A/N: Edits have been made to the previous three chapters. If you have the time, and have not already done so, please do go back and take another read. I apologise again for the long wait. This chapter has, in fact, been written up for months, but I found that I had to go back and take a second look at the timeline so that I could close some glaring gaps in the plot. Please enjoy this chapter.
Of Learning and Survival
Part I: Necessary Tribulations
23rd June 1995, 8.17am.
The mountain peak disappeared into the clouds. Or rather, the mountain peak, and then some, disappeared into the clouds.
Which was a problem because Mildred's Place was at the peak of the mountain – something Aindreas probably should have thought to find out earlier.
Swallowing heavily, the aether surveyed what he could see of the imposing mountain that was, as far as he was concerned, impossibly tall. A heavy weight of apprehension settled uncomfortably in the pit of his stomach as he realized that scaling its heights on foot would take several days.
Auburn brows furrowed as the aether stared in consternation at the daunting rock wall, trying his best not to give in to the sense of helplessness that threatened to overwhelm. There was no shortcut up, he had been (somewhat gleefully) informed, as the mountain had been warded against all forms of teleportation methods. Not that Aindreas knew of any to begin with anyway.
If he craned his neck, he could see several figures rapidly ascending the heights in winged forms. None of them flew in straight lines or fixed patterns, often dodging and wheeling around to avoid being hit by some unseen foe. Nevertheless, they seemed to be making adequate progress whereas other less airborne creatures would probably have had to have enough sense to turn up in advance to climb the monstrosity of a mountain.
Again, he cursed himself for not thinking to scout the place out beforehand. Was he going to fail then, even before he could begin?
Face set in resolute determination, the teenager spun on his heel and keyed himself back to his Knockturn residence. Snatching the letter from the school off of his bed, he scanned its contents for the gazillionth time but did not notice anything new. Only the date was specified, which technically meant that he had until midnight to reach Mildred's Place. More importantly, it meant that he still had time. Not a lot of it, granted, but enough for him to work with.
Taking care of his attire with a careful twitch of his hand, Aindreas hurried down the stairs of his room and made a bee-line towards the cleaner paths of Diagon Alley. It was still early enough in the morning that his path was a relatively clear one. He moved with single-minded focus and stopped only when he was standing in front of the counter at Quality Quidditch Supplies.
"Your fastest broom, please," he requested without preamble, piercing green eyes daring the wizard to do anything but. Its intimidating effect, however, seemed to be lost on the wiry blonde male across from him who had a blindingly bright smile and enough enthusiasm for the both of them.
"That would be the Lightningbolt," the shopkeeper beamed, tossing aside the quidditch magazine he had been perusing before fairly skipping into the back room. He reappeared a moment later, humming cheerfully as he presented Aindreas with an elongated wooden box. With reverent care that bordered on creepy worship, he eased the clasp open and presented the broom to the redheaded youth as though he were a high fashion model displaying a piece of million-galleon jewellery.
But it was a beauty indeed, Aindreas could give him that. His old Nimbus (that Dumbledore had probably already broken and burned) could not compare. In fact, it came nowhere close to it.
"The industry players thought it would take at least five years for them to outdo the old Firebolt, but the company churned this baby out in two," the shopkeeper breathed with wonderment in his eyes and a slight, excited tremble to his voice. "Up to 30% more speed than the Firebolt, with excellent maneuverability and deluxe cushioning charms. Responds almost immediately to its rider's intent."
Here, the blonde airhead paused with a smirk, dark eyes gleaming with what could only be described as fanaticism. "That is, if it likes you."
"I've sold less than 30 pieces so far," the blonde confessed readily, reaching in to lift the broom from its box before offering it to Aindreas. "Easily half of them came back to replace it with another model. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, because it is ridiculously pricey, and secondly because they're picky. If the broom doesn't like you, you have no chance with it. It just won't listen."
Having received the broom with both hands, the aether did not respond. Instead, he ran his hands along its smooth, dark shaft, tracing his fingers along its name carved into the polished wood and briefly stroking the neatly trimmed bristles. The broom fairly hummed in his hands, obviously eager to take to the skies. A small smile tugged at the corner of his lips. Oh, it liked him all right.
"I'll take it."
"That's what they all said," the shopkeeper commented good-naturedly. But he bundled the broom back up in its box and handed it over with its user's manual and basic servicing kit. "You'll have to bring it back within 7 working days and in pristine condition if you want an exchange. That will be 199 galleons, 99 sickles and 9 knuts."
Aindreas signed the Gringotts credit slip and left the shop with a shrunken broom in his pouch.
Ducking into a small alley, he undid the transfigurations on his robes and swiftly traced the hidden key on the back of his hand.
He reappeared at the base of the mountain, stumbling even as he withdrew the broom from his pouch. Removing it from its case, he enlarged it and placed it flat on the ground.
"Up," he called, and a split second later, the broom smacked satisfyingly into his palm.
"If you're going to fly, I'll have to warn you," a voice piped up from behind him, halting him before he could kick off. Turning his head, he locked gazes with the tell-tale blood-thirsty eyes of a vampire. "There are creatures both in the air and on the ground that will try to strike you down. And the school bears no liability for any death or injury incurred."
"Ah," Aindreas hesitated, not quite sure what he was expected to say in response to that. "Thank you for the warning, sir."
He kicked off.
They were off to a rocky start. For the first couple of minutes, the broom seemed resistant to responding to his wishes. Rather than flying forward as urged, the broom made clear its wishes to rocket upwards like a muggle helicopter. But the aether gritted his teeth and looped his magic around the animated object, forcing it to move in accord with his will so that he could fly closer to the mountain before rising up. He would be an open target if he were to fly as brazenly in the open as the broom wanted him to.
The lightningbolt pouted and Aindreas chuckled in amusement, patting it lightly even as he leaned forward to flatten himself against its handle.
"We pass this and we'll have a lot more opportunities to fly together, girl," he murmured, but obligingly raised their altitude a little when he could, so that they were flying just above the treetops.
Together, they flew swiftly and surely, climbing the mountain with alacrity until Aindreas found himself somewhat winded for breath from the change in air pressure. But it wasn't until they were what seemed like halfway up the massive height that the aether sensed impending danger. A dark figure was headed straight at him with frightening velocity, growing larger in shape by the second. Hissing out a curse under his breath, he executed a half-volley roll in the air and hit the emergency brakes.
Verdant eyes scanned his surroundings, swiftly locking onto the thing that had sought to impede his path. It was the largest bird he had ever laid his eyes on, coming to a height of approximately two Hagrids with a wingspan as large as a small muggle aeroplane. Aindreas' heart hammered loudly in his chest as aether and beast sized each other up.
"Whoa, an Acalyptus Condor," someone exclaimed, and Aindreas unthinkingly took his eyes off of the bird to lock onto the owner of the voice. Two cloaked figures stood to the left below him, each balanced carefully on a tree branch. Both had eyes fixed on the winged beast, which had lurched forward the moment the aether had averted his gaze.
