I01. Cold Open

The Ethertech University Library was the home away from home for many a student, teaching assistant, hobbyist, and professional magic user, but it was especially so for Icaela Bancroft. Its inclusive environment, safety, and boundless sources of knowledge had been a source of safety and edification for her long before she landed a scholarship at the university, and now that she was pursuing her degree, it was even more so.

Today, she sat in the conference annex, at one of the small tables under a silence field emitter that could be switched on for relative privacy. It was 14:20 when Icaela spotted a familiar figure walk in: she was a woman in her mid-twenties, short and curvy and weighed down with a heavy backpack. Her dark brown hair was pulled into a messy bun from which unruly curls spilled, and a pair of rectangular glasses sat low on her nose. At her hip, an elaborate pistol frame of silver and wood jutted from a real leather holster.

The girl’s name was Madison Andershaw, and she was one of the most talented enchanters Icaela had ever met.

When the girl noticed a gaze on her, she turned, smiled, and waved before changing course and striding over to Icaela’s table.

“Ica, hey!” Madison dropped her backpack to the floor with a heavy thud and sat in the opposite seat. “Waiting on your student, huh? Wasn’t he supposed to be here like a half hour ago?”

Ica sighed and rolled her eyes a bit, but immediately returned them to her handshell before replying. “Yes. To both questions. He’s not a troublemaker but… I really wish he understood how important this is for both of us.” Then she lifted her gaze, those deep blue eyes suddenly registering that she might have been rude. “Oh! Sorry, Maddie. Hi.”

“Hi,” Maddie replied, giggling.

Icaela smiled gently. “Thanks for the concern. Ravi is a sweetheart, but has some problems.” She said, leaning back on her chair. “How are you? Let’s not start a conversation about my student.”

“Ah, I’m all right. Harvest feast with the family was kinda intense, which I could have done without, but my family is always kinda intense,” Madison replied, rubbing the bridge of her nose under her glasses. Icaela recalled that Madison was heir to an atelier that specialized in enchanted firearms, and was slated to inherit the business once all of her extensive studies were done.

“Do you really want to dedicate your life to the firearm business after you are done here?” Ica showed signs of concern in her face. Madison was a friend, and she always looked so tired of her family’s pressure. She wanted to help

“Mm? Oh, no, I’m happy to continue the family business, I just…” Madison laughed ruefully. “I’d like to maybe marry someone I don’t bicker with all the time? And maybe get on my kids’ case about petty stuff a little less.”

Ica offered a reassuring smile and reached over to squeeze Madison’s hand gently. “I just worry about you, you know? I hope you’ll be safe. I don’t want you to spend the rest of your life living with people you don’t like.” Ica knew all about that.

“I don’t… not like mom and dad, I just.” She sighed. “I think they need more staff. They’re too stressed. But apprentices can’t take the pressure, so there’s nobody else to do the high-end commissions except me.”

Realizing how deeply she’d gotten into the conversation, Madison blinked. “Um. I shouldn’t be getting into this, to be honest. My student’s gonna be here in like five minutes.”

Ica nodded, feeling a small ping of self-consciousness as Madison said that. “Oh, sorry for keeping you. I didn’t realize you were waiting for your student, too.” This always happened with her. “Hope it goes well.” She said, giving Maddie a soft smile.

“Um, it’s a new one!” Madison brightened a little, smiling. “We’re going over fundamentals of magical saturation. Speaking of which, would you still like me to help you study magic field analysis? I really appreciate the elemental tutorials you gave me last semester.”

Ica’s smile widened at Madison’s proposal. “Yes! I’d really like that.” She started curling a finger around her long hair, idly. “I’m glad they were of use to you. It’s hard not to know stuff about the elements with… my condition.” She said, frowning slightly for half a second, but quickly went away as soon as it had appeared. “Fields are a mess.” She added.

“I know it’s especially difficult for you to deal with them.” Madison reached across and put a hand on Ica’s, brown skin on blue. “Once your intuitive analytical abilities get better, you’ll be able to manage them from further away. I’ll do everything I can to help, okay?”

“Sorry I’m late!” The teenage boy who stumbled up was disheveled from head to toe, and even the overloaded backpack he carried was partly open, a training wand jutting out from the top. “There was a rail delay.”

“Ah, Ravi! There you are.” Ica said, getting up from her seat a bit. “I’m just glad you’re alright. I was starting to get really worried. You know, you don’t need to bring all the books…” She said, smiling at the boy. “Sorry, Maddie, duty calls.” She turned her head to look at her friend.

“No problem, Ica!” Madison stood, shouldering her bag again. “Hey, there’s gonna be a winter festival block party this Saturday. Wanna go?”

Icaela nodded. “Yeah, I’d love to. I’ll be keeping in touch, then alright?” She said, and she leaned forward to give Madison a quick hug, patting her back a few times. “Don’t worry about the stuff with your family, it’ll be alright.” She said, that perfect, pristine smile on her soft face, before pulling back from the hug.

“You take care too.” Madison returned the hug, then walked away to find another study table.

Wide-eyed, Ravi reached forward and activated the cone of silence. “Whoa,” he whispered, in spite of the cone making him inaudible to everyone except Icaela. “Your friend is hot, Miss Bancroft.”

