Juniper walked rapidly toward Helion Hall, eyes fixed on the distance ahead of her, but not truly seeing where she was going. Habit earned from a year of classes guided her up the front steps and into the marble lobby, where she had to pause to get her bearings.
Or would have, had she been able to concentrate.
She rarely attuned on the campus; there was little point, and good reason not to. The only wild animals were rodents and small birds, and aside from Rafe’s greenhouse there were hardly any wild plants. Most of the plants present, even the trees, were all thoroughly domesticated and had little to offer her in the way of interest. Besides, other magical influences were disruptive to the attunement. Arcane magic was absolutely everywhere, causing an unpleasant buzzing in the back of her head when she opened herself to feel it, and there were other things. Pockets of blazing divine light that made her feel weak and dizzy when she wandered too close to one—or opened her mind to perceive them from a distance—and even (usually in the secured spell labs, fortunately) diabolic energies.
Not to mention the other fae present. Fross could tell when Juniper was attuning, and it seemed to make her uncomfortable; Stew would always end up drifting toward her whether he wanted to or not. This semester, there was also the torrent of energy that was Professor Ekoi; brushing her awareness made Juniper uneasy. The kitsune’s consciousness always fixed right on her when she did, and something about that regard was predatory. Juniper was very unaccustomed to feeling like prey.
She held the attunement now, though, to the point of losing awareness of her physical surroundings. Now, she was barely even cognizant of all those distractions. Fixed in the forefront of her attention was Aspen’s consciousness, which was likewise fixed upon her.
Juniper finally stopped and looked around when the path she’d been following actually led her in the opposite direction from her sister’s location. Somehow, the hall that had started off more or less the right way turned into an ascending staircase; Aspen was down, somewhere in a sub-basement. Professor Tellwyrn had given her directions, but now she couldn’t recall anything clearly…
And then, suddenly, came a sharp pop of displaced air and the disorientingly abrupt change of scenery to which she was starting to grow unpleasantly accustomed.
The change in her awareness of Aspen’s proximity was even more startling, but that wasn’t only in her ephemeral senses. There she was: her sister, standing right there.
Both dryads let out wordless cries in unison and rushed straight into each other’s arms.
Juniper clung to her sister, feeling the solid warmth of her body and the blazing proximity of her consciousness, not even aware that she was crying. Aspen’s emotions washed over her: relief, confusion, doubt, and most of all, love.
“I see I had the right idea,” said Professor Tellwyrn’s voice from somewhere nearby. “She said you kept backtracking and going the wrong direction. Why do I even bother giving you instructions? At least you didn’t bring that damned jackalope.”
Reluctantly, Juniper pulled back a bit, still keeping her arms around Aspen. She gained enough distance to look her sister in the eyes, though, and saw the same mix of feelings reflected on her face.
“It really is you?” Aspen demanded breathlessly.
“You know it is,” Juniper said, frowning. “Come on, I’m right here. Who else would it be?”
Aspen blinked, frowned, and then her eyebrows drew together; Juniper felt a spike of anxiety from her, an increase in confusion. “But…you were gone. Mother felt it. When I reached out for you, I couldn’t find anything. I should be able to sense any dryad from the Heart of the Wild, you know that.”
“I didn’t,” Tellwyrn remarked. “That is fascinating.”
Aspen shot the elf a brief, irritated grimace before refocusing her attention on Juniper. “And…what’s wrong in you? It’s like… I can feel you from this close, but… Juniper, it’s as if part of you isn’t there.”
Juniper grimaced herself, pulling back a little more; Aspen reluctantly let her go.
“Mother noticed I was gone?” she asked, changing the subject. “And… She told you?”
Aspen winced, and shook her head. “Well, it was… Really, just happenstance. I’ve been visiting the Heart now and again ever since you left, reaching out to check on you.”
Juniper blinked. “You did? I never felt that…”
“Well, at that distance, you wouldn’t. The Heart doesn’t pull both ways. Yeah, though, it started with you, but ever since I got that idea I’ve been looking in on the others, those of our sisters who are off in different parts of the world. Did you know Apple, Mimosa and Hawthorne are in Tiraas?”
“They…what? Really? I was there for a while, and I never noticed…”
“I strongly suggest you leave that alone,” Tellwyrn warned, and was ignored.
“And you happened to be looking for me when I…y’know?” Juniper asked hesitantly.
