Sevardin Harker. Venday. Virgo 20th, 2344 AA. 6:52 PM. Hahamonga Reservation.
“A joke?” Sala asked.
“The joke is the first specific thing I remember about him,” Sev said.
“You’re going too far back again,” Sala protested.
“No. The joke is what made me start thinking about myself. We technically met during assessments; learned each other’s faces and names. But he didn’t make much of an impression for the first two years of training. His wyrd was just barely above average in strength, which made him pretty weak by the Amagium’s standards. He probably hit the mat more than anybody else during training. Always bounced back with some kind of joke.”
“You picked on him?” Sala asked.
Sev opened his mouth to deny it but he stopped himself. I didn’t think of myself as a bully at the time. I wasn’t deliberately trying to be mean. But back then, I did my best to assert dominance in the cohort. Every time he got back up while we were sparring—and he always got back up—I knocked him down harder. And what else can you call that, really? Everybody else did the same, but that just makes it worse.
“Yeah. I wasn’t trying to be cruel. But I thought being strong meant being able to knock everybody else down. So, I did that. A lot. One day, I hit him hard enough that I immediately felt bad about it. Bruised his wyrd and gave him a bloody nose.”
— Lunday. Scorpio 20th, 2335 AA. 11:27 AM. Arroyo Athenaeum —
Sevardin’s wyrd smashed through Juel’s barrier like a brick pitched through a shallow sheet of water. His fist didn’t actually connect with Juel’s face, but he could still feel the impact reverberate through the sorcerous surge of kinetic energy. The smaller boy’s head snapped back and he dropped to the mat on all fours. Oh man. I overdid it.
“Shit! Sorry, man. That was my bad. You good?”
Sev extended a hand to help Juel back on his feet but he gestured “no need” and raised his hand to catch the blood trickling from his nose. Aw fuck. I really hope I didn’t break his nose. My legs are still burning from conditioning this morning. I think they’ll give out if I have to run punishment sprints. Juel grinned darkly and said:
“No worries. Practice that apology as hard as those punches and you’ve got a bright career ahead of you. I hear you can un-kill somebody if you say ‘sorry’ hard enough.”
Sevardin had no idea how to respond. He wasn’t sure whether to laugh, apologize again, or throw another punch. Before he could make up his mind, Juel said he was going to the bathroom and walked away.
Sev snickered. I mean, it’s not my fault your guard was gapped and your barriers suck.But the joke kindled the spark of guilt he felt.The proctor called the end of practice and sent everybody to lunch before Juel came back. Sev ate with Simir and Geize as usual, laughing and talking with them like it was nothing. During the inevitable lulls though, he found himself wondering how many potential deathblows he had dealt since joining the Athenaeum.
Flores is just being a drama queen. People drop sometimes during training. Get over it, dude. Besides, when a malefactor is coming for you, damn straight you try to put them down with one shot. I’m not here to fuck around. I mean, you said you want to be a Keeper too, right? What the hell can you do if you can’t fight?
“That’s it?” Sala asked.
“I feel like your first distinct memory of somebody—not the first time you see them, or the first time you talk with them—but the first memory that they own in your mind… those moments tell you a lot about that person. And they tell you a lot about yourself as well. The very first thing Juel did for me was make me interrogate an ugly part of myself.”
“I can’t tell if you’re being straight with me,” Sala said. “Though if you were trying to fluff Joel, I guess you’d come up with a funnier joke.”
“Ouch!” Sev laughed. “But it’s honest truth. That joke made me wonder what I was doing at the Athenaeum. Did I really want to be a Keeper so I could kill bad guys? Heroes hurt bad people to protect good people. That’s the great lie that law enforcement uses to sell itself—amagia and asfalis alike. And I bought into it. Because that was the subtext of those bedtime stories I used to read. Thing is…”
“That’s sweet, but I still don’t think that qualifies as a rescue.”
“Not by itself. If Juel just made me question things, I’m not sure I would have come up with a good answer on my own. I might have doubled down. I might have given up. But a couple days later, we were practicing bindings…”
— Jovday. Scorpio 24th, 2335 AA. 3:13 PM. Arroyo Athenaeum —
They were in the dungeon. At least, that’s what everybody called Training Lab Six. It was located in the basement of the Arcanist’s research building, at the ass-most end of south campus. There were stone floors inlaid with metal that could be operated by switches to accommodate a number of binding rituals. Dim lighting and stale air that stank of sweat. And as for instruments of torture…
Sevardin sighed. Trial of Jars. Again.
