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[Worm x Fate] Journeywoman & Apprentice

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by fallacies, Apr 7, 2021.

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  1. Index: Index
    fallacies

    fallacies Getting sticky.

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    Journeywoman
    &
    Apprentice

    Or, the Adventure of the Witch House

    Or, I Started My Career as a Costumed Superheroine,
    but For Some Reason, My Mentor was a Tsundere Witch

    From Another World

    a Worm x Fate crossover
    by fallacies

    Taylor Hebert wants nothing more than to prepare for her cape debut in peace. Unfortunately, her new neighbor from across the street has other plans.

    001 : Inquiry at the No. 24
    002 : Accepting Candy From a Stranger
    003 : Sense is Something Made
    004 : Breakfast of the Champions
    005 : The Cup, Half-Empty
    006 : Jerusalem's Lot
    007 : A Taste For Slaughter
    008 : Chrysalis
    009 : Fantasia in F minor
    010 : Camelback Riding
    011 : Bear These Not When Acting of Benevolence
    012 : ???

    Notes: Because third time's the charm, right? Note that the target genre for this fic intended to be akin to that in the Atelier game series.
     
    Last edited: Apr 7, 2021
  2. Threadmarks: 001 : Inquiry at the No. 24
    fallacies

    fallacies Getting sticky.

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    I noticed it on the way home after finally being discharged from the hospital, several blocks away from our street. It was kinda difficult not to, all things considered.

    Since the moment I awoke, the sphere of insects that my power automatically connected with had become as something of a constant companion — an ever-present awareness of the environment around me, even that it was the middle of winter.

    It was rather disconcerting to suddenly run across a dead zone in my field of perception — especially as it was just across the street from where I lived.

    More accurately, I'd been able to sense the interior for a couple of seconds before everything within abruptly blanked out.

    The No. 24 had been boarded up when I last saw it, several weeks earlier during winter break. I wasn't actually certain as to when precisely we previously had a neighbor there. Maybe back when I was in my second or third year of elementary school?

    But right at dusk as we pulled into Arbor Street, I took note that there were lights on in the two-story residence; that somebody had apparently gone through the trouble of refurbishing the exterior and cleaning up the yard and driveway. The pristine coat of paint and the replacement of the various rusted fixtures made the place stand out, given the state of the other houses in the neighborhood.

    In the driveway, there was an older-model Volkswagen Beetle.

    "Somebody's moved in to the Twenty-Four," I remarked.

    "Yeah," Dad replied. "Happened after — well, you know." He paused for a moment. "Really don't know what they were thinking, renovating the place and doing all that yardwork so close to the snowy season. It's gonna be ruined before the spring."

    "Have you met them yet?" I asked.

    He nodded, bringing the car to a halt in front of our house.

    "A woman," he said, pulling the brake and withdrawing the key before unbuckling his belt. "A girl, really — a couple of years older than you. I think she might be attending Brockton U. Seems to have the house all to herself."

    "In a place like this?," I asked, wincing as I exited the car. "Why not just dorm or something?"

    Our neighborhood was relatively safe, but didn't feel like the sort of place a single female college student would want to live on her own. If Dad were right, and she indeed attended Brockton U, the commute to school was a twenty to thirty minute drive. Not terribly convenient.

    Accounting for the interference with my power, it was more than a little suspicious. What were the chances that shortly after I became a parahuman, somebody with the exact ability as to counteract my own would just so happen to move into the neighborhood?

    It could be a coincidence, of course — or that I was simply being paranoid and excessively self-conscious; but I couldn't shake the thought that maybe the girl across the street was aware of my status. Weren't there stories about the E88 gang-pressing parahumans into their service?

    In response to the question I'd voiced aloud, Dad shrugged — lifting my carry-on of clothing from the back of the car and setting it on to the brick of our driveway.

    "Hard to say, really," he said. "Everyone's got their own circumstances. It isn't really our position to pry."

    Shutting the trunk, he turned, pulling my luggage toward the entrance of our house. Giving the 24 another glance, I followed after him.

    Tomorrow was a Sunday, but Dad had work as usual. I'd have time enough to investigate, assuming that nothing happened tonight.




    It was a tin of Danish butter cookies that Dad had received for Christmas from somebody at work.

    Being as he and I weren't all too big on pastries, he'd apparently just tossed it into a kitchen cupboard and forgotten its existence entirely.

    It was probably some flavor of rude for me to re-gift the thing to a neighbor, but I wasn't too hung up on that. A quick check of the expiration date revealed that the contents wouldn't be bad for half a year yet. Good enough for a cape who had potentially positioned herself to blackmail me into joining a criminal organization.

    At half past one, wearing gloves and a light jacket, I opened the front door and stepped out into the yard — steeling myself as I ventured across the street. Likely, I would've been a bundle of nerves if not for the trick I'd picked up by necessity during my stay in the psychiatric ward — offloading my assorted misgivings into the insects behind me.

    I'd spent the night reasoning through my options.

    Maybe this girl had no idea I was a parahuman. Maybe she didn't belong with a gang. If her presence here truly was a coincidence, this would just be a greeting from a neighbor, and everything would be fine.

    If not — well, she'd had the entire night and morning to engage in hostilities, and hadn't yet done so, despite her apparent ability to Trump my power. Probably, she could be reasoned with.

    I hoped.

    Inexplicably, the house and its white picket fence were a lot more foreboding up close, now that I was standing on the sidewalk before the lawn — just at the boundary of the dead zone. Exhaling a breath of mist and upping the extent of my offloading, I opened the gate and let myself in —

    My insects abruptly vanished from my senses, and everything came crashing down.

    When I was next aware of myself — maybe seconds later — I was kneeling on the cement of the walkway, overcome with vertigo. The yard — not much larger than our own — felt far too expansive; far too empty.

    Not a Trump. A Master? Was this a trap? Some sort of test?

    My gut instinct was to retreat, but that made little sense. This girl — whoever she was — had an absolute advantage against my power. Even if I retreated, there wouldn't be a resolution to whatever threat she posed.

    Gritting my teeth, I climbed to my feet — unsteadily walking the few meters to the front door.

    The door opened before I could ring the bell. The Master; the Trump — whatever she was — wasn't the blonde, blue-eyed girl I'd pictured. Her eyes were indeed a pale blue, but her straight black hair and the cast of her features suggested that she was at least partially Asian.

    Not from the Empire, then. It occurred to me a little too late that I should've asked Dad for a few more details before jumping to weird conclusions.

    "So, you were the one poking about at my Bounded Field, hm?" she asked — unexpectedly, with a British accent. "The old man sent you to check up on me, I suppose?"

    "What?"

    "Don't play me for a fool," she said, eyes narrowed. "As a student of the Second, I know a pathway to an Adjacent Reality when I sense one — especially when so many are opened all at once."

    "What are you talking about?"

    "Yesterday evening, you attempted to subsume the insects on my property as familiars, did you not?"

    Familiars? Like in witchcraft or something?

    "Look," I said, wincing. "I'm sorry about the bugs, but could you please ease up on whatever it is you're doing to me right now? It's really uncomfortable."

    She frowned — and then her expression shifted to realization; maybe a tinge of horror, if I wasn't imagining things.

    "You're not a magus, are you?" she asked.

    "I have no idea what that is."

    She closed eyes and sighed.

    "My apologies," she said. "Seems that I've once again made a mess of things. Kündigen."

    I wasn't certain what the word meant, but at her utterance, my vertigo instantly cleared — vanishing away as I reconnected with my insects. As I tried to collect myself, she put forth her hand, as if offering to shake on a truce.

    "We got off on the wrong foot," she said. "My name is Rin — Rin Zenjou. Pleased to make your acquaintance, neighbor."

    This was, I realized, something of a mere formality. By the very fact that I'd forced this encounter, I'd demonstrated a grasp of who she was and where she lived — and so she'd decided to be upfront about her identity. On the opposite end, my face and address were known to her, and it wouldn't take a lot of research for her to learn my name. There wasn't any running away from this.

    "Taylor Hebert," I replied, tentatively clasping her hand and shaking it.

    She seemed to study me for a moment before withdrawing.

    "It's perhaps a little inappropriate for me to mention it at this juncture," she remarked, "but in the future, you should pay mind not to so easily disclose your personal information to a perfect stranger. That said —"

    She shot me a vaguely predatory smile.

    "I'm in the market for a part-time assistant," she said. "Fair wages. Reasonable hours. Are you interested at all, Ms. Hebert?"
     
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  3. Threadmarks: 002 : Accepting Candy From a Stranger
    fallacies

    fallacies Getting sticky.

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    Noting the tin of pastries that I'd somehow managed not to drop, she invited me inside to speak about her offer over tea.

    Unsurprisingly, the layout of the first floor looked to be approximately identical to most of the other houses in the neighborhood; though at some point, a garage had been added — replacing what would've been the brick driveway that led into the backyard at my house.

    She must've spent a bit on renovations. The hardwood floors and the Prussian blue of the walls looked fresh, and the interior was done up in a sort of minimalist French country chic — sparsely furnished, but tasteful. It was surprising that she'd managed to get the work completed in the few weeks I'd been hospitalized. There wasn't even the scent of fresh paint in the air.

    There also weren't any insects — not that I could sense, at least, even that my connection without the bounds of her property had been fully restored. Whatever adjustments she'd just now made, it was doing a darn good job of denying me any ability to pose a threat.

    "As you can probably tell from my accent, I'm not from around here," said Zenjou, pouring me a cup of tea. "Likewise, I'm not associated with any of the organizations in this area. You're the first parahuman that I've so far encountered face-to-face."

    Seated on a couch at right angle to her armchair, I carefully accepted the cup and dish.

    "Normally, there would be protocol against revealing myself," she continued, "but being as you're somebody on this side, I trust that you're capable of keeping a secret?"

    "I'm not really seeing much of a choice," I said, taking a sip, and noting the vaguely floral scent. This wasn't drugged, was it?

    "I think you misunderstand," she said, sipping her own tea. "This isn't on my part anything so crude as blackmail. I earnestly hope to engage you in a partnership of mutual benefit — no strings attached. If you refuse, I ask for nothing more than an agreement of secrecy before we go our separate ways."

    Mutual secrecy, backed by the potential of mutually assured destruction — or maybe not so mutual. She was almost certainly aware that I lived with Dad — and so, barring the circumstance that I could get at something dear to her, she could pose a far more immediate danger to me than I could her.

    No matter what she said, she held a definite upper hand.

    That being the case, I didn't see any downside to playing ball for the time being.

    "What sort of benefit are we talking about?" I asked.

    Taking a sip of her tea, she set her cup upon her dish.

    "For a start, $7.25 an hour," she said. "That's the legal wage per hour here in the state of New Hampshire, no?"

    Legal minimum wage, maybe — and of all the things she could've said, I wasn't expecting that.

    "That's not much of a benefit," I said.

    "I'd also be providing you with useful work experience and training," she said.

    "Training in what, exactly?"

    "The use of your abilities, of course," she said.

    Skeptical that she could help, I frowned. I had more or less an inherent grasp of my power; and as far as I could tell based on the limited information I’d gathered from the internet, parahumans didn't really 'improve' with experience. What little improvement the big name heroes had exhibited over the years was more akin to figuring out clever applications of their powers than any change in their underlying capabilities.

    "I don't think there's a lot of room for improvement," I replied. "My power's fine as is."

    "I'm not referring to your powers as a parahuman," she said, leaning back into her armchair and crossing her legs. "It's a little complicated to explain right off the cuff, but — tell me, do you practice any martial arts?"

    "No?"

    She considered me with a raised brow.

    "And you intend to go out superheroing, or whatever it is you Americans get up to?"

    I was fairly certain that superheroes weren't a phenomenon restricted to the United States. Obviously, it was likely sarcasm on her part, but it felt as if she were making light of the efforts of heroic capes.

    "Is there a problem with that?" I asked, slightly glaring.

    "If you're fine with it, I suppose it isn't my place to criticize," she said, taking a sip of her tea. "But I would think it rather risky for a young woman to venture out into the night without a proper means of defending herself. What if you were to run into somebody able to nullify your power?"

    Aside from Zenjou herself and the creepy axe murderer with the Slaughterhouse Nine, I wasn't aware of any Trumps capable of outright shutting down another parahuman. Granted, I didn't obsessively hang out on PHO — but I imagined that if power nullifiers were so commonplace, I would've been aware of it.

    She did have a point, though. I'd been planning anyhow to get myself into shape before making my debut on the cape scene — picking up parkour along the way for purposes of mobility, maybe. So as to deal with the threats that my insects couldn't handle; that I couldn't evade or run away from, I'd been planning to carry around a canister of Mace.

    Martial arts wouldn’t be of much use against actual Brutes, but a bit of skill in unarmed combat was otherwise a reasonable addition to my repertoire.

    "You're offering to teach me self-defense then?" I asked.

    "Something like that," Zenjou replied. "In the immediate future, I'd want to further assess your use of power; but once that's through, certainly. You're what, 17? 18?"

    "15," I said.

    "Rather tall for a 15-year-old," she remarked. "But moving on, I’d have you here primarily in the afternoons — after classes, and before your father is home from work. You get off around three, I assume?"

    "3:30," I said. "And my father is home around 8:30, normally. But I've just gotten out of the hospital, and I'm planning on taking a short break from school."

    She frowned at that.

    "An ongoing health condition?"

    "They got Panacea to see me, so I'm fine, physically," I said. "Just don't feel like dealing with school for awhile."

    "Panacea ..." she muttered to herself, as if the name were unfamiliar. "Ah, right. The healer. This won't present an issue, then?"

    Even with the offloading to my insects, I didn’t think I’d be fully functional anytime soon — but I wasn't about to tell her that. No need to give her more of a grasp of my vulnerabilities than she already possessed.

    If I were committing myself to the long game, this wasn’t the place to falter.

    "Like I said, I'll be fine," I replied. "And I'll take you up on your offer."

    "Wonderful," she said. "You can start immediately, if you like."

    "What do you want me to do?"

    Zenjou set her cup and dish on the coffee table, and picked up the can that she'd brought out with her tea set. Opening the lid, she took out something that looked to be a piece of rock candy — bright red with its artificial coloring.

    "Here," she said, holding it before me.

    I reached forward and let her drop it into my hand.

    "Put it in your mouth, and swallow it whole," she said. “Don’t attempt to chew.”

    I regarded the candy suspiciously.

    "This isn't something addictive, is it?" I asked.

    "It isn't any sort of drug, if that's what you're asking," she said. "And if I were looking to harm you, I’d have already done so."

    Alternatively, she could just be the sort of sadist who toyed with her victims before moving in for the kill.

    I didn't voice that aloud. Deciding to trust her for now, I popped the candy into my mouth.

    It didn't really taste like anything.

    Cool; smooth; hard — more like a piece of glass than any kind of confection. Following her instructions, I didn't bother chewing, and simply swallowed — washing it down with the remainder of my tea. Despite the lubrication, the edges of the thing scraped the insides of my esophagus.

    "What was that?" I asked, coughing slightly as I placed my cup and dish on the table.

    "Your signing bonus — worth about $8,000," Zenjou replied. "A three-carat pigeon's blood ruby."

    What.

    "But don't worry," she continued. "It won't tear its way through your digestive tract, or anything so horrendous. Once it activates, it should harmlessly melt away. I do recommend that you make yourself comfortable on the couch, though, as the process that follows might hurt a bit."

    "What are you —"

    — a terrible heat, burning my body from the inside out as I collapsed into the soft cushions of the couch. The fire spread throughout my organs; upwards along my spinal cord — into the flesh of my brain.

    "I imagine you feel as if you're dying at present," said Zenjou, "but that should pass soon enough. The burning, on the other hand — in a reduced state, it’ll persist for several weeks yet, until your body fully adjusts.”

    "Wh- what is this ..." I managed to croak out, despite the pain.

    Zenjou placed a finger against her lower lip.

    "How is it that they put it again?" she asked. "Ah, yes."

    She leaned toward me. grinning.

    "Yer a wizard, Hebert," she said. "And this would be a crash course into the discipline of Magic."
     
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  4. Threadmarks: 003 : Sense is Something Made
    fallacies

    fallacies Getting sticky.

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    'Soon enough' arrived after more than two hours of excruciating, deathly pain.

    There was, it turned out, a trick to shutting it off — something like a motor skill that abstractly apprehended the full throttle of my so-called 'Circuits' as a kind of limb; an extension of my body. It wasn't altogether different from my powers as a parahuman.

    It did hurt a whole lot, though. In the aftermath, I was out of breath and mildly feverish — drenched in a cold sweat that completely permeated my clothes.

    The 'reduced state' of the burning was akin to a full-body acid reflux.

    Hunched over on Zenjou's couch with my elbows propped upon my knees, it struck me that there wasn't any way I could independently confirm that all of this wasn't just a product of Zenjou's Master power.

    Certainly, I could feel a kind of energy thrumming through my 'Circuits' — but Othala from the E88 was famously the holder of a Striker power that temporarily granted abilities alike to a parahuman. Wasn't there also the one supervillain with the power to grant addictive Thinker abilities that gradually deteriorated?

    "So, an affinity for Water," said Zenjou, gathering the spread of Tarot cards across the coffee table into a deck. "I thought there might've been something else, but it's likely an artifact of your status as a parahuman."

    She'd lit up a bit of aromatic incense as I was recovering — asked me a battery of questions from what sounded like a personality test, and then performed a tarot reading.

    Initially, I thought she was one of those capes who put up a front about their powers being 'magic' — but, really, the more she spoke, the more I got the impression that she used the word in the same sense that a stage magician might.

    "You can tell that from a bunch of cards?" I asked. "How does that work?"

    "The Tarot itself reveals nothing of incredible relevance," Zenjou replied, slipping the cards into a velvet pouch and pulling taut the strings. "It's merely a matter of confirmation — to ascertain that the answers you provided in the first stage of my assessment were a reasonable indicator of a general orientation. Broadly, there are only five common results in any case — and so, this isn't a terribly complicated process."

    "I mean, I saw you shuffle the deck. If you draw a bunch of cards, wouldn't the outcome just be random?"

    She met my gaze with a grin.

    "A skeptic, are we?" she asked. "Good to see that you've got a head on your shoulders. But to answer your question, 'random' is nothing more than a descriptor we assign to phenomena evaluated to be absent of meaning. Being that meaning is entirely subjective, things are in reality as random or non-random as we're inclined to judge them. Carl Jung would call this Synchronicity."

    "Sophistry is what it is," I said. “So long as your deck is well and truly shuffled, the cards you draw are necessarily random and meaningless. No exceptions.”

    Would a person with the presence of mind to invoke Jung in an argument on the nature of meaning really put any weight into the mystical power of the Tarot?

    If not, what was all this superstitious nonsense?

    "By your very upbringing," she replied — palpably smug, "you're inclined to interpret new information in the context of the worldview you've so far assembled — doubting the bits that seem improbable. Thus, I won't even attempt to convince you to the contrary. As a student of the sciences, you should cherish that doubt of yours, and carefully dissect the claims that I make. It’s a good attitude that you don’t trust in my word merely in deference to seniority.”

    If you're going for the long con, tell the person you're attempting to swindle not to believe you. Paradoxically, it builds rapport, and gives you a veneer of honesty.

    I’m not gonna fall for that.

    "What did you find out about my Circuits, then?" I asked.

    "You have 18 in total," she replied. "A decent Quantity and Quality for somebody absent the bloodline descent of an established thaumaturgical lineage. The Composition, though — it's rather aberrant."

    The jargon didn't mean anything to me — but it also didn't sound as if she were making up the words on the spot. If indeed this was all an act, it was skillfully performed.

    "What does that mean in practice?" I asked.

    "Are you well enough to walk?" she asked, standing up.

    I sighed, and with a grimace, pulled myself from her couch.

    "Looks like it," I said, ignoring the aching of my muscles.

    "Good," she said. "Follow me."

    With heavy, halting steps, I trailed after her into the rear of the house. The kitchen — a bit more modern than ours — had an island in the center with a second sink. Walking up, she turned on the tap.

    "Hold the faucet and pour your mana into it," she said.

    Rolling up the sleeve of my sweater, I grabbed ahold of the metal — willing my Circuits open, and instinctively directing the energy within to flow forth through the flesh of my hand.

    The laminar flow of the tap turned into a high pressure spray, splattering all over the counter. Not wanting any more dampness on my sweater, I let go of the faucet — and instantly, the surging water calmed.

    "What the hell?" I asked, staring at the sink.

    Was there a pump to boost the pressure on demand? A switch, hidden away somewhere?

    "Congratulations," said Zenjou, smiling. "You've just cast your very first spell — a Reinforcement in the affinity of Water."

    Grabbing a towel from a nearby rack, she tossed it at me. I caught it, confused.

    "And now," she said, "for your first task as my assistant — wipe up the mess you've made."




    Once every two weeks, Coach Powell forced our PE section to run a full mile. Up until now, I hadn’t put in the effort to properly perform the recommended warm-up exercises, and the muscular aches that consequently followed usually lasted a day or two before fading away.

    The pain from my Circuit activation was several magnitudes worse — even versus the necrotic rot that Panacea had so recently cleared from my system. However, by nine in the evening — stepping into the hot bath that I'd run for myself — I was pleasantly surprised that my limbs and muscles were miraculously free of discomfort.

    The burning sensation of course remained; but Zenjou's claims regarding the side effects of an active circulation of mana seemed to ring true.

    The ‘mana’ employed in this 'magecraft' of hers was fundamentally derived of vital energy — from 'Od,’ per the pseudoscience of vitalism; from 'Qi,' per the traditions associated with East Asian martial arts. Within the body, its behavior defaulted to a bolstering of the vital processes; the reassertion of an ideal state of health.

