XV. St Valentine’s Day Massacre
Rachel Rabat effectively moved into Ash House that night; by the end of February, she and Olympia Month had officially switched rooms, and until then Ange had a roommate.
The campus acted very normal for a few days. The MacMorris people seemed to have all been retrieved without harm, although Josh and Emma seemed to be wearing less jewelry than before. The glances at class and in the lunch room were very, very surreptitious.
Valentine’s Day came four days later. Everyone had a date, of some sort.
Cloudius and Jen Chang went out for Chinese—“I never get this at home, you know,” said Jen—and then ice cream afterward, and then they walked back to Ash House and spent the rest of the evening playing dungeons and dragons with Tom and his date, Alicia “Beep” Finger. Tom and Beep had snagged a table at the diner and had hamburgers, onion rings, root beers and ice cream sundaes, giggling about the little candy hearts on top.
“Valentine’s Day isn’t that bad,” said Cloudius, later, back at the House. The four were all sitting on Tom’s floor rolling dice and squinting at maps and charts, while Eva kept a ghostly eye on them and the spiritual surroundings.
“I know,” said Jen. “My parents are always complaining about it. How expensive it is and how everything’s crowded. I didn’t think it was expensive—it didn’t cost me a thing!”
“Mr Moneybags over there,” said Beep. “I had to pay for the ice cream, but I think I’m still ahead on the deal.”
“Girls,” said Tom. “Okay. So. No, Cloud, you can’t have two crossbows.”
“There isn’t a rule against it,” said Cloudius.
“There is now,” Beep and Jen said together.
Meanwhile Angelica was out with Rocky Shore, who bought the pizza and the ice cream, but who also burped proudly every few minutes, smiling each time as if it were a real bon mot, and who paid a lot of attention to a television with a Blackhawks game on. His twin sister Erin, who was not a Maroon and not a MacMorris follower but who just didn’t like Angelica very much, interrupted them once during pizza and once during ice cream just to say hi to Rocky, whom she evidently missed a lot because she didn’t have a date herself. About eight, when Tom and company had made it to Level Three and only lost one Cloudius archer, Angelica burst into Tom’s room and said, “Deal me in.”
“Aaaand we open the door, and inside there’s this elf maid,” said Tom.
“That better be me,” said Angelica. “And no more of this nonsense with the two crossbows. What are we searching for, anyway? Segments?”
Jen and Beep looked at each other. “You hear nothing,” said Jen.
“Nope,” said Beep, “just the wind.”
“We’ll be lucky,” said Angelica, “if no one else is searching for one of those.” Cloud and Tom just raised their eyebrows.
Daphne went out too—with the Amazon chicks, Spiny Norman and Keisha Case and a second-year named Clothilde and a third-year named Gallia Zara. They ate pizza and swilled root beer and then they danced the evening away—on the lakefront. Gallia had a secret spell, and that was why, even as thousands of lovers walked the walk in the evening, pleasant enough for February, no one noticed five tall girls dancing naked in the spray.
Elsewhere, Rats Laguna was happily on a “date” with Jen Greenbelt—he followed her and Bob Flammifer from flower shop to restaurant to movie theater, sitting a couple of rows away, tossing a little spell of distaste on their food. The spaghetti tasted like eel, the soda tasted like old coffee, the ice cream tasted just a little like phlegm, and the popcorn had just exactly the right hint of doggy doo smell. They noticed, but they never noticed who was doing it. They just thought they were getting bad food from evil Normals, and they bickered with waitress, ice cream scooper and popcorn dealer, and with each other when no one else was within range.
Rats was practicing his partial invisibility, which, as he used it, was tantamount to actual invisibility. Once he let slip his plans for the evening, he was given specific instructions not to be seen by anyone, friend or foe.
“I told him,” Arnulf was saying to Ahir as they sat at a tiny table in the packed house at Giordano’s, “if I see his face tonight, I’m going to practice some of my new spells on him.”
“Everything’s perfect,” said Ahir. She smiled and sighed. Arnulf did the same thing, to his own surprise. Ahir looked at the third chair at the tiny table. There was no plate there, no table setting, but they could just see a spirit sitting in the chair. It looked exactly like Ahir’s mom. Ahir leaned toward Arn and whispered, “Almost everything.”
By ten, they were back at the Lyceum. They spent a few minutes strolling, stopping now and then to smooch. Mom’s spirit servant was somewhere around, but not obvious. “It’s okay, sweetheart,” said Ahir, “we have many years.”
“Hey, Arn,” said a voice behind them. Here came five Amazon girls, arm in arm, no longer nude but with their down jackets open in the mild moist air, their hats in their pockets so their long hair could hang free. “Curfew, you two honeys.”
“Same to you, Dapher,” said Arnulf.
