Part 5

by BKWillis


'Lock you in a dream,
Never let you go.
Never let you laugh
Or smile, not you.'
--The Ramones


It rained with the intensity of a young widow's tears, a wind-driven
pounding as though the sky sought to murder the land. Thunder
grumbled and raged in the leaden sky, a mindless bass growling
that rattled window, wall, and bone and counterpointed the endless
hammering of the rain. Lightning would have been welcome, if only
to relieve the sodden gray oppression by its flashy spectacle, but
there was only rain.

Nyssaias hugged her sopping wings tighter around her in a futile
effort to keep dry, as well as to prevent the screaming wind from
catching them and carrying her away. She walked with her body
hunched close around the precious burden her stepmother had
sent her after, a single tiny sprout of a fireflower in a tiny clay pot,
doing her best to shield it from the storm's grasp. It was only a few
more blocks to home, and if she could just keep the flower from
getting _too_ battered, Kassiandra should be able to fix it up.

Thoughts of home and her stepmother's smiles and hugs cheered
her as the rain flailed at her in aimless fury. It wasn't often that
Nyssaias felt despair. Why should she? She had parents who
loved her, wonderful friends, and the beautiful marble spires of the
City of Dreams to call her home. And if the grinding gray
hammering of the storm cast a shadow on her heart, then all she
had to do was remind herself of the better things. No rain could
wash away the love of her family or the joy of her friends. No mere
storm could shake the scintillant brilliance of the City of Dreams
and the thousand thousand wonders under its soaring minarets.

Nyssaias stopped to look off to her right, as she always did when
passing this spot on the road home. In the middle distance,
between the ivory towers of the Grand Academy, she could see
the shining, gold-chased dome of the Temple of Remembrance,
possibly the most gorgeous view in the entire City. Even in the
rain and the brooding gray light, that vast expanse of quartz and
marble and gleaming filigree-tracing shone like a beacon, a reminder
and symbol of all that was precious in this place. She blinked
rainwater out of her eyes and drank in the sight of it, a moment
that was dear to her every time.

But now, as the rain beat and beat and beat upon the City, the
dome was somehow changed. The twining lines of gold-set
etchings had grown dark, as if by tarnishing, and the pristine
whiteness of the stonework was washing away in runnels like
cheap paint, leaving behind the pitted black of worn basalt. Even
as she looked on it, the very outline of the dome began to change,
giving way under the merciless pounding, sinking and twisting as
it grew ever darker, until it was but a series of low and somehow
horrible humps squatting amid the shadows of blackened and
deformed towers that clawed at the implacable sky.

It was then that she noticed that the street around her was
changing, too. The gem-set pavement buckled and reared and
was swept away by the torrents rushing down it, leaving a scar of
wounded earth behind. The storefronts sagged, their multi-hued
marble drooping and running like so much cake icing to reveal
pitted and rot-eaten facades, empty windows staring with corpse-
eyes at the storm.

She shrank back in horror from the sight, only to feel a sharp
pain in the palm of her hand. Looking down, she saw the
fireflower writhing in its pot, its petals gone a malarial yellow
and lashing blindly about with the tiny fangs that had sprouted
within them. With a cry, she cast it away, where the greedy wind
caught it and swept it away out of sight.

She ran.

Trying not to look at the twisted desolation spreading around her,
she focused solely on getting home. She had to reach her father
and stepmother; that mattered more than anything else. And as
she ran, the wind pushed and snatched at her, seeking to tear her
away or hold her back. At length, she became conscious of words
in its frantic howling -- haunting, familiar words that whispered with
a traitor's insistence from just beside her. "...the past is our
deadliest enemy: a foe without mercy or compunction... The pain
of remembering that which we had and lost pales beside the agony
of the might-have-beens..."

She clamped her hands over her ears, but the voice was still there.
Screaming now, she turned the last corner on the way to her house.
And stopped.

A girl stood in the street before her, blocking the path by sheer
presence. Beautiful she was, with long scarlet tresses undampened
by the rain and eyes of an impossible blue. But it was the beauty
of a killing frost, for there was neither warmth nor compassion nor
any softer human feeling on that finely-molded face, only a frigid
relentlessness that seemed to damn all it looked upon. A gown of
purest black clung to her like a second skin, while two membranous
wings of equal darkness stood out from her back, unmoved by the
screeching gale.

