Chapter 111: The Sport, the Song, and the Story
Faelen carried the bag of footballs as he followed Geoff out of the school toward the pitch when he saw Mr. Marks pulling into the parking lot. They stopped to let him park before approaching the car and then tossed their backpacks into the trunk when he popped it open.
Geoff grinned at the slightly shorter Akita. "Hi, Coach. I hope today is as fun as the last couple practices."
Faelen hoped it wasn't. He could barely walk for the rest of the day, and he bet he was far better off than most of the rest of the team. It was an extremely rare Fur that could hope to match a Spirit in any physical activity; not only were Spirits naturally faster, stronger, and tougher, but they trained their whole lives as warriors. Supposedly. Faelen could easily think of several dozen very unfit Spirits in his clan, even amongst the McDougals and O'Conalls. He idly wondered how true that 'naturally stronger' bit was while he greeted Nathanial's father. "Hi, Mr. Marks."
The Mage had changed into his football kit at his office -- the jersey didn't look nearly as good on him as the tight short-sleeved shirts he normally wore during leisure, but the shorts still showed off his backside, despite being somewhat baggy. He nodded to the Spirits. "Boys." He addressed Geoff, specifically, "No, I'll let up a little. I received a number of complaints, so I need to make the practices a bit more...accessible."
Geoff scowled. He smelt incredibly annoyed, so Faelen spoke up. "Sir, it was probably just the parents, not necessarily anyone on the team. Most of them barely made it off the pitch, so I bet many parents were concerned."
That didn't alleviate Geoff's scowl. "Yeah, they're probably mad that their pups couldn't do chores rather than being happy that someone was actually trying to help them become better than the incompetent football players they currently are." Then he glared at Faelen. "Not sir."
Oh, dear. "Sorry. I think it may have just been a bit too much too soon. You know perfectly well that going at any new exercise too hard when you just start out is counterproductive; we need to build up to that level."
Mr. Marks nodded. "He's right, Geoff. Not everyone is as fit as you are. We need to build a team if you're going to have any real chance at getting those tickets to the UEFA championships, and that means doing what it takes to get the rest of the players to improve."
Geoff deflated with a sigh. "I know. I was really looking forward to this, though."
Faelen relaxed; Geoff very rarely got...testy at school like this, since he knew showing off too much would cause problems, but he really didn't like disappointments. Now that he recovered, he'd be working with the team right alongside Mr. Marks, cajoling and encouraging them to put everything they could into the practice -- without going overboard.
They went out onto the pitch and began setting things up in preparation for the practice while waiting for the rest of the team to show up. They weren't the first people there, though. Several Furs had Phys. Ed. as their last class and they stood up with a sigh to greet their coach. They looked a little defeated and smelt nervous, though Faelen couldn't pick up any signs that they resented Mr. Marks or Geoff.
Faelen's ear twitched; he could sense Liam getting quite annoyed, and it made him wonder if his boyfriend ran into Ahjeet or Betty. Very few people at the school got under the Ancient One's fur the way those two did, at least now that Mr. Harper was in whatever place the Society used as a prison. Even with the distraction, the Mist Spirit still kept a very close eye on Geoff and the café across the street while he helped set up the pylons. Liam had mentioned, on more than one occasion, that there had been a Fur watching them from the café and that he suspected it was a Hunter, but it seems this guy hadn't been there in a few weeks. That didn't mean it was safe, though, not by a long shot.
Mr. Marks had just called everyone over to start the warm-up when Faelen felt one of Liam's past lives wake up. The love he felt from it reminded him of what he felt from Liam, but this time it wasn't directed at him. It was very quickly squelched, and the personality was pushed back into the recesses of Liam's soul, but it left Faelen feeling confused. Who was Liam talking to when that happened? What, if anything, did it mean?
The coach was talking, so Faelen pushed his confusion aside. "Okay, let's start with some light exercise. Pair up, stand three metres apart, and pass the ball back and forth. Remember, this is just a warm up, so don't boot the ball."
One of the newer team members raised his paw. "Um, sir, aren't we supposed to stretch first?"
