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Tuesday, 08 November 2022 01:00

Under the Sea (Part 2)

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A Second Generation Whateley Academy Tale

Under the Sea

by

Nagrij

 

Part Two

 

"Come on man, just for a couple hours."

He didn't say it, but he wanted to. He was always trying to get me away from her. He still hadn't given up, after two months.

Guess I had given Alan false hope, in a way, since I did go with him occasionally. I'd even go with him today, since it had been almost a week since the last time I'd done anything for me.

That was all well and good, since Anise was expecting it. I could tell by how she just got up and walked off without so much as a glance back. That didn't mean I wouldn't hear about it later, but appearances had to be kept. I was keeping just enough distance from Anise to not totally destroy my social life, while still making it clear I was a friend of sorts to her.

No one openly bad mouthed her in front of me anymore. Which was for the best. She was crazy, a bit wild and more than a little reckless... but she was far more sane than some people I knew.

I didn't even need to resort to violence; I could instead use some logic. Even the stabbing made a little sense, in context. Well, I thought so anyway - Alan's friend Russ was a bit of a scumbag and he had issues being polite to girls. Or even being anything but rude to girls. I was tempted to stab him just from overhearing him in the halls as he tried pickup lines from the fifties on girls who tried their best to ignore him.

He was a pretty nice guy to other guys at least... it was too bad he thought with the wrong head most of the time. Anise wasn't even alone in retaliating; he got beat up at least once a week.

Alan still defended him though, and I still needed to ask why. Maybe later.

"Alright man, let's go."

The current errand was to exercise by playing some baseball. Which for us was basically just hitting and fielding practice with a few jokes tossed in. Most of the time we didn't bother running the bases.

I would today... I'd been lazy the last few days. But magic was just too... magical to skip. I didn't want to lose muscle or reflexes, but I was cutting it close. Even now, I wanted to learn more about the elder sign which banished or imprisoned demons. I hadn't seen a demon yet, but Anise said that time was coming; that I would learn to summon them myself.

I couldn't wait.

But for now, it was physical exercise. That too was maddening in its way; Anise didn't do much at all if you didn't count the almost nightly walks down to the beach, but she was stronger than I was, and seemed to have more stamina than I did too. She could move the rotten furniture by herself, and while I was down for a five count, she nonchalantly kept going.

It wasn't normal, that was for sure. Between the two of us, we had cleaned the house up as well as we could, and repaired what we could, as bad as it looked to just pull up floorboards and nail brand new ones in. Made the floors look kind of tacky, cause I couldn't match the stain.

That is, where I could do that rather than just nailing plywood over the old floor and sanding it down. That was probably not going to hold very long, but I wasn't a carpenter and Anise didn't seem to mind.

The ceiling still leaked when it rained of course, because my Mom would have a heart attack to see me crawling around on top of the house trying to nail wood over ruined, rotten tiles. There were buckets catching most of the water getting through, but for some reason Anise just didn't care. The only rooms without leaks were her room and the library.

The less said about the bathroom, the better.

However, Anise said her servants were returning soon, and they would handle the cleaning that we had been unfairly splitting until now. Months of putting me off... whoever it was must have had decades of vacation time saved up.

I wasn't sure about summoning a demon; the rest of the magic so far had worked, but demons... did they really exist? Being able to banish one seemed useful, but summoning one... wasn't that evil?

Anise wasn't down with such thoughts - when I asked her, she just shrugged and said it could be useful.

I banished those thoughts and put my head into the game. The actual game at this point, as there was a basketball game starting up on the court on the playground behind the school. It wasn't the baseball messing around I'd been promised, but I could see why it was happening.

Just a friendly game after school, four on four, and I had been picked in advance by someone who, while not the king of the school, was close. That choice assured I would be able to hang out with who I wanted, when I wanted... almost.

It certainly didn't hurt my friend situation. Our team was even stacked; there was no way we'd lose this. Alan, Miguel, Darshan, and Keith, two of which were on the basketball team. All that firepower against Fred, Lyle, Daryl, and a guy nicknamed "Krug". Three of the four were on the football team, and therefore athletes, but none were exactly receiver material, so we would run rings around them, and they knew it.

Why they had asked for the game, why they had drafted so poorly, I didn't know. Even if they kept us out of the inside, we could just rain 3's.

At least, that was how it was supposed to work in theory. Practice was shown to be something different after the first pass, where I had to pick myself up off the ground after being checked to it.

So, they were going to play dirty. Wonder which one of us pissed them off. Lyle was actually pretty quick, taking the ball down court almost as quickly as I could have done.

Of course, he couldn't shoot for shit, so Alan got the rebound. Since after I'd been knocked down everyone ran away, I was open. So, I simply backed into range of the basket in anticipation of the pass. Sure enough it came, and I wasted no time sinking it.

That part at least, went to plan; I was no slouch at the game.

The other team held a quick huddle, and some low key yelling was involved. It seemed Krug wasn't actually supposed to leave me alone, while Krug didn't expect me to bounce back up.

Unlucky for him, I was tougher than I looked.

To be fair, Krug was probably sixteen, six feet tall, and all of about two-fifty. When he tackled someone in varsity ball they probably stayed down - but he couldn't follow me down and smear me into pavement. Still the look on his extra wide face was priceless.

This time though, they matched me up against Lyle, the fastest member of their team. He was built more like me, but a little taller, with sandy blond hair that just missed being the gold of Alan's. In fact that was a great way to describe him - he was like Alan, only just a bit less so. If Alan wasn't in school he'd be one of the top dogs, and he might have a bit of a grudge over it.

Every time there was a team of opposition to Alan, he was on it. It was like clockwork.

He was going to pass the ball in, so I focused up. He got it past me, but I didn't make it easy on him; that wide looping pass would never fly anywhere but here. Too bad for us Krug was so freaking tall.

But he caught it, and that meant the ball was no longer my problem. I now had to watch Lyle, since he was my new assignment; we had an unwritten rule that we'd try to defend the people other teams rotated to us - it was easier than any other game plan, and it worked just fine most of the time.

Krug passed it to Fred, who passed it to Daryl, who worked the ball inside and scored. I think Miguel took a shot to the ribs, but I couldn't be sure. He sure didn't show it. At least Lyle hadn't gotten close enough to do anything.

This time Miguel came in close, and no one could contest the hand off. As soon as I handed it off I broke away, Lyle doing his best to keep up. That was according to plan as I ran him into Krug, turned and caught the pass, and passed it off just as quickly to Alan, who was now open.

Alan wasn't going to miss an easy one, and just like that we were ahead again.

Back and forth, back and forth, with both bets and jibes passing among those watching us. Until the last basket of course, where there was a no holds barred attempt to stop us from scoring the winning shot.

I'd been waiting for it, and decided to practice something other than my jump shot. A word, and reality warped... just a little. Lyle looked startled for a moment before his eyes glazed for just a second; a byproduct of the harsh word I'd low-key just belted out.

Perhaps that second alone would be enough, and the effect of the spell was overkill.. but I liked overkill. Considering every single large body on the other team was headed my way to smear me into the ground, everyone here liked overkill.

A boost to my legs, a boost to my arms, a boost to my brain, and my focus was crystal clear as I lined up the shot from just under half court. I sunk it of course, and that began the end. There was just enough left over to reinforce my body as a few people 'accidentally' couldn't stop themselves and treated the basketball game like a football game.

It was a good thing too, since after they finally moved - or were helped to move - I was able to pop back up with only a slight creak to my ribs. Luckily I didn't hit my head, or things would have been worse.

"Good shit man, good shit," Alan congratulated, slapping me on the back.

"Easy man, easy. I just got treated like a quarterback on concrete."

"Yeah, you're surprisingly tough," Miguel admitted. He sounded like he thought I'd be dead.

Considering who tried to smear me into the pavement, namely Krug and Fred. They had to have taken it easy, as if they'd gone full force they would have gotten hurt too - but they looked as surprised as Miguel to see me up.

A series of congratulations and good-natured handshakes later, and it was time to catch the late bus out; I wasn't about to test my luck again when the football players were so clearly out for blood, and didn't really care whose it was.

Maybe Anise was rubbing off on me more than I thought, since all this moving and refreshing exercise really felt like a waste of time.

Alan broke ranks and joined me. "Sorry about that, the other guys insisted. Not going to stay for baseball?"

I yelled my goodbyes first, "Later everyone!" Then it was time for Alan. "Despite how I look, I did get smeared into concrete. I don't think I'll be doing much else today except putting ice on my everything so I can walk tomorrow. Any idea what got into those assholes?"

Alan had the dignity to look embarrassed. "My fault really. I told them we could beat them in anything but football, and well you know how sensitive they are."

"Yeah, like big little kids." Really, that was all that it took? I hadn't even dealt with them that much, though I'd noticed their suspicious looks sent my direction. If that was all it took, then I didn't really want to deal with them.

"Yeah, sorry. We were going to 3 on 3, and then you actually accepted, so they brought in Krug, and well the rest is history. They do have some grudge against you too I think, but no idea what it is."

"Can you try and find out for me? I know you have connections."

"I won't promise anything," Alan agreed as we reached the bus. He stuck his fist out and we bumped. "Take care of yourself."

"Always. Be careful," He waved me off with a smile as I boarded.

This bus driver was not employed by the school, but the city, for all that he stopped outside the school itself. He was also a very old, very creepy man with buggy eyes and a medical mask that hid his mouth but did nothing at all to hide his labored breathing. His ratty cap also did little to hide the fact that his scabby looking head was bald as an egg.

Most kids avoided this bus if they could.

I paid the fare and watched the mask move a bit as the smile I couldn't see crinkled every craggy wrinkle the man had.

At least he drove well, for all that he could be the crypt keepers brother or something.

I took a seat as far back as possible; unfortunately that wasn't all the way in the back. Those seats were taken by two women that had to be muslims, as they were dressed head to toe in  black and even had the veils on. Everyone else was giving them a wider berth than I did, and I soon realized my mistake.

They stank. It was faint, but they stank of fish and salt water. Did they work on the docks or something? Wouldn't those robes make that hard? Maybe they were just that good... they both had perfume on, and all it did was make the smell worse, at least as far as I could tell.

Whatever, I'd smelled worse, and I was no fresh spring daisy myself at the moment. I would be fine with it... if I couldn't feel their eyes boring into the back of my head.

Others got on, and off, but soon it was just me and them.

They finally got off, a stop before mine, and the bus driver opened his windows as they passed him; I braved the ride and walked up, lured by the fresh air. I was not disappointed. Another few minutes sitting behind the driver, watching him shoot me glances in his mirror with that grin, and I was finally at my stop.

The door hit my foot as I was stepping off, and the bus rattled to life. I moved before I could trip and die. Did that smile grow as he watched me scramble? That driver... he'd get his.

I shouldered my backpack and started the walk. From our house to the bus stop at the beginning of the street wasn't really far, but with my muscles already beginning to stiffen up I wasn't pouring on the speed. The extra time really let me appreciate how the neighborhood itself was dead.

I'd been in some bad places before, but this was different. Bad places still had people, but this street, this small cul-de-sac, it was always empty or near empty. People who came here didn't live here, and they didn't linger.

Mom said we owned all of this, or rather Anise and we did between all three of us. But what good was all that? Anise lived in a shithole and ate with us or scraps. All the wealth she owned wasn't doing her any good at all.

