Wednesday, August 30, 2017

On Hurricane Harvey

As a child, I was caught in the path of Hurricane Isabel. Living in a small town on the riverside, I got to see first-hand what a powerful storm can do. And my family and I were lucky: we happened to live atop a cliff, well protected from the storm surge, and by the grace of God all four trees that went into our house went into the same room, well away from us where we sheltered in the basement my military grandfather built.

The town wasn't so lucky. Entire areas were swept away, trees came down like scattered confetti and tossed-aside toys, and I remember entire roads and yards rendered invisible by the barricade of bark and fallen wood. There was no power for three weeks.

In that time, the people of my hometown set to work, and my parents opened our doors. We had a generator, and we had a house that had come through the storm intact. My mother had a crock pot, and we had warm water. As dozens of men and women in my country home worked cutting wood and clearing trees, making way for the official FEMA and Dominion Power details that would come to restore power, they came to my parents' house for showers and soup. Even in the aftermath of a hurricane, the human spirit proved unbreakable, and the bonds of community were all that kept some going.

I remember Isabel, and I remember its aftermath. And though I haven't seen a storm like that since, my heart breaks when I see news of Harvey ripping through Texas. My father-in-law lives in Houston, and though he's safe with his family, many others aren't, and the damage has been extreme.

Which is why I have donated every cent of profit I have made from this blog's operation to the American Red Cross. Next week, I will once again donate all profit I have made from book sales through the Bookstore since this post went up.

If we come together, we can make this world a better place. And because I was lucky, I have a responsibility to help those who haven't been.

After all, it's what Belthor would do.

~Kevin Haulsee

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Chapter Twenty-two: Ice Cold Hearts(Part Two)



"You have until the count of three to surrender that," the teacher said, his voice low and level as every armsman in the room backed three paces away, covering their faces. "If you do not do so, child, I will assume you intend to attack me because you are in league with the drow and this is an effort to eliminate the House Greenhaven in its entirety. If that happens, I will kill you where you stand."

Belthor sucked in breath. "I'm not scared of you. I took Theron."

"A feat well-done, I admit," Protec said, "but when you faced Theron, his guards didn't have your friends in their custody." He nodded over Belthor's shoulder, and though the initiate didn't look, he knew what he would see if he did. "Maybe you can put up more of a fight than I think, boy, but your friends won't, even with their Gifts." He reached up for Belthor's staff, and firmly grasped the end. "I suggest you think very carefully about your next move, Spellweaver." 

Belthor sucked in a ragged breath through his teeth.

"One."

"Belthor-" Tori started, before quieting as someone grunted.

"Two." 

Belthor quivered. The rage poured through his veins and steamed up his vision...

"Boy-"

He sighed in the instant he released his grip on the staff it had taken stopping a war for him to win.
"Probably the wisest choice you've made in your time at this school." Protec handed the weapon off to a guard, who held it like he expected it to turn into a snake. "Where is she?"

"I don't know." Belthor didn't even try to conceal his anger. "And that's the truth. I don't have a clue. She didn't come back last night."

"Convenient." Protec reached into his coat, and out came his wand. Belthor eyed the tool as the wizard took two steps across the room. "And also, I think, a lie, but let's try something else." He turned back around. "What's her interest in Hastel?"

"Maybe it's because he's a prick?" Belthor suggested.

Protec laughed. He laughed quietly, but for a very long, drawn-out moment. "You, Spellweaver, have so much in common with the last aficionado of the dark this school produced that it's not even funny."

"Well, if you think he was such a pain, he must have been all right," Tori snapped. "You're getting nothing on Agnete from us. She's innocent."

"I doubt it," Master Protec said, and the sick thing was Belthor was starting to think she wasn't. "You are aiding and abetting a creature that has attacked a wizarding student and taken him for her nefarious purposes."

"Her name is Agnete," Belthor insisted. "And even if she did this, all you're going to do is use it as an excuse to kill her."

"Excuse?" Protec snarled. "She's a kidnapper and likely plans on murdering my brother's youngest! And you say I hunt for an excuse?" He shook his head. "No. There is no path forward endorsed by a reasonable man that does not end with the drow's blood being spilt. Maybe if you weren't so blind to the reality of what she is, you could see that." He curled his lip. "This generation is soft. You think a drow and a human can coexist? The animal will always be looking for a way to spill blood however is most convenient!"

