A\N: Hi, peeps, welcome to the first draft of Under Meteors. Let it be said now that I will R&R something of yours if you do the same, but not if you just put 'good job, keep writing' or 'update!'. I want you to write something that shows you read. I make sure to always do so; it's just common courtesy.

So anyway, R&R, and hopefully enjoy my story.

5/4/2004 - I named all the chapters. Go me.

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One: Influx

*~*~*

Twenty minutes into the first meeting of the Tribune Arcana he'd managed to sneak into, Quell fell off the balcony.

~*~

"I swear I just saw the curtain move!!" Yanna hissed. Her catlike tail swished back and forth with apprehension. Quell Vertigo sighed and rolled his eyes.

"Yanna, you just said that five minutes ago."

"Yeah!"

"And I told you then that no one is going to find us."

"Your point?"

"My point is that it was true five minutes ago, and it's still true now. No one is going to find us."

"But—"

"Yanna, no one comes up here. Didn't you see all the webs we passed on our way up?"

"We all saw 'em," piped up Strydda, "at least before Marron walked through 'em all."

"Hmph," said Marron from the corner.

Quell glanced over at the warrior. He was sulking near the door, swathed in cobwebs. Despite his spirited attempts to claw them from his face, they remained stubbornly where they were. His breathing was (un)fortunately unhindered, but his words were unintelligible, and he couldn't see. Rystrahn, the group's mage, was glancing thoughtfully at Marron.

"What up, Ryst?" asked Strydda.

"Just thinking," the mage said, his voice distant. "I was going to assist him with a minor breeze spell, but I think I prefer him this way."

"Imph gmpha hmph fmph, Hmphsmph."

"So close and yet so far," Ryst moaned. "Covers the horror that is his face but can do nothing to spare our ears . . ."

"Hmphsmph!!"

Quell chuckled, then flinched as Yanna's claws dug into his back. "Ow!!"

"We're going to get caught, and they'll throw us in jail!!!"

"I just hope we get separate cells," Quell muttered. "Why would we get thrown in jail? For sneaking in? They'll just kick us out. Quit worrying." He kept his gaze on the council below, who were assembling.

"As long as Strydda kept her hands to herself, we're fine," snapped Rystrahn, who was also affected by the tense atmosphere on the balcony.

"Oops," piped up Strydda.

"'Oops'? What's 'oops'?!" demanded Yanna, rounding on the grinning thief.

"You guys should've reminded me about the 'no touchy' rule before." Strydda reached into one of her many voluminous pockets and drew out a long string of pearls.

Quell groaned. "Strydda—"

"What'd you do?" Rystrahn asked, grinning. "No, wait, don't tell me . . . it's funnier to imagine it . . ."

"Well, there was this fat lady practically dripping pearls, and I thought, well, she can always buy some more—"

Yanna, now frustrated beyond words, grabbed the pearls from the impish thief and heaved them into the rafters. Strydda screeched in protest. Or would have, if Quell had not anticipated this move and clamped his hand over her mouth.

"Ow!!"

"Whmph?" inquired Marron, who'd by this time managed to claw some webs from his face. Ryst glanced at him and cringed theatrically.

"Um . . . I think he said, 'What's ow?'" translated the mage.

"The little gerbil bit me!!"

"Tough luck. Just keep her quiet," Yanna ordered.

"Grumble," Quell said sarcastically. "You watch her! You're the one who made her mad!"

"Just pick it up and toss it over," suggested Rystrahn, who was leaning over the balcony, apparently trying to get a better view of the famous beauty of the Supreme Advocate Circe Fel. All he was succeeding in doing was making Strydda very, very angry.

She wiggled free and demanded, "'It'? You didn't just call me an 'it', did you?!"

"I did."

"Jerk."

"Nit."

"Dipstick."

"Rickshaw."

Quell stopped nursing his wounded hand and glanced at Ryst in surprise. "Did you actually call her a rickshaw?!"

"Yup."

"Phut!!" Strydda cried, apparently not noticing that the exchanged of insults had momentarily ceased. Rystrahn was more than happy to jump back in.

"Cheerleader!"

"Creep!"

"Totebag!"

"You're just picking random words, ain't'cha?"

"Hey, you're one to talk! What the hell's a phut?!"