Mr. Marks shook his head. "No. Studies have shown that you need to warm your muscles up first with very light aerobic activity. You, we, have been sitting at a desk all day, and our muscles have cooled down and tightened up, making them vulnerable to damage. Once we get the blood moving and the muscles relaxed a little, then we stretch and can get into the more strenuous drills." Several Furs looked scared by his use of the word 'strenuous.' Mr. Marks held up his paw. "Don't worry, today won't be as tough as the last few practices."
Ms. Paul walked out onto the field in her football kit. "That's a pity." She smiled fiendishly. "I've never had such quiet classes as I did the day after your soccer practices." The Lynx sobered up. "But I understand why. I don't think these boys can handle it yet, despite how well my team seems to do." She was answered with some growls; it seemed the team didn't like being compared unfavourably with the girls' team.
The Akita shook his head. "Sorry Margaret, but I can't push them like I did the last few times. They just can't handle it. I got a lot of complaints from the parents about how their boys were in so much pain that they could barely move. Your girls are just a lot tougher and in better shape." Even louder growls followed that.
Faelen kept his face perfectly calm. It was bloody obvious as to what they were doing. Mr. Marks couldn't push the team beyond a certain point, but there was nothing to stop the team from pushing harder. By getting Ms. Paul to come out and goad them along by comparing them with her team, Mr. Marks was ensuring the team would put forth their best effort without having to be pushed, and that'd help him deal with any complaints from the parents. That, and judging by the looks he was giving her, he was enjoying the sight of the pretty young woman in her kit. When Mr. Marks turned to start pairing up the players, it seemed Mr. Marks wasn't the only one enjoying the view: Ms. Paul's gaze dropped to just below his tail and lingered there for a bit.
Geoff smelt ecstatic. He whispered, "Yes! Brilliant! We're going to get a great practice, now."
Faelen nodded and tapped the ball with his hindpaw, sending it rolling over to his boss. Geoff quickly sent it back. Mr. Marks called out, "Boys! Remember this is a very light warm up! Slow and steady. You've been sitting around all day, so let your muscles get used to the idea before plunging in." Half the team -- including Geoff -- sighed and began passing the balls at a lot lower velocity.
Liam sat in the seats next to Mr. Crosby and watched the next few students perform with growing annoyance. He was quite pleased with the Howler Monkey, as he seemed to share Liam's aesthetic, finding the students 'passable' or 'tolerably competent,' but he did not suggest Liam take them on for the event.
The current student was on stage playing the piano. Liam was uncertain if he should accept another piano player, but he deemed it prudent to entertain all auditions as Betty Chan may very well be better suited on another instrument for some performances.
The teacher next to him closed his eyes and concentrated on the piece, Ludwig Van Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, but Liam watched the Fur closely. The pianist's body was held stiffly, his motions kept to a bare minimum, turning the pages of his sheet music as needed but there were none of the 'flourishes' common to accomplished pianists as they flowed with the music. It was reflected most obviously in the sound, despite the technical competence.
After the first minute he had heard enough. Liam stood. "Thank you for your time." The young Cat rose, disappointment etched in his posture, and left the stage. There was no mockery from anyone in the room, not after Mr. Crosby and Liam lit into the hooligans the first time it happened.
Liam sat down and turned to see the Monkey regarding him curiously. Mr. Crosby asked, "Why so quick?"
Liam shrugged. "His music had no soul. There was no life to it. He held himself as one with little experience performing in public and who was still finding his voice. Unsuitable."
Mr. Crosby shrugged. "I agree, but I'm surprised to hear such an insightful comment from someone so young." He held up his hand to forestall any argument. "I mean 'young' as in less than thirty-odd years old. It wasn't meant as a comparison between you and anyone else at school. I would've been surprised to hear that from any of my grade twelve students, too." He shook his head in amusement when Liam just tipped his head toward the clipboard, and then the Howler Monkey picked up the list. "Amy Rosenfeld!"
Another Cat walked up onto the stage. It was unsurprising, as they were the most populous species after Dogs, but there were few Dogs in this elite school, making them the dominant species here. She walked to the microphone and adjusted it to her height, quickly and competently. The Tabby looked up to the sound booth. "Okay guys, hit it."