"Yeah, and the drow won't," Belthor said. 

"I hope your things are easy to pack, son of Morse," Protec said. "Because the only way you stay at this school now is if you earn a wand in the next twenty-four hours." He laughed. "Good luck." He considered. "I could help you if you helped me."

Belthor swallowed. "We'll go after her. Me, and Tori, and Sam. And we'll bring Hastel back-"

"This is not a matter for children." Protec shook his head. "The Masters will handle this ourselves. You obviously are in league with her. She's put you under some kind of Vod-spell, or perhaps offered you more worldly rewards for service." He turned to his guards. "Are there any ways they can escape without going through you?"

"No, sir." The man eyed Belthor, Tori and Sam while he said it. "My men have the building surrounded too."

"Good. Do not let them leave. Master Vignette will be along to entice their cooperation." Protec turned for the door. "I am going to lock the school down. I won't see anyone else taken while we wait on these race-traitors' return to the light."

"Don't hold your breath!" Sam snapped. Protec ignored him.

The guards in the room streamed out at their sergeants' orders, leaving the three initiates alone.

"This is bad," Tori said, with commendable understatement. "If Agnete really took him...she can't have, though!"

"I think she did," Belthor replied, sick in his heart. "It would explain why she was in the woods. And she had a staff. It must be Hastel's."

"I really hate Protec!" Tori turned and punched her couch several times. "I! Hate! That! Man!" She paused for a moment to massage her knuckles. "And I hate that he's right! Can't he at least be racist, stupid, mean and wrong too?"

"What are we going to do?" Sam asked. "We don't have staffs-"

"We have our Gifts," Tori said. Belthor nodded.

"We'll have to figure out the staff part later," he said. "If Protec and his goon squad catch up to Agnete, they'll kill her. There has to be more to this than meets the eye. She wouldn't just take Hastel."

"Are you thinking maybe he attacked her?" Sam asked.

"I don't know," Belthor admitted. "But we at least owe Agnete a chance to explain herself, and I know Protec and Vignette won't give it to her." He paused. "Not to mention that I think Master Vignette's going to torture us when she gets here. Did you get a different impression? Please tell me you did."
"...no," Sam said. Tori shook her head.

"Right." Belthor swallowed. "With no staffs and a half-wrecked apartment surrounded by trained armsmen, we've got to figure out a way to hold off a Master and escape."

"Not to mention," Tori added, "if Master Protec locks down the campus, that'll take the form of a shield around the whole thing that we can't get out of. Whatever we do, we have to do it before he locks everything down, or this'll be the shortest escape in history."

"Great." Belthor glanced around at the wreckage of Tori's door and the remnants of breakfast. "Then I guess we'd better plan fast, huh?"

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Anniversary Special and Maximus 3!

Hello, everyone!

I'm pleased to announce I have finished all my work on Maximus 3, and uploaded and scheduled the entire book. I'm taking a little break before setting to on Maximus 4, but it's time for the big reveal! I'm pleased to announce the Third Novel of Maximus will be called Shieldmaiden, and it will follow Kacey MacTavish, the daughter of John MacTavish from Midnight, as she comes to terms with her heritage as the daughter of a Highland Laird...and a drow witch. It is available for purchase as of now, and will begin airing in October when Belthor Spellweaver finishes.

To that end, I want to tie this reveal into a special thing I've noticed. The very first post on this site(Midnight's Chapter One: Fight(Part One)) went up on August 23rd of 2016. That's only a week from today! I want to celebrate, and I want you all who've been with me on my journey to celebrate with me. To that end, I've decided that for every early purchase of Shieldmaiden, I will also provide a FREE copy of Midnight to go with! This anniversary offer will end when the Spellweaver post "The Race: Part One" goes up in a little more than a week, so act fast!

Even if you miss the offer, you can purchase Shieldmaiden and Midnight as a bundle for a discount.

Right. Thank you again for your interest, whether you're new or old as a reader. I hope you get as much enjoyment from the Maximus universe as myself, and stay tuned for what comes next!

-Kevin Haulsee

Chapter Twenty-two: Ice Cold Hearts(Part One)



"Eggs?"

