Chapter 21:

Preparing for Battle

The Wizard's Virginity

Almost as though she had deliberately timed it to interrupt the emotional climax of the conversation, Hayley came stomping into the kitchen. She began opening all the cupboards, trying to locate a chocolatey cereal. Ms Matthews returned from checking on Dan and informed Hayley that the only cereal was porridge. Hayley complained that porridge wasn't cereal, until Ms Matthews suggested that she put chocolate sauce on it. Begrudgingly accepting this compromise, Hayley left to go watch TV, on the promise that a bowl of chocolatey porridge would be brought to her.

As the sound of SpongeBob emanated from the living room, Ms Matthews looked at me and Mum.

"So, did you have a good chat?"

"He's made his decision, if that's what you mean," said Mum, a little curtly. "He wants to go ahead with learning magic."

"Wonderful!" Ms Matthews clasped her hands together in excitement, then belatedly noticed Mum's more reserved attitude, and added, "Of course, it's terrible for you to need to make such a choice under these circumstances. But I'm glad you've been able to make up your mind."

"So…" I said. "What happens now?"

"Well, we need to get you ready as soon as possible. Unfortunately our sisters who were tracking Fusae have lost her, so she could arrive at any time. That’s why we can’t count on Dan regaining consciousness, or on backup arriving from the coven, in time to protect you. But with your great potential, we think that you should be capable of protecting yourself.”

‘We think’ and ‘should be’. Not exactly phrases that imply the strongest belief in my chances of survival. I would have preferred that she said, ‘We know that you are capable of protecting yourself’, but oh well.

“We have just the one tome here that Dan has been studying,” Ms Matthews continued. “It's usually unheard of for even a single tome to leave the priory, but given the length of our assignment here, Agnies made an exception so that Dan could continue to study. That said, it's even more unheard of for someone outside of the coven to be granted access to one of the Vindeca tomes, and she's just approved that."

"What's the tome? Like, is it shooting fireballs, or going invisible, or something?"

Ms Matthews smiled and shook her head. "Nothing that superhero-like, I'm afraid. Our coven doesn't really go for that sort of thing. We focus more on healing the body, or applying effects to the body to draw out its full potential."

"Oh." I tried not to sound too disappointed. "What is it then?"

"It's a spell that one applies to the muscles in their limbs to increase their flexibility. Primarily for the purpose of greatly increasing range of movement and movement speed.”

“Will it make me stronger, like Dan?” I asked.

“Not exactly. Dan has studied other magic that continually heals the body and strengthens it, thereby increasing one’s power for short periods. It is possible that Agnies may allow you to study it, although unfortunately, we do not have that tome here. It is held in the priory, which we could travel to… But it is not a short journey, and it is likely that Fusae would strike in the meantime. Also, your mother and sister couldn’t join us.”

“Yeah, Mum mentioned that…” I said bitterly. It seemed stupid that in a life and death situation like this, the Vindeca High Priestess cared more about secrecy than about helping my family. It meant that I couldn’t go to the priority to get access to more tomes, even if Agnies allowed it, as I needed to stay with Mum and Hayley to protect them myself. Or at the very least, to hand myself over to the bad guys rather than let them get kidnapped or hurt as a way to get at me.

I put my resentment on hold as I began to realise that I was looking a gift horse in the mouth. I had hoped for something more exciting, but a spell that improved my movement would still be incredibly useful. In fact, it would give me a lot more options than I had previously. I had been forced to rely on surprise and the little brute strength I had to try and resist Reiko, and it had not gone well. However, if I was able to move faster than her, to get to her before she could use her breath darts… The beginnings of a plan started to form in my head.

“There’s something else you should know,” said Ms Matthews. “It is likely that when Fusae comes for you, Reiko will be with her. It will be impossible for you to defend yourself against two of them at once. That said, Reiko’s mind is fragile. We believe that she is under the effects of some kind of mind manipulation spell from Fusae. It’s a typical part of how Fusae maintains, or tries to maintain, control of her coven. Although in Reiko’s case, it seems like the girl has enough strength to think for herself, if only a little.”

