"Okay," Marla said, staring at the smooth blank nothingness of Artie's crotch. "That's... unusual. Were you in an accident or something? Did you aggravate a Doberman?"
"Nah, it was totally intentional." Artie pulled his pants back up and returned to his spot on the bench beside her. "I'm a sex magician, like I said some people call us pornomancers but I came up with my own spin on the technique. See, most pornomancers, they get their power from sexual energy in action. They host orgies, use spells to increase libidos, call on sexual loas like, gods, beings, forces? for favors, get themselves into the frenzy, even, and pull power from all that." Her shook his head. "But I'm basically a cranky antisocial old fuck, and I didn't like the idea of being dependent on other people having a good time, and the thought of a bunch of people all naked and sticky and thrusting in my house didn't really appeal. So I "
A slithering thumping noise came from the steps, and Jenny stood up, suddenly wreathed in her aura of fire. A long brownish tubular thing, like a featureless worm made of coarse patchworked fabrics, came down the steps, its head swinging to and fro as if scenting the air. Daniel was seated about halfway down the serpent's twenty-foot length, holding onto a bridle of twisted rope. "I come in peace, Jenny, so flame off," he said. "See, I'm sitting on something totally combustible. We've stopped having war games, I guess?"
Jenny's fire vanished with a faint pop of inrushing air. "We're to the part of the evening where Artie takes his pants down and shows his private parts to Marla."
"Ah, yes. I remember that part. I'm still psychologically traumatized." Daniel climbed off his worm, patting it absently, and the thing slumped motionless, just a rolled heap of fabric now. "You can't possibly understand, you two are girls, but as a guy, seeing that..." He shuddered.
"The sight of a guy with no dick is traumatic for me in a different way," Jenny deadpanned, and Marla actually laughed out loud. Jenny gave her a sly smile and said, "Though it wasn't so bad, since it was Artie. Really it was kind of a relief."
"The shit I put up with from you two," Artie said. "Will you lemme finish explaining here?" He patted Marla's knee, and it was just... companionable. For the first time, she didn't instinctively twitch away from his touch. "Like I was saying, because I like being self-sufficient, but I also like sex a lot, I figured out a way to generate my own magical energy. I'd read all this stuff about the penis thieves of the Congo "
"Wait, what?" Marla said. "People steal penises? In the Congo? What for, to eat? Are they aphrodisiacs?"
Artie waved his hand. "Nah, it's a whole thing, in parts of Africa, people get accused of witchcraft, guys say these evil witches make their penises disappear. It's all bullshit, mass delusion, but some of the so-called witches wind up getting killed by angry mobs, it's messed up. When you make the victims drop their pants and show them that, you know, their penises haven't disappeared, they just kind of mutter and say, 'Okay, maybe it's not gone, but it's a lot smaller than it used to be, the witches musta shrunk it!'"
Artie shook his head. "Like I said, messed up, but it gave me an idea. I used to fuck any girl who'd have me, and I jerked off about four or five times a day sorry, probably more than you want to know, but anyway and I got to thinking about some of the old occult writers, who thought jizz was like a potent emission of life energy, and I thought, why am I wasting that energy on a wad of tissue paper? So... I figured out how to become a magical penis thief of the Congo, right here in Felport. I worked out a spell to make my dick disappear." He spread his hands. "Now I can't jerk off if I want to, I can't fuck, nothing, but I still want to, and all that sexual energy just builds up in me... and I can tap that pent-up power to do magic. I bought a bunch of strip clubs and a porno theater, stuff like that, just to rev up the frustration even more. I'm a perpetual living battery of magical power. Funny thing is, sometimes I do host orgies, because it drives me crazy seeing people screw on my furniture, and generates even more power."
"You gave up sex for magic?" Marla said.
