Alicia “Beep” Finger was up to hurrying through the thin mist and creeping back down the stairs to the basement, although they had to wait for Miss Donati to lock up and retreat inside her realm, and for Greg to move up to the second floor. She was okay with the crawl around behind the rubbish heap and across the open space to the shelves. Through the secret door opened by pulling Remediae, and on down the hallway as far as the panel that hid the “usual” tunnel to pizza. After that, she grabbed Tom’s hand and hung onto it.
Past the second short stair, down the long hallway, Tom made them stand still and quiet for a count of ten. “Nothing,” he said.
“Can I talk?” asked Beep in a loud whisper.
“Well,” said Tom, “we shouldn’t. This hall echoes. I mean, maybe a whisper, but even a whisper echoes kinda weird. So maybe we should just walk.”
So of course they were whispering enthusiastically by the time they reached the dock. They came out beside the dismal gulf.
“Oh crap,” said Beep, using her wand to send a glow out into the air above the murky bit of briny. “That is water.”
“Lots of it.”
“And there’s gonna be, like, fish in it. And things. Bones and stuff.”
“I’m pretty sure,” said Tom.
She took a long look at it, and then started off along behind the set of pillars along the south side of the chamber, her wand out and down, illuminating just her feet. Tom caught up with her and they went along holding hands.
“Are you magic on both sides?” asked Beep.
“Oh yes,” said Tom. “They’re both magic teachers. My mom is in magic defense. She used to be a Code Enforcer. Their fights are something.”
“Code Enforcers?” Beep repeated.
“No, my mom and dad. They would chuck spells. She usually won.” They approached the far doorway into the hall that led on to the Castle. “But they’re really very nice. Yours?”
“Weeeellll,” said Beep very quietly. They stopped before the doorway. “Do things get weirder from here? I mean, I already feel like this is kinda dangerous and I might die?”
“Ahhh, it’s a piece of cake from here,” he said. “Safe as a stuffed animal. Just got to avoid the hakken-kraks. They just howl a lot. He’ll have informed the Guardian guys, so they’ll let us through for sure.”
He smiled. “I’m really sorry. What I mean is, everything’s going to be just fine.”
They took hands again and stepped into the hall, wands out, in her left hand and in his right, both lit with the fancy light that they had both learned from Match. They were completely surrounded by darkness, and the only sounds were their footfalls and the diminishing splash of waves behind them. Alicia whispered, and her voice fell dead in the hall: “My parents are both normals. My dad’s just this guy. He lives in Michigan, he’s a car salesman. My mom is the choir director at school and church.”
“Yeah, way back. Dad doesn’t really know I’m at magic school, but Mom does. My kid sister has it too, I can already tell. Mom could tell. She was totally not surprised when the first recruiter showed up. Hoosier Lyceum thought I’d just have to go there, and Ann Arbor sent a guy to talk to me, but the Lake Winds really wanted me to go here. I’m really glad.”
“Did MacMorris recruit you personally himself?”
“Yeah, MacMorris recruited me personally himself. I don’t know. Do you think I’m good at magic combat? My little sister thinks so.”
“You taught her?”
“A little. Hey, she’s pretty good, but I want her to be able to protect herself. Anyway, he thought I was pretty impressive, I can tell, but I think I’m a big disappointment to him.”
“Well, he can—!” But they had come to a meeting of four hallways, and suddenly from the left a chorus of howls nearly bowled them over. Tom hustled them up the righthand hallway. Soon they were bending right, then climbing dozens of stone steps. “Stinkin’ hakken-kraks,” said Tom. “They’re gonna give me a heart attack someday.”
“How much further?” asked Beep as they struggled up the second staircase.
They came out into an open area with very faint moonlight filtering in from somewhere. There was a soft whoosh! and a dozen candles lit on tables nearby. Leaning against the lefthand table, holding a long shiny black wand, was Rayah Marin, the Caribbean girl from Temple House. Standing in the shadows on the other side was a man of slight build wearing black. He came forward: it was Temple, looking as good as he ever, ever did.
“No further,” he said. He smiled. “I have to remember all my lines. You may be wondering why I have asked you here? And so on.”
“What I want to know,” said Tom, “is where is Jen?”
Temple turned without a word and headed for the third set of stairs. Tom and Beep followed, and Rayah took up the rear. “So,” said Beep to Tom, “is this one of those we gotta escape things, or is this more of a he’s got something wonderful to show us, or is this us letting him play his hand so we know what he’s up to things?”
“No idea,” said Tom.
At the top, Temple turned and backed into the room, his study. Sitting at the writing table, looking uncomfortable in a comfy chair, was Jen Chang. “She’s ceased,” said Temple. “She was monitoring me so closely it became impossible to ignore her.”
“Are you okay?” asked Beep.
“I’m fine,” said Jen. “I got zip for magic energy though. I can’t even get my wand to light.” She held up her wand: the tip did not even glow feebly.
“She has learned a lot this past hour or so,” said Temple. “Some of it is things you already knew, Young Thomas. Some of it is things I hope I don’t have to teach either of you.”
“Like,” said Tom.
“Can I be more clear? You do not have to follow me. I am not up to anything. You are more up to something than I am. Come, confide in me sometime, I beg of you, I will listen most politely and never tell a soul, about all the things you are up to, I give wonderful advice and it’s free, but I am not up to anything. Not anymore. It’s not worth the trouble.”
“You know things we don’t though,” said Tom.
“Of course I know things you don’t. You know things I don’t. I hope I know more things you don’t than you know things I don’t but I no longer place bets.”
“So two questions,” said Beep Finger. “One, what is this place anyway? Are we still in Chicago? And two, if you’re not up to something, then who is up to something?”
“Or is everything just fine,” said Tom.
“No,” said Temple. “Everything is not just fine. Miss Finger, welcome to the real Second City. That is not what anyone but me calls it, of course. This is the Castle, and there you can see how imaginative the wizarding community can be about names. Beyond is the Forest of Cluth on the west, and to the north the Plains River flood plain, and the city of Chicago on the shores of the Inland Sea.”
“So it’s, like, this other world?” said Beep.
“Oh, there are many worlds, Miss Finger,” he said, and he smiled. “There are many worlds, Miss Finger. Do you know, I never in my life thought I would be uttering those words in sequence. In any case, what was the other question?”
“If you’re not up to something,” asked Beep, “then who is?”
“Oh, everyone else, really, everyone else.”
The three made it back to Ash House a bit after midnight. Mistress Ash wrote a note for Beep, saying that she was not feeling well and would be sleeping on Mistress Ash’s spare bed. But she would not get to lie in that bed until they had been thoroughly debriefed.
“Mistress,” said Tom after they had told their stories as truthfully as they could bear to, “what do you think Professor Temple is up to?”
“Oh, he’s not up to anything,” said Ash. “He used to be quite the rogue but he outgrew it.”
“He always acts like he’s up to something,” said Beep.
“I’m afraid it’s become a habit for him,” said Ash. “It’s much better to have it the other way around. No one would think a serious, stern, formal old school teacher like me would be, as you say, up to something.”
“Appearances can be deceiving,” said Jen Chang.
“And you,” said Ash, “now have a reason to learn the Cancel Cease spells.”