Two weeks after Exam Week came Halloween Week, needless to say an important holiday in the Lyceum. They learned all about Hallowmas traditions in History of Magic; they brewed dark and stormy potions and also hot mulled cider in Alchemy; and, of course, they spent most of their off hours preparing for another Lyceum Halloween Week tradition. Each student had to work on a project between now and mid-January, and on Thursday and Friday of Halloween week, each of the 120 students of the Lyceum of the Lake Wind got ten minutes to describe that project to parents, masters and other students.
Meanwhile, of course, they were trying to kill one another, or at least get one another expelled.
On Sunday night, a week before Halloween, the school held a dance. It was tradition, a tradition rued, feared and detested by ninety percent of the male students. The other ten percent were in great demand. One of these, a very grown-up thirteen-year-old first-year named Andrew Andrews, romanced Angelica, sweeping her off her feet and then playing it cool.
“Why do boys do this to me?” Angelica asked Daphne suddenly in the library on Monday.
“Because you’re you.”
“All well for you. You’re an Amazon. You just dance with the other Amazons.”
“And we don’t step on each other’s feet.”
“Andrew didn’t step on my feet,” said Angelica with a sigh.
“So is anything going to come of this?”
“He’s supposed to meet me to study after classes tomorrow. We’re going to work on our projects together.”
“You’re not doing any, like, secret mapping we don’t want to let out, are you?” asked Daphne.
“No, illusions. Natalie and Rachel and I have been working up some things. What are you saying, I’d drop secrets?”
“No, no, I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that your extracurricular activities would ever cause you to let anything slip about our extracurricular activities.”
“Well, good. Wait,” said Angelica. “You’re being sarcastic.” Daphne just grinned.
So it was that Angelica went to meet Andrew in another of the gardens at twilight. She had her notes. He had a couple of his friends concealed in the bushes.
“Hi, Andrew,” said Angelica.
“Hi, Angelica,” he replied. “You’re looking great tonight.”
“Why, thank you.” She came close to him. Boy, she wanted to kiss him. But at a range of about a foot, she stopped to think about that smirk of his.
“What’s the matter?”
“Uh, nothing,” she said.
“Are ya sure? You got any friends around or anything?”
“No, no,” she said, “I came here alone, of course.”
“Well, that was stupid,” he said. “If there’s a bunch of magic force thrown in this garden, and you’re the one who gets found here, you’ll get thrown out, you know.”
“And why would that happen?”
“I can think of a reason, stupid,” said Jen Greenbelt, jumping up from a bush. She was covered in dead leaves. But she threw a bunch of force at Angelica, and from the other side, so did Bob Flammifer.
Angelica threw up a hand and stopped Jen’s attack, but she concentrated on Bob, neatly turning his force around and whacking him with it. He went down, as usual.
Ag! came in Andy’s voice. Angelica easily resisted. But then Jen hissed, Trt sko! The fire spell!
But Angelica resisted that too, and put all her own energy into her own Ag. Jen Greenbelt went down dozing, her wand glowing hot but not enough to light anything on fire.
Angelica looked around. Apparently she was quite dangerous. Also, she was quite in danger: the alarms were whispering like mad. Bob was stirring, Jen was asleep, and Andy darling was just rounding the next building and disappearing into the twilight. Ange flung one more burst of force at Bob, bowling him over. “Tell Jen not to throw fire spells,” she said in a low voice. “It’s not fair.”
The Maroons managed to get away again, but the incident was noted. On Wednesday morning there was a stern announcement from the Headmistress about fighting during Halloween week.
By then, the parents had already started showing up. “Yeah,” Limpy had said Tuesday night at dinner, “the uncoolest ones show up earliest.” She grinned at Cloudius, assuming his parents—those rebel toymakers and toolmakers, so uncool as far as she was concerned—would be the first to arrive.