She had made me promise not to tell, but if the arrival of her servants didn't help, then Mom was going to get hint bombed until she figured it out and moved Anise to our house or something - at least until we could get her house fixed. I could do that much for my magic teacher, even if she didn't want me to.

Mom wasn't back yet, so I checked my texts. There it was, how had I missed the chime? She was going to be late and suggested I just eat something without her.

That was good, I had an hour or so then. But if I wanted to eat without Mom, I needed to stop by my house first. That would cut into my learning time, but if I brought enough for both of us, my teacher wouldn't be too mad.

So the trick would be to find something simple and quick to make, then hoof it over to the other house.

Or not. Anise was on our porch, reading a book that was maybe half as large as she was. A book that I recognized from my own scan of the contents in recent days. She was just reading it, right out in what daylight was left, where anyone could see her.

"Good evening."

She looked up at the sound of my voice and shut the book with an echoing 'thud'. "Good evening. Did you enjoy your game?"

"I did, but our plans got a little sidetracked," I admitted. It was best to get that out of the way - I'd learned from bitter experience that not only could Anise tell when I'd used magic somehow, but she could nag like no one else when she wanted.

"It is fine. I agree that sometimes appearances must be maintained."

Great she wasn't mad. "Well I'm back and ready to learn!"

"There is no need for that as yet. I am certain you are hungry."

Right, so she'd been onto me from the start, and this was why she wasn't mad; she'd already decided I was going to make us dinner. "Alright, what do you want?"

"I would like some salmon or sturgeon. pan fried with that lemon butter you have."

It was a simple meal, and one I could make. We even had the ingredients. But I was not the fan of seafood that Anise was. I didn't hate it by any means, but she ate more of it than seemed healthy, even given that it was fish.

"Alright, and I'll steam some vegetables too."

Anise did not like vegetables, but she would eat them if they were placed on her plate. Really, she seemed more carnivore than me, and that took some doing. Maybe it was a result of growing up around here, where fish were pretty much everywhere.

Despite her money, I doubted Anise ever bought takeout... or went to restaurants. I already knew she couldn't cook. Raw and burnt were her two friends, and her only two friends of the cooking world.

I applied my key to the lock and Anise followed me in. She just set the book down on the table, like a priceless magical book was normal and nothing at all to worry about. That made me wonder - had the family made their money by selling such books, or maybe casting spells? My side had largely made bank on our artistic talents and sound investment, but the other branches didn't have that talent as far as I knew; at least not aside from the original Pickman.

I went straight to the fridge and grabbed the fish. They were a day old and just beginning to smell as fish tended to do. A slight rub down with lemon butter and into the pan they went. The veggies were frozen in a bag so I just threw them into a pot and put a lid on.

Then it was time to go over the book; the creature to be summoned was from the outer reaches of space. it was called a nightgaunt. They could be used as servants and mounts, and could fly while holding a person.

It wasn't flying under one's own power, but the idea intrigued me. Could A nightgaunt be used to fight crime? There wasn't much in the book about what they could do, other than to state they were dangerous to the unwary.

"Say, how tough are these things anyway?"

Anise stopped eyeing the fish and turned to me. "Among the weakest of those from the outer reaches. They act as thralls to greater powers, and so are used to such servitude. They have grown accustomed to it over the ages. They are still dangerous, and will require will to command, but there are far worse one can conjure."

But could they say, take on a superhuman? A mutant or cyborg, like in 'tales of the MCO'?"

Anise's stare seemed much colder, so much more dead, that I marveled about how it could be. Then she sighed.

"A nightgaunt might be able to match such people. I must admit I've no experience in such matters, as I have not been cavorting about in my underwear or skintight clothing."

Well, sarcasm aside (She was learning!) she had a point. I certainly would have known if she'd been fighting crime at night by now.

"It was just a thought." I turned back to the food, moving the veggies to make sure they didn't burn.

Anise gave a hum. "i can assure you that the average nightgaunt is proof against a man with a gun. Shotguns at close range or hunting rifles can kill one, but magic is the surest way to preserve one's life against one."

So the average criminal would probably have no chance. Good to know. It might be nice to summon something not as dangerous for my first time, but the idea of having ready protection for myself and Mom was beyond tempting.

I flipped the fish and brushed on some lemon - then I decided to add some pepper on the spur of the moment. Anise watched me, but didn't object so I added some to hers too.

"If you do not hurry, we will be unable to continue the lesson tonight."

"It takes as long as it takes. You can't rush perfection."

"Then I feel confident that I may rush you however much I like."

She was learning way too fast, sometimes. At least she was smiling.

I was almost used to her smile by now.

"So, back to demons. Is there any way to distract them, or something? Just in case you have to? Like if you find one out and about and you don't have a circle handy?"

Anise dropped her smile. "Your best chance should you spot a demon free is to abjure it posthaste. There are a variety of methods to quickly seal or slow such a creature, a few of which I shall teach you at a later date. Rest assured however, that I will have one of those methods on hand tonight. Or whenever your first summoning might happen to be."

She was still going on about that. "It's just a few minutes more."

We still had a few minutes, at least.

Anise turned her slightly unsettling gaze away. "It matters little to me."

I knew, but decided not to call her on it. She wanted me to succeed here; she wanted a friend fully in the know that she could confide in.

She also wanted her fish.

Which was now finally done. I shoveled the food onto her plate first, and she was already eating when I turned around after making my mother's and mine. Not that I cared, but she usually had better manners; more than once she had even made me wait.

I wanted to tell her she'd choke, but she wouldn't. Not with those small bites. At least she'd moved the book out of the way. The fish was half gone, but the vegetables on her plate hadn't been touched. For some reason Anise always ate any meat first, if she could.

I quickly caught up with her as we ate in silence. She wasn't slow by any means, but she took smaller bites.

I'd just finished up when headlight beams shone through the window; it seemed that Mom was not as late as she thought she'd be.

Anise just sighed and hid her book.

"Sorry."

"It is all right; I expected this outcome."

She looked over and took me in again, and gave me another small smile. "I am not angry."

She really wasn't - I could tell. Which was a little odd to me' Anise was usually... unforgiving in her dealings with people. Including me.

I set Mom's plate out. I didn't even need to heat it. Instead I sat and started up a normal conversation. "So, got your math homework done?"

"It is a work in progress," Anise replied, with all the air and grace of a queen.

Anise was very good with math, but there were some parts that she had to struggle on with the rest of us peasants. It was kind of weird, but minor compared to her other weirdness.

I was thinking that her father taught her... or her grandfather. One day I'd ask her what happened to her father; we both had bad luck with those, and knowing that might help her.

Anise paused, her own question clearly on her lips.

I heard a key in the lock for a minute, and Mom entered. She brightened immediately. "Oh, you cooked! Thank you both."

I didn't mind Anise getting credit.

Speaking of she finally asked her question, as nonchalantly as possible. "So, how are you doing in math?"

I didn't know why but Anise was competitive about math. I really should have known better than to ask her about it. "About halfway done, I got some done before school ended. I haven't really gotten to the hard stuff yet."

"Good, you're both hard at work," Mom said, a tired smile trying to crawl up her face.

I brown nosed a little: "Got to get those grades up."

"Learning is fundamental," Anise added. Without a smile of course, so neither of us could figure out if she was joking or not.

I was going to go with 'joke', myself.

So was Mom, judging by the smirk. "Well, don't let me stop you. Oh this looks great, Theo."

"Thank you, I try."

I started work on problem five while Mom went to the fridge and fished out the wine bottle from last night. She popped it again and poured a glass, then threw herself into the not all that comfortable kitchen chair with a sigh. "Work sucks kids, just so you know."

Rough day I guess. I wasn't happy about how much Mom was drinking lately, but I'd say something about it later. Some things you just didn't say in front of company - even your slightly creepy and somehow related magical teacher.

"Better you than me, Mom."

"Thanks brat, I knew I could count on you for sympathy."

We grinned at each other. Yeah Mom knew where I got this streak of mine.

We talked about our days, and I had to admit Mom's day did sound bad. Nothing but meetings with people who she didn't know and who clearly disliked her, signing papers at the request of her new lawyer while the other lawyer types tried to throw legal roadblocks in her way.

Seriously, the money wasn't even theirs and no matter what they couldn't claim it, so why didn't they want Mom to have it?

Anise listened silently but I could tell she was interested. After all, that money was technically hers, or should be. If not for her grandfather leaving it all to us randomly. She didn't seem angry about it at all though, which made her better than me. I'd have been furious, myself.

Mom was going to cut her in of course, somehow. But Anise seemed to know even less about money than I did, so just handing her wads of cash seemed like a bad idea. The fact that my Mom had noticed that spoke volumes.

Anise didn't seem troubled by any of it, the legal wrangling or the fight to push some home improvements. I didn't want to scare her off, but so far she wasn't going for the soft sell of moving in here with us. Knowing what I knew, I could understand it. Even in a crumbling house, it was easier to do magic if you were free and didn't have to worry about family walking in on you. Not that I'd do something so irresponsible, oh no not me.

It was tempting though.

But no, Mom seeing a mi-go or something would undoubtedly be bad. Not to mention if I summoned something alone, Anise would... do bad things to me. I wasn't sure what, and I didn't want to know.

"Alright kids, keep on trucking. You can leave the dishes to me, I'll do them. You both get your homework done."

Then she turned to Anise. "You, young lady, need to bring up your grades. I know you're smarter than a D in history and an F in social studies."

I winced. She was getting better, but even I had been surprised about how bad Anise's grades had been when I started school. At least in those two subjects. The why had resolved itself quickly - she liked to fight with the teachers. Sure, she called it debate, but it was really arguing over who was right. If I'd learned anything in my life, its that between a kid and an adult, a teacher and a student, the teacher wins every time. Anise, for all her smarts, couldn't seem to get that, even with me explaining it to her.

Mom took the wine bottle and glass with her into the front room. A second later I heard the television come on.  "Well, we can study upstairs. Do you want help?"

Anise looked up from her book; I hadn't even seen her pull it out again. "Do you think I need your help?"

A thorny question. "If you want to pass this semester, maybe. Either my help or you stop arguing with the teachers."

Anise continued the stare for a long moment before letting up. "I suppose you are right. I will do better, but for now I should go home. My servants are due back, and I'd hate to leave them out in the cold."

I felt like a butterfly pinned to a board for a second; Anise had picked up some bad habits from her grandfather. At least she listened to me; as long as she did, I could help her.

"Alright. I'll see you out then," I levered myself up and escorted her the ten steps or so to the door. She wouldn't want the full escort; she'd shot me down for that before. But she had been raised in an old fashioned way, and about some things it showed.

Once out the door, Anise turned and lunged close. "Thank you, sir." she whispered.

Then she turned around as if nothing had happened and I didn't exist, and was gone.

There, in the deep shadows caused by the lack of light near Anise's garage, right where I'd stopped my bike to fix it months ago... there was a figure, swaddled in a blanket.

Or a burka.

I stopped the charge I'd just begun as Anise seemed to take notice of the figure and turn to meet them. Clearly Anise knew them... or wasn't afraid.

I went back inside. Anise wouldn't want me leaping to her rescue here, I knew it.

But I could still watch from the house, just in case. Done right, and Anise wouldn't even know. The curtains at the edge of the window blocked people seeing in, but not me seeing out.

