Without Magic

Without Magic

Arthur was checking the mail for letters from his brother when he discovered a magician lived across from him. He knew the man was a magician because of his large beard, which foamed nearly to his hips, and the staff disguised as a walking stick, which he swished across his oxfords before he jumped off the roof of the house, sank through air like a soap bubble, and landed— poof— smartly in the snow and returned inside. Arthur’s eyes were very good, and he knew what he saw. That night, he reread Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The next night, he read Merlin: The Lost Years, and the night after he read The Farthest Shore. He took notes on all of them, and having prepared, he walked up the magician’s driveway in slacks, a collared shirt, and a blazer, and rang the doorbell.

Nobody answered. Checking the driveway, he saw that the Mitsubishi was gone. He dug his reporter’s notebook out of his pocket and with a golf pencil wrote, “Mitsubishi = the most magical car?” He berated himself for missing him, and resolved to wait until the next day to approach the wizard and ask him if he could be his apprentice.

 

The wizard, Arnesbury, arrived at his meeting late and offered apologies all around. Then, the Council rolled up their baggy wizard’s sleeves and shuffled into a circle around a crystal ball lifted on a pedestal. Then, they raised their staffs and cast a spell which sensed any magic-bearing objects in the town. The crystal ball showed a bird’s eye view of the whole city, with tiny moving stars indicating where these objects were. They lowered their staffs slightly and narrowed the parameters to magic-bearing humans. At last, they put down their staffs entirely and began to discuss which of them they would take on as an apprentice. The meeting lasted well into the night, turning from a debate into an argument into a fist fight into a brawl. By morning it was decided: no apprentices would be taken this year.

Arnesbury returned home in a sour mood. He had wanted an apprentice in order to advance a level in ranking. He ranked somewhere in the middle of the hundred-strong Council, but yearned to become a professor in the old seminary where he first studied magic. Brooding as usual, he pulled into the driveway and slouched inside. His wife, Tabitha, had prepared dinner.

She pecked him on the cheek. “Have a good meeting?”

He unwound his snow-dusted scarf and grumbled, “Never do and this one was no better. No apprentices this year. None! There are several promising young people around who would love to learn magic, but they’ve decided that nobody will be able to choose and hold an apprentice until the funding is increased.” He snorted. “Funding. We aren’t researchers or non-profits. We don’t need funding.”

She tutted, passing him a cup of coffee. “That’s a shame. The neighbor’s boy came by looking for you. The younger one, I think he’s about fourteen? I think he wants to formally ask you to be his teacher.”

He perked. “Really?”

“Yes, really. I know it’s not traditional, and he’s probably past age, but it’s enterprising. Don’t you think?”

“Yes, well. . . .” He brooded for a time. “Our sensitivity spells said that the closest magic-bearing youths of age are fifty kilometers from us. He can’t be magical.”

“He could just not be of age,” she pointed out.

“I’ll investigate after dinner.”

The magician made good on his word and cast invisibility on himself. He walked to the boy’s house and let himself in through the front door. The boy and his family, parents and a younger sister, were eating dinner and didn’t notice the quiet click of the door. The wizard studied the boy for a good while. He had none of the characteristics of a good wizard. No light of pep and curiosity, no brooding air, no mysterious nature. He had jug ears like the inbred son of a turnip farmer and freckles like spilled cinnamon. He also looked downcast. If this boy was going to be his apprentice, he’d better cheer up. Though the boy had some sort of talent if he could spot Arnesbury for a wizard.

The wizard crept through the house, checking rooms quietly, until he found a room, first door on the left, that clearly belonged to the boy. One wall was all shelves, which sagged with biographies of medal-encrusted, epaulette-shouldered generals from Alexander to Patton, maps of guerrilla warfare in jungles or cities, and accounts of famous battles. Plastic models of tanks acted as bookends, and a squadron of painted model airplanes hung from the ceiling. The other wall was covered in framed award certificates, and across from the door was a bed and a desk. Arnesbury muttered a couplet and three of the award certificates glowed. Their gilt lettering shifted and read, “Press,” “Turn,” and “Slide.” Arnesbury probed them again, and they gave more directions: “Press twice,” “Turn clockwise,” and “Slide down and to the left two inches and five inches in that order.” A layered spell, he thought. Amazed and excited, he realized that the boy was not only underage, he was also advanced enough to plan and execute intermediate magic. How many layers? Another probe, and the order in which to shift, press, and turn was revealed. Another, and Arnesbury found a randomizer that would change the order of the certificates so that the order they were touched changed. Underneath that spell was a simple tracker-trap. If anyone got the order wrong, they would be tracked invisibly. Underneath that spell was a dimension extender.

