The fairie charged the blonde. The time traveler struggled back to his feet whence the fairie had carelessly knocked him in its unexpected assault. Merlin knew that ordinarily Tercia would be more suited to dealing with even this older, hardier race of evil immortals than he. But Tercia had just made their opponent very angry. His mate had just been permanently banished from this plane to Annwfn, the fairie home dimension; permanent banishment being that which only each generation's Fairie Bane could accomplish.
Tercia flipped Anchlainnwn over and past herself with his own momentum. But she was tired; she dropped him right behind her instead of arcing him across the room, and she fell herself, on her back. Before Merlin was even on his feet, Anchlainnwn had flipped himself back facing Tercia and stunned her with a blow to the head.
"Because of you, I'm almost the last of my kind," Anchlainnwn snarled, talking to Merlin. It was a gross oversimplification to blame Merlin alone, but had an element of truth. "But not for long!"
Merlin watched in horror as Anchlainnwn did to Tercia what no Fairie Bane had ever suffered before.
The fairie charged the blonde. She flipped him over onto his back onto a nearby table. There was a small clattering noise and he screamed.
Pudentiana felt almost sorry for this one; she had him at a distinct disadvantage. When she'd heard the clattering in the darkened building she'd expected she was surprising a normal burglar. She didn't know what sort of habit might lead a new-in-town (he had to be new in town) fairie to break into a restaurant after hours, but obviously he had forgotten or never known of the effect the iron eating utensils would have on him.
While Pudentiana gave the place a quick visual scan for a weapon (since she hadn't expected a fairie, she'd left her bag outside to make climbing through the restroom window easier), the fairie writhed off the table and the spoon and fork he'd fallen on. Pudentiana jumped and spun and swung a foot into the side of his face while he ineffectually tried to brush the fork from the small of his back where it had stuck into his clothing, but that only served to remind him she was there.
He picked up a chair - they had the classic ice cream parlor style - and swung it so hard at her that two of the legs splintered against one of the building's interior support posts when Pudentiana ducked in time. This gave Pudentiana an idea.
She dodged around to the other side of the post. Obligingly the fairie swung the chair at her again, and when it hit the post this time one of the legs nearly cracked free. She broke for the register counter, on the off chance that a fairie stupid enough to haunt a place rife with cold iron might still figure out, if she dodged back around the post again, that (or why) she wanted him to break the wooden chair into pieces. She vaulted over the counter and dropped behind it, moments before the chair came crashing down on the counter surface. Both shattered legs broke off, bounced off the wall behind the counter, and dropped onto the floor right next to Pudentiana.
Pudentiana popped up from behind the counter just as the fairie was climbing onto it, awkwardly and relatively slowly for a supernatural creature since it hadn't put the remains of the chair down. She held the chair legs in a cross in her right hand. Before the fairie could bring the chair around at her, she shouted a few words of church Greek. The fairie screamed, as the interdimensional portal sucked him into his native Otherworld.
Pudentiana panted a few moments to catch her breath, then left the restaurant through the same back window she'd entered, not sure whether going out the door might trip a burglar alarm, if there was one, that so far she seemed to have avoided. She bent to retrieve her bag and heard a soft male voice, "You are the Fairie Bane?"
She dropped into a defensive crouch as she turned. "Who wants to know?" It was a good question; in the shadows behind the restaurant her inquisitor was impossible to make out. She had an impression of medium height and long, loose clothing, but all she could see - for a stray shaft of light fell across them, from no source Pudentiana could later identify - were his eyes.
His eyes were enchanting her.
They were demon eyes.
"There's something I want you to do for me," said the soft voice.
"Shouldn't we stop by the library this afternoon?" Genuissa said as the students of Seneca, tutor to the court of Emperor Claudius Caesar of the Roman Space Empire, flooded out of the palace's instruction halls in their daily liberation. "I mean, we haven't got together, all four of us, us and Linus and Bran, for more than a week."
"Oh, great, now there are mandatory weekly Bane Scout meetings I have to work into my schedule," Pudentiana snapped.
No one, Pudentiana reflected again, does "kicked puppy" as well as Genuissa. "Oh. Okay. I just thought maybe there were things about being the Fairie Bane's sidekicks that Linus and I could go over. Things that don't really come up in the middle of a developing crisis. How would we know?"
That was a point. "Sorry," said Pudentiana. "Bad time of the month."
"Is it?" said Genuissa. Pudentiana might've told her Saturnalia was going to be early this year. "Wonderful!"
"I didn't realize my biological cycles were so entertaining."
