Where There's Smoke There's Fire (Part 1)
A Second Generation Whateley Academy Story
Where There's Smoke There's Fire
Tuesday 18th October, early morning, Doyle Medical Centre
There has to be some sort of law that hospitals have to wake you up early, whether you slept or not, as another reason for annoying the patients. Or, perhaps, to give them another incentive for getting better and hence stopping annoying the medical staff by taking up a bed. It wasn't as if they needed to take my temperature or anything; the devices they had monitoring me could probably tell them what I had for dinner last week while whistling the Peruvian National Anthem, let alone how well I was right now.
So the nurse looked me over, made the sort of professional tsk-ing noise that made you wonder what sort of strange and exotic disease you had you somehow hadn't noticed, then looked over the readouts carefully.
"Any problems overnight?"
I wondered if I should tell the truth, which was that I had kept waking up with some nasty nightmares, courtesy of recent events, then decided not to. I'd save that until I saw Doc Bellows again. If I mentioned them she might decide to keep me here under observation, and I really wanted out.
"Not really, how long do I have to stay here?"
"Well, the Doctor will need to take a look at you first. I'll let her know you're awake."
Then she just left, leaving me lying there and wondering if they'd let me out in time for breakfast. Really, with all the varied talent they had at Whateley, you'd think they could have made a more interesting ceiling.
"So, Doc, will I be able to play the piano again?"
Doctor Tennant looked up from her pad just long enough to raise her eyebrows at my plaintive comment. "You couldn't play it before, what makes you think you can play it now?"
I guess she'd heard that one before. "OK, fair point. But do I have to stay here? I'm bored..."
She took a final look at her notes, then slipped the pad back into her pocket. "Hmm. Well, as far as I can tell, you don't have any physical problems we need to keep you here for." She waited just long enough for me to open my mouth and then continued. "BUT, despite the healing Thulia did for you, you aren't exactly in top condition. As you can probably tell yourself from the aches and pains."
Yeah, she had a good point. I felt like I'd been run over, hammered flat, and then scraped up again. And that was after a nights' sleep. "Look, Doc, I'm not going to try for the Olympics or anything, but won't I get better without having to stay here in bed?"
She eyed me with a look that as much as said 'I know all the excuses you kids make, and you won't get away with any of them.' Then she took the mirror standing on the bedside table, and showed me how I looked. OK, I was pale, looked worn out, and had rings under my eyes dark enough to make me consider Panda-GSD. Plus the dark lines under the surface of my skin tracing the damage caused by my overuse of power. Basically, I looked like I felt. Still, I looked up at her hopefully, and she sighed.
"Oh, very well, there isn't really any more we want to do here. You need to recover, and take it easy - yes, easy, I know you kids - for a few weeks. Given your unusual physiology, and the fact that your injuries affected your magic as well as your body, I'd rather not try and finish healing you normally this time. It isn't really needed, you will recover naturally in a few weeks, so let's not force what we don't need to. If you weren't an Exemplar I'd worry more, but you wouldn't get better any faster in bed. So run along and have breakfast, but I want you back here at 10 am."
My face fell at that, and she chuckled. "No, nothing serious, but we need to verify your current state of powers and so on so we can monitor your recovery."
Well, I suppose that did make sense. Hopefully, it wouldn't be long until I was fine again, but I didn't actually know what Thulia had told them before she left.
I was just finishing dressing when Ceri tapped on the doorframe and came in. Seeing me getting ready, even if I looked a mess, brought a smile to her face.
"So they are finally letting you go?"
I nodded as I picked up my shoulder bag. "Yeah, I guess they got fed up with me taking up a bed." I looked at my watch and then back at my sister. "I'm going to walk over to the Crystal Hall for breakfast, want to come with me?"
"That sounds great, I'd like to see if you were telling the truth about how good the food is."
"What, don't they feed you well at Uni? I thought nowadays it was all 5-star cuisine and stuff."
Ceri gave a loud snort. "Are you sure you're OK to be let out, you still seem to be suffering from delusions! The Uni food is probably only edible by rats. Or mutants." She looked thoughtful. "Maybe mutant rats, that would explain a lot."
No, I didn't want to know. Knowing my big sister, she was probably pulling my leg. But after being at Whateley a while, you never quite knew about things like that. Hopefully, Wondercute wouldn't consider mutant rats cute, I wouldn't put pastel-pink or cerulean rats past them.
She did give me a quick once-over before we left. "You're not going to put something on to cover those marks?"
I shrugged. "I'm not really a makeup sort of girl, Ceri. I've never really needed any. And if I put some on to cover this, some of my friends would notice and then I'd have to explain. I'd rather they just see me as I am." OK, I wasn't quite telling the truth, or at least I was being pretty economical with it. Being a girl was one thing, deliberately using makeup to look more attractive still seemed a step too far. Although... I wondered how Thulia would take it?
She gave me a rather long look, and I did wonder if she suspected my real reasons but then nodded. "OK, I see your point. Well, come and show me this wonderful breakfast before we both starve."
It wasn't the best of days, but at least the clouds overhead didn't look like they were going to drop rain on us for a while. Frankly, after the last few days, I wouldn't have cared if we'd had a blizzard, just being able to walk around in the open again felt wonderful. Not having to worry anymore about suddenly exploding was just the icing on the cake. We took our time ambling over to the Crystal Hall, which suited me just fine. Despite telling the Doc I felt OK, I'd been exaggerating a fair bit - even walking made my body ache. It wasn't just the discomfort, I guess it was the fact that I'd got used to being an exemplar and not subject to the usual aches and pains you normally ignored. We didn't pass anyone I knew well - it was after 9, and most kids were probably already in class - and the fact that I was walking with an adult probably made us less casually approachable. Still, I did notice us getting a few looks - my recent experience had made me quite paranoid about that sort of attention, and I had to tell myself to keep calm, it was just kids being curious, nothing sinister.
"Didn't you eat here when I was in Doyle, Ceri?"
My sister shook her head. "No, I was staying in one of the guest rooms, and you can get stuff in Doyle. I didn't want to wander too far away from you, just in case."
I was tempted to give her a hug for that, but as we were about to go into the Hall I decided not to.
"Well, I think you'll like the food here. Do you have the pass they gave you, you'll need it. The foods free, but they like to track who's eating what, for some reason."
I'd forgotten how impressed I'd been when I first came here, but the appreciative comments and looks my sister gave as we made our way up to the M3 table reminded me.
Cari shook her head as we sat down. "I don't know what to say, this place is amazing! And to think I have to suffer the joys of the student cafeteria while you dine like this!"
I grinned. "It's not quite so amazing when it's filled with a horde of greedy kids, but the breakfast rush as all gone off to classes."
She took a bite of her food and her eyes widened again. "Bloody hell! You eat like this all the time?"
"Well, yeah, this is pretty normal. They do specials every so often, but this is just breakfast."
She actually stopped eating for a moment to stare at me, then muttered something about 'who do I have to kill to get a place here' before we both resumed the serious business of eating breakfast.
Tuesday 18th October, 10 am, Doyle Medical Centre
As instructed, I reported to Dr. Tennant at 10. Ceri, bless her, had decided to go walkabout on the Campus while I got yet another set of tests. I'd much rather have shown her around, but they'd probably have caught me and dragged me back.
"Doc, haven't you done enough medical tests for a while?"
She looked up at me and grinned at the rather whining tone in my voice. "Actually yes we have. But we do need to run you through a modified set of power testing again. We need to see what effect there had been on your body. "She raised a peremptory hand as I opened my mouth. "And yes, we got Thulia's data, but I want a baseline from our instruments we can use to keep monitoring you. We can't just keep sending you to another Plane when we can monitor you perfectly well here."
I gave a heartfelt sigh, which just made her smile again. Oh well, I suppose it did make sense. That didn't mean I had to like it. Actually, I had been sort of hoping they'd need to have Thulia check on me, having to do that would have been the perfect excuse to spend some time with her. Or rather, some time when we could talk privately and NOT have to worry about evil cults or me exploding abruptly. While she'd be able to visit me here, I was worried about how, well, closely Caitlin would chaperone us. From what I'd seen of Caitlin she looked pretty laid-back, but she was an adult and she didn't seem to approve of Thulia that much.
Fortunately, they didn't decide to redo all my power testing, just the physical parts. Still in both by forms, mind. At least I escaped having my arms turned into a pincushion this time. Given how many samples of various sorts they'd taken from me over the last few days, it hardly seemed necessary. Sometimes I wondered if the testing wonks had some sort of bet going on which student they could get the most samples from.
At least they gave me the results straight away - it seemed there weren't any noticeable physical differences apart from not doing so well in some areas, which they ascribed to my recent exertions. Which was good news. The bad news was that I had to come back in a few weeks for them to check that I'd recovered properly. I was starting to get more certain about possible betting.
I sat down a bit nervously in front of Ms. Grimes as I eyed the collection of testing devices on the table between us. This was all familiar from my initial power testing, the only real difference being I now had an idea what some of them were for. Grimes saw my expression, for a moment I swore she was going to smile at me.
"Now Morgana, I'm sure you recognise all this from your power testing?" I nodded, and she continued. "Good. Now we have notes from Thulia about your current condition, and her estimates of your recovery, but I want to establish your current state in our terms, we will be retesting you about twice a week until you are completely recovered.
I couldn't really complain, even though having to keep getting tested was, I was sure, going to grow old fast. To be honest, I was just as interested as Grimes at seeing how I was doing, and when I'd stop having to be careful. So I sat there and waited patiently while Grimes checked me out, and tried to see what the notes she was writing said without her noticing. With absolutely no luck, Grimes was an expert at this sort of thing.
"Now, there's one last thing I want you to do for me, Morgana." She held up a small off-white ball. "Remember this?"
I winced slightly. Yeah, I remembered her power-testing ball, the one I'd blown up during my initial tests. "Yes ma'am. Should I change back to my human form first?"
She looked at the ball in her hand, then gave me a considering look. "No, Morgana. I want you try empowering it in your dragon form this time."
I must have looked confused because she carried on. "Don't worry if it breaks again, I just want to see what happens this time."
