Chapter 41: Shishya, Part Deux
After cleaning up from our early lunch — early to Kaitlyn and I, right on time for Kristen — the three of us hiked back up to the spot where Kaitlyn and Kristen had done their first meditation session.
Once we were sitting in meditation poses, Kaitlyn said, “Kristen, why don’t you tell Davie what you felt just before he called us down to lunch?”
Kristen temporized, “It’s kind of screwy.”
“Do we two strike you as highly judgemental people?” I replied with a reassuring grin.
“No, I don’t suppose so.” She took a deep breath, then said. “I felt these…presences around us. Not like ghosts. I mean, I wasn’t scared, but I felt something.”
I traded a meaningful look with Kaitlyn, but only said, “Let’s get you back into a trance and see if we can replicate that under more controlled conditions. Kaitlyn, why don’t you lead, having already had success with her?”
As Kaitlyn worked from my old playbook, I felt her join me in rapport with Gaia almost immediately, followed several minutes later by a new third presence, clearly Kristen.
There’s a qualitative difference between merely sensing another living being nearby and feeling a conscious being slip into rapport with yourself and Gaia. I realized then that this might be a more reliable sign of magical talent than a self-reported ability to sense life.
“Kristen,” I said quietly, trying not to jar her delicate trance state, “leave your eyes closed tight, but stand up. We’ll help you up. Just feel yourself floating upward like you’re riding away on a magic carpet.” Once we had her up on her feet, I said, “Kaitlyn, help me to spin her around a few times.”
The sun was almost directly overhead by this point, so I was hopeful that we weren’t contaminating the test results by letting her sense directions and go on memory, but I didn’t have any ideas of ways to solve this bias in the test without collapsing our subject’s mage trance. Even if we’d had a blindfold and a tent awning, for instance, we couldn’t have used them here. I wondered if this is why so many stories talked about initiating novice magicians on moonless nights? Something to think about.
I decided on my next-best path, saying, “Kristen, remain there with your eyes closed tight. Count slowly to ten, then point out the largest presences you can sense, in order from largest to smallest.”
At that, I began creeping away from Kristen as quietly as I could, motioning Kaitlyn to do the same so that at least we two would not be where our subject would expect to find us.
About ten seconds later, Kristen pointed straight at me, now five feet back down the steep hill and twenty feet along it! She then pointed directly at Kaitlyn who’d moved away from the two of us by a similar amount, then further up the hill to a large juniper at its top, and finally down past me to the smaller juniper we’d hung our food bag from.
“That’s it, just those four,” she stated, eyes still squinched tightly shut. “The others are all small and hard to sense. Kinda fuzzy, you know?”
“You can open your eyes now,” I said.
The first thing she saw was Kaitlyn and I walking back to her, grabbing her up in a hug, making of her a Kristen sandwich.
“What’s all this?” Kristen asked, confused.
“Back to you, I think,” I said to Kaitlyn as I released our guest.
“Kristen, this is going to sound weird, but… We think you’re a mage.”
Kristen just stood there looking back over her shoulder at Kaitlyn for a few seconds, then turned to face her straight on. “A what?” she demanded.
Kaitlyn then began to explain some of what we knew about nature magic to her, telling her what she’d already accomplished with her talent and explaining why she’d had to be naked, out in nature, and in a receptive trance to learn about it.
“I could have just been going on memory! Or just lucky!” she objected.
“Explain this, then,” Kaitlyn said, then disappeared from sight.
Kristen looked around rapidly, her head on a swivel, then spun to look at me. I grinned and disappeared, too.
Kaitlyn reappeared at that point, but she didn’t say anything until Kristen spun back to where she’d last seen her. “Boo,” she said quietly.
Kristen looked like she was ready to run up the hill and free-dive off the cliff into the lake and swim all-out for the far shore, so Kaitlyn stepped quietly and slowly up to her and re-embraced her. “Relax, Kristen. It’s all fine. Sit, and let’s talk.”
I’d reappeared and sat down behind her, my hands in my lap, trying to look as non-threatening as I could manage. “Please?” I added from behind her, looking straight up into her eyes.