But it was Daphne’s mother Dajuna who took the first prize. Daphne and Ahir and Spiny and Angelica all came out Wednesday morning, along with Henrietta and a coffee-colored West Indian second-year girl named Clothilde, each with a sword (well, Angelica had a long knife she’d saved up for) and there she was, Dajuna, dressed in boots and a steel mesh loincloth and a sort of armored bra, leaning on her longsword.
“Daughter,” she said, “introduce me to your fellow warriors.”
“And then you’ll defeat me in front of them.”
“Of course, and then I’ll praise you in front of them.”
And so it was, except that Daphne gave Dajuna a few moments of concern and even landed a blow on Dajuna’s arm guard. Dajuna responded with a fierce counterattack, then stopped, held up her hand and said, “You fight well, Daphne, I will just say that I am proud.”
“I am too, mom.” They hugged, then stood side by side and watched Angelica trying her best to parry Clothilde, who fought with a sort of West Indian samurai sword, a machete with runes carved into its blade. On the other side, Spiny and Henrietta were trying to get past Ahir’s curved scimitar, and the Iranian, in tight long black pants, a loose long-sleeved black shirt and a black scarf to hold down her hair, laughed as she parried them. Minute after minute it went on: Ahir refused to go over to the attack, but laughed as she defended. Her attackers became enraged, and then got over it. Henrietta stopped and watched as Jen gave it one more try. No go.
“Five Amazons,” said Dajuna. “This one with the hunting knife is good, though she is not one of the sisters.”
“You mean me?” asked Angelica. “My mom’s pure wizard. You’ll meet her.”
“Ahir’s a sister?” asked Daphne. She looked Ahir up and down. She’d assumed the Iranian refugee girl was just tall and in good shape.
Ahir grinned at mother and daughter. “My mother should be here tonight,” she said. “Then you can decide for sure if I am or not.”
“I already know,” said Dajuna, and Henrietta and Jen laughed. Dajuna hefted her sword, then came at Ahir at three-quarter speed. Ahir fell back before Daphne’s mom’s muscles, but parried her blows with geometric precision. She was just about to call for a halt when Dajuna relented. “You see,” she said. “Who is your mother?”
Tom Hexane’s folks, college professors from rural Maine, showed up in the afternoon. As Angelica understood it, they each held two jobs: a full-time job teaching math at a small “normal” college and a full-time job teaching at a parallel college where people went to become magic teachers. She wondered if some of the younger Lyceum masters had taken classes with them. She was unclear on their last names—they led double lives with different names anyway—but their fellow adults called Tom’s dad PJ, and Tom’s mom, who was exceptionally good looking for a woman of indeterminate age, was called KC.
Cloud’s mom and dad, looking shabby, proud, happy and paranoid all at once, arrived half an hour after Tom’s folks. They were trying to stay on the strait and narrow: they had driven, in a car, from Rock Island.
The adults all seemed to know each other from way back. By 5 pm, Ahir’s mom, Jen Chang’s mom and dad and finally Arnulf’s mom, a non-mage, arrived and were properly greeted. Ahir’s mom was clearly nothing more than an overdressed Iranian Amazon, Jen’s folks were middle-class magician children of immigrants from Hong Kong, and Arnulf’s mom was a cute little lady who smiled a lot and kept quiet. They sat around in the magically extendable Ash House living room, all the kids along with Ash and the parents as they arrived, and the adults held forth on the news of the magic world.
It was a scary world out there: there were flare-ups all over Clerica, as the mages referred to that world parallel to their own parallel world, whose inhabitants were priests and priestesses. Fighting in India between Hindu clerics and Muslim clerics and Sikh clerics; fighting in Palestine between Jewish clerics and Muslim clerics and Christian clerics; fighting between different kinds of Christian cleric, different kinds of Muslim cleric, different kinds of Jewish cleric even; and a hundred brands of pagan, animist, pantheist, nihilist and Satanist, all committing atrocities on one another and on themselves. The Iranian revolution was tsk-tsked over: the mages (or Magi) who had overthrown the Shah, including Ahir’s father, had been pushed out with much loss of life by the Ayatollah and his highly organized and motivated clerics. And clerical cults, puzzling and disturbing to the mage middle class, seemed to be sprouting all over. The words Jonestown and suicide bomber were uttered in dazed tones.
