Sunday 2nd October, evening, Poe Cottage, Bianca and Morgana's room.
"I guess I'd better make some more popcorn for you pair of gannets, hadn't I?"
Both Laura and Bianca nodded with the innocence of girls who hadn't just helped demolish two bags already. We'd been discussing the unexpected events regarding our teammates, and so far we hadn't really come to any real conclusions as to how it was going to affect us. We'd have included Bailley as well, but she had begged off muttering something about having to go talk to Zapper.
"I wonder how many other undeclared changelings there are hanging around?"
I shrugged at Laura as I ripped the top of another bag of popcorn and poured it into the bowl. "No idea, really. Did any of us suspect Cally and Erica?"
Bianca looked thoughtful as she snagged some of the fresh popcorn. "I don't know. I suspected that Erica might be hiding something, but not Cally. And anyway, with all the weird things going on here, and some of our unique...origins, I'm beginning to think that anything might be possible."
"Yeah, I know what you mean." Then I had a more disturbing thought. "Laura, you remember that message they sent everyone? The one with the photos of Callie, and the transformation scene thingie? They'd have needed to investigate her background, wouldn't they?"
Laura actually stopped chewing for a minute to think on that. "They would. They'd have had to have hacked her social history and stuff to get the data, mind."
"And what about the rest of us? I don't recall there being anything in the message that implicated any of us, but if they targeted one of our team, do you think they'd do it again?" Well, yes, maybe I was being paranoid, but then again maybe I wasn't.
Laura was the one looking worried now. "I dunno, there must be stuff out there on me. How about you two?"
Bianca shrugged. "Well, the Family doesn't exactly spread its business all over the internet. I mean, what sort of secret organization lets that kind of stuff out? Anyway, I'm pretty sure that Marcus and Tessa added some kind of fake online history for me when they were setting up my new identity, but I think I'd better double check...just in case. What about you, Morgana?"
I thought about a possible trail on me, following the thought with a nasty grin. "Mmm, good luck on that. My whole background was faked before I came here, so there isn't any connection with me or my family. And if they chase down the rabbit-hole that's my constructed history, good luck to them - they'll need it."
Both my friends looked curious as I explained. "The fake background and stuff was built for AEGIS by GCHQ, in case any of the cult who kidnapped me found out about me and tried to trace down it. Apparently it leads to some very nasty traps."
"Um. So I guess I'm the one who needs to check up on my stuff." Laura didn't look terribly happy about the possibilities.
"Hey, why not ask Kurenai to check things out for you? She's an AI, and she'd probably like the exercise. She could tell you if there are loopholes you need to patch."
Laura smiled at Bianca. "Ooh, that's not a bad idea! I wonder if I could persuade her to put some booby-traps in as well?"
I smirked. "Probably, she seems to like you."
"Actually, it wouldn't hurt to ask her to check the rest of the team as well. Just in case."
Sunday evening, Poe Cottage
Michelle Brown sighed, carefully re-folding her last pair of pants and placing them gently in her newbureau. The clothes had cushioned the breakables through bumps and spills, just as they had on the trip across the pond and to the school which seemed to have all the character of an old prudish school marm.
Or, she thought, an ancient cat-lady. And not the fun kind.
A gentle yet somehow insistent knock sounded on the door. It was a knock Michelle knew well from her brief time in America.
She opened the door to find her former RA, Hikaru Myoujin, standing before it, her hands folded together and looking every inch the Japanese princess. For once, she couldn’t bring herself to care about how great she looked. Well, not much anyway, she thought with a ghost of her usual grin.
“Am I interrupting?” Hikaru asked, very carefully not looking down the hall, where watchful eyes of all sorts waited.
“No, I’m just unpacking. Come in, come in.”
Hikaru entered. “Thank you.”
Michelle shut the door, almost catching the noses of some intrepid individuals. “So, to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?”
“I thought it best to remind you, that your times which you reserved Melville facilities, are still in your name. I have sent the list to your phone, in case you do not have them listed.”
Michelle smiled. In her own rather awkward way, Hikaru was telling her she would be welcome in Melville. That she hadn’t been just shoved aside to the nut house – at least not everyone.
“So, have you met the denizens of this place yet?” Hikaru asked; she was fully in the room now, her hand tracing dust on the window sill. Michelle hoped the dust was imaginary.
“I have. I met the entire floor – at least, those that were here. They have been nice, I suppose.”
“You may feel free to let me know if that changes.” Hikaru said, almost as if it was an afterthought.
Making an offer to help sound like it was nothing it all was so like her, Michelle thought, heart warming.
She would return the favor. “Of course, and thank you. Speaking of such things however, I heard some rumors on the way over that alarmed me.”
The rumors had in fact been part of her little meet and greet, but Hikaru didn’t need to know that.
Hikaru raised a carefully sculpted eyebrow in a gesture Michelle thought looked a little too practiced.
“Yes. It seems I’m not the only girl from Melville that the Poesies might be after, and Melville isn’t the only cottage with people Mrs. Horton wants. A few others were mentioned; Tia and you among them.”
Hikaru’s eyes narrowed into slits in a way that was not practiced. “Oh, really? She shows her hand so easily.”
“She who?” Michelle asked. The rumors hadn’t had a source, being the sort of ‘I heard from a friend of a friend’ thing she was used to.
“Nevermind,” Hikaru told her. “Thanks for the warning. I shall handle it, and perhaps more besides.”
The tone gave Michelle pause. “Perhaps activism? A petition signed by the students?”
“That... is a good idea. That might work.” Hikaru admitted.
“It works back home, sometimes.” Michelle had to ask. “What was your idea?”
Hikaru waved the question off. “Not important. I suppose I should get started, if this... petition... is to be written. Do not be a stranger, as the saying goes.”
“Sure. Good luck.” Michelle went back to unpacking, doing her best to ignore the distaste her former RA had for the petition and the alarm bells in her head.
Monday 3rd October, 7.15am, Poe Showers
While I wasn't as cheerful as I'd been yesterday morning - well, it was a Monday, I could tell by the grumpiness that was my roomie - it still wasn't a bad start to the week. I was still getting a mixture of worried and resentful looks as I waited for a shower to be free. As I finally slipped into one, I wondered for a moment if that would stop now or if they would start wondering why I wasn't sleepwalking into the shower as usual. It was a source of some amusement, actually, so I turned the heat up to maximum and luxuriated in the water and steam. I had, I admit, fallen in love with the heat and seemingly-unlimited water in the Poe showers.
"Bianca, how long is this morning cheerfulness going to continue? I mean, it's not NATURAL!"
Bianca gave a shrug, it wasn't as if she was awake enough to answer Chessa's heartfelt plea. She might have said more, but her response was broken by the sound of singing coming from Morgana's shower cubicle.
Holl amrantau'r sêr ddywedant
Ar hyd y nos
Dyma'r ffordd i fro gogoniant,
Ar hyd y nos.
Golau arall yw tywyllwch
I arddangos gwir brydferthwch
eulu'r nefoedd mewn tawelwch
Ar hyd y nos.
O mor siriol, gwena seren
Ar hyd y nos
I oleuo'i chwaer ddaearen
Ar hyd y nos.
Nos yw henaint pan ddaw cystudd
Ond i harddu dyn a'i hwyrddydd
Rhown ein golau gwan i'n gilydd
Ar hyd y nos.
"She's singing again." This time it was Laura grousing at Bianca. "And what's even more annoying is she's singing well."
Bianca abstained from comment as to the quality of her roommates singing - she'd heard Laura singing once. It had, as the saying went, left room for improvement.
"It's good, isn't it. I wonder what she's singing?"
Laura snorted as she finally found a shower free for herself and made a dash for it. "How would I know, it sounds Welsh. Do I look like someone who speaks Welsh??"
Bianca shrugged. While the new cheerfulness of her friend in the morning was interesting, she wondered how long it would last. Truth be told, she'd rather preferred the drowsy and sleepy morning version of Morgana, it had matched her own mood much better.
Monday 3rd October, breakfast, Crystal Hall
"So, how are you two getting on in Dickinson now everyone knows about Cally?"
Erica gave her roommate a quick glance, then shrugged. "It's calmed down a bit from yesterday, but we still have some of the girls in the cottage giving us grief. On the other hand, a lot of them are supportive, so, some good, some bad."
