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A real whirlwind of steps made its way up the stairs and down the hall. Without pausing to knock, she flung my door open with a powerful gust of energy.
“Come to shoot the breeze?” I barely looked up from my book.
“Nah, I'm here to extend an invitation to you,” She stated casually. It didn’t even bother her that I paid the book more attention.
“You realize it's late, right? I'm surprised Auntie let you barge in just like that.”
“I just told her that I was your girlfriend and it was really important that I see you immediately,” She smiled, “She's a nice lady, kind of like a big sis, I thought. She rolled her eyes and said 'and here's another one'.”
“I worry she has the wrong impression of me sometimes,” I added, “She gave me a lecture about... well, it's not really important what it was about. It just a bit awkward.”
There was no point in recalling the one-sided discussion we had had. Nor the many props she had brought out to teach me and test my retention with. I shook my head, she liked to act like she was experienced and full of wisdom only for those sorts of things. Truth was, she wasn't much older than I was and kept mostly to herself as well.
“Well, she liked my hair, so that's a plus. Said my braid was cool. Maybe I should become your girlfriend.”
“Just because she praised your hair?”
“Also because you've got a nice room. Real clean too,” She took an exaggerated look around, as if inspecting the scene carefully.
“Your family probably wouldn't like me. I have a complicated family history in the village.”
“I don't really care what papa thinks,” There was a devilish twinkle in her eye. She might have been more serious than she let on.
“Yeah, well, I'd only go out with someone if they were serious about it. If I got suckered by someone like you I wouldn't know where I stood most of the time.”
“How cruel~” She chuckled, “Well, I can't blame you for feeling that way. I'm usually to busy living life to the fullest to worry about the small things.”
I kept my mouth shut, not bothering to point out that her statement had little to do with anything.
“You've seen sides to me that most people haven't though,” She added, “That's got to count for something.”
“Well, that goes both ways. And yet here we are.” I put down the book, finally bothering to face her, “So before we're here all night talking nonsense, what is it that you wanted to tell me, Marisa?”
“Right, right, it seems that I can't even cut loose with my friends these days...”
I gave her a look that said 'oh please spare me'. The message got across nicely. Further proof of shared history.
She explained the reason for her sudden appearance, “Basically we're having a gathering tonight like we do every year. And you're invited since you're, like, basically one of us.”
“You'll need to be more specific than that. Who is this 'us'?” I asked.
“You know, magicians. It's a special night for us.”
“I'm not really one of you guys to begin with...”
“Oh don't sweat it. Didn't you learn anything? Experience isn't everything, it's all about the heart and passion!”
“I'm not sure that was one of the lessons I learned while training...”
“I never know what you learned. You keep strangely quiet about some things,” She shrugged.
“Just who I am,” I replied. I wasn't about to dwell upon the recent past anytime soon. I needed more time to process all that had happened in the past weeks.
“Fine, fine, I won't pry,” She smirked, “You know, Alice will be there.”
“Well, you said magicians, so I assumed she would be.”
“It's like you enjoy being an ass to me, or am I wrong?”
“Who knows?” I gave her a wink that said all that she needed to know.
“Anyways, you've been invited. It'll be fun. You're the first guy to come in forever too, so it'll be a nice change of pace.”
“Hm, I need to get up early in the morning though...” I offered a weak excuse.
“No you don't, it's a holiday in the village tomorrow. All businesses are closed.”
“Then maybe I'm not feeling well?”
“Oh, just give up,” She came on over and tugged at my arm, “They sent me knowing that I'd have to drag you out there.”
There really wasn't much point to resisting further. In the end I decided to cooperate with Marisa and went out with her. I told Auntie not to worry about my staying out late while Marisa undermined the effort by telling her that she would take care of me all night long.
“Have fun,” She raised an eyebrow, “And try not to do too much at once. I know you're young but...”
“Right, we're off then!” I really did not want to know how that sentence ended.
“W-wait! I wanted to know what she was going to say.” Marisa protested as I dragged her out by the arm. I didn't need her having any more dirt on me either.
“Forget my family, let's just focus on where we're going.”
“Alright, alright, you can let go of me anytime you know. I'm not a little kid.”
I let go of her.
She was incorrigible. As soon as she was free, she added, “I don't mind if we hold hands, though.”
I ignored her. It made for a smoother trip. And, as I predicted, she didn't dwell on it too long. We traveled for a while, our pace relaxed. Our destination was somewhere up in the mountain. It would have been easy to have gotten lost, the trees and landscape was unchanging for the most part. Marisa seemed confident about her pathfinding skills and led on without hesitation.
It was a clear night. A westerly wind blew in from the lake and towards our position. In the distance, a nocturnal bird sang a lonely song. That was the only obvious sign of life to be found. I kept quiet, knowing that whatever questions I had would be answered by our eventual arrival. We were far away from any of the obvious spots to visit. Only beasts and plants lived so far from anything of interest.
A flickering glow just beyond a copse hinted that we would arrive presently.
We arrived to clearing with a commanding view over most of the lake and its surroundings. A great bonfire roared in the middle of the space, exuding warmth and light to an otherwise immutable night.
“We're here~!” Marisa announced as she stepped into the clearing.
“Hiya,” I waved sheepishly. Two familiar faces sat around the fire. One nodded silently and the other just stared cooly, neither smiled at us.
“Hey, I thought whats-her-face was supposed to be here as well,” Marisa observed while approaching the fire. She extended her hands towards the flame, as if to warm up a little.
