The Unforeseen Difficulties of Retrieving a Broom
“No one’s looking!” Rachel Griffin grabbed Siggy’s arm and tugged. “Let’s go!”
They dashed past the No Students Allowed sign and raced up the spiral staircase, their footsteps echoing against the stone steps of the Watch Tower. Siggy’s legs were significantly longer. He soon raced past her.
“Do you think the proctors will find us up here?” she gasped.
“We have a few minutes,” Sigfried Smith called over his shoulder. He took two steps at a time. He also spoke with an English accent, though his lacked Rachel’s educated crispness. “They have to interrogate the princess. Think she’ll break under torture? Of course, she blabbed about your boyfriend with no provocation. They hadn’t even made her go without food for a week, or used a thumb screw. How long will it take to get your broom?”
“Gaius Valiant is not my boyfriend!”
“Shhh!” Siggy hissed. “They’ll hear you!”
Embarrassed, Rachel clamped her hand over her mouth. She murmured, “They don’t torture students at Roanoke Academy, Siggy. It’s just not done. Did they torture you at the Unwary orphanage where you grew up?”
Siggy’s voice became hard as flint. “It’s not something a girl would want to hear about.”
“I want to hear,” Rachel responded seriously. “I want to know everything.”
They continued pelting up the staircase, which spiraled through the middle of the tower. Through open doors, glimpses could be seen of cabinets filled with materials for warding away the supernatural. Rachel noted chalk, rock salt, stones with a hole in the middle, red thread, and a barrel overflowing with dried daisy chains. A bag of weed killer rested beside the barrel.
Plunging through an opening in the ceiling, they burst into the belfry. The air was damp and smelled of the straw that covered the rock slabs of the floor. Huge tubular chimes hung from the ceiling. Beneath them stood an obscuration lantern—a brass contraption as large as a lighthouse lamp with an enormous cut-crystal globe. It stood taller than Rachel.
The outer wall of the belfry had eight tall arches set into its thick stone. Half of them were open, containing no glass. Outside, to the north and east, stretched a forest of virgin hemlocks. The afternoon sun shone in the west, gleaming off the central lantern’s brass. To the south lay the campus.
The other four arches contained mirrors, each with a hint of color to the glass—green, blue, golden, and purple. All four mirrors reflected the two young students. Both wore muddy and ripped academic robes of matte black, the kind that had been worn by scholars since medieval days, but which mundane Americans now wore only for graduations. The first student was a tall, handsome boy with golden curls and bare feet. When he smiled, the gleam of his teeth was bright enough to blind passing geese. Behind him ran a panting, tiny Asian girl, far younger-looking than her thirteen years. Black, shoulder-length locks flew wildly about her face.
Patting the back of her head, Rachel found nothing but hair. Somewhere—perhaps when she crashed through a classroom window just over an hour ago to save her science tutor—she had lost her black-and-white, polka-dotted bow. In the mirror, her reflection simultaneously patted the back of its head, seeking its lost bow. Girl and reflection sighed in unison.
“Quick,” Sigfried urged, peering back down the stairs, “we only have a little time before they notice we’re missing. Get your broom!”
Crossing to the south window, Rachel threw herself onto the sill, still panting. The campus of Roanoke Academy for the Sorcerous Arts stretched before her. An area of stumps and saplings separated the Watch Tower from the castle-like building that housed the college and the upper school. Beyond its many spires and towers, she could see bits of the reflecting lake and the long green lawns of the campus commons. Paths led from the commons to the seven dormitories, three to the west and four to the east. Farther yet, she caught glimpses of monuments and fountains, the lily pond, and the Oriental gardens.
The bells in the six domed bell towers atop Roanoke Hall rang four times, marking the end of classes. On the commons, student rushed to and fro. Proctors rounded up wrongdoers. Tutors—as Roanoke Academy called its professors—helped the injured. Rachel looked around, hoping for a glimpse of Gaius Valiant. There was no sign of him, but she caught a glimpse of Nurse Moth astride her orange Ouroboros Industries Flycycle—a device that had as much in common with an old-fashioned broom as an automobile has with a horse-drawn carriage. The nurse’s hands were raised in a cantrip as she floated a patient toward the infirmary.
“I see the nurse!” Rachel leaned forward. “On her own bristleless. She’s not on mine!”
Sigfried peered down the staircase. “The coast is clear! Go for it.”
Rachel stretched out her hand. “Varenga, Vroomie!”
Siggy came to join her. He gazed out over her shoulder. “Is it coming?”
“Can’t see it yet. It can take a minute or two. It’s possible Nurse Moth shut it in the infirmary—in which case, it won’t come.” She glanced warily toward the stairs. “Can we wait?”
