Chapter 2: Null the Reject
It'd been a long and awful jinx of a day, Null thought to herself as she trudged up the stairs to what she jokingly called her suite. Even considering she worked at the Southern Cape University of Thaumaturgy, ('Purgatory' for short,) work today had been particularly hexed. Four fights that had trashed two hallways and caused minor structural damage in a third, three hysterics locking themselves in the bathroom stalls when all she wanted to do was clean, ectoplasm from someone's escaped pet poltergeist, and an explosion that had managed to fill the largest potions lab with knee-deep orange slime that appeared to be gaining some form of sentience, if the high-pitched squealing sound that occurred when Null tried to throw salt on it to help her clean the mess was anything to go by. And then she'd had to deal with complaints from Thea Skua, who was still having issues with the concept of Null not being a hexing servant.
Despite Null telling her time and time again that student's individual rooms were none of her cursed business- they were legally adults, so they could look after their own hexed rooms. Apparently Thea's doting parents had neglected to instill any sort of practical skills in their spoilt daughter, despite sparing no effort in instilling self-entitlement in the little banshee. The only time Null was contracted, or for that matter paid, to go into those rooms and do any manner of cleaning was when someone moved out, and there was no amount of evil eye that would shift her otherwise.
Why couldn't they all live in the hexed city? It was only a half hour's walk away, a third of that if one flew. Whose idea was it to turn the east wing into a glorified hostel?
Then again, Null thought, considering the mess that the Stones had made of the city today chasing after one poor sod, she shouldn't be surprised that at the very suggestion the locals had screamed the house down until a compromise had been reached.
Finally, Null reached the top of the stairs, and she was extremely pleased to note that this time, no one had bothered to booby-trap her door. It wasn't so much that she ran any danger of activating the cursed things. That was but one of her few advantages. It was more that then she had to undergo the tedious process of dragging Professor Go-Lightly up to her rooms to dismantle it, to make sure that no one else would get caught in it- the one time that had happened the poor man had been turned into an ultra-violet parakeet with a compulsion to travel north. As it was, the retrieval team dispatched to go find him had caught up to him some twenty ks west of Whoop Whoop. Much further and he might have ended up Beyond the Black Stump, and then who knows what could have happened?
Fortunately that time, the culprit had 'fessed up, but Null was under no illusions that if it had been anyone but a Darling who turned feathery then the brat would have kept their head down and their mouth shut. No one messed with the Darlings on purpose. Something to do with a karmic backlash curse tied into the family bloodline. Null believed it. The one time Swoop had thought it was a good idea to pinch a charm bracelet from Angelo Darling (Professor Darling's nephew), he'd lost all of his feathers in a "freak accident". They grew back of course, but not until Swoop had begged a highly amused Null to return the bracelet for him.
Fortunately for her, by that point Swoop's kleptomania for anything shiny was a well known enough exasperation, somewhat ameliorated by the fact that whatever it was could always be returned forthwith by notifying Null, who made it clear to whoever asked that while Swoop might have decided to hang around her, she had little to no control over his behaviour, and frankly she would be happy to see the hexed magpie leave.
Though this wasn't entirely true, Null mused to herself as she dumped her outer wear on her spindly desk-chair. Swoop could be useful, sometimes. If she was brutally honest with herself, she'd probably even miss the stupid bird if anything ever happened to him. Even though he really sucked as both a helper and a general roommate, he had his uses... and entertainment value.
The topic of her thoughts chose this moment to come careening through the window, banking sharply before he landed on the "kitchen bench" (really, it was a section of Null's desk that she'd marked off with a piece of tape so that she didn't cover it in books).
"Jinx it Swoop! How many bloody times do I have to tell you! Keep your cursed dirty claws off the hexing bench!" she griped, flopping onto the wide couch that doubled as her bed.
Swoop unconcernedly started to preen, dropping feathers and god-knows-what onto the once pristine surface.
Half heartedly throwing a cushion at him, (it missed, as Swoop merely jumped up into the air before coming back down again,) Null asked him, "I don't suppose you know why the pranksters have decided to give Prof. Go-Lightly a break, do you? This is like the first time all week I haven't had to summon her to do damage control."
Swoop cocked his head to one side, looking at her with one beady red eye.
"They didn't?" he squawked in surprise. "I could have sworn I heard Delicious and Fatty Bacon scheming something up when I just-so-happened to be flying past their common-room window."
