Who we save is nearly as important a question as who we destroy – Charles Frost
I spent most of my evening thinking about the various ways the Magi Challenge could undo me. The problem was that the terms of the challenge were so open ended, and the more I thought on that the more unhappy I became. Could I lose for being too kind or too cruel? I could find myself facing a challenge of power and be forced to expose myself to my 'peers', and would that be a failure or a success? More than that, someone was always scheming. Someone was always willing to break the rules that people pretend to live by.
Rules and laws are frequently for the masses, to keep them in line for the benefit of the ruling class.
I'd had only a minute – literally one minute – to gather clothes and personal items to take with me. I'd hoped to be able to bring some imbued items with me to make life or the test – maybe both – easier. My grandmother had a nice selection of imbued items – focuses to amplify a blessing, to prevent a person losing themselves if they dream walk, or conduits that increase the amount of a blessing a magus can channel.
All were still at home.
The trouble with the whole situation was fighting my nature – and I suppose, in a sense, that's the human condition in a nutshell. Although my days would be surrounded by 'normals', my nights would be altogether different. One rule was I wasn't allowed to return home during my trial, and so I was provided living quarters by my uncle.
From the outside the home appeared to be a ranch-style with a well-kept lawn, painted in a forgettable beige – a home designed to make the eye slide away from it having registered nothing of note. Of course, that's what a good illusion does. Once the illusion was breached, the home looked to be in a mild state of disrepair, though nothing a cleaning wouldn't take care of. There was something growing on the walls – undoubtedly to make me uncomfortable – and there were two caretakers. Abelard, who seemed distressed to be in the building, and Bernardice, who had something decidedly wrong with him. I was tempted to check him, but I had to remember that I wasn't here to heal anyone. I thought.
That, unfortunately, was my nature. I'd often healed bugs who were dying, squirrels who'd been shaken by the dog, or birds who'd run into the large windows of the house. Not setting something right was really rubbing me the wrong way.
I met my two house staff in the front hall the first morning of my test. “Abelard. Bernardice,” I said, acknowledging each with a nod. “What is needed for this...home?”
“I have a list, my lord,” Abelard said nervously. “Would you care to review it?”
Thinking of my grandmother's example with servants, I shook my head. “No. I'll give you your head and make adjustments if need be. Proceed.”
“Yes, my lord,” he said with a small bow of his head, and he departed. I looked to Bernardice. “What is the condition of the building? It looks...unmaintained.”
Bernardice seemed to take a moment to process my words, tilted his head slightly and slurred his words. “The basement is the most troubling. My lord should examine it thoroughly.”
“Lead on,” I said, feeling as if something were very, very wrong. Bernardice walked unsteadily, and I began to wonder if he were drunk or if there was something more serious wrong with him. He opened the door to the stairs and invited me to descend before him. With a brief nod I stepped past him. I was caught by surprise when his hand landed in the center of my back and he shoved me forward. I tumbled painfully down the stairs, feeling my collarbone snap and nearly blinded by pain.
“Too easy,” Bernardice said hungrily. He took a step down the stairs and then another. I shifted painfully to my knees and closed my eyes, reaching inside me for that spark that is literally life. With skill born of practice I shut the pain receptors in my shoulder off, then used my good hand to line up the shoulder and forced the bone to knit.
“Not going to help,” Bernardice growled.
I scuttled backward, rolling to get back to my feet only to be struck by his closed fist to my shoulder – thankfully not the injured one – knocking me into the wall. The wall was made of cinderblock, and I bounced away, spinning back toward Bernadice, and ducked to avoid another blow.
He growled in frustration and turned to face me. I wasn't at one-hundred percent, but my odds were far better now than just a few moments ago. That was all the time I had for thinking as he rushed me, growling and opening his maw in a vulgar display of teeth. My first thought was to close that mouth to spare myself. I thrust my hand up intending to strike him under his jaw, but he opened his mouth wide, descending as my fist rose, faster than I'd have ever suspected given his ungainly motor functions..
