We have a bunk bed, but nobody sleeps in the bottom one, so we use it to hold our school things and toys and books. One of those books is about the names for groups of different kinds of animals. Like prides of lions, and murders of crows. Mother says that our grandpa, her father-in-law, gave it to her as a wedding present; this is the only nice thing we have ever heard her say about getting married, and she didn't throw the book away with all of Father's other things when he finally died. The book is called An Exaltation of Larks, and our body's name is Emily Lark. So we're an Exaltation.
On our tenth birthday it was a school day, so we didn't eat breakfast because they'd give us lunch at the cafeteria, and Mother slept through our alarm since we wrapped it in our old pillowcase, so Clair packed up our things very quietly and we went out to the bus stop. Emmy peeked out for a little while until the other kids from the trailer park got there and then she hid under Dawn's wing, inside the Cave. Clair went inside too to let Zix have a chance to look at his notes for our math test. He studied for the whole bus ride.
At school the homeroom teacher remembered it was our birthday but he was the only one. Palisade was out front to say thank you but she let Zix take over for the test. He didn't think any of the rest of us would do it right. Clair wanted to do some of the school some of the time because she was worried something might happen one day and we wouldn't be together to let Zix do it all forever, but Dawn always said for now it's most important to get good grades so Mother will be happy, not to spread all the learning around. Zix got A's and B's and if he let Clair take a test she got C's. And Emmy did art class where it's not too hard to get a good grade if you do the art, and then she comes inside again and paints the Cave.
Art class on our birthday was scratchboards. Emmy scratched blades of grass all along the bottom and then etched a picture of Palisade flying over it. The art teacher said, "What's that?"
"That's my imaginary friend," said Emmy. This was the safe way to talk about being an Exaltation: whoever was talking was Emily, and the other four were Emily's imaginary friends. Zix thought we'd have to think of something else when we got older but this worked in the fifth grade.
"Oh? What kind of creature is that?"
"Palisade's a griffin."
"Palisade? That's a funny name."
This was a lot of talking for Emmy and she wanted help. Palisade helped: "It's a funny story," she said, smiling. "I couldn't pick her name for the longest time and then I saw that word on the guidance counselor's vocabulary calendar and thought it was the best word. So that's her name now. Isn't that funny?"
The art teacher thought it was very funny and patted us on the shoulder and said the drawing was lovely. But Palisade had to do the rest of the drawing because Emmy didn't want to come out again. She scratched in the feathers and the fur and then Zix did social studies and then we got on the bus home.
We get off at a different stop than we get on. The bus driver probably thinks we have an aunt or something. When we were in the first grade we made a friend who's four years older than we are; her name is Sam. Some people were making fun of her lunch. We hadn't eaten much over the weekend and they were being dumb anyway, so Palisade said it smelled great and looked delicious and all those people were stupid. And then Sam gave us half of it and it was so good, and she thought we were very cute. And now after school if we go to her house to hang out with her, her mom will give us a big plate of curry and rice and stuff. That means we can save the peanut butter for weekends and it takes longer for Mother to be upset about needing to give us grocery money.
We take a different bus from Sam because she's in high school now, so we waited for her before we went up to her house. We decided (mostly Dawn decided) that Clair should be outside for the visit because she was annoyed about being inside all day at school.
Sam waved to us and yelled, "Hi, Emily!" She had her backpack on, which looked really heavy, and some more textbooks that she was carrying.
"That's a lot of books," said Clair when Sam got closer. It was more than she'd had last week.
"Um," said Sam, "yes, it is." She let us into her house. It smelled like spices and steam from the rice cooker but we wouldn't get to eat any until Sam's mom came home from work. Clair sat on the couch in the living room. Sam hung up her backpack, and put her books under it, and sat next to us. "So how was your day?" Sam didn't know it was our birthday. We weren't all sure we liked having a birthday because some of us didn't feel ten. Emmy was ten, and so was Palisade more or less, but Dawn was infinity and Zix counted in space alien years and Clair was Sam's age.
"School was okay. How come you have extra books?"
"One of them is - one I brought from home. And it's big so I had to take some textbooks out to make room," said Sam.
"What's it about?" Clair asked.
"I'm not really sure," Sam said, "I can't get it open. I inherited it, it came in the mail from my grandfather - he died, but like I barely knew him it's all right - but it has a lock and the box had a key but it doesn't actually unlock the book. I was fiddling with it between classes but I still can't get it open."
"How come your grandfather left you a locked book?" blinked Clair.
"I don't know," shrugged Sam. "There was a letter with it but I don't really get it."
"Can I see?" wondered Clair.
"It's not in English."
"I can only mostly read it myself in the first place. You can see the book if you want." Sam hauled it out of her backpack and put it on our lap and Clair touched the cover. It was leather with complicated circular-design carving all over it and no title, front or spine.
The book glowed, bright blinding white.
Clair yelped and stood up and it bounced off our foot and thumped to the floor before Sam could catch it. It stopped glowing, and flopped onto its front on the carpet. Like a normal book.
"I'm sorry," Clair said.
"I saw it glow too," Sam said, which was a relief. "I didn't know it would - I didn't know it would really do that."
"The letter said a lot of weird stuff," said Sam, gingerly picking the book up off the floor. "Do, um. Do you want to go on a magical quest."
"...What?" asked Clair.
"Okay look the book really glowed, you saw, right?"
"So since it did that maybe the rest of the letter wasn't totally nonsense and maybe I am supposed to send you on a magical quest. But like you're, what, nine -"
"Fo- I'm ten," corrected Clair. In the Cave the rest of us were all trying to figure out how to react. Palisade agreed with Zix that we needed to know more about magical quests and pack some sandwiches first. But Emmy wanted to go, she didn't care if we had to slay dragons or wade through swamps or go hungry every day for a month just as long as we didn't have to go home and fight over who had to be out while Mother was awake. And Dawn was on her side.
"- you're ten," Sam acknowledged, "I'm not going to make you go on a magical quest, but the book glowed for you, so, if you want one, I can maybe give you one?"
"Did your grandfather give people magical quests?" asked Clair.
"I guess! I don't know! I barely knew him! I don't even know why I got the book instead of one of my cousins or something."
"What are the quests for, like, do I get gold or have to save the world or what - if I don't go on the quest is the world going to end -"
"I don't think so?" said Sam uncertainly. "I mean, maybe gold. But I don't think the world is just hanging out being in danger all the time and if I don't give out enough quests it ends. Or that giving out quests puts it in danger. I think the letter would have been more emphatic about that."
Palisade and Zix both had a lot to say, and Emmy was whispering but we could all hear her anyway because she was in our Cave, and Dawn said we had to let Clair handle it because Clair was fronting and we couldn't second-guess her in front of Sam, not when that might distract her.
And Clair said, "I might want to go on a magical quest."
And we all clustered right at the mouth of the Cave, waiting for her to say:
"What do I have to do?"
Sam fumbled in her backpack for an envelope, already ragged on top from being opened. She pulled a letter out of it. Clair peeked but it wasn't even in the English alphabet. Sam looked at it, frowning, then said, "The book is supposed to open for you, if you try to unlock it. And it'll tell you how to do your quest, but once you open the book you have to definitely be going to do it." She muttered to herself in whatever language the letter was written in and then said, "Still pretty sure the world isn't going to end though."
She held out our hand. And Sam gave us a key, and Clair took the book and squinted against the glow and unlocked it.
It fell open in our hands to a page in the middle, full of words in Sam's grandpa's language, with a picture of a comb - like a pretty, jewelry comb, with flowers and precious stones - at the bottom.
Sam looked over our shoulder.
"What does it say? What's my quest?" Clair asked.
"Give me a bit, I only kind of read Malayalam." We waited. Eventually Sam said, "You need more people to go on your quest, this is for five people, it says. I don't think I'm allowed to be one of them when I gave you the quest."
"...When I find four more people," said Clair, "what do we do?"
"Then you can peel the comb out of the book and it will take you to other places and each place you go you need to find a souvenir and when you have five and bring them home, you can turn them and the comb into a magic item which you get to keep," said Sam.
Emmy wanted to go. Zix was concerned about missing school, Palisade thought we'd get ourselves killed, Clair didn't want Sam to know we're an Exaltation because she didn't want to look weird -
Dawn was on Emmy's side and we're all pretty used to doing what Dawn says because she keeps us from all fighting with each other.
Clair let Emmy pick at the edge of the outline of the comb.
"It says you need five people," said Sam.
"We're five people," said Emmy, and the comb came off the page into our hand and turned ivory and gold and all the flowers were made of sparkling gems.
"What do you mean you're -" began Sam, but Emmy pushed the book off our lap and stood up and combed the air in front of us, and it parted in thin stripes like the whole world was only ever made of invisible hair. There was an ocean past the world she'd combed away, and Emmy held our breath and jumped in.