    Or so Zenjou alleged.

    I wasn't at this point entirely convinced she wasn't a con artist. The 'rock candy' I'd been made to consume was for all I knew some hyper-advanced Tinkertech drug designed to grant temporary powers. Even that I could apparently impose 'Reinforcement' on the flow of water, following the example of the powers bestowed by Othala and that Teacher guy, the potency of my 'spells' were likely to degenerate over time — barring continuous contact with Zenjou.

    Which, of course, my informal contract with her virtually guaranteed.

    "My first action as a cape," I said, speaking at the water gradually filling the tub. "Giving an overly smug Myrddin wannabe an opening to addict me to her power. Nice going, Taylor. You're a goddamn genius."

    Still —

    Leaning forward, I grasped the faucet of the tub — activating my Circuits and allowing my mana to flow. As before, the gushing of the water accelerated.

    — if Zenjou were attempting a repeat of Teacher's schemes, shouldn't she have endowed me with a power a bit more exciting than mild water manipulation? In a fight between capes, 'Reinforcement' amounted to bringing along a super soaker. It was hardly useful at all.

    Alternatively, was this maybe just a taste of power? A starter pack of sorts, to ensure that I go back for more?

    I sank into the bathwater up to my chin, allowing my skin to soak up the warmth.

    "If I’m not careful," I again said aloud, "Zenjou’s gonna turn me into a mindless enforcer."

    Bright-eyed and utterly filled with optimism, I embarked upon my career as a magus.
     
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  5. Threadmarks: 004 : Breakfast of the Champions
    fallacies

    fallacies Getting sticky.

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    Monday morning, I woke to the realization that my tactile perception now extended into Zenjou's yard — even though the interior of her house was still off-limits. I wasn't entirely certain what to make of this, beyond that she must've adjusted her Master effect again. Was I supposed to take it as a message?

    It was only 6:30 — quite a bit earlier than I expected to be awake. Descending the stairs in my pajamas, I found Dad in the kitchen, halfway through a bowl of oatmeal.

    "Thought you might've wanted to sleep in again," he said. "The doctors said you should take it easy for the next week or so."

    "I'm feeling pretty well-rested," I said, pulling a bottle of milk from the fridge. "Don't think I could go back to sleep even if I wanted to."

    "Well, if you're sure."

    Pouring myself a glass of milk, I put the bottle back in the fridge, and then seated myself at the dining table.

    "I'm thinking of using my time off to get my body into shape," I said. "My paunch makes me look like a frog, and I want to get rid of some of the flab."

    Dad frowned at that, setting his spoon against the side of his bowl.

    "You aren't fat, Taylor," he said. "You're underweight. Borderline anorexic, the doctors said — especially after Panacea healed you."

    I gave Dad a look. I'd known for awhile that his eyesight had been getting worse, but it wasn't like him to say things so far removed from reality. Did he not see how huge I was?

    "My BMI being lower than some national average doesn't mean I'm not fat, Dad," I said, a little heatedly. "The people who decide what's underweight do it based on a population mean, and things like that aren't applicable across the board to every body type. That's why professional athletes use personalized BMI tests."

    Dad sighed, rubbing the arch of his brow with a finger.

    "I'll see if I can't schedule a half-day off, and take you to see a nutritionist," he said. "Get them to give you one of these personalized tests, maybe."

    "I guess?"

    I didn't really see why I would need something like that, but Dad had always been the obstinate sort. Most likely, he wouldn't concede that I knew my body best unless an expert told him so — and thus, I'd obediently play along. Getting a professional opinion on my level of fitness would be useful anyhow.

    On my part, this was a conscious effort not to be overly argumentative.

    After Mom passed, Dad had thrown himself into his work with machine-like diligence — apparently trying to lose himself in the never-ending drudgery of a 60-hour week. It had taken nothing short of my hospitalization to snap him out of it; and since then, he'd been visibly making an effort to reconnect with me. I appreciated that immensely.

    Problem was, there wasn't a lot of common ground between us anymore. At some point, we'd grown apart — not quite to the extent that we were virtually strangers, but incapable of conversing for extended periods without running into a disagreement.

    Without ever broaching the issue aloud, we'd learned to compromise — pulling back from the brink whenever we realized that we'd yet again crossed into disputed territory. This tended to make for halting, unproductive conversations, interspersed with awkward silences.

    Mom's knack for verbal communications seemed ever beyond my grasp.

    Rinsing out his bowl in the sink and leaving it up to dry, Dad asked, "Do we need anything from the store, by the way?"

    "Some eggs," I replied. "And we're almost out of milk again."

    Drying his hands on a towel, he pulled on the coat that hung from the back of his chair.

    "I'll grab some on the way home, then," he said, opening the door into the back yard. "If I'm not back by 8:30, just have dinner without me."

    "Got it," I said. "Love you."

    "You too," he said, nodding — shutting the door behind him as he stepped out into the cold.

    As the engine of the car started up outside, I sighed, retrieving a bag of supermarket sliced bread from the cabinet, and popping two pieces into the toaster. There was always something unpleasantly functional about our conversations when Dad was in a mood. It didn't help that he often didn't explain himself clearly.

    What was it about my wanting to lose weight that he found so objectionable anyhow? Wasn't it a good thing that I wanted to get into shape?




    "How are you so energetic at such an ungodly hour?" asked Zenjou, squinting at me from within her foyer.

    She'd answered the doorbell in fluffy slippers and a bathrobe — loosely tossed over what looked to be an old-fashioned nightgown.

    "It's roughly 8:30," I said. "You told me to come over first thing in the morning."

    After a small breakfast, I'd had time enough for a jog and a shower afterward. For whatever reason, the mile-long route around the neighborhood had been less exhausting than I anticipated. Maybe it was on account that even absent the activation of my Circuits, there was more mana circulating my body than before? That might explain why I'd woken so early; or how I didn't end up freezing cold, despite the fact that it was 42 degrees out.

    But whereas Zenjou should've enjoyed the same sort of benefits, here she was, answering the door a good five minutes after I'd rung the bell — dead on her feet, as if she'd had to forcibly drag herself out of bed.

    Maybe she just wasn't a morning person?

    Exhaling in exasperation, she opened the door a bit wider.

    "Come on in before you let the heat out, then," she said. "And for future reference, 'first thing in the morning' is at a sane hour — preferably after 10."

    I didn't know if it came of a mild mysophobia or some cultural thing from Britain or Japan, but like the day before, she'd prepared a pair of guest slippers for me to change into, insisting that I leave my shoes at the door. Changing my footwear, I followed her to the back of the house.

    "Have a seat," she said, pointing to one of the tall stools at the kitchen island.

    I did so, watching as she flipped on the electric kettle on the counter along the wall. From a cabinet, she retrieved a pour-over dripper and a jar of grounds.

    "The day doesn't begin till I've had my coffee," she said. "You'd like a cup?"

    "Tea," I said. "Black."

    "You've had Oolong before?"

    "No."

    "Well, that's what you're having."

    The 'Oolong' turned out to come in a fancy tetrahedral tea bag.

    Once the water had boiled, Zenjou placed the teabag in a mug — sliding it in front of me and filling it from the kettle before turning her attention to her coffee. Experimentally, I pulled the bag upwards by its string — watching as a brownish-red coloration dissolved into the cup from the crushed leaves within.

    It didn't really smell like the teas I typically favored, but being an uncultured American, my go-to brand was Lipton. It wasn't bad to occasionally expand my horizons, I supposed.

    "Isn't it easier if you use a coffee maker?" I asked — noting that she was still circling the circumference of her dripper with the narrow spout of her kettle. "Or is hand-poured coffee that much better?"

    "It isn't, really, regardless of what the so-called connoisseurs would have you believe," she said. "It's merely that I've had — 'disagreements' with coffee machines in the past. Especially the sort with electronic displays."

    Come to think of it, despite the modern look of her kitchen, her assorted appliances were all traditional, and there wasn't a microwave in sight. Could it be that she was actually worse off with household electronics than Dad?

    Clad in fluffy slippers and speaking about her trouble with coffee machines, Zenjou seemed a lot less threatening than she did the day before.

    It wouldn't do to lower my guard, though.

    "Yesterday, you said that you wanted to assess my powers," I said, warming my hands against the ceramic of the mug. "What would that entail, exactly?"

    Removing the dripper and setting it over an empty cup on the side, Zenjou took a sip of her coffee — gazing into the drink as she swirled it slightly.

    "At the moment, there's only a single task I'd like you to perform," she replied. "It isn't by itself terribly involved or time-consuming. However, as you are now, it'd be meaningless for us to proceed, as you haven't yet the requisite skill in mana control."

    I blinked, somewhat confused.

    "If you're just gonna be looking into my power, why does that even matter?" I asked.

    "It matters because I'm not you, and I don't have direct access to your parahuman ability," she replied. "While I'm capable of temporarily suppressing the pathways you access, I can only interact with them from without — as a foreign entity, with predictable restrictions. Thaumaturgical interference within the flesh and mind of another is inherently obstructed by the circulation of the subject's vital force."

    In other words, even though her Trump power was broken enough to simply shut me down, the great and powerful Myrddin wannabe didn't actually have the ability to conduct the tests she wanted to perform. It felt like an arbitrary limitation; some sort of special pleading, where her 'magecraft' was multipurpose and all-powerful, except in this one particular capacity.

    "So, what are you saying?" I asked. "That you can bypass the restriction once I pick up mana control to the required level?"

    "I'm saying that you'll be the one conducting the assessment," she replied. "You trust in yourself more than you would me, no?"

    I would. On the other hand, this was the same tact that she'd adopted yesterday — underscoring the fact that she wasn't trustworthy as a strategy to acquire my trust.

    "What would I have to be capable of, then?" I asked.

    "Hm," she said. "Something like this, perhaps."

    Reaching to the sink on the side of the kitchen island, she placed a cover over the drain and turned on the tap. While it filled, she tore a paper towel from its roll and folded it into a thin strip. Once the sink was about half-full, she turned off the water and took a spoon from out of a drawer.

    "This is a normal spoon," she said, dropping it into the water. "As you can see, it isn't buoyant at all."

    Rolling up her sleeves, she retrieved it from the water. Setting it on the counter, she folded the paper strip halfway along its length and placed one end in the water. Pressing the dry end of the paper with her fingertips, she again dropped the spoon into the sink.

    This time, rather than sinking, it bounced against the surface before settling on top — as if the water had turned to gelatin.

    Zenjou removed her fingers from the paper towel, and immediately, the spoon sunk to the bottom of the sink.

    "A little more complicated than simply allowing energy to flow out and dissipate, as you did yesterday," she said. "This would entail consciously grasping hold of a particular continuous mass as a discrete 'object' — Reinforcing a salient feature that it bears without damaging the mana conduction medium through which you interact with it. In this case, I enhanced amongst other things the surface tension of the water — conducting my mana into it via a paper towel."

    She lifted the strip of soggy paper from the sink.

    "And this is what can happen if I misapprehend any part of the process," she said.

    Unnaturally — as if it were something in a time-lapse video — the paper frayed under its own weight, collapsing into a wet mess upon the countertop.

    "Obviously, paper towels are rubbish as a conductor of mana," she said. "But it's an obstacle that can be overcome with sufficient practice."

    Sipping my tea, I stared at the sink. On the internet, I'd seen videos of people firing bullets into ballistic gel before. If by Reinforcement, normal water could behave as a solid —

    "Can Reinforcement be applied to things besides water?" I asked. "Like my own body?"

    "That's one of the standard uses, yes," said Zenjou, wiping up the shreds of the paper towel with a fresh sheet. She regarded me with a frown, "But if you're thinking to resist bullets like a comic book superhero, I wouldn't recommend it. Basic Reinforcement of the flesh can be achieved by circulating mana in sufficient volume, but it would require quite a bit of effort to push that to a practical utility in anything beyond unarmed combat."

    She didn't rule out the possibility, though.

    I'd thought to postpone my debut on the cape scene until after I'd shored up my defenses — but if I could master this, maybe I could expedite my schedule.

    I'd already set a bunch of black widows to the task of fabricating a spider-silk under-suit; and regardless of circumstance, I wouldn't be abandoning the project. Still, if I wanted to act as a cape, I didn't have the luxury to turn down a potential Brute power — even if my use of 'magecraft' was potentially dependent on Zenjou.

    The way in which she destroyed the paper towel also had potential. Maybe I could grant myself a Striker power of some sort?

    There were points that I'd like a little more clarification on, though. Yesterday, Zenjou stated that I held an affinity for 'water'; but in her explanation just now, she'd more or less confirmed that I'd be capable of applying Reinforcement to my body. From that, it could reasonably be inferred that my 'magecraft' would be more than just a manipulation of water — but if that were the case, what did 'an affinity for water' mean?

    And, furthermore —

    "You said that Reinforcement could be applied to 'a salient feature,' earlier," I asked. "What does that mean? Are there features that aren't salient?"

    For a moment, she didn't answer — taking a long sip from her mug before setting it down.

    "It's a topic too involved to delve into so early in the morning," she said. "But to briefly summarize — surface tension is a product of hydrogen bonding, yes?"

    "Yeah?"

    "The concept of hydrogen bonding would only be known to those acquainted with chemistry at a secondary school level or higher," she said. "Comparatively, surface tension is known to a greater proportion of the World's population. Thus, we can say that it's of greater salience — and therefore easier both to visualize and Reinforce."

    "That seems like a really arbitrary restriction," I remarked. "You're saying that the performance of 'magecraft' is limited by what? The perception of the general populace?"

    Zenjou sighed.

    "Like I said, it's way too early to be getting into a subject like that," she replied. "And if we're to be speaking of arbitrary limitations, how about you explain to me why it is that certain parahuman powers operate under a Manton limit?"

    "That's —"

    Honestly, I hadn't thought about that. Maybe Manton limits were some kind of unconscious psychological restriction?

    Was it on account of a Manton limit that Zenjou couldn't directly assess my power?

    "You're right that a proper grasp of the discipline of thaumaturgy requires context on the subject of salience," Zenjou continued. "But that can wait until it's immediately relevant. For the time being, focus on furthering yourself in the manipulation of mana."

    I drew in a sip of tea, frowning. It was a little annoying that she'd again evaded my question, but at the least, I'd extracted something akin to a promise of an explanation at some point.

    "How will I be training, then?" I asked.

    "We'll start with something simple."

    Draining the sink, she placed her pour-over dripper within, and then rinsed out the glass cup it'd been sitting upon. Wiping it with a fresh paper towel, she set the towel before me, and the cup on top — tapping it lightly with her finger.

    The glass shattered, collapsing into fragments.

    "Glass is an amorphous solid," said Zenjou, seating herself back upon her stool. "That means that it's technically capable of flowing." She took a sip of coffee from her mug, and then regarded me with a tight smile. "So — make use of your affinity for Water, and repair this."

    Dumbly, I stared at the shards of glass.

    "I'm supposed to use Reinforcement for this?" I asked.

    "Have I taught you anything else?" she asked. "Get to it, then. Chop chop."

    Clearly, Rin Zenjou wasn't above exacting petty revenge for sleep lost.
     
  6. Threadmarks: 005 : The Cup, Half-Empty
    fallacies

    fallacies Getting sticky.

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    I didn't make a lot of headway on Monday.

    Just past eight, Zenjou told me to go home and continue in the morning — handing me a well-worn college chem textbook, and saying that I should skim through the bookmarked section. I spent the evening reading about the physical properties of glass.

    Glass was an amorphous solid — absent of a molecular array ordered enough to qualify as a proper crystalline structure. It wasn't, however, capable of flowing at cooler temperatures and average pressure at sea level.

    Despite there being anecdotes about church windows thickening at the bottom due to centuries of gravity, the technicality that glass could flow was only 'empirically manifest' if it were heated to its transition temperature — 'approximately 550° Celsius for the standard soda-lime glass used in windows and glassware,' according to the textbook

    Zenjou was almost certainly aware of this.

    That being the case, what purpose was there in instructing me to make the glass 'flow?' Was it simply to frustrate me? To see if I'd arrive at the 'correct' conclusion that it wasn't possible, and therefore admit defeat?

    I could see her doing something like that — but somehow, I doubted that that was the objective.

    Assuming that Zenjou wasn't full of shit, I was potentially capable of Reinforcing my own body. Ergo, having 'an affinity for water' didn't mean that my 'magecraft' was fundamentally restricted to the control of water.

    If repairing the cup by the use of my water affinity was supposed to be a 'simple' task on account that 'glass can technically flow,' the obvious inference was that 'an affinity for water' related instead to a manipulation of specific physical features — of properties akin to those of water.

    Below a temperature of 550°, glass wouldn't exhibit a fluid-like viscosity — but as Zenjou had demonstrated, ordinary tap water could be made to take on the solidity of a hydrogel. It stood to reason that forcing room temperature glass to behave like a fluid wasn't entirely without the realm of possibility.

    Practically speaking, though, how would I achieve that?

    Simply allowing my mana to flow forth wasn't the solution. My first day of experimentation was proof enough of that. Even if flowing water was receptive to Reinforcement on mere exposure, an undirected emission of mana didn't seem to effectively engage with solid objects.

    Thus, a bit before noon on Tuesday, I changed up my approach. Placing my fingertips on a larger fragment of the cup, I pooled my mana within it — permeating unto the boundaries of the piece, as if I were directing my insects.

    For the briefest moment, the entirety of the fragment was available to my tactile grasp — no different from my body; from the sphere of my insects. With a bit of effort, I could —

    There was a crackling noise before me, and I opened my eyes — frowning as I lifted my hand. Upon the paper towel, the fragment had crumbled into smaller pieces. Apparently, I'd overdone it.

    "I'm gonna be here all day again," I complained to the empty kitchen.

    Like the day before, Zenjou had gone downstairs to her basement workshop, leaving me to fend for myself — maybe trusting that implicit threat would keep me from snooping about; or remotely monitoring my activities by means that I couldn't perceive.

    I wasn't about to test her either way — but I wished that she'd left me a few more pointers.

    Pouring myself a cup of water from the pitcher on the counter, I drank, considering the pile of glass before me. It probably didn't count as progress, but I'd at the very least replicated the trick that Zenjou had used to shatter the cup to begin with. Maybe that meant I was on the right track?

    Directing my mana as an extension of myself was definitely more on the mark than just expelling it. Even though the glass hadn't responded well to saturation, towards the end, it felt like —

    It felt like I could control it directly — not unlike the Circuits within me.

    "Wait ..."

    Maybe a solution wasn't too far out of reach.

    Fitting together two adjacent pieces of glass, I instilled my mana within — attending specifically to the line of the breakage.

    The glass was a part of me —​

    — and I was a part of the glass.​

    Like a limb gone numb, it was burdened with far too much inertia to significantly move — but instinct gave that pushing the bits along the fracture to fluidity was within my means. Somehow — even that I'd never before performed this — the transmutation carried the distinct familiarity of a muscle memory.

    Though the surface area of the two pieces combined was less than a square centimeter, it wasn't only a few sites that had to be woven together. It was hundreds; thousands; tens of thousands.

    I was equipped to deal with them. Controlling my insects had prepared me.

    In concert; in parallel; in multiplicity —

    "— weave."​

    And it was done.

    I held up my handiwork to the sunlight that entered from the windows, admiring the seamless joining of the fragments. Really, it wasn't even a big portion of the cup — but after a full day of this nonsense, it seemed like a notable milestone.

    "Just another 80-odd pieces to go," I said, looking to the paper towel on the counter.




    "Faster than I expected," said Zenjou, regarding the completed cup in her hand through her half-frame reading spectacles. "Given the restrictions I imposed, I'd have thought that you'd take a week or more at least."

    It was three in the afternoon when I'd finally pieced together all the bits of the cup. As Zenjou stated, it hadn't taken an incredible amount of time — especially given that half an hour had gone toward sharing the bad Chinese takeout that Zenjou had ordered for lunch; and another 45 minutes were wasted scouring the kitchen floor for the two slivers of glass inexplicably missing from the pile.

    Once I'd picked up on the welding trick, the exercise was mostly reduced to the piecing together of a three-dimensional puzzle.

    "Pretty competent for a first attempt," Zenjou continued, "but there's certainly room for improvement. Observe."

    Setting the cup on the table, she placed a finger against the rim, speaking a foreign word that I couldn't quite catch. Glowing lines appeared on the surface of the glass — tracing out the fractures that I'd just gotten rid of.

    "Those are —"

    "Irregularities in the substance of the glass," Zenjou explained. "Expose it to a more extreme heat or cold, and it'll shatter soon enough." Tracing her finger to the section that I'd fractured into smaller shards, she said, "Seems like you discovered the hard way the outcome of excessive Reinforcement — and then overcorrected, restricting yourself to a minimal application of mana."

    Way to rain on my parade, Zenjou. Next, are you gonna tell me that Santa isn't real?

    "How would you have done it, then?" I asked, offloading my annoyance to the swarm.

    "Like this," she replied, flicking the cup.

    Once again, the glass broke — managing somehow not to scatter beyond the edges of the paper towel.

    With her index and middle finger, she touched a larger piece — kneading it into a round lump. Moving her hand, she rolled it around the paper towel, liquifying and accumulating all of the shards into a single mound of transparent putty.

    "You don't fill it to the brim," she said — tapping the surface of the gathered glass as if to demonstrate its rigidity. "It takes a bit of experience, but eventually you learn to judge the tolerances of whatever it is you're working with. Glass, for example, isn't known for its incredible storage capacity — but once you sufficiently inundate the molecular mesh with energy, it's easy to manipulate. This is how glass-working is performed, after all."

    She curved her hand about the side of the glass lump, and it again deformed — assuming the familiar shape of the unbroken cup.

