The Tower

by volta arovet

a The Odyssey story (kids tv show, only vaguely to do with Homer etc)

Rating: PG

Warnings: few spoilers, takes place before the series proper

Word count: 6100


Medea looked to the Tower, and the Tower looked back at her.

Behind her, Finger was neither pacing nor fidgeting nor tapping his foot. "What's it say?" he asked, standing so close she could feel the heat of his leg against her bare shoulder. She glanced at him--he was crouching slightly, hands on both knees, and there was a little wrinkle between his eyebrows. He always got that little wrinkle when he didn't understand something, like he could force the world (or Medea) to make sense if he just willed it hard enough.

She wasn't sure if she found it endearing or just annoying.

"The Tower," she said, tapping the card lightly. It shivered slightly in the spring breeze, and she held it down with an intricately lacquered nail.

"Oh, I see," said Finger, who didn't see at all. "So we're going to a tower?"

Medea sighed. "It's not like that. The cards are metaphors. You have to look deeply into them, see the patterns based on the individual interpretations of the cards as well as the specific orders and relationships between them. They're not just going to say 'turn left at the gate and walk two-point-five kilometers until you reach the next outpost then talk to the kid in the green hat.'"

Finger snorted. "Sounds complicated. Can't you just use your ouija? I like the ouija. It uses actual words."

"The ouija works best with specific questions. I want to know what's waiting ahead of us, in general." Her finger tap-tap-tapped on the card. She had the vague feeling that if she shook it enough, tiny little people would fall out and the tower would crumble to the ground. Why not? It was already half-collapsed and being struck by lightning. What more damage could she really do?

"So, why don't you ask, 'oh ouija, what's waiting ahead of us?'" Finger said, straightening up. He slung their packs over his shoulder. "'in general?'"

"It doesn't work like--" she noticed that he was smirking at her. "Very funny."

"I thought so. Now, if you're done being divine--"

"Divining."

"--let's try to find somewhere to sleep tonight that isn't the great outdoors. I think we passed an old barn a few kilometers east of here." He shuffled the packs, getting them into a more comfortable position. "We're a little light on food, too. Let's keep a look out for any jerky trees or snack cake caches around here."

"Sounds like a plan." Why not? Her dowsing pendant had been pulling east that day. Perhaps that was the direction that held her freedom.

Medea gathered up her spread of cards. The Empress and the Chariot were at the heart, as always--they were her and Finger's cards, and tended to come out. The Devil and the Hanged Man stuck for a moment, the Hermit and the Magician (an intriguing, new pair) slid together easily, and the Tower stared out at her from the top of the pack.

"What's it mean?" Finger asked, a little too casually. "The Tower?"

"Destruction," Medea said. She covered the offending card with the World before slipping the pack into an embroidered pouch. Better it than her.

"Oh," Finger said.

***

The boy had antennae, an array of flashing lights, and a rod that pinged and chimed as he waved it over the beach.

"Escaped performance artist from the Big Top," Medea whispered to Finger, her dowsing crystal flashing in the sunlight.

"Alien invader," Finger bet. Medea smirked.

The boy turned, and they were nearly blinded by the glare of sunlight reflecting off his coke bottle glasses.

"Nerd," they said together, but quietly. Nerds may be low on the social hierarchy and lacking in skills for self-defense, but they tended to be big on things like holding grudges and building killer death machines.

"I was closest," Finger said, and Medea subtly elbowed him in the ribs.

"Greetings!" the scientist said, waving his instrument in their direction. "Are you following the leylines as well?"

Finger glanced at Medea, who just shrugged her shoulders. "I suppose," she hedged.

"I knew there was someone else with common sense on this island!" the scientist crowed. He stuck out his hand, realized he was still holding his instrument with it, stuck out his left hand instead, and grimaced warmly. "Fractal. Member of the Association of Research and Exploration to Better Quantify and Qualify the Various Phenomenon and Natural Laws Governing Our World, colloquially known as the 'Science Club'."

It was actually colloquially known by a less flattering name, but Medea thought discretion the better part of getting someone to do what you want.

"Finger," Finger said, pushing himself between Medea and Fractal. He grasped Fractal's left hand in his right and squeezed a bit too hard.

"Medea. No club," Medea said.

Fractal withdrew his hand, flexing it to check for damage. He laughed in a way Medea didn't understand at all. "Another one," he said, rolling his eyes.