"No!" Belthor paused. "Sorry. That was harsh. He was fond of eggs."

"Ah. Say no more." Tori waved her staff, and batter flew from her cupboards, as well as several other ingredients. Belthor watched as it all spiraled together in the air before the redhead held out her hands. Fire surged upward, and in a moment-

"Slicey-slicey!" Sam waved his staff, and the giant block of pancakes split into a baker's dozen individuals, four each landing on three plates and the thirteenth on its own, with butter and syrup and other additions flying from various cubbies and drawers to neatly arrange themselves on the plate.

Forks and knives came next, and Belthor caught his plate left-handed as he set his staff by the door. He raised his right hand to catch his glass of orange juice, and then he sat at the coffee table in the same instant as Tori and Sam.

"I love wizardry," he mumbled as he took his first bite.

"You should see my mother cook," Tori said. "I'm a novice. She can make a five-course dinner like that!" She snapped. "One flick of her wand. Though Dad likes cooking more than she does...he does it the non-magical way." She leaned over toward Belthor. "Don't tell Mom this," she stage-whispered, "but I like Dad's food better."

"Yes, but this is so much more convenient and so much more fun to watch." Belthor felt himself smiling for the first time in several days. "I remember helping my parents cook in South Shara. Farm-boy stuff, you know? My mother would kill do be able to do what you just did. We'd eat pancakes three times a day, every day." He shrugged. "There are worse fates."

"Where's Agnete?" Sam asked, nodding to the lightly-adorned plate. "She never misses Tori's cooking."

"I thought she was out here," Tori said. She jerked her head back to the joint girls' bedroom. "I was asleep before she got back, and you know how she sleeps. She's always up before I am."

"I didn't see her," Belthor said, as he pushed his pillow further into the background on the couch. "Is she in the bathroom?"

"Agnete?" Tori called. She frowned when the drow didn't respond. "Guess not."

"Maybe she took a walk in the snow," Sam suggested. He wolfed down another bite. "I feel bad keeping her cooped up in the heat, but until the mess dies down in the woods, it's just not safe for her to move back out there."

"But walking around on campus shouldn't be a problem." Belthor frowned. "Does she do that often?"

"Every day or two. One of us usually bundles up and goes with her, just in case." Sam shrugged. "One of us primarily meaning me, since Tori's allergic to cold despite being able to create fire at will."

"If I was walking around with a great blazing torch, Agnete would probably be at more risk rather than less," Tori replied. "We'd be a great stealth operation as we glowed and burned our way around the paths."

"Has she ever gone out without letting you know?" Belthor asked.

"No," Tori said. "But with the...thing...over, maybe she thought it was fine."

"Please don't tell her about this." Belthor pulled out his shard of glass. "With everything the way it is, I'd feel safer if-"

"Don't worry about it." Sam waved. "I think we feel the same way. Let's just be safe and feel guilty about it if it's nothing."

"Sounds like a plan." Belthor held up the glass. "Spellweaver. Show me Agnete."

The glass rippled. He waited.

"She's...definitely outside," he finally reported. "She's in the woods."

"The woods?" Sam demanded. "That's a bit far afield. Is she moving out?"

"She...she has a staff." Belthor blinked. "She's going uphill."

"That's away from campus." Tori paused mid-bite. "Is she going west or east?"

"...east, I think." The initiate tried to make sense of what he was seeing. "I don't understand."

Someone knocked on the door. Belthor jumped.

"Spellweaver," he muttered, as he, Sam, and Tori came to their feet. He jammed the glass in his pocket while the two Gifted students got the door.

"Tori. Sam." Master Protec entered, his face grim. "Where's Agnete?"

"Why?" Belthor asked.

"Where?" the teacher repeated. "I'm not in the mood for your games today, son of Morse."

"I'm asking a question," he said. "Why do you need to know?"

"Search this place." Master Protec stepped aside, and Tori yelped as a flood of men in the livery of the Greenhaven house swarmed in.

"Hey!" Sam cried. "You can't just come storming in here any time you feel like it! The Code certifies students' right to the privacy of their dorms-"

"-for academic purposes," Master Protec agreed. "For homework. Not in the event of a general School lockdown."

"Lockdown?" Tori demanded. "On what grounds?" She winced as two men kicked down the door to her bedroom. "Was that really necessary? It wasn't locked-"

"I'll decide what's necessary." Master Protec's eyes blazed. "Hastel has gone missing."

