X. The Cylindrical Blizzard
“How bad could Thanksgiving holiday with your family have possibly been?” asked Ahir Shaheen as she, Arnulf, Tom, Angelica, Cloudius, Rats and Daphne sat around Tom’s room the Monday after. Eva sat in the window and gazed out, only slightly translucent on this cold and cloudy day.
“Well,” said Arnulf, “the turkey was dry, the potatoes were like wood pulp, the gravy looked like sludge—it tasted like sludge too, actually. Don’t even ask about the Brussels sprouts. And my uncles kept asking why I got sent to reform school.”
“Your mom told them you were in reform school?” said Angelica.
“Some of us,” Rats explained, “have to make up something to explain why we’re not in the local middle school. My mom tells people it’s a magnet school. No one knows what that means, so we’re sort of all set.”
“But why reform school? Did you get in trouble a lot?”
“No, actually,” said Arnulf. “Mom finally got them on the idea it was a Catholic school. I had to make all kinds of stuff up about nuns.” He looked at Ahir, who smiled sweetly. “What do you tell people?”
“Oh, my mom tells everyone I’m at a special technical middle school learning to make computers.”
“What’s your mom do?” asked Tom.
“She used to be a diplomat, but since the revolution she’s just a wizard. Since Dad died, she’s mostly into alchemy, but she’s working on a book.”
“Of Iranian magic?”
“No, a novel.”
The others all went Oh with their mouths and turned to Daphne. “How was my Thanksgiving vacation? Mom made me go on the traditional November hunt. It’s, you know, a nude hunt.”
“Sounds exciting,” said Cloudius. “Wait. In northern Wisconsin?”
“And on into Minnesota, yeah. They bleeping bathe in Lake Superior.”
“Amazons are all crazy,” said Angelica.
“You think I’m crazy. It’s the older ones you should see. Next year I’ll make sure you get an invite.”
“Well, thanks for that. I helped out around the saloon,” said Angelica. “Me and Clary waited tables. I love that. We make sure everyone tips well.”
“By batting your eyelashes, or by muttering spells?” asked Daphne.
“Well,” said Cloudius, “thanks for asking, I got Mom and Dad to teach me some toymaking. I sold a few toys to friends.” He looked around. “Hey, it was all legal. There’s no law against selling magic toys to magic people.”
“Is that what your folks do?” asked Angelica.
“Yeah, anymore. Sell non-magic toys to non-magic people and magic toys to magic people, and you can sell non-magic toys to magic people if you want, it’s just the other thing that gets you in trouble. Or makes you rich.”
“What did you do, Tommy?” asked Daphne.
“Oh, we just had a regular Thanksgiving,” said Tom Hexane. “Well, and we did a late All Hallows, or maybe it was an early Solstice, back in the woods. That was fun.”
“Call up anything you couldn’t put down?” asked Arnulf.
“Not on your life!”
“So what’s up for the rest of the semester?” asked Rats.
“Oh,” said Angelica, “little thing called finals.” The others all groaned, and a damper fell on the conversation—for about five minutes. Then they were laughing and throwing magic paper airplanes at each other, while Eva meowed at them.
Finals were indeed coming at them like a Midwestern blizzard, moving slowly and inexorably across the plains, darkening the skies for days ahead. Arnulf and Ahir weren’t studying nearly as much as they should have been; Daphne was spending a lot of time in the weight room, and rehabbing her many assorted injuries, and hanging with Spiny; the rest were getting their time in with the books, at least as much as they were capable of.
Meanwhile the cylinder hid in one of Angelica’s locked drawers, and her fixation with it caused the gang’s only significant quandary; oddly, the problem occurred in Illusions, Angelica’s best class.
Master Shag was in what, for him, was a festive mood. He had a big beard-illusion which started off as Santa; his costume matched. Gradually his beard changed color, and his costume with it, until he was a bearded, horned devil, then a pirate, then a hippie, and then Santa again but in rainbow colors.
He set his class the task of making the most realistic possible blizzard illusion, and it wasn’t long before the room was feet deep in snow drifts. Rachel, Angelica and Natalie were whispering as they cast illusions: the other two were trying to get Angelica to explain to them, in whispers and in the middle of class, just what it was she’d got hidden that she was so obviously smug about.