He bit into my arm and his teeth flexed back and forth, undulating his throat muscles and pulled my arm deeper into his maw. Desperately I opened my hand in his throat and felt for his own spark, but my concentration was failing. My body lurched forward as he gulped more of my arm down his throat, and I knew I couldn't afford to do something small. I tried to grab at the lining of his throat, but my muscles were torn too much to operate.
My only hope was the physical contact we were in. I pushed as much of my will down my shattered arm as I could, fighting for consciousness and straining for focus. Panic rose as his teeth flexed again – then stopped. I panted in pain, but felt hope bloom as my attempt to paralyze the two areas that seemed to be functioning as a heart would had stopped moving.
Its teeth advanced on my arm and I screamed – lances of white hot pain radiating through me. I swung my other hand ineffectually against its very solid body, trying to muster enough will to shut off any of the pain receptors that were left in my arm. He twitched, letting out a low groan but the teeth stayed buried in my skin. I couldn't think through the pain, and it only got worse when Benardice keeled over and pulled me down with him, my arm stuck fully in his mouth.
“Sir!” Abelard said in alarm, his steps quick as he descended the stairs. “What is that thing?”
“Ghoul,” I gasped. “Can you...teeth....”
“Of course, sir,” Abelard said, all business as he gripped Benardice's lips and pried them back. I shrieked in pain as I pulled my arm from his mouth, covered in slimy saliva that was breaking down my skin before my eyes. I looked at my would-be assassin and shuddered but was relieved to have my arm back, bloody though it was. I rolled to my back and gasped.
“How did a ghoul get in?” I wheezed.
Abelard frowned. “I cannot be certain, sir. I have been the caretaker of this facility only a short time, but Benardice arrived a short while ago – separate from some others who activated the wards before moving on – and claimed to be part of the house staff.” Abelard cleared his throat. “He did possess a medallion, sir. I checked.”
I nodded and let out a sigh. With my arm merely throbbing I could focus enough to begin to knit the flesh together. Healing a wound or a broken bone always leads to major itching. That may sound trivial, but when you have something itching bone deep that you simply cannot reach...but I didn’t pause to shut off the itch sensation. I find it's only partially effective when I do – sometimes you get a phantom sensation and it's really annoying. I was going to be very tired after this – my arm was a ruin and would take quite a lot of energy to heal.
I slumped against the wall, pushing the corpse from me. I hate killing – despise it. I'd never had to push my own spark as hard as I had to here – and I know that would be valuable information; knowing your limits can be the difference between life and death. I glanced at the body. It was of no use now. I could glean no information, nor turn the thing toward a better existence – if such a thing existed for ghouls.
I let out a deep breath. Ghouls were largely scavengers, killing weak, easy targets. Otherwise they ate dead flesh and disposed of carcasses. It was a nice way to clean a messy room. This one had been different. It hadn't the features for one, looking like it was unspoiled. Usually the skin had a dull pallor and looked ready to slough off the bone. What had so changed this one?
Curious, I crawled over to the corpse and placed my hand on its cooling flesh. That it had warmth was unusual as well; they tended to be corpse-cold, only warmed by their last meal, if at all. I closed my eyes and assessed the corpse, but it was no use – it was decaying at a rate that only magic could provide. This had likely been one of the 'survival' methods of my test, which made me apprehensive for the next challenge.
“Okay,” I said, letting out a breath. I stood and brushed myself off, then gave up. My clothes were soaked in my own blood and would have to be replaced. The fact there had been an attack inside warded walls was impossible to ignore, and frankly suspicious. I needed some answers, if I could, and knew of only one way I was allowed to get any. I looked to Abelard, who looked properly disgusted with the decaying mass on the floor.
“I need the interchange.”
Abelard met my gaze and replied, “This way, sir.”
I followed him at arm's length and worked to master the beating of my heart. Adrenaline still coursed through my bloodstream, but I was tired – so very tired. Glancing down, I saw that the skin on my arm was thin and dotted with small white scars from the points of the ghoul's teeth. They'd likely never go fully away, since scarring is part of healing, and I'd need calories to help strengthen the muscles and tendons. At least I wasn't bleeding anymore.
He led me to a set of heavily warded doors and stood to one side.