"And you blame Agnete?" Belthor demanded. "Just like that?"

"Silence." The master turned to his men. "What have you found?"

"Someone else was here, sir," one of the armsmen said, returning from the girls' bedroom. "Someone who wasn't fond of blankets. Looks very drow-like to me."

"You told them?" Belthor cried, incredulous, as Master Protec nodded.

"They are professionals conducting their business, and they require all information that might enable them to catch their suspect," Master Protec said.

"What's she suspected of? Kidnapping Hastel?" Belthor asked. "Why? Because she's a drow and she's convenient?"

"That's a third black mark-"

"I don't care about your black marks!" Belthor pushed past a surprised armsman to glare up into Master Protec's face. "You can't just arrest my friend because Hastel's stayed out too late drinking! She hasn't done anything to deserve a general manhunt called down on her-"

"Really?" Master Protec didn't raise his voice, but something about his tone stopped Belthor up short. "She was spotted entering Hastel's dorm by one of the other students there, who assumed they were there for a romantic liason-"

"Agnete and Hastel?" Sam asked, looking like he just swallowed gunpowder. "What idiot thought there was half a chance in Hell-"

"-and she left carrying his staff, with him floating behind her, unconscious," Master Protec finished. "I have three witnesses who saw it, and they'll stand in a Greenhaven court and swear it. Call them liars if you want, I don't care. But I think you know something about where Agnete has taken my nephew, because you three are in deep with the drow."

"I want to talk to Master Kulkas," Belthor said. "I'll say nothing to you until then."

"Kulkas is overseeing the fallout from your reckless assault on Theron's operation," Master Protec said, and Belthor felt the world tilt.

"You blame us for stopping him from...from..."

"It was certainly inconveniently timed," the Master snapped. "And you have only yourself to blame, son of Morse, for how your precious mentor isn't here to bail you out like last time. You've been making more waves than this school has seen in a long time, and I'm tired of dissent from my colleagues on how to put you in your place."

"You can't deny him that right," Tori snapped. "You can't force him to talk without him consulting with his mentor first."

"I'm tired of this." Protec jerked his head toward the three. "Take their staffs."

"Hey!" Sam swore as a man yanked his weapon from his hand, and Tori cried out a moment later.

"Protec!" Belthor's hand shot out and his staff flew into it. He leveled the tool right at the master's nose, barely an inch from contact.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Chapter Twenty-one: The Things We Dread(Part Two)



Belthor wrote. He wrote, and wrote, and wrote, teeth set. His hand shook and his breath caught and...
It's too long. He leaned back, staring at the too-small scribbles crammed onto the page. They wouldn't be legible. 

With a hiss, he ripped the page off and threw it aside. He leaned forward over his notebook, kneading his forehead, struggling to condense a night of torture and madness and suffering and battle and betrayal into as few words as possible-

Motion in front of him. He glanced up to see a waving hand.

You don't have to be quick about it, Estelle wrote, her eyes dark and her demeanor very much reminiscent of Belthor's mother. She smoothed out the skirts of her blue dress where she sat on her bed, and the next note she held up made the initiate wince. I'm here for you.

They were locked in coffins, Belthor finally wrote. He sniffed, tears in his eyes. We opened them up, and they just... he added the ellipses after a moment, unsure of what other words he could add. They're mad, he finally jotted after a moment. I was too late.

They're alive. They wouldn't be if you were too late. Estelle shook her head. I'm coming north. I'll be there next week.

No. You don't have to. Belthor shook his head. I can do this myself. I'm not a boy.

I never said you were. Estelle's face was set. You don't look well, Bel. Please tell me you're not still staying in your old dorm room.

No. Belthor gestured behind him. This is Sam and Tori's.

Good. Estelle nodded once. Solitude is a bad thing when you're distressed.

So I've been told. Belthor wiped at his eye. He growled as he felt a tear. Not now! Not in front of-

Belthor, you have seen something most people couldn't envision, Estelle wrote, piercing his soul with her archer's gaze. That you weep shows you care. You are not Theron. I don't care what Runes glowed and didn't glow - that's not my area of expertise. I've known terrible people, and you are not one of them. She shook her head. I find myself wondering if Vaneer would have taken advantage of Theron's abilities had he discovered him.

