A Goldfish in the Ocean (Part 4)
A Second Generation Whateley Academy Tale
A Goldfish in the Ocean
Sunday, September 25, 2016 - 8:02 am
“So this is the art room?” Vic said as they walked in. The look of the place certainly brought him back to the couple of times, back home, when his classes took him to the high school art room. Back then, the place felt incredibly quaint and chaotic, but in a good way. The pieces of art from the students were nothing to write home about, but they were nice to look at, even if they were unfinished on the times he'd visited. But there was something about creative work that always drew Vic’s admiration. It had rekindled his interest in pursuing at the very least the ability to draw, to be able to make cool images with little effort. That was before he'd changed his high school goals to focus on becoming a businessman.
The art club’s base was every one of those old feelings times ten. It was impressive to see a room with such a high ceiling and ample space. Many of the artworks and supplies hung from the high walls or from dangling shelves and panels, and Vic could only wonder how the average joe would get them down without a problem…
There was a bit of everything hanging around. From incomplete to finished and framed. From minimalist to realistic. Coherent and incoherent... or both. Many of the students seemed to find it fun to simply splash, whip and throw paint against a white canvas and call it 'art'. There were more than a couple of statues or sculpturing projects, from recycled abstract to wood or even metal bent into both realistic and random ways.
He could wonder what tools were used to get that effect, only he thought he might have seen fingerprints impressed upon one steel structure in passing.
“I’m not really that well versed in the arts,” Tanya admitted, finding her curiosity drawn to some of the sculptures around. Her lavender hair tilted hard to the right as she tried to make sense of one project.
“Oma has taught me a bit of art history. Though I mostly know about artists from central Europe,” Erica said.
“I wouldn’t know about artists. Although I do like the idea of doing stuff like this…” Vic said as he looked over an art station at the rear of the central table that spanned half the room. A canvas rested upon an easel, showing an image reminiscent of a fantasy novel. An island, or at least the impression of one in rough colors. Even with the shapes outlined it was hard to make out the exact image. It seemed to show a floating landmass, like in the movie Avatar. There was some sort of cascade circling around it below, while chains or blurred lines fluttered and straightened themselves, wrapped around the sides. And then, there was the pencil outline of three points rising up from the bottom.
It was both mesmerizing and still far from completion, but Vic couldn’t help speculate, taking a closer look to find new details. The sketch lines were… sketchy and hard to make out. Chaotic, as if done at an inspired speed, which made it hard to tell anything else. There were the doodles of people standing at the edge of the landmass, holding what appeared to be bows, clubs and swords. “Is this the concept art from a game?” he wondered to himself as he spied the table for a clue. It all appeared to be an original creation.
The painting still bore the oily smell one would expect from such work. The tail end of the final sprint to completion was visible, with many of the brushes already soaking in turpentine. The palette had most of the excess paint used up, with the remainder clumped into a brown-ish conglomeration of all the used colors.
“I suppose the classes here do have to give you some sort of theory, right?” Vic added, disappointed in spite of himself.
“Well, I heard the teacher here is a former art criminal. She makes classes interesting,” Erica said. Tanya frowned slightly at that.
“Really? I wasn’t aware of that,” Vic said with his interest piqued.
“Yeah. Some of the older students told me about the time she managed to take an entire class on a tour around the Louvre,” Erica recalled. “Convinced the school by saying they got in cheap in the off season.”
“Isn’t that still incredibly expensive… and incredibly crowded?” Tanya wondered.
“I don't think she took them during the day,” Erica mused in a matter of fact tone. “And they said the place was empty.”
It took Tanya a couple of seconds to put the explanation together and answer with a bit of a polite scorn. “Oh, that’s how.”
“They do say she’s fun,” Erica reminded.
“I mean, this place looks like fun.” Vic looked up at the hanging shelves.
“Thanks. I try to make the best with the space I’m given,” said a new voice. At the entrance of the room was a woman who was, for all intents and purposes, a she-devil: a pair of horns on her forehead, elfin ears, cat-slit eyes and a long black tail that dexterously wiggled itself around the doorknob and closed the door behind her. There was no doubt that this was the fabled Imp. “I would’ve stuck around back there listening to your praises, but it felt like that part was already over.”
“Morning, teacher,” Tanya said giving a small head nod while Vic and Erica contented themselves with a small wave of the hand. The Imp responded with jazz hands.
“What are you doing here on a Sunday? No need for breakfast? Or are you interested in helping me do the clean-up?” the Imp mused as she walked around the table and towards her office on the far side of the classroom. "Who are you, for that matter?"
“I’m Tanya, pleased to meet you,” the lavender girl said with a cautious smile that didn't quite match the niceties.
“Vic,” he said last, still taken a bit back by the teacher’s casualness.
“Don’t tell me you’re here to join the art club? We're always on the lookout for new members. Though you will need to pass whatever creative initiation I shall make up after my usual dosage of Internet and cookies.”
“Well, I don’t think I’m cut out for art...” Tanya said.
“I might be interested…” Vic muttered mostly to himself, which got him a quick look and elbow jab from Tanya. “But I’m already very busy studying.”
“That’s some dedication but, if you’re ever interested in blowing some steam -- which you’ll inevitably have to because, hey, high school -- feel free to drop by.” The Imp smiled as she pointed over to the blackboard that rested on the wall, bearing some doodles, sketches and notes from the students. In the middle of the chaos were the schedules of upcoming workshop hours separated by levels of difficulty. “Those are the hours for workshops I lead. Come on over and we’ll see what you can do. I promise I’ll go easy on the incredibly tricky but immeasurably simple expert level initiation part,” she teased, holding out her hand with her fingers crossed. It was self-evidently a joke, a gag, but there were enough contradictions to give the impression that it still might not be.
“So then, if you folks aren’t here to get into the club, what is it you’re after?” The Imp carried on into her office and searched around in an exaggerated ruckus. At one point, Vic could swear he heard a squeaky toy. “Is it that you came for me? Want to learn the secret techniques that got me into the Met every St. Patrick's Day?”
Tanya’s face bounced between apprehension and amusement, unable to make up her mind. In the end she just stopped listening any potentially incriminating jokes and spoke up: “We were looking for Josephine Moore.”
The Imp emerged from the room, holding a large bottle of alcohol and a rainbow selection of rags and sponges. “Oh, she’s back there. You can go in and wake her.”
Incredulous was the right word to describe the three teens' collective reaction to that comment. They slid into the teacher’s room once the path was open. The place wasn’t as cramped as one might think, but compared to the rest of the studio, and to Whateley standards in general, it was tiny. Rows of paintings and trophies lined the walls. Much like the rest of the art club, the place had a sort of organized chaos to it, with papers scrawled about, pieces of clay left halfway molded and so on. There were also some cartoon posters and doodles of characters -- or even students and staff members -- resting on the wall behind the desk.
Josephine was hard to miss; there was just so much stuff around that it was easy to get one’s attention sucked to the side. She laid in the teacher’s spot, behind the cluttered desk with her head resting comfortably on her outstretched arms. Her face was turned to the side, letting the others see the big, bulky headphones she wore to shut out the world.
“She spent the night in here?” Erica asked.
The Imp just shrugged as she tied a sponge around her tail and began to pour the alcohol onto the rags in preparation for the Sunday morning clean-up. “She’s the best apprentice I've had in the past, I don’t know... half decade since I’ve been teaching art? Dedicated to a fault. Honestly, needs to get out more. Can't spell art without P-A-R-T-Y. Or was it the other way around?”
The first part was so self-evident that the three of them almost missed the second half. The Imp giggled at the confused look on their faces.
“Jo's got an output of, minimum, three paintings a month. And at least one of those gets sold immediately,” the Imp mused as she rubbed the doused rag across the board, pausing to take snapshots of the students' work before they were obliterated. “It’s awfully nice that you brought some coffee for her, though if I were you then I would’ve also brought some for the teacher.”
“Should we really wake her?” Vic asked Tanya, who was the closest. The lavender girl backed away at the idea of disturbing the upperclassman's slumber.
Fortunately, they didn't have to. As if she felt the pressure of their stares, Josephine mumbled and twitched. There was a small groan as she pushed herself up before breaking into a contagious yawn. “What time is it…” the older girl mumbled, probably to herself. She was still startled when she spotted the group of freshmen at the door. “Oh hi…” She blurted out in drowsy confusion. “Tanya. Morning.” She removed out her headphones and tapped on the computer to stop the music.
“Here, for you,” Tanya said, offering the hot coffee cup she’d been carrying since the Crystal Hall. “Your roommate told us to bring you this.”
“Oh, thank you very much.” The painter, Josephine, smiled as she rubbed her hair to undo the knots that were formed in her sleep. Her denim overalls wear all stained up with dried spots with painting, some of which may have been intentional by the looks of it. “Is it too late? Did I oversleep?”
“It’s actually a little past eight,” Erica told her.
“We don’t have to leave right now,” Tanya, ever the caring one, interjected. “You can sleep for a couple more minutes if you need to.”
“That won’t be necessary. I already had a good rest.” Josephine's voice strained softly as she raised her arms in a stretch.
“Yeah, right!” the Imp said from the table as she continued on scrubbing, washing away the dried stains of painting with a good swish of her wrapped tail. “Ask her what time she went to sleep.”
Looks turned over to Josephine but the girl didn’t wait for anyone to ask as she brushed herself off. “It must’ve been at four in the morning. I know for certain because I just crossed the inspiration hour.” She tied up her hair into a ponytail while sipping the coffee for the kick of energy.
“Is that when you created this?” the Imp inquired, gesturing to the painting Vic had been appreciating not long ago.
“Yeah. I just finished applying a third layer of oils to the main piece I was working on. That one.” As Josephine exited, she gestured in the direction of one of the high-hanging paintings. It was up higher than the ground-level shelves and looked quite imposing for what it was. It resembled an image of the Parthenon or some other Greek structure dyed in gold with a sort of stylized filter that made it look enchanted. Nature had reclaimed it, with vines growing all around and flocks of deer and birds wandering around.
“It’s beautiful,” Vic heard Tanya whisper.
“As you can see by her works, my girl here has a thing for sci-fi and fantasy. Romanticism, impressionism and neoclassicism are where her strengths lie.”
“Not to mention that you don’t want me doing abstract or anything too radical,” Josephine said as she reached under the table for her bag, pulling out a hairbrush and a jacket to attempt a presentable look.
“Can you blame me?” the Imp asked as she walked before the new plan on work. “What is the inspiration for this image? And should I be worried?”
“I don’t know,” Josephine murmured as she stood by her teacher, cocking her head appreciatively. “To be honest, I was barely conscious when I began working on it. I would’ve called it quits a couple of hours earlier, but I was tired reading the forms Tanya here gave me, then inspiration struck and I had to capture the idea.”
“So you gave one last push to trace this… island in the sky and general image,” the Imp said. “Good work in the coloring and technique. Your strokes are almost flawless by this point in giving out the effect you want, even if it’s a draft… I know this is the first layer, but what are you planning on drawing here with the lines you traced over this chunk? Are you making a pattern?”
“No, It’s affecting the environment,” Josephine said as she finished straightening her hair.
“Affecting it? Like a river carved down on the surface of the land?”
“I thought more like shattered.”
The Imp turned to look at Josephine with a hint of curiosity, inwardly debating between caution, trepidation and dismissal, but in the end gave it a shrug. “Well, the painting is still far from over. I wonder how it will turn out.”
“How do you get paintings up over there? Or anything from those hanging shelves for that matter?” Erica asked out loud, pointing at the dangling panels and at the canvases that hung by the high wall.
“Oh, we use these,” the Imp told her, leading them over to a table full of bulky, capable-looking drones. Each came with a thin robotic limb compressed under its frame, along with a controller so complex it was obvious this wasn’t a leisure flier’s toy. “Drone piloting classes are mandatory after the first month. We guarantee that you end up flying these puppies like a pro. Can even have you certified as a professional pilot if you pass a test.”
“Sweet,” Vic agreed. It certainly seemed to have the right amount of fun, even if the teacher felt a bit intense at times.