The other Amazons split off to go to their own Houses, and Daphne, Spiny, Arnulf and Ahir went on to Ash House together. They were inside at 10:15. (Ash and the ghost both shook their heads, then both raised their eyebrows, then both shook their heads again, smiling, and then both went back to bed.) By midnight, everyone was sound asleep, except for one ghostly cat in Tom Hexane’s window.
One by one, five figures appeared in Angelica’s room. They lit special lights on their wands and began searching.
“She’s awake,” said Hardy Vyner, peering at Angelica, whose eyes were glittering meanly.
“Darn right,” said Angelica, flicking her wand. Vyner fell back and was unconscious when she hit Plymouth Class and fell to the floor.
“Crap, what’s this?” said Fortis Hook, a second year.
“That’s me,” said Rachel Rabat. They locked in magic combat. A third year girl named Genevieve Rome joined Hook, and Rachel, in her nightie, was waving her yellow-brown tiger striped maple wand back and forth in a nice pattern, managing to block each burst of attack. But she couldn’t attack back, and meanwhile another third year girl attacked Angelica. It was a big redhead named Elizabeth McNing, and she had a lot of magical muscle. She raised her wand to swing a nasty curve of force at Angelica.
“Ag sek min,” said Angelica.
The big redhead immediately failed to resist the spell, and fell to the floor without ado. The landing woke her up, but she fell asleep again immediately. By that time, Fortis Hook had Angelica’s wand in his back.
“Looking for something, Fortis?”
“Sek nyk min,” came a girl’s voice from the back of the room. Angelica turned to throw her power at Emma Curie, but found herself held in place as with supple plastic. She struggled for a few seconds, trying to throw spells, but she gave up just as the supple plastic was vanishing and she was free.
The doorway was open. Mistress Ash stood there, Ahir Shaheen next to her, both with their wands out. Gen Rome was just vanishing, but Fortis Hook had just succumbed to direct attack by the two women in the door. He fell to the floor, dozing, his wand in his hand.
“Kick the wand from him,” Ash commanded. Angelica did as she was told.
The sleeping McNing was just vanishing as well, evaporating over a second or two. Vyner was already gone.
“Darn it,” said Angelica.
“Did they get anything?” asked Ash.
“No, no,” said Angelica. She looked at Rachel, who reached into her underpants, then nodded. “It’s safe. Well, we got Fortis anyway. He’ll have trouble getting off the hook.” She squatted by him. “Magic combat ring. You guys want it?”
Ash walked briskly over. “I’ll take that,” she said. “He was, after all, Ahir’s kill.”
“You didn’t—?” asked Tom, coming up. Cloudius and Daphne were behind them; Arnulf was behind Ash on the right.
“No, Mister Hexane,” said Ash, “he merely sleeps. Well, sleep may not be the right term. At any rate, he is unconscious.” She took the ring and handed it to Ahir Shaheen.
“But Mistress,” said Ahir.
“This is not because you are poorly equipped and you need it. No, this is more like giving your slugger the magic bat. You imagine what he can do with it.”
“Well,” said Arnulf, “I suppose the death rate would go up.”
“Miss Shaheen,” said Ash, “you are under instructions not to kill anyone.”
“Yes, Mistress,” said Ahir.
“All right. Anything else?”
“Money?” asked Angelica.
“We leave them their money,” said Ash impatiently. “Anything else with a magical charge?”
“His wand’s crap,” said Ange. “Ma’am.”
“You may call things crap if they are crap,” said Ash, kneeling across Fortis Hook from Angelica. “And this one is crap. We should return it to the bin.”
She stood up. Angelica was still patting down the sleeper, as best she could while maintaining decorum. Rachel asked, “Is he going to be expelled?”
“It’s worth a try,” said Ash. She looked around at Rachel and and Ahir and Angelica. then out at the others in the hall. “Listen. We are going to have to do something about security.”
“Hey,” said Arnulf, sidling past Tom Hexane into the room.“Nice statuary.”
They all looked where he was looking, in the dim back corner of Angelica’s room. There stood a lovely life size replica of Emma Curie, rendered in yellow wax.
In the event, the severest punishment handed out was a sort of severe probation. Emma Curie and Fortis Hook were both told that they were in serious trouble, and then told to keep inside their houses (MacMorris, in Emma’s case) and to keep their noses clean.
“It sucks,” said Angelica as the inmates of Ash House finished their dinner of spaghetti and a tossed salad. “Excuse me, Mistress.”
“You’re surely not referring to the cooking of Messrs. Shmoke and Webb.”
“No, actually,” said Angelica. “Nice job, guys. She let you use the cooking wine?”
“She measured out one cup exactly,” said Pinhead, “and then she locked up the bottle again.” He looked at Ash. “Mistress.”
