The jungle was lush and verdant, dense with life and beauty. A palate of greens ranging through every conceivable shade, the greatest diversity of plant and animal life anywhere on the planet.
That selfsame richness served to cover an intense and violent competition for resources that never ceased. Plant versus plant, plant versus insect versus bird, reptile, mammal, and amphibian. Fungus versus everything. Life cycles as short as a day and as long as centuries.
And deep in the thickest, densest part of the biggest stretch of unbroken rain forest, the oldest, largest tree on the planet dominated all. Stretching up over four hundred feet tall, the ancient tree loomed up out of the canopy like a dark green island in a sea of lighter greens. At least that’s how it appeared to the flyer as she approached from the north. Clinging tightly to the leathery back of her ride, her eyes were locked on the sight of the giant pendara tree that was, in every way possible, her home. In fact, her people had named it the Home Tree for that very reason.
High-pitched cries of warning screamed out from the top branches of the massive growth and her flyer screamed back in greeting. Closer now, she could see the shapes of roosting dactilyns shuffling about amongst the thick leaves of the forest giant. Her dactilyn pumped its long, leathery wings faster, rushing the last few units of distance, excited to gain the safety of its flock and to rest its tired body.
She let go of the reins, giving the beast its head, knowing that the weaving, bobbing flight through the outermost branches was much too complex for even a seasoned pilot as herself to attempt. The dactilyn’s specialized brain would easily make the thousands of intricate calculations and split-second course corrections that would swoop, jerk, dart, and shift them through the hard, thorn-covered branches that crowned the giant tree.
Clutching the riding harness, she gave herself over to the last crazy life-and-death moments of her ride, grinning like a child at the predictable rush of adrenaline that flooded her body.
The dactilyn finished a final set of particularly stomach-twisting maneuvers, ending by grabbing its chosen branch with both feet, sharp talons barely piercing the dense bark. The pilot ended her flight hanging from the back of her dactilyn as it stood upright after landing. Deftly unhooking herself from the harness, she lightly dropped down to the branch before reaching up to grab her pack. A pair of tenders approached, giving her a respectful bow before stepping up to settle the great beast and remove its flight harness, careful to avoid the toothy jaws. She nodded back at them, accepting their deference as her rightful due. Giving the beast a pat, she stepped lightly down the branch, the tenders quickly moving out of her way.
The highest branches of the pendara were exposed to much more wind than was ever present below the top of the jungle canopy, and the gales of fresh air shook her living pathway as she moved along its length. Despite the swaying of the branch and the sharp buffets of air, she moved easily, never in danger of falling. The branch grew thicker as she got closer to the central trunk and a series of thick vines appeared, stretching down from the top of the tree, disappearing into the green and brown sea below. She grabbed a vine, stepped off her branch, and slid skillfully down past many more layers of tree, the radiating limbs getting bigger and thicker as she dropped past them. Each level was populated by more and more of her people, and every one of them stopped to bow as she came sliding down the living ladder.
Halfway to her goal, she began to sense she was being watched by more than just the visible inhabitants of the Home Tree. It was instinct really, just a feeling, but one honed by years of experience. That subtle lift of hair on the back of the neck, a reflex that she knew tied her to those apes on Earth. There was value in such baser biology, an inherent utility that not all of her people would admit to or give credence to. But just as her faithful dactilyn had navigated the deadly thorns of the Home Tree’s branches, her finely tuned instincts warned her of invisible dangers.
The feeling grew the closer she got to the main level, which occupied a particularly wide branching of the Home Tree’s trunk roughly two-thirds of the way up. It helped that she knew damned well what was lurking in the green bowers of the tree. She had, after all, trained those very watchers.
Arriving at her destination, she ignored the approach of her mother’s servants, looking out over their bowing backs to the bark of the main trunk, to the thickets of broad leaves beyond. “Better, Sillian,” she said to a section of green and brown foliage. After a couple of seconds, the vegetation moved, stepping out to become first a biped, then resolving into a dangerous-looking male of her people.
“How did you know, Princess?” he asked.
