Sig glanced down at his great-grandfather strapped on a rolling cot. He had lapsed into a coma almost a week ago. Until recently, he′d been the world′s most powerful Battle Wizard, leading the fight against Black magic. Then anyone would have guessed him to be a hale and hearty sixty-year-old.
Now, every one of his 193 years weighed heavily, reflected in his parchment thin skin and almost translucent white hair. The prognosis for recovery wasn′t good. The only known cure for the demon leaching the life force out required finding and killing the Dark Mage who′d summoned it. Unfortunately, the Mage hadn′t left a forwarding address before he escaped through another dimension.
Turning forward, Sig caught a sympathetic glance from the werewolf′s amber eyes in the rearview mirror. Only a few months ago, Sig believed that the world of magic had passed him by. Now Rick, a werewolf he′d just met, was chauffeuring him and Grampa Thor to Northwestern University in Chicago, where Sig would begin studying the Physics of Magic and the University Medical School would try to keep Grampa alive while they sought another cure.
Despite knowing it was futile, Sig patted Grampa′s shoulder before he climbed through to the front of the cargo van and twisted down into the passenger seat.
"How is he?" Rick asked.
"No change. Respiration and heart rate are still slow, but thankfully steady." He tilted his head to see behind through the side mirror. "Arthur, I mean Professor Herman, is still following us in my pickup truck. Darn, I need to practice calling him Professor."
"Not a bad idea. He′s old school and likes formality around the university. He′s a nice person despite being the Dean of the Physics of Magic School and one of the more powerful wizards in the world, but he is a bit of a starched shirt. If you slip up, you′ll learn to recognize 'the look′."
"As his student assistant, do you get 'the look′ often?" Sig asked.
"Not as much as in the beginning. But, yeah, sometimes I do and it still makes me feel like an idiot. He′s made it an art form. With one glance, he can make you feel like you′re standing naked in all your stupidity. So, remember to call him Professor."
"Yeah, he wanted me to call him Arthur while we fought together to kill the Basilisk and spiders the size of Dobermans. I have to get used to 'the Professor′ thing. I hope I don′t forget."
Rick arched an eyebrow when he looked over to Sig. "Who killed the Basilisk?"
Sig sighed. "Technically you did, but who held on to it while you rooted around trying to remember your lessons on medieval monster lore?"
"During the time we fought it, the Professor was out cold. Maybe you should call me Professor." Rick said as poked his muscular chest with a thumb.
"Professor is not the name I′m thinking of calling you." Sig said, casting him a droll expression. He looked back at the Professor following them. "He sure is nice, volunteering to drive my pickup truck to Chicago so you and I can talk about school things."
"Since you′re arriving mid-semester, everything is already happening. Classes are going full tilt. Social life is hopping. You′re behind, and need to catch up. On top of that, the Professor wants you to stay with him and I′m pretty sure he doesn′t want to have to catch you up on student life."
"That′s nice of him to offer, but I kinda thought student housing would be more fun."
"It might be more fun for you, but it could be bad news for the other students."
Sig gave him a quizzical look. "Why would it be bad for other students?"
"Duh… A Dark Mage has been trying to kill you. Practitioners of the black arts aren′t concerned about collateral damage. If he tracks you to the university, it won′t matter to him, or her, if your entire floor is wiped out just to kill you."
"Oh… I didn′t think of that. I don′t want to put anyone else in danger, even Professor Herman."
"The Professor has been fighting against the Black for more than ten times longer than either of us has been alive. His home is probably the safest place you can find. He′s wrapped it in wards and enchantments that will stop or weaken any magical attack."
Sig thought of Madeline, the witch who had betrayed him and left him for dead, buried in a cave. "Are there many women Dark Mages?"
Rick pondered the question for a few moments. "Now you′re getting into terminology that will be part of your studies at the university. Warlock, Wizard, Sorcerer, and Magician are names given to male practitioners. Females are called Witch or Sorceress, although a few may be classified as Magician. Even rarer are female Mages. Scholars will argue for hours about titles, classifications, and where magic comes from. It may be the result of the ability to draw on the forces of earth, fire, water, and air. Alternatively, it can combine with chemical formulation, herbs and roots, or combinations of all that. Then there are arguments about measures of magical strength. Others measure proportions of…."
