It started with a road.
It was a regular dust road, stretching across the barren fields like a soft, unfurled ribbon. On each side of it were trees, gnarled and black and elegant, their knotty thin branches reaching out, leafless, like tendrils. There was nothing threatening about these trees, though they gave the impression of being morose. Each had among its branches one candle, stout and irregular, like old candles inevitably looked.
Flitting in the air from one tree to another was an apparition; perhaps a person, though all it seemed to be was an amalgam of moth wings, fluff and thin, insect-like antennae. It carried a lantern, of all things, and lit the candles in an agitated manner. It (or rather she, because something in its manner suggested it as female) stopped suddenly and turned, speaking in a whispery ghost of a voice:
"Keep the lights on. That's all you need to understand. Do you hear me? Keep the lights burning."
In each city, there was a wizard's tower. True, these days, it wasn't so much a tower as a skyscraper, but simply because glass and steel had replaced stone and wood, it did not mean tradition was easily forgotten (and also, "wizard's skyscraper" did not have quite the same ring to it). Every ten years, a wizard was elected as "Grand Archmage" of a city, which essentially meant that he was the thaumaturgical equivalent of a mayor. Everything arcane, magical, mystical, preternatural, supernatural and divine was the Grand Archmage's territory, but the main assignment of such an individual was to protect the city. Those who failed at this were often sorely punished.
Phaedrus Tyrismel had been Grand Archmage of Talula City for nearly five decades now. If that was not a testament of his competence, few other things could be more convincing. He was old and he was old-fashioned, but he was uncannily powerful, as wizards that age always seemed to be. Being such an old-fashioned chap, however, he also tended to cling to certain traditions. For this reason, among others, two young people were now in his library, doing work that would have otherwise gone to people who'd actually have to be paid for doing it. These two were Phaedrus Tyrismel's apprentices, Lillith Remacca and Marcus Peyaya.
They were rather ordinary people. Lillith came from an upper-middle class (or, as some would say, lower-upper class) family from the Ruby Lakes area. She was avarage in height and build, but had shiny golden brown hair and a cute little face that made her passably attractive. Marcus had been raised by his aunt and uncle after his parents disappeared in the Topaz Dead Zone and was, effectively, the descendant of many a great wizard. Unfortunately, he was short, had dark messy air and shifty black eyes, as well as such an ineptitude with magic, that he'd barely been taken on as an apprentice. The reason they were both in this situation in the first place was that, lacking any way into a magic university, they chose the only other option they had of practicing magic.
Their solution was more of a last resort. Apprenticeship was once a wide-spread practice. At some point, it used to be the only method through which an experienced wizard passed on his knowledge. Of course, since then, many institutions of magical education had been founded, making the practice outdated, though not readily abandoned by the more traditional of the mages. Marcus and Lillith had been lucky enough to find a mage just old enough and just far enough from senility that he would make a passably good teacher. So far, they'd learned to regret this choice.
As Lillith stared down at a dusty old tome filled with the ravings of a crazed demon-worshipping mage and wishing for nothing more than a nap, Marcus slowly and hesitantly typed on a shiny new computer. It was obvious by his stiff posture that this strange technology intimidated him.
"Lil, I just thought of something," he said suddenly, his whiny voice reverberating throughout the expansive library. Occupying two floors, it was the most astounding collection of magic literature in the city. Both books on magic or magical books, notes and studies, both printed and handwritten filled the looming shelves, each holding promises of power and whispers of insanity.
"Yes?" Lillith turned her attention to Marcus.
"Why are we doing this?"
"You can't seriously expect the Master to do this--"
"No, no, I mean why doesn't he just set up a spell array to index and put this stuff into the database automatically?" Marcus asked, making a vague waving gesture. He'd always been the one to jump to an easy solution, which in his mind meant a solution by which he exerted no effort.
"Because spell arrays are imperfect and can't handle this amount of raw material unless they're very finely tuned," Lillith replied, sighing. "Which is faster, spending a few months working day and night on a spell array to do a job in a few minutes, or spending a few minutes explaining to two apprentices the job they'll be doing for the next few months?"