“You’re blocking part of the air flowing out of my mother’s chambers. It’s a subtle detail but exactly the type of thing an assassin would be trained to notice. You must blade your body more sideways and not just depend on the living camouflage of your armor,” she said, poking a finger at the now shiny blue surface of his chitinous body suit.
“Yes, Princess.” He bowed before stepping back to seemingly disappear into the jungle tree’s growth.
Eirwen, Princess of Summer, gave herself a mental nod. There were other watchers all around, better hidden, and her soft rebuke of their fellow would reinforce her standing among all the Hunters of Summer. Perception was always key in the deadly Summer Court, and especially so among the defenders of the queen.
She moved closer to the trunk, seeming to almost be in danger of running into it, but instead stepped into a staggered offset opening that was, like the guards, hidden in plain sight by the very bark and wood it was made from. Stepping into the dip in the trunk, she turned right, into the entrance to her mother’s Court. The way was dark, but her feet unerringly found the path that they had known all her substantial life. There were more dangers here, defenses that would instantly strike down any intruder. Only her scent saved her, the pheromones of her body identifying her to the biological weapons systems her mother had created.
Moving around the arcing path that penetrated deeper into the massive pendara, a soft glow appearing ahead. It grew as she moved in a counterclockwise spiral into the tree, becoming bright enough to make out the walls of the passage and the smooth wood of the floor. Then the source of the light came into view, a node, grown on the surface, high on the interior bark, that emitted a soft greenish illumination. Beyond it, a second node shone even brighter, lighting her surroundings enough that she could now see that the path was growing wider. A third node came into sight as she continued, and now the spiral opened into a space that was almost shocking in its size. Heartwood Hall, the very center of the Home Tree and the most important of Mother’s throne rooms.
The room was almost bright after the dimness of the passage and Eirwen knew that those light nodes nearest the entrance would flare even brighter if her personal scent failed to identify her. Any intruder would face blinding light just as they encountered Mother’s guards and the members of her inner court.
The green-clad Hunters who faced her at the opening were among the best fighters that Summer had, each armed with a deadly crystal-edged sword whose blade grew its own deadly neurotoxin.
Beyond the guards, the first of Summer’s court were visible, studying her with cold eyes, alert for any sign of weakness as they stood on the richly grained heartwood. Opportunistic sycophants. Beautiful parasites leeching their sustenance from the Court. Males and females both wore cool flowing layers of gossamer silk, dyed every color of the rainbow and festooned with glittering living gems, insects bred for their ability to glow and shine brighter than the most perfect diamond, emerald, or sapphire. Most of the silks were translucent and the wearers’ bodies were easily visible through the wispy, clingy material. Physical beauty was the norm and showing it off the fashion. By contrast, Eirwen’s dragonskin flying leathers hugged her curves but showed no skin. It made her look more like a guard than a princess and from the sibilant whispers, much was being made of her lack of formal garb.
Mixed among the poisonous leeches of the court, Eirwen spotted the handful of advisors and officers of Summer who provided real value and kept the Summer Realm functioning smoothly. The chamber’s walls arched inward as they rose, but the eventual ceiling was cloaked in darkness high overhead. Eirwen knew that other dangers waited up there, more weapons the queen could command should she feel threatened, endangered, or more often, simply dissatisfied.
At the rear of the hall, her mother, Zinnia, Queen of Summer, sat upon a throne that was grown right into the wall, her personal blue-armored guard standing to her left. The throne was a living chair of heartwood, perfectly molded to her mother’s slim form. She wore the lightest gown of ethereal green silk that covered, but did nothing to hide, her perfect body. A tiara of golden crystal lay lightly on her light blonde hair, seemingly lit from within by the sun itself.
Eirwen bowed to her mother, ignoring the others and locking eyes with the only person in the whole tree whose opinion really mattered.
“Report,” Zinnia commanded.
“We lost both clutches of fliers. Sudden powerful winds and storms that blew up at the last second,” Eirwen said.
“None got through?” Zinnia asked, frowning.
“None. One got through the winds but was struck by lightning. The ground troops fared no better. They took losses at the river ford, this time by particularly large freshwater sarcorials, then more in unprovoked attacks by the various types of plains predators. The survivors were killed by a funnel storm that formed and touched down suddenly.”
