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Generated: Oct 17, 2021 5:49 PM
Post last updated: Oct 17, 2021 5:49 PM
following misery's lead
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When she was ten years old Annisa told her parents that it was, after all, their fault she was going to die; if they'd admitted to themselves that her brother was dead one year earlier, instead of deluding themselves while she turned four and almost five with distinctly halfhearted language education, then at ten she'd speak English without an accent, and maybe also have been able to use the time she'd been spending on fighting the stupid accent to pick up Malayo-Polynesian, and they knew perfectly well she'd survive if she were any good at languages. She was good at everything else. But you couldn't afford two disadvantages, and being from Surabaya was already one of them.

Her father slapped her against the wall with a net of snakes; it's the wall on which she'd been practicing algebra, and clouds of choking chalkdust hid his face, which was probably for the better. "If you're the kind of person who blames other people for your inadequacies and stupidity, you'll die no matter what I do," he said. "And if I hear another excuse out of your mouth I'll kill you myself, save your mother all the worrying and wondering. Go through the exercises again."

And she went through them, coughing, choking, pinned against the wall, for eight hours, and past midnight he said it was good enough, though it really wasn't. The next week he enrolled her in a mundane school in Canberra, relocated the four of them for it even though ten was already old enough it was questionably safe for her to be outside her family home, and that did help; the accent was gone by the time she was twelve. Precious time spent, though, hours and hours of it every day, in mundane history class and mundane health class and mundane math class, surrounded by what might as well have been a different species, children who expect to grow up. 

 

There is a girl in junior honors artificing who speaks English with an accent, and Annisa pities her. If English or Mandarin isn't your first language, it's your second, and it is not hard to become fluent in a second language, and if you can't do it then you probably just aren't that bright, or aren't that studious, and everyone knows it as soon as you open your mouth. Annisa is fluent in English. It isn't that hard. 

 

Junior honors artificing is honestly a shit class. Lowest level, in a big spacious classroom with a lot of beams in the ceiling and desks full of nooks, containing the girl who speaks English with an accent, her buddy an affable Australian who's probably malificing and who never gets more than three feet from her, and then six of the Manchester enclave and their entourage. She's not going for Manchester. She needs someone rich as fuck, which Manchester isn't, and then she's going to spend two years building them weapons and armor and she needs them to be the kind of people who won't drop her right out of the gate, because she's going to have no special advantage at using her weapons and armor to get out, once she's handed them over to her allies. (She could build in a back door, easily enough, but that just means they die with her, doesn't save her.) If you were ranking all the English-speaking enclaves by 'will stab you in the back' Manchester wouldn't be at the top of the list, but they wouldn't be in the bottom half either. If she can't land New York she's thinking Boston or Canberra, and Manchester gets her nowhere on that.


Oh, and then there's El. El is also probably malificing, she has that vague aura of doom, and Annisa is honestly torn on whether it'd be safer to pair with her or waste time clinging unpleasantly to Manchester, but on the first day she goes into the supply cupboards after Manchester and nearly loses her hand to a mimic they definitely knew about, and that decides her. 

 

She sits down next to El.

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El assesses her, nods, finishes checking over the peculiar rivets in the desk she's at.

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Her desk has shadowed areas under the legs, something sticky on the underside, and three drawers, which is just stupid, you can't exactly use drawers on a shared desk so they're purely space where something can hide. She starts poking them all with a long thin stick she's enchanted for this purpose; first plan for this year is to make thirty and sell them, now that she has the design down.

 

"There's a mimic in the supply cabinet," she says while she works. "I didn't grab cedar stalks."  Which is to say, you can, to thank me for the warning about the mimic, if you want similar warnings in the future. She isn't going to need the cedar stalks for at least half an hour and plausibly not at all this lesson but it's good to know if your deskmate is going to play ball. And whether she tries laying anything on them. Which is easy, with cedar, but Annisa'll notice. 

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"Ugh," says El. She finishes her check, peers at the stick, goes to the cabinet and holds off the mimic with a shield while she grabs a bunch of stuff. She winds up with too many cedar stalks and too few pots of mercury and trades with a Manchester boy who has the opposite problem on the way back to their desk. Passes Annisa her share. "I think I've heard somebody calling you Annie."

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The cedar stalks are untampered wtih, so if El is going to try to get her she at least has an ounce of subtlety. Good enough to beat out Manchester. "Annie's fine. You're El? The school stuck you in honors when you're not even artificer track?"

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"School works in mysterious ways." She looks at her assignment options, groans, heads for the glassware.

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Sophomore year the school tried to put Annisa in an honors Mandarin class; she found a native speaker freshman who had that period free and had him do all her coursework for sexual favors and life advice, which is to say basically for free. Honors classes are just bad news unless you're going for valedictorian, which Annie isn't because she's no good at languages and valedictorians can't be no good at anything.

By far her best assignment option is an immobilizing bracelet - it won't come off the person you put it on, and you can stick their wrist to the wall and it won't come off there either - and it's in her affinity, but also there are absolutely no non-sketchy uses for that. The other options are a planter, which is very stupid but she could cannibalize it afterwards for parts for the divining rods, and a standing fan, which would be pretty cool if it worked but is going to be three times as much work as anything else and she's not really sure who she could sell it to, either. 

Planter it is (though she takes notes on the bracelet, to maybe do on her own time.) Is the glassware biting today.

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The glassware seems uninhabited at least on this end of the sideboard except for an agglo which is adding a test tube to itself. El ignores the agglo and gets a funnel drip and starts assembling what looks like it's going to be some kind of compass with the pointer floating in mercury.

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In principle you can do a planter in ceramic and fire it, but Annie has never in her school career tried to use the kiln and doesn't know anyone else who has either, you'd have to be insane to rely on a process that happens behind closed doors and involves lots of energy and that you know might produce unexpected unfortunate results. Molten glass is much safer, but mana-intensive. Woodcarving actually gets you mana out, at least at Annie's level of competence at it, but it'll take her forever, and if she's doing it in wood she can't use mercury and will have less she can scavenge for her divining rods. She goes for molten glass: a hot burner, to reduce how much she needs to raise the temperature with mana, some chipped glassware that no one'll miss. 

She doesn't give the rest of her classmates much thought - it's enough work melting glass while keeping an eye on those ceiling beams - until the glass is cooling and she's switched to needlepoint so she doesn't end the class completely drained. Then she goes back to trying to figure out El. It's an important question, right, whether one is safer in a hallway alone or with her, because in twenty minutes it'll be time to walk to lunch.

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El is scowling at her compass, which looks ridiculously fiddly even for honors considering that she's language track. She seems to be doing acid etching on the back.

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She has heard it claimed that the school goes easier on maleficers, but she's not sure if she believes it. Australian kid's project does look easy, though.

Has El glanced at him. Does she look distasteful or approving. (Some people are very good at lying with their expressions, of course - Annisa is - but most aren't. There's only time to learn so many things and it's harder to hire your kids the best tutors in lying. Plus, if El were good at covering her tracks she wouldn't radiate a palpable aura of evil.)

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El looks faintly resentful of everyone and everything at all times. Maybe that's why she's evil.

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Best junior honors seminar classmates ever. "I'm going to lunch," she says to El at the end of class after much consideration. It's bloody obvious that she's going to lunch, since the alternative is skipping lunch and why would you do that on purpose, but that way El will have to do something other than make resentful faces to communicate that she wants to walk with Annie, if she does.

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"Bloody amazing coincidence, that. I too sometimes eat at mealtimes." But she falls into step.

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"How does being rude to everybody work out for you, I wouldn't have expected it to be a genius strategy but if it is then everyone else is wasting a lot of time."

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"Well, I need all the spare time I can get, you see. Every please and thank you shaves precious seconds off mana-building time."

