Like A Candle in the Wind
A second generation Whateley Acadamy Story
Like a Candle in the Wind
Saturday 17th September 2016, morning, Costume Class
I looked to my left at Bianca, and then to my right at Tanya, and tried not to sigh too obviously. Tanya was still trying to pretend Bianca wasn't really there, and the attempts I'd made on the way over from breakfast, to at least make them talk to each other, had been a miserable failure. At least they hadn't resorted to communicating by passing notes via me, but I was feeling that was only a matter of time. Sitting between them was starting to feel like role-playing the Beirut demilitarised zone.
I was surprised how well the class was attended, given that it wasn't yet 9 am on a Saturday, but then it wasn't a normal school class. Like Bianca and I, a lot of the kids had some form of GSD, so this class was probably more important in their eyes than English. Tanya looked perfectly normal, of course, but I already knew she was here to learn how to make a super-suit. Probably in lavender.
Precisely on 9, the teacher entered. Mrs Ryan's appearance was, well, unexpected. Given that the class was all about costuming, I think I'd either been expecting a fashionista or an Edna Mode. Instead, we had someone who looked like your gran - until you looked at her eyes. On second thoughts, she looked like a stereotyped old librarian. And not one of the safe ones.
"Now, please pay attention, we have quite a lot to go through this morning before we get to work on the actual class itself."
She pointed to two rows of workstations along each side of the classroom. "You will be making a lot of use of these this term. The workstations allow you to design costumes, and the holographic displays will show you the results in real time." A lot of the kids perked up at that, well, they did look like fun toys to play with. "There is a simpler 2-D version of the software which will be downloaded onto your laptops so you can work when you aren't here. You can also use this room between 4 pm and 8 pm, you can book up to two slots a week, first come first served."
She looked around at us all. "Now, many of you will have your measurements already from getting custom clothes or school uniforms. If you haven't, please take time to get this done at the store before the next class. The first thing we'll do next session is to upload them, so your design will be an accurate representation of you."
She played with some of the controls on her desk, and a full-size hologram of Lady Astarte appeared, floating above the desk. "I will also be using this to demonstrate and explain as we go along."
Mrs Ryan waited a minute for us to finish appreciating the display - I had to admit, it was a really state-of-the-art hologram - before continuing.
"Now, despite what some of you may have been thinking, this class isn't all about making a hero-suit." She clicked the hologram off as she carried on. "There are a number of different reasons for wearing a costume, and all of these will affect the design. There are also costumes which combine a number of these reasons."
She flicked Lady Astarte on again. "Now, this is one of the classic combat outfits. Tight fitting to allow easy movement while allowing a certain amount of protection. These outfits are popular with martial artists and other hand to hand fighters. But they aren't the only solution." She changed the display to one of someone wearing what looked like heavy protective plates and chain over a tight-fitting costume. "Many bricks and exemplars find the addition of even unpowered armour useful, to increase their resistance to damage. And of course" - this time the display was of a man wearing a face mask and what looked like a trenchcoat - "sometimes the requirement to store protective items and weapons defines the type of costume. This is Mr X, who depends on a huge range of gadgets, which are more easily stored and accessed in his coat."
"However you shouldn't think that the only thing that matters is the combat capability of an outfit." She looked around, gaze lingering for a moment on a number of the students - all the ones with GSD of various sorts. "A good costume can hide or, in more extreme cases, minimise physical issues which can cause problems, if you so wish. Even if we cannot conceal physical issues completely, we can design so as to minimise the issue and aim for a design that encourages people to look on you favourably. Or, in some cases, to make you look more terrifying."
I hadn't thought about that. I guess some of the kids here were heading or intending to head down the mercenary or villain track, and the last thing they'd want would be to look less intimidating. It would be interesting to note who that would apply to.
"We will be looking at how the overall style of the costume affects the way people see you, and especially the colour scheme. The colours of a costume do affect an onlookers perception of you, and for best results, this should be tied into the type of costume.
White Snake raised his hand, and Mrs Ryan nodded to him.
"Ma'am, what about things like power armour?"
"A good question. We won't be covering the design of power armour, as this usually is defined by its function, and in any case, the design and construction of a reasonable set takes much too long to cover in one term. However, we will be covering colour schemes and accessories." a moment with her controls and two armoured figures hung in the air. One in shining bright armour, with a golden cloak fluttering in the air behind him. The other in dark armour covered in a dark green tunic.
"As you can see, Brillantine" - she pointed at the shiny figure - "tends to inspire confidence and trust in his heroic aspect. Dr Doom" - a ripple of laughter ran through her audience, which brought a small smile from her - "the look of the armour and the colours used imply a menacing villain. Yet both are basically wearing the same thing. I will be instructing you how to manage to project the type of image you wish to aim for."
"Finally there is the issue of what materials you use to construct your costume. Depending on the type, there are various possibilities, offering different types of protection, camouflage, and so on. The final part of the course will be the design of a costume for yourselves. Optionally you can actually construct it, which is worth some additional course credit. Ideally, of course, this would involve the use of various custom materials, many of which are, unfortunately, expensive. However, we do have a stock of less durable, but free, materials that you can use if you cannot afford the optimal. The choice of materials will not affect your course grade. Are there any questions?"
A girl I didn't know, who looked like she had snakes for hair, hesitantly raise her hand.
"Uh..ma'am, what about homework."
"Because all of you have different aims for this course, I won't be setting general homework. Based on how you are progressing, I will set individual work as required. There will also be a number of quizzes on the principles involved, which will be 40% of your grade, but the rest will be on your final costume result."
Beside me Tanya was almost buzzing - obviously, this was a course she really wanted. Bianca was looking thoughtful, so I leaned close to whisper. "Thinking of something?"
She nodded thoughtfully. "I was thinking of that hero she showed in the trenchcoat. That sort of thing would let me hold all the stuff I wanted, and I could inscribe protective glyphs on it, as well as making it durable."
"Yeah, that would work for you. But I think I'll need something that I can move around in."
She smirked a bit. "Well, if you're going to want to resort to brute physical violence..."
I nudged her with my elbow, which just made her smirk even wider.
Saturday Night, Poe cottage
The first thing I noticed as my eyes flicked open was the glowing-green numbers on my clock radio. 2.05am. I barely had time for that to register before the loud and shuddering moan from Bianca's bed made me realise what had woken me up at such an ungodly hour.
I pushed back the covers, slipping out of bed as I flipped the light on. Bianca was twisting and moaning loudly, most of her bedclothes in a twisted pile on the floor as she jerked and shuddered. She was muttering words and fragments of sentences, most of which made no sense, but a few seconds of listening made it clear she seemed to be arguing with someone not to kill someone. Damn, she'd woken me up a few times before, but nothing so bad as this. As I tried to wipe the sleep from my eyes, I wondered if this had anything to do with the events of this afternoon.
I knelt down by the side of her bed, then carefully and quickly grabbed her wrists, pointing her hands together and not towards me. I didn't know if Bianca could fire off one of her instant spells while asleep - she hadn't yet, but there was always a first time - and I didn't want to collect one of them in the face. She half screamed as I grabbed her, struggling to get away from me.
"Bianca! Wake up!"
It took a couple of almost-shouts before her eyes opened wide, and she looked around as if trying to place where she was.
"It's OK, Bianca. It's just me, you're safe in our room."
She didn't seem to believe me for a moment, eyes darting around the room as if she didn't recognise it. I was glad now I'd grabbed her wrists, I could see the glow of essence around her hand, and if she'd been able to point them at me it could have got messy. Fortunately, she had no chance of breaking my grip, and a few second later she shuddered and stopped fighting me.
I carefully moved my hands so I wouldn't hurt her by accident.
"Don't be silly. I mean, you weren't having a nightmare deliberately, were you?"
She shook her head, still taking deep breaths. Or maybe that was just a reaction to my attempt at a joke. "And it's not like I haven't woken you up a couple of times with mine."
She managed a half-smile at that, which was an improvement, but her eyes were still haunted, so I carried on.
"Why don't I make us a drink, that will help you get back to sleep?"
Bianca blushed slightly. "I don't want to be a nuisance."
I smiled and patted her on the shoulder. "You aren't. Now tidy up your sheets while I make us something."
She nodded and started to drag her bedclothes back into something more useful than a pile of fabric on the floor. It gave her something to do while I found a couple of mugs and spooned chocolate mix into them. Water was in our small fridge unit, and I topped the mugs up before seeing how she was doing. Back in bed, and still looking shaken. That must have been a worse dream than usual. So I brought her cup over, then knelt, holding it between my hands as I very carefully pushed heat into it. I'd cracked the first few mugs I'd done this trick on, but I had the hang of it now. Once the hot chocolate was steaming, I passed it over to her. "Careful, it's hot."
She nodded as I got my own mug. "You're power is really useful sometimes."
I grinned, as I repeated the trick for myself. "Yeah, but Grimes would probably tell us off for using up essence when we could just get a water heater."
She snorted. "True, but what's the point of not using it when we can't store it yet. And the more we use up, the fewer hobgoblins we have running around."
I took a sip of my drink to try and hide my wince. Last week I'd managed to produce some, little flaming dragon-bird things in glorious technicolour. Pretty harmless, but they were on fire and there had been a lot of screaming and running around from the other girls before I'd popped them all. Not to mention the looks and a few muttered comments of 'bloody mages' I'd had to listen to through the next day.
It took a while for Bianca to finish her chocolate - I'd deliberately made it hot, which didn't worry me but gave her time to calm down a bit. Finally, she set her mug down and gave me a small smile. "Thanks. I think I can get back to sleep now."
I nodded as I moved back to my own bed. "No worries. Now try and get some sleep."
She rolled up in her sheets - I still couldn't see how someone could sleep smothered up like that, but it worked for her, and I lay back, watching her for a few minutes until her breathing deepened. Poor kid, she'd been getting better until some idiot had splurged her background all over campus. I fell asleep thinking about some suitable fates for whoever it was had done it.
Sunday 18th September, Campus Store
"Did you find out anything about why I seem to be attracted to iron?"
I shook my head at Bianca's question. "Not really. Your ability doesn't seem to fit into any of the standard correspondences, so my best guess is that it's to do with your affinity for using blood in your glyphs."
"Yeah, I couldn't spot anything either. At least yours makes more sense, fire seems to be tied to iron."
"Mmm. I wish I knew why Grimes gave me that funny look when the mithril piece didn't do much. It was like she was expecting something to happen, and it didn't."
Bianca looked around, making sure no-one was in earshot. "Do you think it was something to do with your, well, origin?"
I quirked my lip. That was a very polite way of saying 'did she expect it to show you were a demoness', but I did appreciate the tact. "I don't know, what I've been able to find so far is terribly contradictory. And I don't want to ask permission to look in the secure stacks in the library - at least, not until I've exhausted all my other sources."
"Sensible. Ah, here we are, magic items and associated cutlery!"
I grinned. "Come on, don't you like shopping for items of mayhem?"
