I felt Ursus's resignation and Arthur's surprise. Now what?
Depending on how much this locus mirrors the properties of the physical dimensions, Ursus thought, we might have a shortcut compared to exhaustive mapping. That gazebo is a pretty spot; I bet it gets visited often.
Moving our subjective viewpoint right down to turf level, we directed our gaze in turn to each of the four gaps in the hedge. When we were finished, I mentally indicated the gap across from us. I think the lawn near that one has seen the most wear.
Our sense of presence shifted to that gap. Careful, boys, Ursus warned. We moved our senses slightly into the maze. I examined to the left. To the right. To the front. Up. Down. Listen. Smell. Reach out with magic senses. Move in a little more, and repeat. We thus painstakingly made our way to the first intersection and again examined the turf for differential wear.
Left, I think, I said.
Lemur for left, Ursus thought, creating a mnemonic. We carefully moved our viewpoint left. The next turn was also a left. The lemur is eating licorice. Then a right. The licorice is wrapped around a rutabaga.
In the process of going through the labyrinth, we only made one bad turn that required us to double back. The incorrect path had let to a sculpture that appeared to be carved from marble. It was of a voluptuous, nude woman on a low pedestal. I suspect someone really likes that sculpture, Ursus thought, enough to wear a trail, anyway.
We worked our way through the maze. One last turn, and we could see into a garden. I saw beds of flowers and other plants and some dwarf fruit trees. The size of the pears suggested that it was early summer at this locus. Studying the scene, we kept our subjective point of presence in place for a while. It seems safe, Arthur concluded.
Something's missing, I thought.
I felt Ursus realize what it was. This place has more scrying defenses than just the trap with the garden maze, he thought. To our front, something is shielded from scrying. Given that before us is a garden, the blank area might be a house.
With a mental shrug, we edged our subjective presence into the garden. As we had hoped, our ability to manipulate manna came back, and Ursus immediately seized control of it. He was ready to release it, thus ending our ability to scry, at any hint of danger.
Off to one side, where our ability to see her had been blocked by the hedge of the labyrinth, stood a woman. I felt startled for a second, and Ursus almost let our manna go, but she made no threatening moves. She was wearing a carelessly tied diaphanous robe over an even less substantial nightgown, and we were treated to a generous view of spectacular cleavage. She started speaking in a language none of us could understand. There was a scolding tone in her voice, but she didn't look all that angry.
Aphrodite? Arthur thought.
She's gorgeous enough to be her, I thought, but Aphrodite most likely was a brunette, being Greek and all. The woman before us had white-blonde hair in a loose braid that fell to her waist, and fair skin.
Right, Arthur agreed. Freyja?
I don't believe she's a goddess, Ursus thought. Their presence tends to be more intense. That's not to say she isn't playing hob with my ability to concentrate. I felt him purposefully focus deeper on our manna and his search for potential threats.
The woman removed a crystal on a chain from around her neck and held it up to her eyes. I felt Ursus mentally "tense." She's scrying us right back, I thought.
The woman quit talking for several moments while she gazed into the crystal. Our concentration split even more as Arthur remained focused on her while I tried to look around us. Our trance almost broke right then, but I managed to salvage it. Look around a little, damn it! I ordered.
Arthur felt embarrassed as he complied. The woman was standing nearby, to our subjective right. To the far right stood a hedgerow. Behind us, to the right and left, was the labyrinth. A garden spread in front of us. The raised beds were whimsical free-form shapes rather than laid out formally. In front of us beyond the garden, and to the medium left, were blank areas that we presumed were warded from scrying.
The woman let out what sounded like an excited squeal, and she regained my full attention. Smiling, she had beauty that was almost painful. Are you sure she isn't a goddess? Arthur asked.
The woman said in English, "Can you understand me?" She had an Irish lilt.
I nodded my head. I felt vaguely aware that my physical body had given an actual nod. She continued looking at her crystal rather than at the spot that was my subjective center of concentration. "Yes," Ursus said. I felt movement in my physical vocal cords and could hear myself speak. "Can you understand me?"