    "And of course, objects are borne of memory," said Zenjou. "It's possible to Reinforce something damaged in the capacity of what it once was. You need simply to remind it."

    Her tone of voice was mentorly — amicable enough that I couldn't even be certain if she'd taken my question as a challenge. That demonstration, though — that was one hundred percent just showing off. There was no way I could've done any of that, seeing as she hadn't actually walked me through the process.

    Was I supposed to just intuit the stuff about tolerances or something?

    "But, as I stated," she continued, "not a poor attempt. To celebrate the occasion, let's have a change of scenery for the evening. Grab your coat."

    "We're going somewhere?" I asked.

    Or rather, after a weekend of letting me be, was she finally gonna induct me into whatever gang it was that she belonged to?

    "You said that your father would be returning late tonight," she said. "In that case, I'll treat you to dinner at the restaurant of your choice — so long as the pricing is reasonable."

    "It's like a quarter after three," I said. "Isn't it a little too early?"

    "We'll be taking a detour," she replied. "Meeting up with an acquaintance of mine, just for a bit."

    This was beginning to sound like everything I didn't want to hear.

    "Where, exactly?" I asked.

    Enigmatically, Zenjou smiled.

    "Massachusetts."




    Choice of sleepwear aside, Zenjou's at-home attire seemed to consist primarily of things that a young female schoolteacher might wear if she were attempting to win a popularity contest amongst her male students. Outdoors in the New England winter, though, she'd be a little underdressed; and so, it wasn't unexpected when she excused herself to change.

    The clothes that she donned, on the other hand —

    "What are you wearing?" I asked, incredulous.

    A form-fitting turtleneck top. Black stockings. Leather thigh-highs. A miniskirt shorter than the ones Emma modelled last spring.

    I'd mentally placed her in her mid-twenties at our first encounter — but dressed like this, she might as well have been a college freshman out on the town to party. Per her facial features alone, it was difficult to tell her age; and given that we'd be crossing state lines, on the off chance that we got pulled over by highway police, I didn't look forward to explaining that we weren't involved in anything illicit.

    Honestly, the boots made her look like one of the working girls over on Market Street. Hopefully, this wasn't some ritual dress code requisite for 'spellcasting.'

    "If you've got it," said Zenjou, "there isn't a point not to show it off." She eyed my jacket and my loose jeans. "Rather, I should be the one asking that question. If this is the way you normally dress for school and so forth, I can safely say that I've been acquainted with nuns less prudish than you."

    "Aren't you cold at all, wearing a skirt that short?"

    "No, not really. It's one of the more useful benefits of Reinforcement. Dressed the way I am at present, I'd be fine even in the frozen wastes of Scotland."

    So saying, Zenjou paced over to her Volkswagen and unlocked the passenger-side door. I was momentarily confused — but actually bothering to look through the windows for the first time, I realized that the driver's seat was on the wrong side. Had she shipped the thing over from the UK or something?

    Noticing my gaze, Zenjou laughed.

    "In case you were wondering," she said, "yes, my 1953 is indeed roadworthy and legal, per the Imported Vehicle Safety Compliance Act. And yes, the police would nevertheless be inclined to flag me down — if in the first place they were capable of noticing the placement of my steering wheel."

    She was admitting to casually Mastering the police — just so she could drive around in her vehicle of choice, hassle-free.

    This woman was utterly impossible.

    "Come on, then," she prompted. "Into the car already. I'd like to be back in Brockton before the evening rush at latest."
     
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  7. Threadmarks: 006 : Jerusalem's Lot
    fallacies

    fallacies Getting sticky.

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    Apparently to avoid having to pay tolls on the I-95, we were southbound on the US-1; crossing over the Miskatonic just past the Topsfield Fairgrounds — 'Home of America's Oldest County Fair,' according to a signpost I'd read out of boredom.

    "So," said Zenjou, finally turning off the godawful country station she'd had on. "Why are you so focused on becoming a caped crusader?"

    Probably, she was probing again for personal information — but I wasn't planning to explain the situation at Winslow. It was one less weakness for her to play against me.

    "You're asking why I'd want to wear a mask and costume?" I asked. "Or the reason I'm planning to fight crime?"

    "Both," Zenjou replied — but before I could respond, she continued: "Or, to be accurate, I can more or less guess at the former. Aside from the practical utility of segregating your exploits as a cape from your private life, you're in essence abiding by established cultural conventions. Costumed vigilantes are an entrenched institution with infrastructural support set in place by the government itself. Therefore, by painting within the lines, you circumvent some of the logistical difficulties of working entirely without the system."

    It honestly hadn't crossed my mind to consider things from that sort of angle. Obviously, disassociating any cape business from 'Taylor Hebert' served the purpose of keeping Dad safe; but my thoughts going into this were otherwise mostly along the lines of taking the opportunity to reinvent myself as a person — to give my all to something worthwhile.

    I was taking things into my own hands because I didn't trust the system. If Zenjou wanted to imply that I was being a conformist or something — really, I couldn't bring myself to care.

    "Seems like you've got me figured out, then," I said. "Why are you asking?"

    "I'm asking because I don't in fact see the why of it," Zenjou replied. "Specifically, with insect control at the range you exhibit, it shouldn't be difficult to take down criminals without appearing in person. Even if you don't directly engage, you could make a difference simply by reporting crime to the appropriate authorities. There shouldn't be a need to explicitly assume a cape identity."

    In short, Zenjou was being overly optimistic in her evaluation of every mission-critical consideration — gazing down upon us peasants from her ivory tower of Eidolonisms.

    "First of all," I said, "I can't reliably see or hear through my insects. Their senses are hard for a human to interpret, and most of the time, I only have a tactile grasp of their immediate surroundings. To correctly contextualize the information they provide, I have to be present in person."

    It wasn't very smart of me to disclose the limits of my power — but, given how vastly Zenjou had misjudged things, it wasn't as if telling her would prompt an upwards-revision to whatever countermeasures she'd so far imposed against me.

    "Second," I said, "I dunno how things are elsewhere, but 'the appropriate authorities' in Brockton Bay are overworked, understaffed, and under-budgeted. If simply reporting crimes could make a difference, the gangs wouldn't have the run of the city."

    Keeping her eyes straight ahead, the edges of Zenjou's lips curled into a frown.

    "In that case," she said, "let's go back to my original question. Why do you want to be a superheroine? You're putting yourself at significant personal risk — and all for what? Public recognition? I'm not familiar with the vigilante provisions for the claiming of illegally-held funds here in the States — but the cash reward for bringing common criminals to justice is just about nonexistent."

    She thought I was gonna put my life on the line for fifteen minutes in the limelight and a bit of cash? Just how shallow did she think I was?

    "Brockton Bay is a shithole," I said, "but it's where I live. Do I need a better reason to act?"

    Signaling a left turn, she slowed the car — waiting for the oncoming traffic to pass before turning off the US-1.

    "In that case, let's say that you're successful beyond belief," she said. "Against the odds, you manage to bring in every criminal and supervillain within the city — somehow helping to establish a permanent improvement in the city's public safety. What then? Do you retire? Or do you move on to fight crime elsewhere, like a proper ally of justice?"

    What sort of question was that? Was Zenjou blind to the opposition that I'd be up against? There was no way that I'd be able to pull off something the Protectorate hadn't managed in a decade and a half.

    "I don't know," I replied. "I'd probably just quit or something. It's not like I have endless goodwill for people I haven't met before."

    "Hm," she said. "I see. Good to hear that you aren't another hopeless idiot."

    Her tone of voice was a little hard to read, but by now it was obvious that she'd been measuring me against a past acquaintance of hers. What to make of that, I wasn't certain. Really, at present, what did I even know about her?

    She was independently wealthy, definitely; a bit of a miser. College-educated at the least, with a fair background in chemistry. Culturally British? Caucasian-Japanese by ethnicity.

    Beyond that, nothing.

    In terms of the relative dirt we had on each other, she had me at a complete disadvantage. It wasn't a good feeling.

    "You said that you're bringing me to meet a friend of yours?" I said, taking to the offensive. "Why, exactly?"

    "Not a friend," Zenjou replied. "And to understand the reason, you'd need a bit of context."

    "Explain, then."

    Zenjou tapped the steering wheel with her finger.

    "I explained before that mana is vital energy, yes?" she asked.

    "Yeah?"

    "The Reinforcement that I've had you working on classifies as a single-action personal magecraft, owing that it's fueled upon the vital energy of the spellcaster alone. However, this wouldn't be the case with larger-scale spell protocols."

    "... how does this relate to my question?"

    "I'll get to that in a moment," Zenjou replied. "As I was saying, once a spell protocol exceeds the scale and duration of a single-action personal magecraft, even the most gifted of magi would be incapable of keeping pace with its energy expenditure. Thus, an alternative is necessary."

    Hold on. If mana were vital energy —

    "Other living organisms, you mean?" I asked. "As in living sacrifice?"

    Humorlessly, Zenjou scoffed.

    "You take us for savages?" she asked. "That sort of practice is the resort of sociopaths, monsters, and uncivilized brutes. Not a proper magus."

    In other words, even though she didn't personally associate with people who did that, there were in fact people who did that.

    That wasn't very reassuring.

    "In that case, what's this alternative of yours?" I asked.

    "The vital energy of the environment itself," Zenjou replied. "Beneath the earth, there are naturally-occurring pathways of mana referred to as leylines — roughly analogous to the Circuits of a magus. An area in which high-volume leylines junction with frequency is referred to as a Spiritual Ground — a prime location for the enactment of large-scale magecraft. This would be the reason my mentor assisted me in the acquisition of my current residence."

    "You mean, your house is —"

    "— situated in close proximity to a leyline junction, yes. And on account that such sites are dearly coveted, so as to settle disputes, prevent the unauthorized use of leylines, and otherwise manage the domain, a local representative of the Thaumaturgical Association is generally appointed to act as a '2nd Owner' — a custodian to a Spiritual Ground, vested with the authority to permit or deny the activities of magi within their jurisdiction."

    Finally, a name-drop of the organization she belonged to.

    By the sound of it, it was less a gang and more a — I dunno. Something akin to the Brockton Bay Housing Authority? The DMV? Except that they were probably self-appointed, and specifically regulated the resources used by the particular subset of the parahuman population whose powers operated on mana.

    Depending on how they defined 'unauthorized use,' though — the precise way in which they announced and undertook the process of eviction — there was a chance that their actual mode of operations was closer to mafia racketeering.

    At this point, it wasn't as if I really had a choice in the matter, but —

    "You're registering me with the 2nd Owner of Brockton Bay as an authorized user of magecraft?" I asked, offloading my anxiety to the insects in the surrounding woodland.

    "The 'acting' 2nd Owner," said Zenjou. "As I understand it, the man charged with the custodianship of Brockton Bay is presently indisposed, and lacked in the first place the temperament to fulfill his duties. Being as his biological successor isn't a magus, management of the city has been temporarily assigned to the overseer of a neighboring jurisdiction."

    Magic. Spiritual Grounds. Old families. A road trip into Essex County, Massachusetts.

    It didn't take a genius to connect the dots.

    "We're going to Salem, then?" I asked.




    It was actually in Peabody, and not Salem township itself. The entire trip took around an hour.

    Just past the Northshore Mall and the clover-leaf interchange on the Yankee Division Highway, we turned off Andover Street, and into a wooded driveway. Our destination was the only house on the road.

    The house itself was kind of unassuming — a three-story building in the classic New England Colonial style, sided in whitewashed weatherboard. However, the presence it exuded —

    It felt as if I were standing in front of a radiator — and yet, the insects in the house and garden indicated nothing of the sort.

    "Is it supposed to be this warm?" I asked, unbuttoning my jacket as I stepped out from the Volkswagen.

    "You experience it as warmth, do you?" asked Zenjou. "Makes sense, considering your predisposition to the tactile sense. Do keep your coat on, though, as it isn't actually an increase of temperature that you're feeling. Your brain merely interprets it as such."

    "What is this?" I asked.

    "A defensive perimeter — generally known as a Bounded Field," Zenjou replied. "An example of such would be the pyramidal 'dead zone' you sensed about my residence, prior to the adjustments I made on Sunday. The one before you now is oriented primarily as to dissuade visitations from individuals absent of Thaumaturgical Circuits."

    It was doing a pretty good job of dissuading me at present, despite my Circuits.

    "The one around your house doesn't make me feel like I'm walking through a microwave," I said, following after Zenjou to the wrought-iron gates.

    "Mine works by a different set of mechanics," said Zenjou, ringing the doorbell. "This is more the general sort that you're likely to encounter. Now, shush."

    After a brief wait, a tall, pale man with a neatly trimmed goatee opened the front door — placidly approaching the gateway along the garden pathway. His features were cultured — almost Latin; and beneath his white dress shirt, he was fairly well-built. If he weren't close to Dad's age —

    I shunted that line of thought to the swarm. Now wasn't the time.

    In hindsight, it was blatantly obvious why it was that Zenjou had elected to dress the way she had. She was pining after a guy who looked like a hot mafia hitman from a gangster movie.

    "Whateley," Zenjou greeted.

    "Miss Zenjou," the man replied, speaking with an oddly resonant voice. "Mother is expecting you."

    He undid the latch of the gate, and pulled open the left side, allowing us to enter. In silence, we followed him into the foyer — up the stairs to the second floor and along a corridor. Opening the door to what appeared to be a well-decorated study, he stood to the side and gestured for us to enter.

    "Please," he said.

    I followed Zenjou within — taking note of the leather-bound volumes that lined the shelves surrounding the room. Surprisingly, there were hardly any booklice that I could grasp ahold of.

    "Good of you to drop by, Miss Zenjou," said a white-haired woman, seated in an armchair beside a crackling fireplace. "How are things coming along with the project?"

    At first glance, I mistook her for an elderly lady; but noted after a moment that in truth, she didn't look much older than 30 or 35 — entirely absent the telltale blemishes of age. Like her 'son' — if indeed he was her son — she was excessively pale; but hers was the translucent pallor of albinism.

    Her figure, though —

    Clad in a thin black dress that clung to her skin, she had wide hips and a generous bust, despite her otherwise slender build. If not for her albinism; if not for the pale red of her oddly small irises, and the dark rings beneath her eyes — she had the sort of looks that wouldn't have been out of place in a teenage boy's porn collection.

    Sorry Zenjou, but if the guy's mom looks like that, you don't stand a chance.

    "Slow and steady as usual," Zenjou replied. "But that's a subject for another time. I've come today to introduce my new apprentice."

    She gestured to me.

    "Taylor Hebert," she continued. "The girl I called ahead about. First-gen, with Circuits of uncommonly decent Quality and Quantity. No lineage that I'm aware of — though admittedly, I haven't had the opportunity to research her genealogy."

    "Uh, hi," I said, feeling a little put upon the spot.

    The albino woman looked to me with a smile.

    "My name is Lavinia Whateley, dearie," she said. "Presently, I act as the 2nd Owner of Brockton Bay. Pleased to meet you." She turned to regard Zenjou. "But I do have to say, Miss Zenjou — isn't it rather abrupt for you to be taking an apprentice? You've been in this area for a little more than a month. I'd have thought that you'd want a little more time to settle in."

    Zenjou seemed to have expected the question.

    "I have reason to believe that my encounter with Taylor was pre-arranged," she replied. "It wasn't by random chance or serendipity — and so, based on past experience, I decided to act upon the opportunity."

    That explained a few things — but it also raised some questions. For a start, pre-arranged by who?

    "Well, if you've made up your mind to sponsor an apprentice," said Mrs. Whateley, "I see no reason to object." Looking at me, she said, "I welcome you to our fraternity, Miss Hebert. I trust that Miss Zenjou has familiarized you with our policy against the disclosure of Mystery?"

    Like in a medieval mystery play? Zenjou hadn't mentioned anything of the sort, but overall, I'd gotten the gist from her bit about keeping things a secret. The first rule of fight club is — you don't talk about the fight club.

    "Yeah," I said, nodding.

    "Very good," said Mrs. Whateley. Looking again to Zenjou, she said, "Do you have any other business today?"

    "Not in particular," Zenjou replied. "Just dropping in to say hi."

    "In that case," said Mrs. Whateley, "do keep me posted on your progress. Wilbur!"

    At the door of the study, Wilbur Whateley peered within.

    "Mother," he said.

    "Be a dear and show the young ladies to the gates," said Mrs. Whateley. She nodded to us. "Have a pleasant evening."

    "You too," said Zenjou, giving her a casual wave before exiting into the corridor.

    Out of politeness, I nodded at Mrs. Whateley before following suit.




    Back on the road and northbound, I felt a little better about being inducted into Zenjou's coven against my will. Mrs. Whateley — despite her, uh, unique appearance — was friendly enough; not at all an overlap with my mental image of a regional boss to the magical mafia. Aside from getting me to assent to a Harry Potter-esque Statute of Secrecy, she hadn't even made an unreasonable demand of me.

    Probably, my poor initial reaction to this business with magecraft and so forth was grounded entirely in Zenjou's shitty personality.

    "Don't buy into the kindly grandmother act," said Zenjou, slowing the car at a traffic light. "Lavinia Whateley's an inhuman monstrosity. The Association ceded to her the custodianship of the Spiritual Ground of Salem on account that she singlehandedly neutralized the forces they dispatched to lay claim to it, way back when."

    And here she was, poisoning the well. Mrs. Whateley was hardly a 'grandmother.'

    "She seemed pretty nice to me," I said. "And don't pretend you didn't dress up to impress her incredibly hot son."

    Zenjou looked to me with an expression of disbelief.

    "You think I'm attracted to Wilbur Whateley, of all people?" she asked. "Do you even know what he is?"

    She turned her eyes back to the road, shaking her head as if to clear it.

    "No, never mind," she said. "That was unfair of me. You wouldn't have the context to understand."

    What was that all about?

    "But no," Zenjou continued, "it isn't particularly to present myself to any male gaze that I dress up. I do it at my own pleasure. Doesn't your American education teach you anything about women's empowerment?"

    I was pretty certain that women's empowerment had nothing to do with dressing like a tramp.

    "In any case," said Zenjou, "where are we headed for dinner? I'm not footing the bill if it's too expensive."

    I thought about it for a moment.

    Me and Dad didn't often eat out; but so long as it wasn't seafood, the places we'd been to generally didn't edge into the hundred-dollar range. Probably, I could just name something, and it'd be fine — but I wasn't certain what Zenjou considered expensive.

    "You ever had diner food before?" I asked.
     
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  8. Threadmarks: 007 : A Taste For Slaughter
    fallacies

    fallacies Getting sticky.

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    Benedict's was an 'authentic' 24-hour diner — whatever it was that 'authentic' was supposed to mean in the restaurant industry.

    That wasn't a slight against the place on my part, as the food was consistently delicious. It's just that — for all that it rocked the art deco look of a vintage 50's diner, and legitimately serviced a long-distance trucking route — it had actually been built in the mid-to-late 90's, shortly after I was born. Not to mention, it was part of a restaurant chain that was wholly owned by the McDonell's Corporation.

    I couldn't remember when it was that I'd last visited, but in happier times, me, Mom, and Dad would occasionally drop by on the way home from a weekend trip to Gran's place down in Martin's Beach.

    For me, personally, the defining feature of diner fare was the availability of breakfast at any hour of the day; and so, quite naturally, I ended up ordering scrambled eggs and pancakes with a side of sausage, coated all over with a generous helping of maple syrup. It wasn't the healthiest of meals, I knew, but for whatever reason, I was inordinately hungry today.

    Probably, then, it was a little hypocritical of me to get on Zenjou's case for choosing what she did — but, following a bowl of New England clam chowder, her main dish for the evening was the one item on the menu that I absolutely couldn't stomach.

    The Maxi Burger Classic was a one-pound double bacon cheeseburger deluxe served with fries and onion rings — a staple at any restaurant associated with the McDonell's brand, franchised or otherwise. Fugly Bob's up by Market, for example, famously offered the Challenger — a nearly-identical burger, but topped with chili instead of lettuce and tomatoes.

    The nutritional information on the menu here at Benedict's helpfully supplied that the burger alone was worth about 1,775 calories, give or take — a little over the lower limit of the recommended daily caloric intake for an adult woman.

    "You had more than half a carton of egg fried rice for lunch," I said, staring at Zenjou's plate. "You're going to get fat."

    Having cut the burger with a steak knife, Zenjou lifted the half of the sandwich closer to her and took a bite — taking the time to slowly chew before washing it down with a sip of coke.

    "Weight management isn't solely about controlling intake," she said, setting down her glass. "Maintaining a regular caloric expenditure is critical. Thankfully — alike to constantly running a fever — the escalated metabolism come of a constant use of Reinforcement burns up a significant amount of energy." She popped a smaller onion ring into her mouth and chewed. "I'd actually recommend that you aim to consume 3,500 calories a day at a minimum. Put a little meat on those bones of yours."

    What are you? The witch from Hansel and Gretel?

    This was exactly the sort of opinion I'd expect from a conventionally-attractive girl genetically predisposed to slimness. Benefits of Reinforcement aside, her baseline metabolism was probably fast enough that irrelevant of whatever she ate, she'd never have to contend with obesity.

    On the upside, a metabolism like hers practically guaranteed that she'd never naturally develop the kind of curves that Mrs. Whateley sported.

    If I weren't basically in the same boat, maybe I might've taken a petty pleasure in that.