A proctor threw clay jars with sorcery, and the aspirant needed to arrest their momentum in the air with a binding contract, then deliver them safely to the ground. All that was easy enough—but each jar had a varying amount of water in them. And you had to repeat that process until you could catch a jar without spilling a drop of the liquid within. Talk about tedious. Worst of all, if you broke the damn thing, you had to use another binding contract to piece it back together so you didn’t run out of pots. But by that point, the thing would be soaked, and that made binding damn near—
“Mis-ter Har-ker!” Master Bronte bellowed.
Fuck, I completely zoned out! The pot was already in the air. Shit, shit, shit! Sev tried to activate the binding animus in a panic and immediately botched the negotiation. The spell misfired, causing his right obliques to violently knot. As his body pitched to the side, Sev reached out with sorcery and managed to catch the jar just before it hit the stone floor. Fortunately, it held only a little bit of water, and even though it sloshed violently, not a drop escaped its short funnel. Sev sighed in relief.
“Nice catch,” Bronte said, deadpan. Then he shattered the pot with a burst of kinetic sorcery, and gestured for Sev to put it back together. “This exercise is meant to test expedient bindings. Not flashy kinetic sorcery. Pay attention next time.”
“Yes, Sir!” May you rot in hell, Sir!
Sev scooped up the wet pieces of the shattered jar, picked up two binding anima from the bin, and moved to the side of the room where Mikiel, Suelle and a couple others were struggling to piece their jars back together. Fortunately, the outside of Sev’s jar was mostly dry and the pieces were fairly large, so binding it back together would be easy enough. But I’m gonna pretend to have a tough time with it. Not like I’m in any hurry to get back in the catch line. He spent a couple seconds watching the other students take their turn.
Geize caught it with no trouble, and so did Juel. Leera managed to pull off the binding fine, but spilled some water while trying to lower her pot. Bronte started going on about how sorcery should be second nature by now, or some dumb shit. When Simir stepped up for his turn, Sev lowered his head to complete his binding, so he didn’t see the exact moment things went wrong. But he definitely felt it.
A twang of energy swept through the room, grating against Sev’s wyrd. It was a sensation somewhere between nerve pain, the maddening screech of a modern fire alarm, and an intense acrid flavor. Wrongness distilled. Other students hissed and cried out, so he knew he wasn’t alone. What the hell?
He searched for the source of the ripple only to see Simir levitating, back arched, eyes bugged and tongue lolling. Master Bronte’s ruddy face went snow white. Then Simir’s body lurched forward, in a blur and he stretched his left hand toward towards Bronte, still suspended in midair. The master went rigid and fell over as if he was struck dead. Some of the students screamed. Holy shit, what is happening?!
The proctor throwing the jars stood and immediately started casting a binding ritual. Simir waved his hand like he was shooing away a fly and the proctor’s spell immediately misfired. He fell to the ground, clawing at his neck, gasping for air, until his eyes bugged then closed.
Panic swept through the room in a wave. Students fled the dungeon, pushing past each other to reach the door. Sev started to move with the crowd. I don’t know what’s going on, but he just dropped the Master of Bindings and an eighth year Aspirant like nothing. We need help. But somebody shoulder checked him, running the opposite way. It was Juel.
“What are you doing?!” Sev demanded.
Simir was still levitating, eyes now completely obscured by currents of blue energy, bleeding from his eyes as if he was weeping fire. Whenever he turned, his eyes left lingering streaks of magic. He turned his blazing gaze on Makiel and made a grasping gesture. It arrested Makiel’s movements immediately, and then he flew backwards, and Simir caught him by the neck. With his other hand, he stroked Makiel’s cheek with a single finger. The gesture was gentle, but it left a track of scorched flesh. Makiel screamed. Simir let out an odd gagging laugh. He pointed his finger towards Makiel’s temple, and slowly started to move the tip in.
Then Simir’s hand stopped, as if repelled by a magnetic field. Juel stood, hands outstretched.
“Simir, listen to me! You’re witched! I need you to fight it!”
Sev had heard about aberrant anima before, but he had never seen it firsthand. Nobody was sure what caused it—whether it was some kind of corruption, or an urdo-allergic reaction—but anima occasionally bewitched their casters, plunging them immediately into a state of exus. It hijacked their mind and completely opened the caster’s magical floodgates at the expense of their health. The only way to combat it was to make the host lose consciousness, or wait until the animus burned itself out—but the animus would often take the caster’s life force with it.
