I was in the back seat of yet another SUV. This time it was a green one being driven by Colin Forsyth, the Lieutenant from the phone conference between Director Goodman and Mrs. Carson. Mrs. Shugendo, a tall Asian woman, sat up front. Poor Khan was stuck once more in his travel cage and I had to admit I did feel grateful to Soren for the scope of the scholarship I was sure he had arranged for me. It had included paying for all sorts of details, as one would expect from a scholarship: books, school supplies, tuition (including room and board), and uniforms. To my (and the Director’s) surprise it also covered all related expenses for bi-annual transport to and from the school via chartered plane out of the closest airport to the school.
Don’t get me wrong, though - Soren still deserved a boot to the head for what he’d done. I’d thank him for the money after.
A DPA agent I had never met before had been assigned to take me to the airport in Van Nuys. We didn’t say much during the drive, especially as I was in disguise and busy trying to make sure Khan would be okay with the car ride and the following much longer flight.
My buddy was a trooper and had no problems sleeping in proper lounge style upon the luxury seats in the chartered plane. He also insisted on sharing my in-flight gourmet turkey sandwich.
The disguise had been provided by Gregory - a purple hair-band which shifted my hair to a dark chestnut color and a pair of auto-tinting glasses that turned my eyes a rather striking blue. Combining these two devises, makeup applied by Natalie, a creme-colored business blouse tucked into a long dark grey skirt, nylons and black pumps underneath made me look not just strikingly different but much older.
The nylons felt weird, but I’d probably need to get used to them. Whateley uniforms for girls required skirts unless the weather was too cold. Although taller socks might also be acceptable, I’d have to check to be sure. Wearing makeup was also an experience: Natalie had done it quickly and professionally aiming for an understated look to it all. It was quite effective.
The previous couple of days were spent hidden in my room at the DPA facility because the Director had decided I shouldn’t be seen by all the field agents he’d recalled to that location. Mrs. Carson had requested at least two days to ‘properly prepare quarters’ for me, and Goodman had agreed. Danielle was picked up by my friend Isaiah, with the plan for her to stay with him until Mark got out of the hospital. I argued to let Isaiah in on the fact I was still alive (I really wanted to say goodbye to my friend), but that idea was shot down. As the attorney handling the estate, he could possibly violate his oath to the bar by managing issues pertaining to my death while knowing I was still alive.
The Director won the argument by also pointing out that it could jeopardize my work-provided life insurance policy’s payout to Danielle if there were any irregularities perceived by the insurance investigators. The policy wasn’t for a huge amount, but it was still significant. I did feel bad about defrauding the insurance company, but Danielle tried to make me feel better by quoting Obi-Wan Kenobi at me - that the death of Justin Thorne was true ‘from a certain point of view’. I was starting an entirely new life. My old one was indeed dead and needed to be buried.
Not that I’d get a burial. They’d told Isaiah I’d been cremated when he’d demanded to see a body as proof of my demise.
Saying goodbye to Danielle had been hard, even if we knew it was only to be for a few weeks before she could travel to the school for the Fall Term. I sensed her deep-seated unease at me going so far away with her not being allowed to contact me, but there was nothing we could do about it. As much as she tried to put on a brave face she ended up crying a few tears anyway. I held back mine until she had gone.
Departing the plane in Berlin, New Hampshire - the closest town to campus with an airport - Lt. Forsyth and Mrs. Shugendo were standing there waiting on the tarmac by the plane with their Ford Expedition. I had trundled down the stairs carrying my meager baggage: one guitar in its case, one cat in his case, and an under-filled DPA backpack slung over a shoulder containing only the clothes the DPA had provided over the past week. I was wearing the jeans, shirt, and under items Danielle had bought for me.
Mrs. Shugendo had asked if I had any luggage in the cargo hold. I laughed and told her all my worldly possessions were already in my hands and proceeded to put the guitar and backpack into the back of their SUV. She signed some paperwork for the patient crew-member of the charter service, then we were on our way. Neither of them had said much as we got moving, I was behind them and had been busily distracting Khan by sticking a finger through the cage’s metal door so he could sniff it and know I was still there with him.
“How far is Berlin from the campus?” I asked Colin after we were clear of the airport and out on open road. Both his arms had scars - something with claws had left some nasty grooves on his skin. Thinking back to Tsáyid’s claws I shuddered and decided I didn’t want to ask how he had gotten them.
“About fifteen to twenty minutes drive. But I think we have other stops first before we get there.”
“Other stops? I hate to cause any issues, but I’d like to get Khan here somewhere I can set up a litter-box for him. You know, before he makes a mess in his carrier?”
Mrs. Shugendo looked back at me and frowned. “We have an appointment in Dunwich for your uniform attire, and from the looks of it you are completely without any other clothing or accessories. This should also be remedied.”
“Uh, I agree I probably need a lot of things… but…” My little guy was a trooper, however holding things in for that long? Erk.
Colin came to Khan’s rescue. “There’s a large box store down in Gorham. Ms. Emrys’ flight arrived early and we budgeted extra time for brunch, so we have plenty of time before the Dunwich appointment. I could drop you both off at the store, get her cat to her room at Whateley, and then back to pick you both up. I presume there are supplies for your cat waiting or do you need to buy those too?”
I shook my head. “There should be everything needed already there, delivered from Amazon yesterday. You sure you don’t mind setting it up though? And skipping brunch?”
He smiled. “Nah, don’t mind at all.” He raised an eyebrow to Mrs. Shugendo.
“Very well. It would be impolite to be late to the appointment, but don’t risk yet another speeding ticket Lieutenant.”
Colin flushed. “Yes, ma’am.”
I lifted my finger to gently boop Khan’s nose. “Hey little guy,” I said to him, “You’re going to go with the nice guy there and I’ll join up with you later, okay?” He meeped at me, not entirely happy with the whole trip (let alone being away from his old home for so long) but he curled up into a ball of silver and black fluff - the white of his belly hidden from sight.
It took us about thirty minutes to get from the airport to the box store - you know, one of those that every part of the country has, which sells everything - and I do mean everything. Colin dropped us off before heading back up route sixteen.
“Thanks for coming to get me,” I said gratefully to Mrs. Shugendo as we walked towards the store. “I’m sure not every student gets picked up like this.”
“You are quite welcome. It was decided this would be a safer way to, how did the Director put it? ‘Smuggle Ms. Emrys onto campus.’ How long will those devises that are maintaining your disguise last?”
“Oh, uh… a few days according to Gregor.”
“Good. Your official story has you arriving at Whateley two weeks ago, so keep them on until we get to the academy.”
I echoed Colin’s earlier statement. “Yes, ma’am.”
She laughed. “Relax, when we’re off campus and I’m not officially on duty, call me Michi. While the Lieutenant has not been read into your true circumstances, as Dean of Students I have been. I’m well aware you aren’t as young as even your disguised appearance shows. It’s also just as well it’s only the two of us for your first post-change shopping trip. You may have certain questions.” She smiled gently.
“Yeah, I guess I might,” I sighed.
“You do your own makeup this morning?”
“No. And considering how early the flight was, I absolutely was not awake to pay proper attention to how she did it.”
“Hmm. It would be a useful skill for you to acquire, especially if you want to pass as older. Ah, that reminds me, I have this for you.” She handed me a manila envelope.
Contained within was a New Hampshire vertical ‘Youth Operator’s License’ with my real hair-color and fake age of sixteen. Hot damn, I could drive! Along with an official U.S. Passport, a Whateley Student ID, and my new MID, it also contained two credit cards - one black, one blue, both in the name of Jordan Emrys.
Michi commented, “There are restrictions on licenses here for those under the age of eighteen. You are not allowed to drive between one and four a.m. Also for the next six months you cannot drive with more than one passenger who is less than twenty-five years old unless accompanied by a licensed adult who is over twenty-five.”
“Good to know. Although I doubt I’ll do much driving - I don’t exactly have a car at the moment.” I grinned ruefully.
“Parking is greatly restricted at Whateley in any case, and there is an additional required driving course before being allowed to drive onto campus. Now, those two credit cards you are holding, the black one is for school expenses: your uniform, books, and other scholastic as sundries. I have been informed that it has already been used to order you a school laptop provisioned with increased security software. You may purchase a smart phone and pay for the plan with that card as well. The blue card draws on your yearly stipend, which is what shall be used for your personal clothing, makeup, and hygiene products.”
“That answers the question of how to pay for this outing. Thanks! Can I at least buy you brunch if we have time?”
Her smile grew warmer. “That would be lovely, thank you. But first - let’s get you outfitted.”
“You know, I could just order more things from Amazon come to think of it. I’ve been told my sizes.”
“Goodness, no.” She shook her head. “One thing you will need to learn about being a woman is that clothing manufacturers do not agree on what sizes mean. Until you get a feel for that manufacturer, trying on clothes first is the best option if you want things to fit properly. Especially bras - and you’re going to need more than the one you currently have on. This store wouldn’t be my first choice for acquiring such things, but unless you are willing to spend quite a bit more today, it may have to do.”
“What do you mean about willing to spend more? How much more?”
“Our appointment is with a specialty tailor in Dunwich, a Miss Cecilia Rogers. She is one of the best seamstresses in the world, if not the very best. Your scholarship included a clause that she was to provide your school uniforms - which is a very good thing, as she offers free repairs to her products. And given that Whateley at times can be a bit, shall we say, rough… it’s a useful warranty to have.”
My eyes narrowed. “A bit rough? That sounds ominous.”
She nodded. “Whateley Academy provides an excellent education for its students. The world for those with mutations and abilities is a dangerous place, and Whateley is designed with that first and foremost in mind. Our job as staff is not to coddle our charges - we do our best to protect them, but their first line of defense is always their own skill and ability. Training can require, at times, a hands-off approach that leaves them to fend for themselves against other powered children.”
“Why does this suddenly sound straight out of the book Ender’s Game?” Second and third thoughts about sending Danielle to anywhere ‘rough’ like this were flooding through my mind ringing all sorts of alarm bells. What had I gotten us into?
“A rather apt analogy - and I can see it disturbs you.”
“You’re damn right. Only a few days ago I agreed to send my niece here - but she has had enough bullying for being a mutant already. Now you’re saying that could continue but instead of being tormented by regular kids, this time it’ll be by ones with powers?” We had gotten inside the automatic doors and past the store’s greeter, now we were standing in front of the women’s clothing section.
“Yes,” she said, her voice firm. “As you love your niece and wish her to survive the real threats in this world - against those that would use and abuse her for her powers to their own nefarious ends - there is no better place for her to be. She will learn confidence, control, adaptation, and survival tactics that will serve her well in this new life she is embarking upon as one of the powerful. The same goes especially for you, Jordan. Both your lives may someday depend on the quality - and the challenges - of the lessons and environment we provide.”
I shook my head. “Forget Ender’s Game, now you’re talking The Dosadi Experiment.”
She laughed. “That’s a level of harshness beyond even us, thankfully.”
“Good.” I sighed, trying to accept that decisions had already been made and that she was likely correct. It was a new and risky world that Danielle and I had stumbled into - my encounter with Tsáyid had made that perfectly clear. “Alright then, what outfits shall I acquire to supplement my standard-issue Whateley battle fatigues?”
“Let’s go find out, shall we?” With that she led me further into the women’s clothing section.
Let me just say first that women’s clothing makers suck. Seriously. No two brands agreed on sizes, vindicating Michi’s warning about online ordering. While we were just trying to find enough outfits for me to wear outside of the school uniform for weekends or trips to town, good grief I ended up having to try on everything individually. Even jeans made by the same company claiming to be the same size failed to match in how they fit once I put them on.
And don’t get me started on the cheaper lingerie that lined the shelves at this place. We wasted an incredible amount of time trying to find bras that would fit properly. Either I’d be drowning within their huge over-the-shoulder boulder-holders, or pinched sideways, or they’d push my boobs up and over the top of the damn things as if I was planning on attending a renaissance faire. Ugh!
Michi caught my eyes glowing with frustration and suggested again that I splurge with my own funds on a few tailor-made items at our next appointment. When I asked what her custom tailor would charge my heart skipped a beat as I gasped in shock at the numbers she quoted.
It took a few more ill-fitting foreign imports before I threw in the towel and announced I would eat the cost, even if I could buy a serious gaming computer (or two!) for that kind of cash. Michi reassured me that, given time, I’d admit they were worth the money. Time would tell, I suppose, but I had my doubts. No wonder Caroline had bitched endlessly whenever she had to shop for lingerie.
By the time we made it through the checkout line with my new wardrobe all shoved into multiple bags, Colin was waiting outside with the SUV. Before I could say a word he reassured me that yes, Khan was all set up in my room, his supplies put out for him, and that when he had left the little guy was hungrily tearing into a couple cans worth of his food.
I thanked him, but still was anxious about getting to campus so I could personally check on my kitty. First, though, we had to grab a quick early lunch, and then off to this mysterious tailor Michi kept hinting was world-class, very special, and how it was a privilege to even have an appointment with her. I bit my tongue instead of commenting that with those kinds of prices either she really was worth it, or had Hollywood connections doing her promoting.
Lunch was from a local fast-food place along the way into Dunwich, the small town that was the closest to campus and where ‘Rogers’ Fabric Boutique’ was located. The less said about the burgers we ate the better. I did insist on buying, though after we finished I mentioned that perhaps I should apologize instead. It had been fast as advertised, but we all agreed that ‘food’ was a bit of a misnomer. Ah well.
Thus it was that we arrived on time to an unassuming storefront sitting along the main shop street that the town offered. A tourist would probably walk right past it to get to the t-shirt shop a couple doors down, but we went on in. Michi had instructed Colin to wait with the car; he didn’t seem to mind. Wondering if I was about to be poked and prodded for measurements in excruciating detail, I was jealous he got to just chill with the satellite radio.
The inside of the shop looked about what one would expect: flowing dresses, elegant suits, and other high-end items were on display over remarkably life-like mannequins of men and women in a variety of nationalities. They looked real - which caused me to do a double-take because one actually slowly began to move into a new pose as I went past, causing me to jump backwards. If I emitted a girlish shriek in surprise, no one commented and thus it didn’t happen. I admit nothing.
“Welcome!” A woman’s voice echoed from the back of the shop. “Michi, is that you?”
Mrs. Shugendo called back, “Yes, Cecilia. I have Miss Emrys here for her appointment.”
“Wonderful! I’m a bit pressed for time today, so we’ll have to do this quickly. Bring her on back!”
I followed Michi as we crossed to the back of the store. The mannequins all subtly adjusted themselves to remain in full view of us as we passed. It was impressively done, if not kinda creepy.
“Hmm,” Michi pondered as we walked. “Remove your headband and drop that disguise, Cecilia will need to see your natural colors.”
“Okay.” I pulled off the headband and felt a small electric charge spill outward and through my hair. Turning my head I caught sight of the darker color shimmer back into crimson and gold. Tugging off the glasses, I held them and the band awkwardly as I had nowhere to put them. My new leather purse (Michi insisted I needed one, hush) was still in a package in the car.
“Oh, you can put your things over here.” A young looking brunette emerged from behind a counter wearing a dark green shop coat over a simple beige blouse and slacks. She gestured to a spot on the counter, and I dutifully set down the ‘keys’ to my disguise. She grinned. “I recognize those! How is Gregory these days?”
“Uh, he seems to be doing fine. You know Professor Kirov?”
She laughed. “I know a couple of them, but yes I know Gregory in particular. We collaborated a few years ago when he needed to disguise someone to get into the…” She caught herself. “Into the place that I can’t tell you about. Sorry!”
I grinned. “No worries. Even if it sounds like an interesting story. I’m Jordan.” I offered her a hand to shake in greeting, which she took lightly with a sly smile.
“I’m Cecilia, if you haven’t guessed already. Come around here and into the scanner, okay? Like I said, I’m tighter on time than I’d like.”
Mrs. Shugendo’s phone rang, her ringtone sounding suspiciously like part of the musical score to the original Ghost in the Shell animated movie. “It’s the academy, I need to take this.” She walked back towards the front as she answered the call.
Cecilia ushered me into a small booth that looked much like the changing rooms back at the box store, except these walls were a smooth metallic silver. “I’m testing out a new system today, one that doesn’t require the client to disrobe or even move. Let’s see how it does with you!”
Thinking back to Big Betty’s scanning devise, I wondered how much information Cecilia would actually pick up with hers. Call me paranoid but… on second thought, just call me paranoid.
I heard a number of fans spin up nearby, and the floor vibrated with a low level hum. Then just as quickly as the sound had started, it quieted again.
“That’s it, come on out. Fantastic, that did better than I expected!”