In the society of wizards, apprentices ranked just above the specimens used for lab experiments, but just below constructs and golems. Treated like little more than slave labor, they were not so much educated as thrown in the deep end and expected to learn what they could and get out of it alive. Apprentices received so little respect, that even the avarage, non-magical person treated them with derision. And considering that such magically deficient people usually treated wizards with respect bordering on reverence, garnering such disrespect was not an easy task.
"I suppose, for the Master, the second one is faster," Marcus admitted, grudgingly.
"So you see."
A chill wind blew across the fields. It snuffed the candles in the trees. The moth-candle-creature vibrated with anxiety.
"I can't fix it! I can't fix it!" it whispered nervously, louder than before, giving the impression that its voice was shrill at its normal volume. Its wings fluttered faster and faster and it hovered in the air, twitching.
Lillith and Marcus were supposed to be indexing Master Tyrismel's entire library and manually uploading the information to a database that was supposed to encompass the entire arcane libraries of all wizards on the Topaz Coast. It was called the Byzantium Initiative and the people in charge were so eager to accomplish this project that they even provided computers and netlinks to those willing to contribute. For a wizard like Tyrismel, his library was his pride and joy. There was incredible information in each of those old tomes, each one collected painstakingly over the years, won in duels and deals and treasure hunts and poker games. His library was a monument to his vanity and thus, he did not hesitate to flaunt it to the world.
The fact that the Byzantium representative knew exactly how to stroke Tyrismel's ego probably didn't hurt.
"This name is spelled entirely in Sivani glyphs," Marcus noted. "Do I translate to Debri Common, or do I write it in Sivani?"
"They were specific. Write it in the original language, then translation in Debri Common, where possible," replied Lillith, while staring at her own tome unblinkingly. There was something distant in her manner. The prolonged boredom had started to numb her senses. "I think they said they'd be doing the difficult translations themselves," she added airily. Marcus could see that she was simply staring into space and not really reading. For this, he experienced a moment of superior indignation at being the only one doing real work, slow and painstaking though it was.
Marcus turned to the computer at his side. Truth be told, he found the device slightly unnerving. The screen's glow was persistant, not at all similar to the soft glow of the magically infused crystals that lit the rooms from their niches in the walls. The keyboard was slightly less intimidating, but the fact that it had so many buttons still made him feel strange when he scoured the black surface for the appropriate character. These contraptions had been created and used by non-magical individuals for the past few years and along that time, they'd changed several times in design and function. This bothered Marcus. This bothered many other wizards, as well. It was seen as downright unnatural for such a patently artificial tool to change as fast as it did, when magical means remained unaltered for hundreds of years.
"How do you write in Sivani?" he asked, staring at the many unintelligible commands on the screen.
Lillith would have answered, but the lights flickered and the computers suddenly and predictably crashed.
"Lil! It's done it again!" Marcus shrieked.
"I can see that!" Lillith growled and swatted the thin screen, sending it spinning on its pivot. "The slightest thing breaks these stupid things down!"
The lights flickered again, this time more rapidly, then finally gave out completely.
Marcus and Lillith froze in the absolute darkness that ensued.
"This... isn't right," Marcus said after a while. Lillith merely shifted in what Marcus imagined was a very uncomfortable fashion.
"I, um, think it's the main power generator," she offered after a while.
"Okay, okay." Marcus nodded nervously. "We'll just... we'll just wait for someone to fix it."
"It's probably the main potention crystal that needs to be changed."
A pregnant pause.
"Not good?" Marcus asked, overcome by an unexplainable sense of dread.
"The power generator is in the dungeon. Who do you think they'll send to change it?"
"Oh, no... no, no, no."
Another pregnant pause.
"The dungeon, you said?"
"Sub-dungeon, most likely."
The delicate dark branches of the trees moved in the cold wind. The candle-carrier whimpered.
"They come alive in the darkness. It's why you have to keep the lights on."