“Is the other group also waiting for us?” Josephine asked as she finished arranging the papers in her bag and straightened up her clothes.
“They said they would meet us at the parking lot,” Tanya informed her.
“Awesome,” Josephine said as she led the way.
“You’re going to town like that?” The Imp chuckled “For the love of Pete, at least try to act like you care what you're wearing.”
Josephine just laughed it off. “Do you want me to buy some materials?”
“Canvas, some oil paints. We’re running out of ochre and cadmium yellow, same as usual… I’ll text you the list. Do you have the club’s credit card?”
“Yeah, got it.” Josephine flashed the plastic, much to the surprise of the three freshmen. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Now, come on, all. Let's get going.”
With those words, the senior led her posse out the main entrance, leaving the Imp to admire her student's work. While the teacher appreciated the quality, not to mention the zeal, of Josephine's work, a part of her wished that her pupil would at least make more friends that weren’t flat on canvas.
Nevertheless, happiness is happiness, she thought as she turned to look at the latest piece of work, curiosity wondering what it would turn into. Ah, worries could wait. The hands of the clock had her attention now. She had a date with her TV: Sunday was new cartoon time.
Sunday, September 25, 2016 - 8:46 am<
Road to the parking lot
“Are you sure you can’t come? I mean, you have so many spells in your book. None of those will do?” Chris urged through her smartphone, only for a nudge from Gwen's elbow to tell her to ease up on the subject. “I mean, we can stay and go out next week. It certainly won’t feel the same without you… Are you sure? Okay... but we’ll get you something nice.”
With that, the phone call was ended and the girl let out a sigh. “I feel so bad for her.”
“She can’t come then?”
“No… she said that something suddenly turned up, so even with the spell, she wouldn’t be able to.” Chris sighed again, deeper.
“I still can’t believe it. So her spell got ruined by her roommate?”
“Yeah, Zoo seemed to have gone in some drunken tirade or something...” Chris paused. “You know, it’s just best if I don’t speculate.”
Gwen agreed, somewhat reluctantly. “I suppose, it’s just bad luck… We should get her something nice. Like a book or maybe a dress or a scarf?”
“I’ll leave that to you. If this morning's told me anything, it's that I have zero fashion sense.” Chris gestured at her stamped T-shirt while drawing the comparison to Gwen’s attire. The other Poesie was wearing a simple yet stylish burgundy dress that rested over a skintight shirt that fitted nicely to the color. Beneath the skirt, Chris could see that her friend was wearing yoga pants that completed the ensemble in a certain odd way. It might’ve been a year, but Gwen had a long way to go before she was comfortable with a simple skirt. “Is it hot? I mean, do you get hot with that on?”
“Surprisingly, no,” Gwen said with a casual smile that completed her look. “And don’t sweat over it. Given the choice, I probably would’ve filled my wardrobe with the same lack of fashion sense. This little ensemble was picked out by my sister.”
“Then it's settled, you’re in charge of gift shopping. If you’re uncertain, you can text your sister while I’m shredding it in the park.”
“I still think that skating is a bad idea… but I guess there is no harm in showing off,“ Gwen glanced down at the duffel bag Chris carried across her shoulder. “You’re not carrying your good gear, are you?
“Just the generic set I use for goof training, not the serious stuff,” Chris promised, opening the bag to reveal the simple off-brand helmet, shoulders, and knee pads.
“Swell. Did you get it checked through security?”
“I don’t think we’re going to get stopped or anything,” Chris said.
“If you say so. I’m just glad you managed to finish the paperwork to get us out.”
“Yeah,” Chris grumbled. “A little bit of help would’ve been appreciated, though.”
Gwen just whistled a quick tune sheepishly as they made their way around the expanse that was the parking lot. A fleet of vans, cars and trucks, mostly for faculty or the better-off students, were lined up in the crowded side parking lot. Finding Josephine’s vehicle wasn’t that much of a problem at all. The art student had a nice van -- not expensive or particularly new, just nice. It was a model that one was likely to see in carpools. Long-bodied with two rows of seats, it of course had an ample back area reserved for the art supplies, which was where the senior student was working. Josephine was manhandling the rolls of canvas, taking them out to get the dust off the blanket she used as a spread while arranging thin pieces of wood that would be used to frame them. Next to her was the pint-sized powerhouse Tanya, newest member of the Capes, who was being a good girl scout and helping with the cleaning.
As they drew nearer, they could overhear the conversation:
“E-Erica, could you please take that cloth and whip it out in the open? Get the dust off? Thank you,” said Josephine. She instructed another girl, this one blonde and fair of skin, like out of a German fairy tale. A multicolored cloud billowed into the air.
“What did you keep here?” Erica said between coughs.
“Chalks, of all colors.” Josephine explained. “Now, Vic, help me put the plies of wood back in.”
The sound of the name brought Gwen to an abrupt halt even before her ears could finish processing it. Her jaw clenched during the pause as inwardly she wished it could be just another person that happened to go by the same nickname. Yet, true to irony, from around the van emerged the fourth person of the cleaning crew. It was the same face that she recalled from the day before, and from months ago as well. Frustration and sadness welled up from the memory.
The feeling must have been mutual, because the moment he emerged, there was the sound of a piece of wood hitting the ground as their gazes crossed. But then the moment was ended by Josephine, who got onto the boy for dropping the plies. Gwen had never been more grateful.
“Heya, everybody!” Chris, already three steps ahead of Gwen, announced their presence in her usual fashion.
“Gwen! Chris! You two made it!” Tanya cheered with one last cough from the remains of the chalk cloud.
“Was there any doubt?” Chris said cheerfully to a crowd of faces that were ready to reply that yes, there had. “Glad you waited up.”
“Y-Yeah, well, we had to do some cleaning and you two were taking so long…” Josephine interjected. “Thing is, I didn’t use my van last week and since I don’t tend to carry this many passengers, the messy stuff got messier.”
“We saw the smoke signs,” Chris joked as she stepped back to grab Gwen by the elbow. Together they made way towards the vehicle. “Should we go for introductions or just jump in to help out?”
“We're already done,” Josephine said, gesturing at everyone to put stuff back into the trunk. “We should get going; it’s a good half-hour ride into Berlin. Plenty of time for introductions.”
After a puzzled silence as the two groups worked out seating arrangements, after getting stopped by at the Security checkpoint to make sure Chris wasn’t smuggling any dangerous experiments or inventions in the duffel bag, and after explaining that Caroline Hersberg wouldn’t be joining them as planned, they all set out for Berlin, New Hampshire. For some the trip was a delight, putting the school behind them for some normalcy old times, while for others the old times were something they wished to keep as far as possible.
Sunday, September 25, 2016 - 8:31 am<
Whitman, Main hall.
“Oh no, no, no… what did I do!?” Caro knew she sounded like a broken record, and she was this close to letting out a potent and nasty cussword that nobody would ever hear. That would be because everyone was sleeping soundly wherever they fell, even in the most uncomfortable positions, like Meow Mix who'd fallen off the couch down to the carpeted floor with a solid thud, or Shisa who had her hind legs stuck on the couch with the rest of her body across the ground. None of them showed any sign of waking up other than the discomfort stuck on their faces, like they were having a bad dream.
The entirety of the cottage’s common room had been put to sleep by a spell. Caro's spell. And the more she thought of it, the more she worried that it might have affected the entirety of Whitman. “Oh crap, oh damn, oh curses…” she muttered as she came to the realization. That would explain why she'd felt so drained after casting what was supposed to be a simple spell.
Her head spun from the rush of panic. It couldn’t be possible that every girl in the cottage had just been struck by the curse. Strike that; it could, apparently, but it shouldn't have been. What would happen if someone were to put her name to this? What would happen if the principle of complexity within her magic had already started to strain out of the guides and limits of the spell because it had been applied to a bigger target… What would happen if the school staff should discover it?
She paused, stopping herself in her tracks while holding her breath. Her ears twitched attentively to her surroundings, awaiting any sound that was not some girl's steady breathing, or, in the case of Ratel and some of the others, loud snoring. The sound of someone talking, yawning or even the shuffling of bedsheets and the creak of a door being opened. Something that would tell her how screwed she was. Nothing reached her ears. At least that was something that would ease her concern… Though it wouldn’t fix the living room filled up with knocked-out Whitman girls.
“How did this even happen?” She muttered as her fingers dexterously flipped through the pages of her booklet.
“at this house in whateley, whitman,
risk shines as I draw out this spell,
a victiM, a melodious string and a bell,
And me myseLf as the spellwoman,”
“thou art a banE to my sleep and rest,
For this, angrily I cast my Spell at thee.
At you who share sojourn with Me.
this curse will be bound till the sun EXits,”
“at the sound of a brass bell’s screams,
the rest of the moments will be as dreams,”
“ten times the thinnest limb will spin the twelve,
turned back in timE, all the moments in between,
like the faded Memories it will have been.
as echoes of good times they will, instead, serve.”
“long sleep will carry on, to no one’s bother.
and so will remain for as long as the day holds.
no matter the touches, movements or colds
the Person won’t even feel the other”
“To break the spell, a tribute given to the spell,
the sound of lone violin string must put to reverb
for a more conventional way to dispel,
a classic kiss by a boyborn works as ever.”
“Why did it come out like this? Overblown… I was sure the spell was well written…” Caro muttered as she read the lines over and over again. The casting, requirements, the conditions and even the exit clause. She couldn’t help but wonder what she’d missed. Was it a grammar error or a faulty interpretation? Still, that was only secondary to getting herself out of the problem right now.
She looked around at the crew of knocked out girls and, the more she thought of it, the more she drove her thoughts towards the two possible courses of actions. She could break the spell here and now… or make sure she could put them each in their bed before she would dispel the curse. Of course, that would mean carrying each and every one of the girls that hadn’t been sitting down back into their respective dorm room before doing it… and judging how just standing up got her to wobble and dizzy, she had a feeling it would be more than she could handle.
“And there is no way in hell I’m undoing the spell and go about confessing this mess to campus security… much less Mrs. Savage…” she muttered as she forced herself to take uneven steps. After a couple of tries at moving Sofia out of the path to the door, she was forced to give up. She was painfully aware of how the spell and the overexertion had sapped her completely. She could barely force the girl upright, much less hoist her on her back… The idea of repeating the process, at least, five more times made her want to throw in the towel right then.
“Where did it go wrong…” Caro muttered. The sound of birds chirping their morning songs outside reminded her that she hadn’t made this small error in a vacuum. The thought of anyone discovering the problem got her feet to moving, albeit slower than she'd like. Her first stop was the Whitman meeting hall, where she helped herself to the sign Mrs. Savage oftentimes used to ward off interruptions during serious matters, and hung it on the house’s front door: IMPORTANT MEETING IN PROGRESS - PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB. She hoped people would respect it for the time being, while the early bird Whitmanians would be steered away from getting involved. She was just glad there was only one housemother around for the cottage.
From there, Caro made a quick head count of the girls on the first two floors of the building, peeking her head into the open rooms or putting her ear against the wooden doors. The quick census must’ve taken a good half-hour and, by the end of her run down the empty hallways, she was winded but no longer cripplingly fatigued.
“It’s my spell, right?” she muttered as she stepped back to where Sofia was still lying down with her face against the carpet. Of course her spells had an escape clause. She wasn’t one to cast a practical curse onto her friend -- which already sounded pretty bad, she thought -- and not include a way to mend the damage and keep herself on top.
Her hand drew closer with her fingernails almost touching Sofia’s cheek, yet that was as far as they went. Her eyes quickly surveyed the surroundings, looking from girl to sleeping girl, giving herself pause to consider what she was about to do and whether it was the best of ideas.
Suddenly, dispelling Sofia’s curse felt like the wrong decision. True, if the spell was working as she'd planned it, the girls probably wouldn’t think much about waking up in their beds. Much like waking up from a very lucid dream that sticks to reality, the line for the true waking moment could easily be blurred and everything that happened before would be waved off as an out-of-bed haze. That would be if they were to wake up in their beds. But Sofia was perfectly aware of her roommate’s powers and would easily piece things together, were she to wake up on the common room floor.