I nodded and concentrated again on my breakfast, as Bianca gave Cally a thoughtful look. "Have you thought about some sort of security for your room? Just in case, given that we know someone hacked your history once already."
Well, that quiet statement made Cally look worried, as she looked at her friend. "Erica, do you think we need to do something? Given we room together, they may target you for something next."
"Well, I guess I could do something about tech surveillance."
I swallowed my food before replying to Erica. "Snag is, this is Whateley, so you also have to worry about magic and psi bugging you as well." I turned to Bianca. "We could set them up with some wards, couldn't we, that would catch pretty much anything."
My friend nodded. "Yeah, it wouldn't be hard. At least their room, trying something that would work all the time isn't too practical, with all the powers and stuff going on here. But at least your room would be a safe space."
Cally gave us both a pleading look. "Would you? That would be wonderful, the idea of people spying on us all the time is horrible."
I reached over and patted her hand. "Don't worry, we'll have a think tonight and sort out something for you."
So I managed to eat most of my remaining food before Laura decided to stir things up again.
"Cally, are you still looking for people for your band? Because Morgana was singing in the showers this morning, and she sounded really good!"
I only had a chance to glower menacingly at my blue friend for a moment before Cally gave me a hopeful look. I carefully put my knife and fork down before meeting her gaze.
"Cally, please no. I can't sing in front of people, and anyway I'm not that good." OK, I admit I was whimpering a bit. So sue me.
"Are you sure, Morgana? I mean, we can always use another singer."
"I can't. Really, I can't! I mean, singing for myself, or in the shower where no-one can see me, is one thing. Singing in front of an audience..." I paused, shivering slightly at the idea. "I couldn't do that, I'd just die!"
"Oh come on, Morgana, it's not as if you're shy."
Oh, thank you so much Erica. I blushed and looked down at my plate. "Look, about this...yeah, I AM shy, I just can't do it!" I gave Cally a pleading look. "If you need help with your band, I'm happy to be a roadie for you - I'm strong, and I understand tech" - I paused to give Laura a look that promised bad things for her if she set me up like this again - "normal tech, which you are going to have to use in public. Just don't ask me to stand up in front of an audience, OK?"
I concentrated on finishing breakfast, it meant I didn't have to look at the disappointment on Cally's face. I knew how much she loved singing and performing, but the idea of standing up right in front of a group of strangers...no, I couldn't, and just the idea would likely make me go dragon, which would really screw the whole thing up.
Monday 3rd October, morning, Magic Theory class
Bianca and I had arrived a few minutes early, which gave us a chance to talk quietly.
"So, what are we going to do about setting some wards up in Erica and Cally's room?"
My roommate looked pensive. "Well, we probably don't need the sort of coverage I've set up in ours. That does take a lot of maintenance, so it's not really suitable for someone else's room."
"Yeah. Not to mention the amount of essence it takes." I looked thoughtfully at her. "You should let me set these ones up, Bianca."
She blinked. "But I have more experience?"
"Not denying that. But these aren't anything super-sophisticated, we just need the standard set of anti-surveillance wards, they are all in our books. And you're already using a lot of essence - and if you find that personal lab space you've been looking for, you'll need more. I have loads to spare, so it makes a lot more sense for me to do it."
I could see the wheels going around as she considered it, before nodding slowly. "That does make a lot of sense."
"Hey, we can't have you being the only one casting fun spells on people's rooms!"
That got me a light dig in the ribs, which I ignored.
"So how are you going to handle them monitoring the wards? Neither of them have magic, so they won't be able to tell if they have been breached like we can."
Yeah, that was going to be a problem. Some way of letting them know if they'd been broken. As I mused, I noticed Smokey. As usual, lying flat on the table and snoring very quietly, his tail hanging down over the edge and twitching slightly. Now that gave me an idea.
"It's OK, I think I know how to handle that." I broke off as Grimes entered the room. "Tell you later, OK?"
Monday 3rd October, lunchtime, Crystal Hall
Laura, Bianca and I were queuing up to get our food after coming in from BMA when we noticed a number of students giving us odd glances. I looked around, trying to be as surreptitious as possible, then nudged my roomie. "Why are those people giving us funny looks?"
Bianca showed her normal unconcerned public face. "You only just noticed? We've been getting them ever since we came in."
Well, to be honest I'd been paying more attention to the food on offer on the counters. A girl has to get her priorities straight, after all.
"So tell me, how does it feel to be on a team with a sexual pervert?"
I saw Bianca's face tighten up even before I turned around. Not that I really needed to, I recognised the voice, sounding even more smug than usual.
"I wouldn't know, Hermione? Perhaps you could tell me, after all you do hang around with Estelle an awful lot. Has she got you to polish her wand yet?"
The girl sputtered quite amusingly - well, as far as Bianca and I were concerned - as she tried to manage a reply that both put me down and avoided any consideration of her and her friend being anything more than friends. Fortunately for her Estelle grabbed her and pulled her away, with a muttered 'don't think you got away with this' we barely heard over the normal hubbub in the Hall.
Of course, when we got to our table Laura wanted to know what we'd been up to that had delayed us. Which led to some general complaints - apparently we hadn't been the only ones targetted by people upset about Cally's outing - which led to trying to reassure Cally that we weren't going to take any notice of them. Even though she knew now about the unusual histories of some of us, she was still seriously twitchy about everything, and to be honest it was hard to blame her. So Laura decided to distract her by putting me into the spotlight again. Yay.
"So, have you blown up any more bunnies today, Morgana?"
I gave Laura a pained look. "No, I haven't! And anyway, it was only a little bunny, and I didn't blow it up much..."
Bianca snerked as Laura echoed me, in a tone of astonishment that was so obviously fake. "Much? Much!!"
I sighed. I had a feeling this was going to be a continuing theme until something more interesting took its place. "I mean, it was all there. Just scattered about a bit. It was, uh, a dispersed bunny."
Laura wasn't going to let this go, I could tell by the gleam in her eye. "Scattered about a bit? You blew it all over three counties!"
Geez. What was it with the sudden love of bunnies today? "I only blew it up over the grass. And it's organic, so it won't pollute or anything."
Laura gestured dramatically to the rest of our mob, who were listening in with various degrees of amusement. "The biggest bit anyone could find was almost too small to see with the naked eye!"
Ooooh, mean. Time for some retaliation. "Hey, you blow up more stuff in the lab than I do!"
"I don't blow up living bunnies!"
I gave her a dirty look. "So what DO you blow up, then?"
Laura huffed. "I do not blow up stuff, I...er...ballistically disassemble things!"
"Yeah, right! And anyway, my bunny wasn't living. Afterwards..." I continued as Laura rolled her eyes at me. "Geez, it was only ONE bunny, you'd think I'd committed lapin genocide or something!"
This time I got a smirk from Erica. "Wondercute already seems to think you did."
I groaned and put my head in my hands. "Those morons? That's ALL I need."
Monday, 4pm after magic class.
"Are you heading down to the lab to do some practice?"
I shook my head. "Sorry, Bianca. I have to go talk to Grimes."
She must have seen the look on my face, as she patted me on the shoulder. "Don't worry, I'm sure it's nothing terrible." Then she smirked. "Unless she loves bunnies, of course!"
"Oh, gee, thanks, roomie." Still I somehow couldn't see Grimes as a bunny-fetishist, so that did lift my gloom a little. Even so, I was nervous as I headed over to her office. While there wasn't actually anything specific in the school rules about exploding a bunny - I'd checked - I suspected there was something generic they could get me on if they wanted to. School rules always seemed to have that sort of provision hidden in them. It didn't help that I was feeling personally guilty - not about the bunny, but what if it had been another student?
Grimes sat behind her desk, just looking at me. I wriggled slightly in my chair; it wasn't that I had any particularly guilty thoughts, but Grimes was an expert at making you wonder what you'd done recently that she'd found out about.
"So, Morgana, would you like to explain just why you felt it necessary to blow up a rabbit in the middle of the Campus?"
For a moment I could have sworn I saw the edge of her mouth twitch up slightly but... no, not Ms Grimes. It must have been my imagination. So I just went through my story while she listened. Finally I wound down and just sat there feeling miserable. She made me wait a minute, presumably going through what I'd explained, before we continued.