Artie nodded. "Nobody said the path of a sorcerer was an easy one, Marla. You gotta be willing to make sacrifices. The bigger the sacrifice, sometimes, the bigger the reward. And I can still enjoy good food, booze, basketball games, cracking jokes... And I have enough magical power to create a place like this." He waved an arm to encompass the whole imaginary world of his London. "It's a trade-off I'd make again."
"But you made your dick disappear," Marla said, ever practical. "How do you pee?"
"It's not really gone. It's invisible, and I can't touch it, or feel it, but it still functions... Look, it's like the opposite of a phantom limb. If you get your arm cut off, you can still feel the arm, but it's not really there. Well, I can't feel my dick, but it's still there."
"You should see him piss," Daniel said. "It's freaky. This stream of urine just, like, appears from mid-air about three inches from his pelvis."
"Hey," Artie says. "I resent that. It appears at least eight inches from my pelvis."
Daniel snorted. "It's been so long since you've seen it you're imagining things. You must be thinking of my dick."
"I swear, it's like living in a frat house sometimes." Jenny bumped shoulders against Marla. "I'm glad you'll be living with us now. It'll help balance things out." She paused. "You are going to live with us, right? Become an apprentice?"
Marla had been looking for something ever since she ran away from home. She'd hoped for a place where she could exist in peace. She'd barely dared hope for a place where she might belong. "Yeah," she said. "I guess I will."
"Then let's go back home and get some dinner and then..." Artie rubbed his hands together. "Then, the aptitude tests."
Jenny and Daniel both groaned, which made Artie grin wider.
They had dinner around a long rectangular table, with overcooked steaks and undercooked baked potatoes and a lot of laughter, though Marla mostly witnessed the laughter, and didn't much contribute to it, still getting the feel for their group dynamic. Jenny looked a lot less fierce and otherworldly once she changed from her ragged gown into a pink sweatsuit, and Daniel continued to be cute in a way that snagged and nagged at the edges of Marla's attention. While they ate dessert ice cream, which couldn't be ruined by Daniel's cooking Marla said, "So does that guy Ernesto live here too?"
Artie glugged from a glass stein of beer, wiped his mouth with his sleeve, and shook his head. "Used to, when he was an apprentice, but he's, uh, graduated, I guess you'd say. He still works for me, but he's got his own place. He's here a lot though."
"How long was he your apprentice?" Marla asked, meaning: How long will I be your apprentice?
"Four, five years? I taught him everything I could. He's learning other stuff on his own, of course. He's another one of those naturally-gifted types, he's got a knack for doing funny things to space/time. You want one of those little magic shops that's bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside, he's your guy."
Marla looked around the table. "So we're, what, the new class of apprentices?"
Artie raised his glass. "Yeah, you could say that."
"Did Ernesto have any... classmates?"
Artie put down his glass. "Okay. I see what you're getting at. Yeah. There were others. Ernesto's the one who didn't wash out." He shrugged. "Some people hit a limit to what they're willing or able to learn. Some people make mistakes so bad, do stuff so dangerous, I have to cut them loose. Some people... Well, magic's dangerous, kid. Some people push too far too fast and don't survive."
"Are the other apprentices dead?"
Both Daniel and Jenny were staring at her, which Marla found annoying. Hadn't it occurred to them to ask these questions? Were they so dazzled to be working magic that they didn't think to ask whether or not they'd survive the course of study?
Artie sighed. "I did good picking you, Marla. A sorcerer's gotta be willing to ask the uncomfortable questions. Yeah. The other ones who came up with Ernesto died. It breaks my heart, but they're gone."
"So is a two-thirds rate of death pretty usual then?"
"Ernesto... he was one of five apprentices."
Artie shrugged. "Usually one or two just flake out, go back to ordinary life, or join one of the gangs of half-trained morons running around the city doing thug work for other sorcerers. Ernesto's bunch was especially unlucky. One of 'em was learning to make potions and poisoned herself, she was dead before she dropped the Erlenmeyer flask. Three of the others decided to perform a ritual without checking with me first, and they fucked up the protective circle, and they called up something that, ah... Ate them. Ernesto and me shut the thing up in a little bubble universe about the size of a closet. That was a couple years ago. We both hope it's starved to death by now, but neither one of us wants to check." He spread his hands. "I never said this life was easy. Is it more dangerous than living on the streets? I dunno, maybe not, but the payoff if you survive is a lot "
"It's okay, I don't need convincing." Marla went back to her ice cream.
