A bit late, but this is the story for last month. It's part of a three part series in which I'll do a little bit of an exploration of hard magic vs soft magic. This first part is mostly setup, so I hope I can get into the actual magic a bit more in part 2 and especially in part 3!
Hard Vs Soft, Part 1 of 3: The Invigilator
Hard Vs Soft, Part 1: The Invigilator
It was one of those rare, perfect days - the sun beaming overhead; not a cloud to obscure it as far as the eye could see. There was no wind but a gentle cooling breeze, and the cries of the gulls echoed over the bay. Alex breathed deeply, filling his lungs with fresh sea air and opened his eyes to the pale blue sky. A shame that such a beautiful day had to be wasted on work, he thought. Couldn't the bad guys have some consideration and plan their dark plots to take place in the winter? Alex was a tall man, with bright blond hair and piercing blue eyes. He was young enough that he still had a youthful exuberance about him, but old enough that he could represent the council without having clients ask him where his boss was. A clean shaven face, angular but not overly masculine - one could even call him beautiful if it weren't for the horribly disfiguring burn mark on his left cheek and neck. He wore a pair of well fitted jeans, boots, and a tight white t-shirt under an unbuttoned mint blue shirt, flapping in the light breeze. The traditional robes of the Invigilator didn't tend to fit in too well in mainstream society - they generally just got him a lot of strange looks and a few awkward conversations from tourists asking where the cosplay convention was. Not great for keeping a low profile. He was there on the west coast of Italy on a tip; the council had heard disturbing reports coming out of the areas around Rome of a new group of willcasters - those that can give form to their Passion (the unique manifestation of an individuals energy) without a strong bond to a concept or object. These kinds of rumours always scared the council. Willcasting was difficult, those that could pull it off reliably were rare and far between, it was also dangerous; without a strong bond giving shape and limit to the Passion of the caster the results could be totally unpredictable, in one incident a few years back a rogue willcaster had accidentally levelled an entire village and in the process turned all the residents - himself included - into cats.
Alex's job was to figure out where the group operated out of, how many they were, and then to stop them if he could. Truth be told he thought the idea of willcasting was pretty amazing - untethered access to your Passion? Who wouldn't want to try that? The idea of total freedom sounded incredible - sure, it was probably a little dangerous; but it's not like regular use of Passion didn't have its own dangers. Alex didn't really fit the bill as far as Invigilators went. Invigilators are basically the peacekeepers of the council, they make sure the laws aren't flouted, and they investigate, arrest, and stop dangerous casters to ensure the secrecy and safety of casters in the greater world. Invigilators are assigned individually, it's not a job you can just apply for. Alex got there through a combination of luck, and connections (his mother had held a seat on the council). He wasn't the type really - the stereotypical Invigilator was a real stickler for the rules, a crusader of law and justice that will stop at nothing to destroy the enemies of order and righteousness. Alex was more a crusader for long naps and halloumi fries, but you don't get to keep the title of Invigilator for your ability to sleep off a big lunch. He was a fairly skilled competitor in the Passion league - not top of the rankings but good enough to put up a fight against most anyone - and he could hold his own under pressure from a Passion wielder; which as an Invigilator was a bigger part of the job than the council lead the general public to believe. It could be a dangerous job, if you got the wrong cases. For Alex it was all worth it though, it had great benefits, and it was a solo gig which suited him just fine. He only had to answer to the council, and they were pretty hands off. Thankfully he didn't usually have to worry about working with other Invigilators (they weren't the best bunch to hang out with generally). He was comfortable, and Alex could defend his comfort with an awful lot of 'passion' when the need arose.
Alex took in a deep breath once again, then sighed and meandered casually towards the centre of town. The little town wasn't far from Rome, and it was fairly quiet. As the sun shone it was hard for him to think of work, but work he must. Ahead of him was a little coffee shop by the roadside, tables with parasols sat neatly arranged in the sun outside, and under one of those parasols sat the person he was here to see. Alex's contact was a short woman in her mid twenties; as far as the councils contacts go she was fairly unassuming, with a slim build, round glasses and thick curly hair. She looked up from a book as Alex put his hand on the chair opposite.
"Felicity?". She stared at him for just a little bit too long before responding.
"Oh! Alex, right?", she stood up as she spoke in lightly accented English, then held out her hand as if for a handshake, apparently thought better of it and smiling, nodded at the seat instead before sitting back down.
"Sorry you caught me a bit...off balance, I was getting into this book." She gave a sort of awkward grin.
"Uh...I wasn't sure if you liked coffee so I didn't get you anything, but I'm not in a rush if you want to order..."
"No I'm good.", he answered as he sat down, "Were you waiting long?".
"A little while - but don't worry, this is my only job today!", she smiled pleasantly. "I guess you want to get this over with. I don't think it's a big deal really; but I know that's not how the council see it."
