Escapism: 3.5

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Strangers:

The gate bloomed forth in the shadows, hidden well below the urban sprawl that spanned from end to end of the human metropolis. They emerged in a tunnel, underground, the gloom around them near enough all encompassing. By the light flooding forth from the other side of the gate, they could see the iron tracks that lay along the uneven ground. The man knew by experience that these structures were for moving great carts of men and women from one end of the vast city to the other. He chuckled. It was such a novel idea, that a being could be so weak as to need the aid of metal for travel.

His companion silenced him, a motion of a hand alerting him to a new danger. The plan had failed. The enchantments surrounding the city stretched down into these tunnels as well. The humans were alerted. They would be mobilizing soon. The male swore. It had taken so much effort to work a gate precise enough to end in one of these tunnels, all for nothing.

It had once been so easy. The humans had lacked the organization to pose a threat to their hunters, the few mages they possessed with the skills to find them before the job was done being too weak on their own to fight them. The male remembered those times, when it hadn’t been necessary to hunt in pairs.

The female guided them forwards through the gloom, her ears attuned to the sounds in the dark, seeing blind, as the bats did. They moved quickly, intent on being far distant when the human alphas came to defend their precious herd.

It wasn’t long before the male saw lights distant in the tunnel, a platform of raised stone, built of the single, smooth hewn stonelike blocks that had so fascinated him in recent years, its surfaces tiled in gleaming white and dirty grey alike, painted in garish yellows with no heed to aesthetic or craft.

Before he had a chance to draw close, the female held out a hand to block him, signalling in silence, barely visible in the sheer darkness of the man made cave. They were too late. The place had been emptied of its normal inhabitants, and now stood guarded by two figures, each garbed in cold grey, their faces covered by cumbersome masks of metal and glass. He almost laughed. Why so few of them? Perhaps this tunnel had more than one terminus nearby.

He nodded, slowing his pace, the female doing the same in front of him. Best to smash through this small defence and be gone before reinforcements could come. The female readied her spell in silence while the male stood watch. She was the one more skilled in striking without warning. He left the guards to her.

Then, the plan went awry. One of the watchers looked up from his task and, it would seem, somehow caught a glimpse of them both in the darkness. He let out a deep bark of noise toward his companion, who immediately turned to run, digging a hand into a pocket of his coat.

The female let it loose her spell with all the force she desired as the male charged, firing forth a dozen lines of black, ichorus fire from her palms, the weapons spearing through the dark towards their foes, both the standing guard, and the fleeing.

The standing guard raised his hands with a cry as he moved himself into the path of the shots aimed for his companion, pulling forth a bubble of some transparent force. The darts met his shield with a screech like the call of a hunting bird, and the dome collapsed, the man thrown against the tiled wall hard enough to send shards of it tumbling to the ground around him. He fell to the floor in a heap, unmoving.

The fleeing man pulled forth a pair of devices from his garment as he ran, tapping one furiously with his thumb, tossing the other behind himself as he began to ascend the stairs.

The thrown device was an odd thing, cylindrical, covered in grooves and lines and buttons. The male ignored it as he ran, and was caught as it began to spew forth a cloud of thin foul, smelling smoke of a sort that stung his eyes and caught harshly in his lungs. He readied a counter without even thinking, and shielded himself with a gust of wind, pushing the smoke clear of him. He coughed painfully, and looked up at the fleeing man, angry. The air here was putrid enough already.

The fleeing guard gave the device in his hand a few more desperate taps, before flinging it up the stairwell away from himself. Then, he turned, fear in his eyes, to face his pursuer.

The male was angry. His eyes stung, his lungs burned. This human world had pushed enough indignities on him already, and this little speck of a being now had the audacity to add a further insult. He raised his hands, building his power in his palms.

The human shook slightly as he did the same, some smoky, viscous force bubbling to the surface of his skin like a man become mist. The male chuckled. This would not take long. He raised his palms to strike, when he felt a tug at his back, something grasping him about the middle, pulling him. His feet left the steps, his spell flickering out of being as his focus was forced to falter, before that same unseen force slammed him down against the ground with a sound like thunder itself. It was all he could do to shield himself from the blow.

The male scrambled to his feet, furious, turning back towards the platform. There, separating him from the female, stood a lone man, beside a strange, lightless portal leading into a dim room. The newcomer frowned, his face set in hard lines of rage and, much to the male’s surprise, spoke to them in the hunters’ tongue.

“You should not be here.”


Peter:

This wasn’t good. The hunters were working in a pair. Pearson was down and Greys, bless his soul, wasn’t powerful enough to be anything more than a brief distraction to their enemies. He knew his limits. He was smart enough to handle one hunter, if he was lucky, but two at once? That was the sort of challenge he happily left to his father.

They were an odd pair, he thought. The male dressed in a badly faded denim jacket, over a torn t-shirt for a concert some twenty years out of date, his pants ripped and scuffed. So, they’d started stealing clothes now? Fantastic.

He glanced behind himself for a moment at the female, dressed with a similarly apparent lack of awareness, before returning his gaze to the male. He knew Jackie was watching through the portal. She’d warn him if the female made a move. Neither foe did.

“… You speak our tongue,” The male murmured, surprised, cocking his head slightly to the side, his long hair spilling carelessly over a shoulder. “How?”

Peter ignored him.

“You should not be here.” He repeated, reaching down to his belt and pulling his flask free, before lifting it to his lips.

The male tried to stop him, raising a hand and sending a plume of some white, crackling energy towards it, but he deflected it, batting the bolt of energy aside with the palm of his free hand, expending far more energy on doing so than he would have liked. It was necessary, though. Hunters cared about power. He needed to make his defence look effortless. The bolt struck the tiled floor, and didn’t stop, carving a glowing white hole into the ground for who knew how far. Behind him, he heard the female attempt something similar, and he heard the grunt of effort as Jackie shielded him. He had to be quick here.

He took a swig from the flask and winced. Bitter. Way too bitter.

“What was that?” The female asked, on edge, her voice radiating suspicion and disgust.

Again, he ignored the words.

“You are launching an unprovoked attack on the citizens of New York,” he murmured, allowing a hint of his anger to bubble up to the surface in his words. “If you continue, I will hold you here until reinforcements arrive, and then we will crush you with all the fury you kidnapping bastards deserve. You have ten seconds to leave this place, or I will rain down fire upon you. Do I make myself clear?”

