A school-wide presentation in the auditorium was guaranteed to be something simple and boring. They happened once or twice a trimester, and were almost always about something that no one cared about. A mandatory lecture on the importance of following safety rules, for example, or some guest researcher's pet subject. The presenters would drone on and on until the student body fell asleep.
Crowds of students filed down the aisles, forming clusters of friends in the seats. Marx and Magolor tucked themselves into the back corner furthest from the stage. More and more students filed in, turning the auditorium black with cloaked figures. A hum reverberated around the room as students spoke to each other.
The headmaster walked onstage, taking his place in the center. Behind him a projector screen unfurled and stretched itself taut.
"Good morning, everyone. This trimester's presentation is going to be on safety." A few loud sighs were heard and ignored. "More specifically, it's going to be about spirits and their warlocks. You will learn how to identify them and how to defend yourself. Be sure to pay attention. This information could save not only you, but your fellow mages as well." He drew a long, ornate wooden wand from his beard with a flourish and tapped it against the screen.
It rippled to life, colors flowing across the surface and sinking into their assigned places. The new image depicted a wizened wizard, long of tooth in the literal sense. He hunched over, gesturing invitingly towards the viewer with a menacing smile.
"I'm certain many of you already know about warlocks and the threat they pose. For those of you who don't, be warned. Warlocks are wizards who, in lieu of practice, have made a bargain with a spirit for magical power." A tap of the wand switched the screen to an image of a purple, smoking mass with a single enormous eye. The wizard from the previous slide knelt before it in supplication.
"The spirit will lend strength to their warlock in exchange for something they desire, usually the completion of specific tasks or worship in some form. Oftentimes these two duties are mixed together. Worship increases their magical power, while the warlock's dedication to enacting the spirit's will gives the spirit influence on the physical plane. While this may seem to be an ideal arrangement for both parties, the reality is that the warlock becomes a bearer of evil for those around them. A simple beneficial relationship soon turns into a reliance on their spirit for power, and the tasks given become more terrible as time continues. Mundane requests become stealing, then arson, then poisonings. The life of the warlock ceases to exist beyond their need to serve. If their spirit wishes it, they will even begin to recruit others into its service." Another tap revealed a bulleted list.
"If you are ever confronted by another mage who wants you to come with them, take note of their behavior and appearance. There are many signs to watch out for. They may want you to follow them and meet someone, but be unwilling to specify who the person is. Never follow anyone who isn't forthright about their motives." The headmaster paused to adjust his hat.
"They may have physical features that are unusual for their species. They may have horns, a tail, or extra fingers. They may have strange markings resembling ornate scars, unknown symbols, or skin not belonging to their species. Extra eyes should be viewed with extreme caution. They may mutter to themselves while looking in a specific direction, fall into sudden fits of laughter, talk to themselves, or move in an irregular manner. These behaviors are only suspect when present with other signs, however, as many mages behave unusually for harmless reasons." Another tap revealed another list.
"If you should come across any person who you believe to be a warlock, take the following steps. The first step is to give absolutely no indication that you suspect them of being a warlock, or that you know they're trying to recruit you. Do not panic. Many warlocks are quick to prey on weakness, and may use your distress as a way to trick you or as an excuse to take you. They can be very manipulative if they wish to be, twisting your words and making seemingly innocuous arguments in bad faith in order to convince you to give their way a try. Politely decline any offers they make and leave as soon as you are able.
"When you're safe, find a trusted older mage and tell them about your encounter. Otherwise contact the local magical authority. They'll retrieve the warlock and help them remove their spiritual attachment." The next slide showed a multi-colored array of creatures and blobs, teeth, eyes, and patterns of all sorts divvied up between them seemingly at random. The audience stared silently, a tension coming over the room.
The headmaster cleared his throat and took a sip of water from a small bottle on the edge of a nearby stool. "Now, on the matter of spirits. Much focus is put upon warlocks, but they are merely the victims of a hidden blight. The true threat is the spirits themselves. They can appear in any form and behave in any manner. The crudest, weakest ones reported commonly resort to threats and terror. The most dangerous ones are like spiders in a parlor, creating an inviting environment so you don't notice the web they've spun around you. Many warlocks have no idea of their own status, believing themselves to simply be the friend of a strange and helpful entity. Some believe they have been chosen by a god, while a few particularly unlucky mages believe that a dead family member is helping them from the afterlife."
