display | more...

"Okay," said a voice behind me, "it was enough that I had to track you to the roof of an abandoned building. On South Houson, of all the places. Would you care to explain to me why -- I mean how -- I mean, why are you bench-pressing that couch?"

"Exercise, Mom -- hnrf -- got to increase my abilities. Hnrf -- can't let the magic do all the -- hnrf -- work for me, you see?" I set the couch down with a soft but definite thump. "That would be cheating. I mean, the whole point of super-strength is that you don't HAVE to exercise, but what happens if I leave Chicago? What happens if I throw my back out while lifting something? What happens if I have all the power but none of the endurance? What happens if I somehow lose my power for a week, like what happens to every dang superhero at least once, and I have to run around being clever and sneaky? Nope. I'm heading that shit off at the pass."

"Pat! What happened to watching your language?"

I turned around. Mom stood there, her hair shining red-gold in the light of an April sundown. She had her hospital bag with her.

"It, uh...you look like you've had a long day of work."

"Just starting," said Mom. "Wednesdays I'm on the evening shift, remember? I wish I could drag you back to the apartment and make you sit and do your work, but I would have no idea how to help you with it. Whoof! Wizardry! And I thought medicine was complicated. Anyway, I have lives to save and about ten minutes to spare, so answer my second question. Why are you not with Jo doing your schoolwork?"

"With Jo. Right. The doofus who somehow managed to ACCIDENTALLY sign me up for WIZARD SCHOOL. She still hasn't been able to explain that one. Something about making a deal with a dark power and she didn't read the contract completely. The point is, I'm still angry and frustrated about being enrolled in a school I'm scared of flunking out of, so I prefer to stay out here and channel my anger into exercise, until it gets late and I can come in after Jo's gone to bed. And then get up real early and go jogging to Evanston and back. I've been keeping myself busy in the week before school begins."

" But not with schoolwork, I take it."

"No."

"When, exactly, is your work due?"

"Not for another few weeks."

"And what is your first class going to be like if you don't let Jo teach you how to do basic Wizard spells?"

"Uh..."

"Pat. I know I've been a distant mother. Balancing work and home is hard, espcially when you're a nurse, and I never figured out how...and your Father thought that if you could run through walls, he wasn't going to be able to control you. So we've been distant. And you've been distant, running around all over New York City.  And now you're becoming a legal adult, and you're living away from home, and...there's little time left for me to keep you on the straight and narrow. And you have to be, now. You can't disappoint the President. Why, if he hears you're doing badly at school, he will hang his head! Uncle Sam will pace the floor! A bald Eagle will shed a tear! Fireworks will lose their color and the amber waves of grain will dry up and blow away!"

"Oh, come on."

"I'm serious, Pat. You have a friend who loves you, and you need her guidance. I imagine she needs yours."

"What...why would she need my guidance? She's Jo the Wizard, the clever and brave."

"But judging by what you said, she made a bargain with dark powers?"

"So?"

"That doesn't sound like Wizard Magic."

...

Thie Chicago Academy of Wizards is, from the outside, a plain brick building at East Woodlawn and 61st street. I think they put it there the year I arrived because the director wanted to show the snooty rich kids how the Other Half lived. Or maybe the University of Chicago wanted the director on a short leash. Either way, getting there was a ride up the Metra, and it cost money. I couldn't just hop on the rail and skate my way forward, not yet. The rails didn't trust a newcomer. I'd only been here a week. So it was pay for a damn ticket, and sit next to a guy with a nosy Chihuahua.

"Sniff sniff," said the Chihuahua. "You smell like you've seen some scary things."

"They didn't look all that scary," I said, "really. Nice ventriloquist act, by the way. How do you get the dog to do the mouth movements?"

The man gave me a glance, and signed Not me. Dog.

"He's mute," said the dog. "But we do a ventriloquist act sometimes. Anyway, you smell like a lot of things. Sniff sniff. Fear and anger and...jet fuel? And Cronuts. And Pastrami. You're from New York City."

"That's right."

"Visiting?"

