Chapter 20: Showing Off for the Judges

“Dustin?!”

Indeed, it was Dustin and his mustache sitting at the teacher’s desk, playing to an audience of one – me.

“Surprised to see me?” he asked. The way he kicked his feet out, I thought he was going to put them on the desk and make himself at home. Even if he was friends with Lillian, I didn’t think she’d be happy with him doing that, especially on what was supposed to be an important day for her school.

“Well…yeah,” I told him. “If you’re here, then who’s watching over the Blank Scroll while you’re out?”

“My wife, Christa. She’s taking care of everything.”

So the Scroll was a family business… I wondered if Mr. Cherry had a similar arrangement with his wife if he ever had to take a day or two off. He and Elias couldn’t look after their shop all by themselves, could they?

Dustin suddenly sat upright in his chair and looked at me. “Lillian needed a favor,” he explained. “One of her examiners called out sick, so she called me in as a replacement. I’m not an official employee here, so I won’t be getting paid for any of this.”

“I see.”

He held out his hand and pointed toward the front row of desks. “But I’m sure you’re not here to listen to me yack about my business or family obligations. Have a seat. Oh, and don’t forget to shut the door behind you.”

I did as Dustin said, even though I knew it wasn’t going to stop anyone outside from eavesdropping. If I had the keys to lock the door, I would have done so.

“Now then… I’m told that there are going to be two phases to this application process. First, were going to start you off with a little interview. After that, you’ll go to the practice room next door and show off your practical skills for the next examiner.”

“How soon will I know whether or not I passed?” I asked.

“That’s up to Lillian, I guess. Could be today, could be tomorrow, could be this weekend.”

Eager to get this over with as quickly as possible, I sat down in the center seat at the front row so that Dustin and I had each other’s undivided attention. At least this way, I didn’t have to worry about him standing on top of me.

“Okay, let’s get started,” he said as he pulled out a pen and a notebook from the desk. “First question: how long have you been practicing magic?”

“I’d say about two weeks now,” I said. I had a feeling he already knew that and wanted to see if I knew.

With a knowing nod, he moved on to the next question. “And what led you to your discovery of magic?”

Another softball question. “It was just a happy accident. I was walking down to the park one day when I saw someone else using magic. She asked me for my help trying to fix the wand she bought from you, and it just sort of went on from there.”

As he asked these questions, Dustin wrote down my answers on a blank sheet of paper. Did he have the interview questions memorized? Was he just making them up as he went along? Something told me that the latter was more likely.

“What do you expect to learn from your experience here at Silverthorne School?” he asked.

“Well…I’d like to know more about how this magic wand works. Is this the only way to cast magic spells? Can I just use my hands to draw the symbols? What other kinds of spells can I use with it other than the ones in that beginner spellbook I bought?”

I had many more questions and concerns of my own, but I decided to stop at three in the interest of keeping the interview short. Dustin opened his mouth as if he wanted to answer my questions right away, but then he changed his mind and went back to writing them down on his paper.

“I can’t answer those questions for you,” he said, perhaps a bit too predictably. “You’ll probably learn those lessons if you get accepted.”

I tried to get a better look at my surroundings – the whiteboard behind the teacher’s desk, as well as the bookshelf, ferns, and file cabinets by one of the side windows – without losing my focus on Dustin and potentially losing my chance to get in for “not paying attention” during the interview. There were only a few short windows for me to look around while he checked his notes. As soon as he lifted his head back up to look at me, I looked back at him and waited for the next question.

“Are you now, or have you ever in the past been involved in an altercation that ended with injuries to you or any other party?”

Well, that was certainly a weird turn. I thought it had to be a trick, but he asked it with the same seriousness as the questions before it. I quietly shook my head without giving him any more details.

“And would you be able or willing to use magic to defend yourself in the event of an altercation?”

What kind of school was this, anyway? All I wanted to do was figure out how to use my magic wand. Was crime around Sharonia so bad that it needed to teach a bunch of newbie wizards and witches the arts of magical self-defense?

“Yes, but I hope it never comes to that,” I said as calmly as possible.

The remainder of the interview slowly steered away from topics about implied violence and onto topics I was more comfortable with answering, such as whether I’d prefer to be a jack-of-all-trades or specialize in a specific group of spells, and whether I felt more comfortable studying individually or with a group. One-on-one instruction sounded more like what I expected from the witching experience, but I didn’t think it would be feasible for a school of this size.