"Morgana, this shock you said you had. Did you see anything that might have caused it, or any reason why it might have happened?"
"No, ma'am. I'm pretty sure something happened, but I don't know exactly what. I did find a small sore area on my back later, but it faded pretty quickly. I don't really know if it was connected."
"And you didn't see anyone who might have been responsible?"
Now that was an interesting question, almost as if she did think someone had caused it. I knew better than to lie about it just to get an out, though. "Ma'am, I just don't know. I was concentrating on my spell, and all my friends were either watching me or the spot I was aiming at, none of them saw anything."
"I see. A pity, it would have provided an explanation. Well, as we can't eliminate the possibility nothing external caused it, we'll just have to explore more options."
I felt even more confused now, as well as worried. "Uh, options, ma'am?"
She must have recognised the look on my face, because she shook her head. "Morgana, please calm down and stop worrying. Yes, you blew up a rabbit, but no matter what caused you to change, it was hardly a deliberate act. What I'm far more interested in at the moment is why you don't seem to be improving your control of your fire connection, the exercises we gave you at the start of term should have had some effects by now. We certainly don't want any more accidental bunny explosions, do we?"
"I have been doing the exercises, ma'am, every night."
She opened her desk and took out a few crystals. I sort of recognised them, I was certain she had used at least some of them during my power testing. "I want to examine how your exercises are progressing, Morgana. Now first I would like you to do the one for controlling your essence while I monitor you."
Well, that hadn't been what I was expecting, but I just nodded, and relaxed a bit in the chair, closing my eyes as I started to control my outflow of essence. Of course, an expert would have done this immediately, if not been in that state all the time, but it took me a minute to get there. Not too bad, it had taken me a lot longer when I started. Grimes watched me closely, using one of the crystals for some of the time. I'd been going about five minutes when she told me to stop.
"Hmm. Well, Morgana, I'm happy to see that your essence exercise is going well; indeed you have made considerable progress during the month. Now take a minute, and then I want you to do the exercise we gave you for more smoothly integrating and controlling your fire essence."
So I twisted slightly as I changed into my dragonform, getting myself comfortable again. When she gestured I started to feel and smooth the essence I could feel flowing into me, and try and calm the turbulence. I'd been doing this for a month now, and while it started off feeling like it was working, after a couple of minutes it all went more chaotic. I could feel the energy, but it was as if something was interfering with it inside me, not allowing me to control it but instead sending it running through me in spastic little jerks. I just kept doing my exercise, assuming that this effect was me not controlling it properly.
This time Ms Grimes had left me go on for over ten minutes before she stopped me. While I hadn't been watching her, she'd used most of her crystals, and was staring at me with a worryingly neutral expression on her face. "Yes, I see. There is definitely something odd going on here. You start off well, then something seems to be twisting the energy, and from then on the exercise isn't doing anything useful."
I was unhappy, to say the least. If I couldn't manage to control it, I'd never be able to fully use my fire - at least, not with any sort of useful control - and I'd never be able to cast magic in my dragonform. That really sucked. I dragged my attention back to Ms Grimes, who was obviously thinking about something.
"I think we need to look into this more carefully, Morgana. The exercise should have led to improvements, you are doing it correctly. I know your particular situation is fairly unusual, and we don't have much experience in your particular type of issues. So I am going to try and evaluate your specific problems more deeply, so we can pin down what exactly is the cause. Then we can work out a system that will lead to improvement for you." She gave me a serious look before continuing. "In the meantime, please try and avoid casting magic in public if possible; if this loss of control happens again it might not be a bunny."
I cheered up a bit at that, despite the admonishment not to cast magic where others might be affected. I still had the deep suspicion that my change hadn't been my fault, but the last thing I wanted to do was hurt someone because of my lack of control. She sounded like it was really a matter of sorting out my admittedly weird use of magic, and then setting me on the right path. So when she dismissed me I left feeling far more positive than when I had entered.
Grimes sat watching the closed door for a few minutes after her student left, then finally gave a deep sigh and looked again at the notes she'd made during the examination. She hadn't wanted to worry Morgana, but what she'd see had made her much less optimistic than she'd been before they started. Worryingly, Morgana's control had worsened, despite practicing as she'd been told, and she couldn't work out why. What she needed was more information, and possibly different types of information. She tapped her finger as she examined her notes again. Her observations had suggested a couple of possible avenues to explore, but in the meantime she had an idea. Of course, it might not please the person she was going to ask, but as it was for a student she knew she'd say yes, after the required protestations.
Monday evening, 6pm, Laura's lab
One of the advantages of Exemplar memory was that I didn't need a map to find Laura's lab area again. Given Laura's mapmaking skills, that was a definite plus. The only problem I'd had was half-way, when the deserted corridor had made me stop and let my heart-rate come down to something a bit more normal. I really hated those reminders of my PTSD - dammit, it had been months, surely it should be going away by now? So I carried on to the lab, grumbling quietly to myself.
This time, I knew better than to just press the doorbell and stand outside being ignored. I just leant on it for 30 seconds until the door slid open to reveal my small blue friend. Hardly surprising, I'd texted her to tell her I was on the way.
"Hey, Laura!" I looked around the lab, waving to the other students, a couple who actually looked up to wave back. The rest would probably stay working until something blew up close by.
"So, let's see them!"
Laura grinned at my impatience, as she took two small cases from her desk. Opening one, she showed me the contents. A pair of earplugs, one red, one blue, ends flesh coloured to tone in with my skin. As well as a small metal bar. "Ok, one for each ear. Red for the right ear, blue for the left. They're matched to each ear, as you can see they aren't quite the same shape."
"And the metal stick?"
"Just a magnet to pull them out easily. If you have to, you can work them out by hand, but it's a bit of a pain as they are very close fitting. They have to be, to protect you properly. "
I took one of them in my fingers, rolling it around as I examined it. "They look good."
Laura blushed slightly - well, OK, she went a bit deeper blue, but I knew her well enough to tell. "Actually, I sorta added a few functions while I was making them..."
I had to grin, Laura really was a typical devisor. "I'd be surprised if you didn't."
Laura coughed slightly before switching into devisor-explanation mode. "OK, as we agreed they will filter out the sort of odd frequencies sirens use, as well as having a level filter for very loud noises. But then I thought, you really need to wear them all the time, because you won't have time to put them in if someone attacks you. Now that isn't an issue for hearing people, but you can't use earbuds at the same time, so I added bluetooth to them. So you can listen to music and stuff on them. Since I was doing that, I added some software so you can set them to an encrypted channel if you want to."
I was still rolling one around as she carried on list the features. "They sound really cool. Can I try them?"
Laura nodded. "Oh yes, in fact I want to check them out against our test rig. Pop them in, and we'll go test them."
It did take me a minute to get them comfortable the first time, as they were matched to my ear they had to slide in at a specific angle, but once there I could hardly notice them. In fact, there didn't seem to be any effect at all on the room noise and Laura's voice."
"They feel fine, but I can't tell any difference. Are they on?"
"Yeah, that's how it should be, there shouldn't be any distorting at normal volumes. They self-charge from soundwaves, so you don't need to recharge batteries or anything."
"Cool! So, let's go test them a bit more."
Laura gestured to me to follow, as she led me out of the lab and along the corridor a bit until we came to a door labelled Test Room 1D. With a warning notice about not entering when the red light was on, which fortunately it wasn't.
"I set a sound test rig up in here earlier, just come in and close the door - oh, and flip that warning switch to let people know the rooms in use."
I watched curiously as she fiddled with the controls on what looked rather like an electronic loudhailer on steroids. "This is safe, right Laura?"
"Oh, perfectly safe." She grinned at me. "Just stand in front of the sonic cannon, what could possibly go wrong? Seriously, don't worry, it only goes up to around 140 decibels, you could probably handle that even without the earplugs as long as you were in your dragon form. Now just stand in the red circle and wait."
Well, the earplugs were my idea so I could hardly object at being her test subject now. Even though I knew enough to know that 140 Db unprotected would probably have me on the floor, or with broken eardrums. The device vibrated a bit then started to speak. "One, two, three, four, test."
"Ok, I can hear it, now what?"