“It did?” I asked, stepping out of the small room. A genderless and unclothed mannequin near Cecilia began to, well, it morphed. Into a perfect copy of me. Correction: into a perfectly naked copy of me. Skin color, hair color, even the eyes matched.
I was suddenly massively grateful that Michi had told Colin to wait in the car.
“Exemplar, I take it?” I jumped again; Cecilia had moved up behind me and I hadn’t noticed.
“Uh, yes. Level three.”
“So you’ll need more reinforcement to your items, plus stretchability. I have the list as provided by the school for your uniform selections: skirts, slips, socks, blouses, blazer, winter jacket, stockings, and sweater. I outsource shoes to a hob-channeling friend of mine when I’m this busy, hope you don’t mind.”
I blinked. “No, not at all. But what about pants? I read the school handbook, and aren’t girls allowed pants for colder weather?”
She looked at me in contemplation. “Cold weather won’t affect you much with you being an Exemplar. The jacket and other warmer items are more for show when visitors are at campus and it’s a red flag day. Having a young girl cross through snow wearing nothing but a short skirt and a blouse would raise eyebrows, so you’ll need to keep that in mind come winter.”
I nodded. The campus had a colored flag system for how little or how much powers needed to be hidden from view. Red indicated no powers were to be used, period.
“I can understand that, so why no pants?”
She placed a hand on my shoulder. “Hon, you’ll need the longer skirts instead for such days. Or risk being clocked too easily.”
“Clocked?” I frowned.
Giving the shoulder a squeeze, she let it go with a smile. “How long has it been since your manifestation and you joined the, shall we say, softer half of the human race?”
I blushed, as I suddenly understood what she meant. “About a week.” Damn.
“Stick to skirts for at least a year, okay?”
“What gave it away?” I asked resignedly.
She leaned back against the counter and considered. “A number of things, but I know what to look for. Offering me a hand to shake was one, especially the way you held it. Also how you move - when you aren’t thinking about it your body’s natural grace shines, but I think you’re catching yourself occasionally and second guessing things, and it stands out. I can help with that, actually.”
“How so? This is all still extremely new and yeah, awkward.”
“I teach a class at Whateley; you should take it - or something similar - to help learn how to flow smoothly with your new form.”
“Oh? What class?” I was curious - and dreading the thought of having to deal with teenagers realizing I had swapped gender teams. With everything Mrs. Shugendo had warned me about the school, being ‘clocked’ as Cecilia termed it would paint an even larger target on my back.
“Ballroom dancing.” She grinned, anticipating my reaction.
She laughed lightly. “It’s actually a lot of fun, most students who take it end up enjoying it a lot more than they expect. And as the school has a number of required formal events throughout the year, given your circumstance you might consider it a natural requirement to add to your curriculum.”
“I’ll think about it.” I had no idea what classes I’d be taking, and after one misguided quarter in college when I’d ended up with a ridiculous number of units and barely made it out finals week alive, I was naturally cautious about overloading my schedule.
She looked sad, as if I was brushing her off so I quickly followed up with, “I really will think about it. This week has just been overwhelming, and I don’t want to falsely commit to anything without having time to reflect and plan. Tomorrow I’m supposed to meet with my student adviser and start trying to figure out a fall schedule. I’ll mention your class, okay? Learning how to be a… uhm… learning such things is part of why I’m here.” Could I feel any more awkward? Don’t answer that, my own imagination is bad enough.
Her expression brightening. “Good! Now, Michi mentioned you might want some items which would not be covered as ‘school related’?”
“Actually, about that… wouldn’t appropriately colored sets of bra and underwear be considered mandatory as part of meeting the school’s uniform policy?”
Her eyes narrowed mischievously and she grinned again. “As a professional seamstress, I would have to render an official opinion that without the right undergarments an entire outfit would be undone and unacceptable to the school’s standards.”
I smiled back. “Then I think I need to add a few pairs of such to my scholastic wardrobe. But also,” I said more seriously, “I’m going to need a couple for weekends and non-uniform use. The selection at the store today was, as they say, a total bust.”
She laughed at my pun, earning her points towards my attending her class. “Well then, I think we should get abreast of things and remedy your situation! We wouldn’t want your mood to sag, after all…”
“Nope! Keep it perky, is my motto!”
Mrs. Shugendo had come back in while the two of us were laughing like loons, and raised an eyebrow. “I miss something?”
“Not at all,” Cecilia said, “We’re just having a moment of… sheer… exuberance!”
I groaned exaggeratedly. “I should have guessed. As a seamstress you must have puns just corset-ing through your brain.”
We both giggled again while Mrs. Shugendo rolled her eyes and said, “I thought you were on a tight schedule today, Cecilia?”
“Oh! Yes, I am! Right then - to work!” Cecilia shook her head free of our silliness, and I saw her mind come alive with a deep focus while she stared at my naked replica still standing before us. “Your uniform items I will do later and have delivered. But for your custom personal ones… let’s start with purple to go with your shirt!”
She gestured, and spiraling from behind her through the air came purple toned fabric along with underwires, thread, and lace. I was astounded as the material simply flowed like water over my doppleganger’s curves and assembled itself into a matching bra and panty set, hugging the skin of my mannequin while moving in tune with the orchestra of material to stretch and pull just as Cecilia needed to get what I had to imagine would be the most perfect and intimate fit.
Into my ear Michi whispered quietly, “And this is why her products are worth every dollar spent.”
Witnessing a spectacle worthy of a Disney animation, I could only nod in agreement.
“I think I believe you.”
It was middle of the afternoon by the time we reached campus. I must have looked like a silly tourist with her nose stuck to the window on the drive in because everything was just so green. We drove alongside a forest and up this dirt road, and even the grasses in the fields were verdantly lush. That and here we were in the middle of summer and there were glorious thunderclouds in the sky threatening to dump upon us as we arrived.
You have to understand that in Southern California the hills turn green for one month at best at the end of winter, and are drab brown the rest of the year. Well, except for when they catch fire. And rain? In summer? Unthinkable!
The New England humidity in the seasonal heat reminding me of the last time I was in a sauna pretty well sucked though. My old body would have needed a shower by now, if not two. Without humidity there’d be no green, I know, but… bleh.
Approaching the campus there was a ripple in the air which at first I mistook for rain, but then realized that wasn’t it at all. It was like there was a mostly translucent curtain hanging across the road and leading off in a circle around the entire area. As we drove through it goosebumps crawled across my skin while I tasted a hint of electricity. It felt odd.
Mrs. Shugendo’s phone rang and she answered. “Dean of Students speaking.” She paused, listening to the other party, then replied, “Yes, we just crossed onto campus… I see. Interesting. Yes, we will take her to Schuster Hall first, then to her cottage.” Hanging up, she turned to look back at me. “Did you feel anything just now?”
I blinked. “Uh, yes I did. Felt electrical. What was it?”
“The campus’ mystical wards. I was just informed that your presence was detected as the barriers, and I quote, ‘just surged and rippled as if momentarily amplified’. Did you do anything?” Her expression was intensely serious as her eyes tried to bore into mine.
Shaking my head I said, “No. I just saw a shimmering in the air. When we drove through I felt this buzzing. That’s all. When I try anything I usually light up like neon.”
She grunted. “Interference with the wards and security of the school is an expulsion triggering offense. Leave them alone.”
I hadn’t done anything and had no intentions to, but decided to just acknowledge her. “Yes ma’am.”
Seeming satisfied, she faced forward again. “Lieutenant, if you would be so kind as to drop us off at Schuster Hall and then deliver Miss Emrys’ packages to her room?”
Echoing me this time, he nodded. “Yes ma’am.”
We pulled up to a large red-brick building - something else you don’t see in California: brick structures. Earthquakes have a bad tendency to knock them right over. Behind the building rose an elaborate glass or maybe crystal dome which was quite large - a greenhouse perhaps? From what I could see over the rooftop, it was quite pretty.
Getting out of the vehicle, Colin lowered his window with a smile. “Welcome to Whateley, Miss Emrys. Will see you around!” I thanked him for his help today, and he drove off towards what I presumed was a staff parking lot.
Mrs. Shugendo was waiting when I turned around. I could see that here on campus her demeanor had shifted - she was now Dean Of Students, and in charge. Oh, right, and I was now one of the young students in her care.
She spoke. “We have a couple of stops to make before we get you to your dormitory, young lady. You were originally assigned to Poe Cottage, but its rooms are not large enough to contain the designs submitted by the Mystic Arts Department. Instead, a heavily-warded space has been prepared for you at the Hawthorne Cottage.”
Huh. I wondered what these ‘heavy wards’ did exactly - I assumed they’d at least contain any excess energy I might generate while sleeping - but before I could ask she marched up the steps into the building. Looking around I saw a few kids walking by, so I decided not to press the question and risk accidentally revealing anything even at range. Who knows which student might have super-hearing or eavesdropping devises - I didn’t want to chance it as I noted that the flag fluttering under the stars-and-stripes was a solid green, indicating that powers use was currently allowed.
The next hour went by quickly as Mrs. Shugendo (I didn’t dare call her Michi) gave me a tour, starting with an ostentatious oil portrait of some guy named ‘Lord Paramount’, followed by having to acknowledge a large pile of gold being held nearby. I thought the whole thing odd, but will note that the number of cameras and other odd ceiling formations that may have contained traps to reign down on foolish thieves was intimidating.
As she led me through the halls, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own high school back in the day. I’d attended what at the time had been an all-male college preparatory school. Excellent education, but I’m still not sure how my mom managed to afford to send me there. I checked the current tuition after Danielle moved in with me as they now included girls and I was shocked to see that the yearly cost had grown to rival even Ivy League universities.
This place felt even more expensive somehow - which had me pondering just how large the grant Soren had arranged must have been to get me admitted and also to get the reaction it did from Headmistress Carson. Maybe I really was better off not knowing.
Mrs. Shugendo proceeded to take me around the campus, pointing out which buildings were which. The greenhouse crystal dome building was the Crystal Hall - the main campus cafeteria. I would never have guessed that. The Doyle Medical Complex looked really impressive, and had me pondering her statements about how rough the academy could be. Looks like they were well prepared for anything medical.
A large and beautiful red-tailed hawk landed upon a nearby tree as we were walking past. It seemed to be staring at me, so on a whim I smiled and waved at it when Mrs. Shugendo wasn’t looking. To my puzzlement, it nodded back at me, but before I could point it out to my guide, the bird took off into the air again. Gorgeously colored plumage, the reds in its feathers were a lot sharper and more brilliant than the hawks I’d gotten used to seeing back home. I wondered idly if it was a male or female, but didn’t know enough about birds or the species to tell the difference. Either way, it was strikingly pretty and I felt the usual envy that it could fly so easily, while I was stuck here on the ground. Ah well.
Finally we arrived at what was to be my new home, Hawthorne Cottage. It looked to have just a few stories to it, but from what I had already read about the campus I knew there were several basement levels underground.
Leading me inside she turned me over to a Mrs. Cantrel, the housemother for the cottage. She was a friendly African-American lady who sadly was confined to a wheelchair - even if said wheelchair didn’t actually have wheels, but instead floated about on its own power. It looked seriously high-tech.
I politely thanked Mrs. Shugendo for the tour and for taking me shopping, telling her that I owed her a proper meal in thanks at some point. I could see her professional demeanor as Dean slip slightly as she smiled and admitted that would be nice - should our schedules permit.
Then it was just me and Mrs. Cantrel - plus some students sitting on couches in a small lounge inside the entrance. They were busy watching something on the widescreen television, so didn’t pay us any mind.
“Come now, dear,” Mrs. Cantrel was saying. “Let’s get you up to your room so you can settle in. Your packages and your cat are waiting.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” I said as she hovered towards a wider-than-usual elevator. It looked industrial, and I commented as such.
“We get all sorts of students staying with us here in Hawthorne - some have rather severe cases of GSD and need the extra room. Our cottage is designed to help students who have special needs.”
GSD - Gross Structural Dystrophy - the label applied to mutants with physical changes which at the extreme end can be horrifying as well as life-threatening.
“Speaking of extra room, yours is fairly unique. The Mystical Arts faculty have been busy for the past few days preparing it for you.”
“Uh, how so?”
“They’ve set it up with what they termed ‘Dimensional Barriers’. I’m told your adviser will give you the details tomorrow, though of course you’ll see what they’ve done when we get up there. Their plan required additional space - more than our usual rooms could accommodate - and after much discussion, it was decided to place your room outside the cottage’s own wards so as to not interfere with them.”
The elevator doors opened, and I let her float on in first so she could turn around easier before stepping in myself. She waved an ID card at the elevator’s control panel, and pushed the top button marked ‘A’.
“Outside the wards? Aren’t those usually bound to the building they protect?” I knew that much - I’d worked at places that had anti-magic wards to protect their servers from interferences.
“They’ve lowered the wards to exclude the attic and the rooftop - which is where your room is. It’s a bit unusual, but they declared it satisfactory.” She said cheerily.
We accelerated upwards at high speed, yet smoothly came to a perfect stop and the doors opened to reveal an expansive attic space maybe sixty by a hundred feet in size with high vaulted dark wooden beams covering the ceiling. The roof of the building on either side of the room sloped down forming its triangle, so along those sides the head clearance was greatly diminished where the slopes led into the walls, but the sheer size the space encompassed gave it an immense amount of area for a single loft. The matching stained wooded floor looked freshly mopped, and what really caught my attention was what had been done to it.
In the center of the whole loft-attic sat a king-size four poster bed with folded blankets and sheets sitting there waiting to put on the mattress. Worked into the floor around it were three layers of circumscribing mystical circles stretching outward a good twenty feet in radius from the center of the bed. Each of the three layers was distinct in style and content. The outer circle was etched with what appeared to be words in the Greek alphabet mixing with other sigils that I semi-recognized as planetary or astrological. The middle circle lay just inside that outer circle and was comprised of three lines twirling tightly around each other in a beautiful and elegant Celtic knot-work pattern, along with writings in Norse runes running along its edges. This middle circle also enclosed a five-pointed pentacle - the center of which held the third and inner circle.
That’s what truly caught my breath - the interior circle contained a Star of David, the six pointed star formed of two equilateral triangles, and it had Hebrew words inscribed along the lines and circle. I instantly felt I should know their meanings and weirder still they seemed to be both absolutely correct and yet also somehow missing critical parts.
I took a step closer in absolute fascination, but Mrs. Cantrel caught my arm with her hand. “Hang on, child. Power down until we get you settled.” Looking down at her hand, I saw I had flared up again, my skin casting light across the room.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to.” Refocusing away from that inner circle, my light faded away. Hearing a familiar meep from the rafters I looked up and saw a cat peering down at me from a lower beam. “Khan! How’d you get up there, buddy?”
Mrs. Cantrel chuckled as we watched Khan take off at a quick pace to navigate the overhead maze, him first jumping down on top of one of the many empty bookshelves that lined a wall, then cross over the shelves until hopping down onto a rather elaborate and fancy antique vanity complete with its own wide mirror resting over flat surface with drawers below.
From that perch he jumped down the rest of the way to hit the ground running full speed before leaping into my welcoming arms. We bonked foreheads, me grinning and him purring loudly.
Mrs. Cantrel gestured to the spacious loft. “This was once used by a faculty member who wished a larger space for her magical practices, and yet also wanted to be close-by for those students living here who greatly needed her assistance. There’s a small bathroom through that one door over yonder, but the shower is non-functional. You will need to shower with the juniors on their floor below. Your student ID, just like our faculty IDs, will trigger the elevator to allow access.”
She floated through the room, reaching a set of double doors inset with many glass panels framed by similarly paneled windows on each side. “There is a small balcony on the rooftop through these doors, with their own access panel. Again, use your ID to open it. Students normally are banned from being on the roof, or even being on this floor - but you can escort other students up to your room as you wish. However, the administration has decided that only you are allowed to use the balcony. This is a safety measure - other students could be injured if they were to fall off the roof, but given your Exemplary status and Regeneration abilities they deemed it allowable for you to go out there. I lobbied for this, as in the winter we’ll need you to shovel the snow off the balcony area - as I didn’t think you’d want maintenance to be lurking outside your windows peering in if they had to do it. Think you can manage that?”
“Sure, no problem.” Yep, I definitely didn’t want any peeping workers lurking through those windows. They had a great view towards the forest beyond the campus, and I’d hate to have to install curtains and cover the vista. Though given the southerly direction, I might want blinds for the morning sun if I intended to sleep in. Hmm.
I spun around slowly to take it all in, holding my happy kitty over one shoulder. Aside from the antique vanity, numerous and barren bookshelves, and the massive bed in the center of the room there was a large stately oak desk sitting off on its own and a plush leather chair lurking behind it. There as also a seven foot high and similarly wide wardrobe unit that had both drawers and swinging door panels covering a space tall enough to hang things in. No closet, but the size of that wardrobe more than made up for that. I was seriously surprised by it all.
