EPISODE 4: THE NATURE OF MAGIC

Hace Matthews. Venday. Virgo 16th, 2344 AA. 3:17 PM. Arroyo.

“We’re looking for Master Fitzgerald,” Cyphira told the Administratum clerk.

“Are you…aspirants?” the man asked, slightly skeptical of their asfalis clothing.

“We’ve just been admitted,” Hace said.

“Oh! Well, congratulations. Your mentor should have come to you though…”

“Apparently, she didn’t get the memo,” Cyphira said apologetically.

The clerk seemed confused by the statement, and unsure as to whether they were following protocol, but noticed his line of students was starting to back up. He quickly typed something into his incanter, scanned the screen, and a puzzled look came over his face.

“This is strange. There’s no Master Fitzgerald in the faculty directory.”

“Is there another database or something you can check?” Cyphira asked.

The clerk clicked through another couple windows, typed again, and then shook his head. Hace licked his lips, suddenly nervous again.

“Can you try Fera Fitzgerald?” he asked.

The clerk shrugged and humored him. Then his eyes lit up.

“Ah! Here we go. Master Fera Fitzgerald. Looks like she doesn’t have an officially assigned office… Actually, she’s not even on staff. But there is a memo here… Building 49. Conference Room. Meeting at three PM. She’s the only person scheduled to attend, though.”

Hace’s eyes widened in horror as he saw the clock behind the clerk read that it was nearly half past three.

“Where would that be?” He asked.

The clerk pulled out a brochure and circled a large building at the far southeast edge of the campus map.

“I think the conference room is on the roof,” he said, holding the map out.

“Thank you, kindly,” Cyphira said brightly, reaching for the map. Hace bobbed his head in thanks, and fell into step behind her.

They followed the map at a jog until they spied the building they were looking for. It was one of several spires at the cardinal points of the campus, towering over the adjacent buildings, and offering an extraordinary view of the west-central arroyo, and the city’s downtown sprawl.

They arrived at the building, which had an extremely steep, switchback staircase leading up its side, completely enclosed in geometric stained glass. It didn’t lead all the way to the roof, but appeared to be about five stories tall.

“He said she’s at the top right?” Hace asked, putting a hand on Cyphira’s shoulder, as if he wanted to look at the map.

“I think so,” Cyphira said, also lowering her head to look at it.

Hace broke out in a mad, sorcery-assisted dash toward the staircase, playfully shoving Cyphira back as he took off. Cyphira instantly recognized the challenge.

“Oh, you false-start son of a bitch!” she shouted.

“Oldest trick in the book!” Hace called back.

He made it to the top of the enclosed staircase before his muscles gave out on him. Everything was still wrecked from the physical exams earlier in the week. His legs liquified and he face planted on the tile floor. Ow.

Cyphira emerged from the stairwell a couple seconds later, huffing and heaving.

“Tell you what…You call that a draw…and I won’t throw you off the roof,” she said, in-between gasps.

“Fair enough,” Hace conceded, still laying in a heap on the landing

Two older aspirants emerged from the door leading to the interior of the building, nearly stumbling across Hace’s body. He shoved himself out of their path, and gestured his apologies. Cyphira started laughing, but she was still out of breath, and had to cover her mouth to keep herself from vomiting. The aspirants looked between them suspiciously, and descended the staircase shaking their heads and whispering something.

When Hace could stand, he joined Cyphira, who had slumped over the railing as she struggled to get her lungs under control.

“Nice view,” Hace said, observing the late afternoon sun, sinking toward the skyline. Cyphira nodded.

When Hace’s muscles started working again, and Cyphira’s lungs had regained their rhythm, they entered the interior of the building. There were classrooms in the central column, and teacher’s offices around the perimeter. They circled the hall way until they found a stairwell leading up to the roof.

When they arrived, they found a glass-walled, cottage-like room. It was completely empty, except for a long wooden desk, and a collection of expensive-looking office chairs. The was a screen at one end of the room. Hace walked up to the door, and through the glass walls, he could see a woman lying on the broad stone railing at the other side of the roof.

