Although I guess it doesn’t really matter. I felt your call and I came.”

“Well, that’s a problem,” Lirikatli said, as if Jeanette had said nothing unusual. “We weren’t calling you.”

“Maybe not, but I heard you just the same.” As if calls and responses were everyday events. “Do you know who I am?”

“No.”

They came to the bottom of the stairs. Jeanette went to one of the windows, so she could see more of what was outside. 

It was a patio or courtyard, enclosed by a head-high concrete wall. The entrance, a dozen paces or more opposite the double doors, was closed by a double gate as high as the wall. Wind blew from the left, bending the tops of the taller bushes toward the right, so that they grew at a slant. Ground plants in the protection of the wall were not much affected by the wind, suggesting that there were other walls on either side, but the shorter bushes were agitated, and many of them were permanently bent away to the right as well.

She turned back to Lirikatli. “You don’t recognize me at all.”

“I never saw you before this morning.”

“Of course not, but the last place I went, people knew me anyway.”

“How could that be?” Her tone was curious, but casual.

“I was a kind of incarnation of their national hero.” The conversation was taking a decidedly surreal turn.

“So they thought you looked like their hero.” Curious, but not humoring nor condescending.

“No.” Her voice wasn’t betraying her confusion, which was a relief. “I was their hero. That was why I was there.”

“And where was this?” Lirikatli asked. She gestured to an alcove on the right. They went to it. “I’ve never heard of anything like that.” There was a set of doors in the alcove, which Lirikatli opened into a well-furnished parlor.

All the furniture here was just a bit off somehow. Windows with sheer curtains were on the left, through which more bushes and trees were visible, not protected by courtyard walls. They were all permanently distorted by the wind which blew across the front of the house. This was someone’s home, not a public building. “It wasn’t anywhere in this world,” Jeanette said.

Lirikatli stopped and stared at her.

Another person had been here recently. Jeanette recognized the subtle, lingering scent of one of the other summoners. It had been a man, but she wasn’t sure which one. After a beat she said, “It was a parallel world, one dimension away, if that means anything.”

“It doesn’t.” Her ears twitched. “I’d think you were making this up, except I saw you come into the circle this morning. Maybe you’re a demon after all.”

“No, I’m not, and the place I come from is not your underworld. But it doesn’t matter does it? You know I’m from somewhere else.”

Lirikatli turned away. 

They crossed the parlor to a short, broad passage, and through it into a fairly large dining room. A man with a brick-red crest, his back to them, was sitting in one of the twelve chairs around the oval table. Of course the furniture was odd. Their proportions were meant to accommodate these people’s different body shape.

There was a garden outside the large picture windows on the far side of the room. All the bushes leaned away from the constant wind, except those directly in the lee of the house, which were agitated by the turbulence. The branches and leaves of the short trees streamed dramatically from crooked, slanted trunks, which looked like giant, animated bonsai. The shorter plants thrashed, and the grasses rippled.

On the right side of the room was a pair of doors, on either side of a cabinet of glassware. She knew they led to the kitchen by the complex smells, appetizing to her present self, but which would have been slightly nauseating had she still been in any of her previous forms.

The man heard them enter, or maybe he smelled them, and rose to turn and greet them. She had not seen his face before, but she recognized him by his scent as one of the people who had stood behind her this morning. “How are you feeling?” he asked her. He was a bit taller and darker than Lirikatli, of a uniform, medium brown.

“A lot better, thank you,” Jeanette said.

“I’m Lorathom Mishago. Will you be joining us for supper?”

“Yes, I will, thank you. My meals have been a bit irregular lately.”

He twitched an ear, as if her statement confused him. “It’s the least we can do after the inconvenience we have caused you.” He was taking this all too calmly. 

“It’s no inconvenience, believe me. My name is Jeanette Delgado.”

His ears twitched again, and he glanced at Lirikatli. “I can’t pronounce that exactly. Jana Deigo?”

“Close enough.” She gave him a small, crooked smile. At least, at home it would have been crooked. She wondered what it looked like here.

He gestured to the table as he sat back down, and she took the chair to his right. Lirikatli sat beside her. “We’ve been trying to figure out how to send you back to where you came from.”

“I don’t think you can,” Jeanette said, imitating his matter-of fact-tone. The table was covered with a simple, cream-colored cloth, and there was a tumbler of water at nine of the twelve places. She took a sip from her glass.

“How do you know that?” he asked.

“Because you didn’t bring me here in the first place.” How much should she actually tell him? “I just became aware of your need, and I came here under my own power.”

“I’m not sure I understand you.” Which, if she could judge by the way his ears twitched, really meant that he didn’t believe her.

