Nails looked up and Fabian was poking his head in the door.
"Well," said Nails, "the prodigal returns. Again. Sorry, we've used up the fatted calves by now. Not to mention the fatted thighs -"
"Do you feel it?" Fabian interrupted.
Nails glared. But he said, "Yes."
"She felt it too. Went out - you just missed her. Wants to know what it is."
Fabian nodded. "Yeah. Me too."
The person entering didn't look any older than Fabian or Nails, and neither could a mortal have known any different. But Fabian and Nails on recognizing him realized that what had been under their skin for the last hour was the proximity of a truly ancient fairie.
"Ankle," said Nails, startled and not entirely able to conceal nervousness.
"Hello," said Fabian. He handled it better, sounding respectful. "What are you doing here?"
"Oh, courtesy call on the locals," said Ankle, "just like those government agents on tv always do. Before getting on with the important business."
Fabian might actually have meant, What was Ankle doing in Rome?, but that would have been a foolish question. There was only one piece of business to have brought him here.
Ankle wandered down the center of the floorspace toward where Nails sat in his wheelchair. Fabian had been standing in his path, and moved off. Nails scrabbled with his wheels to move too. "This one's getting a little cheeky," Ankle continued; "foiling the prophecied return of Nuada, then refusing to stay dead like the prophecy said, and all. Nuada was no friend of mine, but there's principle involved. Time I seduced her to the Dark Side."
"We should have known you'd come," said Fabian.
"I'm glad that's the view you're taking." Ankle reached the end of the room, turned back, and favored them with a smile that had nothing of amusement to it. "You should be too." Then - quicker even than Nails's eyes could follow - he flew off.
"Who does he think he is?" growled Nails - after Ankle was out of earshot.
"Just the oldest surviving fairie, even if he isn't quite immortal," said Fabian. "About ten times your age and mine put together. Or our strength."
"Yeah, well," said Nails, "it's gonna be trouble. Blu has this fairie bane marked out for herself."
"You'd have to be insane to cross Ankle," said Fabian.
"Like I said," said Nails. Suddenly he eyed Fabian closely. Fabian had scores to settle with the Fairie Bane too; but he was taking Ankle's sudden appearance with nothing but the docility Ankle considered his due as the Immortalizer of Fairie Banes. "I seem to recall you've called dibs on a slice or two of this Fairie Bane yourself. Aren't you griped about seeing your prerogatives trodden on?"
"We'll see what happens," said Fabian.
"Anchlainnwn escaped the final Danaan battle, with his mate," said Bran.
"But almost immediately she was banished to Annwfn," said Merlin. "He became instantly outraged."
"So he turned on the Fairie Bane who'd done it."
"He made her a fairie," said Bran. Pudentiana stood and walked to the window. Dusk had just fallen. "I was just then. I only escaped because he was occupied with her," Merlin shuddered.
"Ankle - as he has been known the last few centuries - decided it was his destiny to be the Immortalizer of Fairie Banes."
"And he's still at it."
"He's the oldest fairie extant."
"His time trace runs all through Earth's skein of the Fabric of Time."
"Turning Fairie Banes into fairies seems to be a great source of power. Despite being technically mortal, he hasn't aged a day."
When the barrage of information was obviously over, Linus said, "You two should take this act on the road."
"But," Merlin concluded, "his time trace seems to peter out here and now, which means it's possible to destroy him without affecting the history of the universe. We should find out whether there's anything about his coming on the grapevine." Merlin grimaced. "I never thought I'd say this, but how do we get in touch with Genius?"
Pudentiana turned from the window to see everyone else exchanging awkward looks.
"What is it?" said Merlin.
Reluctantly Pudentiana said, "Genius isn't our ally any more, Merlin. He ... It was a witches' curse that made him act ... decently. I accidentally broke the curse. He reverted to Fabian."
"How?" said Merlin.
"I made ... him happy."
Thankfully Merlin didn't ask what she meant by that. "I hate to say I told you so -" the sorceror started.
Even on their limited acquaintence Pudentiana knew better than that. "You love to say I told you so."
Merlin bobbed his head in admission before continuing. "I'm sorry you had to find out this way. But you had to find out. There are no good fairies. Neutral at best, if you catch them in the mood. They are inhuman immortals, with nothing of conscience to them, and they can respond to the universal drive to reproduce only by turning their frustration on others."
"You're talking about fairies like they're subject to evolution," said Bran.
"Well of course. Naturally a species that has developed immortality will, according to natural selection, either overcrowd itself to extinction or lose the ability to reproduce."
"But it's not science, it's magic," said Genuissa.
"Magic," said Merlin, "is just the manifestation of those psychic abilities that so many humans deny exist and none really understand. Faith -" He pointed to the crucifix Pudentiana wore at her neck. Part of the reason Pudentiana was such an effective Fairie Bane was that, she and Bran had discovered, the new Lord's sign of the cross was especially good at banishing Fairie. "- and not necessarily religious faith, is effective against such evils because they are matters of faith themselves."
"So what," Pudentiana asked, "is the scientific basis for Fairie-Bane-ship?"
"Genetic, primarily," said Merlin. "Genes for psychically enhancing the physical abilities. For enhanced intelligence. For psychic manifestation of opportunity to utilize your aptitudes."
"For what?" said Linus.
"For getting into trouble," Bran translated. "For instance, our family was brought to Rome by the Emperor before we knew Pudientiana was the Fairie Bane, or that the primary gateway from Annwfn would become the one here instead of the one at Glamorgan."