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"Like half the freshmen are idiots who'll give you food if you compliment them." This is an exaggeration for anyone but Annie, who is unusually good at compliments, but it feels like there's a point there El ought to be able to grasp even if she's below-average at compliments. "I guess I wouldn't know if the other half are idiots who'll give you food if you're rude to them."

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"If I tell a freshman they have a knack for squashing burrower mites they'll scream and run away. I suppose they might drop food."

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"There is that. Is it worth it?"

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"Making them drop food?"

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"Having a palpable aura of evil."

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"Well, you know, it seemed like a great deal when I picked it up for twenty percent off at Tesco's, and now I'm past the return period."

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"Great. Really looking forward to being lab partners."

 

Nothing jumps them on the way to the cafeteria - you wouldn't expect it, on the first day of school. She pokes the trays of food with her divining rod, conspicuously - it's free advertising for the rods - and catches some sludge moving on the top of the eggs and some wiggling grubs in the dumplings, and goes to sit with her friends. Which, not possessing a palpable aura of evil or an accent speaking English, she has.

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El sits with Liu, which is sort of the same thing.

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Annisa shows off her divining rod by checking everyone at her table's food and then sits quietly and listens to their class complaints; she only complains herself at the right frequency to make people feel they're not talking to a wall. Honestly, her schedule is going to be fine, unless El eats her. 

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El continues to be palpably evil and not eat anyone all through lunch. It turns out she is also in Annisa's maths class this afternoon.

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Who to sit with.

 

One obvious answer is the New York kids, of whom there are three, in maths; Annisa's good at maths and needs to start making an impression on the New York kids now, if she's going to try to get in there. Downside is that they're near the ventilation grates, presumably because Orion Lake fears nothing and probably actually gets off on blasting mals in the face when they drop through the ventilation grates, which means it's arguably not even that dangerous but Annisa is still not going to be able to concentrate on maths with a grate right there. 

Another option is Pyotr Tallis, whose girlfriend is recently dead and who is thus available, but on the other hand, his girlfriend is dead, default assumption there ought to be that it's unusually dangerous to be his girlfriend. Big upside is that he could spot her the mana for a dozen divining rods this month; big downside, setting aside the death thing, is that he's got nothing that casts in less than ten minutes and if she's starting to think about graduation, the last thing she needs is someone else who is all prep and no day-of. Also he might be erratic, if he's broken up about the dead girlfriend. 

Katie's at Toronto but Annie's impression is that she's barely worth impressing, they're tolerantly lugging her along but she's not that bright and her vouching for Annie wouldn't mean anything. 

On the other hand she'll be politer than the other option, which is El. Annie's honestly getting used to the aura of evil and she's already placed her bets on whether El wants to kill her right now, so spending more time sitting next to her isn't really additional risk, but it'll probably suck. On the other hand, being friendly with El in artificing and then cheerfully ignoring her literally the moment any other option arises is the kind of move that probably makes El more likely to kill her should the opportunity arise.

She makes eye contact with El to feel out how much rudeness to expect.

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This takes a moment because El is scrubbing away a suspicious beginning of an ooze with the bottom of her shoe, but when she notices Annie looking she makes a sarcastic gesture in the direction of the next chair.

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Sure, why not. Her assignment is already on the desk next to El when she is done checking under it and removing a couple of mana leeches. She taps herself with her divining rod as she starts, just in case El has subtle mind-control. Her divining rod thinks she's fine. 

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"What's it do?" El wonders.

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"Sticks if it hits magic that's not mine. Yes, I can do it tuned to other people, yes, it's for sale." 

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"Huh. Whaddaya want for it?"

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"I sold the last one to a graduating senior for all his honors English composition homework, a book of utility spells, four yards of sirenspider silk and his shirt." He wanted to give it to his soon-to-arrive little sister, which was sweet; Annisa's sister will be here next year but she can't imagine thinking at all about another person with graduation looming.

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"...expected to have trouble telling if Fortitude was his left leg?"

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Divining rods are indeed not really the thing you need to fight your way across the graduation hall. "Had a kid sister arriving. If I'd been his teammates I'd have been pissed he was thinking about it but I'm not his teammates and the silk's going to be incredibly useful."

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"If looking out for siblings got you kicked out of alliances more kids'd arrive with instructions not to make theirs with anyone outside their enclave."

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"Do you have siblings?"

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"Nah."

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"I've got three more on the way. And had two older brothers."

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"Isn't that ducky." This is starting to distract overmuch from math. El does not really want to find out what it's like to be eaten by a math assignment.

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Yeah, that's like a solid month of bonding right there, they are exempted from further conversation. Math it is.

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It is presently known throughout the English-speaking juniors that Orion Lake is taking a very distinct interest in El. He accompanied her to the supply room for free. He's saved her life more times than he has most people's. He keeps sitting with her at lunch and she snags him extra food so he has something to eat when he's distracted in the lunch line by killing mals.

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This is, obviously, a huge ridiculous advantage, the sort of thing you can ride right into an alliance if you handle it halfway deftly, though Annie's...not sure El is capable of handling anything at all halfway deftly? Maybe the rudeness is all an elaborate act, except what would be the aim. She's almost certainly not mind-controlling him, New York would love that to be the case and they'd notice. 

"Does Lake have more of a personality than heroic savior in private?" she asks while they're in line for supplies in alchemy class, one day.

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"Well, if you're going to have one trait..."

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"Many people, though, manage to have two. Is he into the aura of evil or is he oblivious to it."

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"Funnily enough I haven't asked him."

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There's a blood clinger in the supply cabinet; it gets one of the Manchester kids on the cheek, but probably not bad enough to kill him, not with his friends slapping some kind of fancy healing bandage over it immediately. You don't have very long with clingers; they make the blood coagulate, and no antidote works after that. It was sitting atop a really nice shelf full of wool and copper wire, and the Manchester kids' buddies blasted the thing back into the corner, so she leaves with her arms full; she doesn't actually need either wool or copper wire, but she can trade them. "Are you going for New York?"

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"Is it that obvious?"

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"Well, you could also be going for 'voted most likely to bite someone's face off', I hear that gets posted alongside valedictorian and is nearly as useful for alliances. Wool?"

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"What do you want for it?"

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"How good is that measuring tape?" A good one usually returns the same measurement twice, but that's expecting a lot, from a measuring tape.

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"Switches the centimeters and inches on you but otherwise all right."

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"You can have the wool and two spools of the copper for it."

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"Deal." She hands over the measuring tape.

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Cool. She passes over her wool and spools and tests the measuring tape against her forearm, and then her desk. 

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Her forearm is apparently 12 cm and her desk is apparently sixty inches.

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Good enough. And means that El didn't lie, notably. It'd be a stupid thing to lie about but some people like seeing how much they can get away with. "What's your affinity?" she asks casually while she measures all her books just for practice.

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"What's yours?"

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"Weapons!" It's about as convenient as affinities come. Some people have skills that'd be wildly useful on the outside, like infrastructure-building, but which nearly ensure they won't survive to see it; Annie's affinity won't be incredibly useful outside, but it won't be terrible either, and in here it's practically worth her weight in alchemical supplies.

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"Is the divining rod also a Swiss army knife?"

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"The end is pokey and I make a point of stabbing some grubs with it every day I'm working on one. When I was a kid I thought it was only knives, and my tutors were working really hard to get me to extend it to swords, but one day I woke up and built a slingshot and ever since it's been pretty flexible about form. The divining rods are the farthest I've ever pushed it."

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"Pretty good affinity."

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"I'd trade your boyfriend but I'm not sure there's anyone else in our year I'd trade."

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"If I knew anybody with an affinity trading affinity..."

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"Did you get something crap?"

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"A bit crap, yeah."

