Monday, 09 October 2023 19:00

Fire Over Phoenix (Part 3)

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A Second Generation Whateley Academy Story

Fire Over Phoenix


With help and input from Domoviye


Part 3


Saturday 26th November, 9.15 a.m. a room at the Marriot Hotel, Phoenix Arizona

Thulia woke up with a rather fuzzy head, wondering with some bemusement why slapping her hand to the side hadn't turned off her alarm as usual. It took her a few seconds to realise that was because she was in a hotel room rather than her usual room, her alarm clock wasn't there, and the annoying musical wake-up was being caused by her phone.

Grumbling to herself she rolled over and grabbed the offending object, wondering who'd be calling her here at this time. Morgana was more considerate. Her roommate wasn't but...

“Hello? Who's that?"

If this is a telemarketer, she thought, I'm going to see if it's possible to send a fireball through a phone.

"Hello, is that Thulia Firedrake?"

The voice wasn't familiar, so that didn't clear the mystery up at all.

She growled. "Who wants to know?"

There was an unmistakable tone of amusement in the voice this time as if the caller was familiar with waking sleepy and grumpy dragons.

"My name is Invidicatartx, I'm from the Order. I was told you'd be expecting me to call you this morning."

Oh crap, she thought, but why so early? Then she rolled over a bit further to see the clock by the bed. 0915. Oh, maybe not THAT early then.

"Yeah... this is Thulia. What can I do for you?"

"I need to talk to you about how things went yesterday. Would about half an hour do, in your room? We should keep this as private as possible."

She pushed her hair back off her face as she sat up. Wonderful, as if it couldn't get any worse, a bad hair day. She'd rather put this talk off, but really that wouldn't make things much better. The issue certainly wasn't going to go away. Best to get it over and done with.

"OK, I'll get ready for you."

"Splendid, I'll see you about 30 minutes then."

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She groaned, pulling herself out of bed with considerable reluctance. At least she'd showered last night after all the excitement, but she needed breakfast. And something to drink, her mouth was parched after she experimented with the drinks cabinet.

She grabbed the pile of pamphlets the hotel room had come with, looking for ones involving food. Well, it could have been worse, she could at least order food to her room. Five minutes later, and despite some not-very-well-concealed comments from the hotel staff about the amount of food she wanted, it was all in progress. They'd even promised, after some acerbic words, to supply a full jug of coffee, not just a cup. Now all she had to do was to decide what to wear and dress. No pressure, then.

Rummaging through her backpack, she dragged out some fresh clothing, thankful that she'd brought a clean outfit with her - the ones she'd been wearing yesterday had some unfortunately obvious bloodstains and burn marks, and seeing them would likely pre-empt her explanation. Maybe she could ease the conversation into exactly what she'd been up to last night rather than go straight ahead and admit to everything. So the dirty clothing got stuffed down into the bottom of her backpack, while she tried to dress to give the impression of an innocent teenage dragongirl.

She'd ground her way through most of the breakfast - the girl who'd delivered it had kept trying to see past her, maybe not believing the food was all for her - before there was a knock on the door. She gulped down a final half a bagel, before trying to compose herself as she went to open the door. The man standing there actually looked quite innocuous, but then she presumed he was a long-term agent, blending in would be an important part of his job. The gesture he made between them identified him, of course, as she ushered him in.

He sat down and gave her an appraising look. "So, Thulia. Did you manage to visit the child's parents yesterday?"

She nodded, trying to avoid the look of guilt she was sure was clear on her face. "Yes Sir. I got all the details about what had happened to their daughter."

For someone who looked so mundane and ordinary, the man had very sharp eyes, the sort that made her worry about what she was giving away even with her careful phrases.

"That's good. So what action does the Order need to take next?"

She dithered. There really wasn't any point in lying, because she already knew he was going to visit the parents after getting her information. So she finally gave a deep sigh and started to explain all that had gone on after she had met Azar's parents.

The first part went more smoothly than she'd expected. He'd frowned when she told about how she'd covered the city to pinpoint the girl but didn't start to comment until she started on how she'd met Fanak and the decision to investigate the base to try and rescue the girl.

"While finding the girl's location was rather above what you'd been asked to do, it wasn't too unreasonable an act. But what on earth made you think invading a base of unknown capabilities was a good idea, rather than reporting it to us so a proper strike force could be arranged?"

She gulped. Having it said like that rubbed in that it had really been a foolish act. "Sir, Fanak is a Phoenix superhero, and she was determined to try a rescue. I couldn't just sit by and let her do it while I went home!"

He gave her a very long and discomforting look. "Actually yes, you could have. Also..."

He paused for a minute to play with the TV remote control, getting up one of the local news channels. One showed what was now a burnt-out building, although there were still a couple of fire engines working on some still-smoking areas. "This was the base, wasn't it?"

She just nodded.

"A rescue is one thing, what possessed you to turn the building into that! What part of keeping a low profile didn't you understand?"

She flushed a deep red at his critical remarks. Then her normal stubbornness reasserted itself.

"Once I found out what they were doing to the kids they were abducting, I HAD to!"

He gave her a long calculating look. "Explain that, please. And it had better be a good explanation."

Thulia looked down at her hands for a minute as she tried to calm herself and get her explanation together.

"We intended to simply sneak in, find the girl and sneak out again. But the place was a warren, and we split up. That's when I found out what they were actually up to."

She tried not to look at the agent as she related finding the surgery, and what she'd found there. Then the extra details she'd found in the filing cabinet. Her stomach roiled the whole time she was talking, and her best efforts couldn't keep her voice steady. Finally looking up at him, she found the man's face was set like stone.

"I took a lot of the files, and dumped them in my storage."

He just looked at her, still without expression. "Show me."