This kid is a genius! He marveled at the dimension extender, noting that it had been done roughly, but its success and completion was notable even for apprentices in their fourth year. What was in it? He obeyed the revealed commands and the space between them vanished into a small doorway, leading to a small, windowless room. It had a bed stand and a stool and not much else: a few books and pamphlets on magic, a broken crystal flickering in a jam jar, a knife with a badly written curse on it, but mostly trifles. But under the knife was a red and black pamphlet advertising for the Hell Hands.

Arnesbury picked it up and unfolded it, his excitement dimming. There was the usual drivel about being against the Council’s bloated and bloviating bureaucrats, but there was also a note scrawled inside, “We like what we see. Call me,” and a number. Arnesbury wrote down the number on the inside of his arm and left the room, the outer room, the house altogether. He went straight home and caught Tabitha as she was shrugging on her coat. “That boy’s a genius, and the Hell Hands are already scouting for him.”

She stopped with her fingers on the buttons. “How do you know?”

He told her and wrote down the phone number on a sticky note. “I’m not averse to teaching him. He may have turned them down. But we’ll need to investigate anyway. We can’t leave him alone.”

“I’ll let my division know about the Hell Hands.” She buttoned her coat and tossed a scarf over her shoulder. “From there we can petition the Council to accept your apprentice so we can keep an eye on him. Maybe it will be nothing.”

 

After school, Arthur returned home and went straight to his room: the last door on the left. He dumped his backpack on the floor and slung himself into his desk chair. The wastepaper basket beside the desk held several snowballs worth of crumpled rejected proposals and an assignment with See Me! written in red and circled. Arthur hunched over his paper, scratching out lines, refining his request until it became perfect.

 

Dear Mr. Magician,

I would like to formally ask if you would consider taking me as your apprentice.  I have admired magic for many years and would jump at the chance to learn from a master. If you need proof of my work ethic, I can provide references and a transcript.

Sincerely, Arthur Roman

 

Clearing his throat, he recited his proposal. He repeated it in a more confident tone, and again in a more humble one. Sighing, he reached for a business book and opened it to a stickied page on how to propose and convince. His bookshelves were full of fantasy comics and books on business. On the wall were no awards, only photos: he and his little sister baking a chocolate cake, a family Christmas photo, his parents standing beside him for middle school graduation, and a picture of him and his brother with their arms looped around each other’s waists after a football game. In the last picture, Arthur beamed up at his dirty, sweaty older brother, who smiled lopsidedly, almost irritably, into the camera.

 

Tabitha’s department, Magic State Security, gave Arnesbury the go-ahead at the end of the week to invite Arthur to be his apprentice. Arnesbury sent his invitation the traditional way: by call to action. A call to action was a circumstance set up by a witch or wizard that was only noticeable to the intended recipient— a mysterious package in the mail, an animal in distress, etc. The recipient had to respond in such a way that would end with them finding the wizard and becoming an apprentice.

“He should have found it by now, don’t you think?” he asked his wife. It had been a week since he dropped off the “mysterious package” at the post office. The package contained a magic compass in a puzzle, which Arthur had to solve to lead him through the real door to his home. He had tripled security since the boy last rang the bell— not because of him, but because the Hell Hands had assaulted several minor officials, and he and his wife were minor officials, and they might be next— and the only way to bypass the alarms was known by him and his wife.

Just as he checked out the window, he saw the boy on the front steps. “He’s here!” He gasped. “The alarms didn’t go off!”

The doorbell rang. In a blink he magicked his hair combed, tie straightened, pajama pants into slacks, his expression grave, brooding, and portentous. Thus prepared, he opened the door.

He opened his mouth to thunder but the boy immediately and speedily said:

“Hello sir, my name is Arthur, and I would like to formally request for you to consider taking me on as your apprentice. I have admired magic for many years—”

Arnesbury held up his hand. “One moment,” he interrupted. “Did you get the package I sent you?”

“I’m afraid not,” he replied timidly. “It must be late?” His mother had intercepted it before he had. She thought it was sent to the wrong address and returned it to the post office.

“What about the alarms? Did you hear any alarms go off?”

“No, sir, I haven’t.”

“Well. . .” said the wizard, unable to think of anything to say.  Were they ineffective? What if Arthur had done it unconsciously? The latter idea was more interesting, and it implied that the boy had an innate ability to disable, negate, or bypass magic fields. It also explained how the crystal ball hadn’t pinged him. He held the door open and invited Arthur inside. His and Tabitha’s house was tidy and austere, full of heavy, carved wood furniture, oil-paintings of libraries and still lifes, and shelves of leather-bound books. Arthur fidgeted and glanced around.

