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“Starting with the good questions, huh?” Bloodhound asked. “It is the first thing smart people usually ask.” He took a deep breath. “What is magic? How does it work? I’ve known a few other people who use it, but not many. Excluding the bad guys – who generally aren’t interested in talking to me – most of them fall into a few categories. The majority don’t really care what it is or where it comes from, because they just don’t worry about that stuff – they only care about what they can do with it. Some don’t worry about it because they can’t think of any way to find out, so there’s no point.”
Feral, Raquel, Leon, and I were all listening intently. I wondered if Bloodhound had ever done any teaching before; he kind of sounded like he had, I thought. He was dressed as I’d come to expect, complete with sculpted mask, and he was wearing his sword across his back this time. It was long and relatively thin, now that I got a closer look at it, but not thin like a rapier. It could still be used for slashing as well as thrusts. Beyond that, I didn’t know much about swords. The most useful evaluation I could give was that it was straight, not curved, and that both sides were sharp. He also had bulges in various pockets that had seemed empty when I saw him before. Leon pointed out that he’d likely ditched the sword because of Smith, before, so the gear in the pockets was probably metal too.
“I can say that, as far as I know, magic is new,” he continued. “You know how in stories, there’s usually an ancient magical society that has coexisted with ours for hundreds or thousands of years, and it’s somehow kept secret? Or magic is secret because it’s been passed down among a very small number of people? Or people automatically forget about magic when they see it? Yeah, that’s…not a thing. At least, not as far as I know. The people I learned from only picked up magic recently.”
I glanced at Raquel. We were both wearing our masks, but I wondered how she was reacting to the news. She glanced back, but I couldn’t read anything in her body language, so I returned my attention to Bloodhound.
“How recently?” I asked. “Are we talking in the past decade, in the past century, or what?”
“Between decade and century,” Bloodhound answered. “I learned the first of my talents from my father. He was mostly self-taught, after getting a little jump-start from someone else.”
I chewed my cheek a bit at that. He thought magic was new, but he learned from his father, who learned from someone else? What?
“My father’s teacher wasn’t human,” he said.
“In fact, he was what I’d call a spirit,” Bloodhound said, tilting his head to look at each of us in turn.
Well, that was interesting.
“My father wasn’t like you two, precisely,” he said, anticipating my question. “The spirit didn’t live in his body. But the two of them could communicate, and he taught my father a lot. Unfortunately, the spirit isn’t around anymore, and he never did explain where he came from – at least, not to me.”
“So ultimately, you don’t know how old magic is,” I said. I tried not to sound disappointed, but I think it leaked into my voice anyway. I’d been hoping for some real answers, not a mystery.
But Bloodhound shook his head. “I know for a fact that the spirit wasn’t someone who’d been hanging around for a long time. He was new to Earth, basically. Didn’t understand or recognize a lot of things. He just showed up, pretty much out of the blue, and he happened to meet my father. I’ve encountered a few other spirits since, and none of them remembered being here – on this planet – for very long. Does that mesh with your experience?”
“It’s fine to tell him, I think.”
“Pretty much, yeah,” I said. “My spirit-buddy doesn’t remember a lot, but that’s not what I’d call much in the way of evidence for anything, really.”
“Same here,” Raquel said. “Lots of questions, no answers.”
Bloodhound sighed. “That’s what I was afraid you’d tell me. I was hoping to be wrong, but at this point I’m not sure we’ll ever know where the spirits came from. All I can tell you is that whenever I’ve been able to find people knowing how to use magic and track it back to the source, I’ve always either found a spirit or a dead end where I lost the trail. And none of the spirits I’ve encountered told me where they came from either.”
That sounded pretty ominous to me, but if spirits were all invading I wouldn’t expect them to start by teaching us how to do stuff, so maybe it wasn’t so bad, really.
“So in short, magic seems to come from spirits, and we don’t know where they came from,” Raquel summed up.
“More like knowledge of magic comes from spirits,” I corrected. “There’s no way to know if there was magic before people started using it.”
“I’m pretty sure there was, actually,” Bloodhound said. He took a deep breath. “This gets back to the question you actually asked me. As far as I can tell, magic is just an energy source. It’s another type of power. No one harnessed electricity for thousands of years, but it was still, you know, there. It didn’t not exist just because we didn’t know how to make computers or light bulbs. I think it’s the same with magic, except that it’s not visible. No one had any clue that it was there, so no one tried to figure out what to do with it. Just like cavemen wouldn’t have any idea how to build a nuclear reactor. They can see the sun, but that doesn’t automatically let them know how to use a related power source.”
“That…kind of makes sense, I guess,” I said. “I get that no one seemed to know what to look for, or whatever. So magic is what, just there, kind of sitting around until someone grabs it for something?”
