Chapter 1: Breaking Down the News
“Breaking news: An explosion seems to have occurred at the main terminal of Dulles International Airport. Witnesses reported a loud bang and shattering noises at 6:37 am; details about possible injuries or casualties are scarce. The terminal was extremely crowded this morning as many flights were canceled due to a storm warning; rescue forces are fearing the worst. A possible connection to the recent series of explosions in the D.C. area is currently being investigated.“
Regina Day turned the radio off. Sighing with exasperation and deep-rooted concern, she closed her eyes and went back to the fridge to fetch a fresh bottle of milk, placing it on the table next to the breakfast cereal. “Not again,“ she sighed. “I just recovered from the last time the press tried to frame them as terrorist attacks.“
“Frame them?” Gabriel Day looked up from his bowl of cereal to raise a curious eyebrow at his wife. “What do you think they are, Regina?“
“Gabe, we talked about this. I’m pretty sure these are no ordinary explosions.“ Regina sighed again as images flickered through her mind. “I’ve seen the injuries. No burns, no traces of any chemicals, nothing. It’s as if air suddenly expanded for no reason. It doesn’t just do that.“ Her expression softened. “Well, at least it’s a little way off this time. I still remember the time they took all the injured people to our hospital, it was pandemonium. I almost thought I’d have to use necromancy on some of them.“
Gabriel frowned deeply. “That’s forbidden.“
“It was an eight-year-old girl! Would you have let her die?“ Regina sat down and stuffed a large spoonful of cereal and milk into her mouth. “I mean, I didn’t do it,“ she continued as Gabriel gave her a disbelieving look, “but, you know, if I had to…“
“That’s a felony.“
“I already committed a felony by marrying you. I’m not scared.“ Regina laughed. “I mean, we’re basically outlaws already, so what’s the worst that could happen? It’s not like they’d catch me, anyway.“
Gabriel sighed and gave a resigned, affectionate smile. “You’re too reckless.“
“Says the one who almost got himself killed for a total stranger.“
“That was one time!“
They both snorted and continued eating. It wasn’t until they were almost finished that Regina’s gaze fell upon her daughter, Mercury, who had barely touched her food, staring absentmindedly into the distance. Behind her orange lights and shadows flickered over the wall as if cast by a fire, but there was nothing burning. She didn’t seem to notice.
“What’s wrong, Mercury?“ Regina asked. “Are you okay?“
“Huh? O-Oh, um…“ Mercury jolted as if startled out of a trance, blinking and blushing with embarrassment. The lights and shadows disappeared. “No, I’m just worried. I mean…an explosion…and no details…I just hope it’s nothing serious this time…“
Gabriel cracked a knowing smirk. “You weren’t imagining anything scary again, were you?“
Mercury blushed again and fervently shook her head. “No!“ she lied. “N-No, I wasn’t imagining anything this time, really!“
Her parents exchanged a knowing look. Gabriel grinned. “Really?“
“Yeah, really! I’m not always imagining stuff, you know?“ Mercury laughed nervously.
“We know, we know. You don’t have an overactive imagination at all.“ Regina smiled kindly and ruffled her hair. “Now eat your breakfast, okay? It’s almost time to leave.“
No matter who you asked, anyone who knew them would tell you that Gabriel and Regina Day were perfectly normal, kind-hearted, polite people. They lived in a small house in the suburbs, surrounded by a garden that wasn’t too neat but beautiful in its own way, with crooked trees and brightly-colored flowers wherever you looked. Nobody was too sure what Mr. and Mrs. Day had been doing or where they had lived before moving here, and nobody asked; they’d been young, and most people simply assumed that they had gone to college.
Gabriel Day was a pale, serious middle-aged man with blond hair that was slowly whitening in some places if you looked closely, a good-natured smile, and bright gray eyes. When he wasn’t at home reading under one of the trees in any weather you’d find him working at the flower shop he owned, a small place full of beautiful flowers that would put even biologists at a loss and scents that never caused any allergies except, mysteriously enough, for the rude customers. Of course their rudeness had nothing to do with their allergic reactions, people said. If anything it might be karma, but there was no way a flower could react to a person’s manners. Obviously.
Regina Day was a little older than her husband but looked younger, her rich dark brown skin almost showing no wrinkles, except when she laughed. Her dark eyes were always twinkling with a hint of mischief, and her curly black hair seemed to reflect her moods, bouncing or flattening as her expressions shifted. Regina didn’t care much about her husband’s flowers; she was a hospital surgeon, and coworkers would say that she could calm any patient’s bad moods or fears in an instant, almost as if she was psychic. Which she wasn’t, of course. She was very good with people and skilled at her job, but it wasn’t like she could actually manipulate people’s emotions.
