After a quick breakfast, I wound up back at the shop.
Part of that was simply that, without Val around, if I wasn’t there it would be closed all day, and I needed the money too much to do that casually. Part of it—but, given that Kyra was offering cash, not much. Mostly it was because I found making things, magical or mundane, deeply satisfying. It was like a balm for the spirit.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. A lot of the time it’s just a job, and a pretty sucky one at that. There are times when the customers are impossible to deal with, when I’ve screwed up the same piece five times and number six doesn’t look much better, when I want to scream from pure frustration, and at those times I wonder why I keep doing that job. There are times when I think that mercenary work, although dangerous and unpleasant, is still a pretty attractive prospect.
With magic it’s even worse. Take my latest toy, for example, a rope twenty feet long woven of shadows. For a month, I spent most of my free time working on it, either actually doing magic or working out formulae and patterns in my head. It took me nine tries to figure out that it needed a solid base to build on or it wouldn’t hold. Another five to settle on moonbeams as that base. Seven to work out that it worked better with a variety of shadows and moonbeams. Eventually I used moonlight gathered from full, half, and crescent moons, and shadows cast at dusk, dawn, noon, and midnight. It took me hours and hours to gather all the materials, more hours to work the magic itself, all for a piece of rope currently coiled up into a lump the size of my thumb sitting in my jacket pocket. Frustrating doesn’t begin to describe it.
But sometimes, just occasionally, you finish something and look at it, and think That looks awesome. There’s a satisfaction to it, a pride that’s hard for me to describe. There are times when I look at something, and see that it’s well made, and get a feeling that’s absolutely incredible. I realize that it makes the world better, and I made it. My hands, my mind, my will the forces that shaped it. It’s an awesome feeling, really.
I started working with Val because I needed money, but I stayed for that feeling. I worked at the shop until about three, and left feeling much better. It’s like therapy, but they pay you to do it instead of the other way round.
After that was through, I walked into town to attend my next lesson in manipulating the fundamental forces of the universe for fun and profit. On the way, in what was possibly the easiest assassination attempt to deal with yet, an animate shadow tried to strangle me. I dissipated it with hardly more than a spare thought and kept going. I mean, seriously. After mortal animals, shadows are the last thing you’d want to attack me with. Somebody really should have done their research.
My lessons with the wizard called Alexander Hoffman had started tapering off recently. He still taught me a great deal, but more and more he’d been pushing me to pursue my own research and projects. I didn’t especially mind; making things with magic was hard but, now that I knew how it worked a little better, it was also really fun. I’d even stopped working weekends at the shop for the most part in favor of working in the lab.
My lab has been steadily improving over the months, largely because I’ve been pouring significant quantities of effort, time, and money into it. That said, it’s got nothing on Alexander’s. His laboratory is a concrete box which, if I weren’t pretty short, would have an uncomfortably low ceiling. It’s big, though, a single enormous room that probably had as much floor space as my entire house.
When I first saw the place, I looked at the incredible and frequently baffling clutter, and I was confused out of my skull. I smelled the magics in the room, a thousand aromas that blended and swirled and clashed like a spice shop on crack, and I was overwhelmed.
I’d spent a lot of time there since, and I’d focused my skills a lot. My senses were much keener now than they had been, and they weren’t exactly dull to begin with. I could look at the lava lamp on one bookshelf, sliding slowly through a range of vivid colors found nowhere on earth, and tell from the look and smell of its magic that it was a magical focus of some kind, and if I’d put some time into it I probably could have guessed what it would do. Several of the knives burned with low, dangerous enchantments, smells of pepper and rust with an edge of old blood; the nasty looking stiletto, in particular, seemed to lust for violence. Having wielded Tyrfing in a fight I knew better than to discount that feeling, and I stepped carefully around all of the weapons.