She wore a Keeper’s uniform—which must have been absurdly hot in the late afternoon heat of early Virgo—and had a shock of short, spiked white hair. Hace and Cyphira exchanged a glance, then went to approach her.

“Um, excuse me…” Cyphira ventured.

“What’s your deal?” the woman asked, through a languid yawn.

“We’re looking for Master Fera Fitzgerald,” Hace answered dutifully.

She sat up at that point, stretching like a cat who had grown bored with napping.

“You found her. And she wants to know what your deal is.”

Hace shot Cyphira a glance. She shrugged and made an expression to the rough effect of ‘I have no idea what’s going on here.’ Hace decided to play things straight:

“We’re new aspirants. My name is Hace Matthews and this is Cyphira Quinn. We’re both half-fae akrasiacs and—”

“Do you like waiting, Hace Matthews?”

Hace drew his head back, surprised again but now also slightly miffed.

“No…? Err, no, Master Fitzgerald,” he said.

“Then why did it take you over an hour to get here?”

Cyphira put on a polite smile, and started gesturing deferentially, with obsequiously apologetic emanations:

“We had no idea we were supposed to come to you. Our proctor said you were running late, and went to go find you and…”

Fitz interrupted her as well:

“When you have an akratic episode, do you wait for somebody to come get you?”

Cyphira made a disgusted noise and Hace frowned, incredulous. That’s an absurd question. Pocket dimensions were completely random bubbles in the Veil. It was hard enough to follow another person through to the Faed. Hace had no idea how you would even go about finding an akrasiac who was having an involuntary seizure. Did I get an idiot for a mentor? Fitz laughed.

“Ha! Those faces you’re making? That’s the right answer. People can be stupid, kids. When it becomes clear that they aren’t going to help you, it’s time to help yourself. I hoped you would find me in half an hour. All things considered, you didn’t do too bad, but if it took you more than two hours, I would have passed you off to someone else.”

This was another test? He was scared before. But now he was pissed. And he wasn’t alone.

“Maybe you should do that,” Cyphira said, crossing her arms. “So far you haven’t helped us either.”

Yeah! You tell her! Hace nodded in agreement and put on a defiant scowl.

Fitz blinked at her and then laughed again, longer and louder than before. Hace’s scowl deepened. It seemed like a fair question and he failed to see the humor in it. Cyphira was similarly unamused.

“That’s a fair point. And I’m willing to reassign you if that’s what you want. But now I think we’ll get along famously.” She glanced at Hace, then back at Cyphira winking. “Red’s a little slower on the uptake, but we’ll get him there too.”

The fuck do you mean, ‘slower on the uptake?’ Based on what, exactly? And what the hell is this ‘Red’ shit? Fitzgerald continued:

“Look, I’m sorry for the trick, but I needed to know if you have independence. Initiative. Spine. Because I can’t teach that. Well, I might be able to, but it would take more time than we have.”

Hace held his skeptical expression. He already learned that plenty of people tried to excuse nastiness with little bits of niceness at just the right moment. Fitzgerald stopped smiling and put on a new expression. An “I promise to take this seriously,” face.

“Let me make it up to you. Ask me anything you want to know about me and I’ll answer. Nothing’s off limits.”

Hace hesitated only a second. Being polite with her got him nowhere, whereas brashness paid dividends. So he asked the least sensitive question he could conjure on the spot:

“Have you ever killed anybody?”

Fitzgerald nodded.

“I’ve killed four people. I know that for a fact and I carry their names with me to this day. But I’ve been in some big fights and the details aren’t always clear cut in hindsight.”

“When did you lose your virginity?” Cyphira asked in blunt speech, unaccented by urdic emanation, and unaccompanied by gestures, making the already-crass question about as rude as it could possibly be.

Ooh. Good one! Hace looked at Fitzgerald expectantly. She didn’t so much as blink before she answered.