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"Well, you know, there's always the option of sailing Orion's coattails right out of here and then maybe you can find someone with an affinity for affinity trading." It probably doesn't exist. It's hard to put definite bounds on what magic can and can't do but altering fundamental features of people while leaving the people still in any sense alive and themselves is not the kind of thing you often run across. It'd leave holes in you bigger than malia does.

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"Wouldn't that be exciting."

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Sure, that's about par for a conversation with El, they can drop it now and pick up their assignments.

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El incants over her artifice a lot in half a dozen languages, and she often builds the mana for it right there in class, with yoga stretches she has clearly practiced a lot.

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One of those is Marathi, which Annisa learns the next evening when she asks her desk for spells. The Scholomance will only give you spells in a language you know. But its threshold for 'knows' isn't very high, and it will definitely give you spells in a language where you barely know four sentences. Annisa is not an idiot, and she knows languages are her weak point, so she tries very hard not to glance at anyone's writing in different languages, or pay too much attention to El's incanting, and it's really not fair, to decide she knows Marathi, when scouring her mind she can only think of three words of it, and only those because they're similar to the Malay (which is probably pure coincidence).

"Fuck you," she says to the wall, but she really needs the spells, and you can get yourself in serious trouble if you start ignoring spells the school thinks it instructed you to learn, so she marches on down to El's room and raps on the door.

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"Oh -" says El, opening the door, "- it's you. What?"

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"I apologize for not being your boyfriend, I'll leave if he comes unless you're looking for a third. I just got a fucking spellbook in Marathi, which, I am going to guess, is what you were laying the incantations in this morning. I'll trade you some spells for help deciphering them. And also for recommendations if you know who I can hire to do worksheets on it in language class, I'm shit at languages and have not got time for this -"

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"Ah, I hate it when that happens. I'll do it for a divining rod, but you know it'll just keep giving you the spells, you might as well learn it. I guess if you're particularly shit Marathi's worse to have it after you about than French or something."

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Annisa does not care to admit exactly how shit she is at languages. "It'll take you three hours, the divining rod'll take me two weeks. You can consider it a down payment, if you want, but not the whole package."

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"I'm native-enough in Marathi, I can do your worksheets in it all year if you like for it."

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She's going to accept that but she pretends to waffle, so as to conceal exactly how badly she is going to do if she gets a lot of Marathi assigned.

 

"You know what? Sure. It's good advertising giving you a divining rod anyway, and if language period's free half the time I can make more of them."

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"Cheers. All right, what've you got there?" This is a great deal for El too because she will get these Marathi spells which are presumably not for laying waste to one's enemies.

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They're for bookbinding, and leather tanning, and shield talismans that deflect spells back at the caster.

"That's the one I was going for," Annie says when El gets to it. "I think I can do shields if they're fighty shields."

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"Keen," says El. "Bitch to pronounce, though, how do you want it transliterated?"

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"Wanna read it out to me? Fighty shields are probably useful even if your boyfriend is Orion Lake."

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"No doubt but he hasn't put a ring on it," says El, tapping her wrist where a power-sharer isn't, "so I don't want to actually cast it right now. I guess I can do it in bits and pieces." She does this. Marathi has some very irritating consonants.

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Annie transcribes.

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A smell wafts around the edges of the door. "Ugh, that'll be him," says El, "you'd think someone'd spot him in the shower when he's covered in mal juice -" She opens the door. "All -" she begins, but all what is not clear, because it's not Orion.

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Annie was in the middle of picking up her stuff to go while simultaneously trying to look like a good candidate to throw in a third, if you were in the mood for that, and suddenly she's instead dropping all her stuff on the desk because that's an American boy she barely knows - Jack??? - stabbing El through the stomach -

She has a knife in her hand before she has time to properly process what's going on. It's a very thoroughly enchanted knife but still, you don't want to be in knife fights if you can avoid them - bit late for that, though, because Jack has clearly noticed by now that there's a witness -

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El's reaching for the mana crystal she wears around her neck but Jack steps on it, squashing another spurt of blood out around the knife in her belly, and looks at Annisa. There's blood on one of his hands, and he smears it across his lips. "Company," he croons, as though not in the least unpleasantly surprised.

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Malficer. It fucks with your head after a while, supposedly, even if you started out just trying to do it in moderation to survive. She puts up a very simple shield and flings herself at Jack. His knife looks like just a knife, judging by how El's still twitching, but her knife is sharp enough to cut through steel, and also personal shields.

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Annisa can get Jack off El and cut his throat easily enough. El's scrabbling toward her tool chest on her desk.

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Tool chest, what's in it -

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"Packet on the left side," says El, dropping back down onto her elbow, "rip it open, mop up the blood with one side, other side on the wound. You're gonna have to take the knife out, if I touch it I think I'll pass out."

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"On it. Is it a problem if I get some of his blood."

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"Probably not."

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She's never encountered this kind of healing magic but she follows the instructions as exactly as she can. Tear it open, mop up the blood on one side, take the knife out and put it on with the other side down.

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"What the hell," she says when that's done. She is not sure if El's even conscious to answer her.

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She does not look super conscious. She's breathing, though, and the patch is glowing.

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She'd better survive, Annisa has no idea who else in their year has Marathi. She stands there for a second being an idiot, and then starts going through Jack's pockets in case he's conveniently carrying a guide to why he tried to murder El.

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Nope. Three snack bar tokens and a pencil.

El says, "Urgh," after a few minutes.

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"Hey! You feeling likely to make it? I have some healing in my room I'd sell you but I'm a bit worried if I leave now you'll be eaten before I get back, I'm all the way around on the other side."

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"I do look awfully appetizing. I can probably pay Liu or Aadhya to sit by while you run and fetch it if you ask them for me while I lie here, and if you think you can get it handled by curfew."

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How long is it to curfew. - she can do it but she'd better hurry, which means she's not going to get the story of why the fuck Jack just tried to murder El.

"Sure, which of them is closest and where?"

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El might have slightly passed out again but mumbles, "Across the hall just this side the loo."

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Someone's super not going to make it through the night without magical healing.

 

Annisa runs over to bang on the indicated door and stops before she gets there because - "oh, hey. I did not try to murder your girlfriend, that was Jack, I saved her. You can ask her. Actually, you should keep an eye on her while I run and get healing from my room."

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"Jack tried to mur- uh, yeah, okay, run for it."

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Well at least he's not trigger-happy about people emerging from his girlfriend's room covered with blood. Annisa runs. If you're out in the halls past curfew monsters get you, and if you're in another student's room past curfew every monster in the school comes over to get you both for rulebreaking. She has ten minutes, and then whether El's in good enough shape to fight off everything that'll be coming by to check if she's for snack is up to El.

 

 

Her room has, buried in her mattress, a tin of thin healing cookies, purchased at enormous expense and brought in with her freshman year. She's used half. It also has a potion, but that's not for sale for anything El has on offer. She slips a cookie out and sprints back. 

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When she gets back Orion has hauled El into bed and is sitting beside her. They're looking at each other a little snappishly as though Annisa has interrupted an argument but they don't enlighten her as to what it was about.

"Cheers," says El, "what do you want for it."

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"Let it dissolve on your tongue. I want you to help me clear out Jack's room, once you're back on your feet, but I get whatever we find. Also I want the thirty-second version of why the fuck he wanted you dead."

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"Done. Thought I was telling people he'd killed Luisa. Or he'd just gone insane, strong possibility, that." She says aaah.

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Healing cookie! It should get her through the night, at least; it's almost like a restful night of sleep itself. She doesn't ask if El killed Luisa, why would El tell her that. "Okay. G'night, don't let the bedbugs bite."

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"I won't," says Orion.

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"What're you talking about, Lake, the bell'll ring in a -" There it goes.

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"I'm not leaving you."

