Is it too late for him to just give up and hide under the bed?
Praise for Magic, Madness, and Mischief:
“The author excels at introducing magic into the everyday modern world.” ―School Library Journal
“McCullough smoothly blends family drama, school story, and magical coming of age in this entertaining fantasy. … Fans of Percy Jackson will be eager to hop into Kalvan’s world.”―The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books (BCCB)
“Are you sure this thing is magical?” Dave lifted the Crown of the North, twisting and turning it. The seven diamonds adorning the simple silver circlet barely flickered in the bright basement lights. “It hardly looks it.””I’m sure.” I touched a finger to the place above my left eye where I carried a mirrored imprint of the Crown’s peak—a metallic silver triangle perhaps an inch across the base, with a circle in the middle, like the eye in the pyramid on the back of a dollar bill.
“Have I mentioned how much I dislike that mark, Kalvan?” The rangy fire hare was stretched out on the thick green carpet my erstwhile step-father had used to mimic the lawns in his model of the Minnesota state capitol. His fur burned a merry sort of red, though the flames never ignited anything he didn’t want.
“Only about a million times, familiar mine, but most people can’t even see it.” The scar was invisible to most everyone who didn’t have magic—Dave being a notable exception.
“That’s a good part of why it makes me nervous,” grumbled Sparx. “I’ve never seen a mark like it before, and I’m old enough to find strange magic alarming.”
I leaned over and poked his belly, sending the flames dancing through the red fur. “You sound more like a mother hen than a magic bunny.”
Sparx gave me his best disappointed teacher stare—it was a shame he didn’t have glasses to look over. “That’s fire hare, as you well know, noxious child.”
I was thirteen, but I let the child thing pass. Sparx is an elemental spirit and old enough that my mom probably counts as a child for him. Or, my great grandfather, for that matter. Instead of arguing with Sparx, I ran a finger around the edges of the silver scar again. I’d gotten it when my step-father, Oscar, threw the Crown at me during our duel at the Winter Carnival a month and a half ago, and I was kind of disappointed so few could see it. I thought it made me look more adult, not to mention mysterious and even a little heroic—like a pirate’s patch or a mystical tattoo.
“Do you think it’ll do anything special today?” Dave turned the Crown so it framed his dark face—like some antique portrait. “Because it’s the equinox and all? Sundown’s only moments away.”
“I hope not.” I shrugged. “What do you think, fuzzball?”
Sparx snorted grumpily. “Given the Crown has gone fallow until Summer’s reign begins in a month, it seems unlikely, oh Accursed Master.”
And that told me I’d been riding him a little too hard. Technically, Sparx is my familiar, but he only calls me Accursed Master when he’s teasing or really irritated, and this didn’t sound like teasing. “Sorry, Sparx, I’m kind of flipped out about the whole thing. I know Oscar’s not the Winter King anymore and we warded the house nine ways from Sunday, but I keep expecting my step-father to come back up though the floor like something out of a horror film.”
Sparx shook his head. “The wards will hold and they run very deep, and I doubt he’d come at you openly even when you are beyond their protection. You beat him at a symbolic level as well as a sorcerous one. That puts a great weight of magic on your side in any future conflict.”
I was letting out a little sigh of relief when–
THUMP! THUMP! THUMP!
“Is that someone knocking on your front door?” Dave’s voice came out tight and strained. I couldn’t blame him—there was six feet of dirt between the roof of the ancient cellar and the much newer house above.
“There’s no way we could hear it throu—”
THUMP! THUMP! THUMP!
I felt a fresh touch of winter run icy-footed down my spine. “Sparx!”
The hare vanished in a puff of flame, leaving an arcing trail of smoke that ran from the table where he’d been sitting to the limestone barrel vault above. Several seconds flickered past.
THUMP! THUMP! THUMP!
Sparx returned with a flash, his expression simultaneously serious and bemused. “Sunset has brought you an interesting visitor. You’d better answer that door before your mother thinks to.”
I didn’t think there was much risk of that. Not with my mother…the way she was now. Since the Crown went fallow her mental health issues had gotten worse, but I pushed that thought aside. Something about Sparx’s tone made me dash for the spiral stairs leading up to the house proper. Dave dropped the Crown back into the spelled circle on the table and ran after me.
I half expected to find a splintered ruin when I got to the front door, but the wood looked fine. The knock came again, only…
rap rap rap
The taps sounded so gently this time I could barely hear them.
What the… I yanked the door open and found myself facing a tall, slender, professionally dressed woman with sooty black hair in a pixie cut and the amber eyes I’d only ever seen on my mother and in the mirror.
