Half Blood: Part II

Harley Tănăsescu

September 2016

We were brought to our very own house which would serve as our dorm and left among ourselves to socialize over pizza. Most of the people jumped on the food, having spent far too long on a crowded bus without any breaks on the way. After looking through the boxes, I settled on the all-dressed pizza and grabbed a slice with my fingers.

The second I took a bite, I immediately felt my mouth burn and my face become tingly. There was only one thing that did that; raw garlic. I rushed to the sink and spit out the bite I’d taken before rinsing my mouth with water several times over. Why of all things had vampires have to be allergic to garlic? Why not licorice, beets or something something nobody in their right mind eats anyway and not an omnipresent ingredient…

“Are you okay?” Someone asked me with a fairly heavy dutch accent.

“Garlic’s not cooked, I’m allergic to it in raw form.” I claimed, scrubbing my tongue until the sensation disappeared.

“Are you going to be okay?”

“Yeah, I didn’t swallow it.”

I turned around and got a look at them. They were fairly tall, although not quite as I was. Despite the dutch accent, their skin was a strong light brown shade. Neither their clothes or their body were feminine or masculine, instead they were like an overgrown preteen.

“I’m Clarke.”

“Harley Tănăsescu.” I said, putting my hair back correctly.

“Oh you’re my roommate.”

“Let me guess, you’re genderqueer too?”

“I prefer non-binary.” They said.

“Alright.” I said with a shrug.

Rather than eat anymore, the garlic having killed my appetite I grabbed my bags and went into my assigned room. As I went, I saw Clarke get approached by Alexander, the short clearly transgender guy in our dorm, asking for help. I unpacked my things and sorted them in the closet and the drawers under the bed.

When I came back into the common room I saw that away from the others, there was redheaded girl in a green hoodie sitting down on the couch, clutching a bottle of apple juice like her life depended on it. But even more interesting was the bulky gray cat lying across her lap. I could feel the magical energies emanating from it. It wasn’t a normal pet but a witch’s familiar and she was the witch.

I came closer and the cat suddenly leapt off her lap and stood before me. It sniffed me before hissing.

“Jeez. Relax, kitty. I don’t bite.” I said putting my hands up. “Unless people want me to that is.” The cat let out another sharp hiss. “Jeez, take a joke and chill. She’s not even my type. Can you call off your Familiar?” I then asked, looking back at the girl.

“You know what Malkie is?” She asked, although she turned her head in my direction, she didn’t make eye contact.

“That’s not the first time I’ve met one.”  

“Are you with the Merlins too?” She asked,

The children of Merlin — Sons of Merlin for the old guys not keen on times changing — or Merlins as they were known more colloquially, were one of the magical cabal that ran around the world, as far as secret magical order they were alright even if my grandfather despised them as ‘idealistic fools.’

“No, I’m part of the Tănăsescu clan of Romania.”

She frowned and then looked at her familiar. Who had climbed back onto the couch and sat next to her, its eyes fixed on me. Although I couldn’t hear it, I knew she and the familiar were communicating mentally.

“You’re a witch hunter?” She looked at me eyes wide, her body tensing up. The aura emanating from her familiar grew stronger, more imposing.

“Woah, we’re on the same team.” I said putting my hand up in surrender for the second time. “I really don’t agree with my family’s policies and history. My mom and I are definitely the black sheeps.”

She looked at me — or rather slightly off — and frowned.

“I want to believe you.”

I approached slowly and sat down in an armchair not far from her.

“Trust me, if I could just wipe off the occult debt and bad karma off my soul attached to the name and get rid of it, I’d do it in a heartbeat. You try being half-vampire in a family whose self-appointed job is to hunt monsters.” I sighed. “I’m surprised there are other magical beings here though. Superheroes and magic don’t exactly mix well.”

There were a few superheroes with magical powers but they were the mockery of the occult underground. With The powers at the disposition of witches, wizards and warlocks, robbing banks or fighting said robbers were kind of a laughable idea. There were better ways to shape the world for good or ill, if you didn’t mind ignoring the little people that is.

“I’m Harley. Do you have a name?”

“Síthmaith.” She said, pronouncing it ‘She-moh.’

“Well Síthmaith, I’m glad to have met you.” I said with a smile. “Hopefully we can get along, even if Malkie doesn’t like me.”

In answer, Malkie hit its tail against the armrest of the couch. He was one crazy protective familiar to say the least. But even with his attitude, having someone who understood magic was a huge relief. I wouldn’t sound so crazy if anyone asked me about anything, that was a plus.

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Gadgets & People: Part I

Sanjay Arc II: Gadgets & People

Part I: The Tinkerer from Another World

I have a confession to make: I definitely get cranky if I don’t get tea-induce caffeine regularly. With Jaeger having claimed a corner of my lab as his personal homework space and his constant questions — both schoolwork and engineering related — getting miffed while working with deadly weapons and high tech equipment was not a good idea.

“Did you know that three-toed sloths sleep for twenty hours a day? In fact they’re so immobile that algae grows on their body.” He said. It was a thing he did whenever I answered a question of his; give me some biology or zoology trivia.

“No I didn’t.” I sighed. “I need some caffeine.”

“Can you get me a refill too?”

“Sure.”

I picked both our cups and left the lab, making the short trek to the house and into the kitchen. Yougen was there too, working on homework at the counter with a cup of hot aromatic jasmine tea, earbuds in her ears linked to a makeshift mp3 player. After putting the kettle on, I came closer inspecting the device.

“Oh hey Sanjay.” She said with a smile, taking one of her ear buds out.

“Evening. Did you make that?” I asked, nodding at the device.

“Oh yeah, had to jury rig parts from three different system and reprogram the thing from scratch.”

“Impressive, where did you learn to do that?”

“My dad worked repurposing old scrap and tech, I learned from him.” She put a hand in her pocket and took out a few more things including a large pocket watch, what I presumed was a light of some sort and the last thing I wasn’t sure of, it was some kind of pen-thing. They were all clearly assembled out of spare parts.

“Impressive. I’d love to see what you could do with top of the line parts.”

“I’d be in heaven.”