Simir’s lip curled, eyes still bleeding fire. He dropped Makiel to the floor and violently shook his body against Juel’s binding. Makiel fled, scrambled across the floor on all fours and then broke into a sorcery-assisted run. Sevardin was yards away, but he could feel the contract straining. And with one final spasm from Simir, it snapped.
Juel immediately tried to restrain Simir, but the boy pounced on him and pinned him to the ground. On instinct, Sevardin fired a bolt of kinetic energy from across the room. Up close, it would have been a hell of a hit, but from that distance, it was like chucking a pebble at somebody. Simir looked up from Juel and snarled at Sev.
The distraction bought Juel about two seconds. He used the window to cast a second desperate binding. Again, Simir quivered, straining to move against the spell.
Sev ran up to Juel and yanked him out from underneath Simir’s semi-paralyzed body.
“We gotta go!”
But Juel broke Sev’s grasp and ran for the bin of binding anima.
“Help me bind him!” Juel said.
Sev looked at him with open-mouthed disbelief, but saw that Simir had nearly broken free again. He activated the binding animus in his right cuff and performed a series of gestures to layer a second binding onto Juel’s failing spell. Juel had slotted another animus in his license, and followed up with a third binding spell. Simir made choked, gargling noise.
“That’s good! Now let’s go!”
Juel whirled around, and for the first time ever, he seemed pissed off:
“If the masters find him like this, they will kill him! If we can hold him, he will live!”
Without waiting for Sev’s rejection, he grabbed another animus. Sevardin was tempted to run. But I saved his ass once already. Can’t cut loose just yet. Sev also went to the bin and cast another binding contract. His wyrd was still acclimating to the rush of contract magic, and his head swam with euphoric synesthesia. He started to hear whispers in a language he did not speak, but understood all the same. A voice whispered in his head. “Keep going. Embrace the power.”
Sev knew it was exus. If he kept going, he would be nearly as bad off as Simir. And Juel has to be even closer. His wyrd isn’t as strong as mine. But as Sevardin stepped away, Juel grabbed two more anima, slotting one in each license. Is he seriously going to try a double binding?
Simir continued struggling, somehow still powerful enough to break through the layers of kinetic barriers and restraining contracts they had placed on him.
Juel cast his spell, crying out with exertion. It’s gonna break him.
“Stay with me, Juel!” Sevardin shouted, and channeled his wyrd into Juel’s, lending him all the sorcerous power he could manage. It was an odd technique; one that was generally inefficient. Once ethereal energy entered a person’s wyrd, it was imprinted to them. People could share that power with others, but most of its potency would be lost in translation.
This time, however, it was enough.
Juel’s double binding pressed down on Simir like a column of focused gravity. The blue fire faded from his bugged eyes, which finally fluttered shut. Sev ran to Bronte and checked his pulse. The Master of Bindings was still breathing but out cold. Juel did the same to the proctor, and gave Sev a thumbs up.
Both of them dropped to the floor, soaked with sweat and breathing hard.
“When did you start practicing double contracts?” Sev asked.
“Just now, I guess,” Juel said.
Sev barked a laugh.
“You know you’re crazy, right?”
“Probably,” Juel conceded.
There was a long pause as they waited for help to arrive. Finally, Juel spoke up:
“My father has been a Keeper for 50 years. He’s fought fae, slain monsters, and has more arrests than he can count. One of the first Latinos in Arroyo to ever become a Keeper. But he’s never killed a human. Never been written up for brutality, either. And he is directly responsible for saving thirty-seven lives.”
“That’s awesome,” Sev said.
“Yeah. It is,” Juel said, smiling. “I want to break his record. And I don’t see the point in waiting until I join the force to get started.”
“He gave me a taste of true heroism. The night after we bound Simir, the Athenaeum gave us permission to eat out with our families, so I suggested we eat together. That’s where I met Juel’s father, Ajola. And that introduction? Well. Like I said earlier, the Master they assigned to me as a mentor was a piece of work. Having an idol to look up to—an example of what an amagia should be… that was huge.
Sev remembered the night clearly.
“He shared a lot of stories that night. Ajola is a much better storyteller than me. Great at capturing… the imperatives, of those kinds of situations. And that sense of relief that comes at the end… The satisfaction of knowing everybody will make it home that night? That’s what keeps me going. That’s what I’m chasing.”
Sev didn’t know what to say next. Even to him it sounded like boasting. But it was true. When he turned to face Sala, she wore a crestfallen expression that gave way to a sad smile.
“I think you’re in the wrong line of work.”
