Thursday, May 18, 2017

Chapter Nine: The Witching Hour(Part Three)



Knock! Knock!

Belthor lowered his staff, letting it sit on the floor. He waited for a moment while he heard a surprised exclamation, and then a woman's voice. He took a breath, steeling himself.

The lock worked for a moment. Belthor clutched his staff tightly.

"Bel!" Tori blinked as she took him in. "What's got you out so late?"

"I'm really sorry about this," he started. "There's a...thing with Theron going on."

"Is there?" Tori asked, and by the way her eyebrow went up, she seemed to know exactly what kind of thing Belthor was referring to.

"It's very loud," he said. "And I have some essays to work on before sleeping and..." he shrugged. "Is it a problem if I bunk with you two tonight?"

"No," Tori said, which made Belthor very sad for a moment until she continued. "No, that's no bother at all. Come in." She practically seized his pillow and books from under his arm. "You have excellent timing, Bel!"

"I do?" Belthor followed her into the dorm, waiting as she closed the door. He glanced around at furnishings rife with what he supposed were family pictures...as well as a large worktable and several boxes of tools and parts. His eyes flicked to the couch in the center of the room, and the coffee table strewn with little wires. "Hey, Sam."

"Bel." Sam stood from the couch, offering his hand. Belthor took it.

"Yes, your timing is perfect," Tori said. She stepped over to the kitchen, picked something up, and spun around. "I made a pie!"

"Oh!" Belthor smiled. "I didn't know you baked."

"Do you like pie?"

"I don't want to impose-"

"Eat pie." Tori raised a hand and her staff lanced from a far corner of the room. She pointed it at the steaming, golden treat in her hand, and a slice cut itself, rose and found a plate in about two heartbeats. Another twitch of her staff and a fork joined it all, then the entire thing floated Belthor's way.

"Um...thank you." He leaned his staff against the wall, then took the plate where it hovered around his head. He eased to a seat on the couch by Sam.

"Eat," Tori ordered, very firmly. "We have food-food too, if you're hungry for any of that."

"I...didn't get dinner," Belthor admitted. "But pie is fine-"

"Give me a few minutes." Tori started waving her staff again, and between that and physical work, she started assembling food from nowhere.

"You've made her night," Sam observed. "Tori loves hosting. It's in her blood, I think."

"And you?" Belthor asked. "I'm not-"

"Oh, no." Sam shook his head. "I don't mind at all. I just..." he reached for one of the toolboxes. "I'm going to need your help while Tori's being all domestic back there."

"Excuse me?" Tori demanded over her shoulder. "Domestic?"

"You bake pies and can host a dinner for a friend on two minutes' warning," Sam replied. "I call that winning a domestic housewife gold trophy."

"Shut your mouth before I put something in it."

"Something like pie?" Sam asked. "Because that's not exactly a grave threat." He turned back to Belthor. "Welcome to the World of Sam and Tori. You can run at any time."

"I..."

"Would you mind helping me with this thing, though?" Sam asked. Belthor almost jumped when he pulled his shirt off.

"Um...sure," he said, staring. Staring in complete surprise. "What...is that?"

"I wondered how you'd react," Sam said. He patted the wires and chemical lines running from a device attached to his back. Belthor traced the lines with his eyes, all the way down Sam's arms to his wrists, and up his spine to the base of his neck...basically everywhere his shirt covered. "This is my Gift."

"...a machine?" Belthor asked. Sam laughed.

"The machine helps me with my Gift. The Gift is innate." He glanced around. "I'd demonstrate, but I don't want to burn the building down."

"Fair enough." Belthor inched closer. "What did you need?"

"There's a red wire, around my shoulder." Sam pointed. "It's a bit out of place. Tori was going to replace it with this red wire-" he held up the item in question "-since I can't reach, but..."

"Sure." Belthor took the old wire. "How do I get it out?"

"Just pull. See where it goes in on both sides? Remember that, since you're putting the new one in."

"Okay." Belthor did as he was told, and the wire came right out. "This device is remarkable."