Mr. and Mrs. Day were nice people, but perfectly normal. That was something everybody agreed on. They overslept on weekends like everyone else. They struggled with taking care of the house and garden like everyone else. They ran laps around the block like everyone else and ended up chatting with the neighbors instead like everyone else. They were just that, ordinary.
Nobody seemed to notice Regina sometimes sitting outside at night, seemingly holding a conversation with the crows on the roof. Nobody seemed to notice the way Gabriel could switch on the lights in his room by snapping his fingers even though they didn’t even have bulbs in them, either.
Nobody except for their daughter.
Mercury Day had always been a little strange. When she was in kindergarten she once pressed her hand against the window on a cold day and the whole window fogged up, flowery patterns seemingly painting themselves into the fog just to disappear in an instant. In elementary school she and the neighboring girls helped in the kitchen, and the steam coming from one of the pots had taken the shape of a fairy, danced across the room, bowed gracefully, and dissolved out the window. In seventh grade she had quietly watched two of her classmates argue about something pointless while their shadows behind them moved together and kissed. Nobody could say if Mercury had anything to do with it; she didn’t notice, and when asked about it she couldn’t remember a thing.
Now she was in eighth grade, close to starting high school, and still strange things happened around her every once in a while.
Mercury didn’t pay attention at school today. No matter how much she tried, her thoughts always kept drifting back to the news headline she had heard this morning. An explosion…And it was already the fourth one. Every time they seemed to happen in closer succession. She wondered what kept happening there…If her mother was right and those explosions weren’t terrorist attacks, then what were they?
Maybe they were gas explosions…no, then the places should have been burned. Air expanding for no reason…without warming up…
What if someone or something simply kept filling all these buildings with more and more and more air until they exploded like balloons?
Mercury almost laughed at that thought. She wasn’t sure if that was possible, but what if it was? She wondered how much air one would need to burst a house. Probably a lot. Where should it all come from? Outside? Maybe it had been sucked in from the outside. But then there should have been no air left outside…People would have needed space suits to walk around outside. Okay, that probably wasn’t how it worked. But what if?
No–on second thought, it would probably just have become very windy…maybe windy enough to fly around if you had an umbrella? That would be scary. But fun, somehow. She wondered if it had rained last night–
“Mercury, are you listening?“
She blinked and jumped. Standing in front of her, glaring down with a very unamused expression, was her teacher.
And the whole class was staring at her.
“S-S-Sorry!“ Mercury stuttered out, her face going bright red. “I just…got distracted…sorry…“
“Again? Jesus Christ.“ Her teacher sighed resignedly. “You never change, do you?“
A few voices snickered. Mercury shrank in her seat and put up her textbook, trying to hide from the looks, the laughs, the unwanted attention. She wished she could turn herself invisible and disappear until they all stopped looking at her, laughing at her, judging her.
But all she could was shrink and try to hide and stutter an apology and hope they would all forget about it in a second, and that made people all the scarier.
Mercury tried to listen. She always did. It wasn’t her fault that her thoughts always kept straying off to strange things nobody else thought about and her only decent subjects were art and creative writing, as long as she didn’t have to present her creations in front of people.
The class went on. It went on and on for ages, and Mercury spent it sitting stooped over her book and pulling up her shoulders, avoiding eye contact with everyone and hoping she wouldn’t get called on. Then at long last it was over, and she hurriedly packed her bag and slipped out before anyone could try to talk to her, sprinting across the hallway, leaping down a flight of stairs, and making her way to her next classroom two doors away through the gloomy, deserted, spider-infested school basement.
Nobody talk to me, she thought as she made her way back into human civilization, plucking a spider out of her hair and ducking past a row of jocks to slip into the classroom. Nobody look at me. I’m not here. I’m invisible.
Then her next class began, and her teacher started checking everyone’s presences as she mentally prepared herself to say “Here!“ when she was called. And yet, when her name fell, she still felt unprepared.
“Here!“ she squeaked out, sounding startled and panicked. Her face heated up. Had she sounded too weird? Were people judging her?
But miraculously no one was looking. Her teacher stared at her, but for some reason his eyes seemed to be staring right through her.