They met, talked a bit, (At least Anise talked, I couldn't tell what was going on under the full sheet thing, I mean only their eyes were visible!) and then Anise led the other inside as if nothing were wrong, not bothering with any of the signals we'd set up for danger and only sparing one glance back at our house. Which was aimed right at the window I was looking out of, for that special creep factor.

Well she was safely inside now. Nothing to worry about.

I headed to my room, sparing mom a wave she probably didn't see or respond to. Not that I'd know because I didn't look for or hear any response.

The light to Anise's bedroom was on, and a shape was moving around, casting a shadow on the heavy curtains. It looked like her. For a moment an urge hit: to sit in darkness myself and watch, to see what was going on. I did not believe for a moment that Anise had muslim housekeepers.

I flipped my light on and started work; these names and dates wouldn't learn themselves, and there was a test next week.

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I woke up groggy. I could smell the by now familiar scents of mold, brine, and rotting wood which could only mean I was at Anise's house. How did I get here? How did I get in? There was spell work all over the house, I now knew. Better than any simple lock at keeping people out. I was no exception.

From the feel of things, I was in a bed. A slightly lumpy bed. How could anyone get comfortable on this bed?

I shifted, and something pinched my head. I got a hand free of the covers with effort (Why so many covers?) And levered up.

It was hair. Long hair, dark but colorless in the lack of light. Hair that was in no way mine. What was this?

My hand was not my hand. Fine-boned, with no calluses, covered in skin that I could tell was ghost white even in the dark... With just a faint hint of webbing in between the fingers.

Huh. This was some dream.

From the shadows beyond the bed a figure rose, large and shifting. Words garbled in some language I didn't know spilling in a horrid mess from lips that had to be malformed somehow. I fumbled the covers again, if I could make it to the other side maybe I could....

There was no escape as the thing reached the bedside - and gently but firmly pressed me back down with more garbled words in a stern tone.

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"Come on honey, you're going to be late!"

Mom's strident voice did the job that my alarm, currently blaring in my ear, did not. I didn't usually sleep through the darn thing. Wonder how that happened? Why did I still feel tired after a full night's sleep? That was another good question.

"I'm up, I'm up!"

I'd had a weird dream... something about being across the street, in Anise's house. Waking up there or something? Like most dreams, it was gone with the first light of day.

I did the morning thing with the quickness, confident in the knowledge that I could score some kind of breakfast and still leave on time. I was showered, dressed, and good to go in under fifteen minutes.

Of course that meant I was still around seven minutes late, but that was a small thing, really.

Mom was gone by the time I made my way downstairs; already off to work. It was pretty amazing that she had a worse schedule than I did. The bus ride alone sucked.

Mom had made breakfast, oddly enough... eggs and bacon, with a piece of toast on the side. I had less than five minutes to eat it. Luckily no one was around to watch my manners degrade.

I was still a minute late getting out of the door; Anise was ahead of me, halfway to the bus stop. A quick turn and I grabbed the newest box of granola bars, sitting right on the hall table. I'd placed them there for this very purpose.

I'd learned my lesson. There was no sense calling to her, since she'd never wait for me. She was even more a slave to her schedule than I was and waiting a minute or two for the bus seemed to be ingrained for her.

Instead I sped up; you could see the bus coming before it got here, once you got past my house. The old vehicle turned on the road way down this hill and labored its way up. It took a good five minutes, maybe a bit more. Right now the bus was halfway up, so we had maybe a minute left.

Anise reached the end of the sidewalk, turned, and waved - as if she were a robot or something. Every movement was precise and completed before another move was attempted. How she did that, I don't know. Even people who danced the old robot were more seamless than she was.

Then Anise surprised me; she yawned. Her hand went to cover her mouth and the noise she made sounded a bit like a hand-held vacuum cleaner on high.

First time I'd seen it; normally the girl was full of quiet energy.

"Good morning? I take it you slept well?"

Anise gave me a little smile as she lowered her hand. I'd been working on her sense of humor, and this morning was one of the days it paid off.

"As well as yourself, it seems."

Yep, that was much better than just having her stare at me blankly.

"Yeah I don't know what happened, exactly. I went to bed early, and woke up late for some reason. Slept right past my alarm, which I never do."

"Clearly not," Anise informed me with a grin. She was almost showing teeth for a moment before she backed it down. Yes, she was learning.

One day I'd get her to forget about her weird teeth.

"Well, did you have breakfast?"

Anise shook her head. "I'd no time, even with the servants returned. We had no time to cook."

I held out a granola bar, and she took it with obvious gratitude. Granola bars were another thing I'd been preaching the benefits of, along with cell phones, computers, and other wonderful items of a modern society.

So far, the granola bars had gotten a better reception than the rest. One day I'd get her to scan those spell books off though, and then I'd be in real business. She was pretty tight fisted most of the time.

Spell books could only benefit from the computer age, I was sure. There were a few online, but they were edited. 'The various mysteries' online was nothing like the one Anise had. Well, the translations Anise had. I couldn't read French, so she let me look at the english version her grandfather had made.

Speaking of, Anise was already reading as we sat down, pulling the old trick of hiding something in her textbook. What she was reading wasn't on the school's approved list.

I leaned close. "What are you even doing? If anyone catches you reading those notes here...."

"No one will catch me. As far as anyone else is concerned, I am merely being diligent in my note taking."

She was strong enough to cast a spell like that? All without me noticing? I was a novice, true, but I was getting better. I hadn't heard any of the words of power.

About five minutes into the ride and I was wishing I'd thought of her con, or at least brought something else. Oh well, I could always read ahead like a good student, no matter how bad that got.

Sometime along the bouncy ride, I got tired of being a good student, and started doing searches on my phone. Even the cheapest ritual implements were expensive as hell, and most were probably fake anyway. Anise wanted me to have my own tools, but even after all this time weeding out the fake from the real was a problem.

I had some money saved up, but being a real mage (not a magician, never a magician) was expensive. I half wondered how Anise's old man did it since most mages should be paupers.

Maybe there was some truth to the old legend that some branches of our family might have been thieves. Even the best painters in the world didn't make the kind of money to buy a library like the one in Anise's house. Or for that matter, the houses themselves. We owned a large tract of California real estate; anywhere else and Anise could cash in for millions on that alone. We could cash in on rent alone, once people got out of Mom's way.

Screw it, I was too young to be worrying about cash this way. I'd just have to find an after school job or something. Something that paid in gold or silver, so I could afford gold or silver. Maybe a jewelry store or something?

Anise startled me: "Penny for your thoughts?"

"Hah, my thoughts are way more expensive than that." They needed to be, at least.

Anise snorted delicately - something I wasn't even sure could be done, but she managed somehow - and held out a penny. "Well I'm afraid that's all I have. So what plagues my dear cousin on this fine day?"

Wow, she was really laying it on thick. "Nothing much. Just thinking about how to get the stuff I need to do the things I need."

A sharp nail poked my forehead. "Do not worry yourself. You shall have all that you require, and soon. I have made arrangements."

This was not the first I've heard of her taking care of things for me, but this was the first she'd been so definite about it.

It made me curious. "Oh? What kind of arrangements?"

"Comprehensive arrangements," Anise informed me primly. "Such arrangements as a master makes for their student. Soon you shall be well taken care of, even if something should happen to me."

Well, that wasn't alarming at all. "What do you mean?"

"The... skills I am instructing you in are dangerous. Even my grandfather was wary of the dangers, and even were I his match," Something in her expression there, some sort of humor or joke only she got... "You are a babe lost in the woods. I will do all I can to see you have, what is the phrase? A stacked deck?"

"That's as good as any other." Maybe I should rethink my solo lifestyle. If Anise was afraid of it, this full of fear of the known and unknown, then I should probably slow down. It reminded me of something, some saying: Anise knew enough to be afraid, where I might not. Something like that.

The bus made its usual number of stops, which was to say, none. Even so, it took the rickety thing nearly forty minutes to make the trip. I was sure there were other stops on this bus's route, but this early in the morning once it picked us up it never stopped. At least the city wasn't wasting too much gas on us, the bus was small.

Maybe the creepy driver scared them off. He would certainly never lack for a job if he got fired; any haunted house or spooky ride would hire the man just to smile at people.

He had to know he was set for life with that face, right? He couldn't be that clueless - we were close enough to Hollywood after all.

The bus rattled into the school lot and parked behind the others. The driver let the engine die and stood up with a noisy sigh and a muted crack from somewhere in his person.

"Alright young-uns, get out."

I was used to this by now. "Yeah yeah, we're going."

I led the way off; Anise was right behind me, caring even less for the man's antics than I did. He winked at her as she went by, and she scowled at him.

This bus driver had stones man, even if he didn't know anything. If he did know anything, he was even braver than I first thought, because holy crap.

Maybe she had got sick of him and cursed him - that would explain his face. But if he was just blinking at her after all that, he was even more brave than should be possible.

Chances are it was just his face, but still....

Alan was waiting for me. Anise trailed away from me without another word, her eyes fixed on some distant point I couldn't see.

Well it wasn't like we could talk shop on the bus or in class, but still, it was a little annoying.

"Morning Theo."

"Morning Alan."

As if the words were code of some kind, Alan smiled. "So, get your homework done?"

"I got it... and I even managed to get some studying in for the test next week. How about you?"

My friends face fell. "Not so much on the test. I did get the homework done. I thought you wouldn't have the time since your bus ride."

"Oh, so that was your master plan to get better grades than me, huh? Well, you'll have to try harder, since I can actually do some reading on the bus."

Alan's grin turned wry. "Must be nice. Our bus is a full time party."

There were some few advantages to the rickety bus. Yeah I wasn't winning any friends or influencing people, but I could get my homework done. Go me.

"I'll catch up; and I'll beat you. I almost got you in art class."

"I'd never really painted before. I think I'm doing pretty good, considering." Alan did have me beat in art, or would soon. He was spending time on it after all, and I wasn't.

"I know, and ain't that a shame? The son of an artist, from a long line of artists, and can't draw to save his life."

"Can't help it, we aren't all born with talent. Some of us just have our good looks and that's it."

"Oh, ha.  Calling yourself good looking now, no wonder you can't draw; your perspective is all wrong."

The banter continued until we hit the classroom, with both of us only half paying any attention to it. It was just a thing friends did, at least where I came from, and Alan hadn't cried foul yet. Neither had the others, really.

Sure it took some time to figure out what buttons not to press, but it was the superior way to prove friendship, once you got it going.

The teacher's glare on the other hand, nipped any further comments in the bud.

Mr. Dermot had the sense of humor of a fly, and the tolerance of an H1 member. Why he even taught kids was beyond me, since he hated us so much. It did explain why he was a substitute at least. His assignments were generally worse than Mr. Martine's when he taught science too, so it was going to be a long week.

Even though there wasn't that much week left.

We buckled down, and even Anise paid attention as the man demonstrated the properties of some acids with eyes that bore into our very souls, daring each of us to speak out in turn as he took a steel plate and an eyedropper, and marked lines upon it with the various liquids he kept in his battered briefcase like a madman.

He was very careful about using them at least, but one good jostle of that briefcase when it was loaded, and it would be a disaster... wouldn't it?

It was interesting, at least, but acids weren't something I'd ever want to play with. Maybe thinking demons seemed safer was tempting fate, but the thought was there.

