Chapter 3: Wake up call
The next day, as on most other normal days, Null woke up to the sound of Swoop's gurgling carol as he greeted the sun. She'd never told him as such (and she probably never would,) but it was kinda pretty really. Like a warbling flute or something.
Not that dawn was really the time of day that she tended to appreciate anything, but it beat the hell out of a rooster, or worse, one of those magical alarms.
"Swoop, you had hexing better have started my tea for me," Null groaned as she threw her blanket off and rolled sluggishly straight onto the floor. Wincing a little at the impact of her side on the floorboards, she scrambled to a sitting position, as Swoop continued his dawn serenade, completely ignoring her ungainly presence.
Without rising from the floor, Null reached up and grabbed her favourite chipped mug with the flying donkey etched into the side, and was happy to see that there was already a teabag sitting inside it. She heard the muffled pop that mean that the kettle was boiled, and carefully reached up to grope around then grab the handle. Long practice ensured that she didn't spill a drop as she manoeuvred the boiling water receptacle so that she could pour her tea, and then wait the prerequisite ten minutes before it'd be cool enough to drink.
Still remaining on the floor, Null reached blindly into the bread bin, and closed her fingers around her bread roll. It wasn't exactly fresh, but on the other hand, it was filling, full of seeds, and not yet mouldy. Definitely not a bad breakfast after she'd drizzled some honey on it.
Null laughed at herself a little. She was sure she looked a sight, considering she was still covered in yesterday's grunge and gunk, sitting on the floor to eat like some kind of savage.
Her thoughts took a bit of a sour turn at that point.
If only dearest mother and father could see me now...
Deciding to not wait until her tea coolled, Null hopped up and crossed over into the tiny bathroom, with its pale-brownish-green shower-bath, toilet and sink all jammed in together. Quickly, she stripped off her clothing and turned the water up hot.
As she began to wash her hair with a solution that one of her aunt's many (many) boyfriends had dreamed up one summer, Null considered that all in all, she was pretty fortunate really. Despite having what many would have considered to be an unfathomably severe disability, she was in a pretty good position. She had work, income, a roof over her head, company...
Okay, so maybe the work was acting as a glorified cleaning lady for a university full of people who had for the most part never had to truly struggle in life. And the pay was pretty scabby, considering the hours. She'd been working here almost two and a half years now, scrimping and saving wherever she could, and as is, if it weren't for the provided board, she'd be in deep trouble. It wasn't exactly as if she could simply go off get a job anywhere else, either. Null had never had any conventional schooling. Oh, she wasn't dumb or ignorant- her aunt had made damn sure of that, and Null was a regular interested reader in almost anything she could get her hands on, not to mention her above average skills in mathematics, gardening and arguing (Aunt Justifia had had some interesting boyfriends who'd taught Null quite a bit of what they knew).
But not being able to participate in the magical part of the curricula would have meant that not only would Null have been unable to graduate, but a number of other problems mould have arisen. Some of which from her birth parents, who were ashamed to have created a child who was "cursed" in such a way. Privately Null thought it rather ironic. If she actually was cursed, then no one would ever know, because while she couldn't produce a single spark of power, likewise no one could make a single spark of power work on her.
Null wrinsed the last of the suds from her hair, and stepped out of the shower. Rubbing herself down vigorously with her somewhat threadbare towel, she looked up at the clock in the corner and swore.
She was running late.
This is what she got for musing in the shower.
"Liam! Open up! Liam!"
Liam woke to the loud thudding sound of someone pounding on his door.
Kicking off his blanket, he hissed a little at the feel of the cold floor under his feet, and threw a loose robe over his bare chest and loose pyjama pants.
Liam removed the barricades, pulled back the three deadbolts, threw his door open, and scowled.
Sinbad was standing there, his feathers looking bedraggled and his plait coming out of its stylish bindings.
"Oh thank the gods, Liam! I was so worried!"
"Were you?" Liam asked, folding his arms over his chest. "Me, I'm wondering if you didn't set me up, Crest. I distinctly remember you telling me that the Stones were out of town."