“…Mercury?“ he asked. “Is Mercury Day here?“
“Y-Yes,“ Mercury said, louder this time and leagues more confused. Had he overlooked her? “I’m right here!“
Her teacher blinked and suddenly looked just as confused. “Oh, there you are!“ he exclaimed. “Sorry, I didn’t see you for a moment…You have to speak up, you know? Otherwise you’ll turn invisible someday.“
“Yes,“ Mercury mumbled, a glowing blush spreading over her face as all eyes rested on her. “I’m sorry.“
Her teacher returned to checking the names, still looking mildly puzzled, as if he had seen something he couldn’t quite believe. The others looked much the same. No one was even laughing.
It was as if Mercury had actually been invisible for a moment. But she couldn’t do that, right?
No way. She couldn’t do that. For someone like her it should be impossible.
And yet people continued to look at her as if she had actually appeared out of thin air.
Chapter 2: The Unknown
"So here's where they live." The gray-haired man in the navy blue coat looked around, taking in the small, peaceful street. "Nice little place. Might just go buy myself a house here when I retire."
His companion, a tall, looming figure in all black and sunglasses, gave a snort and stuck his hands into his pockets. "You say that like you're planning to retire."
"That's the joke, Nero, that's the joke." The older man smirked at his companion's humorless face. "Now would you mind staying here while I talk to the girl? Kid might have a heart attack if she sees you, and we don't have Bonnie or Hecate with us today. Healing's not my specialty."
Nero frowned. "I still think it's a bad idea to talk to her in the first place."
"It's illegal to talk to an exile. We are supposed to treat them like they don't exist."
"But I'm not talking to an exile. That would be the girl's mother– her hypothetical mother, Nero, don't make that face." The man snorted. "No rule against talking to Twilits anymore, remember?"
"But what you want to do–"
"Shush, it's not forbidden. And what else are we supposed to do, leave a whole group of mages to their own devices? No training or education? That's the fast lane to creating people who can't control their powers, or worse, people who hate us and want to kill us." The old man tucked his hands into his pockets. "If they plan to come for me for countering that, I'd like to see them try."
Nero adjusted his sunglasses. "As you like, Principal. Don't say I didn't warn you."
"All right, all right. I'm a warned man. Can I go now?"
"Mind the distance limit. You know what happened last time."
"Nero, it's ten feet away. Don't be so fussy." The man shrugged and turned into the street, hands in his pockets, walking up to one of the houses just as a girl of about fourteen years came walking his way. Her eyes were glued to the pages of a notebook she was writing into, perfectly unaware of her surroundings.
The man was just getting ready to approach her when she walked straight past her garden gate, still scribbling forlornly into her notebook, and knocked right into him.
The girl stumbled back. The notebook and pencil fell out of her hands, clattering to the ground. Her eyes went wide as she suddenly grew aware of the situations, blushing with shame and frantically stumbling to pick up her notebook and stuff it into her backpack, hiding its contents from sight. The man thought he briefly caught the words, How many frogs would fit into a shopping cart?
"S-Sorry!" she burst out, flailing her hands about and almost dropping the pencil she had only just retrieved. "So sorry! I wasn't paying attention...sorry...I shouldn't have done that, I'll be more careful in the future...Are you all right?"
"Better than ever," the man replied casually, his eyes taking in every detail of her face.
She looked every bit like the picture, but even without the aid of a photo he would have known he was standing in front of the right person. She wasn't very tall and neither fat nor skinny, her brown skin and shoulder-length black curls a carbon copy of her mother's, with her father's bright gray eyes forming a jarring contrast to the rest of her, almost like she was wearing contacts. Her face was honest and friendly, with full lips and chubby cheeks and a kind-hearted, thoughtful expression in her wide eyes. Part of her hair was pulled out of her face with a flower clip, and there were bits of grass and leaves all over her pink hoodie.
A simple, ordinary, good-natured girl. That was what she looked like.
"Excuse me," the man said, and she inadvertently took a step back. "Are you Mercury Day? The daughter of Gabriel and Regina Day?"
She blinked, surprised, and then fear dawned on her face. A sudden cloud passed over the sun. "Y-Yes," she said slowly. "What's wrong? Did something happen–"
The man smiled. "Don't worry, your parents are all right. And you're not in trouble either."
She gave a sigh of relief, and the cloud disappeared. "That's good! But..." She fidgeted nervously. "Then what...I mean...why..."
"I'd like to have a word with you, Miss Day. Or two or five." The man smiled and extended a hand, which she shook awkwardly. "My name is Sullivan Blake, principal of Andromeda Institute of Dark Magic." His smile widened. "Does that name ring a bell?"
