Where there's Smoke there's Fire (Part 2)
A Second Generation Whateley Academy Story
Where there's Smoke There's Fire
Thursday 20th October, early, Spy Kids clubroom
Mouse gave Perfume and Cyber Swarm a questioning look as she walked into the Spy Kid's room. Cyber Swarm was fiddling with a piece of tech, but while that was completely normal for him, it wasn't one of his beloved insect creations. It looked like a metal strap of some sort. She gave it a mildly curious look as she sat down in response to Perfume's welcoming gesture.
Perfume smiled at her. "Well, Mouse, I'm glad you could make it. We're going to get some more data to back up and clarify what you got the other day, and then hopefully we'll have enough to make some proper plans."
Mouse nodded firmly. "I'm ready to help, what is it we're going to do?"
The girl nodded. "It's mainly you rather than us, I'm afraid. We have a new type of bug we need to put on Dragonsfyre. Since she is around Glyph a lot but doesn't bother nearly as much with security precautions, we've decided that she's our best line of attack. This way we should hopefully hear more about this demon business as well as what Glyph is up to."
Mouse looked worried. "How am I going to plant a bug on her? I mean, I can get it into or onto her clothes fairly easily, I guess, but that would only last till she changes them."
Perfume smiled. "An excellent question and you're quite right. However, we're going to get you to plant something she doesn't change." Mouse just looked puzzled, and perfume gave Swarm a look. "Is that done yet?"
The boy looked up, obviously oblivious to the conversation so far. "Ready? Oh yes, it's all done. Is Mouse going to put it in place?"
Mouse looked at him, then at Perfume, and rolled her eyes. Why did he think she was here so early anyway? "OK, just what is it? And how is all this supposed to work?"
Cyber Swarm placed the metal strap on the table in front of them, giving it the fondly proprietary pat of a loving parent. "This is a special I've made. Of course, unlike my insects, it's not versatile, but it will do the job."
From the expression on her face, his explanation was quite obviously anything but clear, so Perfume showed mercy and carried on with the briefing before Cyber Swarm could start on the long - and irrelevant to the two girls - technical briefing he was blatantly gearing up for. "It's a watch strap, Mouse. While people change their outfits regularly - she gave Cyber Swarm a look as if to say 'not enough in some cases' - they don't change their watch. Luckily Dragonsfyre bought hers here at the store, so it was easy to get a matching one and modify it. The bugs, power supply and, everything are built into it, and it will do a data dump when pinged properly. It's shielded, so unless someone does a detailed scan of it, it should remain undetected. That's why we need your help. We have to swap this for her current strap, and to do that we need to get at her watch when she doesn't have it on."
Mouse thought through the explanation, then gave an 'Oh!' of understanding. "You want me to do it when she's taken it off for BMA, don't you?"
Perfume beamed at her protégé. "Exactly!" She handed Mouse a small tool. "This is to help get the old strap on and put ours in its place. It's all pretty obvious, I'm sure you can handle it. I suggest delaying before the class, be the last one in the changing rooms, and then you'll have a minute or two." She handed the girl a small round device with a button and two small LED's on it. "This will open her locker for you - they aren't exactly high security anyway."
Mouse took it and looked at it. "Wouldn't it be easier to slip something in her bag? Or just swap the whole watch, rather than just the strap?"
Perfume shook her head. "No, for a couple of reasons. First, she won't have her bag on her all the time, and second, she's a mage, they tend to use security spells on their bags and purses, we don't want to have to try and get around them. The watch - we did consider that, but watches tend to get little marks and scratches, and we don't know how observant Dragonsfyre is, she might spot something. But who looks at their watch strap." She slipped a pencil under the strap, dropping it into a plastic baggie. "Don't forget to wear gloves, we don't want any of your DNA on it, just in case."
Mouse eyed the baggie warily, then nodded and picked it up. "I'll try and do it today, the sooner I do the sooner we can find out what's really going on, right?"
Thursday 20th October, BMA Period 3
I tried to pretend no one was looking at me as I changed into my Gi. Well, no one was actually starting, but I was getting a lot of these furtive little sideways looks as they tried to pretend they weren't really looking at the scars under my skin. It wasn't so much that they were noticing them as they were trying to pretend that they weren't. I'd almost have preferred the reaction in Poe, which was to aggressively demand to know what had happened to me this time. At least the markings were fading, at this rate, they'd be gone in a week. Even so, I was getting tired of being the freak in class all the time. It would be nice to heal up and maybe not have anything happen to me for a few weeks. I was just following Bianca out when Mouse rushed in, looking a bit harried. Well, it wouldn't be the first time one of the girls had been late, although Mouse was normally one of the prompt ones.
Mouse waited for a couple of minutes, getting her Gi out while the last girl left. As soon as they had, she slipped the gloves over her hands. Biting her lip, she slipped over to Dragonsfyre's locker, the device Perfume had given her making a quiet click as it unlocked it. She took a quick look inside - luck it seemed was with her, the watch was sitting on top of the girl's bag. With the tools she'd been provided with, it only took a minute to swap the straps, and put the watch back in place. Then relock the locker, and quickly stuff the tools in the bottom of her bag, and change. If she was lucky she might not get more than a nasty look from Tolman.
I was kneeling on the side of the mat with some of the others while Tolman allocated partners and told them what to practice. This looked like a typical day so far, but we ended up with myself and four other girls, which was unusual. Tolman looked at us and smiled, never a good sign.
"Now, I have something a little different for you girls. Now as some of you will know, Coldsnap's spirit has issues with men. Not so much fighting them, as doing so with reasonable use of force and control. Cerulea, you will serve as the lead trainer, and Invictus, Ms. Omega, and Dragonsfyre will be her practice opponents. You all have the basics down, which is what we will be starting with, and just in case all of you are tough enough not to be harmed if she has an issue with her powers. I could see Laura nodding, I suspected Tolman had briefed her earlier as she was going to be looking after us all, and she was the most experienced of the class, even if she was short on physical powers. Nice to see Tolman saw the rest of us as expendable combat dummies, but seeing the mix of hope and worry on Noelle's face made me a bit more accepting of my fate. She turned to Noelle, looking serious.
"Coldsnap, now you've been shown the basics, we will start with practice combats. No men yet, we are going to get you and your spirit used to fighting first, and I want you to remember to keep your power under control while you fight. Remember your attendance here is contingent on you being able to control your power successfully.
"I understand Sensei. I'll be careful."
I exchanged a look with Laura, who just shrugged and started to explain the basics to Noelle while the rest of us did a bit of warming up on each other. I suppose it made sense - while Noelle seemed to have got a reasonable level of control of her power, I knew how pushy her Frenchy-sweary spirit could get, and it would be pretty easy to lose control of it if she were fighting a boy. Best to let her get into good habits first, or we'd have to give most of the guys in the class cold-weather gear to fight her.
"Next match, Hardnose, and Dragonsfyre. Dragonsfyre, no fire, but anything else is good."
Well, that helped - Hardnose couldn't turn off his power anyway, and I didn't really want to find out just how fireproof he was. As we stood up and got onto the mat, I considered magic for a moment. I'd been thinking about it through the previous matches, but in the end, considered it could probably wait until I'd had more practice in this form. Hardnose was basically a hand-to-hand bruiser, so my lack of ranged attacks shouldn't be too bad.
So we bowed carefully to each other, then started to spar. Both of us were cautious - we'd never actually sparred before, and watching other bouts showed we were pretty closely matched. From what I'd seen, I was slightly stronger and a bit faster, he was tougher. So both of us circled and feinted while we tried to lure the other into a mistake. Which didn't get us anywhere, so I tried a few attacks. He wasn't as slow as he looked, mind, he successfully parried my strikes, and I had to do a bit of defending myself. Which still wasn't really getting us anywhere, so he decided to use his signature move on me.
He backed off a bit, then stared at me and charged. While the horn growing on his face wasn't a real weapon yet - it obviously still had a long way to go - it did look scary when it was coming straight at you. I'd seen him use it before, and usually, the best option was to dodge - he wasn't the most maneuverable of students while he was, well, being a charging Rhino, but he wasn't stupid, and a couple of times trying that had rebounded on his attacker.
I did have one option that wasn't available to most people. He wasn't the only kid here with a horn - I had two, and from tests and trials they were very tough as well. So I tried what I thought he wouldn't be expecting - I growled and charged at him, horns first.
Next thing I knew I was on my back, the world spinning around me. I tried to get up, then sank back with a groan, half expecting to see a little circle of tiny dragons circling my head. Damn, that had hurt! From the brief glimpse I'd got, Hardnose wasn't in better shape, he was on his hand and knees shaking his head as if trying to clear it. I tried to get up again, this time managing to get to my knees. He was doing better, he was on his feet, granted wobbling, but better than me. He staggered over, grabbing me, so before he could push me out of the circle, I grabbed his hand back and tried to pull him down. He staggered and went to one knee, at which point Tolman called the match.
A few minutes later both of us were feeling better, with it seemed no lasting damage. Until Tolman gave us her opinion of our tactics. She gave each of us a long, measuring look, then shook her head.
"I do despair sometimes. What on Earth made the two of you think banging heads like a couple of rutting buffalo was a GOOD tactic?"
Well, she did have a point, Hardnose was looking seriously embarrassed and I knew I was looking the same. That didn't stop her, she gave us a thorough going over about the stupidity we'd demonstrated, and how lucky we were not to be going to Doyle with concussions. I thought she was being a bit unfair - both of us had very hard heads, after all, but I couldn't deny that, well, it hadn't worked as well as I'd hoped. Next time I'd stick to grappling him, or maybe magic. I was actually looking forward to using my magic properly, although it was going to be weeks before I was ready for that.