Oh well, it was her ball I suppose. So I took it carefully from her, placing it on the palm of my hand as I remembered what I had to do. I reached for my essence carefully - it wasn't exactly painful to do, just that it felt a bit more of an effort than usual, like using a muscle you'd strained - and as I gathered it, slowly fed it into the ball. The last time I'd done this, it had burst in my hand.
The ball brightened as I fed in power, turning white with some red undertones, and I tried not to tense up, even though I wanted to. Instead, I just kept the flow of essence as steady as possible. It wasn't until the ball was glowing brightly enough to cast shadows I realised that this was completely different from before. I had got so used to the parasite corrupting the flow of my power in this form, I hadn't consciously spotted that it was quite different now. I stopping pushing in essence as the ball saturated, just sitting there with what was probably a very silly smile on my face at the fact I hadn't made it explode this time. Not exploding was good!
"That's very good, Morgana. Now just let the essence dissipate naturally."
I nodded absently to my teacher as I did as she said, the light slowly fading. I was still grinning like a fool, but right now I didn't care. I looked up at my teacher. "So does this mean...?"
Grimes actually smiled at me! "Yes, Morgana. Without the parasite, your magic is now under your control in your dragonform." She raised a hand in admonition. "But that doesn't mean you can just go on casting all the spells you've learnt. There are some differences in your essence flow and use in this form, and it will take you a while to get used to them. I want you to start practising the spells you already know, starting with the early and less dangerous ones, and making sure they all work correctly before progressing."
Oh damn, that was going to mean a lot of extra work, wasn't it. Still, the idea that I could now do magic a la Dragon stopped me caring about that, so I just nodded happily.
Grimes gave me another stern look. "And while I suspect you'll try and rush through all this, don't! You're still recovering, you need to make sure you don't strain yourself. You have plenty of time, after all."
"Uh... OK, ma'am, I'll be careful."
She gave a small sigh as if to say 'Yes, that's what you say NOW'. "I mean it, if you push yourself too hard you might have a relapse. And then it will take a lot longer for you to fully recover."
I gave her my serious look and nodded. "I'll try my best not to push things too fast, ma'am."
She gave me another thoughtful look. "There's something else I need to warn you about. Did you notice the colour of the ball after you activated it?"
I thought back for a moment. "Yes ma'am, it was reddish. But it was white when I did it before in my normal form, wasn't it?"
"Yes, Morgana. Now I have a good idea as to why, and it's not precisely dangerous, but I want you to be aware of the implications. Now as you know, you transform the raw essence you collect into your well into a more neutral form. That's what all human mages do, and it's what you've been using to cast spells with up till now. We call the normal essence neutral because it doesn't have a bias towards any source of magic in particular."
I nodded and waited for her to continue. I'd read up on this, not just the classwork, as I'd been interested in finding out just what I did and if it was different from everyone else - I knew my way of collecting essence was odd, after all.
"Now, when you cast in your dragonform, you seem to have access to at least some of the raw fire energy you convert. That's why the ball had a reddish tinge, it was the fire essence added to it. Being able to use or add fire essence is a skill that has both positive and negative aspects. It means casting fire-based spells will be easier, use less of your stored essence, and be more powerful. That's the good part. The negative aspect is it will make casting non-fire - and in particular spells of an aspect opposed to fire - more difficult and they will be weaker. Now, this isn't an issue unique to you, I've seen it many times before, with various types of essence source. What you need to do is to practice your spellcasting just using your stored essence. When you've mastered that, then we can work on adding fire essence only when you want to use it.
OK, that seemed fairly clear, but..."Just practice, ma'am? Or meditation exercises as well?"
She nodded approvingly. "Both, Morgana. I'll give you an additional meditation that should help. In the meantime, I want you to promise not to cast fire essence spells yet."
I must have looked confused, and probably a bit disappointed, as she held up her hand. "No, we're going to teach you that. But there is a dangerous part to this you need to be aware of. When you cast a fire spell using neutral essence, it's easy to control. Adding fire makes it more powerful, and also makes it harder to control and more likely to be hard to control properly."
Well, that was a nice way of saying 'you'll probably blow up the neighbourhood'. However, she hadn't finished as she held a finger up in admonition.
"Because there is one more aspect to your power that makes this more dangerous than usual. You are drawing essence from the Plane of Fire directly. That includes an amount of Elemental Fire itself - raw fire. Now fortunately your body and well seem able to handle this naturally, which is good. But adding Elemental Fire to a fire spell - well, it's like tossing a bucket of gasoline onto it. Not a good thing unless it's intentional and fully under control! So that's why I want you to hold back on its use for the moment. I would like to talk to Thulia first, if possible, to get a better understanding of how you interact with it. In any case, in the meantime, you have plenty to do with using your normal essence."
I sighed. It always seemed like I never got to use the fun stuff. But I could see her point, my power was dangerous, and not fully under my control right now. "I understand, ma'am. But once I have my well essence under control...?"
"When that's done, we'll look at using fire. You're a sensible girl, Morgana, I trust you not to be silly until we can set up safe conditions for you to experiment. After all, a small amount of raw elemental fire is probably what happened to that bunny!"
This time I did wince. OK, dangerous, learn the precautions. I still remembered that poor bunny, and I still wasn't sure if Tia had forgiven me yet.
Tuesday 18th October, late afternoon, sitting by the lake
I settled down on the bank next to my sister with a small sigh, which made her smile.
I nodded. "Just be glad they didn't decide to drag you into power testing while you were here. They redid most of what I was tested for when I arrived, and it wasn't any more fun this time."
"Aww, poor baby!" She patted me on the shoulder as I glowered at her. "So, did they discover anything interesting?"
"Not really. Well, nothing that wasn't expected, to be honest. My physical abilities are a bit lower, but they think that's just a temporary effect of me not drawing so much power until I'm fully recovered. So no big worry. The fun was when Grimes redid my magic testing."
She looked at me with a raised eyebrow. "Good and not so good. Apparently, without the demon, I don't overload and screw up when I'm using magic in my Dragonform. Which is really cool, I was getting annoyed with that. But as it changes how much essence I draw on and use in each spell, I have to repeat learning to handle all my spells again."
She nodded. "And what about the psychiatrist?"
I sorta evaded her look this time. "Doc Bellows? Well, he told me it was going to take me a while to process it all, even if it was a good outcome." I missed out the bit about his worry about the trauma caused by the actual events themselves, and in particular seeing a fighting a real demon. It would only worry her, and it wasn't as if she could do much about it. "He's pretty good at what he does, he helped me a lot when I got here, so it's just a matter of time."
"So did he say anything specific?"
I shrugged. "Not really. He said the best thing was to get back into work and a normal routine - well, normal for Whateley anyway - to stop me dwelling on it." I gave her a smile - she was still looking quite worried - and patted her hand. "I know it's not how I'm supposed to feel at school, but I actually missed classes as well as my friends."
That at least got me a laugh. "You're really getting into magic, aren't you? So when are you getting the fancy robes, the minions, and the dark ruined tower?"
I gave her the finger. "I have NO intention of any of that! Robes are drafty, I don't want any minions - my roomie has told me just what a pain in the ass they can be - and the only type of tower I'm interested in is a nice modern one with a modern apartment with a jacuzzi."
She gave me the sort of Big Sister look that as much as said 'Oh yes, that's what you say NOW!', but let it go at that. I was tempted to prod back by asking how her Mad Scientist Lab was getting along, but I didn't want to spoil our relaxing together just yet.
We gazed out at the lake for a bit. It wasn't a wonderful day, and being afternoon it was pretty deserted apart from a few ducks and so on spotted about the water. I had a feeling I knew what she wanted to talk about next, and wondered which of us was going to bring it up. So I decided to distract her by tossing a few stones into the water. She watched me, then pointed at the sign I'd been trying to land them near.
"Radiation trefoils? Surely your lake isn't radioactive - is it?"
I grinned and shook my head. "Pretty sure it's not, they let us swim in it! It is heated by the reactor, but it's a secondary loop. So perfectly safe really."
That just got me a snort of derision. "You realise that the definitions of safe around her aren't exactly normal, right?
I just spread my hands out in an innocent gesture. "Hey, it's built and maintained by gadgeteers and devisors! What could possibly go wrong?"
"You do remember I'm a gadgeteer, right?
I just gave her my best innocent look - I needed to keep practicing that - and pointed at the sign next to the trefoil. "Please do not feed the Kaiju"
"You're kidding, right??"
"Well, we haven't actually seen any since I've been here, but there are the signs."
"Yeah, right. Sure there are."
"It would be great if we had one, Kaiju are really cool."
"You want a giant monster rampaging around the lake?"
I just looked thoughtfully at the lake, not deigning to respond to such misunderstanding of a poor Kaiju.
While that had been distracting, it hadn't solved the bit I knew was coming. So I went ahead and started it off."
"Doc Bellows let out you skipped your mid-terms to come and visit me."
"Oh. Well, not exactly skipped, as this was family my Professor let me put them off, he'll give me an individual one when I get back."
"Dammit, Ceri, you're in your final year. Mid-terms are important, these are the last you'll get before your exams!"
She gave me her stubborn look. "Not as important as my little sister is."
OK, I had an idea now how I should handle it. But I gave her a big hug first, to show her I really did appreciate what she'd done.
"And I am grateful. When I saw you here - it helped a lot, I was in a pretty bad place. I've missed you, you know. But... you can't ignore your exams and course just for me, now the worst is over." She started to speak, but I held up my hand. "Look, the Doc said the best thing for me right now is to get back into routine and mundane stuff. While I'd love to have you around, I'd be far happier if I knew you were back getting ready for your exams. If you screwed them up for me I'd never forgive myself."
She dithered a bit, as I kept on pointing out she needed to get back and sort out her studies. I wasn't lying - while I'd have loved her to stay awhile, they weren't going to let me off classes just to spend time with my sister, but far more importantly I didn't want her wasting three years of effort when she was so close to the end.
"Look, I'll see you again in a few weeks - you did say you'd come over for parents day?"