The other dryad shook her head, expression growing grim. “Actually, I’d just been watching Cedar. She’s on the whole other side of the world, and I think she’s in some kind of trouble. Anyway, she was pretty upset about something. But while I was there, doing that… Mother sort of, uh… Had an episode.”
Both dryads winced in unison. Juniper had never witnessed one of Naiya’s episodes, but they were legendary among her sisters. The nature goddess seldom troubled to communicate with anyone unless she was very highly motivated, which usually meant angry. Tellwyrn was one of the few who’d ever managed to get her direct attention without being scoured from the face of the earth for her trouble.
“So, yeah, she was upset when you…died.” Aspen leaned backward slightly, studying Juniper’s face in minute detail. “And now, here you are, not dead, but I can feel something in your being that’s just… It’s not right, Juniper. Well, I told you my story, now spit it out already!”
Juniper sighed, buying time by glancing around the room. It was set up sort of like one of the spell labs, with permanent containment glyphs, but to judge by the feel of the arcane power in here, the spells involved were a great deal more formidable. Well, that made sense; both that Tellwyrn would have something like this on campus and that she would use it to contain a dryad.
“It’s…kind of a long story,” she hedged, returning her attention to her sister.
Aspen drew back a step, folded her arms across her chest, pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows.
“Well, basically, I’m fine,” she said. “It’s not… I’m not dead, and I’m not hurt.”
“You’re fine?” Aspen said incredulously. “Juniper, it looks like you’ve got a hole in your spirit!”
“I know!” she said hastily. “But it just looks like that! That’s what it’s for. It’s…it’s not a hole, it’s a block.”
“It…” She sighed helplessly and glanced at Professor Tellwyrn, who just raised an eyebrow. “It’s something I got from Avei.”
“…what were you doing mucking around with Avei?”
“I asked her to, Aspen. It’s a kind of barrier. It hides me from Mother.”
Aspen stared at her. “…what? Wait, what?! Why?”
Juniper drew in a deep breath and let it out. It was a habit she’d picked up from her classmates, and it actually was oddly helpful. The physical motion was bracing and she drew in a lot more good air that way than she normally absorbed through her skin. Altogether it helped her gather her thoughts and focus. Also, the oxygen she let out was good for people.
“It’s so I don’t have an all-powerful, overprotective nanny protecting me from the results of my own mistakes. You really can’t learn if you don’t face hardships. You can’t grow. So… I’m here to learn, right? Well, that means I need to be on my own. To have to be careful, and, and think over my actions. I can’t do any of that if Mother is always there to fix everything for me.”
Tellwyrn nodded once, smiling faintly in approval. Juniper relaxed a bit; much of that explanation had come from the druids, and she’d gathered the impression that they and the Professor didn’t see eye-to-eye about basically anything.
Aspen was just staring at her. “Juniper… That is the single most idiotic thing I have ever heard in my life.”
Juniper scowled. “What? I’m serious!”
“You’re crazy, that’s what you are!” her sister exclaimed. “What nonsense, hiding from Mother. From protection! You’re a dryad! You’re a favored child of Naiya; you’re special, and more important than other living things. You’re supposed to be protected!”
“Protected from other people,” Juniper said quietly. “She didn’t do much to help Cherry. Or Sequoia.”
Aspen hesitated, blinking, then scowled again. “That’s…that’s a completely different matter.”
“Why?” Juniper pressed. “Why is it different? Aspen… I know Mother means well, but I really don’t think the way she goes about protecting us is doing us much good.”
“Will you listen to yourself!” Aspen all but shouted, then pointed accusingly at Professor Tellwyrn. “This is your fault! You’ve been filling her head with this nonsense!”
“This nonsense is called ‘maturity,’” Tellwyrn said dryly, “and she is hardly filled with it. Look, Juniper, you two clearly have a lot of things to discuss, but I have a specific need for some information from your sister, here. I would rather get that out of the way before this conversation gets any more animated.”
“Oh, mulch you,” Aspen spat. “You drive my sister crazy and cut her off from our mother and now you want information from me? You can go bury your head!”
“Do you want to spend some more time floating and kicking?” Tellwyrn asked calmly. Aspen swelled up furiously, clenching her fists.
“Professor, please,” Juniper said hastily. “Just let me talk with her, okay? This has all been a bunch of misunderstandings. Aspen is really nice, I’m positive we can straighten all this out. I just need to make her understand.”
Tellwyrn grimaced, but shrugged and fell silent.
