It is said, among the Head Mages of the Magisterium, that the best Mage Hounds are the sort who are raised to it from a young age, although there are those who enter into it as young adults. It seems a proven fact, however, that true loyalty to the Church of the Creator, and to the cause of protecting the world of rogue mages, can only properly be accomplished through rigorous and extensive training and, some might say, indoctrination, since before the the mage child in question begins to wonder about the world.
And so, for the orphaned magelings given over to the Garden of the Creator (a foundling house run by the Church, and so named for the growing lives in the care of the brothers and sisters within) the way of their future is clear from a very young age.
It is no different for Hollyhock Wastrel, the small half-elf girl who stands still and silent outside the door to the Garden Elder's chambers, waiting to be called so that they might decide her future.
She's been waiting for nearly an hour now and, although the Creator praises patience, she's having trouble standing still. Being all of six years old, her limit for staying out of trouble is considerably low, and it's taking all the self control she has not to go over to the little altar nearby and start playing with the red wax candles.
Really, though, she's too worried to think much about playing. She knows that it does not usually take this long for them to deliberate. It had taken them just ten minutes the week prior to decide that Joden was meant for Healing in the army.
She suspects it has something to do with her magic. Small and young she might be, but she's seen the way her tutors look at her when she casts, the sidelong glances from the brothers and sisters, and even her fellow magelings, who understand better than anyone what shape her magic seems to be taking.
Hollyhock is nothing if not observant, after all. She's not sure what it all means, precisely, but she has a bad feeling about it, the sort of stomach-sinking one she gets when she forgets her Holy Quotes from the Creator's Book, or the time she accidentally knocked Briden into the floor during breakfast. The sort of feeling she gets when something bad is her fault.
When the door opens, she starts, and looks up; the Armed Brother who guards the Head Elder stands in the doorway and peers down at her. Like all the Armed Brothers and Sisters, he carries a stave and wears a neutral expression. The Armed Ones aren't ever friendly, and they never smile. They exist to protect all of them, because magelings don't always have the best control of their magic, and sometimes people from the city outside try to get in, because magic is scary, and dangerous.
She still doesn't like the Armed Brother peering down at her. She shrinks away from his gaze.
"Hollyhock Wastrel." he says, tonelessly, and gestures towards the interior. "The Elders will see you now."
Hollyhock swallows hard, and steps forward into the room.
It's a large room, one of the largest in the Garden, and taken up on one side by a large wooden desk where the Elders sit, and peer down at whoever is brought before them. Hollyhock walks forward nervously, clenching and unclenching her hands at her sides. She's anxious, and so it's difficult to keep her magic in check. She tamps it down, and tries to be brave. She looks up.
She recognizes most of the Elders there; Head Elder Tywin doesn't much meet with the youngest magelings, but she knows of him. She sees Brother Golden, and Sister Peridot, which eases her; Sister Isseki is also there, and that makes her guts clench.
There is one man she doesn't recognize, lounging in his chair; her catches Hollyhock looking and raises a brow, and she has to look away, cheeks heating. Who is that man?
The Head Elder clears his throat, and Hollyhock jerks to attention. He lifts a few pieces of parchment and stacks them together, sighing.
"Witchcraft," says the Head Elder, shaking his head, his hands folded on the desk. He peers down at her with rheumy eyes, his mouth set in a thin line. "A bad omen. I worry for you, young Hollyhock. I dislike to see it in one so young." he says it in the same tone he might use if she were nothing but an animal born with some unfortunate abnormality, like a calf with an extra face. It's the sort of tone Hollyhock is familiar with, so it doesn't bother her greatly.
'Witchcraft' is new, though. Is that what her magic is? She furrows her brow, and wonders.
"Her inherent magic is not her choice." Brother Golden defends. He's a human man with short blonde hair, a stocky shape and a warm smile. He's kind, and has a soft spot for the magelings under his care. He's been nice to her since the beginning, and she's decided long ago she likes him. "Hollyhock is a kind child."
"Kindness matters little." Sister Isseki snaps from the opposing side of the desk. She teaches Theology, and she's never made it a secret that she dislikes Hollyhock, whether on principle alone (being an elf, she has something of a natural disaste for 'halfbreeds') or if it's her magic that makes her sneer, or some combination of the two. Hollyhock has no idea; she just knows that Isseki hates her.
"Would you suggest we cull her, Isseki?" asks Sister Peridot dryly, peering over the thin rims of her glasses at the other woman. She's a halfling, but she always manages to seem taller than she is. She spends much of her time in the library, and it's from her that Hollyhock first learned how to read.
Most of the time, when she's free to do so, Hollyhock likes to hide in the library with her. She's reading a book about pegasi, right now, with big print and wonderful pictures inked in gold. She wishes she were there now.