The combed-away part was only open from one direction. It wasn't still there when we landed in the ocean. But Emmy had a good tight grip on the comb and we know how to swim from Father making us learn before he finally died. We were wearing a hoodie from the church charity people and it had a zipper pocket, and Emmy put the comb in there so it wouldn't sink if she let it go, and we bobbed up and down in the sea.
"Sorry," Emmy mumbled. Usually we try not to talk to each other out loud, because it's a bad habit for pretending we're just imaginary friends, but there was nobody around.
And Clair came out front again, because she likes swimming. In the Cave she has a tail and for her the whole place is full of water even though the rest of us walk on the floor and have air. When she's using our body it doesn't start having a tail and she has to kick, but she still likes swimming.
There was nowhere obvious to swim to, though. Clair turned around and around in the water and there was no land and no boats.
Zix started trying to guess how long it would take us to drown, but Clair reminded him that we still had the magic comb and could probably comb our way out of the sea before it got that bad. But Palisade thought that as long as we were already here we should get a souvenir and see if we could finish our quest.
The only stuff around was water, though.
So Clair held our breath and went underwater. She could open our eyes underwater; she was the only one who could do that.
The sea was really clear. Clair spotted a school of little fish, and she could see the bottom, just about, although it was really dark that far down and she couldn't tell what was there. She swam down, but it was farther than it seemed and she needed to go back up for air before she could touch the sand. She took a deeper breath and tried again and went down down down and picked up a little red crab by its back so it couldn't pinch us and surfaced again.
We were not sure if the crab was a souvenir or not. Zix thought it couldn't possibly count. Palisade thought that if it couldn't the book ought to have been clearer. Zix said that we didn't exactly let Sam finish explaining, did we, so how would we know if the instructions were clear.
Clair dove again and put the crab down and started looking on the sea floor for other things.
She got better at holding our breath after she'd been swimming around for a while. She found shells and seaweed and anemones and an eel that swam away from us. We'd landed in a kind of shallow part of the ocean, and she wanted to go somewhere deeper, so Zix had her pay attention to where the sun was and then swim in one direction so we could find the shallow part if we needed to.
That's how we found the city.
It wasn't a land city; we could have seen that from where we started, if it were above the water. It was an underwater city made of rock and coral and glass and whalebone and bits of driftwood, all covered in barnacles like hard white ivy.
And it was full of mermaids, and Clair almost inhaled a lungful of water when she saw them.
She kicked back up to the surface to breathe and then went under and headed straight for them.
It wasn't all "maids". There were mermen and little merkids and old merpeople. They had hair in crayon colors and they swam between the stories of their buildings without any clothes on and even if we weren't all using the same brain we would have been able to guess that Clair wanted to go be one.
The merfolk weren't expecting a visitor, but when we got close enough a couple of them, two mermaids, spotted us and swam in our direction. Up close they weren't just humans with fish tails and funny hair colors; they had peculiar faces, too, with flattish noses and sharp chins and big eyes for seeing in the dimness underwater.
"What are you?" wondered one of the mermaids.
Clair couldn't answer because she was holding our breath.
"It looks like a person," she commented to her friend. "If a sort of deformed one. I wonder why it can't talk." The friend shrugged - sort of; she was missing an arm all the way up to the shoulder. It looked like maybe a shark got her.
Clair blew bubbles.
"Oh, it's a mammal," concluded the mermaid. "Meli, give it a dolphin globe."
Her friend had tattoos on the palm of the hand she had left, and she closed her fist over them and we could see a little red light peeking out from between her fingers. There was a loud humming sound for a moment that didn't seem to be coming from either of the mermaids and then her hand flew open and pointed the red light straight at us. And then there was a sphere of air around our head.
"There. Now can you talk?" asked the first mermaid.
"Y-yes," said Clair.
"What are you?"
We're a ten year old human, sort of. Clair by herself isn't.
And it was a little hard for Clair to tell herself that she had to pretend to be normal to a couple of merpeople in an underwater city one of whom had just obviously cast a spell.
"My name is Clair," Clair said, a little shakily. She hadn't ever said it before.
"I'm Miyana," said the mermaid. "And this is Meli. But what are you?"
Clair swallowed. "I'm a deformed mermaid," she said. "It's very sad. I'm supposed to have a tail like you, and blue hair, and be able to breathe underwater, but I can't. And sometimes I have to look like this for other reasons anyway."
"I don't even know how we'd fix your tail or the breathing," mused Miyana. "I could dye your hair if you want."
We had mixed feelings about that - Palisade doesn't like blue and Zix doesn't like hair. But Dawn said that Clair ought to have blue hair if she wanted it. So Clair nodded in our air bubble, and she swam after Miyana and Meli, struggling to keep up, when they beckoned for us to follow.
A lot of other merfolk looked funny at us while we were going between all the buildings and getting used to breathing with the bubble underwater. Our nose itched but Zix didn't think it was safe to try to scratch it through the spell without asking, and Miyana and Meli weren't slowing down much to let Clair catch up. Eventually they stopped at a little apartment that dangled from a tower like a weird fruit, and swam in as soon as we were there, and let us in.
"Can I scratch my nose with this spell on?" asked Clair.
"Huh, I don't know," said Miyana. "It's mostly for dolphins. Meli?"
"If the bubble breaks I can remake it," Meli said.
Clair gulped, because "don't scratch your nose" seemed like the sort of thing that would be easy to forget while Meli wasn't around, but she scratched our nose and it turned out the bubble didn't break. "Good," said Miyana, "I need to touch your head to dye your hair anyway. What kind of blue?"
Miyana's was green and Meli's dark purple, so those weren't useful points of comparison. "Like - bright, bold, primary color kind of blue?"
"I'll just let you have a look at the dyes -" Miyana had a whole box of them, it turned out. It was dark, even more in the apartment than in the open water, but Clair squinted at the blobs of color until she found one that was the right cobalt shade. And then Miyana cracked it on our head like an egg and started rubbing our head like we've seen haircut ladies at the strip mall do to people who get their hair cut there.
When she was all done she held up a mirror. Our hair was blue. Clair grinned.
"Does that help?" asked Miyana.
Clair nodded. "Um, where am I?" she asked.
"Cahae," said Miyana. (Meli had left sometime during the hair-dying process.) "You didn't know where you were? Well, do you know what you want to do while you're here?"
"I'm not sure," confessed Clair.
"Well, if you want to work for your dinner I could use someone to help me dolphin-wrangling."
Clair didn't even bother to wait for Dawn's okay before she nodded.
So Miyana led us to where she kept all her dolphins. They were penned up in a big cage, with plenty of space to move around and bubbles over their blowholes. Miyana sent Clair in with a netful of fish and a scrub sponge and we had to feed all of the dolphins exactly three fish only after they held still to be scrubbed. Meanwhile Miyana took one dolphin out of the cage and worked on training it to do tricks.
Clair washed all ten dolphins in the cage - maybe if they weren't washed they'd grow barnacles like the buildings? - and fed them, and then went to watch what Miyana was doing.
She was trying to teach the dolphin to swim in patterns she traced with her hands: if she moved her finger around in a circle she wanted the dolphin to swim in a circle, and like that. She had it on a sort of harness, and when it went in a direction it wasn't supposed to, she pulled on it to make it pay attention and showed it again how to go. Eventually it did the circle.
"Are you going to give it a treat?" asked Clair.
"No," said Miyana. "Can't overfeed them."
"But it figured out the trick."
"It gets to go up to the surface when it's done the trick a couple of times in a row."
"...Don't they get to go up sometimes? Dolphins are supposed to jump out of the water now and then. I've seen them do it." On TV, but still.
"Only when they're learning and behaving. They have their bubbles, they don't need to breach and it's inconvenient to take this many up all the time." Miyana circled her hand again. The dolphin swam in a circle.
"You could have the cage higher up."
"And then what would I use to train them?" Miyana unclipped the leash. The dolphin swam up and leapt, leaving just a shadow on the waves and then splashing down a few feet away.
"I - don't know. But I think they're supposed to go out of the water sometimes."
"Is there something wrong with your bubble? It's the same thing they get. They can breathe."
"N...no." The bubble was fine. It wasn't even stuffy.
The dolphin came back down.
"Why did it come back?" Clair asked.
"All its friends are here." She put the dolphin back in the cage and only then let it off its leash. "Every now and then one swims away, but usually they come back."
"Why do you even have all these dolphins?"
"I train some of them for shows. The one you just saw isn't very advanced, but the better trained ones do neat things. Want to see?"
Clair shook our head. "No thanks."
"Well, you've earned supper - you I don't have to worry about overfeeding - you eat fish, right?"
Miyana gave us dinner, which was raw fish pieces wrapped in seaweed and pretty tasty. But none of us could stop thinking about the dolphins stuck in a cage all the time. They could breathe, but they couldn't jump, and dolphins were supposed to be able to jump.