Sig held up a hand. "Whoa, I can′t absorb a semester in a nine hour car ride" he protested with a laugh. Trying to follow Rick′s explanation, felt like the words were crashing into his brain in a jumble, with no order.
Rick shook his head with disgust. "If you want to be serious about it, only vain practitioners and useless scholars care about titles. The Professor will answer to Warlock, Wizard, or just about anything even though, rightfully, he should be called Archmage because of his power. The main classification you should be concerned with is between those who manipulate White magic and those who draw on Black magic."
"I suppose there are gradations there as well." Sig said with a smile.
Rick fastened him with a serious look. "There are no gradations. There is no dabbling with Black magic, no playing around. Once you touch the Dark, there is no going back. That′s the penalty for touching it. It won′t let you go."
"You make it sound alive."
"It′s worse. It′s everlasting evil. I′m glad I′m a Were. There′s never a temptation to access it. "
Rick turned back to the road while Sig absorbed what he′d heard.
Suddenly Rick raised his right hand off the steering wheel and waggled his finger. "Now back to your question about female Black magic practitioners. Men are more likely to draw on the Dark. It′s a power thing, although it′s said that women who seize Black magic are the worst. Studies indicate, however, that the proportion of male to female Black magicians hasn′t changed since climate change affected the world′s magic."
Sig took the opportunity to show that he knew something about magic. "The change came about when the polar caps, the Greenland ice sheet, and most of the glaciers melted, running into the seas. The weight burden on the Earth′s crust shifted, causing the axis of rotation to wobble and adjust. Because of that, Ley lines altered and grew stronger, making access to magic easier."
Rick spared him a benevolent smile. "Ah-so Grasshopp-ah. You have been studying more than math and physics."
Not sure whether he had received a compliment or a dig, Sig faced forward. After a moment, he looked at Rick out of the corner of his eye. "You′re sure it′s not too much trouble for the Professor to put me up at his place?"
Rick chuckled. "I don′t think it′s completely altruistic. He has plenty of room. His estate, although not ostentatious, is a bit more than one would expect on a Dean′s salary. Besides, I′m sure that he recognizes the benefit of your ability to turn into a nine foot tall, seven hundred pound Battle Wizard. So what if you don′t have any more magic than that? At least you′ll be able to change light bulbs in tall ceilings."
Sig frowned and fiddled with the talisman, Aðalbrandr, hanging from the chain around his neck. Grampa Thor had given it to him before falling into his coma. The sword-shaped talisman was the source of his power and his frustration.
After they checked Grampa Thor in at the university research hospital, the Professor pulled up to the gates in front of his home, ahead of the van.
Sig was impressed. The home sat on a slight hill, well back from the ornate wrought iron gates. An imposing eight-foot tall stone and iron fence circled the estate and massive masonry pillars supported the gates. The drive ran through them and circled in front of the house.
Professor Herman walked up to the gates, turned to wave at Rick and then began pushing on the gates as they slowly opened.
"Doesn′t he have an opener for the gates?" Sig asked.
Rick smirked. "When he waved, I pushed the opener. He′s not opening the gates himself. He′s checking the wards that he put in place to secure the property. He′s just pretending to open the gates for any nosy neighbors."
When the gates were open, he stepped out of site behind one pillar for a few moments and then walked across to disappear for a moment behind the other. A small flash of light followed by a puff of smoke rose from each.
Apparently satisfied, he waved to Rick again with a smile before getting into and driving the pickup to park behind the van in front of the house.
"The first order of business is to familiarize Sig with his new home," the Professor said after they alighted from their vehicles. "Rick, you should come along for a refresher. I expect you′ll be spending more time here."
When Rick stood next to Professor Herman at the top of the steps, Sig again noticed their disparity. The Professor was tall, about half-a-foot taller than Sig′s six feet. Slim and dapper, even after a nine-hour drive, he sported a neat, dark black beard trimmed to a point on his chin and the tips of his mustache. Unlike his beard, gray stranded through his thick black hair.