“How far did they get? Halfway across?” Zinnia asked, her frown turning to a scowl.
“Not quite. More like a third of the way,” Eirwen reported.
The Queen of Summer stared at her daughter, clearly deep in thought. She turned to her left. “What happens if he dies?” she asked.
A tall, painfully thin elf wearing brown robes came closer. “We are not certain, my queen. Either the land subsides and returns to normal or… it gets worse and tears itself apart.”
“Eight thousand years of record keeping and that’s the best your order can come up with?” she asked.
“This is unprecedented,” he said deferentially.
“Useless is what it is,” she said, waving him away. She went back to staring at her daughter. “Access?” she finally asked.
“Limited. He closed the portals in the Middle Realm and most of our others are compromised by the humans. We have a few, but they are all that’s left,” Eirwen said. “His talent with portals was not anticipated.”
“I imagine your cousin is seething,” Queen Zinnia said.
“Seething does not begin to describe her anger. She requested her mother’s troll to transport her, but Morrigan denied her,” Eirwen said.
The queen sat motionless, eyes locked on her daughter. Eirwen had learned long ago to stay silent and just stare back. This was what it looked like when her mother did what she did best… plot.
“Awaken those in Slumber,” Zinnia said suddenly.
“As you command,” her daughter said. “Target the boy?”
“Half. The other half targets the betrayers,” the queen said.
Eirwen frowned but said nothing. Her mother noticed. “You think half is not enough? You think they might very well fail?”
Eirwen nodded, once, sharply.
“You are most likely right. I almost hope you are,” Zinnia said, smiling slightly.
Understanding bloomed on the princess’s face. “It works either way? He dies or doesn’t but then comes back?” she asked.
“Curious creatures, these humans. It is often the death of them,” Zinnia, Queen of the Summer Realm, said with a deadly smile.
“And we’re back. Top stories this hour… Anti Artificial Intelligence Protesters attempt to block the entrance to the White House grounds, demanding action to control the Omega AI. Counter-protestors from the Omega Movement are present and tensions are high. The Human Purity group steps up its social media attacks on parents of children cured at the Demidova Clinic. The United Nations Emergency Meeting melts down into violence between First and Third World countries over the decision to fight the Vorsook. In Virginia, police hunt an accountant who murdered his wife and children in the middle of the night. Witnesses say the man, who has no criminal record or history of violence, soaked his hat in his family’s blood and wore it as he calmly climbed into his car and drove away. More now with our local VXOA correspondent, Callum Straus. Callum?”
The digital numbers on Mack’s bedside clock turned over one more time and I decided I had to go. Sorry Callum, no time to hear your gruesome story.
I turned off my computer and pulled off the ear buds, replacing the right one with my Bluetooth earpiece. I generally tried to not wake my roomie. Not that Mack would have really noticed a little sound. Kid could sleep through a war.
A calm male voice spoke softly in my right ear. “Father, your meeting is in twenty-one minutes. Traffic is normal. There are still open parking slots in multiple locations.”
I mouthed a thank you at the phone’s camera and grabbed my messenger bag, water bottle, car keys, and the phone. Slipping out into the hall, I slowed the door’s closing to mask the sound of the lock clicking shut. The wards around the doorframe snapped into place. Frankly, my money was on the wards. Any witch or telekinetic in Arcane could breach the door lock with a thought. The wards, however, were some of my best work and while I wasn’t foolish enough to believe them inviolate I knew they would be a serious test for almost any witch on the planet. Humble… that’s me. But let’s be honest. I am pretty good at this shit.
The wolves were in the dining room, and the whole pack turned and looked at me like a flock of synchronized birds… highly dangerous birds.
The biggest one raised one fuzzy black eyebrow at me. “Whore lock,” he said.
