Shinji fiddled with his tie as the Headmaster continued his welcome speech, which seemed to incorporate some of the welcoming talk that he had gotten about a month ago. Rei, never taking her eyes from the podium where he stood, surreptitiously poked him in the ribs in an attempt to get him to stop fidgeting. It didn't really work.
"So, that's why you should stay away from the lake and the woods. Dismemberment is not a pleasant experience, as anyone who's had it done to them could tell you."
"Now, before we begin the feast, I have one last minor announcement to make. From time to time, we are called upon, as an academical institute of high standing, to play host to the children of people visiting here in the Geo-Front on other business than what normally concerns the Academy. Today we welcome the son of two important researchers, who are here working with one of the science research projects in the north sector. As they are very busy with their work, he has been enrolled here for schooling. Mr. Sato, if you would please stand up?"
Shinji stood up, to polite, if somewhat bored applause from the assembled students. He sat back down quickly.
"Mr. Sato will be sitting in on some of the magical theory and application classes, but will not be participating, only observing. I trust that every one of you will ensure that none of the... more imaginative pranks that seem to occur each year do not fall on his head, as he will of course be at a severe disadvantage, not being able to defend against them with the various counter-spells."
There was a mumbled assent from the gathered student body.
Headmaster Fuyutsuki beamed, his tone jolly, but still somehow carried a veiled threat. "Good! I wouldn't want his parents lodging complaints against the Academy for any abuse towards their son. It would be... very unwise to offend his parents, and none of the faculty will abide anything approaching what occurred to the exchange student from Durmstrang last year. But on that note, I would like to welcome you all, and let us eat!"
He raised his hands, and brought them down in one of the theatrical gestures that Shinji had rapidly noticed the elderly man was fond of as food suddenly appeared out of thin air.
As he helped himself to some of the food, Rei nodded to a pig-tailed girl sitting across the table from them. "Hikari, this is Shinji Sato. Shinji, this is Hikari Hokari."
"Um, hello. Rei's said a lot about you, Miss Hokari."
The freckled girl laughed. "You can call me Hikari. Well, she did say that there was going to be a transfer student, but she didn't include a picture." She shot a knowing look at Rei, who blushed and looked down at her plate. Shinji didn't understand what she was getting at but decided to try out the cover story they had spent a month practicing.
"Oh, well, there's pretty much no pictures of me. My parents are busy all the time with their work, so we don't have any family photos or anything. I'm actually kinda surprised that they brought me along this time."
Hikari looked up from scooping yams onto her plate. "Oh?"
"They normally leave me with one tutor or another. I've been bounced around so much, I haven't gotten much of an education, by any standard. But then they dropped this all on me at the last minute. I had no idea that magic even existed, or that my parents were doing research work at a place like this."
"What do your parents do, anyway? If they aren't mages, they must be pretty important to even know about the Geo-Front, let alone do research here."
"Oh, they do stuff with particles. Nuclear quantum physics, I think." He laughed nervously, scratching the back of his head. "I'm something of a disappointment to them, I think. I'm not very smart at all."
Rei frowned at the boy. "Don't let him tell you that, Hikari. He's picked up a lot in the month that he's been here. He understands most of the basics. My mom was having me help teach him three years worth of theory in a month."
"Wow. That is impressive. So, they put you in Ravenclaw, obviously. Did they put the hat on you, or did they just put you in here because you already know Rei?"
"Oh, they put the hat on me. It told me some weird things though, that I didn't understand. Does it always do that?"
"We tried looking answers in the vision books, but we've not had any luck." Rei looked imploringly at her friend. "I was kind of hoping that you would help us out with that.
"Hmm. Well, I guess we can look for answers later. I'll need to make sure that Toji hasn't let his studying slip over the summer, anyway."
Rei snatched a biscuit from a passing bowl. "Hikari's dating this lump of a Gryffindor named Toji Suzahara."
"He's not a lump! He's actually quite good at what he does if he takes time to practice and study."
"Which he doesn't. He's too busy goofing off with Ken."
Hikari shook her head. "I know, but this year Kensuke's going to be too busy working on qualifying for the battlemage pre-exams to be able to get up into much trouble. I'm hoping that means that Toji will buckle down and take his studies seriously."
Another Ravenclaw student, a hulking giant of a boy shook his head while taking a break from shoveling food into his mouth. "Sorry, Hikari, but Carl's gonna be talking to Toji to see if he be wanting to join the team."
"What." Hikari put down her food and stared at the huge boy, who merely shrugged.
"Just a head's up. The guy's good at it. If he does well enough on the house team, scouts might pick him up for league play after he graduates. You know this."
Shinji leaned over to Rei. "What are they talking about? Is this a regular sport, or a mage thing?" Over the course of the previous month he had learned that not everything, and in fact a whole lot of things didn't have anything to do with the fact that they were mages or had to do with magic.
"It's football. Each of the houses has a football team. Chester-" she pointed to the other boy, "plays as goalie for our team. His brother, Carl, is the captain of the Gryffindor's team."