Rick contrasted sharply with the Professor. Although appearing short in comparison, he was only an inch or two shorter than Sig. Rick′s stout frame made him appear even shorter, although almost none was fat. With his straight brown hair trimmed evenly at an inch all over, and dense musculature, apparent even under the baggy hoody and tear away pants, he looked like a college linebacker.
Most striking was the contrast between Rick′s intense amber eyes and the Professor′s hooded black eyes.
The tour of the house included pointing out various wards and enchantments to be aware of and to avoid. Professor Herman indicated the location of Sig′s room, the all-important bathroom locations and the even more important kitchen with its large walk-in cupboard and built in refrigerator. Once he understood the layout, Sig unloaded the pickup and moved in with Rick′s help.
Afterwards, Rick took Sig for his first culinary experience at one of Northwestern′s campus eateries. "It′s not nearly as good as you′re used to at home, but you can get mass quantities at reasonable prices and some of it is actually good. We′re early; there may be pie left. They make one of the all time great cherry pies."
"I love cherry pie."
"Get it when you get the rest of the food. If you come back later for dessert, it′ll be gone."
"I haven′t decided whether I would rather live on pizza, burgers, or hot wings."
"No salad or vegetables?"
Rick turned and looked seriously at Sig. "Salad and vegetables aren′t food. It′s what food eats."
Sig chuckled. "That′s right. I forgot; you′re a carnivore."
"To the core. I always get the four-meat pizza, only because they don′t make five-meat pizza. The cheese and crust hold the meat together for my convenience."
Sig smiled as he dished up Caesar salad to go with his four-meat pizza.
Rick snorted derisively at the salad as they moved down the line to the desserts. "Look, there′s only one piece of cherry pie. You take it this time since you′re the guest—today. Next time I′ll fight you for it."
Sig bowed from the waist and said with a smile, "Thank you." As he reached for the pie, a rough push from behind shoved him away from the counter. He almost dropped his cafeteria tray.
When he caught his balance, he turned and found himself facing a wall—a wall clad in a denim jacket and holding the last piece of cherry pie. He looked up, and up, to see a large homely face sneering down at him. "You dwarves don′t need this. The football team takes priority."
He was the biggest person Sig had ever seen.
As the giant turned away, Sig set down his tray and started to follow him. Rick grabbed his arm and said in a low voice, "Don′t. He′s part troll and mean as a stepped-on-snake. You could make mincemeat out of him in your supernatural Battle Wizard form, but not in this shape even with your black belts. He′s ten inches taller and outweighs you by almost two hundred pounds."
Sig looked down at Rick′s hand on his arm. He started to pull away and Rick pulled harder. "Not a good way to start your college career."
"Being pushed around isn′t a good start." Then he cocked his head and gave Rick a quizzical look. "I thought you said that the unwritten rule around campus says not to give away that you have magic, what about him?"
Rick shook his head. "I don′t know if he knows he′s a troll."
"If you know how can he not know?"
"I got some of his hair and a friend ran DNA tests. I was conducting a 'research′ project. I didn′t say where I got the hair. Only Professor Herman and I know."
"Why did you run tests?"
"My project involved categorizing the characteristics of non-normals. I got to wondering about him he fit a profile. We go to the same barber. He finished just before I showed up for a haircut. On impulse, I swiped some of his clippings.
"The DNA tests say that what you see there is what you get when you cross a human and a troll. He′s Northwestern′s only first team All America defensive tackle – as a freshman. Six-feet-ten and three hundred and seventy-five pounds. He′s only half troll; he passes for human."
Sig glanced over at the tackle laughing with three other very large people. "Just barely… he just barely passes for human." He looked back at Rick and grinned. They both laughed.
"Oh, let me tell you the good news. He also works in the physics department. You′ll get to be buddies."
Sig groaned, "Great. I knew I shouldn′t have backed down."