“Fourteen.”

Cyphira looked surprised.

Fitzgerald continued, glancing at her fingernails, each tipped with black nail polish. “It sucked. First times usually do, but I didn’t know I was gay yet, and that didn’t help.”

Hace’s eyes lit with surprise. He switched gears, searching for other taboos.

“Have you ever been shot?” He asked.

Fitzgerald pulled up her uniform jacket to show a nasty scar on her left flank.

“Stabbed?” Cyphira asked, sounding almost hopeful.

Fitzgerald opened her collar and tugged aside her undershirt to reveal a slice of scarred skin running across her collarbone.

“Actually, that’s technically a cut. I have been stabbed, though. Left bicep. But you’re gonna have to take my word for it. Don’t really feel like stripping at the moment.”

“Please don’t,” Cyphira said, laughing.

Fitzgerald made a wounded noise and drew her head back in faux-offense.

Hace barely noticed. He was still dwelling on the scars. He spotted another one on her right hand. A burn, it looked like. Guess I’ve got a lot to look forward to. But those ugly, pale signatures of old injuries impressed him. They were proof unto themselves. She’s being honest.

Even at twelve, Hace knew everybody else could lie, and it terrified him. While he was shackled to the truth, other kids could say anything they wanted, and he would never know until he got in trouble or they started laughing. Adult lies were even worse. They usually meant well, trying to provide comfort, or at least palatable alternatives to harsh realities. But when those lies fell apart, it always hurt worse.

But this strange-ass woman, this scarred stranger who might be his teacher for the next eleven years, was leveling with him. More importantly, she was accepting his honesty in turn.

The questions gradually became less sensational and more practical. They learned that she was forty-three, even though Hace would have guessed mid thirties. No spouse. No siblings. Formerly of San Francisco’s Keeping Force. She had suffered a permanent injury to her wyrd—one that made volatile contract magic unreliable. And that was an unacceptable liability in life-or-death situations.

“…So I decided to teach instead,” she finished.

“Why?” Cyphira asked.

Fitzgerald—who had started reclining again, held up three fingers in sequence:

“More money, less boredom, and I get to pick my proteges. Still have to teach general ed. classes which is kind of a drag, but I only have to take on mentees who interest me personally.”

“Why’d you pick us?” Hace asked.

Fitzgerald smiled like a Cheshire, lavender eyes sparkling. She said conspiratorially:

“Us akrasiacs gotta stick together.”

Hace and Cyphira exchanged another look.

“Wait. You’re also… Really?” Hace asked.

Cyphira was even more excited.

“Does that mean you can train us how to…?”

“That’s the idea.” Fitzgerald swung her legs off the railing and stood. “There aren’t many of us. But it appears Arroyo was particularly blessed with this cohort. So they shipped me out here from the Bay Area. Or, they will, anyway. I said I wanted to meet you before I committed.”

“You’re moving here to train us?” Hace asked.

“I’m charging them an absurd relocation fee,” she said, twisting her back from side to side. “When you graduate, I’ll be able to afford a small island somewhere. And I’m getting the sense that it’ll be worth it.”

“Thank you,” Hace said.

“Yeah. Uh. Thanks,” Cyphira said.

“So, we’re good?” Fitzgerald asked, putting her hands on her hips.

They both nodded emphatically.

“Okay, then. Now you know the essentials, I want to bring things back around to my first question: what is your deal? Which is to say: why are you here? Tell me your goals, and I’ll tell you if I am willing to try and help you achieve them.”

“Malefactors killed my dad and step-mom when I was five,” Cyphira said.

Holy shit. Fitzgerald gestured her condolences. Hace followed suit.

“You want to avenge them?” Fitzgerald asked, voice neutral.

Cyphira rolled her eyes.

“I’m not stupid. I know that won’t change anything. But if I can stop something like that from happening to somebody else…” she faltered a second, shaking her head and shrugging. “I think I can make a career out of that.”

Fitzgerald nodded silently, then turned to Hace.