“Reinforcements due in forty seconds,” he heard Jackie murmur in english. He nodded. Behind the male, he saw Greys pull out a grenade, and revised his opinion of the man. Momentary distractions could be very handy, really. He flicked a hand towards Pearson’s unconscious form, shielding him as best he could without it being obvious, and then simply stood there, waiting.

The female laughed haughtily. The male, for his part, looked concerned.

“And how exactly does a human plan to hold us here?” She asked, her voice laden with contempt.

Peter didn’t answer. Instead, he jerked his wrist to the side easily. It was a small motion, easy to dismiss, but Greys knew what it meant. He pulled the pin on the grenade, held it in his hand for a moment, and tossed it down the stairs, before setting off at a run.

Peter didn’t waste a second. He turned towards the female and raised a hand, expressing out all the energy he’d been storing since the conversation had begun, and let loose a bolt of lightning towards her. She raised her hands to defend, just a moment too slow, and it caught her around the middle, flinging her backwards against the subway wall. He wondered how much damage had made it past her barriers. Nowhere near enough, probably.

Behind him, the male was doubtless readying some counter move, but was caught off guard when the grenade went off by his feet, flinging him across the platform, wisps of his own dissipating attack forming contrails behind him as he flew. The shockwave hit Peter too, but he was ready for it, and even though he stumbled, he felt Jackie’s arm reach out of the portal to hold him steady. The male landed in a sprawl, confusion and rage playing out on his face in equal measure. Peter struck him with a telekinetic blast just as he’d used to pull him back from Greys before. He wished he could do something stronger, but his energy was expended for the moment on his strike against the female.

The male took the blast halfway through an attempt to stand, and was struck against the paneled side of the terminal with a painful sounding crack. He growled, glaring at his opponent with a raw, pure fury.

Overwhelm. Peter reminded himself. You can’t win here. Just hold them down long enough for reinforcements to arrive.

He glanced to the female, already recovering from the lightning strike, her hands raising for some kind of blast.

“Jackie!” He cried, running towards the male in a dead sprint. “Cover me!”

He could almost see it playing out in his mind’s eye; the female calling forth a spray of some powerful, dangerous magic, only to be deflected with the last of his partner’s energy. Right on time, he heard the detonation behind him, just as expected, followed by the loud, rattling blasts of Jackie’s counterattack. He spared a single breath for a chuckle. Jackie relied more heavily on guns than any mage he knew.

The male was on his feet before Peter reached him. But they both knew he didn’t have the time to ready a spell with the power needed to stop him, so instead, the enemy drew his knife; a slim, greenish blade that seemed to shift and slide through the air like a mirage. Peter dipped a hand into a pocket for his knuckle dusters, his other hand going for his gun, fumbling, not enough time.

The enemy lunged at him, swinging the blade in a wide arc at chest height and he ducked, crouching beneath it before bringing his metal clad fist up into his opponent’s jaw with all the force he could muster. The male barely even flinched, twisting the knife in his grip and swinging it down towards his side. He shifted back, out of the way, but the blade moved, the shifting, mirage like echoes of its edge catching against his jacket, far more solid than it should have been. He felt a sharp pain as the blade carved a shallow trench in his side, and ignored it. On impulse, he pooled his gathered energy into his leg, reinforcing it as he pivoted on one foot, making use of the momentum of his dodge to slam a fierce kick into the enemy’s midsection. He felt something crunch satisfyingly underfoot, and saw the male wince in genuine pain.

The victory was short lived, as his enemy pushed forward with his free hand, coated, he realized belatedly, with a bubble of kinetic force. The hand didn’t even make contact with him, and yet the blast sent him slamming back some thirty feet against a pillar, struggling to keep his feet. He coughed, the air forced from his lungs, momentarily choking him.

From this new vantage point, he could see the portal, Jackie barely holding her own behind it, resorting to dodging to the side and allowing the female’s attacks to strike the wall of her office as she emptied shot after shot against her with her pistols.

The male growled, barely audible, as he stared towards Peter, massaging his side with a hand. He looked tired, physically, at least. Peter unclipped his flask, and took another gulp. Goddamn, that stuff was disgusting; but it did its job. He was renewed.

The male charged, knife held ready in one hand, the force held cloaking his other hand no doubt charged to its very peak. Peter snorted. With his newfound reserves, he extended a palm towards the male, letting loose a barrage of telekinetic energy that contained all the power he had available.

The wave struck the male dead on, flinging him backwards with enough force to send a deep fissure radiating not only through the tiles of the station, but through the thick concrete on which it was built. The knife flew from his grip, and landed on the train track, the blade hitting a rail and carving through it like nothing more than soft clay.

The male landed hard on his feet, unsteady, then dropped to his knees, and vomited. The female stopped, mid strike, staring at Peter, a little scared.

“Do you really want to continue?” He asked, making an effort to stand straight, despite the aches in his back and side, and making a show of dusting off his suit. “Because I have far more force to bring to bear here.”

For a long moment, neither intruder moved, staring at him, weighing their options.

Internally, Peter was praying for this to end. He could continue, he knew. He had enough tricks up his sleeve to drag this fight on for a long time, but Jackie was spent. They’d wasted too much of her energy on first the portal, and then on holding off the female. Every second that this continued was another chance for her to die. They stood there for a time, in stalemate, before a single sound sent them all into motion. The pounding of feet from the other side of the portal. Jackie’s reinforcements were here.

The male surged to his feet at speed, his injuries apparently forgotten, and made towards Peter at a run. In response, he abandoned his attempt at force, and simply focused all his power on shielding himself. They were about to have all the force they needed. The female was making some movements with her hands, a series of words flowing thick and fast from her mouth, even as a stream of agents began to flood from Jackie’s portal, guns levelled, spells ready. Then, all was madness.

Birds, hundreds of them, began to flow forth from the space around the female, swooping and screeching and filling the confined space with feathers and claws and chaos. Between them, Peter caught glimpses of what was happening. Agents trying to beat the things away, Jackie trying to close her portal while a few who had made it through clawed and pecked at her hair. He felt something thud against his chest, forcing its way past him. There were too many. He couldn’t see. He needed to fix that.

