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Jo and I stood with Sean, Aurore, and Sam on a shady street in Hickory Hills.

In a big city, when you're standing in the skyscraper district and you look way down the road, it's easy to feel like the canyon goes on forever.

This place was like that with trees. Just a straight line towards and infinity of branches and leaves and houses -- and, now and then, a car.

"Is it like this all the time?" I said.

"What?" said Aurore.

"Quiet."

"You be quiet."

"No, I mean -- "

"I quite like this place," said Sean. "It's nice to have it quiet sometimes. I mean, the school hallways are quiet if you discount the scraping of wood, but that always feels kind of...hushed, you know?"

"So does this place," I said. "And these streets aren't any different from our own hallways, because there's always someone adding another house at the end. I bet, when each house is complete, the trees just spring up next to it, WOOSH, and nobody who visits can ever tell that the house is new, and the farmers stand on their roofs with binoculars and watch the houses get closer, lot by lot, week after week -- "

"They're the ones selling their land to the developers," said Sean. "Anyway, this is part of the subject of Guido's third chapter, ''Suburbs and Woods." The woods, well, We're not going in there. He mentions dangerous things, like pillbugs that remember your face, and vines that you have to offer flowers to for safe passage. And anyway, you just try fighting your way through underbrush while smelling dry dead leaves. Yech. This place is much more -- "

At that moment, something thin and green grabbed my arm from above and hoisted me, painfully, into the air. I wasn't sure what this vine wanted -- perhaps to drink my blood -- but there was a flash of light from a thin stand of flame, and I fell. I landed on a soft red cloak, which Jo had extended outward like a giant hand.

"Evidently we are not safe after all," said Sam. "We should probably get going now."

"Where?" said Jo.

"Anywhere but here, ideally. Sean here, while his desire to protect is admirable -- thank you, Sean -- relies a bit too much on the flashy dangerous battle-magic that brings the Wizard Police running. Kind of like when regular police hear gunshots in a rich neighborhood. You can imagine the police want to keep a tight lid on any potential trouble from the University."

"Oh, I've heard about that," I said. "You don't know how tight they hold the lid down. Nor do I, come to think of it, but I'm going to find out. Now. We're not running."

"Please," said Sean. "I don't want to deal with the Wizard Police. If they do bring the hammer down...please don't ask us to risk that. Don't get in trouble because of me. Let's just get out of here."

"How?" said Aurore. "If we teleport, they might notice. If we run, someone else might notice. Is there a puddle around? Here's a puddle, but muddy. You can't do your mirror trick, Sam. How exactly do we get out of here? Walk while sweating nervously? Sneak into someone's house and hide under the bed?"

"The sidewalk can help," I said. "All I have to do is offer a few choice words. Hang on."

I knelt close to the concrete paving stones, and whispered a few key statements.

Isn't it fun being on a bouncy castle? You get to fly through the air. Of course, in your case, you know you'll be safe when you land. We weren't that kind of lucky as we soared in an arc over the suburb. Landing on concrete, or branches, considering our trajectory, was going to be painful.

But then, something soft and black grabbed me about the middle and pulled me close to Sean, as well as everyone else, and suddenly we were pressed together in the midst of blackness. There were a few  small impacts I felt, then one big one, but no pain.

...

The blackness drew back. I was on my back staring up at a large gap in the canopy of the forest. I rolled over. The forest floor was soft, and black. Made of wool, it seemed. Why, it looked just like Sean's cloak. It WAS Sean's cloak. And everyone else was laid out beside me. Sam, Sean, Aurore, and...I turned back to the gap in the canopy. Jo was high above, flapping around with her big red wings.

So here we were in the woods that Sam hadn't wanted to enter. Oh boy.

I could kind of see why, from where we lay. See, I've kind of been in woods. I think the Ramble in Central Park counts. But that has footpaths. You can actually GO somewhere, even when you're lost. This was...twiggy. The woods in mid-april was mostly without leaves, so it was all very woody, instead of leafy. Wet, brown-grey, and blah. Plus thorns. I could see the thorns. All around us. We weren't exactly going anywhere, unless we wanted to hack away at thorn bushes.

The few times I had been out of new York City before, I'd seen woods like this. From the edge. So it's not like I expected this to be the kind of woods you could run through. Somehow in the books, the woods have big trees spaced far apart that you can run between, and no thorn bushes, unless the writer wanted to make their characters extra-miserable while they were pursued by the slobbering monster. But the forest was usually tidy, for the sake of narrative convenience and conservation of detail. Oh, those kind of woods always have a root that the heroine can trip over, so the monster can gain on her while she screams, but little else to hamper her. Very tidy.