"Got kicked out. Did a lot of stupid things. Made a desperate bargain with some spirits. Now I'm here...moving on with my life, I guess."

"Bargain with spirits, eh? You command magic, is that right? Well, I've seen a fair few people like that. Most of us just get by on our cleverness, and on the stories we know about, but people like you decide they want to Command Forces and all that. I've seen too many go boom, splat. Bit off more than they could chew. So let me just warn you ahead of time: prepare yourself well before you go seeking the Colors of Chicago. And whatever you do, do NOT wake the city up. Too many lives on the line, you see."

"Considering that this advice is coming from a magic talking dog, I feel like I should heed it."

"Aw, naw," said the dog. "I'm not magical. I'm just interesting. Anyway, good luck, and look us up if you get the chance. We're in the yellow pages under "Amazing magic talking dog."

"Seriously?"

He gave me a doggy grin, and said nothing.

...

"Hand over your wallet," said the fellow clad in a mask and hood.

"You know," I said,  "I kind of figured the police would have an increased presence in the University area. Maybe they're having a pizza party tonight. Or maybe you're just desperate. Or opportunistic? Who knows. Follow me."

"What?"

"I said, follow me. There's more goodies at my place. Come on."

"That sounds like a trap. Just give me the wallet."

"Do you want the goodies or not? There's jewels and silver mirrors and bicycles."

"Did you say...silver mirrors?"

"I did."

"And jewels."

"Yes. Enough for you to fence your way to early retirement."

"And bicycles. Your place is the Wizard Academy?"

"Sure is."

He took off running.

...

As I said, the academy is an unassuming brick building. But once you start walking through the wooden halls, you begin to wonder if you shouldn't have come to the other side of the building a long, long time ago. It's not as though you've shrunk. The view out the windows is of a regular courtyard. It's more like the interior space has grown. Which, in fact, it has. There's always another hallway. The place sends them out like a tree grows branches. Every time I try to reach the end of a set of hallways, it gets more difficult to reach. But it's worth it, to watch the wood panels shift and duplicate like so much mitosis, to see the carpets weaving themselves, the jewels cooling where they dropped from condensing sunlight, and the silver mirrors solidifying from moonlight. I'm not certain how the windows get moonlight in this city, but you know, I've always been too scared to look out the windows at the end of the hall. I fear that the view outside will not be the city I expected.

And as for the basements, well, the journey upward gets more difficult each time. Someday I will need one of those Wizard cloaks so I can fly. As it is, convincing the stairs to turn into a set of escalators for me is cute, but extremely loud, and I don't want to put a foot wrong around here yet. Which is why I need to stop going to the basements, because the latest depth have stone walls with grabbing hands. I'm not sure what realms they're delving into.

Universities expand. It's part of their nature. Everyone who lives in a college town knows the familiar sight of the school adding a new lab here, a new dorm there. The Wizard Academy has figured out how to do expand without spending money.

Not that you need all that much money when you can magic bread out of the air. I was going to learn how to do that as soon as I figured out how to do actual Wizard magic in the first place. Which I needed Jo for. The person I had deliberately avoided all week.

Hoo boy.

The Wizard Academy has super-soft stair carpets, so you'd think they'd be silent as a cat, but I swear the things creak even before you set your foot on them. I ran up the five stories to Jo's -- to our room, and knocked three times.

No answer.

I took out my keys. But before I could put them in the lock, the lock said, "Wait just a second. You're trying to get into the room of someone who's angry with you."

"Yeah," I said, "And it's my room too."

"Oooo, that makes it awkward, doesn't it? This is what I always tell people, never be roommates with the person you're dating. All kinds of trouble when you break up. And you've put yourself in that situation within the first week! Way to go!"

"I could rip this door off, you know."

"And scare your roommate?"

"Well... What do I have to do to get into my own room?"

The door opened, and Jo stood there. "You have to tell me why you've been avoiding me since Passover," she said. "I needed you."

