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II. Underground

On the practice field things went very well, at least for the second floor of Ash House: the starting quarterback, a third-year boy named Billy Swett, broke his throwing arm and Daphne became the starter. Arnulf was officially named starter at free safety, and Tom Hexane actually made the team as a kicker; Angelica got in at third receiver, catching everything Daph threw her way. Unless, of course, Spiny got it instead: Jen Norman, of Mistress White’s house, was starting at defensive back.

“I don’t know,” they overheard Coach Whelp gripe to Professor Match, “we got a lot of young folks starting.”

Daphne smiled at Angelica, turned and shoved Arnulf, who was kept from falling by Jen “Spiny” Norman. Laughing, they headed across to Ash House, watched from her window by Jen Stinking Greenbelt.

The third week was harder than the first two. The team was practicing hard, getting ready for their arch-rivals, the Dragons of Marquette. Meanwhile their classes were just getting up to full speed.

“Full speed!” shouted Mistress Ash as her Defense class stood before her, paired up for warding off attacks. “No, full speed, Miss Golden!”

“I’m faster than him,” said Daphne.

“Do not talk back, Miss Golden,” said Ash, giving her an expressionless blue glare that was truly frightening. Daphne shut her mouth. She turned and saw that her partner, Cloudius, was joking around with Rats Laguna. Daphne flicked her wand at him and her magic combat flicked out like a whip. With a snap, Cloudius was thrown flat. He rolled over and jumped up.

“What’d you do that for?” he asked.

“Better,” said Ash. “Pay attention, Mr Cloud!”

There was an odd sizzling noise, and two girls cried out. Everyone turned to look. The other end of the room was full of smoke. Olympia (Limpy) Month and Angelica were trying to put out each other’s shirts.

“What happened?” Ash challenged them as they got the embers extinguished.

“I, uh,” said Limpy. “Well, I,” said Ange.

“You threw fire spells at each other, didn’t you.”

“She started it,” they both said.

“And you do not have control of the fire spell, do you?” She turned to the rest of the class. “I am going to tell you one more time. Do not use spells you don’t have control over. The results could be quite unexpected. You two are lucky you have most of your shirts.” Pindar and Arnulf chuckled. Ash turned to them. “Trt sko,” she said. She pointed her wand and a laser of flame hit a piece of paper on the floor between them: it burned to a crisp.

There was a noise behind her. Ash turned and Rats and Cloudius were trying to use magic combat on each other. “Sek nyk min,” she said. Cloudius froze in place, then slouched as he realized that she had Held him. “Now listen. You knew the words to the fire spell. Lots of people know the words to spells. That’s not the hard part. The hard part is being able to control the spell. And not a one of you, except perhaps for Mr Shmoke, can control your spells well enough to ensure you do yourselves less harm than good. You need to be able to control straight magic combat before you can have any hope of controlling a fire or a hold or a stone sleep. Or, need I say, trt kar ho nin goth.”

She raised her wand and slowly waved it high over their heads. They all watched its tip, waiting to see what she would do. “You know that one, don’t you?” she said. “I would not try to use it for a long, long time. You do not want to see what happens when you can’t control a death spell.”

She pointed the wand to the side, without looking, and let the dull black lightning shoot into the air. With a tiny blue spark, a big fat fly in the window buzzed one more time and died.

“There’s an Emily Dickinson poem right there,” said Limpy.

“Shut up, Limpy,” said Angelica.

“So,” said Ash, “no more spells. But I want to see some magic force. If you don’t start doing it to each other, I’ll do it to you.” She waved her wand at Cloudius. “All right, Mr Cloud, you can move now. I doubt you can do much damage anyway.”

“I have never worked that hard,” said Cloudius. “It was crazy.”

“She went nuts, she did,” said Rats.

“She scares me,” said Jen Chang.

“Good,” said Ahir. “She should scare us. Because there are people out there who should scare us.”

“Iranian Revolutionaries?” said Limpy.

“Shut up, Limpy,” said Angelica.

“No kidding,” said Arnulf. “She’s setting up duels. It’s a good thing.”

“I’m not dueling you,” said Pinhead. “You practically killed me.”

Arnulf gave him a steady look. “My dad got killed in a spell battle,” he said. “He was in the line of duty. He was a mage cop. My mom’s not magic, she told me he was killed in a car accident.” He looked up at Ahir. “Her dad got killed in Iran. Not by terrorists either. It was magic. Wasn’t it?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” said Ahir.

“I don’t know what side we’ll be on,” said Arnulf. “My dad was just trying to keep the peace.” He looked down. “I don’t know. He must have been. Walking the beat, you know? There’s stuff out there. We have no idea.”

“I do,” said Ahir. “I saw them.”

“Okay, okay,” said Limpy, “I’m sorry, okay?” She looked around. “You know what this is about, right? That kid who got killed downtown—?”

“What kid? Lots of kids get killed downtown,” said Rats.

“This was an Academy senior. He was killed by magic. It was a freakin’ spell battle right on Wabash Street. It’s not funny. That stuff’s not supposed to happen anymore.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Angelica.

“No, she’s right,” said Tom. “I read about it in the Wiz.”

“Yeah,” said Cloudius, “Bailey Lamonica said she heard about it from Academy Radio. MacMorris had it on loud while he was in the shower. Some Academy kid got blown away by magic—they think it was the death spell!”

“What do you do against a death spell?” asked Tom.

“You make your resist,” said Arnulf. “And it helps to have cancel death.”

“How big a spell is that?”

“Five words.” He looked around with a grin. “Just like the death spell itself. So yeah, it’s good she makes us work.”

“Yeah, you didn’t have to convince me,” said Daphne. “I just think you need the sword too.” She picked hers up from where it was leaning against the frame of Tom’s door, and swung it up through empty airspace. “I call it my whack spell.”

“I’m not betting against you,” said Angelica. “I gotta get me a blade too.”

“You trashed Trenton Hager today, Ange,” said Cloudius with admiration.

“Oh, yeah,” said Ange. “You and Tarim had a good duel. It was what you call an exciting draw.”

“White stopped you because she thought you were going to kill each other,” said Pinhead.

“I like him, he’s a good guy,” said Cloudius.

“You want trashing, look what our little Tom did to Leonard Harris,” said Angelica. “Poor Leonard was carried off.”

“He’ll be fine,” said Tom, looking mean.

“We all did well,” said Daphne, who had finished off the gangly Hyacinth Potts with a two-handed wand stroke.

“But we gotta learn more,” said Arnulf.

“Thanks for not killing Natalie, Arn,” said Angelica.

“Hey, no prob, I was trying to keep her from killing me.”

“It was never in doubt,” she said in a low voice.

“That’s kind of the idea,” said Arnulf quietly. He looked up and saw Ahir Shaheen looking at him. She had gone up against some kid from Match’s house. All Arnulf remembered about the kid was that he was carried off with a blank look on his face.

It made him wonder about her dad. It made him wonder about the people who had killed her dad.