"Don′t worry about it. He′s an asshole to everyone. Who knows, you may get a chance to go head-to-head in your other shape. Don′t forget, that′s the only shape he has. It must be boring when you can′t turn into an elegant wolf with a lustrous pelt whenever you please."
Sig raised one eyebrow, nodded, and shrugged.
After finishing their meal, they drove Sig′s pickup to the Game Room near the main campus. Three of the tallest women Sig had ever seen together preceded them into the room. They were all gorgeous if you like tall, shapely, and well muscled. Sig decided that he did. Rick watched with an amused smile as Sig′s eyes followed them.
Sig had never dated. He lost interest after Dad died from a lightning strike that Grampa Thor and the Professor attributed to the Dark Mage. Then Madeline came into his life. The prettiest, nicest, smartest girl he′d ever met, but she turned out to be a witch and tried to kill him. Trapped, frozen underground by the first girl you liked puts a damper on any dating interest.
Now he felt interest stirring. Something stirred in the region of his belt, maybe south.
The sensation Sig had went beyond physical attraction. He had a feeling in the back of his skull, similar to the black magic radar that the zombies and demon activated in him before they attacked, but it felt pleasant this time.
"Women′s volleyball team. They′re Amazons," Rick said.
"You′re telling me. They must be six-two or three."
"No, I mean they′re members of an Amazon tribe, women warriors."
Sig′s head whipped toward Rick. "Holy crap, is Northwestern full of circus freaks like us?" Maybe that explained the feeling he got from them.
"Yes and no. There aren′t that many in absolute numbers, but it seems like there′s darn near every kind of legendary monster on this campus that you can find. We frequent the same places. I guess us 'circus freaks′ maintain a low profile together, away from the normals. It makes it a bit easier and, after all, we do have things in common."
"Do they like guys?"
"Oh, yeah. They seem to, but Weres don′t appeal to them. We get along OK, but no action. They seem to like big guys. You′ll see them with basketball or football players."
"Not martial arts or fencing guys?"
"I understand some of them practice martial arts, but that′s just from overhearing talk. Maybe you can find out more." Rick said with a smirk and a raised eyebrow. "Best two-out-of-three falls with them could be fun. Do you want to be on the bottom or the top?"
Sig rolled his eyes and swatted Rick′s arm.
"You like them, I can tell."
Sig scoffed. "Yeah? How can you tell?"
"You′re blushing and your heart rate has picked up."
Sig′s eyes narrowed as he looked at Rick.
"It′s hard to hide emotional swings from the senses of a Were."
Sig shrugged and nodded toward the women, "They look like they have the full complement of breasts. Aren′t they supposed to cut one off for archery?"
Rick smiled, shook his head, turned, and flicked his finger over his shoulder for Sig to follow him as he sauntered over to the table where the three women sat. The blond looked up and nodded to him with a smile. The other two glanced up expressionlessly.
"I hear that y′all play around in martial arts. Can anyone get in on that?"
The one who had smiled shook her head. "Sparring with an untrained fur ball who can lift the front end of a car isn′t my idea of a good time. Now if you want to compete with bow and arrows or spear; we might consider it."
"Oh, I′m not asking for me. I′m asking for my friend here." He indicated Sig with a thumb over his shoulder.
Three sets of eyes zeroed in on Sig. "Do you have any training?" The blond asked.
Sig nodded. "Karate and Kendo."
"Third black in Karate."
Her eyebrows rose. "Kendo?"
"They don′t have belts in Kendo. I just received my fourth Dan. I′m now qualified to teach."
She gave him a quizzical look. "Only fourth?"
Rick chimed in, "He won the State Fencing Championship too."
Sig nodded. "Yes, and open."
She raised her eyebrows. "Open? For the state?"
Sig smiled. "We have a small state."
The brunette leaned forward with a feral smile. "I′d like to try out the pretty boy with a sword."
The redhead, who′d been silent, said dryly, "I think she means fencing."
"Of course, what else would I mean?" She said with an innocent look.
The blonde, who′d done most of the talking, smiled, "If he can learn to ride, maybe we′ll adopt him."
Rick nudged Sig, "Tell them."
Sig frowned at him.
