1. a person formally engaged in learning, such as one enrolled in a school.
2. one who studies, investigates, or examines thoughtfully.
The room had two electrical outlets, and neither were near the bed. When the alarm clock started screaming bloody digital murder, Melvin Tinker had to get out of bed and stagger across his expansive bedroom to smack it until it shut up.
He'd taken to setting the timer to wake him a good two hours before his first classes started. Plenty of time to shake the groggy from his head, get dressed at a leisurely pace, head on down to the designated Melvin Only bathroom so Tinker could take a tinkle, and write a letter.
Melvin had brought his own pens with him, as he wasn't sure if Faeries believed in ballpoint. Melvin believed in ballpoint. Really good ones, ones where the ink flowed smooth and steadily, without needing any warm up strokes to get the thing going. Not the cheap retractables or cast-offs traders and, well, tinkers brought with them to his village -- proper pens, ones he had to order away for with the help of a passing courier. When he packed up his few belongings to head off to become a witch, he made sure to pack a few of his best pens. Two were devoted to note taking in class, one was devoted to his personal journal, and one was just for letters.
This morning, he pondered what to write, and after tapping pen to paper a few times in thought, decided.
Yesterday, I asked Instructor Elriel about the blessing, and how it really worked. On day one, we were all given special enchantments from some funny black book which prevented our minds from capturing any spells -- they called it a 'blessing', the same one the Faerie Queen had as a baby, but I'm pretty sure blessings don't come from black books with silver skulls on the binding. We're not expected to understand the old style of Fae writing, but I recognized the word 'Hex' from my earlier research. I don't THINK that it was a bad thing, for us, but I can see why the Fae would consider having your memories blockaded to be bad. The instructors are all Fae and they don't need spellbooks, so they obviously weren't 'blessed'.
Anyway, Elriel clearly didn't say anything I didn't already know, and insisted "I wouldn't need to worry about it." So I ask, what about the old witches? And he gets a little pale because he remembers I'm The Boy Who Didn't Die, and insists again that it's nothing to worry about, that Queen Emily was taking care of those witches, and they would "no longer be a danger". Many of them were apparently healed of the brain damage magic caused them. No mention of Salem the Fire Witch, of course. Elriel is very good at talking around you instead of to you.
I didn't want to push him any further on that. I'm pressing my luck already. The question is, what happened to the old witches who aren't included in "many of them"? Did they all resist treatment or evade capture? Or were they unhealable, and had to be put down? I'll have to find out later, or maybe some other way. I'm already weird enough being the only boy who wants to be a witch. Pushing my luck with something that's clearly a sore topic around here isn't helping.
I've got to get to class now. It's hard to skip school when you're the only boy here. I'll write more later.
His work complete, Melvin Tinker (The Boy Who Didn't Die) carefully folded up the letter, held it over the candle that lit his writing desk, and turned it this way and that to make sure it was completely incinerated. He dropped the final burning bit of paper into a metal wastebasket, gathered up his books and pens, and headed off to learn the ancient and mysterious ways of Faerie magic.
the second age
by stefan gagne
"Everything has a nature," Instructor Illyria explained... while pieces of torn cloth hovering in the air around her stitched themselves up, shredded weaves and fibers rejoining, soon looking as if they were never shredded in the first place.
She had a habit of multitasking, doing live demonstrations while she talked -- and while an Animate piece of chalk sketched out diagrams and notes behind her. In this case, she was doing all that, and sipping from an ornately designed cup of tea. It was showy, but she wasn't trying to show off... her mind simply worked along multiple paths simultaneously. It made asking her straight questions a bit difficult, since she could run along five trains of thought at once, diverging away from your original query shortly after it was asked.
"When I say 'nature', I mean it in multiple senses," she continued, the whole cloths re-tearing themselves, re-Mending behind her. "An object has a natural shape to it, one which it strives to be restored to. That is why Mending is named so; it mends a damaged object, restoring its natural shape. This shape is also a form of will, the object greatly desiring to remain in that shape. The Mending simply assists the object in asserting its sought after form. This is why Mending can repair broken machines, heal cuts and bruises... but it cannot smelt metal, build a clock from spare parts, or paint a picture. Knowing the limitations are key to a successful Mending. Work with the object, and not against it. --Gwen, is this explanation boring you?"
The other oddity about Instructor Illyria is that while she focused on eight things at once, she strongly disliked it when students focused on anything other than her words. This fared badly for the other resident multitasker of the class -- twelve year old Gwen Berners-Lee and her shiny digital iThing.
"My online friend thinks that you could paint a picture with it if you melted the paint off with a blowtorch then tried to mend it," Gwen explained.
"Hmm. I suppose, but that would be a very silly thing to do," Instructor Illyria pondered -- letting part of her mind wander off to consider the idea, while the rest resumed scolding. "I would thank you not to liveblog my class, young lady. You know that Queen Emily has requested that witching knowledge not leave the academy. It could be dangerous in untrained hands."
"But we're not trained yet. Does that mean we're dangerous?"
The taller girl sitting to her left in the sparkling green hat spoke up, next. "We're training to be responsible witches, to wield the power arcane with a hand both fair and just," she filled in. "Therefore, we will not be dangerous, not like the old witches. We're Lawful Good, not Chaotic Evil."
Illyria remained unimpressed. "And I would thank you, young Sylph Starlyte -- and I would remind you I only refer to you by your self-chosen moniker because somehow your permission slip added a clause that we not use your 'muggle' name, whatever that means -- I would thank you not to see the traditions of Fae magic through the lens of your dicing games. Even the witches of Archmagus Lilith's class were not evil. They defended the Faerie Court, as per the wishes of the Faerie Queens."
Gwen cocked her head, her cheaply made felt hat nearly falling off as a result. "But they burned down villages and killed a lot of people, like the evil Salem the Fire Witch. Aren't they all bad?"
"I'm here to teach you the ways of natural enchantment, not ethics and politics," Illyria reminded them. "Now, if miss Gwen would put away her electric inter-network web apparatus, so we could continue...?"
As even Gwen's most adorable pout had zero effect on the Instructor, she was forced to fold up her iThing and put it back in her schoolbag. Or rather, fold it to an acute angle and leave her bag open, so she could watch the screen while watching the Instructor. For all her mental acumen, Instructor Illyria was Fae to the core, and didn't quite get how human gadgets worked... as long as it was out of sight, it was out of her minds.
"Now, then. The nature of objects. This is not only a required concept for Mending, but it directly relates to Animating an object," Illyria continued. "The more you fight against the nature of the object, the more difficult it will be to Animate it. Basic levitation is difficult enough; after an object is airborne, it will want to only be used in activities that it would normally be used in. Scissors cut, balls are thrown, musical instruments are played... water flows, and fire burns. Everything has an undeniable nature. To go against it will likely result in failure... without a strength of will and determination unlike any other."
Mending. Animation. Those were fun, despite a stern instructor. Spell copying and rune interpretation, those were considerably less fun... but oddly, they were also Melvin's best subjects. The square-encapsulated spells he copied into his book were pristine, neatly inked works of absolute efficiency. ...of course, CASTING those spells, that he wasn't quite as good at, which took any potential pleasure out of the one thing he seemed to excel at.
Lunch each day was a relief from that torment of being spectacularly successful and a failure at the same time. Although there was an officially declared mess hall in one of the kitchens, the students rarely hung around after grabbing their amazingly well cooked Fae cuisine (mixed in with the occasional Pizza Day or Burger Day). Instead, they gravitated to the foyer.
The former House of the Rising Sun was known for three things. One, excessively elaborate guest bedrooms, one of which Melvin occupied by his lonesome while the girls got bunk beds in less opulent rooms. Two, the amazing ballroom, host to parties where the patrons gambled in every sense of the word -- not that this happened any more, of course. And three, the foyer.
It wasn't actually a very large foyer, but the floor to ceiling stained glass windows and the intricately decorated marble floors were a sight to behold. A spiral staircase ran up along the windows, leading to the upstairs bedrooms. All around the room were window wells and benches to perch on while chowing down... and in the center, a finely carved sandstone statue of a young witch, life scale, seemingly watching over the flock and protecting them.
Gwen and Sylph tended to hang out in one of the window wells directly under the spiraling staircase... tucked away from the others. Truth be told, neither of them got along well with the other girls, both being nerds of various stripes.
Gwen was talkative enough, but divided her time between the living and the digital, busy managing imateenagewitch.com's forums and chatrooms. Her handmade witching costume was clearly made by someone who only had a vague idea that witches had pointy hats and, I dunno, capes or something, as it was barely Halloween level of quality.
As for Sylph, she was every inch the sparkly and well tailored fairy tale witch... which still made her nothing like the other girls, who rarely bothered with fantasy-style clothing, in favor of ordinary street clothes with the obligatory pointy hat. Sylph had come expecting floating candles and goblins powering strange arcane machines and fluttery fairies with wands that resemble stars on sticks, and the reality wasn't quite living up to that image.
The two of them somehow ended up friends, bonding without really needing to bond. They fell in from nearly the first day, probably because the social cliques and circles had closed up with them on the outside, and there were no better options. But even being outsiders, they were closer to the inside than the ultimate outsider... The Boy Who Didn't Die.
Sylph was pondering this, on Gelatin Day. Her wobbly red dessert (just three calories!) was nudged around in its dish, as she toppled the cube this way and that, in thought.
"Hey?" Gwen asked, glancing up from her chat room.
"Why don't we talk to Melvin more often?" Sylph asked. "I've been wondering..."
"'cause he's a stinky stupid boy, that's why," Gwen pointed out. "He's in a school with a bunch of girls, too. I bet he wants to steal our underwears and peep on us through a little hole in the showers, like in movies."