"Personally I prefer a gun if I'm going to do violence. And you know very well an athame is a tool, not something to carve up your enemies with!"
"Bianca, you're just no fun sometimes!"
"So, what did you choose?" We'd been going through the stock of athames - the store kept a surprisingly wide and eclectic range - for a while, finding ones that seemed to fit and was comfortable to hold.
"This one, I think. " Bianca displayed a fairly simple iron blade, with a pale wood handle. "It will do for the time being, and I can inscribe glyphs into the handle if I want."
"That's a good idea. I can't do that with mine" - I showed her my choice, a long steel blade with a handle of wrapped wire - "but this one is more fireproof if I screw things up."
We were still taking stock of each others choice and discussing them when we nearly bumped into a girl.
"Oops! Oh, Dawn - I'm sorry, we were a bit preoccupied."
The golden-haired satyress smiled. "That's OK, I see you've been doing the same shopping as me." She held up a rather pretty and delicate knife with a copper blade.
"Oh, copper?" Then I thought a moment. "That's right, you're a healer, aren't you."
She nodded. "Well, I can only do some of the basics, but yes. How did you know?"
Bianca smirked. "Somebody spent ages last night going through the books trying to tie the results of that test with the metals and people abilities."
I gave Bianca a quick glare before responding. "Hey, it was interesting! Anyway, it mentioned copper as a favourite metal for healing, so..."
Dawn nodded. "I looked up healing too. Most of the materials mentioned seemed crystals of gemstone, but I guess copper is OK as a start. It's going to be a nuisance keeping sharp, though."
"From what Grimes said, this is a training-wheel athame anyway, for those of us who don't already have them. So no need to go mad."
Bianca nodded. "I'm still not sure why we have to keep them sharp, though. It's a ritual tool, surely?"
I grinned. It showed someone hadn't read the book thoroughly. "It's because it has symbolic uses." Both my companions gave me a 'Yes, and so?" look before I finished. "And the best symbol for a sharp knife is...a sharp knife!" I patted Bianca consolingly on the shoulder. "Don't worry, you'll get the hang of this reading books thing soon."
Given that we'd yet to find anything her power couldn't read, she just shook her head in mock sadness. "You're crazy, you do know that, right?"
"Who's crazy? I thought that was my area of expertise?"
"Adam!" Dawn wrapped the rather large boy, who'd snuck up on us and made the comment, in a hug, giving him a kiss as well for good measure. Bianca and I exchanged glances. It looked like Dawn had already found herself a boyfriend, and judging by the fact it took her a minute or two to let him go, maybe something a bit more than a casual one.
"So I guess you girls know each other from Magic Class? Seeing as how you were all buying athames."
I found it interesting he knew they were athames - most boys who weren't in the magic stream - as he wasn't - would have said knives. I hoped he wasn't just dating Dawn because he was a magic-groupie, she was a nice kid and didn't deserve that. "Well, not just that, we found out we're in Costuming together as well. It's an interesting class, it wasn't quite what I thought it would be like."
Dawn nodded and started getting quite enthusiastic about the sort of things she planned on doing in the class. It seemed she was quite an accomplished seamstress and had big plans for what she was thinking of making. I sat back and sipped my coffee, watching Adam. Oddly, he didn't seem enthused by Dawn's recital. Not in the way I'd expect - he was a guy, looking bored or long-suffering in this type of discussion was normal, as well as expected. But he looked almost disapproving of the ideas. OK, it wasn't really any of my business, but it had got me interested.
"Adam, if you don't mind me saying, you don't really seem to approve of Costuming class?"
He frowned across at me. "Well. No, I don't really."
I blinked. "What's wrong with it? I mean, it's not dangerous, and it's going to teach us some useful stuff."
His frown deepened. "Yeah, see that's the thing. It's about concealing what you are, hiding it. You shouldn't be afraid of showing who you are."
I could see Dawn looking a little embarrassed, but he'd got me hooked now, I wanted to hear his reasons. "It's better to keep a low profile than to be attacked for looking, well, odd. And Dawn isn't a brick or anything, if something happened to her she'd get hurt!"
"That's all very well for you to say, Morgana, you're a pretty. A couple of pointy ears aren't likely to get you mobbed."
I could see Dawn and Bianca looking rather nonplussed. Of course, they'd seen my other form before. So I gave him a big grin and changed, making sure the grin showed him my fangs as I ostentatiously flexed my claws. "Well, I'm not really a pretty myself. In fact, I look a lot scarier than Dawn or Bianca, so if anyone gets the mob going with the pitchforks, it's going to be me."
I was rather surprised at his reaction, or rather his lack of one. All he did was take a good look, then grin and say “nice horns!” Most people at least looked a bit startled the first time I went dragon in front of them.
“Well, thanks for the compliment, but it does rather make people who don’t like mutants want to burn me at the stake. Which is one of the reasons I’m doing costume class, I don’t see the point in not being able to blend in if I want to.”
Adam shrugged. "Yeah, I get it. I just don't see the point myself, you know?"
I mulled that over for a moment, then gave him my most innocent smile. "OK, no worries. I won't tell Dawn her boyfriend is an exhibitionist..."
While we waited for Dawn and Bianca to finish in the washroom, Adam slipped close and gave me a look. “Uh, can I ask you a favour, Morgana?”
“Sure, I guess. Depending on what it is, of course.”
“It’s about Dawn. You see, she’s told me about some of the girls in the magic class, and, well, from what my Aunt told me, magic pranks can get pretty nasty. I don’t want anything to happen to Dawn.”
I gave him a long look, then nodded. “Right. You want me to keep an eye out for her, make sure some of the nastier girls don’t take advantage of her?”
“I’d really appreciate it. Dawn is... well, she’s”
I interrupted his dithering with a smile. “She’s a really nice girl who probably wouldn’t retaliate, which would just make them bully her more. You didn’t have to ask, you know. Dawn’s a nice girl, I’d have kept a lookout for her anyway.”
He blushed slightly. “Yeah, well, I had to ask, you know?”
“You’re pretty fond of her, aren’t you Adam?”
He didn’t actually say anything - well, he was a guy – just grinned and nodded.
“Don’t worry, she’ll be OK.”
“Who’ll be OK?”
“Oh, hi again Bianca. Don’t worry, it’s nothing important.”
She nodded, but gave me a ‘you’ll explain later, right?’ look.
Monday19th September, afternoon, Magic Lab
We'd been told what to expect in morning lesson, so it wasn't a surprise to see Ms Grimes come in with a group of upperclassmen, Juniors or Seniors by the look of them. They all took seats down at the front - what, you think we all sat right in front of Grimes where she could see us way too easily? - as Grimes looked us all over.
"Right, now as I mentioned earlier, you should all have an athame with you, as well as one of the blood kits from your equipment pack."
Blood kits. Well, a polite term for a sterile lancet and a few things like a plaster to cover the gaping hole in my epidermis this was likely to end in. Especially as I'd been told to buy what they cheerfully called the 'heavy duty' needles after they'd looked at my power testing results. There was some nodding of heads, but no-one actually said they hadn't brought the necessaries, so Grimes carried on.
"Now we have two important things to do this afternoon. The first is to assign each group a workroom and key it to you. As the year goes on, you will start workings that can't be finished in a lab session, or even in one day, so you don't want anyone wandering in uninvited. Any of the staff can enter at any time, of course. The second is for those who've just purchased an athame to purify it and then key it to you. Those of you who already have an attuned athame will watch the procedure."
Of course, there had to be one. This time it was Hermione who raised her hand. "Ms Grimes, why do we need to watch if we already have an athame? I don't need a second one."
Grimes gave her a flat look. "Because it's inevitable that at some point you will need to cleanse and re-attune your athame. If you're unfortunate, or careless, a number of times. There are all sorts of things that can affect your working tools, some quite unpleasant. In these cases, the simplest way of fixing the problem is usually to re-purify and re-attune the tool. And in that case, it's something you'll want to know how to do rather than having to go read up on it."
Well, that didn't forbode badly about our future experiences, did it? But I guess it made sense - these were working tools, and if you use tools sometimes they get dirty and so on.
"Because we have ten students who need to attune their new athames, and time is limited, we have arranged some assistants today. One of them will be with each group, to show you what to do. Now, are there any more questions?" Her tone made it obvious that if there were, they'd better be good ones. No-one was brave enough to raise a hand this time, as she stepped from behind her desk and motioned to us to follow her.
One of the doors outside the classroom led to a spiral staircase that led downward. Cool, our school had dungeons! Well, actually we didn't go down far, before reaching a circular area with doors leading off it. The stairs continued down, but Grimes and her assistants motioned us off here. OK, maybe the real dungeon was lower down, then.
Grimes gestured to one of the doors. It looked pretty normal, that is for a metal security door with some sort of pad next to it. Not a keypad, just a plain surface. There was a number above each of the pads, but that was all - no obvious lock or way of opening it. Magic, then.
"Now, each of these doors leads to one of the Freshman lab areas. Each group of three will share one, and the first thing we need to do is key each of you to one of the rooms." She made a gesture and muttered a few words, as each of the pads lit up with a soft glow. I guess she'd prepped everything first, as she motioned to each group to move to a door. I looked at Bianca, but she just shrugged and walked over to one.
"Decide which of you will go first." AJ and I looked at each other, then at Bianca, and moved back to leave her in front. "Gee, thanks..." she muttered, as Grimes continued.
"Use one of your sterile lancets on a finger, stroke the blood down the pad, then press your hand against it. Leave it there until I tell you."
So we watched as Bianca did as instructed. She had to stand there a minute, as it seemed the instructions were a bit complicated for some of the class - I did wonder how they were going to handle complicated magic, let alone tie their shoelaces in the morning, if they couldn't follow something as simple as this - then Grimes gestured again, and the pads turned green.
"Good, now change places, and we'll key the next student." Well, I figured I might as well get it over with, so I stuck the lancet in my finger, which promptly bled enthusiastically. I was interested to see there was no trace of Bianca's blood on the pad, as if it had been absorbed or evaporated. Cool.
Once everyone had finished, Grimes looked around and did a final spell. "Good. Now all you have to do to open the door is to press your palm to the pad. All of you check it works, then my assistants will show you what to do with your athames."
Calista gestured expansively at our new workplace. "Now, as you can see, there are some features I'm supposed to tell you about. First, you see those spell inscriptions on the floor?" She pointed at three lines, which split the room into three segments, the lines going around the walls as well. "These split the room into three parts. They're permanent, so don't mess with them. They protect each of you from anyone doing something silly in one of the other segments."
"What about inside them?"
Calista grinned at AJ. "Oh, you can go nuts if you want, feel free to blow yourselves up. This is just to protect your lab partners. And there's one other useful thing they can do." She knelt, touching her finger to one of the symbols. "Now you just push some essence into this, and..." The section she was touching shimmered and was suddenly cut off by a silvery wall. "This gives you privacy." She gave AJ a look. "Later on, you'll find some operations work best while naked. So if you don't want to give the boy and his dragon a free show..."
