The First and Final Story
Preview

Below is a preview of the prologue and first chapter of the Pathways Tree book five. It will, naturally, contain spoilers.

 

This text may change in the final, published draft of the story.

Joan

 

 

Joan looked down from the moutain, nursing a bruised elbow and a guilty conscience. She was also, unhelpfully, absolutely furious—with Bea, with Delphine, with Mistasinon, with Ænathlin, with the General Administration and the Teller, with the bloody great rock she’d crashed into when she’d popped out of the narrow, drought-ridden stream below. With the whole mortal gods’ damned universe and every single individual person, institution and igneous rock going.

But most of all, she was furious with herself.

Which was, naturally, where the guilt came in. She’d left them all. Not only that, but she’d left them in the middle of a riot, an attack on the GenAm. What in the worlds had she been thinking?

Well, yes, alright. She’d been thinking ‘What in the five actual hells? My girlfriend has been lying to me for years while she worked for the GenAm, maybe even the white suits, and has constantly made me feel guilty for not doing anything with my life. And my best friend, with whom I’ve shared all my secrets and who I’ve done nothing but love and support since we first met each other, is secretly boffing the Beast. Neither of them ever trusted me or respected me or loved me.’ Or words to that effect.

The rest was a bit of a blur. She’d been angry, hurt, betrayed. She’d found a scrap of paper in the Teller’s tower that indicated where she might find one of the lost libraries. The plan had been that she would return to the group and they’d work out what to do next. How to reach the lost library and maybe, hopefully, possibly, find a way to fix the Mirrors or the Pathways Tree—a long shot, but the only possible solution to the brimming civil war facing Ænathlin.

 

But she hadn't done that. She had activated one of the Teller’s old Mirrors, making herself sick with the effort, and forged a connection to the lost library. And then she was tumbling into a straggle of near-dry river to land, elbow first, against a massive lump of granite, where she’d sat for ten minutes to have a good cry.

What she hadn’t done was go back. Instead, she’d hauled herself up, spotted a reasonably steep outcrop or ledge or whatever it was called, and climbed. Even with the height advantage, the woods were thick, dark,  and deep. Dawn was a faint stain against the horizon, hazy and distant. She’d never been in the Sheltering Forest before.

Right. What did she know? The Sheltering Forest is huge. It’s home to various fairy tribes. Bea was born here. Bea’s my… Joan paused. She wasn’t sure, anymore, how to label her relationship with Bea. She shook her head and continued her audit. There are lots of fae who live here. The Forest doesn’t pick sides; it’s a refuge for any and all, and by all accounts, it doesn’t involve itself in what happens within its boundaries as long as there’s no direct attack against Ænathlin.

There are monsters in the Forest…

Ogres were big, though. She’d hear one before it heard her. Hopefully. Orcs and gnarls were her more pressing concern, along with the smaller fae tribes who had sided with Yarnis during the war, turning their backs on civilisation.

Joan rubbed her hand across her forehead. What in the five hells am I doing here? Tooth and nail, I’m going to get myself killed.

Had Bea ever said anything about how to survive in the Sheltering Forest? Not really. She’d never wanted to dwell on the subject of her home. The GenAm had been at pains to remind everyone that it was dangerous, but had never really given any more detail than ‘monsters lurk within’. But the Forest and Ænathlin had a deal. In exchange for the lion’s share of clean water, the Forest protected Ænathlin from attacks by the remnants of Yarnis’ army. Perhaps that stretched to keeping her safe?

Joan reached into her tooth fairying bag and pulled out the drawing of the lost library, slightly soggy but still legible. It showed a little thatched-roof cottage with three chimneys, sitting in a clearing. It wasn’t much to go on, but she had to assume the Mirror had landed her somewhere close. Hope that the Mirror had landed her somewhere close.

In addition to the drawing, she had her climbing gear, an apple, and a notebook also swiped from the Teller’s tower. It wasn’t exactly a knapsack of many treasures, but then she wasn’t a bone-fide hero and this wasn’t one of the Teller’s Plots. She’d have to make do. Fairies were good at making do. After all, Joan had been making do with disloyal friends and liars her entire life.

Her stomach turned at the thought of home, of Chokey and her dad and her sisters. Of Delphine, despite her lies. They’ll be terrified something’s happened to me. I didn’t come home. I didn’t even leave a note.

No. The riot would blow itself out. The GenAm wouldn’t let anything like that get out of hand. Her dad was sensible, he’d have kept the girls in. Delphine was on the inside with the GenAm, which must guarantee her some protection. She took a deep breath. All the more reason to find this bloody cottage, get what I came for, and get home as quickly as possible, then.

And Bea…?

Well, Bea was good at looking after herself, Joan thought, her jaw tightening. She retraced her steps back to the river and, on a whim more than an insight, began to follow the trickle of water downstream.