“You know, my lab’s right outside. I might accidentally misplace some which you’d have found by chance, without me knowing of course.” I said with that ‘if you know what I mean’ kind of tone. The company would’ve been pissy if they’d known I gave stuff away, but frankly I didn’t care about what they wanted anymore.

“For real?” She asked, her face brightening up.

“For real.”

I finished the tea and coffee preparation and we both went to my lab with her following me in her wheelchair. However I came to a stop in front of the stairs.

“Oh… I hadn’t thought about that.” I mumbled, feeling like a moron.

“It’s fine.” She sighed. “I deal with this all the time.”

She quickly transformed into that other shape of hers, which unlike her normal one could walk. She got up and grabbed her wheelchair. I opened the door for us and she put it up inside the lab before sitting down and transforming back.

“Pardon me if this is an insensitive question, but if you can transform into that other form why stay in this one? Is it a time constraint thing?” I asked.

“No, I can stay as long as I want to. But it’s complicated.” She sighed. “When transformed, it’s more than just changing body shape, it also affects my brain. I’m still me on a level, but my thoughts work differently; I see everyone as either prey or predator, I’m hyper alert, I can’t focus on anything and I just react more aggressively to everything. The longer I stay in that form, the stronger these feelings get.”

“I see. I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright. But yeah, walking is good and all but I prefer to be myself.”

I nodded. “Anyway here’s the lab.” I quickly explained every piece of technology lying around and her expression lit up like a kid in a candy store with fad wad of cash. “Don’t mind Jaeger, he’s one step away from become part of the decor here.”

“Hi.” He said, barely glancing up from his math textbook before returning back to it, lips pursed and brow frowning in deep concentration.

“This stuff is so amazing.” She said with a grin.

“It’s absolutely bleeding edge.” I said.

“Oh man, I’ve never seen any of this back home.” She picked a few things, examining them very carefully.

“Well, this isn’t the kind of thing most people can get their hands on. Even technological giants would kill to get what’s in here.”

“True, but to be honest most of the things people here take for granted are miraculous where I come from.”

“Where’s that?”

“Earth-d048.” She said. “Or that was the name it had back when I crossed over. Since we have parahumans, it probably has one of those fancy hebrew codename now.”

“You’re from another Earth?”Jaeger bleeped out.

“Yeah…” She said biting her lip.

“How is it like?”

“Not good… A comet hit Asia in the late eighties, last I saw we hadn’t exactly recovered from that.” She bit her lip again and for a moment there was silence. “But now I’m here and I’m just trying to make the best out of it.”

“That’s a good attitude to keep.” I said. Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw Jaeger roll his eyes.

“Having to relearn history and a new language was kind of a pain. Like past the ninth-century or so everything is different. The Holy Roman Republic was like the biggest thing on my world, here it never existed. Saxos isn’t even spoken here.”

“Saxos?”

“It’s kind of a mix between High German and Danish of this world with some French and Swedish mixed in. It’s the English of my world.” She then spoke a sentence I didn’t understand save for her name, didn’t take a genius to figure out she’d just introduced herself in that language. I shot a look at Jaeger who was squinting.

“I got what you said from context, but beyond that it’s not quite mutually intelligible, but if I got time to deconstruct I might be able to get the basic gist. Maybe.”

“Same for Alephi-German.” She said.

“You said you had parahumans. Others like you?” Jaeger asked.

“Some are like me, others are different. We’re not sure what it really is, we think it came from the comet. All I really know is that we call it ‘das naht bluot’ or black blood, that it acts differently on different people, and that sometimes it’s contagious…”

“Contagious?”

“I’m safe.” she said raising her hands. “Now if you see me bleeding black out my eyes and mouth severely, grunting and screeching like a cave-woman, then you can panic.”

“So, do you feel like doing some tinkering? I have to see what you can do.” I asked, bringing the conversation to the reason I’d brought her there for.

“Oh hell yes!”

Her eyes focused back on the tech and I just followed the way she moved, trying to see how her brain worked as she experimented with new components. Despite a lack of advanced knowledge, she was smart and she definitely had talent when it came to thinking of new things.

Skins: Part I

Sasha Vasiliev, Vucari

September 2016

I ran through the woods. Letting my mind drift in that space between animal and human. I just focused on feeling the cold night air on my snout, the way wind rustled my fur and the movement of my canine body.

“Sasha!” I heard my dad call, drawing me out of my trace. “It’s almost time to go!”

I turned around and ran back to the house where my father held the back door open for me.

“Come on, you don’t want to be late do you?” He asked in our native Russian, walking me to the bathroom door and opening it. “Get dressed.”

I went in and he closed the door behind me. Changing back to human form was easy, I just had to wish it and my body smoothly reassembled itself; first melding into an almost goo like form before becoming flesh and bones again. I could even grow or shrink, gaining or losing whatever mass I needed.

“Sorry, I had the jitters and I needed to take a run.” I explained from behind the door as I put my underwear and binder back on and fiddling with it until it flattened my chest acceptably. Even though I could become any animal, male or female, my human form was stuck in the way it’d been born as… I finished dressing up and left the bathroom.

“How do I look?”

“You look just perfect, zaychik.” My dad said, the shadow of a smile appearing at the edge of his graying mustache. He gently ruffled my short ashy blonde hair, one of many traits I hadn’t inherited from his Mongolian ancestry, being very much white passing. “Are you ready for this?”

“Ready as I could be. Where’s mama?”

“Finishing to pack the car.”

I nodded and grabbed my messenger’s bag and getting out the front door. As Dad had said, mama was waiting for us, packing the last of my things. Unlike my father, she was an ethnic Russian. We got into the family car and she drove off. It was a three hour ride to Voronezh and then I’d need to go through a twelve hour flight to America.

It was strange to think about it. Months ago I’d dreamed of leaving the country, seeing the world. In desperation, I’d secretly applied to Ravenhold; the american superhero school. I’d never expected it to work and yet out of thousands, I’d been selected… At least my parents had been supportive after they’d found out, mostly. As we went through the airport, I could see my mama tensing up.

“I guess this is it.” I said looking at the final gate.

