The Impossible Wizard: Chapter 1
“Love you, Mom. Gotta go.”
The apartment door slammed behind Conryu, cutting off his mother in mid harangue. It wasn’t like he didn’t know he’d gotten up late. The hall outside was empty, all the residents having gone to work hours ago. Mom had only stayed home because she had some research to do for the Science Department and could do it as well at their apartment, saving herself the commute. It was just Conryu’s luck that the one morning this week he overslept she decided to work from home.
He sighed and sprinted down the drab beige hall toward the stairwell. The elevator took too long for just four floors. He found the stairwell as empty as the hall so he had no trouble rushing up to the penthouse three steps at a time. If anybody had seen him right then they’d have thought the building had caught fire.
Conryu skidded to a halt on the top landing and paused to catch his breath. Four flights of steps wasn’t so many, but at three to a stride his legs were swearing at him a little. He straightened his t-shirt and gave a little sniff to make sure he hadn’t overwhelmed his deodorant. All good.
Bad enough he arrived late, if he showed up at Maria’s door stinking too she’d really let him have it. Satisfied that he was as put together as he could manage, Conryu yanked the steel fire door open and stepped into the hall that led to the Kane family’s penthouse apartment.
Burnished oak paneling covered the walls and soft tan carpet silenced the tread of his leather biker boots. A jade vase filled with fresh-cut roses sat on a small table and filled the air with their fragrant perfume. At the end of the hall a tall set of double doors carved with symbols and a pair of pentagrams marked the entrance to the Kanes’ apartment.
Maria’s mom oversaw the wards protecting the building from magical and mundane threats and the doors served as a sort of anchor. She’d tried to explain the process to him once, but it went right over his head. All Conryu knew for sure was that in exchange for her magical protections the Kanes got the best apartment in the building rent free. Pretty sweet deal.
He strode past the elevator and paused before the doors. Every time he touched one of the creepy things he feared it would burn his hand off. It hadn’t happened yet and he doubted today would be the day. He rapped twice and clasped his hands behind his back.
Half a minute later the door opened and he looked down into the jade eyes of Maria’s mother, Shizuku. The short, slender woman’s eyes crinkled when she smiled at Conryu. She wore a red silk kimono embroidered with storks that looked like it cost more than all the clothes Conryu owned. Midnight-blue slippers peeked out from the bottom of the robe. Shizuku Kane was one of the most talented wizards in the city, but he’d always thought of her like a second mother.
“You’re late, Conryu.”
“Yeah. How mad is she?”
“This is your lucky day. Maria’s still getting ready.”
Conryu’s eyebrows shot up. Maria was never late. Ever. “Really?”
“Don’t look so shocked. This is a big day for her. For all the girls. It’s no surprise she wants to look her best for Testing Day.”
Conryu sighed. Testing Day. A big deal for the girls and a waste of time for the boys. They would all take the test of course; couldn’t have anyone feeling left out. What did it matter if boys couldn’t become wizards? Fair’s fair after all.
The truth was, most of the girls wouldn’t pass either. When they tested the seniors last year, only two out of the whole class of three hundred and sixty-seven had passed and gotten a full ride at the North American Alliance’s Arcane Academy. All Conryu and the other boys would get was hours of standing in line and a sneer of disdain from the woman administering the test.
The patter of shoes on hardwood reached him a moment before the whirlwind that was Maria Kane appeared behind her mother. She rushed to the door in a swirl of black skirts, her purse over one shoulder, and paused to kiss her mother on the cheek. She grabbed his hand and dragged him towards the elevator.
“Nice seeing you, Mrs. Kane,” Conryu called over his shoulder.
Maria jabbed her finger into the call button. When the door didn’t open at once she stabbed it again and again.
Finally Conryu grabbed her free hand and held it. “Relax. We’ll make it in plenty of time.”