Gods have mercy, Belthor wrote. Vaneer and Theron together would have been unstoppable.

No. Estelle didn't elaborate, but Belthor liked her confidence.

The initiate glanced at the clock. I should go. Lunch is almost over, and I still have staff class. He debated for a moment, but he had to add it. I guess I get to listen to another Master malign Agnete.

This sounds less like a school and more like a cult by the day, Estelle observed. Take that from one who would know what a cult is like.

Belthor nodded once. I've had the thought. You're not wrong. But this is where wizards are trained. If I'm to be one, this is the place.

Estelle sighed, though he couldn't hear her. I'm coming north regardless, Bel. Just for a visit. I can make up some official reason for a Princess of Nurem to visit the School of Sorcery. Is there anything I can bring you? Anything at all I can do?

Belthor shook his head. Unless you know how to clear traumatic memories.

Revenge. Estelle's response was so fast, so authoritative, that Belthor wondered.

I wanted to kill him.

You should have. Her eyes were cold. Runes be damned, he is scum. And he's too dangerous to be left alive.

It would be murder, Belthor protested.

Yes. Estelle didn't seem at all concerned about that. Belthor reminded himself about her secret-assassin-cult background. She stood, brushing her hair back. Eat something. Drink something. Breathe. Run a lap. Then get to your class and stay close to Sam and Tori. They sound like they have their heads on their shoulders. She smiled, and for a wonder, Belthor didn't think it was forced. I expect an introduction.

As Estelle or as Midnight?

Estelle shrugged. Do you trust them?

Belthor nodded. Estelle did the same.

Make sure they know that if they say a word to anyone, they'll never see me coming before they're dead, she added, with a decidedly terrifying smile.

***

Agnete stood in the hallway, arms wrapped around herself. She waited as Hastel tapped his staff against the lock on his door, pausing to glance her up and down again. She flinched when he did, and that only seemed to egg him on.

"Right this way, Lady Frost," he said, holding the door after it swung open. Agnete glanced in at a messy dorm with scattered clothes, wondering which of his cronies was his roommate.

She had second thoughts. They spun in her head, darting back and forth like creatures in the snow. She swallowed as she contemplated the door and the man alike, but...

Once you go in, there is no turning back, she reminded herself. As if there was any now! You have summoned Char, Agnete. You cannot un-summon him.

The summoning wasn't done, not yet...but still, Agnete drew in breath, resigned herself to her course, and made for the door, feeling Hastel's eyes on her back as she entered his lair.

"Which one is yours?" she asked, looking left and right at the two bedroom doors. Hastel set his staff to stand by itself, then removed his coat. He threw it carelessly on his couch.

"Left," he said. "I hope you're not under the delusion that this is a one-time thing, Frost."

"You said..." Agnete swallowed, her eyes darting left and right. "Please. Don't make me-"

"Hey. If you want me to leave you alone, you have to earn your prize." He smiled. "Don't worry. You'll enjoy it if you try."

She wavered for a moment, perhaps a little more than she ought to. The decision was made. There was no running away now.

"...you are cruel." She wiped away another tear.

"Excuse me?" Hastel stepped up into her face. "I'm doing you a favor. What do you say?"

Agnete couldn't bring herself to meet his eyes, so she just stared at his staff, standing at his right hand like it was his chief compatriot. Again, she mumbled.

His hand flashed. She clutched her cheek as it stung, grateful that her Glamour was strong enough to survive her surprise.

"Thank you," she said, louder. "I'm sorry."

"Better." Hastel looked smug as he turned for his room. "Come on." He passed through the doorway...and again, Agnete hesitated. She wavered on the balls of her feet.

This is wrong, she told herself, in a voice that sounded far-away. Agnete, this is-

This is the only way. It's for the best. Just think of your future. Think of your people.

"I said, come," Hastel said, turning. He pointed at the ground. "Don't make me hit you again."

"No," Agnete agreed. She reached for the buttons of her shirt as she approached the door.

"Finally. You have to be talked through everything. Know how to take that off?" Hastel smirked, then turned to push scattered clothes off his bed. "I can cut it off you, if you'd like that better." He waited for a response that didn't come. "Then I suggest you speed up-"

Crash!