“This seems incredible for just one student,” I commented.
Mrs. Cantrel nodded. “This is not our standard accommodations. But Circe insisted that she did not want, as she put it, your ‘energies manipulating the ley lines of the area and causing mischief with our security - or worse’. And we also decided that mixing you with the resonances within our cottage’s basement could be, shall we say, problematic. This seemed the safest compromise.”
“Circe? Codename for one of the faculty, I take it?”
“Codename? Dear me child, no. That’s her name. Has been for a long, long time.”
I grew suspicious. “How long?”
She smiled. “Since before a certain clever and homesick warrior had a much delayed journey back to Ithaca.”
“Not at all, hon. If you don’t mind a piece of advice, try to be extra polite to her. As I understand it, she opposed your admission at first. We don’t know why, and I usually wouldn’t mention it - but this is Circe we’re talking about. Tread carefully.”
Oh great. If Odysseus had experienced great trouble dealing with her, how was I going to manage? A multi-thousand year old legendary sorceress didn’t want me here - that really didn’t sound good.
“Try not to worry about it too much; the Headmistress’ decision was final, and Circe has a strong sense of honor. Now, I’ll leave you to unpack your things. Come on down in an hour or so and I’ll introduce you to some of the other students so they can escort you to dinner. Summer months are usually quiet as most of our students go home, but this cottage especially has more who stay here through the season instead.”
“Dinner is a good idea; that’s at Crystal Hall, right?”
“Yes, dear. Oh - I almost forgot! Your feline friend there is being allowed under the rules for mystical familiars. You should read up on those, but in short summary: you’re responsible for him and his actions. He’s allowed to join you for any mystic arts labs, but otherwise should be constrained to your room. I will allow him, for now, to join you in the lounges here in the cottage. He does seem rather friendly, and his presence may bring cheer to some of our residents. But if there are any incidents, he will be need to be confined.” She floated higher so she could reach over and pet his gray and silver noggin.
Being incorrigible when it came to affection, he tilted his head so she could better reach the white areas under his chin.
“Ooh, you are a little sweetheart, aren’t you?” she cooed.
I agreed wholeheartedly. What can I say? I’m massively biased!
She gave him a final scritch (or maybe two) before returning to the elevator. It wasn’t until after the doors were closed and she was gone that I remembered something she had said. What had she meant about it being problematic to mix my ‘resonances’ with the cottage basement?
What exactly was down there?
As I didn’t exactly have a lot of stuff, putting everything away in the expansive wardrobe did not take long. It also made it clear that I was woefully lacking in clothes hangers, as we hadn’t thought to get any at the store earlier. Oops. Hooray for ordering from the Internet, except that the laptop they said I would be provided with had yet to arrive. I also was without a smart phone - Michi had decided that it would take too long to set up a contract plan while we were at the store. So that was something else I’d need to take care of - though on further reflection I realized I didn’t have anyone I could call or text.
Like that wasn’t depressing or anything.
Fortunately I did have Khan - and he’d discovered the collection of toys I remembered to acquire at the store. So instead of moping on my newly made bed (white sheets with gold trim, purple blankets and matching pillows if you must know, guess I was developing a color theme), I freed the fuzzy toy mice from their plastic captivity and tossed one for him to chase and bat about the waxed floor. He slid happily about in pursuit of his fabric-furred prey, and dutifully returned it to my feet for another toss.
Yes, my cat played fetch. I made sure to never let him know that was something dogs did, wouldn’t want to spoil his fun.
There was a professional phone resting on the desk with a small display panel and all the crazy buttons you’d expect on something hooked into an office network. I was glad it displayed the time, seeing as I was also without a watch - who needed watches when phones had clocks these days? Man, I really needed to get a phone soon. Anyway, I kept tabs on the creeping minutes by use of the archaic wired device, until finally deciding it was close enough to dinner to go brave meeting some of my fellow students.
If I had known a place to call in and order a pizza, I would have been tempted.
Making sure Khan still had plenty of water and food set out, I grabbed my student ID card, summoned the elevator, and went on down to the first floor lounge where I had seen the kids earlier.
Three of them, two girls and a boy, were still there, watching an episode of Daredevil on the giant screen television. Mrs. Cantrel, however, was nowhere to be found. So I leaned against the doorway to the lounge to see if any of the kids would notice and say something.
The boy looked to be about sixteen or maybe even seventeen. It was hard to tell, as while he was only wearing a black swimmer’s thong, he also had wrap-around super dark sunglasses completely covering his eyes and orange industrial-use hearing safety plugs wedged into his ears. Yet his attention was obviously glued to the television while he sat on the very edge of the large brown leather couch. He was tall and lanky but well-muscled, and had a wild crop of dark curly hair nesting on the top of his head.
As for the two girls, one (wearing the standard blouse and skirt uniform) was curled into the opposite corner of the couch from the boy, dusty brown hair spilling down on one side of her face whereas the other side of her head was buzzed extremely short. Her eyes looked up at me for a moment, like she might say something - but then she looked away to pull her knees even tighter to her chest.
The other girl, possibly older than the first though perhaps not by that much, sat cross legged on the plush reddish-orange rug covering the floor before the television. She was wearing green pants, with a lighter green top. Her back was covered mostly by her long hair - hair that was a deeper shade of green than even her pants comprised of strands with the thickness of toothpicks. Her skin was a shade of dark mocha that actually went well with her green clothes and hair.
There was another accoutrement that the speedo-wearing boy and greenish girl were wearing - they both had a silver bracelet around their left wrists. At first I thought they might be wearing matching watches, but I didn’t see anything that looked like a display. I wondered if they were dating.
Seeing that a fight scene on the television had just finished, I took the opportunity to butt in. “So uh, excuse me? Anyone seen Mrs. Cantrel?”
Green girl and speedo-boy both finally turned to look at me, the other girl busily studied her shoes.
“She’s busy - if you’re checking out from visiting someone, the log book is by the door.” Speedo-boy gestured vaguely towards the cottage entrance.
“I’m not visiting. She was going to introduce me to other residents who could show me where we get dinner.”
That got the full attention of all three. Green girl, with a voice like a musical wind-chime, asked, “Wait, you new?”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “Just got settled in upstairs, sort of.”
Speedo-boy and green-girl glanced at each other then back at me. He spoke first. “Dang, what did an obvious Exemplar like you do to get stuck in our freak-house?”
I knew Mrs. Cantrel had mentioned some of the kids in this cottage had severe GSD, but ‘freak-house’? Really? Deciding that honesty would be my best foot forward, I replied with some truth.
“Energy control issues. Well that and some concern about slipping accidentally into an unidentified dimension or something while I sleep.”
“No shit?” Speedo-boy got to his feet. “Hey - you the reason all the Mystic Arts teachers were hanging in the attic the past couple days?”
“I guess so. That’s where I’m supposed to stay - and they did some magic circle thing around my bed.”
Green girl gracefully got to her feet in a smooth swaying motion. “You have a name?” she asked.
“Jordan. Jordan Emrys.” I smiled. “Nice to meet you all.”
That earned me a smile in return. “I’m Maia, and that’s Leland. He’s a junior, I’m a sophomore. Oh and that’s Evie. She’s a freshman.” She inclined her head towards the girl still on the couch who was studiously not looking at me.
“Pffft,” said Leland. “C’mon, this is Whateley! Do it properlike. I’m Sense, and our lovely greenery here is Dryad. The shy pretty one behind me is Mindshriek. How ‘bout you?” With the way his head moved to follow me, I could tell he was able to see through those blackout glasses somehow - they weren’t to cover blindness, in any case.
“Me? Oh, right, I’m Aradia. Sorry - this is all still really new to me. Not just the school, but well, code names, powers, everything.”
That earned me some looks of sympathy. “Just manifest?” asked Maia.
“Yeah. A month or so ago.” Director Goodman had my cover story include developing my ‘new’ Exemplar look and powers five weeks prior. My ‘old’ self was supposed to have been much shorter with darker hair - and previously needed glasses. An introvert bookworm type not interested in socializing would make the fabricated social-media presence (or lack thereof) for Jordan easier to fake according to Gregory.
Leland whistled. “Well, you won the ‘pretty’ lotto, that’s for sure.”
My face must have shown embarrassment as Maia went to punch Leland’s arm, but she pulled the strike a couple inches from his shoulder and lowered her arm. Okay, yes, I admit - I blushed at the boy’s complement. Happy?
“You hungry?” Maia asked quickly. “We can take you to Crystal Hall if you want. I could eat.”
“I guess? But shouldn’t I talk to Mrs. Cantrel first?”
“Nah,” said Leland. “Like I said, she’s busy. Rockslide had another episode and Mrs. Cantrel likes to be there for her when she comes out of it. C’mon, let’s go.” He moved towards the doorway, but paused to look over his shoulder at Evie. “You want to join us tonight? You know you’re always invited.”
The dark-haired girl just shook her head ‘no’. She turned her attention back to the television.
Leland shrugged. “Hafta ask.” He headed down the short hall to the cottage entrance. “Thankfully it’s a green flag day! Freedom!”
I glanced at Maia questioningly.
She giggled. “It means he doesn’t have to wear pants.”
After eating at the DPA’s small cafeteria for most of the past week, I had to admit the contrast was remarkable. Whateley kids from what I could see ate like kings and queens. The choices were tremendous, and I finally settled on a large anti-pasta salad accompanied by a tortilla soup with some garlic breadsticks.
This caused Leland to look at me funny. “I thought you said you were an Energizer too. That going to be enough food? Most of those types eat enough for five people, if not more.”
I looked down at my tray. “I don’t think my appetite has increased any, to be honest.”
They had asked me about my powers on the walk over. I gave a vague summary, but didn’t mention specific levels. They may be cottage-mates and all, but we did just meet. Maia told me about hers: she was a biological blend of plant and primal human (her terms) - meaning that when she slept she literally became a tree and needed to take root. Problem was, in order to wake up she had to be physically uprooted first. Her room in Hawthorne had a hoist system that she’d bind her arms to before sleeping so the apparatus could just lift her out of the shallow soil they’d had to lay out for her floor.
She told the story about the time she first changed and how it had taken scientists over six months to figure that out. By then her roots had gone so deep that they had to chainsaw through her trunk to free her and get her to wake her. Seeing my horrified reaction she reassured me that it hadn’t hurt - when she sleeps she’s usually ‘in the Dreaming’ and so doesn’t feel a thing from her physical body.
We arrived at the Hall before I could ask her more about it because I was still curious, but was immediately distracted by the plethora of eating choices.
Most of the tables in the Hall were empty, though a few were occupied. Maia told me that when school was in session getting a table during breakfast or lunch rush could be tricky - especially if you didn’t have friends saving you a seat or weren’t in one of the big clubs that had reserved spots. I noted that not all the chairs were the same: some were much larger and obviously reinforced. The biggest examples looked pressurized with hydraulic lifts. I thought back to Natalie’s story of the girl-turned-golem and wondered how kids could handle that kind of change.
It wasn’t until we sat down that I noticed my new companions had selected unusual food items, especially considering the variety offered. Leland had a simple bowl of oatmeal into which he was stirring some kind of protein powder, whereas Maia had a raw steak accompanied by a glass full of some kind of brown smoothie. Seeing my puzzlement, they both chuckled at me.
“Don’t mind our culinary predilections, Jordan,” Leland laughed. “Dryad here needs a mix of raw proteins and vegetable minerals. Her digestion was once termed ‘peculiar’ by the doctors in Doyle.” Maia stuck her rather brown tongue out at him, but didn’t debate the description. “As for myself,” he continued, “all my physical senses are crazy sensitive. I can see for miles, hear whispers in classrooms on the other side of campus, and I can tell you exactly what temperature, pressure and humidity it is.” He grinned and took a bite of his oatmeal. “Problem is,” he said around his mouthful, “that it’s all oversensitive and can overload my brain if I lose focus. So while my bowl of oatmeal may seem bland to you? It’s actually at about the limit I can willingly let myself taste.”
I put down my fork, feeling my appetite dwindle in sympathy. “That’s awful.”
Thing is, he just shrugged. “It is what it is. I could probably tell you the exact molecules that this stuff is made of if I tried. It all happened when I was a kid, so I don’t even remember what normal taste buds are like.”
“How old were you?” I asked in spite of myself, curiosity winning out.
“Five. The worst was my sense of smell, god that was awful. I could smell every last thing for miles around - every fungus, every person, animal, bird, every flower, you name it.” He shuddered.
“Could?” I looked carefully at his nose, but didn’t see anything like filters in his nostrils.
“I fixed it. My folks realized something was very wrong when I took the barbecue lighter, lit it, and torched the insides of both nostrils.” He stared off over my shoulder. “Solved the scent issue, but I am kinda glad they got to me before I could do the same to my eyes.”
He noticed I had stopped eating as I sat there in shock at his story. “Oh shit, sorry - didn’t mean to put you off your food. Seriously, it’s okay. These glasses block almost all the light so I see more like normal folks with ‘em on, same with the earplugs - I actually hear because of what travels through my skull. It’s loud, but manageable.”
“What about touch?” I remembered Maia stopping herself from connecting her friendly jab with his skin.
“Eh, some days it’s better than others. Is why I have a waiver for green flag days to just wear these things,” he gestured towards under the table, “and flip-flops. I can deal with the wind if it’s not too strong. On red flag days, though, I have to wear a proper uniform - so they give me some whacked drugs that dull the sensations of my skin way down. I’m kinda loopy on that stuff; if I have quizzes or tests they let me just use the video conferencing setup we have in each room in Hawthorne. Anyway, that’s why I call myself ‘Sense’.” He smiled, shrugged again, and took another bite of oatmeal.
“Huh, I didn’t see a monitor or camera in my room. Granted I’m supposed to be getting a laptop.”
Maia had been hungrily devouring her raw steak, which provided a good view of how sharp her front teeth actually were. “Aren’t you up in the attic? Maybe they haven’t installed it all yet. Hey - as a mystic arts student myself, I’d love to see those circles you said the staff put up there. I bet they look cool.”
“Yeah, they do. Though I’m not sure how comfortable I’ll be sleeping in it.” Ah hell, remembering Maia’s own sleeping arrangement I felt like an idiot and babbled quickly, “I’ll get used to it, I’m sure.”
I shoved some salad into my mouth and hoped she wouldn’t be offended. If she had been, she didn’t show it.
“So why’d you choose the name ‘Aradia’?” Leland asked instead.
From behind me maybe two tables away I heard a loud gasp, but I tried to answer him.
“Well, when I power up? I really start to glow, like under the skin white LED bright. All my powers seem connected to raw light mystic energy somehow. So, you know, ‘radiant’… Aradia! I had to choose something.” I shrugged. I didn’t want to try and explain how Soren had been the true source of the name. Yeah, no.
“How dare you!” From behind me a girl’s voice echoed across the cafeteria with sheer indignation, merging with the scrape of a chair being shoved backwards. We all looked over to see a girl, obviously rather pretty with flowing raven hair and piercing green eyes, standing and staring at me, fists clenched at her sides. Her friend, a skinny girl with brown hair in a ponytail, stared up at her with a clinical expression.
“Excuse me?” I said in surprise.
The green-eyed girl, who was probably a few inches shorter than me (though I didn’t stand up to check), stalked over to our table. “I said, how dare you!”
I frowned. Even Leland and Maia were startled by the vehemence of this girls anger. “How dare I what?” I asked her.
“How dare you take that name! Are you even of The Path?” She wore the standard uniform blouse, but I noticed a silver necklace around her throat from which dangled a single black opal clasped in more silver. Something about that opal was bothersome, but her question distracted me.
“The… Path? What’s that?” I said, befuddled.
The girl spluttered and her eyes seemed to want to pop out of her head. Maia answered me in a cautious tone. “The Path is a specific form of Wicca. Tamara follows it, as does her mom.”
Green eyes flashed at Maia. “That’s ‘Sigil’ to you, and my mother is the High Priestess of the Wiccan Council! She does not merely ‘follow’ The Path - she IS the Path!”
Trying to redirect Tamara’s anger away from Maia, I said, “Hey, you’re upset with me, remember? So what’s the deal about me using the codename ‘Aradia’?”
I succeeded - she turned back to me in disgust. “How could you even pick a name without bothering to look it up properly. But to those of us serving the Goddess, using that name is like someone choosing ‘Jesus Christ’! A devout Christian would be outraged! You’re new and obviously an idiot - change it tomorrow and I’ll let this go.”
Right. Ender’s Game, challenges, Fight Club, first day in the prison yard. Fun, right?