“Something like that,” Bloodhound said. “You can use solar power or wind power for all kinds of stuff, but until you do, well, it’s kind of irrelevant. The point is, it’s easy for people to miss major power if they don’t know how to look, and most people have no idea there’s anything to look for.”
“Okay, I think I’m with you so far,” Raquel said. “But how many people using magic have you actually run across? I mean, can you give me a ballpark number?”
“My best guess is that there might be a hundred – maybe two – in the entire world, but that’s recent,” he answered. “Collector has been knocking the number down in North America, and he might have been to a few other places too. But my best guess is a guess. There’s no census. We don’t have a club, or a newsletter, or anything. And a fair number of people end up, well, getting hurt. Or killed.”
“You mean besides the people Collector has been murdering and copying tricks from?” I asked.
Bloodhound nodded. “Collector’s dangerous, but he’s not the biggest danger.” He paused for a second, maybe figuring out how to explain what he meant. “Look, think of it like this. You both know magic can be pretty dangerous. Now, if most people are self-taught, do you think they’re usually smart enough to be careful, or do you think they say to themselves, ‘awesome, let’s see what else I can do’?”
“I got it,” I said, nodding my understanding. “You’re saying people get magic and then start shaking it like a cartoon character with a chemistry set. Decent odds they blow themselves up, or something.”
“That’s part of it,” Bloodhound confirmed. “No one has established lab safety rules for magic or anything. It’s like giving people the supplies for rocket science and the materials, but not giving them an actual teacher. Maybe a few pages from a textbook. Mostly they get nowhere; they’ve got access to the power source, but no idea how to use it, so it takes them a long time to find the on/off switch. And once they do, there’s a good chance they’ll just have it blow up in their face, like you said. They stick their finger in the socket to see if the electricity is on and get zapped. Some of them die, some of them decide to leave it the hell alone, and some of them keep at it.”
“But your father found a tutor,” Raquel noted, “and you’ve said other people have learned from spirits too.”
“Right,” Bloodhound said. “But those are the exceptions. Those are the people who have actually managed to develop some tricks of their own that they can perform on command. For every one of those, there are probably ten more who never find a teacher. They either don’t realize they can do anything, get nowhere and give up, or off themselves. Maybe one out of those ten manages to learn something useful by trial and error without burning himself alive, or getting hit by lightning, or whatever. Magic is powerful stuff; it’s not safe. I wouldn’t call it user-friendly, either.”
“How dangerous, exactly?” I asked. “I’m guessing you aren’t in danger of getting struck by lightning every time you use magic, at least.”
He laughed. “No, it’s not that bad. But you should know that some of the things that work for me haven’t worked for…other people. I’ve tried to teach before. It didn’t go that well, and I’m not totally sure why. No one died or anything like that, but if I do teach you, it’s a gamble. That’s why I wanted to have this conversation first, really: to give you a chance to back out if you want to.”
I didn’t really consider it. I just shook my head. “Collector can sense us if he’s ever close. And if there are other spirits out there, I’d rather have the option of hiding, at least. Besides,” I took a deep breath, “they saw my face. I think, for me, being able to lay low is a necessity, not a perk.”
Raquel agreed. “I don’t want Collector – or anyone else – finding me at home,” she said. “It’s one thing to get in a fight on my terms, but if I can’t hide I don’t think I’d be able to sleep at night.”
He looked at both of us for a second. “Okay. Then rule number one is to start as slow as possible, and for God’s sake think before you try anything new. I told you I’ve looked for other people using magic, tried to find them? Well, that’s how I know how many of them end bad. I found one guy who turned into a wolf – not a werewolf, just a wolf. He was stuck like that for good, and he damn near mauled his own family. He didn’t get it right and he had to be…put down. Too dangerous for anything else. I never found out for sure what exactly he was trying to accomplish, but it doesn’t matter. One guy tried to control electricity and got struck by lightning, I wasn’t kidding about that one. I found a woman who tried to see the future and completely lost her shit – she’s in a mental hospital.” He sounded sad about the last example.
“No one knows all the rules of magic, but trial and error is insanely dangerous,” he said. “I can’t say it too many times. I really can’t. I haven’t even told you about the worst stuff I’ve found out there, because you both seem decent and I don’t enjoy giving people nightmares. But you can’t fuck around with this, ever. I don’t like helping people get themselves dead because of stupidity, and I don’t want you to get someone else hurt because you’re impatient, either. Rule two is to be damn careful where and when you practice, because sometimes magic can have unpredictable side effects if you make a mistake. If you go home and practice there, you deserve to get hit by lightning because you could be endangering everyone else around you.”
The three examples he gave and the hints of worse ones were enough to put me in a cautious mood. Leon agreed.