Well, at least AJ had the grace not to look too disappointed (unlike Smokey), as she touched a different symbol and the wall vanished. "This turns it off. You'll need to practice a bit to see how much essence you need for a particular time, but that's all."
I took a look at the polished floor. "Slate?" It wasn't tiles, it looked like a single surface. I wondered how they'd done that.
Calista nodded. "Yep. Easy to draw on, use chalk and it washes off easily after. If you need to do anything longer lasting, you need to get permission, then there are special paints, for which we also have a remover."
"What about storing our stuff here? Do I have to leave it out in the open?" Bianca was looking slightly worried at that, I guess she didn't really trust AJ yet.
"Nah, they thought of that. See over there, by the door? There are a storage closet and chest each. Press your id to the one you want, and it will key to you. Now, we need to sort out your athames."
She led the three of us over to the side, where there were a tap and a sink as well as a work area.
"Now, a source of running water is always useful, I'll show you why in a moment. And it's also handy if one of you bursts into flames!"
Both AJ and Bianca looked at me on hearing that, and I tried to look as nonchalant as possible. Geez, anyone would think I caught fire all the time!
"Anyway, now you've had a look around, it's time for me to show you how to attune your athames. Grimes told me you two girls had new ones, right?
Bianca and I exchanged a look, then nodded.
"OK, then I'll lead you both through it. AJ, you need to pay close attention, but don't get in the way, OK? And don't let your dragon get too close either."
AJ nodded, and Smokey looked miffed. Mind, given how curious he was, it did need saying.
"OK, now this is going to be in two parts. First, we cleanse the athame as much as possible, so it's a blank slate, as it were. Then we'll attune it to you. Clear?"
We nodded again, which at least seemed to make her happy.
"Now, let's see what you've got." She waited as we dug them out of our bags, and she took a good look at them. Not touching them, I noted.
She did raise her eyebrows as she examined the blades."Both of you using iron? That's unusual." As she was speaking, she was rummaging in the bag she'd brought with her. "Now. Since the blades are new-bought, they should be fairly clean. So first we'll hold them in running water for a few minutes - it's an easy way of doing a low-power cleansing, and doesn't risk damaging anything." She pointed at me. "You first."
So I went over to the sink, turned the tap on and held the athame under the running water for a couple of minutes. I couldn't really tell if it was doing anything except make my hand cold, to be honest. When I was done, she offered me a clean cloth to wipe it off with, while Bianca took my place."
"Always use a new cloth when you do this, it makes sure the tool stays as clean as possible. Just make sure you don't cut yourself on the blade, at least not yet."
My, that was reassuring. Still, I did as instructed, then turned to her. "Um, as it's steel, what about rusting?"
She smiled and held out a small vial of oil. "Well spotted. You can get this in the shop, it's a natural oil. Wipe it on and make sure it gets into any cracks and so on."
So while Bianca continued to freeze her fingers - lucky girl - I carefully wiped the steel parts down, then stood around and waited for Bianca.
"This seems, well, awfully simple?"
Calista grinned. "Well, cleansing something new isn't hard. There are more complicated rituals, of course, and some for things that you can't get wet, but you'll get shown them later on when you need them. No need to overcomplicate things yet."
I wished I could see if the cleansing had made any changes to the knife, but I'd already worked out that what I was seeing when I looked at magic seemed to be moving essence - the magic equivalent of seeing power moving in an electrical circuit rather than just sitting in a battery. So even to my extra sight, it just sat there looking boringly knife-like.
"OK, now that's all done we get to the interesting bit. AJ, this you need to pay attention to, although I'll give you all a copy of the ritual after."
The first thing she had us do was draw a diagram on the floor. And then show me how to correct mine - Bianca, of course, had got hers right first time. Followed by her drawing a large circle around each diagram, large enough to hold us as well as the diagram.
"Now get inside the circles..." She grinned at the look on our faces. "No, it's nothing to worry about. These are simple protective circles. I'm going to power them up for you, they're just to make sure there is no external interference with the attunement."
Well, I didn't really think she was going to do anything nasty to us. Although it wasn't until later I realised that maybe my unusual origin might have caused an issue.
"Now before we start, you'll need one of these." She passed us each a small cotton pad. "You're going to have to cut yourselves, this is to stop the bleeding after." Bianca just looked smug, as we were ushered into the circles.
"Now, it's all pretty simple. Once I seal the circle, cut the palm of your hand with the athame - carefully, we just want some blood, not a major injury! - and stroke the blade over the cut so the blood covers it. Then place the athame in the centre of the spell diagram, and push some essence into the spell. "
She was right, it did seem pretty simple. It only took her seconds and a couple of words to power the protective circles, then she nodded to us to start. I had to take a moment to calm myself - the thought of cutting myself kept me wanting to turn Dragon, and that wasn't going to help with a magic operation. So I took some deep breaths, and then carefully stroked the sharp blade across the fleshy part of my hand. Blood welled out, dripping down my hand as I winced. Brushing the blade across the bleeding cut actually hurt more, but I made sure there was a good film of scarlet on both sides before placing it in the diagram. Holding the pad over the cut, I concentrated and fed essence into the spell. Nothing seemed to happen for a moment, but as I watched in fascination, the blood vanished, almost as if it was being absorbed into the cold metal. It almost made me forget the pain in my hand.
I could see something going on with my magesight - the essence I'd put in was curling around, then seemed to be flowing into the athame, or possibly the blood, I couldn't say.
"Wait until the blood is all gone, then you can pick them up. You should find they feel a bit different."
She was right. As I picked it up, it did feel different, Warmer, somehow and like it belonged in my hand. I looked at it closely, but it didn't look any different. But when I held it, it was obviously changed.
"Is that it?"
Calista smiled at me. "Pretty much, yeah. As I said, with a new tool it's pretty simple. Of course, we aren't trying to power it yet.
Bianca looked interested. "You can power them up?"
"Oh yes, it's one of the things a mage does, is to store power in tools like your athame. Of course, these are starter ones, you'll probably make a better one later." She drew her own from her bag, showing it to us. "Don't touch it."
We both peered at it. It was, I had to admit, way nice than ours. The blade looked silver, covered in runes and symbols, and there was a large blue jewel as a pommel.
"As you can see, I specialise in water magic, so the materials reflect that. It's still a general purpose tool, but its best with water. But there isn't much point in you doing that yet, you probably haven't worked out what you're strengths are. This is actually the third one I've made."
Bianca was looking slightly disappointed. "So we can't store power in ours?"
"Oh. Sorry, yes, of course, you can. Not as much, but you can practice for when you make a better tool. You also want to make sure it stays with you as much as possible, that will reinforce the attunement. Keep it on you. I find slipping it under your pillow when you sleep helps as well. That's pretty much it. Of course, Grimes is going to give you all the theory behind this to learn as homework."
Oh. Yeah, I'd forgotten about that in all the fun. Grimes had specified some reading, guess we knew what it was all about now.
Wednesday 21st September, Morning, Magic 101
I was trying to concentrate on my notes and ignore the nasty little comments Hermione and Estelle were making in deliberately audible whispers. I mean, it wasn't just that they were pointless it was that they were pretty pitiful. They really needed Remedial Insulting if they wanted to actually make someone pay them any attention. Still, it was beginning to annoy me. So I looked over at Smokey, who was curled up on the desk in front of AJ as usual.
The miniature dragon looked up at me and blinked as I held up a meat stick. "Got a little job for you." I wiggled the stick. "It pays..."
He sat up and gave me a longer look, then at the stick, before firmly shaking his head no. Oh well. I dug out two more sticks. "Three, that's my final offer..."
He regarded them, then held up a paw in the closest approximation to a thumbs-up gesture a foot-long dragon could manage.
"OK, this is what I want you to do..."
A minute later, my two annoyances were yelping and screaming as a miniature dragon paid them some attention. What a load of fuss, it wasn't as if he'd actually got his little claws tangled up in their hair - quite. It was quite amusing to watch, I must admit, till the door opened to admit Grimes and Smokey zipped back to his perch on the desk to look innocent.
AJ looked at Smokey, who was cheerfully nibbling one of the sticks, then at me.
"Are you bribing my innocent little dragon into beating up people for you now?"
I grinned back. "Me? Would I do such a thing?"
"Damn right you would!" He gave Smokey a 'how could you?' look, which Smokey just sniffed at and went back to eating. Bianca looked at the three of us and sighed. "You're a bad influence, that's what you are."
"Now today's class is very important, I am going to show you how to start casting protective circles and shields." She looked around, in particular at some of the 'we already know all this stuff' suspects.
"AJ." He jerked up a bit at her use of his name. "Er, yes ma'am?"
"Tell us why protective spells are so important."
The boy frowned as if it should have been obvious. "Well ma'am, when you need one you need it to work. You might not get a second chance, so it's a lot more important for it to work than most spells."
Grimes nodded approvingly. "Good answer. Yes, if your protection fails you may not get a chance to recast it before something nasty happens to you." She didn't specify what nasty actually meant, but her tone implied it wouldn't be pretty, as she carried on.
"Now there are a number of classes of protective spells, and we will go through the most used ones in the next few days. You will be spending a fair bit of time practicing the basics over the next few weeks, and I strongly advise you do some extra work if you are new to them. To start off with, we will only cover the basic ones, but when you read the manual you will find that there are a number of different categories." She pointed her finger at Red, who looked nervous. "Can you tell us why there are different categories?"
He looked even more nervous, but he'd obviously done last night's homework and read the relevant chapter. "Uh...to handle different types of attacks, ma'am?"
Grimes nodded. "Approximately, yes. As I am sure you have all read" - she looked around the room, and a number of guilty looks implied that not everyone had done the set reading - "protective spells break down into subsets, depending on what you are trying to stop. Of course, we could just cast one that stops everything - physical, energy, magic - but that takes a lot of time and essence and isn't necessarily efficient. So we are going to practice a number of different spells to stop specific effects. You'll be doing this in your lab areas for the next few practical sessions. Any questions?"
Well, I had one, and as usual most of the kids didn't really want to get Grimes attention. Oh well.
"Ma'am, how are we going to know if the spells are working?"
She smiled. Oh yeah, she'd been waiting for that question.
"First, I am going to show you variants on some of the cantrips we've been teaching over the last couple of weeks. By adding some additional symbols, we can, for example, turn the one which generates water into one that produces a small, aimed jet of water. You're going to practice casting this one on each other. If your protection spell, doesn't work, well some of you will get wet. As for the more physical tests..." She dragged out a box from under her desk and took out what looked like a set of safety glasses and a brightly coloured plastic gun.
"Now we could, of course, use real guns, but that would get a bit messy when you made a mistake. We don't want to upset the cleaners, so you're each going to take a nerf gun down to your lab to play with. Make sure you wear the glasses, they are quite powerful. Yes, if they hit you it will hurt, so make sure your spells work!"