She looked around at the girls once again, and the same could be said about them. There was little chance this would go unnoticed or dismissed as she’d hoped and she couldn’t really be sure all of them would be as accommodating about being cursed. Meow Mix and Madcat were the most likely ones to exploit this little incident into some form of favor, if not outright blackmail, while Gigi would definitely babble it out on the next chance she got, even if Caro managed to get her into a vow of secrecy.
Her supply of essence was still feeling a bit woozy, if not fickle. Nigh impossible to grasp and much less manipulate. The over-draw would probably keep her from casting a proper spell for a good number of hours, if not for the rest of the day. And without her magic, there was no way she would be able to get the girls back to their beds on her own. If she wanted to get out of this situation, she would need help. The help of someone who would know what she'd done and still keep it to themselves.
She’d reached for Sofia because the girl was probably the closest person she thought she could depend on. She was the closest thing to a friend Caro had around, all things considered, and the girl had that animal-infused strength that could make quick work of the ragdolls in the common room.
Yet Caro really couldn’t bring herself to wake her roommate up, not after the big screaming match they'd had in the common room. Caro buried her face in her hands, trying to think of what she could do. Usually she would rely on Chris and Gwen in this sort of situation without giving it a second thought. Which was sadly ironic given the cause and consequences of all that happened this morning.
She wondered what her second option could be and... as much as it embarrassed her to admit it, her second idea would probably be to rely on the school staff for help. In particular the magic teachers could figure out what went wrong with her spell… but then again, she would probably end up grounded for the year or put on some security watch list. After all, if her spell could overshoot itself like this the logical fear would be that it might happen to a city if this were to be repeated.
The Capes were her third option and she already knew how that would all come back to bite her. Were she to ask her peers, her only options would be Valor or Megaton, neither of whom were the kind she could rely on. Not to mention that there was something kinda wrong about the idea of a man in a room filled with women enchanted into the heaviest of sleeps. If she were to reach out to the freshmen or pledges, the cat would end up out of the bag or, in the worst case, someone would hold it against her. If she strived for someone higher up, she would obviously get penalized in some way or form.
To be fair, she was mostly indifferent at the idea of being expelled from the Capes, recalling how she ended up joining them on a whim and a bet. The big problem would be whatever disciplinary action they might take on her. In the worst case, they would make a report to Security that would consign her to pariah status in the cottage.
“I really have to expand my circle of friends…” she muttered. Even Tanya, who was as malicious as a puppy, was out of her reach this time.
So a compromise had to be reached. Caro just needed to find the girl in the common room with the most helpful and loyal personality. The safest bet was Leslie York, a.k.a. ‘Faollass,’ a freshman girl that had quite the rough luck developing a mutation that basically gave her the appearance of a dog. More like an anthropomorphic version of Lassie than a werewolf, but she seemed like the amicable and level headed sort of person that Caro needed right now.
With her mind resolved, Caro made a run down the hall to her room, looking for the item described in the page of her book. A lone string that had once belonged to a violin. It certainly paid off when designing a curse to have random stuff lying around the place. That included the brass bell she'd rung to trigger the problem, a flat can of oil, a set of caltrops, a spinning top, sets of dice that ranged from four-sided to twenty, and much more besides.
She quickly made her way back to the common room, coiling the string between her index and pinky fingers and drawing it just taut enough to ensure that a simple flick would release a muffled note. Hopefully it would be just low enough to only be perceived by Leslie’s ear.
When she ran her finger down the string, plucking the cord with her nail, a thin note was released bare inches from the dog girl’s ear. It wasn’t melodic, or even appealing: a thin, almost soundless twang that stretched the definition of the word ‘note’. One wasn’t supposed to be a musician to be able to undo the curse, though. It was how she'd envisioned the dispelling, so it should have worked.
But it did not, much to Caro’s confusion. The sound of the note died down and a moment passed, yet there was no hint that anything had changed. Not a twitch, not shiver. Not even a change in the girl's breathing. “What?” she called out loud, turning her gaze around to see if either of the catgirls around were stirring from the noise and words. Nothing.
“This does not bode well,” Caro mumbled as she began to flick and play more notes with the piece of string for what felt like a good, desperate minute. And after that she began to try her hand at playing the note over the other girls. There was no answer whatsoever. None from Faollass, none from Shisa, not even a grumbly cuss from Ratel.
“Crap… what now?” Caro read through the spell again, eyes twitching in panic.
“at this house in whateley, whitman,
risk shines as I draw out this spell,
a victiM, a melodious string and a bell,
And me myseLf as the spellwoman,”
All fine so far. Flavor text that ought to clarify the context. Not that important.
“thou art a banE to my sleep and rest,
For this, angrily I cast my Spell at thee.
At you who share the sojourn with Me.
this curse will be bound till the sun EXits,”
Requirements and target… Caro muttered with an exasperated sigh. There is some part here that screwed me up and caused my spell to run rampant. Her first guess would be the wording or perhaps the lack of need to specify. Maybe it was the use of an audio queue that triggered it or maybe the bell was still being affected by a previous enchantment… Nevertheless, now was not the time to look into this.
She kept on skimming down the stanzas of the spell until she found what she was looking for. The escape clause:
“To break the spell, a tribute given to the spell,
the sound of lone violin string must put to reverb
for a more conventional way to dispel,
a classic kiss by a boyborn works as ever.”
The solution was clear, hold out a lone violin string and pluck it around to break the sleep spell and wake the person up. She had tried yet it wasn’t working. It couldn’t be the string since, A) upon writing the note she clearly made sure to imprint in her mind the violin string she owned would work. Intentions as such should have made it into the spell, even if she lacked full focus when writing it. And B) she was holding a real violin string plucked from an old instrument she'd accidentally broken in her hometown’s theater, so it should fall within the criteria.
The alternative clause, the kiss from a boy, was also an option. Something to throw in the last minute to come full circle in the fairy tale theme that was her life. Though to be honest, there was no way she would resort to it. Not only did she not have many guy friends around in the school, but also, the idea of bringing someone into Whitman for that purpose felt, well... wrong.
Still, the first requirement was being met. There was no doubt there. And yet the spell wasn’t working as it should. That almost threw her into another panic attack. This was not going to work in her defense when... if. If she were to get caught.
A part of her wished she’d been hit by her own curse. Not out of incompetence but at least to give herself possible deniability, rather standing as the sole survivor and obvious cause of this… She needed a word. Kerfluffle? Fiasco? Clusterfuck?
But alas, that was impossible. One of the first lesson’s she got from Grimma was how to protect herself from her own magic. If the effects were something she wanted to avoid, she was to write a dodge clause in her spell. It could be outright explicit, tucked into detail notes, expressed via a cunning metaphor, or literally hidden in the text, like in this case.
The odd placement of capital letters wasn't due to poor handwriting. Put together, it read: “I MALEFIS AM EXEMPT” Which should opt her out of the curse and its effects…
And that is when realization struck Caro. “I’m exempt from both the spell and the exit clause? Is that how it interpreted the words?” She rubbed at her temples, feeling the headache coming. "Grimma are you there? Did you know about this and didn’t warn me?” No response. As was her habit, Grimma came and went as she pleased and made herself scarce just at the worst of times -- or the most interesting ones, as Caro was sure the spirit would note once she'd learned of all that had transpired.
With no one answering or offering her help, it was painfully obvious that she needed someone else to play along. Someone who could help transport the girls and then play the unbinding note. Someone who wouldn’t immediately go to campus security to comment on this incident.
And as if invoking for her luck in a spiteful twist, her phone began to buzz in her pocket. The caller ID said it was Chris. “Hello? Chris?” Caro tried to sound as casual as she could, even though her heart was still beating fast at the idea of someone from Security tapping on the door.
“Hey Caro,” Chris said. “Is this a good time?”
“Y-Yeah,” Caro lied as she pulled Sofia into a sitting position. The roommate was still fast asleep, so it was no different than handling a heavy ragdoll, even as the girl's head slumped forward.
“So things quieted down?”
She was close to asking Chris if that was her idea of a bad joke. “Yeah… they are.”
“Okay… Listen, um, Gwen and I are on our way to Josephine’s art van.”
“Right, the chaperone?”
“Yeah. So we haven’t left yet. Are you sure you don’t want us to wait for you? I bet we can ask her to stall for a couple more minutes.” Chris' words, while uplifting and friendly, still bore some trepidation. And Caro could understand why.
She could only force herself to stifle the sigh that wanted to escape her lips as she looked around at the number of girls now fast asleep. The quiet was only interrupted by the sound of Shisa falling completely off the reclining couch. “Sorry. As I said, go on without me. It’s fine.”
“Are you sure you can’t come? I mean, you have so many spells in your book, I think,” Chris wheedled, making a best attempt at cutesy charm which, under normal circumstances, Caro would have found endearing. Now it felt like a jabbing poke. “Would none of those do?”
“If any of those would do, I wouldn’t have…” Caro forced herself to take a deep breath. “It’s okay, Chris. I can’t come up with a new spell or use an expired incantation that was already deemed ‘impractical’ by Security.”
“B-” Chris's next word was cut off by a small gasp and shuffle. “I mean, we can stay and go out next week. It certainly won’t feel the same without you.”
A brief smile graced Caro's face, even though no one would see it. “Again, don’t worry about me. You've been planning for this longer than I have. Just go.”
“Okay," Chris conceded. "But we’ll get you something nice.”
“You better,” Caro joked off handedly, though getting some treat from her friends was probably among the last things in her mind.
It would’ve certainly been a great help if they were here but she couldn’t ruin their day this way. As the call ended, there was a brief moment of silence as Caro looked around the living room. The girls were still sleeping, with no indication that anyone would wake up any time soon. Sofia hadn't even stirred as she was being womanhandled about and then had a front seat to the conversation.
“Do I have a fourth option?” Caro sighed as she scrolled down her list of contacts until she found her mark. While ideally she wanted someone with enough upper body strength to carry the girls back to their room, any pair of able hands would be good. “I do.”
With her contact selected and ringing, Caro had to wait a good half a minute before the line was picked up. “Hello?” said a groggy voice.
“Leslie? It’s me, Caro.”
“Caro? Gwen left, like half an hour ago…” Leslie muttered. While it was true that Caro tended to hang out with her roommate more often than not, she was at the very least acquainted with Leslie Wainwright, a.k.a. Ping. Not to the point of being good friends, but friends at least. What was more, the Poesie had a friendly attitude which, at least, told Caro she would probably help a fellow girl out.
“I know. I couldn’t make it...” Caro took a deep breath as she leaned back against the couch, preparing to get the load off her chest. “I need help.”
Sunday, September 25, 2016 - 9:34 am<
Road to Berlin
Their departure time might have been delayed by the need to clean out the van, but at least that meant they wouldn’t get their clothes dirtied in pastel glops, nor would they end up smelling like stashed linens. Once the windows were open enough for air to circulate, it all felt like it had the makings of a comfortable road trip.
And yet for Vic, there was a sinking pit in the stomach and it dropped even deeper every time he turned to his right to see the attractive, statuesque sophomore with the brown hair and gold tips, sitting right in the middle of the backseat, making every effort to avoid giving him a glance in return while pretending everything was good and normal. Around them the conversation continued in blind ignorance of their mixed attention, with neither of them saying much.
One could pretend he didn’t notice her uneasiness, how the corner of her lips quivered between fear and fury, how her eyes were constantly shifting on about, forcefully prying themselves off the invisible space that belonged to him and, lastly, how she kept nursing her left arm as a reminder of a phantom pain that had yet to heal up. All things Victor felt responsible for. Things that had happened actually not so long ago, yet he could have hoped they'd been long forgotten.
The only thing he could do was curse his luck for whatever irony of fate had brought them together. How could he have known that they would be sharing the trip with his stepsister, and that he would be seated right next to her for the next half-hour? On paper, it was supposed to be just a trip to Berlin to treat himself with a tablet…
Oh god, how am I going to explain the money… Vic thought to himself. The last things he'd have thought to worry about today was telling his step-sister, the future heroine that he'd taken a Syndicate sponsorship to make it into the school. The way they'd parted left a taste as rotten as one could imagine, and catching up just now smelled just as bad. Thinking about it reminded him of all the bruises he'd earned himself that night.