Ash gave Pinhead a tiny smile and looked around the table. They were twelve: Ash as Jesus with her paltry eleven disciples. Rachel had replaced Olympia Month; Natalie was sitting in as a privileged guest. “Mistress,” said Rachel, “how exactly did Emma and Fortis wriggle out of getting suspended?”
Ash rolled her eyes, then controlled herself. She looked at Jen Chang. “Miss Chang, how much a part of this situation do you feel you are?”
“Me?” asked Jen.
“Yes, you, Miss Chang,” said Ash. “Just tell me. You are under no obligation in this affair.”
“The segment?” asked Jen. “Like, the segment of the eleven segments?”
“Yeah,” said Arnulf. “Are you in, or not?”
“Oh, I’m in. I’m all the way in. I wish I was more in.”
“Do you,” said Ash with that little smile. She looked at Pinhead.
“I’m all the way in,” said Pinhead. “Me too,” said Rats. “This is the real stuff.”
Ash looked at Ahir Shaheen. “I don’t need to ask you,” said Ash.
“No, Mistress, you do not.”
“All right. And Miss Rabat and Miss Lopez are both here because one is assured of their being all the way in, and considering that Miss Rabat is now a member of Ash House.”
“I move we award Natalie an honorary membership,” said Angelica.
“I second,” said Ahir and Rachel.
“No need for votes,” said Ash. “This is not a democracy, as I’m sure you all realized long ago. Now listen. In the past, it has been traditional for a house at the Lyceum to have a House Project that they work on for their entire three years here, something which they can pass on to posterity, which can remain as their tangible mark on the Lyceum of the Lake Winds. For instance, the group that just graduated last June created our lovely garden of quietude; the previous group endowed our library’s section on fungi. I was always a little suspicious about that bunch, but I must say I did not know what trouble was until this year. You remind me of when Mistress White and I were in school together in the old Providence Lyceum.”
“You and H. P. Lovecraft,” said Pinhead with a grin, which evaporated when she turned her little smile on him.
“In any case,” said Ash, “you now have a House Project. It will be to keep the segment we seem to have picked up safely hidden. I think that may be a three-year project and then some.”
“What if we find some more?” asked Tom.
“What if we figure out what they do?” asked Cloudius.
Ash rolled her eyes. “Look,” said Angelica. “We are not going to find more segments lying around the trash pile in the school basement. We are not looking for them. There are only eleven and we have one and that is scary enough.” She looked at Arnulf and Tom. “Some of us are only twelve, you know.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Arnulf. “You’d be surprised how scared I am. Cloud’s thirteen and he’s the hothead. Am I wrong?”
“Okay, okay,” said Cloud. “Whatever. I just wondered. What, you know,. they do.” They all looked at Ash.
“I don’t know even one percent of it,” said Ash. “I know there are eleven, and I know they’re split up. I know that they can be combined. There’s some sort of hieroglyph business in there: they can be put together like hieroglyphs into different words that do different things. I can imagine what that might be like, but I do not know more than that.”
“They’re Egyptian,” said Angelica.
“This one’s their letter F,” said Tom.
“The Nazis might have had seven,” said Arnulf.
“Alexander the Great had three or something,” said Rachel. “Right?”
“Five,” said Angelica.
“And they do stuff,” said Cloudius. “We know you can do things if you have the right combination of some of them. Mistress Ash. I would really love to find out about that. Can’t I find out about that? Look, I want to learn. Isn’t that amazing?”
Ash smiled. “That is amazing, yes, Mr Cloud.” She looked around at the rest of the House, plus Natalie. “It will be enough to me if we make it through the semester with ourselves intact and the thing still in our possession. Because I do not want it, but I do not know anyone else I wish to have it. And many will want to take it from us.”
“We’re not thinking we might sell it or something,” said Arnulf. “Please tell me we’re not.”
“We are not,” said Ash. She threw her hands up, put her head in them for a moment, then put them out, palms down on the white table cloth, out to either side of her. “No,” she said, “while I have no idea whatever what to do with the thing, I am also rather sure that we should not sell it. So we are stuck with it. We need to protect it.”
“So you have a security plan,” said Angelica.
“I do, yes,” said Ash.
The plan involved fakery, magical labor and an ironclad discipline about silence. Seals were put up behind quiets behind seals, and distraction zones were placed about the house and grounds, and about White’s house as well: the students of Ash House got a lot of practice making different kinds of these, from small areas that were simply confusing to the unprepared, to triggers that made someone walking over them turn around and retrace their steps, to sleep traps and deflection fields. Each resident found a ring or necklace to instill with the power to pass these zones, and the power was duly instilled, in the Ash House basement, by Ash and Claudius Cloud and Jen Chang.
