The Setting Sun Brings Long Shadows
By for Panavatar




December 21st: the winter solstice. Alys would be coming home soon, and Janie had plans. Quietly, she packed a small overnight bag, placing first her spellbook and virtue wand, then some key ingredients in little plastic packets, and then – on top, to conceal the rest – a change of clothing and some toiletries. There was very little chance that anyone would see the contents of Janie’s bag anyway, but she was always cautious, always a little terrified that the wonderful things she and the others had gained through their adventures in the Wildworld were only one unfortunate discovery away from shattering.

She still had no familiar. The Vixen’s kits were too young to even consider for at least another six months – if, indeed, the Vixen agreed to allow it in the first place – and no other situation had presented itself as a viable alternative. She’d thought about seeking out another animal and did some research into various possibilities, but nothing seemed right in the end. Janie had almost bought herself a pet raven for the purpose – she’d found out through research that non-native kinds were legal to own – but quickly decided against it as too stereotypical. As much as she’d grown through the adventures of the past year, a part of her still winced at nasty comments by the likes of Bliss Bascomb and her friends, and that part did not want to do anything to make their remarks easier to come up with.

It was largely the lack of a familiar that made Janie decide not to compete for her staff tomorrow. She wouldn’t be allowed to use her familiar during the trials anyway, but – the odds being so skewed against her already in the eyes of the Council – she felt that walking in with a majestic animal at her side might, however unofficially, win her a vital extra bit of admiration. Instead, while waiting for Alys in the halls of Weerien, Janie Hodges-Bradley would do what she did best: study.

“Janie, Claudia, Charles, time for dinner!” her mother’s voice rang out from the bottom of the stairs.

Janie bit her lip, her fingers absently stroking the little pedestal on which she’d taken to keeping her spellbook. Dinner was the last thing on her mind, but there was only so much magical truth leaf to go around where parents and explanations were concerned, and the four siblings had agreed to cause their parents as little grief and confusion as possible, all things considered. She wondered what kind of explanation her parents had formulated in their minds for Alys’s yearlong absence. Early college admission? Research trip? A semester or two abroad?

Stirring from her thoughts, Janie made her way downstairs and ate a quiet, distracted dinner. Charles and Claudia said nothing; they understood the anticipation Janie was feeling and occasionally shot her reassuring smiles across the table. Their parents, on the other hand, were simply used to Janie’s quiet spells – normally occurring when she had a lot of studying to do – and probably assumed she was distracted with thoughts of an impending project or upcoming test.

The rest of the evening passed similarly, with Janie in a daze, only barely aware of the things going on around her. Tomorrow, she would have her first real opportunity to peruse the Weerul Council’s library, and her head was swimming with the possibilities. Were it not for the dreams of gold staves and black staves and acceptance and admiration, Janie wouldn’t have known that she’d slept at all.

***

She was up before everyone else that morning, having bolted up precisely two minutes before her alarm was set to go off, and washed up and dressed in a hurry, her heart pounding with anticipation. She’d already said her goodbyes the evening before, and now she quietly crept from the house, travel bag in hand, out of the house and down the block to Morgana’s house on the hill. In the pit of her stomach, she felt the same nervous determination as before every difficult test, though in Janie’s school life, there had rarely been tests she didn’t breeze through.

“I’m here!” she spoke up as she entered the house, loud enough to alert anyone already awake but still quietly enough, she hoped, to not rouse any sleepers.

As soon as she closed the door behind her, Janie was met by a bounding, yipping tangle of fiery fur. She couldn’t help but laugh as she navigated her way through the cluster of young foxes surrounding her, petting and scratching ears where she could reach them. “Well, you guys were definitely awake,” she said. “How about everyone else?”

“Quite awake,” the Vixen chimed in, padding softly to Janie and the kits.

“Oh, speak for yourself,” Morgana yawned, shuffling in with a cup of something dark and warm in her hand. “Good morning, Janie. I see you are quite ready to go.”

Janie nodded. “I just wish I could’ve gone sooner. Chances like these don’t come up often.”

“Certainly. However, it will take the council some time to adjust to the idea of humans coming and going freely, and so, for the time being, you must make do with my library and what little time you are able to explore theirs.”

Janie merely sighed in reply. What could she say? Morgana was right, of course, but that didn’t make the situation any less frustrating. “How soon can I go?” she asked.

Morgana smiled, a glint of what might have been pride flashing in her eyes for a moment. “As soon as you like. You know the way by now, and transport should be waiting for you already. I’ll most likely be along later myself.”

“Well, in that case, I’ll see you all later.” With a grin, Janie made her way to the mirror, pausing only to pet one of the kits. Taking a deep breath, she stepped through.

