Sydney ran her fingers through her hair. It was the week before the Arcane Science Fair. It wasn’t mandatory for her degree in Magic-Craft, which was an umbrella term for enchantments, glyphs, and talismans.
The project she wanted to present was showing some last-minute ~
“Fu… Ffffloozy…” she steamed as she held her hand. The lightning glyph was interfering with the spark glyph on the talisman. It was the third talisman to show malfunctions. She’d have to miss a class to anchor this one. Maybe skip a meal or two and some sleep.
Her roommate looked up from the pile of papers and droned, “Having trouble?”
“Yeah. I should show this to Dr. Dru. He might help.”
“Ai’ght. You okay? Your hair’s standing up.” She raised her hands and held the air around her head to illustrate. Sydney rolled her eyes and stood to look in the full-length mirror on the dorm room door. She inhaled a deep gasp and pressed her hair down as her roommate laughed aloud.
It was funny, she had to admit.
Once her hair was in decent order, she turned to the talisman again. Crafting the things took time and energy. The crafter had to carve the appropriate glyphs into the stone or metal. In Sydney’s case, it was a fist-sized clear-quartz. With the glyphs carved, it could draw on magical energies when you pressed them. But to make the flow constant and instant, the crafter had to anchor the corresponding planet’s energy to the talisman. To do that, the crafter became a conduit for the energy, like hooking it to a net. The time it took for this process varied depending on how close the planet was to the earth.
Normal talismans had one glyph and a planetary sign on them. Sydney’s talisman needed five and she found out the hard way to not touch them. She usually conducted her experiment in the Magic-Craft Shop. It was raining and she didn’t want to get wet.
Sydney slipped on her rain boots – something she bought her second semester – and grabbed an umbrella and her talisman. She put the talisman in her purse and waved to her roommate. “Text you when I get there and on my way back,” she informed as she opened the door.
“’Kay,” her roommate answered briefly.
Even though the school supposedly had great safety ratings, she still hated crossing the campus at any time after dark. Her roommate was kind enough to live with getting texts every time she went out at night.
Outside, she saw students practicing their shield spells by using them as umbrellas. Those with umbrellas real clutched heating talismans to their chests. Sydney shuddered and wished she had her own as a cold gust of wind slapped water on her.
She made her way along the path and trekked to the offices. She felt a wave of relief hit her when she saw Dr. Dru’s car still in the lot.
In the doorway and in the safety of the awning, she dug in her purse for the heating talisman. None, except her experiment, which she pulled out. She pressed her thumb to the flame glyph and used a small thread of magic to activate it. It should simply heat up…
The end of the talisman flickered with a flame at the top, a beautiful, perfect blue and white flame, before exploding with an electric spark. She dropped it and spit a curse.
Hours of hard work. Hours of laboring and connecting to the planets to anchor the magic energies – and for what? To have it attack her when she applied it to the simplest of tasks? She raised her foot and stomped it again and again. Over and over, with each stomp, she repeated a curse. Then she said, “I – hate – you! I – can’t – stand – you! Why – do you – do – this!?” With an exhausted leg, she sighed and knelt to pick it up. Her boot barely made a mark on the gem.
Tears filled her eyes as she opened the door. They flowed as she took off her boots and made her way down the hall. This was her debut into the magic world. This would get her foot in the door to finally meet the most powerful man in the world.
She knocked on the door with Dr. Dru’s name next to it. The man called out for her to enter.
She wiped her face and tiptoed inside. The office was warm and quiet, with hardly a sound from the rain outside. Dr. Dru was behind his desk, which was at the back of the narrow office and facing the door. “Miss Cooper, come in. Are you alright? You’ve been crying.”
“Just…” she strode up to his desk and dropped the talisman on top of his papers. She said louder than she meant to, “It won’t work! It keeps exploding on me! I can’t do it!”
Dr. Dru drew back as if she had slapped a bomb onto his desk and lifted his reading glasses to examine it. He picked up a pair of unused pencils from his pen cups and used them like chopsticks to pick up the talisman.