“There were things that she had to do in the village. She is dedicated to her own projects and you should know that she doesn't readily acknowledge her magical heritage,” Alice stated unemotionally. Her gaze drifted towards me. I took that for a greeting.
“Oh bother, I thought that all of us had to be here tonight,” Marisa clicked her tongue.
“It's not necessary. We're not performing a ritual.”
I sat on a large rock by the fire. It was nice and warm there. I asked the remaining magician what was up, “Marisa didn't quite explain what this was about. What are we doing here?”
“That,” She began lethargically, “would be nothing special.”
“A gathering in the middle of the night, somewhere remote doesn't seem like an everyday occurrence,” I fired back.
“You've got to let Patches finish,” Marisa butt in, 'She's just getting warmed up.”
“-We do this every year,” She ignored the interruption. It was strange to see her outside of her usual environment – it felt that, even now, she should have a book in her hand and a stack of more by her side. “I take it that you want to know why we do this every year?” She asked the obvious.
“If you would be so kind.”
“Yes, yes. Well, you realize what day it is today, right?”
“It's just a normal day, as far as I know. The day before a minor festival in the village, “ I added to cover my bases.
“People forget, but in the old days people used to revere the gods during important moments of the seasons. This is one such moment.”
“So this is some sort of religious ceremony?”
“No, not at all,” A sly smile formed on her lips. I got the feeling that she enjoyed being a repository of knowledge. More importantly, she enjoyed reminding herself that she knew a lot more than the average person.
“Don't draw it out,” Alice chimed in, “I know where you're going with this.”
“Fine, fine,” Patchouli rolled her eyes, “For us magicians, today takes a different meaning than for the majority of people. The village may celebrate old traditions, but we actively reveled in the bonds which allowed us to use magic. In the old days, far in lands far away, magicians and witches celebrated by gathering their covens and partaking in debauchery.”
“Those ignorant of our ways would see magic as something profane, something dark and evil. So witches would flock around one powerful warlock and he would take care of his flock.” Alice explained dryly, “On this very night, the coven would gather and engage in an orgy, far away from the eyes of the uninitiated.”
“Good heavens,” Marisa stared at me, “You're the only guy here too. I've always wanted to have a nice and strong warlock take care of me.”
“This isn't why we've gathered,” Patchouli ignored the salacious insinuation. She explained how the tradition had evolved to the present day, “Times have changed and the nature of our association, by extension, has as well. Besides, those are the ways of the old occident.”
“You say that, but all of us here have chosen to base a lot of our study on that tradition,” Alice weighed in.
“In my everyday life I mostly read and analyze works from that tradition as well,” Patchouli nodded, but offered dissent, “We are not solely defined by that baggage. The land around us is also rich in tradition, often tradition that is not obviously complementary and often seems diametrically opposed.”
“No orgy, gotcha,” Marisa smirked.
“So this is just a holdover?” I asked, “A reminder of our roots?”
“It's an excuse to take a break from our usual reality,” The bookish magician smiled. She really meant it, it seemed.
“In other words, tonight is a party,” The lively Marisa put it in much less ambiguous terms.
“We have food and drink, and I personally hope to forget the usual drudgery of life,” Alice surprised me with her unusual statement.
I had heard enough. I smiled and changed the subject. Marisa still complained about the people who were missing but a few drinks later she had already gotten over it.
“Ah, the moon sure is bright tonight,” I stretched lazily, enjoying the feeling of a satisfied stomach.
“Careful you don't get moonstruck,” Alice teased.
“If he did, I know the cure,” Patchouli smiled. I felt like she, too, was being a little whimsical.
“Let me guess: it involves some herbal concoction and round-the-clock supervision by a trained magician. A lot of physical intercession to boot. Preferably in the bedchamber. I've read that novel too,” The third magician chuckled.
“How scandalous, right?” Alice smiled, winking at me.
“No, seems about normal for us,” I laughed.
“Hm, so the boy gets it. Maybe I should supplement your learning with a few private lessons at the library.”
“If I find the time, I wouldn't mind,” I told her. “But not anytime soon. Had a lot to deal with and I'm not sure I want to jump back in just yet.”
“You've trained him well,” The bookworm directed at Alice, “He can see past what's on the surface and take advantage of opportunities.”
“Let's not talk about that,” Alice shrugged, “This is supposed to be a night without that kind of talk.”
That kind of talk inevitably cropped up again and again as the night wore on. But it was blunted by both the pleasurable intoxication granted by drink and our own uncharacteristic focus on the mundane. At the end of it all, when the sun was about to peer over the crest of the mountain and the once-impressive fire had been reduced to a few isolated embers, I found myself still awake. The others had collapsed earlier, forming a small pile of defenseless-looking girls. If a beast or hungry youkai came along, they'd probably pounce without hesitation. I had to admit even I was tempted to exploit the situation a little.
But that just wasn't me. I knew better than to disturb some of the wiliest and powerful magicians around. Once before, when half-asleep, Marisa had almost killed me with a 'casual' spell. She claimed that it was because of a dream she was having, but since then I had known than to bother her. Still, the evening hadn't been too bad. I enjoyed it. I could get used to it if it was a yearly tradition. Real fast too. It was proof that I was accepted by them.
I laid back near the pile of unconscious magicians. The sun began to emerge from the other side of the mountain. I smiled as I closed my eyes, happy to have been accepted after everything that had happened.