True to her word, Caroline engaged Tina in a series of tests of her ‘ability’. It was actually fairly interesting learning more about what she could do.
It soon became apparent that her ability was hardly completely reliable. In the middle of a conversation, Tina had a relatively good chance of guessing what Caroline was thinking of. It became harder when Caroline was looking at a random card from a deck and Tina tried to guess what it was. When the older woman thought of random self-chosen topics, Tina’s ability quickly fell short. They failed to reproduce the ‘strong signals’, as Tina dubbed it, that she had gotten from Caroline yesterday. After intensely practicing for the better part of an hour, Tina had a severe headache brewing.
Even with the severe limitations, Caroline was still impressed. Tina found the results to be more or less what she expected them to be in advance. She had, after all, lived with these abilities for as long as she could remember. It was also hard to be enthusiastic when it felt like her brain attempted to occupy a bigger space than her head allowed. The headache lessened its grip after a nap on the couch.
While Caroline was working, Tina had plenty of time to kill. The allure of the Internet helped, but eventually her thoughts grew too heavy to ignore. A walk around the farm seemed in order.
She donned her borrowed riding boots and stepped out on the muddy ground. The trees were busy changing into Autumn attire, when they weren’t taking frequent showers. The wind still carried a hint of Summer warmth, but that would soon change. Tina could hardly ask for better weather for taking a walk. Now, if only she could put on her headphones and allow some of her favorite melodies wash over her, it would be perfect.
Try as she might, she seriously struggled to understand why Caroline didn’t possess any speakers short of the built-in ones like the TV and radio. The closest thing she found was the speaker on the iPad, and it turned out to almost be the equivalent of a torturing tool to Tina’s ears. She was aware that not everyone considered music an important part of their life, she just hadn’t really realized how little it meant to some people.
She had seriously considered begging Caroline to buy her some new quality headphones and a new SIM card, but couldn’t bring herself to do it. The grand total for the clothes they ordered online already put her very solidly in the red, cementing their one-way dependency. There was just no way she could willingly dig herself further into debt for less than critical reasons.
On a brighter note, at least her back pain had eased a lot after she started bleeding. She was very grateful she was not a heavy bleeder like Caroline, and also that the accompanying pain was manageable. Noticeable, but far from crippling. Her — or more accurately Martin’s — brother’s girlfriend had been practically incapacitated during the worst parts of her period, despite chewing painkillers like candy. Or at least the highest dosage recommended.
The part of her mind that wasn’t grateful had dug itself deep into a quagmire of frustration. The world, or Fate or whatever, had thrown her a serious one-two punch. She had not even had the chance to catch her emotional balance after being turned into a girl, only to then be assaulted by one of the worst features of being a girl. Well, it was debatable how bad of a feature it counted as, but it was certainly something she could live without for a while. If it was up to her, menstruation could have waited a year or two, maybe even forever. She realized that’d be a bit too much to ask.
Everything considered, she was still happier with this scenario compared to one in which she was dead, but that was like comparing tasteless food to starving. Unfortunately, there was a significant lack of people around to complain to, save for Caroline. There was a good reason why she couldn’t unleash these feelings towards her former classmate: She feared that Caroline would believe she was suicidal like her own sibling. The woman was carrying serious emotional baggage. She could probably use a trip to a psychiatrist. To be fair, Tina was probably very ripe for one as well.
She seriously wondered how Caroline could stand living alone on a farm like this. Alone for a week at a time, at least. Her children would live with her half the time. Perhaps they were so troublesome she actually looked forward to some peace and quiet when they moved over to her ex again?
Okay, she wasn’t actually alone. She had her horses which she could talk to. Tina briefly considered trying to talk to a horse herself, but quickly shot down the idea. Either it would not understand human language, or it would sell out all her secrets to Caroline. Neither was a very desirable scenario.
Attempting to put aside those thoughts, her mind drifted to another emotion she had partially tried to suppress. Her shape. Martin had not been particularly fit, but he hadn’t been fat either. Tina was pretty far from fit, but she was a lot younger, so it turned out in her favor. On the other hand, the mirror told the story of a girl with a little more than a healthy obsession for snacks and unhealthy food.
