Saturday, September 3, 2016

Maywitch Chapter 9: Auras

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Kay barely slept, and she went to training with bleary eyes and a heavy heart. She was still furious at Nadia, but couldn’t stop thinking about Gardner’s mission.
Her trainer, a middle-aged mage named Wojtec, went through spells and ingredients for barely an hour before dismissing her. His clipped sentences and furrowed brow told her that he sensed her lack of focus. Kay was given a long list of tasks for her homework, but she chose to ignore them for the time being, and wandered to the cafeteria to grab lunch.
The door to the cafeteria swung open with a bang as she approached. Nadia stepped through, her expression stormy. Kay stepped around her, determined to avoid a confrontation, but Nadia spoke up: “So are you gonna do this with us?”
Kay stopped and fought the urge to sigh. Had Gardner told Nadia already? “What?”
“You know. The mission Gardner talked to you about.” Nadia’s voice was low, but she didn’t seem concerned with the possibility of being overheard.
“I haven’t decided yet. It’s not like you guys gave me much info—”
“I hope you don’t turn it down,” Nadia said. “This mission could be what makes things safer for your mom—”
“Don’t bother.” Kay stormed into the cafeteria, not looking over her shoulder for Nadia’s reaction. The last thing she needed was Nadia parroting what Gardner had already said - especially when it was so manipulative.
She ate her lunch in a quiet rage, and just as she finished, her phone buzzed with a text from Gardner: Please relay your decision to me in the next hour. Keep in mind that you cannot back out once you commit. Too much at stake here.
Kay stared at her phone for a long while, mulling the two equally unappealing options. If she went, she’d be relying on selfish, cowardly Nadia to have her back.
But if Kay didn’t go, she’d be leaving the mission solely in Nadia’s hands - unless Gardner got someone else to go. That, of course, could result in someone being sent who trusted Nadia too much. And Kay wasn’t sure she could live with the guilt if some naive soul got fucked over by Nadia at the cost of their life. It was quite a fucked-up dilemma, she thought as she picked up her phone and typed:
I’m in. Let’s do this.
A half-hour later, as she finished showering in her room, her phone buzzed with a new text: Meet in the conference room in 20 minutes. Don’t bother bringing anything yet - we have lots to do before you leave.
She dressed and headed out, not even bothering to lock her room as she left. When she arrived at the conference room a few minutes early, she was greeted by Gardner, Nadia, and - to her surprise and concern - Holly.
“We might as well start, since everyone’s here,” Gardner said. “Close the door behind you.”

