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This short story is a birthday present I wrote for a friend. The names have been changed to protect the innocent. Or… Whatever.

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Stephanie Miller and the Sorcerer’s Stone

“Mmrrroooww!”

Stephanie cracked an eyelid, whimpering in frustration. The noise was loud, constant, and unending. The heavy cat lay on her chest, kneading claws scraping at the blanket. “Mmrrooww!!” it screamed again.

“Eeerrgghh… Shut up, Jeff-Jeff.” Stephi groaned, trying to roll over. “Let me sleep.”

Instead the cat crawled closer at signs of life from his owner, kneading harder and purring loud. No, Stephi thought. Not purring… She turned again, re-cracking her eyes to stare at the cat. His eyes were wide and staring and bits of foam flaked at the corner of his mouth as he mewled again. Instantly Stephi was awake, sitting up in bed to wrap her arms around the quivering feline and scanning the room for her other cat. “Where’s Henry?” she asked.

A terrified shriek of pain and fear ripped through the quiet night from her living room. The shaking cat bolted out of her arms and was gone, hiding in some remote shadow as Stephi lunged out of bed and whipped open the bedroom door.

Two silhouettes flew through the air in front of her. One was the heavy shadow of her second cat, pouncing after something small and flying. Her heart pounding in her ears, Stephanie’s right hand curled into a readied fist and the other slapped for the light switch. It was an Owl. Her cat was chasing a smallish brown owl.

Stephi stood stunned, watching the small bird race around her tiny apartment, chased by her precocious cat. The owl shrieked again, screaming into the night as the cat came within inches. The sound jolted her into action and Stephi lunged forward, simultaneously trying to catch her flying cat and chase the owl out of her house.

The result was a disaster: twice she caught a fist full of fur only to have the squirming cat wrestle out of her hands and back into the chase. Once, when she lunged, trying to scare the owl out of her bathroom she tripped on the soft mat and fell hard against the side of the bath tub, slamming her shins against the heavy porcelain and spraining a wrist. Another scream brought the sound of running footsteps and heavy pounding on her front door. “Ma’am!” someone yelled. “Are you all right?”

Oh great… Stephi thought. Someone called the cops.

“I’m fine!” she yelled back. “It’s just an o-“

Her reassuring shout was cut off by another scream. “This is the police!” the voice from the door shouted again. “We’re coming in!”

The door shook in its hinges as something heavy slammed against it. “No!” Stephi ran for the door, unlocking it and yanking it open just as the officer’s heavy foot swung again.

The cop tumbled into the living room followed by a second man with a gun. He levelled the pistol at Stephanie’s pajama clad form before twisting to point it into the apartment. “What’s going on in here?” he yelled.

Stephi threw up her hands. “It’s nothing, it’s nothing!” she yelled. “Don’t shoot. It’s just an Owl!”

The cop on the floor blinked dumbly up at her for a split second until the pouncing cat landed, claws out and hissing, on his chest. The cop by the door snapped his gun into a shooting position again, not sure what to point his gun at. The owl shrieked from its current perch on top of the kitchen cabinets and the gun swiveled toward it, the officer’s eyes going wide. Stephi’s hands flew up again. “It’s okay, just calm down. It’s just an owl.”

The officer holstered his gun and glowered at Stephi. “Ma’am, do you know it’s against the law to keep an owl as a pet?”

Stephi balked, searching for words until the cop on the ground started laughing. “It’s not a pet, Mike. It must have come in through an open window.”

Stephi started. She’d almost forgotten the second man was there. She looked down. The cop sat cross-legged on the floor, holding the cat tightly and trying to calm it down. He reached up and Stephi gratefully took the angry cat from him. “That true, ma’am?” Mike said. “It ain’t a pet?”

“Who the hell keeps a screech owl as a pet?”

Mike shook his head, letting out tension with a slow breath. “We get all kinds.”

He extended a hand and helped haul the other cop to his feet with a sigh. “Come on, miss. We’ll help you chase the little bugger out.”

The owl chirruped twice, somehow conveying extreme annoyance and flew out the open door. Mike swung the door closed behind it. “Well, I guess that works,” he said.

It took nearly another hour for the police to leave. They had to perform a full inspection of the house and get a statement from Stephi and the three neighbors who had called in the blood curdling screams. Finally, Stephi was able to shut the door behind them and reach for the phone. There was no way she was going to make it to work on two hours sleep, especially after that insane mess.

She left a voicemail while double checking every door and window lock. No one had come up with a good explanation of how the owl had gotten inside her apartment in the first place. The only plausible option was that it had come through the screen door on the patio which had then gotten knocked shut by the cat’s insane pouncing. For good measure Stephi locked the patio door and slid a bar into place to block it completely.