Anise and I did the lab grouped up without words between us, as we were basically the class pariahs. She because of her rumors, and I because I dared hang out with her. I let her apply our small supply of the acids on various substances while I wrote down the effects. Her hands were steady and calm, and she didn't spill anything by accident or mess around like some of the other kids were trying to do. One might even suspect her of having done something like this before; I certainly did.

The homework was to pick the right acid and the right balance for a given job in the real world, based on the experiments run. Pretty simple if you did the work, and nothing we really needed to waste time on outside of class.

We got one of few A's, and then it was time to move on to bigger and better things. In this case, English. English wouldn't have any lab experiments, and we were due to get books to report about soon, so a group effort there was unlikely.

But there was some entertainment to be had, even in English.

Liza was a small mousy bookworm, but not in the traditional sense. Sure she had the glasses, and the messy hair in the ponytail, the form covering baggy clothes. But she was decent at sports when she had to be, and she didn't stick to just books.

She was also hotter than most guys gave her credit for, falling firmly into 'cute' territory with her slightly plump cheeks and pouting lips. Not that I'd ever tell her something like that - it would end our friendship quicker than anything.

I sat down at my customary seat; Liza was already there. "H-hello," she stuttered cutely.

"Good morning," I replied as smoothly as I could. "What do you think we'll do today? Group discussion?"

"No, it's unlikely," Liza replied, her voice growing in strength and confidence. "We still didn't get done with the discussion from last week. The syllabus calls for a reading of Poe's the raven followed by discussion, but I doubt we'll even reach that today."

If Liza said it, it had to be true. She had the thing memorized back to front, and where we were besides.

I liked Poe, so that was a pleasant surprise.

Anise also liked Poe; I wondered how many times she'd heard it discussed before.

The others filed in, slowly walking past us in our location near the front and the door. I didn't mind playing nerd here, Mrs. Hanson was pretty awesome just for being an older teacher who still cared about learning and her students.

Still a type who believed in humanity and kids in general, she was very easy to fool. Not that I did any fooling or bs'ing on my homework, at all.

As Liza had predicted, we began where we'd left off... right exactly where we'd left off, Mrs. Hanson had left a note to herself. We were back to discussing Charles Dickens and his commentary on his society and time.

I didn't think Mr. Dickens really did much to help his own time, despite how many people read his book, because the attitudes were just different. If people were poor and downtrodden and couldn't get ahead it was at least partly their fault, according to the times. Why else would factory workers take the job? Why else would people need to riot to change conditions?

There was more upheaval in Charles Dickens time than most people seemed to realize. Well, unless you were a historian, a teacher, or a kid trying to look for some entertainment in English by actually talking history in class. Mrs. Hanson didn't catch on for a good twenty minutes. When she did, the subject was finally changed back to the impact of the story on other authors of the time and Dickens's own writing since.

I was left wondering what good knowing this sort of thing was; after the test, where would I use it? As a conversation point among hoity toity types, to try and impress them? Wouldn't they all know it too?

I'd probably never meet such people, an artist or professor I was not.

Knowing this stuff was neat, but it would never really help me in real life; I had a better chance learning something to help me later in life from shop class or a vocational school. I really needed to look into those from next year.

Mom might be a little disappointed, but mechanics and plumbers made the world go 'round, even if they didn't change it. She'd get over me not having a degree eventually.

The bell rang while visions of engines and pipes flitted through my head. Thankfully Mrs. Hanson hadn't noticed how far into dreamland I was. The assignment to read "The raven." was on the board, just as Liza had predicted. I gave her a wave as I jumped up to go to my next class.

Social studies with Mr. Reynolds was a bit of a snooze fest. I turned in the work sheet I completed about the last chapter, and then it was time to hear the man drone on about pre-civil war America and James Buchanon. It was pretty much like Charles Dickens all over again.

And just think brain, I could be learning magic. Something that will always be cool and awesome and relevant.

I resisted the urge to scribble formulae into my notebook that Anise could find and nail me for later, and buckled down to follow the arguments of what led to the civil war, and why efforts to compromise could only slow down war and not stop it.

Risking that look back, I could tell even Anise was bored out of her mind. She was making some kind of tee-pee like structure with her spare pencils, one hand on her chin.

The day dragged, so much so that even the bell seemed to take twice as long to ring as normal.

Next class was the odd one out. Computer science with  Mrs. Gerr. Normally I'd be in a math or algebra class, but in coming here I'd tested out of the one the powers that be wanted to stick me into, and computer science had been available. So of course, I took it, because in this day and age, who didn't want to know about how computers worked?

Weirdos, that was who.

At least here I could have a little fun. Making a small graphics program that could chart out the circles and formulae I was learning from my cousin was diverting, but it had a real purpose; if I did it right I'd be able to spin up whatever I needed, perfectly formed and complete with the chants intact whenever I needed. I'd also be able to print most spells into a book.

I could mix and match too, but I'd only do that with someone who knew more than me standing by. A lot more than me. The powder of true seeing for example, had a tendency to melt one's eyes if you got it wrong. If you intentionally altered the mix for it? It just might melt the rest of you. Not worth the risk.

However, an idiot's spellbook, live and on the internet, with some of that functionality? That was a goal; maybe I'd even become famous for it. Well, internet famous. If I ever released it, there was no way in hell I'd do so under my own name.

I still needed to run a search or two on my own, to see if someone else had done it first. Through at least three proxies and on a computer I didn't mind never using again, just in case.

My gut was telling me something was up about that, and the internet had sharks swimming among the guppies. There was always something else to do.

Another hour, another assignment down and some extra work done on the surprise program. I saved it to my usb drive and wiped the save on the pc. There was a cloud backup that was password protected, and that would have to be enough.

Anise's paranoia was growing on me.

Lunch time. Anise had a seat in the far corner of one of the cafeteria tables she liked to sit at. It was nice, dark, and mostly silent. When I sat with her it was less silent than usual, but she wouldn't chase anyone away from that table, and I knew she liked the company.

She might even be in a good mood today; I'd helped her with all her assignments, and she had fish for lunch. Fresh fish for lunch always seemed to lighten her mood, and I'd grilled some salmon with a hint of lemon the night before.

Sometimes it was the small things that made one's day. It was a little odd that it worked like that for Anise, with all her... differences.

I stowed my books and grabbed my own lunch, a small box with a cooler unit inside. My sandwich was ham, bacon, and green pepper on whole wheat, and the side was cold fries. I had a small thermos of v8 for veggies and a bottle of water. The hot cafeteria food was probably better, if only just, but waiting in line sucked and this got me out of it.

Anise was already there when I arrived, her lunch and a book both open. She was stabbing the lunch with some gusto, eating the fish first as I knew she would.

One of these days, her fork would go through the table... and I only packed plastic forks for her.

What was unusual is that Alan was already here, watching Anise from the other side of the table with a faint look of disgust from her table manners. He knew all the tricks, because his lunch was a tray of actual pizza from the cafeteria, something he'd had to wait in line for.

Even weirder was the fact that Liza was here, taking small bites of what looked like a classic pb&j, the english book open in front of her to Poe's "The raven."

Liza being here was a first; she was petrified of Anise, as most of our peers were. She didn't like conflict of any kind as a rule, and just being here, at this table....

Well, there would be conflict, with Alan here.

It started out innocently enough. "Want a slice?" Alan asked me, sliding his tray over.

"No, thanks. It looks great, but I've got my sandwich here," I shook my lunchbox, and as usual, we both ignored the fact that there was an officially licensed superhero on it. Or superheroine with legs for days, if you wanted to get technical. I might have outgrown the Saturday morning show,  but the lunchbox still worked well enough.

"Your loss," Alan countered, reclaiming his plate.

I made sure to nod to Liza; I didn't want to spook her, after all.

She almost fell out of her chair. She was a clumsy one.

Anise said nothing, her own eyes clearly on the fish. Odd.

Alan pushed it, of course. "So, you start your homework yet?"

Cryptic. It would have to be social studies, since we hadn't done much in science today and I hadn't had math yet. Not that I shared his math class.

Whatever. I'd sound stupid for a second. "Social studies?"

Alan nodded while Anise shot me a glance. She knew at least.

"I haven't started it yet, no. No study hall just yet."

My study hall was either in the best place for getting things done, or the worst, all depending on how motivated you were. Right after lunch,I could get my English, sciences, or social studies and history work done, or I could goof off and digest.

If I goofed off, I'd have to do it at home when I could be doing something else. Like say, learning magic. Or I don't get it done, get all F's, and get held back grades. Which would lead to me getting grounded for a year or worse.

So for me, it worked out. Alan had other priorities. "Damn. I was hoping you knew the answer to question fourteen."

"I probably do." I wasn't a slouch on schoolwork.

Alan slid his book over. Anise leaned in to, chewing on some tidbit right near my ear, surprising me.

Huh. Well that one was easy. Name the three largest changes brought about by the creation of the federal reserve. Should I tell him? His paper was blank - he hadn't gotten a single one.

"Yeah I know it. Or at least I know what Mr. Reynolds is going to say."

"Come on man, a hint?"

Anise snorted. That was all it took.

"You got a problem, Pickman?" Alan made it sound like a curse.

I'd better get in front of this before food starts flying... again.

Anise put a hand over my mouth and answered. "It is far more rewarding to learn the answer to such trifling questions yourself. If you learn, the knowledge is yours forever. If someone else learns and informs you, the knowledge is often lost to other things."

That was... surprisingly steady and well-reasoned for her. What's got into her today? She seems irritable, and yet here she is putting forth a calm argument to someone she hates.

Alan was having none of it. "I will never need to know this outside school in a million years," he deadpanned. "And if I do, I'll learn it again in college. That's how school works."

"More's the pity," Anise muttered. Just loud enough for all of us to hear it, of course.

"What do you mean?" Alan asked, his voice a bit more sharp.

"I mean exactly as I said. School used to be a place of learning most could not attend; nowadays schools like these are a farce. Little more than a joke before one goes to colleges, which are a joke all their own."

Alan snorted. "Yeah alright grandma."

Anise shot up so fast her hair whipped forward, slapping Alan before any of us could react. She was grinning; I couldn't see it from my angle but I knew. I moved to keep the worst from happening.

"You shouldn't infer a lady's age." She whispered softly, patting Alan's cheek.

Then she simply sashayed off as Alan fell back. I looked - she had finished her lunch and her trash was gone, so she was never really planning to do anything at all.

She really was putting a little extra into her step - just to mess with us. the opposite of how by the book and businesslike she normally was. she must really be in a good mood.

"What's gotten into her?" Alan asked me.

"Got no idea," I answered. "She's acting really weird today." I almost said maybe it was that time of the month, but another girl was present so I stopped myself. Wouldn't do to sound like a jackass and get slapped all in the same hour - I liked to stretch those sorts of things out.

"Maybe she got a g-good grade or something," Liza surmised. The absence of Anise made her brave. Or more brave, at any rate: she still seemed to wilt in on herself when I looked at her.

"Maybe." She'd never cared about her grades before in all the time I knew her, not that Liza needed to know all that. Liza needed to feel free to speak up, even if she was wrong.

I turned back to find Liza looking over Alan's worksheet, making neat notes on the margin with a pencil so the evidence could be easily erased. "If you do it for him, he won't ever learn."

