Chapter 1: Stoned at the Party
Wind whistled eerie folk-music between the time-worn flagstones. Waves crashed in a ponderous percussion against the rocks at the base of the south tower. A distant roll of thunder, and a hiss as the wind changed to shift the silvery dune grasses, and setting off the wind-chimes that were hanging from Professor Shore's window.
Liam sighed in exasperation. Oh fantastic. Akiko's crew were practicing her "weather symphony" again. There went his peace and quiet for the afternoon. He poked his head through his window to confirm, and promptly had his hair blown straight into his face. Swearing and spitting his hair out, he muttered a quick spell to keep his wild mane out of his face, then tried again.
Sure enough, standing on the south-eastern parapet stood a group of figures dressed in colourful robes with trailing sleeves, the better to look "impressive" in the wind that was the real instrument in this so-called composition. Privately, Liam thought it was all a particularly noxious waste of power, this making "music" using the weather, particularly considering the problems that might be arising from ships in this region not being able to trust predictions... he was surprised that there hadn't been a backlash from the local fishermen.
He considered this for a moment, before considering that he hadn't seen seafood served at the university for a good month and a half. Perhaps they were protesting. It would be just like the Dean to hush it all up so that some of his precious students wouldn't "be disheartened at the plebeian lack of appreciation for the High Arts". That was the snooty explanation that Liam had received the last time he'd attempted to suggest that perhaps it would be better for everybody if someone informed Jacques Barker that his idea for edible houses and other such constructions was unlikely to ever catch on beyond a very niche market.
Though come to think of it, apparently Jacques hadn't been quite as "Barkering mad" as Liam and his cousin Elena had assumed, considering that Jacques had managed to land at least one lucrative contract with some old, over the hill hag with strategically hidden pots of gold... unless of course the gossip Elena had passed on from one of her sources panned out, and the hag was in fact Jacques' great aunt.
Liam looked down at his mostly-blank sketch-pad and sighed. With the unholy racquet going on outside his window there was no way he was going to be able to concentrate, and complaining would only add to his reputation as a so-called "Mundane Brain".
It wasn't his fault that his mentality was more Brick cottage than Ivory tower. It was how he'd been brought up. He'd been the first academically-minded magic-user to be born in his particular wing of the family since his Great-Uncle Morgan, (or, as he'd apparently preferred to be known, "Morg the Great", because apparently having a "mundane-sounding" name like "Morgan" was a poor career choice for the aspiring enchanter). The rest of his family were happy to just use their trade-spells, but Liam hadn't had much of a talent for the stitch-witchery required in his family's clothing and cloth décor businesses. It didn't help that he was colour-blind, and had what he once overheard his mother sigh to a neighbour, "a complete and utter lack of an instinct with clothes".
Which was a shame really, because if there was one thing that Liam liked to do, it was to design. Fortunately, even his disappointed parents had to admit that he had some talent at artificing when for his sister's twelfth birthday, he had managed to make her a jewellery box that played her favourite song whenever she opened it. The fact that in order to do so, he'd managed to reverse-engineer a spell rumoured to have been the master-work of a member of one of The Families hadn't gone unnoticed either.
It was his patenting of his particular version of a permanent physical activation music-playing spell at the age of seventeen that had caught the attention of a few of the various High and Mighties. Before he'd even managed to articulate to his parents that he thought he might be better off studying at an institution rather than taking up an apprenticeship (a decision he'd been chagrined to find that his parents had been anticipating for years, and so his agonising over the issue had been completely unnecessary in their eyes), he'd received three offers from various institutions of higher learning, and one lawsuit from an enraged Gregoriana Stone, whose most complimentary comment about the teenager who had managed to duplicate the result of her Great-Aunt Anastasia's work had been "low-born upstart".
Especially when it turned out that although the Stone Version of the spell was projected to last longer (generations as opposed to fifty years, assuming the box was looked after properly), it turned out that what came to be known as the Weaver Version was in fact more versatile when it came to adding multiple instruments to the recording. Also, the Weaver Version was almost ridiculously cheaper: the Stone Version used gold foil, diamonds and peacock feathers as a base, and his Weaver Version involved the sorts of things that a teen-aged boy could get his hands on far more easily- river reeds, glass marbles and silk thread pilfered from the rag bin wrapped around a dried grasshopper.
