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Wizards in Winter

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The advertisement is a spiky red impact bubble on the back of his box of Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs. Mail in just five box tops for your very own HOW TO BE A WIZARD KIT* including cape, manual, secret Speech Decoder Ring, top hat, bow tie, crystal ball, Powerwand, live salamanders, and bloodless saw. Although the kit does not include the sort of double-partitioned box in which one would normally saw ladies – it all has to fit in one case to qualify as a kit, Calvin speculates to Hobbes, who agrees sagely – Calvin is sure he can build one of those on his own. All he needs are boxes, scissors, tape, and maybe a marker. He imagines Rosalyn at the mercy of his magic and wolfs down a triple serving of cereal, grinning all the way to the bus.

(The asterisk, which Calvin does not read, says this: all applicants are subject to normal Oath&Ordeal procedures to qualify for wizardly status. Neither Sugar Shack Cereal nor any of its subsidiaries or affiliates are in any way aware of or liable for any injury, death, despair, temporal annihilation, dimensional marooning, or other consequences of satanic encounters or errantry gone awry that may occur.)

 

The kit arrives during the very worst part of autumn, when ice makes all the blades of grass glitter in the morning, when it's too cold to go outside without an itchy hat, but not quite winter enough for snow. So Calvin is sulking, wishing he could be done with the whole stupid season, when his mom hollers up the stairs about a package for him. He barrels down the stairs, the Wizardry kit forgotten weeks ago, desperately hoping it's the rocket ship he demanded last Tuesday from NASA, posing in his letter as a magnanimous test pilot offering to take their newest model for a spin for half the market rate.

Sadly, the box isn't nearly large enough to hold a rocket ship. But Calvin decides, after hauling it up to his room and disgorging the contents, that the kit's not so bad to get instead. The cape billows wonderfully – black, rather than stupendous-man-red, and speckled with glittery bits that make it look almost like stars. Calvin dons the hat with a flourish and models.

“Very dashing,” agrees Hobbes, and appropriates the bow tie, which is perfect because Calvin is quite certain that bow ties are actually very cleverly camouflaged baby boa constrictors, tricking fools into offering their vulnerable necks. But Hobbes is a tiger, so they wouldn't dare strangle him. He's also not sure how to tie one.

“What about babes?” Hobbes asks as he straightens the knot, very debonair. “Aren't magicians supposed to have lovely babes for assistants?”

“You can be my assistant,” Calvin declares. “Tigers are way cooler than girls.”

Hobbes can't disagree.

 

The salamanders are, indeed, live, in a bottle-shaped terrarium that makes Calvin think of pirates again. He hides them from his mom and sneaks them into Rosalyn's backpack. He ends up grounded for a month, but her shriek of discovery is worth it.

 

He spends most the month sprawled on his bed, poring over the manual, which is actually a comic book. The cover makes it look like the best comic book ever, too, with CAN THEY SAVE THE UNIVERSE emblazoned over the heads of a giant centipede, a killer whale, a tornado with eyes, a purple girl, a spiky bear, a rock giant, a black cat. When he flips it open there's a long, boring forward, but when he tries to skip it, he can't quite turn the page.

In life's name, for life's sake.

He thinks about a little hurt raccoon even mom couldn't save. Then he reads the whole thing. When he looks again, he notices a blonde boy in a red striped shirt on the cover, one who looks just like him.

 

The stories in the manual are even more awesome than he expected. There are dinosaurs and cats and stars and aliens and tentacle creatures and robots and kids like him. There's time travel and sword fights and other planets and a lot about kicking the devil's butt, even if wizards are supposed to be polite to everyone, even him. Calvin figures it's to do with wearing top hats, so that's okay.

He straps the decoder ring on and carries it everywhere. If he looks at something, it will show up on the decoder, and tell him the word for it in Speech. He checks out new pieces of the Speech all the time. Soon it's what he speaks most of the time when it's just him and Hobbes, since it turns out that Hobbes knows the Speech already. He just stretches when Calvin asks how.