Of course it rang a bell. That had to be the school her mother had gone to. She and her father would often talk about their high school days, and there wasn't a conversation like that where the name Andromeda wouldn't fall, or Andie's, as her mother had nicknamed it. She knew what that place was, vaguely. She even recognized this man's name. But she didn't understand.
"It...does," she said slowly. "My mom went there, but...what does that have to do with me? I mean..."
I'm not a Dark Mage. I'm not a mage at all.
"So you know what your parents are. That's good." Principal Blake gave an acknowledging nod. "Miss Day, do you also know what you are?"
Mercury blinked. What kind of question was that? He was saying that like she was something special...like she might be a mage too.
"I...think so," she said slowly. "I'm half Light Mage, half Dark Mage...so I can't be either, right? So I'm not a mage, even though my parents are...I...think...?"
That was what she'd always thought. So why did this strange old man suddenly make her doubt everything?
Principal Blake sighed, unsurprised but not disappointed. "Partly true, Miss Day. Five out of ten. It's true that you're neither Light nor Dark Mage. But," he leaned closer, black eyes looking straight into hers, "there's a third kind of mages, and that's what you are."
A third type of magic? Mercury's heart skipped a beat. She might be a mage too? She might have powers...she might be able to perform miracles the way her parents did...
No way, no way. This had to be a prank, and yet...it seemed real. Too real not to believe it.
"It's still unresearched, and people don't know much about it, probably not even your parents. Doesn't help that it's been hushed away by both magic communities because neither group wants it to exist. A hybrid between Light and Dark Magic..." Principal Blake lightly rested a hand on her shoulder. "It's called Twilit Magic, Miss Day. That's what you are."
Mercury stared up at him, wide-eyed and stupefied.
This had to be a joke. This couldn't be true. She had lived in this world for fourteen years, and not once had she been able to do magic. And suddenly this strange man appeared out of nowhere and tried to tell her she was a mage too...How could that be? How could she have lived her whole life not realizing that she had magical powers?
"I...I'm sorry." She swallowed hard. "I...think you've got the wrong person..." I'd really like it to be true. But I just can't believe it.
Principal Blake raised an eyebrow, unfazed. "So you've never had anything happen to you that couldn't be explained?"
"Of course n–" Mercury stopped in her tracks. What happened at school earlier...If he was right...
Had she actually made herself invisible for a moment?
"W-Well," she said slowly, looking down. "I don't know. Maybe."
"Maybe's good enough. Don't worry about details, Miss Day. Most important thing's that you have the powers, you don't have to control them yet." Principal Blake straightened and cleared his throat, adjusting his tie. "Making sure you learn how to do that's what I'm here for."
Mercury looked up at him and said nothing. There were a million questions burning on her tongue, a million doubts, but she couldn't say a word. Everything she wanted to say sounded stupid in the face of this official-looking man with his suit and tie and his straightforward, honest dark eyes.
She should probably doubt him. But as she looked up at this stranger, she couldn't help hoping he was telling the truth. She couldn't help wishing all of this was real, and she'd really be able to become a mage and do the same amazing things her parents did every day.
"I..." she stuttered at last, her eyes darting nervously from side to side. "Is it...really okay?"
Principal Blake smiled again and reached into his pocket, pulling out a plain white envelope addressed to Ms Mercury Day, Twilit Mage. Mercury looked back and forth between him and the envelope. Then she took it.
It jumped open in her hands.
Mercury gave a startled leap, nearly dropping it to the ground as she watched a stack of papers slip out of it and unfold itself in front of her eyes. Her eyes went wide as saucers. This was...
"Does it look like a postcard to you?"
Mercury blushed at her own stupid question. "Sorry...just...this is all a bit..."
"S'fine. Think it over. Not like you can sign stuff on your own yet, anyway. Your parents– I mean guardians have to sign it." Principal Blake stuck his hands into his pockets. "Talk it out with them. If I was allowed to bring up your mother, I'd say she could vouch for me. Oh well, laws and all that." He ignored Mercury's increasingly puzzled face to lean against the nearest lamppost, looking very much like the hero of a vintage movie. "Deal?"
Mercury didn't have it in her to do anything else but nod.
"Good choice. Promise you won't regret it, Miss Day. I'd do the exact same thing." Principal Blake cracked a grin, as if he found his own joke funny. Then he glanced at his watch and frowned. "Ah, looks like I have to go back or my dog will kill me. Don't really feel like dying yet..." Your what? Mercury wanted to ask, but he continued before she could speak. "Anyway, just ask your mo– a mage you know to show you how to send those papers back. And don't tell your parents I said hi."