Mind manipulation... So the girl who had been the bane of my existence ever since she entered my life a week and a half ago, was actually just being used by someone else? It was hard to believe, but then again, a lot of the evidence seemed to support it. Most of the things she’d done weren't exactly the actions of a sane person. There was also the matter of her split personality: the cute school girl and the emotionless killer. After she first revealed her true intentions, I had assumed the school girl thing had just been an act to get close to me. But in our encounter the day before, the two sides of her seemed to be mixed, and I was less sure of it being such a deliberate act, but rather something she herself wasn’t able to control.

“Is there anything we can do to, like, un-manipulate her mind? It sounds like she had a pretty tough childhood. It’s weird to say this, given how much trouble she’s caused me, and how she put Dan in such a bad state… But maybe we can help her to become good?”

Ms Matthews smiled sadly. “I appreciate the thought, James. But for now, we need to prioritise your safety. The reason I’m telling you about Reiko is because it’s a weakness. Try to do as much damage as you can to Reiko’s head, specifically. One strong blow should be enough to disrupt the fragile state of her mind and take her out of the fight, leaving you to focus on Fusae.”

I thought back to the last two fights I had seen between Reiko and Dan. Both times, the fight had ended with Reiko screaming horribly and jumping out of a nearby window. I could definitely see the appeal of skipping straight to the dramatic window exit at the start of the fight, and giving myself one less murderous Japanese witch to worry about.

“Okay, that’s good to know. But… Are you sure we can’t do something else, other than whack her in the head? Couldn’t you try to heal her, or undo the spell or something?”

Ms Matthews’s smile faded, and her mouth set in a firm line. “No, James. You need to understand - if they come for you, it is kill or be killed. I know this is tough, and it’s noble of you to want to help her. But remember, the only time that we’ve seen her resist the will of Fusae was when she tried to claim your potential for herself. She is being manipulated, but that doesn’t mean that she would be good if freed from the manipulation. Reiko is an enemy. If you do not see her that way, she will take advantage of that, and you will die.”

I hadn’t seen such a harsh side of Ms Matthews before. Dan had described her aunt as strict, and now I was starting to understand why. It seemed this gossipy old grandma could get pretty serious when she needed to be.

I glanced towards Mum, to see if I could gauge what her thoughts were. Her expression was softer than Ms Matthews’, but she looked back at me and said, “She’s right, James. If you do need to fight, you can’t hold back. It’s sad about that girl, but all that matters to me is that you’re okay. Please don’t do anything to put yourself in more danger than you need to.”

I put my hands up in a gesture of defeat. “I get it. I was just asking. But I won’t hold back. I know I’m not strong enough to hold back.”

Both Ms Matthews and my mum seemed reassured by that, and visibly relaxed.

“If you’re ready, I’ll take you to the tome now,” Ms Matthews said.

“Erm, sure,” I replied. “Although, I’m still in my pyjamas. Or rather, Dan’s pyjamas. Do I need to change into a ceremonial robe or something?”

“No, but you do need to wash your hands.”

I obligingly went to the kitchen sink and applied a generous blob of Carex to my hands, and rubbed it in well. After drying them, Ms Matthews led me up the stairs. I assumed we would be going to Dan’s bedroom to retrieve the tome from her bookcase, but instead we stopped outside a bookcase in the hallway. I looked over the books there, but couldn’t spot anything particularly magical. Ms Matthews watched amused as I stared at the books for a while, before she put me out of my misery by extending a wrinkled hand and selecting a small Collins English dictionary. She only pulled it out halfway, when I heard a faint click.

She pointed to one side of the bookcase, and said, “Be a dear and push slowly from there, please.”

I did so, and the whole bookcase slid across the wall, revealing a door behind it. This one had a lock on it, which Ms Matthews opened using a key hanging from a chain around her neck. The door swung open with a creak, and I saw a very small room, with no windows. I guessed that this had originally been a linen cupboard, but had been expanded slightly to accommodate a chair and a small desk. The desk had a lamp on top of it, and a single drawer underneath it. The room was so small that only one of us could fit in there at a time, so Ms Matthews directed me to go in and open the drawer.