"Well, it's just that ..." Genuissa trailed off, the way she did when she had accidentally started talking about something she'd meant to keep to herself.
"It's just what?"
"Well, I was just wondering, and I didn't want to say anything, even to Bran who may or may not have known anyway, I mean it's something that's probably never ever come up before -"
Pudentiana wasn't in the mood to allow Genuissa her usual breathless attempts at obfuscation. "Genuissa, what?"
Genuissa sighed. "I was just worried that ... you might have got pregnant. With Genius."
"Oh, Genuissa. Fairies don't have functional gonads! They're immortal, they don't need to breed. Genius told me before ... before the curse was lifted. Before Fabian."
"Oh! Oh. ... Oh!"
"I suppose I should have told you. I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault. You didn't know I was agonizing over it all by myself for ten days because I didn't want to worry you. Putting it that way hasn't make you feel better, has it?"
"I know what you meant," said Pudentiana, forcing a smile just so Genuissa would turn off the earnestness.
"Hey, Hyppolyta, Antiope," Linus greeted them, reuniting the whole of British upperclass adolesence on the Empire capital planet. "Listen, I had a crazy idea - maybe we could get together with Bran once and pick his archives about this little cooperative of ours without having to do it under emergency conditions."
Pudentiana rolled her eyes. "Guess I'm outvoted."
"If you had other plans ..." said Genuissa.
"No. As a matter of fact," Pudentiana sighed, "I was going that way already. I have something to ask Greatgran about too." She just would have preferred to ask it alone.
Judging from the two stacks on his work table - one of new books, the other of fresh cards - her great-grandfather had just sat down to entertain himself with some cataloguing. He looked up, saw the three of them enter the Imperial palace's library shoulder-to-shoulder, and paled. "What's happened?"
"Nothing," said Genuissa. She was beginning to sound like she wished she'd gone straight home after all.
"We're here to tap our resource, Bran," said Linus, turning a chair backwards and straddling it.
"We're here to become better Fairie Banes," said Genuissa as she and Pudentiana took seats. "Well, better support Fairie Banes."
"Oh. How refreshing," said Bran. "One rarely sees even you three here on a volunteer basis."
"We're yours today, big guy," said Linus. "Educate us."
"Yeah," said Genuissa, "what kind of training is there for the second string?"
Bran' smile began to fade away. "Oh dear. Um, I hate to disappoint you in your enthusiasm ..."
"You do?" said Genuissa, disappointed.
"Obviously I want you to be encouraged to come in at any and all times ..."
"But?" Linus encouraged.
"But," said Bran frankly, "there's no precedent for this situation. In all history no previous Fairie Bane has ever had anyone but her Lore Master privy on a regular basis to her secret and her doings."
Pudentiana felt a flush of gratitude for her friends that she couldn't entirely attribute to her hormonal state.
"Oh," said Genuissa. "Well," said Genuissa. "That's good too," she said brightly. "It means we get to set the standards."
"Perhaps you could write your own journals," Bran suggested, "for future fairie bane, uh, cabals. That may not be the word you'll want to use, but you get the idea I'm sure."
"Yeah!" said Genuissa, enthusiasm returned. "We can record our experiences and write the training manual ourselves!"
Linus lowered his forehead onto the back of the chair. "When I walked in here, I didn't know it was to be assigned Fairie Bane homework. 'What I Did At Night All This Year'."
Another time Pudentiana might have jumped on that line - heaven knows neither Genuissa nor Bran would - but not today. "I had something I wanted to ask you."
"Really," said Bran. "Two extracurricular, nonessential inquiries. Be still my beating heart."
"How long do Fairie Banes live?" Pudentiana asked.
Bran got that expression he got when he knew he had to tell her something she wasn't going to like. Not that she was surprised. "How long?" he repeated.
"Do we live. Yes."
"Well, there haven't exactly been any statistical studies made. Or, none that I'm aware of. I suppose if we were still on speaking terms with Locusta, she could log on to the Fairie Bane housepage and compile average and median figures in the wink of -"
"Bran," said Pudentiana. Genuissa and Linus were watching him now too. "How long?"
"Not long," Bran stammered. "Most are killed, or 'burn out', in a fairly short time after they become active. I'd say that, if Nuada had succeeded in killing you at his attempted resurrection as the prophecy said he would, your tenure would have been just short of normal range."
"Way to bring the mood down, guys," murmured Linus, though softly enough that he must have thought no one would hear. Pudentiana took pity on him and Bran, and decided not to force Bran to state the obvious corrolary - that Pudentiana was already living on borrowed time.
