Claire was learning how to chop wood with her father when he arrived. There was a bit of a gust of wind that alerted her, something about it whispering "danger." When she looked towards the road, she saw him, a boy not much older than her, fairly tall, with short, black hair, and a gaunt frame. The clothes he was wearing didn't fit him, hanging loosely, covered with holes. He might as well have not been wearing the faded t-shirt and jeans. Her father hadn't noticed him yet, so she nudged him.
"Dad." she said.
"Over on the road. There's a boy. He looks homeless."
Her father looked over at the boy, who was slowly walking up the driveway towards the cabin they'd been renting for the weekend. As they watched him, he unlocked the gate, opened it, then locked it again. Her father began closing the distance between him and the boy, setting the maul down next to the stump they'd been using for a base. Claire followed. Once they'd reached the boy, her father held out his hand to shake.
"Hello, there. My name's Chase Williams."
The boy stopped, but instead of shaking his hand, he simply stared at it, wobbling. Then her father put his hand on the boy's shoulder, steadying him.
"Are you all right?"
With a exhalation that sounded something like, "No", the boy slumped against him and went limp. Her dad caught him before he hit the ground, then lifted him in his arms.
"Claire, why don't you go in and tell your mother that we have a guest, all right?"
A few hours later, after they'd gotten the boy inside and put him in the extra bed, the boy began to stir a bit. Claire's father, who'd been watching him from the table next to the window, began brewing some tea. He mixed together a few different herbs from a satchel that he always carried with him, then pulled a chair over to the boy, and put a hand on his forehead.
"You all right there, son?"
The boy's eyelids flickered weakly, then he muttered weakly, "Not. son." Her dad took this calmly, and asked him if he'd like some tea. The boy nodded, and said, "Thanks."
After he'd drunk a bit of tea, the boy sat up a bit.
"Please, don't t- tell anyone I'm here."
"And why's that? Are you on the run from the law, or something? There's usually a good reason for people to be searching for other people."
"I'm feiknstaft. Cursed. They want to kill me. Please, keep me hidden."
"You're-." Her father stopped, looking at her.
"Claire, why don't you go bring some wood to the back porch, please?"
She could tell that he was hiding something, but he didn't know what. She decided to go out the door, then close it and listen. By the time she was in position, they'd begun talking again.
"You're the boy they're looking for, aren't you?"
"Please don't tell them I'm here." The boy's voice seemed as if he wanted to plead, but was just too tired.
"Well, they tried to hire me a while back to take you out, but I was going on vacation, so I said no. I suppose since I haven't killed you yet, I might as well hear your story. Before that, though, where's your book?"
"They burned it. I don't need it anymore, anyway."
Then her dad raised his voice, and called her back inside. "Claire, the boy's going to tell us his story. Parts of it aren't going to make a whole lot of sense, but I'm going to need you to be quiet until he's done, okay?"
Claire came back inside, sat down, and the boy began his story.
Hi, my name’s William Geer.
This is where my story begins.
I had prepping to go to summer camp ever since school had ended. It was this amazing sounding camp, with tons of different activities. As I was waiting near the bus to take us to the camp, my friend, Sofia Brunetti, shows up. She’s about my age, with silvery, wavy cream colored hair that she refuses to let down, except when she’s at home, and glittering green eyes. She’s fairly tall, about my height, maybe a little shorter. She always seems underfed, even though she eats more than all of the girls, and many of the boys.
“How are you doing?”
“Not bad, just waiting.”
“Figures. Adults are always late.”
“They’re actually still technically on time. They’re not due to arrive for another 5 minutes.”
“Oh, and they’re going to get everyone loaded and packed in the timescale they’ve got? Gimme a break.”
“Hey, you never know. They might.”
She rolled her eyes and grinned. “Whatever.”
We sat there for a few minutes, chatting idly, when a bus came around the corner. I didn’t notice at first, but then Sofia gaped openly at something behind me, so I turned around. The bus wasn’t like any other bus I’d ever seen. It was built like a regular school bus, but it looked as it had literally fallen to pieces several times and had been put back together with someone who enjoyed adding their own ideas to designs. The side panels all had interlocking sides, the windshield had a whole bunch of gadgets attached to the front, there was a radar dish on top, and what looked like solar panels as well. Neither of us had any idea what to make of it. It rolled smoothly to a stop, and a pair of twenty year olds stepped out, with a third staying just inside the bus.
One of them, a woman with light skin and red hair, looked at all of us, and spoke up.