"The average spirit doesn't care whatsoever for its mage. They are sapient masses of pure magical energy, concerned only with the acquisition of power. For every warlock there are a dozen infested magic-imbued items. It, like most creatures, wants simply to eat and grow. If you are approached by a spirit, beware. Most spirits confident enough to approach a mage and offer them their own energy are far from weak and unlikely to be foolish. If a spirit approaches you, tell someone immediately. It doesn't matter if it came to you in a dream, in broad daylight, in the dark of night, if you never saw it, or if you saw it while you were high."
The headmaster paused to give the students time to laugh, as they did every time he gave this presentation. Giggles rippled around the auditorium, the only sound that had come from the audience in the past half hour. Once they had died down, he continued. "Tell someone. Tell someone about anything and everything unusual you encounter. It's better to have a dozen false positives than a dozen warlocks. It's better to wrongly report the odd man you met than it is to leave a fellow mage under a spirit's control. If you stay alert and remain wary you may be able to protect yourself and others from the greatest threat ever faced by mages."
The screen flashed off and the lights came up as the students began polite applause. The headmaster took a small bow, then walked off the stage, taking the stool and bottle with him. The crowds reformed and began to file out, talking and laughing with each other.
Magolor sat stock still in his seat. Marx had already gotten up, pushing a hand behind him to help Magolor stand as well. The continued emptiness of his hand prompted him to turn around.
"Mags, the presentation's over. Let's go."
Magolor didn't move. "Marx, do you think…?" His voice quavered.
"Of course not. We're not stupid."
"But he said--"
"Mags, it's okay. We can discuss it in our room, all right?" He extended his hand again. "Come on." After a moment more, Magolor took the offered hand and allowed himself to be guided out of the auditorium. Their classmates monitored their walk more closely than usual.
Magolor's silence ended the second the door closed behind them. "I think Boss is a spirit! It all lines up! He's big and powerful, he's really nice, he compliments us all the time, he made that cool dream space for us, everything! He's going to make us crazy! We have to tell someone!" He was nearly yelling, eyes wild with anxiety.
"Not so loud! These walls aren't thick!" Marx sounded nearly as frantic as Magolor did. He took a slow breath. "Look. He's not a spirit. There's no way he could be one. Think about it. He's never asked us to do anything and he's never given us any power. He's only ever taught us how to get it ourselves. He said it himself. He's only a teacher. And since when is being nice a crime? Or being honest?"
Magolor paused, thinking. "Well. Yes, all that's true, but...what if we're just not there yet? What if it's still early on and the tasks and worship stuff come later? What if he only taught us how to gather power so he can take it secretly? Maybe that's why he always hugs us..maybe--"
"Mags. It's been weeks. He would've done it by now. But he still hasn't asked anything of us. And he hugs us because he likes us and we do a good job! Boss wouldn't hurt us, we're his students! Teachers don't do that. I bet we can ask him about spirits when we go to bed and he'll tell us stuff no one else even knows about them! That'll prove it! A spirit would never tell us about his species. It'd be giving us ways to get away and destroy them!"
"That does make sense…" Magolor's brow furrowed. "But what if he wants us to think that, or he lies…"
"Name one thing he's lied about."
"You're right…I'm probably making connections where there are none again." He grimaced.
"At least you're vigilant like they said to be! Spirits will never get us with you around." Marx gave him a couple of reassuring pats on the back.
"I just don't want you getting hurt." Magolor slipped his hand into Marx's, pulling him gently towards the door. "Let's go get some food before bed. We can ask him later like you said."
The familiar weightless floating had engulfed the two once again. By now they were used to sharing dreams, and waited patiently for the landscape and their mentor to appear.
"Greetings. How are my favorites doing on this fine night?"
"Oh it's...we're doing all right." Magolor responded a bit too quickly to be natural. Both of them had their eyes glued to the floor.
"Say, Boss, is it all right if we ask you a question?"
The orb rolled forward through the air. "Hmm? Of course you may. I am here to teach."
Magolor began to speak. "Ca--can.." The words caught in his throat and his eyes began to drill into the floor. Marx finished for him. "Can you tell us about spirits? We had to go to a presentation about warlocks and spirits today and we're uh, curious. Yeah."
"An interesting question. Of course I'll answer it. I'm assuming you've already been told how to protect yourself from them, so I'll move to more interesting topics." Hands nudged the two of them into sitting positions in the clouds.
"A spirit is a collection of magical energy that has grown strong enough to reach sentience. They occur when raw energy has been gathered and left unused for a long period of time. If a magical item is enchanted improperly and some of the magic remains unpurposed, it will find one for itself. In rare cases the emotions and thoughts of a local population may stir up small amounts of ambient magic until it coalesces into a living form. A spirit, put simply, is magic that has found a will of its own. Usually it desires cruelty and power, but I have seen a few choose their hosts out of a sense of altruism. Not all warlocks have been mages. Some of them don't have enough magic to float a feather, but were chosen anyways, merely because they were in need of assistance."