“As you are no doubt aware, I cannot enter. The wards should recognize you.”
I really had to give Abelard some credit for how he understated that. As the caretaker he was supposed to make sure the normals didn't spot a magical safe house in their area. This normally meant upkeep to the exterior, but minimal maintenance to the interior. Food was normally non-fresh items that would last through a war. His understatement was more about the door wards, though, and his crack about them recognizing me. The wards only allow access to those 'keyed' to the ward, and since this was my family's safe house, that meant me.
Usually the ward would do nasty things to those trying to enter who weren't keyed. I glanced at the door, allowing my eyes to relax and take in the design of the wards. This one was nasty, turning a person inside out. With a sigh I reached for the handle and pushed the door open.
The room was pristine. I have to wonder how much energy it takes to have this room maintained magically, but not keep the rest of the wallpaper from peeling and such? Questions for later. I crossed the room and touched a large picture frame, sending my will into it and powering the latent spellwork in the frame. The image on the painting shifted like a flat screen TV and I was looking at my cousin, who was standing in the interchange room at my home.
He glanced up and his expression registered shock. “Nick? I thought...” Then his eyes narrowed slightly, and in a tone that suggested he was trying to be calm he asked, “Where are you?”
I've known Michael my whole life, and even without magic I could read his facial expressions. He wasn't asking where I was so we could hang out. My mind raced. Had my uncle arranged the ghoul? Was my challenge to be so steep as that?
“I'm safe,” I said. “Please tell your father I had to dismiss one of the staff.”
He ran his fingers through his hair, a sign he was buying time while he figured out what to say. “This is a mess. Maybe...why don't you port back? I'm sure my father will want to know the details.”
This wasn't right. “I”m not allowed. You know the rules; you were there when Magus Drost gave the scant details he did.”
“Right, right,” he said dismissively. He frowned in concentration. A thought strayed across my tired mind, and I clung to it.
“Michael. What are you doing in my house?”
I pursed my lips. My grandmother could see schemes within schemes, but I was never so talented. However I did possess something of a nose for deception, and I had the sense my cousin and his father were up to something dishonorable at best.
After I didn't reply, Michael let a small smile onto his face. “I never could fool you.” He paused, perhaps reveling in his next statement. “I also have a test from the Magisterium. They said something boring about not having more than one House of Frost, so I guess I'll be a danger to you.” He paused. “They have my father. He'd have told me where you were, but...rules.” He smiled sourly. “Rules. But I'll find you. I'll have the full power of a house behind me when I do. Enjoy what time you have left, cousin – you were too soft for leading a house, anyway.”
I cut the connection. I closed my eyes and tried to master my breathing and my heart rate, but it was difficult to do more than not fall over. We'd been betrayed from within.
Before I could spend time thinking about my cousin, his being in my home and what all of that meant, I had to secure my own safety. Can't fight back if I'm dead. To that end I exited the interchange and called to Abelard.
“Coming, Sir,” he said, his voice muffled by walls between us. He appeared a moment later, demure and straight-backed. “Yes, Sir?”
“I need calories. Do we have supplies?”
“Nothing fresh or prepared, Sir. But if that isn't a concern, then yes, we have something to eat. Shall I arrange a plate for you?”
“No,” I said with a shake of my head. “Take me to the pantry.”
“This way, Sir,” he replied. I fell in behind him as he took me through the house, which was smaller than I'd realized. I could have found the kitchen and attached pantry on my own, but this was faster. There were a variety of canned goods; I opened a large plastic bin of nuts and seeds. High calories – they'd do. As I ate I looked back to Abelard.
“Abelard...do you know why I'm here?”
“No, Sir. Magus Frost provided a message that I was to administer the premises and ready myself for a long-term guest.”
I sighed. “Abelard. Are you bound to Magus Frost?”
He bowed his head slightly. “I am bound to House Frost.”
I pursed my lips in thought. “Abelard. I am here on Magisterium instructions for a test. However, I have already been attacked under my Uncle's roof. I need to bind you for the duration of my stay.”
Abelard tilted his head. “What are the boundaries of the bond you wish to lay upon me?”