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- is he planning to spend the night. Is he insane. Admittedly he's Orion Lake but there's such a thing as more mals than one person can handle, even if that one person is Orion Lake, whose affinity must be specifically for mal-killing or something, he's so good at it.

Annisa doesn't have time to argue. She runs home. 

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In the morning both of them are alive and the rumor mill is of the opinion that they were possibly inventing ways to have an orgy with the mals somehow, though clearer heads suspect he just stood watch over her bedside and killed things.

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You really can't get that creative in bed with a gut wound. Annisa is willing to concede that it's the sweetest most romantic gesture she's ever heard of, though, almost to the point where one doesn't want to talk about it because one doesn't want to delude oneself into living in a world full of gossip and sweet nice romantic boyfriends. 

 

One does want to be on Orion Lake's side. And if he's serious about her, that means one wants to be on El's side.  Literally every junior in the school has presumably had this thought process, though, so Annisa's going to have to think about how to be more subtle than 90% of them without getting beaten out for the spot.

They have work period first thing, so she swings by El's table after breakfast. "Are you up for a run on the place?" By the time it's widely known that Jack's dead someone else'll do it.

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"I can watch your back but if anything in there can only be killed by bending over you're on your own, unless you want to ask Orion to come along."

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"Oh, sure, I can come."

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- wow, all right. "Great, thank you." 

Objectively she should probably let him handle all the heavy lifting but there is also an argument for showing off a little for Orion Lake. Though not in a way that pisses El off. She settles for using her knife to cut right through the steel door and then letting him be first in.

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He saunters in like mals haven't been a real threat to him since he was four.

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Probably knowing you're destined to be a hero since you were four is pretty different from knowing you're probably going to die since you were four. 

Jack's room doesn't have mals, beyond some palm-sized creepers in the rafters and an agglo on his desk, munching his pens. It has a ward a foot inside the door that'll light uninvited guests on fire, which she points out sharply to Orion, jumping back.

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"Whoops, thanks, I was a bit distracted by the corpse."

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El mutters the ward away in Old French, but very quietly.

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" - ah huh. Geez. Uh, is that Luisa - I didn't really know her -"

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"Yeah, it's her. Mundane family, probably got swept in when somebody near her down for a slot died and didn't notify anybody in time."

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"I should've been..." Orion shakes his head and picks off the creepers with little zaps of lightning.

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"Following her into peoples' bedrooms?" A kid raised mundane never really stood a chance; it's remarkable she made it to junior year, really. Annisa picks her way past the corpse and starts going through Jack's luggage.

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"No! It's - a few days before, she - asked me, and I shoved her off, and then she was dead, and I didn't know how, and I thought - maybe she thought I didn't help her with whatever it was because I was mad, and that -"

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"You wouldn't go for it so she asked someone else and Jack took her up on it. Most maleficers need some kind of consent to get anything off a wizard."

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Jack's cabinet contains the clothes he was saving for senior year, a shirt and pants with the telltale unpleasant crinkly feel of ultra-lightweight polyethylene and nylon. You don't want to burn half your weight allowance on clothes, but you also don't want to go around looking tattered senior year, when you're trying to nail alliances down. And a good pair of shoes, she's delighted about those, and some alchemy ingredients she can sell, a pound of protein powder and six more snack tokens, and a sealed sandalwood chest -

- with a loving note from Jack's parents engraved on the inside, we'll be thinking of you every day darling little one, be careful and be smart and we'll see you soon blah blah blah. Annie doesn't know why parents think that making their kids miss the outside world will be doing them a favor. If she has kids she'll raise them someplace like the Scholomance, so they're used to it, and she'll be a raging bitch so they don't spend lots of time missing her since they're glad to be free of her. That's how her dad did it and she's grateful.

Inside the chest there are mana-storing prayer beads, drained dry - maybe why Jack picked up his maleficing to the level of murder - and antibiotics, and two family photos, who spends thirty grams of weight allowance on that, and a thin membrane that looks like it does something protective - "oh, I think this would've stopped me slitting his throat, if my dagger weren't sharper than he expected -" and a little lead case which was now empty but which he hadn't yet melted down for materials, probably having contained some really sensitive potion. 

She closes the chest and picks everything up. "All right, I'm done here, let's go do some homework." 

 

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"I've a carrel in the library."

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Is she inviting Annisa to study with her and her boyfriend? Neat. And Jack's stash was good but not that good so she doesn't think the two of them will kill her over anything in it. "Can I leave the stuff in your room for now, if we're going up to the library? You can have first pick of his alchemy ingredients in exchange."

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"I'd sooner take his shirt."

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"Sure, all yours." The plan for Annisa is that her sister will bring a senior year outfit for her through, and Annisa'll buy it off her in exchange for whatever she's invented to make things safer for freshmen. 

 

And she sets the stuff down in El's room for now and follows them up to the library, cautiously, because probably this isn't a murder attempt but you bite a lot of 'probably's and one day you've bitten down on something you can't swallow.

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The library's very friendly with Orion around, and he doesn't seem to notice that that's weird at all.

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El's carrel is tucked away aisles and aisles back. She checks it over. Orion doesn't help and looks confused.

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Annie is a civilized person who wasn't born yesterday so she watches El's back while El's checking the desk. "Do you just, like, not check on the principle you'll be able to blast whatever it is anyway," she says to Orion. "Surely if there were a digester on your seat you'd be screwed before you could dust it."

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"I look before I sit but how often is there anything on a chair?"

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"Reasonably often! I guess maybe stuff stays away from you."

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"Even if you get attacked more than me how often have you been jumped, like, four, five times?"

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"A week."

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"You've only been jumped four or five times ever?"

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"Something like that? But, like, look," he rolls up his sleeve to display his watchlike power-sharer, "this buzzes me if Chloe or anybody else from New York is in trouble..."

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"Key word is 'from New York', you're not the metaphorical slow zebras, Lake."

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"Enclave kids move in packs, you've got power-sharers, and losers like Jack know if they go after one of you the others will retaliate. Everyone else has somebody going in for a nibble couple times a week at least."

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"Somebody? How many malificers are there in here?"

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"At least four now Jack's gone."

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There's at least six. Annie does not volunteer this. "How'd you catch onto Jack?" she asks El, instead. 

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"Well, his room stank, for one."

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"Ah. Man, what was his plan." Annie knows the basic principles of how to draw malia, as a last resort, and it can give you a useful mana boost in an emergency but you're not going to be able to regularly go through fellow students without attracting opposition. If she did it it'd be to finish a really big working that she thought could get her through graduation, and she'd have a plan to dispose of the body because she's not stupid.

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"Beats me. Didn't seem all there by the end."

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This, folks, is why you don't send your kids off to school with cutesy notes about how much you love them! A couple years in they'll be someone they know perfectly well those words aren't true of, and then they'll go insane. 

 

Annisa does her homework.

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Orion... looks at some of his homework but doesn't do much of it.

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El does some of hers, pausing occasionally to go through some yoga poses and stretch out.

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New York probably has some hangers-on do Orion's homework in exchange for protection, which is a completely reasonable division of labor. (Annisa wants to get into New York so badly). It's weird that Orion is awkward about this. Maybe El's been rude to him about it and now he thinks most people will think it's unethical? 

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Eventually El has to go do her maintenance shift.

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After a digression into how maintenance shifts actually work Orion volunteers to clean the labs with her.

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"Clean the labs", huh. Annisa's not going to third-wheel a maintenance shift. She cheerily wishes them good luck and puts up a couple more wards because working here alone seems potentially risky.

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"Don't fuck with my carrel while I'm gone," says El, but she doesn't back it up with a particular threat so that's friendly.

