As Chris entered the classroom on a Saturday morning, he heard his brother's scornful voice.
"Come on," Wyatt said. "If threats against my life meant anything, I would have been dead a hundred times over before I was two years old."
"But you weren't, because your parents took those threats seriously," Wyatt's tutor, the wizard Merlin, replied.
"Have you already told my mom and dad about this?"
"Well, don't. They'll just get all wound up for no reason, and I can handle this myself. None of my family needs to know."
Merlin raised his eyebrows and glanced toward the door with a small smile. Wyatt looked to see Chris waiting there.
"Oh, shit. You heard nothing," he growled in warning to Chris. Before his younger brother could reply, Wyatt turned back to Merlin. "Are you going to tell them?"
"I will keep it to myself -- for now. Only because the warning I received came from a less-than-reliable source. If I start to have reason to believe the threat is credible --"
"You'll tell them; okay, fine, I get it." Wyatt was hoisting his bag on his shoulder. "Time's up. I gotta go."
Chris followed him out of the classroom into the hall of Magic School.
"What are you doing here?" Wyatt asked.
"I was meeting Vincenta at the library; we've got a big project due for Professor Franklin on Monday. Mom told me to stop by and remind you that Aunt Phoebe and Penelope are coming over for early dinner, so you should be there." He studied Wyatt's grim, distant expression, then asked, "What's going on? What did Merlin tell you?"
"I can help."
"Right. A thirteen-year-old's really gonna scare a professional assassin."
"You've got assassins after you?"
"Just one assassin, and it's just a rumor -- and no, you can't help." He stopped walking. "And don't follow me."
"What?" But Wyatt had already vanished in a swirl of blue orb lights. Chris heaved a sigh and continued on to the library. One thing was certain. Wyatt would kill him if he told Mom and Dad. But would it matter much if Chris told his best friend? Wyatt may not have thought he needed help, but he could be wrong. He was probably wrong. And Vincenta was good at the research end of things. If it wasn't in the Book of Shadows, she'd know where to go next.
He found Vincenta sitting in the library as expected, but he did not quite anticipate her immediate reaction to his proposal.
"If he wants to ignore it, or deal with it on his own, let him, then."
"My brother's life is threatened, and this is your attitude!"
"I've got this real research project -- and so do you -- due Monday."
"We need to blow it off. This is important."
"All right, say we do try to help. What the heck are we supposed to look up? An assassin? That's nice and vague."
"We'll go talk to Merlin, see if he'll tell us anything more." He gestured at the pile of books spread over the table in front of her. "Why'd you leave all this to the last minute anyway? I'm close enough that I can finish up my paper tomorrow."
"I've been working on it all along; there was just lots of interesting stuff to read."
"If we don't get finished, we can ask Merlin to write excuse notes for us. Plus, you know Franklin will give you an extension. Especially if you tell him it's because you're such a dork that you couldn't stop reading."
Resigned, she flipped the book shut. "If I'm a dork, it's only because I caught it by hanging around with you."
Some professors at Magic School affected a bookish, academic air that was reflected in their stuffy, dim offices. Others, the younger ones like Max Franklin and Chris's Aunt Paige, had offices that were almost determinedly modern and bright, as if to bring magic into the current age. Neither style of room fit Chris's idea of a place where magic was made. That place, to his mind, was the Halliwell attic, quaint and homey, with its cozy furniture, antiques and dusty, delicate vials of potion ingredients -- and at its center, a very old book, each page written by his ancestors, most long-dead. Of the dead ones, he had only met three: Penny, Patty and Prue -- his great-grandmother, grandmother and aunt, respectively. His strongest impression was that try as anyone might, the attic would always bear the mark of the elder of those three, Grams, as she was called even by Chris and Wyatt. And neither stuffiness nor sharp modernity of Magic School professors would have suited the formidable Grams.
They didn't seem to suit Merlin, either, Chris thought as he looked around the old wizard's office. Despite his age and fame, Merlin was a new addition to the faculty, brought in by Chris's Aunt Phoebe, in fact, to tutor fifteen-year-old Wyatt, known to be the new heir of Excalibur. Merlin agreed to accept his traditional role with respect to Wyatt, but also graciously offered to earn his keep with a few classes for all students. Headmaster Gideon had seemed reluctant, so Paige had said, but parents were enthused at the idea of a celebrity professor -- even if some grumbled at the special attention being given the powerful Halliwell boy.
Concerned with neither academic propriety nor modern style, Merlin had carted into his office all manner of unidentifiable, but presumably magical, objects, as well as a small menagerie of pets. There was an ant farm, various rodent-like creatures, and a dignified owl who stood on a perch making messes in the corner. And on this Saturday morning, after Wyatt quit his lesson early, Merlin apparently had returned to work on a potion of some kind: A cauldron over a small burner sat on a table surrounded by ingredients that somehow looked even viler than what Chris had ever seen go into the Charmed Ones' concoctions.