“No,” Jeanette said, taking his words literally, “you don’t understand me at all.” She touched his forearm lightly. “But I don’t want to explain this more often than I have to. Let’s wait until everybody else is here.”

“All right,” he said, and leaned back in his chair. “I trust you rested well.”

“I did, thank you.”

“Those were rather strange clothes you were wearing. You must have come from quite far away.”

“From farther away than you can imagine, but that’s part of my explanation.”

“It’s going to be an interesting story,” Lirikatli said. “I heard some of it.”

Two men who had been in the summoning circle came in from the parlor. They looked curiously at Jeanette as they came around the table and took places on the other side, leaving an empty chair between them. The one on the left introduced himself as Roma Bacho. He was tan, with a white crest, and distinctly golden eyes. The other was Om Dovor. He was of a slightly darker tan, with bands of a paler color across his muzzle and along either side of his dark brown crest.

A man from the kitchen came in, pushing a wooden serving cart, and offered those present a hot beverage, served in large cups, almost mugs, with no saucers. Jeanette suppressed her residual home world perceptions and took one. The drink, a murky, ruddy brown, was both salty and sweet, with a richness like that of chocolate, but with a flavor that was oddly like bacon.

More people came in from the parlor. They each in turn greeted Jeanette, introduced themselves, took their seats, and accepted a cup of the hot drink. The light outside the windows had begun to fade by the time all eight members of the circle had come. The man with the hot drink cart went away, and two women came in, pushing carts with shelves, on which were plates of food, napkins, and cutlery, which they set out for everyone present. On the plates were a small lightly grilled steak, several strips of raw white fish, some well done pieces of what looked like English bacon, a hot vegetable like pale sliced carrots, and two sections of peeled pink melon. By the time she had taken a bite of each, Jeanette had acquired the taste, and was no longer bothered by the completely alien flavors and aromas.

There was little conversation, and what there was was trivial. These people didn’t know her, were disappointed that she wasn’t a demon, and while they were courteous, they were not ready to become friendly.

The plates were taken away as each person finished, and they were served another hot drink, this one definitely herbal, and slightly nutty in flavor. Pots of this tea were left on the table. Several people added a pinch or two of salt from little open dishes, but Jeanette did not.

It had grown quite dark outside by now. Globe lights in the ceiling had come on earlier, and had grown steadily brighter, but they never got as bright as natural daylight. Conversation resumed, but about things of which Jeanette had no knowledge or interest. It went on for a quarter of an hour or so, then Om Dovor said to her. “Who are you? And where do you come from?”

“I guess you could call me an adventurer. And I’m not from anywhere in this world.”

“I find that hard to credit,” said a woman named Lerthrop Targon, seated on the far right on the other side of the table. Her ears twitched as she spoke, a sign of disbelief. She was a darker tan, like Om, but with no shading, and her crest was orangey brown. “If you came from some other plane, you would not look human.” The word meant a being somewhere between the animals and the gods.

“I do not look like this at home,” Jeanette said. “It’s not by my choice. I have to admit that this is the greatest change I have experienced. I take on the form of the people in every world I go to.”

Roma Bacho said, without sarcasm, “How convenient for you.” There was no hint that the idea of visiting other worlds was at all astonishing.

“It’s not at all convenient,” Jeanette said. “If I were to take you to my world, you would find that having to get used to a different body can be quite distressing.”

“It hardly matters,” Belagor Shintai, the woman to Lorathom’s left, said. She was a pale cream color, with brown banding on her muzzle and head, and a brick-red crest like Lorathom’s. “When we’re finished here, we’re going to send you back. You shouldn’t have been brought here in the first place.”

“Aside from your collapse this morning,” Om said, “you seem to be taking this, ahhh, translation to another world rather calmly.”

“I’ve done it before.” She couldn’t make these people out. “This is the fifth time. I’m getting used to it.” She wondered if her ears revealed how she really felt about that.

“I don’t completely understand,” Lerthrop said. Her ear twitch signified complete disbelief. “Why would you choose to go to where you are physically changed from your normal self?”

“Because I am needed. I am not here for pleasure.”

“This is ridiculous,” Hikram Rinidan, the man to the left of Roma said, though not unkindly. It had been he who had held her left arm that morning. He was a grayish brown, darker than Om or Lerthrop, shaded with a warmer brown, and with a crest several shades darker still. He wore a bandage across the palm of his right hand. It was he who had cut himself on Jeanette’s dagger.

“We don’t need just another person,” Shantar Gles, the man to Lirikatli’s right said. He was a reddish tan, with a dark, warm gray crest. “We need a demon.”

“And you are not a demon,” Belagor said. “You are not who we were summoning.”