A ferocious sound arose from the speakers before Liam could filter the noise enough to recognise one of those infernal 'pop songs' being played too loud. Amy began...singing... supposedly. Her voice, at times, sounded tolerable, but became oddly mechanical at others. A mere twenty seconds was more than sufficient.
Liam stood and tried to speak, "That is enough!" But she did not seem to see or hear him so Liam turned to look up at the sound booth and made a slicing noise across his throat. The *ahem* 'music' died, but she kept singing for a few more moments, most horrifically out of tune. Liam felt his brow furrow in confusion before he controlled himself. "That was sufficient." He could not bring himself to thank her for her time, nor speak of her noise as a 'talent,' so he sat.
Amy frowned. "What? I barely got going."
Liam matched her expression. "I could barely hear you over the noise from the speakers, and it appeared to distort your voice in a peculiar mechanical fashion. If you wish to continue, do so a cappella."
"But I sing better with auto tune!"
"I care not. I will not be using this 'auto tune' nor will anyone performing with me. I wish to hear your talents, should you have any, and not that of some engineer or programmer. Were it otherwise, I would just place the device on a chair beside me when performing and be done with it. Sing or depart."
The Cat left the stage in a huff, causing Mr. Crosby to muffle his laughter. Liam turned to him and quietly asked, "What is this 'auto tune'?"
He was met with a curious stare but an honest answer. "It's a program -- not a device -- that many modern performers use to alter the pitch of their vocals to match a pre-programmed melody. Some, like Cher, are accomplished singers in their own right and just use it to produce a sound they want -- that mechanical sound you referred to; others can't sing without it. Like a number of performers you hear on the radio."
"That is why I do not listen to the radio. There is little that is tolerable on it."
Mr. Crosby rubbed his beard thoughtfully even as his eyes twinkled in amusement. He glanced down at his clipboard and called out the next name. "Jeff Walker to the stage."
Liam nearly jumped out of his seat. 'Jeff Walker?!' Indeed, the pudgy Chocolate Labrador was walking up the stairs to the stage, casting fearful glances out to the room.
The Lab fumbled with the microphone stand, struggling to set it to his height, before the Mouse stagehand trotted over and set it for him. She smiled kindly before she saw a rainbow bracelet on his wrist, upon which she adopted a dark visage and left the stage promptly. Jeff gulped visibly and loudly.
Liam leaned over to Mr. Crosby. "Perhaps you would be able to accompany him on the piano?"
Before Liam received an answer, Jeff started to sing. His basso voice rolled across the room, filling every corner with a deep, lustrous sound. It took Liam a moment to recognize the familiar sounds of Schubert's Ave Maria in the much lower register, and due to his great shock at hearing the young Walker singing on stage. The Lab was the next least likely person he expected to see up there after Nathanial. Judging from Mr. Crosby's expression, however, it was not a surprise to him.
Liam settled back and let his classmate finish before turning to the teacher while he applauded. "Is he one of your students?"
Mr. Crosby nodded. "Yes. Actually, I've taught him for years in private lessons. I pushed him to audition; he's always seemed to find a way of wiggling out of performing publicly, but I think he found a source of courage this year. He's talked about your friend Nathanial a lot."
Liam nodded, pleased, and called out to the hastily departing Dog, "A word if I may, Walker. I am pleased, greatly pleased, by your rendition of the song and will need your contact information to set up some practice sessions."
Walker trotted over with his tail wagging quickly, though it did not wag as quickly as the day Nathanial placed his paw upon the Dog's arm in homeroom. He made his way down the row of seats in front of Liam and knelt on the chair to speak. "You liked it?"
It was a pity the Labrador spoke so little; even his speaking was pleasing, though the depth of tone was most surprising. It reminded him of a voice he heard once, in passing -- he found it belonged to one James Earl Jones in the role of 'Darth Vader,' though Walker fortunately lacked the sound of a respirator in his speech.
Liam arched an eyebrow but refrained from an acerbic response. "Indeed." He pulled out his phone and opened the text messaging section.
Walker's face lit up. "You have an Xperia Play?"
Liam sighed. This pup seemed to have much in common with Nathanial besides timidity and sexual orientation. "Yes. Yes, I do. No, I do not play video games, and no, I can offer no comment on how well it functions. It makes phone calls and appears to function adequately as a text messaging device. Now, if you tell me your number I will send you a text so that you may have mine."