“What is it I need to understand?” Aspen demanded suspiciously. Her posture relaxed slightly, but she didn’t un-clench her hands.
“Would you at least hear why I’m doing all this?” Juniper asked. “I didn’t just pull it out of my butt. I have reasons.”
The other dryad stared at her critically for a moment, then sighed. “Yeah, I guess not. All right, let’s hear it.”
Juniper nodded, took another deep breath, and braced herself inwardly against the tide of ugly memories. “It’s not about anything Professor Tellwyrn or anybody else has been teaching me, okay? It’s stuff I started to realize on my own, after I spent some time with people. Talking to them, getting to know them and understand them. People… They aren’t like the other animals we know.”
“Well, obviously,” Aspen said caustically. “They wreck things.”
“Yes, but…so do termites,” Juniper said reasonably. “It’s the same principle. Creation involves some destruction. The things that humans do seem weird and random because…because they aren’t like other animals. The same with elves and dwarves and… Well, people. Sentient, intelligent things. They’re not like animals because they’re something more.”
“Nonsense,” Aspen said curtly, but without rancor. Her eyes were still fixed piercingly on Juniper’s. “We’re something more.”
“Yeah,” Juniper agreed, nodding. “And so are they. And…that’s the important thing I came to understand. It… It hurt me a lot, Aspen. Thinking about how I’ve treated humans.”
“Treated humans?” Aspen snorted. “It was one guy, Juniper. You’re still just a hatchling.”
“That one was enough,” she said quietly. “He was… He mattered. He loved and was important. I should never have done that to him, and realizing it made everything seem wrong inside me. Haven’t you ever…wondered? About their perspective? About how the world looks to them? Everything makes sense when you see it through their eyes, Aspen. They aren’t chaotic, and they aren’t monsters. They have reasons. They’re…like us.”
“Juniper, you are scaring me,” Aspen said, her voice equally soft.
Juniper blinked. “I…scaring you? How? Why?”
“Because I’ve had a conversation like this before,” her sister replied, eyes boring into her. “With Larch.”
For a moment, Juniper could only gape. “Larch?”
“That was the one with the leg bone, right?” Tellwyrn asked interestedly. Juniper nodded absently to her.
“Almost exactly like this,” Aspen went on seriously. “Eerily the same words. All about people having their own perspectives, and mattering like we do. She was so stirred up about it I could barely feel her, even attuning as closely as I could. And… Then it all just stopped. She went dead quiet inside and she’s stayed that way ever since.” Aspen sighed heavily, lowering her eyes. “The very next day after that conversation, she caught a wasp, pulled its wings off and spent the whole afternoon watching it crawl around. And… Well, you know what she’s like now, always killing stuff for no good reason and hurting things just because she can. Juniper… I love her, you know that, but there’s something broken in her. And now, here you are, with something so broken in you I can feel it, saying the very same words. Yes, I’m scared.” She raised her eyes again, her lip trembling. “I…I don’t want that to happen to you.”
“I had no idea,” Juniper murmured, shaking her head slowly. “I guess… I guess different people face it differently.”
“Embracing the inner monster,” Tellwyrn commented. “It’s fortunately not one of the more common reactions to extreme guilt, but I’ve seen it often enough. Considering she’s a dryad, I guess it could have gone a lot worse.”
“I’m not like Larch,” Juniper said, focusing her gaze back on Aspen’s worried eyes. “I promise. It’s a completely different situation.”
“Yeah?” Aspen scowled at her, but Juniper didn’t need to attune to her to feel the worry that prompted it. “Because from here, it looks completely not different.”
“Juniper didn’t figure all this out in the space of one conversation,” Tellwyrn said, “and frankly, you won’t either. We don’t need to hash everything out right now. Let’s prioritize, ladies. Aspen needs accommodations, and to issue at least one apology. And I have a few questions, if you’re feeling a bit more settled now that you can see your little sister is fine.”
“Excuse me?” Aspen snapped, rounding on her. “Fine? Fine? Listen to her! Here she is with her aura full of holes and her head full of human idiocy, on the verge of turning completely crazy like Larch, and she’s fine?”
“You know,” Tellwyrn said flatly, “people are just going to stop explaining things to you if you simply refuse to listen to them. All of this has been covered by now.”
“Professor, please,” Juniper said, cringing.