Suddenly Angelica said, “Oh no. Oh great.”
It was snowing little copies of the cylinder. They were swirling around their table, blowing and drifting.
Rachel and Natalie quickly turned them into pieces of metal pipe, or firecrackers, or cannoli: anything they could think of that was cylindrical. More snow was on the way too, as Angelica hastened to cover up her little slip. But a quick glance at Josh Hubble’s table showed that good old Josh, that MacMorris stooge, was very interested in the weather over at the girls’ table.
The next afternoon, Angelica and Rachel came back from the library just in the deep grey of twilight, as the Chicago wind whipped through the campus. They started up the stairs and stopped: Angelica raised her hand to stop Rachel, whose question froze in her throat. Someone was up there, making noise but trying not to; the door to her room, on the left at the top of the stairs, was ajar.
The two girls made their way to the top of the stairs in utter silence. Angelica pushed the door open just a little more and peered in.
The room was in more of a shambles than usual, and it was getting worse. The top drawer of her dresser was halfway out, but its contents were on the floor. Now the middle drawer unlocked itself. It slid out seemingly of its own accord, and its contents joined the mess. The drawer went back in, and then the mess stirred itself. Soft curses came out of the air.
“It’s Hardy,” hissed Rachel. “Hardy Viner.”
Hardy Viner’s voice said ag and the girl herself appeared in the middle of the dark room, as the spell washed ineffectively over Rachel and Angelica.
Rachel’s ag in return was more effective, but not more effective than Angelica’s reflexive cast of magic combat, which threw the invader against the far wall. She was asleep when she hit the ground, and was not awakened by the fall of a framed photo of the Mississippi at Rock Island onto her head.
“How close was that?” asked Rachel.
“What do you mean?”
“Because I bet I know what she was looking for. I bet it looked like a sort of cylinder.”
Angelica looked at her. “I gave it to Arnulf to give it to Ahir,” she said. “Yeah. I can see it’s time we included you in more of our secrets, Rache.”
“I’m telling you,” Hardy Viner kept saying, “someone copped my mom’s bracelet from next to my bed, and I thought she might have it.”
“You have not given me any reason why you would think Miss Aliyev had your bracelet,” said Mistress Ash. Angelica and Rachel, now joined by Cloudius, Rats and Tom, shifted from foot to foot with a mixture of smugness and impatience. Behind them, Arnulf and Ahir and presently Daphne gathered. They definitely felt good about watching Ash interrogate someone else for a change.
Hardy Viner, who, when visible, was stocky and sandy-haired, just looked glum. Finally, since Ash did not seem about to add any more observations, Hardy said, “What are you going to do to me?”
“You’re going to apologize to the Headmistress,” said Ash, “and then I think you’ll want to apologize to Miss Aliyev here. In front of the whole first year class.” Hardy took Ash’s gaze for a few more moments, then looked down and mumbled something. “I’ll take that as a yes,” said Ash. “You may go, Miss Viner.”
Ash waited in silence while Hardy Viner’s footsteps sounded out across the front room, and the door opened and shut. Ash watched as Hardy walked across the yard toward the MacMorris House, her head down. Then Ash turned to Angelica.
“Miss Aliyev,” she said, “what was Miss Viner looking for in your room?”
“I have no idea.”
“Is that the line you really want to take?”
Angelica bit her lip. She looked at the others: Daphne started to shake her head, then raised her eyebrows and gave a gesture that might have been an encouragement to talk. Cloudius made a zip-lip gesture, mirrored by Rats.
“Um,” said Angelica. Ash was leaning forward to look into her eyes: it seemed as if Ash might literally be looking into Angelica’s brain.
Then Ahir said, “Excuse me.” The others moved aside as she stepped forward. “It’s this,” she said, producing it.
Ash held it in her hand. Her eyebrows went up to their highest position. Her mouth shrank to a little o. She did not look at Angelica, but checked around to make sure no one was looking other than these who clearly had already seen it. Then, for minutes on end, she studied the three-inch cylinder of pale metal that sat on her hand as if it was superimposed in a trick photo.
Finally she said, “Angelica.”
“Yes, Mistress Ash?” replied Angelica, curtseying involuntarily.