Times like these it was easy to forget that the two of them were on opposite sides of the puberty fence. Twelve and fourteen, although they acted a few years earlier and later respectively. All the cool fourteen year olds were already tied up in little social groups, though, so Sylph had to deal with hanging out with a 'little kid'.
"He hasn't been like that at all, though," Sylph pointed out. "Everybody was expecting it, sure, but he hasn't acted weird or anything. He doesn't talk to anyone at all, really..."
"He's also mysterious and weird and he's the Boy Who Didn't Die. That means he's probably some crazy magic pro-tey-jay. Like maybe a natural born dark wizard who's got three sixes on his head like in movies."
"But he doesn't do very good in classes. I mean, he can draw a straight line better than anyone, but..."
"You wanna talk to him really badly, don't you?" Gwen asked. "You could just ask him for a date. I bet he's so lonely and bored that he'd go for it, unless he's not into girls, like my cousin Jimmy. That's probably it, he doesn't like kissing girls, so he won't kiss you."
"G-Gwen! I'm not saying I want to kiss him!!" Sylph insisted. "I'm just saying... look, I'm saying we should talk to him. Nobody talks to us, so we talk to each other. Why not talk to him, too? --oh, and... hey, yeah! We could be a cool trio! I'm the gentle and pretty one, you're the smart one who tells it like it is, he's the mysterious boy with a dark and troubled past!"
Gwen closed her iThing, with a sigh. "That's completely stupid. But fine, I'll go get him. Wait here."
"--hey, wait, we can't just walk up to him and--!"
Too late. Once Gwen decided to do a thing, she did it, and did it in the most direct manner as possible. Which is why Sylph was nearly as red as her sparkly red quasi-bodicey dress thing, when a confused looking Melvin was dragged over in her direction by Gwen, as he clutched a half-eaten piece of pizza.
"Melvin, this is my friend Sylph Starlyte, who's really Polly Pensworth, but she hates that name because it makes her sound like a bird or someone's old aunt," Gwen casually introduced. "Sylph, this is Melvin Tinker, who wasn't horribly killed by Salem the Fire Witch for reasons nobody really knows. And I'm Gwen. Hi. We're going to be your new friends."
The joyous gathering of new friends was steeped in so much discomfort that it un-fluffed the cushions of the bench under the staircase.
"Uh," Melvin greeted.
"Um," Sylph agreed.
"Sylph says you've got a dark and troubled past," Gwen pointed out, since as a friend she felt she should introduce a topic of conversation.
"I... kinda... don't?" Melvin offered. "I mean, not really. --look, is this about the whole 'Boy Who Didn't Die' thing? Because, honestly, I don't know why Salem left me alone when she attacked our village, alright? I told Queen Emily as much. It's not as big a deal as everybody's making it out to be..."
"Um," Sylph continued.
"I'm just here to learn some magic and, I dunno, help my home village. That's all," he insisted. "There's nothing dark or troubled about it. I mean... my family are accountants. We just tally up feed costs and crop sales and stuff. I'm pretty sure there's nothing troubling about that, unless someone forgets to carry the two."
"Oh, okay. So, you want to be friends with us?" Gwen asked.
"...you're girls," he pointed out.
"So is everybody else here, so if you want any friends at all, they'll have to be girls. Anyway, Sylph says you're not interested in stealing our underwears or peeping at us in the shower, so it's probably okay. I'm gonna go get more jelly-tin stuff, it's pretty tasty. Be back in a minute."
And then there were two.
"Um," Sylph added.
"...Pensworth?" Melvin asked. "As in... the Pensworth Writing Company?"
"I'm, I'm a mysterious and arcane witch who commands powers of mysterious magic!" Sylph immediately insisted, with appropriate hand-wavey gestures. "I know not of this Pensworth--"
"'cause I think your pens are the best ones," Melvin explained, pulling a ballpoint from his schoolbag. "Seriously. I've seen a lot of pens and your family's are the tops. They don't run and they always make a good, thick line. ...I don't think your name's all that bad. I mean, I trust the Pensworth name more than Starlyte. ...is there a 'Y' in there? I could swear from the way she said it there was a 'Y'..."
"But... but I'm a witch," Sylph insisted. "A witch of grace and power can't be heir to a ballpoint dynasty."
"Why not? You can't be both?"
"Well, uh... I guess I could be, but... why?"
Melvin had a seat on the floor, in front of his new friend.
"I'm probably going to be a witch and an accountant," he explained. "Magic is okay and all, but I want to help my family and my village every way I can. I think that's what Emily wants from us, to be the best we can be. If it was just about learning a bunch of spells to be awesome and stuff, she wouldn't keep saying we need to use it to help people. I bet you could help people write well AND cast spells for them. I think if you put your head to it, you could combine magic with just about anything and make it even better."
And an idea tickled the back of Sylph's mind.
"Ah... I... actually had an idea like that. One I put my head to the other day," she said. "Do you wanna see?"
Melvin gave a shrug. "Okay. What's the idea?"
The field of battle was set.
The great lawns of the Witching Academy were well suited for the path of the warrior. They stretched left to right, across the entire width of the ornate mansion formerly known as the House of the Rising Sun -- a verdant plain, neatly tended to by botanist's magic, conveniently divided into two halves by the bluegrass path leading up to the door.
At one end, a majestic statue of the former Lady Summer, comprised of leaves carved from stone yet somehow hovering in midair, giving shape to the suggestion of a woman. At the other end, in a show of solidarity with their Fae brethren to the north, a slightly less majestic but no less magical statue of the former Lady Winter, stone snowflakes swirled in the shape of the fallen mistress.
Standing in opposition to each other were two witches, on either side of the bluegrass line.
Between them... a younger witch. Holding a cheaply made black and white ball of Eastusa manufacture which was badly in need of more air pressure.
"Okay, so the way Sylph's game works is you have to get the ball past the competition's statue," Gwen explained. "Only you can't use your hands or feet and it's bad form to punch the other person right in the mouth or anything like that. You can only use Animate spells to move the ball. That's why you're wearing sweatbands with the spells printed on 'em. We give you new ones after every goal. Of course, if you suck and you can't score without burning up all your castings, you'll lose that point."
"I'm thinking teams of players, but it can be played one on one," Sylph continued. "Gwen and I tried it out a few times but had to stop when she stepped in a gopher hole and nearly sprained an ankle. I actually wanted to have the whole thing done in the air on broomsticks, but Gwen said that'd just result in witches with broken necks every time we play."
Melvin considered the semi-lumpy ball, studying it intently. "Animate spells..." he thought aloud. "So, the best way to move it around is to imagine kicking or throwing it. Not just carrying it around or flying it around, because it's a ball, and by its nature it'd fight that if you tried it for too long."
"Uh... yeah, we figured that out the hard way," Sylph admitted. "That's sharp thinking. You do take a lot of notes in class, huh?"
"Why do your grades suck so much, then?" Gwen pondered aloud, as was her wont.
"What're you naming this game?" Melvin asked, dodging the question in a not particularly subtle way.
"It's got to be some mystical word of power and majesty," Sylph said. "I'm hoping this will become a new tradition of the Faerie Court, something beautiful and exciting! So, I was thinking... 'Wiccathletics' or 'Arcane Magispheres' or maybe 'Runic Ultra Hexsport'..."
"How about just Witchball?" Melvin suggested. "It's easier to remember."
"Fwee! It is settled!" Gwen declared, raising an arm and blowing on the little whistle she'd brought with her. "The game is to be forever called Witchball, 'cause it's cute and catchy and stuff."
"H-Hey, we didn't all agree to--!"
"The referee's decision is final! My power is absolute!" Gwen declared. "When you're in my house, you play by my rules, little missy -- or you get a yellow card and go in the Agony Booth!"
"We don't HAVE a--"
"Witchball, go!" she declared, tossing the newly christened Witchball into the air...
...which promptly soared right past Sylph's ear, as Melvin mumbled an Animate and slammed it past her.
In a panic, Sylph glanced quickly to her spell-scrawled wristband, to fire up her own Animate on the ball. With two willpowers fighting for control of the ball, it no longer was making a beeline for her goal... instead it bounced against the ground, shifted direction abruptly, spiked straight down, twisted and turned. Rather than floating, the two of them applied sharp shocks of willpower-induced pressure, trying to convince the ball that it really, really wanted to move in the direction they preferred.
The two skittered as best they could on the freshly manicured lawn, following the ball, trying to keep their eyes on it to focus the spells. Both had to recast a few moments later, as they felt their ability to influence the thing waning. Sylph maintained her spell in steady bursts of metaphysical pressure, timing them, trying to use as little as she could get away with...
Meaning that when Melvin had to recast, she didn't. Perfect! The ball gradually made its way towards Melvin's goal at Winter's end of the field, with the boy having to cast and recast again, lacking the finer control of his classmate. No wonder his grades are in the toilet! Sylph thought, with a spot of smugness.
Within a minute, the referee had blown her whistle so loud that it nearly shattered their eardrums. The ball had gone past Lady Winter, while Melvin was distracted by his smoldering, scorched wristband. Nearly all the spell copies had been burned right out of it, the ink that soaked through the cotton having fried itself out.
"Point, Team Summer!" Gwen declared. "New wristbands and back to the center, teams. No dilly dallying or you'll get a delay of game penalty and go into the iron maiden!"
Sylph tugged off the half-burned wrist warmer, pulling a fresh one from her schoolbag. With renewed confidence, she decided to cast a smirk at her opponent.
"What's the matter, boy? All those carefully taken notes not paying off?" she teased...
...and the smile dropped, when she saw Melvin's expression, while he sharply yanked on a fresh wristband.
He was... frustrated. A simple enough look, one grimace plus narrow eyes. But something behind them, something you could feel like an echo, was very discomforting. The opposite of the comforting feeling the witches felt under the stone gaze of the statue in the foyer...