Ica choked. “Ravi!” She hissed, also ignoring the fact that the cone was active. “She is, but, you shouldn’t… She’s too old for you, Ravi, alright?” She frowned. Ravi had problems relating to other kids of his age, so no wonder he turned his attention to her (admittedly attractive) friend. Ica was starting to wonder how she would teach him; maybe she really was not cut out for this after all. She was a tutor, not a parent.

“I know, I know, I’m just lookin’,” Ravi waved it off, though he did continue to stare at Madison’s ass as she went. “She’s got that sexy librarian thing going on, y’know?”

Ica pinched the bridge of her nose for a second before sitting down. “You’re looking at her ass. I know she has that sexy librarian thing going on. But Ravi, that’s my friend you’re speaking about. I’m not going to yell at you or punish you, but you have to understand boundaries.” She struggled to find the words as she spoke. It was difficult to teach a teenager about appropriate sexual boundaries when she was so inexperienced herself, and this certainly wasn’t what she was being paid to teach the boy about. But she had to. Once she was also a girl with no friends, and she wanted to help him.

“Okay, okay,” Ravi grumbled, tearing his eyes away from Madison and dropping to the seat. “I did the reading like you asked, but it was mostly stuff they taught us in history class. Like how the Mad Mage exploding made New Washington possible because monsters stayed away from the crater for a hundred years or whatever.”

“That ‘or whatever’ is mighty important, and you should know that. You wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that event. And you’re glossing over the key thing I want to teach you; is that when the Mad Mage exploded it created a rift between this dimension and other ones. It’s faint, but it’s there. That’s why New Washington has all these things that people from other places don’t really experience, like ghosts, dimensional breaches, spontaneous magic fields, anomalies… Those are normal to us. Because of that rift.” She took a deep breath. “Did you understand, or do you have any questions? You know you can ask me anything, I’m not going to get upset.” And she gave Ravi a gentle, warm smile. The kind of smile you could tell anything to.

Ravi thought for a moment, then smiled, a curious glint in his eye. “Do you believe the stories? That the Mad Mage never really died? That his spirit keeps being reborn?”

“Who knows? Does it matter? My brother always says to live in the present and tackle each day as it comes, so that’s what I do. Wondering about the Mad Mage really isn’t going to help me on my studies.” Then she went quiet for a few seconds. “BUT, listen, if there’s a rift in space where New Washington is, and it still hasn’t closed in so many years, a lot of people theorize that he actually left through the rift, and he’s still somewhere. Scary, huh?” She added, giggling to herself.

“Oh man,” Ravi marveled, clearly fantasizing about the possible repercussions of that. “Like, actual magisci people think that? Not just people telling stories?”

“Yeah. Some people believe it real hard. That the Corporations are hiding the Mad Mage from us or something. Conspiracy theories. In my opinion, if he hasn’t come out yet in so long, he’s probably dead, thankfully. You’d do well to remember what I said about the rift. It’s really, really important. I know the Mad Mage is like, a huge deal, but it’s been more than two hundred years since that happened. You should focus on actual facts like how we have ghosts and elemental an…” Ica went quiet for a second, feeling almost dirty for saying those words, but kept going. “And elemental anomalies. And they are everyday things because of that rift in space, that joins our dimension with other ones, Alright, Ravi?” She was repeating herself quite a bit so he would remember.

Ravi’s face sobered. “Yeah, I get it. Do you get a lot of shit for being an elemental, Miss Bancroft?”

It suddenly felt like Ravi had punched her in the stomach, but with words. Ica almost panicked, not wanting to explain to the boy the extent of her issues. “I—” She took a deep breath. “Yes.” She just said, her voice quiet all of a sudden, one of her hands gripping the desk. “I do.” She remarked, without wanting to get into any specifics, painfully obvious that she didn’t want to talk about it.

Evidently realizing that he had struck a nerve, Ravi dropped his head to stare down at the table surface. “Sorry.”

Ica somehow put that perfect, comfortable smile back on her face, and placed a hand on Ravi’s head, gently stroking his hair. “It’s alright. I just… wasn’t expecting the question. Remember what I said about boundaries, sweetie? It felt bad when I felt bad, right? You should avoid that.” Ica took a deep breath, making the situation about Ravi instead of herself. She was good at that. “You can avoid that by asking politely about the topic, like… ‘hey Miss Bancroft, do you want to talk about how being an elemental is like?’ To which I’d have answered: No. But then it’d have been okay. Be careful, alright? You’re a good boy, I know it.” She said, her hand dropping down to rest at his shoulder.

Ravi looked away. “C’mon, Miss Bancroft, I’m not that young,” he muttered, obviously a bit embarrassed at his slipup. “Let’s just… do the lesson. I’ll focus this time.”

Ica was not in a good mood after that, but she was a master at hiding it when she felt like this, as opposed to her twin brother. “I suppose you really aren’t that young, huh? Sorry about that, then.” She giggled. “Will you really focus? Iyesu, today is really shaping up to be a good day.” She teased the boy.

“Alright, open your Theory Of Magic book on page 133…”

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