“That while I am a resident, you shall be the sole staff and we shall function as a house unto ourselves – no aid to any magi but myself unless I direct you.”
Abelard thought for a moment. “I am embarrassed by the incident with Bernardice. Magus Frost did tell me to support you with respect to the security of the home and the need for safety and sustenance. Given that, I do not see why he would protest – I accept your terms of binding for the duration of your stay.”
Abelard rolled his sleeve back, and I pressed a finger to his wrist. A blue line snaked along his skin, glowing like a phosphorescent tattoo as the binding took hold. At least I could have a measure of trust in him now.
“Will you please see to improvements on the building and provisions?”
“Of course, Sir.”
I stumbled to the kitchen and sat at a small table, eating the nuts and seeds and concentrating on my twin goals of staying awake and rebuilding my arm.
I glanced up at Abelard and waited.
“If caloric intake is your current priority, there are plastic bottles which are meant to be meal replacements. Shall I fetch them for you?”
“Please. They would be most useful.”
After more than an hour of eating and working my talent on my arm, it felt like it should. By then I was a zombie. I stumbled to the room I was using as my own and fell into the bed without undressing.
I waited, hand over my face. The obnoxious morning light made my room feel as if the sun itself were within inches.
I heard my door open slightly. “Sir?”
“When you acquire items for the home, please put curtains on your list.”
“My apologies, Sir, but I am prohibited from furnishing the home beyond its current state.”
I lifted my head and squinted at him. “Truly?”
I stared for a moment more. “This would be an excellent time to tell me you were joking, Abelard.”
“I thought it odd myself, sir, however it was a specific stipulation. You'll find the home clean and in order, breakfast is served, but additional furnishings I am not allowed to procure or install.”
I looked at the window. Ridiculous to put such large windows in a bedroom. Who designed this monstrosity? Rather than continue to leave myself open to skin cancer, I rose and joined Abelard for breakfast.
“What is it?” I asked doubtfully.
“I'm told there is a pork element, Sir.”
I glanced at him with an eye raised. “ A pork...element?”
“As in...not all pork?”
“That is my understanding, Sir.”
I looked down at the fried slices of...pork element. “What is it called?”
I thought for a moment. “Will you be able to procure fresh food? Or does that fall under the category of home furnishings?”
“I am sorry, Sir,” he said, sounding quite sorry indeed.
“Well,” I said softly. “I won't be ungrateful.” My stomach, however, may disagree.
After eating the very likely indigestible, I showered and dressed in fresh clothes. I had to stop more than once on my walk to school to settle my stomach and soothe the irritation in my guts from the salty nature of my breakfast. I'd need to find a way to change my eating situation.
While Abelard was enthusiastic, he didn't have a lot of resources to work with. He had cleaned the building thoroughly, which he could justify from the position that he wouldn't want to jeopardize my health due to mold or filth, though after Bernardice he knew I was capable of curing myself quite well. I spent my days studying the people around me and finishing homework so I'd not have to worry about it that night.
My evenings were spent reviewing the defensive runes around the building, though it wasn't my area of expertise. It was a harsh thing to realize I was unprotected here; no help from my family. I also spent a great deal of time trying to figure out what and how Michael was doing what he was. He claimed the Magisterium had his father, or he'd have divulged my location to his son. That didn't sound right, because the trial is for the magus, not the house. What did his presence in my home mean, however? The interchange was in my father's study, not someplace Michael would normally be. Had my grandmother been injured? Assassinated?
I had no ready answers, but it made sense to proceed as if the worst had happened. I took the medallion Bernadice had used to gain entry to the house and examined it. Medallions for servants were the equivalent of a swipe card at secure facilities. Considering the evidence at hand, my best guess was that my uncle had tried to assassinate me via Bernardice. The little I knew about warding and medallions told me that a particular ward was the lock to the medallion's key.
I walked slowly around the building, scanning the wards to find the one this particular medallion was tied to. It took almost an hour, but when I did find it my lack of knowledge really made things difficult. I didn't know how old the ward was or if it would allow another assassin into the building. I made an attempt to cleanse the part of the ward that designated who may enter, but in so doing managed to collapse the ward entirely.
