(reading time: 55 minutes)
The finals dinner was the first time everyone was in the same place since orientation. Dean Mystpass, who had made exactly zero appearances since then, was there, thoroughly surrounded by staff and newly elected officials so that not a single student could reach him and say what they thought of his first crack at the school.
It was held in the resort’s ballroom and adjoining areas, half the dance floor covered by a ring of tables. Inside the island of sky blue tablecloths stood several chefs in buttoned down white manning carving stations. Their tall hats were yellow. Banners hung around the massive chamber in the same colors of soft blue, white, and yellow. President Martel’s first order of business had been finalizing a design for their flag in these colors: a beach of yellow stars on the left side and vertical lapping waves on the right, representing the star power of the Mystic and the liquidity of the Moneyed.
Everyone was dressed in their best, and Dove had fought tooth and nail with the family’s freshly assigned publicist to make her gown as reasonable as possible. She kept its length off the floor at least, and its dark blue sequins matched her hat, which of course was non-negotiable from word one.
Razzle and Dazzle were in yellow and white so it at least superficially looked like they were supporting the new flag, even though Dove’s blue was too dark. The king and queen-madame matched their eldest daughter in their performing blue, with a silver crown for the king and a diadem for the queen-madame.
For all of the talk that the Cay Royal College of Exceedingly Minor Magics was a farce, a cardboard cutout of a university, a ball of paper clips and nothing, nearly every student was there. Many were misty-eyed by the first photograph, hugging each other, swearing solemn oaths to keep in touch over the four month break when many of the wealthiest would be jetting back to one continent or another.
There was live music scheduled for later, a band featuring Professor Quixote no less, and most likely a wild shrieking Phillipa Haysuit at the foot of the stage, but for now it was just Wondrous Douglas in a shiny tuxedo like a disco ball. A projector came down as everyone piled crab legs and glazed vegetables on their plates. The young Mystic introduced his final project: a video documentary of the first semester.
With his focus on marketing himself online Dove had assumed Douglas was a Data Manipulation major, but he hadn’t been interested in an adviser that might’ve malfunctioned if he slapped them on the back, so he had instead gone with Snap System Development. His film talked largely about the rapid and impactful spread of magic words between wielder subcultures once class started.
There was never only one way to cast a spell. If you wanted a houseplant to have more blooms you could use Morbloo or Faygrow to equal effect. With so many different language backgrounds the people of Cay Royal had begun to use each other’s incantations without even realizing it. When the giant Douglas on the screen, the camera zoomed in a little too closely on his chubby cheeks, made that claim Dove thought it over. He’s right. Nobody used to snap to Ziplo when they instilled that protective spell on their satchels that makes the zipper catch. It used to be snagpee. Razzle just used ziplo the other day.
“Thanks again princess,” one of the chefs said as they ladled a helping of lobster macaroni and cheese onto Dove’s plate, drawing her eyes away from the film. It was the woman she had met during the fitness test. A little sleuthing had revealed her nickname: Coocoo Uibo. Dove had tested her own authority by making a personal visit to the man in charge of hiring at the resort and demanding that she be moved from housekeeping into the restaurant-cafeteria, so she could at least have a job more like her old one.
“It was no trouble,” the princess answered honestly. Really no trouble. There’s no telling what the limit of a princess’s power is here. Nobody has written it down yet. Everything done here and now will be a legal precedent cited ten years down the line… if Cay Royal makes it that far.
Her plate was already overflowing, but she kept circling around the food stations, grabbing a kiwi slice here and there to make herself look busy. Her family’s private table was in an adjoining room, but there was only one way to get there, the open doorway flanked by both Yes Martel and the newly elected Jackson. They weren’t subtle, standing there with their arms crossed, craning their necks to catch her eye.
She had been rejecting their telepathic invitations to conversation for a while now, so they’d resorted to cornering her there. What Dove wanted most that night was what the others got naturally. To joke. To dance. To reminisce about months that felt like both days and years. She had gotten to a place with Phillipa and Ponder, a place where they could talk like they weren’t building a country full of spies together, and she wanted to find that place with her peers as a whole.
Her plate was getting heavy though, and the third cream cheese stuffed pepperoncini on a plate is always the suspicious one. She pulled away from all the food, but closer to the projector screen instead of the door. With libay she made the massive plate light enough and steady enough to hold in one hand, snacking on the dryer items with the other while she watched Douglas’s film.
In her mind she reached out to Phillipa, her sisters, and Ponder, grasping at whoever was closest, asking them to help her get out of there without having to limbo under Yes’s peer pressure beam. Dutiful Phillipa pulled up alongside her first.
“Hey bestie,” she said, sipping on a sugary cocktail. Her red dress couldn’t hide her muscular arms and legs, not that it tried. She had gained significant muscle mass during the semester, part of her Body Mod final project. It had been her goal to turn herself into an ethanol-powered engine, so even now the drink in her hand could be called academic. Professor Quixote would have to give her an A+ if the only metric was bicep diameter increase, though she would gladly accept anything else he wanted to give.
“You look like a gorgeous tractor,” Dove complimented. “First prize at the county fair, no doubt.”
“Thank you. My little brother flees whenever he sees me now, like I’m going to bench him in front of all the girls.” She cackled. “Did you and Ponder get your projects turned in okay?”
“Dropped them off at the dean’s office this morning,” Dove confirmed. “I think Chigumbura’s going to ask for a live demonstration of mine though. Some of the others that aren’t just items have had to do that.” Phillipa squealed and pointed at the screen. It was footage from the first week in which both of them were present. Douglas’s camera would have wobbled as he walked between the tents in the bright sun, but a spell had stabilized either it or the footage. It was the initial tour of the class tents, so everyone could find their way easily. Dove saw the pair of them standing outside Dragon Fruit Tent, scuttling away from any Moneyed kids like nervous crabs.
“I’ve grown so much as a person since then,” Phillipa joked, flexing.
“The Dove up there would never say what I’m about to say. I’m going to be true royalty next semester, but not just for wielders. For the thousands of people that live on this island. I’m going to make their lives better. They might even think it’s magic… are you going to help me?”
“I’m down for anything girl. We’re going on tour during the break, so I’ll be back here fully energized. We don’t use safety nets when we perform, and I definitely don’t need one here.”