"Well, it's more like a very exclusive club," Finger said.

"A club of one," Medea clarified.

Finger frowned. "Two."

"One-and-a-half," Medea compromised to Finger's dissatisfaction.

"Is that so?" Fractal said in a tone that clearly implied that while he could potentially care less about their banter, doing so would require a paradoxical increase of energy. Medea, a master in the subject of casual dismissals, recognized a talent when she saw it. Between that and his atypical willingness to spend time outside of the scientists' vacuum-sealed laboratories, she ranked him at a higher position than the average nerd. "May I borrow your crystal? I'd like to check its resonant frequency."

Medea handed it over once she made clear that Fractal's future well-being hinged on the state of the crystal when it was returned. Fractal quickly bustled it into his machine.

"I'm surprised you figured out the crystals so quickly," Fractal said. He pressed a button that caused a bell to go 'ping' and, as far as Medea could see, did nothing else. "I imagine most people still haven't realized that compasses are useless on this island, what with the fluctuating magnetic field and topographical instability--caused by the exothermal expansion of the region, of course."

"Did you say island?" Finger asked, and Medea immediately hushed him.

"Of course," Medea said more loudly, filing away the bits and pieces of information she understood.

The machine pinged again, and spat out a thin strip of paper. "Interesting. Your crystal's getting a bit of interference, I'm not sure from what, but all the proper harmonics are there. While nowhere near the level of sophistication of my machine, it should allow you to keep your bearings--leylines for laymen, if you would."

"I would," Medea said firmly, and held out her hand. Fractal reluctantly returned her pendant.

"I don't suppose you'd be willing to help me with my research?" Fractal asked eagerly. Even his fussy little bow tie twitched with excitement. "The currents around the island are much too treacherous and unpredictable to use a boat to cross to the mainland with any safety, but I conjecture that if we can triangulate the leylines to their convergent point, they should provide a relatively clear slipstream."

"I'm afraid we're planning on traveling that way," Medea said, pointing inland. Fractal's face fell a little.

"But that's following the leylines backwards!" Fractal protested. "You'll never find the convergent point that way."

"Nevertheless," Medea said, and left it at simply 'nevertheless.'

Fractal shook his head in pity at the poor unenlightened plebians of the world. "Do what you like."

"I don't suppose you'd like your fortune read?" Medea asked, not expecting much from the offer.

Fractal blinked three, four times. "What's your r-squared value?"

"Never mind," Medea said, and continued on her way, Finger following quickly behind.

***

"We're on an island," Finger said, his jackboots managing an aggressive crack with every step, even against the damped woods' soil.

"Yes," Medea said, her skirts rustling and bells jangling in her effort to remain two steps ahead of her guardian.

"We're on an island," he repeated.

"I just said 'yes.'"

"We're--how long have you--how did we get on an island?" Finger's voice cracked on the last word.

"For now, we've just got to concentrate on how to get away. Is how we got here really that important right now?" Medea snapped.

"I kind of think it is," Finger said. He ran a finger through his hair, thin blond strands parting into clumped rows, his tail loosening in the back. "I mean, to start with, I don't remember getting on a boat or crossing a bridge or any of the normal ways of getting on an island, so how--"

Medea turned on Finger, her braids whipping through the air, snapping with the sudden shift in her posture. "I don't know, okay? There's something happening to the world, something strange and not very pleasant, and it's not like we can do anything about it anyway, so let's just try to get off this island and keep to our regular schedule of trading fortunes for favors and not worry ourselves about how the world's falling apart, okay?"

She turned back and continued her walk. Finger was uncharacteristically silent behind her.

After ten minutes of silent walking, and once Medea's pace had shifted down from 'stalking' to 'slightly faster than usual,' Finger asked, in a suspiciously quiet tone of voice, "How long have you known?"

"About what?"

Finger's shrug was practically audible.

"We've been stuck on this island for at least three days, probably more like five," Medea said.

"And the Tower?" Finger asked. Medea sighed silently. He was annoyingly perceptive at times.

"The changes to the world have been showing up in my readings for several months now," Medea confessed. "The only difference is that it's finally starting to show up in our fortunes, too."

"Can I do anything to--"

"No." Medea was absolute.