Once Dustin felt he had asked all the questions he needed for the interview, he folded his notepaper up and put it in his front pocket. “Great! Looks like we’re good to go from here,” he said. “Head over to the practice room next door so that the testers can see what you can do with your wand. You did remember to bring it with you, right?”

“Of course,” I said, holding up my bag and feeling around for the lump that was shaped like my wand case. I wasn’t going to open it until I needed to use it out of fear of being disqualified. He asked to inspect it to make sure I hadn’t damaged or modified it in any way.

“Looks good from here,” he said. “Good luck!”

As I exited the classroom and walked toward the practice room, I noticed that the line to my right had grown to five people. None of them wanted to sit in the more comfortable lounge chairs while they waited for their interviews. I thought using the lounge as a second interview site would have been a great way to speed up the process. Either of those would have been a better alternative to standing outside the classroom and fiddling around on your phone.

The girl who had entered the interview room came out of the practice room with her head lowered, not looking at anyone as she walked out of the building. Her loud, solemn sigh said more to me than any actual words could.

She probably got rejected.

I felt a little sorry for her. She looked like she had spent plenty of time trying to get her notes in order, only to fall short at the end. If this school was serious about handing out verdicts on the same day of the tryout event, then I had to be absolutely sure I was on my A-game before going into the practice room.

When I got inside, I saw someone replacing one of the targets on the far side of the room. Judging by the smoke alarms and “Fire spells prohibited” signs along the walls, the targets had to be made out of wood or straw. At my level of expertise, fire magic seemed too hard to safely control and contain, so I fully understood why they didn’t want anyone slinging fireballs all over the place. If that was the case, then what were the applicants supposed to use to attack the targets?

It also bothered me that I hadn’t seen Lillian since I arrived on campus. She scouted me to come to this event, so I didn’t know why she wasn’t out personally examining me or any of the other applicants. Was there something else in the school that demanded more of her attention?

The woman standing by the targets turned around and walked toward me. She didn’t look anything like my idea of a typical witch – she was very muscular, and at least a head taller than me. My high school gym teacher was nowhere near as cut as this lady. Something told me that she was subbing for someone who actually worked at the school, just like Dustin.

“So you’re next up, huh?” the woman said. “I hope you fare better than the last girl who came in here.”

I didn’t know what she was implying by that, but I wasn’t going to let it intimidate me.

“Anyway, I’m Vanessa Wiggins, and I’ll be your examiner for the second part of your tryout. And your name is…?”

“I’m Deanna Richardson,” I said.

“Okay, Deanna. Let’s start by taking a look at your magic wand.”

“Again?”

I handed Vanessa my wand case for inspection. Maybe it was my imagination, but the wand looked small in her hands. If she really was a witch, then I bet there had to be magic wands larger than mine for sale. Despite that, she was able to complete her inspection without fumbling or injuring herself.

“It always helps to have a second opinion,” Vanessa said. “Another inspector might pick up on something that the first one missed. Right now, though, you’re in good shape.”

She pointed me toward the targets she had worked on setting up. Some of them looked like standard archery targets, while others looked like featureless tackling dummies. All of them were weighed down by a bunch of small sandbags around their bases for stability. “First things first: let’s take a look at your stance. Show me how you ready yourself before casting a spell.”

I never paid special attention to how I stood while I cast my spells. I usually held it out just in front of me at a 45-degree angle, the same way someone would wield a sword or a paintbrush. From there, it was easy to imagine a giant invisible canvas that I could “paint” my symbols on. When I showed Vanessa my wand stance, she shook her head and walked to my right side.

“No. That won’t do at all,” she said.

“Huh? What’s wrong?”

“Your arm position is fine, but you need to loosen up the rest of your body. Try leading with your right foot. It’ll help keep you steady, especially when working with bigger or more complex spells.”

Vanessa stuck her right foot out in front of her to show me how it was done. When I tried it myself, I felt a little bit more balanced, even if I looked like I was preparing for a fencing tournament.

“There you go!” she said. “Now go ahead and cast a spell for me. Any spell at all. Well…okay, not any spell. Mind the signs.”

With only that much to go on, I drew a “Glow” sigil in front of me. It was the least necessary of my spells to show off since the room was already fully lit up, but it was also the least likely to misfire.

As I expected, my magic wand lit up like an unshaded lamp. We had to cover our eyes to minimize the afterimages we’d see from looking close to the crystal.