Hastel went straight across his room. He hit the far wall with a thump, and slumped on his side, clutching his head. He groaned.

Agnete lowered his staff, hate and fury pulsing through her veins.

Char was summoned.

"You...what are you doing, Frost-" Hastel cut off as she loomed over him, pressing the end of his own staff almost between his eyes. They crossed. "That isn't yours. You can't use it. It's not Belthor's either, so your bond-"

"I cannot cast spells with it," Agnete agreed. She bared her teeth, and Hastel paled as she released just that little bit of her Glamour. "But a weapon is a weapon, Hastel Greenhaven, and it will turn on its bearer as easily as he would use it to smite his enemies."

"Frost-"

He screamed as she rammed the staff into his midsection. A sharp crack echoed through the room, and Agnete hissed in feral pleasure as she heard a bone snap.

"Frost, we had a deal!" Hastel begged. "Please. Please, mercy. Don't kill me, please!"

"Mercy." Her voice was very calm. "Mercy indeed." She smiled. "Don't cry, Hastel. I won't kill you."

"Thank you-"

"I have a better use for a piece of feed like you." She raised the staff.

"Please, don't-"

Crack! That was his head, and he fell in a senseless heap on the floor.

A moment later, Agnete dropped the staff.

"Oh, no," she whispered. "What have I...no." She stumbled backward two steps. "I...I just..."

The world was out of focus. Without thinking, she turned back for the main room. She scurried to Hastel's mystic pantry and threw food aside left and right, shattering plates and scattering leftovers on the floor until she found a half-eaten pie. The girl threw as many bites as her small stomach would tolerate into her system, reveling in the taste as she sweated.

"I attacked him," she whispered. "I...I..." She jumped. "I left him with the staff!"

There was nothing to worry about. Hastel was alive, but colder than northern winter. Agnete took his staff just in case.

There is no turning back, Snowdrop, she told herself. Your Glamour. Step two.

She hurried to Hastel's bathroom. She found his mirror, throwing aside anything that got in her way, wincing as some glass bottles broke and others leaked...but was it a worry? It wasn't her bathroom. There was a thought.

She stared at herself in the mirror, taking in her whitening eyes and pointed teeth.

"Savage," she whispered. "Dark Art. Evil creature. Primitive." The girl let out a long, low breath.

The girls appeared in her mind again, chained and locked in their coffins, left to rot in the dark...

"They call me savage," she reminded herself. "While men like Theron have their way with the defenseless, inflicting their evil on those they care nothing for...while men like Hastel care only for themselves...they call me evil. They call me depraved, for the skin I was born to." She shook her head. "I will never be more than my race, if I live among them ten thousand years."

Her claws sank into the porcelain of the sink. The sound she made was more an animal growl than a sigh of acceptance.

Char had been summoned.

"I am not evil. I am misunderstood." She straightened. "They are evil. They are plague-bringers and home-breakers. They are kidnappers and murderers and bullies. Their race destroys this world and burns mine at stakes."

She ripped the sink in two, hurling the basin to the left. Her eyes bored into the mirror.

"If they will only ever see me as evil..." she whispered.

She rent the mirror next, sending glass fragments scattering to all sides.

"Come." She raised her hand, and Hastel floated into the air, arms and legs dangling limply. "Ezraval. I invoke the God of Love." She waited as the horrid, uncomfortable chill of her Glamour returned, working over her body from her toes up to her hair. She took Hastel's staff, and she made for the door, beckoning him after her.

By the time anyone investigated the open door, she was long gone with her prize in tow.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Chapter Twenty-one: The Things We Dread(Part One)



"Now, who can tell me about Vod?" Master Protec asked. No student raised his or her hand, and Belthor was no exception...though he did eye Agnete and wonder why she didn't.

Well, that wasn't true. He knew why. Tori and Sam seemed almost all right, especially since Belthor had shown up three nights previously, but Agnete was even more withdrawn than usual. Hastel was pointing at her surreptitiously and muttering to his friends, so Belthor assumed that had something to do with it.

I'll kill him, the initiate thought, before wincing. He shuddered as he remembered standing over Theron where he hung off the falls, lightning coursing along his staff and judgment in his heart. No. Don't even think that, Belthor Spellweaver. Don't go there.