“Hey, Vic? Earth to Vic...” A voice from ahead brought him back to reality, with a startled jump that almost made Gwen follow in tandem.
It was Erica who, during a prior meeting with Josephine, had managed to get dibs on the passenger’s seat and was now sitting nice and comfortable, enjoying the breeze of the open window and full control of the radio knob. If her eyes caught Vic's reaction, they didn't show much reaction to it. Perhaps the girl assumed he'd been lost in thought.
“What, did he fall asleep?” Josephine asked from the driver's seat. Sitting behind her, Vic was in her blindspot.
“S-sorry, I zoned out for a moment there. What did you say?” Vic asked, composing himself and earning a few chuckles from Tanya, who had the window to his right. Even Gwen herself managed a brief, smug smile, if not for a full second.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt… but you're like a waterbender, right?” Josephine asked.
“Maybe? Sort of? Not really... I can only do it with liquid I’m touching.”
“And does it only work with pure water or will anything do?” Josephine’s voice rose up a little with piqued interest.
“I can work with stuff that has water in it. Though I haven’t tried sticking my finger in, say, orange juice.”
“Because, I figured that ability would allow you to make a quick buck at abstract expressionism painting. Splash your emotion all over the canvas.”
“You think so?” Vic asked. “Though, I tend to lean more towards the, um, not abstract.”
“I do too,” Josephine smiled. Ever so slowly, the senior had gone from distant and aloof -- or at least half-asleep -- to actually showing interest in the underclassmen, and the giddiness in her voice began to shine through. “You know? My main medium is oils, but I’ve dabbled with watercolors. While I'm not against the technique, because you can do some really gorgeous things in a speedy manner, I can’t say it’s some of my best work. Have you ever tried painting using water?”
“That sounds like fun,” Tanya chimed in.
“Can I take a lesson?”
“Of course, there's a workshop for those interested.” Josephine mused. “Bet with your fine control you’d be able to do some marvelous things…” There was a small pause. “I read your file, and asked your friends as soon as I saw you are a hydrokinetic.”
“Yeah,” Erica added with a small chuckle.
There was little doubt in Vic’s mind now that the Art Club was looking for people to get on the team, given how niche it was. “I’ll think about it.”
“I must say, Vic, right? You're lucky. Spending a Sunday with such a cute band of girls.” The sixth member of the party leaned in heavy to tease Tanya from her personal cubicle in the cargo hold of the van. After cleaning up, there was a lot of space back there and the girl with black hair and light purple streaks who'd arrived with Gwen had jumped at the opportunity to occupy it for the rest of the ride.
“Yeah, lucky,” Vic muttered. Truth be told, being in the presence of so many cute girls, leaving any contentious backstory aside, was something that would've intimidated most guys he'd known at his old school. And he was pretty sure that the girl, Christina, was deliberately teasing him. But, at the moment, slightly more pressing matters kept him from feeling embarrassed.
“What takes you to Berlin? A friendly day out?” Christina added, dialing back on the emphasis.
“Actually, we're going shopping,” Tanya added, being the closest to Chris.
“Yeah. Vic has been needing some way of connecting to social media for a while. You know, to watch videos, play games and chat with others. The phone and the school-issued tablet just won’t cut it.”
“Shopping?” Gwen muttered, slowly glancing his way with a haze of suspicion in her eyes. “Those things aren’t exactly cheap. Did you get money from a parent?”
“I came into some money,” was all Vic could say. That got a startled reaction from Gwen, but she abstained from saying anything just yet.
“What about you, Christina?” Erica chimed in. “I don’t think the rollerblades and protective gear you brought are for a simple roll around the park, are they?”
“Well, I suppose there’s no hiding it.” Christina sighed. “There is a contest in a skate park in Berlin. I was thinking of having fun close by, maybe joining in. I’m not going to participate, officially. I’ll just show off.”
“I don’t think you’re supposed to even fake-participate in any contests, Christina.” Josephine warned. “Though that being said, I don’t really want to keep you all on a tight leash… Just promise you’ll respect Security’s rules.”
“Sure thing. That’s why I brought Gwen with me,” the skater girl smiled as she reached to put a hand on her friend’s shoulder. “By the way… I prefer not to be called Christina,”
“How about Chrissy?” Erica weighed in.
“She prefers to go by Chris,” Tanya explained.
“Just Chris?” Josephine said. “That’s a bit butch…” There was a slight pause as she leaned to spy over the rear view mirror. “But I suppose it suits you.”
“That’s… It can be somewhat confusing,” Vic said. He'd heard that Chris came from Poe during the span of a passing conversation, and knowing Gwen’s secret, there was a slight tinge of suspicion in the back of his mind. But he had other things to worry about, so he didn't think much of it.
“That is what I'm looking forward to,” Chris said with a silly grin, to be answered by the confused ‘huh’s from the other passengers. Gwen let out a smug smirk and an eyeroll.
Chris let the confusion simmer for a bit before she began her explanation. “You know how rom-coms have this usual trope? There's a couple and they're real serious, but one of them -- as an example, let's say the girl -- starts hanging out with her friend Jenkins. The girl says Jenkins is fun, Jenkins is so smart, and Jenkins is so sexy.
“The man of the couple can’t help but notice and get irked by it. What would the guy think, Vic?” Chris asked the only guy of the group, who looked surprised by the pop question.
“Um… The guy of the couple. He would think she’s cheating on him?”
“Bingo!” Chris smiled. “It’s the classic set up for a joke. Then it turns out, Jenkins is a girl, and a cool one at that. Suddenly everyone involved feels suddenly silly, with one exception.”
“And that is our Jenkins here...” Gwen grumbled answering the pat on the shoulder. The other girl just smiled broadly, though there was a sort of underlying shyness that elicited a couple of chuckles.
“Is that why you call yourself Chris?” Tanya said, in a mixture of disbelief, admiration and amusement. “To be the unaffected punchline?”
“Yeah. But really, I don’t mind. My, um, my friends at school called me Chris ever since I was little, so it became the norm,” the alleged Chris quickly added with a shrug.
“And has that long-brewing setup paid off?” Josephine asked with a small chuckle.
“Not yet,” Chris said with a bit of disappointment. “Turns out, I’m not the talk of town with many girls with boyfriends that don’t know me… Although I was really close last year to getting some guy to flip out.”
Josephine giggled. “I should try that one of these days. I mean, my roommate calls me Joe, or even Joseph every now and then. So it wouldn’t be a change.”
Tanya shook her head. “I don’t think I would be able to go around being called Tony. How about you, Erica? Or should I say, Eric.”
“I could pull off being called Eric, I guess… It just feels a little weird.”
As the unofficial game carried on, at least three sets of eyes turned towards Gwen who was sitting right in the center of all of it. “I don’t think Gwen has a male version,” she muttered, looking increasingly more distressed at the topic discussed. And Vic could only look away, uncomfortable at knowing the reason why.
“What about you, Vic?” Chris mused. “Though I suppose it’ll be hard to see you pull off a ‘Vicky’.”
“I’ll pass,” he muttered, getting a couple of giggles for his trouble.
From there on, the conversation sidetracked as the topics of conversation began to splinter and everyone entertained themselves with a particular topic. Up in the front of the car, Erica and Josephine began to chat, either about the odd things they saw on the road or sharing curious art trivia, with the senior finding a particular delight in being the instructor. While on the right side, Tanya and Chris started off deep into gossip on the agenda of the Future Superheroes of America group, but quickly devolved into random hero trivia. From what Vic guessed, Chris was as big a fangirl as Tanya, and she reacted with envy at how the lavender girl got along with the River City Wardens.
That just left Gwen and Vic: both sitting in silence in their own little section of the van. In his mind, he could only wonder, and find it somewhat bothersome, why Gwen wasn't joining in on the conversation. Vic knew that she was into superheroes and could’ve easily joined… Though, the more he thought about it, the more he realized he couldn’t fault her. He was feeling unnerved just by sitting next to her.
It felt like the strangest Mexican standoff ever, as the two sat just millimeters away from each other, knowing they should say something, anything to the other, and yet unable to bring themselves to even take the first step. Neither wanted to talk about what happened in Massachusetts, much less have others overhear it.
“There is no way I’m going to survive a whole trip like this,” Vic thought, glancing out the window and sighing. They were still a good couple of minutes away from the stretch of the town known colloquially as downtown Berlin. Without much to do but to quell the anxiety that was creeping him out, he reached over to tap Gwen and establish the mental link.
Yet no sooner was he close to making contact, but her hand gave his a light backhanded smack, forcing it away. The frown on her face said more than any words that she was not in the mood for a telepathic conversation either.
“What the hell?” Vic whispered, fortunately drowned out by the tune blaring from the van's radio.
“Don’t try it,” Gwen whispered back, with a threatening edge.
“I just wanted to talk.” Vic pulled his arm away. He knew well enough how strong Gwen was and the last thing he wanted was to make a scene.
“Well, I’m not in the mood for that. The last thing I want is to pretend this meeting even happened,” Gwen hissed.
“Okay, we’re pretending we don’t know each other?” Vic muttered. Even though this was what he'd wanted to hear, Gwen’s attitude only drew out his ire. “Fine.”
“Fine,” she whispered in agreement as she broke off the argument, and not a moment too soon as the car pulled into the parking lot in Berlin.
It was a simple parking lot that was already half-full at this time of the day, facing aa complex that had the right to be labeled a mall. From what he'd heard, the old market road of downtown Berlin had grown into a shopping zone for northern New Hampshire. Vic had to wonder if the regular patronage of Whateley students and faculty had had anything to do with that. Everything even remotely connected with the school seemed to go overboard eventually, and for this place 'eventually' had been a few years ago at least.
At the exit of the parking zone was access to the roads of the city and, from Vic’s point of view, the sight of some taller buildings, the sound of bustling people going about their daily business and the traffic of cars that circulated the street... it was all a major change of pace for someone who had been either living on the margins of society or locked up in Whateley. From what Vic had spied, there was a park just outside the main district, while the streets were lined with restaurants, shops, and many other amenities that he had no particular desire to visit.
“We’re here,” Josephine announced, looking over her shoulder as she steered the wheel, directing the van to a back corner of the lot.
Sunday, September 25, 2016 - 9:01 am<<
Whitman, Main hall.
The phone call didn’t take long, and surprisingly, neither did the time it took to convince Leslie Wainwright, a.k.a. Ping, to come on over to Whitman. All Caro had to do was hold the fort and make sure no one found out, cooking up the most desperate lies to drive people away, whether for the girls that had made it out before the incident happened, campus security, or Mrs Savage herself… though she was sure that if it weren't fixed by the time the dorm mother came around, she would be doomed in all senses of the word.
Curtains to the back entrance of the cottage were closed and one last sweep was made through the affected wing of the cottage. So far, everyone but her had been struck and, whether good fortune or bad, none had woken up.
The wait was getting to her, as she sat there wondering how long it would be before Leslie would show up. She knew that it was barely five minutes since the phone call but it felt like a lot more, as if every second was a moment she would have to wait for, wondering if she would get caught and, in the silence of the cottage, that felt nerve-wracking.
It reached the point where the moment the sound of the rattling doorknob rippled across the air, she half-launched herself into the ceiling from the shock. The clat-a-clat-clat went for quite a bit before being followed by a small tap on the door. Caro forced herself up and made haste to the door, painfully aware that it couldn’t be Leslie.
“Hello?” she called out as she reached the door, bumping against the surface to punctuate her presence and get the door knocks to stop.
“Good morning. Is that you, Caroline?” It was the voice of a man, a grown man and so a member of the school faculty. Though it took her a couple of milliseconds to pin it to a face and name.
“Mr. Kim?” she said, finding a small measure of relief as she opened the door. "Is that you?"