“Sasha, baby,” mama said, dragging my against her chest tightly, “do you really have to go? I’ll miss you so much. We could get you into the Krasnoy Zvezdy, it’s only two hours away. We could visit you there.”

The ‘Akademiya Krasnoy Zvezdy’, or ‘Academy of the Red Star’ for English speakers,  was the largest superhero academy in Russia, once upon a time it had been government sponsored during the height of the cold war, but after the fall of the union, it had been bought out by private investors.

“Mama, you know it’ll be better for me in America, at least for now.” After I had came out as trans two years prior I’d had to suffer bullying at school from staff and pupils alike. In a way, it was thanks to them I was leaving; my powers having manifested after three of them had ambushed me after school…

“Come on love, He’ll be on vacation before you know it and pestering you to make Pirozhki for the thousandth time that week. Isn’t that right Sasha?”

“I’m invoking article 51 of the constitution.” I said, raising my hands. That made mama smile. “I’ll come back as often as I can and I’ll write you everyday.” It was my turn to hug and kiss her.

The call for boarding rung through the airport. My father quickly stopped me to give me one of his sacred amulets, putting it around my neck before we all shared a quick prayer to Perun together. That done, I quickly gave them my goodbye before heading off to the plane. I sat down and opted to sleep the night off. Even though it was almost four in the morning, it’d be early morning when we’d reach America only to then take a bus to the school itself.

When we finally arrived at Ravenhold, after 23 hours of travel for me, I just wanted to transform and give my body the chance to move, but instead I stayed with the mass of new students as an American hero called the Raven divided us into groups. Much to my surprise, my own group even had a Tzari in it.

It was my first time seeing an alien in the flesh. Kursk and its outskirt were I lived weren’t exactly the most cosmopolitan place in the world and after the Tzari invasion, the few aliens Russia had had fled the country. After the bombing of Moscow had killed nearly seven million people at the end of the war, they hadn’t been welcome anymore, even if they had nothing with the Tzari.

She was tall, almost two feet taller than I was. I knew enough about Tzaries to tell by the shape of her jaw and the lack of a second set of tusk that she was female. Although her body was covered by technological armor, it left her fingers exposed, leaving her bony-clawed fingers visible. Her cat-like eyes went over our group silently. Her hair had been tied into a complex set of braids that hung behind her back. But most striking of all was the tattoo on her cheek, looking a little like a sideways ‘phi’. I had to admit… She was beautiful in her own way.

My staring was interrupted as one of the academy staff lead us to our dorms, which turned out was a house larger than my own. People introduced themselves over the pizza we’d been provided with and I received a few surprised looks when I introduced myself as Alexander, but nobody reacted badly or laughed…  

A list of room assignment had been left on a cork board but being the smallest, I couldn’t quite read the top of the sheet. I looked around and saw another classmate not far who’d stayed away from the group. 

They were a little taller than me — not that that meant much, at five feet and one inch just about everyone was — they had dark skin but it was fairly pale, making me think they were of mixed race. I couldn’t really pin them as a boy or girl, lacking feminine or masculine mark; no facial hair, no breast, no Adam’s apple.

“Hello?” I said waving to them. “I’m Alexander, but you can call me Sasha. Could you tell me who I share a room with? It’s a little too high for me.” I said, making sure to chose my words correctly. Although I’d studied English, I didn’t speak it out loud often.

“I’m Clarke, pronouns they and them.” I couldn’t place their accent outside somewhere in Europe but it definitely wasn’t american. Like their appearance, their voice was neither masculine or feminine, just tethering on the edge in between.

“Where are you from?”

“The Netherlands. Let me guess, you’re Russian?”

“Da.”

They took a few steps toward the board and looked at the list, running a finger on it.

“You’re roomed with…” They stopped and glared at me. “Shekaree… You’re not going to be a bitch to her are you?”

“Why would I do that?”

“Do I really have to point it out? She’s an alien…” They said and I looked around, finding her standing in a corner, her posture stiff. Shekaree, that was her name? I had to say, it sounded rather nice. Of all people I was rooming with her.

“Because I’m Russian you think I am prejudiced?”

“Last I checked your type isn’t too kind to aliens. Plus, you’re openly wearing nazi symbols.” They said, poking the Kolovrat my father had given me.

“I’m pagan, not racist. And that’s a Kolovrat one of our holy symbol, just because racists have used it doesn’t mean it’s a nazi symbol.” I snapped. “And I might not look like it, but I’m half Kalmyk.”

“Doesn’t change the fact Russians aren’t exactly alien-friendly.”

“She isn’t responsible for what happened. Neither are the vast majority of Tzaries, in fact they rebelled against the leader who was responsible. I don’t agree with the way some of my countrymen act. Now goodbye.”

I stepped away, not giving them the time to say anything else. In only a few minutes, I’d already come to dislike them and their judgemental thinking. I hovered around for a moment, trying to think of what to do next when my eyes settled on Shekaree again, she was alone in her corner, apparently the others hadn’t felt like including her. So I decided to greet her.

“Zdravstvuyte!” I said a little too stiffly. With the nerves, I’d reverted back to Russian.

“What?” She replied, her accent fairly thick. “Se habla Español? Parle-tu Français?” I shook my head, I only understood enough to know I didn’t speak those language. “You speak English?”

“Yes! Yes, English! I mean hello. I’m Sasha.” I babbled.

“Karee.” She said, putting a hand on her chest.

“I thought it was Shekaree.” I mumbled, her lip pursed.

“Only for… close people.” She explained, searching for the word for a moment. “Karee for you and others.” She pointed at the crowd.

“Okay.” I nodded. I wasn’t familiar with the tradition, but I didn’t question it. “Are you hungry? Pizza is nice. Have you eaten it before?”

“No.”

I nodded toward the counter and she understood, following me. As she came close, I noticed the others stepping away from her ever so slightly, a few glaring at her before looking away.

I picked a slice and took a bite, showing her how to eat it. She hesitated before picking one of her own and sniffing it before taking a very careful bite.

“How is it?”

“Very…” She paused. “Not expected?”

“Unexpected.”

“Yes, that.”