He looked over his glasses at the junior student and motioned her to sit in the chair beside her. She plopped down and sniffled, wiping her face. “This is the talisman you’re entering into the Fair?” he asked as he held it up to her.
“Do you have all your notes with you?”
“Crap,” she moaned. “They’re in the dorm.”
“Don’t worry. Explain it to me like I’m dumb,” he answered with a small smile. He scooted his box of tissues to her. She took a few and wiped her face. He was in charge of the Fair and the director of the Magic-Craft Department, after all. He would know what to do.
She gave him a summary of what the talisman was supposed to do and how it functioned. She dared not show him, unless the school had proper insurance. “And every time I finish anchoring, they always malfunction at the last minute.”
“Ah,” he said and turned the talisman slowly, noting the glyphs. He frowned and said, “This talisman of yours is certainly a marvel. I’m sure plenty of people have attempted such a feat before you, but ran into similar problems. This, I dare say, will ensure your place among the pioneers of magic. That is, if you can fix the problems you’re having.” He slipped it to her. “And you say when you activate one, another one reacts to it?”
He turned to the posters hanging over his desk to the left. Sydney did too and saw he had diagrams of glyphs, which were categorized by type and put in a wheel shape. “Familiar with this chart?”
“Its in your classroom,” she remarked.
“Do you know why they’re in a wheel?” he asked.
“It looks more attractive that way?” she guessed with a chuckle.
“Because each element has a complementary element, as well as an opposing element. Fire verses water, earth verses air, and so on. Then there’s the sub-categories, lightning verses ice, metal verses gas. You don’t have lightning on the same side as fire and its on the same side as water.” He pointed to the glyphs on the talisman to show her.
It clicked. He was right – she had everything backwards. She gasped and bolted to her feet. “Thank you, Dr. Dru! Thank you!” She took the talisman and headed for the door.
“Wait! Sydney!” he called out.
The student stopped and turned to him.
“Do you have a copy of this diagram?” He pointed at the poster. Sydney frowned as she searched her data banks and shook her head. “Well, then,” he sighed as he stood from his swivel chair, “help me take it down and you can borrow it until you win that Arcane-Sciences Fair.”
Sydney almost threw her purse on the floor, she was so excited.
~ ~ ~
Tuesdays, Wednesday, Thursday, and Fridays were visitation days. Of course, today was Wednesday, so Nina seemed hopeful her father would come see her. I never had visitors, so I wasn’t concerned.
As usual, we woke up at 6:00 am, showered in the bathroom we shared, and were ushered to the cafeteria at 7:00 am. After meds were passed to patients, 7:30 am was time in our rooms to read or nap. Nina brought bits of food and what was left of her carton of milk to her little totems.
She had a mouse, a cat, an elephant, and a bear, all crafted with love and devotion. I hated the things. Not only did their blank stares creep me out, but when she prayed to them, the air on her side of the room felt heavy on my skin and my lungs felt condensed. It felt threatening, as if something wanted to swallow me whole.
It might all be in my head, but after hearing what O’Hara had to say, I was reconsidering it. I kept my nose in the book from the library that hour and a half, trying to ignore Nina curled in front of the totems and whispering her hopes to them. I sent up a silent prayer to the Light for comfort and a way out of this place. Or at least someone who understood I didn’t belong here.
At 9:00 am, we had to go to a group session on Wednesdays. We lined up in a circle and talked about our feelings one at a time. At first, I felt awkward and weird, especially with the elf in the corner, watching me with his red eyes. That was something no one could ignore the first session.
Now, I had investment in some of the people who attended. Zach was a thirteen year old suffering from insomnia and wanted to be an electrical engineer. Bea was a recovering bulimic who loved fashion. Shizu was kicking a drug addiction and was coming up on his leave in a few weeks.
Dr. Graham had his turn to do group session duty, so he welcomed us with his warm smile behind his mustache as we filled the chairs. Mr. Z took his post in the corner across from me, where I could see him.
Nina sat on one side of me, while Isabelle curled in the chair on the other side. She kept her knees drawn to her chest while everyone whispered and talked.
I turned and asked, “How’re you doing today, Izzy?”
“I’m fine. And its Isabelle,” she corrected.
