CAUGHT IN CANDY
It was a Friday afternoon in late February that Owen had his first encounter with sorcery. He was heading home for the day. Usually, he left by the school’s western exit, but when he got there, he found the doors blocked by cotton candy. This was unusual. The pink, sugary substance filled the hallway. It was pouring from the air vents and collecting against the walls in six foot-high drifts. Several students had gathered to watch two beleaguered janitors attempt to clean up the mess. They’d reach for a handful, and it would duck between their legs. They’d wrangle some into a trashcan, and more would spill out of the vents. For a brainless, high-calorie snack, the stuff had very strong ideas about being captured.
[SORCERY FOR BEGINNERS: Spells that give life to inanimate objects are actually not too difficult to cast. But giving those objects a clearly articulated purpose – that requires a great deal more focus.]
“Can’t – go – this way!” One janitor said to Owen. He tried to step on a mound of spun sugar, only to have it squirm away. “Use the gym exit.”
He ran to free his co-worker from a swarm of pink tentacles. Owen shrugged, and started toward the opposite end of the building. He cut through the school gym, which at this time of day was dark and empty. Everyone had gone home or been forced outside as part of some extracurricular athletic/torture program.
The light in the equipment room, however, was on. Voices drifted from the slightly-cracked door. As Owen passed, he saw something inside that made him pause. Three large, eighth grade boys had cornered a small, dark-skinned Indian kid against a metal bin filled with red rubber dodge balls. The leader of the menacing middle schoolers was 14. He had orange hair cropped into a short Mohawk, a thick layer of muscles, and a good eight centimeters’ height on every one else in the immediate area. His skin was pale and translucent, the purple veins underneath making him look like a stinky, European cheese. His orange-freckled fist was drawn back as if he was about to deliver a devastating punch. Sensing he was being watched, the older boy turned and made eye contact with Owen. A slow, cruel smile split his face.
[A WOODCUT-STYLE ILLUSTRATION OF BRYAN FERRETTI]
Normally, this would have been the perfect opportunity for Owen to avert his eyes and move on. But for whatever reason, whether it was the obvious fear in the Indian kid’s face, or the sight of such overwhelmingly unfair odds, this time the boy stayed where he was.
“You got a problem?” Orange Mohawk said. His name, Owen would learn later, was Bryan Ferretti.
“No,” said Owen. Standing up to bullies was not exactly in his wheelhouse, so he hadn’t spent a lot of time crafting witty comebacks.
“Then get out of here, new kid. You’re interrupting a business transaction.”
Owen glanced at the Indian boy. The silent plea of help in his eyes told him this encounter was far from business-like. “Um, the thing is,” Owen said. “I need some equipment from in there. A, uh … dodge ball.” He pointed a finger at the metal bin behind them.
What happened next was not technically his doing. It was certainly given form by his actions, but the power to accomplish it was, let’s say, temporarily gifted to him by an interested third party.
The second Owen pointed, a rubber ball flew from the bin. It collided with the back of Bryan’s head, bounced off the equipment room wall, and smacked into Owen’s outstretched hand.
Everyone looked at the dodge ball bin in surprise, then up to the boy holding it. Bryan rubbed his head, his eyes bright with anger. “You should’ve kept on walking, new kid.”
“Sorry. I don’t know how that –“ Owen let go of the ball, but instead of dropping to the floor, it rocketed across the room, smacking Bryan in the forehead. The bully fell backward into the metal bin. The container tipped over and out spilled the dodge balls, covering his body and tripping up his Cro-Magnon cohorts.
[MAGIC DEFINED: Cro-Magnon (n.): A nickname for early human beings, a.k.a Homo sapiens, a.k.a. cavemen. Most likely smarter and more attractive than this lot.]
The Indian boy saw his chance and ran from the room. “Thanks!” he said to Owen before exiting the gym at something near the speed of light.
Owen looked back into the equipment room. Bryan rose from the pile of dodge balls, a round red mark already forming on his forehead. “Grab him,” he said to the Cro-Magnons.
The two words propelled Owen into action. He ran through the dark gym, pushed his way out of the exit doors, and jogged down the corridor just in time to see the last bus pulling away from the school. As his bike was in the garage at home, he had no choice but to evade the bullies on foot. Hearing the gym doors squeak open behind him, Owen took a deep breath and ran.