The girl stood with hands raised to the sky in invocation, and it
was then that Nyssaias realized that here was the source of the
storm. All this wind, all this rain, all this wild fury spawned from
this one point and the havoc it wrought was no accident, but the
bidding of its mistress.

"Why?!" Nyssaias wailed as she sank to her knees in helpless

Slowly, the girl brought those glacial eyes to bear on her. They
narrowed and her lips twisted into a snarl of hateful madness as
she brought one finger down to point like an accusation straight
at Nyssaias's heart. And as the storm built to a furious crescendo
around them, she finally spoke: "Wake up, dear. Breakfast is


Hazy sunlight filtered through the kitchen window as Nyssaias
picked fitfully at her blueberry pancakes, her mind clearly
elsewhere. Her father sat across from her, all but his hands and
the top of his head hidden behind the Saturday _Daily Post_, while
her stepmother, at her left, watched her with some concern.

"Are you certain you're all right, dear?" Kassiandra asked her
again. "You seem very out of sorts this morning."

She nodded slowly, still thinking. "I'm fine, thanks. I just had a
disturbing dream, is all. It's nothing, really."

Kassiandra smiled gently and reached over to smooth back her
stepdaughter's hair. "The cure for bad dreams is to tell them, you
know. But first, your breakfast. It's bad luck to tell a dream before
you've eaten."

There was a snort behind the newspaper as Tremaeus lowered it
to cast a doubtful look at his wife. "Superstition!" he barked, but
as Kassiandra raised an eyebrow at him, he amended it with,
"However, there _are_ psychological benefits to recounting
unpleasant stimuli while enjoying the positive stimulus of a
full stomach."

Kassiandra sighed theatrically into her coffee, winking at Nyssaias
as she did. "Ah, the paradox of being a Muse of Science..."

"No more so than being a Dryad housewife," Tremaeus chuckled,
returning the dig in kind. "Or should I call you a 'Wood Nymph'?"

Kassiandra reached over and picked a loose brown feather from his
right wing before replying. "Ha! Perhaps if I were as young and
pretty as Nyssaias. Since I'm such a gray old matron, we'd best
keep it to that technical accuracy you so adore." This was, of
course, a fiction-and-a-half. Kassiandra, at thirty, was the envy of
girls half her age, her husband's daughter included, and the next
gray hair she found in her mass of auburn curls would be the first.
"Just call me 'Dryad Second Class, Limited License, Flowering
Plants Division'."

"Oh, that's much too unwieldy to say." Tremaeus considered for
a moment. "Why don't I call you 'darling', instead?"

"I don't know," Kassiandra replied airily. "Why _don't_ you?"

Tremaeus blew a long breath through his gray-brown beard and
turned his eyes to his daughter. "Nyssaias, please do your father
a favor. When you grow up -- which had best not be too soon --
try not to be so forward as your stepmother. It's quite bad enough
that women are fairer and wiser than us; to have one's wife
consistently outwit one as well is more than we poor men can

Kassiandra kissed him lightly on the cheek. "I'm just trying to
keep you lively, dear. If I didn't, all those facts and numbers would
get to you and turn you into some horrid dry automaton."

"How odd. I should think a dryad would _prefer_ a 'wooden'

Nyssaias couldn't help but giggle at that, pun-lover that she was,
while Kassiandra just looked pained. She gave her husband
another small peck on the cheek, and a tug on the beard at the same
time. "That," she declared, "was awful. If that's going to be the
tone of conversation, I think we'd all be best off using our mouths
for eating rather than speaking."

Sighing, Nyssaias made an effort against her stack of pancakes, but
her appetite just wasn't there. Kassiandra was a marvelous cook
and Nyssaias hated to disappoint her, but her stomach felt as
though she'd swallowed a knotted rope and the more she thought
about her dream, the bigger the knots became. Finally, after she'd
pushed the same piece of food around her plate three times, her
stepmother relented her imperious staring and began gathering up
dishes and leftovers.

"I'm sorry, Kassiandra," she murmured. "I'm just not hungry this

"It's okay, dear. I'm just worried about you." Kassiandra gave her
shoulders a quick squeeze as she bustled around the table.

