Chapters:

Undecided & Anonymous

UNDECIDED

Undecided is such a depressing word. I decided to go to college, decided to do it far enough away from home that I don’t have to live there, decided to live off campus, and I decided to work full-time to cover my rent. They may not have been the best decisions, but I made them.

And yet, not choosing a major immediately upon starting classes makes me undecided.

I am not undecided, I’m just… playing my options.

I’m also late to work, but I blame that on the lecture running long, the horrible Tampa traffic, the three near accidents (only one was my fault, I promise!), and my decision to work and go to school full time. That decision wasn’t a good one, but I’m not giving up yet.

The smell of coffee beans and pastries attacked me when I opened the door to the little coffee shop a few blocks from campus. It reminded me of home. Dad was a professor before he retired, and always had coffee and donuts in the house.

“You’re late.” Asif lifted his head from a latte machine to berate me over the counter.

“And you’ll deal with it today, because it’s the last time it will ever happen.” I lied. I tried to dodge customers while I tied my apron on without getting it tangled in my backpack.

“You say that every day.”

“And every day I mean it.”

“Perhaps you should call when you’re going to be late.” Asif returned to his work. “Oh, wait. You don’t have a phone.”

“Perhaps you should pay me enough to get one.”

Asif was a good manager, and as often as I was a few minutes late, I was more reliable than the revolving door of barista and bro-rista part-timers.

“Whatever you say. Keep it up and I’ll drop one of your shifts and give it to the new girl, what’sername.”

“Christine, and she doesn’t even know how to push start on the espresso machine,” I dropped my backpack and almost fell over when the straps caught on the apron they were now tied to. “Ugh!” I grunted, and set to fixing the tangled mess.

“Whatevah. Trial by fire.” Asif’s slight accent always made me smile when he said “whatevah”. It was like a mix of the Bronx that is so stereotyped on TV and his Pakistani heritage all in one word.

“You won’t do it. Everyone and their mothers needs an espresso shot or two in their lattes. Or in their mocha fraps, like this guy.” I pointed my thumb over my shoulder.

“Uh, a mocha frap, please.” Came a voice from the counter, “and… a blueberry scone.”

“How do you do that?” Asif knotted his brow with wide eyes.

I shrugged, “It’s a gift.”

“You’d make more money rusing people with that gift in New York, but I’ll take it. Now get to work.”

My “gift” we referred to was sort of like telling the future, but it didn’t always happen and I only saw a few seconds ahead. Also, I didn’t really see anything. It was more like a jumble of words mashed together that I could make sense of through some sort of abstract thought. It also made it difficult to make friends.

The stronger my connection to a person or the more heightened my emotions, the more I could “read” from them and the area. That didn’t go over well for dating when all the guys I got close to would think about was getting in my pants or their other girlfriends, and most of my friends drifted off during, not after high-school. But Asif never seemed put off or drifty.

Mostly I keep it quiet, but when you hang around me enough, my “gift” is bound to rear its ugly head. Asif found out through one such slip-up, and then nodded in approval and what seemed like understanding.

“I saw bigfoot once.” He said, as if that settled it.

Back in the present, I grabbed the mocha frap and read the name off the cup. Funny, he didn’t look like someone who went by his last name.

“Jackson!” I yelled out.

Mr. Jackson held up a stylus for one of those oversized smart phones as if I should just bring it to him. For some reason I did just that. What can I say, I’m weird.

“Jackson?” I asked as I stood next to his table.

He grunted an affirmative and looked up to grab the cup, leaving some strange words and shapes that he was drawing on the large screen. He was kinda cute. I mean if he would shave that shaggy beard, trim his hair, and dress in something other than a zip-up hoodie and band shirt, he could be cute.

I smiled as cute as I could. Maybe he was a tipper. His wallet was on the table after all.

He took the cup and returned to his phone. So much for that.

As I walked back to the counter, I glanced over to the reflective window to get another look at him. Yeah, I’m that bad. I couldn’t see the screen in the reflection, but it looked like he drew a shape on it, then tapped his cup with the stylus.

A thin line of lightning arced from his stylus to the cup, and no one else noticed. I felt a slight chill in the air, looked at his face, and saw his eyes wide with shock.