“You’re acting like I owe you something now that you’ve thrown me a few crumbs,” Aspen barreled on, glaring at Tellwyrn. “After you kidnapped and spelled me and—”
“Be silent.” The Professor didn’t raise her voice, but the dryad snapped her mouth shut. Tellwyrn glared right back at her. “You have attacked one of my students, Aspen. Your mother’s protection does not mean you are safe from any repercussions. As we were just discussing, Naiya isn’t terribly attentive, or discerning. There are a lot of ways I can simply get rid of you so thoroughly you’ll never be found, without her even noticing. The reason none of that is happening is that I need some answers. It would be very smart for you to start working toward my good graces.”
“Please!” Juniper exclaimed. “Would both of you stop? Aspen, please don’t wind her up, she’s right; you’re picking a fight you won’t win. And Professor, she’s not just being ornery, she’s concerned. She’s not wrong to be! Just…let me explain all this, okay?”
A brief silence fell, in which Professor Tellwyrn folded her arms and Aspen looked mulish.
“Fine,” the Professor said curtly after a moment. “If getting an explanation is what will make you cooperate, Aspen, that’s what we’ll do. But keep in mind, Juniper, the explanation in question is something it took you months to grasp, and involved no small amount of emotional trauma for you, to say nothing of a literal divine intervention. I simply do not have time to indulge her in all of that—or who knows, maybe I do. I don’t know, because that is among the things I need to learn here!” Despite the relatively calm beginning of that speech, she finished on a note of pure, exasperated frustration. “If you can’t manage to considerably abridge this process, I’m going to have to go with my own proven methods, and that is not going to make any of us happy.”
“You know what doesn’t make me feel cooperative?” Aspen snapped. “Threatening me.”
Juniper dragged a hand over her face. “I feel like something is deeply backward here. Why am I the reasonable one?”
Tellwyrn snorted a short laugh. “Yes, well… I guess I’ll have to give you that.”
“All right. All right, look. You need it faster, we can do that. Aspen? Can you open for me?”
“I don’t know about this,” Aspen said warily. “It’s not that I don’t love you, Juniper, or that I don’t trust you, but… You’re acting really weird. I’m a bit nervous about the idea of putting you that deeply in my head right now.”
“Actually, I have to agree,” Tellwyrn added, frowning. “As I just said, Juniper, we’re talking about a subject that brought you a lot of pain. I know I said we need to do this faster, but dumping that on her all at once may not be wise.”
“It’s okay,” Juniper assured both of them. “Aspen, I’m not crazy. I’ve just spent a lot of time recently coming to understand some things you’ve never had to think about. I promise I can make it make sense to you. And Professor, it’s not all pain. I’ve learned to cope with it, and I can give her that, too.”
“Doesn’t work that way, Juniper,” Tellwyrn said, shaking her head. “Coping is an act, not a teachable piece of information.”
“You don’t understand how attunement works, trust me. I can make it work.”
The Professor locked eyes with Aspen for a moment, then heaved a sigh. “I do not think this is a good idea.”
“I kind of agree,” Aspen said warily.
“Well, do either of you have a better one?” Juniper asked in exasperation.
Elf and dryad peered warily at each other again, then Tellwyrn shook her head and took a step back. “Be extremely careful, Juniper.”
“I will,” she promised. “Aspen?”
Her sister sighed, too. “Well… If it’ll help me understand… I guess. Maybe I can finally figure out what’s up with Larch, too.”
“I think it’s been too long for us to help Larch,” Juniper said, stepping forward. “But maybe…well. Here. I’ll show you.”
She reached out with her being, attuning closely and specifically to her sister, feeling Aspen meet her halfway. They met physically as well, arms wrapping around each other, the sensation almost unnoticeable in the spiritual unity. The attunement washed over and through them, and then in unison they narrowed their focus, shutting out the vastness of the world and immersing their minds in each other.
Like root systems intertwining, like branches mingling in the wind, the essence of the two dryads overlapped and began to merge. Their attunement continued to grow, to deepen, the merging becoming more like the joining of two rivers, like the meeting of two breezes, until they were only barely two identities.
The sheer joy of it, the pure, unconditional love and acceptance, was enough to drive all thought of purpose away. For a timeless stretch of time, they simply gloried in the beauty of it.
Then the partial consciousness that was Aspen—the older, somewhat more complex half, gently nudged their conjoined self, a soft reminder of what they were doing.