***

The trip to Weerien proved short, as the Council had been kind enough to send a dragon, and soon enough, Janie found herself in those blindingly white halls again. She’d planned to ask for directions to the library all along, but what she hadn’t anticipated were the incredulous looks, the furtive glances, the giggles and whispers following in her wake. It wasn’t that the Sorcerei she’d asked weren’t helpful – all, without fail, had given her the directions she needed – it was that the rest of their behavior reminded her all too well of the kind of treatment she’d received back in school. Now she found herself falling back on her old mannerisms in these situations: shoulders hunched, head down, belongings held tightly to her chest, fighting not to blush with every step.

Somewhere just before the library itself, however, Janie’s tension turned to relief. Wasn’t this familiar territory for her? In some strange way, it was comforting to know that school was pretty much school no matter where you went, and that put her in her element after all. It was in the middle of this thought that Janie walked through the massive archway into the Weerien library and gasped.

The sheer scale of the place took her breath away; it was like something out of an old storybook, with shelves three and four stories high and book-covered walls as far as the eye could see. It was still early, so only a few stray scholars occupied some of the polished wooden tables scattered throughout the massive hall. Reverently, Janie took a few slow steps further in, and then slowly increased her pace as she got more comfortable.

This was much easier than asking for directions; the only other people in the library were much too engrossed in their own studies to notice Janie as anything other than a person-shaped movement in their peripheral vision. Tentatively, she took a deep breath and smiled. It was time to get to work.

***

Twenty minutes and some trial and error later, Janie was at a table as out of the way as she could find, stacks of books all around her, a notebook and mechanical pencil out and ready for note-taking. The books were all fantastic, of course – all dust and cobwebs and ancient, worn leather bindings, fascinating even before you took their contents into account, and although she’d worked out a strategy in advance as to which books to start with, a few stray books not part of the plan had made their way into the pile.

And that was how, three hours into her studies, Janie found herself gingerly tracing the leatherwork on a strange, dust-covered volume that wasn’t part of the plan. There was no title or author attribution on the cover, and surprisingly none to be found inside, either. There were some strange symbols on the first page, which Janie dutifully copied down in her notebook to ask Morgana about later but could not understand.

She had a strange urge to touch the book. Not the same urge that made her run her hands over the bindings of the other tomes – that was just scholarly admiration for collected knowledge and history. No, this was a strange compulsion, as though her fingertips were searching for a way into the book somehow, and the more she tried to fight it, the stronger it got.

Finally, she gave in, running her hands over the book over and over again, as though she were trying to memorize the lines and carvings of the binding. When she had finished with the cover, despite her growing reservations, Janie opened the book again. The symbols on the first page seemed to be glowing faintly purple. Retinal burn? she wondered, and then – something inside her screaming the entire way – traced each one with her finger.

There was a purple flash very much like retinal burn, and then it was very cold. Blinking furiously, her fingers still on the final symbol, Janie found herself shivering almost immediately; looking around, she realized that a thin layer of ice had covered almost everything in the library. There was no sign of the other scholars.

Janie pulled her fingers from the book with great difficulty; there was a sticking moment, as though the book itself were made of ice and her fingers had frozen to it. Exhaling sharply in surprise sent a puff of steam out from her mouth, and her extremities were beginning to prickle from the cold. She found herself calculating how much time a human body could handle in extreme conditions before frostbite set in but found that she was having trouble concentrating.

Get to your wand. It was the only clear thought her mind had managed to produce. Yes, if she could reach her wand, then she could produce heat, and then she could get her bearings and figure everything out. Where had she put her bag? Somewhere in the piles of books on the table, if she remembered correctly.

Sluggishly, and almost convulsing from the growing cold, Janie struggled to move aside book after book, searching for her bag with its wand and – that’s right – a change of clothes, one she could possibly put on over what she was already wearing. She had planned on the increased movement generating more body heat and giving her more speed, but somehow she only got slower and felt more groggy.

It was only when her head was about to hit the tabletop that Janie realized she’d been about to lie down on the desk and go to sleep. Like falling asleep studying, except I’ll never wake up. The thought sobered her somewhat, although she still felt a strong urge to just go to sleep. In her haze, she realized there was sound all around her; it must have been going on for some time, but had begun at such a high pitch that she hadn’t consciously registered it until now, and it was growing louder and more audible.

Glass harmonica. It was an instrument she’d read about once, that was like a bunch of glasses strung together, and you ran water over it and rubbed it to make the glasses sing. That was what the sound reminded her of: a glass harmonica with a pitch so strange it almost sounded like a distorted choir playing on an old record.