“Sit down,” said Arnesbury grandly, indicating one of the claw footed arm-chairs. Arthur lowered himself into one and sank into it so his knees touched his  chin and he had to struggle to sit up. Arnesbury almost laughed. The Hell Hands scouted him? Arnesbury settled and steepled his fingers. “I don’t think we’ve formally met before. I’m Robert Arnesbury, pleasure to meet you.”

“Arthur Roman,” said the boy nervously. “Nice to meet you.”

“Let’s get into it. My wife told me that you were looking to be an apprentice. How old are you?”

“I’m fourteen, sir.”

“That’s rather old to be an apprentice.” Arthur’s face fell. Arnesbury added, “But it’s not uncommon. Now, why don’t you explain why you want to be an apprentice? To what end do you seek the knowledge of magic?”

“I would like to be a great wizard like Ged from Earthsea,” he said. “And help people.”

“That’s a very noble goal,” he said, thinking of what a stretch it was. “But I would like to know. . . how did you know I was a wizard?”

“I saw you and knew,” said Arthur simply. “Anyone could tell you’re a wizard.”

Of course, Arthur meant the incident where he saw Arnesbury float down from the roof, and his wizardly beard. Arnesbury took his words to mean that he had sensed his magic and that he was the very picture of a wizard. Flattered, he puffed up, made a schedule for the boy to come in every day after school, and shook his hand.

Arthur was like no other magic apprentice the wizard had heard of— he was not bright, clever, talented, or witty, nor did he ask many questions. Arthur was plodding yet earnest, frequently thick-headed. But he worked hard, sincerely, and respectfully. It was difficult to believe that the Hell Hands had scouted him. What did political terrorists want with a small-town boy?

Arnesbury examined Arthur’s words and deeds with lapidary attention. Was Arthur part of the Hell Hands already? Was he taking orders? Did he approach him because he was a Council member, or did he not know? Was he feigning ignorance or did he lose 50 IQ points sometime between constructing the extending dimension and being apprenticed?

Arthur had no skill for learning and beat understanding into his head through memorization and poring over of related material. He’s no genius, Arnesbury thought often. If he was being graded, he would be a B- student, or a C+. He’d lug his potion ingredients home for the night— frog slime, powdered anchovies, horses’ tears, and willow bark— and the next morning present an inedible poisonous soup. The longer the lessons continued, the more Arnesbury grew suspicious, and the more Arthur floundered. Scared that Arnesbury would find out that he had no talent for magic, he pretended understanding when Arnesbury asked him to pay attention to how magic felt when he used it. For one assignment, Arthur made a magic compass without using magic, having panicked and reprogrammed a GPS, which Arnesbury praised. He knew it was wrong and was miserable that he was fooling a great man, but he felt that he had to fake competence until his lessons would catch in his head.

After the magic compass project, Arnesbury thought Arthur was ready to take on a bigger project: exorcising a demon. The demon lived in an abandoned chapel which had become desecrated due to the perversions of the last priest. No resident wanted to attend nor fix it, and so it became home to pigeons, which huddled in the rafters and rats who nested in the stuffing of the pews. Next to it spread the potter’s field where the demon liked to hide in the fog as a scarf of mist or have compound eyes in the dew pebbling the overgrown lawn. She flew out in the chest of a barn owl and saw the world through its starless eyes, and she took comfort in being nursed in the brood of bunnies who shared a den beside a murderer’s coffin. The demon’s real body rested in the unconsecrated altar: a tumor in the torso of a china doll, a throbbing, veined lump. She was not evil, yet she caused trouble for the magicians. Her presence alone disrupted spells, and she was intelligent enough to avoid them when they entered the graveyard with their spritzers of holy water.

Arthur lived only a few blocks away from the cemetery and passed it going to and from school every day. Like other children who had to pass it, he always sped up when he reached the crooked fence. He had only been inside on a dare. Arnesbury had given him a glass container and dried lavender in a paper twist to capture the demon, but not a hint on how to find it. Arthur wandered through the cemetery with his hands cupped around his mouth, calling: “Here, demon— here, demon. . . .” clucking and stooping as if to find it slinking at the base of the mausoleums and weeping angel statues. The demon watched from the steeple and thought it was charming. She rose out of the barn owl she occupied and walked in his shadow all day, invisible and gleeful.

