Geryon guides Alma through a maze of closed doors, winding stairs and similar-looking corridors into a laboratory currently occupied by three young wizards, seemingly absorbed by their work. Counters and shelves line the walls of the wide open space incompletely divided in two by a long counter island covered in old tomes, their splayed pages corroded by time, use, and unnamed chemicals. Windows offer a view to one of the many inner courtyards limited by the various buildings of the academy and welcome light into about half of the working space. On the other half, shadows fall as windows painted in black and dark red filter light to create a space of crimson twilight, where unstable particles can be stored and manipulated. The young wizards move easily and slowly among the various sets of beakers and test tubes, mostly ignoring each other, acting very much in the abandoned and disconnected way of ones who see only the job at hand.
“Here we are,” Geryon announces in hushed tones as if trying not to disturb the room’s other occupants. “Please, do forgive these young lads in advance. They spend too much time indoors.”
“Forgive them for what, exactly?” Alma inquires, her head tilting in mild confusion.
Geryon looks at the wizards and sighs before replying, “You'll find out soon enough.”
In a louder voice that carries throughout the room and awakens the wizards from their working trance, the gryphon calls.
“Gather around, gentlemen. We have a request for help here,” he adds with a slight cringe at the sound of shattering glass dropped suddenly by a particularly startled wizard.
The pale, thin wizard, with a frame more suited for a coat-rack than a healthy young man, hangs his shoulders, his long brown hair tied with a torn up glove in a loose ponytail falling forward as he bows his head, in a look of pure dismay at the puff of yellowish smoke that billows out of the pile of molten glass, and reflects off the round lenses of the distraught wizard’s glasses as it quickly melts into a small puddle of acid that corrodes the stone floors in a bubbling chorus of hissing and, strangely enough, whimpering sounds.
“There goes our repairs budget,” the young wizard sighs, his green eyes staring sadly at the ruined flooring. Turning to look in Geryon’s direction, he says. “Hi, Geryon. What’s uuuuuuuuuuuuuuu–” His words die in his throat at the sight of Alma.
“You're going to get a fly up your trap unless you shut it, Alan,” Geryon offers in velvety tones, at the sight of the wizard’s fully dropped jaw.
“Uh huh...” the wizard now known as Alan mutters.
“This is the lovely Sergeant Alma,” Geryon states, his eyes rolling imperceptibly in their sockets.
“Hi...” Alan greets in an almost whisper, his hand waving almost imperceptibly as his face takes on a grinning, daydreaming expression.
Alma smiles and nods in return, greeting each young wizard as all three move closer to look at her. Other than Alan, the two other wizards look seemingly innocuous and naïve. One of them, tanned skin, dark lively eyes and short black hair, looks at her with the same almost absent expression borne by Alan. The third one, thin, with dark red hair, moustache and sideburns to match, telltale acne scars and a hue that indicates a definite need for vast amounts of sunshine, stands slightly back, his blue eyes showing the full extent of his discomfort.
“Anyway,” Geryon goes on, his voice hovering between pity and irritation. “She needs some mana orbs.”
"We'd love to,” the darker skinned wizard replies immediately, his voice the sound of keenness.
“Thank you,” Alma says with a gentle appreciative smile.
“But we…” the third wizard stutters, his face a mask of concern. “You see... We... The rules... We…” He sighs before adding, “We can’t. If we got caught...”
“Yeah… It'd be our scholarships,” the tanned wizard admits in unconcealed disappointment.
Alma nods slowly at their words, her face showing none of her own frustration at the time that she can feel quickly slipping away from her. Instead, she smiles and calls upon her softest, most pleasant tone of voice when she pleads, “I truly understand, gentlemen, and far from me to ask you to put your future at risk, but these reserves are not for myself. They are for Sergeant Gwydion. He sent me here in the hopes that you would provide him with what he needs. He mentioned an... arrangement.”
The pale, blue-eyed wizard standing further back suddenly perks up. “Dion? He sent you?”
“Wow, he really knows it all, that man,” Alan comments brightly. “His friends are always cute. Not that I'd call you cute.” He suddenly panics as his own words hit him. “I mean, it’s not that you’re not but...”
“You see, his lady friends are usually younger,” the other, deeply tanned wizard intercedes. “Not that you’re old or anything!” he quickly cries out. “You’re more... Uuhh, mature?”
“Way to help a friend there, Saïd!” Alan hisses. “Geeh, I just meant to say the lady is beautiful!”
“Then why didn’t you just say so?!” Saïd retorts.
“Is Dion here?” the third, still unnamed, wizard asks, apparently oblivious to his companions’ quarreling.
“And did he bring the girls back?” Saïd inquires, his mind now diverted from the argument. “He promised us another party.”
“What do you care?” Alan jeers at him. “The one he brought for you spent the whole night waiting while you cried in the bathroom!”
“Well, yours looked kinda bored when she left,” Saïd taunts him back. “So maybe your magic wand there wasn't firing properly.”
“It fired a lot more than yours did, anyway!” Alan exclaims, his face growing red. “Cry baby...”
Alma watches the petty argument in light shock at the meaning of their words. Her thoughts race to paint the picture of what they are discussing.
