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Into The Light
I was sitting in the back seat of yet another SUV (green one this time) being driven by Colin Forsyth, the same Lieutenant from the phone conference between Director Goodman and Ms. Carson. A tall Asian woman, who had identified herself as Mrs. Sugendo, sat up front. Poor Khan was stuck once more in his travel cage and I had to admit I felt at least somewhat grateful to Soren for the scope of the scholarship I was sure he had arranged for me. It had included paying for all sorts of details as one would expect from a scholarship: books, school supplies, tuition (including room and board), and uniforms. To my (and the Director’s) surprise it also covered all related expenses for bi-yearly transport to and from the school via chartered plane out of the closest airport to the school.
A DPA agent who I had never met before had been assigned to take me to the airport in Van Nuys. We didn’t say much during the drive, especially as I was in disguise and just trying to make sure Khan would be okay with the car ride and the much longer flight after.
He was a trooper and did just fine sleeping in proper lounge style upon the luxury seats on-board the chartered plane. He also insisted on sharing my in-flight gourmet turkey sandwich.
The disguise had been provided by Gregory - a purple hairband which while worn made my hair a dark chestnut color to go along with the pair of auto-tinting glasses that also turned my eyes a rather striking blue. Combining these two devises along with some makeup done to me by Nicole plus a creme-colored business blouse tucked into a long dark grey skirt with nylons and black pumps underneath made me look not just different but older.
I’ll admit the nylons felt weird, but I knew I’d probably need to get used to them - Whateley uniforms for girls required skirts unless the weather was too cold. Although I thought taller socks were also acceptable, I’d have to check to be sure. Having makeup done was also an experience: Nicole had done it quickly and professionally and she aimed for an understated look to it all. I will admit it was effective.
I’d spent the previous few days hidden in my room at the DPA facility as the Director had decided I really shouldn’t be seen by all the field agents he’d recalled to that location. Ms. Carson had requested at least two days to ‘properly prepare quarters’ for me, and Goodman had agreed.
Danielle had been picked up by my friend Isaiah, with the plan for her to stay with him until Mark got out of the hospital. I argued to let Isaiah in on the fact I was still alive (I really wanted to say goodbye to my friend), but they shot that idea down. Being the attorney handling my estate, if he knew for truth that I wasn’t really dead then he could possibly violate his oath to the bar by managing legal issues around my supposed death.
They won the argument by also pointing out that it could jeopardize my work-provided life insurance policy’s payout to Danielle if there were any irregularities perceived by the insurance investigators. The policy wasn’t for a huge amount, but it was still significant. I did feel bad about defrauding the insurance company, but Danielle tried to make me feel better by quoting Obi-wan Kenobi at me - that the death of Justin Thorne was true ‘from a certain point of view’. I was starting an entirely new life, my old one was indeed dead and needed to be buried.
Not that I’d get a burial. They had to tell Isaiah that I’d been cremated when he’d demanded to see a body as proof of my demise.
Saying goodbye to Danielle had been hard, even if we knew it was only to be for a few weeks before she could also travel to the school to prepare for the Fall Term. I could sense her deep-seated unease at me going so far away with her not being allowed to try and contact me, but there was nothing we could do about it. As much as she tried to put on a brave face she ended up crying a few tears anyway; I held back mine until she had gone.
Departing the plane in Berlin - the town in New Hampshire closest to campus - Colin and Mrs. Sugendo had been standing there waiting on the tarmac by the plane. I had walked down the portable plane-stairs carrying my meager baggage: one guitar in its case, one cat in his case, and an under-filled DPA backpack slung over a shoulder that only contained the clothes the DPA had provided over the past week during my time with them. I was wearing the jeans, shirt, and other under items Danielle had gotten for me.
Mrs. Shugendo had inquired if I had any luggage in the cargo hold. I think I laughed and told her all my worldly possessions were in my hands and proceeded to put the guitar and backpack into the back of their Ford Expedition which had been pulled up next to the hanger where the charter plane had parked.
I had climbed into the back seat of the SUV while Mrs. Shugendo signed some paperwork for the patient crew-member of the charter service. They hadn’t said much as we got moving, I was behind them and had been trying to distract Khan by sticking a finger through the cage’s metal door so he could sniff it and know I was still with him.
“How far is Berlin from the campus?” I finally asked Colin after we were clear of the airport and out on open road. I noticed both his arms had scars - something with claws had left some nasty grooves on his skin. Thinking back to Tsayid’s claws I shuddered and decided I didn’t want to ask how he had gotten them.
“About fifteen to twenty minutes drive. But I think we may have other stops first before we get there.”
“Other stops? I hate to cause any issues, but I’d like to get Khan here somewhere I can set up a litterbox for him. You know, before he makes a mess in his carrier?”
Mrs. Shugendo looked back at me and frowned. “We have an appointment in Dunwich for your uniform attire, and from the looks of it you are completely without any other clothing or accessories. This should also be remedied.”
“Uh, I agree I probably need a lot of things… but…” My little guy was a trooper, however holding things in for that long? Erk.
Colin came to Khan’s rescue and spoke to Mrs. Shugendo. “There’s a large box store down in Gorham. Ms. Emrys’ flight arrived early and we budgeted extra time for brunch, so we have plenty of time before the Dunwich appointment. I could drop you both off at the store, get her cat to her room at Whateley, and then back to pick you both up. I presume there are supplies for your cat waiting or do you need to buy those too?”
I shook my head. “There should be everything needed already there, delivered from Amazon yesterday. You sure you don’t mind setting it up though? And skipping brunch?”
He smiled. “Nah, don’t mind at all.” He looked at Mrs. Shugendo with a raised eyebrow.
“Very well. It would be impolite to be late to the appointment, but don’t risk yet another speeding ticket Lieutenant.”
Colin flushed. “Yes, ma’am.”
I lifted my finger to gently boop Khan’s nose. “Hey little guy,” I said to him, “You’re going to go with the nice man and I’ll join up with you later, okay?” He meeped at me, not entirely happy with being stuck in there but he curled up into a ball of silver and black fluff - the white of his belly hidden from sight.
It took us about thirty minutes to get from the airport to the box store - you know, one of those that every part of the country has in it, which sells everything, and I do mean everything. Colin dropped us off before heading back up route 16.
“Thanks for coming to get me,” I said to Mrs. Shugendo as we walked towards the store.
“You are quite welcome. How long will those devises that are maintaining your disguise last?”
“Oh, uh… a few days according to Gregor.”
“Good. Your official story has you arriving to Whateley two weeks ago, so keep them on until we get to the academy.”
I echoed Colin’s earlier statement. “Yes, ma’am.”
She laughed. “Relax, when we’re off campus and I’m not officially on duty, call me Michi. While the Lieutenant has not been read into your real circumstances, as Dean of Students I have been. I’m well aware you aren’t as young as even your disguised appearance shows. It’s also just as well it’s only the two of us for your first post-change shopping trip. You may have certain questions.” She smiled gently.
“Yeah, I guess I might,” I sighed.
“You do your own makeup this morning?” she asked.
“No. And considering how early the flight was, I absolutely was not awake to pay any attention to how she did any of it.”
“Hmm. It would be a useful skill for you to acquire, especially if you want to pass as older. Ah, that reminds me, I have this for you.” She handed me a manila envelope which I promptly opened.
It contained a New Hampshire vertical ‘Youth Operator’s License’ with my real hair-color and fake age of sixteen. Hot damn, I could drive. Along with an official U.S. Passport, a Whateley Student ID, and my new MID, it also contained two credit cards - one black and one blue, both in the name of Jordan Emrys.
Michi commented. “There are restrictions on licenses here for those under the age of eighteen. You are not allowed to drive between one and four a.m. Also for the next six months you cannot drive with more than one passenger who is less than twenty-five years old unless accompanied by a licensed adult who is over twenty-five.”
“Good to know. Although I doubt I’ll do much driving - I don’t exactly have a car at the moment.” I grinned ruefully.
“Parking is greatly restricted at Whateley in any case, and there is an additional required driving course before being allowed to drive onto campus. Now, those two credit cards you are holding, the black one is for school expenses: your uniform, books, and other scholastic as sundries. I have been informed that it has already been used to order you a new laptop provisioned with increased security software. You may purchase a smart phone and pay for the plan with that card as well. The blue card draws on your yearly stipend, which is what shall be used for your personal clothing, makeup, and hygiene products.”
“That answers my question of how to pay for this outing. Thanks! Can I at least buy you brunch if we have time?”
Her smile grew warmer. “That would be lovely, thank you. But first - let’s get you outfitted.”
“You know, I could just order more things from Amazon come to think of it. I’ve been told my sizes.”
“Goodness, no.” She shook her head. “One thing you will need to learn about being a woman is that clothing manufacturers do not truly agree on what sizes mean. Until you get a feel for that manufacturer, trying on clothes first is the best option if you want things to fit properly. Especially bras - and you’re going to need more than the one you currently have on. This store wouldn’t be my first choice for acquiring such things, but unless you are willing to spend quite a bit more today, it may have to do.”
“What do you mean about willing to spend more? How much more?”
“Our appointment is with a specialty tailor in Dunwich, a Miss Cecilia Rogers. She is one of the best seamstresses in the world, if not the very best. Your scholarship included a clause that she was to provide your school uniforms - which is a very good thing, as she offers free repairs to her products. And given that Whateley at times can be a bit, shall we say, rough… it’s a useful warranty to have.”
My eyes narrowed. “A bit rough? That sounds ominous.”
She nodded. “Whateley Academy provides an excellent education for its students - for its special students. The world for those with mutations and abilities is a dangerous place, and Whateley is designed with that first and foremost in mind. Our job as staff is not to coddle our charges - we do our best to protect them, but their first line of defense is always their own skill and ability. Training can require, at times, a hands-off approach that leaves them to fend for themselves against other powered children.”
“Why does this suddenly sound straight out of the book Ender’s Game?” Second and third thoughts about sending Danielle to anywhere ‘rough’ like this were flooding through my mind ringing all sorts of alarm bells. What had I gotten us into?
“A somewhat apt analogy - and I can see it disturbs you.”
“You’re damn right. Only a few days ago I agreed to send my niece here - but she has had enough bullying for being a mutant already over the years. Now you’re saying that could continue but instead of being tormented by regular kids, this time it’ll be by ones with powers?” We had gotten inside the automatic doors and past the store’s greeter, now we were standing in front of the women’s clothing section which was close to the front.
“Yes,” she said, her voice firm. “As you love your niece and wish her to survive the real threats in this world - against those that would use and abuse her for her powers to their own nefarious ends - there is no better place for her to be. She will learn confidence, control, adaptation, and survival tactics that will serve her well in this new life she is embarking upon as one of the powerful. The same goes especially for you, Jordan. Both your lives may someday depend on the quality - and the challenges - of the lessons and environment we provide.”
I shook my head. “Forget Ender’s Game, now you’re talking The Dosadi Experiment.”
She laughed. “That’s a level of harshness beyond even us, thankfully.”
“Good.” I sighed, trying to accept that decisions had already been made and that she likely was correct. It was a new and risky world that Danielle and I had stumbled into - my encounter with Tsayid had made that perfectly clear. “Alright then, what outfits should I acquire to supplement my standard-issue Whateley battle fatigues?”
“Hmm. Let’s go find out, shall we?” With that she led me further into the women’s clothing section.
Let me just say first that women’s clothing makers suck. Seriously. No two brands agreed on sizes, vindicating Michi’s warning about ordering from vendors online. While we were just trying to get a number of outfits to have something for me to wear outside of the school uniform for weekends or trips to town, good grief I ended up having to try on everything individually. Even jeans made by the same company which claimed to have the same size failed to match in how they fit once I put them on.
And don’t get me started on the cheaper lingerie that lined the shelves at this place. We wasted an incredible amount of time trying to find bras that would fit me properly. Either I’d be drowning within their huge over-the-shoulder-boulder-holders, or get pinched sideways, or they’d push my boobs up and over the top of the damn things as if I was planning on going to a renaissance faire. Ugh!
Michi caught my eyes glowing with frustration and suggested again that I splurge with my own funds on a few tailor-made items at our next appointment. When I asked what her custom tailor would charge I think my heart skipped a beat while I gasped in shock at the numbers she quoted.
It took a few more ill-fitting garments all imported from China before I threw in the towel and announced I would eat the cost, even if I could buy a serious gaming computer (or two!) for that kind of cash. Michi reassured me that, given time, I’d admit they were worth the money. Time would tell, I suppose, but I had my doubts.
By the time we got through the checkout line with my new wardrobe all smushed into multiple bags, Colin was waiting outside with the SUV. He must have guessed by my expression what I was about to ask because before I could say a word he told me that yes, Khan was set up in my room, his supplies put out for him, and that when he had left the little guy was hungrily tearing into a couple cans worth of his food.
I thanked him, but still felt anxious about getting to campus so I could check on my kitty myself. First, though, we had to grab a quick early lunch, and then off to this mysterious tailor Michi kept hinting was world-class, very special, and how it was a privilege to even have an appointment with her. I bit my tongue instead of commenting that with those kinds of prices either she was truly worth it, or had Hollywood connections doing her promoting.
Lunch was from a local fast-food place along the way into Dunwich, the smaller town that was the closest to campus and where ‘Rogers’ Fabric Boutique’ was located. The less said about the burgers we ate the better. I did insist on buying, though after we finished I mentioned that perhaps I should apologize instead. It had been fast as advertised, but we all agreed that ‘food’ was a bit of a misnomer. Ah well.
Thus it was that we arrived on time to an unassuming storefront that sat along the main (and probably) only) shop street that the town offered. A tourist would probably walk right past it to get to the t-shirt shop a couple doors down, but we went on in. Michi had instructed Colin to wait with the car, which he didn’t seem to mind. Wondering if I was about to be poked and prodded for measurements in excruciating detail, I was jealous he got to just chill with the satellite radio.
The inside of the shop looked about what one would expect: flowing dresses, elegant suits, and other high-end items were on display over remarkably life-like mannequins of men and women in a variety of nationalities. They looked real - which caused me to do a double-take because somehow I could also sense that they weren’t alive, yet when one actually slowly began to move into a new pose I jumped backwards. If I emitted a girlish shriek in surprise, no one commented and thus it didn’t happen. I admit nothing.
“Welcome!” A woman’s voice echoed from the back of the shop. “Michi, is that you?”
Mrs. Sugendo answered, “Yes, Cecilia. I have Miss Emrys here for her appointment.”
“Wonderful! I’m a bit pressed for time today, so we’ll have to do this quickly. Bring her on back!”
I followed Michi as we crossed to the back of the store. The mannequins all subtly adjusted themselves to remain in full view of us as we passed. It was impressively done.
“Hmm,” Michi said as we walked. “Remove your headband and drop that disguise, Cecilia will need to see your natural colors.”
“Okay.” I pulled off the headband and felt a slight electric charge spill outward and through my hair, turning my head so I could catch sight of the darker color swirl into crimson and gold. Tugging off the glasses, I held them and the band awkwardly, as I had nowhere to put them. My new leather purse (Michi insisted I needed one, hush) was still in its package in the car.
“Oh, you can put your things over here.” A young looking brunette emerged from behind a counter wearing a dark green shop coat over a simple beige blouse and slacks. She gestured to a spot on the counter, and I dutifully set down the ‘keys’ to my disguise. She grinned. “I recognize those! How is Gregory these days?”
“Uh, he seems to be doing fine. You know Professor Kirov?”
She laughed. “I know a couple of them, but yes I know Gregory in particular. We collaborated a few years ago when he needed to disguise someone to get into the…” She caught herself and looked at me. “Into the place that I can’t tell you about. Sorry!”
I grinned. “No worries. Even if it sounds like an interesting story. I’m Jordan.” I offered her a hand to shake in greeting, which she took lightly in her own with a sly smile.
“I’m Cecilia, if you haven’t guessed already. Come around here and into the scanner, okay? Like I said, I’m tighter on time than I’d like.”
Mrs. Sugendo’s cel phone rang, her ringtone sounding awfully like part of the musical score to the original Ghost in the Shell animated movie. “It’s the academy, I need to take this.” She started walking back towards the front as she answered the call.
Cecilia ushered me into a small booth that looked much like the changing rooms back at the store, except that these walls were a smooth metallic silver. “I’m testing out a new system today, one that doesn’t require the client to disrobe or even move. Let’s see how it does with you!”
Thinking back to Big Betty’s scanning devise, I wondered how much information Cecilia would actually pick up with hers. Call me paranoid but… on second thought, just call me paranoid.
I heard a number of fans spin up somewhere nearby, and the floor vibrated with a low level hum. Then just as quickly as the sound had started, it quieted again.
“That’s it, come on out. Fantastic, that did better than I expected!”
“It did?” I asked, stepping out of the small room. A genderless and unclothed mannequin near Cecilia began to, well, it morphed. Into a perfect copy of me. Correction: into a perfectly naked copy of me. Skin color, hair color, even the eyes matched.
I was suddenly massively grateful that Michi had told Colin to wait in the car.
“Exemplar, I take it?” I jumped again; Cecilia had moved up behind me and I hadn’t noticed.
“Uh, yes. Level three.”
“So you’ll need more reinforcement to your items, plus stretchability. I have the list as provided by the school for your uniform selections: skirts, slips, socks, blouses, blazer, winter jacket, and sweater. I outsource shoes to a hob-channeling friend of mine when I’m this busy, hope you don’t mind.”
I blinked. “No, not at all. But what about pants? I read the school handbook, and aren’t girls allowed pants for colder weather?”
She looked consideringly at me. “Cold weather won’t affect you much with you being an Exemplar. The jacket and other warmer items are more for show when visitors are at campus and it’s a red flag day. Having a young girl cross through snow wearing nothing but a short skirt and a blouse would raise eyebrows, so you’ll need to keep that in mind come winter.”
I nodded. The campus had a colored flag system for how little or how much powers needed to be hidden from view. Red indicated no powers were to be used, period.
“I can understand that, so why no pants?”
She placed a hand on my shoulder, and looked slightly up into my eyes. “Hon, you’ll need the longer skirts instead for such days. Or risk being clocked too easily.”
“Clocked?” I frowned.
Giving my shoulder a squeeze, she let it go with a smile. “How long has it been since your manifestation and you joined the, shall we say, softer half of the human race?”
I blushed, as I suddenly understood what she meant. “About a week.” Damn.
“Stick to skirts for at least a year, okay?”
“What gave it away?” I asked, resignedly.
She leaned back against the counter and considered. “A number of things, but I know what to look for. Offering me a hand to shake was one, especially the way you held it. Also how you move - when you aren’t thinking about it your body’s natural grace shines, but I think you’re catching yourself occasionally and second guessing things, and it stands out. I can help with that, actually.”
“How so?” I shook my head. “This is all still extremely new and yeah, awkward.”
“I teach a class at Whateley; you should take it - or something similar - to help learn how to flow smoothly with your new form.”
“Oh? What class?” I was curious - and dreading the thought of having to deal with teenagers realizing I had swapped gender teams. With everything Mrs. Sugendo had warned me about the school, being ‘clocked’ as Cecilia termed it would paint an even larger target on my back.
“Ballroom dancing.” She grinned, anticipating my reaction.
She laughed lightly at my expression. “It’s actually a lot of fun, most students who take it end up enjoying it a lot more than they expect. And as the school has a number of required formal events throughout the year, given your circumstance you might consider it a natural requirement to add to your curriculum.”
“I’ll think about it.” I had no idea what classes I’d be taking, and after one misguided quarter in college when I’d ended up with a ridiculous number of units and barely made it out of all the finals alive, I was naturally cautious about overloading my schedule.
She looked sad, as if I was brushing her off so I quickly followed up with, “I really will think about it. This week has just been overwhelming, and I don’t want to falsely commit to anything without having time to reflect and plan. Tomorrow I’m supposed to meet with my student adviser and start trying to figure out a fall schedule. I’ll mention your class, okay? Learning how to be a… uhm… learning such things is part of why I’m here.” Could I feel any more awkward? Don’t answer that, my own imagination is bad enough.
She nodded, her expression brightening. “Good! Now, Michi mentioned you might want some items which would not be covered as ‘school related’?”
“Actually, about that… wouldn’t appropriately colored sets of bra and underwear be considered mandatory as part of meeting the school’s uniform policy?”
Her eyes narrowed mischievously and she grinned again. “As a professional seamstress, I would have to render an official opinion that without the right undergarments an entire outfit would be undone.”
I smiled back. “Then I think I need to add a few pairs of such to my scholastic wardrobe. But also,” I said more seriously, “I’m going to need a couple for weekends and non-uniform use. The selection at the store today was, as they say, a total bust.”
She laughed at my pun, earning her points towards my attending her class. “Well then, I think we should get abreast of things and remedy your situation! We wouldn’t want your mood to sag, after all…”
“Nope! Keep it perky, is my motto!”
Mrs. Sugendo had come back in while the two of us were laughing like loons, and raised an eyebrow. “I miss something?”
“Not at all,” Cecilia said, “We’re just having a moment of… sheer… exuberance!”
I groaned exaggeratedly. “I should have guessed. As a seamstress you must have puns just corset-ing through your brain.”
We both giggled again while Mrs. Sugendo rolled her eyes and said, “I thought you were on a tight schedule today, Cecilia?”
“Oh! Yes, I am! Right then - to work!” Cecilia shook her head free of our silliness, and I saw her mind come alive with a deep focus while she stared at my perfect replica that was still standing in front of us. “Your uniform items I will do later and have delivered. But for your custom personal ones… let’s start with purple to go with your shirt!”
She gestured, and from behind her came spiraling through the air purple toned fabric along with underwires, thread, and lace. I was astounded as the material simply flowed like water over my dopple-ganger’s curves and began to assemble itself into a matching bra and panty set, hugging the skin of my mannequin as it moved in tune with the orchestra of material to stretch and pull just as Cecilia needed to get what I had to imagine would be the most perfect and intimate fit.
From beside me Michi said quietly, “And this is why her products are worth every dollar spent.”
Witnessing a spectacle worthy of a Disney animation, I could only nod in agreement.
“Now I think I believe you.”
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You have to understand that in Southern California the hills are only green for a month at best at the end of winter, then turn drab brown for the rest of the year. Well, except for when they catch fire. And rain? In summer? Unthinkable!
The humidity in the seasonal heat that reminded me of the last time I was in a sauna pretty well sucked though. If I had been in my old body I would have needed a shower by now, if not two. Without humidity there’d be no green, I know, but… bleh.
Approaching the campus I noticed a shimmering in the air which at first I mistook for rain, but then realized it wasn’t rain at all. It was like there was a mostly translucent curtain hanging across the road and leading off in a circle around the entire area. As we drove right through it I felt goosebumps crawl across my skin and my tongue tasted a hint of electricity. It felt odd.
Mrs. Sugendo’s phone rang suddenly again, and she answered. “Dean of Students speaking.” She paused to listen to the other party then replied, “Yes, we just crossed onto campus… I see. Interesting. Yes, we will take her to Schuster Hall first, then to her cottage.” She hung up, and turned around from her front seat to look back at me. “Did you feel anything just now?”
I blinked. “Uh, yes I did. Felt electrical. What was it?”
“The campus’ mystical wards. I was just informed that your presence was detected as the barriers, and I quote, ‘just surged and rippled as if momentarily amplified’. Did you do anything?” Her expression was intensely serious as her eyes tried to bore into mine.
Shaking my head I said, ‘No. I just saw a shimmering in the air. When we drove through I felt this buzzing as it went over my skin. That’s all. When I try anything I usually light up like neon.”
She grunted. “Interference with the wards and security of the school is an expulsion triggering offense. Leave them alone.”
I hadn’t done anything and had no intentions to, but decided to just acknowledge her. “Yes ma’am.”
Seemingly satisfied she turned back around in her seat. “Lieutenant, if you would be so kind as to drop us off at Schuster Hall and then deliver Miss Emrys’ packages to her room?”
Echoing me this time, he nodded. “Yes ma’am.”
We pulled up to a large red-brick building - something else you don’t see in California: brick structures. Earthquakes have a bad tendency to knock them right over. Behind the building rose an elaborate glass or maybe crystal dome which was quite large - a greenhouse perhaps? From what I could see over the rooftop, it was quite pretty.
Getting out of the vehicle, Colin lowered his window and nodded to me with a smile. “Welcome to Whateley, Miss Emrys. Will see you around!” I thanked him for his help today, and he drove off towards what I presumed was a staff parking lot.
Mrs. Sugendo was waiting when I turned around. I could see that here on campus her demeanor had shifted - she was now Dean Of Students, and in charge. Oh, right, and I was now one of the young students in her care.
She spoke. “We have a couple stops to make before we get you to your dormitory, young lady. You were originally assigned to Poe Cottage, but its rooms do not have adequate space. Instead a heavily warded space has been prepared for you by our faculty at the Hawthorne Cottage.”
Huh. I wanted to ask what she meant by ‘student like yourself’, but she turned and marched up the steps into the building. Looking around I saw a few kids walking by, so I decided not to press the question and risk accidentally revealing anything even at range. Who knows which student might have superhearing or eavesdropping devises - I didn’t want to chance it as I noted that the flag fluttering under the stars-and-stripes was a solid green, indicating that powers use was currently allowed.
The next hour went by quickly as Mrs. Sugendo (I didn’t dare call her Michi) gave me a tour, starting with an ostentatious oil portrait of some guy named ‘Lord Paramount’, followed by needing to acknowledge a large pile of gold being held nearby. I thought the whole thing odd, but will note that the number of cameras and other odd ceiling formations that may have contained traps to reign down on foolish thieves was intimidating.
As she led me through the halls, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own high school back in the day. I’d attended what, at the time, had been an all-male college preparatory school. Excellent education, but I’m still not sure how my mom managed to afford to send me there. I checked the current tuition after Danielle moved in with me as they now included girls as students; I was shocked to see that the yearly cost had grown to rival even the Ivy League universities.
This place felt even more expensive somehow - which had me pondering just how large the grant Soren had arranged must have been to get me admitted and also to get the reaction it did from Headmistress Carson. Maybe I really was better off not knowing.
Mrs. Sugendo proceeded to take me around the campus, pointing out which buildings were which. The greenhouse crystal dome building was actually the Crystal Hall - the main campus cafeteria. I would never have guessed that. The Doyle Medical Complex looked really impressive, and had me pondering her statements about how rough the academy could be. Looks like they were well prepared for anything medical.
I also caught sight of a large and beautiful red-tailed hawk that landed upon a nearby tree as we were walking past. It seemed to be staring at me, so on a whim I smiled and waved at it when Mrs. Sugendo wasn’t looking. To my puzzlement, it nodded back at me, but before I could point it out to my guide, the bird took off into the air again. Gorgeously colored plumage, the reds in its feathers were a lot sharper and more brilliant than the hawks I’d gotten used to seeing back home. I wondered idly if it was a male or female, but didn’t know enough about birds or the species to tell the difference. Either way, it was strikingly pretty and I felt a moment of envy that it could fly so easily, while I was stuck here on the ground. Ah well.
Finally we arrived at what was revealed to be my new home, Hawthorne Cottage. It looked to have just a few stories to it, but from what I had already read about the campus I knew it had several basement levels in addition.
She led me inside and turned me over to a Mrs. Cantrell, who was the housemother for the cottage. She was a friendly African-American lady who sadly was confined to a wheelchair - even if said wheelchair actually didn’t have wheels, but instead floated about on its own power.
I thanked Mrs. Sugendo politely before she headed back to her office for her tour and for taking me shopping, telling her that I owed her a proper meal in thanks at some point. I could see her professional demeanor as Dean slip slightly as she smiled and admitted that would be nice - should our schedules permit.
Then it was just me and Mrs. Cantrell - and a couple of students sitting on couches in what appeared to be a small lounge inside the entrance. They were busy watching something on the television, so didn’t pay us any mind.
“Come now, dear,” Mrs. Cantrell was saying. “Let’s get you up to your room so you can settle in. Your packages and your cat are waiting.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” I said as she hovered towards a wider-than-usual elevator. It looked industrial, and I commented as such.
“We get all sorts of students staying with us here in Hawthorne - some have rather severe cases of GSD and need the extra room. Our cottage is designed to help students who have special needs.”
GSD - Gross Structural Dystrophy - the label applied to mutants who have physical changes which at the extreme end can be horrifying as well as life-threatening.
“Speaking of extra room, yours is fairly unique. The Mystical Arts faculty have been busy for the past few days preparing it for you.”
“Uh, how so?”
“They’ve set it up with what they termed ‘Dimensional Barriers’. I’m told your adviser will give you the details tomorrow, though of course you’ll see what they’ve done when we get up there. Their plan required additional space - more than our usual rooms could accommodate - and after much discussion, it was decided to place your room outside the cottage’s own wards so as to not interfere with them.”
The elevator doors opened, and I let her float on in first so she could turn around easier before stepping in myself. She waved an ID card at the elevator’s control panel, and pushed the top button marked ‘A’.
“Outside the wards? Aren’t those usually bound to the building they protect?” I knew that much - I’d worked at places that had anti-magic wards to protect their servers from interferences.
“They’ve lowered the wards to exclude the attic and the rooftop - which is where your room is.” She said cheerily.
We accelerated upwards at high speed, yet smoothly came to a perfect stop and the doors opened revealing an expansive attic space maybe fifty by a hundred feet in size with high vaulted dark wooden beams covering the ceiling. The roof of the building on either side of the room sloped down forming its triangle, so along those sides the head clearance was greatly diminished as the slopes led into the walls, but the sheer size the space encompassed gave it an immense amount of space for a single loft. The matching stained wood floor looked freshly mopped, and what really caught my attention was what had been done to it.
In the center of the whole loft-attic sat a king-size four post bed with folded blankets and sheets sitting there waiting for someone to put them on its bare mattress. Worked into the floor around it were three layers of circumscribing mystical circles that stretched outward a good twenty feet in radius from the center of the bed. Each of the three layers was distinct in style and content. The outer circle was etched with what looked to be words in the Greek alphabet mixing with other sigils I semi-recognized as planetary or astrological. The middle circle lay just inside that outer circle and was comprised of three lines twirling tightly around each other in a beautiful and elegant celtic knot-work pattern, along with writings in Norse runes aligning along its edges. This middle circle also enclosed a five-pointed pentacle - the center of which held the third and inner circle.
That’s what truly caught my breath - the interior circle contained a Star of David, the six pointed star formed of two equilateral triangles, and it had Hebrew words inscribed along the lines and circle. I instantly felt I should know their meanings and weirder still they seemed to be both absolutely correct and yet also somehow missing crucial parts.
I took a step closer in absolute fascination, but Mrs. Cantrel caught my arm with her hand. “Hang on, child. Power down until we get you settled.” Looking down at her hand, I saw I had flared up again, my skin starting to cast its light across the room.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to.” Refocusing away from that inner circle, my light faded away. I then heard a familiar meep from the rafters, and looked up to see a cat peering down at me from a lower beam. “Khan! How’d you get up there, buddy?”
Mrs. Cantrel chuckled as we watched Khan take off at a quick pace to navigate the overhead maze until we saw him first jump down on top of one of the many empty bookshelves that lined a wall, then cross over the shelves until hopping down onto what looked to be a rather elaborate and fancy antique vanity complete with its own wide mirror resting over flat surface with drawers below.
From that perch he jumped down the rest of the way and hit the ground running full speed to leap up into my welcoming arms. We bonked foreheads, me grinning and him purring loudly.
Mrs. Cantrel gestured to the spacious loft. “This was once used by a faculty member who wished a larger space for her magical practices, and yet also wanted to be close-by for those students who greatly needed her assistance that lived here. There’s a small bathroom through that one door over yonder, but the shower is non-functional. You will need to shower with the sophomores on their floor below. Your student ID, just like our faculty IDs, will trigger the elevator to allow access to this space.”
She floated through the room, reaching a set of double doors with many inset glass panels - and similarly paneled windows framed the two doors on each side. “There is a small balcony on the rooftop through these doors, with their own access panel. Again, use your ID to open it. Students normally are banned from being on the roof, or even being on this floor - but you can escort other students up to your room as you wish. However, the administration has decided that only you are allowed to use the balcony. This is a safety measure - other students could be injured if they were to fall off the roof, but given your Exemplary status and Regeneration abilities they deemed it allowable for you to go out there. I lobbied for this, as in the winter we’ll need you to shovel the snow off the balcony area - as I didn’t think you’d want maintenance to be lurking outside your windows peering in if they had to do it. Think you can manage that?”
“Sure, no problem.” Yep, I definitely didn’t want any peeping workers lurking through those windows. They had a great view towards the forest beyond the campus, and I’d hate to have to install curtains and cover the vista. Though given the southerly direction, I might want curtains for the morning sun if I intended to sleep in. Hmm.
I spun around slowly while taking it all in, holding my happy kitty over one shoulder. Aside from the antique vanity, numerous and barren bookshelves, and the massive bed in the center of the room there was a large stately oak desk sitting off on its own, plush leather chair lurking behind it. I also spotted a seven foot high and similarly wide wardrobe unit that had both drawers and swinging door panels which covered a space tall enough to hang things in. No closet, but the size of that wardrobe more than made up for that. I was seriously surprised by it all.
“This seems incredible for just one student,” I commented.
Mrs. Cantrel nodded. “This is not our standard accommodations. But Circe insisted that she did not want, as she put it, your ‘energies manipulating the ley lines of the area and causing mischief with our security - or worse’. And we also decided that mixing you with the resonances within our cottage’s basement would be, shall we say, problematic. This seemed the safest compromise.”
“Circe? Codename for one of the faculty, I take it?”
“Codename? Dear me child, no. That’s her name. Has been for a long, long time.”
I grew suspicious. “How long?”
She smiled. “Since before a certain clever warrior had a much delayed journey home to Ithaca.”
“Not at all, hon. If you don’t mind a piece of advice, try to be extra polite to her. As I understand it, she may have opposed your admission at first. We don’t know why, and I usually wouldn’t mention it - but this is Circe we’re talking about. Tread carefully.”
Oh great. If Odysseus had experienced great trouble dealing with her, how was I going to manage? A multi-thousand year old legendary sorceress didn’t want me here - that really didn’t sound good.
“Try not to worry about it too much; the Headmistress’ decision was final, and Circe has a strong sense of honor. Now, I’ll leave you to unpack your things. Come on down in an hour or so and I’ll introduce you to some of the other students - they can escort you to dinner. Summer months are usually quiet as most of our students go home, but this cottage especially has more who stay here through the season instead.”
“Dinner is a good idea; that’s at Crystal Hall, right?”
“Yes, dear. Oh - I almost forgot! Your feline friend there is being allowed under the rules for mystical familiars. You should read up on those, but in short summary: you’re responsible for him and his actions. He’s allowed to join you for any mystic arts classes, but otherwise should be constrained to your room. I will allow him, for now, to join you in the lounges here in the cottage. He seems rather friendly, and his presence may bring cheer to some of our residents. But if there are any incidents, he will be need to be confined.” She floated higher so she could reach over and pet his grey and silver fuzzy noggin.
Being incorrigible when it came to affection, he tilted his head so she could reach better the white areas under his chin.
“Ooh, you are a little sweetheart, aren’t you?” she cooed at him.
I agreed wholeheartedly. What can I say? I’m massively biased!
She gave him a final scritch (or maybe two) before returning to the elevator. It wasn’t until after the doors were closed and she was gone that I remembered something she had said. What had she meant about it being problematic to mix my ‘resonances’ with the cottage basement?
What exactly was down there?
As I didn’t exactly have a lot of stuff, putting everything away in the expansive wardrobe did not take long. It also made me notice I was woefully lacking in clothes hangers, as we hadn’t thought to get any at the store earlier. Oops. Hooray for ordering from the Internet, except that the laptop they said I would be provided with had yet to arrive. I also was without a smart phone, something else I’d likely need to take care of - though on further reflection I realized I didn’t have anyone I could call or text.
Like that wasn’t depressing or anything.