“Maybe not,” Jeanette said, “but here I am.”

“We should have known it wouldn’t work,” Roma said to the table in general. “We’ve never summoned a demon before,” he said to Jeanette, “but we are desperate, and we were trying to use old lore that no one has practiced for centuries. We obviously did it wrong.”

“But here I am,” Jeanette said again, impatiently, and this time she could feel her ears press flat against the sides of her head.

“And we will send you back,” Hikram said.

“What makes you think,” Belagor said to him, “that we’ll be any more successful with that? If she goes at all, who knows where she’ll wind up?”

“You won’t send me anywhere,” Jeanette said, keeping herself calm, “even if your lore is true. You did not bring me here. I just heard your call, and came by my choice, on my own power. Although I suppose I should have given myself time to heal first.”

“All right,” Shantar said, “even if this were true, what could you do for us? We need someone with the ability to penetrate the Chancellor’s defenses, and restore the Main-Quey,” an archaic word that meant something like the key of a lock, or a center or focus, or the heart of something.

“Exactly,” Om said. “People have tried before, and many have died. We need a super-human agent.”

“But here I am,” Jeanette said yet again. She sighed. Then she showed them the black ring. “Does this mean anything to you?”

They looked at it from where they sat, but none of them recognized it, although several ears twitched.

“How about this?” She took the dagger from inside her shirt and held it up to them. It meant nothing to them. They didn’t know who she was. She put the dagger away. Several of them cringed. This could make her task a lot harder. She really didn’t want to be here in the first place. But she had made her choice, and she was going to have to deal with it. “All right, but did you really expect to summon a demon?”

“Yes,” they severally said, “we did.”

“Then why can’t you accept that I’m here to do what you wanted the demon to do?”

“Because you’re just a person,” Lerthrop said, “and what can one person do?”

“Sometimes a lot of things. Why don’t you tell me about it.”

“I’m sorry,” Shantar said, “it’s not your problem.”

“Yes it is.” And though her voice was even, she knew that her ears were giving away her feelings. “You called me here. The least you can do is tell me why.”

“She’s right,” Lorathom said. “Her being here is our responsibility, at some level or another. We can’t take her away from where she really belongs, and then just say, ‘oops, sorry,’ and send her home again. We have kidnapped her. Despite our need, that’s still a crime. The least we can do is explain.”

“We haven’t kidnapped her,” Om said. “If we had, do you think she’d be sitting here so calmly? If it had happened to me, I’d be furious.”

“So you’re saying,” Lirikatli said, “that she’s here of her own free will? Just like she told us?”

“Ahh….”

“But we did bring here here,” Hikram said.

“So then,” Lirikatli said, “tell her why. Even if she responded to our summons voluntarily, she deserves an explanation.”

“It’s none of her business,” Shantar said.

“So what?” Roma said. “That’s no reason to be rude. We made a mistake. Telling her it’s not her business is extremely discourteous.”

“She’s shown us nothing but forbearance and courtesy since she woke up,” Lirikatli said. “It puts us to shame if we don’t show the same forbearance and courtesy in return.”

“You’re right,” Belagor said, and eventually, after a few more minutes of discussion, everybody came to agree, even if some of them were reluctant.

“All right then,” Shantar said to Jeanette, “what we need is to return the Main-Quey to the Spiral’s Heart.”

“Empa Tethicho,” Belagor said, “is Chancellor of Shotoban. He took power from Venn Dricato, the previous Chancellor —”

“Probably killed him,” Roma said.

“Probably. Then he removed the Main-Quey from the Spiral’s Heart, and began enforcing all the worst conformist policies of the Unity Party.”

“The party slogan,” Lirikatli said, “is, ‘Pull together for the best of all,’ but what it means is, conform or die.”

“It’s not always that bad,” Belagor said, “but non-conformists can’t hold office, can lose their property, can be deported —”

“But yes,” Om said, “many are killed.”

“His followers,” Belagor said, “support him unquestioningly. They are given preferment, the wealth and property of the non-conformists …”

“His influence over people is unnatural,” Roma said. “It’s fairly obvious that he’s getting demonic assistance of some kind.”

“We don’t get much news from outside Shotoban any more,” Lorathom said. “Anything against his policies is suppressed. But we do know that other governments don’t like what he’s doing.”

“Without the Main-Quey to hold the other Arc-Stanes in focus,” Om said, using another archaic term which Jeanette couldn’t quite get the meaning of, “there’s a real possibility that Empa Tethicho will be able to take over other governments as well, one way or another.”

“I assume,” Jeanette said, “that he controls the military and the police.”