"I'm disappointed. I thought this was a class full of those eager to earn wands." Master Protec laughed. "Remember, you earn a wand through incredible knowledge and diligence. Vod is something all wizards should know about."

"But, Master," Hastel said, "that's witchcraft. That's dark sorcery."

"All the more reason to know how to snuff it out," Master Protec said, and Belthor wondered what Master Kulkas would be saying had the teachers' roles been reversed that day. But no: Master Kulkas had no familial connection to Theron, so he was in charge of cleaning that mess up and overseeing the senior's judgment. 

"Vod," Master Protec said, "comes not from gods, but from dark power underlying the fabric of our universe. There are threads, as witches and warlocks call them, that connect people to other people, and also to concepts...concepts like clarity, fortune, fate, health." He nodded as a few students whispered. "Those of you diligent in your reading will know those are typical Vod-spells. A Vod-witch sews with the threads between people and concepts, tying them to each other in certain combinations."

"Do you know Vod, sir?" Tori asked. 

"Good gods, no! It's pagan sorcery, most unbefitting a wizard to know." Master Protec started to laugh, and so did the rest of the students. Belthor didn't, and the skin around Sam's eyebrows tightened.

Agnete sat very still.

"The thing about Vod is that it is the brand of magic practiced by drow and elves, who learned it in turn from the dragons," Master Protec said. "Dragons and drow, but not mere elves, share a talent that their primitive mythology claims was passed on by Char, the Forgotten Lord of Hell. Who can tell me-" He broke off as Hastel's hand went up. "I should have known. Come on up, dragon-hunter."

Hastel stood, and he crossed to the center of the room. "Well, Master, I don't want to brag, but I know dragons like no other. Except you, of course."

His uncle laughed. Hastel faced the class, leaving his staff to stand idle by his side. "Vod is an art of rituals: for a human to tie into the threads, it requires gestures, symbols, and objects. Dolls usually, and then specific incantations and phrases, as well as drawn symbols on the ground, sometimes in blood. Virgin blood is the best, you know, so that's a weakness all you ladies should work on getting over." He winked, and while some people chuckled, Belthor just felt his lip curl.

Theron did it better.

"But the dragons can cast Vod on touch," Hastel said. "Just using their claws, and deciding what spell they want to cast. They taught this skill to the drow, though they lacked the dragons' strength with the threads and couldn't simply...decide what power to use." He shrugged. "Dragons are my area of expertise, but I know drow use some kind of...sign language."

"Thank you, Hastel." Master Protec applauded, and Belthor grudgingly did the same along with Tori and Sam...and noted Agnete still had not moved.

No, that wasn't true. Under the table, Belthor saw her hands move, and for a moment she made what looked like a rude gesture Hastel's way. Her fingernails seemed to glow red, but it could have just been the light.

"Ow!" Hastel stumbled as he made back for his table, and he fell on hands and knees. Belthor laughed louder than most, and Theron's brother gave him a dark glare as he grabbed his staff and hurried back to sit with his cronies.

"Hastel is correct in that the drow use sign language of a sort," Master Protec said, ignoring the student's fall. "For each spell, there is a gesture that must be performed at a close distance - say, putting their hand on someone's chest to bestow health, or on their cheek to enchant against danger." He paused. "Learning the signs and spells to be aware of what witches are using against you is a permissible academic exercise according to the Rules of Study, even if the practice of Vod is strictly forbidden on this campus and among all wizards. Those who seek to master studies of the Dark Art should be forewarned that traveling down such a path will lose you your academic futures here. Never has there been a wizard master of both Vod and magic who has not gone wrong." 

"Sir?" Sam raised his hand, while Tori scribbled with thin lips and Agnete scowled behind her upraised book. "Sir, you say this was taught to the dragons by Char?"

"Char, yes," Master Protec said. "I hear Master Kulkas spoke to you of him already, else I would have left that detail out. All knowledge comes together in the end." He glanced around. "For those who might have forgotten: Char is, in the pagan superstition of the elven tribes, the Lord of Hell and the Father of Dragons. All malice is ascribed to him, and he is the one they pray to every morning seeking the destruction of this world."

Belthor couldn't bite his tongue. "Seeking the destruction of this world, sir?"

