Trials of Magic
Book One in the Hundred Halls Series
Thomas K. Carpenter
No one had died today. In fact, no one had died in the last seven days. It was the longest stretch since Aurie had joined the fourth-floor team as an orderly, which made it a joyous event, and simultaneously a superstitious one.
Aurie dodged around the Jell-O cart, skidding to a stop outside room 438. A sign in big red letters read "WARNING. No perfumes, magical ointments, or any alchemy reagents within thirty feet."
She gave her aquamarine scrubs a voracious sniff. While she'd washed her scrubs by hand that morning, using a plain soap bar in the shower, and used talcum powder for deodorant, Aurie was worried she'd picked up hitchhiking scents on the crowded train ride.
The only smell she detected was her mild body odor mixed with the talcum, so she went in.
An emaciated girl on the bed lit up. "Awesome Aurie!"
As she stretched her arms out, the dozens of wires connected to her limbs from scaffolding around the bed quivered.
"Elegant Emily," said Aurie, leaning over to give a hug, careful not to break a wire.
Aurie hid a grimace as she realized how thin Emily had gotten.
"How's it going, kiddo?" Aurie asked.
Emily put up a brave face. Suddenly, the car noises in the street outside quieted. Aurie could feel her heart press against her chest.
"I heard the doctor tell the nurse that she's out of spells," she said, staring at her bone-thin hands.
"I'm sure that's not true. There are always more spells. The doctor probably meant that she's out of spells, and needs to learn a few more to treat you," she explained.
Aurie reached in her pocket and pulled out a painted miniature about two inches high. The figure wielded twin scimitars in a fighting pose with the suggestion of winds swirling around her.
"It's you. A wind dancer," said Aurie while she tucked a strand of errant blonde hair behind Emily's ear.
"There's no such thing as a wind dancer," said Emily.
"You can be the first then, and have your own hall," said Aurie.
Emily offered a bittersweet smile as she cradled the miniature as if it were a puppy. The poor girl had been cursed by a vengeful air elemental to be near weightless. The wires kept her from floating to the ceiling. Without gravity acting on her body, she was wasting away like an astronaut in space for too long, and the airiness of her body made her susceptible to allergens.
"She looks like you," said Emily.
Aurie squinted to bring the details into focus. She'd had a friend paint it for her, but hadn't had a chance to study it.
"Yeah, I guess she has my olive skin and dark hair. I don't see any freckles, though," said Aurie.
"Or those dark circles," said Emily, touching Aurie's cheek below the eye.
"Sleep's overrated," said Aurie reflexively. She'd worked the night shift at a convenience store on the outskirts of Invictus. "Hey! Maybe this means I'll be your first student at the Hundred Halls."
Emily shook her head with faux indignation. "That's silly. You have your Merlins tomorrow." Then her eyes went wide as if she'd said something wrong. "I...I need the nurse," she said suddenly, jamming the call button.
"What's wrong? Are you okay?" asked Aurie, examining Emily for signs of danger.
The hard soles of running nurses echoed in the hallway. Aurie spun around expecting an emergency team only to find the doorway full of smiling people: doctors, nurses, orderlies, the rest of the patients—the kids.
"Surprise!" they yelled.
Aurie nearly tripped over her own feet, trying to figure out why they were surprising her, or even if it was supposed to be for her.
"I don't understand," she said.
Dr. Fairlight stepped forward as the spokesman for the group. She handed Aurie a small wrapped present about the size of a fist.
"With your Merlins tomorrow, we won't be seeing you much after that—"
Aurie interrupted with hurried breath. "I'm still going to work here. I have a job, right?"
Dr. Fairlight squeezed Aurie on the shoulder. "As long as I'm head of this floor you have a job here. Especially since this was where your dad did his residency."
"I miss him," she said.
Dr. Fairlight gave a comforting nod and continued, "But we know you won't have as much time. Especially when you get into Arcanium."
Guilt welled up inside Aurie. "The Aura Healers are my second choice. It's just..."
Everyone laughed. "You don't have to justify anything to us," said Dr. Fairlight. "You'll be great whatever hall picks you, though it'll be the Aura Healers' gain if Arcanium is too stupid to take the brightest student in decades."
Everyone always seemed to think that Aurie wouldn't have any problem passing her Merlins and getting into the Hundred Halls, but even some of the best students had to take them more than once. It wasn't usually an issue, but this was her one and only chance. She turned twenty in a month, which meant she'd no longer be able to take the Merlins. It was first time, or nothing.
"Open it," said Dr. Fairlight as the rest of the floor leaned forward. The kids crowded around her, eyes bright with the anticipation of her present.
Aurie patted a few heads before making a production of the opening. Some of these kids wouldn't be alive at their next birthday to experience presents again.
She tore the paper excruciatingly slow while the kids laughed and giggled and cheered her on. "Open it! Open it!"
"Hurry up!" said Emily from behind her, poking her with a bone-thin finger.
Finally, after a dramatic finish, Aurie crumpled the paper and threw it into the waste basket.