When he sat at a mouldering bench to eat his lunch, she decided to have fun. He had just bitten into his sandwich when a voice echoed from all around him: “Who disturbs my sanctuary?”

Arthur choked, took a gulp of water that dribbled onto his shirt collar and coughed.

Sheba coiled around his head like cigarette smoke and whispered like a growing fire, “What are you doing here? This is no place for one lonely boy.”

Her sibilant voice did not seem to reach the boy as well as it did others. He looked about uneasily, but kept chewing.

“Hello, hello. . . .” she circled round his hair and dipped into his ears. “Can you hear me?”

No reply. She altered the pitch of her voice and tried again. Arthur looked over his shoulder and ate faster. In frustration she cried out, “I’m here!”

He spat out his food.

“Sorry, what?” He said loudly, standing. “ARE— YOU— THE— DEMON— SHEBA?”

“Yes!”

“Great!” he said. “I mean— GREAT! CAN YOU PLEASE GO ELSEWHERE? MY TEACHER SAYS YOU’RE BREAKING HIS SPELLS.”

“You don’t have to shout!”

“Okay! I mean, okay.” he said in a quieter voice, abashed. “But could you move? Please? It would be helpful.”

“I don’t see why he shouldn’t move.”

“Oh.” Arthur had taken Arnesbury’s order as an errand or message from a wizard to his supernatural neighbor, not a test of magical ability. He hadn’t expected disagreement.

It occurred to the demon that Arthur was a moron. This was exciting. She could possess him with some clever, sweet words.Then, she could wield the boy’s body and magic like a hammer. She could walk out of the graveyard, go across the street, and set the gas station on fire. She could smash windows and trash cans, graffiti the courthouses, and flip birds at old ladies! She could defile the girls and make enemies of every boy who ever looked her way, ruin the magic of the wizards and witches who hated her, and joyfully wreck the world with a baseball bat and this boy’s idiot soul.

She smoked into reality in the form of a raven, which perched on his shoulder with the smell of burning leaves. He scratched that shoulder. There was a blurry spot on it, but he couldn’t tell if the blurriness was only from trying to look at his shoulder or if it was her.

“There is a way I could stop disrupting spells,” she said slyly, putting her beak to his ear. “I could find a host and live inside them.”

“Really?”

“Oh yes. And it’s good for my host, too. They can use my powers and magic to supplement their own.” She sidled closer. “Some wizards seek out demons in their quest for knowledge.”

“That sounds great! So you’ll find a host?”

“I’ve already found one,” she purred. Her beak grew needle-thin and funneled into his ear—

Arthur jumped up with a big smile. “Thank you! I’m glad you found someone already. I’ll tell Mr. Arnesbury that he can start his experiments again.”

He bounced back to the gate as the demon hovered in shock. His hand had fallen on the weathered gate when she cried, “Wait!” and billowed to his shoulder in a frowsy cloud. “I meant you,” she said in exasperation.

“Oh.” He paused. “I don’t think I’ll be a very good host. My body isn’t exactly the best.”

“I’m not interested in your physical body. I’m interested in your magic organs.”

“Oh. I don’t know if I have those.”

“Are you a magic-user?”

“Yes?”

“Then you have a magic organ,” she said with a bit of bite in her voice. “In return for my powers, I eat your magic and live in your body. Fair?”

“That sounds good,” he said, relieved. “How do we do it?”

Pleased, she hopped to his shoulder as a raven. “You say my name and the words, ‘I invite you into my heart,’ and I reply with your name and, ‘I will be your guest.’”

“Alright. What is your name?”

“Sheba of the Million Drops.” Sheba thrilled inwardly. Finally, she would be able to leave the graveyard. As he recited his lines, she felt a tugging, prickling feeling in her psychic body, as if the hooks of a hundred burrs latched there and were drawing her to him. Her body spun into a silver thread and wound around Arthur’s neck. A jolt, and then she was inside his chest like a chill.

Eagerly she flowed through his body. Her essence filtered through cells like water through pebbles, infused blood and brain fluid, and took residence in the chambers of his heart. All the while she looked for the magic organ. Was it in his brain? By his lungs? Constellated in his pressure points or freckles? But at last she stopping flowing and churned in confusion. Did he have one? If he didn’t, how would she take him over? The magic organ was the lever to the machine that was the magician’s psyche, and if he didn’t have one, she was trapped.

“Are you alright, Sheba?” Arthur asked out loud. He could feel Sheba’s chill, and he tapped his chest where he felt her. “You feel upset.”

“I may have made an error,” she said painfully.

“Oh no. What’s wrong?”