She nodded and took a moment to access her dimensional pocket. A mass of files tumbled out onto the floor, and she stood back, not wanting to be near them, Even looking at them made her feel sick. "See for yourself."

He grabbed the topmost file, flicking through it. She watched his face - if this didn't convince him, she knew there was nothing to be done to evade a serious punishment. His face didn't change expression, but then the corner of his mouth slowly twisted into a grimace. Without speaking he went through a number of the files, before dropping them and rubbing his hands as if trying to clean them from the contact with them. Finally, he met her gaze again.

"I see. Of course, what you did went well above what we'd asked you to do, but given this vileness, I can understand your actions in taking things into your own claws."

"We did rescue Azar and another girl they were keeping captive before I did that."

He nodded. "Good. First rescue, then burn! But you've given me a lot to think about. We'll need to investigate more thoroughly, see if this was just an isolated operation or part of something larger." He held up a hand as she opened her mouth to speak. "WE will investigate, not you! I want your word on this, Thulia, not to try and investigate. If these people could do these things and stay hidden, any amateur attempts to investigate would be extremely dangerous to you, AND probably warn them, and send them deeper into hiding."

She sighed slightly before agreeing. She knew intellectually he was right - further investigation needed subtlety and human contacts, and subtlety wasn't really a common dragon trait.

"Good. Now, did anyone get a good look at you?"

Thulia hesitated as she thought. "They probably had cameras, but I doubt their system survived. There were some guards, and one man in power armour..."

His gaze sharpened. "Battle armour? You didn't mention that!"

She sighed and went through her fight with El Scorpio. "He was the only one who got a good look at my dragonform, but I don't think he survived the fight."

"Well, we'll see. If we find any physical records of you, we'll deal with them. People's memories are a little more difficult, but fortunately for us they are rarely consistent, and we can often convince them they are remembering things incorrectly. However, you need to keep aware, that if they do locate you I doubt if they will look kindly on you. With luck, even if that happens they may decide to just write it off rather than show themselves again." He watched her face. "This is why doing this without us isn't a good idea." Seeing the way she looked, he sighed. "However, given the circumstances, and not knowing the urgency, a strike force might well have arrived too late to save the girls."

"So what happens now, Sir?"

"I'll take those folders - the Order needs to see them as soon as possible. I'll speak to Azars' parents next, given what's happened I think we need to relocate them for safety. We were thinking of doing that anyway, so preparations were already in progress. And you are heading back to school, right?"

She put on her best obedient look. "Yes Sir, I'm gating back this afternoon."

"See that you do. I'll warn the Order to expect you later today." He gathered up the folders, and with a few quick gestures they vanished into his own storage space. "Afterwards I will make a full report to the Order about what happened and the extenuating circumstances involved. It's up to my boss to decide whether that's a good enough reason for your actions."

Well, that was about the best she could hope for. In the end, she didn't actually work for the Order, but if they wanted to they could cancel the agreement for her to attend Whateley, which worried her far more than just a punishment. She sat and looked at the closed door after he'd gone, and tried not to think of all the bad things that could happen. At least none of this would affect Morgana.

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11 a.m., Outside the Lopez house, Phoenix

Brian Smith (as he made sure he thought of himself when on Earth) rang the doorbell on the unassuming house as he went through what he intended to say. Thulia's information and actions had changed things considerably from his original intentions.

The door opened a fraction, still on its chain, and a man peered out at him, a suspicious look on his dark-featured face. That was actually a good thing, he thought, such caution meant it looked like the family would be receptive to his idea. He held up what looked like a small business card, which shimmered for a moment, changing to show the Order's symbol in glowing golden fire, before transforming back into his mundane ID card.

He gave the man his best non-threatening, helpful, smile. "I'm agent Invidicatartx, I think you've been expecting me?"

The man's eyes widened as who the visitor was finally worked its way through his brain,, and he undid the chain to open the door fully, gesturing for him to come in. Invidicatartx nodded politely to the woman with her arm around a young girl, Azur he presumed. The woman was probably her mother, he could see some of the resemblance in her face.

"The Lady Dragon said someone would be calling on us."

He nodded, keeping well hidden his amusement at the use of Lady to describe a teenage dragongirl, even one with Thulias family connections. "Yes. I've been appraised as to what's happened, and there are some things we need to talk about." He gestured to the girl. "Is Azar alright physically?"

Her father shrugged. "As far as we can tell, yes. Physically, anyway. She should probably be checked out by a Doctor, though, we were just thinking about how to get that done without attracting attention. We are rather worried about the mental effect on her of all she's been through, she had nightmares all night."

"Of course." He gave the girl another look. "Perhaps it would be better if we talked in private?"

The mother nodded and pulled her daughter protectively closer. "I'll take care of Azar while you two talk."

Once alone with the father, he got down to business. "How much do you know about last night?"

Azar's father shrugged."The basics, to be honest, we were mainly concerned with Azar."

"Of course." He ran through a brief and quite abbreviated story. "I assume you've seen the news?"

Hassan made a face. "Yes. Was that the place where Azar was held captive? "

"It was. Dragons can get a little... enthusiastic... when it comes to dealing with things they disapprove of."

Hassan chuckled at that. "I have no complaints."

"Ahem. Yes. We now need to decide what is best for your family. We can't be certain she cleared out the entire infestation, and in any case, they may well have contacts who wouldn't have been touched. So staying here as you have been will not be a good idea."

Her father looked upset, casting a quick look at the room his wife and daughter had gone into. "We have settled into our life here."

He gave the man a compassionate look."Irealise that, but they have taken your daughter once, do you want to risk that again? They know who she is now, and where you live,"

He gave a deep sigh. "No, of course not. What did you have in mind?"