After dinner Miyana didn't have anything in particular for us to do, and it seemed like merpeople just slept floating wherever they happened to find convenient instead of having actual beds, so we didn't need to worry about finding a place to sleep. She just closed her eyes after eating and floated right there in her dining room.
We slept too, but woke up before Miyana did. We let ourselves out of her place and went swimming through the city. We went by the dolphin cage again.
The dolphins were swimming around, mostly. Some of them were sleeping. One of them was pregnant, we'd noticed that when Clair was scrubbing them. As soon as Miyana let one of them go it would jump, and then it would come back to its friends. Zix wondered if the dolphins were healthy if they didn't get as much exercise as they wanted. The cage looked huge, but it wasn't actually, not for that many animals that size.
Emmy was thinking about the baby one about to be born, who wouldn't be allowed to go up to the surface until it was old enough to learn tricks. How long would that take? Palisade thought the dolphins ought to just swim away when they were let go, or yank their leashes away without waiting to be freed, friends or no friends; why wouldn't they, were they stupid, didn't they realize that was why they were kept like that to begin with? Dawn wondered if the way dolphins jumped was like flying -
The cage netting was too fine for dolphins to get through. When the baby one was born it would have to stay with its mother even if it could go between the strings.
But we're little. We could fit.
Clair picked up the scrubber sponge, and squeezed in with the dolphins. She put the sponge in our pocket and pulled out the comb.
"I need another sea," she told the comb. "For the dolphins. It has to have water that's the right temperature, and fish for them to eat, and other dolphins for them to make friends with if this isn't enough dolphins for them to be happy, and it has to have air on top of it for them to jump in. Okay?"
The comb glinted a little in the low light. The sun was setting; we could barely see the dolphins right in front of us.
"Okay," Clair said to the comb, and she combed the sea away.
And there was another sea, greener, daylit, and she chased all the dolphins through into it and then followed after.
The water on the other side was shallow enough to stand in. Clair helped the dolphins who'd wound up kind of stuck get into the deeper water, and then waded onto the shore. There was an enormous cliff face after just a few feet of beach. Clair wondered if there were more mermaids out there, if our bubble would hold. She waded back out and put our face in the water. We got wet. So the bubble didn't stay, oh well. Zix hoped the dolphins remembered how to surface to breathe but figured they probably did and if they didn't the other dolphins in the new ocean would teach them.
Clair pulled around some of our hair to look at, though, and it was still blue. We felt kind of bad about taking Miyana's hair dye and dinner and then stealing all her dolphins. But only kind of.
There really wasn't a lot of beach. Clair walked up and down it, thinking about the mermaids and their city and how they moved their fish tails.
Then she looked up and we saw the griffin and Palisade said it was her turn and Dawn backed her up.
"HEY," Palisade yelled to the griffin. "HEY, CAN I GET A LIFT?"
The griffin looked down at us and swooped lower. Palisade was momentarily scared that they would decide we were bite-sized, decided that if she had to she'd throw sand in their eyes and dive into the sea to get away -
The griffin just landed on the sand, lion hindpaws first, eagle foreclaws next, folded their wings, peered at us. "Where'd you come from?" It sounded like a boy griffin.
"The sea," said Palisade.
"You don't look like a fish."
"I'm not a fish," said Palisade. "I'm a griffin like you but I'm under a curse that makes me look like this. It means I can't fly. Can you take me someplace that won't go underwater at high tide?"
"I suppose. Have you got armor on under all that cloth?" asked the griffin. "You look pretty fragile, my claws might go right through you."
"Maybe I could just sit on your back," suggested Palisade.
"If you really want," he said. So Palisade sat on him, and he took off and she tried not to pull out any of his feathers holding on. "How'd you get cursed?"
"It runs in my family," said Palisade. "What's your name? I'm Palisade."
"Nice name," said the griffin. "I'm Vanguard."
"Nice name," echoed Palisade. "Are there a lot of other griffins here?"
"A whole company," said Vanguard. "You know, I think the captain could find a use for you, you're little and two-legged -"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Oh, there's a nest of goblins a ways inland. We were going to besiege them but maybe you can help get it over with quicker. You don't have claws hiding in those digits of yours, do you?"
"Some curse. Maybe we have something you can use around. Not being able to fly is one thing but if you haven't got claws how can you call yourself a griffin?"
"I, um." Palisade isn't usually at a loss for words.
"Yeah, yeah, curse, but goblins haven't got claws and they manage to bloody us often enough. Not as often as we get them back, though!" Vanguard was coasting lower and we could see a bunch of griffins set up around eight campfires, and a big square tent decorated in brown and gold. Palisade had a look at Vanguard's eagle feet. They did sort of have thumbs.
Vanguard landed. Palisade slipped off his back. It seemed like his question about how she could call herself a griffin was rhetorical, but he still called out, "Found a cursed griffin from the sea, boys and girls! Name of Palisade! Going to take her to the captain for outfitting!"
"Did you find everything else you meant to find?" asked another griffin from her position at the mouth of the tent.
"Yes ma'am," said Vanguard. "I saw Palisade here when I was about to double back. Are Scout and Rampart back yet?"
"Scout is. Go on in," said the guard griffin, and she nodded Vanguard and us into the tent.
Inside there was a table and a map on the table, and little figures of wood on the map, and three more griffins looking severely at these things. It was sort of hard to tell them all apart; they were slightly different colors and one of them had a scar on their eye and they were wearing decorations, but it was still all raptor faces. "Captain Kite!" said Vanguard, and the scar-eyed one looked up. "I found this cursed griffin on the shore. Name of Palisade. She hasn't got any claws."
"Well, I'm sure we can find her something," said the captain. "Assuming she signs on. You didn't forget that step, did you, Vanguard?"
"Uh. I sort of assumed, sir. She says she's a griffin."
"I am," added Palisade. "I just don't have any claws, it might - make me less useful."
Kite stalked around the table to have a closer look at us. "But you do have a significant infiltrative advantage. And I'm sure we have something sharp that isn't attached to a soldier. What do you say, do you want to join the Company Counterscarp?"
Palisade swallowed. But Palisade isn't usually at a loss for words. "I have some other things I have to do, soon. But if you really need the help with the goblins I could do a little temporary work for you if you help me with the claws situation."
Captain Kite nodded at one of the other griffins and said, "Artillery, find her something useful. A selection, ideally." And when Artillery left he continued, "We could use you for a stealth mission. You'd look a lot like a goblin with a suitable disguise and you could bring us intel."
Palisade nodded. "I know all about the undesirability of goblins as neighbors," from storybooks, "but can I ask why this nest and why now?"
"Ah, have a look here," said Kite, gesturing at the map. "See, they've built here, and they're controlling these fields, which they've turned over to agriculture. It's divided up the usual range of the herd animals and if that goes on there will be smaller, less robust herds in more cramped quarters and we'll have a hard time feeding ourselves on an ongoing basis."
"I see," said Palisade, looking over the map. "So you want to know - whether the goblins have any back exits, or anything, so you can surround them?"
"Exactly," said Kite.
"Then what?" asked Palisade.
"Round 'em up, drive them off the cliffs into the sea or shred them depending on how much resistance we get," said Kite.
We weren't sure if griffins used to people with beaks would be able to read our face but Palisade didn't wince even so. "Can't just drive them off to wherever they used to live?" she wondered, looking at our nails. "Seems like it'd be less trouble."
"Nah. Just encourages 'em to come back in greater numbers," said Kite.
"If I go in," said Palisade, "and they notice I'm not a goblin, well, I'm not actually trained for combat missions. What with not having claws."
And we didn't even know anything about these goblins - or these griffins - and didn't especially want to fight in their war, but Palisade wanted her claws very much. If you'd asked her before she would have said wings, but apparently real griffins thought the important thing was claws, so she had to have those.
"I think you'll pass all right if we paint you green," said Captain Kite. "And you scrunch down a little; they're mostly shorter than you. I'd sooner see you with claws anyhow - ah, thank you, Artillery," Kite said as the tent flap was pushed aside and Artillery returned with a box dragged by a hind foot.
Palisade looked into the box. There were knives - black glass ones, two of those, and one that looked like a carved bone. There was a stone spiked hammer and a mace and a couple things we didn't recognize - "What's that?"
"A sai," said Artillery.
"What?" asked another griffin who'd been glaring at the map.
"Not you, Sai."
"What about that one?"
"I thought you'd like that one!" Artillery said cheerfully. "That's proper claws, isn't it?"
It was like a metal glove, sort of, we could see how it'd fit over a hand. And it had blades, black glass ones, protruding out from the knuckles, wicked and sharp and just right. Palisade put it on, and gave our arm a swing through the air.
"I like it," she grinned.
"All these were taken off goblins in the first place, so it won't look out of place if you use them," Captain Kite said. "Ready to get painted?"