"Yeah, I got that all arranged a while ago. But... OK, only if you promise to call or text every day to let me know how things are going?"
I nodded and gave her another hug. "I will! I promise, every day till you visit again."
She nodded and gave me a stern look. "And I will be checking with your doctors, so don't think you can lie about it!"
I gave her a wounded look. "Ceri, would I lie to my big sister?"
She snorted loudly. "Damn right you would if you thought you could get away with it!"
So we chatted a bit while Ceri sorted out flights on her phone. It looked like her best bet was to get to Boston tonight, and get the overnight flight to London. I had to keep pushing her a bit, but to be honest part of me did want her to stay, and getting her going was one way of avoiding backsliding for my benefit, not hers.
"OK, that's it all sorted." She made a face at the flight time. "I'll have to leave pretty soon, they told me they'd get one of the students to warp me to the airport - that's how they picked me up." She put her phone away and then surprised me by taking an envelope out of her pocket. "Since you're determined to get rid of me, there's something else I need to tell you before I leave. I was putting it off."
Well, that wasn't ominous at all, was it? But she didn't look worried so much as serious.
"She looked at me, then opened the envelope and showed me a cheque. Made out to her. For £250,000!
"Oh my god, Ceri, did you rob a bank or something!"
At least my astonished look and comment brought a smile. "I didn't, you did. Sort of. The money is yours."
I looked at it, stunned. Then looked at her. "MY money? How on earth is this mine? And it's made out to you!"
She nodded, looking serious. "It's the insurance money. For your, er, death."
"Insurance? But... OK, I guess I am officially dead, but since when was I ever insured?"
"AIM had insurance cover for all their employees. Granted, you were only going to be there for the summer, but you were still covered. So the insurance company has paid up." She grinned at the shocked expression on my face. "Well, they had to make it to me, they could hardly have made it out to you! You're dead, remember."
"You know that isn't really funny, Ceri?"
"Yeah, I know. I admit, I didn't want to accept it at first, I mean" - she stopped to poke me in the ribs, not that gently - "you're looking pretty good for a corpse! But I spoke to Uncle Tim about it, and he pointed out that it wasn't like we were taking money from someone, just an insurance company who'd been made to pay up for once. I did point out AEGIS knew you're not dead as well, but they seemed just as unconcerned, so I accepted it."
I was still rather stunned as I looked at the paper. That was an awful lot of money. Wow.
My sister cleared her throat. "However... we aren't just going to put it all in your account right now."
"You aren't? Then what...?"
"Morgana, you're a bright girl but you're still only 15, and that's a lot of money. So I had a long talk with Tim, and what we decided is that I'd put the money into an account for you. We aren't going to make you leave it all there - we know that you'll have things you need, for magic and stuff. So what I'm going to do is let you ask for some when you need it for something, but you will have to tell me what it's for. I'm not going to be mean about it, but it is a lot of money."
I thought about that as I turned the cheque over in my hands. While having all that to spend would be cool, I could understand the logic. Too many things to tempt me, this way I'd have to think it through first. Which wouldn't be bad, Ceri wasn't a mean person.
"Yeah, I understand. Uh... could I get some of it now, though? Say about $5,000? I've had to buy some stuff for magic, and it wiped me out for this month."
"I didn't realise magic courses were that bad. Don't they cover everything?"
I shrugged. "Yes and no. They cover all the basic classwork and stuff, but there are optional things, and I figured buying quality would be better in the long run even if it is more expensive."
She looked thoughtful, but fortunately not concerned. "I guess in a way it's like buying tech stuff. And I agree, it's cheaper, in the long run, to go for quality. OK, when I get back I'll do that and trust you to spend it wisely, but after that you need to ask me first."
I gave a stupidly big smile. "Thanks! But don't worry, I'll be careful with it, I promise."
"See that you are, or I'll set Aunt Rhee on you!"
"Oh god no, Ceri, anything but that! But...OK, if we do this I have a condition too."
"A condition?" She gave me a suspicious look. "What is it?"
"How much do you still have outstanding on your student loans?"
She gave me a puzzled look. "About £20k, I've paid off some already, why?"
"Because I'm only going to take this from you IF you take out enough to pay off those loans." She tried to speak, but I leant forward and put a finger across her lips. "No, Ceri, I mean this. You're my sister, and you've been wonderful to me, and here when I needed it. Now we've had this windfall, and I won't accept it until you agree."
"I - I don't know what to say. I mean, it's your insurance money..."
"Which I'd get none of without you as, well, I'm dead, remember? And honestly I don't need it all, and this way I know you'll graduate without any debts."
Ok, it still took a bit of arguing and persuading, but in the end, she agreed. Which was good, because I had meant every bit of it. I couldn't just take it all and spend it on me when she had big debts, it wouldn't have been right. It's not as if I'd had to work for the money, after all, all I'd had to do was die. Or at least turn into a girl. I'd never realised how profitable that could be.
Crystal Hall, Tuesday evening, dinner time
For the first time since I'd arrived at Whateley, I dithered over what food to pile on my plate. It wasn't that the food was substandard - it was as good as ever - but I just didn't feel that hungry, despite the appetising aroma coming from the various containers. The Doc had mentioned that my appetite might be off for a bit after all that had happened to me; while I didn't have the massive calorie cravings of a lot of energisers, how much I ate seemed to be connected to how much energy I was working with and using. As I was supposed to be taking things gently and doing as little as possible until I'd fully recovered, I guess this was my body telling me I didn't need to feed it as much. Which was a shame, I'd rather gotten used to being able to eat as much as I wanted to without worrying about the calories going straight to fat. Nevertheless, I took some generous portions, I figured could see how much I felt like consuming. It was a science experiment, honestly.
I could see the bulk of the M3 crew seated at our table as I approached. What with saying goodbye to Ceri and all, I was a bit later than usual, but the sight of them did raise my spirits - it wasn't just that I'd missed my friends, joining them felt like a sign of my life getting back to normal. Well, normal by my standards, anyway.
"Hey, DF! You're back!"
I smiled at Tanya as I started to sit down at an empty seat - then stopped suddenly as I took my first proper look at the group. There were a number of definite changes that hadn't been obvious before my involuntary absence. I took a slow look around, my eyes widening slightly as I noticed that the bust sizes of a number of the girls were noticeably larger. Quite a bit so in one or two cases. Given what my eyes were concentrating on, it was probably a good thing for my continued health I wasn't still a boy, as I got a number of looks. Depending on the person, a hint of amusement, annoyance, or, in Tanya's case, frustration. I did notice that she at least hadn't been affected by whatever the hell it was that was going on. Laura, though, wasn't looking around, but instead was looking down at her plate as if it was terribly fascinating, and not meeting anyone's gaze. She did sneak a peek at me without really lifting her head, and in that brief moment of eye contact, she appeared rather embarrassed or contrite - or maybe guilty? That seemed odd, as she was normally so sociable unless technologically distracted. Instead, she was looking down at her plate as if it was really interesting, and not meeting anyone's gaze. Ah well, since her body language showed she wasn't going to be talkative, I figured I'd ask her later.
So I sighed deeply, sitting carefully with my tray as I have a deep sigh and shook my head in mock sadness.
"I don't know, it looks like I can't leave you lot alone for a day, can I?"
That got me some snerks as well as some more annoyed looks as I started on my food. First things first, after all - I was sure that whatever it was I'd be told all the details, probably in more depth than I probably needed. So I just swallowed a large tasty mouthful of steak and smiled.
"It's good to be back with you crazies."
Wednesday 19th Oct, late evening, Morgana and Bianca's Room, Poe Cottage,
I gave a sigh of relief as I eased myself carefully into the chair. An action that wasn't missed by my companions, who were regarding me with the worrying intensity of a group of cats following a laser pointer.
"Ok, now we're all alone and warded, you're going to explain just what's been going on!" Yep, Bianca was definately upset at me.
"Bianca, I'm sorry, but I haven't had a chance to tell you, I'm not holding out on you, really I'm not!"
My roommate sniffed, but at least didn't appear ready to apply the thumbscrews yet. To be fair to her I'd been rather messing her about with my recent actions, she deserved as full an explanation as it was safe to give her. Laura and Erica of course were being more generally nosey, but I couldn't blame them either, it wasn't as if I didn't have the urge to know what was going on in our little group either.
Bianca settled herself in her own chair, this time giving me her 'you've been a bad, bad girl and now it's time to confess all' look. It would have been more intimidating if I hadn't known her so well by now. Erica gave me a measuring look as she sat on my bed. "OK, Morgana. You have a burnout, then you vanish for days, and you come back looking like five miles of bad road, obviously exhausted and with those weird marking on your skin - which, by the way, you did not have when they carted you off to Doyle on Saturday. Yes, I noticed. And you were off your appetite at dinner as well, which is really unlike you! So just what's been going on, this is more than just a burnout, isn't it?"
From the way Bianca and Laura were nodding, they agreed with her. I wondered if they'd agreed beforehand on Erica being the prime interrogator or not? Maybe not, I think they were just wanting to know what had happened.
"OK, fair enough. I do owe Bianca an explanation, she's had to put up with a lot of stuff from me the last few weeks, and I may as well tell you guys. But please don't spread it around, I don't want some of this to go public. At least not yet."
Well, that produced a small amount of consternation from Laura and Erica, but then they looked at each other, then both nodded to me. "OK, fair enough."
"Thanks, Laura. OK, it started a few weeks ago at the Lake party. No, wait, actually it started a lot earlier than that, when I manifested..."
So of course I first had to explain that the cult had infected me with a parasite, which seemed OK until Bianca went and insisted on details. When I told them it was actually due to a hellspawn demon, I got a collective gasp.
"Look, it's OK. Don't panic, let me finish explaining first."
Laura gave me a look. "Right. Then we can panic, yes?"
OK, I admit rolling my eyes at her. Which didn't reassure Bianca, who from the expression on her face was worrying about just what she'd been sharing a room with all these weeks. I could hardly blame her, I'd have been worried too, so I hurried on with my explanations.