Alex rocked back in his chair and sighed a little, "No, that's not how they see it at all; but what can you do?". His chair clunked down on the pavement and he put his elbows on the table supporting his head like a bored child, "I'm fully expecting this to be some kids messing around after school in a little club or something, I'll act all stern and tell them the council will get them and they'll get scared and stop messing around with their Passions.". He looked up at the blue, cloudless sky.
"...and then I can chill out on the beach here for a week or two before the council realise they're still paying me and send me to give another stern talk to some more kids.", he smiled.
Looking back at her, Alex saw that Felicity had surprised look on her face, which slowly gave way to an inquisitive grin. "You're not...what I expected...if I'm honest.", Alex raised an eyebrow, "Aren't most Invigilators, um, a bit more uptight? I was expecting more of a Vader character, than a...".
Alex blinked, "A what??".
Felicity coughed and frowned a bit, "It doesn't matter - lets just get down to it, huh?".
Alex let out a sigh, "I mean it does matter a little, but sure; what do you have for me?".
She picked her phone up and scrolled for a bit as if looking for something. After a few seconds she placed it on the table and pushed it over to Alex. Picking it up he saw it was a picture of a frowning, severe looking woman, probably late twenties or early thirties. She had pitch black hair pulled back into a tight, long ponytail. The woman was standing on the roof of an apartment building, leaning over the side, staring into the distance and looking quite like she wasn't too happy about what she was seeing.
"That's your possible founding member, or 'leader', maybe - I'm not sure how they're organised; but that woman is a key member and is definitely at the heart of it."
Alex sent the photo to himself for reference, "Do we have a location on that apartment block? Does she live there?"
"I followed her, so yeah I'm pretty sure she lives there. It's a nice place, near the centre of the city - I'll send you the address."
"Did you make contact, or speak to her, anything like that?"
"No of course not - I know how to do my job", she replied with a slightly irritated tone.
"Okay, alright - anything else for me?"
"Yeah. I saw her practising with another one. Some guy - an older guy with a beard, balding head; they both looked pretty strong so I'd try to talk to them rather than just, you know - Invigilate, or whatever you call it."
"Uh, okay - noted. Well if they're really skilled," Alex yawned ,"I think I need a coffee after all.", he stood up and began to make towards the barista.
Felicity shook her head, "How the heck did you get this job...you must know people, right?"
Alex gave her an unamused look and stalked off towards the cafe counter.
Three hours later and he was looking straight at the mysterious willcaster. The sun was high in the sky now, but it was still a beautiful afternoon as Alex slowly tailed the woman through the streets of Rome. She was heading out of the city, towards an industrial area on the outskirts. They had been walking for almost 45 minutes and Alex was beginning to get a bit impatient. He could just have a chat with her now, most willcasters would immediately back down once they knew what they were doing was against the laws of the council - it was almost always just ignorance. Still, there was something different about this woman, something that kept him back, made him cautious. Maybe it was in the way she held herself, like a spring, tightly wound. Maybe he was imagining it. She was now heading directly towards a large, but old and ramshackle warehouse.
As the woman disappeared into the shade of the large warehouse Alex slowed a little. Something was off about this, there were no other walkers out here, no one in sight. The warehouse itself had a large yard with a chain link fence that gave it considerable distance from the other nearby buildings - which looked abandoned anyway, making it the perfect place to do nasty things to people out of earshot of bystanders. He kept on, but at a more cautious pace, ready for anything; the life of an Invigilator could be a short one if you didn't stay on your toes. Passing through the open gate in the fence, the dust blew like a low lying fog across the old concrete yard floor, and Alex made straight for the main door where he had seen the woman disappear minutes before. It was quiet as he entered the warehouse, the only sound the clap of his own boots. Temporarily blinded as his eyes adjusted from the bright day outside to the low light inside, Alex heard the woman's voice from across the wide open space of the building.
"I thought you had given up.", she paused, "I guess I shouldn't be surprised. I've waited a long time for this-"
Alex interrupted her, his eyes had adjusted now and he could see her standing at the opposite end of the warehouse, leaning up against the wall.
"Do you know what you're doing here? What's your plan, exactly? Luring an agent of the council out to some remote location - for what? You know why I'm here don't you?"
"Of course I do, did you think we were just some ignorant casters messing around in our free time? You'd have a word with us and we'd pack it up for you just like that?"
She spoke with a sudden fury, "You're here because we led you here, because we are the ones that informed the council of our own existence, because we need to know..."
The hairs on Alex's neck pricked up; he could feel her Passion rising from across the room, knew something was coming. Setting his body into a strong stance, he readied himself.
"Need to know what?"
She was shouting now, enraged, "The council has had it's little monopoly for too long! They can't dictate to us any longer!", she took a deep breath, and the whole building began to light up, an ambient glow that seemed to emanate from the walls.
"We need to know if we're ready. I hear you're pretty good. Show me!"
With that, she lunged forward, a fiery serpent lashing out from her as the walls of the building erupted in searing blue flame.