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- Ever since he had moved to this backwater town, far from anything that counted as civilization, Alan Merle had felt like he had eyes on him at all times. He was certain that some of it came from being an outsider, inevitably. His mannerisms were considerably more… refined than those of the inhabitants of this farming village; he was still getting accustomed to outhouses, for one. The fact that he was highly educated was another distinguishing factor about him in a place where many of the adults could neither read nor write. Also, of course, he was a magician, which tended to make one isolated by nature; few people felt comfortable discussing the weather with someone who could change it at will with a few arcane words and vague gesticulations.
- However, his paranoia came from more than that. Ever since he had accepted his teacher’s assignment to start a magic school in this Podunk collection of hovels, a task he had come to accept as a sort of exile, he had felt as though someone was always watching him, even in the hours he spent alone. Those were many; he had always been something of a night owl, but after a week of fumbling conversations and placid stares that left him feeling awkward, he had taken to spending more and more of his time with his tomes, pouring over arcane lore about mighty wizards who probably never tripped after stepping in a cowpie in the middle of the road, landing face first in a mud puddle, en route to teaching classes. Instead, they eradicated their problems with godlike thaumaturgical prowess, instead of spending a day brushing mud off their robes while they taught.
- Problems. That was a good word for the group he had been handed. This village, whose name he had yet to bother to learn, was a mixed community of humans and monsters. So it was with the classroom he had entered that first miserable day, finding a bevy of curious faces of adolescents, both mundane and inhuman. The students like himself were typical enough: bright, curious, but occasionally foolhardy and very talkative. He remembered being like that, years ago, before he had ascended to the top of his class and left behind those he had called peers.
- The other students were different. They posed challenges all of their own, mostly due to their lack of understanding of human norms. It was reasonable enough for some initiate of the arcane arts to crack off a random fireball in the middle of experimentation, or to turn their skin some abhorrent shade; he himself had grown quite fond of a certain shade of grey once he had worn it for the two weeks it had taken his own miscast spell to fade during his time as a novitiate. It was not reasonable, however, to sneak off during reagent gathering lessons with a fellow student to indulge in lustful actions. At least the boy in question had the decency to act ashamed at getting caught; the young lamia didn’t even pause in her activities. That was how he had learned that lamia had no gag reflex, though he admitted he should have supposed that.
- It was also not normal to cut holes in the walls of the faculty bathroom. He had caught the young gazer culprit at that one, though he had been impressed at her thoroughness; it had likely taken her great effort to climb atop the ceiling, and had taken the workers to patch all of the peepholes she had left. Had it not been for a rather windy day, she might have gotten several more eyefuls before he had figured it out. She had explained that she enjoyed seeing several angles at once with a brazen smile, and that had shaken him for several days. He had wondered if she was to blame for his recent feelings of being hunted, but instead she had a week ago taken to chasing a young man that had moved to the village, and lost all interest in her puppy dog crush on him, for which he was immensely thankful.
- The others were just as big of a handful. There was the large mouse that simply refused to sit down. She had made him chase her around the room until he had collapsed, shy of breath, after she took his staff and proclaimed that she was the teacher now. A young lizardwoman who showed only the barest talent at magic had once taken up his umbrella and challenged him to a duel. There was the cait sith with the shedding issue, which frequently triggered his allergies. She, at least, felt sorry for what she did, though her insistence on apologizing by giving him hugs typically only triggered another fit of thunderous sneezing. It was quite hard, he had learned, to teach when one’s nose ran like the stream behind their school, although the students greatly enjoyed informing him whenever his nose began to run.
- And then there was Avery Strigid. She was a different sort of problem, of course. Her parents were expecting great things of her, which he could totally understand: as the progeny of an owl mage and a wizard who had written many of the textbooks Alan had suckled on as a child, she had potential beyond anything this town would produce for generations. He suspected she may even be the reason that his teacher had sent him to tutor the children of this village, though he could hardly be certain it wasn’t because of his frequent arguments with the other graduates back in the capitol.