"Anyway, you remember when Bianca and I vanished for a bit at the end of the Lake Party? Well, it was so I could talk to Thulia."
"Talk? You didn't summon her on your own, did you?"
"Of course I didn't, Erica! It was just to talk, she wasn't physically here or anything."
"Hey, is that why you were bouncing around the next morning?"
"Laura, I wasn't bouncing..."
"Next best thing to it, then! And singing in the showers..."
I did blush a little bit, but at least Laura's enthusiastic interjection had derailed Erica from worrying about summoning demons on campus. "Look, I was happy, alright? I hadn't heard from her since I got her, and well" - OK, I did blush a little deeper - "I missed her a lot, you know?"
That got me a pat on the knee from Laura, and a knowing wink, which made me blush even more. The other two girls just smiled. I gulped and carried on. It wasn't easy telling them how I felt about personal things like this, even if they were my friends and shared my changeling status. I didn't understand how real girls seemed to manage it so easily.
"Anyway, getting past Laura's prurient ideas, she sent me a scrying bowl so we could talk, in a way it's like a magic version of a smart-phone. Bianca's seen me using it, in fact, she's talked to Thulia herself!"
At least that got me a couple of minutes break while Laura and Erica turned on Bianca for explanations. Laura was almost bouncing up and down on the bed as she demanded details about what Thulia was like. Bianca shot me a quick 'this is only a temporary distraction, you realise!" look as she tried to describe Thulia and explain what had happened.
At least it gave me a short break from the interrogation. I needed it, I was in enough pain to consider taking one of the painkillers the Doc had prescribed, but I wanted to hold off until I was ready for bed. She'd explained that my energiser powers meant that while the pills would work normally on me, they wouldn't last as long as normal, so I wanted to use one to help me get to sleep.
"So anyway, we had to cut everything short when Mrs. Horton knocked on the door."
Laura gave Bianca a look. "What did she do? You didn't mention her punishing you?"
"Now come on, Laura, why do you assume she'd have punished us?" This time it was Laura to give a magnificent eye-roll. "Gee, I dunno. Because I suspect having private evening chats with demons is sorta frowned up by the school?"
"Ah, well, uh... I'd better carry on with the story, right?" That at least got me a co-ordinated set of nods from the assembled interrogation squad, so I buckled down to explaining again.
"Well, she did tell me off - after all, it was my doing, Bianca was just an innocent bystander - but after I told her everything, she didn't seem as concerned as I expected. In fact...." I looked into space for a moment, lost in thought until a highly meaningful cough from Erica brought me back. "Oh, sorry. It's just... from some of the things she said, I got the impression that I wasn't the first to get caught doing this, you know?" I looked over at Bianca, who was looking thoughtful herself.
"Yes, I think Morgana's right. Mrs. Horton seemed to think that while we shouldn't have done it, Morgana had taken all the precautions she should have, and yes, I agree, it was as if this wasn't the first time. However" - she gave me a stern look - "that's just distracting us from your story!"
"OK, OK! Well, she made me promise to use it sparingly and be sure to take proper precautions, but she didn't forbid me to use it. Anyway, nothing else really went on before that burnout on Saturday, except for more tests that didn't find anything useful." I turned to Laura. "Laura, it really wasn't anything to do with your devise, truly. It was actually due to something a lot more serious. Remember that parasite I was infected with? Well, it had grown enough to start interfering with my powers enough that I had a sort of burnout."
That got me a gasp from Erica, who I suspected had a bit more experience with unfortunate manifestation effects than she'd let on, but I hurried on with my explanation. Not the complete one, while I trusted my friends, there were some things I didn't want out in the open even by accident, and Grimes had warned me about revealing some stuff.
"So anyway, when they examined me, they found something, but couldn't identify it as the parasite. We had to contact Thulia and let her scan me to compare with the ones she took of me when we first met. That identified it." I had to pause for a moment and collect myself, even thinking about what had been inside me made my stomach churn. "Anyway, Thulia worked out a way to get rid of it. It was a bit rough" - that got me another severe look for Bianca, who had got used to my understatements a while ago - "and that's how I got injured. That was pretty bad too, but Thulia pretty much healed me, I should be fine in a few weeks."
"So no more hellspawn?"
I shook my head to Bianca's question. "No, it's dead, gone, deceased, pining for the fjords. I'm completely clean of it." Bianca gave me a long look, then nodded in acceptance. I was glad, I really didn't want her worrying about being eaten in her sleep by a demon, she had enough of her own issues to cope with. "Truly Bianca, you can check with Grimes, she's happy I'm all clean now."
"You aren't going to give us more details, are you?"
"I'm sorry, Erica, but Grimes asked me to keep quiet about some of it. It's sensitive in a number of ways."
"So what happens now? Are you going to be allowed to contact Thulia again?"
I turned to Bianca. "Well, yes I am. But...OK, this is something I need to keep secret, at least for a while." I tried to find a way to explain without going into the sort of details Grimes had told me to keep quiet about, which wasn't that easy when I had three girls looking like they were waiting for the big reveal in a detective movie.
"Getting rid of the parasite was something that had to be done quickly before it killed me. The magic department couldn't devise a method quickly enough, so Thulia had to do it. She can't do things like that without payment in return, you see."
Well, that got Bianca straight upright like she'd had an espresso enema. "What...what did you pay her?!" Wow, someone's been reading too many bad magic novels. She looked like she was about to grab me and shake an answer out of me. To be fair, I'd probably have done the same in her position. So I held up my hands to forestall her wrath.
"I didn't have to pay anything. The department made a deal with her. She wanted - well, she wanted to be allowed to visit me at Whateley."
"And they AGREED? To let a demoness visit Whateley!?"
Why thank you Erica for that restrained and measured reaction.
"Only with safety conditions, Erica. They know what they are doing. And" - here I gave my German friend a glare - "she is NOT a demoness. That's just a cheap term used by people who don't know what they are talking about."
"You're sure, Morgana?" I turned to Bianca and nodded. "Oh yes. I've seen a real demon" - and even that simple statement nearly made me throw up at the memory, something that I think the others saw on my face - "and Thulia isn't a demoness. I'll admit she's not human, but she'd not evil, or Grimes wouldn't let her visit even with precautions.
We finally got rid of Erica and Laura - Erica had to get back to her cottage before curfew, and I'd pleaded tiredness - not really faked - to persuade Laura to leave with her. Before they left, Erica had wormed a promise out of me to tell the rest of the gang at least a minimal, sanitised account of what had been going on - she was worried about Cally at the minimum. I had no idea how to do that particular task yet, but I'd worry about it in the morning. I looked over at Bianca as I sat down on my bed with a heartfelt sigh. While she wasn't overtly showing emotion, I knew her well enough by now that I could see that she wasn't happy, and I sort of understood why.
"Bianca... look, I know it's a lot to take in, what's been going on with me. And some of it must make you nervous, right?" She nodded, still looking unhappy. "Well. I can understand that, I'd be worried too. Which is why Mrs. Horton said that you could go talk to her about it at any time, so you could get reassurance from someone else."
"Hmm. Would you mind if I did? It's not that I doubt what you've been saying, but..."
"Don't be silly, Bianca, of course I don't mind! You're my friend, I don't want you worrying that there may be a demon still around. Go and talk to her now, then you won't be worrying about it all night."
She gave me a long look, then stood up and nodded. "OK, it will reassure me if she confirms everything."
So I waited while she left, then got my toiletries together and headed for the bathroom. I felt like I should have been creaking as I walked; the Doc hadn't been lying when she said I had to take it easy, I could feel the headache building up behind my temples and bed - and a sleeping pill - were my next, and only, aims for the rest of the day. For the first time since I'd arrived at Whateley, I wasn't going to do my exercises, which left me feeling a bit guilty, but it looked like even an exemplar body had limits after what I'd been through.
Bianca slipped in quietly to her room. Talking with Mrs. Horton had taken longer than she'd expected, the woman taking her time to reassure her about what had been going on and how there wasn't anything left to worry about. She did wonder about how the demon had been got rid of - Morgana had been pretty evasive on that point, and Mrs. Horton had not answered the question either. She smiled slightly as she saw her roommate sleeping already, but considering how wiped Morgana had looked, she was quite surprised she'd stayed up this long. Sitting quietly, she got her phone out and started on a couple of text messages - one to Erica, one to Laura. She'd promised the girls to send them one before she went to bed.
<Talked with Mrs. Horton. She confirmed everything, the demon is gone and Morgana isn't ridden by one anymore. So it looks like there's nothing to worry about. We'll see you at breakfast>
She gave a final look at her gently snoring friend as she slipped into bed herself. For all of Morgana's reassurances, she worried about how she'd handle yet another load of mental issues.
Wednesday 19th October, early morning, Poe Frosh Girls bathroom
While it wasn't unusual for me not to be at my best in the morning - not that Bianca was any better, mind - this was the first time she'd had to shake me awake.
"Time to get up, Morgana. You don't want to miss breakfast, do you?"
OK, that was an additional incentive as I rubbed my eyes and managed to not quite fall out of bed. Bianca eyes me critically. "You OK?"
I nodded as I pulled off the t-shirt I slept in and tossed it into the dirty clothing bin. "Yeah. I took a sleeping pill, and it seems to have worked pretty well."
Bianca looked like she was about to say something, then paused and gave me an odd look. "What's that on your back."
So of course my instinctive reaction was to try and look at my back, with the predictable consequences of complete failure. Then I realised what she must have seen. "Oh, you mean the tattoo? Didn't I tell you about that?"
That got me a glower and a "No, you didn't!" from my roomie. So as I started to get my shower gear together, I gave her a quick (and partial) update. Which got her looking oddly at me again.
"So it's just a way of sort of tying you to Thulia? It doesn't let her control you or anything?"
"Yeah, pretty much. Grimes did take a look and said there was nothing to control me there. Hey, take a look yourself, its not just a picture, it's spellwork, so you should be able to read it."
She nodded and got me to hold still while she peered closely at my shoulderblade. "Um."
OK, that was a helpful and meaningful comment. "Something the matter Bianca?"