"Sure am, Captain," said Palisade, more cheerfully than we felt.
Palisade walked where the griffins directed her and helped one named Banner cover all of our skin in green dye. The griffins' claws were pretty nimble but we still didn't want them trying to paint around our eyes like that. We kept the blue hair - if goblins didn't have blue hair, the griffins didn't seem to think it was a big deal.
And then Vanguard gave us a lift to a known goblin burrow entrance, circled over it once to point it out to us from the air, and landed a quarter mile off to let us approach on foot. "You just slip right in there - gosh, you're so little, it keeps surprising me - you just slip right in there, and find out where the other entrances are, and come back and tell us," he said. "Understand?"
"Yes sir," Palisade replied. "Will you wait here so I don't have to walk all the way back? I might get lost."
"Gosh. I didn't think of that part. Uh, I suppose I can, sure," said Vanguard, "as long as you don't take too long. I want to be back in time for the dinner bell."
"Thanks!" said Palisade. "If I'm not back before then, assume I died!"
"Okay!" said Vanguard, and he settled down comfortably on the ground to wait, and Palisade marched to the goblin burrow.
Dawn called a vote. None of us wanted to actually go infiltrate goblins for the griffins. The griffins were griffins, sure, and they'd been nice to us, and we wanted them to have good hunting grounds or whatever it was they'd been explaining about, but roping a ten-year-old into their war was kind of weird.
Palisade ignored the vote. She wanted to go in and look around, even if she changed her mind about reporting back later. And if she didn't report back, Vanguard would figure we were dead, and that would be that. She thought that there might be a good reason the goblins and the griffins were fighting besides just arguing over who got to use the land. Maybe goblins were actually horrible and we'd be more interested in helping once we met some, or maybe they were great and we'd want to warn them about the griffins.
Nobody felt strongly enough about it to actually push Palisade out of the way on her turn, and the rest of us hung back while she tromped toward the burrow and looked inside.
It was dark in there, and we couldn't tell if the goblins went in by sliding - it was at about the right angle to be a slide - or by climbing backward, or by climbing forward, or if there were actually stairs a few feet down into the hole. Palisade eventually chose to attempt to slide, and scooted down the dirt bottom of the tunnel a bit, and before she'd made up her mind to flip over and crawl backward she'd tumbled out into a bigger cavern.
It was dim but not fully dark here; it was lit by mushrooms on the cavern walls that glowed pale green. Palisade held still, standing at the bottom of the burrow entrance, until our eyes adjusted; and then she picked a direction and started walking.
We didn't see any goblins. We didn't hear any goblins. It looked like goblins had lived here, before, we found a trash pile and a lot of tunnels lined with glowing mushrooms and little caves off to the sides of the tunnels with weird goblin furniture in them made of bones and wood and rocks, but there weren't any goblins, anywhere. We didn't have a watch, we just had to guess how long it had been, but by the time we were really hungry and our feet were starting to hurt from walking so much and Zix wasn't sure he'd be able to find our exit again unless we turned around right away, we still hadn't run into one single goblin, not even a dead one.
We made our way back to the bottom of the tunnel hole and on our way there we noticed a room we hadn't checked before. We were pretty sure by now that there were no goblins in this entire tunnel system, but just in case, we peeked, and we found a map, there. It was too hard to read in the dark - we could see the walls and the floor and our own feet, but not read. Palisade took the map and rolled it up and tucked it under our arm, and hauled it up the cave burrow, even though it made it a lot harder to crawl up. It wouldn't fit in our pocket even if the sponge wasn't taking up half the space in it.
Vanguard was still waiting, though he'd gotten up and started pacing back and forth while we'd been looking. "Palisade! Hello!" he said, when we got within shouting distance. "How'd it go? You don't look like you're bleeding, that's good!"
"I'm fine!" said Palisade. "But the thing is, there weren't any goblins home. Do you think they might all be out farming or something right now?"
"I wouldn't think so," mused Vanguard. "Even if a lot of them were, there'd probably be baby goblins they'd have to leave behind, right? And I didn't see any on their farms when we were flying, did you?"
"I think maybe you can see better than I can with my curse and all," Palisade said. "So you'd know better than I would. Anyway, I found this," she waved the map, "I wanna get a better look at it in the light -" And she unrolled it.
Vanguard didn't seem very interested. "I didn't know goblins could write," he remarked. "Fancy that."
The goblins hadn't written; they'd just drawn. It was a map of the land we were standing on, and then a bunch of lines around the coast, like it was a lot of different shapes all at the same time.
Palisade showed the map to Vanguard. "Do you understand this?" she asked him.
He peered at it. "Looks kind of like a map, except it's got too many lines for the shore," he said.
"Yeah, that's what I thought too. Does that mean something?"
"I didn't even know goblins had maps!" Vanguard said. "I don't know what it'd mean if those lines were on one of ours, either. Let's go back and show the captain."
So Palisade climbed on his back and he flew us back to the camp. Captain Kite took a minute to come out and see us and take Palisade's report - she figured there was no harm in delivering it, since there were no goblins to surround - and then she showed him the map.
It was pretty hard to tell when a griffin was frowning, but we thought Kite was, as he looked seriously at the map. "Well," he says. "This might be why they've all run off, mightn't it?"
"Oh?" said Palisade.
"Yes, see, this looks a bit like they think the peninsula's going to collapse," he said, "from an earthquake or something. Isn't that superstitious? You can't predict earthquakes."
"Not even if you live underground? And are goblins?" asked Palisade.
"Of course not. But that means they won't give us any trouble, so that's all to the good. Good recon work, Palisade. You're sure you don't want to stay on with the company? There might be more work for a little biped, sooner or later."
"No, but thanks very much," said Palisade. "Can I keep the claws? I really like them."
"Of course," said Captain Kite. "All yours, since I assume you don't have a local bank account."
Griffins with bank accounts was a very odd idea for all of us. "That's right," said Palisade cheerfully anyway. "Thanks a bunch, Captain."
And she walked us away from the camp and pulled out the comb.
The next world wasn't a world, it was a building. A metal and plastic building that smelled stale and strange, like the inside of a schoolbus, or a hospital. There were metal doors, all along the corridor on both sides, and the hall curved in front of and behind us so we couldn't see where it led without walking down it.
We walked, Emmy in front because we didn't know whose turn it was yet without knowing where we were and it might be her. Emmy took slow careful steps down the hallway, running our fingertips along the wall, and listened for anything that might make a sound. There was a low humming noise like an engine, and a draft like the whole place was air conditioned. We didn't see any windows or signs, unless the designs all around the archways of the doors were signs, which they could be. But everyone we'd met could talk to us so far. So they might have just been for pretty.
Eventually we heard footsteps coming from the other direction. Emmy hid in the Cave and Palisade came back out - it wasn't going to be her turn twice, we were sure, because that didn't seem fair or a good way to make a quest for five people, but she didn't mind being in front and she was better at pretending she knew what she was doing than Clair or Zix. Palisade folded our hands behind our back and marched right down the middle of the hallway, curving left along with it, till we met the person who owned the footsteps.
We hadn't noticed by listening that the footsteps were strange, but we saw right away: the person had three feet. We were pretty sure it was a person because it was wearing clothes, snug ones in bright red with stripes, over itself. It had one arm, with a hand, and looked a bit like maybe it was related to things with four legs but instead of turning two legs into hands it had only done one. It was startled to see us. Well, we thought it was startled; it took a step back. It was even harder to tell what its face was doing than with the griffins; it had four eyes and no mouth, at least not on its face, unless one of the nostrils was secretly a mouth.
It managed to talk anyway, though - "How did you get aboard?"
"How do you think?" said Palisade, but Zix was wondering if actually this was his turn. He didn't look like this species of alien, though, Zix was more human-shaped and blue and had antenna things on his head. So he didn't push Palisade out of the way.
"Well, you're not authorized to be here, anyway," said the alien, and it tugged a piece of fringe that was dangling from its sleeve, and the lights in the corridor all went bright white - they'd been teal before - and an alarm that sounded like an ice cream truck crossed with a crow cawing started up.
Palisade turned around and ran.
The alien chased us, but it wasn't very fast; it walked with a glump-glump-glump noise and didn't seem to be able to go any faster than that. We went around the curve and soon couldn't see it if Palisade looked behind us. She kept running, past doors and doors and doors, trying to shut out the sound of the alarm and squinting our eyes against the bright light.
The curve came to a dead end, but there was a ladder. She threw us against it and climbed up, guessing that it would be harder for a one-armed alien to go up than it was for us. She skipped the first landing, and ducked into the hallway that branched off the second instead, and jogged down the curve of that one, checking in our pocket for the sponge and the claws. There were two doors, one on either side, spaced farther apart than in the first hallway, and then there was an open doorway without any door in it - just a shiny transparent wall of something-ness. She stopped.
Zix shoved her out of the way, because behind the wall was his kind of alien.