“Yeah well, you’re my safety net. As the princess’s best friend it’s your duty to get me out of here without having to talk to the first daughter and the student body president. It would weary me.” She put her hand to her forehead sarcastically, as if about to faint. Phillipa chuckled, but immediately went to work scanning the area.
There had to be a way out for two such capable students, both with straight A report cards if you didn’t count Sabotage class, which nobody seemed to. There was a marked emergency exit in the back. Normally it would trigger an alarm, but magically preventing it would be a cinch. The real problem was the torrential downpour right outside the building. The rain was so intense that no drop-dodging spell would work, and no drying spell would work fast enough.
The next option was some kind of distraction, but it might take the foot of a giant reptilian monster stomping through the roof to pull Yes Martel’s gaze away from her target. Phillipa suggested causing a flare-up of one of the nearby flambe desserts, but Dove didn’t want to sacrifice anyone’s eyebrows to the altar of avoiding minor social discomfort.
“I got it,” Phillipa said. “We do the opposite of a distraction. We make you blend in. We can totally obscure your aura if you take this off.” She reached for the Théard family top hat, brushing its brim. Dove recoiled as if struck by a cobra, both hands grabbing it and pulling it lower.
“Don’t touch my hat!”
“Jeez sorry. I was just thinking I could wear it while you slip by. It’s your most recognizable feature, so we can temporarily put your whole aura in it.”
“Veto.” Dove offered no further explanation.
“I get it, you’re afraid I’ll look too good in it,” Phillipa joked to lighten the mood once more. “That just leaves us the brute force option. We both go for the door, I head off Yes and Jackson while you rush past. I’ll spill a drink on them.” She had one in her hand, but spilling her own drink didn’t occur to her.
Professor Redbone, already a little drunk from his personal pre-party, wasn’t paying attention to his glass of rum, so she snatched it off the nearby table while he told a story about making a casino cheater’s loaded dice roll randomly. Phillipa used the stirrer and a magic word to quickly melt the ice and make more ammunition for their mission.
“Operation Aggressive Clumsiness is a go,” the princess whispered with a smile. Phillipa took up a forward position so they could begin their approach. The first daughter was clearly the more dangerous of the two, so she had to take the spill to at least make her cone of influence flicker if not shut down entirely.
Together they swooped around the nearest food table, their position obscured by the small crowd trying to pat Dean Mystpass on the back. Dove grabbed the brim of her hat and pulled it down over her left eye to shield herself. Here we go. Yes’s yellow dress and its giant cloth flowers on the hips appeared. Her head was already snapping toward them, her thoughts as loud as the emergency exit would’ve been. Dove tensed her shoulders, waiting for the splash. Once she heard it she would speed up. Come on Phillipa! Where’s the spl-
Stone and wood splashed instead. A cacophonous spray of debris threw both of them back. The bank of people nearby caught them with magical reflexes, but Dove still reeled as the ballroom filled with shouts, screams, and thunder. A palm tree had come right through the double doors, gift wrapped in the shredded soft colors of Mango Tent.
Water poured in as well, racing across the dance floor. The incursion had to be more than a window; the storm must have ripped out an entire section of wall. People started slipping and falling as the skin of water reached them, as if that was its express purpose. They should be able to stay upright… unless the magic in the water is better than theirs. It’s the storm maker. They’re making their move.
One of the women working security appeared and wrapped half her suit jacket around Dove to shield her from anything and everything. She was pulled to her feet and dragged toward the emergency exit, but she already had her own grip on Phillipa’s arm. All three of them busted through the door, triggering the alarm, but they could go no further.
Wind like she had never felt pushed them back in, and only that far. The storm was corralling them. Lightning struck overhead and all the lights flickered. The security woman pressed on her earpiece to shut out some of the noise; she received an order. They rejoined the crowd, which had turned into a column of people sliding by the invading tree trunk.
“What are they trying to do!?” Phillipa shouted. “Bring the whole place down on us!?”
“No,” Dove told her telepathically. “They waited until we were all in one place. Then they brought down the sky. They’ll get away while we’re dealing with it. They’re getting off Cay Royal.”
“But we control who goes in and out,” Phillipa reminded. They were taken by the gaping hole where the tree had punched through. A glimpse outside revealed the entire tent city had been upended and sent their way. Some were flying around in the air as bright tatters, like kites barely surviving a bombing run. Those that still held their shape bounced and rolled across the grounds at high speed.
“They must have a way. Remember what I told you about Lorelei’s fortune teller?”
“Yeah it’s a page from next semester’s textbook. They did all this for one page?”
“No way. They stuck around for months trying to get this thing. They need the whole book. They must have gotten all the pages they were missing in the last few days. We need to find Chief Hunter. He’ll know where they should be… or he’s the one who took them.”
For the moment they could do nothing but move with the panicking flow. They didn’t even realize the first time they were handed off to another security person, though they were certainly agitated the second and third time. Razzle and Dazzle appeared, shoved in with them. It looked like they were going to be reunited with their parents, their crowns were visible at the other end of a long hall, but the loudest crack of thunder yet got them turned around, pushed in a different direction.
Eventually they were dumped in the restaurant that had been partly converted into a cafeteria, called the Seaplane Bar and Grill. It was named after a model of one of the vehicles that hung from the ceiling by ropes, but the storm had caused it to crash, forcing Dove and the others to step over its smashed nose. There appeared to be no survivors.
They quickly learned why they were there. It was a safe deposit box for all the students. Almost everyone from every year was jammed inside, the last few being squeezed in just as the princesses and Phillipa found one of the last bare patches of wall to stand against. Security personnel closed the doors, two guarding the inside and two beyond.
“Everyone calm down!” one of them shouted to the frightened students. “The situation is being worked on! You are to stay here until it’s safe to come out! Your parents are either assisting or being similarly sequestered in the sturdiest rooms!”
“What’s going on?” someone yelled back hoarsely. Thunder boomed.
“Hell if I know!” the guard admitted.
“This island’s cursed man!” one student claimed.
“Maybe,” the other guard added. “But for now we stay put!” Some people filtered into the kitchen, taking the initiative to magically secure knives and the drawers containing them so they wouldn’t fly about if the storm invaded their stronghold. The gas lines were similarly suppressed. This created enough room in the main dining area for The Théard children and Phillipa to sit down at a table and gather themselves. They were joined a few moments later by Ponder.
