Nosderag tried to tune out of the conversation, she really did.
But sitting a table away from an incredibly loud person made it rather difficult to focus on reading her spellbook. Not that Nosderag could ever use the spells anyway.
Sosoka was talking about herself. Of course she was. Her name literally meant ‘mine’, so was it really any surprise?
Her monologuing was interrupted by the sight of a familiar girl passing by them. Dalzonf kept her head down, inadvertently showing off her frizzy black hair. Her skin was dark, even for an Astrabolerian. She was tall and lanky. Her broken glasses just barely kept their grip on her tiny nose. She wore the uniform poorly, a long black skirt and an ill-fitting blood-red sweater over a plain white button-up shirt.
‘Hey, don’t get too close to me!’ Sosoka ordered with a mocking tone. ‘Wouldn’t want to fall in love with you.’
Dalzonf opened her mouth to respond but decided it was as useful an endeavour as climbing a snowy mountain in a bikini. She put her head back down.
The visual of a girl as defenceless as this almost got Nosderag to take her side but, just like Dalzonf, she kept her mouth shut.
Sosoka didn’t like the silence. Much too uncomfortable. ‘So how many people have you manipulated into bed? How many girls?’ Dalzonf gritted her teeth and glared at her. ‘What? Everyone knows what you are. You’re a tired woman. Well, a tired girl sounds more accurate, but whatever.’
That last accusation was enough to finally open Nosderag’s mouth. ‘She’s not married, Sosoka.’
Sosoka scoffed. ‘You know what I mean. That’s why I said tired girl. I bet she’ll become a tired woman to some poor guy and lead him along until he finds out the truth.’
She put on a high pitched voice and place the back of her hand on her forehead like she was about to faint. ‘Oh no, honey! I can’t sleep with you tonight! I’m too tired!’
Her voice went deep and gravelly. ‘Oh, but sweety, you say that every night! Why don’t you use a love spell on yourself for once?’
Her voice returned to normal as she leaned forward in her seat, smirking at Dalzonf. ‘Can lesbians use a love spell on a normal girl? Do you need a different spell or is it the same if a female love tolxer uses it on a man?’
Dalzonf looked around her, seeing everyone staring her. It took a couple of tears to convince herself that the best course of action was to run out of the cafeteria.
‘Wow, rude,’ Sosoka said. ‘I was only asking a question.’ She turned to Nosderag. ‘No need to butt in on private conversations, omler!’
Omler. The thorns of that word pierced Nosderag’s eardrums. She shut her mouth, trying to act like no one had turned their attention from the love tolxer to her, the omler.
She knew she didn’t belong at this school. She was alright at the theory side of things but as soon as she tried to make something come out of her hands or use a wand or do anything magical herself, she couldn’t do it.
It wasn’t fair. Her mother wasn’t omlerous but her father was. Her older brother was a powerful fire tolxer like his mother, but Nosderag? She lost the genetic lottery. No magic powers for her.
She often comforted herself by saying that she was lucky not to be a fire tolxer. At least she wasn’t feared by most people. She didn’t have to wear special handcuffs when going to sleep to prevent herself from sleep-setting the bed on fire. No one ran away from her any time she got the slightest bit angry.
And hey, at least she wasn’t a love tolxer and rumoured lesbian at an all-girls school.
At the end of the day, Nosderag shuffled home with a hunched back, made worse by all the books in her backpack. She dropped her backpack by the couch in the living room and collapsed onto it.
‘Hey mum, can we talk-’
‘Oh, yes, we have something very important to tell you.’
That wasn’t her mother’s voice. It was her father’s.
‘We?’ Nosderag asked.
Her mother left the kitchen to join the two. She still wore her apron, tied tight around her portly figure. Her round, dark face looked much younger than she was. Magic can do that to a person.
Nosderag’s father, on the other hand, had wrinkles just about every place someone could have wrinkles. His remaining hair surrounded his head like a ring. Time can do that to an omlerous man.
He turned to his wife. ‘Is Gosin coming home soon?’
She shook her head. ‘The station gave him more paperwork. Apparently he got too angry during an interrogation and has to write a formal apology to the suspect.’