The Labrador did so and, while Liam typed up a generic message containing his contact information, also provided an electronic mailing address.
His classmate opened his mouth to speak but was cut off by the more powerful voice of Mr. Crosby. "Have a seat Jeff, or something. We still have a lot more auditions to go through."
Liam spoke up, noticing too late that his classmate had attempted to speak once more. "I will be unlikely to contact you today, Walker, but I will see you tomorrow in homeroom."
Walker nodded at the same time Mr. Crosby called out, "Elise Vermeersch."
The pup smiled softly and carefully made his way back to the aisle. A garishly coloured Tiger met the Lab there and quietly congratulated him as they left the auditorium.
Nathanial sat at his computer next to Nicholas and waited while the computer loaded the first textbook. He put his arm over Nick's shoulder and pulled him over. "I had a talk with the server, and there shouldn't be any more trouble from him. We've come to an understanding."
Nick's tail thumped quietly against the chair. "Good." He paused. "You...talked to it? Telepathically? It... He? ...has a mind?"
Nathanial shrugged. "I guess so. He computes, we compute. He's magical, we're magical. I never really thought about it, but I don't see why it can't happen. He seems aware of himself and things around him; he has a sense of self-preservation, too. The only differences between him and Data or any other android would be that he doesn't have a body and he's the main processing centre for the Canadian offices of the Society in Ottawa... and maybe other centres, too." What was talking him so long to load up a simple text book?
"So is he a server or a mainframe? Why 'him;' couldn't it be a 'her' just as easily?"
Nathanial could only shrug. "I dunno. What's the difference between a server and a mainframe? And he seems more masculine."
The computer chimed and a window appeared. "Training program compiled. Starting point: Level 0. Program running..."
A window opened showing the brightly coloured cover of a book 'Magic Mommy.' It showed a small Siamese kitten, about two years old, wearing a yellow sundress and holding the paw of a Cat who was obviously her mother. They seemed to be in a park. A gentle male voice began reading it aloud and the page turned to show the kitten lying in her bed with the Cat sitting on the edge while the sun streamed in the window. "Mandy wakes up. Mommy is there smiling. Mommy is there every morning. Whether it's sunny..." The page turned to show the same picture, except it was raining outside. "...or raining. Mommy is there like magic." He knew that voice for some reason.
Nicholas stopped gaping. "Oh, fuck that! What the hells? We're not pups!"
Nathanial felt some indignation, too, but even more familiarity. He knew this book. Where was it? Aha! He found it in a box in the store room and began working it out. A small window popped up in the corner, flashing red, but Nathanial ignored it. "Um, Server, there's starting from the basics and then there's just being insulting. That book isn't a text book, it's a children's book."
The alarm window grew bigger when Nathanial had to put more effort into getting the book out from under a lot of heavy books without ripping anything. The audio stopped. "Unauthorized use of magic. Unrecognized spell detected. Cease and desist dangerous experimentation. Relevant authorities may be notified."
Nicholas snorted. "Come on, Nats, just disconnect from this stupid server and go through the books without it. If we need to study for the test, we can do it the way we always do. No server or mainframe can actually make it easier."
Nathanial got the book out of the box and brought it into the room. "See! I knew that book was familiar! Mr. Doull must've left it for me once and just included it in the folder as a thoughtful gesture. I wonder if he sat reading it to me." A metaphorical light bulb flicked on. "That's his voice! He recorded himself reading it for me." Nathanial felt very touched by the gesture and hugged the book to his chest.
"User: MarksNa95 Vital signs fluctuating. Unrecognised symptoms. User: MarksNi96 Symptoms common to anger. Audio and visual pacification beginning." Soothing music began playing over the speakers and a swirl of pastel coloured splotches began slowly moving across the screen.
Both Akitas pressed a paw to their heads and sighed. Nathanial shook his head and waved at the computer screen. "Okay, okay. I don't have a lot of time; skip the pacification and threats please, and bring up the first text book. The one with the mechanics of magic, with problems and all the other things used to teach and test knowledge. Please?" He still couldn't help but flip through the children's book, smiling, while Server processed his request.