Thursday 20th October 4 pm, Magic Work area
I was practicing my light spell in my Dragonform, while Noelle stood in her own part of the protective circles, apparently working on a basic fire spell, judging by the occasional puff of smoke caused by the spell combusting the spell slips she was using. I'd asked her if casting light spells would be a bother, but she'd smiled and said she'd prefer the company. In any case, I kept my back to her when I wiggled my fingers, and I wasn't putting much essence in. It was mainly to get used to the rather different way my essence flowed now. The technique was the same, but it was sort of like trying to write with your off-hand - it needed adjustments even though you knew exactly what you wanted to do. I'd been working on the light spell for a couple of reasons - first, it was low power and harmless, and second I wanted to get it working before the shopping trip, just in case, I needed a distraction. Maybe Bianca's paranoia was starting to get to me, but it wouldn't hurt to be prepared, right?
Every so often I stopped and did a quick check of the potion I was brewing on the bench - this was a new one for me, it was a specialised ink to enhance and strengthen a protective spell. Unlike Bianca, I wasn't using my blood in this, but using the ink should make the protective shell that the spell cast both stronger and longer-lasting for the same essence input.
I turned to look at Noelle who was looking at me with a rather embarrassed expression.
I gave her a quick smile."Yeah? Problem with a spell?"
She shook her head. "It's... well, I don't want to seem rude, but, well, after seeing those marks on you, I was so curious about what happened! The rumours around Poe are just weird!"
Oh, right. Of course, I hadn't filled Noelle in with what had gone on over the weekend, and no doubt the Poe rumour mill was operating at full warp speed. As usual. Still, I couldn't really blame her for being curious, and being part of our group meant I couldn't just ignore her. I'd been very brief - well, to be honest, saying as little as possible - when we'd talked in the showers.
"Well, it was like this...."
Of course, I didn't give her the full story, just the rather toned-down and expurgated version most of M3 had got - and even that was interspersed with exclamations in French that included a lot of words that weren't in my French dictionary. Her eyes were pretty wide by the end, I hadn't realised how it would all sound - the M3 crowd made a habit of taking most stuff with a bit less than total seriousness, even without Tavi's visually-assisted commentary; Noelle didn't do that. I decided not to mention Thulia, and that I was preparing for her to visit - for some reason mentioning I was hoping to have a demoness visit me at school seemed to be upsetting to people.
"So, anyway, that's about it. All over now, and my scars will heal soon and I get back to normal. OK, normal for Whateley anyway." She giggled at that, which hopefully meant she wouldn't get curious about some of the bits of my story that had holes in it, so I decided to change the subject.
"So how are you getting on with practical magic?"
She made a face and muttered something in French I didn't quite hear,
"The spells are harder to work than the book says! I keep trying, but sometimes it's just like trying to juggle water! The moment you stop paying attention, it just goes right through your fingers."
I gave her a sympathetic nod. "Yeah, I remember. All I can tell you is that it gets easier, once you've worked out how to use your essence everything becomes a lot easier."
She gave another deep sigh. "Yes, I know. And truly, it's so good to actually be able to do real magic?" She looked down at the small piles of ash on the floor around her. "Even if I do keep burning up the spell slips - I keep thinking I burned off my fingertips!"
I smiled at the expression on her face. "Hey, maybe I can help a bit. Tell me what you are doing, and maybe some of the exercises I did could help you?"
She brightened up immediately. "Oh, that would be merveilleux!"
"I'll do my best. I had issues with my power and essence when I started, so Grimes gave me some exercises which helped quite a lot. Let's go through what you're doing and see if we can improve things a bit."
Thursday 20th October, early evening
I looked around just in case anyone was following me - sometimes I felt I was getting as paranoid as Bianca - but of course no one was. So I knocked on Mr. August's office door and waited until a male voice told me to enter. Stepping in, Mr. August was his normal rather harried self; Id never actually seen him laid back, although Cally had mentioned he was usually relaxed during their practices. Maybe because the only time I'd seen him was when he'd been discussing the support arrangements for the band trip with Laura, I could see why the logistical and secrecy arrangements for doing a gig off-campus could be a worry. Still, he looked up at me with a rather tired smile.
"Come in, Morgana, what can I do for you?"
I dithered a bit before I just sighed and decided to just tell it straight.
"It's about the fees for the band, for next week."
He frowned. "There's a problem? I already got your payment."
I shook my head. "it's not about me, it's about Laura. She was going to use some of the profit from her chocolate sales" - I paused for a moment as he winced - "to pay, and now that money is all being held until they decide what to do. She isn't well off, and she can't afford to pay now. And she was really looking forward to it."
He gave me a quite searching look. "I see the problem, but there isn't much I can do. Our funds are very limited, and worse, if I paid for one person the others would resent it."
"I realise that Sir, that's not what I had in mind. I owe Laura a lot, and she's my friend. What I want to do is pay for her, in secret. I can't do it openly, she won't accept that sort of help. But if you were to tell her you'd managed to find some funds for technical support that would cover her in exchange for her work?"
He looked thoughtfully out into the distance for a minute.
"Hmm. That's an interesting idea. Laura will be a great help, we need someone who can fix any of the special gear we have. It will take a bit of work to do, but I think I can persuade the other band members that it's worthwhile. Perhaps if I shade the truth a bit and say the funds are only available for support, not them..."
I grinned. "Well, they are. After all, you don't have to go into details as to where the funds came from, right?"
He chuckled. "Very true, Morgana. OK, send me the money, the same details as for your own payment, and I'll let Laura know the situation has been sorted. Oh, and you'll still be available as the second roadie?"
I nodded. "Sure. After all, someone needs to lug all that kit around, and I understand the mundane tech stuff as well as Laura does."
Thursday 20th October, late evening, Morgana's room.
I'd just pulled my mat out from under the bed - I was going to do my exercises before going to bed, and Autumn wasn't making the floor any warmer - when I paused and looked at Bianca. She stopped her preparations for bed and gave me a questioning look.
"Bianca... the shopping trip on Sunday. Can we invite Laura along?"
She gave me a thoughtful look. "Any particular reason?"
I half-shrugged. "I was thinking... all this crap she's been having after the chocolate fiasco. It's been preying on her, I'm sure you've noticed too. A shopping trip off-site might cheer her up and give her a break."
"Hmmm. That's a good point. She's been getting a lot of nastiness over that, and it wasn't her fault the safety tests were broken. Sure, let's invite her."
I grinned. "You realise if we pass any electronics stores we'll have to drag her out on a leash?"
She snorted. "Well, obviously! I'm more worried about her dragging us into somewhere like Victoria's Secrets" She grinned wider when she saw my suddenly worried expression.
"Er.... yeah, OK. Shall I pop in and ask her if she wants to come?"
Bianca gave a sort of vague wave of acceptance as I slipped out, then tapped on the door next to ours. Ten seconds later, I tapped a LOT louder, and this time got a muffled "What?" from inside.
"It's me, Morgana. Can I come in?"
As I'd half expected, she was gazing unhappily at a piece of electronics on her desk. I would have barged straight in, but there were times when Laura was, ah, entertaining a friend, and while she'd probably have forgiven me - as long as I didn't put photos up on Facebook - I didn't want to embarrass her like that.
"Got a minute? I have something to ask you."
She looked a trifle worried. "It's not something technical, is it? I haven't been doing too well at that recently."
I sat down on a corner of her desk and gave her a stern look. "OK. First, your tech stuff is great. Second, it's not your fault the testing kit you used was duff. Third, that's not what I had to ask anyway!"
She gave me a more wary look. "OK...?"
"Look. Bianca and I are planning on going out to Berlin on Sunday. Nothing special, just a shopping trip, but staying here all the time is getting us a bit squirrely. So I came around to see if you'd like to come with us."
She gave me a surprised look. "Going to Berlin? I... don't know, will they let me go?"
"Sure they will! I checked, as long as you take precautions to hide GSD, you're fine. And the break from here will be good for you."
She gazed at the wall for a moment, then turned and gave me a nod. "It would be nice to have a break from Whateley. Are you sure the two of you want me with you though?"
I reached over and patter her hand. "Of course we do, Laura! It will be fun to something other than hanging out here for an afternoon, and they have shops! Techie shops. Clothes shops. Food shops!"
She grinned at last. "Trust you to think about food!"
I put my hand on my heart and put on my best innocent expression. "Well, I was hoping for some junk food - you know, really yummy stuff that's terribly bad for you, that sort of thing."
"So, when do we go?"
"We're planning Sunday afternoon, but we'll need to have a short meeting with Mrs. Horton, that's just to check we know how to behave and we have our GSD covered. I know you're OK, you have the skin covering you used when we took the kids out, remember?"
"Yeah, I keep some of that on me now, just in case." She brightened up a bit. "Yeah, it sounds like fun, and I could do with a break! Thanks, Morgana!"
I just grinned and headed back out before she started to ask awkward questions, like did Victoria's Secret have a tech department.
Friday 21st October, Crystal Hall, after breakfast
Crystal Hall at mealtimes was a good place to find people who were otherwise hard to catch. Morgana finally spotted her prey and closed in before it could escape and head off to class.
The other girl's ears perked up and she stopped her rush, waiting for Morgana to catch up.
"Morgana, what's up?"
