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"The Chicago Academy of Wizards is a school of discipline," said instructor Hurley. "Students of this school require fortitude of mind in order to withstand the perilous realms they look into. Flinching is not allowed."

I raised a hand.

"Ah, Student...um, hrm...King. You are the first to ask questions this morning. I appreciate your alertness and boldness. Now, what is your question?"

"Suppose we're looking into realms that are dangerous to view. Are we allowed to flinch if our lives are at risk?"

"The very thought of flinching is what imperils the hapless Wizard," said instructor Hurley. "For the forces of these realms see weakness and attack it at the first opportunity, like water finding a crack in the hull. Put the very thought of looking away out of your mind, student. This is not like looking into the sun. This is like looking into your soul. I hope, if I look into yours, I will not see cowardice!"

I sunk in my chair, and said nothing. Way to blow the first question of the year, Pat.

Six in the morning is a time I would expect most students to be very much asleep, especially with the light focused on the front of the room. But despite the comfiness of the auditorium-style seating, you know, the kind of chairs in the concert hall that fold up, most of them were sitting up straight. Perhaps they were eager to hear this old, white-bearded man speak. Or perhaps they had all drank lots of caffine. Or, and this was the possibility I refused to consider, they were all much more diligent than me.

"Now, fortitude of mind is not something easily developed. It requires special training. You must learn to confront differing opinions, to challenge your own thought processes, to study hard so you can argue your positions properly, and so forth. Here at this school we will hone your intellect and your wisdom, so that when it comes time to challenge the mysteries of the universe, you will be strong and you will prevail. The majority of your schooling in this first year will consist of these types of classes."

Everyone besides me groaned. I grinned.

"Yes, my students. You have all come from accredited apprenticeships where you have learned the basics of magic. You all understand that to do Wizardry is to delve into the fabric of reality itself. You all understand how to get over your own mess of thoughts and put them out of your head, and connect your consciousness to the universe. You have learned many little spells, parlor tricks, like concealing items in your cloaks, and flapping about like birds, and so forth. But now, now it is time to get serious! Now it is time to understand the full depth and danger of your chosen craft!"

The fellow next to me leaned and whispered in my ear. "So it's true then? There's more than three layers of reality? How deep does it go?"

I frowned, and turned to meet his eyes. Then I looked over at Jo sitting next to me. She looked bored. But she glanced at me and frowned in turn. I turned back to the young man and whispered, "I don't actually know how deep it goes. But the way I've heard certian people talk, the question is whether it has a bottom at all."

"Student King! Please come to the front! And please bring your Ontoscopic lenses with you!"

I blinked.

"Your...Wizard glasses, is what I mean. That is what children call them, I believe."

Well, I didn't HAVE my own pair of ontoscopic lenses. As I shuffled to the end of the aisle, Jo passed me her own pair.

Instructor Hurley was short enough that I could look him in the eye. I suspect he'd added the pointed wizard hat to make up the difference. The purple starry robes completed the outfit.

"Student King, please -- hang on. Are those your ontoscopic lenses? What on earth -- you made them out of bottlecaps and wire?"

"What can I say, instructor? I was eager to have my own pair, and resourceful, and poor. No sense being fancy if it's not needed, I always say."

I glanced at Jo. She was sunk in her seat, below the level of the backrest, and her hood was up.

"Well, this is -- goodness gracious! The enchantment on these is top-notch! How did you do it with these materials? Even I couldn't do this kind of quality without crystal lenses and titanium frames!"

"The method is a...family secret. Sorry. I'd rather not discuss the matter in front of the student body. Now, what is it you wish me to do?"

He handed the pair back to me. "Put them on."

I donned the ontoscopes.

"Now. Clear your mind, and extend your sight to the third level. Then, reach out with your mind and attempt to pull one of the strings hard."

Third level. Jo had given me a crash course in this just last night. All I had to do was keep ignoring the things I saw on the levels above, and put them out of my minds like I'd done for all my other thoughts. But the first level was hard to get over, considering the red, pulsing light coming from Jo's position. Second layer, not so much. That was just everything in the room broken into blank, basic shapes. Third layer...that was where the strings appeared, leading this way, that way, up here, down there, into realms far above and below. I wasn't actually sure what I was standing on, and the entire sky that showed between the strings was like a sunset, a center of orange fading to red. And they were all shaking in some way. Some loose, some vibrating tight, and making sounds like a struck piano wire. Rather loud. And one of the strings, I just had to pull, eh? Like being a ward boss. No sweat. I focused on a slack string and imagined it being pulled towards me.

There was a tremendous bang from behind me. I must have jumped two feet into the air. The glasses fell off. I whipped around. There was nothing there.