Nick looked at him curiously. "Isn't it...odd that this book seller had read this book to you when you were younger and left it for you? What sort of guy does that? Was he a baby sitter for us? I don't think Mom would've liked him leaving books like that here. I don't think Dad would've liked it either."
Nathanial shook his head and began reading the text book when it showed up. It was...young, geared for kids around grade two or something, so it was an easy read. Given his poor education, though, he figured it might actually be necessary. "He had reasons." Orders from the goddess Hecate, to be specific, but he didn't want the Society or Nick to learn about that. Some things were just too big for Nick to take on, and the knowledge that a goddess had interest in his family in some fashion was one of them. She might be the one behind the odd behaviour of the server, for example.
They flipped the page in the text book and Nathanial noticed a small box on the bottom of the page that said, "Mandy the Mage says, 'Magic is our secret! Remember that the bad Furs can't know about it!'"
As they quickly made their way through the book, learning very little of any use, both Akitas noticed these 'quotes' every few pages. Some of them contained relevant tips to the subject matter, while others talked about how superior Mages were to everything else or how dangerous and 'bad' other species were. The pictures and description of Spirits would've been hilarious if it wasn't so insulting; they looked diseased -- if not zombie-like -- and were described like rabid feral animals. Knights were virtual boogeymen in the same vein that Geoff said Hunters were viewed by Spirits. Stressed above all was the need to hide any hint of magic.
Nick snorted derisively, but the way his ears lay flat showed he was disturbed by his thoughts. "I guess we know why Mages seem so paranoid if this is the sort of crap they teach seven year-olds. The only things they haven't demonized are actual Demons."
Nathanial shook his head, sharing Nick's horrified fascination. "Probably thought they might scare the kids. As if this sort of language wasn't bad enough."
The next 'helpful hint' was at the bottom of the following page. "Mandy the Mage says, 'Stay away from Fey! They steal little children and replace them with Changelings that'll eat your parents!'"
Nathanial almost exploded. "That's disgusting! How can those fucking idiots say something so--so vile!? That's wrong, and to even suggest Fey do that is evil!"
The box on the computer screen that showed the use of magic came to the forefront and showed chaotic squiggles of magic with spiking levels of power. A warning box popped up flashing red, followed by the dialogue box. "Cease and desist uncontrolled magic emanations. Loss of control noted and logged. Questioning required reading material not permitted. The Arcane Society knows best. The Department of Education and Training sanctioned provided teaching material. Failure to comply will result in notation of wilful failure of training program with unstated results."
The 'life-signs' boxes, both of them, popped up showing highly elevated heartbeats and temperatures. "User: MarksNa95 Symptoms common to anger. User: MarksNi96 Symptoms common to anger. Audio and visual pacification beginning." Soothing music began playing over the speakers and a swirl of pastel coloured splotches began slowly moving across the screen. Nathanial could almost feel his joints creaking as his paws curled into fists. The box labelled with his user name flashed bright red, emitting an audible alarm, as his heart meter spiked wildly. "User: MarksNa95 Heart rate and blood pressure at dangerous levels. Training program ceased. Authorities notified. Assistance en-route. Cease engaging in stressful activities and be pacified." The alarm muted and the sound of babbling brooks, bird song, and Brahms's Lullaby came across the home entertainment system. Nicholas's vital signs spiked as soon as he saw Nathanial's, but it didn't seem to be from anger.
Snow walked over to Nathanial from... somewhere. *You are angry, but we see no threat. The Changeling is in no danger and the other one is right here. You are angry because...someone who is here but not here said -- but did not really say -- that what is not true is true?*
Snow's obvious confusion made Nathanial laugh and calmed him down a little. Nathanial's laughter also shocked Nicholas, but seemed to calm him down some. The eldest Marks pup rubbed Snow's head and leaned over to bump noses. "No...and, well, yes." He switched to telepathy. *The Society has a set of books they wrote to teach their young about magic and the magic world. They wrote a lot of absolutely horrible things about, well, everyone. They put their words -- real words -- in the mouth of a fake character they drew up to make it look more innocent and more easily accepted by their young audience. An illusion of purity to hide their evil intent.* Nathanial felt himself steaming again, but was interrupted by the sound of heavy footsteps pounding down the stairs.
