A Certain Moebius Cat

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic


and now, please meet this cat. he's smokey grey, he lives somewhere in the academy of magic and he likes sleeping, stroking and economy classes. oh, and he also can't be affected by magic. at all.
so when four students of the academy decided to give home to this cat, they didn't know what they were getting into...

Submitted: March 17, 2018

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Submitted: March 17, 2018

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It was an ordinary winter sunny day.

Snow was falling on Seinar-Sa, dancing and shining in sunbeams. On roads, wagons and passengers dragons were making their ways through snow banks. Children were making snowmen and throwing snowballs into each other, sometimes hitting passing pedestrians by accident. In the Academy of Magic’s park, workers were installing a new lamppost. There already was one near to them installed a few months ago, but it still didn’t work. Probably, the Academy’s administration forgot to pay a magician who set up the illumination spell on lampposts. Tanya d’Air was sitting behind her desk in the room 1-208a waiting for the next lesson and was watching a bird flying under the ceiling. The bird had fled through an open window and was flying around randomly now trying to warm up and find the exit. Watching the bird was much more interesting than preparing for the economics class.

“Hello, Tanya,” she heard familiar voice. The first-year student of the Academy raised her head. Dave Larsen, her classmate and old friend, fell down to the chair next to Tanya’s.

“Hello, Dave,” Tanya sighed. “You aren’t even late today. Something wrong?”

“Well, you know, how much I like the economics,” Dave shrugged. “And how much the economics likes late students.”

“It doesn’t like any students,” the young woman chuckled. “Why do we study it anyway? To determine prices for our magic by supply and demand diagram?”

“It would be quite useful, in fact,” Dave noted tilting his head slightly to the side. He opened his briefcase and started to remove study books, notebooks and pens from there for the lesson. Judging by amount of books, which was near the half of what were in the briefcase, the economics’ teacher was very strict and demanding. “By the way, Tanya, have you solve the test on the microeconomics? You now, the one after the fourth paragraph.”

“Only three things are constant in the world: wars, taxes and Dave Larsen asking for homework’s solution”, the young woman said. “Here”, she gave him her notebook.

“You may add the fourth thing,” Larsen added as he opened Tanya’s notebook. “Snarky young future great magicians of E3 rank. Oh, and thanks for homework.”

Tanya tried to make an angry face, but failed as she smiled involuntarily, as she always did when speaking with Dave. They were longtime friends, since junior school, and no matter how it was looking from the side, Tanya really liked him and thought of him as her best friend. He might be the most childish guy in the whole Academy of Magic (that was quite an achievement of its own), but it always was fun to be with him, and she knew she always could count on him. She was glad they were studying together. They were really lucky they could. As a matter of fact, none of people in this room were true magician as they were usually described in fantasy books. They couldn’t fly, or throw fireballs, or call giant eagles for help, or turn people into giant bats. All they could was using magic wands, small light-brown cylinders made from wood of one certain tree that grew here, on the planet Homeland – their planet. No one knew why and how, but these wands could read human thoughts – or, more precisely, human emotions and dreams. And if you ask a wand to do something, and imagine it in the most detailed way possible, the wand could turn the thing you asking for into real – if it decides you would be happy because of that. The more you asking for the same thing, the less details the wand would need, and once it would react on a simple word – a spell. But… Only one of every thousands of people could make contact with these wands, and even less persons could really imagine something the way that wand would understand and execute. That’s why magicians were so valuable. That’s why every child on Homeland was given a special test after high school to determine their magical potential and rank, from “N” – None to “G” – Good. Tanya had resulted this test with E3 rank – “Excellent”, which meant she was potentially a great magician, and Dave who had got only “G2” rank often poked fun at Tanya because of that.

“Good afternoon, Dave. Hello, Tanya.” Marissa Cartwright passed them to her desk. Tanya caught her look and smiled back. There were a lot of unusual students in the Academy, but Marissa outstood even among them. At least, because she was three years older than most of them. She had graduated from the Royal Institute of Engineering Magic, which was in Deimur-Town, the capital of Wailkyre Kingdom, and proudly wore the small yellow badge of RIEM on her ivory-colored sweater next to the Academy’s emblem – a divider and a ruler were forming some sort of smiling face on it. Engineers were as valuable for Homeland as magicians, because magicians could create almost anything but needed to be guided by those who knew exactly what they had to create. And talented magicians rarely were talented engineers as well. As an engineer graduated from the most prestigious technological institute, Marissa could get a pretty good career in Wailkyre Kingdom, the most technologically advanced of the four countries of Homeland. But she always wanted to be a magician. Unfortunately, the Royal Institute of the Practical Magic didn’t accept people with Marissa’s “W2 – Weak” rank. But the Academy of Magic in Seinar-Sa did. Marissa was speaking with slight northern accent, almost undetectable if not listening hard, always was calm and polite, and despite of her magic skills being barely enough to do homework, her engineering education allowed her to notice something that most of student weren’t even aware of. Tanya secretly admired Marissa, and even envy her a bit.

The young woman looked at her wristwatch. Three minutes left before the lesson. Dave was hastily copying answers from Tanya’s notebook crossing out and correcting his notes constantly. How did he manage to understand anything in his notebook? Miss D’Air reached out for her purse as she suddenly noticed that someone had just jumped onto her desk.

“Oh”, Tanya exclaimed as she boggled back instinctively. Dave turned his head, as almost everyone in the room, and looked at the desk. A smoky-grey cat was sitting on Tanya’s books waving its tail lazily.

“Where did you come from?” Dave was surprised.

In a second, Tanya’s desk was surrounded by her classmates.

“Wow!”

“How cute!”

“Hello, kitty, what is your name?”

“Is it male or female?”

“May I pet you?”

“Hello, Mr. Cat”, Marissa squeezed through the ring of mostly female students, bent down to the cat and slowly extended her arm to him. She carefully gave him a stroke. The cat closed his eyes happily and purred. “You’re looking beautiful, do you know?” She scratched its ears and the cat started to purr even louder than before.

Tanya started to feel something like a jealousy. This cat had jumped on her desk to begin with! The young woman extended her arm and tried to pet the cat. The smoky-gray cute was politely accepted her attempt, but then he walked away to Marissa. “Meow!”

“Ha-ha-ha,” Dave laughed. “It seems he likes Marissa more!”

Now Tanya most definitely was jealous.

Marissa smiled.

“Do you want me to play with you?” The cat purred. “You do?” Ms. Cartwright scratched his ears again. “Want to eat? Or maybe warm up?”

“I’m curious, whose is this cat?” Tanya said. “He looks well-kept, like a pure-blood cat.”

“I’ve heard a cat lives in a basement where our wardrobe lady is”, one of the girls said.

“Ow, look how handsome he is! No way he lives in a basement.”

“Maybe he has run away?”

“Maybe he just likes economics classes”, Dave muttered. The cat was enjoying Marissa’s hands and didn’t give any attention to people discussing him. He was like an imperturbable royal-blood person who accidentally walked into a marketplace.

“Well-well, what is the crowd here?!” a grumpy low voice sounded in behind. Mrs. Daphna DiGreeze, their strict economics teacher, had walked into the room and now was trying to squeeze through a too narrow for her aisle. “The lesson has started already!”

Female students went to their desks with reluctance. The cat jumped to the floor and followed Marissa.

“Who the hell is this?” Mrs. DeGreeze finally noticed the pet. “Go away! Go away, I said!”

The cat turned his head and hissed angrily.

“Mrs. DeGreeze”, Marissa stood up. “May this cat stay here? It won’t interfere with the lesson, I promise!”

Mrs. DeGreeze was thinking for a minute. She looked at the cat appraisingly. The cat showed his fangs and raised his tail, ready to stand for himself until the end.

“Ok, Ms. Cartwright, he may stay if he doesn’t distract others.”

“Thank you”, Marissa nodded. “I will keep my eyes on him.” She carefully took the cat and placed him to the seat near her. He meowed in a gesture of thanks and laid down, eyes closed.

Dave and Tanya exchanged a look in surprise. It seemed the magic of cats worked even on such a strict teacher as Mrs. DeGreeze.

The teacher finally reached her desk. She took the chalk and started to write the subject of the lesson on the chalkboard. She had to raise herself on tiptoes just to reach the top of the board. When she finished, she turned to the class.

“Ok, everybody”, she said loudly, “today we will study the elasticity of demand. Cats to the side, please!”

 

“Wow, he so cute!” Ann was excited. “Look, Marissa, he still follows you! So lovely!”

Tanya, Marissa, Dave and Ann who was Tanya’s friend from the Academy’s department of medicine were walking on the road in the park leading to passenger dragons’ stop. The smoky-grey cat was walking near them. From time to time, he overtook Marissa and tried to chafe against her legs. Snow had stopped falling already, and evening sun was slowly descending to the horizon painting the sky into pale pink colors. Orange lights of magical lanterns glowed on lampposts. The spell in them made them light after 5 o’clock automatically – if updated in time, the thing the city’s Administration started to save money on recently. The only thing that prevented this evening from being really great were bursts of strong and cold wind. But then again, the only thing Seinar-Sa was famous for, aside from the Academy of Magic and the Science District on the riverbank near the Mysterious Forest where all sorts of science labs for magical researches were, was that there no matter where you went, you always went against the wind.

“He really likes Marissa”, Dave voiced the obvious. “She is so charming that even cats love her.”

Tanya felt double touch of jealousy. Not only the cat preferred Marissa over her, but Dave was making compliments to Marissa as well! Marissa smiled politely.

“I wonder who his owner is,” she said. “He or she probably is missing him really much now.”

“You think he has an owner?” Dave doubted. “Maybe he walks by himself.”

“Of course he has an owner!” Ann said with passion. “Look how beautiful he is! We should paste up notices about him that if someone lost the cat, contact us!”

“Yes”, Tanya agreed, “and he may live with us until we find his owner.”

“It would be great!” Marissa said. “Could he live with me until his owner found? Do you mind, Mr. Cat?” The cat chafed against her legs in the sign of agreement.

“Do they allow to have pets in your dorm?” Tanya asked wonderingly.

“No, they don’t”, Ms. Cartwright admitted. “But… I have been dreaming about having my own cat for so long…”

“You never had a cat?” Annie was curious.

“No,” Marissa slightly bent her lips. “My parents always were against it. They thought a cat would break and destroy anything in the house.”

“But… but it’s so stupid!” Ann exclaimed in surprise.

“I know,” Marissa smiled with sadness. “But you can’t argue with parents, especially with parents like mine. So… let he live with me for a while, may I?”

“I can’t say for the rest, but the cat seems to be happy with it”, Dave said joyfully. “And, by the way, if this cat is temporally yours, you should give him a name.”

“Yes, let’s give him a name!” Ann even started jumping for excitement. “I suggest to call him Smokey!”

“Smokey?” Tanya tilted her head.

“Yes! Look how smoky he is!”

“Nah, it’s too plain and simple,” Tanya objected. “He needs to have something like… I don’t know…  that sounds great, maybe?”

“Like what?” Annie asked.

“Well, I dunno…” Tanya thought for a moment, “Gandalf?”

“Gandalf?” Marissa was baffled. “Who is this?”

“He’s a famous magician”, Ann explained, “The greatest and the strongest in the Middle-Earth! I’ve read about him in a book. I could give this book to you if you wish.”

“Woof!” Dave said suddenly. Tanya flinched.

“Oh, it’s you!” she said. “You scared me. I thought it was a dog. Why did you bark all of sudden?”

“I just thought it would be a great name for a cat”, her friend explained. “A cat named Woof, huh?”

“Dave!” Tanya rolled her eyes and sighed. Marissa tilted her head slightly and looked at Dave.

“I think”, she said politely, “that the name “Meow” would be more appropriate in this case as corresponding to the cat’s nature and not confusing about the cat’s specimen, wouldn’t it?”

Dave scratched his head, baffled. Tanya laughed.

“No, we aren’t doing this right!” Ann said. “His name should reflect his personality. His distinctive features. I mean, oh…”

“Well, yes,” Dave said, “but all we know about this cat now is that he loves economics and Marissa. We can’t call him Daphne because of that, can we?”

Tanya sighed heavily.

“Ok, then his name should reflect the personality of his owner,” Ann concluded. “Marissa, Marissa… I’ve got it! We shall call him Ruler!”

“Ruler?” Tanya repeated tasting the word. “Huh, why not?”

“I still insist on “Woof””, Dave said quietly. “Or on “Dog””

“Dave!” Tanya thrown an angry glance on him.

“Hey, hey!” Marissa raised her arms as if she gave up, “stop, please! I… well, I’m not ready to give him a name yet. Besides, he most certainly already has one. Can we defer it for a while, please?” She sat down and palmed the cat tenderly. “You don’t mind to be deferred for some time, do you?”

“So he’s Deferred now, huh?” Dave chuckled. “A good name. I guess, it doesn’t matter what name he won’t respond on.”

They stopped on road intersection. The road going to the right was leading to the dragons’ stop Tanya and Dave used to ride home if the weather wasn’t good enough for a long walk – like today. The other one was going to the forest behind the Academy with dozens of forest walks, including the walk to the dorm #2 where Marissa lived. For quite a long time, the Academy didn’t have a dorm, so all the students who came to Seinar-Sa for studying magic from every town and place of the Hourne Kingdom had to rent rooms or houses instead. That was until one rather smart Head of the Academy realized that they could earn money on dorms as well. Oddly enough, the Academy still had only one dormitory despite of “#2” in its title. Probably even the Head himself didn’t know why it was called “#2” and where “#1” were gone.

“I will write a notice about the cat as soon as I come home”, Ann said. “You should write them too. We need to paste them all over the city!”

“Ok”, Dave said. “Why will paste them?”

“I think…” Tanya’s friend from the Department of Medicine started, but was interrupted by Marissa’s “Oh!”

“Look, a dog!” Ms. Cartwright exclaimed, frightened. She made a step to hide behind Dave. A big brown dog without collar was stayed in front of them, near the hole in the fence that students had done to make a shortcut. All went silent. For a couple of second, they and the dog were looking at each other cautiously. Tanya even thought that the dog would go away in a moment. Maybe, it would be like this if not the cat who was still near Marissa. When the dog scented out the cat, it roared and lunged at the cat at full speed.

It happened so fast Tanya didn’t even have a time to reach for her wand. The brown lightning fled near them with barking, and in the next second, they all saw the dog jumping and trying to reach the cat who was sitting on the tree near the road. He was on a tree branch, 6 meters from the ground, hissing on the dog with curved spine. Marissa, full of anger, took a step towards the dog waving her wand like a stick.

“Stop it!” she yelled at the dog. “Out! Out! Bad dog! Bad dog! Go away, go away now!” she stamped. The dog jumped away, looked at Marissa with sadness in its eyes and slowly walked away towards the fence. It smartly decided not to deal with magicians in anger. Marissa looked at it, wand pointed, until the dog walked away far enough. Only after that, she put the wand into the holster on her belt. Her hand was shaking badly.

“Wow”, was the only word Dave was able to say.

Tanya rushed to Marissa.

“Marissa, are you ok?”

“Yeah”, her friend nodded, “I… I’m f-fine.”

“And… the cat?”

“The cat is fine too”, Dave went to them. “Here he is, on the tree” he pointed at the branch. Marissa and Tanya looked upward simultaneously.