It was among this distracting clutter that Chris pleaded his case. Merlin politely stopped his potion-making to listen. Vincenta stayed in the background, looking reluctant to be there.
"It's not like you're telling Mom and Dad," Chris said. "I already know. I just want you to tell us a few more details."
"I don't have any more details."
"You have to." When Merlin just smiled, Chris added, exasperated, "Where'd you find this out, anyway?"
"As I told your brother, not a very reliable source. A lower demon, by the name of Penka, who happens to owe me some favors. He pays in information, but I know well enough to take his information with a grain of salt. As should you."
Chris was deeply shocked. "A demon? Does my mom know you're friends with a demon?"
For some reason, this earned a derisive snort from Vincenta, and a smile from Merlin, who said, "Hardly friends."
"Work with, whatever."
"He's essentially harmless. Too scared to make a move, usually, even if he had much in the way of powers. Sometimes you have to be willing to weigh the good you can accomplish by keeping some less-than-savory acquaintances."
It dawned on Chris what the old wizard was getting at. If they were going to find out more, they'd have to seek it out themselves. But as teacher, Merlin couldn't very well directly send them to a demon, of course, no matter how harmless this Penka was. Chris was going to have to take the initiative there, too.
"So, just, um, for my education, what kind of demon is he?" Chris asked.
"In the interest of your education, he's a Mero Demon."
Chris glanced at the impatient Vincenta. "Okay," he said to Merlin. "Thanks. We'd better go … leave you to …" He gestured awkwardly at the half-finished potion. Then Vincenta pointedly cleared her throat. "Oh! And can you please tell Professor Franklin that we were working a special project for you this weekend?"
"We kind of are, aren't we? Isn't this a learning experience? Because we probably aren't going to get our homework for Franklin done this weekend."
"It could be a learning experience," Merlin conceded. "But perhaps you should at least try to get that homework done. I'd hate to be an excuse for sheer truancy."
"We'll try. Really."
"I will if Chris will let me," Vincenta said as her friend pulled her out the door. "So," she said when they were out of the office, "we need a spell to locate this demon. I'll go to the library; you go to the Book of Shadows. Be listening for when I call you, because I'm going to find something first."
"What makes you so sure?"
"First of all, if he's as harmless as Merlin says, what's the chance anyone in your family made an entry about him? Secondly, I'm going to the library. While you, you're going to a great big handwritten book with no index."
She smirked at his lack of reply and walked off in the direction of the library. Chris shook his head and orbed back home.
He appeared in the attic, which was empty, he was relieved to see. If anyone caught him up here, he could claim he was looking at the Book of Shadows for homework, but it was better to avoid explanations altogether -- especially if the questioner was Piper. His dad and aunts were easy to lie to, but his mom ... Chris would feel guilty lying to her, and he always had the feeling she could tell when he wasn't being honest. Aunt Phoebe may have had the empathy power, but his mother had some special power that applied to Chris alone. Evasiveness, rather than a direct untruth, was always his better course when it came to her.
He could faintly hear people downstairs, but he seemed in no danger of being found out as he flipped through the Book of Shadows for some fifteen minutes -- but to no avail. Finally, he said aloud in frustration, "You know, if Wyatt's really in danger, I could use a little help here! Anyone?"
He broke into a grin as an invisible force began to move the pages rapidly, stopping on an entry that not only was about the lackluster reputation of Meros -- but there was Penka himself. "Who needs indexes when you're a Halliwell?" he asked in triumphant undertone.
He recognized the entry as one of his great-grandmother's, and Grams was just as dismissive of the creature as Merlin had been. But there was more than just a locator spell. There was a summoning spell, with a note about his dubious usefulness as an informant. Perfect.
Chris knew that summoning a demon to the attic was a bad idea on many levels. And Magic School was protected; no demon could get in even if he were summoned. Chris would fetch Vincenta, gloat a little, and then they'd have to find a spot to recite the simple spell, which he scribbled down on a pad of rather girlie stationery he knew had to be Phoebe's.
He tore the sheet off and was about to leave when he was interrupted by the orbing arrival of … oh, good. Only his dad.
"Chris? What are you doing up here?"
"Homework," he replied easily. "I'm meeting 'Centa at the library. Mom knows." That last part wasn't a lie, really. That morning, Chris had told Piper he was going to the school to meet his friend at the library, back when that had indeed been his destination.
Leo accepted it all. "Just don't lose track of time, okay? Remember Aunt Phoebe and Penelope will be over this afternoon."
"Sure." Chris barely finished the word before orbing away.
His younger son gone, Leo moved over to the book himself. Before he closed it, he noted the open page. What kind of homework would involve a demon informant? he wondered idly. But he dismissed the thought as he headed back downstairs to his wife with the book. There were other problems needing attention.