The kids practically climbed into her lap in trying to get the first glimpse of the gift. The open box revealed a pair of shiny earrings, eliciting an "ohhhh" from the crowd. Bright little rubies stared back at Aurie from the setting.
"You didn't have to do this," said Aurie, shaking her head at Dr. Fairlight, who'd crossed her arms and had a smirk on her face.
"Nonsense. We know it's been a rough go, what with you and your sister on your own. We wanted to get you something you could remember us by," said Dr. Fairlight. "Press the ruby and say 'lux.'"
When the words left her lips, a ruby-red glow filled the space around Aurie.
"They're perfect for late night studying when you don't want to disturb your roommate. They also help you see in the dark beyond the glow," said Dr. Fairlight.
"I don't know what to say," said Aurie, dumbfounded.
"Say thank you," said Dr. Fairlight.
"Thank you all!" said Aurie, then she gave out hugs, taking care not to aggravate the young patients' ailments. The "Children's Floor for the Irrevocably Cursed, Magically Ailing, and Supernatural Virology" housed kids afflicted with all sorts of strange ailments. Emily's weightless curse wasn't the worst by any stretch.
After everyone left, Dr. Fairlight winked and said, "Now get to work."
Aurie saluted. "Yes, ma'am!"
The rest of the shift went like a dream. There were no brown messes to clean up, lunch was cheese noodles, which was her favorite, and all the kids were in a good mood. It would have been the best day ever at the Golden Willow Clinic for the Sick and Infirm if some VIPs hadn't arrived right before her shift ended.
A nervous whisper traveled through the floor as Dr. Fairlight notified everyone that one of the directors was giving a tour to a potential high-end donor. Tension squeezed lips flat, and even the kids seemed to catch the spreading quiet.
From a side hallway, Aurie spied the VIPs. She'd heard from the station nurse that the potential donor owned the Herald of the Halls, the local newspaper that covered the halls and the city of Invictus.
The older woman, Camille Cardwell, wore a gold lamé jacket that made her look like she'd walked out of a fashion magazine from twenty years ago. The daughter, Violet, followed behind her mother while staring at her phone, obviously not paying a bit of attention to the tour.
To Aurie, Violet looked like the caricature of every rich girl she'd ever watched on TV or in a movie: blonde, rich, and vain. Granted, she'd never actually encountered a girl like that in the many high schools she'd attended over the years. The high schools Aurie went to were always on the seedier side of whatever town they were in, rather than the private schools that this girl had so clearly been a member of.
Aurie felt a little guilty for assuming that Violet wasn't a nice person. People had always made up stories about her and Pi whenever they'd been the new students, which had been too often. It wasn't fair that she did the same.
So Aurie went back to mopping the hallway, which took her the other direction, daydreaming about being able to enchant mops to clean the floor automatically. By the time she'd finished, the shift was nearly over. She pushed the bucket towards the closet near the main area.
A whiff of perfume caught Aurie's nose. She was so used to the antiseptic smell of mop water that the sudden infusion of musky plum snapped her head around. Violet walked alone, busily typing on her cell phone while nodding to the music she was listening to on her headphones.
The girl was oblivious to her location, let alone paying attention to the bold red sign outside of Emily's open door. Normally the nurses on duty warned people away if they weren't paying attention, but the station was completely empty.
Aurie dropped the mop and started running. "Hey! Stop! You can't go there! Stop! Stop!"
Oblivious to her surroundings, Violet kept walking. She was only a few feet from Emily's door. The last time someone had mistakenly worn perfume on the floor, Emily had gotten a severe case of hives, and that had been when she was heavier and healthier. A dose this close could be fatal.
Without thinking, Aurie lowered her shoulder and drove it into Violet. The girl looked up at the last second, surprise overtaking her bored expression. Together they went flying backwards, sliding a good ways on the recently mopped linoleum. It was a miracle that Violet didn't hit her head.
"What the hell is going on?" said Violet, pushing at Aurie to get off.
"It's Emily, I had to protect Emily," said Aurie, climbing off the girl.
She ran back to the doorway, preparing to call the nurses or hit the emergency button, only to find Emily's bed missing. Aurie panicked for a moment, thinking the worst, until she noticed the scaffolding was gone too. Then she remembered they were all going to watch a movie down the hall in the special theater.
"Oh, shit," said Aurie under her breath. She turned and held out her hands. "I'm so sorry."
At that moment, the director, Dr. Fairlight, and Camille Cardwell came strolling around the corner.
Violet wasted no time, pointing her finger directly at Aurie and saying in a controlled rage, "This, this girl just attacked me. She knocked me clear down the hallway, landing on top of me." Violet marched over to her fallen phone, picked it up, and presented the broken glass to them. "See."
Camille turned towards the director. "Randall. What kind of operation are you running here?" She had a light New York accent. She moved to her daughter's side with grace and not a hint of concern and began examining Violet as if she were a prize show dog at a competition. Violet looked a little shaken as she rubbed the back of her head.
The director, a man in a suit who looked more like a banker than a hospital director, said, "Is this true?"
