I squeezed into my snug, bright red dress, pasted a big smile on my face, and followed Freddy on stage. We were playing for a crowd of kids in a dilapidated theater, but it was quickly apparent that they were too busy throwing popped corn at each other to care about the act. Which was fortunate for us, since he was intoxicated again and there’s only so much covering I can do.
I paraded around the stage, handing Freddy trick hats, rainbow scarves, and silk flowers. I tried not to think too much.
Then one of the brats threw a handful of popped corn at me.
It was the last straw.
I stepped away from the box I was supposed to be disappearing in, squeezed my hands into fists, then snapped them open. Balls of flame burst to life in each of my palms. I’d been watching Freddy for years—I was better at his tricks than he was, and I’d even managed to pick up a bit of the deep magic.
I pointed at the brat who’d thrown the popped corn. His face had gone slack and white in terror. “You spoiled little worm!” I shouted. “I can destroy you with my mind, and I deserve some respect!”
The rest of the kids screamed and ran for the exit. The brat just whimpered. I was tired of tight, sequined dresses. Tired of contorting into boxes while plastering a happy, surprised expression on my face. Tired of bleaching my hair.
Freddy put his hand on my shoulder. “Felicity,” he slurred. “Let the boy go.”
I gritted my teeth and clenched my fists closed. The fire sputtered out around my fingers, then died. The brat darted after his friends.
I wanted the tux, the hat, and the wand.
I wanted to cry. I was tired of being a joke.
“You mustn’t do magic,” Freddy slurred, his hand still heavy on my shoulder. “Women are assistants. It’s the way things are. You know that.”
I shrugged him off. The Brotherhood of Magicians wouldn’t like it, but I was going to be a magician. If I managed to get The Great Raymundo on my side, they wouldn’t be able to stop me.
“Freddy, I’m sorry. I can’t do this anymore. I quit.”
They say that as he lay dying, The Great Raymundo discovered a way to force his soul into his battered copy of The Magician’s Manual. Any magician who got his hands on that book would have the key to becoming the greatest magician of our time—maybe of all time. But any magician who’s claimed the book has quickly lost it.
However, no woman had ever tried to claim the book, and they say that The Great Raymundo was quite the womanizer. Maybe, he’d be willing to stay with me. I had to try. I couldn’t go on the way things were.
I stared deep into my dressing mirror, letting my focus drift till the glass went dark. “I seek thee, Great Raymundo,” I whispered. Then I twisted my voice around the words of deep magic that would seal me to the task. I imagined the Great Raymundo peering out at me from within the darkness. Magic shivered across my skin, and my reflection reappeared.
I left without saying goodbye to Freddy. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I packed my things into a sturdy carpetbag and marched to the train station.
The ticket to San Francisco cleaned out most of my savings. Working for Freddy hadn’t been the most lucrative job.
I climbed into an empty car and found a seat next to the window. I leaned my forehead against the cool glass.
“Is this seat taken?” A well-dressed, handsome gentleman tipped his hat to me. I shook my head. “Where are you heading?” he asked as he settled in beside me.
“San Francisco. You?”
“The same. My brother went out last year looking for gold, and I’m to fetch him back. Our mother tires of his foolishness.”
“Seems to me like it’s your brother’s life. If he wants to spend it in the west digging for gold, that’s his business.”
“That’s a very enlightened attitude.” The gentleman arched an eyebrow at me. “And what takes you west?”
I shrugged. “I’ve got nothing holding me here.” I snapped my bag open, intending to pull out one of the penny-dreadfuls I’d bought for the ride.
Instead, I found a dark gray leather-bound journal perched on top of my things. I glanced over at the gentleman. He’d pulled out some correspondence and had devoted himself to perusing it. I opened the journal, and a note slipped into my lap.
Felicia, I know you don’t think much of me, but I’ve grown to see you as a daughter over the years. I should have told you how much I appreciated you taking care of me. And I should have taught you, Brotherhood be damned. Maybe this’ll make up for things a little.
He’d signed it “The Fabulous Frederick.” He hadn’t called himself that in years. I smiled and stroked the soft leather of the cover. In spite of everything, Freddy wasn’t a bad guy. I tucked the note into the journal and noticed a hastily scribbled p.s. on the back of the note.
Trust nothing! Raymundo can make liars of your very senses!
I glanced at the gentleman from the corner of my eye. He seemed enthralled with his letters. Possibly from his poor wayward brother. Or worse, his overbearing mother. I fought to keep from rolling my eyes.
Freddy’s journal was fascinating reading. He explained his familiar tricks with complicated diagrams that made things that I’d always just felt were right become suddenly understandable.
Freddy really had been fabulous once. I wondered what happened. Why had I never bothered to ask?