There were other things, too, that I still only vaguely understood. The assorted bits of glass, metal, and stone were (obviously, to me) stored spells, which I had only recently learned to make—sort of like a focus, but it does a specific spell instead of just focusing and tinting energy, you don’t have to be a mage or expend your own power to use it, and (most importantly) it only works once. They’re extremely difficult to make, especially considering that it’s a one-off. In the month and a half since I’d learned how to do it I’d produced exactly two. Alexander had at least thirty that I could see, which probably meant he had another hundred that I didn’t know about. Any one of them might do something as innocuous as perfume the surrounding area with the scent of lilies, or it might release a fireball big enough to turn an entire building into a rapidly expanding cloud of smoke, flame, and debris. And, without setting it off or studying it for at least an hour and a half or so, there was absolutely no way for me to tell which a given spell would do.
Long story short, I understood Alexander’s lab a lot better than before—but, if anything, my respect for the place (and person) had increased. I was extremely careful around the lab.
Alexander himself looked little like a person who should inspire that kind of respect. As always he greeted me at the door, which was locked and chained and warded, and as usual he looked a bit ridiculous. An old man in a flannel robe, his grey hair sticking up more or less at random from his head, he resembled your eccentric neighbor more closely than a powerful wizard. He’d replaced the stained Godzilla rug covering the trapdoor to his lab with one depicting a snarling mountain lion that was probably meant to seem ferocious but looked more constipated than anything else. It was new since my last visit a week and a half earlier, and already stained with half a dozen unsavory-looking substances. It stank of bromine and sulfur, and I was just as glad to leave it behind.
Down in the lab things were pretty much the same as always. There were a handful of worktables, so cluttered that the surface was hardly visible. The walls were lined with bookshelves packed with everything from ancient-looking books as thick as unabridged dictionaries bound with black leather that could have starred in a Stephen King book, to things actually written by Stephen King.
Alexander makes his money by selling magical items, for the most part—things like stored spells. There’s always a market for, for example, a bit of glass you can break to release a fog bank a hundred feet across and so thick you can’t see your own nose. Something like that is perfect for arranging an untraceable assassination.
The result of that business was that the contents of the lab were constantly changing. Some things—the lava lamp, the knives, the jars and bags and crates and tubs that contained reagents and raw materials—were constant. Other things come and go on a weekly or daily basis. This time he’d ditched the shimmery, diaphanous, iridescent curtain that had hung on the opposite wall for nearly a month. In its place was a ten-foot length of thin chain made from some black metal I didn’t recognize, which stank of magic and fire even from across the room.
“What do you want to work on today?” Alexander asked as he crossed to the big workbench in the middle of the room, which was the only one not covered in materials or half-finished projects. There was a big, leather-bound book lying open on it, which he casually shut as he sat down. The cover was largely unmarked, but embossed with a single rune—a single vertical line, crossed by a short slash halfway up. I recognized it as the Norse rune Nauthiz, which could stand for need, hardship, or the letter N. I shivered slightly at the ominous-looking thing and looked away.
“I had a few questions,” I told the wizard.
“Oh, good. Your questions are usually entertaining. Even if I do have to clean the lab afterward.”
“It was just the once,” I protested. “And it was the Cu Sith that did it, not me.”
He raised one eyebrow. “And the incident with the acid last month?”
“I helped to clean that up. Besides, it wasn’t entirely my fault. That one could have happened to anyone.”
“I’m sure you find yourself saying that everywhere you go,” he said dryly—and accurately, was the worst part. “What was your question?”
“First off, what do I owe you for this month?” I pay Alexander on a monthly basis, more or less, for the tutoring. His prices are…odd. Even by my standards.
“Thirty one-dollar bills,” he said promptly. “Preferably Canadian. One pound of herbs, gathered from a wild environment by moonlight. Two ounces of werewolf saliva. One half-pound of dried apricots. A piece of gravel swallowed by that kitsune you chum around with and then regurgitated not less than half an hour later. A quartz crystal at least one inch in diameter, which is found rather than purchased. One you find yourself, mind, that’s very important.”