Inside was a book. It was large, had a brown leather cover with a basic pattern running around the edges in gold, and a brass clasp holding it shut. Most notably, it looked seriously old. I removed it from the drawer and gently placed it on the surface of the desk.

“Alex used to absorb the knowledge of a tome in anywhere between an hour to several days, depending on how complicated it was,” Ms Matthews said. “That’s why I’m keen for you to get started as soon as possible.”

“What do I do, exactly? Just… Read it?”

“That’s right. Start reading it like a normal book, and then something should happen. I’m not sure what, exactly. A witch has to pore over every word and symbol in a tome to learn its powers, whereas a male magic user just sort of… Well, you’ll see.”

Ms Matthews moved to leave, but I remembered one more thing I had wanted to ask her. Not about tomes, but about the woman who I was studying the tome in order to fight.

“Do you know much about Fusae’s powers? Like, what can I expect if she does appear?”

“Well, given the usual specialisation of covens, it’s safe to say that she will have Reiko’s abilities. Dan told us they were all based around her breathing, so you can expect that. Although Fusae’s will have been refined over many more years, and therefore be far more powerful. We also know of her ability to manipulate the minds of others, but according to our research, that kind of magic takes a long time to cast due to its complexity. It’s no easy feat to deliberately prompt confabulation in someone. So, you shouldn’t need to worry about that.”

I had no idea what ‘confabulation’ meant, but I decided to take Ms Matthews at her word and not worry about it.

“Okay, so breath powers on steroids,” I summarised. “That’s good to know.”

“Bear in mind, that’s all we know. Fusae is a great witch. She could have more abilities that we don’t know about.”

“Even if she does, I just need to take her out before she gets the chance to use them.” I grinned, hoping that I looked more confident than I felt.

I guess that I didn’t, as Ms Matthews didn’t admonish me for being cocky, and instead asked, “Are you sure you want to do this, James? Being honest, Agnies is very keen for you to learn magic, as she wishes you to follow the footsteps of your father. I also don’t want to see your potential go to waste… But, like your mother, I am also very worried about you. I would love to help you myself, but my skills are purely based around healing, not combat. Dan was always trained to be the champion going into battle, and I was just around to patch her up when she came home.”

“It’s okay,” I said firmly. “I appreciate the thought. But I’m doing this for myself. Not because of expectations from you, or from Agnies. Not because I think it’s the only option. But because I want to. I want to learn magic, and I want to protect my family myself.”

Ms Matthews laughed, which wasn’t the reaction I was expecting to my serious declaration about my strength of will.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “But you sounded so much like your father just then. Always such a stubborn boy. Maybe Agnies will be getting more than she bargained for!”

I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that, but Ms Matthews saved me the trouble by pushing the door shut. “Good luck.”

Then I was alone in the small room. Just me and the tome.

I took a closer look at it. At first glance, it appeared to be just a crusty old book. The kind of book that I would find inside the charity shops that Grandma dragged me to, with pages that looked like they would disintegrate if you even breathed on them.

I gingerly undid the clasp and opened the front cover. I thought back to whenever I’d seen magic books in cartoons or films, and half expected some beam of energy to pour out into the room, or for me to be sucked inside. Instead, I found a blank page. I turned the page again, and again, and just found empty, yellowed pages. I skipped to the middle of the book, and it was the same.

Just as I began to suspect that Ms Matthews had set me up for one of the most intricate pranks of all time, I saw something shift. A small black smudge appeared in the centre of the page I was looking at, and expanded out to cover the rest of the previously empty space. The smudge then separated into letters, which arranged themselves neatly in rows. It was quite a cool little show, and I was relieved that I would now be able to read the tome. My relief dissipated when I actually tried to start reading.

What I had thought were letters were not the Latin alphabet. However, I did recognise them. The text looked the same as some of Dad's notebooks. The most unintelligible ones, which I’d had the least luck in trying to translate. It was a strange feeling, seeing a type of writing here that I had only ever seen before written by my dad’s hand. Some symbols were curly and long, some just dots of varying sizes, and others looked tantalisingly similar to actual letters or numbers.