Kristen whirled at the sound and stared back into my eyes, then eventually folded her legs underneath her and sat in place, looking bewildered.
We continued our explanations, occasionally adding less dramatic demonstrations. I balanced a round pebble on a stream of air, setting it to spin in mid-air, and Kaitlyn coaxed a small desert flower to grow from a patch of sand between them.
Kristen was staring at the flower while she said in a small voice, “I can do this?”
“Eventually,” confirmed Kaitlyn.
“Come. Let’s go swimming again,” I suggested, knowing of another demonstration that might seal the deal.
Kaitlyn and I clambered down the steep hill, returning to our camp. There, I went to Kristen’s boat and pulled out her scuba mask, then unclamped the filling hose between her air tank and buoyancy compensator, handing her the two pieces. “Put the mask on and use the hose as a breathing tube. Follow me under; I’ll be going deeper, but you just need to get under the water’s surface so you can see me clearly.”
I turned and walked into the reservoir’s green coolness without another word, pulling up a mage’s wetsuit over my body as I went, flipping a mage breathing bubble over that once I was neck-deep. As I applied the gas exchange magic to the breathing bubble, I turned and watched Kristen slowly lower herself into the water, hunching down to get her mask under the water’s reflective surface rather than get too close to me, obviously still a bit skittish.
I saw her eyes widen in wonder at my silvery body appearance, the air/water barrier acting like the water’s surface above, reflecting light in strange ways according to Fresnel’s equations.
Smiling, I began twiddling my thumbs to show that I was willing to wait her out. For a solid five minutes, we looked at each other, me clearly under water yet not having trouble breathing, my chest moving in and out calmly, while she had to breathe through the tube to maintain herself.
When I saw her stand and retreat to the beach, I followed, dropping the mage scuba gear along the way. Kristen’s mouth dropped when she saw that I was still dry back up on shore.
“Those mussels were poisoned. I’m hallucinating,” she suggested weakly.
“Everything you’ve seen is real,” I told her. “It’s just outside your experience until now. And here’s the cool bit: we think you can do everything we’ve shown you so far, with some practice.”
“It took me months,” Kaitlyn added, “but it seems to go faster when you have friends along to help you learn.”
“I was first, and it took me years,” I confirmed. “Kaitlyn’s the second mage in the modern world, as far as I’m aware. You’re the third.”
“Why me?” Kristen asked.
“With a sample size of three, it’s hard to say, but my pet hypothesis is that it tends to work best with people who for some reason or other are close to the land. I’m a part-time nudist and outdoors enthusiast, and Kaitlyn was out hiking in the canyonlands when I met her. She works for a sister agency to yours, by the way, the BLM.”
“Office job,” Kaitlyn clarified.
I resumed my speculations, “Genetics might play some part in it, but as far as we’re aware, no member of either of our nuclear families has any magical talent. We should test that with yours anyway, Kaitlyn, but I’m betting we find nothing.”
“I think you’re right, Davie. We’d have felt something from them before now if any of my fam were mages.”
I suggested, “It could be genetically recessive, love, like your red hair: easily suppressed when not pure-bred, so that it can skip a generation or two.”
Kristen interrupted our scientific debate. “A mage?” she breathed. “Me?”
“What proof would you accept?” I challenged her.
She thought for a moment, then said, “Call my boat.”
“Um… What do you want me to call it?”
“I mean make it come to you across the water, like you’re calling a dog.”
I got a bemused smile on my face, then thought about it some. “Yeah, I can do that.” I untied her boat from the juniper she’d lashed it to, splashed back into the water the old fashioned way this time, skinny-dipping being preferable to mage scuba when given the option, then swum over to a small boulder poking up out of the water below a nearby cliff face. I climbed carefully up onto the boulder and concentrated on moving the sand under her boat, making it crawl down the beach like it was being supported by a million ants. When her fishing boat hit the water, I began moving the water around it instead until it was parked right next to my boulder.
I realized belatedly that it was a bigger trick than I’d planned: the boat had moved across the water in a straight line despite being towed stern-first. I saw that Kristen realized this, her jaw going slack.
