This was far from my first day at work, but every morning held the same anxious butterflies. When would it go away? When I realized that I was working at the Academy for the Mage Born? When I realized that I’d made something of myself from nothing?
I doubted that either of those two things would ever really sink in. My skull was far too thick, as shown by the numerous cracks to the head while sparring…with real swords. Perhaps something had really been jarred each time. Perhaps that was why I really didn’t believe that this life I was living was actually my own.
Pulling my old Ford into an empty parking spot on the street, I jumped out and made my way towards the only coffee shop in town open 24 hours, InBetween. The woman behind the counter was frantically moving to catch up with the line of professors and students that were already crowding the small cafe. Her impossibly lightweight hair seemed to float around her elegantly pointed ears.
Fae always made the best coffee. Once upon a time, Calla had confessed to pouring a little bit of her Dryad magic into each cup. It was the kind of wild magic that seemed to bend and reshape itself as the cup passed from her hands to the drinker, taking on a power that the drinker needed in the coming day. Even if she hadn’t confessed that little bit to me, it was evident from the long line that InBetween was a very popular place.
Anxiously, I waited in line. Part of me was worried that I would be late to work. The more rational side of my mind saw Vera Wentworth, the head of my department, a couple patrons ahead of me and knew that she’d arrive only moments before I did.
The Academy for Mage Born, or AMB as many liked to call it, was the largest American magical school. It’s classes ranged from elementary grades and on to college level classes. Despite its vastness, it was truly a difficult school to get into, for students and teachers. Parents of small children had to know someone. College level students had to prove a talent of great worth. Teachers had to have damn near heroic resumes.
I didn’t yet understand why they had accepted mine. I had done nothing of great import in my short life. Born the last heir to a dwindling mage-line, I was the least likely to become anything. It made me learn how to fight for things. Being a mage in a public school pushed me to learn self defense and the old art of sword fighting. Having a mage power bite a non mage kid could have serious repercussions in a public school.
After graduation, I did a lot of floating. I learned a bit of this and a bit of that. Several years were spent interning at the Magical Wildlife Reserve. A year of that was on the road, chasing a wayward dragon with a grouchy grad student. That’s a story for another time.
Right now, it was my turn at the counter. Calla smiled at me with a brilliance that could only be glamour at this hour of the morning. Either that or she was deranged.
“The biggest Mexican Mocha you have over ice, if you could.”
“That’s not even on the menu anymore, but i keep the ingredients around just for you. Always so spicy, Maggie.” Calla rushed off to complete my order.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see Vera Wentworth in the corner of the cafe, glaring at the smart phone cradled in her hand. Perhaps cradled wasn’t quite the right word. No, her fingertips were white as she clutched it.
Against my better judgement, I moved towards her. Damn your betrayal, feet.
“What’s wrong, Vera?”
“It’s Ms. Wentworth,” she snapped. Her eyes widened as she realized who was standing beside her. “Oh, I am very sorry, Margaret.”
I cringed at the use of my full name. Not even my own mother called me Margaret. Ever.
“Very bad news from the Academy, actually. The Dean has called a faculty meeting for the heads of departments. I’ll need you to pick up my workload for the morning.”
Inside my head, I groaned. Loudly. Profusely.
“Of course,” I smiled, trying to emulate Calla without fae glamour.
It looked like I’d be visiting the maenads at the bar down the street later tonight. They poured a damn fine drink and knew how to party.
Calla called my drink, pulling me away from my boss. I was so grateful that I almost thanked Calla. I grimaced before the words could fall out of my mouth.
Never thank a fae.
Wait, I never told you what I taught? Silly me.
That could be because I don’t actually teach anything. Technically, I’m a librarian. In real life, I filled in where I could. I was a Jill of All Trades, unfortunately. Somedays, I was in the field teaching self defense, archery, or sword fighting. There had been a few days where I’d filled in for the Elementary teachers and I’d told Vera that I’d never do that again. Tiny children throwing magical temper tantrums was too far above my pay grade. One little…child had accidentally zapped me with the force of a taser.
Elementary teachers were masochists. That was all I had learned from that.
Today, I pushed the massive wood and glass door to the library open and breathed in the scent of books. There were fresh printed books with stiff pages and there were dusty leather tomes with pages that weren’t made out of anything I’d like to acknowledge. The shelves worked in a kind of spiral, chasing one another into the center of this massive room.
It had a very odd system of arrangement that I think was decided upon after long nights of smoking the entire herbology department. Regardless, I made my way to the dark, mahogany desk that gleamed by the front doors. Thankfully, computers had advanced enough that this sleek model seemed at home atop the ancient wooden behemoth. Before booting the tower up, I ran my finger along the etched design in the wood.
It changed from day to day, depending on the stories of history or the library’s mood. Today, it depicted something I’d never seen before. A woman stood atop a small hill, brandishing a sword over her head. A dragon was curled, asleep, in the hill below her. It reminded me of Ivory, the dragon I’d followed across the country for a year. There were times when I would dream of her, of her great white body hovering in the sky above us as we raced down the highway. I still mourned her loss.
I sighed and moved back around to the computer atop the desk. The AMB crest appeared on the glowing screen, lighting up the dim world around me. I slid the piece of paper out from beneath the monitor and punched in Vera’s access code. All of this magic and we still needed access codes for computers. I shook my head, a slight smile touching my lips.