"Wait. You don't understand," said Aurie. "She's wearing perfume. You can't go near Emily's room."
The director wrinkled his bald forehead in confusion before shaking off her words as if they were a bad sign. He repeated his question, this time more emphatically. "Is this true?"
"Well, yes, but you have to understand," said Aurie.
"Then get out. You're fired," said the director.
Dr. Fairlight put her hand on the director's shoulder. "Randall, you can't do that. And she's right. Look at the sign."
"The hell I can't. This girl just attacked the daughter of an important donor. Do you want our kids to get better, or do you want a mop girl?" asked the director in a gruff tone.
Aurie couldn't even move. It was like she'd been encased in ice.
"Randall," said Dr. Fairlight in the voice she used in emergencies, "that girl put one of our patients' lives at risk through her inattention. Aurie was just doing what I would expect any nurse to do."
A lump seemed to catch in Randall's throat. He glanced back and forth.
Camille finished her examination and put her hands on her slender hips. "She's got bruises up and down her backside. And look where she's at. Not anywhere near that girl's room, which I might add is empty."
The director turned to Dr. Fairlight. "I'm sorry. She has to go."
"What does she think?" asked Aurie, stepping forward and pointing to Violet. "I'm sorry I tackled her, but the girl who's normally in this room is very sick. I was afraid for her. The perfume you're wearing could kill her, and you were about to walk in front of her room."
Violet's nostrils flared as everyone stared at her. She glanced at her mother, eyes red with a mixture of tears and anger.
"Go ahead, Violet," said her mother. "I'll respect your wishes, whatever you say. Is that fine with everyone?"
After a round of nods, Aurie's stomach climbed into her throat. She needed this job. The Hundred Halls was expensive. She barely had enough for her and Pi for the down payment. Keeping up the payments to stay in school was going to be challenging enough even with this job. And the kids needed her, and she found in that moment that she needed them.
Violet glanced towards Emily's open door. Then she pointed to a location behind her, about where they'd ended up after the slide.
"I was nowhere near that door. You had no reason to tackle me, except that you're just a jealous mop rat. She doesn't deserve to work here," said Violet.
Dr. Fairlight burst into argument, but Aurie knew it was over. She looked back down the hall.
"Can I say goodbye?" she asked the director.
He jammed a thumb behind him. "Get out. Now."
Dr. Fairlight was crying as Aurie walked by. She gave a brief hug, but Aurie didn't want to linger and cause any more problems. Violet wouldn't make eye contact with her, while the mother stared with sour distaste.
The worst part about leaving was that she didn't get to say goodbye to the kids. Somehow that seemed worse than losing her job. She felt like she'd let them down.
The bouncer took a long look at Pi's ID card. He looked like a rhinoceros without the horn. The reflection off a passing car made him blink.
"What kind of name is Pythia?" he grumbled.
"The kind that doesn't like questions," said Pi.
"You don't look like you're twenty-six," he said.
"And you don't look like you're smart enough to work the door at the Glass Cabaret, but Radoslav's still employing you, so that counts for something," she said.
The bouncer twitched. Pi knew what he saw. She had the body of a twelve-year-old boy, short dark hair, cutting blue eyes, and she was wearing tight black jeans, a white crop top, and glitter across the warm olive tones of her exposed shoulders. She didn't even look seventeen, which was her age, let alone twenty-six. Which either meant she was lying or had enchanted herself to look younger.
Pi met his gaze until he looked away and unhooked the velvet rope so she could pass.
"That's what I thought," she said, doing her best to strut into the bar, which felt a little ridiculous.
The inside reminded Pi of a noir film. A faint mist, neither vapor nor smoke, hung in the air. A small stage in the back was currently empty. Some French sounding mood music was piped in. Glasses clinked amid the occasional bass notes.
Radoslav was standing behind the bar, cleaning cherry guts off a cleaver with a rag. He was everything she expected him to be: tall, thin, chalky-gray skin, hair so dark it absorbed light, and an expression so sour it would curdle milk at a hundred paces. He was attractive, but in a way that made it hurt to look at him.
Pi summoned her courage and approached the bar, trying to maintain the arrogance that had gotten her past the bouncer. It took one flickering glance of his gray eyes to dispel her ruse.
"I don't deal with students," he said in a melodic voice.
The urge to sprint out the door nearly overwhelmed her. Beneath the edge of the bar, she pinched her side.
"I'm not a student," she said.
He met her gaze. She felt suffocated by it, as if she'd been dumped into a pit of asphalt fumes.
"That's what I thought," he said, mimicking her tone with the bouncer. He'd known she didn't belong even before she'd entered the bar.
"Hurry along now," he said. "Wouldn't want mommy and daddy to worry."
Mention of her parents, long deceased, put steel into her spine.
She couldn't meet his gaze, but she said with fervor, "I need a summoning focal."
A sharp laugh exited his lips. He stared at her with amusement, revealing gleaming white teeth.
"What would a whelpling like yourself need with that?" he asked, suddenly devoting his every attention to her, which made her skin crawl.