Finally satisfied, Stephanie stumbled toward bed, pausing in her kitchen to blink down at the faded yellow envelope staring up at her from the counter. She blinked at it. What the…? Where did that come from? She wondered.

The paper was old, and yellowed with age, but the handwritten address still shone in brilliant blue ink. –Stephanie Miller–

Did the cops leave that? Dammit. It is too late for this crap.

The envelope was unsealed when she flipped it over and yanked out the several folded pages. All but one of the pages was the same aged yellow paper, hand written in brilliant glittering blue ink, but the final page was a simple piece of notebook paper with a familiar scrawl skittering across it.

“Stephi,
I pulled some strings.
Give it a try.
Happy Birthday.
Tom.

P.S. I insisted on the owl for flair.
Hope you like it.”

Are you kidding me? Stephi shook her head. How did he get this in here? She smiled down at the letter and flipped to the next page.

Dear Ms. Miller,

Your name has been brought to the attention of The Academy as a potential student for advanced training and development. Although it is unusual for us to accept students in this manner and independent researcher of some note has presented your particular case in a rather convincing manner. We have also been made aware that you have gone through a several year period of training in a witchcraft tradition and finished with whatever may pass for high marks. Be that as it may, we are also assured you have escaped a cult-like situation, developed a sense of power and potentially reached a plateau of arcane power possessed by few. Obviously, this will need to be officially verified. However, if you are, in fact, reading this letter without outside assistance then I congratulate you on passing the entrance exam.

                        Welcome to The Academy.

Stephi beamed down at the letter. “Are you kidding me?” she asked the empty air. “Wait, did he do the owl too?” She dropped the letter to the counter and reached for her phone. This was too good to wait.

The letter on the counter erupted in a thunderclap of sapphire flame:

Ms. Miller,

The words carved themselves from the flame and hovered in mid-air.

This is a serious matter! The Academy awaits your answer.

“Answer? What answer?” Stephi asked the floating flame. The flames vanished from the air, leaving behind a few charring ashes and a final page. Stephi inched toward the counter, peering down at the last page.

The remaining page held a simple statement swearing she would visit the Academy for a period of one week and would not disclose anything of The Academy or their means of communication. Below it was a signature line, and below that was a plane ticket in her name.

Stephi gaped around her kitchen. “Are you Freaking kidding me?!?!”

*

Two hours later Stephi finished cramming a bag with the last of the things she thought she might need. The plane ticket had somehow even included approved passage for the pair of cats and a promise they’d be welcome. Which is all fine and dandy, Stephi thought, if I can get them in the damn carrier.

In the end, an open can of tuna and a swift kick at the carrier door did the trick. The latch clicked into place at the same time her phone beeped with a waiting voicemail. Stephi blinked down at the phone that hadn’t rung all night and cocked an eyebrow. Now what?

Her boss’ panic-filled voice rang rapid fire from the phone. There had been a fire in the building. Nothing serious, no one hurt, but they were going to be closing down for the next three weeks for repairs and inspections. Company insurance would cover the break in pay. Enjoy the impromptu vacation.

Stephi blinked down at the phone, silently registering the time. Have I really thought this through? The answer was obvious. No. Panic and anxiety edged at the back of her mind threatening to push forward until her phone buzzed with an automated text. There was a taxi at the front gate to her complex. It was there to take her to the airport. Now or never. Stephi through a final glance at the kitchen, half wondering if flaming blue words would appear in the air again and tell her what to do. But then, they already had. She hauled her bags in her hands and stopped just long enough to lock the door on her way out.

*

Even in mid-May Bismark North Dakota was colder than she was used to. The plane had landed under a grey and cloud-filled sky that thrilled Stephi through and through. The breeze coming off the tarmac was cold and wet threatening rain or, Stephi almost squealed at the thought, maybe even snow.

The cat carrier in her hand quivered with the fear and anger of both cats, but Stephi smiled at both of them, whispering reassuring words and teasing movement out of both of them with a probing finger. “Well boys,” she said. “Now what do you think we should do?”

“Kittens!!!” Squealed a voice.

Stephi turned as a woman squatted low to stare through the grate. She was average height and slightly built, wearing black slacks and a black corduroy vest over a tight white T-shirt and finished the outfit with a smoke gray pork pie hat. Stephi blinked down at the woman who was now holding the crate with both hands and chortling at the cats inside. “Yes,” she said warily. “They are kittens, but I really should be going.”