Smith smiled. "We intend to pick your family up later today and take you to a safe location. That will cover any immediate problems. We will arrange for a Doctor there to properly check out Azur. both mentally as well as physically." He left unsaid that the events had probably affected Azar in non-physical ways that would have to be managed. "Afterwards, we will relocate you to Earth on a more permanent basis, under new names. "

He looked around sadly." And our home?"

"Don't worry. Take what you need with you for a week, once we have your new home arranged we will transfer all your possessions for you. We will also arrange to sell this house, although we may leave that a while to see if it lures any of the people who kidnapped Azur in."

"And my job, how will we live?"

"Please don't worry about that, we have the resources to set things up for you with something suitable." He gave the man a thoughtful look. "Also, there is a project we are currently implementing you might be interested in helping us with. We are looking at putting several children with families on Earth, to immerse them and let them gain a good understanding of human culture. If you are willing, you could host one of them. There would be payment, both for the task and to cover the extra costs incurred looking after a child."

Hassan looked undecided, so he sweetened the offer.

"Also, we would arrange for the fosterling to have her tutoring in magic continued. We can extend that to Azar, so she will gain that part of her heritage. If she gets into trouble in the future, being a mage would be most helpful to her."

"As long as we can refuse if the allocated child is unsuitable?"

Smith nodded. "Of course, once we have selected what we feel are some appropriate children, you can meet them and see how you get along."

He could see from the man's face he was going to agree. "Why not talk to your wife first, then you should pack and I will arrange to get you all to a temporary safe house." Since the initial safehouse would be on the Plane of Fire, he didn't anticipate any serious security issues.

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11 a.m., Thulia's room at the Marriot Hotel, Phoenix

Thulia paused for a moment from jamming her gear back into her backpack. She'd already learned the appropriate human teenager way of doing that, using brute force to cram anything non-fragile into it even if it didn't quite fit. It wasn't that she didn't have plenty of time - she didn't have to be out of the room until noon, and she wasn't scheduled to portal out until after lunch - but she was a little worried about Fanak. Granted she'd healed the immediate damage to the small wolf-girl after the fight, but she still wasn't fully confident about her healing skills as they applied to humans, and it would be a good thing to quickly check on her before she left Phoenix. She'd developed a liking for the aggressive, undersized werewolf heroine, and wanted to be certain she was all right. So once she'd finished her packing, she decided to call her before she looked for somewhere for lunch.

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Fanak glanced up from the homework she'd been concentrating on to look at the clock. No, it was still ambling along as slowly as the last time she'd checked. This wasn't her favourite way of spending a Thanksgiving holiday, but she wasn't allowed to go out. To be honest with herself she was still rather sore and tired after last night, so getting ahead on her work seemed like a good way to spend her time without doing anything too energetic - when her phone buzzed quietly. She pulled it over to look, expecting it was either her family checking how she was, or maybe a friend asking what she was up to. She was surprised to see the ID just listed as 'dragon'. Oh, that meant Thulia! She eagerly picked up the phone and hit accept.

"Hi Fanak, how are you doing today." Left out of that was the implied 'after all that happened to you yesterday'.

Fanak smiled, not that Thulia could see. "Oh, not bad, I'm still a bit sore and tired from last night, but I'm doing as you told me and taking it easy. I'll be fine by the morning."

"That's good, I was a little worried after I left you without checking up on your healing. I'm leaving for Whateley this afternoon, so I thought I should check up on you first."

Even without a visual picture, the tinge of disappointment in Fanak's voice was obvious. "Oh. I guess I'd hoped you could stay a bit longer."

"I'm afraid I can't. I have to get back to the school now the Thanksgiving holiday is over, and given that cult base, it would be a good idea for me to be away from the city for a while, just in case they make a connection."

Fanak thought for a moment. It would be nice to see Thulia and say a proper goodbye. Hmm. "Why don't you stop off on the way and I can make us some snacks. If you want you can check how my healing is going at the same time? If that doesn't get in the way of a schedule?"

"Oooh, snacks? That would be fun! Sure, I can pop by before I have to leave. I don't exactly have a schedule, but I am expected elsewhere this afternoon. "

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Thulia dropped down into the same alleyway that she'd dropped Fanak in the night before. No one was around to see the air buffeted by her wings send dust and a little debris flying, the 'don't notice me' spell she was using making direct observation of her unlikely. Given that after the previous night's events, the authorities here were quite likely keeping a lookout for unexpected sights like cute teenage dragonesses, it seemed a sensible precaution, although the presence of advanced surveillance devices or magic in a nondescript alley seemed unlikely. Pulling in her wings and tail, she tossed the bag she'd been carrying over her shoulder, digging her phone out to see exactly where she had to go. Close, then.

Fanak put down the plate of food she was carrying and headed for the door when she heard the bell. Opening it showed the smiling face of Thulia, who unlike last night was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, much like many of the local teenagers. No horns either, that was a shame, she'd thought they looked cool. Fanak supposed that as she wasn't on a job, she was blending in with the locals.

"Thulia! Hi!"

The dragongirl grinned. "I'm glad you're looking so good, I was a bit worried after last night."

Fanak ushered her into the living room, where a range of pastries and cookies were displayed. Thulia was impressed. "Wow, did you make this all yourself?"

Fanak nodded shyly. "Well, I'm not allowed out yet, so it gave me something to do."

Thulia took a piece of baklava and chewed it thoughtfully. "Mmm, nice. Still, you have cooking skills. Certainly, more than I do." She refrained from telling about how The Imp had tried to interest her in what she had termed a 'Home Economics' course as part of her studies. Cooking was a topic she was perfectly happy to leave up to Bruce. Cleaning up and washing her own laundry was quite enough without having to cook for herself.