She pulled away and made a sorta-yes sorta-no gesture. "I can read the spell, but I can't understand it, it's terribly complex. It's like some of that maths I tried to read, if I don't understand the concepts just being able to put it into words doesn't help much."
"Oh. Well, I suppose if it was an issue Caitlin or Grimes would have said something, right?"
She thought about that for a moment, then gave me a rather dubious nod. Well, given how much Bianca didn't like trusting something she couldn't verify, I guess that was as good as I was going to get. So I slipped my robe on and grabbed my shower kit.
I was feeling more tired than usual as I headed for the showers. I hadn't been quite honest with Bianca; I'd woken up in the middle of the night with my heart hammering and the sense that something had been chasing after me. Well, Doc Bellows had told me I could expect that sort of thing until my brain had processed all I'd been through, and anyway, anything trying to chase me would have had to get through all the wards on our room. For all that I teased her about them, I had a lot of faith in Bianca's protective wards. So I'd taken a second sleeping pill and managed to get back to sleep. Still, it had left me feeling less than bouncy this morning.
I gave Bianca a sideways glance as she accompanied me - usually, she was even less awake than I was at this time, but she was visbly alert and keeping an eye on me.
"Bianca, it's not that I don't appreciate you keeping an eye on me, but I'm perfectly OK now, really!"
She just gave me a very old-fashioned look, nodded, and kept her eye on me. Oh well.
I nodded and waved to most of the girls busy getting themselves ready for another day and tried to pretend everything was normal as I waited for a shower. Well, OK, I suspected that it was a futile act, but a girl can hope.
"Morgana!" I managed to avoid getting knocked back by Chessa's enthusiastic hug of greeting, managing to smile back at the rather overenthusiastic welcome from Poe's other dragongirl.
"Hey, Chessa!" I was about to add something banal along the lines of 'it's good to be back', but instead she finally focussed on my face, staring at me in shock. "Your face! What happened to you?"
Well, I'd suspected I'd have to explain at some point, it wasn't like I could hide the black tracery under my skin. So I waited until the other girls were looking at us, and held my hand up. "The marks? It's OK, they are just a holdover from the after-effects of my burnout. They'll be all gone in a week or two" - I hoped! - "so nothing to worry about. It could have gone a lot worse."
I held my arms out, my robe sliding up to show I had them all over, not just my face. Chessa still seemed a bit shocked, so I patted her gently on the shoulder. "Truly, it's all OK now. I know they're unsightly, but they will soon fade."
I did still get a few worried looks - I wondered if my earlier set of back scars had made more of an impression than I'd realised at the time - but in general, I got nods and a few expressions of sympathy.
So there I was, waiting for Zapper to finish so I could get showered when Nina walked in. Not exactly surprising, but the girl accompanying her was. What was Noelle doing here, wasn't she still in Hawthorne?
"Hey, Noelle! I didn't expect to see you here?"
Noelle stopped dead, blinked, and then I got my second big hug of the morning as she almost bounced across the room and wrapped her arms around me.
"Morgana! Oh Merci, bon Dieu! C'est Magnifique!”
So she was still lapsing into French unexpectedly. For once I was glad of my hated French lessons.
“I've been transferred to Poe now my powers are more under control, isn't it great?" Then she stopped suddenly, the happy smile on her face fading as she focussed on the scars under my skin."What happened to your face!"
I blushed. "Oh... they're nothing, really they aren't!" From the look on her face, she wasn't believing that for a moment, so I reluctantly carried on. "It's the remains of the after-effects from my burnout. Nothing serious, they will fade away in a couple of weeks, the real damage was healed." Well, OK, that wasn't exactly all the truth, but on the other hand, I hadn't actually lied. It sort of reassured her, at least she let go of me.
"I've been here since Sunday, they finally let me out of Hawthorne!" She let go and gave a small twirl of happiness. "It's great, but I was worried about you. No-one seemed to know what was going on except that you were in Doyle." She gave my scars another look. "I guess I can see why now."
"Well, I did have a few issues, but it's all sorted out now." I didn't want to go into any more detail - not only where there were far too many eager and inquisitive ears around, but there was a lot of stuff I still wasn't happy even remembering, let alone thinking about. So I made my escape into the vacant shower. "Gotta shower, catch you when I'm clean!"
Noelle looked thoughtfully at the cubicle door, then sideways at Bianca, who'd been standing watching the hug-attacks on her roomie with some amusement. " Est-ce qu'elle est-er-is she really all right now? I mean, she has scars, I've never found that to be good."
Bianca pursed her lips thoughtfully, then finally nodded. "Yes, I think she'll be fine. She did have some damage after her burnout and stuff, but she basically got it all healed, the marks are just a little bit left over from that. It's supposed to heal in a week or two."
Noelle nodded. "I hope she'll be OK. Some of my friends in Hawthorne - well, they've had incidents, and some of them were pretty bad"
Bianca patted her on the shoulder. "Don't worry, Morgana is pretty tough. Now you must excuse me, I need to take a shower before heading off to breakfast."
Noelle looked around again. Glee had vanished into one of the free showers, and she only knew the other girls well enough to say hi. And there was, well, rather more exposed and rather shapely female flesh visible than she was happy about, at least in public where everyone could see her. Tu vas encore les regarder? Tu vas pas arreter? Tu vas jamais changer, tu n'est qu'un pervert! Tu vas finir come une putain! Trying to pay no mind to the voice in her head, she put her toiletry bag by one of the sinks and started to do her face and teeth as she thought things through.
I had to force myself out of the shower - the hot water was relaxing me for what seemed the first time since I found out about my demon, but if I stayed not only would I get yelled at for hogging the hot water, I'd be late for breakfast. My appetite still wasn't what it was, but I was still fairly hungry. Pancakes would be good.
The room was emptying when I got out, not surprising as Bianca and I were usually two of the later girls - neither of us had any truck with the masochistic nutters who got up early for things like runs and showers. So I walked over to my usual spot under the vent, noticing Noelle was only just finishing at the sink. I did wonder in passing if it was just a new routine for her, not having her own bathroom anymore, or maybe the sight of all the girls had been interesting for her. She was in Poe, after all.
Noelle blushed as she watched Morgana slink out of the shower, not bothering to put her robe back on. She wondered why, but then got distracted by the sight of a slender, athletic body wearing nothing but some water droplets. Oh my... Then she gasped out loud as Morgana slid her hands into her hair, fire blossoming around her fingers and through the wet strands as the burst of steam was sucked up into the overhead vent. “Oh merde! Calise de tabarnacle!”.
I'd got so used to drying my hair, and that the girls sharing the showers had got used to it -or at least didn't do more than sigh in resignation when I did it - that I'd forgotten Noelle, and that she'd never seen it before. I only remembered when I heard something that sounded remarkably like a curse in French. The fact it wasn't words that had been covered in my classes reinforced that supposition. So I turned to face her as the steam faded and I dropped my hands.
"Oh dear, I'm sorry, Noelle, that must have been a bit of a surprise."
Noelle just stared at my hair, her eyes wide. " Une surprise? A surprise! Do you always dry your hair like that?"
"Uh... well, usually, as long as it's somewhere safe. It's so much faster than using a towel."
Noelle was still giving me big Bambi eyes as she muttered under her breath. "Faster. Safely. Wow."
I didn't think she was going to stop staring at me any time soon, and it was embarrassing, the way the few girls left were watching us both with a great deal of amusement, so I took her shoulder and gently turned her to face the showers. "Now, get your shower done, and we can walk over to breakfast together, right?"
She just nodded and slipped into a stall, still silent. I was a little surprised to see her arm slide out and hang the robe on the hook, but showering en mass must be a bit of shock, I could see why she'd be shy for a while. Grabbing my own robe, I headed back to my room to get ready for the day. After my recent experiences, I was actually looking forward to a normal school day.
Wednesday 19th October, Magic Theory Class 10 am
I played nervously with my pen as I worried about what Grimes wanted to talk to us all for. She'd texted Bianca, AJ, Noelle, and myself earlier, telling to arrive early if we could as she needed a short talk with us. I hoped that she wasn't going to tell me that Noelle was replacing me in our group. Not that I didn't like Noelle, but I'd got used to my friends, and we could have got a lot worse guy than AJ to partner us. And if I was put aside, who'd give Smokey his treats? AJ just didn't treat the poor little guy right. I could see a worried expression on Noelle's face as well, and I hoped Grimes had a good solution for all of us. After recent events, I could really do without more upheavals in my life at Whateley.
Grimes gestured us all to get closer - well, 'accidentally' overhearing discussions was a well-loved spectator sport at Whateley - and looked us all over. As usual, her face didn't give much away.
"Now I wanted to have a word with you before class starts." She gave Noelle and myself looks, which didn't help the unhappy feeling in my stomach one bit, before continuing.
"Morgana, as you've probably been told by your friends, we put Noelle in your group while you were absent so she wouldn't be on her own now she's joined the classes in person. Now you're back, we need to make some more permanent arrangements. We prefer groups of three students as our ideal, but obviously, the class doesn't always divide evenly. This term we had 18, which fitted well. Now with 19, we have two options. We can divide the four of you into two groups of two, or we can expand you to one of four. Both solutions work from my point of view, so I'm asking you to think about what you feel would work best for you all."
I took a quick look at my friends. Bianca was looking worried - not a surprise, I know her issues about security and stuff would make the idea of changing our group make her nervous. AJ seemed the least concerned, although Smokey was giving me the cute dragon eyes stare of a pitifully starved and neglected dragon - yeah, he knew where most of his treats came from. Noelle just looked nervous. I could sort of understand why, she was the newcomer, and causing our group to split up wasn't the best way of settling in, especially when she shared a cottage with two of us. Since no-one else looked like starting a conversation, I ended up biting the bullet.
"Ma'am, personally I'd like to stay with my friends - we've got used to each other. I'd be happy for Noelle to join us and give her any help she needs to catch up."