“Oh!” the woman sprang upright. “Right!” she turned and ran a few yards down the hall toward the baggage claim. She skidded to a halt near a chair and picked up a sheet of cardboard. The woman coughed twice and stood rigid, assuming an air of complete detachment. A second later she looked down and gave a little gasp, flipping the sign over so that it could be read by people approaching. ‘S. Miller.’

Stephi sighed down at her cats and shrugged. “Of course that’s what it says.” Both cats meowed sympathetically.

The woman smiled and shrugged when Stephi walked over. “They gave me your picture,” she said with a touch of guilt. “I was going to be all cool and welcoming, but then I thought I’d be all professional so I made a sign and then I saw your kitties and I got all excited.” She dropped the sign into a nearby trash can. “Can I try again?” She stuck out her hand. “Hi. I’m Olive.”

Stephi set her bag down and shook the offered hand. “Stephanie. Well, Stephi works too.”

Olive hefted the bag off the floor. “Nice to meet you,” she said. “We’ve got a car and everything.”

Olive led the way out through the airport and to an older long black sedan. She made a faint beeping noise and opened the truck with a turn of the key. “Here we go.” She hefted the bag into the trunk. “Your friend Tom said I should be super nice and not scare you at all.”

Stephi raised an eyebrow. “You know Tom?”

“Not really?” she shrugged. “As much as anyone?”

“Then why would you do what he said?”

“Oh! Because it really annoys the headmistress.”

Olive unlocked the rest of the doors and slid into the driver’s seat, coaxing the car to life as Stephanie placed the cats in the back and settled herself in the passenger seat. “Where to now?”

Olive smiled. “Actually, that’s up to you. Your visit doesn’t officially start for another day or so, so there’s no hurry. We can get some food or I can take you out there and get you settled in our apartment.”

“Wait. Where?”

“Oh!” Olive shrieked, her voice climbing several octaves in excitement. “I didn’t tell you! We’re gonna be roomies!”

Stephanie’s face froze, settling into the polite half smile she reserved for annoying customer service encounters, but before she could respond Olive collapsed, convulsing in fits of throaty laughter behind the steering wheel. “Oh my god!” she gasped. “You should see your face!” She held up both hands, grinning from ear to ear. “No roommates. Promise.”

Stephi felt herself start to relax. “Oh thank god.”

Olive nodded, nosing the car out of the parking lot and into traffic. “I like my space too,” she said. “I’ll be your guide and acclimation specialist so we share a house, but it’s like two duplexes that share a giant communal kitchen.” She shook her head. “Can you imagine magic-fueled roommate drama? Ugh. No thanks.”

Stephi didn’t respond, instead focusing on the smooth swaying of the large car as Olive skillfully guided it through traffic. They slid onto the freeway and drifted quietly through the city. It was midafternoon, but traffic wasn’t very heavy. The air remained cool and damp and Stephi stared out the windows at the surrounding skyline. “No mountains,” she said quietly, mostly to herself.

“Not much of anything really,” Olive agreed. “But that’s why we’re here. It’s harder to destroy the landscape when there really isn’t much of one.”

Stephi laughed. “Do you destroy the landscape often?”

Olive shrugged. “We are largely untrained and immature humans, raised in a society that doesn’t encourage mental discipline and we’re tampering with the fundamental forces that make up our reality. It happens.”

“So, how does that work?”

“Oh, the academy training grounds is disguised as weapons testing facility. Lots of open space, occasional explosions, high security, and no one really wants to sneak in anyway. Works pretty well.”

Stephi raised an eyebrow, but said nothing, suddenly wondering exactly what she’d gotten into. The flash and the drive had for magic had been widespread and long standing in her life, but this woman was talking about destroying the landscape and the forces of reality like they were nothing. What if she was insane? What if this whole situation was a mess? She hadn’t even stopped to consider it before, but these people had set her workplace on fire, just to get her here. If they were willing to do that, what else could be on the line?

This definitely was on a different level than the occult events she’d been a part of before. This was getting a little scary. Stephi swallowed. This would probably be a lot scary if she stopped to think about it.

Stephi took several slow deep breaths, fighting back anxiety as she looked out the window. The car lurched over a bump in the road and the world around them went black. Flashing stars of gold streaked past for almost a full second before the world blinked back into view around them. Stephi sat bolt upright, staring out the window.

The city was gone. She couldn’t even see it through the back window as she twisted in her seat. There was nothing around them but road and fields. She blinked down at the road. It was a simple two lane highway in the country, cutting through a few small rolling hills. Olive hummed tunelessly in the driver’s seat. “What the hell was that?” Stephanie asked.

The humming stopped immediately. “What was what?”