He gathered up his reserve, and fired out another blast, aimed in every direction at once, too weak to dislodge a grown man, but, he hoped, enough to force back the birds. It worked, partly. There was a mess of squawks and cries and crunching sounds as the hunting birds were blown away, striking walls or floors, or simply being flung out over the tracks. It didn’t catch all of them, but it cleared them enough that he could see. The intruders were gone. He swore.

As the agents began doing what little they could to corral what remained of the swarm, even as they escaped into the subway lines and up the stairway by the dozens, he pulled out his phone, and dialed a number. It rang for only a few seconds, before the man on the other end picked up.

“Dad,” he muttered into it, his voice tight. “Get Mom and come here now. We’ve got elves loose in New York.”

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Escapism: 3.4

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Casper:

It took nearly two hours, all said, for Casper to find what he was looking for. Even with a calm achieved, itself a task that he doubted he would have managed without his teacher’s mind as a reference, it took him a while to find the right part of himself. It wasn’t, as Freja had described, like a light inside his mind. He had tried envisioning it that way at first, and it had felt stilted, out of shape. When he finally found it, the idea it brought to mind was, for him, something a good deal more quiet. A single head of dandelion seeds in an empty field of grass, swaying gently in the breeze. The picture was oddly detailed for a mental image, vivid and consistent enough that he could count the individual seeds branching off of it. When he relayed the image to her, his teacher let out a dry chuckle.

“That so, huh?” She asked. “Well, try using your power. See if your flower changes at all.”

“Well, uh…” Casper started. “Thing about that is… My power’s always on… I’m never not using it.”

Freja grunted.

“I see.” She paused for a moment, then continued. “Well, can you change it somehow? Put more energy into it or something?”

The boy nodded, closing his eyes and focusing for a moment on his power. He began to swell his boundary out, from just large enough to encompass him and Freja, to large enough to fill the whole room, then even bigger. He pushed it out far enough that he could feel the minds of those passing in the street outside, the happy woman still selling her flowers. In his mind’s eye, the dandelion shifted, grew larger, the individual bristles of it opening up a touch wider. It was a strange feeling, watching what felt like an imaginary picture change without any conscious input from himself.

“It’s doing stuff,” he said aloud. “Changing shape the more I use it. Getting bigger.”

“Yup,” Freja murmured, nodding. “Good job, kid. You’re a mage. That flower you’re seeing is your spell. You’ll probably start seeing more of them turn up as you start learning new spells.”

New spells.

Casper took a moment to absorb that idea, the image of the flower in his mind nearly slipping from his mind as a wave of excitement threatened to push him from his present calm. He thought for a moment, before asking a question that had been lingering in the back of his mind for what felt like weeks.

“Is… is there some way I can turn it off?” He asked, earning himself a look of confusion from his teacher. “M-my spell, I mean. It… gets in the way of life, sometimes. I’d like to not have to deal with it all the time.”

“Ah,” she nodded, understanding. “Sure. There’s a couple ways you could turn it off for a while, I think. You could probably play around with it for a while and see if you can find an off switch-”

“No,” he cut her off. “I tried that. Three months. Couldn’t figure it out.”

Freja gave him another nod.

“Fair enough. Thought you might say that. Well, I could probably put together an amulet or something to keep your spell suppressed,” she raised a hand to forestall the boy as he opened his mouth to speak, excited. “Don’t get all yappy yet. It’d take a few weeks, I’d have to take a very close look at what your spell does, and it’d cost you about twenty grand.” She chuckled slightly as his face fell once more. “Easiest answer? Just keep yourself exhausted, I guess. A spell won’t work if you don’t have enough energy in you to fuel it. Start learning some other spells and just work all your energy out on them so your power goes away for a while.”

Casper sat for a moment, mulling it all over in his mind, then nodded with a sigh. It wasn’t ideal, but at least it was something he could do. Better than just holding his bubble close and hoping.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “Okay. So, how do I learn new spells?”

“Simple,” Freja shrugged. “You get someone to teach you.” She pulled herself to her feet. “For that, gimme a sec.” With that, she walked out of the room, leaving him alone.

Curious, and lacking anything better to do, Casper followed the older woman with his power, tracing her mind back through the narrow hallway and into the shop, then out onto the street, where she came to a stop beside the cheerful flower woman. He felt their emotions fluctuate briefly, flickering slightly in minute response to concepts introduced and discussed. He felt the flower woman become a touch excited, Freja a little amused, before the two apparently swapped places, his teacher remaining out by the flowers while the second woman made her way inside, passing through the cluttered shop and into the hallway behind him.

“So,” she called out cheerfully as she caught sight of him. “You’re the new kid, huh?”

“Guess so,” he answered, glancing behind himself towards the same, slightly portly woman who’d been selling flowers when he’d arrived. She was carrying, to his momentary confusion, a pair of small, cheap, plastic flower pots, each apparently filled with plain garden soil. “My name’s Cas. Hi.”

“Nice to meet you, Cas,” she replied, stepping forwards into the room and bending at the waist to place one of the pots beside the boy. “I’m Mel. Now then. Let’s not waste time. Freja said you’d earned yourself a particular spell, and I’m better at teaching this one than she is, so watch closely.”

Casper nodded and Mel lowered herself down into a sitting position off to his side with just a touch more ease than Freja had before. She lifted the second flower pot in her hand, holding it just below eye level between them. Casper gazed at it, waiting. He didn’t have to wait long.

It started out relatively small, a slight disturbance in the soil filling the container, before a tiny nub of green poked its way out from underneath; a seedling. The tiny plant grew a little faster now, extending into a stem like a video in time lapse. The stem sprouted leaves, grew higher, and formed a bud, which quickly colored itself into a light, orangish pink, before dividing out into petals that then spread apart into a flower bulb. The whole process had taken perhaps eleven seconds. Mel placed the newborn flower on the floor between them, and turned her eyes towards the boy.

“Thoughts?” She asked, her tone suddenly very serious, matched by what he felt in her mind.

Casper hesitated. It felt to him like his teacher was waiting for him to judge her. He could feel a note of something that almost felt like anticipation in her mind. Like she was waiting for him to miss the point somehow; to say the wrong thing. In the end, he opted for honesty.

“Well,” he began. “I gotta admit, a little bit of me’s disappointed that nothing caught fire and exploded.”

Mel rolled her eyes, a momentary amusement touching inside her mind.

“Kids,” she snorted. “They never change. We don’t teach combat magic to children we’ve only just met, Cas.”