"It helps me control what I can do," Sam said. He passed the new wire over his shoulder, and Belthor fixed it in. "My father built it when I was young, and he and I have worked on it ever since, tweaking it as necessary."

"And Tori?" Belthor asked.

"And Tori learned about it after we moved in here together," the woman herself said, as she waved drinks and plates off to the table. "Now she helps Sam whenever he breaks it. Eat your pie, Belthor."

"Yes, ma'am." Belthor scooted back, then took the pie and dug in. "It's very good."

"Thanks," Tori said. "How were things with Master Protec?"

Belthor coughed. "Um-"

"We were there, remember?" Tori asked. "We're the ones who fetched Master Kulkas - were we wrong? Was that a bad thing?"

"No! No, you did exactly the right thing." Belthor paused to relate the incident.

"That scheming son of a warlock." Tori's lip curled. "I hope Master Kulkas reads him the riot act."

"Can he?" Belthor asked. "They're both Masters."

"Yeah, but neither you nor Agnete is Master Protec's apprentice. He needs to go through Master Kulkas if he wants to pull you aside like that." Tori took a seat, waving her hand and her staff and calling plates and glasses and pitchers of drink forward like a levitating legion of dinner trappings at her command. "The apprenticeship thing is a bit arcane, but it's important."

"Who's your Master?" Belthor asked.

"Master Vignette, technically," Sam said. "That's why we could get away with challenging her more than you could in staff class."

"Ah." Belthor examined his plate. "There's no meat in this, right?"

"Not a piece. I know how you are. That's basically salad on bread." Tori pulled her long legs up under her and blew bangs out of her face. "Do you really think Master Protec would have expelled you?" She raised an eyebrow. "He doesn't have grounds."

"He acted like he did. Part of it, I'm sure, was a show to intimidate the young new student." Belthor paused to take a few bites and a drink. "He assumed I'd fold under enough pressure."

"Would you have?" Sam asked. "If Master Kulkas hadn't shown up?"

"I..." Belthor hesitated. "I don't know. I was certainly very frightened." He knew he went red when he said that.

"I would have been too," Tori told him, her tone gentle. "A private yelling match with a Master is no student's dream. Master Protec least of all. He's no joke."

"He seemed nice enough on initiation night," Belthor said. "The party."

"He's a legacy," Sam said, pulling his shirt back on. "His father was a Master, and his father, and his father...there's a lot of that here. Hastel and Theron?" He shrugged. "The Greenhavens have been students and masters since they let the School be founded on their land."

"Theron is Master Protec's," Tori pointed out. "Hastel's Master Korin's."

"I thought every Master had one apprentice," Belthor said. "Master Kulkas chose me, and Agnete's a special case."

"Well, usually it's done one or two at a time," Tori admitted. "But each Master can do what they please in the end. Every Master goes through the process of elimination and choosing, like you did, but they also can pick one or two more for special cases, and then there are those like Sam and I who passed the rites but without the oversight of a Master. We get assigned to those who prefer staying here to wandering the world with apprentices. Like Master Vignette."

"I see." Belthor spent a few more minutes eating in silence while his hosts did the same. "Do you think Master Protec can actually-"

"Not with Master Kulkas in opposition, not unless all of the other Masters side with Master Protec." Sam shook his head. "Kicking a student out takes eight of the nine in favor. And I'm fairly sure unless you try to summon a demon army to burn Greenhaven to the ground and install a new world order of ash and shadow, you're maybe going to get five of them at a time to agree on anything."

Belthor snickered. "I hope."

"Don't worry about it." Sam made a face. "This is not hot chocolate, Tori."

"Shut your face." Tori tested her mug. "Well, keep it shut." She held out a hand underneath her mug.

"Whoa!" Belthor jumped when blue flame burst upward from the woman's palm. He blinked as the fire wove back and forth, fueling on nothing but the air over Tori's skin.

"That's what Sam said," Tori replied cheerfully. "That's what everyone says. Don't worry!" Her eyes sparkled. "I'm harmless."

Belthor blinked. "Um."