The alien in the cell was about our height and blue and smooth and had two antennae coming out of his head, from a few inches above where eyebrows would be if he had any. He was wearing a grey uniform, with red and brown triangles around all the hems, and a seven pointed star holding it closed at his throat. He was startled to see us. We still had blue hair and we were painted green and our clothes were a mess from having swum in the ocean and climbed around a goblin burrow in the dark. Clair was very annoyed about how gross we must have looked, but the alien didn't mention anything about that, he just said, "What are you?"
"I'm one of you," Zix said, "only I've been having a very strange time of it recently."
"Are you here to break me out?" asked the alien.
"Yes," said Zix, barely hesitating. This wasn't, he thought, like not wanting to get between the griffins and the goblins; this was someone who was being kept prisoner, and wanted to escape, not a battle. "Do you know how this is opened?"
"They've been using the keypad over there," the alien said. "I can't see it from inside, but the tones sound like -" And he crooned a few notes.
Zix tried numbers until he found the ones that made those notes, made a guess and pressed the big red button to clear out the ones he'd pushed, and put in the ones that made that tune. The force field disappeared, leaving clear air between us and the alien.
"What's your name?" the alien asked, rushing out and running down the corridor. Zix followed him.
"Kozoq. It's an honor to meet you, Zix."
"You know the way out?"
"The escape pods should be this way, and we can retune the distress signal to our frequencies. Someone'll pick us up."
Kozoq found the bay of escape pods where he expected them, and they weren't hard to open. The alarm was still squawking at us but when we closed the pod it was muffled and when Zix pulled the cord that sent us shooting away from the ship into space it silenced.
The pod was cramped; there was room for both of us, but we couldn't sit down. We weren't exactly standing, since it didn't have gravity like the ship did; we floated, face to face with a Zix-sort-of-person our size. Zix was so excited and wasn't sure how to ask any of his questions - how could he ask what the species was called, how they lived, shouldn't he already know? How could he ask what the planet was like, how long its years and what color its sky, shouldn't he have grown up there? Zix didn't know anything he ought to have known about what kind of person he was and it was embarrassing. He was quiet.
Kozoq said, "How did you find me?"
"I didn't know you were there," Zix said. "I was on the ship on an unrelated mission." Zix liked to watch a lot of TV with spaceships in it that wasn't really for kids and he could talk like it sometimes. He looked up the words afterwards if we didn't know them already. "But rescuing you took precedence."
"Well, you have my eternal gratitude," replied Kozoq. "And I'll make sure you have the Assembly's too, when we reach Hixaz. There'll be a medal in it for you, I'm sure, and a promotion. And a stay in the medbay to fix whatever happened to your antennae and your skin and..." There were too many other things to list; our body had too many fingers for Zix, and hair, and the ears were wrong, and the nose was wrong, and the teeth were wrong, and now that he was looking at a real live version of a... Hixazian?... instead of just imagining himself a shape in the mirror in the Cave, he could see there were a lot of other things wrong, too, the shape of our head and the color of our eyes and the texture of our lips and the angles of our bones. We knew Zix was a boy, but weren't sure whether that meant anything specific for Hixazians that we didn't have, either. "And whatever else has been troubling you," Kozoq finished.
"Thank you," said Zix.
Kozoq looked offended. "It's only what you're entitled to for performing a rescue on an enemy ship!"
"- I, uh," said Zix. "Sorry."
This seemed to make it worse. "I owe you my life, you don't have to apologize to me."
Zix clammed up. Clearly there were subtleties of politeness that he had not been exposed to growing up on Earth.
"May I ask you something?" Kozoq said.
"Of course," said Zix, trying to sound more confident than he felt.
"How did whatever happened to you happen? You look like you've spent a year in a bioengineering vat, or worse, but you're running missions instead of recuperating back home? Are you even a soldier?"
"I'm not," Zix admitted. "I'm just a person. I haven't been to Hixaz in - in ten years." He knew the years were wrong, he didn't know how long exactly Hixazian years were, but he didn't know if they were longer or shorter, he'd always felt his age was just not exactly the body's age without knowing how so. Still, since he could be too high or too low with that number it seemed like a reasonable estimate, not like a lie, right? "I miss it very much."
"Ten years? Then where have you been?" asked Kozoq. "You don't look that old - but of course you've been in a vat, I apologize -"
"I've been on a different planet masquerading as one of the locals and learning things in their schools," Zix said. "It's been very difficult and lonely and I'm not sure I'll fit in very well back home."
This didn't seem to land well with Kozoq either. "Hopefully you have - family members to whom you can explain such emotional matters," he said stiffly.
Zix didn't say anything. Half the things he said seemed to make it worse. He wasn't sure if we counted as family members or something else, in general or according to whatever rule of manners Kozoq was using.
"At any rate, I think we're clear enough of the enemy ship to start tuning the distress signal now," Kozoq said briskly, and he squirmed around us in the tight space of the escape pod to start working on that. Zix watched over his shoulder, trying not to ask more questions and upset Kozoq further by not knowing enough already, although he was so curious he was burning up with it. Kozoq fiddled with dials and buttons and watched lights and listened to static, and finally was satisfied with his work and closed the panel.
We waited in the escape pod together for more than an hour, and Zix couldn't think of anything to say that he was sure was all right, so we did it silently, floating, staring at each other. And then finally a Hixazian ship picked up the distress signal, and tractor-beamed us into their fighter bay, and let us out of the pod.
All the Hixazians were around our height, some a little shorter, some a little taller. They were all blue and smooth and antennae'd and all wearing uniforms like Kozoq's. They were confused by our hair and our green paint and our ratty hoodie and jeans and sneakers and offered us one of their uniforms.
The uniforms didn't have pockets for the comb and sponge and claws, so Zix had to turn them down. They seemed to find that very upsetting, and apologized a lot for offering, and muttered to each other that they should have known better than to suggest it, and it was so embarrassing Zix almost tried to pull someone else front, Palisade maybe, but it was his turn, we knew that now.
"Maybe I could just change into the uniform pants," Zix tried, because we were using our hoodie pocket and not our jeans pockets, but the Hixazian who'd offered the uniform said no, it had to be a whole uniform or nothing, and did he mention he was sorry to have presumed upon Zix's choice of outfit, of course that was wholly his discretion, he didn't need to placate them with partial acceptances if the offer was not to his liking.
Zix sat awkwardly on the command deck in an observation chair near a display we couldn't understand, not saying anything because he had no idea what was safe to say. The ship flew toward Hixaz, which rose huge and blue and beautiful in the viewscreen. It had prettily crenellated continents and white clouds and red deserts and wide seas and a band of colorful rings around it. Zix was disappointed that it didn't look familiar at all.
We landed in a huge spaceport, all shiny silver and glossy black and gleaming white, like someone scrubbed and polished every inch of it twice a day. The Hixazian uniform shoes didn't seem to leave footprints; Zix cringed as he followed Kozoq out of the ship onto the clean floor and failed not to mark it up.
There were offices, each one with the side toward the concourse open, even the ones that were six stories up, gridding a whole wall. Some were at ground level, some opened to elevated, guardrailed paths you could reach on antigravity platforms. Kozoq showed Zix to an elevator and went up to the third story and brought us to an office with more Hixazians, whose uniform stars only had three points. They were bustling around with computers and computery sorts of devices that weren't exactly computers; everything beeped and sometimes a machine voice spoke and said a number or a name. Zix squinted under the bright light while Kozoq explained to a person behind a desk that he'd been rescued from an enemy ship and how, and told Zix to explain where he'd come from.
Zix repeated his simplified story about having been impersonating another species on their world and attending school there, and the person behind the desk typed it up and didn't ask too many questions, and said we could have a hotel room on the Assembly's dime and a meeting with the Assembly the following morning. Then he gave us directions to the subway station so we could get to our hotel. Zix had to ask him to repeat the directions and explain all about how to get on the subway until we were pretty sure we could remember everything between us.
We got lost, and had to ask directions again, which seemed to really upset the Hixazian we asked, but he told us how to get back on our route anyway. Eventually we were on the right subway platform and got on the wrong train and had to go back the other way to get on the right one, and we missed our stop and just walked to the hotel instead of turning around on the subway again. The streets were wide and full of Hixazians driving fast on hover bikes, antennae sticking out of their helmets.
At the hotel they took Zix's name and then said they'd been expecting him and the person behind the reception desk made to shake our hand, but instead of shaking it, he stabbed us in the skin between our thumb and forefinger with a little device, and injected us with a tiny glowing red thing. "That's your temporary ident chip!" he said, like he hadn't just stabbed us. "You can have it replaced with a permanent one when you see the Assembly. In the meantime, that will get you to your apartment and you can order room service with it."
"Ow!" exclaimed Zix, since he had just stabbed us. "Why didn't you warn me first?"
