Thursday, June 8, 2017

Chapter Twelve: Turbulence(Part Two)



Belthor sat, chewing on his thumb. He eyed the papers before him, muttering past his nail as he tried to come up with additional words.

"What're you casting?" Theron asked, as he slipped his cloak on and admired himself in a mirror-spell hanging in the air before him.

"What?" Belthor blinked. "What am I..." he sighed as Theron gave him a patient look. "Oh. Slang. What am I casting. I get it."

"Some days, I really can believe you're from South Shara, roc," his roommate said. "When I hear South Shara, though I may be wrong, I immediately think-"

"-endless cornfields," Belthor said with him. Theron laughed, and the initiate shrugged. "Yeah, well, there's a bit more to it than that. Not a terrible load. We have the occasional potato field."

"Probably the odd spot of squash too," Theron said. He waved his hand, and the mirror-spell dissipated. Belthor watched with fascination.

"How do you do that?" he asked.

"Hm?"

"You didn't cast a spell, did you?" Belthor asked. "Not without a staff or a wand-"

"Oh." Theron made a face. "You're not at that level. It's advanced stuff. But hand magic is a thing."

"It is?" The initiate stared in wonder. Theron chuckled.

"You look like a South Sharan farm-boy when you do that, roc," he said, but it was only teasing and not mocking. "What does a staff do?"

"Um...translates your impulses to spells," Belthor said. "It lets you affect the world around you."

"Why do you need the tool?" Theron inquired.

"Because...I can't just wave my hand and open a door." The young man furrowed his brow. "I've tried. We all have. It doesn't work."

"It takes strong magical skill and a lot of practice," Theron said, "but hand magic is a thing. Pay attention to the Masters, and occasionally you'll see them do it."

"Why do we have staffs, then?" Belthor asked.

"Because it's easier to use a staff or a wand," Theron said. "And Runes can be put on them without putting them on your body. The upside of a Rune as a tattoo-"

"-is that you can use the power without a wand or staff," Belthor said. "The downside is that the deity in question can take that power away at any time or cause you pain if they're unhappy with you. And it's more taxing to use the power without a tool."

"Exactly. You're a smart cookie, roc. You remind me of me." Theron winked. "So we put runes on the tools instead of us unless we're really comfortable with the god in question. Plus there's all the other myriad rules about Runes. But!" He lifted his hand, and Belthor watched his hat soar from the hat-rack over to him. "You've done it before, I'm sure. With your staff."

"That's the staff, though," Belthor said. Theron shook his head.

"Nope! That's all you. If you know you can do it, it's a lot easier, and a lot of people start by summoning something they already know is magical and paired with them. They think that's why it works." He reached down and plucked Belthor's quill from where it lay. "Here. Call it."

"Um." Belthor adjusted his shoulders. "Do I do anything but-"

"No. Just wish it over to you, like you would if you had your staff in your hand." He held it out, about two feet out of reach. "You want it. You want it in your hand."

"I..." Belthor cleared his throat. He let the impulse override even his conscious thoughts. He breathed low for a moment, then stuck his hand out just like Theron had.

The quill twitched. Belthor gasped...but deflated when it didn't come to him.

"That was well-done," Theron said. "Most people's first tries go worse than that. Practice it, roc. In your copious free time."

That reminded Belthor that he was supposed to be writing an essay. "I will. Can I have that back though?"

"Sure." Theron handed it over. "I've got to run. Potions class with Master Protec. I'm going to find out the result of a little bet I made with him. Not to be cocky, but I think I've got it in the bag."

"You go, and good luck," Belthor said. "I'll just finish this essay for Master Vignette." He paused. "Theron?"

"Roc?"

Belthor gestured. "You, ah...back of your neck."

"What?" Theron rubbed at the area in question with his sleeve. He glanced at the red lipstick he'd picked up. "Oh! Hah. Didn't even feel it. You get so used to it, you know?" He winked at Belthor.