It was not much of a chase. First off, Bryan and the Cro-Magnons did have bikes, and they were chained up right outside the gym. Secondly, Owen was not familiar with the area. He tried to lose his pursuers, but a mere four blocks from the middle school, in a retail area that included nail salons and chain restaurants, the bullies skidded to a stop right in front of him. Each of them sat atop his bicycle, grinning in anticipation.
“You made me look stupid today, new kid,” Bryan said. “I ain’t stupid.”
Had Owen more pluck, he would have mentioned that using the word ‘ain’t’ was fairly strong evidence to the contrary. Instead, the boy kept walking. He hoped the public setting would prevent Bryan from doing him irreparable harm. He was, suffice to say, not very familiar with the behavior of sociopaths.
[MAGIC DEFINED: Sociopath (n.) – A person who exhibits extreme antisocial behavior and a lack of conscience. In other words, most of the people at a Las Vegas brunch buffet.]
The bullies followed him. “You think you’re tough, new kid?” Bryan said. “Huh? Do ya? Huh?”
To punctuate each question, he rammed his bicycle tire into Owen’s calves. The last was so hard, it left a black mark on his skin. Owen kicked the bike away. Bryan was surprised for a moment, then the sly smirk returned to his face.
“You gonna take on all three of us? Ain’t no lucky dodge ball gonna save you this time.”
On that, he was correct. And so, Owen contemplated his options:
He only made it a meter or two before a big, beefy hand grabbed the back of his T-shirt. Too late, Owen remembered his pursuers were on bikes.
“Get his arms and legs,” said Bryan.
The Cro-Magnons seized Owen. Bryan squatted next to him, his upside-down face grinning. “I gotta make an example out of you, new kid. Something that will remind everyone at school what happens when people disobey me. The ice chest,” he said to his cohorts.
The Cro-Magnons lifted Owen off the ground. There was a chain convenience store only a few meters from them. Off to the side of it was a big metal cooler, the kind used for storing big plastic bags of ice people only buy for barbecues and then forget to open. Smiling with anticipation, the Cro-Magnons started to carry Owen toward it.
The boy struggled. “Hey!” he screamed. “Somebody help –“
But Bryan clapped a sweaty hand over his mouth. His fingers smelt of grime and rusted metal. The maniac smiled, waving his free hand to a passing car. No problems here. We’re just boys hazing a good buddy.
[THE CODEX ARCANUM: Hazing is the time-honored tradition of abusing, harassing, or flat-out humiliating someone as part of an initiation to a group. It has gotten so out of hand that in some cases, people have actually died. I suppose a simple ‘Welcome to the Club’ card and a nice box of chocolates is too mundane for most bloodthirsty humans.]
They were less than a meter from the cooler now. Owen tensed every muscle in his body, kicking and straining, but the boys were all stronger than him. They held him tight. Owen tried to bite Bryan’s hand, but the bully smacked his teeth away.
They slammed Owen against the metal container. Bryan made sure no adults were watching, then opened the doors. A blast of frigid air billowed out. The inside was dark, and smaller than the trunk of a car.
“Gonna be a tight fit,” said Bryan. “Hope you ain’t claustrophobic.”
He nodded, and the Cro-Magnons began to shove Owen into the chest. He fought madly, kicking and punching, but Bryan socked him in the gut. Owen wished for someone to see what was happening, for a police officer to drive past, for a meteor to strike the parking lot right behind them. As they slowly crammed him further into the metal container, all these thoughts boiled down to a single, shouted word:
Now, most cries for help are limited by the scientific fact that sound waves can only propagate so far through space before they fizzle out. There are some, however, so fraught with desperation and need, they can echo halfway around the globe. Owen’s shout was one of these. It traveled through the city like an alarm, reaching the ears of anyone inclined to offer magical assistance. It helped that one such person had been shadowing Owen all afternoon.
Unfortunately, even sorcerers need time to prepare.
So at first, the only response to Owen’s cry was Bryan punching him in the mouth. The boy tasted blood, and his body went limp for a moment. It was enough for the Cro-Magnons to stuff his body in the ice chest. They were about to shut the doors, when Owen’s call was finally answered.
A loud, concussive sound erupted from across the street. It was as if a massive, elephantine foot had stomped on the ground. A shockwave of hot air slammed into the convenience store, setting off every car alarm in the parking lot and knocking the bullies to the concrete. They lay there for a moment, dazed.
That moment was enough.
Without sparing a thought on who or what had just saved him, Owen kicked himself free of the metal container and ran around the side of the convenience store.