“Sure. What’s the worst that will happen? Expelled for sneaking into the forbidden tower?” Siggy paused, cocking his head. “What’s that noise?”
Behind them, the giant lantern rattled. A chill slithered up Rachel’s spine. She and Sigfried exchanged glances. They both spun around.
“Why is it…doing that?” she whispered.
“I’ll look.” Sigfried absentmindedly touched his chest where his all-seeing amulet hung under his black academic robe. “It’s an animal. A rat, maybe? Brown and ugly.”
Rachel crept across the straw, close to the mossy wall. She craned her neck. A small, brown animal with a long slick tail came into view. It worried at the brass pedestal of the lantern.
“Looks like a muskrat,” she whispered.
“What’s it doing?” he asked.
“Don’t know. Rather cheeky of it, isn’t it? Maybe there is food inside.”
“Probably someone’s familiar.”
“No.” Rachel shook her head. “The pads of its paws would be silver.”
The lantern flared, multi-colored flames flickering and leaping within the crystal globe. Glints of red, blue, and green danced over the hanging chimes, the straw, and the mossy walls. They transformed the drab stone belfry into a wonderland.
Rachel’s lips parted in delight. “How beautiful! But we should…” Her voice died.
The muskrat’s eyes were the same milky color as those of the students who had been under the control of their wicked math tutor, Dr. Mordeau. Rachel thought back several seconds, replaying her memory of what she had just experienced. In her perfect memory, a tall, black shape hunched over the little animal—like the shades from Dr. Mordeau’s cloak.
“Siggy!” Rachel shrieked. “Stop that muskrat!”
Fixing her gaze on it, she whistled. A tingle of energy welled up in her body, running from her toes and fingers, through her limbs, to her lips. Excitement and giddiness gripped her, but she kept her face as calm as a mask. Silver sparkles of light flew from her mouth, forming a brisk breeze. This wind pushed the muskrat across the straw. It traveled nearly three feet.
Rachel grinned and clapped her hands. She had only been at school for five days, yet she had improved so much. She could now push something the size of a muskrat with a breeze she summoned with sorcery. Her hours of practicing were paying off.
Sigfried pulled out his trumpet from a voluminous pocket in his robe and blew. A wind, swirling with the same silver sparkles, picked up the muskrat and swept it another twenty feet—across the belfry and out the open window. Rachel sighed. It had taken her hours of practice to be able to push that creature a few feet. Siggy was a natural.
Running to the western window, Rachel shaded her eyes against the glare of the sun and peered at the falling muskrat as it tumbled through the air. She thought back recalling everything that had happened from the moment she pushed the creature back. In her memory, she could see the shade from Mordeau’s cloak. It abandoned the muskrat in mid-air and took off for the south. The little brown animal still tumbled through the air. Rachel tried a tiathelu cantrip, hoping to slow its fall, but it was beyond her range. Sadly, she averted her gaze, not wishing to see the poor thing splat on the stump-filled field below.
The muskrat never hit the ground.
Out of the hemlocks to the north shot a serpentine shape, about twelve feet long and covered with golden fur. Its long whiskers, the mane that ran along the length of its back, and the tuft on the end of its tail were all flame-red. Ruby scales coated its underside. Short horns curled above its vaguely wolf-like head.
“Go, Lucky!” Siggy cheered his familiar and best friend. “Get it!”
Fire shot from the dragon’s mouth. It struck the falling creature, which let out a horrible screech. Lucky swallowed the muskrat whole. Rachel cringed, feeling sorry for the poor beastie: abused by Mordeau’s shade, tossed out a window, and then charbroiled in mid-air.
Rachel turned away with a sigh of sad amusement. Chiding Sigfried for lack of sympathy was like scolding the wind for blowing. Boys were like that—Siggy more than most.
Looking to the south after the departing cloak-fragment, Rachel recalled the blank faces of her fellow students as, possessed by the shades from Mordeau’s cloak, they had raised their wands and tried to kill her. Mordeau had been captured, but her master was still at large.
Her hands curled into fists. “We must stop Mortimer Egg.”
“Of course!” Sigfried agreed fiercely. “He tried to kill my girlfriend. He must be destroyed.”
Rachel smiled, pleased and touched by her friend’s enthusiasm. Anyone else would have said, “We can’t stop him. We’re just kids.”—anyone except Sigfried the Dragonslayer.