He rubbed the bridge of his nose. ‘I see.’ He put his focus back on Nosderag. ‘Anyway, how does spending a bit of time in the dorms sound? Just a few months.’
Nosderag’s eyes grew. ‘Wait, what? Why?’
Her mother sat by her, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. ‘Your father and I have to work in Madagascar for a bit and we can’t afford to take you with us. And besides, we want to keep you in school.’
‘What the hell’s going on in Madagascar?’
‘Nothing, really, just a small… insurgency. We’re just helping our ally.’
‘So you’re burning superpowered terrorists alive?’ Her mother paused, then nodded. ‘Can’t I live here with Gosin? I can’t be sharing a dorm with people there.’
‘Your brother’s got a lot on his plate right now,’ Nosderag’s father said. ‘And why can’t you share a dorm with others?’
Nosderag looked at the fists on her lap. ‘No one there would want to sleep in the same room as an omler.’
Her mother chuckled. ‘It’s not like your lack of magic will rub off on them.’
‘You tell them that. And besides, didn’t you tell me to learn more about the world? Kinda hard to do that in Astraboleria. Take me with you.’
Her father narrowed his eyes. ‘Don’t give me that. You have books. You don’t need to go somewhere to learn about it.’
‘All I’ve learnt here is how many people think I’m useless and how I’d be better off living in the normal world with omlerous people.’
‘Trust me, people in the omlerous world are just as prejudiced as the ones in the crilerous world. At least you get to see amazing magic. You wouldn’t be here if your mother didn’t show me her fire tricks and introduce me to this world.’
‘Amazing magic that I can’t use,’ Nosderag spat, pouting like a child as she crossed her arms. ‘I’m not going into those dorms.’
Her mother wrapped her arms around her and pulled her close. ‘Look, we’ll make sure you’re put together with a girl who won’t judge you.’
‘You mean an omler? No way. I don’t want to wallow in shared misery with someone.’
Her mother stroked her hair. ‘We’ll figure something out. Come on, sweetie. I don’t want to do this either but we have no choice. Please be reasonable.’ Nosderag sighed in defeat. ‘There’s my little dragon.’
Her name meant ‘great dragon’ in Astran. After the birth of their first son, her parents had expected another powerful fire tolxer. Now the name stung whenever she heard it.
A week later, Nosderag faced the 113-story building in front of her. The wheels on her suitcase squeaked as she entered the building and headed to the supervisor’s office.
‘Um, Nosderag Zotmin, student id NZ487856. I’m new to the dorms.’
The supervisor checked the list for her id and ticked a box next to it. ‘You’ll be in room 112-B,’ he said, handing her a keycard. Nosderag was on the verge of tears when she looked up the spiralling staircase. ‘You can use the elevator.’
She pulled her suitcase to the elevator with newfound hope, which was immediately crushed when she saw no buttons.
‘It’s powered by your magic,’ the supervisor explained.
Nosderag groaned before beginning her trek up the long, long staircase. By floor three her breaths became laboured, by floor 12 her legs felt like they were about to fall out of their sockets.
She tried to distract from the soreness with thoughts about who would be her dormmate. That barely worked since it added a layer of worry on top of the agony.
At level 20 she decided to take a five-minute break. She planned in her head how many breaks she could take without spending all week walking up these damn stairs.
By level 40 she considered dropping dead. After all, she would have to walk up and down these stairs every day.
‘This fucking school,’ she muttered. She took to counting each step, which made her more aware of how hopeless she was in this situation. There was no way she could walk up 112 stories. At least the counting did numb the aching in her calves a little.
‘Level 70 step one, two, three, ugh… four.’
When she reached the 80th story, the pain in her body converted to murder in her eyes. Once she made it to her dorm, she was going to kill her dormmate and go to jail and never have to climb these stairs every again.
She reminded herself that her roommate would probably be a tolxer and therefore have the upper hand in a fight. She eventually managed to calm herself down by listening to the loud thud of her suitcase as it hit each step behind her.