- Potential did not always equal results, however. As much as he had been told to expect a star student, a gifted prodigy that he could shower his knowledge upon, he had gotten something else entirely. Avery would not wake up during his class. Instead, no matter the chaos, no matter the subject content, no matter the trip that he took the children on, he would always turn to find her dozing. He could expect her to get the answers to his questions right, if he managed to pry her eyelids open long enough to consider them, but that only made him feel even more insufficient.
- Today had been no different. Once again, Avery had been all but comatose during his lecture on the applicability of arcane charging to the refinement of potions, and that lecture had been one of his best! Sure, the young salamander had started a fired that melted half of the glassware he used for alchemical infusing, but he could replace that in a few weeks. Perhaps the slime had changed color after she drank his supply of acids, and had left permanent marks upon his floor, but she was fine and the young man she had grabbed in a panic would regrow all of the hair he had lost, although his clothes had been a loss, as had his pride when all of the young ladies began discussing the size of his member instead of dutifully scribing runes of accumulation. Still, Alan was certain at least a few of them understood that magic can make potions better, and really, who could ask for more?
- Alan sighed as he collapsed into the easy chair he had brought with him to his cabin on the outskirts of the village. His home was a cozy place, with a nice fireplace, a large bed, and only a small community of rodents; they had fled the first days after he had shot miniature lightning bolts at them, but had obviously since deemed him harmless. His chair and his books were the bulk of what he had brought with him during his banishment, and in them he found his comfort. When he immersed himself in familiar musty pages, he didn’t have to think about laughing students or demanding parents or the shame his mentor no doubt felt for him. He only had to think about being the sort of wizard to leave marks like these on history, and someday he would. Someday, he could leave this village behind, with its reek of cow manure and its hay and its lack of intellectual stimulation. Its silence, its isolation, its aura of self-doubt…
- Alan sighed, and closed his eyes for only a moment, letting his muscles speak their piece about the strain he had put them through that day, searching for watering buckets and running to raid the nearest clothesline. He just needed a moment to think in quiet…
- The sound of a book hitting the floor made him jerk upright in his seat. In his exhaustion, he had forgotten his usual ritual of locking his door in a huff and renewing its magical seal. Now, that portal stood wide open into the darkness beyond – when had it gotten so dark? Alan shook his head to clear it from sleep’s lingering veil. He noticed that a book lay on the floor in front of his bookcase, and a quick glance and a swift run-down of his ordering system showed that it was Mystical Mysteries of the Movement of Magical Matter, Volume 2. A second glance showed that its precursor was missing, and his stood with a start; Volume 1 was his favorite! Enraged, he turned and grabbed for his staff, not taking time to grab his fashionably-floppy hat as he sprinted forth from his cabin, in hot pursuit of the bibliophilic thief.
- He saw movement ahead of him, and charged after it. It took only a moment to leave the confines of his yard and enter into the forest that surrounded it. He dodged branches and roots, summoning a light at the end of his staff to illuminate the path ahead of him. It had the unfortunate side effect of murdering his night vision, however, and he could only see a fluttering movement ahead of him, instead of making out anything of the robber. He peered intently through his glasses, determined to solve the mystery of the identity of this well-read robber, so that he could publically shame them in front of the town as soon as… he caught his breath…
- His attention so divided, and so exhausted by his sprinting, he paid little attention to the ground at his feet. One particularly rude root had erupted from the earth years before, and arched languidly right in his way. He only realized this once the offending outreach firmly grasped his foot, and he fell face-first, distracted from the disgrace by the surge of pain that radiated up from his ankle. He cried out into the indifferent night, reaching down to the aching limb, prying it free with a hiss of pain.
- For a long moment afterward, Alan realized the trouble he was in. The woods were silent, and now he had no idea where he was. He couldn’t walk, he soon found out as he pushed himself up against the murderous tree that had crippled him. Even with his staff for support, he didn’t dare put weight on the blood-bloated ankle, not that he knew where he would go even if he could. The thief was gone, absconded with a very good read that would be a real pain to replace, and now he was alone.