“In a good way?”

“I believe so.”

“I’m glad you like it.” I said with a smile.

“You are strange for human.”

“In a good way or a bad way?”

“I don’t know now.”

“Guess I’ll have to make sure it’s a good way.” I answered with a smile.

Marked for Death: Part V

Marked for Death

Part V:Homecoming

We got back to the New York dorm early into the afternoon without any further incident. It was safe to say whatever magic the Shigeo-kai had required quite a bit of prep. And with Síthmaith’s return to sender, it was likely that they wouldn’t get the opportunity.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Emma asked me for the billionth time.

“Yeah, I’m just tired.” I answered, leaning against the table as I forced myself to swallow some food from one of the dorm’s TV dinners. Although I was hungry again, the fight against the Oni, even though it had only lasted a few minutes, had completely drained me of any form energy whatsoever.

“If you say so.” She said, frowning with suspicion.

“I’m going to get myself changed.”

At my request she wheeled me over to Amber and I’s room and closed the door behind me. I removed my grimy, sweaty clothes and into fresher ones. Thankfully I’d brought spares.  I was just finished when Amber came into our room, having changed into a new set of jeans and shirt, still in her favorite and only color; black.

“You look better. I think, that’s not Síthmaith’s glamour is it?”

“No, it stopped working when I entered the shower.” She said, putting her things down. “How are you?”

“Exhausted but otherwise fine.”I said with a shrug. “Is your back okay?”

“Yeah.”

“Would you mind if I look at it? Please?”

She hesitated for a moment before turning around and half removing her shirt, keeping it around her arm and pressed against her chest but exposing her back and sides. It wasn’t pretty; a long pale line ran down the left side of her back, having thankfully stopped before hitting her spine.

I reached out and touched her back, She visibly flinched but didn’t say anything. I pressed my fingers over her naked skin, feeling the difference between the regenerated skin and the healthy one.

“So, how does it look?” She reminded me with a chuckle.

“It’s not too pretty, but I’m a lot more worried about how if feels and if it’s healed correctly…” I sighed. “Abraxas warned me that life magic requires tremendous focus and knowledge of biology… Neither of which I had…”

One of the things I had learned from Abraxas and experimentation was that just willing magic to manifest often wasn’t enough. When it came to altering the physical world, you had to know what you wanted to do. To turn lead to gold, you need to understand how gold works, its properties or you’ll end up with yellow-tinted lead. The same was true when working with living beings.

“I’m fine.” said, pulling her shirt back down. “It doesn’t hurt when I move, it’s a little stiff but really I feel just peachy.” She turned around and took my hands in hers “If you hadn’t done that magic thing, I would’ve bled out, might have been a goner.”

“But this only happened because of me.”

“That’s not true.” She said firmly. “I chose to help you. You didn’t drag me here, I volunteered because I care for you.” She said with a smile, taking my hand. “I’m here for you, no matter the risks, because I know you’d do the same.”

“Thank you.”

She wrapped her arms around me and squeezed gently, obviously trying to avoid doing too hard.

“Now, get some rest before you collapse like earlier. I’ll wake you a little before Doc picks us up.”

I didn’t argue, she tucked me in and I was already asleep before the lights went out.

***

I was woken up a few hours later when the Doc arrived. She didn’t protest when I asked for Emma to come back with us to Priest Island or seemed fazed at Síthmaith being mysteriously there now. We quickly got going, taking a taxi-van to the airport and then back onto the private plane, which was much more cramped with all five of us.

“You’ll have to talk to security about Emma.” Doctor Sij said once a car dropped us off from the Priest Island airport to the gate of Ravenhold.

We notified the guard at the gate and she called someone. A few minutes later, a tall nordic-looking woman arrived, flying through the air wreathed in an armor-like force field which dissipated ad she landed.

“I’m Catherine Lindström, head of security.” She said, her voice strong and authoritative. “I’ve been told you wanted to bring a guest.”

“Yes, this is my sister Emma.”

“Typically visits have to be preapproved for security reasons, which you’d know if you read the school rules.” She said with a stern stare at me. “But.” There was a pause. “Since you’re recovering from surgery, I’ll allow it just this time.”

“Thank you Ma’am.”

“You’ll have to sign confidentiality agreement.” She then said, addressing Emma. “Now, provided she doesn’t distract anyone, she may be allowed in the classrooms, gymnasium or the dojo at the teacher’s discretion. You or another student chaperone must be with your sister at all times, no wandering off on her own, if she isn’t allowed in a class then she’ll have to be escorted out of Ravenhold or wait for you in the security offices. These are my rules and there is no negotiation. Is that understood?”

We acquiesced, signed her agreement and she let us in but only after giving Emma a visitor’s badge that included a tracker, which Ms. Lindström was very insistent she had to wear twenty-four-seven. That done, we went back to the dorm. When the door opened, we found most of the others eating dinner. They all turned to see us, Ahti jumping up from their seat.

“Annabelle!” Ahti said with a squee before running toward us. They threw their arms around my torso and hugged me with all their strength in their tiny body. “You’re back! I missed you so much.” They said before letting out a series of ‘wun’ — That gentle throaty noise Itharii makes when they’re really happy.

“It’s good to be back.” I said, a smile cracking at my lips.

Amber went to her room while Emma was quickly snatched up by everyone else focusing their attention on her, so I got Ahti to wheel me over to my room to drop my bag. I put back my things as they enthusiastically narrated the last few days; how Sanjay had made an Indian dinner and how they had liked it, how Jaeger had made a new friend from another class and how they had baked a lemon cake.

“Ahti would you mind if I speak to Amber alone?” I asked, as we came back out of my room.

“Okay! I made tea, do you want some?”

“I’ll pass but thank you.”

Since Amber’s room was on the second floor, I had to make my way upstairs. Since despite my nap I was still tired, I used the mini elevator to reach it rather than take the stairs.

“Hey.” I said knocking on the frame of her open door to draw her attention.

“Hello again. Couldn’t get enough of me the last few days?”

“How could I? So, I was wondering if I could ask you a kind-of favor….”

“And that would be?”