At Fanaks urging she took a seat. "You look OK, but before I go I should just check how you're healing up, just in case." Fanak nodded as she took a seat next to the dragongirl, taking a sip of her mint tea.

"I feel fine, really. A bit sore and tired, but it's not bad."

Thulia looked her over carefully. There wasn't much sign of the injuries she'd had last night, but then she had healed her. She'd been a bit worried that her healing skills wouldn't carry over effectively to humans, even though she'd basically just supercharged her body's own healing. Her previous use of her skills on Morgana had hardly been a case of healing a normal human. But apart from a few faint bruises and dark shadows under her eyes, the bouncy mini-fenek looked fine, if a bit worn. She'd do a proper evaluation later, but first social stuff. And snacks.

"There's a few things I should tell you about, just in case you need to know them."

Fanak stopped chewing and looked up expectantly.

"The group I was working for, the Order of the Flame... well I had to explain to my contact about what happened, and about you. Don't worry, I haven't told them where you live or anything, but they may well contact you later to get some more of the facts." She dug in her purse and then produced a small business card. "These are the contact details for their local representative if you need them. If it's OK with you, I can pass on your contact details, they promised they'd be discreet."

Fanak thought about that for a moment. "Just mine? My family lives here, I wouldn't want them to get involved in this."

"Just your email details then? It's up to you then if you want to take it further. They did say they'll be sanitizing any evidence they find that shows my involvement, I can ask them to do the same for you? Might be a good idea to keep a low profile for a few weeks as well."

Fanak nodded. "I'll make up an email for us to use to talk. Can I send it to you to pass on later?"

Thulia grinned. "Of course you can, it's always sensible to be careful. Here..." She dug out her phone and fiddled with it for a moment. "Here are my contact details, mail, and phone number. If it's not urgent, send a text or mail me. If it's urgent, you have my number."

Fanak looked through the details she now had, and nodded. "You've added some contact details for this Whateley place?"

"Yeah, it's a school that handles mutants. If you have the sort of problems you may get because you're a mutant, you can always call them and they'll help you out."

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A while later, the available refreshments had been thoroughly dragoned, and Thulia had taken a few minutes to cast a few spells to do a more detailed examination of Fanak's health.

"Well, I guess I need to be going. I have to travel outside the city to get home." Even in human form, Fanak's ears drooped slightly. "Don't worry, we can keep in touch. And remember what I said, you need to get yourself a bit tougher a costume if you can. Your old one really didn't give you much protection."

Thulia shouldered her bag and turned to wave a final goodbye to Fanak. Ah well, now to arrange a taxi back out into the desert before heading back to Whateley. Via the Plane of Fire. She had an unpleasant feeling in the pit of her stomach that the Order would want a few words before letting her go on. Actually, if she was being realistic with herself, rather more than a few words...

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2p.m. (equivalent EST), The Plane of Fire, an official entrance Portal

Thulia stepped through the portal and brushed some of the desert dust off her. While it had been a pleasant run – the look on the taxi driver's face when she'd asked to be dropped in what was basically the middle of nowhere still amused her – it was good to be home. Even if it was at the Orders portal, with a couple of guards eyeing her with what she felt was entirely too much suspicion.

The robed man standing chatting with one of the guards turned and looked at her. "Thulia Firedrake?" She just nodded.

"Ah, good. Please come with me, we'd like to talk with you about what went on in Phoenix. We have a report from agent Invidicatartx of course, but there are more questions we need to ask.

She sighed, trying not to make it too obvious. As she'd expected, more like an interrogation than a few words...

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As she'd feared, it had been a detailed interrogation that had taken a good hour, both to go through the notes the agent had sent and to explain what and why she'd done what she'd done. They'd not only asked what had gone on but questioned in detail to presumably see if she was making up anything or lying about some of the facts. She hoped that the looks of disgust on faces when they'd examined the documents and pictures she'd retrieved were a good sight for her fate. At any rate, once they had finished they indicated she could go, if they wanted more data they would contact her. This also told her they would be forwarding a report to Whateley, which worried her, but there was nothing she could do about that.

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Saturday 26th November, 6 p.m. (adjusted mean Fire Plane time and calendar), Muspelheim commercial district.

The old-fashioned metal spiral above the door rang the bell with a gentle tinkling noise as she entered the shop.

"Yeah? Who is it?"

The deep, rather aggressive voice belonged to a short, wide man with a grumpy expression, Not really surprising since he was a dwarf. One of these days Thulia thought she might meet a happy dwarf who wasn't drunk, but she wasn't going to hold her breath till then. He took a quick look at his customer and answered his own question. "Ah, Thulia. I assume you've come for your order?"

"Yes please, Altamont. Is it all ready?"

He grinned, a sudden flash of white teeth in his dark beard. "Of course it is, I have the best stock and contacts! But that's why you came here, wasn't it?"

Thulia nodded. "You've always been the best supplier, and I needed to top up some of my spell supplies."

He bent and started to put several wrapped parcels on the counter in front of him. "You wouldn't prefer I delivered them?"

She shook her head. "No, that's kind but I need to take some of them with me, so I thought I'd pick everything up now." She started to sort and pack the packages; some of the items were ones Grimes had been a bit worried about, so she stored them in her dimensional pocket, just in case. Most of the rest went in her bag – it just required a little more pushing to get them in – and a couple of larger ones she could carry, she only had to go to the portal after all.

"The bill."

She winced slightly at the total but then figured that with the Orders stipend it would be fine. The most expensive item was of course the special order one. "Put it on my account?"

"Certainly. That special you wanted isn't here yet, of course,. It will take a few weeks to build it."

"Sure, I'd expected that. I don't really need it until the solstice period on Earth. "

He gave her a sardonic look. "Yah, sure. And that would be when exactly?"