Sev’s heart sank. No. The fact that you think that kills me. I know Amagia haven’t been the good guys for a long time. But we can get there. Exemptions are getting more generous. We can live up to the potential of our promise. Sala cut him off before he could say anything else:
“One more question, then I promise we can go back to talking about music, or the weather, or whatever other dumb shit people talk about when they are getting to know each other.”
“No rush,” Sev said.
“Okay. So… What if the Amagium makes you do something bad? What if you have to shoot somebody to survive, and it’s just one of those people in a bad situation?”
Sevardin took a deep breath.
“There’s no good answer there. If my life, or my partners’ lives are on the line, I’ll do what I have to do to protect us. But I’m prepared to carry the consequences for the rest of my life, as long as I get the opportunity to try and find a better way first.”
Sala considered Sev’s words for a long moment, probing his expression with her hazel eyes.
“You practice that answer?”
“No. I mean, I’ve thought about that sort of thing before, but nobody’s ever asked me out loud and point blank.”
“See? That’s exactly the kind of question they should ask you in wizard cop school.”
“Again. That’s why Juel and his father, Ajola, are so important to me.”
“I hope Juel’s buying you beer or something. You’re an ace wingman.”
“He promised me the company of a beautiful woman for an evening, and he didn’t disappoint.”
Sala snorted and gave him an irritated look.
“Then you say something too slick for your own good again. I thought this wasn’t a date?”
Sev chuckled and shrugged sheepishly.
“It’s not! I mean, unless you want it to be. Then it is absolutely a date.”
She plucked a piece of popcorn from her cup and tossed it at him. He caught it with his wyrd and bit it out of the air, winking. She tsked and splashed the remained of the cup at him, showering him with the few remaining pieces and stray kernels.
He laughed, she laughed, and things started to look up from there.
— 11:40 PM. Hahamonga Reservation —
They hit the midway after Juel and Elamni returned from their rides. Target rifles. Ball courses, which required players to guide a weighted sphere through a mechanical maze with nothing but their wyrd. The carnival attendants gave Sev and Juel dirty looks when he noticed their silver licenses and said each of them could play, but only one time.
Sev and Juel raced through the course, each clearing it with the highest score possible and finishing near-simultaneously. Well, Juel was a half second ahead of me. But I was still close!
Technically, the carnival barker could have refused their business from the start—asfalis law allowed businesses to refuse service to amagia, bar them from competitions, and other sundry restrictions—on top of the Amagium’s strictures against holding religious or governmental titles.
They talked and joked as a foursome, ate guilty pleasures, and generally carried on until the fair announced it was closing. Sev was surprised how late it was when he checked his watch. I’m not ready for this to be done.
Elamni pulled Sala aside as they left, and the two started to have some sort of brief argument. Her gestures and emanations suggested she was pleading with Sala.
“What do you think of Sala, man?” Juel asked Sev.
“She’s gorgeous. Clever. Fun,” Sev listed, then stared deadpan at Juel. “And she hates amagia.”
“I… don’t know what to tell you. Elamni said she liked your picture!” Juel said defensively.
“Faen truth, maybe. But she only came along because she didn’t want her friend meeting a random guy on her own.”
“I mean, you seemed to get along well enough.”
“Don’t get me wrong: I had a really good time. But at the beginning of the evening? She was ready to jet. Had to go through the third degree to put her at ease.”
“Sorry, man.” Juel said, then asked a second later: “You think you have a shot?”
Before answering, Sev looked at the women and studied Sala’s face from afar. Judging from her expression, whatever Elamni was asking had her exasperated and put upon, but also slightly amused. She repeatedly gestured “no,” even though her emanations were more along the lines of “persuade me.” Elamni embraced Sala, who made a point of not reciprocating. When Elamni pulled away, Sala laughed and said something which made Elamni hug her again.
“Maybe,” Sev told Juel.
“Would you be so kind as to drive me home, Juel?” Elamni asked when she walked back. “Sala and I shared a cab to get here and…”
Juel was standing still, but still appeared to trip over himself in a hurry to say “yes.” Sev gave him a nod of approval. Yes. Very smooth. Then he shook his head and turned to Sala:
“You also need a lift then?”
“Yeah, apparently!” Sala said, crossing her arms and giving the couple a serious side-eye.
“Love you! You’re the best!” Elamni said brightly, giving her friend another hug. “And thank you for putting up with her,” she said to Sev, standing on her tip toes to peck his cheek.
Sev placed both hands on his heart and bowed his head, emanating humility. Juel gave Sala an abrupt hug, told her he was happy to meet her, and pulled away so quickly that she was too startled and confused to be properly offended. Then the happy couple walked off into the night, arms linked.
“Gross,” Sala said.