With that he hurried off and disappeared around a corner, and if Mercury didn't have the envelope and forms in her hands, she would have thought this whole scene had been a figment of her imagination.
"What..." she said to no one in particular, staring at the papers and then at the corner Principal Blake had just disappeared to. "What...was that?"
She almost jumped out of her skin.
"Mercury, what are you doing here? Forgot your key again?" Her mother came walking up to her, a curious smile on her face. "What happened?"
For a second Mercury felt tempted to tell her about the encounter on the spot.
Then she shook off the thought. Bad time, bad place. She should wait until she and her parents were all together, inside the house where nobody could listen in on their conversation and think they had all gone nuts.
Come to think of it, shouldn't somebody already have noticed her and Principal Blake talking...?
Mercury decided she wouldn't think about that even as anxiety perked up inside her, bouncing up and down and making her heart stumble and her skin turn cold. No one had heard. She would stick to believing that until someone or something proved her wrong.
"Nothing," she said, quickly stuffing the envelope and forms into her backpack as she turned towards her mother. "I just thought I saw something...All fine!"
On the sidewalk behind her a dry leaf rustled, moved, and turned into a tiny dragon
Chapter 3: Exiles
Mercury didn't stop thinking about the strange man and the letter all day, and she didn't stop thinking about them the next day either. But it wasn't until her family sat together at dinner the next evening that she thought about actually bringing it up.
The conversation had died down. Her parents were both busy with their plates of mac and cheese; Mercury was eating slowly, even slower than usual, taking tiny bites and chewing so carefully one could think she was expecting to bite down on a diamond at any given second. Inside her head she was rehearsing phrases, thinking of things to say, how to bring up this strange topic without sounding like she was making the whole story up. If it was even real in the first place. Maybe it really had been her imagination playing tricks on her, and if she mentioned it–
No, she wouldn't know until she tried. And she wanted to know. She wanted to find out so many things, if all of this was real, what Principal Blake had been talking about.
She didn't know much about magic, she realized.
Okay...She had to tell them. There was no way around it. Right now nobody else was speaking, she wouldn't be interrupting anybody if she spoke up out of the blue...The moment was ideal. All she had to do was take a deep breath–
–and let it out again as her courage failed her.
Principal Blake really was amazing, she thought, going up to her, a total stranger, and casually bringing up such a bizarre topic without batting an eye. She couldn't even mention it to her own parents. For crying out loud–
One more try. This time for sure. She knew what she had to say...a deep breath...
"By the way," her father said just as she opened her mouth and quickly closed it again, groaning inwardly. "Reggie, our best friend showed up at the shop again today." He gave a meaningful roll of his eyes.
"Oh, him," her mother answered, making a face like the macaroni and cheese had just turned sour in her mouth. "What did he want this time? Did he complain about embarrassing himself with the red roses after you told him not to get those?"
Her parents laughed, and Mercury spaced out again as they chatted on about stories from work, doing comical impressions of people she had never met in her life. She clenched her fists in her lap. Missed her chance...Now what? When would she get her next one? Would she not get one at all? What if she didn't and lost her slim chance of ever learning how to use her own magic? What would she tell Principal Blake?
"By the way, Mercury," her father's voice cut through her thoughts, making her drop her fork onto her plate. "Did you want to say something earlier?"
Mercury looked up and found both her parents looking down at her with curious eyes.
She gulped. For a second she considered lying her way out and telling them some meaningless story from school. Then she gritted her teeth, stubbornly fighting off the temptation and mentally chiding herself for even thinking of chickening out. This was her chance. She had to say it, or she'd never have the courage to bring it up again.
"Actually..." She didn't meet her parents' eyes. "There was something."
And before she could change her mind once more, she quickly told them about the bizarre encounter in front of the house.
Her parents were quiet when she stopped talking. They simply looked at her with amazement in their eyes, not saying a word.
Mercury shrank in her chair. This silence was killing her. "Um..." she began, fidgeting with the hems of her sleeves. "This is...a bit weird, right? I mean, I never heard about a third kind of magic before...You didn't either, right? Or you'd have told me...it's..." She hung her head. "Probably nothing, huh...I'm sorry...I don't know why I brought it up..."
"No, I think this is real."
Mercury looked up. Her mother's expression was thoughtful, but the slightest of smiles was playing around her lips.
"I've never heard about these...Twilit Mages before either," she said, her gaze fluttering as she repeated the words. "But I know old man Sullivan. He's a serious researcher...If he says it, it has to be true." She grinned. "So he's principal now, huh? Suits him. He doesn't sound like he's changed one bit."