Now Tremaeus set his paper aside and focused on her, too. "That
must have been some dream, daughter. I don't think I've ever seen
you this bothered before."

Nyssaias tried to wave off their concern. "It was just a... nightmare,
was all. Nothing to worry about." Nightmare. It was a strange
word to say. She'd written it before, in stories, and heard other
people use it, but she couldn't remember ever actually saying it
in reference to herself.

Tremaeus noted that, too. "I should say it isn't 'nothing'. Have
you ever had a nightmare before?"

She hadn't. As far back as she could remember, her dreams had
always been pleasant ones. Sometimes they were odd and
sometimes they were dull and prosaic, but they were all uniformly
happy or bright. She'd heard that dreams were most often based
in a person's life experiences, and her own life had held only good
things for as long as she could recall. The one sad event in her life,
the death of her mother, had happened when Nyssaias was just an
infant. She had no recollection of her mother, which was a bit
disappointing, but she'd had a loving father and a stepmother she
idolized and so felt no particular void in her life from that fact. She
was bright, pretty, popular, and excelled at everything she tried.
She'd never had a reason to feel anything but glad about life,
whether awake or asleep. Until now.

"No, I never have before."

"Of course you haven't. You're a child of the Light. It isn't in your
nature to have bad dreams just out of the blue."

"It had to do with that girl at school, didn't it?" Nymphs, wood- or
otherwise, may not have been noted for their perspicacity, but
precious little got by Kassiandra, especially where family was
concerned. "The one you had the run-in with yesterday?"

Nyssaias's expression answered better than words could.

Tremaeus patted her on the arm. "There there, dear. I hadn't
realized that this mysterious friend of yours was the source of so
much turmoil for you."

"Of course she is," Kassiandra said from over by the sink before
Nyssaias could answer. "Nyssaias takes after her father in that
single-minded devotion to finding answers. Think how you
yourself are when there's some unsolved problem in front of you."

"Right now, I just want to know why she's so angry with me,"
Nyssaias blurted. "I've gone over and over what I said and I just
can't figure out what I did wrong!" She slumped forward, pulling
her wings in tight and burying her face in her hands.

"Now, don't take on so, daughter," Tremaeus cooed. "Thinking in
circles will get you nowhere."

"What was your dream about, dear?" Kassiandra asked gently,
letting the dishes be for the moment. "Dreams often hold the keys
to our most vexing dilemmas."

Nyssaias chewed at her lip a little, considering how best to answer.
"Well... It was like this..."


April 24th, 10th Year of Pandora's Ascension

Dear diary:

Things aren't going so well.

It feels strange to write those words about myself, but it's the truth.
I seem to be experiencing a great many strange things, now that
we've moved to Outside. No, scratch that. I seem to be
experiencing a great many strange things since I met _her_, things
I never have before. And I have to wonder, is it _her_ doing, or am
I changing? I just don't know.

I need answers. Father's influence, Kassiandra says; can't just
accept things without knowing all the whys and wherefores. I need
to know about Embericles. It sounds a bit daft, but I can't know
why I'm so caught up in her mystery until I solve it. Once I
understand her, I'll know why I feel the need to do so.

Right now, I'm at a dead end. Somehow, I've caused Embericles to
go from not caring about me at all to being angry at me. Very
angry. And I don't know why. It must be something I said, but
what? Perhaps she hates me now. That's another of those famous
'new experiences' of mine -- no one's ever hated me before, as far as
I know. I'm not sure how to handle this. Should I be angry at her in
return? But I don't feel any anger in my heart toward her. I just
want her to not hate me. I want to be her friend.

It's getting to me so much, I had a nightmare about her -- new
experience #3 -- all storms and darkness and twisted things. It
was horrid. And yet, there was something somehow _grand_
about the whole thing. The power, the destruction, the terrible
distorted majesty of it. Just like her story. Just like her story.

Is that what it's like to see things through her eyes, an endless
brooding nightmare? I want to know. I _will_ know.

I told my parents about the dream, of course, and they both
offered good advice. Father told me to approach the problem
scientifically: gather all the data I can and then form a hypothesis.
Since the facts I have don't tell me why she's angry with me, I need
more facts. Unfortunately, I only know of two places to have a
start at getting them, one likely and one a long shot, but at least I
won't be just chasing my tail over the same scenario over and over.