“Pimple wolf,” I said back. He grimaced, one giant hand coming up to touch the red, angry blemish on his forehead. Weres don’t usually get infections of any type—unless they’ve been messing with werewolf aphrodisiacs which, by the way, differ from werewolf poisons only by amount. Monkshood, or wolfsbane, was a serious poison that could kill a were but in tiny doses caused an exaggerated Viagra effect. It also lowered the LV immune response long enough for sebaceous glands to get mildly infected. Dellwood growled, frowned at me, and then, blessedly, shut up.
Having met the standards of Arcane etiquette, I headed to the breakfast sandwiches piled on one of the buffet tables.
The pack went back to eating and I grabbed an egg, sausage, and cheese-on-biscuit beauty, sliding it into a little wax paper to-go bag.
Gina Velasquez was just coming into the dining room as I got to the doorway.
“Declan, have you thought about that class for the younger witches?” she asked.
“I’m gonna start them on the whole borrowed energy technique.”
She looked surprised. “Really?”
“I learned it young. They need to start working on it now,” I said with a shrug.
“No way?” a breathless voice asked. We turned to find a mini pack of mini witches in the hallway. The speaker was Elise Morloft, an excited-looking Earth witch from Missouri. Her early morning companions included a Fire witch named Cerise, a Water wielder named Morgan, and the only other male witch in the school, Mason Conboy, who was also of the Water affinity.
“That’s my plan. I just have to find a spot in your schedules that works for everyone,” I said.
“Oh, I’ll drop out of any class that interferes with yours, Declan,” Cerise said. Elsie and Morgan both nodded vigorously.
“Let’s not do anything too hasty, girls,” Gina said. “I can probably give up some of my seminar time for a good cause.”
“Oh, please please do, Mrs. Velasquez,” Elsie said.
“Listen Gina, just let me know. I’ve got a meeting with my advisor up at the university and I’m likely to be late,” I said. She nodded and waved me through. Mason held up a fist for a bump as I squeezed by, otherwise not looking notably excited by the prospect of my class. He was the newest witch in Arcane and except for getting mouthy with the pack’s Alpha during his first week, he was starting to settle in. I liked to think my influence was helping with that, but it could just be that he was happy to find himself surrounded by very attractive witches his own age who paid a great deal of attention to him.
The air outside was cold, a brisk March wind coming off Lake Champlain. Wouldn’t be Burlington without a frigid wind. Beast started right up and was quickly pumping out warm air from the heater, maybe helped along a bit by a little thermal “borrowing” I did from a newly arrived Arcane employee’s still cooling Honda.
Fifteen minutes later, I was finishing the last bite of my sandwich as I entered Votey Hall and found my way to James McCraken’s office on the second floor.
My advisor, a highly energetic thirty-something PhD with light brown hair, brown eyes, and a lean skier’s frame, was talking to himself as he worked through what was likely lines of code on one of his three monitors.
He caught sight of me almost immediately. “Ah, O’Carroll, there you are,” he said, waving me into his office. “My very own problem child,” he said, switching monitors and pulling up my records. “Do you know you have the lowest GPA of any comp sci student? You’ve got more incomplete classes, missed tests, and the worst attendance record of any student in the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences.”
I shrugged. “Not surprising,” I said, feeling my stupid face flush a little at his words.
“Technically you should be on Academic Probation… no wait, you should have been on probation last semester. This semester you should be gone,” he said, looking at me with a quizzical expression. “But for some reason, you’re not. Why is that, do you think?” he asked, an edge to his voice. He leaned in, legs crossed, chin in his left hand, left elbow on his knee.
“I suspect my sponsor interceded on my behalf,” I said.
“Outside influence, then?” he asked, eyebrows raised. His voice was even, yet I could tell he was severely aggravated.
“He received calls from his Department Chair, the Vice President of Academic Affairs, the University President, and the Chairman of the University’s Board. His hands have been tied,” Omega said in my ear.
“I’ve had… trying circumstances this year,” I said, feeling lame. I wasn’t at liberty to discuss most of the events I’d participated in and even if I did, he’d never believe me.
“I’m aware of who you are, O’Carroll. I don’t live under a rock. You work for Demidova Corporation. I’ve seen footage, albeit blurry footage, of you in Maine and New York City. I don’t know what you do for them or why they’re so invested in you, but I thoroughly understand their ongoing contributions to this university. I’ve had many, many explanations about the new Science building, the housing grants, and the piles of scholarships they’re paying,” he said, leaning back. “I have to admit to a certain curiosity as to your connection to them.”