Juniper came somewhat back to herself with a start. Hastily, lest any more time be wasted, she dug through her memories, carefully pulling up and sorting out the ones she wanted. They were painful to look over, the sequence of gradual revelations, deepening understanding…the pain, the gnawing guilt. She carefully tried to arrange them in the right order…
The bond jarred. Aspen was looking over the same panorama of recollections.
No, wait. It will make sense. It gets better, the beginning is the worst part…
Their attunement shook again, Aspen dragging herself ahead. Juniper reeled at her sister’s unusually rough touch on her mind, thrown into confusion herself.
No. No! More pain, it hurts more!
Yes…it did. The pain had grown, she recalled now…the scenes laid out showed that. Over time as her denials had crumbled…
But that wasn’t what I meant, you mustn’t jump ahead, let me guide you—
A howl of agony tore through them both. Something had connected. Something merged.
Juniper’s carefully arranged emotional reaction to the harm she had done suddenly fit neatly into memories of Aspen’s. Perfectly neatly, suiting the subject as if made for it.
Lots and lots of memories. Years of them.
Hunger, blood, the thrill of the hunt, the taste of fresh meat
pleading begging denial
they’re just like me
Wait, sister, please, I can—
NO HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO ME
Please let me explain!
It’s a lie it’s not true I didn’t know I didn’t mean it NOT MY FAULT
Aspen! Calm! I love you, I can show you how—
A scream of pure anguish split the world apart.
Juniper reeled, her whole mind jarred harder than it could bear, as the attunement was shattered. She had never been forced out of one so quickly—it was like every sense she had, and many that she didn’t have, were simultaneously filled with pain and inputs of different scenes that did not fit together. For an infinite moment, she was conscious of nothing but hurting, totally unable to make sense of her surroundings.
Then, abruptly, everything snapped back into place. She was on the floor, against the far wall where Aspen had bodily hurled her.
And that screaming was not in her own mind.
No sooner had she focused herself again than Aspen was silenced. Juniper stared at her in horror.
Her sister stood as still as if carved from stone, her body arched agonizingly as if frozen in the throes of a seizure. That was not the worst of it, though.
Hard growths, like spiky tree bark, had sprouted from her forearms and hands, from her shoulders. Her hair was frozen in the act of wildly flailing, individual strands partially coalesced into tentacular growths sprouting tiny blades like grass. Her eyes were wide open, without white, pupils or irises, blazing a luminous, sickly green.
“Aspen!” she cried in anguish, vaulting upright and lunging toward her sister.
“Don’t touch her!”
Juniper was lifted bodily off the ground and hung there, kicking and reaching out for Aspen, unable to connect with the floor or move herself.
“I stilled her in time,” Tellwyrn said urgently. “Fairies are the one thing I am least equipped to deal with, Juniper; it was the only way I could stop the transformation without hurting her. You can’t stop time, but she’s vastly slowed. She won’t perceive anything going on until I remove the effect.”
“Let go of me!” Juniper said frantically, flailing with her arms.
“Juniper!” the Professor snapped. “Think! You have covered this in Alaric’s class: force is equivalent to mass multiplied by acceleration. You are moving with unthinkable speed compared to her. The safeguards in here will protect her somewhat, but if you touch her, it could destroy her.”
Finally, Juniper froze, staring in horror at her partially transformed, temporally locked older sister.
After a few moments in which she made no attempt to move, Tellwyrn finally lowered her to the ground. Her knees buckled and she collapsed into a boneless huddle, still staring up at Aspen.
“This is my fault.”
Tellwyrn sighed heavily. “Well… I did warn you. On the other hand, then I went and let you do it, so I have to shoulder some of the blame, here. Damn it… Fairies. Maybe I should have brought in an expert before even trying to deal with her… But it’s not like I have one on campus. Kaisa would have just made this worse.”
Tears poured silently down Juniper’s cheeks. “I only wanted to help,” she whispered.
There was quiet for a long moment, and then Tellwyrn was kneeling beside her. A slender hand slowly stroked her hair.
“June,” the elf said very gently. “I will speak with your professors. You take a day off. Pet your bunny, pull yourself together. In the meantime, I will fix this.”
“How?” she asked miserably.
“I have no idea,” Tellwyrn said, patting her back, “but nonetheless, I will. This…is going to be a lot more complicated than I’d thought. I’ll have to call in some help. But we will help her, I promise you.”
Juniper just nodded, staring emptily up at Aspen.
Tellwyrn sighed. “Hopefully before your mother comes looking for her.”