"You!!"

Yanna decided to step in between them. All the fur on the back of the catgirl's neck was standing straight up. "Guys, shut up before they hear us!"

"Yanna, we're something like a hundred feet up! Who's gonna hear us up here?" Quell asked, exasperated.

"The guards on the balcony twenty feet below us, maybe?"

"Shut up," Marron ordered, having finally removed the last of the webs. He was ignored.

"Hey, guys, look, they're starting," Rystrahn interrupted, pushing back his hood. He leaned back over the balcony and considered throwing something at the young mage taking the podium below. But— Ryst furrowed his brow, confused. There was something about that girl . . .

Quell came up beside him and looked down. A young woman had taken the floor and was preparing to speak. He wished they were closer so he could see her face.

"Ryst?"

"Um?"

"Who is she?"

"Hmm—" The mage shut his eyes and began to mutter something in Solenian, the accepted language of the mageborn.

"What're you doing?"

"Mage things. Shut up." Quell made a face at his friend, then looked down at the girl. She was standing at attention, looking as happy as a clam. Minus its shell.

"Mercury Vesaila," boomed the magically amplified voice of Circe Fel, elected leader of the Tribune, "you have left the sanctuary of Lactea Temple and journeyed here to speak with us. In doing so, you have broken the agreement that was forged between us. What do you have to say for yourself?"

"Excuse me, Your Highness," spoke up a young man standing beside Mercury. "But it is proper even for one such as you to refer to my lady by her proper title."

"Lothar, that's not necessary—" began Mercury.

"No, Your Eminence, your guardian is correct," sighed Circe Fel. "Your Eminence, Lady Mercury Astronoma Vesaila of Lactea Temple, your incorrigible behavior has brought you to trial. Thus you stand accused, Lady Vesaila. What have you to say in your defense?"

Mercury stood silent for a moment, letting the Supreme Advocate's words sink in. Then she said, in a soft voice that Quell had to strain to hear, "I was a child bullied into an unfair agreement, as only greedy monsters would force a five-year-old to make a decision that would affect the rest of her life." Unpleasant stirring occurred within the Tribune, but Circe Fel's expression remained impassive. "Therefore, my guardian and I have come to renegotiate the treaty."

Circe Fel nodded. "And? . ."

"I am asking for permission to leave the temple."

The entire council was in an uproar. It seemed that each councillor's life depended on expressing their outrage to every other member, and since there were eighty members plus Circe Fel, there was thus a lot of noise.

"SILENCE!!!" bellowed Circe Fel, her voice magically magnified a thousand times what it should be. Quell realized that he ought to have expected magic in this hall, but that didn't make his throbbing ears hurt any less as he massaged them.

Ryst also chose that moment to come out of his trance. "Her name's Mercury. Mercury Vesaila."

"I know," Quell frowned. It had taken him ten minutes to find that out?

The mage glared. "Then why'd you ask?"

"Because I didn't know then."

"How come you know now?"

"The Supreme Advocate said so."

"Oh. Well, anyway, she's an invoker."

"Groovy!"

"You don't have the slightest idea what an invoker is, do you?"

"Nope."

"Predictable. Invokers are mages who—"

"Duh! I know they're mages! Everybody knows they're mages! So wh—"

"If you could shut your mouth for five seconds, I'll tell you! Now, as I was saying, invokers are mages. Hopefully you know about the three schools of magic, right? Invokers, shapers, and illusionists?" Quell nodded. "Yeah. Well, shapers are the most common. The ones who can manipulate energy into, like, magic creatures and fireballs and crap like that. And illusionists, like me, ought to be pretty self-explanatory. Invokers are mages who can call spirits from other planes to serve them."

"Planes?" Quell furrowed his brow. "Like, airplanes?"

"No!! This isn't some fantasy book, Quell! There's no such thing as an airplane!!" After a moment, the mage composed himself. "Planes, as in, other dimensions. Like where the gods live."

"Ohh . . ."

"Invokers can call those spirits. Most people refer to 'em as Eironen." When Quell nodded, Ryst finished, "So that's what invokers are."

The moment of silence observed was generally thought to be representative of the group's awe, but it was spoiled when Strydda, who had just joined the conversation, asked, "What's a winspoker?"