Sinbad's face fell.
"I thought they were! That's what Riarne told me. Honest, Li, I wouldn't have asked you to come out if I knew they were trying to set you up!" He frowned thoughtfully. "Come to think of it, how did you get away? I heard Petra shrieking something about you taking advantage of old ladies, but-"
Despite himself, Liam started laughing bitterly, short barks of gallows humour. He'd known that the Stones were unhappy with him, but he hadn't realised that they were looking to petrify him. That was a new and unwelcome development. The fact that they were trying to make him out to be some sort of pervert when he'd been running for his life...
That was really too much.
Still, it would be best to nip that sort of rumour in the bud...
The explanation started to leave his mouth before he had fully thought it through, but he was practiced enough at twisting fact to suit himself- his cousins used to make a game of it when he was younger, and had been simultaneously delighted and annoyed when he'd turned out to be better at it than them.
"Hardly. For one she wasn't all that old. She looked like she was from Mum's generation. I don't know why she thought it was a good idea, but when she opened her door I used her house as an escape route and ran out the back door. I had a couple of close calls, but I kept moving until I got back here."
And strictly speaking, his cover story was completely true. He didn't know why Aleena had opened the door for him, and he had at first just barrelled through. And sure, at least one of his close calls had had absolutely nothing to do with the Stones chasing him, beyond his paranoia-enhanced reflexes getting him into trouble with someone who was at least as fast as he was... but not as fast as Aleena. Liam would eat his master-work she wasn't a Wind clan member, considering the speed that she'd moved with...
His train of thought was interrupted when he realised that Sinbad was shaking.
"Are you okay?"
Sinbad shook his head, biting his lip. Liam was immediately concerned. He'd never seen Sinbad like this before, with this pale-faced visage that was the exact opposite to Sinbad's usual 'life of the party' persona.
"This isn't just about the Stones trying to kill me, is it?" he guessed.
Sinbad shook his head, not meeting Liam's eye.
Liam suddenly had a very bad feeling about this.
"What happened?" Liam pressed.
Sinbad swallowed hard.
"When they couldn't catch you, they went looking for someone else. They found... Elena."
"What did they do to her?" Without realising he'd even done so, he grabbed Sinbad by the shoulders and started to shake him. "What did they do to her?!"
"Let him go!" A burst of sparks, and Liam was suddenly shoved back through his doorway. Startled by the sudden magical impact, he tripped over his own feet and landed sitting on his bed.
"I apologise for that Mr. Weaver," Liam looked up and saw that it was Mrs Citrine from the Student Affairs office. A usually cheery apple-cheeked lady, she looked grim, "but you were on the edge of hysterics and considering that you are already in trouble with the Stones, I thought it best to defuse the situation before you made yourself an enemy with the Wing clan as well."
To Liam's pleasant surprise, Sinbad defended him.
"That was unnecessary, Citrine," he said, in a firm tone that clashed with the outrageous persona Sinbad tended to cultivate. Liam realised that this was Sinbad, Wing Clan Heir he was seeing, and unconsciously, he sat up straighter. "Obviously Mr. Weaver was distraught, as he was in the middle of receiving some bad news. He was not causing me harm, and so your 'aid'," Sinbad's sarcasm on this word made the woman twitch a little, "was undesired, and I repeat, unnecessary."
Sinbad paused, and Liam heard a slight scratching noise. A mouse?
"Since your information is probably more recent and detailed than mine," Sinbad continued, "would you like to tell him?"
Mrs Citrine appeared to be unimpressed by Sinbad's Clan Heir persona, but the slight tremble in her hands gave away how she really felt about being told off by a high-ranking Family member. Liam, in that small, distant part of his brain that wasn't currently consumed with worry over what might have happened to Elena, felt a little sorry for her. If Sinbad had been almost anyone else, she would have been helping.