It always came as a surprise to see the teachers during the off hours, even if they were all supposed to be living on campus. Mr. Kim’s case was no exception. In class, he usually presented as formal a front as he could, with a simple business coat, a properly ironed shirt, a neatly knotted tie and, on the colder days, a sweater vest. So the sight of him wearing a bright red polyester shirt and jeans was jarring, to say the least.
“That it is,” he said as he adjusted his glasses. “I hope I’m not interrupting, I’m just looking for Trish but I wasn’t aware there was a meeting scheduled.”
“Meeting?” Caro almost gave herself away by looking at the sign she put on the door. IMPORTANT MEETING IN PROGRESS - PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB, it read, and it was usually used for the meeting rooms and Mrs. Savage’s quarters within the cottage. Rarely, if ever, was it placed on the front door, but not even girls from the others cottage would bat an eyebrow on that little detail.
Mr. Kim was a regular to the cottage, however, oftentimes meeting up with the cottage mother to chat and exchange tips and notes. He was a newer member of the staff and as they were both, at their core, baselines living in a mutant school campus, he liked to claim he needed the advice.
“N… I mean, yeah, there is a meeting going on. Some of the girls did make a bit of a mess of the common room. You know, we have a lot of, what’s the word, rambunctious ones this year.”
Mr. Kim looked right at Caro for a couple moments before glancing up at the building before sighing. “Do you know how long Patricia will be at the meeting? She agreed to help me out on a project…”
“Mrs Savage? Oh, she’s out for, I think the entirety of the morning… but I’ll let her know you dropped by.”
“Oh… I guess the RA’s are the ones making the meeting,” Mr Kim concluded
“Yeah, that’s right, they are,” Caro muttered, making an effort to sell her lie as believable. There was a sort of disarming earnestness about the teacher and the pressure of the situation that made her imagine her words weren’t as sincere as she might have wanted. Still, at a simple glance, it seemed as if he might have bought the explanation.
And so, as he was turning around to walk away Caro couldn’t help but venture to ask for his insight. “Mr. Kim, Mr. Kim,” she called out, exiting the front door and producing her notebook from her pajama pants pocket. “Could I get a second opinion about a spell I wrote?”
With Caro’s powers and peculiarities, this sort of request was hardly a novelty for the English teacher, though he did raise an eyebrow at the circumstances around it. Usually, this sort of coaching tended to be done in classroom after the lesson. Still, he humored her. “Very well, what do you have?”
“It’s this spell I was… playing around with a minor prank for a friend…” Caro said, trying to sound as innocent as possible, which was difficult as her eyes scanned the surroundings of Whitman, on the lookout for anyone drawing up closer to the front door. When they set themselves back on the teacher, he was already giving her a strange look. “Um, yeah. I’m not going to cast it. I just wonder if it all makes sense.”
Mr Kim kept his eyes on her for a few more seconds before diverting the glance down at the open page.
“Let’s see… I see you’re still using the encoded clause trick you tend to use… Though the rhyming scheme is erratic and lacks coordination. First line, you could have substituted 'rest' for 'peace' and gotten an assonance with 'exit.' Hm...” He gave Caro a disappointed look followed by a small smirk.
“I wrote it in a moment of leisure.”
“You need not worry; it is solely my little habit to note these details, though it’s still decently written, especially by the standards of most students I have this year. But you asked me to check for the wording… so let us see.” He mumbled as his eyes pivoted from side to side. “Bane is a strong word, but I suppose it might fit the description of many classmates, considering how they nap during my lessons.”
“How dare they,” Caro said obligingly, trying to sound as un-ironic as possible.
“At the chime of a bell… You probably want to use cry since the resounding echo is more akin to it. Screams holds a slightly more of an aggressive vibe. I can almost imagine a medieval town crier when I hear the words bell and scream,” he said mimicking the motion of flailing.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Caro agreed. She would’ve found imitation amusing under normal circumstances, but right now she really wanted him to get to the point.
“Ten times the thinnest limb will spin the twelve, turning back time, all the moments in between, like the faded memories that will have been… I like that part. See you’re venturing into a more metaphoric language. How does your magic interpret that?”
“It just does… and it seems to love it,” Caro said dryly.
“Sometimes it’s fine to mix it up. I feel like making metaphoric language would be easier than having to constantly rhyme… But I’m not a word-weaving mage like you. Anyway...” With that, he closed the booklet. “So far the spell looks pretty clear. I don’t see much room for a flaw or misinterpretation… with two exceptions.”
"Two exceptions?” Caro echoed, leaning in closer as the English teacher placed his finger upon the offending verses.
“Sojourn.” Mr. Kim muttered, pointing at the second stanza. “I haven’t seen that word in a while. Not a very common one to use nowadays.”
“I opted for it instead of saying room…” Caro muttered inwardly already starting to suspect where this was going, thanks to the evidence of the events. “Was it wrong?”
“Well… yes and no. You see, sojourn, while it might be used to refer to a unit of an impermanent stay, like a room... The word goes back to the middle ages in France, where it was used by traveling merchants and nobles to refer to locations that could range from a modest house to a summer home. Using it instead of room, while valid, leads to a gross simplification of the word.”
"Ah, yes, my dictionary didn't have... er, that level of context," she stammered. "And the second?"
"The same exact lines, in fact. See, for the first half of this couplet, you end with the word 'thee,' indicating your target, yes? And the next line down, you have the word 'you.' Now, I know and you know that the second person pronoun can be singular or plural in modern English, but with the first line you've set the syntax to Early Modern English, where there remains a distinction between singular and plural in the second person. To whit, you have potentially widened your spell's targeting clause to more than just the one person you intended."
Caro’s face blanched at the egregiousness of this oversight. If she’d been more careful, and not merely consulting the online synonym dictionary, she might have caught herself on that small error. And as for the bigger one... She had Grimma spouting off in her head using that exact sort of vernacular on a daily basis, so she should well know how Shakespearean pronouns worked. Of course, with Grimma, it was always a one-on-one conversation.
Gwen and Chris would probably console her for the mistake, claim that they would’ve done it as well if they were in her place. Mrs. Savage would chastise her for her recklessness when casting, or even writing the spell when she'd been told not to. And Grimma would chalk this up as a learning opportunity while congratulating her on the attempt at expanding her vocabulary. In the end though, she could only find herself frustrated that all this had happened because of a poor choice of words.
Why was her magic this dumb… It could backfire so easily... She took a deep breath and accepted her notebook back. “Thank you, sir,” she said politely as she slid it in her pocket, and not a moment too soon as she caught a glimpse of Leslie coming their way.
“It’s no problem. I actually enjoy partaking in spell-crafting. Feels like I’m dealing with fairy tales.” Mr. Kim smiled as he let himself drift down the path back to the faculty quarter.
“I feel like that every day...” was what Caro wanted to say, but she held her tongue, and answered with a “Have a nice day,” as he turned his back to her.
“Caro!” Ping called in a low voice as she caught up to her. “Did Mr. Kim catch you?”
“Thank goodness no. What took you so long?” Caro asked in a whisper, guiding her back into the cottage in haste.
“I just did. You know it’s Sunday, right? I wasn’t planning on leaving my room.”
“Woah…” Ping gasped the moment she saw Sofia resting against the wall, with her head slumped and with the slightly heavy breathing of someone sleeping in a hard position. Not that farther down were two of the catgirls sleeping, with one at risk of falling onto the carpet. “You weren’t kidding…”
They stepped back into the common room and they got a fair view of the seven girls that had been knocked out by the spell. Every one of them were completely out, much to Leslie’s shock. “Sheesh, is this everyone? How did you pull that off?” Her voice carried a bit more excitement than outrage as she tested the effect of the curse by poking Sofia’s cheek repeatedly.
“A spell… a spell in which I didn’t measure the mana I was putting into it and accidentally had it drain me dry and then some more,” Caro grumbled. She hated being wrong, and the retelling of the incident didn’t seem like it was going to grow any funnier through repetition for the foreseeable future.
“You really made a… mess,” Leslie said, she herself trying not to laugh as she stroked one of the catgirl’s heads.
“Yeah, you don’t need to repeat it.”
“What did you need me for again?” Leslie asked as she carefully strode around “You know I’m not superstrong like my roommate. And my forte is tech over magic.”
“I know. I’m sorry, I just couldn’t think of anyone else I could trust to help me,” Caro admitted, signalling towards Sofia and making it clear she would be the first one to be lifted. “A good pair of hands to move around the girls would be enough help. And we probably should get to it since who knows when the early birds are coming back.”
Leslie stared as Caro moved over to Sofia, sliding her arms under her armpits and looked back at her expectantly. Across the girl's face, the expression was of wonder at what she’d gotten herself into, before twisting into a frown at the realization that, were they to get caught, at worst, she might end up as an accomplice. But it was too late to back down, not to mention that Caro was a friend of sorts, so the red-head could only move forward with the idea.
She looked down at Sofia’s feet and then at the other girls. “Are we going to do this for everyone?”
“No… I figured we could leave Faollass, the border collie over there, on the couch and Shisa on my usual spot.”
“Pity, she looks light.” Leslie muttered as she wrapped hands around Sofia’s ankles and began to lift. “So, we just move the rest back to their beds?”
“Yes, that’s the plan,” Caro grunted as they lifted her roommate.
“I must be missing something here,” Leslie said. “How will getting them back to their rooms help? I mean, they were there when the spell was cast, right? Won’t they be able to realize that something happened?”
“It’s a clause within the spell. Once dispelled and the girls wake up, they won’t remember the ten minutes leading up to the triggering of the spell.”
“It can’t be that easy,” said Leslie. “Won’t they recall what they were doing?”
“The funny thing about dreams,” Caro said between gasps as she tried to keep her grip around Sofia. “You never know when they start and when they end. You only know you’re awake when you open your eyes and find yourself in the same place you were last night… At least, I’m banking on that.”
“You almost had me believing until that last part,” Leslie muttered.
“Plus the extra guidelines of the spell nudge them into thinking they just fell back asleep and to not think too much about why they are dressed. In the best case scenario, they will just think they took a nap.”
“And, is this everyone affected by the spell?” Ping muttered.
“The majority, yeah.” Caro winced. “Other than the girls in the common room, there were a couple that were caught by the chime of the bell in the hallway… like Penny there.”
“Oh… a goth,” Leslie said with a small chuckle as the freshman laid down on the floor, as stiff as a board with her face down on the ground and her black hair just draping over her face. Considering how goths tended to project a sort of dignified outward appearance, the unsightly image was a bit funny.
“Other than them, almost all of the other girls are still in their rooms,” Caro continued, also finding herself close to a chuckle. “So we’ll just need to move them a bit before undoing the spell.”
“Sounds… laborious.” Leslie took a deep breath.
“That reminds me. I’ll need you to be the one undoing the spell.”
“I excluded myself from the spell when casting, I usually do that so I don’t fall victim to the spell's effect… only in this case, I seem to have locked myself out of the solution clause as well. So someone else has to do it.”
“You’re really getting me involved here. I just assumed you needed an extra pair of hands.”
“And I do… please?” Caro tilted her head and did her best at giving puppy dog eyes, though the horns probably weren't helping there.
“Fine,” Leslie said in resignation. “But please tell me that’s it.”
“What else could there be?” Caro muttered.
“Well, how long did it take between you casting the curse and then triggering it?”
“I don’t know… my verbal spat with Sofia must’ve been no more than ten minutes… but in that time we were hogging the common room and no one left… Except.”
“Well, there was Tanya… She left with Chris.”
“Did Chris get caught with the spell?” Ping asked.
“I have no idea, I wasn’t exactly in the most perceptive mood back then, so I didn’t bother checking for curse traces on her,” Caro mumbled, though the uncertainty of her answer slowly crept up to the back of her head. “I’ll give her a call. Once we’re done taking the girls out of the common room.”
“Are you sure we can’t take a short break?”
“After we move at least the five girls from the common room,” Caro promised. In truth she was more than worried. Now knowing that two people she knew and cared about might have walked out the front door carrying a narcoleptic curse with them was eating at her, but she had to reassure herself that they were fine for the moment, and that the more apparent risk of her being found out took precedence. “Besides… for the spell you need the chime of a brass bell. Where can they find that in a modern city?”