“I'm a tiger,” he says. “It's probably part of our natural superiority.” He yawns in the way that shows literally all of his teeth and means Calvin had better let him have his catnap before the patch of sun moves, or else. Calvin makes himself scarce, curling up with a cup of hot chocolate and his manual, reading the Tips and Tricks off the back. A spell for turning broccoli into bacon hasn't shown up yet, but Calvin is pretty confident that it's only a matter of time.

 

“It's not just for talking to worms or raccoons or martians, though,” Calvin explains as they haul the toboggan up the hill, footprints trailing behind like ellipses on the white page of the snow around them. “It's for shaping the universe. Isn't that great? I can just talk stuff I want into being true.”

“That would explain a few things,” Hobbes mutters, eying a tree they once careened into dramatically. The grain of the bark is still a little uneven where the edge of the sled gouged a strip out of it.

Calvin pats it with one mittened hand. “Sorry about that, tree.” The tree rustles bare, black boughs, a snicketing of sticks instead of shushing leaves, but Calvin understands that they are forgiven. Due to his natural irresistible charm conveyed via Speech, no doubt. “Being a wizard is so cool.”

They climb aboard. They fly.

“So the question is, does the Speech actually make things true? Or were they always supposed to be true, and that's why the magic works right? Is there even a difference? Is being a wizard just being in tune with reality?”

“For someone who's in tune with reality, you're a terrible singer,” Hobbes interjects. The philistine.

“I mean, does gravity have to pull things down? Of course not. We just call it down because that's the way gravity goes. If we called it something else it could be sideways!” They hit a bump, veer widely. Hobbes shouts, and Calvin shouts over him. He has a point to make here.

“Existence is a story we tell together! Gravity pull us anywhere. This field could be a real winter wonderland!”

At which point, of course, it does, and it is. They slide on a long sheet of powder-dusted ice, coming to rest right on a crest overlooking an eerie, endless landscape all in whites and blues. They're on the frozen river of a glacier, perched atop the still swell of an immeasurably slow wave. In the vale below, twinkling creatures that look made of silver splinters and crystal lattices cast thousands of tiny fractured rainbows. It's night time, but a pearly aurora snakes around two moons – one full, the smaller almost half – and all the snow reflects it all brightly enough to see more than clearly. It's breathtaking.

Hobbes regains the use of his voice first.

“Well. That was smoother than expected.”

 

They climb down into the valley. It looks like: a low-budget crowd scene in which every extra has been constructed out of blocky glass furniture. An exploded factory for cubist icicles. A forest of chandeliers. They don’t mill, despite originally giving something like that impression. They’re – not rooted, but build up like crystalline stalagmites, built, immovable. But they sway, making sounds like wind chimes and the scrape of ice-skates and Calvin’s dad blowing air over the tops of empty bear bottles in the summer, punctuated with occasional gun-shot like cracks that make Calvin jump every time and clutch Hobbes so he doesn’t slip on the ice.

The things they are saying, spiky-eerie-mournful, are full of shock and anger and despair, wails and tea-kettle-whistle accusations. If they had teeth, Calvin thinks, there would be gnashing.

His mouth is dry with the cold air, despite the thick flurries gently drifting down, and he has to swallow a few times before he can form Speech.

“I’m Calvin, and this is Hobbes, and uh. I’m on errantry. And I greet you.”

A chorus rises, bitterness and anger, cohering into one direction. This way, this way! The Dark Pillar is this way.

 

They walk. And sure enough, at the center of the great crowd, is another thing like the ice creatures, and not like them at all: it looks like obsidian, smeary and warped and black-green-opaque, sharp edges and uneven curves instead of neat angles and concentric blocks.

The ice things are still chiming, sadder the closer they get to the center, guilty and forlorn and hopeless. Calvin wants to break the big bully into a million pieces. For a giant abstract sculpture, it really looks a lot like Moe. Hobbes growls, fur on end, all his hackles raised. Calvin feels a chill that has nothing to do with the snow, and he knows, he knows who this is. He takes a great big gulp of breath.

“Hey, boogerbrains! Scram!”