“Did you sleep well?”
“I didn’t have any dreams.” She had an airy tone to her voice.
“Oh.” I tried to process how to respond. “Um. Good?”
“The wrinkles are getting out of my head. The doctors say I’m improving,” she said with satisfaction.
I fiddled with a fold in my sweatpants to find a reply. I managed, “That’s good?”
A smile formed on Isabelle’s face. “Yes, Lyric. Don’t worry. I’m fine.” Her brow creased as she frowned. She asked, “How about you?”
“Yeah. I’m fine.” I shrugged.
“You seem upset.”
“What? No, I’m fine. I had bad dreams. Probably this book I’m reading. Its a little more gory than I’m used to, but I like it so far. The world seems interesting.” I crossed my legs automatically as I pondered. I noticed the blank look on her face.
“Oh,” she droned.
“You don’t care.”
“Okay, then,” I resigned.
Dr. Graham interrupted everyone’s conversations by raising his voice, “Everyone, its time for the session to begin. I want all feet on the floor and knees straight in front of you.” He motioned to his own knees as an example.
We all followed his instruction. A few kept their arms folded, while some slouched in their chairs. Zach across from me bounced his knees as he slouched down into the seat of his chair. I leaned back to get comfortable, but kept my knees together. Bea was the image of perfection, with her knees slanted to the side and back straight. Shizu leaned back against his chair, focused on his hands in his lap. Nina sat with her legs tucked under her, while Isabelle played with her sleeve and pushed her hair away from her face.
What would I say? I didn’t have much to offer. Would it even be wise to mention the conversation with O’Hara? The elf could report it to his captain and then it would make its way to the higher ups. My stay might get extended.
I tried to understand how my brain came to that conclusion. There was no harm in talking about eyes or music. But the contrabass portion might at least put me under closer watch in case I tried something. I mentally shook that off – that’s ridiculous. Who would randomly bind their soul to something?
No, I didn’t know how anyone would react, so I would have to skip it, since I can’t lie without laughing my head off.
Dr. Graham smiled to everyone with approval. “Now, I’ll start today and we’ll go around the room ~”
“Doctor,” interrupted a nurse from the doorway to the common room. Everyone stared at her. She knitted her brow as she said, “I apologize for interrupting, but I need to see Ms. Lyric Williamson.”
A cold ball of lead sunk in my stomach as I stood. Was this about the conversation with O’Hara? The magic book I picked up at the library?
Was I finally leaving?
The nurse must have seen my hesitation as I shuffled to her, as she gave me a warm smile. Mr. Z joined me and we met the nurse in the hallway. She reassured me, “Miss Williamson, its alright. You actually have a visitor.”
I raised my eyebrows, speechless. Me? Someone came to see me? “Wh-who?” I managed. The lead ball was gone, replaced by butterflies of hope and nerves.
“A couple of researchers studying the minds of those who were raised by Riders.”
I squashed the butterflies and threw a mental fit. Of course, researchers. Why couldn’t anyone know where I was? Was I that important? Had I done something to warrant such secrecy?
We passed through the recreational room and into the hallway leading to the institute’s courtyard, which we saw through the glass that took up most of the hall. We stopped halfway and turned to a room with windows for a wall facing the hall. It was constructed so anyone visiting could only see the beautiful courtyard and those passing through the hall.
There were two men sitting at a round table, with clipboards and files in front of them. One of them had on a tidy business suit, while the other looked like he belonged in a university, with a sweater vest, button up shirt, and a bowtie. The two men looked up and wore two different smiles.
Suit Man had on a calm, satisfied look on his face, as if everything in the world was acceptable to him and my arrival was simply another piece that fit into that acceptance. Bowtie Man looked ecstatic to see me.
“Miss Williamson!” the latter said as he stood and held out his hand. “I’m Dr. Canto. Its a pleasure to meet you.”
I shook his hand across the table.
The other man stood slowly and said in a calm, yet firm voice, “And I’m Dr. Thustra.”