I retreated inside and called out to Abelard, who appeared with efficiency. “Yes, Sir?”
“I've accidentally collapsed a ward. Do we have something to recast the ward so only your medallion would work?”
“I am authorized to recast the wards, and given there are no other medallions present to add, mine would be the only one allowed access. Would that suffice, Sir?”
“Yes. Do we have the reagents?”
“No, Sir. But I will endeavor to get them as quickly as possible; I don't know what our exposure is with a ward inactive,” he said with concern. It concerned me as well.
Going to school the next day left me feeling vulnerable. Wards interlinked to provide protection; if one ward failed, it left others vulnerable in ways I didn't understand. I'd puzzled over the situation, wondering why the ward had collapsed. That had kept me up late, and as a result during the day I found myself a little tired. It was stressful enough wondering where the next punch was coming from and how much it would hurt, but it stung even more that the Magisterium had set me against my own family. Granted, Michael was no one I'd wish to be related to, but the fact remained.
Michael was vain, admittedly a common trait among my kind. Even I feel superior more than I probably should. While all magi have a basic affinity for shaping aether, the source of our talents or what some call magic, usually a magus will develop quite strongly within a single discipline, though that is not always the case. Michael was about as narrowly defined, magically speaking, as he could be – which wasn't the disparagement one might think. His talent manifested in fire, and it was total control. It didn't matter that many other common things most magi could do were beyond him because his talent was so focused.
He was to fire magi as a wildfire was to a campfire.
As I'd thought about these things Mr. Halstead had continued his litany, imploring kids to have their parents complain as soon as possible. That afternoon in study hall I asked him why he disliked teaching so much.
“Teaching?” he asked, his glasses down on the end of his nose. “Mr. Frost, this isn't teaching.”
“Well, no, it doesn't seem that it is,” I agreed.
“Let me clarify. There are some teachers who go out of their way to bring interesting things to their students to inspire them to learn. This is because so few understand the value or joy in learning for learning's sake – just as some do not enjoy puzzles or other things for their own sake. So trying to make people learn something you may love for the joy of it is bad enough, but to be actively fought against?” He shook his head. “Unfortunately, most kids aren't special. I know, it's a shock, but that's the case. The non-special nature of the larger portion of humanity means that enjoying learning or competing for educational achievement is frowned upon and openly mocked, so that some kids try to tone down their intelligence to fit in with their pleased-with-their-ignorance classmates.” He leaned slightly closer. “Then they grow up and run for a spot on the school board.”
I frowned in thought. “Then why did you become a teacher?”
He smiled. “Because everyone is young and stupid at one time, and the dumber ones think they can change the world – mistaking themselves for being special as well.”
I tilted my head. “What would you call special?”
“That's a good question. The answer isn't clear; it depends on the measure you use for such a thing. For the purposes of this conversation anyone that rises above resentment at the thought of gaining knowledge would be special.”
I glanced around the room. Could it be as bad as he claimed?
“I see you doubt me,” he said with a reproachful smile. He cleared his throat and called the room to attention. “Given that study hall is for you to actually study or complete homework – and that none of you are doing so – you're going to learn something.”
There was a series of sighs and at least two groans from the crowd. Mr. Halstead raised an eyebrow at me, but continued undaunted.
“Society is broken into several parts – let's see how that applies to our widget factory,” he said, turning and quickly drawing a small factory, complete with saw tooth roof and smokestack. He turned back to his audience. “What do we need for our widget factory?”
The class was silent, so I decided to help him out. “Workers?”
“Excellent,” he said, not looking at me. “Can one kind of worker do everything?”
After another stretch of silence a boy spoke. “What's a widget?”
“The thing that fills the dead space between your ears,” Mr. Halstead promptly replied. “Speaking of which, Mr. Connors, I think we've found our custodial staff, haven't we?”
There were giggles in the room, but Mr. Halstead silenced them.
“Don't misunderstand me. There isn't a damn thing wrong with being a custodian. It's honest work. So is working fast food. What, though, is the difference between working at that level and performing more complex tasks?”