Together the group sighed.

"I told you," Ryst reminded them, "that we should've tossed it in the dumpster."

~*~

Mercury's fingers were clenching her staff so tightly her knuckles were turning white. So she was on trial, was she? She'd come here willingly! Didn't they understand why she'd had to flee the temple?

She was an invoker. The last invoker, so she'd been told. They were trying to 'preserve' her and her powers to save the world, and now that she'd come to tell them it was the beginning of the end, they accused her of breaking the bargain.

Mother and Father, who were in fact serving on the council— she'd picked their faces out of the delegation from Serenitatia— had sent her to study with Reidelyn Aestiva, the Grand Invoker, twelve years ago. Once it had been determined that she could, in fact, pass the summoning Tests, she'd been forced to do so. Then Mother had packed her off to stand before the council, while Father had gone to Lactea Temple to arrange for her to live there.

Had anyone asked her? Of course they had. But it hadn't mattered.

I was a child! she wanted to shout. A little, frightened child trying to cope with my own existence! The fact that I was the first in two hundred years to pass your damn tests never entered the equation!! And of course they'd taken advantage of her innocence, forcing her into seclusion within Lactea Temple for 'the good of Luna'. Enslaving her to her destiny.

They'd gone about the whole bloody mess wrong, for now she wanted the world to die.

Why should she work to save a world that had given her nothing but pain and grief? Luna's denziens had hurt her, and she would punish them. When the time came, she would not save them. Let the rats save themselves.

Her head felt strangely light and achy, and the noise of the babbling councillors wasn't helping. If they didn't stop chattering soon, she was going to—

"My Lady?" Lothar's hand was a dead weight on her shoulder, making her feel even worse. "Are you all right?"

"Lothar I think I'm gonna—"

—retch.

She did, all over the podium. Audience and Tribune gasped collectively, and for a few awful seconds she thought she was going to faint, right into her breakfast. Lothar caught her shoulders and pulled her back against him, holding her and apparently not caring there was a chance she'd be ralphing on him too.

"SII-LEEENCE!!!" hollered Circe Fel for the second time that day. This time she was ignored.

Mercury grinned.

~*~

"No, really, what's a winspoker?"

"The girl who just barfed on the stand," Yanna snapped. "What's her problem, anyway?"

"They're torturing her," Rystrahn replied, his voice tight. "Sniff the air."

"I am sniffing it," pouted Strydda, "and I've been sniffing it for—"

"Oh, I don't think it's air you're sniffing," Marron teased.

Strydda dove at him, knocking the warrior into Ryst, who consequently bumped into Quell. Quell'd been leaning on a panel of the balcony with a rotten base, and it gave out, tumbling him into the scaffolding. He managed to grab it mere seconds before he fell off.

Promptly his worst fear took hold of him. Heights.

His terror of anything two inches above ground level was what had caused the name 'Vertigo' to stick as his surname. Fortunately, he experienced it so rarely that he was able to laugh it off usually, but he was getting it now, and he happened to be hanging one hundred feet over the Tribune. Not the best place. He swore.

"Gee, Quell, I'm sorry!" Strydda moaned. But then curiousity took over and: "But what's it like, hanging in space with nothing un—"

"Shut up, you prevaricating puppy!" Marron snarled, shoving Strydda out of the way and kneeling down to reach for Quell's hand.

Quell grabbed for Marron's hand, slipped, and found himself clinging to the rail beneath the balcony. Another, much worse, word was spoken.

~*~

It was silent from where the cold ones watched, waiting for the words that would call them. But their invoker was mute, her face turned away.

There were those tired of waiting so long.

Several of the Eironen growing restless. Their invoker was plagued by gaseous antimagic, and this displeased them. Enraged them. How dare mere mortals think to keep them from their invoker's side?

They would stand ready, and be by her side at a moment's notice. Prepared to serve their invoker.

~*~

Mercury managed to hold down a second load of bile that was threatening to rise. Those . . . those bastards! They'd filled the chamber with a subtle antimagic gas, both to subdue her and keep her from invoking.

Unfortunately, it was also making her sick.