“Yeah, I figured,” He admitted, returning his eyes to the plant between them. “… What sort of flower is it?”

“This?” She asked, gesturing down at it absently. “It’s a tulip.”

Casper nodded.

“It’s pretty,” he said eventually. He meant it, too. He liked flowers. Growing up in the city, they were a little bit of a rarity. “The petals make me think of sunsets.”

Mel gazed at him as he spoke, her eyes narrowing slightly as she considered him. Then, she smiled, a surprisingly powerful note of pride settling down in her thoughts as his words hit home.

“Aww,” she chuckled. “Such a nice boy.” With that, she leaned forwards a little, her hands coming to rest on her knees. “Yup, that’s good enough for me. You’re learning this one.”

Casper cocked an eyebrow at that. Had he just passed a wizard test by complimenting a flower?

“This one?” He asked. “You mean there’s other ones I could learn instead?”

“Yup,” Mel nodded, gesturing a hand absently towards the tulip, which slowly began to swell once more. “There’s a bunch of other ones. Freja could teach you any number of flashy spells, and you’ll probably learn some of them too, in time, but this one’s a little special. I only teach it to the kids I like. Not every youngster gets to be a nature mage, you know.”

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Escapism: 3.3

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Father:

“I’m sorry, Father. She got away from us.” Marcus stared at the ground as he spoke, apparently unable to bring himself to look upon his father’s face.

“I see,” he replied, his voice even, deciding to let the boy stew in his remorse for the time being. “Can you tell me how she got away?”

Marcus nodded, his body slumping slightly in his seat as he began to recite the events of the night passed.

“She had a friend,” He mumbled. “We never saw them, but they were blasting the building with something. Lara says it was like some kind of air cannon. She’s not doing too well. It popped one of her ear drums. Samson took the girl hostage, but she got the drop on him, punched his ribs in, damn near killed him. Lara blasted her out the window and she ran. She was off the street before I caught up. The hunter says her scent just disappears up into the air. Nothing he can do.” His recitation over, the boy slumped back in his chair, ashamed. A younger sister stepped forward and placed a hand on his shoulder, reassuring.

Father sat in thought for a moment, his fingers tented together against his lips. The rest of his children were there as well, the boys and girls of the New York branch, all staring towards either him or Marcus. Some of the newer ones were apprehensive. The older ones seemed merely ashamed. He suppressed a smile. His children didn’t like disappointing him.

On the whole, however, Father was not disappointed. His children had lost the girl, that was true. But by the sound of it, they had found him a much more intriguing possibility than a lone teenager with super strength. An outsider who could make blasts of air like Lara’s; someone who could whisk a wounded girl off the face of the earth and up into the sky. Either power had potential, and if it was the same person, then all the better. If it was a child, then that meant a new potential member of his family, and if it was an adult, then it was good that they had brought him in. Better to deal with dangerous people himself.

He made his decision after a time, and raised his head towards his shamed son.

“I am not angry, Marcus,” he said, his voice gentle. “I know you did what you could.”

There was a collective sigh around the room from his assembled children, some relieved, some grateful. Marcus nodded, still refusing to look towards his father. A drop of liquid trailed down from the boy’s eye, traveling along his downturned nose, before falling to the floor. Father sighed. He didn’t like his children crying for him. There was no helping it. He used his power, shaping it into a bubble around himself, and pressing it out into the room at large.

The effect was immediate. His children began to smile, the residual fear fading slowly from their faces, the harsh lines fading from their cheeks as the tension drained away. Marcus shuddered in his seat, drawing in a sharp breath as his mind was wrenched off its tracks. He raised his tear stained face towards his father, and let out a small laugh, quiet, joyous.

“T-thank you, Father.” Marcus murmured, absent the shame of his prior moments, his tone drawn back to the calm lightness of his euphoria. “I-I don’t deserve it.”

Father shook his head in a single, small movement, and allowed himself a smile. He stood from his seat and crossed the distance to his wayward son. The boy gazed up at him, his expression one of purest wonderment. He placed a hand on either of Marcus’ cheeks, and gently brought the boy’s head forwards, resting his forehead against his stomach. Marcus giggled.

“No crying, little one.” He murmured, one hand rising to stroke the boy’s hair. “You know your father hates it when you cry.” Marcus nodded, taking another sharp breath through his nose as his body slowly reoriented away from his earlier remorse.

Father chuckled lightly to himself at that.

“That’s my boy.” They all stood like that for a long time, the father simply letting his children bask in the warmth of his light, none of them daring to move, lest their wondrous moment be broken. As an added gift, he reached his touch out into Marcus’ form, and began to slowly mend the fractured bones of the boy’s hand.

The magnanimous father allowed his children to warm themselves for a time, before withdrawing his light back into himself. His family gazed at him from every corner of the room, still basking in the slowly receding joy of his presence.

“Now,” he murmured, glancing around his assembled young until he found a face that caught his fancy, and gesturing her forwards. “Can you take me to your big brother and sister so that I can heal them?”

The girl nodded, her face splitting into a wide grin as she stepped forward. He held out a hand, and she took it with her own, leading him from the room.

He healed his two broken children first, before retiring with the girl that he had chosen. He remembered her face from the day that he had shaped it. Elise. The name that he had given her made him smile as he recalled it. He let her bask in him for a time after, before setting out on his new mission, refreshed.

Family was such a beautiful thing.


Casper:

The boy sat cross legged on the floor, his hands held together in his lap, trying to bring his thoughts to a calm. Even with his eyes closed, his power told him that the old witch was there, just a few feet away, her mind just a touch amused. That did not help. He didn’t like being laughed at, even in other people’s minds. Even without her input, calm would have been a tall order. He had too many thoughts surging together in the back of his mind, most of them too large and too recent to be so easily put aside. He sat like that in silence for what felt like an hour, before he sighed.

“Are you sure there isn’t another way?” He asked, trying to keep his tone from a whine.

“Not if you keep refusing to tell me your power.” Freja answered, her tone neutral, despite her growing amusement. Not for the first time, he tried to shrink his bubble tight enough around himself to exclude her. Nothing. It was wrapped as close in as it would go. “If you wanna find out if you have magic, you need to access your spells, and that means meditating.” She allowed herself a chuckle at that. “It’s okay to take as long as you like. I charge by the hour, after all.”

Casper groaned.