"...no," the initiate replied. "I don't."

"Don't lose heart. It'll be you, someday: the sexy senior no one can keep her hands off of. You're already off to a good start! I would have killed to have two hot lady friends in my first semester." He considered. "Well, one hot and one cold."

"Agnete is just a friend," Belthor said quickly. "And so is Tori. They're not hot lady friends. I mean, they're not ugly, I'm not...but they're not hot and-"

"Stop stammering," Theron said. "Word of advice, roc: the ladies love a man who knows who he is and doesn't apologize for it."

"...doesn't that mean arrogant?" Belthor asked.

"Exactly." Theron winked again. "Fine, fine line you've got to walk there...but you'll do fine. Men with the Rune of Healing tend to have lots of luck with the ladies. They like the sensitive types, you know, like us."

"Um."

"Catch you around, roc." Theron waved as he turned with a flourish of his cloak, sticking his hand out and summoning his staff and bookbag alike. Belthor watched him leave the dorm, whistling a funeral dirge to himself.

"...I do not understand that man," the initiate finally muttered to himself.

***

"Hand magic?" Agnete asked. Belthor nodded.

"Yes! Theron just waved and there was a mirror-spell hanging in the air. And he undid it the same way, and called his hat..."

"I have seen Master Kulkas do this," Agnete replied. They tromped through the thick snow side-by-side, Belthor bundled up far more severely, while the drow seemed to enjoy being out of the heat of Sam and Tori's dorm. There was color in her cheeks, and Belthor liked seeing her happy. "Not often, but every once in a while..."

Belthor paused outside the diner. He glanced around, unsure what he was expecting to see while Agnete related her story of Master Kulkas' hand magic. He supposed that green in the dark would be a fairly good start-

"You do not have to protect me." Agnete said it quietly, but it cut through Belthor's world. He met her brown-Glamoured eyes.

"You're my friend." He said it quietly.

"Friend." Agnete seemed to roll that concept around in her mind. "I have never had friends."

"I'm sure you did in your village," Belthor started.

"No." She was blunt about it, as snow flicked into her hair where it scattered from under her cap. "No, my village lived on the edge of the wild. Most of my life I spent at my uncle's elbow, and he, while wise and while kind enough, is harsh, and not at all friendly. He was forged in the ice of the north, caring for our people with his hands and mind and words and weapons alike."

"So, he's...a chief?" Belthor asked. "You're the chief's niece."

"We call him mayor," Agnete said, which made him wince. "But yes."

"Do...you have other family?" Belthor asked. "Aunts? Father?"

"I never knew my father. And you know what happened to my mother." Agnete considered while Belthor kicked himself for prodding. "I have no siblings. My uncle has sons, but I never knew them well. I don't suppose I belonged, even back home, for my heart was full of dreams of the outside world rather than the ice of the north. I did have an aunt, I think."

"You think?" Belthor asked.

"She left," Agnete said. "There was an incident when Highland warriors occupied the village she had settled in with her husband, across the mountain range from us. This was before I was born, but she fled to settle in our village. There was some sort of scandal she ran from, and it eventually drove her on further by the time my mother died."

"...oh." Belthor fidgeted. "I didn't mean to pry. I'm sorry, Agnete."

"You asked a question. I supplied an answer." She frowned. "I do not understand what is impolite about asking a question."

"It's...some people don't like talking about things like that," Belthor said. "And it's none of my business anyway."

"Master Kulkas says that asking questions is the mark of a healthy mind." Agnete still looked lost. "Are there times you are not supposed to have a healthy mind?"

"There are some questions that people would rather you didn't ask," Belthor said.

"Oh. Secrets."

"Not necessarily secrets," Belthor hedged, "though there are those too. Just...things that are painful to talk about, or that the other person doesn't really need to know. Like..." he hunted for an example. "Like, if someone was interested in someone else, but a third person asked...it's not really their business."