The younger girl paid no mind, of course; she was enjoying being a figure of authority too much. She gave her whistle another razor sharp blow, tossing the lumpy ball back to the skies. "Witchball, g--"
A force so powerful it carved little disc-shaped ripples in the air slammed into the ball, sending it in a perfectly straight line dangerously close to Sylph's left ear, before pounding right through the statue of Lady Summer. The enchantment on the hovering stone leaves was broken in an instant, the statue collapsing to component rocks. The ball kept going, until it was out of sight.
The smell of burning cotton wafted through the air.
When your hand catches on fire, you tend to snap out of whatever strange and scary mood you were in. Melvin's look of pent-up anger was immediately replaced by shrieking panic, so high pitched that it made Sylph wonder about how the whole puberty thing really applied to the boy.
She quickly fetched a bottle of water from her backpack, pouring it over the burning wristband, dousing the flames before they could make contact with his skin. It still left his hand a bit on the pinkish side, but probably easy to hide from the Instructors. All three of them realized in short order that it'd be a tough sell to the infirmary if they had to explain how they were using dangerous magic (if indirectly) against each other with no supervision.
Gwen was the first one to break the silence.
"Is that how you beat the evil witch Salem?" she wondered, since 'tact' was not in her personal word inventory.
Melvin shook out his hand a bit, to return some feeling to it.
"...what happened to the old witches, exactly?" he asked. "The ones like Salem. The Instructors say they were taken care of, but obviously at least one wasn't taken any sort of care of. The Fire Witch. Nobody wants to talk about what happened. Why is that?"
"Err..." Sylph began, unsure how the conversation went here, when she was perfectly willing to say things like 'Are you okay?' and 'I hope you're not hurt' and 'I'm so sorry' rather than discuss one of the school's taboo topics out of the blue. "Nobody really knows. I mean, I heard they were given the same blessing we got, so they can't use dangerous magic anymore, but beyond that..."
"I think they were burned at the stake, or tossed in Witch Jail, or something like that," Gwen suggested. "I mean, they were all really dangerous and mean, just like that Lilith person. I heard they cackled a lot and pushed kids into gingerbread ovens. Old school witches are crazy people like Salem, who burns everybody up. You gotta get rid of crazy people. I think the Queen just doesn't wanna scare us with the gory details, that's all."
"You think they'd do that to us?" Melvin asked. "If we turn out like Salem, I mean. Would they 'take care' of us, too?"
"We're not going to do that!" Sylph insisted. "Look, Melvin... don't worry about these things. We're the good witches."
"Says who? Queen Emily? The old witches were only doing what their queen wanted them to do, too."
"Yes, and their queen... queens were, um. Evil. I mean... they were brutal, at least," she suggested. "A brutal queen means brutal witches. But a good queen means good witches. You're overthinking this stuff..."
She intended the hand on his shoulder to be comforting. It took some effort to reach out and touch it, too -- convincing herself it was okay, and that she wanted him to feel better. But Melvin shrugged it off before Sylph even made contact.
"At least I am thinking about this stuff," he said -- pulling away, and beginning to walk off. Away from the Witching Academy.
Sylph's hand hovered in the air for a moment, before it dropped; and an angry little pout screwed itself onto her lips. "And where are you going, then?" she asked.
"Where I should've gone weeks ago!" he called back, without turning around. "To get some real answers!"
And Melvin was gone.
Gwen's iThing was already open and clicking away in her hands. "Boys are weird," she determined. "This is totally going in my blog."
With two years under new management, New Orleans was starting to come back to life.
The city had been left to rot, as the previous mistress of these lands cared more about her splendid manor than any human relic of the past. But with her slave workforce converted into paid labor overnight, and with the borders between the Faerie Court and Eastusa growing more civil every day, the population had begun to trickle back in. Much as had been done in Florida, the city was being reborn, as a modern hybrid of two worlds.
The first things to re-open were the bars and questionable parlors, of course. The Fae enjoyed libations and debauchery as much as any human, and the traditions of living one's life to the fullest were soon back in full swing in the Big Easy. Then came jazz clubs, now playing strange fusions, as musicians from Eastusa's southern reaches returned and brought with them ancient musical styles, desperate for rebirth.
Stir it all together, let it simmer, and you've got a spicy gumbo.
Of course, the Orbitals shied away. They shyed away from almost everything, beyond the silver walls of their fallen city -- the strange visitors from another world tended to stick to their own kind. However, there were exceptions.
One of them was busy pouring drink after drink from a large bottle into a small glass. His favored speakeasy was well known, which is why when Melvin marched right up to the Arcology and started asking about an engineer with burns on his face, they knew exactly who he was and where he'd wandered off to.
Both of them were strangers in this land, which meant they drew undue attention. The Witching Academy students weren't technically allowed off campus without a chaperone... not that it stopped them from sneaking out now and then to peek around the city. And when someone was walking with purpose, as Melvin had done from the Academy to the Arcology and now to the city proper, nobody wanted to stop them and ask what they were doing. You get out of the way of someone with a walk like that.
The boy pulled up the chair opposite the drinker, and sat down. Then waited to be noticed.
The man with scars took his time before looking up with his one good eye. He finished off his latest shot as he studied the witch-in-training... speaking only when he felt like it.
"I hear they're gonna start carding the humans soon," he mused. "Just like Eastusa. 'cause you kids keep coming down here and sneaking drinks when the teachers aren't looking. Naughty kids. But hey, that's just how witches are, right? You want me to buy you a drink, or something?"
"I want to talk to you about a witch," Melvin began.
The Orbital sat back in his rickety wooden chair, which threatened to collapse under his dead weight.
"That'd be Salem," he recognized. "After all, you're the Boy Who Didn't Die. Rumors travel, kid. You're the only one to encounter Salem without getting fried... except, well. That's an exaggeration, you know. As an Orbital, I should be precise with my words and sound in my logic, they say. Plenty of others have survived one of Salem's pyromania episodes -- like me. More or less. So. Who told you I had a run-in with her?"
"That's not important right now. What I want to know is what happened," Melvin explained. "What you were trying to do to her... under Queen Emily's orders?"
"Why not ask her directly? I hear the Queen's surprisingly honest and open about things. Except when she isn't."
"I'd rather hear it from you, first. It'd be a better starting point."
"Pragmatic," the engineer decided. "Good. Hear multiple viewpoints, create a cohesive accounting, filter out bias. The higher in the food chain, the more likely one is to nudge the truth to protect their standing. I'm as low as it gets, so I've got no reason to lie. Just a Biologist Engineer. Not even a full on Biologist. I simply work the machines for them..."
"What happened the night Salem burned you, sir?"
"Sir. I like that. Respect for elders. But why do you care?" he asked. "You're the future, she's the past. Everybody looks to the future. The new witches are supposed to be less wild and uncontrollable. They're obsolete relics compared to you, completely outside the scope of your training..."
"And nobody wants to talk about it, and what Queen Emily really did with them," Melvin pointed out. "I want the truth. Why is it such a sensitive topic? All we know is she 'helped' them, somehow."
"Oh, she helped them," the Biologist Engineer agreed. "The problem is, some of them, well... they didn't want to be helped. Or couldn't be helped. Boy, what happened with Salem was pretty straightforward -- we tried neural resequencing to re-order her damaged synapses, she resisted, broke out, nearly burned the medical ward down. It's not exactly a state secret. No, the reason nobody likes to talk about the old witches, and the reason why I drink, is because of the other ones. The ones we failed."
Evading the Instructors and the other students on his way back to his room wasn't difficult, because he simply didn't bother. He could hear whispers, as he walked along, but didn't care. Not with the other thoughts bouncing around in his head.
He should've looked up the Orbital long ago. The magic, the classes, the daily routine... Melvin got caught up in it all, and stalled out the reason he'd come here in the first place. Not to make friends, not to play Witchball, not to learn how to cast Magic Missile. Not even to ponder being a witch-accountant. Just distractions, all of it.
A piece of paper was drawn, and a fresh ballpoint in his hand within moments of entering his solitary 'dorm' room. It was time to write a letter, then to pack up and go home. Enough. Put it all aside, and get on with his life...
He'd ignored all the whispers.
He could have ignored the screaming, if he wanted to.
Not his problem, not his purpose. Nothing to him. He didn't have to do anything about it...
The ballpoint rolled off his desk and clattered to the ground a moment after his door slammed shut behind him.
With purpose, he sprinted down the hallway, towards the screams. A cluster of trainee witches, surrounding something... he nudged his way through -- to see a young girl, twitching and thrashing on the damp carpet in front of the communal drinking fountain.
"She... she was just going to get a drink before bed," Sylph explained... her skin pale, even moreso than usual, as she looked on in horror. "And then we heard her choking and gurgling--"
"She's drowning," Melvin recognized, quickly getting down to his knees and starting chest compressions. "I recognize it. My cousin nearly drowned in the river near our village... Gwen, can you look up how to do CPR? I barely remember from a book I read years ago..."
With a short clatter of keys, Gwen had a step by step guide up on the tiny screen of her iThing. She turned it around, to show him. "She can't really be drowning, can she?" the girl asked. "I mean... she was just getting a drink of water..."
Considerably more than a few swallows of water were oozing out of her mouth, as Melvin went through the step-by-steps. If not for being indoors and the nearest body of water being a swamp half a mile away, the girl would've doubled nicely for someone who fell out of a boat at sea and nearly inhaled half the ocean. The gathered crowd of onlookers watched in stunned silence, as Gwen and Melvin worked together, trying to clear her airway, trying to get all the tapwater out of her lungs...
The rasping gurgle of a clearing airway sounded alongside the heavy footfalls of a horde of Instructors... led by Queen Emily herself, wearing an expression of concern. Two elvish healers were at Melvin's side in a flash, nudging the boy away, so they could take over using specialized healing spells -- glowing hands of blue making passes over the girl's body, driving out the remaining water.