“What the hell, Dave!” Tanya exclaimed. “Why did you not scare this dog away? What were you doing, damn you? Marissa could end up harmed because of you!”

“I’m sorry”, Dave said uneasily. “I… I… it was all happened so quickly…”

“This dog could bite Marissa to death. Because of you, Dave!”

“Tanya, Dave, don’t, please,” Ms. Cartwright said quietly. “I’m fine. Let’s think what to do next.”

The cat on the tree branch meowed mournfully.

“We need to take him from the tree somehow,” Ann said.

“Let Dave go there and take the cat,” Tanya crossed her arms on her chest.

“I can’t do it!” Dave shook his head. “It’s good three or four meters to the nearest branch from the ground.”

“But we have to do something, Dave!” Annie exclaimed.

“Do we?” Larsen doubted. “Maybe he will go down by himself?”

“Are you what, never seen cats? How could he come down?!”

“Well, I don’t know”, Dave shrugged, “I’ve never seen dead cats on trees either. That means, they managed to come down somehow.”

“A dead cat would simply fall from the tree”, Marissa said quietly with emotionless voice. “Probably, it is the reason you have never seen them on trees.”

Larsen opened his mouth and shut it immediately. Sometimes he couldn’t understand was Marissa joking or serious.

“What about getting him down with magic?” Tanya offered. “Remember we studied this levitation spell a few weeks ago?” she turned to Dave.

“Yeah, and you broke your favorite teacup in the process”, Larsen reminded.

“That doesn’t count. And I have practiced a lot so now I’m pretty good at this!”

“Oh, well”, Dave said sarcastically, “cats aren’t cups, they can’t be broken.”

Tanya pointed her wand at the cat and exclaimed: “Levity!”

Nothing happened.

Tanya looked at her wand puzzled, then at the cat. “Levity!” she exclaimed again. Now, the only difference from the previous attempt was that the cat meowed.

“What the…” she said, baffled. She lowered her wand and then pointed it at an empty beer bottle lying near the nearest trash can. “Levity!”

The bottle fled up high.

“Aha!” the future great magician exclaimed victoriously. She aimed her wand at the cat, trying to image that the invisible force took the cat from the tree and carefully lowered him to the ground… And nothing happened again.

“Let me try,” Dave said. “I always was better at this.”

Of course, such words couldn’t be left unpunished. After a minute, the cat still was on the tree, and puzzled Dave who had tried the spell on beer bottles, tree branches and a bird flying over them, looked at his wand blankly. It seemed that the spell worked fine on everything but the cat. And it was strange. And weird.

“Do you understand something?” he asked Tanya. She shook her head. “Neither do I. Well, but it couldn’t be that…”

“Hey you!” Ann reminded angrily. “You may not noticing but the cat is still there! Maybe you should stop throwing spells to left and right and try to actually take him down? Like, to go and take a stairway or something.”

“I think there is no need to run for something we can create by magic,” Marissa pointed out. “Tanya, could you? I’m just not good at spells I’ve never practiced before.”

“Ah? Ah, yes, of course!” Tanya aimed her wand at the ground and imagined a wooden stairway made from two long sticks with round steps attached to them by nails. After a minute, the cat was purring happily on Marissa’s arms, and Dave was carrying the heavy stairway and muttering that it would be great if someone invented a spell for annihilating unnecessary things.

When Tanya and Dave had said goodbye to Marissa, Annie and Deferred the cat and was walking to the dragons’ stop, Dave said thoughtfully: “Still, that’s strange. It seems like magic has no effect on this cat.”

“Has no effect?” Ms. D’Air doubted. “Do you think it’s possible?”

“I don’t know” Larsen admitted. “But how else can you explain this?”

Tanya didn’t know as well so she shrugged. In the high sky above them, first evening stars were starting to shine.

 

The department of General Magic had a schedule of classes constructed in such a way that Tanya had to come to the Academy by 8 a.m. almost every day. And Ms. D'Air didn’t like to get up early. She didn’t like that so much that if she met the person who decided to start a work day at 8 a.m, this person would be hurt badly, and the list of battle spells would be increased significantly after that. But, thankfully, there was a Wednesday in the schedule, and in Wednesdays, Tanya’s classes started after lunch. Today was Wednesday, and happy and well-rested Tanya was staying in a small hall near the dean’s office on the first floor and browsing messages on the bulletin board while waiting her friends.

The hall near the dean’s office was among the most popular places in the Academy. A rather small square room in the end of the hallway, with high windows looking at the Merlin’s street, was almost never empty. Here, one could sit on seats near walls and wait for friends, or look at the schedule and messages on the board, or just enjoy the view of the fountain under the transparent dome in the center of the hall. In fact, the fountain was a part of the cooling system of the steam elevator, but this didn’t make the view less exciting. Probably, the only place that could compete with this hall by popularity was the canteen on the second floor.

“Tanya! You most certainly need to hear this!”

The young woman turned to the voice and, as expected, saw Dave Larsen excited by something. A bit less expected was that Marissa Cartwright was staying near him.

“Good afternoon, Tanya”, Marissa tilted her head.

“Hi”, Tanya nodded with a smile. “How’s your car?”

“Sleeping”, Marissa said. “He seems to like my favorite chair very much. It’s good to know that we share love to same things.”

“That’s good”, Tanya said, not knowing what to say.

“You don’t even listen to me!” Dave reminded of himself rather aggrievedly.

“You didn’t say anything either”, Tanya countered. “Not even “Good afternoon, Tanya”, or “Hello, Tanya”, or “How are you, Tanya, you are so beautiful today”.”

“Doesn’t matter”, Larsen said. “So, this cat is really magic resistant! I mean, at all!”

“How is that?” Ms. D’Air asked.

“You can’t do anything magical with this cat. The wand just won’t do that.”

“Wait a minute, how did you determine that?”

“Well,” Dave scratched his head, “I performed some experiments…”

“Wait, what?” the young woman raised her voice. “Did you make experiments on the cat? On the live cat?!”

“Well, yes, what? Calm down, we were doing it with Marissa together”, Larsen assured her. Marissa nodded in confirmation.

“We have tried all the safe spells we could remember”, she explained. “I, Dave, Chen and Mary were taking part.” Chen was her roommate, and Mary was living on the same floor. “We tried every spell on the object of comparable weight and size to the cat for five times. After that, we tried the same spells on the cat. Conclusion: no spells affected the cat.”

“Moreover”, Dave added, “there is a zone around the cat, roughly 1 meter in diameter, that is inaccessible for magic as well. That means, if you put something near the cat, you can’t move this something, or lift, or attack by magic.”

“Wow”, Tanya said. “That’s heavy.”

“Yeah”, Dave agreed, “Wonderful kitty.”

“And there is another thing,” Marissa said, “any magically induced effects would disappear near the cat. Like, if you throw a fireball at him, the fireball will vanish in half a meter distance from him.”

“Please, don’t say that you have tried that in practice!” Tanya exclaimed in horror.

“Of course, we haven’t”, Dave assured her. I just used the spell of rain. We have flooded the whole bathroom but the cat stayed completely dry.”

“Maybe he just repels everything he doesn’t like”, Tanya guessed. “Why do you think it stops the magic?”

“Because after that, I emptied out a bucket of water on him,” Dave admitted.

“What!” Tanya exclaimed and looked at Marissa. “Did you really allowed him?..”

“Well,” Ms. Cartwright shrugged, “water is harmless for cats, and it was an important scientific experiment, so yes, I did allowed him to do that. But don’t worry, the cat hardly will let Dave to approach himself from now on.”

Tanya rolled her eyes.

“So, do you realize what it means?” Dave said excitingly. “It’s the ideal magical shield. I mean, the shield from magic. One hundred percent neutralizer. If one could understand how it works, one could create a magic armor! Imagine what the great discovery would that be!”

Tanya thought for a second. The words “great discovery” and “Dave Larsen” just had never appeared together in her head until this day. But, on the other hand, the enthusiasm and unbounded curiosity of her best friend and the scientific approach and knowledge of Marissa could create a really powerful and dangerous combination.

“Ok,” she said, “what if someone just accelerate a something small by magic, like a coin, and throw it to the cat? Will the cat stop it?”

“Well, we didn’t tested that”, Dave shrugged. “Probably, it won’t, but you will be the first in line to kill me afterwards.”

“Most likely”, Tanya agreed. “Ok. What are you planning to do next?”

“I’d like to have a lunch,” Marissa said. “I can’t stand the theory of magic wands on empty stomach.”

“I was about the cat”, Ms. D’Air specified.

“We don’t know yet”, Dave said instead of Marissa. “It’s obvious that something affects the magic near this cat, but what exactly? But don’t worry, we will think up something”

“This is exactly what worries me in the first place,” Tanya sighed.

 

In the middle of the night, Marissa woke up she didn't knew why.

She opened her eyes and blinked a few times. It was dark in the room, only dim lights of stars and the reflection of the orange lamp attached to the outside wall enlighten the room. The radiator of the heating system was whispering as it was pumping hot water from the boiler room through itself. Marissa's roommate Chen was snoring in the adjacent room. Marissa strained her ears. It had happened before that she was woken up by loud raindrops or a noisy company of drunken second-year students under her window. But now, all was quiet.

She turned to the night table, took her wristwatch from it, caught a weak reflection of light from outside on her watch to look what time it was. 1 a.m.

She felt that the cat jumped on her bed.

“Meow!” the cat climbed on the blanket and started to walk right on Marissa until he reached her face. “Meow!”

“Oh, hi, Meow”, Marissa yawned. She blinked trying to shake off her slumber. “I'm sorry,” she said quietly to not to wake up Chen, “but I want to sleep right now. Maybe we will play tomorrow?”

“Meow!” the cat repeated insistingly.

“Be quiet, you can wake up my roommate!” Marissa whispered. She drawn out her hand out of blanket and stroked the cat. “Do you want something?”

“Mrrr”, the cat confirmed. He looked at Marissa, then to the side. “Meow.”

“You want to eat?” young woman yawned. “Can you wait until tomorrow? I really want to sleep now.”

“Mreow”, the cat looked at his temporary owner expressively. He turned around right on Marissa and jumped to the floor. “Meoow! Meow!”

“Ok, ok,” young woman sighed. “I am getting up.”

She thrown her blanked to the side and put her feet on the floor. She groped her sneakers near the bed. The half-awake part of ms. Cartwright thought that in her night shirt and pants she could pass as a ghost now. She wondered if ghosts had their ghost cats? They never write about that in those horror stories. The part of Marissa who was already awake reminded the other part that, actually, she should think of how to feed the cat, preferably with what could be found in a dorm at one a.m.

“Let's go, Meow,” the young woman said. “Maybe there is something left for you in the kitchen.”

The kitchen was in the end of the hallway, separated from other rooms. There were three stoves, a food crate and – the pride of the section B where Marissa lived – the magical refrigerator. And in that fridge, there very likely could be some sausages for his catness. Marissa came to the door to the hall and put her hand on the door handle, but then she noticed that the cat had sat down near the closet door.

“Let's go,” Marissa invited him as she opened the door to the hallway.

The cat meowed and turned to the closet. He stood up and tried to pull the closet door by his paw.

“You want to take something from there?” Marissa guessed. “Do you want to get dressed for dinner?”

“Mreow!” The cat started scratching the door. “Meow!”

“Okay,” she opened the closet. “Have you hid something here?”

The cat walked into the closet, went to Marissa's coat and rubbed it.

“Do you want me to wear this coat?” the young woman said in surprise. “Do you want to go outside?”

“Purr. Meow!”

“Meow, but it's not a good time for a walk,” ms Cartwright yawned. “I thought you wanted to eat.”

“Meow!” the cat repeated impatiently. He rubbed against the coat, then walked out of the closet and stopped near the door out of the room. “Meow!”

“Oh,” Marissa sighed, “I don't speak cattish. Well, ok,” she put her coat on over her nightshirt. “Let's go, Meow.” She opened the door, and they left the room.

A rather narrow hall was enlighten only by dim service lights. Everything was quiet.  A quiet ticking of the big clock in a stairway hall to the right was the only sound. A small butterfly was circling around one of the magical lights and creating weird shadows on light-brown walls from thin wooden sheets. The dorm at night was quiet, both familiar and a bit scary at the same time. Marissa started to proceed to the main stairways, but the cat had different intentions. She had not even made a step as she noticed that her smokey-gray wonder had already run across almost a half of the hall towards the side stairways and now was waiting for his owner impatiently. Marissa sighed.

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” she said abidingly. A thought came into her mind that probably people were wrong that they were owners of cats. Maybe cats were people’s owners. And that coming outside in her sneakers perhaps wasn’t a good idea. Marissa closed her eyes for a couple of seconds, and when she opened them, the cat was waving his tail staying on the stairway.

The young woman came to her pet. She expected that Meow would run down to the stairway to the street immediately but, to her surprise, the cat was standing still. Maybe he didn’t know how to go down? Marissa sat down to take and lift the cat…

And she froze suddenly. She heard footsteps from the main stairway. There were people coming, at least four of them. Nothing unusual for a day time, but for a night time, that was strange. The dorm’s head usually did inspections alone, most students were sleeping, and the footsteps were too quiet for a company returning from a party. Suspiciously quiet. The cat tensed up as if he expected an attack. The footsteps were becoming closer. Marissa peeped out discreetly. Four men in black raincoats had stopped right in front of her room. The man who was the farthest looked to a card in his hands and nodded. Two men positioned themselves to the sides of the door, and the third one grabbed the door’s handle and pushed it cautiously.

Marissa hid herself back behind a wall. Whoever they were, they hadn’t come with good intentions. She needed to warn the dorm’s head urgently! She made a step down to the stairways, but a sudden thought stopped her right there. Chen! Chen was sleeping there! The young woman reached for her magic wand only to discover that she was only in her coat and nightshirt and she had left her wand in the room. Damn!

She peeped out cautiously for another time. The door to her room was still open. It seemed that the guests in black coats had woken Chen up because Marissa heard “Marissa? Marissa, is it you? Is everything all right?”

“Oh, no,” Marissa groaned in her thoughts, “Don’t. Please, don’t come to them. Please!”

“Marissa? Ow. Who are you? What are you doing here?..”

The next thing Marissa heard was a quiet “Pfff” sound. Then, she heard a weak moan of Chen and a sound of a body falling to the floor.

Marissa flinched back in horror. The fear paralyzed her. She knew she had to run to the dorm’s head, she had to call for help and save Chen. But she couldn’t make herself to do a slightest move. The cat was standing still near her sneakers. Marissa drooped to the floor – her legs refused to keep her staying. She sat down, her hands on her knees, shivering from top to bottom.

She heard footsteps. Men in black raincoats were leaving the room. Marissa leaned on the wall, trying to not breathe, not move, not make a slightest sound that could alert those scary men. The door clapped quietly. The young woman’s heart was beating so loudly that it seemed those men could hear it. What did he come for? What had she done to them? What would they do to her if they noticed her?

The footsteps started to move away, to the main stairway. Marissa waited for a minute then looked at the hall with caution. No one was there. Men in black coats had left the dorm.