“You’re all here for camp?”
We all nodded mutely, still a bit stunned.
She turned her head and nodded to the man still inside the bus. He pushed a button, and the side panels came up, and treadmills slid out from the bottom.
“Everyone put any suitcases on the treadmills, bring anything you want for the trip to camp up with you. And don’t dawdle. I don’t want to waste any time. Okay?”
Mumbled okays from everyone.
We all dragged our luggage to the treadmills, which brought into the bus, where they were grabbed by robotic arms that extended from the ceiling. At one point a pair of robotic arms seem to refuse to get to work. The woman glared at it, gave the bus a kick, and the arms got back to work. All of the luggage was in the bus only a few minutes after we’d been told to put it there.
After everyone got on the bus, including the adults, the woman stood at the front of the bus, her legs spread out, hands on her hips.
“All right. Now that we’re on the bus, it’s time for introductions. I’m Noma Emportane, councilor in charge of you guys. If you have a question you need to ask come to me first. If I’m not available, that’s where these two useless lumps come in.” She pointed at one of the two men. He was rather tired-looking, with brown eyes, dark skin, and black hair. “This is Chucky Bonner. He’s the driver and so-called ‘mechanic’. This does not mean you come to him when your phone has broken, or when you stupidly set off the mines someone planted in your bed. He is in charge of fixing important things, and is a last resort. The last member of our joyful trio is Jack Elder. If you think something’s trying to kill you, come to him.”
She studied us all, gauging our expressions.
“We good? Awesome.”
When we arrived at the camp, a few hours later, Noma nodded to Bonner, then walked outside, gesturing for us to follow her. After we had gotten out of the bus, and had all of our luggage with us, she began walking towards one of the cabins. When I say cabins, you might get the wrong idea. They weren’t really cabins, they were more like motels, but they had a cabin esque style to them. When she reached one, she turned around and looked at us expectantly. All thirty of us rushed over as fast as we could, trying not to trip over our suitcases. Once we were at the porch, she glowered at us for a moment, then smiled.
“All right. You munchkins are all three to a room. If there’s any problems, come to me. If there’s anything you need dead, deal with it yourself. I suggest finding your room first, then bringing your luggage. I’ll be waiting here.”
As I wandered around the motel looking for my room, I noticed a group of kids heading to one of the other buildings. There weren’t nearly as many of them, only about twenty, and they were all much older. I nudged Sofia.
“Hey, I wonder why there’s so few of those kids.”
She turned, trying to figure out where I was pointing. “Where?"
"Over by that building, to your right." I pointed at them.
"Oh, yeah. huh. Maybe it becomes competitive or something later on?"
The next day, after breakfast, we were brought over to a new building. "Welcome to the meditation building." Noma said, grinning. "Yes, I know you're all thinking 'Meditation? This is summer camp!' Trust me. Some of you are going to love this."
After we'd gotten inside, I noticed that the building was built in a very peculiar way. Instead of a few common spaces, like you'd usually see in a building, it was a long corridor, lined on both sides with doors at even intervals. "All right," Noma said, "Each of you choose a room. Don't fight over them, they're all the same. Just pick one at random, and remember to take your shoes off first. I'll be visiting each of you one at a time, get you working." We all scrambled to obey. Even though we'd only been around her for less than a day, she already had us doing exactly what she told us to do.
Once I'd found a room, I sat down on some of the cushions that were scattered around the room, kneading the thick carpet with my fingers. I sat there for a bit, then decided to lie down in the middle of the room, in a star shape. As I began to close my eyes, I noticed lights flashing around my vision like dragonflies. I got up to look at them more closely, and they disappeared. I figured they were optical illusions, or something, so I lay back down on the floor. The lights came back. This time I didn't bother getting up, I just watched them whirl around. After a while, I noticed that they seemed to be mimicking certain shapes that happened to be passing through my mind. I tried thinking up different shapes, to see if the lights would change. At first, they went their own way, but as I began to relax again, they started mimicking my thoughts. Shifting from one form to another almost before I thought of them. I wasn't really controlling them, though. My mind was wandering, and the lights were following it. I tried making a flower, and the lights fled, going into complete disarray.
"You know, you're taking it surprisingly well. When it first happened to me, I went from screaming, to whooping, to crying in about five seconds."
I turned around. Noma had managed to open the door without me noticing, and was leaning against the doorframe, her grinning as ever, but unusually, it didn't reach her eyes.
"Come with me."
She glared at me.
"All right, I'll come."