Stephi gaped at the girl. “What do you mean, ‘what was what’? What was that flash? Where did the city go? Where are we?”

Olive’s eyes flicked back and forth, looking for a way out. Finally, she swallowed, chewing on a single chipped nail. “Promise you won’t tell?” Stephi didn’t respond. Finally, Olive just sighed, dropping her hand back to the steering wheel. “It’s just such a boring drive,” she said. “I just… one little pop into the night realm is all. I really didn’t think you’d notice.”

“Most people don’t notice a city disappearing?”

“Well…” Olive shrugged guiltily. “Most people just think they dozed off.”

A small smile played along the corners of Stephi’s mouth. “I’m not most people.”

Olive let out tension with a slow breath. “So,” she shifted her pork-pie hat. “I’m not supposed to ask but…?”

Stephi laughed. She’d wondered when this was coming. “I don’t know. I mean, I don’t really have any big abilities or anything. Definitely not dimension hopping level. I… I can sometimes mess with time,” she said. “Speed it up or slow it down, stuff like that. But nothing really flashy that might get me in…” Her words started to sink into her own ears. Why -do- they want me?

The car drifted slowly down the road as Stephi brooded about her invitation to the school. Maybe there had been some mistake, maybe the invitation wasn’t supposed to go to her. Tears softened the corners of her eyes and she looked out the window, blinking to clear the tears until she realized the car was drifting slowly to a stop. She sniffed, turning back to look at Olive gaping open-mouthed at her like she’d just grown an extra head. “What is it?” Stephi asked.

Olive’s mouth worked silently for a moment before her voice squeaked out, “You can fuck with Time?”

“A… A little.”

“That. Is. So. Cool!” Olive slammed her foot back down on the gas pedal and the car reared forward. “Oh my god. How does that work? That’s huge. You must have already seen past then. Awesome. What did it look like to you? Did you go on your own? Wow-”

“Wait,” Stephi cut her off. “See past what? Go where?”

“Duh! Reality. To get enough juice to mess with stuff you have to be aware of other possibilities. Like souls, Platonic Forms, the world behind the world, Quantum potentials, that kind of crap. The bigger or the more fundamental the shit you’re messing with the more leverage you need. And Time… Damn man. You must’ve gone way far out there. Heh,” she giggled. “Far out.”

“Well,” Stephi began, “I don’t-”

“No.” Olive dropped a hand on hers. “You’re right. We shouldn’t talk just now. It’ll be better if we wait till dinner. Everyone else will want to hear too.”

“Everyone else? How many magic students are there?”

“Including yourself? Seven.” She shrugged. “It’s not a very widely possessed skill. Luckily.”

Stephi blinked and the car lurched again, slipping into the realm of darkness and stars before thumping back into reality. Stephi stifled a gasp. “I thought you weren’t supposed to do that.”

“Hell,” Olive said. “If you want to get technical I’m not even supposed to be driving. The normal driver has food poisoning.”

“That sucks.”

She shrugged. “He’ll be fine. I was really careful about how much poison I used.”

Stephi stared at the driver’s seat, but the girl merely shook her head again in wonder. “Fucking with Time. Damn.”

Stephi still had an eyebrow raised at Olive’s casual admission of poisoning the normal chauffeur when a small town came into view around the base of a bank of hills. They’d passed several farms along the way, and Stephi couldn’t begin to guess at how many more they had simply blinked passed, but as they drove on the buildings clumped closer and closer together and the speed limit on the road got lower and lower. A sign on the side of the road announced the name of town: ‘Cold Water.’

Olive gestured down the street. “This is us. Most of the people who live around here support the factory or work there. It’s a great little place, and they put up with the weird really well around here.”

“Do they know?”

“Oh, God no,” Olive laughed, steering the car through town. “Oh, this is us.”

The car rolled to a stop in front of a large blue house: two storied on a corner lot with an old wrap around porch. Olive swung the car into the wide driveway and killed the engine. “Let’s get you settled in first and we can go from there. I’m sure,” she said with a smile, “if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably start freaking out in about twenty minutes.”

Stephi grunted a reply and Olive rolled out of the car, pulling luggage from the trunk while Stephi maneuvered the cat carrier into the open. The cats meowed sleepily, but contentedly out of the box and suddenly Stephi was very tired. Olive led the way up the stair to a side door. “This will be you,” she said, working a key in the lock. “I’ll come get you when I start cooking dinner. If you have any questions or need anything before then just knock on the door in the kitchen.”

*

“Officially, they call us ‘Powers’.” Ottawa said. “Most of the world governments know people like us exist, but everyone goes to great lengths to make sure they don’t actually know who any of us are. No one government can be allowed to harness the abilities people like us represent.”