I balked. He looked older than the man on the cover of the book, but stronger, as well. Both men had amethyst eyes, but Dr. Thustra’s were more like thick velvet than the counterpart, who had milky tint to his. This couldn’t … but it had to be… but…
When Thustra held out his hand to me, everything in my body screamed to get away. There was that threatening air, only cold and empty. I leaned away from Dr. Thustra and asked, “Why visit me?”
The doctor withdrew his hand and sat as his partner opened a file. Dr. Canto explained, “I’m going around and evaluating children who were raised by Riders. I hope to better understand them, so we might come up with better treatment.”
Better than locking them into an institution without any freedom in sight? Better than the memory therapy? Everything inside told me to not say anything.
“I don’t know what I could tell you. I’m just me. I don’t even know how to do magic.” That was right, right?
“Oh, I beg to differ,” replied Dr. Canto. “Your file says you’ve been here for two years, yet you still hold on to your faith in the Light. Why do you think that is?”
“When I heard about you,” Dr. Thustra explained, “and how close you were to the seminar I was attending, I had to take this opportunity to find out more.”
“What my colleague is trying to say, you’re a rarity. There are about one in ten of these children of Riders who keep their faith. We wish to better understand this phenomenon and better understand how we can help them.”
Instinct told me I had to keep my silence. I glared at them, repressing my adrenaline.
“Who knows? If you help us, we can help you get out of this stuffy institution sooner,” suggested Dr. Canto with a sly grin.
“I really don’t know what I could tell you.” Why not get the hint? I didn’t want to talk to them. No one listens to me.
Dr. Thustra folded his hands and stared at his thumbs as he listened to Dr. Canto.
“It says here, you’ve undergone memory therapy,” Dr. Canto pointed out. “You resisted for a few weeks when you first arrived, but you became more compliant as time has gone on.”
I kept my blank stare fixed on Dr. Thustra, hoping my confusion didn’t show. When had I resisted? What had I done? Did I hurt someone?
“Memory therapy was employed a year ago and has yielded great success.”
I snapped my gaze to Dr. Canto and snarled, “Great success?” The anger became more than I could bare. An icy stillness washed over me and the anger sharpened into a dagger. I put up with this long enough and my adrenaline unhinged the closet in my mind.
I said with wide grin and a poisonous hiss, “What do you mean, ‘great success’? Does forgetting my parents’ faces count as successful? How? I can’t stand everyone telling me what I can and can’t do and shoving this crap down my throat! So, no! I won’t answer your stupid questions! I want to go home!” My face seemed to unsettle Dr. Canto, while the man next to him simply seemed to be counting under his breath.
I covered my mouth to hide the grin and turned my head to gain control again. I put a mental wall between us and tried to collect myself. Trembling, I swallowed and pictured all the emotional crap going back into the closet in my head, putting the door back on its hinges.
I heard movement where I was looking and opened my eyes to see a man dressed in a similar getup to Mr. Z, but his skin was pale like mine and he had calico eyes: An amethyst eye and a bright, red-orange eye. He had no patches on his leather armor and he had no weapons or talismans. He watched me with intense curiosity from the wall nearby.
I turned to the two doctors again and Dr. Canto had a helpless expression as he looked through his files. Dr. Thustra kept his calm expression, as if my anger, too, was another puzzle piece that fit in his world. I started to hate that expression.
The older man placed hands, still folded, on the table and began, “Miss Williamson, I understand life has been difficult for you. You lost your parents, your home, and your freedom. All in one day. Not only that, I’m certain you feel … helpless. Betrayed by who is supposed to be helping you.”
Tears misted my vision as I nodded. I wiped them away.
“I have to commend your tenacity. I’m serious: It is not often I meet someone who has held so fast to their faith and fought to keep who they are alive as you have.”
I pondered this. I did hold on, but why? I never stopped to consider it, but the answer offered itself in an instant: It was all I had to hold onto anymore.
I looked at my institute-issued sweatpants, sweatshirt, and slippers. The nurses cut my hair once a month to keep it in a standard bob. I lost my tan from staying indoors so long. The only thing I still had from home were my name and my faith.
“If I lost my faith, who would I be?” I asked him. His brow wrinkled as he considered this. “You follow as standard of rules, don’t you, Dr. Thustra?” I asked.