“So, what are you reading that’s so engaging?” the gentleman asked.
I jumped a bit. I’d forgotten he was there. “A gift from a friend.”
He arched his eyebrow again. I wondered if he’d practiced the expression. “A male friend?”
I wished I could kick him and make it look like an accident. Or light him on fire without getting into serious trouble. Instead I just closed Freddy’s journal and shot the gentleman a quelling frown. “I don’t see how that’s any of your concern.”
He shrugged. “I hate to see a lovely lady traveling alone. I was just wondering what has become of your chaperone.”
“As far as I’m aware, I’ve never had a chaperone.”
“Well, then it’s high time you did.”
I glared at him, since my frown had garnered no result. “That’s very... neighborly. But unnecessary. I can take care of myself.”
“We’re both traveling to California. I insist on seeing to you till then.”
I hoped he wasn’t a junior member of the Brotherhood sent to spy on me. I couldn’t think of any other reason for his concern, but I also didn’t see any polite way to put him off. “Well, if you’re to be my protector, I should at least know your name.”
“Jeffry. Jeffry Hawk.”
“I’m Felicity Banks.”
“Lovely to make your acquaintance, Miss Banks.”
The train stuttered, and I barely kept myself in my seat. I grabbed Freddy’s book, clutched it to my chest, and whispered a quick protection spell. Mr. Hawk slid to the floor. Brakes squealed, and the train slammed to a stop. This time, I failed to keep my seat. I tumbled directly into Mr. Hawk’s lap. He wrapped his arms around me and absorbed the worst of the blows.
“What happened?” I asked.
Mr. Hawk shook his head. “It seems we’ve hit something.” He was bleeding from his temple, but seemed otherwise unharmed.
“What kind of obstruction could stop a train?” I asked.
He shrugged, and I realized that his arms were still wrapped around me. I pulled away. For an instant, he seemed unwilling to release me. I tucked Freddy’s book into my skirt and helped him to his feet.
“We should go see what’s going on.” I said.
“Why in the world would we do that?” he asked.
“Someone might be hurt out there.” I moved toward the door.
Mr. Hawk grabbed my hand. “It might be dangerous.”
“Then you’d best come along, in case I need your protection.”
He frowned, but came with me. He didn’t release my hand. The train had gone eerily silent. Where were all the other passengers? Shouldn’t there be shouts? Groans? Something? I looked into another car and found it deserted. There was luggage, scattered about by the crash, but no people.
Fear edged through my belly.
“What is going on here?” Mr. Hawk asked. His voice was too loud in the eerie silence.
I led him toward the engine. Maybe it would hold some answers. His hand gripping mine had become a comfort instead of an annoyance.
The engine was gone. The front car had been ripped open, and the bright midday sunlight streamed in. There were claw marks in the metal, and a trail of huge three-toed footprints deep in the sand.
A familiar tingle passed along my skin. Someone had worked deep magic here.
“It can’t be safe for us to stay,” Mr. Hawk whispered back.
I looked outside. Desert stretched out in every direction. “Should we have reached the desert yet?”
Mr. Hawk shook his head. “Not unless my geography classes were seriously misleading. Or the train was moving much faster than it seemed.”
I stared down the tracks that led out into the vast desert. “We’re in serious trouble.”
We gathered what supplies we could from the abandoned luggage and headed down the train tracks. Mr. Hawk only let go of my hand when absolutely necessary.
I no longer minded. In fact, my fingers found his at least once. We set out across the desert, following the train tracks. I studiously avoided looking at the strange footprints. They were perpendicular to the tracks—hopefully whatever monster left them would see no reason to return. Eventually, they fell behind us.
Of course, that meant the train did, too. There were no other landmarks.
The sun beat down on us mercilessly, and the sand was unstable and made walking difficult. Grit coated my skin and found its way into my socks. Our ragged breathing and muffled footfalls were the only sounds. Mr. Hawk’s palm grew sweaty against mine, but neither of us moved to let go.
“I wasn’t really going to bring my brother back,” Mr. Hawk said.
I was too winded to answer, but I managed a small, curious noise to encourage him to continue. The sound of his voice was a welcome break from the oppressive silence.
“I was going to join him. I just needed a bit of capitol from Mother, so I pretended go to along with her wishes.”
I kept encouraging him to talk, and he kept talking, mostly about his plans for finding riches in the mines. We struggled across the sand until every step was torture.
Then, the earth trembled beneath us. “What was that?” he asked.
It happened again. “I don’t know.” I glanced back over my shoulder and bit back a horrified cry.