Shinji nodded in understanding.
Hikari pointed a finger at Chester. "And when is Carl planning on asking him?"
Chester rolled his eyes. "I don't know. It wasn't really that big of a thing for me."
Hikari only snorted and muttered something about boys under her breath.
Chester pointed a fork in Shinji's direction. "So Sato, you into football any? We're always looking for good players to fill out the roster. You never know when someone might go down."
"uh... I-I'm not so sure about that me playing football would be a good idea..."
"Hey, don't worry about. Plenty of other extra-curriculars around the school for you to get involved in."
Shinji nodded, glad that he had dodged that bullet. Getting smacked around on a football field was not on his list of things that he wanted to do in his spare time. Feeling rather full, he piled his silverware on the plate, which Rei then tapped with her wand, causing the stack to disappear.
"Thanks, Rei." He noticed Hikari's puzzled look, and sheepishly smiled. "I don't have a wand. No-ones told me why, but I get to sit in on a couple classes and learn how you all use them for some spells, but I'm not supposed to actually do the spells. So, no wand."
Hikari nodded. "Which would make a bunch of the small tasks around here sort of impossible for you to do. Like send your dishes back to the kitchens, for example." She frowned, as she started satcking her own little pile up. "But that hardly seems fair. I'd think that they would stick you in the classes where you don't need a wand, or any magical talent. Like potions, for example. All that is is basically chemistry with really hard to find ingredients. As long as you have a recipe and access to the components, anyone, mage or no, can brew up potions."
The Ravenclaw prefect nodded to Shinji, who nodded back as the older student passed by, the first years in tow behind her. They had been introduced earlier, with Professor Akagi giving the prefect )whose name Shinji had already forgotten) the cover story before the sorting ceremony.
Shinji looked around to see that most of the large room was emptying out. Hikari looked at her watch, just as the castle's clock tower began to boom, sounding off the time.
"I'm going to go find Toji before curfew hits. I'll see you guys in the dorms later. Bye!" Hikari rose and left in search of her boyfriend in the milling crowds.
Rei nodded to Shinji and they also stood to leave. Shinji sighed inwardly as he checked off the feast from his list of things to deal with that day. The next thing he was silently dreading was the fact that he was going to have to sleep in a room with three other boys. That alone was more than the amount of people who slept under the same roof as him for as long as he could remember.
At least I've got my own room I can hide out in after classes. And maybe my room mates will be quite. He eyed some of the louder, more rambunctious students as he and Rei threaded their way silently through the halls. But probably not.
Eins, Zwei, Drei, Vier!
Shinji sighed as he slipped into an unoccupied seat near the back of the class. Almost done for the day. Last class, Potions. And then I can get started on my homework. He sighed again, but then brightened slightly. At least I don't have to go weed any gardens. Or take care of those stupid chickens.
Professor Carter did not enter the class so much as he seemed to flow into it, seeming to move from one point to another in a way that Shinji couldn't quite explain and made his eyes hurt to watch. Like when they had meet before, Professor Carter was wearing a suit of dusty black instead of the robes most of the faculty seemed to favor. Shinji found himself wishing for a normal school uniform, even if it was a suit akin to the Professor's, as he found the robes issued to him awkward and vaguely moronic looking.
He flatly had refused the optional pointed hat that some of the other students wore. No matter how much that Rei might protest about it's traditionalness and history, he was not going to wear that hat.
"Potions. An often overlooked field of expertise in the magical world, despite the utility and usefulness of even some of the simplest concoctions that can be made. Many regard the art and science of potion making as a mere prerequisite to the fields of alchemy and thaumaturgery, but I will tell you this; that while anyone can learn the basics and theory of potion brewing with relative ease and then move on to the so called advanced areas of study, for the few who take the time to master this art, they will be able to obtain results beyond the limits of many other field.
This is a subtle craft, and will require study and practice. But the potential to be a potion master lies in anyone. And woe unto those who would do ill to such a person, for the potion-master can heal themselves of even the most grievous injury, light their way in the darkest of places, bring darkness to a battlefield and hide amongst their foes to strike them unseen.
In other words, I can teach you to bewitch the mind, to ensnare the senses. I can teach you to bottle fame, to brew glory, and even put a stopper in death.
All that I will ask of you is that you apply yourself to your studies. Now, open your books to page forty-five and begin working in teams on the Basic Light Potion."
Eins, Zwei, Drei, Vier!
As before the school year started, days became weeks, and the weeks rolled into months, and before Shinji had noticed, two months had come and gone. He had fallen into an easy routine, and had come to know which students to generally avoid, who he could deal with, and his small (but dependable) group of people who had won his trust.
Toji Suzahara, true to Rei's initial description of him, was a bit of a lump, but loyal and steadfast, and true to Hikari's description, also quite skilled when he took the time to study and apply himself.