Putting down my fork again (I really wasn’t making much headway on my salad, all things considered), I stood up so I could deliberately look down at Tamara. At the same time I reached out to the Light that seemed every day to be more and more readily available. I let my eyes and skin begin to burn with its glow.
“I may be new, but as I understand it as long as a name is not in use by another, it’s fair game. But if you really want me to choose another name because mine seems to offend you so badly, I’ll make you an offer. I’ll change mine… if you change yours.”
Her eyes widened with the incomprehensibility of my challenge, her mouth parted yet speechless.
My irritation may have gotten the better of me as I said, “Think of it as a test of your faith. If it means that much to you, what sacrifice to your Goddess would be too much to bear?”
“You… bitch!” Her hand flew towards my face.
Much to her surprise, I caught it. She was strong, definitely Exemplar, but lucky for me I was stronger and held her fast. I saw her shorter friend walk quietly up behind her.
“I’d rather not start a fight on my first day here," I said. “My offer stands, but I’ll do the research on the name and make up my own mind what to do about it. Until then…” I released her arm and took a step back. “Have a nice night!”
I both felt and saw her gathering energy about herself - sparkles appeared in my vision to flow upwards and spin around her upraised hand. It looked like she was about to start drawing in the air with her power when her friend tugged at Tamara’s other arm. Her friend shook her head ‘no’ at her, eyes looking back at me in disturbingly cold calculation.
Tamara, shaking off her friend’s hand, spat at my feet. “You’ll regret this, noobie. C’mon Fields, let’s leave this bitch to her freak Thornie friends.” With that she marched off, her friend following closely behind.
Inhaling and letting it out slow, I tried to release the energy I had called up. Turning back to Leland and Maia, I noticed Leland looking a bit pale. Maia, though, her eyes were closed and she had both palms held facing me with a blissful expression on her face.
Her fingertips had sprouted tiny little blue flowers.
“Maia? You okay?” I sat down, gawking at her hands.
“Mmmmm?” Her brown eyes opened and she shivered. “Oh wow. This is… amazing.” Her voice chimed distantly.
Leland and I glanced at each other in confusion, then back at Maia. “Uh… it is?” I asked.
“I’ve never felt anything like this…” She reached towards me and brushed a flower from her fingertip across the fading glow on my arm. Then, as the last of my light disappeared, she recoiled. “Oh my god!” She blurted, yanking her hand away from me.
Leland, his voice a bit awed, said, “I’ve never seen her grow flowers before. What did you do?”
“I just powered up a little…”
“A little? Look at her eyes, her pupils are totally dilated.”
I looked. He was right, they were.
Embarrassed, Maia snapped them shut and crossed her arms, hugging herself. We could see her trying to shake off the effect.
“Crap. I’m sorry Maia…”
She held up a hand at me. I watched the flowers fold back into buds and disappear back into her fingers. “No, it’s not your fault. None of us knew. It’s just,” she bit her lip and blushed fiercely, visibly red even with her dark skin. “That was maybe the best thing I think I’ve ever felt.”
Leland just had to say it. “Dang, if that was just a little powered up - imagine if you went full strength!”
Maia bit her lip even harder, and I could see her breathing quicken at the thought.
“Uh, I don’t think that would be a good idea.” I said cautiously.
Looking between us, Leland laughed. “Yeah, definitely not in the cafeteria anyway.”
“Oh my god,” Maia said again, and buried her face in her hands.
That got Leland laughing even harder. I tried, once again, to maybe finish my dinner. We sat in silence for a bit, except for an occasional chuckle from Leland, then I thought of something.
“Hey, why did Tamara call you ‘Thornies’?”
Leland turned his covered eyes towards me. “Isn’t that obvious? We live in Hawthorne. So we’re ‘Thornies’.”
It finally clicked, and I burst out with wild laughter.
Maia and Leland stared at me. Leland said, “What? It’s not that funny.”
I couldn’t contain my giggles, nor could I explain it to them: the irony of fate was just too hilarious. A short few days ago I had given up my rightful name.
You know: ‘Justin Henry Thorne’.
It seems the universe had decided that regardless, I was still meant to be a ‘Thorne’.
Grinning foolishly, I held up my glass to my new friends. “To Hawthorne, and to all us ‘Thornies’!”
With shrugs and confused looks, they both clinked my glass.
We made it back to our cottage without incident. They both wanted to see my room, so I brought them up in the elevator on one condition: I wanted to borrow a tablet or something so I could use the Internet. Leland fetched his and handed it over without protest.
Once up there, they spent the first ten minutes chasing Khan around. Maia was thrilled at the thought of our cottage having a cat. Leland tried to play it cool, but I caught the grin on his face when he got Khan to chase after him in return. Maia then became distracted by the mystical circles on my floor, kneeling at the second circle. She seemed to be reading the Norse runes quietly to herself, slowly making her way around to examine the entire circuit.
As for me, I needed to know what Tamara had been going on about. She had been right on one point - I really should have done research before selecting any name.
Especially as mine had a Wikipedia entry, referencing a book, ‘Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches’. I kid you not. No wonder Tamara freaked out.
There was a lot there, even stuff calling Aradia a demon. But it was a book from 1899 that really caught my attention, as it begins with the story of Aradia’s birth to Diana and… Lucifer, whom it described as “the god of the Sun and of the Moon, the god of Light”.
Daughter of Lucifer. That really didn’t sound good. I’d say, ‘What the hell, Soren?’ except the answer could well be: ‘yes, exactly’.
Leland and Maia hung around for bit longer while I kept reading, but soon Leland wanted to get to his computer and log into some multi-player video game - he openly admitted he was addicted to it. Maia, concluding that the circles on my floor were too advanced for her to understand properly, left to go watch more Netflix in the lounge downstairs.
Thanks to Leland graciously letting me hold onto his tablet I spent another hour or two trying to do further research on my chosen codename - but didn’t find much more other than interesting historical details regarding Stregerian witches. Leland, before his inner call to ‘grind more raiding mats’ as he put it, had been amused that he and the author of the Aradia book shared a name - the author was named ‘Charles Godfrey Leland’. He thought that was pretty cool.
Other than Aradia being a goddess-type who either was born here or came down to earth from spirit to keep doing magic - plus her being the whole ‘daughter of Lucifer and Diana’ part - I didn’t find any other connection to angels. If anything the whole mystical tradition described was somewhat anti-society for the time and therefore anti-Christian. In fact a modern follower of the ‘Aridian Tradition’ had accused Leland of ‘Christianizing’ the legend with his eighteenth century book and description of her.
Frankly I was more confused at the end of those hours than I had been when I started. I began to wonder if Soren had called me by that name purely as some sort of inside joke. But at the same time, he had just recited a solemn Hebrew prayer and seemed very serious. What he specifically said was ‘For you are my Sabbath candle… my Aradia’, in which case he may have just been referring to the legend itself - with me being just ‘his’ metaphoric version of her, due perhaps to some angelic or mythic similarity.
If that was the case, the Lucifer’s daughter angle might be the important part, and not the goddess-based tradition of Aradia herself. Maybe.
I wondered if Soren would answer my questions after I flattened his nose. Worth the risk, in my opinion. After all, why the hell did he have to go and kidnap my niece if he was interested in me all along? Couldn’t he have just grabbed me first? Somewhere in the back of my mind I felt like I had a possible answer to these questions lurking in the depths of my subconscious, but no matter how much I beat my inner face against those waters nothing of substance revealed itself.
Eventually I dropped the tablet in frustration upon my bed and pulled out Dad’s old Spanish flamenco guitar. I had do something entirely different and distract myself or I’d start shouting at the walls. And if the room wasn’t soundproof enough, that could lead to campus administrators deciding I needed padded walls instead of just the funky triple-circle-of-whatever-it-did carved and painted on the floor.
The poor guitar had neglected for far too many years, so I had to restring it first before I could play anything. Fortunately I had followed Dad’s tradition when the instrument was last packed into its case so there was a spare set of strings in there along with a tuning fork. Forks don’t need batteries and therefore were excellent backups to the fancier electronic tuning devices most people use these days. Once I replayed in my mind how to tie the tiny knots on the strings properly to secure them to the pegs and to the bridge I got it tuned. New strings need to be played for awhile before they stretch and settle, so I had to re-tune them pretty much after each piece I attempted to remember and play. You can break them in faster if you just strum the heck out of them for a bit, but I was trying to ease into it a little more slowly than that. Again - didn’t want to freak any possibly listening neighbors with sheer chaotic flamenco hammering.
Even if that fit my current mood.
So I started simple - first some scales to ease my fingers back into the patterns. That took some getting used to all by itself as my fingers were now not only more slender but also longer than what they were only a week or so ago. Strength and nimbleness, though, that they had to spare - nor were they getting sore from pressing on the fretboard without the usual callouses developed from regular play.
Between being able to remember in absolute detail all the sheet music I was missing and the remarkable dexterity of my hands, I had to admit that being an Exemplar had some nice perks. After getting through the scales and chord progressions, I added some tremelo on top as I regained some confidence that hey, maybe I could still play this thing!
Finally I began to test out the various pieces I used to know, finding the muscle memory still rusty and slightly off. But the more I played, the smoother it became as my brain started to adapt the old commands to the framework of new hands, wrists, and fingers. Soon I began to lose myself in the music of malaguenas, fandangos, soleares, and especially the soft moving tones of granadinas.
As I played my mind conjured the perfect sounds of my father’s professional playing that I had listened to as a toddler - memories I didn’t even know I possessed with such clarity. I soon found myself trying to play counterpart to his melodies and falsettas, my ears overlaying my halting tracks onto the much more accomplished remembered music he once joyfully played on this very same guitar.
Closing my eyes, I could pretend he was sitting there with me, his loving smile widening with encouragement whenever I missed a note and had to correct.
It took Khan nudging at my ankles for me to realize my cheeks had become damp once again. After wiping under my eyes with the back of a hand, I carefully returned the guitar to its case on the floor before letting Khan hop into my lap. He tried to help dry my face with the furry sides of his own. I held him close and was very glad he at least was still with me.
Eventually we got up, I put on new pajamas and brushed my teeth in my little bathroom, and together we curled up on the large bed within its triple layers of magic.
Khan may have fallen asleep first, but if so he only won by a few seconds.
Sandy grass brushes bare toes, a silent ballet honoring the minstrel song whispered by an ocean breeze. Dense haze swirls in counterpoint, encompassing all within its damp blanket. Waves drum slowly against nearby rocks provide the heartbeat of this dance between mist and earth.
Drifting towards the inviting percussion, chills rise from the ground up through the soles into ankles while airborne elemental cousins thicken to press wetly against face and body. Hands reach outward touching the solidifying barrier denying all further movement.
Behind the fog a voice calls, echoing a pull from within. Frustration and desire summon will and light hoping to burn clear the forbidding mist. Hands aglow with inner resolve sink into cloud, illuminating patterns defining the essence of the boundary…
Once again a loud obnoxious phone yanked me awake.
With head still resting on a pillow my vision swam unsteadily between the dark rafter beams above and the remnants of a fog which still tried to cloud my sight and mind. Khan was perched on my chest holding one paw resting against the middle of my forehead.
I was shining again - a continual wave of goosebumps was rushing through me - but when my vision finally focused on the waking world I saw I wasn’t the only source of illumination.
Khan’s usual yellow-green reflective eyes glowed a brilliant gold that must have matched my own.
He meowed at me. Being too surprised to move I just lay there watching as both our lights faded quickly away. The phone impatiently repeated its shrill announcement.
Groaning, I slid sideways out from under the blanket so as not to dump Khan unceremoniously onto the floor. I managed to grab the handset over on the desk before it finished its fourth ring.
“Hello?” My voice was both groggy and anxiously confused. Go figure.
“Jordan, dear?” It was Mrs. Cantrel. “A number of packages were just delivered for you. Also it is nearing eight o’clock - if you want breakfast, best get it soon so you won’t be late to your ten o’clock appointment.”
“Oh. Guess I overslept, sorry. I’ll be down in a minute. Thanks!”
“Don’t dawdle now,” she said and hung up.
I stumbled back over to Khan who had taken advantage of my exodus to stretch out across the remains of the warm spot on the bed. “You okay, buddy?” I asked, but he just yawned in response before rolling over exposing more fluffy white belly. He seemed rather nonplussed so I gave his belly a good rub while pondering what I had just seen and what it might mean.
Yep, I had no clue.
Shaking my head at yet more magical weirdness, I went over and rummaged in the wardrobe for the white t-shirt with a picture of Alice in her blue dress falling down the rabbit hole from Alice In Wonderland. We both were falling into an entirely different world from what we had ever known - and who knew what we’d find at the bottom?
As I slipped off my dark red pajama top, there was movement out on the balcony. Without thinking I turned to try and see what it was, crossing over to the doors to get a clearer view of what might be out there.
Thick summer storm clouds rolled past dimming the morning sky. They weren’t the source of the motion I spotted, however. Perched on the railing guarding the edge of the roof was the hawk I had seen yesterday. At least, I thought it was the same hawk - the colors looked darn similar - but now I was much closer.
The bird was staring through the glass right at me. It even tilted its head sideways.
I looked down at my bare chest and realized that if a person had been standing out there they would have a very nice view of my bosom.
Laughing at myself with the absurdity of needing to be careful in the future about going topless, I put my hands on my hips and began hopping up and down on my tiptoes as if to emphasize my own internal point as to why. This, naturally, caused the new frontal appendages to jiggle quite merrily.
“How’s that for a good eyeful, eh birdie?” I continued to bounce in amusement before the peeping hawk.
Magnificent wings stretched outward in response, and damn me if the bird’s head didn’t then bop up and down in sync with my own rhythm as if it was also in on my joke and enjoying the show.
Sudden self-consciousness flooded across my cheeks. I tried to cover myself with my arms while standing there awkwardly.
With what I swear was a screech of amusement, the hawk launched itself upward to fly over the roof.
“That wasn’t weird or anything,” I muttered in embarrassed confusion.
Deciding to try not to think about it, I hurriedly got dressed while stifling a lingering yawn or two. I didn’t know how late I had stayed up as I hadn’t checked, but obviously the sleep I’d gotten hadn’t been enough. Isn’t that usually the case though?
Now clothed in jeans-shorts, Alice t-shirt, and sandals, I hastily pulled hair back and into a white scrunchy then went downstairs. And no, I didn’t forget to put on a bra first. Sheesh.
Mrs. Cantrel hadn’t been kidding - resting just inside the lobby was a good sized pile of cardboard shipping boxes all addressed to Jordan Emrys.
I hoped I didn’t annoy anyone on other floors waiting for a ride by using a box to wedge the elevator doors open as I loaded them all in, repeating the same to get them out once I got back up to the attic. It wasn’t that they were too heavy for me to lift all at once, it’s just that even with enhanced strength juggling that many bulky items did not seem like a good idea.
With time being of the essence if I wanted breakfast (which was sounding better and better with each passing minute), I went through the process of opening them all up just to see what was inside, figuring I’d unpack later.
To my happy surprise, Cecilia Rogers had already overnighted enough items to provide for at least one full Whateley uniform, including a single pair of black leather pumps. The last time I wore anything with heels was some cowboy boots back at the end of college, so these were going to be interesting to get used to. She also managed to finish a few sets of matching underthings. I will admit I was looking forward to trying them on, if only because I bet they were more comfortable than the much cheaper ones I was currently wearing. Sadly I didn’t have time to do that right now.
Another box revealed a Samsonite laptop bag , and sure enough the other slender box indeed contained a new laptop. Hooray! Knowing that starting it up would cause horribly distraction while I irresistibly customized the desktop colors and background image, not to mention wanting to explore what security features it had, I reluctantly put it aside without yielding to the temptation.
The specifications looked pretty darn good though - even if it might need one of those cooling-fan laptop pads should I ever try to play modern videos game on it. I hadn’t played any for years, but hey - I was a kid again, right? After all, it might blow my cover if I didn’t at least install a couple. Maybe I should ask Leland in more detail about what he plays.
That left six rather heavy boxes which had me puzzled, and none of them had return address labels affixed to them. After getting through the thick packing tape I found they were all full of books: paperbacks and hardbacks packed solidly to maximize the use of the container space.
The second box contained a note:
Books have been one constant comfort through the years. May these help restart the collection from which you have been separated. - C.S.
‘C.S.’ - Callas Soren. It had to be.
Forgetting the time constraints, I dug through the volumes and formed piles on the floor. My favorite authors were all included: Charles De Lint, Steven Brust, Gaiman (including all his graphic novels!), Heinlein, and many more. Soren hadn’t gotten all the books that likely still lined the shelves of my old home, that would have been impossible as between Caroline and myself we had amassed a couple thousand or so needing shelves covering every available wall and, in my opinion, had made our home… well, an actual Home.