"Tell us what?"
"I think he means that I ride Intermediare level Dressage, two rungs below the top level. I won third in state in Eventing."
"So you do Dressage, Hunter Jumper, and Cross-country."
"Of course. Have a seat. We just might have to adopt you."
Rick laughed when Sig blushed again.
"Why don′t you sit down too, fur ball. Maybe we can find a use for you. Maybe you could lead the hounds in a fox hunt."
Rick glanced at Sig, "See, no respect; I get no respect."
They chatted and Sig set times to spar; karate with Arianna, the blonde, and fencing with Bella, the brunette. They exchanged information about hometowns and Sig discovered that two of them came from Minnesota. Sig started to tell an 'Ole 'n Lena′ Norwegian joke when he received a rough push from behind. "Get up or move over." He turned to see the same massive denim jacket, from the cafeteria line.
Rick stood and grabbed Sig′s arm. "We were just leaving."
Sig looked at him with frustration.
"Come on buddy. We need to get back to Professor Herman′s and finish getting you settled in."
The hulk in denim turned and looked Sig over as if to record his face.
Sig frowned, nodded, and let Rick lead him out of the Game Room.
Outside, Sig grabbed Rick′s arm and pulled him back. "Why do you keep making me back down? Are you afraid of him?"
Rick bared his teeth in a smile and shook his head. "I can take him. I′m afraid I might kill him. What she said about lifting the front end of a car; I can do that—but only a mid-size car. I don′t think he can. All he has on me is weight and length. I believe I′ve got him on speed and strength – and that′s in this body."
Sig′s eyes widened. "Did you hold back when we sparred?"
"A little, but that doesn′t mean you′re not good. You′re very fast, one of the quickest humans I′ve ever seen, but not as strong as I am. You′re not supernatural in human form. I am. I don′t think I′d like to take you on in our supernatural forms though. Not with that bloody big sword and all your martial arts training."
"Why do you keep pulling me back? Are you afraid he′ll hurt me?"
"Like I said, he might; but that′s not why. He′s stupid, or at least acts like it. That′s why I don′t think he knows what he is. Supernaturals shouldn′t fight around normals.
"He′s a supernatural even if he doesn′t know it. We know we are. A fight between supernaturals could get very messy and potentially harm normals. We need to keep a low profile— always. Just because we′ve come out of the closet doesn′t mean everyone is happy with it."
"What do you mean not happy with it?"
"You know that Japan, Bolivia, and Denmark make all supernaturals register, like guns, or pedophiles. That idiot senator from South Carolina introduced a bill to do the same thing here. It didn′t get out of committee, but they′ll keep trying. All we need is an incident where a normal gets hurt or killed in a clash between supernaturals to get the fear started again. Fear drives politicians more than common sense."
Sig nodded. "OK, I understand. I don′t like it, but I understand."
"Talk to Professor Herman about it. He preaches against ostentation and can explain why better than I can. He′s very sensitive to and keeps abreast of the political climate as well."
"Right, the ostentation lecture. I′ll put it on my to-do list. You said something earlier that I meant to ask you about."
"That there′s darn near every kind of monster on this campus."
"Yup, I think it probably has something to do with Physics of Magic School as well as the convergence of Ley Lines at this end of the lake."
"What kinds of monsters don′t you find here?"
Rick pondered that for a minute. "To start with, no imaginary ones."
That gave Sig pause. "Imaginary ones?"
Rick laughed. "For sure, no vampires."
"Why not?" Sig asked with frown of concentration.
"There′s no such thing as a vampire, at least not like stories are written about."
Sig′s eyes widened. "There aren′t?"
Rick rolled his eyes. "There are monsters that will suck the life out of you, take your soul, eat your flesh, steal your thoughts and desires, but vampires, like people write about; no such thing."
Rick held up his hand, index finger rigid. "Now listen. Do people write fiction about vampires?"
"Sure, all the girls read them." Sig said.
Rick held up the second finger. "Do they write stories about werewolves?"
"Not anymore, but they used to."
"They don′t write stories about Weres anymore because they know we′re around and would call bullshit on anything they make up about us. Think about it."