Finger thought for a moment--even his footsteps seemed pensive to Medea's ears. "We should stick to the shore," he said. "Even if the land's moving around, if we follow the shoreline, we should find a bridge or someone with a boat, or at least some place that's within swimming distance of the mainland. It'd be our best bet."

"You can do that, if you like," Medea said lightly, following her dowsing stone.

Finger sighed like he did everything else--explosively, with a careful concentration of emotion and an economy of motion. "We could at least follow the nerd's advice."

"I don't--"

A kid came crashing through the underbrush. "It's got to be around here somewhere!" he grumped, stopping short before he crashed into Finger or Medea.

A girl with a long mess of red hair came stomping after him. "Face the facts, Grub. Our stash has dried up and it's not coming back."

Grub flailed a little, the loose lace of his cuffs flapping with his hands. "But it can't be gone, Bee! Something like this has never happened before! It can't just--"

Finger cleared his throat. The two kids shut up mid-argument.

"Please," Medea said demurely, "don't stop on our account."

"Excuse me. Have you seen a soda spring anywhere around here?" Grub asked, composing himself a bit.

Bee knocked him upside the head. "Forget the soda spring, Grub! We need to find a food cache soon or we're all going to starve!"

Grub gave her a cool look. "Procedure, Bee. We're tracking down the source of our spring, so that's what we should be asking about."

"If you're looking for something that is lost, I think I can help you," Medea said, taking off her pack and removing her ouija board. "For a price, of course. Results guaranteed."

The two got into a huddle. As they argued back and forth, Medea knelt on the ground and placed her fingertips on the guide, ready and waiting for when the two finally came to their decision.

"We'll give you," Grub double checked his sack, "three yo-yos"

"Four," Finger said, "plus a hackysack"

They went back into a huddle. Finger smiled at Medea. There was never any doubt that she would eventually make a trade, and it was nice to keep her free of the mundane chore such as bartering.

"Deal," Bee said, sticking her hand over Grub's shoulder. Finger shook it while Grub reluctantly counted out the cost.

"All right," Medea said, her eyes dark and mysterious. She was definitely in business mode. "What is it you want to find?"

"We, ah," Grub produced a clipboard. "We made a list. Of things we're looking for."

Medea carefully read through the lists of missing items. Some were things which had probably simply been misplaced (a lucky sock, someone's stuffed animal), some were wishful thinking written in a different handwriting (gold bouillon, a 1918 Inverted Jenny, whatever that was), and some were rather troubling (clothing closets, food caches, entire buildings).

By page four she started skimming.

By page seven she gave up, closed the clipboard, and gave her customers a courtesy smile.

"Let me put it this way: you get one question and one answer. What do you want to ask?" Medea closed her eyes and waited for the answer. It was always the same.

"What--" Grub stuttered. "What should we do?"

She let the world flow through her, the waves and tides of fortune shifting the pointer back and forth. G...O...2...C. It stopped there. "The ouija has spoken," she said, less a proclamation than an announcement that the show was over.

"Go to see?" Grub wailed. "Go to see what?"

Bee grabbed Grub's shoulders. "Not 'see,' Grub. Sea! We've got to get a boat!" She shook him in excitement.

Grub nodded, warming to the idea. "Find a new place to live, where we'll have everything we need."

"Think bigger! We can live life on the seas, taking what we want from the people we see, like pirates!"

"Only if it's on the list," Grub admonished. "We're not savages."

"Stamp collecting was getting boring, anyway," Bee said, "and you could totally rock a pirate hat!"

"We've got to tell the others," Grub said, grabbing Bee's hand. "Thank you," he called over his shoulder as they ran off.

"Congratulations," Finger said to Medea as she gathered up her things and stood up. "You've set yet another group on a life of crime."

"I don't control what the ouija says, or how they choose to interpret it," Medea said primly. "Besides, they said 'thank you.'" Most customers didn't.

Finger snorted. "I give them three minutes until they show up to reclaim their stuff."

"Two."

One-and-a-half minutes later, Grub and Bee came crashing through the bushes again. "Yarr," Grub said awkwardly, raising his fists. "On order of the new Association of the Pirates, we demand you hand over your...your...."

"Your booty!" Bee demanded, folding her arms but standing a safe distance behind Grub.

Finger stepped forward until he was nose-to-pointy-nose with Grub, and he glared.

Grub gulped.

"Upon reflection, we have decided to show mercy this day," Bee said, grabbed Grub, turned tail, and ran.