“Calm is haaaard, though,” he grumbled. “I don’t even know what I’m aiming for!”

“You’ll know it when you find it,” she replied after only a moment’s hesitation. “Trust me. It just takes a little time to make it click in your head. Gets easier after the first time, when you know what you’re looking for.” She paused for a moment, then shrugged. “Here, I’ll show you.”

Casper opened his eyes, watching as the older woman set herself creakily down on the mat, mirroring his pose, and closed her eyes.

“First thing you do is clear your mind,” she murmured, repeating her earlier explanation almost verbatim. “And not in that hollywood bullshit way. Really clear it. You take your problems, you look at each of them, you let yourself feel them, and you accept them so that you can stop focusing on them. They’re still there, and they’re gonna be there to piss you off later, but for now, you just accept them and move on.”

As she spoke, Casper began to feel the older woman’s emotions shift. The humor died away, and something else rose in its place. Casper had often felt emotions lurking in the background of people’s minds. Annoyances they held suppressed, feelings of sadness they were refusing to let themselves feel. As Casper watched, Freja began to unpack them within herself. For a moment, she was angry, almost dangerously so; some powerful force of repressed emotion rising in her mind, it was a slow process, the calm coming gradually as the anger burned itself out and she once more took on that semblance of calm. It wasn’t the same as before. She was still a little angered, but that feeling slowly began to fade. Her face twitched.

“It feels like shit, to be honest,” she muttered. “It’s usually easier to just force our bad feelings down. But if you’re a mage, then they clog you up, stop you being clear. To get past them, you have to let yourself feel them. You have to look at them, you have to accept them, and you have to let them run their course.”

Casper felt something else arise from the background of his teacher’s mind. It was sadness, this time. It felt… fainter, faded in a way that was hard for Casper to put into words. Like a scar from an old wound. It too swelled within her mind, before, just as had done with the anger, it began to slowly fade as she let it fall beside her. She took a deep breath.

“If it helps,” she murmured. “I try to imagine it like a ball. All that shit in your brain messes with the ball, gives it sharp edges and pointy spikes. That’s all the crap that’s left over once you’ve let yourself feel it all. So, once I’ve done what I can to let my feelings go by, I try to massage the ball-”

In spite of himself, Casper snickered.

“Shut the fuck up or I’ll set you on fire.” Freja grumbled, her face setting momentarily back into a scowl. “You take your time with it. You imagine that silver orb inside your mind, and you slowly shape it back into a perfect sphere, and if you don’t lie to yourself, and you don’t go too fast with it, then once you’re done, you’ll be calm.”

It took time, Casper noted, Freja slowly working through whatever problems she held inside her mind, before slowly bringing what remained back to calm. After about five minutes, however, Casper was entranced. Freja was calm. Not just calm in the everyday sense, as his previous understanding of the word had allowed. She was almost empty. If he’d had to put a word to it, he’d have called it tired.

“Ah,” she murmured, more to herself than to him at this point. “There it is. When you get to the end, you’ll be able to sort of see it, like a light inside your brain. It’s… hard to describe, really, but you’ll know it when you feel it.”

Casper hesitated, uncertain, then spoke, his voice quiet.

“C-can you stay like that for a while?” He asked. “I… I think it might help me look for it.”

He had expected refusal, or at least some confusion from her. Instead, she merely grunted at the request.

“Sure. Whatever. Just give it another go, okay?”

He nodded, then closed his eyes.

The process was… difficult, to say the least. None of what the old witch had said was in any way soothing to him. But it had helped him know what to do, at least. He thought of his parents, and grimaced. It made him angry. It made him very, very angry. The big problem with letting go as Freja had instructed him was that it really wasn’t something he wanted to do. He wanted to be angry with them, and he wanted to stay angry with them. It felt right to hate. He felt his breathing begin to hasten, his heart beating faster in his chest.

“It’s okay,” he heard the old woman say quietly. He opened his eyes, and saw that she was looking at him, her expression calm. “You can hold onto this feeling forever, if you have to. But you need to let it go for now. It’ll still be there when you get back. I promise.”

He took a few long, deep breaths, his chest shaking slightly in his hate, and nodded.

He doubted he could have done it on his own. Set his feelings down like that. In the end, he used the old woman as an anchor, distancing himself with her calm, before gradually allowing the betrayal to slip between his fingers. He put it down, and tried to let the feelings run their course.

A little part of him felt like he’d failed himself in that moment. Like he was letting them both off easy. He did his best not to dwell. Under his teacher’s guidance, he carried on.

Author’s Note: Okay, so, I’ll be interested to see what you guys make of this one. It’s probably one of my stranger chapters done thus far. As always, input is appreciated. 

Just a lil disclaimer. Freja’s lesson isn’t a real meditation technique, as far as I’m aware. It might not even be healthy, like, at all. It’s just a thing I do sometimes when I need to clear my head. I’d be interested to see what you make of it. 

EDIT: Having looked at it, what they’re doing is actually very similar to mindfulness meditation. Being aware of one’s own feelings and their causes and attempting to avoid dwelling on them.

Kay. That’s all I had to say. Bai!

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Bonus chapter two, Tuva.

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One week ago, Tuva:

Tuva stared at the small ceramic jar that sat upon her family’s coffee table, hands together, her fingers interlocked for her chin to rest on, her elbows braced against her knees.

It was ugly. More than anything else, that was the thought that she kept coming back to. The clay had been fired with a fairly expensive looking lacquer finish, a series of interlocked lines alternating between a deep blue and lime green with a ribbon of some sunset orange color running around the middle. In another context, she doubted she would have even given the object the thought needed to leave an impression in her mind. She might even have thought it was pretty. As it was, however, she couldn’t remember seeing anything quite as ugly as that jar. Liza would have hated it.

She took a deep breath through her nose and closed her eyes, letting all the old smells come back to her. The faint aroma of old leather and wood polish, the drifting waft of fresh coffee brewing on the stove two rooms away. It all felt so odd now, even after just a few months away. It was unfamiliar, out of place.

The flight had been delayed. She’d missed the cremation. Her parents hadn’t questioned her lateness, nor why they hadn’t heard from her in weeks. Her mother had simply hugged her as she stepped in the doorway, burying her tear stained face against her daughter’s shoulder in the closest approximation the shorter woman could make of a proper hug. Her father had simply placed a hand on her mother’s shoulder, his eyes dry, his expression stoic. Tuva didn’t think she’d ever seen anyone look so hollow as her father did in that moment. That was the most jarring thing of all, really. He had been such a jovial man before.