“Take it,” said Ash very quietly. “Put it in a place that’s been searched. And make sure that place does not get searched again.” She sighed and rolled her eyes as Angelica gingerly picked the thing up from her hand. Ash did not need to say, now, after they had all known her for a semester, that yet again she was going to cover for them. Or that she didn’t like it one little bit. Or that she was far more worried than they could ever fathom. Or that somewhere in all that she was just a little proud. And felt a little like she was young and rash herself again.
Meanwhile the studying went on. Arnulf and Ahir perhaps did not study as much as they might have, but the others all studied more than they ever thought they could. At the same time, Cloud and Rats got in trouble yet again—this time it was the school attic they were caught treasure-hunting in, and this time they earned the responsibility for all the snow shoveling on campus for the next month.
But Tom Hexane found Daphne and Spiny Norman out at twilight in the side yard, doing something that at first looked like some sort of weird surveying in the dark without equipment. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“There’s ghost paths around here,” said Spiny.
“Yeah,” said Daphne, “safe paths made by long-gone students and Indians and stuff.”
“And ghost cats?” he asked with a grin. They looked at him, and then they noticed Eva sitting in front of him, quietly mrowing. And then they noticed that old Indian from the corner of Birch Street, standing just behind him. Next to that ghost Indian was the other one, the one Tom knew from campus: the Indian Mystic Spirit (IMS). Tom turned and looked: he nearly jumped out of his boots.
“We should have asked Tommy first,” Daphne said to Spiny. “He’s in with the ghosts.”
The Indians smiled. Tom looked up at the IMS and asked, “Can you show us the safe paths?” The Indians both smiled even wider, then the IMS bent down to pet Eva, who mrowed at him and rubbed hard against his leg.
Hidden paths were useful, especially in the dark, but nothing but more studying was going to help with finals. At the same time, the playoffs were coming fast, and everyone on the Zephyr team had to contend with the existential question of whether grades really mattered in the face of the national championship. The practice field was hard as rock, and by now the only reason it wasn’t covered in snow was that the wind blew straight down it at near hurricane speeds. Arnulf sprained his ankle badly, but fully recovered after a couple of days off (in the care of Ahir Shaheen, who fed him tea and oranges and covered him with hot compresses, among other things); Daphne’s broken left index finger was more ominous, since, like most Amazons, she was left-handed.
The last week of classes, they were still working to make sure that their teachers appreciated them. Generally, Ash’s Defense class was the friendliest of places, even though they were pretending to try everything to take one another down; lately it seemed as if Ash was training them for immediate combat. She still didn’t approve of people actually hurting one another, even accidentally; when Angelica set Arnulf’s and Jen Chang’s hair on fire, it produced a vehement lecture to the whole class about safety. But they could all feel their magic combat muscles hardening.
In Alchemy, Cloudius hit the jackpot when he showed Susan White a metal bar he had just spent half of a lab alloying and the other half cooling. It was pale, almost white but slightly golden, quite lightweight and quite strong. “I’m thinking penton pumps,” said Cloudius, which made the others roll their eyes: he was all about penton pumps.
“That’s not all you could pump with this,” said Mistress White. She stopped and blushed slightly.
“What else could you pump with it, Mistress?” asked Rats.
“In all seriousness, Mister Laguna,” said Mistress White, “this alloy is perfect for one thing I know of for certain. It’s perfect for penton pumps. Mythical gold star for Mister Cloud. Or perhaps we should make his mythical star out of this stuff?”
Down the hall in Ramona Sear’s classroom, Angelica spent the last two weeks of classes pumping Sear, in class when she could get away with it, out of class when she had the time, about the ancient history of Madame Lacanthe and her predecessors.
Angelica would raise her hand; “I was wondering,” she would say, “whether this” (the Civil War, World War Two, the wand shortage of the twenties) “had something to do with the Great Crisis.” (Or the MPW, or “Madame What’s Her Name,” or the Maroons.) People would gasp, Sear would stop and give her a look with those mysteriously old brown eyes, the room would go quiet, and Angelica would get a smug little smile on her face. Sear would take a breath and launch into a carefully coded reply: Angelica was quite impressed with the Mistress’s ability to compose these things on the spot.