    "It's really alright to just casually talk about magecraft like this?" I asked. "I know you said that the Bounded Field you set up takes care of that, but —"

    "Aside from the two of us and the waitress assigned to this aisle," said Zenjou, lifting another onion ring from her plate, "every human within a range of ten meters is imposed with a mild mental interference that substitutes an apprehension of our conversation with generic dialogue supplied by their own minds." She bit into the ring and chewed. "But, that's only to preempt the perception that our table is unnaturally absent of noise. In fact, as a countermeasure to electronic recording, no sound that we make passes significantly beyond the boundaries of our booth; and at distance, the movements of our lips would look to be entirely randomized."

    In other words, the Master-Stranger effect implemented was mostly fool-proof against potential eavesdroppers, barring the slim possibility that somebody had physically bugged the booth. I supposed it was proof enough of the Bounded Field's efficacy that nobody within earshot responded at all to Zenjou's candid admission to Mastering them.

    Accepting her explanation at face value, though, it sounded as if the complexity and the sustained nature of effect rather exceeded the scope of what she'd earlier described as a 'single-action spell protocol.' Was she tapping into a nearby leyline for mana?

    Honestly, I couldn't tell. All that I knew for certain was, she hadn't bothered to divert away the looks she received from the male patrons within view of our table — faintly smiling as she basked in the attention.

    I did my best to ignore that.

    "So," I said. "Seeing as I can't follow a regulation that I don't understand, what's this 'mystery' thing that Mrs. Whateley mentioned?"

    Swallowing a bite of her burger, Zenjou wiped her lips with her napkin.

    "One of the things I didn't intend to touch upon quite yet," she replied. "The short of it is that the revelation of the existence of magecraft would produce an outcome that the Association cannot tolerate. Thus, the consequences they visit upon those who breach the rule of secrecy are deadly serious. I imagine that if a particular magus were to present their use of magecraft as a parahuman power, the Association would default to looking the other way; but public disclosure of the underlying mechanics is absolutely forbidden."

    She sipped her coke.

    "Before you ask," she continued, "it isn't some Harry Potter thing, where the terrible outcome that must be avoided is just a matter of persecution. There's a more technical explanation for the underlying justification, but at this juncture, you're likely to dismiss it as hogwash if I were to go into detail."

    Once again, Zenjou had drawn a distinction between 'magecraft' and 'parahuman powers' — as if they weren't both a load of bullshit not yet accounted for by modern science.

    Personally, I didn't see a need to distinguish; but as it was apparently a matter of critical importance to the secret fraternity of Myrddin wannabes, I supposed that there wasn't any harm in playing ball. Follow the rules, and they wouldn't bother me. Simple enough.

    Assuming, of course, that Zenjou hadn't just hired a pair of actors to help maintain her ruse.

    — not that I had the leeway to seriously entertain a take like that. Yes, it was definitely prudent to approach things with a healthy dose of skepticism; but if regarding something as a falsehood was certain to provoke serious repercussions, at some point, you'd have to take the equivalent of Pascal's wager.

    Being as power dynamics ensured that Dad and I were effectively at Zenjou's mercy, I honestly couldn't think of a pragmatic reason for her to invest significant time and resources to the sole purpose of misrepresenting the nature of 'magecraft.'

    For the sake of argument, it could be that she legitimately got off on 'persuading' a 15-year-old to buy into a worldview from out of a young adult fantasy novel; but —

    Really, for all that she tolerated my verbal sniping and general lack of respect — if she told me to jump, circumstances were such that my only choice was to ask 'how high?' To my mind, at least, that significantly diminished the likelihood she was lying.

    "Explain it so I understand, then," I said. "I'm not that close-minded."

    She hmm'd in contemplation — chewing through a bite of her burger before speaking.

    "Let's start with some basic concepts," she said. "Yesterday morning, I mentioned the matter of 'salience' — that when working with water, Reinforcement more easily applies to surface tension than hydrogen bonding, as the former is a feature more commonly apprehended. Taking that into consideration, what precisely did you Reinforce when repairing my cup this afternoon?"

    "Its ability to flow?"

    "Correct. And why is that 'salient,' if per the strictures of physics, normal glass isn't capable of flowing at room temperature?"

    'Salience' was in Zenjou's usage something that emerged in the consciousness of the population at large. If it could be said that the capacity of glass to flow at room temperature was in fact 'salient,' it would have to be in the context of —

    "It's those anecdotes about church windows thickening at the bottom, no?" I asked. "They even turn up in textbooks on occasion."

    The one from my freshman chemistry class, for example — because, apparently, Winslow couldn't even be trusted not to have misinformation in the textbooks they ordered.

    "Correct again," Zenjou replied, nodding in approval. "And Mystery is in general the term for items of salience descriptive of phenomena that don't fall strictly within the dictates of the established laws of physics — the engravement of which within the Collective Unconscious of Man is referred to as a Thaumaturgical Foundation. To vastly oversimplify, magecraft accesses Foundations as to make use of Mysteries in the rendition of possible outcomes."

    If I wasn't misremembering Mom's explanation from when I was in middle school, 'the collective unconscious' was a term from Jungian psychology — a pattern of unconsciousness that manifested in common across the human species, emerging from the standard response that our brains had evolved to handle with the acquisition of common elements in culture.

    I had a distinct feeling this wasn't the definition that Zenjou was using — but I could grasp the gist: If an irrational belief about the way things worked persisted within the public mind, magecraft had a use for it.

    "Why the emphasis on 'possible,' though?" I asked. "If something violates the laws of physics, isn't it just outright impossible? Like, I shouldn't have been able to reshape glass at room temperature, period."

    "It isn't 'impossibility' in the legitimate sense," said Zenjou, "and it persists only so long as mana is available. Removed of such, the 'possibility' that remains as an outcome is nothing that can't be achieved within the boundaries of science and technology — attained at a resource expenditure of approximately equivalent value to a parallel use of technology. Ergo, magecraft is in summary more or less a circumvention of the due process demanded by the laws of physics."

    I bit off the end of a piece of sausage, looking down to my plate as I chewed. So far, I could roughly follow Zenjou's logic — but some of the things she'd mentioned didn't quite add up.

    "But, taking that glass thing as an example of a Mystery," I said, "what would 'disclosure' entail, exactly? Two billion people watching a YouTube tutorial on how to Reinforce a cup to liquefaction?"

    Midway through a bite into her burger, Zenjou paused — making a weird expression before following through and swallowing.

    "That isn't what 'disclosure' would typically entail, no," she said, sipping her coke. "Setting aside the consequences that would snowball from the revelation of mana, science would in such an event quickly bring the demonstrated phenomenon to quantification — assimilating it to the corpus of human comprehension, or otherwise amending the corpus as to accommodate." She paused. "And should that come to pass — is there a need to yet hold faith in the neighborhood milkman?"

    I blinked at her non sequitur.

    "What does that have to do with anything?" I asked.

    "Not read up on your Pratchett, are you?" said Zenjou. "With particular exceptions irrelevant to the present discussion, Mystery encompasses for our purposes here those items taken in faith — the things that people suspect to be true; that they hold to fall within the realm of possibility. Rhetorically, if it comes to pass that a given Mystery is wholly quantified to scientific comprehension, is it still a Mystery?"

    The milkman existed. There wasn't a need to suspect his existence; to hold it in faith. His being was objectively confirmable.

    Magecraft, in other words, required whatever it justified itself upon to exist in the capacity of a Mystery — held in faith to the level of carrying 'salience.' Conversely, if by the advance of science, something no longer qualified as a Mystery —

    Like I'd surmised on Sunday afternoon, what Zenjou practiced was akin to stage magic — impressive-looking, but only on account that the know-how to perform it was scarce.

    It was a power held in scarcity; because — like in that animated cape flick from Earth Aleph — if everyone's super, no-one is.

    "But what's the point, then?" I asked. "If magecraft only produces outcomes achievable via tech, why bother with it at all? I mean, you said that the resource expenditure is about the same either way, right?"

    Somehow, in the time that we'd been speaking, Zenjou had finished the first half of her burger. Wiping her lips again, she casually pointed to the street-facing window of the diner.

    "See that car across the street?" she asked. "The red one."

    I glanced in the direction she was pointing, but in the dim light of the dusk, it took a moment to find what she was talking about. Across the diner's parking lot; across the 4-lane street beyond, there was a red automobile parked in front of a building — just outside the range of my swarm.

    "What about it?" I asked.

    "Activate your Circuits," she said. "Abiding by instinct, fill your eyes with mana. Don't force it."

    Closing my eyes, I inhaled and did as asked. A warmth entered into my eye sockets.

    "Now," said Zenjou, "remove your eyeglasses, and look again beneath the car."

    Taking my glasses off, I blinked open my eyes —

    "Huh."

    A little jarringly, the environment around me had entered into sharp focus. This extended beyond the windows of the diner to the landscape without — revealing the details the dusk had concealed, even as the contrast and brightness were entirely unchanged.

    In the shadow of the car across the street, there was a small black cat.

    "To glimpse that kitten at a comparable clarity via technological means," said Zenjou, "you'd have to acquire a fairly costly pair of night-vision binoculars. Yet, merely by an expenditure of mana in equivalent value, you've just now circumvented the need for such a thing." She lifted the second half of her burger. "This is really only possible for magecraft at a personal scale, however."

    — because, beyond the scale of personal magecraft, the kind of resources required escalated to real estate, of all things.

    Still, I supposed that answered part of my question — even if in all seriousness, I couldn't buy the claim that a couple of seconds of Circuit activation was of the same monetary worth as a pair of night-vision binoculars. Those things were an upwards of two hundred bucks at the least.

    "Alright," I said, cancelling my Reinforcement and putting my glasses back on. "So there's a practical convenience in the substitution of costs. Outside of tapping into a leyline indefinitely, though, you're eventually gonna end up with an outcome that could've been achieved without the use of magecraft. What's the point of magecraft, then — cost substitution aside?"

    Swallowing a bite, Zenjou exhaled.

    "The majority of magi aren't so focused on utility in a practical context," she said, sounding a little exasperated. "Also, higher-order magecraft does frequently make use of a leyline as to indefinitely render that a Fantasy supersedes the strictures of physics."

    Picking up a French fry, she dipped it into the condiment cup at the edge of her plate.

    "I don't know that it'll satisfy you as an answer," she continued, biting off the ketchup-covered end of the fry and chewing. "But — setting aside the matter of cost substitution as you've asked — what do you figure it means when I say that 'the due process of physics' is circumvented?"

    The due process of physics, outside of cost substitution?

    "As in like, the laws of physics require things to happen a certain way, but magecraft overrules it?" I asked.

    Zenjou nodded.

    "If I were to heat a piece of glass in excess of 550° C," she said, "physics would have it undergo the process of glass transition. However, if I were to simultaneously Reinforce it in its capacity as a rigid solid —"

    Glass transition could be denied.

    It wouldn't persist if mana provision were discontinued — but in a very literal sense, on a temporary basis, magecraft permitted that 'Fantasy' could supersede reality.

    I felt like a bit of an idiot for not having comprehended right off the bat. The concept itself was blatantly obvious; practically staring me in the face the entire time — but for whatever reason, my mind had glossed right past it until Zenjou had pointed it out.

    Now, my imagination was aflame.

    "Say," I said. "How can I tell if something's salient enough to qualify as a Mystery?"




    Wednesday morning was the first that I attempted to jog with full-body Reinforcement. As the temperature was about the same as the day prior, I'd gone out in a hoodie, t-shirt, and pair of sweatpants — not having yet saved up the money for actual jogging gear.

    The hoodie turned out to be a mistake.

    Not even five minutes in, I was sweating like crazy, and I had to take the thing off. Tying the sleeves around my waist, I resumed my jog — sort of going on autopilot as I mulled over the topics that Zenjou had covered at dinner.

    The original intent had just been to go a little further than I had the past two days; to feel out the limits of my body during the active use of magecraft. Unfortunately, I'd let my mind wander a little too far; and by the time I realized it, I was straight across the Docks and well past the limits of the Trainyard.

    Aside from the tracks and facilities still in active use, much of the area appeared to be completely derelict. I'd have thought that the druggies or the homeless would make use of the abandoned boxcars to stay out of the cold; but in the zone that I was in, at least, there wasn't a single human within range of my swarm.

    It was only seven, and I wasn't yet tired at all. Not in a particular rush, I decided to take it easy for a bit — slowing down to a walk as I navigated the skeletal remains of an abandoned freight station.

    Along one of the walls at the edge of the complex, there was a broken-down automobile, heavily rusted and missing its wheels. On a moment's whim, I approached the wreck — removing my glove and touching the door.

    Instilling my mana within, I directed the individual motes of energy to form into a vertical line upon the surface — raising the saturation to the limit.

    There was a crackling noise, and I quickly pulled my hand away — stepping back as the exterior chassis of the door shattered along the line that I'd made.

    Zenjou had broken her glass cup with nothing more than a single tap of her finger. Comparatively, I'd taken far too long.

    "I can work with this, though," I said aloud.
     
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  9. Extras: Use of Reinforcement in FSN
    fallacies

    fallacies Getting sticky.

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    Use of Reinforcement in FSN:

    This is a non-exhaustive but mostly comprehensive survey of the descriptions of Reinforcement in FSN. Items excluded primarily fall in the category one-line mentions that don't really go into detail, or repeats of the same information.
    • Reinforcement is rendered by way of permeating (通す, tohsu) a target with mana.
    • As of FATE - Day 01, Shirou believes that rendering mana permeation without proper structural grasp would only hasten the target's annihilation. Ergo, he seeks only to permeate "the unoccupied interstices" (空いている透き間, suiteiru sukima) of the object.
    • Objects originally borne of Form (カタチ, katachi) are difficult to Reinforce.
    • Relatedly, Shirou compares Reinforcement to the act of adding brushstrokes to a completed artwork, giving that doing so runs the risk of reducing the completeness of the object being processed. He gives that this is the reason that Reinforcement is difficult despite being straightforward — maybe linking it to its lack of popularity amongst magi.
    • According to Rin, capacity to stockpile mana in objects aside from one's own body is uncommon.
    • Objects permeated with mana undergo some manner of change — rendering the consumption of the mana used. This is part of the reason thaumaturgical phenomena are short-lived, and don't persist in perpetuity.
    On FATE - Day 07, Rin approaches the task of training Shirou in Reinforcement with a presumption that he should be able to master it by the end of the day.
    Shirou ends up breaking all 30 of the lamps that Rin prepared. At this, Rin gives that her presumption was overly naive.
    • Reinforcement applies to an object's effects / capabilities.
    • Alteration entails affixing capabilities without an object's native features.
    Shirou refers to Reinforcement as "the easiest of all" magecraft.
    • In Shirou's opinion, his incapacity to perform Reinforcement comes of an inability to properly control his mana.
    • This came as a response to an assessment by Rin that he was being overly forceful; that he was using too much mana; that he wasn't strictly acting to Reinforce the target's weaknesses.
    • Shirou takes Rin's critique to imply that he should be cutting corners.
    In the loredump that replaces the FATE - Day 11 sex scene in Realta Nua, it's revealed that in Shirou's opinion, his use of Reinforcement comes with Circuit activation to the level of "one through four." The phrasing makes it sound like he's numbered his commonly-used Circuits in his head or something ...
    As of FATE - Day 15, Shirou is actually still incapable of determining whether or not he's successfully Reinforced an object after doing so.




    Moving on, from Nasu's official tweets during the launch of UBW (2014):

    [URL unfurl="true"]https://twitter.com/Fate_SN_Anime/status/518437346291634176[/URL]

    [URL unfurl="true"]https://twitter.com/Fate_SN_Anime/status/520971314492764161[/URL]

    • Ergo, per WoG, Reinforcement of the body and the 5 senses is "a fundamental amongst fundamentals."
    • Temporary Reinforcement of the flesh is rendered by permeating one's own body with mana; by infusing one's own blood with mana. Nasu gives that this is a simple feat.
    • On account that it's difficult to permeate non-self objects / implements with mana, the Reinforcement of such is typically rendered by way of encompassing the exterior with "a single layer of armor." Nasu gives that this is cheap, quick, and strong.




    The glossary entry on Reinforcement from Side Material:
    And from CM3:
    Unfortunately, the Theory of Magic Google Doc doesn't allow me to copypaste.




    On an unrelated note, the glossary entry on Thaumaturgical Foundations in Case File Material:
    • Faith and the unconscious of the people reinforces the strength of a Mystery.
    • However, propagation (広まる, hiromaru) weakens the strength of a Mystery.
    • Thaumaturgical Foundations are Thaumaturgical Principles / Theories (魔術理論, majutsu riron) engraved upon the World, and render the paradoxical effect of stabilizing Mysteries to the extent of their prevalence / popularity (知名度, chimeido, lit. "degree of being well-known"). Note that Case Files Material also states that the qualification of the Cause Rank is "the establishment and stabilization of a Foundation."
    • The TMDict translation doesn't really properly render the bit about "families." The nuance is actually that (all?) magecraft (strictly?) passed down as of a single family would be unreliant upon Foundations, and are instead established upon personal / personalized spell protocols / formulas. That is, this may be a common occurrence without the purview of the Association.
     
  10. Threadmarks: 008 : Chrysalis
    fallacies

    fallacies Getting sticky.

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    The stretch of Canal Street in the vicinity of the City Subway station was one of those shopping areas that despite seeing a lot of pedestrian traffic in the daytime probably wasn't actually lucrative. Dating from when Brockton Bay was still 'the Star of New Hampshire,' the 4-to-5 story brownstone buildings housed a number of dingy, shoddily-maintained outlets whose wares catered in general to the needs of urban poor — unalike to the upscale, tourist-oriented places along the Boardwalk.

    Maybe two or three minutes from the station, Zenjou pulled her Volkswagen into a vacant space in front of a boarded-up building — encompassed in the telltale heat of a Bounded Field.

    "You're really just gonna park on the street?" I asked, exiting the car.

    "What's wrong with that?" she asked.

    A well-maintained 1953 Volkswagen Beetle was more than a little eye-catching in the commercial part the Docks South. Given, it was around eleven in the morning, and car-jackers probably wouldn't be so bold as to make an attempt on it in broad daylight. Still —

    "Crime rate's pretty high in this area," I said aloud. "Somebody thinks there's something valuable, and they'll break your windows."

    "Hm. I see," she said — tilting forward the back of the driver's seat, unloading a pair of carry-on suitcases from the rear. "Good thing the Bounded Field deals with that, then. Here, take this."

    She offered me the handle to one of the suitcases, and I took ahold — a little surprised at how heavy the thing was.

    "What do you mean 'deals with that?'" I asked, following after her she pulled her own suitcase toward the front entrance of the building.

    She pulled out a key and fiddled a bit with the padlock — unlocking it before she answered:

    "Look around. Is there any other vacant parking nearby?"

    There wasn't, in fact — not for two full city blocks. It was only to be expected, given the time of the day, and the fact that we were on Canal Street.

    "You're saying you set up the Bounded Field to reserve a spot for you?" I asked.

    "Not so. It's the Whateleys' doing," she said, pulling open the plywood panel, and switching to another key for the sturdier door within.

    With a click, the lock opened, and we headed inside — closing and latching the plywood panel behind us. Inside the building, I was confronted with a stale, musty odor, and an unlit service corridor that terminated at a stairwell opposite the street-facing facade.

    "But yes," said Zenjou, rolling her luggage toward the stairs. "Unto those incapable of actively circulating mana, the deterrence here asserted extends well into the street. I presume the old woman dislikes having to seek out parking every time she drops by ahead of a prospective tenant."

    So, thaumaturgical Master effects could to some extent be repelled via the mana circulation of a trained magus. Good to know — though, if Zenjou were willing to so casually disclose the information, I doubted it was of any use against her.

    "You're renting the place, then?" I asked.

    "I'm not paying a penny," Zenjou replied, smirking — visibly pleased with herself. "In exchange for assistance on a certain project, I've been let to 'squat,' rent-free. Plausible deniability, you know? I intend to use this as a forward operating site in case I ever have to act as a cape — but, there isn't a paper trail that connects the Whateleys back to me, if anyone cares to investigate the ownership of the property."

    At the base of the stairs, she stowed the telescopic handle — switching over to hold the carry-on by the clutch on the side. Effortlessly ascending the first flight of stairs, she paused before the grate-covered window to glance back at me — looking to her in incredulity from the ground floor.

    "What's the hold-up?" she asked. "The luggage isn't going to carry itself."

    "We're taking the stairs? Really?"

    "Yes, really — as there clearly isn't an elevator. A bit of manual labor never hurt anyone."

    Reluctantly, I followed suit. The way up was four stories and eight flights of stairs, and the luggage had to be sixty pounds at minimum. Using Reinforcement, it was doable — mostly; but I imagined that if I hadn't already spent myself earlier in the morning, it might've been moreso.

    Down a stretch of corridor on the top floor, we entered into a dance studio with mirrored walls and an elevated glass ceiling, set at a slight incline. The interior looked a little less age-worn than the rest of the building.

    "Just set the case down wherever, and take a rest," said Zenjou, placing her own carry-on against a wall — not even breathing hard. Giving me a once-over from head to toe, she continued, "Aside from increasing your caloric intake, I think we'll definitely have to work on your basic fitness. A climb like that shouldn't have even required Reinforcement."

    Big words for a girl who'd pretty much admitted to running Reinforcement at all times. Unless she was a hundred fifty pounds of solid muscle under those tight-fitting clothes, I very much doubted that without the use of magecraft, she'd be looking so incredibly fresh.

    Exhaling, I set my carry-on on the floor, seating myself on a chair nearby.

    "What's in there, anyways?" I asked. "Rocks?"

    "Good guess," Zenjou replied, unzipping the luggage I'd been carrying and laying it open on the hardwood floor. "Not entirely off the mark."

    The suitcase was fitted with an insert of grey foam, cut with apertures in array to accommodate a large selection of items — jewels, for the most part. I wasn't familiar with the pricing of gemstones, but altogether, it must've been worth a fortune.