“Hey I got your message,” he told Dove as he sat next to her.
“A little late,” she groaned. “We’ve got bigger problems now.”
“I know, they have the textbook.”
“We need to convince them to let us go to Chief Hunter,” Dove repeated. “He’s our key.”
“No, you don’t get it,” Ponder interrupted. He looked tired, like he’d run five miles in the dead of night. “They’ve had it ever since they attacked Lorelei.”
“I thought that was just one page,” Phillipa said.
“It was, and it was the whole book.” The girls stared at him, even as the sky tore a fresh hole in itself directly overhead. “Listen. As a fortune teller it was way too good. There had to be more magic in it than any one page would require, no matter how much they were trying to protect it. So it has to be all or nearly all of the pages; it’s a palimpsest.”
“A what?” Razzle and Dazzle asked together.
“When I was working on my project I wondered if I could use different magic templates, just lay them over the top of the machine, swap them out without doing anything physical. I came across that word researching the possibility. A palimpsest was a piece of paper or hide that had its writing scraped off so something else could be written on it.”
“Because those things were super expensive in the past,” Dove guessed.
“Right. Now think about a magic version. You could use hindsight or restoration to bring back everything that was erased to make room for the new. Chief Hunter gave everyone the exact same piece of paper. That’s why he didn’t give them out all at once.”
“But that’s like… a huge security risk, right?” Dazzle asked.
“Not if he was planning on stealing it the whole time. It makes it much easier to keep track of.”
“Hang on,” Dove said, holding up a hand. “That doesn’t make any sense. If he had what he wanted he could’ve escaped on election night. Everyone was here partying that day too. Why hang around all this extra time and risk getting found out?”
“Because he realized there’s something else he wants,” Ponder said ominously, leaning in. He was about to expand on the idea when something like a laser cut through the middle of their group. Phillipa and Razzle leaned in opposite directions involuntarily as Yes squeezed in between them. Jackson backed her up from just over her shoulder.
“It’s time we take charge of this situation,” the first daughter insisted. “We want to get out of here and help our parents. You princesses can order the guards to stand aside.”
“Can we?” Razzle asked, missed opportunities clearly racing through her mind. Yes looked at her like she was a beach towel with a lewd picture printed on it hung out to dry in a very family friendly space.
“Yes,” she said flatly. “Let’s all go up there together. We’ll present a united front.”
“You two aren’t exactly necessary,” Phillipa pointed out. “This is just a stunt.”
“Good ideas for the group can also be good ideas for individuals,” Jackson said, conceding her point in the most effective way possible. “Seeing us all in consensus will keep everybody calm.” The wind whipped and howled, like a cat of nine tails lashing the walls. “It’s better if everybody splits up, especially if these walls come down.”
“Agreed,” Dove said forcefully, standing and dragging her sisters up with her. “Let’s go.” She wanted to converse with them, Phillipa, and Ponder telepathically, but she was worried Yes’s cone might pick it up. She hoped they would understand her goal. They needed to get out of there, get Chief Hunter, and get the textbook back.
She thought they needed all the help they could get, but no member of the staff could be trusted if the chief was really the guilty party. President Martel had been on the committee that approved his hiring after all. There was no reason her daughter couldn’t be in on the plot, perhaps to raid the nation’s magical treasury before it could even properly raise a castle around it.
“Everyone, we’re leaving!” Jackson shouted at the other students. “We’re going to help fight off the storm.” Many chanted in agreement, the crowd swirling to line up behind them, like a tape measure still confined to its case.
“Woah, woah, no you’re not,” the taller guard countered. “You’re staying right here where we can keep an eye on you.” Dove and her sisters stopped directly before them, standing in the order their dress colors appeared on the Cay Royal flag.
“By royal decree or whatever, we order you to move,” she told them.
“You can’t do that,” the shorter one claimed, eyes darting to their partner.
“She totally can,” the taller one admitted.
“Yeah, we’re technically under the royal banner because we work the building where the king and queen live.”
“Queen-madame,” Razzle corrected.
“Right, queen-madame,” the guard said. “Don’t tell her I screwed that up.” They bowed their heads and stepped aside. Yes and Jackson pushed through both the princesses and the doors, students spilling out immediately after.
The unruly blob retracted for a moment when the sky crashed its cymbals again and a massive leak appeared from a ceiling crack, but after that they surged through it. Groups of siblings, including a few triplets and quadruplets coordinating to help direct the others, broke off and chose different directions. Yes and Jackson led those that stayed together, taking them toward the lobby.
Dove extended her sensory magic and identified the swarm of adults that were currently gathered in the lobby, all holding their hands toward the sky in a futile effort to better channel their magic. Nothing was having any effect. It wouldn’t matter how much Yes and the others added to it.
“Go find Dad and Madame!” she order Razzle and Dazzle, more to protect her parents than her sisters. They nodded dutifully and ran off, honing in on their parents’ aura. “You guys are with me,” she told Phillipa and Ponder. “Well? Where are we going?”
“Oh right!” Ponder blurted. “To the Dean’s office!” They took off running through the chaos. Mystpass’s office was beyond all the hotel rooms, near the housekeeping and storage facilities. From what they’d gathered he didn’t use it very often, as he was always taking meetings in his living quarters: the suite just five doors down from royalty.
To get there they had to pass by the pool, which was already thoroughly destroyed. It overflowed with gray-brown water, several uprooted palm trees sitting half in and half out. The awning over the deck chairs was now a whipping tatter stuck to a tortured twist of metal. They saw two bodies underneath it, and some blood, but another lightning strike just feet away forced them to move on. For all they knew the bolts were actually targeting people.
“So what the hell’s in the dean’s office?” Phillipa finally asked when they neared it.
“Our final projects,” Ponder panted as they ran. “Everybody turned them in today! That’s why he waited. That’s brand new magic from the first major Moneyed and Mystic collaboration ever. They’re just as important as the textbook!”
“Oh my god… your magiquick!” Dove said, pushing back the urge to stop as well as the acid in her muscles.
“I know,” Ponder told his partner. “It’s not the kind of thing that’s supposed to get sold to the highest bidder.” They doubled their efforts, propelling past anything an ordinary school’s fitness test would require. They were using the magic word fulbree every other breath to keep air in their lungs, babbling it so their bodies wouldn’t force them to slow. Phillipa was the only one not battling the fatigue yet, so she arrived at the door first. She grabbed the silver knob.