She cleared her throat. "Mr Weaver, I came to inform you that your cousin Elena was injured in an encounter with some members of the Stone family. Help arrived before they could..." she hesitated.
Sindbad made a noise of annoyance, and gestured for her to continue.
Citrine grimaced. "Your cousin should be alright Mr. Weaver. It looked like they'd turned her arms and legs into pumice, but fortunately they'd only encased her in it, and hadn't started blending before they were stopped by Sergeants Dane and Shepherd from the police. She was rushed to Emergency, but the doctors managed to chip her out without hurting her. She's a bit shaken up, but once she's been treated for shock she should be alright."
The relief Liam felt caused him to slump like a candle on a hot window sill.
"Is she still there?"
"Yes, they're keeping her under observation, just in case they missed something," Citrine said, her expression more sympathetic.
"Thank the gods. If you'll excuse me, I think I have somewhere I need to be," Liam said.
Citrine gave him a stately nod and stepped aside, but Sinbad grasped his arm.
"Li, if you need any help-" he began.
"Then I'll ask for it," Liam said with a half-smile as he gently removed Sinbad's hand.
Turning his back on them, he strode away hurriedly, already considering what the fastest route to the Emergency room was. As he rounded the corner, he nearly ran into the cleaning lady, who was mopping some greenish substance from the floor. It bubbled and popped ominously as Liam muttered an apology before stepping around her and continuing on his way.
If he had turned around then, he would have seen the look of surprise on the cleaning lady's face, as she muttered something to that bird she kept on her shoulder.
Instead, he rounded the corner speedily, and fifteen minutes later, he was in the Emergency room holding Elena's hand.
"I'm so sorry," he told her, gripping her hand until his knuckles went white. "I didn't think-"
"That they'd go after me too?" Elena laughed, but it was not a happy sound. "They're Stone Family Liam, not members of the Guild of Chivalry. It was bound to happen sooner or later."
Liam grimaced, inspecting the worn flagstones beneath his feet.
If only he had listened to his gut instinct and not gone out with Sindbad to that stupid party...
"Liam?" Elena's dry voice broke him from his reverie.
"It's not your fault."
Liam opened his mouth to protest, but Elena sat up on her hospital bed and glared at him.
"Did you tell them where I was?" she asked him.
"No! Of course not-"
"Did you ask them to hurt me instead of you?" Elena interrupted him.
Liam sighed. "Okay, okay, I see your point. Still, I wish you hadn't got caught."
It was Elena's turn to sigh, only hers was in exasperation.
"Me too. But it's not your fault you're brilliant enough to hack off the Stone Family. I'd say I wish you'd keep your head down a bit better, but then, I guess the same goes for me, seeing as I was the one they caught unawares last night." Elena looked down at her arms, and shivered slightly.
It was only then that Liam noticed that her other hand, the hand he wasn't holding, had a bandage around it.
"Elena! I thought that they hadn't merged any of the pumice into you!" He let go of her uninjured hand to cradle her injured one, but she snatched it away from him.
"They didn't," she said simply. When Liam stared at her confused, she bit her lip, then said, "they cut three of my fingers off with a knife. Fortunately it wasn't cursed, so the doctors are regrowing them for me..." she trailed off, and her lip quivered.
"Oh Elena." Liam pulled her into a hug, not needing to hear the rest. It didn't matter that the doctors could use magic to regrow her fingers, Elena still remembered having them cut off. Worse, six times out of seven, regrown body parts generally took months and months if not years to recondition to the standard of the originals. The worst part though was that it was obviously a premeditated and personal attack. It was fairly well-known that Elena loved to play the piano- in fact she'd constructed a few spells using discords and harmonies to artificially change the mood in a room.
Liam gritted his teeth and tightened his hold on his now sobbing cousin. These Stones had hurt her personally and professionally, just because her mother was his mother's sister. Just because he'd run too quickly for them to catch him.
This had to stop. Liam didn't know how he was going to do it, but as he held his distraught cousin in his arms, he knew that he would do anything in his power to stop this from happening again.
But what could he do?