Instructor Illyria clapped twice, for attention.
"Well done, students. You all get high marks for being swift to take action and, more importantly, swift to summon proper authorities when in a difficult situation," she declared. "We will take over from here. Please, disperse back to your dorm rooms for the evening."
Sylph tried to speak up. "But she was just getting a drink--"
"We will address the class in the morning, thank you. You've done very well. Please disperse to your dorm rooms for the evening."
"But how could she--"
"Ahem. Disperse, please."
In short order, the girl was levitated away by the healers, and the squadron of adults had vanished down the darkened hallways of the Witching Academy. Dispersing followed, as there was nothing left to see... save for three.
"...it doesn't make any sense," Sylph said. "It's an ordinary drinking fountain, nothing magical about it that could've gone wrong. I mean, I've taken a little water down the wrong pipe sometimes by accident, but you start coughing it up right away... you don't just keep pouring it in like that...!"
"Maybe she was really thirsty?" Gwen suggested.
"Nobody's THAT thirsty. I bet someone hexed the water fountain. Maybe some evil Faerie who hates Queen Emily. Or it could've been another student. There's always some evil kid in magic school, that's how it works. I still say we should've had a talking hat that sorts us into an Evil House and a Good House... okay. Look. We've got to follow them. I bet if we... I know! This house has secret passages, right? It used to be a gambling house, and people had to sneak in and out without anyone noticing. Can we--"
"Got some maps," Gwen declared, after a rapid series of clicks on her iThing. "I can find anything, even Faerie stuff. I know where to look on the net. We can sneak around and... oh, right, Melvin's still standing here, isn't he? We may need to beat him up and throw him in a closet so he doesn't tell on us, since he doesn't like us anymore and yelled at us and stuff."
The girls looked at the boy, hopefully without intent to gang up and beat him down.
It wasn't his problem, of course. He got what he came here for and didn't really have to stay.
"I'll come with you," he said, instead.
"You didn't really know her," Sylph pointed out. "She's our friend, not yours. ...you don't really know us, either. So you don't have to risk breaking school rules for us..."
"I don't care. I'm not the kind of guy to sit back when someone's in trouble and needs help," Melvin asserted. "And I don't care about the rules. I do what needs doing. ...and I wanted to apologize to you two, anyway. I was... well, I was a jerk earlier when I ran out on your game. I'm sorry. I'll tell you where I went once we've got some time; but for now, let's get moving. Where's the secret passage?"
Being a former house of ill repute, the Witching Academy was riddled with secret passages. Many of them, particularly ones that led towards Emily's chambers, had been sealed up by the head of security, a semi-creepy guy named Scout... but apparently others were considered useful enough by the staff to be left open for business. Including the ones that led to crawlspaces underneath the great foyer.
They'd followed the sounds of footsteps. The lightest of them belonged to the healing mages, coupled with a light buzzing of their magics in action... they moved on to the makeshift infirmary room, formerly a secondary kitchen of the house. But after a quick whispered strategy session, the trio decided it'd be better to follow Queen Emily, if they wanted to overhear anything about what was going on. And thus: the great foyer.
It was difficult to hear through the thin slabs of stone above them, within the dark crawlspaces. Honestly, the passages were made for a Fae noble to escape notice when moving through the house, not for three kids to scrabble around in the dark. A few misplaced hands had resulted in some awkward moments, but fortunately, the destination made the trouble worth it.
"This whole thing smacks of an elemental binding, doesn't it?" Emily's voice sounded, echoing from above the crawlspace.
"That would be my assessment, yes," a gravelly yet oddly pleasantly pitched voice replied. It didn't seem to match any of the Instructors... but from here, the three couldn't sneak a peek. Only a listen.
"We knew this'd pop up eventually. Scout keeps saying we have bigger concerns to worry about, but... I don't know. I take it personally. I wanted them dealt with, and we haven't dealt with them very well, have we? After all, Salem's at large."
...Melvin shuddered, once. Sylph tried to see his face, through the dark, but didn't dare whisper anything to the boy.
"What if she's working with Ophelia?" Emily asked her unknown advisor. "This drowning looks like Ophelia's work. The two of them could be scouting to prepare for a larger attack on the school at Lilith's behest. If Salem hadn't escaped before we could finish with her, we wouldn't be in this mess."
"I don't see the two of them working together," the advisor said, with certainty. "Not any more than I could easily work with Ariel. Oppositional elements don't mix well."
"But neither Salem nor Ophelia are in their right minds. Couldn't that get them past any natural animosity?"
"My Queen, you're seeing conspiracy where logically there can be none. If this is Ophelia, she would be acting alone. This isn't Salem's style, anyway. Salem's pyromania is... difficult for her to control. If she wanted to attack you or attack the Academy she would, in an all-out onslaught of flame. She would not stay back and let Ophelia assassinate."
"...fine, fine. You know more about them than I do. So. If it's Ophelia, how do we stop her?"
"We can't," the unknown voice declared, firm as rock.
"Water is everywhere, my Queen. It's the element of life," the voice spoke, with some reverence. "Water is in the ground, the sky, even in your blood. If Ophelia the Water Witch goes on the offensive, we may not be able to do much to stop her, short of some counter-elemental approach."
"Dammit. I just LOVE inheriting Lilith's problems, you know? Her little hit squad of witchy sociopaths. One of these days we are going to fully stamp out that fire--"
And Melvin's head bumped into the stone tiles above.
"--wait. What was that?"
Go! Sylph mouthed silently, barely visible in the gloom. As quickly as possible (which was not quickly at all), the three did their best to silently crawl away, to avoid notice...
The voice behind them spoke calmly and simply. "It was nothing of importance, my Queen," she suggested. And then they were far behind, and gone.
Given nobody came to the girl's dorms or the only-boy's room to kick them out of school, apparently their nocturnal scurrying about ultimately went unnoticed. Still, the three conspirators were practically on tiptoes all day, very careful not to draw too much attention to themselves in or out of class.
In hushed whispers over lunch, as they nibbled on unusually filling elvish breads, they agreed that it was worth the risk of being seen researching things in the library. Specifically, researching "elemental binding." It was undoubtedly a subject that the Academy didn't want them to look into, and odds were low that the library would have anything useful, but it was worth a look in case some hint was lying between pressed pages as to what was really going on.
It turned out their caution was unfounded. The librarian on duty had to be at least a hundred and twelve, an elder Fae who was too busy catnapping to bother peering over their shoulders to make sure they weren't nose deep in a tome of forbidden knowledge. And unfortunately, their earlier guess about the usefulness of the library was correct. It was useless.
The Academy used to be a gambling house, and as such, it didn't have a vast library of arcane scrolls and grimoires to begin with. Any mystic texts had to be imported by Queen Emily as part of her overall design of the Witching Academy... and given the "magic library" consisted of three and a half shelves of harmless if dense texts on arcanist theory, rune interpretation, and history books, there was nothing here even remotely interesting much less remotely dangerous. The library had come pre-censored in the form of selective stocking.
Still, Melvin and Sylph spent an hour after afternoon classes pouring over whatever seemed relevant... history textbooks, mostly. Tales of Fae mages gone by who performed various amazing deeds of power and wisdom, et cetera, et cetera. And while plenty of them hurled around fireballs or parted the seas, there wasn't a single mention of "elemental binding," whatever that was.
In fact, there were hardly any mentions of witches at all. Witchcraft, the art of humans practicing magic under Fae tutelage, was a recent practice -- invented in the last two hundred years. Anything that recent apparently wasn't worth committing to paper. Either that, or nobody had bothered translating it to english. While the Fae had a penchant for languages and eventually came to speak this continent's dominant tongue out of habit, most of their writings remained in the same similarly twisted runic text that spells were written in.
Irritated, Melvin shoved a book across the table, where it slid to a halt next to a stack of similarly discarded books.
"There's nothing here," he concluded. "Nothing about elemental binding, nothing worth note at all. This is supposed to be a school of magic; why do we have a glorified kiddie corner for a library?"
"There's a fiction shelf with some well written legends from both worlds off to the side," Sylph suggested. "We could look through there, if the histories aren't telling us anything. Although last time I poked through there to find a vampire romance book all I found was one where someone had scribbled in the margins things like 'That's wrong' and 'It doesn't work that way' and 'How dumb can she be?' and so on..."
"They don't trust us," Melvin said, leaning heavily against the table, fatigue starting to settle in. "That's what this is about. They wiped away any evidence of previous witchcraft because Emily wants a fresh start -- but they don't trust us to start out right. So we get drip-fed magic... drip-fed everything. Like last night. Only reason we knew this was an old enemy coming home to roost is because we eavesdropped! If people like Illyria had their way we'd be chained to our beds and blindfolded any time we weren't learning the specified course agenda."
"Well... it's not like knowing this 'Ophelia' person attacked the school would help anyone," Sylph reminded. "There are younger kids than us here. Why scare them with things they can't do anything about?"
"We could do something if we were prepared. Armed. Ready. I mean, that's what this is about, right? Learning how to help our homes and our families. Emily says a modern witch is someone who meddles for the right cause, who can't sit idly by when someone needs help. How can we help if we're kept in the dark about the troubles magic can cause?"
"This is really about where you went yesterday, isn't it?"
Melvin belatedly realized he was angrily drumming his fingers on the desk, and stopped the instant that question was dropped.
"You got angry when we were talking about the old witches... then you yelled at us and ran off," Sylph reminded him. "And, well, yes, you apologized when you got back, but... you also said you'd tell us what was going on. ...this is about Salem, isn't it? The old-style witch who attacked your village, the one you defeated."
The boy leaned back as the girl leaned forward, one table between them. Even as his eyes went to the side, she pressed on.