Crossing to the great lantern, Rachel knelt before the large brass key that controlled the flame. Tipping her head back, she watched the dancing colors—red, blue, purple, green—as she searched her mental library, calling up from her photographic memory any information she might had encountered about such devices. She recalled a manual she had glanced at once on how to refill the oil in an Aladdin lamp, an encyclopedia entry on the history of chandeliers, a book on lighthouses and how they worked, the time she had come upon…
Ah! That was what she needed!
She recalled the time she had come upon her father lighting the obscuration lantern in the small turret atop her grandfather’s tower at Gryphon Park, her home back in England. The spirits that the lamp commanded had loomed about him in a circle. The moment she had come bursting up onto the tower roof, he had dismissed them. She played back the memory twice, frowning. He had sent her back downstairs before turning off the lantern. That was no help.
“Which way do I turn it?” she murmured.
“Righty tighty, lefty loosey?” Siggy offered, squatting beside her.
“Does that apply to obscuration lanterns, too?”
“Is that what this is?”
“No idea what that means.” Sigfried shrugged. “Remember, I didn’t grow up in your World of the Wise. I’m unwary even for an Unwary.”
Rachel giggled at that. “Okay…” She paused, thinking how best to explain the lantern and its purpose. “Let me see if I can give you a proper description. You know we’re on the Island of Roanoke, right?”
“Yes…” She eyed him skeptically. “Remember the ‘lost’ colony of English sorcerers uprooted this island and made it float? So they could escape from persecution in England?”
“They sailed it around the world for several centuries. Then, it became grounded here in the Hudson River. You remember that, right?”
“But…” Rachel made a noise of frustration. An uncomfortable tingling sensation spread across her shoulders. The very notion of forgetting disturbed her. “Mr. Gideon told us. In true history class.”
Sigfried looked as if he were so bored that it was causing him pain. “You mean true napping? If it doesn’t teach us how to brew death or throw fireballs, what good is it? I plan to learn a cantrip that will allow me to sleep with my eyes open.”
Rachel let out a long breath. “Okay…Um…The short version. We are on Roanoke Island. Only the Unwary, the mundane folks—if they look from the bank of the Hudson River or an aeroplane—they see Bannerman Island. This fake image is kept in place by a sorcerous Art called obscuration. Got it so far?”
“Maybe.” Siggy tossed his Bowie knife and caught it. It gleamed in the afternoon sun. Glints of blue and green and purple flickered across the blade. “Is there going to be a test?”
Rachel threw up her hands. “Eecks! Eegrec! Zed! You must remember something!”
“Really? Why is that?” Sigfried scowled at her. Something painful burning behind his eyes, like glimpsing the scorching sun through the clouds on an otherwise pleasantly overcast sky. “Everything I had been taught before this week is wrong. Every fact I learned about the world. Every law of physics. Every historical event. All lies. Even the things that the Wise Guys are telling me are apparently wrong—at least if my Metaplutonian theory is correct: that there is another secret world manipulating our world the way we manipulate the Unscary—the Wiser than the Wise. If everything I’ve learned is wrong, what’s the point of remembering any of it?”
Rachel sat extremely still, her heart thumping unexpectedly. The concept of not remembering disturbed her, partially because she was not exactly sure what people meant by it. She occasionally neglected to check her memory and thus missed an appointment or did not do something she had promised to do. That was a temporary oversight.
But forgetting? She tried to picture what that might feel like but failed.
“Magic shock.” She shook herself, continuing solemnly, “Can’t tell reality from fairytales. It happens sometimes, when sorcerers have been raised in the mundane world.”
Siggy shrugged again. He gestured at the giant lantern, burning away merrily. Glints of red and purple and blue danced over their faces. “So…what is this thing again? Is it important?”
“Okay…even shorter version. This lantern casts magic shadows. These shadows—these servants of the lantern—can be instructed to create illusions, called obscurations. The enormous chimes above us are part of the obscuration magic, too.”
“I don’t understand. It does…what?”
Rachel paused, collecting her thoughts. “You turn on the lantern and call up its servants. Then, you instruct them to create the kind of illusion you want.”
“The muskrat switched on the lantern…why? Did it think there was food inside? That, I could understand! It might be a great place to hide a stash. Adults would never look there.”
“No! It was possessed! By one of those horrid shades that came out of Mordeau’s cloak. It was using the muskrat to try and turn off the illusions and wards protecting the school.”
“You mean the protections that keep out wraiths—like the one we fought? And evil teachers—like the one we fought?”
In spite of the seriousness of the subject, Rachel could not help but giggle at the aptness of his insight. “Er, yeah. Only that was one wraith and one evil tutor, and they snuck inside. Beyond the wards, there are a whole lot more waiting. If the wards ever fail, they could all rush in. And, the Unwary would see us.”