A part of Tuva wished her father had been angry at her, blamed her for being absent, screamed at her. Anything would be better than this blank, empty sort of silence.

She made no movement as the door into the kitchen slid open, the faint sounds of footsteps approaching through the narrow hall. She didn’t glance up as a hand placed the teacup down in front of her, nor did she offer any attention to the sound of a body coming to rest on one of the steps beside her chair.

Whoever it was, they didn’t speak for a while, and she was grateful for that. It made it easier to pretend she was alone. It didn’t last.

“You hate it here, don’t you.” The voice made her glance across, not expecting it. It was Hideyoshi. The man had accompanied her back from france, paying the zero warning travel fare for her without comment. Her parents hadn’t blinked twice at him arriving alongside her, offering some cursory explanation that she couldn’t be bothered to remember. Compassionate care or something.

Tuva was silent for a while, staring at her sister’s ashes for a solid minute before she finally responded.

“I’ve never seen them so broken.”

Hideyoshi nodded. Communication had been hard for them, at first, the two speaking in largely broken french, before realizing belatedly that they both spoke reasonable english.

“It’s going to be like that for a while,” he murmured. “They’ve lost a daughter. You can’t imagine the pain.”

“I’m not judging them,” she started, but he cut her off, shaking his head.

“Yes you are.” He murmured. “Just a little. I can see it in your eyes. You’re trying not to, but a little bit of you wants them to be who they were. I’ve seen a lot of grief. I know that look.”

“Well, that’s my problem.” She replied, her eyes dropping towards the floor, not really wanting to look at him in that moment.

“True enough.” Came the reply. Had Tuva expected more, she would have been disappointed. The two were silent once more for a time, until the old man spoke again.

“Take your time,” he murmured. “But we’re out of here in a few days. You need training, and I’m not wasting more than a week here helping you mourn.” With that, the old man stood, dusting himself off and walking away.

Tuva didn’t respond, returning her attention to the ugly jar. A part of her was grateful to the older man. Being here felt wrong. She wanted out.

Present, Tuva:

“You’re sure about this?” The young woman asked quietly, her gaze flicking momentarily away from the clearing that lay before them and towards her companion. “This thing killed a family and you want me to do this alone?” Hideyoshi gave a small nod, but did not speak, whether to avoid alerting their quarry or because he felt there wasn’t a need, she couldn’t tell. She hesitated, then nodded, turning her eyes back towards the target.

It lay perhaps a hundred feet away from them, utterly still but for the slow rise and fall of its chest as it breathed, apparently asleep. It was hard for her to really determine its size, being still enough that the pure white of its fur blended near perfectly with the still falling snow. Tuva took a deep breath, then another, before finally, she pulled her shadows towards her. It was harder out here, further from the centre of a city, where bad dreams gathered together in quantities vast enough to almost conjure shadow men on their own. Here, she could barely manage two of them, drawn from what little of that energy she could store within herself, but that was okay. Two was ideal, really. Any more and she’d struggle to control them with enough precision to matter. They emerged in silence, one forming as if from wisps of smoke in the shade of a snow laden tree, the other pooling like tar in the empty space beside her.

It took a few moments for them to fully form, coalescing themselves slowly into solid, hard edged shapes. They stood tall and still where they had grown, staring towards her. Tuva frowned. The one beneath the tree was obedient, not offering any real resistance within her as it waited for the next command. The one beside her, on the other hand, was angry; formed, she thought, from a more violent collection of nightmares. It hissed low and long, a knife edged hand raised at chest level as it turned towards her teacher. She glared at it, and it was still. Hideyoshi chuckled quietly. Tuva rolled her eyes, before sending her creatures forth.

The shadows moved in silence, their almost weightless bodies making no real sound upon the heavy snow as they approached the beast. When they drew close enough, she bid them begin to climb the trees, and they ascended, their sharp edges scraping faintly against bark and branches. Finally, she had them in position, and they pounced as one, diving down towards the faint shape of the creature’s slowly swelling chest. Their claws struck home, and the wolf let out a pained yelp, jerking awake as their blades caught in flesh and fur, pulling back to trace a long, red line across its ribs. Tuva hissed quietly. She’d hoped to end this in the first blow.

The wolf rolled to its feet, catching one shadow man beneath its form and pressing it into the snow, the other jumping back to safety. Against the background of the trees, its size was far easier to grasp than it had been against the snow. Tuva let out a quiet gasp. Beside her, Hideyoshi chuckled again.

“I told you they were big.” He murmured.

“You never said they were that big.” She replied, her voice low. That was, perhaps, unfair. Hideyoshi had stated quite plainly that it would be the size of a horse before the hunt began, but that, she felt, was underselling it. Horses were peaceful things, after all, and so the true implication of their size had failed to really register with her. This wolf, on the other hand, looked like it could win a fight with an angry bear, and so it left a far greater impression of its scale, helped along by the flecks of red decorating its maw.

The wolf turned its attention down towards the shadow caught between its feet, one arm trapped beneath a paw, and opened its jaws with a snarl, ready to bite. Tuva set her creation to clawing at its forelegs with its free hand. Her other shadow threw itself at the monsters neck, leaping up and wrapping its long, sticklike legs around the wolf’s shoulders, one hand digging into a shoulder blade for purchase while its other clawed at the monster’s face, drawing fresh lines of red soaking into its fur. The wolf growled low in its throat, but did not stop, craning its neck down and taking the pinned shadow’s torso between its jaws before biting down. There was a sharp noise, something akin to the cracking of glass, and the shadow began to fade, its form seeping oily black ooze onto the clean snow and into the creature’s mouth. The wolf gagged as the liquid met its throat, and tossed the broken shadow man to the ground, attempting vainly to wipe its mouth clean against the snow and leaving a faint, greyish trail behind it, the second shadow clinging to its hide as the snow pressed against it like a tide meant to wash it away.

Tuva glanced towards the prone shadow, and willed it upright. Obediently, it tried to stand, one leg twitching, its chest splitting and cracking like so much broken glassware. It remained on the ground. She cursed quietly to herself, and banished it back into smoke, returning her attention to the wolf.