[THE CODEX ARCANUM: Human beings are incredibly adept at ignoring extraordinary phenomena, even when it occurs right before their eyes. Ghosts, monsters, and especially magic have all been explained by laughably trivial things such as eye problems, swamp gas, and too much egg nog.]
The boy found himself facing a long, narrow, concrete alley. Behind him, Bryan and the Cro-Magnons were regaining their senses.
“What was that?” groaned one of the bullies, clutching his head.
“Who cares, he’s getting away!” Bryan said, getting to his feet. “Come on!”
Owen, meanwhile, sprinted down the alley as fast as he could go, only to see a chain-link fence blocking the exit ahead of him. He was trapped.
There was a dumpster beside the barricade. A daring person, if he pulled himself on top of it, might leap over the fence from there and make it to the other side. Owen wasn’t particularly daring, but he was terrified.
He made it to the dumpster, hearing the smack of Bryan’s feet draw close behind him. Owen pulled himself atop the garbage bin fairly gracefully. A glance backward told him the sprinters would catch up to him in seconds.
Owen didn’t think. He simply pumped his legs, leaping from the dumpster and kicking off the fence with one foot. There was a single, blissful moment of weightlessness --
Then his sneakers hit the concrete on the other side and he rolled with, not exactly poise, but something that was a distant relation of it.
It was Owen’s turn to grin. He didn’t know how exactly he’d managed to leap a seven-foot fence, but if they wanted to follow him, they’d have to make the same impossible jump.
[ENCHANTING DETAILS: When faced with a fearful or life-threatening situation, human beings are sometimes capable of extraordinary feats of strength. This has been called the ‘fight or flight’ response, the classic example being a mother lifting a car off her trapped child. Sadly, this response cannot be called upon when one needs to carry one’s heavy grocery bags inside the house.]
Bryan, however, simply walked to the fence. He scowled, grabbed the metal links, and began to pull himself to the top. Owen paled. He’d quite forgotten there was another way over the barrier.
He bolted down the alley, hearing Bryan’s sneakers hit concrete less than two meters behind him. Owen rounded the corner, finding himself across the street from yet another strip mall. Hearing the slap of the bully’s rubber soles draw closer, the boy ran straight into traffic. One car honked its horn, but he made it across the street without dying. He ducked behind a brown sedan, peering back at the alleyway.
Bryan emerged, scanning the street for his quarry. He looked down the busy avenue, glanced at the strip mall across the way, then his grey eyes settled on Owen’s sedan. Making up his mind, he jogged straight toward it.
Cursing softly, Owen checked the stores behind him. A nail salon, a Laundromat, a comic book store, and a place where children could make, bake, and paint cheap clay crockery. All terrible places to hide from a lunatic.
The fifth store looked promising, though. In fact, the boy was surprised he had not noticed it straight off. It was set back in the corner of the strip mall, its windows filled with books that blocked any view to the inside.
Also, it was at least ten stories tall.
The top of it stretched far above the surrounding rooftops, each level a different style than the one below it. There was a section that looked like a castle, one that resembled a mosque, and one that boasted flying buttresses and stained glass windows. The ground level was a bland, nondescript storefront that would be at home in any Las Vegas strip mall. It was the most bizarre building on the block, but then again, the city was filled with bizarre buildings, among which were a pyramid, a duplicate of the Eiffel Tower, and a smaller-scale reproduction of the Manhattan skyline.
[A WOODCUT-STYLE ILLUSTRATION OF CODEX ARCANUM]
Owen looked closer. An ornate, wood-carved sign hung above the door. CODEX ARCANUM, it read. Purveyors of the Exotic, Rare, and Unusual. E. Whitmore, Proprietor.
Good enough, thought Owen. Keeping himself low, he crab-walked toward the shop. Bryan was facing in the opposite direction, waving over one of his bike-riding goons. Now was Owen’s chance.
He ran the last meter toward the bookstore, yanking open the door and jumping inside. A tiny chime tinkled as the door shut. Owen peered through a space in one overcrowded bookshelf, seeing Bryan’s cohorts join him in the parking lot. They seemed to look right at him, but then their eyes moved on. They argued about Owen’s disappearance for a minute, then split up, riding in two different directions.
Owen exhaled in relief. He’d wait long enough to make sure they were truly gone, then sprint back home and not leave his house for a week. Maybe two. Perhaps by Spring Break the bullies would forget he’d ever existed.
The moment after he’d settled on this plan, a voice spoke behind him. It was careworn, filled with wisdom, but sharp as a dagger:
“What do you seek within these shelves?”