I wrote it down, where it looked like the world’s strangest grocery list. “Do you care what kind of herbs?” The really sad part is that that wasn’t all that weird, by his standards. Some of the things he asks me for I know can be used in potions, which I was just beginning to learn about, and others could play a part in rituals. There are a lot, though, that I frankly have no idea why he would want. I think my favorite was the pound of raw organic almonds which (he’d stipulated this very specifically) I’d had to steal one at a time from a local health food store. Personally, I think he does it just to see how far he can go before I object.
So far I hadn’t complained. The prices were, frequently, not only difficult but time-consuming, expensive, and sometimes downright unethical to meet. In spite of that, it was a lot cheaper than it could be for training by someone of his caliber. I didn’t know much of anything about Alexander, but he was one of the best.
“I care that you know what kinds they are, and that they’re stored separately and labeled. Other than that, no.”
“Right.” I finished the list and tucked it back into a pocket. “I’ll try and have it for you by next month.”
“No hurry,” he said easily. “Did you have any other questions?”
“A bunch, actually.”
He smiled eagerly—ever since I brought back Tyrfing for him to study, he’s excited by my having questions. I guess bringing back an ancient, powerfully cursed relic to examine is the kind of thing a wizard remembers.
“First off,” I said, “how much of the legends regarding the Fenris Wolf is accurate?”
“No idea,” he said promptly. “I’ve never spoken to anyone who had a source for them besides the Eddas. Certainly, if they are accurate, his birth wouldn’t have been witnessed by anything mortal, and the prophecies of Ragnarök are—thankfully—unsubstantiated so far.”
“Is he really Loki’s son?”
He hesitated. “Possibly. They certainly have some kind of relationship with each other, but what it is nobody knows for sure. Some mages think he really was the wolf’s father. Others think the relationship between them is more adversarial than anything, although the two aren’t mutually exclusive by any means. Now what brought this line of questioning on?”
I told him about my encounter with Fenris, in as much detail as I could remember. Given how much time I’d spent working on my memory recently, that basically meant reciting the conversation word for word. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have been so open, but with Alexander I’d long since learned better than to keep information back. The wizard was not inclined to take no for an answer when it came to topics he found intriguing.
“Interesting,” he mused. “If you thought he was Fenrisúlfr, by the way, you were probably right. Beings like that have a very distinctive aura, and even if you hadn’t encountered him before I don’t expect you could have been fooled about that. Besides which, there aren’t very many people who would be willing to imitate him.”
“Because they don’t want people to think they’re the godlike embodiment of hunger?” I guessed.
“No,” he responded wryly, “because the godlike embodiment of hunger gets upset when people pretend to be him. And Fenrir is…let’s just say that when people, even very powerful people, hear that he’s up to something, they go the other way at a run. There are very few who would chance his anger lightly.”
Well, that was reassuring. Sort of.
“Interesting,” he said again. “Very interesting. Do you think he was telling the truth?”
I frowned. “I honestly have no idea. He was…very hard to read. If I had to guess, I’d say he was keeping a lot of information from me, but what he actually said was probably true.”
He nodded slowly. “I would consider the idea of him being the creator of werewolves to be very unlikely. Fenrir isn’t a creator. Rather the opposite, if anything. For him to be the progenitor of an entire species would be very unexpected.”
“Makes sense,” I admitted. “I got the feeling that wasn’t even what he was trying to say. Maybe it was something more like…I don’t know, that there was too much power in me to change? Or that I was too close to a wolf for it to be much of a change?” I shook my head. “I don’t know. Have you ever heard of Fenris having children?”
“Oh, certainly. He was the father of the wolf that will swallow the moon at the end of days—never can remember his name. I think he might have fathered the wolf that will eat the sun, too—”
“Mortal children,” I clarified.
“Oh. No, but if they were as wolflike as he claimed I wouldn’t have.”
I grimaced. It had been a long shot, but I was hoping that he would have known a little more than that. “Okay, next question. What advice do you have for me about fighting a magical duel?”
“Don’t,” Alexander said seriously. “You aren’t anything like ready for that.”