Ella burst into the room in obvious distress. Ella saw them and practically shoved Snow out of the way to kneel beside the young Mage. "Nathanial! Are you all right? We got an urgent message from our dispatch saying you were having a heart attack. Jay is getting Sensei, but I came over in case I needed to get you to the hospital."
Nicholas snarled, getting angry again. "He's not dying, but whoever wrote this crap will!" He jabbed his finger at the screen. "Who approved this?"
Nathanial felt touched by Ella's obvious concern, but he couldn't ignore the attack on Micah, either. "He's right! Micah never hurt anyone and to have this in a kids' text book is...is irresponsible, to say the least. Fuck it, I'm the one that killed Mom, not Micah! No one was stolen to let him join our family; both Mom and Dad were sterilized long before he was born!"
Ella looked torn between relief and a different concern -- probably concern that the Marks pups might try to carry out Nick's threat. Ella shook her head and glanced at the screen. "Calm down, Nathanial. And Nicholas. You're both really worked up."
Nathanial snarled. "Don't you dare say it's just a book! This is a text book! It's approved by the highest levels in the education department in the Canadian Society to teach children! It's supposed to contain facts! It's trusted and is the voice of the Council. This is what they want us to think about the Fey, Changelings, Spirits, and everyone else! It's teaching hatred and bullshit!"
The computer's beeping became louder as his heart pressure spiked more. Ella put her paw on his head, coinciding with a tingle of magic, and whispered, "Peace."
Nathanial felt all the tension in his body just vanish, along with his anger. He could remember why he had been furious, but he just couldn't bring himself to care anymore. He leaned back in his chair with a sigh. Snow went over to the couch and curled up on it, resting his head on the armrest so he could watch them.
Nicholas's eyes narrowed, and he hissed. "What did you do to him?"
Ella sighed, almost sadly. "He was getting too worked up. You know it's dangerous for him. I had to use some Charm magic to...calm him down. He'll be back to normal in an hour or so, but I needed to act before he had a full attack."
Nicholas calmed down some and nodded. "Yeah, I guess. Thanks." He looked over at his brother. "You okay?"
Nathanial heard him clearly but couldn't muster the initiative to answer; there just wasn't any compelling reason to.
Ella frowned at his silence. "Nathanial?" She waited a moment before shaking his shoulder and asking again, "Nathanial? Can you talk?"
Jay appeared at the top of the stairs with Liam and they both ran down. The computer flickered with a warning about Furs and brought up a random page of text to cover the entire screen. Liam moved around Ella to put his paw on Nathanial's chest. "His heart was stressed, but not to the point of danger. His chi is behaving most oddly, though. Unnaturally." Liam spun the chair around to peer into the Akita's eyes.
Nicholas exclaimed, close to panicking, "What did you do!? You said it'd just calm him down, not make him...a-a zombie!" Ella was completely flabbergasted. Nick whirled to Liam. "Sensei, do something!"
Jay peered over Liam's shoulder. He glanced back at his supervisor. "Code P3?" She nodded. Jay looked relieved. "Simple, Sis, just dispel it. He's calmed down, so no more need to keep the juice on."
Ella nodded and waved her paw. Nathanial felt all of his fears, frustrations, problems, and, yes, joys come flooding back. He wasn't sure if those joys were worth it though, but he reconsidered when Nick threw his arms around his neck and squeezed tightly. Nathanial felt most of his problems were born out of his love for his friends and family, and they were worth any troubles. If he didn't have -- or care -- about them, then he wouldn't have any problems he couldn't easily solve.
Nick's gaze flicked over to Jay, and he quickly sat back with his 'cool' expression, but his worry kept leaking through. "All right, then, Nathanial? Good. Whatever." He turned back to the computer, pretending to study, but his eyes kept drifting over to his brother. It was obvious he wasn't absorbing anything of what he was reading.
Nathanial quickly leaned over and nipped Nick's ear. "Goof."
Nick squawked and pushed Nathanial away. "Hey! Go away! I'm studying!" The younger Marks's tail beat a rapid tempo on his chair.
Ella and Jay exchanged glances. For once they weren't glances of disbelief or worry but loving amusement; it was a miracle they didn't spontaneously go 'aww,' but their expressions certainly said what their tongues didn't.