Noelle looked a lot happier at that, and both AJ and Bianca nodded, which was a good sign. Grimes gave each of us a look, then nodded. "That is my preferred solution as well. Noelle will need some help in catching up with the practical parts of the course, and if the three of you are willing to help, that will be easier than just having one person. As Morgana already knows, Noelle has been working on the theory parts of the classes while in Hawthorne, but she hasn't much practical experience. Now I will have to arrange a change in your workroom." We must all have looked puzzled at that, so she carried on with her explanation. "The one you're using is set up for three people. We have a couple of larger ones for when we have groups of four, so you have the circles and settings set up appropriately. Make sure you have a blood kit with you this afternoon, and we'll reassign you a new room after class, and you can bring your stuff over from your old one. Any other questions?"
We gave a sort of mutual query look at each other, followed by a few shrugs at Grime's enquiring look. "Very well, then go and get seated for the lesson."
A process which was interrupted by Noelle giving a small *squee* and giving all of us a hug.
"Merci beaucouup!! I didn't want to displace you, Morgana, that would have been awful, but I'm glad I get to stay with people I know!"
Yeah, I could understand that. Especially after coming out of Hawthorne, she'd got used to interacting with a relatively small group of people, the fewer changes for her the better I suspected.
"Now today we are going to look into the brewing of potions. We will be learning the practical method of how to do this in the afternoon, but for the moment I am going to concentrate on the ingredients." She looked around the room, as most of us tried to look busy writing down notes and obviously way too occupied in good scholastic tasks to be asked to answer one of her questions.
"First, we must consider the basic types of potions." She looked around again. "Glyph. Please define them."
Bianca sat up straight. There was just the hint of a smug smile on her lips - very small, but I knew her well enough to see it. And I knew how much time she'd spent working on her own potions, so this shouldn't be hard for her.
"There are two basic classes, ma'am. First, potions that are made from magical or imbued ingredients, which are magical in themselves. Second, those which are made by the mage adding their own or stored essence to the ingredients."
Grimes gave my friend an approving nod. "Very good. There is also a third group, hybrid potions which combine the two main classes. We won't be covering these for a while, as they require a good amount of detailed knowledge of what you are working with to combine effectively. While often the most powerful potions, they are also much more difficult to make properly."
Bianca still had that ghost of a smug smile, and I wondered just how many of that third type she'd already mastered? I knew she'd been spending quite a lot of time on making them, I should ask her for some pointers.
Grimes reached into the box on her desk and pulled out a number of containers.
"Now, as well as the effect of the potion, we can also control the exact form it takes. While commonly its assumed potions are just that - liquids to be drunk - in practice they can be made in a number of useful ways. A liquid, for drinking or painting on a surface. A gel or paste again, for example for rubbing into your skin. Or dried as a powder or in a solid stick form such as chalk for writing." As she described each one she held up a vial or container to show us.
As I watched her demonstrate, I wondered if maybe a potion could be used to make some of my clothes fireproof? It would be useful. I'd have to think about it now that it looked like I'd be able to do magic more normally, it could be easier than my original thoughts of attaching a spell slip of some sort to them. Next to me Noelle was busily copying Grime's words down in her notebook with a look of dedicated concentration on her face that looked really cute. What was amusing was the way she was keeping her notes in a mix of French and English, rather than in one or the other. At least she was paying attention; a little way away from us the Blank Mage - sorry, La Mage Blanche - was clearly doodling and not really listening. I had to wonder just why some of these kids were in the class, if they were going to take no notice. After all, some of the things we were taught weren't without risk. She was reminding me of some of the idiots I'd had to put up with in labs in my previous academic life. I hadn't got on with them either.
"To start with, however, we won't be working on actual potions or tinctures - items you actually drink or use on your skin. The reason, which I hope is obvious" - she looked at some of the blank expressions on the faces of some of her students and sighed - "is that you need to become practiced before you ingest your attempts. So we are going to start with inks, paints, and solids. These can be used to improve a number of the techniques you already know. Using an appropriate magical ink will increase the power, efficiency, duration, and other effects of your spell slips. Paints, and sometimes inks, can be used in the same way on longer-lasting items. You've been shown how inscribing the appropriate symbols on your wands can increase their efficiency, using paint in those symbols leads to even better results. Finally a solid form - either in the form of chalk or grease - can be used in a manner similar to the ink on a spell slip, but writing on a convenient surface."
"Now it should be obvious to you that potions have both a disadvantage and an advantage. The advantage is that they can be used quickly, with no additional preparation. This corresponding disadvantage is that they have to be prepared earlier and that you'd need to decide what effect you needed. Unlike common fantasy games" - she waited for the chuckles at her sarcastic remark to fade - "you can't just cart a truckload of these around with you. There is also the degradation to worry about - most potions reduce in effectiveness with time, more so than most magic due to their nature, and some of them are also affected by physical issues. This applies to whatever form the concoction is made in - for example, some liquids will evaporate in warm conditions. Now if you will all turn to page 196, we will go through the theory and logic of using an ink to increase the effect of a light spell. You'll be making this in the practical class, so remember to have your cauldron and other supplies in your labs."
"Morgana, can I ask you something?"
I finished putting my notes in my bag as I nodded to Noelle, who looked a bit nervous.
"Sure, what is it?"
She dithered for a moment, then burst out with her question. "Ces trois filles-er-Those three girls in that other group - I couldn't help seeing they kept casting dirty looks at us when they thought Grimes wasn't watching, and I'm sure they were saying things about us as well. Was I just imagining it?"
I scowled at the disappearing backs of the three pains-in-the-backside she'd noticed as they left the room.
"No, you weren't imagining it, mores the pity. Those three idiots have been on our backs since the start of term." I gave her a quick look. "They don't like GSD cases for a start. You're sitting with us, and everyone knows you were in Hawthorne. I think you may need to keep an eye out for them as well."
"Ça sonne comme du trouble. What have they done?"
I groaned as Bianca snickered beside me. "It's a long story, and I'd better leave it for later, we have to go get changed."
"Tell her about the exploding bunny, Morgana!"
I gave my grinning roommate my patented StareOfDeath(tm), which sadly just bounced off. "You aren't going to let me forget that, are you?" The expression on her face told me that no, she wasn't.
She looked at me with an expression of disbelief that faded into concern. "Non, mais c'est de la folie! You mean the exploding bunny was real! I thought it was juste une rumeur!
"Oh yeah, it was real all right..."
Wednesday 19th October, morning (local time), London.
It could have been any confidential meeting room for hire in Central London, the two men dressed in suits just using a certified safe room for a sensitive business meeting. The only thing unusual was a couple of crystal constructs sitting on the polished oak table - neither Olrun or Nephandus were inclined to fully trust commercial wards, even ones that came with a solid reputation for privacy.
"Well, Master Olrun, we have rescued the two mercenaries as arranged, and we have them safely stashed in a safe-house here."
Olrun nodded. "Good, and have you started to extract any useful information from them?"
Ah, thought Nephandus, straight to the point. He wondered if such impatience meant they could extract a bit more money from this client, it was obvious from the excitement his body language was giving away that the data was very important to him.
He bent down and extracted a thick envelope covered in runes and symbols from his briefcase. Personally, he'd have far preferred just to hand over an encrypted memory stick, smaller, easier, and much harder for an outsider to extract information from. But Olrun was one of the old-school mages, who inherently distrusted anything electronic and demanded everything on paper if possible. So while the information - as well as videos of the interrogations his people had been conducting - was in electronic form, he'd also had to print out enough to make a small novel. It offended his sense of efficiency.
Laying the envelope on the table between them, he sat back and eyed Olrun. "As you can see, there is a fair bit of information so far. Would you like a quick précis?"
Olrun picked up the package, weighing it for a moment in his hand, before nodding. "Yes, that would be a good idea. It will take a while to go through all this."
Nephandus took a moment to collect his thoughts. "Very well. As arranged, we performed the actual extraction a week ago. Everything went smoothly, and our team left no evidence except for a few carefully planted pieces of evidence that pointed at a rival group. From our monitoring of their communications, this misdirection was quite successful, and they seem likely to be in open conflict with each other very soon. Which means they are unlikely to spend any resources investigating our operation in any more depth, as we intended.
The men hadn't been treated well in captivity - hardly surprising, really - but there were no serious injuries. We've kept them in what they think is a hospital while we questioned them. Between the relief at being rescued, and the addition of some useful drugs to their normal medication, they have been quite open with everything they knew about the project."
He paused to take a careful sip of his tea, smiling inwardly at the barely-concealed eagerness on Olrun's face. Yes, a price increase was definitely in the offing.
"First, we confirmed all the things you already knew. They were quite open about it, and we didn't find any contradictions in all the basic layout and operations. The most interesting information came when we asked them about the results of the project itself."
Olrun raised his eyebrows at this. "They knew of the results? They were just low-end mercenaries, I would have thought Abraxus kept better security than that!"
Nephandus nodded. It was, after all, a very reasonable comment. "Yes and no. Abraxus does seem to have kept good operational security, but there were consequences of his experiment that were obvious - after all, these men were among the security forces guarding his base. So as a result of questioning them, and analysing their replies in view of what we know was going on, we have reached some rather interesting conclusions.
First, as you surmised, it was indeed an experiment to make a connection with an Elemental Plane in order to draw energy, specifically the Plane of Fire. There was a demoness involved, according to his descriptions of an entity who seems to be working with Abraxus. Whether what he saw was her true form or summoned one, or a seeming, we can't say. But we do have a good description - the demon appeared as an attractive young female, and being men the guards noticed - and we are looking into it to see if there are any matches with forms commonly used by known entities.
Second, the experiment seems to have been a success. But not in the way you originally thought."
Nephandus kept his amusement out of his expression as he watched the alarm, worry, and astonishment flit across the face of the man seated opposite. Olrun finally calmed himself, gesturing to Nephandus. "Please continue."
"You surmised that the attempt was to construct a device to channel and control the energy. In fact it was apparently an attempt to use a human to do that."
This time Olrun just looked blankly at the flat statement, before his face took on an outraged expression. "What!! What foolishness is this, that procedure has been tried far too many times with total failure on each occasion! Even Abraxus wouldn't..."
Nephandus waited for the man's spluttering to finish before he coughed politely. "If I may continue?"
