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Sam seemed almost all right, especially since Belthor had shown up three nights previously, but Agnete was even more withdrawn than usual.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."

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