"That's my business," said Pi, staring at the meticulously clean bar top. Not one errant drop of liquid marred its surface.
"If you want a focal, then it's my business too. I'd prefer not to have my bar shut down because some irresponsible youngling summoned something she couldn't handle and put people's lives at risk," he said.
Pi bit her lower lip. "I need to summon a faez demon. Nothing major. But it has to be something above an imp."
Radoslav took another long look, as if he'd underestimated her yet again. Wry amusement was perched on his lips like a carrion bird.
"You have no patron, which means you're either a fool to expose yourself to faez madness, or"—he tapped his chin with a manicured fingernail—"you aspire to the Cabal...probably the Coterie of Mages."
Pi didn't bother acknowledging the correct answer. It would only annoy Radoslav further.
"Assuming you can meet my price, can you perform the deed? What's your barrier material?" he asked.
"Sea salt with a touch of silver dust," she said.
"Silver dust? Oh, yes, no patron. How savvy," he said. "What about your mechanics?"
Pi produced two quarters from her pockets, flipping them both into the air to catch them on the back of her knuckles. Then she started rolling them back and forth, making them dance across her fingers as if they were marionettes. When she was finished, she threw them into the air and deftly let them fall into her back pockets.
Radoslav clapped softly. A modicum of pride welled up in her chest. Then like a snake strike, he grabbed her arms. He put his face up close and dug his fingernails into her wrists.
Pi couldn't look away from his gaze. She felt him probing her mind briefly before he broke away.
"More than sufficient power," he said, licking his lips. "What's your Merlin score?"
"Never been tested," she said.
"Tell me then," said Radoslav. "Why Coterie? Why not another hall? You don't strike me as the power-mad type."
The first thing that flashed into her mind was her parents' faces, followed by the years of various orphanages and foster families. Pi rubbed the ropelike scar along her forearm.
"It's the only way to be safe," she said.
Radoslav drummed his fingers on the bar. "I guess the only question now is can you meet my price."
"I assume that a favor from a future member of the Coterie won't suffice?" Pi asked hopefully.
"Despite your promising abilities, you have a long way to go. Many a Coterie mage has disappeared due to hubris," said Radoslav. "So I'd prefer my payment in something more immediate and binding."
The way he looked at her put a twist in her gut. She felt like an antelope being sized up by a lion.
"I want your soul," he said.
"What? You must be kidding," said Pi.
"You know what I am?" he asked.
"Yes," she said. "A maetrie. City fae."
Radoslav winked. "Then you know I'm not kidding. But don't worry. I don't want your soul forever. Just a three-year lease."
"That's a lot to ask for a summoning focus," she said.
"A bargain if it helps you get into the hall of your desire. Besides, you've no other way to attain such a valuable magical device; otherwise, you wouldn't have come to me," he said.
A three-year lease on her soul. It would mean he could make her do just about anything, and she couldn't refuse.
"What will I have to do for you?" asked Pi.
"Errands, little jobs, things like that. Don't worry. It'll be fun," he said, his lip curling at one corner.
Three years. It was a long time. But she needed to summon the faez demon to impress a Coterie mage enough to be her sponsor. Without the focal her preparations were useless. But to purchase one outright was so prohibitive it was laughable.
"I don't need to own the focal, only borrow it. One-year lease on my soul," said Pi.
"Own? That was never my intention. The three-year lease was to borrow it," said Radoslav.
Pi wished she had more time to think, but she knew that the deal would only get worse if she didn't take it now. She thought briefly about what Aurie would think, but that answer was swift like an axe strike. Her older sister barely approved of her interest in the Coterie, thinking it was a passing fancy rather than a life-long intention.
"Deal," said Pi, holding out her hand. "A three-year lease on my soul in exchange for borrowing the summoning focal."
Radoslav laughed at her gesture. "That's not how we complete our agreement."
"Then how?" asked Pi.
Radoslav flashed a grin so wide the Cheshire Cat would have been proud.
The streets of Invictus were abnormally busy on that Sunday afternoon. Aurie made her way across the city, using the Red and Blue Lines, cringing every time she had to purchase a ticket. She would have hoofed it, but she needed to catch Pi before her shift at Freeport Games ended.
With her face pressed against the train window, Aurie watched gondolas float through the sky on invisible wires. The airy modes of transport were reserved for professors and upperclassmen at the Hundred Halls. Someday she hoped to ride in one.
The Blue Line brought her past a building shaped like a giant stone flower unfolding to the sun. It was the Acoustic Architectural Institute of Design, but everyone called them the Stone Singers.
Seeing it only made her long to bear witness to Arcanium Hall. The hall of her dreams was built like a medieval castle. Aurie always imagined brown-robed monks moving through the halls carrying candles on their way to vast libraries when she looked at the ancient building. Arcanium had been one of the founding halls of Invictus.
Not only did she have to pass her Merlins, but the Hall had to choose her as well. But Aurie couldn't imagine herself anywhere other than Arcanium.