Olrun got himself under enough control to nod abruptly, his face still distorted with a scowl.
"Thank you. While in principle we would agree with you as to the unlikely nature of the claims, we do have some good confirmatory evidence. These back up the inferences we made from comments the men overheard and instructions they were given. There were no signs of any special machinery or magical constructs being built or maintained at the base, and as part of the security setup we would have expected the men to at least have noticed something, even if they could not recognise or understand it. The only unusual part of the facility was a door leading to the demon's lair, which for obvious reasons they were forbidden to approach.
Now they do know that they were stealing magic and tech, either as part of the plan, or just to sell for more funds. One of the men was on a squad that did such a raid, and also came back with a prisoner. It seems they had been briefed to look for anyone who satisfied some sort of requirements - he has no idea what, just that the boy they kidnapped satisfied the criteria of their scanners."
Olrun blinked in confusion. "A boy? Kidnapped for a sacrifice? But why would they bother to scan people, when they could just grab some children off the streets with far less chance of alerting the authorities?"
Yes, thought Nephandus, and that sort of thinking is why I don't enjoy working for you. But a contract is a contract, and money is money.
"That is because they didn't kidnap him for use as a sacrifice, but as an experimental subject. Now exactly what happened during the experiment, we don't know. What we did find out was that the boy disappeared and that soon after that they were keeping what they assumed was another demoness captive. The guards had no idea what happened to the boy, so our working assumption is that he was used as a sacrifice, perhaps necessary to obtain the services of the new demon. Although there are some inconsistencies here we are still investigating."
"What did this new demoness look like? Did they overhear a name?"
Nephandus shook his head. "No name either of our men ever heard. They said that she looked similar to the original demon, which might be significant."
Olrun scowled. "So we are no further finding out who this second demon was, or what her purpose in the experiment signifies?"
"No, We did produce some drawings, based on what the men remembered. They may be enough to give us some clues, but of course, there is no certainty that the demon used a form that there are any records of."
Olrun thought about that for a minute or two while Nephandus waited patiently. "There are copies in the data you supplied?"
"Yes. You're welcome to try and associate it with a known entity. However, the interesting thing is what happened to the second demon after the first one left."
Olrun perked up a bit at the revelation of that little snippet of data. "Go on, please."
"After our initial data, we were assuming that the second demon was additional help, or perhaps involved with a new phase of the project. Soon after she appeared she was held captive in one of their cells, in quite an uncomfortable fashion, it seems. Judging by the reported conditions, and that the guards were allowed to amuse themselves by a certain amount of torture, my conclusion is that this was to put pressure on the demon, presumably to help somehow in the operation. However, there is other data that complicates this simple conclusion.
First, the original demon left about the time the second was locked up. We don't know if this was a temporary arrangement or a permanent one, but the portal to her plane was disconnected at that time. Unfortunately we have no idea what they were expecting from the second. My current assumption - and unfortunately it is only an assumption - is that she was needed for the next phase of the operation. Given that she was chained and tortured, it seems obvious she wasn't prepared to do whatever was needed of her own accord, but again we have no data as to why. While the demon was confined in a cell, there did not seem to be any of the usual bindings or restrictions used, which implies that the demon was bound in some other way. Of course, the guards may easily have missed something subtle, but it is an odd point. Also, they don't seem to have obtained another human to be their conduit, and we don't know if that was to come later, or if maybe the second demon was to have something to do with this. It's also possible this new demon was the actual conduit and was being persuaded to act for the Cult, but that's just conjecture, we have no clear evidence either way."
Olrun took a few minutes to run all that through his mind, finally looking up at Nephandus again. "So what led up to the destruction of the base?"
Nephandus tapped the thick packet on the desk. "The full details are here, but it seems that the base was infiltrated by a local hero, Manx. She was captured and locked up with the demoness. This may have been to minimise the security needs, but we aren't certain. The next day there was a general alarm, apparently both Manx and the demon had escaped. They chased them to the surface of the island, it seems the two were together at that point, but before they could be re-apprehended the base was raided by AEGIS forces. As you know, this resulted in the defeat of Abraxus and his sides and his security force, and the demolition of the base. Both the guards were rendered unconscious during this, so any subsequent data will need to be extracted from AEGIS."
Olrun has been looking increasingly concerned as Nephandus revealed the details. Finally, he pursed his lips.
"While this is useful, it doesn't help with what we really need to know, which is how the experiment was conducted and was it successful. I will take this and we will go through it thoroughly, but I expect the next step will be to investigate what AEGIS found out." He raised a hand before Nephandus could speak. "Yes, I know it will be expensive and dangerous, but I have a feeling that we are approaching an understanding of what happened. I don't wish to stop here."
Nephandus nodded. He didn't mention the obvious, that even with additional data from AEGIS it might not clear the problem up. But it wasn't his money. Well, not yet anyway. "Would you also like us to continue to try and identify the two demons involved? If we can, it might be practical to question them."
"By all means. I will get back you by Monday about the continuation of this investigation."
Nephandus stood up and collected his crystal. "Very well, let us know and we will arrange what you need to be done."
Wednesday 19th October, 3 pm, Magic Practical Class
We were a bit late starting our task, thanks to having to attune our new workroom and move the stuff over from our old storage closets. And get punctured again. Was I the only one who grumbled at having to bleed all over the lock? I knew Bianca didn't care, but AJ and Noelle seemed less worried that I was about it all. Grimes had warned us that we'd need to stay a bit late; apparently making potions and such couldn't be rushed. It reminded me of chemistry, but with an iron cauldron rather than sensible glassware.
By mutual agreement, while we were working in our separate areas we hadn't bothered with any privacy. According to the safety protocol sheet we'd been given for this, a light ink wasn't terribly dangerous or likely to give off toxic gases. It let us chat while we worked; unlike our normal spellwork, which required a lot of concentration. Making the stuff gave us periods to relax while, presumably, all sorts of complicated chemical and magic stuff went on inside the cauldron. Mine was certainly bubbling happily, but a glance at Bianca showed her completely unconcerned. Given her experience in this stuff, I assumed she knew what it was doing and relaxed.
Bianca gave me a curious look as I peered into my cauldron and tried to not breathe in any of the fumes. "You're staying in your dragon form? Is that because this is ink we're making?"
I thought about that for a second. While Bianca knew most of what had been going on with me, AJ and Noelle weren't aware of the gory details. But then, I'd be working with them in the lab for the rest of the year, and it was bound to come out soon. Might as well reveal it now then they wouldn't be upset I'd been keeping stuff from them. But I didn't have to reveal everything.
"Actually, since my burnout and the changes it caused I don't have those side-effects of my dragonform any longer. So I'm practising doing magic in it - Grimes told me it would take a while to smooth out any differences it causes."
Both Noelle and AJ looked at me. Noelle just looked a bit puzzled - then, of course, she hadn't been around for my earlier issues and decimation of the fluffy bunny population. AJ gave me a much more considering look, one which made me wonder what he was really thinking. His rather casual attitude towards work sometimes made you forget he'd had a pretty good training in magic basics from his mother, and just because he tended to coast on it didn't mean he was stupid. But after holding that look for a few moments, he just nodded.
I took another look inside my cauldron as I stirred it with the thermometer. It gave a slightly ominous *plop* and I wrinkled my nose at the smell. I stepped back a little before I checked the timer again. Another five minutes before adding the next ingredient. Given that we'd been supplied with the ingredients, we didn't have to do much magically until we had to add some essence into the final result. To be honest, so far potion making was turning out to be rather boring. I would have played some music on my earplugs, but it was more fun to chat with the others.
"I suppose it works, but why do we use cauldrons? This would be so much easier if we had modern labware."
Bianca looked at me and shrugged. "I assume it's traditional. Everything I've read uses a metal cauldron."
"It's not just because it's traditional." We all looked over at AJ. While he was usually pretty quiet while we worked, his early experience of training under his mother had given him some useful information that wasn't always in the books. "The cauldrons are usually cast iron. That affects the magic, and helps keep it contained inside - glassware wouldn't do that. And cast iron is a good material to use, it conducts the heat well and avoids hotspots that might affect the process."
Well, I suppose that made sense. It still seemed like an awfully primitive way of doing what was, if you excluded the use of essence, basic chemistry. I guess I'd been expecting the sort of special effects you saw in the movies - glowing liquids, belches of interestingly multi-coloured smoke, maybe the occasional small burst of lightning. Maybe next time...
I gave another quick look into my cauldron as I added my final ingredient, then consulted the prep notes to check it was the right colour. Now all I had to do was to push some essence in to activate it, wait for it to cool, and then decant it into some bottles. If it worked I had an idea to see if this sort of ink would help if I painted it into the symbols on my wand, and made a mental note to ask Bianca, I was pretty sure she'd know.
We turned to look at Noelle on hearing her worried-sounding exclamation. "What's the matter?"
Noelle looked at us with a rather embarrassed look on her face. "Does it count if my ink is a slushie instead?"
I just blinked. I really had no answer to that, but luckily Bianca rose magnificently to the occasion. "Don't worry, Noelle. There are certain applications where a thicker ink is needed..."
Wednesday 19th October, evening, Crystal Hall
"Penny, can I have a few words?"
Penny Dreadful turned from her food to see Gravedigger approaching the table, and managed to hide a sigh. Doing so obviously wouldn't be in keeping with her image, after all. It wasn't so much the stylishly Goth boy was annoying, but he did have this habit of getting fixated on something and then trying to involve people. For her part, she had little time or interest, but she wasn't in a position to escape him unless she wanted to leave her meal half-eaten. So she mentally prepared herself to be ready to tune it all out, whatever it was this time,
Despite the complete and utter indifference she put into her words, he took no notice and just slid down into an adjacent chair.
"I was hoping to ask you about one of the girls in your magic class. DragonsFyre."
Penny gave the boy a sideways look. She was slightly surprised at the request; Gravedigger had never seemed to show much interest in girls, if anything she'd thought he was somewhat effeminate.
"Just why are you interested in her?"