"We have not culled a mageling in years." Brother Golden shakes his head. "I see no reason to start now. I tell you, her inherent magic is a birthright, and not a choice. She cannot be blamed, nor culled, for the way our Creator made her."
"It might be interesting to see her progress," adds Sister Peridot. "I can vouch that she's a thoughtful child. The worst she's ever been accused of is spending too much time reading, and I would hardly call that a fault." she pauses. "And there have been mages who wielded Witchcraft before without succumbing to the temptation of evil."
"What would you have her do?" Sister Isseki sneers. "She can't heal. The army won't have her. What if she turns on the others? She's too great a risk."
There is a moment of serious deliberation, before the strange Brother clears his throat. Quiet follows. The Head Elder peers at him.
"You have an opinion, Brother Casco?"
"A great many." Brother Casco sighs. He has silver hair and indigo skin, and long pointed ears. He almost looks like an elf, but Hollyhock isn't sure. "And very few pertaining to this situation. I have other things I could be doing. All of you seem so focused on arguing over the fate of one small mageling brat."
"It is what our Creator asks of us, Brother." says Brother Golden, a little dryly. "I'm sure you meant no disrespect to His plan."
"I think your arguing shows more disrespect than my words do." Brother Casco shrugs. "She's made it this far without hurting anyone, yes? Witchcraft is a powerful magic. More suited for fighting, true, but if you're too worried to send her into the army, so far away," he taps his fingers on the desk, "Keep her close by. The Kennels here in Central City always need new Whelps, don't they? More Hounds?"
"A Mage Hound!" Sister Isseki laughs. "You must be joking."
"There's an idea." Brother Golden considers. "Who better to suss out the dangerous rogue mages than one who wields a dangerous power?"
"We do not 'fight fire with fire', Golden." Sister Isseki glares.
"No, but a mage who specializes in the Elements might pull strength from a fire with their own power." Sister Peridot muses. "I see no reason she couldn't be a Hound. She's young enough for the training to take."
"We do have very few magelings suited to the task this year," the Head Elder hedges. "Kennel Master Suiden has asked, but the disposition required..."
"You cannot seriously be considering it." Sister Isseki bristles. "The child is a danger, Head Elder. The best we could do is cull her, here and now, and be done with it."
"Bit bloodthirsty, aren't you?" Brother Casco tilts his head at her. "Interesting, for a Sister of our Creator."
Sister Isseki's face turns faint red. "Our Creator teaches that dangerous magic must be destroyed, lest it cause harm to innocents."
"He also teaches mercy." Brother Golden insists. "And is a mageling not innocent? They can't help what gifts they're born with."
"You're too soft on them." the elf narrows her eyes.
"They're children, Isseki." he straightens in his seat. "Sometimes all they require is kindness, and a chance."
"They are mages." Isseki growls out. "And, left to their own devices, they become little more than beasts."
"Enough," says the Head Elder. "Enough, both of you. We will have to reach a compromise."
"So short-sighted." Brother Casco sighs. "Listen, the lot of you, and I'll give you a compromise. Send the brat to the Hounds. Let her train for a few years, and keep tabs on her progress. If she starts to develop in a way our Creator wouldn't approve of, cull her. If she stays on the right path?" he grins, and she sees that his canines are sharp and pointed. He looks at her, and she feels abruptly like the chickens in the coop must feel when Sister Sinatha comes for them with her chopping knife.
"Well. Then I expect the Church will be pleased, to have a new use for Witchcraft. Culling is a waste."
The Head Elder nods. "I find that suits me well enough." he says. "How do my fellow Elders feel?"
"I approve." Sister Peridot nods. "I look forward to the research opportunities it presents, if nothing else." she smiles a little.
"Hollyhock will make an excellent Mage Hound." Brother Golden says, decisively. He grins down at her, and some of the frigid fear in her stomach disappears.
Sister Isseki crosses her arms, and is silent for a moment, before she sighs. "This will end badly." she decrees. "You mark my words, all of you. I find myself outvoted, however." she puts her hands up in surrender. "Do as you will."
"Then it's decided." The Header Elder smiles, and turns to look down at Hollyhock. For the first time, he addresses her directly, less like an animal and more like a person. "I will alert the Kennels, and the Kennel Master will send someone to collect you tomorrow. You will become a Mage Hound, young Hollyhock. Does that suit you, as well?"
He asks, but Hollyhock knows there's little choice. She has little opinion on the matter, regardless, but they all seem to be waiting for something, so she lifts her head, and smiles a little, and says, "Woof."
It's dark, when the Hunters come for him.
Ichabod Sarranin knows they are there, even before they break down the front door of his temporary home. The fact that they did not bother to disarm his Alarm runes before they crossed onto his property tells him that discretion is not their focus, this night, which means they must think they have him dead to rights.