"I know what the others say about me. They think I'm silly, that I changed my name and I wear a fancy dress because I've got my head in the clouds," she admitted. "Well, I do love the mystique of the Fae, and I'll admit... I wanted to learn magic because it sounded amazing. Fantastic! --but that doesn't mean I don't pay attention to how things are. Gwen hasn't cornered the market on blunt observations. And I think I know why you're upset about all this--"
"An elemental binding is an experimental process through which a mage is granted total control over one of the four elements."
The third of the group had apparently entered the library unnoticed, until now. She held in her hands the answers they sought -- but not in paper form. She was reading from her iThing's digital screen.
"The binding is rarely successful, and even when it is, the mage is irreversibly transformed by the element in question, forever taking on natural aspects of the element," she continued to read aloud. "As spells which manipulate the four elements of fire, air, earth and water are readily available and quite powerful, there is no reason to perform the rite of elemental binding."
A chair was pulled out, and the younger girl hopped up into it, setting her beloved networked gadget on the table. She flattened out the clamshell case, so her friends could better see its screen.
"Elemental binding sounds really stupid. There's hundreds and hundreds of elements, but you don't see anybody binding someone to tungsten or carbon," Gwen pointed out. "And fire's not an element, it's a chemical reaction. And water's a molecule. And air's a bunch of different things all mixed together. Faeries don't seem to get how the world works, huh?"
Perplexed, Sylph rotated the plastic gizmo, to better see the screen. "Gwen...? Where did you find this information?"
"Oh, my online friend emailed it to me," she explained. "I've got a lot of friends 'cause of my blog. There's a buncha information out there about magic, if you know where to look. Some of it's even written by Queen Emily. Did you know she used to run a website called Witchipedia? She stopped maintaining it, though. That's stupid. You've gotta keep adding stuff if you want people to visit and tell you how awesome you are."
The boy considered this. "So... elemental binding gives a mage control over an element-- I mean, the classic magic 'elements', not stuff like radium. Which a Faerie wouldn't need, since they can cast as much magic as they want without their brains turning into toothpaste. But a human..."
"A human without the need to cast spells could be powerful as heck!" Sylph finished. "That's why Lilith did it to some of her old witches. It'd work around the brain damage problem. ...although from the sounds of it, witches like Salem and Ophelia still went kind of nuts..."
"It's the fire," Melvin guessed. "This says they take on the natural aspects of the element. What do they keep saying in our classes? Everything has a nature, and fighting against it is an uphill battle. So, fire, hmm... it burns. It consumes. It's chaotic. And it's very hard to stop..."
"A fire witch would be totally evil," Gwen said.
"Not evil. Just... chaotic," he insisted. "Like fire. Salem doesn't burn villages down because she's evil, she's just... she can't stop herself. Fire consumes. I mean, the elements aren't evil by nature -- a rock isn't evil. The Atlantic Ocean isn't evil."
"People can be evil. Like that weird guy in all the old war media with the little moustache," Gwen suggested, covering her upper lip with her pinky finger. "An elemental witch can still take an ordinary thing like a rock and hit someone over the head with it."
"Then... why would Ophelia attack a student?" Melvin wondered. "It's not just because she's watery. There has to be a motive..."
The three sat in silence, considering the puzzle before them. And would have considered it further, if the silence had actually been silence, and not just the absence of their heated discussion.
Now that nobody was talking... other sounds could be noticed. Not from within the library, other than perhaps the snoring of the octogenarian librarian, but certainly sounds echoing in the hallway beyond.
Flashlights were being distributed. A few of the Fae had brought their own lanterns or were using staves with Light spells on them, but Queen Emily herself was busy checking the batteries on one of those massive hand-held lamp flashlights, the kind normally used by FBI agents looking for aliens in old media.
"Team A hits the swamps. Team B, the levees," she was explaining. "Scout's on assignment south of the border, so Elriel, we'll need you here guarding the Academy. Just in case. We--"
"What's going on out here?"
It was Melvin who spoke up first. The gathered Instructors and other Academy staff noticed them for the first time, emerging from the library. Glances were exchanged... unsure of what to say, precisely. So, Instructor Illyria took charge, as before.
"There is no need for alarm," she spoke. "Please return to your dorms. The situation is under control--"
"What's going on out here?" Melvin repeated... completely ignoring the Fae, and keeping his eyes locked on Emily's.
The queen paused to clear her throat. "We're dealing with the problem. It's fine, Melvin. Just--"
"What. Is going on," he repeated. "I think we have a right to know."
"Are you actively seeking expulsion, young man?" Illyria asked, narrowing her eyes. "We are your Instructors, boy. If you wish to continue learning at this Academy, for your own safety, you will obey the instructions of the Instructors!"
He was about to voice something very ill-considered... when the queen beat him to the punch.
"One of the older kids went missing," Emily explained, while flicking her lamp's switch a few times, to make sure it was working. "Janey Suen. It could be nothing or it could be related to the attack last night. We are on top of it, and no, you can't join the search party. You're better off at the Academy, for your safety -- and I mean that not in terms of running and hiding under the bed, but in terms of you and the other witches watching each other's backs if the fight comes to our doorstep. You need to be here, in particular... and I think you know why."
They were with her, until that last note. At that, only two people in the room understood... the speaker, and the one spoken to. Others, Instructor and witch alike, looked on in confusion...
Emily attached her flashlight to her belt, opposite the holster that held her spellbook. Uncaring of the unusual looks they were getting, naturally. "So. This is what it comes down to," she spoke. "Meddling for the right cause... but intelligently and responsibly. Not charging off half cocked, but letting me do my job while you do yours. Can you do that for me, Melvin Tinker? Can you and yours take a witches stand when need be? If not... door's that way. After all, you already got what you came for from that poor drunken bastard. I won't hold you to any obligation."
...the boy swallowed his frustration. His nervousness, that was a bit harder to swallow.
"I'll do what I can, if I gotta," he promised.
"All I can ask for," Emily spoke, before turning back to her posse. "Alright, folks, let's get this wagon train rolling. Sooner we sweep the sooner we can get back, and damned if I'm going to bed late without a cup of tea and a warm bath."
Soon, the adults were down the hall and out of sight... leaving behind one Instructor, and the kids. Kids, who were now the watchdogs of the Witching Academy, by default.
Instructor Elriel cleared his throat. "Ah. So. Well. I suppose we'd best keep an eye out, mm?" he said. "The will of the Faerie Queen be done. We'll start walking the halls. But if you see anything strange... don't act. Run and find me. Alright?"
He gave a worried little smile, before departing, slinking down the darkened hallway.
A bright point of light flickered into existence, as Gwen's iThing snapped open. "I'll get a blueprint of the House of the Rising Sun, so we can make a patrol route," she said. "My online friend found me a map before I got here, I memorized it good. I can make some printouts, if you want. The embedded printer's kinda tiny, but--"
"Before we go playing guard duty, we've got a stop to make," Melvin interjected. "I want to know more about what we're guarding against."
"Uh... I'd assume it's Ophelia the Water Witch," Sylph suggested. "You know, like we've been talking about...?"
"And we still don't know how to stop her if she does attack. But... I may have an idea. One I'd prefer to run by one of her peers. We're going to the grand foyer first. ...um, how good are you two at Animate spells? My control with them is terrible, y'know..."
By all rights, the Witching Academy should've been dark and sinister and spooky, on this night of ambiguous dangers and unseen enemies. Which is why Melvin took care to light every candle they came across on the way to the great foyer. While it didn't provide daylight levels of illumination, at least they could see where they were going properly -- as well as where they had been. That meant they would presumably not be ambushed by some creeping aquatic horror creeping up from behind. It would have to ambush from the front, which was admittedly only a marginal improvement.
The chandelier above the foyer, however, was well out of reach and unable to be lit. That meant tense and spooky was the order of the evening, as he marched up to the central statue... the stone witch, overlooking the students as they wandered about the mansion.
"I thought about it after we snuck away last night," Melvin explained, walking around the statue, studying it intently. "And now it makes a lot more sense who Emily was talking to. There's probably four elemental witches, right? Water and fire we know about... so, there's also air and earth. Earth meaning stone."
Sylph cocked her head, curiously... brushing one hand over the pedestal of the statue. "You can't mean... seriously? I mean, seriously?"
"Look, we all feel safe with her around, don't we? Nobody talks about it because it sounds silly, but... what if there's a reason for that? Anyway, it's worth a try. If I'm wrong, well... it'd be an Animate rock under your control. No harm done."
Gwen raised a finger. "Or, it could go crazy and destroy the mansion. Grah! Statue smash! Me want date handsome boy statue! And stuff."
But her friend was already seeing the possibilities... stepping away from the statue, to take her training spellbook from its holster at her side. "A witch who is a statue... animated by magic. That's got a certain, well... fairy tale magic to it. I like it. You're right, it's worth a try. And Gwen, don't worry, I can cut out the spell before it rampages anywhere. I'm good with this spell... okay, okay, page twenty, copy seven... . ...do you think I need to do anything el--"
"It's about time."
Despite the kids knowing this was coming, the grinding of the statue as it stretched its limbs was alarming enough to nearly turn the white underwear with their names stitched into them yellow.
The statue 'unkinked' her arms, leaning this way and that, flexing her rocky elbows. Which was impossible, given a solid hunk of earth and stone doesn't have joints, and the statue still looked like one seamless sculpture... even if that sculpture happened to reshape itself moment to moment, subtly, to mimic the human experience. It turned colorless eyes to Melvin, studying him, before it resumed speaking in a voice like sand through a sieve.
"I was wondering when you'd pay me a visit. And you're welcome," she added.
Melvin took one step backwards, involuntarily. "...um... for what?"
"For me covering your bungle when Emily almost heard you in the floor. I could feel you there. I can feel everyone inside the structure. Comes from being a part of it, ninety eight percent of the time."