She suspected it was to make her look weak before the whole of Tintagel, so that when she made her appeal she would be pitied or just laughed at. Making her sick in front of the council . . . what a dirty trick. That Circe Fel was a clever one. Pity I didn't think of it first, she mused. I could've used it when Mother came to visit.

"Your Eminence, Lady Vesaila—" Circe Fel's tone was mocking now. "—the council has decided we will hear you out." She spoke with the air of one confering a great favor.

Mercury winced, understanding the plan. Yes, the bitch was trapping her. The council would never allow her to leave the temple. They didn't understand. No invoker sat on the Tribune Arcana.

But then, if there had been, this wouldn't be happening.

Mercury was the only invoker left.

The council and audience were staring at her expectantly, hoping for more food for gossip. Mercury could see only one course of action.

She made a gesture she'd learned from watching street kids and strode out.

~*~

"Cripes, did you see that?!" Strydda asked. "The girl just flipped off the Tribune Arcana!!"

"Good. I've been waiting for years to see the Supreme Advocate bitch take it in the pug," snarled Rystrahn as he bent to help Marron. As he did so, he began to cough.

"What's the matter?" cried Marron, alarmed.

"The shit they're using to torture Mercury is affecting me, too. Some sort of antimagic gas or something. Ugh, I may be the next one to ralph. If I get you, Quell, you have my sincerest apologies."

"Thanks," Quell muttered. He glanced down, wished he hadn't, and saw a bunch of guards climbing up the emergency escape ladder to their balcony. "Um, guys . . ."

"Not now, Quell, we're trying to rescue you!" Yanna scolded.

"But—"

"Not now, Quell!!"

"Oh, poop," said Strydda. She'd seen the guards too.

"Just shut up and help think of a way to get Quell back up!" Marron insisted. Yanna nodded, backing him up.

"But . . . guards!!"

"Hell," remarked Rystrahn conversationally.

"Hel-lo-o!!! A little help?!" prompted Quell.

"We're working on it," Marron assured him.

"They've only got, like, twelve rungs to go," said Strydda, who was keeping tabs on the guards' progress.

"Quell, c'mon, reach up!!"

"Seven," Strydda reported.

"Gimme your hand!"

"We already tried that!"

"Four."

"Shut up!" Ryst ordered, just before a coughing fit claimed him.

"Almost there, Quell. Yanna, help me out here!!"

"Oh, wait, they've slipped and knocked each other off. Now they're splats of guard pudding."

"STRYDDA!!"

The guards had indeed fallen, but they were not guard-flavored jello. Nor had their brigade apparently given up. Four or five of their compatriots smushed on the floor had, instead of crushed their spirit, merely elevated it. Now a group of them were thumping up the cobwebby stairs to the balcony.

"I don't get it," Strydda mused to anyone who cared to hear. "Who told them we were up here anyway?"

"Besides the fact that you happen to be loud enough to wake the dead," Yanna hissed, "there were the scalpers Ryst flicked off, and the hooker chasing Quell—"

"She was not chasing me!"

"Sure. Anyway, it could've been any of them, since they've got stuff against us. And then maybe it was just the fat lady Stickyfingers took the pearls from."

"Don't call me that!"

"Watch me act like I don't even hear you!"

"The guards are almost here," Quell informed them.

"Let's run!" suggested Strydda.

"What about Quell?" Marron said.

"Yeah, what about me?"

"Almost here," Strydda sang.

"What about Quell?!"

"Drop him," Rystrahn suggested, grinning.

"Guys—"

"Please, let's just go!!" Yanna pleaded.

"Too late," Quell muttered, seconds before the door burst open.

~*~

"My lady! Mercury!"

She half-turned at the sound of Lothar's voice, stopped. "I'm not going back in there, Lothar."

"You have to! My lady, don't you understand? If you walk out of here now they'll arrest you and put you under royal guard until the alignment!"

She gasped theatrically. "Wow! Royal guard! Like I've never faced worse. You'll need something better than that to get me back in there, and you'll need to think of it within the next five seconds."

"But if you're under guard the Eironen will slay the world and—"

"Forget it! Let the world die for all I care! What did the world ever do to help me?! All it gave me was seventeen years of misery!!"

"So you'll punish us all for the Tribune's crime?"

"Why shouldn't I?!"