“Wait!” Dove screamed into her friends’ minds. All three froze. The wind’s howling was gone, as was the hammering of the rain. They were fully indoors, but still felt the tranquility of the air beyond. “This is the eye of the storm.”
“Only over part of the building!?” Ponder thought. “Too small to be natural. Chief Hunter’s in there. We have to stop him! Does anybody know any fighting spells?”
“Of course,” Phillipa said, throwing the door open before the others could protest. She ripped the knob off with rubbray: a spell that allowed a wielder to break anything as long as there was a force nearby that could reasonably be believed to have softened the object up first. She was ready to throw it with deadly power, but the only body in Mystpass’s office was already on the floor.
“I… I did say he was in here,” Ponder said hoarsely. Hadir Hunter was collapsed on the carpet, a heap of papers and office supplies on his back. The rest of the room was in disarray, with books ripped from the shelves and drawers pulled from their homes and overturned. Even the wallpaper showed numerous bubbles underneath, which was indicative of two magical forces having battled intensely, each one’s aura asserting what the air should be like in terms of density, pressure, moisture, and oxygen content.
“Maybe he was guarding the projects because he suspected what you did,” Phillipa guessed. She dropped to her knees and put her fingers against Hunter’s still throat. “There’s no pulse.” She flipped him over. “I’ll try to restart his heart.” She went swiftly into CPR, but each step was aided by several spells.
The sounds of the storm picked up again. They could even track the rain overhead like a blanket being pulled over a sheet.
“The storm’s moving, which means its maker is moving!” Ponder realized. “They’ll get away.”
“We have to follow with the eye,” Dove decided, but the chief’s body gave her pause.
“You guys go ahead; I’ve got him,” Phillipa said, counting out several more chest compressions. “I’ll try and send some help.” The partners wished her luck and fled from the office, quickly running into the edge of the weather. They tracked the quiet as best they could, turning around at two dead ends, even breaking a window and crawling through when they thought they might lose the tiny circle of tranquility.
The broken glass ushered them out of the resort and into the open air. It was still early, but the sky around the eye was a roiling black. Electric light threatened them in waves just above it, but it couldn’t strike as long as they stayed within the eye. The edge of it seemed to chase them once they hit the ground, grass whipping and nipping at their heels. Dove kept one hand on her hat to keep the storm from stealing it if it got too close.
“We’re going straight now!” Ponder noted as he sprinted alongside her. “Straight for the wharf! They’ve got a getaway vehicle!”
“There they are! I see them!” Dove gasped as she spied a fleeing figure over the grassy dunes as they thinned to sandy ones. She could make out bright red shorts, pale legs. A Hawaiian shirt. Surely it was a disguise to blend in with the other wielders not used to living on a tropical paradise, but they hadn’t bothered to obscure their stolen treasures.
There was a black bag over one of their shoulders, a duffel stuffed to the whining zipper and bouncing against their hip. In the other hand they had a thin case, little more than a leather sleeve, perfect for the single most important piece of paper on the planet. Dove shot her vision forward to get a good look at them, but something blocked her so violently that it made her feel like she’d just gotten two black eyes.
“I can’t tell either,” Ponder said when he noticed her shaking it off. Neither said the obvious. If the storm maker had magic they couldn’t block, they had no way of defeating them. It was too late to give up though. If they did they would be giving up on all of it, wounding the collaborative effort that could be great even if it wasn’t yet. Cay Royal. The college. The community. Her subjects. His chance to help.
There was a building next to the docks, freshly built at the start of the semester, still lacking paint even though it was in service as offices and a check-in station for small seafaring vessels. It also handled helicopters, thanks to the helipad on the roof. They watched the nefarious figure break through a gate like it was nothing and ascend the metal stairs up to the helipad. They were leaving by air then, but not quite yet.
“They’re just standing there,” Dove noted as her foot hit sand for the first time. She kicked off her flat dancing shoes when the grit invaded them. “What are they doing?” Before Ponder could hazard a guess they were pushed forward by a gust of wind. The eye was shrinking. Beyond the wharf a patch of sky started to clear in turn. The maker was redistributing the eye, opening a path for a pilot to come through and retrieve them.
The maker disappeared as the corner of the roof overtook their image. Dove and Ponder had reached the docks. They flew up the stairs with all the grace of shackled seagulls. The metal railing would have made a ruckus if Ponder hadn’t silenced it with Stillvei. That at least got them to the concrete of the roof, but that was when they entered the culprit’s sphere of detection. The fiend kept their hands trained toward the sky, head whipping back for a split second to identify the students.
“You!” Dove and Ponder declared together. Ponder immediately started circling, trying to stay at the edge of the villain’s invisible sphere while Dove kept talking. “Custus Jordan.”
“You recognize me huh?” he said with a tiny snort and a weary sneer. He looked mostly as he did in the hindsight vision from Yes’s party: tall, aware, laminated in magic that protected him from the filth and grime of the world. It didn’t do him any favors now, flattening and smearing his sweat across his skin, gluing his clothes to him with a dark gloss. “Good seeing you again Ponder. How long ago was the wedding?”
“I don’t even remember meeting you,” Ponder spat, perhaps pushing back the memory angrily.
“This has nothing to do with you princess,” Custus said as he switched targets. “Just leave so you and your boyfriend don’t get hurt.”
“We saw what you did to Chief Hunter.”
“Chief. You know a country is doomed if they make him a chief of anything more than kayak rental,” Custus said venomously. “He only figured me out at the last second, same as you kids, and only because we were on a squad together for a long time.”
“The Squadron of the Stabbed Eye,” Ponder recalled. “Some cabal of Moneyed families running a black ops team?”
“We hunted would-be exposers,” the man admitted. “Mostly Mystics gone mad.” He eyed Dove’s hat. “You’ve got to rein them in before they pass something called the Houdini threshold. Everyone’s operating under the assumption that if a Mystic becomes more famous than the non-magical Houdini we could lose the snap system.”
“You go after my people, but it was your brother who almost blew it. The Thryve Festival was the closest we came to exposure in three decades.”