He has been arranging encounters between these wizards and ladies of questionable virtue so that they'll do as he pleases? she ascertains. How much lower can one go?
Weary of the petty arguing himself, Geryon intervenes. “Gentlemen, I am sure the tales of your romantic conquests would help put insomniacs to sleep but we still need that mana.”
“Oh, right! Anything for Dion!” Alan proclaims. “Just give us a minute, please.”
With these words, the three wizards move away into an adjacent room, Alan and Saïd still hissing insults and jabbing elbows at each other’s ribcage. Thankful for the silence that again falls in the room, Alma takes the time to walk around the laboratory, careful not to touch anything, peeking at the strangely shaped glass containers filled with solutions and powders of all colors. Here and there, an apparently empty bottle bears such an interesting label as “Invisible Fairies. Wear Goggles. And Gloves. And Iron-lined Throat-guards.”
Approaching a workbench covered in black velvet, she gazes at a thousand miniscule brilliant dots of light, like stardust spread on the velvety dark surface. On closer inspection, she can see these are tiny orbs, glowing with light of their own, emanating traces of pure godpower.
“Beautiful…” she whispers. “Like a starry sky.”
“They are, aren’t they?” the blue-eyed wizard notes, approaching her soundlessly from behind.
As Alma turns to face him, noticing the two other wizards standing out of earshot, he extends a small container, open to reveal four glittering mana orbs placed inside. “Here. I’m afraid we can’t supply you with more than these four orbs. Too much mana going amiss would raise some really tough questions.”
"Thank you,” the goddess offers, closing the container and taking it into her hands. “What are those?” she asks softly, looking back at the workbench.
“They’re self-generating mana orbs, for the god on the go,” the wizard explains, his eyes capturing the glint of his obvious appreciation for Alma’s curious stare. “A special request from the Guardia, for their elite teams in particularly draining environments.”
“Fascinating...” the goddess whispers. “But, so small... How much mana would they be able to generate, Mr...?”
“Jay,” the wizard replies. “ Well, Heathcliff Jay, really,” he corrects himself with a small grin, rubbing the back of his head in slight discomfort. “But I prefer Jay. That is, if you don’t mind. And yeah, that’s where we keep getting sent back to the drawing board,” he adds, slightly abashed. “They’re little more than trinkets right now. Because they’re so small, each orb can only generate a very small amount of mana. We’ve tried to make them grow by infusing them with mana but they can’t seem to remain stable enough to grow.”
“And these slightly bigger ones?” Alma inquires, pointing at seven orbs, still very small but about twice the size as the others.
“Those were exposed to small amounts of mana over a period of a few months,” Jay tells her. “It seems to work but takes way too long to make them. Just... impractical, really,” he concludes with a shrug.
“But still so very beautiful…” Alma comments, turning away from the workbench to look directly at Jay. “I wish you luck on your endeavor. Such a tool would be invaluable to us.”
The wizard’s pale cheeks turn red under her gaze, his obvious discomfort making his forehead sweat in response to the goddess’ pleasant smile. Rubbing the back of his head with a sweaty palm, he stutters, “Would you... like some?”
“What do you mean?” Alma asks, slightly surprised by the offer.
“All they are right now is beautiful, like y–” Jay begins to say but the words quickly die in his throat. He breathes deep before continuing, “I mean... They're pretty but we’re gonna try something else and maybe...you know...since you like them, we could... I mean, you could take’em,” he stutters on. “The bigger ones. Who knows, maybe they’ll grow, what with being exposed to your ... Uuhh, your natural... Mana, that’s it.”
Alma allows her lips to curl in a slightly wider smile, taking shameful pleasure in the young wizard’s awkwardness. “I would be honored.”
“Please, pick as many as you want,” Jay states, gesturing towards the orbs.
Her eyes set on the seven bigger orbs, Alma raises her left hand and uses it to pull her hair back behind her ear, exposing her clan earring. In response to her influence, the seven tiny orbs float up and adhere to the silvery rod hanging from the lily-shaped stud, taking the spaces once occupied by the stasis in which where the Bunnies used to sleep. Glittering and humming imperceptibly in resonance with her power, the orbs look as if they had always been meant to become one with the finely crafted piece of jewelry. With a gentle touch of appreciation to Jay’ hand, Alma thanks him and turns to leave, the young wizard following her close behind as if lost in a blissful trance.
“Smooth, lover boy, really smooth,” Saïd grumbles at Jay as he passes.
“Better’n you, Mr ‘I'm not saying you’re old’!” Jay whispers venomously.
“Gentlemen...?” Alma calls, turning to face the wizards.
“Yes, Miss Alma?” all three wizards reply in unison.
“Thank you, for everything, but I am needed elsewhere at the moment and really can’t stay any longer,” the goddess states. “Farewell, gentlemen,” she adds, motioning to Geryon, who opens the door for her and follows her out.
“Bye, Miss Alma,” Jay says as the door closes.
“Come back soon!” Saïd calls behind the gryphon.
“And tell Dion we’re still waiting!” Alan requests, his words soon followed by a loud thump! “Ouch! What’ya do that for?!”
“Are they always like this?” Alma asks as soon as they are out of earshot.
Geryon smiles at the question. “Only when in the presence of stunning goddesses who takes the time to smile at them.”