Then I was falling with a face full of brown curls. I had tripped on something. It was all happening in slow motion. At least in my head it was.

I brushed the hair out of my face, but I couldn’t see what I had tripped over. Nothing was there. That’s pretty bad, even for me. Asif rushed over to make sure I was alright, or at least that there wouldn’t be a worker’s comp claim.

“You sure you’re alright?” he asked again.

“Yeah, my fault. I’m a klutz.” I assured him, “Nice to see you care.” I poked him in the shoulder.

“I don’t, I just don’t have someone to replace you… yet.” He didn’t mean it.

I got myself back together just in time to hear the door chime. Mr. Jackson had left. So much for whatever the hell that was. I brushed it off as something to do with my “gift”, then brushed myself off and got back to work.

The rest of my shift was typical fare for a coffee house: random jerks who think their latte is the most important thing in the world peppered with college students and soccer moms. The second two groups do also have a significant overlap with the first.

Before I could leave, Asif read me the food service riot act, but let me take home stale pastries they couldn’t sell.

Mmm, jelly rolls.

Just as I was about to make my escape, Asif called out.

“Hailey, aren’t you forgetting something?

“I did the dishes, garbage and floors. You can do the bathrooms.” I slumped my shoulders and sighed.

“No, not that,” he replied, “Your bag.”

I looked around and I couldn’t find it, and it wasn’t on my back. Yes, I checked there.

“Did someone take it?” Asif asked. Duh, of course. Where else would it go?

“Maybe it was bigfoot?” I suggested, just to pick back. “I’m sure it will turn up.” I lied, more to myself than to Asif.

I was just too tired to put any effort into it now. I waved farewell and took my consolation prize of stale pastries with me. It was good to have them. I needed consoling.

Time for some stress eating. Get over here, jelly!

I had devoured two before I started my car in the dark parking lot. I drove off to find Highway 275 and my way to that shitty place I called home. Hopefully my roommate Amy was awake, I needed to vent.

That and her snoring makes it hard to sleep.

ANONYMOUS

“Hi, my name is… well that’s… call me… ‘Bob’.” A lone voice, a little timid, probably the skinny guy across from me.

“Hi ‘Bob’.” The crowded circle spoke in near unison, echoing off the gymnasium walls and high girded ceiling. You could actually hear the quotation marks spoken. Seriously.

At least in my voice you could hear them. I kept my hood up, head down, and eyes closed. I was trying to listen. I get distracted by my eyes too easily when I’m bored, and my mind wanders. I needed to report back on this to prove I came here, so I needed to pay attention.

“… and I’m… addicted… to magic.” His timidity was annoying me, so I glanced.

Damn, I was wrong. It was the gorilla in the polo shirt sitting next to the skinny guy. His voice and body shape reminded me of the fat guy from “Fight Club” who had ball cancer or something.

He was probably a troll. Not the internet kind, or the type who dress in polo shirts and treat women like shit, but the actual kind that live under bridges. An aethling.

Contrary to the stories, trolls are more timid by nature, but just as large and ugly as you’d expect. The human body was just a natural glamour that most aethlings can control to some extent. I didn’t feel like peeking through the aether to confirm my theory. Too much work. But here I am distracted, see?

“It’s been two months since I touched it.”

I clapped half-heartedly with the others in the circle. The chair looked weak under “Bob”. Was it bending? Distracted again. I closed my eyes to focus.

“Bob” went into his sob story of using the aether for little things in his youth until he discovered the Feedback. Aethlings and some humans can access the aether to do things like move an object with their minds, or if they can metabolize the aether, they can cast spells. Very few humans can do either, though.

Feedback is when the caster messes up on some level of major spellcasting and the aether hits them without the filter of magic. Side effects include (but are not limited to): vivid hallucinations, nausea, cotton mouth, sudden onset narcolepsy, loss of hair color, loss of hair, blindness, erectile dysfunction, priapism, and death.

But mostly it just gets you really high.

Small feedbacks can just feel like a swarm of bees balled up into a fist and punched you in the face, so usually I try to avoid them, let alone do it on purpose. So no, Feedback addiction was not why I was there.