We left the room, but instead of going through the front door, we went through a door I hadn't noticed before, at the other end of the building, where Jack was waiting. I hadn't seen him since the bus ride. He looked at both of us, his hands blurring in a strange motion, then stopped halfway through.
"Hey, Jack, could you show him the introduction seminar?"
"What, by himself? Why not wait for a few more of them?"
"Sure. We'll have him wait out here while the rest of them take an hour or more, and most of them fail miserably. It's been ten minutes. I'm pretty sure he's an anomaly."
"And if he's not?"
"Then A: This is the most prodigious group either of us has ever found, and B: I'll keep them in line until you get back."
"You're not authorized to do that, you know."
"Jack. Come on. What's going to happen? We're in the middle of nowhere, and there hasn't been a problem in almost fifty years."
At this I finally piped up. "What was the problem?"
Noma looked at me. "Never you mind. Follow Jack. He'll get you set up."
Jack began walking away. After he made sure I was following him, he began to veer towards the woods slightly, away from the camp.
"Where are we going?"
He ignored me.
"Nothing? I don't even merit a response?"
He kept walking, slightly faster now. Taking the hint, I stopped talking and just followed him. We walked deep into the woods, to a point where the trees blocked almost all the light. Eventually, we came to a little cabin, hidden in the ground between two trees. It almost looked as if it had grown there. He opened the door and looked at me, still refusing to speak.
"You want me to go inside?"
He nodded once.
As I entered the cabin, I noticed that it was set up as a movie theater. I heard Jack move in behind and begin fiddling with a projector. After a few moments of fiddling, and a few choice curse words, he got it working. He dropped into the chair next to me, and crossed his legs. "Sit down." he said, "The cushions are nice, and this might be a bit of a shock to your system."
I followed his advice, and the movie began. It started out as what seemed like a standard "Welcome to summer camp" type movie, but within a few minutes it started to get really weird. First of all, the screen started to grow, moving towards the sides of the theater, as did the video playing on it. At first I didn't really notice, just thought my eyes were playing tricks on me, but as the video progressed, I began to freak out a little bit.
"Are you seeing this?"
"What, the video? Of course."
"But it's moving."
At this he looked over at me, and with what almost looked like a grin, he said, "Enjoy it, kid."
Then he leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.
The video began to leave the screen even more, encircling me, making a new landscape around me. I was standing on a black disk, with stars around me, circling. As I looked around, I noticed another person approaching me. They were clothed all in black, with a deep hood, so I couldn't see their face.
"Hello? Who are you?"
The figure was silent. Finally, in a voice that I couldn't help but remember, they said, "You really shouldn't ask that. It's considered impolite. Probably will get you into trouble one day."
She ignored the question, instead opening one side of her cloak to pull out a book, also in black, with white sigils on it. She held it in front of her in an oddly ceremonial way, her gloves receding back into the sleeves of her coat, revealing hands that once had been lightly tanned, but were now the palest white from lack of sunlight. I reached out and took it cautiously, trying to figure out what was going on.
"You're a wizard, Will. Yes, I know this sounds ridiculous and stuff, but trust me, it's not like that. Wizards are just people who are resistant to magic. You can use it without it destroying you."
"What's with the whole space thing, then? I'm pretty sure I didn't make this."
"You did and you didn't. The video created the room, but you changed the video into what this is now. I also fiddled with it slightly, because I needed to give the book to you."
"What is this book, anyway?"
She began to fade away. "That book is the key to learning your magic, but if you're caught with it, they will kill you."
"What? What do you mean?"
"Exactly what I said." She was practically invisible now.
"Thanks for the gift, then, I guess."
She was gone by the time I had finished speaking. As the video faded away again, I saw Jack waiting for me, leaning against the wall.
"So? What did you see?"
"I was in space, I think. I was on this black disc, or something, and there were stars all around me."
Jack nodded, "Yeah, that would make sense. Congrats, you're a wizard, Harry."
He shrugged. "I'm supposed to be a somber, mute bodyguard all the time. Even I have to loosen up every once in a while, though."
"Oh. So, what do we do now?"
"Huh? Oh, right. Follow me."
He walked towards the now empty screen of the theater, then stepped one leg through the screen, then the other. I couldn't see the bottom of his legs, as if he had just stepped through a window. He began walking away, obviously expecting me to follow him. As I stepped through the screen, I found myself in front of the cabin again, with Jack.
"What was that for?"
"This is like a waiting room. Keeps you safe until someone can come and get you. I'll be back with any other kids that make it in a while."