While he had come almost hand in hand with Hikari's friendship, so did Kensuke Aida come as a package deal with Toji. The bespectacled teen was a military fanatic, it seemed, interested in all aspects of the art of applied physical diplomacy, both magical and muggle. History, theory, practical application, it was all of interest to him. He was not often available to hang out or study with the rest of the group, as he was busy with Captain Katsuragi's after hours study program, but was guaranteed to be around at least two or three days a week.
Hikari, true to her word, had been helping Shinji and Rei in their quest to figure out the meanings behind the Sorting Hat's words to Shinji, which had seemingly burned into his brain, unable to be forgotten, often rising to the forefront of his mind when daydreaming, fighting with idle (and often embarrassing) thoughts of Rei for attention.
It was Saturday, meaning only a morning's worth of classes, with the rest of the afternoon supposedly for self study or obtaining the instructor's assistance with a class, but most students took the time for goofing off around the castle grounds, or, in the case of the older students, going to the small village near the castle, and in the case of the oldest students, spending it above ground, in Tokyo-3.
Hikari found Shinji and Rei eating a late lunch, each with their nose in a book. Shinji's was a third year potion book, having impressed Professor Carter with his aptitude for the subject and being advanced to a third year class (when pressed for an explanation, Shinji said that it was just like cooking, much to Ritsuko's amusement), and in Rei's case, her English Literature book. Neither one looked up as Hikari excitedly sat down.
"Hey guys, guess what I found out!"
Rei flipped a page in her book in response. "Hi Hikari. You found out that... um... I don't know, I'm terrible at guessing games."
Hikari rolled her eyes. "I found a reference to the Minstrel Boy!"
Both students lowered their books. Shinji marked his place before closing his, and then looked at Hikari. "Is this another heraldry thing? Because I don't see what a minstrel has to do with spears being held left handed. I mean, I'm right handed." He held his hand up for inspection. "And it's not particularly red, either."
Hikari shook her head. "It has to do with a prophecy. I almost missed the reference, but it was there in my book." She grabbed Rei's glass of juice and took a drink. "In all honesty, I found it by accident." She frowned as she swished the orange liquid around inside the cup. "It's weird though, and now I'm not sure if it even has anything to do with you."
"What prophecy?" As usual, Rei's voice was quiet, but thoughtful as she eyed the brown-haired boy sitting across from her.
Hikari shook her head. "It's an old, old one, from ancient England. I only found mention of it by accident, like I said." She pulled a book bearing the hand made binding from the library out of her bag. It was entitled Iron and Ravens; A Treatise of Ancient Brittania, vol III. "It doesn't say much about the prophecy itself, really only the name, which was, as one might guess, The Prophecy of the Minstrel Boy. It was the last prophecy laid down by a druid shaman before he died."
Shinji sighed. "Well, we're a little closer to figuring it out than we were before. Thank you Hikari."
The girl stared at them trough narrowed eyes as she tucked the book away into her bag.
"You know, I'm not stupid, guys. Are you going to level with me, or what?"
She watched as both her friends blushed, trading glances with each other, and then looking back at her. Rei closed her book and set it on the table. "I think we should tell her, Shinji."
Shinji nodded and shoved his book into his bag as Rei dismissed their plates. Standing up, he nodded to Hikari. "We really shouldn't talk about it out here, so let's go to my room."
Hikari's eyes widened as she too stood. "Your room, room? Not the common room?"
Both Shinji and Rei shook their heads. "No," Shinji said again, "My room."
Eins, Zwei, Drei, Vier!
Hikari stared at the photo book, a look of both awe and sorrow playing over her features. She looked up from the book to Shinji, and then back again. "You really are the Boy Who Lived..."
Shinji nodded with a sigh. "I am. So you get why we're interested in finding out what exactly the Hat meant by it's comments."
"But why not just ask the professors about it? I mean, Rei's mom is one!"
Shinji shook his head. He wasn't quite sure how to explain his little misgivings with talking about it to the instructors. Rei was fine with the fact that he wanted to try to find out what the Hat had meant by themselves, being somewhat at odds herself with the faculty over her somewhat unique situation. The words and warnings of Aoba, Hoja and Richard still weighed heavily on him. They held the Academy in high regard, yes, but they also told him to not trust everything that they said.
The same could not really be said of the Academy on the subject of Ghouls and Shoggoths. To listen to what was said about them was to be downright terrified of them, but to Shinji they had been polite (overly so, in his opinion) and seemed nice enough.
Shinji had a nagging feeling that things were not as they might seem.
However, it was hard for him to put all of this into words. He was not a talkative person by nature, and even amongst his friends it seemed that he was in a fight with Rei to see who was the most taciturn. He won most of the time, keeping his mouth shut when seeing things that he didn't understand, opting to see if he could figure out what was going on rather than show his ignorance by asking a thousand different questions.
That and the fact that he hadn't exactly had a deep social pool when he was younger didn't help any.
"I want to try to figure it out without involving them. I can't really explain it... but if you don't want to help us, I'll understand."