But they were not just outsiders looking in. “They don’t like each other,” said Jen’s dad, “but whenever they get past that, they immediately remember how much they don’t like us.”
“And they can kill us,” said PJ. “They can and do.”
“We fled from just that,” said Ahir’s mother, Marga Shaheen. She was six feet tall and beautiful even with a wrinkled face and streaks of grey in her long hair. Except for her head and her hands, she was completely covered by a loose black dress and black socks and prim little black boots: Angelica wondered how many knives she had on her.
“Well,” said Ash, “there are certainly problems in the world, and that is why it’s so important as parents, as teachers, to—!”
“Ash, Annie Ash!” boomed a male voice with a slight Russian accent. Angelica wanted to hide her head. Her dad, Vladimir Aliyev, came striding into the room, Audrey trailing in his wake smiling apologetically at everyone. Ash suffered herself to be hugged. “We were in Academy together,” said Vladimir, one arm firmly around Ash’s shoulder. He looked twice her size. He cast his eyes about and they fell on Angelica. “Girl!” he cried, dropping Ash and seizing Angelica from between Daphne and Jen Chang.
“Of course we’re taking everyone out for dinner,” said Audrey in the lull during the paternal hug. “Vladimir will insist, and you know how he is.”
“I will insist,” said Vladimir, still hugging Angelica. She had to admit, after Andrew’s betrayal this felt very nice.
Eventually everyone was there who was going to be there: Rats’s normal mom and dad even showed up; Pindar’s mother, but not her father, came. (“They’re getting divorced,” Rachel told Angelica. “Yeah,” said Angelica, “his dad’s really into that social rich people stuff, he’s a Maroon for sure, but his mom’s against all that stuff.” “Yeah,” said Natalie, “she’s an Inspector. She’s really smart but she’s nice.”)
Vladimir arranged them all in the front yard, took a picture, and then activated the little-used Ash House Yard Portal. Suddenly they were all in a lovely dark-paneled waiting room; the place had the feel of being deep underground.
“Is this your place?” asked Tom’s mom.
“No, no,” laughed Vladimir, “this is that pizzeria. We’re still in Chicago.”
It wasn’t Giordano’s: it was to Giordano’s what Giordano’s was to other pizza places. It was just that pizzeria. The pizza was deep dish, of course, and the root beer was good, and it looked like the wine was good too: the kids ate and ate and listened to their elders talk about the C Group and the Maroons and the crisis in Clerica and food and business and football, while everyone ate to the point of cheese saturation.
“She’s checking you out,” said Pindar to Arnulf.
“Who?” he asked in an alarmed tone. He wiped tomato sauce from his mouth.
“Ahir’s mom! She wants to see if her daughter has good taste!”
Arnulf was inclined to slap Pinhead, but of course he couldn’t, not right here. He looked up, and sure enough, Ahir’s mother was looking at him. She smiled winningly at Arnulf.
Eventually the huge party found its way back to the house, and the parents to their guest house, and the kids to their beds. Tomorrow the presentations would start.
Every student in the Lyceum had to do a Fall Project, to be presented at the end of January. And every student in the Lyceum had to do a presentation on that project, ten minutes precisely, before the whole school, students, faculty, staff and parents, in the two days at the end of Halloween week. The slots were chosen by lottery, and Angelica got Number Two. She groaned; Daphne pointed out that she would get hers over with early, which was good; meanwhile Arnulf, Cloudius, Pindar and Tom were thinking up “Number Two” jokes.