A great, reptilian monster charged toward us. It was well back along the tracks but closing fast, wooden railroad ties splintering beneath its feet. Its gray-green body was larger than a house and balanced on its two massive hind legs. Great black horns curved up from its forehead, and a line of delicate yellow sails lined its spine. It roared, and its foot-long teeth gleamed in the desert sun.
It ran incredibly fast. The ground rumbled beneath our feet as if it were a train approaching.
“What the hell is that?” Mr. Hawk shouted.
I shrugged and hoped it was flammable. I squeezed his hand, then pulled away. “We’re not going to be able to outrun it.”
Mr. Hawk drew a pistol from his boot. “You go. I’ll see if I can slow it down.”
“Let’s see if we can stop it, together.” I clenched my fists and summoned fire.
Mr. Hawk didn’t have time to be shocked. The monster was bearing down on us. He took careful aim and fired six times. I threw both balls of flame.
The monster roared in pain, but it didn’t slow its charge. It lunged toward us. Its breath smelled of death. Mr. Hawk shoved me away and the monster swallowed him whole.
Rage unlike anything I’d ever known surged through me. I screamed, and bolts of fire shot down from the heavens. The monster’s scaly flesh charred off of its huge skull, and it slumped to the ground.
I clawed at its mouth, frantic to pry the teeth apart. “Mr. Hawk! Jeffry!” I prayed for him not to be dead. I couldn’t face this strange wasteland alone.
A muffled moan reached my ears, and I managed to shift the monster’s jaw. Jeffry tumbled into my arms. He was covered in foul-smelling slime.
I wiped off his face as best I could, and his eyes fluttered open. “Felicity?” he croaked.
“I’ve figured it out.”
“Figured what out?”
“This has to be some kind of vision.”
I ran my fingers through his hair. It was stiff with drying slime. “I hope you’re right.”
Night fell, and Jeffry managed to build us a fire. The broken railroad ties were dry and burned nicely. The smell was acrid and foul, but the desert night was too cold to do without.
I cut off hunks of monster flesh and roasted them over the oily fire. It tasted like chicken.
“We need to figure out how to escape,” Jeffry said. He poked at the fire with one of the monster’s claws.
“Why are you so certain that this is a vision?” I asked.
“Because this,” he paused to shake the claw, “is impossible.”
“It’s magic,” I said.
“Wouldn’t it be easier for a magician to trap us in a vision than summon some huge carnivorous lizard?”
I considered his point. “I suppose it would be. But I did feel the presence of magic back on the train, where the monster clawed its way out of the car. I haven’t felt it anywhere else.”
“What happened to all the other people, then? And the engine? Why are we in the desert?”
“I—I don’t know.”
“Do you feel tired? Or thirsty? Is it hunger that drove you to roast us dinner, or habit?”
Our thirst should have been crippling by this point. But he was right. While the thought of water was appealing, it wasn’t a necessity.
“You must concede that my idea does make sense.”
“Yes,” I said. I tapped my finger against my lips. “But how do we escape it?”
“That was my original question,” Jeffry said. “You seem to know some things about magic.”
“Yes,” I said. “Does that bother you?”
He shrugged. “Why should it? I’m not a member of the Brotherhood. And we’re in this together—I’m glad one of us knows about magic.”
No one had been glad about my interest in magic before.
I kissed him. He tasted like sweat, and the monster’s stink still clung to him, but it was an enjoyable kiss, in spite of that.
His expression, when I pulled away, was a mix of shock and delight. It was the look of a child who’d just been informed that Christmas was going to come early this year.
I kissed him again.
He pulled me close, and we stayed like that for some time. The fire burnt down, and the temperature dropped.
“Look at that,” Jeffry whispered, pointing at the sky.
I rolled over and stared up. The stars were unlike any I’d ever seen. They glimmered every color of the rainbow in unrecognizable patterns strewn across the sky. “If we’re not in a vision, we’re in serious trouble,” Jeffry said.
I nodded. “We must be in a vision.”
“Any ideas on how to extricate ourselves?”
I shook my head. I could look through Freddy’s book in the morning, but it was too dark now. “Let’s go to sleep and see what the morning brings.”
I dreamed that The Great Raymundo, resplendent in his tux and top hat, handed me a wand. “It’s only proper that wands belong to men,” he said. “But I never understood why The Brotherhood didn’t want women to play with them.” He leered and winked at me.
I kicked him in the knee.
Waking in Jeffry’s arms was perfectly pleasant, but the day went quickly downhill. My dream had left me restless and edgy, and the fact that I’d dreamed at all was worrisome. Did one dream if trapped inside another dream?
Freddy’s book held no insights to our predicament. There was a fascinating diagram about teleportation, but I didn’t think it would be applicable to our current crisis.
Jeffry smoked strips of monster, rubbed my shoulders, and offered encouragement. Eventually, though, I gave up. “I don’t have any ideas.”
