A wizard is never late, so you can see how this is a little embarrassing.
I must look ridiculous in long black robes in this steamy weather next to the nonmagical people on the train. A few of them eye me with suspicion. Not only is my attire outlandish to these sorts of people, I’m sure my hastily washed, shaggy hair would have set off some alarm bells with the nonmagical community. I would have changed into more acceptable clothing, but there had been no time. I am extraordinarily late by wizard standards to my meeting with Ole Scar. He closes up his shop in thirty minutes. I keep rolling my eyes as I glare at my watch. Half past five as the crow flies.
“Who are you supposed to be?” says a boy across from me. “Is it Halloween yet?”
Without a good story as to my appearance, I grumble, “Trust me, kid. You’d know if it was.”
The boy ponders if what I said was a threat or a warning. I’m thankful when the subway stops. These trains are extraordinarily slow, but the nonmagical subway is the only way to get to the Hidden Ways.
I walk to a patch of wall crumbled by time. Making sure no one is spying on me I whip out my wand and tap the third brick from the left, muttering, “Like smoke, unseen.” A chalk white outline of a door appears in front of me. I stow my wand away, turn the doorknob, and step through the wall, disappearing as quickly as I appeared.
The Hidden Ways are a nightmarish part of the magical world inhabited by warlocks, goblins, hags, and other underground scum. The pathway is narrow brick on all sides, twisting upon itself like a huge labyrinth. Hunched, cloaked figures go into various shops and come out clutching their merchandise close. I catch a hissing sound coming out of a crate a masked wizard held as he brushed past me. I’m one of the only people not wearing a hood or mask. I have nothing to hide. I’m not buying anything.
It takes me a while to find Ole Scar’s place as I knew it would. This furthers my frustration of my punctuality. Finally, I tuck into a shop called Smoke and Mirrors at the far end of town. Like the Hidden Ways, this shop is not so easily found. Ole Scar enchanted his shop so it was in a different place every day. Skulls sit in glass cabinets like old jewelry. A black cabinet guards the far corner of the room. It’s dimly lit enough to see spiders weaving webs along the ceiling. Crusted bugs litter the counter next to the register where a gnarled man with a long incision running down his face stares at me bemused. A collection of rune-etched rings clinks on his fingers as he smokes a short, black pipe. “You’re late, Zed.”
I roll my eyes. “I’m not buying this time, Scar.”
The shop smells like rotten potatoes, pipe tobacco, and dark magic. The aura radiating from the skulls in the glass cabinet make me nauseous. I don’t want to know what kinds of curses are on them. Knowing the clientèle Scar serves, everything in the place is illegal.
“Oh?” Ole Scar puffs a long drag of smoke out through his nose.
“I need information.” I pull out a newspaper clipping from my robes and give it to Scar. The front shows a picture of a girl with skin so pale she could almost be a ghost. She wears a silk dress, color indistinguishable in the monochrome paper. As all photographs in the magical world, this one is moving. The girl in the newspaper tosses her hair back and smiles crookedly at the reader. Scar doesn’t need to read the headline to tell what I want.
“Mathilda. You’re investigating the Wrens,” spits Scar. He grits his blackened teeth together.
“A wizard’s got to eat.”
“You got a death wish, boy, prying into their affairs. How much gold is the Conclave paying you for this job?”
“Not enough,” I say. “Rumor has it, she’s gone to the Dark Side.”
“Big of you, to talk about the Dark Side,” Scar chuckles. “You’re basically a warlock yourself even if you don’t admit it.”
I flash my wand and hold it against his heart. Ole Scar had touched a nerve. “I will never—be—like—you. Now, you know anything about this girl or not?”
He holds up his hands in surrender. One letter to the Conclave sends Scar to the place with no name, a prison where people vanish, erased, as if they never existed. I’d prefer death. Death is at least quiet.