The dragon girl favoured her friend with a mock glare. "You are entirely too hard to get a hold of lately, and you don't eat with us nearly enough. Why don't you check your messages?"
Tia's eyes widened comically. "Oh, crap. I had my phone off. Sorry. What do you need?"
The other girl pulled out the offending device and powered it on while Morgana forged ahead. "A driver for Sunday? For a trip to Berlin?"
"Ah, I'm sorry, I can't. I'm booked all day, and I'd need a second driver anyway. I'd also need to borrow one of the gearhead's cars since mine only seats two."
Morgana knew all that, of course. Well, some of it. "What are you doing Sunday?"
"Some running in the morning with the club, then um... I can't tell you, just yet. It's a secret, and it might run long so I can't commit to anything."
Morgana pondered that. "Alright, I'll forgive you... if you give me a ride in your car later."
Tia absently scratched an ear. "Well it will have to be at the track, and probably on a weekend?
That's the only time I think I can sneak you in without a problem. Unless of course, you were to join the motor club... or act as if you might join. Then we could probably do it on a week day after classes."
"Devious, I like it. I'll figure out when is good for me and text you later, ok? Just remember to check your messages."
"I will! I always check my messages! At least once I remember to turn my phone back on." Tia admitted, her face flushing briefly.
"Also, don't be a stranger, come hang out at the table more, no matter how busy you are. I need the help keeping the weirdos in line at breakfast!"
Tia's eyebrows rose into her hair as she stared.
"Oh alright, maybe they need you to help with me," Morgana confessed with a grin.
Morgana could almost feel the light bulb go off over her head. "Oh, I just had an idea, speaking of your car. How would you like a spell to change the color? It'd be an illusion of course, but I could make it say, red and hide the logo."
Tia brightened. "That would be great! I could hide the fact that its my car at least, and that would be really useful. Well, so long as it won't interfere with any of the tech in it or anything."
Morgana shook her head. "It shouldn't. You've been reading too many books."
"Probably," Tia replied. "Then in that case, sure. It would really help me out, more than you know."
"Alright, I'll work on it and see what we can come up with."
"I appreciate it," Tia answered with a smile. A smile that rapidly slid off the girl's face. "Sorry, got to go. I'm late for...."
Morgana spoke before she could resist the urge. "A very important date?"
"Ha. Ha." the bunny girl deadpanned, then continued in a more normal tone: "Something like that. I'll see you around, hopefully at lunch tomorrow."
"Alright, I'll hold you to that!" Morgana shouted, because the other girl was already sprinting away.
Tia waved back briefly in acknowledgement.
Friday 21st October, lunchtime, Grave Digger and Scrye, the quad.
Gravedigger read through his notes on DragonsFyre once more, before leaving for his meeting with Scrye. So far, he hadn't got much, if any, tangible data leading to the conclusion he wanted. Penny Dreadful hadn't cleared up anything, despite coming up with enough to - barely - justify paying her, but most of it was gossip. However, it had given him some ideas for the questions he was going to ask Scrye to answer. While not cheap, she did have a reputation for getting results, and she was in Poe, which meant she might have a better idea of what a Poe resident actually was.
He'd arranged a meeting with the girl yesterday by text, and she'd arranged to meet him at one of the tables by the quad after lunch. Unlike some of the fixers and brokers on Campus, Scrye didn't operate from the same place each time, instead preferring to use several locations, changing them every day. Tucking his notes back into the drawer and locking it, he left for his meeting.
Scrye was sitting drinking a coffee when he arrived and barely appeared to notice his presence, just indicating a nearby seat with a minimally small nod. He found it all overdramatic, all this play as if they were real spies or something. The fact that his appearance and mannerisms could be considered equally overdramatic quite escaped his notice.
Sitting down, he took a sheet of paper out of his jacket, slipping it onto the table in front of her. Scrye preferred to use paper when possible, and given the prevalence of people who broke security systems as a pastime, it seemed a sensible precaution.
"This is the data I'm looking for."
The girl took a sip of her coffee, then set it down and unfolded the paper as she slid it in front of her and took a look. She didn't betray the slightest indication of interest in what he was asking, merely folding it back neatly once she was done and looking at him.
"An interesting list of requirements. I can probably get most of the information you need in a few days. The rest might take a little longer, and will be more expensive."
He tried not to wince. While Scrye had a reputation for delivering the goods, she wasn't cheap, and while he wasn't poor he didn't have the sort of funds some of the students had. Still, this was important, likely vital to his long-term goals, and he was willing to pay any price to attain them.
"Which part is the difficult one?"
Her expression didn't change - for all someone watching them could have said, they could have been discussing the weather - but the tone of her voice indicated a degree of cynical amusement.
"It's not often someone asks to find proof or evidence that one of the students isn't human and a demoness in particular."
He tried to sound just as insouciant in his reply. "I believe it may well be a factor in this case. That's one of the reasons I came to you, you have magic and sources in the Magic department a non-mage might not have."
"Possibly. Such information will be hard to come by, and it might be too well guarded to be obtained at a reasonable cost."
He noted she hadn't said it couldn't be true, or that she couldn't find out, which at least was progress, as she continued. "For the basic information, $500. That's not too hard to get for you. For the demoness data - I suggest we set a limit, say $2000. That's a retainer. If I can't find out, you still pay, and if I find more funds are needed I will let you know."
He sighed and nodded reluctantly. It wasn't the best agreement, but realistically finding out the possibility of the girl being a demon wasn't going to be easy - it would hardly be the sort of thing known about in general. But he'd done as much research as he could, and there had been incidents in the past
"Very well, Scrye. I'll transfer $2,500 to you this afternoon, just send me the details of where you want it paid."
Scrye watched him get up and walk away with interest. The details he'd asked for were certainly unusual, and to be honest, she was almost certain the result of her investigations would be negative, but you never knew. There had been other cases like this in the past, so she wasn't going to rule it out as completely crazy. Quite possibly dangerous, though, over and above the risks she normally took in her enquiries, and for once it was possible that she'd just refuse to continue. Still, it was intriguing and she wouldn't do the data collection she did if it wasn't something she enjoyed. The one piece of the puzzle she didn't yet have was why was the boy so keen to find out, and what had drawn him to the possibility in the first place. Perhaps some judicious work on his motives would be helpful. She would have to be discrete though, with that and as well with Dragonsfyre. Some of what she was, the Poe secret protected, and she wasn't going to out any of her cottage mates without a much greater amount of compensation, doing so would make her life far too complicated for comfort. Standing up, she tucked the paper in her purse, giving a quick, automatic look around, just in case. She'd make a start once the money had been transferred to her bank account.
Friday 21st October, a boringly typical Office building in New York City
Nearly in tears, Carol Halifax hung up her phone, asking herself yet again why she stayed at her job. It paid very well, doubly so for the odd hours her boss sometimes kept, and it wasn't demanding work, but Mr. Granier was getting angrier and more distracted. At first, he'd only snapped impatiently at her once or twice a week, but that had become several times a day of verbal abuse. That started a few weeks ago after he'd mysteriously disappeared for a couple of days. Today's episode was the last straw for her. Wiping her eyes, she began to type a letter of resignation.
It only took her a few minutes, and she was very professional in the letter, not complaining but merely saying that for personal reasons, she was leaving Mr. Granier's employ. She printed a copy, signed it, and after hesitating a moment, she picked up her desk phone and pressed a button.
"What?!?"Granier demanded loudly.
"Um, if you have a moment, I need to talk to you," Ms. Halifax replied timidly.
"Fine. Get in here!" the boss demanded.
Ms. Halifax grimaced – she'd very rarely been inside Granier's office, and given his mood, she was more than a little nervous.
"Shut the door and have a seat." Granier was seated behind his desk, back to her. She shut the door gently, then eased herself into a chair in front of his desk. He had his nose in a book, with lots of odd gems, crystals, and other objects strewn randomly about his credenza. She looked around, noting some very old maps and documents with weird writing and odd symbols hanging all over the walls and more piled on a work table. Even the ceiling had the same strange markings, and the floor tiles had a weird, intricate pattern etched into them.
"What do you want?" Granier demanded, not looking up from what he was reading.
"Um, I want to let you know that I'm ... resigning," Ms. Halifax said meekly.
"What?" Granier's head snapped around to look at her, and his expression turned angry in an irrational, almost unhinged, way.
"I'm resigning," Ms. Halifax repeated, putting her letter on his desk. "I ... think it's time for me to find new challenges," she lied.
Granier glared at her for a moment, then he looked down and rummaged around inside his desk. He produced a very old leather-bound book. "I need you here," he said matter-of-factly.
"I need ... more regular hours, and something closer to my apartment," she continued to lie.
"Ah, yes," Granier stopped rummaging through his book, then he looked up at her.
She nearly screamed at the sight of his face. If he'd looked irrational before, he looked almost demonic, and she'd have sworn his eyes were aglow, with a frightening sneer on his lips. She started to rise to run, but as he chanted some strange words, the pattern in the tiles glowed brightly, and she was suddenly trapped inside some invisible force field.
"You are NOT leaving my employ!" Granier roared. "You're too important to dealing with my suppliers!"
"What ... why can't I leave?"
Granier shook his head. "Idiot girl!" he snarled. "You're in a Fool's Circle, and I'm going to ensure you don't leave!" He rummaged more in his book, while she whimpered, pleading for him to let her go.
"This will do!" Granier said abruptly. He started to intone more of the odd words, even the sound of which made her ears hurt, coupling the chanting with strange motions of his hands.