Fortunately I did have Khan - and he’d discovered the collection of toys I managed to remember to acquire at the store. So instead of moping on my newly made bed (white sheets with gold trim, purple blankets and matching pillows if you must know, seemed I was developing a color theme), I freed the fuzzy toy mice from their plastic captivity and tossed one for him to chase and bat about the waxed floor. He slid happily about in pursuit of his fabric-furred prey, which he dutifully returned to my feet for another toss.
Yes, my cat played fetch. I made sure to never let him know that was something dogs did, I never wanted to spoil his fun.
There was a professional-looking phone resting on my new desk with a small display panel and all the crazy buttons you’d expect on something hooked into an office network. I was glad it displayed the time, seeing as I was also without a watch - who needed watches when phones had clocks these days? Man, I really needed to get a phone soon. Anyway, I kept tabs on the creeping minutes by use of the archaic wired device, until finally deciding it was close enough to dinner to go brave meeting some of my fellow students.
If I had known a place to call in and order a pizza, I really would have been tempted.
Making sure Khan still had plenty of water and food set out, I grabbed my student ID card, summoned the elevator, and went on down to the first floor lounge where I had seen the kids earlier.
Three of them, two girls and a boy, were still there, watching what looked to be an episode of Daredevil on the giant screen television. Mrs. Cantrel, however, was nowhere to be found after I looked about for her. So I leaned against the doorway to the lounge to see if any of the kids would notice and say something.
The boy looked to be about sixteen or maybe even seventeen. It was hard to tell, as while he was only wearing a black swimmer’s thong of some kind, he also had wrap-around super dark sunglasses completely covering his eyes along with what appeared to be orange industrial-use safety ear-plugs. Yet his attention was obviously glued to the television while he sat on the very edge of the large brown leather couch. He was tall and lanky but well-muscled, and had a wild crop of dark curly hair nesting on the top of his head.
As for the two girls, one (wearing the standard blouse and skirt uniform) was curled into the other corner of the couch from the boy, dusty brown hair spilling down on one side of her face whereas the opposite side of her head was buzzed extremely short. Her eyes looked up at me for a moment, causing me to think she might say something - but then she looked away and pulled her knees even tighter to her chest.
The other girl, possibly older than the first though perhaps not by that much as I couldn’t see her face to tell, sat cross legged on the plush reddish-orange rug that covered the floor before the television. I could see she was wearing green pants, with a lighter green top. Her back was covered mostly by her long hair - hair that was a deeper shade of green than even her pants, and which was comprised of strands with the thickness of at least toothpicks. Her skin was a shade of dark mocha which actually went well with her green clothes and hair.
I noticed one other accoutrement that the speedo-wearing boy and greenish girl were wearing - they both had a silver bracelet around their left wrists. At first I thought they might be wearing matching watches, but I didn’t see anything which looked like a display. I wondered if they were dating.
Seeing that a fight scene on the television had just finished, I took the opportunity to butt in. “So uh, excuse me? Anyone seen Mrs. Cantrel?”
Green girl and speedo-boy both finally turned to look at me, the other girl busily studied her shoes.
“She’s busy - if you’re checking out from visiting someone, the log book is by the door.” Speedo-boy gestured vaguely towards the cottage entrance.
“I’m not visiting. She was going to introduce me to others who live here who could show me where we get dinner.”
That got the full attention of all three. Green girl, with a voice akin to a musical wind-chime, said, “Wait, you new?”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “Just got settled in upstairs, sort of.”
Speedo-boy and green-girl glanced at each other then back at me. He spoke first. “Dang, what did an obvious Exemplar like you do to get stuck in our freak-house?”
I knew Mrs. Cantrel had mentioned some of the kids in this cottage had severe GSD, but ‘freak-house’? Really? Deciding that honesty would be my best foot forward, I replied with some truth.
“Energy control issues. Well that and some concern about slipping accidentally into an unidentified dimension or something while I sleep.”
“No shit?” Speedo-boy got to his feet. “Hey - you the reason all the Mystic Arts teachers were hanging in the attic the past couple days?”
“I guess so. That’s where I’m supposed to stay - and they did some magic circle thing around my bed.”
Green girl gracefully got to her feet in a smooth swaying motion. “You have a name?” she asked.
“Jordan. Jordan Emrys.” I smiled. “Nice to meet you all.”
That earned me a slight smile in return. “I’m Miranda, and that’s Leland. He’s a junior, I’m a sophomore. Oh and that’s Evie. She’s a freshman.” She inclined her head towards the girl still on the couch who was studiously not looking at me.
“Pffft,” said Leland. “C’mon, this is Whateley! Do it properlike. I’m Sense, and our lovely greenery here is Dryad. The shy pretty one behind me is Mindshriek. How ‘bout you?” With the way his head moved to follow me as I stepped further into the room, I could tell he was able to see through those blackout glasses somehow - they weren’t to cover blindness, in any case.
“Me? Oh, right, I’m Aradia. Sorry - this is all still really new to me. Not just the school, but well, code names, powers, everything.”
That earned me some looks of sympathy. “Just manifest?” asked Miranda.
“Yeah. A month or so ago.” Director Goodman had my cover story include developing my ‘new’ Exemplar look and powers five weeks prior. My ‘old’ self was supposed to have been much shorter with darker hair - and previously needed glasses. An introvert bookworm type not interested in socializing would make the fabricated social-media presence (or lack thereof) for Jordan easier to fake according to Gregory.
Leland whistled. “Well, you won the ‘pretty’ lotto, that’s for sure.”
My face must have shown embarrassment as Miranda went to punch Leland’s arm, but then she thought better of it, pulled the strike a couple inches from his shoulder, and then lowered her arm. (Okay, yes, I admit - I blushed at the boy’s complement. Happy?)
“You hungry?” Miranda asked quickly. “We can take you to Crystal Hall if you want. I could eat.”
“I guess? But shouldn’t I talk to Mrs. Cantrel first?”
“Nah,” said Leland. “Like I said, she’s busy. Rockslide had another episode and Mrs. Cantrel likes to be there for her when the gas wears off. C’mon, let’s go.” He moved towards the doorway, but then paused to look over his shoulder at Evie. “You want to join us tonight? You know you’re always invited.”
The dark-haired girl just shook her head ‘no’. She turned her attention back to the television.
Leland shrugged. “Hafta ask.” He headed down the short hall to the cottage entrance. “Thankfully it’s a green flag day! Freedom!”
I glanced at Miranda questioningly.
She just shrugged. “It means he doesn’t have to wear pants.”
After eating at the DPA’s small cafeteria for most of the past week, I must admit the contrast was remarkable. Whateley kids from what I could see ate like kings and queens. The choices were tremendous, and I finally settled on a large anti-pasta salad accompanied by a tortilla soup with some garlic breadsticks.
This caused Leland to look at me funny. “I thought you said you were an Energizer too. That going to be enough food? Most of those types eat enough for five people, if not more.”
I looked down at my tray. “I don’t think my appetite has increased any, to be honest.”
On the walk over, they had asked me about my powers. I gave a vague summary, but didn’t mention specific levels. They may be cottage-mates and all, but we did just meet. Miranda told me about hers: she was a biological blend of plant and primal human (her terms) - meaning that when she slept she literally became a tree and needed to take root. Problem was, in order to wake up she had to be physically uprooted first. Her room in Hawthorne had a hoist system that she’d bind her arms to before sleeping so the whole thing could just lift her out of the shallow soil they’d had to lay out for her floor.
She had told about the time she first changed and how it had taken scientists over six months to figure that out. By then her roots had gone so deep that they actually had to chainsaw through her trunk to free her and wake her up. Seeing my horrified reaction she reassured me that it hadn’t hurt - when she sleeps she’s usually ‘in the Dreaming’ and so doesn’t feel a thing from her physical body.
We arrived at the Hall before I could ask her more about that because I was curious, but I got distracted by the plethora of eating choices.
Most of the tables in the Hall were empty, though a few were occupied. Miranda told me that when school was in session, sometimes getting a table during breakfast or lunch rush could be tricky - especially if you didn’t have friends saving you a seat. I noted that not all the chairs were the same: some were much larger and obviously reinforced. The biggest examples looked pressurized with hydraulic lifts. I thought back to Natalie’s story of the girl-turned-golem and wondered how kids could handle that kind of change.
It wasn’t until we sat down that I noticed my new companions had selected unusual food items, considering the variety offered. Leland had a simple bowl of oatmeal into which he was stirring some kind of protein powder, whereas Miranda had a raw steak accompanied by a glass full of some kind of brown smoothie. Seeing my puzzlement, they both chuckled at me.
“Don’t mind our culinary predilections, Jordan,” Leland laughed. “Dryad here needs a mix of raw proteins and vegetable minerals. Her digestion was once termed ‘peculiar’ by the doctors in Doyle.” Miranda stuck her somewhat brown tongue out at him, but didn’t debate the description. “As for myself,” he continued, “all my physical senses are crazy sensitive. I can see for miles, hear whispers in classrooms on the other side of campus, and I can tell you exactly what temperature, pressure and humidity it is.” He grinned, and took a bite of his oatmeal. “Problem is,” he said around his mouthful, “that it’s all oversensitive and can overload my brain if I lose focus. So while my bowl of oatmeal may seem bland to you? It’s actually at about the limit I can willingly let myself taste.”
I put down my own fork, feeling my appetite dwindle in sympathy. “That’s awful.”
Thing is, he just shrugged. “It is what it is. I could probably tell you the exact molecules that this stuff is made of if I tried. It all happened when I was a kid, so I don’t even remember what normal folk’s tastebuds are like.”
“How old were you?” I asked in spite of myself, curiosity winning out.
“Five. The worst was my sense of smell, god that was awful. I could smell every last thing for miles around - every fungus, every person, animal, bird, every flower, you name it.” He shuddered.
“Could?” I looked carefully at his nose, but didn’t see anything like filters in his nostrils.
“I fixed it. My folks realized something was very wrong when I took the barbecue lighter, lit it, and torched the insides of both nostrils.” He stared off over my shoulder. “Solved the scent issue, but I am kinda glad they got to me before I could do the same to my eyes.”
He noticed I had stopped eating as I sat there in shock at his story. “Oh shit, sorry - didn’t mean to put you off your food. Seriously, it’s okay. These glasses block almost all the light so I see more like normal folks with ‘em on, same with the earplugs - I actually hear because of what travels through my skull. It’s loud, but manageable.”
“What about touch?” I remembered Miranda stopping herself from connecting her friendly jab with his skin.
“Eh, some days it’s better than others. Is why I have a waiver for green flag days to just wear these things,” he gestured towards under the table, “and flip-flops. I can deal with the wind if it’s not too strong. On red flag days, though, I have to wear a proper uniform - so they give me some whacked drugs to dull the sensations of my skin way down. I’m kinda loopy on that stuff; if I have quizzes or tests they let me just use the video conferencing setup we have in each room in Hawthorne. Anyway, that’s why I call myself ‘Sense’.” He smiled, shrugged, and took another bite of oatmeal.
“Huh, I didn’t see a monitor or camera in my room. Granted I’m supposed to be getting a laptop.”
Miranda had been hungrily devouring her raw steak, which provided a good view of how sharp her front teeth actually were. “Aren’t you up in the attic? Maybe they haven’t installed it all yet. Hey - as a mystic arts student myself, I’d love to see those circles you said the staff put up there. I bet they look cool.”
“Yeah, they actually do. Though I’m not sure how comfortable I’ll be sleeping in it.” Ah hell, remembering Miranda’s own sleeping arrangement, I felt like an idiot and babbled quickly, “I’ll get used to it, I’m sure.”
I shoved some salad into my mouth and hoped she wouldn’t be offended. If she had been, she didn’t show it.
“So why’d you choose the name ‘Aradia’?” Leland asked instead.
From behind me maybe two tables away I heard a gasp, but I tried to answer him.
“Well, when I power up? I really start to glow, like under the skin white led bright. All my powers seem connected to raw light mystic energy somehow. So, you know, ‘radiant’… Aradia! I had to choose something.” I shrugged. I didn’t want to try and explain how Soren had been the true source of the name. Yeah, no.
“How dare you!” From behind me a girl’s voice echoed with sheer indignation, merging with the scrape of a chair being shoved backwards. We all looked over to see a girl, obviously rather pretty with her long flowing raven hair and piercing green eyes, standing and staring at me with fists clenched at her sides. Her friend, a skinny girl with brown hair in a ponytail, stared up at her with a clinical expression.
“Excuse me?” I said in surprise.
The green-eyed girl, who was probably a few inches shorter than me (though I didn’t stand up), stalked over to our table. “I said, how dare you!”
I frowned. Even Leland and Miranda looked startled by the vehemence of this girls anger. “How dare I what?” I asked her.
“How dare you take that name! Are you even of The Path?” She wore the standard uniform blouse, but I noticed a silver necklace around her throat from which dangled a single black opal clasped in more silver. Something about that opal was somehow bothersome, but her question distracted me.
“The… Path? What’s that?” I said, somewhat befuddled.
The girl spluttered as her eyes seemed to want to pop out of her head. Miranda answered me in a cautious tone. “The Path is a specific form of Wicca. Tamara follows it, as does her mom.”
Green eyes flashed at Miranda. “That’s ‘Sigil’ to you, and my mother is the High Priestess of the Wiccan Council! She does not merely ‘follow’ The Path - she IS the Path!”
Trying to redirect Tamara’s anger back on me, I said, “Hey, you’re upset with me, remember? So what’s the deal about me using the codename ‘Aradia’?”
I succeeded, as she turned back to me in disgust. “How could you even pick a name without bothering to look it up properly. But to those of us serving the Goddess, using that name is like someone choosing ‘Jesus Christ’! A devout Christian would be outraged! You’re new and obviously an idiot - change it tomorrow and I’ll let this go.”
Right. Ender’s Game, challenges, Fight Club, first day in the prison yard. Fun, right?
Putting down my fork again (I really wasn’t making much headway on my salad, all things considered), I slowly stood up so I could deliberately look down at Tamara. At the same time I reached out to the Light that seemed every day to be more and more readily available. I let my eyes and skin begin to burn with its glow.
“I may be new, but as I understand it as long as a name is not in use by another, it’s fair game. But if you really want me to choose another name because mine seems to offend you so badly, I’ll make you an offer. I’ll change mine… if you change yours.”
Her eyes widened with the incomprehensibility of my challenge, her mouth parted but was speechless.
My irritation may have gotten the better of me as I said, “Think of it as a test of your faith. If it means that much to you, what sacrifice to your Goddess would be too much to bear?”
“You… bitch!” Her hand flew towards my face.
Much to her surprise, I caught it. She was strong, definitely Exemplar, but lucky for me I was stronger and held her fast. I saw her shorter friend walk quietly up behind her.
“I’d rather not start a fight on my first day here," I said. "My offer stands, but I’ll do the research on the name and make up my own mind what to do about it. Until then…” I released her arm and took a step back. “Have a nice night!”
I both felt and saw her gathering energy about herself - sparkles appeared in my vision which flowed upwards to spin around her upraised hand. It looked like she was about to start drawing in the air with her power when her friend tugged at Tamara’s other arm. Her friend shook her head ‘no’ at her, eyes looking back at me in disturbingly cold calculation.
Tamara, shaking off her friend’s hand, spat at my feet. “You’ll regret this, noobie. C’mon Fields, let’s leave this bitch to her freak thornie friends.” With that she marched off, her friend following closely behind.
Inhaling and letting it out slow, I started to release the energy I had called up. Turning back to Leland and Miranda, I noticed Leland looking a bit pale. Miranda, though, her eyes were closed and she had both palms held facing me with a blissful expression on her face.
Her fingertips had sprouted tiny little blue flowers.
“Miranda? You okay?” I sat down, gawking at her hands.
“Mmmmm?” Her brown eyes opened and she shivered. “Oh wow. This is… amazing.” Her voice chimed distantly.
Leland and I glanced at each other in confusion, then back at Miranda. “Uh… it is?” I asked.
“I’ve never felt anything like this…” She reached towards me to brush a flower from her fingertip across my still fading arm. Then, as the last of my light disappeared, she recoiled. “Oh my god!” She blurted, yanking her hand away from me.
Leland, his voice a bit awed, said, “I’ve never seen her grow flowers before. What did you do?”
“I just powered up a little…”
“A little? Look at her eyes, her pupils are totally dilated.”
I looked. He was right, they were.
Embarrassed, Miranda snapped them shut and crossed her arms, hugging herself. We could see her trying to shake off the effect.
“Crap. I’m sorry Miranda…”
She held up a hand at me. I watched the flowers fold back into buds and then disappear back into her fingers. “No, it’s not your fault. None of us knew. It’s just,” she bit her lip and blushed fiercely, even with her dark skin. “That was maybe the best thing I think I’ve ever felt.”
Leland just had to say it. “Dang, if that was just a little powered up - imagine if you went full strength!”
Miranda bit her lip even harder, and I could see her breathing quicken at the thought.
“Uh, I don’t think that would be a good idea.” I said cautiously.
Looking between us, Leland laughed. “Yeah, definitely not in the cafeteria anyway.”
“Oh my god,” Miranda said again, and buried her face in her hands.
That got Leland laughing even harder. I tried, once again, to maybe finish my dinner. We sat in silence for a bit, except for an occasional chuckle from Leland, then I thought of something.
“Hey, why did Tamara call you ‘thornies’?”
Leland turned his covered eyes towards me. “Isn’t that obvious? We live in Hawthorne. So we’re ‘thornies’.”
It finally clicked, and I burst out with wild laughter.
Miranda and Leland stared at me. Leland said, “What? It’s not that funny.”
I couldn’t contain my giggles, nor could I explain why to them: the irony of fate was just too hilarious. A short few days ago I had given up my rightful name.
You know: ‘Justin Henry Thorne’.
It seems the universe had decided that regardless, I was still meant to be a ‘Thorne’.
Grinning foolishly, I held up my glass to my new friends. “To Hawthorne, and to all us ‘thornies’!”
With shrugs and confused looks, they both clinked my glass.
We made it back to our cottage without incident. They both wanted to see my attic room, so I brought them up in the elevator on one condition: I wanted to borrow a tablet or something so I could use the Internet. Leland handed his over without protest.
Once up there, they spent the first ten minutes chasing Khan around. Miranda was thrilled at the thought of our cottage having a cat. Leland tried to play it cool, but I saw the grin on his face when he got Khan to chase after him in return. Miranda at that point had become distracted by the mystical circles on my floor, kneeling at the second circle and she seemed to be reading the Norse runes quietly to herself, slowly making her way around to examine the entire circuit.
As for me, I needed to know what Tamara had been going on about. She had been right on one point - I really should have done research before selecting any name.
Especially as mine had a Wikipedia entry, referencing a book, Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches. I kid you not. No wonder Tamara freaked out.
There was a lot there, even stuff calling Aradia a demon. But it was that book from 1899 that really caught my attention, as it begins with the story of Aradia’s birth to Diana and… Lucifer, whom it described as “the god of the Sun and of the Moon, the god of Light”.
Daughter of Lucifer. That really didn’t sound good. I’d say, ‘What the hell, Soren?’ except the answer could well be: ‘yes, exactly’.
Leland and Miranda hung around for bit longer while I kept reading, but soon Leland wanted to get to his computer and log into some multi-player video game - he openly admitted he was addicted to it. Miranda, concluding that the circles on my floor were too advanced for her to understand properly, left with him to go watch more Netflix in the lounge downstairs.
Thanks to Leland graciously letting me continue borrowing his tablet I spent another hour or two trying to do more research on my chosen codename - but didn’t find much more other than interesting historical details regarding Stregerian witches. Leland, before his inner call to ‘grind more raiding mats’ as he put it, had been amused that he and the author of the Aradia book shared a name - the author was named ‘Charles Godfrey Leland’. He thought that was pretty cool.
Other than Aradia being a goddess-type who either was born here or came down to earth from spirit to keep doing magic and her being the whole ‘daughter of Lucifer and Diana’ part, I didn’t find any other connection to angels. If anything the whole mystical tradition described was somewhat anti-society for the time and therefore anti-Christian. In fact a modern follower of the ‘Aridian Tradition’ had accused Leland of ‘Christianizing’ the legend with his eighteenth century book and description of her.
Frankly I was more confused at the end of those hours than I had been when I started. I began to wonder if Soren had called me by that name purely as some sort of inside joke. But at the same time, he had just recited a solemn Hebrew prayer and seemed very serious. What he specifically said was ‘For you are my Sabbath candle…my Aradia’, in which case he may have just been referring to the legend itself - with me being just ‘his’ metaphoric version of her, due perhaps to some angelic or mythic similarity.
If that was the case, the Lucifer’s daughter angle might be the important part, and not the goddess-based tradition of Aradia herself. Maybe.
I wondered if Soren would still answer my questions after I flattened his nose. Worth the risk, in my opinion. After all, why the hell did he have to go and kidnap my niece if he was interested in me all along? Couldn’t he have just grabbed me first? Somewhere in the back of my mind I felt like I had a possible answer to these questions lurking in the depths of my subconscious, but no matter how much I beat my inner face against those waters nothing of substance revealed itself.
Eventually in absolute frustration I dropped the tablet on my bed and pulled out my Dad’s old Spanish flamenco guitar. I had do something entirely different to distract myself, or I’d start shouting at the walls. And if the room wasn’t soundproof enough, that could lead to campus administrators deciding I needed padded walls instead of just the funky triple-circle-of-whatever-it-did inscribed into the floor.
The poor guitar had been sitting neglected for far too many years, so I had to restring it first before I could play anything. Fortunately I had followed my Dad’s tradition when the instrument was last packed into its case so there was a spare set of strings in there along with a tuning fork. Forks never needed batteries and therefore were excellent backups to the fancier electronic tuning devices most people use these days. Once I replayed in my mind how to tie the tiny knots on the strings properly to secure them to the pegs and to the bridge I got it tuned. New strings need to be played for awhile before they stretch and settle, so I had to re-tune them pretty much after each piece I attempted to first remember and then play. You can break them in faster if you just strum the heck out of them for a bit, but I was trying to ease into it a little more slowly than that. Again - didn’t want to freak any possibly listening neighbors with sheer chaotic flamenco hammering.
Even if that would fit my current mood.
So I started slow - first some simple scales, to ease my fingers back into the patterns. That took some getting used to all by itself as my fingers were now not only more slender but also longer than what they were only a week or so ago. Strength and nimbleness, though, that they had those to spare - nor were they getting sore from pressing on the fretboard without the usual callouses one develops with regular play.
Between being able to remember in absolute detail all the sheet music I was now without and the remarkable new dexterity in my hands, I had to admit that being an Exemplar really had some nice perks. After getting through some simple scales and chord progressions, I added some tremelo on top as I regained some confidence that hey, I still could maybe play this thing!
Finally I began to test out the various pieces I used to know, finding the muscle memory still somewhat rusty and slightly off. But the more I played, the smoother it became as my brain started to adapt its old commands to the framework of new hands, wrists, and fingers. Soon I began to lose myself in the music of malaguenas, fandangos, soleares, and especially the soft moving tones of granadinas.
As I played my mind conjured without conscious prompting the perfect sounds of my father’s professional playing that I had listened to as a toddler - memories I didn’t even know I possessed with such clarity. I soon found myself trying to play counterpart to his melodies and falsettas, my ears overlaying my halting tracks onto the much more accomplished remembered music he once joyfully played on this very same guitar.
Closing my eyes, I could pretend he was sitting there with me, his loving smile widening with encouragement whenever I missed a note and had to correct.
It took Khan nudging at my ankles for me to realize my cheeks had become damp once again. After wiping under my eyes with the back of a hand, I carefully returned the guitar to its case on the floor before letting Khan hop into my lap. He tried to help dry my face with the furry sides of his own which at the very least caused an end to the leakage. I held him close and was very glad he at least was still with me.
Eventually we got up, I put on new pajamas and brushed my teeth in my little bathroom, and together we curled up on the large bed within its triple layers of magic.
Khan may have fallen asleep first, but if so he only won by a few seconds.
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Moving towards the inviting percussive notes, the moist ground sent chills rising upward through the soles into feet and then ankles while airborne watery cousins thickened to press wetly with resistance against face and body. Hands reached outward to touch the solidifying barrier denying further progress.
Behind the impenetrable fog a voice was calling, the sound echoing a pull from within. Frustration and desire summoned will and light hoping to burn through the wall of forbidding mist. Hands aglow with inner resolve sank into dense cloud, illuminating the patterns contained within that defined the boundary’s very essence…
Once again a loud obnoxious phone abruptly yanked me awake.
With head still resting on a pillow my eyes opened, but my vision swam unsteadily between the dark rafter beams above my bed and the remnants of the fog which was still trying to cloud my sight and my mind. Khan was perched on my chest holding one paw resting against the middle of my forehead.
I could tell I must be shining again just from the feel of the energy flowing beneath my skin as a continual wave of goosebump-like sensations rushing through me - but when my vision finally focused on the waking world I saw I wasn’t the only source of illumination.
Khan’s usual yellow-green reflective eyes were glowing with a brilliant gold that must have matched my own.
He meowed at me. I was too surprised to move and just lay there watching as both our lights faded quickly away. The phone, however, impatiently repeated its shrill insistence.
Groaning, I slid sideways out from under the blanket so as not to cause Khan to be dumped unceremoniously onto the floor. I managed to grab the handset over on the desk before it finished its fourth ring.
“Hello?” My voice sounded both groggy and anxiously confused. Go figure.
“Jordan, dear?” It was Mrs. Cantrel. “A number of packages were just delivered for you. Also it is nearing eight o’clock - if you want breakfast, best get it soon so you won’t be late to your ten o’clock appointment.”
“Oh. Guess I overslept, sorry. I’ll be down in a minute. Thanks!”
She said, “Don’t dawdle now,” and we hung up.
I stumbled back over to Khan who had taken advantage of my exodus to stretch out across the remains of my warm spot on the bed. “You okay, buddy?” He just yawned in response, exposing more fluffy white belly. He seemed fine and rather nonplussed so I took a moment to give his belly fur a good rub while pondering what I had just seen and what it might mean.
To be honest, I had no clue.
Shaking my head at yet more magical weirdness, I went to my wardrobe and rummaged for the white t-shirt I had purchased because of its picture of Alice in her blue dress as she was falling down the rabbit hole from Alice In Wonderland. We both were falling into an entirely different world than we had ever known - and who knew what we’d find at the bottom?
As I slipped off my dark red pajama top, I noticed from the corner of my eye some movement out on the balcony. Without thinking I turned to try and see what it was, crossing over to the doors to get a clearer view of what might be out there.
Thick summer storm clouds rolled past as they dimmed the morning sky. They weren’t the source of the motion I spotted, however. Perched on the railing guarding the edge of the roof was the hawk I had seen yesterday. At least, I think it was the same hawk - the colors looked darn similar - but now I was much closer.
The bird was staring through the glass right at me. It even tilted its head sideways.
I looked down at my bare chest and realized that if a person had been standing out there they would have had a very nice view of my bosom.
Laughing at myself because of the absurdity of my new need to be careful in the future about going topless, I put my hands on my hips and began hopping up and down on my tiptoes as if to emphasize my own internal point as to why. This, naturally, caused my new frontal appendages to jiggle quite merrily.
“How’s that for a good eyeful, eh birdie?” I continued to bounce in amusement before the peeping hawk.
Magnificent wings stretched outward as its response, and damn me if the bird’s head didn’t then bop up and down in sync with my own rhythm as if it was also in on my joke and enjoying the show.
Sudden self-consciousness flooded across my cheeks. I tried to cover myself with my arms while standing there awkwardly.
With what I swear was a screech of amusement, the hawk launched itself upward to fly over the roof.
“That wasn’t weird or anything,” I muttered in embarrassed confusion. That really was just a hawk, right?
Turning away from the window and deciding to try not to think about it, I hurriedly got dressed while stifling a yawn or two. I didn’t know how late I had stayed up as I hadn’t checked, but obviously the sleep I’d gotten hadn’t been enough. Isn’t that usually the case though?
Now clothed in jeans-shorts, Alice t-shirt, and sandals on my feet, I hastily pulled my hair into a white scrunchy and headed downstairs.
Mrs. Cantrel hadn’t been kidding - resting just inside the lobby was a good sized pile of cardboard shipping boxes all addressed to me, Jordan Emrys.
I hoped I didn’t annoy anyone on other floors waiting for a ride by my use of a box to wedge the elevator doors open while I loaded them in, repeating the same to get them all out once I got back up to my attic. It wasn’t that they were too heavy for me to lift all at once, it’s just that even with enhanced strength juggling that many bulky items did not seem like a good idea.
As time was of the essence if I wanted breakfast (which was sounding better and better with each passing minute), I went through the process of just opening them all up to see what was inside and figuring I’d unpack later.
To my happy surprise, Cecilia Rogers had already overnighted enough items to provide for at least one full Whateley uniform, including a single pair of black leather pumps. The last time I wore anything with heels was some cowboy boots back at the end of college, so these were going to be interesting to get used to. She also had managed to finish a few sets of matching underthings. I will admit I was looking forward to trying them on, if only because I bet they were more comfortable than the much cheaper ones I was currently wearing. Sadly I didn’t have time to do that right now.
Another box revealed a laptop bag made by Samsonite, and sure enough the other slender box indeed contained my new laptop. Hooray! Knowing that starting it up would cause me to be horribly distracted while I irresistibly customized the desktop colors and background image, not to mention wanting to explorewhat security features it had, I reluctantly put it aside without yielding to the temptation.
The specifications on it looked pretty darn good though - even if it might need one of those cooling-fan laptop pads should I ever try to play modern videos game on it. I hadn’t played any for years, but hey - I was a kid again, right? After all, it might blow my cover if I didn’t at least install a couple. Maybe I should ask Leland in more detail about what he plays.
That still left six rather heavy boxes which had me puzzled, and none of them had return address labels affixed to them. After getting through the thick packing tape I found they were all full of books: paperbacks and hardbacks packed solidly to maximize the use of the container space.
The second box had a note:
Books have been one constant comfort through the years. May these help restart the collection from which you have been separated. - C.S.
‘C.S.’ - Callas Soren. It had to be.
Forgetting my time constraints, I dug through the volumes to form piles on the floor. My favorite authors were all included: Charles De Lint, Steven Brust, Gaiman (including all his graphic novels!), Heinlein, and many more. He hadn’t gotten all the books that probably still lined the shelves of my old home, as between Caroline and myself we had amassed a couple thousand or so which covered every available wall and had, in my opinion, made our home… well, an actual Home.
Other than the fact Khan lived there, of course - who naturally had immediately claimed and occupied one of the empty boxes resting next to me on the attic floor. Yup, cat.
There were a few other books that I didn’t recognize mixed in. The Book of Enoch, The Book of Jubilees, Learn Biblical Hebrew, A Dictionary of Angels, and another one called Inner Space: Introduction to Kabbalah, Meditation, and Prophecy by a rabbi named Aryeh Kaplan.
Talk about your not-so-subtle reading assignments. I hadn’t even gotten my course schedule figured out and I already had homework.
Oh crap, my adviser meeting! And breakfast!
I decided not to take the elevator which I had rudely monopolized to get all the stuff up here. Instead I bolted down the stairwell that sat next to it - noting that its door leading to my room also had a keycard security panel. Nice.
I ran out the doors and past Doyle to arrive behind Schuster Hall to get to the cafeteria. Oh, and it had started raining pretty hard outside while I was distracted by books and things, so I arrived fairly drenched as I didn’t have an umbrella. Would need to add that to my web-ordering wish list.
Considering the late time of morning, the cafeteria was rather empty inside - but the food was still hot. One hastily scarfed ham and swiss omelet with a pile of bacon to fortify it later and I was out the door again jogging down the road towards Kirby Hall - a round medieval-town looking building that Rabbi Immanuel Kirov was supposed to have an office within. According to the clock that hung above the cafeteria’s food-line, I had less than ten minutes to get over there and find the guy’s office.
Getting further soaked as I jogged and hoping to cut the distance, I turned off the main road’s pavement to run across the lawn to the architecturally mismatched hall. But as I went onto the grass my right foot came down and to my dismay sank a good six inches into a muddy sinkhole.
My ankle twisted immediately in protestation as my momentum carried me forward slamming me face first into more mud-covered grass.
I uttered some rather un-lady-like curses as I slowly extracted my foot from the muck, adding a string of additional epithets when I discovered my shoe had decided it rather liked things down at the bottom and hadn’t come up with my wet sock covered toes.
My ankle began to throb painfully as my knees also gained a layer of mud while I shoved a hand into the hole to fish out my reluctant tennis shoe.
That’s when I spotted the flagpole back at the square wasn’t waving a green banner today: it was a bright and obvious red. If I channeled any energy to heal, I’d become a human lamp - especially in the dim light of this storm-occluded day. No healing in public would therefore be tolerated, and getting in trouble on my first full day on campus really seemed like a bad idea.
Shit shit shit.
With the surprisingly warm downpour matching my rapidly souring mood, I tested putting my weight on my foot - only to have it crumple in further hot agony.
Gritting teeth, I began dragging my foot slowly across the soaked lawn towards Kirby Hall in halting and painful stutter-step-slides.
A tall kid, somewhere north of six foot fifteen in height and looking like a truck clad in a school uniform ran up to me. His blonde hair was damply plastered to his head, otherwise I swear he looked a lot like Guile from Streetfighter only wider and more muscular if you can believe that.
“Hey, you okay? I saw you trip…”
“Just… need to get indoors,” I said through the pulsing pain throbbing with each heartbeat. “Will be fine then.”
He looked down at my ankle, which clearly didn’t look fine. In fact it had swollen to the size of a football - an object he probably was very familiar with. Or at least ought to have been.
“You really should get to Doyle for that. I could carry you if you’d like.”
I could hear the genuine concern in his voice, so I stopped trying to sludge forward with a sigh. I looked around to make sure no one else was within earshot.
“I can regenerate, but it’s, uh, obvious when I do.” I winced as I tried to find my balance, and without asking first the guy put an arm around my shoulder to give me support. Which, dammit, I needed.
“Oh. There’s a girl’s restroom just inside the entrance to Kirby - that’s where you’re trying to go, right?”
I nodded. “Yeah.”
“C’mon, I’ll help.” I found myself practically lifted off the ground by his one arm, and with his aid managed to hop across the lawn. He kept talking; I think he was trying to distract me from my injury by doing so.
“So you new here? I’m Brandon Rogers and live over in Emerson.”
“Hi. I’m Jordan. Moved into Hawthorne yesterday.”
His step stuttered for a second. “Hawthorne?” he asked, with a note of caution having crept into his voice.
I shook my head. “Energy issues when I sleep. They put me in the attic - it’s big enough for the protection wards.”
“Oh.” He thought for a second and must have decided that I was safe enough, and his voice perked up. “Well, welcome to Whateley, Jordan! Nice to meet you. And we’re almost there,” he added as we approached the doors.
“Nice meeting you too, Brandon.” I couldn’t help but feel like a tiny hobbit in comparison to him - his arm was a tree trunk that had been doused with Miracle-Grow since sprouting. “And uh, thanks for the help. I really appreciate it.”
He grinned broadly - much like a puppy who may have just found his new favorite thing.
Oh crud. I was his damsel in distress and he was playing the part of the hero.
“Always glad to help!” he said brightly. Then after a thoughtful pause he said, “Say, tomorrow is our usual Emerson popcorn-fueled Friday movie night, you’re more than welcome to stop by…”
Holy hell, the poor guy was trying to ask me out… without actually asking me out. Smooth attempt, I’ll grant him that.
He even held the doors for me when we got to them so I could limp through, while patiently waiting for my answer.
“You know, I might do that,” I said after hobbling past still clutching my mud-covered shoe. Wait, what did I just say? I watched the puppy’s eyes gain their own inner glow of excitement. I hastily added, “But I can’t promise, okay? I just got here and I was warned I may have a ton of preparation work to do before classes start to catch up to everyone. That’s who I’m going to go see now - my adviser - so I can figure all that out.”