"Of course. That's their fondest wish." Master Protec's eyes were warning. "You can read that anywhere on this campus."

"Makes sense," Belthor said, unable to stop himself now any more than earlier. "Everyone wants to destroy the world they live in, don't they?"

"Well, son of Morse, that is certainly an amusing truth I wish occurred to more of them," Master Protec said, with a little smile. "But one can hardly ascribe higher thought to savages. We and they alike are fortunate only one of the Four can summon Char, else they would have obliterated themselves a long time ago in a fit of tribal fury."

"Excuse me." And then Agnete was on her feet, bag in one hand and book in the other. She swept from the room, eyes vacant, while the entire class stared.

"What's got her knickers twisted?" Hastel asked, making no attempt to be quiet. "I guess Frost is a drow-lover, huh? She's certainly cold and dull enough to get along with them."

The class laughed and snickered. Tori's eyes blazed and Belthor caught a good whiff of a burning scent from her direction. He noticed Sam's hand on her shoulder, but the young man looked no less incensed than she: merely a bit more patient. 

"That's enough of that," Master Protec said, though Belthor felt a cold rush as he saw a tingle of amusement in the wizard's eye. "I'm sure Agnete simply has ladies' things to handle. One must never stand in a woman's way during her cycle of the moon, after all."

"You ever wonder if there's a reason you haven't got any friends, sir?" Belthor asked, and a hush slammed down over the class with an almost-physical thud.

"That's a second black mark on your record," Master Protec said, and instead of irritation he looked pleased. "There are students who have been expelled with only one, son of Morse. Your chances of earning a wand and an unquestioned right to higher studies among us are growing slimmer and slimmer."

Belthor thought about grabbing his staff and showing Master Protec his opinion of higher studies under him. In fact, he got so far as lifting his hand from his notebook.

What stopped him was seeing Agnete's empty seat...and the inviting look in their teacher's eye.

"Moving along, then," Master Protec said after a moment, when Belthor lowered his hand. "I believe Master Vignette intends to teach you about portal-making later today, so let's talk about the theory behind them. Who here knows about portals?"

***

Agnete stood in the ladies' room, staring at her reflection in the mirror. She took in the cheeks she'd gotten used to, the brown eyes that were not hers, the hair that wasn't truly red whatever humans said of it. It was a sickly coppery-brown, not red. Red was the color of blood.

"Ezraval," she whispered, and for a moment she looked at the snow in her eyes and hair. She hadn't lowered her Glamour for more than a few minutes every day since moving in with Sam and Tori, since she knew her appearance would disgust and frighten them. They were kind enough, but in the end, some things simply were as they were.

And Agnete looked a monster to the eyes of men, however kind of heart they were.

Some things are principles of nature, she thought, breathing heavily as Protec's words rang in her ears. Savages. Primitive superstition. 

She broke down a moment later, because while Protec incensed her, Hastel simply pushed her over the edge. She clutched her eyes as his volley of insults and hatred rang in her ears.

Drow-lover. The irony of him being entirely right for all the wrong reasons was not lost on Agnete. Nor was the irony of her crying over being called exactly what she was and took no shame in.

"I can't do this anymore," she whispered, voice wavering. "I can't..." 

She had to do something. Trying to endure Hastel's barrage wasn't yielding results.

Slowly, an idea began to take root in her head...a very dark, very frightening idea.

And in a very deeply-buried part of her brain, what scared her the most was how readily she accepted it...how easily she discarded any argument against it.

There is no other way. 

She left the bathroom, her Glamour restored. She walked with her head down, sniffling in defeat as she went against the flow of students leaving Protec's class.

"Agnete-"

"Later." She pushed past Tori, Sam and Belthor without a thought. They stared after her for a moment, but then they were off, muttering.

Muttering about her. They were always talking about her. It broke her heart to think of the shame they endured for being her friends. Just for talking to her.

"Hey, Frost is back." Hastel sneered. "You missed the last half-hour of class."

She mumbled. Hastel snickered.

"What's that? I can't hear you."

"I said...please leave me alone," Agnete managed, a little louder. She sniffled. "I can't take it anymore. You are hurting me."

"Poor baby." Hastel shook his head. "Can't take a little fun-"

"I will do anything." She met his gaze, tears falling from Glamoured eyes. "I will give you anything you ask for."