The branches elongated and snaked out, thrashing, threatening.
Master Tyrismel's main study was lit by a giant pink crystal, nearly as tall as a person, mounted into the ceiling and pointed towards the middle of the room like a jagged fang. It had absorbed the magic in the room over the years and it no longer needed energy from the main power generator to cast its light.
Marcus and Lillith eventually found their way to the study, albeit after plenty of stumbling and hitting shins into furniture. They barged through the large oaken doors and tripped over each other, falling to the ground in the most undignified manner possible.
From across the large chamber, near the other end of the room, surrounded by three tables filled with experiments and the results thereof, sat the Grand Archmage Phaedrus Tyrismel. Wrinkly, short, bent-over and balding, one thing the old wizard still had going for him was his acidic scowl.
"You two!" he groused irritably. "What have you done?"
They finally scrambled to their feet and assumed identical stiff positions.
"Nothing!" Lillith answered, indignant. "The lights just went out!"
"Did they now?" Tyrismel grumbled. "I suppose the potention crystal needs to be changed. Pfft. Three decades or more, my foot. It was twenty-seven years ago that I had to change it." He shuffled over to one of the tables and started rummaging through a box. "I remember the day when they made potention crystals that could last a small town for a full century. It's these damn mass made ones that always fritz out on you more often than you change socks." Finally finding what he'd been looking for, he shuffled over to his apprentices. "Take this." He shoved a small, clear white crystal in Lillith's hands. It captured the soft pink glow of the room and reflected it beautifully.
This small crystal, no larger than Lillith's delicate lady-like palm, could transfer, focus and modulate the energy contained in three large carmine generators, which as crystals went, produced enough magical energy to devastate everything in a three miles radius. Energy built up over time in these crystals and unless drained-- via a potention crystal-- or at the very least turned off, one did not want to hang around and appreciate the results.
"Off you go then. It's in the dungeon. Make yourselves useful for once." And he dismissed them with one gesture of the hand.
The door to the dungeon was massive, stainless steel. It was inscribed, much like the dungeon walls, with protective and maintainance glyphs. They were simple spells, regulating humidity, heat, pest control... as they watched, one glyph zapped a nearby rodent with a luminous red beam. The vermin died with a squeak and another glyph glowed, making its remains disappear. Marcus and Lillith looked at each other, slightly intimidated by the dry efficiency of the process.
"Alright, the generator room is at the end of the hall," Lillith explained, after clearing her throat.
"I assume it's protected," Marcus grumbled.
"Oh, it protects itself."
A moment of silence.
"...That doesn't sound good."
"Yeah," Lillith jabbed a finger in the door's direction, slightly unnerved. "As if fiddling with a generator powerful enough to reduce us to a fine dust isn't dangerous enough, it's also sentient." She smoothed a wrinkle in her skirt nervously. "Shall we?"
Marcus mumbled something vaguely like a protest.
"Oh, come on," Lillith grabbed his arm and forced him to walk towards the door. "If we're going to get killed today, stalling won't change it."
The heavy door took the both of them apprentices to open. It groaned in protest. The power generator wasn't something many people wanted to be around often. That massive amount of magic tended to overflow. It was only dangerous in the sense that chaos and entropy were, but the overall effect was often disturbing to people.
The long dark tunnel was barely lit by the large glyphs on it walls, glowing in a dark reddish haze. The stone floor was perfectly smooth, each stone level with the next, but the tunnel swerved slightly to the left. If this was an aspect of the original architecture or something brought on by the wild energy in this place, it was hard to tell.
"It's not as dark as I thought it'd be," Marcus observed.
"Residual energy keeping the maintenance glyphs alight," Lillith explained absentmindedly. She took out the potention crystal from her vest pocket and noticed with relief that it captured the light and amplified it. "Better than a torch," she smiled.
The moth creature flickered in the air like a nervous speck of dust.
"You're glowing! You're glowing!" it chattered happily, its dry whisper replaced by a sharp trill. "You're glowing like the littlest star!"