Stephanie listened closely. Ottawa was one of the other magic students at The Academy, Olive had invited him over for dinner and coffee and Stephi was very glad. She liked Olive, really she did, but Olive wasn’t very able to keep a conversation on track. Ottawa was a tall, dark-skinned man with dreadlocks, glasses, and a disarming smile. He’d brought wine, homemade ravioli, and tuna treats for the cats. Over dinner he’d explained he’d been a computer hacker and Zen enthusiast who became deathly ill one day and saw what he called ‘the program code of the universe.’ From that point on he’d become obsessed with hacking reality. Which had later led him here.

Sitting next to him at the kitchen table was Karen. A forty-eight year old ex-goth poet, who found a niche in weapons design technical writing. She, like Stephi, had gotten her start in the occult early and bounced around pagan circles until realizing they had nothing to offer beyond excuses, drugs, and depression. Two suicide attempts later she’d awoken from a two week coma with the ability to read minds. “That almost led to another suicide attempt,” she’d said with a laugh. “Luckily, I was finally found by someone who actually knew what the hell they were talking about. I was actually pretty bitter about it at the time. Like, why didn’t anyone speak up before I almost died, but it makes sense now. People have to make the jump on their own. You can’t do it for them.”

Stephi laughed. “My instructor would say ‘there are rules to these things.”

“Well… Guidelines maybe?” Ottawa said. He shared a look with Karen. “The stuff we deal with is in a different arena, you know? We can’t have people running around who aren’t ready. We fight our own battles, you know?”

Stephi laughed. She liked Ottawa and Karen. They were laid back, honest, and accepting. Like Olive. None of them seemed to have the normal insecurities niggling at the back of their minds and making them act like assholes. She’d decided halfway through dinner she could get used to this. “Okay, so what are these guidelines?”

“Uh… No mass murder.” Ottawa said.

Karen laughed. “No new religions.”

“Respect the environment.” Olive jumped in. “Oh! And respect the economy!”

The trio laughed together and Olive answered Stephanie’s bewildered look. “We had a student try to flood the market with gold a few years back. It would have finished destroying half a dozen world economies if we hadn’t stopped her in time.”

“Protect everyone’s identity.” Karen said, ticking off on her fingers. “And respect the boundaries of home. No matter what. People need to feel safe at home.”

Stephi nodded. “Okay, I can handle those, but it still leaves the big question: What’s it all for? I mean, why work to train people?”

Ottawa slapped the table top. “We have a winner!” He whirled on Karen. “Quick, what’s the count?”

She looked at her watch and swore under her breath. “Three hours, fifteen minutes.”

Ottawa laughed and jumped to his feet, dancing in a circle. “I win!” he chanted.

Karen dropped a twenty dollar bill in his wine glass with a scowl. Stephi gave Olive a confused look. Olive shrugged. “We bet to see how long it takes newbies to ask certain questions or make certain leaps.”

“Okay, but are they going to answer my question?”

“Dammit!” Karen swore, throwing another twenty at Ottawa.

Olive smiled. “Secondary bet to see if you’d let it go.” Ottawa kept dancing.

Karen sighed. “We’re not allowed to tell you too much, but Powers get their abilities because for one reason or another we start to peak beyond the curtain of reality. We can see the stuff it’s made of and sometimes change things, but it all starts with us being aware that reality isn’t what most people think. It’s more flexible and less…well, less real than it seems. Sometimes, really strong Powers can even do what we call ‘blinking’ actually leaving normal reality for a short time, but that’s really dangerous.”

Stephanie fought off the urge to raise an accusing eyebrow at Olive and instead focused on listening as Ottawa picked up where Karen had stopped. “Things start to get confusing outside of our normal universe. The further out you go the less the normal rules apply. It’s how we get the leverage to really affect reality, but…”

Olive refilled wine glasses. “But there are things out there. Creatures outside our reality. And some of them are hostile.”

Stephi stared around the table, wondering if it was some weird joke, hoping even, but after several moments passed with no one laughing she took a drink. “Are you telling me I’m being drafted? You’re training soldiers?”

“No.” Ottawa’s answer was adamant. “We train people to handle their abilities and become aware of the truth. You make your own decisions what to do with it.”

“So, that’s why there are bad guys.”

Karen shrugged. “Some people suck.”

*

Stephi slept long and deep and woke up in such a relaxed mood she almost purred alongside her cats. She stretched slow and languid, ridding the last of the tension from her muscles before crawling into the shower. She felt great, good enough to make her paranoid. Had Olive dosed the food? She padded softly downstairs to find Olive in the kitchen and breakfast on the stove.