"Now we turn the volume up slowly. It should get a bit louder, then stay sounding the same even when I keep increasing the volume. If you want me to stop, just raise your hand."
All seemed simple enough, and in fact it did work as advertised. Although as she got closer to the maximum the voice did start to sound distorted. When she finally turned the dial up to full, I could feel a painful sort of hum, but that was it.
"They really do work!" I grinned and gave Laura a quick hug. "Thanks so much!"
"Hey, it was fun. Were there any effects like distortion or pain?"
"Well, a bit. When you got it over 90db there was a bit of distortion. And at max, there was this sort of painful hum - more like a vibration really. Was that what you expected?"
"Yeah, I'm afraid you can't really get away from a bit of distortion at very high sound levels, there's only so much you can do with something that small. The hum is the reason you can't depend on them for full protection against sonic attacks, though. At a high enough intensity, the bones in your skull start to resonate, the earplugs can't do much about that, even if they are protecting your eardrums."
I did wince slightly at that - yeah, I remembered that far too vividly - but they really did seem to work. Hopefully next time Chained Melody did something obnoxious they'd cope with it and I could slap her silly.
Tuesday 4th October, morning, Dr Mazarin's Office
Alright, so I've read the files – what seems to be the problem, Mrs. Horton?” The tall dignified gentleman asked politely.
“I'm not having any of that, Mr. Mazarin. You know very well what the problem is. Especially after the latest incident”
“State it for the record?” Mazarin replied, pointing at the microphone placed in plain sight on the desk.
“Lucretia Del Bosque. She should be in Poe cottage.
“Her records clearly state an assignment to Melville cottage.”
“The computer records! The old hard files in my possession, not the new ones since... the incident, those show Miss Del Bosque assigned to Poe! Where her friends are, and where we are!”
“An upraised voice isn't needed for the recording, Mrs. Horton,” Mazarin chided gently.
“Lucretia Del Bosque is a unique form of student; one with powerful backers in the form of a rich former student and a somewhat powerful and influential celebrity. The notations on the old file you bring up state both requested Miss Del Bosque be placed in Melville, for various reasons.”
Mrs. Hortons mouth tightened. “Yes, I read those. But comments made by those not in the know shouldn't be considered; we are discussing a student's mental health here.”
“The health of more than one student.” Mazarin stated.
“Never mind, I should not have gone into depth there. I'll tell you what, Mrs. Horton – I'll make a deal with you. Next week, I will schedule a hearing. You bring your arguments, bring your rules and precedent... and if you sway me then, I'll sign the transfer papers myself. But Melville cottage will have the chance to argue their case. Is that acceptable to you?”
Mrs. Horton was silent for a moment. “Just what are you planning?” She finally asked.
Mr. Mazarin smiled.
Tuesday lunchtime, outside the Crystal Hall
Gravedigger took a moment to check his slicked-back hair in the mirror - he'd been trying a new dye to get the proper dead-black colour proper for his goth image. Nodding in satisfaction at the way it looked against the paleness of his skin, he tugged his waistcoat straight and looked around for his cane.
"Amadeus, where did I leave my cane?"
The faintly-visible (at least to Gravedigger) ghost gave what would have been an audible sigh if he'd actually had working lungs, and pointed at a corner. The boy didn't acknowledge his spectral minion, just stepping over and picked up the ebony walking stick. Then he crooked his finger at the ghost, giving an unspoken order to follow him as he stepped out of his room. Granted, Amadeus was pitifully feeble even for a ghost, but Gravedigger liked to have one of his minions around to remind him that he was indeed powerful enough to control the dead (or undead, people were still arguing that about his ghosts).
Stepping out onto the path, he made his way towards the Crystal Hall, the tip of his cane making soft tapping noises to mark his progress. Not that he needed the stick, it was just another one of his affectations. Still, he paused some way short of his destination as he saw the girl that had been the subject of controversy this week - Cally, if he remembered her name correctly. The sight of her brought a scowl to his face. The boy-that-had-been had been turned into a beautiful girl, almost as it were by accident, and then she went and hid that from everyone as if she were ashamed of being a girl!
He waited until she'd entered the Hall with a few of her friends, getting himself under control and removing his scowl. It was so unfair, if he'd been in her position, he would never have acted as she had.
Once he'd got his meal and sat down with the rest of the Goth crowd, he thought about Cally again. This time, his face gave nothing away regarding the nature of his mental activity, and he tried to ignore the conversations around him, just letting everyone assume he was having dark goth thoughts. Still, he couldn't help a glance or two at the table the girl was sitting at. Then his brow furrowed at the sight of the redhead sitting close to her, the one who looked remarkably like a demoness. Of course, she made out to be some sort of dragon-thing, but... a real demoness would say that, wouldn't she?
He thought more on that as he finished his food. Now a demon had powers he'd be happy to trade well, anything for. If she was actually a demoness. He needed more proof, one way or the other, and his eyes glanced over Penny Dreadful as she left to buss her tray. She was in some of the magic class, wasn't she. Maybe she could be discretely pumped for information before he took things further.
Tuesday 4th October, after Calculus class
Timothy King watched the redhead hurry out of the room on her way to her next class. He wondered if she actually realised how sexy she looked like that, much of the time it was as if she had no idea how she looked. Although that wasn't unheard-of for girls who'd acquired the Exemplar physical package and improved in certain significant areas.
"So, Tim, I do hope you have the cash ready for when you lose that bet!"
Tim scowled at his friend. "Still a long time to Haloween, I haven't started to get serious yet."
"Well, you'd better hope she hasn't got spooked off guys with all that stuff about her teammate."
Tim sighed. It wasn't as if Morgana had shown any interest in him - or indeed in anyone else in the class, boys or girls - but his friend was right, having one of your teammates outed to the school as a secret sex-shifting pervert was probably going to make her less likely to respond to advances, at least until it all calmed down and blew over. He wondered for a second if she could be - no, not a chance, not looking like that. In any case, someone hiding that sort of secret wouldn't be so self-confident, would she?
Once he'd left class, he slipped off away from his friends, mentioning a job he had to do. Well, that was true in a way, as he got out his phone and double-checked no-one seemed to be in listening range.
"Inkblood? I have some work for you."
There was an unenthusiastic grunt in reply, so he continued. "I need background data on someone, a girl called Morgana Jones, codename Dragonsfyre."
"Just what sort of a background check do you want? After that little exhibition on Sunday, deep checks are going to be rather more complicated for a while. Security wasn't very happy. They still aren't."
"Hey, it's OK! I don't want that sort of hacked info, I just want to know all the public and non-private stuff about her, that's all."
There was a loud and obvious sniff over the phone. "You do realise she isn't 16 yet, right?"
"Inkblood, you wound me! I'm just trying to get to know her better, that's all."
"Yeah, of course. $500 and I'll send you a file over in a couple of days."
"That will do fine."
Wednesday 5th October, Magic Lab
I was chatting quietly to Bianca and AJ while Ms Grimes drew a couple of runes on the board. We were wondering what she was up to, as they were ones we'd seen and learnt weeks ago - light and the modified water one that shot a small jet of water. Once she'd done, she turned and gave us all one of her looks.
"Now, I'm sure you all remember these runes and what they do."
This time pretty much all of us looked bored - after all, we'd been writing and casting these for a while now. I guess I'd been hoping she was moving on to something more challenging, as she continued.
"For those of you who were paying attention earlier in the term, you will remember I told you there are many different ways of casting spells, and that we would be teaching you some simple cantrips like these. Today I'm going to show you one of the alternate ways of casting, and over the next few weeks we will be learning some others. Now I don't expect all of you to be equally good with all of the methods, but later on you will settle on a number of techniques that work best for you, and this is the start of identifying them."
Interestingly her attention had fixed on our little group during part of her speech, and I wondered what that meant.
"You learnt these cantrips first by drawing them on paper and then imbuing it with your essence. The next step is to cast it without the spell slip. The two ways I will be showing you first will be to draw the symbols in the air, and by speaking a spell which will act as a mnemonic link to the spell symbology."
Well, now I realised why she'd been looking at us. Bianca was looking seriously worried. I knew she had issues with spoken magic - the way she'd not even noticed Chained Melody's attack on her a while ago was a double-edged sword - but I wondered if she'd be able to write the symbol without a surface to do it on?