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Honestly a great day, all things considered. On the way back to her room she ropes some people into a trip to the vending machines and uses Jack's tokens to buy herself....a canned wet Vietnam-era combat ration, okay, she'll stash that in her room for sometime when she has to miss dinner.  

 

And before bed she'll swing by El's for Jack's stuff, less the shirt.

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El hands it over. It's all there. "When during the course of me doing your Marathi are you gonna get me the divining rod, you said two weeks?"

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"I can do two weeks, yeah. If you find any grubs, pass them over, so your divining rod can have its fill of blood."

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"Any kind of grub?"

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"I haven't noticed a difference. Agglos don't work because the divining rod can't do anything to them."

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"All right. I'll save 'em for a few maintenance shifts if I can get a jar."

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"I'll pass you one in class tomorrow." And she heads off to her room, which has a crawler in it, camouflaged above her bed and evidently waiting for her to fall asleep so it can drop on her face.  The warning gives her enough time to cast a spell, even though her spells tend slow. She chops off its limbs with her knife telekinesed, and then uses soon-to-be-El's-divining-rod to finish the job. "See?" she says brightly to the rod when the crawler stops twitching. "You're a weapon. You're a weapon that can detect your enemies."

 

 

And she sleeps.

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A while later, after Orion spectacularly saves a bunch of people in the library reading room, El is... out of it. It's a miracle she hasn't been killed by six things dividing her between them if she's been walking the halls like that.

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" - did something bite you before Orion exploded it? You look like death."

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El doesn't answer.

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"I don't know what happened to her, she wouldn't tell me."

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Annisa pokes El with her divining rod. "Well, she's not presently cursed, unless I did it." Possibly that was an unwise joke to make, she's not sure Orion has a sense of humor. "Is someone doing her homework?"

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"...no? I don't think she's behind, so hopefully she'll... shake it off..."

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- has Orion Lake ever in his life planned for a worst case scenario or does he just go around effortlessly squishing mals. She knows the answer to that question. Who's language-track with El - "Liu?"

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"I can pick up some of her work if she's not better by tomorrow morning," says Liu.

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Orion looks concernedly at El for a bit and then he gets up, drops his power-sharer into his pocket, and starts - routing mals from every corner of the cafeteria, much to the consternation of anyone who was hoping to eat something they were hiding behind or sit beneath their ceiling haunts. He finds a nest of decent-sized ones and effortlessly squishes them and then, practically glowing with mana, he stomps back to the table and shoves all of it into El.

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El yelps and gets up and does - something - Liu shrieks, a couple of passing freshmen fall over -

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Wow Annisa would like her life to feature less of Orion Lake doing things! Other than killing mals, that's objectively fine. It's honestly kind of an argument for Boston over New York; he's the son of the new Domina and he's clearly a lovely human being but she just prefers to be somewhat less at his mercy than New York is inevitably going to be. 

Does El look okay, though?

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She looks a lot better! She sits down hard.

Liu murmurs to Orion, "What did you do?"

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"It's never done that before!"

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"Next time, ask first!" She shakes herself. "I'm fine."

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Annisa does not like any of this! She laughs and sits down with everyone else, though. El was - injured in some way that - tandem casting something with Orion could fix? But he hadn't seemed to expect the second part - El was....possessed, and that display broke it? Her rod should've picked that up, though.

She chews herself in circles with uncertainty about this for a solid while and eventually concludes that she should be investing more in a shield artifact. On general principles. Also because there was a mal attack in the library yesterday, they almost never show up in force that far up... that, at least, is something she can mention to El during artificing without being obnoxiously nosy.

 

"Never heard of them showing up in those numbers in the library."

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Shrug.

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Or not, then. Fine. She impales a grub.

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At breakfast the next morning, senior Todd Quayle is sitting alone.

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Oh goody, drama that has nothing to do with anyone Annisa's trying to suck up to/ally with and that must be remarkably high quality, if Todd, who is New York and almost definitely already has an alliance agreed-to for graduation day, is in hot water, something seriously bizarre happened. She's not sure New York would even turn him out for malificing - maybe if he targeted someone in-enclave? 

 

She joins El's table. If El and Lake break up she's going to have strained her friendships with saner, more reliable people but it's just impossible to pass up Lake if you have the opportunity, and El if she's not in fact going to kill anyone is very solid company. 

She doesn't ask the story with Quayle. Presumably everyone'll be talking about it without a newcomer to the table needing to.

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Orion buttonholes somebody to ask.

Apparently Todd poached somebody's room.

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Annisa makes a judgmental face, that apparently being the expected thing to do here.

 

So, murder is wrong. On the outside, if you murder someone, you're a bad person, and you should be punished. On the inside... well, a lotta people want to pretend that they're still outside. Annie doesn't, particularly. No one's given her even the slightest side-eye about stabbing Jack, and admittedly that was self-defense, but they only had her word for it and El's, and everyone's pretty sure El is malificing. 

From one angle, murdering a child is about a quarter as bad as murdering an adult, because that's their odds of making it. Though of course the senior whose room Todd poached would've been up to fifty-fifty odds, now, depending on his alliance and his skills and how bad the graduation hall gets this year.  From another angle, murder is mostly such a horrendous crime because on the outside, there's almost always some other way, and here there isn't.

If you have never been kidding yourselves about the fact that people will kill you if they're desperate, then there's not a lot of reason to be shocked when they do.

And probably - 

- probably people are shocked because poaching isn't, exactly, like throwing a lightning bolt into someone's neck in the heat of the moment. The rooms open into the Void. All of them. If you put some wall in between the Void and the dorms, you'd be creating more dark crawlspace mals could get in through. It's not a huge deal, having your wall open to the Void. You can't exactly fall in, it's too rubbery, and if you do you can climb back out. People have walked in on purpose, and then thought better of it, and walked back out. Not wholly intact, but you know, the human experience is not best described by 'being fully intact'.

You can push someone. You can use magic to shove them - slowly, because the Void doesn't part easily - back out the wall of their room until they're far away, and the rubbery path you've made closes around them, and then their room is yours.

This is more disturbing than the lightning bolt to the neck but Annisa doesn't actually think it's worse, an opinion which she does not volunteer. Either way they stop existing. How scary their last moments are just pales in comparison to the magnitude of everything they lose. 

"Because you wanted a new room" does seem like a hell of a reason to do that to someone. 

"Were they having some kind of dispute?"

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Orion has decided to SIT AT TODD'S TABLE and ask him really loudly in front of everyone.

Apparently Todd's old room was by the stairs and he is upset with Orion for killing enough mals to disrupt the food chain such that more of them are coming up the stairs. He claims to have heard a maw-mouth.

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This is completely her fault for thinking how it'd be cool to have some drama that had nothing to do with her. 

There being a maw-mouth wandering around in fact, unfortunately, affects her. In a 'she should rethink the enchantments that protect her from injuring herself with her dagger' way. 

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El stands up.

"So you think you should sail right out of here, you enclave tosser, and let the next-door kid get eaten instead? That's more your style so you're having a go at Orion? Remind me please what gives you more of a right to live than Mika? Or anybody Orion's saved while he was disrupting the food chain? Did you explain why your life is so important to Mika while you shoved him in? Did you look him in the eye? Or did you use your New York mana to shove him in while you looked away and plugged your ears?" She picks up her tray and leads the way to another table.

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There's something wrong with Annie. Or right with Annie depending how you look at it, but there's something that's true of most of these stupid kids, gaping at each other - something that's certainly true of El and Orion, that's not true of Annie. El wasn't calculating how much she'd be burning her bridges with New York. Orion wasn't calculating whether confronting Todd in front of half the school was a good idea. They just did stupid unstrategic things because they were upset about people dying.


This makes them not great allies, objectively speaking. 

 

On the other hand Annisa doesn't have the slightest impression she's welcome at the New York table without them. 

