Scene 8: Catalyst

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Present Day- 4th of Faquar, 901.

It was seven in the morning and Amalia was awake. Two people were out on the street having a shouting match and she could hear them from her room. She groaned and covered her head with a pillow. She just wanted to sleep a little longer, to put off the inevitable.

The pillow didn’t muffle sound well, and now that she was awake she could hear all the other noises of the morning. Birds chirped and there was an automobile on the street. She’d seen three of them just this week. They were becoming popular in the city, though not so much in the country.

The automobile driver started honking his horn. She groaned and rolled out of bed. No, she would not be falling asleep again this morning.

She went through her morning ablutions thinking about tomorrow. It was her first day at University. She would be attending two classes: one was an advanced mathematics course focused on the equations she would need to design larger, more complicated magical machines and the second class was Ethics. It was a required course for all students studying magics.

She’d also be working on her project, under the guidance of Professor Hall, who was also her mathematics professor. They would meet once a week to discuss her progress.

It wasn’t anything new. When Amalia had tutors, they would usually do something similar, especially as she got older. She would get interested in a topic and they’d direct her to a number of books on it, and suggest goals for her to accomplish. Later in the week they’d test to see if she understood it. She enjoyed that kind of self-study more than lectures, and didn’t need much guidance.

It wasn’t that Amalia thought she was particularly talented in engimancy, or anything else, for that matter. She remembered reading that advanced placement had more to do with the tutor being exceptionally good at their job than the student being particularly intelligent, so she harbored no illusions, there.

Coming up with a new project was always nerve wracking. It seemed like she only had a limited amount of good ideas and, eventually, she’d run out. This one felt more like an accident than anything. She was combining a few pieces from other magical machines to carry out a different function. The “new” machine might be able to detect magic use nearby. Theoretically.

But her fear of running out of ideas was completely irrelevant, because she wouldn’t have to worry about a new project for a long time. This one would keep her occupied for years to come.

She ate breakfast with a grin on her face. Not only was she going to Port Drebon University as a student tomorrow, but she didn’t have to worry about her stupid mistake with that journal any longer. Her mother was sending someone to pick it up tonight, and then she was officially done with it. All she had to worry about now was University.

Well, that wasn’t entirely true. In the back of her mind, there was a small note of discord. Something wasn’t right.

It’d been bothering her ever since she met Grand Meister Marcellus.

See, when Amalia anticipated a huge change in her life, or faced a problem, the first thing she did was research it. She’d find out all the information she could, because uncertainty made her anxious. So when Amalia realized she’d gotten into Port Drebon University, she’d found out as much information as she could about the place.

In all honesty, her research had more to do with figuring out what classes would be like and what the teachers were like, than it had to do with the history. But she did remember reading about the College of Magics, and how they had an entire building devoted to it with classrooms and labs.

She remembered being confused, that feeling she got whenever something just didn’t fit, because she knew there weren’t many students studying magics. But she’d been too excited about going to university to investigate.

When she’d visited the college to meet the Grand Meister, she’d seen the building in passing. It was three stories tall and half a block long. But again, something had distracted her. She’d been focusing on the journal, but now her mind was emptied of distractions.

She didn’t remember the exact numbers, but there were less than a hundred students enrolled in the College of Magics. Amalia bit her lip. Maybe she was remembering wrong. She could always check; she might’ve kept the pamphlet.

She went up to her workshop and started looking through the books. It wasn’t on her shelves so it was probably packed away. Four minutes later she found it. The number of students enrolled in the College of Magics was fifty five.

Fifty five students in a three story building with at least sixty classrooms in it, if not more. She knew there were only three other students in her advanced mathematics class, though there were seven in her Ethics class.

It wasn’t entirely unexplainable. The buildings might be more intermixed than the school let on. Maybe the College of Magics shared space with the College of Business, or maybe they employed a number of researchers who used those rooms. There were a dozen reasonable explanations, but it still seemed forced, like trying to fit a square block in a round hole.

Each explanation might solve a portion of the problem, but not the whole thing. It didn’t satisfy her curiosity like a real answer did.