"But then how would the spirit eat?" Marx seemed puzzled.
"Anyone can worship. Spirits who choose to help usually only demand enough to maintain their size. Of course, they're still destroyed with the rest once they're discovered." Boss made sure to pitch his voice down forlornly at the end.
"But why? If they're good they aren't hurting anyone, right?"
"Mage authorities see spirits as something of an addictive plague. A bacterium is a bacterium, even if it proves beneficial. Biologists know that some bacteria are good, but the general populace thinks of them as pests. Unfortunately magical studies are often hindered by the status quo. What you were taught by your headmaster today has been taught to generations of mages."
"What's your real name?"
"It's a secret. When I attended this school I was...less than beloved. I didn't want to tell you as a precaution, in case you two turned out to be loose-lipped, but it's been a while, and I haven't heard a single peep around the campus about my existence."
"You can hear around the school? How?" Magolor’s head tilted to the side.
"I have my ways. I like to keep eyes and ears on things. Helps me find students to help and...perhaps I have a bit of an eavesdropping problem when it comes to my old professors. My listening proved you both to be trustworthy enough." The sphere spun a bit faster, its internal shimmer twinkling a bit more than usual. "My name is Dr. N. Emeritus."
The two sat in excited silence before Magolor blurted "Are you a ball in real life too?" Marx shushed him quickly, hissing his name in embarrassment.
Boss chuckled. Magolor felt a warm weight settle between his ears and pat him. "Yes and no. My species is rare and a bit unusual. I don't even know what I am. I lack a family to tell me."
"Oh...sorry." He looked down, embarrassed, but the weight didn't leave.
"Don't be. There's nothing wrong with curiosity. You both may feel free to ask me any questions that may come into your minds."
"Anything at all."
Magolor fiddled with the edge of his cloak, weighing his options. He could, but it might ruin things forever. Marx would be upset and they'd lose a good friend. Everything would go away. Or maybe it wouldn't, but if it did, wouldn't that be a good outcome too? If turned out to be one, and he left, they'd be safe again. Unless he sent someone after them? But the teachers could protect them. But if he didn't, they'd never know the truth and then they'd get trapped.
"Are you, um. A...um a--a warlock?" The fabric of his cloak wrinkled in his fists as the question squeaked from him. He stared intently into the cloud he sat on. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut. The hand resting atop his head slid to the side, a thumb running up the side of his ear repeatedly in a way that almost made him trill. It was an old gesture of comfort in his family.
"All of my power comes from years of work, and only the most impressive of spirits could even attempt to defeat me. You are both under my protection, and I will see to it that no harm comes to either of you." Boss's invisible hand now supported Magolor, who leaned against it without a care in the world. He seemed almost asleep despite the fact that he was already dreaming. "You can trust me just as I trust you."
The rest of the night passed a tad more quietly than usual, with quiet, friendly conversation between the three. Marx showed Boss his progress in a newer technique they had been learning. Boss gave him a few new pointers and he moved a short distance away in order to practice.
Magolor sat nearly beneath Boss, still leaning against the hand but wide awake once more. He fiddled with one of the polyhedrons again while Boss watched over him and murmured hints in his ear. The shapes that floated through the air were fascinating to him. He wanted desperately to pull one apart and investigate the inside. It wasn't often he was permitted to actually touch one. There was something comforting and familiar about them, like a favorite childhood toy, but at the same time they were wonderfully exciting.
"Be very careful. It is a delicate container, and necessary as well. Do not break it."
"I can't get in. There's a few little seams here, but I'm not able to get my fingers in there at all."
"Hmm. May I assist? You may simply require the correct tools."
"What do you mean?"
"Give me your hand and I will show you. Trust me."
Magolor set the polyhedron carefully on the ground. Hesitantly, he extended his right hand upwards towards Boss.
"Ready?" Magolor nooded, and a twisting, electric tingle curled over his skin. His dark palms grew even darker, his fingertips lengthening into flat, sharp black claws. Boss completed the change in a matter of seconds. "Try it again."
Magolor stared blankly at his hand, turning it over and bending his fingers. Boss tapped him on the head. "Focus. Try opening it again. I expect you will have an easier time now that your hand has been improved."
The mage's attention turned back to the shape sitting in his lap. Lifting it up once more, he pushed his new claws against a seam. They slid in effortlessly. Magolor stiffened his fingertips and angled his hand downwards, prying the polyhedrons open with a small pop. He immediately brought the hole to his eye.