- “Is anyone there?” Alan called out, hopefully, trying to ignore the fact that the forests in this region were scarcely settled. He had heard of werewolves roaming these woods, and worse; things that would absolutely devour a young man like him, at least according to the mocking wags at the local inn. Alan had no intention of ending up on a menu, and knew that calling out might only attract the attention of fell beasts, but… he was alone, and it was very dark, and the silence was chilling more than the wind through the branches. “Can someone help me?”
- Alan started as he heard the rustling. Something was coming near, drawn by his cries. He swallowed past his bobbing adam’s apple, pointing his shaking staff in that direction. “I warn you, I am armed, and I know spells that could turn you into mush at my feet! Stay back! –Unless you are here to help. Then…” Alan frowned in his panic. “Don’t stay back, I guess.”
- “It’s just me, professor,” called a sweet voice that Alan did not recognize. He peered into the darkness, and could only see a large shape approaching him. “I’m sorry. I never meant for this to happen…”
- The figure that walked into the circle of light emitted by his staff was indeed known to him, however. It was the form of Avery Strigid, the owl harpy from his class. Her eyes were turned self-reproachedly towards the ground, and under her wing he spotted a very familiar, well-loved book. “Avery! Have you been stealing from me?” he demanded, deeply hurt, far beyond the throbbing pain of his ankle.
- “No! Never stealing, just… borrowing,” she explained, refusing to meet his eyes with her luminous own, those golden orbs turned to the side. “I just… I always sleep in your class because I’m nocturnal, so I miss your lessons, but if I read your books, then I can keep up!”
- “I understand that, but… why didn’t you ask?”
- “Here, let me help you, professor,” she offered, drawing close to him. “I can at least take you home.” He accepted her offer, slipping his arm over her shoulders. He marveled at the feeling of her soft feathers against his skin as he leaned his weight onto her, and she didn’t even seem to struggle with the burden, though his well-controlled diet and lack of culinary skill probably aided in that.
- As they walked, she continued. “I wanted to ask, but… I always got so nervous. And you love your books, I could see that. I was afraid you would turn me away, because you always get so frustrated with me.”
- Alan winced, his chest tight at those words. “No, no, that’s not it. I…” He sighed in a blast. “I’m afraid I’m not a very good teacher. The others don’t seem to respect me, and even you… you used to stay awake at least a bit in my class, but now, not at all.”
- Avery was quite for a long time at that. “That’s not your fault. You’re wrong, on both accounts. The others might not always listen, but they love you. You are much more fun than the old man that used to teach here, and we are actually learning useful things under you. Like, how to put out fires with magic, and how to clean potions out of our robes, and…” She noticed his head hanging lower. “And me sleeping isn’t your fault. I mean, it is, but-“ She froze, her glowing eyes wide as he stopped hobbling beside her.
- “What do you mean?”
- “Well, I mean, I’ve been coming to your cabin at night and borrowing your books to keep up, but also…” She seemed to find a nearby tree, indistinguishable from the rest, inordinately interesting. “But sometimes I also stay up so I can watch you sleep. I mean, your bed is right next to the window, and when you sleep you relax, and you look so cute that I-“ Realizing she was babbling, Avery silenced herself, withdrawing into herself and fluffing her feathers, though her luminescent blush was still visible in the moonlight, and her eyes flicked to and away from him several times.
- Alan laughed despite himself. “Here I was afraid I was putting you to sleep, and I’ve been keeping you up? That is pretty ironic.” He smiled at her, realizing that, despite the oddity of the current situation, he felt more at peace than he had in a while. “I did wonder if you were somehow absorbing my words while you slept, or if I was just teaching beneath you.”
- “Oh, no!” she insisted. “Your lessons are great. Your voice just makes me feel… relaxed.” Again, the blush, though now it found a mate on his own cheeks. “And I picked up a lot of that by reading Thaumaturgical Fundamentals. It was a really good primer, more direct than the books that my parents have.”