“Oh, well that’s cool if you can’t. But we’re going to marathon all the Prophecy movies - they have Christopher Walken in them, it’s gonna be great!” I could hear an edge of disappointment in his voice at the prospect of me not showing up. Dangit!
We made it across the lobby to the door of the women’s restroom. I turned to face him with as best a smile as I could manage in spite of my ankle’s continued complaints pounding on all the nerves it could find. “Hey, tell you what - if I can’t make it, I’ll take a rain check, okay? Only fair, considering we just met in the rain?”
He laughed easily. “Yeah, I guess that’s fair. Though I’ll still hope you can be there. Listen, I got to run myself, you sure you’ll be okay once you, you know…” He gestured at the bathroom door.
I nodded. “I’ll be fine. Thanks again.”
With a grin he turned to go. “Remember, eight o’clock at Emerson! Ask for Tank!”
‘Tank’. Of course.
He even turned to wave at me again through the glass windows of the lobby doors before running off through the summer shower.
With a groan that wasn’t just about my twisted foot, I dragged myself past the threshold into the girl’s room and into one of its stalls.
After making sure I couldn’t hear anyone else in the bathroom, I reached within to summon the light energies so I could let it flow into my poor ankle. It was starting to get easier and easier to tap into that flow, bringing with it a sense of peace for which I was grateful. I think it also messed with my mind too - I kept thinking back to Brandon’s genuine smile and his desire to help someone in need. Asking me to join him for the movies only occurred to him after he was trying to make conversation - his initial rush to my side was only to give aid. Only after we were halfway to the lobby did I think he realized he had a cute girl under his wing.
Even if that cute girl happened to be me, I still felt moved by it somehow. Must be a side effect of channeling this much of that heavenly light.
It took a good number of minutes and probably looked like someone was warning away ships from shallow dangerous beaches in my stall, but the pain and swelling went way down until I finally could rotate my foot without any issues.
I sighed deeply with immense relief and, with a bit of reluctance, let the energy connection to the above close off.
Stepping out of the stall on two steady feet, I caught sight of myself in the mirror and muttered a few additional choice words. My visage was covered in mud: face, shirt, hair, hands, arms, knees, you name it - it had wet soil smeared on it. No wonder Brandon hadn’t thought of me that way at first - I looked like a slender swamp thing!
And my adviser appointment was probably either in a few more minutes, or I was now late. With no clock (or phone), I wasn’t sure which.
Using the sink, mirror, and a ton of paper towels I did the best I could, plopping my squishy shoe over my utterly soaked sock-covered foot for good measure.
I hoped that the rabbi didn’t mind an ‘earthy’ smell wafting off of his students.
Heading out the door I almost bumped into another student about my apparent age or older. One look at me and she shook her head, causing all the multi-colored beads at the ends of her hair to clatter against each other.
“Damn, girl. What in tarnation happened to you?”
“Sinkhole in the lawn - wish I had time to shower but I don’t. Do you know where Rabbi Kirov’s office is?”
“Down this hallway and three doors to the left there.” She pointed.
“Thanks!” I hurried past her to follow her directions.
“Hey, wait up a sec!” she called after me so I paused, turning back to her with puzzled annoyance as she jogged closer.
“Hold still a moment, all right?” she said as she looked up and down the halls. I realized she was making sure no one else was around. Lifting one of her creme-colored hands, she closed her eyes in concentration while murmuring words I didn’t understand under her breath.
To my amazement, the dirt and grime that had soaked into my clothes, skin, and hair flowed slowly off in multiple spirals through the air which all coalesced into a single ball of mud hovering over her upraised palm. With another gesture from her other hand I felt a whoosh of heat suck the residue of moisture from my shoe, sock, shirt, and well… everything. Head to toe was now dry and clean - as if I’d just thrown on fresh clothes right after a shower.
“Wow!” I didn’t try to hide my amazement. “That was awesome, thank you!”
The girl smiled at me warmly. “You’re in the mystic halls, hon. I’m in the advanced class. You new?”
“Yeah,” I smiled back. “Not used to all this magic yet. Really cool.”
“Yep, it sure is. You going to be a student of the arts?”
“Honestly, I have no idea, but maybe? I mean, I need to learn control over the energies I’ve been channeling, so…”
“Energies, huh? That might explain this delicious looking aura you’ve got goin’ on.” She brushed her open hand over my head and a shoulder with a light touch that also yielded a momentary visible spark. Her smile widened, “Now that was interesting. They assign you a cottage yet?”
“Yeah, Hawthorne.” Before she could ask I explained like I did to Brandon. “They needed a large space for this triple circle thing - it’s to contain my energy issues when I sleep.”
Unlike the heroic puppy earlier, she didn’t flinch when I mentioned Hawthorne. “A thornie, eh? Some good folks in there.”
“How about you? I’m still learning them all.”
“I’m in Poe, sweetie. Anyone mention us yet?” She laughed as if to an inside joke of some sort.
“Only Mrs. Sugendo,” I answered truthfully. “She mentioned something about me being initially assigned to Poe - but the rooms weren’t large enough for their circle I guess so they put me in Hawthorne instead.”
This surprised the girl, and she looked me over with a new contemplative expression. “Really. In that case, I’m Lauren.” She winked at me.
“I’m Jordan - Jordan Emrys.” I wasn’t sure what my potentially being assigned to her cottage had to do with anything, unless she thought that if I got my energy issues under control I might be moved there into a normal room. I hadn’t thought of that myself - she might be right. Huh - from what I read in the school catalog brochure that would mean I’d be given a roommate.
Wonder if I could petition for a single anyway if it came to that.
“Oh you are a cutie, aren’t you?” Noticing my sudden distraction in thought, she giggled and tossed the ball of dirt into the air towards me to catch. “See you around, Jordan!” she said before she turned to merrily skip on down the hall to head into the restroom I came out of while still chuckling to herself.
“Uh, yeah, see ya!” I said somewhat lamely, though at least I managed to catch the ball. It was completely dry and packed solid.
Still holding it in my hand, I found the rabbi’s office and knocked on the closed door.
A deep yet calm voice with a slight accent that held a hint of New York and Yiddish answered. “Enter.”
It wasn’t until later that evening that I realized in passing thought that hey, wait a minute, had Lauren been flirting with me too?
I found Rabbi Immanuel Kirov in his office sitting behind a large oaken desk whose edges were covered in piles of leather-bound books, loose papers, and at least three dirty tea-cups each of a different style: glass in silver metal carrier, white decorative porcelain, and also a blue mug whose golden letters read, “Want to win at the Game of Life? Git God!”
Having met his two brothers, first at the hospital with the shorter and stouter Doctor Anton, and second at the DPA with the mountain of a man Professor Gregory, I found Immanuel to be a cross between the two and possibly the eldest. Despite his slouched demeanor as he sat in a black leather chair that obviously had seen much better days (what with the armrests showing spots of exposed and shredded yellow foam), I could tell he was likely taller than me, but unlike Gregory his face and chest were narrow, except for a slight belly held back by suspenders strapped down over his white dress shirt.
His white beard, while quite grand both in length and width, was immaculate and well-trimmed, but his eyebrows had the shared wild bushiness of his brothers. His wispy hair was also reminiscent of Albert Einstein’s frenetic style - albeit tempered slightly by a hand-crocheted blue and green kippah resting atop the sparse fractal mess.
He gestured vaguely towards me with a fourth teacup (glass with golden metal holder) without looking up. His bespectacled eyes were locked upon the pages of a huge tome dominating the center of his desk.
“Come in, come in. Have some tea; the samovar is freshly full.”
Thanks to my friend Isaiah (who I hoped was doing okay with Danielle and vice versa), I recognized the rabbi’s Russian tea apparatus - a polished bronze contraption consisting of a lower heated pot with a spigot, and a smaller teapot resting on top. It sat aside a small selection of presumably clean teacups all on a table which was wedged between two tall bookshelves filled with even more books of various sizes. Some volumes were labeled in Russian, others in Hebrew or Greek, and a few that I walked past may have been Sanskrit.
Quite a collection, in any case.
When I finished pouring the deeply dark tea, filling half a cup before using the spigot to dispense the hot water and dilute the potency to something I might enjoy and skipping the sugar or jam, he looked up towards me.
“To use the samovar, pour from the top… oh! You’re familiar with them?”
I crossed over in front of his desk to sit in an also well-used but red-leather chair. “Yes, a friend of mine has one, thank you.”
Adjusting the bi-focals on his nose he peered at me for a long moment. “You must be our newest student Ms. Emrys.” He nodded to himself as if confirming a theory he had held doubts about before.
“Yes, sir? I was supposed to be here at ten this morning?” Glancing about, I noticed his office did not have a clock - how late was I?
“Mmm. Is it ten already?” He patted at his shirt pockets, frowned, and then rummaged in the ones in his slacks before staring over at the brown professorial suit jacket hanging by the door. “My watch is likely in that coat of mine.”
He paused, and I wondered if he had meant for me to go fetch it but before I could rise from my seat (while still holding my rather hot teacup by its saucer), he waved a hand dismissively. “No matter, we are both here, and thus we were on time for that!”
He chuckled to himself at his joke, and then his eyes fell back to the tome on his desk. He started murmuring the words to himself as he continued reading from where he had left off a moment ago.
I sat quietly for a minute which must have dragged on to two, or even three. While the tea was quite good, I finally had to prompt him. “Sir?”
Without looking up he pointed towards his book with his non-cup ladened hand. “This part right here is most interesting, you see.”
“Uh, it is?”
“Oh most definitely. It has clarified a few things I was concerned about quite nicely.” He nodded happily at the book. I sat up straighter and tried to get a look at the open pages that were hidden from view by the stack of papers lying loosely between me and it. The font was tiny for such a large tome, and as the letters were obviously Hebrew I was none the wiser.
“Clarified what?” I asked.
He leaned back in his chair, taking a sip from his own cup while his hazel eyes twinkled behind his glasses.
“It has made clear that I should not try to teach you.”
What? He had to be kidding! After Gregory’s recommendations and my hopes for actually learning control of all the craziness, maybe even figuring out what it all meant… my anger flare instant and hot.
“Then… what the hell am I doing here… sir.” I didn’t shout it. I should have earned points for that alone. My teacup, though, began to rattle on the saucer I was holding it up by. My hands were shaking.
His expression puzzled as he took in my obvious confusion and anger. “Why to learn, of course.” Then understanding finally blossomed across his face. “Oh! I think you’ve misunderstood.”
“Have I.” I glared at him.
“Yes, yes. You see, as one of the Malakhim - or perhaps of one of the other ranks - the usual classes we offer would be utterly misguided for you.”
He nodded. “Malakhim. A Hebrew term for angels, although it specifically refers to messenger angels. There are many ranks, call them ‘types’ if you prefer, of angels - and you are indeed of their number.” He spoke, voice filled with the conviction of absolute certainty, before taking another sip from his cup.
“How can you be so sure?” The entire train of my thoughts derailed at the station, leaving behind a mighty mess of confusion madly trying to scrape coherency together.
“Because I warded my office this morning so that only someone with the spirit of one of the Blessed Host could open the door there. Turned out such a spell was easier to perform than I expected. As you were my only morning appointment, it seemed a good way to settle any doubts I had over the reports I was given.” He shrugged.
My hand was still trembling. I carefully placed my saucer and cup on top of one of the book piles on his desk for its safety. “You really are sure?” I asked quietly.
“Oh yes. Anyone else, or any thing come to think of it, would have had to tear through the protections to gain entry - and they are entirely still intact and secure.”
My stomach felt sick, and he kept on talking.
“It’s not entirely unprecedented, as you know, though I will admit it is indeed exciting! It is said that one of the greatest prophets, Elijah, was an angel himself before taking on the form of man. He is also commonly thought to have been raised up as Sandalphon - the great Ophanim who’s sandals touch the physical. He’s the leader of the Ophanim, by the way, the rank or order known as The Wheels. Sandalphon may also have had other incarnations besides Elijah as well, you see…” He trailed off when he realized I wasn’t properly listening. “Are you alright?” He asked with sudden curious concern.
No, I wasn’t alright. I guess my mind had been treating Nick’s idea as a remote possibility, one to worry about later if it ever confirmed but not relevant for the decisions of the moment. I had figured that it would be months if not years before such a thing could be determined - but my knowledge of magic and the expertise of those that wield it was pathetically small. The time to face the prospect, crashing in abruptly as it did, had arrived unexpectedly and all the fears that I had been unconsciously shoving in a dark closet broke free to flood everything, my mind whiplashing with uncontrollable questions. So I’m an actual angel, like ‘Of The Lord’? Did I suddenly need to believe in God? What if I didn’t? Would I fall to Hell immediately? Would things from down there try to hunt me in either case? Is that what Tsayid was? Could he have been sent by Hell to kill me?
Was I a danger to Danielle by trying to stay near her as a result?
Or was I a danger to everyone? Could my powers harm the kids at this school? Or the teachers? Circe hadn’t wanted me here - what did she believe I would do or cause? Should I just leave? But where would I go? Without the school I had no money and barely existed. Wouldn’t I just cause more damage somewhere else?
My panic grew and I hyperventilated without realizing it. I was oblivious to the tingling in my hands and the narrowness my vision had become.
“Shhh. It will be alright.” A hand was on my shoulder, gentle in touch yet providing an anchor upon which to focus. I had been rocking in my chair, my arms and skin flashing with chaotic pulses of energy as I huddled there while my chest struggled to contain a heart beating the irregular drums of my internal confusions and fears.
The rabbi knelt down at my side and began to chant quietly, foreign words running through each other to form a calm and steady rhythm.
My heart eventually attuned itself to the pace of his mantra, and my breathing became more regular. The crazy dancing of the lights under my skin mellowed into smoother cycles of bright and dim.
Sensing I was calmer, Immanuel ceased his chanting and opened his eyes. Gazing within them I found incredible depths of compassion pouring forth to cross into me through his voice and touch. I know it sounds weird, but it’s how I saw and felt it at the moment.
He spoke, his voice hardly louder than a whisper yet as clear as a bell forged from crystal.
“Fear not, for you are where you are meant to be.”
There was a difference to the quality of his words - they were slower, more measured, and somehow… they were pure and full of truth.
I did not understand it, but his words soaked into me and extinguished the flames of my frantic fears one by one.
It left me feeling at ease and strangely empty. All my worries, not just about the angel thing, but everything - all the events of the past week - had been washed away. Even stresses and pains I had carried within myself for years were now at a safe distance and in this moment put aside.
The internal peace his chant and words had summoned was simply sublime.
“How did you…?” I couldn’t even conjure thoughts to correctly describe it.
He kept a watchful eye on me and let go of my shoulder. “Words of truth have power,” he gently explained. “Here, finish your tea.” He handed me my cup and saucer.
My hands, now returned to their normal luminescence of pale non-tanned skin, were surprisingly steady.
I drank as commanded while marveling at what he had done.
Rabbi Immanuel Kirov returned to his chair, sinking into the comfort of the old leather and padding of his chair.
“I had believed,” he said slowly, “that Mr. Nicolas Wright would have already confirmed for you what you are - and perhaps even offer introductory explanations of what it could mean. It seems I was mistaken. I am sorry.”
I could feel sympathy and regret emanating from him. Finding my voice I said, “Nick had to leave immediately to check into something. We didn’t get a chance to talk again before he left.”
He removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Do you… have any notions of what an angel is?” He managed a gentle smile as he replaced the spectacles over a rather impressive nose.
I shook my head, still floating within the tranquility. “Other than common culture’s understanding, no - I wasn’t raised religious.”
“That’s alright, and in fact that may help. No misunderstandings to cloud your thoughts.”
“I suppose. I just had - have - a lot of confusion and questions.” I found I was able to think with clarity, yet I knew the effect would not last forever.
“Will you believe me if I tell you that everything will be fine?” he asked.
“I… I honestly don’t know. I usually rely more on facts than belief.”
He breathed in deeply. “Well, perhaps we should start simple and provide you with possible frameworks of thought. Are you now up to listening and considering?”
I nodded, because yes - I felt I was, thanks to him. “I’m all ears, sir. Anything that could help make sense of… everything that’s happened.”
He paused to consider his next words carefully then began.
“You must first understand that there are many ways of viewing the world, many ways a person may assemble their perceptions of spiritual, physical, and even the mental landscapes with which they may come in contact.”
This was starting ‘simple’? He continued.
“This is important because our understandings shape the way we think, the way we feel, and the way we act. When it comes to magical or spiritual matters - this is key.”
“I think I can understand that… sort of like how when they test for magic ability they check what resonances work and what doesn’t?”
“Yes, exactly!” He beamed at me, his eyes regaining their earlier merry sparkle. “To be a proper scholastic adviser for you, I’ve been granted access to your entire file - thus I am aware you have been a computer programmer, is that not correct?
“Uh, yes?” That seemed like a non-sequitur, so I frowned slightly.
“And you most likely have had to use several different programming languages in the course of your career?”
I nodded, beginning to see what he might try to drive at. “Sure. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses, but in the end they still manage to make the computer do things.”
“Precisely. The same can be said of magic, and also of ways - paradigms - of understanding the spiritual worlds. They are methods of forming the complexities of instructions to accomplish what is desired.”
“Alright, but what does that have to do with angels?”
“I’m getting to that. Your computer languages, they get translated into something else first though, do they not? A deeper level of instruction?”
“Well yes - machine code: the actual binary instructions that the processor can execute. The languages are higher abstractions of that logic, which allows us to build much larger and more complicated systems that can do a lot more. To do it all direct in machine code would be insane at the complexities of things we build these days - it’d be too much for a programmer or even a group of programmers to manage.”
He nodded. “Then it should make sense to you if I said that, for example, I use my training in Hebrew and especially in the Kabballah and study of Torah as my abstraction and paradigm for the commands I impose upon the system of the world? And that Circe, or the Norse practitioners, Kemetics, and all the other magical traditions have their own language and patterns of spells and workings?”
Okay, that made sense, at least to me. “Sure.”
“Then lets extend the metaphor slightly and say that beings of spirit are akin to self-aware programs, each also written in their own languages - albeit at potentially deeper layers than we humans use. Some could be likened to direct firmware of the computer or perhaps the operating system that runs atop that fundament.”
“Uh. Wait, give me a moment.” He paused, allowing me time to think. If a magical working is like a program, executing upon the world, and spirits were programs themselves… “So spirits are self-coherent instruction sets also running on the, uhm, the computer which is the universe?”
He smiled. “Very good. We often describe them as self-coherent energies. Their patterns are their programming in this metaphor.”
“Are you trying to say that an angel is a kind of artificial intelligence formed of spiritual energy?”
“Yes, but they are also, in my belief, the direct micro-code as spoken by the Creator of all that the computer was, is, and ever will be - purposed to not just be the hidden codes running along all the inner components such as access between memory and the processor, but also as needed they act as security and anti-virus to prevent foreign or internal entities from threatening the entire system.”
He looked deeply into my eyes, paused, and then said, “Angels are the direct Words uttered by The Name made manifest - carrying and embodying His fundamental and vital instructions throughout the layers of all Creation.”
Oh. Is that all? Shit.
The rabbi kindly refilled our teas while I sat there trying to process and wrap my mind around what he had just attempted to explain.
“Here, drink. Tea always helps such thinkings.”
I thanked him, and took a sip before venturing a question.
“But what about all the other, uh, ‘paradigms’, of beliefs? They all have their own versions of a beginning of the Universe, and gods, goddesses, and all that?”
He raised his cup in a small salute. “I am glad you asked! I absolutely must admit that, as a practicing Jew and devout follower of Elohim, my own understandings are distinctly flavored by my belief system. But the Kabballah teaches that beyond even Elohim - an entity who rules Heaven that most people conceive of as the God who sits on a Throne - lie the greater layers of abstract, until reaching the ineffable Source. This Source is, in the greatest sense, what we truly believe to be ‘God’ or the ‘Most High’ - the ultimate Creator, standing outside all of time, space, and all the other dimensions even as outlined in the Kabballah, and therefore completely unknowable and indescribable by Man.
“And yet,” he continued, “this Creator is both withdrawn from His Creation while simultaneously existing throughout it to permeate the entire structure. It is a core paradox - to be both withdrawn and yet ever-present - but only when viewed from our limited minds and perceptions. Other religious systems have their own perspectives and understandings of these truths, each exploring different aspects perhaps of the greater and more deeply hidden Truth. Their mystical spiritual deities also work at deeper layers then humanity does - towards the heart of the ‘machine code’ of existence as well perhaps.”
He took another swallow of his own tea, which he had doctored with a rather large amount of sugar followed by a spoon of jam.
“That… that’s a lot to think about,” I said, my head still swimming.
“Of course! It is the beginning of a lifetime’s worth of contemplations and meditations. And I do apologize if it seems a bit much, as you are right, we should refocus on what this means for you - here and now.”
“My earlier statement about not teaching you was a literal one: for you see, as an angel your language through which to, shall we say, work your magics will likely be quite different than mine. The teachings of Kabballah that I give to select students is directed towards understanding how humanity can understand and become closer to God. The entire structure is geared for human ability, human spiritual structure, and yes human language. Of course, we believe our structure is a mirror of God’s - being created in His image, as it were. But the mapping and techniques as developed for man’s use is likely not perfectly suited to an angelic being who was designed to fulfill her purpose directly and instinctively. The abstract mappings should apply, but the specific practices may not and therefore could lead you in wrong directions.”
“Oh.” I couldn’t hide my disappointment and sank deeper into my chair.
“Fret not, this just means we will need to assign you independent study - with me attempting, as unworthy as I may be, to guide you along practical exercises through which you can discover your own methodologies. Already, it seems, you have naturally been able to do things which would take trained practitioners years to accomplish.”
“I don’t know about that - I’ve seen others do some pretty incredible things.” Visions of Danielle and her snow storms certainly came to mind.
He laughed lightly. “Well, that may be par for the course, especially here at Whateley. But let me see if I can give you an example.” He pointed over my head. “On the far wall there is a Star of David. Could you describe it to me?”
Shrugging, I turned around to look - and sure enough high on the wall above his samovar was a silver plaque upon which the six-pointed Star of David had been inscribed. Staring at it, I also saw that in four of the corners of its triangles there were etched Hebrew letters. The more I stared at the letters, the more they seemed to stand out until to my surprise they began to glow with a bluish-white light to my sight.
I relayed this to the rabbi, my attention still captured by the four singular letters.
“My point exactly,” he said with satisfaction.
I turned around to look at him in confusion. “What?”
He nodded over my head again at the Star. “To a normal person who wandered in here, they would have only seen the star, and not the inscribed Name of God written upon it. For most practitioners it takes years of meditation and mental discipline training to allow their minds to view the Name - and yet you, with no training at all, saw it perfectly and were able to gain a measure of the strength of the energies bound to them.”
I couldn’t help it, I had to look back at the Star and its glowing letters.
“And that,“ he continued, “is where you should focus your study. Perception of energies - their flow, their manifestations, and ultimately… their language as you see and understand it.”
My attention returned to my teacup. “I think I need to learn how to keep my own energy in check first. Before I cause problems.”
“Perception would be the necessary first step, Jordan. The circles we have provided in your room are there to keep you and others safe - not just for while you sleep but also for when you wish to practice drawing on and releasing your energies.”
“All three of those circles are different. I’ve wanted to ask - what are they exactly? How do they work?”
“If you can come to understand your native spiritual language, then the analysis will likely follow just by you examining them. As for the three - I did the innermost circle myself; it’s design should hold any energy you manifest within its boundaries, so that none leak outward to affect your fellow students or the staff.”
“Oh, that’s good to know. And the middle one?”
“My fellow instructors of the Mystic Arts pooled their knowledge to craft it. The video we saw of you flickering away while sleeping led us to believe you were possibly slipping towards other dimensional realms, something which I’m sure you’d agree would be nice to avoid.”
I nodded. “Uh, absolutely.” I thought of Khan possibly saving me from such a fate, and then of his new glowing eyes from the morning. I decided not to mention it - maybe I just saw a reflection of my own glow? Considering I was still half asleep, I really couldn’t be sure.
The rabbi continued. “Thus the second circle is designed to be an anchor point - made to hold you here and keep you from untoward travels.”
“Huh. But what about the outer circle - the one with Greek words mixed in?”
“That was done personally by Circe - and we were not permitted by her to witness its creation. We asked her what it was for when she was done.” He paused to sip his tea again.
“What did she say?” I asked, as I felt the tranquility he had fostered starting to slip away.
“She called it a ‘failsafe’ and left it at that.” He shrugged, seemingly unconcerned.
Uh, didn’t that sound all kinds of ominous? What if she’d put some kind of magic bomb in my room that she could trigger if I got out of hand somehow? I had better figure out this whole spiritual language thing quick - if for no other reason than to determine if I was sleeping over a personal mystical nuke of some kind. Though wouldn’t the other teachers have tried to figure out what it was too? You know, more than just asking?
They’d warn me about it if it was actually a bomb, right? Wouldn’t they? Or raise objections to it? Ah hell. What if they wanted it to be vague to ‘encourage’ me to study harder? Ugh. That kind of Sword of Damocles motivation for a student to learn faster is truly unfair.
Effective, but unfair. Dammit.
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Like what the heck I should take for classes in the upcoming Fall Quarter.
For the few faculty that knew my true history - as opposed to the fake transcripts generated by Immanuel’s brother Gregory - they felt that me trying to take ‘normal’ high school level courses might compromise my cover story even worse than if I was just placed into higher curricula based on where I actually would fit academically. Or maybe even just focus on topics I needed now: magical and powers theory, mythological history, and martial arts or survival training. If I was put into regular sophomore Math, for example, other students would wonder what the heck I was doing there since I could actually do Calculus. They had a point. Even if I tried to fake ignorance, I’d eventually slip up - out of sheer overwhelming boredom, if nothing else.
Thing is, they wanted to know more precisely where I stood in academics considering it had been twenty years since I’d attended college. I think the faculty just wasn’t comfortable having a student they hadn’t fully evaluated scholastically and so I was informed that over the next few days I was to be given a set of ‘placement tests’ that were to run the gamut from Mathematics, Physics, English, History, Computer Science, and even Chemistry and Biology.
Which meant that they were going to give me exams throughout the weekend. Granted my sense of what day of the week it was had been utterly scrambled by events, but still. Weekends should be sacred - an opinion formed by having spent too many of them working crazy overtime hours due to unrealistic deadlines at work.
I explained to the rabbi that they could skip Chemistry and Biology as I hadn’t touched those since my previous high school, and had promptly forgotten all of it as soon as I graduated. He reminded me that with an Exemplar level such as I now exhibited, I might be surprised at how much I could remember and apply if I actually tried.
So much for getting out of those two. Meh. I hadn’t enjoyed them then, and didn’t expect to now either.
He told me to report to a room on the second floor of Kane Hall in the morning at nine a.m., where various instructors would begin the onslaught of examinations. I hoped it had good air-conditioning, unlike the gym back in the day where my high school had always held its final exams for everyone at the end of June. Large portable fans just don’t cut it against the summer Los Angeles heat especially when being added to a room crammed full of anxious teenage boys fearing whatever study topics they may have missed in their crammed reviews. In fact those fans just had a nasty habit of blowing exam papers off the folding tables accompanied by loud cries of dismay emitted by their hapless targets while teachers madly scrambling to try and sort the papers out to prevent any student from accidentally seeing the exam answers of another.
Anyway, he also told me to report today at one p.m. to Laird Hall for a class scheduled at that time. He said that the head of the Academy’s Martial Arts - a Sensei Ito - wished to evaluate my previous training personally. I had told Gregory that I had taken Kenpo Karate for five years or so starting when I was thirteen, and thus some of that experience had been incorporated into my fake history as Jordan. Again, I was way out of practice, but I probably could remember some of it. I hoped so, anyway. And apparently I was going to find out in less than a couple hours - I hoped I wouldn’t embarrass myself too badly.
With that the rabbi sent me on my way with a wave of his hand. His eyes had kept being drawn back to the book on his desk more and more while we had discussed classes and schedules. I noticed that with the conversation no longer being about metaphysical and mystical topics, his focus and attention kept drifting away - even to the point of skipping over verbalizing sentences, assuming that somehow I had heard it anyway.
If it wasn’t for his aura of compassion preventing any belief of him doing this deliberately, I would have been annoyed. Instead it was kind of endearing in its own way, even if frustrating.
I still had a ton of questions - like what did Soren do in his ritual to cause me to ‘awaken’, how many others like me there might be out there, or even which specific angel was I anyway? But it was clear I’d have to wait on those until I had a better grasp perhaps of what I was in general before trying to answer precisely who.
Remembering that the cafeteria had a clock I could use to monitor the time until my next appointment, I made my way back to Crystal Hall. This time I stayed on paved walkways, even if such a course was not as optimal. The rain had lightened slightly, although the clouds that hovered over the western forest looked darker than what was above currently. Heavier rain was likely on its way.
Once inside I still felt envious of the magic Lauren had applied to get me dry earlier. Definitely seemed more useful than being a human flashlight in any case - most people’s phones these days could act as one anyway. I wasn’t totally soaked, but yeah - still damp.
Overwhelmed again by the number of menu choices offered, I settled just for something simple: tuna salad sandwich, potato chips, and water. Kicking the habit of drinking soda in my twenties had not been fun - I had developed a rather nasty addiction and when coding like a fiend for work I was consuming darn near a twelve-pack per day. The thought of needing to go through withdrawal again someday was not appealing, so yep - water or (unsweetened) tea only please!
Leland spotted me as I walked out carrying my tray, and he waved me over to his table. Today he was wearing his full school uniform to go along with his uber-glasses and earplugs. I could tell as I put my tray down on his table that the clothes made him uncomfortable, as he kept fidgeting in his seat.
As I lowered myself down to sit I asked, “Hey Leland, you hanging in…” I never finished my question.
The plastic and metal chair I had pulled out collapsed into pieces under me, and I landed with a loud thud right on my ass amidst the debris.
There was a stunned silence in the Hall around me, followed by laughter and applause from the few summer students who were there.
I couldn’t help it. Between this, being soaked to the bone from the rain earlier and my ankle twisting, not to mention the insanities discussed with the rabbi, I just had to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. Hopping to my feet I proclaimed, “Thank you everyone! For my next trick I shall try to simply hover in the air to eat lunch - who knows, maybe the air will be more successful at holding my butt up than this poor chair!”
That got some additional laughter (and even a whistle). The kids then went back to their conversations and food, well other than some of the guys who were still trying to get a good look at my ass - I’m sure for pure scientific reasons regarding weight ratios and chair structure calculations.
I couldn’t blame them - I stared at the bottoms of pretty girls when I was their age too, are you kidding?
Leland, though, was not laughing and looking concerned. He asked, “You okay?”
“I’m fine, really,” I said as I gathered up the remains of the chair so I could dispose of it in one of the nearby trash bins. When I got back over to Leland I grinned and pulled the next chair out with a flourish.
“Shall we see if my trick can be repeated? Whatcha think, even odds? Want to place a bet?”
He finally laughed. “No thanks. I wouldn’t want you to blame me if it happened again.”
“Darn, there goes my entire master plan.” I carefully lowered myself onto the next chair, easing my weight on it. Just in case.
This one thankfully held, and thus I could begin my feast.
Leland pushed aside his mostly empty bowl of bland oats before idly tugging on the collar of his shirt. “Dunno why I went to class today. I could have had them just deliver the food, stayed inside, and been comfortable. Screw these uniforms, they freaking chafe.”
I glanced towards the windows. “What? Stay inside? And miss this lovely summer shower?”
He snorted. “You mean the wet ball bearings that fall from the sky? Yeah, screw them too.”
Taking a bite of my sandwich, I shook my head in sympathy. “What class did you have?”
“One on meditation techniques. They’re supposed to help.” He grinned ruefully and added, “but some days I’m just too grumpy to ‘let go’, ‘still my mind’, and all that.”
“Maybe they should let you practice it all mystic-style - you know, naked under a waterfall except without the waterfall.”
“Oh the teacher would looove that,” he laughed. “Though obviously it would be an excellent challenge for all the girls in the class - as I am rather distracting” He struck a weight-lifter’s biceps pose to emphasize, and to keep his better mood going I whistled and applauded.
That seemed to cheer him up at least a little. “What about you?” he asked, right as I took another larger bite.
“Mmmpph.” I made a show of chewing and swallowing, holding up one hand as the other grabbed my glass so I could wash it all down. “Had to see my adviser this morning. Rabbi Kirov.”
“Huh. I haven’t had him before. He any good?”
“Well, obviously neither have I, so I’d have to answer with ‘no idea!’” I stuck my tongue out at him.
He smiled. “So what classes he load you with?”
“I don’t know that yet either. They want to put me through the ringer with placement exams first. They seem to think that manifesting as an Exemplar might bump my levels or something.”
“Yeah, they might. There are some crazy-smart Exemplars here. Doing college-level research and stuff.”
He readjusted himself on his chair so it wasn’t pushing against his back. He quietly let me take a few more bites of my tuna, and I had to stop myself from offering him some of my chips. A thought occurred to me.
“Hey Leland?” I asked.
“What’s the deal with Tamara - you know, ‘Sigil’ - anyway? She was pretty mad last night when she stormed off over the whole codename issue. Thing is, after that research last night? She might have a valid point.”
“Tamara? Hmm.” He sat and thought for a moment. “Her mother really is a big-shot with the witches from what I understand, and Sigil has always proudly proclaimed that she was rated Wizard level four in her eval. She’s learned a lot this past year as a freshman too: rumors are that she might skip to a more advanced magic class. But that could depend on how she does this summer.”
“Oh? How so?”
He shrugged. “She failed math last term. She was supposed to go to some huge solstice festival and gathering in England with her mom, but instead was stuck here taking trig all over again. She’d been looking forward to it all year, telling everyone about it and how it was a big deal that only happened every five years. And then ‘poof’, no trip fo’ yoo.”
To me a lost trip with family would be a bummer, but to a young girl? That could be devastating - especially if she had any kind of hero-complex with regards to her mother. Being stuck away at a boarding school for the rest of the year would make that even worse.
“So she’s not usually unreasonable? Do you think I could go talk with her, and work things out?”
He looked even more uncomfortable, beyond just from the clothes that were overloading his skin. “Not a good idea.”
“I dunno, Jordan - with her friends all off having fun and her own hopes for seeing her mom flushed, she’s been really bitchy all summer. She started hanging with Fields when classes started, and been giving the cold shoulder to everyone since.” He paused. “Not that she’s ever been overly friendly to us thornies - but she’s never called us ‘freaks’ before, least not to my face like that anyway.”
“You really want to change your codename, though? I think ‘Aradia’ is a cool name.”
That got me to smile. “Thanks, Sense. But I really didn’t know the history of it before taking the name - and with the way things are heading, I’m not sure it’s appropriate for me. Not with the whole Goddess and anti-Christian connotations anyway.”
“Eh screw that. I saw how you lit up last night, that was pretty awesome. Looked ‘radiant’ to me. Besides, if you were to change it now everyone would think you were just giving in to Tamara.” He made a face. “And I hate to say it, but Whateley isn’t a good place for people to think they can walk all over you. Because some have powers to do just that - and it ain’t fun.”
I had a feeling he was speaking from personal experience. “Yeah. That’s exactly what I want to avoid. I was hoping if I could talk to her…”
He cut me off. “Doubtful. Maybe when her usual friends get back in a couple weeks - some of them are fairly reasonable and could possibly help you out if approached the right way.”
“And Fields isn’t one of those?”
“No way.” He picked up his spoon and pushed some of his uneaten oatmeal around in the bowl. “Alicia, I mean Fields, is scary.”
“She is? How so?”
“She’s some kind of techno-mage, blending magic with computers. Got her name from being able to manipulate both magical and electro-magnetic field-lines or something like that. Some guy last year beat her at a straight hackathon challenge - no magic allowed. Then a few days later after the contest his dad got audited by the IRS. They repossessed like all his family’s assets. Daniel won’t be back this year - his folks can no longer afford the tuition. I even heard his dad may face jail time.”