After we both promised to be extremely careful, we got to business. We’d met in the same little park as before, but Bloodhound warned us that we needed to find someplace better to practice anything beyond the basics, or he wouldn’t teach us for long. He also said that even teaching us the one trick would take more time than we had left – it was already starting to get a bit late, and Raquel indicated that she had to go home. I wouldn’t mind heading back to my dorm, either, and I figured Bloodhound was probably ready to leave, unless he was staying in town for the night. It wasn’t a really long drive to Philly, but it was long enough.
He left us some contact information – a throwaway email address, specifically – to arrange future meetings and renewed the protection from before, so Raquel and I wouldn’t be easy to find if Collector came back. We promised to contact him only with emails we didn’t use for anything else, and to never refer to each other by name or describe what we were doing. If we hadn’t, I got the impression he really would have walked away.
I’d felt a bit paranoid at times since meeting Raquel. The more I had to do with the Philly Five, the more I wondered whether I was paranoid enough.
“One last thing,” he said after we finished. “Two supers have been nabbed in this city. If something comes up, whether it’s more trouble or you learning more about who’s behind it, I’d appreciate it if you let us know. We’ll give you a heads-up if we learn about any trouble headed here, in return.”
Raquel and I conferred briefly with Leon and Feral. “Deal,” we said together. That wasn’t a tough sell.
The best thing of all was the fact that I now had a way to contact the Philly Five directly. That meant I could talk to them alone, and I might just have a chance to figure out whether Feral was a problem or not.
I set up a new email address and sent a message to the address Bloodhound had given me that night, asking if we could meet privately to talk as soon as he had a chance, but I made it clear it wasn’t an emergency.
I got an answer the next morning. It took a bit to arrange a time to meet – partly because Raquel and I were also looking to arrange our next meeting, too. During the week my life seemed to go back to normal, but I found myself checking for messages from Raquel, Heavyweight, or the Philly Five frequently just in case. I’d sit in class like everything was the same, and it felt the same, but then once I got out I found it hard to relax. I was combing the news for stories on supers the way other obsessive people checked their social media. I started to notice that I felt tense physically and mentally; I’d always been a pretty relaxed guy in the past.
On the bright side, my obsession did get me some information. It turned out that Skyscraper had popped up alone before hooking up with Blitz, and enough people had seen him here in Berkeleyport that he was recognized. One news report incorrectly speculated that he might be the group’s leader, since they didn’t have much else to go on. Apparently he’d been from a rich family, and he threw a tantrum when he found out he wasn’t getting his share of the family inheritance. Things turned nasty, and he ended up growing to giant size and lashing out. By the end he’d been forced to either go to jail or go on the run, and he’d opted for the latter.
I wondered if that was how he’d been hooked by Collector; had he teamed up with the others in the hopes of getting money or influence? Or maybe he just hadn’t had any other options he liked, and Collector came along and made an offer that sounded better than nothing?
I was working out while I thought about that. Looking back on my past performance, I’d decided that I really needed to get in better shape to make the most of my powers and, you know, stay alive, if I was going to keep running around getting into fights. I found that Leon could help with that; when I worked a muscle, he could help it recover faster. It had never occurred to me, but given that strengthening a muscle essentially means inflicting low-grade, repeated injury on yourself, it made sense. I felt a bit guilty for cheating, but not much; I didn’t have the same amount of time to invest in staying in shape as a bodybuilder, and it was in a good cause. Besides, I discovered that being in better physical shape was actually more pleasant than I’d ever suspected. The workouts also let me burn off my nervous energy. I talked things over with Leon, wondering if he could guide my regenerative ability to make it easier for me to stay in shape; when I got hurt, my understanding was that he basically restored my body to proper condition, and if that worked, then it might help me improve my conditioning without constantly going to the gym. That would be a long-term experiment, though.
Thursday evening I actually felt normal, and I spent a few hours hanging out in the common room just talking and wasting time. It was the first time I’d really done that since Raquel climbed in my window and bled on my chair, and it felt good. I was finally relaxing a bit, I felt confident that Blitz was out of town, and while I was worried about the long-term implications of the group’s existence being made public, there wasn’t really anything I could do about it. At the same time, I was making actual progress toward resolving the potential issue with Feral. I had a meeting with Bloodhound and Comet scheduled for the weekend, and a separate meeting with Bloodhound and Raquel to start actually learning from him. All in all, things were looking up.
Friday, Blitz went back to Skyscraper’s home in California and wrecked the place. I guess they’d decided that there was no reason not to, since they had so much attention on them already. The pictures made it clear that Skyscraper’s home really had been a mansion. The place looked like it was built by rich people who wanted to make sure everyone knew they were rich people. When the seven of them got through with it, it looked like an action movie set after the big finale. It had been three stories tall; when Skyscraper left, it was less than one.