Obviously using such different materials, Liam could not be said to be violating Stone's copyright. In fact, before even leaving the courtroom, seasoned artificers had been making him offers for ownership of the patent. Unused to losing, Stone had shrieked the house down, in a display that Liam's mother had taken great delight in describing, with an appropriate disapproving sniff, to her friends at gatherings for a good eighteen months afterwards.
No one does condescension like the middle-class.
Soon after all of this, Liam had accepted the scholarship to the Southern Cape University of Thaumaturgy (or SCUT as it was popularly known). He'd had a feeling he might have to go through a little culture-shock, getting used to the academia and the academics, not to mention the fact that he knew for a fact that SCUT was the training ground for a fair percentage of the premier Family mages and others with the riches to aspire to a SCUT education. If it hadn't been for the scholarship, there was no way that he would have been able to go to such an institution. The fees for room and board alone would have left him with crippling debt that might have taken a lifetime to pay off.
He had expected the experience to be a little surreal, but he hadn't realised that he'd signed up for being watched by the sheltered brats from privileged backgrounds like he was some sort of exotic pet.
The fact that his shoe-cupboard of a room had a "Tradie" workspace made it practically a tourist attraction to some of the other students. So what if he kept the various inks and charcoals and knives and crystals and other such necessary implements for spell creation in meticulously labelled plastic box-drawers set into a cabinet that hung over his desk? So what if he'd positioned his wardrobe to divide the room so that he could sleep without having to breathe in potions fumes that were directed via a jury-rigged fume-hood that was directed out the top of the window-space? He'd thought such "innovations" were obvious. And if he kept his workspace spotless, well, that was just sensible, wasn't it? Magic was a volatile thing to work with, and Liam saw absolutely no point in being slapdash about his materials. Besides, it made things easier to find, and no amount of incredulous or sneering expressions about how his approach to magic was "mundane" would dissuade him from his system.
Apart from his well-labelled and organised workspace, there were few adornments in his room- a dream-catcher that his younger sister had made for him the last time he'd visited, a crocheted bedspread made by his mother, uncle and aunt in tandem for his eighteenth birthday, a shiny haematite parchment/paperweight that was shaped like some type of nondescript bird, and a few sketches stuck haphazardly to the walls with yellowing sticky tape- the same yellowing sticky tape that had been used to mend the handle of his favourite coffee mug. Sure, he could have fixed it with magic, but Liam was sure that doing so would have interfered with the insulated heating charm that was layered on the mug's inner surfaces. Considering the number of times that he forgot about his hot drink due to his immersion in his studies and experiments, Liam would rather have a hot drink from a broken mug than a cold drink from a fixed one.
"Of course," muttered Liam to himself drily, "most people here would just look at me like I was mad and ask why I didn't just get a new mug."
"That's because you are mad, Mundane Brain."
Liam started, nearly falling out of his chair.
"Careful there EmBee. Wouldn't want that 'unique outlook' to end with your brains splattered all over the floor."
Liam rebalanced himself, then looked up and grinned. "Damnit Sinbad, you scared the life out of me. Don't you know it's bad luck to sneak up on a mage when he's working?"
Sinbad sniggered and tossed his head so that his beaded plait swung and clacked against the door frame.
"You and I both know that you're just glaring at that sketch-pad of yours. I'm surprised anyone can concentrate with that racket from outside going on," he said, stepping into the room in a way that was obviously calculated to show off his appallingly expensive Roc-feather-decorated jacket and boots. "Besides, your door was ajar. You and I both know that you lock it when you're worried some Nimrod visitor is going to interrupt you at some 'delicate' stage of your tinkering." To Liam's amusement, he then struck a pose. "Liam, there is a problem."
Liam glared half-heartedly at him. "Oh yes? And this problem is important enough for you to interrupt me when I'm trying to work?"
Sinbad smirked in a way that always tempted Liam to throttle him. Nothing good ever came from that smirk, though if the rumours were true it had opened plenty of doors... and pairs of legs for his ostentatious friend before. Sinbad claimed that it was part of his 'roguish charm'. Liam thought it probably had more to do with the fact that he tended to preface it with a mention of the fact that he was the son of the Wing clan chief. He'd said it out loud before hoping to provoke a response, but if there was one thing that Sinbad Crest was good at, it was pretending deafness.
"Of course it is. Would I bother you about anything unimportant?" Sinbad asked him airily.
Liam just looked at him significantly.
Sinbad sniggered again. "Oh come on EmBee, a few of us are going to Saucery for dinner, then to the docks for the night-life. You know you want to come along. The Stones are out of town, so you shouldn't be bothered, and it's my birthday, and I want all of my favourite people to be there."