“You better not be tempting fate,” Leslie grumbled.
“I know, I know,” Caro said with a sigh, giving the door to her own bedroom a kick to make it swing open. The place was just as she remembered it, only, though with the light piercing through the window and slightly more clarity than before, she could perceive the real state and mess near their work desk. She could see how the bits of paper were scattered about on different sides and, making matters worse, many of them had faint hints of liquid upon them.
“Ahem.” Leslie cleared her throat, and their procession stopped for a brief moment as Caro stared at the spot and then looked down at the girl in her arms. She let out a frustrated sigh as she carried Sofia over.
“I feel like today, in its entirety, has been a weird test for me.” She groaned as they carefully stepped to the side of her bed and softly laid Sofia down there. “There we go… that’s one.”
“Call Tanya and Chris. Make sure they are fine,” Leslie told her.
“I will, I will.” Caro sighed as she fished for her phone on her table.
Sunday, September 25, 2016 - 9:52 am<
Berlin’s 103 Mall Parking lot.
“N-Now,” Josephine, punctuating the start of her speech with the click of the car’s alarm once the doors were closed. “I’m a pretty relaxed person when it comes to chaperoning students visiting Berlin, but the school has allowed you all to come here only as long as you hold yourselves to the standards that are expected and stay on your best behaviors.” The speil ended in a deep breath. Josephine seemed to have a hard time taking authority into her own hands, along with the spotlight, and the senior was already starting to stutter and fumble her words.
“So, um, please, I ask you to not cause any troubles. Is that okay?” Josephine appended lamely.
“We’ll avoid giving you any trouble,” Gwen promised, stepping up firm and proper as any young girl, something that irked Vic for reasons he didn’t want to dwell on. And he was almost sure she cast a dirty look his way while no one was looking.
“Yeah, don’t worry,” Tanya reassured with a giddy smile as she saw the surroundings of the bustling town, much like a tourist on a vacation tour.
“Good.” Josephine smiled, now much more relieved. She checked down her paint coated wristwatch. “Right now, it’s almost ten, so... should we agree to be back here at, say, one to one-thirty?”
“Yeah.” “Sounds good.” “Alright.” The assortment of freshmen and sophomores gave a jumbled set of replies as they exchanged glances and nodded.
“Perfect. Then I’ll see you all later. We exchanged phone numbers back in the van, so if anything happens or if there is an emergency, give me a call. And you two.” She addressed Gwen and Chris directly. “Be careful and stay close to each other. A couple of girls on their own can easily draw the wrong sort of attention.” And with that, all those present said a brief bye to each other before they split.
Josephine headed straight to the mall with giddy steps, enthused by the whole process of acquiring art supplies.
On the other side, Chris, also knowing where she intended to go while in Berlin, dragged Gwen out of the parking lot. Presumably the two of them were heading down the street to the skate park she'd bragged about during the trip. Which was a small blessing. He didn’t want to be rude, but the last thing Vic might’ve wanted was to be in the same radius as Gwen. The rather uncomfortable non-conversation with her in the car had put him on edge.
So, once the two left the group, it was just up to Erica and Vic to wait for Tanya to be done taking pictures of the city’s outline and the buildings with her phone.
“So, where are we heading? I don’t suppose any of us are familiar with the shops here.”
“Nope,” Tanya admitted. “We’ll just be doing some window-shopping until we find what we need.”
“That’s part of the thrill,” Erica mused. “We just go around, see what's what and just pick something.”
“Alright,” Vic muttered with a small sigh. “Might not be a surprise, but I’m so not used to ‘window-shopping’.” If he were being honest, he'd have preferred that this whole affair take the practical approach: namely going to the tablet store, picking the model, paying for it and just spending the rest of the day hanging around waiting.
“You didn’t have many chances to do that while you were on the street?” Tanya asked.
Vic took a more polite approach when he answered. “Not really. I’m just a regular guy. We don’t window-shop.”
Erica cracked up a small smile. “A friend of mine used to say: Men are hunters, women are gatherers.”
“Exactly,” Vic conceded. And he didn't want to say, but he did not have the capital to splurge like that. “But, I guess you’re right, and bouncing from window to window is better than just waiting. We do have three hours to kill, so we might as well give window-shopping a chance.”
“Great,” Erica said as they set off, following Josephine’s steps towards the mall. The complex of buildings and covered thoroughfares was really big, for all intents and purposes about twice the height of a school cottage and about twenty times the width. The main entrance was through an arch of glass doors that showed the three point intersection of a wide corridor that felt it could take anywhere, twisting around store after store with people traversing it like gondolas down a canal.
And, taking things at a simple glance, there were a heck of a lot of clothing stores around. Vic's heart sank a little as he calculated how much wandering about there would be before they found a good electronics store.
Fortunately for him, there was a map that illustrated the layout of the mall. The place was indeed huge, spanning across at least two city blocks. The list of stores in service went on for over fifty names.
“Yeah, this is going to be some trip.” As someone unused to this sort of spree, Vic was sure he would end up lost in a matter of minutes. In contrast, Erica and Tanya had already begun their stroll ahead down one of the paths, seemingly at random.
About twenty minutes passed as the trio explored the first couple of walking-streets and, as expected, every now and then they stopped to look at some of the cool brand shops, or found themselves tempted by some of the delicacies that were sold in the nearest coffee shops, crèpe stands, and purveyors of hot-stuff-on-sticks.
In the midst of the hustling and bustling, conversation was difficult, and that just bugged Vic. This was a wasted opportunity, seeing as he got to hang out with good friends for a fun time. But then again, what was there to do? He searched his brain for common ground to talk about. He’d been so out of popular culture for a good number of months, he wasn’t sure what was cool and popular, and girls didn’t usually talk videogames, anime or comicbooks. And topics dealing with Whateley activities and its people were surely off the table.
That brought him back to Gwen and the situation about her. Truth be told, back when she finished her first year at the mutant school, Gwen had been secretive about the dealings and friends she’d made. Even though he'd known that she was in a club, he’d never bothered to ask about much else. “Say, Tanya?”
The lavender girl lifted her head from her muffin, a small snack to keep her stomach from churning. With her lips still scattering crumbs she looked up with a short smile, and wiped her lips. “The two girls we came in," he continued, "Gwen and Chris. They are from the Capes, right?”
“Yup, they're sophomore members. They’re pretty cool, if you ask me. Chris is loads of fun and Gwen is very, um, candid.” The hesitation in those words seemed to come from the search for the best word rather than trying to mask a negative, which came off as a positive reaction to Vic.
“Yeah, they seem like a fun duo.”
“They’re usually a trio, but Caro couldn’t make it.”
“You seemed to hit it off with Gwen back there, Vic.” Erica noted, prompting an audible gasp from Tanya. “I know you two kept quiet at it back there, but when I spied on you through the rear view mirror, I could see Gwen fidgeting about by your side. Any chance you're interested in her as well?”
Of course, Erica was teasing, but Tanya didn’t seem to take it as such. “N-No, she wouldn’t do that. I mean, she has a boyfriend. Girls don’t just cheat, right?”
The boyfriend, Vic thought. The subject of Gwen’s boyfriend was probably one to avoid, even if things were fine between the two of them. It was like opening the lid of a box he’d rather stay closed.
“She seems like quite a character. What are her powers?” Erica continued.
“Oh, she’s essentially a supergirl type,” Tanya said, already getting back into the zone. While this was a Whateley matter, Vic thought, it was vague enough for people to think she was talking about some superhero, either real or fictional. “No, actually, more like Captain Marvel. Flight, super strength and energy projection.”
“I see. So a perfect fit for the Capes?” Erica mused.
“Yeah, sorta.” Tanya paused a second to think. “From what I gathered, both Gwen and Chris were a bit of a conversation item last year. From Gwen for ending up first in her class for BMA or something, to the troubles Chris caused. Caro said they were a ‘handful,’ and that it took them all a while to learn how to get along back then.”
“Do you think M3 won’t be able to outdo them?” Erica mused.
“I hope not,” Tanya said with a small chuckle.
Eventually, the group stopped at a fork on the road. Three paths they could take and all of them seemed just the same, with the stores cluttered together to blur the contents. Indifferent, with either choice being perfectly valid, especially with the time they had, he approached the left road, leaning to the side just to see if he would get a good look at what was there.
Unknown to him, Tanya poked Erica’s side, discreetly whispering to her friend. The reaction was short of a smile and Tanya’s cheeks blushed redder and redder the more time the blonde girl took to elaborate and words were traded.
Fortunately, Vic was too caught up in trying to read the slanted words of a store sign (that turned out to be for a simple suitcase store), that he failed to notice it as it went on. By the time he faced them again, Tanya had already turned her back, hiding behind Erica and pretending to look somewhere else. “So,” he said. “Where are we going? I think the path to the left will take us out towards the avenue and park, and I think the one in the middle gets us more stores.”
“You know?” Erica chimed in. “I think we should split up.”
“Really?” Vic said.
“Yeah.” Erica pointed back the way they came. “The map we ran by at the entrance. If we followed the route correctly, the center and left corridors should join together down the line, as long as you keep on walking to the right.”
“Are you sure? I’m already lost,” Vic half joked.
“Positive. If you walk down the path there and stick to the right we’ll meet up in no time.” Erica explained. “Then we can just compare and see what we found. Maybe find some snacks for Tanya here… or maybe a gift?” She snickered, with her body jerking sideways slightly as if nudged.
“Then we’re splitting down two paths? I take the left?”
“And Tanya and I will take the middle.”
“Okay...” Vic said. Splitting up didn’t feel like the best of ideas, but he didn’t have any reason to refuse the idea and appear clingy. It certainly gave him time to explore and it made more sense to have the girls together, in case they were in the mood for clothes-shopping. And conveniently, given how not long ago he had to do laundry, splitting up could be a good chance to get some new clothes for himself. The mention of a gift also propped up an idea in the back of Vic’s mind. If the opportunity presented itself, it would be a nice gesture to get something for the two girls who'd volunteered for this trip out. “So, if anything happens do we call each other?” he said. Once again, he was more than happy that he could now count on having a decent phone.
“Oh, right. Um...” Tanya said, presenting her phone, which was pitch black. “My phone ran out of battery on the way here.”
“Really?” Erica said with a bit of mockful exasperation.
“Sorry, I was just busy. You know, running around with all the paperwork,” Tanya said. “Um, was that too sassy? I’m sorry.”
Vic and Erica could only chuckle at that.
“Okay, then," Vic told her. "If anything happens, I’ll just call Erica.”
“That works.” Erica smiled and softly nudged Tanya to get on with walking. Before long the two were also gone, this time disappearing around a bend in the labyrinth of commerce, leaving him to his lonesome.
Sunday, September 25, 2016 - 9:54 am<
Berlin, Outside the restaurant "Chifa".
“Are you sure this will work?” an Asian woman whispered as she fumbled through the papers she’d been given . In the dim light of the alley, one could barely make out the lines of the text, much less the meaning.
In her right hand was a piece of paper she'd received two months ago. A sort of good behavior reward thanks, in no small part, to the payment she'd made with the insurance money of her late husband. It was her so-called receipt that accredited the payment of her protection fee and would ensure she would not be bothered for at least the remainder of the next two months. The thing was the textbook definition of evidence in extortion, yet the bravado with which the leader of the mob took to personalize it came across as absurd. There was the signature of the regional enforcer along with the stamp of their organization. A capital ‘D’ with three wavy lines was encapsulated within the character. An obscure mark to anyone that didn’t run their business, but recognized by those in the know as an official document.
On the left was a replica of the document, mentioning the same points with slight differences in the dates and amounts, both fudged to make it seem as if she'd paid more, thus doubling the amount of money given and the leeway months that had been granted. It was a piece of work, right down to the seal and signature that were indistinguishable from the originals. All the more astonishing was the fact that both documents were written by hand, and yet when placed side by side, each could be confused with the other if it weren’t from the dates. And yet, the more it approximated to official copy, the more anxious the restaurant owner felt.