She considered dieting to get in better shape, but felt discouraged for several reasons. For a start, her knowledge of dieting. Despite Martin never being the epitome of healthiness, he had still picked up a bit here and there. From what she could tell, dieting itself did not actually work: You could starve yourself thin, but as soon as you resumed your regular diet, the weight would return with a vengeance.
The only way to permanently keep weight under control was to either exercise like crazy to burn off all excessive energy, or count calories for the rest of your life. Neither alternative appealed to her.
Why should she care if she was a bit pudgy? Granted, there were some health benefits to be found in being fit, but she was hopefully outside the ‘unhealthily fat’ category. Who was she trying to impress? Did she unconsciously desire to be attractive? Perhaps she just had to admit that the ‘female ideal body’ hysteria was getting to her, now that she was a girl? Not exactly a prospect she was happy about.
She idly kicked up leaves as her mind mentally played ball with associations. Her thoughts took a turn towards sexuality, but she immediately decided to push that thought towards the ‘later’ folder. Instead, she turned to the topic of magic.
According to Caroline, Tina possessed a unique type of magic, one unaffected by magic dampening. In theory, it sounded really cool, but to Tina, it felt disappointingly mundane. It was something she had already exhibited all her life. She could imagine a lot cooler magic. Elemental magic in general, telekinesis, summoning… even healing sounded way more spectacular. She was good at social situations, whoopie doo! To be fair, there was some room for potential. Her talents would probably make her a good spy, judge or politician. None of those career choices suited Tina.
She recalled Martin’s younger days when he and his buddy Erik had planned what kind of powers they would have when they became superheroes.
Martin always argued that time/space manipulation was the best power imaginable. Erik was more fan of a power that could destroy someone from inside. What could threaten you if you could simply disintegrate any danger? Martin had argued that having access to disintegration would do nothing against an assassin you couldn’t detect in time. With time magic, you could rewind time back to a point before you were attacked and handle it better. Erik countered, saying that time magic would not work if you got killed before you could invoke it. And so the discussion continued.
They had somehow both failed to actually obtain supernatural abilities, so the discussion was never resolved.
Now she had magic — sort of — but it could neither be used to attack nor defend. Then again, what could be used for those purposes? Caroline possessed depressingly little information what types of magic existed even outside the Veil. At least the older woman had promised to put Tina in contact with someone more knowledgeable soon. The only real information she had gleaned was that Caroline herself was considered a druid, and that implied that there were other classifications of magicians out there.
Tina suddenly caught herself mid-thought. Wasn’t she being awfully childish about this? Was she not just reliving the physical aspects of puberty, but also mentally regressing? Exactly what her life needed: More uncontrollable feelings.
Tina rounded the corner of the barn and stopped. It was pretty hard not to notice the black car parked in front of the main building. As far as she knew, Caroline hadn’t expected any guests. Tina had an ominous feeling. A quick evaluation of the situation convinced her she had to continue rather than hide. She had already rounded the corner, and hiding now would seem awfully suspicious to anyone watching. In fact, even stopping like this might seem suspicious, but she could just pretend to be surprised. And it would be true.
She crossed the yard, opening the door to the main house. There were two unfamiliar pairs of black shoes on the floor, slightly muddy from the short distance between the car and the door. She had tried to be silent with the door, but her stealth skills had somehow failed her. The moment she entered the hall, a man in a black suit emerged from the kitchen. Tina’s eyes widened as she observed him. The man appeared to be somewhat on guard, but relaxed somewhat upon spotting Tina. She felt pretty much the opposite emotion, her feelings begged her to put up every possible guard against this man. There was something about him that made her extremely nervous.
The man, a moderately tall man with a somewhat wild and unruly beard, sensed her tension. “Excuse me, who might you be?” he asked, trying to sound polite with a voice probably more used to dishing out threats. Tina couldn’t help comparing the man to a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And she was definitely a small lamb in that analogy. She fought the urge not to immediately run away. It would be pointless: The man was definitely ready for that possibility.