Grimes took a look around the room before continuing. "There is one other thing you need to bear in mind, which will be important to you in the long term. You have probably become familiar with the idea of carrying holdouts around with you in case of trouble. Well, magical spell cards make good holdouts, but there is an issue with them you need to be aware of. If you carry them around, and are involved in any sort of action off the campus that involves the authorities, they will examine and take note of what you have on you.
Now while there are variations depending on the local laws, magical spells fall into three main groups. Purely defensive spells, such as a shield, are considered permissible. Second are spells which are not purely defensive to your person, but are non-damaging and non-lethal, such as a snare spell. These are usually acceptable, although if the authorities are in a mind to prosecute you, they can use them against you. Third is spells which really only have an offensive use - it's quite tricky to persuade the police you are carrying a defensive fireball, and having such a slip on you could if they wished be construed as carrying a concealed weapon."
She paused for moment until the chuckles faded. "Now, while they have their own issues and problems, a spell which is cast by gesture or voice, for example, can't be held against you unless you actually use them. So while I cannot, of course, condone the use of offensive magic except in very unusual circumstances, if you are going to consider spells I would suggest making anything offensive - and certainly anything potentially lethal - as something you cast rather than carry around on a spell slip for anyone to see."
For once - in fact, probably the first time - I was doing better than my lab partners. I wasn't trying to make anything of it, they had both been good and helpful with me when I was learning something, but it did make me feel like less of an underachiever. Of course, what I hadn't told them was that I had an advantage at casting a spell by 'drawing' it in the air. As with my drawing spell diagrams, I could see, faintly, a purple line of the magic I was using to prepare the spell. Only part of it, it faded very quickly, so I couldn't see the complete pattern, but it was a great help.
AJ was managing to get it right some of the time, about as well as I'd done when we learnt drawn cantrips, and he'd told us his mother hadn't really spent much time teaching him this. Bianca though was having real issues. She'd only managed to get the light cantrip to work once, and was getting more and more frustrated. So when AJ was busy concentrating on his next attempt, I had a quiet conversation with her.
"Bianca, maybe you're trying too hard?"
She gave me a very frustrated look. "What do you expect, it's just not working? I can't follow the pattern in my mind well enough! How are you doing it so easily?"
I shrugged. I wasn't going to tell her about my particular ability, at least not here in class. "I've always been good at visualisation and stuff, it just seems to be the same sort of thing. And it's quite possible those restrictions you have on magic are making it harder for you as well."
"Yeah, maybe." She still looked upset. "It's silly, why is it easy to draw a pattern on a piece of paper but not in the air? It's like my spell checker doesn't work right if I can't see the pattern being drawn."
I nodded. "Maybe the checker relies on actually being able to see the complete pattern? You should ask Grimes, she may have some ideas to help you. If not, well, practice worked for me, it should work for you as well."
Bianca and I were packing up our books when White Snake wandered over, trying to look nonchalant.
"I wonder if I could have a word, ladies?"
I blinked, giving Bianca a quick look. Ladies. So he was (a) polite, and (b) wanted something. Bianca just raised an eyebrow slightly before turning to face him squarely.
"I guess. What can we do for you?"
He looked at us, then around at the kids leaving the room. "Perhaps in a minute or two, when it gets more private?"
AJ finished slipping his backpack on, the signal for Smokey to hop up on top so he could be carried around in style rather than have to actually walk somewhere. "Do you need me, Bianca?"
Bianca and I exchanged a look, then both shook our heads. "Thanks, AJ, but I think we have this." It was nice of him to check though, as I gave White Snake a good view of what my fangs looked like when I smiled, just in case. I didn't really think he had anything nasty planned, and even if he had trying to take us both didn't seem like a good way of starting it anyway. So we waited as the last of the kids ambled out, making small talk about the lesson without actually saying anything.
I had to admire his smooth manner, he didn't dither for a moment before starting off with his request.
"I was wondering, as you are both in the same team, if you could tell me a little about Hikaru?"
We must have both looked nonplussed, as he carried on to fill the sudden silence. "Nothing secret or anything like that, really! I just want to get to know her better, and I thought maybe you could give me a few pointers on the sort of things she likes, that sort of thing."
This time Bianca and I took a few seconds to blink at each other. Oooh, Hikaru had a secret admirer! I could see Bianca wasn't going to restart the conversation, so rather than have all three of us just stand there looking foolish...
"Um, Well, we aren't really close friends, you know. She's an RA in a different cottage, we don't share any classes, we really only see her at meals."
White Snake looked a bit disappointed at that. "I was hoping she'd given an idea of her interests?"
I shook my head. "I'm sorry, but I'd rather say nothing than lead you in the wrong direction." I did for a moment consider telling him how much Hikaru loved wolf plushies, but he was in her cottage, he might already know about her weird hatred for the cute little things.
"Why not try asking Tia or Laura? Tia rooms near to her, and Laura does some cleaning up for her?"
"Yeah, that's a good idea, Bianca. Try asking them, they know her a lot better than we do."
He nodded thoughtfully. "Thank you, ladies, I'll try that. Sorry to have taken up your time."
We watched him leave, still a bit unsure what that had all been about. "Do you think that was all he really wanted?"
I shrugged at my roommate. "Dunno, no-one's ever asked me about another girl like that before. I mean, he seemed legit and all, and I think he has a decent rep."
Bianca picked up her bag as we headed out. "Well, given the size of the stick Hikaru usually has up her ass, good luck to him."
I snickered. "Yeah, he's going to need it!"
Wed afternoon, Dickinson cottage, about 5pm.
I pushed the door to the cottage open and slipped inside, before looking around curiously. I'd not been here before, and I had no idea of the layout. A number of girls sitting in some of the comfy chairs scattered around turned to stare at me in a not-quite menacing sort of way. So I gave a sort of nonchalant wave as I checked if Erica or Cally was there. No such luck.
I was about to go over to the rather formidable looking lady behind the desk when a frowning girl approached me. She looked at me over her Lennon glasses her glance flicking across me with no apparent reaction.
"Can I help you with something?"
Well, OK, she wasn't friendly but she wasn't really hostile either. So I smiled and nodded.
"If you could. I'm Morgana, I've come to visit Erica and Cally."
She looked uncertain about a response at that, so I quickly added. "We're all in the same team, there's some stuff I needed to talk to them about."
I didn't know this girl, so I kept it simple and didn't actually lie. Just in case, you never knew what powers someone might have. She gave me another look, then smiled a little.
"Oh yeah, right. I've seen you all eating together. Hmm, don't you usually have horns?
I shrugged. "Not all the time, and I didn't want to scare anyone."
"Ah, OK." She waved at the lady behind the desk, who despite working on something seemed to have been keeping a close eye on us as well.
"It's OK, Mrs. Plimsol, it's one of Erica's teammates. I'll just show her their room, OK?"
The woman gave me a brief but rather basilisk-like stare, then nodded. "Very well, Milena."
The girl - Milena - took my arm and led me off. "C'mon, I'll show you to their room."
"So can you tell me why you're here, or is it a secret?"
I bit my lip slightly. "Well, sort of, its private team stuff, you know?"
"Oh, right." She stopped before a door and knocked. "Erica, Cally? You have a visitor."
It only took a moment before Erica opened the door - well, I had told them earlier when I'd be around. "Oh, Hi Morgana! Thanks for bringing her up, Milena."
For her part Milena just patted me on the shoulder and left, as Erica ushered me in.
"Enter freely and of your own will."
I stuck my tongue out at Erica. "Gee, worried about the undead much?"
"Nah, not really. Well, probably not."
I waved to Cally, who was sitting on her bed having just put some sort of graphic novel down.
"Well, I've come to ward your room for you as promised."
Both girls looked interested. "Is it secret stuff we can't watch?"
I shook my head at Erica as I took my backpack down and opened it. "No, of course it isn't. Why should it be?"
"Well, you mages are all secret and stuff..."
Cally gave her roommate a sardonic look. "Erica, stop teasing the mage. She might turn you into something you'd regret."
I winked at Cally. "It's OK, I didn't pack a lillypad so she's safe for now." I gave Erica an evil look. "For NOW..."
That just got me a bigger grin from Erica, as I took what I needed from my backpack. A sheaf of spell slips, and a cute red plushie dragon.