 

 

She looks at Liu. Her question should be obvious. Are we following the crazy people to the crazyperson table?

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Liu sure seems to be. Aadhya is too.

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Fine. 

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She can even look like she doesn't think this is a dumb idea, because she's a good actress.

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Ibrahim makes room for them at his table. El leads the charge for reconstructing a passable lunch out of donations all 'round for Orion, whose tray was a casualty during the confrontation earlier, and then she is drawn into displaying a very cool Sanskrit book of spells.

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"So," she says to Orion once he seems to have cooled off slightly, "what...were you hoping to accomplish by confronting Todd."

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"...I wanted to know why he'd do it! And if there's a maw-mouth in the school learning that seems, you know, important!"

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"You can't go after a maw-mouth, Orion."

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"I mean, I wouldn't rather, but I've got a better chance than a hall full of freshmen, or - El, are you okay -"

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El is not especially okay.

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"Do you in fact have a better chance than a hall full of freshman? I figure you have precisely the same, which is to say, none -" She cuts off because El is losing it, then continues because it's rude to acknowledge people having a breakdown. "They tried clearing the maw-mouths out of the graduation hall, you know, fully trained teams of adult wizards power-sharing with an entire enclave - they lost - Shanghai did it once but it took a week and a team of dozens of combat-trained highly prepared wizards twice our age, and half of them keeled over from the sheer exertion - I figure it still gets the hall of freshmen, just after an appetizer."

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"If there were a maw-mouth in the school and it had been here that long," says Liu, "we'd have heard of it from more people than Todd. It wouldn't be hiding."

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"Also that, yes, thank you Liu. Todd must've been lying, or - there's some psychic mals that look like your worst fears, maybe he's been dwelling on maw-mouths lately -"

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Everyone seems to find that very comforting.

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Maybe it's even true. 

 

 

But she rips the protective enchantment on her dagger, the one that keeps it from accidentally chopping off her own fingers, out by the seams, while they eat. 

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Aadhya is near her in their artificing seminar, later, sanding down a bit of ebony. "If there was a mal masquerading as people's worst fears," she remarks, "wouldn't more people have seen that, too?"

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"Could be one of the reportedly many that Orion blasted in the library last night. 

 

And El saw -

 

- something."

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"- yeah, she must've. I heard someone say Orion carried her out of the library, I guess it could've spooked her on the way to the mal party in the reading room?"

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"Could've.

 

 

 

You don't think that's it?"

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"She always sits in front in maleficaria studies. I don't know what'd scare her that bad."

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"She was freaking out today, too. When we were talking about-  what must've happened."

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"I guess a maw-mouth would scare her, so a fear-manifestation could have looked like one to her..."

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"It doesn't quite fit, but I don't see what else fits. Because if there's a maw-mouth, people would've seen a maw-mouth. People would have heard the screams. So, reasoning backwards, there's not a maw-mouth, Todd saw something else. And El saw something else. Something Orion didn't see."

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"El's really strong," Aadhya blurts, after a silence. "We were making a magic mirror for her project - I don't know why she gets assignments like that, she's not artifice track, she should be making, like, anti-skid shoes - and she used an incantation to flatten the silver after we poured it. And I was curious about that, it sounded useful, but the books say don't bother, hardly anyone is powerful enough for that."

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There's only one direction Aadhya could be going with this but it's insane so Annisa pretends to be dense, which is arguably the same thing as actually being dense. "Huh. Do you know her affinity, she's never told me."

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"I don't know either. I know she hates it."

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The other way El and Todd could have seen a maw-mouth is if there was a maw-mouth, but someone killed it. 

 

El looked like death warmed over. El panicked when they started talking about maw-mouths. But -

- 'absurdly powerful' doesn't get you there, absurdly powerful people can't fight maw-mouths and survive. 


"Maybe it was a baby," Annisa says, absurdly. "A baby maw-mouth."

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"It can't have been Patience or Fortitude, they wouldn't fit, so - a smaller one, at least -"

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"If she's that powerful why not show everybody. Why not show everybody first day of freshman year, get New York to adopt you -"

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"I don't know. If her affinity is that horrible maybe she couldn't think of a good demo?"

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The answer to 'why not tell us now' is obvious. Who would believe her. "I killed a maw-mouth" is about as believable as "I found a way out of the school and went to the theatre and came back just in time for curfew". 

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"She found the sutras in the library that day. I've never found anything that good, I've never heard of anybody finding anything that good."

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The library isn't particularly cooperative, even if you are a good student and always treat your books well and reshelve them. Good books have a mind of their own, and don't stay on shelves if they don't care to.

"The sutras book looked brand new. Wouldn't be a surprise if no one'd found them before her. Wouldn't be surprised if they slipped out a week after the scribe finished."

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"And she picked up the first spell in it fast."

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"You could ask her. Hey, El, did you kill a maw-mouth. I don't think she's a very good liar."

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"I guess I could ask. Yeah."

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"Todd's right, you know. That the mals are worse this year because - Orion's been starving them. That the school can't feed this many students. That there was a balance and he's - they're - breaking it."

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"There was supposed to be mortal flame in the graduation hall. It can't need that many -

I guess they doubled the number of rooms, later -"

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"Eight hundred a year originally, and they were hoping practically all of them would survive. Though deaths on graduation day don't really change the life support costs. Now it's sixteen hundred a year, except - I don't know what your parents told you, mine said half make it to graduation. We've still got thirteen hundred juniors. And, being a junior, I'm grateful, but - the school's low on juice, and the mals that usually stay in the graduation hall are in the fucking library. And it's Orion's - not his fault, but his decision, and I'm not sure he has ever weighed the long term consequences of his actions in his life."

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"He does come off that way, doesn't he. I can't say it would be better if another few hundred people were dead though - a scare about a maw-mouth isn't as bad as that if you hold them up next to each other."

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"What do you suppose the graduation hall is like, this year."

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"I'm not sure. I mean, most of the things that stay down there don't need to eat that often. Some things probably usually - nab a kid or two and then go back down for some reason and get eaten, but the things that stay put might just be picking each other off instead."

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"Might be. Or maybe everything smart enough to be scared of Orion is reasonably staying down there and it's going to be a slaughter come graduation day. I don't know. We won't know, if none of them make it out."

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"...yeah. We'd know if it was a slaughter - two years ago, after we were freshmen, because then the kids who are sophomores now could have told us, but even Orion wasn't that much when he was a freshman..."

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"Yup. And we'll learn after this year's seniors head out whether it was a slaughter last year. 

And it doesn't really matter because our best move is obviously to cling to Orion and El regardless, but -" Shrug. "If I were Todd I'd honestly have been kinda tempted to poach from a freshman."

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"What, and stay here longer?" says Aadhya. "When he has an enclave waiting for him?"

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- right, most people care more than Annisa about getting out of school and less than Annisa about minimizing the odds that they die. "I don't think maw-mouths up here portend good things in the graduation hall. If I had to bet, I bet it was pretty ugly, last year, and it'll be much worse this year, and I think Todd bets that too or he wouldn't have lost it at Orion, which was a pretty stupid thing to do for his goals."

 

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"Mm."

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Annisa slices her cedar lengthwise, perfectly, and starts twirling it up for resonance. There's not much more to say. 

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"I'm going to ask her," says Aadhya, when it's almost the end of the period.

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"Yeah. Good luck."

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Aadhya does not report to Annisa about this at all afterwards.

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This is what Annisa expected; they're not friends, and she hasn't even got anything to trade for it, at the moment. 

 

She watches El and Aadhya closely, though.

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They're... definitely more solidly friends than before.

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Following a compelling intriguing line of inference off a cliff is one way to get yourself killed. 

 

On the other hand, not keeping accurate tabs on who is powerful and who is friends is another way to get yourself killed and there's no way to not make inferences.