"Because it was only the council's decision. They never asked the civilians." Lothar caught up with her. "Frankly, Your Eminence—"

"Mercury."

"Yes, Your Eminence. Frankly, if the world had tried to make that choice for you— and I mean everyone— without stopping to think, I'd kill them all for you. After all, it's my duty as your guardian to do so. But," he continued, touching her shoulders and turning her to face him, "it was merely the work of the Tribune Arcana, not the citizens of Luna. And anyway, my lady, try to see their side of it. You're the most powerful invoker to ever work the earth, short only of your instructor Mæster Aestiva, and the last to pass the Tests."

"So?"

"So of course they're going to panic. They have on their hands a girl with nearly god-level magical powers— a girl they need to save their own pitiful skins. Even though Luna is normally a safe place, these are not normal times, and they can't risk you dying!!"

Mercury stood silent for a moment, then said coldly, "A stirring speech, Lothar, but your monologue hasn't changed my mind." She tried to stomp off, but Lothar caught her arm and pulled her back.

"Just listen to me, would you?"

"You're mistreating me. I have grounds to request a new guardian."

"Oh, for Dominus's—"

"Let go!"

"At least let me clean you up!" He took a handkerchief out of a pocket in his uniform. "Have you been crying?"

"No."

"I thought so. Why?"

"I wasn't."

"Don't be stubborn, my lady, your face is wet."

"Sweat."

"Tears." He wiped them away, and Mercury managed a weak smile. Lothar had a point; if she tried to run, the Tribune would have her arrested. Probably for being 'incorrigible' or something stupid like that.

Well, so what? They could arrest her if they wanted. She'd find some way out.

She wasn't going back.

~*~

A gaggle of guards burst from the stairs onto the balcony. Their comrades climbing the ladder reached the balcony at nearly the same moment, surrounding the group.

"Buttmonkeys," Ryst remarked.

Quell, still hanging under the balcony, gulped.

"Come along," one of the guards said. "You're all gonna sit in the slammer a while for this one." He drew a pair of cuffs from a pocket and advanced on Marron.

Marron's elbow was up in one flash and into the guard's nose in another. Strydda ducked a guard trying to grab her and darted around him, while Yanna jumped with feline grace and accuracy onto the balcony railing. Once there, she leapt onto the ladder and scampered down. Rystrahn dodged another astonished guard and followed Marron out the door.

"Follow them!!" shouted the guard who seemed to be leader. Three or four guards ran after Marron, Rystrahn, and Strydda. Nobody moved toward the ladder.

"Oh, look," said a guard, leaning over the balcony and looking at Quell. "Another one."

"Hi," Quell said.

"Need a hand?" asked the guard.

"No."

"I think you do."

"No, I think I can think for myself."

"I'm pretty sure you're under arrest."

"Groovy!"

"No, really! And you kinda have to be up here to be arrested."

"I rather like my position over almost-certain death, thanks," Quell replied, as the guard reached down. Oh, hell, the others got away, but I'm gonna be arrested! Quell realized, starting to panic.

Panicking was his worst option. Upon beginning so, his grip loosened and he began to slip.

Oh, hell, he thought, and fell.

~*~

Everyone who attended the Tribune's meeting that day— meetings are open to the public (the paying public, at least)— remembers the historic splash in the shallow pool that surrounded the tiers of the Tribune's seats. It is said to have rivalled those caused by tsunamis on the coast of Mare Serenitatis.

But of course, it wasn't really that bad. People tend to exaggerate when they get a little wet, and in this case people got very wet. Thus, they exaggerated a lot.

Well, moving on, then . . .

Quell had been lucky enough to fall straight down, and landed in the pool some hundred feet below.

He hadn't really been aware he'd been falling. Praying that his life was not about to end in a thoroughly painful way had been occupying his mind. He only noticed the water when it was all around him, and that was when it occurred to him that he was probably going to die anyway because he couldn't swim a stroke.

It wasn't all that difficult, though. The pool was quite shallow, and all he had to do was flail his arms around. He bobbed up to the surface, spit out a mouthful of water, and glanced around. Though his eyes were water-filled, he could make out about where he was.

Precisely two feet away from a very wet, very angry Circe Fel.

"Um . . ." he gulped. "Hi."

*~*~*