"You're scaring him, Tori." Sam leaned back with a smirk. "You should see her on days when the heating spells aren't working well. She just sits here with flames rising from her hair and her armpits."

"Yeah, and my friend over here stays about six inches away from me like I'm the human brazier." Tori waved her hand and the fire vanished. She tested her drink. "Much better. Sam, Belthor, shall I?"

"Um. Sure." Belthor offered his mug. "But then...I really should get started on my essays."

"We can work on them together," Tori said. "I love a group homework night! Oh! When we're done, we can pull all the pillows out here and just have a big slumber party! Maybe a pillow fight!"

"Um."

"Just do what the lady says," Sam suggested. He pulled his own copy of History of Magic from nowhere Belthor could see. "Less chance of getting burned that way."

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Chapter Nine: The Witching Hour(Part Two)



"Sir," Belthor protested, as Master Protec held his wand up and glared. "Sir, I've done nothing to-"

"You've made a scene in Master Vignette's class and defied my orders as your teacher," Master Protec said. "If you continue to withhold information I have every right to demand of you, for the drow's-"

"Agnete."

"-the drow's well-being as much as yours, I will see to it that your dreams of academia never get off the ground," Master Protec continued, barely noticing the interruption. "Don't defend her like this."

"Why shouldn't I?" Belthor asked.

"Because she's a drow," Master Protec said, sounding awfully aggrieved. "They drink blood, Belthor! They're witches practicing dark magic, and she'll turn on you the moment she has the chance! You're food to her, nothing more. We all are. I'm trying to protect my students - and her as well."

"What are you going to do?" Belthor asked. "Kill her?"

"Send her home," Master Protec replied. "It will protect all of us, and it will keep her from throwing her life away on a drow quest to slaughter wizards. That's all they care about, you know. You could stand to broaden your education before you defend a dark creature like this."

"She is a person," Belthor insisted. "Not a creature."

"She has near-human intelligence, I will admit that," Master Protec said, which made Belthor hiss. "But that simply makes her more dangerous. She does have a human's capacity for some things: malice, sadism, evil. But the things that really make us human - intelligence and discipline, respect for authority...she lacks those. To think she's as much a person as you and me, Belthor, shows your naïveté."

"You'll not get anything from me," Belthor said. "Not in a thousand years. Sir."

"I was afraid you'd say that." Master Protec took a breath. "I suggest you pack your bags, son of Morse-"

The door slammed open, the noise so loud Belthor jumped and dropped all his books. He clutched his staff, though, and he turned to see-

"Master Protec!" A staff thumped onto the carpet, and Belthor hurriedly moved out of the way as Master Kulkas barreled right up into his younger colleague's face.

"...good afternoon, Kulkas," the younger Master said. "Did we have an appointment?"

"We do now," Belthor's mentor said.

"I'm afraid my four-thirty is with-"

"Consider it canceled, by your own volition." Master Kulkas planted his staff in the carpet, where it stood balanced as always. "Belthor, you're free to leave. Take your books." He waved his hand, and all of the initiate's study materials rose and stacked themselves neatly in the air. "Let me sort this out."

"Thank you, sir. I'm leaving, sir." Belthor grabbed them and turned for the door, ducking his head as he went.

"Kulkas-"

"How dare you?"

Belthor was barely out the door before Protec's wand waved and it slammed behind him. There must have been a spell of silence on the study, because he didn't hear a thing more, and Master Kulkas' voice had been at dragon levels the instant before the latch clicked.

"Gods." Belthor leaned on his staff, breathing deeply. Hastel gave him an odd look as he passed in the hallway, and Belthor pulled himself together in response.

"I need dinner and a drink," he muttered to himself. He started off down the hall, shuddering. "I need a drink most of all."

***

Belthor scrambled into Dorm Six, then up the stairs and down the hall to his and Theron's quarters. He quickly tapped the lock with his staff, waited for the door to open by itself, and threw himself inside, pulling it shut behind him.

