This chapter is dedicated to Darling Summers for beta-reading it.
1. Another Universal
Connie stared out into the dark storm and shuddered. She couldn't help remembering when she had been summoning storms like those which raged outside. It had taken all of her friends' strength to save her from Kullervo's clutches, and she had nearly killed her best friend Col. She turned away from the window and started as the doorbell rang. Her aunt Evelyn looked up.
"That's a pain. I wonder who's here now? Go and see, will you?" she asked Connie.
Connie went to the door and opened it. A girl her age was standing on the doorstep, with long brown hair tucked under a waterproof hood and starry blue-grey eyes. She cleared her throat awkwardly.
"Erm, hello. Are you Connie Lionheart? The universal?" she asked.
"Yes, I am. Are you a new member of the Society?" replied Connie curiously.
The girl shook her head.
"No, I'm Astrid. I'm a...I'm a universal. I'm in trouble, and I think you can help."
Connie was aware that she was gaping, and shut her mouth. All the same, it was a shock. For three years she had thought that she was the only universal in the world, and here was another girl turning up on the doorstep and claiming to be another. She reached out to the girl's mind, and found the complicated, yet very familiar, mind of a universal companion. She opened her eyes.
"You'd better come in," she said, standing back to allow Astrid to enter the house. The girl followed Connie inside.
"Sorry to arrive unannounced like this. I know it's late, but I wanted to see you as soon as possible" she apologized. "Will your parents mind?"
"It's all right. I'm living with my aunt and her husband, but they won't mind. Mack's a Kraken Companion and Aunt Evelyn's a Banshee Companion. So, I take it that you aren't a member of the Society, or I would have heard about you" replied Connie.
"Not yet, and that's sort of why I wanted to see you."
Evelyn looked up expectantly as they went into the sitting room.
"Who's this?" she asked.
"Astrid. She's another Universal." explained Connie. Evelyn stared at her, her eyes wide with disbelief.
"Another universal?" she said wonderingly. Astrid nodded.
"Well, well. Sit down. I'm Evelyn Clamworthy, a Banshee Companion. How did you find out about Connie?"
"I found out that my friend Sam was a wood sprite companion a few weeks ago, and her companion told me that I was a Universal. She told her chapter, and found out about you, so I decided to come down to see you. My parents don't know about the Society. They just think that we're down on holiday. It'd scare them if they found out."
"Right. Would you like a drink? I think we're going to have to talk properly about this, and we might as well have something to keep us going." replied Evelyn, standing up. "Is tea alright?"
"Yes, thanks. One sugar, please."
Evelyn left the room, and Connie began to explain the ins and outs of universalship. She talked about the universal's tools and the special reading-room in which she had learned so much. Evelyn came back in with three mugs and sat back down.
"So, Astrid, you said you were in trouble. What kind of trouble is it?" she inquired, causing Astrid to wince.
"My powers are inhibited. I can't do anything. I think...I think Kullervo is stopping me, so that I will fail my assessment, and then I'll be on my own so that he can use me."
Connie bit her lip. She remembered, far too vividly, when she had been under the shapeshifter's power, and how she had almost killed three of her friends. She dreaded to think what could happen if he gained a universal.
"I thought I was the only universal left. That's why Kullervo wanted me so badly," she said quietly.
The front door opened and shut, causing Evelyn to look up.
"That must be Mack. I'll go and explain what's happening." Evelyn went out to the kitchen, leaving the two universals together.
"When did you stop being able to encounter creatures?" asked Connie.
"A week ago. I'd only known what I was for a week, and then whilst I was talking to a Rock Dwarf, I just couldn't speak to him. I didn't understand what he was saying. I tried to find his mind, but there was nothing. Absolutely nothing. It wasn't like having a mind hidden from you" said Astrid, answering the question on Connie's lips. "This was different. This was just like I was a normal person: I couldn't connect with anyone."
Talking about it clearly pained her: her brow was creased and her eyes sad.
"I'll do what I can. Earlier this year, Kullervo made me his companion again. I was storm-raising...I was enjoying it, whilst I was doing it. But afterwards...I just felt so drained, so empty, like a part of me had been taken away. I nearly killed my best friend. I didn't even think about it; whilst he was with me, I could do anything, I never had to think about the consequences. It was horrible...the worst thing that ever happened to me."
Connie was surprised by herself. She hadn't told anyone how it had felt: how good she had felt when she was raising a storm, the gaping emptiness that had filled her afterwards: and now she had gone and told a complete stranger. Maybe it was just because Astrid was a universal: Connie felt safe telling her things. She knew that another universal would understand her. Astrid nodded sympathetically, sensing that Connie had never told anyone else before. At that moment, Evelyn and Mack came in, the latter in full motorbike leathers.
"This is Mack, my husband. He's a Kraken Companion."
"Astrid Farley" replied Astrid.
"So Evie said. We'll tell the Society, and see what we can do."
Soon, Astrid rose to leave.
"Thanks for the tea. I have to go back to my parents now, but when should I come to the meeting?" she queried.
"Saturday evening. Do you know where the Masterson's farm is? Well, it's near the wind farm, we're meeting in the old barn at about six o'clock" answered Evelyn. "I'll tell Dr. Brock, and you can come and meet everyone."
"No, wait. Come here on Saturday morning, and we can go and see Col and Rat. They can bring their companions" suggested Connie.
"I'd love to" declared Astrid. "I have to go now, but I'll see you here on Saturday morning."
She wrote a number down on a piece of scrap paper.
"This is my mobile. Call me when you decide on a time."
"Sure. I'll see you then" replied Connie. Astrid smiled in thanks, and left the house, closing the front door quietly after herself.
"Well, well. Another universal. I wonder what the Society will say" said Evelyn.
Connie couldn't help wondering herself.