Marissa rushed to her room, as fast as it was physically possible in sneakers. She pushed the door hard – it banged against the wall – and stopped narrowly missing the cupboard. Chen was lying on the floor, right in the doorway leading to Chen’s room from Marissa’s one. Her right arm was bent unnaturally under her body, and her blood from a wound on her right shoulder was flowing slowly on the floor.

It was 3 a.m. when Dave Larsen drove his bicycle to the dorm. A three-story  building, usually dark at this time, was enlighten brightly – there was a light almost in every window on the third floor. Trails of tires on white crispy snow looked like pencil marks on a big drawing board. A police dragon with headlights on was staying near the gate. Dave left his bike near the fence and went to the main entrance. The guard on the entrance looked at Dave’s student card with suspicion.

“I’m a friend of Marissa Cartwright,” Dave said.

The lights on the main stairways were all on. Dave passed two men in police uniforms who were thoroughly inspecting steps and banisters. On the third floor a man in brown coat was copying a floor plan into his notebook. Larsen looked at the sections signs and turned to the right. One of the doors in the hallway was open. There was a policeman in blue uniform near it. Dave looked at the door’s card as he was passing through. The card was saying: “Room B-306. Chen Ayami. Marissa Cartwright.”

Tanya was sitting at the window still at the end of the hallway. Her gray coat was lying on her purse nearby.

“Hi, Dave,” she said as she saw him.

“How are Marissa and Chen?” Dave decided not to waste time on greetings.

“They took Chen to the hospital,” Tanya made a pointing gesture. “Ann was with her. Chen has her arm broken, has a concussion and lost a lot of blood. But doctor said she will soon get better. He said it looked like someone had shot her with some kind of gun, like an airsoft one.”

“Ow,” Dave didn’t know what to say.

“Could be worse,” Tanya added. “Luckily, Marissa put a bandage on Chen’s wound as soon as she found her.”

“Indeed,” Dave agreed. “How is Marissa?”

“She’s fine, more or less,” the young woman said. “A police detective is questioning her right now. Poor Marissa… what happened with her is harsh!”

Dave shook his head. Sure, Seinar-Sa wasn’t the safest place on the Homeland. There were some districts where you’d better not to come at night, and some districts where you’d better not to come at all – like in any large enough city. But mostly, living in the former capital of the Hourne Kingdom was peaceful. Dave got used that there was nothing to afraid of in this city, that you could walk on its streets by day and drive by night and not afraid to be robbed or mugged. Especially if you had a magic wand on your belt. There was some sort of a rule – never mess with magician, active or future. Magicians were too important for Homeland, too powerful to bully and too dangerous to risk of becoming a test subject for latest battle spells. That’s why a mere fact that someone had decided to rob an Academy of Magic’s dorm and nearly killed a student in the process seemed unthinkable for Larsen. As if one of the laws of nature just had ceased to exist.

“Is something already known about the attackers?” Dave asked. “Who were they, robbers? What could they possibly look for in Marissa’s room? There is nothing worth stealing anyway!”

Tanya shrugged. But then again, Dave understood as well that it was too early for answers.

“How did they enter the dorm?” he continued to ponder. “There is a magic alarm set everywhere…”

Tanya leaned to her coat and yawned.

“Take your jacket off,” she suggested. “It’s warm here.”

“What? Oh, yeah” Larsen looked at himself and realized that he was still in his jacket. “Thanks”

The kitchen door opened, and a woman in dark-brown suit went out of there. Marissa followed her, still in nightshirt. Poor Marissa hardly had had a time to change clothes tonight. The cat was grasping her shoulders. Marissa was holding him with her right hand tightly as if she was afraid that he could vanish. Her face was very pale, her eyes were red, and it seemed she could collapse in any minute. Tanya jumped from the window still as she saw her friend.

“Marissa! Have they finished questioning? Do they know who these people were?”

Marissa stopped and leaned on the wall.

“The detective said she needed to inspect my room,” she said in blank, emotionless voice. “She said I could return back to my room after that. As if I could…”

“How are you?” Dave asked.

Marissa turned her head and smiled weakly.

“I’m fine. How’s Chen?”

“She’s in hospital,” Tanya answered. “She’ll be fine.”

Marissa lowered her head.

“Poor Chen,” she said quietly. “She… she shouldn’t have…” Marissa looked at Tanya with sudden strength in her eyes. “If I didn’t go with the cat for a walk, she might be…”

“Don’t be silly!” Tanya exclaimed. “If you were there, you would be in hospital now as well as Chen. She’ll be fine. Ann is with her, she knows the best doctors there. Chen will be fine in two days, you’ll see!”

Marissa nodded slowly and sighed.

“I’m sorry, Tanya,” She said. “Thank you for your support.”

“You don’t need to…” Tanya began to speak but Dave interrupted her:

“Wait a minute. Did you say something about going to walk with the cat?”

“Yes,” Ms. Cartwright turned to Dave, with confused look on her face.

“Well, so you suddenly got up in the middle of the night and decided to go outside with the cat and catch a breath of fresh air?”

“Dave!” Tanya frowned.

“No,” Marissa blinked. The cat meowed as if he knew that they were speaking of him. “Oh, I’m sorry, Meow. He waked me up and asked me to go outside. I thought initially that he wanted to eat, but he went to my cupboard and scratched the door. And when I opened it, he asked me to wear a coat. We had reached the side stairways when these people in black coats arrived.”

“He asked you to wear a coat?” Dave repeated in disbelief.

“Well, yes. He was rubbing against it and meowing until I took it.”

“Khm,” Larsen coughed. “Khm.”

“Do you think it wasn’t a coincidence?” Marissa asked him.

“Yes,” Dave confirmed.

“What are you talking about?” Tanya inquired.

“I believe the cat was feeling the danger and decided to take Marissa away,” Dave voiced his hypothesis.

“Dave”, the young magician of E3 rank said with doubt, “are you serious? Cats are clever, but that is certainly too much, don’t you think?”

Larsen shrugged.

“This cat can’t be affected by magic,” he said. “Who knows what else this cat can do. And you know, I wouldn’t be surprised if they actually came for him.”

“For the cat?” Tanya’s eyes got widened. “Well, he’s cute and everything,” she shook her head, “but breaking into the dorm and almost killing Chen – for a cat? Would you kill someone just to steal a cat?”

“To steal this cat? I would.”

Tanya rolled her eyes.

“I always knew one of us is crazy,” she said simply.

 

Wednesday was slowly turning into Thursday. A ruthless sun was raising, painting the sky in frosty pink shades and making clear that no matter how bad was your night, you still have to wake up and go learning in the Academy. The student’s group part of which Marissa, Dave and Tanya were had three classes according to today’s schedule. During the first two of them, Tanya was watching Marissa constantly. But no matter how heavy were the last events for Marissa, she was handling herself extremely well, still focused and polite as usual. One could realize that something had happened to her this night only by her reddish eyes. To say the truth, Tanya was more worried than happy by this attitude of her friend. During every break, the young magician had thoughts of coming to Marissa and cheering her up, or talking with her about something distracting, or asking her how she was feeling. And every time, Tanya wasn’t sure that it wouldn’t make Marissa feel even worse.   

After the end of today’s classes, Dave, Ann and Tanya came to Marissa’s dorm to help Ms. Cartwright – Marissa had asked to live with Tanya temporary, and Ms. D’Air had gladly agreed. The future great magician understood her friend – Tanya wouldn’t want to live alone in the room where her roommate had been almost killed. Dave had found a cargo dragon van with a driver for a good price, and they loaded all Marissa’s stuff in the van – it fitted in but only barely. So Marissa was carrying only the most valuable things – her cat and her collection of postcards from various Homeland’s corners. The cat initially was very curious but soon, he jumped to the driver’s bay and was lying on the driver’s seat until Ms. Cartwright took him away.

“We’ve arrived!” Dave said when the dragon van stopped near the D’Air family’s house. A neighbor dog started to bark almost immediately.

“There are dogs?” Marissa embraced the cat ready to protect him by her body.

“Yes,” Dave said, “in the next house. But don’t be afraid, Buster is a good dog, he doesn’t bite.”

Marissa nodded but didn’t release the cat.

“Tanya, is there someone in your home?”

“Nah”, the young magician replied, “they’ll come only by the evening. They are still at work.”

“Do you live alone? No brothers or sisters?” Ms. Cartwright was curious.

“Yes”, Tanya confirmed. “I have a brother but he’s living in Ark-Traymen now. He moved there last year because there are more work for him. He’s a construction worker.”

“Are you missing him?”

Tanya shrugged.

“A bit, yes,” she admitted. “But he mails us every week via owl post, and he promised to come for Christmas…”

Marissa smiled.

“It must be good to have a brother or sister,” she said. “I don’t. Maybe if I had, my parents wouldn’t be so sad when I moved here.”

“Oh,” Tanya nodded. “Mine would worry very much if I was alone in a foreign city too.”

“That’s another reason,” corners of Marissa’s lips lowered a bit to form a sad smile. “My dad was against my studying in the Academy of Magic. He said that only stupid people would study what they don’t have abilities and talent for. Well, he has a point, but… if you have a dream, don’t you need to make every possible effort to achieve it? Don’t you need?..”

Tanya said nothing. She simply didn’t know what to say. Yes, Marissa hardly could become a skillful magician like Dave or Tanya herself. The “W” rank usually meant that a person of that rank could perform only easiest spells, like levitation or creation of simple things – not complicated ones like magical clocks or bicycles. For “W-ranks”, it was next to impossible to create a “scripted” magic, next to impossible to perform some spells without training. Tanya and Dave could make a spell on the fly just by imagining in details what they wanted to get – but not Marissa. However, Marissa’s abilities could be limited, but she was still a magician. A magician people needed. All in all, fighting enemy armies singlehandedly, building bridges in one night and making wonders aren’t needed that often. There should be someone to make flowerpots and to lower cats from trees as well.

Marissa noticed Tanya’s musing, and a cheerful smile replaced the sad smile on her face.

“Well, let’s unload the van,” she said. “Would you help me?..”

When the van was unloaded, all Marissa’s things were moved to their new places in the house, Larsen gave money to the driver and the cat chose his new favorite chair, Tanya went outside to say goodbye to Larsen. They stopped in front of an old roughly made bench near the entrance gate. The dragon van had already gone away, evening streets were empty, and only dogs’ barking somewhere far away was breaking silence of the night.

“Do your parents know that Marissa will live with you?” Dave asked. Every his word was turned into the frosty steam – this night was surprisingly cold.

“Not yet,” the young woman answered.

“Hmm,” Dave said. “I hope they’ll like her. Otherwise, where she will live? Not in my place, for sure.”

“Of course, they will like her,” Tanya said in “don’t be silly” mode, “she’s grown up, calm and safe for the environment. Your exact opposite, to sum up.”

“Your parents seem to like me,” Dave said aggrievedly.

“Yes,” Tanya confirmed, “and it’s the only reason they still bear with you.”

“Why do you always so judiciary of me?” Tanya’s friend inquired.

“I don’t know,” the young woman sighed, “It somehow happens by itself. Are you going home now?”

Dave nodded. Tanya smiled, made a step towards Larsen and adjusted his hat so it now covered both of his ears.

“That’s better,” she said. Dave raised his eyebrows. “I don’t want you to catch a cold or get your ears frozen,” the young magician explained. “It’s cold now.”

“Wow, really, she takes care of me,” Larsen said sarcastically. “The world goes mad.”

Tanya laughed.

“Now it’s you who judiciary of me,” she said with a smile. “We are a great couple, aren’t we?”

“Maybe”, Dave smiled in return. “Well, I must go. You and Marissa should have many things to do. See you tomorrow?”

“See you tomorrow,” the young woman nodded. “What do you thing, will it be as cold tomorrow as today?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. Are there anybody who can predict tomorrow weather?”

“I wonder, if it’s possible to predict a weather,” Tanya said. “If it is, I’d like to know how.”

“I think it isn’t.” Dave replied. “Except, perhaps, to roll a dice: 1 – sunny, 2 – rainy, 3 – snowy… 6 – catsy and dogsy.”

“And what would this dice predict for tomorrow?” Tanya asked.

“13, I suppose. It’s Friday!”

 

Dave was wrong. The Friday started as a wonderful day: warm, sunny, without any trace of winds. Seinar-sa covered with snow looked unusually clean and beautiful. Even the Academy’s park looked better than it really was. At least, snow hid all the garbage and litter that student had thrown out. The first three classes before the lunch break were flawless as well – without any surprising tests or homework checking. Tanya and Marissa had even went to the canteen on the second floor before a huge line of hungry students was formed. There was only one class to live through – math with its limits, differentials, integrals and theorems with unpronounceable names.

By the way, talking of math…

“Dave, do you know where the room 4-220 is?” Tanya asked looking at her notebook with a pencil in her hand. She thought she had been in every room in the Academy during last three months. However, she was sure she had never been in the room 4-220.

“Somewhere in the section 4, obviously,” Dave shrugged.

“Well, and where is the section 4?”

“I don’t know, near the section 3?”

Marissa stood up, her chair rattling with its legs on the floor, and carefully took the dinner tray with her tea glass and dish from the table.

“I take your trays?” she offered to her friends.

“Dave, can you be serious for once?” Tanya exclaimed not noticing Marissa. “How can the section 4 be near the section 3? It’s against the Academy customs!”

“Well, ok, then it should be near the section 12,” Dave stood up and took his tray from the table. “I take yours, ok?” he took Tanya’s tray as well.

“We don’t have the section 12!” Tanya exclaimed. She closed her notebook, attached her pencil to it and put to her purse. “Gosh,” she said when her friends carried their dishes to the table for used trays and returned to their table, “why do we need math anyway? What it has to do with magic?”

“Well, maybe, you’ll want to calculate the right acceleration for lifting teacups in the air, so they won’t break down?” Dave gave her a wink. “You’ll compute the speed, take a first derivative…”

“Wait, isn’t it physics?” Tanya asked confusingly. Then, she exclaimed “Anyway! Math, physics, magical statistics… I went here to study magic, not derivatives and supply and demand curves! I’ve learned more spells by myself than at classes during last months! Why do we have all these unnecessary courses?!”

They went outside the canteen and proceed to walk down the hallway.

 “I think,” Marissa said softly, “that people who created this schedule wanted that you know something more than just magic. Maybe you won’t ever need a knowledge of math or physics in your life, but you will know what the laws of the nature are and how it works. You are the magicians, the future elite of your kingdom. People who will take important positions and will make important decisions. You have to have a good general education for that, not just knowledge of right spells.”

“Oh”, Tanya was slightly embarrassed, “I never thought about that. Wait, you said “you”? Why? You are the future magician as well!”

Corners of Marissa’s lips raised in a smile.

“I’m a foreigner,” she said. “I hardly will have an important position and make important decisions. I’m just and observer here, for my own fun and pleasure.”

Tanya looked at Marissa with curiosity. She recalled that her friend had graduated one university already, the one where math and physics must be much harder than here, in the Academy.

“Hey!” Larsen, who was behind the girls now, exclaimed. Tanya stopped and saw Dave staying near a red fire hose box and pointing at a some sort of scheme on the wall. “Have anyone asked where the room 4-220 is?”

“Have you found it?” the young magician asked in surprise.

“He has found the floor plans,” Marissa said. She came to Larsen. “Oh, where it is.”