These were men that always claimed they would know if she tried to go to the police, and honored their threats. The idea of duping them placed a lot of pressure on a woman who was just trying to make an honest living. “I-I don’t think I can…”
The other figure, a man whose build was round enough to have clogged an alley if he had a twin to go with, just shook his head. “Use it or not. I still did my part of the deal.”
“Right… free fried rice for the next two months, I got it.” The woman had no problem with honoring that promise, given how cheap it was was compared to the tithe. “Maybe I shouldn’t do this. How do I know it’ll work?”
“Believe me, it will,” the man known to his friends as Iggy said with confident exasperation in his efforts to provide reassurance to the woman. “According to the other businesses, the man in charge of that signature is no longer working for the D gang, but his word, which was the boss’s, still holds true. If you show that to them, they will have to accept it. Also, from what I gather, they seem to keep a sloppy record of accounts. Many of their men just pocket the money with no way of separating it. At worst, they’ll chalk it up to a text error. I did make some of the numbers look a tad ambiguous while keeping it convincing.”
“I can’t pay this month…” the woman whispered to herself in panic.
“You’ve been a good debtor so far. That’s what you told me, right? If you fail, then you’ll be put on a list where they will try to harvest you for all you have. And you don’t want that,” the man stated. He spied the face of his digital watch and took it as his cue to leave. Walking his way out the western end of the alley, he congratulated himself on a job well done.
“What do we have here?” A voice called out from the other end of the alley, which had the forger stop as soon as he turned around the corner. Truth be told, concern was a human thing to feel, but so was the pride of fooling a fool. So he kept his ears open to overhear the words.
“You're here earlier than you were told.” The man that spoke, in a deep and raspy voice that felt familiar from a previous encounter, was accompanied by the sound of footsteps on puddles. The crinkling of trash bags was heard between the occasional jumble of a nearby AC unit. “Lou has told me good things about you. I hope you can honor the usual tribute with the same gusto you treated him.”
“I…have the paper here. I’m exempt from payment for at least two more months.” The man around the corner couldn’t help but shudder in concern. This was the moment of truth for any forger, the scrutiny in the middle of action. Yet all he had to reassure him that his skill hadn’t gone to waste was the sound of paper rustling. How he wished he could gauge the verifier’s face.
“Do you now?” the man muttered. There was inevitably surprise in his voice but also the thrill of a challenge, as if he was readying himself to act if she were to be lying to him -- which she was, but he wouldn't be able to prove. The sound of thin metal clicking and swinging about was unmistakable: a butterfly knife had been produced just for show, an intimidation tactic the forger had already seen.
“Yes,” the restaurant owner asserted.
“Good, try to mix the anxiety of a lie with the fear...” Iggy silently coached from a distance. He didn’t dare to venture through to get a look at the people she was dealing with, but by the sound and number of steps that happened in tandem, he guessed there to be perhaps four other individuals.
“It says here…” the woman said, presumably pointing down at the paper.
“Let me see.” There was the sound of the man snatching the paper as he mumbled over the note.
There were tense minutes of pause, where both the woman and the forger awaited with their hearts up their throats. The restaurateur danced the line between care and fear to sell the act, hoping the other part in this con had delivered a quality product. The forger worried the restaurant owner would break down and point fingers at him.
“I guess it all seems in order… I don’t recall the boss mentioning this shop for the special treatment, though,” the voice said finally. Upon the mention of the word boss, Iggy could recall who it belonged to. A man from the gang, slightly above the regular enforcer, who had visited him at a meeting point back on Samuel Street a couple of days ago, asking if he could forge documents to enter a company unnoticed.
This was after they'd busted him for trying to pull a minor scam on one of the businesses they ‘protected’. A pardon was issued on account of his evident usefulness, but there was little doubt that if they saw him, he would be mushed into oblivion.
“But it does have Lou’s signature and our seal,” one of the accompanying men said, his voice bearing a bit of a latino sway to it.
“I guess that’s true… and it’s such a drag to contact the prison in New Jersey to ask a simple question,” the leader conceded with a tinge of disappointment. It felt like a victory to the forger, even if he wasn’t the one at risk here. “Things seem in order, ma'am. I suppose I’ll see you again in two months.”
“I did it, I managed to infiltrate and break their system,” Iggy said to himself with a pleased grin. Taking a deep breath in confidence knowing that the worst had come to pass, he turned around to walk out of the way when…
“Hey, you’re the forger guy, aren’t you?!” cried a man from down the way. Dressed in street: a black coat, a scarf wrapped around the neck and a hood that covered almost anything but the eyes -- it was an ensemble that immediately brought him back to that meeting, “The forger from Samuel Street.”
“The forger?” The head enforcer from the group down the alley reacted to the alarm as one would expect. “Bring him in.”
The gang member approached him at a slower pace, as he never expected the overweight forger to actually break into a sprint. As he ran down the street and around the corner, he heard paper tearing.
Sunday, September 25, 2016 - 10:01 am<
Dodge-a-Rama Skate Park.
Gwen had been to Berlin a couple of times the previous year, at least enough to know her way around town without having that feeling of getting lost. Even as the billboards changed and the cars and movement were ever-present, she kept a sense of familiarity as she walked around.
Yet the eastern side of the large park would always feel like alien terrain to her. From what Gwen gathered, the place had been the subject of much remodeling over the years, starting off as a residential district that got shunted to the side as the mall zone began to build itself up. The place had changed roles a couple of times, two of which were the result of mutant incidents. In the end, it had found its identity, though it still felt like a patchwork when compared to the crisp cleanness of the mall zone. From the outside, it looked much like the usual street remodeled for commercial use. Ample space to walk around, with low-height buildings that housed restaurants that weren’t of any famous chain but instead favored home cooking, And much deeper, passing an old library, a community center, and another parking lot was their destination, the Dodge-a-Rama Skate Park.
A stretch of land had been turned into a concrete jungle with myriad forms of entertainment of the extreme variety, from rock climbing along the height of a building to a foam trampoline field. Almost all of them were things that were perhaps too much activity for Gwen to get invested. But she wasn’t here for herself today, so she followed Chris onward to the skating section of the experience. A large gated fence gave way to the kind of things one could expect to find at a skatepark: half tubes that ranged from classic to twisty-turvy, handrails, pyramids, bowls, snake runs and more.
The contest was getting into gear, with the contestants gathering before a makeshift stage displaying the activities and scores over each participant while the audience cheered from the sideline benches in the designated safe zones.
Chris seemed to be, surprisingly, in her element. Greeting people with the classic masculinity one would expect to see with skaters. Patting someone on the shoulder to get their attention. Making a quick remark or joke and then just moving on. Almost as if she were one of the guys. Gwen could only roll her eyes at her friend's antics and inability to maintain a feminine appearance. She followed in Chris's wake with a polite smile and feigned invisibility. Although with the way she was dressed, she stood out almost as much as Chris would if she were to walk around the campus dressed as she was now.
“Remind me again, what are we doing here?” Gwen asked rhetorically.
“Just going to have fun. Show off a bit of my work, impress them, do some sick tricks on the half tube, shred that rail, get the contest’s prize and then go back,” Chris rattled off as she put her duffel bag down and opened it to reveal her full-on gear.
“What was that part before going back?” Gwen said with a mild frown.
“Shred the rail?” Chris said with a grin as she secured the knee guards around her legs. The things were so expensive and thorough in their coverage that in a different age they would be considered armor.
“Chris…” Gwen frowned.
“Relax. I’ve practiced these moves plenty of times. I’m sure I can handle it.” With a flick of the clamp, there was an audible click and the thin piece of protection was in place. “Looks good, doesn’t it?” she mused as she got up.and stretched her legs.
“You know why I’m worried. What do you think will happen when you make a jump, trip and you-know-what happens?” Gwen whispered. It wasn't just the idea of Chris triggering her emergency air brake that worried her, but what would happen if the other skaters caught on to her ability to accelerate anything she held. Inevitably, Chris would let herself be carried away and do something crazy.
“I won’t trip.” Chris assured, as she wrapped her elbow guards and slipped a half-shell helmet onto her head. And as she began to strap on her wheels, she continued. “I only used you-know-what back at the school to practice or when I don’t wear protection. As you see, I’m taking all the proper precautions.”
Gwen was this close to asking if it was a good idea to be doing the tricks she'd planned without a safety net, but then again, looking at Chris, she could tell that her friend was already ahead of her and expecting the comment. “Fine, fine. Just be careful, okay?” Gwen forced herself to say.
“You know me,” Chris said with a winking grin as she pushed herself away from the bench and allowed herself to roll away. With the tournament going on and about ninety percent of the regulars gathered around the stage, the rest of the park was open for anyone to shred through the props and obstacles to their heart's content.
“If you’d told me you wanted to come to the skate park to just go through the vacant obstacles, I would’ve been less worried,” Gwen muttered as Chris slipped into the concrete bowl and began her smooth roll.
As if swimming through the current or surfing down the wave, she rose and fell, up and down the curved surface before picking up speed and using the spike in momentum to propel herself up over the edge, where she punctuated her tricks with a grind on the rim. Chris had practiced before on benches, things like spinning jumps that made Gwen wince at the thought of falling in mid-trick. The girl finished with an incredibly smooth handstand that she held for almost a minute.
By the time the skater girl bent her legs into a perfectly stable position, she had already drawn a good number of eyes to her, among them a good portion of the participants, and even one or two of the commentators. When her wheels touched the concrete again she was met by a wave of applause and some cheers. Predictable, several were already giving her catcall whistles and asking for her number.
Chris basked in the attention, nonchalantly letting the skates take her wherever inertia would. All the while, she waved at the skaters and the stagehands to carry on with the contest. Gwen wasn’t sure, but she believed at one point she heard her friend say. “Unless you want me to participate.”
Gwen could only sigh as she sat down next to Chris’s bag, resting her chin on intertwined fingers. “It’s going to be a long day out,” she muttered to herself. A smile formed in spite of it all as she leaned back to pretend her friend wasn’t flouting the implied discretion the school expected from every one of their students when out on the town.
Up along the nearby buildings she could spot several billboards. Gwen had a feeling that she would end up reading many times over the course of the next couple of hours. The first one belonged to a private airline that provided trips to satellite locations that ranged into the exotic, if not eccentric. It held the classic Vegas and Paris destinations in its name but it also had a stamp that declared “Now with flights to Karedonia and Anima Island.”
“Would be nice,” Gwen muttered. The following poster promoted a videogame console, which felt like a good marketing decision considering the number of teenagers and young adults that haunted this place. On plain glance, it looked like a futuristic cyberpunk game called Hunting Trident. She'd never heard of it, but it reminded Gwen that she really needed to reconnect with her gaming console back home.
The last poster was political propaganda for the upcoming citywide election. At first, Gwen couldn’t help but wonder why they would choose to advertise that in the vicinity of a skate park. But a small space in the corner of the ad pointed out that the campaign group was the one that supported the park. “Keeping our parks clean and our neighborhoods safe. Vote Crossby…”
“Huh…” was all she could say.
Sunday, September 25, 2016 - 10:10 am<
Berlin’s 103 Mall, North West Exit
In a world where everyone moved at their own pace, from a quiet stroll to a hastened trot, the sight of someone darting down the corridor as if their life depended on it quietly aroused people’s attention as something out of the ordinary. Seeing three more people run after that first one returned it to normalcy as everyone tried to go back to their business.
But in reality, there was an implied sense of danger to whatever was going on. Seeing a man being chased by many left a clear impression on passersby: Don't butt in unless you want to run, too.
The sprint and their legs took them out the main exit. The man at the head of the race pushed through the glass doors, almost breaking through them before slamming them backwards. That little stunt slowed a couple of the pursuers at best, while raising a fuzz between disgruntled customers.
“Huff… Huff,” the running man panted. Sweat poured down his cheeks, forehead and the corners of his eyes as he tried to keep himself from stopping no matter how much his body begged for it. He was not in the most athletic of conditions. Despite being in his twenties and having spent the past couple of years working in a gang, he was hardly used to any sort of physical activity. He was in fact a prime, if not clichéed, example of ‘the guy in the chair’.