"Everything Merlin is saying is described in the lore books too," Bran finished, "in more mystical vocabulary of course."
"Sounds like a certain sorceror we all know," said Pudentiana.
"At least the getting into trouble part," said Linus.
"Well, if that's true," said Merlin earnestly, striding up to Pudentiana, "then let me walk your patrol with you tonight instead of Bran."
"What?" Pudentiana gave Merlin her best adults-are-so-stupid frown. "You want me to attract this horror? Why?"
"Because he'll come eventually anyway," said Merlin, "and this way you get to pick the field."
"What a stupid curse," said Merlin suddenly.
"What?" said Pudentiana.
They were wandering Rome in Pudentiana's usual night patrol pattern. Merlin peered into every shop's windows as if he'd never seen hardware or sticky buns before.
"Genius's. Look at the results. You've been made miserable. The rest of us are miserable in sympathy. But Genius's agony is over. He's a malicious, conscienceless trickster again - the consequences are over for him. It's the people around him who are suffering now."
"Yeah. That's why Locusta's family's quest was to make sure it never ended."
"Maybe the curse should've just been for him to have a conscience forever. Hey," said Pudentiana, hope rising, "maybe it still could be! We could talk to Locusta, get the curse cast again so that this time it can't be removed!"
Merlin shook his head. "These things have to have a loophole, an escape clause. It's in their nature. Love's first kiss, guessing the dwarf's name, a time limit, as may be. Has to be there or the spell isn't structurally complete and doesn't work, like a string of Saturnalia lights with one bulb out. I just think it could have been constructed so there'd be less fallout for those nearby if it went wrong. Quite sloppy really."
"So you're saying it's impossible to restore Genius." Pudentiana thought she'd accepted this, but at Merlin's response she found herself beating back hope again.
"No, I'm only saying it's impossible to do it permanently with a simple curse or spell. Giving a conscience to a fairie ... that amounts to granting mortality to an immortal being.
"The only way to do that I know of is to be *born* part mortal and part immortal. I've known a few of those." Pudentiana knew that tone - Merlin was off in storytelling mode now. "Of course the most famous example of that was the legendary Hercules, rocketed to the planet Greece as a baby from the planet Olympus. Good friend of mine." Midnight began to chime from the clock tower of a nearby temple. "Then there was Gilgamesh of Uruk, who was two-thirds immortal. How can you have a two-thirds heritage, you may ask? Well, it was like this: ..." Pudentiana turned back in the direction they'd come and began to walk off. "Pudentiana?" Merlin sounded very startled. Pudentiana couldn't blame him. "Where are you going?"
"I have to go," she said, walking on.
Merlin leapt in front of her and took her by the shoulders to stop her. "Where are you going? Are you sensing Ankle, is that it?"
She shook her head. "I can't say."
Merlin was peering into her eyes. She could see in the sorceror's face that he knew she wasn't exactly under her own control. "Then I'll go with you."
"No Roman can know about this."
"Well, I'm an Avalonian so it's all right."
Loopholes, Pudentiana thought. He was right, the wording of the Demon's command technically didn't cover him. She tried to say, "All right," and it worked.
When Pudentiana and Merlin broke into the darkened medical clinic, the Demon was waiting in one of the laboratories. Now that she could finally see him, in the florescent lighting of the laboratory, he looked human, only a few years older than she was. He was indeed dressed in long, flowing robes, in red and orange, of a style Pudentiana had never seen before but would've attributed to some sort of Oriental royalty or clergy.
"You were told to come alone," he said. There was no anger in his voice, just a modicum of confusion.
"You!" Merlin pulled up short when he saw the Demon.
"You recognize him?" Pudentiana asked.
"This is my father!" said Merlin. "Well, from before he became my father."
The Demon - another time-traveler? - double-took at Merlin. "Ah," he said.
"He wants -" Pudentiana started. The trance seemed to be fading under the burden of the revelations.
"I know what he wants," said Merlin.
"And she has agreed," said the Demon. "I have only compelled her by hypnotization to keep our transaction a secret. Among my compulsions is that she respond to my request with her own will, and I've given her two days to consider."
"You're here for genes for a half-British Avalonian sorceror," said Merlin.
"Yes," said the Demon. "The genetic legacy of a Fairie Bane in particular seemed most worthwhile to infuse into the sorceror gene pool."
Merlin suddenly looked at Pudentiana as he never had before - the way most people did who learned about Fairie Banes: as if Pudentiana wasn't who he'd believed she was.
"Are you my mother?" he said.
Astonishment banished the last lingering traces of the trance. "Am I what?"
"Avalonians breed in the laboratory. He," Merlin pointed at the Demon, "is crossbreeding us with other races - against our laws and customs, in secret - to counteract the high degree of inbreeding. One Avalonian half-breed for every other race he selects. And I am half-British."
Pudentiana mentally threaded through the time paradox. "You're my son?"
"If," said the Demon, displaying an empty vial made of some transparent material, "I may complete my procedure without further interruption."
"Oh, so sorry, that's not going to be possible."
All three turned to the new voice. From the shadows of the hallway came someone who looked about the same age that the Demon looked - but whom Pudentiana knew to about twice as old as her sorceror millenniarian friend.
The glowing eyes and bat wings kinda gave it away.
"I'm afraid," said Ankle, "that you're about to experience a fatal interruption."
to Chapter 3
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