Sig nodded. "So they don′t write about monsters that are real, just those that are mythical."
"You are trainable. That′s correctamundo. If they wrote about Weres, for example, it wouldn′t be fiction. It would be a documentary. That′s the easiest way to figure out if a monster is real. If they still write fiction about it, the monster is mythical – like vampires. Think about it."
Sig smiled. "Before I think anymore, let′s get some sleep. It′s been a long day."
Sig awoke to pounding on his door in the morning. "Rise and shine. We have to meet Professor Herman at the lab this morning," Rick said through the door.
Sig hollered, "Come in. What are we meeting for?"
"I have to work and he′ll be giving you your assignment. You didn′t think living here would be free did you? The Professor will get his pound of flesh."
Sig groaned and rolled out of bed. Rick went downstairs to scrounge breakfast while Sig got ready.
On the trip to the Physics department Rick told Sig, "The Professor is a genius, but sometimes he dithers. You may need to prompt him. Don′t hesitate. He sometimes needs a push."
Sig looked at Rick′s profile and nodded. "Right… I think."
Rick grinned. "You′re sharp. You′ll figure it out."
Rick showed Sig the way to the physics lab, where they met Professor Herman. Both Sig and Rick addressed him as Professor rather than Arthur. He greeted Sig warmly while Rick left for his assignment.
"I checked and your great-grandfather is stable. I also cleared it so you can visit at anytime. We can always hope that the fact you are his successor as a Battle Wizard may have beneficial effects." Professor Herman said.
"Thank you. I want to visit him. I know Mom will want a regular status."
"Since you won′t be in classes as we finish this semester, there are number of things I′d like you to do." He held up a spread hand and ticked off on his index finger. "First, I′d like to work with you for an hour a day on magic, in both forms. Until Thorval awakens from his coma, he can′t undertake your Wizard training. I will be undertaking it on his behalf. To begin, we need to get a baseline measurement on your magic as a starting point."
The next finger straightened and he ticked off that one. "Second, we have several projects in process on which we could use support." He handed Sig a typewritten list. "Look these over, chat with the professors or graduate students in charge, and make a choice of where you′d like to work."
"Are there any recommendations?"
Professor Herman smiled. "I′d rather not bias you. Talk to the primes on the projects, obtain information through less formal avenues and let′s talk about your selection next week."
"We pay students the same miserly scale, no matter which assignment is chosen. So, that won′t be a factor."
"I get paid?"
"I assure you, you′re not going to retire on it. I think the pittance we pay allows us to skirt child labor laws."
Professor Herman raised and ticked off the next digit. "Third, while you are acclimating and getting to know people, I want you to keep your ears open. However, be careful. I believe minions of dark magicians have penetrated and occupy positions within our bastion of science."
Sig cocked his head and raised an eyebrow. "In normal English, you′re saying there might be spies among us and to keep an eye out?"
The Professor colored slightly and said, "I believe you have absorbed the essence of it."
"OK, I can do that. Interview the primes on this list, infiltrate the worker bees, and report back in a week when I make a selection."
"And take care. Dark magic affiliates will not hesitate if they determine you have detected their machinations. Their response could be deadly. And never forget, there is already one Black Wizard who is after you."
"Enjoy yourself. The college experience, while demanding diligence, should engender pleasure in learning."
"Right. I'll focus on that." Remembering Rick′s guidance, Sig asked, "Shall we schedule time to establish my magical baseline?"
"Ah yes, meet me at 6:30 this afternoon in the calibration lab in the basement."
"I′ll see you there."
"No, Florentine Italian, my birth language."
Sig filed that information away for further consideration.
After interviewing the researcher in charge of the first assignment on his list, Sig had lunch with two of the project′s student assistants. Their project involved characterizing fairy dust, left behind when fairies work magic.
"The dust has magical properties but dissipates milliseconds after its magic is expended. We′re trying to develop techniques to preserve it long enough to study it."
Sig smiled. "I thought fairy dust could be used by humans. What about the story of Peter Pan and Tinker Bell?"