"Ah. So... you're one of Lilith's four elemental witches? I was right?"
"Oh, yes," the statue spoke, its carved lips curling into a sneaky little smile. "That's me. Call me Sandy Stone, because it's funny and I like funny things. Lilith turned me into stone during an experiment to bind me to the element of earth."
Gwen felt the need to comment. "Earth's not an element, unless you mean zinc and sulfur and--"
"Yes, yes, I know," Sandy spoke, with a dismissive wave. "Believe me, I know more about zinc than your mind can possibly comprehend. I am one with the Earth. It is my nature... humanity is gone to me. But I remember humanity, and I like humanity, and so I was willing to aid Emily. That is my will. Not the Earth's will. The elements are neutral in all things."
(The young girl considered protesting this affront to centuries of established physical sciences, but decided to pout and watch the gathering clouds outside the window instead.)
The statue turned back to the boy, studying him once more. "I know of Earth... and I know of you, Melvin Tinker. I know why you are in this academy."
"Right now, we're here about Ophelia," Melvin deflected. "She's out there, somewhere. She might attack Emily. She might attack the Academy. We don't know what she wants, or why she's doing these things, but... we need to be ready for the worst. Witches are always prepared. Now, you told Emily that it'd take a counter-element to stop her...?"
"Oh, yes. Lilith selected us to be elevated over the others in our Academy... each of us having some faint tie to an element, by lineage. It's not as uncommon as you'd think. The Archmagus made her new creatures well, even if we weren't quite what she was expecting," Sandy explained. "Well... all of us save Salem, far too twisted around Lilith's little finger to start with. The other three, our power was beyond her control. We did as we pleased, went rogue; she couldn't catch us. Other than me, I mean. That's the problem with being inanimate, you can be put in a musty basement and forgotten..."
"If the elemental witches are that powerful, then how do we defend ourselves against Ophelia?"
"You don't," Sandy informed him, simply. "You can't, Melvin Tinker. You aren't strong enough yet. Certainly not you, Polly Pensworth, or little Gwen Berners-Lee. Far too young, far too inexperienced... and muzzled as all the new witches are, by your overprotective mentor. ...but YOU know who could counter Ophelia's wrath... don't you, Boy Who Didn't Die?"
A led to B led to C, as Sylph's mind made the jump. "Salem! The Fire Witch. Fire versus water! She could stop Ophelia! ...but, uh, that doesn't do us much good, given she almost killed Melvin and--"
"Leave Salem out of this," Melvin spoke -- fiercely, despite the unnerving nature of the stone witch. "The point is, we'll need fire. Fire versus water, like she said. So we've got to find some way to use fire to defend the house. Without burning it down, I mean..."
A tapping sounded against the glass of the window... from Gwen's fingers, as she tried to catch their attention. "Guys? Hey, guys?"
"Maybe you could do it. I mean... I think you've got to have some sort of latent mastery over fire. You nearly burned off your wristband when we were playing Witchball," Sylph pointed out. "Is that how you defeated Salem in the first place? If the elemental witches are really this strong, then someone who didn't even have any witchy training at the time couldn't have countered her--"
"What we need to do is dig a trench around the Academy, and make... like... a moat of fire, or something," Melvin suggested, making a hoop shape with his hands. "I don't know if we have enough time, and, um, I have no idea how to make a moat of fire and we don't know any fire based spells since all they teach us is how to Mend someone's trousers, but--"
"What!?" two voices echoed, turning to face the window...
...as water streamed down it, forking in paths, rejoining, flowing in large droplets.
"It's... it's raining," Gwen pointed out, tapping the glass... while holding up her iThing. "And according to weather.com, it's not supposed to be raining. This is magic rain. I think Ophelia's already here..."
Water, dripping down a glass pane. Snaking, pathing, moving around the imperfections in the glass... curving into an oval shape, joined at the top, and the bottom. Two drops, to form eyes. Eyes that seek, a single drop falling between them for a nose, and--
"!!" Sylph screamed, a single page burning away from her already open spellbook. Wooden shutters slammed shut on that twisted face, the tall slats designed to buttress the windows against the Gulf storms New Orleans was famous for. ", , ... guys, hurry, Animate! We've got to shut this place down!"
The three moved fast, spellbooks out and at the ready. The girls were swift in action and efficient, wooden panels swinging on old hinges, latching shut perfectly... Melvin's shutters wobbled and closed more slowly, as he struggled to get his Will under control, even if the Word was so perfectly inscribed in his book with fine Pensworth ballpoint ink.
Soon, the great foyer was shuttered. Leaving only the dozens and dozens of other windows across the front of the mansion unprotected. And the pipes, the indoor plumbing Lady Morgana had installed to ensure her clients could enjoy decadent human-style baths. And perhaps even the office water cooler in the Instructor's lounge Queen Emily had shipped in from Eastusa...
"We can't drive her off like this," Melvin realized. "What do we do? Sandy, what do we...?"
The statue had fallen silent, again. The Animate spell which gave her temporary life had faded when Sylph refocused her willpower on the windows... leaving the witch of earth in a curious position, one hand under her hip, leaning forward to watch the scenario unfold. She seemed more curious than concerned.
"W... we need to call Instructor Elriel," Sylph said. "He'll know what to do. He'll be able to protect us..."
"The guy's like over nine thousand years old," Gwen noted. "I'm pretty sure the Water Witch could snap him like a twig. Maybe we should run for it? I mean... what else can we do?"
Can you and yours take a witches stand when need be? she'd told him.
Melvin straightened his back, and wiped some sweat from his brow. "She knew..." he mumbled. "Dammit. She KNEW I'd have to... --Gwen, go find Elriel, tell him what's going on. Sylph, gather up all the girls and move them into my bedroom."
"I KNEW he wanted to steal our underwears and peek at us in the nuddy!" Gwen exclaimed.
"Gah! No, no! My room is internal, deeper within the mansion," Melvin added, quickly. "And away from the windows. They'll be safer in there than in the girl's dorm rooms along the outer wall. Hurry! Go!"
Sylph hesitated. "Okay, but... but what are you going to be doing?"
With as much willpower as he could muster... Melvin drew a Pensworth ballpoint from his pocket protector, and clenched it in a fist of determination.
"I'm going to write a letter," he declared.
He kicked in the door to the classroom. Which was probably a stupid gesture, given it wasn't locked and now his foot hurt like hell, but Melvin Tinker was running on adrenaline now and kicking in doors is what you do at times like these. All the media said so. Gwen and Sylph would probably approve.
Paper. He needed paper. He'd stupidly filled his entire spellbook with spells, leaving no blank pages -- testament to his thoroughness, if not foresight. He could've written on the back of a page, but didn't want any magic interfering in the letter. Probably wouldn't matter, but not worth the risk. For what he intended to do, he'd want a fresh, clean sheet of paper. And that's why he was glad that the class on scribing spells was on the first floor of the house, nice and close to the foyer.
He grabbed the nearest blank sheet, and uncapped his pen. (No retractables. A retractable will fail on you, break at the worst moment, leaving you with a flimsy plastic rod of ink and a busted spring. A capped pen will not dry out and will never let you down.)
I found your answer, and it's yes, the offer was sincere. They made some mistakes in the past but it's okay now. Look, I'm so sorry, I really didn't want to have to do this, but we've got a life or death situation here and
--and he didn't have time to write a six page essay here. So, he jumped down a line or so, summarized in two words, and then folded up the paper nice and neat. And, of course, capped his pen. You don't leave a good pen behind.
On leaving the classroom, he searched left and right for the nearest candle-- no. Not good enough, not fast enough. He'd need a fireplace. There would be one at the end of the hall, that would work.
Except that someone was between him and the fireplace. Someone hard to see, considering they were completely transparent.
It was a bit like the floating statues of Lady Winter and Lady Summer, in the front yard... shapes of women, suggesting an outline and a form, without any true detail. A hovering cloud of water, droplets and puddles, as if in zero gravity. Just like the documentaries on space travel coming out of Florida these days... something which should not be possible on the gravity-thick planet surface. But then again, magic by nature was the impossible...
'Your water is familiar, boy,' Ophelia the water witch spoke, like a burbling stream... one running over with pollution and slime, only flowing in chunks and bubbles. 'Your blood smells foul.'
Melvin tucked the written letter deeper into his hand, to conceal it.
"Wh... what do you want?" he asked, failing to sound confident as he confronted her. "Why are you here?"
'To drown this place. To wash it out to sea,' Ophelia declared... her arms spread wide, droplets falling and soaking the carpet beneath her. 'To be certain... to flood all of New Orleans, as was done in ages of old. Destroy the Faerie Queen's brood. No more. No more like you. No more like me. Never again another child ruined for the sake of magic...'
"...that's it?" Melvin asked, with genuine surprise. "But... no, wait, you don't understand! Witches aren't like that anymore! Emily's not Lilith. She's not making people into weapons!"
'Magic twists. Magic murders. Pounding, always, in your head...'
"They can fix that now. They have ways," he continued, seeing an opportunity here, a chance to talk her down. "They... won't do it unless you ask them to, not anymore. But even the old witches can find some peace here if they're willing to try. Emily's seen to that. She could help you! She's not your enemy!"
'We were her enemies. You honestly believe her peaceful, ash-boy? The new Queen, generous to the tools of her old nemesis?'
Melvin let out a deep breath... and spoke the truth. "Yes. I've learned that, since coming here. She's not perfect, but... she's sincere about tending to the wounds of the past. We're putting all the pain behind us. Humans, Fae, witches, whatever. This is the Second Age."
One single moment. Water flowing through the fibers of the rug, the fireplace backlighting through her form, as Melvin waited to see how this moment in time would resolve...
...and the water seemed to... harden. The dripping ceased.