Other than the fact Khan lived there, of course - who naturally had immediately claimed and occupied one of the empty boxes resting next to me on the attic floor. Yep, cat.
There were some other books I didn’t recognize mixed in. The Book of Enoch, The Book of Jubilees, Learn Biblical Hebrew, A Dictionary of Angels, and another one called Inner Space: Introduction to Kabbalah, Meditation, and Prophecy by a rabbi named Aryeh Kaplan.
Talk about your not-so-subtle reading assignments. I hadn’t even gotten my course schedule figured out and I already had homework.
Oh crap, my adviser meeting! And breakfast!
I decided not to take the elevator which I had rudely monopolized getting all the stuff up here. Instead I bolted down the stairwell that sat next to it - noting that its door leading to my room also had a keycard security panel. Nice.
I ran out the doors and past Doyle to arrive behind Schuster Hall at the cafeteria. Oh, and it had started raining pretty hard outside while I was distracted by books and things, so I arrived fairly drenched as I didn’t bring (or own) an umbrella. Would need to add that to my web-ordering wish list.
Considering the late time of morning, the cafeteria was pretty empty inside - but the food was still hot. One hastily scarfed ham and swiss omelet with a pile of bacon later and I was out the door again jogging down the road towards Kirby Hall - a round medieval-town looking building where Rabbi Immanuel Kirov was supposed to have an office. According to the clock that hung above the cafeteria’s food-line, I had less than ten minutes to get over there and find it.
Getting further soaked as I jogged and hoping to cut the distance, I turned off the main road’s pavement to run across the lawn to the architecturally mismatched hall. But as I went onto the grass my right foot came down and to my dismay sank a good six inches into a muddy sinkhole.
My ankle twisted immediately in protestation as my momentum slammed me forward face first into more mud-covered grass.
Uttering some rather un-lady-like curses I extracted my foot from the muck, adding a string of additional epithets when I discovered my shoe had decided it rather liked things down at the bottom and hadn’t come up with the wet sock enshrouded toes.
My ankle throbbed painfully as my knees gained their own layer of mud while I shoved a hand into the hole to fish out my reluctant tennis shoe.
That’s when I spotted the flagpole back at the square wasn’t waving a green banner today: it was a bright and obvious red. If I channeled any energy to heal, I’d become a human lamp - especially in the dim light of this storm-occluded day. No healing in public like that would be tolerated, and getting in trouble on my first full day on campus really seemed like a bad idea.
Shit shit shit.
With the surprisingly warm downpour matching my rapidly souring mood, I tested putting weight on my foot - only to have it crumple in further hot agony.
Gritting teeth, I dragged my foot slowly across the soaked lawn towards Kirby Hall in halting and painful stutter-step-slides.
A tall kid, somewhere north of six foot fifteen in height and looking like a truck barely contained in a school uniform ran up to me. His blond hair was damply plastered against his head, otherwise I swear he looked a lot like Guile from Streetfighter only wider and more muscular if you can believe that.
“Hey, you okay? I saw you trip…”
“Just… need to get indoors,” I said through the pulsing pain throbbing with each heartbeat. “Will be fine then.”
He looked down at my ankle, which clearly didn’t look fine. In fact it had swollen to the size of a football - an object he probably was very familiar with. Or at least ought to have been.
“You really should get to Doyle for that. I could carry you if you’d like.”
He sounded genuinely concerned, so I stopped trying to sludge forward with a sigh. I looked around to make sure no one else was within earshot.
“I can regenerate, but it’s, uh, obvious when I do.” I winced as I tried to find my balance, and without asking first the guy put an arm around my shoulder to hold me upright. Which, dammit, I needed.
“Oh. There’s a girl’s restroom just inside the entrance to Kirby - that’s where you’re going, right?”
I nodded. “Yeah.”
“C’mon, I’ll help.” Finding myself practically lifted off the ground by his one arm, with his aid I managed to hop across the lawn. He kept talking; I think he was trying to distract me from the injury by doing so.
“So you new here? I’m Brendan Rogers and live over in Emerson.”
“Hi. I’m Jordan. Moved into Hawthorne yesterday.”
His step stuttered for a second. “Hawthorne?” he asked, with a note of caution creeping into his voice.
I shook my head. “Energy issues when I sleep. They put me in the attic - it’s big enough for the protection wards.”
“Oh.” He thought for a second and must have decided that I was safe enough, and he perked back up. “Well, welcome to Whateley, Jordan! Nice to meet you. And we’re almost there,” he added as we approached the doors.
“Nice meeting you too, Brendan.” I couldn’t help but feel like a tiny hobbit in comparison to him - his arm was a tree trunk that must have been doused with Miracle-Grow since sprouting. “And uh, thanks for the help. I really appreciate it.”
He grinned broadly - much like a puppy who may have just found his new favorite thing.
Oh crud. I was his damsel in distress and he was playing the part of the hero.
“Always glad to help!” he said brightly. Then after a thoughtful pause he said, “Say, tomorrow is our usual Emerson popcorn-fueled Friday movie night, you’re more than welcome to stop by - our cottage is mostly empty so there’s plenty of seats…”
Holy hell, the poor guy was trying to ask me out… without actually asking me out. Smooth attempt, I’ll grant him that.
He even held the doors for me when we got to them so I could limp through, while patiently waiting for my answer.
“You know, I might do that,” I said after hobbling past still clutching my mud-covered shoe. Wait, what did I just say? I watched the puppy’s eyes gain their own inner glow of excitement. I hastily added, “But I can’t promise, okay? I just got here and I was warned I may have a ton of preparation work to do before classes start to catch up to everyone. That’s who I’m going to go see now - my adviser - so I can figure all that out.”
“Oh, well that’s cool if you can’t. But we’re going to marathon all the Prophecy movies - they have Christopher Walken in them, it’s gonna be great!” I could hear an edge of disappointment in his voice at the prospect of me not showing up. Dangit!
We made it across the lobby to the door of the women’s restroom. I turned to face him with as best a smile as I could manage in spite of my ankle’s continued complaints pounding all the nerves it could find. “Hey, tell you what - if I can’t make it, I’ll take a rain check, okay? Only fair, considering we just met in the rain?”
He laughed easily. “Yeah, I guess that’s fair. Though I’ll still hope you can be there. Listen, I got to run myself, you sure you’ll be okay once you, you know…” He gestured at the bathroom door.
I nodded. “I’ll be fine. Thanks again.”
With a grin he turned to go. “Remember, eight o’clock at Emerson! Ask for Tank!”
‘Tank’. Of course.
He even turned to wave at me again through the glass windows of the lobby doors before running off through the summer shower.
With a groan that wasn’t just about my twisted foot, I dragged myself past the threshold into the girl’s room and into one of its stalls.
After making sure there was no one else in the bathroom, I reached within to summon the light energies to let it flow into my poor ankle. It was starting to get easier and easier to tap into that flow, bringing with it a sense of peace for which I was grateful. I think it also messed with my mind too - I kept thinking back to Brendan’s genuine smile and his desire to help someone in need. Asking me to join him for the movies only occurred to him after he was trying to make conversation - his initial rush to my side was only to give aid. Only after we were halfway to the lobby did I think he realized he had a cute girl under his wing.
Even if that cute girl happened to be me, I still felt moved by it somehow. Must be a side effect of channeling this much of that heavenly light.
It took a good number of minutes and I probably looked like someone warning away ships from shallow dangerous beaches from inside my stall, but the pain and swelling went way down until I could rotate my foot without any issues.
I sighed deeply with immense relief and, with a bit of reluctance, let the energy connection to the above close off.
Stepping out of the stall on two steady feet, I caught sight of myself in the mirror and muttered a few additional choice words. My visage was covered in mud: face, shirt, hair, hands, arms, knees, you name it - it had wet soil smeared on it. No wonder Brendan hadn’t thought of me that way at first - I looked like a slender swamp thing!
And my adviser appointment was probably either in a few more minutes, or I was now late. With no clock (or phone), I wasn’t sure which.
Using the sink, mirror, and a ton of paper towels I did the best I could, plopping my squishy shoe over my utterly soaked sock for good measure.
I hoped that the rabbi didn’t mind an ‘earthy’ smell wafting off his students.
Heading out the door I almost bumped into another student about my apparent age or older. One look at me and she shook her head, causing all the multi-colored beads at the ends of her hair to clatter against each other.
“Damn, girl. What in tarnation happened to you?”
“Sinkhole in the lawn - wish I had time to shower but I don’t. Do you know where Rabbi Kirov’s office is?”
“Down this hallway and three doors to the left there.” She pointed.
“Thanks!” I hurried past her to follow her directions.
“Hey, wait up a sec!” she called after me so I paused, turning back to her with puzzled annoyance as she jogged closer.
“Hold still a moment, all right?” she said as she looked up and down the halls. I realized she was making sure we were alone. Lifting one of her creme-colored hands, she closed her eyes in concentration while murmuring words under her breath I didn’t understand.
To my amazement, the dirt and grime that had soaked into my clothes, skin, and hair flowed slowly off in multiple spirals which all coalesced into a single ball of mud hovering over her upraised palm. With another gesture from her other hand I felt a whoosh of heat suck the residue of moisture from my shoe, sock, shirt, and well… everything. Head to toe was now dry and clean - as if I’d just thrown on fresh clothes right after a shower.
“Wow!” I didn’t try to hide my amazement. “That was awesome, thank you!”
The girl smiled at me warmly. “You’re in the mystic halls, hon. I’m in the advanced class. You new?”
“Yeah,” I smiled back. “Not used to all this magic yet. Really cool.”
“Yep, it sure is. You going to be a student of the arts?”
“Honestly, I have no idea, but maybe? I mean, I need to learn control over the energies I’ve been channeling, so…”
“Energies, huh? That might explain this delicious looking aura you’ve got goin’ on.” She brushed her open hand over my head and a shoulder with a light touch that also yielded a momentary visible spark. Her smile widened, “Now that was interesting. They assign you a cottage yet?”
“Yeah, Hawthorne.” Before she could ask I explained like I did to Brendan. “They needed a large space for this triple circle thing - it’s to contain my energy issues when I sleep.”
Unlike the heroic puppy earlier, she didn’t flinch when I mentioned Hawthorne. “A Thornie, eh? Some good folks in there.”
“How about you? I’m still learning them all.”
“I’m in Poe, sweetie. Anyone mention us yet?” She laughed as if to an inside joke of some sort.
“Only Mrs. Shugendo,” I answered truthfully. “She mentioned something about me being initially assigned to Poe - but the rooms weren’t large enough for their circle I guess so they put me in Hawthorne instead.”
This surprised the girl, and she looked me over with a new contemplative expression. “Really. In that case, I’m Lauren.” She winked at me.
“I’m Jordan - Jordan Emrys.” I wasn’t sure what my potentially being assigned to her cottage had to do with anything, unless she thought that if I got my energy issues under control I might be moved there into a normal room. I hadn’t thought of that myself - she might be right. Huh - from what I read in the school catalog brochure that would mean I’d be given a roommate.
Wonder if I could petition for a single anyway if it came to that.
“Oh you are a cutie, aren’t you?” Noticing my sudden distraction in thought, she giggled and tossed the ball of dirt into the air towards me to catch. “See you around, Jordan!” she said before she turned to merrily skip on down the hall to head into the restroom I came out of while still chuckling to herself.
“Uh, yeah, see ya!” I said somewhat lamely, though at least I managed to catch the ball. It was completely dry and packed solid.
Still holding it in my hand, I found the rabbi’s office and knocked on the closed door.
A deep yet calm voice with a slight accent that held a hint of New York and Yiddish answered. “Enter.”
It wasn’t until later that evening that I realized in passing thought that hey, wait a minute, had Lauren been flirting with me too?
Rabbi Immanuel Kirov was sitting in his office behind a large oaken desk which was covered in piles of leather-bound books, loose papers, and at least three dirty tea-cups each of a different style: glass in silver metal carrier, white decorative porcelain, and also a blue mug whose golden letters read, “Want to win at the Game of Life? Git God!”
Having met his two brothers, first at the hospital with the shorter and stouter Doctor Anton, and second at the DPA with the mountain of a man Professor Gregory, I found Immanuel to be a cross between the two though obviously the eldest. Despite his slouched demeanor, I could tell he was taller than me, but unlike Gregory his face and chest were narrow, except for a belly being held back by red suspenders.
His white beard, while quite grand both in length and width, was immaculately well-trimmed but his eyebrows had the shared wild bushiness of his brothers. His wispy hair was also reminiscent of Albert Einstein’s frenetic style - albeit tempered slightly by a hand-crocheted blue and green kippah resting atop the sparse fractal mess.
He gestured vaguely towards me with yet another teacup (glass with golden metal holder) without looking up. His bespectacled eyes were locked upon the pages of a huge tome dominating the center of his desk.
“Come in, come in. Have some tea; the samovar is freshly full.”
Thanks to my friend Isaiah (who I hoped was doing okay with Danielle and vice versa), I recognized the rabbi’s Russian tea apparatus - a polished bronze contraption consisting of a lower heated pot with a spigot, and a smaller teapot resting on top. It sat aside a small selection of presumably clean teacups all on a table which was wedged between two tall bookshelves filled with even more books of various sizes. Some volumes were labeled in Russian, others in Hebrew or Greek, and a few that I walked past may have been Sanskrit.
Quite a collection, in any case.
When I finished pouring the deeply dark tea (having dropped the dirtball in a nearby trashcan), I filled half a cup before using the spigot to dispense the hot water and dilute the potency to something I might enjoy. I skipped the available sugar or jam.
“To use the samovar, pour from the top… oh! You’re familiar with them?”
I crossed over in front of his desk and sat in a well-used red-leather chair. “Yes, a friend of mine has one, thank you.”
Adjusting the bi-focals on his nose he peered at me for a long moment. “You must be our newest student Ms. Emrys.” He nodded to himself as if confirming a theory he had held doubts about before.
“Yes, sir? I was supposed to be here at ten this morning?” Glancing about, I noticed his office did not have a clock - how late was I?
“Mmm. Is it ten already?” He patted at his shirt pockets, frowned, and then rummaged in the ones in his slacks before staring over at the brown professorial suit jacket hanging by the door. “My watch is likely in that coat of mine.”
He paused, and I wondered if he had meant for me to go fetch it but before I could rise from my seat (while still holding my rather hot teacup by its saucer), he waved a hand dismissively. “No matter, we are both here, and thus we were on time for that!”
He chuckled to himself at his joke, and then his eyes fell back to the tome on his desk. He started murmuring the words while he continued reading from where he had left off a moment ago.
I sat quietly for a minute which must have dragged on to two, or even three. While the tea was quite good, I finally had to prompt him. “Sir?”
Without looking up he pointed towards his book with his non-cup ladened hand. “This part right here is most interesting, you see.”
“Uh, it is?”
“Oh most definitely. It has clarified a few things I was concerned about quite nicely.” He nodded happily at the book. I sat up straighter and tried to get a look at the open pages that were hidden from view by the stack of papers lying loosely between me and it. The font was tiny for such a large tome, and as the letters were obviously Hebrew I was none the wiser.
“Clarified what?” I asked.
He leaned back in his chair, taking a sip from his own cup while his eyes twinkled behind his glasses.
“It has made clear that I should not try to teach you.”
What? He had to be kidding! After Gregory’s recommendations and my hopes for actually learning control of all the craziness, maybe even figuring out what it all meant… my anger flare instant and hot.
“Then… what the hell am I doing here… sir.” I didn’t shout it. I should have earned points for that alone. My teacup, though, began to rattle on the saucer I was holding it by.
His expression became puzzled as he took in my obvious confusion and anger. “Why to learn, of course.” Then understanding finally blossomed across his face. “Oh! I think you’ve misunderstood.”
“Have I.” I glared at him.
“Yes, yes. You see, as one of the Malakhim - or perhaps of one of the other ranks - the usual classes we offer would be utterly misguided for you.”
He nodded. “Malakhim. A Hebrew term for angels, although it specifically refers to messenger angels. There are many ranks, call them ‘types’ if you prefer, of angels - and you are indeed of their number.” He spoke with the conviction of absolute certainty, before taking another sip from his cup.
“How can you be so sure?” The entire train of my thoughts had derailed at the station, leaving behind a mighty mess of confusion madly trying to scrape coherency together.
“Because I warded my office this morning so that only someone with the spirit of one of the Blessed Host could open the door there. Turned out such a spell was easier to perform than I expected. As you were my only morning appointment, it seemed a good way to settle any doubts I had over the reports I was given.” He shrugged.