Ms. Halifax felt her determination fading like oil running down a drain until there was nothing left. No need to leave, no urgency to get out of the office. Her fear was still present, but it was as if it was locked away behind a door, she couldn't act on it.
"You're going to do exactly as I say, aren't you?" Granier sneered. Ms. Halifax nodded, even though she really didn't want to. "You will continue to work for me, right?" Again she nodded and muttered yes. She wouldn't tell anyone about this - she couldn't, it was as if just trying to think that made the thought skitter around and become lost in her mind. Slowly, the glowing runes on the floor faded away, but she still couldn't move, only this time it was because she couldn't command herself to move.
"Please," she whimpered, terrified, "don't ... don't hurt me!"
"I don't care about you," Granier snapped, "as long as you do the work you're supposed to do!" Ignoring her, he turned to the workings he'd been doing. After a bit, he snarled. "Stupid girl! I had to use too much essence keeping you here!" he screamed. "Get out of here! Get back to work!"
Friday 21st October, after classes, Doyle Medical Centre
"So, Morgana, you want to learn healing magic?"
I looked at Dr. Tennant across her desk and nodded. "Yes Doc, I think it would be really useful to me."
She regarded me thoughtfully, part of her long hair absently tidying some of her papers without any sign of her paying attention to it. That still made me twitch when I saw it - there was something about animated hair that just looked weird, compared to just moving stuff by TK. "Is this to do with what just happened to you? Because I have to tell you, what Thulia did was both advanced and complicated, you aren't going to be able to just pick it up quickly."
I shook my head. "Oh no, Doc - while that did sort of push the fact I can't heal myself, I've been thinking about this for a while, both for my teammates and for me. There's no one on the team with any healing ability, and it would be really useful." I gave her a lopsided grin. "Especially as I seem to have to keep using my blood in rituals and magic, bleeding all over the floor is such a nuisance!"
Dr. Tennant smiled at that. "Yes, I can see your point. You didn't show any special aptitude for healing when we tested you, though, so you'd have to learn everything from scratch."
"I realise that, Doc. I'm prepared to put in the work."
This time she regarded me more thoughtfully. "Very well, then. At least, we can train you in the basics. How far you go after that is up to you. Now, how much do you know about the practice of healing magic?"
I fidgeted slightly. "Uh, well, nothing about the practice. I read up a bit in the library, but it's not terribly detailed and it didn't seem to be the sort of thing to play around with when I didn't know what I was going."
That got me a small smile. "Very sensible. It can be more than a little dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. So I'll give you the quick summary, and then you can decide if you feel up to starting to learn it."
"So while Healing Magic is a huge and complicated area of study, so when we start out with the basics, we break it down into two parts.
First is the actual healing spell itself. There are a lot of these, and they fall into two main groups - spells which accelerate what you can heal yourself, and ones which heal things you can't."
I must have looked a bit puzzled because she carried on. "The reason for there being a lot of spells is that the more specific the spell, the better the effect and the less essence you need to cast it. It's not much different from the magic you've learned so far in that respect. Say you had a cut on your finger - I could heal it by casting a general heal on you, but that would be costly. Or I could use a specific spell for healing epidermal cuts, which would be faster and consume a lot less essence."
I thought about that. "I guess that means a lot of spells to learn?"
She nodded. "Oh yes, why do you think it takes years to become a specialised Healer? But to start with, we teach you the most basic, general ones, plus a few that we find you tend to use a lot." She grinned at me. "Like cuts to supply blood for spells. Over time you can add to your knowledge base, but remember you also need to practice the ones you know - as with any magic, practice makes spells more efficient and use less essence."
"So I might need to learn ones to heal things like cuts and so on first?"
"Yes, after all, they are what most injuries you will run into and need to respond to. But there are other skills you will need, and a few you shouldn't use yet."
OK, that sounded slightly worrying, so I waited for her to elucidate further.
"Now the second group of healing spells is ones we usually call the 'surgical' class of spell. These are usually specific and are used to fix issues that your body can't manage on its own. They are not only complicated, and often very specialised, but you need a lot of knowledge of what you are doing, or the consequences can be severe, or even fatal. Whereas your magic helping the body to heal itself - just a lot faster - normally doesn't have a lot of bad consequences."
"Uh.. normally, Doc?"
She looked at me seriously. "There are some times you shouldn't apply one of that group without understanding what you're doing. If you just cast a spell to heal a cut on your hand, there isn't much to go wrong. But if, say, you were to try and heal broken bones in your hand, you could end up with a malformed or misplaced bone, just as you could if you allowed it to mend naturally without proper care. So to start with, we teach a subset and let you know which ones you shouldn't try until you know a lot more. There is also the issue of Exemplars - you have more freedom there, as their body will correct small issues by themselves. But if in doubt, assume you are healing a non-exemplar"
She paused for a moment to take a sip of water. "Now, those are the healing spells. But there is another big area you need to learn, which is how to diagnose the injury in the first place. Many of the 'natural' healers we train have an instinctive knowledge of this to a varying extent, but you will need to start from scratch. The good news is that while there are quite a few classes of spells, used to diagnose all sorts of conditions as well as injuries, we start out by teaching you just the basic ones for injuries. Again there are still quite a few you'll need to know, but like the general healing spells you can substitute a less specialised diagnostic spell. That will mean using more essence to fix the problem, but better that than no fix at all, right?"
She sat there with a serious look on her face as I absorbed all that. "That's a lot of stuff, Doc. I guess I see now why they didn't go into too many details in the books."
She nodded. "Yes. As you can see, using the wrong spell, or the wrong type of spell can make things worse, not better - and can be fatal. It's no different in that respect from non-magical healing, of course."
Right, no pressure there then. I could see from the expression on her face she wasn't trying to scare me, just lay out the facts. "Yeah, I see that. What about healing myself, is that different?"
"A good question, Morgana. The answer is yes and no. The actual healing spells are the same, although they usually work more effectively on yourself and take less essence, but the diagnostic spells are different. The other advantage in using a healing on yourself is that for a straightforward injury you can often get away with just the heal, you may well have a good idea of what your problem is. So, now you know how much is involved, do you still want to learn to heal?"
"Oh yes, Doc! I mean, I already knew it wasn't simple, but even if I can only learn the basics it would be so useful."
"On your own head be it!" Her rather ominous words were a bit belied by the smile on her face. "Ok, we have regular classes for basic healing on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 8 pm till 9.30 pm, here at Doyle. Come to the next few, and we'll get you started and see how you do. Remember though, we aren't training you to be a full healer - we usually call this course the EMT course, it's much more about treating immediate trauma and situations."
"That would be great Doc." OK, while it was, I'd put aside the small problem of how to fit another three hours of instruction into my already heavily loaded schedule. Hey, I could always work a bit later, who needed sleep anyway.
Friday 21st October, Laura's Lab, early evening
"Hi, Laura!" I practically sang out to my friend as I walked into the gadgeteer lab. "What's new?" Immediately, every boy's head swivelled toward my voice, some so quickly that there was a real fear of neck injury. I had to admit, even after all this time it still weirded me out a bit.
"Hey," Laura answered back, barely looking up from her workbench. "Down to visit, or to get more coffee?"
I gave my friend a raspberry. "I don't always get coffee!"
"Yes, you do!" piped up several boys who'd been watching me.
"Not that we mind," one voice added quickly.
"Well, now that you mention it," I chuckled and turned toward the corner of the lab that held the large devisor coffee pot. Immediately, my eyes widened in surprise.
Instead of a coffee pot, there was a substantial floor-to-ceiling steel wall; it was obviously new and it showed weld marks that hadn't been smoothed over, let alone painted yet. Inset in the wall was a small alcove big enough for a person to comfortably work in, and set in the wall of the alcove was a small observation port, several inches thick made of the same material that surrounded the main reactor and the radiation work areas. Below the tiny window were two robotic control arms that were standard for remotely working with highly radioactive or toxic substances.
I stopped dead and blinked at the setup. Twice. "What the ....?"
One of the girls in the lab shrugged. "The lab safety crew has gotten rather ... paranoid. After the chocolate incident," she added.
"So this is your fault!" I accused Laura, who winced sheepishly. "Okay, so how do I get a cup of coffee?"
"Just use the arms. It's simple."
I stared at the speaker, eyes wide open with surprise. "Just like that?" she asked.
"Yeah. It's simple."
Right. I'd never been very good at things like UFO-catchers, but maybe I'd do a better job as an exemplar. Though I recalled that none of the Whateley tests had included such a thing. After examining the device for a moment, I turned to the controls and slipped my arms into them, while peering in through the window. The arms were clumsy, and it was going to take some getting used to, but I managed to get a cup manoeuvred under the coffee pot's spigot. Several tries later, I got the spigot to open, but after only a few dribbles of the devisor coffee, it stopped. Bugger.
"Oh, yeah, it might be empty."
"Just refill it, like normal," another boy said, struggling to keep a straight face. "All the supplies are in there, within easy reach of the arms."
I considered giving them both a Death Glare (tm) but decided it wasn't really worth it. "You have got to be kidding me!" I managed to grind out.
"You know the deal," Laura said to me. "You want to drink the coffee, you have to refill the pot when it's empty." Well, true. I considered for a moment making eyes at one of the boys to do it for me, but that wasn't really fair. Not only did it make me look like a coffee-scrounger, but it was also rather like depth-charging fish in a barrel.
Everyone in the lab watched intently as I struggled to use the clumsy arms to replace the coffee filter, open a can of coffee, and fill the machine. It took quite a bit of doing, but I finally got the machine brewing coffee again, and then re-opened the spigot and allowed the black brew to fill my mug.