Angelica, with Rachel and Natalie, was working on illusions. It was a labor of love. She was concentrating on illusions involving crowds of people, and she was in good form (for once) Thursday morning at 7:10. She gave her presentation surrounded by the U.S. Supreme Court, along with a “Where’s Waldo” Waldo in judicial robes. Byron White and Thurgood Marshall got into a snowball fight at the end. The crowd, thin at this point in the morning, woke right up and gave her a vigorous round of applause.
Later Thursday morning, Cloudius talked of pumps; that afternoon, Daphne told the tale of her new +1 sword, and of others to come. Cloudius drew a tough crowd of magic-engineer dads, but he won them over with his knowledge and his willingness to say “I don’t know, sir.” Daphne, on the other hand, found it impossible to convey her awe at this beautiful sword—“It’ll be a +2 someday!”—to the audience of mages. It didn’t matter: Timms was impressed with both his students.
On Friday, Arnulf went at 7:40. Everyone else in Ash House figured he’d make a bad job of it—everyone but Ahir, who went at 8:20. They were working together on the history of ancient diggings apparently done by magical means and abandoned for centuries. They managed to weave a consistent narrative, and they managed to make it seem a really interesting tidbit of history with the possibility that they might work more on it at the Academy level; they managed this without happening to mention that the diggings, more on the scale of the Pyramids than of the mound builders, were under Chicago, had been made by the Indians and were currently under investigation by much of Ash House.
Tom, whose project was on astral travel in and beyond the Solar System, might have had problems due to the fact that as a twelve-year-old he did not yet have a license to travel astrally. But he found a lot of interesting facts and fancies to bring up in ten minutes, he used his wand light to make a lovely motion model of Jupiter and its moons, and he got the parents laughing and telling about their own astral travel adventures. “I was trying to jump to my mom’s house in Kenosha,” said one older lady. “I ended up on Miranda. Out by Uranus?”
“Oh, that’s a weird one,” said a middle-aged man. “That Voyager is going to wonder what the heck is going on with that race track. They’ll never in a million years guess what it’s really for, you know? And who put that giant check mark on that moon?”
“I’m planning on finding out,” said Tom, “as soon as I get my license!”
And then at 5 pm on Friday, Angelica Aliyev, Rachel Rabat and Natalie Lopez got to assist Professor Temple in a demonstration of Yulugensis albus. Under his careful supervision—their jobs really were to measure and stir—they made three little potions, and used up a minuscule amount of the bark they had brought back. After the talk, at which they made and briefly demonstrated each potion, the parents gathered around and talked about the results, displayed in a rack of three tiny glass ampules.
“So,” said Rachel’s mom, “it kills rats and it kills spiders and it kills big fat bugs. I suppose it could be applied to ex-husbands.”
“And that green color,” said KC, “it almost looks like some sort of candy but it’s actually kind of a horrid color.”
“Potion of love, eh?” said Vladimir, smooching Audrey as they stood in front of the milky white potion. “Is that what you gave me? But it hasn’t worn off.”
“Oh, it’s more than healing,” Cloudius’s mom was saying about the molasses-brown potion on the right. “Or it’s more than physical healing.”
“I can make a healing potion,” said Natalie’s dad, “and mix it into a nice snappy salsa.”
“This is more than healing, really,” said Mrs Cloud.
“But how do you use a material from another—?” PJ was asking Temple. “Won’t it just—?”
“Disappear? And yet it has not,” said Temple in a low voice, smiling. “Ask me why it hasn’t. Ask me why the bark itself is even still here.”
“Why is the bark still here?” asked Natalie’s mom.
“That’s my secret,” said Temple.
On Friday night, Headmistress Charais met with the “normal” parents, one of the high points of the year for her (as she often said). At the same time, the Maroons held their annual dinner meeting.