"Gods." He opened his bedroom door to throw his spellbooks on his bed, then leaned his staff by the door and scurried to the kitchen, kicking a fur coat to one side and a discarded knee-high boot to the other. He opened the mystic pantry and whipped out a large bottle of water, taking a cooling drink.

Belthor struggled to calm his frayed nerves.

"I'm not being kicked out," he told himself. "Master Kulkas is on it. He'll take care of it. I'm just...gods." He sank to a seat leaning on the wall. He pulled his sleeve back and examined Nerien's rune on his bicep.

It was steadily black. That calmed him down.

"You must approve," he finally muttered. "You'd tell me if I was going against what you wanted." He bowed his head. "Nerien, Lady of Health and Medicine, I pray to you. I know I am not worthy of your blessing, but..." he struggled to find words, before settling for his first thought "...but I need all the help I can get down here right now. And if you can give me even a little of it - you're a goddess, I'm sure you can give quite a lot, but I'm not asking for that. Just...whatever you think I'm worth."

He took a deep breath...and then a deep drink. Little by little, he was coming back to center.

That's when he saw Theron's door, and heard the creaking and crying he'd been too self-focused to notice until now.

"Oh. Oh, you have got to be kidding me," Belthor swore, as he took in the scattered ladies' clothes on the floor. "One coat...two...handbags..." He blinked as he examined more and more of the display. By his reckoning, there had to be three separate women in Theron's room with him. Well, presumably with him. Belthor idly reflected that he didn't see any evidence of his roommate's even being home.

"How?" Belthor wondered. "The physics of this confuse me."

He pushed himself to his feet. He hurried to his bedroom, shutting the door behind him quickly. It didn't help, as he could still hear the banging and moaning and...

"What's this?" Belthor paused as his foot hit something. He looked down, then frowned and picked up the package on the floor. "Someone sent me something?"

Hey, roc, read a string of ink on the side of the package. This was by the door when I got out this morning. Says it's for you. Thought I'd help, so I brought it in.

There was no signature, but Belthor didn't really need one to know who'd written it. He set the package on his bed, then tried to rip it open for a few fruitless moments, getting progressively more animated by the building sounds of climactic joy from the other side of the dorm.

"Enough." He shoved the package back, then reached out and picked up his staff. He leveled it and-

Rip! The thing opened, unfurling like flower petals. The initiate reached in and pulled out the little white card sitting on top of the package's contents.

"Yes!" a woman cried faintly, before all sound ceased. Belthor let out a breath, wondering if he was as happy as she was at the grand finale.

"Rosa's not exactly tropical, but neither are we far north," he read under his breath. "It was the warmest I could do in a city unaccustomed to cold. I hope it helps with the snow." He turned the card over, but the only signature on it was a stylized M.

Which was more than enough of a signature for him.

Belthor pulled a thick green coat up, and he tried it on. To his surprise, the measurements were, while imperfect, very close. And it was also very warm, and it didn't look at all foolish in his opinion. He admired himself in the mirror.

"I have to talk to her again soon," he muttered. "Have to thank her." He glanced at his books. "...I need a bag." He winced a moment later, almost hitting himself for even thinking of making requests of his patron like that. She wasn't a gift-giving machine-

Thump. Thump. First it was that, and then the moans were back. Belthor joined in, banging his head against his door.

I'm not getting any sleep tonight, he swore to himself, awash with sudden misery. Why can't Theron put a spell of silence over his hook-ups? Is this his way of bragging about his conquests? Making me listen?

Belthor slumped against the door. He glared up at the ceiling for a long moment, while he tried to decide whether to try and sleep, or...

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Chapter Nine: The Witching Hour(Part One)



"Son of Morse."

That summons came as Belthor was hurrying from his last class of the day. He paused in the hallway, books clutched under his arm while he tried not to lose all of them.

"Uh, Master..." he swore as he nearly dropped History of Magic on his foot. "Master Protec, sir."

He looked very young to be a master. Belthor supposed he was only in his forties, which seemed very old to him, but compared to the ages he suspected of Masters Kulkas and Vignette, it was on the early side. He leaned in the doorway to his study, and Belthor didn't like the sour look on his face. 