Not this place. It was a goddamned mess. 

"Alright," I said, "I see your point, Sam. The woods have little to offer."

"You take that back," said a little voice at my feet. I looked down. It was a bug. I picked it up. Cute little bug. It was armored with overlapping grey plates. What did you call these, pillbugs? Roly-polies? Something.

"Nice to meet you, bug," I said.

"I will remember your face," said the bug.

"And what will you do?"

"I will tell the birds, and they will poop all over your car."

"What if my car is in a garage?"

"The birds are resourceful."

"I recant, then. Lovely woods, I'm sure, if it were a lovleier season." I put the bug down, and it skittered away.

"I don't understand why you wanted to launch us over the trees," said Aurore, brushing a pillbug off her shoe. "What exactly did you do to the sidewalk? I've never seen a spell like that, and I've never met a wizard who would be so...cavalier with the way they shape the world. We are coming into great power and we must not misuse it."

"All I did was whisper a little persuasion to a piece of a landscape that didn't want us young hooligans there in the first place." I looked around at the woods. "Then again, maybe the woods don't like it that we crashed into them. Maybe we could persuade them to let us go, gently."

Sam, who was crouched beside Sean, turned to me and said, "Persuade? That's not a Wizard spell. I've never head of Wizards persuading the landscape to move. What you did sounds like...something. I'm sure I've read about it before in the library. Ah, but we have more pressing matters." He rummaged in his cloak and produced a copy of Guido's Guide to Chicago. "What we have here is a perfect place to read Chapter Three, Suburbs and Woods. Vines tend to stick to the edges of the forests and the leaf-demons are only in places where the thorns aren't, so...yeah, we're good. Sean, you okay? You awake?"

Sean groaned. "That one took a lot out of me. Boy, pat, if I'm going to be running around with you, maybe warn me when you're going to do something like that. I like to take defense, sure, but you really tested my limits there. Whoof!" He sat up, and his cloak drew back to its original size, leaving us sitting in the wet leaves and flattened bushes. Yech.

Jo drifted down to the forest floor. "No sign of ominous rustling from the trees," she said, "And I didn't hear any sirens yet. Sean, it was nice of you to scorch that vine, but -- "

"But nothing," said Sean. "I just said, I play defense. No sense letting ayone get strangled."

"You could have picked a less noisy spell," said Sam, glaring at Sean. "As I said, your offensive efforts are flashy and loud. You need to be more precise and quieter. That means getting stronger and gaining mroe control.  We can't be running back to the academy every time we want to go exploring, just because you want to do the easy spells."

"So," I said, "You've run from the police, have you? What have you been doing before I showed up?"

"I've been looking for my father," said Aurore. "My bosom companions, here, have hurried after me, telling me that Color Chicago was off-limits. Not that it ever stopped them from helping me try to find the green door. Not that we ever found it. And here you come along with your dream leading right TO Green Chicago, and it's not fair at all. Here you come with your barely understanding magic and -- "

"I understand more than you think." I folded my arms.

"Oh? How? What's your big talent that you were going to tell me about? Oh, right, we hardly know each other. What's so important about your abilities that you can't even -- "

Please forgive me, said a voice.

A deer approached us, making its careful way between the branches.

Now, I've heard of deer. I've heard the people from Jersey complain about them. Big damn rats that eat your garden, they say. I've heard people talk about hunting them, tasty tasty venison. But you know, I'd never actually SEEN one. Especially not this close. Especially not approaching us. Weren't they supposed to run from humans?

But this one didn't have deer eyes. It had human eyes. Deer size, deer position, but human irises and pupils.

"Ah, here's the first item in chapter three," said Sam. "There is a deer. There is only one deer. But it must get around somehow. You cannot avoid seeing it. You cannot turn your ears away from its plea for forgiveness. You can? Oh, you heartless wretch."

Please forgive me. I know I have done wrong. Do I deserve this? Not forever. Nobody deserves this forever. I am cold. I am hungry and lost. I don't deserve this. Please, end my suffering. Forgive me.

"You don't want to do that," said a small voice from above. "He deserves it. Believe me."

I looked up. A squirrel sat on a branch overhead.

"And here's item five," said Sam. "The squirrels can lead you to the Dreaming Tree, if you can convince them. How do you impress a city squirrel? They've seen it all. bar fights at the Billy Goat Tavern, old ladies evicted, car chases, heartbreakers, the best damn Blues music this side of the Mississippi. What can you offer? Acorns? Ha!"