Behind it, the sprawling landscape had suddenly sprouted trees in the distance and the wind carried the hushed sound of rustling, even though they were all leafless.
The sound of heels clicking on the stones sounded almost unnaturally cheery in the dank silence.
"I'm considering prayer," Marcus said suddenly.
Lillith sighed. Being from a family with no history of wizardry, she did not understand many of the superstitions wizard families harbored. An innate fear of large accumulations of magic was one of such superstitions.
Marcus came from a family of wizards, however, so he probably believed in the Twelve Mage Gods. It was the sort of religion that appealed to the magic community, mostly because it was tailored to their lifestyle. Typical, really. Wizards always lavished in special treatment.
"Unless you seriously believe you have enough leeway with some deity to convince it to change the crystal instead of us, I don't much see the point," she replied primly. "And I know for a fact that's not a possibility, because I've heard you curse before. I'm sure most gods don't enjoy mortals talking like that about them."
It was hard to tell in the red semi-obscurity, but Marcus might have blushed.
However, if Marcus wanted to protest or explain, Lillith never found out, because the ground under their feet seemed to lurch. They both stopped, frozen on the spot. What they'd experienced hadn't been physical. It had seemed, rather, that their bodies had continued moving, leaving their minds a split second behind. Needless to say, that kind of thing tended to make you extremely nauseated.
"That couldn't have been good," Marcus stated. It was a habit of his, making such pithy observations.
"Might not be completely bad," Lillith said carefully. "Could just be a random occurance..."
"Or it could be a metaphantom waking up," Marcus said darkly. "Or the shockwave from an impacted crystal, spilling out poisonous radiation. Or--"
Lillith promptly kicked him in the shin.
"Well, I have a point!" he whined defensively. "Who knows what might be skulking about this wretched basement?"
"We're fine as long as we have light," she replied decisively. The potention crystal still glowed evenly.
"How do you know?" Marcus glared. Lillith gave him a similarly level look. "Oh." Marcus looked away. "You know."
The whispers came back. "Losing light, losing light. Watch the shadows."
Lillith looked at the walls. She hadn't noticed it until now, but the maintenance glyphs seemed to be waning. She approached one of the walls and tapped it lightly. One of the glyphs flared slightly and died out completely. Lillith recoiled, unsure how to react to this.
"What was that?" she asked, turning her head around to look at him.
The only problem was that Marcus wasn't there.
A sharp chill went down Lillith's back. She felt something convulse inside her and she was pretty sure it was horror.
"Marcus?... Marc?" she called out, her voice shaking. With any other person, she would have thought this to be a bad joke, but Marcus was not the kind to find humor in such situations. He was more the gloom and doom type.
She looked down at the potention crystal in her hands. The intensity of its light did not dull even as the glyphs around her went out, one by one.
"I... don't know what to do," she admitted out loud, unsure of how to address the being from her visions. She waited a few moments, waited for a sign, for an indication. Nothing. She sighed and continued down the tunnel towards the generator room. Brushing one hand through her hair, with the other she held the potention crystal tighter, as if afraid it too would disappear.
Marcus could not focus on much more than his own panicked panting. He scurried until his back hit the nearest wall and tried his best to melt into it.
In the centre of the room, something that looked like a wrought iron gazebo housed three large crystals, jagged and dark red. They looked like the fangs of some predatory creatures and considering the ominous whirring sound they were producing, that assessment was probably not far off. Above the gazebo, a large rod extended upwards. A blackened potention crystal was at its top. Thin blue smoke rose from it.
Taking all of this in, Marcus slowed his breath and finally regained a modicum of control over himself. However, just as his unbriddled panic subsided, the crystals' whirring rose to a pitched whine. Then the noise stopped with a snap. At that point, Marcus broke into a string of profanities. When he ran out of foul words and insults, he settled for whispering to himself the same phrase, over and over.
"I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die..."
At some point, Lillith started to notice that the long corridor did not seem to end. She stopped, suddenly suspecting very strongly that no matter how long she walked, she would never actually reach the generator room.
