Camille was half-way through the vacuuming when the doorbell rang. “Welcome,” she greeted Heidi, the first one to arrive. “Please have a seat.”
She was always somewhat embarrassed to let guests see how messy her house was, even right after tidying it. And she did not even have any children she could blame: Both she and her husband were generally dead tired after long hours at the hospital. She prioritized eating healthy and exercising; housework always got the lowest priority. Additionally, she had to prepare something which was both tasteful and healthy for her guests, which took an excessive amount of time.
Heidi followed her into the kitchen, engaging in polite conversation while they carried the food to the table. Camille had opted for a plate of various low-fat cheese with fruits on the side. She had also prepared some nut-based cookies: Significantly less sweet than the regular type.
It took only about a quarter of an hour before the doorbell rang again.
“It’s us,” Britney called out from the entrance, not bothering to wait for the host to open the door first. Camille didn’t mind, at least not after the fifth time. She went to meet them.
“Glad you could make it,” Camille greeted her guests as they came into view. Caroline was standing beside Britney, undoing her boots. Behind the two of them, Camille spotted a third figure. A girl, which she found a bit hard to place in age. She was quite short, but had forms that suggested she was well into her puberty. Her face was also young, a bit too young to be a high schooler. Middle school, then?
Britney gave Camille a hug. Caroline hugged her as well, exchanging a polite greeting.
“You wrote you’d bring a guest,” Camille said to Caroline, her eyes on the girl, “I just didn’t expect someone quite so young.”
Camille approached the girl to give her a hug, but the result was rather awkward. The unfamiliar girl made a half-hearted attempt, but appeared rather uncomfortable with the maneuver. She barely came in contact with Camille before pulling back.
“Not a hugger?” Camille tried to say as empathically as possible, “Sorry for forcing you to do it. Force of habit.”
“I doubt that’s the reason she’s uncomfortable,” Britney sounded rather amused, “She used to be in love with you.”
Camille looked questioningly at Britney. Was this a poor attempt at a joke? Then she turned back to the girl, only to discover that she was blushing for all her life was worth. Maybe this a sort of child-crush on a much older adult? If so, it was pretty tasteless of Britney to make fun of it.
“You don’t need to be embarrassed for having a crush on a much older person,” Camille tried comforting the girl, “It’s perfectly normal. Just a part of being a child.”
“All good and well,” Britney continued teasing, “except it wasn’t really a child-crush. She was really in love, but didn’t dare confess to you.”
She seemed to find it really amusing to see the girl squirm. “Also, she was a boy at that time,” she added in a matter-of-fact kind of way.
“I regret telling you everything,” the girl muttered, her voice both flustered and agitated.
“Think of it as payback for the teasing in primary school,” Britney suggested, possibly as amused as it was possible to be.
The girl muttered a question about not being bitter. Britney simply grinned.
At this point, Camille wondered if someone had secretly switched this world and Alice’s Wonderland or something along those lines. If it was a joke, it was not a very good one. She did not enjoy seeing the girl so obviously uncomfortable, and it didn’t even make sense in the first place. Heidi joined her at the doorway, having listened in on the conversation.
“Maybe you could explain what’s so funny?” she suggested to Britney.
Caroline was all too eager for the chance to break out of the spiral of awkwardness. “I suggest we all sit down. This might take some time to explain.”
About an hour, one explanation and a lot of questions later, Camille was sipping her tea, still trying to make sense of everything. The revelation was astounding, certainly, but she was oddly surprised by learning that Martin had been in love with her during middle school. She had never considered that possibility. It was hardly the most important fact now, though.
“If I understand you correctly, you’re looking for a place to hide Mart… Tina?” she tried to grasp the currently most important fact. Tina and Caroline both nodded in unison.
“I suppose she can stay here for a while, but are you certain her pursuers won’t trace her here quickly?” Camille suggested uncertainly.
“Oh, they most certainly will,” Heidi chimed in. “I’ve seen how they work. They will find you here, it’s just a question of time.”
“Aren’t you jumping to conclusions a bit quickly?” Camille pointed out, “We don’t know what the Council wants with her. Maybe they are investigating and want Martin as a witness?”
Caroline shook her head. “You are right, we don’t. But remember what Tina told about the suit-clad guys at the massacre? I’d say the odds are pretty great that they were agents, too.”
Camille nodded reluctantly. “I guess there’s no easy way to find out,” she admitted.
“Besides, Tina only has one chance,” Heidi added, “if she’s caught, she’ll be completely at the mercy of her pursuers.”
Caroline looked slightly worried. “Do you have any idea where to hide her?” she tossed out to the group in general.
“I do, actually,” Heidi smiled confidently, “Where is the last place they would expect to find her?”
The women looked back and forth at each other. None of them offered any suggestion.
“Under their very noses, as the classic Roald Dahl tale goes,” Heidi answered her own question, “We’ll hide her in one of the magic communities.”
