We looked at Max. We looked at the butcher paper.
“How?” Kylie asked.
“I’ll overcome the transposable tag confusion by mapping on a Julian phase!”
“Which is what, exactly?” I asked.
Max explained. I counted two ‘transdimensional’s and four ‘n-phase’s before giving up and waiting for the explanation to stop.
“And that’ll give you a map of the school?” I asked, when silence reigned again.
“Possibly. It all depends on whether there’s an easily deducable prime repeat on – ”
I tuned out again, watching Max’s face for cues on when to nod appreciatively. After a few minutes of babble, Max ended with, “But I’d need accuracy in mapping the cartesian repeater! I need a compass!” Then he bolted out of the room.
“Everyone here is weird,” I remarked.
“Maybe not,” Kylie said. “Maybe it’s just him.”
“No, I’ve met weirder.” I explained my meeting with Mae and Terry.
“So this Talbot is an older witch who decided to stay on?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“And he’ll contact us?”
“That’s what they said.”
“Hm.” She lay back on her bed and stared up at the ceiling.
I watched her face carefully. She didn’t seem sad…
“Are you going to keep staring at me like that for the next six months, or what?”
“Sorry.” I looked away.
Kylie sighed. “If you have to know, something happened at home. I coulda stopped it, but I was here instead. It’s over. It’s fine.” She reached up, seemingly without realising it, to brush the witch mark on her cheek.
“Somebody got hurt,” I concluded.
She didn’t answer, or look at me. But the expression on her face said it was worse than that.
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“That’s nice. Can we never talk about it again?”
We sat in contemplative silence for about half a minute. Then Kylie said, “Do you think coming here was right for us?”
“You think we might be endangering the other initiates?”
“No, I mean, abandoning our families. Yours are dealing with your school thing, right? And mine…”
“Mine are a lot better off without me there getting in the way and making everything worse for them,” I said firmly. “And yours, well, what happened wasn’t your fault.”
“You keep saying that, but it’s me who chose – ”
“To come here after the last thing. You blamed yourself because your family listened to your curse; you can’t also blame yourself because they couldn’t listen to your curse. Is it bad to listen, or not? They can’t both be bad choices. At least one of these tragedies was a right decision with rotten luck.”
“Which means that the other one was a wrong decision, and my fault.”
“What? No! That isn’t how it works!”
“Well if you know so much about how my curse works, do you think I made the right decision in coming here?”
“Well, if you weren’t here, I’d have been eaten by a lake monster, so I might be a little biased. That’s a question it might be better to ask Max.”
“Ha! The rich kid who’s never dealt with a curse until he met us? What does he know?”
“Well, he’s obsessively overprepared and somehow beat out a lot of cousins for the chance to come here and nobody shuts up about his family, yet he doesn’t seem all that interested in magic or the politics inherent in the life he chose, so… this is just a guess, but I think he might know something about the pressures of being used as a tool by his family due to having magical potential?”
This, as it turned out, was the wrong thing to say. Kylie stood up, glaring at me. “My family don’t use me as a tool!”
I probably should have just shut up. I definitely should not have said, “Oh? So your uncle didn’t want to get rid of you because of the danger of that thing in your face? And your mother didn’t defend you on the basis that it could be useful to them? Everything you’ve said about your family has been about your curse managed to help or hurt them; how valuable or dangerous it was to them. But I’m sure your decision to come here was entirely of your own free will, and now this – ”
“At least my family ain’t afraid of me!”
“… What? My family isn’t… your uncle…”
“Mostly just told people not to listen to the prophecy. But yours are terrified. They think you might hurt them.”
“Okay, first: that’s bullshit. You’ve never even met them, and you have no idea what you – ”
“Oh, really? It bothering you that I’m making sweeping judgements on your family and life, from less than two weeks of offhand conversation? Is it maybe intrusive for someone to be probing into your life for no reason? Does it offend you when some random acquaintance thinks they fucking Sherlock Holmes and talk shit about your family and acting like they’re doing you a favour? I’m so sorry, I had no idea how fucking rude it might be to do that!”
“Okay, point proven. I’m sorry. But just for the record, my family do love me.”
“Didn’t say they didn’t. I said they were scared of you.”
“It’s the truth, and I’ll prove it.” Kylie stepped through her forcefield, into the main part of the room. She moved close to me; way too close. “Hit me.”
“Why not? You’re angry at me, right?”
“Yeah, you’re kind of being a bitch right now! But I’m not gonna hit a girl!”
“Yell at me, then.”
“I don’t see what that’ll – ”
“You are angry, right? You know how to be angry, right? Or are you looking for a joke right now, to not take me seriously?”
“Oh, sure; I have a chill personality, so naturally that means I’m terrifying to my family.”
“And there’s the joke. Nobody has as ‘chill’ a personality as you. Nobody is that obnoxious.”
“Thanks; I try.”
“You really do, don’t you? All the time. How much effort does that take, to never let yourself be angry at anyone? What are you scared of? That it’s going to wake up and hurt me?” She prodded my chest. “You’re happy to stir up shit for everyone else, but you have such a neat little excuse for never dealing with your own, don’t you? How long did it take them to teach you to lock your feelings away like that?”
“Nobody taught me anything!” I snapped. “Emotional control is a basic life skill! It just happens to be really important to people with an unknown curse in their heart that they don’t want to wake up!”
“Mmm. Did you ever actually learn to control your emotions, or just not to have them? Look! Real anger! Is it exciting?”
“Where the hell do you get off, acting like – ”
“Like you? I wonder!”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I snapped.