“Yes, I have found it,” Dave smiled proudly. “Once again, the world was saved by great Dave Larsen. Glory to Dave Larsen, that means, me! You should agree, Tanya, that sometimes I am crucial for our success, don't you think?”

“I think we should go faster if we want to get there in time,” Marissa said as she was looking at the floor plans.

For a long time, the pentagon building of the Academy was the largest in the whole kingdom. And, despite having lost this status since The Theater House in Ark-Traymen was built, the Academy still undoubtedly was the building with the most confusing floor plans. Only here the second floor could turn into the third without a warning, two parallel halls could lead into completely different ends of the Academy, a stairway leading to the third floor could have no exit to the second one, and the shortest path from the room 1-310 to 1-312 could go through stairways because there was a solid wall between these rooms without any doors in it. And only in the Academy, there were two rooms with the number 212 but no one with a number 210. Maybe all that were intended from the very beginning to confuse enemy spies, conquerors and thieves, but more likely, constant repairs and reconstructions were the real reasons for that.

Tanya and Marissa were following Dave who seemed to remember the path to the section 4 quite well. He was always good at that kind of things.

“I saw Ann this morning,” Tanya said when they turned into another dark hallway leading somewhere into the deepest part of the building. “She visited Chen at the hospital yesterday.”

“And...” Marissa took a pause before continuing, “how is she?”

“They applied a healing spell on her arm yesterday!” the young magician said. “Now all she needs is a good rest. Ann said Chen will be fine in one week, maybe in two.”

“That's good,” Marissa said quietly. She clearly was thinking about something sad.

“Something wrong?” Tanya asked.

“Nothing. I'm just still thinking...”

“You shouldn't blame yourself for what happened with Chen,” the young magician assured her friend. “These people in black coats did all that. I think,” she added cheerfully to distract Marissa from sad thoughts, “we should visit Chen today. After the math class. What do you think?”

“Count me in,” Dave said. “And we should bring her something tasty as a present”

“What about you, Marissa?” Tanya looked at her friend. Marissa nodded modestly.

“All right!” Tanya exclaimed. “Let's do this!”

There was five sections in the Academy, and each section kind of corresponded to one of the pentagon's sides. Kind of, because, due inner planning, some sections took some parts of “wrong” walls, or had complicated borders, or even intersected each other. Moreover, the small pentagon in the geometric center of the building was not a part of any section – there were rooms for the Academy's Head office, accounting department, archive and other departments that made the Academy run. The room 4-220 was in the very end of the 4th sector, near the passage to the 5th sector and a stairway leading to somewhere below, into the basement. Magical lights didn't work there for some reason, so the hall was lighten only by dim lights from the windows of the adjacent sector. When Dave, Tanya and Marissa came to the door, there was still no one near it. It seemed, not only they had the problem with navigation.

“Here it is,” Dave said after looking at the door sign. “Where is other students?” He pulled the door handle, but the door was locked. “Maybe we are late?..” He looked at his wristwatch.

“Miss Marissa Cartwright?”

Marissa and Tanya turned around, frightened. A male voice, soft but full with hidden power, wasn't promising anything good. Four tall men in black coats went from the stairway and surrounded the three students. They stayed in such a way that they blocked all ways for retirement. Three of them were holding guns pointed at young magicians.

“Holy...” Tanya said. She put her hand and the magic wand on her belt, ready to draw it in a second. Marissa froze on the spot, feared to make a move. Dave made a step forward to hide her behind his back.

“Who are you?” he asked. “What do you want?”

The leader of the men in black coats made a step out.

“We are here to speak with Miss Cartwright only. Others may go free.”

“We won't leave Marissa,” Dave shook his head. “To speak about what?”

“She has something that is a government property. She must return it back immediately.”

“Government property?” Dave and Tanya exchanged glances. “What do you mean?”

“I think, they mean the cat,” Marissa raised her head, with strong will in her eyes. “You want Meow, right?”

“We need the cat,” the black leader confirmed. “If you give it to us, nobody will be hurt.”

“Nobody will be hurt?!” Tanya exclaimed with anger. She leaned forward, her fists clenched, as if she was ready to attack. “Are you treating us?! It was you who attacked Chen yesterday, was it, you bastards!”

“Tanya, calm down, please,” Dave extended his arm so it blocked the way for Tanya now. “Why do you need this cat? Can you prove you are his owners?”

“This cat is a property of government,” the man in black coat repeated. “If you don't return it voluntarily, it will lead to serious consequences for you. You can be charged with espionage, Miss Cartwright. Do you know what it will mean for you?”

“How can we know that you aren't spies yourself?” Dave asked. “Can I see your papers?”

The leader of the black coats smiled.

“Sure,” he drew a small piece of cardboard with blue cover from his coat's inner pocket and showed it to Dave. Larsen leaned forward trying to read the text. The text near the black-and-white portrait of an owner said, “Magical Security. Maclean, Frederic John. Special agent, department D.”

“Are you happy now?” the special agent said.

“Khm”, Dave coughed. He didn't expect they actually showed him their authentications. “What do you think, Tanya? If the cat is really a government property...”

“They can go to hell!” Tanya exclaimed. “They should thank God they are from government, otherwise I would...”

“Tanya, don't,” Marissa said quietly.

“Don't stop me!” Tanya raised her voice. “They almost killed Chen yesterday! They have to answer for that!”

“You can be charged with espionage too, young miss,” agent Maclean said. “It's from 20 years to life in prison.”

“Yeah? And what should you get for attempting murder, 120?” Tanya answered back angrily.

“Well,” Dave said, “We are sorry but we are busy now. We have the math class to go. We'll consider your information and make a decision a bit later, ok?”

A cruel smile appeared on agent Maclean's face.

“You still don't get it, do you? You have only two choices. Either you give us the cat, or tell us where it is now.”

“A donut hole is what you'll get!” Tanya exclaimed and drew her magic wand. Dave sighed. In a split second, three agents in black took a shooting position and pointed their guns on Tanya.

“You shouldn't have done this,” Maclean said softly.

Dave's magic wand appeared in his hand like from nowhere.

“Disarm!” he exclaimed the spell that would take guns from the men in black coats and throw it away. Dave had repeated this spell for thousand times during the self-defense trainings, and every time it worked flawlessly. But not this time. This time, the guns in agent's hands didn't even flinched. Dave looked at his wand in surprise before he realized...

“For your information, magic won't affect us,” the black leader confirmed. “So stop act like children and tell us where is the cat.”

Behind Larsen, Marissa put her hand on her RIEM badge.

“Well, what if we take the cat to the city hall and leave it there?” Dave tried to gain some time. “They will give him to his owners.”

“No. You are wasting our time. You'd better cooperate with us, or we can stop to be polite. So, for the last time, where is the cat?!”

“What is his name?” Marissa said unexpectedly. She was tossing the badge with her right hand nervously. Maclean turned to her, surprised.

“What?”

“I didn't have a chance to know what his real name,” Marissa explained. “He must have a really beautiful name.”

“You are joking? Don't...” the agents' leader started to say. Suddenly, the badge Marissa tossed stopped in the highest point of its trajectory and fled towards agent Maclean with incredible speed. A loud bang, as if something just blew up, occurred. There was only a few meters between Marissa and the special agent, so the small metal circle of the badge didn't reached the full speed – but even then, it made a hole in Maclean's left shoulder and fled towards the stairways. The leader of agents screamed and collapsed on the floor, his hand put on the bleeding wound.

They were good, those agents in black coats. It took a bit more than a second for them to recognize what had happened and to act accordingly. But they still were late. Before they could aim and shoot at Marissa, a wall of thick black smoke appeared from nowhere between them and three students. Men in black coats could have a protection from magic, but it still couldn't change that they weren't able to see through a smoke.

“Dave, the door!” Marissa ordered.

Larsen nodded and aimed his magic wand at the classroom's door. A small magic fireball hit the door, and the part of it where the lock was disappeared in a flash. Dave pushed the now unlocked door with a kick.

“Tanya, here!” Marissa shouted. “Hurry up!”

Tanya rushed towards the classroom's entrance. They really needed to act quickly. Their enemies were just in few meters away from them, and men in black coats wouldn't stay still. Marissa was first to run into the classroom, Tanya was second. Dave was guarding the door. He just made a step towards the entrance when a breach in the wall of smoke appeared. First special agent was running towards them, and his magic protection was dissolving the smoke created by Marissa. Larsen jumped into the room and managed to almost close the door before the agent caught him. The man in black coat blocked the door with his shoulder. Dave leaned on the door with his full weight but it was really hard to stand against a trained special agent – the gap was slowly increasing by every second. It was clear that without help, Larsen wouldn't stand much longer. Without thinking, Tanya grabbed her purse from her shoulder and swung it towards the enemy's face. The hit was almost perfect. The man in black coat screamed and instinctively put his hand on his now bleeding nose. This was enough for Dave to pushed the door and close the gap. Knowledge can be a really serious power, especially if there are a few kilograms of it.

Meanwhile, Marissa managed to move the closest desk to the door. Dave made a step back, and the young woman pushed the desk so it slammed against the door and blocked it. Dave quickly moved another desk and positioned it behind the first one.

“Well,” he said examining an improvising barricade while the special agents was hitting the door trying to open it. The door was shattering as well as the desks but for now, they were standing still. “For some time, it'll block them. Good job, Marissa, I didn't know you can do the smokescreen.”

“It was much like the rain spell,” Ms. Cartwright said.

“What did happen with that... leader one?” Tanya asked. She looked at Marissa and finally noticing something. “And where is your badge?”

“Oh,” her friend tilted her head slightly, “I just remembered I'm really good at magical acceleration. I think, now we know what would happen with this cat if someone thrown a magically accelerated coin at him. Nothing good.”

“But... the badge?” Tanya said, still confused.

Marissa waved her hand as if throwing something away.

“I don't think there is anything left from it,” she said.

Dave who was moving another desk and putting it on top of the first ones, finally finished his job and returned to the women.

“You can discuss this later,” he said. “Now, we must decide what we will do next. Marissa, what have you had in mind?”

Marissa opened her eyes wide.

“Well,” she admitted, “I just thought we can stay here until the teacher and the other students will arrive.”

“I doubt we can stay here that long,” Dave shook his head. “And besides, I don't think they can save us from arrest.”

“Oh,” Marissa said.

“Then, what should we do?” Tanya asked, with fear in her voice.

Marissa looked around. She hoped that there could be another door, or fire exit, or something. But in the classroom, there were only desks in rows with two narrow passages between them, a blackboard with pieces of chalk on its bottom, couple of cupboards near walls and large windows with winter forests seen through them.

The agents behind the door stopped hitting it. For a moment, there was an uneasy silence. Then, Tanya heard gunshots. The men in black started shooting at the door in order to damage it enough to break.

Dave walked to the windows. He stand on his tiptoes, put his hand on the window still, looked down...

“Damn,” he said. “Too low!”

Marissa turned her head and looked at Dave confusingly. They were on the second floor of the Academy, ten meters above the ground, and there was only plain wall without any fire stairways or rain-pipes and nothing to break the fall down there. Too low?

“Well, let's try,” Dave said and opened the window. A cold wind burst into the room. “Tanya, are you ready?”

“Ah? Oh, yes,” Tanya nodded. She came to Larsen and climbed on the window still. She put her left hand in Larsen's and turned to Marissa. “Come on!”

“Huh?” Marissa raised her eyebrows. It seemed that those two knew what they were going to do, unlike her. “Are you what, going to jump??”

“Yes,” Tanya nodded. Gunshots became louder – there were a lot of rather large chipped holes in the door already. “Hurry up!” She lend Marissa her hand.

“Are you nuts?” Marissa exclaimed. “No way!”

“Do you trust us?” Dave asked.

“No!”

“Then just grab my hand and jump!” He climbed down from the still and grabbed Marissa's arm.

“Aw!” Marissa said and pulled out her hand from Larsen's grab. “I don't want suicide!”

“Neither do we,” Dave assured her.

Marissa looked at him. The door behind them was cracking louder and louder.

“Just promise we'll be safe,” the young woman said quietly.

Dave smiled tenderly.

“I promise,” he said. “Now, let's go.”

Marissa nodded. She climbed on the still and put her hand in Tanya's one. Marissa looked down and closed her eyes involuntarily.

“Hey,” Dave joked, “you know, from all of us, only I have a right to be afraid of heights!” He lend Marissa his right hand. “On three...”

Behind them, the desk that was staying on top of the other ones fell down on the floor with loud sound. The men in black finally managed to break the door and were ready to break in.

“One, two, three,” Larsen shouted. “Jump!”

Marissa felt that her arms were pulling down, and in the next second, she realized that she was already in the air, falling. She didn't even have a time to get scared. An invisible force slowed down their fall and gently put them on the ground. Not expected it, Marissa leaned forward from the momentum and barely stood on her feet.

“Everybody's alive?” Dave asked, breathing heavily. Tanya nodded. “Then run!” he ordered. Two floors above, one of the men in black leaned out of the window. “Run!” Dave had to yank Marissa's arm to make her come to life.

The window they had jumped out was on the wall of the 5th sector. The forest was in a few hundred meters from it, not even separated from the Academy's park by anything – maybe, because the forest in fact was the part of this park. Dave was running towards the forest without thinking, pulling the young women with him. His boots were slipping on half-melted and turned into ice as a result snow. It was dangerous now to stay near the Academy. Even if those men in black coats who were in the classroom on the second floor now couldn't get down quickly enough, there could be much more of them in the building. In the forest, with hundreds of forest walks and trees blocking the direct view, it would be much easier to drop them and hide. However, to get there, three students had to run a few hundred meters across the open space and not get a bullet. Dave wonder how much was the effective distance of those guns? Twenty meters? Fifty? One hundred?

Behind him Marissa lost her footing and almost fell down, saved only by Tanya's arm. Dave felt that someone yanked him and it made him miss a step. Strangely, the men in black hadn't shoot at them yet. Maybe they were bad marksmen – but more likely, were afraid to kill their targets on that distance, because dead students would hardly tell them where the cat was. Dave looked back on the run and saw an agent closing the window. Other agents, most likely, were already running downstairs.

“Hurry up!” Larsen shouted.

Dave, Tanya and Marissa had run almost the whole distance. Only a few dozens of meters or so were between them and the forest. Gloomy blackening branches of trees were becoming closer and closer with every step. Dave's heart was beating so loudly that, it seemed, could be heard in miles. Larsen jumped over a snow pile to do a shortcut, and some snow got dropped in his boots – a cold ice burnt his leg. They had run into the forest already. The footpath they were following was branched into another three, and Dave chose the one that was leading deeper into the forest. He didn't know where this path was leading, but it didn't matter now – they needed to go as far from the men in black's view as possible. Snow in the forest was deep, their boots were falling in it at every step, and Dave's lungs desperately were asking for more air even though he was breathing fast and heavily, but Larsen still was running and still was pulling Tanya and Marissa with him. Only when the Academy's building stopped to be seen through trees, he stopped.

For quite a long time, they were just staying, leaning on cold trees with their backs, breathing heavily.

“Fuh,” Tanya finally broke the silence. “That was...”

Dave strained his ears. From what he could hear, nobody was following them. They were safe.

“Yeah,” he said. “Much ado about the cat.”