Sigfried glanced eagerly out the western window—where Storm King Mountain rose in the distance, above the trees—as if he expected to see a horde of specters and malevolent instructors waiting to rush the campus. Seeing the gleam in his eye, she suspected he was already imagining Lucky charbroiling them all.
Rachel rubbed her temples, which were threatening to ache. “We need to turn this lantern off without calling the…” she formed the gesture for the taflu cantrip—middle fingers curled, outer fingers straight, thumb across the middle fingers—with both hands and crossed her arms in front of her, so that the repelling gestures blocked her mouth, “tenebrous obscurii, the obscuration spirits. One way turns it off. The other way, if you turn it the whole rotation…calls them. Which we don’t want to do.”
“Because we are not their master.”
“Will these tenebrous obscurii know we’re not in charge?”
“Don’t call their name!” Rachel cried.
“No! This gesture—taflu—makes it so that supernatural creatures can’t hear me! Please don’t say their names. We don’t want them to come!”
Like the whispering in the tombs of the dead on All Hallow’s Eve came a soft sound. Dark shapes rose from the floor to loom above the lantern. Solemn, cloaked figures with deep hoods, they seemed to be made of solid darkness. Standing near the walls, they stared inward, forming a circle around Rachel, Sigfried, and the lantern.
Cold fingers of terror touched the back of Rachel’s neck. She clutched Sigfried’s arm.
“What’s that?” he hissed. “Are they what possessed the muskrat?”
Putting her finger to her lips, Rachel shook her head wordlessly.
Ignoring her warning, Sigfried turned toward the nearest figure and made a shooing gesture. “Hey, obsceney-thingy or whatever. Stop what you are doing and go! Scat! Vamoose!”
All the shadowy hoods all turned toward him at the same time. A dozen sibilant voices spoke in unison, “Master Warder, we hear and obey. Everything we do, we shall stop.”
No. No. This was bad!
Rachel threw up her hands, palms out flat, and shouted, “Maintain! Maintain!”
The tenebrous obscurii turned their many hoods toward her and paused, as if puzzled.
She raised her hands and held them exactly as she remembered her father had, when he had dismissed them at Gryphon Park.
“Oyarsa! Taflu!” cried Rachel, which she knew meant: return to your duties, depart.
The shadowy cloaks shivered. Silent as black moths under a new moon, they sank into the stones of the floor. The instant they were gone, Rachel raised the index finger of her right hand—the gesture for the Word of Ending cantrip—and spun in a circle, shouting over and over.
“Obé! Obé! Obé!”
They did not reappear. Rachel drew a ragged breath. Then, she turned to Siggy and glared at him, tapping her foot.
“What? Why was that a problem?” Siggy asked innocently.
“You told them to stop protecting the school!”
“Oh.” Siggy rubbed his jaw, considering this. He shrugged once more. “It would have been exciting if wraiths and black magicians had rushed the campus.”
“Not today, Sigfried,” Rachel said solemnly. “We just got done fighting geased proctors, possessed students, and a math-teaching dragon. People got hurt. I think,” her voice trembled, “your roommate might be dead.”
Siggy’s face turned pale. “Ian MacDannan? Or Enoch the Wuss?”
“The wuss, as you call him.” Her voice felt too thick to obey her. “He threw himself in front of our alchemy tutor.”
Sigfried scowled. “Who hurt him? I’ll have Lucky burn his face.”
“It was a crazy, possessed girl.”
Siggy threw up his arms. “Why does it always have to be a girl?”
“Okay…” Rachel turned back to the obscuration lantern and pulled up her long sleeves. She took a deep breath. “Here goes…something!”
Lunging forward, she turned the lantern key all the way to the left. The flame sputtered and died away. The multi-colored lights dancing around the tower flickered and winked out. They stood, again surrounded by drab straw, without the wonder lent by the lantern-light. With a sigh of relief, Rachel slumped forward and rested her forehead against the lantern’s column. She drew back with a yelp. The brass was hot.
Through the southern window flew Vroomie, obedient to Rachel’s call. Shouting for joy, she grabbed her steeplechaser, a marvel of polished dark wood and brass, and hugged it to her. It was the most beautiful bristleless flying broom in the world.
“Mission accomplished!” She flourished the broom victoriously, dashing for the stairs. “Let’s go tell the proctors that shades from Mordeau’s cloak are on the loose!”
Excerpted from "The Raven, The Elf, and Rachel (A Book of Unexpected Enlightenment 2)" by L. Jagi Lamplighter. Copyright © 2016 by L. Jagi Lamplighter. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.