Somehow, subtracting schooling from school only doubled the boredom involved.
Ranelk’s poster laden halls were dull and eerie with most students missing, classes suspended, the hall set aside for those children who still required care. And children was the right word- most were chattering kids like her black haired brother cavorting under the blurred gaze of Mrs Matterson, like crows before a particularly haggard scarecrow.
Karen clucked her tongue, kicked her heels onto the desk and rocked back in the chair, tying her dark hair back idly. The ridiculous worksheets were doodled over, her phone dying, and yet half a day of tedium remained. Could she pull a gym mat out without drawing attention? Perhaps, but as soon as she tried to practice any exercises she’d be swarmed by brats and shot down for ‘instigating chaos’. Again.
A surprise embrace, pale arms and ticklish platinum hair rocked her chair backwards with a playful, “Heeeey!”
“Hey yourself, traitor,” A smile broke across Karen’s sharp tawny features, and she leaned back, trusting the girl to support her weight, “Come to flaunt your liberty?”
“It’s only been two days Karen, don’t be sooo dramatic,” Her friend pushed her back upright and perched on the desk neatly, a ray of gold and silver hair in the dreary hall. Her pale cheeks freckled under bright blue eyes and the rain glistened in her hair. It must have been letting up, for her neat sweater and plaid skirt were dry, coat hung up at the side.
“Yeah, two whole days Maddie! Two days you left me abandoned, trapped with ridiculous runts while you cruise around, free and clear- no, I thought we were friends, my heart is broken now, this is… unforgivable,” Karen clutched at her blue vest in mock anguish, before noticing another spectator behind Maddie.
The newcomer was overgrown, tall with hungry thin features, brown skin coloured by the sun. Lanky limbs promised an impressive figure one day, but were bent as if crushed by his damp backpack. Curtains of rain speckled black hair hung chin length around a straight nose, and amused eyes met her own.
“Oooooh, right- this is my best friend, Karen, I helped her move in when we were six!” Maddie announced proudly.
“Helped? Hardly.” Maddie had broken her favourite hobby horse after all, that little excited blonde who was in her new bedroom before Karen even laid eyes on it. Introductions were strange like that, always innocuous even when they lasted a lifetime and she gave a lazy salute to the boy, “Uh, welcome to purgatory, new here?”
“I’m that obvious? Yeah, just moved here with plenty of help from Madonna. Sorry for stealing her for a couple days, needed loads of hands to unload the moving trucks,” He bobbed his head, rain bouncing off like a wet dog, “The name’s Logan.”
“I told you, it’s Maddie, I’m not a rock star. And like she said, welcome to purgatory,” The blonde girl pouted.
“Well we can at least show him around. It’s better than sitting doing nothing,” Karen stood, and marched over to Mrs Matterson, “Hey Miss, can I and Maddie show the new guy round?”
“Maddie and me,” The old teacher corrected, looking over her with those bottle thick glasses, “Very well, no funny business, take care of Mr Downs.”
“Yes Miss,” She droned and turned back, gesturing the tall boy and Maddie to follow her up the stairs with a cocky glance at the younger pupils. Oliver was too busy trying to invent four player chess to notice her escape, but she’d rub it in his face later.
“Gotta say, purgatory’s quieter than expected, figured there’d be hundreds of folk. What’s up with that?” Logan ventured just behind her.
“Scared, digging bunkers, all sorts of nonsense! Mainly skiving, classes stopped a week ago, but my dear Mom and Pa don’t trust me enough to leave me a house key. Like, hello, I’m sixteen, I’m not going to kick over a vase by accident.”
“That was your fault Maddie. It was you or the vase,” Karen teased, “And I’d never kick you.”
“Yeah, fascinating.” Logan rolled his eyes and leaned close, looming over her, “But on the topic at hand, why stop classes? What have you heard?”
“Monste- oi, way too close!” She yelped and shoved him back. For a second the his lanky figure flailed over the precipice, then he grabbed the railing and clung to it.
“Yikes, fine, sorry! What monsters?”
Karen bit back a remark about personal space and shook her head, “What monsters? What rock have you been living under? There’s tons of news reports, website footage, though Pa says more than half of it’s fake, but people say they’re fairy tales or demons or signs of the world ending.”