However..."Okay," I said, relieved at least that she'd accomplished the task, "how do I get my coffee out? I don't see a port or anything."
"Simple," one of the boys said, smirking. He turned from his bench, walked up to the 'reinforced' wall, and opened a section like it was a light door, revealing that it was no more substantial than a stage prop. At this, everyone in the lab laughed aloud. By some Herculean effort, they had kept straight faces and had refrained from snickering as they walked her into the elaborate prank.
The boy handed the cup to me with a massive grin. I looked at the setup, then looked at the flimsy door on the fake wall, then looked around at everyone laughing. "Okay," I admitted reluctantly, "you got me."
At least I'd got a decent fresh cup of coffee out of the joke, which admittedly wasn't nearly as bad as some of the ones the lab crew played on each other, before turning to my small blue friend.
" Laura, I came to tell you we have to meet with Mrs. Horton tonight, she has to run us through the details of our escape - sorry, trip out! - on Sunday."
Laura stopped fiddling with one of her devices and looked at me. "It's not trouble, is it?"
"Nah, apparently everyone has to do this the first time they go out, it's supposed to warn you what to do, what not to do, that sort of thing. You know, no mass-mind-controlling the native with one of your devices. And yes, I know you've been out with the kids, but apparently, that doesn't count. "
She gave me a look that started out as stern, then morphed into a grin. "But they look so cute when they are mind-controlled!" She looked around the lab crew. "And wouldn't you like some minions?"
The nearest boy shook his head. "Nope. You catch them, you have to bag 'em and look after them."
"That's way too much trouble. You guys will just have to collect your own minions after all!"
I wondered if I should have been worried that at least one of the crew was looking like they might have been taking that suggestion seriously?
Friday 21st October, late evening, Poe Cottage
Mrs. Horton gave us a motherly smile as we stood in a slightly concerned huddle, wondering what came next.
"Don't worry, girls. This is just to make sure you know how to act when you go out, and to check you're covered for your GSD. We try not to show people that in Berlin, and it's good practice for when you go somewhere further where people might be less understanding. So take a seat, and we'll go through everything."
She waited until we'd sat, then looked at Laura. "Laura, you are the most difficult to disguise. But I know you've been out before while looking after kids, so I assume you're prepared?"
Laura nodded firmly. "Yes ma'am. I have proper makeup to wear now, it doesn't come off nearly as easily as the basic stuff I used before I got here. And I carry some extra with me just in case something happens. My hair colour has never seemed to be an issue, and I have contacts to hide my eyes."
Mrs. Horton nodded. "That's good, that should cover everything. Bianca?"
"I have contacts for my eyes. I'm not sure about makeup though."
Mrs. Horton gave her a close look. "Well. You are very pale, and while you could get away with it, there are also your tattoos. I would suggest normal makeup - nothing heavy, just something to darken your look a bit."
"I will be wearing clothes that mainly cover me, ma'am."
"However you have to be prepared in case something happens. Please consider some normal makeup - nothing like Laura has to use, just the usual makeup they've been showing you in the classes. Make sure to take some spare, in case something rubs you. There's nothing more obvious than a bare patch!"
"Uh, thanks, ma'am. I'll see about putting something on."
She nodded and finally turned to me. "Morgana, I assume you'll be going out in your human form?"
I nodded. "Yes, ma'am. If I do that, even my ears are OK, and anyway I'll hide them under my hair. I have glasses to cover my eyes.
"Good, but have you thought about coping if something happens and you have to change? Your change back isn't instantaneous."
I winced slightly. "Ah, yes, ma'am, I have. It's starting to get chilly now, so I thought I'd wear a hoodie or something like that. If I had to change, I can pull the hood up quickly if I need to look normal."
She gave me a close look. "I would suggest you use some normal makeup as I advised Bianca. You wouldn't normally need it, but I can still see those scars under your skin. Normal makeup will cover them, and its' best not to have people ask about them, just in case. Also while glasses will conceal your eyes, it's possible to lose them, so I suggest you put a pair of contacts in your purse, just in case."
I looked a bit unhappy - I'd been hoping to get away with just the glasses, but she had a point - anything that drew attention to us meant one or all of us being more likely to be detected as odd.
She sat back in her chair and smiled at us. "Now, I don't want all this to worry you too much. I'm glad to see you've all thought about this, some of the girls on their first trip out don't seem to realise. But it’s always good to start early with taking care, some day it could be much more important. Now, as Bianca is with you I'm sure you'll be keeping a low profile." Bianca nodded, and Laura and I tried to look like equally responsible girls.
"Yes. Well, just remember, its fine to have fun, but keep any displays of powers or abilities to an absolute minimum. None at all is best. And if anything DOES happen, you should have the school's emergency numbers on your phones. In the worst case, call us and we'll tell you what to do."
She must have seen the rather worried expression on our faces because she smiled again. "I'm sure everything will be fine - you're all responsible girls! Now run along, and have fun on Sunday!"
Saturday 22nd October, morning, Costume Class
"So come on, show me what you've got!"
I grinned at Tanya, who was craning her neck trying to peer over at what was on my pad. Not easy when you're her height. So I showed mercy and turned to show her the costume design I'd been working on.
"Oh, I like it! Nice colour!"
"As opposed to shades of lavender?"
Tanya turned and stuck her tongue out at Bianca's snarky remark. "I bet you're going for white, aren't you?"
Bianca looked for a moment as though she was going to comment, then closed her mouth. Probably because I'd seen the draft design she'd done, and it was indeed in white. I looked between the two of them and sighed. "Am I the only one who hasn't chosen a predictable colour scheme?"
Bianca just patted me on the arm. "I'm sure the rest of the class will surprise us."
Yeah, I bet they would. I'd seen bits of some of the ideas when we'd been working on the holographic design system, and some of the bits I'd caught glimpses of were - vibrantly colourful was probably the polite way to say it. In one or two cases, the impolite one being more 'likely to induce projectile vomiting'. At least Tanya's lavender was pretty unobjectionable, and it was basically a standard super-suit design for a PK brick. I knew she'd got some fancy materials for it, although as her PK field actually covered her costume, I wondered if she was being rather pessimistic.
"So, Dragonsfyre, please show me what you have so far."
I tapped the app on my laptop that connected it to the display unit, and a few seconds later it displayed a half-sized hologram of the costume I'd been working on. If I said so myself, I thought it looked good on me, the pretty much skin-tight material would have been an issue on a non-exemplar. Well, I now had it, so I might as well flaunt it. "As you can see, ma'am, I've gone for a design that allows me freedom of movement over heavy protection."
Mrs. Ryan nodded as she looked it over. "So I see. You're confident you're tough enough for that?"
I blushed slightly. "Yes and no, ma'am. My toughness will help, but I was going to make the costume itself add to that." I tapped a second menu and a pop-up hologram displayed the data on the materials I'd selected.
She pursed her lips as she looked down the list. "All standard materials, I see. You aren't going to something better?"
"Not for my first attempt, ma'am. I'd like to see how it works before I pay for the more exotic stuff. It's expensive, and it's not like I need it urgently."
Something about my statement must have amused her - I wish I knew what it was - as she half-smiled. "Not a bad reason."
"Yes ma'am. And it will be easier to work with for my first attempt. I also intend to add some spells to it - while I've chosen pretty robust materials, I need to add something to make it more resistant to fire, and extra protection as well if I can work it in. The belt will hold some of the stuff I need for spells, but it's only a first cut, I may need more storage space. All that might complicate things, and it's easier and cheaper to change something if I get it wrong with the standard stuff. With all that, I think I'll end up wanting to redo it once I've seen how it all works, and then I can design a better one using more durable materials. That's probably better than trying to modify this one."
She looked the design over again, lips pursed. I watched rather anxiously - this was my first attempt at costume design, it was after all not a skill I ever thought of needing before I came to Whateley. She tapped the image in a few places, then moved a hand to the control. "I think you should add a little detailing in a different colour - you aren't going for stealth, so making a statement is a valid aim in this case."
I could hardly argue with that - while what I'd seen of Bianca's designs seemed to be aimed at misdirection as well as protection, I didn't see how I could mix that sort of effect with protection and a design that would let me move freely. So I might as well make it look good.
"Can you suggest a suitable colour, ma'am?"
She gave me a somewhat amused look that as much as said she knew I was fishing for ideas, but despite that made a few quick adjustments. My design was basically black, in a semi-gloss hexagonal material that I thought looked rather cool as well as being an effective protection. It only took her a minute to add some highlighting in red, but then she knew what she was doing; I'd have been fiddling and agonising over each of the changes for hours, then probably made a mess of it. But she was quite right, just adding a little detail in another colour turned the costume from rather bland and generic into something a lot sharper.
"Thank you, ma'am, that looks so much better!"
"These things come with practice, Morgana. Remember that unless you are designing a stealth costume or one designed to blend into certain conditions, a single colour is rarely effective. Now, are you going to add a mask?"
"Yes ma'am." I touched my laptop again, and it zoomed in on the mask design I'd selected. I'd thought hard about this - I would have preferred not to have a close-fitting face covering, but there were practical advantages, even ignoring the obvious one of helping to conceal my identity. I'd gone for a design that circled my head and covered my eyes, dropping beneath them to two points. I needed to have my mouth free, while I wasn't terrible proficient with verbal spells and mnemonic assists yet, the last thing I needed was a mask to muffle a verbal spell!