"What has the deer done?" I said. "What could anyone do to earn this?"

"He's a murderer!" said the squirrel. "An arsonist! He killed the Dreaming Tree!"

I wanted the dreams to end, said the deer. I wanted to sleep peacefully. Come to Green Chicago, come to Blue Chicago, come to Red Chicago, oh, every night it was something new. Every night I awoke standing out in the cold street. Can you imagine? Going to sleep knowing what lay in store?

"He made us lead him to the Dreaming Tree!" said the Squirrels. "The best tap-dance we'd ever seen, and it was all so he could reach the tree, whip out a lighter and set our protector ablaze! How will we reach the Dreaming City now? Who will we whisper to, to have our dreams come true? Oh, the vile fiend! Leave him."

"But the dreams have not ceased," I said. "They come to me. Green Chicago remains to be reached, and there must be another such tree, in which is the door to Green Chicago. Not all is lost." I stood and faced the deer. "As for you, who took a weapon to your tormentor..."

"He killed the Dreaming Tree," said Sam, sitting on a log. "It sounds important. The squirrel thinks it's murder. Was the tree a being with a mind? A soul?" He looked up. "What was this tree, Squirrel? Did it speak to you? Did it sing praises to God? What was lost when the tree fell? Who decided that this man should be condemned to the shape of a deer?"

"The tree called to us," said the squirrel. "We who were guided by the voice of the tree, kept safe by its wide boughs, and given acorns in plenty when the cold came. We loved the tree, and it loved us. And then it was no more. We all cursed the man. We cursed him to run like us, to be cold and hungry like us, to live in fear, now, as we do. Until the last of us is dead or has forgotten his crime, he shall share our misery. And we shall not forget, and we shall teach our children to hate him, and we shall teach them to teach their children, and he will run forever through the woods surrounding this city, reminding all who enter that they must never take fire or axe to the Dreaming Trees."

"Pretty harsh," said Sean.

"Seems fair to me," said Aurore. "He is experiencing life similar to those of the squirrels. I think the punishment fits the crime."

"But to run forever?" I said. "To serve as a warning? He's being used, that's the thing. His whole life is now in service to the forest he has injured, and perhaps he will be there for eternity. He's been turned into a goddamn warning sign. He used to be a human, with, you know, a life, and now? Now he's one of those things, one of those things you find in the old tales. Someone does something stupid, and the punishment is harsh, and so the children learn to always listen to the old lady sitting in the middle of the forest, or to not gaze upon a bathing god, or something."

"Yeah," said Sam, "and the punishment is eternal. Old Sisyphus rolling that boulder. For eternity. Old Tantalus standing in that pool of water. For eternity. That guy who opened his bag full of immortality too early, and he turned to stone. That kind of thing. In those stories it doesn't matter that they're stuck there, because they're flat characters, so who cares, the story will never let them become three-dimensional and learn the error of their ways. That's not how Fairy Stories work. Nobody learns except the good guy. The bad people have frogs fall from their mouths forever and are never forgiven by the authority who cursed them. Do they deserve it? Who knows. The story needs people to be turned into warning signs so the children can learn."

I turned to the deer. "And you, sir, you have been flattened and turned into a warning sign. What a terrible fate!"

"But we approve of this in most cases," said Aurore. "Am I right? We imprison people all the time to serve as warnings, and keep the worst of them locked up for life, and kill the most dangerous, as a warning. This is something that our own world believes is right. Do you not? Can't the Squirrels do the same to deter threats to their own world?"

"It's, uh...I'm the kind of person who would favor forgiveness and mercy over righteous punishment. For fairly personal reasons. I mean, I've been in a similar place as him."

I glanced at Jo, who raised her eyebrows. "Are you sure you want to tell that story?" she said.

"I...let me just say, I'm in favor of second chances. Letting people warn the community. 'This is the path I took, don't go down the road to evil.' That kind of thing. Kind of a way of making up for misdeeds. do think that people ought to be given another chance, you know, to actually make up for their misdeeds." I looked up. "Squirrel, I have a better idea for this man. Let him go back to the human world. Let him tell his tale to the rest of the city, and warn them of your wrath. Perhaps then they will come to the Dreaming Trees with greater respect."

"We will consider," said the Squirrel, "whether he has truly served his time. And perhaps release him. And we will consider, travelers, whether you have impressed us. For most who hear the story are quick to condemn. You Chicago humans love your green belt, it seems."

The squirrel leapt up to higher branches, and vanished.

The deer bounded away.

"Green belt," I said, "is that what you call it? A forest surrounding a city, instead of at its heart. Is that why you wanted Jo and me to see these woods?"