Mercury's heart skipped a beat. "So I can go?"
"Study magic? Yeah, well." Her mother sighed resignedly, but she was smiling. "Now that you now you've got powers, there's not much of a choice, right? If you're okay with it, Gabe."
Mercury looked expectantly at her father.
He hesitated, bright eyes flitting back and forth between his wife and daughter. "I don't know Sullivan Blake too much," he said, "but if you say he's trustworthy, Reggie, I'm all right with it. He's reliable, right?"
"Definitely. He looks after everyone he's responsible for, and he knows what he's doing." Her mother smiled wistfully as old memories crossed her face. "The only ones he got into trouble with were the authorities. Always bending rules, that one."
Mercury perked up, remembering what Principal Blake had been saying earlier. "Like the rule that he's..." She fidgeted, trying to find a good way to phrase it. "Not allowed...to talk about you, Mom?"
Her father raised an eyebrow in concern. Her mother gave him a meaningful look. "Yeah," she said. "Because I'm an exile. You know how marrying your dad was illegal for me because he's a Light Mage? And how they kicked us out of our communities?"
Mercury nodded. She knew the story by heart, even if her parents had never told her any details.
"You know," her mother continued, "when somebody's exiled from a magic community, they become an unperson. The others aren't allowed to see them, interact with them or talk about them. They're not even allowed to mention they ever existed, so old man Sullivan did some serious bending of the rules there." She shook her head. "Typical."
Mercury blinked, almost wondering if she was joking. No, she looked serious. But then...
"They have to pretend you don't exist?" she repeated, horror-struck. "Just because you married Dad? Even your friends...your..." She swallowed hard. "Your family?"
She couldn't even imagine that. How did that feel like? It had to feel like dying to everyone– no, worse. It had to feel like everyone you ever held dear had died all at once.
Her parents had gone through that? All by themselves?
That was worse than anything she had imagined before.
"Why?" she whispered, clenching her fists in her lap as tears welled up in her eyes. "Just because you fell in love...That's not a crime! That shouldn't–"
"Tell me about it." Her father frowned darkly. "But it's always been like this...and rules are rules. Light and Dark mages have hated each other for centuries."
Mercury shook her head. She couldn't believe this...this was so much worse than everything she had heard before. "This is so stupid! Hating each other just because, because–"
"This is nothing," her mother interrupted with a dry smile. "At least they aren't trying to kill each other anymore."
Mercury fell silent. She had forgotten what she wanted to say.
Mages who hated other mages for the nature of their magic...In all honesty, she wasn't so sure she wanted to be a part of that anymore.
~ ~ ~
"Whoa– Oh hi there, Miss Day." Sullivan Blake took his feet off the desk and swiveled around in his chair, facing the girl who had popped up in his office, hovering, semi-transparent, in the shadow of the door. "Didn't expect you here this late at night. Who taught you about astral projection?"
"My parents helped me." Mercury's eyes seemed strangely clouded, her voice much more grave than this afternoon. She was fidgeting with her shirt, playing around with her curls, looking down at her feet and then around the office again, taking in the minimalistic furniture and shelves full of equipment she had undoubtedly never seen before. "Um...Am I intruding? I'm not disturbing you, right? If it's too late then I can–"
"'S fine, Miss Day. You wouldn't even get in here if I thought you were intruding." Sullivan smirked as the girl relaxed, the tiniest smile making its way on her face. "Just surprised...Shouldn't you be in bed?"
Mercury turned scarlet. "I–"
"Just kidding, Miss Day." Sullivan chuckled. "Do you want anything?"
Her eyes were still darting about as she moved her lips, as if trying to put the words in her head into the right order before she spoke. "I...yeah," she said quietly. "There's...well, nothing against you, but...how do I put it..." Her gaze lingered on the window, meeting eyes with her own reflection. "I heard some things that made me, you know, worried, and I...I have questions." She swallowed. "And my parents said I should probably come to you with them."
Sullivan raised an unsurprised eyebrow and straightened up in his chair. "I'm all ears.
Chapter 4: Cut to the Chase
"I'm all ears."
Principal Blake looked at her, calm and expectant, raising one eyebrow in curiosity. Mercury swallowed. All the questions she had so neatly arranged and rehearsed in her head earlier had tumbled all over the place.
All the things that had confused her, worried her...all the questions...What were they again? Where should she start?
"Um..." She fidgeted awkwardly. "This might be a bit of a stupid question, but–"
"Wrong. Stupid questions don't exist, just stupid answers." Principal Blake smirked. "Let's hear it."