Liza shrugged. "He helps me, so I help him. What he learns long term is his own problem."

Alan hit me with the same puppy dog eyes he was using on Liza, then added a little extra pout.

"I'm not going to tell, but if you both get caught its on you. Your permanent record will be destroyed. Destroyed!"

Liza had the good grace to giggle. Alan just gave me his version of the 'are you kidding me?' look. Hey, I'd take it. I sat back down and finished up while Liza continued helping and Alan sat back and let her.

The bell rang and it was time for study hall. I threw my trash away and locked up my lunchbox, then grabbed my books.

One look at Mrs. Hanson and it was clear she wouldn't allow the usual shenanigans today; her head was like a thundercloud and everyone who beat me here was already hunkered down in their desks being quiet.

Must have had a fight with Mr. Hanson, then.

I sat down and started to work. It didn't matter how close anyone was, they were on the moon until Mrs. Hanson calmed down. More time for me to get work done, and a perfect excuse to be anti-social. Both facts made the hour pass quickly, and soon enough the bell rang for the next class.

Spanish, with Mr. Rodriguez. I was a little behind for this one, the rest of the class was conversing in Spanish whenever they could, and I still couldn't string together whole sentences most of the time. Still, I was being graded on my progress and not where the rest of the class was.

I was also catching up. I could now ask not only about the nearest bathroom, but what people liked or disliked doing - and I knew all the cuss words.

You had to have priorities, even as a kid.

I sat down in the back, and stayed as quiet as I could until Mr. Rodriguez drew me into conversation. I held my own, even if my sentence structure was probably more kid-like than I wanted. Mr. Rodriguez smiled suspiciously at me a few times, but no one laughed... so I guess that was a win?

The last class of the day was P.E. I packed the books I'd still need for my homework and got going. I wasn't going to come back to my locker today if I could help it.

Instead I stowed the books in my locker, got changed while carefully not looking anyone else in the eye and only speaking when spoken to.

Only to find out that today was dodge ball day. Oh, joy.

Mr. Sillit hated us - probably because we weren't 300 plus pounds and could run further than a mile without becoming a wheezing mess. He split the girls and boys for the class at least; having some of these guys wing balls at the girls well, a hit would leave marks.

When Krug managed to nail me, I was pretty certain it was going to leave a mark. The man could hold a grudge.

I probably should have just eaten the first ball thrown my way; more time to sit down and admire the view, such as it is. More time to relax at least. Alan was still in there, giving it the good fight.

Across the gym, Liza was already out and reading a book. She'd prepared ahead, and I found myself a little jealous of the fact.

Anise was still in, her side losing. No one seemed to be aiming for her. In fact, it looked more like they were aiming away from her. In some cases almost comically away.

Mr. Sillit was watching, but he said nothing. Normally he'd be screaming at us if we sandbagged; so what was different? Surely he wasn't frightened of Anise and her reputation... was he?

He was fingering something in his pocket, and I hoped it wasn't what I thought it was.

Alan walked up with a grin, his hand out.

I slapped him five. "Last one out again, huh?"

"Sure thing, it's easy. I just get team captain then pick everyone who the really mean guys hate, so they aim at them first."

I resembled that remark. I held out a hand and let him help me up to show there were no hard feelings. "We'll get 'em this time."

Alan snorted. "Hell no we won't. They are stacked way too hard for that. But we'll nail a few of them at least, and let them know we can be good sports about it."

Sometimes Alan was almost disgustingly wholesome and upright.

I got that jerkbag Krug out in the first pass by throwing at his feet, then got Fred out the next by throwing a curve that he didn't expect.

After which I ate a ball on my arms while protecting my face, a clear violation of the rules. Mr. Sillit didn't say anything of course, because he hadn't seen. But either way was me out, and that was fine.

We didn't have enough time for a third match as things shook out, so after my team lost the second match we had to do laps. The girls were still going somehow, which was a little weird. I mean we were sandbagging, so what was their excuse?

Devious, avoiding ten laps like that. They had to be on their third game, but that was easier than this.

There was no need to rush, this wasn't a race. I let anyone who wanted to lap me and just kept an even pace. An even pace that lasted until the bell rang.

"Alright, hit the showers!"

I sniffed. Good advice for some of us.

Who was I kidding? I needed it too... Anise had quite the sense of smell for anything that wasn't mold.

I settled for a quick rinse off and pat dry; by the time the last bell rang I was already out the locker room door and down the hall. Right as I passed the girl's locker room, Anise came out, smelling strongly of roses and with fully wet hair that didn't seem to bother her at all.

She fell into step with me and we made our way to the bus. Running footsteps caused me to look back.

Alan was running up behind us, eyes on me. I waved to let him know there would be no after school games today and got in line.

Alan stopped, sighed, and waved back before heading back into the confines of the building.

Nothing was going to delay me again... unless it was Mom. Mom could do it.

The ride home was an opportunity to do more homework. As long as it wasn't English, the teachers didn't seem to care if the words I wrote were uniform or... lumpy.

The bus ride was just as bad as always. For some reason the school funds that the school liked to spend freely not reaching our bus maintenance. The thing's shocks had to be in pieces, as each bump seemed to reach right up through the floorboards and smack you in the spine.

Every seat had sprung springs, too. So of course the driver had to hit every single bump in the road at least twice.

I was half tempted to ask mom to just buy a new bus; soon we'd have the money for it. It wouldn't match, but then again, this one didn't match the current crop of buses either.

This one even smelled, ever so little, of fish.

I waited patiently, bouncing in the seat against my will with Anise bouncing counterpoint beside me somehow. Anise had the window seat, but I knew from experience that the window offered no respite; the driver was more than a little crazy, driving in a way that would count as reckless anywhere else but somehow not killing us all.

It didn't help my mind at all. The guy smiled too, all the time, that creepy serial killer smile where he looked at you from under the brim of his old uniform cap.

Soon enough Anise and I were the only people on the bus, making the long ride out to our little suburb, as usual.

The bus stopped at our stop at last, and we got off.

Mom's car was nowhere to be seen. The street was empty. Getting closer, there were no notes. We were in the clear.

By mutual consent we hurried to the other house, our laden steps loud in the silence of the block.

The porch creaked and bowed beneath us, so I slowed, allowing Anise to go to her door first. I was sure I was going to fall through yet, but no sense making it a certainty with both of us being on the rotten wood.

Anise opened the door and stepped inside without a single care in the world. I followed a bit more gingerly.

So far, any words of mine to pry my cousin out of this wreck and into ours had been wasted. But I hadn't given up on convincing her quite yet. Maybe when rainwater hit her older books she'd do more this time than just move them to another room in the house.

For now our journey's end was into the most structurally sound part of the house... the basement.

The basement was an old one with an earthen floor and massive wooden beams that seemed far too big for even a house this big, each easily a foot square. The crossbeams holding the house up were barely smaller, and each piece of wood was smeared with tar and other substances meant to make the wood proof of the elements.

I couldn't find a single hole caused by bugs or mold, or indeed anything else, and the entire space smelled vaguely antiseptic... and ever so slightly of fish, much as everything else around here smelled.

If anything, the smell was greater here. The entire space was divided into a maze of rooms, some of which had doors and some of which did not. I hadn't been allowed too far in yet, for fear of getting lost.

The first room was close enough however; right by the stairs and with all the directions capped off, this first room had walls made of stone and mortar, an altar, and several candle sconces set in the wall. There were also candles on the floor, all of which were unlit.

Anise put her bag down near the stairs and went down, her lighter the only pinprick of light in the darkness.

"Come on," she exclaimed, getting sick of my slow progress.

"Do you have eyes like a cat? I feel like I'm going to break my neck here."

Anise made a sort of snort that didn't sound quite right. "No. Here."

She passed me her lighter; an ancient battered looking zippo that was hot enough to burn. I quickly grabbed the cooler parts and thumbed it on.

"Hold it up please, close behind me. I know these stairs well, but as you've noted any light helps."

If any light helps, why don't we just turn on the lights? they existed, a series of bare bulbs wired into the fuse box in the basement, with switches everywhere.

I didn't ask though. I knew why Anise wanted to keep the lights off. What we were going to deal with tonight did not like light, in any form at all.

Everything was already set up and good to go; the only thing to do now, was follow the steps and do it. I got into the circle, a five pointed star etched into the stone floor and filled with salt, and began lighting candles. North first, in a supposedly ancient and specific order. As I invoked the power of the circle, Anise pulled the one item she hadn't set in place beforehand; a fat candle carved with runes and sigils of power that would act as a backup in case I screwed something up.

She entered the circle just before I closed it and placed the candle on the altar.

I finished up, closing the circle, and turned to the altar. The spell called for blood, but blood wasn't really what the spell needed. The spell needed mana, which was magic juice in the blood. There were other ways to get the stuff than just opening a vein, not that our ancestors knew that.

I began the chant immediately, not needing Anise's eyes boring into me to remember. I didn't stutter, thankfully; the words flowed one after the other even as I had to contort my mouth in some interesting ways. Practice makes perfect, as my old coach would say.

The third repetition was key. There was no response, and so I kept going.

The sixth repetition came and went.

On the ninth repetition all the candles guttered at once, and the light in the room dimmed down to almost nothing.

I could feel it. A presence, something right over my shoulder, something out of place and not supposed to be here. Something that felt more wrong than this house, more wrong than even Anise, something that tripped every red flag I had. Something that made my hackles rise.

I did not turn, I dared not turn. Turning to look would be the same as giving the thing the power to eat me, I was sure. This was not some friendly visitor from outer space, or even a neutral party one could entice, as Anise had said. This was something that did not want to be here, did not like being summoned, and did not want to help at all.

I could feel the pressure; the thing wanted us. What it wanted us for I dare not guess, but it hungered. My vision swam, and for a moment I saw myself, sweating and almost pure white, hair plastered to my skull and eyes wild. Somehow from beside myself and with no light.

Despite myself and my training, when it moved, swooping toward us, when I could FEEL it moving toward us, I moved too.

Anise stopped me just before I broke the salt, and the creature - the thing - the monster flew over our heads harmlessly, and through the wall. The candle between us, our fail-safe lit and light blazed back into the room as if it had never left.

Instantly the spell was broken and everything went back to normal.

I gasped, finally remembering to breathe. I was laying down, looking up at the ceiling. Anise entered my view, her face a mask of anger and disappointment.

"Well, the summoning at least was a success." she said finally, watching as I recovered.

"That," my voice broke, and I had to try again. "That was an experience. That thing, was it what I was supposed to summon? Because it hated us with a capital H, and wanted us dead."

"Nonsense," Anise replied briskly. "It was just testing you. A test you failed, in case you did not realize."

Never was I so happy to fail. I think. On the one hand, I wasn't trying to ride something that was pure darkness and felt like it wanted to splatter me all over a block in some sort of creative art gore-fest. On the other hand, Anise was now clearly pissed at me.

"....I'll do better next time?"

She tsked and spit to the side.

I wobbled getting up; it was clear she wasn't going to help me up, and the wax from the candle digging into my back was beginning to cool and harden.

I hope I hadn't burned a hole in my shirt, my Mom would kill me.

Anise favored me with a hard look, then visibly relented with a sigh. "I suppose you will. We are still alive after all, and while we should not try again this night, there will be others. Perhaps a completely moonless night would be best."