“But how is Fields responsible for that?”
“Because she told him. After she lost, she told him she would show him what a true hacker could do. Didn’t take her long, either.”
“Damn.” Okay, I’ll admit it - that WAS scary.
“Yeah. Best to leave her alone, in my opinion.”
“Thanks for the heads-up. Guess I’ll just have to let things lie for a few weeks at least.”
He nodded. “Sure thing. Hey, I think I’m gonna go back to my room and spend some time in the tank. It’s getting to be a bit too much out here. You mind?”
“Of course not.” I paused. “Wait, a tank?”
He stood. “Yeah - they put a sensory deprivation tank in my room. Soundproofing on the walls, water and numbing gel tank to float in, and no windows. Only way I can really sleep.”
“Wow. Take care, Leland. Don’t worry about your tray - I’ll bus it for you when I’m done.”
“Thanks, Jordan. See ya later.”
He headed out past the other tables and through the doors into the rain. I could tell by the way he walked that the pants and shirt really were bothering him, especially as they slid around when he moved. But he, at least, was smart enough to have an umbrella.
In that regard, he was certainly smarter than me.
I finished everything off my plate and sat back to consider things. Rabbi Immanuel didn’t want to teach me his precise ways of magic, which obviously were based on his understandings of his Kabballah system. Yet Soren had sent me both a book on learning Hebrew, and a book written by another rabbi on the topic. He obviously thought these were things I should know. If Immanuel’s concern was me limiting myself by becoming religiously focused on his way of doing things, he really shouldn’t have worried. That wasn’t my style.
I’d always been an independent thinker - trying to take in as many opinions and viewpoints as possible, and then making up my own mind as to what I wanted to believe. Which is probably why I had done better as a software engineer when being forced to wing it, as it were. I’d research the topic at hand and in the end come up with my own designs and ways of solving the problems instead of just copying and pasting whatever I found out there.
Any software engineer who can’t learn on the fly and can only regurgitate stuff from a book or a lecture won’t make it very far. At least, that had been my own experience with my own work and with watching others succeed or fail depending on how good they were at quick adaptation and logical improvisation. Oh sure, the language usage is strict and completely defined - but the structures one can build with it are open-ended. Some designs are flexible and allow easy modifications later on, and others nail your feet to the floor and refuse any enhancements or new functionality whatsoever without it being an utter mess.
I wondered if the same would be true with all the magic stuff. After all, isn’t magic the practice to manipulate energy in patterns, and then build on those patterns to do larger and larger things? The rabbi’s metaphor really might be apt, even if the talent focus could shift to be more on the art of the design than the smaller logical structures from which it all got constructed. There really was an art to holding a software architecture in one’s mind, letting the minute details be put aside while contemplating the whole. Some folks were really good at it, whereas there were those who truly sucked at it, to be honest.
So maybe magic and software at the higher abstractions worked the same way. In which case it raised the question of whether my being an angel had influenced my abilities and therefore led me into software for a career. Would the experience translate?
Guess I would find out.
But I also looked back at what I had done at the DPA - shouting words I couldn’t even remember, and performing energetic feats that afterwords I had no clue how to even attempt. The rabbi had mentioned something about doing things instinctively. I remembered an old college physics lecture that described all the calculations required to figure out where a baseball would actually end up when thrown - including all the rotations, air resistance, heck he even tossed in the Coriolis Effect just for fun. It was a crazy mess of variables.
And then he blew our minds by reminding us that the catcher figured it all out subconsciously within seconds and was able to catch the ball. Evolution and experience had hard-wired the necessary abilities for prediction and tracking and thus even most children could play catch with their parents without needing to solve differential equations.
Was being an angel also a bit like that?
Plus those words I spoke to blow up the wall and also tear down Diego’s shields - every time I tried to remember what I said the memory slipped away. If I hadn’t been so stubborn and fixated, I think my mind would have just gone on to some other topic instead of rewinding to the moments before. The rabbi had talked of language as metaphor - but also said words have power.
If I instinctively could use some angelic language, why couldn’t I remember or even focus on it now? It was so very frustrating.
Checking the cafeteria clock again, I saw I still had a good fifteen minutes to get to the martial arts class. Putting aside the topics my mind wanted to obsess upon, I shifted to try and remember my karate lessons -what I had learned of the forms, punches, kicks, and all that. My muscle memory would likely be slow and awkward given my new center of gravity and flexibility, but not much I could do about that in fifteen minutes.
Speaking of slow - while rummaging down memory lane I also watched the second hand on the cafeteria’s clock (it was an old fashioned analog display) as it rotated its way around the rest of the circle. It seemed to be somewhat off; I counted seconds in my mind for what I thought a second should take, and to my dismay the clock’s reported second was about three times slower than the timing of my own.
I called out to a kid at the nearest table who had been staring at his phone - a boy who had popped up the collar on his Whateley uniform shirt in a preppy-slash-vampire look. He certainly had the widow’s peak for the vampire part anyway.
“Hey, what time is it? I think the clock is messed up.” I pointed at the wall.
He glanced down at his phone. “It’s ten past one. Yeah, someone must have jinxed the cafeteria’s clock again.”
“Ten past? Shit!”
I was going to have to run full tilt through the rain again - and I’d be late anyway.
Ever just have one of those days?
Laird hall looked a lot like some of the older buildings at my old college campus, especially the science halls. In other words, it resembled more a squatting fortress than a place of learning. Drenched yet again when I made it inside - those darker clouds I had spotted had zipped overhead while I was eating - I had to ask for directions to find my way to the martial arts gymnasium area.
Have I mentioned that I truly despise being late? I dislike it when other people aren’t on time, and I apply that doubly to myself.
I entered the gym and saw two students on the center mat, facing off in two different stance styles. The weird thing is my vision of them was slightly distorted - there was some kind of forcefield in the air between the mat and the rest of the handful of students.
Within that field also stood a short Japanese man - who despite the obvious weathering of the wrinkles on his face clearly looked like a man not only in charge, but also fully capable of defeating anyone who dared the insult of offering him challenge. He had that aura of total confidence that only true mastery can bestow.
I could tell that he noticed me enter and he deliberately had ignored my presence. I moved closer to the line of students, all dressed in standard martial arts gis, and I knelt beside a girl on her left side. She was a good half a foot taller than I was, and looked to be in great shape - at least from what little I could see from the side with her gi covering her arms and legs. She may even have been more busty than I was, proportionally speaking. Oh, and she had long blonde hair which curved down to cover the part of her face in a fashion more appropriate to Hollywood than a martial arts mat. I wondered if she’d pull it back into a ponytail before sparring with someone.
After watching the intensely focused instructor again, I then looked over at the two fighting students. To my surprise, one of them was Brandon - a.k.a. Tank. He absolutely towered over his opponent, a slender yet very fit young Asian man - possibly Chinese. I’m no expert really, but his face had more of a Bruce Lee look so I decided to run with that (quietly) until or unless proven otherwise.
They circled around each other cautiously, and then Tank launched forward with an incredibly fast spinning kick that I could tell he was going to follow up with a punch or two even if the kick didn’t land. His motion was controlled and speedy, but to my eyes somewhat obvious.
I wasn’t the only one who had thought so either. The smaller guy pivoted sideways before grabbing Tank’s rather long leg between his two hands, then he spun Tank around in a continuation of the original circle. Tank reacted instinctively to try and pull his leg free, but the smaller guy let his motion bring them closer, and with a quick foot placement, Tank’s other leg was swept clear of the mat.
He went down with a forceful whump which I could feel through the floor I knelt upon.
Not letting any momentum go to waste, the Chinese boy didn’t stop the sweep of his own leg, instead he continued around in a tighter and faster circle to land his heel right into Tank’s temple.
Near as I could tell that was full force contact. Holy shit, that could kill a person! I started to rise in alarm, but I was stopped by the girl next to me who put a hand on my arm.
“Relax, he’s fine,” she said under her breath.
“Yame!” The instructor barked and the smaller and faster guy backed away from Tank. The weird distortion field around the mat also disappeared when the instructor had given the command to stop.
To my amazement, Tank had already started to push himself up from the mat, a look of annoyance on his face. He was mad at himself for being taken down but otherwise was fine.
He didn’t even have a mark on his face from the kick.
I settled back down only to notice no one else had shoes on. Oops. I quickly began to remove mine along with the socks.
The instructor, who must have been Sensei Ito since he was the only instructor in here as far as I could tell, motioned that their match was over. Tank and the other guy faced each other, bowed, turned and bowed to the Sensei, then walked off the mat together. Tank, shaking his head at himself, reached out and offered a fist bump to his opponent, who with a wide grin accepted.
They both resumed kneeling positions along the line of students. Which is when I realized the sensei was staring daggers in my direction.
“Ms. Emrys.” He said my name, not as a greeting but rather as a command. He pointed to the mat before him.
“Yes, sir.” I rose to my now bare (just in time!) feet, walked to the edge and did the double fisted bow to the dojo mat as I had been taught many years ago before crossing its threshold. I moved to stand in front of the sensei, and then bowed deeply to him as well.
“You are late.” Three words conveyed a level of disapproval and disappointment that I justly deserved.
“Yes, sir. I would offer an explanation, but regardless I failed in my responsibility to be on time. I apologize, and can only promise to put forth my best efforts to not let it happen again.” I bowed low to him again, this time holding the bow to await his judgment.
I didn’t move, holding my position. After a few rather long seconds he grunted again, gesturing for me to stand up. I did so, not saying anything.
“Your transcript shows you have some training?” He made it a question and not a statement, so I answered.
“Yes, sir. Although it’s been…” I almost said it had been over twenty years, but whew, I caught myself in time “It’s been awhile, sir.”
“Understand that any belt-ranking you once possessed has no bearing within our dojo.” This was indeed a firm statement. I just nodded my head and did not comment.
Without looking away from me, he called out, “Jenna.” The girl I had knelt next to jumped to her feet, paused, and then removed her blonde hair completely from her head before handing it to the girl to her right.
It was a wig. Her head was actually perfectly clean shaven.
I almost stumbled where I stood on the mat as my mind flashed to how Caroline had looked during her chemotherapy, the memory perfectly vivid - and full of all the emotions of the time. Jenna was younger, but other than age and height they looked awfully similar, and a lump of sorrow formed in my throat.
Unfortunately, Jenna saw my reaction and assumed it was one of horror. Her hands formed tighter fists as she crossed the mat to stand opposite me, bowing to the sensei before turning her new glare in my direction.
Oh damn. And I couldn’t explain - not here, not in front of everyone, not with a sensei commanding his class.
“Jenna, Jordan, you shall spar. No powers. When I say yame, you stop, clear?” He was looking at me.
I nodded. “Yes, sir. Rules of contact, sir?” I had sparred without pads when I was young, but that usually meant no headshots. And I wasn’t wearing a protective cup. Err, huh. Do girls need those too?
“I understand you are a regenerator. Full contact, but no killing blows.”
No killing blows. Holy shit, that needed to be specified?
I turned to Jenna, and bowed low - trying to show my respect and make up for her bad first impression. She bowed perfunctorily, but her expression was clear: she was pissed.
“Hajime!” Sensei Ito barked, and it was on.
I expected Jenna to charge in, but she was smarter than that - much to her credit. I was an unknown, just as she was to me. So we began circling around each other, her stance similar to mine - balanced between the feet and turned sideways from the opponent, one hand raised in guard, the other held lower ready to strike.
When she saw I wasn’t going to make the first move, she went ahead and got it started.
Now, you have to realize that my old body when I was a teen had been really solid. I had lifted weights daily at school, and trained at the dojo at least twice a week. My power had resided mainly in my legs, which was different from most of the other guys who relied on the strength of their punches. Me, I relied on my kicks and also on the tree-like solidity of my legs to keep me grounded and balanced. Sure I was able to punch decently, but not with the same level of power as the other guys. My arms, however, had the speed my legs lacked.
It’s just the way I had been built as a guy - shorter and very thick legs, with a taller torso. It forced a certain pattern to how I fought.
She came at me with a flurry of kicks, which I began to block one by one - absorbing and redirecting the power of her legs while remaining steady within my own stance. Her height advantage extended her range, and she tried to make use of that with her kicks - likely hoping to knock me off balance so she could move in and take me down.
She was quite strong, too. But as I slipped sideways and blocked her feet with my forearms, I realized something. My new body was a lot stronger than my old one - and that very much included my arms. Certainly I was having no trouble putting my old training to use - I was finding my movements to be fluid, faster, and amazingly more precise than I had ever experienced even at the height of my previous conditioning.
Clearly she also was an Exemplar, but as I kept deflecting her blows with relative ease we both started to realize that my own rating might be higher.
I decided to test that theory.
Feeling lighter on my toes than I ever had before, I began to move faster, sliding along the mat with my feet as I kept shifting my stances and angle to her, dancing side to side looking for her to over-extend. She tried to back off, but I pressed forward so she couldn’t re-stabilize and counter.
I started throwing kicks of my own, cautiously at first as I didn’t want to get taken down by a leg-grab, but just to gauge my speed and her reaction time.
She almost caught one, but I yanked it back before her grip could solidify, shifting so that I could grab at her arm instead, planting my foot firmly back on the mat. As I pulled her forward I used my other leg to deliver a knife-kick behind her knee.
I was careful. I didn’t want to shatter the knee, regardless of the ‘full contact’ stipend of the match. So I pulled the kick and aimed it to land squarely behind the knee instead of sideways against it where it would have popped badly. I’d seen that happen once, and it’s never pretty.
What I did instead would still hurt though, as her leg folded to cause her to fall - which brought her head into range of a fast forearm slam to the side of her face.
No, I didn’t aim for her temple either. The sensei may trust in her regeneration, but I didn’t know her. And what if he was testing to see how ruthless I could be if let loose in full?
The impact still stunned her and she fell the rest of the way to the mat. I had started to back up before the sensei shouted, “Yame!”
I resumed my position where we had started the match, and watched as Jenna shook her head clear and stood up. There was a small mark on her face from where I had struck, and I watched it slowly fade away even as she crossed back to her position.
Good. That would have been a nasty welt lasting days on a normal kid.
Sensei Ito studied us both for what seemed like ages. Then he said, “Again. This time, use powers. This hall is off limits to visitors today.”
Jenna’s face broke into a feral grin.
“Uh, Sensei,” I said hesitantly. “That could be a problem for magic users near me from what I understand.”
He gestured to the force field that surrounded us. “Your energies should be contained. Neither Jenna nor myself make use of the mystic arts.”
Jenna closed her eyes and her skin began to ripple and change color. A dark smooth greyness began to appear and spread over her hands, face, and feet. I could only assume it was covering everything else under her gi.
Oh man, her skin was turning to stone.
I swallowed nervously, but realized this is why I was here. Trial by fire or in this case, trial by stone. Lets see what I could do.
Inwardly I reached for the mental faucet wedged into the column of light that now was ever-present in the back of my mind’s eye. I threw it open, and saw Jenna’s expression of glee falter as my light flooded the gym.
A few of the students watching even put their hands up to cover their eyes from the glare.
“Hajime!” Ito commanded.
Jenna must have been concerned about how much more I could power up because this time she simply lowered a shoulder and charged.
I managed to sidestep clear in the knick of time, launching my own kick at her side as she went past. I connected but I don’t think she even felt it through the armor that now covered everything but her eyes, nostrils, mouth - you get the idea.
She changed tactics again. Ignoring the landing of my blows entirely, she tried instead to get close and go for a bear hug with main strength. I realized her stone-form probably increased her physical limits too, crap.
Frustrated at my sudden ineffectiveness, I struggled a few times to break the holds she kept trying to get me in. I was clearly still faster, but that didn’t matter if she never felt the effects of anything I did. Even direct blows to her legs felt like I was kicking a mountainside. They didn’t budge.
She managed to wrap her arms around me when I got too close, her height giving her that reach advantage. Trying to push against her was failing - she seemed to be getting stronger with each passing moment. Only by wedging my left elbow into her chest did I prevent her from crushing me flat. She locked her hands together at the small of my back and started to lift me off the ground.
This was not good.
My right arm was still free and held in the gap between us; I saw only one possible move before she popped me like a water balloon. Pulling even more of that raw and brilliant energy into my body, I shoved it into my right fist and with a yell launched an uppercut that landed squarely under her jaw with an explosion of brilliant light that should have blinded me but somehow didn’t.
Her skin’s rock protection fragmented along fractal lines running outward from her chin, causing large stony flakes to start to fall free revealing normal skin underneath.
From the impact, I felt her jaw crunch and fold in. I think I shattered part of her jaw.
As her arms released me, I noted in my peripheral vision the force field surrounding us had flared into a shower of blue sparks. Then it collapsed, all the sparks falling to the floor leaving empty air.
I hesitated - trying to find the sensei to see if he’d stop the match now that the field was clearly gone. Should I power down?
This was a horrible mistake. Jenna hadn’t noticed the loss of the field. With a fierce rage she stepped backwards - before whipping around with a mighty spinning sidekick right into my stomach. Her movement was insanely fast - a motion blur of grey stone and white gi and I’m not sure I could have blocked her foot even amped up as I was had I even had time to react and try. I felt ribs crack from the tremendous impact before I was launched in the air across the mat like a rocket.
Right into brick and concrete of the the gym’s outer wall. But I didn’t stop - I was going so fast and so hard I punched through it all into the rain outside.
New pain spread widely over my back as I arched through the air in a streamer of white light. I even had a wonderfully clear view of the American flag as it flapped in the wind above Schuster Hall. Below it still dangled the red banner.
A living flaming meteor impacting the campus was likely not permitted on a red flag day.
It all happened so fast, and I didn’t have time to think about it. I just jammed shut the channel inside me to try and shut down my inner light, attempting to curl into as tight a ball as I could. This was going to hurt.
Slamming into the wet lawn I tumbled badly anyway, arms and legs gouging out a rather long trench before finally coming to a stop with my back about a foot deep in the muddy soil. If it hadn’t been raining all day, the impact probably would have been worse.
After sliding to a stop, I did manage to suck in some air - but wow did that hurt too.
I could feel that my right arm was likely broken, along with my left leg. As for the ribs of my chest and back, they at least weren’t jello so shall we call that a win?
People were shouting nearby as they scrambled to get over to me, calling for others to get help from Doyle - which I remembered was the medical complex.
I wanted rather badly to reach for my light to stop the pain that was blossoming through my body, but I didn’t. Compared to what I had felt getting Danielle out of that damn storage unit, this was like a love tap. Albeit one delivered by a thousand pound gorilla who must have been abusing steroids for years. Or, you know, a six foot six girl enhanced by granite skin and a Red Bull can of rage and whoop-ass.
Did I mention it hurt?
Opening one eye from where I lay, I found I now had a pretty good view of the hole in the side of Laird Hall that Jenna’s kick had built by using me as a sledgehammer. Sensei Ito stood at the hole staring back at me.
The old man gave me a nod.
At his side was Jenna. Her stone skin was gone, and I could see a deep bruise still covering the bottom of her jaw. Her face was pale white and she looked completely horrified.
I may have taken some satisfaction from that. Could anyone blame me?
The medic squad on campus was certainly fast. After putting my neck in a brace, they got me on their flat board and double-timed me into the medical building. A few bounces did cause me to whimper; I couldn’t help it.
I tried to speak to tell them to just get me out of sight of any visitors, but all I managed was a groan.
Fortunately a female doctor in their E.R. had quickly pulled up Whateley’s records of my abilities, and realizing what they meant ran to my side, saying quietly into an ear, “If we get you into a secure room, can you heal? There are congressmen touring the building.”
Somehow I nodded. She waved away the nurse who was preparing to give me an I.V. before personally wheeling me down a hall and into an empty exam room. She shouted some instructions at others in the hallway before closing the door - what she said I didn’t hear. When the door was completely shut she said more loudly, “Okay, this should be safe. Do it, hon. This is a warded room - it should hold, if not I’ll yell.”
I didn’t need to be told twice. I reopened that internal channel, and poured all the light I could picture in my mind throughout my body.
Did you know that bones make snapping sounds when they pop back into place due to magic? Well, let me assure you they do - even if it may not have been easily heard over the loud sound of a girl screaming from the sudden surge in pain levels. The energy rushing through me did sooth the agonies instantly afterwords, but the intense spikes as things clicked back together were a bitch.
All in all, I think it took about fifteen minutes for the last vestiges of pain to slip slowly away. I was pretty sure that most of the damage would not have happened if I’d kept my energy up for the impact on landing, but that’s the way the angel cookie crumbled. When done healing, I was panting for breath and feeling exhausted.
The female doctor (I didn’t get her name) kept watch over me. She even put on a pair of sunglasses so she could examine my progress through the light show in more detail. Don’t ask me where she got them from because I have no idea.
When I was finally breathing easy and had let the shine slip away, the door opened. Sensei Ito and Jenna stepped inside, letting the door close behind them. Jenna was wearing her blonde wig again.
I propped myself up on my elbows as I was still on a gurney, but I had no idea what to say.
Jenna spoke first after a nod from the sensei. She came to my side and gently took my hand. “I’m so, so sorry. Are you okay?”
I smiled wearily. “Yeah. I have to be powered up to heal, but didn’t want to do that out in the open.”
Sensei Ito grunted - maybe with some approval. Hard to tell.
Her relief was immediate, and I saw a tremendous tension ease across her shoulders. “Thank god. I’ve never hit anyone that hard before. That was way stronger than I should ever have been able to do.” Behind her relief I could see a bit of awe, and she let go of my hand to stare at her own. She flexed into a fist, then opened her fingers again. “What happened?”
I looked at Ito, having already put together an idea. “I did give warning about me powering up.”
He bowed his head slightly in acknowledgment. “I must give a report to the administration of this. They may have further questions. You are fully healed?”
Looking down at my arms and legs, I moved them all. “Yeah. Just hungry again and really tired.”
He paused to glare at me with eyes of judgment. “Becoming distracted - no matter the cause - can and will be deadly. If that had been a real battle, your loss of focus could have cost your life. You would do well to remember this lesson. No more practice today.” With a curt nod, the man exited the room.
I couldn’t help it; I chuckled after the door closed. “No more practice today? Ya think?”
Jenna looked down at me but she wasn’t laughing. “If Sensei Ito thought you were up for it, he’d have you back on the mat right now. Me too, but you really clobbered my chin and it’ll take another hour for the bone to fully knit itself and he knows this. Everyone else is stuck doing drills right now until he gets back.”
She was serious. I stared at the door that Ito had just stepped through, not sure how I felt about that.
“What happened?” she asked again. “You and sensei seem to know, but I don’t. How could I have hit you that hard? Was that me or… was that you?”
“Most likely the latter.” I pulled myself up so I could sit cross-legged on the gurney. The back of my Alice t-shirt was shredded into strips of flapping stained cloth, and the rear strap of the bra I got from the box store had also been pulverized. My jeans shorts were a muddy mess, but seemed otherwise okay - just sporting a more distressed look. But hey, that’s fashionable, right? As for my poor t-shirt, I guess Alice and I both hit the bottom at the same time.
I failed to suppress a hysterical giggle. They also hadn’t brought me my shoes and socks from the gym - for some reason I found that very funny. My toes were gonna get really muddy again.
Jenna stared at me. “Are you in shock or something? Should I get someone?”
I shook my head. “No, no I think I’m okay - it’s just been a day. A really messed up day.”
She looked dubious.
“My powers,” I said, which got her attention away from the idea of calling the psych squad. “I can tap into a lot of magical energy. When I do, I seem to emit it and the effects on users of magic have been kinda extreme. There’s concern that I could overload them if their capacities are too low, which would be harmful.”
“But I’m not a magic user. I’m a manifestor. I do the stone-skin thing, and get stronger. But nowhere near that strong.”
“Yeah. I think we just found out the energy I’m channeling effects more than magic.”
“Why? What kind of energy is it? Other than being blindingly bright.”
Did I tell her? Should I? Considering I likely just gave her the power to kick a classmate through a wall, I felt I owed her the truth.
“It’s angelic energy.”
“Oh, cool. You an avatar? Think that got mentioned in Powers class.”
“They don’t think so.”
“So holy rolling shaman or something?”
“Nope.” I smiled at her, knowing I was being difficult.
She smiled back. “You going to explain, or do I need to give you another beat-down?”
I laughed. “Sorry. And please, not again - at least not today.” I paused, and took a deep breath. “They say I’m an angel. Like an actual angel, incarnate somehow here on Earth.”
She looked at me carefully, trying to see if I was joking with her. But I wasn’t.
“Huh. Well, that’s different. You said you were hungry though? I’m always starved after going all stone-skin. May have to get something soft, though. Like ice cream!”
I’d only been on campus for just under twenty-four hours and I was beginning to suspect that Whateley really was not like anywhere else on the planet. You can tell someone you’re an angel and all they do is shrug before debating what flavor of ice cream they wanted.
Admittedly, ice cream did sound rather tempting.
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Arriving back at the gym we discovered that Brandon had put my stuff aside - I think he had been hoping to use them as an excuse to come visit me later. After thanking him, he again reminded me about the movie event at Emerson tomorrow night - but this time Jenna heard and declared that of course we both would attend. Brandon awkwardly affirmed that, sure, she could come too - which made her all kinds of happy.
After changing clothes, Jenna spent our entire walk to the cafeteria teasing me about how she had never seen him have such puppy eyes for anyone before. She thought he was being ‘adorable’.
The more flustered I got, the more she poured it on in an attempt to outdo the rain cascading upon us both. My face probably matched the color of my hair by the time we got to the entrance.
“Do they scoop it here or is it just soft serve?” I asked after we had let ourselves drip onto the mats they had placed just inside the doors. Hoping to change an embarrassing and uncomfortable subject? Me? Damn right.
“Both!” she replied with exuberance. “I’m going to see if they have chocolate cheesecake today. What about you?”
Memories of my college dormitory antics flickered to life so I declared, “As a former soft-serve cone tower champion, it is my duty to keep my skills sharp!”
“Oh really? Is that another challenge? I suppose the cheesecake could wait another day if you’re asking for a rematch…”
“You know what? You’re on! Just uh… where is it?” I looked around the vast food selection aisles. How much do mutant kids eat anyway? It was late-afternoon with only summer students on campus, and yet over a third of the aisles still were stocked overflowing with choices. Heck, they were still serving Belgian waffles even at this time of day. With strawberries, blueberries, or even cherries! All fruits freshly sliced even, not from cans.
Danielle was going to love this. I just hoped her new Exemplar metabolism would burn off the massive influx of calories she’d probably thoroughly indulge in. Maybe I should test that theory for her first. You know, for science!
Jenna pointed us over to the corner with the soft serve ice cream dispenser apparatus. It had vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, and mint chocolate - otherwise known, according to her, as ‘white’, ‘red’, ‘brown’, and ‘green’ in the local parlance.
Being sportsmanlike (sportswomanlike?), I let her go first.
She dropped her gym bag to the ground before cracking her knuckles in preparation. Grabbing one of those old fashioned flat bottomed cones, she proceeded to painstakingly swirl chocolate onto it, building the edge walls with a proper technique and finishing in a dramatic spin with a stack of ice cream about six inches above the cone.
“Not bad, Padawan,” I said. “But a true master does more than stack for height.”
She raised an eyebrow while taking a bite from the top of her creation. “Brave words spoken before proof of merit. Bring it.”
Oh I planned to.
Picking up a fresh cone for myself, I made a show of inspecting its top ridge for imperfections before begrudgingly declaring it worthy - if barely so. This earned me a snort of laughter from my chocolate-mustachioed opponent.
Now you must understand that every soft serve machine has a different flow rate range and maximum according to how its lever is operated. The width of the spout is fairly standard, but there can be variations between devices. Careful attention to detail along with applied dexterity is needed to get the required perfect circles upon which all structural integrity depends.
With flourish I piled a good three inches of vanilla upon my cone, getting the last circle to land flush with its origin so as to be flat before stopping the flow of tasty creamstuffs.
“I thought you said you were good at this,” she laughed. “That’s tiny.”
“Ah but you see - a single flavored entry is just too pedestrian for a champion,” I said, before I carefully proceeded to add two more inches worth of chocolate - all followed by yet two more of the mint, finishing with a proper swirled spike to the top.
“You forgot the strawberry.” By now she was giggling at my exaggerated antics.
“Au contraire, not forgotten. Deliberately avoided - I hate the stuff.” I smiled while holding aloft my cone of conquest. “Do you concede?”
She was about to grant me total victory when the soft serve machine made an odd burbling sound. I had time to say, “Uh…” and turn my attention back to the dispenser when the center two nozzles burst, launching themselves forward with a greatly pressurized stream of strawberry and chocolate following immediately behind.
I got hit squarely by both nozzle pieces - right in the boobs.
Blurting a loud “Ow!” in instant pain, I then emitted a shriek because the sticky ice cream which had splattered all over my chest was freaking ice cold. Certain newish parts of my anatomy instantly, uhm, perked up to poke under the formerly clean t-shirt in twin rebellious protests. Did I mention that my bra had failed to survive its own contest in material integrity between it and concrete? Yeah, it had totally lost and had been sent down the oubliette to join the Alice from my former t-shirt. So yes, the twin rebellions really, uh, stood out.
“Oh my god!” Jenna exclaimed with eyes wide taking in the considerable damage. With the internal pressure completely released, both broken dispensers were now dribbling their contents upon the floor at my feet to merge with the splatter that had bounced off of, smeared all over, made a strawberry and chocolate mess of… me.
In front of everyone.
I stood there, frozen in place both literally and metaphorically. Part of me wanted to laugh, because let’s face it: the day was beyond ridiculous. Sat on a busted chair? Check. Twisted ankle? Check. Hit on by a guy? Check. Confirming I wasn’t human? Check. Kicked through a goddamn wall and still wearing brand new shorts spotted thickly with blood stains? Check. Can’t even have an ice cream in peace? Check.
Another part of me just wanted a corner away from everything where I could curl up and cry. Then there was the bit that wanted to scream in primal fury, pull as much energy as I could from that inner source, and blow something up in spectacular apocalyptic fashion.
The strength of that last desire scared me; I stood there not moving while trying to sort out my inner confusions and failing utterly.
“Jordan?” Jenna leaned sideways so she could see my face. “You alright?”
My eyes moved to look at her. I don’t know what she saw in them, but she flinched.
“Whoa. Jordan… you need to come with me - let’s get you cleaned up, okay?”
She gently removed the should-have-been-victorious ice cream cone from my hand and placed it on the serving tray ledge that ran around everything. Cafeteria staff (and other students) were, much like me, still stunned and just staring at the two of us. Yeah, no, they were all just staring at me and my frozen milk-product splattered yet embarrassingly perky boobs.
I may have let out a pathetically quiet whimper.
“This way now, everything will be fine…” Throwing her gym bag’s strap over one of her shoulders, she took my hand and pulled me away from the creamy wreckage to lead me to yet another girl’s room. Once inside she made me raise my arms so she could remove my (the nurse’s) shirt before handing me paper towels with which to dry myself off. All the while I stayed quiet, my mind replaying the day.
I began to detect a pattern to the day’s events, one that merited potential concern.
“Jordan? You in there?”
Jenna was waving a hand in front of my face. I’d finished drying myself off and had been standing there without a shirt or bra - said bra had already given up the ghost due to concrete and dirt winning the earlier material integrity contest.
I blinked. “Yeah… sorry.” I tried to snap myself out of my mental funk but I looked down at my bare chest and the generous orbs which once again (in a horrible public fashion) reminded me that who I had been was dramatically lost. I sighed bitterly before muttering past clenched teeth, “Think we can clean the shirt well enough for me to wear it back to my dorm?”
She held up the red strawberry and brown chocolate splattered fabric. “Uhh… no. What cottage you in?”
“Hawthorne,” I said, then wondered if she would react badly to that revelation. Given my mental state I wasn’t sure how I’d respond to such, but I shouldn’t have worried.
“Oh! That makes it easier,” she said as she perked up with a smile.
“I live there too.”
That was unexpected. “But isn’t Hawthorne for kids with, you know, issues?” Like me, I didn’t add. Thought it, but didn’t say it.
She had started to rummage within her gym bag on the floor, but she paused to peer up at me. “Trust me, I belong there. I grew up with epilepsy. Manifesting as a mutant just made it worse. Seizures can trigger the stone form and with my strength… I can cause a lot of damage.” She winced. “A lot of damage.”
“Ouch.” I’d witnessed a grand mal seizure before and had watched hospital orderlies struggle to hold the suffering patient down so they wouldn’t hurt themselves or others. The memory also reminded me of something important, something that my own weird mood shouldn’t delay.
“Hey, Jenna? I need to apologize for something.”
She looked at me funny, but gave me her attention as she stood back up. “Yeah?”
“Back at the dojo, I know you saw me react when you took your hair off - and I’m sorry.”
Her expression darkened and she shrugged half-heartedly. “Happens a lot. Don’t worry about it.”
I shook my head. “Thing is, I didn’t react the way you think I did. You’re beautiful - with or without your hair.”
Her face rapidly flushed and her eyes dropped to the tiled floor between us.
Choking up a little, I continued. “I had a… a best friend. She was like my other half, really. You look, well, you look a lot like her. Without your hair anyway: she had been a brunette.”
Jenna looked back up at me, her eyes now curious. “’Had been’? She lost her hair too?”
I nodded. “Cancer. She… she didn’t make it.” I bit a lip to keep from crying as my emotions swung wildly yet again. Dammit, Caroline - if I could only have taken your place I would have…
“Ah shit,” Jenna said as understanding kicked in. “So in the gym, when I took off my wig…?”
Trying to smile but likely failing I said, “It took me by surprise - triggered a flashback to the last time I saw her.”
She didn’t say anything more; she just wrapped me within a huge bear hug. I didn’t try to fight it - or the sadness that flooded through me again. The ache in my heart was as fresh and raw as on the day Caroline died, but unlike that day I now was braced with three years of practice trying to walk forward with life. I had gotten good at faking it, anyway. I sniffed and my cheeks probably were a little damp, but I didn’t crumple.
Slowly I pulled out of her hug. “Dammit. Ever since the whole powers manifestation thing hit a… a month ago, my feelings on everything have been running rampant from extreme to extreme. I’m not used to this, at all. I hate it!”
“Like a non-stop bad hormonal period, eh?” She smiled.
“Ugh. That sucks.” She leaned back against the sink counter.
Was she right? Was I just suffering from teenage female hormones? Natalie had warned me of the possibility. For that matter, was I going to have a girl’s monthly cycle too? The doctors hadn’t said anything about that. Crap. One more thing to deal with.
I wanted to bang my head into the wall, but I’d probably put a hole in this one too. Fuck.
“I lost someone close to me too,” she said, breaking me out of my internal head-banging contemplations. “My younger brother - he also manifested as a mutant. Fire elemental effects instead of stone like mine.”
“Burnout - with actual fire. His regen wasn’t strong enough.”
Oh damn. “That’s… to say that’s ‘terrible’ doesn’t begin to cover it. I’m so sorry.”
“He was a great kid too,” she said with a painful sigh. “Always smiling and trying to make others laugh; even if his joke wasn’t funny his silly grin was infectious anyway. He actually gave me my codename when trying to cheer me up after one of my seizures.”
She smiled sadly. “Yeah. I had collapsed in the hallway at home shortly after I manifested, and really shredded the wooden floor all the way down that hall with my stone-skin as I thrashed about. Made a mess of the walls too. I was horrified - Dad had spent the previous few months each weekend putting in that new flooring strip by strip, and I’d totally destroyed it.”
I winced. “Ouch.”
“Tommy - that’s my brother’s name - he kept joking that the rain outside had somehow done it. Saying over and over, ‘But Dad! You just can’t fight a rockslide when they hit! Weather Channel says so!’ When I got registered for my MID a couple days later I couldn’t think of anything else - so I put down ‘Rockslide’. He was so proud when I told him; he ran around the rest of that day making all the different ‘rock’ and ‘slide’ puns he could think of. He was such a lovable dork.” She laughed bitterly, her voice full of both love and sorrow.