Maria looked up at him with her liquid brown eyes. She was only three inches taller than her mother and had the same long black hair. “Relax? How can I relax? Today will make or break my whole life. If I don’t pass the test and get into the academy…”
“I know, I know. You’ve talked about nothing else for the past month.”
The elevator bell chimed and the doors slid open. Conryu let go of her hand, stepped inside, and punched the button for the parking garage.
When the doors slid shut he continued, “Even if you don’t pass—”
She made a choking sound and stared at him, aghast.
Conryu grimaced. Maybe he wasn’t helping. “What I’m trying to say is with your grades you can get a full ride at any college you want to attend. You can do anything you put your mind to. I know you’ll be disappointed, but it really won’t be the end of the world.”
She groaned and hugged him. A muffled “thanks” barely reached his ears. She stepped back and stared at him. “I’m going to pass.”
He smiled and nodded. If sheer willpower affected the test, she’d have no problems. “Of course.”
The elevator chimed and the doors slid open revealing the almost-empty garage. Conryu led the way to his bike. When he saw her he smiled. She had a sleek black tank and fenders, fully rebuilt flat-head motor, and the coolest skull-and-chain license plate holder.
Maria walked past him, pulling him along as she went. “Stop drooling. I swear every time you see that bike you act like it’s the first time.”
Conryu let her drag him across the garage. Their helmets dangled from the handlebars and he handed Maria hers before buckling his on. He settled into his seat and she swung up behind him. The soft leather creaked under him as Conryu got comfortable. He touched the starter button and the flat-head roared to life, sending a vibration through his whole body.
God, he loved that sound.
Maria swatted him on the side of his helmet, her less-than-subtle signal that it was time to go. He twisted the throttle and roared up the ramp and into the bright sunlight. The shining steel-and-glass skyline of Sentinel City spread out before them. Beyond the city, little more than a shimmer, was the Atlantic Ocean.
Conryu shot down a side street then merged with the endless traffic running along the main thoroughfare that would take them to school. It was only ten miles, but their late start would make it a near thing. Maria’s grip tightened around his middle when he opened the throttle. He loved the highway; no speed limit.
About halfway to school they rode through a shadow spreading across the street. Conryu glanced up. The floating island made its patient way through the sky, as indifferent to them as the earth itself. Which reminded him.
“We’re still on for the Shadow Carnival this weekend, right?” He had to shout to be sure she heard him over the roar of the bike.
“Of course, it’s our last one as juveniles. Next year we’ll have to pay full price.”
Conryu snorted. For someone from such a rich family, Maria worried a lot about money. Full price at the carnival only cost ten bucks.
They reached the ugly, tan stone school in five minutes, giving them a whole three to spare. Conryu pulled into the first open parking space he came to, put the kickstand down, and swung his leg off. Plenty of cars in the lot, but no people. The seniors must have started lining up already.
Maria hopped down, handed him her helmet, and started fussing with her hair. Conryu shook his head and hung their helmets from the handlebars. Maria was the most beautiful girl in school and the windblown hair only added to her looks.
“Maria!” A slightly pudgy blond girl in too-tight jeans, her cleavage threatening to spill out of a low-cut blouse, ran toward them waving her hand.
Maria looked up and smiled. “Rin.”
“Come on, the government wizard is here already and the girls are lining up. If we don’t hurry we’ll be last.”
Conryu watched Maria and Rin run ahead to find places in line. So enthusiastic, you’d think your place in line had some bearing on the results. He gave his bike one last affectionate pat and ambled toward the main entrance.
They didn’t have classes today. Everyone had taken their finals already. Only the seniors actually needed to show up to take the wizard’s test. They’d also get their final report cards and find out if they’d qualified for their chosen college.
He ran up a short flight of steps, waved to some underclassmen he recognized from shop, and pushed the heavy glass doors open. Why anyone would come to school if they didn’t have to was beyond him. At least two of the juniors were dating seniors. They’d probably tagged along to provide moral support.