“You must be Kalvan.” Her voice was rich and full and somehow colder than it had any right to be. “I’ve so been looking forward to finally getting the chance to meet you. I can see a lot Genevieve in your face.” She extended her hand and I shook it bemusedly—Genevieve was my mother’s name.
Okay, that’s a little weird… “Got it in one. But I’m afraid I don’t recognize you…” Her fingers were icy—literally, like a steel hand rail in the winter cold.
She smiled and the expression set a weird combination of concern and anticipation dancing along my nerves. “Don’t you, then? I’m your aunt Noelle.”
Memories of old conversations and older pictures shocked through me and I suddenly had trouble breathing. Now she’d said it, there was no doubt this was my mother’s older sister. Noelle looked exactly as she had in the picture on my mother’s dresser. A picture that had been taken three years before I was born and a few weeks before Noelle died.
“Don’t looked so surprised, nephew. I can see from your heart and your familiar you’ve learned how magic runs in our family.” She nodded at Sparx, who had taken up a perch on the railing of the stairs to the upper level. “I’ve known Genevieve needed me for some time, but the bonds of the grave are horribly strong, and I hadn’t the power to burn them away. Not till tonight’s turn of the fallow months severed the last vestiges of Winter’s hold on both power and my sister. Now, how are we going to break it to her?”
My dead aunt stepped past me, and I started to turn to follow her. “I, uh…huh, ooooooof.” But then—as my back touched the wall—I found myself gently sliding to the floor when my knees turned to butter.
“Are you all right?” Noelle stopped midstride.
“I…maybe?” I felt awfully lightheaded.
Dave pushed past her and squatted in front of me. “You don’t look so hot.”
Sparx nodded. “Try putting your head between your knees.”
Something about the hare’s voice rang a bell. “You knew!”
Sparx blinked innocently and his eyes seemed to grow to three times their normal size—like a cartoon rabbit’s. “Knew what, O Accursed Master?”
“That it was my aunt at the door!”
Sparx shrugged. “There’s a strong family resemblance in the hair and eyes, even if your coloring is more like your father’s.” I was much darker than either my mother or my aunt. “What’s your point?”
“I…but she’s, uh…” I trailed off as I caught an amused twinkle in my aunt’s eyes.
“Dead?” she asked gently.
Now, she laughed. “He’s a fire hare, he couldn’t possibly have missed it.”
Dave abruptly sat down beside me. “Wait, you mean that thing she said about the bonds of the grave…”
Noelle nodded. “A major difficulty, but not impossible given the proper circumstances and sufficient motivation.” She canted her head to one side. “Right, I’m guessing neither of you is a tea drinker, so it had best be hot chocolate.” Without another word she turned and headed deeper into the house with Sparx trailing along behind.
Dave reached over and pinched me viciously.
“Ouch! What’s that for?”
“I wanted to make sure you weren’t dreaming.”
I blinked. “Aren’t you supposed to ask someone else to pinch you?”
He shook his head. “When I dream about zombies they look like zombies, not like some lady who could be a partner at the law firm where my mom works. If it’s a dream, it’s all you buddy. Mine are nothing like this crazy.”
I glanced at the red spot on my forearm. “I don’t think it’s a dream.”
“Then we’d better go after her.”
We found Noelle in the kitchen with the tea kettle held between her hands like a basketball. Even as we entered, steam began to pour from the spout. “Now, where are the mugs?”
“Left of the fink, fecond felf up.” Sparx dropped onto the table and let a pair of hot chocolate envelopes fall out of his mouth.
Within a few moments, Noelle had offered us each a neatly stirred mug, though she didn’t take any herself. “My sister is above.” It wasn’t a question, and she turned toward the back stairs as she spoke—the house was a duplex my step-father had converted to single family living. “Come on, you can drink on the way.”
I looked at Sparx, hoping for some clue. I mean, the script for pretty much every vampire or zombie movie ever said I should be trying to put her back in the grave. Like, yesterday. But movies about the undead didn’t normally start anything like the last ten minutes. Add in that Sparx didn’t seem alarmed… In fact, he just smiled and jerked his chin toward the stairs my aunt had already started climbing.
So, taking a huge slug of hot chocolate, I followed her. “Aunt Noelle?”
“Mom’s not really herself.” Understatement of the year! She’s never been all that tightly moored to reality’s shore and, now that I’d driven my step-father away, she seemed to be drifting slowly but steadily farther and farther out to sea. “In fact, she’s pretty fragile.”
“I know. It’s not the first time. I’ll see what I can do.”
Riiiiiight. The dead lady was going to bring my mom back to reality. This was so not going to end well.