Before she managed to formulate a proper sentence, Caroline came to her rescue: “Hi there, Tina. No need to be startled, they are guests.” That was a straight up lie, but one the girl did not intend to challenge. “We will finish our discussion shortly. In the meantime, can you wait in your room?”
Tina caught a hint of fear and concern from Caroline. The older woman was hiding it reasonably well, but it was undeniably there. She tried to discern if Caroline was really asking her to run away, but caught no such sign. Probably better to act as inconspicuous as possible.
She nodded, heading to the stairway. On her way past the kitchen, she spotted the owner of the second pair of shoes; another man in a suit. This one gave her more of an impression of a politician, complete with beaming a fake smile at Tina as she passed the doorway. His hair seemed to contain at least 10% gel. There was something about him that suggested that he could keep his face straight no matter how outlandish a lie he told.
While climbing the stairs, she heard Caroline explain that Tina was her cousin’s daughter and that she was staying here this week. That was as good cover as any, in case the man in the suit asked her anything.
Upon entering the room she had been sleeping in for the past few days, she left the door slightly ajar and immediately crouched down and listened. The suit couldn’t expect a fourteen-year-old girl to not be curious, could they? That was at least her excuse if they confronted her.
The sounds from the kitchen were too muffled to really make out the individual words. She could tell it was the politician speaking; his voice was distinctly different from the man she met in the hall. After a minute or two, the speaker’s voice grew clearer as he left the kitchen. “... if he shows up. Remember, he is potentially dangerous: A desperate man might resort to desperate measures.”
“Don’t worry, I have no intention putting myself at risk,” Caroline replied. She sounded somewhat nervous. “I highly doubt he’ll be back here, though.”
“You never know,” the politician replied, probably with another a fake smile decorating his face. “Have a good day, ma’am.”
Tina heard the door close. It was silent for a few moments, and then she heard Caroline call up to her: “You can come down now, Sweetie.”
This triggered all manner of alarm bells in Tina’s head. Caroline had never called her ‘sweetie’, and in the first place, it was just not her way of speaking at all.
She descended down the stairs, meeting Caroline’s pleading eyes. The hint of fear had not abated. It was clear Caroline was begging her to play along, which she had already figured out herself in the first place.
“How is your back, dear?” Caroline prompted with a forced smile. Points for effort, at least. “I was wondering if we could go for another ride together?”
Tina nodded. “That sounds fun, Aunty,” she exclaimed with as much enthusiasm she could fake. “I think I’ve almost finished bleeding. It should be fine now, as long as we start out slowly.”
Caroline looked a bit taken back at being called Aunty, but quickly recovered.
Ten minutes later, the pair was riding into the forest. They engaged in polite conversation, the type you’d expect from two distant relatives who didn’t know each other too well. After another ten minutes, Caroline released a long-drawn sigh. She turned to Tina, her expression a lot more serious.
“The two men visiting my farm were agents of the Council,” she started explaining. “They were looking for you, or rather, Martin. While they were generally pretty tight-lipped, they did reveal that they had tracked you here.”
Tina’s heart skipped a beat. The Council? Why were they after her? How were they connected to the massacre? Did that mean Uncaring was an agent, as well?
“Hold on, hold on,” she stopped Caroline, “Why is the Council after me?”
The older woman shook her head. “I don’t know for sure, but I can hazard a guess. So can you, right? There’s probably a link between them and the massacre.”
That much was obvious. “Do you think the Council is responsible for the massacre?” Tina wondered out loud.
Caroline was silent for a few seconds. “I can’t disregard the possibility,” she sighed, “From what the rumors say, they are willing to pay pretty much any price to fulfill their goals.”
“For the Greater Good?” Tina half-asked, half-stated. Caroline gave a silent nod.
A feeling of anger rushed through Tina. It was so easy to disregard the cost when working ‘For the Greater Good’. That was basically how religions sacrificed lives, both their followers’ and their enemies’. The goal would sanctify the means. If that was the type of people her enemies were, she had all the more reason to be afraid.
“What exactly did the agents say?” she asked, her voice dyed with some of the anger she felt.