"Watch out," the same voice yelled out, mocking laughter obvious in its tone. "Or you'll become lunch on a broomstick."
But Aindreas had already rolled out of its way, and with instincts honed by two years on the quidditch pitch, hurtled towards the condor. He took full advantage of the extra speed afforded by the broom, adrenaline pumping even as he marveled inwardly at the differences between his new and old brooms. Every slight shift of pressure his palms and thighs had the broom leaping to do his bidding. Aindreas smiled. Pressed almost flat against the broom handle, the redhead flew in spirals around the bird, dodging the powerful wings of the angered beast.
But the aether knew he could not keep this up. He highly doubted that he could tire the bird out this way and while he was currently outmaneuvering it with relative ease, it would only take one wrong move to send him reeling backwards and toward a certain death. Besides, he did not really have much time to spare.
Drawing a ball of charged magic into his palm, Aindreas hurled it at the condor as if he were throwing a quaffle through a goal hoop with the intention of maiming the keeper. The sphere smashed into the chest of the regal creature, but did little more than incite a screech of outrage from it as it batted at the aether and succeeded in sending the green-eyed teenager cartwheeling through the air with a strangled yelp. A wing had caught his shoulder, which now throbbed painfully.
"Are you mad?"
"You must be mad."
"Its body is impervious to magic, you know."
"And you can't kill it anyway. It's been declared a Protected Species."
If he could, Aindreas would have rolled his eyes. As it were, he had his hands full of an angry, screeching whateveritwascalled condor, and had little attention left to spare for his noisy spectators.
Diving towards the trees, he willed forward another sphere of energy, this one a pale blue that was larger than the first. Then, abruptly angling his broomstick perpendicular to level ground, he shot upwards and sent his magic streaking towards the condor's eyes, like a bad parody of a shooting star. But the beast let out a ear-rending screech and turned on its wings, almost as though attempting a back-loop.
Aindreas missed, obviously, but the streaking ball of energy caught the bird's tail feathers, rending a handful of feathers from it. Drawing deep breaths to steady his pounding heart, Aindreas watched as the condor took off with an unearthly screech, leaving behind only the feathers that were riding the air currents and drifting towards the ground.
"So," one of his two nosy commentators started, as though beginning a conversation on the intricacies of the weather. "Are you going to retrieve the feathers or shall we relieve you of the burden?"
"Huh?" Aindreas responded dumbly, his brain not having quite caught up with real time yet. He turned his neck to stare at the two beings, though his broom remained pointed away. They were a pair of vampires. Identical twin caught a hint of a gleam in one of their eyes and made a split-second decision.
Snapping his broom around in a sharp U-turn, the aether sped towards the still-floating feathers, deftly swiping them out of the air before they could get lost in the dense foliage.
All four feathers were slipped into his trusty bottomless pouch at his belt before he returned to hover before the pair. His initial assessment had been right; they were balanced in an impossible way at the tip of slender tree branches. Gravity dictated that they should have snapped under their weight, but they held strong enough even for one of them to begin bouncing on the spot.
"Nice broom," one of them commented, a small smirk curling the corner of his lips. Aindreas found that he did not quite like the way he was being sized up.
"Unconventional too," the other nodded, twirling a dirty blonde curl around his finger. "No one uses brooms nowadays unless they're playing one of the old sports."
"Wasn't very smart of you, though," the first added. "Attacking a Protected Species."
"And then leaving it alive," the second grinned, looking somewhat feral as he ran his tongue over the tip of a fang. "Next thing you know, you'll have Creature Activists and the condor's kin coming after your skinny hide."
"It was a sleeping spell," Aindreas responded tersely, relaxing his iron grip on the broom when it squirmed in discomfort. "Not that it worked. There wasn't much else I could do."
"See? Not very smart."
Aindreas bristled, but gritted his teeth and kept his peace. They were baiting him, he could tell, and if there was anything he learned by having Severus Snape as his professor, it would be that responding to baits would not land him anywhere but in detention.
"You should just have flown below the forest line," the other brother informed him, not unkindly. "The condors nest at Mildred's Place, but they know better than to get caught in foliage."
"I see," Aindreas nodded. And he did see. Somewhat belatedly, but still. He shrugged and inclined his head. "Thank you for the advice."
With that, he urged the Lightningbolt forward and dove below the treetops. It would take a lot more careful maneuvering to avoid getting decapitated by tree branches but if it meant safety then he would manage.
"Not a very friendly guy, is he?" The less annoying vampire commented, and since there was no one watching him, the aether allowed himself a scowl. Then with a last grumble, he shoved them to the back of his mind to concentrate on the more urgent task at hand: Putting enough distance between them that he could no longer hear their snarky comments.
It turned out, however, that flying amidst the trees was not all that safe after all.
Biting his lip so harshly he could almost taste the blood, Aindreas fought back a frightened scream as he scrambled away from the advancing spider. Unfortunately, what with being caught in its web of sticky yuck, his movement was severely restricted. What was it with the magical realm and gargantuan creatures anyway?
"Oooh, Ice Acromantula!"
Just when he thought the day could not get any worse.
"Sticky situation, little aether?" The vampire taunted, bouncing on yet another branch as his brother looked on in amusement. "I must say, you look rather attractive like that. Trussed up, tousled and oh so tantalizing. No wonder the acrumontula wants to get its hands on you. You look Too Tasty."
"You like alliteration," Aindreas sniped, ignoring the growing flush on his face as he struggled with his robes. If he had been wearing his wizarding robes, he would have been able to shrug out of his cloak in no time. "I get it. Now bugger off."
"I'm just enjoying the view," the vampire grinned, hazel eyes glowing eerily in the muted forest light as he very casually tied his shoulder-length hair into a short tail at the nape of his neck.
The aether ignored him, too preoccupied with the frightening visage of a blood-thirsty monster that was advancing menacingly toward him to trade insults with the blood-sucking moron that danced on trees and liked to take a laugh at his expense.
Heating up his hands did not work, with the web seemingly impervious to heat. In fact, he came that close to getting his hands stuck on the damned thing. If only he could somehow reach the blades in his pouch. The pouch that was charmed against being summoned. Aindreas cursed, employing his small arsenal of foul language to voice his displeasure.
"Need help?" The less annoying blonde asked, glancing at the watch on his wrist. "We could save you in return for a favour."
"A favour that we can claim at a later date," the more annoying blonde replied, slinging an arm around his twin's shoulders with a cheeky grin.
"I'll think about it," Aindreas grumbled, still yanking futilely at his restraints. A five year old could tell him ten reasons why accepting that offer would be a bad idea, even if he were ten feet away from the ugliest salivating spider he had ever laid its eyes on.