“Let’s say the other guy isn’t going to go along with that plan,” I said dryly.
He thought for a moment. “Your shields aren’t worth much, so don’t go toe-to-toe with them,” he said eventually. “And a mage of any skill can stop any magic you can throw at them. My advice would be to make it as little like a classical duel as possible.”
I considered that. “So hit them when they aren’t expecting it?” I asked. “Ambush, hit-and-run, that sort of thing?” It was a lot more in line with my talents than outright combat anyway. My magic lends itself towards concealment and mobility, along with access to a whole lot of information and a facility for making things. Those are all useful talents, but they aren’t exactly good at making people dead.
“Yes,” he confirmed. “Or hit them with what they aren’t expecting. Most mages have very little skill at physical combat, for example. That sword of yours could probably cut through most shields with a little time, as well. I think breaking magical defenses is part of what it was made to do.” Alexander had appreciated the chance to examine Tyrfing, but he didn’t like the sword. He seldom referred to it by name, and had told me to never bring it into his home again after the first visit.
“So can you think of any reason for two relatively untrained human mages to attack the werewolves with what they claimed was a motive of…justice, I suppose you’d call it? They seemed to fancy themselves monster-hunters.” I briefly described the incident at the restaurant.
“I have no idea,” he said simply. “They weren’t from one of the clans, I can tell you that much.”
“You sure?” I said skeptically. “I mean, surely not every clan mage is as skilled as you are. There have to be apprentices, if nothing else.”
“Yes,” he said patiently. “And even the dimmest apprentice would know better than to aggress upon the werewolves like that. Challenging the wolves is equivalent to challenging the Khan, and no mage clan wants to do that. They would hang the offenders out to dry.”
Huh. I hadn’t thought about it like that, but Conn was the ruler of all the werewolves in North America and a few other places besides. He would quite likely take what they had done as a personal insult.
I’d known that he was powerful, but I’d never really thought about what that meant in a concrete sense before. Now I did, and it was terrifying. Never mind that he was quite possibly the single oldest, most powerful, and most knowledgeable werewolf in the world—that was only the tip of the iceberg.
I didn’t have an exact count, but when I’d grown up I’d learned that there were a few thousand packs in the U.S. Another several thousand in Canada, maybe a hundred in Mexico and Central America, a dozen in Japan, around fifty in Iceland. All of those werewolves answered to the Khan. Call it an average of forty or fifty werewolves to a pack, and there had to be a few hundred thousand werewolves in that group.
I tried to envision the damage an army of two hundred thousand werewolves could do, and quite simply couldn’t. The scope was too big for me. I’d seen a piece of one pack, about fifteen werewolves, most of them relatively inexperienced, in action. It had been impressive and there aren’t many people who could stand against it. Compared to that army it was too tiny to bother with.
And that was still just scratching the surface of what the Khan could do. He had extensive contacts among the European werewolves, so call that another hundred thousand at least that would help him if he asked, including a number that were nearly as powerful as Conn was. On top of that you have his alliances within the Pack, a sort of loosely affiliated group that represented the common interests of various sorts of shapechangers. Werewolves make up the bulk of their numbers, but the Pack includes a number of other creatures as well, some of whom are quite nasty.
First you have shapeshifters, humans who’ve developed a natural, magical ability to turn into animals. Most of them aren’t as scary as, for example, werewolves. But they’re still intelligent, dangerous, and quite a few of them have other magical talents as well.
And then you have the heavy hitters. A few hardcore mages with a talent for shapeshifting—they could do everything a shifter could, but they also had a solid grounding in other kinds of magic. They were basically like having any other mage on your side, except that they were additionally dangerous in physical combat—and, because that was no easy trick for those who aren’t strongly enough inclined to it to be a shifter, they tend to be very skilled. One step nastier are the skinwalkers. They’re heirs to a powerful Native American magical tradition. Very powerful, very scary, very evil. I knew barely anything about them and they still terrified me.