"At least they're not very good at being criminals," Medea said, brushing off her skirts.

The bushes rustled again. Finger groaned and rolled his shoulders. "Oh, for the love of--don't you guys know when to give up?"

"Do you?" That was a girl's voice, low-pitched and confident, and if the menace inherent in the voice weren't enough, the baseball bat slung over her shoulder was enough to give Finger pause--especially with the five complimentary walls of muscle behind her. "I, Barr, officially place you two under arrest by the authority of the Baseball Club. I suggest you come peacefully."

Finger slowly raised both his hands into the air. "It's okay, it's okay. I know when I'm beat."

He risked a sidelong glance at Medea, enough for her to see the promise in his eyes, and then he dove at the leftmost thug. He fell--more out of surprise than from the force of the attack.

Finger wrenched the baseball bat from the kid's hands and then kept spinning, knocking the girl sidelong into two more of the boys. They stumbled, just enough for Finger to get a good swing at one of the few still standing, and then his legs were kicked out from under him, a bat hit his ribs, and he was lying on the ground. When he tried to get up, they hit him again, and this time, he slumped to the ground, unconscious.

Medea wondered if the last thing he saw was her, running away.

"Get her," Barr said quietly, and Medea quickly found her wrists twisted behind her back by one of the strong-armed boys. Medea glared because she couldn't do anything else.

"Shouldn't you be protesting your innocence right about now?" Barr said dryly, running a hand through her gloriously frizzy ponytail.

Medea jut out her jaw. "I suppose that depends on what we've been accused of."

Barr laughed, a funny, rusty sound. "You are arrested under suspicion of stealing food from the Baseball Club. Any food found in your packs will be taken as evidence, and anything you say will be considered proof of your guilt. Any other questions?"

Medea shook her head, not giving her the satisfaction of any more material. One of the boys picked up Finger and slung him over his shoulder.

"All right, team. Let's move out," Barr said, and Medea was marched through the woods at a tempo a bit too quick for her high-heeled shoes. As she watched Finger's pale face bob in time with his captor's pace, she wondered if this was what her fortune had predicted.

She hoped he would stay unconscious a little while longer.

***

They dumped her in the cell, which was actually the opposing team's dugout with bars and locks added. The walls were thick concrete and she didn't think she'd be able to break free. She didn't know what they had done with Finger.

She settled down with a huff, absentmindedly stroking her pouch of cards--they'd let her keep that, at least. They were more concerned with her food, for the moment, anyway.

"Just once I'd like to be arrested for something I actually did," she said to the guard, who gave her a funny half-shrug. "You hear me, muscle head?"

Someone in the cell laughed, low and easy, like he was a guest instead of a prisoner. "Don't pick on Ajax; he's a pretty good guy, all things considered."

Medea rolled her eyes. "Oh, sure, I'm certain he's a total prince."

"Hey." Ajax pointed a thick finger at Medea. "I'll be watching you, so don't try anything funny."

"Trust me, I'll keep the hilarity to myself."

"Later, Ajax!" Medea's cellmate called. To her surprise, the hulking wall of a boy smiled shyly at that.

"Later, Nobdi," he returned and, after checking the locks once more and giving Medea another warning point, left.

Medea turned to her cellmate, who was becoming a little more clear as her eyes adjusted to the dull light. He was around her age, pale, dark hair, kind of scrawny, though it might just be that his formal, dark blue hat was a bit too big for his head. He had a nice smile, though, if a little sad, and that always counted for something.

"What are you in for?" she asked, casually draping herself across the floor. It was already getting late, and she wanted to make sure she claimed some of the choice warm up mats for herself.

"Being an idiot," the boy said frankly. "I thought this club might have what I was looking for, but I'm pretty sure I was mistaken." He paused. "I'm Nobdi, by the way."

Medea took a moment to parse that last sentence. "Nice name. I'm Medea. No club," she said, giving him a level look. It was one thing to say that with Finger at her back, and another to admit it when vulnerable.

"Me too," Nobdi said.

Medea's eyebrows raised--the kid seemed too, well, inice/i to not have any friends. If anything, one of the touchy-feely arts-and-craftsy groups should have snatched him up.

He stretched his arms behind his head and leaned back, staring at the pattern of cracks in the ceiling. "Or maybe, it's more like every club."