Shaniqua and Tony laughed. "Disney can do anything they want." She said.
Tony nodded. "We wish it was simple like that."
The two demonstrated enthusiasm for the project and enjoyed the people they worked with. They chattered about their team and its study mission.
"What drew you two to this field of study?"
Shaniqua′s face turned serious. "My mother was a voodoo mambo, a priestess from Jamaica. She died shortly after she had me. I never knew her or learned anything from her. My aunt, who raised me in Florida, says I′m just like my mother. According to my aunt, that isn′t a good thing. She′s afraid I′ll get involved in the same feuds that killed my mother or that I′ll hurt myself because I don′t know how to handle my powers. I chose to attend Northwestern to get away from that and learn about magic."
"Wow, I didn′t know that." Tony turned to Sig. "My Dad could always find things. If anyone lost something, my Dad would find it. He didn′t know how. It was just something he did. After the world changed, I started doing it too."
"You′re a good guy to know. I′m always misplacing my car keys."
"Yeah, but not everything should be found. The police chief of the town in New Jersey I came from asked Dad to help find some people who had disappeared. Three days after he found their corpses, he died, not of natural causes. I′m here to find out more about my talent and what I can do to protect myself in a similar situation."
Sig shook his head and felt the surprise sting of tears in his eyes. "My dad died too. I don′t think he had any powers, but some in my family did. I need to learn more about it. While you′ve been studying, have you found any signs of fairy black magic?"
The two looked about furtively and then at each other. They avoided looking at Sig.
"Did I ask a bad thing?"
Shaniqua frowned and finally looked at him. "There are stories about dark fairy magic, but…"
"But, we haven′t seen any evidence," Tony said. "A fellow researcher said she was on the track of black fairy magic last semester."
"But no one has seen her for four months." Shaniqua said. "I wonder if we′ll ever see her again." She and Tony looked at each other and shook their heads.
"Was she reported missing?"
Shaniqua nodded. "Yes, by her parents, the Martins. They live in Wyoming. When they couldn′t get in touch with Holly, they came here. She was the first in her family to attend college; they were so proud. Now we haven′t heard from them either for more than a month. I don′t know if they went back or…"
Sig leaned back in his chair, "Wow."
Tony grimaced and nodded. Sig looked back and forth between them. Shaniqua looked forlorn. "They were so nice."
Next, Sig sought the prime on a project to map North American Ley lines. The prime wasn′t available, and his number one assistant, Dmitri Nastase, had left to attend football practice. Sig recognized the name. It belonged to the giant All America football player with whom Sig already had two unpleasant encounters.
He looked forward to meeting him again when Rick wasn′t around to pull on his leash. He could claim not receiving the ostentation lecture as an excuse—if he survived the encounter.
It was just as well that he′d run out of people to discuss assignments. He had fifteen minutes before his appointment to meet the blond Amazon, Arianna, for a Karate match.
The address she gave turned out to be a small warehouse a few miles from campus. After parking, he grabbed his gear and went to the side door. Two women carrying gym bags climbed the short flight of stairs and entered ahead of him.
Inside, he looked around. The familiar sounds and smells of workouts filled the space. Metallic clanks and grunts sounded from the weight lifting area. Wooden swords and staffs clacked as some sparred. Stamping, scraping, and slapping sounded from a group engaged in hand-to-hand combat.
However, the familiarity stopped there. In small-town Minnesota, the gym would be filled with guys. Here, there weren′t any other males in a gym filled with over a dozen Amazons. It even smelled a lot better than his memory of the high school gym.
Women stopped to look at him. Sig felt like a spotlight illuminated him. He wanted to run. Instead, he looked around for a familiar face.
Arianna sauntered up wearing karate gi; a black belt wrapped around her waist. "You made it, good. We′re next on the mats in about five minutes."
Sig hefted his bag. "Where can I change?"
Arianna′s eyebrows rose. "Change? We usually come dressed or…" She gestured over to where the two women who preceded him had stripped down to their underwear and now donned workout clothes.
Sig wrenched his eyes away, trying not to stare. Tall, muscular, and shapely, they were staring material.