Kassiandra's advice was a bit more cryptic, and I'm still thinking
about what exactly it might mean. She waited until Father left the
room, then she turned to me and said, "Nyssaias, always remember
that not everyone who walks in the darkness is lost. I came by that
knowledge the hard way, and I tell you so that you need not." I
thought she was telling me to stay away from Embericles, so I
asked if that was what she meant, but she just smiled and kissed me
and said, "You have a good heart, dear. I do not think it will lead
you astray if you follow it, so long as your eyes are open."

Though I'm not 100% sure what she meant in concrete terms, I
can't help but think that what she said is important.

That's enough for now. I've got some phone calls to make.


<ringring ringring ringr-->


"Hi. Could I speak to Sarah Jane, please?"

<Just a moment. Sarah! Phone for you! I think it's one of your
anonymous sources!>

<Thanks, Mum. Hello, Smith here. You can talk, there's no tap on
this phone. Interpol need never know.>

"Um... great. Hi, Sarah. It's me, Nyssaias."

<Oh, hello! Sorry, I thought you were-- Aheh. Never mind who I
thought you were. It doesn't matter. Forget you even heard the

"Er, what name?"

<That's the spirit, Nyssaias! We'll make a snoop out of you yet!
Anyhow, what can I do for you?>

"Well... you remember we were talking about Embericles

<Yes. You want information on her.>

"Why... why yes. How did you know?"

<Hey, I'm a journalist. It's one of my superpowers. Seriously,
though, give me your e-mail address, and I'll see that something
useful shows up in your mailbox. It won't be from me, though.
Plausible deniability, right?>

"I've never even heard the name."

<Good girl...>


As it turned out, Sarah Jane was a quick mover. When Nyssaias
checked her e-mail about ten minutes after she'd gotten off the
phone, there was already a message waiting for her.


Hello, total stranger

This is a spam message just like millions of others on the 'net and
has been sent to you entirely at random and not on purpose at all,
no matter what anyone says. Free multi-level viagra descramblers,
or something.


There was a text file attached, which she downloaded and opened.
It read:

(All information compiled by a questionnaire or survey or
something and not by hacking the school mainframe, no matter
what Mr. Maxil thinks. You can't prove a thing.)

Student Name (Last, First, Middle): Embericles
Sex: F
Race/Species: Winged humanoid, unknown type
Date of Birth: / /
Place of Birth:
Current Address: 13-E Baker Av., Nameless, OC
Telephone #:
Parents/Guardians Names: Liselda (Mother)

Address: not known/no fixed abode

Parent(s) w/o Legal Custody (if applicable): Hausakliufr (Father)

Address: not known/no fixed abode

Enrolled in School System: 31/08/1st Year of Pandora's Ascension
By: Hausakliufr
Medical Conditions: None

This was followed by a page summarizing the marks Embericles had
earned in her various subjects since entering school. Nothing out
of the ordinary there. She'd done consistently well in English
courses right from the beginning, was a fair student at History, and
tended to do rather poorly at Math, Science, and everything else,
which could probably be chalked up more to lack of interest than
lack of intelligence. She scrolled down.

The last six pages consisted of Embericles's disciplinary record, a
litany of suspensions and punishments that grew more frequent
with each passing year. She was suspended from Grade School
no less than nineteen times, mostly for fighting, but sometimes for
insubordinate behavior or causing unspecified disruptions in class.
Wells High School had suspended her three times for
'insubordinate and disrespectful conduct' before her expulsion and
jailing following the incident in the third-floor lavatory. That
infamous event was simply written up as:

17/10/9th Year of Pandora's Ascension: Indefinite expulsion
following multiple-assault incident. Transferred to jurisdiction of
Juvenile Courts.

Pretty dry stuff, for the most part. Nyssaias scrolled back up to the
first page and looked at it again. Quite a bit of information had
been left out, but what was there had a story to tell. Embericles's
parents did not, apparently, live together. Her father was listed as
'parent without legal custody', yet he had registered her at school.
Her mother was her legal guardian, but did not, apparently, live
with her. Was she alone even at home, then? And if so, why?

("I have no folks. My father is dead.")

Could the ending of 'Ironclad' be a clue of sorts? But if
Embericles's parents were dead, it would say 'deceased' in the
records and list a different guardian.