“That’s right; I don’t! I only know what you’ve told me! The same as you don’t know anything about my home life either. But I do know that you spent half your childhood trying to bind that curse in dozens of different ways, with no idea if any of them were working! You said you were, what, four when you started reciting blessings backwards and stepping over salt? Now, from Max I’d believe that, but I’m doubting that the teenager who shows up at magic school and doesn’t read the beginner’s guide for two weeks is also someone who’d research cursebinding methods at the age of four and start doing them every day. So who taught you do to that?”
“Yeah, that doesn’t mean my family were scared of me. That’s just sensible. If your kid has diabetes, you give them insulin. If they have a curse, you try binding rituals. It’s not that complicated.”
“Or else what? They might touch their parents and turn them to gold, or accidentally set the house on fire in the middle of the night and kill everyone, or send the town into endless sleep and then a big scary mage shows up with a gun to solve the problem?”
“Yes! Those are the risks!”
“And who told you that?”
I blinked. “What do you mean? You know the stories as well as I do.”
“No, I don’t! I mean, sure, a few of them, but most of the curse stories I know are more like ‘nobody could understand why the milk was always spoiled until they found a witch mark on the milkmaid’s foot’. You’ve never mentioned a single one that doesn’t involve death and destruction. Who told you those? Read them at the library, did you? Because that’s a really specific collection you must have found. Or am I right in thinking that the bedtime stories in the James household were a bit more frightening and personal than most?”
“You know what?” I snapped. “I don’t have to take this. I have better things to do than listen to this.”
I stormed out. After me, Kylie shouted, “Yeah, you’d better go! Otherwise you might risk feeling a real human emotion!”
Okay, I reasoned as I strode through identical stone passages and my heart rate began to calm, that was mostly my fault. I shouldn’t have pushed her on the family using her like a tool thing; that was a dick thing to say. No wonder she’d wanted to hurt me back. And she’d been impressively quick, spinning that ‘your family is scared of you’ story out of nothing like that. I hadn’t realised she was that inventive. Between her imagination and Max’s analytical skills, I had a lot of competition if I didn’t want to be known as the stupid member of Dorm Australia.
Well, to be fair, I probably already had that reputation. After the lake monster and all. Maybe I should just lean into it.
I ran one hand along the wall as I walked. The stone everywhere did look the same, and there was no way to tell where the… portals, I guess?… were. Sometimes corridors would lead to different places, but there was no point where the uneven stone didn’t match up to indicate that you were moving between two different corridors. There was no way to tell when you were being teleported. Well, no way without a bucket of paint and a semester’s worth of whatever the Haven used for detention.
Still, the stone did all look very similar. Which meant it probably was from the same mountain, right? Or the same mountain range? Or maybe similar mountains were found all over the world, so long as they were made in the same way? Could one end of a mountain range snake under the ocean and arise on an island, while another part opened high up onto snow? I could probably figure it out if I went to the library and spent several hours tracking down information and studiously researching geology.
Instead of all that nonsense, I went to the shop, picked up a few supplies that I was very surprised to find they actually stocked, and headed back out to Vegetable Soup Island.
The cliff into which the cave opened was covered mostly in packed sand, to which vegetation could cling. Some industrious digging with my newly purchased trowel revealed limestone underneath. Yes – this was a very good sign.
I chose a spot close to the cave mouth and dug into the cliff. I worked at an angle, sloping my hole towards the school tunnel and keeping it as small as I could easily work in to save on digging. When the rock became too hard for the trowel, I pulled out my new long-handled chisel and mallet.
“Oh, hey, it’s the witchnitiate,” Mae’s voice said behind me.
“I have a name,” I said, concentrating on not hitting my own thumb.
“Yeah, but I forgot it.”
“Hello, Kayden,” Terry said.
“Hi, Terry. Hi, Terry’s friend.”
“Yeah, okay; I deserved that. What are you doing?”
“I can see that.”
“Then why ask?” The hole was probably deep enough. I stuck my arm in. I could go almost to my shoulder before my fingertips hit stone. Good thing I’d bought the longest-handled chisel I could find.
“Why are you digging a hole?” Terry asked.
“Science!” Without removing my arm, I leaned sideways to peek into the tunnel. I could just reach far enough without dislocating anything. “Should’ve brought a mirror,” I mumbled. “But I – a-ha!”
“What? What is it?”
“Absolutely nothing!” The tunnel looked how it always did. I wiggled my fingers. They scraped stone. By normal physics, they should have broken through the tunnel wall; I should be able to see them waving in the air. But I couldn’t. Which meant…
“That’s where the portal is,” I explained, pulling my arm out and wincing as stone scraped at my skin. “Ugh! I did not dig this for elbows. There’s no reason to think any of the tunnels are spread out – why would they be? They’re probably all in the same place, but the portals to the surface, now, they might be spread out. The tunnels are probably all together, but we’re somewhere else! And if the tunnels are all together, do you know what that means?”
The girls looked at each other.
“It means they’re in the same place!” I grinned. “We have a single location! I mean, it means I can’t use the surface areas to locate us, which makes things a lot more difficult, but all in all this is good news. I just have to confirm with a few other places…”
“Kayden, what the everloving fuck are you on about?”
“I’d love to explain, but I just realised I’m super late for science class. Have fun with the farming!” I bolted down the tunnel.
Behind me, I head Mae whining, “He’s crazy, Ter-Pear. Why did he have to be crazy?”
“Your cape is crooked, Mae.”