“It’s ridiculous, but most people are just scared. Cowards. And Pa says there's plenty of people just taking advantage of the confusion. Gangs wanting to loot in the big cities, trolls online messing with people. I can’t stand them.” She continued, and turned to find him frowning, one hand trembling on the railing. “Hey, don’t be scared, they’re not real. There’s probably just a handful of stem-cell experiments that got out and caused confusion. Biologists do that sort of thing. Did you know they’re trying to clone mammoths like they cloned Polly the sheep?”
The youth’s dark eyes roamed over her, and he shoved his hands in his pockets, a strange smile crossing his lips, “Ha, right. I hadn’t heard that, sorry. Stem cell mutants. Cool. Honestly this is the biggest school I’ve ever been to, pretty exciting.”
“Must’ve been a log cabin if you think Ranelk’s big. Well, we’ll take it slow, I am in no rush to get back to that ridiculous nursery downstairs,” She rolled her eyes and welcomed him into the maths corridor, telling him such fun facts as that it had three rooms.
Thankfully Maddie had more to contribute, she knew every teacher’s name as much as they all knew hers and her father. Others might have called her a teacher’s pet, but that would imply some superficial motive which she simply lacked. No one was watching to score points or give prizes, and yet here she was predicting the new boys timetable and guiding him around. He was sixteen too so they had a lot of overlap, though he was more into art and technical subjects than the two.
Karen only really had to take over when Maddie excused herself to the art bathrooms, leaving her to fill the silence. What did one ask normally with a stranger?
“So where are you from originally? Come with any siblings?”
“Down in Oregon, had a ranch with my old man, but I’m with my uncle here and he’s, uh, custodian? Guardian for three young ones, they’re too wild for school though.” The boy smirked, “You? Didn’t seem keen on the kids downstairs.”
“My little brother’s Oliver, named because he’s all over the place,” She joked, “Well, he’s not the worst but it’s been four days since we had classes and we’re all getting some cabin feve-”
A cry of pain cut through her words like a knife. It was feminine and clear, echoing from the bathroom and Logan moved for the door immediately, panic in his eyes.
“Oi, not a log cabin, girls only!” Karen yanked him back fiercely.
“But she screamed, she could be hurt-”
“And I’m a girl, I’ll check, she probably just tripped. You stay out.” Karen ordered, and slipped through the door before he could do anything else weird.
The bathroom was surprisingly dark. The janitor hadn’t bothered to turn the lights on in the upper floors, and the teenager tensed slightly at the shadowy stalls and spray painted walls.
“Heeeey Maddie? You alright?” Her eyes peered through the gloom, aided only by a blinking red light that cast the chamber in bloody clarity every alternate ten seconds.
The groan came from a stall on her right, a deep rumbling growl that made her flinch and jump onto the sinks, back to the mirror and her startled reflection.
“I’m fine Karen, don’t worry.” Then came Maddie’s sweet tones, “But could you get my coat from the entrance? Small, urgh, wardrobe malfunction.”
Ah, so that was it. Karen eased herself off the sink. the creaking sound must have been the schools old plumbing. Yet her eyes picked up motion, cast in scarlet hues by that light. A loose pipe? No, its texture was scaly, and it flexed, shifting like a cable as it looped under the stalls locked door.
“Maddie, watch out, there’s a snake!” Karen yelled, lunged forward and slammed her heel down hard on the slithering scales. Yet instead of a hissing snarl, there came a feminine cry of pain and a crash as the cubicle door broke.
Huge heavy coils, over a dozen feet long with frills and brown muddy scales pile out, the serpent large enough to swallow the girl whole. No- it already had! From its end was a blonde form, legs lost inside the beast.
“Mad- MADDIE!?” Karen recoiled and lifted her leg for another kick. Yet it was faster, sinuous tail suddenly winding around her ankles, and a huge coil lassoed her arms to her torso. She inhaled fast, only for a hand to stifle her screaming mouth.
A hand? Her eyes tracked it as she strained, taking in the neat nails, the ochre webbing between digits, the scattered bronze scales on pale skin, disappearing under a blue sleeve. Platinum hair tickled as the being slithered around her, revealing wide golden eyes and a finger held up to delicate lips.