"Accio daggers," he hissed, desperation colouring his tone. Much to his surprise, the hilts of two live-sized knives smacked into his hands. One clattered to the floor, but his right hand just about managed to grab onto the other.
"It's not a Protected Species, is it?" He asked rhetorically, feeling somewhat gleeful as the long dagger cut through the web, freeing his arms enough that he could remove his outer robe and drop to the ground just two feet away from the monster.
Verdant orbs gleamed in the muted light as Aindreas gathered a spell in his free hand even as he hefted the dagger in his other. At the first given chance, he would learn how to wield the weapon properly. But for now, cruder methods had to be employed.
With a push of his magic, he launched the dagger right at the acromantula, embedding it to the hilt into its head. It screamed in pain, and let out a loud cry, which it never got to finish because the auburn-haired teenager had lobbed a destructive spell at it. A soundless combustion occurred, exploding the giant spider into a splatter of guts, blood and flesh-eating acid.
Panting, Aindreas sat heavily onto the damp ground to regain his bearings, studiously ignoring the pair of applauding vampires.
"Don't sit there too long," one of them advised him cheerfully, tossing a twig at his prone figure when he failed to move after a couple of minutes. "You don't really have all day."
Aindreas blinked. And they were gone.
Hauling himself off the ground, the aether spelled his robes clean and retrieved both blades before wiping them down with a clean portion of his outer robe which he left dangling off the mangled web. Extracting it from the sticky mess would take far too long, and untangling his broomstick took priority for obvious reasons.
When he finally clambered back on to the lightningbolt, Aindreas was wiped. Mopping his brow with the sleeve of his robe, the aether sighed and checked his watch. It was almost twelve in the afternoon and he had not had anything to eat after a light breakfast at seven. But there was little else to do but angle his broomstick upwards and make his way through the clouds towards Mildred's Place.
It took him another two hours to reach his destination. One spell to help him with his breathing and one to stave off the cold, an ice yeti and pepe combination, two equine creatures and an intimidating snake (that, upon learning he spoke Parseltongue, would not let him pass until he placed the strongest warming charm he could muster on it) later, he landed gracelessly on the freezing snow and tumbled off his broom.
For a long while he lay there, his heating charm melting the snow around him until he was lying in a puddle of warm water.
"Are you here for the entrance tests?" A curious voice enquired as a shadow fell over him. Aindreas lunged to his feet and scrambled upright, propping himself up on his broom as he warily studied the furred being before him. A pair of sharp canines were flashed at him in a wolfish version of a grin and the ears atop the being's head twitched in time with its outrageously long tail.
"Yes," he replied finally, when it seemed that the other was not going to fill the silence.
"Better get going then. The tests aren't going to take themselves."
"Going?" Tests? Was climbing up the bloody mountain not enough of a test? The average seventh year at Hogwarts would have perished six hours ago, he was sure.
"Head to the lodge over there," the daemin instructed, thumb thrust over his shoulder. "Look for Chevorak. He'll point you in the right direction."
Gazing at the indicated building that looked like it were constructed solely out of ice and magic, Aindreas swallowed heavily but trudged obediently through the snow towards yet another unknown.
Part II: It's only just begun
23rd June 1995, 2.10pm
Clothes dried, bladder relieved and stomach filled, Aindreas knocked hesitantly on the door to a room indicated to him by a grumpy bespectacled daemin. The door swung open, seemingly of its own accord, and he peered curiously in. He was met with the unnerving sight of absolutely nothing. The room seemed like a complete void, sans of everything including light. It was like a dark hole of Nothing.
"Come in," a disembodied voice ordered impatiently.
Reacting instinctively to the authoritative voice, Aindreas drew in a deep breath and made to step into the void. But he pulled himself back at the last moment, arms windmilling as he fought to regain his balance. When he succeeded, he gripped the door frame and concentrated on settling his breathing, free hand reaching into his pouch.
"Hurry up," came the same, terse voice. "You don't have all day."
Enlarging the Lightningbolt, the auburn-haired teenager swung himself on it and flew in, more sure on it than he would have been had he been on foot.
But he could have saved himself the trouble, because the moment his broom cleared the doorway, he plummeted like a rock.
Panicked shouts were swallowed up in the dark and all frantic attempts at reviving his broom or levitating himself failed. Gravity pulled relentlessly at his resisting form and he free-felled for what seemed like an age as he clung hopelessly to his broom. His body felt like it was going into shock and the aether wondered if he this was how he was going to die after struggling through so many years of his life.
The impact came as a surprise, forcing what little air he had left from his lungs as he landed awkwardly, legs akimbo, onto what felt like a large cushion.
For several long minutes, Aindreas lay there, breathless and head pounding, trying his best to gather his thoughts.
Then with great care, he edged gingerly from his landing spot, not even bothering to stand. Magic pooled in his palm and his stomach settled a little more as he took in what he could by its faint glow. Beneath him was a smooth, moss-green surface that barely sank underneath his weight as he crawled forward. It ended abruptly, about five meters from where he had landed, and it took some maneuvering before he could get down its side.
With his feet finally on solid ground, verdant eyes gazed ineffectually around him at the darkness that stretched on for forever, save for a faint pin-prick of light challenged him from the distance. A deep breath later, he girded his loins and headed straight for it, sending the ball of light to lead the way. Though he stumbled, and it took a while before he realized he was headed downwards on a gentle slope, he did not stop. After all, there was no way back, was there?
His efforts were rewarded when a dim-lit cavern gradually came into view, lit by spheres of faint fairy light. What must have been an artificial field of long grass lay before him, broken only by large globes of blue scattered across it.
Aindreas would have flown across it, but all attempts at climbing onto the Lightningbolt were rebuffed as the broom quivered in what seemed like abject fright, refusing to carry him even an inch forward.
"You're a wuss," he informed the broom, voice bland despite his own fear. Nevertheless, he obligingly shrunk it and stowed it away even as he moved forward, feet decidedly more bold than his pounding heart.
He walked in a straight line, hoping against hope that no navigation was required, and at first, everything was all right.
Then he walked past the first blue globe.
It shimmered in the dim light, small flashes of lightning dancing across the surface. The aether would have paid it no mind, except that a frightened face appeared from behind it, causing him to let out a loud shriek that echoed across the cavern as he leapt away from it. The face turned pleading and Aindreas frowned, not quite sure what he needed to do.
"Just keep moving."
Letting out another ungainly shout, Aindreas spun to his left and winced at his own skittishness.
"This is a mine field," the tall figure informed him, a wry smile on his handsome face. He seemed familiar, but Aindreas could not put a finger to it. "One wrong step and you'll be imprisoned too, and it's near impossible to get out of Zing bubbles without the help of its maker."
"I see." Except he did not. Not really. "So I leave him here?"
"Yep," the other being nodded, although he did not seem too pleased either. "Nothing we can do."