"Say hello to Ifor, he's going to be staying with you."
Cally blinked at the cute plushie. "Er, why do we need a stuffed dragon? Not that he isn't cute, but?"
I patted the little guy on the head. "Actually, he's part of the wards." Both girls just looked confused, so I carried on explaining. "Neither of you are mages, so you won't be able to tell if anyone has broken the wards. Bianca and I can tell if that's happened, but Ifor here is your warning system."
I took one of the spells slips I'd prepared, and carefully slipped it inside the little guy. I'd cut a few threads earlier to make that simple. As I did, his eyes lit up with a green glow.
"Er, Morgana? You're dragon is glowing!"
I laughed at Erica. "That's the point. I'm going to tie him into the wards. While they are up and working, his eyes wont glow. If someone breaks them, they'll glow and you can see someone's intruded. Now we just need somewhere to put him where he'll look normal."
I looked around a bit, then Erica took him and carefully placed him on top of a wardrobe. "Will this do?"
"Sure, anywhere will do as long as you can see him."
She nodded and made sure he wouldn't fall off. "That's pretty clever, using a plushie. Everyone expects to see them in a girl's room."
I sorted out six larger spell slips. "Now, I'm going to place these on the walls, floor and ceiling. They will define the warded space for you." I took a closer look at the walls, noting some of the posters. "Can I put two of them behind those posters? May as well hide them as much as possible."
"Yeah, sure you can". Erica and Cally removed a couple as I pointed at them, then waited for me to fasten the spellslips there before putting them back. Another one went behind a wardrobe, leaving only one visible on a wall. A quick lift of a bed allowed us to slip another one under the carpet, and the final one went on the ceiling.
"There, all set now."
Erica was looking them over. "Do we need six? Bianca only seems to use one when she's doing stuff at the team table."
"Well, yes and no. It's easiest to ward an area that has a topological correspondence to the spell. So Bianca's single slip creates a sphere. Since your room is a rectangle, one on each wall works well. I could have used four, that defines a triangular space, but it would have left gaps. Or I could have just put one in the middle, but it wouldn't be as powerful."
I stepped into the middle of the room. "Now, I just have to tie the spell into the area, and include you and Ifor. I gestured to them to come closer. "Just stand there, don't worry, you probably won't even notice anything."
"Are you sure? I remember the bunny..."
I scowled at Erica. "Something interfered, and this is perfectly safe. I've been practicing wards for ages." Well, since a few weeks ago in magic class, but it wasn't as if this was terribly hard. I put the final blank spell slip on my hand and grabbed my pen. Then I closed my eyes, breathing slowly in and out as I relaxed. It only took a minute, then I opened them again and carefully inscribed the binding spell onto the slip. I could see the lines glow slightly as I pushed essence into it, watching it flow out to the slips stuck to the walls and to Ifor, as well as including the two girls. It took a short time - I wanted this to last, so it took more energy than usual. Then smiled and relaxed.
"There, all done." I took the binding slip, and tucked it out of sight under Ifor's belly. "See, his eyes aren't glowing any more. If they start up again, get hold of me or Bianca, and we'll come check it out."
Cally was actually looking quite impressed, Erica a bit more sober.
"Will it stop any intrusion?"
I shook my head at Erica. "Well, not physical ones, or anyone coming in would break it. But it should stop magic or powers from seeing or hearing what you're up to in here." I held up my hand before the obvious question. "And yes, you can hear people knock on the door." I grinned briefly. "We made that mistake the first time Bianca put wards on our room, not anymore."
"How long will they last for? If no-one breaks them?"
I gave Cally a reassuring smile. "Quite a while. Basically the longer they last, the less powerful they are, so I tied the spell into the half-lunar cycle." Both girls looked at be blankly, so I tried not to sigh. "It means I need to repower them for you at each new moon and full moon. Next full moon is a week on Sunday, so I'll come around and fix them up for you, OK?"
Erica was looking at me thoughtfully as I put my stuff back in my backpack.
"You know, I thought it would have been a bit more, well, flashy?"
I rolled my eyes at her. "What, you'd prefer if there was smoke and lightning and lots of fire? In your bedroom?" I raised my arms up in an ominous and perfectly useless gesture. "Pay no attention to the dragon behind the curtain..."
Which got me giggles from the pair, so hopefully stopping them worrying too much. The wards were perfectly harmless, but people always seemed to worry about magic.
Wednesday evening, Poe Cottage
I'd left Bianca on the way back from dinner. She'd needed to research some stuff in the library, and I needed to get my homework done. At least my improved exemplar memory was making the French easy, if boring; sadly it didn't help so much with my Calculus problems. The magic homework I didn't mind, that was interesting.
When I got back to Poe, my phone chimed. It looked like I had a text from Mrs Horton. I frowned and opened it, wondering what it was and why she'd text me. I didn't think I was guilty of anything in particular, at least not recently, but the whole issue about the bunny had made me a little paranoid.
'You had a package delivered today, please collect it from me before 9pm'
Ooh, that was interesting! It was the first package I'd got here, so instead of going up to our room, I went straight away to pick it up. Mrs. Horton's door was half open, and I was about to knock when I heard her call me in.
"Ah, Morgana. Hello, dear, I have a package for you." She pointed at a large box with orange and purple stripes. "It came by courier for you this afternoon."
I thanked her, and picked it up. It wasn't very heavy, and while it had my address on it, the return address was somewhat unreadable. I did manage not to try and shake it to see if anything rattled on my way up, but it wasn't until I put it down on my desk and started to hunt for a knife that I realised I'd missed the most obvious oddity on the packing. It had been sent by Federal Hexpress.
Really eager to open it now, I slit the tape carefully with a claw, opening it with the sort of anticipation more suitable to Xmas than to a delivery. I actually hesitated a moment before opening the lid, then gasped as I saw what was nestled inside the packing material. Then I very carefully lifted out the bowl. It was beautiful, a shallow bowl about a foot across. It seemed to be made of obsidian, with complicated gold-inlaid runes running all around the outside. While I'd hoped Thulia would set up something soon, I hadn't dared to hope she'd be able to do it so fast.
I put the bowl down on my desk, and just spent a few minutes admiring it. Whatever her magic abilities, Thulia was a true artist when it came to making stuff. God knows what it would have looked like if I'd tried making one, but it would probably have scared small children. A bit more rummaging in the box revealed a sheaf of notes, which of course I didn't look at until after I'd done my homework. Not.
That was how my roomie found me when she came in, sitting cross legged on my bed going through the papers and making notes about them.
"Hi Morgana, what are you up to?"
I looked up - I'd been so absorbed I hadn't really noticed her come in.
"Hi, Bianca. I just got a package from Thulia." I pointed at the bowl on my desk, and Bianca gave it a look over.
"Wow, it's really lovely, isn't it! What does it do?"
I blinked at her. "You can't read the runes?"
"Well - yeah, I can read them, but it's like maths - just because I can read the symbols doesn't mean I always know what it does right away, you know? And these are pretty complicated."
I put my notes down and got up, then slowly stroked a finger around the bowls rim. "Well, judging by the notes she included, it's a modified scrying bowl. Hence the bowl shape."
"Gee, a bowl shaped like a bowl? I'd never have guessed."
I grinned at her sarcastic tone. "Well, the idea is its part of a matched pair, they are entangled at a quantum level, apparently. The wards around Whateley mean you can't do the usual scrying or communication through them without setting off all sorts of alarms. By using a matched set, and only using them for communicating, they'll only use a trickle of power and can slip under the radar, as it were."
Bianca was still eyeing the bowl. "Oh, so nothing dangerous?"
"Don't worry, it won't eat you in your bed! No, it has to be very low power or it would set off the wards. Basically it's a magic version of a phone. Look on the bright side, at least it isn't an iBowl..."
She snorted and finally put her stuff down. "So what were you reading when I came in?"
"Instructions on how to set it up and use it, basically. How to use it - I need to cast a few spells, and I was making notes of what I'd need from the store. After that, I'll be trying it out. She said midnight our time would be best, but I'll be quiet, I'll do my best not to wake you."
Bianca looked at the bowl thoughtfully. "You said it would slide under the Whateley wards. What about the wards I've put on our room?"