The aftermath was messy. Skyscraper had roughed up his family members personally, and together Blitz had killed a handful of security guards. They stole a bunch of valuables and cash, and set the place on fire as they were leaving, although that last part might have been an accident. They also forced a couple of his relatives to make some electronic transfers…which apparently went all over the world. Leon pointed out that they must have been planning this for a while to pull that off. I wondered just how much of the money they’d manage to collect, but either way it was hell on Skyscraper’s family, since their home had just been torched.
The media focus on supers in general and the group specifically ramped up again. The fact that there were seven people in Blitz became public knowledge, and I could hear some real fear in people’s voices when they talked about it. Berkeleyport’s supers had been few enough that most of the people in the city didn’t really think about them much, a month ago. Most people had heard of Heavyweight and Menagerie, but they hadn’t seen them and they didn’t really think about them. Now, no one could ignore that we’d unknowingly hosted the world’s first known supervillain team of seven people, and that they had escaped. The nutjobs came out of the woodwork online and on TV to talk about what had happened, and I saw a guy ranting about supers on the streets at one point in town. He looked disreputable, and no one was really listening, but I knew that just a week ago his rants had been about political and social issues – stuff like voter apathy or tax policy. The guy – we called him “Can’t-you-see” because he said that a lot in his rants and none of the students knew his name – had been a fixture since before my freshman year at least, and it was the first time I’d ever heard of him changing topics.
On the bright side, the FBI had less reason to withhold information now that the whole mess was public, so they started to spread around what they knew about the members of Blitz. Christopher Rollins, AKA Collector, was listed as the group’s leader. They had a few solid photos of him from before he’d started running around murdering people. Brian Jones, AKA Skyscraper, was another one they had plenty of information on. I was surprised to learn that Smith, the one who controlled metal, was actually named Elise Smith. It might be a common name, but that was a bit much for coincidences.
Those were the three they had the most information on. I almost laughed when I learned that Rollins had been some kind of accountant. Smith had apparently been working in a housecleaning business. It wasn’t clear how they’d met, or how Collector had picked up most of the others, either. I did find out that Smith’s powers had been the subject of some local news report or article in her hometown, at some point before she left.
They still didn’t have much of anything on Silhouette, Dealer, or Recast, but that made some sense I guess. No one had gotten a good look at Silhouette’s face, not even when we spotted her walking back to the motel that one time. Dealer, the kid, stayed out of the limelight as much as possible and always wore a baseball cap. He usually wore a hoodie, too, so even when there were cameras around they hadn’t gotten good angles at his face, apparently. As for Recast…well, Leon and I had determined that his appearance changed, although we weren’t sure whether it happened all at once or gradually. Either way, seeing his face wasn’t enough to put a name to it. Proxy, whose real name was Paul Lewis, had apparently committed non-violent crimes in the past. Mostly theft or other financial stuff; he had apparently stolen money from other people’s accounts at times, so they suspected he might be a hacker, but that didn’t answer how or why he’d met up with the others.
“I can’t believe they were here,” Shawn said. We were in our room, along with Liz; we’d been doing homework before the topic came up. “They’re insane. I know the Philly Five are still around, but I don’t think anyone’s ever gotten away from them before.”
“Someone might have without us hearing about it,” Liz pointed out. “I mean, even when they were in town we didn’t find out there were seven of these guys. Makes me wonder why no one said anything before this, really.”
Shawn snorted. “They probably didn’t know yet. It doesn’t have to be a conspiracy or anything. They said the group hasn’t been around that long; it probably took some time to figure out how many there were, if they weren’t doing anything this public before.”
“That makes sense,” I chimed in. “I mean, if they were doing stuff like this they would have been on the news already. So they must have been quieter before.”
It wasn’t the only conversation of the sort I had. Things cooled down on campus pretty quickly, if only because we had proof Blitz had skipped town and people were busy with their normal lives, but even when the frenzy started to cool it didn’t subside completely.
I checked on superstuff.com and found that the site had server issues; a lot of people were registering and posting to the forums who hadn’t before, and the tone changed. I’d been strictly a reader, staying out of conversations, but I remembered just fine, and they had always been pretty polite. It was a small community, united in curiosity more than anything else. The site had drawn the sort of people who wondered just what supers could do, and wanted to know about them. Now there were a lot more arguments. Reading some of it, I started to feel a bit grim.
The first supers had appeared in 2000, but it seemed like the other shoe had finally dropped, eleven years later. The fact that the guy most responsible – Collector – wasn’t a super at all just seemed like the icing on the cake. I didn’t really expect a lot of people to believe me if I told them he was using magic, though, and I wasn’t sure that publicizing that fact would be a good thing either.