    "You robbed a jewelry store or something?" I asked.

    Zenjou chuckled.

    "I assure you, everything here was legally acquired," she said. "But, for our purposes here today, this is the only item you should concern yourself with."

    From a corner of the suitcase, she withdrew a large empty jar, setting it upon the open-front school-desk beside me. I wondered for a moment if she intended to have me repeat the glass-mending exercise; but touching her fingers to the lid, she spoke the word 'reload,' and the jar lit up like the flash on a camera — prompting me to shield my eyes with an arm.

    I felt it before I saw it: An unfamiliar arthropod that abruptly manifested within — legless and ugly, with clearly defined mandibles and a fin-like dorsal crest along its chitinous segments; terminating in a spiny tail that split into two like the caudal fin of a fish.

    Even if I didn't actively assert control, my power provided a read on the instincts of any insect I connected to. For all that this one appeared to lack eyes, it was immediately able to discern the presence of warm bodies in its vicinity; regarding Zenjou and I with a sort of hungry —

    "Apologies for the flash," said Zenjou. "Bit of an inefficiency that I haven't yet worked out. To summarize, then, the lid on the jar is keyed to respond to a brief channeling of mana alongside the utterance of the word 'reload' — at which point, the contents will be replaced with your next guinea pig."

    Teleportation? She had a jar capable of teleporting its contents?

    "What's the thing inside?" I asked.

    "A particularly loathsome parasite colloquially referred to as a blood worm, or a vampire worm," said Zenjou. "Though taxonomically, it's an arthropod and not really any kind of annelid, so as the name implies, it's evolved to feed upon the blood of warm-bodied mammals — burrowing deep within the flesh. As to how precisely it enters the body — let's just say that it isn't entirely on accident that its shape is phallic."

    Subsequent my becoming a parahuman, I'd mostly ceased to regard arthropods with disgust; but looking at this thing, I couldn't help but imagine it chewing through me — lodging itself between my organs. Where the hell did Zenjou even find it?

    "... and I guess I'll be attempting to Reinforce it?"

    "It'll be a two-fold exercise," Zenjou replied. "You'll be Reinforcing the blood worm, yes — but only by way of using the glass as a conduit. If the thing dies in the process, reload and try again."

    "Couldn't I have done this with something that — I dunno — isn't instinctively geared to violate my body on the off chance that I let it loose?" I asked. "Like a household cockroach?"

    Zenjou regarded me with a smug, sadistic smile.

    "Consider it incentive not to break the jar," she said.




    Keeping the jar intact was extremely easy.

    The blood worm, on the other hand —

    I went with the 'motes of mana' technique right off the bat — effortlessly bypassing the glass. With half of the objective completed in under a minute, I proceeded to introduce my mana to the blood worm.

    This was where I started running into trouble.

    Earlier, when Zenjou mentioned off-hand that the circulation of mana could overcome thaumaturgical Master effects, I hadn't fully appreciated the implications. More accurately, my understanding of the underlying phenomenon had been overly narrow.

    Mana was fundamentally vital energy, and vital energy circulated the bodies of living organisms. Naturally, the energy I put through the carapace of the blood worm was engulfed in the flow of its vitality — quickly eroding from my grasp.

    It wasn't 'thaumaturgical Master effects' that a circulation of mana could overcome, and it wasn't strictly that trained magi alone were borne of such a capability. Magecraft itself was obstructed; and while it was obvious that having a bit of training better equipped a person to negate the effects of a spell, at the very small scale that I was working at, the not-particularly-high-volume circulation of a blood worm's vital energy was sufficient to ward it from my Reinforcement.

    This was, I realized, the thaumaturgical equivalent of a Manton limit.

    Unlike an actual Manton limit, though, it didn't seem entirely non-negotiable. If a flowing stream could easily dilute a drop of food coloring to invisibility, it stood to reason that the solution was just to add more.

    So thinking, I clasped the side of the jar and allowed my mana to flow, again directing it to congregate at the points at which the belly of the blood worm rested against the glass — gradually raising the count of the motes as to permeate the flow of vitality without inducing an oversaturation —

    There was a wet splatter from within the jar. Along the length of the blood worm, its organs had burst, and its gooey innards had ruptured from the breaches in its exoskeleton — painting the sides of the container in slime. If not for the glass in the way, I might've been drenched in God knows what.

    Crap.

    Blowing air from my lips, I pressed a pair of fingers to the lid of the jar — remembering to close my eyes before releasing my mana into the metal.

    "Reload," I said.

    I saw a flash through my eyelids; and the next I opened them, there wasn't any trace of the mess I'd made. Instead, a fresh worm had taken the place of the oozing carcass.

    It was the second of several dozens in the initial hour of the exercise.

    At maybe a quarter to one, Zenjou wrapped up the first stage of whatever she was doing with the mirrors in the room, and called a break. We locked up downstairs and took our lunch at a pizzeria about a block up the street. Probably owing to the morning's exertions, I was completely famished, and ended up eating a couple more slices than I usually did — well against my better judgment.

    "It's completely impossible," I said, wiping my hands after a sixth slice. "Either my mana's blocked, or the thing just ends up dying. There isn't any in-between, regardless of how little mana I use."

    Zenjou had the gall to look amused.

    "Reinforce a creature you haven't suborned as familiar, and you'll be squaring off against its odic circulation," she replied. "Even that you attempt to brute-force the process, the Thaumaturgical Resistance so bestowed ensures that for animals larger than a common housecat, you're unlikely even to reach the point of rupturing organs. Consequently, the Reinforcement of another human is considered to be of the utmost difficulty, irrelevant of whether your subject is a magus."

    A familiar? Like a witch's familiar?

    No — that wasn't important at the moment.

    "Is there a way for me to go about this without 'brute-forcing,' then?" I asked.

    Sipping her orange Fanta through a straw, Zenjou softly set the bottle down beside her deep-dish pizza.

    "I don't anticipate that you'll complete the exercise anytime this week," she said. "For my purposes, it would be convenient, yes; but do take your time if necessary. That said, there's a hard way to do it, and then there's cheating. If you manage to pull it off in short order, I would expect that you're either a prodigy beyond compare; unusually suited to the Thaumaturgical Attribute of Reinforcement — or, you've found your way to the latter solution."

    Should've expected that she'd take it as a yes-no question, rather than a request for a pointer.

    "Would it be bad for me to cheat, then?" I asked.

    Zenjou laughed.

    "Use of Mystery is fundamentally a borrowing of power beyond the ken of man," she replied. "It's all cheating, all the way down." She slightly inclined her head. "If indeed you go the path I imagine, though, it's merely a matter that you'll quickly arrive at the desired outcome without a comprehension of how you got there. Not optimal, but certainly nothing that would lower my opinion of you."

    Because, obviously, her opinion of me was already as low as it could get. Still, this time around, her answer was informative enough. Whatever it was that 'cheating' entailed, it was 'a borrowing of power' — the use of a crutch that circumvented the need to comprehend the detailed mechanics of Reinforcement.

    "A little earlier, you mentioned familiars," I said, fishing for more hints. "Something about them not possessing Thaumaturgical Resistance? What's up with that?"

    "No," said Zenjou. "It's not that they don't have Thaumaturgical Resistance. Typically, an animal taken as a familiar is by various means made to act as a remote terminal to its master — an extension to the magus' body and soul. It doesn't assert a Resistance against its master for the same reason you aren't impeded in the Reinforcement of your own flesh. However, its Resistance would be in full effect against a third party."

    Or to rephrase, animals naturally possessed firewalls against the action of magecraft, but those turned into familiars were made to open a dedicated port to their master.

    That gave me a couple of ideas.

    Putting them into action wasn't easy, though.

    I wouldn't admit it aloud, but a part of me was glad that Zenjou had provided a seemingly endless supply of blood worms to experiment with — rather than something I'd feel guilt over killing, like lab rats. I lost count of the number of worms I'd gone through after maybe the hundredth or so, and it wasn't until nightfall that I made substantial progress.

    As expected, the problem was that the task hadn't been properly explained to me.

    Up to this point, I'd learned of three distinct variants of Reinforcement:

    First, by instilling a phenomenon with mana at moderate concentrations, I could to some extent manipulate it; force it to more potently express particular features related to my affinity for 'water.' This was a bottom-up process heavily reliant upon a comprehension of whatever I was working with.

    Second — unreliant upon my 'water' affinity — by way of oversaturating an object or a part of an object, I could forcibly break it down. This was also technically a bottom-up process, but nothing that required significant mental input.

    Third — also unreliant on my 'water' affinity — by way of actively circulating mana within my own body, I could improve the performance of my physiology in various ways. This was a top-down process that ran on instinct, and didn't require much in the way of specific knowledge on how things worked.

    I'd approached the exercise under the impression that it would mostly involve an application of Reinforcement in the first variety; but really, going at it bottom-up would've required a far better grasp of cellular biology than I possessed. Versus a mostly undifferentiated piece of glass, there were far too many ways a living organism could cease to function as a coherent system. I was definitely capable of the micromanagement required, but even with the sense I possessed for the blood worm's anatomy, the guesswork and the trial and error necessary to get things right would've consumed a prohibitive amount of time and resources.

    Per Zenjou's overly cryptic hinting, this was probably 'the hard way' to go about things.

    How would I 'cheat,' then?

    Ideally, the objective would be for the worm to be Reinforced in the manner I Reinforced myself. Trouble was, strictly in thaumaturgical terms, it wasn't my 'familiar'; wasn't an extension of my body, my power notwithstanding. It was an organism entirely distinct from me, and I didn't have access to a port in its firewall.

    I could, however, control it. I could direct it according to my will — in accordance to its instincts as an organism. That being the case, all that remained was a question of execution.

    Until today's exercise had drawn my attention to it, I honestly hadn't noticed, but my power did in fact provide a sense of the odic circulation in the insects connected to me — lurking in the backdrop of my field of perception like a phantom limb I'd never known.

    That phantom limb could be made to move.

    Perhaps because they were as large as rats, the odic pathways in a blood worm were rather more robust than those in a common house fly. However, attempting to bring them to full activation in the capacity of Thaumaturgical Circuits resulted in scores of deaths from misfire.

    I didn't get a sense that non-lethal 'Circuit' activation was vastly out of reach, but — a little impatient to get the job done and over with — I shifted my focus.

    If the goal were simply a Reinforcement of physiology, there actually wasn't a need to kick the odic pathways all the way up to fight-or-flight levels of activity. Availability of mana to the flesh was the sole necessity. Ergo, if a blood worm could acquire and circulate mana at sufficient volume, it could Reinforce itself — 'Circuit' activation or not.

    The trick, then, was for me to encompass the worm; to hold it in a mist of mana — directing it to draw upon the energy to boost its odic flow.

    The immediate feedback to my power was —

    "Oh, God."

    — a noticeable boost in the fidelity at which I could interpret the senses of the worm.

    Too much information, frankly — and not in the sense that the volume was beyond my processing. Suppressing the urge to utterly eviscerate the evil thing in the bottle, I consciously restricted my access to the sensory feed from its nervous system.

    "I'm finished," I announced, triumphant. "I'm done with this."

    Kneeling beside the circular design she'd etched upon the floor, Zenjou looked up — visibly surprised.

    "Already?" she asked, standing upright. "It hasn't even been a day."

    I didn't know if she could tell what I was doing just by looking, but I held the bottle up as she approached — to show her that I'd won; that she'd underestimated me.

    "Keep the Reinforcement going," she said, "but set the bottle on the desk."

    A little confused, I did as asked. Stopping a meter away from the desk, Zenjou lifted her left hand — raising her middle and index fingers to form a finger gun.

    It was a weirdly juvenile gesture, and I thought for a moment to verbally mock her; but before I could find the words, a sphere of black the size of a marble manifested before the tips of her fingers — emanating with the heat of mana.

    Making a noise as it displaced the air, the blackness shot forth — phasing through the surface of the glass, and harmlessly dissipating against the blood worm's carapace.

    "Hm," said Zenjou, lowering her arm. "Pretty good. Though at some point, you'll want to be able to do this without the support of your power."

    When she wasn't being insufferably smug, I could almost mistake her for a decent person. Though —

    "What the heck was that just now?" I asked.

    "What, this?" she asked — regarding me as she once more raised her left hand, pointing a finger gun to the ceiling.

    Several centimeters above the tips of her fingers, a sphere of black yet again manifested.

    "It's widely considered a breach of etiquette to point your finger at people," Zenjou explained. "In certain parts of Finland, for example, the gesture was traditionally held as a manner of malediction — casting your ills upon another, with the intention that their health might come to suffer."

    She opened her hand, and the sphere dissipated.

    "Enacted via modern magecraft," she continued, "it's rather generically termed as Gandr — an Old Norse word that connotes an existence of monstrous or mystical potency, such as a wand or stave; a charm or hex; a terrible beast; or so forth. If conventionally cast, it's sufficient to incapacitate a victim with flu-like symptoms for a day or two."

    The equivalent of a non-lethal Blaster power, in other words — perfectly well-suited to fighting crime.

    Just how big was Zenjou's repertoire, precisely? She hadn't been particularly shy to show off her magecraft in front of me, scarcity of Mystery or not — but after half a week, it felt like I'd barely caught sight of the tip of the iceberg.

    More to the point, I didn't get why she would talk about 'acting as a cape' as if it were some kind of unfortunate last resort. Even if I hadn't yet seen enough to confidently place her in the weight-class of an A-lister, her power-nullification alone was sufficient to put her on the map. Unlike a random fifteen-year-old with a bug-control power, she could make a real difference if she wanted.

    Didn't great power come with great responsibility? Or did she think that it was none of her business that Brockton Bay was rotting from the inside out?

    "Anyhow," said Zenjou, pacing over to the open luggage, "this right about catches you up to the requirements of the test I intend to run. For the time being, I haven't any more exercises for you to work on. Therefore —"

    Once again disregarding that her skirt was barely long enough to cover anything, she bent over the suitcase — retrieving from the foam insert a red gemstone a little larger than the average strawberry.

    "Here," she said, handing it to me. "Pour your mana into this."

    "Try to Reinforce it, you mean?" I asked — a little relieved that she hadn't asked me to put it into my mouth.

    "No," she replied. "This isn't another challenge, or anything of the sort. Just something of a demonstration — to give you an idea as to why it is that I work with gemstones. Attempt to oversaturate the stone with mana, as you did when failing to Reinforce."

    Well, if she wanted a broken gem, who was I to argue? Her money, her loss.

    I exhaled, directing my mana through my fingertips; through the surface of the stone. Within, the energy accumulated, quickly filling up —

    "Huh?"

    Except, it didn't. Unalike to the glass that I'd shattered, there wasn't a sense that I was approaching a limit. If anything, it felt like I was trying to fill a swimming pool with a garden hose.

    "For thaumaturgical purposes," said Zenjou, "the properties of a particular material are an expression of their placement as of the Shared Unconscious of Man. The Mysteries inherent to gemstones; the Fantasy so associated — these have since the dawn of civilization come to entrenchment in every corner of the World."

    "... there's no end to its storage capacity?"

    Leaning against the side of the desk, Zenjou crossed her legs.

    "Try looking through a face of the jewel," she said.

    I brought the stone closer to my glasses, tilting it so that I peer through a single facet. Within, there were a confusing array of repeating geometric shapes, tinted and distorted by the optics of the stone.

    "What do you see?" asked Zenjou.

    "It's like a kaleidoscope?" I ventured.

    Zenjou nodded.

    "And kaleidoscopes are a subject of Fantasy," she said. "Our minds are predisposed to apprehend their interiors as spaces of endless expanse, separate from the one we inhabit — tiny Worlds unto themselves."

    Mana permitted that fantasies could iterate into reality. Thus, like the 'technicality' that glass could flow, the fantasy that a jewel could encompass an entire world could be brought into practical effect by an expenditure of mana — somehow, as a method to store more mana.

    Magecraft was bullshit in general, but this felt like it not-so-subtly violated the laws of thermodynamics or something.

    "Now," Zenjou continued, "seek out the center of the stone with your mana."

    Looking to the jewel, I forced a tendril of motes into its depths — deeper than I'd previously extended myself.

    For maybe half a minute; maybe a minute, nothing of note occurred. Unclear as to what exactly Zenjou expected me to find, I considered calling it quits; but right as I was about to speak up, something moved against my mana.

    Whatever it was, it was clearly alive — as much so as the blood worms I'd been Reinforcing.

    "You felt that, did you?" asked Zenjou, noting my expression of surprise with a smirk.

    "What is it?"

    "Within those gems that long slumber in the earth, faeries and elementals occasionally take residence. This would be an example of a fire elemental." Zenjou smiled — for once without her ever-present smugness. "If you like, you can bestow it with a visible form. Merely push it to an ideation in immediate reach."

    Compared to the blood worms, the 'faerie' — whatever it was — was oddly receptive to me. Though my mana was obstructed at the boundary of its odic circulation, it allowed me to 'knead' it; to guide it toward a salient state.

    Before my eyes, a tiny girl with gossamer wings etched into being within the stone — cutely tilting her head as she looked to me with curiosity.

    "And this," said Zenjou, "would be your formal introduction to the world of the supernatural."
     
    KoulTrane, GroundWorm, udkudk and 7 others like this.
  11. Extras: Locations & Cartography
    fallacies

    fallacies Getting sticky.

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    The map of Brockton Bay for use in this fic:

    [​IMG]

    Portsmouth, Newington, and Stratham don't exist.
    Hampton, Exeter, Newmarket, and several other townships in Rockingham County, NH are incorporated as parts of Brockton Bay.
    In particular, Exeter approximately becomes the Downtown, whereas Hampton and North Hampton are the Downtown Coast.
    The township of Newmarket roughly occupies the location of Brockton Bay's Lord Street Market.
    Dame Forest occupies the location of the Boat Graveyard.
    The southwest state line of Maine is opposite the Bay, northeast of the PHQ.

    Note that the University of New Hampshire occupies the west of the township of Durham, to the north of the map. In this fic, the UNH is replaced by the University of Brockton Bay — or Brockton U for short. To get there from the Hebert residence, Annette would've had to drive northwest past the Trainyard, and cross eastward over the train route north of the city.

    This map was created mostly by eyeballing the New Hampshire coastline, and doesn't necessarily represent a "realistic" depiction of Brockton Bay as it would exist per the canon, in terms of scale.

    In terms of original landmarks, New Hampshire Route 101 occupies the approximate position of Canal Street within the limits of Brockton Bay.

    [​IMG]

    Note that the above route begins at North Hampton, and not from Taylor's house.
    The home of the Whateleys occupies the center of the empty field at 59 Andover Street — at the end of Andover Drive, in Peabody, MA. A close-up of the location is depicted below:

    [​IMG]

    It's a couple of minutes away from Northshore Mall, which would presumably be visited on a regular basis by Lavinia and her son.
    The specific location of the house is based on the placement of the Whateley Residence in Subspecies Singularity Salem. It's marked in red on the map below:

    [​IMG]

    The waterway to the north is the Waters River, and to the northwest, there's a slight bend in the shoreline. This very approximately matches up to the rough position of 59 Andover Street per the general lay of the land in satellite images:

    [​IMG]

    Meanwhile, Taylor's neighborhood also occupies a largely empty area of the countryside:

    [​IMG]

    According to Google Maps, Taylor's house is approximately 10.9 miles / 17.5 km from the northeast corner of the Boat Graveyard, and 5.9 miles / 9.5 km from Lord Street Market.

    In this fic, it's presumed that south of the state line into Massachusetts, the geography and the names of locations are substituted for those in Lovecraft Country:

    [​IMG]

    As a point of interest, the location of Dunwich, MA in Lovecraft Country — the home of the Whateleys in The Dunwich Horror — is situated as relative to a town called Aylesbury. Clearly, this has nothing to do with the Aylesbury of Nasu fame.
     
  12. Threadmarks: 009 : Fantasia in F minor
    fallacies

    fallacies Getting sticky.

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    It was just past midnight, and I was pointing fingers at a tree.

    For a while now, it had been lightly snowing — but not enough to gather. The bits of it that landed on the rubber tiles of the playground quickly melted away; and there besides, there wasn't any movement in my field of vision.

    Before the tips of my fingers, though, I could feel the heat coming off the sphere of mana I'd gathered — invisibly swirling in place.

    Zenjou's trick with the finger gun hadn't looked incredibly difficult, but attempting to pull it off on my own wasn't working out. Nothing salient within the reach of my Reinforcement faintly resembled a Blaster power, and I wasn't certain what I was doing wrong.

    "Bang," I said, allowing the energy to dissipate as I bumped my hand upwards in a pretend recoil.

    Verification was necessary — not of the abilities Zenjou explicitly intended for me to pick up, but of the things that should logically follow, assuming that her explanations weren't full of shit. 'Gandr' had been sort of a long shot, given that I didn't comprehend the underlying principles; but certainly, there had to be uses for the stuff I'd been taught that I could independently derive away from Zenjou's influence.

    If fantasy were real; if the supernatural indeed existed — I should be smart enough to prove it to myself.

    From the picnic table at the side of the playground, I retrieved the plastic bag that held my hoodie — rehydrating myself from the bottle of water within. Recapping my drink, I dropped it back inside, and made to depart.

    The park wasn't my final destination for the evening. I was headed to Durham Point in the Boat Graveyard, some eleven miles northeast from our neighborhood. With or without active Reinforcement, the total distance there and back was just a little short of a marathon; but though I was in fact looking to burn off the extra calories I'd consumed the past two days, my objective tonight wasn't simply to run.

    This was a trial — a proof of concept.