Aindreas nodded and wordlessly moved around the bubble, trying his best to ignore the trapped figure pounding at its prison. His new companion fell into step next to him, and he tried not to tense up unnecessarily.
"I'm glad you made it this far," the other redhead commented, sounding as though they were already the best of friends. "Although I admit, I didn't think you would."
Nodding again, the aether kept his silence, casting his mind back for any memory of any meeting with the large being. The stranger in the weapons shop, Aindreas realized. He cut an imposing figure, and did not look like a teenager in the least with his thick muscles and cropped flame-hued hair. A daemin, perhaps, given the red scales that he could see encircling his otherwise bare forearms.
Undaunted by his lack of communication, the daemin kept up a steady stream of one-sided conversation that Aindreas only half-paid attention to. For someone who had told him that they were treading on a minefield, the other male did not seem very worried. Or worried at all, actually.
But then again, that was before Aindreas unwittingly stepped on a round fruit that burst beneath his booted foot.
It happened about the same moment that he realized where he had met the daemin, and it was over before he could even react. There was a blinding flash of light. And then he was trapped.
He swore colourfully, ineffectually hitting at the curved sides of the blue bubble. Beyond his prison, he could see the red-headed daemin waving a broadsword around and yelling something that he could not hear. He swung the weapon at the bubble, and Aindreas was not really all that surprised to see it bounce back with equal force.
Strange, had the daemin not told him it would be useless to save anyone?
Biting his lip, the aether ignored his attempted rescuer and thrust a magically charged finger at the surface, snatching it back immediately when the charge flooded back up his arm instead of out it.
"Fuck," he breathed, shaking out his hand in an effort to rid it of the electric current he had created.
Racking his brains for a possible solution, Aindreas dug around in his pouch and tried to dig up something, anything, from his five years of magical study. He drew one half of his double daggers and thrust it at a lightning flash. From beyond the barricade, Aindreas could see the daemin still standing out there, frowning and glaring furiously at him.
Why? The aether wondered. Had he done something wrong? Those eyes, golden, if memory served well, bore into his own. And suddenly he could not breathe.
"Fuck," he repeated needlessly, glancing frantically around at his blue-hued entrapment. "Fuck, fuck, fuck."
He could not breathe. But still he chanted the swearword under his breath. Of course there was limited oxygen in there, and of course he was going to fail now. For about the dozenth time since he started on this crazy test, Aindreas felt that his death was imminent.
Gasping, a hand came up to encircle his throat as he tried to draw in oxygen into his lungs. Fingernails clawed at his pale skin and drew blood. This was insane. The bubble was not that small and he had not been encased for long at all. But still, he wondered if his face was as blue as the surface of the Zing bubble.
Desperation tore at him above his inane ponderings, and the aether could feel a dam bursting open within him. He tried to fight it, he really did, but all things considered, he felt it more prudent to concentrate his efforts on just keeping breathing.
Magic poured out of him, rushing from his fingers and from his feet, gushing free from the very pores of his skin to the ends of his hair. It surrounded him, pushed at its confines until Aindreas was screaming soundlessly against a seized esophagus.
An almighty crack silenced him, and his throat closed up, choking him as he gave in to the rush of magic flowing through every vein and every nerve end. Helpless, he allowed the darkness to claim him once more.
Part III: Forging Alliances
He lay within a cocoon of warmth, and there were fingers rubbing soothingly against his throbbing temple. A contented sigh passed his lips and Aindreas wanted nothing more than to snuggle further into that warmth and bury himself in it till kingdom come.
… Wait, what?
Lids flew open to reveal startled eyes as they gained immediate purchase on Aindreas' protector. He gasped, launching himself off and away from the daemin's lap, eyes impossibly wide. But the daemin only chuckled, nonplussed, as he rose from where he had been seated on the ground.
"You probably don't want to move back any further."
Following the golden gaze towards the field behind him, Aindreas cringed at the sight of the burst bubble behind him. It looked disgustingly like a torn membrane, leaking aether blood that fizzled with every blue lightning that whizzed across its surface, eating into the remains of the bubble.
"You're something," the daemin commented, and the hint of appreciation in his tone heated Aindreas' cheeks. "I thought the only way out of Zing bubbles was to get it dismantled by its maker. You, however, just blasted your way through the damn thing."
The other male leaned in, a knowing smirk twisting his lips. "You must really hate being trapped."
Aindreas ducked and twisted away from him in a bid to hide his flushed cheeks.
"Are you always this familiar with strangers?" He demanded hotly, refusing to meet those serpentine-like eyes as he made his way down the field again, keeping an eye out for the round fruits.
"It's not like we've never met." Once again, the other redhead fell into step beside him as though it were the most natural thing in the world. "My name is Corss, if it makes you feel any better."
It didn't, but the green-eyed aether stubbornly held his tongue. Corss laughed, shaking his head in amusement.
"Here," he offered. "At least take your blade back."
"Thank you," Aindreas said quietly, accepting the blade that he must have dropped earlier and stowing it away in his pouch. "You were right, the daggers suit me."
"I'm rarely wrong about weapons," the daemin agreed unabashedly but without arrogance, flashing the same grin he had given Aindreas those days ago at the armory where he had purchased his daggers. "But if you end up in a metal magics class, you'll probably find an even better fit."
Humming in absent-minded agreement, Aindreas noted that the incline was getting steeper as they progressed down the slope. They must be walking down the inside of the mountain, he realized, trying to wrap his mind around the idea.
His train of thought – and Corss' steady stream of chatter – was interrupted when they passed by the next bubble.
Desperate hazel eyes met his gaze and Aindreas was startled to recognize one half of the Terrible Twins he had met on his leg up the mountain. Except that he hardly looked terrible at that moment, curled up beside the bubble, his eyes suspiciously bright. Aindreas unwittingly slowed to a halt, ignoring Corss' questioning grunt.
Ever so slowly, the vampire rose, making no sound save for the rustle of his robes. Within the bubble, an identical face came into hazy view and Aindreas connected all the necessary dots to come to the correct conclusion. Blondie number one growled and the aether subconsciously adopted a defensive stance, cocking his head to the side as he watched the trapped vampire start screaming unheard threats at them.
"Why hasn't he run out of oxygen yet?" He asked, genuinely curious. The free vampire tensed, his face morphing into a scowl as he took obvious offence to Aindreas' question.
"He's a vampire," Corss replied, voice oddly soft. "Doesn't really need to breathe. Even if he weren't, a simple air recycling spell would suffice, I'm sure."
"Oh." Aindreas flushed, and the daemin chuckled despite the strange situation.
"What do you want?" The vampire demanded, his hoarse voice shaking in defensive rage despite the steady way he held his body. Aindreas had no doubt that one wrong move would have him pouncing at them, fangs and all.
"Do you need help?"
"Are you mocking me?"