She fidgeted with the crystal in her hand, unsure what to do. Finally, she made a decision and sat herself on the floor, rifling through a pouch on her belt. It was empty now, but previously it had held a small houseplant she'd been forced to hide from the Master after accidentally animating it. After two tenuous hours of nearly getting caught, she finally managed to take the plant out, only to be rudely scratched and evaded by the thorned weed. Last she'd seen it, it had squeezed under the door to the Master's fifteenth level laboratory and disappeared. She could still hear it scurrying across the floor at night, sometimes, like some sort of vengeful stalker. It made her uneasy.
At any rate, she found some dirt at the bottom of the pouch, which she gathered up in her hand and inspected carefully. There were trace amounts of magic, but just enough for what she needed.
She spread it on the floor in front of her. She shifted the potention crystal from one hand to the other nervously, then finally put it down across the dirt. Her fingers trembling nervously, she started scratching some slanted little glyphs in it. Not as good as basta dust, but it was enough.
These glyphs glowed so faintly, there hardly seemed to be any power behind them. Lillith wasn't sure anything happened and was about to give up, when she felt a cold mental tendril at the back of her neck.
She inhaled sharply. Her eyes ached.
The large halls had gaudy draperies. Gaudy velvet drapings. She weaved her way through the textile maze and into a relative clearing. There she saw a woman's back, as she sat in front of a canvas, painting. She had silky hair, a pretty shade of strawberry blond. It was shoulder-length and not a hair out of place. She was slim and pretty-- petite, was the word. Lillith had not even seen this woman fully and she already suspected she was very beautiful.
Lillith's eyes moved to the picture. It was a landscape of some kind of prairie. There were shrubs.
"What is it?" Lillith asked.
"I call it 'Death in the Underbrush'," the woman replied.
"Sounds ominous," Lillith noted. After a pause, she added, "It doesn't have anything to do with Marcus, does it?"
"Not this one."
A long pause.
"Why am I seeing this?"
"It will make sense at the right time," a disembodied voice said.
"Death in the Underbrush," the painter said again. "Remember it."
Lillith felt it was suddenly very important to see the woman's face, to know her name, but she could not move. The vision slipped and melted into something else, but the painter-woman's voice followed her, ringing merrily in her ears.
"You know what else they call an underbrush? An understory..."
The gaudy draperies turned into green vines, hanging from old, gnarled trees. These were padded in lush green moss, and had a healthy canopy of leaves.
There were no dead leaves underfoot.
"Little children get lost in the woods," a sing-song voice trilled.
Lillith looked up. She saw only a flurry of red feathers streaking through the leaves.
"They come to chase the pretty lights, but they get eaten by the big bad screeching bird."
A shiver of dread went down Lillith's spine.
"How deep did I go?" she asked.
"You're past the underbrush," the red creature giggled. "You missed the underbrush."
"I wasn't there, I wasn't in the picture," Lillith shook her head.
The creature seemed to pause in its movement, though Lillith wasn't entirely sure it did. "Weren't you? How disappointing... I don't often make such mistakes."
"I'm looking for Marcus."
"Can't go back, can't go further. We know. We find you easily when you are still."
"Where do I go?"
"Sideways. In-between. Through. Reach out."
"Those... are some very interesting directions."
"We only give interesting directions."
"And the painter? Was that you?"
The creature giggled. "How funny. I thought it was you!"
"Is she in the underbrush?"
"Death is in the underbrush."
"Then where is she?"
"Death is in the underbrush."
The snapback to reality sent Lillith sprawling back. She breathed heavily.
She shakily got to her feet and picked up the crystal. Securing it in her vest pocket, she approached one of the walls. The glyphs were going out for a reason. She pressed her palm against one. She did not know what to expect, though she suspected. Moving her hand across the wall, she touched the next glyph. Another, darker one was next to her hand.
"That one..." she whispered to herself. But just as she touched it, everything went black.