“Hey sleepy-head,” Olive yawned. “Hungry?”

“Gods, yes,” Stephi said, her voice barely audible over the growling of her stomach. “I can’t believe I slept so long.”

“It’s pretty common for new people to sleep a lot their first few days. It’s the stone.”

“Stone?”

“Yeah, it’s power radius fills the valley. Most don’t notice, but Powers always get swept under it for a little while.”

“Ooookay… But what stone would that be?”

It’s the San-Gral.” Stephi answered with a shake of her head so Olive just kept going. “What the ancient Persians called ‘The Blue Stone’? The stone of power? The Rock upon which to build the Church?” She giggled and shoveled eggs out of the frying plan and onto the plate in front of Stephi. “The Sorcerer’s stone?” she asked, laughing. “The Holy Grail?”

“You’ve got the Holy Grail?!?”

“Yeah, but it’s not a cup. It’s a rock. It’s blue and about the size of a child’s fist. Bacon?”

“The Holy Grail? The, honest to Arthur, Holy Grail is here? In North Dakota?”

“Yes.” She motioned with the frying pan again. “Now, would you like some bacon?”

“Uh, please.”

Olive shuffled bacon onto both plates and set the pan back on the stove, settling in to eat. Stephi waited for her to explain anything she’d just said, but Olive just chewed contentedly. “Ugh!” Stephi grunted. “You can’t just say stuff like that and not explain!”

“Huh?” Olive looked genuinely surprised. “Explain what?”

“The Holy Grail!” Stephi yelled. “What is it? Why is it here? Why did it make me sleep? Can we go see it?”

“Oh. That.” Olive chewed a moment. “Okay. There are…artifacts. Some of them come from outside our reality and some of them are like raw, unformed, pieces of our reality that you could shape to anything you want. The Ancient Greek Quintessence, for example. They could form that into anything they wanted, just by thinking about it.”

Stephi felt her jaw go slack, but only manage to dredge up enough composure to say, “Okay?”

“We only know about a few of them.” Olive said. “The San-Gral has been in North Dakota for a couple centuries at least, but no one knows how it got here. Like I said, it’s a small blue stone from outside our reality. Anyway, it heals your body. That’s why you slept so long, because you were healing long term damage. If you stay close enough it can halt and reverse aging, and technically it can raise the dead, but we really don’t like to do that. Dead people are weird.” She munched on some bacon for a bit before adding. “And no. We can’t go see it. It’s locked as secure as it can get. It takes three people to get at it. Anyone wanting to see it has to pass a test. The Headmistress here isn’t even allowed access.”

“Why?”

“Because anything that powerful is dangerous. Out of the last nine people to touch the San-Gral: six died instantly and two more went permanently insane. Our minds just aren’t strong enough.”

Stephanie fell silent for a moment, contemplating. Finally, she said, “What happened to the ninth?”

Olive looked up. “The what now?”

You said nine people touched it, but you only said what happened to eight. What happened to the last one?”

“He walked away chuckling to himself.”

“That’s it?”

“Yup. Just walked away. Wouldn’t answer any questions or tell anyone what it was like. Just chuckled a bit and walked off.”

“Huh…”

“Yup.”

After breakfast Olive shoveled dishes in the sink and yawned. “Ready for the tour?”

Stephi’s heart skipped a beat. “Definitely.” Olive stumbled away to change out of her pajamas and Stephi couldn’t help but beam. This was going to be her first day of magic school.

They drove slowly through the town and Olive pointed out various places: her favorite diner, the movie theatre, the drug store, etc. But all the while Stephi noticed they were slowly moving further and further out of town. On the outskirts of town was a massive, fenced-in compound of warehouses and support buildings. Olive waved an I.D. at the guard and guided the car through the main gate. “This is the weapons manufacturer,” she said. “Officially we’re all employed here under ‘special projects.’ The headmistress is a leading shareholder so we get a lot of leeway.”

They toured through the compound by car, Olive pointing out what each building was for or what project was currently going on inside. It took almost a full hour to wind through the labyrinth of buildings in the compound and head out the gate on the far side.

This gate wasn’t guarded or blocked the way the front was, and the road on the other side was worn and unmarked. Stephi’s heart beat faster as they coasted out the hole in the fence and down around the road. They drove in silence for nearly fifteen minutes until Olive finally smiled, pointing out the window. “There it is,” she beamed. “Home, Sweet, Magic School.”