What was I supposed to say? Oh, I’m from a long line of witches and I help them fight demons, monsters, aliens, and paparazzi. I also built the super quantum computer that is rapidly making your job obsolete, although you don’t seem to know it. I’ve been away, off planet, fighting elves, dragons, and a nasty computer virus.
Part of me understood his frustration. Part of me was affronted that he was taking his anger out on me, and part of me just didn’t give a fuck. An image of my aunt admonishing my language popped into my head.
“You’d just as soon I wasn’t here, wouldn’t you?” I asked.
“Oh no, Mr. O’Carroll. Because if you weren’t here, we wouldn’t get all these wonderful facilities and money. No, what I wish is that you were in someone else’s office, being someone else’s problem,” he said. I saw the exact moment he realized he might have gone too far. The little micro wince that flashed across his face.
“Thank you for your honesty. I get it. I’ve considered quitting, but I keep getting talked out of it. I’m told my education is even more important now. I explained that my grades suck, I keep getting pulled away and miss classes and all that. They don’t care. They don’t care if I get any grades at all. They just want me to learn. But frankly, I think you’re right. I don’t feel my place is here in Comp Sci any longer. The courses I need to take don’t have much to do with computers,” I said. “Maybe we can switch me to some kind of self-designed major and get me a different advisor, or even none at all.”
He pulled back, eyebrows raised, completely taken aback. For a moment he was at a loss, then he spoke.
“What courses do you feel you need to take?” he asked.
I pulled out my phone, my note detailing proposed courses loading itself onto the screen, thanks to Omega.
“Intro to Political Theory, Intro to International Relations, Comparative Political Systems, Intro to Sociology, Developmental Sociological Theory, Geology 110–Earth materials, Geology 101–Field Geology, Environmental Geochemistry, Intro to Environmental Science, and Weather Systems, to start.”
He just looked at me. Then he shook his head. “You haven’t handled the workload this semester. What makes you think you can handle all those?”
“I don’t want to try to pass them. I want to audit them. I’d do the papers and tests that seem germane but otherwise not,” I said.
“You realize every college kid in America would like that kind of setup? Take a mess of classes, show up when you like, and skip the work,” he said.
It was my turn to lean forward. “Professor McCraken, I’m not like any kid in this university. I’m employed by Tatiana Demidova and Chris Gordon to handle problems that I’m not at liberty to explain to you. I report to them directly and all I can tell you is that it is vitally important. If you look at those classes I did complete, you’ll see I did good work. But I’m not here for a degree or to land a career or to impress anyone with honors or grade point averages. I’m never going to be inducted into a prestigious ancient society of overachievers, and I won’t likely graduate. I would like to live long enough to legally drink in a bar. But that’s too often in question. So I need a background in a wide variety of things, and computer science is no longer part of that. And as you noted, I get dragged away unexpectedly, and that will undoubtedly continue. Unusual? You have no idea. Have you asked yourself why they would spend what they do and not care about my grades? Because I don’t have the time or convenience to spend on studies and homework like a regular kid. Personally, I think I should just skip all this, but Tanya feels the more time I spend in a regular college setting, the better. Chris thinks hanging around other college kids will keep me grounded. Demidova Corporation will spend millions for me to do that. If you like, I can get them on the phone and we can hash this all out,” I said.
He pulled back again and then shook his head. “If it was anyone else, I’d call your bluff, but then, there is all that news coverage,” he said, looking uncertain.
I pulled my phone and set it on his desk. It lit up, dialing itself, the name Tatiana Demidova listed on the screen.
“Hey Declan, what’s up? I’ve got a board meeting in a few minutes, but I want to know how your advisor meeting went?”
His eyebrows went north, possibly in danger of disappearing into his hairline.
“Um, well here’s the thing,” I said. I hadn’t thought this part through.
“Let me guess… you’re right in the middle of it?” she asked.