She did look a little worried, which I could understand. She'd spent a lot of time warding our room, and despite my occasional teasing about it, she had good reasons for being so paranoid.
"I think the link is so low powered it will slip past them as well. She did say that this will only work at such a low power because the bowls are matched and linked. So a single bowl couldn't get past your wards without being noticed."
Bianca nodded. "I'll take your word for that, then, I hope it all works properly."
"Thanks. I do too. Otherwise I'll have to wait till she can get on Earth and phone me, that won't be quite the same. And I'll make sure the first thing I ask her is about your wards, just in case."
Thursday 6th October, late afternoon.
I'd intended to go straight from Magic lab to the store to purchase the materials I needed, But this plan was delayed due to having to look after Bianca. She's been hit by a piece of exploding robot at lunchtime, and was still looking a bit off even after a healing and her own regeneration sorted out the physical damage. I had offered to walk her back to our room, but she insisted she had plans to meet up with her friend at the quad, so I escorted her there and made sure she was comfortable before heading off to fill my bag and empty my wallet.
So I headed off to the store with a list of the stuff I'd need to set up for contacting Thulia. While the list I'd made from her notes was quite exotic, I was sure I'd find it all in the magic section. So I worked my way though the shelves, marvelling yet again at the sheer range of stuff they had available. I'd never heard of Kunzite or Kyanite, yet they had the crystals I needed. I winced a bit at the price of the Kunzite, but at least they had small ones. Thulia hadn't mentioned anything about the size of the crystals, just the weight, so I hoped that it didn't matter. The rest of the crystals I needed were just semi-precious stones, not too costly.
I also needed a special mix of paint for the diagrams. Mercury/Gold amalgam paint came in a number of different varieties, it seemed, so I got the most liquid - and cheapest - one. Then, on reading all the safety warnings on the vial, some disposable gloves. By the time I'd added in all the rest of the list, I was a bit shocked at the total. Nearly $700, which was over half my October allowance. Still, I'd only have to buy this once, and some of it would be useful for other workings. If I was going to keep having to buy these sorts of consumables, though, I might have to talk to my sister about money. Which I was reluctant to do, she didn't actually have to give me the half of the investment cash she did. I had been declared dead, after all. In fact, after paying Laura and this, I'd have been flat broke if I hadn't had money left over from outfitting myself at the start of term.
My backpack was noticeably heavier once I'd done shopping, and headed back to our lab. Given the warnings about the mercury, I wanted to do the prep work on a lab bench under an extraction fan, it wasn't the stuff to be messing about with in our room.
I was glad that I when I unlocked the door it was empty. I wasn't terribly worried about Bianca seeing what I was doing - after all, I was planning to do the spell in our room, she could hardly miss it - but AJ had a better grounding in magic (even if it was a bit random), and might have been able to work out what I was up to. In which case I'd have to fall back to using our room to do all this.
I laid out all my stuff with a degree of trepidation. While nothing involved was terribly complex, it was quite a bit more complicated than anything we'd done in class, and each stage had to be perfect. I had done some reading up first, in particular on how to prepare to do this sort of thing, and if I got anything wrong, I'd just have to buy more supplies and try again.
First up was the cloth base. I'd got some rather nice black material that was apparently de rigour for using for this sort of thing (it didn't have to be black, but apparently mages were slaves to fashion). I'd also bought a fancy frame to fasten it to so that I could draw complex diagrams without it rucking up the cloth and ruining them. It hadn't been cheap, but I figured I'd use it a lot over the next few years. It even came with instructions on how to fasten everything together, which helped. At least it wasn't made by Ikea.
Now it got more complicated. I was going to have to first draw the diagrams in white pencil, making sure it was accurate. Then I had to go over the lines with the mercury-gold mixture, and finally apply the gemstones I'd bought. The first step took me rather longer than I'd expected, but there were quite a lot of diagram and symbols to put on, and the layout had to be precise. Now I understood why some of the stuff we'd bought for the courses at the beginning of term had included geometry equipment.
That was tedious, but the simpler part. The next bit had to be done more quickly, as if I paused with painting on the amalgam it would make a mess and I'd have to restart from scratch. For small patterns, you could paint the stuff on with a paintbrush, but I had a lot of lines to do, so I'd invested in a fancy tool. It was rather like a very large, and pressure fed, fountain pen, with a flat felt tip. You poured the liquid into a disposable tube, and it was fed through to the tip, rather like a really sophisticated marker pen. Except that as a lot of the liquids used were fairly dense, it put pressure on the reservoir. It was very cool, and the only drawback was that you needed to throw away the disposable storage unit after thick paints like the amalgam. But they only cost $10, and I'd bought a pack just in case I screwed up.
I did wonder how it would write, but I'd bought some extra cloth, and spent a few minutes practicing on it to get a feel for it. Then I tried to calm myself as I started to draw the lines in with the amalgam. It took a while, and I had to remember to breathe slowly as I did it, but finally I grinned and straightened up. It had actually gone better than I thought it would, the fancy pen helped a lot. Before anything could dry up and gum up the pen, I did the various symbols around and in the diagram - they were a lot easier as I could do them one by one. All done, I left it to dry while I took the pen apart and cleaned it, then tossed the used reservoir into the disposal unit. I did worry slightly at tossing mercury into it - the stuff had come with so many warning about using and disposing of the stuff I was surprised it didn't glow in the dark as well. But then, seeing what the devisors alone were likely tipping down the drains, a little mercury seemed tame.
While the paint tried - soaked into the cloth as it was, it would take a while - I got on with the final part of my preparations. This was actually easy compared to what I'd done so far, if slightly tedious. All I had to do was take each of the semi-precious stones I'd bought and grind then up in a good old-fashioned mortar and pestle and put the powder to one side. After that, all I had to do was put some glue onto the appropriate points in the diagram and sprinkle some of the gemstone powder on. It actually took longer for the paint to dry than for me to get all that ready. Applying it was anticlimactically easy, I just painted on some glue in the correct point, and carefully sprinkled the powder on. I'd hope to be able to actually power up the spell this evening, but it was well after 6 when I'd finished with the glue, and it all had to dry. So I carefully put the frame and spell into my storage locker, and tidied up all my stuff. A quick check, and anything I wasn't taking back went into the incinerator. It would be ready tomorrow, and I could get onto the part I'd been waiting for.
Thursday 6th October, London, England
Nephandus walked into the small private briefing room and nodded in acknowledgement to the man already seated there.
"My apologies for being a little late, Major, some things came up I had to deal with."
The Major put his pad down and made a 'don't worry' gesture. "Not a problem, these things happen. It gave me a chance to confirm the room isn't bugged."
Seating himself, Nephandus took out a small stone from his briefcase, putting it on the table as he made a few arcane gestures over it, making it glow a soft green. The Major nodded in approval - in their line of work, there was no such thing as too many security precautions.
"So, Sir, do we have a go on the operation?"
Nephandus nodded, taking a folder from his briefcase and handing it to him. "Yes, we do. The final details, codes and so on are here, once you have checked and distributed them, please destroy the paperwork."
"And the go date?"
"Unless anything changes at the last minute, the actual evac will be on Tuesday night, local time. I will arrive in Tblisi on Sunday night, in case there are any matters that need my assistance. I have already made arrangements for the helicopters and equipment to be delivered by air, they should arrive in Baku on Saturday. Please check everything out and get it prepared.
Arrangements for travel after the extraction are in the briefing papers. If you have any problems, contact me before Saturday night using the usual channels."
The Major nodded. "Of course, Sir, I probably won't. I assume that if we are successful payment will be made by the usual method."
"Yes, it will. As agreed, a basic payment to cover the operation, plus a bonus if it all goes successfully."
The officer stood up, making sure the folder was safe in his bag. "Then I look forward to seeing you next week and reporting our success, Sir."
Nephandus watched the mercenary leave before turning off the protective spell and getting ready to leave. While any operation could go wrong, working with reputable mercenaries they had used on previous occasions meant a good probability of success. Of course, this operation was actually only the beginning, its success would lead to a much more interesting situation.