“Would you be alright if I stay with you for the next few days? That way Emma can use my bed and she won’t have to blow her summer job savings on a place to crash.”

“Oh, yeah, that does make sense.” She said rubbing the back of her head. “I mean, I’d be okay with that.” She bit her lip. “Aren’t you afraid people might notice? I doubt Yikaru’s going to tattletale, I mean she barely talks to anyone, but y’know…”

“I’m a little scared… I’ve had such a horrible experience with my first coming out, that I’m always worrying about what other people will think or how they’d react… Even if I know they’d probably be okay with it…” I sighed. “But I don’t want to focus on other people anymore. Right now I want to think about us and forget the rest.”

“That, I can get behind.”

“Aren’t you worried about your strength?”

“I agree with what you said, I can’t worry about the ifs and whats, I have to focus on you, here and now. Beside, nothing happened last time, didn’t it?”

I gave her a smile. “You did tug the blanket a lot.”

“I plead the fifth.” She said throwing her arms up.

“But it was nice regardless. And you were as gentle as a teddy bear.”

“That’s good, I guess?” She said with a chuckle.

“It was perfect. I should probably get a spare blanket and we’ll be fine.”

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Marked for Death: Part IV

Marked for Death

Part IV: Sword & Sorcery

It wasn’t long after breakfast that Doctor Sij came back to my room. Everyone was already assembled there and Síthmaith was no longer hidden behind her magic.

“I have your discharge papers.” She said. “You don’t have to stay in bed anymore, this means you can head back to the dorm, I’m sure you’ll be more comfortable there.”

“If she’s being released, could we go around the city instead?” Emma asked. “I’m Emma, Annabelle’s twin sister. By the way.”

“I’d noticed.” Doctor Sij answered. “As for your question…” She pondered for a moment. “There is time before we have to leave… I don’t see a reason why you can’t go out so long as you’ll be back to the dorm at six. Don’t try to walk around and nothing tiring, you need to heal. Is that understood? I’ll count on all of you to keep Annabelle compliant.”

“Yes Ma’am!” Emma said before turning toward me. “Come on, I’m famished and it’s my treat.”

I didn’t protest. It wasn’t like there was a difference between staying in the hospital or going out. If anything, the open streets at least wouldn’t be full of immobilized sick people waiting to be caught in the crossfire…

She wheeled me out of the hospital and called a cab to drive us to a shawarma shop she had visited two years ago when her Lacrosse team had visited New York. Rather than sit inside to eat, she insisted we tour central park, to ‘pack as much fun as we can in the time we have.’ After spending a while eating while passing through, I requested we find a quiet spot so I could rest, feeling pretty exhausted from the short amount of sleep I’d had. Amber and Síthmaith skipped ahead to find a place, the latter quickly returning.

“I found us a quiet spot with nobody.” Síthmaith explained before guiding us there. Just off one of the path. As we went there, I noticed some markings on the trees. “Privacy spell bindings. Some lad or lass wanted their own little cranny. Doesn’t work on us magic folk.” She whispered to me and I nodded.

The ensorcelled area wasn’t much, just a small secluded area with a few picnic tables, but it was nice and the ring of trees provided an isolation from the more crowded area of the park.

“Are you alright?” Emma asked once we all sat down around one of the table.

“Yeah, just really tired. Didn’t sleep much last night.”

“You’re not in pain, are you?”

“A little sore on the neck and groin where they put the things from, but that’s all.” As Doctor Sij had predicted, I had massive bruises around both insertion sites that were already turning blue.

Even though what had happened in the morning still lingered in my mind, it was hard to think about it around Emma. She just has that energy and passion for things that you can’t help but be drawn in when she narrated her own little adventures back home the last few weeks or how she’d proudly and playfully nag me by recounting some silly, embarrassing anecdote to Amber and Síthmaith.

“I… I’ll… be right back.” Amber said after a moment, her voice sounding a little too tighter than normal. She got up and started walking toward the woods.

“Amber? Are you alri—” I stopped my sentence as she faded behind the trees. “Is she okay?” I muttered to myself.

“I don’t know…” Emma said. I looked back where Amber had gone. Emma put a hand on my arm, making me jump ever so slightly “You like her, don’t you? I can see it all over you.”

“Yeah…”

“Are you two…?” Emma asked, leaving her question open.

“We are…”

She gave me a smile.

“Why don’t you go talk to her then?”

“Are you sure, you came all this way for me.”

“I can be alone for five minutes.” She said. Although Síthmaith was still there, she was amazingly good at fading into the background as she was deeply focused on her cellphone. “Heck, I saw an ice cream cart on the way here, I still have some space in my belly. I just hope they have frozen yogurts ‘cause that would be perfect.”

“Get one for me too?”

“I’ll get some for everyone.” She promised before getting her bag and walking down the path to the main road.

I wheeled myself awkwardly to the edge of the area before getting up. I walked a few pace before finding Amber, sitting on the ground, fiddling with a ring attached to a chain around her neck.

“Hey, are you okay?” I asked, but she didn’t answer. “You’re not mad I said we were just friend, are you?”

“What? Of course not.”

“Then what is it?”

“It’s just you and Emma… You remind me of June and I…” I could see her fist clenching into tight balls. “Fuck I miss her…”

“I’m sorry.”

I took a few steps closer, sat down next to her and wrapped my arms around her.

“She’s really like June. That energy and drive. She always knew what she wanted and how to get it. And I was just the opposite, but like you and Emma, she’d always make sure I was along for the ride…”

I pursed my lips, trying to find something for me to say. But I didn’t have time to as I felt a massive chill run down my spine and the revolting odor of sulfur come to my nostrils.

“They’re here!” I got myself to my feet and Amber did the same, having immediately switched to combat mode.

We ran to the clearing only to see a large crimson shimmering rip in space from which a trio of grotesque giants emerged. It wasn’t my first time seeing them; Onis, japanese demons or ogres. The Shigeo-Kai loved to use them. They stood at eight feet tall, with red muscled skin, thick matted black hair and large horns erupting from their foreheads. One of them muttered something in a guttural Japanese as he pointed at me.