 

 

So, what if El killed a maw-mouth. What if El's the most powerful person in their year, stronger than Orion, and hiding it for incomprehensible reasons just like she does everything for incomprehensible reasons, like being rude to the New York kids (who are now pissed at her, for latching onto Orion and then denouncing them in front of everyone).

 

What do you do about that.

 

 

If you're Annisa, you start working on an artifact. It's your value-add, here, and it's always been true that you can't get through school without allies.

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El keeps her head down. Does Annisa's Marathi worksheets.

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She spends language classes in the lab, instead, working on El's divining rod. It's more practical to just add a shield separately but it's less impressive and she's going for impressive, here. Someone you'd want on your team even if you can kill a maw-mouth and are dating Orion Lake. So the divining rod will also have a shield, that flares up when it hits unfamiliar magic and bites if El wants it to. The tricky part of that is 'if El wants it to'. The shield wants to be a weapon; it wants to bite by default. But that's mana-intensive and she's noticed El is very sparing with her mana, and besides that's a good way to rip an innocent person's face off.

 

The ideal shield isn't mana-intensive, because it's barely doing anything, when it's just in shield form; it's a demarcated area of air where you visibly will get bitten if you step, materializing into ferocious existence only when something crosses what would be its boundary. There's a reason no one invents new shield spells, it's hard, but weapons do what Annie wants them to do, and she trades away all Jack's alchemy stuff for the materials, which should help - riches won from a man you killed in self-defense make for better weapons -

- it's not quite done after two weeks. She smiles tightly at El. "Bet I can have it for you tomorrow."

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"Well, if you can, your declensions'll be turned in on time."

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Which is completely fair, though it means she ends up pulling an all-nighter and taking a precious stimulant tab from her initial weight allowance, in order to have the thing done by the deadline for her Marathi homework. It doesn't kill things that hit it, that'd be too mana-intensive; it does the sort of equivalent of rapping them hard on the nose and throwing them backwards, not all parts of them at the same velocity, which should be incapacitating enough that it's then not hard to kill them some other way. 

"I built some other stuff in," she says when she gives it to El. "We can talk about whether you owe me extra once you see how much you like them."

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"What kind of extra stuff?" El asks, handing over the Marathi.

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"Prototype bitey shield. Low mana, since I have ever observed your style. If you wanted to trade me for a dagger, you know, it's a mana-free way to kill things."

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"I'll think about it. ...Thanks."

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"Just tell people who you got it from. ...and don't tell 'em how little you paid for it."

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"What do you want me to say I did for it, then?"

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"Your default solution of mocking them mercilessly seems fine."

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"Anytime!"

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Annisa crashes hard, that night, and has good dreams, which she always hates, and gets started on another divining rod in the morning.

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El makes very good advertising for the divining rod; she pokes everything she gets within three feet of in the cafeteria with it and when Chloe asks what she traded for it she says, "Have you tried telling Annisa that you're from New York? It works for everything else, right?"

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She's really growing on Annie, evil aura and all. 

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Chloe does invite Annie on a supply room run on the way out of the cafeteria.

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New York is the richest English-speaking enclave and Annie is very, very pleased with herself, though also contemplating various ways in which this might be a murder attempt, because she's not five. 

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It's not a murder attempt. Chloe wants to know what goes into the divining rods and how many she could make (and is subtly trying to figure out what she wants for them).

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Cedar, silver, obsidian dust, sirenspider silk (the ultimate limiting quantity, here, as she can't count on getting any more), mercury, polished steel, a couple dozen grubs to kill to convince the divining rods that they're weapons - "and I expect you'll want to keep using them as such once you've got them if you don't want them to resent you. With the shield they take me two weeks, without that I can do 'em in one. I want to make something big, senior year - probably flight-based - but I'll need a team to supply me, on the mana and materials front."

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"Flight-based?" asks Chloe.

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"I'm worried the graduation hall's going to be very full. Even Orion can only do so much if there's literally too much body mass of mals to press through. So- flight. When you kill things in the air, they fall."

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"That's very clever. Are you thinking, like, a reinvention of the broomstick, or - you could probably get together a decent mana building party if you wanted to make a carpet..."

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"Depends what I've got to work with? But in the doodles in my notebook, we've got jetpacks."

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"Ooh."

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"Affinity's weapons. And a jetpack is one, just one that happens to point you away from whatever you're broiling."

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"I'm alchemy track, you might need jet fuel or something along those lines..."

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ANNISA IS GOING TO SURVIVE TO SEE HER NINETEENTH BIRTHDAY FUCK YEAH

 

"I might. If you'll put up the mana we can collab on a prototype, see if it looks promising."

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"Yeah, we have plenty."

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Of course they do. New York. She went through a brief phase of being jealous, when she was thirteen, and then got over it, because sure, some people are much richer and more likely to survive than you, but does self-pity improve your odds, no it does not. And ultimately if you die it's your fault, not the fault of anyone who could've set you up for success and didn't. What do they owe you?

 

"I have free period Friday afternoons," she says, and then they're at the supply room and she can show off her divining rod checking for trouble while they grab notebooks and pens.

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The divining rod gets to stab an amphisbaena in the drain. Chloe ooohs.

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Really amateur flattery just works so well if you come from New York. She flashes a slight grin at Chloe and takes the half of it that didn't fall down the drain to butcher for parts later.

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"If you don't need all those I know Aadhya's affinity is making stuff with bits of mals, she's always good for a trade - you probably know that, you've been hanging out," says Chloe.

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"It's how we met. I usually kill things with a knife, which leaves more of a body than what most people get up to. Has anyone tried convincing Lake to leave more than a puddle behind? ...alternatively, we could see if the puddles can be used for jet fuel."

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"He gets mana out of them but they might go very well in a fuel potion if you could get them before they went down the drain."

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She guessed that the time Orion went on a mal-killing spree so he could snap El out of her (maw-mouth killing?) slump. Some people have all the luck. New York, an affinity literally for mal-killing, and he gets mana from it. "I'll see what I can do."

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The next day El is in the reading room instead of in her carrel, picking through her sutras, murmuring "what a lovely book you are, I'm so glad I found you, you're my favorite" to them every time she struggles through a paragraph.

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Too bad how Annie really shouldn't pick up another language midway through junior year; by the rumor mill the book is incredible.

 

She probably couldn't afford to pay for a peek at it anyway. Chloe playing nice is a lot, but, you know, Chloe is a pragmatic person who'll drop Annie in a heartbeat if she seems boring, and New York has a reputation to maintain but still might take her stuff and then betray her, if that's what it'll take to get them out. And Annie's resources that are actually hers, in the 'she can defend them', sense, are very limited, right now, and she shouldn't be tricked by the presence of Orion, and El, and all these other people who are powerful and are going to survive.

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Today New York has decided - well, Magnus in particular has decided - to uphold their reputation with a straight up murder attempt.

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Which is....confusing?

 

 

 

Like, confusing enough that once she's made the appropriate outraged noises she actually spends an hour in her bed with wards up that'll alert her of mals, processing, trying to figure it out, because major political moves among the students should not be confusing and surprising, not by this point, junior year - anything that doesn't make sense is something that is going to destroy you, something that you're accounting for wrong -

- and Magnus trying to murder El doesn't make sense.

 

(Her wards inform her that something's seeping in under the door. She stabs it, and tries to catch the remains in a jar for Chloe, though maybe they're officially no longer on speaking terms with Chloe because New York is collectively guilty of Magnus's shenanigans? Put a pin in that...)