I didn’t know what to say. I put a gentle hand on her shoulder in sympathy. “He sounds like he was quite the brother.”
She looked sideways at me. “I was lucky to have had him, yeah. Losing him sucks, but one thing I’ve learned since going to school here - you can’t let shit like that get you down. And there are always others who’ve had it much, much worse than you. You can see it in their eyes if you look for it - the truly haunted kids. Our cottage has more of those than most.”
I thought suddenly of Danielle and what she had endured. She seemed to have held up pretty well, but yeah as bad as it was I could imagine a lot worse happening to a child.
How horribly could such things impact a mutant’s manifestation? For some reason I thought of the girl Evie who had been in the lounge with Leland and Miranda last night. The more I focused on the memory, the more I could see her eyes were definitely marked with an inner pain that lay under her forced casual blankness. Something tormented her down deep, something that had put a huge wall between her and the world.
No wonder she hadn’t wanted to join us for dinner.
Jenna straightened up and stepped away from the sinks. “C’mon, let’s get out of here. You can wear my gi top till we get you to your room. Good thing you’re also sorta tall, this may not look as much like a strait-jacket on you as it would on most of the girls in our dorm.”
“Say, what year are you anyway? Junior?” I asked, forcing myself to focus on the present again.
“Nah, sophomore. You?”
“Same. Cool. Think you can show me where our showers are? My room is in the attic, so I haven’t seen where things are yet.”
“You got the attic? With the balcony on the roof? Wow, you lucked out!” She paused for a moment, then frowned. “Well - except for the exploding ice cream, and uh… the gym force field fritzing out. Those weren’t too lucky, huh.”
Somehow I didn’t think luck had much to do with it - nor with the ankle-twisting sinkhole or collapsing chair - but I kept those thoughts to myself to examine in more detail later.
We managed to roll up the sleeves of her martial arts uniform so my hands would actually stick out. With her being half a foot taller the thing still was pretty darn big on me. But I was grateful anyway - the thought of having to streak bare-chested back to my room definitely did not appeal. That was so not the kind of reputation I needed to gain on my first full day on campus. I figured being known as ‘the girl who got kicked through a wall’ was going to be bad enough.
Then again, I was also ‘the girl tough enough to survive being kicked through a wall’. That rep had more potential.
We made it back to the cottage without incident. Jenna showed me where the showers were on the sophomore’s second floor - along with our rather large lounge plus a couple of the study rooms. She also gave me a tour of her steel-reinforced furnished bedroom. At least her bed had soft pillows piled on it and she had decorated with the more usual teenage girl items: a few band and movie posters (including Nightwish and Pirates of the Caribbean), along with some fantasy artwork prints of dragons and Valkyries.
I thought her room looked pretty cool and told her so - which also made me realize I’d need to decorate mine somehow too. I didn’t have much in the way of wall space, what with the sloping roof and all, but maybe some plants big enough to keep Khan from eating them? Or a floor rug or two, who knows.
Stuff to ponder over the next few weeks in idle moments.
As Jenna also wanted a shower, I hurried back to my room to get my new bathrobe (yes it was purple, if you must know) with the hope of beating her into a stall and finishing either before she got there or while she was still in one of ‘em. It’s one thing looking in the mirror and seeing your own naked teenage girl self - it’s another entirely to see someone else. The thought of seeing Jenna without clothes had me feeling rather uncomfortable - she was incredibly well-proportioned for her age, and speaking of that not only was she underage but she was young enough to have been my daughter. The whole mental scenario had me feeling like a creep; I knew that I was going to need to get used to the situation considering the setup here, but today was not going to be that day.
So I rushed it, even facing Khan’s displeasure at not immediately feeding him tasty squishy canned foods when I ran in and out. The poor little guy would have to wait and rely on his dry kibble in the interim.
As it was, Jenna came in after I had grabbed a shower stall and was still trying to get all the soft serve remnants out of my hair. To distract myself I forced my thoughts elsewhere - which was rather easy to do given all the other topics bouncing around in the back of my mind. I decided to focus tactically - which meant once again replaying the unfortunate events of the day, how they may have happened, and why. I concluded I likely needed more information from subject experts on magic - or at least from someone a lot more expert than me - if I had a hope of confirming or rejecting my suspicions. Miranda may have been a magical student, but she admitted she wasn’t yet that advanced. Problem was I still didn’t know that many other people here - kids or faculty.
Maybe that was something I could change.
After checking that Jenna was still ensconced in her own closed and private shower stall, I zipped out, threw on my fuzzy robe, wrapped my hair in a towel-turban, and booked it for the elevator on bare feet. And before you ask, Caroline had taught me how to do the towel-turban thing for wet hair as my own locks had been long for years. I didn’t know anything about makeup, proper nailcare, or other feminine things - but I knew how to do that at least. She liked her guys to have long hair, and once threatened to banish me to the couch if I ever got it cut short. While she was joking, I had decided to not risk it.
Back in my room, Khan blessed me with forgiveness after his tastier food bowl was filled once again. Being a not-so-small cat (despite my nicknames for him), he really did need to eat a lot - and he was certainly not shy in letting you know when he needed more, be it three in the morning or middle of the day.
Checking the phone on my desk for the time, I used it to dial back the number that had woken me up all those seemingly many hours ago. As I had hoped Mrs. Cantrell answered - and I explained my hare-brained scheme to try and get to know the kids in Hawthorne or at least get the introductions over with.
After she explained how many students were currently in residence (over fifty), and also the limitations of the capacities of the restaurants in nearby Dunham, we settled on a plan to make things work: I was going to throw a combination pizza and Chinese take-out party for all the kids, with extra food added to cover the staff too.
With the video conferencing setup they had in all the rooms and the lounges on each floor, we could actually have a cottage-wide party. With only a few hours notice, seeing as it was already after three in the afternoon, she suggested it’d be easier to order a ton of items from both pizza delivery places and all three Chinese delivery restaurants.
I bribed her with her own custom pizza to be added if I could just give her my new shiny credit card’s number and have her make the calls and orders - the logic being that she knew all the diet restrictions of the various students, and I really didn’t want to leave anyone out if I could help it.
Put that way she couldn’t refuse (yes, I am indeed evil and lazy), and thus I happily gave her the numbers on my card. If you can’t trust your own cottage house-mother with such things, who could you trust anyway? She did warn me that with the voracious appetites of the students, delivery charges, and required tips, it would likely cost on the order of a thousand dollars to do this, and she tried to indirectly ask whether I could truthfully afford it.
She relaxed when I explained that my tuition, room and board, and school supplies were all being covered by a scholarship program and that I had my own stipend from which to draw that could more than adequately afford the expense - especially considering I didn’t have rent, food, or even a car and its insurance costs to cover. Furthermore I wasn’t planning on doing this kind of thing too often - maybe a few times a year at most as occasions merited.
Reassured I wasn’t blowing my entire budget out of the water as an irresponsible teenager might be tempted to do, Mrs. Cantrell got off the phone with me to get those orders in.
It may seem odd that I’d try to actively be noticed by everyone in my cottage, given the whole new-identity and hide-from-that-bastard-gryphon situation, but c’mon let’s be honest. I was a young female of remarkably attractive proportions, eye-catchingly brilliant crimson and golden hair - one who had just moved into a special room in the attic of the cottage that no one else had been in for years and let’s not forget was also allowed to bring in a cat. Oh, and who had already been punted out of a building the hard way and yet later walked out of the medical building like nothing remarkable had happened other than a required change of outfit.
Anonymity in my cottage was not going to be an option - no way, no how.
That left me a few hours to try to relax and simply hang out in my room. Knowing myself and my general aversion to crowds, I knew I was going to need the downtime to be ready. After checking that there were no hawks lurking out on my balcony, I disrobed and went over to the open boxes still piled next to the elevator waiting for me to deal with them all. I pulled out a matched set of new underthings sent by Cecilia and tried them on.
Oh wow, I had to admit the bra was a hundred times more comfortable than the one from the box store that had been delivered unto thread and cloth oblivion earlier. To say the new one fit well was a tremendous understatement, wearing it was like I didn’t even have one on - and yet it gave the girls all the support they could want. I mean, I could tell there was cloth wrapped around me and holding things up, but when moving arms around and twisting side to side nothing pinched or bunched up in any way. The panties also were admittedly a perfect fit to the new contours.
I’d never had custom made underclothes before. Okay, honesty time, the only custom tailoring I’d ever had done was on slacks and a suit jacket for my wedding. And that was just modifications to fit - not made from scratch to my exact measurements. This was amazing enough that I almost wanted to go try on the other clothes she had made for me - including the school uniform. Almost.
Besides, seeing as how a proper pizza party should be casual, I tugged on jeans and another t-shirt to replace the loss of falling Alice. This one was blue with Samurai Jack on it holding his katana.
What can I say? I was a fan of the show.
After getting all the clothes put away in the large dresser, I unloaded all the books onto a few of the shelves. Whoever previously lived in this attic had obviously acquired many books - there were five large bookshelf units to fill. With what Soren had sent, I barely covered one and a half. I could hear a new Amazon account crying to be linked to my credit card to correct this literary deficiency.
Girls like to shop, right? Do books count?
Speaking of accounts online, my next task involved setting up my new laptop. A power outlet had kindly been wired into the floorboard by the desk along with an Ethernet jack, so that made things easier. I went through the process of logging in and registering with Whateley’s custom student software application. Looked like the school made heavy use of online syllabi (syllabuses? I’d have to look that up later) as well as other useful notifications, student and faculty email, and of course up-to-date flag color status. Useful!
I even was immediately notified that all residents of Hawthorne had been invited to a dinner of pizza and Chinese cuisine in their various lounges (or rooms as required), all gifted by a new resident. Dessert was to be provided by the cafeteria. Mrs. Cantrell hadn’t mentioned dessert - that was rather sweet of her! Pun entirely intended, of course. After the debacle earlier, though, I vowed to personally skip any ice cream which was somewhat sad. I just didn’t want to invite any of the inevitable jokes to ‘watch out, she’s got ice cream!’ from any of the kids.
Lord knows I would be unable to resist making such jests if I was in their shoes. No need to provide the obvious prompt and opening.
There was also another notice from the administration requiring me to fill out a ‘damage to property’ form regarding the student-sized hole in the gym’s wall. I’d need to type up my full version of events, digitally sign it, and submit it to Campus Security and the Administration. Meh, I’d do that later. It sounded awfully tedious and more involved than just emailing back a one-liner saying, ‘Got kicked through wall. Ouch.’
Instead I found a desktop picture I could live with (for now at least) - a panoramic shot of Zion National Park if you must know - and I set about signing up and ordering myself a cellular phone. I didn’t need one so much for phone calls, but yeah I absolutely needed the clock and alarm. Expedited shipping was going to be expensive, but I had no idea how to get back to town to visit the local provider’s shop to pick one up - not to mention that if I was stuck taking exams all weekend, who knew when I’d even have the time to get to a store.
Khan finished eating and interrupted any further online purchases. Even though I had been told he could come to the lounges with me, I didn’t want to do that until I was sure no one on the floor would be allergic to his fuzziness. I grew up with horrible cat allergies and it had taken me a few months to get used to His Fluffness’ dander as it was; so I didn’t want to inflict that unknowingly on anyone. That and introducing him to that many kids at once might be too overwhelming for him. Probably not, but I worried anyway - blame my own introverted nature for projecting my issues with such crowds onto him if you must, he still was staying in the attic until I could come back to crash for the night.
Picking up his new mouse toy, we began another round of ‘throw toy, chase cat chasing toy, be chased by cat while holding toy, and be teased by cat pretending he might actually fetch toy’.
In other words: we had fun.
Eventually the phone rang to inform me that the first loads of food were arriving and I was needed to go down and sign the charge slips. I scritched Khan behind his ears and reluctantly explained to him that I’d be back later. He hopped up on my bed, gave me a look to express his command that at some point soon I owed him a lot of tuna and attention, before curling up to get a nap.
Fighting my own nerves as they fluttered in my stomach about facing and meeting over fifty kids in one evening, I was jealous of his napping solitude. But this seemed like a good way to get it over with all at once, and maybe find the right people to possibly get answers to solve the mystery of my day’s misfortunes.
I could still smell that awful strawberry in my hair even after my shower. Exemplar senses - yay? Oh and if Jenna made any jokes tonight that me getting creamed earlier must have been ‘God’s Will’ because of me being an angel - she was going to experience such a frozen anointing too.
So it was prophesied, so would it be.
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Not that it wasn’t fun in its own way, just… hmm, let me try to explain.
As adults we forget what we truly were like as kids, remembering events but not our thought processes at the time - let alone the emotions we dealt with every day as puberty made a mess of our mental chemistries. In addition this was all layered on top of the massive social concerns - who was friends with whom, who was ‘cool’ and who was not, all of that. A recipe for chaos, no?
Now take that crazy mess and add to it a set of kids who all have ‘issues’ due to their various unusual situations: non-human forms of all kinds, wacky perceptions (like Leland), medical complications, etc. You name it and the kids of Hawthorne had seen it, experienced it, or heard about it.
Take for example the poor kid who called himself ‘Snek’. He had manifested to be like a Lamia of Greek legend: huge snake body instead of legs underneath his human torso. And since he was just hitting his growth spurt he was shedding his snake skin once or even twice a month. Thing is, his mutational cross-breeding wasn’t perfect. He shed his skin off like a snake, but like a human he didn’t have any underneath ready and waiting. His bare level of regeneration took twenty-four to forty-eight hours to grow new skin each time it happened. In the meantime he was stuck in his room, which was kept clean like an ICU at all times to be ready, with him wrapped as a mummy in bandages, ointment, and loaded with painkillers to help stop the agonies of experiencing effectively being fully skinned all while still alive.
I could describe many of the other kids too, but I think you get the idea.
So here they were, like children in a cancer ward at a hospital, being forced to deal with things that would cause most adults to whimper and break into pieces. Each had a painful fate forced upon them, and you could tell dealing with it wasn’t easy. Yet at the same time they were still kids. They wanted to play, to laugh, and if possible, to grow up as normally as possible.
You could see it all in their eyes and faces: they were old before their times but also trying to hold onto their innocence under the tarnish of all their experiences.
In other words: they loved pizza, they loved cake and ice cream, and many of them still loved the chance to giggle and dance about with wild abandon. Meanwhile the older kids tried to act cool and ‘mature’ as they grouped up into their various cliques hoping to impress the ones they ‘secretly’ liked - even while pretending to ignore them.
It was all on display both in the sophomore lounge but also on the huge wall-sized screen that was divided up into squares for the video feeds of the other three floors’ lounges. A fourth square divided further to show the kids who couldn’t easily leave their rooms - if they could leave them at all. The same music was blasting for everyone: some current day hip-hop or Disney-backed bands which I will admit I mostly had never heard of before, and rather hoped I wouldn’t have to hear again.
Yep, I was old. Auto-tuned voices jumped up and down on my nerves much like freshman did on couches.
However, unlike my own memories of high school, I saw something new with the Hawthorne kids: while some were clearly in more popular cliques than others, there was a camaraderie that transcended those groupings and even the grade levels. Seniors-to-be wandered between the floors and hung out with the new freshmen; juniors had friends amongst the sophomores; the distinction of grade level didn’t matter much to these kids.
They were Thornies first and foremost. Each was bound by their shared experience of having to deal with times of isolation for whatever reasons their mutations or manifestations had forced upon them. Frankly I felt self-conscious moving among them not because I was old and out of touch (which I totally was), but because my limitation and reason for being in their cottage was so simple and benign. I was an Exemplar and in perfect physical health, my only issue was the whole sleep-overload-slipping-away thing. Otherwise I could pass for a ‘normie’, my oddly colored eyes were all that segregated me from being a regular-ol’ human. Plus I was a ‘pretty’ with looks that could lead to a modeling career if I were so inclined - even if I certainly wasn’t.
This made me a bit of an outsider, really - and it took being overly friendly and doing my best to treat everyone the same to get past the instinctual self-defense barriers these kids had learned to deploy as a result of their painful histories. Being the one who paid for the food made some grateful and more willing to talk, but it also made others suspicious - they didn’t like the idea of someone trying to buy their way into friendship. I respected that and didn’t push where I wasn’t welcome as I went between the floors trying to introduce myself and generally get a sense of the residents of my newfound home.
Furthermore at the same time I was trying to probe which kids were studying magic - especially those in the more advanced classes. When they’d inquire why I was asking I told the truth for the most part: I had just manifested and had only a month of real exposure to magic of any kind, and I admitted fascination and also fear of what it could do - including where I might find myself if I were to fall asleep outside the circle the teachers had crafted for me up in my room.
I may have overplayed my honesty and openness as that seemed to also cause some suspicion from a few of the residents. Tough crowd.
The hardest part for me was that I’m not all that comfortable in a large social gathering, let alone trying to be the center of attention. All my partying days in college usually had me lurking on the edges watching the crowd and talking with those I considered my close friends. I had to force myself to go try and talk to everyone, playing the host - sorry, hostess - making sure they all got enough to eat while helping shuffle food between the floors to even out the supply with the demand. As the evening progressed and my own tiredness increased, I found myself reverting more to type: sitting on the outskirts of the scene and just watching them all as they ate, joked, giggled, sang, and generally carried on. I could mark which girl liked which guy and vice-versa (even caught a few moments of girls looking wistfully at other girls, and one guy who was trying desperately to hide pining for another guy who was totally oblivious), and began to mentally sort them by their diverse natures.
Through the video-feed I spotted Evie. She was standing on a couch holding a pointy ice-cream cone like a microphone and joining in with a couple other very young-looking girls as they tried to sing along to the teeny-bop music. Her dark clothing was quite a contrast to the pastel and pigtails of the other girls, but it looked like they were all having fun.
“Hey, new girl with all the red hair…!”
Someone was trying to get my attention. But as I looked around the lounge I was lurking in, I couldn’t figure out where the voice was coming from.
“On the screen, dummy. I’m in my own box.”
Oops. I looked at the Hollywood Squares quarter of the screen and saw a dark haired and rather yellowish-skinned girl waving at the camera.
“Uh, hi?” I said awkwardly to the screen. “Can you hear me?”
“We all can hear you fine!” shouted a boy from a neighboring square who was sporting a blue mo-hawk that on closer inspection was more like a shark fin and comprised of smooth rubbery skin. “How else would a video conference work, duh!”
“Yeah, hey - I want to talk to you,” the girl said as she ignored the boy who was rolling his eyes at me. “Head down the hall to the first study room, we can chat privately there.”
“What about your room?” I asked.
“You wanna freeze your bum off?” the boy interjected with a laugh. “Penelope’s our Queen on Ice! All hail the Queen!” He giggled, though not with any actual malice - I could tell that much.
“Shut up, Trevor,” the girl said as she shook her head and smiled. She said back to me, “Just go to the study room, okay?”
“Sure, gotcha. Uh… then I guess, bye all?” I waved at the little boxes and all the kids who were stuck in their rooms.
“Bye, Red!” Trevor called out loudly, which got a lot of the other kids to follow with giggles of their own.
“Goodbye, Red! Thanks for the noodles!” “Later, Red!” “See ya, Redness!”
This of course prompted all the juniors (as I was on their floor) to follow suit as I walked out of their lounge.
“Thanks, Red!” “Great pizza, Red! Nice legs too!”
A couch cushion was instantly deployed by one of the girls in my defense against the source of the latter comment, whomping him as he laughed. Grabbing a smaller pillow, he tried to use it as a shield against her second swing.
“Yeah, see ya all around!” I called back over my shoulder as I tried to escape into the hallway from the escalating pillow fight. As I reached the entrance to a study room, I could hear an adult voice from one of the staff members trying to stop the ensuing melee, but given the shrieks of laughter and thumping sounds I had a feeling that might not be easily accomplished.
The study room had a number of tables arranged as desks, each with a large tablet inset into the tabletops which could be tilted upward to face whoever sat there. Modern stuff, too - another reminder of why tuitions were so costly. I sat down and logged in on one of the tablets where a blinking icon notified me that a video chat request was waiting for me. I clicked, and sure enough a window popped up showing the girl who had wanted my attention, with her name under the window listed as ‘Penelope Rubak - Nenten, Grade 12’.
“Hi Penelope, I’m Jordan,” I said while trying to study her and what little of her room that I could see in the background. She sat cross-legged on her bed, wearing a sleeveless blank white t-shirt and white shorts. Her hair was muddy-brown cut and styled so it draped alongside her face before sweeping in a circle that dangled just above her shoulders. Her skin was a not-normal shade of yellowish brown; I wondered if she was sick or had liver issues. She was a somewhat cute anyway, though. The rest of her room looked fairly standard as far as I could tell, not covered in metal or reinforcements like Jenna’s had been at least.
“Hey Jordan. Yeah, sorry I can’t invite you to my room, but unless you wanted to grab full winter gear I doubt you’d be comfortable in here.” She grinned. “I keep it at a nice and cozy twenty degrees Fahrenheit in here.”
Having spent the evening meeting all kinds of Thornies I took that in stride and only said, “Gotcha.” After a moment to consider I added, “I’m guessing that the usual temps out here would be a bit too warm for you?”
She nodded. “Yep. The cottage is usually at around seventy or so, which would be like outside in Phoenix in July for me. Doable but…” She made a face.
“Summer pretty much sucks. But anyway, I heard you asking around if anyone was a magic student.”
Aha! “Yes, I’d really like to talk to one.”
“About Tamara McPherson?”
I hadn’t said anything about Tamara specifically to anyone. “Uh…”
She laughed. “I may be stuck in my room, but I like to keep tab on things out there,” she said with a wide grin. “I keep a watchful eye over fellow Thornies - especially those that get kicked through gymnasium walls.”
“Yeah, today has not been the best of days.”
Her face got more serious. “No it wasn’t, and I want to help. I’m in the advanced magic program - shamanism runs in my family.”
A watchful eye, hmm? “Can you use magic to see things outside of your room?” That was one ability I really wanted to know if it was possible, and if so, how hard was it to use?
“Far-scrying?” She shook her head. “Not easily. With the right medicines and altered spirit-state I can spiritwalk, but that takes a lot of setup and someone to make sure my heart doesn’t stop while I’m out and about. I’m not as powerful as some though - there are those who can do it at will and at any time, but not me. It’s rare. And while I can do magic from a distance, I need at least a live video feed to focus through. I keep watch on things the old-fashioned way - knowing the right people and trading favors.”
“Ah. Spy-master type thing, then?”
“I suppose you could say that. I prefer to think of it as I’m a bored shut-in who is nosy into everyone else’s business.”
That got me to laugh, and I started to really like this girl.
“Which is why,” she continued, “I know all about what’s happened to you today - from the lawn sinkhole, to Jenna’s mighty sidekick, the ice cream explosion extravaganza, and even the Cafeteria clock jinx. And I heard about Tamara last night having an issue with your Codename…”
“You absolutely have my full attention. She indeed reacted quite badly, which has made me wonder if she was behind all the crap that hit me today. But I’m going to guess your help may come with a price?”
She bit her lip and nodded, looking suddenly less sure of herself much to my surprise.
“Alright,” I said. “Lay it on me… not sure what I can offer, though.” I also wasn’t sure how much more of my new money I was willing to spend on ‘intelligence gathering’. The party alone was pretty extravagant by my standards as is.
“Can I… can you let your kitty visit me sometime? He’s a Maine Coone, right? They can survive New England winters, I looked it up… so I was thinking, if he likes other people…” She trailed off hopefully.
“…that he could survive an hour or two in your room?” I smiled, thinking that come winter Khan might have a lot of fun out in actual snow. “He’s a rescue, so the vet didn’t think him purebred, but he certainly is properly floofy and has the tufts at the ends of his ears. He also adores attention. Tell you what, we can give it a try and see how he does - although I’ll need to order another litter box and water bowl for him to use while he’s in there with you, okay? Might take a couple days to get here…”
She squealed happily. “Okay!” Penelope may have been a senior and likely sixteen or seventeen, but she was still little girl enough to be bouncing excitedly on her bed at the thought of snugging and playing with my cat.
A perfectly proper reaction, of course!
“Hmm. Might need a heated bowl so his water won’t freeze, come to think of it.”
“I can set my room to above freezing for him, no problem! And my mugs have little heaters in them - I drink ‘hot’ coffee all the time! Can’t drink an ice cube, after all…”
“Than I think we have a deal.” I smiled at her. “So about Tamara…?”
She settled back into her cross-legged sitting spot, visibly forcing herself to be serious again over her unabashed grinning at the possibly of getting kitty visits.
“Far-scrying is hard, right?” she said. “It’s a very advanced technique and only a few have an aptitude for it. Tamara has the gift, like her mom does - but she’s not very good with it yet.”
“She wasn’t anywhere near all the things that went wrong for me today, and I’ll admit I’m just guessing it could be a curse of some kind - could she have just put one on me and walked away somehow?”
Penelope shook her head. “She wouldn’t dare - any Mystic Arts teacher would see it and trace it to her. The punishment for such things is harsh - including expulsion. You were scheduled to see the Rabbi, right? Too big a risk.”
“It could all just be coincidence, then?” If it wasn’t Tamara, it was either just horrible luck - or something sinister from an unknown direction. And no way to tell the difference. Crap.
“Nope. She still could have done it. Her mom is a really powerful witch and can afford some very special relics. She also travels, like, all the time. So she sent Tamara a far-scrying crystal ball - a smallish one - so they could use it to talk to each other no matter where her mom was. Her mom is rumored to have a huge one gifted to her by a goddess and it’s said to be able to see anywhere on Earth - and maybe beyond. She takes it with her wherever she goes from what I’ve heard. It’s supposedly so powerful it can scry past most warding spells as if they weren’t there.”
I thought for a moment. “Could Tamara use her smaller one to cast spells on things she sees with it?”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. She learned how this past year - she really is rather talented. The only thing today that puzzles me is the warding on the gym. With all the outside betting on our combat finals by bookies in Vegas, the teachers really upped the wards on anywhere we practice our stuff. Tamara is good, but not that good - there’s no way she could have penetrated those to reach the practice mat’s shield generator.”
Frowning, I asked, “The ‘shield generator’ thing that went down - I might have been the cause of it, but I’m not sure. Is it magic or technology?”
“Think it’s a devise of some kind. So non-ordinary tech possibly?”
“Fields is a techno-mage hacker though, right? Is she good enough to make use of Tamara’s crystal - maybe with Tamara’s help?”
Penelope’s eyes went wide. “I hadn’t thought of that. Wow, that’s a scary thought, but yeah - I’ve seen a little of what Fields can do. If Tamara helped her use the crystal to scope out a physically secure but remote part of the gym’s network, I bet Fields could have hacked the devise from there without triggering the magical wards themselves.”
“Any way to prove it? The other incidents were annoying, sure, but that one was dangerous to the school given the red flag day restrictions.”
“No way. I know magic, not tech - and for most of our tech folks they’re the reverse. And I don’t want to mess with Fields, okay?”
The thought really made her nervous, I could tell. I asked, “Leland seems scared of Fields - but other than the IRS audit story on that other hacker he told me, what else has she done?”
“You don’t get it, do you?” She stared at me. “It’s summer outside - ninety degree heat to me is like one-hundred forty to you. I’d die in that heat. If Fields gets mad at me? I bet you she could take down the air-conditioning of all of Hawthorne - and shut down my own private system. Especially if she can make use of that crystal of Tamara’s!”
“Oh. Oh shit, yeah, you’re right. So what do I do? I don’t think Tamara is going to stop - if anything, some bullies escalate when they easily get away with things.”
“That’s where I think I can help. You’re a budding magic user too, right? They say you glowed in the cafeteria when staring her down, and practically the entire Mystical Arts faculty all did something up in your room. Can you see energies?”
I nodded. “According to Rabbi Emmanuel, I can.”
“Can you see this?” Her eyes narrowed in concentration as she seemed to stare past me. “Look up at the ceiling above you.”
Looking up, I saw standard office or classroom ceiling tiles - greyish white squares covered with little black holes. “What am I looking for?”
“Try to focus on seeing or maybe feeling my energy, okay?”
I thought back to how it felt to look at the Star on the Rabbi’s wall with its glowing Hebrew letters. They were visible - but it was also as if they had been painted directly on the image within my mind’s eye too. Trying to repeat that feeling, I stared at the ceiling while simultaneously picturing the ceiling in my mind - it sounds weird, but when I got the two to lie on top of each other, I started to see a green circle taking shape on the tile directly above me on the mental side of the vision.
“Wait, is your energy green…?”
“Yes! Keep looking!”
The green circle began to pulse, enlarging and shrinking, before sliding across the tiles in a larger pattern - leaving residue as it went that also glowed. “Oh, I get it, you’re painting something…”
“Right! So, what am I drawing?”
It was hard - my eyes still saw blank tile, but my mental image now had a green outline of a maybe the symbol for infinity traced upon it. Then I felt something shift in my head, like my brain had just put on its own internal prescription glasses, and the image became crystal clear. The physical image and mental had merged into one, my eyes saw it just like my mind did.
It wasn’t infinity that she had traced.
“A fish! A green fish, with gills… and it’s getting more detailed…”
The fish, looking real and solid to me - complete and having scales glistening with a hint of rainbow colors- suddenly leapt off the ceiling to dive downward towards my face. Throwing my hands up in surprise I fell out of my chair sideways to the floor to avoid it. “Gaah!”
It disappeared in mid-air, poof, and was gone. Penelope was laughing loudly at me. “Your expression! Oh my god, that was hilarious. Oh no, attacked by a magic fishy!”
Slowly getting back to my feet, I glared at the tablet’s camera. “Har har.”
She unashamedly grinned at me. “That was great, though. You really saw it!”
“Yeah I did - it was very realistic. Like face-full of large fish real!”
“You’ve got some serious talent if you saw it that clearly. Awesome! And that’s your defense against Tamara.”
Wait, what? “Uh, how so?”
“If she’s behind it all like we both suspect and if she’s using her crystal to remotely cast things, she’s targeting stuff around you - and not you directly. That’s clever, as most untrained noobs would never be able to notice let alone see anything unless hit in the face like with a fish.” Her grin broadened, her nose flaring cutely as she did so.
I began to understand. “So if I can somehow keep my awareness up, I should be able to see where she’s casting things?”
“Yeah. Likely she’s setting down minor curse traps with her sigils - those only take a few moments to set up. Once done, though, she can trigger them. If you stand still in front of something, or have an obvious path to walk down…”
I finished her thought. “That’d give her opportunity to get set up and nail me with it. If I see the energy forming, I can at least get out of the way?”
“Probably. Better than nothing, right?”
“True. But how can I stop her from doing it at all?”
Penelope shrugged. “No idea. She never struck me as the vindictive type though, to be honest. Her risking even this much by misusing magic on another student is really out of character for her.”
“Religious beliefs can cause people to do crazy things. My codename is, in her eyes, trampling on part of her faith.”
“I guess. But she’s always struck me as someone who’d patiently try to explain why you were wrong first before actually getting upset like this. I dunno, it’s just odd. I mean, I know she was pissed off about failing Math and being stuck here over the summer, but I wouldn’t have expected her to become a vindictive jerk like this. You going to change your codename if she keeps this up?”
“Still debating. But I don’t like giving up that easy.”
“Good. We can’t let folks walk all over us Thornies - even if they have crazy rare crystal balls to play with.”
I smiled. “Exactly. And thanks.”
She smiled back. “Just get the stuff for your kitty to come visit me! And bring some toys if he likes to play!”
“You bet. And if he does okay with the temperature, maybe I can take him to your room while I go to classes and things during the day? He’d be happier to have the constant company…”
She clapped her hands in glee. “Yes! We can get him an electric blanket to lie on in here too if he needs to warm up…”
“Good idea. Thanks again, Penelope!”
“You’re welcome! Oh, and… Bye Red!” She giggled and dropped the video chat.
Red again, eh? Well it sure beats some of the other stupid nicknames I was given back in the day as a teen-aged guy. And no, I’m not sharing what those awful names were.
Life is full of disappointment. Deal with it - it builds character.
It took a few minutes for me to muster the mental wherewithal to venture back to the pizza-Chinese-take-out-ice-cream-and-cake party that was still in full swing in all the lounges. I had been trying to remember the last time I had been amongst so many people in a party-like setting - and the new perfect-recall made it abundantly clear that it indeed had been a very long time.
As in before-losing-Caroline long. The last party I attended was one she had us host for a whole bunch of her friends - and I invited my friend Isaiah. He showed up, we did some drinking, and we ended up going for a long walk around Santa Monica. We got back after the party had pretty much ended.
Caroline had not been pleased - we had been gone for hours. Oops.
It’s not that I dislike being social, I like it just fine. I’m just more comfortable with a smaller group - I can focus better on them all as individuals that way. Too many and it can get overwhelming given time. Like I said, I’m an introvert at heart. Even parties in college I’d be off on the balcony chatting with just a couple people, as opposed to those in the main room dancing, whooping, and generally being goofballs.
And of course after losing Caroline, I hadn’t felt much like partying anyway - nor did I have the wide circle of friends like she did, so what would be the point?
Now, after the whole transformation and magical energy deal, I was finding that I could sort of feel people as a low level buzzing in my head - and when they were being emotional that irritating buzz increased. I hadn’t become conscious of it until going from floor to floor all filled with noisy exuberant kids tonight, but it was there in the background of my head. The powers evaluation had noted I was a possible empath, so I wondered if that was my problem.
Could I have had empathic issues my whole life and not realized it? Something to ponder, I guess.
Making sure to sign myself out of the study room’s desk-tablet, I walked out into the hallway only to turn left directly into Miranda who had been running down the hall at speed.
Fortunately quicker reflexes kicked in, and I managed to get my arms around her waist, spinning her momentum in a half-circle so I could sidestep and plant her back on the ground. She was left looking up at me in surprise as the long green needles of her hair fell back around her face.
“Whoa, there!” I said. “What’s the rush?”
“Evie!” she said. “We can’t find her, have you seen her?”
I frowned. “Uh, I saw her earlier singing along with the other Freshmen and eating an ice cream. She was having fun.”
“Ice cream? Oh shit, someone let her have ice cream?”
“Is that bad? She diabetic?”
“No, it’s just one of her triggers.”
What the hell? Problematic ice cream again? Gah! Before I could ask just what it triggered, a boy came running up the hall from the other direction.
“No luck, Miranda! I checked the other floors too.”
While the kid looked to be in good physical shape from what I could see through his sleeveless surfer logo emblazoned t-shirt, his labored breathing had me believing he’d just sprinted a marathon. The blonde hair dangling over his face was slick with sweat too.
Transparent eyelids blinked over his eyes while he tried to catch his breath.
“Barry, you were supposed to keep an eye on her! That’s why I gave it to you.” She pointed at the thin silver bracelet he clenched in one hand. I recognized it as the same that Leland and Miranda herself had been wearing the previous afternoon.
“I had to pee!” whimpered the boy as he handed the slim bracelet back to her. “I was only gone for like a minute…”
“Right,” I said while trying to keep them focused and not wasting time with blame, even if I didn’t quite believe his offered excuse given his sheepishly nervous expression. “Between the two of you all the floors have been checked? And her room?”
They nodded. Miranda said, “I checked the third and fourth floors, Barry did first and second, and Leland is checking the basements.” She looked very worried. “I hope she didn’t wander outside…”
I had a thought. “Wait a minute. Barry, when you checked your floors did you check the girl’s bathrooms and showers?”
Barry flushed pink. “I can’t go in there! I’m a guy!”
“Did you get a girl to check for you, then?” Miranda asked.
“Uh, no?” he answered.
Miranda and I looked at each other, then took off running towards the showers. She shouted back at Barry, “Tell Mrs. Cantrel - and if you can’t find her, tell Fubar! And get other girls to search the bathrooms on the other floors!”