"A moment of your time?" he asked. Well, Belthor didn't suppose it was a request, but it sounded very polite. 

"Of course, sir." He turned to Tori and Sam, who'd been at his sides. "Excuse me. I'll see you tomorrow, unless you want to go for dinner?"

"Tomorrow." Tori eyed Master Protec. "Good-bye, Bel." She turned and hurried off down the corridor as Sam echoed her, the pair stealing glances over their shoulders as they went.

He himself thumped his way over to the study, Protec sliding out of his way at the last possible moment. Belthor's eyes flicked from green decorations to blue, to several large tomes with labels that made him think they were potion-books. A pair of cauldrons sat bubbling and hissing in the center of the study, every spilled drop coming to a halt a few inches above the ground and then flying back in. No flame burned under them, but Belthor felt the heat.

The door shut behind him.

"You like those?" Master Protec asked. Belthor blinked.

"I, uh. Sir, potion-making isn't one of my electives but Theron-"

"Ah, Theron." Master Protec smiled. "Theron's a good lad. He's got a master's mind for potions." He waved at the cauldrons. "That's what this is about, actually. He thinks he's more the master than me some days."

"Sir?"

"These are dragon's eye hypnotic potions," Master Protec said. "Full of ocular fluid and some other stuff. Theron's great, but he told me he'd thought of a better method for brewing the potion. So I set up a controlled test right here to prove him wrong." He shrugged. "I'm hoping he's right, personally: that means I get to put an extra point on his grade instead of take one off for violating curriculum."

"Sir." Belthor didn't really know what to say to that. He adjusted his books under his arm. "Is that somehow what this is about?"

"No." Master Protec crossed to his side of the desk laden with books, and he leaned on it with one hand, running his free fingers through black hair. "Master Vignette spoke to me about your little display yesterday."

"Sir, I just-"

"I know what happened," Master Protec said. "You're not a Master, Belthor. It's not your class." He shook his head. "Interesting, though, that you and the drow have a staff-sharing bond already."

The drow. Those two words were like gunshots in the stillness, and Belthor saw the glint in the Master's eye when they came out. In and of themselves, they were a message.

"She has a name, sir," Belthor said, trying very hard not to make his tone aggressive...and suspecting he'd failed. 

"Of course she does." Master Protec still showed no inclination to do anything with that knowledge. "How did you find out about her?"

"I..." Belthor shuffled his feet. "I spent a lot of time trying to get to know her before the incident in the village."

"So you knew before then?"

"No, I-"

"I don't see why you would spend your hard-won academic time attempting to build a bond with as odd a duck as Agnete unless you were aware what benefit it would provide you," Master Protec continued.

"Benefit?" Belthor demanded. "She was lonely and looked it! I wanted to help her fit in."

Master Protec blinked. "You...wanted to befriend a drow?"

"I didn't know she was a drow," Belthor grumbled, wondering uncharitable questions like how someone as dense as mountain rocks like this could be a Master in the first place. "She was just...you know, she seemed lonely, and she looked human enough, and..." He shrugged.

"Oh." Master Protec's face flashed with something that looked like amusement. "Say no more. I was fifteen once too." 

"No, it's not like that-"

"And that's what I would have said too." He slipped his wand back into his cloak, and it was only in that moment that Belthor realized he'd had the tool out for the entire conversation so far. "I understand you, son. And then the incident in the village? And you followed her?"

"Yes, sir." 

"And that's when you found out?"

"Yes, sir."

"So, you found where she's been staying?" Master Protec asked, brow furrowing.

"I...you don't know?" Belthor asked.

Master Protec seemed to weigh his words. "She...doesn't bunk on campus, I know that much. Her kind...something about warmth doesn't sit well with her sensibilities."

"So you don't," Belthor concluded.

"No," Master Protec admitted. "But you do."

"I..." Belthor took a breath. "I think I should like to speak with Agnete and Master Kulkas before saying anything."