Hikari looked shocked now, and stood up, her hands on her hips. "WHAT? Not help the Boy Who Lived? Are you crazy? You're... You're a hero!"
Shinji smiled. "OK, OK. But you can't let anyone know about it. It's supposed to be a secret."
Hikari nodded as she sat back down. "I can see why. I mean, you're famous! It'd be a lot of pressure, trying to live up to everyone's expectations!" Her eyes narrowed suddenly. "Speaking of that, don't think that I'm going to let you slack off on your homework too, just because you're famous!"
Rei rolled her eyes. " Don't worry about that, my mom's got that covered. So, what did the prophecy say?"
Eins, Zwei, Drei, Vier!
Kozo smoothed out the front of his suit as he walked towards the pair of figures waiting for him in the lobby of the skyscraper that hid the main entrance to the Geo-Front. He hated having to wear the suits of the 'modern' world, preferring his very comfortable robes, but when one was out in public, one did what one must.
It didn't help any that the suits worn by the Ghouls were much nicer and newer than his own. It was a source of much discussion amongst Kozo's inner circle of friends and compatriots, how the underground dwelling savages kept their 'business' attire so well maintained, considering that most of them lived in graveyards and old subway tunnels and the like.
The two man-things turned from the large windows to face the wizard as he drew near. One drew his face into an approximation of a smile, but on the vaguely doggish features the effect was less than heart warming or friendly.
"Ahh, Headmaster Fuyutsuki! A pleasure, I'm sure." The ghoul's voice was raspy and dry, and his words were heavy with sarcasm. "What do you want?"
"Come, there is no need for unpleasantness, James!" Kozo spread his arms in a welcoming gesture, as if he was going to for a hug. "Let us move to a more private venue, shall we?"
James snorted. "Let's not. I'm not planning on sticking around here any more than I have to. What do you want?"
"I'm more interested in what you want, James. In what the Ruined City wants, to be more precise."
The ghoul narrowed his eyes in suspicion. "You know what we want. To serve the Master. To ensure that what was allowed to happen before is never again possible. To make up for the failures of you and your kind, Mageling."
"And what if I told you that we might allow a small, minor, ghoul presence inside the Geo-Front?"
"I'd wonder what you'd want. And how would you keep this hidden from everyone else? I know that we'd be an unwelcome presence." He grinned, showing off all his teeth, all of them pointed and stained yellow. "Of course, you also have to know that once we're there, you'll never be able to keep us out. All it takes is a few dead bodies in the ground. Where there's a grave there's a way."
Kozo's smile never faltered, never showed the revulsion churning in the pit of his being. This is the hard part, he told himself, but this needs to be done. "Actually, that would be one of the terms of any agreement letting you in. No graves being dug. But think of it, James. Being closer to the boy. To actually watch him, instead of just the entrances that you know about."
James scowled at him before turning to face the windows again, watching the flow of humanity through the mirrored glass. "Which brings up my question again. What do you want?"
"A few months ago, a bank was robbed. One particular vault was opened, and one particular item was removed. Our agents so far have had no luck in finding the item or the people responsible. We wish to enlist your aid in this matter."
"Seriously? You want us to go looking for something that stolen from a bank?" James looked back at Kozo, shaking his head. "I know that your kind views us as savages and dog-men, but really?"
"What are you going on about James? I know that you're not trying to tell me that you don't have some of the best trackers and hunters in the world."
"That is a vicious stereotype. We're not dogs."
"You're purposely misconstruing what I'm saying and taking it as an insult. Your people are hunters, James. Now look me in the eye and tell me that the Loup-Garou can't find anything or anyone that they are looking for."
Bloodshot eyes stared directly into Kozo's, as if looking directly into the mage's soul. "We weren't able to find the Master wherever it was that you stashed him for fifteen years. And trust me when I say this mage, trust me and listen well. We were looking."
At least the wards were good enough to keep them out and away. It still doesn't answer the issue about that plane engine. Kozo sighed, and turned as if departing. "Well, if that's how you feel about it, I suppose that there's no point to discussing this further."
"I never said that we would never look. Just that we might not find. What in particular was taken?"
Kozo's smile returned. "Well, it's an orb of red stone, slightly larger than a man's skull..."
Eins, Zwei, Drei, Vier!
"Hello, Shinji. How are you doing?"
"I'm fine, Professor Akagi. Is Rei home?" He held up a book as a way of explanation for his presence. "We're doing a study group for the Potions test on Saturday."
"Ah. Well, she should be done practicing in a little bit, so you might as well come in."
Shinji followed Naoko inside, lining his shoes up next to the door before heading on into the kitchen, where it had been mandated that when he visited that was where they stayed. They also weren't supposed to hang out in his small apartment either, but they both figured what she didn't know wouldn't hurt them.