Bob (I guess I should drop the quotations, they do seem a bit rude) wrapped up his sob story and the golf clap returned. I opened my eyes again.

A man who was way too pretty stood up, with long straight hair cascading in a waterfall of gold around him. Another aethling. Probably some form of fairy or elf. Are we the only humans here?

“Thank you, uh, ‘Bob’.” Quotations are rude, dude. “Thank you for sharing.” He continued his light clap, then led the meeting. His voice was soft, sweet, and seductive, but also controlling somehow. Definitely a fairy.

“We have time for one more share.” He paused, waiting for someone to volunteer. “Anyone?” A few more beats.

One more ass’s sob story and I could leave. Just a few more minutes. I tensed up, waiting. Then stood bolt upright.

Something had pinched my ass. I looked back and saw a hot ember in my chair, so I guess I was burned and not pinched. The guy to my left was staring daggers at me. He was a childhood friend who trained with me, fought with me, and grew with me, and now, Isinio was my parole officer, of sorts.

“Yeah, yeah.” I mumbled, and turned around to address the circle.

I was hoping to just be a fly on the wall here. Not literally, of course, I’m no good at transfiguration.

“Hi, I’m Jackson.” No need for false names, I didn’t care. My eyes darted around the circle, trying to identify who was around me.

Skinny guy, Bob, a gnome who thought he was infected with lycanthropy (He wasn’t. Aethlings are immune.) so he couldn’t use his glamour, a whole slew of dirty looking guys, that fairy, Isinio, and myself. Distracted.

I closed my eyes. Focus.

“Hi, Jackson.” The crowd repeated. No quotations this time.

“I don’treally wantto behere.” I spoke faster than I needed to. I do that when I’m nervous, and words blend together. “AndIdon’t wantto dothisbut getcaught breakingthelaw andOW!”

Isinio kicked me. I glared at him.

“I got caught buying black market drugs. Tranquility was my choice.” I took a deep breath while the others marinated on my revelation. “I was in a situation where… Let’s just say magic was a required skill. It turned bad, and I had trouble adapting to civilian life. I couldn’t get through a night without nightmares, and the tranquility helped me.”

I saw Bob screw his faced up, confused, and he started mouthing some things. Like he was trying to thinking out loud. I can’t lip read, but trolls are slow, so it’s hard to understand them either way.

“It’s not as bad as feedback, but I guess talking about it in groups is supposed to help.” I glanced at Isinio, and he nodded, so I continued.

“When you do things the same way for a while, it’s hard to break the habit…”

“You said ‘civilian’.” Bob interrupted.

“Yeah, so?” I raised a single eyebrow.

Isinio shifted in his seat. He looked coiled and ready to strike. He was always better at reading situations that I was. I guess I should pay more attention to that.

“Bob, you had your time. Please let Jackson continue.” The fairy tried to calm things down.

Bob stood up, knocking over his chair and pointed on of his ham-fist fingers at me.

“You said ‘civilian’!” We established that already, get on with your accusation. “You were Core!”

I stood a little dumbfounded. Trolls are slow, not stupid. There we have it, though. My cover is blown. Time to go.

Bob’s skin was changing color from pale-pink and fluffy to blue-green and flabby. “The Core took my brother!” His fat now shifted into muscle… mostly, and his lower canines protruded from a now under bit jaw.

Did I mention you should never make a troll angry? I probably should have lead with that.

He charged at me, roaring like an elephant. Also, don’t compare them to elephants. Out loud anyway.

His fist stopped just short of my stupid, slack-jawed face, and the fairy spoke calmly, but with urgency.

“That’s enough, ‘Bob’.” Yes, he used the quotations again. “We don’t judge others pasts here.”

So, he was a telekinetic fairy. Wonderful. At least he was on my side.

“I’m sure Jackson no longer supports the Core, or the Octa.” Well, at least I thought he was on my side.

Bob’s fist slipped through hold, and then stopped again. Either Bob was strong enough to break telekinesis, or the fairy was trying to threaten me. Probably both, but neither was a good thought.

Isinio grabbed me by the arm and started to drag me out. “Aaaand, we’re gone. Nice meeting you all.” He turned to the frozen angry troll face and nodded, “Bob.” then ran.