Leaning back against her pillow, Null snorted with laughter. "Jinx it Swoop, now I'm going to be thinking that next time I see Felicia and Hugo. Which will no doubt be soon, as I caught them setting up some kind of bubble maker in the main kitchen hall. Fortunately Jace spotted it too, so they aren't going to be able to start that cursed 'the cleaner has it in for us' toadslime again."
Swoop fanned his wings out, agitating his feathers.
"Well that'd explain it. Since they no doubt called today as their timeslot, no one else would have had anything set up, and since you managed to catch them doing something else they probably figured it was too soon," Swoop said smugly. "Don't worry about those losers. As far as the Staff are concerned, you're a gem. I heard Hildegarde, Rufaro and that creepy Dharuna chick having a conversation about it. Apparently you're the best that this old heap has ever had- so far you haven't had to take any sick leave, you're willing to at least listen to complaints or suggestions, you generally do your best to not piss off the more well-connected students and most importantly, you don't bitch and whine to the Staff about what you signed up for."
Null rolled her eyes, both at Swoop's retelling and the epithet he applied to Dharuna, who had the ability to shape-shift into a raptor. Apparently it was a Wing clan thing, because Null was sure she'd heard of at least three other members of that Family who could do similar tricks... the one time someone had thought Swoop was in fact a Wing clan-member who'd been caught in some sort of spell that trapped him in his 'animal form' had been hilarious.
"Don't forget the fact that I'm yet to get injured on the job and cost them a hexed shit-tonne of money and legal fees," she reminded Swoop. "Poor old Hector. Hit by a spell not even aimed at him, and wham bam, he's out of a job, missing a foot, with a beetroot for an ear, and he can only speak in rhyme. Still, it gave me a chance to get this job, so I can't say I'm overly upset about every outcome there."
Swoop pecked idly at a scrap of crust on the table. "Exactly. See? You've got nothing to worry about," he said. "Now, are you going to make me some grub, or am I going to have to do takeout?"
"Hah. You're a funny bird," said Null. "You've already been having 'takeout' all day. Don't think I don't know why you spent half the morning in the western gardens. It did rain last night, after all. I'm surprised you can even think of food with the number of worms you must have eaten."
Swoop clacked his beak at her. "Well I have to get fed somehow. It's not like you can just conjure up a feast or something."
Null just glared half-heartedly at him. "You're lucky I don't just kick you out on your cursed feathery ass for comments like that. A few of the students are starting to look at me funny. I can't help but think that's your damn fault for opening that big beak of yours. Not to mention the fact that my ears are still ringing from that shrieky Petra banshee,and that was last week. Actually wait no, she's a Stone isn't she. Gorgon. Shrieky Petra Gorgon. Next time pick someone less annoying to steal from."
"But don't you get it? That's half the fun!" Swoop protested.
"Well have some fun where I don't have to hear about it. Be a bit more discreet next time."
"I was plenty-"
"Snatching an enchanted ring right off the finger of the owner in broad daylight when they're stone cold sober is not, in any interpretation of the definition, discreet."
"Alright, alright, I promise to stop stealing from the shrieky ones," Swoop sulked.
Hmmm, Null thought. That was unusually quick. Normally Swoop argued for considerably longer.
"Swoop, you didn't, uh... liberate anything else particularly shiny today, now did you?" Null asked carefully.
"Of course I did," came the indignant reply. "But I stuck to cheap hairclips. I figured you'd get really cranky if there was another repeat of the banshee so soon after the last one, so I went for people who won't complain to you about it. That Medusa's a real challenge," he crooned almost dreamily, before digging beneath his wing with his beak.
Null just shook her head in exasperation. Swoop was generally useful to have around, but that didn't mean he wouldn't cheerfully get himself into serious trouble on a regular basis. Fortunately, he was generally pretty honest with her, though this was mainly so she couldn't claim ignorance of his behaviour- if he got caught, he argued, they'd never believe her anyway, so might as well kill two frogs with one rock, (Swoop objected strenuously to the equivalent phrase involving birds and stones,) and give Null fair warning.
Null considered whether she could be bothered making herself dinner, but upon an experimental lift of her head discovered that most of her muscles were in a complaining mood.
"Ugh, I'm completely blasted," she admitted to both herself and her magpie. "If you want something to wash down your worms, there's another crust in the bread box, but don't you hexing dare touch my roll. That's for my breakfast tomorrow, and you know how cranky I get if I haven't been fed in the morning..." Swoop chorused the next bit with her, "not half as cranky as I get when you've gone and pinched something and got caught."