His heartbeat kicked up. Emotions tumbled inside it and passed through her: concern, anxiety, and a peculiar resolution she couldn’t name. A sense that whatever was wrong, Arthur would help her. It sickened her.

“You’re too kind. I can’t eat your magic,” she replied at last. This wasn’t entirely a lie. Positive emotions that were not hers sickened her. If he had been a magic user, she would have been fatally poisoned. As his emotions strengthened, she felt still worse.

“No, it’s fine,” he said. “I don’t mind. I can’t use magic very well. It doesn’t matter to me if you eat it. I’d hate to think you got the worse end of the bargain.”

“No. Just living in you is enough. I’ll pay rent. I can give you some of my magic in return for staying in you.” She detached herself from the doll in the church and bound herself behind his heart. She felt him wince. “Sorry. Here.” Connected, she materialized on his shoulder as a dove. “Can we make a new deal? I’ll act as your familiar and live in you until I find another host. I can’t go into many places without a host. Just living inside you is enough.” She had been stupid, but her mistake was fixable.

“If you’re sure.” Arthur’s friendly face glowed with anxiety. “I guess the last thing to do is introduce you to my master.”

 

Arnesbury had just crossed the road when he spotted Arthur returning, talking to a dove on his shoulder. As his apprentice approached him, the wizard’s hair stood on end. Arnesbury recited a couplet rapidly. As he did, his vision shifted and he saw the dove for what it was. He concentrated energy at the tip of his finger and pointed at Arthur so suddenly Arthur froze mid stride.

“Neither of you are invited into my house until you explain what this is,” he said more calmly than he felt. “You have been possessed. Are you aware of that?”

“Y-Yes sir. We made a contract,” he stammered. “She’s going to be my familiar while she uses me as a host.”

“Here are the terms and conditions,” Sheba purred. A silver script shone in the air. Arnesbury read them and his face purpled. Stiffly he pointed to the gate. “Lab. Now.”

Terrified and bewildered, Arthur was pushed into the laboratory with its glass beakers, erlenmeyer flasks, roller-coaster loops of tubes, and thick tomes of formulas, and was forced to sit and drink a clear, colorless liquid.

“Answer me,” said Arnesbury in a near whisper. “Did you willingly enter a contract with this demon.”

“Yes sir.”

“Did you, demon, trick Arthur into consenting?”

It was useless to lie; the potion had taken care of that. “Yes, but I only mean to stay until I can find a new host.”

Arnesbury yanked his beard so hard several hairs ripped out of his chin. “Never make contracts with people— with demons— you meet minutes before. It’s not good business sense. And you’re still an apprentice. Did you not think to ask me first?”

“No sir,” Arthur whispered.

“That’s right. You didn’t think. You never think. You might have run naked down the street and taken an axe to your family. Did you want that?”

“No!”

“In the future, you must think before you act,” said the wizard, looming over him. “You haven’t learned any magic. You haven’t learned. This demon. . . well, that she became your familiar is lucky. But you can’t rely on luck. You must rely on your brain.” Arthur, stricken, couldn’t look up from his shoes. Wearily, Arnesbury gestured toward the door. “Go home and reflect. This was very reckless of you. My master would have thrown me out had I done the same. Be glad I’m modern.”

Numbly Arthur moved his lips. “Thank you, Mister Arnesbury.” He trudged out of Arnesbury’s house. Tabitha craned her head to see why he was leaving so early, and with a dove on his shoulder. Out of sight of the Arnesburys, Arthur walked into his quiet house and into his brother’s room. The room was a three-year-old time capsule. A layer of dust over the desk capped the lamp and filled in the spines of history books with dead motes once spotlit years ago when another boy opened the shutters to see more clearly the half-painted model airplane.  The trashcan held ancient Snickers wrappers and the homework on the desk wouldn’t even get an F if it was turned in the next day. An imprint of a body dented the mattress where the blankets had been flung off and the pillow still held an empty bowl for the sleeper’s head.

Arthur sat on his brother’s chair with his hands in his lap. He could imagine himself sitting with Brady as Brady said, “Here— you see how Jim Thorpe made that play?” Arthur had very nearly destroyed the future where his brother would explain things to him again. He gripped his hair, choking with tears.

 

After Arnesbury sent Arthur home, he told Tabitha what happened in low, rushed tones. Tabitha’s wrinkled face tightened and she wound up her hair in a chignon to keep it out of her face as she thought. She wrote the details of the incident in her clear hand, marking the time and date. Together, she and Arnesbury went over the suspicions they had gathered about Arthur: the pamphlet, the layered lock for the hidden room, the strange lack of magic, and the fusing with the demon.