"I see. You aren't covering your hair, I notice. You realise that your braid could be grabbed by someone?"
I nodded. "Yes ma'am, but if they do..."
Mrs. Ryan smiled. "Ah yes, I assume you can manifest your fire over your hair as well."
I ignored the muttered comment of "yeah, she does, every bloody day in the showers" from the peanut gallery next to us. "Yes ma'am. I figured that if it becomes necessary it would be a useful diversion." I didn't mention the other reasons for that style of mask - the band of material around my head left space for magic or tech, and I had ideas for using that with some sort of visual display over the eye spaces. Not for the Mk I, though, but eventually. Everyone always assumed mages would stick to magic, I saw no reason to pander to their preconceptions.
Mrs. Ryan gave it a final going-over. "Yes, Dragonsfyre, that does seem a suitable first design for your purposes. You may need to consider some additional or modified protection or padding in certain areas - finish up the design, and we'll go through those in detail. "
Then she turned to Bianca, who as expected was displaying a white overcoat over a white not-quite leotard. I tried to pretend I was concentrating on my own costume as I listened to what Mrs. Ryan was telling her about her walking advert for all the best washing powders.
Saturday 22nd October, afternoon, Mystic Arts building.
I stood and looked carefully at the circles that I was going to be using with considerable trepidation. I'd read through the notes and references Grimes had given me thoroughly, and I had an idea - if not a complete understanding yet - of the theory, but that wasn't the same as actually doing it. This wasn't the limited communication spell I'd done by the lake, this was a full-scale evocation of an extra-planar being, and even with the details in the book some of the math was too advanced for me to get a full grasp of the operation. Grimes watched me look at it for a minute, then coughed meaningfully.
"Don't worry, Morgana. I will help you through this the first time. Now, do you have the notes on the spells?" I nodded, dragging a sheaf of papers out of my bag as she gave them a measuring look before continuing. "Good. Now, this isn't a test, so don't worry if you need to refer to them at first. I want you to tell me first each step you are going to take, so I can check it. All the materials you will need are on that table." She gestured at the protective circles surrounding the concentric circles engraved on the floor, as I took a deep breath and then gave a firm nod. I could do this, and I was sure Grimes would be there to help if I screwed things up. Stepping forward, I took the first piece of chalk and stepped into the inner circle.
Luckily I didn't have to do all the circles from scratch - they were quite a lot more complicated than the basic ones we'd been taught in class, and there were three of them as well. The outer one was there to protect the working itself from anything disruptive in the vicinity, the middle to protect any spectators from anything raised within the inner circle. These were permanent, and all I had to do was to check them and add a couple of details to the middle circle before powering them up. The inner, smallest circle had to be personalised - it was supposed to protect me if something nasty got summoned into the triangle by accident, and it needed to be customised to me and towards whatever I was summoning. I wasn't worried about Thulia, but Grimes had explained that if I was going to learn how to cast summoning circles, I had to learn how to do it properly - no getting into bad habits. Which made sense, although I remained unconvinced as to how useful it might be in practice. Judging by some of the stories of Things That Had Gone Horribly Wrong while summoning suggested either a lot of very careless mages, or that the inner circle wasn't always terribly effective. So I took a piece of chalk from the table, then gave a final look at my notes - I didn't want to get this wrong in front of Grimes. Despite what she'd said, I was determined to show her that I'd been preparing for this and could do it right.
I was surprised when I realised I'd finished preparing the circle; I'd been concentrating so much on getting all the details right I'd lost track of the time as I straightened up and took a look at my work. It looked OK, but I wasn't going to just assume it was right the first time. So I gave Ms. Grimes a questioning look. She nodded and held up her hand in a 'wait' gesture while she looked closely around the circles.
"Yes, Morgana, that will do. Now prepare the summoning triangle. Don't use your blood until it's complete and I've done a final check."
I nodded to her, then carefully chalked in the appropriate symbols and wording around the sides of the triangle, finally inscribing a circle within it. This wasn't quite the complete preparation - what I'd done was to prepare an area for whatever I was summoning to appear in, hopefully, constrained by the triangle while I stood secure in my own protective circle. This time I stood and looked at it, while Grimes gave close examination before she gave a small smile and gestured to me to continue.
I slipped the chalk into my pocket and slid my athame out of its sheath. The final piece of preparation was to light the four candles surrounding my circle. A few slow breaths to calm myself, and then I turned slowly, using the blade to direct a flow of my essence into the required symbols on the spell diagrams. Once, twice, thrice for each circle, as I saw the circles come to life - not just the blue glow of a working circle, they actually glowed to my normal vision too.
Now came the interesting part. So far, the work I'd done was pretty standard, just empowering some protective circles. Granted, much more sophisticated and powerful ones than I'd done before, but now I had to finish by doing the bit only I could do. Grimes or any of the other staff could have done all this so far - and a lot faster - but the final part required me to specify an entity as the subject of the evocation. Thulia had required this, she didn't want anyone just summoning her, after all, and she was being sensibly reticent about providing enough of her true name to let anyone do so. The final three symbols around the triangle had to be drawn in my blood, its connection with Thulia being enough to make the summoning space resonate with her. At any rate, she'd said that would be enough.
I stopped to take a final look at the symbols, comparing them with my notes. Grimes didn't say anything, which at least made me confident I'd not made a blatant mistake. I know she'd given me the go-ahead, but this was an evocation, I didn't want to take any chances. I took out my athame again, carefully making a small cut on my index finger while trying not to wince at the sharp pain, and carefully drew the final three symbols. Running a cut and bleeding finger over the stone wasn't the most pleasant thing, but concentrating on getting it right distanced the pain. I wiped my athame clean, putting it away as I got ready to do the hardest part - powering up the gateway itself. Even though I hadn't pushed essence into it, I could feel the subtle throbbing of its potential so close to me.
I knew this was going to take a considerable amount of my essence - using the complex and pre-prepared circles had made this less costly, the sophisticated spells were more efficient than the basic ones we'd been taught - but the summoning was individual to the summoner and the entity involved. That part I had to provide all the power for.
I wasn't going to try and remember the mnemonics for the spell, not when I had them written down in front of me, so I read them off carefully. The words echoed weirdly, as I felt them help my mind form a complex spell in the centre of the triangle, and I could feel my essence pouring into it, a complicated pattern of purple to my vision as the magic took shape. Finally, I finished, and before I could stop and worry, pressed my still bleeding hand against the four cardinal points in my circle as I said the final words. Nothing happened for a moment, then I saw the spell pattern flow across the circle and triangle as the potential of the stored essence was translated into the active spell. I watched in fascination as the edges of the triangle glowed, first the blue-purple of active magic, then the soft glimmer of fire, as the centre shimmered weirdly as if it was trying to occupy more than one space at the same time. Then a column of fire rose up inside it - not acting like a normal flame at all, it held there in the air for a long moment before collapsing in on itself to reveal the smiling figure of Thulia.
I returned the smile before I took a quick glance at Grimes. Who was giving me the "well, what are you waiting for, get on with it!" look. I was reluctant to do the next bit, but my instructions had been specific - and backed by a mages contract with Grimes. I wasn't insane enough to try going against that!
I pricked my finger with my athame again, three drops of blood falling into the circle surrounding me. "Thulia, by the blood we share that defines us both, I bind you to be released from this circle with the demand that you swear not to use any of your powers unless ordered by myself or one of the staff, until such time that we return here and dismiss you back to your own realm, or until the hour of midnight strikes here."
Yeah, this was why I didn't like this bit. Binding Thulia like this was, well, repugnant after what she'd done for me. But it was one of the conditions laid on me by Grimes, to safeguard the school while Caitlin made the promised amulet. After that, Thulia would have much more freedom. Which after all she'd done, I felt she richly deserved - but then, I wasn't the one setting her limits here.
Fortunately, we'd talked about this the other night, and so she both knew what I'd have to say, and was not terribly worried about it. She'd actually been a lot calmer than I'd been over the whole binding issue. So she looked at me and nodded slowly and formally as she made a gesture in the air in front of her. A magic one, I could see the essence swirling and forming a glyph for some seconds, and it was the one I'd read in the notes on summoning her. I was pretty sure Grimes had seen it too, she was watching us very carefully.
"I so swear, Morgana Jones. And I hereby bind myself to your conditions." She followed this by piercing a fingertip with a claw and letting three drops of her own blood drip to the floor. Traditionally, of course, she'd swear by her true name - or at least enough of it to bind her - but this way she didn't have to reveal it to Grimes. I replied with a formal nod of my own.
"I accept your oath, and hereby release you from the summoning circle until such time as you are returned here to return to your home, or at the stroke of midnight here."
Then I reached down, cutting one of the sides of the triangle with my athame to release her.
I got a close hug from Thulia as soon as she was free before she smiled and turned to Grimes, giving her the same half-bow and gesture she'd made before.
"Thank you for allowing Morgana to summon me, Lady Grimes."
Grimes responded with a similar if not identical gesture - I made a mental not to ask her about what that was about later. "Just Grimes or Ms. Grimes will do, Thulia. We intend to keep to our part of the bargain, as you kept to yours."
Thulia smiled. "I didn't doubt it, Morgana has spoken about you."
Grimes gave me a look at that comment, at which I blushed. No, I hadn't said anything bad about Grimes - she was a great teacher, after all - but I had the conscience of a typical teenager, namely with areas I didn't want to be examined too closely. She generously let me off without a comment.
"Has Morgana explained to you what will happen today, Thulia.?"
