Mariko Takashi and the Case of the Visiting Changeling
Year 1, Book 2
Looks are always deceiving.
Alvaro Jameson was a normal freshman until a few weeks ago when he discovered that wizards and monsters were real. Following a strange young woman named Mariko Takashi, he uncovered a world hidden from people like him. As punishment for allowing a regular human to witness magic, Mariko lost most of her powers. She must work with Alvaro to solve crimes and protect the school, to prove that she can be responsible and regain her abilities. Now a dangerous changeling has come to their school, and no one knows who it's pretending to be. Can the two put aside their differences and find the creature before it's too late?
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The Game's Afoot (Sample Chapter)
Alvaro Jameson nearly fell backward laughing. The freshman caught himself with a hand on the plastic bleacher behind him to keep from falling back. He sat up and offered his friend a high-five.
Matias Gonzalez slapped the offered hand, and both of them calmed down after a moment. Alvaro turned his attention back to the game playing out before them.
The varsity basketball team was having another pre-season game, against Lucas High School, the Fighting Falcons. They wore green and silver, while Hughes High, Alvaro’s own school, wore the home colors of white with azure blue. Matias had tried out for the Stallions, but since he was just a freshman, only managed to get a place on the junior varsity team.
With only a few minutes left of the second quarter, the Stallions were down by eight. “The guards are kind of short,” Alvaro remarked, when another basket was scored against his school’s team.
“Yeah,” said Matias. “Tallest guy on the team is only six-three. They’re not going to state this year at all.”
The Falcons stole the ball at mid-court and took it for another easy lay-up. Alvaro grunted his displeasure, while Matias sat silently next to him.
“By the way,” Alvaro said, “did you see Heirs last night?”
The Heirs of Dragons was the most-watched cable show each week. The drama depicted a fantasy world where one particular family fought to keep control over a fractured kingdom. Invaders who teamed up with creatures such as orcs and demons made life worse for the peasants and aristocracy alike.
Matias nodded his head. “When Portricia was murdered by her own brother the evening before she was to set out to North’s End? Brutal!”
“I mean, she had betrayed the family. Remember, two episodes ago when she’d given the orcs the map of the Eastern Tunnels?”
“And Mentra the Great Wizard had his familiar owl follow her? She sealed her fate.” Matias shook his head. “You don’t betray your own blood for monsters.”
Alvaro chuckled. The magic depicted in the show was nothing like what he witnessed from real magic users.
Only weeks ago, when he saw real magic in use, his whole life changed. Alvaro followed a peculiar young woman at his school, until he found her using magic to stop a small, green gremlin from crawling through a portal from the monster realm to this world. He was soon helping her solve the case of the missing gremlins, while avoiding the male teenage magic user trying to find the creatures.
But he could not tell anyone about the Witches he met or the powers they had. No one could know about a whole world of gremlins and giants and other creatures that were waiting to invade Earth at any moment. Only the vigilance of those wielding white magic kept people like himself safe.
After his first case with the Witch Mariko Takashi, Alvaro learned that most of the tales about monsters and magic came from actual events. Nulls, or humans with no magical abilities, who knew the truth of the supernatural were tasked with being Voices of Wizards and Witches. For this, they had to write stories, depict art, even craft movies and other media, that were just different enough from reality that no one would ever think that the real events they were based on ever happened.
Part of his pact upon discovering that magic was real was that he must not reveal these secrets to anyone. Humanity, according to Mariko’s father, never could handle the truth. The Dark Ages were among the eras when humanity discovered that monsters and magic existed, so they destroyed culture, knowledge and each other to rid the world of the supernatural.
Matias continued, “Do you think that the family can survive the orc horde coming?”
Alvaro took a second before responding. “I’m sure they will. There’s another whole season the main characters signed on for. No way they get killed in the next few episodes.”
“But they kill practically everyone, even main characters. Anything can happen.”
Alvaro shrugged. “Maybe. But I’m holding out that the king survives through the end. No one else deserves to sit on his throne.”
“But his son Teros has been planning it. He killed Portricia. There’s no way he wouldn’t kill his own father if he felt he could take the throne uncontested.”
A young woman cleared her throat from behind the two. They both turned. Standing on the landing of the second floor of the gymnasium, stood the school girl getting their attention. Her cobalt-blue hair hung just past her shoulders. She wore a white blouse under a dark plaid jumper, and ankle-high white socks which contrasted against her black leather Mary Janes. Her coppery green eyes bared down on Alvaro. Her arms were folded, elbows leaning on the metal railing before her.