"Why...do Light and Dark Mages hate each other so much?"
"Oh." Principal Blake raised both eyebrows. "That's not a stupid question, that's a very good question. Well, you know how Light and Dark Magic are fueled by different types of emotions?"
Mercury looked into nowhere, recalling what her parents had told her when she was very little. "Light Magic runs on positive emotions...joy, happiness, love. And Dark Magic on negative ones like hatred, anger or fear...right?"
"Exactly. Neither's inherently good or bad, as your parents should've told you." Principal Blake gave a quiet sigh as his eyes darkened. "But since Dark Mages are always stronger in bad times, the Light folks started to fear us. They started saying we were making things worse and preying on people's suffering. Some of us probably did, but they started hunting innocents too. Till not too long ago they didn't even allow us to exist..." He smiled wryly. "I hate to say this, but the segregation we got right now is already a progress compared to old times."
Hunting innocents...Mercury shuddered. Had she heard this right? Had the Light Mages really tried to kill people just for the source of their magic?
Had her father's ancestors, her father's family also...?
"Right now we've got separate communities," Blake went on. "We don't talk if we can help it. We never exchange knowledge. We don't try to kill each other though...still, don't like it. Pointless drama, you know."
Mercury looked at the ground, deep in thought. She tried to understand this conflict and couldn't. The actions of the Light Mages didn't make sense...but she understood the Dark Mages. She understood why they were afraid.
At least the magic community she was supposed to be joining had a reason to hate the other side. Mercury wasn't sure if that was scary or reassuring. Reassuring, because the Dark Mages weren't at fault. But scary, because she wasn't sure how they would react to her. Would they really let the descendant of their oppressors let into their ranks? Wouldn't they suspect her, think that she might still be one of them?
"I..." She took a slow breath, trying to put the jumbled thoughts in her head into words. "That's...scary."
"Don't worry," Blake said gently, a knowing look on his face. "Twilit Mages like you are exiles. The Light Mages can't even interact with you. No sane person at this school will think you're one of them, don't sweat it."
Mercury wasn't so sure, but she wanted to trust him. She wanted to believe that he was right, that the others wouldn't make a wide berth around her for who she was.
"And no sane person should hate you for what half your ancestors did," Blake added, and Mercury started wondering if he could read minds. "You never even met them. And you don't approve of what they did, I know." He smirked. "It's written all over your face."
Mercury turned pink.
"So my ancestors..." She shuddered, an icy chill running down her spine. "They really did...?"
"It's best not to ask for details, Miss Day."
Mercury didn't know what to reply to that.
"Don't worry," Principal Blake said again, standing up and crossing the room to pat a hand on her shoulder, even if she couldn't feel him. "I'll make sure nobody treats you badly for your name or your roots. After all, to the Lights you're just as much of a monster as the rest of us, so why should we treat you like crap too? Just try your best, that's all I expect of you."
He paused for a moment, then he smiled. "And if it helps you–"
~ ~ ~
Is this really the right place? Mercury asked herself as she looked down at the slip of paper with the address in her hands, then up at the crowded mall in front of her, then back at the address. There were a lot of places she had expected a magical bookstore to be, in backyards, small alleyways, lone old houses, but a humongous, glittering shopping mall definitely wasn't one of them.
And yet the address was right, and Mercury was left wondering if Principal Blake had given her the wrong place when she had visited him yesterday. Maybe he'd got the cities mixed up. Maybe this had been the right address once, and the bookstore had moved. There was no way it could really be in here, right? Or were people just walking in and out of it and buying Magic 101 schoolbooks like it was the most normal thing?
She looked down at the instructions Principal Blake had written under the address and felt even more weirded out than before. What was he...?
Go up to the top floor via stairs or escalator. (Do not use elevator!) From there, find old elevator @ the back (near fast food hell). Get in alone. Push button, go up, get out, you're in the store.
Well, at least those instructions seemed to fit the location, she had to give them that. Maybe she hadn't come to the wrong place, after all.
That didn't keep it from being a weird spot. But Mercury definitely wasn't in a position to judge others based on weirdness.
Bracing herself for a lot of unwanted human contact, she stepped in through the automatic doors, nearly knocking over a three-year-old who ran into her path to retrieve his toy, narrowly dodging his mother as she prepared to yell at her to watch where she was going, walking at a snail's pace behind a group of old ladies with shopping carts who had all the time in the world, almost stepping on a man's feet, stumbling around him and knocking into a texting girl instead. A series of profuse apologies and a beginning anxiety attack later, she finally escaped from the crowd for a second to catch her breath in front of a closed shoe store, gathering her strength to venture into the hell that was the escalator a few feet away.