My hand was still trembling. I carefully placed my saucer and cup on top of one of the book piles on his desk for its safety. “You really are sure?” I asked quietly.
“Oh yes. Anyone else, or any thing come to think of it, would have had to tear through the door to gain entry - and see? It is entirely still intact.”
My stomach felt sick.
“It’s not entirely unprecedented,” he was saying. “But I will admit it is indeed exciting! It is said that one of the greatest prophets, Elijah, was an angel himself before taking on the form of man. He is also commonly thought to have been raised up as Sandalphon - the great conveyor of prayers whose sandals touch the physical. He’s the leader of the Ophanim, by the way, the rank or order known as The Wheels. Sandalphon may also have had other incarnations besides Elijah as well, you see…” He trailed off as he realized I wasn’t properly listening. “Are you alright?” He asked with sudden curious concern.
No, I wasn’t alright. I guess my mind had been treating Nick’s idea as a remote possibility, one to worry about later if it ever confirmed but not relevant for the decisions of the moment. I had figured that it would be months if not years before such a thing could be determined - but my knowledge of magic and the expertise of those that wield it was pathetically small. The time to face the prospect, crashing in abruptly as it did, had arrived unexpectedly and all the fears that I had been unconsciously shoving in a dark closet broke free to flood everything, my mind whiplashing with uncontrollable questions. So I’m an actual angel, like ‘Of The Lord’? Did I suddenly need to believe in God? What if I didn’t? Would I fall to Hell immediately? Would things from down there try to hunt me in either case? Is that what Tsáyid was? Could he have been sent by Hell to kill me?
Was I a danger to Danielle by trying to stay near her as a result?
Could I be a danger to everyone? Could my powers harm the kids at this school? Or the teachers? Circe hadn’t wanted me here - what did she believe I would do or cause? Should I just leave? But where would I go? Without the school I had no money and barely existed. Wouldn’t I just cause more damage somewhere else?
My panic grew and grew; I hyperventilated without realizing it. I was oblivious to the tingling in my hands and the narrowness my vision had become.
“Shhh. It will be alright.” A hand was on my shoulder, gentle in touch yet providing an anchor upon which to focus. I had been rocking in my chair, my arms and skin flashing with chaotic pulses of energy as I huddled there while my chest struggled to contain a heart beating the irregular drums of internal confusions and fears.
The rabbi knelt beside me and chanted quietly, foreign words running through each other to form a calm and steady rhythm.
My heart attuned itself to the pace of his mantra, and my breathing became more regular. The crazy dancing of the lights under my skin mellowed into smoother cycles of bright and dim.
Sensing I was calmer, Immanuel ceased his chanting and opened his eyes. Gazing within them I found incredible depths of compassion pouring forth from his voice and touch. I know it sounds weird, but it’s how I saw and felt it.
He spoke, hardly louder than a whisper yet as clear as a crystal bell.
“Fear not, for you are where you are meant to be.”
There was a difference to the quality of his words - they were slower, more measured, and somehow… they were pure and full of truth.
I did not understand it, but his words soaked into me and extinguished the flames my frantic fears had summoned one by one.
It left me feeling at ease and strangely empty. All my worries, not just about the angel thing, but everything - all the events of the past week - had been washed away. Even stresses and pains I had carried within myself for years were now at a safe distance and in this moment put aside.
The internal peace his chant and words had summoned was simply sublime.
“How did you…?” I couldn’t even conjure thoughts to correctly describe it.
He kept a watchful eye on me and let go of my shoulder. “Words of truth have power,” he gently explained. “Here, finish your tea.” He handed me my cup and saucer.
My hands, now returned to their normal luminescence of pale non-tanned skin, were surprisingly steady. I drank as commanded while marveling at what he had done.
Rabbi Immanuel Kirov returned to his chair, sinking into the comfort of the old leather and padding.
“I had believed,” he said slowly, “that Mr. Nicolas Wright would have already confirmed for you what you are - and perhaps even offered introductory explanations of what it could mean. It seems I was mistaken. I am sorry.”
I could feel sympathy and regret emanating from him. Finding my voice I said, “Nick had to leave immediately to check into something. We didn’t get a chance to talk again before he left.”
He removed his glasses to rub the bridge of his nose. “Do you… have any notions of what an angel is?” He managed a gentle smile and replaced the spectacles over a rather impressive nose.
I shook my head, still floating within the tranquility. “Other than common culture’s understanding, no - I wasn’t raised religious.”
“That’s alright, and in fact that may help. No misunderstandings to cloud your thoughts.”
“I suppose. I just had - have - a lot of confusion and questions.” I found I was able to think with clarity, yet I knew the effect would not last forever.
“Will you believe me if I tell you that everything will be fine?” he asked.
“I… I honestly don’t know. I usually rely more on facts than belief.”
He breathed in deeply. “Well, perhaps we should start simple and provide you with possible frameworks of thought. Are you now up to listening and considering?”
I nodded, because yes - I felt I was, thanks to him. “I’m all ears, sir. Anything that could help make sense of… everything that’s happened.”
He paused to consider his next words carefully.
“You must first understand that there are many ways of viewing the world, many ways a person may assemble their perceptions of spiritual, physical, and even the mental landscapes with which they may come in contact.”
That’s starting ‘simple’? He continued.
“This is important because our understandings shape the way we think, the way we feel, and the way we act. When it comes to magical or spiritual matters - this is key.”
“I think I can understand that… sort of like how when they test for magic ability they check what resonances work and what doesn’t?”
“Yes, exactly!” He beamed at me, his eyes regaining their earlier merry sparkle. “To be a proper scholastic adviser for you, I’ve been granted access to your entire file - thus I am aware you have been a computer programmer, correct?”
“Uh, yes?” That seemed like a non-sequitur, so I frowned slightly.
“And you most likely have had to use several different programming languages in the course of your career?”
I nodded, beginning to see what he might try to drive at. “Sure. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses, but in the end they still manage to make the computer do things.”
“Precisely. The same can be said of magic, and also of ways - paradigms - of understanding the spiritual worlds. They are methods of forming the complexities of instructions to accomplish what is desired.”
“Alright, but what does that have to do with angels?”
“I’m getting to that. Your computer languages, they get translated into something else first though, do they not? A deeper level of instruction?”
“Well yes - machine code: the actual binary instructions that the processor can execute. The languages are higher abstractions of that logic, which allow us to build much larger and more complicated systems that can do a lot more. To do it all direct in machine code would be insane at the complexities of things we build these days - it’d be too much for a programmer or even a group of programmers to manage.”
He nodded. “Then would it make sense to you if I said that, for example, I use my training in Hebrew and especially in the Kabballah and study of Torah as my abstraction and paradigm for the commands I impose upon the system of the world? And that Circe, or the Norse practitioners, Kemetics, and all the other magical traditions have their own language and patterns of spells and workings?”
Okay, that made sense, at least to me. “Sure.”
“Then lets extend the metaphor slightly and say that beings of spirit are akin to self-aware programs, each also written in their own languages - albeit at potentially deeper layers than we humans use. Some could be likened to direct firmware of the computer or perhaps the operating system that runs atop that fundament.”
“Uh. Wait, give me a moment.” He paused, allowing me time to think. If a magical working is like a program, executing upon the world, and spirits were programs themselves… “So spirits are self-coherent instruction sets also running on the, uhm, the computer which is the universe?”
He smiled. “Very good. We often describe them as self-coherent energies. Their patterns are their programming in this metaphor.”
“Are you trying to say that an angel is a kind of artificial intelligence formed of spiritual energy?”
“Yes, but they are also, in my belief, the direct micro-code as spoken by the Creator of all that the computer was, is, and ever will be - purposed to not just be the hidden codes running along all the inner components such as access between memory and the processor, but also as needed they act as security and anti-virus to prevent foreign or internal entities from threatening the entire system.”
He looked deeply into my eyes and then said, “Angels are the direct words uttered by the Name made manifest - carrying and embodying His fundamental and vital instructions throughout the layers of all Creation.”
Oh. Is that all? Shit.
The rabbi kindly refilled our teas while I sat there trying to process and wrap my mind around what he had just attempted to explain.
“Here, drink. Tea always helps such thinkings.”
I thanked him, and took a sip before venturing a question.
“But what about the other, uh, ‘paradigms’, of beliefs? They all have their own versions of a beginning of the Universe, and gods, goddesses, and all that?”
He raised his cup in a small salute. “I am glad you asked! I absolutely must admit that, as a practicing Jew and devout follower of Elohim, my own understandings are distinctly flavored by my belief system. But the Kabballah teaches that beyond even Elohim - an entity who rules Heaven that most people conceive of as the God who sits on a Throne - lie the greater layers of abstract, until reaching the ineffable Source. This Source is, in the greatest sense, what we truly believe to be ‘God’ or the ‘the Name’ - the ultimate Creator, standing outside all of time, space, and all the other dimensions even as outlined in the Kabballah, and therefore completely unknowable and indescribable by Man.
“And yet,” he continued, “this Creator is both withdrawn from His Creation while simultaneously existing throughout it permeating the entire structure. It is a core paradox - to be both withdrawn and yet ever-present - but only when viewed from our limited minds and perceptions. Other religious systems have their own perspectives and understandings of these truths, each exploring different aspects perhaps of the greater and more deeply hidden truths. Their mystical spiritual deities also work at deeper layers then humanity does - towards the heart of the ‘machine code’ of existence as well perhaps.”
He took another swallow of his own tea, which he had doctored with a rather large amount of sugar followed by a spoonful of jam.
“That… that’s a lot to think about,” I said, my head still swimming.
“Of course! It is the beginning of a lifetime’s worth of contemplations and meditations. And I do apologize if it seems a bit much, as you are right, we should refocus on what this means for you - here and now.”
“My earlier statement about not teaching you was a literal one: for you see, as an angel your language through which to, shall we say, work your magics will likely be quite different than mine. The teachings of Kabballah that I give to select students is directed towards understanding how humanity can understand and become closer to God. The entire structure is geared for human ability, human spiritual structure, and yes human language. Of course, we believe our structure is a mirror of God’s - being created in His image, as it were. But the mapping and techniques as developed for man’s use is likely not perfectly suited to an angelic being who was designed to fulfill her purpose directly and instinctively. The abstract mappings should apply, but the specific practices may not and therefore could lead you in wrong directions.”
“Oh.” I couldn’t hide my disappointment and sank deeper into my chair.
“Fret not, this just means we will need to assign you independent study - with me attempting, as unworthy as I may be, to guide you along practical exercises through which you can discover your own methodologies. Already, it seems, you have naturally been able to do things which would take trained practitioners years to accomplish.”
“I don’t know about that - I’ve seen others do some pretty incredible things.” Visions of Danielle and her snow storms certainly came to mind - or the girl in the hallway just now.
He laughed lightly. “Well, that may be par for the course, especially here at Whateley. But let me see if I can give you an example.” He pointed over my head. “On the far wall there is a Star of David. Could you describe it to me?”
Shrugging, I turned around to look - and sure enough high on the wall above his samovar was a silver plaque upon which the six-pointed Star of David had been inscribed. Staring at it, I noted that in four of the corners of its triangles there were etched Hebrew letters. The more I stared at the letters, the more they seemed to stand out until to my surprise they began to glow with a bluish-white light to my sight.
I relayed this to the rabbi, my attention still captured by the four singular letters.
“My point exactly,” he said with satisfaction.
I turned around to look at him in confusion. “What?”
He nodded over my head again at the Star. “To a normal person who wandered in here, they would have only seen the star, and not the inscribed Tetragrammaton - the Name of God - written upon it. For most practitioners it takes years of meditation and mental discipline training to allow their minds to view the Name inscribed in this way - and yet you, with no training at all, saw it perfectly and were able to gain a measure of the strength of the energies bound to them.”
I couldn’t help it, I had to look back at the Star and its glowing letters.
“And that,“ he continued, “is where you should first focus your study. Perception of energies - their flow, their manifestations, and ultimately… their language as you see and understand it.”
My attention returned to my teacup. “I think I need to learn how to keep my own energy in check. Before I cause problems.”
“Perception is a necessary beginning step, Jordan. The circles we have provided in your room are there to keep you and others safe - not just for while you sleep but also for when you wish to practice drawing on and releasing your energies.”
“All three of those circles are different. I’ve wanted to ask - what are they exactly? How do they work?”
“If you can come to understand your native spiritual language, then the analysis will likely follow just by examination. As for the three - I did the innermost circle myself; it’s design should hold any energy you manifest within its boundaries, so that none leak outward to affect your fellow students or the staff.”
“Oh, that’s good to know. And the middle one?”
“My fellow instructors of the Mystic Arts pooled their knowledge to craft it. The video we saw of you flickering away while sleeping led us to believe you were possibly slipping towards other dimensional realms, something which I’m sure you’d agree would be nice to avoid.”
I nodded. “Uh, absolutely.” I thought of Khan possibly saving me from such a fate, and then of his new glowing eyes from the morning. I decided not to mention it - maybe I just saw a reflection of my own glow? Considering I was still half asleep, I really couldn’t be sure.
The rabbi added, “Thus the second circle is designed to be an anchor point - made to hold you here and keep you from untoward travels.”
“Huh. But what about the outer circle - the one with Greek words mixed in?”
“That was done personally by Circe - and we were not permitted by her to witness its creation. We asked her what it was for when she was done.” He paused to sip his tea again.
“What did she say?” I asked, as I felt the tranquility he had fostered starting to slip away.
“She called it a ‘failsafe’ and left it at that.” He shrugged, seemingly unconcerned.
Uh, I didn’t like the sound of that. What if she’d put some kind of magic bomb in my room that she could trigger if I got out of hand somehow? I had better figure out this whole spiritual language thing quick - if for no other reason than to determine if I was sleeping over a mystical nuke of some kind. Though wouldn’t the other teachers have tried to figure out what it was too? You know, more than just asking?
They’d warn me about it if it was actually a bomb, right? Wouldn’t they? Or raise objections to it? Ah hell. What if they wanted it to be vague to ‘encourage’ me to study harder? Ugh. That kind of Sword of Damocles motivation for a student to learn faster is truly unfair.
Effective, but unfair. Dammit.
After leaving my head spinning with thoughts of magical languages and spiritual agents of an all-encompassing God, Rabbi Immanuel switched to more mundane topics.
Like what the heck I should take for classes in the upcoming Fall Quarter.
For the few faculty that knew my true history - as opposed to the fake transcripts generated by Immanuel’s brother Gregory - they felt that me trying to take ‘normal’ high school level courses might compromise my cover story even worse than if I was just placed into higher curricula based on where I would properly fit academically. Or maybe even just focus on topics I needed now: magical and powers theory, mythological history, and martial arts or survival training. If I was put into regular junior Math, for example, other students would wonder what the heck I was doing there since I knew Calculus. They had a point. Even if I tried to fake ignorance, I’d eventually slip up - out of sheer overwhelming boredom, if nothing else.
Thing is, they wanted to know more precisely where I stood in academics considering it had been twenty years since I’d attended college. I think the faculty just wasn’t comfortable having a student they hadn’t fully evaluated scholastically and so I was informed that over the next few days I was to be given a set of ‘placement tests’ that were to run the gamut from Mathematics, Physics, English, History, Computer Science, and even Chemistry and Biology.
Which meant that they were going to give me exams throughout the weekend. Granted my sense of what day of the week it was had been utterly scrambled by events, but still. Weekends should be sacred - an opinion formed by having spent too many of them working crazy overtime hours due to unrealistic deadlines at work.
I explained to the rabbi that they could skip Chemistry and Biology as I hadn’t touched those since my previous high school, and had promptly forgotten all of it as soon as I graduated. He reminded me that with an Exemplar level such as I now exhibited, I might be surprised at how much I could remember and apply if I actually tried.
So much for getting out of those two. Meh. I hadn’t enjoyed them then, and didn’t expect to now either.
He told me to report to a room on the second floor of Kane Hall in the morning at nine a.m., where various instructors would begin the onslaught of examinations. I hoped it had good air-conditioning, unlike the gym where my high school had always held its final exams for everyone at the end of June. Large portable fans just don’t cut it against the summer Los Angeles heat especially when being added to a room crammed full of anxious teenage boys fearing whatever they may have missed in their crammed reviews. In fact those fans just had a nasty habit of blowing exam papers off the folding tables accompanied by loud cries of dismay from their hapless targets while teachers madly scrambling to try and sort the papers out to prevent any student from accidentally seeing the exam answers of another.