Marissa shivered from cold. Only now, she realized that her warm coat was still in the wardrobe of the Academy. So was Tanya's, and Dave's jacket. All that were on them were their trousers, shirts and ivory-colored sweaters with the Academy's emblems.

“Khm”, she coughed, “what do you think, returning back for our clothes is a very bad idea? Or just a bad one?”

 

The cafe was quiet. Beams of the setting sun were coming through thick dark-orange curtains. A fire in the oven was spitting calmly. A smoke from burning logs was mixing with smell of something yummy cooked in the kitchen. A black-and-white portrait of Arthur Hourne above the entrance door was looking imperturbably at the almost empty dining room. An old man in brown vest and checkered shirt was sitting at the table in a corner and drinking his coffee. A waitress was cleaning a green tablecloth on the table next to him with a wiper. Except them, Tanya and Marissa were the only people in the cafe.

Tanya poured some tea in her teacup with a picture of a blue raccoon – the mascot of the cafe – on it from the teapot. She warmed her hands with the cup.

“Ugh,” she shivered, “I still can't warm up. It's cold!”

Marissa tilted her head slightly. She thought it was obvious that if you had a half-hour run in a cold weather without coat or jacket to the nearest cafe, you would become cold. She also thought that saying obvious things was silly. So the young woman just said nothing and made a sip of a burning hot coffee from her cup.

“I'm thinking, how is Dave now?” Tanya said as she was stirring up sugar in her cup. “I hope he hasn't got frozen.”

“He took a ride in a passenger dragon, I suppose,” Marissa said. “They have warm cabin, so he shouldn't become cold.”

“I hope so,” the young magician nodded. Tanya made a sip and barely kept herself from spitting it back. “Ouch! It's hot!”

Marissa sighed. For Ms. Cartwright, it was obvious that the tea in the teapot brought just a minute ago from the kitchen would be very hot. So if you don't like a hot tea, you should take some precautions... or don't complain about a tongue burnt.

Marissa had never been in this cafe before, as well as Tanya. They had come here just because they had needed a place to warm up, and this cafe was the first place they saw after they had went out of the forest. Personally, Marissa would prefer a clothes shop, but she had nothing against the cafe either. Besides, she liked the coffee they made here: strong, hot, flavorful.

Dave didn't stayed in the cafe. He went straight to the Tanya's house to take Marissa's cat. They had to take the cat before those men in black coats would reach him. That meant – as soon as possible. If they got lucky, Dave would arrive to the Tanya's house and take the cat and wouldn't be caught by Magical Security. If they didn't get lucky... well, it would better not to think about it. Dave had left the cafe ten minutes ago, the road to the house of Ms. D'Air would take about 30 minutes. So they had to wait an hour at best in abeyance.

“It looks like you haven't even noticed the cold...” Marissa heard.

“Ah?” she flinched slightly. “Ah... I'm from north, from Deimur-Town. We have rather cold winters.”

“I see,” Tanya nodded. “You know, for me, this winter is too cold. Usually, we have snow only by Christmas, and it melts very quickly after that. I can't imagine how someone could live in winters colder than that!”

“Well,” Marissa smiled slightly, “we have warm clothes and central heating. That's usually enough.”

“Tell me about Deimur-Town,” the young magician asked. “Is it beautiful?”

“Yes,” Marissa answered.

There was a silent pause for about a second.

“That's all?” Tanya said rather disappointingly when she realized that her friend wouldn't continue.

“Do you want something else?” Marissa asked.

“Well, I don't know... I thought you would tell me how it looks like, about its landmarks... where did you live, where did you study... That kind of things.”

Marissa tilted her head forward and scratched her nose.

“Well,” she said, “it's much easier to show than to tell, actually. There should be some postcards with views of Deimur-Town in my collection. I can show them to you when...” she interrupted herself. “If we return home.”

Now, the pause was much longer.

“Or you can visit me in my town and I'll show you everything,” Marissa finally added trying to sound cheerfully.

“I don't think they will allow me to enter there,” Tanya sighed. She put her cup on the table. “Our kingdoms are kind of in a cold war, you know. And I'm now is sort of a foreign spy,” she chuckled joylessly.

Marissa took another sip of coffee.

“Well, this confusion will be solved, sooner or later,” she said. “We were acting in self-defense, after all.”

“Do you really think they would care?” Tanya said. “It doesn't matter what really has happen, it matters only what Magical Security thinks about it. They are like teachers, if you have said or done something against them, you will be their enemy for life.”

“Even if you are the future great magician?” Marissa inquired.

“What, Dave has told it to you too?” Tanya muttered.

“Well, it isn't hard to guess,” Marissa smiled, “just by observing what you can do with magic... By the way, how did you jump from the second floor and didn't get harmed?”

“Ah, it is not that hard,” the future great magician said. “Dave just imagined that when we jumped, we would be slowed down by some sort of air cushion. Much like the levity spell, only applied on ourselves.”

“I see,” Marissa nodded. “So it was a triggered spell, right?”

“No, no, just a deferred one. It's much easier to do than triggered, but requires a very precise timing.”

“Aha, that's why he said “Too low”.” Marissa paused, then added. “You should have told me that before I jumped.”

“Well...” Tanya shrugged, “it is safe enough. Dave has shown it to me a couple of times.”

“Ah,” Marissa said. “Looks like Dave is as good at magic as you.”

“Actually, he's probably better magician than me now,” Tanya admitted.

Marissa smiled and took another sip of coffee.

The waitress arrived with ordered dishes. She put a dish with a salad with rather complicated name near Marissa, went round the table and gave Tanya a tureen with a chicken soup.

“May I ask?” Tanya said when there was nothing left of her soup. “If you... if you didn't move here, what would you do?”

“Hm?” Marissa stopped to eat her salad and looked at her friend.

“I mean...” Tanya said, rather embarrassed, “You have graduated from the university, right? If you hadn't decided to study magic, what would you do after graduation? What would your plans be?”

Marissa tilted her head to the left side slightly.

“If I didn't move to here... I don't know. Would be working on steam locomotives or something, most likely.”

“Working on what?”

“Steam locomotives. It is... well...” she laughed uneasy, “don't know how to explain. Well,” she briefly looked up at the ceiling, “it's something like a dragon van, only a mechanical one, which uses steam to move. They have built a railway for those steam engines in our kingdom, it was opened last year. Before that, it took almost a week to go from Well-Castle to Deimur-Town. Now, it's only twelve hours.”

“Wow!” Tanya was impressed. “And you can create this steam... machine?”

“Locomotive. No, not create, just design. It's my specialty, after all, a railroad engineer.”

“Wow!” Tanya said again. “Still, it's awesome! But... why have you decided to leave? These machines sound so interesting!”

A bitter smile appeared on Marissa's face.

“Well, I don't think it would be interesting for me,” she said. She noticed a surprised expression of her friend and explained, “You see, designing parts and things is not what I'm really into. It's not my thing.”

“Wait, but you are...”

“I'm not saying I couldn't handle this. I was studying the art of engineering for three years, after all. I could become not a bad engineer, maybe even a good one. But it wouldn't deliver me a pleasure, that's all.”

“And... magic?”

“Oh, magic I like for sure,” Marissa replied with passion. “Doesn't matter that I still can do not very much of it, I have a lot of pleasure when I'm doing it. I understand that I could never jump from the second floor or create deferred spells and complicated things like you and Dave can. I understand that my abilities are limited. But it's what I want to do, and it all that matters.”

“Well, deferred spells are not that hard...” Tanya begun to say but quickly interrupted herself. “Oh, sorry, I didn't mean...”

Marissa looked at her friend inquiringly. Tanya blushed slightly.

“Uh, I mean... I mean... Maybe when I say that about spells... Maybe you feel uncomfortable or...” She was embarrassed.

“Oh, no, not at all,” Marissa reassured her with a smile. “I understand how hard things that you or Dave can do are. And when you understand what it really takes to do something, you are becoming a professional. So it's all right.”

“Well, if you say so...” Tanya replied uneasily. One could say by her face that she wasn't really convinced by Marissa's words.

The waitress appeared silently and replaced dishes with new ones: hot-pot for Marissa and spaghetti for Tanya.

The rest of their dinner had passed in silence. Tanya couldn’t help but think of what had happened a hour ago near the room 4-220. She didn’t know if they did a right think. They attacked agents of Magical Security and therefore became criminals. She herself, Marissa, Dave… Marissa was, actually, in a better position because she could return to her home kingdom where Magical Security had no power. But what about Tanya and Dave? What should they do? What if those men in black coats had found out their identities – it wasn’t that hard, they just needed to look up for their files in the Academy’s archive – and had caught Dave already? What if those agents were waiting for Tanya and Marissa near the café? Tanya was trying not to think of those sad things, but was failing every time.

Marissa didn’t have such thoughts. She was simply enjoying her food and coffee.

When the waitress went for the check, Marissa took her wallet from her purse and put a rather big pack of folded banknotes on the table. She started to count them. Tanya looked at her friend with puzzlement.

“I am counting them to know if we have enough to pay,” Marissa explained.

“I see, but maybe, you shouldn’t do this that openly.”

“There is nobody here,” Marissa shrugged.

“Still, who knows…” Tanya said. “Of all things, we want to meet robbers the least.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” her friend agreed. “The more so I don’t have any badges left.” She finished counting and put money back to her wallet. “I think there is enough money to pay the bill here.”

“Yes,” Tanya remembered, “the badge… The agent that you wounded with it… you didn’t killed him, right?”

Marissa’s face became deadpan instantly.

“If I remember it correctly, I hit him in his shoulder.”

“So? It’s not deadly, is it?”

“It’s very painful, at least,” Marissa said coldly. Tanya stared at her. “What? I don’t care if he’s alive or not.”

“What do you mean, you don’t care? He’s a human!”

“So what? They didn’t care about the life of Chen, I don’t care about theirs.”

“But it’s not right!”

“Why?”

Tanya rolled her eyes and looked angrily at her friend.

“Because it’s not right!”

“Oh, I haven’t got fully used to the fact that there is no such thing like reasonable explanation in the world of magicians,” Marissa said sarcastically. “Ok, I hit him in his shoulder. The main danger for him is a blood loss. If someone put a bandage on his wound, he will live. If not, it depends. Do you feel better now?”

“Better?!” Tanya sprang on her feet and put her hands on the table. “Better?! Not only that if you killed him then we are criminals now, but you also don’t even care about it! How can you be so dead-hearted?”

“I thought we would be considered criminals in any case,” Marissa crossed her arms on her chest.

“There is a difference between to be considered and to be!” Tanya said with passion.

“Even then, it is me who is a criminal, not you.”

“That’s not the point!”

“It seems I have missed all the fun again,” they heard a familiar man’s voice behind. Marissa and Tanya turned to the voice synchronously. A man who was staying near the table, in a short green woman’s coat and with a large bag in his hands, was Dave Larsen.

“O, hi, Dave,” Marissa said as if nothing happened. “We just have been discussing… something. And found out that I and Tanya have different views on some things.”

“I hope, not on me?” Larsen joked.

An awkward silence was the answer. Tanya slowly sat down back at her seat.

“How are you?” finally, she asked. “Are you all right? Didn’t get frozen? Didn’t they notice you?”

“Have you taken the cat?” Marissa added.

Tanya threw an angry glance at her.

“Is it all that you care about? Only your cat?”

“Well, you have asked all the rest questions, haven’t you?” Marissa said politely.

“Girls…” Dave sighed. “I’m fine, the cat seems to be fine too. He is in the bag, I had to put him there and close the bag so he wouldn’t escape. I also took your coats. And, Tanya… don’t you mind that I took your coat for myself too? It’s a bit cold outside.”

“Of course I don’t,” Tanya laughed. “You look so cute in it!”

“Really?” Dave said. He removed his coat, put it on a chair and took a sit near Tanya. He opened the bag. The cat jumped out of it instantly, meowed angrily and jumped at Marissa’s knees.

“We should discuss what we will do,” Dave said. “We can’t go home, it’s the first place where they will be looking for us. So, the task number one: find the place we can stay overnight. The task number two: find the way to get out of this situation. Any ideas?”

Tanya looked at Marissa but quickly turned back so Marissa wouldn’t notice it.

“A hotel?” Marissa suggested.

“We have only one hotel in Seinar-Sa,” Dave objected. “They will find us there without any problems, let alone it is very expensive.”

“Maybe we can ask our friends?” Tanya said without much confidence, though. “Say, Ann? She won’t refuse.”

“Well, after they will find out who we are, they will certainly check our friends,” Dave reminded.

“Oh, well, maybe you have a better idea?” Tanya inquired rather angrily.

“Actually, I have one,” Larsen said.

“Well, well,” Marissa leaned forward. “What is it?”

“We can try to spend a night in the Academy. Say, in the library. Or in a classroom.”

“Dave!” Tanya exclaimed in disappointment.

“What? It’s the last place where they will look for us!”

“He has a point, actually,” Marissa admitted.

“And how will you break in the Academy? Where will you get keys? What will we do when teachers find us in the morning?”

“Well, I agree that my plan can have a few weak points,” Dave said.

“A few? It is full of weak points, Dave!”

“Everyone is a critic,” Larsen muttered. “Listen, maybe we should give them the cat and forget about it?”

Both Tanya and Marissa stared at him as if he said something unthinkable. And stupid.

“Why not?” Dave said. “If we say that we will give them the cat in exchange for freeing us from any charges… All in all, if this cat is really a government property… I mean, he could be extremely important for the defense and safety of our kingdom. We can hurt our country if we don’t give him back.”

Marissa gave a long glance to Larsen.

“Dave,” she said softly, “I’m a citizen of another kingdom. And the cat is mine.”

“Well, but, thinking reasonably…”

“Thinking reasonably, there is no guaranty that people who tried to steal the cat and almost killed Chen would follow the agreement,” Marissa said coldly. “I won’t give the cat to that people who most likely have been performing cruel experiments on him. Period. And, Dave, for your information… Don’t try to steal the cat and do your own way. Or you will regret it. Very much.”

Dave frowned. He shook his head.

“You think too bad of me, Marissa,” he said. “Ok. So we have to find another way out. I guess, we should find out who could create this cat immune to magic. Maybe then we will know what to do next.”

“So, how are you going to find out this?” Tanya asked.

“I don’t know,” Dave admitted. “But I know someone who knows. And I have sent her an owl on the way here. The appointment is in an hour, at the river harbor.”

The waitress returned from the kitchen and put a brown cover with a check inside on the table.

 

When they arrived to the embankment, she was already there. A tall woman in a dark raincoat made from sparkling fabric and a dark-blue fedora was staying near the parapet and looking at cold waves swinging boats roped on to the quay. The wind here was even stronger than in the city, and any reasonable person would prefer to hide from it in the booth on the old barge that served as a pier for boats. But not that woman. She seemed almost to enjoy this weather, this cold water, this dark-gray sky covered with heavy snow clouds.

Dave made a stop at the low step of a wide granite stairway leading to the embankment. This part of embankment was made from square stone tiles. Seinar-sa was founded at the hill that had rather steep incline towards the Seinar-Creek river. The other bank of the river was covered with dark. Only a lone light somewhere in the forest was twinkling there. Far out to the right, an incomplete red arch of a bridge under construction was rising – the reflection of dim orange lights on it was jittering in shallow waters. Dave looked around – the embankment looked deserted and desolated. There was no sign of agents of Magical Security waiting for them. Larsen strained his ears but heard nothing but wind. Probably, they were safe.

