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Chapter 1

MYSTERY SPOT

Two months later and 8900 kilometers away, a 13 year-old boy looked glumly out of his father’s car window. In the distance ahead sat a great city where none should be. It was bordered on all sides by low, jagged mountains. The ground beneath it was dry, hard-packed sand, terrible for growing plants or retaining water. The temperature of the area was known to fluctuate wildly, between triple-digit daytime heat and bone-chilling nighttime cold. The air was so dusty, it discouraged breathing.

And yet, the young man had been told, over two million people lived there. It was a bustling hub of activity, with aeroplanes coming and going at all hours of the day, automobiles of every shape and size clogging the main avenues, and huge, tacky buildings soaring into the skyline.

Why, thought the young man, would any sane person choose such an unlikable spot to found a city? What compelled those who worked there to spend the vast resources required to keep such a place running? Why would anyone live in such an isolated, awful, desert location?

He did not know it, but the answer to all his questions was the same: magic. The land beneath the city, the rocks, the trees, even the surrounding air – all functioned as a focal point for magical energy.

What, you may ask, is magical energy? Simply put, it is the stuff that makes magic possible. Just as breathing requires oxygen and swimming requires water, sorcery requires magical energy. Think of it as a great, invisible ocean which cloaks the entire planet. This ocean is unseen and unfelt by most ordinary people, except as an unconscious pull, a tidal ebb and flow which most dismiss as ‘moods’ or ‘bad shellfish’. But to those who are aware of it, it is an endless pool of possibilities.

[THE CODEX ARCANUM: There are places all over the world which act as focal points for magical energy. The Giza Necropolis of Egypt, the temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and the city of Macchu Picchu in Peru are but a few. In these locations, any spells cast will be greatly amplified. The ancients recognized this, but instead of keeping such knowledge secret, they built massive structures on the sites, which was rather like putting a sign reading “Free Treasure Inside!” on the front of one’s house. It’s no wonder they are all ruins today.]

Back to our city. Despite the boy’s misgivings, the place was clearly flourishing. Every year it drew millions of visitors. The best of everything was shipped there from all over the world. The buildings were in a constant cycle of destruction and renewal. Every day in that place, fortunes were made and squandered, lives were transformed, and people faced the worst of their inner demons. It was a quintessentially American town.

Have you guessed its name yet? No?

The city was Las Vegas, and it was to be Owen Macready’s new home.

MUCH ADO ABOUT OWEN

Owen was a skinny, unassuming boy of just over 13 years. He was, in almost every respect, quite average. He had average brown hair, average brown eyes, and an average weight for his frame. He wore average clothes, had average hobbies, and was possessed of an average personality. And that was all fine by him.

[A WOODCUT-STYLE ILLUSTRATION OF OWEN]

You see, Owen had learned in his 13 years that being ordinary was far better than being extraordinary. Extraordinary people might go on adventures, or date the most attractive girls, or play professional athletics, but doing those things also took large amounts of talent, bravery, and most annoyingly, effort. In every story he’d heard about successful people, at some point it was revealed how tough they’d had it. How many obstacles they had faced. Yet somehow, these heroes had found it within them to spite the odds and keep going. To Owen, that sounded like far too much work.

Instead, he was content to coast through life. He didn’t go the extra mile, didn’t work into the wee hours, and he absolutely never took a stand. As a result, he had a solid group of acquaintances. He received perfectly acceptable marks in school. And (most importantly to him) he had lots of time to play video games on his computer. His existence might be unremarkable, but it was stress-free.

Then his father announced they were moving to the desert.

THE WRONG GOODBYE

Three months earlier, Owen’s parents had separated. His mother, a former wild spirit who still listened to punk rock music and dyed her hair purple, had never been comfortable in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. It was too conservative, she said, too boring, too depressing, too square. Though she was a veterinarian, she often complained about how boring the animals she treated were. In the late-night arguments Owen’s parents thought he couldn’t hear, his father, a compact, balding man with a few too many pounds around his mid-section, said loudly that if she hated the city so much, she should leave.

[ENCHANTING DETAILS: Cleveland is actually a lovely city, filled with artistic venues, enjoyable nature spots, and some truly unique sights, such as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, any love for the city’s sports teams will result in nothing but heartbreak.]

It wasn’t just the city, Owen’s mother had replied. Owen was their only child, and now that he was grown, her life had stalled. She needed adventure, excitement, purpose. She needed to find out who she really was. Owen’s father shouted that she was welcome to go try, but it wouldn’t be with any of his money.