The segment was carefully hidden, rotated daily among Ash and her residents according to lottery. The members of Ash House turned the basement into a little lab, mostly under the supervision of Cloudius, Daphne and Jen Chang, and item makings spread to most of the kids’ rooms. Within a fortnight, everyone in the house had a faux segment, a crystalline hieroglyphic F (snake with ears) hidden among the underwear. The real one was in the false bottom of a magically locked jewel box containing a particularly effective, Cloudius-made extra fake segment. The box rotated amongst the kids, and sat under Ash’s own pillow through spring break.
And the system seemed to work. And it occurred to the Ash House residents that the thing that made the most difference was that they were more afraid of having Ash angry at them than they were of anything else, from failure and embarrassment to evil wizards taking control of the universe.
The silence was only broken at their house dinners, and then only occasionally, as when, in late February, Rats Laguna asked, “So who are the bad guys anyway? Who’s trying to steal this thing? Maroons? Is MacMorris really Darth Vader?”
Everyone looked at Ash. “No,” she said, “Master MacMorris, and I emphasize that he is still a master of this school and anything he may or may not have done or caused to have done is still completely deniable, Master MacMorris is not Darth Vader. The Maroons are not the Black Riders of Mordor.”
“So who are the bad guys?” asked Pinhead. “I’d really kinda like to know.”
“Well, of course we don’t know,” said Ash.
“The MPW?” asked Angelica in a low voice, even given the seals and quiets in force around the room.
“No, probably not her,” said Ash quietly. “But several who are near her.” She smiled primly. “I do not count myself their equal, sadly. Thus, simply keeping things secret will be of some help.”
“Keep it secret, keep it safe,” said Tom Hexane. “You know, they need to make a movie of the Lord of the Rings.”
“That’ll never happen,” said Rats.
February passed and projects continued. Daphne was working on a sword to end all swords: her own magic sword, getting a little more magic every time she took it to the school basement. Cloud was working on a line of toys that rolled around and made weird noises and obeyed simple commands. Tom Hexane was building a four-dimensional model universe in his closet: he was using his light and astronomy learning to make it so you could walk into his closet and stand there in awe (or confusion) as the Milky Way’s history transpired at a billion years a minute. Angelica and her pals were making it look like all their walls let onto exotic landscapes, so that Rachel could look out onto a lake tumbling in the distance over an unseen waterfall, and Natalie could sit at her desk and look out on a sidewalk café in some alternate version of Paris; Angelica’s was some sort of Elven castle overlooking a steep green river valley cut from the mountains. And Arnulf and Ahir were researching magic history and the Crisis of 1931.
That seemed safe and non-controversial, and in fact it was neither, of course. But it also was the only project they could actually describe as it really was in general terms. Aside from decorating their walls, Angelica and Natalie and Rachel were researching ways to hide powerful items—and to see things that were powerfully hidden. Tom was creating a lovely closet, but he was also working with Rats and Pinhead to map the Indians’ ways on and under the surface. Cloud and Daph were working on items, all right: they were both becoming junior segmentologists, as was Jen Chang.
And their classes continued, challenging them more as the weeks passed, a rhythm they at least knew from their first semester. And if pentonics and history (of normals) and their specialties weren’t enough, Ash’s defense class could be counted on to wear them out completely. Day after day, the entirety of Ash House, including its mistress, finished class (in the cleared-out front rooms of the house) and all trooped up to their rooms and threw themselves on their beds.
“She’s going to kill us,” said Cloudius as he and Tom lay on the couches one afternoon, unable even to climb the stairs.
“In a good way,” said Tom.
“Just so no one else does,” said Jen Chang, lying on the Persian rug.
“What if you kill someone else?” asked Cloudius. “I mean, Emma Curie. Josh. What if you threw magic combat at one of them and they died?”
“I’d be more concerned about me dying,” said Tom. “I’m fine with them dying.”
They both turned their heads to look at Jen, who lay on the rug facing the ceiling. She got a thoughtful look and then said, “Tommy’s right. I don’t really mind if Josh Hubble does the dying.”
“Really?” said Cloudius.
“I mean,” Jen went on, “I worry about me, I worry about you guys, but I know you’re better than me, and I need to practice a lot or I could literally get hit so hard my heart would stop. Brain hemorrhages. Erk. But if it’s Josh dying? I’m not gonna go get him or anything, but if he’s attacking us? I’ll kill him myself.”
The boys both sat up and looked at each other. “Arnulf killed a guy,” said Tom. “A guy who was attacking us. He said it wasn’t that bad. No, he said, ‘Give it a chance, it’s not as bad as you think.’ That’s what he said.”
Cloudius sank back on his couch. “Oh, mom, oh, dad, can’t I go home and be a kid again?”
“No,” said Ash, passing through from the kitchen. “I am afraid not, Mr Cloud.”
Cloud sat up. “Okey doke,” he said. “Let’s practice some more after dinner.”