She thought back to the ending of that story. Markhem, the
protagonist, hadn't actually known that his father was dead when
he said that, although he must have suspected it. It was more a
symbolic statement, showing how Markhem had cut his ties with
his past, which was also symbolized by his bombing of his own

("...the past is our deadliest enemy...")

That made some degree of sense. For whatever reason, she was
estranged from her parents and so rejected them. Perhaps it was
Nyssaias's mentioning of her own parents that set Embericles off?

Somehow, that just didn't seem like enough, not nearly enough to
rattle someone as tough and self-possessed as Embericles. She
was getting closer, she felt, but still lacked quite a bit.

She looked again, noting what it didn't say under 'Place of Birth',
and that was any listing for Outside. That raised the possibility
that Embericles was not from Outside at all, but rather some
neighboring region, which possibility served to feed a theory
Nyssaias had toyed with off-and-on: to wit, that Embericles
might very well be connected to the Lesser Divinities, as her own
family was. That theory would certainly explain the girl's wings
and whatever mysterious 'power' it was that she possessed, but it
ran into the simple snag that she didn't otherwise fit the bill of a
Divinity. No Divinity of the Light would have such a cold and
hostile personality, while she'd never met a Divinity of the Dark
whose appearance was other than monstrous. Even the fairest and
most anthropomorphic of the Dark Ones, the Succubi, had
unmistakable horns and fangs, neither of which Embericles bore.

There was one good way to settle that question. She picked up the
phone again.


<ringinginging ringinging-->

<Hello. You have reached the City of Dreams Public Records
Office automated phone system. Our hours are from 1 AM to 7:23
AM on alternate Tuesdays in months without the letter 'R' in them,
9 PM to 5:15 AM on most other weekdays except when we don't
feel like it, and 11 AM to Noon on Saturdays. If you wish to speak
with the operator, press '1'. If you wish to speak with someone in
management, press '2'. If you wish to hear a list of Departmental
Extensions, press '3'. If you wish to preserve your sanity, hang up.
Or, if you know the name of the party you wish to speak with, you
may speak it at any time during this message and you will be
transferred to either that extension or a Phone Sex line, depending
on how many glitches are in the system this week-->


<One moment, please, while we transfer your call to either
extension 7124, Elenaias, or to 1-900-NEKKIDD.>


<Records Office, Elenaias speaking.>

"Hello, cousin!"

<Nyss?! Wow! It's great to hear from you! Hey, how are you
liking it there in Outside? We all miss you here, you know!>

"It's different, El, I'll say that for it. It's certainly never dull. How
are you liking your job there?"

<I'm not, not this week. The Fashion Disaster's been hanging
around with Peorth again, and you _know_ how she gets when
Peorth out-weirds her in clothes, right? Warpath city. And you
wouldn't believe what she's wearing today, even if I could find the
words to describe it. Who'd ever think a Goddess First Class
would be such a nutball? You'd think all that testing they do
would cull out some of the freaks, but no such luck. But, hey, I'm
sure you didn't call to listen to me whine about working for the
Maiden of Pain and her eyeball-torture dresses.>

"Actually, I was wondering if you could help me with something."

<School project or some such? Sure. What do you need?>

"Something like that. I was wanting to look up someone on the
Census Rolls."

<Oh, sorry, can't help you there. That's the Divinity and Personal
Rolls Department.>

"But I thought that _was_ your department?"

<_Was_, yeah. I'm in Property Transfers now. They shuffle us
around periodically to make sure that no one has time to actually
learn the systems. It's part of the Fashion Disaster's 'Minimal
Efficiency' initiative.>

"Oh, dear."

<But I can transfer your call to the right person. Just hang on a
minute... Great talking to you, Nyss.>

"Thanks, El. You, too."

<ringinginging ringinginging ring-->

<Records Office, Glasya.>

"Hello. I was needing to look up some information on the Census

<Sorry. We don't give out information over the phone.>

"But... it's a _Public_ Records Office."

<Yeah. And?>

"So, if the information is public, why don't you give it out over the

<Because you can't pay the fee if I give it out over the phone.>

"What fee? The records are supposed to be open to the public."

<They are.>

"So, why is there a fee?"

<Scribe fee.>

"Scribe fee?"