Friday 7th October, after classes
Yet again my plans to spend a couple of hours in the lab before dinner were foiled. It was a good job I wasn't as paranoid as my roommate, or I'd have started to suspect some sort of plot. I was starting to wonder if I should go back and do some work there after dinner instead, I could always do my homework another time. This time it was an appointment with Caitlin Bardue, which puzzled me more than a little. As usual, the text hadn't specified exactly why I had to see her - I was starting to suspect that keeping students in the dark as much as possible was normal Whateley practice, intended to make us worry as much as possible. The venue surprised me as well; the last time she'd beaten me up in one of the combat practice rooms, yet this time I was to meet her in one of the teacher's magic lab rooms. It seemed odd, she didn't have any association with the Magic Department I knew of.
The door was open, so I could see Ms Bardue lounging in a chair reading something on her pad. I was about to cough loudly, when she gestured to me to come in. After my experience with her in training, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised she was aware of me in the doorway.
"Ah, Morgana. Shut the door and sit, we have some stuff to go through."
I looked around with a fair amount of suspicion as I did as instructed. This lab looked nothing like ours. It did have some of the same sort of circles and inscriptions, but it was also half full of metalworking stuff, including what looked like a full sized forge. Which was different.
"Er... stuff, ma'am?"
She gave an extremely unladylike snort. "I told you before, call me Caitlin, I'm not a teacher. And you're here because Grimes asked me to take a look at the weird issues you seem to be having with your fire powers. Now before we start, sit down and go through what the problem is and how it shows itself."
So I did as I was told - I'd been going through this enough times now I had the details down pat, and Caitlin sat there, not showing any emotion, just occasionally asking me to elaborate on something.
"Ok, so now I'm going to do a few tests of my own." She stood up and locked the door, which surprised me slightly. "Your clothes aren't fireproof, are they?"
I shook my head. "No ma'am. Well, my underwear is pretty tough, but if you're asking about my own fire, no."
"That's what I thought. OK, better strip off, put your clothes on that chair. I'm going to run you through trying to use your magic and fire, and we'll probably want to see what happens when your fire really gets going."
She didn't seem too worried about the effects on herself - the only protection she had going was a standard protective circle - but then I remembered that when she'd found me she's mentioned she was fireproof. So I did as instructed, then stood in the centre of the circle.
Caitlin looked in approval at the girl. It was nice to see someone cooperate as instructed, given some of the kids she had to work with. Now to see if her unusual way of seeing magic would tell her anything more about the girl's issue.
"OK, start out by doing a basic spell or two in your normal form, then change and do them again so I can see the difference."
The girl nodded, first doing a basic light cantrip, then a more complicated darkness one. She could see the whirlpool of the girls essence pool responding to her, but it looked pretty normal. A few more eddies and disturbances that usual, but she hadn't been training long, and there didn't seem to be anything really out of the ordinary. Caitlin nodded, gesturing to her to change. Morgana shifted into her 'dragon' form, and started through the exercises again. This time, there was a considerable difference.
Caitlin had already seen the swirl of essence grow stronger, as the girl drew down more fire energy, taking it into herself. That looked fine, and given the details Grimes had sent her on the kid's powers, working as expected. However she noted with a frown that as she did, there was something - she would almost have called it a separate secondary eddy - that strengthened as fire energy flowed into the girl. This time, when she tried to cast a simple spell, the effects were more interesting. Her light spell grew, turning the red of a fire, as it pulled in a lot more energy than it should have done. What was most interesting to Caitlin was that the disruption seemed to have far more to do with that secondary eddy than anything else.
Morgana gave a muttered curse, which just brought a smile to Caitlin's face, and tried again. By the fourth time, the only thing that had changed was that the secondary effect she'd seen was getting even more powerful, and interfering more. She gestured to the girl to stop as she gave it some thought.
"OK, I think I've seen enough." She looked at the puzzled expression on Morgana's face, so decided the kid deserved a bit of explanation.
"I don't see magic in the same way everyone else does. That's why Grimes asked me to take a look, to see if I could spot what was going on."
"Did you spot anything, Caitlin?"
For a moment, Caitlin wondered how much she should explain. She could tell that despite the face she was putting on, Morgana was quite worried about all this. But she'd never felt holding out on people without a really good reason was a good idea.
"There were definitely some inconsistencies, Morgana. I'm not sure what they mean yet, I need to make some notes and consult with Grimes. There is something odd going on, but don't worry, we'll sort it out and get you working properly. Now run along and please stay clear of the bunnies!"
Morgana nodded as she slipped back into her clothes. "Thank you Caitlin, I will."
Caitlin stared thoughtfully at the closed door once the girl had left. Whatever that effect had been, it wasn't anything she was familiar with, and she didn't think it was due to the kid's odd way of drawing essence. In her time she'd seen some truly weird and wonderful ways of doing that, and none had exibited that odd behaviour. Grimes had been right to ask her help, and now she was going to have to tell her that there was indeed a problem, and it looked like a lot more investigation was needed. She hoped the girl wouldn't mind being a lab rat for a while.
Friday night, Poe Cottage, just before midnight.
I licked my lips as I gave another check to my setup. Just in case. Behind me, I could hear the gently almost-snore of Bianca breathing, as I finally stood up and took my athame in hand. First things first, make sure everyone around me was safe. Rather as I had done at the lake, I turned slowly, using the athame and my will to cast a protective circle around me. This one was slightly different, it was basically to stop anything inside the circle from getting out, and if something actually managed that the disturbance would mean it would be immediately noticed. It also served a secondary purpose of stopping any interference from my roommates exuberant use of warding and protection spells.
That done, I made a couple of totally unnecessary movements to straighten the black inscribed cloth that sat under the bowl I'd been sent. Now came the part I hadn't been able to test. Taking a quick look at my notes, just to reassure myself, I started to slowly feed essence into the diagrams I'd put onto the cloth. This was different from the written magic I'd been practicing for class - instead of drawing a glyph and putting energy in to activate a spell, usually immediately, this was slowly and careful energising a complex set of pre-prepared spells. I had to do each on carefully and in a particular order.
It took a few minutes - in theory, I could have done it a lot faster, but this was my first time - before the work was complete, the inscriptions on the cloth glowing faintly in different colours, easy to see in the dark room. I could also see complicated streamers of essence flowing between the various parts. So far, so good. I had half-filled the bowl with water, and now I used my athame to carefully prick my finger and allow 3 drops of blood to drip one by one into the bowl. Each drop twisted and curled into first scarlet streamers which to my surprise stayed discrete - I'd expected them to merge and dissolve into the water. I slipped a plaster onto my finger, moving a bit closer so I could stare into the bowl. This time I pushed my essence into the spells inscribed along the side of the bowl, and as I did the bloody tendrils finally started to glow a soft dark red colour.
I stared into the liquid as I'd been instructed, the pink and red curls pulling my attention into them as I concentrated on Thulia. It was quite different from using the candle, the operation seemed a lot more delicate and nuanced than the brute force of a spell candle and invocation. First I felt the light touch of a presence, which somehow seemed to be in the water, then the reddish tinge faded and I was looking at Thulia's smiling face. Almost like looking into a television, except the contact itself felt more subtle, and I could feel the butterfly touch of her there as if she were inches away.
"Thulia? Can you hear me?"
She smiled. "Of course I can. That was the whole point of this, after all!"
I blushed slightly. Well, after all this effort, I was finding myself a bit tongue-tied. "It's so good to be able to talk to you again. Even if this is a bit more complicated than using a phone."
She nodded. "True, but it's a real pain trying to get a decent connection from here to you. Do you any idea how hard it is to get your phone people to handle an interdimensional account? And these bowls have another advantage - they can't be overheard."
Given the predilection of many of the students at Whateley to hack, monitor and generally snoop on any communication method they could get their greedy little paws on, that wasn't something to ignore.
"So, just what is that school of yours like? I didn't have time to find out much about it before I had to come home, but I dont think most schools have that level of magical defences, for a start?"
I smiled. "Oh, it's anything but a normal school! Let me tell you what it's been like for me..."
There was something that was both mundane and, well, personal about telling Thulia about some of the things that had gone on since I arrived, and what Whately was like. I hoped in future she could tell me about what she'd been up to. However 2 a.m. sneaked up on me fast, and while I'd have liked to have carried on talking all night, I did have to get some sleep. So with regret, we broke the link. At least now we had the bowls, we could talk to each other a lot more. I went to sleep a happy dragon.