The older woman closed her eyes, probably calming her nerves. “They asked about you, and I tried to stick as close to the truth as I could afford. I told them that you had been here, that I offered you water, and that you appeared to be wounded. In addition, I told them in which direction you traveled, and that I had not seen you since three days ago. All technically true.”
The path led them to a crossroad. After confirming with Tina that it was possible to travel a bit further, Caroline led them towards the lake. The only sounds for a bit were the rustling of the wind against the dry leaves, only punctured by the sound of horseshoes against gravel. Tina decided to break the silence.
“You’re not sure they believed you,” she stated, reasonably sure she had gotten that part right. Caroline nodded in confirmation.
“Even if they did, it’s reasonable to expect they left a charm or two,” she elaborated. “The agents are known to be very thorough in their job.”
She explained that a charm was an item imbued with a single spell, often expendable. Their purpose was to sustain a spell beyond the normal duration. Spells usually only lasted as long as their caster concentrated on it and supplied it mana. A charm allowed a spell to function on its own until the internal reservoir of mana was expended.
In addition, detecting a spell sustained by a charm was significantly harder than detecting a spell sustained by the caster. The latter would have threads of magic between the caster and the spell, which was detectable as long as there was a distance between the caster and the weaved spell. A charm usually revealed no such threads, as the magic was usually centered on the charm itself.
“I might be able to detect spells being cast into a charm in my presence, but the agents would not make such a stupid move. They probably pre-cast spells and carry a number of eligible charms at any time.”
Tina thought for a bit. “How big is a charm?” she asked curiously.
“It depends on the skill of the crafter,” Caroline replied as she led the horses down to the water to drink. “They are usually designed to be held in a hand, but skilled individuals can make one as small as a marble. You can expect the Council to have access to the very best crafters out there. It’s unfortunately not reliable to comb the area to find them. Even if it was, such a move would appear extremely suspicious.”
“What type of magic do you fear?” Tina asked, aiming at the core of the matter.
Caroline flinched a bit. “Well, that’s one of the reasons I am nervous about this. I don’t know. But I can make a guess: Most likely surveillance spells of some kind.”
Tina tried to imagine what other spells Caroline feared. A bomb of some kind? It sounded unlikely. If the council wanted to avoid magic being discovered, using it to silence anyone even remotely suspicious sounded like a bad idea. What else? Mind control? Sounded rather excessive. She failed to think of other possibilities, but she was certain that experienced magicians with long-time access to magic were a lot more creative than her. She could understand why not knowing made Caroline nervous.
“They detected my presence despite my best efforts to be silent,” she pointed out to Caroline. “Though they might just have spotted me through a window.”
Caroline shook her head. “No, that’s a lot easier to explain. Even I can tell when you’re approaching, based purely on the dampening field you exhibit.”
Tina mentally facepalmed. Yeah, that sounded a lot more reasonable.
“Wouldn’t my dampening also weaken the effects of any charms?” Tina tried connecting the clues.
Caroline nodded. “That’s right, but your dampening field is not the same as a null magic field. A cleverly crafted spell might still partially function, like my own ability to speak with horses.”
Tina mentally noted the existence of null magic fields, in case it the knowledge might come in handy later.
“Let us for the moment assume the farm is under surveillance,” she suggested, “what then?”
“I’m afraid that puts us in a precarious position,” Caroline thought out loud, “We’ll have to constantly act as if the Council is listening or even observing us. That means you’ll have to put up with being a girl full-time, and also treat me like your ‘Aunty’.”
Tina raised her eyebrow. “Am I not already a full-time girl?” she asked curiously.
“In body, yes. In manners, not so much. Are you aware you sit on a chair like a man?” Caroline pointed out. “I’m not asking you to suddenly act like a noble lady, just be aware of your mannerisms. Having said that, girls drop much of their act while alone. I’ll try to assume the role of a somewhat strict Aunt that tries to correct your mistakes. Hopefully, that won’t raise any suspicion.”
There was nothing Tina could do but agree. It was about time to return to the farm; the riding was starting to aggravate her back pain.
She got her baptism of fire the very same evening when the clothes they bought online arrived. Acting like a teenager eager to try new clothes probably deserved an Oscar. At least for her effort, if nothing else.