The indistinct fluff within the shape rushed out all at once, covering him entirely in a lavender mist. A very safe, familiar, warm mist that seemed to hold nothing but affection for him. It swirled playfully around him and he giggled, feeling it flap the edges of his cloak. Some of it spiraled upwards, tentatively making its way towards Boss. The smoke settled for moving around him in wobbly rings, making him look like a miniature planet.
A laser-sharp focus broke, replaced with a strange and sudden sense of longing. Marx looked up for the first time in an hour and was greeted with the sight of lavender. An open, empty polyhedron was lying next to Magolor. He and Boss were both fiddling around with the mist, watching as it curled around them.
Dropping his magic, Marx made his way to one of the pyramids slowly rolling around the dream. He held it carefully to his chest and made his way towards the other two. Spikes formed in the mist and pointed directly at him. Marx stopped in his tracks. "What?" He took a step forward and the pikes grew towards him. Every time he tried to come near, the spikes would grow longer,jabbing outwards quickly. They formed a towering wall that curved over him, concealing his friends from sight defensively.
"That will be enough of that." Boss gathered the mist into a small ball and slipped it back into the polyhedron, using the removed face to cap it and placing it back into the air. A strange and sudden loneliness permeated Magolor's chest. He was sorely in need of a hug, but chose to nestle himself further into the hand behind him. Fingers curled around him.
"Do you believe you can open that contraption, Marx?"
"Sure! Lemme give it a shot." Marx sat in the clouds about a meter away from Magolor and began to turn the pyramid over in his paws, investigating the entire surface. His fingers fit into the gaps easily, but the faces refused to budge from their position no matter how hard he pulled. He tried sliding one sideways, then tried pushing it inwards. Nothing worked.
"Can I see it?" Magolor had scooted a bit closer, holding out his hand.
"Why not? It's not like it'll do anything." Marx tossed the pyramid towards hin, scowling with frustration.
Magolor held the pyramid away from his face, overwhelmed by the light he had released. He handed it back to Marx. A golden current swirled outwards, glowing brightly, curling its way around the area like ink in water. It felt like satin and static electricity. The gold wrapped around Marx without hesitation, but moved far more tentatively around Boss, moving towards and away from him like a shy animal. It drifted around Magolor, having no reaction to him at all. He ran his clawed fingers through it and the gold seemed to flinch.
"How come you could open it?"
"For the very same reason you can open the polyhedrons. I will leave that answer for you to discover, however."
The rest of their time was spent fiddling with the strange shapes and practicing a few skills. The pair would awaken with their suspicions completely soothed.
And for a while, things were comfortable again. Days flowed into each other easily, lulling them into a pleasant routine. Marx was lying on the bed working on a puzzle while Magolor studied at his desk. Neither spoke, leaving the comfortable silence in the room where it was. It dissipated with an unexpected knock on the door.
Marx rolled off of the bed and went to the door, opening it to reveal a tall, thin, familiar woman. He couldn't place her face exactly, but he had seen her somewhere...
Magolor’s memory was, for once, a bit better. "Oh! The lady we bumped into in the apothecary a few months ago! Hello again ma'am!" He waved to her from his desk.
"How did you get into the dorms? ...And how did you know where we live? What's going on here?" The door began to creep shut. Marx stared up at the strange guest, eyes narrowed.
"I'm with Mr.Emeritus. He has requested I make a delivery to the two of you. As for how? You'll find that I am very quiet when I wish to be." Her smile was small and polite, not reaching her eyes.
"A delivery? What for?" Magolor had now turned fully around in his seat, curious to see what she had in store.
"Little gifts, he said. I'm not certain what they are myself." She handed the box down to Marx, who took it in one glove delicately. "He seems to be rather fond of you two." Her grin grew warmer. Marx flushed a bit. "I'll be off now, dears. Take care!" There was a quiet swish, then no sign of her anywhere.
"Where'd she go?" Magolor seemed puzzled.
"I have no idea." Marx peered up and down the hallway before closing the door and relocking it. "Maybe she's his personal courier or something like that. She's pretty fast!"
“Those are expensive. Maybe she’s just a friend of his?”
Homework abandoned, Magolor scooted from his chair and took the box from Marx's paws. "I wonder what he sent us? Must be important if he risked sending something to us in real life." Setting the box down on his desk, he used his pen to undo the tape holding the flaps of the box together.
Inside the box were a pair of dark wooden boxes, seemingly without hinges or clasps. Each box was engraved with one of their names. Magolor pulled them out, handing Marx his box before opening his own.