Chapter 1

 

 

Carol patted the kelpi foal while her attendant lurked behind her, keeping an eye on the crowd. The foal’s back was already firm and muscled and its thick, smooth coat was cool and damp. She wondered what it would be like to have the tribal talent of breathing underwater. It must be nice to be able to submerge yourself deep under cold water, where everything was black and quiet.

“Do you know when the Mirrors will open?” asked the mother, her voice like burnt straw.  Kelpi rarely spoke to outsiders.

“Soon. The GenAm is working day and night to repair the Mirrors broken in the attack.” She pulled a small sliver of dried pear from the sack her attendant carried and offered it, palm flat, to the foal. “Until then, we have plenty of food and water for everyone in the city.”

The Kelpi kicked her hoof against the stone street. Carol froze, but only for a moment. She was safer here than anywhere else. Out here, the kelpi could only kill her. “You have my word, Mistress, that I’m keeping an eye on things for you. For all of us.”

“Feel a whole lot better knowin’ you’re up there, my Lady,” piped up a nearby brownie.

“Thank you,” Carol said, turning perhaps a little too quickly away from the kelpi. “You can trust me.”

“Any news on the Teller, miss?”

Carol shook her head. “The best thing we can all do right now is to concentrate on keeping the city alive so that he has something to return to when he’s well again.”

“What about the Antis?” called another voice, too far back in the crowd for Carol to identify. “Any luck catching the buggers?”

“The Redaction Department is following a number of leads,” Carol said. “Luckily, they were able to get good information from the traitorous Head Indexer before her punishment. The white suits hope to be taking prisoners soon. You don’t need to worry, my friends. Everything will go back to normal.”

“Sod the GenAm” shouted a voice. “What’s Ænathlin Again doing about all this?”

“Ænathlin Again is here,” Carol replied. “Feeding you, sharing information with you—there was a riot the night before last, things take time. If anyone has a secret tribal talent that can speed bureaucracy up, I’d be delighted to accept their application to the Glossary Department.”

It was Edward’s joke. Carol didn’t find it funny, but nevertheless, someone laughed. “Well, there sure aren’t any fairies doing their part, ain’t that right?”

Carol gave a curt nod. “Any tribe that doesn’t contribute is a problem.” And then, she wasn’t sure why, she added a line of her own: “And we all know how well the fairies do their part, don’t we?”

This time, the whole crowd laughed and, just for a second, Carol felt like the world existed and she could affect it, change it. A movement on a rooftop a few buildings down snagged her attention, a bramble ripping the delicate fabric of her freedom. Delsaran, watching. Reminding her of her purpose.

“But we need to focus on regaining safety and order,” Carol said, returning to script. She petted the kelpi foal again. “We all want a prosperous future for ourselves and our children. Ænathlin is our home, our heritage. How many fae died so that we could live? What matters now is what we can all do to help the city recover. The Glossary Department is here to ensure everyone knows what’s happening and how they can help. I and the other red suits remain your friends and servants. You can trust us.”

The crowd chuntered approvingly, a few more questions were asked and answered, and then it was time for Carol to distribute some dried fruit and bread, offering more prepared platitudes as she did so. This stop concluded, she set off to the next point on her tour. Her attendant, a brown-suited troll, dropped the empty sack of food into the cart, picked up the yoke, and trundled along behind her.

 

The crowd drifted away, back to whatever tasks a visit from the Head of the Glossary Department had torn them from. Only one person remained, standing far back from where the performance had been held. They wore a cloak and hood of dull green. Had anyone bothered to study it, they would have noticed it was woven from thick, good quality material, obviously brownie-made. But no one did.

The figure stood in thought for a moment, then headed towards the outer ring of the city. Ænathlin could be described with many words, most of which were loosely synonymous with ‘ick’ or, on occasion, ‘arrrghhh’. What it had never been was subdued. But there was no escaping it. The cloaked figure moved easily through the streets; no one jostled her or swore at her or, most unsettlingly, tried to convince her to buy anything. Even as she drew closer to the wall, the streets narrowing and the stench rising, no one bothered her.

Chokey would have liked to have put it down to her excellent disguise. Hell, a few months ago she probably would have. Amazing, really, how much one’s perspective can change. But then, having your mother stolen in the middle of the night by the GenAm and then watching your mentor get Redacted was an excellent education.

Yesterday. Agnes had been Redacted yesterday; her mother returned to her yesterday. It felt like it had all happened minutes and years ago—Chokey was still reeling, still swinging wildly between fury and disbelief. And yet the GenAm were already out in force, parading Carol and her ‘Glossary Department’ for everyone to see.

She arrived at Bea’s building, pulled at the door, and nearly fell backwards onto the filthy cobbles.