“Yeah, Hewie’s an idiot, fair. He paid the price, but now I’m getting him a refund.” He shook the sleeve that probably held the single sheet textbook of Cay Royal College. “Our parents won’t help him anymore, but I’ll never give up on him. Once these hit the market I’ll have enough to buy his way out of prison no matter what other charges come up. Then I’ll give him his magic back.”
“How are y- my project,” Ponder realized. “You’re going to give my computer to him!? It’s not for him. It’s not for anybody Moneyed or Mystic! It’s for people who don’t even understand why they get less than we do! Not for somebody who will pay off a poorer wielder so they can go back to being a jackass!”
“Well it’s open source now little Laird, and I can do what I want with it,” Custus growled.
“Why would you even need that stuff!?” Dove shouted at him. “You have this curse or whatever it is. Your storm resists everything the most powerful wielders throw at it. We couldn’t detect you the whole time you were here! You somehow found out about the textbook and stole it! What is that power? Look at me when I’m screaming at you!” His head twitched, but didn’t turn. His eyes were fixed on the clear cloudless patch of sky he was creating. He didn’t so much as blink, which made Ponder realize the truth.
“The evil eye,” he uttered, incredulous. “He’s using the evil eye!”
“What!? That’s impossible. It collapsed! Too many people knew about it. Everybody knows the superstition now,” Dove said. But it makes some sense. That explains why nobody can stop his magic. It’s a different system. Snap magic isn’t compatible with it, so it’s like trying to eat soup with a sieve.
“It has to be,” Ponder went on. Custus wasn’t refuting him, just staring, making it all the more likely. “It could… it could work. Every wielder assumed it was dead, and it was, but that’s like most people on Earth thinking magic isn’t real. When nobody suspects it, when it can be a secret, it can be used.”
“I was hoping to hold onto it for a while,” Custus admitted through gritted teeth, “but somebody was going to figure it out eventually. Once you tell the others it will collapse all over again.”
“So it’s not permanent, but all those projects you just stole are,” Dove reasoned. “You’re going to sell them to every wielder who was too much of a scoundrel to get invited to Cay Royal.”
“Even some of the people who didn’t RSVP still want the benefits,” he added. “This is my last offer kids. Walk away now and I’ll wire you a share once everything’s sold off. Your other option is to die at my hand, just to be clear.”
Why aren’t we dead already? The little voice in her hat worked overtime. And why is he admitting everything? He’s stalling! He has to keep his focus on clearing a path through the storm for his getaway driver, so he can’t attack us. That means we have to strike now! She was about to send a telepathic flare to Ponder so they could move in together, but someone beat her to it.
“Oh that’s just great!” Custus snapped, whirling around. He dropped his arms, the rays of sun above them disappearing behind the clouds almost immediately. He had sensed the newest arrival to the roof: Professor Quixote. Of course that’s who Phillipa sent; her brain has him on speed-dial.
“Stand back,” the professor ordered his students. The man looked perpetually irritated but too tired to do anything about it, at least until that moment. A dark rage sharpened his eyes and flared his nostrils, which gushed smoke like those of a dragon. He had a strap around his vest, probably meant for a guitar. His fury might have come from a performance denied just as much as having his charges attacked.
Dove could feel the eyes of all his tattoo familiars as they examined every angle on approach to their prey. Those rays also hid his main direction of focus, something he took advantage of with his first attack. He flicked his lit cigarette at Custus, and it might as well have been an incendiary round from a grenade launcher. It struck the man atop one of the palm trees printed over his shirt pocket, and then fell into the little polyester fire pit.
The garment ignited; he immediately scrambled to get it off. Professor Quixote didn’t let up for a moment, perhaps having overheard that his foe was using the evil eye. It was most prudent to shut him down before he could focus on a spell that couldn’t be blocked. The perpetual smoke cloud about the professor’s head pounced like a jaguar, smothering Jordan’s head.
He’s trying to make him blink! That’ll keep him from using the evil eye. Custus was one step ahead though. He jumped and looked straight up into the darkest cloud just as the professor tackled him to the helipad. The sky rumbled. It was too late. He had already summoned an electric familiar of his own.
Down came a bolt of lightning that hid the power of several of its kin. Its crackling impact temporarily deafened Dove. The whole world tilted and the ground gave way. She didn’t have time to say fallsay, which would help her land safely, but the voice in her hat did. She snapped. Rubble boulders cracked against each other. Bounced off her. Splintered wood. Splashed in sand. Wires sparked.
Collected rain found new paths through the settling chaos, and some of it dripped on her forehead, bringing her back to consciousness. It swirled in with the blood from a cut on her nose and flowed into her mouth. She hacked it out as she sat up, striking her head again on the extremely low ceiling.
The space was very dark, but her eyes magically adjusted as she crawled along. The ground was half wet sand and half broken floorboards. Her knuckles rolled over a stapler; her left knee struck a wastebasket with a sound like a cheap dented gong. She must have fallen into what was left of the wharf office. Her palm slipped on something new; her whole weight fell on the squishy thing.
“Ow,” Ponder rasped, but he didn’t try to remove her. She rolled off the moment she realized, a piece of rebar poking her between her shoulder blades.
“Are you okay?” Her own voice was three quarters gone, like she wasn’t sure she could speak without swallowing seawater.
“I think so… the professor?” Dove closed her eyes, extended her perception in order to quickly map their pocket of safety in the collapsed building. Professor Quixote wasn’t present; either he was in his own pocket or there was nothing for her to perceive. Then she analyzed each chunk trapping them for structural stability. Nothing was at risk of immediate collapse, and if anything was they could’ve potentially stalled its shift for days.
Ponder was quickly on his hands and knees as well, and together they searched for an exit, anything they could move to expose them to the open air. They could only enhance their own strength so much though, and even between the two of them it wasn’t enough to move chunks of concrete that size.
There was one opening big enough for them squeeze through, but it turned sharply, too sharply for anyone to navigate without breaking their spine to fit. Dove extended her sight down and around. It did let out in the open, right near the rising surf, but it didn’t matter. Not even the Body Mod professor could contort enough to get through such a gap.
“That’s it,” Ponder said, collapsing into debris. “We’re stuck here until somebody comes to get us. He’ll be long gone by then. With all of our hard work.” Dove didn’t respond. The show’s not over until you run out of tricks. We just need a good prop to help us out. There has to be something. Look. Think Mystic. It was all office supplies and their mangled remains: half a desk, a hole punch, a lamp with shattered bulb teeth, balled up papers from the waste basket turning to mush in the murky puddles, a toppled filing cabinet…
“The Théard triplet,” Dove muttered, mind racing through the logistics and enchantment equations.