Nerf guns. I never expected learning magic to involve nerf guns, although it did make sense. Both my companions were looking smug, so I figured that as usual, I would be the one who didn't have all this stuff down perfectly already. Well, I already know Bianca could cast protective magic, she's done enough of it in our room. I wondered if she'd like to try some of her inbuilt spells on me after I'd cast a shield, it would be interesting to see if I could stop them, and it wasn't as if I was worried about her setting me on fire. I'd have to ask her later. I also wanted to see how these spells actually worked out, the ones Bianca kept casting around our room were different from the ones in the book, and I wanted to learn why they were different. As well as practice casting some shields on myself - why should Laura be the only one with a PFG? To be honest, the idea that we could adjust some of our existing spells to act at a distance was as interesting, that sounded like it had potential for combat situations. Like BMA.
Thursday 22nd September, morning, BMA
Crysis smirked as he looked at me. Presumably, he was a lot less worried about fighting me when I wasn't in my dragonform. Since he couldn't use his TK, I wasn't that worried either. So I just tried to look nervous as I bowed, and slid carefully forwards towards him. I knew from watching him that he was overconfident, trying to intimidate his opponents, so with luck, he'd see me as being scared of him. As if.
He wasn't just overconfident, he was predictable. Even after a few weeks of BMA, he still started out by trying to punch me. I brushed his arm aside, using it to get in close as I twisted and hit him hard in the belly. You'd think he'd be expecting something like that by now, but no, he gasped and doubled over. So I carried on, slipped behind him and got his arm nicely (and painfully) behind him as I forced him down onto the floor. He had to stop gasping for breath before he could submit.
We returned to our start positions, and he glared at me. Geez, if he didn't want to get beaten up by girls, he shouldn't be here. There were much tougher girls than me in this class.
"For the second and third rounds you may both use your powers."
Damn, I'd hoped only the last round would be powered, but Tolman liked to mix things around. So I changed form, getting ready to leap. I knew I had no way of fighting his TK - it wasn't something I could get a grip on - so my best chance was to hit him fast before he got a chance to use it. So as Tolman called Hajime I leaped straight at him. It almost worked, but he'd been expecting something like that, as he moved aside and I felt myself lift up as his TK caught me. Sliding through the air with no visible means of support was such a weird feeling. He held his arm out - I don't know if he needed to, but he seemed to control his power better by using gestures, as if it was an extension of his arm, forcing me past him and over the edge of the circle. It nearly worked, too, except he'd forgotten - or hadn't realised - that I have claws on my toes as well, As I shot past him, my leg shot out, claws getting tangled in his Gi. He squawked loudly as he followed me out and we landed in a pile outside the ring. Tolman called it a draw, and we got back into position. I'd have been more pleased if that had been my cunning plan, but to be honest I'd just flailed about a bit and my claws had got tangled up in his clothing. Not that I was going to admit that to anyone.
This time he wasn't just glaring at me, if looks could kill I'd have been pining for the fjords. My problem was I still didn't have a distance attack, so closing fast was my only option. He was better prepared this time. As I leapt for him, his power shot me up, well clear of the mat as I hung in mid-air, struggling. Uselessly, as I had no way of getting a grip on his TK field. He gave me a very nasty smile, then I was hurled up and over the boundary circle. Not just over it, well over it, as I felt him shove me down, really hard. I was so far over the edge, I'd run out of mat, and all I could do was try and protect my face with one arm as I slammed into the hardwood with enough force to leave a big dent in it. I didn't even try and get up immediately, my cheek was on fire from where it had impacted the wood, and my arm was numb. All I needed for completion was a little group of birdies circling my head.
One of the training assistants helped me up, as I tried to make light of it, ignoring the wide smirk on Crysis's face. From the look on her face, Tolman wasn't pleased, but she couldn't really do anything - it could just have been an accident that he'd tossed me too far and missed the mat. After all, he already knew I wasn't that delicate in my Dragonform.
So I had to stand at the side while my face and arm were checked out. Fortunately, nothing was broken, but I was going to have a nice bruise - I could already feel the swelling. I walked quietly back to sit with my friends, trying to act like it wasn't really anything. I don't think I fooled them, as Bianca gave me a sympathetic look, and Laura leaned over to whisper "are you OK" in my ear. I nodded to her and whispered back "It's OK, nothing broken, just a bruise."
Friday 23rd September, afternoon, Workshop
I glanced at the directions Laura had given me, then peered around again at the rabbit-warren that was the Whateley tunnel system. Actually, that was probably being unfair to rabbits, they wouldn't have designed something so difficult to traverse. Still, according to the notes, I was almost at Laura's lab area. It didn't help that the numbering system they seemed to be using on the rooms was, well, unique, but...yes, there it was, labelled Workshop 12.
I didn't want to just barge in, so I pressed the buzzer and waited. And waited a bit more while I started to tap my foot. Next attempt I leaned on the thing until the door flew open and a kid in a labcoat appeared, scowling at me. I gave him my sunniest smile.
"Hi, I'm Morgana, I'm here to meet with Laura. Is she here?"
I waited patiently while he dragged his attention upwards and finally looked at my face. "Uh...yeah, she is...he slowly got out of the doorway, still looking at me as if I was some sort of apparition. OK, I knew my horns make me look odd, but really.
Laura waved at me cheerfully as she came out from behind a piece of equipment that was sitting on one of the benches. I grinned and nodded. "Hi, Laura. So these are the fabled labs you've been telling us all about?"
She nodded, gesturing in a propriatorial way at the bench she'd been behind. "Yep! This is all mine! Well, this bench anyway."
I looked around at the other kids, all wearing labcoats like some sort of uniform. "Hi everyone. Nice to meet you all."
Laura grabbed my hand and half dragged me over to her bench. I tried not to smile at her enthusiasm; I found it sort of cute. "I borrowed this from one of the other labs; apparently we need to make enough earpieces and so on to have a dedicated measuring unit to help.
I looked it over carefully. Well, it didn't seem likely to explode or have a combat laser hidden somewhere in its depths, so it was probably safe. "So, what do you need me for?"
Laura pushed me down into a seat next to the machine as she unfolded some probes from the side. "It's all pretty simple really. These are just low power lasers, they will measure and 3-D map the inner parts of your ear. Then I use the measurements when I fab up the earplugs, so we get a perfect fit!"
Well, that all sounded reasonable, so I sat there and moved my head around a bit as Laura prompted. For once a Whateley machine was working quietly - just a low pitched hum, not even a single *ping* this time. It made a nice change.
The thing worked surprisingly fast, and it only took Laura a few minutes before it was displaying a hologram of my ear, suitably enlarged. It was pretty cool, I'd never realised how convoluted the inside of my ear was, after all I couldn't look into it. "You scanned yourself too?"
Laura nodded, still admiring the slowly spinning hologram. "Yeah, I did mine first to check it out. It's great, now all I have to do is fab a couple of pairs up, I already have the materials."
"Don't forget I'm paying for them, Laura. For both sets."
She nodded. "OK, I know you said...hey, would you like to see the kit they give us to use? It's really cool!"
I grinned. "Of course I would! I mean, I just have to see the stuff you use to build your death rays...and your hairdryer!"
While Laura had been happily showing me her work area - and I had to admit, Whateley gave them really cool tech toys to play with - one of the girls had been giving me odd looks. When Laura started on explaining just how the earplugs were going to work, her frown got deeper. I was following most of what Laura said - they weren't actually technically difficult per se, it was getting them to work while so small and with such good performance that was hard - when she suddenly spoke up.
"So you're a gadgeteer, right?"
I looked up and smiled. "Nope, sorry."
"Oh. Then you must be a devisor then?"
I shook my head. "Sorry, not a devisor either."
She gave Laura a suspicious look, then gave me an even more suspicious one. "Then what the hell are you doing down here?"
While she seemed to have issues with me invading their personal lab space, the boy next to her didn't seem to have the same problem, as he nudged her with his elbow. "Shut up! We like having her here!"
I tried not to smirk. But I couldn't resist the straight line. "I'm here because I'm a dragon!"
She opened her mouth, then shut it with a snap as she obviously tried to process that. The boy didn't actually seem to be trying, although from what he was looking at I was sure he'd be able to describe the sort of boobs dragons had. "Don't be mean, we don't get hot babes down here very often!"
I blinked, and whispered to Laura "I'm a hot babe? Even with horns?"
My friend smirked and nodded. "Yes, you are. These are geeks, remember? You are female, you breathe, so therefore you are hot."
Michelle gave the boy next to her a Glare Of Death (tm). "And just what am I, chopped liver!"
He tried a couple of times to say something that wouldn't get him zapped by one of the death rays that were probably scattered around the lab. "Um, er, I mean, you're here and...but..."
Laura grinned broadly as the guy got in deeper by the moment. "Open mouth, insert foot." The situation wasn't helped by the girls subconsciously trying to thrust out their chests - something that really doesn't go well while you're wearing a lab coat - to try and show that yes, they were cute girls too.
Laura turned to look at Steve as the door closed behind Morgana "Yeah?"
He blushed rather deeply. "What, er, um, can you tell me about your friend?"
"Morgana, you mean?"
"Is, I mean would she, er, is there any chance, um, do you know if she'd go to a movie with me?"
Laura wasn't quite sure what she should say to that. While Morgana still hadn't actually told her what her sexual preferences were, she was fairly certain she wasn't that interested in guys. Of course, she could be wrong, Morgana hadn't made any moves on any of the Poe girls either. So she decided to play it safe.
"Well, first you'd have to manage to speak to her long enough to ask." she paused for a moment. "and not spending all your time staring at her boobs would probably help too."
Steve was still blushing, as his friend nudged him hard. "Never gonna happen!"
"Yeah, like you'd do any better, pimple-face?"
Lauta shook her head, as the two attempted to out-insult each other while the girls giggled. Then they started to dare each other to ask her friend out, the dares - and forfeits - getting more and more outrageous. Boys...
Saturday 24th September, Poe Cottage, Evening
Bianca was sitting on her bed, looking at me in amusement. For my part, I was dithering as I rolled the end of my braid between my fingers.
“It’s only a movie, you know.”
I sighed deeply. Bianca was right, of course, but even so...
“I know, it’s just that I’ve never been on a date with a girl as a girl. I mean, it’s all different. Even if it’s only to watch a movie together.”
I stood up as we heard a knock on the door. “That’ll be Vixen now.”
Bianca just nodded. “Have fun, and stop worrying!”
“Uh, are you sure you’ll be all right on your own?”
That got me a very emphatic roll of her eyes. “Yes, of course I will! I’m just going to sit here and read my book. In peace. Now open the door before I have to push you there.”
From the tone of her voice, she would, too. So I opened the door and smiled at Vixen. She took a moment to look me over – I wasn’t wearing anything special, just jeans and a t-shirt, but she seemed to like what she saw, judging by her smile. I tried my best not to blush.
“Ready for the movie?”
I nodded. “Uh, sure.”