The stunning woman became visibly even more excited. He face and upper chest were flushed. "Yes! Yes! Yes!" She bounced in place a little.
I felt Ursus's vigilance relax somewhat. In the face of her obvious joy, it was hard to feel threatened. "Arthur Ursus Enlil Teagan Bear Powyr at your service, Miss," he said.
She took a deep breath, which was hard not to stare at, and visibly gathered herself. "Excuse my manners, young sir. It has been more than fifty years since I've had the opportunity to converse with a mortal, and I find myself thrilled at the prospect. I am called Alanna ni Ailfrid. If you come with good will, welcome."
"My intentions are harmless," I said, "but I confess a tendency toward unseemly curiosity."
She smiled some more. "You are a magus?"
"I hesitate to apply such a lofty title to one with my present abilities."
"If I'm right in my understanding of how mortals reckon such things, you do look to be quite young. However, you've scried this place when contact with your folk has become difficult and infrequent, you've worked your way out of my snare, and you're canny enough to ward your place of power so that I can't discern its location. Your abilities, then, are more than trivial. Are you a skilled apprentice, then?
"In a way, but my story is complicated. For now, it would perhaps be best to simply call me a magician."
"Aye, then, a magician you shall be called, and I am well aware of your breed's tendency to explore."
"That is a kind way of putting it," I said.
Alanna smiled again. "I suppose curiosity is why you were trapped for a time in my scrying snare."
"I was practicing and decided to see what in the Abstruse World was near my closet door in the Physical World. The door linked to a spot underneath one of your rose arbors."
Ursus had a thought. "Ah, I was wondering what my clothes closet had in common, metaphorically, with your garden. Your trap explains why my sight came out within your labyrinth, rather than at a cellar door or the like."
"Aye, the labyrinth is a grievous folly for a garden the size of mine, but if I'm going to have it, it makes a handy element for a spell to catch the gaze of voyeurs. The Wee Folk have the habit of spying on me."
"That wasn't what I was trying to do," I said hastily.
I can't say I blame those who try, though, Arthur thought.
"I believe you, lad," Alanna said. "I apologize for trapping you that way."
"You have nothing to apologize for. I'm guilty of being a snoop, even if I wasn't trying to be a voyeur. I apologize for trespassing."
"Think nothing of it. You're welcome here, now, as long as you respect my privacy more than the little miscreants who keep trying to see me in my bath do, and I'm not so old that I don't remember what it was like learning to scry myself.
"Move your gaze to my crystal," she said.
I hesitated, and Ursus and Arthur fully agreed with my caution.
Alanna looked exasperated for a moment. "I grant you full guest privileges to my home and land, so long as you offer me, my family, my visitors, and my other guests no harm. While you--or your senses--are here, I will not seek to harm or hinder you in any way, and I will defend you to the best of my ability from anyone else who might try to do so. I, Alanna ni Ailfrid, swear it by my life and my power." She raised her eyebrows questioningly over violet eyes.
After hearing an oath like that, I realized that I would be offering a gigantic insult if I didn't focus on her crystal. Oaths have real power among magical folk, Ursus thought. He relaxed even more. I looked at the crystal.
Alanna was silent for a few moments, and then she spoke a few words in a language I didn't know. My diminished sense for magic felt a slight stirring. "There," Alanna said, "you'll no longer get snared in my labyrinth if you wish to pay me another visit, as I hope you will."
I noticed, too, that I could now see a house where there was once a blank spot in my vision. By the standards of Novi Orbis, it was a small place, but it was too big to be described as a cottage. It had fieldstone walls and a shake roof. "Pretty house," I said.
"Thank you. Let's move this conversation inside, if you will." Alanna led and I let my senses follow her. I saw to my left, in what had been another blank spot, a pond. Beyond the pond were some boxes I guessed were beehives and another hedgerow. Alanna went into a glassed-in porch full of gardening tools and assorted stuff.
No threshold effect, I thought to Ursus.
There shouldn't be one after we received an invitation, Ursus thought.