Unless the Grand Meister wasn’t just a senile old man. Maybe there were more mages before, maybe there were less students now because back then there were more black mages.

Ideas like that weren’t healthy to have, but Amalia knew how they festered. It wasn’t like she doubted that Marcellus was senile or anything, but it wasn’t good to even think about doubting something like that. People who believed those kinds of things were associated with black mages and dissenters, and the very thought of those sorts being right on any level made her feel ill. She figured that if she researched it, found out the number of students who attended the university before, she could put the matter to rest.

She expected to find that there were less people attending Port Drebon University in the past, and when she found that information, she could write off the Grand Meister as being a pitiable old man who was confused.

So 8AM found Amalia at the Port Drebon University Library.

She had another reason for being there, besides the extracurricular research. She’d received a letter from Professor Hall saying they should pick up copies of supplementary materials and have them ready for class. Either way, she’d be going to the library, so why not?

The librarian was helpful, and she checked outModern Practices in Engimacyand A Definitive Guide to Functional Whorls. While putting the books in her bag, she thought about what she was going to ask.

Just in case, she wasn’t going to simply ask the librarian about where to find statistics on how many people attended Port Drebon University before the Harkow Tragedy. She didn’t need her father coming to her townhouse again, asking her why she was researching suspicious subjects.

“I have one more question.” Amalia smiled. It was the same smile that her Aunt Basileia made her practice in the mirror, the sort of smile that puts people at ease.

“Yes, m’lady?” said the librarian. She was a middle aged woman with short brown hair and kind eyes.

“Do you know where I can find information on the dropout rate at Port Drebon University? Maybe for the last two years, just for comparison?” She affected a slightly nervous tone.

“I’m pretty sure we don’t keep records on that. Sorry, m’lady.”

“Then do you have records of enrollment and graduation?” Amalia asked. That was what she was actually looking for.

“We might.” The woman paused, looking contemplative. “If we have it, it will be in section 313.”

“Thank you.”

“If you’ll pardon me for saying, m’lady, I don’t think you need to worry about failing.”

Amalia grinned, “Thanks, but I think I’ll check anyway. It’s always better to know.”

It turns out Port Drebon University did have books containing records of enrollment and graduation, going back almost fifty years. The books hadn’t been touched since they were printed. They opened with the stiffness of new books and were covered in dust. She sat down at a desk in the corner of the library by the history section. It was all but abandoned.

She ignored graduation for the moment, just looking at enrollment. She took out a few pieces of paper, laying them in front of her. Amalia preferred graphs to tables, so she’d rewrite the data in the books as graphs on the paper.

She figured she’d start at 860 to 870, using that as a baseline to compare enrollment against the years 871 to 900. Grand Meister Marcellus talked about the Harkow Tragedy in 872 like it was the catalyst. Amalia knew the punishments for breaking the law became stricter after 872, but it wasn’t like black magic was legal before then.

But if she was going to descend into this madness, she’d better go all the way.

A half hour later, Amalia looked at the two graphs, face grim.

Today there were half as many people attending the University of Port Drebon as there were in 870, which was about 30 years ago.

But that wasn’t even the part that upset her, because there were a number of reasons attendance could drop, including other Universities being opened and drawing away students.

Her stomach dropped and her hands began to sweat. In 870, there were  467 students enrolled in the College of Magics. Today there were only 55.

She let out a slow breath, then looked up, glancing around to see if anyone was watching. No, no one was here. She bit her lip and started fiddling with the cap of her fountain pen.

Between 860 and 870, there was a gradual rise in enrollment. She had to consider that it was due to population growth, but she doubted the population grew that quickly. She made a note to check population growth and account for that. After 872, the number of students enrolled in Port Drebon University slowly dropped, until it evened out around 880. Since then enrollment has been slowly rising.

The College of Magics in Port Drebon University’s statistics read differently.They had the same gradual rise from 860 to 870, and remained high until about 874, when enrollment dropped dramatically. It wasn’t a gradual decline in enrollment, but a series of jagged drops. The worst drops in enrollment occurred in 874 and 877, which was years after the Harkow Tragedy.