She took my hand and didn’t quite have to drag me out. “Bye Bianca, don’t worry, I’ll bring her back safe.“ Bianca just grinned and waved. “Enjoy yourselves.”
OK, I was holding hands with an extremely attractive girl, who for some reason was interested in me. Despite my attack of nerves it felt rather nice, as well as being very flattering. If only I could get over the feeling that there was just something wrong about it. After all, it wasn't like I was going out with a boy.
Despite all my earlier reservations, I had to admit it felt nice being cuddled close to Vixen on one of the couches. I wasn’t too impressed by the movie - well, it was rather a chick flick – but she was warm and close. When she slid her arm around me, I finally relaxed a bit and let myself be drawn a bit closer. I still wasn’t sure if this was a good idea or not, but being able to relax for a bit did feel really good.
It wasn’t as if we were the only pair cuddling. Pretty much all of the pairs in the room were doing the same - it may have been dark, but not to me – and I was getting my earlier supposition that these movie nights were about a lot more than just watching the movie proven correct. Which was all fine, except that despite it feeling comfortable and safe, I still had something nagging at me. I tried to tell myself that I couldn't work out what it was, but it was there simmering under the surface of my thoughts, and I knew very well what the matter was, despite my mental denials. Vixen was a lovely and sexy girl, but she wasn't the girl I really wanted to be cuddling with.
It wasn't as if I hadn't known what I was doing. I hadn't heard from Thulia since I'd left London, and surely if she was still interested in me she'd have got in contact somehow? So having a date with a sexy girl was OK, wasn't it? Yeah, and if I kept telling myself that, maybe I'd even start to believe it.
Vixen pulled me a bit closer and smiled. Then she bent over and kissed me very softly on the lips. For a long moment, I just let it happen - she was a very good kisser - and I didn't realise I'd stiffened up as her lips touched mine. She realised it, though.
"What's the matter, Morgana?" She pulled back a bit, looking at me with a worried expression on her face.
I tried to frame some sort of reply that made sense. "It...it's not you, it's me..."
"Oh. Are you still having issues? We can leave if you are."
I grabbed that offer like a lifeline, nodding as I got to my feet, trying my best not to run out of the room as she followed me. I made it along the corridor to the stairwell, then pressed my back against the wall and shuddered. I was panting as if I'd just run a marathon, not just the short distance from the video room. I had to squeeze my eyes tight shut to stop the tears from leaking out and running down my cheeks. I wrapped my arms tight around myself and shivered.
Vixen stopped, not touching me as she looked at me with worry. "Morgana, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..."
I shook my head, trying to get words out. "It's not you, really it isn't. It's me. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I should never have agreed to go out with you, it wasn't fair to you."
She gently touched my shoulder. "Would it help to talk about it? I wasn't trying to put pressure on you, truly I wasn't."
It took me a minute to collect myself enough to nod jerkily. "I owe you that much. I'm so sorry."
"Stop blaming yourself like that."
I slumped down till I was sitting pressed against the wall. "But it is my fault." I took a few deep breaths. "I should have told you, I sort of have a girl I'm interested in, Not here, it happened before I came to Whateley, but I led you on."
She sat down next to me and snorted. "Oh please, you didn't lead me on. Mores the pity." She smiled a little at the expression on my face. "I wanted to take you to the movie and see what would happen. Or don't you remember who asked who out?"
OK, she was the one who'd made the moves, but I hadn't resisted very hard. But I owed her an explanation and an apology. And maybe that would show me how to sort out the emotional mess I'd gotten myself into.
"Well, it's like this. Before I came here, I met this girl...I really thought we were hitting it off, you know? Even if the circumstances were unusual." I looked at her and smiled shakily. "Yeah, unusual, even by Whateley standards it's weird."
"So what happened? I figure it's more than you just coming here and leaving her."
I nodded. "I haven't heard from her since I left, and I don't have any way of contacting her. I thought she'd have got in touch with me, but she hasn't...and now I don't know if she's forgotten about me."
"Um. Why can't you contact her, Morgana? I mean, everyone leaves a web footprint nowadays, couldn't you find hers?"
I opened my mouth, then shut it again. Somehow I felt telling her that the girl I kept dreaming about was a demoness who only stayed on Earth when she felt like it wasn't a really good idea.
"Well, actually she doesn't. She's, well, not exactly normal, you see."
Vixen looked at me curiously. "Well, you're a mage, aren't you? If you can't get hold of her normally, can you get in touch with her by magic?"
I opened my mouth to say 'no, of course I can't', then stopped dead. Why couldn't I try using magic? I knew Whateley had barriers around it, which might be why Thulia hadn't contacted me - although surely she could have phoned or emailed? - but, if I went outside the wards, what was stopping me trying to contact her?
"That's...actually, that might actually work! I just hadn't thought about it." I must have been gazing off into nothing as I thought because she chuckled and touched my shoulder.
"See, if you really want to, I'm sure you can work out a way to contact her. And if it doesn't work out, well, there are people here who can find anyone online, you can think about that as well."
I looked up to see her smiling at me. "You aren't mad at me for leading you on?"
"Oh, now you're being silly again! Yes, I find you attractive, and I wanted to spend a little time with you. But I was the one pressing you. If I'd known you were feeling guilty about someone else I wouldn't have asked you." She smiled gently. "I think you need to sort this all out and get your feelings straight. If you get back together with this girl, that's cool. And if you don't...well, then I'm just going to ask you out again!"
I gave Vixen a quick hug before I went back to my room. I couldn't quite understand why she was being so understanding, but I wasn't going to question it. And I had work to do. A lot of work.
Bianca looked up in surprise when I walked in. "Uh... movie didn't work out?"
I smiled a little. "No, it didn't but...well, it's complicated. But it made me see what I need to do."
My cryptic statement must have confused her because she put her book to one side and just looked at me, one of those 'you're going to tell me the rest or I'm going to hurt you' looks.
It did take a while to explain, partly because I was still trying to sort all my feelings out, and partly because I sort of omitted to tell Bianca that I'd been having rather, well, erotic dreams about a demoness.
"So, anyway, I have an idea about how to contact Thulia. But I need to get it all sorted out, then do the actual working outside the campus wards."
Bianca looked worried. "Won't that be dangerous?"
"I don't think so. I did it at AEGIS in London, and they let us off Campus to go to Dunwich and stuff, so there shouldn't be any risk. There isn't any risk to anyone else, I'm not doing a summoning or anything." What I wasn't telling her that I probably could think of a number of things that could go wrong, but I wasn't going to mention them. I needed to find out what was up with Thulia, and if there were risks I'd take them. I wasn't going to do anything stupid, but a few risks...that I could accept, as long as I made sure I was the only one at risk.
Monday 26th September, evening, the Library
The Whateley Library had an amazing magic section, even if its version of the Dewey system was, well, arcane. And probably banned by the Vatican on general principles. My only real problem was that a lot of the books were for reference only, and I couldn't check them out to read in our room. Well, that and a fair number were in a locked section that I couldn't use without a chit from Ms. Grimes. Placing some of the topics in a restricted section was probably sensible - it wasn't just for magic, some of the tech books were restricted as well. Given that what I was planning to do was likely to be somewhat, well, problematic under the school rules, the last thing I wanted to do was to have to explain exactly why I wanted to research certain areas. It wasn't actually forbidden - I'd checked that section of the school rules very carefully - but I suspected Grimes wouldn't be enthusiastic about my research. But what she didn't know about, she couldn't forbid.
Still, I had a few useful books I could check out and a pile of notes from some of the reference books. This was actually starting to look practical - I'd worried I'd find it either impossibly difficult or needing materials I didn't have. I was just finishing copying a diagram when the lights flickered and a low chime resonated. Oh, right - I looked at my watch. 9.30, time for me to get back to my cottage. Having a curfew as early as 10 seemed a bit silly to me, but I had enough to be getting on with. And I still had stuff to do when I got back. I was lucky Bianca didn't mind me working late.
So I signed out my books - it was a cool system, it scanned the book and my id and noted them. Apparently, it would text me a message when the book had to be returned. Given how aggressive librarians tended to get about returning books, it seemed a good idea. Recovering overdue books at Whateley likely involved giant robots, or maybe an orbital strike.
It was a pleasant evening, though getting chilly now we were leaving summer. There weren't many people around, which was how I liked it. It was a shame I had to get back for curfew, the illusion of privacy was pleasant. As I followed the curve of the path back to Poe, I nearly stopped. There were three people standing under a tree, looking at me. They probably thought they were hidden in the darkness under its branches, and they would have been if my night vision hadn't shown them clearly to me. I bit my lip - after all, they could well be nothing to do with me - and kept on walking, trying not to show I'd noticed them. And making sure there was a clear path of escape if I had to run like a bunny.
My hope that they were just standing there enjoying the darkness ended when the trio stepped forward to intercept me. The student in the centre turned out to be a short, mousy, harmless-looking girl, her two compatriots standing a little back. It didn't reassure me, one thing I'd learned here was that initial appearance often had no connection to how dangerous you were.
"You're DragonsFyre, right?"
I eyed her suspiciously. "Yeah. What can I do for you?"
She smiled widely and took another step closer. "Ah, good. I wanted to talk to you about something important."
Oh, like that didn't worry me at all. Sure, sneak up on me in the dark with your minions for a casual little chat. Totally reassuring. I figured the best thing was to see what she wanted while being ready to run. "A few words about what, exactly?"
"Don't worry, it's nothing bad. I'm here to help you." She must have seen my dubious look, as she carried on quickly. "I'm here to warn you about one of your group. She's dangerous."
Oh, just great. Another hero-wannabe here to tell me how Bianca was a threat to truth, justice, and apple pie. I'd had a number of these conversations after she'd been outed, and none of them had made much sense. Well, maybe the apple pie bit, Bianca did like her pie when she thought no-one was looking. However, the girl carried on, starting to rant a bit now.
OK, now I was really getting confused. Bianca was a Mafia Princess, where did slut-bunny come from? We only had one bunny in the group...surely she couldn't be talking about Tia? Tia wasn't a threat to anyone.
"Slut-bunny? Just who are you talking about?"
It seemed like a reasonable question, but it seemed to set her off again. "I'm talking about the thing that calls herself Tia Del Bosque! She hates mutants, and she's a plant for the MCO."
I couldn't understand how Tia could be a plant for the MCO. How could that work, she looked more inhuman than I did, and it wasn't like any of the mutants here liked the American MCO.
I was trying my best to remember when Tia had shown hatred of anyone - without success - when the girl finally ramped down, glaring at me as if somehow it was all my fault. "Just remember what I said! Stay clear of her!"
With that, she gathered her two companions up with a glance and stalked off, leaving me completely confused and rather glad that she'd left. I shrugged and trotted off to Poe before I got caught breaking curfew. Maybe Tia could make some sense out of this. I really wasn't happy about the implied threat. While it hadn't exactly been aimed at me, there was a distinct and not terribly subtle sub-message that if I didn't stay clear of Tia I could suffer an unfortunate accident. Well, screw her. Tia was a friend, and I wasn't going to just ignore her because of a drama queen like that.