"Or perhaps the alternate," I suggested. After all, a full moon meant more light, and less power to the thing that wanted to eviscerate us.

That thing was one of the lesser creatures one could summon, not very powerful at all according to Anise. Now I was really dreading moving up in the world and trying greater things.

"I shall consult the calendar for the next auspicious date," Anise informed me, lighting one of the other candles from her lighter. "On that date, I might perform the summoning myself, in order to show you what success appears as. Then we might get a flight, with myself at the helm."

Well, I wasn't going to feel like Anise wanted me to about that. "Sure, that sounds good."

Anise gave me a stink-eye then sighed again. Then she handed me the candle and grabbed another. "You go first."

She left the fat candle burning in the center of the circle. Probably just a precaution.

I had enough light so mounted the stairs. Once at the top, I had a decision to make... and I made it.

I turned back toward the front door. "I 'd better go ahead and go home. I need to get my homework done, and Mom's probably already on her way home."

"Yes. We had best keep appearances," Anise dismissed, her tone disinterested. Cold for a moment even, before warming up again. "I shall see you tomorrow."

I went, and Anise closed and locked the door behind me.

Well, that had happened. I was alone now, the streetlights cutting the full-blown gloom which encompassed the street. I took a look at the moon - a small sliver of light perched precariously in the night sky - and across the street.

The porch light was on of course, but Mom wasn't home yet. My path was a measly hundred steps or so.

I got to it as Anise moved from within, her own house darker than the rest and seeming to feed on what light was near besides.

That thing had been banished... and yet its kin could be anywhere in this.  My steps turned from measured into a run despite myself at the thought; if I was outside the light, I needed to be in it. I reached the porch and the blessed light, panting and sure I just set a land speed record.

I fumbled my keys at first, then got the door open. I immediately hit the lights and kept them coming. It was Mom's turn, but with her this late, I'd better just make dinner anyway. Either Mom would come home with takeout or we'd end up eating super late.

Something super simple, like burgers and fries would work. Except we didn't have any hamburger. What we did have was bacon... and lettuce... and tomato. With bread, that was close enough.

I did not jump when my phone went off, and I would deny such a thing to my dying breath.

The text from Mom telling me she was running late was... late, but expected, but she also didn't say anything about dinner. So now it was full steam ahead.

Let's see, lettuce chopping first to make sure it fit the sandwich, and put the soon to be toast in....

What was that?

I stilled, sure I heard a rustling in the bushes outside the window. Which was odd, since they were well manicured and tight; I certainly couldn't dig my way into them without a lot of noise and cursing.

The refrigerator compressor kicked on, destroying any chance my straining ears had of picking something up. The back door was locked though, so I was safe.

Had I locked the front door? I hadn't bothered with the alarm system, but had I locked the door?

I rushed over, flicking the lock over and giving the side window near the door a look.

There was someone out there. They weren't even close to the house, standing near the street light at the entrance to the cul de sac in a fisherman's coat and hat. The person was bulky and the coat looked slick, even in the dry weather. The dry and hot weather which didn't fit any sort of raincoat. Whoever it was, they were looking away from my house and toward Anise's.

Anise didn't have a cell phone. She did have an ancient land line connected to a hundred year old phone, one of those things with a little blow horn and box with a cradle. More importantly, it was located in the main hall, which was near the front door.

I hit speed dial, hoping she was close enough to reach the thing. Or cared enough, after being pissed at me. She had told me once before that there weren't many people who knew her number.

There was a click on the line and Anise's voice came through, tinny and distorted. "Hello?"

"Anise, there is someone out under the streetlight, staring at your house."

Anise's voice turned hard again. "Oh? Thank you for the warning. I shall have a look."

She was going alone? "Wait! Don't you think we should call the cops or something?"

"Why?" She asked. "I am more than sufficient to deal with any threats made to us. There is no need to trouble anyone else."

She hung up with a click.

I waited, watching. The man stood under the light and did nothing. Anise's door remained closed.

Then I remembered I was supposed to be cooking.

What do I even do now? Nothing was happening; do I phone the police after all, or do I just let it slide and cook bacon?

That person under the light never wavered, he was just standing there watching Anise's house. He never even turned his head. No, the guy was just standing there. The cops wouldn't even do anything for this, cause no law was being broken. At least for now.

I turned away from the scene and back to my skillet. It was warm enough - I washed my hands and gingerly placed the meat in carefully so that no one strip touched another.

Then I washed my hands again before touching anything else because stomach viruses suck, and cut the tomato.

I went back to the window - the guy was gone.

I rang Anise again. She answered, her tone more sure than questioning. "Hello."

"That guy is gone. I don't see him anymore."

"Yes, yes," she dismissed. "You need not worry about that one anymore. He wandered down the road, toward the sea."

"The sea?" I sounded stupid for asking, but that didn't make much sense. Why would anyone go to sea at this hour? Unless... but what would a suicidal fisherman be doing staring at Anise's house?

"I am sure it is not what you think, however sometimes those who make their living on the sea come to my house, looking for my father. This man was simply the most recent to do so. My family used to be somewhat influential with the seafaring community here, so some seek us out when they are beset by troubles."

"Oh." Well, that wasn't anything bad at all.

"If that is all, I must finish the work that I have started on my arithmetic."

Right, I still hadn't started my homework. "Alright, have a good night."

I almost told her thanks for explaining, but that sounded stupid even in my head. Sometimes my brain filter worked.

"Good night, and rest well." Anise almost sounded apologetic there. If I wasn't dreaming it, then it was likely the best I'd get.

I'd take it.

Ah! My bacon was going to burn!

It was fine, it was safe. I turned it, wondering how often down on their luck fishermen asked Anise for help. What help could she give? Her money was tied up with ours, and she didn't know more about fishing than they could. Did she?

Nah.

So what help could Anise offer some old fisherman?

Magic help for a bountiful harvest, maybe? I could see that being a thing. I could see Anise casting spells to help people who hadn't pissed her off become fish magnets made a lot of sense.

Why she didn't use magic to make herself rich was beyond me, but there had to be a reason she wasn't making lead into gold or similar. It did explain how she managed to survive while the will was being dealt with... probably.

I made my sandwich, only to realize we were out of chips. Great, I'd have to go find a healthy option now.

There was broccoli in the fridge. I was already eating disgustingly healthy, but I grabbed the container and set it in the microwave for a minute. While I waited, I went ahead and made Mom's sandwich too. She'd want something when she finally made it home.

I covered her food up so it wouldn't dry out (and as proof against bugs) and carried my plate and backpack upstairs. Mom didn't want me eating up here, but what she didn't know wouldn't hurt her. Besides, it was a pain in the butt to eat downstairs and not do any homework when I could do both up here.

Lights were good. Lights were best on. I went back down to turn most of those off, and set the alarm. A text reminder to Mom that I had done so would mean she wouldn't set it off, with any luck, and then I was free to do whatever I wanted.

Which had to be homework, unless I wanted to fail.

Anise was in front of her bedroom window, her attention away from me, doing something I couldn't quite see. Probably her own homework; I was half surprised she hadn't invited herself over for some dinner, even as pissed as she had been.

I got to work on my own homework, taking a bite out of my sandwich absentmindedly.

The house was safe; one of the first things I'd done was ward it against random creatures and magic. Anise had shown me how, but I'd added a few things since. Unless something weird happened, it was unlikely something would just be able to kill us: earlier I'd been a bit panicked, but there was no reason to worry.

So long as Mom didn't find the preparations, or invite something in she shouldn't. Both were things I could easily see her doing. Sure, the stuff was in the completely unused basement, but Mom had surprised me before, so even though she hated basements she might well go down there.

And even though she didn't normally invite people over or inside, I could easily imagine her feeling that thing I'd summoned earlier and asking it out or something. Her taste in men was pretty shit in the best of times.

It was an hour later before she made it home; not that I was checking the clock or anything.

I came down the stairs in time to catch her entering the last of the passcode. She looked awful.

"What happened to you?"

She didn't startle, just looked up blearily, then checked her watch.

"Not yet." It was close, but not quite bedtime for a school day, and if she didn't know that, something bad had happened.

"There was a car accident on... I don't know, the main road for me going home, and it stopped traffic for a good long while. I should have called or texted, but my phone battery died and...."

I slid the covered plate over as she set her bag and briefcase on the table and she shot me a look of gratitude. That was my Mom alright, a bit of a flake.

"Lost your car charger?"

Mom looked around. "I haven't seen the car charger since the move, to be honest."

Sheesh Mom, they were like ten bucks. "I'll look for it then."

Mom didnt bother re-heating, she just grabbed the sandwich and dug in. How she could manage that was beyond me, since a BLT tasted completely different when cold. The combination of cold bacon and cold soggy toast made it nasty, to be precise.

At least she used a fork for the veggies; she still had that much sense. "You're going to need to go to sleep asap. If you sleep on the couch again...."

"Yeah I know. I'm done. I'll just eat and go to bed. Did you do your homework?"

She tried, bless her. "Yeah, its almost done. Just a little bit left that I can get done on the bus ride tomorrow, if I don't finish it now."

"You better. I don't want any notes or calls about unfinished work."

Yeah she tried. "You won't get any. Haven't I been good so far?"

Mom took a bite and nodded. "You're right. Sorry. Its just... I don't need anymore stress right now. The crap I'm getting from all the estate lawyers is bad enough."

"Almost as if they get paid by the hour, right?"

Mom put on what I called her thinking face for a moment. "Almost as if... of course they do. Maybe I'll bring that up tomorrow. When I see them again. Hopefully not all day."

I got up while the getting was good, and raised my fist. "Fight the good fight Mom! Going back upstairs."

Her muttering was not a good sign, but I was confident she'd at least make it to bed tonight.

As for me, I might have time for that worksheet I'd just remembered I still had to do. It was multiple choice, so a quick rundown was good enough. I was probably even right for most of them.

Anise's light was still on.

I stood up; Anise was there, in the window, looking my way. I moved the blinds up, and
Anise moved her curtains. As if in sync, we waved at each other, the past days failures forgotten.

Then I fell, breaking the spell. What was that? For a moment, I'd looked and seen myself in the window, in my house from a distance.

I was losing it, clearly. Anise was still in the window, waving with a smile; I could just make out the glint of teeth. I was still a little dizzy for some reason but I waved again to show I was okay.

I'd ask about it tomorrow. For now it was lights ou... err lights on, and bedtime.

linebreak shadow

Next morning came, and I wasn't dead. I'd take that as a good sign. I was still a little groggy though, which was weird. I usually woke right up, no problem. Right now I felt like I imagined my Mom feeling, all worn out and disoriented. Maybe I'd have to take up coffee.

Mom would probably stab me if I stole her coffee. There was a joke in there somewhere, and I'd make it... later.

It was time for breakfast. Mom was probably still asleep, so that sort of thing fell to me.

I did my morning things; the cold water on my face helped me wake up. Jeans and a tee were easy enough, and I was no longer even a little dizzy as I made my way downstairs.

Mom's car was in the drive, so she was still here. With that settled, it was time to make coffee. Lots of very strong coffee. Some of which I could steal before she got up.

No, wait, it was seven. Mom should have another half-hour before she needed to be up, and I had thirty before I needed to be at the bus stop. That was important. I would in fact be able to commit the perfect crime.