<Yeah. The fee to have one of our scribes hand-copy the
information for you onto a sheet of vellum, in illuminated script.>

"But I don't need an illuminated vellum copy."

<That's the only way we can give it out.>

"But isn't everything down there computerized?"

<Of course it is! We could never store all this information if it

"So, why can't you send it as an e-file, or just look it up and tell me
over the phone?"

<I'm not authorized to answer that question. Only the Managing
Director is.>

"Well then, can I speak to the Managing Director, please?"

<Sure. It's your funeral. One moment, and I'll transfer you.>


<Records Office, Managing Director Loviatar speaking.>

"Yes, hello. I was just calling about getting some information

<We don't give out information over the phone. You can come
down here and get an illuminated manuscript of the documents
you need at five guilders per page, to cover the scribing fee.>

"But I don't want an illuminated manuscript copy! Why can't you
give it out over the phone? These are _public_ records, after all!"

<Indeed. And our brief is to provide access to these records to the
general public without charge. What you will not find in our
charter is any reference to making it easy for you.>


<You heard me, young lady. We have to provide the public with
the information they request, but we don't have to like it and we
don't have to be helpful about it. Quite frankly, you general-public
types are a tremendous annoyance to those of us in Civil Service
and if we can't make you go away, we can at least amuse ourselves
by making your experience with us as maddening, tedious, and
demeaning as possible.>

"That's... That's _awful_!"

<Sure it is. And it's also true. Would you rather I told you a lie?>


<At any rate, if you want information from us, you'll have to either
come down here and have it transcribed, or send us a money order
for the full fee and a notarized request and we'll put you a copy in
the mail. Allow four to thirty-three weeks for processing and
delivery, assuming we don't -- heh heh -- 'lose' your request.>

Nyssaias threw up her hands, more frustrated than she'd been
since, well, ever. "This is the most absurd thing I've ever heard!"

<That's the Civil Service promise! But, what's truly obscene about
the whole thing is that, in the time it's taken me to tell you all this, I
could have already looked up everything you wanted on my
computer! But I'm still getting paid! I love this job! Apart from
occasionally giving out info to journalists, I get to spend my whole
day belittling the public and tyrannizing my subordinates! If I
could just find a way to close that blasted 'Free Press' loophole,
this would be ideal.>

Something clicked in her mind. "You have to give out information
to journalists?"

<Yeah. That's always a pain, but our charter says we have to
provide info to journalists promptly and without hindrance. But,
hey, every pie has to have a crust.>

"But _I'm_ a journalist!"

<_Sure_ you are.>

"No, really, I'm writing for the _Wells Register_, a school paper."

<Sure, sure. What's your name?>


<Uh-oh. Um, who's your editor?>

"Sarah Jane Smith."

<Ah, buggery! You _are_ a journalist! Reindeer dung! All right,
it's a fair cop. What do you want to know?>

"What's in the census about a girl named 'Embericles'?"

<Hold on... Hmmmmm... Doo-dee-doo-dah... Well, it looks like...


<Not a sausage. No 'Embericles' listed on the Rolls as a Divinity,
not from here, not from Subreality, not from anywhere. No listing
under Mortals for this City, either. There's an 'Emeticus', Fifth-
Class Demon of Purging...>

Nyssaias slumped across her desk. "All this... All this for

<Anything else while I've got the Rolls called up?>

The winged girl glanced back up at her screen, sighing. "What
about a 'Liselda'?"

<Hmmm... Yep, got a listing for her, under Divinities.>

"Really?!" Nyssaias snapped up straight again. "What does it

<'Liselda. Succubus Second Class, Unlimited License, on station
in the Swevyn district, City of Dreams.' That's all that's on the Roll.
For more detailed information, you'd have to check with the
Succubus Dispatch Office.>

Nyssaias's throat was dry, and she could barely whisper, "What
about a 'Hausakliufr'?"

<Hausakliufr? Let's see... Hauntthorn, Haurghara... Ah,
Hausakliufr. Says here, 'Berserking Demon Fourth Class, Limited
License. Assigned to Earth as roving agent since the 184th Year
of Cassiopeia's Ascension.' Now, will there be anything else?
Hello? Are you there? Hello...?>

(to be continued)


Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 6 - Part 7 - Part 8

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