"No," verdant eyes gleamed in the dim-lit cavern, and the corner of Aindreas' lips lifted slightly. "But I will help you in exchange for a favour."
Corss made an odd protesting sound and the vampire bit out a cynical laugh.
"And how will you do that, little aether?" Hazel eyes narrowed at him, and Aindreas wondered if it were a trick of the light or if his irises were starting to turn red. "I doubt even your new pet dragon will be able to help you."
He traded glances with Corss, who seemed entirely unfazed by the vampire's insult. The daemin – dragon daemin – casually slung his arm across his shoulders, causing him to tense in the loose hold. Corss ignored him.
"As much as I hate to do this, I have to agree with the little brat," Corss spoke into his ear. The vampire, however, had clearly heard him and was beginning to bristle like an upset cat again. "Powerful though your previous display was, I doubt you have enough energy left to break through another Zing."
Aindreas shrugged, stepping away from the daemin's hold and moving towards the vampire.
"How about it, blondie?" He asked, padding close to the bubble with an arched brow. "Your brother's freedom for a favour to be claimed at a later date."
Inside the bubble, the trapped vampire had begun to pound furiously at his prison.
A staring match commenced, but ended as quickly as it began when the free vampire broke the stare to glance helplessly at his brother. His irises were indeed turning a curious shade of blood-red.
"Fine. But if you even think of –"
Aindreas didn't wait for him to finish his words, drawing his dagger and slicing it across his palm. The vampire took one subconscious step towards him and the aether slammed it against the bubble.
Just as he had expected, the bubble-membrane began to dissolve under his palm with every drop of essence that seeped from his palm. Roughly dragging his arm down, Aindreas watched in satisfaction as the Zing bubble tore open.
"Remember, Baelo." When had Corss come up behind him? "A favour for the aether."
And then Aindreas was roughly gathered into strong arms as the dragon daemin started to sprint away, taking extra care not to set off any of the mines as he spirited the other redhead away.
"Put me down," Aindreas demanded once they were some distance away, but Corss continued moving until the aether started to seriously consider thrusting his blade into his side. "Put me down now, Corss."
The scaled being dropped him and the green-eyed teenager rolled away, noting with surprise that they were no longer in the grassy field.
Heated verdant clashed with slit gold, each simmering with anger as they regarded each other.
"Are you always this familiar with strangers?" Aindreas demanded again, clenching his fist around the hilt of his dagger. So help him, but if the other male took such liberty with him again, he would bury both blades in his scaled hide.
"You're no stranger."
"You don't even know my name."
"Fair enough," Corss laughed, a harsh mirthless sound. Strangely enough, it made Aindreas feel a little better, knowing that there was a less friendly side to the overly cheerful being. "And what about you? Do you always knowingly drip blood near hungry vampires?"
Caught, and not knowing what to say in response to that, Aindreas spun on his heel and walked away, not wanting to hold a pointless argument with a near-stranger. And certainly not wanting to thank the man for saving his careless ass.
They walked in silence now, Corss taking position by his side again. Torn between irritation and wanting to know why the dragon daemin seemed so intent on plastering himself by his side, Aindreas kept his mouth shut and his gaze to the front. The slope was getting steeper yet and there were several junctures in which he had to levitate himself down to rocky platforms below. The other redhead seemed comfortable just leaping off whatever perch they were on, but images of him missing and tumbling down the steep slope kept him from attempting the same.
They had escaped unscathed from a rockworm and gargantuan fire bat after knocking both unconscious when they came upon a glowing pond.
It was a curious thing. Despite being situated on a slope, its watery contents defied the law of gravity and did not spill over. In fact, its surface was so still, it seemed almost like a mirror and Aindreas would have thought it frozen over were it not for strange firefly-like creatures dancing across and beneath its surface. .
What caught his eye, however, was the figure lying in the middle of it, lying half-submerged in the pool with a serpentine creature coiled around it. It was a slender creature, unconscious for all intents, with long ice-blonde hair floating about its head like a halo.
Aindreas moved closer, until he was almost at the edge of the pool, and realized that it was a girl. Her skin was pale and her lips were blue, likely half-frozen from the chill. But then he stepped too close – just one step shy of the water – and the snake around her body lifted its head and hissed warningly at him.
Immediately, Corss' hand reached out to halt him and he slapped it away impatiently.
"You can't save everyone that you come across."
The auburn-haired teenager wanted to tell him that it was none of his business what he chose to do, but knew that the daemin was right. So he nodded and was about to turn on his heel when he noticed something else gleaming beneath the surface of the pool.
It was a familiar piece of metal magic, embedded on the palm of her left hand. A Jerusalem cross entwined with a rune of wisdom resting against an outline of a shield – a crest identical to the one embedded on the back of his own hand.
The Ildefonso crest.
Inhaling sharply, Aindreas stared at it, cutting Corss' protest off with a sharp gesture of his hand as he took the last step towards the pool. This was not someone he could ignore.
"Go away," the serpent warned him again. "This little one is mine."
"No," Aindreas responded, the sibilant tongue slipping from his lips, determination lighting his impossibly green eyes. "She is mine."
The snake raised itself above the water, head swaying from side to side as it loomed threateningly above the pond. It was larger than it initially seemed and the aether swallowed heavily.
"Come in and claim her then, Speaker." The threat in its voice was unmistakable, but Aindreas had always been good at ignoring warnings.
He had one foot ankle-deep in the freezing water when Corss grabbed his shoulder. The aether hissed in frustration and stepped back, shrugging off the heavy limb and glaring at the redheaded daemin.
"Don't," Corss warned, tone deceptively placid.
"I have to." Aindreas did not explain – could not explain – why it was imperative that he rescued the girl in the pool. It was not for the gain of any favour or any inane need to prove his superiority as it had been with the vampire twins. No, this ran far deeper than that.
"Ask it what it would like in exchange for her then."
"What can I give you in exchange for her?" Aindreas obliged, and the serpent hissed an equivalent of mocking laughter.
The aether scowled and pooled magic into his palm.
"You cannot harm me without taking out your kin," the snake mocked, its blue luminescent scales reflecting the light of the dancing insects as it tightened marginally around the unconscious aether. "I will accept your dragonling too if you must. His fear of water would be a delightful treat."
Aindreas glanced back at Corss who had his sword drawn and his own serpent-like eyes trained steadily on the monster. His stance was casual, but every visible muscle up to his neck was tense.
"Then you cannot have her," the snake said simply, its tongue darting out to taste the air. "Do not ask further for you are not the one with the bargaining chip here, Speaker."
"Wait here," he informed his companion, only slightly surprised when Corss merely nodded in acquiescence.
He sprinted in the direction that they came from, clambering up the rocky surface of the slope with agility he had not been aware he possessed. When he found what he was looking for, he wasted little time in levitating it and rushing back to the pool, ignoring the bones that littered the cavern floor.
"Will this do?"
