Competing Magic (Chapter Seventeen)
"Is something the matter, Mr. von Ghoul?" asked Doctor Smith. "You've been staring at me for quite some time now."
Today was the second day of training for the magic games. For the first half hour, Doctor Smith had been talking about the kinds of traps that were okay for the competition, as well as examples of the creative way those traps were used by past magic athletes, sharing a bit of his own personal experiences (all of which include how he cleverly and amazingly pulled through to victory). After that, Ezekiel and Sarah once again challenged Doctor Smith to practice games.
Ezekiel and Sarah really racked their brains for a strategy before the start of the game. Unfortunately, they couldn't agree on something together. Ezekiel wanted to go on an all-out offensive, just focusing on taking out the enemy's traps. Sarah didn't like that, thinking that it was better to fortify their defenses. That strategy wouldn't work because it would leave Sarah to handle getting through Doctor Smith's traps on her own. And that was pretty much what happened the last time.
In the end, they just did their own thing. And they lost. Sarah ended up getting trapped in an enchanted sleeping bag, and Ezekiel fell neck deep in mud. He did not expect the puppet that Doctor Smith sent to retrieve their flag to have magic earth powers.
They were now taking a break, sitting on the floor in the middle of the massive gymnasium.
"Nothing at all, Sir," Ezekiel replied.
That, of course, was a lie. Ezekiel didn't mean to stare, but he couldn't help it. After hearing how a criminal from the past that Josephine Desorciere Duncan might have been a victim of could be a scientist, Ezekiel began to see the recent addition to the school's science department in suspicious light. The school's magical defenses were some of the most excessive and thorough security measures in the world, set up by two of the most powerful sorcerers on the planet. If there was one weakness that villains could exploit to sneak into this school, it would be to come in as a member of the school.
As Ezekiel leaned back, he caught Sarah's eyes on him. She quickly turned away and said to the scientist: "Hey, so before you came to work here, what were you doing, Doctor Smith?"
"Hmm . . . " Doctor Smith stroked his chin thoughtfully as he looked up to think.
"Well, I suppose we have time for a little chat. I've done a lot in my life. As you know, I used to be a professional athlete in magical sports and games. And I was quite good. Honestly, the success I've had during that time alone could allow me a very comfortable early retirement. But I've always dreamed of becoming a scientist, like in the movies, inventing amazing things and creating miracles that magic could not. So during my sportsman days, I've worked on my academics, eventually earning a degree in an advanced scientific field. Once I got my degree, I decided to retire from the games and focus on building my career as a scientist. I haven't really done anything noteworthy to make my name standout, though. Even now, all I'm doing is being someone's errand boy."
A bitter scowl appeared on his face. When he realized what kind of face he was making, he quickly turned away.
Now that was mighty suspicious, Ezekiel thought. This scientist was starting to look more and more like a suspect with a motive.
"Well, enough about me," Doctor Smith said, picking himself off the floor. "Time to get back to training. Let's prove to Merlin Institute that Paladin Academy is the superior school."
Just then, the phone in his pocket rang.
"Hello?" the scientist answered. "This is Doctor Smith speaking."
Ezekiel could faintly hear the faint buzzing of someone speaking on the other end of the line.
"Are you sure?" Doctor Smith said. He sounded both excited and worried. "Of course! Right away, sir!"
He hung up the phone, stuffed the device into his pocket and then rushed towards the exit.
"Sorry, kids," he said as he took his lab coat off the coat stand and put it on. "But I'm afraid we'll have to cut this session short. Duty calls."
"What's wrong?" asked Sarah.
"Oh, it's nothing major," Doctor Smith said. "Just some kind of emergency back at the lab. You lot can just head on back to your dorms or whatever it is young people do at this hour these days."
He left without another word as the arena began to shrink back into the small barren room that it was. After the door closed behind the scientist/magic sports coach, Ezekiel hurriedly packed up and made his way to the door.
"Well, I'm certainly not going to waste some newly gained free time here," he said, getting up. "I'll be leaving first."
"Hold up, Ezekiel," said Sarah. "I'm coming with you."
"Well, Wu, I'm flattered, but I'm not interested in such a thing right now," was Ezekiel's response.
"What?" Sarah said, her face twisted in puzzlement. Her eyes slowly widened when she finally understood what Ezekiel meant, and her face twisted in anger. "That's not what I meant!"
"Ow!" Ezekiel cried out before falling onto his bottom. Sarah had punched him hard in the shoulder.
"You were looking at Doctor Smith all funny-like," Sarah said. "And the only time you've ever taken an interest in anyone is when you go all amateur detective. You suspect he's behind all that kind of funny business around James' friend, don't you?"
Sarah never ceased to amaze Ezekiel with her surprising sharp insight.
"Do you, as well?" Ezekiel asked.
"James and May are careful about what they say, but they do complain a lot about how their magic defenses don't ever seem to be enough," Sarah said. "From what I could tell, they think that there could be a spy in the school letting in all the bad guys. And chances are, this latest bad guy could be someone new in the school's work force. Right now, Doctor Smith's the only one we know who fits the bill for that, other than any of the people from Merlin Institute."
"I'm impressed you've got that far already," Ezekiel said.
Even though Ezekiel meant that as a compliment, Sarah still scowled at him like he was being insensitive or something. The nerve, really.
"Come on," she said, hoisting her book bag over her shoulder. "You're planning to tail him, right? Then we should hurry up or we're going to lose him. You can fill me in on what you've found out along the way."