Mercury had never liked crowded places. And this was exactly why.
She felt an awful lot like the protagonist of a very hard video game, and she was a terrible gamer.
After three attempts to step outside that all ended in her staying where she was, she took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and moved back into the ocean of people, her eyes fixed on the escalator as she tried to avoid more collisions.
Then she was standing on it, moving upwards, people pushing and shoving and tripping and stumbling and yelling and cursing all around her as she tried to ignore them all. It was too hot and too loud. But after a few minutes it was over, and she tried not to step on anyone's feet as she tried to steer as clear of the crowd as she could.
A shadow moved behind her. A hand darted out, quick as lightning, snatching her bag and pulling it off her arm.
Mercury whipped around. From the corner of her eye she caught a tall man in an orange jacket walking hurriedly along the rows of people, her bag tightly clutched in his right hand.
Her bag...with everything in it. Her money, her phone...everything she needed to get the books and return back home.
Despair grabbed her from behind. She had two options, she realized.
One, she let the man leave with her bag and stayed behind with no way to buy the books she needed or call her parents and tell them where she was and what happened, unless she went to the information booth or asked a stranger to borrow their phone.
Two...she chased after him. Through the crowd and everything.
Her body moved on her own. Before thinking twice Mercury had sped forward, leaping into the crowd, her eyes locked on the orange jacket. People moved all around her. In every direction, on every side, figures were pushing, jostling, rushing, stumbling along, some coming to stand in her way, others nearly tripping over her. Mercury dodged to one side, then to the other. Every time she looked up there seemed to be more and more people between her and her target. The orange jacket was disappearing in the crowd.
This was no good. At this rate she'd lose him. She had to go faster, somehow. But with all these people around, the only way would be to push through.
No. No way. She couldn't do that.
Her gaze darted about, nervous and panicking. If only there was a path where she didn't have to worry about dodging strangers every two steps. If only there was a spot where she could see the orange jacket from a distance–
Wait a second.
Taking a deep breath, Mercury slipped through the rows of people, thanked herself for putting on her sneakers today, and leaped onto the railing.
For a second she wobbled. Rows of escalators, the ground level and two more floors underground yawned up at her, dozens of feet of thin air reaching up and threatening to swallow her whole. If she lost her balance here she'd be dead, she realized.
But then she'd just have to not fall.
Gritting her teeth, she straightened up, her feet gripping the metal below. This was no different from balancing on fallen trees, she told herself, except narrower and higher. She could do it. Compared to pushing strangers or losing her bag, this was nothing.
The man in the orange jacket was still pushing on through the crowd at a steady pace, making for the escalators. Mercury followed him as fast as she could. Her feet were getting steadier and steadier as she adjusted to the narrow, slippery railing. The distance between them was getting shorter and shorter.
Then he was in front of her, within arm's reach, and Mercury jumped off and snatched the bag from his hand.
The man turned and blinked. His eyes went round as he gaped down at Mercury, processing the situation. Then an idea flitted over his face, and he grabbed her arm.
"Thief!" he yelled at the top of his lungs.
Mercury froze. People around them stopped walking, turning around to stare at them both. She could feel countless eyes resting on her, glaring, judging.
Her body felt cold. Her knees felt like jelly. Her heartbeat was too loud in her ears.
"No!" she burst out, trying to tear herself free, but the man's grip was like iron. "I'm not a thief! You stole this from me–"
"Liar! Can you believe this bitch? First she steals from me and then she lies about it!" The man's voice was shaking with fury. "Kids like you should be in jail! Somebody call security!"
Whispers arose, murmurs, countless voices that were white noise in Mercury's ears. Fingers were pointed at her. She felt cold. Her head was spinning. Panic gripped her mind, holding it tightly in its icy claw, putting all her thoughts to silence.
"I'm not a thief!" she shouted, sounding like a liar even in her own ears. "I never stole anything! This is my bag! Why doesn't anyone believe me?"
No good. It's no good. They think I'm a thief, they'll never believe me, I'm going to get arrested–
A sudden gust of wind blew through the building. The man's jacket flapped open, revealing countless wallets stuffed into the inside pockets.
"So the guy who got his stuff stolen collects wallets, huh?" said a voice from behind. "Kinda weird hobby, man."
"Target secured. Operation started. Everything going as planned."
There was a small pause. Then the mouth on the other end of the line curved into a smile, knowing and satisfied.
"Excellent. Monitor the girl. We move onward to phase two."