- “I know, right? I love how they discuss how the order of the lines in a rune…”
- Their conversation continued unabated until they arrived at his cabin once more. Alan looked to the door regretfully, sad to have to end their conversation. “Well,” he started with a sigh, “you can keep the book, for as long as you need it. I’ve read it twenty times already.” This month, he amended internally.
- “I can?” Her face brightened like the moon. “Thank you! I’ll bring it back as soon as I finish-”
- “And get the second,” he offered with a smile as he stepped into his cabin. He noticed that she paused at the door, hesitant to come in when she was not committing temporary burglary. “I’m sorry, you must need to get home. Thank you for bringing me back.”
- “Well, actually,” she paused, blushing once more. “My parents aren’t home at the moment, gone on a visit to the capitol, so I am just there by myself. I was wondering, will you be okay here on your own tonight? Do you need me to stay here for a while to help you get settled in?”
- Alan glanced at her for a moment, his heart thudding against his ribs. He was reminded by his own leashed hormones that he was speaking to a young lady, one definitely of age, and one whose impressive features he had noticed more than once on accident as she dozed at her desk. Those thoughts tightened his throat as he swallowed, and he nodded to relieve that pressure. This could be trouble, his mind screamed at him as the door closed. He ignored it fiercely.
- Avery looked around his cabin, her head swiveling rapidly. “It’s a nice place,” she offered genuinely. She offered her appraisals of his furniture, and stared lustfully at his bookshelves, as she helped him to his bed. “Have you eaten? Do you want me to make you something?” she offered, as he sat down, wincing, stretching out and examining his wounded limb.
- “Ah, I should be alright, just-” His stomach roared an objection, and she giggled at him, hiding her face with a wing. She saw herself off to the pantry, and he watched her go, listened to her shock at his lack of ingredients, the way she scolded him for the way he had obviously been eating. He took the abuse with a smile, and deep inside him an insidious voice whispered that he could get used to this. He choked it down, but he could feel it boiling inside him with a leering glee.
- Soon enough, she returned with a meaty stew, and he winced as he saw the thick chunks bobbing within the broth, realizing she had devastated his larder to make her concoction. A sip of the stew, however, blasted that thought away, and he gasped in awe at her culinary magic. “This is amazing!” he exclaimed, stare awestruck at her.
- “It’s just a simple stew, nothing more,” she chided him, smiling broadly at his praise despite the absurdity of it. That smile grew as she watched him attack his bowl with zeal, and when he asked for seconds she was quick to pour the rest of the stewpot into it.
- Alan finished with a resounding belch, punctuating it with a blush, and she laughed at him. “You really need someone around here who knows how to cook,” she pointed out, and he agreed with crimson cheeks, glancing at her with a nervousness he hadn’t felt since he had cast his first incantation. “Well, I suppose I should go… you need your rest for tomorrow, right?” she asked, her eyes staring at him timidly.
- He was captured by those orbs, a mouse awaiting the talons. He had only the bravery to move his lips, but that was valor enough. “It’s rather late. Perhaps you wouldn’t be safe going out at this time of night…” That thought was patently absurd, considering that she had confessed to spying on him from these very woods every night, but she was in no mood to tell him that. Instead, she smiled at him happily, and nodded, her feathery wing brushing against his hand as she sat down next to him.
- The next day was chaos at the magical one-roomed school, but such is to be expected when the teacher does not come to work. When he did return the following day, it was on a well-bandaged ankle, with a brighter smile than he had ever shown his class. Things soon enough returned to normal, but all of the students were quick to notice that their cantankerous blowhard of a teacher had definitely changed for the better, even if he looked much more tired. Perhaps it was his diet, they suggested, though some gossips suggested someone had finally found out the size of the knob at the end of that wizard’s staff.
- But, each day, one thing did not change. Avery Strigid slept through every single class. It was just that now she had a whole new reason to stay up all night.
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