I got to the showers first, my longer legs eating the distance like a sumo wrestler swallows rice and leaving Miranda a good distance behind. I had just thrown open the door when I heard Miranda shout down the corridor.
“Jordan, wait! You don’t have a bracelet…”
I almost hesitated, but looking inside I saw Jenna curled up in a fetal position on the floor in front of the sinks. There were tears at the corners of her tightly closed eyes and I saw her skin was slowly shifting to stone.
“Jenna!” My thoughts flashed back to what she had told me about her epileptic fits and how much damage they could do - and how much guilt she felt over them. Was I strong enough to hold her down?
Only one way to find out. I rushed inside to kneel down at her side, my hands taking hold of her shoulders to try and get her flat on the floor so I could straddle her and keep her immobile.
That’s when I noticed that further in the room and also on the floor with her back against a glass shower door was Evie, her arms hugging herself as she was crying with utterly silent tears.
Not to mention her eyes had gone solid white while these weird black eel-like clouds swarmed through the air around her.
I didn’t have time to finish the sentence. A dark inky cloud shot out from Jenna’s chest directly into my own. There was a moment of coldness rushing up my spine, and then I was gone.
My house lay cratered and smoldering in front of me - the ceiling imploded, walls collapsed, and all the memories within were burning in the flames.
Both my parents were in there, as was Caroline and Helena. Their charred corpses could be seen where the living room had once been.
Where I had played as a child. Where I had stood and decided it was time to buy a ring to put on Caroline’s finger.
Where my life had been. Now only a room of death and loss.
I wanted to rush inside, to shout at them not to go, to not be dead, or failing that - to take me with them. But neither my feet nor arms nor head could move. My eyes spotted a piece of glass that lay against the concrete and rebar wreckage, reflecting where I stood.
The only thing it showed was a statue immovable, a glistening white stoned figure posing with a hand outstretched towards the ruins with a mouth locked in a frozen and eternally silent scream.
Female, young, a goddess of beauty and proportion.
Beside me stood Mark, Danielle, and Isaiah. They were holding hands in a living chain, but my hand couldn’t move to join theirs. I tried to call to them, to tell them it was me stuck inside this false visage forged from marble.
I tried to beg them not to leave me behind but one by one they sadly turned and walked away from the house and from me.
The sky above rumbled with thunder, and a flash of lightning burst the clouds open to cascade wetly upon me and the remains of my smoking home. Slowly, piece by piece, it all began to crumble and wash away.
And still I couldn’t move, nor even add my own tears to the rain.
Minutes stretched into hours into what seemed like days. The storm was unceasing in its efforts: shard by shard the walls and furniture wore away, cracking into splinters to be carried off by the stream running down my driveway. All I could do was watch.
Something brushed against my ankle. Soft, insistent. I couldn’t move my head to look down, but I recognized the sensation of paws clawing at my legs. With a leap of incredible balance, a cat jumped upwards to land atop my outstretched arm. Khan, turning carefully, sat on my forearm to face me as his fluffed tail folded around to cover his paws.
In his eyes burned a sharp white brightness, and as I stared helplessly into them I somehow heard Caroline’s voice echoing from her hospital bed, reminding me of a promise I had tried to forget.
“Justin, listen to me. I have to go, and you have to stay. Not just that, you have to live - you have to move on from this pain and build a new life. Find someone, have a family, do all the things we swore we would do and find new ones to enjoy. For me, love. You have to do this for me, as hard as it may seem right now. Or else I will find no peace on the otherside, you hear me? Promise me. Swear it.”
And I had. By the love I had for her, I had so sworn. A love I still held dear to my heart and which nothing could ever erode. No fire, no storm, nothing would ever take that from me.
The statue of myself exploded outward in a burst of blinding light.
I opened my eyes. The shower room was still around me, though I was now on my knees; Jenna was no longer beneath me.
Something twitched between my palm and fingers - my glowing hand was gripping that dark wispy cloud whose tail still sank past my skin into my chest. With an effort of will I pulled it free.
“For Caroline,” I whispered, sending a surge of energy into my hand.
The cloud evaporated in the brilliant flare.
“Jordan!” Miranda’s voice rang out sharply with barely controlled panic and adrenalin.
Looking upwards, I saw both Jenna and Miranda hovering just within the room’s entrance, relief and worry mixing plainly upon their faces. Also standing there was a man I didn’t recognize - he had on a white dress shirt and nondescript dark trousers and dress shoes. He held one hand out towards me, but as I turned to take in the rest of the room I realized it wasn’t aimed at me: he was gesturing at an almost solid wall of those black cotton--ball eel-like cloud things which were swirling faster and faster and in growing numbers at the back of the line of showers, occasionally trying to ram the demarcation zone manifested by the simplicity of being the line beyond which those things weren’t.
“Ms. Beltrane, Ms. Birch, if you are both able, please contact Campus Security. Tell them we have a situation, and that I may not be able to contain Ms. Whitcomb’s sendings for much longer. We will need further assistance from the Psychic Arts department to punch a hole large enough for a tranquilizer dart to reach Ms. Whitcomb. Tell them also to be fully prepared. I would tell them myself, but my concentration here is constraining my range somewhat.”
Jenna reacted first. “You got it, Foob. We’re on it.” Miranda hesitated, clearly wanting to make sure I was okay, but Jenna grabbed her and pulled her away. “We have to get clear of Jordan if she powers up too, c’mon!”
I looked back at the wall of… things. When I focused on them too steadily, I could feel fear and despair trying to climb back into my thoughts. I pulled more light into myself and rose to my feet in defiance.
“Evie is in there, right? She causing those things?” I asked without looking back at the man. I also could feel he was somehow holding them at bay - at least for now. There was a strained tension in the room; the more I focused on it, the more I could see ripples through the air from behind me towards the sphere of darkness that must have surrounded Evie.
A sphere that extended through the floor, ceilings, and walls - which I realized would be no barrier to the slippery evil things.
“Yes,” he said. “They are manifestations of her troubled psyche. I had hoped we were helping her make progress since her arrival, but this is much worse and much stronger than her last episode - stronger than we had thought her capable. If we can knock her unconscious, they should stop.”
Something in how he said that made me question it. “Should? You don’t sound too sure about that.”
“That is because I am not. As powerful a psychic as I am, her power is strong enough in this state to keep me from reaching her - and, to be frank, I’m not sure what else to try short of… something I’d like to avoid.”
He didn’t say it, but I understood what he meant. “Those things are that dangerous? We can’t just evacuate the building until she calms down?”
I could hear his worry in his reply. “She is stuck in a feedback loop, each of the manifestations are driving her further and further into a psychosis fugue state, which in turn generates even more of them. If I were to… falter… the whole campus would be flooded, affecting everyone.”
The thought of all the kids getting smacked with the same emotional morass I had just escaped did not sound good. The amount of despondent despair I could feel from the increasing collection of negativity behind the guy’s projected psychic shield was horrifying. I had felt the impact of just one of the things, and it had taken serious willpower and the light energy - the angelic light energy - to break free.
These kids wouldn’t have a chance, especially the Thornies and any others who had serious emotional vulnerabilities the slimy projections could exploit.
He painted an even worse picture. “We have several ragers as students. The outcome would be a bloodbath.”
Holy shit. I’d seen the news about rager attacks - mutants with incredible physical abilities, including regeneration, who could snap and go full psychotic. The number of bodies left in their wake was always horrible. Worse still, they’d remember it all when they came out of it - they were helpless witnesses locked within their own heads stuck watching themselves slaughter everyone and everything around them the whole time. No matter who it was or how much the people mattered to them. I can’t even imagine that level of guilt - all of which would feed these evil things something fierce, and in turn would have to be an instant trigger point for the poor ragers to go off.
I looked down at the light emanating from my hands, and then back at the guy. “I just destroyed one of those black things. Maybe I can reach her and pull her out of it? But I think I’d have to go full power to have a shot.”
I saw him struggle within himself at the idea, and I suddenly understood why.
“Do you know who I am?” I asked. “Who I really am?”
“I… yes. I do.”
“Then you know I’m not just another student here. I’m not a child who’s entire life lies in front of them and needs protecting. Those kids are outside this room. And I’m not going to let them get slaughtered by each other or broken inside by these things if I can damn well do something about it.”
The air rippled more fiercely between him and the wall of contained nastiness, and the dividing line between us and them shifted closer towards us. Not good.
“I am forced to admit that I am in no position to argue. If I go down, you would be overwhelmed in any case. Mrs. Cantrel is close enough still and has just informed me that she is evacuating those she can, and will keep others as radially as far from here as possible. Some of our charges, however, cannot leave their rooms without more time.”
I gave him a half smile, and with the light flowing through me I could feel his tremendous concern and love for all the kids in Hawthorne - nay, the whole campus. He had his own inner glow, though mixed within was also an echo of the terrible loneliness and isolation I had felt as the statue in my own recent inner Hell. He had it under firm control, but it was there. My heart suddenly wanted to reach for him too, but Evie - and everyone else - needed me first.
“Just tell me when I can try. You have a name?”
“Louis. My name is Louis - though most of the students call me Fubar.”
“Nice meeting you, Louis.”
“Nice to meet you too, Jordan.” He paused to think. “If you can get to her, but she won’t respond to you - try to open a path for the tranquilizer dart to pass through and reach her. Maybe your energies can do that much. The dart gun should be here very soon. Along with one for… another solution.”
‘Another solution’. He meant a regular rifle and an old fashioned bullet. A full-score rager event would kill potentially hundreds, and no matter what they couldn’t let that happen. Even if that meant sacrificing Evie.
I didn’t like it and I could tell neither did he. But was there a choice?
“You can go,” he said, his voice straining from his efforts. “It’s relatively clear. I’ll keep up the barrier on my end as long as possible.
“Hang in there.”
Turning to face the growing wall of the swarming dark emotional mess I held firmly onto my promise to Caroline, and also brought to my mind all the reasons why I had to succeed: Jenna, Miranda, Leland, Penelope, and all the kids I’d barely met. Plus all the teachers and staff who, like Louis, openly held the care of these children as a sacred trust.
Sacred. Now there’s a thought.
The Rabbi had told me earlier that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Could God have sent me here to stop Evie? Or more hopefully, could He have sent me to save her? Like I had Danielle?
The similarity of the circumstances was uncanny: Soren’s rental unit had been a swirl of crazy overwhelming energies, and before me now was a chaotic wall of the darkest and worst emotions spewed forth from a soul given unto despair. As before it seemed like certain death to enter, and also as before there was a young girl trapped within the madness. Thing was, the cost of failure this time was not just one life lost, but many.
Far too many.
But this time I wasn’t entirely unarmed nor unprepared to face such a thing. With my heart and mind already holding on to the thoughts and emotions I felt towards all whom I loved, I added Evie and the school firmly onto that list.
Perhaps, even, I wasn’t alone.
Please, God, if you’re listening, help me save Evie - help me save them all.
With my prayer I opened the inner floodgates as wide as I could and stepped towards the sickly floating eels of despair and anguish. Giving a final nod to Louis, I turned and threw all the light I could muster into the swarming faceless inky forms and crossed into their midst.
I don’t know what I expected, but the black clouds shrieked and recoiled away from me as shadows fleeing the sun, opening a path before me that I used to walk slowly towards the back of the room. Looking back, however, I saw the darkness immediately flowed in behind me - cutting me off from seeing anything except the floor tiles under my feet illuminated solely by the light shining from my light-emitting aura. Everything else was in utter shadow - a darkness that somehow was growing darker with each passing moment.
How the heck was I to clear a hole through it for a tranquilizer to zip through? Should I run back and take the gun myself to use it point blank?
As I stood there, pulling more and more energy into myself and trying to push it outward to keep the darkness at bay, the unreality of where I stood became overwhelming.
It was like being in a dream.
You know those dreams where you’re in the middle of doing something crazy, like driving a car into the ocean, yet you know with a certainty of intuition that the car will do just fine, and you’ll be able to reach the spiral shell-towers of your underwater city destination if you just keep on that path?
That intuitive knowing was telling me not to go for the gun. It told me I needed to reach Evie.
So forward I went, step by step, and as I did so the blackness was compressed in front of me - the layer closest to my small bubble of light which had nowhere to escape burned and boiled away as I willed myself forward. My legs may have been walking, but it was my will that moved me on.
I almost tripped over her. She had fallen sideways into a tiny ball, the nasty black crud clinging to her skin like an oil slick - covering her hair, her clothes, and her face.
She was breathing the damn things in with each drawn breath.
I didn’t think, I just reacted. I fell to her side, put one hand on her head and another on her back, and shoved all that I had and was into her.
The room spun away and I fell like a blazing meteor into the heart of the darkness that had claimed and overwhelmed the poor girl’s mind and soul.
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Image after image, fraught with emotion, sound, and scent. Each shattering like a kaleidescope the moment they coalesced.
A door opened into a darkened room, a large shadowy figure quietly entering. Hiding under blankets which offered no protection…
Screamed insults and shouting from behind the walls, homework left undone to hold close the terrified family terrier while hiding in the back of a closet wishing it all would go away…
Stench of garlic breathed against the back of the neck, shame at the relief that at least the intense pain was over, only the lingering ache left behind pulsing with each heartbeat…
A kitchen floor, freshly mopped by a morning maid, yet wedged in the corner still lay small shards of colored glass which had escaped notice from those too tall to see…
The clink of a belt unbuckled as it fell with expensive slacks onto the floor, a man’s voice whispering how she was special, his very special princess, how he would take care of her, and how they were meant to be together forever…
Children, all dressed in expensive and individually tailored uniforms, running around outside on perfectly painted courts that had been paved better than the street that lay on the other side of a massive security fence separating them all from the loud traffic, a visage viewed from against a building wall over small arms huddled around knees out of tremendous fear - not of the other kids - but of what would happen should she accidentally reveal the bruises on her arms and torso from where the bottles had left their marks…
A woman in an elegant green dress sprawled on the floor across the hallway, trying to grab for her as she ran past to get to the bathroom, sounds of the woman’s stomach rejecting its contents all over the imported rug echoing after her as she slammed the bathroom door shut and locking it with the hope to just be able to pee in peace…
The shriek of panic and horror by a very young boy standing in a modestly-decorated living room as he watched a cloud of darkness flow unbidden out of the small girl’s hand and into his golden retriever, which now lay whimpering and crying on its side…
Between the fragmented scenes a single unmoving image repeated and grew larger with each iteration: a girl with short brown hair still in her school uniform, sitting in a chair next to a desk stacked high with folders spilling paperwork in all directions, clutching a chocolate covered cone slowly melting its inner white cream over small fingers.
Pushing the rest aside, this image filled in with more and more details piling on top of each other: adults standing in the background, phones ringing, computer keyboards clicking, hallways and offices forming the florescent bulb lit maze, blue men in intimidating uniforms of their own with heavy guns on their belts walking purposefully past, the smell of burnt coffee mixing with that of clothes infused with cigarette ash, all with the underlying intense hum of a place bombarded by hope and despair.
The still image, merging into the sounds and smells, pulled me in…
She sat with her eyes staring at the cone in her hands. She looked younger than what I had seen in Hawthorne, this scene must have happened perhaps a year or so ago. We were obviously in a police precinct, but whoever must have brought her here had gone elsewhere, leaving her with the prepackaged frozen dessert. My mind was still trying to sort through all the things I had just seen and felt from what must have been her scattered memories. My heart was screaming to just gather the little girl into my arms, but I knew that wouldn’t be the right thing to do much as I may want to.
“We’re safe here,” she said. “The lady said so. Until I’m done with this.”
Her eyes were locked on the ice-cream, watching as another drip of the vanilla slid down from under the chocolate shell covering the scoop.
“The lady?” I asked, stepping cautiously closer so I could sit in the empty desk chair next to hers.
She nodded. “She said by the time I finished eating this my mother would be here to take me home.”
Her hand trembled as she mentioned her mother and her home, and her jaw set firmly. “I’m not going to eat it. I shouldn’t have before, not going to now. No.”
I had a bad feeling I knew how she had gotten here, but felt I should ask anyway.
“What happened, Evie? Why were you here?”
A single tear escaped the corner of an eye and she sniffled. “It’s my fault. They’re taking him away, and it’s my fault.”
“Who are they taking, hon?”
“Daddy. The lady said they’re going to… lock him up. I’ll never get to see him again. Because of me!”
I swallowed, trying to pick my words carefully. “Not because of you, sweetie - because of things he’s done. Did he hurt you?”
“No! Well, yeah, but only… he protected me! He promised to keep me safe! It’s all that teacher’s doing! I told her to leave me alone, but she wouldn’t! I couldn’t hide it, my shoulder just hurt too bad…”
Looking at her shoulder, I couldn’t see anything obvious under her school sweater. “What happened to your shoulder?”
“I… I fell. That’s what I told them, but they didn’t listen. They called the cops; they made me show the lady doctor everything. I didn’t want to! Daddy told me what would happen if I said anything - and he was right!”
“They were trying to protect you from him…”
“They’re stupid! Stupid stupid stupid! Just like me!” She blinked and returned to staring at her ice cream. “I won’t be this time. I won’t eat it and I won’t go.”
What was it Louis had said? Something about being stuck in a feedback loop. Was her refusal to leave this scene the internal cause? If I could get her out of it, would she snap out of it?
“Won’t it melt, though?” I asked. “And I don’t think the cops will let us stay here forever…”
She finally looked away from her hands. Instead she glared at me, her eyes going hard. “You don’t know what happens if we go. We’re safe here.”
“You don’t want to know.”
“Evie, I want to help you, okay? But I can’t unless I know how…”
“No. You don’t want to help me, anyway.”
“Yes I do, hon. I really do.”
“No! You’re like everyone else! They’re all scared of me!”
It was as if a cork had popped - waves of black rage rushed out of her to blast into my chest, hammering at the light that I was still holding under my skin. I tried to pull more energy to counter it, but it felt like something was stuck - there was plenty in that inner tower, but the nozzle wouldn’t open any further. I started to slide out of my chair from being paralyzed under the onslaught.
“You want to see what you’re all afraid of? FINE! I’ll show you!”
Before I could call out to her to wait, she stood up. Black ink flowed across her eyes and with a wordless shout of primal anger she threw her ice cream at the ground between us. The tiled floor collapsed with the impact, and we, the chairs, the desks, everything fell down through the widening chasm into the dark memories contained underneath.
“How could you be so stupid? Letting them see… What am I going to do now? Tell me!”
Mother was shouting at me. She had been polite to the police, all cooperative and making all the right noises about how could Daddy have been such a monster, how grateful she was that the school had contacted authorities, her sweet and utterly fake sincerity oozing off her just like her expensive perfume that I was never allowed to touch.
I knew what would happen when we got home. The silent limousine ride ended, she dragged me up the stairs and into the kitchen where her bottles sat.
She didn’t even bother using a glass, just opened one and swallowed the foul-smelling liquid straight from the bottle.
I shrank silently back against the island cabinet, wanting to cry, to run, to escape - but she had just started. I knew she’d still be faster until the booze hit her system.
What else was her running coach for but to keep her in shape to chase me down when she got mad?
“Fuck. I’m ruined, you little slut. You hear me? Ruined! Your bitch of a grandmother controls all the money, and she’s always hated me. Her precious boy in jail? She’s going to have a shit-fit. And I’ll take the blame. Me. Like this was all my fucking fault.”
She downed even more booze, looked at the bottle, and threw it so hard it shattered on a cupboard above and behind my head. Shrieking, I fell to the floor, covering my head with my arms as the glass pieces scattered about everywhere.
This caused her to laugh. “See? Just like that bottle, there’s my life.”
She opened a new one and swallowed more while I remained cowering on the floor. I whimpered, and the sound caught her attention again.
“It’s all on you, you know. You stole him from me, you little bitch. Ha! I can say that to you now that everything is fucked. Yeah, I knew. I saw how he looked at you once your chest started budding; he used to look at me that way. Oh yes! I used to be his ‘special princess’! He told me the same lies when we met that I’m sure he’s told you. But no matter how much I kept in shape, no matter the creams and treatments, I got too old for him - just as you were ripening so sweetly for him to pluck. Too old, and yet I’m still in my thirties!”
Staring at me with her hatred warping her face, she continued. “It would have happened to you too, eventually. And all his promises would have evaporated, like they did for me!”
“NO!” I shouted at her. “He promised! He promised to protect me!”
“Protect you? From what, his dick?”
“From you! He promised to protect me from you!”
Sneering, she gripped the bottle like a baseball bat while ignoring the rest of its contents spilling out on the floor. “Well he ain’t here now, is he?”
Utter terror, rage, and despair tore at me inside as she approached, preparing to swing. I had to get it out!
I had to get it all out!
There was an audible pop, emerging from my chest came this weird black cloud.
“What the hell is that?” She took a step back away from it as it floated closer towards her.
But I felt better, the fear was gone leaving only anger behind. “Why don’t you just die then?!”
The darkness flew towards her, going through the bottle she shoved in its path, and sank right into her.
“What have you done…?” The bottle fell from her fingers, cracking as its heavy base hit the tile. “Oh my god, what have I done…” She looked at me in horror. “My little girl… what… I can’t take this…”
“If your life is so over, then die! Let me be!” The anger felt good, felt clean. It’s all I had.
“I… there’s no hope is there… yes… it’s all over…” Her hands fumbled for the knife drawer, pulling out a sharp chopping blade.
I stood there and watched her slice open her wrists. Watched as she slid to the floor amid the growing pool of blood. Watched as she whispered, “I’m sorry”, before she died.
Only when she was gone did the blackness slip out of her and back into me. Only then did I suddenly feel anything other than rage.
Evie was hovering over me in a space forged from her inner darkness, levitating with her hands held outward as her black eyes dared me to respond to what she had just shown me.
“Do you see now? Do you? You all should be afraid!”
I wanted to collapse into weeping over what I had just witnessed, nay, experienced. She hurt so badly, so very badly, and she had shared it all with me - holding none of it back.
“Oh Evie,” I choked out.
“This is why everyone is afraid of me!”
“They’re not afraid, Evie… they want to help you.”
I managed a nod. “Miranda, Leland, Barry - they were desperate to find you, Louis is trying so hard to help you…”
“They don’t want to help! They’re afraid of what I could do to them! And they’re right to be. I’m evil, don’t you see? And they know it! Look! They know what they need to do!”
She gestured to one side and an image crystallized in the air: the shower room beyond the swarm of her unleashed emotional storms. By the entrance I could see Lieutenant Forsyth holding a rifle at the ready while other adults I didn’t recognize stood with hands outstretched chanting mantras.
I couldn’t see Louis. Dear god, I hope he hadn’t collapsed.
“See? They’re here to kill me!”
“They want to save you…”
“Wrong! They don’t. I can feel their fear. I can feel all of them. And thing is, I deserve it! Don’t you get it?”
“No. And I won’t.”
Black oil leaked as tears down her face. “Why aren’t you afraid of me? You should be afraid…”
I looked at her, this child with a soul in tatters from her experiences: all her fears, all her anger, all her self-loathing, but there, underneath it all was still a glimmer of a shard that desperately didn’t want to be this source of pain and horror, that desperately just wanted to be safe, to be held, and… to be loved.
Even after everything she had been through, that’s what she still wanted more than anything.
“I can’t be afraid of you, Evie, because I believe you just won over my heart.”
I felt it as I made my choice, like striking the tuning fork of my soul. The vibrational rush filled me, and in the distance I could hear once again that glorious music calling out to me, filling me up and more.
“What… what are you doing?” Dark eyes looked at me wild with confusion, and maybe, just maybe, a tiny amount of hope.
It would have to be enough.
“I want to offer my love to you, but you need to be braver than you’ve ever been to take it.” I held forth a hand shining with the light flowing through me from beyond. “Will you let me love you, Evie? Because if you do, I can promise I will never stop - I have always given my heart forever to those I love.”
“I don’t deserve that! You should let them kill me!”
“Not only do I not believe that, I won’t let them.”
Despair fought mightily against that tiny buried spark, but I could feel that beautiful music calling out to that one unvarnished spot she had hidden so deep within.
“Please, Evie? You have to accept it, sweetie. I know it’s a lot to ask, but it really would mean a lot to me.”
With a courage more wondrous than the ethereal orchestra resounding in my ears, she reached out and after only a moment’s further hesitation, took my hand.
The symphony swelled with a burst of shining glory that launched us upwards - and we were gone.
I had a child held tightly within my still-glowing arms.
Evie, face buried into my t-shirt which was soaking up her tears, clung to me as I slowly stood up, easily lifting her off the ground as I did so. Her legs wrapped around my waist as if they too were never going to let me go.
Without looking, I could feel remnants of her emotional cast-offs still fluttering around us; with an instinctual pulse I vaporized them.
They were not going to bother this child any further. Not while I was there.
“Jordan.” It took Louis’ voice calling my name to get me to look around towards the others who were now awkwardly standing just within the shower room’s entrance.
Louis was standing there along with the Lieutenant and the two other adults - one a slender dark-skinned man in jeans and blue flannel shirt and one woman in sweatpants and a green t-shirt sporting a large tree emblem of some kind. While Louis looked tired, he was smiling.
“Heya Louis,” I said quietly. “Think you could ask Colin to withdraw?” The Lieutenant was still holding onto two weapons, the tranquilizer gun and a rather serious and military-grade looking rifle. I looked at the weapons and back at Louis meaningfully.
Evie didn’t need to see those right now.
Colin caught on quick, looking to Louis for permission. With his nod of approval, Colin backed out of the room. The other two adults were staring at me in what I had to guess was surprise mixed with caution.
The woman, looking less tired than her male counterpart, said to Louis, “Did she just…”
“Yes, yes she did,” Louis said. “I think you two should go as well. The danger appears to be past. Thank you both for the assist.”
Tree-shirt wearing woman obviously wanted to say more, but the man put a hand on her shoulder. “We should go.” His voice was astoundingly deep, and had an accent like a Brit who had been stranded somewhere in the Caribbean for perhaps a little too long.
The woman kept staring at me, but allowed herself to be led from the room. “That’s just not… natural,” I heard her say before exiting the room, leaving just me, Louis, and of course, Evie.
“Evie? Would you like me to carry you back to your room?” I asked softly.
She nodded against me. I kissed the top of her head, and walked towards Louis. The shower room’s door had been propped open, so I gestured for Louis to lead the way out before using a toe to lift up the small door-stopper thing as I went past.
Still keeping my voice low, I asked Louis, “Do you know where her room is?”
He nodded. “Down one floor.”
We headed down the empty hallway to the elevator, which was sitting there wide open and waiting for us. I raised an eyebrow at him.
He smiled. “Advantages of being a psychic. All elevators are currently under Security control during the emergency lock-down. I had them send it up.”
“Has its uses.”
We walked in, and sure enough the elevator closed on its own to go down one floor. Evie’s room was also conveniently unlocked when we got to it. Louis hung back awkwardly, so I just pushed it open with my butt. Maybe he felt uncomfortable opening the door to a little girl’s room without her express permission, but whatever.
“You going to stay with her awhile?” He asked, his eyes still full of concern.
Evie tightened her hold on me. I knew I was stuck. “Yeah. She’s exhausted, but I don’t want to leave her alone.”
“Good idea. We’ll want to talk to you about what happened later, of course.”
“Heh. My second ‘incident’ report of the day, eh?” I grinned tiredly.
“I think it can wait until morning, at least.”
I groaned. “I’m supposed to take comprehensive exams starting in the morning.”
“I’ll have them postponed. This takes precedence.” He looked down at Evie, and back at me. I agreed with him - she absolutely did take precedence.
“Okay, then I’ll see you there,” I said. “But do me a favor though?”
He smiled warmly. “I think tonight we all owe you the favors. What is it?”
“Can you send someone over with any leftover pizza? I just realized I never stopped being social long enough to actually eat some. Oh… just no pineapple or anchovies, okay? Because eww.”
From against my shirt I felt a small giggle and echoing “eww”. To say my heart swelled hearing that would be an understatement. If she could giggle about pizza, I figured she had a darn good shot of being okay.
Louis laughed, and I could tell he had heard Evie as well. “Got it. No Hawaiian or salty fish.”
“Cool.” With that I impulsively kissed him on the cheek. “Thanks, Louis.” I flushed with immediate embarrassment and quickly ducked into Evie’s room, letting the door close behind me.
I don’t know why I did it, kissing him like that, I guess something in his expression really got to me. I blamed the heavenly light that still was flooding through my system. But Louis had looked at me as I held Evie, and I saw a sadness and longing there in his eyes - one I couldn’t help but recognize and understand.
It was the same one I had worn whenever Caroline and I saw another couple holding their child, painfully knowing that such a destiny had forever been denied us.
Maybe both myself and Louis (for whatever reasons he had) could never be the fathers we had hoped to be with our own kids - but I could damn well see that he loved all the children in this cottage and at this school.
As I carried Evie over to her bed, I realized that I was already well on my way to doing the same. She scooted over on her bed to give me room. I didn’t hesitate, but lay down beside her so I could keep holding her and she could continue clinging to me as if I was her very own teddy bear.
Neither of us wanted to talk about what had happened, but that was okay. For now, no words were necessary.
Thinking over the crazy day’s events while lying there, I realized Jenna had been right. There were others who had it much worse than I could ever imagine, and if they could still hold on and move forward then I shouldn’t let any of my own losses weigh me down either.
Evie’s courage and willingness to hope had shown me the way, and I made a silent vow to be worthy of it.
Outside Evie’s closed room the astral projection of Louis Geintz stood still in absolute shock. While deep below Hawthorne his physical body lay submerged in its tank with its terrible GSD and form akin to most renderings of Cthulu, massive tentacles and all, his astral self raised a hand to touch its cheek.
“I actually felt that,” he whispered with only himself to hear. “She exists bodily in spirit and physical… somehow at the same time.”
His projection flickered and disappeared, rushing firstly to send Jordan some pizza, and secondly to inform the other faculty on what had happened, both with Evie… and now this. Emotionally, however, he was overwhelmed.
Fubar, even if it was only to his cheek, had just felt his first real kiss in a very long time.
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A voice, more internal than from without, called distantly; an attempt to shout an acknowledgment only choked upon the thickening barrier of mist threatening to suffocate all inside…
A groan woke me up, and it took a moment to register that it was my own. Summer’s morning shine had already brightened my room, and a familiar fuzzy lump on the bed against my legs shifted his position but didn’t stir awake.
Hard to blame the poor little guy, I’d only been in here for a few hours trying to catch at least a minimal amount of sleep before the day proceeded - whether I would be ready for it or not.
Which, come to think of it, is how all my days lately had been. Heh. I mean, think about it: not so long ago my main concern was confined to whether my code would work or not, and if I could meet the deadlines demanded by clients. No crazy magic energies, no being surrounded by children who with a simple look of sadness could wrench your heart out of your chest, and no talk of being something other than a boring and regular ol’ human, let alone a mutant or a meta. Just a ‘normie’ living a mundane life wondering if their 401k contributions were high enough to retire on.
Whereas now I had so many things on my list I could worry about it was frankly ridiculous. And yeah, I’ll admit it - also terrifying.
But first things first. This morning was still supposed to be about Evie, not me. A purpose that was motivation enough to stumble out of bed and towards the bathroom to try and splash the sleep away with cold water from its small sink.
I had stayed with Evie for most of the night while she slept securely cuddled up to me, much like Khan liked to do. She had handed me her own tablet and headphones so I could at least surf for videos and things to distract myself with while I occasionally munched on a slice of pizza, but eventually my eyes wouldn’t stay open. I had to wake her enough to explain why I had to go and couldn’t just sleep there with her. After boggling her sleepy eyes with how I might ‘slip away to another dimension unless I slept within my special circle’ she reluctantly let me go. Only once in the evening had I asked what she remembered of the night before (you know, like me entering her mental or spiritual space), but from her reaction I gathered quickly that the answer was not much. Which, all things considered, might have been for the best. Granted, I was no expert.
We were scheduled to meet with those at eight-thirty.
After brushing my teeth and muttering some obscenities at my reflected face for looking far too fresh and perky as compared to how I truly felt (a damn Exemplar trait, I’m sure), I started to put on the t-shirt I had grabbed on the way before remembering that today I was likely expected to wear the uniform.
Continuing my colorful monologue, I stepped out of the bathroom to retrieve the skirt, slip, and blouse from the wardrobe, and added yet a few more words after realizing that the purple bra was way too dark for the lighter colored blouse and would show through.
I was in the middle of unbuttoning and removing the bra when I heard the sound of feathers on the balcony. Sure enough, the hawk was out on the railing again peering in at me through the window. As our eyes met, the cheeky bird bobbed its head up and down at me again as if hoping for another bouncy show like it had gotten yesterday!
Stunned into gawking at it, I then burst into laughter as it tilted its head sideways with an expression, I kid you not, that looked rather pleading and hopeful. It even stretched its wings out and back as if in emphasis.
Still chuckling, I shrugged and removed the purple bra, giving the crazy bird voyeur a couple small jumps up and down of jiggly cleavage. With a screech of what I decided had better be delight, the hawk took to the air again - this time swooping out towards the forest to the West and disappearing amongst the tall trees.
Shaking my head at the absurdity of having acquired a peeping tom-hawk, I proceeded to don the light cream-colored bra Cecilia had made for the uniform before quickly following on with the rest, including the dark pumps for shoes. A quick brush of the hair before shoving it into a hairband and I was complete as a skirt-wearing school-girl.
Yeah, it felt weird and disconcerting seeing that reflection in the mirror and knowing that, hey, it’s me! But that’s just what I was now, no way to deny it.
And if I wanted to still be here for Danielle when she finally arrived, I’d better get used to it.
I also figured I’d better get some breakfast.
Evie may have been allowed to get meals in her room to avoid social anxiety attacks (something she told me when I offered to come by early to take her to breakfast), but I needed to actually go to the cafeteria if I was to eat - especially if I wanted to get back in time to walk her over to Doyle.
Either I was just overly paranoid yesterday or Tamara was sleeping in, because I made it to Crystal Hall, was able to eat quickly (fluffy buttermilk pancakes smothered in real butter plus syrup along with an omelet and two cups of English Breakfast tea, yum), and jogged back to Hawthorne all without incident. Even in my elevated-heal shoes. I’ll admit that the sensation of the smooth slip against my legs as I ran was definitely a new experience, and I can proudly say I remembered to sweep the skirt forward put from under me before I sat down so it wouldn’t bunch up and cause me to sit on my underwear.
Okay, so quite a few of the students in the cafeteria kept staring at me while I ate - but I attributed that not to me failing as a girl, but from whatever rumors and stories were spreading about yesterday’s events or, in the case of the boys, their hormones requiring them to examine in detail the redhead sitting by herself.
Though maybe I just ate too fast and not lady-like. Meh. Whatever their reasons, I got back in plenty of time to rouse Evie from her own sleep and give her time to nibble on at least the bagel and cheese sitting on her breakfast tray. And yes, I waited in the hall while she got also got dressed into the uniform.
As we stepped out of the cottage and into the cloudless morning sunlight, she took my hand in hers without a word as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do. I didn’t dare say anything, just ever-so-gently squeezed her fingers in return.
Her grip got tighter the closer we got to the medical building, but her expression was more of determination than fear. She was squeezing my hand, not to be saved or protected from what had happened, but just for the reassurance that she wasn’t alone.
Hand-in-hand we walked into Doyle together, and if my heart could melt any further for this little girl, I would have had to go wash yet another shirt.
Having only been in the medical complex once and on the ‘Emergency Care’ side of things, Evie was my guide to the counseling offices.
Waiting for us both in the reception room with its many red couches was Louis - still wearing the same clothes he had on the night before. I wondered if he had gotten any sleep at all, but his face (much like the deception my own provided) didn’t show any lack of it.
“Ladies,” he said with a smile. “How are you both feeling this morning?”
I narrowed my eyes and quickly stuck my tongue out at him, about to retort how calling me a ‘Lady’ was ridiculous - then caught myself as not only was Evie here with us, so was a receptionist sitting behind the counter.
