Issue #58 – Alert UMW: Mages

This entry is part 11 of 14 in the series The Descendants Vol 5: How the World Changes
Morganna’s Body Part 1
Squirrels weren’t an unusual sight on the campus of the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Anyone that spent much time there would even attest to the squirrels not having much in the way of fear when it came to humans. They would only flee if threatened, and were known to harass students that got too close to their nests and food stores. Odd behavior in squirrels was common place to the point of being a campus in-joke.
 
Even so, if anyone had been paying attention, the sight of one particular squirrel would have raised some eyebrows. It ran across Ball Circle with a focus rarely seen on rodents; no scurrying in a zig-zag like prey—it moved in a straight, determined line. A small, red and white bag was clutched in its teeth.
 
It reached the stairs out in front of Ball Hall at speed and bounded up onto one of the railings, running along it until it stopped dead at the top.
 
There was a young woman sitting on the landing with her back against one of the pillars that held up the canopy over the terrace. She had her dark, curly hair pulled back into a short, high ponytail and wore a white tank-top and jean shorts with low cut hiking boots. Her eyes were covered completely by black sunglasses.
 
She looked up from working on her tablet as the squirrel arrived and held out her hand. “Good job, Brutus.”
 
The squirrel leapt from the railing to her hand and climbed up to her shoulder. She smiled and took the bag from his mouth and rewarded him with a scratch on the forehead. A symbol, like a jagged rendition of the number 3 with a dot in the bottom curve and an angled line sprouting from the back, briefly glowed gold above the animal’s brow before fading.
 
The bag featured a smiling acorn and the name ‘Mother Nature’s Kitchen’ and in smaller letters, the words ‘all natural, sweet acorns’. The woman opened the bag and offered the first nut to Brutus, who took it eagerly and hopped off her shoulder to eat it in the corner.
 
“I’m so glad our little talk about keeping a low profile got through to you, Elle.”
 
Elle Bainbridge looked up to see her roommate, Jennifer Tsai, standing at the bottom of the stairs. She wore thick soled, black boots that came to her knee and had more buckles than a belt store along with a loose, black knee length skirt, pink halter and a black, short sleeved denim jacket that was too short to be anything but ornamental. She kept her shoulder-length, black hair curled outward at the bottom and clipped back on the right side with an amber hair clip. She also looked very annoyed.
 
“No one pays attention to the squirrels.” Elle shrugged and ate an acorn.
 
Jennifer tromped up the stairs and leaned on the rail, towering over Elle, which she would have done even if the other girl was standing up and even without her boots giving her an extra three inches of height. “No one has the squirrels riding on their shoulders either. Elle, we talked about this. You promised when I let you have a copy of the Book that you wouldn’t draw attention.” She was second generation Chinese and her accent only came out when she was frustrated. This issue usually only surfaced around Elle.
 
“Do you see anyone paying attention. It’s summer session!” Elle gestured around her. The porch as vacant and the only people nearby were a group of guys playing Frisbee on the Circle. “Besides, you’re the one that says we need to practice. Well I’m studying the animal spells and guess what? I need to practice on animals. What, do you want me to practice on ants?”
 
That drew an uncomfortable sound from Jennifer. She was the one that started all this; the one that had been practicing the longest; ever sense the previous summer when a ‘heartbreak cure’ spell she’d found online turned out to be real and excised an ex-boyfriend from her memory. She was also the one who introduced her friends to it as soon as college started again, and the one who came up with the idea of everyone specializing in one category of spells from the book she got the original heartbreak cure from; the Book of Passions.
 
“Okay, you’re right.” she finally sighed. “But you’re going overboard. You don’t need to put your mark on every single squirrel on campus to practice.”
 
Elle grinned. “But they’re the easiest to get close enough to trance. Birds fly away before I can get them to look me in the eye, raccoons only come out at night, and the groundhogs run way faster than something that big should” The UMW groundhogs seems consistently to be twice the size of those found anywhere else, but generations of student harassment had made them quick and agile.
 
“Every. Single. Squirrel.” chided Jennifer, folding her arms.
 