Jeffry squeezed my hand. “Well, then, we should keep walking. These tracks have to lead somewhere, don’t they?”
We walked for days. We never grew thirsty, or hungry, or tired, but we stopped when the sun went down. Jeffry rambled on about his brother’s gold claim, his mother’s fortune, and his schooling.
I told him about life with Freddy—bratty kids, annoying parents, and living on the road.
“Why in the world do you want to be a magician, if that’s the life they lead?” he asked me after one particularly bloodcurdling story about an angry mother.
“I don’t want to do stage magic. I want to learn the deep magic.”
“But what do you want to do with it?” he asked.
I shrugged. I’d never really thought of it. “I guess I’m hoping that the right path will reveal itself. When I’m ready.”
Eventually, we reached the station at the end of the tracks. A man in a tux and top hat stepped into the sun and waved at us.
“Who’s that?” Jeffry asked.
“The Great Raymundo,” I said, suddenly understanding Freddy’s warning.
“The dead guy? The one in the book?”
“The very same!” The Great Raymundo strode toward us, grinning. The lines of his tux were razor sharp, and his white shirt glistened in the sunlight.
I felt very grimy. “And we’re in the book with you, aren’t we?” I asked.
He grinned at me and winked at Jeffry. “Quite a clever one, isn’t she?”
“So it’s not a vision?” Jeffry asked.
The Great Raymundo shrugged. “Where is the line between what is real and what isn’t, really?”
“Why have you brought us here?” I asked.
The Great Raymundo leaned toward Jeffry and stage whispered, “Impatient, too.”
Jeffry looked ready to strike him, and for that I was certain to always love him. “Just answer the lady’s question.”
The Great Raymundo laughed. “Well, I brought you here to test you, girl. You are the only interesting candidate I’ve seen in half a century. You’re the one who dragged him along.”
“Did I pass your test?” I asked.
The Great Raymundo beamed at me. His teeth were even whiter than his shirt. “What makes you think it’s over?”
“The fact that you’re here,” Jeffry snapped.
“I just wanted a closer look at you,” The Great Raymundo said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had the chance to look at a—what did you call her—oh, yes. A lady.”
I grabbed Jeffry’s arm before he could swing. “Well, you’ve had a look at me.”
The Great Raymundo leered. “Indeed.”
“So, now what?” I asked.
“I will consent to teach you. But only if you carry my book with you always, over your heart.”
“You mean in my bodice.”
The Great Raymundo nodded. “Indeed.”
“And we’ll wake from this vision?”
The Great Raymundo nodded.
“And if I refuse you?”
The Great Raymundo shrugged. “Who knows? Perhaps I’ll keep you here forever, to amuse me. Perhaps not. You’ll definitely never become the magician you so long to be. You need me, girlie.”
Jeffry squeezed my hand and leaned in close to my ear. “We managed to slay his monster. Maybe we can rid ourselves of him, too.”
I remembered Jeffry vanishing into the monster’s mouth, and shook my head. “It’s too dangerous.”
“There must be another way,” Jeffry said. “You can’t bind yourself to this... lecherous cad.”
I thought of Freddy’s book, already tucked into my belt. I turned to The Great Raymundo. “I want your word that you’ll release us and never try to harm either of us again, and that if I carry you in my bodice, you’ll teach me.”
“I swear it upon my very soul,” The Great Raymundo said.
The Great Raymundo waved his hands with impressive flourish. There was a flash of light, and I found myself back on the train, click-clacking along just as it should. My head was resting on Jeffry’s shoulder.
He opened his eyes and looked around. Then he looked down at me. Worry shadowed his eyes. “Miss Banks?”
I kissed him. For the first time, we were clean and comfortable. We didn’t rush.
Eventually, though, I grew aware of an uncomfortable pressure against my breastbone. I pulled away, and pulled the book from my bodice. It was bound in red leather and The Magician’s Manual was embossed on the cover in gold leaf.
“The cheek,” Jeffry grumbled.
It was a beautiful book. And it was my key to becoming the greatest magician who ever lived—to The Brotherhood of Magicians accepting me—to whatever it was that my dreams would hold.
I tossed the book through the open window.
Jeffry gaped at me. “But—”
“I don’t want to keep him in my bosom, so he is under no obligation to teach me.” I pulled out Freddy’s journal. “I already have a book that I can learn from. And this one doesn’t ogle or give orders. I will write to Freddy when we arrive, and see if we can arrange some sort of correspondence course.”
Jeffry took the book from my hand, carefully tucked it back into my bag, and kissed me. “Maybe you can help me look for gold.”
The happiness that shivered along my skin felt almost like magic. “Maybe I can.”