We hurried out of the gymnasium and shut the door on the angry elephant roar. The heat hit me almost as hard as Bob would have. I pulled back the hood and unzipped my sweater. Damn Florida weather!

“Well, that certainly makes me want to avoid drugs.” I joked, “Or at least angry aethlings. A spell or two would have helped back there.”

“Don’t be even more of an idiot. I’m just glad you didn’t say the Octa were the ones who sent you here in the first place!”

“Still, can I have my phone back?”

We were walking through a dilapidated playground on our way to the parking lot, and Isinio pulled my oversized smart phone out of his trench coat and handed it to me. It felt good to have in my hands again, like a toddler with his favorite blanket.

“They shouldn’t make me do this, or at least let me do it in another state! It’s too damn hot here!” Yeah I can be a whiny bitch sometimes, “How do you wear that thing?”

Isinio spread his coat a little and did a twirl like a model.

“Oh, this thing?” he asked innocently, “It’s enchanted to keep my temperature regulated.” He looked back at me, “You know, subtle magic.”

Braggart. Isinio was good with the quiet magic that could be used in public without the populous freaking out. I… was not. But I could figure this out.

“I need that for my hoodie, would be better than the wind shield I use now.”

“That wind shield is a nice piece of work, and it stops debris from hitting you on that monster.” Isinio gave me a compliment. That’s odd.

“Hey, Inverness isn’t a monster! She’s a vintage Harley.”

“Vintage? I’d be surprised if there’s an original part on it. It’s pretty beat up.”

I crossed his path and he stopped.

She’s not beat up. She’s got character. Stories to tell.” I glanced at my motorcycle, “Uh, maybe a few dings.”

She was beat up.

Cracked concrete under our feet threatened to open up and swallow us whole as we entered the parking lot. I could see the rest of the group leaving the building from here.

Skinny guy switched sides of Bob when he noticed me to keep the troll from seeing me. I started thinking of him hulking out and rampaging.

“You know doing this for you is delaying my initiation into the Knaves order.” Isinio brought me back to reality. “I’ll be stuck as a Watcher forever if you don’t pull through.”

“Right, don’t want to be a probation officer for washed up military mages forever.”

The Knaves and Watchers were two parts of the localized magical police force triad. Watchers were long distance tactical mages who did more recon and keeping tabs on people than anything, and were the lowest ranked. Knights were the second part. More brute force than finesse, but useful if you need to storm a drug ring or underground magical mafia (yes, they exist).

Last was the order of the Knaves. Kind of like magical detectives. They handle investigations and anything that needs a more delicate touch, but they have to be able to use force when necessary. They recruit from both the Watchers and the Knights, and together they all make up the Drummers.

They didn’t choose the name. In fact, they never had a name till the aethlings they used to round up said they got beat like drums, and the name stuck. Humans suck at race relations.

“Hey,” Isinio offered a hand, “We’re not all bad. Most of us. Maybe.” He didn’t look at my spells that means. But it also means he tried. I shook his hand. “I’ll be watching. Maybe.” He winked.

Great. They will be randomly scrying on me. But the wink and the “maybe” keyed me in that it should be lazily.

“Remember, Jackson, try to stay out of trouble. For both our sakes.”

I nodded. When he walked away, I told my GPS to take me to the nearest coffee shop, and locked the phone into my handlebar mount.

“Time to go, my valiant steed.”

I kicked Inverness to life, and drove onto the Florida roads. It didn’t take long, and I was nearly hit only once on my way (which is like a record or something in this state), but the GPS took me on a wonky rout that was longer than it needed to be.

When I pulled into the parking lot, I could swear I saw the car that almost hit me. Doesn’t matter, no time to get distracted. I needed coffee, and those meetings are scheduled way too early for me.

Yes, 3 PM is too early. Sometimes. Today was one of those days.

When I got off Inverness, I started drawing lines on my phone: Circles and words jumbled together in a way that makes no sense to anyone but those versed in that form of spell code. Just like computer code. Sort of. Not really. Okay, it’s partly true.

I stepped inside the mom and pop Starbucks knock-off and weaved between the jerky businessmen, soccer moms, and college kids.