“I’m trying to explain to Professor McCraken that I’m not here for grades anymore, just knowledge. He’s a bit skeptical and frankly, I don’t blame him,” I said, drawing breath to get out the next part. She interrupted me.
“Stop. Don’t even say it. We’ve been over this. You are so not quitting. You need to learn—a lot. Plus you have your own classes to teach at Arcane. If I have to buy the whole damned university or make my own, then that’s what we’re going to do,” she said.
McCraken was pale, eyes wide and mouth slightly open.
“Professor McCraken, help me out here,” she asked. “Explain to Declan that although his life is abnormal and he’s tied up in national and global security and despite the fact that his skills are almost irreplaceable or maybe because of it, he needs to stay and learn with every moment that he can,” she said.
I recognized the tone. Chris had told me long ago that she had abilities with her voice. I’ve seen her pitch a tone that cut steel, but her most common and useful application of her powers was happening right now. A glance at McCraken showed I was right and he was already a goner. His head had started nodding and the shocked look had been replaced by earnest helpfulness. Males were especially susceptible, but it overpowered most women, too. Not my aunt, though. Bounced right off Ashling O’Carroll like water from a goose’s feathers.
“Of course, Ms. Demidova,” he said, voice shaky.
“Oh please, call me Tanya. You play such an important role in Declan’s education that I’m sure we’ll be in contact often. Don’t you agree, Omega?” she asked.
“Completely, Tanya. Dr. McCraken has a wonderful background in education and despite the change of topics in Declan’s curriculum, computer science will always be of extreme interest to him. Pursuing the wide range of courses in the fastest possible time will be a challenge to orchestrate and coordinate, not to mention smoothing over the various instructors involved. Of course, with the full power of the university’s president and academic leaders, not to mention the ability to connect with you directly, Tanya, he should do wonderfully. I will also offer my assistance in this endeavor,” my traitorous computer said.
Great. Now she owned my advisor, body and soul.
“That’s… that was… Omega has a voice?” he asked.
“Yes, Dr. McCraken. In fact, Declan helped me select it.”
“You helped with the Omega project?” McCraken asked me, more shocked by that than anything to date.
“It is completely accurate in every sense to say that without Declan O’Carroll, I would not exist at all.”
“So Professor, you agree that Declan must take advantage of his limited time to learn as much as possible, right? I mean, he could be called on yet again at any moment to leave and protect Earth,” Tanya said.
“Of course. I didn’t realize—I don’t think most people realize his reasons for his…” McCraken looked at my onscreen records and clearly didn’t know what to say.
“My crappy GPA?” I offered.
He nodded, clearly not wanting to say it out loud.
“Declan is highly competitive, Professor McCraken. It’s just that his competitions are literally life and death. It makes things like grades and attendance pale when you’ve had to fight for your life and the lives of your teammates as well as protect the civilians around you. And our world will need to call on him even more, which is why anything he can learn will be vital,” she said, sealing my fate.
Nodding like a newly converted religious fanatic, McCraken struggled with whatever mixture of overpowering emotions her voice, words, and the introduction to Omega had created in him.
“Please rest assured, er, Tanya, that we will get him exposed to every type of class or lab he could possibly need. It will take some doing, but we’ll do it,” the professor said.
“If it’s alright with you, Professor, I will help you with the university’s scheduling records. If it’s not too much trouble, we can continue to use verbal contact rather then the texts and emails you used with me before,” Omega said.
Wow. My AI was almost as smooth at this as Tanya.
“How will we do that?” he asked, almost squirming with excitement.
“You just speak and he’ll answer. There’s always some phone or microphone around, as well as speakers. Usually, I just have my phone and a Bluetooth earpiece so people don’t think I’m nuts,” I said. “Well, that didn’t work out like I’d hoped.”
Tanya laughed and I about saw the professor’s eyes glaze at the sound of it. “Silly boy, you know better. How is your class with the Arcane girls going?”
“Pretty well. They actually pay attention when it’s something they’re really interested in. Gina wants me to teach the young ones so I’m gonna introduce the family specialty to them,” I said.