Both he and Owen were stunned when she took him up on the offer.

She packed a bag that very night. Owen, who had been playing video games during the screaming match, sat before the dim light of his bedroom computer, listening as his father apologized, then guilt-tripped, then pleaded with Eleanor Macready not to leave. The whole time, Owen’s mother said not a word.

Finally, at around 11:30, she entered her son’s room. “Owen honey,” she said. “Can I talk to you a minute?”

He shrugged, continuing to play his game. Eleanor sat on the bed with a sigh. “So … you might have heard, but I’m, uh – I’m going away. This doesn’t reflect on you in any way. I love you, but I need to be someone other than your mom for a while. There’s someone else inside me, someone who wants to make a difference in the world, and I need to find her. Do you understand?”

Owen shrugged again, keeping his eyes on the computer. Onscreen, a berserker Viking was laying waste to a horde of monsters. At this moment, the violence felt supremely satisfying to him. His mother laid a hand on his shoulder, but he pulled away. “Can you pause that for a minute so we can say good-bye?”

Perhaps had she not asked, he would have done so. He’d have hugged her tightly, told her to stay, begged her not to abandon her only son. At the very least, he could have said a proper farewell. Instead, he tapped his keyboard, annihilating a cluster of orcs.

Eleanor sat behind him for several minutes, staring at the back of her son’s head. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought he could hear her crying. Finally, Eleanor rose from the bed.

“Guess this is it, then,” she said, her voice breaking. “Good-bye.”

She kissed Owen on the crown of his head. Then she walked out of his bedroom and shut the door. It wasn’t until he heard her car pull away that he allowed himself to stop the game.

By then, of course, it was far too late.

[SORCERY FOR BEGINNERS: Perhaps you’re wondering why a how-to manual for magic would begin with such a maudlin episode. Well, for some reason, people with traumatic childhoods end up making pretty good sorcerers. I suppose if one’s happy, one has no need to unpack the mysteries of the universe. And if you missed out on a traumatic childhood, don’t fret. Disaster can strike at any moment.]

RUNNING ON EMPTINESS

Owen had always been closer to his mother than his father, who was a building engineer and often out of town. But more than that, Marcus Macready was a dour and humorless man, while his mother had been bubbly, warm, and smelled of sugar cookies. Owen and Eleanor had shared a love of movies, of good food, and of music. Owen and his father shared only the same limp hair and average brown eyes. Now they shared the emptiness that filled their home like a thick, damp fog.

Thanksgiving came and went with barely a notice. Christmas was little more than a blank square on the calendar. The day before New Year’s Eve, Owen received a postcard from his mother. She was in Africa, and by her account doing very hard but very fulfilling work with endangered species. She was happy, but she missed him. She promised to write more when things settled down.

Owen tore the postcard into tiny little pieces, and then he burned the pieces.

[SORCERY FOR BEGINNERS: Fire is a wonderful, non-magical way to destroy most things, be they enchanted or not.]

It was a week later that his father announced he’d accepted a job out of town.

Owen was not surprised. The emptiness had become an omnipresent thing in the house, filling every room they walked into, following them like a particularly lonely storm cloud. The furniture, the wallpaper, the knick knacks – all of it was a constant reminder that Eleanor was somewhere in the world, but somewhere else. And rather than stay with her son and her husband, she had chosen to leave.

What did surprise the boy was the location of their new home.

“Las Vegas?” Owen said, not bothering to keep the distaste from his voice. “Why?”

“Lots of construction in Vegas,” his father said as he chewed his microwave dinner. “Lots of job opportunities. They just built a new school there that’s supposed to be top notch. It’ll be a fresh start for us, bud. A chance to break out of this … funk.”

He hadn’t asked Owen’s opinion, hadn’t given him a choice in the matter. He’d simply decided they were moving to the desert. Vegas was cool, he said. Vegas was exciting. Vegas would make them forget Rocky River, Ohio.

Except it didn’t. Now that Owen was looking upon their new home for the first time, a metropolis in the middle of nowhere, he was struck by a crushing loneliness. All those people and houses and brightly-lit casinos in that brutal, isolated landscape – to him, it smacked of desperation. It was as if they’d built the whole place on a massive griddle, and everyone who lived there was ignoring the increasing heat.

Owen and his father moved into a brand-new house in a cookie-cutter neighborhood south of the Strip. The suburb was called Henderson, and it was right on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Their home was so similar to every other one on the block that Owen had to write his address on his backpack so he wouldn’t walk into the wrong one.