“She came in,” says Scar. “Mathilda. A few days ago. Was interested in a few cursed candles. Wouldn’t say what they were for. Bought out my whole stock.”
I pull the wand away but keep it trained on Scar. “What were the candles for?”
I snap my fingers and disappear from the shop in a cloud of smoke and reappear before a wrought iron gate three times as tall as me. The sign above the gate reads Wren. A dense fog clouds my vision. I light my wand and hold it up like a torch. The light doesn’t help much.
“Who disturbs the ancient and noble house of Wren?” boomed a foreboding voice. The voice came from everywhere as if magnified by a heavenly sized speaker system.
The Wrens are one of the oldest magical families in the world. They pride themselves in tracing their magical lineage through the Middle Ages. They are highly respected and would likely want this case resolved quickly. I bet all the gold in my vault the Wrens had something to do with her disappearance.
And the candles. Why would the Wrens bother with ritual summoning? Such magic is outdated and outlawed since the Witch Trials of 1693. There are more efficient and less risky options in the realm of dark magic for summoning.
“I’m an investigator,” I shout, careful not to give away too much. “I’m here to ask a favor.”
The fog swirls around me as if guided by the wind. The gate creaks open. I walk across the threshold along the gravel walkway up the hill to Castle Wren. Castle Wren is an imposing sight with its many turrets and sleek parapets. The sun did not shine here though it is noon. The clouds above the foreboding fortress loom overhead enchanted to forever darken the timeworn castle. The great iron doors swing open automatically as I reach the top of the hill. They close behind me as I make my way into the polished marble entrance hall. I hold my wand alight still not daring to let my guard down.
At first, I think nobody is home. The air is quiet as if I walked into a strict library. The torch brackets are lit. The portraits along the walls, which were snoozing in their frames, jolt awake at the sound of the door crashing into its frame. Upon realizing the source of the disturbance is not an emergency, the figures go back to sleep.
A gaunt face enfolded in a sleek velvet cloak and long gray hair meets me in the Great Hall next to the entrance. Long tables line the room as if for large parties the Wrens hold often. They are a well-connected family, full of history, and more gold than anyone could ever spend. Black curtains drape the windows. The tables are already set for dinner with fine china, silver goblets, and silverware that look as if I press too hard it would snap. The man is suspicious of me. I appear like a vagabond compared to the castle’s luxury.
I clear my throat. “I am here on behalf of—.”
“I know who you are.” The man speaks in high manner driving home the fact that he is better than me in every way.
“You must be Master Wren.”
“You’re not here to duel, are you?” He smiles the same crooked way Mathilda did in the paper at my still lit wand.
Hastily, I extinguish the wand light and walk with Wren to the top most tower past portraits of knights on white horses and fairies bewitching people’s minds. Wren does not so much walk as glide like an apparition. “As I mentioned previously, I am here for a favor.”
“Mathilda,” says Wren.
My insides wrench a little. “You’ve been following the paper then.”
“No. It is not so hard to pry open a wizard’s mind when he invites me in.”
I try not to be disturbed by the prospect of Wren being able to read minds.
“Read it,” says Wren, “like a book? More like unhinge it, explore it, control it. You’d know nothing of the kind of magic I speak of.”
I act willfully ignorant. “The Conclave believes your daughter is under the influence of a warlock. I have reason to believe she is attempting a ritual.”
We arrive at the highest point in the castle. The Wrens own a swathe of forested land, wanting to preserve the natural state as it had been hundreds of years ago. The canopies drape over the plot in rolling hills of leaves. Butterflies flutter in and out of the leaves.
“As it so happens,” Wren says after a pause, “I know of your predicament. I will give you Mathilda’s location on one condition. That you bring her straight here.”
“But the Conclave—.”
“—does not have her best interests at heart. They will send her away. You know the place the Conclave sends those they want to disappear. Bring her here. I will compensate you far beyond anything the Conclave can hope to give.”