It wasn’t all bad, at least. I saw people point to the Philly Five, Heavyweight, and Menagerie as examples of good supers, and there were a few others too. That didn’t even count the people whose powers were public knowledge but who didn’t use them: a construction worker in Illinois who had super senses, or something like that, a girl in New Mexico who could move through the earth, and a boy in Europe who could make it rain or snow sometimes. There were others, too. I was surprised by how many, actually; I hadn’t heard of a lot of these people before. Part of that was the site’s expanded audience, which I realized included more people who weren’t from North America than ever before.
For some supers, discovering their powers was more of an inconvenience than anything else. I saw an interview with one man who complained that he wished he’d never told anyone he had telekinetic abilities – they weren’t major enough to be useful, but people were so curious that they bothered him all the time.
“You really wish you didn’t have this ability, Mr. Gallagher?” the interviewer asked him. He’d been professional, but his manner slipped when they got to this bit. He sounded pretty surprised.
“Absolutely,” the guy answered. “Look, I’m just about powerful enough to open a beer bottle. You know how useful that is? It’s not. It doesn’t help me do anything. I’m a software guy. I work on programming at a computer all day. Using my brain to type would be slower and less convenient than doing it the normal way, and I’d have a headache all the time to boot. The only thing about my life that’s changed is that now people ask me to move stuff with my mind as a party trick, and that’s the kind of attention I’d be just as happy not to have.”
“I suppose many of us had never considered it in that light,” the interviewer said diplomatically.
I wondered why he’d done the interview, if he didn’t want attention, but it didn’t really matter to me. The guy had a point, either way. His power might have been handy to someone else, but for the life he led it just didn’t matter that much.
Not every super was a powerhouse. Even for the ones who were, their power might not be particularly useful to them. People like Raquel, Comet, and I were exceptions among exceptions.
Saturday, I met Comet and Bloodhound.
“Thanks for coming,” I told them. We were standing on a rooftop near the park we’d used to meet up before. We could see in every direction, and the area wasn’t busy, so there was no reason to expect anyone else to be around.
“From your message, I understand it’s important,” Comet said. “What’s this about?”
I took a deep breath and hesitated for a second. If Feral was on the level, I was about to massively invade her privacy, and Raquel’s, for no good reason.
“We don’t have other options,” Leon reminded me. “Tell them.”
“It has to do with Menagerie and Feral,” I told them. “Leon – that’s my spirit – and I are a bit worried about the pair of them.”
Comet’s head tilted to one side. “You worried Collector will come after her or something?”
“No,” I said. “We’re not worried about anyone else finding them or hurting them. We’re worried about Feral herself. I don’t know how much you two know about spirits, and what I know has a lot of gaps in it, but I’m not sure their…relationship is like the one I have with Leon. I can kick him out if I ever want to. I’m not sure whether Menagerie can do the same thing to Feral. I’m afraid she might be a hostage in her own body.”
They were both silent for a second, so I continued.
“I’m not sure, and I’m not sure how to find out, either,” I told them. “I can’t ask them about it, for obvious reasons. And the only other people I know who might have so much as a clue are you guys.”
“Hmm,” Bloodhound muttered. “I’m afraid I’m not an expert on spirits.” He and Comet looked at each other. “There may be someone else I can contact for help,” he said reluctantly. “It might take some time for them to get back to me.”
Comet looked at me. “What exactly is it you want to do?”
I sighed. “I just don’t know. I want to find some way to make certain that Menagerie is in control of her own body, but the how is…I don’t even know where to start on it. I’ve been trying to arrange this conversation for days, but every time I was in the same place as you she was around too, or else we were in the middle of fighting. Given that Feral’s proven herself to be one of the good guys, I decided to wait until we dealt with Blitz, and it seems like we have, at least for now.”
“All right,” Comet said. “Bloodhound will talk to his friends, and we’ll get in touch again when we know more. Just so we’re clear though; do you have concrete reasons to suspect anything?”
“Not exactly,” I said. “Menagerie told me about a time that Feral took over, but it was only for a few seconds, assuming the story was accurate. She gave control back right away. I also know that Feral took over briefly when you helped heal her arm the other day, but she said that was for pain management, and I didn’t want to act suspicious by asking outright, just in case I have a reason to be paranoid.”
Comet just nodded. “We’ll hurry, just in case. In the meantime, act normal for now, and see if you can pick up anything from the two of them without giving it away. Don’t pry; just pay attention. Got it?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Got it.” I looked at Bloodhound. “One other thing, though. I think it might be best if we didn’t learn how to hide from other spirits until after this is resolved. That’s why I was pushy about meeting the two of you as soon as possible. I think Feral’s one of the good guys, but if I’m wrong about her and she’s not, well, I don’t want her knowing how to disappear. She could go to another continent and stay gone for the rest of Menagerie’s life. The world’s more than big enough for one person to hide in.”