“The what?” Rather than answer him she scurried over to the filing cabinet and dissected it, carefully pulling out all three of its drawers, gingerly setting aside the cubed internal organs. She awkwardly pushed them all back to where Ponder was sitting and lined them up in front of him, making sure the tops and bottoms were touching. She pushed down gently so the sand beneath would take their shape and hold them steady.
“My family’s signature trick,” Dove finally explained. He surely remembered, but his mind didn’t want to accept exactly what it meant in that moment. She was forced to spell it out; time was of the essence. “My parents and I do it all the time. One of us goes in the dividing cabinet, we put in the blades, and divide them into three pieces. The pieces get shuffled around and reassembled and we always come out fine.”
“And as wielders… you’re actually doing it,” he gulped.
“It’s possible because it looks like an illusion, and because the audience expects an illusion. We need to do it here though, and we have to rely on the fact that nobody else is around to see.”
“Dove, I don’t know how to do anything like that.”
“All you have to do is relax,” she assured him. “Lay on top of these drawers. I’ll divide you. Then I feed the pieces through the hole, and you can come out all as one on the other side.”
“They won’t land all lined up like this!”
“Yes they will. We can both use fallraye. It’s just like getting the roll you want from dice. We’ll make them land in a line.” He stared. “And in the right order.”
“I won’t make you, but I’m sure we can do it. Think about your magiquick. It’s you, isn’t it? It’s your contribution. It’s what the world will really judge when you’re not around to defend yourself. And Hewie Jordan’s going to have it as his toy.” That got him angry, his chest heaving, and Dove had to hold her tongue. Ponder would need shallow breathing if she was going to slice him in three and reassemble him.
Without ever actually saying yes he put his feet into the bottom drawer, his bottom in the middle, and his neck against the top edge. She instructed him to straighten his limbs as much as he could, shallow his breathing, and stare directly up, which at the moment meant he was looking directly into her eyes as she assessed the viability of the trick.
“Dove?” She paused. He looked like she’d cut him already. “You know I like you. Even just working with you… You made the work better. More important.” The Mystic pulled her hat down over her eyes with the tiniest bashful grin. “And how much I like you has nothing to do with what a great princess I think you are. I know you never wanted it, but you’re perfect for it.”
“Which you say as I’m about to make sashimi out of one of my subjects.” He chuckled. “Don’t laugh,” she warned, thought she couldn’t stop from doing it herself. “Sit still, don’t think about the box, and look straight ahead… and thank you Ponder.”
The Startling Théard focused all her magic into her Moneyed friend and the object beneath him. Memories flooded back, mostly because she opened the floodgates. With a spell she projected one of the smoother-going shows over her current surroundings, replacing dripping boulders with billowing curtains. The slap of the tide against the debris with recurring applause. The triplet was performed with vertical boxes normally, so she rotated the entire memory until the filing cabinet looked like lacquered black wood with blue skeletons painted on the side.
“And for my next trick,” she said as if the whole of Cay Royal was listening in. “One becomes three!” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Staysay. Illcue. Mayco. Sepmay.” Her tongue clicked as she pressed down on Ponder with all ten of her fingertips. His head sank into the top drawer. Torso into the middle. Legs into the bottom. He was still breathing, even with thin sheets of metal between his mouth and his lungs, but that was only step one.
With hands enchanted steady she pulled the head drawer away from the other two, dragged it across the sand to the gap. He was still blinking. Sweat pooled at the base of his neck. Dove delicately put her finger in and wiped it away so it wouldn’t cause any separation. If it did the drawer would flood with blood and his severed head would bob to the surface, which was definitely not something a little flashy vamping could fix.
“Remember to use fallraye and click your tongue instead of snapping your fingers,” she advised as she set his his head on the rocky edge of the opening.
“No problem,” he said back quietly, “like a guinea pig landing a back flip.”
“Exactly. Ready? Three, two, one-” She pushed the drawer with enough force for it tumble in, around the corner, and down. “Fallraye.” She heard it splash into some wet sand. If it was upside down he would already be drowning. “Don’t shout. Tell me, with teepay, if you’re alright.”
“I’m dizzy, but fine,” he thought to her.
“Okay, here comes the rest of you. I’ll tell you when to use the spell again.” Dove moved to the significantly heavier torso section and separated it. She hefted it up to the edge and they repeated the procedure.
“It’s in the right place.” That just left the legs. Dove felt the silent stare of the projected audience. The trick was only impressive, rather than tragic, if every step was perfect. The last piece was always the most stressful. If her concentration slipped, if his legs fell slightly off course, he would be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, and that would be the best case scenario.
They repeated Fallraye one last time as his legs noisily bounced around the passage’s sharp turn. She received word that everything seemed in order.
“Okay, I’m lifting the spell. You lift the rest. Just get up like you’re getting out of bed.” Seconds passed, her heart pounding like a drum. “Ponder? Come on rich boy!”
“There’s no need for name calling.”
“Oh my god. You’re alright?”
“Totally. I… yeah, totally. Wow. Neat trick.” She heard him rummaging around. “There’s a big piece out here. If I can get it to fall in the right way it’ll knock the wall open and you can crawl out. Stand back.” She couldn’t exactly stand, but she was happy to scuttle backward and wait in a puddle like an assassin crab ready to pounce and pinch.
He shouted a magic word and the roof came down. As soon as the rocks stopped shifting Dove was walking over them, squeezing through a crack, adding to her dress’s collection of tears. Her lungs filled with open tropical air once more, still chilled and crackling thanks to the storm. No time to celebrate. There’s still no rain, so he’s close.
She gave Ponder the briefest of hugs, in which she accidentally kicked one of the filing cabinet drawers and made him flinch, pulling away to rush up the nearest sand dune. At its peak her eyes followed the shoreline, and found Custus standing near the surf, under the shadow of a white tourism helicopter.
“He’s getting away!” she shouted. Ponder started toward her. “No, you look for the professor! I’ve got him!” As soon as she saw her partner obeying she took off into a full sprint. Her magic kicked in, sand spraying behind her with the force of cannonballs landing. The magician surged toward her quarry at unbelievable speed, but it was too late to capture him.
