In Which Mackenzie Encounters A Vixen
I did eventually get my shot at a quiet stroll around the grounds. As the evening waned and the sky began to darken, people started filtering back to their dorms. It was after official sunset but the sky was still fairly light when the big downstairs lounge started to get too crowded for me, so I decided that the campus had probably conversely emptied.
The desk worker saw me heading for the front door, and called out a reminder for me to be inside before it got dark, and that we’d be meeting with our R.A.s after that. I nodded and went on my way, ignoring the shouted question about my weapon and my card key. I had them both, even if I didn’t show them.
I’d wanted to explore the campus more, but it really was getting near dark and I’d already nearly got lost in my own dorm, so I stuck close to the areas I was already familiar with.
The tents and tables had been folded and carted away, but the pent was still a shambles. There were cups and food wrappers everywhere, along with discarded posters and pamphlets. The dry grassy ground had been trampled to dirt in places, and the dirt had been kicked and tracked across the five sidewalks that crossed the pent, the dirty patches standing out on top of the illuminated walkways.
The light itself was a fairly impressive trick. It did not just emanate from the pavement… it suffused the air up to about six feet above it, so that anybody or anything on the paths was fully and evenly illuminated. It was gentle enough not to be noticeable in the daylight, which made me wonder if the spell was on all the time.
It was of course far cheaper and simpler to create an everlasting illumination that would, well… everlast… than it was to make one that could sense the time or position of the sun and adjust itself accordingly, but “smart” spells were in vogue. I was naturally curious about which way the designers had gone, since applied enchantments was going to be my field, so I did a fairly simple exploratory probe… I wouldn’t even call it a spell, just a trick I picked up from watching the shop teacher in high school… and found that the light was both active during the day and conditional… but the condition was bound up in a whole other set of enchantments.
Fascinated, I knelt on the pavement so I could get closer to the source of the magic. Like I said, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was just kind of feeling my way. I tweaked my probe a bit… in my head, I was “poking” the spell at different angles… and found a whole mass of protection, warding, and detection spells all tied together. If something broke the defenses, or if one of the detection spells went off, the soft golden-white glow would switch off and a hidden red glow would come on. There were a whole bunch of other spells that would trigger, too, but there was no way I could sort them all out at a glance.
It was high level magic, and it was exciting. Like I said, this was my chosen field. I’m kind of a geek about these things. I wondered if all the sidewalks were so heavily bespelled, or if it was just the ones around the pent. If the whole campus was sectioned off like this, I reasoned, then it was hard to imagine how it could get as dangerous at night as everybody said.
Thinking that made me realize just how much darker it had got while I was messing around on my hands and knees, which also brought me back to awareness of my surroundings. I looked up from the sidewalk and found myself staring at several pairs of legs. I suddenly felt very sheepish. I looked up some more, and felt just plain worthless.
Four girls were staring at me with looks of mingled pity and hilarity. The lead one had very dark copper skin, and long red-brown hair in braids that were wrapped in two elaborate buns on her head, secured with picks between a pair of fox’s ears. I could see the brush of a tail poking out from under her skirt when it swayed back and forth behind her. Though the rest of her was the picture of dignified stillness with her hands on her hips, the tail looked like it was shaking with barely contained laughter. The three cat-eared girls behind her weren’t even trying to contain it… they were giggling in turns, as though one of them laughing set off the next one.
They were armed, of course. Each of the cats had the handle of a curving sword visible over her shoulder, and the fox woman had a poniard with an elaborate ivory sheath and a handle almost the length of its blade on a sash around her waist. It was both tiny and beautiful… it made my knife look like a bastard sword, in more ways than one. The weapons, though, were the least threatening things about them.
Each of the girls was slender without being skinny, and curved in all the places I was supposed to be. The supernatural glow showed off the perfection of their faces and made the fox eyes shine black, and the cat eyes luminous. The cats were actually covered with a fine fuzz of pale fur, but the fox woman was only furry around the ears and tail. Her face was as vulpine as a face can be and still look human. She was smiling. I don’t know if it was meant to be as sadistic as it looked, or if that was only because it showed off her teeth.
“Oh, please, you don’t have to bow,” she said with a bored air. “Next time, you may simply curtsy.”
My cheeks burned and my gaze fell back to the pavement to hide it. Stupid, I thought… the one thing I could do to make my embarrassment the most obvious.
“I was just…” I tried to say, but even those words got lost somewhere in my throat and my mouth simply refused to move. I should get up off the ground, I thought, but somehow the act of straightening up in front of these girls felt more humiliating itself. I should get away… but how? Scurry out of their path like a bug? My mouth’s rebellion was the least of my troubles. Every muscle in my stupid, too-skinny, bone-crushingly-ugly body was AWOL at once.
What was it I’d resolved to do earlier in the evening?
I could feel the bright black eyes burning into the top of my head, and then finally, with an air of one giving an act of undeserved mercy, the leader of the clique said, “Come along, girls. It’s almost full dark.” and away they went, the cats chattering in some rapidly spoken eastern language that I don’t know. Their laughter floated back through the night, directly to me.
I still was not able to master my muscles enough to lift myself off the ground, but with my audience gone I was able to do the thing I’d wanted to since the encounter began, what seemed like six or seven hundred lifetimes ago. That was to collapse like wet tissue paper and lie shaking on the ground.
High school was over. Why was I still such a loser? I rolled over onto my back and was surprised at how many stars were looking back down at me. It really was nearly full dark. That startled me into action. I was up in a moment, fresh adrenaline chasing away the shakes. I headed back up the sidewalk, following the same path the animal women had taken.
Of course, that just made my evening complete. There was no way those polished, poised social predators could have been first years, so at least they wouldn’t be on my floor… but even if I didn’t know which direction they’d been heading, they couldn’t possibly be rooming in any hall but Harlowe.