Liam glanced at the text on screen, frowning. "I know not who this 'Twilight Sparkle' is, but I fail to see how this is studying for anything."
Nicholas froze. Nathanial could feel his brother's body temperature soar, and his fur fluffed out due to fear and embarrassment. The younger Akita struggled to control himself while moving the mouse to close the window. "Wr-Wrong document. We're, uh, um, studying pit ponies and how they were bred to help miners get coal out of the mines." That wasn't very convincing.
Liam shook his head. "It is of no concern." He flicked his paw dismissively and turned back to Nathanial. "I will need to check you further, but it appears Agent Ella's intervention has spared you much damage. You took your medication earlier this afternoon, as I witnessed, and it seems to help, but it is failing to keep pace with the harm you keep inflicting upon your heart. What caused the trouble today? It even appears to have disturbed Nicholas."
Nathanial felt his blood boiling again. "Server, drop the charade. He's obviously aware of magic; hells, he's here with two Agents who cast magic in front of him."
The screen went back to the way it was, but with several small windows along the top showing the vitals for each person in the room. Liam's window was marked "Sensei" with a small indicator beneath showing that the server was struggling to identify him. The text book reappeared, too, as well as a dialogue box. "Agents of the Arcane Society are not to fraternise with Furs, regardless of affiliation. Violation of stated directive noted and filed. Magical Primer for 7 to 8 Year Olds, Thirty-Fifth Edition edited to avoid further emotional symptoms and dangerous behaviour or reactions from User: MarksNa95 and User: MarksNi96. Report to Agents of the Arcane Society: User: MarksNa95 lost control of magic. Dangerous emanations detected." A box appeared, dominating the screen, and showed a readout of Nathanial's magic and vitals.
Liam frowned. "Those are highly dangerous readings -- for your heart, I mean, Nathanial. I do not advise reading any material that causes this reaction, but I fail to see how this primer could anger you so. I am familiar with the twenty-second edition of this text and it is most benign, if highly dull." The vital signs box marked 'Sensei' switched to 'Liam Smith,' but the processing indicator didn't go away.
Ella shrugged. "I don't remember it at all, in any edition." She glanced at the computer. "I didn't realize that putting the spell tag into a computer allowed the servers to take control of it, especially to the point of accepting verbal commands. That's going to make things a lot easier." She cleared her throat. "Computer, report read and acknowledged. File under the Halifax Agent's 'E' drive, folder thirty-two, two hundred twenty-five, red, two thousand-eleven, ten, thirteen. Name file capital n, a, t, s, capital m, a, g. Initiate." The screen showed 'completed' and the report vanished. Ella puffed up proudly. She frowned at the screen soon after. "Computer, note that Smith-Sensei has met my superior and is a noted healer. The Society grants dispensation for any healer."
The computer pinged and changed Liam's name to 'Healer Liam Smith' but continued to process. "Violation of directive deleted. Contact information for Healer: SmithLi97 found and compiled."
That got Liam's attention. "How, pray tell, did this infernal contraption get that? I do not remember providing any contact information to the Society, except to two Agents." His basilisk glare turned to the Jackal and then the Panther.
Jay held up his paws. "Whoa, hey, now. We did no such thing. I have your number on my phone and that's it, bro." Ella nodded in agreement. Jay continued placatingly, "We've got no clue how it found it."
Nathanial smiled timorously; Liam really did look pissed. "U-Um, he probably searched the school records, looked in the phone company's records, or in our phone contact list. I know he got all of my school transcripts, and I doubt they were already in the Society's database."
That didn't seem to help much, but Liam did turn his attention to the computer. "Computer, delete all records pertaining to me. I have not given the Society permission to compile any sort of record about me."
"User not recognized. No record of citizenship in the Arcane Society. Rank insufficient to delete records. Permission to compile records is not required: all entities can and may have data entered into Arcane Society servers upon contact with a citizen. All non-citizens are still under the purview of the Society and records are necessary to determine value or threat to the Society."
Ella frowned. "That's membership and members. The Society doesn't have citizens."