The brick building that housed the Freeport Games had once been a meat-packing house back in the 1800s, a tavern in the early 1900s, and even had a stint as an insane asylum. Or at least that's the story that Hemistad, the owner, liked to tell the kids that frequented his store.
Inside, the steady hum of people gaming made her grin. A Magic tournament was going on in one section, while a couple of groups were playing various role-playing games on the other side. Adjacent rooms that could have been old holding cells were filled with terrain tables for miniature warfare.
Aurie made her way to the back, where collectable sales were conducted. She hadn't seen Pi yet, but assumed she was lurking somewhere in back, sorting cards or organizing inventory.
Hannah, one of Pi's friends, waved from her table. She was running a role-playing game for a bunch of younger kids. Hannah normally looked like she could have played football with the boys, but in this case, she had a robe on and was making silly voices for her giggling players.
Coming to the store was always bittersweet for Aurie because she knew that in another life, one in which her parents hadn't died, she might have been one of the kids who lived at the store, sucking down energy drinks and trading collectable cards with her friends.
Behind a glass counter filled with every color of dice imaginable stood the owner of the store, Hemistad. Most of the younger kids just thought he was Swedish, but the regulars knew he wasn't human. Pi had a theory that he was an old werewolf because of the gray hair he had growing above his collar and on his ears, but Aurie thought he was something more ancient, more dangerous.
"Aurelia," said Hemistad, his wrinkly face cracking a grin. "You never visit. I thought you loved my store."
"I do, Mr. Hemistad," said Aurie. "It's just I'm rather busy these days."
"Nonsense," he said, tutting. "You're a young woman. You should make more time for a little fun. And stop calling me Mister. I've told you before, it's just Hemistad."
"Yes, Mi—Hemistad. Is my sister in back? I need to talk to her," said Aurie.
His bushy caterpillar-like eyebrows wagged. "Pythia? She's not working today. She asked for the day off to prepare for the tests tomorrow."
Aurie choked back an expletive. Pi knew they needed the money. How like her to take the day off.
"Is something wrong?" asked Hemistad, faced creased with worry.
"I...it's just...never mind," said Aurie. "I just need to find her, that's all."
Aurie turned away, but Hemistad asked if there was anything he could help with.
"Actually, yes," she said, "though I feel this is rather forward of me."
She chewed on part of her lip. "Could I have a job?"
"Why of course," he said. "You're always welcome to work here. I'm not sure why you think that was so forward."
She rubbed the cold edge of the glass case while she summoned her courage.
"Do you think I could have a loan against my future wages?" she asked.
When Hemistad's wrinkled face went through contortions, Aurie thought he was going to refuse.
"You and your sister work harder than anyone I know. How do you not have the money for your Merlins?" he asked.
"Pi got sick last year and had to spend a week in the hospital, which wiped out most of our savings, and two years before that our so-called foster parents stole our money," said Aurie.
A flash of anger passed across Hemistad's face. The brief transformation from a docile old man to a maniacal killer left Aurie shaken, but after it was gone, she wasn't sure she'd really seen it.
"People can be monsters," he said, in a way that made her question what he meant.
"Yes, they can," she replied.
Hemistad ambled to his cash register and pulled out the drawer. "How much do you need?"
When she told him the number, his lips soured, but he pulled out a stack of bills and handed them over.
"I promise I'll work all the hours you need to pay you back," said Aurie.
His bushy eyebrows wagged again, all traces of the previous anger absent. "Once you're in the Hundred Halls, you won't have time to do mundane work. I have more important, higher paying jobs that need to be done."
"Like...?" she asked.
Hemistad reached out and patted the back of her hand, still clutching the stack of bills.
"It's nothing that you would expect. But I want to leave it as a surprise. Humor an old man," he said.
Aurie thanked him and left the store, wondering not only what she'd agreed to do for Hemistad, but exactly what she'd seen for that brief terrible moment in his eyes.
Pi avoided the drug dealers at the front of her apartment by going through the laundry room at the back of the building. She stepped over a guy passed out by the dented washing machine. He smelled like old alcohol and urine.
A three-year lease on her soul for a chance to get out of this hole seemed like a good deal. Pi touched the heavy object in her pocket: the summoning focal.
She'd been nervous when Radoslav said they had to complete the agreement his way. She'd expected him to say that she had to kiss him. Not that he wasn't attractive, but he seemed like the type that would taste like an ashtray.
Instead, he'd poured shots from an ancient dusty bottle that he kept on the top shelf, along with a single drop of blood from their index fingers. The shot tasted metallic and had made her teeth hurt.
Afterwards, he'd given her the summoning focal and a smooth stone with some runes etched in it. The runestone was a marker that indicated her employment with Radoslav.
Pi slipped into the apartment and, after locking the door, pulled out the focal. It was a golden scroll that fit on her palm. It wasn't real gold, but painted metal. Radoslav said it'd come from the base of Invictus' tower. She didn't question its power, because she could feel it thrumming in the palm of her hand.
She threw the focal on her desk. The object was swallowed by the mess of crumpled papers. Then she started collecting the gear she was going to need for the summoning.