“Yeah, have some shame,” Sev agreed.
“Have some decency!” Sala said, raising her fist in the air like a preacher.
He smiled, looking away quick even though his eyes wanted to linger long enough to meet hers. Damn, girl. I really kinda like you.
He started leading Sala to his bike, when an important question occurred to him:
“You ever been on a motorcycle before?”
In response, Sala stopped walking, eyes wide as a doe’s in the face of an oncoming semi. Sev snickered and scratched his temple.
“I’m guessing Elamni neglected to mention that I drive a motorcycle.”
“Yeah. Must have slipped her thirsty head,” Sala muttered.
“Let’s call you a cab,” Sev said, laughing.
“I mean, my home’s only like two blocks away. But do you have an extra helmet?”
“I do not. But I can still protect your head.”
Sevardin held up his right wrist, and gestured to his license to request permission to cast magic on her. She hesitated and then nodded.
He thanked her, then reached out with his wyrd, activating the kinetic anima in his license. The cloudy glass orb flared to life in a brilliant mix of cyan and green. The spirit inside it was eager and accommodating, asking only for a few quick arcane gestures, which Sev satisfied easily. The orb glowed even brighter, finally flashing and releasing a thick, green current of energy that rapidly spun around Sala’s head, before disappearing.
“Whoa. What did you do?” she asked, as the spell merged with her wyrd.
“Barrier contract. When it’s cast on a person’s whole body, it’s intended to be strong enough to stop an incoming bullet. But I layered all of it around your head, so you should be better protected than me.”
She looked at him skeptically, and reached her hands toward her face.
“I don’t feel any different. I mean, I can tell there’s something in my wyrd, but…”
“Try moving your hand toward your forehead. Quickly.”
Sala complied. There was a cyan-tinged ripple in the air around her brow that abruptly stopped her wrist. When she pushed, the barrier swept her arm aside, as if repelling it with magnetism.
“Oh. Wow.” Sala tried to touch her face several times at varying speed, laughing whenever her wrist bounced off the shimmering shield. “How long will this last?”
“Normally, it lasts until the spirit powering it gets used up by impact. With the field spread across your entire body, it can withstand about a gunshot’s worth of kinetic energy. It’s stronger when it’s layered over a smaller area though.”
“That doesn’t answer my question! How long ‘til I don’t have to worry about touching my face at the wrong speed?”
“I’ll release the spell as soon as we get to your house.”
Sala followed Sev to his bike. When he climbed aboard it, she whistled appreciatively and emanated awe. He smiled and raised an eyebrow, unsure if she was being sarcastic. She giggled and gave him a sheepish smile.
“I mean, I don’t know shit about bikes, but I can tell you take good care of it.”
Again, Sev chuckled. He patted the leather on the rear half of the seat and said:
She climbed aboard hugging her carnival prize—a stuffed owlbear—between them. They drove silently, save for the engine’s purr and the rush of air. Sev tried to take the drive as gently as possible, as Sala clung to his back.
When he pulled up to her house, he killed the engine and helped her off the vehicle.
“Well, that’s something to check off the bucket list,” Sala laughed.
“It grows on you,” Sev promised as he walked her to the door.
Sala tilted her head to the side.
“Not me. My pharmacist friend has told me way too many horror stories to make that a habit. But thanks for the taste. And the fun night. As awkward blind dates go, that wasn’t bad.
“So, it’s back to being a date, now?” Sev grinned.
Sala rolled her eyes and gave a conflicted sigh.
“If we have to call it something.”
“Then I don’t suppose I could see you again some time?”
The small taste of flirtation had awakened a deep appetite in Sev. He liked women that challenged him and Sala managed to catch him off-guard more than once. He wanted to get to know her better.
But the answer was plain on her face. Back to square one. Polite, strained apprehension, preceded by a flash of naked horror. She recomposed herself quickly, pausing a second before answering.
“Lami and Juel seem head over heels for each other. So, I’m sure you’ll see me around. But I’m not really looking for a relationship right now.”
Sev smiled and nodded, as if his ribs hadn’t crushed his heart like a fist. It didn’t hurt enough to show on his face. At least, not immediately. He knew the weight of rejection would grow as the lonely night pressed in on him. And the worst part is, I will wonder whether it was something I did wrong, or because I’m an amagia, or because she really doesn’t want to date anybody. Maybe all of the above.
Any one of those answers would be valid. The situation was completely fair.
But it still hurts.
He gave her a warm smile and a quick two-fingered salute before putting his helmet back on.
“See you around, Sala.”
“See you around, Sev.”