My mother was sitting cross-legged on the floor of what had been the upstairs dining room with all the lights out. Her back was to us and she didn’t turn. Her long black hair hung in thick tangles, and the red velvet dress she wore had broad tears along the hem. She’d arranged the full skirts around her in a loose circle and the rips showed dark in the moonlight.
I turned on the kitchen lights and a bright rectangle reached across the floor, stopping just short of the edge of her skirts. “Mom?”
“What is it, Kalvan?” She still didn’t turn around. “I’m trying to find the place where flint meets steel.”
“It’s important because steel and flint are earth, but together they beget spark, and spark becomes fire.”
Like so many things my mother said these days, I didn’t know how to answer. “We’ve got a visitor.”
Noelle walked around in front of my mother. “Genevieve?” Her voice came out as gentle as someone trying to soothe a fussy baby.
“There you are,” said my mother, sounding relieved. “How was the drive-in? I’ll never understand what you see in those awful spy movies.”
Noelle blinked once, then smiled. “It was all right. Not my favorite by a long shot, but not bad. The popcorn was terrible.”
My mother laughed. “It always is.”
Dave poked me in the ribs and mouthed, what the heck?
I shook my head. One of my mother’s more bizarre habits is restarting a conversation in the middle, days or even weeks after you thought it was over. I couldn’t tell whether this was that or something else related to her current condition.
My mother leaned back and put her hands on the floor behind her. “Have you changed your mind about Nix? You know how much I hate to fight with you about anything important.”
I twitched. Nix was my long absent father’s name, and it almost never passed my mother’s lips. Or mine, for that matter. I knew so little about my father, but asking mom to tell me more was pretty much the same thing as asking for a fight or a flip out, so I’d learned to avoid the subject.
But Noelle made a non-committal gesture with her hands, and went on as if it was nothing important. “I’m still not sure I think Nix is the best idea you’ve ever had, but I’m no longer convinced he’s the worst.”
“I said he’d grow on you.”
I held my breath as I waited to hear more, but Noelle caught my eye, lifted her chin, and flicked her gaze beyond me, suggesting I find something else to do without saying a word. I didn’t want to go, but her expression told me I’d better. I nodded and caught Dave by the wrist before heading back down the stairs. Sparx seemed to think it would be all right, and I didn’t know what else to do.
I dropped into a chair at the kitchen table and glared at my familiar. “I want some answers, bunny boy.”
He responded rapid fire style. “Yes. No. I don’t know. Maybe. It wouldn’t surprise me. And, I think she’s going to do more good than harm for your mother.”
“Huh?” This came from Dave, behind me.
Sparx rolled his eyes. “Yes, she really is dead. No, it’s not the first time I’ve seen something like this. I don’t know how it works, but sometimes the door to death swings the other way. Maybe it has something to do with Oscar’s scheme to keep the Crown going back and forth between him and your mother. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me if that was the case. As I mentioned when we first found out about Oscar, the Crown is supposed to pass to a new head with each turn of the seasons. Interfering with that was bound to have some very unpredictable and nasty effects.”
“You are the most frustrating creature I have ever met.” I glowered at Sparx.
“Hey, I live to serve.”
“Sure you do.” I sighed. “Do you really believe she’ll do more good than harm?” I’d cheerfully invite a dozen zombies into the house if they could help my mom.
Sparx flicked his ears back and forth in the rabbit version of a shrug. “Your mother’s reaction gives me hope. Sometimes the ties of the past can shift things magic dare not touch.”
I winced. While my mother’s problems were mostly brain chemistry, the fire in her nature only made them worse. When she first started getting worse I’d asked if we couldn’t use magic to help but Sparx felt it would do little more than add fuel to the flames already consuming her.
Sparx put a paw on my wrist. “Why don’t I stay home and keep an eye on things while you’re at school tomorrow.”
I nodded. “That’d make me feel better.”
Dave punched my shoulder. “Come on, let’s watch a movie and pretend we’re normal teenagers with normal problems.”
Dave yanked the covers off my bed. “Come on, slughead, you need to shower so we can catch the school bus.”
I wanted to strangle him, but he was already off to the bathroom by the time I finally worked up the energy to move. Normally, I hate morning people, but Dave is a rare exception. Sort of. Anyway, I owe him. Since the end of Oscar’s run as the Winter King had pushed my mom across the line into deeper instability, he’d been staying over pretty often to help keep me sane.
Shivering in the early chill, I stepped over Dave’s sleeping bag and grabbed the first pair of jeans and tee I could find. By the time I caught up to him in the bathroom, he was already showered and dressed. Twenty minutes later we were at the stop and waiting for a bus to takes us off to the hippie experiment where we both go to school, better known as the Free School of Saint Paul. Or, more simply, Free.