This time there were a few voices offering up answers.
“Winning the lottery.”
“Yes, yes, and if I had I wouldn't be here now,” he said, making a list next to the factory. “So we have support staff, like a custodian. We have skilled workers with the machines that manufacture our widgets – either through on-the-job training or through a vocational school. Then we have management with their college degrees.”
He turned back. “Now. Each one of you could go out today and enter the lowest level of employment in our widget factory. If there were any justice, it would pay enough for you to support yourself. But what sorts of problems do we have with that?”
Again there was hesitation. One girl said, “I don't want to be a janitor.”
“Hmm.” Mr. Halstead tilted his head in thought. “Not only do different people aspire to different stations in life, even if everyone's dream was to be a custodian – do we have enough custodian jobs around for everyone?”
There was the sound of rustling as heads shook.
“Then why oh why are none of you studying for a station different than custodian?”
“When am I going to use chemistry?” one boy challenged.
“You may not,” Mr. Halstead conceded. “But you may enter a field that has need of a basic understanding of chemistry – and you don't yet know where you'll land. Or perhaps it will save you from mixing household chemicals in your mother's basement trying to produce the next great cleaning agent while actually melting the lining of your lungs. Knowledge is never wasted.”
“But what's the point if you never use it?” the boy insisted.
“Because your future is unwritten. You can never tell what information will be useful to you. For instance, if I'd known I could have done something besides pretend to teach,” he said with a smile. “Now, who shall be the president of our widget factory?” A murmur of confusion floated through the room. “How about Mr. Flexen?”
The crowd noise grew louder as some people protested working for him, and there was at least one insult to his intelligence.
“Now, now,” Mr. Halstead chided the class. “Many powerful people didn't have to be classically intelligent. Luck or cleverness can play strong roles. I like the idea of Mr. Flexen being the owner.”
“You're all fired,” Flexen said tiredly.
There was some laughter, and Mr. Halstead sighed. “Well, I didn't say he'd be good at it. But it does bring up the issue – we can't all be janitors, and we can't all be the owner either, can we?”
“So? So if professional success is a goal for you, education helps. If your goal is philanthropy – I see the confusion, it means instead of a widget factory you're a non-profit looking to end world hunger or something. In that case, education helps you as well. Knowledge quite literally is power.”
The boy referred to as Connors said, mischievously, “So if my goal is to get laid...?”
“In all instances, please wear a condom. For the sake of humanity.”
Mr Halstead proceeded to drag the class through the exercise of what it would take to set up the factory, who would be responsible for certain tasks, and I could see how the class was tenuously involved at best. When the bell rang Mr. Halstead looked at me expectantly.
“I think you proved your point,” I said as I stood.
“What do you think my point was?”
“Firstly, that there is a bias against learning, or the work it takes to learn. Second, that not everyone is special, intellectually. There isn't anything wrong with that, as you properly pointed out – there is a need for worker bees just as there is for queens. I question your assertion about why you wouldn't try to reach the students you can, however.”
His eyes crinkled and he smiled at me. “Who says I haven't?”
I paused and smiled back. “Very clever, Mr. Halstead.”
“As are you, Mr. Frost. I hope to enjoy your mind until I get suspended.”
“Maybe it doesn't have to come to that?”
“Oh, I think it does,” he said with a chuckle. He glanced up at me and sighed. “Once your illusions are stripped away it's difficult to keep the course.”
Sad, but perhaps true.
I was walking home from school, lost in thought. While Mr. Halstead was an interesting distraction, I was more worried about the collapsed ward at my home. Given it was my uncle's property, he had to have sent the ghoul, so it was only a matter of time before something else deadly came my way. I had to figure out how to be prepared. I turned from the main street and through a small maintenance alley that would bring me home fastest.
I'll never know what it was – some ingrained sixth sense, some part of me that was hyper-aware or plain dumb luck – but I ducked nearly in time to miss a blow to my head. It was a glancing blow that was still enough to get my attention and might have brained a Normal. I whirled to find an attacker with a sword. I mean a real, metal sword. Pain radiated from the back of my scalp, and I quickly shut off the pain receptors as he moved in to strike. I danced backward away from his wide swipes – despite having such an out-of-date weapon, he wasn't well trained with it. How stupid – to pick a weapon you're not skilled with.