Ezekiel was at a bit of a loss. But Sarah was right. Anymore dillydallying, and they'll lose Doctor Smith. They need to at least know where the Doctor's base of operations was. Maybe they'll find evidence of his evildoing there. Ezekiel was really curious about that emergency call, too.
They hurried out of the room just in time to see Doctor Smith turn right at the end of the long hallway. Ezekiel and Sarah briskly walked after him. Doctor Smith went down the nearest staircase and pushed through the double doors, the glass windows stained with age.
As they followed the scientist to his destination, Ezekiel filled Sarah in on what he had learned. He explained how the Desorciere twins asked him a weird question about his father, and how that led to a phone call with his secretary. Ezekiel also told Sarah about the story that John had told him.
"How'd you connect that story to Madame Duncan?" Sarah had asked.
Ezekiel didn't really want to blab about the new spell he mastered, wanting to keep his trump cards a secret. Too many people know about it already, as it was. But he supposed there was no choice. So, he told Sarah about the spell he mastered, and when he used it to transform into her brother -
"You did what?" Sarah shouted, jaw dropped. "That spell copies personalities too, doesn't it? You do know how James is like, don't you?"
"Admittedly, not a good choice," Ezekiel replied. "But I was hoping to gain insight to his power. Please don't interrupt me."
Ezekiel resumed explaining how, that night, he stepped outside as a copy of the magic teacher and ended up facing otherworldly monsters with Sir Quimbly. That night, a portal had torn open into another world, just like how a portal was used to banish the girl to a nightmare dimension.
"Yeah, I can see how the two cases might be connected if that's the case," Sarah whispered.
She and Ezekiel were hiding behind a tree as Doctor Smith marched towards the sparkling, cylindrical glass building that stood regally in the middle of a massive courtyard of concrete with just a few spots of dirt scattered throughout for trees to live as decoration. The blue sky was reflected perfectly across the glass except where the sun shone, which left streaks of blinding white. There were numerous people with white lab coats roaming the building grounds. Some were huddled together looking over sheets of paper and arguing.
"That's not all," Ezekiel said. "Back when we were all attacked by those monsters, there was a Beacon Bead, something that Madame Duncan made before she joined the IGM, according to your brother. That girl in John's story was part of a program that requires teaching its members how to make that, making it more likely Madame Duncan's the girl from back then."
"So, you think the culprit from eleven years ago is back to finish what he started?" Sarah said. "But why now, after so long? And why did he do that in the first place? I remember hearing that voice shouting something about revenge, but . . . "
She trailed off and did not finish her sentence.
"Some people guessed he went into hiding," said Ezekiel. "He probably left thinking that Madame Duncan was never going to come back, only to find out later on that she had been rescued. That's probably why it took him so long. As for why he committed that crime in the first place, I can only guess. Maybe those twins can shed some light. They do seem to know something."
"Do you think James or his friends know anything about it?" Sarah asked.
"Judging by how he reacted when I showed him that Beacon Bead, I doubt Professor Wu would know anything," Ezekiel said. "For whatever reason, Madame Duncan probably didn't share anything about her past to the other Star Mages."
Doctor Smith disappeared behind the automatic glass sliding doors.
Ezekiel started to emerge from behind the tree when Sarah caught his wrist.
"Hold on," she said. "You're not going to go in there, are you?"
"Why, of course," said Ezekiel.
Sarah glowered at her.
"You do know that that's the Advanced Science Building right?" she said. "Only people with signed permission from the Science Division's Administration can go in there. Everyone knows that."
Ezekiel did not. But he wasn't going to let Sarah know that.
He scowled at her and lied.
"I know that," he said. "I was just going to go over to see if I could find out which department he was headed towards."
"Dude, he said that he was in quantum physics, remember?" Sarah said. "And that's no lie, by the way. I looked it up on the school website. There's a photo of him with a team of other scientists in that department right on the front page."
It was like she lived to embarrass Ezekiel. Ezekiel opened his mouth to retort, but when he couldn't think of one, he just turned away.
"Come on," Sarah said. "There's nothing more we can do here. We should go."
Bitter that Sarah was right, Ezekiel was going to follow after her, but then -
A deafening explosion of heat hit Ezekiel in the back and threw both teens forward off their feet. Ezekiel landed on the hard ground, left cheek on the hard grown in a daze. A constant ringing sound pierced his hearing.
When Ezekiel turned around, the once pristine glass building with the slightly slanted top had become a ruined skeletal state. Smoke billowed out of the newly made openings, and people fled left and right. The smoke was an unnatural, glowing green color. A familiar, glowing green color.
"Ow!" Sarah groaned. She rolled onto her back and gingerly pressed her hand against the side of her head. "What was that?"
Sarah slowly raised her head, and then her torso, propping herself up with her elbows until she saw the destruction before her.
There was no time to waste, Ezekiel thought. If that smoke is the same as that fog from that night he encountered those monsters, then some big trouble was headed their way.
"Wu!" he cried out. "Arm yourself!"
He struggled to get back to his feet, which wasn't easy when it felt like a huge weight was pushing his body down.
"Huh?" went Sarah, while rubbing the back of her head. "What do you - ?"
A loud thud made it known to Sarah that something heavy landed behind her. The following soft shock wave lifted Sarah's hair a few inches. Sarah's eyes were wide. She slowly turned her head, and craned it up.
Behind her was a slimy, fleshy creature that looked like a giant worm but with a bulky torso and four legs with sharp claws. At the sides of its head were beady black eyes that seemed unfocused. Five more appeared, landing behind the first. They all faced Ezekiel and Sarah, and then let out ear-splitting roars.
- Competing Magic (Chapter Sixteen)
Ezekiel gets to the bottom of a mystery