She didn’t want to check enrollment for every College at the University, it would be too tedious. And besides, she had to be at the parade by eleven thirty. She still had about an hour, so there was still time to keep researching.

The total enrollment was telling, especially when she subtracted the data from the College of Magics from the total. The rest of the Colleges experienced a slow and gradual drop in enrollment. The College of Magics experienced a drastic drop over a short period of time.

They couldn’t all have been black mages. There weren’t that many people out there that wanted to destroy the world or kill everyone. It was perfectly possible that people wanted to distance themselves from magic, in general. After Harkow, people were not too keen on magic.

But then wouldn’t she see a drastic drop in 872 and 873? It didn’t fit the data.

She flipped through the book, but couldn’t find any information on people being kicked out for practicing black magic, nor the number of dropouts. They didn’t list the number of students in any major (like engimancy), so she couldn’t check if they taught black magic back then. What would it be listed under, anyway? Murder 101?

It wasn’t feasible. If only 55 out of 467 people, (and she knew that was using statistics all wrong,) decided to not practice black magic, that would mean 88% of the people studying at the College of Magics were being corrupted and turned into crazed monsters.

Fact of the matter was, they were not teaching black magic back then.

Why?

It wouldn’t be sustainable. If you had that many people graduating every year, in ten years you’d end up with over 4000 mass murderers. As far as she knew, there weren’t even 40 mass murderers in the last 40 years. Even if you account for all the ones that the watchguards would have caught, the numbers still didn’t add up. Not to mention, that wouldn’t explain the slow decrease in all the other Colleges at Port Drebon University.

So why was attendance at University, and specifically, the College of Magics, decreasing?

It was possible that people were going to other colleges, or perhaps getting apprenticeships instead. College was expensive, and apprenticeships were much less money, and usually guaranteed someone a job. She didn’t know how to find out if more people were taking apprenticeships, since there was no official registry. She supposed she could ask Jeptha and a few other friends if they knew, though anecdotes weren’t reliable.

It would be easy to find out if other universities were stealing Port Drebon University’s students. If they had their statistics here, then other universities would keep their statistics, too. There was only one other university in Port Drebon, and she could probably get into their library to check. If not, they kept public records in the Free Public Library, so she could go there and see if there were corresponding increases in students attending other universities.

In all honesty, if everyone was leaving PDU, she’d want to know the reason. If their education was substandard, she wasn’t going to stay here, even if this was where her mother and father both got their degrees.

She could also look up if a bunch of new universities opened. It was possible, considering how from 860 to 870, there was a gradual but steep rise in people enrolling. She could cross reference it against the sharp drops in enrollment at the College of Magics.

There was also the possibility that tuition costs rose drastically, and a lot of people couldn’t afford to attend. It didn’t explain why the College of Magics decrease dropped so drastically compared to overall enrollment (she didn’t think they’d make it more expensive just for mages), so it seemed improbable. Either way, it was easy to check.

It also could be changing admissions requirements. Maybe the university made their standards much stricter in the last thirty years. That could account for the sharp drops, and the gradual drop in total enrollment, especially considering that the College of Magics advertised itself as the elite and premier college of magics.

She checked the clock. There wasn’t enough time left to look over all this before the parade. If she was going to do this, she was going to do it right. She didn’t want to carry around the two books all day, so she had to stop by the townhouse and drop them off before walking to the parade and meeting Jeptha under the bright red awning on the corner of the Loop and East Drebon street.

Amalia decided that tomorrow, after class, she’d come back and continue her research. She needed to look at population growth to make sure she was accounting for it. If there were a lot more people living in Port Drebon in 870, that would explain some of it. Though in all honesty, people kept moving to cities, not away from them.

Still, she wanted to be exact, to get a real answer.

It would be easy to get information on most of it. Really, the only subjects that would be hard to find information on were apprenticeships and whether or not the admissions requirements had been changed. She guessed she could just ask a couple Professors, though for all she knew, that might be another suspicious question.