"Oh. I see." Agnete mused. "So one should not directly ask questions like that?"

"Not usually, no," Belthor agreed. "I mean, if I was interested in you, I would be supposed to tell you myself."

"And if I was interested in you...I see." Agnete nodded slowly.

"Well, usually, it's the boy who says it," Belthor told her. The girl frowned thoughtfully.

"Oh, I see. Your mating customs are very heavy on the separation between stud and mare." She winced a moment later as Belthor sucked in breath. "I am so sorry. I do not mean to insult you like this. I do not think before I speak."

"That's...all right," he said. "Don't worry about it. I know what you meant."

"Good." She shined him a relieved smile. "I am still sorry. But I have a question."

"What is it?" Belthor wondered if they were ever going to go inside. He promptly shelved the thought: Agnete liked the cold, and he got to be warm all the time. The least he could do was let her be as comfortable as possible for as long as possible.

"If a...girl is interested in a stud," Agnete asked, "how is she supposed to inform him?"

"Um." Belthor resisted the urge to pry at his collar. "I'm not really an...expert on that sort of thing."

"What would communicate to you that a girl was attempting to convey her attraction?" Agnete asked, sounding for all the world like they were discussing an arithmetic problem. "Provide me with examples, please. I would like to understand your mating rituals."

"Um." Belthor finally gave in to the urge, and he pulled at his robes, letting cold air in on his neck. "Um. I suppose, if a girl...I mean...if she..." He waved his staff helplessly. "Words. I'm struggling with words."

"I just want an example," Agnete said, her voice low.

"Oi!"

"What!" Belthor jumped, and his staff fell from suddenly nerveless fingers. He spun-

The big man from the diner loomed in front of him, almost seven feet tall, his muscles bulging like boulders on his wide frame. Belthor retreated two steps, scrambling to pluck his staff from the snow.

"Can...can we help you?" he asked. The big man glanced at Agnete, who Belthor noticed gravitating behind him.

"I think it's a mutual thing, really," the man said. "That girl's the Gifted one who froze half the joint, ain't she?"

"We....yes," Belthor admitted. He clutched his staff. "If you're here to take her-"

"You got jumped by those crazy green-eyed birds just out of town, yeah?"

"...yes," Agnete whimpered, while Belthor tried to decide whether to simply hex the man. For his part, he looked remarkably unfazed by the initiate raising his staff defensively.

"Put that toy down, kid." He patted the tip of the tool carelessly. "I ain't here to kill you and take your woman - I could if I wanted to, but that ain't how I go."

"Then what are you here for?" Belthor asked, proud that his voice didn't crack.

"I'm here," said the big man, "to tell you that I saw which way Yvette and her girlfriends went."

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Chapter Twelve: Turbulence(Part One)



"Green eyes?"

"Yes, sir." Belthor rubbed at his leg for a moment, more out of reflex than anything else. "No pupils, no irises. Just...green."

"They were being controlled," Agnete said, seated beside the initiate. "I don't know by whom or why, but they weren't acting of their own volition."

"And they called themselves Owned?" Master Kulkas asked.

"Yes, sir," Agnete and Belthor chorused as one. The wizard's eyes flicked to the left.

"It's true, Master Kulkas," Tori said. "Owned, green eyes, five of them. I burned two and Sam went to town on another, but..."

"They were remarkably resilient," Sam picked up. "They took fireballs from Tori and lightning-blasts from me and remained on their feet. Not to mention the one whose arm Agnete shattered."

"They're definitely under some form of spell," Master Kulkas agreed. "Likely a heavy latticework of them, all said and done: some for healing, some for strength, some for resistance to attack and others for simple control."

"They wanted me, sir," Agnete said, eyes lowered. "Somehow...they knew about me."

"Could Yvette have told whoever their master was, before or after she became one of them?"