On top of that there are a few groups who have embassies there—the kitsune, for example. Although they were largely an independent neutral party, they still maintain friendly relations with the Pack. There are quite a few groups that can say that, including various fae beings, a couple of dragons, and various stranger, less easily classifiable things.
I imagined an army of thousands and thousands of werewolves. They would be supported by shapeshifters and mages and skinwalkers, and who knows what all else that I couldn’t even name. And hell, Conn could probably get some of the fae on his side too, especially now that they were technically allies for the moment. The whole force would be directed by the strategic and tactical genius of Alphas with centuries or millennia of experience.
I thought maybe I was starting to see why people treated Conn with as much respect as they did. And why a mage clan would sooner lose almost any number of apprentices than start a fight with him. When a force like that goes against you, there are really only two options. One is that you get utterly destroyed. The other is that you manage to arrange an equal or greater force against it, and with that much sheer power involved on both sides the resulting conflict would make World War Two look like a food fight. It would be the kind of war where you counted yourself lucky if the continents had the same general shapes afterwards.
“Okay,” I said after a moment. “I think I get it. So how much do you know about vampires?”
He looked at me with something between disbelief and disgust in his eyes. “Vampires too? Good Lord, boy, how many things have you got yourself mixed up in?”
“Like I said,” I said wryly. “The other guy wasn’t inclined to let me keep things simple. So can you think of any way to kill a vampire without marking the body?”
He thought for a moment. “Not really. Research on that sort of topic is…strongly discouraged, so my knowledge is fairly basic. Most of the time, killing a vampire doesn’t leave a body at all, just a pile of ashes. I could probably design a ritual setup to do something of the sort, and I’ve seen a couple of witches use tricks that could likely manage it, but once you start considering those kinds of people, well, all bets are off.”
I sighed. “Thanks anyway.”
“It sounds to me,” he said, “like you really needed more information than that.”
“I sort of do,” I admitted. “How do you think I can get it?”
“I’m guessing asking more knowledgeable people than me is out of the question?”
“The last time I tried that,” I said dryly, “was that Sidhe party in January. I got screwed by Loki and I still owe him a bloody favor for it. I wound up being used by a Twilight Prince as a tool in his political game. And I made an enemy of the Dragon King by escaping from his dungeon, even though the only reason I did was because Loki slipped me a fake invitation and I was imprisoned because I was, accidentally, trespassing.” I shook my head. “I don’t think I can afford to do that again so soon.”
He chuckled softly. “Point. The next possible choice is a vision quest.”
“Wait a second, you mean those are for real?”
“The concept is sound,” Alexander said. “The basic idea is actually common to a number of cultures.”
“And that concept is?” I asked. Alexander is a great teacher, but sometimes getting actual information out of him is like pulling teeth. He firmly believes that knowledge you gain for yourself is better than that given to you by another, because you remember it better and the process of actively learning is good for your mind. Logically I can see where he’s got a point. In the moment it sometimes seems like a bit more annoyance than it’s worth.
“Basically, the idea goes that what you experience as reality isn’t, actually, real. It’s your mind’s perception of reality. Everything you see and feel goes through that filter. With me so far?” I nodded. “Well, your mind contains a lot of barriers to true learning. Filters and blocks and so on that keep you from actually realizing the major portion of what you know.”
All of that made sense. “And the idea is that by fasting and dehydration and near-hypothermia, you’re breaking those barriers down?”
He nodded. “Essentially. The hope is that severe privation will degrade your mental blocks. Things like the difference between past and future, this world and others, me and you. It’s actually the same concept that’s used by, for example, Asian monks. They do it by fasting, exposure, and chanting, but the objective is the same.” He paused. “Of course, that’s a bit of a long-term process, and you sound like you’re in a hurry. A vision quest would take you at least two weeks, maybe more.”
“Wait a second,” I protested. “I thought shamans did vision quests for, like, healing sickness and stuff. That doesn’t sound like something you take two weeks about.”