“I should’ve brought my sword.” Amber snarled. “I’ve got the left one, I guess?”

I mostly lost track of what happened next. Fights are chaotic and hard to follow, what the others were doing sort of became a blur as I focused on not getting stabbed or smashed to paste.

“I don’t suppose we can talk about this?” I asked as the largest of the three swung it’s giant mace at me. I dropped to the ground to avoid the sideway swing, scratching my knees on the gravel.

I focused the power in my fingers and unleashed it with my power word, lighting shooting at the Oni and hitting it right in the torso. It didn’t do a damn thing, only making a metal amulet around its neck shine a little. Figures, my only trick was shooting lightning, I wasn’t going to win with that twice…

It raised it’s mace again and was part into its swing down when something rammed into it. It took me a second to realize that something had been Amber who began savaging it with her bare hand. I struggled to my feet, my heart hurting like hell, just in time for the Oni she’d been fighting to come up to us.

“Amber!”

She turned around and saw the Oni rising its sword. She threw herself sideway to avoid it but the tip slid against her back, drawing out a splash of blood.

“Amber?”

“I’m okay.” She said with a grunt.

She grabbed the picnic table and and swung it off at the standing Oni like a bludgeon, making it drop its weapon in the backlash. She ran to it and grabbed the thing, which was less like a sword and more like an oversized meat cleaver with a sharp end, and drove it right into the creature’s guts, which covered her in demonic entrails. There was something terrifying about Amber fighting, the way she became someone completely different.

I tried to focus my power into shaping a new spell, something other than lightning but the magical energy fizzled between my finger and my head bursting in pain. I lost balance and tumbled down. The next few seconds became an unexplainable blur.

“Annabelle!” I heard Amber shout, the next thing I knew she was right next to me. “What’s wrong?”

“I feel dizzy… But I’m okay, just a little knocked out.” I took a few breaths. “Let me see your back.”

She turned around and I saw her back, a long but shallow cut ran up it, but thankfully it hadn’t touched the spine or anything but flesh. I focused as best I could and ran a hand over it, muttering what few Korean words I knew for healing. The result wasn’t pretty, it’d probably leave a scar, but at least it was sealed. My work done, I collapsed on my back.

“Don’t mind me, but I’m going to need a minute or ten.” I muttered.

“What about Síthmaith’s Oni? It seems kind of frozen…”

I tilted my head and saw her muttering an incantation in front of one of the Oni who had gone limp.  

Amber helped me to my feet and supported me as we moved closer. When Síthmaith lowered her hands, The Oni sparked back to life but it didn’t attack us. Instead turning around and going through a portal similar to the one it had come from.

“What just happened?”

“Return to sender.” She explained. “Ought to teach them not to send a dim witted ogre against an enchantress.”

I couldn’t help but laugh at the situation. At least it’d probably buy me enough time to head back to the island before they’d try anything else. If they didn’t just decide I was too much to handle, but I doubted that would happen.

“I think we can call this a victory.”

“And I call dibs on my new sword.” Amber declared with a huge grin. She moved the sword around a bit in her hand, looking proud of herself only for the blade to disintegrate into foul smelling smoke, its previous owner along with it. “Oh come on! Really?” She screamed.

“It wasn’t made of real stuff, just the dream stuff of the other worlds like them.” Síthmaith explained.

“Damn it…”

“That cleaver looked terrible though.” I said, trying to make a joke. “Totally clashed with your style.”

“I guess you’re right….”  she sighed.

She helped me back to my wheelchair and we took a second to collect ourselves. That was the moment Emma chose to come back…

“Oh my god…” Emma said. “What the hell is that smell?”

“I don’t know, it just appeared. Probably a garbage truck passed close and the wind brought the smell.” I said. It wasn’t really convincing, but she didn’t argue.

“What the hell happened to the table?” She then shouted. “Oh my god Amber is that blood on—” She stopped right in the middle of her sentence as Síthmaith whispered something and snapped her finger, making Emma face go blank and stare ahead.

“What did you just do?”

“Memory spell. Don’t snap your finger or she’ll wake up.” She then walked over to Amber and whispered another incantation. A second later, Amber looked all clean and pretty, just like she’d done before the Onis had arrived.

“Do you have a spell for every occasion?” She asked.

“Aye. Just but ‘tis just an illusory glamour. Let us go away without attracting attention.”

“Saves us the bother of explaining everything.” I sighed. “I need a thousand naps right now.” My eyes darted to Emma who still had the ice cream cones she’d picked in her hand. “And icecream… Let’s go home okay?”

“Right on.” Amber said.

Síthmaith gently pushed Emma toward the main path and she moved like a robot. We were a minute away when she finally woke her up from the spell, she was a little confused, but my tiredness got her to ignore it.

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Marked for Death: Part III

Marked for Death

Part III: Unexpected Visitor

Síthmaith’s spell must have worked because the only thing to happen that night was Amber hogging the blanket. Despite her fears, she hadn’t hurt a hair on my head. Heck, she’d barely moved at all. Even after I woke up, I stayed in bed, just taking in her warmth and smell. I just wanted that moment to stretch forever and the day ahead to fade away, but sadly, she stirred awake.

“Morning.” I whispered to her ear.

“Hey…” She said with a yawn, carefully turning around to face me.

“Still in one piece.”

“I can see that.” She answered with a timid smile.

I quickly pressed my lips against hers for the briefest of kisses.

“Thank you for being there.”

“It’s what I signed up for.”

“I just wish that for once you wouldn’t have to put up with this kind of crap from me.”

“Annabelle, it’s okay. And there’ll be plenty of time for my crap to butt in after today.”

“I didn’t think I’d ever look forward to it, but right now I do.”

We both shared a chuckle before setting foot out of bed, passing through the not so circular protection circle. When we did, I felt a bit of static pass through my spine from the broken spell fizzling away.

“Thirty minutes before the Doc said she’d pick us up.” Amber said, grabbing some clothes and putting them on. I did the same, keeping our backs turned, not even daring to take a peek.

After getting changed, we joined Síthmaith in the kitchen area where she ate breakfast. Although I was hungry, I was under strict order not to eat or drink, so I just watched, which didn’t help really… At least doctor Sij arrived soon enough along with a taxi cab.