“Sssssssshhh, Karen please don’t scream.” She whispered through sharp fangs.
“Maddie?!” She struggled, taking in the scene in the blinking scarlet light. There was no reptilian maw closed around Maddie’s waist, the giant snake was headless, but instead the huge tail replaced Maddie’s legs winding out from the plaid skirt, wrapped around Karen’s limbs like powerful heavy chains. How?
“Karen, deep breaths, chill, don’t panic, deep breaths, it’s me, it’s Maddie, trust me, deep breaths.” The other plead, lifting a hand, “Deep breathes for ten seconds and I’ll let you go, okay? Just don’t scream or we will be in soooooo much trouble.”
She breathed. Hard and fast. Struggling to find rhythm.
Maddie looked strange. Her freckles were scaly, skin less pale, those golden eyes slitted like a snakes.
It didn’t make sense. Her head pounded. Was she passing out? Was she poisoned?
The coils unwound and she lunged backwards, stumbling as her head pounded, “Maddie- why are you a snake? What happened?”
Then the world revolved and she was on the tiled slimy floor. Wait why? Why had she fallen over?
“Not a good time,” Maddie began to slither closer, only to wince as Karen startled and scrabbled backwards. Her elbows bumped rusty pipes, and she grabbed the sink above to full herself upright. Don’t show weakness. That was her Pa’s advice with animals. It worked with people too. It ought to work on animal people.
“Deep breaths, good. Better?” Maddie settled ten feet away, that sinuous tail shifting and slithering around, her golden eyes catching the crimson light, “I just need my coat. Please, just grab it from downstairs, bring it here and doooon’t tell anyone.”
That left the door clear. Karen nodded, half listening and lunged past, whirling around to slam the door behind her.
“Everything okay?” Logan’s query made her almost jump out of her skin, leaning against the wall with those long limbs and dark eyes like a spider.
“No, no, I’ll get help,” She stammered, “Don’t go in there, weird girl things. You’re better off not asking.”
That normally worked with Oliver and she only hoped the teenager was equally squeamish. She sprinted past him, loping down stairs three at a time, vaulting over the bends as if hoping stairs would stop the snake pursuing her. After all, serpents didn’t have legs- but they could still climb trees couldn’t they?
Karen broke into the hall in a full sprint, and felt dozens of eyes whip towards her. That made her stumble- hadn’t Maddie said to get her coat quietly? But Maddie was a snake monster thing, why would she listen to that?
“Ms Thomson, are you quite alright?” Mrs Matterson beckoned with a gnarled finger.
“No, there’s a sna… I mean...” No things weren’t right. Her best friend was half snake. She ought to be shouting for an ambulance or pest control or Maddie’s dad Mr Carpenter. Yet instead she managed, “I… I’m not sure, I’ve got to get Maddie her coat Miss.”
Aged eyes squinted suspiciously before the teacher tutted and gestured to the door beyond her. “Fine, but no more acrobatics, you’re meant to be setting an example.”
Maddie’s coat was fluffy and warm, a silver jacket with deep heavy pockets neatly on the coat rack. Karen pulled it from the hook before turning, striding back to the hall and-
Froze as Logan and Maddie sped walk towards her. On legs and feet. They were walking, Maddie the same as ever, no scales or fangs or tail in sight.
“Aaaaaalright, let’s show him outside Karen- thanks for getting this,” Maddie pranced and pinched the coat from her grasp, winked and dragged them out through the cloakroom.
The rain at least had ended, dividing the sky in two. To the east, where the green woods piled up into distant peaks, it still poured in a dreary muggy mist. Yet much of the west and north were clear blue skies, reflected in the vast lake Ranelk bordered.
One could see the lake from the top of the bars, an old pyramidal mess of a climbing frame, half paint and half rust covered in bubbles of dripping water. There was a security to altitude, and so Karen ignored the wet on her jeans and perched on the highest rung, eyes wide for any serpents that might snap at her dangling legs.
“Alright, happy yet?” She gestured to the empty yard, cars rumbling past, “Now- what the hell is going on!? Was that a mutant? Was it even real?”