"Not in detail. Ms. Grimes. I assume we will be preparing the amulet we talked of?"
"Yes. Morgana will escort you to the working area of our Artificer, where she will instruct you as to her needs. Some blood will be required to attune it personally to you. After she is done with you, you are both to return here" - she looked at me again - "directly here, Morgana, so we can send you home. The next time you visit, the amulet will be ready and we won't need to be so restrictive,"
Thulia nodded. "Of course. I understand your precautions and the concern for your students. I will do as you wish." She turned to me and patted my hand. "Although I'd have liked to have some time alone, Morgana, I think we might have to wait again."
I nodded rather sadly. "We never seem to get any time to ourselves." I did give Grimes a rather pleading look - I mean, she had to have been a teenager herself once, right? Probably, anyway...
"I'm sorry, Morgana, but we are allowing you to escort her, that's as far as I am prepared to go before the amulet is made." This time the corner of her mouth did give a definite upward twist. "Besides, the Mystic Arts building isn't really the best place to have a private conversation with Thulia, is it?"
I gave a very heartfelt sigh and nodded. More waiting, you'd think there was some sort of plot stopping us from spending time on our own. But Grimes had made me promise earlier, no little side excursions, Caitlin's workshop and straight back, and while she hadn't made me back my word with an Oath, keeping on Grimes good side was important.
"So we are going to meet the Artificer to have the amulet made for me?"
I nodded. "Yeah. Her name is Caitlin, by the way." That brought a small frown to Thulia's face.
"It seems weird that your Artificer has a name and her own free will, all our stories of them describe them as servants with no free will of their own. Odd enough itself that she's here, our stories say they all left this plane eons ago."
I snorted at that comment. "Well, I'd never even suggest that about Caitlin! She's most definitely her own person. It's a shame she seems so wary of you."
She shrugged slightly. "Well, it's only natural she would be worried about me, she knows little of me, and she has responsibilities here. Actually, I'm more surprised some of the mages like your Lady Grimes aren't more suspicious of me, but I suppose they are more familiar with entities from other planes."
I grinned. "You know, Grimes is just a teacher, not a lady. She'd probably be surprised as hell if you called her that."
This time I got a quite old-fashioned look from her. "You do realise just how powerful and skilled she is? In my home, someone with those abilities would be accorded that title, deservedly so."
I mulled that over as I gestured to take the left turn in front of us - the corridors under the magic department were less well-marked than the main tunnel system, though thankfully not laid out by the same Esher-inspired drunk architect. While I couldn't comment on Grime's true power or skill - I'd hardly been privy to seeing her do much out of class - what little I had certainly shown the sort of casual confidence that she had her power and spells mastered to a level that made the chance of an error seem unthinkable. And as I assumed Thulia had a lot more experience than I did with powerful mages, I didn't doubt she knew what she was talking about. I wondered how Grimes had ended up teaching at Whateley, it was hardly something I could ask her! A puzzle for a later time, I guessed. Not just that, Thulia's remark had left me more curious as to exactly what her home was like - she'd never really revealed much, and we'd never really had the time to talk about it. Something else for the future.
I gave a quick glance at Thulia before I knocked on Caitlin's door. She just gave me a small nod, so I braced myself and knocked. We waited, and then the door opened wide, with Caitlin standing behind it. She gave both of us a carefully neutral look, before gesturing to us both to enter.
"Enter freely and of your own will."
Thulia made no comments, just slipping into the room, but I gave Caitlin an interrogative raise of an eyebrow. Quotes from Dracula, Caitlin, really? She just gave me a shit-eating grin at my response and motioned us over to a table. Her workshop looked pretty much as it had when she'd tested me, but this time there was a rather pretty amulet on the centre of the table, or rather the parts of one. I wasn't sure if had been taken apart or was waiting to be put together.
Thulia looked at Caitlin, then made the small formal hand gesture I'd seen her do before. "Greetings, Artificer."
Catlin looked at her, then at her hand, then sighed. "Call me Caitlin. I know what I am, and I don't need to be reminded of it." She sounded a bit annoyed, which worried me - we were depending on her to make an amulet to control Thulia, after all.
I was just about to ask her what we should do when I was distracted by a buzzing from a small box sitting on one of the shelves. Caitlin looked up sharply, her eyes narrowed as she looked at it, then stepped over and grabbed it. "Stay still, both of you."
I looked at Thulia, who was obviously surprised as well, as Caitlin waved the box around, then homed in on me. I tried not to pull back too obviously, as she gave a small satisfied sound, pointed the thing at my wrist, and pressed a button on it. There was a small sizzling noise, and I felt my watchstrap get warm.
"What the hell, Caitlin!?"
She relaxed, giving me a considering look. "Were you trying to record what I was doing?"
I just looked at her in surprise. "No, of course not! Why would I?"
"Then why was there a bug in your watch?"
I blinked at her, then held up my wrist to look at it. The band was slightly discoloured, so I slipped it off and looked at it again, which didn't really tell me anything.
"It wasn't me! Why would I bug you? I mean, you're letting me watch, so I don't need to record it, do I?"
She looked at me closely, then nodded thoughtfully. "No, that wouldn't make much sense. So it looks like someone has been bugging you!"
I gave her a very confused look. "Me? Why would anyone bug me!?"
She just shrugged as she put her box back on the shelf. "How would I know, that sort of thing seems to be a competitive sport at Whateley. But I don't appreciate it, so I keep my stuff protected. That bugs dead now."
I nodded, then looked at my watch. I'd let Laura take a look at it later, maybe she could work out more about it.
Thulia had been looking on with interest but had relaxed once Caitlin had announced the bug - whatever it was - was deceased. She looked over at the workbench and its contents. "You've started already?"
Caitlin just nodded. "Of course, it's a fairly straightforward thing to make." That brought a raised eyebrow from Thulia, which gave me to wonder just what Caitlin could do, that was definitely a look of 'it really isn't that simple!'
I was surprised at how complex the amulet looked to be, I think I'd been expecting a simple piece of jewellery as you see in the movies. Which just showed how bad movies were at showing any sort of complicated device, whether mundane or magical. "So what do we need to do, Caitlin?"
She gave me one of her patented looks. "YOU aren't going to do anything, Morgana, except stand around and watch. This needs to be done right the first time, and I don't have the time or patience to teach you how to make one of these."
"And don't give me that wounded kitten look, it doesn't work. I go into at minimum a half-trance when I'm doing this so you don't want to accidentally get between me and whatever I'm banging out. Stand slightly to my side and behind me, you can watch. I may even answer a question or two IF it won't break me out of the mental twilight zone - but if I ignore you, keep quiet because that means I'm completely focused." She turned to Thulia, who'd been watching quietly. "Now I'll need you a couple of times. First when I cast some of the inner parts - I've made most of the rest, but this needs to be poured mithril, and I didn't see any point in getting the forge going for such a small amount of metal, not when I've got two teenage hotheads to melt it for me!"
I opened my mouth, then closed it again, while Thulia, fortunately, seemed amused. Caitlin just carried straight on, as if the idea that we wouldn't just do stuff as needed by her had never entered her mind. It probably hadn't. "The last part is for you to provide some blood for the attunement part. Once that's all done, I'll assemble and power it up in a few days' time."
"You aren't going to finish it up today?"
That remark got me a definite eye-roll. "Nope. There is quite a bit of detail work to do, then I'm going to power it up at the new moon to get the best effect. And I have other stuff to work on. You won't be needing it for a couple of weeks, Grimes said?"
I shook my head. "No, I have school stuff happening next weekend, my group is going out to a band gig. So I was going to bring Thulia over in two weeks."
Thulia must have heard the undertone in my statement at having to wait that long, as she patted me on the shoulder. "I couldn't visit next weekend anyway, it's only a couple of days before Samhain, and I have duties then I need to prepare for. Besides, you should never rush a craftsman."
Caitlin nodded. "Damn right you shouldn't! At least someone here recognises that!" She must have remembered at that point she was complimenting the demoness she'd been unhappy with, as she stopped and changed the subject pretty quickly.
Watching as Caitlin prepared the pieces of the amulet was fascinating. It was obvious she was an amazingly skilled craftsman, but there was something odd about it that it took me some moments to work out. I'd visited a factory once on a school visit, and they had shown us the assembly line, full of industrial robots. That was what Caitlins' motions reminded me of, each of her movements was tight and accurate, nothing wasted, and with a precision that didn't seem possible for a person. I could only recognise parts of the spells she was layering into the amulet, but I knew enough to realise a seriously complex weaving of spells and spell elements that were well above my level of skill. She made it look effortless, and the speed and accuracy were even more daunting. It was the sort of thing that would have taken me weeks at least to do, even if I'd been skilled enough. Besides me Thulia was looking very thoughtful, her attention fixed completely on the Artificer. I needed to ask her later what was so fascinating her.
Once she'd prepared the parts she'd had ready, she dug out a small bowl of some glassy black material; I didn't know what it was, but I recognised it, it was the same stuff her fighting stick had been made of. I assumed it was some tough - and presumably heat-proof - material, but Thulia's eyebrows went way up when she saw it, although she didn't make a comment. Caitlin obviously noticed, although she didn't pause in her pace in the slightest; her grin indicated that she'd both spotted my girls' reaction, and had no intention of answering an unspoken question. Finally, she stopped for a minute to look at us. "Now I assume that you can put enough out enough heat to melt some mithril for me?"
Thulia gave the bowl another look, then nodded. "Certainly, Caitlin. Would it be easiest if I held the bowl?"