“All right, that’s good, that’s good. Now could you turn that off, please?” Vanessa pleaded.

I was more than happy to oblige.

I relaxed my grip on my wand, and the light from the crystal faded away.

“Next, we’ll test your accuracy. Try shooting at one of the targets downfield. Doesn’t matter if you hit the bulls-eye or not. Ready? Go!”

This one should have been the easiest part of the exam. All I had to do is toss a simple projectile spell at the target to pass. Unfortunately, the only such spell in my spellbook, “Sting”, was the only one I hadn’t tried out, so I had no idea how it worked or what it looked like.

I focused on the closest target to where I was standing, drew two small circles and thrust my wand right through their center. A golden-orange streak of light shot through the air, striking the line between the inner blue and outer red rings of my target and leaving behind a small dent. Getting hit by a “Sting” bullet was sure to hurt like hell, even for a small shot like that one. Vanessa seemed proud enough, anyway, so…mission accomplished?

“Good shot! Now try hitting one of the training dummies. One shot to the body, and one to the head. They’re smaller targets, so you’ll need to adjust your aim to compensate.”

She wasn’t kidding. The head and body of the nearest dummies were, respectively, one-third and two-thirds the size of the target I’d just hit. The window for firing off a “Sting” spell was small, and if I didn’t thrust or flick my wrist the right way, the bullet would veer off course and hit something else entirely. That happened when I first aimed for one of the dummies’ heads. My shot grazed its right ear, and the rest of the bolt traveled ahead about another foot before fizzling out. My second shot, aimed at the dummy’s body, had less of a problem making impact. I didn’t know what I did differently to make this shot fly straight at its target. I made a mental note to work on my accuracy once this was all over.

Vanessa smiled at me, but I knew it couldn’t have been for my glancing shot at one of her precious training dummies. “Now, for your next exercise, I want you to…knock down all of the targets in the room with one spell.”

I thought she was setting me up to fail. How could a novice witch hit every target in the room in a single shot? Anyone with that much power wouldn’t need to go to a place like Silverthorne School at all. I didn’t have any multi-target spells in my repertoire, but I had a feeling I didn’t need them.

All I needed was one spell…and a weapon.

I focused on the training dummy closest to the back wall and cast “Lift” on it. With the sandbags weighing it down, all I could do was topple it over by pulling it forward. 

Vanessa looked at the fallen dummy, and then at me, with disappointment. “Is that all you’ve got?”

“Hold on!” I said. “I’m not finished. Just watch.”

I raised my left hand in objection, as my right hand still had a tight grip on my wand, allowing me to maintain the “Lift” spell’s connection. I lifted the dummy off the ground and waved my arm around to send it flying into the target next to it. My crude, unwieldy wrecking ball toppled one target after another, overpowering them with sheer speed and weight, and making a mess of the room in the process. When I was finished, the first dummy was little more than a mess of wires and splintered wood laid out on the floor.

“What in the world?!”

The surprised voice from behind me wasn’t Vanessa, but Lillian, who apparently slipped in while I was showing off my lifting and flailing skills. “Deanna…did you do all this?” she asked as she looked around at the chaotic scene before her.

“Yes,” I replied, “but I can explain. You see–“

Before I could actually explain what happened, Lillian and Vanessa went to a corner and started talking among themselves, whispering and gesturing at the wreckage. I couldn’t see what they were saying because they had their backs turned half the time. After a bit of debate, both instructors danced around the wreckage and approached me with their verdict.

“Deanna,” Vanessa said first, “while your method of solving my final puzzle was…unbelievably reckless…”

“Your solution was entirely within the scope of the challenge,” Lillian added. “You were asked to use only one spell to hit all the targets, and you managed to do so without shooting anything. Such outside-the-box thinking will serve you well as a witch, and as a future student of the Silverthorne School of Arcane Artistry. Welcome aboard!”

“Thank you!” I said, holding back a few excited chuckles. “I’m looking forward to learning as much as I can from this place, and I promise to put everything I have in my education.”

“That’s the spirit! Now, if you’ll sit tight for a few minutes, I’ll get an information packet ready for you, and we can discuss your class schedule. Does that sound good?”

“Yeah.”

A few weeks ago, I had no idea that witches, wizards, and magic existed in real life. Now I was about to study real magic in a real magic academy! It was a far cry from my normal life as a painter and a part-time cashier. I hoped that I would be able to manage all of them without burning myself out.

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