“She is gorgeous,” whispered Matias.
The young woman’s brow furrowed and her lips tightened. She heard what Matias had said.
Alvaro glanced at him for a moment, then back to the girl. “She is, I guess.”
She rolled her eyes and glared at Alvaro.
Still whispering, Matias leaned in closer, “You don’t think so? How can you not think that she’s hot?”
“Because I have to work on projects with her,” Alvaro said.
Out loud, he said, “You? And her?” Matias laughed. “Really?”
“Yes,” he said, the hurt coming through his voice. “Come on, we’re just friends. I don’t look at her in any other light.”
“Then you wouldn’t mind asking if she’s open to going out with me?”
The girl tched rather loudly and turned her head to look away from the two. “I guess she would mind.”
“Another time, then?”
“Let’s go, Alvaro,” she said, angrily, without looking back at him.
“She got a leash on you?” Matias asked.
“Funny, funny,” Alvaro stood up. “I’ll catch you tomorrow.”
“Give me all the details.”
“We’re not dating,” she said, with more acrimony than before.
“Wow,” said Matias, “you’d better go before she starts throwing things.”
Alvaro slumped his shoulders forward, knowing, from his history with his partner, that she sought revenge against him for any slights she felt. He would be feeling the effects of her anger soon enough.
“Thanks, I think.” He walked up the steps until he was at the same level as the young lady. “What’s going on, Mariko?”
She neared him. With her teeth gritted, she said, low but angry, “Why have you been wasting time talking to that abomination down there instead of working on the case?”
“I’m sorry about Matias. He’s just giving me a hard time.”
“Don’t care.” Mariko stood upright and folded her arms. “Why aren’t you working on the case?”
Mariko pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed audibly. “You haven’t noticed the problem?”
“No.” Alvaro leaned in closer to her. “What problem?”
She stared at him, her brow lowered. “Outside, now.” She turned and stormed out of the gymnasium through the second-floor doorway that led to a stairwell heading down. Alvaro peered back at Matias, who had a grin on his face after witnessing the interaction, then he chased after Mariko.
Alvaro felt anxious. During his first case, Mariko treated him like a burden on her, and blamed him for her losing her magical powers. Since she let a Null see that magic and monsters were real, she had to prove that she could be responsible by teaming up with Alvaro to solve cases. She would punish him with pranks and insults using any excuse she could.
He had no idea what Matias’s remarks would lead her to do to Alvaro.
Jogging after the Witch, he caught up to her on the first floor. “How am I supposed to know that we have a case? I haven’t heard from you for six weeks. I never saw you around school.”
“Because I have to study harder, thanks to you stalking me. Without my powers, I can’t practice, and that means that I can’t be a better Witch.”
Alvaro was a freshman at Hughes High School, while Mariko pretended to be one to blend in. On the first day of classes, she walked into his third-period chemistry lecture room with a supernatural aura about her. No one else seemed to take notice of her, and he later found out that his eyeglasses had an element in them that made her magic appear through the lenses.
Now, she only glowed with a faint aura.
“Your father gave you back some of your powers.”
She stamped her foot and scowled. “He gave me back the magic to maintain the shields on the portal. That’s only one tiny aspect of my abilities.”
“If there’s another case, then you should get more of your powers back after we solve it, right?”
Alvaro’s infatuation with magic and the monster realm from where Witches and Wizards drew their energy to craft magic kept infuriating her. Even after she played her pranks on him, like switching his padlock on his locker with one to which he did not know the combination, it never diminished his want to experience more of her world.
Even her constant lies never caused his love for her job as a supernatural detective to wane.
“Are you going to tell me anything?” he asked, opening the door at the bottom of the steps for her. Without breaking her stride, she pushed the crash bar of the twin door next to his and continued through to the exit opposite the hall. There she strolled out to the football practice field, where they had wrapped up their previous case.
“Mariko?” he asked, trying to keep up. Her blue hair whipped around with the late afternoon winds picking up. The sun refracted off her eyes, giving them an almost magical sheen. Alvaro looked toward the broken supports where once stood the football field’s scoreboard, the heap of metal and electronics near the fifty-yard-line gone weeks ago.
She turned suddenly and stabbed his chest with her index finger. “You and your friend do not get to treat me like I’m some piece of meat. Do I make myself clear?”
Alvaro knew that the impact of her nail would leave a mark from how much it hurt. He put his hands up and took a step back, out of her reach. “He was just trying to give me a hard time. I’m sorry about his behavior. I will speak to him about it.”