Camille eyed her somewhat suspiciously. “You think we should hide her inside one of their regional headquarter?” She asked in disbelief. “It’s true they probably won’t expect that, but in the first place those places have surveillance rivaling the White House.”
Heidi shook her head. “That would be near suicidal. No, I mean one of their remote villages. Ever been to one of them?”
“I was taken there once to operate on an elf,” Camille volunteered, “Not sure I’m allowed to speak of it even now, but I’m pretty certain we’re in on even thinner ice hiding her.” She turned to Caroline and Britney, in their usual positions on the couch. “You’re taking a huge risk bringing her here in the first place. What if one of us was to leak information to the council?”
Caroline beamed her most careless smile. “I trust you too much to fear that.” Well, that was a vote of confidence, at least. “Besides, what exactly have we done wrong? The police are probably interested in her, but the council has not issued an official statement through any of the usual channels.”
Britney raised an eyebrow. “You remember telling me how two agents showed up at your farm? ‘Cause I most certainly do.”
Caroline looked a bit less certain. “They asked me to let them know if I saw Martin again. I technically haven’t,” she pointed out.
“Not sure if I’d trust my life to technicalities like that,” Heidi half-muttered. “But the dice have already been cast. We’ll just have to do our best in the current situation.”
Tina herself had stayed mostly silent throughout all this. She still appeared to be a bit flustered. Camille felt bad for her. The last week had probably been hellish for her, and then she was made fun of for her feelings on top of all that. Camille admired Britney for her directness, but not for her teasing.
“I’m sorry for never noticing your feelings,” she offered to the girl. “I’m not sure it would have lead to anything, but at least you’d have gotten some sort of closure.”
She remembered Martin encouraging her to follow her dreams and become a doctor, despite her lousy math grades. It was probably best not to mention that he should have followed his own dream and confessed.
“I’m fine,” Tina replied, “mostly. It’s a long time ago, I shouldn’t really let it bother me anymore.”
She helped herself to another cookie. It was rather obvious she wanted to chow down all of them, but tried to her best to control herself to maintain the illusion of politeness.
“If I could use this opportunity to ask for a rewind in the conversation,” she said between her bites, “you operated on an elf?”
Camille nodded. The knowledge of elves was a poorly kept secret outside the Veil. All members of their group knew of it. No surprise Tina didn’t.
“Don’t let the name fool you,” Heidi interjected, “they’re not really elves, at least not in the Tolkien sense of the word. It’s just a nickname that somehow stuck.”
“They hail from one of the worlds beyond the rifts,” Camille explained, “have you been told about those?”
This time Tina added. “A fair bit, yes, but Caroline admitted her knowledge on the matter was a bit spotty. Can you fill me in, maybe?”
Caroline quickly shared what she knew about the rifts, which wasn’t a lot. Camille knew a bit more, at least on some of the inhabitants beyond the rifts.
“I guess I should start with the elves?” Camille asked rhetorically, “They are incredibly tall, and unearthly, hauntingly beautiful. Think Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings movies when she’s offered the ring. I have never met anyone shorter than 2 meters, though admittedly I have only seen a handful of them. They vaguely remind me of extremely tall and thin female humans with their curves. Don’t let that fool you, though: They are genderless. Not sure exactly how they reproduce; as usual, the council practices a ‘need to know’ basis. I learned only the minimum required to heal one.”
“Heal?” Tina asked curiously.
“Yes, I’m actually something of a healer,” Camille revealed, “at least that’s one of the ways my talents can be exhibited.”
She explained that her rather unique talent allowed her to perform a limited rewind on living matter, which in turn could undo damage to a body. It could also be used for other purposes, but she very much preferred to use it for this purpose. Unfortunately, it was practically useless against Veiled individuals: Her power was thoroughly defeated by the dampening field of a frozen mana pool.
“Besides, even if it worked on everyone, there are a lot of health issues that can’t be solved by simply rewinding a body part. Take a person born with a weak heart, or cancer that has spread throughout the body. That’s the reason I’m a surgeon first, and a healer second.”
Tina looked thoroughly impressed. “I am so happy you fulfilled your dream of being a doctor,” she beamed at Camille. Her girlish enthusiasm actually left Camille a bit flustered.
“Well, I will not deny that my talent has helped me in that regard. I wouldn’t be quite as successful if I had to rely on mundane means.”
Tina looked questioningly at Camille for a moment, then suddenly brightened up. “You’re operating on children,” she exclaimed.
“I did not expect you to pick that up so quickly,” Camille admitted, “That’s right: I specialize in children, particularly newborns. Getting compliments from patients and professionals alike almost feels cheating: It’s not that I never make any mistakes, I can just rewind any I do. As long as I understand the problem and have an idea for a solution, I will succeed.”