This is not what the Manual told him to say, when he checked the Tips box this morning and realized he was on assignment for the first time. But he’s got his winter cap on, instead of the top hat, so it’s hard to be quite as civilized.

 

The Dark Pillar goes totally still. Then a resounding, echoing buzzing, like gravel in a rockslide, like a hundred buzzing locusts. It’s laughing.

Well, at least that’s new. But you are too late, little wizard. The Choice is made. They have welcomed death, and now it falls upon them. Work what magic you will. The very planet is changed, in ways that cannot be undone. Farewell.

With a horrible booming crack, the Dark Pillar shatters. Calvin does a barrel roll behind one of the ice sculptures, buries his face in Hobbes’ fur until the rain of black splinters ends and silence falls.

 

It’s the snow that’s killing him, he finds out. They eat light, like flowers, and each tiny fragile snowflake blurs and obscures a little bit more of the light they need to live. The winds are changed, the conditions made into a horrible version of ideal. It’s too complex for Calvin to fix, no matter how strong he is. If he tries, with only a thin, rudimentary understanding of the weather cycles, he might destroy the atmosphere completely.

He shoves his hands into his coat pockets, disappointed and dejected and helplessly angry. He was so ready. It’s awful. He still feels ready, magic brimming inside him, and nothing to do with it.

This is when Hobbes clips him in the temple with a snowball, kicking off a half-hour long chase between and around the ice creatures, shouting in indignation and frustration until they both collapse in the snow. In spite of everything, it’s one of the best snowball fights Calvin’s ever had – the snow is just right, thick and fluffy, easy to shape, good for packing.

He sits straight up, feels tiny ice crystals crackle on his eyebrows as they shoot up.

“Eureka!”

 

Calvin builds a snowman. He gets Hobbes to lift him up and puts little black fragments of the Dark Pillar on it for eyes. No sticks, but he molds arms out of more snow. And the whole time, Calvin talks. He wheedles and whines and coaxes and pleads. He tells the snowman how awesome it is to be alive, to run around and explore and dance at weird hours and curl up with your best friend. He talks and talks until his throat feels like it’s burning, and he doesn’t know if it’s the cold or magic. The snowman turns its head, dark eyes glittering on Calvin’s face.

Calvin gulps, thinking about the things his snowmen usually get up to. But.

“Happy birthday,” he says in the Speech. “Do you….want a name?”

It nods. Calvin whistles three notes, a snatch of Robin-song he hears in the morning when his Dad drags him up way too early. It’s something the other inhabitants of the planet can pronounce, he hopes. A name for beginnings.

He scratches a mouth onto it, and it copies the notes.

Then: you told me about friends.

“Yeah,” Calvin says. “Friends are the best. And you can make your own! Just like this.” He shows Whistles how to roll new snowlumps with his simple arms, pushes a little more magic into him so it doesn’t stick to him or anything. Calvin shows him to scrape the ice trees clean and build up the body and features. Whistles isn’t a wizard, though, so Calvin tells the story for him: one snowman becomes three becomes nine, spreading through the crystal forest, little families, babies with just two little fist-sized snowballs that can grow themselves by rolling, spiky awesome hairdos on the teenagers made of icicles and dark freckles from the bits of black glass that are too small for eyes. He tells the story of a whole perpetuating people, a nation of snow, round and white and festive and young, life built out of death.

 

The crystal people sing and sing. They will teach their sister-species about this world, and they will not starve. The inefficiency will hurt them, a little – Calvin can’t give them perfection back. But still, still, saved. One of the snowkids wobbles over to him, just his own height, points into the distance.

What’s over there?

Calvin breaks into a grin. “I don’t know! Probably adventure!”

Can we go see? None of the – a chimed-chord that is the ice people’s name for themselves – have ever been.

“Well, we have got a sled!” The spikes of her – his? – ice crest wiggle and rattle in excitement, and Calvin pulls Oooey aboard, with Hobbes holding on at the waist between the two spheres of snow, making dubious noises about hanging half off the end.

“Don’t be such a scaredy-cat,” Calvin says, waving to Whistles and a disorganized saluting crowd, a little spray of snow in their wake as the shoot away into the next valley.