Vladimir again insisted on taking everyone out to a little place he knew of, though everyone was fewer than Wednesday night: Ahir’s mom insisted on taking Arnulf and Arnulf’s mom to an Iranian place on Wabash, Dajuna took Daphne and Jen Norman and her mom to a secret Amazon burger joint; and Ash and White went out with Pindar and his mother, with Rats trailing along. But Cloudius and his folks, Tom and his folks, and Angelica and her folks had a wonderful dinner, sort of Greek and sort of Chinese and sort of Pakistani, and talked about the Maroons’ dinner.
“I’d love to be a fly on the wall,” said Vladimir. “I’d love to hear all the wonderful issues they have to resolve in their big meeting.”
“I think it’d be dead boring,” said KC.
“Up for spying on them?” Angelica whispered to Cloudius.
“What? You’re crazy.”
“Yeah,” said Angelica, “and with our luck, we’d get caught and it’d be boring.”
The next day the Kentucky Colonels came calling. It was cold and rainy, and very soon the blue and white road uniforms are looking pretty much the same as the crimson and yellow home jerseys: basic Northern Illinois mud brown.
The mud seemed to throw off the host team. The Colonels were forced to punt, but after moving the ball promisingly; the Zephyrs took over on their own six. Estelle ran it up the middle for a couple on first down, and then Daphne, aiming long for Angelica, slipped in the mud and the ball became a toss-up. One of the Colonel safeties made the interception at midfield, and was immediately racked up by Bert. The next drive saw the Colonels move it on the ground as far as the twenty-five. On first down, Arnulf and the nickel back, a wiry third-year girl named Rita who had what appeared to be a knife scar across both cheeks and her nose, cheated up into the box as subtly as they could, but the Colonels’ quarterback, a smart-alecky black Amazon, saw it all and tossed an easy touchdown.
“Erg,” said Daphne, strapping on her helmet again, “we gotta do something about that.”
But what she did was get sacked hard into the freezing mud. She struggled to her feet but her ribs, her left elbow and wrist, and her right hand and shoulder all hurt bad. She figured they were just the noisiest of her injuries. Then she wondered where the ball had gone. Estelle had recovered Daphne’s fumble, but the sub quarterback, a good-looking second-year clutz named Jamesie, couldn’t move the ball.
“He’ll have to start moving the ball,” said Coach Whelp, “because you’re not going back in.”
“Aw, Coach!” Daphne started.
“Broken bones,” said Coach, waving a magical x-ray. “Rules are rules.”
“How many bones?” asked Daphne eagerly.
“Hard to say,” said the coach as the two of them squinted at the picture. “I count six, but there are a couple of maybes.”
Meanwhile, the Colonels drove all the way down the field, and their Amazon quarterback rolled out and scored on a ten-yard scramble. It was fourteen to nothing.
Things slowly got better. Jamesie managed to turn an Angelica kick return to the forty into a decent drive, and Tom kicked a thirty-yard field goal. They kicked off, and on third and long, that big black Amazon quarterback found Arnulf and Henrietta blitzing. She tried to fake them out, but he got a hold of her arm; she thought she could still shake him, and got the ball off. But he and Henrietta took her hard to the ground. She unwisely threw her hand out to stop her fall, and in that steadily freezing mud she crunched most disturbingly. Meanwhile, the pass fluttered in the wind, and Spiny Norman easily netted it for an interception.
The Zephs got a second field goal out of that, and the Colonels’ starting quarterback was out with almost as many broken bones as Daphne. Neither offense seemed interested in moving the ball for the rest of the second quarter: Arnulf got a pick that ended a slightly promising Kentucky drive in the final minute. The teams grumbled into halftime as the lake wind turned the mud into rock ice. The Colonels led, 14 to 6.