It was hurting, she thought, but not massively so. For all their attacks, her shadows hadn’t really done anything to the beast besides draw some blood. She needed to fix that. Her clinging shadow opened its jaws, the featureless dome of its head seeming to split around the middle, the surface cracking into hundreds upon hundreds of thin, needle like points. It pulled itself up along the monster’s shoulder, and sunk its newfound teeth into the wolf’s neck, digging deep. The wolf let out a yelp as the blood began to flow in earnest, trying to shake the shadow off of itself. She willed it to cling on, and it did so, latching itself in tighter, claws burrowing into skin and grasping, tick-like, into flesh.

The wolf turned towards a tree and began to run, charging towards it with all the speed it could manage. She had the shadow bite again, perforating skin and muscle and vein, blood running down its chin, mixing to black with its muck. The wolf rammed the shadow against the tree with a crash and she felt something splinter within it as the spine shattered, the spindly legs falling to the ground below, dissolving into smoke. She bade the torso to hang on as the mouth opened once more, beginning to chew.

The wolf snarled, shaking itself violently in a futile attempt to once more rid itself of the parasite, before taking a few steps to the side, and throwing its shoulder back towards the tree, smashing the shadow against solid, winter hardened pine. There was a small crunch as the shadow finally pulled free, its form already beginning to dissolve; but its job was done. As it faded, one small object remained, sitting in the shadow’s rapidly dissipating jaws, a fist sized chunk of the dire wolf’s throat.

The wolf was panting, a slight whine rising from its throat with every heaving breath its lungs forced out. It was hurting. Tuva turned away, beginning to pick her way down from the rock upon which they stood, heading back towards the car.

“Going somewhere?” Hideyoshi asked, glancing back at her out of the corner of his eye.

“I ripped an artery open,” she replied, her voice cold. “It’s dying. I’m leaving.”

“Dire wolves don’t die that easy,” Came the reply. “Leave now, and you’ll only have left it with a bad scar.” He paused for a moment, then sighed. “Do you want me to finish it?”

“You wanted me to show I could control them,” she replied. “I did. I’ll be waiting in the car.” With that, she turned away and began trudging off through the thigh deep snow, trying to ignore the sudden wave of heat from behind her; the telltale sound of flames over the short lived whine of the wolf, before the air once more cooled to a winter chill.

She turned the neck of her coat up against the cold. At least it was better than home, she thought.

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Escapism: 3.2

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Casper:

Casper awoke early on the first morning of his new life. The first rays of morning sunlight filtering in through the windows hit his eyelids, and he mumbled something unintelligible, turning over slightly as he dozed to better shield his eyes from the light. There was something unbelievably comfortable about sleeping on Tasha’s couch, her dog curled up against him, head resting against his chest.

It had been a bit of a surprise when the animal had bounded through the trashed apartment to greet him the night before. He’d had his power locked down, closed in around himself, too focused on his own disjointed thoughts to be aware of much beyond his immediate surroundings anyway. Then he’d heard a thumping sound, felt an impact against his chest, and a force of sheer, pure excitement had crashed against his unhappy consciousness. The dog had bowled him over to the floor and started licking him, and he’d giggled without even thinking. It had been a reprieve, an excuse to just stop thinking for a while, leave his parents and Tasha and everything else behind. He had taken it, playing with his excitable four legged friend for who knew how long, before eventually falling asleep on Tasha’s couch.

Laying against him now, Casper felt something new coming from his friend. Relaxation. Simple and pure. Maxie liked the feeling of the warm sun against his fur. He liked the cushion of Casper’s belly as his makeshift pillow, and he liked dozing there without a care in the world. It was hard not to bask in it. Casper liked dogs, he decided; he liked them very much. He raised a hand to stroke the creature’s head, and smiled tiredly as the fresh wave of satisfaction washed over him.

Without thinking, Casper opened up his power, not so much pushing it further as relaxing his restraints on it, too comfortable to really care. His radius expanded outwards, and he felt the minds of those in the apartments around and below him brush against his mind. They were a far less pleasant feeling to be party to. Most grumpy, slightly tired, some probably preparing for a day’s work. One man two floors down was doing something uncomfortable to himself. Casper huffed in irritation. These other people were ruining his perfect morning. They did serve one purpose, though. They brought Casper back to himself enough to make him think. He opened his eyes, grimaced, and sat upright on the couch. He reached into his pocket for his phone, intent on checking the time, before remembering that it was gone. He’d smashed it on his way across town. He rolled his eyes. Better get a new one today. That thought brought a realization to mind. No money. Right. That was a thing. He shrugged. Tasha probably wouldn’t mind if he borrowed some of hers for the time being.

Casper cast his eyes around the apartment, and for the first time, it struck him just how much of a state the whole place was in, old food wrappers and junk littering every square inch of the floor around him. He’d been in too much of a state the night before to pay it any mind. He scrunched his nose up in disgust, some part of his mind suddenly connecting his surroundings with the stale, slightly moldy smell of the place. He thought for a moment of Tasha, and compared what he knew of her to the idea of living in this place, then shrugged. Yeah. He could see her living here.

His stomach grumbled, and he grunted, pushing himself up off the couch and making his way towards Tasha’s fridge. Step one: breakfast. Step two:… He’d get to that later.

The dog pushed itself upright and stretched languidly, before following Casper to the kitchen, his tail wagging gently behind him. Better feed the dog, too.

It took a few minutes to find something edible for them both. Stale cereal on long-life milk for him, the same for Maxie. As he ate, he reached once more into his pocket for his phone, more out of instinct than anything else. He remembered that it was gone with a sigh, then felt his fingertip brush against a slip of paper. He pulled it out and gazed down at it. A handwritten phone number on a slip of paper nervously toyed with so much that it was practically fraying.

The magic teacher.

In the events of the previous night, he’d completely forgotten about it. The revelation of his parents’ actions taking the forefront in his mind. He grinned. No plans for the day, why not learn some cool stuff?

It took Casper almost an hour and a half to find Tasha’s cache of money. He’d been expecting something underhanded, like stashing it in a crack behind a mirror or something, hidden in the walls. As it turned out, however, Tasha had apparently gone for something simpler and, in the end, a lot more effective. She’d stuffed the money into one of the hundred or so abandoned pizza boxes littering the floor. He took a moment to count it out, and whistled. Four thousand bucks, near enough. That would do him well enough for the moment. He stashed it in his school bag, and went into the bathroom to swish some toothpaste around on his teeth, before stepping back out into the world, giving Maxie an affectionate pat on the head before he took his leave.