For a moment. A long moment, during which she stared into the void between moments. If she thought returning from a prolonged vision was jarring, then being sucked in by a wall and unceremoniously dropped on the floor was the mother of all jarring. Bells rung in her ears and she felt as if several cubic tons of pressure landed squarely on her nose. She was understandably thrown off balance for a moment.
"Marcus?" Lillith looked up blearily. Two massive surges of magic in less than three minutes was enough to mince everybody's mind into a paste.
"Lil, there's something wrong. It's not just the potention crystal, I... I think."
Lillith looked around. The gazebo-like structure certainly caught the eye.
"What do you think is wrong, then?" she asked, brushing a hand across her eyes.
"I think... it's sick."
She noticed it, then. A low, unhappy whirring sound. She hadn't before because she'd always heard it in the background of her recent visions. But where the visions had been a conglomerate of disparate, dream-like elements, in this setting, the sound did not quite fit.
"We can't fix this," Marcus shook his head.
"Where did it come from?"
"What do we care?" Marcus grumbled. "Let someone with some expertise deal with this."
"Okay, genius, if you feel that way, why haven't you left yet?"
Marcus's eyes moved slowly to the door. Large, solid steel door. With reinforcement glyphs.
"It won't let you out, will it?" Lillith pressed again, thoroughly annoyed, her state of mind partly stemming from her burgeoning migraine.
"What, it wants us to solve this problem?" He frowned. "Why?"
"I think... because I know what caused it," she answered with some hesitation.
"You're kidding?... You're not kidding. Okay, I give." Marcus threw his hands up. "What caused it?"
"Well, think about it. What was new right before the blackout?"
"The shower fittings," Marcus replied right away. Lillith glared. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. The computers. But I like the shower fittings better."
"How do we fix it?"
"Er, purge spell. Usually."
"I take it this isn't a usual situation?" he groaned.
"Of course not! Why would we be so lucky?"
"I think... I don't know," Lillith admitted.
They both sighed and then leaned back against the wall, sullenly mulling over the situation.
"We're apprentices, you know," Marcus said after a while. "It's ridiculous. We can't even write a proper glyph yet."
"I think by this point we have to face we might never learn to write a proper glyph," Lillith shook her head. "When's the last time Master Tyrismel taught us anything?"
"I think it was--"
"No, no, last month, he had us--"
"Scrubbing the floor in the alchemy lab. The only thing we learned was that spiders live in nests."
"And what's the alternative?"
Lillith stared at the floor, but did not reply.
"You know, after finding out I grew up near the Dead Zones, no university in the civilised world would touch me," Marcus said finally.
This was understandable. If wizard superstitions strongly opposed magically suffused areas, they advised twice the precaution against places devoid of any natural magic. Such areas, known as Dead Zones, were often the results of disastrous magical experiments and it often took thousand of years for the magical currents to assume a somewhat natural course through them. The Topaz Dead Zone had once been Kindratown, the Peyaya family's home. It was never discovered if the Peyayas had had anything to do with this disaster, but that did not stop many from tacitly accusing them.
"In all my family there was ever only one person with magical ability, and she was my crazy aunt Lila. She gouged her eyes out."
Marcus cringed. "That happens at times. My great-grandfather Leonis killed birds on sight. He claimed they worked for something called a screecher."
Lillith flinched. She recalled the words in her vision, albeit with some pain. "You mean the screecher."
"Yeah, he always insisted on that distinction as well. You've heard about this screecher before? Maybe met it on one of your... headtrips?" he asked with a sardonic smile. Marcus seemed to have a strange aversion to using the word "vision".
"Which one is connected to the floors the library is on?"
"...What?" The sudden change in subject threw Marcus off.
"Which of the crystals?" Lillith sprung to her feet. "There's one for every fifteen floors, right?"
Marcus was somewhat bemused. It was not often Lillith asked him to clarify something.
"On average, Lillith, I don't think there's like some strict delimitation on which crystal powers which floors. Is there?"
"Then we'll disconnect them all."