A box beneath the bed had the video equipment she'd borrowed from her friend Adam. The only problem was going to be shielding it from the summoning, since electronics and magic didn't always mix.
There were a few other things she needed, but those were easy to find since they were on Aurie's side of the one-room apartment. Her sister's folders were neatly organized in a color-coded system matching cross-reference tabs in her books. The whole setup looked like it'd been organized by someone with a My Little Pony fetish.
Pi ran her fingers along the row of books as she thought about her sister.
"I'd wish you good luck, but I don't think you'll need it. I don't think anyone's been more prepared for a test in the history of the halls," said Pi.
She finished her preparations, putting everything she needed into a cardboard box with carrying handles. Then she grabbed some mints she had on her desk and shoved them into a back pocket. Then she put a warm Diet Coke she wanted for the caffeine into the box. She went through the list in her head, almost forgetting the golden scroll she'd thrown onto the desk.
Pi rescued the summoning focal and placed it in the box with the other items. She slipped on a black T-shirt with the words Don't Blink over her white crop top and threw a grease-stained towel over the top of the box to discourage curiosity.
With the box in hand, Pi left the apartment. She left through the front since the drug dealers seemed to be distracted by something further up the street. They'd surrounded an older woman in a gaudy hand-knit sweater carrying bags of groceries.
The relief that she didn't have to deal with the drug dealers faded as she heard them taunt the woman.
"If you don't like it, then get the fuck out of our neighborhood," said one of the drug dealers to a chorus of laughter.
"Not my problem. Not my problem," muttered Pi as she started hurrying away.
A heavy crash startled Pi. They'd ripped one of the bags. Spaghetti sauce in canning jars shattered. The woman's legs were splattered in red marinara.
Pi stopped and sighed.
"It's not my problem," she said, before marching back to the front of the apartment and shoving the cardboard box beneath the half-dead bushes in front. She grabbed the Diet Coke to have something to do with her hands.
As she approached the drug dealers, she tried to form a plan, but nothing came. There were five of them standing around the woman, laughing. She was holding onto the second bag as if it were her children.
Pi contemplated using magic, but that would be stupid. Besides her need to conserve in preparation for tonight's summoning, any magic use without a patron risked faez madness. She didn't want to be one of those crazy bums that lurked in the alleyways making trash cans dance for their amusement.
"Hey fellas," she said from twenty feet away. "Why don't you leave the lady alone. Don't you guys have some puppies to torture?"
They turned and looked at her.
"What the? You're one nutty bitch to think you can tell us what to do," said the tallest drug dealer. He had a red bandana around his neck. He started walking towards her with his hands clenched into fists at his sides.
Pi flashed an inviting grin, full of confidence.
"Hey, isn't that one of those sisters studying to be mages in the Hall?" asked one of the other dealers.
The red bandana dealer slowed to a stop. "Nah, man. And even if she is, she can't do nothin' yet if she ain't in one. That's how it works."
"Actually, that's not how it works. Anyone who has ability can use magic. It just gets a little messy without a patron, that's all. So rather than just knock you down with a spell, I might accidentally tear your head off or transport you into the faez realm. Oops. No big deal, right?" said Pi, with a sarcastic shrug.
Doubt crept into their eyes, especially the ones in back. But the guy in front shook his head, as if he couldn't be bothered.
"No. No way. I ain't listenin' to your bullshit," he said, marching towards her, preparing himself for violence.
"Crap," Pi muttered under her breath. She thought about running, but that would only make things worse. "Luck favors the bold."
Remembering an internet video Aurie showed her once, Pi pulled the mints from her back pocket. Then she tore the wrapper off the side, opened her Diet Coke, and started chanting: "E pluribus Unum. Annuit coeptis! Turn this soda into acid!"
Red Bandana was only a few steps away when she palmed the candies inside the soda. The reaction was immediate. Brown foamy liquid jettisoned from the plastic bottle. As soon as Red Bandana saw it, his face dropped, and he turned and ran.
Pi pointed the bottle at the other drug dealers and moved towards them, chanting the same words over and over. They broke and ran. Pi threw the bottle after them.
"Thank you," said the woman. She had threads of gray in her hair and soft lines around her eyes. "I'd made enough sauce for the year."
"I'm sorry," said Pi. "They're a bunch of jerks."
The old woman shook with rage. "They're a bunch of fucking good-for-nothing hooligans is what they are. I hope they eat a bag of dicks."
"Wow," said Pi, shocked at the profanity from the old woman. "Are you sure you're okay?"
The old woman calmed, her brow smoothing apologetically.
"Forgive my mouth, it gets the best of me. Thank you for your quick thinking, young lady," she said.
"Yeah, no problem. Sorry I wasn't quicker. I might have saved the first bag. But if you're good, then I've got to go. Things to do and all," said Pi, walking backwards, waving.
"Good luck with whatever it is you have to do," said the old woman.
Pi jogged back to the bushes and retrieved her cardboard box before heading to the subway to take the Blue Line to the twelfth ward.