I stepped gingerly into the boat, then used my internal magic reserve to push the boat back along the water, the manufactured aluminum preventing me from drawing magic directly from Gaia. I pushed it faster this time so that it beached solidly, riding up the sand a foot or so before stopping. I stepped off quickly under the inertia of the landing, tied the boat back up, and sat down where I’d been earlier.
“Why’d you have to untie it by hand?” Kristen asked, beginning to believe now.
We resumed the lecture, Kaitlyn and I explaining our inability to affect unnatural objects such as the nylon painter on her boat. The discussion branched out from there.
Perhaps an hour later, Kristen asked, “So what do we do with it? What’s magic good for? I mean, take your underwater breathing trick: I’ve got that in the duffel there in the boat already.”
“Lots of things. Today, we’d planned to turn a bunch of those mussels into fish-food,” Kaitlyn offered. “We can do it without poisons and automatically over large swaths of space. If we put our minds to it, we could probably eradicate the species from this lake in…”
She trailed off, so I picked it up, “A couple of weeks, maybe; a month at the outside. You’re welcome to suggest other ideas, though,” I added, “you being the ranger hereabouts.”
“It seems kind of destructive. Final, you know?” Kristen replied. “I think I want to study the problem more deeply and think on it before I let you go doing that.”
I didn’t push her. She couldn’t stop me short of putting on her Ranger suit again, and even then she’d have to bring in law enforcement if it came to a real battle of wills, but I didn’t see any reason to push it that far. Instead, I suggested, “How about we begin teaching you how to do active magic, rather than just the passive life-sensing we showed you up the hill, so that you can begin employing it down here on your lake once you’ve decided on a plan?”
“Yeah,” she breathed, then added more strongly, “yeah! Show me!”
“Well, you dismissed our mage scuba gear, but I notice that your air tank is empty now, while I can go all day. That doesn’t tempt you?”
“Not if it means flashing to the world,” she replied. Then realizing what this said about us, she quickly added, “I mean, this casual nudity here in this semi-private cove is one thing, but I’m not diving naked off the dock at the marina!”
“Nudity is a pretty hard requirement for doing magic. It’s not a matter of absolutes, more a gray area between full freedom to act and rapidly increasing restriction on your ability the closer and less natural the fabric gets, but something like a wet suit is death to magic: it’s entirely synthetic and conforms tightly to your body.”
“You could take your boat to a place of concealment like this cove here and get your magical scuba on in private,” Kaitlyn suggested.
“Sure, but then what if I’m caught while swimming about? It’s a busy lake,” Kristen pointed out. “Besides, I’ve got a job to protect. Word’d get around.”
Neither Kaitlyn or I had a ready answer, so we just leaned back and thought on the problem.
Kaitlyn was first to speak. “Davie, what if we combine invisibility with the wetsuit weave?”
I thought about it, then said, shaking my head, “You’d still see the silvery bubble of air if you put the invisibility bubble inside the wetsuit bubble.”
“So put it outside,” she told me.
I nodded, “That would work better, but then as you step down into the water, you’re going to make these mysterious tall hollows in the water, like footprints in deep snow except that they collapse each time you step forward.
“Still pretty obvious,” she agreed.
“But hang on!” I interjected. “Invisibility is light redirection, but we can modify the light instead. That wet suit of yours, it’s nearly completely black when wet. If we set the bubble to gobble up most of the light as it hits, reflecting back a bit of it as a specular reflection, it might just pass as neoprene! From a distance, anyway.”
I stood and quickly pulled an air bubble up over my skin, stopping it in a collar at my neck and in cuffs around my wrists and ankles. Then, concentrating, I modified the spell’s weave to cause it to begin absorbing light, letting only a small amount of it bounce back from the bubble’s surface to create shiny sun-glinted patches.
The women gasped in surprise as I suddenly appeared to be wearing a skin-tight black bodysuit! This is awesome! I am such a magical stud; I amaze even myself.
The women looked down and began to giggle together, a titter to begin with, then feeding back between them until they were both rolling on the beach together, tears streaming from their eyes.
Hands on my hips, I demanded, “What?” once they’d regained a measure of self-control.
“Look down, Davie,” Kaitlyn said between pants to regain her breath, pointing at my crotch.