She dug out her pad and tapped a bit on the ruby surface, before showing him the local date. "No problem, girl, I'll have it all ready and packed up for you by then."

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Monday 28th November  2p.m., The Lopez house, Phoenix

Old Scratch looked at what appeared to be a perfectly normal suburban home for this area of Phoenix. Normal, that is, if you ignored the faintly shimmering soap-bubble fragile outline of a ward, one that wouldn't be visible to anyone without magic. That just confirmed he was at the right address, the ward was just for a warning, rather than any sort of serious protection but even so, it could summon something rather powerful. It rather depended on whether he was the first visitor since the girl's rescue, although the ward rather suggested he wasn't. Of course, it could have been set by the family, he'd need to find out. But one set by the family would likely have been set into the fabric of the house, to be less noticeable.

It only took him a moment to walk up to the door and knock on it. He hated doorbells; while most were innocuous some people seemed to think a form of religious noise was appropriate, and that made his teeth itch.

After a minute, the door opened partially to show a worried-looking man. He'd looked at the unfortunately thin file the Warriors had on this case, mainly culled from the police reports. This was the girl's father, Hassan Lopez.

Since the man obviously wasn't going to just invite him in - a sensible precaution, Old Scratch noted - he held up his Warriors ID card. Pitiful, really, so easy to imitate with the proper magic, but it seemed to make a lot of humans a lot happier to see it.

"I'm here to ask a few questions about Azars' rescue."

The man gave him an odd look, then stepped back and opened the door for him.

"You people didn't seem to be interested when we reported our child missing, why are you so interested now?"

A reasonable question, thought Scratch, concealing his smile at the man's rather aggressive and unfriendly tone. One which he was going to evade answering for as long as possible.

"There have been several developments, some of which we think are connected with the case. Some of these may lead to activities which could endanger your family again."

Interestingly, the father seemed rather unconcerned about the prospect of future action against him or his family, given what had already happened to his daughter. He recalled the ward around the house and was now certain that in fact it had been put up by someone else. If it had, there were several possibilities he could think of as being responsible for it, and some of them would explain the man's surprising level of confidence, despite the circumstances. Presumably, whoever had set the ward and also offered security the man was confident about.

"I don't really think I should be talking to you about it. Even if you are with the Phoenix Warriors."

Mr. Lopez frowned in thought for a moment, coming to a decision, then dug a business card out of his pocket and passed it to Scratch. "This might be a better person to answer your questions."

Ah, so he had definitely been in contact with someone who presumably had offered protection of some sort. He wondered if it had been the same person who had immolated the base - he'd definitely smelt the involvement of a dragon there, but there was no such scent on this man. A smell, yes, and to his senses one that wasn't human, but he was no dragon. He reached out and took the card. Not magic, it seemed like a quite mundane business card with a name and telephone number embossed on it.

"Thank you, I will contact them for the information the Warriors need. If I need more from you, I will call again."

That quite harmless statement made the man's lips twitch slightly. Almost as if he was amused at the idea? Some more investigation was certainly warranted, the idea of an annoyed dragon wandering around the city wasn't something to take lightly, after all. Especially for the innocent and rather flammable bystanders. Hopefully, last night's destruction wouldn't be repeated, but he needed to make sure of that, or at least pass a warning on.

8p.m. Whateley Magic Dept Summoning Room

Thulia stepped out through the portal with a sigh of relief. She’d finally completed her interrogation by the Order, which had taken longer than she’d originally expected. She'd been able to send Ms. Grimes a note she'd be later than she'd originally planned.Luckily, she'd arranged her orders beforehand, she'd just had to collect some packages and confirm a special order, but she wouldn't need that particular item for a few weeks. She'd have to confirm with Ms Grimes that it was OK, but she had the notes on the specs, and she was sure it would be approved. Given what some of the devisors were allowed to carry around the campus.

Ms Grimes herself wasn't in the room this time, instead one of the Whateley TAs was there looking after things. She just looked up from her pad as Thulia emerged from the portal. "Hi, Thulia isn't it? Everything go OK?"

She decided not to answer that immediately or completely honestly. Explaining exactly what had been going on would get a bit complex, and the Order had said they'd be in touch with the school. The less said, the less she'd have to prevaricate and lie about. Less to trip over at a later date.

"Oh, it was a useful weekend." She held up the bag holding her purchases. "I did get the chance to pick up some of the stuff I need for magic while I was on the Plane of Fire, some of it's difficult to get here."

"Cool. There isn't anything on the proscribed list, is there?"

Thulia thought for a moment. "I don't think so, I gave Grimes a provisional list earlier. I'll check what I got with her tomorrow, just in case." She didn't mention that while a couple of things were on the 'need approval' list, Grimes was giving her some leeway on things from her home. In any case, those particular items were tucked away in her dimensional pocket, just in case.

"Ok, then I'll let you get on your way as soon as you close the portal."

"Oh, it will do that itself in a few seconds, no need to keep it powered once I'm through." Even as she spoke, the portal shimmered, then condensed into a bright spark of light before closing.

She put the last of the supplies she wasn't keeping in storage in her safe and finally closed the door with a very solid-sounding thud. While her workplace was supposed to be secure to anyone not on the staff, she wasn't really convinced. And while none of the items she'd stored were irreplaceable, or terribly expensive, it would be a nuisance getting more. Some of them were quite pricey if bought on Earth. She'd followed Bianca's recommendation to get a safe, then added a few extra precautions. A spell to prevent access was logical, as Bianca had told her most safes were either spelled or used tech to resist intrusion, finding both on the same object was far less common. And after all, she was a mage. She smiled as she set the final two enchantments on the box; a 'don't notice me, I'm something else' glamour, and an invisibility spell. With luck, they would stop an intruder from noticing the safe, making it hard to break into.