"I wanted you two to see the suburbs and the edge of these woods. Not the center. Apparently the sidewalk had other plans...strange as that is to say. What exactly did you...how did you persuade the sidewalk to get us out of there?"

"I might have whispered a few insults. 'Bluestone Slate is so much more fancy. Your humans never bother to weed, they must not love you.' Things like that. It worked like a charm, didn't it? Bucked us right into the air and over the woods. Sean, that was an excellent shield you made out of your cloak, I'd love to learn that spell once I get a cloak for myself. How does one acquire such a thing, by the way?"

"You make it," said Aurore. "It's the first big task your master is supposed to have you do, and the cloak grows with you. And...you have no cloak. What on earth did your master teach you? You've come to our school with no cloak, no wand, barely any understanding of Wizardry...and what kind of Similar Place were you talking about, anyway? You're confusing and frustrating me, Patricia King. There's a hell of a lot I want to know about you, and this is a quiet and secure place to finally spill the beans."

"Oh, you're worried for my own confidentiality? That's good. But, you know, if I tell you everything, I'm fairly sure you'll hate me. Or worse, you'll complain to the school director."

"Come on." She folded her arms. "You implied that you also killed someone. I'd rather hear about that here, than in a place where the mirrors have eyes and the walls have ears. If you're not willing to go into details about that, I can understand, but the rest of your situation...I'm not leaving until you tell me what's going on here."

"It's Pat's story to tell or conceal," said Jo. "You can sit right there until doomsday, if you so choose, but that doesn't mean Pat has to say anything. Do you expect someone to give you information just because you hold your breath until you turn blue?"

"Well, you're not going anywhere without me," said Aurore. "I teleported you to the suburbs, remember? I have enough strength left to get us to the edge of these woods. But I won't do it if you don't give me some indication of who in God's name you are, Pat. The Wee Wizards Three here, that is Sam, Sean, and me, saw you flub up in front of the class, that first day, and -- "

"And I thought that was something new," said Sean.

"And I thought you were worth investigating," said Sam.

"And I thought you needed teaching," said Aurore. "Lots of it, quickly."

"And I feel like chopped liver," said Jo. "Everybody stare at the girl who can't do Wizard magic, and pay no attention to the one who brought her here in the first -- Oh. I've said too much already." She looked sheepishly at me. "Sorry, Pat. Do you want to tell them what's going on with us?"

"Not until I know where the Wee Wizards Three stand," I said. "I've got some other folks waiting for my arrival who, shall we say, are not inclined to appreciate the Chicago Academy of Wizards, and I want to know where they stand as well. But some things, you should probably know now. Let me tell you about the time I killed twelve people."

I related the sorry tale of the Giant Rat of Harlem, ending at the point I wound up in Down New York. Nobody said a word as I spoke, nor for a few seconds after I had finished.

"Okay," said Sam, "So, there's a different New York called Down...is there an Up?"

"That's another long and embarrassing story," I said. "Hell, I should write you a book. I didn't even tell you how I wound up here yet."

"And you turned into a giant rat," said Sam, "Which is extremely high-level wizardry. I mean, shapeshifting alone...but the Squirrels did it to the guy, didn't they? But that wasn't much mass displacement, there, and they were working together. But you GAINED mass, perhaps pulling from...uh, jeez. I'd have to look it up again. How on earth did you fail at magic that first day and yet transform yourself into a giant rat? Unless it wasn't...it must have been...jeez, it's right on the tip of my tongue."

"What about the part where you spoke to Coyote?" said Sam. "I had no idea he was real. He sounds extremely dangerous. He sounds like the kind of being someone should neutralize quickly. I mean, he led you to, you know, go on a rampage, and...well..."

"You killed twelve people because you misjudged your control of your abilities," said Aurore. "What one would call manslaughter, had you been operating heavy machinery."

"The penalty for manslaughter varies," said Sam. "In your case, one would call it involuntary, because you blundered into creating a dangerous situation...but your intent to bust out of jail and get your Shofar means you killed in the act of committing a crime, intentional or not. So...yeah, that's pretty bad. Why are you here in Chicago, instead of serving time in New York? Did you run from that as well? Are you going to keep running?"

"I...the President granted me a pardon, for certain services rendered. Which I will tell you about sooner rather than later. That's complicated. As for the penalty...I guess I ran. Kind of. The spirits kind of kicked me out of New York. That's where Jo comes in. Jo, do you want to tell your part of that tale?"

She shook her head.