“Of all of these,” she said, circling a point. “One of these is not like the other. He must realize that he needs to do magic to get better.”

“Perhaps he’s altered his magic illegally,” Arnesbury suggested. “And using it would reveal what he’s done.”

Tabitha twisted her mouth. “No. I don’t believe that.”

“What else could it be?”

She put her fingertips to her lips and gazed at the paper. “When the Council first scanned for magical youth, you found nobody nearby, correct?”

“That’s right. But he’s not of age. He’s too young to be picked up by the scanner.”

“But the scanner doesn’t track by age. It tracks by magical power. The layered charm that knows the age and location of everyone in the city filters by age. I don’t—” she sighed. “I don’t know what I’m getting at. There’s something obvious that we’re missing.”

“Mm.” They examined the list in mournful silence. “I hope he isn’t actually with the Hell Hands.”

“Me too. He’s a sweet boy.”

“I’ll talk to him,” said Arnesbury. “Somewhere where I can ask him questions and get answers I can trust. And then we’ll see about whether he should be my apprentice still. Or in jail. We’ll see.”

 

The next morning, Arnesbury showed up on Arthur’s doorstep in a collared shirt and slacks. He explained to Arthur’s parents that he and Arthur were going to take a field trip, and it would be welcome if they would please call his school and tell them Arthur would be taking a day off for personal matters. Arthur’s parents knew he was apprenticed to a magician, but thought Arnesbury was the type of magician that pulled rabbits out of hats and sawed beautiful women in half. Arthur’s father slipped him a disposable camera and told him to take pictures. Arthur was still shaken from being sent home early the previous day. He got up from the breakfast table pale and quivering. Arnesbury noticed and wondered why. Did Arthur think that his tie to the Hell Hands was found out? He assured Arthur he wasn’t in trouble, but Arthur’s expression didn’t change and it was clear he didn’t believe him.

Arnesbury took Arthur to the building where the Council and government ran their affairs, a small office tower downtown. Before they got out of the car, he gave him a wizard’s hat for appearance’s sake. Arthur brightened marginally. Sheba crawled out of Arthur’s pocket as a grey mouse, twitched her stiff whiskers, and dove back in. She had the good sense to stay out of sight as they entered the building. Arnesbury spoke with the guard briefly, and the guard waved them into the elevator. In the grey offices on the sixth floor, the magicians wore wizard hats and there was a crystal ball next to the phone in every cubicle. Otherwise, it looked like a normal office on Halloween. Arthur’s mouth turned down at the corners.

“Disappointing the apprentices, as is tradition,” said Arnesbury with a grin, prompting a rueful smile from Arthur. “One day you’ll bring your apprentice here, and they’ll be disappointed. And the cycle will continue. Ah, there’s— Kath! Kath!” Arnesbury flagged down Kath. She knew why they were there, and she led them into a small grey room with a window, two chairs, and a table: an interrogation room.

Arthur whitened so fast Arnesbury thought he might faint.

“You’re not in trouble!” he said hastily. “This is just— we need to cover our bases, that’s all.”

“For what?” Arthur croaked.

“We want to ask you a few questions about some. . . uh, things that have come up during your training. We just want to make sure everything is square.” Arthur’s fear morphed to perplexed anxiety. “Have a seat.”

They sat across from each other. Kath brought out two teacups on a tray. “Chamomile,” she said with a smile. “To relax you.”

Arnesbury and Arthur both drank, with Kath watching. When she had confirmed that they both had swallowed, she smiled wider, closed the door, and went round to the room next door, behind the window. The window was not actually a window overlooking the present downtown, it was a magical window looking out over downtown as it had been two years ago. The Council had not yet updated it, and a keen eye would notice that at 11:31am every day the same green truck would park across the street and pick up a bouquet of pink carnations, and the Chinese restaurant would have exactly twenty-two customers between noon and 2:30pm. Kath was on the other side of the mirror in a dark room in front a panel with many buttons: dials for speakers and microphones, buttons that would activate magical safety restraints, and a timer which began counting as soon as Arthur and Arnesbury drank the chamomile tea with the truth serum.

Kath, the witness, sat in her chair, and picked up her clipboard.

“Let’s start,” Arnesbury said, glancing at the window. “Arthur Roman. Is this your birth name? Answer yes or no.”

“Yes,” he replied shakily.

“And you live at 5349 Logansberry Street?”

“Yes.”

“How long have you lived there?”

“All my life, sir.”

“Who else in your family lives there?”