Grabbing her bag, she headed back to her room. She'd have gone and visited Morgana, but she wasn't back yet – she'd promised to message when she was but had pointed out that her itinerary was rather set by Laura's family, and she only knew they'd be back for lessons tomorrow. She was rather hoping her roommate wasn't back yet either. Things had started off OK between them, but after a couple of days she'd changed, acting a lot more coldly towards her. She'd wondered what she'd done to upset her, but Erica had told her it wasn't exactly her fault. She'd shown that by hanging out with the M3 group she was, by association, friends – or at least an acquaintance – with Cally, and it seemed that there were issues there, that were being reflected onto her, no matter how innocent she was. Ohwell, it wasn't as if she was unacquainted with the sort of nastiness that seemed endemic in schools after all.

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Timestamp ??, Somewhere on the Plane of Fire

Old Scratch was careful not to move too fast as he appeared on the other side of the portal. He knew that the Order didn't approve of, or trust, demons, and while of course, he was perfectly harmless and trustworthy, given the way that some of his compatriots acted, he couldn't really blame them. Over the years of his interactions with non-demons, he'd gotten used to it as just the price of doing business.

The guards looking at him didn't look at all happy at his arrival, despite the fact he was both expected and had arranged this visit in advance. A couple of staves and wands were conspicuously not quite pointed at him, and he wondered at how inconvenient it would be for him if one of them discorporated him right now. Hopefully, they didn't want to have to clear up the mess.

He raised an eyebrow in response to their looks. "I am expected. I go by the name of Old Scratch on Earth." The sarcasm in his voice went straight past the guards.

The obvious guard captain, looking like a man in rather ornate armour if you ignored the perfectly natural glowing red eyes, gave him the look of a man who'd found something unpleasant on his boot but didn't quite want to be rude about it in public.

"Yes, I know. You're here to see some of the Order." He gestured to two of the guards. "Go with them, they will take you to the interview room. Don't try anything foolish, and do what they tell you to."

How friendly and welcoming, thought Old Scratch. It made him wonder how long Tanau had taken to be trusted here, though of course family helped. Still, he gave the two guards a look that wasn't quite a scowl as he went along with them as instructed.

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There were three seemingly humanoid beings in the room - two apparently male, one looking female. All of whom were dressed in robes, and none of whom looked cheerful at his appearance. Each of them had a quite obvious aura of power around them.

"So, Scratch, just what did you want to talk to us about?"

Old Scratch sighed. After his time on Earth, he'd forgotten how arrogant some of the Order could be. Still, it was important that he find out the facts. After his years of working closely with them, he'd found he'd got rather protective of his humans.

"I've been resident on Earth for some time, working with one of their Superhero groups."

That produced an interested look from one of the men. Odd, he wouldn't have thought that they were particularly interested in that fact. Still, he went on, explaining first what he did for the Warriors, then the serious incident in Phoenix that bore all the signature of being caused by a Dragon, or something seemingly masquerading as a Dragon,

The centre man looked at his two companions, then back at Old Scratch. "I see. And you want to know if this was an authorised incursion, or something else?"

He nodded. "Yes. If Phoenix is to be turned into a bloody battleground not of our choosing, there will be a lot of innocent casualties, and we would prefer to avoid that if at all possible."

The man looked thoughtfully at him. "I see. Wait here, I need to consult with someone about the incident."

Great, he thought, come here, explain, and have to wait. And people said Hell was disorganised...

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Fortunately, it wasn't long before the man returned, Old Scratch was getting bored looking at the walls.

"Well, I do have an answer for you. It seems the incident was somewhat of an accident, caused by someone getting - overenthusiastic - in their response to what they'd found in the building."

Old Scratch thought about that. "And can I ask what it was that caused such a drastic response?"

The man gave him a close look, then passed a thin file to him. For his part, Old Scratch took a quick look at the photographs inside it and nodded. "I see. Yes, that would likely cause an appropriate reaction. If you wish, I will pass on the details to the Warriors and we will make sure such an organisation doesn't try and set up in Phoenix again, so no further action of this sort will be required."

The man gave him a long, measuring look, and nodded. "See to it that happens, and it will not be necessary to send a full strike force into Phoenix."

Nothing like a truly dire threat thought Old Scratch. What was interesting, reading between the man's words, was that the Order was able to check up on this particular case. He supposed one of their non-attributable agents was keeping an eye on the city until he was satisfied that no further actions would be necessary

"Then we have no further business. A guard will escort you back to the portal."

Yes, he thought, you can just feel the love. Whatever else, being on Earth for so long had certainly induced an appreciation of sarcasm in the demon.

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Monday 28th November, 10a.m. Meeting room at Whateley.

Dr. Mazarin gave a quick look around the table before formally starting the meeting. Ms. Grimes, The Imp, Robert Turner, Ms. Dennon and Mrs. Horton. All of whom were familiar with the slender ebony-haired girl sitting at the end of the table, who was currently trying to give the impression butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. None of the teachers present actually believed her look, they had too much experience with students, although a couple of them were quietly amused that Thulia had absorbed that particular concept so soon. Either some things about teenagers were common across dimensions, or she was a fast learner.

He cleared his throat. "Now, Thulia, before we begin, this is a meeting to find out exactly what happened in Phoenix, and why, before we move on to any other topics. So I need you to be open and honest with us."

While the girl had the appearance of calmness as she nodded her understanding, his years of experience showed him she wasn't really all that calm and collected. Of course, few students called here for this sort of meeting were, and reading someone who wasn't nearly as human as they appeared on the surface was always difficult, but some things about teenagers seem to transcend such limitations.