Wren dismissively tells me a number. My eyes widen. Wren offers more gold than I could hope to make in twenty years. If I refuse, I might as well go home and forget about Mathilda. Plus who knows what kind of curses Wren would cast on me if I did refuse. I’m going to have to do a lot of paperwork with the Conclave after this is over.
“Fine,” I say. “Where is she, then?”
“Point your wand into the sky and it will guide you.”
My hand shaking slightly I draw my wand and point it over my head. Immediately, I sweep into the air, spinning like a tornado for a few seconds. My feet slam into the ground and my knees buckle. My stomach retches and I expect to puke all over the sidewalk, but nothing comes out.
Head still spinning, I struggle to my feet and hold my wand out. I’m in a clearing, dusk nearly settling. Lit candles float in midair, the same ones Ole Scar sells in his moving shop. A female figure in the same silk dress levitates in the air over the candles. Mathilda. Her expression is vacant, drool rolling down her chin. Mathilda’s hair drapes over a large cauldron big enough to sit in. A blue fire cackles underneath it. A silver vapor rises over the cauldron. A cloaked figure hunched over the cauldron turns around, the rings clinking on his fingers.
“You,” I say.
Scar looks at me with the same contempt as Wren. “Me.”
My wand arm shakes back and forth from Scar to Mathilda and back again.
“Yes, I have never renounced the old ways,” says Scar.
I jab a blaze of bright blue light at Scar. He waves it away with a gnarled hand.
“You have to do better than that,” Scar laughs. I glance back astonished. He blocked my stunning spell like an annoying fly on a summer’s day without the use of a wand. Unheard of. “Instruments like wands and staffs only hold the wizard back. He comes to rely on them like a crutch.”
Scar is stronger than I thought possible. The Conclave snapped his wand and took away his spell books when they freed him from that prison. He renounced the Dark Arts in front of the Conclave. But he was biding his time and making excuses to save his own skin. When I threatened him in his shop, Scar was holding back. He could have crushed me at any time if he wanted. That realization raises the hair on my arms.
“What are you doing to her?”
“I’ll give you a clue. As little Mathilda gets weaker. I get stronger.”
At one point, Scar was one of the most feared warlocks in the magical community. The Conclave stripped him of much of his power when he was sent to prison the last time. He was released on condition that someone would watch over him, making sure he wouldn’t do exactly this. That someone was me.
“You’re taking power from her,” I gasp. “You’re pouring her essence into the cauldron.”
Scar dips a goblet into the potion and drinks. He stands to his full height, no longer impeded by his older and weaker form. The wrinkles on his face ebb away and the callouses in his fingers retract. Before me is a younger version of the warlock at the height of his power when everyone feared to speak of him. Yet I sense he is more powerful now than at any time in the old days. The rings on his fingers are more pronounced now, protecting him with an aura where even my mostly wisely chosen spells would fall useless to the wayside.
“Oh, how the Wrens would mourn if one of their heirs had no more magic left in her. Very proud of their lineage, they are. If she doesn’t die here she will be exiled by her own blood. Now that she is nearly depleted, I can test my new power on you. I’ve waited a long time for this, Zed.”
Then, the strongest surge of pain I ever experienced crawled over me. I scream like I never screamed before. Scar laughs at me overhead. I clear my mind through the pain and focus on a blink spell, simple to do, tough to execute. I concentrate all my energy on being in the air next to Mathilda floating over the cauldron. This is the only choice I have. I have to do anything to save the girl.
One moment I writhe on the ground and scream in horrific pain, the next I blink forward and clutch Mathilda’s hand. We plunge straight to the bubbling cauldron. Right before we submerge in whatever contents the potion contained, we burst into smoke and reappear moments later in the summoning circle on the marble floor before the Conclave of Wizards, the girl clutched in my arms. Gentle hands relieve me of my burden, and I pass out. One last thought intrudes upon my mind.
The Wrens will have my head for this.