I looked desperately for something to use to counter his strokes, but there wasn't so much as length of wood. Gritting my teeth I waited as he drew the blade far back for a truly large swing and rushed in close, needing only to touch him. His hand jerked as I crashed into him, taking us both down in a heap. The pommel of the sword hit my back hard enough that I knew I'd bruise, but the important part was I got a hand on his forearm.
I needed to take his attention off me but also leave him able to talk, so I reached into his arm and leg muscles and locked them in place. He stopped struggling, his back and neck muscles suddenly moving as he tried to get his limbs to cooperate.
I stood and took a moment to start the healing process on my wounds before looking down at him. He was in his early twenties, muscled, but not like a current athlete – more like someone that was athletic a few years ago, but who was now falling into less healthy habits.
“Now,” I said quietly. “Just who are you?”
“Fuck you,” he snapped.
I tilted my head side to side and leered at him. “Not my usual type, but it's been a while. We can talk about that later if you like.”
His eyes widened. “No fucking way!”
Using his fear against him I said, “You can't control your body now. What makes you think you can stop me?”
His mouth moved a little bit, words not quite forming. Now that he understood his predicament, it was time for me to get what I needed.
“Who are you?”
He pursed his lips and said, “Just a soldier.”
I tilted my head to one side. “How did you find me?”
His face took on a look of malevolence. “There is a contract out on you. I got lucky.” He paused. “I have backup coming.”
I thought for a moment – did he have help coming? It wasn't likely. If he'd gotten lucky in finding me, he'd probably gotten greedy and decided to take me out on his own. Still, can't be too careful.
“I doubt that,” I said quietly. “But since you said it, I guess I'll have to take precautions. This won't hurt a bit,” I said and leaned forward. He started flopping for all he was worth and calling out 'No' and 'stay away' and similar things. I bent down and touched the side of his face and the volume of his voice dropped dramatically. “Now. If you have people on the way, I'll want them to find you as a warning.”
He shook his head. “No! No one's coming! I swear!”
I gazed down at him. “How can I be sure, friend?”
“We got a contract notice! I took it and went driving around with the stupid little detector. I swear, I just got lucky!”
I smirked. “And do you still feel lucky?”
His mouth worked silently.
“I-in my car.”
I patted his jeans and found the lump of his keys. As I fished them out he squirmed, and I chuckled. “Don't worry, not feeling you up, you big baby.” Pulling the keys out, I thought about what he'd said so far and couldn't pass up this opportunity. “So, why here? Why not burn my home while I sleep or something?”
His throat worked and his eyes looked around – anywhere but at me. “Because...we...we don't know where.”
I tilted my head and stared at him until his gaze returned to my face.
“I swear! I was driving last night, and all of a sudden the detector goes off. I was trying all night to figure it out. I slept in my car!” he said, as if it were some horrible hardship. “This morning it was louder, and I figured out you were in school. So...I waited. We had your picture....”
“I see,” I said. If his story was true, he'd found me by dumb luck. Glancing around, I figured I'd been in the alleyway too long. Someone could look down from a window or come walking through for a shortcut like I had. I figured this guy wasn't much of a threat, ambush aside. “This is going to feel strange, but you understand I can't have you telling anyone you found me. Right? And I don't want to kill you – and I assume you want to live?”
His eyes opened wider and he nodded.
I placed my fingers at his temples and focused carefully, searching for his hippocampus – specifically the section now working to create memories. I felt sweat trickle down my back as I focused, trying to trash his short term memory without it being a permanent issue. Working with the brain was always a little dicey. The last thing I wanted to do was accidentally knock out something like his body breathing when it was supposed to.
I looked down at his face, and his gaze had slipped into confusion, his eyes glazed. Satisfied that I'd taken our encounter from him – and maybe a bit more, hard to say – I stood and looked down on him. An acrid smell hit my nose, and I realized I'd scared him enough at some point that he'd wet himself.