“My mom, dad, and little sister.”

“And they have always lived there?”

“Yes. Well, my parents bought it when they married. But we’ve always lived there.”

“Okay, good.” So far, Arthur hadn’t shown signs of lying. “Do you know what Hell Hands are?”

“Oh. Yes. It’s the gang my older brother joined.”

Arnesbury frowned. “You never mentioned an older brother.”

“Oh, sorry. He doesn’t live at home— well, he—” Arthur’s mouth and hands worked in distress. Arnesbury held his breath. Was the truth serum stopping him from lying? “When he joined the gang three years ago, he left home and never came back.”

“I see. I’m sorry to hear that.” Arnesbury breathed again. Arthur was telling the truth. Arthur blinked into the dregs of the tea, his eyes wet.

Arnesbury asked, “Do you know what the Hell Hands are?”

“No. I thought it might be a motorcycle gang, but Brady never had a motorcycle.” Arthur paused. “This is about Brady, isn’t it. He did something, and now you’re questioning me.”

“No, I—” The truth serum stopped his tongue as if someone had pinched it. He paused to collect his thoughts. “Let me ask the rest of the questions, and I’ll tell you what I think at the end.” Arthur nodded glumly. “Alright. In your house, where is your room?”

“It’s the last room on the left in the hallway.”

Arnesbury sighed and leaned back in his chair. Tabitha had intuited the problem, but wasn’t able to say what it was. Now, he knew. “And I bet the room next to it is your brother’s.”

“Yes, sir.”

“God. I’m a moron. More questions just to be sure— so my idiocy is on record. How did you know I was a wizard?”

“I saw you float from your rooftop to the snow and not leave footprints.”

From the other room, Kath laughed softly.

“Oh, kill me,” said Arnesbury bleakly. “Arthur, I am so, so sorry. Kath? If you’re listening, please bring the magic test here while I explain.” Arthur’s expression became extremely calm, his knuckles white-capped.

“I’ll start at the beginning. A month ago, I had a board meeting with Kath and many others to find youth who were of age to become apprentices. We didn’t find any in the neighborhood where you and I live. So, of course, I was shocked when you approached me. I thought our scanner had missed one. So, I investigated. In your house.”

Arthur’s eyes popped. “When was this?”

“About a month ago, it’s not important,” he said hastily. “The point is, while investigating, I mistook your brother’s room for yours and found clear evidence of magic.” Arthur nodded, as if it was expected. “Did you know your brother was magic?”

“No,” Arthur replied simply. “But that’s how Brady is. He’s good at everything. I’m not surprised he would have magic.” He chuckled. “I’m so terrible I wonder if I have magic.”

Arnesbury’s shoulders slumped as Kath returned.

“We’ll soon find out,” she replied, holding out what she had retrieved: a thumb-sized piece of white quartz.

Oh.” Arthur’s sigh pulled all the air from Arnesbury’s lungs.

Arnesbury lifted his eyes. Arthur did not look anxious or upset, but had a fragile, steady calm with unbearable understanding.

“None of this is your fault,” Arnesbury said suddenly, wanting to plead. “I should have been more careful.”

Arthur took the crystal with quiet thanks, and looked it over. “How do I do this?”

“Please emit magic,” said Kath. “The crystal will light up when you do.”

“I don’t know how,” Arthur said in a cracking voice.

Kath glanced at Arnesbury, her smug professionalism faltering. “Emitting magic isn’t teachable. It feels different for everyone. If you can’t do it. . . .”

Arthur exhaled. He turned the crystal in his fingers, as sorrowful as a saint, and put the crystal down on the table. Pale, with his cinnamon constellation of freckles. Arnesbury remembered when he was a boy, and he had just discovered that he could jump from the ground to the roof of his house. The next day, a wizard knocked on his door. That wizard would later become his favorite professor at the seminary, from whom Arnesbury learned what kind of wizard and man he would become. He slumped over the table, and his face fell into his hands.

“What happens now?” Arthur asked.

When Arnesbury didn’t answer, Kath replied, “Since it seems as though your brother does have magic, family of magic-bearing individuals are allowed to keep their memories of magic.”

The silence ballooned gas-like. Arthur gazed at the crystal.

“Okay,” he said. “I’d like to keep them. And. . . I’d like to know what the Hell Hands have to do with me being here.”

“The Hell Hands are a. . .” Kath wheeled her hand as she looked to the ceiling for answers. “They’re an organization which is trying to form an alternative nation. They believe that witches and wizards should not be bound by outdated ethics. . . which means terrorism, vandalism, and anarchy. They’ve bombed state functions, they use forbidden magic, they recruit criminals and outcasts. . . the list goes on.”