I made the coffee, super strong. Then I took some of our stock of frozen breakfast foods and threw some pancakes in the microwave. You couldn't really go wrong with pancakes, even if you were short on time. Just had to be a bit of a philistine and nuke them.

Noises from upstairs alerted me; it was too soon! I drained my cup with half my pancakes still uneaten. Mom never woke up before her alarm, and I hadn't heard it. Her door had even been open, so I should have. I had been quiet, so why?

Mom came down, shambling back and forth like a zombie in one of the old horror movies - much as I had just... ten minutes ago? Way too early.

"Did I wake you up?"

Mom nodded... toward the coffee maker. "That woke me up."

That made sense... Mom had a sense of smell like a bloodhound for some things, and coffee was one of them. I should have known. "My bad. Sorry."

Mom waved the apology off. "No worries. I needed to be up anyway; I got places to go and things to see."

How nonchalant of her. "Cool. If you need something else to do, you can take my place at school."

Mom took a sip of her new mug of black coffee and ruffled my hair. "Nothing doing, kiddo. Some things you have to do on your own."

Then her eyes found my coffee cup: "Really? You should be drinking juice, or water."

I shrugged. Nothing to do now but play it off. "Felt a little meh this morning; I was hoping the coffee would perk me up."

"Did it?"

I gave it the appearance of thought. "It did. I feel alright now."

The fleeting idea of calling in sick was tempting, but then I would have needed to skip on Anise, not to mention my friends. That was the last thing I wanted to do.

Besides, I felt fine now. No problems at all. I needed to ask Anise just in case though; if any force on earth could have bad side effects, I'm sure magic was one. Weren't most mages spindly pasty dudes who lacked vitamin D?

There had been a few mage heroes on television, from time to time, but they were usually masked up, so it was hard to say, but from what I remembered they were built lightly, like runners or swimmers.

Anise was built pretty light, come to think of it. I hadn't seen her pump iron once, but she did tend to get around, mostly by swimming. I guess it made sense for a California kid to love swimming.

Why she didn't just go out for the swim team was beyond me; she was plenty fast enough, and joining sports was an easy way to make friends, no matter how weird you were. I could attest to that myself, even if I'd been too late for tryouts this time around.

Who was I kidding? I hadn't really been too late, I'd been hooked on magic. Anise was probably the same way, and that was that. Was it the same for all mages though? I didn't really doubt it.

"So, want another cup?"

What was this? Mom was giving up her precious coffee? "Nah. That crap is rancid. Knock yourself out."

I could always just buy a cola at the school for the caffeine. It wasn't like I was poor anymore.

It was awesome not being poor anymore. I was looking forward to being rich as hell - that was something I'd yet to experience.

For now, between my own internet resales and some other ideas, I had enough to splurge for a coke every now and again. If only the attorneys of our late great departed old guy would quit objecting to every little thing under the sun, so we could just take all that old money and use it to restore the properties we now owned. Including Anise's, so she could stop living in that shitty deathtrap of a house.

Regardless of what she wanted. I was sure in time Mom and I could convince her to move. A carpenter I was not; sooner or later she would fall through the floor or something, and break a leg.

I switched to water for now and finished my breakfast while Mom nuked her own breakfast. I only had about ten minutes left, and I'd forgotten my backpack and books upstairs. Joy.

By the time I retrieved those it was time to meet Anise.

Wonder of wonders, she came out of her house, her large old key in hand, before I'd completely crossed the street. That was not normal at all: some days I even had to wake her up, and she dressed and rushed down in five minutes or less. It was why I had taken to being just a little early in the first place.

She reminded me of my Mom, sometimes - in all the worst ways.

"Good morning, Anise. Did you sleep well?"

"Good morning, Theo. I slept very well, thank you. Did you also have a restful night?"

She knew. She had to know. "Not really."

Anise nodded as if she expected it all along. "Such summonings as you experienced last night oft leave their marks upon fledglings such as yourself. You shall overcome the...unpleasantness in time."

I didn't doubt her really, even if I wasn't sure I wanted to overcome whatever that had been. My concern was a bit more immediate: "You sure we should be talking about this here?"

Anise looked right, then left. Then she raised an eyebrow. "There are none but us here, and only three of us in this area."

Clearly Anise didn't know about the better spy listening options like parabolic microphones. "It just feels a little too open."

"Mayhap it is," Anise ventured. "Your point is taken. Come, we shall be late."

She had a point. But again, something was more important. "You're doing it again."

Anise sighed loudly enough that I could hear it, even as she was walking away from me. "Right. I shall... will, work on it."

Anise needed to stop sounding like a 19th century schoolmarm. The accent was one thing, we couldn't really do much about that and it was mild enough, but the word choice was something she could fix. If she sounded more like her generation, like the rest of us, then she would take a lot less heat from any bullies.

It was a work in progress; some days Anise did better than others.

Of course we got to the bus stop in plenty of time to see the bus as it rumbled down the single road to our out of the way cul-de-sac. One might even say - isolated. I still didn't like that, but we had security systems and lights at least. The police were only a panic button press away.

I didn't have to worry about Anise at all; anyone who broke into her house would either fall through the floor or get eaten by a darkness monster. I'd get there soon myself, and then it'd be smooth sailing.

The bus rolled to a squeaky stop in front of us, just close enough to be uncomfortable. The driver knew what he was doing, of course, and his grin was entirely too wide and just a touch mocking.

Whatever, I got on and we sat at our customary seat; just behind the left rear wheel, with Anise at the window. The mostly empty bus rattled to life, and the drivers eyes appeared in the rear-view - to double check traffic but really to check on us. Our eyes met, proof enough my suspicion was correct.

The bus rumbled off because there was no traffic; my mother's car was the only possible traffic the street could have, and we all knew where she was. Up the hill in first gear, just like a roller coaster where the ride was getting started... then with a grinding screech we seemed to go directly into fifth: the engine roared and the vehicle lunged into traffic with reckless abandon.

The traffic stopped, luckily, and we merged with no difficulty, living another day.

So that we could do it all over again tomorrow.

Whatever, if we were hit I'd be suing.

I decided to read while the bus made its daily stops; pretty much like every day. A few people got on, and like normal, no one got off. Just the same shady people, every day, for a route through the outskirts of the city.

Well, not shady exactly, just well wrapped up and potentially crazy. Who was I to judge?

Anise pulled a book out... just in time for the explosion of gunfire.

The bus was in front of a stop, the door open, when what could only be the rapid fire retort of machine guns. Anyone who lived in big cities knew the sound - so while Anise was looking up and around curiously I was grabbing her and hitting the deck.

The windows of the bus shattered, showering us in dirty glass. A few thumping noises signified more shots penetrating the metal side of the bus as if it were paper. I heard some sirens in the distance, and because of where we were they could be a block away, or ten blocks away.

The driver met my gaze from the floor, where he was too. He cackled, got up, and pulled the door release.

That seemed like a good idea - to just leave.

"Are you done?" Anise asked, staring up at me. She wiggled, and I realized where I was; I quickly got off,  crawling toward the door. "Sorry. First instinct when I hear gunfire is to hit the deck."

"I'm not complaining," Anise said, and then smiled. Smiled! "I just wished to know which game we might play while here."

Oh, gross. "Eww, don't even joke about that - we're related." Of course that was the joke.

And Anise was pleasant enough feeling. Not that I'd ever admit that in a million years. I scrubbed my mind with brain bleach, in a hurry, and hoped it would spread to my traitorous hands.

Anise's smile changed from a sly to a knowing one as she crawled after me.

Shit, the glass was sharp; I stared at the new cut on my hand. Whatever, it wasn't that bad. Not bad enough to worry about yet, anyway. If it needed stitches we needed to survive for me to get them.

I kept going and made it to the door; the driver was nowhere to be found; the old guy was pretty spry. Down the steps, the driver was still gone; the old guy was REALLY spry.

More bullets came our way, and I could just make out the police coming from the right, driving at very unsafe speeds... one of them even smashed into a car that was in the way, driving it into the sidewalk.

That car immediately got shot up, so there were multiple assailants.

I grabbed Anise again, forcing her to crouch down behind the tires as she made as if to stand up. "Here, next to the tire. If they shoot here again, the tire will at least slow it down, and they won't know we're here. Until we figure out where to make a break for it, this is the safest place."

Anise crouched down without complaint, which was for the best, since I really couldn't drag her down unless she let me.

I peeked, looking for feet, and didn't see any. What were these criminals even here for, anyway? I risked a peek to the right, towards the front of the bus... and saw a bank past the stopped traffic and parked cars.

Really? Who robbed a bank in this day and age, other than desperate people who shouldn't have automatic weapons? This situation smelled fishier than Anise's house.

However, I could see at least six cars and a dozen cops surrounding the place, all with guns drawn and pointed inside - and our bus was pretty much right behind the scene and sure to catch every stray bullet fired.

"Surely the police can handle this, no? If we dally, we shall be late for school."

I turned to find Anise right behind me, and shooed her back behind the tire. The cops were outgunned, if not outnumbered. 'Handling this' might take them an hour or more, especially if there were hostages inside. Who was I kidding, of course there were hostages inside. So hours, during which time more people would get hurt without a doubt.

No, I could do something. I'd been learning magic for months, I could resolve this without any problem. I even had all the tools at hand... my bloody hand, to be precise.

Anise might not know I knew this one, though. It wasn't the darkness thing, or the hounds that seemed to stalk you if you knew about them, but something some mages had summoned without issue for thousands of years.

That meant I could probably do it.

I wiggled my finger to get the blood flowing down it and used my other hand to wick the rest away. Drawing the circle from memory was a thing so I took it slow, but finally I was Sure I'd gotten it right-ish. Right enough.

Anise lifted an eyebrow. "Really? You wish to try that?"

"Will it work?" I couldn't help but ask. Now that it was go time, I checked again. Yeah, it matched the book, even if it was a little rough.

"May - Perhaps," Anise answered, giving my circle a once-over herself. "Go ahead, I shall support you and ensure a smooth summoning."

That was all I needed. I focused and said the chant: I knew right away when I'd finished that I got it right. Even in the daytime, even with all the conditions against us, it had worked, because the drain of mana was unmistakable.

The demon I'd chosen was considered a mount, something to use to go from place to place at high speeds, that carried a mage on their back rather than just teleporting. An older form  of transport for humans, and traditionally only a means of transport, as a result of some barely mentioned ancient pact or another. I intended to stretch the rules of that pact a bit.

My mind linked with it, and without words the hammer-blow of its intention was clear: it wanted to give me a ride. To anywhere, no matter how far. It asked where I wanted to go, and for a small eternity it was tempting, so utterly tempting, just to take the offer and name a place. Any place, away from here.

No, that wasn't the plan, and it wouldn't save anyone.

I impressed on the thing, the utterly alien mind, that I wanted a fly-by instead. A show, in a certain location not far from me, that my eyes could see. For a moment there was resistance, strong resistance, then the thing gave the mental equivalent of a shrug and a nod.

It was so fast, I almost missed the giant shadow streaking into the bank; the second floor of the place sported a smashed window now, one that would be hard to explain once the standoff was over. At least the noise of gunfire and other glass shattering covered the sound.

The only thing that really registered was the oddness of the shadow as it streaked in; it hadn't looked like anything I'd seen before, though it was vaguely bird-like due to the wings.