Anyway, he also told me to report today at one p.m. to Laird Hall for a class scheduled at that time. He said that the head of the Academy’s Martial Arts - a Sensei Ito - wished to evaluate my previous training personally. I had told Gregory back at the DPA that I had taken Kenpo Karate for five years starting when I was twelve, and thus some of that experience had been incorporated into my fake history as Jordan. Again, I was way out of practice, but I probably could remember some of it. I hoped so, anyway. And apparently I was going to find out in less than a couple hours - I hoped I wouldn’t embarrass myself too badly.
With that the rabbi sent me on my way with a casual wave of his hand. His eyes kept drawing back to the book on his desk more and more while we had discussed classes and schedules. I noticed that with the conversation no longer being about metaphysical and mystical topics, his focus and attention had been drifting away - even to the point of skipping over verbalizing sentences, assuming that somehow I had heard it anyway.
If it wasn’t for his aura of compassion preventing any belief of him doing this deliberately, I would have been annoyed. Instead it was kind of endearing in its own way, even if frustrating.
I still had a ton of questions - like what did Soren do in his ritual to cause me to ‘awaken’, how many others like me there might be out there, or even which specific angel was I anyway? But it was clear I’d have to wait on those until I had a better grasp perhaps of what I was in general before trying to answer precisely who.
Remembering that the cafeteria had a clock I could use to monitor the time until my next appointment, I made my way back to Crystal Hall. This time I stayed on paved walkways, even if such a course was not as optimal. The rain had lightened, although the clouds that hovered over the western forest looked darker than what currently drifted above. Heavier rain was likely incoming.
Once inside I still felt envious of the magic Lauren had applied to get me dry earlier. Definitely seemed more useful than being a human flashlight in any case - most people’s phones these days could act as one anyway. I wasn’t totally soaked, but yeah - still damp.
Overwhelmed again by the number of menu choices offered, I settled just for something simple: tuna salad sandwich, potato chips, and water. Kicking the habit of drinking soda in my twenties had not been fun - I had developed a rather nasty addiction and when coding like a fiend for work I had consumed darn near a twelve-pack per day. The thought of needing to go through withdrawal again someday was not appealing, so yep - water or (unsweetened) tea only please!
Leland spotted me as I walked out carrying my tray, and he waved me over to his table. Today he was wearing his full school uniform to go along with his uber-glasses and earplugs. I could tell as I put my tray down on his table that the clothes made him uncomfortable, as any movement making the fabric slip against his skin caused him to wince.
As I lowered myself down to sit I asked, “Hey Leland, you hanging in…” I never finished my question.
The plastic and metal chair I had pulled out collapsed into pieces under me, and I landed with a loud thud right on my ass.
There was a stunned silence in the Hall around me, followed by laughter and applause from the few summer students who were there.
I couldn’t help it. Between this, being soaked to the bone from the rain earlier and my ankle twisting, not to mention the insanities discussed with the rabbi, I had to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. Hopping to my feet I proclaimed, “Thank you everyone! For my next trick I shall try to simply hover in the air to eat lunch - who knows, maybe the air will be more successful at holding my butt up than this poor chair!”
That got some additional laughter (and even a whistle). The kids then went back to their conversations and food, well other than some of the guys who were still trying to get a good look at my posterior - I’m sure purely for scientific reasons regarding weight ratios and chair structure calculations.
I couldn’t blame them - I stared at the bottoms of pretty girls when I was their age too, are you kidding?
Leland, though, was not laughing and looking concerned. He asked, “You okay?”
“I’m fine, really,” I said as I gathered up the remains of the chair so I could dispose of them in one of the nearby trash bins. When I got back over to Leland I grinned and pulled the next chair out with a flourish.
“Shall we see if my trick can be repeated? Whatcha think, even odds? Want to place a bet?”
He finally laughed. “No thanks. I wouldn’t want you to blame me if it happened again.”
“Darn, there goes my entire master plan.” I carefully lowered myself onto the next chair, easing my weight on it. Just in case.
This one thankfully held, and thus I could begin my feast.
Leland pushed aside his mostly empty bowl of bland oats before idly tugging on the collar of his shirt. “Dunno why I went to class today. I could have had them just deliver the food, stayed inside, and been comfortable. Screw these uniforms, they freaking chafe.”
I glanced towards the windows. “What? Stay inside? And miss this lovely summer shower?”
He snorted. “You mean the wet ball bearings that fall from the sky? Yeah, screw them too.”
Taking a bite of my sandwich, I shook my head in sympathy. “What class did you have?”
“One on meditation techniques. They’re supposed to help.” He grinned ruefully and added, “but some days I’m just too grumpy to ‘let go’, ‘still my mind’, and all that.”
“Maybe they should let you practice it all mystic-style - you know, naked under a waterfall except without the waterfall.”
“Oh the teacher would looove that,” he laughed. “Though obviously it would be an excellent challenge for all the girls in the class - as I am rather distracting” He struck a weight-lifter’s biceps pose to emphasize, and to keep his better mood going I whistled and applauded.
That seemed to cheer him up at least a little. “What about you?” he asked, right as I took another larger bite.
“Mmmpph.” I made a show of chewing and swallowing, holding up one hand as the other grabbed my glass so I could wash it all down. “Had to see my adviser this morning. Rabbi Kirov.”
“Huh. I haven’t had him before. He any good?”
“Well, obviously neither have I, so I’d have to answer with ‘no idea!’” I stuck my tongue out at him.
He smiled. “So what classes he load you with?”
“I don’t know that yet either. They want to put me through the ringer with placement exams first. They seem to think that manifesting as an Exemplar might bump my levels or something.”
“Yeah, they might. There are some crazy-smart Exemplars here. Doing college-level research and stuff.”
He readjusted himself on his chair so it wasn’t pushing against his back. I took a few more bites of my tuna and had to stop myself from offering him some of my chips. A thought occurred to me.
“Hey Leland?” I asked.
“What’s the deal with Tamara - you know, ‘Sigil’ - anyway? She was pretty mad last night when she stormed off over the whole codename issue. Thing is, after that research last night? She might have a valid point.”
“Tamara? Hmm.” He thought for a moment. “Her mother really is a big-shot with the witches from what I understand, and Sigil has always proudly proclaimed that she was rated Wizard level four in her eval. She’s learned a lot this past year as a sophomore too: rumors are that she might skip to the more advanced magic classes. But that could depend on how she does this summer.”
“Oh? How so?”
He shrugged. “She failed math last term. She was supposed to go to some huge solstice festival and gathering in England with her mom, but instead was stuck here taking algebra with trig all over again. She’d been looking forward to that trip all year, telling everyone about it and how it was a big deal that only happened every five years. And then ‘poof’, no trip fo’ yoo.”
To me a lost trip with family would be a bummer, but to a young girl? That could be devastating - especially if she had any kind of hero-complex with regards to her mother. Being stuck away at a boarding school for the rest of the year would make that even worse.
“So she’s not usually unreasonable? Do you think I could go talk with her, and work things out?”
He looked even more uncomfortable, beyond just from the clothes that were overloading his skin. “Not a good idea.”
“I dunno, Jordan - with all her friends off having fun and her own hopes for seeing her mom flushed, she’s been really bitchy all summer. She started hanging with Fields - the girl she was with last night - when classes started, and been giving the cold shoulder to everyone else since.” He paused. “Not that she’s ever been overly friendly to us Thornies - but she’s never called us ‘freaks’ before, least not to my face like that anyway.”
“You really want to change your codename, though? I think ‘Aradia’ is a cool name.”
That got me to smile. “Thanks, Sense. But I really didn’t know the history of it before taking the name - and with the way things are heading, I’m not sure it’s appropriate for me. Not with the whole Goddess and anti-Christian connotations anyway.”
“Eh screw that. I saw how you lit up last night, that was pretty awesome. Looked ‘radiant’ to me. Besides, if you were to change it now everyone would think you were just giving in to Tamara.” He made a face. “And I hate to say it, but Whateley isn’t a good place for people to think they can walk all over you. Because some have powers to do just that - and it ain’t fun.”
I had a feeling he was speaking from personal experience. “Yeah. That’s exactly what I hope to avoid. I was thinking if I could talk to her…”
He cut me off. “Doubtful. Maybe when her usual friends get back in a couple weeks - some of them are fairly reasonable and could possibly help you out if approached the right way.”
“And Fields isn’t one of those?”
“No way.” He picked up his spoon and pushed some of his uneaten oatmeal around the bowl. “Erica, I mean Fields, is scary.”
“She is? How so?”
“She’s some kind of techno-mage, blending magic with computers. Got her name from being able to manipulate both magical and electro-magnetic field-lines or something like that. A guy last year beat her at a straight hackathon challenge - no magic allowed. Then a few days later after the contest his dad got audited by the IRS. They repossessed like all his family’s assets. Peter won’t be back this year - his folks can no longer afford the tuition. I even heard his dad may face jail time.”
“But how is Fields responsible for that?”
“Because she told him. After she lost, she told him she would show him what a true hacker could do. Didn’t take her long, either.”
“Damn.” Okay, I’ll admit it - that WAS scary.
“Yeah. Best to leave her alone, in my opinion.”
“Thanks for the heads-up. Guess I’ll just have to let things lie for a few weeks at least.”
He nodded. “Sure thing. Hey, I think I’m gonna go back to my room and spend some time in the tank. It’s getting to be a bit too much out here. You mind?”
“Of course not.” I paused. “Wait, a tank?”
He stood. “Yeah - they put a sensory deprivation tank in my room. Soundproofing on the walls, water and numbing gel tank to float in, and no windows. Only way I can really sleep.”
“Wow. Take care, Leland. Don’t worry about your tray - I’ll bus it for you when I’m done.”
“Thanks, Jordan. See ya later.”
He headed through the doors and out into the rain. I could tell by the way he walked that the pants and shirt really were bothering him, especially as they slid around when he moved. But he, at least, was smart enough to have an umbrella.
In that regard, he was certainly smarter than me.
I finished everything off my plate and sat back to consider things. Rabbi Immanuel didn’t want to teach me his precise ways of magic, which obviously were based on his understandings of his Kabballah system. Yet Soren had sent me both a book on learning Hebrew, and a book written by another rabbi on the topic. He obviously thought these were things I should know. If Immanuel’s concern was me limiting myself by becoming religiously focused on his way of doing things, he really shouldn’t have worried. That wasn’t my style.
I’d always been an independent thinker - trying to take in as many opinions and viewpoints as possible, and then making up my own mind as to what I wanted to believe. Which is probably why I had done better as a software engineer when being forced to wing it, as it were. I’d research the topic at hand and in the end come up with my own designs and ways of solving the problems instead of just copying and pasting whatever I found out there.
Any software engineer who can’t learn on the fly and can only regurgitate stuff from a book or a lecture won’t make it very far. At least, that had been the experience with my own work and with watching others succeed or fail depending on how good they were at quick adaptation and logical improvisation. Oh sure, the language usage is strict and completely defined - but the structures one can build with it are open-ended. Some designs are flexible and allow easy modifications later on, and others nail your feet to the floor and refuse any enhancements or new functionality whatsoever without it being an utter mess.
I wondered if the same would be true with all the magic stuff. After all, isn’t magic the practice to manipulate energy in patterns, and then build on those patterns to do larger and larger things? The rabbi’s metaphor really might be apt, even if the talent focus could shift to be more on the art of the design than the smaller logical structures from which it all got constructed. There really was an art to holding a software architecture in one’s mind, letting the minute details be put aside while contemplating the whole. Some folks were really good at it (much better than me, I’ll admit), whereas there were those who truly sucked at it.
So maybe magic and software at the higher abstractions worked the same way. In which case it raised the question of whether my being an angel had influenced my abilities and therefore led me into software for a career. Would the experience translate?
Guess I would find out.
But I also thought back at what I had done at the DPA - shouting words I couldn’t even remember, and performing energetic feats that afterwards I had no clue how to even attempt. The rabbi had mentioned something about doing things instinctively. I remembered an old college physics lecture that described all the calculations required to figure out where a baseball would actually end up when thrown - including all the rotations, air resistance, heck he even tossed in the Coriolis Effect just for fun. It was a crazy mess of variables.
And then he blew our minds by reminding us that the catcher figured it all out subconsciously within seconds and was able to catch the ball. Evolution and experience had hard-wired the necessary abilities for prediction and tracking and thus children could play catch with their parents without needing to solve differential equations.
Was being an angel also a bit like that?
Plus those words I spoke to blow up the wall and tear down Diego’s shields - every time I tried to remember what I said the memory slipped away. The rabbi had talked of language as metaphor - but also said words have power. If I instinctively could use some angelic language, why couldn’t I remember or even focus on it now? It was so very frustrating.
Checking the cafeteria clock again, I saw I still had a good fifteen minutes to get to the martial arts class. Putting aside the topics my mind wanted to obsess upon, I tried instead to remember my karate lessons -what I had learned of the forms, punches, kicks, and all that. My muscle memory would likely be slow and awkward given my new center of gravity and flexibility, but not much I could do about that in fifteen minutes.
Speaking of slow - while rummaging down memory lane I also kept an eye on the second hand of the cafeteria’s clock (it was an old fashioned analog display) while it rotated its way around the rest of the circle. It seemed to be somewhat off; I counted seconds in my mind for what I thought a second should take, and to my dismay the clock’s reported duration was about three times slower than the timing of my own.
I called out to a kid at the nearest table who had been staring at his phone - a boy who had popped up the collar on his Whateley uniform shirt in a preppy-slash-vampire look. He certainly had the widow’s peak for the vampire part anyway.
“Hey, what time is it? I think the clock is messed up.” I pointed at the wall.
He glanced down at his phone. “It’s ten past one. Yeah, someone must have jinxed the cafeteria’s clock again.”
“Ten past? Shit!”
I was going to have to run full tilt through the rain again - and I’d be late anyway.
Ever just have one of those days?
Laird hall looked a lot like some of the older buildings at my previous college campus, especially the science halls. In other words, it resembled more a squatting fortress than a place of learning. I was drenched yet again after making it inside - those darker clouds I had spotted had zipped overhead while I was eating. I had to ask for directions to find my way to the martial arts gymnasium area.
Have I mentioned that I truly despise being late? I dislike it when other people aren’t on time, and I apply that doubly to myself.
Entering the gym, there were two students on the center mat facing off in different stance styles. The weird thing is my vision of them was slightly distorted - there was some kind of forcefield in the air between the mat and the rest of the handful of students.
Within that field also stood a short Japanese man - who despite the obvious weathering of the wrinkles on his face clearly looked like a man not only in charge, but also fully capable of defeating anyone who dared the insult of offering him challenge. He had that aura of total confidence that only true mastery can bestow.
He obviously noticed me enter but deliberately ignored my presence. Moving closer to the line of students, all dressed in standard martial arts gis, I knelt beside a girl on her left side. She was a good half a foot taller than I was, and looked to be in great shape - at least from what little I could see from the side. She may even have been more busty than I was, proportionally speaking. Oh, and she had long blonde hair which curved down to cover the part of her face in a fashion more appropriate to Hollywood than a martial arts mat. I wondered if she’d pull it back into a ponytail before sparring with someone.
After watching the intensely focused instructor again, I took a closer look at the two fighting students. To my surprise, one of them was Brendan - a.k.a. Tank. He absolutely towered over his opponent, a slender yet very fit young Asian man - possibly Chinese. I’m no expert really, but his face had more of a Bruce Lee look so I decided to run with that (quietly) until or unless proven otherwise.
They circled around each other cautiously, and then Tank launched forward with an incredibly fast spinning kick that I could tell he was going to follow up with a punch or two even if the kick didn’t land. His motion was controlled and speedy, but somewhat obvious.
I wasn’t the only one who thought so either. The smaller guy pivoted sideways before grabbing Tank’s rather long leg between two hands, to spin Tank around in a continuation of the original circle. Tank reacted instinctively and tried to pull his leg free, but the smaller guy let the motion bring them closer, and with a quick foot placement, Tank’s other leg was swept clear of the mat.
He went down with a forceful whump I could feel through the floor I knelt upon.
Not letting any momentum go to waste, the Chinese boy didn’t stop the sweep of his own leg, instead he continued around in a tighter and faster circle to land his heel right into Tank’s temple.
Near as I could tell that was full force contact. Holy shit, that could kill a person! I started to rise in alarm, but I was stopped by the girl next to me who had put a strong hand on my arm.
“Relax, he’s fine,” she said under her breath.
“Yame!” The instructor barked and the smaller and faster guy backed away from Tank. The weird distortion field around the mat also disappeared when the instructor had given the command to stop.
To my amazement, Tank had already started to push himself up from the mat, a look of annoyance on his face. He was mad at himself for being taken down but otherwise was fine.
He didn’t even have a mark on his face from the kick.
I settled back down, noticing that no one else had shoes on. Oops. I quickly began to remove mine along with the socks.