“Yes,” he said patiently. “And they were shamans. Experienced mages who did things like that all the time.” He shook his head. “Those barriers are there for a reason, Winter. It would be difficult or impossible to live in this world without them. Break them down too far, too quickly, without a great deal of prior experience, and you might never get them back in place. That’s how people go mad doing things like that.”
I sighed. Somehow I knew that offer was too good to be true. “Okay,” I said. “Two weeks it is. I don’t have that much time. So maybe I’ll leave the vision questing for later. Next option?”
“Well,” he said thoughtfully, “I still think a familiar spirit would be a good idea for you.”
Alexander had been trying to get me to take a familiar for quite a while, and he was very persistent about it. I’m not quite sure why, actually, given that I don’t think he had one himself. Maybe he just wanted me to go to someone else with my stupid questions. “You really think I’m ready for that?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “In terms of power you’re more than ready. I think you have the skill for it too. Beyond that only you can say for sure. It’s not a decision anyone can make for you.”
“How exactly does that work, anyway? I don’t really know the specifics of how a mage and a familiar relate to each other.”
“Essentially,” he said in a lecturing tone of voice, “a familiar is a spiritual entity you’ve made an ongoing bargain with. It owes you loyalty as a result. Exactly what services it provides varies. Some mages are looking for a research assistant. Others desire a thug. Some are interested more in companionship than anything. Needless to say all of them have different needs.”
I blinked. “It owes you loyalty? That’s it?” He nodded. “So, theoretically, it would do whatever I wanted. Anything.”
“Within the bounds of your agreement,” he confirmed.
Damn. “What do they get out of it?” I asked.
He shrugged. “That, too, depends on what bargain you make. As a spiritual entity they require a body to act in this world—most of the time the mage provides an animal, which is where the common use of the term ‘familiar’ came from. In addition the mage provides for the familiar’s needs. You protect it from harm. If its body requires food or shelter, you provide it. You might also be obligated to provide it with energy or amusement. It depends.”
I frowned. “Still seems like the spirit gets the short end of the stick.”
He smiled thinly. “Of course, if they happen to know that a powerful being wants them dead, protection and shelter are valuable things. Other spirits are simply interested in the physical world and wish to experience it. Because they are dependent on someone from this world to provide them with a body, they don’t have many other ways to do so. Keep in mind that most of the spirits interested in becoming familiars are also fairly weak, as such things go. Service in exchange for protection and opportunity is not a bad deal for them.”
Huh. It would answer any question I had. That was…a bit scary, really. I knew better than most that some knowledge really is dangerous and unpleasant and in hindsight not something you would choose to learn, could you have the choice again. And it seemed like the kind of deal that would be absolutely guaranteed to bite me in the ass later.
On the other hand…any question I had. At no additional price. It would be like having a mentor, research assistant, and living computer all at the same time. I wouldn’t just be able to find out more about my current problems, vampires and mages and the Fenris Wolf. I would have something on hand to help with my magical studies.
It might only have taken me one try to make that rope of shadows if I’d had a decent source of advice right there while I was planning it.
I would like to say that the deciding factor for me was helping people like poor Robert, shot because he had the misfortune to be there at the wrong time. I would like to say it, but it would be a lie. I am not that good a person.
Ultimately the deciding factor was thinking about all the things I could learn. All the knowledge I wouldn’t have to blunder into on my own. The things I could do, the things I could make.
I have often proven to be…not as good at resisting temptation as I might like.
Alexander saw the decision in my eyes. “When?” he asked simply.
I chewed on that for a moment. He might say that it was within my abilities, but that wasn’t the same as saying it would be easy. I would definitely want to be operating at my best when I did it. The peak of my power was at the full moon, which had already come and gone. If I were going to wait for the next one, I might as well fall back on the vision quest. That meant that the longer I waited, the harder it was going to be.
“Tonight,” I told him. “Probably around midnight.”
He nodded. Then he took the next several minutes to explain the specifics of what I had to do, writing out several formulae of how the energy would have to be manipulated. I paid close attention and took notes. This kind of magic was far from my specialty, and I didn’t want to screw it up. When he’d finished I put those sheets of paper, too, into a pocket. “Thanks,” I said, standing up.