Inside the box was a necklace. A dark red stone laid into an ornate golden socket formed the pendant. It hung on a thick, beaded chain that ended in a lobster claw clasp. Both gifts fit around their recipients perfectly.
"They're beautiful…" Magolor ran his finger over the surface of the gem. It seemed to shimmer slightly, light reflecting beautifully off of its smooth, round surface. "And warm...weird. Maybe they're enchanted."
"Knowing Boss? They're definitely enchanted. I wonder what they do?" Marx stared at his own, playing with the chain. "I guess we'll have to ask him when we go to sleep again. Probably just an enchantment to keep it warm before it touches bare skin, though."
“Hmm. Unless they’re for something else? Maybe they’re for a lesson, or a new skill we’re going to learn.” Magolor returned to his desk and picked up his pen.
The next morning brought trouble. Boss had informed them during the night that the necklaces were a gift to commemorate “half a year of learning”, as he had put it. So, of course, the two wore them to class. They were very nice gifts, after all, and it would be rude to leave them unused (especially while knowing that he could see them). They had a wonderful teacher and the necklaces were a lovely reminder of that fact. Neither of them seemed to be able to think about anything but their boss.
Unfortunately, neither of them had taken the time to think of the potential consequences, like the consequences of wearing ornate matching necklaces in public after rapidly gaining massive amounts of magical skill. People were watching again. Students were standoffish and wary, keeping to the edges of the halls and not speaking to either of them.
"I told you," one student whispered to the other, "I told you they were. Everyone could tell and now here's the proof! They'll be handing out pamphlets next." Magolor turned and glared, scaring them into silence. The whispers in the halls created an oppressive air that weighed on them heavily. Marx pressed closer to Magolor, feet moving briskly in the direction of their class.
The classroom proved no better. The professor watched them too closely and the other students were scooting further away. When papers were handed back they ended up being nearly thrown to them from a foot away. After class a strange teenager in dark makeup asked them about their "dark spirit work".
Marx stomped right in front of her, startling her. "We are not working with spirits! We're not fucking warlocks and I'm sick of you people treating us like we're poisonous! We're just better than you, okay! Get it through your thick skulls!"
The hallway had gone completely silent. Several students had stopped in their tracks to watch Marx's public tantrum. The girl was quiet, hands bunched in her cape as she stared at the floor. Then the people around them began to laugh. It grew louder and louder, students cracking jokes and elbowing each other.
"Jeeze, Marx, we know you're not warlocks. What spirit would want you?" The burly simirror boy from before stepped out into the circle, gripping one of the girl's shoulders and leading her back into the throng. "All you ever do is whine about how you're so great and no one else understands how amazing and smart you are. You only have a friend because he's your roommate and he has to be."
"That's not true! Marx is smarter and nicer than any of you! You're just...just jerks!" Magolor's voice pitched upwards into an unwanted whine at the end.
"Oh nooooo, I'm a jerk! Whatever." He deposited the girl with her friends and began to leave. "At least I don't scream at a girl just asking me a question."
Marx lunged at the simirror's back with a shout, fire already curling from his glove. Magolor grabbed him by the collar just in time, but the simirror was already turning. "Oh? You want to fight me? Sure, I'll fight you. Just don't go running to the headmaster when I beat your ass." He reached into his cloak and pulled out a wand. A flurry of bright shapes burst towards Marx.
Marx pulled himself free of Magolor roughly and began to send back an attack of his own, not even bothering to counter the attack thrown at him. Fire burst from his gloves, rocketing towards his opponent.
They fizzled and died halfway there. He tried again to the same result. He tried orbs of light, arcs of electricity, and small stones to no avail. A pane of light struck him in the face.
"What happened to all that power, huh? Guess it was nothing after all." The simirror launched an overwhelming barrage of light that even the spectators had to move to avoid. Marx, trapped in the center, couldn't. Magolor's attempt to shield wouldn't materialize. They hit him like a semi truck made of glass shards.
Marx lay on his back, thoroughly battered. Students began to leave the scene, bored now that their source of entertainment was gone. Lunch was in a few minutes anyway. Magolor stayed, moving up close to Marx and looking him over.
Marx had dark purple bruises all over his face and arm. Tears of rage were leaking freely from the corners of his eyes. "Why didn't it work? Where'd my magic go?"
"Marx, we have to tell the he--"
"But why? They be--"
I said don't!" Magolor went silent. That was the first time he had heard Marx yell at him since they became friends. Marx looked away regretfully before his eyes slid back over to Magolor. "...Sorry."
"Let's just go home." Magolor pulled Marx to his feet and helped him back to their dorm and, to his bed. The necklace swung innocuously over his cloak.