    With Zenjou occupying the majority of my daytime hours, the month away from school I'd gotten Dad to agree to turned out not to provide me enough time to properly prepare for my cape debut.

    Fortunately, going to bed with active Circuits seemed to drastically cut down the amount of sleep my circadian rhythm demanded in a given day. This bought me a couple more hours of wakefulness to take advantage of — precisely at the time of the night that capes were most commonly active.

    Waiting for Dad to fall asleep was a bit of a chore; but being as I'd eventually have to get into the habit of doing so, I resigned myself and hunkered down. Lying in bed fully dressed, I counted the minutes until I was fairly certain he'd zonked out for the night.

    As usual, he was in his bed at ten thirty sharp. A little more than fifteen minutes later, I put on my shoes; pulled open the street-facing window in my bedroom and climbed out, using the narrow ledge atop the brick façade of the first floor as a temporary foothold. Shutting the bottom sash, I turned and actively engaged my Reinforcement — silently dropping into our front yard and taking off at a sprint.

    Over the years, experts had reached a general consensus that parahuman powers came with a sort of 'instruction manual' — an instinct for their wielding, and an apprehension of their basic applications. Reinforcement wasn't quite so convenient.

    Though it did come with its own set of instincts, accurately estimating its performance ahead of actually using it was just about impossible. Consequently, jumping down from the second floor, I hadn't known that I wouldn't injure myself.

    But, that was the whole point of this exercise. I wouldn't know if I didn't try.

    I needed to establish limits; to get a grip of my exact capabilities in practice. It didn't matter that I might be injured in the process, or that I was potentially exposing myself to harm. This was Brockton Bay — cape capital of the Eastern Seaboard; the staging ground of all the organized crime in New England. Grievous injury was normal — practically a fixture of everyday life. I ran the same sort of risks every time I set foot in Winslow.

    There wouldn't be any moving past it if I shied away from the possibility of self-mutilation.

    Rather, there wouldn't be any moving at all. I'd be mired in the same dead end that I'd been cornered into for the past few years. I'd lost my mother and father. I'd lost my best friend. My chances of being accepted into a decent university — a well-paying job — were by this point practically nonexistent.

    Looking at it another way, there was nothing to hold me back. 'Taylor Hebert' was damaged beyond repair, and one way or another, I'd have to reinvent myself. If my powers were the sole advantage I could levy, I was obligated to master them at any cost. A tool of uncertain utility was no tool at all.

    "It's really that simple," I said to myself — noticing the gangbangers at the periphery of my range, and turning down a darkened alley to avoid them.

    In an urban environment after dark, a traveling swarm of insects was harder to spot than you might imagine. Still, to avoid undue attention, I'd gone the route of mapping my surroundings mostly from the senses of the insects that entered into range. If the winter were any colder, I'd presumably have a harder time of it; but despite it being early February, a significant insect population was thankfully active.

    The ones that randomly connected to me weren't how I'd known about the gangbangers, though. As I'd mentioned to Zenjou, outside of a tactile perception, the senses of insects were unreliable; difficult to interpret, unless I was present in person to acquire context. This was the reason I'd felt it necessary to put together a costume in the first place.

    The Reinforcement of insects opened up a whole new world of possibilities.

    To be accurate, even when Reinforced, a single insect was nothing impressive. On average, capabilities as an offensive agent weren't much improved, and about the only enhancement notable enough to be mentioned was the consistency at which my power could grasp the non-tactile senses; the fidelity of the sensory data conveyed. Fully enhanced — as far as I could manage at my current level of skill — the hearing of a common housefly was pretty decent; but the compound structure of its eyes guaranteed a clear visual range of a couple of meters at most. Nothing to write home about.

    Clarity, however, was cumulative. If a single fly couldn't provide a visual grasp of an ongoing crime, how about ten? Or a hundred? Setting aside monsters the size of Zenjou's blood worms, it was trivial to encompass a normal insect with motes of mana — sustaining it like an extension of myself until it completely exhausted its sugars.

    Ergo, the insects that entered into range of my body only provided 'most' of my mental mapping of the urban terrain. A sparse, barely-discernible swarm supplemented that with hearing and passable vision — following along as I traversed the streets and alleys. Maybe because I was going so fast, the rate of turnover was higher than expected, and I kept having to replenish the numbers lost from the supply of bugs I'd been gathering beneath my clothes. Nevertheless, it was on their account that I was able to distinguish between obvious members of the ABB and the pedestrians I wouldn't have an issue running past.

    If I could be caught on camera or otherwise observed, though, I slowed the hell down. The minor Mover rating afforded to me by Reinforcement was nothing I wanted to advertise outside a proper costume. No sense in getting myself gang-pressed a second time — potentially by somebody with a personality worse than Zenjou's, and none of her redeeming bits.

    More constructively, what sort of powers did I actually want to advertise?

    My situation with Zenjou was an object lesson in just how critical knowledge of an opponent's capabilities were in any kind of hostile interaction. Seen in a certain light, the PHO Parahumans Wiki was far more dangerous than it had any right to be — irrelevant that it was driven by the collective enthusiasm of tens of thousands of cape groupies. This was probably the reason the profiles on the Wards and the Protectorate tended to be edit-protected.

    Insect Reinforcement made it so that I could call in ongoing crimes without exposing myself to danger — making viable Zenjou's suggestion that I don't assume an explicit cape identity. For all that Zenjou's style of instruction was superficially hands-off and sink-or-swim, in my mind, there wasn't a doubt that her intention in having me learn to Reinforce the blood worms was to arrange that I'd 'discover on my own' the path she'd previously outlined.

    Given that she hadn't put up much of a complaint toward my plans overall, I wasn't certain what her hang-up was against my assuming a cape identity. Was it because she valued me as a maidservant or something? A dress-up doll, seeing as she'd again complained about my wardrobe?

    Regardless, I wouldn't be going along with that. I'd meant what I said about the authorities in Brockton Bay being overworked and underpaid. Somebody had to pick up the slack, if the Protectorate wasn't having enough of an impact.

    That said, from the standpoint of information warfare, 'simply reporting crimes' was a bad idea in the long run. A noticeable uptick in the number of crimes reported would definitely be noticed by interested parties, even if I were to somehow disguise my voice. Pretty soon, they'd take it as the work of a Thinker — and in general, cape gangs tended to prioritize Thinkers for recruitment or elimination.

    What with Nilbog being a thing, being known as an insect Master wasn't much better — especially if it came out that my swarm could be used for spying. Irrelevant of whether I established myself as an independent hero, this was the sort of thing that would get me on the Protectorate's bad side pretty quickly. Worse yet, anyone familiar enough with my powers would have countermeasures ready almost instantaneously.

    It made a lot of sense to keep the insect control and the potential for spying on the down-low — strictly for use in reconnaissance, or to acquire a situational awareness in combat. Problem was, that left me in a bit of a bind regarding the powers I could display. As things stood, I wasn't confident that Reinforcement alone would get me by if I were forced into a fight with somebody armed with a handgun.

    Ideally, I'd manage to make a bit of headway with Gandr, and debut as a minor Brute with a Blaster power for nonlethal takedowns. Capes like that were a dime a dozen — not particularly threatening or of interest to the gangs. There'd still be attempts at blackmail or gang-pressing, presumably, but not at the priority a Thinker would attract.

    "If only things could go so smoothly," I muttered — chuckling humorlessly as I stopped at a pedestrian crossing on Lord Street.

    Market was just up ahead, a couple of blocks away from Chinatown and the shopping arcade at Little Tokyo — the heart of the territory held by the ABB. Surprisingly, there weren't any hoodlums in my path, though I spotted a couple on the side-streets. Along the grime-covered sidewalks of Lord Street itself, my only company were the hobos huddled up against the graffitied storefronts; and the scores of working girls, loitering about despite the cold in various states of undress.

    Counter to the stereotype, the majority were conventionally attractive — slender, curvaceous; occasionally pierced or tattooed in ways that seemed to excessively emphasize their sexuality. If they cleaned themselves up, it was hard to imagine that they couldn't find better-paying employment in a normal job somewhere — which made me wonder if they weren't being forced or blackmailed; maybe victims of human trafficking. By appearances alone, some of them had to be underage.

    Women shouldn't have to live like this — selling their bodies to men who would treat them literally like pieces of meat.

    I averted my gaze as I jogged past. As much as it galled me, beyond investigating over the weekend to see if they weren't acting under duress, there wasn't much I could do for them at present. If it happened that poverty alone had put them on the streets, nothing I could do would matter.

    In a perfect world, the girls here wouldn't have to debase their bodies just to get by. The economy would be in a better place, and they'd have lives that were going somewhere; dreams that could be realized —

    — a way out of the dead end that was Brockton Bay.

    I ran — past Market; past the shopping arcade; crossing beyond the inhabited part of the Docks. Here on out, there were only derelict buildings — boarded up; burned down; reduced to rubble. In Dad's words, this was 'the shame of the Dockworkers Association' — the Boat Graveyard. Rusted husks of ships lined the shore.

    A lot of people seemed to think that Brockton Bay was the way it was because Leviathan had ruined international trade. Truth was, the shipping industry was perfectly fine — outside the state of New Hampshire. It was merely the case that New England wasn't big enough for two major ports, and Brockton Bay was less than sixty miles from Boston Harbor.

    Back in the 80's, when the textile factories in Manchester moved overseas, the big companies decided it'd be cheaper to centralize all their operations to Massachusetts. With its comparatively older infrastructure, the port at Lord's Bay was considered redundant; and the last nail in the coffin was hammered in when the Stevedores Union rioted against the resulting layoffs — torching the entirety of the Docks North.

    The Boat Graveyard was a memorial to a dying city — a reminder that Brockton Bay was damaged goods.

    Tonight, it served my ends that nobody wanted to be here.

    The docks at Durham Point were famously the site of the SS Laleham — a cargo ship the size of a skyscraper, sunk within the harbor by the members of the Stevedores Union. I hadn't any particular interest in the wreckage, though.

    Running along the side of the wharf, I slowed down as I approached the end — panting lightly as I stared across the water at the Dover shoreline.

    "Eleven or so miles should be far enough," I said, reaching to the collar of my T-shirt.

    From beneath, I pulled out the silver pendant I'd been given today — set with the ruby I'd been playing around with at the dance school. 'For emergencies only,' Zenjou had lent it to me as a quick source of mana that I could access in the unlikely event that Reinforcement somehow drained me dry. Probably, she'd intended it as a tracking device.

    Touching the surface of the jewel, I extended a tendril of energy within. Not to charge it, as permanently storing mana without the body apparently required something special that Zenjou couldn't readily teach me. Rather, I just wanted to conduct an experiment.

    In the kaleidoscopic depths, a familiar presence brushed against my mana — etching into visible form.

    "Salamander," I said, addressing the tiny faerie.

    Within the confines of the ruby, she glanced about the harbor in interest — quickly fixating upon the hull of the Laleham.

    Eleven miles away from Zenjou, I wanted to think that I was without the range of her powers — that I wasn't being Mastered. Of course, there was no way to confirm, but I wanted desperately to believe. I wanted to know for certain that Salamander was as alive as she seemed.

    I needed for Fantasy to objectively exist, because the alternative was far too cruel.

    "Tell me," I said to the ruby. "Are you real?"
     
    adisander, Shadowry, Puncak and 4 others like this.
  13. Threadmarks: 010 : Camelback Riding
    fallacies

    fallacies Getting sticky.

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    "What the hell is this?"

    "What's it look like?" Zenjou replied, smirking.

    In a brown bag on the living room table, there were two articles of clothing: In a range of grays with reflective strips, two sizes too small for me to wear, a V-neck compression shirt and leggings. Beneath them were a pair of running shoes in pristine white, entirely new.

    "You expect me to wear this?" I asked.

    "To further extend your exercise routine," said Zenjou, "we'll be traveling to the ballet school on foot today. As I refuse to be seen beside a running partner so poorly attired, I took the liberty to purchase a few items out of pocket."

    Frowning, I held up the shirt before me.

    "When'd you have the opportunity?" I asked. Had she ordered these online or something?

    "Yesterday night, after you took the bus home," Zenjou replied. "There was a sale at a sporting goods shop on Canal Street, and I dropped by before closing hours." She sipped her coffee. "Not to worry, though. I'm not so stingy that I'd deduct this from your paycheck."

    I tensed the shirt with a slight sideward pull. The material was the fancy, breathable sort; but while elastic, it didn't have a lot of give.

    "There's no way this'll fit," I said.

    "Try them on, and I think you'll be pleasantly surprised," said Zenjou. "I happen to have a grasp of your exact measurements, courtesy of the Bounded Field here deployed."

    Because of course she did. I'd question the accuracy of her measurements if I thought she cared, but there wasn't a point. It wasn't like she'd admit to being wrong.

    I changed in the downstairs toilet, pulling on the shirt and leggings over my underwear. Much as expected, it was far too tight — not quite to an uncomfortable level, and not-quite biting into my excess body fat, but enough that it clung to me like a second skin; as if I were just about naked, despite the sports bra and the panties I was wearing underneath.

    "No need for socks, by the way," called Zenjou from the living room. "The running shoes I bought are the sort that you put on barefoot."

    "Eh," I said aloud, looking to the pair of socks on my feet.

    The shoes were new; and in my experience, that tended to mean that they'd require a bit of breaking-in before the insides were soft enough not to raise blisters. On the other hand, it wasn't likely that here on out, I'd be going on any runs without the use of active Reinforcement. Maybe it wouldn't be an issue?

    Thinking on it a bit, I decided to strip off my socks; though I didn't end up putting them into the brown bag along with my other clothes. They were a fresh pair from after my shower this morning; but my sneakers stank with a persistent detergent odor from the one time I'd tried to wash out the consequences of a prank, and a chemical scent clung to whatever fabric my socks were made of. I didn't want that on my hoodie.

    Stepping barefoot into my borrowed pair of slippers, I picked up the brown bag and my socks and opened the door of the toilet, stepping out across the hallway and into the living room.

    "Hm," said Zenjou, returning from the kitchen with a fresh mug of coffee — circling around and considering me from head to toe. "Very nice, if I do say so myself. I'm not certain why you insist on concealing body lines like that in that shapeless hoodie you favor."

    There she was, mocking my flab as expected.

    "I look like a balloon right now," I said. "Like I'm a month into my second trimester or something."

    Zenjou raised her brow, giving me a look that I couldn't quite read.

    "You're having me on for a giggle, are you?" she asked. After a moment or two of eye contact, she broke off and sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. "Wonderful. You're worse off than Sakura was in high school. Another thing we'll have to work on."

    "Sakura?" I asked. Like the Japanese cherry blossoms at Captain's Hill Park?

    "My younger sister," Zenjou replied. "But that's neither here nor there." Pacing past me to her armchair, she seated herself, giving her coffee a sip. "In any case, let me finish my cuppa, and I'll get changed as well. We've got a big day ahead of us."

    Given how fast she'd shifted the topic, she probably hadn't intended to let slip any personal information. It wasn't a lot to work with, though; and so for the time being, I mentally filed it away. Getting a clearer picture of Zenjou's background could wait for later.

    Today was the day of the experiment, and I wanted it done and over with.




    The residential area was mostly absent of people during the daytime; but once we hit the commercial zone along Canal Street, things began to ramp up. The catcalling in particular made me want to die, even that it wasn't directed at me.

    Not that it would be in the first place.

    One of the benefits of being completely unattractive was the ability to get away with full-body spandex without exuding the slightest amount of sex appeal. Instead, I was an eyesore at best; and running behind Zenjou, it felt like I was invisible. As a mitigation against embarrassment, it was pretty effective.

    Similarly clad, but with the lower body to pull off the look, Zenjou managed to effect a running gait practically designed to maximize her draw of the male gaze from the pedestrian traffic — swaying her well-proportioned hips and thighs at just enough regularity that the jiggle wasn't unseemly.

    Judging by the smile on her lips, it was entirely intentional.

    "Somebody's going to call me in for being truant," I yelled into the wind, thinking to distract her from her ego trip.

    Zenjou laughed.

    "I think I've mentioned it before, but you're tall enough that nobody would take you for a high school student," she replied. "I'll take care of it if anything happens."

    It turned out that she'd foregone the car because we'd already moved everything necessary for the experiment yesterday; and the three or so miles to Canal Street was in her opinion not enough a distance to justify the money spent on gas. There was of course the option of going by bus, but she likewise wasn't a fan of paying for public transport; and was apparently serious about having me work on strength and stamina.

    We made the distance in a bit less than half an hour, arriving maybe a quarter to eleven. According to Zenjou, the final bits of the prep and the experiment itself could all be done before noon if we worked at it; and to hurry things along, she had me following behind her holding a container full of quartz blocks as she attended again to the mirrors in the dance classroom.

    Annoyingly, I hadn't been permitted to bring along a change of clothes; and so — pointedly ignoring how ridiculous I looked in the reflections around me, standing beside Little Miss Fetish Gear in slightly-damp jogging clothes — I committed myself to the very first task she'd actually assigned me in my capacity as her assistant.

    "Umschließen," she said, holding a piece of quartz against a mirror.

    As if melting away; submerging through a surface of water, the cube sank into the glass — briefly provoking a lighting up of circuit-like lines across the surface. Nodding to herself, Zenjou retrieved another block from the container — repeating the process about a foot to the right.

    "How does that work?" I asked.

    "What? Merging the quartz into the glass?"

    "Yeah."

    "I'm using a particular spell, but you could probably achieve the same with Reinforcement," said Zenjou, positioning the third piece of quartz. "Umschließen," she said, pushing it into the mirror. "Seeing as glass and quartz both comprise primarily of silicon dioxide, the end result is superficially a seamless merge — at least at a macroscopic scale."

    "I take it that that isn't the case if you put it under a microscope?"

    "Under an electron microscope, but yes," Zenjou replied, drawing another piece of quartz from the container. "Some of the crystalline order of the molecular structure remains, preserving the kaleidoscopic depth required for retention of information and energy."

    "Information?"

    "In the enactment of any spell," said Zenjou, holding up the quartz before her, "a magus interacts with a Thaumaturgical Foundation via her Circuits. This interaction is a conveyance of information; an expression of willpower and ideation, submitted to the Foundation as a phenomenon interference request. Requests of such a like can be permanently engraved to crystal — permitting that at the provision of sufficient mana, a spell effect can be repeatedly brought to consummation."

    So, a crystal engraved with a request for the enactment of Gandr could hypothetically function like a Tinkertech phaser. It sounded like the general principle could be put to use for automated spellcasting; or at the least, the creation of effort-free casting implements.

    "In that case," I said, "the 'lines' that appear on the mirror are what? Circuit traces to connect requests?"

    Zenjou nodded.

    "Each piece of quartz in the box before you serves a distinct function," she said. "Aside from conducting mana, the circuits of crystal embedded in the glass allow that they conditionally communicate with one another as component modules in a larger spell protocol."

    I'd mentally compared the modified mirror to a circuit board; but considering the explanation, it was more that the cubes of quartz were akin to units in a prefabricated building — manufactured elsewhere, and quickly assembled on site. Presumably, it had been to the purpose of preparing them that Zenjou had vanished into her basement for hours on end earlier in the week.

    "How much did all the quartz cost, anyhow?" I asked.

    "It's approximately two hundred and thirty pounds in total, bought at $15 a pound," she said, finishing her work with another piece. "Came out to a little less than $3,500, if I correctly recall. Not incredibly expensive."

    Two hundred and thirty pounds? Really?

    I mean, I could buy that that was the total, as even the small container I currently held was weighty enough; but most of the quartz had come in the carry-on that Zenjou had assigned to herself, and it hadn't looked that heavy when she'd lugged it up the stairs. Wouldn't the zippers have come apart?

    I thought to ask about it, but realized before opening my mouth that she'd probably pulled it off with Reinforcement. Dumb of me to wonder.

    That cost, though —

    Maybe it was because I wasn't yet a working adult, but $3,500 didn't sound 'not incredibly expensive' — even if it was a fraction of the $8,000 price tag Zenjou had alleged for the pigeon's blood ruby used to activate my Circuits.

    Technically, both the ruby and the quartz would count toward the overall monetary investment Zenjou had put down for the sake of today's experiment: $11,500 at a minimum, non-inclusive of whatever other expenses she might've had to cover prior to my involvement.

    "Feels like it's a lot of money to be dropping on something that you'll only use the one time," I said.

    "Wouldn't just be the one time," Zenjou replied. "That's the reason the spell protocol is so involved. I'm converting the mirrors into something alike to flat-screen tellies — scrying-glasses capable of displaying a variety of input. Thirty-five hundred dollars is a small price to pay for a general-purpose instrument easily adaptable to other uses. So to compensate the provision of necessary goods and services, I'm not in the habit of sparing any expense."

    This coming from a girl who refused to dole out $1.50 for bus fare; or to drive a couple of miles because of 'exorbitant' gas prices — who'd just last night purchased me an entire outfit, shoes included. With $3,500 at hand, I wondered if rather than manually rigging up a bunch of mirrors like a witch queen from out of a classic Chuck Culkin animation, she couldn't have just bought a couple of televisions and modified them.

    Was there even a point in attempting to comprehend her bizarre monetary sense?

    "Seeing as you need me for the experiment, maybe throw in a lesson on the use of Gandr as a bonus?" I asked — hoping that it sounded more like sarcasm than pleading.

    "Difficult," said Zenjou, frowning. "As a first-generation magus, you lack a Thaumaturgical Crest attuned to the appropriate Foundation, and I can't simply construct one for you in short order. As a matter of context, the bestowal of such is the sort of favor for which certain magi would gladly subordinate their offspring to a senior bloodline for multiple generations."

    Apparently thinking on it a little further, she touched a finger to her lower lip.