Kids is a loose term. I’m barely older than most of them at 23, but I’ve lived a crazy adventure life and I’ve been overseas for the most of the last 4 years, so I feel older.

Inside I order a mocha frap and a blueberry scone. I’m not sure which caused it, the scone or the latte, but the Middle Eastern guy behind the counter looked at me like I was a ghost. Or maybe he just recognized me from somewhere. I forget people sometimes. Okay, a lot. No matter.

I sat down in one of those annoying plastic booths suspended by metal rods that were bolted to the ground, and continued my spell work. I was trying to figure out temperature regulation. Isinio’s coat got me thinking, and since no one likes to share their work without incentives, I had to figure out my own version for my hoodie. That would make it great for everything. All.The.Things.

Especially in Florida.

I had just finished when someone next to me said my name. They may have said it earlier, and I may have raised my hand. I’m not entirely sure. The spell work had me distracted.

Speaking of distractions, the barista with my drink was cute. She wasn’t tall, she wasn’t skinny, she had a round face and hazel eyes with a sweet smile and the messy hair girls hate no matter how many times guys say they love it. She was also wearing a V-neck shirt that showed just enough that I had to concentrate on not staring, what with them at eye level and all.

I took the drink before I could choke. Maybe I’ll ask for her number later. I couldn’t see her name tag under her hair.

I quickly calibrated the spell for cooling down a coffee. Before I made an algorithm for “optimal temperature”, I thought I should test the “control” part of the spell on coffee, or I might get turned into an ice cube when hit with a hot wind.

Circle magic works much like computer programming in that you set your parameters and activate the spell. In this case I want it to take a comfortable temperature of 98 degrees Fahrenheit and if the temperature is above that, lower the temperature, or if it is below that, raise the temperature. In computer terms, a simple “If/Then” statement, but in circles, symbols and random language gibberish instead of… well… computer language gibberish.

Putting a simple spell like that into my coat would drop me for at least a day, though, so I’ll keep it simple and activate it once on the coffee itself. This is also the reason I got the scone. Magic effects your metabolism and your physical energy, so I need something to recover with.

Most spells require a written or drawn spell, or spoken words that activate the effect. This is why wizards carry spell books and flip pages to what they want to use. Others need sacrificial objects like a crystal or something stupid, but all need a focus. A wand or staff is what the wizards of old used, but modern practitioners discovered it just has to be a rare material. If it was once living, it makes it even better (kinda gross, but better), so bogwood and fossilized bones are great, but can also be fairly fragile. I like titanium, though. It’s easy to get a hold of, not too expensive, and incredibly durable, which when you’re an idiot who breaks things comes in handy.

There are other kinds of magic, too, like spoken and hand symbol stuff, but I’m really bad at those. Circle magic is both the entry level skill, and the thing that can be so complicated great minds get stumped trying to decipher or create it.

So, with my formula calculated and input into my phone, I swiped a shape into my screen on a custom spell book app, mutter a few words, and then tap the cup with my titanium stylus. The spell worked flawlessly.

Hey, that was a surprise to me. I usually muck it up a few times before I get it right. And now that I think about it, doing it here was a potentially dangerous idea.

Once it was done, I looked into the reflective window hoping to catch another look at the barista. Hey, she was cute. Don’t judge.

She was looking at me. Score. Wait. Not me. At what I did. My spell. She saw. Anti-score? Negative score?

Whatever it was, it was bad, and I panicked. The situation was no longer “potentially” dangerous.

I grabbed all my stuff, except my perfectly cooled coffee which I downed. My phone, stylus, wallet on the table (glad I noticed that), and my bag.

I threw my bag around my shoulders (Damn, it was heavier than I remember) and ran out to Inverness, who willingly started to help my escape.

Driving through the streets, the bag was throwing me off balance. Why was it so much heavier than I remember? Hopefully the Watchers weren’t scrying just yet, I didn’t want to add “public use of magic” to my rap sheet. It hadn’t been long enough for Isinio to get back to work yet, had it?

Why the hell was this bag so damn heavy?

I looked in my mirror to check for cars and noticed the neon pink attached to my bags black straps. Since when did I have a pink bag? Hell, since when did I have a bag?

Shit. I stole a bag.