I missed Sparx, but knowing he had my back with my mom was a huge relief. Also, as much as I hated to admit it, not bringing him meant I would be less distracted. He was invisible to most people unless he made an effort to show himself, but that only made it worse when he played silly tricks no one but Dave and I could see.
When the school bus arrived, we headed for the back. We were first aboard for the long ride and had our pick of seats. As usual, Dave pulled out a book while I just leaned my forehead against the window and stared blankly into the predawn streets of Saint Paul. We’d had another snowfall a few days previously so the yards were all white, but it wasn’t very deep and temps were running above normal.
Somewhere along the line I drifted over the edge from mostly awake to mostly asleep, which was fine till the bus hit a pothole big enough to house a hippopotumus and bounced my head off the window so hard sparks danced across my vision. I was still trying to shake off the impact when a glance down a passing alley made my blood run cold as meltwater.
For one brief instant I saw—or maybe only thought I saw—a man clothed all in rags. Tall and gaunt, with skin like granite and eyes colder than the hardest ice. He was crowned with silver and leaning against a wall, his arms crossed as though he were waiting for something or someone. He smiled as our eyes met—a terrible, predatory smile, and I shivered. His features reminded me of Oscar as he had looked in the moments before our duel, but he was bald above the crown and far too thin. Between that and the whack I’d taken, I couldn’t be sure if it was my step-father or not.
“Did you see that?” I demanded of Dave.
“The man in the alley. He had a crown. I think it might have been Oscar.”
“What?” Dave leaned forward to look out the window, though we were long past the alley. “Are you sure?”
“No. Not at all. To start with, I was half asleep, and then, when we hit that pothole, I banged my head so hard I still have stars in my eyes. That’s why I’m asking you.”
“I’m sorry, Kalvan, I was reading. I didn’t see anything. You say he had a crown? Was it the Corona Borealis? Because…”
“I don’t know. It kind of looked like the Crown of the North, but I only got one quick glimpse and I think the stones were wrong—dark rather than clear or white. But what if it was?” I fought back a moment of panic. If Oscar had gotten into my house again he would have had to get past Sparx, and my mom was there, and, and, and…
Dave squeezed my shoulder. “It’s all right, Kalvan. I’ll call. Switch places with me so I can do it without the driver noticing.”
I nodded, but didn’t say anything. Even if everything was fine there was no guarantee anyone would pick up. Sparx doesn’t do phones. My mom is…well not entirely there at the moment. And, my aunt? Who knows how the dead might act? But we swapped spots anyway and Dave bent down below the level of the seat, dialing his phone inside the mouth of his backpack.
He had the volume turned really low so as not to draw attention, and when someone answered he spoke so quietly I could barely hear his side of things. “Noelle? This is Kalvan’s friend Dave. Can you go to the basement and check…Oh, you’re in the basement? Great. Can you see the table with a Crown on it? You can? And the Crown’s fine? Thanks!” He hung up. “Kalvan, it’s–”
“Yeah, I heard. Thank you.”
I should have felt better, knowing the Crown was safe, and that the guy in the alley couldn’t have had it. But somehow that only made me worry more. If it was Oscar, where had he found a new crown? What kind of powers did it have, and what was he up to now? If it wasn’t him, who was it and why had he looked at me that way? But then, what if I hadn’t really seen what I thought I saw? It was all so confusing.
Before I could figure out any of it, we rolled up to the school. All the Older Learning Center teachers were out front corralling their advisees as they came off the busses. BTW, for those tuning in late, OLC is what we call grades 7-12 at my experimental school.
I blinked and turned to Dave. “What’s that about?”
Dave rolled his eyes. “Field trip. You remember that, right? Como Park Zoo and Conservatory ring any bells?”
“Oh yeah, no. I completely forgot.” Which meant I was going to get mighty hungry come lunch time, as I’d neither remembered to pack something or to hit my mom up for cash to buy food. “One more way for today to go wrong, I guess.” I winced. “I don’t suppose you brought an extra granola bar?”
Dave laughed. “I didn’t, but don’t look so glum. Mom gave me money for lunch and I think we can stretch it enough for two if we’re quick and we aren’t too picky about what we eat. Come on.”
As we piled out onto the sidewalk, Dave caught my backpack and pulled me between our bus and the one in front of it. I saw Evelyn—the drama teacher who was our advisor—throw us a disapproving look, and I shrugged helplessly at her.
“Come on!” Dave said again. “We can just hit Doughboy if we run.”