It was locked. When had Ivor ever locked the building? Even the curfew hadn’t inclined him to make it impossible for the building’s residents to get home.

Chokey knocked on the door. Nothing.

“Ivor? Hullo?” she whispered through the wood—or so she thought, anyway. A lifetime of dinner parties and the kind of education that required one to shout the answers before anyone else got there first hadn’t equipped her for clandestine conversation. “It’s me, come on darling, open up.”

She was about to knock again when the door opened a crack and a bony hand grabbed her, pulling her inside. Ivor slammed the door shut and turned the key in the lock. Only then did he look at her.

“What you doing here, banging and making all that racket? You tryin’ to get us all dead-headed?”

“Of course not! Why ever would you say such a thing?”

“Coz you was out there shouting blue murder?”

“Nonsense. I simply asked you to let me in. Really, now’s hardly the time for your teasing, darling.”

“Teasing…?” Ivor blinked. Then, like so many before him, gave up. “What you want, anyway?”

“I’ve come to see Bea, of course. Do you know if she found Joan? I’ve not been able to get away before now.”

Something settled on Ivor's face that turned her stomach watery. 

"Is she in her room? I can show myself up," Chokey said, grabbing hold of all the reassurances she had given herself as she’d made her way through the empty streets. Everything was still… manageable. Not perfect, not in control, but manageable. Once she’d had a chance to talk to Bea and the others, regain her balance, they would start working on a plan. Mistasinon would no doubt have some wonderful idea up his sleeve, just like he'd had with the Teller’s files. And Joan would turn up and whatever that argument had been about would be resolved, and they’d… they’d sort it all out. Hemmings would come home, and Mistasinon would get rid of Julia, and perhaps they could pardon Agnes—Redaction couldn’t be undone, but they could at least clear her name—and it would be just as it should be again. Just as soon as they were all together.

Ivor rubbed his fingers over his palms like he was trying to wash away a particularly difficult stain. “Bea’s gone, love,” he said. “The GenAm got her last night.”

And just like that, Ivor achieved what so many had tried and failed before him: Chokey was speechless.

She followed him as he trundled back to the reception desk, pulling his spindly body up onto the stool on his side. She lifted herself onto one of the stools on the ‘public’ side and watched, empty-headed, as he poured a short measure of yellow-ish liquid into a glass and slid it over to her.

“They took her?”

Ivor nodded. “Yeah, during the riot. Right outside.”

It didn’t seem possible, somehow. Of course, Chokey had always known in an abstract sense that the GenAm disapproved of Bea and Fairies United. But she’d never actually thought they’d do anything about it.

But they returned mama back the next day.

But mama isn’t a fairy, replied something new and hard within her. She didn’t like it. She wouldn’t listen to it.

“It’s a mistake. The GenAm wouldn’t really do anything to her. She’s one of us. She’s dating a Senior Plotter. I expect it’s some kind of misunderstanding.”

Ivor stared at her, dumbfounded.

“What?” Chokey said, gathering steam. “The GenAm took my mama as well, you know, and it was awful, simply awful, but they brought her back the next day.” They also Redacted Agnes, the horrible voice reminded her. “I’m sure reasonable heads will prevail, once they know who they’re dealing with.”

“Mortal gods.” Ivor grabbed the bottle, took a swig, then hopped off his stool, beckoning Chokey. “C’mon, miss, lemme show you something.”

I don’t want to see it, whatever it is.

She followed the gnome up the stairs to the fairies’ roof garden.

Or, where the garden had been.

There was nothing left. All the planters and pots were gone, the deep earth trays for carrots and the barrels for potatoes… nothing remained. It wasn’t even messy. The garden might as well have never existed.

“The GenAm did this. It took ’em about, oh, an hour, I reckon,” Ivor said between pulls on his bottle. He was swaying ever so slightly. “Scared all five hells out of everyone, that’s for damn sure. We ain’t unlocked the door since, not ’till your Ladyship turned up.” He swung to face her, sticky alcohol arcing from his bottle. “See, Mistress, I ain’t got a clue what it’s like in knob-land for all you high born folk, but round here, this is how it goes: They come, they take what they want and who they want, and then… Then it’s like there weren’t never nothing here in the first place.”

Chokey swallowed against the sudden pain in her throat. “But…”

“But me no buts,” Ivor snapped. “I shouldn’t have let her build it. Shouldn’t have let her stay, not when I found out what she was like. And now they got her. They were always gonna get her, sooner or later.” He looked down at his bottle, frowning. “It’s just the way things are.”

“I’m going to fix this. I know people. I can-"

Ivor laughed, a dark, splintered sound. “May the mortal gods give me the confidence of an inner-circler.” He raised his bottle to her. "Say hi to Bea for me, yeah, when you’re sharing her cell.”