“Of course. They’re conformists by nature and necessity.”

“And what are Arc-Stanes,” she asked, “and what is the Main-Quey that it should have so much of an effect on them?” The question confused them, as if she had asked, what are my hands, and what are they good for? “I really don’t know. I’m not just from another country on the other side of the world.”

“Well, of course not,” Lerthrop said. “There is no other side of the world.”

This took Jeanette by surprise, but before she could more than wonder, Belagor said, in a tone of voice used for children, “All right, ahm, most simply put, an Arc-Stane is the symbol and embodiment of the spirit of a people, or a country. No race or nation exists without an Arc-Stane. If an Arc-Stane is lost, a new one must be put in place immediately, or the country, or region, or race, falls into chaos.”

“Which is why we know that the Main-Quey still exists,” Lirikatli said. “If the Main-Quey had been destroyed, Empa Tethicho would sink into the foam of anarchy and chaos along with everyone else. He’s just been removed from the Spiral’s Heart and hidden.”

“Wait a minute,” Jeanette said, “the Main-Quey is a person?”

“Well, of course,” Lerthrop said. “What did you think?”

“I didn’t know what to think. I’ve never heard of a Main-Quey, or an Arc-Stane before now. I’m not from here, remember?”

The silence indicated that this fact was finally beginning to sink in.

“The Main-Quey is the supreme Arc-Stane,” Belagor said at last.

“You really didn’t know?” Lorathom asked.

“Really, I didn’t know.” And her guide hadn’t told her. This was not encouraging.

It took a moment for them to digest this. Lerthrop and Om remained skeptical.

“We are not the only underground,” Shantar said, “but most of us were part of Venn Dricato’s government before he was deposed, and all of us have demonstrated spiritual strength and ability. Which is why we have chosen the means we have to restore the Main-Quey.”

“We’re pretty sure the Main-Quey is still somewhere in the Capitol Building,” Om said. “Other people have tried to get in and rescue him. Those who made it out alive say that the Main-Quey is in there somewhere, but they were either unable to locate him, or get to him before being discovered and forced to flee.”

“Four out of five,” Roma said, “died in the attempt.”

“Worse than that,” Lirikatli said.

“But demons are not constrained the way people are,” Lorathom said, “and so might succeed where mere humans have failed.”

“At least,” Hikram said, “that is our hope and understanding.”

“I see,” Jeanette said. “And when was the last time anyone successfully summoned a demon?”

There was an uncertain pause, then Lirikatli said, “More than four hundred years ago.”

“I see,” Jeanette said, looking at the faces around her. “Well.” Even the skeptical ones were a touch chagrinned at the admission. “That sounds like the kind of thing I’m supposed to be able to deal with.” She felt herself sinking inside.

“Can you walk through walls?” Om asked her.

“I don’t know, I’ve never tried.” The Arkenome’s black belt came to mind. Did it have that kind of power? She touched the black iron buckle, but it told her nothing. “Can demons walk through walls?”

“They’re supposed to be able to.”

“And if you had your demon, how do you know it would do what you wanted it to?”

“Its service to us,” Lorathom said, “would be our price for returning it home.”

“And it would not try to exact any vengeance for being kidnapped and forced into service?”

“It’s a chance we have to take,” Hikram said doggedly.

“We have ways to protect ourselves,” Shantar said.

“Which are probably as effective as your summoning,” Jeanette said dryly.

They didn’t know how to respond to that, but the logic did not escape them.

“And you won’t take a chance with me,” she went on.

“What could you possibly do?” Lerthrop asked, a bit impatient herself. “You don’t even know what an Arc-Stane is.”

“I don’t know what I could do, but what choice have you? You are not sorcerers. You don’t know how to summon. And if by some chance you were able to summon a demon, you couldn’t contain it, nor could you make it work for you.”

“She’s right,” Hikram said despairingly. “She’s right.”

“I still think —” Lerthrop said.

“Why? All the times we’ve tried, and nothing.”

“Until she came,” Roma said.

“That’s right,” Jeanette said. “And I did come. And unlike a demon, my reason for being here is to solve your problem. And when I’m done …” she took a breath, “I’ll go home again. The same way I came. Under my own power.”

Nobody had anything to say. They just looked at her doubtfully. Even Lirikatli’s left ear twitched a bit.

Jeanette stood from the table, the others did the same. They probably intended to go to the parlor, but Jeanette stayed where she was and, as if she were being guided, put her hands on her belt. She felt the power now, felt the weave of reality, thought about her home, felt a wave of darkness around her — natural, not magical. She felt it, and felt the present place so she would be able to find her way back again. Then, while everybody was watching, she went home.

#

You can get the book here.