The day should only last a few hours, but since a government wizard was in charge they’d probably be here until mid-afternoon. Dad liked to say the one thing you could count on was the slowness of the government. His father actually meant it as a compliment since it usually took the council years to screw something up.
He had barely stepped through the doors when a familiar voice said, “You’re late, bro.”
Conryu turned to find Jonny Salazar, his best friend after Maria, strolling toward him, hands thrust into the pockets of his torn jeans.
“Not my fault. Maria was late getting ready.”
Jonny raised a fist and Conryu bumped it. “I call bullshit on that one.”
Conryu made a little X over his heart. “Swear to god. She was still primping for the test. Like the shoes she wore would make any difference to the wizard.”
“Girls. I tell you man, they’re all loco.”
“But we love them anyway,” the boys said in unison.
When the laughter subsided Conryu asked, “Where did she set up?”
“Nurse’s office.” Jonny started down the deserted hall. “We’re going to be last in line.”
“So what? They always take the boys last anyway and each test takes, what, two minutes? At least they’re not going to give us any homework.”
The test line snaked down the hall and around the bend, ending in front of the library. Two girls sat at one of the tables pretending to read, but really checking out a couple of guys in varsity athletics jackets four ahead of Jonny.
They took a step forward as the line advanced. “You still going to waste your time going to that rinky-dink vocational school?”
“You bet. Two years and I get my mechanic’s license. Mr. McShane has a place for me the day after I graduate and his shop is only two blocks from Dad’s dojo. Two of the things I love most in the world, bikes and kung fu, within walking distance of each other. How could that not be perfect?”
Jonny shook his head. They’d had this argument at least ten times in the last three months, but it seemed his friend wanted to have one more go around. “I’m telling you, man, you should go to the military academy with me. You love to fight and you’ve got the brains for it if you just put in more than a half-assed effort.”
Conryu yawned, stretched, and took another step. “Fighting in a tournament is different than fighting in the army.”
“Different how?” Jonny demanded, hands on hips.
“For one thing, no one at the tournaments actually wants to kill me. Not to mention there are no guns.”
“Details, man. Just imagine, after graduation we’re posted to patrol a beach in Florida, protecting bikini girls from the zombies that occasionally wash up on shore. You just know how grateful they’d be.” Jonny hugged himself and made kissing noises, fully immersed in his delusion.
Conryu smiled at his friend’s overactive imagination. Only the sons of generals and others with connections got soft postings like that. “Picture this, Jonny. We graduate and get sent to the northern border where it drops to sixty below at night and the girls don’t wear bikinis. We’d spend every day dressed in seven layers of clothes, hunting white drakes and ice wolves if we were lucky and frost giants if we weren’t.”
“Why do you have to shit on my dreams, dude?”
“Or how about this?” Conryu went on without mercy. “We get posted instead to the southern garrison where it’s 120 in the shade and we fight insane, half-human demon worshipers who’d like nothing so much as to cut your heart out as an offering to some monster whose name you can’t even pronounce. Sorry, bro. It’s bikes and kung fu for me.”
“Wuss.” Jonny offered him a good-natured grin then turned to watch as a quartet of girls walked by, their heads hanging. Looked like they failed the test.
“Wuss, huh? How about we head over to the dojo when we’re finished and spar for a few rounds?”
Jonny waved his hands. “No, man, I’ll pass.”
“Come on. I heard you made brown belt last month at your dojo.”
“Yeah, and I heard you got a fifth band on your black belt and your dad made you assistant instructor. If I want to get my ass kicked I’d prefer it was by a stranger.”
Conryu raised an eyebrow. “Wuss.”
Jonny shook his head. “Cold, dude, stone cold.”
An hour later they’d made it around the bend and the entrance to the nurse’s office came into view. Conryu could just make out the back of Maria’s head. She wasn’t the last girl in line, but she was close. If she failed he just knew she’d blame him.