His father, because he was new, was assigned the swing shift at work. He’d be out of the house from noon until two in the morning. Owen and Marcus would barely see each other, and that was how they preferred it.

SPRING’S FORWARD

The first day at his new middle school, Owen was given a note card with his assigned locker number written on it. It wasn’t until he was far away from the office that he realized the number had been scrawled so hastily, it was nearly illegible. He stopped in the hallway, debating if he should turn back or attempt to puzzle it out on his own.

“Ahoy there! New guy. Yes, you.”

[MAGIC DEFINED: Ahoy (n.) – An old-fashioned greeting used primarily by sailors. And if that seems odd, I would suggest you take a closer look at some of the gibberish people use whilst text-messaging.]

Owen turned. A tiny, brown-skinned girl of 12 sat at a card table, her thick, curly hair pulled back into a ponytail. Her warm brown eyes were framed behind funky purple glasses. When she spoke, he glimpsed a mouthful of braces. She stood, revealing a quirky, patchwork skirt beneath her purple polo. Owen would not know it until later, but her full name was Perry Spring.

[A WOODCUT-STYLE ILLUSTRATION OF PERRY SPRING]

“You look lost,” she said, walking over to him.

“No, I’m just trying to find my locker.” He showed her the slip of paper from the principal’s office.

“Ah-ha. The poopy penmanship of Mrs. Macklevore strikes again. That looks like … 1006. 1066? Either way, you wanna go to the same place. Down that way, sail on past the gym, hard-a-starboard, and you’re golden. I’m Perry.” She stuck out a hand. On her index finger was an over-sized grape Ring pop.

“Owen,” he said, giving her a brief handshake. “Well, thanks.”

“Hold up, Owen. The least you could do to repay my chivalry is to make a small contribution to Ye Olde Cause.”

She nodded back toward her card table. A colorful poster board sign was taped to it. SCA Fundraiser, it read in puffy paint and silver glitter – Send us to WAR!

“What’s --?”

“You haven’t heard of SCA?” she said, pronouncing it ska. “Society for Creative Anachronism? Folks dressing up as knights errant and medieval lords and laying waste to each other on the field of battle? It’s super fun times.”

[ENCHANTING DETAILS: Founded in 1966, the Society for Creative Anachronism’s goal is to ‘re-create the Middle Ages as they should have been’. So while it’s nice that the members treat women as equals and value modern dentistry, whether that time period would have benefited from iPods and foam swords remains a matter of debate.]

In fact, Owen had heard of such groups. They were renowned to be populated exclusively by nerds. “Right. Cosplay stuff.”

“Cosplay is what children do on Halloween,” she sniffed. “Our aim is to re-create all the good stuff about the medieval experience – cooking, speaking, calligraphy – and none of the bad stuff, like dysentery. We’re raising money to attend the Grand Fracas in August. That’s when all the shires from the western kingdoms get together and do battle. So … wouldst thou purchase a Snickers or two, good sir?”

She held out a box of candy bars. Clearly, this girl cared not a whit what anyone else thought of her. Owen fished a crumpled dollar bill out of his pocket. “Here you go. Fare thee well and all that.”

She pocketed the buck, following him down the hall. “You’re a fan of Old English? Runic letters, et cetera?”

[MAGIC DEFINED: Old English (n.) -- an early form of the English language that was used by residents of Great Britain between at least the mid-5th century and the mid-12th century. Its alphabet was comprised of runic letters and pre-dated Latin. To read it is to be amazed that the Brits ever learned how to communicate].

“Not really. I’ve played a few medieval video games.”

“Then you should join us. Do it for real!”

Owen had never been the most popular boy in school, but he knew aligning himself with a group of Ren Faire geeks on Day One would be tantamount to social suicide. “Not really my thing. But thanks for the directions.”

He waved, leaving Perry behind with a disappointed look on her face.

Over the next few days, Owen quickly settled into a routine. He went to school, put forth a bare minimum of effort in his classes, biked home, warmed up something resembling food in the microwave, and spent the evening either playing computer games or watching movies online. He felt fairly confident he could get through the rest of eighth grade in this fashion, and perhaps even the entirety of high school. His only worry was that, before he graduated, he might perish of boredom.

Two weeks later, however, Owen would find himself beset by a variety of perils, and boredom would be the very least among them.

Next Chapter: Chapter 2