Serves him right for trying to kill me. Hope he gets a nice rash out of it or something.
At the end of the alley I found his car, a rusted thing no one would notice. I searched it, finding the 'tracking' device – a poorly crafted imbued item that I'd want to study. Once home it occurred to me that if he were able to tell anyone where he was found – if he was part of a group – then they would assume, rightly, that he'd been magically fucked with. That may have been a tactical error, but one I couldn't fix now. Shit. I'd better talk to Abelard about getting that ward fixed.
The 'tracker' was a magically imbued pen. It was crafted so poorly that the last of its power died before I could do much more than get it home. I should have asked him where he'd gotten the damn thing.
“Homework is loathsome,” I said to myself as I sat on the floor in what might have been termed a living room. The work in most classes wasn't that difficult, truth be told, and carried a far lower threshold of danger than the training I'd received as a magus to master my talents – death or maiming was unlikely. While math came easily, science sometimes challenged me, and history was a complete mess. What I disliked most was having to contend with it outside of school hours.
I looked up at Abelard, happy for the break. “What is it?”
“Sir, with the challenges we have faced turning this into a functioning household, I thought it prudent to review the powers allowed me as temporary caretaker.”
I perked up. “That does sound important.”
“Unfortunately, it's rather glum. I can acquire fresher foods, which isn't as positive as it sounds. In essence I may replace expired foods. It seems as though this contract was specifically written to limit the level of comfort you may have, Sir.”
I sighed. “Well, that seems likely.” I looked down at my history homework. “More than likely,” I muttered.
“Pre-packaged food is most of the limit I am allowed to purchase, however there is a stipulation for fresh fruit. May I offer you a tomato?”
I blinked. “It's a fruit, but in the future I'd prefer apples or oranges when available, Abelard.”
I smiled, just a little one. “Thank you for your initiative. And the tomato.”
I spent the evening hanging a sheet over the window in my room to stop the wretched morning light from cooking me like a vampire in a bad movie. As I dropped into bed for the night my mind turned back toward speculation. Since trying to anticipate the next shot from the Magisterium wasn't fruitful, I decided to review the people I'd met so far.
Tess and her brother Brad seemed nice enough. They were pleasant to look at, though he more so – but I'm biased. They shared dark blond hair – perhaps closer to brown – and a skin tone that still held a hint of a summer tan. Cara, she whom they teased about Brad having affection for, was a chatty girl with an asymmetrical hair style. I thought her long brown hair would look nicer if it were a different style – I'm not a fan of things not being symmetrical. Zumibia had dark curly hair and was in my homeroom. She greeted me in the mornings, but generally used her phone for the entirety of the time. Alan/Alison was quiet, and I admit to being curious about the inner conversations they must have trying to understand themselves. Donna, with long, straight red hair, was quick to smile and also the loudest at the table by far. There was the fellow whose last name was Connors who I'd had limited interactions with, and of course Ty Flexen, who I hadn't spoken with since the first day.
I hadn't heard anything else about the information I'd passed to Tess the week before, but that was probably for the best. I was content, for now, to sit and observe.
Growing up in a magi society obviously wasn't just like growing up as a Normal. Magi society is a bit anachronistic – for instance we know of and many have televisions, but there are still a fair share who primarily listen to the radio, and even a few who think it's a passing fad and want nothing to do with it. At my age I knew what cell phones were, though in magi society I didn't have much use for them. As a result they are known to me, but not familiar. Computers and video games are similarly not quite as interesting as using your blessing to restore life or look inside someone's body.
My grandmother never said much about the outside world, focusing instead on my studies. She didn't often speak of my parents, but the one thing I can recall stuck with me, not because of curiosity about my parents, but because of what she'd said about their bonding. As it happens, magi children tend to be less emotional that Normals on average. There are outliers, like Michael; perhaps it has something to do with the way his blessing developed as narrowly as it did. The average magus child could and would get excited, but would lose that just as quickly.
Once bonded, however, emotions can be quite a handful, because we're not as used to dealing with them. The idea of bonding leaves me with low-level stress if I think about it too long.
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