Luck favors the bold. She hoped she hadn't used it all up helping that woman, because she was going to need some tonight. Pi hadn't been completely honest with Radoslav when she'd told him what she planned on summoning. If she had been, he would have never given her the focal.
To get in the Coterie, she needed a sponsor. The one she wanted had told her he wouldn't even consider her unless she could successfully summon a Faez Lord. Which was probably about as dangerous as one could get.
The good news was that if she failed, she wouldn't have to worry about getting into the Coterie. Either there'd be nothing left of her body or the Faez Lord would enslave her and take her back to his realm.
She wondered how that would work with Radoslav's lease on her soul. Would the demon have to wait for the lease to be up to claim her, or would they have to take their disagreement to some sort of faerie court?
"Let's not find out, Pythia," she told herself as she descended the subway entrance. It'd be a terrible blow to Aurie, right on the heels of getting into the Arcanium. Better to think about them both succeeding. Maybe they could pool their loose change and take each other out for an artisan cupcake in celebration of them both getting into the Hundred Halls.
On the way back to their apartment to find Pi, Aurie made a brief detour to the Enochian District. She'd already stopped by the bank to deposit the money, and as long as it was daylight she was safe, but she kept a wary eye just the same. The buildings on the cobblestone street had bars in the windows and graffiti across the bricks with phrases like "Go home sub-humans" or "Kneel before the Cabal."
It was one of the older parts of the city. When her parents had been students at the Hundred Halls, it'd been a bustling historical area. Since the death of the city's founder and head patron, Invictus, thirteen years ago, the street, along with the rest of the city, had fallen into disrepair.
Aurie reached the old copper fountain in the shape of a dragon at the center of the square. No water had flowed for years, and a pale green patina had formed on the surface of the fountain. She flicked her black nail against the edge, eliciting a dull thunk, and regretted the noise as soon as it echoed into the square.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw shapes move in the windows. She knew it'd be foolish to look. Best to do what she'd come to do, and get out.
Nestled amid the cobblestones was a marble plate etched with a poem titled Invictus. These plates were found in many locations around the city, but this one was special for Aurie and her sister.
After giving the street one last glance, Aurie placed her hand on the plate. The stone was warm from the sunlight. After a few seconds, a glistening gossamer light formed around the edges of the words.
Aurie stood back and listened as first a male voice began singing, and then a female one joined in. The song was a cheesy '80s' ballad by Cindi Lauper called "Time After Time."
She listened in complete silence, concentrating on the voices and their earnestness. The voices were her parents'. They'd enchanted their voices into the stone sometime during their years at the Halls. They probably weren't much older than she was when they made the recording.
After the song was over, she said, "Dooset daram. I miss you, Mom and Dad."
Aurie wished Pi was at her side. When they were feeling down, they would come to the fountain together and hold hands while they listened to the song. It put an ache in her breastbone that she was alone.
A bit of rustling echoed from one of the nearby alleyways, but Aurie ignored it. She didn't care about anything else at that moment.
"We're finally going to do it," she told the stone. "We have our Merlins tomorrow. I wish you were here. I know you would be cheering us on." Aurie took a quivering breath. "It's been a tough few years. When Pi got sick, I didn't know what to do. But we made it, we made it through. Now, we're going to get into the Halls, I know it. I just wish...you know...I'm..."
Aurie collected herself, pushing her fingernails into her palms to keep from crying. The shadows were getting entirely too long. She needed to leave soon, but she hadn't said what she wanted to say yet.
She ignored the itchy feeling between her shoulder blades that told her she was being watched and continued speaking. "I just want to say, I need to say...I'm sorry. Pi and I were just letting a little of our faez magic out. Every kid did it, and I'm not saying that makes it okay, but I don't know how it got away from me. I know Pi says that it wasn't me. She still claims it was some guy who she saw in the neighborhood, but I know she's just trying to protect me. I'd do the same for her. But I know it was me. The magic got away from me, it always does. But I'm going to fix that now. Arcanium's the best place for me. They can teach me how to control it so something like that never happens again. I swear it. And I'll make sure Pi is okay. I always have. I know you would have wanted it that way, that we stayed together and looked out for each other. I'll keep her safe. For you. For her. I miss you, Mom and Dad. I miss you a lot. But we'll get through this. I'm going to do my best. My very best. I—"
The crash of toppled cans startled Aurie out of her speech. The sun was almost below the tops of the nearby apartment buildings. Aurie felt pressure on her skin, like she was a bubble being pushed out of liquid.
She kissed her fingertips and brushed them against the singing stone, then hurried out of the square. She barely made it onto the train before the sun set.
As she rode towards home, she thought about her sister. Something in her gut told her she needed to find her. It wasn't like Pi to lie about work unless she was planning something that she knew Aurie wouldn't approve of.
Aurie had a feeling that whatever Pi was doing had to do with Coterie. The elite Hall required sponsorship from one of their alumni. The whispers of tasks attempted by potential students made Aurie's skin crawl. Coterie believed in power for power's sake, and there was no telling what Pi might have to do.