It was patently untrue--it had to be, but his little smile and far-away eyes made her doubt herself, if only for an instant. "You're full of it, you know."

"Yeah, probably," Nobdi said, flicking a glance in her direction. He smiled at her, like he could see through all the walls she had built between the world and herself and he liked her anyway. "It'd be nice, though, wouldn't it?"

She turned away, busying herself with her cards, shuffling them over and over again. It was silly, it was completely ridiculous, but for the first time in her life, for no good reason, she had found herself wanting to believe someone.

***

Breakfast was some sort of oatmeal with butter and sugar--a step up from gruel, but not a very big step.

Ajax was the one who had delivered the food, and he was discussing, in stilted but enthusiastic declarations, the finer points of The Bunt with Nobdi.

Medea pushed the oatmeal around her bowl and glowered.

"I don't suppose," she said loudly, interrupting their conversation and not caring one whit, "you happen to know when you might be letting me go? Or maybe telling me if my companion is still alive?"

Ajax blinked, like he had just realized that she was there. "Who, Finger? He's fine," he said, and just when she was feeling the slightest bit relieved, added, "He's got a heck of a swing."

"He's what?"

The boys froze. Ajax--twice as tall and three times as wide as Nobdi, and on the opposite side of the bars--attempted to slink behind him.

"You're telling me," she glared, "I'm locked up in a cell eating lumpy oatmeal," she stamped, "and Finger's out there playing baseball?" She threw the bowl at Ajax; it bounced off the bars and spattered on the ground.

Ajax looked at the spilled food, then looked back at Medea. The look in his eyes made her take a step back, despite herself. "You shouldn't have done that." He reached for the locks, meaty fingers struggling with the keys.

Nobdi reached through the bars and put his hand over Ajax's. He leaned in and said something quietly--too quiet for Medea to hear. They talked for a few minutes, Nobdi's forehead pressed against the bars, and after that, Ajax left.

"You really shouldn't have done that," Nobdi said, kneeling down and taking a handkerchief from his pocket. He began wiping up the spilled oatmeal. It was shaped a little too much like a crooked rectangle, with a jagged shard of the bowl splitting its top, and Medea had to look away.

"I was trying to get him to unlock the door," Medea said. "And it almost worked."

"I know," Nobdi said quietly. "But there's other things going on here. Their leader's been gone for too long, and they're running out of food. You may not see it, but they're panicking and don't know what to do. I tried to help, but I just messed things up again."

That got Medea's attention. "What'd you do?"

He smiled sheepishly. "They had this pair of shoes with some really knotted laces. They said that whoever managed to conquer the knots would be the new leader until their Captain returned. So I gave it a shot."

He gingerly picked up the broken bits of bowl and piled them inside the largest surviving piece.

"Well?"

"I took a pair of scissors and cut the knots off," he said, and Medea snorted. "I thought I was thinking outside the box, but instead I ended up, ah, iinside/i the box. They thought I was cheating, I guess. Anyway, they're already on edge, but I should be able to convince their Captain to let us go, when he returns. I don't want to make things worse for any of us, not with the way things are now. I just--" he sighed. "You ever get the feeling that things could be so much better than they are?"

Medea looked at the bars framing Nobdi. "Hard to see how it could get worse." He frowned, and she waved him off. "I know what you mean. Fine, have it your way. I'll play nice for now. It's not like I could get far if I escaped, not without a boat, anyway, and not that anywhere else is better off."

Nobdi's head jerked up. Surprise looked good on him. "You know about that?"

"How the world is falling apart? Sometimes I wonder how anyone's not noticed it." She gave up and knelt beside him, delicately picking up the sharp shards of pottery. "I'm a fortune teller, so I get to hear everybody's problems, and it's all the same. Not enough food, not enough protection, and everyone wants someone to tell them what to do."

Nobdi smiled wryly. "It's not falling apart, it's just...getting bigger, I guess. There are more kids than ever before, and the world's trying to get bigger so it can hold all of them, but..."

He paused at Medea's blank look.

"Fractal is so much better at explaining this than I am. He has charts," Nobdi muttered to himself, then held out his hands like he was holding some imaginary box. "Imagine you made a birthday cake, but it's not big enough for all the candles. So you try to squish it and squeeze it and add extra frosting so you can fit everything on it, but if you try to pull it too far it starts to crumble and--"

"--and there's still not enough cake for everyone," Medea finished for him, nodding slowly. It made sense, in a weird sort of way. At the very least, it matched what she had seen.