"You do realise that it's a Tuesday, don't you," Liam said, ignoring the 'bothered' comment. Sinbad had always had a gift for understatement. Last time the Stones had caught up with him, they'd done their best to kill him. Something about it somehow compromising their honour for a 'mere Weaver' to have bested their favourite Aunty. "Some of us might actually want to pass our classes this semester, and that major assignment on Aether channelling is due on Friday."
Sinbad just rolled his eyes at him. "Oh don't be such a spoilsport, Liam. You and I both know that you finished that a week ago, and pretty much everybody else is going to start it on Thursday night."
"I might pass out from the shock. You actually called me by name instead of the initials of that nickname that an eight year old might have dreamed up," Liam said, shoving his sketch-pad into a corner of his otherwise pristine desk. "You do remember that I'd barely be able to afford the bread-sticks at a place like Saucery, don't you Sindy?"
Sinbad shrugged. "I might have bandied Mum's name about to get me a discounted rate on buying out the whole place for a couple of hours. There will be enough munchies to feed a small army. People can buy their own damn drinks, but there will be plenty of food to go around..."
"And the beer from the docks is cheap enough that even a skint scholarship student like me will be able to get trashed later," Liam finished for him. "Alright, alright, I'm sold." He got up, stretching. "I need the fresh smoke and booze ridden sea air anyway." A thought occurred to him then and he grinned again. "Hey Sindy, since it's your birthday, how come you didn't pay Akiko to play you 'Happy Birthday' with the elements?"
Sinbad's snigger turned into a genuine out and out laugh.
Half an hour later, and Liam was leaning up against a gilded pillar in Saucery with a napkin-full of pastries, watching Sinbad and his cronies prance around like so many birds of paradise engaged in some form of mating ritual.
Considering the amount of feathers that were in their attire, it wasn't far from the truth, he thought to himself as he watched Jasper Crowe, Sinbad's "wingman" coax a beribboned Thalia Hari to dance with him. Or maybe it was the other way around, Liam realised, as he remembered that Thalia's skills in magecraft, like many others of the Hari clan, were principally based around the manipulation of charisma. Every politician who was a serious contender these days tended to have a Hari, (or someone whose powers at least approximated theirs,) as part of their campaign team. Liam was just glad that scholarship student who annoys Stones or not, he hadn't drawn their attention. The Hari clan were as well-known for their fickleness as for their abilities at manipulation, and from what he had observed, Liam didn't think he had the energy to keep a Hari onside. Better to stay here, in the shadows and admire such enhanced beauties as Thalia from afar rather than gaining her attention.
Though speaking of attention seekers... Liam watched as a group of girls who were obviously emulating Naiads started a complex dance that involved much gyrating and displaying of their fluorescent scale-covered... assets. He wondered how they kept the anemones in their hair from drying out... and then he realised that not all of them were girls. Huh. He wouldn't have thought Esteban was the type. Still, though Liam was very firm in his preference for women, he was secure enough to recognise that Esteban was giving some of the girls a run for their money in the grace and stylishness of seaweed department.
Absently, Liam wondered if Esteban's participation was a declaration or some sort of dare. From the way Esteban's best friend Jonas was watching him like a hyena watches a leg of zebra Liam would have bet even odds either way.
As he watched, Sinbad, in all of his feathered ostentatiousness suddenly appeared behind Jonas' left shoulder, and whispered something in his ear. Liam was interested to see Jonas nod at whatever had been said, and... was that a blush? How about that.
All in all, the party wasn't going too badly, Liam thought. He'd managed to swipe enough food from the buffet so that he'd had a decent dinner, the girls were pretty, the people watching was entertaining, and the live music provided by a group of fur-clad Bards was, whilst not specifically to his tastes, pleasant enough to listen to.
He wasn't talking to anyone, but that was not unusual. He was only really here because Sinbad had specifically asked him, after all, and he was well aware that a good half of these people would be insulted if he even attempted to talk to them, as after all, he had no status to speak of, and although he was friends with Sinbad, their friendship was based mostly on the fact that Sinbad for some never-voiced reason found him interesting. Liam had his suspicions that it had something to do with how he had inadvertently managed to infuriate the Stone family before he had even begun his studies at SCUT. It was no secret that the Wing clan despised the Stones.
"Hey, you! Weaver!"
...And this was what he got for tempting fate by even thinking about those people...