“How about you, Red?”

Hace went quiet again. He nearly said, ‘I want to save my mom,’ because it was true. He typically defaulted to the simplest truth available because it was less trouble than being tricky. But it also sounded childish, even to him. And that wasn’t the only thing he wanted from life. That is my starting line. Instead, he said the deepest true thing he could think of, hungry to impress Cyphira, and this exceedingly strange, thrillingly honest teacher.

“I want you to teach me the true nature of magic.”

Confusion flashed across both Cyphira and Fitzgerald’s faces. Then they looked at each other, fighting smiles before bursting with laughter. Hace knit his brow at them. What? What the hell? Isn’t that what the Athenaeum is for?

“What does that even mean?” Cyphira asked, literally wiping tears from her eyes.

“Forget it,” Hace said.

“No, no. That’s, uh, that’s a valid question,” Fitzgerald said. “And an admirable goal. It’s just a bit… big, you know? Like, ‘why are we here,’ big.”

Cyphira snorted again. Hace flashed her a “fuck you” smile. And fuck me for asking, I guess.

“Aw. He’s cute when he pouts,” Fitzgerald said.

“Seriously, just forget it,” Hace said. His face was so red it physically hurt.

“No, listen. Listen,” Fitzgerald said, jerking her thumb at Cyphira. “Goldy Eyes’ goal? That’s very concrete, okay? Save people. Fight bad guys. Yours is very subjective, which makes it harder in some ways, but easier in others.”

Cyphira got herself under control and gestured an apology. Hace looked away. Fitzgerald also gestured that she was sorry, and gently prodded him with her wyrd, asking him to face her. When he complied, her expression was solemn. Respectful.

“I can tell you what magic means to me. Right now. The thing is… that answer changes. And ultimately, it’s something you’ll need to discover yourself. But like I said, that’s a good enough goal for me.”

“What does magic mean to you?” Hace asked.

Fitzgerald took a deep breath.

“I think it comes down to three things. First, magic abhors coincidence and adores meaning. Events start chaining together in bizarre ways. The improbable routinely gives rise to the improbable. Little events that would seem unimportant to asfalis folks take on powerful significance for us. Those hidden signs are like wind currents. The more you use magic, the stronger that wind blows, carrying your life in deliberate directions. Magic is intentional.”

Now Cyphira was rapt, and Fitzgerald started to address her as well:

“That intentionality gives rise to patterns, and those patterns usually come full circle, or are shaped by a strange sort of symmetry. That’s the next thing. Magic is ironic. It shows wise men for fools, brings kings low, bestows might to the weak… It also has a vicious sense of humor. But those are side effects, really. I think the last thing is the most important.”

Fitzgerald’s new students hung on every word.

“Magic is the will of change itself. It makes somethings of nothings, defies the Resting Laws, and confounds human logic. Those transgressions are what keep the wheels turning. And for that reason, I think the true nature of magic is violence.”

“People hurting each other?” Cyphira asked, skeptical.

“That’s definitely part of it.” Fitzgerald said. “But violence is bigger than people trading literal blows or waging wars.”

Hace and Cyphira exchanged a confused glance.

“Think, disruption. Upheaval. Endings and beginings,” Fitzgerald prodded.

“So… chaos?” Hace guessed.

“Closer. But chaos is random, right? My first two points: magic’s intentionality and irony…they contradict that. Magic isn’t random. Even if we can’t completely grasp the rules.”

“So… is magic evil?” Cyphira asked, sounding somewhat disappointed.

Again, Fitz carefully weighed her response.

“It certainly can be. And that’s why we have to be better than the magic we use.”

“You mean as amagia? Like, role models?” Hace asked.

Fitzgerald smiled and shook her head.

“As people.”

Cyphira and Hace fell silent, both thoughtful and intrigued. Fitzgerald allowed them to digest her speech, looking out over the campus, as the sun fell toward the western horizon. She smiled, and murmured to herself:

“Yeah. I think this is gonna work out.”