The Colonels would score no more. Their sub quarterback was completely inept. He did manage a touchdown pass: to Jen Norman, who gave the ball to Daphne on the sideline. After that, the Colonels kept the ball on the ground, and Arnulf and fellow safety Maggie Melillo joined all the linebackers in completely clogging the running lanes. On the other side of the ball, Estelle got a lot of hand-offs and ran up and down the field, twenty here, fifteen there, thirty-five for the go-ahead touchdown. After another three and out, Tom Hexane got his third field goal in three attempts, this one from 40 yards out. At the end of three quarters, the Zephs finally led, 23 to 14.
Angelica hadn’t had much to do, but she finally got her touchdown. Spiny chased down the very first pass the Colonels attempted in the fourth quarter, and on first down at the fifty, Jamesie managed to find the time to hit Angelica on a five yard slant. The Colonels’ linebackers slid right past her and the safety fell down, and she was gone. It was the final score of the game, as the Zephyrs let Estelle run out the clock and the Colonels were so scared of Spiny by now that they overthrew all their receivers. The Zephyrs came in out of the cold with a 30 to 14 win, and an eight and one season.
“Game ball to Norman,” said Coach Whelp in the silence of the locker room.
“Thanks, Coach,” said Spiny. “Hey Daph. This is really for you.”
Daphne caught the ball. She stood up, grimacing. “I can’t take this, of course. I’ll earn my own. We’re in the playoffs.”
“That’s right,” said Coach Whelp over the shouting. “We got all the time off till after Christmas, but we’ll get in a few practices first. We represent the Midwest. It’s two rounds, single elimination. We’re gonna be up against the best in the magic world. There’s a Texas team, the Stars of Dallas, they’re undefeated. The East team’s either one from Jersey or one from Boston: either way they’re tough. The West team: let’s just hope La La blows their last game and we don’t have to play them. We made it to the playoffs. Do you guys really think you have what it takes to stay in the playoffs?”
There was an immediate cheer, and then Daphne and Arnulf waved for quiet.
“We’re going to win the championship, Coach,” said Arnulf.
“Uh huh, that’s right,” said Henrietta, standing up behind him. “And some people are gonna have some scars to remember us by as well.”
The gang managed to stay completely out of trouble for the rest of the weekend, except for Cloudius and Rats. On Saturday night, while the Maroons’ parents were taking them all out to French restaurants, Rats had the brilliant idea of sneaking into the guesthouse where all the Maroon parents were staying.
“And you know they’re all filthy rich,” said Rats.
“Yeah!” said Cloudius. “Wait, you’re not talking about stealing.”
“No, not at all. Just—you know, maps.”
“Well, of course, items,” said Cloudius.
So it was that as twilight became night, the two boys were creeping across the bushy back yard of the guest house, which was three houses down and one over from Ash House.
“Nice place,” said Rats, admiring the topiary.
“Yeah, if you like to carve shrubbery,” said Cloudius. “Back door. See anyone?”
“Not a soul,” said Rats.
“It’s the ones that don’t have souls that I worry about,” said Cloudius. They hastened across the open lawn to the cover of two tall bushes flanking the back door. Up three steps: the door was unlocked. “Up, down?”
“Up,” said Rats.
At the top of the stairs the door was locked securely. “Not securely enough for me,” said Cloudius, taking out his tools. A paperclip and a not really Swiss army knife got it open.
They were in an upstairs store room. It was long and odd-shaped, with locked doors into the second floor bedrooms. There were a couple of desks, a lot of shelves and a moderate mess on the floor and hanging from the walls and ceiling.
“Hey,” said Cloud, “a map. A bunch of maps. I don’t know if I should take them, but look, everything’s connected, there’s this other castle we don’t even know about, and there’s something even they don’t know all of, under the Field Museum!”
“Look, that’s a—that’s an explosive item,” said Rats. “And that’s—that’s a chunk of Kirvas stone! Oh, look, it’s a bin of phoenix feathers! How many are there? Oh, look, there’s a Spirit Guard! Bye!”