Liam turned slowly, to see a sight that he hadn't thought he'd see here. Damnit, he'd thought they were away, otherwise he wouldn't have even thought about coming out tonight.
Apparently his information had been wrong, seeing as right in front of him were standing a very definitely there Petra Stone, her brother Dmitri and her cousin Ilia.
Fan-bloody-tastic. Just don't make any sudden movements...
Taking a nonchalant bite out of one of his pastries, Liam reached with his other hand for the distraction he kept in his inside jacket pocket. Now if he got lucky, they'd engage him in some pointless banter first, and then maybe Sinbad would notice and come save his sorry ass. If he was unlucky...
"Get the Upstart! He will make a fine statuette for Aunt Gregoriana's collection."
Without hesitation, Liam threw his Glitter-bomb.
Thirty seconds later, and Liam was already out the door running.
Behind him, he could hear the Stones swearing at him, their ears no doubt ringing and their eyes half-blinded from the magnesium-bright sparkles that had sprung from his Glitter-bomb, his own adaptation of the Flash-bang that he had started keeping on his person after the first death threats had started. He swore to himself. Stupid. He'd never thought that the Stones would be stupid enough to start something at a celebration organised by a Wing.
He skidded around the corner, and then he knew that if he lived through this, Sinbad and him were going to be having words.
Five Stones, recognisable by their prominent clan jewellery were standing there in formation, waiting for him. He'd just run straight into a trap.
Using speed that he hadn't needed for a good three years, Liam ran straight for the cluster of Stones, and before they could react, used the shoulders of the foremost Stone as a springboard to leap into a flip that carried him a good three metres beyond them.
Landing in a squat, Liam didn't bother to look behind him before he sprang forward and kept running, throwing another Glitter-bomb behind him. He smiled grimly at the sound of swearing coming from behind him, and quickly dodged around yet another corner. He had to get back to the SCUT grounds, even a Stone wouldn't dare touch him there... he hoped. He hadn't thought they'd dare to attack him at a celebration thrown by a the heir of a clan that would happily use them for target practice either.
Zig-zagging through the streets, he couldn't help but notice how few people seemed to be out and about. Those that were were keeping well to the shadows, watching him pass neither helping nor hindering him. The former was no doubt a move of self-protection, but the latter gave him a little hope. The Stones' power was well-recognised here, but that didn't mean that they were liked.
A sudden grinding noise came behind him, and Liam looked up and saw one of the onlookers suddenly pale as they saw something behind him. He risked a look over his shoulder, and swore viciously.
Two granite golems were moving from an alley he had just passed, and as he turned to face ahead, he could see two more moving to cut off his escape. He skidded to a stop, knowing that trying to run past golems was likely to get him squashed, and looked desperately for a third exit.
Suddenly, a door opened in a shop front two metres to his left.
"Get in here, kid!"
Liam hesitated for a split second, and then decided that he really had no choice. He could already hear the Stones coming for him. Idly, he wondered how many golem traps they'd set up. No matter.
He ran for the open doorway, and heard it close firmly behind him.
He looked up to thank his saviour, but saw only greying material already vanishing into a side room. "Hurry up! You've barely got a minute before they start kicking doors in!"
Liam followed through the doorway, to see a woman who looked old enough to be his mother yanking open a trapdoor in the floor. Once open, all he could see was that it was dark down there.
"Sorry lady, thanks but no thanks," he said, before he turned and ran for the back of the building. Vaulting over the kitchen bench, he quickly dove through an open window, muttering a charm that would cause the curtains to shut behind him. A few seconds later, and he was through the yard, over the back fence, and running down a narrow lane that he was fairly sure lead to the beach. Sure enough, he saw a sliver of reflected moon-light ahead, and he knew that he wasn't far from the water.
It was then that another figure appeared in front of him, but this time, fortunately, it wasn't a golem.
Or a Stone, from the lack of carved semi-precious adornments.
"I can't fault your instincts kid, but I'd suggest not going down there. The Stones have got enough golems to run an abattoir buried at the tide-line, and I'd rather not see you turn to mincemeat."
Liam realised with shock that this was the grey-clad woman from before.
He was so surprised, that he didn't react when she grabbed his hand, and then, faster than he could breathe, he was picked up by what felt like the wind, dragged though a gate back into the house he had just run from, and dropped down the trap door, which slammed shut above his head.