"You're leaving me here?"
"It's a perfectly safe artificial construct. It only looks like the woods. There's no animals, and it won't get cold at night. Now, please excuse me. I've got to make sure Noma hasn't accidentally killed your friends."
Then he turned around and walked through a tree, disappearing completely.
I waited there for a while, wondering when he would come back. Thinking back to the video/dream thing I'd seen, I decided to take out the book and read it. Like I'd noticed before, it was all in black, except for some white writing on the front. I opened it up, wondering what was inside. The first page was blank, except for some text at the bottom saying, "Place hand above text." I placed my hand there, and waited for something to happen. It didn't take long. The words began to leak ink, quickly losing their form, and slowly turning the page black. I tried to pull my hand away, but it was stuck. Finally, after the entire page had turned black, I finally was able to pull my hand away. My handprint stayed there, though, along with a thin layer of my skin. A negative began to form where the words had originally been. "Contract in place. Please turn to next page."
Contract? What does that mean?
I turned to the next page, my mind burning with questions, my hand still hurting. Alexis' face was there.
"Um, hi? Why are you in the book now?"
"I'm not actually in the book. I'm dead, as I'm sure you know. This is just a representation of me."
"Okay, whatever. What was the hand/contract thing about?"
"That was the contract you signed to gain access to the book."
"What do you mean? I didn't sign a contract."
"Your subconscious did. To be fair, you got the better part of the deal."
"And I'm supposed to take your word on this?"
"The book is incapable of lying. Omission is possible, but if the book tells you something, it's true. Also, now that you've completed the contract, it's required to follow any orders you give it, if it is capable of doing so. Be wary of that."
"What was the contract?"
Alexis looked at me seriously. "You sold your soul to protect the one you love."
"Who? And how is that a good deal?"
"You know who."
Her face faded into the parchment, gone after a few moments. I stared at the book long after she'd left, trying to figure out who she was talking about. Eventually, I packed up the book, remembering her warning about keeping it hidden and safe. A while later, Jack came back through the tree with a few other kids. I recognized Sofia among them. Jack gathered us all up, and began to walk towards one of the mountains overlooking the camp. We followed him. A few hours of walking later, we arrived at a gatehouse, easily ten feet tall, maybe even fifteen, and covered in what seemed to be autonomous turrets. Jack gestured for us to stay put, then slowly walked forward with his hands open, above his head, palms out. Two of the turrets swiveled to keep pointing at him, the rest stayed locked on us. He slowly began to rotate his hands, filaments of lights stretching between them. The turrets began to whir slowly, but didn't fire. After about a minute of him weaving this pattern of light in the air, he let his hands slowly drop to the ground. The gate slowly opened, and as the turrets moved away from us to survey the rest of the forest, he gestured for us to follow him inside.
The base was built into the mountain, with trees planted in such a way that it would be almost impossible to see by anything other than a very low flying helicopter or plane. As Jack led us inside the mountain, I realized just how big the entire place was. The ceiling stretched far above us, far higher than seemed physically possible, the entirety of it decorated intricately with all sorts of medieval looking characters, wizards, witches, knights, archers, anything you could think of, it was there. Jack continued forward, ignoring them all, instead focusing his attention on a small man in a chair in the corner of the hall. As we approached, the man slowly stood up.
"So, you're the new recruits?"
We all looked around at each other in slight confusion. "What do you mean, recruits? Isn't this a school?"
"Mostly. It's a bit like a military school, actually. You've been accepted into a nationally acclaimed high school, where you will spend the next four years officially learning all sorts of useless things to prepare you for college, but in reality, you will be learning magic. And, if you want, all those useless things to prepare you for college."
We all looked at each other. This wasn't going as expected. I tried for a bit of normalcy.
"Um, who are you?"
"That would be telling, wouldn't it? I'm your chief instructor, of course. Head honcho, whatever. I'm the one who's in charge of making you learn things. Not that you need it, mind you. You're liable to accidentally kill yourself no matter how hard I try, but that's all right, all right. There's more of you each year, and some of you always make it through, 'cept for that time a few years ago, that was nasty. But yes, I'm sure you'll all be fine. Follow me. Let's get you to your rooms."
"What about our stuff?"
"Didn't I tell you? This is a military school, whatever. We supply everything for you. We'll need to do that first, then, won't we? Hmm. Yes, we will. Follow me. Let's get you some things."
He then began trotting off into the mountain, with us following hastily behind him, trying not to get lost.