She closed the gap between the two of them, her finger poking at his sternum again. “I am not going to risk my future and my powers by being friends, let alone being a girlfriend, to any of you idiotic Nulls. I take my magic seriously.” She lowered her hand and looked down at the spot where she was jabbing him. “You need to take my magic seriously, too.”
“I do, I do. But I didn’t know that you were on a case. You never told me.”
She grew angrier and folded her arms. “I thought that you had been reading that book my father loaned you?”
“I have been. I haven’t gotten through it yet–”
“Then you’re not taking my magic seriously. You have to put in the effort to make this work. Or you can forever find yourself distanced from any Wizard for your entire life.”
Alvaro sighed and collected himself. “Do we have more gremlins getting loose?”
Their only previous case involved gremlins escaping through the portal she had created between the Earth and monster realms, so she could draw her powers from their world. The imps had joined together to force more power into her portal to keep it open. They had managed to relocate it to the new scoreboard, using the sign’s electricity to help control the portal’s position on Earth’s side. When Mariko cut the power to the field and the scoreboard, the portal became unstable, and a giant had launched itself through and toppled the structure.
“Worse than that,” she said.
A bit more worried, “Giants?”
Mariko folded her arms and glared at him. “You really haven’t noticed anything going on at school?”
“No, nothing supernatural. Why?”
“We’ve had a changeling here for a week.”
Alvaro looked at her for more, but after a few seconds he realized that nothing else was coming. “What’s a changeling?”
Mariko planted her hand against her face and groaned. “It’s one of the first ten tales of that book you’re supposedly reading.” With a snarl, she angrily continued, “Changelings are shapeshifter parasites who take on the form of another being. They physically touch the target and extract as much of their memories as possible, then assume their physical appearance.”
“Oh. What happens to the target?”
“Most of the time, they succumb to the physical and magical drain that the changeling inflicts on them.”
“Changelings kill?” Alvaro felt his anxiety increasing. “And we have one at school?”
“Yes. But they don’t often end up here on Earth. They require a flow of energy to live. So, the only reason I can figure out that one would be here is due to the power they sensed with our portal and it is now hunting for it.”
“Wait, if the changeling takes on the form of whatever its target is, how do you know that one is here?”
Mariko held her hand in front of her, palm side up. “Nulls lack any magical attributes to them. You guys are completely empty to us magic users. But,” now placing her other hand over the first, palm side down, “when a Null suddenly absorbs a magic shield,” her hands separated a bit while a translucent, white plasma webbing built between her palms, “that person was either really good at hiding that she was a magic user, or that person is not a person at all.”
Alvaro adjusted his glasses, and where his eyes did not peer through the lenses at her hands, the magic disappeared from his view. He found that he could see real magic and no one else at his school really could. He glanced back up and looked into her eyes. “Are you putting up magic shields and I’m not seeing them?”
“There are magic shields all around the school, hidden inside the walls and doors. After your infatuation with me,” she snarled, “I learned to stop being so careless with where and how powerful I made them.”
“But you can see them?”
She pressed her hands together, then threw her arms wide, the magic dissipating into a mist of faint glowing particles. “No, I can’t see them. I can sense them.” She held a finger up as if she were testing the wind. “I know how powerful I made them and where I placed them, and when that gets disturbed, I know that someone’s been messing with them.”
“What if it’s just Jimmy?”
Jimmy Worth, a tall, pale magic user, had made his presence known to Alvaro during Mariko’s last case. Jimmy was a black Witch, one who practiced black magic. He annoyed Alvaro to try to get access to the portal to improve his abilities. Since he went rogue, refusing to learn under a mentoring Wizard, and turned away from white magic, he had become a problem for the local magic users.
Mariko said, “Jimmy knows better than to mess with what I do here. He wants to work with the portal, but the Wizards have forbidden his access. He wouldn’t dare try to incur their wrath for breaking my shields, since he’s still too weak to take on any of them.”
“But he likes to toy with us.”
“Not like this. No, I first noticed that the shields were being drained last week. I replaced the shields, and two days later they were disturbed again.”
Alvaro shoved his hands into his pocket, his anxiety getting worse. “So, it’s a student?”
Mariko tapped her temple. “Good thinking, since it’s unlikely that one of the fish in the biology lab would be a target of a changeling.”
Alvaro, defeated, said, “Okay, that was obvious. But have you narrowed down who it is?”
“Yes. And now it’s time for you to do the same.”