Arthur nodded, and he kept nodding, like a toy drinking bird, with dimmed eyes.

“Sounds like Brady,” he said lightly. Arthur was quiet for a while. “I thought, for my first project, I’d make something that would help me find him. But I guess Sheba will have to do the magic part for me if I want it to actually work.”

“Arthur,” Arnesbury croaked, looking up with his face long and grey. “If you don’t have magic, you can’t be an apprentice.”

He spoke with that same uncanny serenity. “Why not?”

“Because part of a magical education is performing magic,” said Kath. Her sympathy was drying. “Please. While I understand what a shock it must be to you, the Council cannot and will not allow a non-magic youth to undertake an apprenticeship.”

“But I have a way of controlling magic. Sheba? Our contract?” Sheba crawled out of Arthur’s pocket and sat on his shoulder as a barn owl. Kath’s eyes flashed.

“Arnesbury, please explain how a demon got into the office,” she hissed, backing away. A sleight of hand and a pencil-sized wand twirled between her fingers.

Arnesbury slid his hands down his face and blearily gazed at the scene.

“Arthur, Sheba,” he said hoarsely. “One of the duties of the Council is to exorcise demons from non-magic folk. I was going to separate you two earlier, but. . . .”

Arthur’s calm broke and he leaped out of his chair, horrified. “Mr. Arnesbury, please! If Sheba stays with me, I can do magic!”

“The answer is no.” Kath advanced with her wand held like a sword. “Please hold still.”

Sheba swiveled her head and her bituminous eyes caught fire. So did Kath. The woman shrieked and leaped with her hair suddenly fiery, alive, and devouring her head. Arnesbury stood, drew his wand, and slashed with the same movement— the fire wiped away—

“Sheba, no!” Arthur yelled. Sheba was snarling, metamorphosing— a writhing, slimy knot of octopus, eagle, bobcat, kestrel, coyote struggling to take form. Arthur’s head rang with Sheba’s gibbering, and he felt as if a rift was tearing in his chest. Betrayed and heartbroken, he faltered, leaning on the back of his chair as Sheba’s venom gripped him.

Arnesbury and Kath raised their wands, one on either side of Arthur.

“Leave Arthur or die, Sheba,” Arnesbury said in a hard voice.

No.” Sheba was a fleshy cloud whirling into herself— a mobile of jaws, eyes, and tongues. Her voice rasped. “I’ll not give up my host.”

Arthur clutched his heart, blanching. Kath shouted a blistering paragraph. The tip of her wand glowed, and she lunged and drove the wand deep into Arthur’s heart. Arnesbury screamed a sentence and stabbed his wand into Sheba’s psychic form. The form blew away like ashes.

Arnesbury grabbed Arthur as he buckled and eased him to the floor. Arthur was so white his eyelids and lips were lavender.

“Stay back,” Kath said sharply, pointing. The place where she had stabbed him was scabbing over, a black and red crust. Arnesbury tore open Arthur’s shirt and cursed as the scab bubbled over his chest, down his hip. Arnesbury grit his teeth and spoke. With the first syllable, he put his wand tip on the border of the spreading scab. As he recited, he traced the border, stopping it like the shore demarks a seething sea. When he was finished, Sheba was trapped inside the tumor, the scorched line chaining her inside.

Kath exhaled and straightened. Her hair fell away in charcoal clumps and she brushed it away with her fingers, her mouth turned down.

“Stupid kid,” she muttered. She touched her wand to her throat. “Quarantine squad to room 7.”

Arnesbury pinched the bridge of his nose. If Arthur had magic, would he, Arnesbury, recognize him at once as a wizard?

“Of course, you fool, you moron, you bastard,” he said into the palm of his hand. “If only.”

 

Without Magic by E. C. Fuller, first published with Amazon Kindle

© 2017 Erin Fuller

 

All rights reserved. This book or parts thereof may not be reproduced in any form, stored in any retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, or otherwise—without prior written permission of the publisher, except as provided by United States of America copyright law. For permission requests, contact the author at the website below:

http://longhandhabits.strikingly.com/#contact-me

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

Cover design by Lauren Vogel, editing and formatting help by Lauren Vogel and Angela Cordova

 

To Angela Cordova and Lauren Vogel: Thank you for all of your help. This story would not nearly be so good if not for you two helping me every step of the way. Without Magic is partly yours and I hope in some way it helps you both get to where you want to be.

 

To my parents: Thank you for putting up with me.