Once again the mighty serpent laughed, its sound echoing in the enclosed space.
Ever so slowly the water serpent uncoiled its massive body from its previous prey, forcing Aindreas to levitate the girl out of the water before she was submerged fully into its dark depths. Without warning, the snake darted forth with lightning quickness, claiming the enormous fire bat from right beside him with a pleased hiss.
It awoke the moment its fiery body touched the water, letting out a shrill cry as smoke began to rise from the water. The bat struggled futilely, kicking up water as its wings flailed.
Aindreas summoned the girl to him and left, unwilling to witness the gruesome sight and wanting only to get out of there before the smoke filled the chamber. He cradled the wet body close to himself as he moved, feet dancing lightly across the stone floor of the mountain. It was difficult, for she was taller than he and weighed heavily in his arms without the aid of a featherweight charm.
When they could no longer hear the cries of the dying bat, Aindreas crouched to the ground, and none-too-gently dropped his burden to the floor, cradling her head in his lap.
"Here," Corss spoke up, moving around the girl to kneel beside her. "Allow me."
Without waiting for his permission – and perhaps it was not his to give – the dragon daemin grasped the unconscious girl's hand. A red glow surrounded their joined hands, and Aindreas knew that his companion was providing her with heat. So he carefully shifted damp blonde strands from her face in an uncharacteristically tender motion, casting drying charms on her clothes and hair.
Almost painfully slowly, colour began to return to her cheeks and her breathing grew less shallow. The blue hue of her lips faded into a pale pink before Corss ended the spell. Much to his surprise, the daemin blew a blue flame from his lips and he watched in fascination as it hovered above her chest before sinking out of sight.
"Will you allow me to carry her?" Corss asked somewhat formally, golden eyes seeking his unfocused gaze and permission.
Gathering his wits about him, Aindreas nodded, transferring her weight to the taller being's arms before they set off down the rocky slope once more.
Part IV: Light at the end
By the time they emerged from the stifling air of the mountain into open air, the sun was already setting. The pair had settled into a comfortable silence. There had been no more obstacles in their path, although they did pass several trapped beings. Aindreas needed no urging to pass on by without stopping, and Corss merely walked beside him, carrying their precious bundle carefully.
Now, as they walked down the side of a river, Aindreas not help but acknowledge his tiredness, his booted feet dragging slightly against the grass as they walked closer towards a roar of sound.
An eldar stood by the flowing water where it passed in between the base of two mountains and descended as a waterfall into the valley behind them. With a gentle smile, the older being greeted them, hands clasped before him.
"Congratulations on making it this far. Please state your names."
"Corss Yves Blanc."
A startled noise was heard and Corss glanced down in surprise at the aether he held in his arms, raising both brows that went ignored. Aindreas merely snorted, too tired to be fazed by the amethyst gaze pinned on his face. After a moment had passed, the girl blinked and shifted her focus to the eldar.
"Very good," the eldar nodded, completely unfazed as he noted something down on a floating scroll beside him. "Any injuries that need looking at?"
For all their trials and tribulations, both Aindreas and Corss were uninjured. Bone-tired, perhaps, but not in any danger of losing their lives.
"Venom of a water Anconadiel," the girl informed him, as though it were only natural that she was being carried in. "It's at the stage of paralysis."
"Lay Mistress Chase on the ground please, Master Blanc."
The daemin obliged and both males watched in fascination as the aether cast several spells over her before laying his hands directly on her stomach, drawing out long viscous strands of electric blue that he directed into a conjured bottle. The whole process took several minutes, and Aindreas took the time to collapse onto a nearby boulder.
With the healing completed, the eldar handed the aether the capped bottle of venom with another enigmatic smile. She stood, shaking out her waist-length hair of shocking blonde and accepting the bottle with quiet thanks.
"Please present your keys."
Aindreas held out his gloved hand palm down, daring the eldar to order him to remove it. But the elf merely covered it with his own and pushed his magic into the metal. The now-familiar tug whisked him away and the aether closed his eyes and allowed it to move him.
He landed in a quiet courtyard seconds after Nicolette and before Corss. The aether traded glances with the tall daemin but the girl seemed determined not to look at them.
"Welcome," someone greeted them and they spun to face another eldar. She was similarly garbed as her counterpart by the river in long flowing robes of green. They each greeted her and thanked her in turn as she handed each of them a large piece of parchment.
"These are maps of the school grounds. You are to find lodgings for the night and report to the main entrance hall at the 8th hour tomorrow morning."
Without waiting for their reply, the eldar moved away, settling herself by the fountain with a book and a stack of maps beside her.
Aindreas unrolled his map and perused it, noting the star that marked their current location and that of the main entrance hall. The grounds looked expansive, stretching across what looked to be the entire valley that was enclosed in a ring of mountains in a way that could only be possible with magic.
"If you don't mind," Corss spoke, eyes studying a particular point of the map. "Could we camp near the volcano? After spending a day in that drafty mountain, my blood needs some heating."
If Aindreas thought it presumptions of him to assume that they were camping together, he did not say anything. Instead, he rolled up his map and gestured for Corss to lead the way. Above all else, he really was too tired to do anything else. Even the hunger in his belly lay secondary to his need to put himself in a horizontal position.
"Will you join us?" He asked the silent blonde who stood apart from them.
Startling amethyst eyes met his for a moment before she glanced away, rolling up the map.
"I will stay with you as long as it takes for me to repay my debt."
"Peace, sister," Aindreas soothed with a frown, not quite sure why he addressed her thus, only knowing that it felt right to do so. "There is no debt to repay. Stay only if you wish to remain."
But the girl frowned, anger sparking in those vividly-coloured orbs. "You saved my life and thus I owe it to you. Unless you mean to suggest that my life is not worth a debt?"
Caught unawares by her defensiveness and guarded reaction, Aindreas shook his head and moved to join Corss who was eyeing them with a strange expression on his face.
"You may owe me whatever you wish to owe me," he informed her finally. "I only meant that you need not stay with me out of a sense of obligation; stay only if you want to."
Gesturing for the dragon daemin to lead the way, it was Aindreas' turn to fall into step beside his companion who had gone back to perusing his map.
"I thought you knew her," Corss murmured under his breath, low enough that Nicolette would not catch his words. "I thought that was why you were so desperate to save her."
"No," Aindreas disagreed, aware that the girl was indeed following them, albeit several paces behind them. "But some things cannot be ignored."
"Indeed," the broad-shouldered youth agreed, his knowing voice causing the green-eyed aether to glance sharply at him. But Corss merely grinned and rolled up his map, clearly having memorized the route to his intended destination. "We are no longer strangers now, are we, Aindreas?"
"No," he admitted. "No longer strangers."
The auburn-haired male could not find an appropriate response to that and so fell into a silence that was becoming characteristic of him. He spun the Potter signet on his right pointer finger as they walked, automatically putting one foot in front of the other. When they paused at the foot of the volcano, however, he groaned aloud.