“Mutant?” Logan chuckled, rubbing his shaggy hair, “No, not even close, that was a naga, an ancient hybrid of serpent and human often worshipped in the middle east and indian subcontinent if I’m correct. They exist, have done for a long time, along with a lot of supernatural elements normally seen as folklore and legends- your world’s not what it seems.”
“What?” Karen squinted. Was this a joke? “Maddie?”
“Magic’s real.” The blonde girl said simply, and rolled her eyes at the gangly youth, “Aaaand Logan here can do it.”
The world revolved, and Karen yelped and tensed her legs as she slipped. It was enough to for her to hang, and she stared incredulously at the ridiculous upside down world. The sky roared below like an endless vacuum, the earth above framed by wooded peaks, with droplets flitting up to join puddles on its surface. Maddie and Logan looked strange too, both from the reversed angle, and the anxious expressions they directed her way.
“Oi, I’m fine, quit looking ridiculous.” She grimaced, and pointed an accusing finger, “Magic’s real. Really real. And you, wizard boy, cursed her?”
“Me?” Logan bristled with indignation, “Firstly I’m not a wizard, wizard’s are a bunch of self righteous hackers! I am a Mage. And secondly, no, I did nothing wrong, my disguise spell worked perfectly, Maddie just forgot timi-”
“Excuse me, worked perfectly? It stopped an hour early!” Maddie turned, throwing her hands wide.
“What? It lasted a full two hours, to the minute. What do you mean early?” He cocked his head like a confused dog.
“No- who on earth does two hours? It’s four three hour doses, it’s always three hours.”
“Well I do two, my Dad and uncle always taught two-”
“What is going on!?” Karen exploded and grabbed a hold of the bars. With a quick gestured she unhooked her legs and flipped around to land heavily and demand, “Why would Maddie need a disguise?!”
They glanced back at her outrage, hesitating before Logan spoke up, “Well. I just said. Because she’s a naga.”
“A snake woman,” Maddie clarified slowly, biting her lip. “I’m a snake woman. But please don’t tell anyone.”
“So… all this time… you lied to me?” Karen blinked at her best friend, feeling wet on her cheeks- had the rain started again?
“Not.. not especially, it was to everyone! Noooo, I never wanted to keep it from you. I wanted to show you, tell you, so many times Karen-”
“And I’m just EVERYONE!?” She screeched, “WHY DIDN’T YOU?”
Maddie clasped her hands and dropped her gaze, voice small, “I wasn’t allowed to.”
“Enough, don’t make this is about you.” Logan stepped between them, standing his full height, “See all those things you say were monsters or mutants? They’re all special people like her. Magic, myths, legends, other creatures, tons of them are real, not just nagas. And they’ve all had to hide for generations from humanity because as soon as people like you find out, you’re all angry mobs!”
“I’m not a mob!” Karen protested, “I just- get out the way you ridiculous beanstalk!”
“No, you don’t get to scream in her face for being honest.” He blocked her, even as she shifted then tried to shove him he was bigger and stronger, limbs blocking her way, “Some friend you are!”
“Friends? Do you think she meant that?” She gritted her teeth and wiped her eyes, “Amn’t I just her camouflage? A stupid little girl to make her seem normal?!”
“Wha- noooo, no, Logan, move!” Maddie darted around him, shaking her head, “No, no no! I’ve lied as little as I could, it’s not like I’m a different person- you know me.”
Maddie wobbled like an idiot when she was upset. Most people looked ridiculous when upset, all bloodshot puffy eyes and runny noses, dignity just went out the window. Perhaps Karen herself couldn’t judge, she was all scrunched up and angry eyebrows, but she almost never broke. Maddie on the other hand was always shaky and wobbly, it was the same frantic head shaking as when that little blonde girl had broken her favourite hobby horse, all guilt and freckles ten years ago.
“I thought I knew you,” Karen hesitated. Her head was still pounding. There was so much. Magic and monsters, secrets and lies. She needed something simple. “Fine- what’s your favourite colour?”
“Blue. And yours is Orange. And Oliver’s is green.” Maddie said uncertainly, “And… we’ve never been together for a sleepover, because, because if I sleep as a human, I’d turn into a naga again once the magic wore off.”