Tuesday 27th September, Crystal Hall, Breakfast
I took a look around as I manoeuvred my way around people who hadn't quite grasped the concept of 'don't stand in the aisle', heading for our table. I noticed that Tia wasn't there again, and as she seldom missed breakfast...yep, she was at the Underdogs table yet again, talking to a kid with dog ears. I thought about her as I let Bailley walk past me to sit down. Tanya was already at the table, doing a credible job of stuffing her face as if she hadn't eaten for a week, and Laura was splitting her time between picking at her food and doing something-or-other with a circuit board. Taka and Victor had their heads together, whispering something - I'd have bet money it was something to do with girls, which was OK as long as it wasn't about me - and Bailley had put her tray down and was staring at her food. No, I didn't want to know why, and Whateley being Whateley I was probably better off not knowing.
I sighed, then put my tray down. "I'll be back in a minute."
Leaving my food I walked back down the stairs and over to the Underdogs table. It was chilly by there, a sign that Laura had really done us a favour by grasping our second-floor table. Of course, as soon as I got close all the conversation stopped and I got looks. Mainly of the slightly worried sort, which was unfair, but there you go.
"Tia, could you come with me? There's something we need to talk about."
"Uh, sure." Tia sounded nervous, but she grabbed her pancakes and berries and followed me as I went back up to the M3 table.
I waited until she'd taken her usual seat next to Taka, then slid myself in front of my breakfast, which amazingly was still all there.
"So, what is it?" Tia asked, both her voice and posture showing she still nervous.
I looked around to get the attention of the others before I started, then looked at Tia again.
"I was approached by a girl last night when I was coming back from the Library. Blond, decent looking, but no exemplar, had two stooges or minions along with her. She introduced herself as Jamie and had a lot of unflattering things to say about you, Tia. Followed by a not exactly subtle warning to me not to associate with you."
Tia slumped down in her chair, her ears lowering. "I can imagine."
I leaned forward a bit, keeping her attention. "So, spill. Do you know her? Who is she, and why does she have it in for you?"
Some of the others exchanged knowing glances, before returning their attention to the ongoing conversation.
"How much do you know about me?" Tia asked.
I blinked at that. "Not very much at all. I wasn't in a position to get the news when your stuff went down - I mean, I heard about it, but no real details - and to be honest, I've been way too busy to worry about it. I guess all I noticed was that your change wasn't voluntary and something about the MCO being involved.
Tia shivered slightly. "Not exactly right, then. Jamie can only be Jamie Howe, my Ex." She stopped a moment to take a breath and steady herself. "She's a devisor, and she...went insane - Diedricks or something similar - and shot me with a ray gun. She's the reason I'm like this now."
I quickly chewed and swallowed - hey, it was breakfast, I couldn't just sit there not eating while she talked! "So, she's the reason you have bunny ears?"
Tia grimaced. "The reason I'm a girl with these ears. All of it. Anyway, after the dust settled, she was convicted of assault and sentenced to years in Juvie, but for some reason, she's here at Whateley and not in jail. Some of the staff are looking into why, but the important thing now is that she's here.
She finally managed to sit up straight, looking around the group and meeting everyone's eyes in turn. "The thing you need to know is, she's crazy. I mean, really crazy. Judging by what she said to you, she's already spreading rumours, and if we're lucky they will just be about me. I don't think she will try and do anything to you directly, but I can't really say for sure."
I looked at the team. Bianca was nodding to herself as if it all made sense. Victor was...in the middle of a very masculine clutch normally seen in people watching those 'funniest' video highlights, and Laura had managed to snap her circuit board in half. The rest were basically looking sympathetic, except for Erica who had a thoughtful expression.
Tanya reached out, gently placing her hand on Tia's arm. Even that made Tia flinch, which didn't say wonders about how she was feeling right now. "But why should she even be here, if she did that? That makes no sense!"
Tia shrugged, her eyes wet but her face set like stone. "I don't know."
I cracked my knuckles - probably not the best thing to do, even that made Tia twitch. "So what do we do about her?"
I didn't like the way Tia got alarmed when I said that.
"Do? We don't do anything. Maybe her being here is a good thing and she can get the help that she needs. Maybe nothing bad will happen, I mean she does have some pretty limiting restrictions on her, I've been told. She can't even carry weapons."
I took a bit of food as I exchanged looks with Erica and Bianca. Yep. Neither of them was buying that either. "I prefer not to wait on maybe, it gives her the initiative."
Tia gave me a pleading look. I knew I should have given in to my instincts last night and slapped Jamie if this is what just talking about her did to Tia.
"Look, if she comes to any of you to badmouth me, just agree with her. That should get her to leave you alone."
"I don't like that plan," Tanya told her, "It leaves you alone against her."
Unfortunately, that just made Tia more upset. "Please, it's... look, she's crazy, alright. She isn't thinking straight. I'll handle it, I don't want anyone getting hurt on my account."
I stood up as Tia did. "That's why you haven't been sitting with us much lately, isn't it. You've been worried about this Jamie doing something."
"Look, I have to go, I have class soon." Tia grabbed her untouched plate of pancakes and took the stairs down two at a time. Taka shot to his feet and rushed after her without a word.
I sighed and sat back down. "I'm thinking that Jamie might not be the only one not thinking right."
Bianca and Tanya both nodded, and Erica looked thoughtful again. "I think we should try and find out a bit more about this Jamie, see how dangerous she really is."
Bianca nodded to Erica. "We do know she's not in Poe - we'd have noticed, and we have her name and that she's a devisor, it shouldn't be too hard to find out some details. Will you do that for us, Erica?"
Erica nodded "Be happy too, and anyway Oma will say it's good training!"
I stabbed a pancake with rather more ferocity than the poor syrup-soaked consumable really deserved. "Good. I really don't like people who threaten my friends, especially when it's someone like Tia. She's already had a rough deal, she doesn't need this as well."
Laura looked at me. "Not your friends, our friends!"
I did blush slightly. "Yeah. Sorry, I didn't mean to suggest..."
Laura patted my arm. "I know you didn't. It's probably just because you haven't finished your breakfast!"
I stopped with a forkful of food halfway to my mouth and gave my blue friend a very stern look before, as suggested, carrying on with the important task of eating.
Tuesday 27th September, lunch, Crystal Hall
I watched as Tanya got up and left us rather hurriedly. While she said something about going to bring lunch to Sterling, the fact she'd got up as Bianca had arrived to sit down made me pretty certain that wasn't the real reason. This was getting beyond the point of just being silly. They were both my friends, and the way they were having issues just being in the same place really needed sorting out. So I hurriedly finished my food, then used putting my tray away as an excuse to walk over to Tanya, who was sitting at a different table.
She looked up as I sat down and looked at her. "Oh, Hi DF."
I dithered for a moment, then decided to go straight out with it. "Look, Tanya. I know you've been avoiding Bianca, and I understand your reasoning, but you're both my friends and it's gone past silly."
Her mouth set in a stubborn look, but before she could say anything I put my hand on her arm. "Look, you're my friend, and I get why you don't want to talk to someone who's involved with organised crime, but it really isn't Bianca's fault, and she isn't a criminal. All I'm asking is you give her a chance. She hasn't done anything evil herself, has she?"
OK, I was quietly not mentioning some of the things Bianca had told me about her past - first, they were in confidence, and second, given my own experience, I was hardly in a position to judge.
To her credit, Tanya took the time to think about that. "Well, no. She's been pretty well behaved here."
"She has. And all I'm asking is that you act on what she's done, not what she may do. It's not easy being here with her connections, and it's not like she can just forget about them."
"I dunno, DF. It's just that the Wardens always warned about people like her."
"Come on, Tanya. At the moment, she's just another kid like us. One who has to deal with half the kids here thinking she's a real supervillain. How would that make YOU feel?"
I was still working on Tanya when we were interrupted by two older students. One I recognised, he was the officious security auxiliary who got involved at the Poe mixer. The other was a very tall girl I didn't recall seeing before.
"Excuse me, Tanya, Morgana, can we have a quiet word?"
I looked at - I remembered now, Rook - and blinked. "Uh, yeah, I guess. What about?"
He gestured at his companion. "Sequoia and I have been asked by Ms Everette to arrange for a couple of students to meet and greet a couple of latecomers. They are arriving at Berlin airport this evening, and we'd like you both to be on the bus, meet them, tell them about the place, and so on. A bit less impersonal for them than getting dragged around individually."
I blinked. "Ah, OK. But why us in particular?"
Sequioa smiled. "Well, a couple of reasons. One of them is potential Rager, and as you're both bricks, that might help. Also one is from Iceland, so having a European student hopefully makes her feel a bit more at home."
I took a moment to give Rook a look. Thanks, suggest me to hold the hand of a rager, gee, I love you too..."
"Now, the bus will leave at 4.15 from Kane, please be there on time, and make sure you're wearing your uniform."
OK, I still had this vague feeling I was being conned into something, but they didn't seem to think I'd refuse, and truthfully it wasn't a huge imposition, getting off Campus for a few hours would be a nice change. Getting a few brownie points with the administration, after some of our little issues, wouldn't hurt either.
Thursday 29th September, Breakfast, Crystal Hall
It was pancakes for breakfast today, so it had taken me a little while to gather up what I needed.
When I sat down, I slowly assembled my stack of pancakes, butter, maple syrup, bacon and sausages into a carefully-balanced tower of food, while Bianca and Laura looked on with amusement. I eyed it for a moment, then carefully placed a single large strawberry on top of my masterpiece of culinary engineering.
"You need to have fruit in your diet."
That comment just brought me a muffled *snerk* sound from Bianca, who was more reasonably finishing off her second pancake.
I was about to cut into the syrup-oozing creating when there was a quiet cough from the end of the table. I looked up and smiled. "Hey, Tanya, how's it going?"
She smiled, then looked around at us all. I got the feeling she was slightly nervous
"Well... I know I've sorta not seeing you guys so much the last week or so, what with stuff and all. So I thought I'd invite you all to a party, so we could all have some fun. And you can meet my friend Sterling, who's the main reason for not being here all my meals." She looked around with what I could only describe as a hopefully embarrassed look as we all looked at her.
"That sounds interesting, Tanya, where is it going to be?"
Thank you Erica. I flicked my gaze across to Bianca, but she was just looking neutral and not saying anything. Well, it wasn't exactly a secret that Tanya had mainly been avoiding her.
"It's going to be at the lake we used for that big meet and show at the end of the first week, its used a lot for parties during the summer. We'll go over to the far side, it's a lot quieter, and there will be food and everything. Mr Barton has agreed to grill for us."
I finished chewing a mouthful, and nodded. "Hey, that does sound fun. Be nice to get outside while the weather is still warm."
The rest of the crew seemed happy enough to agree, asking about details, times and so on while Tanya did her best to provide answers. Next to me Bianca was looking thoughtful as she ate, so I nudged her with my knee and whispered.