“I can’t walk anywhere on campus without detecting a marked squirrel.” Her area of study was admittedly a cheat; she read up on spells that affected other spells; augmenting, detecting and countering them. She called it ‘meta-magic’ and the practical upshot was that she could learn any other spells she wanted under the informal rules the four of them followed under the justification that she needed something to use the meta-magic on. She kept her basic detection spell up at all times, hoping to find other people practicing on campus. So far, she’d only found one.
 
“How do you even keep all of those going, anyway?” She added, suddenly curious. Spells usually needed concentration or a permanent ‘anchor’ to stay active. Briefly, she considered that Elle might actually be tattooing her mark on all those squirrels. Elle being Elle, it wasn’t that far out of the realm of possibility.
 
Elle set her tablet aside and raised up a little to reach into her back pocket. From it, she took out a nondescript deck of cards. There was a blank card rubber banded to the front of the box with an intricate circle inked on it, surrounding the same symbol that appeared on Brutus’s head earlier. Elle had very carefully written ‘Brutus’ beneath the circle.
 
“I had an amazing idea.” She explained excitedly as she pulled out a few other cards marked ‘Duke’, ‘Bonnie’ and ‘Sweet Clyde’. “The book talks about etching circles into rocks for long term spells. We all figured that it meant that the rocks were important, right?”
 
Jennifer nodded. She had a small, flat river stone in her back pocket that was carefully etched with her detection spell.
 
“But then I thought about it. Paper wouldn’t last long in a thatch roofed house with all kinds of weevils and rodents—no offense, Brutus—all over the place. Since no one’s ever found a wizard’s tower, and they wouldn’t exactly be welcome in monasteries, I figure old school witches and wizards lived like everyone else back then. It wasn’t that paper wouldn’t work, it just wasn’t an option! So I drew my circles on card stock, laminated them at the library, and they work: animal friend trading cards.
 
“Oh, and for extra fun,” she turned one card over to show that there was another circle drawn on that side, albeit missing a small space that kept the ends from closing. She quickly whipped out a marker and closed the circle, which pulsed with a faint light that Jenifer would have missed if she didn’t know it was there. “I added the animal spy spell to the back of each one so…”
 
She pressed the pulsing circle to her forehead. Behind her sunglasses, her eyes lit with golden light. “I can tell you that Duke is just outside his burrow, feeding his fat face right now and…” Wiping her thumb across the back of the card erased the marker and canceled the spell. She marked another and repeated the procedure of touching it to her forehead. “Sweet Clyde’s asleep, but I could have told you that. Skunks are nocturnal.”
 
Jennifer smiled. Sometimes she forgot just how smart her roommate could be despite her eccentricities. “Very nice. You need to show the others when we get together this evening. Have any classes for the rest of the day?”
 
“Just Molecular Bio.” Elle said. “And I’m doing my web seminar on World Architecture right now.” She picked up her tablet again.
 
“You know, junior year starts n a month and you still haven’t picked a major.”
 
“I like learning about everything.” Elle shrugged. “I wish magic was a major.”
 
Pushing off the railing, Jennifer laughed and walked to the door. “Maybe some day. After all, there’s a web seminar they’re offering this coming semester all about the astral plane.”
 
“I know, I’m taking it. All that astral stuff is incredibly interesting.”
 
“You’re going to have to choose some time, Elle. Your adviser won’t let you just flit around.” Jennifer pulled oven the door and basked in the puff of cool air from the air conditioner washed over her.
 
“I know.” Elle slipped her cards back into their box and put them back in her pocket. “But not yet.”
 
***
Jay Willis was starting to wonder if he wasn’t getting a raw deal, working for Morganna.
 
Sure, the Manikin was under orders to make him comfortable, which meant she would go out and use her magic to steal any food or goods he wanted. He ate well and had a nice room in the building they were squatting in. And there were also the superpowers. He wouldn’t lie; he loved being super-strong and physically invulnerable.
 
It was just that sometimes he wondered if it was worth putting up with all the bullshit that went with working with Morganna.
 
First and foremost, she referred to it as ‘serving’ her, which put a bad taste in his mouth. Not as bad as the smell in the main chamber thought; a funk of mold and rancid pork that emanated from the bubbling muck Morganna kept in the bulldozer shovel there. He’d looked into it once or twice and was lucky he didn’t vomit each time. There was a corpse in there and it was growing. Maybe not so much growing as rotting in reverse.
 