Karen nodded, “I see. You’re Maddie.”
“Yes- yes, I’m Maddie. I just have a snake tail sometimes.”
That was simple. She could understand that, “Right. Sorry for kicking you, where’s your tail now? I’m not stepping on it again am I?”
“You were trying to protect me,” Maddie smiled softly, “And there’s no invisible tail. This spell, Veil, makes me fully human. Sooooo, are we still friends?”
“Yeah, yes, we’re still friends!” Karen snapped, though she couldn’t keep a tremble from her voice. “It’s just… urgh, I wish you’d told me and trusted me to not freak out but I’m freaking out so you’re proved right and… aaaargh, just don’t act smug! I’m sorry. But you’re all serious right? This guy can really do magic? Actual real life magic?”
“Yeah but no I can’t do it on the spot, it takes preparation, but...” Logan frowned, rubbing his chin, “How’s this for an idea- Maddie was going to show me the lake tonight. You could come along, I can demonstrate real magic, and Maddie might look less menacing in the open than in a dark creepy loo. That alright?”
“Oooooh, yes, that’s an idea!” Maddie clasped her hands together, “We’ll meet at the East Cove at eight tonight- that is, you’re invited, I promise not to scare you.”
“Promise?” She questioned, a little too sharp as Maddie dropped her gaze, “Sorry, I’ll consider it. So is all that fantasy nonsense real? What about vampires? Or ghosts and werewolves?”
“Not that I know of- Logan?”
“Do you think anyone would manage to keep contagious feral monsters secret? No, nothing I know of can spread like a zombie or a werewolf, you can’t just permanently change someone. But there are spirits, and there are people who can turn into wolves and bats. Heck, I can manage a wolf very reliable.” He declared with obvious pride. “But I guess there might be some born wolf-people out there.”
“That tracks, I’ve never heard of real zombies,” Karen considered, “But- wait, all the news stuff, the riots, they’re other Maddies? Why are you so bad at secrecy suddenly? Is the world really ending?”
“Other Maddie’s?” The blonde girl giggled, “Weeeeeell, most creatures have legends and myths about them so we normally call ourselves Mystics. That’s the general umbrella term. As for how they’re going public, it’s complicated but ultimately too many photos ended up online, reporters followed them, and then too many journalists found out and word got out.”
“Photos,” Logan scoffed, venom creeping into his voice, “Sure, yeah, plus a load of mystics and monsters who got sick of hiding for their whole lives and decided to make it everyone else's problem by showing off to humanity and causing chaos. But no, the world’s not ending”
“Right- so… is there a difference between mystics and monsters?”
He sighed, “They’re not mutually exclusive. Mystics can be monsters. Humans can be monsters. Anyone can be a monster, they’re hard to spot.”
“Oh. Right,” Karen took that to close that subject and leaned back on the climbing frame. “So does that mean, is Maddie half human half snake or is your whole entire family nagas?”
Maddie tensed again and lifted a finger to her lips, “Yes, but please, it’s still a secret.”
“Wait, why does that matter? Magic’s officially real, it’s getting recognized and researched amids- what’s so funny Karen?”
“Her Dad’s a-” She gasped, suddenly breaking into giggles at the mental image, “Our MAYOR is a snakeman!”
“Wait. Your dad’s the mayor?” Logan froze, incredulity breaking his composure.
“Yeees, see Karen, that is exactly the kind of thing we do not want to be shouting,” Maddie putting a finger on Karen’s lips, “That and my family is a secret, okay?”
“Why? Like he said, isn’t all the magic stuff public now?” Karen pushed her hand back gently.
“Yeah, but who wants a snakeman for a mayor? It would be the end of us and all of Daddy’s plans.” Maddie insisted, pale fingers grasping her tawny ones. “Please promise me.”
Something about it turned her stomach. But it was Maddie asking, all blonde hair and anxious eyes, “Alright. Fine, I won’t tell anyone. Logan?”
“This is messed up. Fine, sure, but if this goes badly it’s not my fault,” He insisted, “But I’ll see you later to show you real magic, yeah?”
“Okay, sure, I’ll see what that looks like,” Karen nodded, heart drumming in her ears. At least things wouldn’t be boring for some time.
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