"Warn you?" blinked the receptionist. "About - room service?"
"About sticking that chip in my hand!" Zix shouted. "That hurt!"
"I - sir, please calm down, this is a public place," said the receptionist.
"That's not the problem here!" said Zix. "The problem is that you took my hand and stabbed something into it without asking!"
"That's how ident chips work," said the receptionist. "If you're having a bad reaction to the sensation that seems like your own problem, it's really none of my business how -"
"You're the one who did it!" said Zix.
"Sir, please, if you're having an emotional problem perhaps you could go to your room," said the receptionist through gritted teeth.
"Stop calling me sir and stop acting like you ought to make sense to me, I'm - I'm ten!"
"I don't see what your advanced age has to do with anything."
"It's not an advanced age, I mean ten Earth years -"
Zix stomped toward the elevator and waved our stinging hand around until it took us toward the room. It occurred to us that we hadn't seen any kids, anywhere, even when we'd left the spaceport all full of uniformed soldiers. There had to be kids, they had to come from somewhere, Zix was a kid so obviously they didn't start out grown up, but they were all hidden away somehow, maybe until they learned all the stupid rules this planet had about when to apologize and how to act when people stabbed you. And then they could pop out and behave politely, Hixaz style, without ever having to have an emotion in public.
Palisade and Emmy wanted to comb to a new world right away. Clair pointed out that we didn't know if the next world would have food or not, and the griffins hadn't fed us. Zix ordered room service and didn't thank the person who brought it to our room and ate blue jelly spheres that tasted like fish and red bread that tasted like juice until we were full, and then combed away the air in the hotel room. The Assembly could just miss out on getting to meet him.
The next world was dim with fog, and the air felt soft and damp and warm like the breeze from a dryer vent. The ground squashed under our feet.
We saw an angel lying on the softness, far enough away that we couldn't see if it was a boy angel (if there was such a thing) or a girl one, and we knew it was Dawn's turn.
Dawn doesn't like to come out front, though, she belongs in the Cave, looking after the rest of us. So Emmy went out front for her, because she hadn't had a turn yet. If it turned out Dawn needed to do it she could try, but maybe Dawn could have her turn from inside the Cave and the rest of us could handle being out front.
Emmy took slow, careful steps toward the angel. As we got closer we could see more detail: brown hair, golden-brown skin, tawny wings. It was a girl angel, it turned out, and she was draped in white cloth that seemed almost more like a blanket than like clothes; she looked asleep, long eyelashes closed against her cheeks. Emmy walked right up to where the angel's feet were crossed on the ground and then she blinked up at us.
"Hello," the angel yawned.
"Hi," Emmy whispered.
"You look like you've had a very long day," said the angel.
"Yes," said Emmy, "more than a day, even," since we'd slept overnight in the ocean with the mermaids.
"Would you like to lie down and get some rest? There are spare blankets, just around the corner." We hadn't been able to make out any corners before but now that we were closer to the angel we could see that there was furniture made of the same soft stuff as the ground - shelves, and you could call what she was lying on a mattress if you were generous with the word. And the substance of the ground reached up into the vague sky or ceiling in the occasional column or wall; the space was too open to be a burrow like the goblins and too irregular to be a ship like the aliens', it was more like a soft humid landscape with rock formations that happened to be squashy.
Emmy went around the corner, Dawn as close to coming out of the Cave as she ever got. Dawn told Emmy which blanket to choose, a pink one with square waffly texture to it, and Emmy got it down for her and brought it back to the angel.
"What's your name?" Emmy whispered, when Dawn wanted to know. It seemed polite to whisper to someone who'd just woken.
"Ciel," yawned the angel.
"I'm Dawn," said Emmy; she wasn't, but she was speaking for Dawn, so that was all right.
"Make yourself comfortable, Dawn." And Ciel closed her eyes again.
Emmy lay down and got under the pink waffly blanket. She was a little restless, rolling over and eventually getting up to see if there were pillows. There were; Dawn picked one of those too and Emmy got back onto the mattress-landscape-feature. But we still couldn't get comfortable. We weren't really tired. We didn't have much sense of time, but we thought it was maybe midafternoon, or just after dinner, not bedtime yet.
Emmy rolled onto our back and looked up. There was nothing to see. It was just fog and vague color all the way up. Could the angels fly up into that? Was it solid at ceiling height? We didn't know. Dawn thought it had to be possible to fly, because angels had wings, didn't they, but Ciel wasn't flying and didn't look like she'd be inclined, she was just lying on the ground, too delicate to snore but obviously asleep again despite all our tossing and turning.
Dawn and Emmy conferred a little. Dawn wanted to wait and see if we fell asleep, or if Ciel woke up. The rest of us wanted to wander, but it was Dawn's turn.
Eventually even Dawn didn't think we were going to manage to take a nap and admitted we had no idea how long Ciel was going to be asleep. Emmy got up and wove through the pillars and rises of the angelworldly land; our feet didn't make a sound against the squashy surface.
We heard the next angel before we saw her. Harp music, chords plucked out slowly and dreamily, just at the edge of earshot. Emmy almost ran toward it, but it was Dawn's turn and she was helping Dawn, and Dawn wanted to walk, slowly, it seemed to her the way the place was formed was for walking and not running. Well, it was ideally for flying, but we didn't have wings. It was starting to look like we were not going to come out of our quest with any more exciting add-ons than blue hair, and that we could have gotten if we'd asked Sam to get us dye for our birthday, if we'd told her when our birthday was.
The harpist came into view. She was a dark angel with black wings and black skin and black hair, and she smiled at us when we approached. She strummed another chord and then put her hands flat on the strings so they stopped. "Hello there."
"Hello," Emmy said, politely and softly just like Dawn asked her to. "I'm Dawn."
"It's nice to meet you, Dawn. Have a seat." Some of the squashiness was shaped so you could sit on it, sort of bench-y, and we sat next to the angel on her bench. "I'm Alto."
Emmy almost said "hi Alto" even though she'd already said hello, but Dawn reminded her not to repeat ourselves. "Your music is pretty," Emmy said instead.
"Why, thank you. Would you like to try?"
Dawn wanted to. Emmy didn't; Clair came out to do it for us, and reached for the harp strings, and strummed. It didn't sound as good when we did it.
"That's not bad for a first try. You have as long as you need to get better," said Alto.
"I'm not going to stay here that long," said Clair, which was not how Dawn had wanted to put it, "but maybe I can get lessons someday at home or something," which was.
"Here," said Alto, getting up and opening a lid in a different part of the bench, "I think I have a small lap harp, somewhere." She rummaged, taking ages to go through every thing carefully and slowly, till she found a wooden trapezoid with strings and offered it to Clair.
Clair took it and laid it on our lap and strummed that, too. It sounded like notes, but not especially good ones, still. Alto took our hand and showed us how to position our fingers. Dawn was leaning further and further out of the Cave while Clair learned to play a scale.
Alto had only been teaching us for about ten minutes when she yawned and said she was going to take a nap. "But we've barely started," Clair said on Dawn's behalf.
"Oh, Dawn, darling, I understand, but I've been up for hours. It's about time I got some sleep. You can nap too and then the time will just fly by," said Alto.
"...Maybe I'll go explore some more and come back later when you're awake," said Clair. Dawn had wanted to try to nap again, to be polite, but we'd already done that, not very long ago, and Clair knew we weren't tired and she wasn't going to front for Dawn if Dawn made her do things that pointless. Dawn didn't want to try to nap more than she wanted to stay in the Cave.
"You look pretty tired to me," said Alto.
"I'm not really," said Clair. "I've just had a lot going on."
"Isn't that a good reason to take a break?"
"You might not be able to find your way back here if you wander off."
"I don't have to go far," said Clair, beginning to be annoyed. It was one thing for people to worry about us getting lost when we were back on Earth and could go six stops too far on the bus and get turned around because the streets and avenues were both numbered and there were diagonal roads named differently, but Alto's place with the harp wasn't even someplace we really had to be able to come back to. "I'm not - overexerting myself, or anything."
"It looks like it to me," said Alto, and really, it wasn't any of her business.
Clair stood there for a moment, waiting for Dawn to make up her mind, and Dawn finally decided that we could move on and look for a more alert angel, even if the harp was lovely. Clair set the lap harp down and tromped off and Alto didn't even try to stop us.
We walked until our ankles hurt from taking odd steps on the spongy ground; Clair yielded to Emmy again, then to Palisade, as the world proved more and more extensively that it was very boring. We found another angel, napping, and figured she wouldn't mind if we sat down with her and waited for our feet to feel better, based on the other two angels we'd met.
This was still pretty boring, though, and eventually we started looking through this angel's stuff. She had pillows and blankets and a glockenspiel, which Emmy played for a bit, quietly going up and down the scale so she wouldn't wake the angel. Then she found a box of halos, in all kinds of colors, sparkly silver ones and bright gold ones and pearly white ones and one in flickering electric pink and one in sunny orange and one that shifted while we watched between blue and green and butter-yellow.