Alright, said her brain, you need to stop being so bitter about that.

But it was the truth. If she was going to research this, and it did turn out to be something fishy, then she’d need to cover her tracks and make sure no one knew.

That of course, made her wonder if she wanted to know. Was it worth it, having to hide something again? Would this be another secret she’d have to keep for the rest of her life, like the journal?

Besides, how important were college admissions? If there were 88% less people interested in magics, did that mean it was her responsibility to get involved?

And it wasn’t like she’d forgotten what happened the last time she got curious. She committed what amounted to a felony and had to go to her mother to bail her out.

Except, she might’ve learned the wrong lesson from that incident. Curiosity wasn’t the problem, breaking the law was. This time, she wasn’t breaking any laws. It wasn’t a crime to look into enrollment rates. She was pretty sure this had little to do with black mages, or anything criminal. So this was a perfectly legal and reasonable thing to research.

It wasn’t restricted knowledge, either. All the information was right here at the university library for anyone to read. Just because no one bothered to check into it before didn’t mean that it was forbidden.

And it was a big deal. There were a lot less people learning about magics. A degree in magics was necessary to become a diagnostician or a treatment specialist.

She shoved the problem to the back of her mind. It was getting late. She’d research it tomorrow.

Amalia got up and put the books back. She needed to leave now if she wanted to get to the parade on time. Jeptha would probably be a few minutes late, so she didn’t need to hurry, but she didn’t want to be late, either.


 

High above Port Drebon, a hawk did lazy loops around the plume of smoke rising from the Lowell building.

It was a sparrowhawk, a bird with long powerful talons and sharp eyesight. The woman controlling it soared through the shadow of the sun, watching Black Mage and boy from the sky.

Lothar limped and Harvey ran, tugging the older man’s arm. She had given the boy some tools, and she wasn’t about to miss how he used them. So far, everything was going according to plan. The explosion was well-executed, but she knew that it wouldn’t be long before something went wrong.

No plan survived contact with the enemy.

But that wasn’t the point of this whole venture. An explosion and escape attempt, even a failed one, would strike fear into the hearts of Port Drebon’s little sheep, a fear that would keep them up at night, trembling at the very thought of Black Magic.

Another shop door burst open, and a red haired girl and two watchguards stumbled out into the alley. Had the boy anticipated this? He didn’t seem like the sort that would, but perhaps the potential loss of his guardian made him more cautious, more prone to planning.

Well, maybe that was a bit too optimistic. When situations become more dangerous, when loved ones’ lives were at stake, people didn’t suddenly become more intelligent. Sometimes they even act more dull-witted than usual.

She swooped down low, settling on the roof of a nearby building, digging talons into the brick.

“STOP!” The red haired girl pointed at Lothar, who turned to look behind him, seeing the Watchguards. “HE’S HERE!” Her high pitched voice was shrill and grating. My, aren’t you a little drama queen?

Loud cracks rang through the air, and a red bloom spread on the man’s side.

Lothar crumpled to the ground, and Harvey screamed.

Oh well, it looked like Lothar wouldn’t be escaping. It was too bad; he almost looked useful, judging by his profile. He and Bennett ferreted people out of the country for years before getting caught. She wondered if any of his old contacts survived.

Well, she could always Compel Bennett Miller to tell her. Lothar’s death was no loss.

DAD! NO!”  The boy was inconsolable, screaming as though tears could make the bullet wound go away. It was almost painful to watch. She was just about to fly away and write the whole situation off as a failed experiment, when Bennett ran up to the boy from a side alley, grabbing him the waist and tugging him back, forcing him to run.

Put me down! DAD!”  The boy kept screaming and cursing and crying.

Oh, that was interesting. So old Bennett Miller did still involve himself in the action. Not quite how Harvey had described him, then. She followed their progress down the alley. They wouldn’t escape, not with the watchguards firing. They’d land a lucky shot.

“Stop shooting!” And what was this? A noble girl defending a drek? And she was a noble girl. The cut of her clothes and the fact that Watchguards were following her gave credence to that. This was unexpected. Nobles did not typically put themselves in danger.