"You want anything to drink? Some pumpkin juice?" Naoko poured some tea for herself from a kettle that Shinji knew was enchanted to always keep the water in it hot. It was a source of much confusion to the boy how... mundane most of the magic he saw on a day to day basis actually was. It certainly made things easier, well, easier for the people who could do magic, but on the whole it was rather underwhelming. He had yet to see anything done on the level of the firefight on the night that he had been brought to the castle, and while he certainly was in no hurry to experience that again, he had yet to see something that was even a little like that. Even in the odd assortment of classes that he was in, the most impressive things had been seen in his Potions class (which was his favorite class, hands down); but that class, as had been pointed out many a time to him by some of the lesser friendly students, barely counted for magical course credits. Anyone could do it. It was just that a muggle would have a difficult time (but not impossible) getting all the components needed for even some of the simplest potions.
If he had been more of a technically minded person, he would have wondered why the mages didn't take advantage of the fact that they constantly flounced the laws of thermodynamics and physics on a regular basis. If they could enchant a teapot to ensure that it kept the water in it at a certain temperature, why not make a steam turbine engine that needed no fire? Just enchant the boiler to boil water forever. They could provide more than enough energy to supply the world forever.
Shinji, however, was far from being a technically minded fellow, and so the question never came up. Even though one could not at all accuse him for having a flair for the dramatic (he could be very literal minded at times), he nonetheless thought that the mages should be doing something... more flashy or impressive than what was being taught and what he was seeing. So far, much of the magic seemed to revolve around the mages being some of the laziest people ever. Moving dishes and food from the kitchens to the dining-hall. Heating the castle. Cleaning clothing. Opening doors, moving even the smallest of objects around.
And that didn't even cover the practical jokes that he saw go on around him. People seemed to take the Headmaster's warning to heart, though, and none were ever directed against him; a fact that he was glad of. Some of them seemed like they could hurt a person if they didn't have the magical know how and skill to deal with the issue.
"No thanks, Professor." he said as he sat down. "I'm still not really used to it."
Sipping her tea, she watched him as he squirmed a little under her implacable gaze. "Rei likes pumpkin juice." she pointed out, as if this somehow made the beverage more appealing.
Shinji, by dint of being both male and a socially stunted person in general, did not get what she was hinting at. In all actuality, it was because of both these things also made him not get the extremely subtle (but they were there) hints that Rei sometimes dropped around him, and the much less subtle (but still subtle) hints that Hikari dropped to him about the hints that Rei was dropping.
He thought that was just how girls acted normally.
So, in his defense, everything that he said in response to such things made perfect sense in his context. Unfortunately, that context made him seem rather blunt and thicker than lead to everyone else, including Toji, which was saying something.
"Well, Rei's grown up drinking that stuff. And just because she likes it doesn't make it any less weird, Professor. I mean, Toji likes to play football but that doesn't mean I do."
Shinji had no idea how much his answers to questions like that one eased Naoko's mind.
Her smile a little warmer now, she nodded at him absentmindedly. Good, good. At least that's one less thing to worry about for now. "Carter's been keeping me appraised of your progress in his class, Shinji. You're doing very well for someone just picking it up."
He blushed slightly, as he often did when being complemented. Or scolded. He did not, however, stammer. He had been getting better at that in the past months, at least. "Thank you, Professor."
"You know that if you've got any issues or questions regarding anything that you can talk to me or Professor Carter. Anything from school work to stuff in general as you get used to life here."
Shinji nodded. "Yes, Professor. I don't have that many questions though. I mean, I can normally figure stuff out by watching everyone else."
"How's your work with Katsuragi coming? I know that she cut the days you have to show up down some, but are you keeping up with the exercises?"
"Yes..." he paused, looking uncertain. "Professor, that is something that I don't understand. Why am I doing pre-battlemage exam practices? Why am I even taking some of the magic classes that I'm in at all? If I don't have any magical ability, it just seems like it's a waste of time to me."
"Good heavens, what makes you think that you don't have any magical ability, boy?" She set her cup down on the counter as she stared at him. "If you had no magical ability we certainly wouldn't be bothering to have you in those classes at all!"
His look of confusion threatened to send Naoko into a fit of giggles. "But, if I've got magical ability, then why don't I have a wand? Why aren't I practicing the spells that I'm watching the others learn?"
"Because you're either a very powerful mage Shinji, or you have a natural reflexive magical field. We need to make sure that you understand all of the basics before letting you even try to practice them, otherwise catastrophic things could occur. You probably won't even start doing that until everyone leaves for the summer break." She looked him dead in the eyes, making sure that he was paying attention. "Now, just because I've told you this, which you really should have figured out on your own; don't go and try to practice things in secret. You, as a baby, barely a year old, managed to do something whole armies could not do. That's not something that should be thrown around lightly. But, I suppose we might as well do something with you as far as testing to see how you react to things."
"How I react to things?"
"Yes! When the Dark Lord tried to kill you, he used magic. Well, the theory that's widely accepted is that you reacted instinctively to it, and that reaction is what went and killed him, the minions he had with him, and burned everything around you to ash, in addition to broadcasting the whole thing on all the scrying stones being used at the time. To be perfectly honest, you should not be alive. That should not have happened. This was the main reason why Kozo told everyone to not use you as target practice for practical jokes; there's no way to tell what could happen!"