He frowned. “You haven’t done your exercises yet.”
“Maybe I should save my power for tonight’s ritual. I thought I’d skip them today.”
His frown deepened. “Winter, if you’re going to be dueling you need to practice your exercises today especially.”
Which was, annoyingly, impossible to argue with. I sighed and sat back down.
Alexander had recently started me on an extremely irritating set of exercises. They were, theoretically, meant to improve my focus, concentration, and precision. Difficult does not begin to describe them. Neither does frustrating.
Today was no different. First I had to light one specific candle out of a dozen in a room upstairs I hadn’t ever seen. To make things even more fun, Alexander devoted his energy to screwing with me—not as hard as he could, of course, that wasn’t even remotely a fair contest, but still. At first he spent his magic keeping the candle cold. Then, without warning, he stopped, then started trying to help me so that the heat I was putting into it would light all the candles, or make them explode for that matter. He switched back and forth irregularly, and each time I had only a fraction of a second to adapt what I was doing or I would fail. It took me seven tries to get the right candle lit with all the others extinguished. The effort took almost an hour and left me sweating.
After a short break, he turned on a small laser pointer in one corner of the room, and set up a piece of paper in the opposite corner. I had to bounce the light around the intervening objects, change its color from red to blue, and get it to land on the paper using nothing but magic. Every time I got it right, he changed the relative position and colors of the two points. I was a little better at that game. After four repetitions of that we moved on.
The third exercise was a trickier one. He set a glass of lemonade on the table. Working with my eyes closed, I had to form four ice cubes in the drink—without affecting the rest of the liquid at all. To make things even harder, the cubes couldn’t be made of lemonade, meaning that I had to filter sections of the drink into water, then freeze them into the appropriate shapes, all while keeping the rest of the lemonade room temperature. All without using anything but pure magic. Without even being able to see whether the cubes were forming or not—I had to feel everything with just magical senses. It was hard, irritating, and took me five attempts. All the same, I was clearly improving; the last time I did the same exact trick, it took me seven.
Alexander sat and drank the lemonade while I kept working. He’d gotten the big leather book back out and was paging through it with an unconcerned expression, the bastard.
After that, there was a Ping-Pong ball I had to navigate through a miniature dog agility course. Again, blind. There were poles, ramps, tubes, and balance beams. This, fortunately, was more in line with my talents. I managed, using carefully timed and placed puffs of air, to guide it through the course, only slipping up once on a ramp, and even then I caught it before it hit the ground.
The last trick was a little easier. I took a deck of cards and, wearing a blindfold, dealt a solitaire pattern. And, without ever removing the blindfold or peeking around it, proceeded to play several hands. I lost, badly—but I never misplayed or had a hard time figuring out which card went where. Then, just for fun, I did fancy shuffles without using my hands, relying instead on solidified planes of air and carefully controlled gusts to move the cards around. When I finished I swept them together and returned them to the box—also without hands, of course. Alexander applauded me sardonically, not looking up from his book.
They might seem like useless things to be able to do, largely because they are. I have never yet had call to change the color of a laser pointer during a fight. In fact, none of the things I’d just practiced was a particularly valuable skill. Generally speaking it’s easier to use a freezer than turn lemonade into ice cubes.
That wasn’t the point, though. It was a bit like complicated math in a way. Calculus isn’t valuable because it lets you do fancy things with numbers, at least not to most people. It’s valuable because learning it stretches your mind and makes you think in ways you otherwise wouldn’t. The magical exercises were the same way. Those specific skills weren’t useful, but the things they taught me—precision, delicacy, absolute control over how much power I exerted—were very useful. It was like yoga for the mind.
As I left Alexander’s house I was tired, hungry, and satisfied. My mind felt calm and relaxed, like an especially lazy housecat after a fruitful hunt. I wanted to go home and eat a large meal, then go to sleep.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t exactly likely to happen.