"We use the facilities at the gas station down the block if you have to go potty. We keep the women′s side clean. I don′t know what the men′s side is like. Or, you can change by that bench over there." Arianna looked at him with a challenge in her eyes then smiled, "Do you go commando?"
Sig blushed. "No, the bench will be fine."
Not wanting to seem prudish, he sat down, untied and pulled off his boots, then stood and dropped his pants. It seemed like the spotlight intensified. He quickly pulled off his shirt and donned his gi. He wanted to cover up the flush that suffused his body.
He turned toward the sound of quiet clapping. Giselle, the redhead they met last night said, "Nice, I like the jock strap and cup. I bet Arianna didn′t mention the storeroom where men change."
Sig′s head swiveled to look at Arianna. She smiled. "Storeroom? I guess I forgot about it. Well, no one got injured during the process."
Giselle shook her head, still smiling broadly. "Don′t let her get into your head. She′ll go for every advantage she can, not that she needs it."
Sig gritted his teeth, nodded, and smiled back. "No harm done. Good trick. I′m learning the rules."
Giselle laughed. "Honey, there aren′t any rules."
She and Arianna looked at each other and laughed. Sig noticed several nearby women smiling.
While they shared a laugh at his expense, he noticed that Giselle′s hair was the same red-gold color as the girl′s he fell for who turned out to be a witch that buried him alive. Giselle didn′t have the voluptuous beauty that Madeline possessed, but he noticed that her chiseled, broad-shouldered frame came with an adequate compliment of well-placed curves.
After a quick warm up, he met Arianna on the mats. Sig noted that she appeared to be at least two inches taller than his six feet and he guessed she massed as much. Her legs were longer than his were, but he thought he had longer arms.
They met in the middle of the mat and bowed. Before he straightened, she dropped and lashed out with a leg sweep. Half expecting it, based on previous actions and Giselle′s warning, he sprang into the air and blocked the upward kick to the groin that followed. He landed spinning and slammed a kick to her side that she partially blocked. He just managed to pull his leg back before she grabbed it.
He began the match thinking he would have to ease up, but quickly realized he could get hurt if he didn′t give it his all. She used her better leg reach to good effect and surprised him with her strength.
After almost five minutes of a very even match, he panted from exertion. It felt good pressing hard like this, but he knew there would be aches in the morning.
He needed to end the match if he could. He′d try passing strikes, his best move. She managed to avoid a kick at her thigh, but he raked her knee on the return. She lost balance. He whirled and kicked at her head. She leaned to the side to miss the initial kick and unbent just in time to catch his returning heel in the back of her head.
Stunned, she dropped to one knee. He grabbed and twisted her wrist, pulled her arm straight out, and kicked her twice in the side with his heel. If he′d applied full force, it could have broken her ribs. He spun and drove his knee against her extended elbow, pulling up short so he didn′t break it.
He stepped back, put his hands together, and bowed. She shook her head groggily as she stood and bowed back.
Sig heard applause and turned to see Rick with a group of ten women who stopped what they were doing to watch. They appraised him seriously.
Rick stopped clapping. "Now that you′ve beaten their number one in hand-to-hand they′ll want you to come back and teach them how you did it."
Several of the Amazons nodded.
Sig shrugged and winced. "I′ll be happy to. I need the workout, but first I need to ice these bruises. I feel like I lost. That was the toughest fight I′ve ever been in."
Arianna punched his shoulder. "You charmer; I bet you say that to all the girls. Let′s plan to do it again, but right now, that ice is the right prescription. If you feel like you lost, just imagine how I feel." She rubbed the back of her head.
Rick asked Arianna, "Who owes who?"
Arianna rolled her eyes, went over to a pile of clothes, pulled out five dollars, and handed it to Rick.
Sig wrinkled his forehead and looked between them.
Rick smiled. "You didn′t use the gas station down the street to change. I won."
Arianna shrugged and smiled.
Sig rolled his eyes, grabbed his bag, and pushed Rick toward the door.
He could feel the flush of embarrassment warming his face and neck.
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