The man nodded, his eyes half closed.
“Its not too different,” I explained. “Except I’m … not alone in following them. The Light is here with me. In every moment. I … don’t have to …” I stopped as a headache ebbed its way as I hunted for words. They were there, I knew it, but they were submerged in darkness. “I … I’m sorry. I can’t …” I held my temples as the world began to wobble. I squeezed my eyes shut to make it stop, but the headache became wasps in my head to sting my scalp.
“Do these occur often?” asked Dr. Canto as I heard digging in a bag.
“L-lately,” I replied and peeked through the pain as it roamed back and forth across my scalp, from my forehead, to the back of my head. I saw Dr. Canto dispense two pills and place them in front of me before standing to get a paper cup of water at the water cooler in the corner.
Dr. Thustra stood and stepped around the table. “Do you mind if I look at you?”
I shrugged and flinched at his touch on my shoulder.
“Relax,” he cooed before putting another hand on top of my head. The pain concentrated on his hand, like needles drawn to a magnet. “That is immense pain for a young lady to bear. Let me see what the cause is.” His fingers twitched as he focused. The pain remained at his hand. Dr. Canto returned with the water and waited.
Thustra tore himself away and leaned over to look me in the eye. He seemed angry, or focused and what might have been alarm and fear in his face. Whatever the expression was supposed to read as, it made me afraid. “What?” I squeaked.
He turned to Mr. Z. “Elf, tell these people to cease the memory therapy at once. They’ve butchered this girl’s mind. She needs immediate assistance.” He took out a notepad from the inner pocket of his suit and wrote something down. Mr. Z from the corner of the room approached and took the note before turning to leave.
I swallowed the pills and drank the water Dr. Canto brought. The two men were making their notes in their files. “You’re sensitive to the spiritual?” asked Dr. Canto.
“I suppose,” I answered. “I was told I was by someone. But I – uh, you know. Never really,” I let my voice fade with a shrug. I doubted it would be a good idea to reveal anything about O’Hara’s neat contrabass to anyone, especially these two men.
“Your talents could be useful in the magical field,” said Dr. Canto. “They say those with opal eyes are able to detect concentrated magic sources in places where there is spiritual peace. They are also magically adept, like those with amethyst eyes.”
“What about emeralds?” I asked.
“Same, but … the opals tend to have personalities tended towards harmony and goodwill. We need more people in the magic field with those tendencies.”
Was their aid simply a ploy to get me on their side? I glanced at the empty cup in my hand and placed it on the table without letting go for a moment.
“You know what? I’m done. I don’t want to answer anymore questions. May I be excused?” I asked, glancing between both men. Dr. Canto opened his mouth to say something, but Dr. Thustra interrupted him. “Yes, Miss Williamson. I believe my colleague has everything he needs.” He glanced at Dr. Canto with a knowing look.
The man closed his mouth, smiled, and leaned over the table to shake my hand once more. I stood to leave and turned to find Mr. Z back in his place. For some reason, I sneaked a look at the young man still leaning against the wall. I should have asked about him, but Mr. Z already had a hand on my shoulder to take me back to my room.
~ ~ ~
He watched the glass door slowly swing shut. He turned to look at his mentor and the other doctor. The Dr. Canto had a severe expression on his face, as if someone had spit in his coffee.
“Dr. Thustra, we were getting her to open up. I understand she was suffering headaches, but she was lowering her defenses. I know she asked to leave, but ~”
“Ezio,” began Thustra in a warning tone, “I did more than look at her pain. The parts of her mind that opens to magic has begun to bloom and her mind was building pathways similar to what we’ve seen in Riders before.”
“You mean she’s already becoming one?”
“And her opal eyes will make her difficult to groom into a Dragon Knight.” His mentor put a hand to his chin in thought as Dr. Canto slipped his file away into his leather book satchel. Dr. Canto looked split between disappointment and fascination. The young man unfolded his arms to approach them.
Thustra glanced at him and asked, “You have a question, August?”
August cut a look at the door before asking, “I was wondering about the girl and what she said. She’s forgotten so much, hasn’t she?”