Yawning, Null stretched and kicked off her boots. She knew that she smelt like detergent, grime, sweat and miscellaneous potions ingredients but after today, she was honestly too tired to care. She'd shower in the morning. It wasn't like she lived with anyone who'd give a damn what she smelt like. Come to think of it, she doubted that anyone other than Swoop even knew what the inside of her room looked like. Even Prof. Go-Lightly, who would happily come up the three flights of stairs to de-trap her door had never come in, despite Null inviting her in for tea more than once. That wasn't anything personal though- Prof. Go-Lightly had a kid who was an absolute terror, (something to do with his scary-brilliant skills at casting illusions at the tender age of six,) and so she didn't dare leave "little Feather" alone for more than ten minutes at a time.
Privately, Null thought that this was no doubt part of Feather's problem- Go-Lightly was nice enough, but from what Null could see, she smothered her son, until from sheer frustration he acted out. On the rare times that Go-Lightly was forced to leave Feather to go to academic conferences, Null was generally asked to babysit, since her "condition" meant that she couldn't actually see any of Feather's illusions.
Remembering the first time she'd met Feather still cracked Null up. Going on the mischievious look in his eye, he'd organised something particularly ghastly for her, but she'd just carried on, completely oblivious. She hadn't told him that she couldn't see anything but an increasingly petulant-looking five year old who was standing in an unobtrusive corner and gesticulating wildly. She'd thought it was kinda cute, actually, until he started to look all despondent. Kids really hate being ignored.
Eventually, she'd taken pity and decided to make a deal with him. She'd teach him how to play some card games, feed him cake, help him with his homework and take him out to meet people (who could help him with his magic homework,) if he'd cut out the fae, and neither of them would inform his mother.
Feather had eagerly agreed.
Go-Lightly never had quite figured out how it was that a number of her undergraduate students seemed to have met her recalcitrant son and thought he was "the cutest thing ever". Fortunately, all of them thought it was hilarious that Null was "corrupting" "Up-Tightly"'s kid, and so none of them felt the need to tell her.
Besides, thought Null, really, she was doing Go-Lightly as much of a favour as her son. Since she'd started babysitting him, complaints about his behaviour at school had significantly diminished, as he was not only getting all his homework done, he'd stopped tormenting his fellow students with his "monsters", having decided it was much more fun to entertain them by doing "requests", as happened whenever Null took him out to hang with the students from the common-room nearest his home. Fortunately for Null, while Go-Lightly had yet to figure out how exactly Null had done it (neither she nor Feather were willing to talk about the details of their bargain, or the fact that such a bargain existed,) she had noticed the correlation between Null's influence and Feather's improved behaviour, and so she started to invite Null over more often, later making the offer to de-trap Null's door for her so that Null wouldn't have to explain why she hadn't removed a trap that she'd spotted. It was just luck that the purple parakeet incident had happened while Null had been away visiting her Aunt Justifia, thus giving her the perfect alibi.
Shaking her head a little, Null sighed. Maybe she should have pretended that the first trap had worked on her when she had the chance. As it was, someone (she had a sneaking suspicion that Swoop might have had something to do with it) had now started a betting pool as to when Null would get caught in one of the pranks. Apparently it was quite large now. The cursed pool had exponentially increased the number of pranks, which was a jinxing pain, because it meant Null was forever scrubbing away chalked marks, carefully sprinkled potions and the occasional pentagram etched in blood, not to mention the collection of crystals she was starting to amass. The number of times she'd had to save other people from traps meant for her was starting to get quite annoying. Fortunately upon hearing about the pool, she'd had the foresight to talk her friend Sykie A'htak into putting some money down on "not this year" for her. Unless the students of Thaumaturg suddenly did a bipolar change in attitude, it was unlikely that they'd ever try something completely mundane on her, and until that happened, Null knew she was safe, and likely to come out on top with quite a bit of money.
Maybe, thought Null dreamily, she'd be able to buy Swoop something shiny enough to cease his constant kleptomania... Nah. It'd probably only encourage the blood cursed bird.
Speaking of bloody cursed birds, time for Swoop to be useful.
"Swoop, could you switch the light off when you're done preening?"
"'Course. I'm nearly done anyway."
Null lay back and settled down to sleep, smiling sardonically. It was pretty funny really. Here she was, working at the Thaumaturg, the oldest, most magical university in the Benevolent Dictatorship, and she couldn't even switch a light off without doing it manually or calling for her familiar to do it for her.
It was just Null's luck that in a land where magic was more common than the cold, she'd somehow managed to be born with a seemingly unique condition wherein magic just didn't recognise her.