And it was so beautiful and terrible. Janie wasn’t really an emotional person – she had never cried at movies like Claudia or cheered on the good guys like Alys, had never become as involved in fictional worlds as Charles and his science fiction novels – but something about the sound was breaking her heart. She wanted to cry, to pull herself to the sound and embrace it, to go to sleep and never feel such sorrow again. It was every snide comment from a girl at school, every snub from a boy she might have had a crush on, every fight with her siblings, every moment of feeling unappreciated and alone, pulled into one aching moment weighing down on her.

She found herself crying as she searched her things, from little hiccupping sniffles into full-blown sobs. Her tears froze on her cheeks, and her shivering increased to dangerous levels, but she couldn’t seem to stop. Eventually, she found her bag, almost ripping it open and flinging the contents all around her. She no longer had the presence of mind to sift through her things and put on her extra clothes; there was only one thought ringing in her mind, barely getting through over the music now ringing deafeningly in her ears. My wand. Have to get my wand.

Finally she had her wand in hand, and just like that, she was lost. Janie had been able to keep her thoughts together long enough to get the wand, but now that she had it, she was no longer coherent enough to string together even the simplest of spells. The music was deafening now, and snow was accumulating in the nooks and crannies of the library, dangerously sharp icicles forming at the topmost bookshelves. Helplessly, teeth chattering, Janie began to trudge toward the source of the sound, uncertain of whether she was going to confront it or surrender to its call.

Where the massive doorway to the library stood, there was now a bright, pulsing light. Retinal burn again – at least that’s what it looked like, blindingly white in the center and a barely visible afterimage of ultraviolet flickering at its edges. There was something gray and shimmering crouched down at the foot of the light. The brightness of its surroundings made it a blurry silhouette, and Janie thought it almost looked like one of those crouching angel statues you sometimes saw on peoples’ grave markers, crying over the deceased. That time, her shiver wasn’t just from the cold.

As she got nearer, she noticed the gray thing pulsing, similar to the light behind it but more alive - almost more like something breathing, or heaving. The ache in her chest became almost unbearable. Her cheeks stung from the frozen tears she was still shedding, and her lower eyelashes were beginning to freeze over too. She felt it more than she saw it – felt an unbearable sadness, a terrible wrong. She felt as though it were all her fault.

“I’m sorry,” she choked out. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry.” She had no idea what she was doing. Why was she apologizing?

Her wand shook in her hand. She could do something with it. What was it? There was a spell… some kind of defense… she couldn’t form the words in her mind.

The thing began to move. Slowly, it oozed toward her, half-liquid like gelatin. It held its face in its hands – at least that’s what it looked like – and now it slowly began to remove them. It had retinal burn eyes, deep purple and all negative space. Janie felt the breath go out of her; the cold seemed to get deeper. Her grip on her wand loosened. It was all her fault and she was so sorry and it was all right to let things end like this. It would all be fine now. More retinal burn – except this time it was floating black spots; the breath really had gone out of her. She couldn’t breathe and her peripheral vision was floating. That was all right.

“JANIE!” Morgana’s voice shattered everything like a mirror, cutting through the melody, the gray gelatinous thing, the light, the cold, and even the horrible ache in Janie’s heart.

Janie gasped for air, finally able to breathe again. There were sparks all around her. Some, she quickly noticed, were from the ice and snow being blasted into particles, while others were light diffusing. Slowly, the library warped around her, returning to its normal condition bit by bit. As the pulsating light at the door flashed out into nothingness, she saw Morgana, brandishing her glimmering gold staff, clearly at the end of a spell – its end was still glowing and sparking from the discharge. Behind her stood a small array of powerful Sorcerei, all in similar positions.

Morgana lowered her staff and ran to Janie, embracing her. “Are you all right? Can you breathe? Are your senses returning to you? Who was fool enough to leave that wretched tome in here for any apprentice to find?!” That last bit was, of course, directed to the Sorcerei behind her, along with a steely glare.

Janie nodded dumbly. “I’m… yeah, I’m fine. Now. Still a bit dazed, I guess, but it’s going away. What happened?”

Morgana pursed her lips tightly, still glaring. “Nothing that you should ever have been able to access, my unlucky apprentice. I shall tell you more of it when you are ready, but you must let it be for now.”

One of the Sorcerei gingerly lifted the book from Janie’s table with a gloved hand, placing it carefully into a thick velvet cloth and wrapping it up with deliberate care. Others stood around him, ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. They looked like a bomb squad handling explosives. Carefully, he handed the velvet bundle off to a middle-aged female Sorcerei with silver-streaked black hair, who immediately took it away as quickly as she could.