Down at the street level, he bought himself an ice cream at a convenience store to make some change, before tracking down a telephone booth. He closed the door behind him, slipped a few coins into the slot, and tapped out the number from the slip. The phone rang out five times before it was answered, a gruff, elderly sounding woman picking up on the other end.

“Hello. You’ve reached The Rose Bouquet. Are you looking to place an order?”

“Uhh, hi,” Casper replied, not particularly surprised. “I’m… Cas. I wanted to get some lessons?”

There was a grunt on the other end of the line, before the woman responded.

“Flower arranging or Gardening?” She asked, her tone businesslike.

“I uhh…” Casper started, before shrugging. “I don’t really know what that means. Whichever one isn’t actually flower arranging or gardening, I guess.”

The line was silent for a moment, before the woman responded, her tone suspicious.

“You a cop?”

“Uhh… No… I’m thirteen.”

“You sound thirteen, sure,” the woman’s voice allowed. “But that doesn’t really mean much depending on who you are. Anyways, I don’t teach anything besides gardening and flowers, so if you’re looking for something else, you’ve got the wrong number.”

Casper rolled his eyes, frustrated.

“Look,” he whined. “I’m not a cop, okay?” He hesitated, then decided to just go for it. At the very worst, he had a bad number and the woman would just think he was a crazy person. “All I know is my dad hurt me real bad one time and now I can do things that should be impossible. I don’t know if I want flowers or gardening, but another kid gave me this number and told me you could help, so can you?”

There was another, longer silence, before the woman sighed.

“Sounds like you want gardening lessons,” she muttered, her tone exasperated. “Who was it that gave you my number?”

“Umm,” Casper replied awkwardly. “I… kinda don’t know his name-” He was cut off by a snort of laughter.

“Kid,” she chuckled. “You really suck at this.”

“It’s not my fault!” He said defensively. “Lewis said we weren’t allowed to swap names!”

“Ah,” the woman murmured, as if in sudden realization. “One of Lewis’ kids, eh? That explains a lot.” She stopped for a moment, apparently to think, before continuing. “Tell you what. Head over to the shop so we can talk in person. I’ll take a look at you, and we can go from there.”

Casper let out a relieved sigh.

“Yeah, will do. Thank you.”

The woman made no indication that she had heard him, reciting the address in a bored tone before hanging up with a click.

Casper let out a long breath, before placing the phone back in the holder. The shop was only a short way from Tasha’s apartment, as luck would have it. He pushed his nerves aside, before stepping out of the booth, and walking the short distance to the shop.

He spotted the place almost immediately upon rounding the corner onto its street. The Rose Bouquet was a fairly hokey looking place to Casper’s eye, the shop front covered by an apparently ancient fabric canopy in a faded mishmash of greens and yellows, throwing a swathe of shade over the stands of arranged flowers that spilled out into the street. The flowers themselves were overseen by a plump, middle aged looking woman with an almost disturbingly wholesome smile, busily flagging down any passerby who’s attention she could draw for more than a few seconds at a time. He wondered, briefly, how people doing jobs like that managed to smile so much without it looking fake, then made his way over to the shopfront, his power kept wrapped tight around him. He waited for her to be distracted, flagging down another prospective customer, before slipping past her into the store, brushing aside a thin bead curtain that hung from a doorway and setting a bell jangling lightly as he passed.

Almost immediately upon entering the place, his nostrils were assaulted by the aromas of incense and candle wax, utterly overpowering the lingering smells of car exhaust and morning moisture that clung to the street outside, drowning out even the fresher fragrances of the flower stall. He wrinkled his nose slightly in distaste, and glanced around. It looked like a souvenir shop, the interior of the place lined with row after row of cluttered shelves holding polished pebbles and salt infused soaps and a hundred other things besides, most of them labeled with price tags that almost made Casper laugh.

“Hello?” Asked a curt voice from somewhere to his left. “That you, Mel? We’re out of those weird candles that smell of grapes. Can you order some more before another tourist wants some?”

Casper recognized the voice immediately. The woman who’d answered the phone. He stepped around the shelf, bringing the chintzy sales counter into view, behind which stood an elderly woman with a scowl set implacably into a face more lined than any he had ever seen, a pair of cheap, bead encrusted spectacles perched on a hawk-like nose a good two or three times too large for her head. She squinted down at him, and made a face like she’d just bitten into a fresh lemon.

“Uh, hi,” Casper said, a little awkwardly. “I’m Cas. You, uh, told me to head ove-”

“So you ARE a kid, then.” She cut him off. “Come on. We’ll have more privacy in the back.” She raised a hand, pausing a moment to tug the edge of her sequin encrusted shawl back over her wrist, and gestured to a side door, stepping out from behind the counter towards it. Casper followed behind her, slightly deflated.

The two of them moved through the door and into a narrow hallway that branched off into an equally narrow staircase to the right side. As they walked, Casper extended his power out, allowing his little bubble to expand around his newfound companion. A part of him was disappointed when she didn’t react to it. Her mind was focused, her attention turned towards the business of the day, emotions muted. Nothing new to glean. The woman led him past the staircase, and through into a small, enclosed room that, to Casper, looked a lot like a classical dojo, the floor covered by a padded beige mat, the windowless walls lined with a number of short, wood carved drawers the contents of which he could only guess at.

After a moment or two, she stepped back to him, and placed a small, slightly oblong stone in his hand.

“Right,” she grunted, her tone businesslike. “Now then, tell me you’re a purple dinosaur.”

“… What?” Casper asked, cocking an eyebrow.

“You heard me,” She replied, utterly serious.

“… I’m a purple dinosaur?” The moment the last syllable left his mouth, the stone buzzed in his hand, vibrating a little against his skin and letting out a rattling noise not unlike a set of maracas. The surprise of it made him jump more than he would have liked to admit.

“It does that every time you tell a lie,” she murmured, looking him dead in the eye. “Now, are you with the cops?”

“Oh,” Casper nodded, understanding. “No. I’m not working with the police.”

“Good,” she reached out and plucked the stone from his hand, before returning it to its drawer and turning to face him. “Now then. My name is Freja, and it sounds like you need a magic teacher.”

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