Caitlin rummaged in a drawer, coming up with a small bar of an off-silvery metal. My eyes narrowed and I hissed slightly - I recognised that, it was what they'd made my chains of - but fortunately Caitlin was looking at Thulia and didn't notice my reaction.
"Yes. As you can see, the pattern is ready, it will work best if you can melt the mithril and then pour it carefully into the mold. That will help when I attune the whole thing to you."
Thulia held out her hand for the bowl, pulling her sleeve back a bit. Caitlin obviously noticed that was the entirety of her preparations before creating molten metal, but didn't actually say anything, although she did give an obvious look at the material of Thulia's robe. In fact she started to speak, then shook her head and muttered 'later' to herself, before handing Thulia the bowl and dropping the metal in.
Thulia held her hand out, obviously concentrating by the way her eyes narrowed a bit, as flame blossomed around her hand, the almost-violet flickers showing how hot it was. Interestingly the bowl itself didn't seem to get hot as she held her hand out over the top, her flame surrounding the mithril as it first glowed, then softened and started to run into a small glowing pool inside the bowl. A minute later the metal was starting to bubble slightly, so she gave Caitlin a questioning look. Caitlin just nodded, so Thulia stepped over to the workbench and carefully poured the glowing pool into the pattern until it filled with molten metal. "What shall I do with the rest, Caitlin?"
Caitlin was already bent over the pattern, checking it with that nonhuman precision again. A moment later she gave a nod, then looked up. "Just put it on the table and let it cool."
I had to admit, Thulia's control had impressed me. I could just wish that I would get that much fine control over my fire at some point, she made me feel clumsy. Well, she had been doing this a lot longer than I had.
Caitlin waited for the mithril to cool while she put some other pieces of the amulet together, then gestured to Thulia again. "Right, now I need a drop of your blood at each of the points of this pentacle."
Thulia nodded, but then bent her head to look at the amulet. "May I just check it out? Not that I doubt your skill at crafting, but" - she looked slightly embarrassed - "I need to know it's only what I agreed to wear."
Caitlin gave her a speculative look, then nodded. "Fair enough." She answered a few questions on specific parts before Thulia nodded. "Thank you, Caitlin. I just wanted to be careful."
Caitlin shrugged. "Not a problem. You can also check it out when it's done before you put it on. It's just as we agreed, no traps."
Thulia slid one claw out. "OK, now you need my blood at these vertices, correct?"
"That's right. Not much, just enough to fill the small hollows."
We both watched as Thulia used her claw to cut her finger, then carefully allowed a large drop of blood to fall into each space, before gesturing over her finger to close the cut again. I had been worried about this bit- while Thulia had assured me that so little blood wouldn't allow anyone to control or use her, at most, it would be an annoyance, I'd asked Grimes about it. She didn't seem annoyed at my worries and had sworn that the only use of the blood would be in the amulet. Granted, between them Grimes and Caitlin could probably have fooled me easily if they'd wanted to, but you can't go through life not trusting anyone.
Caitlin leaned over the amulet piece, before nodding in satisfaction. "Good, that will do. Now, I don't need you two any longer, so I suggest you run along and send Thulia home. I'll tell Grimes you're on your way."
Grimes took a few minutes to inspect the finished but uncharged amulet then straightened up and looked over at her companion.
"So, Caitlin, what do you think of our two love-struck firebirds?"
Caitlin snorted in derision at Grime's words but did think about her answer.
"They are so obviously teenagers in love, or at least in lust. So of course, what could possibly go wrong?"
Grimes raised a cynical eyebrow. "Probably a hell of a lot, or hasn't your time at Whateley shown you that?"
Caitlin scowled a bit. Yes, Grimes was quite correct, but she didn't appreciate having it pointed out like that. She was still annoyed at Grimes for tricking her into being a minder for the pair on Thulia's first visits - while it had been subtle, she was certain that Grimes had set them up. That meant it was her turn to annoy the teacher, and she'd need to give some thought to a suitable riposte. Served cold, of course.
"I'm still not sure about that demoness. OK, she hasn't done anything bad - yet - and if I didn't know what she was she'd seem a nice enough kid, but... she's a demon."
Grimes gave her a thoughtful look. "That's true, although there are some odd things about her I'd like to find out more about. But that amulet will bind her, so she can't get up to too many tricks."
"Oh, it will bind her - I made sure of that!"
Grimes looked at the piece again. "Went a bit over the top with it, didn't you?"
Caitlin shook her head stubbornly. "I don't take chances with demons. Yes, she may be what she says she is - although there are more than a few glaring gaps in what she's actually told us - and so far she's acted normally, but until I know a lot more, I'm not going to trust her. And maybe not even then!"
Grimes gave Caitlin a long look, then nodded. "I agree, its best to play safe. But at least give her the chance to show herself as friendly - if nothing else, her relationship with Morgana will help with that."
Caitlin considered. "You really think a demoness can have a close relationship with a mortal?"
Grimes shrugged. "It's not exactly common, but it has happened. And Bella thinks what they feel for each other is real, and I trust her instincts."
"Ok, fine, but I remain to be convinced."
Saturday, late evening, Morgana's room
I looked up from my work to give Bianca a half wave when she walked in. She'd been staying out late recently; I knew it was something to do with getting her new Secret Lair (tm) all ready and comfortable, but not any details. She'd been here earlier on - when I'd got in there was a row of spell cards lying neatly on her desk while the varnish dried on them, so I assumed she'd made them for tomorrow. She just nodded to me as she put her bag down, so I got back to concentrating on what I was doing, which was to inscribe a quite complex set of magic symbols on a piece of art card. I'd nearly finished, so it only took a few more minutes before I straightened up and put it down with a sigh of relief. The basic spells were much simpler, but not as good or as long-lasting.
"So what are you making?"
I looked over at Bianca, who was in the middle of getting ready to go and get ready for bed.
"It's a protection spell, for tomorrow. Just in case." I rolled my neck to get the crick out. "In any case, I need the practice."
My pale friend got up and came over to take a look, her eyebrows going up as she looked it over. "That's a lot more than the basic ones we did in class. Getting paranoid in your old age?"
I casually gave her the finger, which just made her smile. "Well, yes, it's more complicated. If I need it, I want it to be a good one and last a bit better than a scrawled spell slip. So I've done two of these to take with me, just in case something happens. All I'll need to do is power them up. I've had to make a few changes to allow for the differences in my essence flow, but that just needs a bit more care. I'll get used to it soon."
This time she peered to take a closer look. "Hmm. Better materials as well. You know, making the ink with your blood would help as well."
"Yeah, but Grimes told me not to use my blood for any magic until she'd had a chance to examine me." I made a face. "Again. Apparently she thinks my blood is magically active or something. So I did make some better ink, but no blood."
Bianca looked thoughtful. "Magically active blood? What's that supposed to mean?"
I gave an expressive shrug. "I have NO idea! I suppose it's something different from normal mages, but she didn't actually bother to explain it. You know what she gets like."
Bianca snickered. "Well, we know you're not normal, don't we! Do you think you'll need something like that?"
I looked at the two spell cards and shrugged. "Dunno, really. I could just be getting paranoid, but Vic did get into a lot of trouble when he went to Berlin, so, just in case... Anyway, they'll come in handy in BMA. Just need to put some varnish over them before I go to bed, and all done."
Bianca thought about it for a moment. "No offensive spells?"
"Nope. Remember what we were told, no fighting. This is just protection, anything happens and we leave it alone, not escalate it, right?"
She nodded firmly. "Right."
I didn't mention that she had permanent offensive spells tattooed all over her, I knew Bianca wouldn't use them unless she had to. Laura, I was a bit more worried about, the blue girl could be a bit, well, over-reactive at times. And if I had to, I could cast spells as well. While we ran away.
I gave her a look. "Just in case... well, I still need more practice with my casting, manipulating my essence is a bit different from before, but I have worked on that flashy light spell I used in BMA. It won't hurt anyone, but it's good for getting away." Of course, I was probably being a bit paranoid - we were only going shopping, after all - but after realising I'd been bugged maybe Bianca's paranoia wasn't quite the joke I'd been teasing her about. I thought about telling her about it, then decided to wait till tomorrow. I wanted Laura to take a look at it first, and she hadn't been in. No need to get Bianca more worried before the trip, I could talk to Laura and her about it later.
Seeing that I was putting my stuff away, she sat back on her bed and looked at me closely. "So, now what happened this afternoon?"
I gave her my most innocent look. "This afternoon?"
She leant forward and poked me. "Yes, this afternoon! When you summoned your demonic girlfriend, remember?"
"Oh, right. That." I thought back to what had gone on and smiled. I must have paused longer than I realised, as I got another poke. "Hey!"
"Serves you right for zoning out like that! So I take it things all went well, from your reaction!"
"Oh yeah...well, actually doing a summoning was a bit scary, even with Grimes there to keep an eye on it, but it all worked, and Caitlin has got what she needs for that amulet Thulia has to wear. So next time... I can actually spend some time showing her around."
"Showing her around... Oh, is that what it's called now?"
I gave her my severe look, which had absolutely no effect. "Bloody hell, you're getting as bad as Laura!" I looked down and sighed. "Really, I just want to spend some time together when we aren't fighting evil minions, or waiting for me to blow up, or something..."
She must have seen my face because she just patted me gently on the shoulder. "You will. And if you want, you can bring her here and I'll give you some private time."
I nodded. "Thanks, Bianca. I appreciate that."
To Be Continued...