"All that, and you aren't worried now?" Daniel said, staring at her.
Marla sucked a dollop of vanilla off her spoon. Cold and delicious. "Why worry? So, let's say four out of five apprentices die. I just have to make sure I'm the one who doesn't."
"If I get my way, you'll all make it," Artie said. "You're some of the most promising prospects I've seen. And every year that goes by, I become a better teacher." He lifted his glass again. "Here's to beating the odds, huh?"
They toasted, but it was a somewhat restrained affair. Marla didn't get why Daniel and Jenny seemed glum, why Artie looked uncomfortable. She always felt better when she knew what she was up against; it was better than stumbling around in the dark and relying on hope to see you through.
Marla's room was personality-neutral, just a bed, dresser, desk, bookshelf (mostly pop-science books on the universe, the mind, and other such vast subjects) and an armchair, all of far better quality than the stuff in her furnished room at the residential hotel. She had her own bathroom, too, though it was a cramped affair with a shower and a toilet shoved into close proximity, apparently built into the space that used to be a closet. The nicest thing about the room was the bay window with a windowseat looking out, appropriately enough, over the bay. She looked in the dresser and found a variety of clothes in her size, almost all practical cotton slacks, t-shirts, some men's button-down shirts, good workaday clothes. There was even a sock-and-underwear drawer with nothing too outlandish.
In the bottom drawer, she found a bunch of lacy complex underthings in red and black and white and blue, with some items that would have made the strippers at the Bau Bau Room widen their eyes and shake their heads. They were probably her size; she didn't check. She opened her bedroom door and hurled the whole drawerful into the hallway. That should get the point across.
Marla stretched out on the bed, contemplated the ceiling, and waggled her fingers at the overhead light. "Poof," she said. "Abracadabra," she said. "Let there be dark," she said.
When none of that achieved anything, she got up, flipped off the light switch, and went to sleep.
She was awakened the next morning by a thumping knock at the door. Weak gray light showed in the window, though the sun wasn't over the horizon yet. Artie yelled through the door, "Breakfast in fifteen minutes, then get ready for the hardest day of your life!"
"Okay," she called, swinging her legs out of the bed. She'd always had a knack for waking up quickly, though a shower and food would help the process.
"What's with the pile of hooker underwear in the hallway?" Artie's voice was muffled through the door.
"Uh, yeah not to be ungrateful, but it's not my style, I mean, thanks anyway "
"Shit, I didn't leave that stuff in your room, kid. Drop it down in the costume closet before you come to eat, I'm not your maid."
Huh. If Artie hadn't left her that stuff, who had? Jenny wouldn't have done it, so... Daniel?
Interesting. Maybe offensive, but interesting.
It wasn't the hardest day of her life the day, at age fourteen, that her brother helped her bury a body, that was the hardest, and probably always would be but it was a close second.
The sun had been down for two hours by the time Artie said, "Okay, that's enough for today," and let Marla go into the living room to collapse on the couch. She was soaked with sweat, had a raging headache, her fingers ached, her throat was dry, her ears were ringing, and she hadn't achieved a single good goddamn thing.
They'd started out testing her psychic prowess, using Zener cards and various guessing games, Artie very patiently explaining meditative techniques, mind-opening tricks, and offering constant encouragement. Marla had turned out to be roughly as psychic as an axe handle.