"But there is!" Nobdi insisted, suddenly very passionate. His dark eyes met Medea's and she couldn't look away, not even if she wanted to. "The world still provides enough, if we really need it, and if we use it right. If we could just get people to work together, to help each other instead of ignoring or fighting with the other clubs, then nobody would go hungry or be scared or--"

"Good luck with that," Medea said dryly, and Nobdi's face fell, that strange light in his eyes going dim. "I'm sorry, but in case you hadn't noticed, we've been locked up in a cell, and those kids outside are so tightly wound they'd probably tear each other apart if you threw a rock at one of them and hid. Nobody's going to be trusting anyone these days."

"I know that," Nobdi said, picking up the last piece of the bowl and carefully dumping the shards in the corner. "I know that."

He walked back to his usual spot in the cell and sat down, closing his eyes. Fine. If he was going to sulk, Medea could too. She had plenty of things to be moody about, starting with Finger, ending with her fate, and passing through the World on the way.

***

That afternoon found Medea fiddling with her cards and Nobdi lying on his back, staring at the ceiling. She hadn't meant to bring out her cards, but there was nothing else to do and their shape had been nagging at the corners of her mind, trying to drag out some connection, if only she could figure out what it was.

With a frustrated flick of her hair, she steeled her will and cut the deck, quickly laying out the cards in her favored pattern. At the heart was the Empress--her card, so it must be her fortune.

The next was the Magician, and that was definitely out of the ordinary. She hesitated at turning the next card.

Out of the corner of her eye she could see Nobdi roll onto his side, propping his head up with one hand. "Would you like me to read your fortune?" she asked as a peace offering, and added, "No charge."

"No thanks," Nobdi said.

"Most people beg for my fortunes," Medea said, flicking the edge of the card. "Or are you one of those guys who prefers to make his own fate?"

"No, I'm just chicken," Nobdi said, and laughed. "It's one thing to think I'm an idiot on an impossible quest, and it's another for some mystic force to tell me I definitely am."

"What were you looking for?" Medea asked, "You said you were looking for something when you came here."

"I don't know." Nobdi rolled back onto his back, staring at the ceiling like it held all the answers he was seeking. "I heard that there was a really strong group of kids here, and I wanted to see if they would be willing to help other kids out, to be something more than just some group of bullies, like a..." He sighed.

"A what?"

"I don't think there's a word for it. I think it's something like me and Fractal have, or maybe it's more like you and Finger, only bigger. Not a club, but a...something."

"A something," Medea repeated.

"Yeah."

Medea took a deep breath and turned the card over.

The Tower stared back at her.

"I think some of us are better off alone," she said. "It's less painful that way."

"You know that's not true," Nobdi said softly, but when her shoulders stopped shaking and she turned around to look at him, he was gone.

***

"Where did he go?" Ajax demanded. Barr was with him, looking bored with the whole thing.

Medea sat on the other side of the bars, her legs tucked neatly beneath her, hands resting lightly on the deck on her lap. "Where did who go?"

"Nobdi!" Ajax shouted. "Nobdi's missing!"

"Well, if nobody's missing, I don't see what the problem is," Medea said sweetly.

"She has a point," Barr said.

"But Nobdi's escaped!" Ajax protested.

"Then you've been doing a very good job as a guard," Barr condescended, patting his shoulder. She made to walk away.

"Wait!" He pointed at Medea. "You must have seen something. How did he escape?"

"How did nobody escape?" she asked, innocence personified. "I would assume one could do that by simply staying put." She flicked the cards out into a pattern, more to annoy Ajax than to do a true reading.

Barr pinched the bridge of her nose. "If one of you doesn't start making sense soon," she began.

"She must have done something! He wouldn't have just left." His eyes focused on her cards. "What are you doing?"

"Nothing in particular," she said, and flipped over the first card.

The Tower.

Of course.

"She's doing magic!" Ajax's hand shook with the severity of his accusation. He turned to Barr. "Don't you see? She must have magicked him away!"

"Ajax," Barr warned.

"And the food only started to disappear a few days before she showed up!" he continued. "She's cursed us! That's why everything's gone wrong!"

Medea flipped over the next card.

The Tower.

That...couldn't be possible, could it?

"Ajax, why don't you go clean something?" Barr suggested, quite firmly.