He tapped the rather thin file in front of him. "Now, the Order you report to has sent us a summary of what went on, your actions, and their own appraisal of them. Before we go on to that, I'd like you to explain in your own words what went on, and how you were involved."

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Even with the report in front of them, it had taken a while to get the full story out of Thulia. Given some of the details in it, it was hardly surprising that she was reluctant to talk about them. D. Mazarin was interested to hear that Frankencorps wasn't just an urban legend among the Syndicate. He'd never run into them personally, but he guessed that they had protection at a very high level, above his old pay grade. Not surprisingly, given what they seemed to be up to, many of the villains in the Syndicate would have been happy to emulate Thulias' destruction of their base and justify the action afterwards. Most sane villains did have limits on their actions, after all.

Certainly, Ms. Dennon, and somewhat to his surprise, The Imp, had been forcefully supportive of the girl. In their discussion, it had come out that The Imp had in the past responded rather violently to people who had attacked her personally, especially if it had involved her family. Not just them, while some of the teachers had obviously had to be stern about such a disregard for Whateley rules, their hearts obviously weren't in it.

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Dr. Mazarin looked around the table before summing up what he thought to be the facts of the case."While after reading what was going on, and why she acted as she did after finding out, does provide considerable explanation for what she did, it doesn't excuse her from the consequences. I don't know if the Order is looking at any consequences for her, that's not our purview and not something I think we should get involved with as long as it doesn't affect the school. While a more drastic action such as expulsion might be considered due to her drastic actions, I feel that given the circumstances it would both be inappropriate and not give a result we would be happy with.”

Ms. Dennon stirred, a very unamused expression on her face. "Frankly, given the organisation she ran into and what they were doing, my main feeling is she wasn't nearly drastic enough. I would have acted with even more violence if it had been me who'd found the evidence."

She stared around the assembled teachers as if to dare any of them to disagree with her. D. Mazarin sighed. There were times he was glad he hadn't had to go up against the woman when she'd been in the business.

"Ah yes, well... I was thinking along the lines of detention, not so much as punishment but to make it clear that actions off campus have consequences, and she needs to internalise that."

Mrs. Horton coughed slightly. "I agree with that, but there is the issue of what sort of detention to set her up with. I don't think some work about her cottage is appropriate, it's a bit too serious a matter for that and we need to drive that lesson home to her. And while detention at Hawthorne would carry the appropriate weight, I'm a bit concerned that she isn't quite ready to associate that well with the kids there. They do tend to get a bit drastic with some of their pranks, and Thulia doesn't have the background or experience to cope properly with that, an overreaction on her part could be more than unfortunate. So we need to come up with some sort of detention that takes account of her special circumstances."

Mrs. Grimes looked at the faces turned to her in the obvious expectation that the Magic department could come up with something suitable for punishing a dragon. They really had No idea, she thought to herself.

"How about the tunnels?"

Robert Turner shook his head firmly. "Fire Dragon. Methane. Not a good combination."

Elizia Grimes looked put-upon. "Don't look at me, the usual things we have students do for detention in the Magic department really wouldn't be suitable. I'm not convinced her way of dealing with things might not be too exuberant" – that was a nice way of saying 'setting fire to everything in the vicinity' she thought – "Or even worse, be something she might find interesting. That would be worse than useless."

There followed a short period of everyone trying to think of something appropriate that was outside of the usual way of detentions. Finally, The Imp spoke up. "I think I have an idea."

That statement was met by a range of looks from 'Oh good' to 'Oh my God' before she carried on to explain her idea.

"We need something time-consuming, that her powers won't help with, ideally a nasty, difficult but ultimately useful task. Now why it might not be obvious to those who don't spend much time on the rooftops around here, we have a rather impressive collection of gargoyles at the school which, frankly, are not maintained properly. There are quite a lot, they are dirty and covered in bird crap and really need a good clean. "Now if we set Thulia a week of cleaning them, by hand and without using her magic, it's a good punishment detail. And it would ensure a better environment for those who want to sit on the edge of a roof and brood menacingly."

There were several thoughtful looks and a few nods.

"I can inform her she isn't to use her magic or powers and remind her how fragile some of the statues probably are."

Mrs. Horton nodded as she expanded on Grimes's statement. "And no help or accompaniment by Morgana. It's a solitary detention, after all, not an excuse for them to spend time together up on the roof."

"Yes, those would be good restrictions. Also, it's a high-up job, she can fly so we don't have to worry about her falling. There aren't exactly a lot of safety railings up there."

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"So, did they end up punishing you?"

Thulia took a moment to swallow her food before replying to Morgana.

"Yes, I got a week of detention. To teach me to treat the Whately rules about doing stuff off campus with the proper respect." As well as the detention, I have to attend a special session with Dennon, Grimes and The Imp about what I did, how I went about it and I suspect how I could have done it far better. Joy."

There were a few understanding nods from around the table, followed by the obvious question from Erica. "So, what is your detention? Hawthorne? That's not as bad as it's made out, as long as you treat the kids there politely."

Thulia shook her head. "No, for some reason that decided that I wasn't suitable for Hawthorne." Judging by the looks on some of the faces, they obviously agreed with that decision. "Instead I have to spend two hours a day, on the rooftops, cleaning the gargoyles up there. By hand, no magic allowed." She cast an eye at her leman, cutting off the obvious query. "And on my own, no help allowed." She patted Morgana's hand. "It is supposed to be a punishment, after all."

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Tuesday 29th November, 4 p.m., on the roof of The Beck Library.