 

Like, okay, El treats everyone in New York with barely concealed hostility and comes across as probably a malificer, but they can't be worried she'd go after them, she's evidently not stupid,, and Orion has the apparent personality of a puppy dog but obviously the reason he likes El is because -

 

 

- because she killed a maw-mouth, because she's the kind of person who would, which no one else knows -

- so it's probably completely mysterious to most people. "They are both one-in-ten-thousand power level heroes who keep risking their lives to save everyone else" is an extremely solid basis for the kind of fictionally-cute romance where he refuses to leave her bedside at night. 'He's a one-in-ten-thousand hero and she's the grouchy probably-maleficer who he dotes on' less so. So once New York checked it wasn't mind-control, they were probably really confused.

That doesn't get you to a murder attempt, though.

 

Magnus probably resents Orion. Lots of people resent Orion, as much as you can resent someone who's repeatedly saving your life. There's the argument Todd made, which pretty much any junior or senior has contemplated in at least its broad outlines: that there's an ecosystem here, and stopping the mals from eating people means the mals get hungrier, and maybe they turn on each other but maybe you just get mals venturing farther than they used to, trying things no one's used to them trying, you get maw-mouths from the graduation hall sneaking up the staircase for a snack, which there's no record of ever -

There's the even more uncomfortable argument that goes with that. The school doesn't actually have the resources to support a student body of this size; everything works off the fact that a third of kids don't make it out of freshman year and there's further attrition from there. 

This is a justification for, well, it's not really a justification for anything? Unless they think the school's imminently going to explode into the void if they run it too hot, and probably it would have been designed better than that, then on any given occasion it's better for Orion to save people than not. And Orion's not at all the kind of person to be persuaded by an argument that the normal system is known to work at getting a quarter of kids out alive and 'push the school to its limits and see how much the monsters push back' is not known to work at all. Annisa's not even sure she's persuaded by that, and she's not an idiot hero. A quarter just ...isn't very good. A quarter isn't even 'all the smart hardworking kids make it out'. A quarter is 'the enclave kids who aren't idiots or super unlucky make it out, plus the absolute smartest hardworkingest most socially competent of the rest', and Annisa...would give herself good odds, at this point, of making the cut, but it doesn't feel that much like pathetic raging-at-the-universe, to admit that probably the bar should be a little lower.

So maybe Orion's just right, no matter how much he's proceeding with blissful ignorance of the idea that it might be in question. 

Magnus probably resents Orion, and he's probably freaked out that Orion now has a girlfriend whose good qualities are not on display - though, uh, there's an obvious assumption, when a guy goes for a hot girl whose good qualities are not obviously on display, once you've ruled out mind control -

 

She falls asleep before figuring it out.

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El doesn't bring it up. Nor does she seem to have wreaked grisly revenge upon Magnus.

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"Probably it is unstrategic to kill Magnus but I would at least be contemplating disabling him," she offers during artificing. "Otherwise he's just gonna try again."

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"I guess he might at that. If he doesn't think Orion'll catch him at it. And know it's him, I mean." Orion got the crawler.

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"Orion's not down to just declare very publicly if anything happens to you he'll know it's Magnus?"

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"He doesn't think it was."

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"Ah, that sucks." Mind control is good at getting confessions out of people but not very discriminating about them being true ones. "If it were me I'd probably - man, he's never alone, is he - maybe shoot him with a dart gun where the darts say 'if El doesn't make it out of here, you don't either'..."

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"That doesn't sound very constructive."

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"You don't think it'd give him pause about whether to keep trying?"

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"It'd have more teeth if I were actually in an alliance. Orion hasn't done more than yell at Todd and Todd's murder attempt succeeded."

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"Aadhya'll have you, you know. Even without Lake locked down."

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"That'd be nice."

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"Unfortunately I personally need a rich person and that is by my count neither of you. I'll write a nasty blog post about Magnus once we get out if he murders you, though."

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"Aadhya's going to run an auction for the sutra spells, for me."

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"Is that so? Well, do keep me updated on how it goes."

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Annie doesn't get another update on the situation until El's name is up on the wall with Aadhya's and Liu's.

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Which confirms it, that El killed the maw-mouth, because otherwise it's not a good alliance for Aadhya, and she has a good head on her shoulders and wouldn't sign on for a bad one. She's an artificer, like Annisa; she needs resources, and she's capable enough to attract an enclave, and if she's putting her chips on El, instead, it's because she's very sure. 


Liu she knows barely anything about. Long hair, which is a sign she's either powerful or stupid. Mild bit of evidence for 'powerful', now. Likely maleficing, she has the tells - or did sophomore year. Now she doesn't, which probably means she's gotten better at it. Maleficing doesn't have to make you creepy, no one would get away with it, if it did. If you're inexperienced, then the sense that your magic isn't right - that you're you isn't right - is right there to be picked up on, but if you're good, you can conceal it as easily as concealing your face. 

Annie doesn't lose much sleep over it. She wants an enclave. She wants New York, ideally, because it's the richest English-speaking enclave, but it does have the major downside that Magnus is a dumbass and that Orion is a completely different kind of dumbass, and she's not sure what that means for her odds of angling in. 

 

She brings Chloe some jars of mal entrails, the next week, to feel that out.

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"Oh, awesome," says Chloe, "yeah, I can mix these up into something that'll burn really nicely, I think. Do you have a prototype?"

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"Not yet. I figured I'd spend most of this semester selling divining rods so I can buy the mana for it. If you can spot me, I can work it up in a day or three." That'll take more stimulant tabs but it's worth impressing a potential ally.

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"We'd need to work out who the prototype belonged to."

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"I'm not feeling possessive of the prototype, I don't think there's anyone else in our year who could pull it off." And she can build a backdoor that makes sure of that. "How about if we end up hating each other or Magnus decides to indulge his homicidal impulses more blatantly you can buy it off me for the cost of the materials, no guarantees it'll work for anyone else."

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"And if we don't hate each other but it doesn't pan out, you want to cannibalize it yourself?"

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"Yeah. I've been picking assignments based on their cannibalism potential for two years now, and this should be pretty good even if I end up changing tacks."

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Chloe chews on her lip a bit, looks at the mal goop, and nods. "All right."

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"Awesome." Is that smile too suckup-y? "I'll need the mana tomorrow."

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"What do you store in?"

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"Ivory." That's unusual, among English-speaking students, which Annisa is mildly irritated with her parents about; she would have liked to come in basically culturally American, if the aim was for her to come out allied with New York. Admittedly it's hard to raise your children in a culture you aren't yourself a member of, but you know what else is hard? Surviving your teens. And admittedly American culture seems stupid (proof: Orion Lake is stupid, Magnus Tebow is stupid, Todd Quayle is stupid, Jack Westing was stupid, and she can't think of anyone strikingly smart who'd balance them out; America doesn't produce valedictorians), but it's the stupidity of being under less selection pressure.

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"Ooh. Okay, I'll clear it with the other New Yorkers."

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"If you get back to me at dinner I can start tomorrow."

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"I should know by then."

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The thing she's tempted to say is 'you're pretty cool, for a New Yorker', but she doesn't know Chloe well enough to guess how it'd land. She just nods and gets back to her work.

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The next day is El's show-and-tell with the sutra phase-change spell. Annisa's invited, though presumably she isn't going to be able to afford the spell.

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And she'd have to learn Sanskrit. Thinking about what you'll do if you survive is getting a bit ahead of yourself but she intends to have children by a genius polyglot and hope they all inherit from him, even though her language problem might not even be genetic; none of her siblings have it. 

 

She attends anyway, hums to herself during the recitation. It's a very impressive spell. It'd be useful for the jetpacks, if she could afford it and learn it. 

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It's looking likely that it'll be mostly seniors who'll get it, at least for now. El liquifies lignin in a nice wood specimen and curls it around her precious book. Then she liquifies some silver for a project of Aadhya's and solidifies it very neatly as it gets where it's meant to be.