She felt like this was boasting, but the numbers didn’t lie. Some of her patients had died, but never due to the operation itself. That was mostly a result of unforeseen complications, such as allergic reactions to the drugs used to put the patients in narcosis. Even then, she had occasionally managed to bring someone back to life by rewinding the negative effects of the narcosis. Of course, that also undid the narcosis itself, which resulted in a lot of pain on the patient’s part, but at least they survived.
“Color me extremely impressed,” Tina looked admiringly at Camille. “In a lot of ways. I was very curious about what kind of magic existed. Are all types of magic unique to a specific user?”
“In theory, no,” Heidi answered her question, “In practice, sort of. There are more standard ways which magic is taught, but on Earth, everyone needs to discover how to make their magic work in the presence of the Veil. In addition, the members of our group are self-taught, so we’re a tad more unique than those taught right from the start.”
“Right, but after you’ve initially worked out how to cast magic on Earth, wouldn’t it be possible to learn spell formulas or something like that from others?”
“Again, the theory differs from practice,” Heidi replied, “It is quite possible to learn magic from formulas, as you describe them, but only if those formulas follow the same ‘style’ as the magic you learned when you awakened it.”
“There are some standardized ways to cast magic, and those following them can learn formulas from like-minded,” Camille added, “Self-taught mages like ourselves have to develop all the magic on our own. Most of our type only know a very limited selection as a result. It takes a lot of time and effort to develop new magic. I hear it’s easier on other worlds where there is no Veil, but I have never been anywhere but Earth myself.”
She explained that it was practically impossible to unlearn a way of cast magic to learn a new one. It was like trying to change your native language.
“What are the theoretical and practical limitations of magic?” Tina asked.
“In theory, on other worlds, you can pretty much do anything you can imagine,” Heidi revealed, “though breaking the laws of physics require a constant supply of mana. Think of it this way: You can construct a house from raw materials using magic, but if the roof is not supported by walls, it will collapse as soon as you release the magic.”
“How about a house conjured from nothing at all?” Tina wondered.
“I … don’t know, actually. You’d have to ask someone residing on other worlds. I have never heard of anyone capable of doing it on Earth, at least. Then again, there are a lot of practical limitations.”
The Veil itself was obviously a huge limiting factor, but Heidi also pointed out that the more extreme feats of magic were impossible due to the quickly scaling magic cost they would require. Mages quickly learned to be efficient by necessity.
“Also, the more the laws of physics are bent, the harder it becomes. Levitating a set of car keys is obviously easier than lifting a car. Similarly, making a ball of fire violates a lot more laws of physics than making a ball of ice.
Camille glanced towards Caroline and Britney. While they were not directly included in the conversation, they did not appear bored at all. “Don’t mind us,” Britney said, “I’m learning new things myself. I just never bothered to ask these questions.”
“I’m sorry for completely hijacking the conversation,” Tina apologized, “Can you tell me why a wounded elf was in our world in the first place?”
“Don’t worry about the topic selection,” Caroline assured her, “This is a lot more interesting than discussing recipes, partners and children.”
“Right. The elf was wounded by gunfire,” Camille told them, “I don't know who shot him. I did get the feeling that it would be a diplomatic incident if she had died.”
“She?” Britney asked.
“Since they look more female than male, most people refer to them as such,” Camille explained. “Anyway, I healed her up. Those sort of wounds is easy to deal with for me. I didn't even need to operate, which was good, because I have no knowledge of their anatomy. They are sickeningly thin; I highly doubt their bodies can support organs like ours.”
“I assume you were properly paid for your services?” Heidi asked.
“Oh yes,” Camille nodded, “if I earned that much for every operation, I would quickly earn more money than I could ever spend.”
“That's good, at least,” Heidi muttered in reply.
“You know, for someone working for the Council, you are awfully critical of their actions,” Britney pointed out.
“You're working for the Council?” Tina repeated almost in disbelief.
“Not entirely true,” Heidi denied, “I work for the regional office, which answers to the council at the very top of the pyramid.”
“What do you do for the regional office, then?” the girl asked.
“She's a dentist,” Britney answered her, “You know, healthy teeth are always important.”
Heidi sighed. “It's true I'm a dentist, specifically for children at primary school. But the real work I do is find self-awakened mages like ourselves.“
Like Britney, she had never awoken her own magic, but had in the process grown extremely sensitive to fluctuations in the magic field.
“In another world, I might have been a sort of bodyguard for royalty, capable of sniffing out magic threats before they could become a problem. I'm not really complaining though: bodyguards aren't known for their life expectancy.”
Camille noticed Tina looking a bit tired. “Maybe we should take a small break in the lesson on magic,” she suggested. “I believe Tina has enough to digest right now.”
“How about we discuss men instead?” Britney swiftly followed up with a suggestion is her own, “I'm sure Tina brings a pretty unique perspective to the table.”