***

An hour later, Janie still felt chilled. She sat in the Archon’s chambers with a hot cup of something vaguely cocoa-ish in her hands and a warm cloak draped over her. Morgana and the Archon had just finished speaking in the other room, and now he returned alone, taking a seat opposite Janie.

“I am afraid that I must apologize, Jane Eleanore. You could have died today, or worse, and it is my duty as head of this council to ensure the safety of all those who enter these premises. I have certainly failed you today.”

Janie opened her mouth to speak, but couldn’t come up with anything appropriate. She tried to look understanding instead. He continued.

“It will please you to know, I hope, that by placing your own life in danger, you have quite possibly saved several of your fellow apprentices, and perhaps even your superiors. In fact, it is quite remarkable that you survived this ordeal at all where all the others in the library with you – more seasoned and better-trained spellcasters - perished – perhaps your unique exposure to two of the Bas Imdril has tempered your will somewhat. It might be interesting to run some tests at a later time.”

It did sound interesting, because running some tests meant coming to Findahl more often, which meant more magic study. Janie smiled in a way she hoped was agreeable. “That sounds like a good idea,” she squeaked out. She realized the full impact of his words a few moments later – everyone else in the library had died – and felt a twinge of guilt for her excitement.

He nodded, pleased, then paused for a moment before continuing. “In the meantime, there is something that I would like for you to have.” He moved to the massive bookshelf behind his desk, rummaging around for a while among shelves and little drawers, and finally pulling out a small, worn leather-bound book fraying at the ends. He brought it back to her, placing it in Janie’s hands.

“This was one of my first grimoires, back when I was studying much the same subjects you are now.” He paused again. “I would like for you to have it.”

Jane’s jaw dropped. “But this is so... it’s full of... isn’t this too much?” she stammered, simultaneously cursing herself for not just accepting such a gift.

The Archon smiled. “No, not at all. Not being able to study in Findahl like the rest of your opponents, you will certainly be at a disadvantage when you test for your staff. I am simply rewarding your bravery and fortitude by assisting you in evening the odds.”

Her eyes grew wide. “How did you know?”

The old man chuckled. “I was your age too, once, and moreover, I remember Viviane.”

Janie had to think for a second. “Morgana’s other apprentice, right? With Merlin?”

He nodded. “You remind me of her in some ways. Although…” he hesitated. “Although I believe that you may go much further, given proper cultivation.”

Janie tried not to glow with pride. Feeling truly appreciated for her hard work and intelligence was a rare thing for her. She almost beamed, setting her cooling cup aside and pulling the worn little book to her chest, hugging it. “I’ll work really hard. I won’t let you down, I promise.”

Whatever the Archon was about to say to Janie, it was interrupted by a commotion from the next room and the familiar sounds of her sister. Seconds later, Alys busted in, her dragon coiled around her arm, and ran over to her sister.

“Janie! Oh my god, are you okay? Morgana just told me what happened! Well, sort of. What happened?” she blurted out, her blue eyes glimmering with excitement.

“I’m okay, Alys. I almost wasn’t, but everything worked out fine.” She paused before adding, “Thanks.” They would never be the most affectionate sisters, but little by little after the events of last summer, Janie was trying to be more appreciative of her siblings. Even the bossy ones.

Alys sighed in relief, then grinned wryly. “Can’t stay out of trouble even in the Weerien library, huh?”

“Guess not,” Janie replied dryly, carefully standing, letting the cloak slide off her shoulders and sliding past the warm glass she’d left sitting nearby. “Let’s get you home. Mom and dad are dying to see you, and I could use a nap.”

Alys looked to the Archon questioningly, and he nodded his assent with a smile. “I trust I shall see both of you again soon.” Jane thought he might have winked at her, but later found that she wasn’t entirely sure.

“I shall await your return, my lady,” a soft, familiar voice spoke, slithering down Alys’ arm and settling into a nearby cushion. The dragon would have to wait here, as usual.

They met up with Morgana outside and made their way back just as they’d come. At some point along the journey, Morgana spoke.

“So Janie, what do you wish to do now? I trust that today has not soured you on your study of magic.”

Janie smirked. “Well, for my next trick, I’m going to get a gold staff, and then, I was thinking of reconstructing the black staff of Darion Beldar. You know, nothing major.”

Morgana laughed, shaking her head. “Perhaps first we should work on acquiring you a familiar.”

That sounded good to Janie. She watched the shadows creep in as the shortest sun of the year set, but the cold no longer bothered her. Somewhere in her notebook, on a little page full of strange symbols, there was a flash.

Retinal burn.
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