"That's why Fairie Baneship comes to the young," Bran continued. "Only at one's absolute physical peak can one stand up to the challenges. And that's why they're always women, whose psychic auras are twice as efficient, to accomodate multiple souls during pregnancy. Pudentiana, why do you ask?"
"I dunno," said Pudentiana, which wasn't the whole truth. She hemmed and hawed a moment, fishing for something she could say. "I've been thinking today about leaving behind some kind of legacy when I'm gone."
Bran blinked. "I must say I'm surprised. Most people don't develop an interest in their posterity until they're ... well -"
"Your age?" said Linus. "You know," he added a moment later, "maybe I should just wear flavored sandals." When they all looked at him blankly he rolled his eyes and explained, "For when I put my foot in my mouth?"
"Oh! Ha ha," said Genuissa. Linus hated having to explain.
"And I gather," said Pudentiana, surprised at how close she was being allowed to skirt what she couldn't say, "we don't ordinarily survive to have families."
"As a rule, no," Bran answered. "It may not be what you want to hear," Bran continued sincerely, "but the Fairie Bane tradition itself is something to be proud of carrying on."
"I know," said Pudentiana. But she knew they could tell that it wasn't what she wanted to hear.
As soon as Pudentiana saw the demon lurking in the following night's shadows, she felt the trance come over her again. She obediently went over to him in accordance with his instructions from the previous night.
"Have you considered my proposal?" said the Demon.
"Yes," said Pudentiana. "My answer is yes."
"Very well," said the Demon. "We will meet tomorrow night at this address -" He handed her a slip of paper. "- at midnight. I will be prepared then.
"As before, you shall remember that we have met, but no other Roman can know. You shall come meet me unacccompanied by any of them. But you will come only if your decision to cooperate has been of your own free choice and remains so."
The Demon moved off and vanished in the shadows. Pudentiana shook her head to clear it as the trance faded away again. She mentally tested her resolve, comparing its feel with the feel of the compulsion from the Demon's instructions. She could tell the difference between the suggestion (post-hypnotic, or enchantment, or whatever it may be) and the decision she'd made during the day.
She was going to go through with this, because it was what she wanted.
Bran smiled when the three of them entered the library together the next afternoon. "How good to see you again."
"I'm glad you're happy," said Pudentiana. "I'd hate to think that we can't go anywhere together without people thinking disaster will follow."
Without even a respectful pause after her speech the doors from the hallway banged open to admit someone else. The newcomer was an old man in a fancy suit some hundred years or so out of fashion. As was frequently the case when an Avalonian time-traveler came into Pudentiana's life, he had a worried, urgent expression on his face.
"On the other hand," grumbled Linus.
"Merlin?" said Bran. "What's wrong?"
"Ankle," said Merlin.
Since the word held no significance of disaster to Pudentiana she looked over to Bran. Bran had both paled and taken on the she-won't-like-this face. "Here?" he asked Merlin.
"Here," said Merlin. "Now. Close."
"I've got two of them," Pudentiana snapped. "What's the deal?" Explanations were never simple with Merlin. The first time she'd met him was on a starship in the future, with an apprentice named Nimue. On return to the present, she'd discovered Nimue knocking around the palace library, from after Nimue had inherited Merlin's time machine from him. The next time Pudentiana met Merlin, he'd been from before he ever had any apprentices. At least he'd been in order ever since then ... so far.
"Anchlainnwn is the oldest surviving fairie," said Bran.
"He was of the Fomorian race of fairies," said Merlin, "and survived their final battle with the Danaan."
"He has a particular grudge against Fairie Banes."
"One banished his mate, shortly after the Danaan triumph. I was just then."
Battling British accents, Pudentiana thought. Most of her family - brought to Rome from Britain when her grandfather Prince Caractacus lost a rebellion against Emperor Claudius - now spoke almost accentless Latin, but Bran retained his accent as a matter of pride. Merlin, though an Avalonian sorceror, apparently spent most of his time in British space in the future. "Ankle, as he is lately known," said Bran, "has accounted for more Fairie Banes in the past three or four millennia than all other fairies combined."
"But," said Merlin with reluctant import, "he doesn't kill them."
"He's a Fomorian, you see," Bran repeated. "An earlier race of Fairie. They weren't immortal yet, just long-lived, and had the power to reproduce themselves."
"They did it," Merlin said, "by casting a curse on normal mortals." Dread crept over Pudentiana on little cat feet.
"Ankle," said Bran, "is known as the Immortalizer of Fairie Banes."
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