“I’ll make sure neither of you learns too quickly, then,” Bloodhound said. “That shouldn’t be a problem.”
Step one complete. I felt a lot better after talking to the two of them.
I’d insisted on having the meeting on the early side, because Bloodhound was teaching Menagerie and I that same day. I was grateful for the masks we all wore when she arrived, since they made it easier for me to act normal, but I needed the help. When Menagerie rode up on Feral’s back, I could feel my heart speeding up, and I had a powerful desire to watch the two of them as closely as possible. At the same time, the guilty part of me wanted to look away from them as much as possible, even though I knew my concerns were a simple matter of not having information. It wasn’t like I knew Feral extremely well and had betrayed some years-long trust and friendship. I’d known them both for days. But even the fact that my concern for Raquel was motivating me didn’t make it easy to act normal around the two of them.
“Relax,” Leon said. “They haven’t known us long enough to know whether we’re acting normally or not, either. They can’t see our faces, they don’t have telepathy or empathy or heightened senses or anything, and we’re all going to be busy paying attention to Bloodhound. I’ll handle Feral and make sure she doesn’t get suspicious. You just keep one eye on Raquel, and we’ll figure this out.”
Bloodhound didn’t waste any time once we were all there, and I was glad. I wasn’t feeling up to making small talk.
“All right,” he said. “Let’s get this show on the road. The first thing to tell you is this: I’m not sure what all the rules of magic are. I’m not even sure if there are consistent rules for everyone. You’re going to learn what I know, but you’ll have to figure out what works for you and go from there, because this is definitely more of an art than a science, at least for now.”
“No consistent rules?” Menagerie asked. “Really?”
“Not ones that are easy to articulate,” Bloodhound answered. “Keep in mind that I’ve only been at this for so long. It might be that we’ll have the universe dancing to our tune in a couple of generations, but it took time to go from controlling fire to smelting steel.” He paused for a second and then spoke more thoughtfully. “I’ll grant you that I’ve been a bit busy with other things, too,” he said. “If you really dig into magic, you may learn stuff I haven’t. If you do, I hope you’ll share. But things seem to work differently for different people. I had another student once who tried to learn how I heal, and she just couldn’t get the hang of it, even practicing regularly for months.”
“The more you talk, the less confident I am that this is a good way to spend my time,” Menagerie said. “Can we quit beating around the bush already?”
Bloodhound laughed. “Fine. You’ll both need to learn to perceive magic, but the human body doesn’t have the senses for it. That means you’re going to have to temporarily give up one of your normal senses,” he said. “Have you ever heard of synesthesia?”
“No,” Menagerie admitted.
“Yeah,” I said. “It means something about…mixed-up senses? Something like that. Hearing sights.”
“Not exactly, but close enough,” Bloodhound said. “I’m going to try to help you both see magic. It’s going to feel weird as hell, and you may not be able to see normally while it’s happening. I can reverse it in a second if I need to, and even if I don’t it should wear off on its own. What you need to do – and this goes for your spirits too – is let me.”
“Both at once?” I asked.
He shook his head. “No, one at a time.” He looked at us. “Ladies first?”
“Sure,” Menagerie said. She sounded nervous and excited, which was about how I felt.
“Okay,” Bloodhound said. “Sit down for this. Stay still, don’t move, and just look around. Like I said, it’ll be weird, so try not to panic.”
She sat and Bloodhound walked over to her.
“Leon, you said you could perceive it when he did something before, right? Watch close and tell me what you can. Actually, show me if you can.”
“No problem,” he answered absently. Leon sounded as interested as I was in this.
I knew he was doing as I’d asked almost immediately, because my perception changed. I was looking at Bloodhound bending over to touch Menagerie’s eyes, and at the same time I knew that Leon was watching, but his view was different. Leon got better use and more enjoyment from my senses when I let him take over my body temporarily, but he could still tell what I was hearing or looking at most of the time. It was just less sharp, less immediate somehow. Now I was simultaneously looking through my eyes, which felt normal, and seeing what he saw. In his view, Menagerie and Feral were a blurred-together jumble of impressions. Even though I was looking, I knew that what he used to see them wasn’t truly vision. I didn’t have another word for it, but I decided we’d need one.
He could also “see” Bloodhound, who looked mostly normal, and the trickle of power flowing from his hands into Menagerie’s eyes. It looked a bit creepy, really. Nothing bad seemed to happen, and then he drew his hands away.