"But... if it's so dangerous, why let me mix with everyone else? What is someone didn't care that they weren't supposed to do that? I don't want to hurt anyone!"
She sighed. That he didn't want to hurt anyone seemed true enough. He even went so far as to not even want to offend anyone. Unfortunately for him, destiny and prophecy had different ideas about him hurting others.
Even if half the prophecies they associated with him actually weren't, the ones they knew for sure ended any argument on the matter of him being a pacifist. The boy was going to lead an army before he died. And that wasn't taking into account the machine sitting in the deepest dungeons of the castle.
"That's why we've placed shields on your clothes, to negate and reflect anything anyone sends your way. But I'll talk to Kozo and Ritsuko and see if we can start testing some low level spells on you after classes are let out in the afternoons."
"Low level spells? Like levitation?"
"Exactly like levitation." Naoko refilled her cup from the kettle. "I know that it must seem strange, but keep in mind that magic is a dangerous tool. It can be very useful, when harnessed properly, but it is still a very real threat to each person that uses it and who is around those that use it. You know that it takes a toll on the mind."
Shinji nodded. The mental and sometimes physical costs of magic were ground into each student almost daily. It only made the way that the people around him used their talents seem that much stranger and wasteful, even though the 'cost' on the spells that were casually flung about over the course of a normal day were negligible, but it still bothered him a little.
A knock on the apartment door interrupted the conversation. Naoko, with a glance at Shinji, went down the hall to answer the door. Hikari smiled at the Ravenclaw Head, ducking inside while dragging Toji in with her. Kensuke bowed to Naoko, as one of the rules of the pre-battlemage course set required the students to show all the traditional formalities and honors to the faculty and staff of the Academy.
"Quite the study group you have here." Naoko said, the smile on her face at odds with her serious tone.
Toji nodded emphatically and enthusiastically, no doubt in part to the fact that his girlfriend only consented to his being on the Gryffindor's football team if he kept his grades up to her standards. As the girl was one of the best in the whole House, Naoko knew the boy was not having an easy time of it. "Yes m'mam. The Prof here's a right genius when it comes to Potions class."
Naoko turned an amused look on Shinji, who was turning red and wishing that he knew a spell for invisibility, even as Hikari slapped Toji's arm.
"Prof? As in, Professor? Professor Ikari? Was there a faculty change when I wasn't looking?"
Hikari rolled her eyes as she set her materials up on the table. "No, it's just a nickname that someone came up with when he completely aced the last potions test with a custom potion of fire. Professor Carter said that he hadn't ever seen a potion quite like that one."
Leveling an appraising look at her student, Naoko sipped her tea. "Interesting. He never mentioned it to me."
Kensuke looked up from his book and notes with a wink to the cringing 'prof'. "I think it's because he told Shinji not to tell him the secret ingredient that he used. He wants to try to figure it out, and I don't think he's want to tell the other teachers that Shinji the muggle stumped him."
Shinji opened his mouth to speak, but Naoko caught his eye and shook her head negatively, quickly tapping a single finger to her lips. Looking a little crestfallen, but understanding what she meant, he snapped his mouth shut again before the others noticed.
Glancing at her watch, she set her cup down on the counter and headed for the door. As she was putting on her shoes, she called back to the group waiting in the kitchen. "Hikari, be a dear and go let Rei know that you're all here. She's practicing, and you know how she gets."
"Sure thing, Professor!" Hikari called back even as she made her way down to her friend's bedroom.
Shinji looked at his friends as they paged through their notes, waiting for the girls. This wasn't the first time he had heard mention of Rei practicing something, but whatever it was had never seemed to come up in conversation before, like so many things dealing with the blue-haired girl. She didn't advertise her hobbies, and if you didn't already know about them, you probably weren't going to.
Of course, the same could be (and was) said about him, although he didn't know it. He had a tendency to be oblivious to the things people were saying about him to the point of comedic levels.
"What's Rei practicing?" he asked, breaking the silence.
Toji and Kensuke shared a look at each other, and then looked at Shinji, and then back to each other.
"Ah, it's a musical instrument." Toji offered helpfully. "She started playing... how long ago was it Ken?"
"She started when she was six." The bespectacled boy answered, turning back to his book.
Shinji brightened at this bit of news. He had his cello, of course, although he didn't practice with it as much as he should. He was, however, always trying to find new things with which to have non-awkward conversations with Rei about, and music seemed as good as any.
"What does she play? I don't think anyone's ever said anything about it. She's...uhh... she's not in the band, is she?" He fervently hoped that he hadn't somehow missed out on a major fact like that. While they didn't spend all their free time together (far from it), they did spend enough of it to the point where he really should have picked up on something like that.
"No, she's not in the band." Kensuke answered to his almost palatable relief.
Toji grinned. "It's not exactly a band instrument. Besides, she's not much one for doing things with large groups anyways."