"I'm far too tired to climb another mountain, Corss."
"Can't you fly?" The dragon daemin asked, amusement dancing in his serpentine eyes.
Aindreas refrained from rolling his eyes and withdrew his broom from his pouch, not wanting to even ask how the daemin knew that. He felt, rather than saw, a rush of magic from the daemin and was greeted with the sight of a pair of large scaly wings protruding from Corss' back.
He really should stop being startled over such things.
Glancing behind him at their silent follower, Aindreas asked her if she needed a lift.
"No, thank you."
She uttered a series of curious whistles and her rescuers watched with slight amazement as her feet lifted from the ground, buffeted by a gathering of wind beneath her feet.
Corss laughed out loud and launched himself into the air, his wings taking him straight up above the tree tops. The aethers followed him, and they made it three quarters of the way up in a matter of minutes, landing cleanly in the middle of a small patch of relatively flat land.
"We should throw up some wards," the daemin suggested as Aindreas folded his legs beneath him and collapsed to the ground with his broom beside him. "I wouldn't put it past them to test us while we rest."
"Allow me," Nicolette offered in a tone that brooked no argument, already cutting open the pads of her fingers to raise some basic blood wards.
Aindreas was not about to argue, his eyes already slipping shut as his mind fell into a restful meditative state.
He had not quite meant to doze off completely, but when he awoke still seated and feeling refreshed, the sun was beginning the rise from behind the opposite mountains. Gentle rays of sunlight filtered through the sparse foliage and the aether stared in awe at the sight of the school awashed in the morning light.
Last night, he was too exhausted to admire the scenery. But the school was certainly a sight to behold. Several stone structures rose from the ground, looking almost like natural formations as the river wound around its perimeter, starting from the large waterfall and disappearing around a bend to parts unknown. So expansive were the grounds that he could not see it all despite his elevated perch and unobstructed view.
Hogwarts could not hope to compare.
There was a rustle of fabric behind him as Nicolette stirred from sleep and approached. She sat, uninvited, on rock he had clambered on to and for fifteen minutes they sat in companionable silence, taking in the majestic view before them while Corss slumbered on.
"Thank you," the blonde murmured finally, as though it were costing her much to utter those words. "For saving me."
"I am in your debt. And it would be an injustice and a stain upon my honour if you deny that."
"Then I won't."
Silence descended again and she began to painstakingly braid her hair from crown to the ends. Aindreas conjured two combs and offered one to her, using the other to untangle his own auburn locks.
When the dragon daemin awoke, both aethers were refreshed and decidedly less unkempt. It seemed, however, that the other creature was not a morning being as he took one look at the quietly content pair and took to the skies again, heading straight for the peak of the volcano.
"Is he going to bathe in lava?"
Part V: Innate Abilities
24th June 1995, 8.05am
They had been ushered from the main hall to the dining hall by several green-robed beings, and a crowd of fifty-odd teenagers were seated at tables scattered around the room just five minutes after their indicated gathering time. Latecomers, it was presumed, would be turned away.
Extravagant platters of steaming food were placed before them by smiling green-robed attendants, each one more decadent than the last.
"Poisoned," Aindreas noted, staring at the purple glow surrounding several dishes. Given the amount of energy he had expended the day before, he was not really expecting his strange second sight to return so quickly. But in this instance he was not complaining.
He missed the traded glances between his companions as he pointed out the dishes that were safe to eat.
The trio ate in a comfortable silence amidst the chatter in the hall. They each ate simply, with Nicolette drinking cream pumpkin soup with croutons while the boys chewed on meat sandwiches, Corss' clearly more bloodied than Aindreas'.
Partway through the meal, a large wolf-like daemin stood on his table, raising his goblet and proposing a toast to all of them who had successfully passed the entrance tests. Aindreas exchanged glances with Corss. If the staff had poisoned their food, the tests were clearly not over. Furthermore, there was an air of formality about the place, from the way they were served to the settings of the tables and the quality of their utensils. It was not meant to be a rowdy meal in a school cafeteria.
Then again, it was not in their disposition to behave thusly, although on Corss' part, it was probably because he was still partially asleep.
As if on cue, there were suddenly several loud thumps and panicked cries around the room as people began to fall out of their seats in dead slumps. They fell mostly by the table, although several smug individuals remained seated while their tablemates fell under the influence of the poison. Aindreas was only slightly comforted by the fact that they were all still breathing as attendants came forward to remove them from the room. Several were revived, but most were dragged out, leaving approximately three quarters of the original crowd.
As the last of the slumbering students were removed, a pair of double doors behind the only long table in the hall were thrown open, admitting a group of people. At their helm was a graceful aether, her dark hair piled on her head in curls, with a pair of intelligent periwinkle eyes that swept across the room.
Every teenager in the room, without exception, felt as though those eyes had pierced them straight to their soul, leaving all their secrets bare to her patient perusal.
"Welcome to Mistral Academy of Learning and Survival." Her strong voice carried without aid in the almost silent hall. "I am Headmistress Amadis Cadence. And with me are my faculty members."
She paused as a faint ripple of polite applause spread across the tables.
"I congratulate every one of you who have made it thus far. I do not think it has been an easy journey. But take heart in that your tests are nearly at an end. After today, you will know if you have the privilege of calling yourself a Mistral student.
"The Academy is a place for learning. Your education for the next five years lie in the hands of your instructors and, more importantly, in your own. You will decide how fast or slow you wish to take your education, subject to their approval. Take note, however, that you only have five years. After five years, regardless of your competence or incompetence, you will graduate to face the world.
"Of course, there are a number of you who will not test in. And another number who will not survive the five years. For we do not coddle you. Nor do we protect you. We are only here to impart knowledge and guidance. Survival is a game that only you can play for yourself. But that, I'm sure, you will find out in time.
"Today's guidelines are simple. We will be testing you for your natural and specific inclinations towards magic. If you pass a sufficient number of those, we will test your theoretical knowledge. If and when you pass these tests, then we will talk again.
With a nod and a smile that was not quite reassuring, the Headmistress swept out, followed closely by her entourage of teachers. Aindreas swallowed heavily and tried to reign in his nervousness as a green-robed attendant came up behind them and offered them each a piece of parchment printed with their timetables.
A quick comparison told them that they were not identical.
"We'll meet in the courtyard when we're done," Corss unilaterally decided. "Since it's the only place we are keyed into."
They split up fairly quickly after that, each marking out their testing areas on their maps for easy reference. From the looks of it, they would spend more time trekking across the school than actually sitting for tests.
Aindreas made his first stop with time to spare, knocking on the door to a classroom.
Entering the room, the aether was surprised to see a brightly-lit cavern instead of the typical classroom. From somewhere beyond the walls, he could actually hear the sound of running water.