"It's a question, Belthor. And a conversation with one Master is a conversation with all." Master Protec shrugged. "Master Kulkas is just as curious as I am. He actually told me to talk to you."
"He..." Belthor frowned. "He doesn't know?"

"No one does." Master Protec smiled. "Except you. You'd be doing all the Masters a favor."
Belthor was quiet for a long moment. "Sir, may I say something, with all due respect?"

"That depends on what it is," the Master replied. Belthor steeled his courage.

"You're a liar."

"Excuse me?" His eyes flashed. Belthor glared.

"Master Kulkas knows exactly where Agnete is. She and I discussed how he helped her settle in. You're using me to get around my mentor's silence on this topic, and I don't intend to play along."

"So dramatic! You are fifteen." Master Protec looked more amused than angry, which surprised Belthor. He'd expected another black mark. "All I want is to know where the students attending my school stay when they're not under my nose. And Agnete's lodgings are my concern by that logic - though I imagine she lives a ratty elf-hovel in the trees, covered in ice. Little better than an outhouse."

"She doesn't live in an outhouse," Belthor snapped. "It's a rather nice..." he trailed off as he saw Master Protec watching him expectantly.

He's insulting her now to get a reaction, he realized. He's trying to bait me into defending her and giving him the information he needs in the process

"Sir, I don't think it would be right for me to tell you anything without speaking to Master Kulkas and Agnete first," Belthor continued. "A secret that isn't mine, isn't mine to tell."

Master Protec frowned. "I'm ordering you as your teacher."

"And I'm refusing. Respectfully."

The Master leaned down and opened one of his drawers. Belthor waited for a moment, heart pounding as he wondered exactly what the consequence of his refusal would be. 

"You know, I admire your values," Master Protec said. Belthor wished he could set his books down, but he didn't dare clear a space on the teacher's desk without prompting. He rather suspected the lack of such an invitation - or one to sit - was in and of itself a tactic. "I think your decision is misplaced, but I still can admire the courage behind it."

"Thank you, sir." Belthor hoped that would be enough to get him out of Master Protec's office with an academic future to look forward to. 

"Do you know what this is?" Master Protec rose, and Belthor eyed the short wooden rod in his hand.
"That's a wand," he confirmed, wondering when this became a lesson.

"Yes." The teacher turned it over in his hands. "It's not mine, nor any of my students'. Every Master has an unpaired one in his or her desk."

"Why, sir?" Belthor asked.

"Well, so we can award them to students who go above and beyond the call - who prove their worthiness to study the advanced classes here." Master Protec flipped the wand and caught it left-handed. "I'm very impressed by your values, Belthor."

"Sir, I just arrived at the school not two months ago-"

"And others have advanced even quicker," Master Protec said. "All you have to do is provide the service to the school I've asked for, and that's that. This is yours."

Belthor stared. His jaw actually slipped open a little. "Just...like that?"

"Just like that," Master Protec agreed cheerfully. "And you know what we all say: any who hold a wand are welcome here above challenge from their peers. No matter what the...circumstances under which you acquire it, none but a Master can object to your receiving a wand. I'm sure they'll all see things my way when I explain what service you've given me."

Belthor swallowed. "Sir..."

"Tell me where the drow makes her home," Master Protec ordered, "and this is yours."

Belthor eyed the wand, the world tilting around him. His throat felt very dry. He swallowed again.
"Sir..." He let out a long breath. "A secret that isn't mine, isn't mine to tell."

Master Protec eyed him for a long moment, his expression falling. He very deliberately pulled the wand back and put it in its drawer.

"You remind me very much of another student in this school," he said, eyes cold. "One who gave my father no end of trouble and mouth, who went against the will of the Masters and forged his own path, discarding all the rules he didn't like along the way. You'd do well to not turn out as much of an aficionado of the Dark as he did."

"...Aficionado of the Dark?" Belthor asked with a frown.

"Your defiance and adherence to your principles, while admirable, will get you nowhere," Master Protec said. He reached into his coat, and Belthor clutched his staff tighter when he saw the Master's hand come out wrapped around his wand. "You're going to tell me where the drow lives if you want to continue your education here."