"I doubt she would, sir," Sam cut in, "but I also don't think she ever was able to overhear anything that would spill the secret. She lacked the personality, the motive, and the means all at once."

 Master Kulkas nodded. "And you couldn't see where they went?"

"No, sir."

He sighed. "A shame. Have you heard anything about this before last night, any of you?"

"No, sir," Belthor repeated. Agnete, Tori, and Sam all shook their heads.

"I see. Evidently Master Protec got his wish." The wizard waved his wand, and a teapot did the rounds, refilling all four students' cups.

"What...wish, sir?" Belthor asked.

"The first disappearance came shortly before I left," Master Kulkas said. "I'm surprised Tori and Sam know nothing of it."

"Oh!" Tori blinked. "You mean...oh, I forget her name. The maid, the one who cleaned the dorms-"

"Yes." Master Kulkas nodded. "She was working toward training as a sorceress. But then she just...vanished into thin air. Masters Protec and Vignette, with the full weight of the Greenhaven family's resources and prestige behind them, led a truly remarkable search effort, but not a trace was found. During the time I was away from the School gathering the acolytes that Belthor eventually competed against and defeated-" the initiate himself looked down at that "-two more young ladies vanished in similar fashion."

"Master Protec hushed it up?" Sam asked.

"He wished to prevent a panic," Master Kulkas agreed. "Theron's parents sided with him - unsurprising, as Master Protec is Theron's uncle-" Belthor jumped at that revelation "-and no one learned of the danger near the School. A fourth girl vanished shortly after Agnete's arrival."

"Well, I think we found them," Sam said. "Then Yvette."

"Then Yvette," Master Kulkas agreed. "The only connection between the five has been that they disappeared around the edge of the town, though in such radically different places that we couldn't establish any likely area to examine. Since the first fruitless search, I happen to know the Greenhaven guardsmen have been sweeping the woods on a regular basis."

"I've never seen them," Agnete said.

"Why do you think I placed you so far from the campus?" Master Kulkas asked. "I wanted to be sure that no patrol in the dark was liable to come across you while you slept. In addition to the immediate risk to you, Agnete, they would immediately report their discovery to Master Protec." He mused for a moment. "I want you all to be safe. None of you should be out alone from now on. Agnete, we might want to talk about moving your lodging, though I'm wary of placing you closer to campus."

"Agnete can stay with us," Tori offered. "If that would help things."

"Are you sure?" Master Kulkas asked. When Sam nodded, he turned to Agnete. "This may be safer for you than hiding in the woods. But it would be very warm."

"I will survive, which is more than might be said for staying in the wilderness," the drow replied, very frankly. "You do not have to do this, but..."

"If it helps you, yes, we do," Sam said. "Friends stick up for each other."

Agnete bowed her head. She muttered something in her language, and from her tone, Belthor could guess it was a thank-you before she paused to translate it.

"I will look into these Owned," Master Kulkas said. "With luck, I can uncover something in the wake of this latest, very public incident that I couldn't in the past. None of the Masters would object to seeing the source of these disappearances removed from the Greenhaven area."

"Yes, sir." Belthor rose along with the wizard and his friends. "Thank you for seeing us."

"Thank you for bringing this to my attention," Master Kulkas replied. He waved his wand again, and his door opened, letting in the bustle of morning in the Grand School, students hurrying this way and that. "Off you go to your classes. Tori, Sam, Agnete has some things that she could use some help moving once the day is over, if you are serious about giving her a temporary place to stay."

"Of course, sir." Tori and Sam made for the door, claiming their staffs. Agnete went with them, adjusting her bookbag-

"Except for you, Belthor."

He paused, hand over his staff. His friends all turned, but Master Kulkas waved them on. "Just Belthor, thank you. It's nothing serious, just a much smaller matter I've been meaning to address for a while now. So long as I have you here, Spellweaver, I'd like to simply be about it."

"...of course, sir." Belthor left his staff where it stood by the door. He turned to the others. "See you at class."