While The Imp led Thulia to the first statue that needed cleaning, she thought through again what she was supposed to do. Clean the gargoyles, starting here and then carrying on until her two-hour detention was up. Check. Wearing a very ugly and nondescript coverall one of the maintenance staff had presented her with a rather evil grin. Check. They'd given her a pair of ugly rubber gloves to wear. Looking at what was covering the statues, she was rather glad of that addition to the cleaning supplies they'd also provided her with. No use of magic except for two spells. When the bucket she was carrying was full of dirt water, she could dump it into one of the drains – that would give someone at the bottom a surprise, she thought – and use a spell to refill it with clean water. She could also use her fire to heat that water up for cleaning, but that was it. Imp had explained it was quite a trip to get more hot water, and there was no reason to spend the time on that rather than more cleaning. Looking at the years of mess and pigeon droppings - well, at least she now knew what an Earth pigeon looked like, and why they seemed to be detested by everyone – they really needed cleaning. She wasn't sure why they'd hidden these statues up here where they would rarely be seen. But Laura had told her putting them atop buildings was an old Earth custom. It wasn't as if they were magic, after all – just carved stone, in the 'so ugly it's almost cute' category.

The Imp stood by to one side as she started to clean the closest gargoyle, making occasional, and sometimes even helpful, comments. She was quite surprised by the layers of dirt and filth that coated the stone, Once she'd worked on it it was obviously a rather lighter grey than expected, and it was obvious that whoever had made it had done a lot of work with fine detail and finishing for something that was going to be hidden up here out of the way. Maybe originally they'd intended to put it somewhere else? Or have it do something other than decorate a gutter?

Finally, she wriggled her fingers to get the cramps out and looked over at the Imp with a questioning look. She took a long look at the statue and nodded. "That's fine, now you just have to carry on with the rest of them. Keep going, I'll be back at the end of the two hours to check up on you and show you the best way down. She grinned at Thulia's expression. "I know you can fly, but you aren't authorised to fly on campus. Yet.

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A secluded and private room somewhere in the vicinity of Phoenix.

Old Scratch gave a final look around his preparations for an evocation and nodded to himself. As well as all the magical preparation necessary for a successful spell, he'd add a few extras into one of the triangles – a bottle of rather good Californian wine, and a box of high-quality imported chocolates. He'd acquired a rather scruffy and feral-looking cat for the blood magic part of the spell – he'd have to clean the room up after, but after centuries of using blood spells their use was habitual for him.

A short while later, he felt a contact with the entity he was seeking. Not surprisingly, while he didn't know her full true name he had enough to make a summoning fairly easy, as long as she wasn't actively fighting him. He was certain her curiosity would handle that for him.

The pool of blood surrounding the sacrificed cat shimmered and seemed to boil, lifting up in a scarlet column of writhing smoke that seemed oddly contained.

"Who calls?"

Scratch grinned as he recognised the sultry tones of that voice.

"Hello, Tanau, I thought we could have a little chat, for old time's sake."

The column solidified, the smoke coalescing into the figure of a voluptuous woman – if you ignored the red eyes with cat pupils, she looked remarkably human, for sufficiently erotic and exotic values of human. She was eyeing him with a considerable amount of scepticism.

"Those 'old times' were long ago and far away, I moved on from them quite a while ago."

He nodded. "Not just you, my lifestyle has changed considerably. But I thought a little gift would remind you of some of our times together?" he made a gesture towards the wine and chocolates, and her smile widened into an expression that would make most men both aroused and very worried.

"Oh, I see you remembered!" Even an old and experienced succubus wasn't immune to the lure of high-quality chocolates.

A while later, they had finished a brief resume of what both of them had been up to recently, and half the chocolates had mysteriously vanished.

"So, while it's been a nice diversion, you want something from me, don't you?"

He sighed. "You know me too well. I'm afraid it's business as well as pleasure, I need some information about a local dragon event, and I thought you might help me."

She gave him a cynical look as she sipped her wine. "And why me? Yes, I live among the dragons now, but there are others far more aware of what dragons are up to on Earth."

" A couple of reasons. I know you, and you would hear me out without trying to discorporate this old demon." He smiled as she chuckled in response. "After all, I don't want to go back to Hell, the coffee there is even worse than in Starbucks.

She tilted her head at him. "And the second reason?"

"The situation reeks of a young dragon. If I remember, you had a young granddaughter. There aren't that many dragon children that she wouldn't know them, and I am anxious to avoid this city and its humans turning into a conflagration. I did speak to the Order, but they didn't give me much real information. I wanted to be certain this involvement would deteriorate into something more damaging. They did give me an assurance that the dragon involved wouldn't do more, but you know what they are like. They really don't like me, despite me being such an upstanding and respectable figure."

For some reason that amused her more than a little. "Very well, I don't see how it will harm anyone, as long as you swear you mean no harm to the dragon involved. I don't want to have to explain that to my family!"

He nodded. "I so swear. The dragon in question was a girl, using the alias Thulia Firedrake. Perhaps you could find her for me?"

Tanua's eye widened before she gave Scratch a long, measuring look. He shifted uncomfortably. Somehow whatever he'd said had turned a usually casually sensual succubus into someone who, while nothing had obviously changed, gave the impression of FAR too many razor-sharp edges.

"Yes, I know the girl. And you should know that if you get around your word – yes, of course I remember how slippery you are – it will have very severe consequences for you."

He hid his surprise well. "That sounds as if you know the dragoness?"

She tapped a fang thoughtfully with a claw. "Oh, I certainly do. She’s my granddaughter. So you can start of by telling me just what problem you have with her, and what you intend to do about it..."


The End
Thulia’s story (as well as Morgana’s) continues in ‘A Tail of Two Dragons’

Read 5014 times Last modified on Saturday, 11 November 2023 08:42

Incredibly cute coffee-loving dragon. What else needs to be said? 

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