Marcus opened his mouth to say something, contradict her somehow, but this was the only plan they had so far.
"Where is this coming from, all of a sudden?" he asked instead.
"Remember when the computers froze and we had to restart them? If they're the problem, maybe turning off the crystals and restarting the whole thing will fix this too."
"I'm thinking this is a longshot."
"I know." Lillith ran a hand through her hair. "It's probably just a temporary solution until it happens again, but at least it will give us the time to tell someone genuinely competent what happened."
"Alright," Marcus sighed in relief. "If this works, I'm buying you a bottle of Gensa. The kind in an actual glass bottle."
"You know you'll regret it if we do get out," Lillith smirked, already getting ready to unscrew the crystal from its slot. Marcus moved to help her.
"If we don't, I think I'll regret it a teensy bit more."
"Well, that was fun," Marcus muttered darkly after leaving Master Tyrismel's study. The old man had listened to the apprentices' story, then promptly gone off on a rant that lasted no less than two and a half hours. Lillith and Marcus had been too frightened to even skulk out of the room silently, so they'd stood this whole time there, listening to his virulent outrage against the Byzantium Initiative.
"I'm going to bed," Lillith replied weakly. She was starting to feel the aftereffects of the entire experience and all she really wanted to do was sleep.
"We can't. We're supposed to take those idiotic contraptions apart tonight."
Lillith sighed wearily, but dragged her feet towards the elevator. By the time they reached the library, Lillith was close to sleeping on her feet.
"Something I forgot to ask, though," Marcus said as they started unplugging the computers.
"How'd you figure out these things were to blame?" he pointed with distaste at the screen.
Lillith muttered something. It sounded like '...in the underbrush'.
"Nothing. Just a guess."
"Not even a vision?"
Lillith reached out and rubbed a finger over the golden emblem on the bottom left corner of the monitor. It looked vaguely like a shrub.
The representative from the Byzantium Initiative raised an eyebrow at the pile of mangled equipment in the middle of the room.
"Miss... Ludi, was it?" Master Tyrismel groused irritably.
"Please, do call me Cadence." She smiled winningly. She flicked a strand of strawberry blond hair and primly looked up at Master Tyrismel, sitting on his high chair in the audience room. "Now, do explain why the equipment we so generously donated to you is... in shambles."
"Your equipment nearly killed us all," Master Tyrismel replied accusingly.
"Impossible!" she reacted smoothly.
"Miss Cadence, you are a good liar," Tyrismel chuckled. "But you've just met a more experienced liar. Now I suggest you explain before I start taking measures."
"There have been some... reports, shall we say, of certain... malfunctions."
"Exceedingly rare, you see," Cadence Ludi added quickly. "We were certain we'd fixed it on our last upgrade."
"So this was not in any way... intentional?" Tyrismel asked suspiciously.
"No! Good heavens, no," Cadence Ludi laughed nervously.
Tyrismel leaned back and something muttered under his breath.
"Any more problems?" she asked smiling.
"Ah, yes, but the indexing--"
"Leave," Tyrismel repeated, his tone leaving no room for argument.
Cadence Ludi bowed her head and quietly retreated from the room.
Jutting blue stones surrounded her in a haphazard circle. The sun was shining and a mild breeze ruffled the grass.
A large, gleaming white lizard sat on one of the stones, basking in the light. Its pink tongue flickered in and out.
"It failed," she said. "Death in the Underbrush, I mean. It failed."
"Yes," the lizard replied languidly in a hissing male voice. "But it doesn't matter. That one doesn't matter."
"I saw somebody else," she said after a while. "A woman. In my vision."
"Another lost child, chasing pretty lights," the lizard said, closing its eyes and grinning. "Not to be concerned. Those lost always find each other."
"I see." She looked down, not certain she liked the sound of that.
"You brushed right past her," the lizard continued, chuckling. "How lovely would it had been to meet her? Wouldn't it have been lovely, Cadence? Wouldn't it?"
Cadence grinned. "Lovely," she said.