The next aptitude tests were a lot more exhausting, and were variations on the same idea that prompted them to let Daniel's poppet attack her in the hallway under extreme stress, sometimes the magically-gifted spontaneously showed their powers. So they went to Artie's London, where she was pursued for the greater part of the day by nightmarish monsters through dank sewer tunnels, cramped tower rooms, and cells haunted by the souls of executed traitors. She did battle with the mindless vampire-slave guards of Buckinham Palace and crept through alleyways pursued by the Ripper and his whispering knife. When it came to stabbing, improvising weapons, being sneaky, and kicking downed enemies in the head, Marla showed great ability and ingenuity but she didn't enact a single bit of magic.
Back in the real world she failed to notice the presence of a ghost Artie kept in a jar; failed to see any meaningful pattern in the swirl of ink in a bowl or the configuration of tea leaves in a cup or the guts of a dead rooster on a butcher block; failed to make any accurate guesses about the original owner of an antique silver compass; failed to shield her mind from a psychic intrusion; failed to move a pencil or ignite a candle or snuff a candle by thought alone; and failed to understand the recorded language of any number of animals, among other disappointments.
The only thing she did succeed at was maintaining a motionless meditative pose while a monstrous cacophony of clanging blaring brain-shaking noise exploded all around her. She'd grown up with a promiscuous drunk mother in a house with thin walls; she'd had a lots of practice at ignoring loud distractions.
Artie sat down beside her on the couch and handed her a glass of ice tea. "How you doin'?"
She shook her head. "Not good, I guess. So I'm not telekinetic, psychic, necromantic, pyrokinetic, precognitive, clairvoyant, psychometric, empathetic, psycholinguistic, I can't see auras, talk to animals, communicate with spirits, or even pull a rabbit out of a hat. So... I fail. At everything."
"Nah. You're really good at concentrating and beating the shit out of stuff."
She shook her head. "Fat lot of good that does me."
"You didn't wash out today, Marla. The point of these tests was to see if you had any natural, inborn ability like Daniel's manipulation of life force, or Jenny's explodiness. But, you know... it looks like you don't. You got a lot of gifts, I think, just not magical ones."
"So I'm not special, like they are. Where does that leave me?"
"Don't worry about it. Some people are born with perfect pitch, sure but just because you don't have perfect pitch doesn't mean you can't learn to sing."
"But I'm equally bad at everything!"
"Okay, but on the other hand, you're equally good at everything. Look, sorcerers like to specialize, because we can be an obsessive bunch, and also because there's some truth to the notion that if you dig deeper and deeper into a particular discipline, you can discover new and amazing things. Maybe you'll find something that really fits for you eventually, but in the meantime, let's act like you're in college and you don't know what the hell you want to do with your life, can't figure out a major so you just take a lot of classes until something lights your fire. We'll teach you a little bit of everything."
Marla nodded glumly. "And what if I never find something I'm really good at?"
"There's nothing wrong with being a utility infielder, a jill-of-all-trades. There's a writer I like, guy named Heinlein, who says a human being should be able to do all kinds of things, from changing a diaper to running a war to building a house to sailing a ship. 'Specialization is for insects,' he says. If you learn a little bit of everything, Marla, you'll practically be a specialist anyway most sorcerers are pretty much crap outside their chosen field. Adaptability isn't a bad thing."
He put his hand on her shoulder. "Kid. You're just like me. I couldn't do anything out of the box, either. But I'm stubborn as hell and I don't know the meaning of quit. And look at me now. Some of the shit I can do, you still wouldn't believe if I told you. Sure, Jenny and Daniel have their natural talents, they've got perfect pitch, they can sing real sweet but you, you'll be able to sing a little, dance a little, do some juggling, ride a unicycle. You'll be like an octuple-threat. Okay?"
Marla'd had such a rough day, she felt herself relax a little for the first time in she couldn't remember how long, and she rested her head on Artie's shoulder. "Okay." She paused. "It's just... failing at anything really pisses me off."
"Good. Anger is a wonderful engine." Artie ruffled her hair. "Tomorrow, I'll teach you to make a magical light, so you can always push back the darkness."
Click here to see trivia and authorial blather about chapter 5.