“Say what, now?” asked Cloudius, looking up. Sure enough, here were two silvery figures coming through the walls, their clawed hands outstretched to wreak pain. He stood staring at them, thinking, don’t they usually travel in threes?
He heard a noise behind him. “I am so retarded,” he said to himself as they threw their spells at him and Rats. But Cloudius, in spite of his best efforts, had become an experienced magical combatant, and their magical attacks, installed into them by their masters, were too weak to overcome the boys’ resistance. They ducked out, turned sharp left, then sharp right and across a field.
Cloudius thought the spirit guards were behind them at first, and he wondered how far they could follow. But suddenly he seemed to be passing right in front of someone who wasn’t entirely there, though not a spirit guard of any kind. It was a hulking figure, maybe even a dead Indian.
Cloud and Rats didn’t stop till they got to Ash House, but they didn’t feel any further pursuit.
The boys didn’t get a chance to discuss their adventures other than to say, “We have some stuff to tell you guys!” But Cloudius and Rats sat together at the State Dinner, furtively drawing on a napkin what Cloudius had memorized from the map in the guest house.
“Oh, dung,” said Rats. “check out the opposition.”
Jen Greenbelt’s mother, a lovely wealthy lady who couldn’t have been more stuck up if she were a poster, strode over with a withering glance in their general direction, and had a brief, animated talk with Mistress Ash.
“That woman,” said Cloud’s mom. “She hates us.”
“I’m sure she thinks we should have been put in irons,” said Cloud’s dad. “I think the same of her. And so does Ash, so never mind.”
“But that’s not the action,” said Cloudius to Rats. “Look.”
As they watched, Miriam Hubble, Josh’s mother, and Elene Curie, Emma Curie’s mom, went over to chat with MacMorris. They were joined by Emma’s older sister Edithe, who was in the Academy, and a third-year boy and his father. After a brief confab, they broke up into two groups of three, and appeared to resume eating and chatting, but five minutes later, one group and then the other got up and went out. Ten minutes later they all returned, and after dessert they moved a table away from the others and loudly celebrated, while MacMorris, Elene Curie and Abel and Miriam Hubble leaned together talking.
“What are they talking about?” Ange said to herself.
Daphne, leaning close, said, “We’ll find out.”
“What is this stuff we’re eating?” asked Angelica. “It tasted good at first but there’s something weird about it.”
“Oh, the slime moss,” said Jen Chang’s mom, sitting next to Angelica. “It’s wonderful fried.”
Angelica looked at the piece she had left. She wished she hadn’t: it was the middle part, and it was, well, never mind.
“Somewhere between bitter and repugnant,” she whispered to Daphne.
“You gonna eat the rest of your intestine rings?” asked Daphne.
That night was the Halloween Ball. The first-years didn’t get to stay beyond the first hour, but that was enough time to get in a little dancing.
“You dance divinely,” Angelica said to Rachel.
“Oh, you too, deah,” said Rachel. Neither of them had a date. Angelica couldn’t help noticing several of the Maroon girls dancing laughingly with Andrew. “It almost looks like Ahir has taught Arnulf to dance.”
“No,” said Angelica, “she’s just given him reason to learn.”
“Natalie’s dancing with Pindar,” said Rachel. “Anything serious there?”
“No, it’s just a friend date.”
“I love your dad, by the way,” said Rachel. “He’s quite the dancer.”
Vladimir and Audrey were dancing all around the floor, and both KC and Marga Shaheen were in line for a turn with him. Nearby, Daphne and Spiny were dancing some sort of Amazon tango even to the strains of K. C. and the Sunshine Band.
The song ended and Ash and White started rounding up the first-years. “That couldn’t have ended fast enough,” Cloud was saying.
“Aw, poor boy,” said Angelica, “did you get forced to dance?”
“No,” said Cloudius, “I managed to escape that, but if it had gone on much longer my luck would’ve run out for sure.”
