I’m hauling my luggage out of the school van when I see the elf squad heading my way. They aren’t crossing the wide gravel drive in front of the farmhouse to welcome me. More like they want to sneer down their long noses at me, then savor passing me over.
I’m told every magic school has them, the wannabe elves. It’s more a fashion choice than anything else, but elves are known for their fondness for beauty. They’re supposedly into black and white and ruffles and lace and all sorts of jewelry, so the elf-squad has more of their share of all that. (I know a total of one elf, by the way, and he does fit that pattern, but I suspect it’s still a stereotype.) But I guess when you’ve finally escaped Oklahoma public schools, you can dress however you want, so I don’t really blame them.
Still, it seems like a lot of work, all those braids and jewelry. Plus, it’s a million degrees out, and they’re wearing black. In August. In Oklahoma.
Okay, so am I, but they just take it too far.
Jason Brown angles towards me, a little off the group’s apparent trajectory, so I know it’s intentional. He’s the only one of the elf squad who really ever deigns to talk to me. His leather jacket is open, showing off a blindingly white t-shirt and, I kid you not, black jeans and black biker boots. His white hair is showing dark at the roots, as if he hasn’t had time to bleach it over the summer. Maybe not—unlike most of the elf squad, Brown has a summer job.
When he’s within a few feet, he says, “Quirk.”
Just that. My name. Not hello, not How was your Summer? We’re not friends, exactly, but he does sometimes speak to me… mostly because I tutor him in math.
“Brown,” I say back, raising my voice to be heard over a sudden blast of hot wind.
“Aoidh.” He eyes me for a second, one brown brow quirking up in a half-hearted Spock imitation. It needs work. “Still can’t say it?”
Magic families like to give their kinds names that mean white or bright or light. It’s a bit like dark-side-proofing your kid at birth by naming them Luke Skywalker. Kids who don’t get those names that prophesy awesomeness? A lot of the time they adopt one, like Jason Brown has. Why he picked an obscure Irish name that’s hard to pronounce—Aoidh—I don’t know. I try to respect his choice, though, since I know all about choosing my own name. Still, the instructors all call him Brown, so I call him that too, like he calls me Quirk.
The elf squad has followed him over though, the remaining two guys and four girls eying my pathetic choice of luggage. Or my not-aesthetically-frayed jeans. Or the scuffs on my trusty second-hand Doc Martins. Maybe my done-at-home haircut. Not all magic families are wealthy.
But most of them are. I may not own expensive clothes, but I know quality when I see it. It takes money to carry off the elf-squad look.
The two guys who join Brown are either way over-committed to the look… or they might actually be part elf. I’ve heard they’re cousins, and they look enough alike that I buy that story.
The taller and leaner of the two has gone full magical elf. He’s got gold eyes, and I’ve never asked if they were contact lenses. He wears a circlet of metal coins and pearls about his forehead, gold cords woven into his handful of artfully arranged braids, and other things strategically nestled into the rest of his long white hair. There’s a tiny gold ball at his neck with tracings of circles about it, and he’s wearing a white flowy shirt over his black leather pants. He’s the smartest of the bunch. Not just because he’s not wearing a jacket out in this heat. He gets top marks on almost everything—just not math.
His cousin—whom I secretly call the drow—is the group’s ascetic. Today he’s wearing a short black jacket with the hood up, his long white hair spilling out one side. No jewelry, no frills, or anything. He’s got violet eyes and is very pretty to look at, though, so he fits in.
(A drow is a ‘dark elf’, by the way, although I looked it up over the summer and found out that drows are evil and have black skin, so that part’s wrong. Sue me. I only played Dungeons and Dragons once. I set the DM’s notes on fire—not intentionally—but I was never asked to come back after that. Not a big surprise, there.)
But don’t think the elf squad are all pale hair and delicate fragility; Sharma is dark skinned with long black hair and about fifty piercings along one ear. She favors leather and combat boots. Segreti is running with a renaissance Italian vibe and always wears something long, feminine, and flowing. Whitehorse is doing the magical elf look but weirdly trying to keep her native heritage at the same time. The only one of the girls with white hair is Jones, and she’s a weird hybrid of tough and tattooed… and fragile. They’re all gorgeous, and somehow make it look effortless.
I just feel tired and dusty as I turn back to Brown. Now you know he’s the most normal of the guys, even with the white hair and black leather. “I’ll say it if you carry in one of my bags,” I offer.
He actually eyes my bags for a second, like he might do it.
The school’s van picked me up at the rest stop off I-35, where I got to say my weepy goodbyes with mom out of view of all the other P2 students. We’d waited for a couple more students—both cadets who didn’t talk with me—then drove here. The farmhouse is out somewhere near Marshall… which means it’s north of Guthrie, which is north of Edmond, which is north of Oklahoma City. Nowhere.
And we don’t have valet service here, so I’m on my own to lug all this stuff up to our floor. A little help would be nice.
But Segreti comes and artfully drapes herself over Brown’s arm. “Stop wasting time, caro mio,” she purrs. “We have better things to do.”