I noticed that the tools were mostly made of a yellow metal. It's probably bronze, Ursus thought.
Alanna let us through a door into a kitchen, and then through another door into a parlor. The walls of the room were covered by floor to ceiling shelves filled with books. Alanna waved her hand at a candle, and it lit. She took a seat in an armchair, put her small crystal back around her neck, and then picked up a crystal ball and put it in her lap. She gazed into the ball for several moments. "That's much better," she said. "Is there enough light for you, Mr. Powyr?"
"Yes, that's fine," I replied. "I've been using dream light. Please, call me Arthur, or Art, or even Artie, Miss ni Ailfrid."
"You may call me Alanna, Arthur. I'm extremely pleased to meet a mortal again. Your people and mine come into contact so seldom these days."
"Do you mind me asking, who are your people?"
She gave me a puzzled look for a moment. "I must remember that you weren't trying to find me and landed your gaze here rather by accident. In English, your people sometimes called mine the 'Good People' or the 'Fair Folk.'"
A bell rang for Arthur. "You mean, like fairies?"
She frowned slightly. "Yes, but that term has gathered unflattering overtones in your world, has it not?"
"No offense intended," I said.
"None taken, but you should take care around others. If you need a short name for us, 'the Folk' will do."
"Thanks for the warning," I said.
"Ach, I didn't mean to turn so solemn. 'Tis a wonderful occurrence, meeting mortal kind again. The last time I had the chance, I was but a lass."
"I'm happy to meet you, too." Arthur was digging around in our brain trying to remember the more serious bits of lore he had picked up about fairies. Ursus, who had taken over most of the burden of maintaining our trance and controlling our manna, helped to the extent he could by thinking through bits and pieces he recalled about equivalent beings. "By the way my people estimate such things," I said, "you look quite young, still."
"The Folk don't age in the way that mortals do, but it's true I'm considered barely fledged by the way my people reckon it."
"But you said you were a girl fifty years ago," Arthur said.
"Aye, I was born one hundred and three years ago. Among the Folk, one's hundred-and-first birthday is much like your twenty-first, if I have your customs right."
"I think you probably do. Twenty-one is a traditional age for gaining a lot of adult rights and responsibilities in the Empire, although some rights have been moving down to younger ages. Eighteen-year-olds just gained the right to vote this year."
"Your empire and its voting, that's one of the things that fascinate me about your folk. My people have never put such faith in democracy."
For that matter, Ursus thought, I never have, either.
"I've studied government a little in school," Arthur said. "I don't know a lot about it, but I get the idea that most people in the Empire, or at least in Novi Orbis, think democracy is the best form of government."
"You're going to school, then?"
"Yes, I'm in grade six. That means I've had six years of schooling, so far, if you don't count kindergarten. I'm considered not fledged at all by the way my people reckon it."
"But you've achieved some mastery of the occult arts," Alanna said.
"Yeah, I guess, but I haven't been learning them at school. The situation is complicated, and there are secrets involved that I don't think I should go into." I changed the subject slightly. "You appear to be something of a magician yourself."
"Aye, I've been told that I show promise, and I have ambitions toward being a lore mistress." She bowed her head a little when she said it.
"Your library is impressive," I said.
"Thank you. It sadly wants information on one of my primary interests, though."
"When those members of a magician's lodge from the mortal realms contacted me when I was a lass, they stirred a curiosity in me about your kind. Do you see why I'm so excited you found me?"
"I think so. What happened to the magicians you once knew?"
"I know not. One day they quit contacting me. I knew, though, that they found touching this realm to be exhausting work needing much preparation. I tried scrying for them from this way, but I never found them."
"You find scrying the material realm difficult, then?"
"Aye, I get snatches here and there, which I take notes upon and then spend grueling amounts of time piecing together. Your recent increase in the mechanical arts, for instance, is fascinating to us. If I may be immodest, my paper on the subject has been well received."
"We call it the Industrial Revolution," I said. "I guess it got started about three hundred years ago."