"I..." I looked down at the floor. "I don't really have a good reason. I mean, I was angry about being put in a tricky situation without my consent, but I could have told you that a lot earlier, and I didn't. I'm sorry."

"Are you going to tell me now?"

"I would like to. I mean, I want to hear how this whole situation got started in the first place. Mom told me that your explanation didn't sound like Wizard magic, and she said you probably needed me..."

"Come inside."

The room wasn't completely unpacked yet. Jo's bed and desk were set up at one end of the room. A neat little writing desk covered in paper, another little desk strewn with bottles, and a four poster-bed hung with Jo's red cloak, which wrapped around three sides. I could swear that cloak held all the space it needed inside it.

My stuff was still in boxes at the foot of my bed, on the other end of the room.

We sat on the red shag rug in the center.

"You smell of sweat", said Jo. " In fact, you've smelled of sweat every time you've come in late. What have you been up to?"

"Long story," I said. "You met with some kind of dark being? How did that happen?"

"I...you should be glad you didn't have the chance to take that tunnel. You know, the one next to the Hudson River parkway? The ones that take you to a random location? Well, see, it doesn't just spit you out in an instant. It spins you right round, with swirls of color and dissonant music playing, and it kind of completely freaked me out, and I didn't know what was going on, and out of the chaos this big face appeared and I said hey, you know, if you could fix this so we all go to someplace nice like Chicago, that would be great, and wouldn't you know it, a paper and a pen appeared. And the face said sign on the dotted line, and I did, and then I realized there was some fine print at the bottom, and then the face said great, Pat's signed up for the Wizard Academy of Chicago. And suddenly there we all were in front of a building that said room for rent."

"So you were put in a situation where you were spinning around and there was loud music, and your consciousness was altered, and suddenly this face appears. That sounds like Shaman business to me. Come to think of it...I was going to teach you about that, wasn't I? After we met Nonni, I promised. And I never followed through. Maybe if I had, you would have known not to make those kind of deals...on the other hand, this is perfect payment for that time we went to the Heart of New York and I sold you out."

"Well...maybe I was being foolish. And selfish."

"Yeah, you kind of got me stuck in a school I'm unlikely to succeed in. That's...that's why I got mad and ran away. I barely know anything about Wizardry. I got scared, that's the thing. Scared of being chucked out, scared of social disapproval. And I didn't actually believe in my own ability. On the other hand...I'm not sure where else I'd stay, or what I'd do, in an unfamiliar city where the bricks and the scaffolds don't trust me yet. Besides sit around at my parents' place. So this kind of turned out okay. We can make the best of this. I don't hate you for this, Jo. Far from it." I touched her cheek. "You've always been there for me. I should have been here for you. Teaching you what I could about all this. Helping you avoid getting pushed around by the big spirits. You called him Master Mazigh, right?"

She frowned. "I don't follow."

"You called him master. But you were never his slave. Just his apprentice." I took her hands in mine. "Am I right? Please tell me I'm right."

"I don't know. He, uh, he was pretty bossy. A lot bossy. But it was all for the good, right? To train me? Teach me the incredibly difficult magic of wizards? I don't know. I never met the wizards in the NYU wizard college. He never let me. He said they had no idea what they were doing. So he was really my only frame of reference besides the books, and he'd actually written most of them, so, you know, 'Master Mazigh defeats the mighty dragon' was the basic theme. You know, he really did push me around. I got used to it. "Yes right away" is kind of an automatic response for me now, when it comes to adults. Even though I know the man was a literal tyrant...it's hard to actually assert myself, to people older and more experienced than me. I always think that they know more than I do, so I'm probably wrong to challenge them."

"Some of them are jerks who need to be taken down a peg, even if all their facts are correct."

"But how do I tell? What if they're just...trying to be nice? Or to do good? I can't go around launching bazookas of righteous anger at the slightest provocation."

"But you can be firm and polite. That's the first thing. Hold your ground, but hold your fire."

"What about when you sold me out to the Machine? Were you holding your ground then?"

"I was up against a spirit I was unfamiliar with, and I was desperate to find you."