The halos were gorgeous; Emmy stuck both hands in the box up to her elbows looking through them. Dawn wanted to know what colors halos could be. It seemed to her that maybe her souvenir was supposed to be a halo; at first it had looked like maybe the harp, but we could get a harp on Earth if we ever had money. Of course, Clair's souvenir had been a sponge and there were sponges on Earth too. Still, Dawn wanted a halo.
We found one that looked like it was made of amber, a smooth translucent ring, glowing gently with shifting brightness like a lava lamp. Emmy tried balancing it over our head. It didn't stick; it just fell like anything else would, back into the box, and it took a bit to untangle it from one that looked like mother-of-pearl and a normal golden one. She tried again; maybe it had to be an exact distance or angle. It still didn't work, and rolled away a few feet and Emmy had to chase it.
Maybe Dawn had to wear it. Emmy wasn't an angel, Dawn was.
Dawn was already as far out of the Cave as she could get. If she leaned any farther she'd be fronting.
Emmy tried again. The halo fell and rolled up to the angel and clonked her on the nose.
Emmy fled into the Cave and pushed Clair forward again as the angel opened her eyes.
"Hello?" she said. "Oh, hello. Who are you?"
"Dawn," said Clair, scooping up the halo Dawn had picked.
"I'm Muriel. Do you need a halo? I have a lot."
"Yes," Clair said, "but I don't know how to make it fit."
"They're all the same size." Muriel yawned.
"I mean, how to make it float. It won't float."
"Let me try," said Muriel, sitting up. She held out her hand and Clair gave her the amber halo and bowed our head.
Muriel couldn't make it stick either. "Well," she said, "these do only work for angels."
"I'm an angel," Clair lied.
"Then I don't know why it wouldn't be sticking. Where are your wings?"
"I won't be able to fix the halo if I don't know what the matter is."
We hadn't explained to anyone - we'd told Sam, kind of, before we went on the quest, but hadn't explained - and so far most of us did not have a very high opinion of angels, but that seemed racist when we thought about it, and Muriel had been nice. And it might be important for Dawn to get her halo. "I'm sharing this body."
"Well, I don't see how that would interfere, so long as it's your turn, right now..."
"It's my turn, but I'm not the one talking to - the angel in here isn't the one talking to you," Clair said, switching from directly relaying what Dawn told her to paraphrasing it. "She doesn't come out."
"Oh, well, maybe a halo won't work for her then," said Muriel. "That's all right, dears, you don't really need one."
"But would it work if she came out?" Clair asked for Dawn.
"Probably, I suppose, but that's no reason to go outside your comfort zone, just for a halo. They're only for looking nice, nothing important."
"But if she wanted one badly, and came out, for just a second, would it stick after that?"
"I'd think so, but again I -"
Clair took the halo from her hands and held it over our head, and Dawn leaned out, just for a moment, long enough to drop it into place, feeling clumsy with hands she'd never used and unsteady on our feet, but she didn't fall and she didn't knock the halo out of place. It hovered. Dawn fled back into the Cave and Clair returned.
"There was no call for that," said Muriel. "That must have been exhausting."
"Just scary," said Clair. "It's okay."
"I suppose you know your own mind," Muriel said.
"Yes. We do." She liked saying we, instead of pretending to be Emily and not Exaltation.
Muriel yawned. "I'm going to go back to sleep, if you don't need anything else."
"We don't. Thank you."
And Muriel closed her eyes, and Emmy went out front again.
She was the only one left.
She took the halo off, from where it was hovering over our head - and put it back to make sure it would stick this time - and it did.
Emmy took the halo off a second time and put it in our pocket, with the comb and the claws and the sponge, and touched our fingertip to the ident chip in our hand and its low red glow, and she took the comb, and combed our way out of the angel world.
We landed in the art room.
The art room back home, the one on Earth, in our town at our school. The one we saw all the time. Emmy's drawing of Palisade was on the wall.
Did Emmy not get a turn? This was back where we'd started, back in our own world. Were we supposed to walk home from here, or maybe back to Sam's? Maybe we could call Sam on a school phone. We looked at the clock; it was eight p.m.
Didn't Emmy get a turn?
Emmy looked around the art room. She'd always wanted to be here alone, surrounded by all the paint and clay and paper she could ever want with nobody portioning it out, making sure she did the assignment, sending her on to the next class that she'd tuck away to let Zix handle when her time was up.
If Emmy didn't get a proper turn, at least she got to be in the art room at eight p.m., all by ourselves.
She got out a big sheet of paper, the ones that only ever came out for group projects like everybody putting a handprint on a poster or something like that. She got out paint and organized it all over an entire table she'd usually have to share with three other people. She got out brushes in every size, and a palette and a palette knife, and six cups of water so she wouldn't have to put a red paintbrush in blue paint water till it was all brown-grey.
She mixed colors and she painted, until she had all the pink and dove-brown and silver and yellow of the pale angel world, feet and wingtips peeking out from behind a column, a harp suggested behind the fog without trying to paint it quite clear. No rush, no grownups, nothing but paint and Emmy. She pinned it up to dry, standing on a table to reach the clotheslines across the art room ceiling. She got another piece of paper.
By the time she'd finished painting Hixaz, distant and blue-green-white-red, escape-pod plastic and metal around the corners of the picture and stars speckled in the sky, we were getting hungry. She hung up the painting next to the one of angel world, opened the door to the hallway, let us into the teacher's lounge - it was locked, but the kind of lock where you can unlock it from the other side with a screwdriver, and one of the flat paintbrushes worked okay. There was a fridge in there, and some snacks. She ate chips and ice cream and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a microwave burrito. And she went back to the art room.
She painted a third sheet of paper with the griffins' peninsula, seen from the air, bright-bannered camp tents and woods and hills and shore and fields, blurry with distance and the motion of flight, griffins in formation on the ground, feathers visible at the edge of the picture. She painted a fourth with the sea, coral tower city lit with wave-filtered sun, free dolphins swimming away in the background, flat-faced mermaids with their bold hair and shimmering scales swimming from place to place.
She got out a fifth sheet of paper and hesitated, and then she did a still life of everything she'd gotten out to paint with, brushes and cups, mimicking the colors on the palette with tiny dabs of themselves, painting our own hand where it rested in the table.
She hung up her paintings and made sure they were secure and went to the water fountain and drank a lot of water and went to the bathroom.
And then she went to the front office. It was locked, and not the kind that was easy to open. Emmy frowned at it, and took out the comb. She didn't comb a hole to a new world with it, but she tried fitting it between the door and the frame, and it made a swishing sound and the door unlatched so she could pull it open.
There was a phone in there, and she dialed Sam's number.
It rung until it ran out of rings, and stopped. Emmy looked at the clock; it was almost three in the morning. We were tired, our eyes drooped, but didn't feel in the least tempted to go to the nurse's office and lie down and sleep. Emmy called Sam again.
Sam's mom picked up, groggy. "It's three in the fucking morning," she said, dancing syllable to syllable in her precise accent.
"It's Emily," said Emmy. "I'm at school."
"It's three in the - in the morning," Sam's mom repeated, but slower.
"I'm stuck. Can you come get me?"
"Why are you at school at three in the morning?" said Sam's mom.
"Where's your mother?"
"I don't know." Probably in the trailer but only probably, we wouldn't know if she'd gone somewhere else, we hadn't seen her.
"I... can... can you get out of the building?"
"Probably." The comb would do it, even if nothing else would.
"I can be there in - f- fudge - I can be there in ten minutes. Are you, are you hungry, are you - injured -"
"I'm not hurt. I found some food in here," said Emmy. She didn't think we'd be in trouble over taking it while stranded mysteriously at school but she wasn't sure, and none of the rest of us were either.
"Why didn't you call me sooner?"
"I only just now got the office door open."
"You poor thing. Do you need anything, should I bring anything -"
"I don't think so..." Emmy looked down at us. "Do you still have any of Sam's clothes from when she was my size?"
"It'll slow me down digging them out - how bad is it -"
"I'm just kinda dirty. I don't think I'll mess up your car."
"Emily, what happened?" said Sam's mom.
"It's a long story."
"You're not going to be able to deflect everyone forever, Emily."
"I'll tell Sam everything tomorrow morning. Okay?"
"...Okay. I'm going to hang up and get in the car."
"Of course, Emily, I'm glad you know you can call me if you need help."
She hung up. So did Emmy. We waited out front of the school for the car to pull up. Emmy had taken a paintbrush, a nice one without any dings or stains, from the art room, and put it in our pocket with the sponge and the claws and the halo. That was her souvenir, and it was sort of stealing but there were a lot of paintbrushes in there. We put our hands in the pocket too, so the ident chip could be with the other souvenirs. We hoped we'd done it right - that we didn't need something nicer and more important than a sponge, something we could move around instead of an ident chip stuck in our hand. That we hadn't just done Emmy's turn completely wrong and she was supposed to have done something besides steal a paintbrush from the art room we were in for school all the time anyway.