"Well, you're as dangerous as Coyote," said Sean. "I mean, yikes. Are you going to go on a rampage at school?"

"No, I'm not -- I'm never going to ask to become a giant rat again, okay? Nor a giant anything! I don't want to be dangerous. I was stupid and scared and all too easily misled in a situation where I thought I knew what I was doing, and because of my actions, I lost the only home I'd ever known, and twelve people are dead. I've told you what I've done in confidence. Don't mock me for it, and please believe I have learned the error of my ways."

"I don't know about that," said Aurore. "Confession is one step. Repentance is the other. You have to do something concrete to repent. Like recite a hundred Hail Marys. Or...as I said, you misjudged your abilities. Perhaps you have a hell of a lot of raw power and no idea how to control it? Who knows. We're going to find out, Ms. King. I'm going to take you under my wing and give you special lessons in Wizardry, so you can avoid making people bow up. Is that fair?"

I nodded.

"You still haven't told me about what precisely you can do," said Aurore, "But we will find out soon enough. Let us be off, then, and out of these woods."

...

With a small thump, we appeared on the curb where the woods began.

On the other side of the street stood two tall men in yellow cloaks, beside two police officers and a squad car. One of them turned and pointed at us.

"Uh oh," said Jo. "Pat, maybe we should go."

"Nonsense," said Aurore. " No more running."

"But..."

"Not that we're going to be entirely honest," she muttered. "No sense being too foolish. Come on."

We followed in confusion.

"Officers," she said, "We're glad you're here. Someone did some battle magic in this area. Are you here to aid our investigation, or simply to conduct your own?"

"Hold on, hold on," said one of the Wizards. "Are you police officers in plain -- no, you're all too young. And you want us to help you investigate? Leave it to the professionals, kids. We don't want you contaminating crime scenes. And...that's interesting." He glanced at me. "One of you isn't a Wizard at all. What are you doing running with Wizards, girl? You shouldn't be getting involved in this world. It's a dangerous business."

"She's our local knowledge," said Aurore.

"Is that so? Hmph. Too many people touched by magic. You know how it is. They run to that Meyer's Bar where we can't question them, and then they join that crowd of hoodlums and make trouble for us. We got a report yesterday of someone dangling a giant stone off a bridge, and everyone thought they were going to jump with the rope around their neck -- but then they pulled the thing back up."

Whoops.

"So someone has super strength, and if that's all they have, the Meyer's crowd has...ugh. This is more work for us. As for your kind offer... I'd prefer you leave this to us. We know what we're doing. Like I said, it's dangerous business. You might wind up doing battle magic of your own. And if you do, well, I'd have to tell your master, or the school, if you're going there." He gave us a stern look. "We don't let you young wizards get away with anything, you understand. You have power, now you must use it responsibly."

"We will," said Aurore.

"Be off with you, then."

...

A few blocks later, we found a puddle from the recent rain that was shiny enough to serve as a mirror. Just before Sam was going to cast his spell to take us home, I gave voice to something that I'd been struggling to put in words for the past ten minutes.

"Was that supposed to be harsh?"

"Seemed like it to me," said Sean. "If we'd been caught? Getting sent to the director is serious business, Pat. He could confine us to the grounds. Or run us up the flagpole. Or turn us to stone and lock us in the Bad Students cabinet. Or box our ears."

"Well, that doesn't sound as bad as -- "

" I mean, put our ears in the Bad Student Box."

"Oh. Still, I'm confused. I expected, I don't know, Wizard Jail or something. Harsh interrogations under a spotlight. Or, you know, getting patted down right there in in the street. Aurore, I admire your boldness, but I feel like we would have got off easy even if we had been caught. Confined to the grounds of an ever-expanding school while matters were handled internally, versus...whatever makes the small-timers run to Meyer's."

"Maybe they want to join the fun," said Aurore. "With a taste of a little power, they want to join up and be more powerful than their old friends. Or something. It all sounds irresponsible."

"I've heard bad things come out of that bar," said Sean. "And bad people."

"And they probably don't like Wizards," said Sam, "So you shouldn't -- "

"I'm going there," I said. "I'm going to talk to those people and get their side of the story, and then I'm going to bring you all over there and then, THEN will be the time for me to spill the beans. Once I know where you all stand, so you can know where I stand. Get it?"

"I'm coming with," said Jo. "It can't be much different than Mother Carey's bar, right?"

"That place was quiet. This place sounds more desperate. Still, we'll see."

We stepped into the puddle, and vanished from the suburbs of Chicago. Back to base, and class tomorrow.

But first, a certain watering hole.

 

 

 


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