They hired people to do their dirty work while they attended the theater and drank fine wines. Well, not all nobles did that. There were some exceptions, but they only served to prove the rule.

The red haired girl turned out to be Amalia di Danti, Judge Titus’ daughter. Oh, this was fascinating. How did the daughter of Titus end up defending black mages? She was tall, a bit pudgy around the middle, with a round face and watery blue eyes. She wasn’t particularly unattractive, but lacked any of the features that would have made her beautiful.

There was a confrontation, and the girl repeated her name over and over, as though somehow it would act as a shield to protect her. The watchguards were no doubt suspicious because, well, why would she lead them to Lothar?

She had no responsibility to them. She wasn’t in the guard so she had no obligation to-… The woman internally frowned (the sparrow was incapable of frowning.) She was coming at this the wrong way.

What sort of ploy would require one to chase down a Black Mage, and insist he be kept alive? Perhaps the di Danti heir wanted him to bleed out slowly. Dying that way, with a wound to the stomach, was torture. She might have some kind of vendetta against Lothar. She tried thinking back to the papers. Were there any di Danti factories or property damage that was attributed to Lothar? She wasn’t sure. She supposed the girl could be trying to act like a hero, but a hero would have ordered the watchguards to kill Lothar right away.

The sparrow could hear speech, but its ears couldn’t always translate it into something she could understand. It was a disadvantage, because the young di Danti was talking and the hawk was only understanding every few words. But whatever was said resulted in guns being pointed at Amalia. The girl moaned and whimpered in terror, but she did not move from her place between the watchguards’ guns and Lothar.

The woman in hawk’s guise was almost impressed. Amalia was brave. Not the kind of brave most people think of, but the sort where someone was terrified and did what they had to do, anyway.

Well, no. She was ignoring another possibility altogether. It was entirely possible that someone was blackmailing the girl to- well, no. Nevermind. No one knew of this distraction, and she knew her two lieutenants were trustworthy. She Compelled them herself.

The girl was about to die. It was too bad. She would have liked to speak with her. She was quite the mystery.

Judge di Danti, after all, was a prime target. How would he like it if his daughter were his executioner? A small smile curled her lips. She rearranged her wings. This form was rather uncomfortable. She glanced to her left. Two watchguards patrolling the tops of the buildings had taken notice of her. Good. Dying in this form would only jolt her back to her own body, and overriding the hawk’s instincts and committing suicide was always a bother.

“And give .. to .. your wicked…?” The watchguard sneered. “I think not.”

“I ..ear!” Said the red headed girl, voice trembling with terror. “I’m begging you plea–”

A gunshot rang out across the alley. Ah. Here comes the cavalry. No dismal fate for the young Amalia, today.  It was time to leave, to start the real operation, though this almost-escape was a lovely distraction.

The sparrowhawk took to the sky, soaring past the watchguards. One of them let out a shout and they aimed their revolvers at the bird. Two shots from his revolver and she was back in Old City, in her body.


 

She opened her eyes. The second story of the warehouse was old and looked abandoned, which was the whole point. It wouldn’t do to attract the attention of the authorities. She stretched, working out the kinks in her spine. Rituals like that really took it out of a person. Of course, if you only used it sparingly, or better yet, Compelled people and ordered them to do it, the effects were minimized. As it stood, she didn’t have any sensation in her right hand. It would likely go away in a few hours. If not, well, ritual magic has its costs. She of all people knew that.

But to soar through the skies as a hawk, swooping and gliding high above the world? That was worth the numbness. She pulled on her robe, using her left hand. Her right one wasn’t cooperating, and while she could move it, she couldn’t feel what she was doing. It was startling, realizing how much people rely on texture to tell the difference between fabrics. Her boots were similarly difficult to put on, but she dealt with it, using her teeth to help her tie the laces.

Five minutes later she was standing on the first floor. Twelve men and women stood before her, all Compelled with the order to obey her commands. She smiled.

It’s showtime.

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