    "I could teach you to perform it the hard way, I suppose," she continued, "but it'll have to wait until I'm properly satisfied you've grasped the basics of self-defense."

    Last night, she'd touched upon the necessity of a 'Crest' as well, but hadn't gone into detail. Seemed like she was referring to a casting implement customized so to vastly simplify the process of interfacing with specific Foundations.

    It sounded useful — but I wasn't about to sell my firstborn to Zenjou for a quick power-up. Consigning your own family to something that amounted to indentured servitude for multiple generations? Thanks, but no thanks. I'll do things the hard way, even if it kills me.

    Took about twenty minutes and two trips around the room for Zenjou to complete her prep, and another five to run some diagnostics. When she finished up, she told me to take off my shoes.

    "Is this necessary?" I asked, padding barefoot to the center of the three-meter 'thaumaturgical circle' Zenjou had etched with chalk upon the worn wooden floor — an intricate array of unintelligible symbols and geometric shapes.

    With Reinforcement active, I wasn't worried about splinters; but the soles of my feet would probably end up black with dust.

    "A little dust isn't going to kill you," Zenjou replied. "And don't worry about dirtying your shoes. The running line from this particular brand can be bleached, machine-washed, and machine-dried without any issue. Mine are still intact after two years of constant use."

    Useful information, but not really what I wanted to know.

    "Why barefoot, exactly?"

    "We want to establish an uninterrupted flow of mana between your body and the sigil at the center of the circle," said Zenjou. "Bare skin is the most optimal medium."

    If she'd allowed it, I would've at least been wearing socks. Did she arrange this stuff to intentionally make me miserable?

    "So, a bit of explanation before we begin," Zenjou continued. "For educational purposes, this is a gross oversimplification of what's referred to as formalcraft, or ritual magecraft — the craft what pertains to 'Thaumaturgical Formalities,' if you go by the technical terminology. In standard use, a sigil alike to that beneath your feet permits that Bounded Fields and other large-scale thaumaturgies can be anchored to the sustenance of a leyline tap — rendering that they stand alone, entirely independent of the spellcaster's Circuits or mana."

    The pictograph-looking thing beneath my feet was the bit of wiring that connected a house to an electrical grid, then.

    "Why's it called a formality?"

    "Ritual magecraft is grounded in the animist traditions of the Antiquity," Zenjou replied, "in the understandings established between Man and Nature; Man and Spirit — long preceding the innovation of Circuit-use in spellcasting. Agreements are abided by, and requests are so honored. Therefore, ritualistic formalities are observed, even that the individual performing the ritual isn't borne of Circuits. This would be the Mystery of the spirit medium — the basis of the school of magecraft called as Spiritual Evocation."

    Presuming the existence of the supernatural, I guessed it stood to reason that requests could be made of faeries like Salamander. The implicit suggestion that magecraft might've long predated the appearance of Scion, on the other hand —

    'Right now, it doesn't matter,' I decided.

    If there were any truth to the claim, I'd eventually confirm it for myself; but at the moment, it was just a distraction. Whether magecraft was a decade or a century old, power was power. The details were consequential only if they had an impact on practical utility.

    "You'd think that somebody would notice if the rituals conducted by random occultists actually worked," I said.

    "Again," said Zenjou, "formalcraft demands a painstaking adherence to formality. Exact observation of procedure is required, to the extent that a single misplaced gesture can void a ritual entirely. Likewise, a spirit so engaged is bound to reciprocate with no more and no less the response mandated by the covenants what underpin its participation — guaranteeing stability of outcome and the safety of the spellcaster at the expense of variability."

    Didn't fully satisfy my doubts, but it sounded as if 'exact observation of procedure' wasn't something an amatuer would be able to arbitrarily luck into. The fact that rituals could only evoke canned responses was kind of a drawback; but the way she framed it, it might've been more a protective measure — maybe to preempt spirits from screwing over the spellcaster like the fae in the stories Mom used to read.

    "I suppose that Circuit-based magecraft is preferred for the freedom it offers?" I asked. "And formalcraft is primarily for interacting with leylines?"

    Zenjou nodded.

    "Lack of freedom is the reason that the thaumaturgical use of formalcraft is largely restricted to automating the powering of spell protocols," she said. "Though, if it's just a matter of drawing mana from a leyline, formalcraft isn't absolutely necessary." She directed a finger toward the floor. "Try and feel out the leyline junction beneath the building. Given your sensitivity to mana, it shouldn't be difficult."

    Closing my eyes, I focused — offloading to my swarm the distractions of my corporeal being. It wasn't quite anesthesia, as the sensations didn't truly vanish; but to my conscious perception, the tightness of my clothes; the weight of my flesh; the moisture on my skin dulled away to the back of my mind, one and all. For the moment, the warmth of the Bounded Field that encompassed the building became my world.

    I began to offload that as well — purging it at a slow gradation. Soon enough, a chthonic heat came into focus far beneath the earth, flowing; intersecting; surging where it clashed.

    The upwelling of the mana was within my reach. Tapping into it felt like it would take a little effort; but having insects tap into my mana was after a whole night of practice nearly a second nature. It wouldn't be rocket science to replicate it on a larger scale.

    "I feel it," I said, opening my eyes.

    "And you can draw from it," said Zenjou, "but only on account that the junction of the leylines places us in close proximity to a mana font — and only because the Bounded Field here established isn't set to 'lay claim' to the mana for my use alone."

    A blanket denial of resources against parties unaligned? The bit about the 'mana font' probably referred to the upwelling that the building's Bounded Field fed off of.

    "So what happens if I'm not close to a leyline junction?" I asked.

    "You'd have a harder time getting at the energy. At a junction, the clash come of a crosswise intersection of streams forces the mana closer to the surface; whereas otherwise, a typical stretch of leyline could be hundreds of meters without the range of easy access, even if you were standing directly above it. Short of it is, use of a leyline should be treated as a luxury, and you'd best be in the habit of making do with your odic pool."

    Just from the use of Reinforcement, I'd collapse from hunger and exhaustion long before I ran out of mana. Not having access to a leyline wasn't too big of a deal.

    "What sort of ritual am I performing?" I asked.

    "Not much of one at all," Zenjou replied. "Normally, it'd be a long, drawn out process; but if the goal is strictly to secure an automated provision of mana in the immediate vicinity of a leyline junction, you need only to draw the attention of the elemental what administrates the land as its tutelary spirit; requesting its aid in its capacity as a First Owner."

    "First Owner," I repeated. "So, when Mrs. Whateley refers to herself as the 'acting Second Owner of Brockton Bay,' it means that she's contracted to the First Owner as a proxy?"

    "No," said Zenjou. "Elementals tend not to intervene in the affairs of Man — and not to such a degree that they would designate a human to act as a surrogate. There are some exceptions, but the appointment of the Thaumaturgical Association is in general the sole basis of a Second Owner's authority."

    A so-called 'Second Owner' was in short a squatter pretending to the entitlements of a landlord, granted oversight of a property by the wizard mafia. Mystical or not, organized crime truly was the same the world over.

    "I'd be using the sigil to draw the attention of this Elemental?" I asked.

    "Correct," said Zenjou. "And relative to the beechwood of the floor, chalk is a reasonably decent conductor of mana. You'll in essence be using the sigil as a stencil to create a shape of mana familiar to the First Owner. As of recognizing it as such, she's obligated to answer your request."

    It was a surprisingly non-mystical explanation.

    "It's like a Bat Beacon, then?" I said. "Doesn't feel like a chalk squiggly would work for that — especially if this 'First Owner' isn't inclined to involve themselves with humans."

    "It will," Zenjou replied. "In the immediate vicinity of a spiritual ground, an attending Elemental is effectively omniscient. By the ancient covenants, they're bound to act."

    Doubtfully, I looked to the sigil below me. In total, it occupied a circle of floorspace a bit wider in diameter than the two of my feet, side by side.

    "Who is it that I'm addressing?" I asked.

    "I suppose it'd be appropriate to refer to her as Tabaldak," said Zenjou, "the Earth Mother Goddess of the People of the Dawn."

    The name wasn't unfamiliar. Tabaldak was the hermaphroditic creation god of the Abenaki people of New Hampshire — once the inhabitants of the region around Lord's Bay. We'd covered them in middle school history, in a unit on pre-colonial New England.

    Being that Tabaldak was hermaphroditic, it was a little strange that Zenjou would refer to them as a 'her' — or for that matter, as an Earth Mother Goddess. Possibly, it wasn't Tabaldak that I was dealing with, but something assuming the name?

    "If it's the Native American god, I guess the incantation or whatever won't be in English?"

    "All the tongues of Man are more or less the same to the Faeries and Elementals," Zenjou replied. "The incantations used in formalcraft are furthermore to the spellcaster's benefit alone — allowing for a mental codification of intent by the action of external verbalization. Thus, the requirement of adherence to procedure doesn't in fact entail the recitation of a particular sequence of words."

    Faeries as well, hm? Felt like she'd introduced me to Salamander as a way to ease me into the idea of interacting with supernatural beings, maybe.

    "What you want," said Zenjou, "is for Tabaldak to supply mana to the thaumaturgical array — or rather, specifically to the piece of amber before you."

    To the 12 o'clock of the sigil, a stone the color of honey sat in a chalk circle connected to the rest of Zenjou's scribbles.

    "As I said, the precise incantation doesn't matter," Zenjou continued, "but if you need a template to work from, you can go with something along the lines of, 'O Tabaldak. Bestow to my endeavor the breath of life.'"

    I closed my eyes and exhaled — filling the lines of chalk with my mana. Hopefully, I wouldn't end up cursed for treading barefoot on the symbol of a god.

    "O Tabaldak," I repeated, focusing on the amber; on the thought of filling it with energy. "Bestow to my endeavor the breath of life."

    The mirrors released a single pulse of light — resolving in their dimming to an altered reflection. Nothing at all had changed in the room around me; but in the glass, the outermost circle of the chalk array glowed in red — forming the base of a transparent wall of crimson light, and enclosing me in a shroud of warmth.

    Superimposed over the sides of my head, two lines of green light streamed toward the ceiling — fading with distance.

    "Congratulations on establishing your first Bounded Field," said Zenjou. "You can cease supplying mana to the sigil now."

    I withdrew the motes of mana invested to the sigil, but the heat of the Bounded Field persisted.

    "As it would assist you in better visualizing the process of magecraft," said Zenjou, "I've set the mirrors to selectively mark in red any accumulations of mana without the norm. The barrier about your reflection is a Bounded Field comprised of a sheet of energy — rapidly revolving as to ablatively compromise spells below a certain integrity. For example —"

    Forming a finger gun, she fired off a gandr in my direction; but before it struck, it impacted something in the air — dispersing to wisps of darkness.

    "... Bounded Fields reject magecraft the same way that odic circulation does?" I asked.

    "Or you could say that the odic circulation of a living organism qualifies as a simple Bounded Field," Zenjou replied. "Fundamentally, the term refers to a territory of jurisdiction or influence, employed in general as to assert a home-turf advantage. The manner of implementation is irrelevant, but something permanent would ideally be anchored to a leyline."

    Going on what she'd earlier stated, this particular Bounded Field was probably built upon a request she'd left within the amber — making use of the popular association that amber lent itself to 'preservation,' perhaps. But, if the point were simply to create a cylindrical barrier of mana, there were easier ways to pull it off.

    "Why bother with a piece of amber?" I asked. "You could've just had me take in the mana and release it around me."

    "For the purposes of this investigation," said Zenjou, pacing toward the windows along the far wall, "the use of the barrier is to control against your ability to impose phenomenon interference without. Having you manually implement the Bounded Field is a bit akin to asking the night watchman to watch himself." With a jerk, she pulled open one of the windows. "That besides, mana externalized from the flesh rapidly dissipates. Wouldn't be very effective at obstructing magecraft."

    Hm? But that couldn't be true. My motes of mana didn't disperse unless I let them.

    Most likely, I'd misunderstood something or other; and so I mentally filed it away for later. There would be time enough to interrogate the issue after the experiment.

    "But to answer more directly," said Zenjou, "the request embedded in the amber accesses a particular Mystery as to consolidate the circulation of mana to cylindrical sheet — preempting its dissipation. That said —" She lightly rapped her knuckles against a window. "Bring in a bit of your swarm, and we'll begin. For obvious reasons, just remember not to have them enter into the thaumaturgical array."

    "If you say so," I replied.

    As there weren't many insects in the top floors of the building, I pulled from the swarm that I'd gathered outside — hiding their movement along the lines of the architecture so as not to alert a potential onlooker. Fortunately, the windows in the classroom faced a deserted alley parallel to Canal Street, and it wasn't necessary to conceal them there.

    In the mirrors, each of the insects that entered the room was connected to a thin string of green light that faded upwards toward the ceiling — identical to the ones on the sides of my skull, except in width. Taken as a whole, the sight of my swarm reminded me of a photo that Mom had shown me before; of the tendrils that descended from the bearded figs of Barbados — the Os Barbados, or 'the bearded ones,' after which the island itself had been named.

    Zenjou made a face.

    "Too many," she said, disgusted. "A fraction of that, please."

    Sighing, I complied. Figured she'd react like this. The fact that she didn't want insects around the house was probably half the reason we were running the experiment at her supervillain hideout.

    "Better?" I asked, lowering the count of the insects to fifty.

    "Much," Zenjou replied. "And now we're just about ready for the investigation itself." She gestured to the mirrors. "As you've likely inferred, the mirrors mark in green the connections established by your parahuman power. Ignore the perpendicular fade, as I added it only to provide for an easy visualization. In reality, communications to and from your insects aren't traveling in any particular direction, and rather arrive at destination instantaneously — circumventing the space in-between. Our objective today is to determine whether or not you're able to transfer mana across this connection."

    That was a lot of set-up for something relatively simple.

    "How am I supposed to do this?" I asked.

    "The green markings on your head indicate the parts of your brain that your power engages," Zenjou replied. "Gather your mana there, and see if you can't channel it outwards."

    Inside my brain?

    "Isn't that kind of dangerous?" I asked.

    "Not unless you accumulate a vast amount of mana at extreme density," said Zenjou. "At the magnitudes you've so far worked with, it's unlikely that you'd damage any tissue. If it happens that you do, I'll heal you immediately."

    It was hard to tell if she'd intended that as an insult, but eh. If she was reasonably certain, I'd go along with it.

    Fixing my gaze on my reflection, I gathered my mana — somehow managing not to be revolted as I probed the contours of my brain.

    The markings in the mirror overlaid irregular lumps along the two sides of my cerebrum, bridging the crevice between my frontal and parietal lobes. If I correctly recalled my human biology, the rear of the frontal lobes controlled the motor functions; and the front of parietal lobes registered the tactile sense. What with the way I interacted with my insects, it made a weird sort of sense that my power would be centered along the edges of both.

    I instilled the growths with mana; and in the mirror, the red bloom across the top of my skull condensed to overlap with the lower end of the green lines. Soon, I arrived at what felt to be a point of saturation —

    My range had expanded — not enough that it was a drastic change; but alongside a subtle increase in signal fidelity, coverage was extended by about a city block. I couldn't bring myself to be happy about it, though.

    My mana wasn't going anywhere.

    Experimentally moving my swarm, I could roughly detect the nervous activation that carried my commands, and the sensory feedback the insects supplied in response; but whereas the former sort of just fed into a dead end, the latter manifested completely unexplained — issuing into my brain seemingly out of nowhere.

    Given, I was hardly an expert in parahuman science, but I couldn't make heads or tails of it. Whatever the pathway that tied me to my swarm, I couldn't detect it thaumaturgically; couldn't use it for the channeling of mana. It might as well not exist.

    I'd failed completely — or rather, there wasn't to begin with a means to succeed.

    "I can't do it," I said, shaking my head. "It isn't possible."

    "Hm," said Zenjou, cupping her chin in contemplation as she seated herself upon a chair. "It's a one-way connection, then. Interesting. Very interesting."

    Interesting?

    That was it?

    More than ten thousand dollars of her own money down the drain — all to achieve a total non-result; and her only response was that it was 'interesting?'

    What the fuck.

    Was she screwing with me? Had she known the outcome to begin with? Or —

    No. That wasn't the right conclusion.

    As far as I could tell, she really was surprised at the result; and it was inconceivable — highly irrational — that she'd willingly commit her personal resources at such a volume merely to mess with me. It was a massive loss at no substantial benefit; and to what end, exactly? To see me flustered and confused? It certainly didn't win my trust.

    She didn't expect that I would fail, and she legitimately didn't mind that I had.

    This wasn't a con.

    "I don't get you," I said, staring at her.

    "Hm?" she asked. "What don't you understand?"

    "You're just — fine with the fact that I failed?"

    "Why wouldn't I be? Not reaching an outcome is informative enough, in and of itself."

    It was the nonchalance that really got to me. I hadn't had the context for it to click together before, but 'mere acknowledgment' was precisely the attitude she'd directed toward the crime rate in the city.

    Mistakenly, I'd supposed that she regarded the state of Brockton Bay as somebody else's problem; that definitely, she had to be invested in something.

    — that today, for the very first time, I'd maybe catch a glimpse of whatever it was that actually made her tick.

    In the end, she didn't have anything riding on my success. It didn't matter in the least that the experiment was a bust. She received the result without frustration or complaint; from the objectivity of a scholarly distance — ignoring that the time and money she'd put into preparation weren't at all trivial.

    I'd misread her; misjudged her completely. Rin Zenjou wasn't sadistic or evil, regardless that she'd pretty much forced me into a Skinner box at gunpoint.

    The truth of it was — beneath her prickly exterior, she approached things with utter detachment; absent of positive or negative valuation; absent of any kind of commitment beyond the extremely superficial.

    It wasn't out of malice that she'd pressed me to become her assistant; or particular benevolence that she'd warned against becoming a cape. Probably, the advice she'd provided in the latter regard was the sort of thing you'd say to a stranger in a cafe after hearing them argue over the telephone — not spoken as to a personal acquaintance, but as common-sense advice offered from the perspective of an outsider.

    Smug condescension in her mannerisms notwithstanding, I rather doubted she cared enough about me to take any pleasure in my suffering. I was to her at the most a passing whim; hardly even a lab rat to be used and discarded —

    — not worth the effort to raise a finger against, in the event that I just walked out.

    "We're done," I said, exiting from the thaumaturgical circle; dispersing my swarm out the window. "I'm going home."

    Zenjou looked to me, uncomprehending.

    "Why are you so upset?" she asked. "This wasn't any personal failing on your part. It's nothing you should fret about."

    I didn't reply. Pulling my shoes on over my bare feet, I walked out of the dance classroom — down the corridor to the stairs without a backwards glance.

    "Taylor?" she called, stepping out into the hallway behind me. "Taylor!"




    That night, I began my career as a hero.
     
  14. Extras: The Abenaki People
    fallacies

    fallacies Getting sticky.

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    The Abenaki — "the People of the Land of Dawn" — are a Native American people who originally inhabited parts of New England and eastern Canada. In their mythology, the creator of the world is referred to as Tabaldak — "the Owner" — an androgynous figure attributed with the creation of everything in the world except the giant Odziozo.

    Taylor is incorrectly remembering Tabaldak as a "hermaphroditic" figure; and Rin classifies them as an Earth Mother Goddess mostly on account of the anthropological interpretations of the Clock Tower.

    As an aside, in the area of southeastern New Hampshire that Brockton Bay would occupy, the local Abenaki would belong of the Squamscott tribe — "of the Place of the Salmons."

    As a secondary aside — entirely irrelevant to this story — the name "Japan" is etymologically descended from Dutch or Portuguese corruptions of the Sinitic 日本 ("nippon" in modern Japanese; "rìběn" in modern Mandarin) — meaning "(the place of) the Sun's origination."

    Owing to the popularity of Japanese or East Asian lacquerware amongst European Orientalists, the word japan came to refer both to black enamel varnish and the process of applying such to wood. In the 17th century, Aphra Behn — sometimes hailed as the first professional female writer — in her novel, Oroonoko: or, The Royal Slave — one of the first novels in the English language — described the titular African prince as having skin "the color of japan."
     
  15. Threadmarks: 011 : Bear These Not When Acting of Benevolence
    fallacies

    fallacies Getting sticky.

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    Friday, February 4th, 2011




    Nine hundred dollars a year. That was the cost of a typical cable package in Rockingham County, New Hampshire.

    Money wasn't so tight that we couldn't afford it, apparently; but seeing as our downstairs television hardly saw any use these days, I found it mystifying that Dad would insist on paying out the subscription fee month after month. It was, after all, a rare occasion he was even in the mood to vegetate in front of the TV after dinner.

    Personally, I'd all but fallen out of the habit — up until hospitalization had forced it again upon me.

    Back when I was in middle school, when we bothered still to sit through educational programming as a kind of family activity, television was like a window into the unfamiliar; to things and places far removed.

    Really, it wasn't. It couldn't be.

    Somebody at the other end was filming at profit — presenting to the audience a glimpse of the world as filtered through a particular point of view; and further whittled down by budget constraints, the interests of sponsors, and miscellaneous practical considerations. If there was anything a product so fundamentally adulterated could be removed from, it was a semblance of reality.

    What it was was a distraction from myself; a reprieve from being Taylor Hebert — however fleeting.

    In that capacity, it could maybe qualify as an anesthetic or a placebo — a substitute to actually living; to facing things head-on and in earnest.

    Mostly because it felt a bit too close to running away from my problems, I avoided couch-potatoing in general; but sparingly sampled, a poison could be therapeutic. At the very least, it passed the time that couldn't be better spent on other things.

    Tonight, I'd had my fill.