A dark-haired Sidhe gestured him in and he approached with caution. But the other male merely pointed at a nearby seat and wordlessly told him to sit. There were several testees already sitting around the room on smooth boulders. They were seated cross-legged with several coloured orbs floating in front of them, deep in a meditative trance. Some orbs were lit brightly and it hurt to stare at them for too long.
"Spell it for me." And Aindreas did.
"I'm Jave Har, Prof Llewellyn's third year assistant. You're here to test your innate abilities for power and control. I'm going to put you under," the Sidhe informed him as though it were the most natural thing in the world. "Just let me in and I'll do all the work."
"Put me under?" Aindreas asked, settling his robes around him as he returned the Sidhe's gaze with incomprehension etched between his eyebrows.
"Only in a meditative trance," the other male assured him, dumping the coloured orbs in his lap. "It saves a lot of time and I won't even have to breach any of your mental defences. Assuming you have any, of course."
"I'd rather not."
"No? I guess you're one of those then," Jave said, unperturbed. "Well, you have five minutes to enter a trance otherwise I'm just going to fail you."
Despite his nervousness, Aindreas fell into a meditative trance with ease, gaining his equilibrium fairly quickly as he concentrated on the sounds of rushing water from behind the stone walls. When he had shut all else from his mind, he reached out with his senses, seeking the coloured orbs in his lap. One by one, he touched them with his magic, watching with satisfaction as they lit up and began to orbit around his person.
"That's good, Aindreas. You can put them down now."
Jave's voice sounded distant, but the older teenager asserted enough authority into it that Aindreas complied immediately. He opened his eyes to the smiling Sidhe snatching his seven orbs from the air.
"That was quick," Jave commented cheerfully, gesturing at the door. "Of course, this is the easiest test by far, but I don't think you'll have much problems if your control is that good. Now shoo. You're distracting the rest."
More than a little bewildered, Aindreas left. His watch and timetable informed him that he had taken ten minutes for his first test and that his next one was almost an hour away. So he took his time trekking across the corridors, carefully avoiding passageways that were not marked on the given map. Other prospective students hurried by him, none paying him any attention.
Still, he made it with 20 minutes to spare and he paced the corridor, wondering if he should knock.
The decision was taken from his hands when the door he had been walking by swung open and a feline daemin peered out at him.
"Professor Rennin will see you now if it means that you will stop your infernal pacing," she recited dutifully.
Aindreas flushed but ducked into the room, this one more conventional than the last.
"Professor Nicolai Rennin," the feline introduced, gesturing at the figure lounging behind a cluttered desk. Blood red eyes peered at him over a thick tome and Aindreas had to resist the urge to take a step back from the vampire. "Master of Death Magics."
Aindreas sat in the chair across from the professor, noting that the daemin had settled herself very comfortably across two joined desks.
The professor scratched something on the parchment before him and thunked a glass orb in front of him.
Aindreas touched it.
The vampire rolled his eyes.
"With your magic, you idiot."
Aindreas wanted to roll his eyes. But did as he was told.
The orb, where it was clear before, had filled with mist in two tones. Black and white. They didn't mix, although the black seemed to swim insidiously through the white smoke that moved very carefully out of its way.
"Well, don't know about affinity. But there is something there." The feline had perked up to watch them from her perch. Aindreas swallowed uncomfortably. Rennin snatched up his hand and the aether jerked it back, staring incredulously at him.
He could not quite say no to that tone of voice. The professor studied it intently, prodding at it with a sharpened nail. He wondered if he was going to draw blood.
Then red met green, bearing relentlessly into his head. Aindreas did not know what he was looking for, but it felt damned uncomfortable and so he reacted the only way he could. The chair fell to the floor as he rose and unceremoniously reclaimed his hand.
"So twitchy," Rennin noted, sniffing disdainfully. "No matter. I will find out. Report to my class when you pass your necessary foundational courses."
Clearly dismissed, Aindreas fled, keying himself directly to the main courtyard.
The same green-robed attendant from yesterday was there and she smiled sweetly at him. Aindreas swallowed heavily and nodded at her, making his way to an open-air courtyard by the side of the main building.
"Any known elemental affinity?"
And from there it went downhill.
"No, dummkopf don't use your magic to manipulate the water. I'm asking you to speak directly to the water."
"Let him go, Claire. He's no elemental."
By the time noon came around, Aindreas felt like he had fallen down the proverbial rabbit hole. He had been through a series of tests, most of which made no sense to him whatsoever. The death magics professor was downright creepy, the music instructor blatantly hit on him even after he confessed to having no music or dance knowledge, the elemental professor's fifth year assistants declared him a dunce and the magical theory professor took one look at him, declared that he had the gift of parseltongue and magic sight and literally booted him right out of the classroom. Then, of course, the blood magics professor thought him certifiable for mixing basilisk venom and phoenix tears into his blood.
He sat heavily by the fountain and unwrapped the lunch one of the dining hall attendants had prepared. The eldar attendant smiled at him and he fought down the shiver that threatened to race down his spine. She, too, was in the middle of lunch. Aindreas idly wondered if she ever left her post.
"Don't worry," she told him cheerfully as she bit into what looked like a vegetarian wrap. "This place grows on you."
Part VI: The end of a long day
Nicolette and Aindreas sat side by side, munching quietly on their packed dinner. Their daemin companion was stretched out on his back in front of them, staring unseeingly at the darkened sky, too exhausted to speak. Well, not really.
"Can we really survive five years of this?"
The aethers traded brief glances.
"Don't know," Aindreas shrugged, and went back to his food, studiously ignoring the acceptance package that lay beside him. It contained, they were told, the school guide book and instructions as to what they needed to do before the school term started in August. More interestingly, it also contained the classes that they had to take and classes that they were personally eligible for. They had agreed to open them together. But only after they were fed and watered and therefore less likely to succumb to bouts of hysteria or panic.
He had not asked what had gone on during their tests, and they had given him the same courtesy. But by unspoken agreement, each understood that it had been a trying day, and none could say for sure if they had known what they were getting themselves into. Aindreas was only glad that he was no longer going at it completely alone.
Their two-day-old friendship – if it could even be termed such – was not quite the same two-year camaraderie that Harry Potter had had with Hermione and Ron. However, it was a comfortable enough companionship born from a necessary reliance on each other. Aindreas did not trust them per se, but at the very least Nicolette owed him her life, and he was fairly sure he owed the dragon daemin something, although he was not entirely sure what it was.
"Why, hello, little aether," a voice crooned right into his ear. "I suppose I'll be seeing you when school starts."
Corss and Nicolette had lurched to their feet and drawn their weapons in the blink of an eye. But Aindreas deliberately took his time in turning his head to meet the hazel gazes of a pair of familiar vampires.
A smirk curled a corner of his lips, and green eyes darkened as he regarded them calmly.
"I suppose you will."
To be continued…