'...no. Can't stop. Not when I've come this far. The river has momentum, it flows with the currents. Distracting the Queen, opening a leak into her stronghold, it took too much of me to stop now. I must finish this. The flow pushes me onward...'
He pounded his feet against the carpet as hard as he could. There was a water witch between him and the fireplace, but he could make it, he could get past her. Maybe even slam straight through her, if he had to -- mustn't get the paper wet, musn't--
Blood. Blood is mostly water.
He'd gotten within three feet of her before he felt his veins harden. Is was the most painful experience of his life, to date. The scream didn't come; he couldn't scream. His muscles were fighting against it, desperate, but they were slipping away moment by moment... the sprint to the fireplace becoming a staggering slump up against the hallway wall, underneath a one of the candles he'd lit only minutes before...
He could reach up, get to the flame. But it was such a little flame, it wouldn't do at all. She'd notice. She'd catch on, and stop him. There was only one option, and it wasn't within reach. Every moment he spent trying to think his way out of this, his blood became more and more a plaything of Ophelia. Already the edges of his vision were starting to go black...
Then the center of his vision went red.
Ophelia screamed, thrashing, as a cloud of red particles swarmed through her 'body' of water. She recoiled, curling away, throwing up a shield of liquid which did nothing to stop the onslaught of...
...dessert? The sweet smell in the air...
Quickly, Melvin's body reasserted control of itself. At the very least, he could turn his head... to see Gwen and Sylph there, armed with bags and bags of strawberry gelatin powder. The same snack they were enjoying at lunch yesterday, now corrupting Ophelia's form and turning her into jelly. It would've been comical if hadn't come so close to an agonizing death moments before...
"Melvin, hurry!!" Sylph shouted to him. "This isn't going to distract her long...!"
His feet reasserted themselves as master of their footy domain, as he staggered down the hallway, past the girls. Towards the roaring fireplace. Pull back his hand, crumpling the letter into a little wad, and... hurl it into the flames.
An explosion of powder and gelatin burst from the middle of the hallway, Ophelia ridding herself of the parts of her that had been tainted. Only pure water remained -- water with the anger of a rain goddess, slamming like a fire hose, blasting the two girls off their feet. The Water Witch then ignored her fallen tormenters, making a beeline for the boy in front of the fireplace...
She didn't get a chance to say anything, to act. The fire behind him exploded. Fortunately, Melvin had the forethought to hit the deck... pressed down to the rug, as the figure stepped forth from the flames, her ragged and burnt dress trailing ash and soot from the fire with her.
Salem the Fire Witch coiled the flames that wreathed her body, twisting them around her shoulders, her arms, gathering a ball of infernal wrath into each outstretched palm.
"...you," the pyromaniac exile spoke, the word like ash in her mouth.
'You...?' Ophelia burbled...
Salem's scream of rage filled the hallway, accompanied by the roar of her inner flame.
"Leave my brother alone!!"
The sound of shattering glass and plaster replaced the screaming in short order.
Her tears fell like tiny embers on the basement floor. All the screaming beyond the burnt out husk that was once her family home was her fault. All of it.
"I didn't know where else to go," she'd explained, while trying to wipe away her red-hot tears. "I, I thought, I thought if I came home, at least mother and father could accept me back. I know I was a bad girl. I ran away from home. They didn't know I went to Lilith's school, though. They didn't know what I'd become. I just want to be Sarah Tinker again, not 'Salem'..."
He'd ignored the oppressive heat, the radiating waves of it coming off her body. He'd chased her down here, into the basement, once he recognized who the figure wreathed in shadow and smoke that had all but destroyed the village truly was. And he wasn't going to run away now.
"I heard that Queen Emily's a human," Melvin said. "She might be able to help you--"
"I tried that!!" Salem exclaimed. "They tried to heal me. I got scared. I do what I always do when I get scared! I burned everything. This man, this engineer, I burned his face. I didn't want to! ...she wouldn't take me back now. She hated Lilith so much. We hated her, Lilith taught us to hate her, to laugh at her, and... and she'd kill me. Emily would kill me. I can't go back... now what? Where do I go? What do I do?! I should die. I should just die, I'm no good to anyone, nothing can help me--"
"No! No, Sarah, don't say that, please... look, it's... I'm going to figure this out," Melvin promised, grasping her hands... ignoring the feeling of grabbing a hot kettle off the oven. "I'll... I know. I'll go to Emily's school. I'll find out what new witches are like, and what they're doing with the old ones. I'll write you letters every day. And I'll make sure it's safe there! ...and... if it's safe... will you go get help from her?"
All she could do was nod. There weren't any more words left in her.
One figure fled into the night. The other was hailed as the Boy Who Didn't Die, the only one to survive a direct encounter with the evil Salem the Fire Witch. A boy who suddenly expressed great feigned interest in learning how to be a witch.
Sylph's head felt like it had been kicked in by a herd of elephants wearing tap shoes.
Also, she was buried in rubble. That couldn't be good.
She un-buried herself, as fortunately the sharp or crushing elements of the hallway wreckage had missed her. Quickly, she worked to get Gwen out of the mess, then Melvin... the three of them groaning, as they got to their feet, shaking off the plaster dust... and the raindrops. After all, the explosion had torn away the entire front-facing wall, letting the torrential rain in.
Two elements were locked in battle on what was left of the front lawn.
One, a young girl wreathed in flame, flame that hissed and sizzled as it was pounded by raindrops. The well manicured lawn was blackened and scorched where she stood... burnt paths showing where she had run, this way and that, with muddy paths showing where Ophelia followed, where she was chased. But above that twisted up surface of mauled earth, there was flame, and water. Great wads of it, hurled this way and that--
Sylph ducked a blast of fire which tickled at the wall behind her.
"...so, uh..." she started, trying to find words, as she slowly got back up. "You summoned Salem the Fire Witch. ...your sister, I mean. That explains a lot, but, well... now what do we do?"
"We hope they don't destroy the academy while they brawl," Melvin said, looking more unsure of his amazing scheme by the minute. "Salem has a lot of control issues... and she's really, really angry right now. This could get ugly fast... --Gwen, this is NOT the time to post to your blog."
Her slightly battered iThing chirped away, as she poked at the keys. "Haven't blogged since lunch. I'm in my chatroom, actually," she said. "And my online friend says we should Animate Sandy the statue again."
"Why? She's not an opposite element. --wait, how does your online friend know about Sandy if you haven't been liveblogging this?"
"My online friend says it's not always about pocket monsters and opposite elements. Sometimes it's just about old friends," Gwen read aloud. "...um. She also says her real name is Ariel the Air Witch and she apologizes for not telling me sooner."
Slowly, Melvin looked to the sky, to the invisible signals passing through the airwaves all around them.
And could swear the airwaves winked at him.
She was going to die out here.
That was probably for the best. All she could do was burn things. Everything. She might've burned her brother, her family, one day. If she could die keeping him safe, that would be a good, witchy sort of death. The kind Queen Emily might have approved of, the kind that would make Emily forgive her for everything else.
The water was everywhere; in the air, in the ground, all around her. So much water... too much for the fire to withstand. But not enough to put out the flame for good, not yet.
Carefully, Sarah Tinker drew as much of her natural flame as she could, pouring it from her mind, her soul, from every part of her that burned and craved the fire and wanted it to eat everything and anything. Pour it into her hands. And--
Her enemy vanished as a wall of earth sprouted from the ground -- dry and still earth, no moisture, no heat. Pure soil.
A monotone figure sat atop the wall, looking down at her. It smoothed out its stone skirts, to be nice and proper on its perch. The blockade then slowly sank back into the lawn, until only the statue stood between fire and water.
"Look, you've gone and ruined the flowers," Sandy Stone spoke, waggling a finger of disapproval. "Overwatered or burned. I hope you two are happy."
"S-Sandy?" Sarah asked, her gathered fire flickering as her willpower faded. "B-back off! I have to stop her. She'll ruin everything!"
'Emily will ruin everything, you mean. She's just as dangerous as Lilith was,' Ophelia spoke.
Sandy smiled, her carvings twisting around in their favorite bemused expression.
"Oh, I agree with you, Ophelia. Very much so."
"Yes. But Emily's my kind of dangerous," Sandy said, jacking her smile up a degree. "A provocative dangerous, instead of the archaic dangers of Lilith's kin. And I think Emily would be your kind of dangerous as well, if you'd give her time of day. The same goes for you, poor Salem."
Slowly... Sarah Tinker eased her fireball down. The fire wrapped itself around her, back to being normal ambient flame. Ophelia, for her part, grew more transparent... ready to move with the flow, rather than ready to strike.
Sandy waved the bystanding students over -- Gwen keeping her iThing open, glancing at the screen occasionally.
"Take these three, for example. Very provocative. They fight against rules they know are stupid, they struggle to protect each other, they go out of their way to understand things so they can make the right decisions. Exactly what a witch should be. I've spent my days watching over these new witches, and they're so far from Lilith's game plan that I feel confident they'll turn into something quite interesting indeed. Even Melvin, who never even wanted to be a witch and only came here to make sure his sister would be safe... he stood fast. Would the old witches have lifted a finger to help each other? Would they have given a damn, when Lilith pushed them to vy for constant dominance?"
"It's true. He... he's written me letters," Salem explained. "Including one today. I knew it was all true, I just... I was too scared to return myself. Things have changed, Ophelia. W-we could be new witches, too. I'll join if you'll join. They'll forgive us. They'll find ways to help us!"
Far more eyes than she was comfortable with turned to Gwen.
She poked at her brightly lit screen. "My online friend Ariel says that, er, rock for brains and, um, miss third degree burns have good points. And that you guys better sort this out, because Emily's kinda been standing over there beyond the statue for the last few minutes listening in anyway."
The Creature from the Black Lagoon politely cleared her throat, and Gwen was relieved to find the attention shift off her.