The boy tried to look as if the question was of no real importance, which only made her more suspicious as to his intentions. "I have been wondering about her appearance. Now from what I've been able to find out, she claims some sort of draconic heritage, but the only evidence of that seems to be her own statements."
Penny thought about that for a bit as she took another bite. What he'd said was actually true, but she wondered where he was going with it. It didn't seem now like he was sexually interested in the girl, which was the usual suspicion when a boy asked that sort of thing.
"OK, but what has that got to do with anything?"
"It did occur to me that she resembles a demoness in many respects. And she's in the magic class."
Penny snorted loudly. "Oh come on! A demoness, going to school here. Even if that were the case, they wouldn't need magic class."
Gravedigger nodded. "True, but then wouldn't it make a good place to hide? In plain sight, as it were? Or it could be simply that her appearance and powers are of demonic origin after all fire, magic, and strength are supposedly common demonic traits."
Penny looked doubtful. However, that last idea could be possible, DragonsFyre had always been very close-mouthed about her origin and manifestation. "Well, I guess it's possible..."
The boy nodded. "I'd be very interested in anything you can find out in that regard. Very interested indeed."
She looked at him, then held her hand out, wiggling her fingers. He sighed and pulled out his wallet. "How much?"
Wednesday 19th October, evening Crystal Hall
Mouse concealed herself behind the leg of an adjacent table as she took a look at the kids sitting around the M3 table. While she might get lucky and overhear the information she was after from any of them, her best chance was if Glyph or Dragonsfyre were there. Especially with Dragonsfyre just back from a stay in Doyle, it was likely they'd be talking about what she'd missed. She nodded to herself in satisfaction as she saw that they were both present - she was mainly after information about Glyph, but Dragonsfyre and Eisenmadel were also of interest to her group. She took a quick look around - at her current, smallest size she wasn't terribly worryied about being noticed, but she was worried about being stepped on by kids who weren't looking where they were walking. Satisfied the coast was clear, she looked back at the M3 table, poised to run as soon as an opportunity presented itself.
Shortly she saw that both her targets were engaged - Glyph with talking to the teams bunny-girl, Dragonsfyre waving a fork full of meat in the general direction of Invictus, obviously in the middle of explaining something. The rest seemed busy either eating or looking at their phones A last glance at her surroundings, and she was running at her fastest across the open space between the tables, until she was pressed against the back of one of the M3 table's legs, hidden under it. She took a minute to catch her breath and get ready for the next part of her job.
A fair bit of experimentation - and quite a few insect drones either burnt out, hit by a book or otherwise simply dead - had shown that whatever spell Glyph was using to protect herself, it worked well against their electronic spies. They had considered using magic of their own, but dissipating the protective spells might have been noticed, and defeated the purpose. However, nothing was stopping a small spy from hiding close and writing down what she'd heard in shorthand.
"I still say it was a shame they disposed of the chocolate as a biohazard."
"I can't believe how nonchalant Mrs. Horton is about the idea of summoning demons. I know she's pretty laid back and all, but still..."
Mouse stopped transcribing for a moment in shock. Demons? What did demons have to do with these kids? She shook herself and carried on writing rapidly, eyes wide as she realised the implication of some of the stuff that was being said.
Wednesday 19th October, late evening, Spy Kids Lair
Perfume looked around at the assembled group with a much more serious look than was her norm.
"Well, I went through the latest data Mouse collected for us. And I'm afraid it looks like Glyph's actions are getting a lot more serious than we originally thought."
Most of the group paid some attention as she went through the sadly limited data Mouse had collected, a number of quiet exclamations showing that for once this wasn't just a routine surveillance report. The only one not looking worried was Cyber Swarm, who didn't even look up from the miniaturised beetle he was playing with. Perfume tried not to give her usual sigh, by now it was obvious that he was only here in person, not in interest, and just carried on, ignoring him as she finished by summarising what the girl had found out.
"While the data is incomplete - they stopped talking about it, and while Mouse waited till they left, they didn't discuss it again - it looks very much like DragonsFyre's absence for the last few days was due to some sort of an interaction with a demon."
She paused to let the surprise run around the assembled group. While no-one here had had any interactions with them - likely a fortunate thing - demons were one of the things they'd all heard about. So the idea that Glyph or her minion - or both of them - were using or associating with them was deeply worrying - all she knew about demons was that they were really scary entities. Just the sort of thing a crime boss would use, in fact.
She gave a noticeable cough to get their attention again before proceeding. "Normally we'd have left this until we could have gathered more data, but given the possible seriousness of what's been going on, I thought it best to bring it up at today's meeting."
Mr. Blank half raised his hand, and she nodded to him to continue as he turned to look at Mouse, who was, as usual, trying to look inconspicuous.
"I realise we haven't too much data to go on, but was there anything in the tone of voice, the way they spoke, to indicate more about what they were up to?"
Mouse bit her lip, then nodded. "I got the feeling that the rest of the group was hearing about this for the first time, or at least most of them were. Glyph and Eisenmadel did seem not to be surprised, so they could have known already. That would tie in with Glyph being responsible in some way."
The boy nodded thoughtfully. "So we don't know yet if this was instigated by Glyph - perhaps using her minion as a cutout in case something went wrong, or something DragonsFyre did on her own, either for her own reasons or to curry favour with Glyph?"
Mouse shook her head. "I'm sorry, there just wasn't enough conversation for me to find that out."
Perfume smiled approvingly at Mouse, While the girl was still shy, she was starting to believe in her own abilities more, and importantly was able to say when she didn't know. That was vital to their information gathering. She tapped lightly on the table to get everyones attention again.
"While, of course, we cannot stop all other work, I feel that the possible implications are such that we need to make this an urgent priority for the moment. Mouse, I'd like you to keep on with your surveillance, if we're lucky we'll hear more, though it's likely they will keep quiet from now on. Cyber-Swarm" - she poked their leader, who started slightly and then looked up - "I understand that you've had issues with your drones and DragonsFyre, but for the next few days can you concentrate on her? I think we'll have better luck with her than Glyph, she's more careless with anti-surveillance methods."
He looked upset at being disturbed - she wondered again why he still bothered to come to these meetings sometimes - but finally nodded. "Hmm, I do have a couple of new ideas I'd like to try out, she'll make a good test subject."
Perfume looked over at Mouse, who had a hand raised and a worried expression on her face. "Yes, Mouse?"
"Well, I know this might seem silly, but DragonsFyre - well, she looks rather like a demon, doesn't she? You don't think she might actually be one?"
Miss Violet snorted slightly at this, but the boy next to her looked more thoughtful. "I don't think it's likely myself, I don't see how even Glyph could have slipped a real demon into Whateley, but it's a possibility that should be eliminated. I would suggest that Violet and I take the opportunity to speak to her and some of her friends over the next few days. We're both British, so it will pretty simple to find an excuse to chat, and I think we should be able to tell if she's human or not. I don't think a demon could hide itself that well, it wouldn't have all the background knowledge we do."
Perfume thought about that for a moment, then nodded. "I think that's a good idea, Mr. Blank. I agree I think it's unlikely, but eliminating possibilities is all part of the process. I will speak to Elsa Daley later and see what insight a mage can give us. Just getting the basics should cost us too much, and we can meet again in a few days and see how we are getting along."
Thursday 20th October, mid-morning (local time), London
Nephandus frowned as he sat down in his office. Something had been bothering him overnight - nothing he could put a finger on, but it kept nagging, something that he'd spotted that he hadn't recognised at the time. It was something about Olrun's contract, at least that was what he thought. He shook his head - from experience, it would either come to him or not and trying to force it was unlikely to be productive. Shrugging philosophically he pulled open his computer and started to work his way through the morning emails.
The errant thought didn't return to him until an hour later. His secretary had just brought in his morning coffee, and as he took a sip he noticed the screensaver on his computer, a lovely tropical scene rather far from the grey dampness of London in October. Without any conscious effort, his mind slid through a series of associations. Tropical scene. Tropical Island. Karedonia. Princess Jobe...
He spilled some of his coffee as he jerked up straight in his chair. THAT was the missing element that made complete sense of the prisoner's information, which until now had elements that just wouldn't fit together into a logical picture. Of course, while none of the information needed to fit it all together was exactly secret, it wasn't well known. Unless you'd had it rubbed in your face while going to school with Jobe.
He went through all the pieces of information he'd collected in his head. Until now, the supposition had been that the second demon had been exactly that, possibly an associate of the original one due to their apparent similarity of appearance. But the apparent lack of anti-demon precautions didn't make sense; from the data he had access to Abraxus had run an efficient operation and experiment, and allowing a powerful demon - and from what Abraxus had planned, it would have been a powerful one - to be in the base without full precautions would have been suicidally stupid. One thing Nephandus did know well was the ways of trapping and using a demon, and all of them involved limiting and restricting the demon so they were firmly under your control. But if the second demon was no demon at all, the conflicting data made far more sense. All you had to assume that the second girl was the initial test subject, turned into a female who looked like a demon. A conclusion that wouldn't be immediately apparent to someone without his personal experiences. It would explain all of the contradictory details in the story; the disappearance of the kidnapped boy, the lack of anti-demon precautions, and the 'persuasion' of the girl. Presumably, to make her agree to work for Abraxus - assuming that the 'girl' had been the kidnapped boy, it was probably that he would have needed coercion. Even more interesting, it implied that the experiment had indeed been successful, given the release of the first demon. Quite how a human had survived being turned into a conduit was unknown, but he wondered if the boy had been a mutant. Many mutant traits allowed things that were unexplainable by modern science or magic. Of course, the details were unknown, but then he wasn't being paid to replicate the experiment.
Nephandus took another sip of his drink as he considered the possible ramifications of his new insight. Give the Cult the information for free, to encourage more work from them? Present it as something he'd come across that would need an additional payment for his (non-existent) informer? Both approaches had benefits. There was also the issue of what had happened to the girl. Obviously either AEGIS or HERMES - or both - knew, but how tightly was that information held? Settling back in his chair, he started to make notes and calculations on his computer as he prepared to work out what alternatives had the maximum profit potential.
To Be Continued