Stephi blinked out the window. The massive steel warehouse had been painted white probably more than twenty years ago and left to rot ever since. Large patches of rust spotted along the signs and covered the corrugated roof. The front double doors were battered and hanging off center. Stephi shook herself, laughing. “It’s not exactly Hogwarts, is it?”

“Not that, silly.” Olive laughed. “The vault for the San-Gral is hidden somewhere underneath that old heap, but we mainly just use the space for practice.” She turned the car around the side of the ancient warehouse. “I meant this.”

Stephi looked again. A row of moss covered old houses were set deep against the face of one of the surrounding hills. The old wooden facades shone with age and care. They were beautiful and Stephi said so.

“Hogwarts would glow like a beacon on satellite imagery.” Olive said. “But old houses don’t even get a blip in North Dakota.”

Stephi opened her mouth to reply at the same moment that the front end of the warehouse behind them blasted outward with a thunderous roar. The shock wave knocked the car sideways, slamming it into the ditch on the side of the road. Stephi’s ears rang, but she could still hear Olive’s panicked voice, “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!”

The driver’s side door was wrenched open from the outside by a wave of force Stephi couldn’t see. Olive tumbled out, staggering at a half run up the road, back in the direction of the burning warehouse. The car rocked with the force of another explosion, the driver’s side lifting with the shock wave and seeming to float in the air for several seconds before slamming back onto the packed ground. Pain seared through Stephi’s shoulder and side. She’d hit her head against the glass, but someone nearby was screaming in pain.

The sound cut through the haze in Stephi’s head, Olive!

Stephi crawled across the front seat of the car, dropping to the ground as another shock wave tore through the air. This one carried no sound with it, just a solid blast of air. She looked up, nearly a dozen bodies littered the ground alongside smoking heaps of rubble. Stephi heaved herself to her feet, lumbering forward against the pain in her side. Voices still echoed in pain and anger. Olive screamed again and adrenaline surged through Stephi’s body. She ran around the smoking corner of the warehouse, skidding to a stop.

Olive hung suspended in mid-air, screaming in rage against whatever invisible force held her. Ottawa stood near the edge of the hole blasted through the warehouse wall, flame roaring out of his hands toward a short, stocky man with his back to Stephi. She’d never seen the short man before, but Stephi knew instantly he’d blown the warehouse. She could almost see tendrils of power lashing out from him to tear at Olive’s flesh.

Another wave of force rocked the battered warehouse, knocking Ottawa to the ground. The sound of screaming metal ripped through the air and the short man seemed to glow, laughing triumphantly as something flew out of the smoking hole toward the short man’s extended hand.

Oh, no you don’t! Stephi raged, Time slowing around her as she lunged across the open ground and clobbered the short man from behind, knocking him hard to the ground. She looked up, raising a hand without thinking to catch the object flying out of the rubble of the warehouse.

The thing was surprisingly heavy, nearly twenty pounds. Stephi’s heart pounded in her ears. She looked down. It was a small blue rock. Barely bigger than a large marble. The stone was warm against her skin and shook softly. Oh. Shit.

Reality split like a curtain and Stephi fell into the void.

The Universe unraveled around her, tearing apart like tissue paper. Stephi gasped, screaming soundlessly as the North Dakota hills crumbled and faded. The scenery went first, turning to dust and blowing away on an imaginary wind. The people followed after. They screamed and wailed and fought, but each one unraveled, their bodies and souls slipping away. Stephi’s body went last. Flesh and blood tore away from bone and sinew until even that crumbled, leaving behind nothing but a vague impression of identity.

The wind calmed then or, at least, there was nothing left to blow around. Darkness rippled and danced around her, neither cold nor warm. There were no directions, no up, no down, no gravity, no light. There was nothing until they came.

How do you see shadows in pure blackness? Stephi wondered. How do you see without eyes?

Stephi didn’t know, wasn’t sure it mattered. Massive shapes flitted around her, changing and reforming with every moment. Like shadows cast by a flickering light, dancing and wavering. They drew close, or appeared close, Stephi tried to shirk away but there was no size to make smaller, no distance to increase. Some were there, some were here, and sometimes it didn’t make a difference. One of the heavy spots of blackness brushed against what little remained of her and Stephi screamed, blasting open the darkness with her terror.

Everything went still. All movement around her stopped and everything that floated ignorant through the air turned, focusing their attention on the intrusive presence completely for the first time. And then they came.

The patches of darkness tore through her, ripping through her mind and soul. They were creatures. Alive on some level, and hungry. They jostled, fought each other, tearing at the vague shadow of each other’s existence to get to hers. They attached to every remaining shred of her identity, tearing and feeding on the twin essences of reality and form she still carried with her. Every memory, every moment of her life was torn from the pages of time and gnawed upon. Every possible emotion or combination, every thought, every shred of everything Stephi counted as part of existence was fodder for them.