"Say yes, Bianca. I chatted to her after that pickup we made on Tuesday, she wants to apologise but can't quite admit it. This is a sort of apology. And it will be fun."
She gave me a look, then another one at Tanya, who was smiling as she fielded more questions. "OK, I'll give it a shot, let's see how it goes."
Actually I had a far more important interest in the party than just hanging out. I surreptitiously turned my phone on, and looked at a few of the campus maps. Yes, as I'd hoped. The wards ran along the edge of the lake, I'd only have to go a short way from the far side to be outside them. Perfect for what I had planned, and much better than just sneaking off campus.
Thursday 29th September, late afternoon, Whateley Campus
"Look, I worked hard on this spell, it will just make one of them visible so we can see if they really exist."
Despite my protestations, I was still getting dubious looks from all of my friends except Bianca, who was just looking thoughtful. Of course, she was the only one who actually knew any magic, and I'd noticed that despite what they said, most people seemed to be untrusting of magic. Which was silly, after all, they accepted the really crazy things done by devisors all the time.
So my arguments continued as we walked across campus to a nice big grassy area, one where the so-called Invisible Bunnies had been known to trip people up, and similar non-visible happenings. Of course, we couldn't actually see anything (well, if we could see them they wouldn't be invisible, would they?) but I was suspicious about the way some of the grass was moving. When I mentioned this, I just got more looks from my friends, but then their vision wasn't as acute as mine. That, and I was pretty certain they really didn't think anything would happen.
"What's she up to this time?" Hermione and her friend were standing watching the small group almost wandering around as if they were looking for something. They'd been out for a stroll in the sunshine when they saw the two loser mages and some of their friends wandering around at the edge of the grass, almost aimlessly it seemed.
"I don't know." Estelle took Hermione's arm and pulled her behind a rather overgrown ornamental bush. "What's the bitch got in her hand, some sort of paper?"
Hermione squinted as she tried to get a better look. "It looks more like parchment...do you think she's going to cast a spell on someone?"
Estelle snorted. "She's probably doing it out here so no-one would see it fail in class." Then she got an unpleasant look on her face. "Of course, we could always help her to fail a little, couldn't we?"
The two girls grinned at each other as they made sure they were better hidden, while Hermione slipped her wand out of her inside pocket. That stuffy Grimes had told her not to use it yet until they'd covered them in class, but she already knew how to use it, and a proper mage always had her wand with her.
"I have an idea...what if we wait until she's started, then I'll give her a shock with my wand. I bet that will break her concentration - after all, she's a pretty pathetic excuse for a mage - and she'll screw it up right in front of her friends."
"Oooh, I like that! And it won't show anything, she'll just look stupid trying to make them believe that it wasn't her incompetence at fault."
Hermione nodded, crouching down a bit to get better cover, as she readied her wand. "I'll wait till she starts, then zap the bitch."
"So just what will this spell do?" Erica was looking at the paper in my hand thoughtfully.
I shrugged. "It's pretty basic, really. Whatever these things are, it isn't that easy to make yourself invisible and keep it that way, so this will disrupt whatever if hits for a short time. In that case, they should become visible and we can see them. Then you can take a picture so we have proof as to what they really are."
Erica nodded, holding her phone ready. "Ok, but how are you going to spot one to target if you can't see them? Or can you?"
I shook my head. "I can't see anything, but if you look carefully some of the grass moves oddly occasionally, like something we couldn't see was moving it. So I'm going to aim when I see that, it should be close enough. I only have to hit an area."
My friends stood around looking on with interest as I began a closer inspection of the area, all except Bianca who sidled up to me to whisper.
"You're sure it's safe, right?"
I looked a bit hurt. "Of course it is! If it screws up, the most that will happen is we don't see anything and I just look a fool."
"I think she's getting ready to cast whatever it is - but why does she seem to be looking at nothing?"
Hermione shrugged. "I dunno, maybe she's trying to do something showy?" She readied her wand, waiting until Morgana looked like she was actually starting to cast, then unleashed her shock spell. It had a rather more dramatic effect than she'd expected.
I'd finally seen what I'd been waiting for, signs of grass moving oddly against the breeze with nothing to obviously cause it. So I held up the spell slip, starting to push essence into it. I was hoping this would work, despite my words to Bianca I didn't want to look like a fool in front of my friends. Then something zapped me, hard. I had no idea what it was, it felt like the world's biggest static shock. The problem was not that it did anything more than really startle me, but that I automatically responded to it by going Dragon. OK, I knew I shouldn't, but the reaction was instinctive and by the time I realised what was happening I'd already changed.
While normally this wouldn't have been a big deal - I changed a few times during that day anyway - at this particular time, it had drastic consequences. I was right in the middle of powering my spell slip, and as I changed my magic flared up out of my control. First, the slip started to char, then catch fire, the lines drawn on it glowing hot for a moment before burning, and I felt a much greater flow of essence than I'd intended flow into the spell.
Well, it almost worked. Sort of. For a moment there was a cute little bunny looking at us curiously while it chewed on the grass in its mouth. Then there was a muffled 'whoomph' sound, a flare of fire, and the bunny exploded. Quite dramatically, in fact.
It took a few seconds for everyone to react, if only because they seemed mesmerised by bits of charred bunny falling to the ground in a sort of pattering rain. The actions of the other students varied - the younger ones just stood and stared, while a lot of the older and more experienced ones hit the ground as they looked around. Then every eye in our group turned to give me an accusing look.
"Ah...oops?" My feeble protestation didn't do much to break the mood, most of them looked a mix of stunned and annoyed, except for Tia who was looking really hurt.
"What the hell was that?"
The Imp took a look at the now somewhat charred spot on the grass, and the chunks of rather overdone bits of bunny scattered around before she responded to Caitlin.
"Well, judging by the evidence, I'd say someone just blew up a bunny."
For her part, Caitlin didn't look pleased. She preferred to be the one doing the explosions, not the possible target of one. "So aren't you going to do anything about it?"
The Imp shrugged. "Not my circus, not my bunnies. Besides, I don't think there are any rules in the handbook about not blowing up bunnies."
Caitline sighed. She recognised the student looking worried and guilty at the centre of the group - well, the horns were pretty recognisable. Although she hadn't realised she'd progressed to blowing things up yet. Since her companion obviously had no intention of doing anything except smirk, she walked over. Rules or not, the last thing she wanted was for blowing up bunnies to become some sort of student sport.
"OK, now just what did you think you were doing? Or did you actually think at all?"
I turned to see Caitlin Bardue with a very annoyed expression on her face. My supportive friends moved aside rapidly to allow me to be the centre of her attention - gee, thanks, guys! - as I fumbled for words.
OK, she didn't just look annoyed, she looked really annoyed. "It was an accident; I didn't mean to blow it up!"
Caitlin shook her head in disgust at my feeble response. "An accident? And just what were you doing that 'accidentally' blew up a bunny? What if had been a student?"
I blushed deeply. "I was just casting a spell to make something visible - we'd heard about the invisible bunnies, and I wanted to see if it was true or just one of the school jokes."
"And just how does making something visible also cause it to explode?"
"Something happened to me. Something shocked me, and I changed into my dragonform. When I do...well, my magic doesn't work right. It sort of got away from me."
Caitline sighed to herself. OK, judging by the girl's manner it was an accident, but even so, she could hardly allow her to go around casting spells that might explode something - or someone - more important than a bunny next time.
"Does Ms. Grimes know about this?"
I nodded uncomfortably. "Yes, she does. She told me not to try using spells in this form. But I didn't, really! If something hadn't made me change in the middle of the spell, it would have been fine."
"So something just made you change?"
I dithered a bit as I tried to put it properly, trying to explain it without whining too much. "It didn't exactly make me change. It felt like a huge static shock, it startled me. It didn't really hurt, but my changing is sort of automatic when I'm scared or in danger, and before I realised what had happened I'd changed and couldn't stop the spell."
Caitlin gave the now-miserable girl a long look, before poking one of the charred pieces of bunny with her foot. "I'm going to report this to Grimes. Accidental or not, we can't have a student going around casting spells if they can go out of control."
I looked down at the ground. Great, now I was going to get into trouble with Grimes, even if I'd been trying to do as instructed. Why couldn't my magic work properly in this form? It had felt as if something was shoving me to push far too much power, and too much fire, into the spell, almost as if it was out of my control. I didn't like the connotations of that. "I understand, ma'am."
"Good. Now, the rest of you" - Caitlin looked around at the rest of my friends, who'd basically been trying hard not to get her attention while remaining close enough to hear every word - "for a start, you can pick up all the charred bits and put them in the trash. If you're going to blow stuff up, learn to tidy up after."
Knowing what was good for them, the group scurried to do as they'd been told. All except for Tia, who was still standing looking at the area with a very upset look on her face. Damn.
Friday 30th September, Nimue Club, London
Magister Olrun looked carefully around the room until he spotted his contact sitting quietly in a corner. Doing his best to look casual, he ambled over and sat down in the closest chair, nodding a polite greeting as if it was just a co-incidence they'd met like this. Nephandus tried not to laugh aloud - it was always entertaining to watch people whose idea of tradecraft had been gathered from bad spy movies, and worse, often bad American spy movies - trying to act nonchalant.
The two sat there for a few minutes before Olrun finally gave in to his impatience.
"So, what information have you gathered for us?"
Nephandus smiled slightly, then slipped a large envelope onto the table between them.
"Quite a bit, although it may not be quite what you expected."
Olrun looked at the thick envelope, then at Nephandus. "Perhaps you'd like to give me an appreciation of what you've found so far?"
Nephandus nodded, taking a few moments to collect his thoughts.
"Very well. First, we confirmed that there was indeed a project by the Order of the Red Ba'al - or at least by one of their leading adepts - to work on a way of linking to one of the Prime planes for the purpose of using it as a power source. Exactly how wasn't known by the order, at least it's not in any of their records, but certain information leads us to think it was the Plane of Fire, and that some sort of demon was involved. At least, we found a significant amount of data on the resources the project required, and they are consistent with that."
"You couldn't get the details?"
Nephandus shook his head. "Not directly. The operation was shut down by AEGIS, quite violently. It seems the bulk of the records were lost with the base, or only held in the head of the adept running the project. While we suspect that there is information - maybe significant information - held at AEGIS, it's locked down with Alpha level security. Getting past that will be very difficult, expensive, and quite dangerous."
Olrun scowled. "Is that the best you can do? We worked most of that out ourselves!"
Nephandus waved his hand negligently. "We could make arrangements to get past that security - it would be expensive, and we would need to arrange expendable cut-outs. However..."
Olrun waited for a moment, then gestured for him to proceed.
"We prefer not to try and break into Alpha level security except as a last resource, it always causes a problem, and if it fails there are consequences. However, in this case, we have found an alternative possibility which we recommend trying first. If it succeeds, then we can quite possibly get the information we need from it."
Olrun took a sip of his drink as he digested that. Interesting. "Please, go on."