    Seated on the floor with my back against the couch; tightly hugging a pillow, I announced: "I'm planning on sleeping in tomorrow morning. Please don't wake me up."

    My eyes were fixed on the screen so as not to give anything away; but on the wall behind the couch, a fly watched as Dad turned to regard me. In the poor lighting, its compound eyes couldn't discern his face against the glare of the television.

    "You're not sick again, are you?" he asked.

    "Kinda under the weather," I said. "I'm still getting used to my exercise routine."

    Dad sighed.

    "I'm not going to tell you to quit," he said, "but remember that the doctors told you to take it easy."

    I didn't reply. Standing, I dropped my pillow upon the couch and stretched — reaching my arms toward the ceiling as I worked out the kinks along my spine.

    "Gonna turn in early," I said, watching as a mother panda played with her cub. "G'night, Dad."

    "G'night," he replied.

    Quietly shifting across the room as I exited to the foyer, my insects caught the naked concern in his expression; the powerlessness and the self-reproach. It made me feel a little guilty for giving him the cold shoulder now that he was putting in the effort to be there; but his company wasn't what I needed at the moment.

    What I needed was for him to skip out on checking up on me when he left for work in the morning.

    To that end, lying to him was almost an afterthought.

    Ascending the stairs, I entered my room; locked the door behind me. Zenjou's lights were on across the street; and so, rather than turning on my own and risking her attention, I relied on the winter moths that covered the ceiling to supplement my poor nocturnal vision — examining in the moonlight the handiwork of the black widows upon the floor.

    Two weeks into my hospitalization, a segment on the Discovery Channel had gone into the use of synthetic spider silk in body armor — in particular, the creation of a protective under-suit thin enough to be worn under clothing; tough enough to withstand a bear attack. Taking it as inspiration, I'd borrowed a laptop from Dad and conducted a bit of an investigation into the breeds of spiders endemic to New England; the properties of their silk.

    Winter wasn't a good time for spider hunting; but owing to the relative warmth of the Bay, I managed to luck into several breeding pairs of black widows in the vicinity of the hospital. Right away, I set them to the task of out-of-season reproduction; and then, when the females had each given birth to at least four egg sacs, to the beginnings of a costume.

    The eggs of a black widow had an incubation period of about three weeks. Hopefully, in another couple of days, I'd have a workforce of two to four hundred hatchlings from every sac I'd smuggled home undamaged.

    Making do with the adults for the moment, I'd so far woven together a loop of fabric half the size of my ribcage — a dirty yellow-gray, single-layered, and frayed about the edges. Though it was nothing impressive to look at, I couldn't help but take a bit of pride in the regularity of the weaving — nearly indistinguishable from factory-manufactured spandex.

    However, my current collection of black widows could only work so fast — even that Reinforcement persisted unless I explicitly withdrew my mana; and autopilot allowed that irrelevant of my state of consciousness, they could execute predetermined orders.

    Just like access to sensory information, execution of orders required that a given arthropod remain within the range of my power. If I were in other words away for whatever reason, the spiders would quickly default to their natural behavior — regardless that they were Reinforced.

    To protect them from territorial cannibalism and other environmental hazards, then, it was necessary to physically isolate them every time I departed the neighborhood; to spread them out to pockets of safety abundant in food.

    Carelessness had already cost me one of the four females I'd started out with. The impact upon my rate of progress was noticeable.

    'This is gonna take ages,' I thought, lifting the cloth before me.

    Still, with Reinforced insects at my disposal, a costume wasn't immediately necessary; and potentially exposing myself to danger could wait until I figured out the powerset I wanted to present.

    Combat wasn't the sole avenue to a heroic debut.

    'Jogging gear it is,' I decided.




    After several tries, I managed to grasp ahold of the bottom-most rung of the drop-down ladder, maybe fourteen feet above the floor of the alley — two feet higher than the world record for a slam dunk performed without the use of a parahuman power. With an upper body strength I wouldn't have been able to muster a week ago, I pulled myself to the second floor platform of the fire escape and started up the stairs.

    Full-body Reinforcement boosted physical capabilities in general, but the rate and volume of mana circulation to which I naturally gravitated didn't permit for starkly inhuman performance outside of a minor Mover rating. As it was a bit of a bother to force myself to consistently exceed my 'comfort zone,' I'd instead adopted the solution of momentarily escalating mana flow whenever exertion beyond the norm was required — targeting the joints and muscle groups specifically engaged on an intentional basis.

    I wasn't certain how far I could go with this, but maybe with a little trial and error, I'd be able to parkour from building to building absent the risk of grievous injury.

    People didn't often look upwards, but the fire escape I'd climbed was positioned relative to the surrounding architecture in such a way that a pedestrian would easily catch sight of me if I lingered. Thus, the 'perch' I'd selected was on the roof, six stories up — atop a weathered concrete protrusion level to my shoulders.

    Hopping up on top, I seated myself cross-legged — pulling open the wrapper of an energy bar I'd brought along.

    This particular building exceeded the height of its neighbors by a couple of stories, and provided a view of the shopping arcade at Little Tokyo and the Lord Street Market — the rectangle of asphalt on the side of the Newmarket Green. Fugly Bob's was on the side of the Green closer to me, along the shoreline and hidden behind a building.

    To the purpose of securing a nice, sanitary hideaway at which to briefly rest, it served my needs that the concrete surfaces about the rooftop were free of litter and discarded needles — owing presumably to the Bounded Field that fed upon the leyline junction beneath the foundations.

    It hadn't been any intention on my part to seek out another of the properties managed by the Whateleys; but now that I was aware of the way that leylines felt, it was difficult not to instinctively keep track of their bearing via the senses of my swarm. That said, my use of this building was entirely unrelated to mana access, and I didn't in the first place have a need for such a thing.

    Simply, sitting where I was — roughly at the center of this neighborhood — my power had a rough coverage of the fields of movement for the targets of my observation; bringing the apparent base of their activities — a building at the edge of the shopping arcade — just within the perimeter of my newly-extended range.

    The investigation of said building was my objective for tonight.

    Currently, it was a quarter to five. Because I'd awoken later than intended, the majority of the working girls I'd planned on tracking down had already gone home. Thankfully, a couple of them were still 'on the clock'; and outside of long stretches of quiet inactivity, they were servicing their clients in cars; in the public toilets at the self-service gas station south along Lord Street; and in one instance, behind a dumpster. I did my best not to observe them in the act.

    The ones that departed their posts at the street-side did so on foot, usually after concluding business with a decently-paying customer. Probably, they had a nightly quota to fill? With my swarm, I'd tailed them from several blocks away, and quickly discovered their common destination.

    The place was a fairly nondescript brownstone commercial building, four floors in height; with what felt to be inhabited living quarters in the upper stories. Most of the first floor was occupied by a 24-hour Chinese takeout place; and initially, I guessed that the stern-looking man chopping meat in the kitchen might've been the girls' pimp.

    This turned out not to be the case.

    On the bench out front, idly browsing a smartphone, there was a muscular, heavily-tattooed Asian woman with a cigarette between her lips, clad in ripped skinny jeans and an overly narrow tube top. She was maybe in her 20's or early 30's; maybe a working girl herself, I thought; but prior to heading into the building and presumably turning in for the night, each of the girls I'd followed were sure to approach her — handing to her the hundreds of dollars they'd made.

    A female pimp. I should've been less surprised. My time at Winslow was after all evidence enough that solidarity in gender was a fiction. Still, it was hard to buy that somebody who had to be cognizant of what it meant to be sexually exploited would herself victimize women — pushing these girls to objectify their own bodies for the pleasure of men.

    Was she a victim as well? Or were there factors at play that I was flat-out missing the context for?

    Superficially, it didn't seem as if the girls were being forced to cough up the money under duress; and it was entirely plausible the tattooed woman was providing them with food and shelter at cost. With the gangs under the ABB being the dominant power in this area, maybe she wasn't permitted to render assistance in any other manner. It wasn't good to jump to conclusions simply on account that I'd been freshly reacquainted with the unthinking callousness girls could inflict on one another.

    It was another reason to properly conduct an investigation; to infiltrate the building with Reinforced insects, and to determine if a police intervention was necessary. My preconceptions and biases couldn't be let to get in the way of the things that needed to be done.

    'Let's have a quick look at what we're dealing with,' I thought, munching down on my energy bar.

    Five blocks away, the Reinforced moths I flitted into the building gave me a glimpse of the squalor of the living conditions within.

    Aside from the flaking paint; the dust-covered surfaces; the scarred wooden flooring, partition walls on the second to fourth stories had subdivided the available space into a maze of bedrooms that probably violated some sort of building ordinance. Laid out like military barracks from World War II, the rooms were crammed with triple bunk beds at an approximate density of three to every 8-by-10-foot space — exceeding maximum residential occupancy by nine times, if I correctly recalled Dad's comments on the dormitory the DWA had set up for unemployed association members.

    There didn't look to be a commons area in the upper floors, but the half of the basement that hadn't been claimed by the Chinese restaurant for storage had been outfitted with a simple kitchen and dining area — not quite spacious enough to seat all of the girls.

    At present, a couple of them were there, supping on leftovers and instant noodles. The conversation between them wasn't in English; and not having seriously studied East Asian languages, I couldn't glean much from it beyond they might've been speaking in Chinese or Japanese.

    There weren't any clear signs that they were being victimized or forced by violent means. Despite the frankly awful environment they had to put up with, these were normal girls, leading normal lives — joking with each other and chatting away as they ate their meals, irrelevant of their occupation; of their oversexualized attire.

    Though there were probably illegal going-ons somewhere in the background — whatever the context that gave rise to the circumstances these girls faced — thinking on it a little more, I didn't know that calling the police would actually be of benefit to anyone.

    I hadn't the background to correctly identify narcotics via the senses of my swarm; but if I were to hypothetically find a dangerous substance somewhere in the building, reporting it to the proper authorities would at the very least significantly disrupt the lives of the working girls housed on the premises. Worst case scenario, a couple of them might be jailed for possession. First-time offenders could be put away for something on the order of seven years; and second-time offenders could be sentenced to up to fifteen years.

    Even if it were just that I called it into the Brockton Bay Housing Authority that there were residential code violations at so-and-so address, the girls here would end up being forced out into the streets.

    Maybe I should've thought this through before coming out here.

    'Why did I think it would be easy?'

    I was too eager; too quick to oversimplify. Though I knew that substantially improving the girls' situation was beyond my power, I'd approached tonight's investigation with an unconscious certainty that I'd easily discover a wrongdoing I could fix.

    Just how arrogant was I, really? Acting like a hammer in search of a nail wouldn't help anyone. It wasn't to my benefit that the world existed, and there would always be problems I wouldn't be able to solve.

    My duty was to the —

    "—————!"

    A scream outside the range of my hearing. I turned my head.

    At a side-street intersection three blocks away, one of the working girls I'd been tracking was pressed against a wall by a client she'd just now finished servicing. Holding a gun to her throat, he ordered her to hand over her evening's take.

    "Shit," I said.

    I'd been 'aware' of what was happening to her, sort of; but it was a limitation of my power that even within close range of my body, I was hardly omniscient.

    It wasn't difficult to multitask to an extreme degree — consciously attending to a vast number of items simultaneously; but 'vast' was ultimately 'finite,' and peeping on people taking care of their business hadn't been a priority tonight. As such, up until the girl's scream had drawn my focus, the unfolding of her situation had been relegated to the back of my mind.

    I wasn't yet prepared to expose myself to danger. If I intervened, there was a chance that I could be injured or worse — and then I wouldn't be of much aid to anyone, would I? The proper solution was to leave it to the police; to seek out the nearest public phone, and dial it in to 911.

    There was a phone on Lord Street, maybe 500 meters away. How long would it take for me to get there and make the call? Thereafter, how long would it take for the police to arrive? The nearest precinct was at the edge of the Boat Graveyard, a good distance away; and I'd heard that the average response time to a 911 dispatch in Brockton Bay was roughly ten minutes. Being as I was in the middle of ABB territory, the wait would be longer ...

    No.

    The pistol could be fired at any point, and by then it would be too late. If it fell within my power to protect the girl, and for purposes of self-preservation, I left her to the mercy of the thug, I would be complicit in whatever harm she came to. As it was, I was already wasting time.

    Here and now, if I wasn't ready to put my life on the line, I'd never be, and there would always be more excuses. There was a clear evil at hand, and an equally clear solution.

    In that case, there wasn't a need for doubt or hesitation.

    Considerations for the future were the only permissible compromise.

    No insects. No obvious use of power. Behind the thug, the T-intersection had a point of entry without the woman's field of vision. All it would take to reach it was a risky bit of parkour I'd never attempted, and a sheer drop of four stories.

    "This is an objectively terrible idea," I said aloud, leaving behind my plastic bag and taking off.

    The one-and-a-half-story fall to the rooftop adjacent wasn't a lot more imposing than the distance from my bedroom window to the driveway in front of my house. Touching down from the jump and using the level platform of the two buildings northward for a running start, I escalated mana circulation to make the diagonal leap across an alley intersection.

    I cleared the distance, but lost my footing at landing — scraping my left knee as momentum carried me forward to a tumbling halt. Hissing, I pushed myself to my feet, forcibly resuming course so as not to waste time. The fire alley next up was slightly narrower; slightly easier to clear; and pointedly ignoring the pain in my leg, I jumped again — arriving after another stretch of roof at the precipice overlooking the crime-in-progress.

    'Here goes,' I thought, stepping off the ledge.

    Ensuring my own safety wasn't strictly a matter of Reinforcement. Precisely as I struck the ground, I allowed my legs to bend beneath the weight of my body; exerting just enough muscular resistance to softly mitigate the force of the fall. Consequently, the impact was rather lighter than expected; and without so much as having to make a three-point landing, I was able to move again.

    Disengaging Reinforcement so as not to seriously injure the mugger, I jogged up behind him.

    "Hey!" I shouted, grabbing his shoulder.

    He glanced in my direction, and I threw a punch at his face — slamming my fist against the side of his jaw.

    It wasn't enough to knock him out; but disoriented, he inadvertently let go of his pistol — releasing his grip on the girl. She scrambled away, and I kicked the gun out of reach; restored my Reinforcement, in case he had another weapon on his person.

    "Police are on their way," I lied, "and I've got your face on camera. Wanna stick around and try your luck?"

    Swearing, he took off at a sprint. I breathed in relief, but noticed on turning that the girl had picked up the gun — unsteadily directing the barrel at my body.

    "Please," I said. "Put it down."

    She was Asian, a couple of years older than me; maybe Japanese. Bloodied nose and the bruises on her face aside, she wasn't unattractive, and might've looked less out of place if she traded her crop top, miniskirt, and fishnet for something more in line with Emma's tastes in clothing. It was hard to imagine how she'd ended up as a working girl.

    "No police," she said, breathing unevenly — crying; clearly terrified.

    Going by the pronunciation of her words, she was a first-gen immigrant, or from one of the more insular foreign communities. I didn't know why she didn't want to involve the police, though, considering her injuries.

    Certainly, prostitution was against the law in the state of New Hampshire — but that didn't feel like reason enough. Responding to accusations of over-policing and discrimination, the BBPD had after several high-profile incidents significantly reduced their presence in the Asian neighborhoods of the Docks; and specifically, their enforcement against sexual solicitation. These days, they tended to look the other way where working girls and compensated dating were concerned. If they even booked a woman for streetwalking, she'd likely be released without charge by the end of the night.

    Was the girl worried because she was an undocumented immigrant, then? Kinda doubtful, unless she was vastly misunderstanding something. Brockton Bay had famously been a sanctuary city since the 1st Asian diaspora, way back in the 80's. It was a long-standing policy that the BBPD wouldn't cooperate with federal authorities in the enforcement of deportation.

    Assuming she wasn't unaware of the city's policy on immigrants, she was probably either in possession of drugs, or a person of interest in some ongoing criminal investigation.

    It wasn't my intent to make her life more difficult, though; and so, for now, I'd deal with just the problem immediately at hand.

    "I get it," I said, raising my hands to placate her; to momentarily deescalate. "No police. Calm down, okay?"

    "Go," she replied, trembling. "Leave now!"

    I would — once I was certain that she wasn't a threat to herself and others. In her current state of mind, leaving a firearm in her possession wasn't an option.

    "You're bleeding," I said, slowly pacing toward her. "Let me call an ambulance — get you to a hospital, at least."

    "No hospital!" she shouted.

    I took another step; and then, thinking to disarm her, I made to dash forwards —

    The sound of the gunshot was deafening — not at all like in the movies. The very first sensation I had was tactile — of an impact that sent me tumbling to the ground; of something exiting through the back of my left leg. In the instant, there was only numbness — but it didn't persist.

    I expected pain, but what arrived did so in the company of a searing heat; like sharp pins cleansed in fire, slowly thrust against the muscles of my inner thigh. Judging by the amount of blood pooling beside me, the bullet must've struck an artery or something.

    A short distance away, something clattered to the ground. Lightheaded, I turned my gaze to the Asian girl, whose eyes had widened in horror.

    She said something that I couldn't make out; backing away before turning and running.

    I didn't spare the attention to track her. Almost as soon as she was out of sight, the moths overhead caught sight of a visual distortion at the opposite end of the alley — vaguely human-shaped, but not unlike a haze in the distance on a hot summer day. In moments, it resolved, and a familiar figure approached me from behind — the four-inch heels of her leather thigh-highs clicking against the asphalt.

    "You stupid, stupid girl," muttered Zenjou.
     
  16. Extras: Timeline of Earth Bet relevant as of 011
    fallacies

    fallacies Getting sticky.

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    1680

    July 12
    - birth of Abigail Williams

    November 14
    - discovery of Newton's Comet

    1692

    February 9
    - inception of the Salem Witch Trials

    1807

    - in New Hampshire, the industrialist Samuel Blodgett begins the construction of a series of canals that extend seawards from the Merrimack River to Lord's Port

    1838

    - Manchester, NH is founded as a company town by the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company

    1842

    January 1
    - Boston & Maine Railroad established a line between Manchester and Lord's Port​

    1846

    October 1
    - Manchester, NH is incorporated as a city​

    1850

    July 1
    - Lord's Port, NH is renamed as Brockton Bay, and incorporated as a city​

    1878

    July 29
    - total solar eclipsein North America​
    - Birth of Lavinia Whateley

    1913

    February 2
    - Birth of Wilbur Whateley

    1982

    May 20
    - Scion is first sighted above the Atlantic Ocean​

    1983

    - the Chinese Union-Imperial is formed, resulting in the 1st Asian Diaspora​

    1984

    - the first superheroes emerge​
    - Amoskeag Manufacturing Company is acquired by a Japanese company, and closes sites in New Hampshire​
    - Stevedores Union riot in Brockton Bay, New Hampshire​
    - in an effort to preempt the imminent downturn of the economy, the State Legislature of New Hampshire passes Sanctuary Laws -- bringing in a flow of Asian immigrants​

    1987

    - superheroes unveil themselves to the public​
    - Slaughterhouse Nine is founded; the founder, King, is killed later in the year, and Jack Slash becomes his successor​

    February 3
    - Rin Zenjou is born to Aoi Zenjou​

    1988

    - the Empire Eighty-Eight forms​

    May 1
    - Alexandria, Legend, Eidolon, and Hero become the founding members of the initial Protectorate​

    1992

    - Japanese asset price bubble collapses, resulting in the inception of the Lost Decade​

    December 13
    - Behemoth appears in Marun Field, Iran​

    1993

    January18
    - the PRT is founded​

    1995

    June 18
    - Taylor Anne Hebert is born​

    1996

    June 9
    - Leviathan appears in Oslo, Norway​

    1997

    - the oil platform Seraphics, originally situated near Newfoundland, Canada, is sold into the ownership of the PRT, and relocated off the coast of Brockton Bay, New Hampshire​

    1998

    - NEPEA-5 is signed into law, vastly curtailing parahuman involvement in business​

    1999

    - Scion dons white body suit​

    November 2
    - Leviathan destroys Kyushu, Japan​

    2000

    - Lung relocates from Japan to Anhui Province, China, and is subsequently captured by the Yangban​
    - in Brockton Bay, Fleur is killed​

    September 15
    - Hero is killed in an engagement between the Protectorate and the Slaughterhouse Nine​
    - Alexandria engages and is injured by the Siberian​
    - the surviving members of the original Protectorate are redesignated as the Triumvirate​

    2001

    February 2
    - Nilbog appears in Ellisburg, NY, prompting the establishment of a quarantine by the PRT​

    2002

    - Lung escapes from the Yangban​

    December 31
    - Simurgh appears in Lausanne, Switzerland​

    2003

    - Lung arrives in Brockton Bay, and greatly expands the former street gang known as the Azn Bad Boys​

    August 12
    - Simurgh attacks London, England​

    2005

    May 9
    - Leviathan destroys Newfoundland, Canada​

    2008

    - Sophia Hess triggers​

    August
    - Annette Hebert dies​

    2009

    June 28
    - Taylor Hebert goes to summer camp​

    August
    - Emma Barnes is attacked by the Azn Bad Boys​

    September
    - Emma and Sophia begin to bully Taylor​

    December
    - Simurgh attacks Madison, WI​

    2010

    December
    - Dinah Alcott triggers​

    2011

    January 3
    - Taylor Hebert triggers​
    - Rin Zenjou begins renovations on 24 Arbor St., Brockton Bay​

    January 29
    - Taylor returns home from the hospital​

    February 4
    - Chapter 011​
     
  17. fallacies

    fallacies Getting sticky.

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    Decided to post this here earlier than planned, because of ongoing issues at SB and SV.
     
  18. globalwarmth

    globalwarmth ruining the weather.

    Joined:
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    Really good.
    The mentorship is really enjoyable and interesting
     
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