And if they weren’t, they could take the cat hostage.

“Let’s go,” Dave said to his friends.

Marissa and Tanya exchanged glances and followed Larsen.

“Ms. Darney?” Dave shouted when they came close enough to the woman. “Is it you?”

Ms. Darney turned around in one quick movement. Her copper-red hairs flapped in the air. She jerked up her head and looked at Dave angrily through her glasses in thin black frame.

“Here you are,” she said coldly. “What have you done this time, Dave?”

Tanya caught herself thinking that she probably had seen this woman with beautiful but cold face before. And the voice of Ms. Darney sounded familiar. Judging by Ms. Darney’s appearance, she was between her late twenties and early thirties, so she couldn’t be a student or a parent of a Tanya’s friend. So, where could Tanya have seen her?

“Good evening, Ms. Darney,” Dave greeted her. “Ms. Darney, this is my friends, Tanya and Marissa. Marissa, Tanya, this is Melissa Darney. She is a professor of history in the Academy.”

“Good evening,” Tanya said.

Marissa gave Ms. Darney a polite nod but said nothing.

The professor of history sighed and asked with unexpected concern in her voice:

“Dave, why do you and your friends always get into troubles? What have you done today to draw attention of Magical Security?”

“Didn’t they told you what?” Dave said.

“I didn’t meet them,” Ms. Darney replied. “But all teachers were invited to the head of the Academy after classes, and he informed that you were wanted by Magical Security, and everyone who saw you or knew where you were should inform him or special agent Maclean. So you must have done something really serious.”

“So when are you going to inform Magical Security about us?” Marissa inquired.

“I am not going to do that,” Melissa Darney smiled coldly. “But you should be very careful.”

“We have already understood that,” Dave said. “Well, we found a…”

The professor of history raised her arm.

“I don’t really want to know,” she shook her head. “Let’s go to the barge.” She pointed at the booth.

A narrow wooden ramp was connecting the embankment and the barge. Metal railings were cold. Ms. Darney was in the lead, Dave and Tanya was following her. Marissa was the last, carrying the bag with the cat who was leaning out of the bag through a gap in the zipper and was looking around with curiosity. At the end of the ramp, Melissa Darney suddenly stopped and turned to Dave.

“Does your question about a shield from magic have any relation to what you have done today?”

Dave nodded and opened his mouth to explain, but the woman in dark raincoat stopped him.

“I said I don’t want to know!” she exclaimed, then added in regular voice, “Anyway, Dave, it’s not really a question from my field of study. I am a professor of history, not a professor of history of science. However, I have a friend who, I hope, can help you.”

“Yeah?” Dave said impatiently. Tanya thought what kind of relationship was linking her friend and Melissa Darney. Maybe she should investigate it after that ado about the cat would have stopped, Tanya thought. “Where is this friend?”

Ms. Darney smiled and opened the door to the booth.

 

“…A thing that can repel magic?” a friend of Ms. Darney repeated the question. He was sitting on the bench near the wall opposite to the entrance. His legs were crossed. A black coat on him was unbuttoned, so his light-gray suit with a white shirt and an orange tie could be seen. Tanya knew this man. His full name was Albert Alistair Arthur, but everyone called him Frey, by his initials, or Albert Alistair Frey (the last name had cost an exam to many students silly enough to call him with it). Like Melissa Darney, he was a professor in the Academy and taught The Special Chapters of Magic to third-year students. It seemed the history of science was his hobby.

“I don’t think that there is anybody who has studied this question thoroughly,” said Albert Alistair. “At least, I can’t remember anyone who was interested in this.”

“But if somebody created a thing that was magic-resistant, who could it be? Dave asked.

“A genius,” Frey chuckled. “Or an incredibly lucky man. You see, to create a magic-resistant thing, one should either understand how the magic works or find an object that is magic-resistant already. Both options are equally unlikely.”

“Suppose, the government wants to do research in this field,” Marissa said. “Who would they choose?”

“I have no idea,” Frey shrugged.

“Well, who would you choose?”

“Any good researcher is fine,” Albert Alistair said. “Perhaps, the best choice is a scientist who study the theory of magic. But it’s not a popular field nowadays, and there haven’t been any serious discoveries for quite a long time. You see, we are still very far from understanding how exactly magic works. We just are observing and collecting statistics and trying to make some conclusions from all that. Sometimes we succeed, but often, we don’t.”

“Well,” Dave sighed, “if we want to find that man, what should we do?”

“Hmm,” the friend of Ms. Darney pondered, “I don’t really know… You may look for any scientific papers on this subject, but most likely they are classified, in our kingdom at least. Still, you may try your luck, maybe there are papers devoted to similar subjects. However, it has high changes to be a waste of time.”

“I see,” Dave said. “Well, anyway, thanks for your help. We’ll still try.”

“I’m afraid, you must think not about these searches now,” Melissa Darney adjusted her glasses. “What will you do if every person in town are looking for you?”

“Are you sure you want to know this?” Dave replied sarcastically.

“No,” Ms. Darney confirmed. “I also don’t want to know what town you will choose to go and hide and wait until everything calms down.”

Dave and Tanya exchanged looks. A town to go and hide?

“I’ll talk with some of my friends,” Albert Alistair said. “Maybe they’ll agree to transport you to another town where Magical Security won’t be looking for you. By the way, is today Friday?”

“Yes,” Dave replied not understanding what relation to their situation the current day of week had. “Why?”

“Then I know a place where you can spend a night,” Albert Alistair said. “And tomorrow, we’ll organize your travel to another town.”

“Hm,” Marissa tilted her head to the side slightly, “well, thank you, but why are you doing this?”

“Because we don’t like when Magical Security chases our students,” Melissa Darney said. “Especially if these students are my friends.”

“Even if…” Marissa started to say.

“I still don’t want to know!” the professor of history reminded.

“Well, let’s go?” Frey stood up. “It’s a long way to your new shelter, so let’s not waste a time!”

Dave was last to exit the booth. He closed the door and stood to wait while others would clear the ramp. It was dark outside, the wind had no intention to go down, and for a second, it appeared for Dave that he was not on the barge anchored near the embankment but on a real ship going right into a storm in open seas.

“Dave? Dave, are you coming?” he heard Tanya’s voice as if it was from somewhere far away from him.

“Wait a second!” Dave shouted in response and jumped on the ramp. In the darkness of the evening, a strained fishing line of a fishing rod roped on to the railings by someone was trembling in the wind.

 

The dragon’s stop was empty. Judging by only a half-filled trash can, this stop was rarely used – all in all, the embankment was not a popular place during winters. Public transport in Seinar-Sa was very far from the best as it was, but it seemed, the route to the river harbor was served even worse than others. They had been staying at the stop for at least ten minutes, but there still was no sign of a passenger dragon.

“You know,” Albert Alistair suddenly said to Melissa Darney, “I’m trying to recall one of our classmates. You should have remembered him, he was like…” He snapped his fingers as if it could help him to refresh his memory. “He had a beard and complained constantly that he always got the least interesting tasks.”

“Do you mean that one, who went to work as a teacher’s assistant in the Academy after graduation and always had long talks with female students when they were defending their works because it was his only chance to talk with women?”

“No, no,” Frey shook his head quickly, “not that one, the other. Damn, I forgot his name… That one who often argued with professors at lectures. He had such a big ego as if he was second to God. But, frankly, he was really great at anything, that’s true. What an ass! I remember he got an offer from some lab in the Science District… I think.”

“I think I know who are you talking about,” Melissa Darney said. “Moebius?”

“Yeah,” Albert Alistair said in excitement. “But what is his name?.. Can’t remember. I just recalled that he was interested in something that could affect magic – reflect, distort that kind of thing. I believe he even wrote a letter to some professor…  Oh, that’s our dragon!”

A van with a small dragon harnessed stopped near them. The dragon, a small dark-green-and-blue animal looking quite similar to dragons from fantasy books, seemed to be sad. Those animals had a perfect night vision, and the light from two headlamps on the van’s roof was more distracting than helpful for them. A dragon attendant opened the door and looked at the company on the dragon stop grumpily. She made a step back letting a man in waders and a puffer jacket, which made him look like a small bird. Maybe he was the angler who had left the fishing rod on the barge. Dave, Tanya and Albert Alistair entered the van right after the angler exited it. Ms. Darney stayed on the dragon stop – she waited for a van of another route.

Tanya was looking at evening streets of Seinar-Sa behind the window. A dim light of orange magical lanterns, white smoke from chimneys flying above roofs, shops and stores, blue posts of water pumps with icicles from top to the ground… It was so quiet, so usual, so peaceful. Seinar-Sa always looked better in twilights – darkness hid all dirt and mud and emphasized all that was beautiful in the city. But now, usual landscapes looked distant, almost surreal – like a picture from older times when their lives still were normal.

“Dave,” Tanya asked quietly Dave who was sitting next to her, “what do you think, will we come through it?”

“Of course!” Dave said optimistically. Too optimistically, in fact. “We’ll find out who is hunting for the cat and…” He noticed Tanya’s look and stopped short. “I don’t know,” he said. “I think our chances are rather small.”

Tanya sighed. She had the same view on that.

“But still, they exist?” she asked with hope hidden in her voice.

Dave turned his head and stared at the route’s map on the wall of the driver’s cabin.

“Well, any way you slice it, we did attacked them first. It will be very hard to prove that we are white and fuzzy. Especially considering that we aren’t. We still have the cat, so we can use the cat as our tool in negotiations. However, right after we’ll make clear that we will or won’t give them the cat, nothing can stop them from doing anything they want with us. I don’t know, Tanya. But I’ll think something up, I promise.”

“Thank you.” A weak smile appeared on Tanya’s face. The young woman put her hand on Dave’s and griped his hand slightly.

 

Their target was in the forest, two miles from the Academy and one mile from the dragon’s stop. The night was setting in, it was getting darker and darker, and stars looked coldly at the company through black, strewed with snow tree branches. Albert Alistair was walking first, enlightening the way with silver light of his flashlight. Marissa followed him. Tanya was walking one step behind Dave, holding his hand with both hers. She was slightly scared – the night forest, even in the middle of the city and without agents of Magic Security following them was frightening.

Their destination was a large two-story building, long and wide, with a saddle roof and a row of narrow windows right under it. In the red light of sparse chain of warning lights, they could see various bags with concrete and sand, bricks, carts, concrete mixers and wooden planks, steel tubes and cans of paint - everywhere near the building. Scaffoldings covered the short wall, and two rails for a cargo platform were attached to the other wall. Tire marks were everywhere on the forest meadow where the building was.

“Here it is,” Albert Alistair said. “This is the sports hall of the Academy. At least, it was the sport hall when I was a student. Now, it is under reconstruction. The work is going here only on weekdays, so there will be nobody in next two days. Moreover, it is connected to the Academy’s boiler station, so there should be warm inside. So, it’s not a bad place to spend a night.”

“Isn’t it locked?” Marissa asked.

Albert Alistair showed her a keychain with keys.

“We’ll use an emergency exit,” he said. “All emergency exits in the Academy can be opened with the same key. It’s a safety feature. Well, let’s go, shall we?”

There was dark inside the building. The smell of dust, concrete, paint and sawdust was in the air. Albert Alistair walked inside.

“Stay here,” he ordered. “I’ll find the light switch.”

He started to walk near the wall, pointing his flashlight randomly.

Tanya, Dave and Marissa made step inside. Marissa put her bag with the cat on the floor. She closed the door and put her hand on the handle to prevent it from self-locking. Tanya took a deep breath and looked around, as far as her night vision allowed her.

“Well,” she said, “at least, it’s warm here.”

A light from lamps above appeared. Tanya closed her eyes from a bright flash. When she opened them, she saw that she stood on a border line of a basketball court. Four rows of magical spotlights on the ceiling were enlightening the hall. There was a stand for viewers opposite the emergency exit they had entered. The stand painted blue was as long as the wall, with ten or so rows of yellow wooden benches. The first row was one meter above the floor, with shiny metal railings separated it from the court. In the middle of the stand, there was a passageway leading to rooms under the stand – probably, to dressing rooms and showers. There were no basketball backboard or any other sport equipment – they were removed before reconstruction was started. A small concrete mixer was standing in a corner, and a stepladder was near it. Paint on the wooden floor was old and in some places, peeled off. There was a thick layer of dust almost everywhere. It seemed that repair works in this hall were far from finishing.

Albert Alistair returned to three students with easy pace.

“Here it is,” he said. “It was better and cleaner in my time, of course, but never mind. There are locker rooms under the stands; I’d recommend to spend a night there. Showers are also there. I’ll return tomorrow, after lunch. I hope that I’ll manage to organize your travel to another town. The light switch is there,” he pointed to the switch. “Well, let’s check…” he scratched his head, “yes, that’s all that I wanted to say. I have to go. Here’s the keys, keep the door closed.” He gave keys to Dave and went towards the emergency exit. Marissa made a step to the side, letting him pass.

“Oh, and another thing,” Frey said as he opened the door. “Please, try not to break anything here. I’ll be back tomorrow. Good night!”

He leaved the hall. The door closed with a rather loud click.

Dave, Tanya and Marissa now were alone in the sport hall.

 

Marissa blinked and opened her eyes. She was surrounded by darkness, only a tiny strip of light was going through a small gap between the door and the wall. Her back was hurting as if she had been laying on a wooden floor for the whole night. It took a couple of seconds for her before she recognized that she was sleeping not in her room in the dorm, and not even in Tanya’s house, but in an old Academy’s sport hall – and she really was sleeping on a wooden bench using her sweater as a pillow and her coat as a blanket. Now her sweater was most likely wrinkled if not ruined completely. Marissa threw off her coat-turned-blanket, stood up and went to look for a light switch.

When she leaved the dressing room, she looked at her wristwatch. It was 10 a.m.

Marissa found Tanya on the basketball court. Tanya was sitting on top of the stepladder and was stroking the cat. The cat purred as he noticed his temporary owner.

“Good morning!” Tanya said. “Don’t you mind?..” she pointed at the cat. “It’s so nothing to do here that I will start to read lessons books soon.”

“If he likes it, I don’t mind,” Marissa said. “Where’s Dave?”

“He went outside to buy some food a hour or so ago.” Tanya scratched a cat’s ear gently. “It would be great if we could just ordered some food in a café right from here, including delivery. It’s sad that it’s impossible, isn’t it?”

“Maybe,” Marissa agreed politely. “Isn’t this trip for food dangerous?”

“Well, he decided that staying hungry is much more dangerous,” Tanya shrugged. She stroked the cat once again. “Don’t worry, I’m sure they won’t catch him. He’s not stupid.”

Marissa frowned. From her standpoint, Dave’s expedition outside was an unnecessary risk. But he was already on his way, so any her concerns and objections would be late now.

“When will he return?” she asked instead.

“I don’t know. Maybe, in next half an hour. Marissa, may I snuggle your cat? Please! He’s so cute!”

“If he likes it, I won’t object,” Ms. Cartwright said. She laid down to the cat. “How are you, Meow? Is everything all right? Does she annoy you?”

Tanya’s face changed its expression to the look of injured innocence.