She stiffened abruptly, sitting up straight as she looked at Bloodhound and then turned to look at me and Leon.
“Um,” she said hesitantly. “Uh, I think it pretty much looks the same as what Feral can show me already.”
“Really?” Bloodhound said. “That’s interesting.” He tapped a finger on his leg for a few moments in thought. “I’m not going to undo it right away. I want to try a couple things so you can confirm that what Feral sees and what you see are the same. Can she show you her vision whenever you want?”
“Yeah, she can,” Menagerie said. “Well, maybe not when she’s in her own form. We should check just to be sure.”
She turned her head to her left, and Feral’s cat shape took form right next to her. It looked like Feral, who Leon could see overlapping Menagerie, was squeezed out of one body and into the other shape, like squeezing toothpaste from one tube into another. Except that the stuff that made the cat-body was also Feral…as if she were expanding into the shape and hardening.
It only took a moment for her to go from formless mass inhabiting Menagerie to cat. She stretched and preened for a moment, as if checking her body for mistakes.
“Look there,” Leon said, indicating the area between the two of them. Through his “vision”, I could perceive something like a string tying Feral and Menagerie together. It looked tense and stretched, like bungee cord or a rubber band, and I immediately understood that the way it looked was symbolic. There wasn’t a literal cord, but if anything happened to Feral the connection between the two of them would snap her back into Menagerie. That was why she could simply abandon her cat-body and let Menagerie reform it next to her again at any time. Without that tie, losing her body would leave Feral adrift.
Leon and I had discussed what would happen if I ever ejected him, and he’d said he wasn’t sure. I believed him. He might be free to go, but now that I knew he remembered almost nothing before meeting me, I understood his reluctance to try it better. If he needed somewhere to live and had no connection he might just go nowhere. Oblivion, without even leaving behind a corpse.
It suddenly occurred to me that there was another side to my fears about Feral; if a spirit bonded to someone and thought being kicked out would kill it, just how wrong would it be to prevent the host from doing so? If being ejected from a body was death, then kicking the spirit out was a form of murder. At the same time, the only way to find out for sure was to test it. Still, as far as I was concerned, the original owner of a body had the right to it, not any passenger.
The cynical part of me noted that that point of view seemed simultaneously reasonable and extremely self-serving.
Bloodhound had said that his father learned from a spirit, but wasn’t like me or Raquel. I’d have to ask him about that after all, and hope he wasn’t feeling too secretive.
I absently watched as Bloodhound tried a few simple tricks to see how Feral and Menagerie saw them.
“It looks like she can’t show me what she sees when we’re separated,” Menagerie said. “But let me try something else.”
She closed her eyes and asked Bloodhound to repeat his tests; he did, and she let out a pleased little exclamation. She sounded a bit smug, actually.
“Yeah,” she said. “When I look through my eyes without Feral’s help, I don’t see anything. When I look through her eyes, though, I can see it. And if I learn what you did, I guess I can see that way without her, so we could watch two different directions at once.”
“It looks like I’ve got magic-o-vision too, courtesy of Leon,” I said. I cocked my head to one side. “You said you’ve met someone like us before, right? I guess they missed out on this little perk?”
“Hmm,” he mumbled a bit absently. “I’m not sure, actually. I think they just can’t use it because of the spirits’…”
I waited for him to finish the thought, but he didn’t. After a couple seconds, he seemed to remember what we were doing.
“Sorry about that,” Bloodhound finally said. “Well if your spirits, Feral and – Leon you said, right? If they can help you see without having to give up normal eyesight or something else while you do it, I’m frankly jealous.” He looked at Menagerie. “I’m going to cancel what I did. We can work on it later, if you want to be able to see that without Feral’s help.” He looked over at me. “Your spirit doesn’t separate from you, right?”
“Right,” I said. “Leon stays in here.”
He nodded. “All right. Then I’m not sure if learning this would help you at all. I figured out a way to substitute another sense for eyesight, so I can walk and do magic at the same time, but it took me months. I wasn’t sure if it would work for you, but it looks like you may not even need to learn this. In that case, let’s get to step two: power.”
That made sense. Leon was literally always around, and I didn’t mind skipping a step if he thought I could.
“From what I can tell, some people generate their own magic,” Bloodhound said. “It’s slow, it’s limited, and it’s got an upper limit. On the bright side, it’s a continuous process. The capacitor might run out, but the generator never does, as far as I know. Other people don’t have an internal battery, as it were. They can’t do anything unless they find, beg, borrow, or steal some juice to get things going. I’m not sure what the story will be for you two. Spirits seem to have some energy of their own, but I’m pretty sure drawing on that too heavily can starve them to death, so all four of you should be careful. If a normal person overdraws, I’m not sure what happens, but I think it might knock them out, burn out their battery, or even kill them. I haven’t been really eager to test that.”