"Now, students, you see the nature of your calling! For putting a foot wrong at the third level can cause much consternation, if you're trying to make your sandwich taste better while you're supposed to be paying attention to the lecture, Student D'Aubigny." He glared at someone in the back. She hastily stowed her sandwich. "And at the fourth level, a mistake can kill! And at the fifth level, where the song resounds through eternity, to alter it could cause galactic chaos! And yet, by the end of your schooling, you students will be delving as far as you can. Some of you will be talented and brave enough to make your way through to other universes."

Oh ho! Ah ha! I had something to tell the president already.

"Your four years will be spent honing your souls to achieve the skill, patience, and fortitude necessary to not blow up the universe. If any of you want to pass your exams in year 3 and advance to year four, you will need to be diligent in this task for three years. And no cramming it in at the last minute either! That's not how character development works!"

A student in the back raised her hand. "Instructor Hurley, what if we do wash out? Will we still be allowed to practice magic?"

"You will become one of those cheap sorcerers who does spells out of books, like cooks who work out of books! You will never understand the true nature of what you are manipulating. Your power will depend on what is written for you. But, yes, you will still be allowed to do magic. Understand, though, my eager young students, that your proven level of power is not a license to do as you wish. Your hall monitors are vigilant, and there are wizards on the police force of this great city. And all of them were among the top graduates of this school. Except for one from Los Angeles, but we do not speak of that city. Since we had to relocate from the Gold Coast after last year's...incident...rest assured that lawbreaking of any kind will be met with all necessary force."

The fellow who had whispered to me sat up perfectly straight upon hearing this.

"I have a question," I said.

"Yes?"

"What is the official position of this academy regarding other systems of magic such as Conjure lore, Shamanism, and so on?"

"Our official position is to tolerate their existence and treat the threat of magical rogues and murderers with all necessary force. However, I will tell you we don't need much force. None of the other systems are nearly as important and difficult as Wizardry. Oh, it's nice to be able to talk to spirits and gods, but we're playing with power."

Hrmph.

"And now," said Instructor Hurley, "It's time for morning exercise!"

Everyone groaned.

"And we will be taking attendance. And we will be monitoring your progress. You are here to develop body, as well as mind. And what better way to teach you how to push yourselves than through physical exercise? Now, head to the locker room in hallway 069-B and get changed. Your uniforms are waiting for you there. One size fits all, don't you worry."

This was going to be interesting. Whatever they made us do, I was going to smoke literally everybody -- unless I decided to keep my ability concealed. Stay in second place. But then, I was wasting an opportunity to actually train.

Super-strength was looking more and more like a damn cheat.

As everyone filed out of the room, Instructor Hurley said, "Wait one moment, Student King."

"Yes?"

He paused until everyone had left. Jo hesitated at the door, then departed.

"Those ontoscopes of yours," he said. "Are you willing to tell me how your family devised them now? To be a child of such talented and powerful people...but then, I am not familiar with the Wizards of Pakistan, so it may be that they are especially skilled in this one area."

" First of all, I'm not from Pakistan. Secondly, I'm not going to lie to you...

...

...

...

So long." I started to leave.

"Stop right there. Why are you so reticent?"

"I am sorry, Instructor. There nothing I can tell you without lying. I believe my fianceé would  be angry with me if she knew that I had divulged anything more about the glasses. Please permit me to withold my information. All will be revealed in time."

"Your fianceé is a -- "

"Student whose identity has much to do with these glasses."

"No, I mean she's a -- "

"young lady?"

"Wizard."

"Oh. Um. Is that bad?"

"No, no, not at all," he said with his voice quavering. "Not at all, I mean, not yet. Um. Just -- Oh dear. Look, there are certain forces that become extremely powerful when two wizards are in love. Love is one of them. Lust is another. Um. Wizards who wish to copulate are expected to do it in a room that has 20-foot-thick concrete walls and is at least a miles below the earth's surface. Certain...events have proved this necessity. I am sure you have heard of the Tunguska Event?"

"Oh my God. You're saying Wizards can be literal Sex Bombs?"

"I, uh, wouldn't put it that way, but yes. Um. You might want to hold off on anything like that until you know how to create the required room for yourself."

"Neither my fianceé nor I are currently interested in such things. You don't have to worry about Chicago becoming a crater."

"Good, good. Now, off to gym with you."

Jo was waiting outside the doors. As I left the room, I handed the glasses to her, and said, "how much of that did you hear?"

"Oh, nothing, nothing." She blushed. "Everything."

"This is good news, right? It means that the students will be to scared to bang each other! Maybe they'll focus on something else, like their studies."

"Or they'll just go wild and try to leave love out of it."

"That is a possibility. But unlikely. I've heard that long-term shtupping relationships tend to become loving ones even if the participants don't mean it to happen. Not that I would know...come on. Let's hit the gym."

We headed down the stairs.