The helicopter wasn’t trying to land, not with the helipad in ruins. Someone inside had unfurled a rope ladder as it hovered. Custus snagged it and started climbing. That was partly a good sign. Both his arms were free, and only the bag that looked like a briefcase was slung over his shoulder. He didn’t have the heavy projects duffel; it must have fallen somewhere in the lightning strike.
The pilot wouldn’t leave until he was securely inside, so Dove had less than a minute, especially since he was ascending the rungs with unnatural speed. Just get the textbook back. He doesn’t matter. He’ll be blacklisted after this. There was Lorelei to consider, and Chief Hunter too. If the evil eye had done permanent damage she might have to face the families, explain why she couldn’t protect her people.
She was close, almost directly under it, the chopping of its blades joining the avalanche of thunder overhead. The rope ladder was beyond her reach. Custus had one foot inside. Dove dropped her background cocktail back into her central reservoir of magic, called on all of it as a tidal wave. Now there was nothing to protect her, to make the lightning bend away.
Anything that could happen was at her disposal, as long as she thought swiftly enough. The textbook was in the sleeve, and the sleeve had a zipper. It could have been loose, so she made it so. His scorched undershirt could have caught on it when he twisted to look down at her, so she made it so. That could’ve opened it all the way, so the princess ordered it to be so.
“Winpew!” she shouted, commanding the helicopter’s gust to snatch the single sheet of paper out of the sleeve. It shot out as if from a toaster, swirled in the air. Dove was already directing the wind, giving it a clear path down to her, but Custus was several spells ahead. He must have attached his awareness to it, and heightened his own reflexes, because, without even looking at it, his arm automatically extended and snatched it right out of the air.
“Nice try princess! No matter what you do this place will always be Thryve!” He was aboard now, the vehicle climbing rapidly. Dove ripped off her hat, held it in front of her, fingers on her free hand dancing over its dark chasm.
“Come on,” she growled. “You win. Now put it away. Nice and safe.” With extended sight she learned every corner of the textbook, even seeing the creases and colors left from when it lived as Lorelei’s fortune teller. She even saw the grain of the wood that had become the paper, the depths of the tree’s roots. It was hers. Truly. Her country, her college, her textbook. By right, and by magic.
Custus slipped the paper back into the sleeve. Once it was out of his line of sight Dove’s hand dove into her hat, grabbed a slumbering reality out of its bottomless black potential. Her demanding hand found substance.
“Clayhi!” Triumphantly she raised her arm, the textbook emerging from her top hat. Custus stared in disbelief. The moment it had been obscured she was free to strike because he couldn’t, not with absolute certainty, claim to know where the page was. It was the ultimate demonstration of the magics she’d honed for her final project, and now that she had it, it wouldn’t leave her sight.
Custus leaned forward. She didn’t doubt that if he jumped he could land safely, on his feet, and overpower her in seconds, but his time was up. Professor Quixote, battered but still in fighting shape, appeared beside her with Ponder. Dove felt presences growing behind as well, more reinforcements.
“You can still be a part of Cay Royal,” she told Custus telepathically from where she stood solidly upon a new foundation. “You can be its first fugitive. Its most wanted. Hewie will be so jealous.”
Her sight was far from her eyes, right in his face, challenging him. His rage became an amused snort. The man swiped his hand across his face, forehead, and hair, clearing the laminating magic that kept him from being too exposed to the micronation’s air. He closed his eyes, feeling its ocean breeze, savoring it. It didn’t take any of her power to sense his longing. With nothing left to say his helicopter sped off, vanishing through the hole in the storm, which closed in seconds.
The thunder ceased. The last drop enslaved by the evil eye fell, and it did so upon the textbook. In the little damp circle it left behind Dove saw layered letters. Cooperation. Magic knitted into a nation’s flag.
Cay Royal was really alive, very in her hands, and when she ran out of options she could always pull something out of her hat.
“Honestly, I don’t think I know enough people to get use out of this,” Coocoo said. Mrs. Uibo was in a casual sundress, sunglasses held firm in her dark hair. There was less work in the restaurant now that the dorms were half empty for the four month break between semesters. The island had been very quiet under clear skies since the hurricane.
She was a little nervous, which surprised her, given she never had trouble speaking her mind before. Perhaps it was walking past the extensive weather damage still waiting to be repaired on her way to the Balcony Suite. Or it could have been all the flags that were going up around the island, indicating that, for once, all the rich folk that came and went like the flu actually intended to stay.
If honesty won out though, the answer was clear. She was standing in the presence of royalty, where before she had simply been shooting the breeze with a grumpy teenager. Dove had invited her into her home, introduced her to the queen-madame and king just as they were heading out to play racquetball. Coocoo thought it odd they seemed to be leaving their eldest daughter in charge of the various figures coming and going from the suite, but not once she was alone with the girl out on the balcony itself.
Dove had handed her a cardboard box of faded color stamped with the word ‘prototype’. When the woman opened it she found a nondescript smartphone, little more than a screen, but there was a small catch instead of a central button.
“It’s not what you think,” the princess explained. “Grab that tab there and pull it up.” Coocoo obeyed. The screen turned out to be nothing but reflective film attached to segments like the bottom of a rope bridge. It rolled up and revealed a mostly hollow interior filled with rounded buttons of different color, some with pictograms.
“So what is it?”
“It was going to be called something stupid, but I managed to talk the inventor out of it. For now we’ll call it a multitool. It’s a new technology, exclusive to Cay Royal, and I’m looking to build a program where all the native citizens can access it. I want you to be the guinea pig.”
“What does it do?”
“Everything,” the magician said with a greedy half-grin that nearly stole the whole of her face. It was no wonder Ponder did things like this; there was a thrill to it. “I can’t tell you how it works, but it definitely does. If you point it at a minor problem and press the right button, it will be fixed.” Dove took it back and pointed to a blue button with a snowflake under it. “Say you’ve taken some food out of the fridge and you would like it to stay cold for a while. Just point at it from a short distance away and press this button.
Having trouble sleeping? Point at yourself and push this one. It will even make your dreams sweet. Heal minor cuts and scrapes with this one. Find your lost keys with this one. Make fruit ripe with this one. Keep mosquitoes off you with this one.”
“It really does all that?” she asked, taking it back.