If I roll my eyes right now, I’ll pay for it later. Bianca Segreti is the vindictive one of the bunch. “Don’t worry,” I say. “I can get my own bags.”
I start gathering them up on top of the big old rolling bag like an unattractive jenga tower as the elf squad turns to glide away toward the side of the farmhouse. They’re going to go smoke or take selfies or do something else forbidden. The last to move on, the drow brushes my arm as he passes and whispers, “Gothling.”
Startled, I lose my grip on my bag and the duffel balanced atop it slides off. Like a thing possessed, it swivels around, somehow clocks me in the back of the legs, then drops on my feet. Because I’m wearing boots, it doesn’t hurt much more than my pride, but the drow goes on his way with a secretive little smile.
And we’re not supposed to do magic out here. Technically none of us Potentials are supposed to do magic at all. I have my suspicions about him anyway. My fingers itch with the urge to zap him. Just a little sizzle, maybe singe of the ends of this pretty hair.
But no, I’d probably screw it up and fry his eyebrows off or set his jacket on fire. Control is not one of my finer points.
I sigh and sarcastically hope the elf squad has fun out there among all that decrepit old farm equipment. Maybe Bianca will trip over that nasty-looking thing with the big circular blades.
No, I shouldn’t wish bad things on anyone. That was how the DM’s notes caught on fire that one night. So after reminding myself to be good, I finally get my four bags balanced and start trundling toward the illusive farmhouse.
And I do mean illusive—not elusive, I know the difference. The farmhouse is not what it seems.
How do you hide something in rural Oklahoma? Pretty obvious. You make it look like a farm.
Most farms I’ve seen have an old house sitting in the middle of a sea of crappy looking tractors, tractor parts, and broken down-tanks and stuff. There’s usually a tired-looking barn somewhere that may or may not be missing part of its roof. This is storm chaser paradise, after all. By June, every building out here is missing part of its roof.
And this farmhouse is nothing out of the ordinary. It looks newer than some of the ones I saw on the drive here. The wood is still brownish, not that grayed out stuff that you see on seriously old barns. It’s one storey, newer than those ones we see in the Land Rush documentaries we have to watch here.
I finally manage to wrangle my bags up onto the wide porch without any of them falling again. A gust of wind blows black hair across my face, but I push on. I want to get out of this sweaty heat. Fortunately, the door opens before I even have to knock. One of the cadets is coming back outside to pick up a piece of luggage from the large pile to the left of the door.
As he holds the door open for me, he glances down and says, “P-wing is still closed. They’ll make you wait.”
And then he’s gone, taking his dreamy eyes with him. I think his name is Lucas, and he’s a third- or fourth-year cadet. We’re nothing them, us P-levels.
I stop inside the doorway, which is a typical Oklahoma farm front-room—at least what I think one should look like. There are a couple of stuffed deer heads up on the wallpaper-covered walls, with crocheted doilies on the backs of the overstuffed armchairs and the arms of the hideous brown floral-pattern couch. A fine coat of red clay dust lays over everything. I can hear someone humming in the next room, so I head across groaning floors toward the sound.
The farmer’s wife, Mrs. Hargraves, stands in a kitchen in colors of brown and hideous gold that could use some serious updating. She’s rolling out dough on a huge wooden table, and whatever’s in the oven smells wonderful, although I can’t quite pin down what I’m smelling. Cookies?
It’s not real anyway. This is all a seeming, a long lasting and complicated illusion. This is the kind of magic I’d love to be able to create some day, that type that involves several magic users pooling their skills. This is why bickering among the students is discouraged here, because the best magics require cooperation.
“Quirk,” I announce. “Mary Quirk, P2.”
Mrs. Hargraves glances up and wipes a large, floury hand across her forehead, leaving a very realistic smudge of flour paste behind. “Do you want a biscuit?”
If biscuit is the new password, I haven’t heard about it. “Um, no, ma’am. I’ll wait for dinner.”
“That’s a good girl,” she says, and gestures toward the kitchen’s side door. It opens on its own and I head that way, cherishing the faint cool breeze coming in that way.
“And don’t forget to drop the contraband, dearie!” she calls after me.
This year I know what she’s talking about. Last year I didn’t and was sent a note from the porters about it. So I pull out my cellphone, text one last note to my mom—At the school!—then I pick up one of the padded envelopes sitting in a basket on the kitchen counter next to the door. I write my name on it, put my phone in, and seal it. I open the dishwasher and drop the envelope onto the top rack where half a dozen other envelopes wait.
Then, with my bags in tow, I walk up to the threshold between the kitchen and what lies beyond—the very realistic pantry. A bare lightbulb with a string illuminates neat rows of canned food on the upper shelves, big bins for potatoes and onions, and a wedding-planner’s truckload of mason jars full of what I hope is fruit of some sort and not small pickled animals.
But the lovely cool breeze is coming from the other side of that threshold, so I cross over it and step into the damp coolness of Umbrum Hall.
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