Shinji, feeling like he was getting the run around, narrowed his eyes at the two boys who were carefully not looking at him. "So, what does she play?"
The boys looked at each other, but Toji held up in invisible (imaginary) business card.
Sighing and shooting him a dirty look, Kensuke looked back over to Shinji. Taking a deep breath, his expression grave, said with all the seriousness of the grave; "She plays the bagpipes."
"Oh. Wait, what?"
Eins, Zwei, Drei, Vier!
Kozo looked up from his desk as Naoko walked in, a frown on her face. "What's bothering you now, Naoko?" he asked, going back to the report he was reading. "And if you're still having second thoughts about the ghoul outpost in the woods, we can't really kick them out if we want to keep them looking for the stone. Besides, our friends in the woods tell me that so far they are abiding by the agreement to not bury anything. They're acting in good faith."
"I didn't come up to complain about that, but still... I don't like having them in the Geo-Front. If the student's parents knew about it, it'd be a disaster. It's bad enough having them prowling about in Tokyo-3."
"On the bright side, while missing persons reports are up, nighttime crimes of all manner are virtually non-existent."
"Oh, that makes it all better then. It's all OK for the ghouls to eat people, because they're causing the crime rate to drop! Are you insane?" She collapsed onto the couch with a sigh.
Somewhat ignoring her and not looking up from his report, he pointed to a letter sitting on the short table by the couch and chairs. "You might want to read that. His aunt and uncle aren't very happy with us, and to a lesser amount with him."
"Are you serious? We told them that we'd take care of him. They barely did anything with the boy; why are they raising a fuss now?" She picked up the letter and began scanning it. "They don't trust us? That's rich. What I want to know is what exactly they think that they're going to do when we don't fork him back over to them to live on a farm for the rest of his life. Which, I might add, would be bloody and short. Something compromised those wards, something powerful. Otherwise that jet engine would have shattered into a thousand pieces when it went onto their property. We can replace the wards, but there's no guarantee that what ever voided them in the first place won't do it again." She looked back over to the headmaster as he continued reading. "Did they ever find out what voided them? And how they managed it without tripping the alarms we set on them?"
Kozo held up the paper that he was reading. "No. When the team went out there, they found that everything had been destroyed. All the wards and alarms. All gone. No hint as to how long it had been either."
The color drained from Naoko's face as the implications of that sank in. A full complement of nine mages, including three wizards of no small talent, had set the wards and alarm spells that were to guard and shield the boy and his family from any harm or ill intentions. The spells should have lasted for just about forever, and would have kept the land and buildings safe from just about anything, excepting things like volcanic explosions. Breaking those wards would have taken an immense amount of power, and the mages involved should have felt their spells breaking. Even if they didn't, a wide variety of alarm spells had been placed as extra insurance, but somehow even those had not been tripped.
"How is that even possible?" She got up and began pacing back and forth before stopping mid-stride, a horrified expression on her face. "Wait, what about the wards and alarms around the Geo-Front? If someone canceled-"
"I already have people working on it. So far everything checks out. I'm also having them check to see if they can detect any new spells."
"Who's heading up the team?"
"Langfellow." He held up a hand to forestall any objections, but it was in vain.
"Henry is a pompous ass, and a coward."
"He's very good at what he does. Just because of your personnel history with him is no reason not to trust him."
"My personnel history? Kozo, the only reason that man wasn't a Death Eater was because he's too craven to be one!"
"He faced the Dark Lord. He gave us invaluable information during the wars as a spy. At great risk to himself, if you remember."
"I don't trust him, and I think your trust is misplaced. The man is a rat. And he didn't face the Dark Lord, he ran away from him! He'll be the first to tell you that!"
"Personnel opinions aside, Naoko, I know that you didn't come up here to complain about that. We've had this discussion before. So what's really bothering you?"
The Ravenclaw head buried her head in her hands, sliding them up to run her fingers through her dark hair, tugging gently as she reached the top of her head. "It's the children."
"There are many children here, if you hadn't noticed."
She glared at him, not in the mood for his games. "You well know what children I'm speaking of."
"What about them? He's been doing well in his classes, hasn't gotten into any fights, and hasn't shown any of the traditional Ikari tendencies yet. He hasn't even shown hints of the Silver Key being present in his dreams. I also have noted a severe lack of him and Rei sneaking off together and snogging, unlike several other students they know. Rei, for her part, has been slowly creeping out of her shell. So, again, what about them?"
"I'll give you the fact the boy seems to be completely oblivious to any sort of female charms, but that won't last forever. He's in an awkward place right now, but sooner or later he's going to wake up. Rei's not as bad as him, and I'm sure that she's got her sights set on him."
"Why are you so sure of this?"
Naoko looked at her friend and occasional lover with disgust. "Are you serious? She's your god-daughter. You haven't noticed the way she acts around him? I know that you're not that dense. Before we know it they will be off snogging behind our backs. And I know that I am not going to be the one to give him the talk."