"Aye, a veritable blink of the eye, and now you have flying machines and horseless carriages everywhere. And steel." She shuddered at the word. "What keeps your automobiles from smashing into each other at such speeds, may I ask?"
"Just the care of the drivers."
Her face went blank for a second, and then she grinned. "You're having a bit of a go at your new acquaintance, I see. I know how your kind loves to tell tales."
"I suppose we do, but I was serious about the cars."
Her jaw dropped open. "You people are mad!"
See, she understands, thought Ursus. I felt his fondness for her go up a notch.
"Don't blame me," I said. "The driving system was in place before I was born. Part of me agrees with your conclusion."
She shook her head. "The magicians told me about your taming of lightning. I believe that has spread everywhere, too."
"Do you mind if I take notes?"
"Go ahead. I wish I had a way to take them myself."
She fetched a lap desk. In the interest of science, we studied her intently as she did so. Once she was again seated and had me in her crystal ball, she used a dip pen to take notes in shorthand without looking away from the crystal. We spent some time talking about Arthur's contemporary world.
When I decided that I had spent enough time talking, I said, "Tell me something about this place."
Alanna took a deep breath. "Where to begin? Do you know how the Otherworld and the Physical World are linked together in intricate loops of cause and effect?"
"I have the idea that our beliefs and actions influence you and your beliefs and actions influence us."
"Aye, that's a concise way of putting it. There's speculation that my very existence was the result of a resurgence of faith in the daoine sídhe among your people. We are a rather infertile race, and I was born at a time when your people began studying the old ways lest they be forgot, or so the magicians I once knew told me."
"Wow. What would happen if they were forgotten?"
Alanna looked grim. "It would be a catastrophe. I'm too young to remember it, but I'm told that the spread of Christianity in the mortal realms was like a continuous cataclysm mixed with a plague here. My kind doesn't grow old the way yours does, but we can fade away."
That gave me pause for a few moments. I changed the subject. "I understand that there is more to the Otherworld than the lands of the Fair Folk."
"Indeed. It's divided into many realms with shifting borders. Our geography--though misnomer that word is--is more complex than the Physical World's. On the larger scale, it's described better by linked concepts than by measurements of distance."
"I've been calling it 'metaphorical dimensions.'"
"That's a good term for it."
"Is there any way to predict where parts of the Otherworld intersect the Physical World?"
"Not precisely, no," Alanna said. "There will probably be a metaphorical connection between the loci, but other than that, the only way to find out is to look. Too, a locus in either realm can connect to multiple loci in either realm, and the connections can move around."
That has been my experience, Ursus thought.
"Do you have any guess about how much danger I will be in if I take an imaginary journey to the Otherworld?" I asked.
"By 'imaginary journey' do you mean astral projection?"
"I believe that's another name for it," I replied.
"Two of the magicians I once knew were able to send part of themselves into the Otherworld," Alanna said. "They claimed to be leaving their bodies behind, but to my senses they looked to be right in front of me. I could reach out and touch them. That is what they called 'astral projection.' When the Folk visit your realms, we do something rather the opposite. We gather physical substance around ourselves, at least if we want to do more than float around like spirits. I'm told that in the past it was an easier thing to do."
"How do you think I would be treated if I came here astrally?"
"Right around this locus, you would be safe as my guest. Among the people I know, you would be well treated, and most of them would receive you with great interest. As for generally, it will vary depending on whom you are with and your location, just as it would in your own realm."
I was about to ask her some questions about the magician's lodge. Just then, I felt a psychically jarring sensation, and Ursus lost much of our manna. Then someone started to shake me. "Artie," Mary's voice said, "I'm sorry, but you have to come up for lunch."
My trance was shredding, "Sorry," I said to Alanna, "I'll try to come back another day."
The look I gave Mary must have been nasty, because she took a step back. "Sorry, but Mom sent me down to get you. She called you, but you didn't answer. If Mom came down here herself and found you talking to yourself while staring into a pan of water, she would pass a brick."
"Right," I said. "OK." My throat was sore, and I felt extremely spacey. Spacey and good, but tired. I forced myself to stand. "Lead on."