“Meow!” the cat answered. “Mrrr”

“Well, good then,” Marissa patted the cat’s head tenderly. “I leave Tanya to you then. Be a good cat and do not harm her. She’s my friend, and I don’t want you to bite or to scratch her, ok?”

“Mreow,” the cat seemed to be very offended by the assumption that he could scratch or bite Tanya or anybody else. “Meow!”

“Oh, that’s good, Meow,” Marissa smiled. She stood up and looked at Tanya. “He agrees.”

“He doesn’t intend to neither scratch me nor bite!” Tanya said angrily. “And I wasn’t annoying him!”

“I have no objections to that,” Marissa tilted her head to the side slightly. “Call me if you and Meow need me, ok?”

She stayed and waited for a couple of second in case if Tanya or the cat had something to say for her. But, as neither the young magician nor Meow weren’t going to say anything, Marissa smiled goodbye, turned around and walked towards the stands. Tanya followed her friend with her eyes, looked and the cat and said: “You know, Meow, sometimes I don’t understand her.”

“Mrrr,” the cat agreed. “Mrr. Meow!”

Under the stands, in the restroom, Marissa was looking at herself in the mirror. As expected, her light-blue shirt and black trousers got wrinkled during last night. In addition, her hazel hairs, usually neatly descending to her shoulders, were now disheveled and desperately needed a comb. And, of course, there weren’t any. Marissa also would be glad to find a toothpaste and a toothbrush. Well, at least there were water and soap in this restroom – most likely, thanks to workers who had been doing the repairs. Marissa looked at herself in the mirror and made a wry face to her reflection. She got used to care about herself and a day without a comb, a toothpaste and neat and clean clothes she didn’t liked.

Well, it still was better than in a prison cell of Magical Security.

Marissa left the restroom, closed the door and went back to the basketball court. In addition to her appearance today, she didn’t like that there was almost nothing to do here. Tanya was right – one could choose only from either playing with the cat or reading textbooks. Dave and Marissa had investigated the hall the day before. There was a hallway under the stand branched into another two. Both those hallways were leading to dressing rooms and restrooms. The door right opposite to the entrance from the court was locked, as a few other doors. The only way to open them was to break locks, but it would be exactly what Albert Alistair had asked them not to do. Dave also had helped Marissa to climb on the stands. The benches on the stand was firm and from plywood, they were nailed to the wooden floor of the stands, and even a homeless person would think twice to sleep on them. Doors leading from the stands outside were also locked. Moreover, all sport items and exercise machines had been removed from the hall because of reconstruction, so Marissa couldn’t even do any exercises. The only thing she could do now was to read math textbooks. Or to take the cat from Tanya. Now, Marissa started to understand why Dave had decided to go outside for a breakfast. 

Marissa returned to the hall and saw Tanya and the cat were racing each other near the opposite wall. The cat seemed to like this game so he wasn’t running in full force to give the young magician a chance.

“I’m catching you, I’m catching!” Tanya shouted.

The cat saw Marissa and run to her with his tail raised.

“Hey, Meow, it’s not fair!” Tanya said joyfully as she stopped.

Marissa sat down and took the cat.

“Hello again, Meow,” she said. “Who is winning?”

“Meow!” the cat answered proudly.

“That’s my cat,” Marissa smiled. She scratched his chin. “Well, go back to Tanya.”

“I have enough running,” Tanya shouted from the other end of the hall. “Maybe you should race him, huh?”

“You think?” Marissa replied with doubt. The cat was still staying near her legs.

Somebody knocked the door of the emergency exit they used the day before. The knocking was so loud as if this someone was using a hammer. Or even a sledgehammer.

Marissa and Tanya stood still.

“Dave?” Marissa whispered before realized that Tanya was too far from her to hear whispering. But if she said it louder, they could be heard by people outside. Thankfully, Tanya guessed what Marissa could possibly asked and shook her head.

The knock repeated. Tanya put her hand on the magic wand in the holster on her belt. Marissa took the cat and put him on the stand.

“Stay here!” she whispered to him. The cat waved his tail in sign that he understood.

“Tanya, Dave, are you there?” they heard from the other side of the door. Tanya looked at Marissa questioningly. Ms. Cartwright drew her magic wand, pointed it at the door and only then nodded. Tanya walked to the door cautiously, trying not to make a noise. She pushed the door with all force she could apply.

Behind the door, it was Albert Alistair. He foreseeingly was staying to the side of the door.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” he said as he entered the hall. “It wouldn’t work anyway.”

Tanya didn’t have a time to reply. A tall, strongly built man in a brown fur coat, with square face and a goatee, pushed Albert Alistair aside. Dark-blue eyes of this man were ready to throw lightings.

“You have my cat,” he said bossily. “Where is it?”

Tanya stepped back.

“Your cat?” she asked confusingly. “Who are you?”

“I said, where is it?!” the tall man roared and made a step towards Tanya. The young magician pointed her wand at him.

“Keep out!” she shouted. “I know ways even if you are magic-protected!”

“Good morning, Mr. Arthur,” Marissa walked to them. “Good to see you. I’d like to greet your companion as well but I don’t know his name. Could you introduce him to us?”

The man with goatee looked at Marissa angrily. It wasn’t a good sign.

“Tanya, Marissa,” Albert Alistair said trying to prevent irreparable, “this is my friend, Milodar Vrochek. You may have heard of him as Moebius.”

“So it's you,” Marissa said coldly. “You are the head of the laboratory where the cat was created and, obviously, awful and cruel experiments were performed on him so he had to run away. You sent your agents to find him and, when they found out that he was in my dorm, ordered them to steal the cat. Tell me, Mr. Moebius, or Vrochek, or how your bloody name is, did you explicitly allowed him to kill everyone they could meet in the dorm? Or it is a standard practice in your government?”

 “Alistair,” Tanya said in horror, “why have you brought this man here? I thought you were on our side, and you are... Traitor!”

“Wait, wait,” Albert Alistair raised his hands, “I am not a traitor! And please, listen to us before attacking!”

“Listen to you?” Marissa said calmly, but her voice was filled with anger. She raised her arm and pointed her magic wand at Vrochek. “Did they listen to Chen before shot at her? Did they listen to us when they declared us enemies of the kingdom?”

“You say rubbish!” Milodar said loudly. “Agents, cruel experiments, kidnapped cats... And who the hell is Chen?”

“Chen is my friend and roommate that your agents tried to kill,” Marissa reminded kindly. “She's in hospital now, thanks to you and agent Maclean.”

Milodar sighed. He shook his head.

“It seems you have wrong information about me,” he said. “Yes, I'm the head of the laboratory that does researches on this cat. But we didn't create him, we found him. We never performed cruel experiments on him. And we never sent someone to steal it or kill anybody. Who do you think we are, damn you?”

“And who should we think you are?” Marissa inquired.

“Maybe you will put this thing off me?” Milodar demanded.

“No,” Marissa said. “We don't trust you. All we have is your words.”

“Fair enough,” Milodar said. “Ok. Well. You said something about agent Maclean. Can you describe him? Tall, slim, short hairs, with straight long nose and brow eyes? A small scar on his left cheek?”

“So my description isn't needed,” Marissa chuckled. “You obviously know him well.” She still was holding her wand aimed at Milodar's chest. So was Tanya. During the conversation, Tanya was standing still near the door and didn't said a word. It seemed that Tanya accepted without doubts that, in absence of Dave, Marissa was their second in command.

“Did he look like this? Yes or no?”

“Well,” Marissa paused, “yes, he did. So?”

“Well, then I have something to show you,” Milodar said. “Put your wands down, or at least abstain from attack in next minute. I want to invite her someone.”

Marissa and Tanya exchanged looks. Tanya nodded.

“Ok,” Marissa said. “So who is this person?”

Moebius made a step back, opened the door and waved to someone outside. After a few moments, a short, rather fat man in a gray coat and a fedora hat appeared in the doorway. When he saw Marissa and Tanay with magic wands pointed at him, he stopped still.

“John,” Milodar said, “show them your ID. Slowly and carefully. They for some reasons think we are dangerous and killers.”

The fat man nodded. He slowly half-unbuttoned his coat and slowly drew a small piece of paper with blue cardboard cover from his inner pocket. He put it down slowly on the floor and pushed towards Marissa as if it was a gun.

“Keep your eyes on them,” Marissa said to Tanya.

Marissa grabbed the fat man's ID from the floor, opened it, read... And her eyes widened in surprise.

“Maclean, Frederic John?” she said. “Magical Security, special agent, Science District Division?”

“Yes,” the fat man smiled. “I prefer John. Frederic is too long, in my opinion.”

“Agent Maclean?” Tanya said. “But you looked differently last time... and your right arm is still... Are you kidding us?”

“So, have you confirmed my identity?” John said with a smile. “Can I have it back now? Thank you,” he put his ID Marissa returned to him back to the pocket.

“I don't understand a thing,” Tanya looked at Marissa confusingly. But Marissa was as far from the solution of a riddle of two agents with identical names but so different appearances as Tanya.

“If you are the real agent Maclean,” Marissa said, “then who was the man who said he was agent Maclean?”

“We don't know,” Milodar said.

“We don't know with 100% certainty,” John made a correction. “However, we have reasons to believe that it was Frank Martin. He and his group are mercenaries but most time, they work for the Freeland Republic. Last Friday, they broke in our lab and tried to steal the cat. However, the cat managed to run away from them and hide. They also stole all five magic-proof belt we had. Now they are hunting for the cat and, consequently, for you.”

“If they are mercenaries, how did they got Magic Security IDs?” Marissa asked.

“They know that I'm in charge of the security in the Science District, so they have made forged copies of my ID in advance.”

“Ok, but why do they want to steal the cat?” Marissa said. “If you didn't create the cat, why can't they just watch for your researches?”

“Looks like you don't know much about this cat,” Milodar chuckled.

“We know he is magic-resistant and can create a sphere that can't be affected by magic,” Marissa replied. “Is there something else?”

“No,” Vrochek said. “But, actually, being magic-resistant is not a feature of the cat itself. It's a feature of its fur. This fur creates this sphere, and the diameter of the sphere depends of the amount of fur. Those belts were made from it. So those who have the cat can make some more magic-proof belts next spring.”

“Ok, maybe it's true,” Marissa said. “But why should I believe you?”

“I don't want you to believe me. I want you to give my cat back!”

“Marissa, Tanya, he's on our side,” Albert Alistair broke in. “We were studying together in the Academy, and I know he's not that kind of man to send killers to someone. He hadn't even knew you had the cat until I told him!”

“Yes, that's true,” John Maclean confirmed. “If we did knew, we would just come to you and say that we are his true owners and we ask you to return it kindly. Wouldn't you return the cat to his right owners?”

“Hmm,” it seemed that Marissa had never thought of that possibility. She looked down on the floor, pondering. Then, she raised her head and looked at the head of security in the Science District. “Then why didn't those fake agents do exactly that?”

“I don't know,” said John, “because they couldn't confirm the ownership? They didn't steal any papers confirming it from us.”

“It makes sense,” Tanya said hesitatingly. She lowered her arm with her magic wand. “Marissa, maybe they are really on our side?”

“They are,” Albert Alistair confirmed.

Marissa exchanged looks with Tanya. She really wanted Dave was here now. Larsen would without any doubts understand the situation quickly and would make the right decision should they trust Moebius or should they fight him. And she... she wasn't even sure would she agree to give the cat back to his owners. Tanya nodded, and Marissa lowered her wand.

“Well,” Ms Cartwright sighed, “what next?”

“That's the right decision,” Milodar said. “For a start, let's go to the stands. I feel the cold wind from the door.”

“Yes, it would be very kind of you,” they heard the familiar soft and powerful voice going from the side of the door. The voice that didn't promised anything good.

Marissa and Tanya turned to the door, and their eyes got widened from horror. “Special agent Maclean”, also known as Frank Martin, was staying in the doorway. His black raincoat was unbuttoned despite the cold weather. His right arm, bandaged near the shoulder, was hanging dead. His other hand was holding a gun with an unusually long barrel. His eyes under his black and wet from melted snow fedora were looking angrily and cruelly. Two of his assistants pointed their riffles to Marissa and Tanya. And more so...

More so, the fourth agent who was behind Martin pushed Dave Larsen into the hall.

Dave was blindfolded with a thick black scarf, his hands were tied behind his back. A clotted blood was under his nose. The coat he had borrowed from Tanya was covered with dirt and blood. Dave swayed after a push and put his leg forward to prevent the fall. He moaned from a pain.

“Dave!” Tanya yelled. She raised her wand and leaned forward, ready to attack. The real agent Maclean made a move with his right arm to reach his gun from the holster under his shoulder. The fourth agent noticed that and pressed his gun against Dave's head instantly.

“Calm down!” Frank Martin said. “One more move, and you could have one friend less, Ms. D'Air. Oh, and it concerns you as well, dear John.”

The real Maclean slowly put his arm away from the holster.

“Good. Now, Ms. D'Air, put your wand on the floor, slowly.” Martin said. “I said, now!” he added when he noticed that the young woman was hesitant to comply. Frank looked to his assistant who was holding Dave and nodded. The assistant pressed his gun against Dave's head harder and cocked the gun.

“Wand on the floor,” Martin said. Tanya exchanged looks with Marissa and slowly put her wand down.

“Now, everybody, put your hands up and on the nape. Slowly and gently, so I can see them.” Martin ordered.

“Have you been told that you are scumbag?” Milodar said as he was raising his hands up.

Martin ignored him. The fake agent turned to Marissa.

“We've met again, Ms Cartwright,” he said softly, but his eyes sparkled with hate.

Marissa curdled. Fear took her over, preventing to think, preventing to look the way out. With her hands on her head, she suddenly felt like a small mouse who just noticed a cat in front of her.

“What, you won't even say hello to me?” Martin was handling the situation, and he knew it. “Ah, I forgot, you weren't polite during our previous meeting too. You are actually very lucky, Ms. Cartwright. You are lucky because I'm not vengeful. You should thank me for that.”

«Get off of Marissa, you!..” Tanya shouted.

Martin sighed and threw a disappointed look to the young magician.

“Back to business,” he said. “I need only the cat, Ms. Cartwright. Give it to me, and nobody will be hurt. So, where is he?”

Marissa kept silence. Her mouth was so dry she wasn't able to say a word. “It's a dream,” Marissa thought, “it's just a bad dream...”

“Where is he?” Martin repeated. Then, he shook his head. “Oh, Ms Cartwright, you are disappointing me. Your friend had a bad day today, yet you want him to have a couple of broken ribs more? You don't really want that, Ms. Cartwright?”

“Stop calling me that!” Marissa thought to herself with a sudden rage. “I have a name!”

“No...” She coughed. “No needs to do this,” she said unexpectedly calmly.

“Oh, we can speak, after all,” the fake Maclean chuckled. “So, just tell me where is the cat and we will part friends.”

Marissa looked straight into his eyes. She suddenly realized that her fear had disappeared. Her brain was working hard trying to find a way to escape. Martin needed the cat, it was his top priority. That meant...

“He...” Marissa said, “We don't have him anymore. He has run away.”

“Good answer,” the leader of the mercenaries nodded. “Good but wrong. Drake, bring Gerda here!” he ordered to one of his assistants.