Crap, my smart-ass mouth almost outed myself. My mom warned me long ago that someday it’d get me in trouble, and come to think of it, she’d been proven right on a number of occasions.
Let that be a lesson - listen to your mother. You can choose to ignore her advice, sure, but do listen. That way she can’t claim later that you didn’t.
Fortunately Evie didn’t notice my gesture towards Louis. “I’m okay,” was all she said as she eyed him with a cautious reserve.
I coughed in a pathetic attempt to cover my rudeness - though from his amused expression I could tell he had seen. “Morning, Louis. You get any sleep?”
“Some. And yourself?”
“Eh,” I said, glancing at Evie for a moment as I realized I didn’t want her feeling any guilt for my lack of slumber time. “I did alright.” I forged a confident smile to back up the lie.
Yeah - Louis didn’t buy that one either. But I think he understood.
“You our counselor for the day?” I asked, changing the subject.
“Yes and no, actually. We have a new psychologist on the staff and we would like her to talk to both you and Evie. But, if Evie doesn’t mind waiting here with me for a few minutes, our new therapist would like to talk to Jordan first.”
My hand, still held by Evie, got squeezed again. Turning, I was about to lower myself to a knee to ask Evie it that would okay, but before I could she surprised me and said, “Yeah, okay.”
She let go of my hand. I wanted to give her a hug before I went, but I had the distinct feeling that if I did that her self-control might slip - which would only embarrass her in front of Louis.
“Right then,” I said. “Just a few minutes, though.” I nodded to Louis, and he gestured to a doorway that led to a long hallway.
“Third office on the right, the one with no name plate yet.”
“Gotcha.” Smiling at Evie, I said, “See you in a short bit.”
“Yeah okay,” she said again while not looking at anything in particular.
I walked through the doorway to go find the unlabeled office, my hands curling into fists with annoyance. If they had really wanted to talk to me first without her, they should have scheduled me earlier - even if I would have had to walk back to Hawthorne to get Evie after. If she shut down again while I was out of the room, then the whole visit might be a waste.
It wasn’t until after I had knocked way to harshly on the third closed door before opening it (without waiting for a response from within) that I remembered Louis was obviously a psychic of some kind - and that maybe he wanted to scan Evie carefully without me close to her and using this as a good excuse to separate us for a moment.
After all, who knows what my usual aura did to things near me now - certainly I didn’t have a clue.
What I did know was that I had startled the occupant of the office with my forceful knocking, as I heard a book hit the floor and a woman’s voice mutter, ‘dammit’. Stepping inside I saw a woman bending over by a desk which had an open moving box sitting on it, and walls behind containing mostly empty bookshelves.
“Sorry,” I began to say as the lady straightened up to turn around. “I didn’t mean to… Natalie!”
The counselor from the DPA pushed her glasses back up her nose and smiled at me then plonked a large book onto her desk. “Good morning, Jordan. I will admit, I wasn’t expecting such a … pounding… on my door just yet.”
I winced. “Really, I’m sorry.” I looked back at the door. “I hope I didn’t damage it… I’m still getting used to the new strength.”
“Well, let’s not worry about that right now, it appears to still be on the hinges. Come on in, and have a seat. I’m in the middle of unpacking, so I get to apologize in turn for all the clutter.”
Moving further inside, I closed the door - and yeah, I may have caused a hairline crack in the wood.
One of the two chairs sitting before her desk had a few more moving boxes stacked upon it, and the couch against the wall had a painting of a calm ocean lapping against a lighthouse cliff, though in the distance a thunderstorm could be seen way out over the water.
It made me think of the cliff that kept appearing in my dreams, and the guy who had been lurking on the rocks.
“You like the picture?” she asked, seeing as how I had stopped to admire it.
“Yeah. Reminds me of my dreams of late.”
She paused, then sighed. “I’ll have to ask you about that later - but right now we need to be discussing Evie.” She, at least, had dark circles under her eyes and was showing clear signs of lack of sleep. Is it weird to be jealous of such a thing?
“How about you first explain what the heck you’re doing here?” I plopped down in the open chair, giving her a frank and expectant stare.
She met my expression with a hint of amusement as she sat down in her own (and more plush) chair. “Short version? I was notified two days ago I’d be moving here to fill a therapist position. My employment with the DPA included moving to wherever I get assigned. Not that I mind this assignment, if I were truthful.”
“Oh? You wanted to keep tabs on me that badly?”
She chuckled. “No. I just missed Whateley. I interned here under one of their staff psychologists a few years ago to finish my credentials, and I came to love the place. Even if Dr. Bellows treated me more as a secretary most of the time.”
I frowned. “This can hardly be a coincidence, though.”
“Of course not,” she agreed. “The Director clearly wants someone he can trust keeping an eye on you - and to be here to help should you need it. I was a natural choice, given the circumstances.” She paused while I considered her statement, then continued. “And yes, as you might suspect, there is more that I cannot say - at least not until authorized to do so.”
Crossing my arms I muttered, “Great. Just great.” More mysteries to add to the list, gee thanks new day! “So why didn’t you tell me you had interned here and liked it?”
“Because my own opinions would have colored yours, if not come across as trying to push you even harder than you already were getting from the Director into going here. As a therapist it’s my job to council - not push.”
“Huh.” She kinda had a point, but I couldn’t help feel a little disappointed. Would knowing more have changed my decisions though? Probably not, the other options weren’t all that great or feasible, all things considered.
“What’s important now is Evie,” she was saying. “I arrived late in the night and was given a briefing on her situation, along with a summary from Mr. Geintz about what happened at your cottage party.”
“Louis Geintz, senior faculty of the Psychic Arts; he’s outside with Evie now.”
“Can you give me a short run-down of the events from your point of view? It could be rather helpful. You see, the staff here think they may have not only underestimated Evie’s abilities - but also mis-diagnosed her pathology. This is why they’ve drafted me into it - I’m a fresh set of eyes, not to mention you already know me and, as I understand it, you were central to diffusing a very dangerous situation last night.”
“So you’re to be my therapist as well as Evie’s now that you are here? Bound by patient privacy, and all that?”
“Yes. Unless I determine lives are potentially in danger by me not disclosing privately held information.”
“Even from the DPA?”
She looked at me and said with all seriousness, “I took my oath before joining the DPA. I’m a doctor first, Jordan. Always.”
I then gave Natalie a brief run-down of the party, including my seeing Evie having fun singing with other students while eating her ice cream cone. Then told her of being swept up in the search for Evie later on, finding Jenna starting a seizure on the bathroom floor, and being infested by one of those manifestation of Evie’s despair things.
That’s when I stopped talking.
“What happened then, Jordan?” Natalie asked, her tone suddenly softer and deliberately less imposing.
I just stared at her while I debated what to say. Could I trust her? Even with her claim about her medical oaths, the DPA had sent her to basically spy on me. Did I really trust the Director? They had done a lot to help me so far, that was certainly true, but they also had goofed up and sent me and Mark off without proper backup. Mark and I both had almost paid with our lives for that mistake, so all their official help after and the sudden personal appearance by Director Goodman could be seen as trying to cover it up and prevent any lawsuits.
But Natalie had helped Danielle, and yeah, she had even helped me. And I knew, perhaps better than anyone, how much Evie needed that kind of help.
How could I ask Evie to trust Natalie if I wasn’t willing to extend her the same trust?
Chewing on a lip, I plunged ahead and told her of my vision of being a statue and watching everything I cared for in the world either burn down, be dead, or walk away. And how I owed perhaps my very survival last night to the wisdom my wife had shown as she died.
Natalie pulled a small pack of tissues from the moving box on her desk and handed it to me without saying a word.
I blew my nose and wiped my eyes. “Yeah, so, uh… I snapped out of it, yanked that nasty thing out of my stomach, and obliterated it. Louis was already there containing the swarm from spreading, but it was clear he wasn’t going to be able to do that indefinitely.”
“Thank you, Jordan,” she said steadily, her eyes warm. “I know that was difficult to do, telling me all that, and at some point - if you’d want to - I’d like to talk to you more about it.”
After crumpling the used tissue into a ball, I tossed it into her empty wastebasket. “Yeah, but as you said, this morning isn’t about me - it’s about Evie.”
She nodded. “True. What happened next?”
“Well, seeing as how Louis was having difficulty, and after he explained how dangerous the situation was for probably the entire school, I had to do something. Considering I’d just vaporized one of the things, I figured I may have a shot at getting to Evie, and perhaps convincing her to stop - or failing that, Louis wanted an opening through the things so they could knock her out. Or worse.” I figured the reports she had been given would have detailed the worst-case scenario, so I shouldn’t have to spell it out.
“Louis described you simply walking into the ‘swirling darkness’ and being swallowed by it. To his psychic senses a few moments later you disappeared completely and he feared something truly awful had happened to you. He was reinforced by other mystical and psychic arts staff members as well as security, and they were trying desperately to not only hold the containment but somehow push a clear tunnel to open a shot when…” She looked at me expectantly.
“When I must have reappeared, and I’m going to guess that most of the emotional cast-offs got blasted away in that moment, except for a few stragglers on the edges that I took care of immediately after.”
“Can you tell me where you went? Do you know?”
Huh. That was an odd way to phrase the question. “Of course I know. I went into Evie’s mind, or subconscious, or wherever her spirit was stuck being overwhelmed by a feedback loop from her own inner demons. And before you ask, no I don’t think Evie remembers what happened in there. She just remembers being at the party, having a major panic attack after finishing her ice cream, and running until she found an unoccupied bathroom within which to hide. And no, I don’t know why she didn’t try to hide in her own room. Maybe she doesn’t consider her own spaces as being safe.”
“If she doesn’t remember, do you?”
I paused, then answered firmly. “Yes, I do. All of it. And I’m sorry but you’re going to be frustrated with me, because I’m not going to tell you what I saw.”
She studied me with her intimidatingly clinical stare - but there was no way I was going to back down. “Why not?” she asked.
“Because whatever bond was forged between me and Evie while I was in there was from her giving her trust to me, and I won’t betray it. At all.” I glared at her stubbornly.
Her stare transformed into a gentle smile, and damn me but it reached her eyes and in that moment Natalie looked truly beautiful. “That’s alright, Jordan - in fact, I agree and believe you’re absolutely correct. If deep down Evie came to trust you - then that is possibly the most encouraging thing I’ve heard about her entire case, and we should preserve that in any way we can.”
“Oh, uh…” I floundered. Why did I suddenly feel embarrassed?
“Without betraying that trust, what can you tell me?”
“Uhm, yeah. I don’t know what you have in her file regarding her background, but it was bad. Really bad.”
“Her father is a pedophile and abused her, and her mother committed suicide the day he was arrested for it. After a year in foster care due to her grandmother - her father’s mother - being unwilling to take her in, her powers manifested, and the grandmother then provided for her tuition and summer boarding here at Whateley. Without any actual family contact, as I understand it. I agree that qualifies as ‘really bad.’”
“Okay.” I thought furiously, trying to determine what would or wouldn’t be a betrayal of trust to reveal. I couldn’t expose that Evie’s powers had triggered her mother’s suicide, nor say why ice cream was such a trigger point for her. It was all too personal. But maybe keeping to general ideas would work.
Dangit, wanting to help and knowing that the more information Natalie had, perhaps the better she could help Evie, was really making it difficult.
Natalie waited patiently for me to figure it out, and to her credit didn’t try to pry.
“Firstly,” I said, “I think you’re correct that she’s more powerful than everyone expected. Specifically I think she has potentially high levels of being an emotional empath. The pizza party had a ton of kids having fun, and she joined in - much against her usual nature. If I were to guess, I’d say she was overwhelmed by it all and couldn’t help it.”
“Go on,” Natalie said encouragingly.
“Ice cream is absolutely a trigger thing for her. Especially when she finishes eating it. I won’t say why.”
“Interesting. Anything else?”
I stared meaningfully at Natalie. “If you really want to help her, you need to know when her powers first manifested.”
“Her file says…” She paused, meeting my steady gaze. “I see.”
“She blames herself for a lot of things that are entirely not her fault, but I can say that - deep inside - there’s a girl who wants to hope and, more than anything, needs to feel loved and not have others be afraid of her.”
I let Natalie think about it all for a few seconds then said, “That’s as far as I’m willing to push the boundaries of her trust. And she’s probably been waiting out there for me long enough.”
I could see the wheels rapidly spinning in her mind. “You’re right. I’d like you to introduce her to me, and then I’ll need to talk to her one-on-one. If she doesn’t remember what you saw and did while in… her mind, or wherever you went, then there are things she may not want you to know - even if in truth you already do. Make sense?”
“Yeah, absolutely. I get it - if she trusts me, and I can convey to her that I trust you, that gives you a leg up on helping her beyond what the other therapists have had with her so far.”
“Yes.” She smiled again. “And thank you for understanding so well.”
“Heh. I’ll go get her.” I stood up. “And doc? For what it’s worth, with me being a total noob here and all, welcome back to Whateley.”
“I’m glad to be here, Jordan. Very glad.”
I could hear it in her voice that she really meant it too - and after what I’d witnessed of the school so far, I could definitely see how it could grow on someone.
Even if a crazy witchling threw curses at you between classes.
In the reception area I found Evie busily sketching on a pad of white paper with colored pencils. Louis was lounging in a nearby chair pretending to read a newspaper - I could tell he was pretending because his eyes were more on what Evie was drawing then anything on the newsprint pages.
“Hey hon, I didn’t know you were an artist,” I said as I walked over to her. “Whatcha drawing?”
She shrugged and didn’t say anything, so I peered over her shoulder to take a look.
What I saw caused me some serious inner confusion.
There, clear as could be on the white page, was an angel hovering in the air: two magnificent wings drawn with golds and yellows spilling out behind a slender woman in a white gown with bare toes. And her hair, of course, a long golden-red mane that framed a young face with gold and silver eyes as they looked upwards with an enraptured expression.
I mean, how much more obvious could it be that she had been drawing an idealized angelic version of me?
Yet that’s not how I first saw it at all.
My mind flashed with annoyance: how the wings should be white and soft like cotton-candy made from purest snow, how the eyes should be a sparkling emerald green twinkling with merriment and care, how the face and chin should be a little more angular and more ageless, and most of all how the angel should have been staring forward at the viewer with the most gentle and most compassionate smile that anyone had ever seen.
Louis must have felt my confusion as my jumbled thoughts and emotions tried to straighten themselves out. He was suddenly standing over Evie’s other shoulder.
“Is that someone we know?” he asked her.
She shrugged again. “It’s Jordan. Duh.”
Only then did it click in my head that she had drawn me. And done a really good job of it too.
Evie spoke again while putting more crimson into the hair. “She’s my angel, so who else could it be?”
Shit. What the hell - or heaven - was up with my mind? Who had I thought it to be?
The mental image that had flashed so briefly was already gone, and to my great frustration my so-called perfect recall failed utterly to bring it back.
“Who said I was an angel?” I asked quickly, wondering if Jenna had let that cat out of the bag.
“My dream last night. I saw you.”
Louis caught my attention and he tilted his head back towards Natalie’s office. Right. The reason we were there and all that.
“Hey Evie? The counselor lady would like to meet you, can I introduce you to her? Turns out I know her, and she’s someone who’s helped me a lot.”
Suspicious fourteen-year-old eyes looked sideways up at me. “Helped you?”
I nodded. “Yeah. Everyone’s got stuff they have trouble dealing with, you know? Me included. She’s been good, and also is rather smart.”
She thought about that then asked, “Think she’d like my drawing of you?”
Louis answered before I could. “I can say with utmost confidence that she would adore it. In fact, as her office is brand new and needs pictures for its walls, I bet she’d hang it up if you offered it to her.”
“Really?” Evie’s face lit up.
Inwardly I groaned. A picture of me as an angel, hanging on Natalie’s wall? Gah!
“Yeah,” I forced myself to say. “Shall we go give it to her?”
As you’ve probably guessed, Louis was right. Natalie gushed over the sketch, not having to fake admiration as it really was well done - much better than anything I could do, that’s for sure - and she immediately pinned it to her wall.
Natalie sneakily gave me a wide grin as she did so too, and it was all I could do to not put my face into my hands.
That having been accomplished, and with Evie still radiating pride at her artwork being so prominently displayed, Louis and I were allowed to retreat to let Natalie begin working her own form of magic with her new patient.
Louis exited first, so I closed the door behind us, leaving us both standing in the hallway.
“That went better than I had hoped.” He smiled.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “So where am I due next? Should I wait here for them to be done, or did you teaching folks just postpone those placement exams until I was free here?”
“Postponed. But first, Rabbi Kirov is waiting for you in the conference room down the hall. He’d like to speak with you before tossing you at those exams.”
“Uh, he’s been waiting all this time? Here, and not in his own office?”
Louis looked at me with a carefully blank expression. “He felt it was important to not delay, and I agreed with him.”
“Something happen?” I asked, worry once again filling my stomach with anxiety-bees. “I mean, more than the stuff with Evie last night?”
“Go see him and find out.”
Yet more mysteries? Great. At least this one sounded like it might actually get explained. Be still my beating heart.
“Fine.” Shaking my head, I marched down the hall looking for the conference room. I left Louis standing behind me, and he didn’t follow.
So imagine my surprise after I entered the conference room and saw Rabbi Kirov sitting at the table with Louis already sitting next to him.
I got mad. “What the hell, Louis? Are you a teleporter as well as a psychic? You could have just told me. It’s not like I haven’t had enough damn surprises in the past week to deal with!” I’m not sure why it pissed me off that much, but it felt like they were toying with me just because they could.
Kirov raised a sheepish hand. “Oh dear. This is my fault, I’m afraid - I asked him to show you instead of telling, I’ve often found it easier to show than to tell if that’s possible…”
“Show me what? That he can teleport as well as do… uhh… psychic stuff?”
Louis shook his head. “I’m not a positional displacer. I’m a psychic projector.”
He sighed, and looked to the rabbi to explain.
“Mr. Geintz suffered an… anomaly… with his physical form. He resides deeper under Hawthorne in a special tank designed for his needs.”
“Wait, what?” My anger drained away into concern. “Louis, how bad…? And how…”
He tried to explain. “Like I said, I project my psyche into the minds of those I wish to see and interact with. And if I need to project more of my mental strength remotely, I augment the projection with a form of what is usually termed ‘astral travel’. As for how bad, I believe there are those who have it worse. At least I’m alive, and have the ability to function, even if with some limitations, at considerable range.”
I suddenly understood why the kids had called him ‘Fubar’. The old military acronym apparently applied to him in a literal sense. Oh man.
Louis waved away my sympathies. “Please don’t worry on my behalf. But it was important for you to understand this about me, in order for us to explore something that was quite the surprise last night. Something in addition to your being able to banish Evie’s emotional manifestations and pulling her from her fugue state.”
“Uh, okay? What else did I do?”
“You kissed me.”
My eyes widened and I blushed intensely. “Just… just on the cheek!”
Kirov chortled. “Yes, yes, an innocent gesture, we do not doubt that!”
“Then… what…?” Embarrassment and confusion, please report to the frontal cortex. Aye aye, Captain!
Louis said quietly, “You should not have been able to do that.” And to demonstrate he waved a hand slowly through Rabbi Kirov’s arm, and even through the conference table it was resting on.
“Wait, you’re not substantial?” My mind replayed my interactions with him: in the shower room, down the hall, the elevator, at Evie’s door… oh my god, he never touched anything. I opened or closed all the doors, I carried Evie, and the elevators were controlled by Security from elsewhere. “Then how…?”
Louis stood and stepped in front of me. “How did you kiss me? Here, take my hand if you can.” He held his hand out. I stared at it, then hesitatingly put my hand in his.
It felt real and solid to me.
“Remarkable,” Kirov exhaled. “You were right, Louis.”
Louis stared down at my hand with wonder in his eyes, brushing the back of it gently with a thumb. I became acutely aware that a man was holding my now-fully-girl fingers in a tender yet strangely intimate fashion.
I must have further flushed a red deep enough to match my hair, and pulled my hand away.
“I’m sorry,” Louis said, his voice still subdued. “It’s just been quite awhile since I touched anyone.”
Ah dammit. Now I felt like a total bitch for pulling away. Emotional ping-pong, me? Yep, I was all over the map.
I tried to cover for it. “No, it’s okay - I’m just a bit taken aback is all.”
Rabbi Kirov spoke. “Without a ritual, I’d likely have a hard time perceiving it… but can you, Louis? What we discussed?”
“Perceive what?” I asked, looking between the two of them.
Louis began to circle around, examining me from my head to my feet on all sides. I would have been further embarrassed by this, but his expression was utterly focused - much like he had been when corralling Evie’s demon-eels. He also was very careful to not appear to be trying to peek up my skirt. When he was behind me he stopped, and then I felt his open hand touch my back right between my shoulder blades.
His hand rested against my bare skin - right through the uniform blouse and bra-strap I was wearing. Yes, it felt really freaking odd. I could feel both his hand and my blouse with the bra, all at the same time, on the same area of skin.
“Here,” he said. “The connection is here.” He removed his hand, and I felt an urge that I should adjust my clothing - but they hadn’t been disturbed.
I spoke through gritted teeth. “Would one of you two mysteriosos just explain already?”
Kirov nodded his head. “You have heard of astral projection, hmm?”
“You mean other than Louis mentioning it just now? Yeah, sure, spirit leaving its body and floating off somewhere. Which is something Louis here does, I take it?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes.” Louis said. “Jordan, take a look at me, like I just did with you, and try to see my energy pattern. Look for a cord or trail going off behind. Some people will see a silver cord, but not all see it the same way. It’s the mental and energy connection to my physical body.”
“Okay.” Having just practiced this sort of thing with Penelope the night before, I let my imagination picture Louis as he sat there before me while overlaying that image with the one from my eyes.
It took a minute or two anyway, and I had to move around him while he tried to guide me where to look. A couple times he even disappeared completely but with a few blinks his image came back into focus. And sure enough, I finally could make out a faint glowing trail of bluish-green light flowing outward from his stomach to cross the room where it seemed to fold itself through space. “I think I see it!”
I tried to make sense of that twist in the air at the end and was overwhelmed with a quick mental flash of a large tentacled face belonging to some kind of eldritch horror lurking below dark waters. In my shock at seeing such an image I instantly and completely lost my focus.
“Uh,” I said. “Was that…?”
Louis nodded. “Yes, that was my actual body.”
I swallowed, not sure what to say. But my mind figured something else out while my emotions were busy stumbling around. “Hey. If you’re projecting here from your physical body, and you have that cord connecting you… why were you looking for that on me? I mean, I’m already here, right?”
The rabbi fielded this one. “No, that is just the issue, you see. You should not be able to interact with Louis’ projection as if he was physical unless you yourself were also of the spiritual plane. And yet, not only are you able to touch him - but clearly you can touch the physical realm in full as well.”
Louis asked Kirov, “So is she a remote manifestor then? It’s rare, yet I’ve heard stories of it being possible. But if so, where is her body? I was unable to trace the connection, but even my range has limits.”
The rabbi sank further into his chair. “That is the crux of it. If I’m not mistaken, she has no body at the other end: she is an angel projecting to here from Above. Something which according to much of the lore that I have studied for my entire life should be entirely impossible in this day and age.”
“Wait, what?” I spluttered.
Rabbi Kirov looked at me over his glasses, his expression one of bemused astonishment.
“If I am not mistaken, you are here by virtue of a bona-fide miracle. Because you, when you manifested in this form as we see you now, must have already passed beyond.”
I looked to Louis in frustration. “What the hell does all that mean?”
Louis, meeting my gaze, answered simply.
“It means that you died.”
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“… of course it must be due to God’s direct will, Louis,” the rabbi was saying. “The lore is clear: the Malakhim after the incidents with the Grigori were not allowed to walk freely amongst mankind. It has been strictly forbidden since the time of the Flood, and obviously enforced or else the Host would not have need of human Avatars to be the mediums through which to send their messages and assistance. How else, if not for God’s intervention, could she be a manifested spirit?”
“What of Sodom and Gomorrah?” Louis responded. “As I recall the story, two angels walked in, interacted with Lot, and wiped out both towns. Supposedly they even ate and drank at Lot’s table - how could they have done that without manifesting?”
“Obviously they made use of two human Avatars to achieve their appointed tasks and departed when it had been accomplished. In truth, the legend of the Grigori gives a very interesting explanation as to how the first meta-genes may have been introduced into men. Nothing provable, of course, but still utterly fascinating when you consider…”
“This is bullshit!” I was shouting, much to their surprise and my own.
“All of it!” I ranted anyway. “If I’m dead and just some kind of crazy spirit projection then why the hell did my getting kicked through the gym’s wall hurt so damn much! I bruised the crap out of my spine, shattered my leg, snapped my arm, and bled all over the place. And don’t even get me started on the pain from Soren’s stupid ritual box - I wouldn’t wish that level of agony on anyone, not even the bastard gryphon who slit my throat! If I’m not real and alive, then what the hell is? Sure I was able to heal it all up, but for fuck’s sake how can something that doesn’t exist need healing?”
The rabbi was staring at me with eyes the size of saucers from behind his spectacles. Louis with a forced calmness said, “Jordan.” Then he pointed towards my hands.
Not only had my skin flared up brightly again, but my fingers were clawing indentations into the wooden conference table.
“No one said you didn’t exist,” Louis said, speaking as if to a crazy and possibly dangerous escaped mental patient.
“You said I died!” My shoulders were shaking, and the table’s wood creaked dangerously under the force of my grip.
“Yet by virtue of a miracle you were resurrected,” Kirov said, echoing Louis’ tone.
“I don’t care about ‘miracles’!” I snarled. “You two can debate theology all you want, but leave me the hell out of it. I’m here, I’m going to keep being here, and I’m going to make damn sure that Danielle, and come to think of it Evie too, are taken care of. So do what you want and think what you want, but in the meantime just point me to these student evaluation exams so I can get them over with and move on!”
I glared wildly at them, daring either to object.
“If nothing else,” said Kirov slowly, even as he flinched under my gaze. “We may need to adjust the second circle in your room.”
Louis remained silent, I think to get me to stop yelling and be the one to ask the obvious question. Either that or he was afraid of setting me off further.
“What does that have to do with anything?” I asked with the edge of hysteria I couldn’t keep out of my voice.
The rabbi fumbled with his glasses, shakily trying to clean an imagined spot with his dress shirt. Crap, he was actually terrified that I’d do something stupid... or worse.
That caused me to feel even more awful inside, draining my anger more towards a sharp despair.
“Because we were wrong in its design,” he said, his complexion still pale. “It was intended to keep a body and spirit from crossing dimensions - but that was based on the assumption that both were already contained within. But your greater spirit is not.”
They both just stared at me for what felt like minutes, with obvious worry that anything they said further might push me over the edge.
I tried to control my breathing and get a handle on myself. They were afraid of me. Of me! Dammit, was this how Evie felt every day? Seeing other people be scared of her and what she might do? Knowing that if she lost it, their fears were completely founded?
I groaned, which only reminded me of how I woke up that morning. Frustrated and isolated.
Swallowing, I asked quietly, “Could that circle have been messing up my dreams too?”
Kirov put his glasses back on his nose, his now-magnified eyes still watching me anxiously. “The second circle? Have you had… difficulties?”
“I don’t know.” I slowly pulled my hands out of the deep gouges in the table. The wood was cracked and splintered, but none had penetrated my skin. “Before arriving here I kept dreaming of this repeating ocean cliff place - but the last couple nights I was stuck in this damn impenetrable fog, like I was trying to get through it but couldn’t. It was starting to bother me, but I had thought it was just a reflection of, you know, my own frustrations.” I crossed my arms to pin my overly-strong hands under my elbows.
The rabbi looked more thoughtful. “I will need to discuss this with colleagues, but it’s quite possible. Perhaps this can be taken care of during the required renovations to your room: either its removal or modification.”
“The what?” Renovations? Huh?
Louis spoke up hastily. “The Administration reviewed the regulations regarding student accommodations. It was found that the rules explicitly state that all student rooms shall have a solid door with a lock to ensure student privacy.”
“The elevator access thing isn’t good enough? It’s got doors…”
“Apparently not,” Louis said. “And maintenance may need access to the piping and air conditioning ducts that lie on the other side of the elevator from your area in any case, which could also violate the privacy clause - something the school takes very seriously. The plan is to put up drywall to create a small lobby space of sorts so they can hang a door specific to your room.”
Oh great. “And where is my cat supposed to go during all this construction?”
They glanced at each other and then back at me. The rabbi answered. “We were supposed to discuss that with you. Perhaps he could stay with another student during the day tomorrow while the walls are put up? And then again on Sunday for the painting. I have been reassured they will use quick-dry paint; you should only be inconvenienced for this weekend.”
I thought about it. “Khan can stay with Penelope - but if he gets too cold, she needs to be able to contact someone to move him, maybe to Jenna’s room if she’s willing. I’ll ask her. Anything else?” I said rather frostily.
“I believe Evie and Natalie are likely to be finished soon,” Louis said quickly to me. “Could you escort Evie back to Hawthorne? I’m sure Rabbi Kirov in the meantime can arrange for your first sets of exams to start early this afternoon.”
The rabbi looked flustered. “Wait, there is still much to talk about - we haven’t even tested if she’s impermeable to unseen astral presences or only your own…”
“Not today, Rabbi,” Louis interrupted.
Louis raised a hand to cut Kirov off again. “We can wait to ask Jordan to revisit powers testing at a later date. I don’t think the administration will be keen to replace yet more furniture.”
We all glanced at the deep grooves I had left engraved into the conference table.
“Shit,” I said.
I felt bad about it - but was also still too worked up to offer an apology. Besides, with what they charged for tuition I’m sure they could afford a new table, dammit.
It was only a few minutes wait before Evie was ready to go back to Hawthorne. She put her hand back in mine as we exited the building, but as I was still irritated by everything she stiffened in response.
She didn’t pull her hand back though.
Ah dang. “I’m sorry, hon. I’m kinda worked up at the moment.”
“Because of me?” She asked in a steady voice, but I could tell she was bracing herself for an affirmative answer.
“Oh no, not because of you, not at all.”
“Then what?” she asked suspiciously.
I sighed. “They told me something about myself that pissed me off. And also scares me.”
“You’re not afraid,” she said immediately and with conviction.
“No. You’re mad and you’re worried. But that’s different than fear. You’re like Natalie.”
Wait, what? “Natalie? She’s mad and worried too?”
Evie nodded. “Yeah. She’s angry about something, and she’s also not afraid of me - she’s worried about me. And about you. She’s okay though - I like her.”
“I like her too.” I wondered what Natalie could be mad about. She seemed genuinely happy to be here, but she also admitted that there were things she wasn’t being allowed to tell me.
Maybe that was it. Or yet something else entirely unrelated - and I doubt she’d say anything if I asked in any case. And I had enough to worry about as is.
We walked the paved path that cut through the thick grass towards Hawthorne while I tried to distract myself from everything by scanning for any mystical energy interferences like Penelope had suggested. Besides, I wasn’t sure if Tamara would leave me alone if I had someone else with me or not and didn’t want to risk it if I could help it.
Evie, being awfully more perceptive than I expected, took notice.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Scanning for curses,” I shrugged.
“Is that why you were asking everyone about magic at the party? I heard you talking to others about it.”
“Um, yeah.” And here I thought I’d been discreet and subtle. Guess not.
“Oh. Who would send curses at you?”
“Maybe Tamara, she’s rather mad at me.”
Evie stopped walking to stare at me. “Sigil? That’s not good.”
“You know her?”
“No. But I saw her once in the cafeteria - I don’t always eat in my room,” she added defensively.
“That’s where I encountered her too,” I said. “It didn’t go so well.” The understatement of the year award goes to the seriously cranky temperamental redhead. Wait, isn’t that the stereotype? Well, crap!
“Her pendant,” Evie was saying. “It’s evil.”
“The black opal thing?”
She perked up. “You’ve seen it? I tried to ask Leland about it and he said she wasn’t wearing one. But she totally was.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen it too. Maybe it’s invisible to people who can’t sense or see magic? And you’re right, it felt odd to me. But evil?”
She nodded. “Like me and what I do. Evil. I can feel it.”
I couldn’t help it, I had to pull her into a hug. “Evie - you’re not evil, hon.”
She didn’t resist, but I felt her shoulders shrug. “It’s okay to say it. It’s what I am.”
I tried to hug her tighter. “No, it’s not. What you’ve been through - that’s evil. But you aren’t. You don’t want to project those things, you don’t want to hurt people…”
She managed to squirm her way out of my embrace. Looking up with those dark eyes she placed a gentle hand against my cheek. “You’re really nice. Naive, but nice.” With that she again took my hand and led us back to our dorm.
I was quiet for the rest of the walk. For the life of me, I didn’t know how to respond to that.
Evie decided she wanted to sit in her room and watch Netflix for the rest of the day, and while she said I was welcome to stay I could tell she truthfully was hoping for some alone time.
If she was actively feeling my roller-coaster emotions, I couldn’t blame her for that.
Mrs. Cantrel had a message waiting that was to keep me busy anyway. I was to report to Kane Hall at one o’clock to take the Mathematics placement test and following that one for English Composition. At two and a half hours for each I had a feeling they were going to be rather thorough.
Seeing as how it was now only ten in the morning, that gave me a few hours until they started. But after being late yesterday, I decided on an early lunch and then I’d just go straight to the exam room and wait.
I did run upstairs to grab a book first, and while I knew I should start reading the angelic lore ones that Soren had sent I decided they could bloody well wait and grabbed something by Heinlein instead: I Will Fear No Evil.
It was an appropriate choice all things considered.
Armed with the paperback, I hustled back to the cafeteria - all the while trying to remain vigilant for any energetic magical interferences.
Lunch, if you must know, consisted of a delightful tortilla soup with chicken, vegetables, cheese, and just enough spice for it to be interesting. Complementing the soup were a pair of crunchy beef taquitos and sour cream. I hadn’t expected New Hampshire to have good Mexican food, but the Crystal Hall certainly delivered the variety.
It was on the short walk to Kane Hall that I thought I felt something, yet couldn’t figure out where to look. And sure enough, the sprinkler system for the surrounding lawn kicked on full - with the sprinkler heads all ‘mysteriously’ misaligned to aim at the walking paths.
I wasn’t the only student who got hit by the sudden rogue streams either, and we all scrambled full speed off the paths and onto the portions of the lawn where the sprinklers now failed to cover.
Two students even ignored it all entirely - I saw water just divert itself in a simple curve around one of them and just bounce off some kind of forcefield surrounding the other.
The flag today was a verdant green, after all.
Taking refuge in Kane Hall, I eventually found the exam room on the second floor. Being that it was still occupied by a class and the clock in the hallway showed I had over an hour to wait, I did what I remembered doing many times all those years ago at my old school: I parked my butt on the floor against one wall and began to read my book.
What was different from back then was that I now had to hold the book farther out than I used to due to the new shelf on my chest I had to gaze over, and I also had to sit cross-legged and carefully tuck in the skirt to avoid flashing anyone. Also as I turned the pages I realized I could conjure in my memory an image in perfect detail of the pages from my original copy of the book.
That was somewhat depressing. I no longer needed to have a library to keep all the books I’ve read, they’d just collect dust. Out of stubbornness I continued to read along with the one I held in my hands. Even still, I finished the entire book before it was time to take the exam.
As for the math exam itself, it proved to be more challenging than I had expected. They weren’t testing for high school level math - this thing went straight to college calculus and beyond, with a single question for each possible special topic.
You know, stuff I hadn’t done in years plus others I had never taken the classes for. Fair enough. Being able to recall previous textbooks along with their examples helped a great deal. I know for certain I would have done miserably on it two weeks prior before the changes. But as I was now, anything I’d encountered I was able to solve - along with a few problems I’d never seen prior. I was still working on those when time was called and I had to put down the pencil.
