This had been the part of the evening I was dreading. Everything else was low risk, and the worst that could happen was a duel or physical confrontation. I was confident enough in my - let alone Alexis' - ability to handle any but the most capable of these noble brats. The same couldn't be said for the Master Mage that even now was approaching us through the crowd. We selected Earl Mirsdeget's ball to be our first to test the waters with how the Mage Guild would handle my appearance in society. Earl Mirsdeget had been an up-and-coming young man in the Mage's Guild, known for his meteoric rise in the Guild, helped of course, by his family's wealth. Then, years before, he suffered some kind of magical accident and was left crippled, magically speaking. Unfortunately, he was also still known to throw fire and control flames, which left him dangerous enough that I was hesitant to meet him.
Earl Mirsdeget was whip-thin, his face angular and sharp, but smooth of skin and balanced. He lacked the sharp nose that marked his family line. Still, he had inherited the arching eyebrows that animatedly danced as he talked while drifting through the room. Behind me, Alexis's regular breathing, the pattern that I had become so in tune with - hitched. I experienced a brief spark of worry but trusted that Alexis would be there to support me. Everything we knew said that the Earl was a careful man. He shed the reputation of his rambunctious and wild antics of thirty years ago and changing with his accident to become a more cautious and calculating man. I knew logically that the Earl would suffer severe political repercussions for incinerating me. Falling as I did under the Baron's protection and likely secretly the King's as well, but that would be a poor balm for my charred corpse.
Alexis and I chatted with the gathered young nobles. The conversation was banal and shallow, ranging mostly over the latest fad of small yellow flowers. I tried to hide my contempt for the gathered idiots, but I doubt that I hid it well enough, given the annoyed look from Alexis. My near-silent ignoring of the conversation gave me time to watch the shifts of the crowd as Earl Mirsdeget wandered through. His movements reminded me of how a flight of birds would dance and shift around a bird of prey. Alexis was regaling the noblemen that hovered around her. Their antics said clearly that her beauty enamored them despite her unfashionable height and physique. I doubt they thought of her as more than a simple diversion, a pretty woman who could fight, but that didn't mean their appreciation for her form was any less real. While watching the Earl from the corner of my eye, I noticed that Alexis was easily deflecting their subtle - and not so subtle - overtures. As much as she appeared to appreciate the flattery and attention, she was still maintaining the same measured breathing of her Skill. At the same time, one hand rested on her sword. The sight sent a flush of warmth through me. It was nice knowing that she had my back as much as I had hers no matter what happened.
In the split moment where I was distracted by thoughts of Alexis, the Earl approached. My first awareness of the man was when both [Meditation] and [Acting] started screaming at me. Turning to face Mirsdeget, I found a smile plastered across my face. A genuine smile. It felt perfectly natural to shake the Earl's hand and accept his friendly smile in turn. In the background of my mind, [Meditation] was still screaming, but [Acting] fell silent once I was no longer acting. I was happy about being near the man. Deep in my mind, I was scrambling, my mental fingers sliding upon the glass walls of my mind. All my efforts to grasp the Earl's manipulation failing because I was already caught within his trap. The Earl's Skill wasn't even a direct form of mind control; it was some type of affable diplomacy Skill that left me well disposed to the man.
Before I could do more than smile while greeting the man, Abigail was next to me and drawing the man's attention. The wall around my mind slipped for a second, the mental clarion of [Meditation] rising and [Acting] providing a bare glimmer of a squeak before the personable force in front of me returned. The Earl's attention swung to Abigail, and his Skill bore down on my apprentice…and bounced away. The man slowly blinked in surprise at Abigail's air-headed smile.
Putting on a sultry smile, my apprentice fluttered her eyelashes at the Earl, her large eyes emphasizing the movements. Cocking her hip to the side slightly while she leaned on me, Abigail said, "Well, hello there. I've so enjoyed your ball."
If I hadn't been so enamored with the man's damn blink, I would have turned to her in surprise. As it was, I found it difficult to look anywhere but at the man. Even contemplating anything but what he wanted was difficult.
Without a word, Earl Mirsdeget directed the force of his Skill on Abigail. Again, with a blink and flutter of her eyelashes, she seemed to shrug off the Earl's Skill without effort. For myself, I was free for only a moment, but once I was clear of his Skill, I clenched my teeth and shoved my mind through his Skill. When his Skill returned to recapture my mind, I batted it away. My defense was practiced, feeling like forcing away a more powerful version of the fascination orb. When both of us swayed on our feet at the mental barrage, Alexis realized we were doing more than banter.
Under the effect of [Meditation] held tight but free of the time distortion, I noticed the disturbing way mana passed through the Earl. The man had a stream of mana passing through his body, the magic swirling lightly through the physical shade of his form then continuing out of his body. The mana that drained from his body was changed somehow and distorted, not broken or wrong, but used or tainted to a specific purpose. If it had been undirected pure mana pouring through him in that way, he would resemble a mass cremation and would leave plants blooming behind him. As it was, I worried that he would suck up all the normal mana surrounding us, though it was likely an impossibility. Even now, I could see the mana swirling away from him, shifting to be the same as the wisps of ambient mana.