I was still worried about the man with the crown, but we could deal with that after the immediate crisis, so I pounded after Dave. “Great idea!”
“Of course it is, it’s mine.” Dave flashed that big infectious grin of his and started to really book it.
The bakery outlet store was two blocks from the school. Unfortunately, we weren’t the only ones who’d decided bakery surplus was the best bet for lunch, and there was a line. My Free School student mentor, Aleta, was there with her girlfriend Jenn, and they both smiled our way. Josh Reiner, my sometimes-enemy sometimes-ally in the weird secret world of magic, was there as well, and the look he gave me suggested today was a watch my back kind of day.
Since we’d arrived relatively late, all the good muffins and snack cakes were gone from the past-best-by bins. So, we just grabbed a baker’s dozen of whatever was left at the bottom of the heap without really looking and dashed to the back of the line.
“Hey, Dave.” It wasn’t until she’d spoken that I recognized the girl in front of us, Morgan Shears, who was in Rob’s advisory group—morning embarrassing me again.
Morgan was nearly three years older than me and a good couple of inches taller even without the high-heeled boots she was wearing now, which might be why she mostly looked over me. Morgan did a lot of dance, which put her in a group that kind of overlapped with theater nerds like me. She had wavy brown hair, dark eyes, and a snub nose with a scattering of freckles across it and her cheeks.
She also had dimples that showed when she smiled, as she did now. “Hey, Kalvan. Grabbing lunch?”
“Hey, Morgan, yeah,” I kind of mumbled in a morning-ate-my-brain sort of way.
Dave grinned. “And breakfast. Gonna be a long day and we’ll need a serious sugar fix to get through it.”
Morgan laughed, and the dimples reappeared. “Too true.”
Then she was checking out and too busy to talk to us anymore. As we hurried out the door after out turn, I felt a sudden impact in my face and the whole world went white and cold for a second. My first thought was an attack by the Winter King and I started to pull fire from my heart. But then I heard a harsh laugh and Dave yelling at Josh and realized it was only a snowball.
A second later, Dave hissed at me, “Cool it!”
“Your glove is on fire.”
I glanced down and saw red and gold dancing along the blown-out fingertips. “Oh, oops.” I quickly shook the flames out, hoping no one else had seen them, and curled the burnt tips into my palm.
Josh laughed even harder, and I had to throttle back the urge to cook him on the spot. Mostly because he was a bitter water sorcerer himself and he’d probably have kicked my butt. Instead, we all dashed back to school where Evelyn scolded us for being late and shepherded us onto the last bus and got everyone settled. By the time I next remembered the man in the alley a few minutes later the bus was so packed it was too late to talk to Dave with any privacy. I decided to let it go for now since there was nothing I could really do about it till I got home to Sparx.
The busses rolled to a stop beside the Como Conservatory—an enormous greenhouse with multiple wings. It’s big and warm and the air is so soggy you can practically swim in it. Once Evelyn finished a quick lecture about being responsible, not embarrassing the school, and meeting the group for a lunchtime check-in, we all piled off and scattered. Eighty-five percent of the group headed toward the zoo while Dave and I opted for the Conservatory in hopes of avoiding the crowds.
Aleta and Jenn went the same way. So did Josh and a couple of the other rougher older boys. Morgan too, along with another dancer, Lisa Alvarez. She was in Rob’s advisory group, like most of the dance crowd, and much closer to our age than Morgan’s—though they were good friends. Actually, most of the kids who’d been at the bakery were there. Birds of an unprepared feather, maybe. Or creative minds running in the same gutters. Or something like that. Twenty-five or so of us, anyway. Once we got inside the big central dome most of the crew went right or down the center path, but Dave and I went left like we usually do since it’s the best way to avoid crowds.
Only Morgan and Lisa came our way as we headed into the sunken garden wing. It was my favorite of all the greenhouses, with a long narrow koi pond running down the middle. We walked along one side of the pool while the girls walked on the other, but the vast room was so quiet there was no privacy and none of us spoke much. As we got closer to the far end, my right foot started itching like crazy and I had suppress an embarrassing urge to tear my shoe off and scratch. Eventually we came together at the far end where it opened out into a circle where a lot of weddings happened.
I couldn’t help but notice how pretty Morgan looked there on the edge of the pond, and I found myself wanting to say something clever to make her dimples come out. Not that I thought I was in her league or anything—I was way too short and young for that—but I liked her smile, and I wanted to see it again.
Screaming, “Get out of the way. Delver!” And shoving her and Lisa into the muddy pond was not part of the plan. But then, neither was the giant badgerlike creature who had risen out of the earth in the flower beds off to our right with a thick stubby crossbow cradled in both hands.