"The base of operations was run by the usual mix of mages from the Order and mercenaries. It seems that none of the mages survived the raid - either they died fighting, or suicided. Which in itself is interesting, it implies that the project was novel and probably successful. Now the mercenaries did fight, but some of them survived. As expected, all of them had capital warrants out of them from various places, and the survivors were handed over, with the expectation that they would be executed shortly."
Olrun have his companion a sharp look. "Expectation?"
Nephandus nodded. "Indeed, and according to the records that is indeed what happened. However in the case of two of the men, what is on record is not what actually occurred. It seems that there were personal issues involved in their case, and while it was recorded that they were executed, in fact, they were delivered to someone who wanted them to, shall we say, suffer more than a quick ending."
Olrun smiled widely as he thought about that. "Ah, politics can be so useful sometimes."
"Indeed. Now, while normally they would by now have been tortured and killed, it seems that there were issues that distracted their purchaser from doing this immediately. In fact, they are being held prisoner, and while undoubtedly uncomfortable, are still alive. As such, it should be possible to extract information about the project from them."
Olrun thought that through. Indeed, just rescuing the men and promising release later would likely get them to talk as much as he wanted. And they could be easily disposed of afterward so as not to leave any traces. "You can arrange to handle this, I assume?"
Nephandus nodded. "Yes. The expected costs are listed along with our report. I would suggest moving immediately, we can't tell how long our window of opportunity will last, though our current estimate is at least three weeks. After that, we would lose them as an information source."
Olrun stood, collecting the envelope as he did. "I understand. I will get back to you in a couple of days, but certainly, my personal recommendation would be to do this."
Nephandus watched him leave while he finished his drink. He would talk to his father tonight and suggest they start preliminary planning to extract the two prisoners. He didn't doubt that approval would be given.
Saturday 1st October, Lakeside, after sunset
I gestured to Bianca to follow me a bit more closely. Twilight was hastening in, the sky turning a deep blue colour and a few of the brightest stars already showing. There was more than enough light for me to see clearly, but Bianca wasn't so fortunate, and I didn't want her to fall over anything. Still, we didn't have far to go, I'd scoped out a suitable spot outside the wards earlier in the afternoon. Hopefully, no-one had seen us sneak off quietly. I was actually glad that the sun had set - I'd been worrying all afternoon that maybe this was all a waste of time and that Thulia really wasn't interested in me any longer. Of course, now the time had come to actually do the spell I'd prepared, I was worrying about that instead.
"Are we there yet?"
I turned and grinned. "Pretty much." I was really glad Bianca was with me, especially as she'd been worried at the idea of what I was planning to do. I didn't think there was any risk, even to me - if there had been, I'd have put this off - but when it came down to it I was planning to contact a demon, I couldn't blame her caution. I owed her big for backing me up in this.
I stopped as we reached the small clearing we'd found earlier. At the time, I'd brushed the ground fairly clean of leaves and twigs, so as long as no-one was watching we were good to go. I dug out the papers from my bag, shuffling them into order.
"OK, I'll do the outer circle in salt first."
Bianca nodded, handing me the bag of salt. I smiled briefly. "Don't worry, this will make sure that if anything does go wrong it won't get past this. Then I carefully started to pour the crystals into a protective circle, making sure it was continuous. Bianca moved back a little, looking worried. I cleared my mind of that as I finished my first task, then dropped the bag and stood in the centre of the circle, sliding my athame out of its sheath. A few moments to clear my mind as I faced east, then I turned slowly in a circle, athame pointed at the salt as I slowly pushed power into the ring, visualising a pentacle at each cardinal point as I did so. I could feel it working; the outside noises of the evening went faint, and the area inside the circle felt more peaceful and still. That, and the salt was glowing very faintly in the dusk.
I made a thumbs up gesture to Bianca, who waved nervously in response and turned to my second task. I had a more complicated diagram already inscribed on some parchment, and I carefully smoothed it out and laid it down flat, before placing the stub of my candle in the centre. I licked my dry lips, sitting down slowly in lotus position in front of the candle, and again fed essence into the diagram. I could see the lines glow purple for a moment, but unlike the salt, there was no obvious change. Holding my hand out, I very carefully made a small cut on my finger using my athame, watching as three drops of my blood dripped slowly onto the appropriate point. Normally I'd need Thulia's true name to make sure I contacted her, and no-one else, but as she had shared her blood with me, I was hoping that this would work in its place. My reading had indicated that the worse that would happen was, well, nothing. Hopefully.
I took a moment to calm myself while I wiped the blade clean and pressed a bandaid over the cut, breathing slowly in and out to slow my heart, which was hammering rather faster than I was happy with. I could do this. I had to do this. I changed form - I'd cast all the magic I needed to, and all I had to do now was light the candle. I reached over it, a glimmer of pale fire surrounding my claw as I delicately touched the tip of the candle, watching as it glimmered into life.
I relaxed as much as I could, breathing slowly as I watched the flickering candlelight, trying to fill my mind with Thulia - her image, her voice, the way she stood, the touch of her hand, the way she smelt...visualising her standing there in front of me, as I cast my perspective into the flame itself. The candle flickered, flame turning an odd purple-red colour, as I kept all my attention on feeling for Thulia.
The air around me seemed to go still, as if I was in a small bubble edged by my protective circle, the flickering flame seeming to grow larger as it filled my field of view, changing shape slowly as it morphed into the shape of a woman made of fire.
"Who calls me?"
I licked my suddenly very dry lips at the oddly resonating voice.
"Thulia?? It's me, Morgana."
The figure of flame didn't change for a moment, then it abruptly snapped into sharp focus, before shimmering and changing into Thulia. She looked at me, her eyes a little wide. "Morgana? It's you?"
I just nodded, I didn't trust myself to speak right then. Instead, I just held my arms out to her in hope.
A second later I realised my fears had been groundless, as my arms were full of warm, lithe girl, her lips pressed to mine. I stopped trying to over-think things and just surrendered to the moment.
I may be an exemplar, but even so, I have to breathe occasionally. So I pulled back slightly, smiling at her. "Uh...I was going to ask if you still remembered me, but I think you just answered that!"
She giggled, still holding me close. "But how did you invoke me so easily?"
"Remember the candle you used while I was in London? There was still some left, so I dug up a ritual to help it along. I used my blood, I figured as we'd shared blood it would substitute for your name."
"Oh! That's smart of you, I'd forgotten about the candle. But how did you get through the wards around the school? They're quite good."
I looked smug. "Simple, I'm not on the school grounds! A group of us came on a picnic, and we're outside the wards."
She smiled and gave me a soft kiss. "Clever! I was hoping you could find a way of calling me, but I'd begun to think you didn't have one."
I looked at her again. I had another question I needed to ask her. "Um, Thulia? Can I ask...couldn't you contact me?"
She sighed, looking rather embarrassed. "I meant too, once you'd got settled, but I... well, I sort of went a little outside of what I'm allowed to do, and I got in a bit of trouble."
"Oh!" I hugged her close. "I'm so sorry, I never meant for you to get in trouble because of me!"
I was relieved to hear her laugh. "Oh, it's not THAT bad! I just got restricted for a month, that's all. But that's why I couldn't contact you - I couldn't do it from home because of the wards around the school, and I couldn't get to where I could send you a physical message."
This time I did blush. "I was... well, I was afraid you didn't want to see me."
She didn't answer, instead, she dragged me into another lip lock that really made my idea look silly. It was probably a good job we were sort of in the candle flame rather than standing there, as I could feel my body responding, and while the flush of heat felt really good, I wasn't sure what it would have done to the surrounding area.
Eventually, we broke again. I had to wait until the silly grin on my face subsided before I could ask a serious question. "Thulia? Much as I love this, the candle isn't going to last much longer. How can I get hold of you without one? I, uh, really want to be with you again..."
"Oh." She looked disappointed but then nodded firmly. "You're absolutely right." She looked at something, perhaps the candle flame, I wasn't sure." We don't have much time." She pursed her lips, looking thoughtful. "I can't visit physically for a little while yet, but...yes, give me your address. Your physical address. I'll send you something to make it work."
OK, that sounded good. I didn't know what she had in mind, or how she'd get something to me, but I trusted her. I repeated the address twice, just in case, and she nodded. Then I dragged her close, kissing her deeply. I could get accustomed to this, it made me realise what, deep inside, I'd been missing. I didn't realise we were out of time until she flickered, the glow of the candle flame surrounding us dying into the darkness as she vanished. I looked around and sighed sadly.
Kneeling, I picked up the parchment I'd used, folding it between my hands, I let my fire take it and burn it to ash. I didn't want anything left around with my blood on it, just in case. The candle itself had gone, just a few pieces of wax left sticking to the parchment. I looked at the ash on my fingers and sighed. I missed Thulia already.
"Did it go OK?"
I beamed at my friend, who was looking a little worried. "It went great, Bianca! Thank you so much for looking out for me."
She waved a hand. "Hey, it was no trouble." Then she looked at the circle of salt still surrounding me. "Want me to get rid of that?"
"Sure, just let me break the circle." It only took moments to break the protective ring, then I nodded at her. She raised her hand, palm glowing white, as a strong gust of wind scattered the grains of salt into the darkness, leaving no sign of what I'd been doing.
"You're going to have to tell me what happened."
I glanced at her as I held my hand out, a small ball of fire flickering on it to light our way back. "Of course I will. But once we're home, OK? I don't want everyone to know."
"Ooooh, steamy bits?!"
"Bianca...oh, OK, including those."
Sunday 2nd October, on the way to breakfast.
The morning was overcast, but I didn't care, smiling as I almost danced along. Beside me Bianca, Laura, and Bailley looked considerably more depressed.
"Isn't it a lovely morning!"
My cheerful words were met with a number of sleepy glares, and a mutter of "It's probably going to rain." from Laura. I ignored them as I carried on bouncing happily.
"Bianca, has she got a new Espresso machine you haven't told us about?"
Bianca shook her head. "Unless she was hiding it under her bed, she hasn't had any coffee at all this morning. That flat statement was met with a pair of disbelieving looks.
"She was singing happy songs in the showers as well" grumbled Bailley. "It's not natural."
The three were still giving me odd looks, which I must admit I barely noticed when we got to the Crystal Hall and got into line for food. As usual, they filled their trays faster than I did, and hurried upstairs.
Some of the rest of our crew was already there eating, as Laura put her tray down and glared at Bianca. For her part, Bianca looked up with a 'what did I do?' expression on her face. Erica and Cally looked on with interest, obviously wondering what had set Laura off.
Laura took a dramatic stance, as she pointed at Bianca. "Morgana hasn't had her coffee yet, and she's cheerful! Bouncy! Happy! She's done everything but sing a bloody Disney tune on the way over here!"
Bianca struggled her best not to grin as the blue girl reached her dramatic conclusion, straightening to her full height as she gave it her best William Shatner impression. "So, Glyph, where is the REAL Morgana and what have you done with the body?"
To Be Continued