"Well, this has been an interesting evening. Alexis Verstrom," he said, his head bowing respectfully to Alexis before turning to face me.
"Joshua Stills," again, a head bob to me, though I noticed a gentle brush against my mind attempting to reassert his control. Effortlessly I bashed it away again.
Then, to my surprise, his face turned to Abigail and sneered, the look one of pure revulsion. Straightening his old fashioned dinner jacket, the Mage stepped around us and was swallowed into the crowd that brightened as he passed.
Silently, both Alexis and Abigail bracketed me, and we turned to the exit, our haste was unbecoming, but none of us cared. Our only goal was to flee the party and plan how to handle the near-tragedy that had occurred. Snowy didn't know what had happened, but by her concerned glances, she knew that we had barely dodged some hidden attack. We remained silent while the valet signaled for our carriage to approach, the coachman breaking free of his relaxed repose. When the valet opened the carriage, we tumbled in. Quickly we grabbed a seat, Abigail suddenly shivering in the corner when the door snapped closed.
"Wha-" Alexis began before I held a hand up and then thumped the roof of the carriage. We remained silent while the carriage rolled through the gates of the estate, my hand gripping Abigail's own, both our knuckles white. When we had spent five minutes in silence on the road to her father's estate, Alexis couldn't contain herself further.
"What happened? You suddenly froze up, then Abby began to flirt with him, and…I don't know what," Alexis said. Her words shifted into the odd inflection of her native tongue, seeming to bunch together in an irregular rhythm.
"No one told us he could mess with minds! He rolled me over like a gold coin at the pleasure houses, and I would have done anything he wanted. If Abby hadn't saved me, I'd be his happy little lapdog still," I said, my voice almost rising to a shout at the end.
"He almost got me too. Another couple blows, and I would have just smiled and done anything he wanted. Oh god," Abby said, her body shaking as tears ran down her face, the makeup emphasizing her eyes smeared from her tears.
Seeing Abby so shaken had me joining her in shivering, the adrenaline pumping through my body in a cold river as my stomach rolled.
From now on, I would hold a grip on [Meditation] whenever I thought it likely we would meet a Mage. With it, I was able to bat away his Skill without effort, but once my mind was lost, I was truly lost. Abby had weathered the Mage's Skill the way I would weather a hail storm. Still, eventually, the Earl would have made it through her defense and overwhelmed her. Likely the Skill required his close attention - lingering, and long-range Skills were rare but not unheard of - otherwise, the Mages would have conquered the kingdom centuries before.
Seeing our shaken state, Snowy bit her lip, her eyes drifting between us until Abby crossed the carriage and hugged the larger woman. Her face was buried in the red shirt, Abby's makeup quickly staining the cloth as she closed her eyes and cried. Patting the woman gently, Snowy glanced out of the carriage as we turned through the gates of her father's estate. Her eyes drifting to my own before she looked down at Abigail, silently passing me a message. When the carriage stopped in front of the doors, Snowy helped Abigail out as I followed behind. The maid's whispers followed our passage through the halls. The Baron was out of the mansion until later. He had his own meeting with those friendly enough to let him know the lay of the political landscape. My apprentice and Snowy disappeared into the shorter woman's room. Abby asked for help to remove her dress, but I thought it more likely she needed comfort to sleep, something I did not begrudge her. I would have a difficult time falling to sleep tonight as well.
Leaning against the wall, waiting for Snowy, I tried to work through the terror from nearly losing control of my mind. The thought of someone else controlling me left me shivering in a cold sweat, even with so oblique a method as a Skill that induced extreme friendliness and happiness. Plans to avoid the future fate of being a friendly idiot, controlled by another, rambled disjointed through my mind, each less reasoned than the last. Eventually, I managed to grab hold of my terror and wrestle it under control. Breathing deep, my hands shaking as I held them to my side, I tried to let the emotion drain from my body. The calming exercise, often used before making a problematic potion, kept me in good stead.
Snowy gently closed the door as she slipped out. Holding her finger to her lips, Snowy gestured me to follow her. Striding into her suite, Snowy began to pace in her outer meeting room. Until this moment, I hadn't thought that Snowy had been as upset as my apprentice and me. Stepping in Snowy's way, I gently enfolded her in a hug, her body shaking for a second before she returned to marching back and forth.
"It'll be alright, Snowy," I said but went silent as she shook her head.
"You don't understand. I was ready for the Earl to attack, to do anything. I didn't know he would try to control your mind. But that doesn't matter."
Shaking her head again, she stopped and stared at me.
"I was using my Skill. The Earl didn't have a heartbeat."