Author's note: Wow, my first author's note. ^^ Anyway, demon inquired, "What exactly are catboys?". I was under the stupid impression that everyone knew what a catboy was... heh... evidently not everyone is a freak like I. ^^;; Catboys are like anime catgirls, except they are half cat half boy. Ya know, tails, ears, the whole shebang but with human forms. Sorry I didn't explain earlier... if anyone is actually still reading this...

Chapter 3

St. Lucrecia's was a rather small, secluded school, enclosed within a high gate of black wrought iron. The strictly austere walls of the clustered buildings crouching behind the gates gleamed rose and yellow from the glow of the rising sun. A thin road sliced through the woodsy area surrounding the school.

Neri swallowed nervously, staring out the window of the car, her clasped hands shaking imperceptibly on the neatly pressed cloth of her new school uniform skirt. Her breathing was calm and controlled as usual, the fast thumping of her heart in her ears the single sign of her nervousness, which no one but she could detect. Everything about this place seemed different from the Sky Mountain School for mages, the backdrop of which was equally alienated. Neri's studies had been conducted in that lonely school in the East since she began her formal education, and everything she associated with learning was juxtaposed by the environment St. Lucrecia's offered. Sky Mountain, nestled in the semi-tropic forest of the East, was not essentially a single building or several buildings - it was a small renovated version of an ancient palace acting as the heart of the school, with caves and waterfalls and open clearings as classrooms. Neri's longing for her "home", as she had always called it, sharpened with her memories.

As they neared the St. Lucrecia's she could distinguish the school's insignia, familiar to the world, contrasting against the main building's sparse surface.

A dragon wrapped around a sword. Magic and technical ingenuity coexisting and cooperating for the defense of justice. Neri felt a pang of pride at her spur of the moment analyzation of the insignia. Maybe I will do fine here after all...

Alliorn sat with her sister in the backseat. Her eyes passed over the familiar scenery with indifference. From time to time she allowed herself a sidelong glance at Neri, admiring her seeming tranquility during what should be a stressful time for her.

"You'll love it at St. Lucrecia's, Neri. The students are very nice and so are the teachers. "

"Oh?"

"Yep. You'll do great. Though it doesn't seem like you're worrying..."

Neri found nothing to say to this and simply nodded. After racking her mind for something pertinent to strike a conversation with, she gave up and looked out the window once again in silence.

They stopped at the gates. The chauffer inserted the girls' identification cards into the metal box beside the gates, waiting until the authorization of the students' identities were confirmed. The gates slid open with a slowness that made Neri's stomach churn anxiously.

They were dropped off at the front of the main building. Alliorn took the lead, their schedules in hand, guiding Neri through several winding corridors filled with excited students. The sight of so many strangers made Neri wish the catboys could have come with her. Finally Alliorn stopped at a door.

"Okay, Neri..." She glanced down at Neri's schedule paper. "It looks like your first class is Language Arts. When class is finished you can wait here for me, so I can help you find your next class. Okay?"

Neri nodded and thanked her sister quietly, slipping into the classroom.

The day was incredibly, and somewhat depressingly, uneventful. Neri found herself shunned by several students for an inexplicable reason. Others simply ignored her. The teacher gave her no notice whatsoever. The textbooks were completely foreign things to Neri, who was used to the leatherbound tomes of old. She soon felt closed in and restless inside the bleakness of the classrooms, welcoming the clanging of the bell. She even found herself dozing off in History, though thankfully no one noticed. I am invisible, she concluded by the time lunch was announced by the bell.

She followed Alliorn through the cafeteria line where Neri selected a sandwich and to a table outside, at which sat several students excitedly conversing. Neri recognized Orie talking to a girl with curly red hair. Alliorn plopped down unceremoniously beside him, seeming to forget about her sister in the midst of socializing. A faint stab of hurt was quickly brushed away as Neri reasoned that Alliorn had missed her friends during vacation, as she missed Circe and Damee at this moment.

It took the timid girl a while to realize that there were no remaining seats for her. Feeling slightly neglected, she chose an empty table and seated herself, unwrapping her sandwich without hunger. She ate her meal while observing a fly and thinking over the day's "events". The one true class she had truly come to abhor was Magickal Arts. They had spent an entire hour simply poring over their textbooks, learning the technical aspects of what Westerners dubbed as "magic". This type of magic was almost completely different from what Neri had learned at Sky Mountain. Spells were used for lifting things and conjuring spirits - Neri found no practical use for such powers. She had flipped through the entire book and had not come across a single article on combustion, temporary flight, or anything pertaining to what she considered real magic. The teacher was the last straw - a haughty old woman who thought Western magic was the most important and effectual magic in the world. Neri had felt her face flushing with uncommon anger as she listened to Mistress Kain rant about the importance of knowing the spells through and through. They even went as far as to analyze the literary significance of a love spell. There was absolutely no promotion of the actual understanding of the magic, of the bonding of the self to magic...

Neri was jerked from her thoughts by a sudden convulsion. She gasped and dropped the remnants of her sandwich on the table. The shudder rolled out from the marrow of her bones, shaking her vision. Something powerful... oh my Gods, so powerful!

Several people turned to stare as Neri stumbled out of her seat, looking about in desperation. She did not know what she had stood up for, only there was an incredible sense of need to...

Close so close oh my Gods so powerful...

Alliorn ran to her sister and tried to calm her down, asking her what was wrong. Neri simply shook her head and apologized.

"Princess, the Board has asked to see you."

Alliorn glanced at Neri. They had just come back from school. Neri's face was still paler than usual, but she seemed instantly relieved when Circe and Damee ran to greet her.

"Alright." Alliorn walked briskly to the Board room, where the royal advisors sat grimly around a round table. Their aged faces were creased still more by worry.

"What's wrong?" Alliorn felt her heart sink.

"Princess," said one advisor. "The wizards detected a strong, unknown power exploding near St. Lucrecia's at about twelve o'clock this afternoon. They claim to have never encountered such raw power. Investigation teams were sent to the area of the incident... they found... this."

The man pushed three photographs towards Alliorn. The first was a birds-eye view of the area. A perfect circle of black ash stood out starkly against the green of the forest.

"That used to be a bog, Princess."

Alliorn glanced at two other, similar photos before she arrived at the same one again.

"Only three photographs?"

"That was all they managed to take." The advisor sighed and rubbed his temples. "It seems that that powerful force is also extremely hostile. No one can get a mile within reach of it without being mysteriously incinerated. We tried sending airplanes out to bomb it, but for some reason machinery seems to fail near the source of power... the photographer took these pictures before his plane stopped working and began crashing - he managed to manuever the plane out of the vicinity of the power area and ejected. Some investigators who tried to take photos of the ground view from a safe distance found that their cameras didn't work."

Alliorn's brow furrowed. "So why don't we send some sorcerors down there to take care of the business? Magic against magic?"

"We have tried that. It seems the power is too immense for them to quell. We also have information from the wizards that the power source is moving... in this direction. If we don't do something, we have a feeling things could get ugly. The oracle stated that you were to be the protector of Arania, just as your mother was and all your ancestors were. We need you now."

Alliorn thanked the advisors and exited the room with perfect calm. Once outside, she buried her head in her hands.

"Oh Gods... as if homework weren't enough..."