The agent who stayed to the right of the door nodded and went outside. After a minute, he returned with a big shepherd dog on a leash.

«Gerda, search!” he ordered and released the leash. The dog sniffed the air and, after a second of pondering, run towards the stand. In a second, the dog was right under the place where Marissa had put the cat and was barking and scratching the blue-painted wood. The cat hid under the seats so the dog wasn't able to reach him and was hissing desperately.

“Oh, here it is,” Martin said, “what a surprise. It didn't run a long way, it seems. Drake, take the cat!”

“No!” Marissa yelled.

“Yes,” the fake Maclean corrected her, “yes, Ms. Cartwright. Or you want to throw something at me with your magic again? You have to have a magic wand in your hand for that. So, Drake, take this cat!”

Drake nodded again and went to the stands where the dog was barking at the cat.

Marissa clenched her fists so hard her fingers became white. Now, she was feeling anger. She won't let them to take the cat and go! She won't! But how? What could she do? There were four agents against fifth of them, and one agent was going to the stands now... but Martin had Dave as a hostage, so he had a huge advantage. Albert Alistair and Milodar Vrochek were standing near the wall, in the sights of rifles, so they hardly could do anything before bullets would hit them. Tanya's magic wand was laying on the floor a meter away from her. As many non-magician persons, Martin shared the common misconception that spells would work only if a wand was in the hand of a magician. Magicians were taught to point the wand at the object of the spell, but actually, spells would work as long as the wand was close enough to a wizard. However, close enough meant “on the belt” and not “a few meters away”! So Tanya was out of the game, and only Marissa was in position to do something now. The question was, to do what?

The dog's barking stopped – it meant that Drake had reached the stands. The stands were behind Marissa, so she wasn't able to see them – only imagine...

“The cat's here! It's under seats. I'll take him in a minute”

“See, how simple it is?” Martin smiled. “A few minutes more, and it'll be all over, Ms. Cartwright. And you and your friends will return to your houses and live long and forget about all that.”

Marissa didn't replied. She closed her eyes. She was thinking. They needed the cat, and they didn't need witnesses. And even if she found a way to stop Drake, it wouldn't stop others. Even if she and her friends run away with the cat, the hunt for them would continue – maybe not by Martin but by other spies. Think, Marissa, think. Imagine that it's just another engineering problem that you solved so well at the RIEM...

“You can't do that!” Tanya exclaimed.

“Why not?” The leader of agents turned to her. “Because you will snap your fingers and we will change our minds?”

And suddenly, a loud sound of crash roared from the stands.

The dog howled. The leader of the mercenaries turned around, and, for the first time, the expression of superiority left his face. He opened his mouth in horror. Thousands of small rocks were falling with terrifying speed from above, appearing right under the ceiling. But the ceiling was intact, it had not a single fracture. The rocks created by magic hit the stand with huge force, damaging the seats, making the wooden floor cracking and breaking. After a few seconds, the beams under the floor became so damaged that the floor collapsed and the seats fell down listing to the right and forward. The rocks were falling and falling until they filled the pit formed by the still standing walls of the stands and the collapsed floor. After that, the rain of rocks stopped. A few small stones went down and to the paws of the dog making Gerda squeal and jump away.

“What?!!” Martin yelled in disbelieve.

“Oh, it’s only magically created pebbles,” Marissa explained kindly. She was smiling. “Magically accelerated to very high speeds. You know what such kind of rocks can do with the cat, even protected from magic, don’t you?”

“What!” Tanya said quietly. She couldn’t believe her friend just had dropped the rain of rocks on the cat. The face of Moebius became dark from anger.

“You!” Martin screamed. “You!..”

“In other words, you can’t have the cat anymore. Or anybody else,” Marissa made things clear just in case. “That means, taking us hostage is now pointless. Of course, you can try to kill Dave… but what would prevent me from dropping the rocks on you after that? Think about it.”

“You… you won’t do it!” the fake Maclean said in horror. “You may hit your friends too!”

“Well, it’s worth the risk,” Marissa smiled. Her smile had a vague resemblance to one of a serial killer. “I’m usually quite good at aiming.”

An angry grimace screwed up Martin’s face.

“You will pay for that!”

“As you wish,” Marissa shrugged. “But now, you will release Dave. You have five seconds. Time is on.”

“It’s not the way to do negotiations,” the leader of the mercenaries said. He tried to look calm but it was clear he was scared by Marissa’s threats. “We’ll release him only when we’ll be safe.”

“You will release him now,” Marissa said. “And you just have wasted three seconds.”

“No. What will we get from doing that?”

Marissa sighed.

“If you release him, I’ll promise that you will left this building free and unscratched.”

“What!” Moebius didn’t even try to hide his anger.

“It’s impossible,” John Maclean said. “They are enemies of our kingdom. You can’t allow them just go like that.”

“I’m not a citizen of your kingdom,” Marissa reminded. “And the safety of my friends is much more important for me that spy wars. So release Dave and you can go whatever you want. I recommend hell.”

“You will certainly pay for that,” Martin promised.

“I doubt that,” Marissa said. “My parents are very powerful people in the Walkyre kingdom. Touch me or my friends, and they will find a way to make your life a nightmare. The whole MIS will be on you if you do that. And you know I say the truth.”

Martin sighed. No matter how angry he was now, he still was a spy – and spies usually put reason over emotions. Yes, he had lost the cat, but he still had five magic-proof belts – and no real reasons to kill Marissa or her friends.

“Ok,” he said, “but what are our guaranties that you won’t drop your wall of rocks on us after we will have released your friend?”

“My word,” Marissa said. “And believe me, it’s worth much more than yours.”

…When the mercenaries finally vanished out of the sight, Marissa who was watching their departure closed the door and almost collapsed on the floor. Her legs were shaking. Milodar and Albert Alistair were untying Dave. Tanya was sitting near Larsen and was investigating his bruises with concern. She hadn’t even looked at Marissa.

“Are you ok?” the young magician asked Dave, her voice full with compassion. “Poor you…”

“I’m fine,” Dave smiled and groaned from pain. “Don’t worry about me. You are safe, and it’s all that matters.”

Milodar stood up and came to Marissa. His look wasn’t promising anything good to her.

“I have a couple of questions for you, lady,” he said. Marissa raised her head and looked and Vrochek. “Could you tell me,” he said calmly just to yell at her in the next moment, “what the hell? Why have you gave them to walk out of here free, damn you? And WHY DID YOU KILL MY CAT?!”

“Yes, Marissa,” Dave limped to them, “forget the cat, but you could really drop a wall of rocks on them or at least around them. Why?”

“Actually, I couldn’t,” Marissa admitted.

“What? Why?”

“Well, it was magically created rocks. It was like a rain spell, only with pebbles instead of raindrops. And they had magic-proof belts.”

“So?” Dave still didn’t understand.

“Remember what happened with the cat when you applied a rain spell on him?”

“Hm?” Dave wrinkled his brow, “but the cat was completely dry… You mean?”

“Exactly,” Marissa nodded. “So the rocks would vanish in half a meter distance from them. And from the cat, by the way. So he’s still alive under the rocks… I hope.”

“So, the cat is still alive?” Moebius said. “We need to free him right away! Immediately!”

There were so many rocks and the pit, and Marissa only barely remembered where she had put the cat. Even with spells Tanya with a little help from Dave used to move the pebble from the pit to the corners of the hall, it took almost a quarter of an hour to clean them all. When most of the rocks were removed from the pit, Tanya finally saw what magic of Marissa had done with the stand. The rain of rocks had damaged literally everything. The seats were broken, yellow chirps and fragments of plywood were everywhere, and some of the rocks had managed to make holes in the floor. Tanya could see the supporting beams and the darkness of the rooms under the stands through chirped holes. The cat was never to be seen – not dead, nor alive.

“So, where is he?” Dave asked when they finished inspecting the pit for the second time.

“Look!” Tanya exclaimed. She was pointing at the plank of the floor right near her. One of the rocks had broken the plank, and it fell down making some sort of a ramp. On one of the chirps, there was a flock of grey fur.

“So, he has run away?” Marissa came to Tanya and looked at the hole. Tanya made a helpless gesture. “Well…” Marissa said after a pause, “I guess, it’s better for him.”

“Better?!” Milodar said angrily. “Better? The very valuable for science cat has just ran away, thanks to you, and you say it’s for the good? What do you think I have to research now?”

“I’m sorry,” Marissa said softly. “But I believe it’s really for the good. Think about it, if the cat was still here, you would take him to the lab, and other spies would find out that he’s still alive. He would become a prize for hunt again, you agree?”

“Maybe, you have a point,” Milodar admitted after a pause. “But still, YOU RUN AWAY MY CAT!”

Marissa shrugged and exchanged a look which meant something like “Some people are really strange, aren’t they?” with Tanya.

“Well, let’s leave this place,” Dave proposed. “I hope, dressing rooms have survived all that.”

“They should,” Marissa nodded. “Even if some rocks managed to make a way through, it shouldn’t be many of them.”

“Good,” Dave said. “Otherwise, Tanya wouldn’t be happy to lose her coat again. She would kill me even for this one on me.”

“Dave!” Tanya exclaimed.

“What did I say?”

“I wonder,” Albert Alistair broke his silence, “what those construction workers will say when they see all that destruction here?”

“I don’t know,” Tanya said. “But they won’t be happy, that’s for sure.”

“Sometimes reasonable men must do unreasonable things,” Dave made a philosophical remark. “Besides, they won’t know it were us, right? Let’s go?” he started to limp towards the hallway to the dressing rooms.

“Ok,” Marissa said, “I just ask something from Mr. Moebi… Vrochek”

“I don’t want to talk with you,” Milodar said, “after what you have done.”

“I just wanted to ask…” Marissa said discreetly, “I still don’t know what is the name of the cat… the real name.”

Milodar gave her a heavy glance. He turned his head to the wall.

“I always called him Sherlock,” he said not looking at Marissa.

“Sherlock?” Ms. Cartwright repeated. “Sherlock… A nice name.”

Milodar took a long pause before replying.

“Yes,” he said with a heavy sigh. He still wasn’t looking at Marissa. “Very.”

 

Two weeks after that, snow was falling on Seinar-Sa, cold and fine, almost invisible. The wind blew off a snow dust from roofs. The gloomy sky was covered with dark clouds with no hint of breaks in them, and buildings seemed to be gray, gloomy, colorless as well. The right weather for the exams' week that had started in the Academy. Tanya D'Air was sitting in the narrow room #1-208a and staring at her textbook vacantly. The final test on the economics was starting in next ten minutes.

“Hello again,” Dave said and sat down on his chair near Tanya's. “Reviewing the economics for the test?”

“If only,” the young magician sighed. “I have been reading this damn textbook for two hours in a row, so one more paragraph and my brain will explode! I don't wish anything, just to complete this test and forget it like a nightmare.”

“Well,” Larsen said, “it's still better that being chased by evil cat hunters.”

Tanya looked angrily at her friend.

“You will now compare everything to that, won't you?”

“Maybe, as Marissa would say,” Dave was imperturbable.

“By the way, Marissa...” Tanya recalled. “Today, Chen will return from the hospital, so Marissa has decided to move back to the dorm again. They invite us to their “returning party” tomorrow. We should make them a present of some sort.”

“I didn't know Marissa loves parties,” Dave smiled.

“You don't know many things about her,” Tanya said flatly.

“Oh, and you?”

“Me too,” Tanya admitted after a pause. “You know, she's...” the young woman tried to pick the right word, “unusual. She has some wonderful traits, and you know, I'm still adore her... But she also has her dark sides, and I am not sure if I'm ready to accept them.”

“We all have our dark sides,” Dave made a philosophical remark. “But you're right, I wouldn't like to have her as my enemy.”

“Hello, Dave. Good morning, Tanya,” Marissa came to them. “What are you discussing? The economics?”

“No,” Larsen said as he turned to Marissa, “you.”

Tanya rolled her eyes.

“Me?” Marissa raised her eyebrows. “Oh. Well, the economics would be more interesting, I'm afraid.”

“I've heard you're moving back to the dorm?” Dave asked.

“Yes,” Marissa nodded. “Chen is back, and I don't want her to be alone in her room. Will you help me with my moving back?”

“Of course,” Larsen agreed. “Anything for your smile.”

Tanya rolled her eyes again. Marissa smiled back.

“Thank you,” she said. “Then, we will be waiting! And come to our party. Ann has promised to bring a disk with nice music, so it will be fun”

“We will come,” Dave promised. “Of course, if Tanya doesn't kill me before that.”

“Dave!” Tanya exclaimed angrily. Marissa laughed.

“Well, I'll try to convince her not to kill you until the day after tomorrow,” she said. “Good luck with your test!”

“Thank you,” Larsen replied. “And to you!”

When Marissa went to her desk, Tanya looked at her deskmate.

“What?” Dave raised his arms up. Tanya sighed heavily. She knew that saying anything in response would be a waste of time.

“I think we should buy Marissa a kitten,” she said instead.

“A kitten? Hm. And where can we find a kitten in one day?”

“Well... I think, we may try.”

“But it can't replace Sherlock.”

“That's true,” Tanya agreed. “But anyway... Marissa wanted a cat so much, I think she still will be glad to have one. What do you think, where Sherlock is now?”

“I don't know. Probably, he is chasing mice and birds in the forests right now. Or maybe somebody found him and gave him a shelter. But one thing for certain, he's fine. He's incredibly lucky, this cat.”

“I hope so,” Tanya said. She looked at her wristwatch. It was five minutes until the start of the test. “I'll try to repeat the economics.”

“Ok,” Dave said. He drew his textbook from his briefcase and opened it. Tanya moved her textbook closer and tried to focus on the text. Economics is the science studying social relations of producing, consuming and distributing goods...

She sensed a movement near her. It wasn't Dave. Tanya turned her head...

“Purr!” a smokey-gray cat notified the audience about its presence loudly and proudly. It was staying in the doorway. its bushy tail was raised high.

“Wow,” Dave distracted himself from the textbook.

“Sherlock!” Marissa exclaimed in joy. She hopped and rushed to the cat. The young woman sat down and took the cat on her arms. A joyful smile was shining on her face. “You're back, you finally came back! I have missed you so much, my dear Sherlock Meow, you can't probably imagine how!”

“Mrrr? Meow! Purrr!” the cat objected. Marissa folded him to her breast and started to stroke him.

“You're finally back,” she repeated.

“Khm,” Larsen came to Marissa. “It seems he really loves you. Or the economics. What do you think, should we notify Moebius that his favorite object of researches has returned?”

“Hmmm?” Marissa tilted her head slightly as she stopped to stroke the cat for a moment.

“Well, it's still important for science to understand why he can't be affected by magic,” Dave said.

Marissa pondered for a second.

“You think so?” she asked. “If he's so important... But...” She looked at Dave with hope in her eyes, as if she expected the final decision from Larsen. Dave opened his mouth, but looked at the cat, at so happy Marissa, at the cat again...

“I think we shouldn't,” he said. “He has had too much attention to himself in last weeks. Let him rest.”

A happy smile reappeared at Marissa's face.

“Thank you, Dave!” she said. “Really, thank you. Yahooo! Sherlock is mine! You don't mind, Sherlock, that you're mine, right?”

“Purr,” the cat waved his bushy tail. “Purr. Meow!”

 

 


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