She blushed. "I imagine you would have been. Anyway...I goofed. I'll read my contracts more carefully next time. Are we still friends?"

"You were the one who wanted to get married." I smiled. "Let's call this our first spat, how's that?"

"First spat of our friendship marriage. Maybe not the last, but nothing's gonna break us apart except a giant windstorm."

"Whoa, don't jinx it. We're in the Windy City, you know...You look like you're trying to say something. What is it?"

"I..."

"Spit it out."

She was keeping her gaze fixed on the floor. "I was...when I said -- when I proposed a 'friendship marriage', I was kind of being cutesy to ease myself into all this. I'm actually...I'm actually trying to actual propose to you here. Look, I'm kneeling already, see? Marry me, Pat. We've been through so much together. l want be certain that we always will be together."

"And a Friendship Marriage isn't enough?"

"No."

"But you don't have a ring."

"What?"

"A ring! You must find a ring to propose! A magic ring. One that can turn people invisible. Then we shall journey to the steel mill and I will tell you to drop it into the crucible, and you will say no and put it on and run away to Wisconsin and get ambushed by a bunch of Packers fans and...tell you what, just find a ring."

Jo waved her hands and a ring of gold appeared in the air. "Here! A ring! Will you marry me Pat!"

"No, no. That's cheating. You have to FIND a ring. You have to go out and LOOK."

"Why are you doing this?"

"Because, my dear Jo, I'm trying to get you out of this academy. Or out of this room, at least. I want you to become familiar with this city. That's the first step to being a city shaman. Know where you are and what's going on in town. You can't lead your people well otherwise."

"This is HOMEWORK?"

"Correctamundo."

"Well...fine. Fine. I'll go and find a ring. No problem. No sweat. See you in the morning." She rose and moved towards her bed.

"Jo, wait."

She halted. "Now what?"

"I kind of expected to to rise more of a stink about this. I mean, you used to be the one leading me everywhere."

"Oh. Well, who am I to raise a stink about anything? You're the one who's stinky right now. You really should hit the shower."

"Jo..."

"What?"

"This is an opportunity for you to be assertive. Don't just accept this."

She turned to face me. "Wait, wait, wait. You're telling me to stand up to you?"

"Yeah. Think about it -- most engagement challenges in the fairy tales are bullshit that the king comes up with to get the hero killed. I'm not trying to do that here, but if that's how you might see it, maybe you should stand for your own boundaries and values here. Think of this as practice in a safe environment. I won't turn you to stone for yelling at me or anything."

"Well...Fine. I am hurt by your efforts to delay our marriage, and I think the idea of trinket-hunting to earn a marriage is silly at best. I feel that all we have been through together has already earned me the right to ask for your hand. But you have set me a Challenge, and it's difficult to resist a Challenge, especially one that sounds like it would be beneficial. Still, the terms are fairly one-sided. I dig through the city for a ring, and you deign to marry me? I propose new terms. I look for a ring and you look for a ring, whoever finds it first gets to propose. Does that sound like a deal?"

I rose. "Good, good. You've got the politeness down pat. If you can speak as such to someone you fear, you're well on your way to negotiating with the greater spirits."

"Please, answer the question. Do we have a deal?"

"Deal."

"Excellent. Now, we should sleep early. Tomorrow we have to wake up at five for the morning lecture at Six. Would you be willing to share my bed? There's plenty of space in there for two. After you take a shower, I mean."

"Does your bed have fluffy pillows and blankets?"

"It even has a rec lounge and a pool table."

"Does it have a gym?"

"And a sauna and a golf course and a wet bar and a race track and a colony of bats and a blacksmith who keeps begging me to let him visit his family. Oh, and don't tell the hall advisors I have a wet bar. If they confiscate alcohol, they pour it into the Chicago River and then the water taxis get drunk and race around. Now, get your things and go get clean! Oh, and don't hit the tap marked Old Faithful, unless you want to wash off the weight of your sings and the top layer of your skin."

Lecture tomorrow at six. Great. Was this a college or a military academy?

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.