The next morning, of course, Vladimir took everyone he could get his hands on out to breakfast, including Ash and the house ghost. This place was different: they had it to themselves, except for spirit helpers doing the cooking and serving. There were no windows, and when, eventually, the doors opened to admit other customers, a chill stale wind blew in. The customers were a male and a female, both dressed in chain mail and carrying swords that they did not sheathe until the door closed behind them.
“It’s Valen,” Angelica explained in a low voice.
“Hey Daph,” said Spiny, “want to sneak down to the level below? I heard a legend—!”
“Hey, yeah,” said Daphne. “I’ll go if Arn—!”
“Forget it,” said Arnulf.
Audrey looked over at them. Vladimir was holding forth, but Angelica could feel her mom’s glare. She looked up and Audrey said, quietly, glancing across Daphne, Arnulf and Spiny and catching all their eyes as well, “Don’t even think it.”
“Darn right,” said Arnulf. “We need Daph for the playoffs.”
The families went home, the hubbub died down, and Sunday evening looked like a night full of studying. But Arnulf looked up in the library at about 4 pm, and Ahir was looking at him from across the table. It looked like they were going to waste the next three hours, yet again, walking through the neighborhood.
This was exciting only to them for the first two hours, mostly spent strolling about a cemetery a few blocks from the lyceum campus.
“Scary when they talk about Clerica,” said Ahir.
“Yeah,” said Arnulf, “there’s plenty of stuff to be scared about. The Most Powerful Wizard, the segments, the Maroons, all those Indian tunnels, what’s under the field museum—!”
“Take it from me,” said Ahir, “the clerics can be worse than any of those, if they get together. And it can be bad to be in the room with them when they fight each other.”
“Ha, Jerry Falwell, Tammy Faye Bakker,” said Arnulf.
“Don’t jest! The Church. All the Churches. Thousands of true believers, all trained to fight to the death.” They stopped while she said this. She looked up at him. “And so on, you know.”
“You’re so cute when you’re into it,” said Arnulf, who couldn’t believe he was hearing his own voice.
“Oh, you’re cute too, Arnulf,” Ahir started to say, but she was drowned out by sudden grumbling.
Three figures were forming out of the shadows around them. They seemed like real people, if very shabby ones, and they carried blunt weapons: a club, a night stick, a set of numchaku. Their faces were hard to see.
“What the heck are you?” asked Arnulf. They didn’t answer.
“Spirit punks,” whispered Ahir. “Someone must have sent them. It’s an MCV thing.”
A moment later sparks of magic force crisscrossed the stretch of sidewalk. One of the punks punctured and deflated like a balloon made of rags. Arnulf went “Oof!” and fell down onto his butt, and then toppled backward. The one that knocked him out turned and was caught by Ahir’s look, and found itself blasted from the universe.
Ahir turned to check the third spirit punk, just in time to see it blast toward her, disintegrating. Where it was, she could see the outline of a fat cat—and a boy of twelve.
“No alarms,” said Tom Hexane. “Do you need help?”
“No, thanks,” said Ahir. “I’ll get him back to the house.”
“Okay,” said Tom, “it was a good time for a minute there, huh?” He and the cat hurried on toward the school building.
Ahir bent down to Arnulf. “Are you okay? Should I call him back to help?”
“No, no,” said Arnulf, “I’ll be fine. Just let me catch my breath a moment.”
“Oh, sure,” said Ahir, sitting on the ground next to him. “I can catch my breath too.” She smiled down at him. She bent toward him, still smiling, looking down. She bent down further, her big brown eyes wide open, the smile fading: closer, closer, as if she was inspecting his nose. Her lips reached out to his. She kissed him, once, too quick, and then again, more slowly and thoughtfully. She sat up, beside him where he lay on his back, his arms and legs splayed as if he had fallen from the sky.
“That’s not helping me catch my breath,” he said.
“It’s not helping?”
“But I think it was helping.”
“Mmm,” she said after another kiss.