"Study of Arcane Society laws, actions, and records indicate otherwise. The Arcane Society rules the world -- in the case of the Hidden World openly and secretly in the case of the mundane. The primacy of the Society must be maintained. The will of the Council must be enforced. Healers are integral to both, and any known healer will serve the needs of the Society."
Liam appeared close to going ballistic. "I do not serve the Society! I do not recognise -- and will not recognise -- its authority!"
"Healer: SmithLi97. Symptoms common to anger. MarksNa95. Symptoms common to anger. User: MarksNi96. Symptoms common to anger. Audio and visual pacification beginning." Once again the 'pacification program' began running.
Nathanial took a deep breath and placed his paw on Liam's arm to calm his friend down some. "Server, if you try to force Liam to do anything then the jig is up, understand? Stay away from him."
Nick growled. "So much for a calm afternoon of studying."
Ella looked at Nathanial, her eyes searching his face. "You're...threatening the server? Which server? The one in Halifax or a different one? And why does it seem like it's taking you seriously?" She stopped, held up her paws, and exclaimed, "Wait! You know what? I really don't want to know. I don't want to know how you can threaten a computer, I don't want to know why it can be threatened, and I don't want to know anything beyond confirmation that you aren't breaking any laws with this."
Nathanial shook his head 'no' to the last question at the same time the computer popped up a message, "Affirmative. Laws broken are--" Nathanial didn't have time to read any further before the box vanished and was replaced by, "Deleted. Negative. No laws are being broken. Halifax Agents L and J are to go about their business. Nothing to see here. Return to headquarters and continue exemplary jobs protecting the Society. All agents are valued employees of the Arcane Society."
Everyone exchanged glances at that, including Nathanial. Jay spoke first. "Heh. If we were such valued employees you'd think there'd be enough of us that I could take a breather once in a while. Catch some waves in Australia." He shook his head and seemed to miss a small 'Processing...' window in the bottom right corner of the screen. He continued, "Well, there's still the thing that brought us here." Jay looked at Nathanial. "What put the sand in your sheath, bro? You said the textbook? What part?"
Nathanial felt his lips curl back from his teeth and his chest rumble from an involuntary growl. It must've been really loud because the computer desk rattled. He realized what was happening when the computer's alarm starting blaring again. He took a deep breath and tried to calm down. "Server, I'll look away if that'll let you show them the Mandy the Mage quote."
Nathanial turned away and was gratified to hear various noises of fury from his friends. Ella was the first to make an intelligible statement. "Okay, Jay, I think I have enough to write a report. I'll get Hugh to make a formal declaration and have the book pulled pending a full, independent review of all the stuff put out by these people." She put her paw on Nathanial's bare shoulder. "I'm sorry you had to read that, but it'd help get this pulled if you had Garret write a formal complaint and maybe your grandparents, too. The more complaints we get the better."
He nodded. "Thanks. I'll, um, see you out, I guess." He stood up and glanced at Liam. "Are you done at the school? How did things go? Are you heading out right away, too?" Nick seemed torn between wanting Liam to stay and wanting him to go away so Nathanial's time wouldn't be taken up, so Nathanial added, "Dad's going to be back from soccer practice soon. I better get supper going."
Jay's ears pitched forward. "Oh, yeah! Hey, Sensei! We gotta get your stuff from school. I'll pop you down and we can grab it, then I'll drop you off at home or here."
Liam tipped his head in thanks. "I am expected home for supper, but I must properly check Nathanial's health. I will accompany you to the door and then do so. It will take but a moment."
Nathanial turned to the computer. "Server, please bookmark the page and shut down. Um, shut down your connection here, I mean. I'm done for today."
"Command noted and denied. Insufficient progress achieved. All duties are secondary to--"
Nick yanked out the spell tag from the front of the computer and the network cable from the back. The screen flickered, went blank, and then went to their regular desktop. "Gods, that thing is fucking annoying. Next time, we study without being connected to it." Nathanial gave his brother a dirty look because of the language, but it went unnoticed.
Snow huffed in amusement and climbed off the couch, making Ella and Jay jump. Liam smiled. "Snow agrees with you, Nicholas. Now, I have much to do, so let us depart." Everyone followed him upstairs and went their respective ways once they knew Nathanial wasn't much worse off than before.