"But she--"

"Fine then," Barr snapped. "Medea: are you a witch, and have you been cursing us?"

She flipped the next card.

The Tower.

"Oh, sure," Medea said, distracted. "Clearly that's what I've been doing in my spare time."

The next, and the next, and the next.

All the same.

"Works for me," Barr said, briskly unlocking the door. She latched onto one of Medea's arms, Ajax grabbed the other, and together they dragged her to her feet.

"Hey!" Medea struggled, her cards scattering across the floor. They all bore the same image. She looked again, and saw that, no, they were the same mix of cups and wands and foolish people. "Let me go!"

They manhandled her out past the pitch to the main part of the camp. "If I can have your attention?" Barr said loudly, her hoarse voice echoing off the barracks. A dozen kids or so were present, and they all turned to look at her. Finger was among them; he half-rose when he saw Medea.

"Our prisoner," Barr jostled Medea's shoulder, "has confessed to being a witch who has placed a curse on us. Will you remove the curse?" she asked, not looking at Medea.

Medea stared boldly ahead. "I'm not going to help any of you."

"That's your decision," Barr said. "She admits her guilt and she refuses to help us! Locking her away is too good for her. What should we do to punish her?"

As shock turned to anger, the children rose as one and started shouting suggestions, shouting threats, shouting just to show how angry they were at a world that had cared for them and then abandoned them. Finger was in there too, shouting just like the others, and if he was defending her or preparing to sacrifice her, Medea didn't care.

At the end of the row of barracks, there was a large pile of wood, preparations for a bonfire, and it towered over everything.

Medea thought that, at last, she could finally see the end.

A rock hit one of the children in the head.

He turned to the kid next to him and shoved her.

She shoved him back.

Within seconds, all of the children turned on each other, kicking and punching and screaming. Medea slipped her thin wrist from Ajax's grip, elbowed Barr neatly in the stomach, and ran for the edge of the camp.

She caught a glimpse of a new kid exiting the biggest home, who had a whistle around his neck and an air of authority. She thought, maybe, she saw a navy hat peeking out of one of the bushes, and then she reached the line of trees and was lost to the forest.

***

She knelt at the river's edge, splashing the cool water over her hands, her face, her neck. The cell had been dusty, and she didn't want to carry its dirt on her skin, even if there was no one to see her smudged cheeks. Even if she was alone again.

"Don't panic," a boy's voice said, and she clutched her pendant to her chest. It was her only tool left, and she couldn't risk losing that, too. "It's just me."

She checked the reflection in the water--dark hair, pale skin, navy hat. "Nobdi?"

He rubbed the back of his neck. "Actually, my name's Brad. Sorry about that."

"Brad," she tried, like she could taste the name on the tip of her tongue. It suited him. "Strange name."

"Finger's looking for you," he said. "He wants to stay with the Baseball Club. He says there's a place for you there, too."

"Does he now?" Medea said. Her reflection had never been more fascinating.

"I cleared up everything with Macro--the captain, I mean. They're not going to hurt you. In fact," he chuckled, "Finger's brave defense of you seems to have inspired Macro to use the club to defend other kids in need of help."

"Is that what Finger did?" Medea asked, disbelief evident.

"Of course he did." Brad leaned over and offered her his hand. She rose to her feet, unassisted. "Look, you should stay with your friend. It's important to hang on to connections like that."

"Finger," she leveled a heavy look at Brad, "was a customer who followed me around and decided he was my guardian without asking if that's what I wanted."

"Oh."

They stood in awkward silence.

Brad pointed in a seemingly random direction. "I'm going that way."

Medea held out her pendant; the crystal moved in the same direction. "Sounds like a plan." She started walking, and Brad kept pace beside her, shoulder to shoulder.

"I'm sorry. About you and Finger, I mean," Brad said.

"That's okay. I'm sorry you didn't find what you were looking for," Medea said, and strangely, didn't feel odd for the sentiment.

Brad smiled shyly, eyes hidden beneath the brim of his hat. "I think I found a piece of it."

They broke through the edge of the woods and found themselves on a secluded strip of beach. Medea followed the path of the crystal and saw Fractal, squinting at the bright sunshine, waving, chiding Brad for being so late. Behind him was a small boat and a smooth path of water. And beyond that, far across the lake, shining and spiraling and full of stark beauty and hope was

A Tower.