After a five minute break I was handed the English Composition exam. This one required reading a number of passages, then madly scribbling a set of very short essays about the contents - all within only the two and a half hours. My old high school had provided a very rigorous English curriculum, so I had the requisite practice in taking a five page idea and presenting it in only one. It’s harder than it sounds to do properly.
Oh, and one thing that my recent transformation had absolutely not improved was my penmanship. If anything it had gotten worse as my thoughts kept outpacing my writing hand. I hoped the teachers here could decipher the frenetic scratchings on my paper.
If not, they should have let me type it into a laptop.
It was past six when I finally got out of there and returned to the cafeteria for dinner (stuffed salmon on a bed of rice, with a Greek salad). I spotted Tamara and Alicia leaving through a different entrance as I arrived, so I admit I ate quickly to try and get back to Hawthorne before Tamara could start playing with her scrying crystal again at my expense.
Unless someone else was responsible and trying to frame Tamara for it all, but I couldn’t think of any other likely suspects.
Jenna was waiting for me in the first floor lounge as I jogged through the main doors.
“Jordan! About time, girl. We only have an hour to get ready.”
“Get ready?” I asked, confused. “For what?”
“Movie night at Emerson! Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten Brandon’s invitation already…”
Her grin was ear to ear as she said this, and I heard another passing girl (who had hands and feet more akin to claws than anything human-like) exclaim, “Ooh! Jordan has a date with Tank!”
“It’s not a date!” I professed loudly, but from the giggles of everyone around I don’t think they believed me. Ugh.
“Let’s get a move on,” Jenna said. “Because we are so going to do something about that hair of yours. It’s been stuck in that boring ponytail long enough. To the showers! And on the way we need to pick out what you’re going to wear, and decide on makeup to match…”
Like a lamb to a colorful fashion slaughter I was led upstairs.
We both arrived at Emerson about twenty minutes past eight, or ‘fashionably late’ according to Jenna. I disagreed - and had spent a good part of the last thirty minutes protesting arriving at anything other than the appointed hour.
I will admit, though, that we both looked great.
Jenna was wearing her blonde wig along with an azure blue off-the-shoulder top that tucked into some of the tightest black jeans I think I’d ever seen. As it was a ‘movie night’ she informed me that we should go ‘casual dressy’, as if I should understand what the hell that meant. All I knew was that she looked fantastic.
My bare wardrobe and its lack of options did give her pause, and I had needed to explain that with my recent transformation nothing of my old stuff fit anymore so I was just starting to rebuild my wardrobe from scratch. She selected my lowest cut purple top, a pair of jeans, and even had called a friend downstairs to see if I could borrow their leather boots. Amazingly they fit - Jenna had guessed my shoe size correctly. The heels were higher than I was used to, but not obnoxiously so.
She also made me wear a pair of clip-on earrings that each dangled a single golden feather. I had to admit, they were very pretty and made my unique eyes stand out more. She said she had a lot of clip-on earrings, due to regeneration constantly healing over any piercings whenever she’d taken out the studs.
I got to skate by on not having my ears pierced using that excuse too. Phew. And lack of earrings got explained away because I claimed my ears had indeed been pierced before.
No necklaces, rings, and being utterly clueless about makeup was a lot harder to get away with. She didn’t comment on any of that, though, much to my relief. She just sat me down and put stuff on my face. I think she picked up on it all as being a touchy personnel subject and was kind enough not to pry. And thanks to Mrs. Sugendo I at least had a basic makeup kit on hand for her to use.
It was my hair that made us late.
After insisting I wash it - with shampoo and then again with conditioner - we had struggled to get it dry. After spending at least fifteen minutes with a hair dryer and a brush, she had muttered that my hair must have been made out of sponges.
Once it was dry to her satisfaction, she braided it - another time consuming process. My hair was transformed into braids that formed near my temples to pull back in the semblance of a circlet, only to merge with a larger braid that started at the back of my head and lay down over the rest of my loose hair. It allowed most of it to hang free, and yet kept it out of my face and eyes. She said it was a variation of a ‘French braid’ and that I should learn how to do it or similar myself.
I had a deep feeling that Jenna really missed having her own hair to style, so I could hardly overly object to her taking the extra time to work with mine. Just, you know, mutter the occasional comment. Ahem.
And it really did lend an elegance to how I looked, especially after she had expertly yet minimally applied touches of blush to my cheekbones and a hint of purple around my eyes.
Jenna had commented that with my height and hers, there wasn’t a nightclub in the country that would card us. I didn’t debate her, not because I thought we truly looked over twenty-one, but because I knew how nightclubs worked when it came to allowing attractive women past their entrance ropes.
You know, ones like us. Something that still tripped me up on the inside.
The house mother of Emerson, a Mrs. Tolliver, greeted us as we went in - and at the same time gave us a good looking over.
“You both are from Hawthorne, correct?” the dark-skinned and rather slender woman asked while raising an eyebrow - one that was losing its battle against the grey invaders.
“Yes ma’am,” Jenna answered. “Brandon invited us to watch movies with the guys tonight.”
“Hmm. Very well, but if either of you begin to show symptoms of any afflictions or issues, the other is to report it immediately. Understood?”
We both nodded. The other eyebrow rose to match its siblings, so we quickly said aloud, “Yes ma’am!”
“You can visit the lounge and the theater, but girls are not allowed upstairs or to any student rooms.” Her glare made it clear that was a rule not open to negotiation.
Another echoed verbal acknowledgment and she called out loudly to their lounge, “Brandon Rogers, your guests have arrived.”
I swear the hallway looked like it belonged more to a hobbit-hole than a regular building as Brandon’s seven-foot-plus frame filled it. Dang, the kid was big.
He also was standing there awkwardly with eyes bugging out as he stared at us as if we’d grown extra heads or something.
“What?” I asked, annoyed. Jenna elbowed me in the ribs. “Ow!”
Stumbling over his words Brandon said, “Uh, hi… wow… you both are, uhm, really pretty…”
The poor tongue-tied boy was rescued by Jenna. “Hiya, Brandon! Thanks again for the invite, so which way is the theater?” She smiled warmly at him.
Even with the prompt he was still lost. “Theater?”
“Yeah,” I said. “You know, where people watch movies? You may have heard of them before…”
“Movie night!” His eyes brightened as if receiving a brilliant revelation. “You’re here for movie night!”
I couldn’t help it; I started laughing. Had I been this awkward around attractive girls when I was his age? Dear God, I hope I hadn’t been this bad. Jenna shoved her elbow into my side again.
“You bet!” she said cheerily. “Just lead the way!”
“Oh, uh, right! Follow me!” He turned and waved us down the hall after him.
Jenna grabbed my arm to pull me along, whispering fiercely into my ear as she did so. “Quit it! He’s sweet!”
That’s when it hit me and I put two and two together. Stealing glances at her face to catch her stares at his rather fit rear end confirmed the thought.
I mentally promised I’d behave. Teasing her later, though, oh that was on!
We reached a set of double doors that opened to an actual small theater. It had four rows lined with plush couches all on a gentle decline towards the screen. A digital projection system could be seen above and behind the entrance, and speakers lined the walls.
Many of the seats were already occupied by other boys - a few of which whistled loudly as Jenna and I came in. “Hey, girls!”
Brandon immediately stood up to his full intimidating height. “Guys, this is Jenna and Jordan. They’re my guests.” His tone had swapped to one of authority that left the other boys no doubt that he would not put up with any shenanigans where either me or Jenna were concerned.
The other guys got the message, in fact a couple of them cleared out of one of the three-seat couches in the middle of the room - obviously the best spot for viewing the screen.
Brandon led us to that couch, and suppressing a grin I deliberately pulled me and Jenna down so she would be sitting between me and him. Poor guy had been hoping to sit between us both, his expression gave that much away. But he gallantly took his spot next to Jenna.
I also caught his eyes wandering over her again, and noted how his strong facial features softened as he did so with perhaps new considerations.
Nestling into the soft couch, I had an idea. Turning to my left, I spoke to a short-haired blonde kid who was busy futzing with his phone. “Hey, I was promised popcorn for this. You all have any?”
The guy looked up, startled that I’d even talk him I guess. “Uh, yeah? In the kitchen probably.”
“Cool! Get me some, okay?” I smiled sweetly at him.
He blinked, but then scrambled to his feet without protest.
“And some for Jenna and Brandon too! Plus napkins!” I called out after him as he headed to fetch me my request.
Grinning to myself at how easy that was to get away with, I popped out the built in foot rest thing and settled into proper lounging position.
Being a girl may have some potential after all!
As promised by Brandon, they started up the first of the Prophecy movies. I’d seen them before many years ago, and had liked them despite their low budget and cheesiness. Eric Stoltz was great as a creepy yet loyal angel, Viggo Mortensen near the end got to be a very disturbing and subtle Lucifer, and of course Christopher Walken had obviously enjoyed the heck out of stealing every scene he was in.
In retrospect I really should have thought through what the subject matter was before agreeing (even if reluctantly) to go. The protagonist was a cop who had years prior lost his faith when on the verge of taking priestly vows - not because of doubt, but because in that moment he suffered a vision.
He’d seen just a glimpse of angels dying as their feathers were being splattered with their blood.
While in my previous viewings those images had conjured up the desired effect of amplifying empathy for the main character as he struggled with his faith due to having been shown too much, as well as offering a moment of dramatizing the horror of angelic wars, this time it all hit me viscerally.
I even muttered a quiet ‘No!’ to myself.
Fortunately that scene was over quick. As it moved on, I did my best to shake it off while inwardly wrestling with how I found myself feeling. I don’t think Jenna had noticed at that point.
What I couldn’t get over was watching Walken, in his unique and admirable style, portray Gabriel as ruthless, uncaring, and yes, evil.
Have you ever met someone new and had a pure intuitive understanding about them? Like that they should be avoided at all costs, or the flip side, that you immediately trusted them fully for no conscious reasons whatsoever? It was kind of like that. I’d seen these movies, heck I’d enjoyed them greatly, but watching it now something in me was screaming deep inside.
It was wrong.
Biting my lip, I kept my arms tightly crossed to prevent any damage to their couch I might do by accident. Every time Walken was referred to as Gabriel, I wanted to yell at the screen that ‘No! She’s not like that!’ - and yet I had no idea why I should think that, let alone felt it so strongly that I wanted to weep and to shout.
When Walken set Stoltz’ angelic character of Simon aflame I whimpered. And when the cop and the teacher saw a full scene of the ruins of an angelic battlefield full of angels impaled on spikes while they screeched their dying agony, I couldn’t take anymore.
My uneaten popcorn fell to the floor from my lap as I flipped the footrest away and jumped to my feet. As I ran out the doors, I heard Jenna call my name but I wasn’t listening.
From within the depths of my subconscious something had stirred, and as I burst out the doors and into the summer night’s rain a memory reached up and dragged me into the deep.
The light. I reached for the light, reaching to be cleansed, to let my sorrows be washed away in the purity and the brilliance.
Peace and serenity were within my grasp, but a voice, tender and warm, its sound resonating not just words but an unspoken apology for its interruption.
“Not yet, young one,” was whispered into my mind and ear and I was somewhere else.
I was standing in a room empty of all furnishings, its walls white and bare. Yet I was not alone: before me stood a woman dressed in a flowing opalescent gown.
She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Light red hair dangled over a shoulder, perfect emerald eyes rested upon sublime features, and behind her stretched gloriously white-feathered wings.
Her beauty, though, was not from her looks, gorgeous as she was. It shone from within, with her soft expression and tender eyes, I looked at her and I knew she loved me - a love completely unconditional and without reservation.
Falling to my knees in supplication to such a love as its intensity rushed over me, I asked her who she was. With a smile she answered as she took my hand in hers and raised me back to my feet. While I heard a name - spoken in a language that was unlike any other and yet was somehow all of them - I also felt the meaning directly and the overwhelming and unending compassion contained within it.
She was Gabriel. She was the Strength of the Creator’s Love to all things.
I understood then that I must have perished, and in the moment of knowing I remembered how. She pulled me close, wrapping her arms and wings around me as sorrow ripped through my heart and being, for I had failed.
If I had died, then Danielle must have joined me in that death.
“There is still time for her,” the angel said to me as her mercy and tenderness granted more support than her arms alone. “But only a single precious moment.”
“How? I was incinerated beyond even ash, by now she would be the same…”
“Shh. Worry not about time, and ask not of ‘how’. This is not important, not to us. Why should you return?”
“She’ll die otherwise…”
“All people do. Just as you have.”
“She doesn’t deserve to die so young! It’s just wrong!”
“Nature and the world is neither fair nor unfair, it simply is.”
“I don’t care. I need her to live… she has to…”
“Because if she dies my heart will shatter - I can’t bear it. I can’t.”
She kissed my forehead then and floated apart from me. “Hold onto that purpose with all that you can muster and go. Return and save your heart by saving hers.”
Over her shoulder her I could see an archway leading to a bright yet cloud-filled sky, one with buildings and towers rising above them. And beyond that too I could feel and see the Light I had wanted so badly to reach for before she had pulled me aside to this place.
But that’s not where I needed to go. She said I could save Danielle, and I believed her. Wrapping that need around and through myself I stepped backwards off a ledge I had not noticed was there.
As I fell away from her and the Light I heard her whisper one last thing.
“Go, save as many hearts as you can, and in so doing you might also save my own…”
I tore my attention away from that Light and looked below, seeing in the far distance a little girl strapped unconscious to a chair. Between me and her stretched a barrier of infinite symbols forged of multi-colored interlocked energies, waiting to catch me and completely blocking my path. Compared to that immense impermeable net that seemed to stretch over the entire world I was tiny and insignificant.
Harnessing my need with all that I was or could be I felt a heat surge into the space between my shoulders. I was no longer falling - no, I was flying full throttle towards the barrier that stood between me and where I had to go.
With a wordless cry I punched right through.
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The senses were all so clear and yet were distant - the impressions of a world possibly no longer my own.
My head tilted back with a hope to cleanse such a thought, but the closed eyes could only see the afterimage of the angel dominating my inner vision: Gabriel. I had met the Archangel Gabriel. And she had sent me back.
Because I had died.
Not ‘almost’, not ‘oh that was too close for comfort’, not ‘gee don’t do that again or else’. No, it was Death with a capital ‘D’, passed over and on, heading upwards into the eternity of the Light I had been channeling since that return from beyond.
Jenna called my adopted name, her voice merging with another piercing cry from the hawk. The spikes of her heels squished into the ground as she ran across the lawn, then hands were on my shoulders and she was asking me if I was alright.
Even with Rabbi Kirov’s office wards confirming the nature of my spirit, it still hadn’t seemed real. God, angels, heaven - these were descriptions of things from stories, from paintings and statues, from television and films. They weren’t things of my experience, not directly, and with all the astounding abilities I had seen not only from Danielle but from so many of the other kids at this school - it had been all too easy to mentally lump myself as just another meta or mutant: enhanced yet human. Intellectually I had grasped enough of what Kirov and others had been trying to tell me, yet acceptance had not sunk in. Maybe in bits and pieces, but not in the entirety.
Losing my home, almost losing Danielle, and losing my old profession had been hard enough to handle - but this? Other than all the concerns for the safety of others when it came to these new abilities - ones that threatened by their very nature to place my destiny in hands other than mine - all had been pushed aside and not really faced nor absorbed.
But Kirov and Louis were correct, even if I hadn’t wanted to hear it. I had expired. Kicked the bucket. Justin Thorne truly was dead and gone, his life finished and his reported demise not just a convenient cover-story but undeniable fact. And I was his spirit projected somehow back through the veil that separates the living and the dead.
Brandon was chasing after Jenna, his feet colliding with the ground in thundering steps stronger than hers as if an irresistible momentum was barely being fought off by stubborn unyielding earth. Over the swirling wind he asked her what had happened. She answered, but I had stopped listening.
My lips parted instead inviting the rain to drip onto my tongue. A taste of running mascara, lipstick, and salty tears. A flavor which when examined drove the truth of the changes even further through a heart trying to equal the beat of a hummingbird’s wings.
An internal damn burst from that jackhammering inside my chest, shattering the strange dissociative perception and scattering it into the sky.
“I can’t go back!” With a shrill cry I fell forward into Jenna’s arms. She held me, letting my muddy and grasping hands stain her top while I sobbed.
“Go back? Back where?” Brandon asked in confusion.
I could answer nothing. Because whether I had meant back home to my old life or back to the sublime tranquility and peace I had been so close to reaching within that Light before the angel interrupted my passage, I didn’t know.
“The movie… did it trigger something?” His concern was laced with the frustration of an aspiring hero: wanting to help, but feeling lost from not knowing what to do.
I recognized the feeling all too well.
“It must have,” Jenna replied. “Jordan…?”
“Gabriel,” I said quietly. “She’s not like the movie. She’s not like that at all.”
They both stiffened, but it was Brandon who gave voice to the skepticism. “You… you’ve met the angel Gabriel?”
Sniffling, I straightened and tried to wipe at my nose. “I died. She caught me. I didn’t remember it - not until now. She… she’s the most loving person I’ve ever met. Ever. I can’t even put it into words. The movie, it was so wrong, so very wrong about her…”
Jenna looked at me, shock registering on her face. “Wait… you died?”
Brandon, his face also rather paler, fumbled in a pocket, produced a white handkerchief, and handed it to me.
I took it gratefully, only to blow my nose and probably stain the cloth forever with the stuff painted upon my face. Staring off into the dark trees beyond the grass to avoid their gazes, I just nodded. “The rabbi and Louis figured that out today. I didn’t want to think about it. But… when I manifested… I died first. All dead, not even ‘only mostly dead.’” I wanted to laugh at the quote, but only a strangled whimper came out instead.
“How…?” Poor Brandon, he didn’t know what questions to ask or whether he should even believe me.
Jenna stared at me, an unspoken question hanging in her eyes, and I knew what she wanted to ask.
“Go ahead,” I muttered softly. “It’s okay.”
Nodding, she then looked back up at Brandon. “Jordan is an angel herself. They hit her with that too.”
Comprehension struck. “Then the movie… with Walken… and the dying angels… oh shit.”
I choked up again, I couldn’t help it. “I didn’t think about it, you know, when it started. I should have - I mean, I’ve seen it before, years ago. I just…”
“Hey, it’s okay.” Jenna put her hands back on my shoulders.
“I ruined your movie night, I’m sorry…” I could feel tears trying to escape my eyes yet again.
“Seriously, don’t worry about it!” Brandon said with forced cheer. “There’ll be another one next Friday - and I’ll make sure it’s about something totally different! You know, like a comedy, how ‘bout Ghostbusters? That’s a classic! Wait, that’s got ghosts and spirits, uh… Dogma? Shit, that’s even worse…”
He kept failing to think of something non-related to spirit things, and his obvious distress at the mental lock got me to chuckle in spite of myself. Jenna stood and offered me a hand. I took it, and she hauled me back onto my feet with ease.
“Constantine? No, uh… Hellboy?” Poor Brandon was still trying.
Jenna punched his shoulder with her free hand as she laughed. “Give it up, ya goof!”
I snickered my way through another sniffle and complained, “Now you’ve got me crying and giggling at the same time!”
He smiled. “Then I’d suggest focusing on the laughing part - otherwise I’m going to run out of these movies at this rate!”
Well heck, the boy was much sharper than I’d given him credit for. He’d done it on purpose!
I shook my head. “You two should go back and finish the marathon.”
“Nope, I’m walking you back to Hawthorne,” Jenna said firmly.
“No buts, Jordan,” she said. “Sorry Brandon, but we’ll have to take a rain check until next week.”
He looked disappointed, but then brightened. “Hey - that’s two rain checks you owe me, Jordan - both given while standing in actual rain. So you’re totally on the hook for two more movie nights!”
I smiled wearily. Emotionally I felt drained, but if that eased the roller coaster I was okay with that. “Fine, but Jenna is stuck too.”
His eyes looked over Jenna appreciably. “How awful it will be to have both of you lovely ladies returning to grace my poor unworthy dorm. Yep, awful.”
Jenna blushed furiously and didn’t say anything.
“Thanks, Brandon,” I said. “And again… I’m sorry my weird crap interrupted an otherwise fun evening.”
He shrugged it off. “No worries - we here at this school thrive on ‘weird crap’, I’ll have you know. Oh - and keep the handkerchief. I’ve got plenty!” He grinned. “G’nite ladies!”
“Goodnight!” Jenna and I said together.
Brandon waved before sprinting back towards his dorm and the shelter it provided from the rain.
Jenna, watching his rear end while he ran, found and squeezed my hand. “Let’s get you back to your kitty and out of this weather.”
After taking a longer look at the mess of makeup the rain and tears had made of my face, Jenna suggested we take the long route back to Hawthorne - a path that avoided going through the main quad for all to see. Instead we cut further across the lawn and through some of the trees to navigate our way more in the dark. Being already rather drenched from all the rain, she commented that a little more water wasn’t going to harm either of us at this point.
Overhead I again heard a hawk’s cry, and even caught a glimpse of its shadow coasting above the trees.
“How many hawks live around here, anyway?” I asked, finding myself curious.
“Hmm? Oh.” She looked up. “A few I think, though I think Zap has claimed the campus as his own territory and drives any others away.”
“Remember what I told you about others having it worse than us? Zap was a freshman a couple years ago, like before I got here. Story has it that he had some issue with his dreams, and Lodgeman - he’s one of the trustees - tried to help. He put Zap through a sweat-lodge and prepared him for some kind of vision-quest thing. It didn’t go very well.”
“In the middle of his vision-trance, Zap screamed, turned into a hawk, and flew off.”
“Huh. So he can shapeshift to a hawk? That doesn’t sound that bad…”
She gave me a look. “Seriously? He’s never shifted back. He’s been a hawk for over a year and a half. Have you met Lieutenant Forsyth?”
I nodded. “Yeah…?”
“Those scars on his arms? That’s from trying to catch the bird. I’ve even heard that Zap can fly right through the bars of any traps they put out for him. Lodgeman issued an edict to leave the hawk alone, as anything they tried just made things worse somehow.”
As if to agree with her, the hawk screeched again. He seemed to be pacing along with us.
“Is there… is there anything human left in him?” An image of the bird bobbing his head on my balcony suddenly came to mind, and my face reddened deeply with the realization I had been flashing not just a bird but a student. Oh geeze.
“Maybe? No one really knows. But a lot of us students leave treats out for him sometimes. And his stuff is supposed to still be in a room in Poe; Lodgeman insisted Zap’s student status be retained. His ID sits on an empty bed that waits for him, apparently.”
She stopped walking abruptly. “Damn. I forgot it.”
Jenna scrunched her face sheepishly. “I left my purse in Emerson on the couch when I ran after you. It has my ID.”
“Well crud. If Brandon doesn’t go back to the movie, no one will notice until after the marathon is over - and who knows how late that will be.”
I tried to smile reassuringly. “Go get it. I’m okay.” She glowered at me, so I had to fess up.
“Alright, alright. I’m not, not really, but that’s not going to fix itself with only a few minutes of thinking or good friends. More like months of serious introspection mixed with shouting. I only meant I’m not about to break down and freak out again right at this very moment. And if you want, I’ll just stand here and listen to the hawk for a bit until you get back.”
“Yeah.” I laughed lightly. “Without that ID you aren’t getting any breakfast. And I don’t want that on my conscience.”
Jenna reached down and removed her shoes. “I’ll be faster without these damn spikes. Even if they aren’t that tall, they’re kinda hard to run in. Here.” She handed them to me. “I’ll be right back!”
With that she took off at a jog back towards Emerson, leaving me standing in the rain holding a muddy pair of heels.
I sighed, looking down at the similarly sourced smears on my jeans. The hawk cried again, getting closer.
“Think they have laundry facilities I can use in the middle of the night?” I asked him once I caught sight of his feathery outline.
He was circling right above where I stood, impressive wingspan revealed in shadows and light filtering through the trees cast by distant lamp-posts. A louder screech this time. And another. He was yelling at me, getting more and more insistent.
“What?” I shouted back at him. “What’s your deal? I don’t have any treats, if that’s what you want!”
He swooped past right in front of me, emitting another ear-piercing cry as his answer.
That’s when it hit me. I was standing alone, off the path amongst dimly lit trees, heading to an obvious destination.
And I wasn’t scanning for any magical interferences.
With growing unease I threw open my inner vision and hastily glanced about.
Fiercely bright symbols of energy were burning into the ground and into the trees all around me - with more forming even as I looked. Reaching out with my senses to one nearby, with the silly hope that maybe I could disarm it (don’t ask how, as I had no clue either), I felt a quick electrical shock run through me and caught a whiff of ozone.
When I heard the rumble of thunder from the clouds above the purpose of the runes was suddenly made all too clear.
Unlike Jenna, I didn’t jog. I ran.
We raced through the trees - me on my feet and the hawk above with his wings. After making a break between a gap in the sigils, I hoped to be clear - but those hopes were quickly dashed.
The damn sigils were sliding along the ground behind me giving chase. Worse still, new ones kept popping up in front of me in whatever direction I turned.
“Aw c’mon! That’s just not fair!”
The hawk screeched his agreement.
I was reminded of playing capture the flag when I was little, spinning and dodging the menacing symbols like I had done so long ago to stay out of the reach of other kids as they tried to grab twin cloths stuck to my belt. As it went on and on I knew that my previous body would have been doubled over and out of breath by now - if not planted face first into the ground from stumbling over roots and things. But even with as much as I ran and weaved, the pattern of the motion of the wads of energy still was confusing and didn’t make sense. With how fast they were chasing me, one at least should have been able to slide under my feet and do its thing.
But they didn’t.
It wasn’t until I burst my way out into a grassy clearing that I discovered I’d been seriously played. I’d been herded to the field before Hawthorne where a whole cluster of the damn things lay waiting.
Tamara (operating assumption was that she was behind it) didn’t want to hit me with just one, she wanted a ton of them. Each may not have been a lot of energy individually, but together? Who knows how strong an effect that would trigger. And here I was trapped as the ones behind me spilled out to complete the boundaries of a circle that started spiraling towards the moving center: me.
The thought of trying to jump over them flashed through my mind, but no - once clumped their velocities spinning around were way too fast. They were going to converge under me no matter what. Unlike the hawk I couldn’t fly my way out of this.
“Fuck this!” I shouted and reached within to flood myself with as much of that inner energy as I could grab hold of and shove through my body. If I was going to get nailed, I was going to be ready. Even if just to try and survive and heal.
I lit up like a lighthouse beacon and all those crazy symbols shaped out of what looked like both runes and weird sticks and twigs coalesced into a wide circle right under my feet. The hairs on the back of my arms and neck stood up as I felt a tremendous charge building in the air around me leading upward into the sky.
Ah crud. I was right. I was about to be struck by lightning.
I threw my hands up over my head, I dunno, maybe with the idea I could redirect it or something. Though likely that just made me an even better antenna.
My eyes were assaulted by a flash of electrical light brighter than my physical eyes had ever directly witnessed, and the resulting immediate punch of thunder slammed into me like a steamroller, knocking me on my ass.
But the lightning itself hadn’t even touched me. What the hell?
To my awe and astonishment, suspended maybe fifteen feet above me was Zap - wide feathers glowing blue with dancing and sparking power.
Holy shit. He had done it! He caught the damn lightning!
His triumphant shriek split the night as a cymbal crash to the thunder’s drum, and with eyes burning and crackling with electric power, he beat his wings and blasted the energy up over the trees.
While my physical eyes were momentarily blinded by it all, my other senses traced the path of the unleashed energies. And there, at the edge of the lawn higher up, I saw a shimmering of electrical residue forming a small sphere hovering there in the middle of the air.
Behind the white-blue sparkles I caught a flicker of alternate colors.
Throwing my own energy like a whip along with a wordless shout, I connected to that anomalous manifestation.
A tremendously large desk spilled out around me, its colors awash with shifting purples, reds, and blues. Perceptual context fell into place - the desk wasn’t changing colors, only the spherical medium which bound me fast upon its surface. Above me a giant loomed over me, a giant with dark hair hanging like curtains around this multi-hued prison, with angry eyes burning like emeralds. A large black opal also dangled within view, secure on a silver cord wrapped around the giant’s neck.
The giant’s face was sallow and worn - dark circles were smeared under those hate-filled eyes. Tamara’s eyes.
“What have you done?” she raged at me.
I couldn’t move nor speak, not even able to look down to determine if I even had a form at all.
“Get out! Get out of my crystal!” Her shouting grew panicked as she stumbled back from the desk.
My vision spanned a full circle. A math book lay open nearby, a poster of a forest was on the wall behind me, an unmade bed mirroring another one whose flowery green comforter was all bunched into one corner, a second empty desk over by another wall, and Tamara herself knees shaking from over-exertion as she backed away in horror and knocked over the small desk chair she had been sitting on.
Without thinking I did the only thing I could: I started pulling more and more energy from my own source.
Ignoring her protests, I began to push that energy into the crystal-forged cage, feeling it out as I did so. There was a slight flaw in one spot on the bottom, likely placed that way so it wouldn’t show to the casual viewer.
With an effort of will I focused on that spot, shoving hard into the imperfection.
There was a sharp crack and with a tremendous release of pressure I was gone.
“Jordan? What the hell!”
I was flat on my ass on the lawn in front of Hawthorne. Said lawn was also flattened in a wide circle all around, and may have been smoldering. Blinking, I looked up and saw Jenna.
“What were you thinking?” She shouted at me, even as she offered me yet another hand up. “Playing with lightning? That’s insane!”
“Wasn’t me,” I said and handed back her shoes. Somehow I hadn’t dropped them. Go me?
“Then what the…? I can’t leave you alone for even a minute!”
I was about to try and explain, but she stopped me. “Save it until we get inside.”
Oh. Huh. Rain was now flooding everything with a torrential downpour. I hadn’t even noticed.
She pushed me towards the doors to dryer (and hopefully safer) surroundings. Before I went inside I paused and turned back towards the trees.
“Thanks Zap! I owe you one!” I yelled to the sky, not caring who heard.
A single distant shriek was my reply.
Satisfied, I stepped on in. Jenna was standing there dripping onto the floor with her arms crossed.
“Okay, girl. Talk.”
We ended up in my room, and after changing into my bathrobe I gave Jenna a basic rundown of previous events and the suspicions they had generated. Then I pulled Penelope into the video chat app thing - I didn’t feel like describing it all twice, and I knew I wanted Penelope’s insight. It didn’t take long to describe my crazy run through the trees, miraculous rescue by a crazily skilled hawk, and quick escape from inside a crystal ball.
“Holy shit, Jordan. Do you have any idea how much a scrying crystal like hers is worth?” Penelope blurted after hearing how I likely shattered the thing.
Khan, deciding he wasn’t getting enough attention, jumped onto my lap, and burowed into the soft fluffy folds of my robe.
“No,” I groaned at Penelope. “I’m going to guess a lot?”
From where she sat on my bed, Jenna piped up. “Think the cost of a Porsche. Maybe more.” I could tell she was unhappy I hadn’t told her about Tamara’s curse-flinging. She had called me stupid for letting her leave me alone outside like that.
How could I argue, though? She was right. I had been stupid. If not for my heroic hawk, I could have been fried. And I wasn’t sure how my whole energy-healing thing would work if I wasn’t consciously focusing to do it. It could have been, uh, bad.
“If you thought she hated you before, this is going to bring it to a whole new level,” Penelope commented.
“So what do I do?” I whined. “Think she’ll go to the administration or try to sue me for the cost?”
Jenna scoffed. “Not likely. That was serious illegal magic usage on her part. She tried to kill you, Jordan! Aren’t you getting that? If anyone should go to the teachers it’s you!”
“And say what?” I retorted. “I have no proof it was her, no witnesses to corroborate anything I could claim other than some poor kid who, by the way, is stuck as a hawk. Random accidents and a blast of lightning in the middle of a thunderstorm isn’t evidence.”
“Fubar could scan her mind and get the truth,” Jenna said.
From the laptop speakers, Penelope spoke up again. “No way. Foob doesn’t scan anyone like that without solid reasons to do so. You’d need evidence of some kind first.”
“And that’s what I don’t have,” I grumbled.
“I’m just surprised she could pull off that kind of spell,” pondered Penelope. “Clever using a lot of little spells leading into one big ol’ kazap magnet, but still. She should have burnt herself out doing that, especially at range even with that crystal of hers.”
“She looked awful,” I admitted. “And I probably just made it worse.”
“Why are you feeling guilty?” Jenna asked angrily. “This is attempted murder we’re talking about!”
“Because!” I said hastily, but then got stuck. Wait, that was a good question. “Huh. I don’t really know. Maybe because I triggered it all? Stepping on the toes of her belief, and now probably destroying her link to her mother? And everyone has said she hasn’t been like this before - so something else is causing it. Come to think of it, I might have an idea on that.”
I relayed to them what Evie had said about Tamara’s pendant. “Jenna - you ever see her wearing that?” I asked.
“Not like you describe, no.” Jenna shook her head.
“What about you, Penelope?” I glanced at the laptop.
Penelope frowned and I could see she was doing something in a separate window on her computer. “Can’t say that I have. And reviewing what footage I have stored of Tamara from this summer - nothing like that is showing up on any of my video sources. You sure it’s real?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’ve seen it, and Evie has not only seen it - she’s felt it. If it’s not showing up for others, then it’s got to be magic - and not healthy magic at that.”
“I agree,” Penelope said. “I’ll look into it, see if I can find something out. In the meantime you ought to be safe - after all, pretty sure you busted her crystal. So if she tries anything it’ll have to be in person.”
“And I’m not leaving you alone,” Jenna declared. “You just got yourself a bodyguard. She tries anything and I’m punching her face.”
“That’s not necessary,” I protested.
“Like hell it’s not.” Jenna was unmoved. “Someone has to watch out for you; if you had told me about this earlier I never would have left you alone, and this wouldn’t have happened. She doesn’t want witnesses, that’s pretty clear - and smart of her.”
“Hey - Zap is watching out for me,” I tried to jest, causing her to just glare harder. “Okay, okay, fine. You’re stuck escorting me to whatever other exams or testing they pile on this weekend.”
“And if I can’t go, like on Monday when I have classes, you walk with someone else. I don’t care who - just as long as you aren’t alone.”
I threw my hands up. “Viva La France! I surrender!”
Penelope giggled. “That’s awful. I have friends who are French!”
Khan nudged my fingers which had momentarily stopped scritching. “That reminds me. Penelope? Can Khan stay with you during the day tomorrow and Sunday? They need to do construction on my room.”
She squeeled. “Tomorrow? Cool!”
I snickered. “Well yes, cool… but not so cool he freezes, okay?”
“No problem! I’ll keep an eye on him and set up blankets… bring his toys!”
“Will do - along with his other amenities.”
“Yay! Give me a buzz when you need to drop him off, I’ll be awake! Now lemme go make a few calls and see what I can dig up about that necklace.”
“Sounds good. G’nite Penelope!”
“G’nite Red!” With another giggle she signed off.
On my bed Jenna raised a still-painted eyebrow that had escaped being washed away in the rain. “Red? Is that your nickname?” She grinned evilly at the thought.
I groaned again.
If I didn’t have a lap occupied by a cat, I would’ve grabbed a pillow and smacked her with it. That likely would have led to a full on pillow fight, and given our relative strengths the destruction of my pillows.
So darn good thing I had a kitty to save me from such things.
Which reminded me of another animal that had saved me. I wondered if I could help him. And would Zap even want me to?
I didn’t know, but I decided I had to try anyway.
My thoughts were interrupted by a fluffed pillow connecting with the back of my head.
“Hey, Red! Pay attention, I was asking you something!” Jenna was laughing at me.
With a gentle double tap that was a code we had worked out years ago for when I needed him to move, Khan hopped off my lap and allowed me to pick up the fluffy missile now laying on the floor.
Standing up, I turned towards Jenna with fake menace. “That was a big mistake…”
She stuck her tongue out at me. “Prove it!”
With a laugh I extended my weapon and lunged at her. Because hey, come to think of it, with the crazy scholarship thing I totally could afford new pillows!
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