“How are you doing?” She asked, coming into the dorm.

“Scared as hell.” I admitted.

“Everything will be alright, Doctor Sung is a professional, top of his field and I’ll be right there to assist him along with a whole team of skilled doctors.” She said, putting a hand on my back and guiding me to the taxi.

The rest of the morning went by a little chaotically once we reached the hospital, as I met a whole bunch of people in succession who would take care of me both during and after the surgery. We went through the pre-op procedures and sometimes in the later morning I found myself in a the catheterization lab, lying on an operating table under some massive scanner thing. Although I’d had to remove any jewelry, Malkie had magic’ed up some invisibility thing on the protective charm. Since it was made of leather and gems, I doubted it’d be dangerous to keep it on…

“Are you ready?” The anaesthetist asked, drawing me back to the moment. She was a young lady with an Irish surname, O’Connel or was it O’Connor?

“Ready as I’ll ever be…” I said with a gulp.

“I’ll put the mask on and I want you to close your eyes and count backward from ten.”

I didn’t really see the point, but I didn’t argue. She gently put the gas mask over my face and I breathed the gasses in, closing my eyes and doing the count.

Ten… Nine… Eight… Seven… Si—

***

The Shigeo-Kai must’ve been a no show because I awoke sometime later, my head feeling light and my thoughts jumbled. A huge blue thing approached me and I panicked for a moment before my brain decided to get working again.

“Calm down Annabelle.” Doctor Sij said in a soothing voice. “You’re in the recovery room. Everything went as planned.”

I tried to lift myself but she put one of her four fingered hand on my belly.

“It’s best if you remain lying down for a few hours to let the entry sites heal. We’ll soon transfer you to a room where you friends will be there for you in a little while.”

I lied back down and closed my eyes. With the anesthetic’s effect still lingering, I didn’t think of impending doom, or the surgery. In fact, I didn’t of anything really. Just sort of floating in bed until the doctors came to give me a final checkup before sending me to a regular room.

A few minutes later, they wheeled me to said room. Doctor Sij and Amber joined me through the short trip down a floor and into the new room. Síthmaith was already there along with her cat. Even though it wasn’t exactly hygienic, the staff didn’t even seem to notice them at all.

“How do you feel?” Amber asked once I was in bed again.

“Alright, I guess. It doesn’t hurt.”

“We’ve administered a light analgesic, there will most likely be strong bruising in the next few days, but that’ll be all. Avoid walking as much as possible for the next two days and avoid strenuous exercise for at least a month to let your heart heal. But overall, everything will be alright, there were no complications.”

“That’s great.” Amber said, giving me a light hug.

“Oh, just to be clear, that does include sexual activities.” The Doctor insisted.

“I… but… we… eh…” Amber babbled most likely to defend herself but at that moment she definitely couldn’t word. Instead she turned bright red and looked away.

I tried to say something too but the Doctor raised a  hand and I stopped.

“You’ll find no judgement from me, but if you wanted to hide those things from me, you should wash off the other person’s scent.” She said with what I presumed was amusement at our embarrassment. “You have a good evening, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

We were left alone and thankfully dinner came quickly. It was inedible hospital food, but with the time I’d spent in psych wards getting used to that kind of food and how hungry I was, I wolfed it down at record speed.

It wasn’t long after I finished eating that Malkie got up and looked toward the door, as if ready to pounce with its feline body, letting out a short growl.

“What’s wrong?”

“Malkie says he hears steps in the corridor, someone’s running toward here.”

Could Malkie and Síthmaith communicate telepathically? Admittedly it would’ve made sense… I didn’t have time to question as the steps stopped in front of the door. We all readied ourselves for whatever was coming, Amber even stepping in front of me to shield me.

The door opened and much to my surprise, it wasn’t one of the Shigeo-Kai or their goons but my own twin sister who came through… She took one look at me and practically charged me.

“Oh my god, you’re okay!”

“Emma? Is that you?” I mumbled as she wrapped her arms around me. She certainly felt real.

“Of course it’s me you dummy.” She said sitting by the bed. “Who else would it be?”

“I’ve had a stressful week…” I muttered. I looked at Síthmaith and gave a small nod toward Emma.

“She’s good.” Síthmaith answered. “Also, she can’t see or hear Malkie and I. Veil and all’ that.”

“Why didn’t you tell us you were getting fricking surgery?” Emma asked, drawing me back to her. “We had to learn from your doctor of all people…”

“I guess I didn’t want to worry you guys anymore than I already have. And beside, it was just a routine thing.”

“Annabelle, come on. You know you’re not some kind of burden to us.”

I just nodded, opting not to voice my feelings on that topic. “Are ma and pa with you?”

“No, it’s just me. But I’m here to stay for a while, even got a trip to Maine, I’ll just get a hotel when we get there.”

“That’s good.” I said with a smile. “By the way, this is my… friend Amber.” I said, pointing toward her. Thankfully Amber didn’t react to what I’d called her.

“Oh hey, sorry for ignoring you. I’m Emma.”

“I get it. Family first.” She answered with a shrug. “I’m Amber, obviously.”

In a way, Emma was just what I needed and what I didn’t need. It was nice to see her, talk and just for a few hours forget about the Shigeo-kai… But at the same time, there was a reason I hadn’t told my family… I couldn’t afford to let them be anywhere near me…

And with that Emma stayed with me, sitting on my bed and telling me all about her past three weeks until visiting hours were over with. After Emma left, it didn’t take long for me to fall asleep. Amber and Síthmaith had snuck back in thanks to her invisibility thing. I was the only one who slept that night, all thanks to the pain meds I was on. Well, Emma most likely slept too, but she didn’t know what was happening. I woke up in the middle of the night, the amulet Abraxas had given me smashing onto my chest like it had done on my way to Ravenhold.

“Annabelle?” Amber asked, jumping up from her chair.

“I’m okay.” I said, clutching the amulet as the second of the three crystal crumbled to dust. “They definitely know I’m here and alive.”

“We’ll be ready for them.”