“Well,” she would say, “interactions between the hidden world and the obvious world have always been fraught, and while one would be rash to seek hidden explanations for every obvious event—one doubts whether Madame Anyone decided that Dewey should fail to beat Truman—it is equally unlikely that a given surprising and little-understood event was not to some extent influenced from places in the power spectrum that are unguessed in the obvious world. And that would include influences that might be further back in time than even you, with your excellent imagination, would have imagined.”
But when Angelica worked the word segment into a question, in a way that only her friends would have caught, she was rewarded with no long look and enigmatic reply: Sear immediately and somewhat coldly said, “Miss Aliyev, come to my office today at four.”
At six, Angelica burst into the house with a burst of snow around her, threw her coat at the coat rack and her boots at the boot rug, and rushed into the dining room. The other nine students and Ash were just starting in. “Miss Aliyev,” said Ash with a laugh, “how nice of you to visit.”
“Talking to Sear,” Angelica panted, “um, Mistress Sear.”
“About what, pray tell?”
“About, um, history and stuff.”
“So what about history and stuff?” asked Tom Hexane an hour later, as he and Angelica and Rachel and Natalie and Cloudius sat in his room, with Eva in the middle of the rug. “I thought you were in trouble.”
“Well,” said Angelica, “she really scared me in class, but she just wanted to give me my answer in private. And I can see why, now. Boy, you are not going to hear leading questions from me anymore in that class.”
“Sure, whatever,” said Rachel.
“But what did she say? Did you find anything about the segments?”
“Sort of,” said Angelica. “We more talked about the MPW and the C Group.”
There was a sarcastic cough from the doorway. Arnulf came in with Ahir and Daphne. “Yeah,” he said, “let’s talk about that, but maybe not quite so loud that they can hear you in the Field Museum.”
Angelica looked mortified. Arnulf carefully shut the door, and Ahir said “Shesh!” at it.
“Is that Farsi for Ssh?” asked Cloudius.
“It’s a spell,” said Ahir, in a decent imitation of Ash. “You could use that one, young Cloudius. Perhaps you would not wake people every Saturday morning with your blacksmithing.”
“And perhaps,” said Daphne, also imitating Ash, “you and Rats wouldn’t get caught every time you sneak into the attic or the basement. Wouldn’t that be good?”
“Shesh, you say,” said Cloud.
Ahir pulled out her wand, a long skinny black number, and waved subtly it at Cloudius. Arnulf nearly swooned: he just loved the way she subtly waved her wand. “Shesh!”
“Did it work?” asked Cloud, but even though he could hear himself clearly, the others heard only a faint murmur. Eva mraowed appreciatively.
“So tell,” Natalie prompted.
“Okay,” said Angelica, “but this is like super secret. Like, if Sear hears I spilled beans, my source of info dries right up. Okay?” The others all nodded seriously. Eva just glared at her. “Okay. So Madame L, let’s call her. She’s the MPW, or at least she was during the Crisis. That would be around 1930: it sort of peaked in—”
“1931,” said Rachel.
“But since then, she’s retreated. She’s very well hidden now. I suppose she’s still Most Powerful Wizard, but she doesn’t use it in any obvious way. But everyone thinks she has some Segments. Sear says L is known to have at least two segments, but probably has three or four.”
“What can you do with three or four segments?” asked Cloud. “If there’s a total of eleven, four doesn’t seem like much. I mean—!”
“You can do all kinds of things with just three,” said Angelica. “Sear wouldn’t tell me examples, but she did say they think Alexander the Great had five segments, and he led men in battle and defeated huge armies and apparently called up things and fought armies and he defeated the Egyptian gods, did you know that? That’s why after him no one worshiped Amun-Ra or Osiris.”
“Whoa, really? Defeated Gods? Yeah, that makes sense—but, whoa.”
“Of course he had Aristotle,” said Daphne.
“Yeah, Sear thinks Aristotle was the brains of the operation. After Alex died, his successors split them up. Ptolemy had three for a while, the Ptolemies did, but Seleucus, the guy who had Babylon and Persia, he apparently had one of Alex’s and found another one. But they kept getting split up and buried and lost, and now it’s thought that only L has more than one.”
“So she gave you a timeline of the Segments?” asked Arnulf.