"Damn." He mutters, under his breath. "I thought I had more time."
Two weeks ago, Ichabod's employment at the Central City Public Magisterium had ended, in a manner write graceless and unbecoming and, in his opinion, entirely undeserved. Accusations of his involvement in illicit experiments and studies were, at least at the time, entirely unfounded. He had not, at that point, conducted any sort of experiments in a physical sense. It had been entirely theoretical.
He might have known the Magisterium would not approve, even when his theories might bring about the next step in the use of magic for the betterment of the world. Nothing but a bunch of idiotic pencil-pushers, doing nothing but what the Church of the Creator tells them they can. Short-sighted, in the long run. All of them content to regurgitate the same ancient lessons to the same groups of mage children, preparing them for a life under the thumb of the Church.
None of them understood. Or so he had thought.
When the first missive had come, Ichabod had not believed the contents. The second had been more persuasive, and the third had contained coin enough to draw his attention entirely, for though Ichabod is a man of research, he is also aware that coin is needful, for rent and food if nothing else.
He does not know the name of his mysterious benefactor, though he has met the man once. Enough to assure himself that it was not a trap by the Church, to catch him in the act of "committing sins against the Creator".
If creating life is a sin, Ichabod will blaspheme until the day he dies.
His experiments have moved beyond the theory stage, with the backing of his wealthy benefactor. That is part of the reason he is so annoyed that the Hunters have arrived so soon.
"Damn and blast." He growls. He grabs a bag and begins to collect whatever he can. Jars of his test subjects, tools, runes, notes and sketches. Whatever can be fit, and carried, he takes, as quickly as he can; upstairs he hears the Hunters fighting with his Constructs, hears the sharp, shrill whistles of the Handler ordering the Hounds, and he knows it won't be long before they discover the trapdoor and seek him out in the basement.
He tosses his bag over one shoulder and stares down at his current experiment. It is by far his most expansive one to date, and he is loathe to leave it behind. He has high hopes for this one, and he's only just finished stitching the legs safely to the body and sealing them from rot. Starting over on this is unacceptable; he refuses to do so.
He bundles the subject into a blanket and ties it up. His dragonling will live. The Church will not stop him.
He has just managed to fit the bundle into his bag, as delicately as possible, when he hears the pounding on the trapdoor above. It's heavy with Protection runes on the top layer, and made of solid iron below. He estimates it will buy him another few moments. He can hear them beating on it now; soon enough they'll burn through the runes and then cut through the iron.
With his last few moments, he takes time to write a simple note.
I am compromised. Moving to new location. Expect fireworks.
He folds it and presses it to his mouth, mutters a spell, and the scrap of parchment disappears, on it's way to a new destination. Just then he hears the crackle of dispelled magic, smells heat, and a glowing-orange sword pokes through the basement door.
"Ichabod Sarranin!" calls a voice. Not one of the Hounds; they aren't meant to speak on a Hunt. The Handler, then. The voice is familiar. Ichabod moves rapidly around the room, setting things in place for his escape, and trying to place the voice. "You are hereby under arrest for crimes most foul against the Creator!"
Ah. That's it. "Fuck your Creator, Handler Vin." he calls back, as he sets the last charge in place. "And you as well. You'll regret it if you come through that door!"
There is no response, just the searing hiss of the sword cutting through the iron. Ichabod isn't surprised; what he's heard of Vin Fortier does not lead him to believe the man is much for banter.
No one can say he didn't warn them.
He dug out his escape tunnel almost as soon as he'd set up his laboratory in the basement. Ichabod is nothing if not a forward thinker. He had hoped he would never have need of it, but it had seemed too great a risk to forgo the construction. He's glad of it now, though he hates that the laboratory will need to be destroyed.
Even with his primary specimen and most of his notes salvaged, the loss of such a place will still set him back a number of weeks. Still, being captured would be worse. It isn't much of a decision.
He pulls away the flat board which covered the entrance of the tunnel and steps in, just as the glowing sword cuts the final line, and a square of heated metal plunges down, opening his sanctum to the enemy.
A pair of dark figures drop down, followed shortly by another two, and then a fifth, broader shaper. Ichabod feels the surge of anti-magic energy as it begins to sweep through the room. His eyes narrow. "I warned you, Vin." he calls, and activates the pair of runes etched into the hard-packed earth of the tunnel.
One rune seals the entrance of his emergency exit. He catches a single glimpse of Vin’s face, of the Leash in his hand and the glint of metal from the Hound’s muzzles, and then the second rune activates, igniting the charges of mage-powder he set, just for them.
Later, when Ichabod reads the Central City newspaper, he will learn that the explosion took out not only his basement and the house above, but three others on the same block, and that the fire burned for three days.
By that time, it is not his concern, and he thinks no more of it. After all, he has work to continue.