Queen Emily, coated head to regal witchy toe in swamp mud, was as polite and casual as she could be under the circumstances. "Hey," she greeted, with a little wave that sent a splorch of green goop to the lawn. "Have any of you seen Janey Suen? We searched the swamp extensively. Very extensively. I have muck in places muck should not be, even."
At that... the watery witch drooped a bit, as if her water was melting. The gesture seemed to suggest shame.
'She's fine. Janey is in the French Quarter,' Ophelia explained. 'She snuck out to go get drunk, so I modified her blood alcohol level to keep her that way for awhile. I believe she is obtaining a tattoo now. ...I needed an opportunity.'
Emily rubbed her temples -- then realized she was massaging mud into her eyes, and promptly stopped. "Kids these days. Well, no sense standing around in the rain. You'll catch colds. Come on in, all of you. Let's talk. Sandy, you need a re-Animating before we go?"
"W-wait, hear me out!" Salem protested. "Before you take me away. Emily, if, if you let me live, I can tell you about something you need to know! There's a man waiting in the fire. I can feel him there. Two men, really, but the bigger one, he's from the Bad Place and he terrifies me, and he's going to--"
'Hah. If we are exchanging information for our survival, then my knowledge is of far greater importance,' Ophelia stated, folding her watery arms. 'Emily must be told of the Ocean King, and his spawnlings. How they have sealed off this world for two centuries. She must--'
"Um, if you don't mind her interrupting," Gwen tentative spoke up, "Ariel says that there's something funny in the young man's steam--"
Emily groaned, waving her arms for attention. "Guys, guys! I'm not killing anybody off. This isn't a bartering session, I just want to talk to you about your futures. ...if you want to work off any personal debt, we can discuss that. But let's get inside, for crying out loud! I'm disgusting right now on so many levels and desperately need a change of clothes. ...and you three kids?"
This would no doubt be the punishment, Melvin assumed. They'd been breaking rules left and right, sneaking around, meddling, and with half the front of the mansion destroyed, surely Emily would...
"Good work," the queen commended. "You broke damn near every rule we have at this school, of course, but... good work. Now please, for a change... let the adults deal with things, and go get some sleep. Oh, and Gwen? Can I borrow your internet thingamabob so I can talk to Ariel? At least until I can get someone in here to wire up the place. Thanks. You're a peach."
The procession of elemental witches plus one Faerie Queen made their way into the Witching Academy. They didn't bother using the door, what with a perfectly good open face sandwich of a hallway they could use instead.
Three students stood in the rain, still coming to grips with what the hell just happened.
"...this is so going in my blog," Gwen decided. "Once I get my iThing back. Soooo. Now what do we do?"
Melvin felt the weight of the night drop on his shoulders, at last.
"Now I am done being a boy adventurer and I am going to bed," he decided. "And then, I am going home."
The room had two electrical outlets, and neither were near the bed. When the alarm clock started screaming bloody digital murder, Melvin Tinker had to get out of bed and stagger across his expansive bedroom to smack it until it shut up.
Today, he'd set the timer to wake him up well into the quadruple digits. He felt he was owed one late morning, one set of skipped classes, given the hell he'd gone through the previous night. Still, it'd leave him plenty of time to shake the groggy from his head, get dressed at a leisurely pace, head on down to the designated Melvin Only bathroom so Tinker could take a tinkle, and then leave the Witching Academy forever.
He'd got as far as getting dressed when there was a knock at the door.
In other countries, properly established monarchies, Her Royal Majesty would probably not do a house call. Emily was not like most queens, however.
"Bailing?" she asked, as she leaned in the doorframe. No hello, no how did you sleep, just right to the point.
Melvin stood his ground, for his part. Arms crossed. "I only came here to make sure it'd be safe for my sister. That's all."
"And the engineer told you what went down," Emily filled in. "How we tried at first to force the old witches to accept the blessing, to block their magic. And the suicides that resulted. And how I realized we'd made a terrible mistake..."
"I can see why you and your friends don't like talking about it. You screwed up," Melvin said, directly.
"I own up to it. I thought I had to make the world a safer place, to wipe away the stain Lilith had left behind, whether my old classmates liked it or not. I didn't care about the old witches, I just wanted them out of my hair for good. Any ones that didn't want to get with the program, I neutered and put to pasture. And yes... some of them, bereft of magic and with their brains freshly repaired, fell into despair. I screwed up, Melvin. I used a fist when I should've used a comforting hand. That's not the kind of thinking we need in the Second Age. Not the kind of thinking I'll be applying to Sarah."
"Did Sarah agree to the process, then?"
"All of them did, more or less. Sarah... we've got a good chance with her," Emily explained. "She's retained a mostly human form. If she can stay calm during the procedure we can repair the damage her earlier spellcasting did. She's agreed to give it another try so she can get her life back. Ophelia... we can't do much with her, but she seems to be open to the idea of working with me, now that she knows I'm not torturing you guys. And Ariel's said she'll do whatever Gwen thinks is right. So, the real question is... how about you?"
"How about me?"
"Why this?" Emily asked. "Why run along home? Sarah's going to stay. You could stay with her. Learn magic."
"But I never wanted to learn magic," Melvin insisted. "I came for her sake, and now, she's going to be alright. I never wanted to be a witch, or some destined boy, or anything like that. I did what I came to do, so, I'm going."
"You could be a powerful witch, you know. You haven't made much progress yet, but I've read Elriel's reports. You've got a gift you aren't tapping into... some inner fire. It's why Lilith chose your sister for her sick experiment, something in your blood makes you damn good with magic--"
"I never asked for that. I don't want it."
"And that's why you need to do it," Emily spoke, with firmness.
Melvin glanced at her, dubious. "I'm not following. Need to do it?"
"Melvin. You know human history. How many people who WANT power end up using it properly?" the Faerie Queen asked. "It's the reluctant ones that do the best job dealing with power, because they're smart enough to know they've got to be careful. You think I wanted to be Queen of the Faeries? Hell no. But, this is what I have. And I've got to do the best I can with it, because if I screw up, a lot of people get hurt."
Emily stepped aside... clearing the doorframe. But continued to speak her mind.
"You could leave, true. But you'll still have the magic in you, the same unusual bloodline that Lilith exploited. I'm sorry, but there's no way around that. So, are you going to ignore it... or do something with it? Would the boy who saved this school, who acted because he he HAD to do something, turn his back on that responsibility?"
He looked to the door.
He glanced back at his pens, neatly stacked in their little coffee mug, on his writing desk.
"I don't like the way you do things," he pointed out. "You keep a lot of things secret and leave people in the dark. How can I possibly trust you when--"
"I've seen this world die. It ends with half the planet wreathed in fire, the other half frozen in ice," Emily stated. "It was an accident. I opened the lidless eye and saw too much of the future. Could be a thousand years from now, could be next Tuesday. But if things happen the way I've foreseen, I'm going to be responsible for this world's doom. Myself... and Scout. I'm doing everything I can to avoid it, but I need people I can trust to help me. Even if it comes down to helping me against myself."
His knees grew weak. Normal people would laugh that sort of thing off, would assume it was a sick joke. Except it wasn't told like a joke. Not in the slightest. Emily spoke with a casual certainty... and a tone of concern that showed exactly how serious she took it. It was truth.
"...why... would you tell me that?" Melvin asked, simply.
"To show you why I am the way I am," she said. "Why I keep these secrets. The importance of them. I'm fighting the future, Melvin, for the sake of the Second Age and for the sake of every living thing on Earth. You wanted the truth, so I gave it to you. I haven't told many people about that vision, understand. Only my closest allies. Now, you're in on the secret. I don't think it's going to bring you any comfort, though."
Queen Emily of the Faeries leaned away from the doorframe, and without another word, walked away.
Lunchtime felt less pleasant without Sandy the statue to watch over them.
Gwen was coping with the oddly empty feeling in the room by poking away at her shiny new iThingPlus. Sylph focused on the book she was reading, where the handsome prince rescues the fair maiden by slaying the dragon and then they do some things that would probably have the book yanked from the academy library if anybody else had read that far yet.
For his part, Melvin was lost in thought.
"I really like this one. It's got some games built in and it stores fifty zillion hours of media," Gwen was explaining. "I can call up sites even faster, now. My chatroom loads in seconds. I haven't seen Ariel in there since last night, though..."
"That's because they're gone. All four of them," Melvin explained, breaking his silence. "Emily's not saying where they went, but... my sister sent me a note through the fireplace an hour ago. Said that they've got things to do. Secret things."
"There's a lot of secret things going on in the Faerie Court. In the world, even!" Sylph exclaimed. "It's all so mysterious and wonderful and a little scary... and we're just a bunch of kids sitting around taking lessons. We should probably be glad we're not involved."
"It's for the best, right?"
Her book snapped shut right before she reached the good bit.
"Gwen, do any of those secret passages lead to Emily's room?" Sylph wondered aloud.
A groan rose from Melvin's throat. "Sylph..."
"Oh, relax, Boy Wonder. We won't sneak in there."
"Not right now, anyway. It'll be safer when it's nice and dark. So, make sure you do your homework early, and remember that if you don't study your Animate harder, you'll never beat me at Witchball!"
"He beat you last time," Gwen pointed out.
"Fluke win. Squeaked one past me. Won't happen again. So! We sneak around the academy tonight. Are you in, Mr. Boy Who Didn't Die...?"
He rolled his head back, looking up at the tall windows, ahead at the space where Sandy once stood. Off doing witchy business, no doubt. A good witch meddles in things, tries to find the best outcome, does everything they can to leave the world in a better shape than it was the previous day...
She's probably expecting me to meddle, he realized. Could be counting on it. So... think like a witch. What Would Witches Do?
"I'm in," Melvin decided.
copyright 2009 stefan gagne