"So she's making eyes at the boy. If it bothers you that much tell her that she can't see him anymore. But you and I both know that she's come out of her shell some, and it's because of him."
"I just don't know if it's a good idea that they're becoming friends the way they are. It doesn't bode well for the future." Naoko groaned, and smacked a hand to her face, before growling. "Rei Ayanami Akagi, stop scrying on your own, or so help me I will ground you like you've never been grounded before."
Kozo stared at her like she had suddenly grown ten feet taller and sprouted wings before laughing, understanding what had set her off. "I wonder how much of that she heard before the stones went dark."
"God, I hope she didn't hear the whole thing." Her eyes went wide and one hand flew to cover her mouth in shock. "Wait, when did the bank vault get broken into?"
Kozo, immediately getting what she was saying, started digging through the piles of paperwork that covered the desk looking for the ones concerning the robbery. Naoko joined him, cursing under her breath as they shifted through the piles, until she found one of the reports. As he kept searching for the others, she scanned through the pages for dates and times.
"It should be about that day and time, according to this one. Cthulhu's beard, Kozo. Who else was scrying then? Was it just Rei?"
"She was the only one to complain about it. She did ask Beruski about them, didn't she? Did she mention it later?"
"She said that it wasn't like anything she'd seen before, but it had only lasted ten minutes before it ended."
"What was that Rei say it was? Darkness, with a pulsing red light?"
"I think so... Let me call her and get her up here." She pulled out her phone and started dialing.
Eins, Zwei, Drei, Vier!
Two students, holding hands were taking a stroll along the castle grounds, in the time honored fashion of teenagers in the throes of young love everywhere. They had been warned off from entering or even going near the forest, but really, in the controlled environment of the Geo-Front, would they really have such dangerous things running around free?
In a nanny state, perhaps. If this wasn't a world where one was supposed to actually pay attention to and obey the rules and regulations, possibly. But in the world of the mage, in this world where even the mediocre can call forth fire from their hands, where even reading certain books would render you into a insane, babbling wreck, yes, there would be dangerous things running around in the forest.
Where else would one establish a safe haven for the nicer (from a human point of view) demi-human woodfolk, to say nothing of the wild magical creatures?
Unicorns certainly weren't urban animals by any stretch of the imagination.
As the pair slipped into the shadows of the trees to neck in privacy, safe and secluded, away from any prying eyes in the castle, two pairs of yellow, bloodshot eyes watched them hungrily.
As she giggled, his warm breath tickling her as his mouth traced the curvature of her neck, ran her hands through his hair, which he was wearing long as was in fashion for boys this year, completely oblivious to the soft, almost imperceptible sounds of approaching feet.
Smiling, her eyes closed, she lifted her arms up, stretching, and shrieked as something grabbed her wrist.
Kaji scowled at the pair as he forcibly hauled them to their feet. "What the hell do you two think you're doing out here? Didn't the Headmaster tell you all that the forest was off limits? In fact, when was it ever alright for students to come down in here?"
Not waiting for a reply from the red faced and shaking students, he shooed them out of the woods, promising that if he caught them in here again that he would have the Headmaster put them on extra duty helping him around the castle grounds. Once he was satisfied that they were well away, he went back to the small truck parked near the entrance to the trail, sitting down on the lowered gate.
He did not have to wait long before two oddly loping men came out from the forests, one wearing a tattered pair of jeans and a heavily soiled shirt, the other in what looked like the remains of a tuxedo jacket and pants. Neither one wore shoes, and both stared unnervingly at the waiting man.
Hopping down from the truck, Kaji jerked his head to the bleating goats tethered to the side of the truck's bed. "Here's dinner." He eyed them cautiously. "And I'll be wanting the remains back tomorrow. You're not supposed to be burying them. And don't tell me you ate the bones. I don't care if you like to chew on em, I want them back."
The tuxedo wearing ghoul sneered at him as his friend climbed up into the truck. "It doesn't work that way, mageling. It needs to be men's graves, with proper markers. Animals don't count. And we gave our word, for the sake of the Master."
"Yeah, well, I'll be wanting the bones back anyways. And don't think I don't know about you watching them kids just now either."
The ghoul's sneer only deepened, and if Kaji were a lesser hearted man and only an assistant groundskeeper, it very well could have caused him to lose his lunch. However, the spy for whom agriculture and gardening was a hobby, was made from very stern materials, and only scowled at them as they led their bleating food up and into the forest.
Kaji was by no means as man over burdened with scruples, but he had a severe dislike for many of the demi-human species. To even allow a small group of ghouls into the Geo-Front was something that he had railed against in discussion with the Headmaster. Some lines should not be crossed, and to him, any sort of deal with the dog-men was crossing a few of them. He would bring this almost incident up with the old man later on tonight, but he knew that it wouldn't do any good. The ravens weren't having any luck finding that damned stone, and in desperation Kozo had turned to the ghouls.
Kaji took a look at an oddly shaped crescent moon scar on his right forearm, his expression darkening further. Some lines should not be crossed at all.