And then there was the company. He wasn’t allowed to leave for extended periods, being the knight meant to protect her, so he didn’t have much of a personal life. Manikin wasn’t bad when she wasn’t around Morganna. Despite being what he suspected was the magical equivalent of a robot butler, she had a personality of her own. The problem was that it submerged whenever she was tending to Morganna, replaced by some higher, driving programming to serve the ‘Heir of Hyrilius’, whatever Hyrilius was.
 
The motes were worthless. They fawned over Morganna worse than the Manikin at her most subservient and their speech pattern made any attempts to talk to them an exercise in frustration.
 
And then there was Morganna. Her manner of speaking was even worse than the motes, turning in on itself and repeating needless words. Plus, he was starting to suspect that even when she spoke directly to someone, she was really talking to a figment of her imagination. On occasion, he’d caught her arguing with herself, or at least a voice in her head she called ‘Nightshade’.
 
Violent outbursts weren’t uncommon either, especially during Nightshade episodes. But they had been settling down as of late, which seemed to make things even worse. As the body in the shovel became more complete, Morganna spent more and more time sitting on the edge, staring.
 
In the past few days, she only left to relieve herself, even sleeping and taking meals up there as if the gagging smell didn’t affect her.
 
Jay thought it was probably the beginning of the end for what was left of her sanity.
 
That’s why he wasn’t sure if it was an improvement when he came in through the stairwell doors leading to the basement to find Morganna moving animatedly about the space. Instead of the unwashed rags she wore almost continually, she was dressed in a white, ankle length dress with a red silk vest and matching sash cinching the dress in at the waist. The woodling cloak, one of the magical items Manikin referred to as also being of Hyrilius, hung from her shoulders, sweeping the floor as she moved.
 
She had done some damage to the room, violently sweeping aside everything on the table closest to the center. Reagents Manikin spent hours or days procuring littered the floor amid broken glass and a traumatized looking lizard that had discomfited Jay earlier with its ability to survived in the amber liquid Morganna kept it stored in.
 
As Jay watched, the lizard dragged itself out of sight, leaving a trail of what he swore was frost behind it.
 
But Morganna continued rushing about, using random odds and ends to weight down the edges of a huge map of North America she’d unrolled in the middle of the now empty table. When that was done, she grabbed a bucket of sand from a corner and sat down in front of the table with it in her lap, muttering as she scratched symbols into it with her nails.
 
Only then did Jay realize two other oddities: One, the omnipresent stench he came to associate with the basement was gone. And two, he wasn’t the only person there besides Morganna and Manikin.
 
Wayne Micheal Jones and Dana Vargas were there too: Morganna’s Knights Amore Detestabilis. There was a story there about past lives and love eternal turned to hatred, but what was important to Jay was that Wayne was also the pro wrestler called The Blockade, who he was a huge fan of. That and Jay outranked him in their haphazard organization.
 
“Sup?” He nodded to Wayne, who was leaning on a support pillar, watching Morganna, for lack of a better term, work.
 
Wayne shrugged, but Dana responded for him. “Her Majesty called us here because the thing she’s been boiling in the shovel’s done. I have no idea what ‘done’ means here, but it looks like a dead body.”
 
So that’s why it didn’t smell anymore.
 
“She actually explained something?” Jay asked.
 
“No, she did.” Wayne said, pointing to Manikin. She was trying to clean up the spilled reagents around Morganna. “And that’s all she told us.”
 
Dana made a rude noise. “Well if you need to know so bad, why don’t you just man up and ask her some questions?”
 
“Look.” Wayne rounded on her. “I just made a simple comment. I’ve only been here as long as you, so I don’t need any bull about me not doing something you could have done yourself.”
 
“I remember plenty of times when I had to do for myself when you weren’t up for the job.” Dana said acidly.
 
“Don’t lie, we both remember everything and you know that didn’t start until–”
 
“Manikin.” Jay said loudly enough to interrupt the past lives bickering. “What’s going on?”
 
She stood up straight at his call, both hands full of broken glass with just as much concern for that being shown as there would have been if she were holding a sack of flour. “The Heir’s true flesh has finally regenerated.”
 
“That’s what that thing she grew in that sludge is?” He guessed, wrinkling his nose in disgust.
 