“That’s a huge thing, Declan. A great thing because we’re gonna need every one of them that you can train, but giving up family secrets is a hard thing to do,” she said. “Alright, I have to run. Lydia’s giving me the evil eye, so my board members must be getting restless. Thank you, Professor, for your invaluable aid. You have no idea how important it is for that young man in front of you to learn as much as he can in as short a time as possible. I’ll be in touch. Goodbye.”
The call ended and McCraken just looked at my phone for a few seconds before looking up at me.
“That really was Tatiana Demidova, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, but once she asks you to call her Tanya, you’d better do it,” I said. “She doesn’t ask many people.”
“And she’s really a…” His words failed him.
“Vampire princess?” I helped out.
He nodded, speechless.
“Yup, but that’s kind of just the tip of the iceberg. So now you see what I’m up against?” I asked.
“I have to ask, Declan, can I call you Declan?” I nodded and he went on. “Just who are you?”
I understood what he was asking. “So she’s a vampire and Chris is, well, the Hammer of God. You know there is more out there, right? More supernatural stuff that used to be just myth and legend?”
“Like werewolves?” he asked, voice dropping to almost a whisper.
“Yes, like werewolves.”
“Are you a werewolf?” he asked.
“No, but I live and work with them daily. Do you remember what else has come to light recently?”
“Like the aliens, the Vorsook? Oh, wait, do you mean witches?” I nodded. “They’re real too? You? You’re a… witch?” he asked, frowning.
“I am. I teach witches,” I said.
“So you’re my equivalent in the hocus pocus world?” he tried to smile like it was a bad joke but I didn’t smile back.
“You could say that I got my doctorate in witchcraft at about the age of fourteen. It’s a family thing.”
He thought about that, leaning back. “Not to offend you and intending no disrespect to your… field of study, could you… maybe…” he trailed off.
“Show you witchcraft?” I asked. He nodded, looking mildly embarrassed but extremely interested as well.
My magic wasn’t for show and tell, yet I needed to get this strange, makeshift major up and running and even with as much high-level support as I had, faculty buy-in was going to be difficult.
“Oddly, professor, witchcraft has much in common with computer programming. We use programs to tell machines how to manipulate data. Witches use spells to manipulate energy,” I said, holding up my right hand, palm to the ceiling. A ball of fire burst into existence in the air above my hand. The heat was palpable and McCraken pulled back, eyes wide. “I suspect that the Physics department would be highly interested in what we do,” I said, changing the fire to an arc of blue crackling electricity. Actually I cheated a bit, dumping the thermal energy into the building around me and pulling electric power through my left hand from the wall outlet on my side of his desk.
“But you don’t appear to be chanting, singing, or drawing anything?” he asked.
“Just as you can write and read lines of code as easily as talking, some of us can Craft using just our thoughts,” I said. The arc traveled up between my thumb and index finger and then snapped out of being.
“Why do I feel like that is a gross understatement?” he asked.
My phone pinged and a schedule reminder popped up with a fifteen-minute warning for a Poly Sci class I wanted to sit in on.
“I’m going to try and make that class. Hopefully the professor will let me listen in,” I said.
“Usually they get some kind of notification or request beforehand,” he said, frowning.
“I have taken the liberty of sending just such a request from the office of the university president,” Omega said.
If anything, McCraken was more impressed with that than with my fire and lightning routine.
“If we tried to throw you out, it wouldn’t work, would it?” he asked.
“You tell me, Professor. How much of our world runs on computers?” I asked, standing up to go. “Still happy with your decision to stay on as my advisor?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t miss this for anything,” he said.
Leaving the Comp Sci department, I headed down the hill toward the parking lot where Beast was waiting for me. The wind off the lake was brisk, making my eyes water, which was slightly embarrassing when three girls walked by me. Two ignored me but one glanced my way just as a tear formed in my left eye. Turning away to my right was automatic, a basic social reflex. It may have saved my life.
The attack came in a blur, a dark figure rushing at me over the snow mounded on the side of the sidewalk. Literally right on me, my only reaction a double shove with both arms that pushed the speeding figure away and sent me falling backward, a sharp burn on my forehead.
Copyright John Conroe