It was fast - and it had eyes, because it was allowing me to see through them. Somehow it was even something close to human vision; just the colors were a bit different than I was used to. Everything was recognizable, and the demon was taking direction just fine.

It met the first bad guy at the stairs; a large guy looking up through a black ski mask. He had black clothes and a tactical vest on, and appeared to have some kind of body armor. There were no identifying marks that I could see, and he had some sort of wispy smoke coming from him that I didn't know the origin of.

At my urging, the creature grabbed the gun that I could clearly make out between the goon's two hands and ripped it from the wide-eyed man's hands.

I couldn't be sure of how strong the creature was however, so that was all I had it do... while urging the thing to collect all the objects like it in the building that the thing could see.

That was all I needed to do.

The creature needed no further urging, and moved so quickly that all I could make out were blurs and flashes as it came to a stop every second or so.

My ears, however, told more of the tale. Shooting in massive amounts, screams, the sound of heavy objects breaking. The police were looking at each other, and one of the older one paled visibly, from here... and waved his arm.

As I'd hoped, the cops took advantage of my distraction, grouped up, and rushed the doors.

I couldn't really tell what was happening inside, but not a single shot came through those doors as the  police rushed in.

A twinge in my mind warned me, and I was moving before my warning was formed. "Shit, come on!"

For the second time I grabbed Anise, and shoved her back on the bus; I managed to get on just in time - the shower of a number of machine guns hit the ground where we were. One of them even went off, hitting the sidewalk just right and firing off three or four rounds. Luckily it looked like none of them hit anyone or anything important.

Anise made a sound in the back of her throat and gave me a glare that even my mother couldn't match. "Oh well done, young apprentice. Let me guess. You gave no order regarding the disposal of your opponent's firearms?"

"Well, I did... I told the thing to collect them. I just didn't tell it where to place them, since I didn't know the thing would be done so soon."

"Ah," Anise muttered. "Yes, it is your first time. You would not know these things. My apologies, you have done well after all. I should have thought more upon it."

She looked troubled, so I let her off the hook. "It's okay, stuff to learn for the next time. Also, was that thing bulletproof? because I was certain that it took a few shots."

"When you fly the un-imagined depths of space, you must be proof against all that occurs there; any such creature would have the ability to shrug off firearms as you might a flea's bite."

That was a fair point. A very fair point.

There was a more immediate one. "We need to get out of here, before the cops come to clear this area and find us sitting next to a pile of missing machine guns."

The spell was over, the contract ended, so messing with the circle was safe; I used my blood and my shoe to scuff and obscure the symbols so that people wouldn't be able to figure out what it was. I wasn't ready to out myself just yet.

It was doubtful the cops would dna test the blood here, and even if they did, my dna wasn't on record anywhere. I watched cop shows, I knew the secrets! Well, some of the secrets, anyway.

"Well, come then," Anise said, grabbing my hand and yanking me up. Up toward the bus.

"Why this way?" She went in, toward our seats. Then she reached down and held up her bag pointedly.

"Right," the cops wouldn't need to test for us if we left our stuff. I hurried over, grabbed my book and backpack. "You got everything?"

"Go, they are coming."

I looked over despite myself. The police were instead coming out, a few of them with prisoners, but more than a few had none and were spreading out. I wasted no more time; I knew Anise could keep up with me.

There was an alley not far from the corner we were on, I ducked down it and heard no yells, so we must not have been spotted. I wasn't going to bet on that though, and kept going.

"So what is your plan?" Anise said, just loudly enough for me to hear her.

"We can catch another bus to school the next block or two over. If we don't show up at school my Mom will kill us both, no matter what excuse we give."

If Anise had a response, she didn't air it. Still, her footsteps pounded down the concrete behind mine. We took a left, vaulted over a homeless guy sleeping it off, dodged some used needles, and ended up mid-street one block over - where everything was normal. People were walking along, cars were driving, the sun was shining... it was as if nothing had happened just a short jog away.

Hadn't they even heard the shots? No of course they had, but it was big city syndrome. They didn't care, so long as it didn't affect them. I bet all these people had hidden or taken cover, and now were just acting like they heard nothing at all.

That attitude extended to us, with our ragged, dirty clothes and blood. Oh man, Mom was going to kill me anyway, for getting my shirt and pants bloody. Well, if she found out. Maybe I could fix that little problem. Anyway, people were pointedly looking away from us, and dipping around us like we weren't there.

I led us to the next corner, and there was also a bus stop here. It didn't go right to the school, but came close enough, and the next bus was... in an hour. Joy.

"Come," Anise said, grabbing my hand again. "You cannot stand there and bleed until the appointed time."

She looked to be leading me to a gas station, some few shops away. She was also right; The cut wasn't really bad, but it was bad enough. It was also just now beginning to hurt, the adrenaline wearing off.

Anise led me along without a word or complaint, seeming to be in her element. She was so in tune, it seemed as if the lights changed in time with our steps. The traffic continued to flow.

It was weird; something was different, but I wasn't sure what it was.

We made it into the gas station, and Anise wasted no time, seeming to know where to go. In the back, near the coolers full of drinks, were first aid kits. Anise grabbed a small one, then looked across from them and grabbed a couple of bottles of water as well.

I checked the price; Did Anise have enough on her? I could pay for the kit, but I wasn't sure I had enough for the water too.

Turns out I didn't need to worry; Anise pulled out a brand new looking debit card. The bored Korean looking guy didn't even look up from his book as he rang her up. The card went through without a problem, and he let out a bored: "Thank you, have a nice day," that sounded at least half yawn.

Once back outside, Anise turned and led the way back toward the restrooms. They were locked of course, but we didn't care about that. Anise crouched down.

"Sit down."

I took a look. I didn't see any needles.

"Come, come, Your clothes can hardly become more ruined."

"That wasn't what I... no, never mind." I sat.

Anise dumped half of one water bottle on my hand, The cut came into view in all its glory. Anise broke out the disinfectant and cotton balls. When she made a pass with a peroxide soaked cotton ball, I couldn't stop the wince. "I think there might still be glass in there."

"Ah. I shall find it."

I was all set to stop her when she dragged my hand closer to her face... but she was surprisingly gentle. She tapped her fingers on my cut, then gently opened it up. Some sparkling shards raised up from my flesh; Anise caught them up before the glass could become visible to anyone else.

Then she resumed her cleaning, and while it wasn't exactly pleasant it was tolerable.

I knew that spell; it was one of the first Anise had taught me, and I was ready to admit I was wrong about how useful it was.

Anise smeared cream on the wound and bandaged it; the cut was in a tricky spot, but she bandaged it like a pro.

Then she drew me up, and handed me the rest of my bottle of water, keeping the fresh one for herself.

Which she guzzled down in one massive chug, as I sipped my own. Weird, I was the one missing all the liquid inside me; why was she so thirsty?

All the running, I guess. I spent some time trying to clean the blood and dirt off my clothes. Which really just smeared it around, but it was something to do.

A cop car pulled into the gas station.

Only one word to say to that: "Shit." I grabbed our stuff and moved.

"Come on, we're technically truant, and weve got bloody clothes. The cops won't leave us alone if they see us."

Anise looked back. "Ah."

"Don't look at them," I told her. Cops knew if you were looking at them; it was a sixth sense or something.

I led us back around the building, out of sight. We needed to get back to that bus stop, but we could afford to wait a little bit. The problem is, there was no cover here, just more parking lot.

I put the first aid kit in my backpack, and drank some more water.

Anise looked to me, and I looked back. "I got no idea, unless we want to try and get to another bus stop."

If we did that, we might be waiting longer, but there wouldn't be any cops looking for suspicious stuff and people to take down to the station. If that happened it wouldn't be bad exactly, but then we'd be asked questions we couldn't really answer, held up, and then Mom would be called and get involved.

I looked around the corner. The cop car was still there.

"Come," Anise said, taking my hand. She began leading us back to the bus stop.

"Wait, we will be fully visible there!"

"Exactly," Anise answered. "It is an old trick, but being bold oft covers many lacks. This will be a good example for you. Those policemen will only see as they want to see, and will pass us by."

"You're on. Five bucks."

Anise grinned. "Now you speak my language. It is a compact young sir, and I'll sup well on your money!"

I...sort of understood that. But my bet was solid; surely the cops would at least ask what we were doing outside of school?

I kept my peripheral vision on the police car as we sat down, and found my book.

There was glass in between the pages where I'd had it open. I shook it out as nonchalantly as possible. Luckily, the book was only a little cut up. Enough so that maybe I wouldn't be charged a replacement fee.

The cops both came out. One was young and tall, one was older - old enough to have white hair - and shorter. Both still looked fit though, and both had coffee cups. They both got in their car, the younger one on the driver's side. A moment later, both buckled up and the younger one pulled the car out to the parking lot exit.

He looked right at us as he panned his vision right, looking for that opening to pull into traffic.

I looked away in a hurry... then chanced a look back.

He was still looking my way, and he waved with a smile.

I waved back, making sure I used the hand that wasn't cut up.

His public relations good deed for the day done, he pulled into traffic, almost cutting off another car. That was city traffic for you; I was never going to drive here if I could help it.

Well that, or just fully embrace the madness and drive like a demented cabby.

But either way, we were clear. No one was paying attention to us just sitting on the bus stop bench, and the police just left.

Anise grinned. I passed her one of my fives, and she made it disappear, just as if she were a magician. Then she went back to her own book.

Just as I was finishing up my reading assignment, the bus came rolling smoothly up. It was a brand new bus, all shiny and still bearing that new car smell. I hated it immediately - I didn't want to go back to that old pos I'd need to go back to tomorrow.

We climbed on, and unlike the old pos, we had to pay the fare. I paid for both of us, mourning my now lack of change to use on the vending machines at school, and we looked for a seat.

The bus was packed, it was almost standing room only. The only thing to do was grab a hand ring up front and hope the street didn't have anymore surprises for us.

It was a long time to stand around, but the ride to the stop nearest our school was actually a quicker one than riding the crap bus; We managed to get off right before ten-thirty.

That was better than nothing... only meant we were down two classes on the day.

The walk was more pleasant than the first one had been; birds were singing, trees were rustling in the breeze, and the stink of traffic was quickly left behind.

The gates coming into view, even closed and locked, was more of a relief than I let on. Finally, we were safe. For some measure of safe anyway. Safe from stupid bank robbers.

The guard set in the shack behind the gate recognized us, and the gate started opening with a rumble before we even reached it. He motioned us in, then hit the button again.

At my urging we hustled, and made it through.

"What happened to you two?" The guard asked. He was a large man, running to fat at top speed but still intimidating. The uniform he wore really did him no favors, but he was serious enough; he had a billy club, mace, handcuffs, and a taser all clipped onto his massive belt. His name was Gary, just as his name badge stated.

"Bus trouble. We had to take another bus and walk."

"I'll call it in," He replied, already picking up his direct line phone. "You two just get to class."

Our piece of shit bus was well known, it seemed. He didn't even question it. We continued down the empty lane and up to the front.

I mounted the stairs; the sun left us, and the world became ten degrees colder in an instant. The door opened readily, and soon we had entered the cool halls.

Safe indeed. At least until tonight.

 

To Be Continued
Read 809 times Last modified on Tuesday, 08 November 2022 00:12

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Astrodragon
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Astrodragon
4 weeks ago
looking good Nagrij
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