Manikin dipped her head in the affirmative. “Using a spell of great power, she reconstructed what she could from the soil of her grave and the tree that grew over it. Thereafter, she has been inducing it to regrow what has been lost to time. Now it is complete and she intends to return her mind to that vessel.”
 
Jay held up a hand to get her to pause. “Hold up. If that’s her real body, how’s she able to walk and talk and everything. Is the body she’s in now something like you?” He couldn’t really wrap his head around the fact that Manikin was artificial; she moved and talked and acted like a normal flesh and blood human. It was only when she occasionally deactivated the glamor that made her look like a Hispanic teenager that she looked like anything else.
 
“The body she possessed before she won my services. The one she speaks of—or to—on occasion was the original inhabitant, a woman called Lady Nightshade.” Manikin explained with a calm that didn’t match the horrific details.
 
“You mean she stole some woman’s body?” Manikin dipped her head again. “That’s nasty.”
 
“I am not in a position to question the Heir.” said Manikin.
 
Jay glanced at Morganna. The sand in the bucket seemed to be moving on its own volition even when she wasn’t agitating it with her finger. He quickly looked back at Manikin. “Can I question her? I mean not to her face, but right here?” Another of what passed for a nod from Manikin. “Then I say that’s nasty.”
 
He turned back to his fellow Knights, who had fallen into their typical game of ignoring one another while surreptitiously sneaking a peek to see if they could find something to find fault in. “Hey, did you two know that–”
 
Whatever he was about to say, it was cut off by an animal cry from Morganna, who suddenly leapt to her feet. The motes flocked down from wherever they’d been hiding to encircle her head like a glowing crown. The scream choked off into guttural syllables, the sounds of which made the humans present go to cover their ears. The sounds strung together into an alien chant, which reached crescendo with Morganna hurling the entire bucket of sand at the map on the table.
 
The sand didn’t fall, but became a rotating storm above the map. Thunder peeled from it and the entire building seemed to shudder and pulse sympathetically.
 
Morganna continued to chant, the words becoming more human sounding, but no less ominous. Sparks of lightning flashed within the recesses of the miniature sandstorm.
 
Wayne pushed off the table he was leaning on to get a closer look. The moment he did, a flash of lightning leapt from the cloud and stuck the table below it. Wayne bought his hand to his chest and spoke words of power that served him for hundreds of years.
 
““Sinte scuta continere Vincenti.” Blue-white energy issued forth from him, flowing like water in zero gravity to form a standing triangle of force between him and danger.
 
But there was no danger. More lighting struck in succession, dancing across the map until finally, in a single crackling eruption, the storm of sand dissipated into nothingness.
 
Silence followed, but for the sound of Morganna dropping the bucket and hurrying over to the map. When she reached it and found herself alone except for her motes, she turned sharply to look at Manikin and her knighthood.
 
“Come.” She said, her voice harsh from the chant. “Come You… you… you have to see. This is where…” She paused to turn slowly back to stare at whatever she’d done. “Where I will become… myself. Again.”
 
Cautiously, the three Knights approached. Manikin came without fear or apprehension, probably because she was told to by the Heir.
 
Jay arrived first, being more confident due to his invulnerability. What he found as a highly detailed map of North America with every settlement down to the smallest town marked in tiny script. There were now thin lines laid out in a complex, overlapping spiderweb all over it. After a second, he realized that those lines were glass, created by the sand and lighting.
 
Seemingly out of nowhere, Morganna shoved her hand in his face. “Spit.” She ordered.
 
“What?”
 
She gave him one of her ‘I’m quite insane and fully capable of killing you out of hand if you dawdle’ looks. He spat into her hand. She, naturally, treated this as if this was to be expected and muttered some words over it.
 
A pulse traveled through the glob of saliva and all the little bubbles disappeared. Then the glob pooled into a perfect round shape and froze. Morganna held this over the map, revealing it to be a perfectly functional magnifying glass.
 
“Ley lines.” She declared, holding the expectorate lens over a section of the map that was particularly lousy with intersecting lines. “Where… where the magic flows free. More powerful. More lines means… you see… it means there’s more power. To make my body live again.
 
She tapped the center of the area, where the tiny legend said there was a city called Fredericksburg. “This is where I will build my tower to collect it.”

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Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter.

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