“How do you figure out how much you have to work with?” I asked.
“Trial and error’s the only way I know,” Bloodhound said. “Some things seem to take more energy than others, but figuring it all out is hard. When I fixed your arm,” he waved a hand at Menagerie, “it didn’t take too much juice, because I was working with materials that were already there, but it was a little harder than it would have been on someone normal, I think. People who can use magic seem to resist it automatically, at least a little. You should be able to learn to control that, but it’s like a reflex; it can be overcome, but not easily.” He waved a hand dismissively. “I’m getting ahead, though. For you two, you’re going to have to make sure that you only draw on your own power to do anything, unless your spirit friends are okay with donating to the cause. I’ve never taught someone like either of you, so this is uncharted territory. The fact that they can share what they see so easily might mean that they’re tied into your magic, for all I know.”
I thought for a moment. “I can’t speak for you two, but I know Leon can get tired. If we use our powers enough, like the other day, he eventually needs a break to recharge. I’m not sure if he can feel tired without me feeling tired, but it might be worth testing. I assume that using up your voodoo makes you feel fatigue, right?”
“It does, though it’s a different sensation from physical or mental fatigue,” Bloodhound said. “It’s hard to pick out without practice, because usually you’ll feel the other two at the same time, and I think we’re just not wired to use magic naturally. So the next step in teaching you two is going to be cautiously trying to find your limits.” He sounded like he was smiling. “For lab rat purposes, I’m going to teach you one thing that shouldn’t be dangerous first.”
He held up his right hand cupped, and exhaled. A small speck of white light appeared in his palm, as if he had a light bulb embedded in the flesh.
“This was one of the first things I ever learned,” he told us. “It came in very handy during the last power outage I experienced, but mainly it’s useful because it’s just about the safest thing I ever learned. There’s nothing fancy to it. You just make a tiny point of light, and if you screw up nothing should happen. If it goes well, you might just barely feel the drain, but you probably won’t be able to notice it at this stage.”
I looked at his hand, interested, and wondered whether I might be able to do anything interesting using that with my power to hide myself. If it did involve bending light as I suspected, and I could learn to make light, there might be some interesting possibilities.
“It’s hard to explain anything relating to magic,” Bloodhound mused aloud. “Just like we don’t have the natural eyes, we don’t exactly have the right vocabulary, I think. Leon and Feral can help you see what I’m doing, but the hard part is learning to do it yourselves. It’s like trying to use muscles you’ve never needed.”
He looked at the two of us in turn, looking at ease as he held the tiny speck of light. It wasn’t that bright; maybe more like an LED than a lamp’s light bulb, really, but it was clear enough to see, especially when he turned his hand over. The little light was bright enough to visibly change the shadows in our corner of the little park.
“One person I know said it was like trying to push your brain out through your hand,” he said. “My father told me I needed to will the light into existence and focus on my hand. As you might guess, I found that pretty unhelpful when I was learning. I felt like he was asking me to fly without giving me a parachute, let alone wings.”
Menagerie and I laughed a bit at that.
Bloodhound sighed. “This is the trickiest bit, in a way. Magic…it feels different for different people. For me, concentrating on it is like looking through a microscope, focusing down to see lots of tiny things. Once I do that, I can actually make stuff happen. Someone else I know says that just touching magic feels relaxing like a warm bath. Another person told me it felt like putting her hand into a fire and feeling the heat without the pain.”
He looked us over again. “That’s all pretty unhelpful, I imagine,” he said. “Actually, I don’t have to imagine. It never helped me a damn bit. What I want you both to do, for now, is try to focus on the light itself. Cupping it in your hands can make it easier to concentrate. I made this little spot from my own power, and that’s generally the best way to get started, since the whole point of this is to learn what it feels like for you. There really isn’t any better way to explain it, though. Have your spirit buddies show you what they see, and try to copy what I did.”
By this point in the day, the sun was nearly down. It hadn’t been when we started, but we’d been there for a while.
I cupped my hands, frowning, and let Leon show me what he saw. I tried to feel for some power within myself, to see if there was anything there.
“I think I can show you how,” Leon said. “May I?”
I let Leon take the driver’s seat, becoming a passenger behind my own eyes. He seemed to reach into nowhere, finding something inside me that wasn’t physically there, and I realized that he knew what he was doing; this was sort of how it felt to use the powers I’d gotten from him.
Leon cupped our hands, and a white light formed there.
Feral and Menagerie were watching us, as was Bloodhound. Leon held the light for a few seconds, and then it slipped away; I felt myself violently yanked back into control of my body and I yelled in surprise as I stumbled forward.
In the back of my head, Leon was screaming.
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