I decided that this tome was written in some secret magic language. Either that, or some joker had gone into Microsoft Word and changed the font to Wingdings just before it was printed. Regardless, it meant that while I recognised the characters, I couldn't make much sense of them. I stared at the page, hoping that maybe the tome would sense my lack of understanding and change the text into something I could decipher. If not, I would have to go ask Ms Matthews to read it to me, which given the size of the book, would likely take some time…

As I stared, I felt something. The text was still incomprehensible to me, but I was compelled to turn the page and continue looking at it. It was as though my subconscious was able to read the book even though my conscious brain couldn’t, and was whispering to me, ‘Go on, turn the page, you’re nearly at the good part’. So I did. I turned the page, and kept turning, and found that I was flicking through the pages faster than any person would have been able to actually read them.

Then, in no time at all, I was at the back cover. I felt strangely satisfied, as though I really had just finished reading a good book. In reality, I still hadn’t been able to understand a single word, if there even were words, written in the tome. That didn’t matter. Although I hadn’t understood it, I had felt it. Somehow, I knew that I had learned my first spell. I couldn’t articulate it in words, but within me, there was now a sense of absolute confidence that, whenever I wanted to, I could change how my body moved. I didn’t have to think about how to do it, the same way I didn’t have to think about how to make my eyelids blink. If I needed it to, it would happen.

I went downstairs, finding that Mum and Ms Matthews had resumed their conversation at the kitchen table.

“Oh, did you want some breakfast before you start?” Mum asked.

“No. I mean, I would like breakfast, please. But I think I’m already done.”


I had, under Ms Matthews’s watchful eye, practised using my new powers in the garden for a while. It was incredibly easy. No magic words, no need for any great focus. I just tried to move in a certain way, and I did. I tested out contorting my body in strange positions, pretending I was dodging bullets in the Matrix. I ran from one end of the garden to the other as fast as I could, and I even got Hayley to throw a ball for me to catch from ridiculous distances. The actual catching was tough, as although my speed and flexibility had improved, my hand-to-eye coordination was still the same. But at the very least, I was able to reach the ball before it hit the ground, even though it would have been impossible for me to be anywhere close before.

I did feel a little more tired than usual afterwards, but other than that, it was like I’d suddenly found myself in a much fitter body. I could see why a male magic user’s potential was so desired if it made learning magic this easy, compared to the apparently years long arduous process that witches had to go through. I was excited to get my hands on more tomes, and figure out what else I could do. Although first, I had to survive an encounter with Fusae.

Satisfied that I really had learnt the contents of the tome, although also pretty shocked at just how quickly I had done so, Ms Matthews told us that we could go back home. I left Hayley complaining that she also wanted to learn magic to an exasperated Mum and Ms Matthews, and went upstairs to see Dan.

She was still unconscious, as Ms Matthews had said, although her breathing was stronger than the day before. At least to my extremely untrained eye, she appeared to be improving, although her face and arms still bore scars of the fight with Reiko, and there were many bandages wrapped around her small body.

I checked that nobody else had followed me upstairs, and then leant down and whispered into Dan’s ear.

“Wake up soon, bro. I need you.”

I then took a sheet of paper from the desk drawer, tore off a piece, and scribbled down a note. I folded it up as small as I could, and tucked it in the corner of the frame that held the photo of Dan and me at the school Bake Off. I then typed out and sent Dan a message: ‘Don’t forget the eggs.’ I hoped that would be enough for her to get it, without Ms Matthews understanding it. I didn’t think Ms Matthews was bad, but she had her own view on things. I wanted to believe that Dan and I were more similar.

I looked at my friend once more before leaving her room. If Fusae arrived before Dan woke up, I would be doing this alone.

It was hard to say whether I was ready. But for the first time in my life, I felt like I had a purpose. Previously, all I had planned on doing was waiting around until I hit 30. Now, my life was no longer something to be started in the future. It was something to be lived here and now, for the sake of myself, and for the people I loved. Even if it was dangerous, I felt surer about everything than I ever had.

My enemy was strong. However, I now finally had some magic of my own. I would defeat Fusae, and deal with Reiko once and for all.