No sooner had the door slammed shut, than he saw that contrary to what he had first thought, it wasn't pitch black down here. In fact, somewhere in the distance in front of him, he could see a faint light shining.
Above him, he heard something flat-sounding (a rug?) land on top of the trap door, mere seconds before the sound of an impact, with splintering wood and glass.
He could hear the woman yelling obscenities, and the Stones yelling something back. The words themselves were muffled, but the few he caught made it sound like the woman was yelling something about how the Stones owed her a new door.
He hesitated, and then decided that since he was down here already, he might as well use the tunnel. The woman had already showed him how fast she could move, so he didn't doubt that she could escape if the Stones turned nasty.
Moving swiftly but as quietly as he could manage to avoid echoes, Liam moved towards the light, glad he was wearing gloves as he trailed one hand along what felt like an uneven wall of sandstone to prevent himself from losing his bearings in the dark.
As he got closer, he could see that the light was coming from the outline of what looked like a door.
Feeling around for a latch of some sort, he was surprised when a light touch of his fingers pushed the door aside on well-oiled hinges.
"So, Aleena decided to take on another stray, did she?"
Before he was conscious of the movement, Liam had the speaker up against the wall.
Or he would have, if they hadn't ducked, twisted, and then somehow managed to get a knife against his throat.
"Now," the hoarse voice whispered in his ear, "that wasn't very nice."
Liam didn't bother struggling. With the knife at that angle, she could easily slice his jugular open before he could twitch, and knowing his luck, the damn thing would be poisoned. He knew she was female, as it was hard to ignore when she was leaning against his back like that. A perverse thought that some men would pay good money to be in a position like this flickered across his mind, but he shut it down before it could properly form. Knowing his luck, she could be a touch-telepath or something... hang on, why weren't the protection charms stitched into his clothes working? Naturally as a member of the Weaver clan, every thread he wore was incorporated to protect the wearer, and make the clothes sturdy and comfortable. Last time someone had got this close to him when he'd been wearing this particular jacket, they'd been electrocuted. Were the charms being nullified somehow? If so, when he got out of this, he was going to have to let his parents know. The way of nullifying the protective charms was a clan secret, and if an outsider had it...
"Ah, so you're not completely stupid," came the whisper again. "Always refreshing. Don't try that again, or I'll get annoyed."
To his surprise, the knife was then removed, and the woman stepped back.
"Come on, unless you want to stick around for the Stones to get here. Aunty can only distract them for so long, and if they find the trap door, this is the only way they can come."
Liam turned slowly, and examined the whispering woman. As a Weaver clan member, the first thing he noticed was her clothes. Brown leather boots, dark grey trousers, and a loose green jacket. A scarf wrapped around the bottom half of her face and a hat with ear-flaps obscured her features enough that all he could tell was that she had dark brown eyes and skin that was either well-tanned or naturally olive.
As he looked at her, she looked at him. Suddenly, she nodded decisively.
"Coming?" she whispered, before turning her back on him and walking through a side passage that he hadn't noticed before.
Not sure whether he should be insulted at her blatant disregard for any danger he might be to her, Liam followed her through a twisting set of tunnels. Evidently she knew them well, as despite the fact that he couldn't tell the difference between one rough-hewn tunnel wall and another, she led him through corridor after corridor, picking left and right turns in a pattern that he quickly forgot as his sense of direction left him entirely.
The light source that he had seen before looked to be some sort of bioluminescent fungi. He was tempted to collect samples, before he realised that he was already covered in it from where the woman with the brown eyes had shoved him up against the wall.
"Great," he muttered to himself, "I look like a giant glow-worm."
He heard a snort from in front of him.
"Well look on the bright side, Glow-worm, we're here."
The woman wasn't whispering any more, and Liam had a sudden feeling that he'd heard met previously.
Before he could ask for her name, she opened a door that blended almost perfectly into the wall, and then shoved him through it.
He stumbled a little, almost skidding on the smooth floorboards as he smacked straight into the tapestry that was on the opposite wall.
And a familiar tapestry at that. He'd seen that houndstooth pattern of garish yellow and blue only once before. He was on one of the basement levels of SCUT, not far from where the ritual rooms were situated.
He turned, but the door was already closed behind him, blending seamlessly into the wall.
Now that was some illusion.
"Thank you," he said, knowing that whoever the woman was, she was probably listening. "And thank... Aleena did you say? Thank her for me too."
As he turned with plans to clean himself up and then barricade himself in his room until morning, he was sure he heard a soft, "You're welcome."