We'd have to ask Sam in the morning. We were pretty sure it was going to be Saturday in the morning, so we would only have missed one day of school, and Sam wouldn't have to miss any if she had to talk to us all day about quest stuff.
Sam's mom pulled up in her little yellow car, barely recognizable in the dark, and Emmy got in the back seat and buckled the seat belt and fell asleep on the way to Sam's house.
We woke up on the couch in Sam's house, under a faded blue blanket with our head on a lumpy pillow. It took us a second to remember where we were, and why, and Palisade sat us up when we heard sounds coming from the kitchen. Palisade went and looked; it was Sam, making eggs. "Hi, Emily," Sam said, when she saw us. We were still wearing yesterday's clothes; she added, "Mom had to go to work but she left some of my old clothes for you that we never got around to giving to Goodwill, in the bathroom. And told me to ask you about your hair, but that can wait." Palisade looked at our hands; the green paint from worlds ago when she'd been disguised as a goblin was mostly faded and flaked off.
"Thanks," said Palisade, and we went to change into Sam's old slacks and blouse, and came out again and Sam gave us curry powder eggs and a cup of milk and sat down across from us.
"Mom said you told her you'd tell me what happened?" Sam said.
"Uh," said Palisade, hastily swallowing a mouthful of eggs, "yeah. You sent me on a quest, remember?" We were suddenly worried - mostly Zix was worried - that nobody would believe us, maybe not even Sam, even though she'd been there, she'd seen us leave -
"Yeah." Sam was looking at her plate, not at us. "I don't know what I'm going to tell Mom. I don't even know what happened after you left, or how you took a quest for five people, by yourself. You said you were five people. What does that mean?"
We'd told her that and now we were stuck explaining. Palisade took a deep breath. "We're five people, is what it means, there's - you mostly talk to me and Clair, sometimes Emmy -"
"Aren't you Emily?" Sam asked slowly.
"Emmy, not Emily. Emily's the body's name - I mean, it's like on my - on our school ID, we call ourselves Exaltation. Emmy is one of the people. I'm Palisade and sometimes you talk to me, and sometimes you talk to Clair. Dawn doesn't come out. Zix mostly does school and reading and watching TV, you might have ever talked to him but not much I don't think."
"I don't understand. I mean - I believe you because the quest was for five people and it worked for you anyway but - I don't understand," Sam said.
"I don't really know how to explain," said Palisade. "We never tried before. Uh, Clair can try, she didn't want to tell you but you already know now -"
Clair came out and said, "I'm Clair - it's not that I didn't want you to know, it's that it's so hard to say and it's weird, right, nobody else is like us. So there's all of us, and we... pretend to be Emily's imaginary friends, and we all have to share the same body, which people know as Emily, right? We go up to people and whichever of us it is, whether it's me or Zix or whatever, we all answer to Emily and say 'nice to meet you, I'm Emily', but we have our own names for each other. And whichever of us aren't out doing stuff with the body are - inside, we can talk to each other or I guess it's more like reading each other's minds kind of, and we have pretend bodies, which don't look like this one but Emmy's pretty close."
"And you can just - have whichever one of you be the one who's talking?" Sam guessed.
"Mostly, yeah - but sometimes one of us is too upset or something and won't come out, and Dawn never does, except she had to for a second to get her souvenir. We each got a turn, we went to a bunch of different worlds - except Emmy's turn just put us in the school art room. She took a paintbrush. We hope that counts. We're not sure about Zix's souvenir either."
"What, um, what did Zix get?"
Clair showed her our hand with the glowing ident chip. "It hurt," she complained. "It's mostly better now though."
"I'm sorry. I should've - I thought I'd have longer to read and think about it since I didn't know you were five people, I wouldn't have -" Sam trailed off.
"I think the souvenirs should count. What else did you -"
Clair started pulling things out of our pocket. Her sponge, Palisade's claws, Dawn's halo that made Sam gasp when she put it over our head, Emmy's chosen paintbrush. The comb.
Sam had left her quest book in her room. She ran to get it, brought it back to the table.
"The comb's so pretty," said Clair. "And Palisade likes her claws and Dawn loves the halo, even if she'd never be out to wear it, I don't know -"
"I'm pretty new at this, maybe nothing bad will happen if you skip turning your souvenirs into a thing but I don't want to risk it," Sam said. "Hang on, I want to try reading this again, see if it makes more sense now I know how you work - I need to practice reading the language next time we go to India or maybe I can find books at the library, or something online - anyway -" She frowned at the book, glanced between it and our things. Clair finished our breakfast.
There was a silence. Clair set down the fork when our plate was clean. Sam said, "What does Emmy look like?"
"Kind of like you," Clair said. "When you were our age - she's ten like the Exaltation is. She used to look more like the body but she changed after we met you."
Sam opened her mouth, and closed it, and swallowed. "What about the rest of you?"
"I'm a mermaid - I'm still Clair, if you forgot. A teenage mermaid though. I dyed our hair blue because my hair's blue. Palisade is a griffin. Zix is a space alien. They're both Emmy's age. And Dawn is an angel and angels don't have real ages," said Clair. "Emmy's drawn us all but we changed, a little, because on our quest we met people who were all of the kinds of people that we are..."
Sam nodded, a little distant, and frowned at her book. Clair slid off the chair and got a banana out of the fruit bowl because that was allowed at Sam's house and Mother would probably be upset at us for disappearing when we got home. We had room for a banana. She peeled it and started eating it and waited for Sam to say something more.
"Emmy looks like me?" she asked.
"Yeah," said Clair.
"And not a white person like you - like you look like, I mean."
"Yeah." Hesitantly, "Is that okay? She can try to change it back, but it's only how we look to each other..."
Sam sat back in her chair. "It's fine. - so what you do with the souvenirs is you put them all between the pages of the book, I guess including your hand, and then you close it on them, and then you open it again and you'll get your thing."
"Do we have to?" Emmy said. "- I'm Emmy now."
"You know, I think I can kind of tell - if I think about it - at least I knew you were someone else, I don't know I could've guessed which -"
Emmy smiled at her.
"Anyway, I think you'll like your thing."
Emmy took a deep breath and scooped up all our things and put them and our hand in the book and closed it.
Our hand tingled like we were plunging it into a bag of staticky rice, and then stopped, and there was something in the palm of our hand.
Sam opened the book for us, and there was Emmy's hand. Emmy's hand, brown and clutching something small and round.
Emmy opened her fingers and there was an ivory sphere, streaked with gold, the colors of the comb, pitted like a tiny moon. A fine long chain stretched from it, so we could wear it around our neck.
"My hand," Emmy said softly. She leaned forward to look; black hair fell over our eyes.
"Yeah," said Sam. "It, uh, does that, it lets you change shapes. I think - Zix - will still be able to do classes for you without turning into an alien, though. Since that would probably get a lot of attention, if he turned into an alien in front of people."
"But my hand - my all of me - Mother's going to - if she -"
"She won't," said Sam.
"Your quest says," Sam went on, "that you get your reward - that's the necklace there - when you bring all your souvenirs home."
Emmy looked up at her.
"You look just like me when I was ten," Sam whispered. "So now you're my - my little cousin from Oregon, okay, and you're staying with us. I - we'll figure out what to tell my mom. She'll go along with it, I bet, because - the quest book says you get your reward when you bring all your souvenirs home - and you haven't been back to where your mother lives, have you, you called my house instead."
Emmy put the necklace over her head. She swallowed.
Clair came out, and if she just stretched Emmy's legs a little - she overbalanced, flopped onto the floor, Sam's old blouse too snug, Sam's old slacks vanished altogether, and her tail thrashed under the kitchen table. She'd banged her shoulder sliding out of the chair but she was laughing too hard to care.
Palisade came out and stretched wings she didn't have until she had them, and she was herself, half the size of any of the ones we'd met at Camp Counterscarp, a kitten-chick, and she bounded up to Sam and butted her head against Sam's leg, purring.
Zix came out, reached up Palisade's claws toward antennae that were there by the time he finished reaching, smiled up at Sam with blue lips. He stood, and stretched just how Dawn asked so she wouldn't have to be there more than a moment to make sure -
There she was, tall and winged and draped in a sheet because she was bigger than Sam had been aged ten, and her halo was back good as new, amber light shining down on her, white and gold wings touching the walls of Sam's kitchen, and she beamed down while Sam looked up in awe, almost crying -
Emmy came out and threw herself into Sam's lap.
Sam hugged her tight.
"Good quest?" Sam asked.
"Yes," said Emmy, "can we tell you everything that happened?"
"Of course you can," said Sam. "Tell me all about it."