As the train rode up an elevation, heading over Tinker Town, Aurie caught flashes of lightning in the west. She couldn't see the line of clouds rolling towards the city, but a storm was coming.
The abandoned warehouse was the perfect place for a summoning. Pi had found it a few months back. The locks and wards on the doors were still intact, but she'd found a way in through the basement, bypassing them completely.
Over time she'd cleared the concrete floor of dust and rat droppings, until she had a nice, clean area for a circle of protection. In fact, she had everything she needed, including a cloudless night, which had been her biggest worry. Most demons could feed off nature's energies, which would make it harder to control if there was a storm.
One of the reasons she needed a big space for the summoning was to safely record the event for proof. Magic and electronics didn't play nice together, so the cameras had to be a good distance away from the circle.
Sea salt with a pinch of silver went in a wide circle around the summoning focal. She was careful not to complete it until she was ready. Then she made a triangle outside of but touching the circle, placing a different symbol in each of the smaller triangles that were created. Candles she'd liberated from nearby churches were placed at precise locations, including anywhere lines intersected.
Pi placed a handful of graveyard dirt, a drop of her blood, and a chunk of fulgurite on top of the focal. Once she was safely outside, she closed the circle with the last of her salt. It was important that she not have any salt remaining.
Standing on the west side, which was closest to the nearest leyline, Pi began chanting in Latin and manipulated her fingers into complex forms. As she worked, Pi let out small amounts of faez to give power to the movements.
The faez funneled into the summoning circle, giving the lines a faint glow. Pi kept this up for a while, being careful to enunciate each word correctly and shape her fingers precisely. The author of the spell claimed it was the equivalent of playing one of Mozart's piano concertos flawlessly.
She was almost done with the summoning when the rumble of thunder crashed against the warehouse windows, rattling them. Pi nearly lost her concentration. Faez surged from her, the glow burning too bright.
Shit, she thought while maintaining the ritual, bad timing.
It was too late to stop. She had to forge ahead even as the incoming storm brought gooseflesh across her arms and made the little hairs on the back of her neck rise.
When at last she got to the end of the spell, she called out the demon's name three times in a loud voice:
"Pazuzu! Pazuzu! Pazuzu!"
Lightning split the sky directly above the warehouse.
A shape appeared inside the circle. He had the body of a man, with wings and a scorpion's tail. The demon lashed against the walls of the circle with his tail, bringing sparks.
Pi held her breath while the demon of storms, Pazuzu, spun around testing his cage. If she'd made any mistake in her preparations, he would break free of the circle. Death would be the most favorable outcome if it came to that.
"Pazuzu, Prince of Storms," she yelled above the rising winds, "hear my question and answer me."
The demon spat against the cage, speaking in an unintelligible tongue. Or at least Pi couldn't understand it. Learning the Infernal tongue would have taken too long, so she'd set up the cameras so her sponsor could understand the answer.
A torrent of rain splattered against the windows. Pazuzu grinned at the flashes of lightning and held up a wicked talon. The demon jabbed it against the barrier repeatedly, like a miner digging through stone. Through the link of her faez, Pi felt the barrier weakening.
"Pazuzu, Prince of Storms. Hear my question and answer me!" she shouted, pouring faez into the pain symbols in the three triangles around the circle. "Where is the Rod of Dominion?"
The demon lord thrashed around the circle as the symbols assaulted it. Pi repeated her question, followed by another dose of faez into the pain symbols.
A crash of thunder rattled the windows. The center of the storm was almost over the warehouse; Pi could feel it. As she prepared to ask the question a third time, lightning hit a tree right outside, sending sparks into a fountain and breaking a huge branch free to swing through the upper windows.
The opening released the storm's fury into the warehouse, blowing out half the candles. The salt circle seemed to vibrate from the wind.
"Pazuzu, Prince of Storms. Hear my question and answer me! Where is the Rod of Dominion?" she shouted.
This time she didn't hold back. Using too much faez was a danger, but it would be much worse if the demon got loose. She had to get the answer and send it back to the faez realm before that happened.
The demon whipped its scorpion tail against the barrier. The blow translated through her magic, feeling like a kick in the gut. She poured everything she had into the symbols.
Finally, it seemed to affect the demon. He bent backwards, screaming in rage. Then he answered in his rough, garbled tongue.
She didn't even care if it wasn't the answer. Pi started chanting again while the wind blew drops of rain into her face. The banishing was much shorter, but her heart threatened to jump out of her chest. She focused on the ritual, shaping her fingers exactly as required—no more, no less.
Unhampered by pain, Pazuzu attacked the barrier with fervor. Pi was reminded of an enraged xenomorph in a glass barrel.
She only had a few more lines before the demon would be banished. Then the rest of the branch came through the window, sending shards of glass in all directions. It was a miracle that she didn't get hit, but Pi would have preferred it to the damage done to her summoning circle.
A gust of wind blew a hole into the salt, releasing the demon from its barrier. Pi fell to her knees as the magic gave way. Pazuzu, the demon Prince of Storms, was free.