So far, he’d managed to keep his edge and distance by sheer luck, knocking over food carts and trashcans, or even flipping the tables of an open cafe along the way. That was enough to keep them at a distance.
“Iggy! Where do you think you’re going!” Every now and then one of the guys would call to him, issuing a snarling threat that only made him push his body further to the limit. The only thing he could count on was the blessing that there were no police officers around -- but at the same time, that would mean there would be no one to stop the inevitable beating.
Finding no other option, he kept on running. And before long, he tried more desperate tactics to shake off his pursuers, like snaking his way through a bodega or even dashing across the main avenue. Yet, it was in the home stretch of that sprint that a car let out a startling honk as another emerged from behind it. Iggy managed to dodge but was hit by the side mirror, sending the piece of metal off its hinges. He himself rolled along the concrete.
And that ended his race. In his rush to cross, he'd paved the way for his pursuers, who caught up to him just as he was picking himself up. Greetings and pleasantries began with a kick to his stomach. “Ya thought you could get away from us just like that?” a large black man snorted, taking a moment to catch his breath while his cronies dragged Iggy to his feet.
“Scream and you’ll get it worse than you can imagine,” one of the men whispered, making no effort to hide his threat as their victim felt a sharp point dig into his spine.
“I… fine fine,’ Iggy muttered. A hand clamped his wrists behind his back, keeping them pressed and himself unable to fight. Not that he would, even if he wanted. Defeat felt painful.
“What do we do now? Do we beat him up?” one of the men asked for their leader. Iggy could only flinch to the idea.
“Did you really think you could outrun us? With that tub of lard you keep under your shirt,” the head of crew laughed as he elbowed Iggy's stomach. Politely fake laughter echoed around the group, trying to make it look like all four of them were just a bunch of buddies even if one of them was visibly winded up and terrified. Throughout the act, eyes surfed from person to person around, prioritizing the police or any one that was holding out the phone to record. This was supposed to be a discreet talk and for certain, the boss would chew them out if they were to get recorded, much less arrested by a do-gooder.
“What do you have to say?” the other man added.
“I-I wanted to try. Could you blame me?” Iggy muttered.
“Yeah." The man pushed him down the street, twisting the knife just enough to make him hiss.
They crossed to the opposite side of the zone and, upon their leader’s quiet signaling, took to the left into the alley in between an antique shop and a laundry.
“Guys… guys,” Iggy muttered. He groaned as his captor twisted his wrist to get him to quiet down but, through continuous insistence, the grip eased up, just enough. “I-I’m sorry. I didn’t mean nothing...”
“Oh screw it,” the head of the group snapped. As they entered the alley, the buddy act was off, allowing him to raise the volume. “You know what happens to anyone who crosses us. You already had your warning, and I don’t know whether the boss will be thrilled or pissed off that someone tried to break his system.”
“I get it, I’m sorry, can we please leave this as my second warning?
“No more warnings for you, Iggy.”
“What happened to the three strikes rule?”
“We ain't playing baseball,” the headman said. He pointed to one of his men, who came up to Iggy to deliver a heavy punch to his chest, sending the forger reeling back to the end of the alley. The other guys joined in, throwing a direct punch into his exposed back that would’ve forced the insides out if he’d actually collected his reward from the restaurant.
“You’ll have to learn about the consequences," the headman lectured as his men kept on punching and, once Iggy was down, kicking. "You said you’re new in town, right? Certainly did something stupid by trying to scam D’s group twice.”
The continuing beatdown added three more well-placed punches and kicks to the torso before the gang members got tired of indulging their frustrations on the soft and squishy target.
“What do we do with him?” one of the men asked as he rubbed the sole of his foot against a loose brick in the wall.
“Do we off him?” suggested another one.
“And then deal with the mess of covering him up? It’s not worth it…” the headman growled.
“I meant tying him up and dumping him in the forest,” the man protested.
During the argument, Iggy had enough time to breathe and push himself up. His body ached like the thousand devils and he was sure those searing feelings of pain down his arms and stomach would turn into lasting bruises the next day that would keep him from doing his usual job of leaning over tables. “Haven’t you guys done enough?" he mumbled. “I learned the lesson. I’ll just skip town, no need to leave anybody in the forest.”
He knew he couldn't outrun these men, and his arms and legs felt like rubber spaghetti, yet he still tried to crawl away as the conversation went on. Whatever slim hope he found was dashed away when he saw the obvious: the gang members had picked a dead end alley to have this meeting.
Well, it wasn’t exactly a dead end, more like an L shaped alley, with the street turning towards the left blocked by a steel fence with a huge padlock. While not completely impassable, the back wall was devoid of anything he could use to climb over and the fire exit for the windows above was retracted and out of reach. As he got to his feet, he realized just how much his arms and stomach aches, so even jumping was probably a nonstarter.
The three gang members were too focused in their conversation to pay him much attention, even as he pushed himself up on his feet. It was plainly obvious to them that there was nothing Iggy could do. With no concealed gun, no combat ability and no athleticism to back his escape plan, it was like watching a slug move about.
“How about we bring him to the police? You know, the reverse false flag trick,” suggested one of the men, the one in the black hoodie who'd spotted him in the first place.
“The police…” the headman muttered. “That’s a possibility. Do you know where we hid the knife from the Indocorp job?”
“Here it is.” The man searched his pocket to produce a piece of rolled-up cloth. There was no surprise when, the moment it was unrolled, it revealed a simple knife that was still coated with some dried up blood.
“Why the fuck did you have that on you?” asked the head of the group.
“I was on my way to get rid of it,” defended the guy.
“Fucking stupid thing to carry around in your pocket,” the headman scoffed as he reached into his own pocket and produced a pair of latex gloves, which he promptly slipped on. The two men that followed him exchanged looks that had something between ironic and hypocrite written on them, though neither dared to say anything to the man who was visibly taller and stronger.
“I’m not touching that,” Iggy blurted out, putting his back against the wall.
“Oh you are, and don’t dare to try anything,” the leader warned as his hands clamped around Iggy’s wrists, crushingly prying his hands open. There was barely a struggle as the fingers were forced around the knife’s handle and pressed for a long enough time to make sure the fingerprints were embedded on the leather.
“There we go,” the head of the group finally said. He yanked the knife out of Iggy’s hands and tossed it on a trash can lid, one that was illuminated by the indirect lighting of the back entrance to the laundry. With the blood still coating the steel, it lay in clear view.
And before Iggy could do anything, the two other men stepped up. One produced a pair of zip ties from his pocket, once again earning a couple of odd looks, while the other, the hooded man, pushed his foot against the wall and jumped up high enough to get a grip of the lower step of the fire ladder, pulling it down with a thunderous rattle.
“I can’t believe this,” Iggy muttered, rattling the steel frame with the plastic cuff. Of course, there was no way he could break free. He thought about screaming and calling for help, but it was doubtful whether his voice would even carry itself to the bustling streets through the humming of the laundry’s ac and water units. But then again, who would jump to his defense when assailed by the group of thugs that seemingly ruled over half the city? The only option he seemed to have left was to beg and try to explain his innocence to the officers when they showed up…
Which, most likely wouldn’t work for a myriad of reasons, among them the fact that he was carrying three different ID’s in his wallet.
By that point, Iggy had given up on the idea of doing anything. When all was said and done, he was left trapped with incriminating evidence just a couple of steps away and two of the gang members were just watching him struggle until he lost the energy to even pretend to care.
Seven years, he thought, seven years he’d managed to avoid making it to jail while serving under a man that was as reckless as one could be and now… now he found himself on his own in a new city and, just short of his first week, it was all over. He was already on the road to the big house.
“I just made the call to the police,” the head enforcer said. “Officers will be here soon to arrest him, so we'd better give him some space.”
The three men took steps back towards the street, and all Iggy could do was turn his head over his shoulder. It took a bit too much effort. Locked to the ladder, his options were very slim. Even the trash can with the knife was resting on was a good dozen steps too far for him to reach, and just trying reminded him of the injuries to his arm and stomach.
The idea of going to prison was something that had always terrified him, especially after he was hired by Urresti’s gang back in Plymouth. But at least he was never on his own then, like he was now. There had always been someone looking out for him, whether it was the boss, his right hand man, or even one of those kids that joined them last summer.
“Shit, is this my version of life flashing before my eyes?” he muttered dryly as he threw his weight back in an attempt to let the steel force more damage to the plastic. But all it did was dig the hard strips into his skin. “Ow… my livelihood,” he mumbled as he rubbed his wrists.
By then, the alley was completely cleared. Spying over his shoulder, back to the entrance of the alley, he could catch a clear glimpse of the coat one of his captors wore sticking out around the corner. Without a doubt, they were just standing guard to make sure nothing would happen. Not that he could escape on his own, but it was still annoying to see people expecting his downfall, like some live audience for the game show from hell.
“Iggy? Psst! Iggy,” came a whisper from not far enough away. It was quiet and subtle but it still startled him to the point of jumping, making the fire exit rattle.
“Who said that?” he hissed, casting a look to his left to see a boy standing behind the bars that blocked the other path around the alley. A face he'd thought he wouldn’t ever see again.
“Vic?! Is that you? I thought you were back in Ply.” he blurted out. More words were bit off before they could escape at full volume as he glanced back over his shoulder, making sure the men weren’t alerted to this development.
“What happened? What are you doing here?” the boy whispered, crouching down to the height of the lock on the chained gate.
“What happened to me? What am I doing here?” Iggy repeated.” Those are supposed to be my questions… are you even here or am i imagining this?” There was a slight chance, in his desperation, that he was imagining his rescue at the hands of the little Houdini.
“Of course, I’m here.” Vic took a deep breath. “You don’t get to ask when you’re the one tied to a ladder! Why are you even tied up?”
“I-It’s a long story… but could you help me out? They’re setting me for someone else’s murder.”
“Some guys, at the end of the alley,” he muttered, casting his glance once again back. Even at the distance, the outline didn’t seem to have changed at all. They were oblivious. “I swear, I didn’t do anything wrong, buddy. Help me out, please,” he said in his most earnest of voices, just short of breaking down completely.
Without losing any time, the boy quickly inspected the lock under his hand, the one that completed the barrier. His fingers poked through the gaps in the fence and prodded the surface, softly moving it but barely making a rattle. He scanned trying to determine if it was a combination or a keyhole.
“Crap… I left my bottle.” Vic cast his eyes around for a moment before spotting a puddle next to him and wincing. It was a result of the AC unit or a cistern mixed in with the grime of the dirt and whatever just happened to pass through. The boy looked like he was about to gag.
“Please, you’re the only one who can help me.” Iggy could only imagine, being a stickler himself for clean work and a cleaner living environment, how unpleasant that must’ve felt. “Hurry.”
“Just… just one second. I’m… urk… trying to ignore it,” Vic muttered as he heaved and swallowed his disgust. Sticking his hand into the puddle, he pulled up the water as a blob. The stuff was black filled with dirt particles, and his face spelled out how much he hated not having his usual supply of water.
Iggy had seen the mutant boy’s powers at work many times before, and even now it still impressed him. But in the moment, the thrill came from the eventual success and his own escape. He could only hope he had kept practicing. The blob he held slowly crept around the surfaces of the heavy paddock until finding every orifice to slip into.
There were a couple of seconds of concentration that stretched themselves too long for Iggy as he continually looked over his shoulder in case the police had arrived or the gang had changed their mind about turning him in alive. In reality, it couldn't have been more than five seconds when the lock of the paddock clicked open and the piece of metal was carried down to the ground by the tendril of black water.
“Hurry,” Iggy urged as the door opened and the teenager entered into the section of the alley. Vic cat-footed up to him as he held out the ziptie handcuffs expectantly. There wasn't any time to waste.
“What are you even doing here?!” Iggy repeated.
“I’m not even sure myself… but now's not the time to talk,” Vic answered with a heavy sigh.
To Be Continued