“Her parents, even,” agreed Canto. “Its a wonder she’ll even be able to function normally when she gets out. Will she remember basic things like how to operate a microwave or simple math?”
“Why do you ask, August?” Thustra asked, his voice sharp.
The young man stiffened. The next sentence would determine whether or not Thustra would let August shadow his mentor in public anymore. “I was curious about her faith,” he said, carefully constructing the sentence. “Is faith truly so important?”
“Yes,” Thustra answered. “And faith can turn into a dangerous thing. It can blind us and limit our potential. The so-called ‘Light’ wants to turn everyone against each other, because those who believe in the Light think they are better than those who do not.” He paused and added in a voice akin to speaking to a child, “You should know this, August.”
“I forgot,” August lied as he stepped back for Thustra to stand.
Another elf strode in, this one cloaked in dark green instead of black, a sign of his status as commander of the small troop stationed at the institute. Thustra’s face turned placid once more as he welcomed, “Ah, Commander Alpha-12. You received my note?”
“Yes, sir,” the elf replied with a small nod, his voice like a chasm. “You wished to see me?”
“I would like to have the other two children who have yielded themselves transported to the Arcane Wartime Research Center in Alaska to receive their dragons. As for the third child, I want her isolated when her mark appears and her dragon captured when it comes for her. I want both she and the dragon alive, but do not allow them to bond.”
“Yes, sir,” the elf bowed, hinging at the hip. “I will have everything arranged.”
“And send for the Director when you leave. I want to have a word with him.”
The elf bowed to the men and turned to leave, without regarding August leaning against the wall.
Dr. Canto remarked, “A live dragon would do wonders for my research. But why not allow them to bond? That doesn’t make sense.”
“Have you seen a wild dragon, doctor?” Thustra asked. August did his best not to let his brow wrinkle as he tried to imagine what one might look like. Then again, he had only ever seen Dark Dragons, so he pictured a writhing, black dragon, frothing at the mouth and attacking everything in sight.
“No, never. They’re usually eggs when presented to the Rider – at least at the ceremonies I’ve seen,” Dr. Canto replied as he hoisted his satchel a little higher.
“I have only read about them myself,” admitted the Director of Arcane-Sciences. “It is said they are like vapor, ghosts of their true forms, and tearing through magic itself. Dragons are neither physical nor spirit beings. But without their bond to their human, they are raw, uncontainable energy.”
August thought Dr. Canto would drool by the expression on his face. “That would do wonders for my experiments! Project Ether would make leaps and bounds.” His eyes glistened with possibilities flashing in his mind.
The door opened once more and the institute’s director strode in – or hobbled, more like. He busied himself with cleaning his glasses as he approached the men. “I-its an honor to finally meet you, Dr. Thustra,” he stuttered as he shook hands with the man.
Thustra simply smiled and nodded. Dr. Canto served up his big, over-enthusiastic smile. August pressed his back to the wall and stayed as still as possible to make himself invisible.
“What do you need from me?” asked the director.
“We have made arrangements with the elves,” began Thustra. “We wanted to inform you about them. I also wanted to review your doctors in charge of this … Memory therapy.” He said the words with disgust. “Whoever has been conducting the process on one patient has managed to alter her memories too much.”
“I see,” said the director. “Come to my office, then.”
As the men turned to leave the room, Thustra shot August a glance and whispered in his head, [No more questions. What have I said about speaking in public?]
August balked. [Sir, I’m sorry. I ~]
The interruption made August flinch. [No. I don’t want to hear it. Your curiosity needs to be tamed or you will never become a fully fledged mage. I will see to it.]
August put a hand to his chest as they strode into the hall and to the right, towards the sign marked ‘Stairs’ with an arrow pointing to the hall on the left. August grit his teeth and glanced out the window at the beautiful gardens.
[Of course, Teacher,] August resigned. [I forgot my place.]
[We’ll talk after this,] Thustra answered, his inner voice still sharp.
August let his mind wander as he followed the men up the stairs. He remembered the Williamson girl’s anger and fear. He hardly blamed her.