“And much more. Your imagination is the limit. So what do you say? Will you do this favor for your princess?”
“I would be happy to. I can already think of a wobbly table leg that is about to face my fiery judgment.”
“There are a couple of rules,” Dove clarified. “Keep it a secret for now, from everyone, including friends and family. Don’t tell anyone with the government either. I don’t exactly have presidential approval for this yet.” Coocoo pursed her lips, amused and intrigued. “And it will only work during a narrow time frame. It’ll activate this Monday and function during daylight hours for one week. After that you will return it to me and tell me about your experiences with it.”
“I can do all that,” the woman agreed.
“Then that’s all for now.”
“Your highness,” the cook said, curtsying with only the slightest degree of defensive sarcasm. Dove rolled her eyes as her friend departed, leaving her alone in the suite. It would be rough giving up her magic for a week to power her multitool, but a good leader was one that participated. She wouldn’t ask such a thing of anyone else without trying it first.
In her mind she saw a near future where every native of the island had one, and the government offered a standard payment for every hour of magic given up for the good of the nation. Cay Royal was real after all. They’d established their currency: the Cay Royal crown. They’d been written into several trade agreements already. Petitioning the United Nations and other similar groups was next.
They’d certainly had their first growing pains, with a natural disaster and a wanted terrorist to their name. She’d shared news of the evil eye with the island, so it at least was immune to anymore resurgences of it. Even though it was gone she was still cornered into a conversation lasting several hours with Professor Drake Peel-Grant, seeing as he ran the Evil Eye Era class.
The body count of the incident had to be included in his curriculum now, taught to every student that would come through the college’s tent flaps and eventual doors. Two people had lost their lives in the storm, and the princess had run right past their bodies, fearing lightning strikes if she’d stopped to help.
Custus Jordan’s other victims fared better. Both Lorelei Quince and Hadir Hunter emerged from brain death once their attacker left the island, and they were able to confirm most of what she had suspected.
Jordan had been sneaking into the chief’s office every day, using untraceable and undetectable evil eye magic to check on the textbook as it developed. Hunter thought he had been using the palimpsest strategy only in part, using a total of five sheets, but Custus had constantly switched them out, managing to get more than ninety percent of the book on one page.
Apparently he had come to the island via an unregistered fishing boat, one he had purchased and left adrift, though he’d magically anchored it in place in case he ever needed an escape vehicle. It was found, towed to shore, and gifted to some of the local fishers.
Chief Hunter was less forthcoming with details about the Squadron of the Stabbed Eye, but he did say it had been dissolved well before the Thryve Festival was even conceived. The man attempted to resign his post over his failure to discern the plot until it was too late, but Dove insisted he stay. He had figured it out after all, and paid for it with his life, at least loaning his life to his nation for a while.
The magician princess felt more like she was in school than ever, building her web of contacts and studying up on international law during the break while all her friends left. Razzle and Dazzle were abroad, doing a goodwill tour in North America, though judging from their social media posts they seemed to be concentrating that goodwill in clubs and theme parks.
Phillipa was performing with her moms and brother, though she kept in touch daily. Ponder was back in his family home. Apparently his parents were very eager to show off their hero son who recovered the stolen school projects, and was even dismembered for the honor of his fellow wielders.
The duffel was found in the rubble, unharmed thanks to a spell on it. All projects were submitted and graded, with the vast majority passing the lower bar set for the initial semester. Professor Chigumbura had torn up Dove’s though, after she showed him her memories of pulling the textbook out of her hat. He said stopping a terrorist helicopter theft during a hurricane was good enough for an A in his grade book.
Ponder had refused to move forward with their plan until he got his A back from Professor Eagleray. Perhaps he thought the positive grade could be construed as permission to take it much further. He had built the prototype and mailed it to Dove, sending the enchantment instructions separately and encoded.
Both of them truly believed it could work. There were already tens of thousands of wielders across the world, what was a few thousand more on a remote island? If anything this population would be even better at keeping the secret, as they didn’t actually know it. In addition the magical computers would not function once they were out of the territory.
Yes Martel, who was also staying on the island over break, probably would not have seen it that way. It would also be extraordinarily difficult to keep it a secret if she happened to pass under the young woman’s surveillance rays while everything but her background cocktail was busy propping up Coocoo’s table leg.
Her plan was to stay sequestered in the Balcony Suite during the test period, taking all her meals via room service. The sounds of construction were everywhere thanks to the repairs and the work on the new classrooms, but the king and queen-madame kept them pretty dampened. If she needed fresh air the balcony was always right there. Plus, she had some good company to hunker down with.
Dove sat on one of the wicker loungers and pulled up a small table. She removed her family top hat, sparkling a beautiful sapphire blue in the island sun, and set it upside down on top of the table.
“I think we should talk about some things,” she said.
“Think of me as one big ear,” the hat said. Normally the little voice in her hat spoke to her telepathically, but they were alone enough for actual words.
“You helped me a lot this semester.”
“It was my pleasure. With all that’s happened, it really feels like it’s been more than eight months since we met.”
“That’s what we need to talk about,” Dove said. “We haven’t met. You won’t tell me your name. You won’t tell me who you are or how you found your way into my hat. I don’t even know if you’re a person transmitting to it or if you’re a ghost possessing it.”
“You’re Mystic; don’t you like the intrigue?”
“I like you more,” she admitted. The little voice in her hat paused. She couldn’t hear nervous breathing, but she felt it, like someone trying to talk themselves into a very high dive, trying to shake the nerves out of their hands with limp wrists.
“I thought maybe now that you and Ponder were working together so closely…”
“He’s just a friend. I promise. I need him around so I can remember that not all Moneyed are bad, but… we’re not partners anymore.”
“It does feel like everybody on Cay Royal is hooking up,” the voice noted. “I assumed you wouldn’t want to miss out, and, you know, with someone who is actually there for you.”
“You’re there for me,” she assured. “I go everywhere with you. You know when to remind me of something important. You know when to clam up so I can just think. You know me better than anyone else. I want to know you. I didn’t want to tell a hat that I had feelings for it, but now that I’m talking I can’t stop. I like you, whoever you are.”
“Dove… I like you too. But… I don’t know if you’re ready to have the answers, and I don’t know if I’m ready to give them.”
“I could just reach in there and pull you out,” she said with mischievous determination.
“Come get me princess.”