‘Level 100,’ she said with a borderline insane grin and deep laughter to match. ‘Hah, take that, internal doubt! Now for the almost unlucky twelve.’
Once she made it to the magical level 112, she sat on the final step and panted for a good ten minutes. Then she stood up and swayed as she shambled to her room.
It took all of her remaining energy to raise her fist and knock on the door, which was opened by a familiar face.
Dalzonf, a girl whose arms could barely hold Nosderag as she collapsed into them.
Nosderag woke up in a bed she had never been in before, in a room she had never seen before. Her breaths sped up as she tried to figure out where she was. They slowed down upon seeing Dalzonf reading a book on her own bed.
It was not a spellbook but a children’s book, the first in the Black Helmet, Grey Heart series.
‘Man, I haven’t read that series in years. I didn’t know people over the age of twelve still read it.’ Dalzonf glowered at her without even looking away from the page. ‘Sorry. I didn’t expect a tolxer to read an omler’s book.’
‘Dinla Horas comes from the omlerous version of Astraboleria. Of course she’s an omler.’ Dalzonf’s voice was light and airy, as soft as a pillow and high in pitch as the chirp of a chick.
‘Still, reading a book from that world…’
‘I don’t see the issue. So long as she doesn’t fall into people’s arms and then insult their taste in books, I’m fine with an omler.’
Nosderag laughed awkwardly as she sat up. She watched Dalzonf read silently. She took note of her warm honey eyes and plump lips. She wore a low-cut black crop top that somehow didn’t reveal much body fat, shorts also in black and a small blue denim jacket with one side slipping down her shoulder.
Dalzonf turned her head upon hearing the smack of Nosderag’s head against the wall. She couldn’t quite see it against her dark skin, but Nosderag was blushing. Hard.
‘How did you do that?’ Nosderag asked in an accusatory voice, pointing at her suspect.
‘Do a spell without using your hands. Can you tolx with your eyes?’
The book in Dalzonf’s hands thumped as she shut it. ‘What are you talking about? I didn’t use my powers on anyone. There’s no one else here.’
Dalzonf’s warm eyes went cold, matching her suddenly calculating smirk. Her voice deepened. ‘Oh, I see.’ Any shred of shyness the other girl was used to seeing from her was scrapped. ‘We wouldn’t want that getting out now, would we?’
‘How sweet. My dormmate’s already got a crush.’
‘What? No, no way. You put a spell on me. I know you did.’
Dalzonf stroked her finger up Nosderag’s neck, causing the other girl to gulp. ‘And why would I do that?’
‘Maybe what everyone said is right. You’re a tired girl.’
‘Oh, please. You’re not my type.’
‘So you are-’
‘I never said my type included women.’
Nosderag grinned. ‘But you never said it didn’t.’
Silence, followed by a slow clap from Dalzonf. ‘Well played. Except for, you know, suddenly becoming attracted to me. You were so close to winning this conversation. If only I didn’t have dirt on you. I guess it makes sense for you to fall asleep in my arms. You must have been so... tired.’
Burning cheeks turned into blazing fury as Nosderag leapt out of bed. ‘I’m changing dorms!’ she yelled as she stormed to the door. ‘Why should I have to go through all this effort just to see your ugly face at the top of the steps every day?’
Dalzonf blocked the door with her body. A body that Nosderag definitely didn’t like looking at. No siree.
‘I guess your type must be ugly girls, then.’
Nosderag’s cheeks got so hot that their redness was finally visible. ‘I’m not… I’m not one of you! I’m never defending you against bullies again! Why do you even need people to defend you anyway? You can clearly throw words back in people’s faces.’
‘I guess you’re just too easy.’
That last insult dropped onto Nosderag’s already fatigued shoulders like the roof of a crumbling temple. She huffed as she lied back on her bed and closed her eyes. It was as if she thought she would wake up again to a world where her dormmate wasn’t such a prick.
Her eyes still closed, Nosderag asked, ‘So, since you’re apparently blackmailing me now, what do you want me to do?’
The sound of a page turning reached Nosderag’s ears. Dalzonf chuckled. ‘I’ll think about it.’