And there I saw Mr. Happy, outlined in black mage-neoprene, as obvious as…well, as obvious as the well-developed twig-and-berries on Mama Bhat’s boy, is what.
“Turn around,” suggested my wife, twirling her finger in the air.
I did, and they began giggling again, this time managing to keep it under better control, yet both still clearly amused. I couldn’t quite see what they did, looking down over my own shoulder, but I could imagine it well enough: the suit must look painted-on, a layer as thick as the air bubble, like black icing on a Davie-cake. ‘Beefcake, to be specific,’ I thought wryly to myself.
“All right, all right, so it has limitations,” I defended, turning back to them. “Most people won’t get close enough to see the problems; you’ll be mostly underwater or at a distance if caught besides. Worst case, you dive and scamper, re-emerging from the water where there’s no one around to see. Between magical breathing underwater and invisibility, there should be no easy way to catch you.”
“He’s got a point,” Kaitlyn added. Then she pulled her own air bubble over her skin and darkened it.
I now saw more clearly what the women had been giggling over: Kaitlyn’s black mage-suit followed her breasts’ contours perfectly, neither compressing them nor bridging the cleavage as a neoprene wetsuit would do. The air layer did smooth her areolae and nipples out some, but she was definitely not Barbie-smooth on top. Below, she had a serious case of camel-toe. I walked around behind her and was pleased to see that her buns were as clearly defined as if she were wearing a thong.
Sexy. As. Hell.
I shook my head to clear it, saying, “Come, my ultra-sexy one, let’s see how it looks in the water.”
The water conformed perfectly to the air bubble, even climbing slightly up it via surface tension at the barrier. While I had my hips below the water, our guest had a hard time telling that I did not have on a traditional wetsuit. Kaitlyn had to sink down to expose only her upper breasts to sell an equivalent illusion, but that’s normal swimming depth anyway. It’d suffice.
Kristen asked, “Can you add some piping? Maybe a logo on the chest? Collar seams, that sort of thing?”
“Probably with enough thought, attention, and skill, but this is pretty difficult to hold together as it is,” I replied. “Best use it to deflect attention rather than invite closer scrutiny.”
“It still seems weird, you being naked like that,” Kristen opined.
I thought on this, then answered, “Am I, now? My bits are all concealed.”
“Not very well,” Kaitlyn replied with a low chortle.
I concentrated and pushed the air bubble out around my nethers into a passable package bulge, using the air in turn to compress my bits in toward my groin. Then I did a similar trick in the back, filling in most of my butt-cleavage, leaving only a shallow valley between them, as neoprene would do. “How about now? Am I naked or clothed?”
Kaitlyn just said appreciatively, “Cuuute…” Then she began pushing the air around in her own magical wetsuit, smoothing over her nipples, filling in her camel toe, bridging her breasts in a graceful catenary curve. She spun and showed us the final step, hiding away her callipygous buttocks with faux magical neoprene.
“Much better,” said our new student, adding a definite nod of her head.
We began teaching Kristen the skills we’d used. She was a slow student, this being her first active spell — no, a whole collection of spells, really, and not an easy collection at that — but she was motivated, so she had a passable version of the wetsuit trick going once dinner time arrived. She’d get better with practice, we knew.
We offered to take her back to the restaurant at the marina, but she said, “How about I take you instead? You bought dinner last night, and I think the balance of debt has swung decisively since then.”
“Debatable,” I said. “One of our greatest ambitions is to find other mages to share the load. We’ve either just cut our load by a third or increased what we can accomplish by fifty percent, depending on how you look at it. If you keep up your end, we’ll owe you a debt of thanks.”
“Heaven knows the planet needs a lot of help,” Kaitlyn added.
“You’ve opened such a vast new world to me,” Kristen persisted. “C’mon, let me treat you. Besides, I’ve got to get back home soon. Tomorrow begins just as early as today did, and it’s a work day again.”
At the restaurant, we chatted low and quiet over traditional American diner food in a tiny tourist oriented restaurant, discussing nudity, magic, nature, law, and invasive mussel species.
Perfectly normal dinner conversation for us.