“Actually that was the least of it. We were talking about the Maroons and the C Group. Because here’s the thing. If you’re a controller, it’s hard to cooperate with other controllers because everyone wants to be in control. But Madame L apparently when she was young, which was about 1400 or so, had the idea to form a council to coordinate and maintain boundaries and that became the C Group. Anyone in C Group could ‘control’ to their heart’s content within the rules, and if there was a dispute, the council decided it and that was that.”
“And this works?” asked Daphne.
“It did, right up till the Crisis. But you know whose idea the whole thing really was?” They didn’t. “Anyone hear ever hear of Photius and Ignatius?” She looked at Ahir.
“They were Byzantine patriarchs,” said Ahir. “They fought like cat and dog. And the fights featured spells.”
“Yes, that’s right. In the 800s, in the ninth century. They kept going back and forth, and one would get into power and kill off the other one’s supporters, and then back again, because neither could kill the other one. Well, they carried it right on outside of—well, you know Sear keeps calling it the ‘obvious world’ as opposed to the ‘hidden world.’ They went right on.” She looked around. “Everyone thinks—well, Sear thinks they’re probably still alive, somewhere.”
“Which one is on our side?” asked Tom.
“Neither of them,” said Ahir. They looked at her. “Well, Ignatius is supposed to be some type of anarchist,” she said. “Some type of authoritarian anarchist, I don’t know. My father—!” But then she shut her mouth in a nervous smile and turned her brown eyes on Angelica. There were tears in them.
“I don’t know anything about that,” said Angelica. “Sear didn’t talk about Ignatius much. But Photius—he was around Europe and the Middle East right through to the Renaissance. She thinks he was Pope at least once. She thinks he talked to Thomas Aquinas and gave lessons to Abelard and who knows what else. But you know who else he taught?”
“Would it start with the letter after K?” asked Arnulf.
“Yeah, that’s the idea.”
“So why isn’t he the MPW?” asked Cloudius. “If he taught her, and he’s still alive—!”
“Because she’s stronger than him,” replied Angelica. “Apparently he became her second in command. I don’t know, it seems like that’s the way he does things. And if you think about it, she eventually started to see things his way—that’s why she’s hidden nowadays.”
“And they’re back behind it all controlling everything?” asked Tom.
“Except that they can’t control everything. There’s lots of other forces. Like Mac M’s people and the Maroons. The Maroons are related to the C Group but Mac is part of some other group, I think Sear referred to them as the recusants. I think they’re some sort of Improver. Of course she didn’t say his name. Not even close. But she talked about Magica, like the nation of magic users, and clearly Magica is split between these Improvers and the Controllers.”
“And the Hiders and Balancers,” said Natalie, “we learned that stuff the first two weeks.”
“But the Improvers are everywhere and they tend to work together pretty well. They’re like the Underground. You almost want to side with them, but the trouble is, scratch an Improver and you have a Controller underneath, because they think they know what’s good for everyone else. So they’re scary, because they think they have a good unselfish reason to do what they do.”
“Like Mac M,” said Arnulf.
“Exactly,” said Daphne. “Never trust a good looking guy.” Natalie and Rachel said, “Hear, hear.”
“So, back to segments,” said Cloudius. “What? I’m into items, you guys know that. What about them? Where are they now? What do they do?”
“No one knows where they are now,” said Angelica. “No one knows what they do. They were made by ancient Egyptian priests, partly out of previous attempts by Sumerian priests. Some of the Old Kingdom pharaohs had all eleven. But they didn’t know what they could do, there wasn’t an owners’ manual, and when the priests figured out how much power they were giving the pharaoh, after Menkaure died, they split them up and put one in each of eleven temples. And of course they started disappearing right away.”
“And the next person who had more than one was Alexander,” said Ahir.
“Well, that we know of. But what do they do? Lord only knows.”
“Like to find out,” muttered Cloudius.
“Maybe you’ll get your wish,” said Arnulf. “Got a lovely cylinder. I can’t imagine it doesn’t have something to do with the segments.”
“You know what I think,” said Cloudius. They all looked at him skeptically. “No, really. I think it’s—!” He smiled around at them. Arnulf and Daphne rolled their eyes. “Seriously! I think. The cylinder. Is. A segment finder!”
More eye-rolling. But Eva mraowed proudly at him. “I think she agrees with you,” said Tom.
“And how will you find out?” asked Arnulf.
“We’ll take it on a little trip sometime,” said Cloudius. “To a museum.”