Reaching for my oversized, spicy coffee I thought of Vera’s concern as she held her phone this morning. What had been the issue? Nothing had seemed outwardly wrong as I had come in. The school looked as it always had, a castle oddly situated on the side of a quaint small town. There were no fires emanating from the dorms or alarms going off in the common areas. So, what had been the dire emergency?
I shrugged and turned back to the computer system, mechanically scanning returned books and placing them in the gliding wood cart. There were minor spirits, beings of psychic energy, anchored to the library that would return them for me once they’d been scanned. It was a wonderful system, really.
My work, or Vera’s work I should say, involved creating a database of some of the really old spells. She’s been hard at work taking some of the more fragile or volatile books and typing their contents into a computer program. I had suggested scanning all of the books and creating PDFs for the database, but that had gone south when one of the volatile book’s magic had translated digitally. It had been quite the surprise when the monitor screen had begun dripping swamp water and lithe creatures had begun to push the plastic out of the device.
Why we needed to transcribe spells from that book was beyond me. It was clearly a gateway to a place that no one wanted to go. At least not sanely.
I had been working on a fragile book, using a psychic hand to gently turn the pages, when a student appeared by my side. I jumped. The mouse haired boy seemed to appear out of nowhere, his eyes quietly taking in the book before me as a page hovered in the air. I swore sharply under my breath when i realized I’d torn part of the page.
Vera was not going to be happy.
“Can I help you with something?” I asked with my most polite voice despite my irritation with him.
“What book is that?” He asked, his voice soft and damn near monotonous.
“It is a book of Eastern European spells supposedly written by Baba Yaga herself. But that isn’t why you came here,” I said.
“Uh, no. I thought that you should know there was a cloud of sprites in the library basement again.”
“Sprites? What kind of sprites like basements?”
“Swamp things. Tiny little gray bodies, sharp teeth. Not fun.”
Why was this my problem? I was a librarian. Still, I kept my bitching to myself and set off to find someone in Maintenance to take a look into it. Not once did I think to ask the child why he had been in the basement. I was too busy whining about my predicament to smell what was fishy.
I wasn’t able to find anyone in Maintenance, much to my frustration. I’d take care of it myself, I thought as I reached for my cell phone. Darien would be able to tell me how to deal with swamp sprites. Or, at least he would if I’d been able to reach him. There was no phone in my pocket.
Instead of heading back to the library for it, I brashly ventured into the basement myself. Perhaps I could open a window and guide them out with a broom, I thought. That couldn’t be too difficult. Right? What would Darien do? He’d say it wasn’t in his Phd, or course.
My boots made no sound as I descended the stairs. It was darker in the basement than it was upstairs in the library. I glanced around as my eyes attempted to adjust. What kinds of things were kept in a magic school’s basement, I wondered. Frustrated with the darkness, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a coin from my early morning purchase. Pulling a bit of energy, I whispered a short word and it the metal began to glow with a faint light. Quarters worked great, nickels too since they were always hiding in our pockets.
There really wasn’t much to be seen. Obviously, nothing of any kind of import was kept down here. There were a few broken and charred bookshelves, evidence of student magic gone wrong. I raised the quarter to shed light on the space around me. I heard absolutely nothing down here in the darkness, which was odd. Sprites should have been making a bit of noise. Wings scraping and sharp teeth clattering.
But I heard nothing.
Until something crashed against the far wall. Instinctively, I reached to my hip for the weapon that usually hung there. I gritted my teeth, dismayed that nothing was there. I could have just turned out of the room. I could have gone back to the library to yell at the little prankster.
Instead, I inched forward. Quarter held out before me, the wall came into view. A broken bookshelf blocked part of something written on the wall. The closer I got, the better I could see the dripping red paint.
Was I that naive?
I gritted my teeth, more outraged that someone would defile the school than shocked by the blood. I reached out to pull the bookshelf away from the wall in order to see better. As the wood scraped against the stone floor, I felt the burst of magic rush out to me. It crashed into my solar plexus and threw me back.
I landed on my butt, head spinning. The magic still flowed around me. It pushed at me from every angle and I could feel it’s frustration. This was some heavy hitting black magecraft and it couldn’t affect me.
The outrage rose again. Who had the gall to place a black magecraft spell in AMB? My mind raced back to the mouse haired boy. He’d appeared out of nowhere, utterly unremarkable, and his interest in the book I’d been transcribing.
“Son of a Cerberus!” I scrambled to my feet and raced up the stairs. At the top of the stairs I remembered the still active black magecraft in the basement. I rolled my eyes and ran back down to swipe my hand across the blood sigil.
Back in the library, the boy was gone. My stomach dropped to the floor. The book was also gone. A spot of tan paper stood out against the dark blue carpet. I knelt and found the piece of page that I’d ripped.
I was unsure as to what was so significant about the book, but I knew that the black magecraft downstairs did not bode well. Was it part of the emergency that had pulled Vera from her work today? Or was this something altogether different? Sure, it could be a rowdy prank, but pranks never involved black magecraft.
I jammed the piece of the page into my pocket. This couldn’t go unreported. Even if it was a prank. I found myself halfway to the Dean’s office before I realized he might not even be there. He had called an emergency meeting not too long ago, had he not? Chances were, he was still in that meeting.
Hoping that I was wrong, I raised my hand to knock on the door.