The instructor, who must have been Sensei Ito since he was the only instructor in here as far as I could tell, motioned that their match was over. Tank and the other guy faced each other, bowed, turned and bowed to the Sensei, then walked off the mat together. Tank, shaking his head at himself, reached out and offered a fist bump to his opponent, who with a wide grin accepted.
They both resumed kneeling positions along the line of students. That’s when I realized the sensei was staring daggers in my direction.
“Ms. Emrys.” He said my name, not as a greeting but rather as a command. He pointed to the mat before him.
“Yes, sir.” I rose to my now bare (just in time!) feet, walked to the edge and did the double fisted bow to the dojo mat as I had been taught many years ago before crossing such a threshold. I moved to stand in front of the sensei, and then bowed deeply to him as well.
“You are late.” Three words conveyed a level of disapproval and disappointment that I justly deserved.
“Yes, sir. I would offer an explanation, but regardless I failed in my responsibility to be on time. I apologize, and can only promise to put forth my best efforts to not let it happen again.” I bowed low to him again, this time holding the bow to await his judgment.
I didn’t move, holding the position. After a few rather long seconds he grunted again, gesturing for me to stand up. I did so, not saying anything more.
“Your transcript shows you have some training?” He made it a question and not a statement, so I answered.
“Yes, sir. Although it’s been…” I almost said it had been over twenty years, but whew, I caught myself in time “It’s been awhile, sir.”
“Understand that any belt-ranking you once possessed has no bearing within our dojo.” This was indeed a firm statement. I just nodded my head and did not comment.
Without looking away from me, he called out, “Jenna.” The girl I had knelt next to jumped to her feet, paused, and then removed the blonde hair completely from her head before handing it to the girl to her right.
It was a wig. Her head was actually perfectly clean-shaven.
I almost stumbled where I stood on the mat as my mind flashed to how Caroline had looked during her chemotherapy, the memory perfectly vivid - and full of all the emotions of the time. Jenna was younger, but other than age and height they looked so very similar, and a lump of sorrow formed in my throat.
Unfortunately, Jenna saw my reaction and assumed it was one of horror. Her hands formed tighter fists as she crossed the mat to stand opposite me, bowing to the sensei before turning her new glare in my direction.
Oh damn. And I couldn’t explain - not here, not in front of everyone, not with a sensei commanding his class.
“Jenna, Jordan, you shall spar. No powers. When I say yame, you stop, clear?” He was looking at me.
I nodded. “Yes, sir. Rules of contact, sir?” I had sparred without pads when I was young, but that usually meant no headshots. And I wasn’t wearing a protective cup. Err, huh. Do girls need those too?
“I understand you are a regenerator. Full contact, but no killing blows.”
No killing blows. Holy shit, that needed to be specified?
I turned to Jenna, and bowed low - trying to show my respect and make up for her bad first impression. She bowed perfunctorily, but her expression was clear: she was pissed.
“Hajime!” Sensei Ito barked, and it was on.
I expected Jenna to charge in, but she was smarter than that - much to her credit. I was an unknown, just as she was to me. So we began circling around each other, her stance similar to mine - balanced between the feet and turned sideways from the opponent with one hand raised in guard, the other held lower ready to strike.
When she saw I wasn’t going to make the first move, she went ahead and got it started.
Now, you have to realize that when I was a teen I had been really solid. I lifted weights daily at school, and trained at the dojo at least twice a week. My power had been mainly in my legs, which was different from most of the other guys who relied on the strength of their punches. Me, I relied on my kicks and also on the tree-like solidity of my legs to keep me grounded and balanced. Sure I was able to punch decently, but not with the same level of force as the other guys. I did, however, have speed.
It’s just the way I had been built as a guy - shorter and very thick legs, with a taller torso. It forced a certain pattern to how I fought.
She came at me with a flurry of kicks, that I began to block one by one - absorbing and redirecting the power of her legs while remaining steady within my own stance. Her height advantage extended her range and she tried to make use of that with her kicks - likely hoping to knock me off balance so she could move in and take me down.
She was quite strong, too. But as I slipped sideways and blocked her feet with my forearms, I realized something. I was now a lot stronger than I had been - and that very much included my arms. Certainly I was having no trouble putting my old training to use - I was finding my movements to be fluid, faster, and much more precise than I had ever experienced even at the height of my previous conditioning.
Clearly she also was an Exemplar, but as I kept deflecting her blows with relative ease we both came to realize that my own rating might be higher.
I decided to test that theory.
Feeling lighter on my toes than ever I had before, I moved faster, sliding along the mat with my feet as I kept shifting my stances and angle to her, dancing side to side looking for her to over-extend. She tried to back off, but I pressed forward so she couldn’t re-stabilize and counter.
I started throwing kicks of my own, cautiously at first as I didn’t want to get taken down by a leg-grab, but just to gauge my speed and her reaction time.
She almost caught one, but I yanked it back before her grip could solidify, shifting so that I could grab at her arm instead, planting my foot firmly back on the mat. As I pulled her forward I used my other leg to deliver a knife-kick behind her knee.
I was careful. I didn’t want to shatter the knee, regardless of the ‘full contact’ stipend of the match. So I pulled the kick and aimed it to land squarely behind the knee instead of sideways where it would have popped badly. I’d seen that happen once, and it’s never pretty.
What I did instead would still hurt though, as her leg folded and caused her to fall - bringing her head into range of a fast forearm slam to the side of her face.
No, I didn’t aim for her temple either. The sensei may trust in her regeneration, but I didn’t know her. And what if he was testing to see how ruthless I could be if let loose in full?
The impact stunned her and she fell the rest of the way to the mat. I had started to back up before the sensei shouted, “Yame!”
I resumed my position where we had started the match, and watched as Jenna shook her head clear and stood up. There was a small mark on her face from where I had struck, and as I watched it slowly faded away while she crossed back to her position.
Good. That would have been a nasty welt lasting days on a normal kid.
Sensei Ito studied us both for what seemed like ages. Then he said, “Again. This time, use powers. This hall is off limits to visitors today.”
Jenna’s face broke into a feral grin.
“Uh, Sensei,” I said hesitantly. “That could be a problem for magic users near me from what I understand.”
He gestured to the force field that surrounded us. “Your energies should be contained. Neither Jenna nor myself make use of the mystic arts.”
Jenna closed her eyes as her skin began to ripple and change color. A dark smooth greyness appeared and spread over her hands, face, and feet. I could only assume it was covering everything else under her gi.
Oh man, her skin was turning to stone.
I swallowed nervously, but realized this is why I was here. Trial by fire or in this case, trial by stone. Let’s see what I could do.
Inwardly I reached for the mental faucet wedged in the ever-present column in the back of my mind’s eye. I threw it open, and saw Jenna’s expression of glee falter as my light flooded the gym.
A few of the students watching even put their hands up to cover their eyes from the glare.
“Hajime!” Ito commanded.
Jenna must have been worried about how much more I could power up if given more time because she lowered a shoulder and charged.
I managed to barely sidestep clear, launching my own kick at her side as she went past. I connected but I don’t think she even felt it through the armor now covering everything but her eyes, nostrils, mouth - you get the idea.
She changed tactics again. Ignoring my blows entirely, she tried instead to get close and go for a bear hug with main strength. I realized her stone-form probably increased her physical limits too, crap.
Frustrated at my sudden ineffectiveness, I struggled a few times and broke the holds she kept trying to get me in. I was clearly still faster, but that didn’t matter if she never felt the effects of anything I did. Even direct blows to her legs felt like I was kicking a mountainside. They didn’t budge.
She managed to wrap her arms around me when I got too close, her height giving her that reach advantage. Trying to push against her was failing - she seemed to be getting stronger with each passing moment. Only by wedging my left elbow into her chest did I prevent her from crushing me flat. She locked her hands together at the small of my back and started to lift me off the ground.
This was not good.
My right arm was still free and held in the gap between us; I saw only one possible move before she popped me like a water balloon. Pulling even more of that raw and brilliant energy into my body, I shoved it into my right fist and with a yell launched an uppercut landed it squarely under her jaw with an explosion of brilliant light that should have blinded me but somehow didn’t.
Her skin’s rock protection fragmented along fractal lines running outward from her chin, causing large stony flakes to fall free revealing normal skin underneath.
From the impact, I felt her jaw crunch and fold in. I think I shattered part of her jaw.
As her arms released me, I noted in my peripheral vision the force field surrounding us had flared into a shower of blue sparks. It was collapsing, all the sparks falling to the floor leaving empty air.
I hesitated - trying to find the sensei to see if he’d stop the match now that the field was clearly gone. Should I power down?
This was a horrible mistake. Jenna hadn’t noticed the loss of the field. With a fierce rage she stepped backwards - before whipping around with a mighty spinning sidekick right into my stomach. Her movement was insanely fast - a blur of gray stone and white gi. I’m not sure I could have blocked her foot even had I time to react and try. I felt ribs crack from the tremendous impact before I was launched in the air across the mat like a rocket.
Right into brick and concrete of the the gym’s outer wall. But I didn’t stop - I was going so fast and so hard I punched through it all into the rain outside.
New pain spread widely over my back as I arched through the air in a stream of white light. I even had a wonderfully clear view of the American flag as it flapped in the wind above Schuster Hall. Below it still dangled the red banner.
A living flaming meteor impacting the campus was likely not permitted on a red flag day.
It all happened so fast, and I didn’t have time to think about it. I just jammed shut the channel inside me to try and shut down my inner light, attempting to curl into as tight a ball as I could. This was going to hurt.
Slamming into the wet lawn I tumbled badly anyway, arms and legs gouging out a rather long trench before finally coming to a stop with my back about a foot deep in the muddy soil. If it hadn’t been raining all day, the impact probably would have been worse.
After sliding to a stop, I did manage to suck in some air - but wow did that hurt too.
My right arm felt broken, along with my left leg. As for the ribs of my chest and back, they at least weren’t all jello so shall we call that a win?
People were shouting nearby and they scrambled to get over to me, calling for others to get help from Doyle - which I remembered was the medical complex.
I wanted rather badly to reach for my light to stop the pain blossoming through my body, but I didn’t. Compared to what I had felt getting Danielle out of that damn storage unit this was like a love tap. Albeit one delivered by a thousand pound gorilla who had been abusing steroids for years. Or, you know, a six foot six girl enhanced by granite skin and a Red Bull can of rage and whoop-ass.
Did I mention it hurt?
Opening one eye from where I lay, I found I now had a pretty good view of the hole in the side of Laird Hall that Jenna’s kick had created by using me as a sledgehammer. Sensei Ito stood at the hole staring back at me.
The old man gave me a nod.
At his side was Jenna. Her stone skin was gone, and a deep bruise covered the bottom of her jaw. Her face was pale white and she looked horrified.
I may have taken some satisfaction that at least I’d marked her. Could anyone blame me?
The medic squad on campus was certainly fast. After putting my neck in a brace, they got me on their flat board and double-timed me into the medical building. A few bounces did cause me to whimper; I couldn’t help it.
I tried to tell them to just get me out of sight of any visitors, but all I managed was a groan.
Fortunately a female doctor in their E.R. had already pulled up Whateley’s records of my abilities, and realizing what they meant ran to my side, saying quietly into an ear, “If we get you into a secure room, can you heal? There are congressmen touring the building.”
Somehow I nodded. She waved away the nurse who was preparing to give me an I.V. before personally wheeling me down a hall and into an empty exam room. She shouted some instructions at others in the hallway before closing the door - what she said I didn’t hear. When the door was completely shut she said more loudly, “Okay, this should be safe. Do it, hon. This is a warded room - it should hold, if not I’ll yell.”
I didn’t need to be told twice. I reopened that internal channel, and poured all the light I could picture in my mind throughout my body.
Did you know that bones make snapping sounds when they pop back into place due to magic? Well, let me assure you they do - even if it may not have been easily heard over the loudness generated by the girl screaming from the sudden surge in pain levels. The energy rushing through me did sooth the agonies instantly afterwards, but the intense spikes as things clicked back together were a bitch.
All in all, I think it took about fifteen minutes for the last vestiges of pain to slip slowly away. I was pretty sure that most of the damage would not have happened if I’d kept my energy up for the impact on landing, but that’s the way the angel cookie crumbled. When done healing, I was panting for breath and felt exhausted.
The female doctor (I didn’t get her name) kept watch over me. She had even put on a pair of sunglasses so she could examine my progress through the light show in more detail. Don’t ask me where she got them from because I have no idea.
When I was finally breathing easy and had let the shine slip away, the door opened. Sensei Ito and Jenna stepped inside, letting the door close behind them. Jenna was wearing her blonde wig again.
I propped myself up on my elbows as I was still on the gurney, but I had no idea what to say.
Jenna spoke first after a nod from the sensei. She came to my side and gently took my hand. “I’m so, so sorry. Are you okay?”
I smiled wearily. “Yeah. I have to be powered up to heal, but didn’t want to do that out in the open.”
Sensei Ito grunted - maybe with some approval. Hard to tell.
Her relief was immediate, and I saw a tremendous tension ease across her shoulders. “Thank god. I’ve never hit anyone that hard before. That was way stronger than I’ve ever been able to do.” Behind her relief I could see a bit of awe, and she let go of my hand to stare at her own. She flexed into a fist, then opened her fingers again. “What happened?”
I looked at Ito, having already put together an idea. “I did give warning about me powering up.”
He bowed his head slightly in acknowledgment. “I must give a report to the administration of this. They may have further questions. You are fully healed?”
Looking down at my arms and legs, I moved them all. “Yeah. Just hungry again and really tired.”
He paused to glare at me with eyes of judgment. “Becoming distracted - no matter the cause - can and will be deadly. If that had been a real battle, your loss of focus could have cost your life. You would do well to remember this lesson. No more practice today.” With a curt nod, the man exited the room.
I couldn’t help it; I chuckled after the door closed. “No more practice today? Ya think?”
Jenna looked down at me but she wasn’t laughing. “If Sensei Ito thought you were up for it, he’d have you back on the mat right now. Me too, but you really clobbered my chin and it’ll take another hour for the bone to fully knit itself and he knows this. Everyone else is stuck doing drills right now until he gets back.”
She was serious. I stared at the door that Ito had just stepped through, not sure how I felt about that.
“What happened?” she asked again. “You and sensei seem to know, but I don’t. How could I have hit you that hard? Was that me or… was that you?”
“Most likely the latter.” I pulled myself up so I could sit cross-legged on the gurney. The back of my Alice t-shirt was shredded into strips of flapping stained cloth, and the rear strap of the bra I got from the box store had also been pulverized. My jeans shorts were a muddy mess, but seemed otherwise okay - just sporting a more distressed look. But hey, that’s fashionable, right? As for my poor t-shirt, I guess Alice and I both hit the bottom at the same time.
I failed to suppress a hysterical giggle. They also hadn’t brought me my shoes and socks from the gym - and for some reason I found that very funny. My toes were gonna get really muddy again.
Jenna stared at me. “Are you in shock or something? Should I get someone?”
I shook my head. “No, no I think I’m okay - it’s just been a day. A really messed up day.”
She looked dubious.
“My powers,” I said, which got her attention away from the idea of calling the psych squad. “I can tap into a lot of energy. When I do, I seem to emit it and the effects on users of magic have been kinda extreme. There’s concern that I could overload them if their capacities are too low, which would be harmful.”
“But I’m not a magic user. I’m a manifestor. I do the stone-skin thing, and get stronger. But nowhere near that strong.”
“Yeah. I think we just found out the energy I’m channeling effects more than magic.”
“Why? What kind of energy is it? Other than being blindingly bright.”
Did I tell her? Should I? Considering I just gave her the power to kick a classmate through a wall, I felt I owed her the truth.
“It’s angelic energy.”
“Oh, cool. You an avatar? Think that got mentioned in Powers class.”
“They don’t think so.”
“So holy rolling shaman or something?”
“Nope.” I smiled at her, knowing I was being difficult.
She smiled back. “You going to explain, or do I need to give you another beat-down?”
I laughed. “Sorry. And please, not again - at least not today.” I paused, and took a deep breath. “They say I’m an angel. Like an actual angel, incarnate somehow here on Earth.”
She looked at me carefully, trying to see if I was joking with her. But I wasn’t.
“Huh. Well, that’s different. You said you were hungry though? I’m always starved after going all stone-skin. May have to get something soft, though, with what you did to my jaw. Like ice cream!”
I’d only been on campus for just under twenty-four hours and I was beginning to suspect that Whateley really was not like anywhere else on the planet. You can tell someone you’re an angel and all they do is shrug before debating what flavor of ice cream they wanted.
Admittedly, the ice cream did sound rather tempting.