She screamed. Screamed and fought with anything she had left, lashing out with little more than stubborn determination. Not to hurt them, but to exist, to hold precious a shred of creation and never let it go.

The dark shapes, the Outsiders, swarmed everywhere. They tore at each other, rending each other apart to fight for even the smallest taste of her existence. There was no pain. No longer any terror. Only the slow cold of fading away.

  1. Stephi screamed with her whole being. Gods Dammit, No!

All that remained was her will; the stubborn, unending desire, not just to exist but to spite the darkness, to take back everything that was hers, and to leave these beasts bleeding and hungry. With the last shred of her being she pulled, calling out, reaching out to everything that was her and rending it from the bellies of the surrounding beasts and reassembling herself.

Something new appeared in the darkness. A hole of blue light grew around her and Stephi fell into it.

The outsiders, raged away from the light, rippling into the darkness and as they fled, Stephi heard voices. There were hundreds of them, thousands. They spoke in every language ever known to mankind and Stephi understood them all. She knew every word, every voice, like it was her own. They were the owners of the stone. Every person throughout history who had touched the stone and survived left a piece of themselves behind, an echo of their existence imprinted on the stone for all eternity. She could feel them, feel their lives. With the feeling came knowledge. Stephi knew she could reach out and touch each life, sharing everything. She knew what each of them knew. Spoke all the same languages they did. She had their skills, their abilities, their perspectives, and in turn they had access to hers. Everyone throughout time forward or backward who ever had or ever would touch the stone would find an echo of her there, waiting to help, waiting to offer anything she could.

The San-Gral was more than a relic or even a doorway. It was a library. One of the anchor points for existence. A solid piece of reality that existed on so many levels that not even the monsters in the dark could harm it. It was knowledge, it was experience, and it was power. It was also really damn heavy.

Stephi blinked down at the rock in her hand. She was back on the North Dakota hills, listening to fire and wind roar around her. Olive had stopped screaming, the spell that had held her suspended had snapped when Stephi broke the short man’s concentration. Ottawa raced toward her, trailing fire. Stephi spun wildly around, desperately reclaiming her bearings as reality crashed in around her.

The short man struggled to his feet, eyes glowing with hatred and rage. He raised a hand and streaming bands of darkness lashed out, knocking Ottawa from his feet and reaching for the stone.

Stephi caught the strands of darkness with her free hand, plucking them out of the air like streamers at a child’s party and laughed at the pale imitations of darkness. The short man sneered, gathering his massive will and lashing out with the same force he’d used to destroy the front of the warehouse. Stephi side-stepped, letting her will carry the blast past her as she raised her hands. If he wanted the stone so badly, she’d let him have it. She stepped forward, bending her knee into a perfect boxers lunge and swung, her fist wrapped tightly around the heavy stone.

Her fist landed square on the side of his nose. She felt bones breaking under the skin of his face, blood spraying from his shattered nose. The short man stumbled backward, clutching his face with his hands and trying to gather his will around him like a shield. Stephi stepped with him, landing a pair of rapid punches to his belly, eternally thankful for the boxing lessons she’d taken years before. She hit him hard, hard enough to make the short man drop his hands, clutching at his stomach and giving Stephi her final opening. She swung again with her fist wrapped around the stone. This time she felt one of the knuckles in her hand break under the force of the hit, but the short man stumbled, falling unconscious to the ground.

Stephi whooped in triumph, raising her hands above her head and dancing in a slow circle, stopping only when the wreckage of the warehouse came into view. Dammit. She huffed, running over to where Olive lay.

Ottawa was already there, checking for injuries, but Stephi waved him aside, holding out the stone and whispering softly. The stone flared in her hand, covering the field in soft blue light for a split second before fading back to a dull blue. Stephi blinked until the flash faded from her eyes and she could see again. Olive and Ottawa both stared at her with wide eyes. “What was it like?” Olive whispered.

Stephi smiled, shaking her head. “You don’t ever want to know.”

“Really?!?” Ottawa’s jaw dropped. “That’s all you’re going to say.”

Stephi gestured. “We’ve kinda got more important things to deal with right now.”

The others followed her gaze. The short man was gone, leaving only a patch of burned grass behind him. Olive sighed and heaved herself off the ground to a sitting position. “Are you going to stay?” she asked. “You can, you know. You could find a home.”

Stephi looked around, her eyes blazing with an inner light that made it seem like they were seeing all of creation at once. She laughed. “I am home.”

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