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Us; Undefined: Part I

Allison Arc II: Us; Undefined

Part I: Faith

Three Weeks Later

Thankfully, the next few weeks were much more relaxed. For one, our classes with the Rook focused on teaching us how to properly throw a punch or kick, defend from grapples and the fundamentals of hand-to-hand combat instead of just kicking our asses.

As it turned out our gym teacher Ms. Carver was not only jewish herself but a trained reform rabbi, so she hosted a little group for the dozen or so jewish staff and students at Ravenhold every saturday morning, so that had become my saturday morning routine.

“Are you going to the prayer group today?” Sage asked as I came out of the bathroom, my hair still damp from the shower.

“Yeah. Still have some time before I go though.” I answered, giving them a smile which they returned.

There was something between the two of us, I could feel it and I knew they could too, but neither of us had managed to acknowledge it, leaving us as friends. I had Sheila, whom I still hadn’t had the courage to mention, and surely Sage had their own reasons…

“So I was wondering if I could go with you today… If I’m allowed that is.”

“Of course.”

“So, do I need to wear something special?” They asked, looking down at their hoodie and jeans. They were having one of their more masculine day by the looks of it.

“Nah, we do casual attire. So you’ll be perfectly fine like this.”

“Ah, alright.”

“So, how about breakfast? I heard Caroline made pancakes again.”

“That sounds amazing.”

***

At the back of the administration build was a small non-denominational chapel for people to use. It wasn’t a huge room, just enough for a dozen benches, but every saturday morning, it was ours to use. As we came up to the entrance, Ms. Carver was waiting at the entrance, wearing her Tallit.

“Good morning Sage.” She said. “Joining us this morning?”

“Yeah, I hope that’s alright.”

“Of course, everyone is welcome so long as they accept my rules; Cell phones go off and everyone wears a head covering.” She picked a kippah from the rack and gave it to them which they awkwardly put on while I put my own on. As soon as they moved their head, the kippah fell off, making Ms. Carver and I laugh.

“So… How do you keep it on?” They sheepishly said, holding the kippah with their hand so it wouldn’t fall again.

“With my hair, I just have velcro.” I said.

“I just clip it.” Ms. Carver answered with a smile.

They nodded silently and glanced inside at the few benches where some of the others were already sitting. In total there was a little over a dozen of us who’d come every week.

“So, is there anything I should know?”

“There’ll be a lot of reading and singing, don’t worry you can follow along in a siddur, we have spares inside. After service is over, we usually have a small buffet together, you’re free to join.”

“Alright. Thanks for having me.”

“Anytime.”

Sage seemed a little paralyzed so I took their hand and gently guided them inside. Taking a seat and giving them one of the spare prayer book, showing them how they worked; the english, hebrew and phonetic, the commentaries and everything. They glanced at it for a while before putting it down on their lap.

I introduced them to the others and we quietly chatted in the few minutes it took before the last of us arrived and Ms. Carver called us to order, opening the shabbat service with the morning blessings.

Through the service, Sage just looked at everything eyes wide with wonder. When Ms. Carver invited me to read from the Torah, their eyes followed me all the way, focused entirely on me rather than trying to follow the meaning of the words from their siddur.

After over two hours the service finally concluded with kiddush and blessing of the Challah.

“So, how was your first shabbat service?” I asked as Sage swallowed the piece of challah bread Ms. Carver had given them.

“It was really nice. I had no idea what to expect, but it was really beautiful.”

“I’m glad to hear that, although I noticed you weren’t singing. Such a shame, I was looking forward to hearing you.”

“Yeah… I hope it was okay if I didn’t, I just didn’t want to get it wrong.”

“If that was a problem, they’d have thrown me out ages ago. You have no idea how terrible my hebrew is.”

“Is it? I thought you sounded so good when Ms. Carver asked you to read your part.”

“I might have practiced the verses all week so I wouldn’t sound too bad. So, are you hungry?”

“Starving.”

I took them to the small buffet that we communally prepared and gave them a bit of everything, taking the time to explain some of the things present as I doubted Sage was knowledgeable about Ashkenazim, Mizrahi or Sephardic cuisine, Shabbat prohibition on cooking and the finer points of kashrut.

“So you can’t mix meat and milk products?” They asked, after I explained how we alternated between cheese and meat weeks.

“Nope. Exodus 23:19 says ‘Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk,’ so somehow this means that we can’t. Oh but in case you’re wondering, fish is one-hundred percent not meat according to tradition, so it’s okay to mix with cheese in the same meal.”

“Okay, I guess…”

“Welcome to Judaism where there’s a lot of random rules and we’ve been arguing about their true meaning for thousands of years.” I said with a chuckle.

After a quick brunch, where Sage insisted on asking Shimon for his eggplant hummus recipe, we headed back home to enjoy the rest of the day.

“So, what do you want to do now that you’re done boring you to death with faith-stuff for my sake?”

“It wasn’t boring, it was actually a nice experience. I haven’t really had any religious experience before. My parents aren’t big believers, they only go to church on Christmas eve and Easter Sunday so it didn’t rub off on me.”

“You know, I wasn’t always a strong believer, I was pretty much like you for a long time. Just like my dad, I was born into Judaism so for most of my life it was just that thing we did on saturday mornings. Something in our culture I never really thought about it. It was just that instead of getting christmas present like most kids, we got them on hanukkah.”

“What made you change?”

“My mom…. For her it was different. You see, she was born in very conservative christian family; you know the fire and brimstone kind… When she met my father in the army, she became interested in Judaism and eventually converted. For her Judaism was a liberation from the guilt and fear she was born into so it was very important to her… And after she passed away, I spent a lot of time at our synagogue. In a way, it became a way for me to be closer to her.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright, it was years ago. And I’m glad I found that connection in faith. I hope that wherever she is, she’s watching over me and I’ve done her proud.”

“I know I didn’t know her, but I think she’d be proud of who you are; a good person who just want to help others.”

The thought of her and Sage’s words brought tears to my eyes. I missed her so damned much. Sage didn’t hesitate to wrap their arms around me and hold me close. I just lost myself in their arms.

I guess it still hurt a little…

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