Two hours and several top-secret documents later, Kay had figured out her role in a very basic scenario: she was going to pose as a malcontent drifter named Lisa Michaels. Her first task was to try to gain the trust of Dustin Reyes, Renaya’s right-hand man, as he made his weekly trip to karaoke night at a bar in Grand Junction. Since she probably only had one shot, she had to pretend to sense his malevolent, troubled aura and introduce herself directly.
If the plan didn’t work, it was unlikely that Dustin would try to kill her - at least, that was what Gardner thought based on the intelligence they had on him. Kay would have to slink away back to Maywitch, and her role in the plan would end there.
But if everything went well, he would quickly bring her into the fold once he saw her capabilities. Gardner had given Kay a crash course on making lumericite, a low-grade explosive that most firecasters were able to make. The raw ingredients were easy to obtain - salt and charcoal formed the base - but its production was strictly forbidden because it was so dangerous. Renaya and her crew, though, had used it in one prior ambush on Maywitch staff, and would surely have some appreciation for mages who could make it.
Nadia and Holly would be heading in separately from Kay, and would be known as Dawn and Billie, respectively. Their plan was a bit more dangerous: set a fire someplace relatively harmless, but close enough to a known associate of Renaya’s to catch his attention. From there, they would brand themselves as malcontents and would-be violent radicals who just hadn’t found the right cause yet.
The three of them glanced nervously at each other as they headed to the clinic, where their hair would be cut or dyed, their faces would be altered temporarily, and their auras would be permanently changed.
The last two procedures were the most stressful. Gardner had warned them that face and aura alterations were painful - and aura alterations could be traumatic. While auras were usually influenced by personality, instead of the other way around, forcibly changing an aura could have negative effects on one’s psyche. Kay tried not to think about it too much as she settled in to have her hair dyed black, an unwelcome change from its usual auburn.
Holly fought having her hair cut, and ended up agreeing to dye it deep purple. Nadia let them cut her nearly waist-length hair, and by the time they had finished, it hung in an angled bob above her shoulders. She didn’t even flinch, Kay noted as Nadia gazed into a handheld mirror.
The facial changes were painful, just as expected. The half-hour process burned nearly the entire time, but the three were given poultices and potions to relieve the pain as much as possible. Kay wondered if the change back would be just as painful, but didn’t dare to ask.
When the procedure was complete, her eyebrows had become thicker, but the hardest change of all was her nose. It had become obviously thinner, and it ached from bridge to tip despite the poultice she held to it. Her eyes were slightly larger and had changed color from brown to muddy hazel.
Then Gardner brought in an old, white-haired woman who walked with a cane and smiled at the women as she entered. “Well,” the old woman said. “I can tell already this is going to be interesting.”
Kay bit her lip. That was not what she wanted to hear.
The woman proceeded to silently draw and arrange ingredients on the floor. Fifteen tense minutes later, the three spies sat on the floor, each of them surrounded by a magic circle. The old woman - whom Gardner hadn’t introduced properly, though perhaps that was on purpose - handed each of them some kind of quartz-like stone. She took a deep breath and stood in the midst of them with her hands clasped in front of her.
“Are you really ready?” she asked. “Your aura is only a superficial part of your magic - cosmetic, if you will - but it still hurts to have altered. I don’t want to hear any regrets later.”
Nadia immediately nodded, and Holly did the same. The woman turned to look at Kay, who finally forced herself to nod.
“Here we go, then,” the old woman said, tensing as she held her arms in front of her.
A few seconds later, Kay could hear the woman muttering in Latin, and everything went bright white.

The moon that stared down at Kay was red this time. She glanced down and saw her old school uniform, stained with mud and grime and blood.
It felt much more real than the dream she had several nights ago.
Something pushed her, and she fell forward, landing on a stone panel with a thud. There was a sharp laugh somewhere behind her.
She rolled over, fully prepared to fight, but something pressed down on her chest. A few Latin words rumbled in the air above her, and a tall, short-haired figure leered at her in the red-tinged night.
Nadia stood several feet away, watching silently.
Kay struggled, trying to move away from the suffocating weight on her chest, but nothing worked. More Latin poured forth, syllables echoing across the cemetery. Pain radiated from her torso down to her feet and the tips of her fingers.
Panicking, Kay tried to cast a fire spell, but something snapped in her chest as soon as she spoke the first word. A rib had broken - or maybe two; she couldn’t remember anymore. She gasped in pain, and the woman above her laughed again.
Something glowed above her. She struggled for several slow minutes, trying to gain some leverage and wrench herself free. The longer she fought, the weaker she became. Her terror was punctuated by wild laughter from above.
For a moment, she tried to see if Nadia was still nearby, but gave up. It wasn’t worth looking. She knew Nadia would do nothing.
Eventually, the glow above her grew into a blinding light, and she screamed aloud.

Kay woke up drenched in sweat. Gardner was kneeling a few feet away, her face more nervous than Kay had ever seen it. “You alright?” Gardner asked.
Kay sat up. The back of her head hurt miserably; she had apparently passed out on the floor. Nearby, Holly and Nadia sat in chairs, nursing glasses of water and staring at the wall. They looked as if their own experience hadn’t been much better.
“I’m fine,” Kay said, though her voice was hoarse. She shakily stood up and ran a hand through her sweaty hair. “Can I go shower?”
“Are you sure you’re okay? You look—”
“I’m fine,” Kay said, turning to leave.
Mei and the old woman were standing nearby, and they almost moved to interfere, but Gardner waved them away. Kay rushed into the hallway before anyone else could try to stop her.

When she reached the showers, she hesitated for a long moment before stripping down, stepping into the stream of lukewarm water, and bursting into tears.
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