Then they were gone, and Master Kulkas shut the door with his wand.

"Sir?" Belthor asked. The wizard eyed him for a moment.

"You seem to have handled yourself very well for a teenage boy," he said. "Especially when beset on all sides and heavily outnumbered."

"Thank you, Master Kulkas." Belthor frowned as he wondered whether that was really a compliment.

"They wanted Agnete. What exactly did they say?"

"Yvette said to hand her over," Belthor replied. He frowned deeper. "She said...'give us the Gifted one'."

"Gifted one," Master Kulkas stressed. "Gifted. Whoever sent them does not know that she is a drow, Belthor." He raised one eyebrow. "If you had or have any suspicions about Master Protec or Master Vignette, you can put them to rest now."

Belthor looked down. "Sir, I didn't want to point fingers, but..."

"But Masters Protec and Vignette have given you no reason to doubt their coldness," Master Kulkas agreed. "And Master Protec being in charge of the hunt for the disappeared women would give him the ability to hide evidence they might have uncovered. Unless he is running a complex double bluff and his own subordinates were told to refer to Agnete as Gifted instead of elven, it cannot be him."

"But who could it be?" Belthor replied. "Everyone in Greenhaven knows the Gifted excuse by now. And I wouldn't put it past Master Protec or Master Vignette to withhold the truth from their subordinates just to disguise their involvement."

"All rational points," Master Kulkas said. "You are not as foolish as most boys of your age. But I want you to promise me something."

"Sir?" Belthor was afraid he knew what it was.

"I know of how you aided Midnight in Rosa," the wizard said. Belthor winced as he remembered that night.

"I've apologized before for blasting you through your tent, sir, and I'll do it again-"

"Oh, you did what needed doing to save hundreds of thousands of lives that didn't need to be frittered away on a meaningless war." Master Kulkas waved dismissively. "A few bruises on my old body are a scant price to pay. I'm actually rather impressed you caught me with my pants down, so to speak, so conclusively."

"Sir." Belthor studied the carpet.

"I want you to promise me that you will let me deal with this," Master Kulkas said. "Whoever this is, I do not believe it is an agent of the Guiding Light. This will not be Tempest, or a legion of Whispers or White Hand. This man or woman is a sorcerer of no small power or skill. You must not do anything rash and risk your own life trying to resolve the problem yourself, no matter what happens."

"Sir..." Belthor sighed. "I can promise to try. I can't promise to do nothing."

"Of course you can't. Doing nothing is not the human condition, and furthermore, it is not a wizard's way. I would give you a black mark on the spot if you showed no inclination to use your power to aid the victimized and make this world a better place." Master Kulkas shook his head. "But this fight is beyond you. Leave it to me if you have any choice at all."

Belthor nodded slowly. He tried to even convince himself that his mentor had a point.

"In the meantime..." the wizard shuffled papers on his desk. "If Agnete is taken by these Owned, the Masters will, as a general body, most likely heave a sigh of relief and issue only a token search until they are certain they won't be recovering their current problem alive."

"They can't..." Belthor sighed. "That's foul."

"She's not a wizard, Spellweaver. Why would the Masters care if she was injured in an attack?" Master Kulkas looked up, and the initiate hesitated as he saw the glint in his eyes.

"...would they really do more if I was attacked, sir?" he finally asked. "I'm not Master Protec's favorite student."

"But you are a human wizarding student of his, and he cannot ignore the provocation that an assault upon you would represent, no matter whom else might have also been attacked," Master Kulkas said. He watched Belthor closely, and the young man found himself nodding.

"I understand, sir." He reached for his staff, and it flew into his grip.

"Belthor." Master Kulkas glanced over his spectacles. "Think carefully before you do this. I cannot ask you to risk your life for the sake of another."

"Well, sir," Belthor said, cracking a little smile, "it's a good thing for the both of us that you won't have to."